A Sikh and a Jew Walk Into an Airport….

November 11, 2013

by Rachel Kohl Finegold

Last week, I participated in an interfaith panel of Jews and Sikhs at the Le Mood Festival. For those who have been to a Limmud conferences in the States, picture Le Mood as the Montreal (read: hipper, slightly “euro”) version.

Some of our U.S. readers may not be aware of a troubling bill which has been proposed here in Quebec. The Charter of Quebec Values would prohibit any government employee from wearing a religious garment or conspicuous religious symbol. The intention is to maintain a clear separation between religion and state, symbolized by the secularism and neutrality of public sector workers. The reality is that this bill would prohibit employees in diverse settings such as daycares, hospitals, and universities from wearing a kippah, hijab, turban, large cross, or any other overtly religious article of clothing. Here in Quebec, where so many social services are funded by the government, it’s hard NOT to be a government worker. This bill would force employees to either remove their religious clothing, or lose their job. [I should note that this bill will likely not become law, but obviously even its existence as a bill is disturbing.]

When I moved to Montreal three months ago, I was shocked to learn that a law like this could even be proposed in the 21st century, where religious expression should be recognized as a basic human right. I have learned that it is predominantly the secular Quebecois population, who live in parts of Quebec that are far from the cosmopolitan city of Montreal, that support this bill. Religious groups around the Montreal area have mobilized around letter-writing campaigns, media appearances, and protests, hoping to educate government officials as to how this bill would negatively impact their daily lives. Diverse religious communities have united in this fight.

Hence, the interfaith panel. Entitled “Holy Hair,” the program explored the ways that Judaism and Sikhism deal with hair. Besides the discussions around how the proposed Charter of Values has caused much upset in our two communities, we spent time comparing the turban worn by Sikh men, and the kippah. Beyond that, when I discovered that Sikh men not only cover their head, but also never cut their hair or beard, I could hear echoes of our own tradition where men refrain from shaving their beards (or use only an electric razor) as well as the tradition of the Nazir, who refrains from cutting hair as a show of devotion to God.

We also compared the daily experience of a Sikh man who wears a turban to an Orthodox woman who covers her hair. As someone who covers her hair all the time, but often does so with a hat, I may go undetected by those who are unaware that my hat is a religious head covering. A Sikh turban, however, is overtly religious. Not only does this mean that we would be treated differently under the proposed Charter of Values. It also means I can “pass” in my everyday life. I walk down the street relatively undetected as a religious individual. Not so a turban-wearing Sikh.

There was one experience which we had in common: the airport head patdown. Whenever I go through security at the airport, I am told, “Ma’am, please remove your hat.” I explain that this is a religious head covering and that I cannot remove it. I am then told to step aside, and that I need to be subject to a “pat down”. We’ve all been there at one time or another, randomly selected for a full-body pat down. I am in the “pat down zone” every time I am in the airport, but just for my head. As I step aside, a female TSA employee dons a pair of gloves, and proceeds to pat my head and every part of my hat, including the brim (if there is one), to ensure that there is no contraband. Hey, I can’t blame them – if explosives have already been hidden in shoes and underwear, why not in a hat?

As I related this experience to our audience at Le Mood, the Sikh sitting near me immediately identified with it. Yes, he, too, was regularly subjected to the turban pat down. I then learned that in Sikh culture, the head is holy. So a turban pat down is actually quite disturbing to a Sikh, and even feels invasive. The first time it happened to this individual, he felt violated, as if someone had touched an intimate and holy part of himself. I found this fascinating. Did I feel that way when getting my own hat patted? Not really. But once I thought about it, yes, it did feel like a violation of my personal space to be asked to remove an article of clothing that I would only remove in the privacy of my own home. For others, removing one’s hat might be like removing one’s jacket. But for me, my hat is a basic covering like my shirt or skirt, which one would never dare ask anyone to remove in public, even at airport security.

My Sikh colleague sensitized me to my own tzniut. He had such a deep connection to his head and its covering, that he felt a dimension of shame or violation when a stranger touched that place. I learned that I have a similar gut reaction when asked to remove my hat. I also learned that the Sikh community has educated TSA employees with regards to this cultural sensitivity of the head. These days, a Sikh may don the gloves himself, rub his hands along his own turban, and then remove the gloves for inspection, which is sufficient to detect any explosive device or dangerous weapon. What an incredible show of tolerance and respect, without compromising anyone’s safety!

I have found myself far from home here in Quebec in many ways, politically and otherwise. But I have also found kindred spirits in my fellow religionists. We have much in common in the political arena, out on the street, and even in the airport.

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Obama’s Advocacy of Gay Marriage: An Alternative Orthodox Response – by Rabbi Zev Farber

May 22, 2012

In an interview with ABC News last week, President Barack Obama said, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Since then all hell has broken loose. In the Orthodox Jewish community alone, three different organizations reacted publicly to the president’s announcement. Agudath Israel announced that they are “staunch in their opposition to redefining marriage,” although they admitted that the president, like everyone else, has a right to their opinion.[1] The Orthodox Union expressed disappointment in Obama’s statement, stating that they “oppose any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same sex unions.”

The most strident condemnation came from the National Council of Young Israel which expressed “deep disappointment” in the president’s statement, writing that they are “diametrically opposed to same gender marriage, which is a concept that is antithetical to the religious principles that we live by.” The NCYI ended their statement with the following: “As firm believers that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, we simply cannot accept a newfound social position that alters the value, definition, and sanctity of marriage as set forth in the Torah, which has guided us for thousands of years.”

Here is where I see the problem. Certainly the Torah has guided observant Jews for thousands of years. Nevertheless, the United States of America and its president are not bound to legislate in accordance with the Torah. Religious Jews are just one group in the plethora of religious communities in the United States and we can hardly condemn the president for not taking Torah law into account.

Taking a step back, it seems to me that—with all due respect to the various institutions quoted above—all of these statements are missing the boat. The most incisive analysis published on this issue thus far, from the Orthodox community at least, has been Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s piece in the Huffington Post, “The greatest threat to the future of the American family is not gay marriage but rather divorce.” I would add that this threat extends to “accidental families” as well, wherein the couple does not remain together, irrespective of whether they were ever married.

In contrast, same-sex marriages are of interest to a certain subset of the population, and do not affect the lives of heterosexuals who wish to marry their opposite-sex partners. The existence or legality of gay marriage should not be an issue for the Orthodox Jewish community, unless there is a fear that Orthodox rabbis would be forced to perform such weddings or that Orthodox synagogues would be required to treat such couples as “married.” However, if the NCYI is concerned about this, they should have raised this in their statement as the OU did:

“…we appreciate President Obama’s statement today acknowledging that in states where same sex relationships are legally recognized, such laws must carefully address and protect the religious liberties of dissenting individuals and institutions, and the President’s reported reference to the New York State law (on whose strong religious liberty provisions the OU worked) as a model for how such protections must be in place.”

This concern, at least, makes sense and falls under the purview of an Orthodox Jewish organization aiming to protect its own constituency. What is not under the purview of Orthodox Jewish institutions, or the institutions of any other religious group, is to demand that America enact legislation that is specifically in line with its own religious tenets. To paraphrase a quip made by a colleague, I assume the NCYI would not be shocked to learn that in addition to supporting gay marriage, President Obama also does not keep Kosher and drives on Shabbat.

Although I have no problem with all fifty states permitting gay marriage, Boteach makes an alternative suggestion that is worth considering. He argues that perhaps the government should leave the marriage business altogether and only do civil unions. That way any couple, homosexual or heterosexual, will receive the same civil status and legal recognition, and each can “consecrate” their union in a manner meaningful and acceptable to their own faith communities.

In truth, the implied claim that the legal status of a married couple in America carries some “religious weight” in the Orthodox community is disingenuous. The only reason couples married in America are considered married according to halakha is because they perform a religious Jewish ceremony. If they were married in a civil ceremony instead, then according to the vast majority of halakhic authorities (Rav Henkin being the notable exception) they would not be considered married according to halakha.

Furthermore, if a Jewishly married couple were to get only a civil divorce, there is no halakhic authority that I am aware of that would consider them divorced according to Jewish law. None. So in what way does the Orthodox community actually take the legal status conferred on a couple as binding in a religious sense? This is why it is hard for me to understand the extreme, almost visceral, reaction of much of the Orthodox leadership.

Two further points need to be made. First, as I wrote in a previous post, even in the Orthodox world-view, where homosexual congress is considered forbidden, there needs to be sensitivity to the fact that homosexuals—whether for genetic, hormonal, or psychological reasons—experience the same need for love and intimate companionship that heterosexuals experience. Homosexual men and women looking to marry are simply trying to establish a life of love and intimacy in a familial context in the same way that heterosexual couples that marry and have children do. Although the OU’s statement does mention that they condemn discrimination, overall this voice of concern and empathy for homosexuals is sadly lacking in the current discourse. To quote Boteach again: “Who does it bother to have gay couples granted the decency to visit each other in hospital during serious illness, make end-of-life decisions and receive tax benefits as a couple?”

Second, considering the current erosion of the stable family unit and its replacement either with rampant divorce or non-committed relationships, homosexual couples who want to form committed relationships are hardly the enemy. In fact, this type of relationship is closest in character to the choice made by married heterosexual couples in religious communities like our own. Contrary to the opinion of some fringe groups, people who feel they are attracted only to members of their own gender will continue to feel this way throughout their lives. Considering this fact, as a religious community deeply concerned about the strength of American society, whose goals are to solidify family values, shouldn’t the gay couples who wish to marry and bring up children be seen as our allies, not our adversaries?


[1] Everyone else except for Marc Stanley, apparently, whose statement the Agudah labels “outrageous, offensive, and wrong.”


A Jew and a Mormon walk into a Bar…. – Rabbi Barry Gelman

February 26, 2012

Recently the issue of the Mormon church engaging in posthumous conversions has resurfaced. Eh Wall Street Journal reports that:

“Researchers recently discovered that Mormons had similarly baptized the parents of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, whose mother died in a Nazi extermination camp in 1942. And one Mormon recently proposed for proxy baptism the still-living Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.” Read More

Naturally Jews are disturbed and insulted by this. No doubt, it has a serious icky factor.

Besides these factors, there is something else, something more religiously important at play here. For the Mormons, salvation is simply a matter of Divine Grace. Without any effort, sinners are excused for a lifetime of sins.

Judaism looks at salvation, or as we call it, forgiveness in an entirely different manner. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, in an article on Tradition 28:2  explains this approach, popularized by Rabbi Soloveitchik.

Rabbi Blau begins by quoting a Talmudic passage that expresses the difficulty in understanding repentance to begin with.

It was inquired of Wisdom, “What is the punishment of a sinner?” Wisdom said “Evil pursues the wicked.” It was asked of prophecy, “What is the punishment of a sinner?” Prophecy said to them, “The sinful soul shall perish.” It was asked of the Holy One, “What is the punishment of a sinner?”, and He said, “Let him repent and he will be forgiven.”

The article then goes on to explain the need for human initiative and creativity in the process of repentance.

“Most significantly, Rabbi Soloveitchik employs this theory of repentance as an illustration of the creativity of Halakhic Man. For the Rav, creativity represents an essential characteristic of Halakhic Man:

“The most fervent desire of Halakhic Man is to behold the replenishment of the deficiency of creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world, and the most exalted and glorious of creations, the ideal Halakha, will be actualized in its midst. The dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhic consciousness the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as a creator of worlds”

From this perspective, the Rav interprets numerous Jewish texts and explains many mitzvot, including repentance, in a new light. Here, the Schelerian view of repentance is crucial. If one views atonement as the miraculous intervention of God against all logic, then man plays at best a passive role in the process. Repentance would certainly not be so significant a component of man’s religious personality.However, the Schelerian understanding of repentance shifts the focus from God’s activity to that of man. Repentance exhibits man at his most creative, as he remolds and refashions his own personality. Rav Soloveitchik points to the halakha that repentance is manifested by changing one’s name. Through repentance, man recreates himself and truly deserves to be referred to by a different name.

It should be noted that Scheler’s approach does not necessitate that man attains forgiveness independently, that is, without any Divine assistance. What his analysis accomplishes is to show how regret and remorse function creatively and positively. Though man may call upon Divine benevolence to achieve atonement, he acts on his own in order to deserve that bestowal of kindness.” Read more

Like the rest of Jewish life, Rachmana Liba Ba’ei – God desires the heart and real religious experience is not defined by the fulfillment of certain rituals or recitation of words. Authentic spirituality is located in the heart and defined by noticeable change in our behaviour.

OK. So after writing and posting this serious post, I was sent a link with Stephen Colbert’s take on the Mormom conversions.


With Hashem’s Help, Let the Indonesia Interfaith Middle East Peace Tour Begin! Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 20, 2012

Writing from Hong Kong Airport, where I’m waiting for my flight to Jakarta:

It was hard to believe this would happen, but here I am davening shacharit, having lost a day (Sunday disappeared) and facing West to Israel!  I decided that since I lost the Song of the Day for “Yom Rishon B’shabat” (Sunday), I would say after Monday’s Song of the Day “Today is Sunday in Israel, where the Leviim used to say in the Temple…”

The Indonesian government has generously invited five rabbis, four Christian clergy and three American Muslim clerics to fly to Jakarta, meet up with 12 Indonesian (probably all Muslim) clergy, and then head to Dubai (just one night), Jordan, Israel (including Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv), then to Washington DC for meetings with the State Dept., the White House and Congress.  The mission, ostensibly: Finding ways of using our three Abrahamic religions to bridge gaps and promote peace.  Indonesia is a thriving Democracy, by all accounts, but it is on the cusp of deciding: Will it continue to embrace the more progressive, relatively tolerant Islam that it derived in its struggle against colonialism from such thinkers as Muhammad Abdu and Afghani, or will it give in to the newer forces of Islamic fundamentalism coming from the Middle East, which are beginning to proliferate in Indonesia.  While Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, there is potential for warmer relations, and the fact that this group of non-official, but influential,  Indonesians will be meeting with President Shimon Peres and a lot of other Israeli luminaries hopefully bodes well.

I intend to write almost daily on Morethodoxy from each of cities where we will be having conversations and relationship building exercises.  The five rabbis on this trip represent the spectrum of organized Jewish life in America: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.  Certainly none of us speaks for a movement, but together I hope that the discussions are frank and honest, with all sides seeing different dimensions of Judaism, and hopefully Christianity and Islam as well.

Looking forward to writing from Jakarta where I hope to arrive Monday afternoon at 2:00 PM Indonesian time.

Shalom al Yisrael, Peace on Israel and from Israel to the whole world,

Asher Lopatin


Coping with the Leiby Kletzky a”h Tragedy, By Rabbi Asher Lopatin

July 15, 2011

The tragedy of the loss of such innocence looms over this Shabbat.  Last week the Berry family of Houston was in a tragic car accident where both parents died and two of the kids were left paralyzed, coming to Chicago for treatment.   Then we started this week with a “catastrophe, not a tragedy” with the fire at Kehillath Jeshurun on the East Side of New York, which destroyed only a shul, no humans or Torahs.  But we ended the week with a devastating tragedy, the murder of precious eight year old, Chasidishe boy in Borough Park.  I have to admit that I have had a hard time knowing how to react beyond just being sad, depressed and frustrated.  My iPhone is going wild from people on Facebook who cannot console themselves – but are trying – and speaking to rabbis, especially from New York, it feels that this is just a black, horrific moment.  But nothing is worse than just staring at black space, without being able to see a path from it, or through it.

One of my mentors helped me by reading a message in the tragedy: We are more vulnerable than we thought.   In the Jewish and Orthodox community we see Borough Park as a safe enclave, working hard to protect itself from any of the evils of the outside world.  That is the view the world has as well of this heavily Orthodox part of Brooklyn, New York.  But we also used to think that spousal abuse and child abuse didn’t occur in the Orthodox, frum community – or, even amongst Jews at all.   We now know better that everything in the general community makes its ugly appearance in the Orthodox community as well.  Sad, unfortunate, but true.  And now we know, tragically, that murderous, insane, monsters are there as well: they go to the dentist, they go to weddings, they live amongst normal people.  No one is safe, and the same rules that we teach children about not following strange looking people and not doing strange acts with strange people have to apply to not following even safe looking people.  Frum children need to know they should not do anything they are uncomfortable with even with frum looking people, even with relatives or teachers.  If we thought we knew this, and this tragedy brings it all out again in the saddest, clearest way.

It would be comfortable to feel there are no murderers, crazies, molesters, abusers amongst us, to be lulled by the blessings of Bilam, where he sees the Children of Israel as sinless, blameless, completely loyal to God and perfect in their ethical way of life.  But we know better.  We know that the blessings of Bilam are an ideal, and the perfect, safe frum community, insulated from any negative elements is a fantasy as well.  We have to be realists.

Yet,  I hope, I pray,  we do not lose our innocence.  The innocence of an eight year old boy wanting to be a big boy and walk home alone from camp…  Experts can argue over what is the earliest age to allow a kid to walk home from camp, but everyone who has been a kid, can feel for these parents who relented and finally let Leiby, a”h, walk home on his own.  Oy!  May Hashem allow this family, and all of our families, to hold on to that innocence and love, which makes us do things that sometimes we regret, but come from the most beautiful, loving, caring place.

So I ask for Hashem to give our community  the hard-headed realism to be more responsible to ferret out abusers and molesters– or attempted molesters – who may have slipped through our system, maybe because they were not reported directly to the police, or because the local Batei Dinim have been too lenient and protective of “respected” members of the community accused of such crimes.  However, at the same time , may God give us the strength to retain some of that innocence, some of  the trust we need to reach out even to the stranger.  Can we ever regain that trust or innocence?  With God’s help we can, and we the help of our community child-safety experts we can do so in a way that allows us to keep our children as safe and secure as humanly possible.

This is a world where the most innocent and precious people are vulnerable to the most vicious, evil and perverted minds.  Let us ask Hashem to allow us to fight that evil, while allowing us to retain our innocence and our belief and trust in the world God has given us.  Not easy, almost impossible, but that is at the core of our “emuna”,  our belief in an infinite and caring God.

May God bind the innocent, blessed soul of Leiby Kletzky in the bonds of everlasting life, and may the memory of his sweet life be a blessing to our entire world, which today is full of so much sadness and grief.

 

Asher Lopatin


The Scotch Counter Boycott is Moral and Just: It Is about Drinking Responsibly! By Rabbi Lopatin

June 23, 2011

I love Scotch, and I paskin like the London Beth Din that every single Scotch is kosher.  But I love Israel as well, and I particularly don’t like people picking on Israel. So, I support fully counter-boycotting against Scotch’s made in the area where their local council is boycotting Israel.   From the best analysis I have seen, Auchentoshen is the Scotch to boycott.  Now, Auchentoshan is not my favorite Scotch, so I’m kind of happy that it is really the only Scotch, readily available in America,  that is clearly  produced and distilled  in the West Dunbartonshire (WDS) part of Scotland, where a majority of the local council has voted various boycotts of Israel – including not allowing Israeli books in the local library.  The most precise report of what is and is not produced in this shire comes from Joshua E. London, of the Jewish Single Malt Whiskey Society, who is critical of the boycott.  But even he admits the viciousness of  the WDS local council toward Israel, and that Auchentoshen, while owned  by a Japanese conglomerate, is distilled and produced in WDS.  

I don’t like boycotts because of policy differences, but when someone boycotts Israel, we must send them a clear message that not only will they suffer, but all their supporters suffer.  People in WDS need to understand that if their elected officials pick on Israel,  it is their responsibility to remove them from office.  I want the world to know that there are millions of consumers and advocates who will fight against any boycott of Israel.  These boycotts are not only ignorant and vicious, they are immoral as well.  The distillers and producers of Scotch, have to tell that to elected and unelected officials: if you live in a place that discriminates against Israel, or if you are a school which allows students to harm pro-Israel students and speakers, your competitors will benefit and you will lose.  That’s the new order.  Maybe these crazy socialist/communist/Marxist councils will pick on someone else.

I’m not impressed that Auchentoshen is working to get KLBD hashgacha for their drinks; Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, refused to give hashgacha for any Scotch in his days, because he believed all of it was kosher.  I still hold of the London Beth Din’s rule that it is all kosher.  In fact, I would suggest that the KLBD, the hashgacha of the London Beth Din, raise the issue of the WDS boycott of Israel in their discussions regarding the kashrut of Auchentashen.  The Scotch companies claim that it is not their fault that the local council has voted to boycott Israel; they are just a company and cannot influence elections.   I ask then, that these companies who feel they can’t speak up, and universities who claim that they have to allow free speech to students that disrupt Israeli speakers, make a donation to the Friends of the IDF to show that they have nothing against Israel.  Or, make a donation to Zaka or Hatzala or even Magen David Adom, any Israeli program that helps victims of Arab terrorism. If they make those donations, and are open about those donations, then I would accept that as a demonstration of their good will.

We in the Diaspora are generally not sending our kids to fight for Israel, nor are we living in Israel and subjecting ourselves to all the risks that Israelis face every day.  We are enjoying the bounty of America or some other foreign land.  The least we can do is send a message of support for Israel with everything with partake of – whether it is Scotch, higher education, or anything else that God has blessed us with the means of purchasing.  Let those who support Israel be blessed and let those who would want to harm Israel face the consequences. God has given us the means of making this world a little more just – let us not shirk our responsibility.  Yes, let us drink responsibly!

 

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Seeing the sincerity in those with whom we disagree

June 1, 2011

It is not easy for the Jewish people to see themselves as one. They label each other heretics and fanatics, and deem each other guilty of undermining the welfare, identity, and religious underpinnings of the Jewish people as a whole.

Some have noted that unfortunately it often takes persecution to bring Jewish unity.   Hitler for instance considered all Jews, even those who did not consider themselves Jewish, as part of the Jewish people.   The Jew who lived a fully assimilated life in 1940’s Germany, the Jew who converted to Christianity, and the Jew who did not look Jewish and perhaps did not even know they were, were all equally Jewish in qualifying for extermination.

In several weeks Jewish people all over the world will celebrate the Biblical holiday of Shavuot.  Though as described in the Bible this holiday is very much about thanking God for the wheat harvest, today a different aspect of the holiday, its commemoration of the divine revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai to the whole Jewish people, is more central.

The Midrash, Judaism’s most ancient commentary on the Bible, writes that the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai together, “As one person with one heart.”   Perhaps this upcoming holiday of Shavuot can be the day when we put aside our differences, and reclaim that Sinaitic sense of being “One person with one heart.”

Each time I study what someone else in Judaism believes and hear how they see the world, even though their ideas are different from my strongly held religious beliefs, I am pleasantly surprised. I may still think that their views are incorrect, but what I see, with fresh eyes, is their good intentions and their integrity. Each time it becomes clear that they see what they are doing as best for their community, for the Jewish people, and for the world.  Jewish people and groups whom I thought were damaging the Jewish people, I found were actually engaging  in what they saw as correct religious life and values, caring much more about the Jewish people than I could have imagined.

For instance, the liberal rabbi  whom I thought was out to undermine Jewish tradition and herald assimilation turned out to be someone of deep faith and integrity, trying to the best of their ability and with good intentions, to engage the Jewish people in religious life and values, caring much more about Jewish tradition than I had imagined.  Or the fundamentalist rabbi that I thought was out to separate the Jewish people entirely from other Jews and from the outside world, whom I imagined was trying to compromise much of the light that Jews are commanded to bring to the nations, turned out to be a loving, caring, understanding human being who was much more open minded than I had imagined.

The great miracle of learning about the other, of seeing through another’s eyes if even for a moment, is not only appreciation of their integrity, not only a greater sense of unity with them, but taking something productive away, learning something I did not know before that could relate to and deepen my own beliefs, no matter how different from theirs.

The common denominator of all the Jewish groups is their claim to the Torah. In the spirit of this unity, Jewish people from all denominations will come together to study Torah all night long this Shavuot, Tuesday June 7th, at 11pm at Bais Abraham Congregation.   The event is sponsored by the Orthodox Bais Abraham Congregation, the Conservative Sharee Tzedek Synagogue, the Reform Central Reform Congregation, the Jewish Community Center and many others.   For more information call Rabbi Hyim Shafner 314-721-3030 or email rabbi@baisabe.com.