“It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci or whatever, will be gone” – Woody Allen.

“Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody” – Bob Dylan.

Those two quotes helped frame what was for me an eye-opening Shavuot night lecture. Delivered by Dr. Elliot Malamet, co-founder of the Torah in Motion organization, the talk had the provocative title, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.”

Malamet presented two competing concepts of the divine – a binary distinction that comes with a real-world twist. The first is the “transcendent” consideration of God, represented by the Woody Allen quote, where there is no connection whatsoever between God and humanity.

The transcendent God, says Malamet, does not interact with our world, does not listen to or answer prayers, does not create or destroy. As a result, a transcendent God cannot want anything of us, nor can we claim to know what God desires. It may not be an accident that we’re here, as Allen says, but if there is a meaning to our everyday earthly activities, it’s not coming from God.

The second concept is a God of “immanence,” one where human beings do have a personal relationship with a God who is involved in our daily affairs, rewarding good and punishing evil. An immanent God enables religious life to happen, with all of the rituals that come with it. To paraphrase Dylan, it’s a lot harder to “serve” a transcendent God who can’t tell you why (or even if) you should keep kosher.

Both conceptions have support in Jewish philosophy, but I was surprised by some of the big-name support for a transcendent God.

No less a scholar than Maimonides wrote in the 12th century, “There is no relation in any respect between Him and any of His creatures.” It’s like comparing “distance” and “smell.” There is no overlap “between 100 cubits and the heat which is in pepper,” Maimonides continues in his Guide for the Perplexed. Any statement attributed to God by a human being “has merely been invented by his imagination.”

Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz picks up on Maimonides and intensifies it.

“Our source of information is science,” Leibowitz, the biochemist and iconoclastic religious thinker, wrote in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State in 1992. “To the extent that we possess any real knowledge, it is by way of scientific cognition…God did not reveal Himself, neither in nature, nor in history. [Faith] is an evaluative decision [that] does not result from any information one has acquired.”

Even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, has written in support of transcendence. “In relation to the highest truth, there is no difference between formulated religion and heresy. Both do not yield the truth.”

To be sure, the sources Malamet picked were not exhaustive of every direction expressed through thousands of years of Jewish thought. (The Bible exudes a very hands-on perception of God, he pointed out.) But I found myself – like Malamet – trending towards the transcendent.

The next day, at Shavuot lunch, I asked our guests which conception of God they most related to. There was silence at first, but then tentatively, one after another responded “transcendent.”

And that’s the twist – this way of thinking creates a paradox for those observant Jews who believe in their hearts in a transcendent God but still want an immanent kind of relationship. They want to believe that the reason they keep Shabbat is because God said so; that when they take three steps forward in prayer, there’s someone on the other side. Why should they follow religious rules if they’re simply “invented by the imagination,” as Maimonides says?

Leibowitz has an answer: “Performance of the mitzvot is man’s path to God,” he writes, even though it’s “an infinite path, the end of which is never attained and is, in effect, unattainable.”

Maimonides argues similarly – that you can move closer to a transcendent God, even if you can never quite get there. But it’s brains over halacha for the Rambam. “Providence is proportional to the endowment of the intellect,” he writes in The Guide.

I asked Malamet, who is observant, how he squares his own circle.

“Although enormous swaths of Judaism are humanly constructed,” he told me, “I do believe in a minimal metaphysical encounter between God and humans, with human beings then given great leeway to define and redefine the divine will.”

When confronted with the question of meaning, Woody Allen quipped that “the best you can do to get through life is distraction.”

Faith is another response, Malamet says. “Just because it is not empirical or material, does not make it invalid.”

Ultimately, he adds, “one makes one’s way through life with far less than full information. I think religion can be a very good force in the world, but because I do not think God is provable, I am a fierce proponent of freedom for all. All modern acts are voluntary. We need to reconstruct the conversation we have about religion keeping that in mind.”

I first wrote about transcendent and immanent conceptions of God at The Jerusalem Post.

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The 41st annual Jacob’s Ladder music festival, which was held on the Sea of Galilee last weekend, was characterized by two surprises: the event’s first-ever thunderstorm, which turned the end of the Abrams’ final act into a Woodstockian frenzy of soggy joy and hapless umbrellas; and a standout preponderance of indie folk acts fronted by women.

There was plenty of classic Jacob’s Ladder on hand: bluegrass and Irish fiddling, 60s folk singalongs and harmonicas on nearly every stage. But I’m always more interested in the newcomers who play at the fringes of the festival. These are the artists to watch in the coming years as Jacob’s Ladder has become a showcase for future indie darlings – Jane Bordeaux, Lola Marsh and Maya Isacowitz have all appeared.

My picks for this year: Judy Antebi, Mika Sade, Dorin Yanni, Nefesh Mountain and Forest.

Judy Antebi had one of the early Thursday afternoon slots, meaning many festival-goers hadn’t yet arrived. Which was a shame, because the enchanting Antebi played a shimmering selection of her indie-pop songs in Hebrew and English, from her ethereal first album “Hadarim” and the more upbeat “As I Walk” from 2017.

Antebi works as a music therapist and guitar teacher when she’s not on stage. She lives in Tel Aviv but has deep Jerusalem roots: starting in the 1930s, her grandmother was for many years the secretary to the editor of The Palestine (later Jerusalem) Post. Antebi’s next shows in June at the Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv and the Post Hostel in Jerusalem will feature a full band.

Singer-songwriter Mika Sade had a bigger crowd to match her even bigger smile. Indeed, Sade is all about the smile, which shines through her songs and powers her peppy trill of a voice which reminded me of a young Kate Bush, with a bit of Minnie Ripperton for good measure. And who can resist Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” played on a ukulele.

Sade was a newcomer to Jacob’s Ladder but she’s been performing in Israel for the last decade and has collaborated with Israeli artists Geva Alon, Avi Singolda and Ester Rada. Her crowdfunded album “Birds & Guitars” is “in the folk genre,” she said,” but the next one will be more electronic and psychedelic.”

It was Dorin Yanni’s second time at the festival, but her first on the main stage where she appeared with her six-piece band. If you dig energetic indie folk bands like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros or Mumford and Sons, with the pop of a trumpet for punctuation and a fiddle to keep the country vibe going, then you’ll go gaga for lady Yanni, whose voice closely channels Of Monsters and Men lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir.

Yanni describes the band’s music as “Israeli indie-folk with western, Irish and Indian influences.” Yanni was a participant on the third season of the Israeli TV show “The Voice.” Dorin Yanni and the Band have a new single coming out in July.

My wife Jody and I were eager to see Nefesh Mountain, a duo visiting from the U.S., fronted by the wild-eyed Doni Zasloff and her husband Eric Lindberg and billed as “Jewish bluegrass.” But when we heard them sing “Hinei Ma Tov” during their sound check itself, Jody shook her head as if to say, “let’s get out of here.” We’re not big fans of what often passes for kitschy American “Jewish” music.

That turned out to be a mistake. Because when we returned a few minutes later (after the band we’d gone to see instead turned out to be a dud), we instantly fell in love with Doni’s feel good vibe sung in perfectly accented Hebrew (she spent a high school semester here and later volunteered in the army).

Nefesh Mountain somehow makes the weird mashup between banjo and bible work. Plus they were just so happy to be in Israel. “I want to make aliyah someday,” Doni confided to me afterward. “There is a different feeling that I get in Israel. I always feel as if I’m walking a little bit above the ground,” she said.

My favorite act of this year’s Jacob’s Ladder was not a “discovery,” at least not for me – I was in fact responsible for getting the band Forest to the festival after seeing them twice in Jerusalem.

The six-piece ensemble’s music is all over the place – in a good way. Many of their songs start slowly, with a spiritual message of “oneness,” before transforming into full-on progressive rock, complete with soaring guitar solos alternating with Nadav Fast’s insanely fast violin. (I’d like to see him in a duo someday with fellow Israeli fiddler Michael Greilsammer.)

Forest lead singer Orka Teppler has an irrepressible vitality – whether that’s leading the audience in a Yiddish-inspired “ya-di-di-da” melody or climbing to the top of the amplifiers to cheer on the crowd during the band’s closing Irish rock jig. Flautist Ruth Danon brought a healthy dose of Jethro Tull to the progressive side of their music.

I was anxious about how Forest would be received: they were given the dreaded 9:00 PM slot on Thursday – the bands at that hour in the previous two festivals had a hard time holding the audience’s attention. What if Forest bombed? Would I lose my Jacob’s Ladder credibility?

They didn’t and I didn’t. So check out some of the indie bands from this year’s show. You can enjoy them even without an umbrella.

I first reviewed this year’s Jacob’s Ladder at The Jerusalem Post.

Mika Sade picture credit Hila Magic.

Nefesh Mountain picture credit Bianca Bourgeois and Anne-Michele Mallory of Bam Photography.

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Why live in Israel?

by Brian on April 30, 2017

in A Parent in Israel,Only in Israel

Why do Jews live in Israel? That was the question Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz asked in his Friday column two weeks ago. With Yom Ha’atzmaut just around the corner, it’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.

Katz sets up – and then deconstructs – two answers popular in recent years with Israeli hasbara mavens: Israel as the Startup Nation, and Israel as a Light unto the Nations engaged in tikkun olam – doing good around the world.

The hi-tech narrative is an easy one – especially for me, since I write about startups for a living. Israel is a worthwhile place to live, Katz writes, because of “the amazing innovation that originates in the Jewish State.”

That’s certainly true: Israel has more companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange than do India, Japan and Korea combined, has more venture capital investment per capita than anywhere else in the world, and is number one in the rate of per capita R&D spending.

The results of this hi-tech culture are manifest, including global market leaders such as Teva Pharmaceuticals, Check Point Software Technologies, and Mobileye, whose hugely successful IPO and subsequent $15 billion sale to Intel were among the biggest in Israeli hi-tech history. Just about every major international tech company – Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Motorola, Apple, eBay, PayPal, Facebook – has an office in Israel.

The other story – tikkun olam – is equally compelling.

“Israel is a state you should support,” Katz writes, “because it treats wounded Syrians and developed the most innovative drip irrigation used to grow crops in places like India and Rwanda.”

Israel sends rescue teams to Haiti, Turkey, Nepal and wherever natural disasters hit. Our water desalination prowess, writes Seth Siegel in his book Let There Be Water, is a “solution for a water-starved world.” Israeli scientists are international experts in smoking out the medical benefits of marijuana.

But there is a problem with both the Startup Nation and tikkun olam narratives, Katz points out. “They are “generic stories…that could apply to any other people in the world.”

Katz understands why these depictions are so popular.

“Israel, especially for the last 30 years or so, has become a divisive topic,” he explains. Tikkun olam and Startup Nation, by contrast, “can connect youth to Israel and potentially give them a reason to be Zionists. [But] while that is commendable, it cannot be the bottom line.”

The Jewish people did not return to Israel out of a desire to bring life-saving technology to Africa or the opportunities to receive venture capital funding. Rather, “those inventions were made possible exactly because Jews live as a free people in their historical homeland,” Katz writes.

That’s a good answer, but it’s not enough, either. Because it says why we came but not why we ought to stay (at least for those who have a choice to leave or the one-third of Israelis who tell pollsters they’d consider emigrating).

And if we’re honest about Israel, this country has significant problems: violence and crime, xenophobia and racism, ongoing terrorism, government corruption, an enormous gap between rich and poor, high taxes, crippling bureaucracy, religious coercion, and as David Brinn wrote in The Jerusalem Post Magazine two weeks ago, rising road fatalities.

I could go on, but let’s stop, because our reason for being here, as Jews, is actually very simple.

It’s to make things better.

The re-establishment of the State of Israel after so many years is truly a historic, once-in-a-millennia opportunity. But what kind of Israel will it be? An egalitarian nation of equal rights and wise policies; of superior education and a population that is gracious and loving to one another? Or something darker?

Right now, we’ve got both – the good and the bad (and a lot of gray in-between). Our job is to do our small part to push Israel towards the light. To make this a place worth living in – and to give Jews outside of Israel a reason to keep coming, whether as a tourist, or on aliyah, like we did over 20 years ago.

Can one person really make a difference? The answer here is an emphatic yes. That smile you gave to a stranger, or the person you made room for on the highway, reverberates in ways you can never fully track. Your vote for a particular party can result in political changes that impact millions.

When our family lived in the U.S., I never felt that any individual action I made had much of an influence. Here people and issues are so close, it really does.

And if it’s not me, let the revolution come from my children (and their children), who I hope I have raised with the kind of values and interpersonal behavior that will result in Israel becoming a better place to grow and thrive.

It’s time to get our own house in order and there’s so much to do. It won’t be easy, it will frequently be messy, and the obstacles will often seem insurmountable. But we have to try.

Yes, we should continue to innovate and do even more tikkun olam, but the real answer to the Yom Ha’atzmaut question – why do Jews live in Israel? – is to actively engage in the greatest Jewish experiment of the modern era: figuring out together what type of civil and religious society we want to build – and then going out and doing it.

How could I not want to be a part of that?

I first wrote shared my answer to the Yom Ha’atzmaut question at The Jerusalem Post.

Image from Adam Jones, Kelowna, BC, Canada (Facade with Israeli Flags – Jerusalem – Israel)

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I’m a Haggadah hoarder.

Over the years, our family has collected dozens of different Haggadot for the Passover holiday. They range from the highly traditional to the decidedly modern.

We have classic Haggadot with commentaries from the Me’am Lo’ez (originally written in Ladino by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in 1730), Rabbi Marcus Lehman of Mainz (late 1800s) and Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (a bit more recent – from 1983). Plus a highly annotated Artscroll Haggadah that’s 225 pages long.

On the more progressive side, there’s the Carlebach Haggadah with a selection of teachings from the famed singing rabbi; the liberal, egalitarian Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah; and the wonderful “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices” by Mishael and Noam Zion.

We also have a smattering of straightforward Haggadot with minimal commentary. The only missing Haggadah: a classic Maxwell House, which our family used growing up but didn’t seem to make aliyah with us.

With such liturgical riches, I really didn’t think we needed a new Haggadah for this year. That was until Rabbi Aryeh Ben David published “The Ayeka Haggadah: Hearing Your Own Voice.”

A veteran Jewish educator, Ben David founded the educational institute Ayeka (it means “where are you?” in Hebrew) 10 years ago to fuse the traditional cerebral approach to learning Jewish texts with what he calls a more soulful, personal experience.

“The goal of learning Jewish wisdom is not solely to become a more knowledgeable or smarter person,” Ben David explains. Rather, it’s about “how to listen to Jewish texts as if they are speaking to me personally, right now,” and to “create a safe educational space for learners to feel comfortable sharing personal thoughts without feeling judged by facilitators or peers. It’s about finding one’s own voice within the symphony of the Jewish people.”

Ayeka sponsors seminars for individuals, parents and teachers. I’ve participated in some of Ben David’s classes and found them deeply moving. And now Ayeka has published its first book.

I asked Ben David why take on the Haggadah – one of the mostly widely published Jewish texts of all time?

“I felt that the conversation at the Seder was often very disjointed,” he said. “People would share random comments or stories from their Haggadot that didn’t connect with each other. Moreover, I didn’t feel like we talked personally at the Seder. All the other Haggadot have someone else’s commentary. I wanted everyone to become their own commentator.”

The Ayeka Haggadah does that by interspersing, amidst the traditional text, some 40 open-ended questions, specifically crafted to evoke spirited discourse. They are divided into five categories.

There are 10 questions for kids and 10 questions for “everyone,” two questions for seniors, three questions meant to be considered in havruta pairs, and 15 questions designed to elicit “hope.” After all, the Exodus story at the center of the Haggadah is all about “overcoming impossible odds,” Ben David explains. “The Passover Seder is the antidote to hopelessness.”

The Ayeka Haggadah even comes with a strict admonition that it be given out to participants one week before the Seder, with each Seder-goer instructed to prepare for at least an hour, picking out the questions they most relate to and being ready to lead a conversation.

Ben David: “People often spend hours and hours preparing – shopping, cleaning, cooking – but they don’t spend much or any time getting ready emotionally or spiritually.”

Last year I wrote a column in The Jerusalem Post called “A Seder for Non-Believers.” In it, I proposed using the Haggadah as a loose framework to trigger discussion on “contemporary personal, political and professional concerns” rather than rote reciting the whole text.

As soon as I heard about the Ayeka Haggadah, I knew it would be a perfect prompt for a Blum-style Seder.

We bought five copies. It was a roaring success.

So, which Ayeka questions spoke to us the most at our Seder this year? Here are a few:

  • When eating the karpas: what aspect of the natural world gives you hope? Where is the most hopeful place you have ever been?
  • When discussing the wise child: what is one smart thing you did on your journey through life?
  • When reciting the plagues: what has been your biggest plague in life? Have you ever been able to laugh while experiencing a difficult time?
  • When the rabbis start upping the number of plagues: every journey has moments worthy of exaggeration. Years from now, what moments in your journey do you think you will be exaggerating?
  • At Dayenu: what would be on your gratitude list for the Jewish people?
  • While tasting the maror (bitter herbs): what are the most difficult moments in Jewish history that, looking back now, give you hope?

All told, it was just what our family needed to take our already non-traditional Seder up a notch.

I asked Ben David what his favorite question is.

“Have you ever felt the hand of God helping you on your journey,” he said. “No one will ever directly ask you this question. Yet once it is raised, people share the most incredible stories.”

We didn’t get to that one. Maybe next year in Jerusalem.

For information on how to order a copy of the Ayeka Haggadah for your Seders to come, visit www.ayeka.com.

I first wrote about this great new Haggadah at The Jerusalem Post.

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The plan sounded perfect: my wife and I would spend the weekend at the Kumbuk River eco-resort, a luxury lodge located on the edge of Sri Lanka’s famous Yala wildlife sanctuary.

The resort has only three rooms set in 16 acres of mostly wild jungle. Between indulging in decadent, individually-prepared meals, we could search for elephants across the river, go for a tractor ride or get up early to spot some birds. Or just sleep in. It was to be a much needed break after two weeks of ambitious touring and mountain trekking in this fascinating tropical paradise.

When I called up Kumbuk River, I was told we were in luck: there was one room available. “Please book it via the website,” the receptionist said.

But the website was a little wonky: first you fill in an inquiry form, and only then do you receive a credit card link by email some hours later. By the time the message arrived, the room was gone – someone else had snagged it.

I was furious. But even more than that, I was suffering from some serious FOMO.

An acronym for “Fear of Missing Out,” the journal Computers in Human Behavior defines FOMO as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.”

It’s become so prevalent in popular culture that the term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.

While technology analysts like Sherry Turkle (whose book Alone Together has become a kind of bible on the effects of social media on the teenage brain) and Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, whose 2011 essay catapulted the term into the hi-tech vernacular, focus on the connection between FOMO and our inability to turn away from our phones, my biggest FOMO challenges come when I’m on vacation.

There’s always too little time and too much to see when you’re on the road. As a result, any choice you make means you’re necessarily missing out on something else.

Was it more important to visit that double waterfall rather than the ancient Buddhist temple we skipped? Should we have lounged on the beach with the sea turtles longer and spent less time hiking? Why did we choose the tourist trap restaurant over the hole-in-the-wall place with the kottu roti that looked so good from the street?

I’ve even come up with my own sub-definitions of FOMO.

“Pre-FOMO” is what most people suffer from. I’m more of a post-FOMO guy, which I’ve dubbed ROMO or “Ruminations on Missing Out.” It’s similar to “regret” but tied to the overall FOMO phenomenon.

But there’s an antidote to FOMO and it’s also an acronym: JOMO, coined by another technologist, blogging pioneer Anil Dash.

“The Joy of Missing Out,” Dash writes, comes from the “blissful, serene enjoyment in knowing, and celebrating, that there are folks out there having the time of their life at something that you might have loved to, but are simply skipping.”

JOMO is related to mindfulness, for sure, but it’s also about embracing the familiar reality that one closed door often opens a surprising new one.

When the Kumbuk River was booked, we had to rejigger our plans. We added a couple of extra days to our stay in the Sri Lankan hill town of Ella (at the inexplicably named “Zion View Hotel,” which the manager, clearly not Jewish, said had something to do with a Bob Marley song.)

In that time, we added a thrilling five-hour hike, signed up for a cooking class (to learn how to make all those exquisite vegetarian curries we’d been eating) and had a pair of Ayurvedic massages. There were no elephants or eco-tractor rides, but it was glorious nevertheless.

On our way to Ella, we planned to take what our guide book described as “the most beautiful train ride in the world.” A three-hour saunter through lush tea plantations with endless vistas of green.

But when we got to the train, it was standing room only. And when we stooped down to look out the windows, all we could see were dark clouds and rain.

I was so disappointed, I grumbled on tired feet for the first two hours. But then something shifted. My wife Jody and I started talking to our fellow passengers. I got into a deep discussion about the Israeli education system with a German woman studying to be a teacher. We bought a few spicy “dahl balls” (like falafel but made out of lentils instead of chickpeas) from a passing vendor who jumped on the train during a delay. By the time the ride ended, we were sorry that it had been so short.

The hardest part about switching from FOMO to JOMO is doing it up front, right as the FOMO is about to kick in, and not just as a cognitive re-set after agonizing through several days of debilitating ROMO.

JOMO is my new travel companion, but of course it can be applied in a wide variety of situations. As Anil Dash points out, after he moved to New York, he realized that there was so much going on, you’re inevitably “going to miss stuff. [And] on any given day…there’s an event going on that would be the best event of the year back in your hometown. And most of the time, you’re not going to be there.”

That goes whether you’re in New York, Sri Lanka, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

I first wrote about FOMO, JOMO and ROMO for The Jerusalem Post.

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Is “Foreign Language Learning Disability” real?

April 6, 2017

Fluent in English but can’t seem to master a second language? You may have Foreign Language Learning Disability. That’s my experience with Hebrew

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Land of cars and innovation

March 13, 2017

Investor Mike Granoff likes cars. As the head of Maniv Energy Capital, he was one of the first to put money into Better Place. Following the high flying electric car startup’s collapse, Granoff turned his focus to the next big thing in transportation – the growing field of vehicle autonomy (i.e. driverless cars) and other […]

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Texting on Shabbat? Guidelines for the observant Jew

February 19, 2017

The growing phenomenon of Orthodox Jewish teenagers keeping what’s been called “Half Shabbos” burst into the Jewish media several years ago. “Half Shabbos” describes someone who observes all of the Sabbath regulations except one: using his or her smart phone to send text messages. Religious leaders reacted predictably to the revelation of what had been […]

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Trump triggers crisis of faith for some religious Jews

February 6, 2017

The election of Donald Trump has created a profound crisis of faith among some Orthodox Jews who opposed Trump’s candidacy. How is it possible, they ask, that so many of their co-religionists allowed themselves to look past Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, his pathological falsehoods and moral failings that seem to go against so much of what […]

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Israel: the new Jewish shtetl

January 23, 2017

Hebrew Union College Professor Steven M. Cohen published an essay last month with some startling conclusions about Jewish demography. Reviewing figures compiled by the Pew Research Center over the past half century, he writes in The Forward that the number of Orthodox Jews in America has quadrupled in just two generations – with 79,000 “grandparents” […]

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