From Refusniks to Dreamers: Americans and Immigration Policy

By Hannah Lee

Jews have an abiding faith in immigration, going back to our Biblical roots and continuing with our arrival in the United States. This faith also showed last century, with the Soviet Jewry’s struggle for freedom, in which Philadelphian Jews had a prominent role. Finally, the recent discussions on immigration reform resonate for many Jewish people. These were the topics of a forum held on June 20th at the National Museum of American Jewish History, and coordinated by the Russian-Speaking Professionals Network of Greater Philadelphia.

Connie Smukler with Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner, and Elinore Holms Norton in Moscow, 1976

Connie Smukler shared stories of her many trips to the Soviet Union, meeting with prominent (and ordinary) “refusniks,” and lobbying for their freedom. Marina Merlin, now with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Pennsylvania, spoke of her family’s struggle to leave their country, which was painstakingly slow, degrading, and financially draining, as her husband had to leave his beloved job as a physicist in order to keep his co-workers from scrutiny by the KGB (the Soviet security agency).

Igor Kotler, executive director of the Museum of Human Rights, Freedom and Tolerance, gave an overview of the Soviet Jewry movement, dating its forming to 1969, when a group of Georgian Jews asked permission to leave for Israel. This was a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, that put Israel in the headlines and gave Russian Jews the impetus to study their Jewish heritage and history.

The honorable Carlos Giralt-Cabrales, consul-general of Mexico in Philadelphia, gave the keynote speech, in which he noted that the Mexican immigration started with an invitation, by the President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to replenish the agricultural labor force during World War II. Under what was known as the Bracero Program, about 4 1/2 million workers migrated to the United States since August 1942 and until the end of the program in 1964. Another interesting point was that this was a temporary migration, with the workers returning home to Mexico. The border enforcements of recent times broke the pattern of seasonal migration, which led to a permanent and often undocumented settlement in the United States.

Giralt-Cabrales said that there is a social and economic contradiction in the undocumented immigration, as we need the labor, but do not want the workers. “As next-door neighbors, it behooves us to seek a workable solution to our common problem,” he said. The Consul-General deems the Mexican immigration as a strictly economic one, as workers move to where there are plenty of jobs.

Judi Bernstein-Baker, the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, noted the differences and similarities between the movement to free Soviet Jewry and today’s struggle of immigrants to achieve a path to citizenship. The Soviet Jewry movement was a reaction to totalitarianism and a striving for religious freedom. The similarity between the two struggles is that it took protests, rallies, allies and legislation for exchange. Bernstein-Baker explained that many immigrants have lived in the U.S. for 10 or 20 years in the shadows, and supporting their effort to participate in the mainstream by earning a path to citizenship is “a very Jewish thing to do.”

Maria Sotomayer and a young ally at a rally with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition

Maria Sotomayer is one of the young “DREAMers,” who are advocates for potential beneficiaries of the Development, Relief, and Education For Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide a conditional path to lawful permanent residence for certain undocumented youth brought to the United States as children. She arrived from Ecuador when she was nine, her parents worked in several jobs, and she earned good grades in school. But her prospects without documentation would be low-skill jobs such as hers at the pizza shop. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum, issued by the Department of Homeland Security in June 2012, changed her life. She has since graduated from Neumnann College, obtained a work permit, and now works for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. She hopes to attend graduate school to study psychology.

Bernstein-Baker noted that the publicity of the temporary opportunity for young aliens to apply for legal status with a work permit, a Social Security card, and a driver’s license — all under DACA — has broadened awareness of other avenues for legal status, already in place, such as for young immigrants who had been abused, abandoned, or victims of trafficking.

“The tenor of the public debate on immigration has shifted rapidly in recent years,” says Francois Ihor-Mazur, an immigrant lawyer, who no longer hears the query, “Why don’t you go to the back of the line, because there is no line to go behind.”

A central message of the program was that this is country “was built by immigrants, for immigrants,” said Giralt-Cabrales. It was an absorbing symposium that generated much food for thought, as well as continuing education credits for the lawyers in the audience.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3361/from-refusniks-to-dreamers-americans-and-immigration-policy

Book Chat: Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace

By Hannah Lee

Judging from the titles in the general and academic press, you would surmise that American Jewish women were not active in the biggest social movements of the 20th century. And you would be wrong. The paucity of scholarship in this area led Melissa Klapper, a historian at Rowan University, to a six-year odyssey that culminated with her latest book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 which highlights the role of American Jewish women in three social movements for suffrage, birth control, and peace.

The women’s rights movement was launched at a convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. It was held in a church, and no Jewish women were in attendance. (There were only about 50,000 Jews — 0.22% of the total population — in the United States at the time.) In fact, there had been tremendous anti-Semitism in the early years of the movement. After Colorado gave women the vote in 1893, women became newly energized. Then, the American Jewish community itself expanded, with immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe that were already politicized with experience in the labor Bund political party, Zionism, or social reform.

The National Council of Jewish Women never did take an official stance on women’s suffrage, but most of its members were in support. One prominent Jewish activist was Maud Nathan, who leveraged her fluency in French and German to serve as translator in international conferences. She helped spread the movement by writing articles and the lecture circuit, with 10-12 engagements a week. However, her sister, Annie Nathan Meyer, was a vocal anti-suffragist, which may be surprising considering that she founded Barnard College.

The successes of suffrage depended in part on votes of Jewish men, but anti-Semitism re-surfaced with the defeats in referenda in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts in 1915. Jews realized that they couldn’t change the movement. Jewish women also lobbied for increased power in the Jewish community and synagogues. After 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment for women’s vote was ratified, synagogues across the spectrum opened their boards to women.

With the achievement of the women’s vote, some women were looking for another social cause. They found it in the nascent birth-control movement. Margaret Sanger, a Catholic whose first husband was a Jew, opened the first birth-control clinic in 1916 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which had a huge immigrant population of Italians and Eastern Europeans. These women did not care about religious prohibitions; they wanted control over the size of their families. The reality of childbirth in the early 20th century was grim: 20% of the children died before the age of five, and 1% of live births caused a maternal death.

The women lined up for blocks near Sanger’s clinic, waiting with their baby carriages. Before the clinic was closed — after ten days — because of federal laws on “obscenity”, the women left with contraceptives and knowledge to pass onto their sisters and neighbors.

Sanger had left for the Netherlands, where birth control was legal, and the next clinic would not appear in the United States until 1923. Jewish women were early adopters across the classes; their birthrate dropped by 2.8 children per woman in 30 years. Jewish women were also distributers of birth control as clinic staff and physicians. Dr. Klapper attributed this to the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) as well as to the prevailing anti-Semitism, when qualified Jews often found it hard to obtain employment. Jewish women were also activists across the class lines and at all levels of involvement.

All major rabbinical groups discussed birth control. The first and most influential opinion published was issued by the Reform movement: Rabbi Jacob Lauterbach, who’d studied in a traditional yeshiva in Berlin, whose scholarship on this subject — and allowance for contraceptives — was so rigorous that his opinion was accepted by the Conservative movement. Dr. Klapper showed Lauterbach’s writing to Orthodox rabbis during her research, and they confirmed to its validity. The Orthodox Union was pressured by the Catholic Church to condemn contraception, but it allowed congregants to consult their local rabbis. Before the 1930s, all press writings about contraceptives were in code, referring to “family well-being” or using words for the materials used in birth control.

The third social movement covered in the book was the peace movement, which initiated in the 19th century but did not grow strong until after World War I. As in any war, the first world war was devastating for Jewish communities. The international Jewish network that developed for the peace movement was later the model for the women’s peace movement. Jewish women were not naïve believers; they tried to arbitrate conflicts and worked for arms reduction. The League of Nations, which we now regard as a failed effort, was somewhat successful in the 1920s and 30s, particularly the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, with over 100 countries signed on to renounce the use of war and called for the peaceful settlement of disputes.

The rise of Nazism in the 1930s posed a dilemma for the Jewish pacifists. How would the women respond? Some decided to fight the evil of Nazism, but some resolved to continue peace negotiations. In 1933, pacifists were amongst the first people rounded up by the Nazis in Germany. By the time World War II broke out, most Jewish groups had changed their position to against pacifism. Some women still couldn’t support the war efforts, such as volunteering for the Red Cross, and one woman, Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, moved to the Dominican Republic to help the Jewish refugees arriving to rural Sosúa.

The prevailing view of women’s activism is that it was dormant from 1920 to 1960. Dr. Klapper has shown with her meticulous scholarship that it was not so.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3227/book-chat-ballots-babies-and-banners-of-peace

 

American Orthodox Jews and Rabbinic Authority

By Hannah Lee

The United States has the second largest Jewish population in the world, yet we alone have no unifying Orthodox religious hierarchical structure. Other nations with communities of over 100,000 Jews have Chief Rabbis — Israel, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and Italy — while others have informal hierarchy, such as in Australia.  Here in the United States, the local rabbi reports to the synagogue board and the Jewish day school headmaster reports to the school board. We have no national chief rabbi to ensure proper halachic supervision and unification of policies across the board in Orthodoxy, said Rabbi Michael Broyde, Dayan (judge) of the Beit Din of America (the Rabbinical court for Orthodox Jewry) and professor of law at Emory University while speaking at a Hanukkah program at Kohelet Yeshiva High School on Sunday.

Rabbi Broyde spoke about two of the many perspectives on the Hanukkah story to portray the poles of rabbinic authority in this country. One is that the Hellenists infringed on our religious freedom. “If only they had left us alone, we would not have had to wage war against them.”  Another is that the Hellenists were wrong and rabbinic Jews had to force them to do what is right.

American Orthodoxy has been created in the image of America’s ethos of independent thinking. In his lifetime, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was the leading halachic authority for Orthodox Jewry in North America. However, he repeatedly declined the title of Chief Rabbi and his writings, such as Responsa Igrot Moshe, reflected his position against organized hierarchy — a tradition that dates back to the Gra (Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu or the Vilna Gaon, who died in 1797) and the Aruch HaShulhan (Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, who died in 1908). Reb Moshe, as he was known, was fearless and autonomous, who refused to defer to other rabbinic authorities. He exhorted Jews to study and learn for themselves. We are to think and decide for ourselves.

R. Feinstein even considered it acceptable for modern-day halachic authorities to argue with some of the Rishonim, the influential Rabbis and Poskim (jurists) who lived approximately during the 11th to 15th centuries, when they have strong proofs and firm analytic foundations. In tumultuous times, two things tend to happen: (1) novel situations arise and (2) historical answers no longer seem to work. So, we need new answers to modern-day problems. An example that R. Feinstein cites from the Talmud [Maharatz Chayot, Gittin 56a] was about unblemished sacrifices, where Rabbi Zecharya was figuratively blamed for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem) because he remained silent on the matter, out of respect or fear of his peers. When one has a particular, even unpopular, understanding of Halacha, one is not permitted to remain silent.

Do we learn from the historic rabbis and follow their rulings? It’s okay to do differently, says Rabbi Broyde, elaborating on Rabbi Feinstein. As the Rishonim are no longer living, we cannot run a community on auto-pilot. God cannot ask us to be right all the time, only that we try our best to follow a halachic process. For example, whereas the Ashkenazim follow the halachic rulings of the Tosefot (medieval commentaries on the Talmud), the Sephardim follow the halachic opinions of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204). These traditions cannot both be right, but it is our adherence to the legal process, not the result that matters to Orthodox Jewry.

The model for a God-fearing community is a body of laws that are consistent with the sources that bind us. R. Feinstein was very concerned that Jews follow secular law, Dina D’Malchuta Dina. Whereas the Jews in Hungary, for instance, lived in an unjust society seeking to exploit them, and resorted to cheating the government of taxes as necessary to survive, American Jews live in a just society and, thus we have the full obligation to comply with all local and national laws.

During the Q&A session afterward the official presentation, R. Broyde made it clear that sometimes rabbinic decisions are made for the communal good, and not because of halachic requirements. One issue raised by audience members was about the plight of agunot, “chained” women who are not given a get, bill of divorce, by their estranged husbands which results in the women being unable to remarry. “This is a political issue, as there is already a halachic solution,” said R. Broyde, because there is the prenuptial agreement that binds the couple to rabbinic arbitration by a beit din in case of marital disputes. Then the question became: “What about women who do not have one?” The prenuptial agreement has been in use for 25 years, he said. “What if the women had not been counseled by the rabbi to obtain one?” Using the analogy of people who ride motorcycles recklessly without wearing safety helmets, Rabbi Broyde declared, “We cannot expend community resources to clean up after a marital disaster.” And he added: “Communities get the rabbis they deserve… and members can always choose to move to where there is a better rabbi.” Alas for the aggrieved agunot in our communities, even with a prenuptial agreement, the obstacle for most get disputes remains in its enforcement. The secular courts do not give support to any rabbinical court ruling. Would a Chief Rabbinate make a difference for our agunot?

Rabbi Broyde claimed that the communities that have a chief rabbinate have political and social virtues, citing statistics from the United Kingdom: 3/4 of all Jews attend Jewish day school, higher rates of affiliation, and a lower rate of intermarriage. However, I remain unconvinced by this argument and Rabbi Broyde’s hope for a Chief Rabbinate of the United States seems an unlikely outcome in this “land of the free.”

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2827/american-orthodox-jews-and-rabbinic-authority

Why I Don’t Go to Shul on Simchat Torah

By Hannah Lee

For the first time since Before Children, I attended an evening service for Simchat Torah. This was the inaugural Simchat Torah service for our partnership minyan, Lechu Neranena, and we had a terrific turnout. It was held in our new home, a township building that was the first home of the Bala Cynwyd Library. We danced with four sifrei Torah, from two schools and one family. The remarkable aspect of the attendance– other than the 100 or so in number– was the participation of young married women wearing tichels (wrapped headscarves), a group that had never attended the partnership minyan or our women’s tefillah group. (I, myself, wear a hat every day, but some observant women only cover their head for services.) A partnership minyan conducts services according to Orthodox tradition, but where women may give divrei Torah, lead Kabbalat Shabbat, and read from the Torah.

My introduction to Judaism was in the pioneering communities of the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Flatbush, Brooklyn in the early 80′s, where women’s tefillah groups allowed traditional women access to the Torah. I was in the audience for the first international conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). When my family moved to Lower Merion in 1990, I joined the fledgling Women’s Tefillah Group of the Main Line and when one of the founders moved to Teaneck, I took over as coordinator.

Over the years, I’ve done just about everything that needed to be done: collected dues, labeled and stuffed envelopes, schlepped chairs, and plated munchies. I’ve even leined (chanted) Torah when we lived in Brooklyn, but my voice is not as lovely as those of my husband and girls, so I’ve retired myself.

This Sukkot was the first time I felt really uplifted, when Jews parade with lulav and etrog during the Hoshanot portion of the morning service. Years ago, I too had my own lulav and etrog in shul, but I was so klutzy holding them while juggling the machzor (holiday prayer book), that I resigned myself to bentching (saying the blessing) in our own sukkah before leaving for shul. I’ve also tried walking with my husband during Hoshanot while the parade was outside of the Sanctuary, but that was deemed not advisable. This year I felt totally fine with not joining in parade.

Simchat Torah was still different. How could I rejoice when I and other women are not allowed to dance with the Torah? So, I stayed away from shul. My refuge was the women’s tefillah gatherings where we davened according to the laws about praying without a minyan, had hakafot with two sifrei Torah, and listened to women chanting from the Torah portion. I was mostly content, but it was hard to be separated from my family and it necessitated juggling logistics and childcare. This Simchat Torah was different and it was lovely. Men, women, and children were all together and we danced with our separate sefrei Torah. This felt right and it was uplifting indeed.

On Monday evening, October 15, Rabbi Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan University will speak at the University of Pennsylvania campus, Steinhardt Hall, on “New Halachic Frontiers: An Analysis of the Shira Chadasha Movement.” In 1992, Rabbi Sperber was the recipient of the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest honor, for Jewish studies.  He is the halachic advisor for several partnership minyanim, including Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem and Darchei Noam in New York.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2557/why-i-dont-go-to-shul-on-simchat-torah