Maryland: Strong Deeds Gentle Words-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Intro) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan. 

(Justin Regan) There’s this iconic line from the Original Star Wars movie where Luke Skywalker feels the presence of the force for the first time. He excitedly tells his master, Obi Wan Kenobie, who responds by saying ‘you’ve just taken you’re first steps into a much larger world’. And that’s podcasting in a nutshell. It has been one year since I returned from my around the country road trip. It started pretty simple, talk to a bunch of rabbis and have fun. Sure enough, with every interview, with every new task required for production and with every new idea presented to me, the world got bigger and bigger. It’s something that gives me a great sense of purpose or dread. It really depends on the minute you ask me. But regardless of how I’m feeling, the objective is always clear. Don’t stop collecting interviews because the only way to face an ever expanding world is to keep moving. 

Maryland: Strong Deeds Gentle Words

(Regan) This great sense of purpose slash dread was quite helpful when I returned to the east coast in May for a Bar Mitzvah slash business trip. It fueled a 48 hour journalism binge where I traveled from Boston to Northern Virginia collecting three interviews along the way. One of those was in the town of Potomac, Maryland with Rabbi Haim Ovadia. 

(Rabbi Haim Ovadia) My name is Haim Ovadia. Born in Israel. Lived in America the last 20 years. Among other things I was a pulpit rabbi. 

(Regan) Ovadia’s held pulpits in places like Jerusalem, Israel, Bogota, Columbia and in the U.S. in Los Angeles and most recently, Maryland. It’s not just a gig he’s done around the world, it’s really something that runs through his blood. He’s part of a lineage of rabbis that goes back many generations to Iraq. Jews have been in the county since, well since it was Babylonia. But similar to the Jews of Egypt,  life got more dangerous for the Jews of Iraq in the mid 20th century. Hostile leaders took over, deadly pogroms occurred and people were detained and tortured accused of being Israeli spies. Today, the Jewish population of Iraq is pretty much nonexistent. Almost everyone else left. That includes Ovadia’s family. And it was his Grandfather who helped to cultivate his love of Judaism. 

(Ovadia) We would also have conversations, I remember from a young age about divine justice, and creation and G-d, our purpose in the world. And he had an interesting take on the world. As I said he came from a line of rabbis. He decided not to become a rabbi even though people referred to him as ‘Chacham’ which means ‘rabbi in the Sephardic tradition. He was a social activist. He was involved in the underground before Israel became a state. And he established a center of occupational rehabilitation for people with disabilities, mental and physical. His motto was a verse from Job that says ‘My creator created me and him in the same womb’ when he talks about people with lesser opportunities. So he instilled in me this kind of I’d say a drive for Tikun Olam. Making the world a better place. It’s banal but I believe it’s possible if you really work on it you can make a little change and you never give up.

(Regan) Ironically, it was his Grandfather who also warned Ovadia against becoming a rabbi. 

(Ovadia) I understand now he meant not to become a pulpit rabbi. It is quite a tiresome job.

(Regan) Ovadia has moved away from synagogue work. He now writes for several Jewish publications, gives talks around the world and also performs and preserves Iraqi Jewish songs. Ovadia says the main focus of his work is still educating people. Today his community is mostly online, instead of at a ‘brick and mortar’ schul. He focuses on teaching Halacha, or Jewish law. He says he approaches it from a broad spectrum with the goal of making it relevant to modern times. 

(Ovadia) And I also work in my opinion a lot of the people I communicate with are people I call victims of religious abuse. I don’t mean physical abuse although that is also a part of it. But it’s also they’re victim of religious indoctrination. So one on hand you can have people who grew up in Orthodox households and were brought up with guilt and shame and fear. And they don’t feel connected to what they are doing. They are doing it out of inertia and fear. And then their are people who grew up in non-Orthodox households and don’t feel connected because of the way it was portrayed on the other side. With my work I feel like I created a bridge because I have the full spectrum of Heradi rabbis in Israel who communicate with me and some of my alumni and colleagues who are Reform and Reconstructionist who also speak to me about Halacha and we are all engaged in a dialogue. And another thing that I see myself doing is I work with the fringes. I work with the people who are not identified. And I came to the conclusion that the fringe is much greater then the center. 

(Regan) Ovadia thinks it’s important to set the table for this ‘majority fringe’. He says some people get too bogged down by certain rules and customs and don’t look at the bigger picture of following Halacha.

(Ovadia) The Torah has a whole spectrum of Halachot. For some reason people cling to what is highly visible. Let’s say when someone decides to become religious officially, he starts keeping shabbat or wearing a hat or a Kippah, or eating Kosher. Those are physical things the community sees and says ‘now you are religious’. But what about business ethics? Nobody knows about how you run your business. What about civility? Does anyone know how a person treats their family at home? Education, mutual respect etc. So all of these things are part of our observance.

(Regan) And he says this style of education helps keep Judaism relevant to more people.

(Ovadia) When people choose what to do, not only do they feel like they understand it they also feel like they own it and they connect to what they do. I think it gives people a greater sense of connectedness in general to Judaism and tradition. But I have to be careful not to use the term ‘Keruv’ I’m not doing Keruv. ‘Keruv’ is a term which connotes distance. When I say ‘I’m doing Keruv’ it means I am brining someone closer to me. Meaning I’m right and he’s wrong. And I don’t believe in that. I believe everyone has their own subjective truth that is correct in certain circumstances as long as they don’t harm other people. And we have to respect that.

(Regan) For Ovadia, this concept of unity with many beliefs is partially inspired by his Sephardic upbringing. Similar to what Rabbi Albert Gabbai said in the previous episode, denominations are not really a Sephardic tradition. While there is a wide spectrum of origins and ideas and levels of observance in the community, Ovadia says the synagogues are usually what many would consider “Orthodox”. Categorizing by denomination is more of an Ashkenazi tradition.   

(Ovadia) The Sephardic community is characterized by always having this open minded attitude towards the general culture. And that starts I will say in the 7th century with the rise of Islam. Jews under Islam were less threatened. It was not as much of an unknown as Christianity. Not considered, for them, to be a pagan religion. There was no animosity which existed under Germany for example with Catholicism where Jews were demonized. So Sephardim were generally more open to the general culture so they were not threatened by emancipation and enlightenment. In the Ashkenazi communities, because the tendencies was to be withdrawn and protected in a physical or spiritual ghetto the reaction to emancipation to enlightenment was a cultural shock. So it split.

(Regan) And this can be one of the causes of a lesser understanding of the Sephardim. Viewing ‘Sephardic’ as a denomination as opposed to a much larger culture and geographical background can make it under represented and at times misunderstood. It’s something Ovadia has had to deal with a good amount in his career. Especially in the United States. 

(Ovadia) They didn’t understand the diversity of the Jewish people. For example, when I lived in L.A. when I said I was Sephardic, people assumed I was Persian. When I was in Brooklyn everyone thought I was Syrian. I’m neither. There are other ‘edot’ or origins in the Sephardic community. But I also ran into outright racism in a school my son attended in LA that ironically under the auspicious of the Museum of Tolerance. The teacher spoke of the Sephardim being ignorant and illiterate, insulted him in class. When I brought it up to the principle said ‘Yes, we know there were some educated Sephardic people, but most of them didn’t make it to Israel.’ I was shocked. That’s an extreme. That’s an extreme. I am familiar with the Ashkenazi culture I am very familiar with the culture. I know Yiddish and the Ashkenazi tunes for T’fillot. And I think we all have value. And I think there is a long path to go with educating people about the diversity within our culture.

(Regan) For Ovadia some factors that have caused this disconnect are more rooted in history. 

(Ovadia) One was the period of colonialism and imperialism. That divided the world in general to east and west. So the Jews that were in the Sephardic world were grouped within the local populations. Another rift came in the 1950’s with the establishment of the state of Israel. Not everyone was on that page, but a lot of the founders of the state believed, and I’m saying this as a zionist as someone who’s family was involved in that, but for many people the idea was ‘We are building a new Europe in the middle east. And we need European Jews’. And I think that led to political problems. Geo-political problems because there was not a deep enough dialogue between Israel and the surrounding cultures. Because of that Jews of the Middle East and North Africa did not feel welcome in Israel at that time. But I think that after the 1970’s a slow change is coming.

(Regan) Meanwhile, Ovadia thinks some things that used to unite Jews are outdated. Like unity in facing a common enemy. Now that places like the U.S. are relatively safe for Jews, it creates tension between those that want to open up more to the surrounding culture and those who worry this could lead to assimilation and damage the Jewish identity.

(Ovadia) I think that the people who are afraid of the freedom in the country are the people who don’t have a positive reason to be Jewish. But rather, it’s all in the negative. Mainly the Orthodox rabbis, the Orthodox leadership. I don’t think they realize that we are not in exile anymore. We are not in this mentality of diaspora. That people are not after us to destroy us. They are happy in a way, ironically, whenever there is an anti-Semitic event so they can say ‘see we told you’. But really there is no comparison between what is happening now and what we had in the past. And I think that’s what we are missing now in our education. You want to get people exited about being Jewish. I asked my students in high school Shal Hevet in LA one time to write a letter to a non-Jewish friend and convince them to become Jewish. So this is an Orthodox school. The kids looked at me shocked and say ‘we are suffering enough as it is. You want us to bring someone else into the mix?’

(Regan) He says making Judaism more exciting involves more outreach, even to non-Jews and especially on college campuses.  

(Ovadia) Any other religion they have booths where you can ask questions about that religion. If you go up to the Jewish booth and say ‘I want to learn more about Judaism’ the first question they will ask you is ‘Are you Jewish?’ And if you say ‘I’m not’ Then they say ‘Oh you have all these other possibilities’. I think College is the time people are searching for meaning they’re searching for spirituality. Why not teach them? If they decide to embrace Judaism beautiful. And if not at least they will know something about it. 

(Regan) Ovadia says this style of proactive education can also help community members in interfaith marriages. Like other rabbis interviewed for this podcast, he’s not against it, but he is hesitant about kids growing up with multiple religious identities.  

(Ovadia) That is really where we have to invest our education at some point and understanding what is it Judaism has to give. And in the past there were also cases of communities where there where great numbers of intermarriage or interfaith marriage as we call it today. And the attitude of the rabbis back in the day was if the couple was willing to embrace Judaism we have to help them as much as possible because we want to think about the future generations. So the idea is not to reject people. Try to make them feel comfortable as much as possible. 

(Regan) It’s one of the many factors affecting American Judaism today. I went further into this topic with Ovadia by asking him what he considers to be positive and negative factors for Jews in America. He says a major positive is the success Jews have had. 

(Ovadia) Jews are high achievers, I think it was bred into us both because of the values of the Torah and because of our history. We always knew that sometimes we’d have to pack and move on. So our parents instilled in us education is the most important thing. Your knowledge, this is what’s going to help you when you are stuck. And that is a positive thing. That Jews are educated, they are willing to learn and they are willing to be involved.  On the other hand some of the negatives are, sometimes Jews tend to keep their talent and knowledge within the Jewish community we have to open it up. Even the way that you look at the Jewish map in America. There used to be a time where Jews lived in small communities all over the country. And now there are several large concentrations.

(Regan) Ovadia sees this in comparison to other countries he’s lived in, like Israel. He says Israel has greater Jewish diversity and more openness amongst people, as well as a healthy dose of what he calls ‘brutal honesty’. Ovadia says in America, Jews can be more closed off.

(Ovadia) We have to be more involved. I think in a way our private education is also a problem. My kids are in a private school. My wife teaches there. And it’s expected of you. People would be shocked if I put my kids in a public school. But I think that the great, the next great effort of the Jewish community in general would be to do away with private schools for everyone. Because if we only had public schools those that care about education all the efforts would go to all public schools. The liberty of having private schools undermines the public schools. And the other negative of American Judaism I think is the divisiveness between the denominations.

(Regan) For Ovadia a greater understanding among denominations is critical, especially when it comes to having a greater understanding and welcoming atmosphere for LGBTQ Jews.

(Ovadia) One of the things we really need to do is start having a dialogue between rabbis of different denominations. And by that I don’t mean cozy get togethers. I’m part of that. You know we hear a lecture, get together, have a cup of tea or pizza whatever and move on. No. We need to get together in a way to change things. To make decisions. For example when we talk about the LGBT community, especially the problem is for Gay, Orthodox men because they are burdened with some kind of prohibition. When their problem is presented to the non-Orthodox communities they say ‘Ok, so come over to us. We are welcoming.’ My argument is that is not what they are interested in. They grew up in a certain tradition, they like it. We have to help them what ever denomination we are we have to help them be comfortable within their denomination.

(Regan) Ovadia says this is also the case involving women in the Orthodox world. Traditionally, women in Orthodox communities can’t be rabbis or help count towards forming a prayer group, or minyan, among other things. But that doesn’t always mean the answer for those who want change is to leave. Orthodoxy itself can be its own spectrum within the wider Jewish spectrum. Ovadia says he wants it to be more egalitarian.  

(Ovadia) I think the current approach of the Orthodox community is myopic. Because they don’t have or they are not willing to apply a historical perspective and see how the trend of women involvement has grown over time. From the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi to the growing number of women rabbis we have today, that’ll just keep growing. Maybe that’ll lead to another rift in the Orthodox community. It will happen eventually. The other side, the other perspective I have I look back to our history and the great leaders we had like in Biblical times like Mierium, Deborah and others. But some who have been forgotten like the wife of Dunash ben Labrat who was a poet in the 9th century. She was also a poet and a scholar. In the tenth century in Bagdad the daughter of the Rosh Yeshiva was a teacher and a scholar and sort of a Rosh Yeshiva herself. And when she died the poets wrote eulogies praising her as a wise woman who was also innovative. She didn’t just teach what she learned from her father. Same thing in Kurdistan  or Northern Iraq in the 17th century a famous woman by the name of Asnat Barazani was a rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva after the passing away of her father and husband. So what we are doing today, or what some people are doing today, is ignoring both the past and the future. And I think for them it might be a rude awakening, but change is coming.

(Regan) Rabbi Haim Ovadia is an agent of change. And he’s dedicated his life to helping others grow in their Judaism. At pulpits all over the world and now all over the web. It’s a spark that started way back when he was a little kid in learning from his Grandfather. 

(Ovadia) And I recall one speech he gave in the synagogue when I was maybe seven years old. It was Yom Kippur of 1972 in Israel. And he said ‘I know that people watch TV on Shabbat’. He didn’t rebuke them, he didn’t say ‘Oh, you should not watch TV’ like a lot of Orthodox people do. He said, ‘I understand why you want to do that. But I have a favor to ask of you. Don’t switch channels too much’. It was sort of a validation you know ‘You’re not a sinner. You’re a good person. What you’re doing is okay.  But even within what you do you can give a special respect for Shabbat’. To me it was a brilliant thought that you can find your Judaism at any level. And we don’t label and ostracize each other. So that for me was his legacy.

(Regan) A few hours after my conversation with Rabbi Ovadia I was on a plane heading back home. I had three more interviews on my computer. And on my recorder’s sd card. And on a separate flash drive. Each in separate bags. I like using redundancy in protecting sound files. In retrospect I should have also emailed them to a friend just in case the plane went down…Anyway! I realized that with this most recent trip something had changed. I was crisper in my interviews, more aware of what I wanted to find out and more confident in my abilities. When I was on the road trip I carried myself as a professional. But now I was starting a new adventure. And stepping further into the much larger world.

(Regan) American Rabbi Project Maryland: Strong Deeds Gentle Words was written and produced by me Justin Regan. If you like what you’re hearing, please consider donating to my project. You can do so by going to my website rabbiproject.com and clicking on the donate tab up top. Thank you very much to Derek Povah for handling the web stuff which takes a true Jedi to handle. Also thanks to Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Beth Vanderstoep, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance. You can contact me by emailing justin@rabbiproject.com. You can also find me on social media at facebook.com/rabbiproject and on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject.

And until next time, Shalom and safe driving. 


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