In the aftermath of a deadly attack, a vigil and an act of hospitality

One day with Rabbi Blum from Chabad Columbia on the first Shabbat after Chabad Poway shooting

It’s barely past lunchtime on Friday and already four big tables are all set for the Sabbath dinner at Chabad, the student and community organization for Jewish life at Columbia University. On the opposite side of the first floor, one can hear the clinking of a computer keyboard and the ringing of cellphones. Rabbi Yonah Blum, the head of the Columbia Chabad House, twisting his long beard with his fingers, is absorbed on his computer.  He has a speech to write.

Today is the first Shabbat a week after the Poway attack, where a man opened fire in a synagogue of the Chabad House near San Diego, leaving one woman dead. In a few hours, Chabad will be hosting a vigil on campus to light candles and commemorate victims of Anti-Semitism. The other sponsors include the University Chaplain, the General Studies Student Council, and a group called Students Supporting Israel.  For Blum, it’s a teaching moment.

“God has his reasons for things to happen,” Blum said as he was thinking through his message. “But one thing is for sure, these people didn’t die just so we have an opportunity to mourn. One step backward should mean 10 steps forward. When something negative like this happens, there must be an emphasis for us to transform this into something more positive.”

The Rabbi’s words echo with the terms used in his bio on Chabad’s website: “idealism, positivism, and genuine love of his fellows.” In light with Chabad’s vision, he believes that the response to antisemitism should be to spread the word to Jewish communities on campus, instruct them to be more Jewish, not to be afraid of wearing Jewish symbols, such as a Jewish star or a kippa.

“Hiding from our religion and spirituality is not the response,” said Blum. “We have to act as ambassadors to light, hope, and godliness.” Even though he says that at Chabad, they are “not really into vigils,” he decided to organize the gathering anyway, most importantly to try to communicate a “call of action.”

As Blum prints his speech, his wife Keren, one of his daughters Chana and an undergraduate student member of Chabad sit in the living room to listen to him and give him feedback. The Chabad house functions as a proper family home where visitors are welcomed to learn and socialize around Judaism. “Please listen to the whole thing before commenting,” Blum says.

His right hand in his pocket, the other holding his script, Blum starts to read off with a vigorous voice. Barely a minute into his speech, his wife snaps her fingers above her head: “That’s the sentence you should start with!” she says. “Those two sentences. They are going to grab the audience.”

As the rehearsal goes on, Keren acts as a severe editor and doesn’t let go of an idea until it’s perfectly reshaped into a clear message. She leads her husband from abstract ideas to direct injunctions.

“What does it mean to add light to your Friday night?” she asks the Rabbi without leaving him the time to reply. “You have to sit with community, sit with your neighbors, care enough to listen to them instead of talking about them.”

Keren Blum, Rabbi Blum’s wife, edits his speech for the vigil held on campus. by Eleonore Voisard

As Keren takes a pen to amend the Rabbi’s draft, he thanks her. “You’re so talented Keren, you should do this speech.” Keren winks, waves her hand over her head in slow motion to express her detachment and turns back in the direction of the kitchen. There’s still a vegetable soup and challah bread in the making for tonight’s Shabbat dinner.

The rest of the Rabbi’s day is spent printing out documents for the vigil, such as letters from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Columbia University faculty staff. With another Chabad member, he also folds flowery cardboard cases containing tea lights, matches, and a Shabbat prayer to hand out on campus for students to do “Mitzvah.” Songs chanted by the Rabbi’s three daughters resonate from the kitchen on the top floor down to the living room.

Keren Blum takes challah bread out of the oven. In Ashkenazi tradition, it’s custom to bake key-shaped challos to enjoy on the Shabbat after Passover. By Eleonore Voisard

Once everything is printed and ready, Blum picks up his hat from the fireplace behind his desk. On the way to campus, he and his daughter Shoshana buy some matches for the candle lighting. A few people are already gathered in the lobby of Earl Hall when they arrive. Students at Columbia, alumni or faculty members wait for the beginning of the ceremony in silence.  Blum sets up the candles on a rectangular table in the corner of the lobby. As he prepares the ceremony, a student from South Korea comes to him and expresses “solidarity with my Jewish friends.”

At 6:30, the vigil starts, right in time to make sure to light the candles before the beginning of Shabbat. Ian Rottenberg from the Office of the University Chaplain welcomes the growing crowd of about 50 people. “I know that it is good, in the face of violence, in the face of antisemitism to not be alone, but to gather and to stand in solidarity from our different traditions, together,” he says before reading Governor Cuomo’s letter to the audience.

One after the other, Columbia students, including a sophomore whose family attends the Poway Chabad, as well as, Columbia professors and faculty members share words of solidarity, equality and hope. The crowd is emotional, but revitalized by the positive speech.

Columbia student from the Chabad Poway community at the vigil. By Eleonore Voisard

“I want to challenge your idea of a regular Friday night,” says Blum to the audience. “To think about what was shared today, and transform tonight into just not any Friday night, but a Friday night of love, light and inspiration. Join communities, sit together, instead of talking about people, sit and talk to people.”

Rabbi Blum addresses the vigil in response to the Poway attack. By Eleonore Voisard

At the end of the ceremony, Rabbi Blum invites the crowd to light the candles, “to bring peace in the home and bring peace in the world.” He also invites everyone to join his family for Shabbat dinner, as an echo to his call to sit with and listen to people.

Candle lighting and prayers at the vigil in response to the Poway attack. By Eleonore Voisard

Candle lighting and prayers at the vigil in response to the Poway attack. By Eleonore Voisard

Back at the Chabad house, guests start to arrive and chat in the dining hall. On the other side of the floor, one of the Rabbi’s daughters plays chess with a guest from her sister’s high school. Just next to them, Blum and a fellow member of Chabad recite their prayers in front of Torah Ark, their eyes closed. Apparently not bothered by the ongoing conversations surrounding them, they seem to be in an elevated state.

The call of the Rabbi draws the crowd to their respective seats. Presiding over the large oval-shaped table at the center of the dining room, Blum opens the Kiddush with a few words honoring Lorie Gilbert-Kaye, the woman who died as she shielded the Poway rabbi from  the shooter. Then, flanked by his two sons Zaly and Gavy, he pours wine into his cup up until it overflows, and carries it to his lips.

As the guests enjoy the challah bread, Blum speaks about the weekly portion of the Torah, which recalls the death of Aaron’s sons while bringing a sacrifice in the ancient Jewish temple. Although he had issued an invitation to all at the vigil, the guests at dinner were mostly Jewish Columbia students who seemed to enjoy his Biblical references.

The rabbi said that there were no coincidences in life and death. “The fact that this portion of the Torah comes after someone entering a shul (synagogue) and firing on people has a reason, the name itself is striking. The lesson we can learn is that we can be upset about all of this, but we shouldn’t be upset in silence. We have to speak up, raise our voice, put our fist on the table so that antisemitism does not exist anymore.”

The dinner goes on, interrupted sometimes by chants launched by the Rabbi and carried out by the rest of the crowd. As it gets late into the night, some of the guests start to leave. Some students from Chabad remain at the table drinking wine and debating how to reconcile religious practice and belief with modernity. With his guests still at the table, Blum stands up, and goes to the nearby sofa to lay down. A few minutes later, he seems to have fallen asleep, soothed by the background noise of voices of these students, who can call this place home.

Israel's first female Reform rabbi with a government salary approaches retirement

Jerusalem — In a small kibbutz outside the central Israeli city of Ramla, Rabbi Miri Gold enjoys her last few months as Israel’s first female Reform rabbi on a state salary. “I’m on sabbatical, and I will retire at the end of this year at the age of 70,” said Gold.

Rabbis in Israel draw their salaries from the
government - but only if they are Orthodox. In 2005, Reform Judaism’s legal
arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, decided to challenge this longstanding
policy in the Supreme Court. They choose four Reform rabbis to petition the
court, including Rabbi Gold. The Court eventually found in favor of the rabbis,
and Rabbi Gold became the “poster child” for this major Supreme Court victory.
“The state agreed that rabbis of non-orthodox communities should be entitled to
salaries,” said Gold. “It was an historic precedent.” According to the IRAC,
the first annual salaries were paid in December 2013 to just those four rabbis.
Rabbi Gold is hopeful about the precedent set, even if the state has slowly and
reluctantly expanded funding for more congregations. “At the time there were
maybe five of us who were eligible. Today there could be 15,” said Gold. Still,
the right-wing Likud government drags its feet on fully implementing the “Miri
Gold Decision,” as the IRAC now calls it. Gold and her colleagues were not paid
by the Ministry of Religion, but instead by the Ministry of Culture. “The ministry of religious
services - traditionally controlled by the ultra orthodox parties - was not
willing to be in charge of the matter, so we agreed that the ministry of
culture would be in charge,” said Orly Likhovski, the director of the IRAC’s
legal department.

This is not the only case of the government failing to fully implement the court decision. Funding for city neighborhood rabbis are still reserved solely for Orthodox rabbis. This was partially due to the Ministry of Religion’s proposed changes to the entire system, which were first announced in 2014. “The state declared that no new rabbis would be employed as neighborhood rabbis and that rabbis who retire would not be replaced. However, there are still 120 neighborhood rabbis serving all around Israel – all of them Orthodox men,” said Likhovski. After the IRAC petitioned the court again in 2018, the Ministry of Culture announced changes that would finally allocate funding for non-Orthodox rabbis in the cities. However, Likhovski still found these changes to be insufficient and plans to challenge it again. “The criteria were drafted in a way which would result in a very little funding and not all of the reform congregations would be entitled to it,” said Likhovski. “This is why we are submitting another petition, demanding that our rabbis would be paid the same salary as neighborhood rabbis, as long as neighborhood rabbis continue to be employed by the state.”

Rabbi Gold’s story begins in the United States. Born into a Conservative family in Detroit, Michigan, Gold was inspired by the communal living she witnessed at an Israeli kibbutz on her first trip to the country. After college she joined a gar’in - a name for a group of diaspora Jews planning to make aliyah to Israel as a group. Rabbi Gold’s gar’in chose an abandoned collective farm named after the ruins of the nearby Biblical city of Tel Gezer. “Part of their reasoning for going to this abandoned kibbutz was one - it was in a great location,” said Rabbi Gold. The kibbutz is only minutes outside of Ramla and a short bus ride to both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But Rabbi Gold and her gar’in had another
major motivation for starting their settlement from scratch. “We had the
freedom to create our own policies. Which is sort of a liberal approach to
Judaism and left-of-center approach to politics,” she added. From the very
beginning, Kibbutz Gezer pursued any egalitarian approach to communal living.
“We wanted equal opportunities for women, which in the end become equal
opportunities for everybody,” said Gold. “Meaning - if the man wants to work in
the children’s house - great! But it was more in the direction of women who
wanted to do things that were not necessarily traditional women’s roles.”

Eventually, Gold decided to attend Reform rabbinical school. In 1999, Gold became the third woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel. Gold founded her congregation, Birkat Shalom, immediately afterwards. Birkat Shalom is a “regional” congregation, which she says means : “it’s not of the kibbutz but it’s at the kibbutz and there’s involvement by those who are interested.” This immediately put Birkat Shalom in a precarious position with the government. The rabbis of regional congregations are paid by the state of Israel, but the state refused to recognize non-orthodox rabbis. Therefore, non-orthodox rabbis were limited in their legal functionality and unable to receive state salaries. Instead, Rabbi Gold’s congregation paid her salary out of their own pockets.

At Birkat Shalom, Rabbi Gold directed her
congregants in many social justice-oriented initiatives to further Kibbutz
Gezer’s greater goals of egalitarianism. Nearby Ramla is probably most famous
for being the location of no less than five high security prisons, including
Israel’s only all-female penitentiary and Ayalon Prison. Ayalon is particularly
notorious - Adolf Eichmann was executed there in 1962, and the assassin of
former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was held there for years while serving a
life sentence. Given the proximity to the prisons, Rabbi Gold’s congregation
felt compelled to direct its social outreach to the incarcerated population.
Birkat Shalom found a group working with prisoners in one of Ramla’s lower
security prisons. “We started to work with prisoners in rehabilitation from
Ramla. People who were likely to get out of prison in the next year or so. And
that went until the prison closed,” said Gold. Part of Rabbi Gold’s outreach in
the prison involved bringing in rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College in
Jerusalem. “We wanted to do some kind of a project that would be
mitzvah-oriented,” said Gold. “We’d get usually two students who were musical
and had a little bit of Hebrew knowledge. They would work with the prisoners,
play some music, and interact with them.”

After the prison closed, Gold wanted to continue working with students from rabbinical seminary. “We found out from another Reform congregation in Modi’in was working with this place called Beit Eden, which is a residence for very special needs kids,” she said. According to Gold, the children at Beit Eden all have severe cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome. After going to school, the children return to Beit Eden for additional care. Rabbi Gold, her congregation, and her rabbinical students focus on providing religious service for the children at Beit Eden. “They come once a month and do a little Kabbalat Shabbat who range in age between seven and 20.” Despite the severe handicaps, the children at Beit Eden have knowledge about their faith. “When you’re with them, you have a feeling that you’re in a nursery school, where they know enough that you can’t pull the wool over their eyes. You can’t say the next holiday is Tu BiShvat when the next holiday is Pesach,” said Gold.

Rabbi Gold’s replacement at Birkat Shalom is
already leading services, but she remains involved in her community and in her
outreach programs like Beit Eden. Her replacement, Rabbi Steve Bornstein, will
benefit from the government salary Gold fought to secure.

Alternative Israelites

As published in the Jerusalem Post

Passover is the annual Jewish festival that marks the exodus from Egypt in ancient times. While most Jews around the world marked the holiday this year in mid-April, the African Hebrew Israelite community of Israel will celebrate an additional holiday on May 29 and 30.

But the ‘New World Passover’ is not about Moses and the exodus from Egypt. It is about a mid-20th century prophet known as Ben Ammi who shepherded several hundred African Americans from the South Side of Chicago to southern Israel in the late 1960s.

The group, who are not formally recognized as Jews, have lived in Israel ever since. They now number over 3,000 and constitute the largest community of African-American expatriates in the world.

Ben Ammi, who was born Ben Carter and later became identified as the group’s messiah, passed away in 2014, but his spirit still lives on in the community he founded in Dimona known as the Village of Peace. His portrait stands just beyond the entrance, on a banner that commemorates “50 years of the Great Exodus – 1967 to 2017,” surrounded by golden halo-like rays around the prophet. Virtually every home in the urban commune has a picture of Ben Ammi on the wall, and all rituals, from birth to death, involve his words and teachings. 

IN MID-MARCH, I spent two days living in their guesthouse and getting acquainted with their world. The most important thing I learned was that Ben Ammi’s charisma is still a guiding light. He was the supreme leader sometimes known as Abba Gadol (‘Great Father’) during his lifetime, and left behind a structure for the community that was a response to the oppression African Americans were facing in the United States. (He also built a community that was self-sufficient, with separate schools, food, clothing, and other ways of life – but they’ll tell you that since they weren’t allowed to partake in society, they didn’t have any other choice.)

Despite Ben Ammi’s passing, his edicts still carry final authority, with no possibility of replacement. Much of the system today – from the political structure with princes on top, to social roles in the community – has been carved out of the principles Ben Ammi set in consultation with his council of Twelve Princes who help translate his precepts into policy mandates.

The Cohanim (Prophetic Priests) are trained in the community’s institution of higher learning known as “School of the Prophets.” They preside over spiritual affairs in a community that is not Jewish, identifying instead as “Israelites” or “Judaeans”. The community believes they descended from the 12 tribes of Israel, and everyone can pray to and ask Yah for assistance, but all of the community’s cultural mandates – including veganism, polygamy and wearing clothes made from natural fabrics – are expressions of their strictly spiritual, rather than religious, commitments.

Among the Twelve Princes who rule today is Prince Gavriyah Ben Israel, 82, one of Ben Ammi’s oldest friends.

“The Bible is a history book,” said Ben Israel. Ben Ammi taught them that the Torah speaks about the children of Israel going into captivity in ancient Egypt, followed by another 400-year captivity, though this time, the children would be taken into captivity by slave ships carrying Africans. “When we were in America, we looked around and there were no other people who went into captivity. We’d been there 400 years,” Ben Israel explained.

Ben Ammi began attending meetings of black Israelite groups in Chicago, fitting the puzzle pieces together during the unrest surrounding the Civil Rights era and establishing himself as a leader within the Israelite group. 

“There was fighting, shooting and dying everywhere. One day, Ben Ammi told the group, ‘It’s time for us to leave,’” said Ben Israel.  

Ben Ammi led the splinter group of Black Hebrews that decided to move to Israel.

“We’d violated the Yah of Israel’s law, and in order to restore us, we had to return to the laws of the God. And that’s what we did.” Yah had created a smokescreen of unrest in America, he said, to help them escape the ‘Land of Great Captivity.’

AFTER LEADING Yah’s flock to Israel, he continued to lead the community, helping them obey Yah’s divine laws and overseeing their strides toward creating the “Kingdom of Yah” deep inside the desert of Dimona.

During the 1950s, Dimona was developed for new European immigrants, particularly Russians. The original group of Israelites, mostly from Chicago, arrived in Jerusalem by way of Liberia in 1969, three years after Ben Ammi said he’d received instructions from Gabriel to deliver his people to the ancestral homeland of Israel.

According to the community, when they arrived in 1969, they were resettled in the Negev town of Dimona, where Israel keeps one of its nuclear installations. Though they were originally offered citizenship by the Israeli government under Israel’s Law of Return, their status was challenged and revoked so that from 1973 and the early 1990s, the community had no legal standing, and many members of the group – who had renounced their US citizenship – were rendered stateless.

Things came to a head in 1986 when the Village of Peace decided to do a “non-violent march on Jerusalem” after a group of Hebrew Israelites, who’d been working as migrant workers at an orange-packing company in the middle of the country, were arrested and slated to be deported. Their settlement was immediately surrounded by Israeli forces. 

“Prior to that, a few of our brothers and sisters would be deported every year – but 47 deportations was a bit much,” said Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, the information minister of the community. They began to organize, he said, but the troops wouldn’t budge.

Ben Ammi announced that the community would renounce the march and fast instead. On receiving this edict from the messiah, everybody agreed and fasted for five days. In retrospect, Yehuda said, they realized this was a turning point in their relations with the media and the government, which, after a few months, began to regard them better.

“In 1990, then-interior minister Ariel Sharon came to visit, had a meeting with Ben Ammi and said, ‘I’ve grown up with you in this land. You’re not a threat, and we want to normalize our relations,’” said Yehuda.

THAT BEGAN a procedure by which the African Hebrew Israelites redocumented themselves as American citizens and then obtained permanent residency. By this point, at least one wall in every apartment had a picture celebrating Ben Ammi.

Ben Ammi also set very strict health standards for his community. These range from particularities about the required number of no-salt days, no-sugar weeks and raw food days, to nutritional supplements, fasting and regular physical exercise (at least thrice a week).  

I met one of the health ministers and “healers” of the community, Yehoshua Ben Yehuda, 46, who wore a traditional red and gold suit, a long, beaded necklace and braided blue cords – a biblical stipulation that members can wear anywhere on their clothing. Yehoshua is from Gary, Indiana, which he hastens to mention is “where the Jacksons are from,” and told me it was “live day,” which meant that only raw food would be eaten.

 “My father-in-law studied health at the School of the Prophets here,” said Yehoshua, referring to Yehuda. “He, inspired by Ben Ammi, impressed upon me the power of natural healing.” Growing up in a Pentecostal Christian family to parents who were professors, he was never satisfied with what he was searching for.

Ben Ammi also wanted the community to return to basics in the way it approached childbirth. Among the African Hebrew Israelites, babies are born without hospitals, doctors or drugs involved.

A spokeswoman for the community, known as Amalyah, explained it this way: “Humans are the only creatures that go to a hospital to deliver. Delivery is a natural thing. The baby’s going to come out whether you’re in a hospital room or alone by yourself. It’s the law of nature.”

Amalyah, who was wearing a cotton skirt with a knitted woollen sweater under a bright purple beret (worn by many women in the community), recalled the birth of her first child in the community 35 years ago. She had to follow a “High Holy and Sacred Diet” (a sesame-seed-heavy routine for new mothers prescribing what to do daily, at every stage of pregnancy), recalling how her ballet classes paid off because she would plie every time her midwife asked her to squat whenever she was having labor pains. Most of all, she remembers waiting for her baby to be born so that her family could be graced by Ben Ammi.

Her son was named by Ben Ammi himself. She remembers visiting Ben Ammi’s home, where the spiritual leader held the baby in his arms, looked into his eyes and prayed with him. 

“A month or two after spending time with him,” Amalyah said, “[Ben Ammi] was inspired to name him Tseyon – which literally means, ‘the place where Yah dwells.’”

It was a moment as special as she’d imagined, leaving Amalyah and her son with a glow and a smile that lasted for months.

Among other unconventional practices, Yehoshua said, is polygamy, a long-held tradition of the Black Hebrews that is rooted in the idea that biblically, having many wives is the norm.

As part of Ben Ammi’s agreement with the government, the community promised to renounce the practice, forbidden by Israeli law, as well as agreed not to take on any additional members of the community, but residents of the community think it’s time to re-negotiate parts of the agreement given their higher social standing.

Primarily involved in construction work and seasonal labor, many African Hebrew Israelites are also engaged in a variety of entertainment-related skills, and have been representing Israel on the international stage. Ketreyah Fouch, 22, is well-known for being a finalist in Eurovision 2019. In 2003, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown visited the community, among many other high-profile visits over the years. Many African Hebrew Israelites also perform in jazz and soul bands around Israel, and some have represented the country in sports competitions around the world, according to Haaretz. 

BUT CHALLENGES persist. The African Hebrews have bought land a kilometer away from their village and have plans of moving out by 2020. The architectural plan involving 282 units has been approved, but financial and political hurdles are impeding the process – the community gets no funding from the government, and many of them are undocumented, despite young people conscripting into the army.

The community’s only political stance is peace. 

“Israel is supposed to be a light onto the nations,” said Yehuda. “Some people interpret financial prowess, high-technology sectors and military domination as evidence of that light.” Prime Minister Netanyahu, he said, recently made a statement to Iran about Israeli’s missile being bigger than that of Iran. “We’re clearly missing the mark.” 

Hopefully, he said, Ben Ammi will have his way and establish the peaceful Kingdom of Yah.

Single Orthodox women in Israel look towards motherhood

This article was first published on The Forward.

Yael Ukeles always wanted to be a mother. “Growing up, it was just something I thought about,” she said. “Kids were always important to me. But when I hit a certain age and still didn’t have a partner, I had to figure out a different way.”

Ukeles, an Orthodox
Jewish woman, lives in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. A few
years after moving to Tekoa from Jerusalem, Ukeles started doing research on in
vitro fertilization options in Israel. “I read about women who had done it
before, about rabbinical responses, and what my options were,” she said.

The National
Health Service in Israel provides three free rounds of in vitro fertilization for
women up to age 45, and Ukeles started thinking about the possibility of Jewish
donors. “But I was also kind of frustrated,” she recalled. “I was nervous about
doing this on my own, and didn’t really know that many people that were in the
same place as I was.” Even before Ukeles underwent the procedure, she also knew
that there was stigma surrounding her decision, especially among the members of
her insular Orthodox community.

It was during
her pregnancy with her son Amitai that Ukeles started thinking about other
women in her position. In 2011, Ukeles co-founded the group KayamaMoms with
Dina Pinner and Dvora Ross in order to better support other women like them –
that is, observant Jewish women who are single mothers by choice. Kayama is the
Hebrew word for existence, and the group was inspired by a famous passage in
Aramaic that translates to say, “We exist through our seed.”

Though KayamaMoms also hosts public awareness events and talks across the country, it is primarily a group for members and by members. The organization now has approximately 100 participants, and they stay connected even though many of the women live in Israel and the West Bank. The mothers communicate via a WhatsApp group and Facebook page, and plan monthly meetups where they picnic, hike, and hang out with each other and their children.

A lot of time is also spent discussing their faith, and how their religious communities have reacted to their decisions. Though it’s happening slowly, Ukeles thinks that some Orthodox communities in Israel are getting on board. Between 10 to 15 percent of the population in Israel identifies as Orthodox, and there has been a lot of rabbinic discussion about the halachic nature of in vitro fertilization. Generally, supportive rabbis reference a quote from the Book of Genesis, and say “And G-d said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’”

In vitro
fertilization has long been used in Israel by single secular women, but the use
of it by single Orthodox women is still relatively new. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow,
one of KayamaMoms’s advisors and the head of a modern Orthodox yeshiva in
Petach Tikvah, has become one such advocate for these single mothers. He
advised Ukeles through this process as well, and believes that it’s a decision
that has become less stigmatized. “There are more of us now, and we’re becoming
more accepted,” said Ukeles. Though there is no data to support this theory,
Ukeles also believes the number of Orthodox single mothers by choice is on the

“I think it’s a
growing phenomenon in a certain niche of modern Orthodoxy,” said Yardena
Cope-Yossef, a halachic fertility counselor, lecturer in Talmudic and Jewish
law, and legislative advisor in the Israeli Ministry of Justice’s Jewish law
department. “There’s nothing in Jewish law that expressly forbids in vitro
fertilization,” she said. “So people are slowly coming around to it, and
realizing that their issues with it primarily lie with their concerns about
traditional family structures.”

While this
acceptance might be taking place in certain communities or spaces, much of the
country still struggles with the idea of single orthodox mothers and in vitro
fertilization. In June of 2018, after a lawsuit, an ultra-Orthodox hospital in
Netanya was forced to allow in vitro fertilization for an unmarried woman.
However, this procedure was only allowed if a male partner was in attendance,
prohibiting the treatment for single women.  

With or without acceptance,
there are still more hurdles to overcome. As more women turn to sperm banks and
in vitro fertilization, the lack of regulations has become a concern for many
of the women in KayamaMoms and around Israel. “At the end of the day, people
are nervous about possible incest,” said Ukeles. The concern centers around the
possibility, however unlikely, that the sperm donor could help produce multiple
children that could eventually meet and form future unions without knowing they
were related.

The suggested solution is somewhat counter-intuitive. “Paradoxically, if a sperm donor’s identity is anonymous, it’s better halachicaly to get a non-Jewish donor,” said Cope-Yossef. “The Jewish identity goes through the mother anyways, and if a woman gets an anonymous Jewish donor, there could be issues with the history of that donor’s parentage, and more. It’s actually better for it to be non-Jewish and anonymous.” The Ministry of Health is currently working on a sperm bank law, and in proposed legislation there will be an anonymous and non-anonymous track for sperm donation for this very reason.

“There is no
where near enough data on these sperm banks, where they’re coming from, and how
it’s managed geographically,” adds Ukeles. “This is our next big struggle, which
is why it is so important to make these conversations less taboo in the Orthodox

On a Saturday night in March 2019, a few hours after Shabbat had ended, Yael Ukeles and her son Amitai sat on the couch poring over a Jewish prayer book. Amitai, 8, had recently learned the prayer “Anim Zemirot,” and was practicing it with his mother.

“This might be a prayer his friends are learning with their dads,” said Ukeles, after Amitai went to bed. “But in our house, he’s learned it from me. I think that’s pretty special.”

This article was republished courtesy of The Forward.

Ethiopian Jews Protest Police Violence through Art

This article was first published at Religion Unplugged:

SDEROT, Israel – From the walls of an art gallery of a public college here, the portrait of a young black man soberly gazes down as onlookers pass through the gray halls. He is known simply by his Ethiopian mother’s name, as Mamye’s son.

His real name is Yehuda Biadga, a 24-year-old Ethiopian Jew who died earlier this year in a confrontation with Israeli police. His shooting is the latest case to spark demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the discrimination Ethiopians face in Israel.

But the portrait here is another kind of protest, this one in art rather than on the streets. It is part of a new show, “The Color Line,” created and curated by a group of Ethiopian Jewish women artists. Their work is on view until April 24th in the gallery at Sapir College near Sderot, a city a mile east of the Gaza border.

“If there is no racism, I would not be making this art,” said Zaudito Yosef, a 35-year- old artist from Ashdod, who, alongside her cousin, Tagist Yosef Ron, and Dana Yosef, Tagist’s sister-in-law, are curators and artists for the show. Police officers in the Biadga shooting have been cleared of wrongdoing, but Ethiopian Jews, including the Yosefs, see it as yet another case of police brutality in the country.

Mamye’s Son by Tagist Yosef Ron

The show at Sderot is not the first time the family has been featured together. Their work has appeared alongside each others in books exploring issues of Ethiopian Jewish identity in contemporary art. But this time, things are different. An Ethiopian would have full control of the gallery and pick artists to showcase the police issue through the eyes of Ethiopian Jews themselves. After Zaudito was given the go-ahead from Sapir College, she immediately called Ron, who threw her hat in the ring.

Zaudito, second left, and Ron, second right, with other featured artists at the show in Sderot, Sapir College 

Their artistic talents trace back to their mothers and grandmothers, all artists in Ethiopia. “It is probably genetic,” said Zaudito. Like most of the 144,000 Ethiopian Jews in the country, the family’s story is one of displacement, aimless wandering as refugees in Sudan, and finally, a union with the land of their dreams.

life in Israel has come with its own set of difficulties. Although they are now
part of the Jewish religious majority, the family continues to contend with
their reality as ethnic minorities in an Ashkenazi and Sephardic dominated
Jewish society. “We didn’t know our color there,” said Zaudito, “It’s only when
we came here we realized we were black.”

to Pew Research Center, roughly a third of Israeli Jews say Ethiopian Jews face
“a lot” of discrimination in society. It’s something that’s even felt by Rabbi
Sharon Shalom, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent who leads a partly Ashkenazi
congregation at Kdoshei Yisrael Synagogue in Kiryat Gat, a city about eighteen
miles north of Sderot. As a religious leader who deals with repeated questions
on the authenticity of his Jewishness from congregants, he says race triumphs
religion in Israel. 

Yosefs themselves can list a litany of incidents when they have personally
encountered discrimination, from being physically assaulted as children near
immigrant absorption centers to companies turning them away at job interviews.
There are lots of things that worry them in Israeli society, but the main
problem is always the police.

is a lot of pain that should be everybody’s pain,” said Ron, “the whole
society, not just Ethiopian Israelis.”

focuses on “the boys,” young Ethiopian Jews, like Biadga and Yosef Salamsa, whose deaths protestors say links to
police violence and neglect.

Four years ago, a video showing two police officers beating Damas Pakada, an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, brought the issue to the forefront of Israeli society. After the video was circulated, mass protests erupted at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and several people were arrested.     

“Many Ethiopians feel insecure in their neighborhoods or out of their neighborhoods when they see policemen,” said Shoshana Ben-Dor, the former Israel Director for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, in Jerusalem.

“days” Portraits of concerned Ethiopian mothers by Dana Yosef

The community makes up merely 2 percent of the country’s population, but they account for 40 percent of the public discrimination complaints filed to the Ministry of Justice’s government unit against racism. And according to police data, they are also twice as likely to be arrested.

of the family members are a part of closed Facebook groups where young
Ethiopian Jews talk about their personal experiences away from the gaze of the
wider Israeli society. “They compare it to the African-American experience in
the United States,” said Ofir Abu, a researcher into Israeli policing in
minority communities at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In fact, some of the inspiration for the art and protests comes from the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. “A lot of young people saw that, and felt a connection,” said Batya Sisay, a 35-year-old Ethiopian artist also featured for the gallery. There are many pro-black themes at the show: women flaunting their natural kinky hair, little girls holding black dolls, and older women in traditional Ethiopian clothes are prominent throughout the paintings.

name of the art show itself, the Color Line, borrows a concept coined by the
African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois, and worries on the policing of their
young men sound similar to fears often raised in the United States. “I’m
concerned for my children,” said Dana. She follows police issues closely, and
when reports of incidents flood in, she lays her three children to sleep and
channels her anxiety through watercolors.

hearts ache for the mothers of “the boys.” In a perfect world, they say their
art would not exist. But for now, it’s their sole way of fighting back.

“We’re different because of the color of the skin,” said Ron. “We will always be different.”

Some quotes have been translated from Amharic.  

Top photo: “days” Portraits of concerned Ethiopian mothers by Dana Yosef

This article was republished here courtesy of Religion Unplugged.