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A legal scholar sizes up the religious argument against abortion bans



(JTA) — The abortion debate is often portrayed as a clash between religious beliefs on the pro-life side and secular or humanist convictions on the pro-choice side. Indeed, lawmakers and activists have often invoked God in enacting state bans on abortion since the Supreme Court, in last year’s Dobbs decision, struck down a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

Some clergy and faith groups, however, including a number of Jews, are pushing back. In efforts to overturn these restrictions, they have been pressing a legal strategy claiming that abortion bans violate their religious liberty. In Kentucky, a case brought by three Jewish women argues that the state’s near-total abortion ban violates their religious beliefs about when life begins and protecting a mother’s life. In Indiana, a suit brought by Hoosier Jews for Choice and four women who represent a variety of faiths demands exemptions from the state’s abortion ban for people whose religions support abortion rights. 

In Florida, a synagogue filed a lawsuit saying the state’s abortion restrictions violate the religious freedom rights of Jews.

“Judaism has never defined life beginning at conception,” the Kentucky suit says, adding that “millennia of commentary from Jewish scholars has reaffirmed Judaism’s commitment to reproductive rights.”

Although Orthodox organizations support restrictions that allow abortion only under rare circumstances, most American Jews and their representative organizations back wide abortion access.

To understand the legal strategy behind these state-level religious challenges to abortion bans, JTA spoke Friday with Elizabeth Reiner Platt, the director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia Law School. Last year, the center published “A Religious Right to Abortion: History & Analysis,” a memo intended for lawyers, activists, faith leaders and journalists. 

Platt spoke about what Politico recently called “the sleeper legal strategy that could topple abortion bans,” two recent Supreme Court cases on religion and how the conservative court is approaching religion in general. 

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Last August you released a report analyzing how religion law might apply in legal challenges to abortion bans. Can you summarize the strategy?

I always like to start by saying that the idea that religious liberty includes a right to make decisions about one’s reproductive health care is not just a legal strategy that folks came up with in response to Dobbs. It is how religious groups themselves have been talking about their understanding of reproductive rights for a very long time. I have a handy list of denominational statements from a range of different traditions, including some Jewish groups, as well as Lutheran, Presbyterian and Unitarian Universalist back from the ’80s and ’90s saying reproductive rights are a religious liberty issue for them and for their congregations.

One of the most valuable things in that report is the case index that shows cases going back from the ’70s, the pre-Roe era, that make this legal claim where people of faith have said, “Our religious beliefs motivate us to help people access reproductive health care.” The report essentially lays out the different kinds of legal arguments to be made for a religious liberty right to provide access or facilitate abortion care. And we’re now seeing that happen and a handful of lawsuits across the country including Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, Indiana and Idaho. Several of those cases include Jewish plaintiffs [including Missouri, where five rabbis from multiple Jewish denominations are among more than a dozen Missouri faith leaders challenging the state’s ban on abortion]. There’s a very interesting lawsuit in Kentucky right now involving three Jewish women who actually focus on their religious obligation to have children using in vitro fertilization. And so their complaint overlays on both the state constitution as well as the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and says that they have a religious right to seek IVF care, but also because of their age and other factors they have a higher risk of pregnancy complications, and so they’re including as part of that complaint right to access abortion care in accordance with their religious beliefs.

How does the IVF relate to abortion in this sense? Are they arguing that abortion is similarly included in a full range of gynecological and obstetric care?

Basically, they make the case that they want access to IVF but also that some of the claimants in the past have had really serious fetal anomalies and believe that the religiously motivated decision for them at that time was to seek abortion care.

Members of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice and IfNotNow hold signs that say “Baruch Hashem [Bless God] For Abortion” at a rally at New York City Foley Square, May 2, 2023. (Jacob Henry)

Have there been rulings over the years that accept the right to abortion as a question of religious liberty? 

I’ll start by saying they’re kind of two basic ways a claim can be made.There are concrete Free Exercise Clause claims that essentially say, “My religious beliefs motivate me to seek this care to make this decision. And abortion bans therefore stifle my religious practice.” And that kind of claim would typically result not in overturning an abortion ban, but in providing a religious exemption for the claimant. The other way to make a religion claim is to say, “This abortion ban is actually religiously motivated and improperly enshrines one particular religious view into law, and it’s therefore a violation of a federal or state Establishment Clause provision.” And that kind of challenge would, if successful, overturn the law completely for everybody. 

There is not a lot of case law on the former. There have been many challenges, but they’ve almost all been dismissed on things like standing or mootness — technical, legal things. The big exception is right now: There is a case being brought by the ACLU of Indiana that relies on that state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was a very contentious law passed several years ago by then Gov. Mike Pence. That case did, at the trial court level, succeed in granting religious exemption to the claimants [which remains in effect even as the Indiana Supreme Court allowed the state’s total abortion ban to take effect Aug. 1]. That’s the first major decision that we’ve seen post-Dobbs.

Is it fair to say that the same law that ostensibly would have protected conservative religious behavior is being deployed from a progressive standpoint?

That is certainly how it gets framed a lot. But these laws should ideally always be applied neutrally, across the denominational and the political spectrum, and have long been used by people of all different faiths and denominations. I deeply do not think that this is some sort of clever legal tactic. We’re seeing, in the wake of Dobbs, ideas and language that have been promoted by religious groups for many, many, many years.

In the current political climate, do you think courts are inclined to accept the right to abortion as a question of religious liberty? 

I think there’s definitely an appetite for these arguments. There was a really interesting lower court decision in Kentucky a while back, when a judge ruled that the state’s abortion ban violated religious liberty — without that argument even having been made by either party, which is extremely unusual. I think [that] really shows that there is an appetite for these claims. It’s important to say that almost all of these claims are being brought in state court. Most litigators are bringing cases that would not end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. I’m not Pollyannaish about the fact that we have very conservative state judiciaries and a lot of these states are very opposed to abortion, but I think the legal claims themselves based on doctrine should be very strong.

An argument I’ve heard in the Jewish community is that because some of the Jewish plaintiffs pressing religious freedom arguments aren’t Orthodox or traditionally observant Jews — in other words, because they do not act according to traditional Jewish law in other aspects of their life — they shouldn’t be making religious claims in this one area of reproductive rights. Do the courts take into consideration the extent of perceived sincerity or consistency of a party’s beliefs and actions when they review these cases?

Courts can absolutely look at religious sincerity, but I also think it’s outrageous to say that “only Orthodox Jews are sincere.” You know the old saw: two Jews, three opinions. What matters is not getting an Orthodox rabbi in the stand to give expert advice on the Talmud. What matters is the plaintiffs’ own understanding of their Judaism and what it looks like in practice. People can be very sincere about how they practice their Judaism without necessarily being glatt kosher or what have you. Courts tend to use a pretty light touch when it comes to sincerity.

Going back to the Establishment Clause, can you explain to me how an entire ethos that seems to be very much based in religious conceptions of when life begins can make it into secular law without running afoul of the Constitution? Some of these abortion bans seem to me to be examples of one denomination’s religious views becoming everyone’s law. How does that pass muster?

The key case on this is Harris v. McRae from the ’80s, which was a case that challenged the federal Hyde Amendment that bans almost all federal funding for abortion. The challengers made that exact claim: that this is based on a particular conception of when life begins and is essentially a religious restriction. And that case lost before the Supreme Court. The court said that just because a law happens to overlap with particular religious beliefs, it doesn’t make it an inherently religious law. And honestly, since then, the Court’s conception of the Establishment Clause has gotten narrower and narrower.

Right to Life advocates pray during a sit-in in front of a Planned Parenthood in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

That does not mean, however, that that’s the end of the story. Again, I’ll say that most of these claims are being brought under state rather than federal provisions. And we’re now seeing state legislators being much more frank and forthright about their religious motivations when passing some of these laws, in a way that can be relevant to new Establishment Clause challenges. So, for example, the Missouri case which is being brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and National Women’s Law Center [filed on behalf of 13 clergy members from six faith traditions, saying that the state’s abortion ban establishes one religious view about abortion as the law of the land in violation of the Missouri constitution]. It’s a challenge under the state’s Establishment Clause. And they point to the fact among other things that the law has the words “Almighty God” right in the text of the statute. That is pretty shocking and unusual. 

I’d like to shift gears and talk about some of the other religion cases of the last week. The court ruled last week in Groff v. DeJoy that employers had to show a substantial burden before curtailing accommodations for religious employees, who may seek accommodations for the Sabbath, or wearing distinct dress. Groff was a postal worker who argued he shouldn’t have to work on his Sabbath. What did you think about the unanimous ruling?

This is an unusual example of the court taking at least somewhat of a middle path. They could have ruled very explicitly that the needs of coworkers don’t matter and shouldn’t be considered, and thankfully they didn’t. Ultimately, neither side got exactly what it wanted. I mean, Groff did not get his religious exemption yet. The court tweaked the test by which it will be evaluated, and according to my reading of the case, there is ample opportunity for the lower court to look at the new test and say, “Your request was really burdensome on the operation of this very small postal office, and you don’t get [your accommodation].” The jury’s still out on that case and I think we might see a real kind of diversity in how it ends up getting implemented in practice.

In another important ruling on religion and the law, the court ruled that a website designer could decline to provide service to a same-sex couple based on her assertion that she has a religious objection to creating messages that promote a view she doesn’t accept. I was intrigued by your tweet: “The decision in #303Creative today is not a win for religious liberty.” How did you mean that?

We wrote an amicus brief in this case on behalf of a bunch of religious minority organizations and faith-based organizations from a lot of different denominations. The point we made was that if we want to make sure that people can exercise their religion openly in a pluralistic society and without being chilled or in fear that they’re going to get turned away and unable to access services because they’re wearing a hijab or a yarmulke, then we need robust civil rights laws. A return to a segregated marketplace is going to maybe help a few religious believers who happen to own small businesses, but overall it’s going to have a real chilling effect on religious diversity and pluralism in smaller communities. Our point was that civil rights law shouldn’t be seen as being in conflict with religious liberty, but in fact, civil rights law is what has helped religious minorities thrive in the United States. And you know, I mentioned in my tweet that when my parents were kids, the “Jewish Vacation Guide” was still helping families figure out whether they were going to get turned away from hotels and such.

To take a broader view of the Supreme Court for a second, it’s clearly privileging religion in ways not seen in previous courts. The New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse has written that the conservative supermajority completely identifies with “the movement in the country’s politics to elevate religion over all other elements of civil society.” I’m wondering if you agree with that assessment. And if so, what are its implications? I know that for a lot of our readers, it’s a great thing to elevate religion over other elements of civil society. 

I would tweak it, because there are religion claims that don’t succeed. For example, there have been a lot of cases involving the targeting of Muslims, questioning people about their religious beliefs and practices at the border and the surveillance of mosques and religious groups, and very famously the court’s upholding of the Trump Muslim travel ban. In those cases, religious liberty did not win out over other elements. So I agree that the court has sided with particular, primarily conservative, Christian religious liberty claims. But I don’t think that that is going to protect everyone.

To conclude again with abortion: I don’t know if you are familiar with the work of Rutgers professor Michal Raucher, who argues that Jewish movements like hers — she is a Conservative Jew — should be arguing the case for abortion from the perspective of women’s bodily autonomy, and not the more narrow case that Jewish law allows abortions in some limited circumstances. Are religious challenges to abortion bans just sort of the flip side of religious opposition to abortion — they downplay the autonomy of women as individuals by making their decision-making a matter of church or synagogue doctrine? 

This is sort of an age-old strategy question. If you look at the pro-life movement, there was a lot of argument between a “chip away over time” strategy or a more absolutist constitutional amendment saying that personhood starts at the moment of conception. We can have shorter term and longer term strategies, and I don’t know that it’s necessary to pick one. Even to the extent some of these lawsuits don’t end up succeeding, there is value in showing the diversity of religious beliefs on reproductive healthcare, because I think conservative Christians have had such a dominant presence over the issue of religion and abortion. There’s been a lot of history lost. I think of things like the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, which was a national network of clergy members who helped people access abortion, vetted illegal abortion providers and also helped people access care abroad. And that history has been all but lost. So yes, I think there can be multiple narratives happening at the same time.

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25 years after opening, Yiddish Book Center overhauls its core exhibit for a wider audience




AMHERST, Massachusetts (JTA) — Since its opening in 1997, the Yiddish Book Center has wowed visitors with its architecture. A Jewish village resurrected on a college campus in sylvan Amherst, Massachusetts, the building conveys the Center’s mission: to rescue and revive a language spoken for over 1,000 years by Ashkenazi Jews in German-speaking lands, Eastern Europe and wherever they migrated. 

On Oct. 15, the Center is unveiling a new core exhibit, meant to flesh out and deepen the story told by its building and the treasures stored inside. Arriving at a moment when Yiddish is experiencing one of its periodic revivals, “Yiddish: A Global Culture” is a major Yiddish institution’s answer to a question without easy answers: How do you tell the story of a language without a country, and of a culture that lost a majority of its purveyors in a little over a decade of madness?

In response, the new exhibit depicts the “secular” Yiddish culture that arose in the mid-19th century as a distinctly transglobal, modern movement that includes theater, the press, mass market publishing and intellectual ferment in big cities from Warsaw to New York to Shanghai.

The exhibit is “foregrounding a story of creativity, tremendous accomplishment and tremendous diversity of a culture that has migration built into its DNA,” David Mazower, the Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, told me when I visited Amherst last month.

The displays in the exhibit will surround and weave in and out of the Center’s book stacks, another striking architectural feature of the building. The stacks offer duplicates of the Center’s collection of 1.5 million Yiddish books and periodicals, for sale and browsing. I couldn’t be the first visitor to be reminded of the closing scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which reveals a colossal government warehouse filled with, in the words of the screenplay, “crates and crates. All looking alike. All gathering dust.” 

What a casual visitor might not see is all that is happening at the Center to blow the dust off those books, including translator workshops, summer fellowships, conferences, an oral history project, a busy publishing program and a riotous summer music festival.

Interest in all of those activities has been helped along by young Jews interested in the language and culture and a pandemic that created a demand for online Yiddish classes. The Yiddish Book Center has been drawing 10,000 visitors a year since its pandemic shutdown. The New York Times made the latest revival official (to non-readers of the Jewish media, anyway) in an essay last month by the Jewish polymath Ilan Stavans, declaring that “Yiddish Is Having a Moment.” Stavans notes a flurry of new translations of obscure and classic Yiddish writers, the all-Yiddish staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Yiddish dialogue in three recent Netflix series: “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “Rough Diamonds.”

A mural featuring key moments in the global history of Yiddish is a central feature of a new core exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. (JTA photo)

(More controversially, Stavans also reports that Yiddish is appealing to those — presumably young anti-Zionist Jews — for whom Hebrew “symbolizes far-right Israeli militarism.”)

Such a revival also challenges keepers of the flame — not just the Yiddish Book Center, but the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, The Workers Circle, publications like In geveb and the Yiddish Forward, academic departments plus a host of regional Yiddish organizations — to define a language and culture that means many different things to many different people.

Is it a language of a decimated past? A progenitor of the Jewish left? A tongue, still spoken daily by haredi Orthodox Jews, that continues to grow and evolve? Is it an attitude — a Jewish way of being and thinking — that survives in humor and cooking and music even if those who appreciate it can’t speak the language? For European Jews of the Enlightenment, the Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler reminded me a few years ago, “Yiddish represented the resistance and inability of Jews to enter the cultural mainstream. It represented something atavistic, a way of holding Jews back.” For Zionists, meanwhile, it represented a weak Diaspora and everything associated with it (a clash explored in a current YIVO exhibit, “Palestinian Yiddish:  A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel Before 1948”).

Goldie Morgenthaler, herself the daughter of the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, has written that she teaches Yiddish literature to mostly non-Jewish university students in Alberta, Canada because “studying what is specific to one culture is often the first step to understanding many cultures.”

At YIVO, an institution founded by scholars in Vilna in 1925 and transplanted to New York in 1940, Yiddish is regarded as an expression of and vehicle for “Jewish pride,” according to its executive director and CEO, Jonathan Brent.

“For Jewish people in the Diaspora to understand that they have in fact a future as Jews,” he said last week, “they have to take pride in their heritage. For all kinds of historical reasons, many Jews felt that [Yiddish] was somehow a shameful or devalued heritage. It was ‘zhargon’ [jargon], and it had been basically eliminated from public discourse in the land of Israel. YIVO from the very beginning wanted to study Yiddish as a language among languages, the same way you studied Russian or Spanish or French. It was a language with a history.

David Mazower, the Yiddish Book Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, shows off a samovar to be used in a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of writer I.L. Peretz. (JTA photo)

“What Yiddish does,” he continued, “is help anchor us in the language in which our grandparents and great grandparents communicated their deepest thoughts and feelings. And that has real implications for the survival of the Jewish people.”

Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center, said the story he wants to tell goes back to his days as a graduate student in Yiddish at McGill University in the 1970s, when he first started saving the discarded books that would become the core of the Center’s collection.

“People think of [Yiddish] as this nostalgic creation,” he said. “But the truth is, it was a profound, multifaceted and really global literature that emerged in the late 19th century, and then just took off throughout the 20th century…. It wasn’t long before writers were using every form of literary expression — expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, eroticism. It all found expression in this very short period of time, and even the Holocaust didn’t destroy it. “

Lansky admits his own vision is more literary than the core exhibit’s, and thanked Mazower for creating a broader view of Yiddish as a global culture.

That view is represented in a 60-foot mural that serves as an introduction to the exhibit. Cartoons by the German illustrator Martin Haake depict key historical vignettes in Yiddish history, from nearly every continent. Glikl of Hameln, a German-Jewish businesswoman, writes her diaries at the turn of the 18th century. Women call for a strike at “Yanovsky’s Cigarette Factory” in Bialystok, Poland, in 1901. A nursery scene honors the leading Yiddish activists who were born in Displaced Persons camps after World War II. And tubercular Yiddish writers are seen recovering at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver, Colorado, which operated from 1904 to 1940. 

The mural lines the ramp that leads to the bookshelves, where displays (some of which Mazower calls “wedges”) use artifacts and wall-mounted photos to talk about the breadth of Yiddish culture. There’s a display about Yiddish celebrities, including writers, such as Sholom Aleichem and Chaim Zhitlowsky, who would draw tens of thousands of mourners to their funerals. Another display honors those who preserved and studied Yiddish culture, from YIVO (described here as “The Mothership”) to the monumental “Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry” undertaken between 1959 and 1972 by the linguist Uriel Weinreich. A Yiddish linotype machine, rescued by Lansky, anchors an exhibit about the Jewish press.

Michal Michalesko (center) and chorus appear in a publicity photo from an unidentified production, ca. 1930. Michalesko (1884–1957) made his name in the 1910s as a star of the Warsaw Yiddish operetta stage. (Yiddish Book Center)

A centerpiece of the core exhibit is a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of the writer and playwright I.L. Peretz, a leading figure of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. While few actual artifacts belonging to Peretz survive, the room will include contemporaneous objects and photographs to immerse visitors in the literary scene of the day. 

“You’ll step through his doorway the way that so many young writers did, clutching their first manuscripts to show them either in Hebrew or in Yiddish,” Mazower explained. “His name, his address was known throughout the Russian Empire at that time. People would come thousands of miles in some cases to Warsaw to try and get entry into this alchemy-like space where extraordinary things happen.”

One of those pilgrims was Mazower’s great-grandfather, the famed playwright Sholem Asch. When Asch showed Peretz a draft of his notorious play “God of Vengeance,” whose lesbian subplot would shock audiences and rile religious leaders, Peretz reportedly told him to burn it. 

“My hope is that through the exhibition as a whole you see Jewish history through a Yiddish lens and in a different way from the Holocaust-defined story that so many of us have been educated with and that popular culture feeds us,” said Mazower. 

A Yiddish book features a stamp for a bookseller in Cairo, demonstrating the global reach of the language. (JTA photo)

The exhibit treats the Holocaust as one part of the Yiddish story, not its culmination. The original Yiddish edition of Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” published as part of a memorial project in Argentina shortly after the war, rests in a wedge about individuals who rescued Yiddish culture under the Nazis. The same section features a tribute to Rokhl Brokhes, a writer murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1945. A still from a recent animated adaptation of one of her stories by Alona Bach, currently a PhD student at MIT focusing on the “intersections of electricity and Yiddish,” affirms one of the Center’s aims: to bring young Yiddishists into conversation with the past.

The story of Yiddish theater will wrap around the auditorium, starting with a large photo of the audience at the opening of the Grand Street Theatre in New York in 1905. A memorial section remembers the probably thousands of actors, playwrights and musicians who were killed in the Holocaust.

“Had Yiddish theater not suffered a rupture, which it did, it would have continued to evolve and borrow and expand,” said Lisa Newman, the Center’s director of publishing and public programs. “What’s so important about this exhibition is that it places Yiddish in this context of language no less than any other country’s, except it’s not a country.” 

I asked Mazower what kind of stories he did not want to tell about Yiddish culture.

“It’s not a story about Yiddish humor,” he said. “It’s not a story about the Holocaust. It’s not a story about the state of Israel. It’s not a lachrymose story about Jewish persecution through the ages.”

Other Yiddishists told me much the same thing (Brent said that the story of Yiddish “shouldn’t be told as a collection of jokes, or Yiddish curses, or as a cute language that connects you to Bubbe’s gefilte fish”). 

And yet, said Lansky, “We’re not feinschmeckers, we’re not elitist when it comes to Yiddish. Yiddish was a vernacular language, and I am happy to embrace that. I love the humor and social criticism that’s embedded in it. It’s the aggregate that’s so impressive. To see all of this literature and culture in a lively and accessible way can be quite transformative.”

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San Francisco Giants fire Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after disappointing season




(JTA) — The San Francisco Giants have fired Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after four seasons.

Kapler joined the Giants in November 2019 and led the Giants to a 295-248 record during the 2020-2023 seasons, highlighted by a 107-win 2021 campaign that earned Kapler the National League Manager of the Year award. The team rewarded Kapler with a two-year contract extension that was set to run through 2024.

The Giants were eliminated from postseason contention this week, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

In addition to his 2021 accolade, Kapler’s tenure in San Francisco was punctuated by his unorthodox style both on and off the field. The 48-year-old Hollywood, California, native is a fitness geek with an active social media presence and his own blog. ESPN deemed him “the most interesting man in baseball” in May 2022. Kapler also has a Jewish tattoo on each leg: a Jewish star on his left leg and “Never Again” — a reference to the Holocaust — on his right leg.

On the field, Kapler in 2020 became the first MLB manager to kneel during the national anthem amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. In 2022, in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Kapler announced that he would begin skipping the pregame national anthem to protest the “state of this country.” He frequently used his platform in the sport to share his political beliefs.

Kapler played for six teams during his 12-year major league career, largely as a role player and backup outfielder. After retiring in 2010, Kapler played and coached for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He previously managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 2018-2019 and worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

With Kapler’s firing, San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin becomes the league’s lone Jewish skipper.

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Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC




(New York Jewish Week) — Mark Vogel, who lives in Riverdale and runs a website about Jewish and kosher travel, spoke for many of his neighbors when he posted a video on Instagram of his sukkah being pounded by rain, standing forlornly in the middle of his flooded backyard.

“I built a Sukkah,” he wrote in a caption. “I should have built an ark.”

Vogel, and many of the other millions of Jews in the tristate area, have been coping with the reality that Sukkot, the most outdoor holiday on the Jewish calendar, has coincided with heavy rains that have flooded highways, shut down subway lines and triggered a state of emergency in New York City. More than 8 inches of rain had fallen at John F. Kennedy airport by Friday afternoon, and more is expected into Saturday.

New Yorkers should expect heavy rain and flooding to continue throughout the night tonight,” Gov. Kathy Hochul posted on social media on Friday afternoon. “To our Jewish neighbors celebrating the beginning of Sukkot, please take steps to stay safe during this severe weather event.”

Sukkot begins Friday night, and on the weeklong holiday, Jews traditionally eat their meals and even sleep in the sukkah, an outdoor hut with a roof generally made from tree branches that recalls the Israelites’ biblical sojourn in the desert and emphasizes the need for divine protection.

But rain makes those observances close to impossible — leading most would-be sukkah-dwellers in New York to accept that they’ll be eating indoors on the holiday’s first night, and sparking a wide variety of theological and practical responses from rabbis and rank-and-file Jews alike. For others, it has complicated travel plans hours before the holiday’s start, backing up traffic and making the subway especially hard to navigate.

“I once heard that if it rains on [the] first night of sukkoth, it’s some sort of sign that God is displeased with us,” Linda Gisselle Roth, who splits her time between New York City and Connecticut, wrote on Facebook on Friday. “And it’s been raining for days. And I’ve never felt like this before.”

She added, “I want to spend [the] first night of sukkoth, in my sukkah. So for right now, I’m asking, please let the rain stop.”

While the rainy season in Israel traditionally begins right after Sukkot, rain is a common occurrence on the holiday in the United States and even inspired the title of a children’s book from the 1990s, “Why Does It Always Rain on Sukkot?”

Mark Vogel, a Riverdale resident, posted a picture of his sukkah in a flooded yard to Instagram on Friday. (Screenshot)

Observant Jews have varying customs when it comes to dealing with rain on the holiday. Many avoid their sukkah entirely, while others will quickly recite blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then eat the rest of the meal indoors. Adherents of Chabad, the Hasidic movement based in Crown Heights, try to eat in the sukkah under nearly all circumstances.

One resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, a heavily Jewish suburb, posted a single-spaced, two-page guide from his local rabbi on what to do if it rains on the holiday. (The rabbi, who is not named in the document, recommends saying blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then continuing the meal inside.)

Rabbis on social media, meanwhile, explored the theological dimensions of the weather. Some cited a passage from the Mishnah, the ancient code of rabbinic law, that compares rain on Sukkot, following the effort of building a sukkah, to a servant bringing his master a jug of wine, only for the master to throw water back in the servant’s face.

“Nasty weather on sukkot is a sign of God’s displeasure with us,” Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who teaches at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah seminary, wrote on Facebook. Then, referencing the recent High Holidays and addressing God, he wrote, “If all we did the last few weeks is not good enough for You, what’s left for us to say?! We did the best we can. If You want more, You will have to let us know what that more is.”

Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president of the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian center of Jewish study based in Manhattan, also cited the passage and encouraged people to focus on the experience of the servant in the parable. He added that because the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat, the other central commandment associated with Sukkot, praying with four species of plants, is also deferred a day. (Sunday is expected to be sunny.)

“What does it *feel like* when you have prepared for something and then you cannot execute it as planned?” he wrote on Facebook. “It feels like rejection, as in the parable. The weather may in fact just be the weather, but it doesn’t necessarily make the feeling of loss less palpable. Is there a way to make this Sukkah rainout an opportunity to sit with rejection? To empathize with other such experiences, even if they are not our own?”

Some New Yorkers tried to stay positive. “It might be flooding and we might consume a lot of rain water with our food lol but Sukkot Dinner under the Stars is still on even if we might end up eating indoors under a roof instead!” a Facebook user from Queens posted on Friday, advertising a meal that night.

Nina Jochnowitz, a State Senate candidate in New Jersey, cited the rabbinic idea that Sukkot is considered a time of joy, and referenced a Hasidic saying that “‘joy breaks all boundaries,’ transforming even the most negative occurrences into blessings!”

And others reached for seasonal parallels: “If only sukkot came with rain dates like baseball,” one person posted.

For Vogel, the travel writer and Riverdale resident, the rain was especially unfortunate, as he has built a smaller sukkah in recent years to limit capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first year he had gone back to building a larger one.

“Well, I was looking forward to eating in a large sukkah this year with friends and family,” he told the New York Jewish Week. “But we can’t control the weather, so we will make the best of it.”

The post Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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