There is now reason to hope that the two young Jewish girls
who have been the focus of much of the Orthodox Jewish
world's attention in recent months may yet be removed from
the custody of their nonobservant, reportedly meshumad
father in Italy and perhaps even returned, as is their
wish, to their observant Jewish mother in Eretz Yisroel. The
outrageous decision of a juvenile court in Genoa that awarded
the father, Moshe Dulberg, custody of the girls and severely
limited the youngsters' contact with their mother and other
religious Jews has been overturned by a court of appeals. May
all the steps necessary to return the girls to their mother
and their religious heritage come to pass, if not before
these words are read, then soon thereafter.
Many groups have become actively involved in the effort to
"rematriate" the girls. They include, in addition to AIWO, Am
Echad, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations, the Orthodox Union, and the Conference of
European Rabbis. Another prominent figure whose voice was
added to the chorus of protest deserves particular mention,
and credit: Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of
his movement's Religious Action Center.
According to a report in the Anglo-Jewish weekly, Forward,
the Reform leader recently described as "extraordinarily
troublesome" the Italian juvenile court's evident
determination that an Orthodox life would be detrimental to
the girls' welfare, and decried its "assumption that Orthodox
Judaism is a cult that is not deserving of the respect of the
court and the protection of international religious freedom
The mother's Israeli attorney, Shmuel Moran, said about the
decision: "I'm not religious. In both my life and beliefs, I
am completely secular. Yet as a man and as a lawyer, I cannot
make my peace with what I have witnessed . . . The total
impermeability of the court, its antisemitic approach, the
racist asides and expressions of disgust for the mother and
her way of life, all suggest preconceived notions that the
girls would be better off if separated as far as possible
from their mother and her way of life . . . "
The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Eliyahu Toaff, characterized
the court's decision as "bizarre" and as having "stigmatized
the lifestyle of Orthodox Jews around the world."
Rabbi Saperstein's inclusion, however, on the list of those
expressing outrage at the court's apparent bias against
Orthodox Jews and Orthodox practice is particularly laudable,
welcome, heartening -- if somewhat surprising.
Surprising, because negative characterizations of what the
world calls Orthodox Judaism -- what for several thousand
years until fairly recently was called simply Judaism,
without any prefix -- have emerged on more than one occasion
from an assortment of leaders of the movement Rabbi
Several years ago, for example, the then-president of the
Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Simeon Maslin,
was not waxing sentimental when he described "bearded men in
black caftans and women wearing sheitels (wigs) . . . [who]
pray rapidly in a sing-song Hebrew, pore over the Talmud in
segregated yeshivot, . . . and generally reject modernity."
(Reform Judaism, Summer, 1996).
For good measure, Rabbi Maslin decried shechita as a
"painful method of slaughter," . . . and ridiculed Orthodox
Jews for daring "to pray, at the dawn of the 21st century,
for the reestablishment of the sacrificial cult."
More recently, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations'
current president, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, decried what he
christened "ghetto Judaism" -- which he defined as the belief
that Jews "should be secluded in our own communities
concerned only with our own learning and observance . . .
that our connection with the outside world should be a
utilitarian one . . . " And lest anyone misconstrue his mark,
he went on to identify it as having long existed "in
Williamsburg and Borough Park."
Rabbi Yoffie has also made reference, in other contexts, to
"utterly fanatic ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who are
becoming more extreme every day" and has accused "the ultra-
Orthodox" of having "abused Torah for their own selfish
purposes and brought it into disrepute."
Sentiments like those voiced by Rabbis Maslin and Yoffie have
had, unfortunately, a profound effect on their intended
audiences -- Jews who might be persuaded to support Reform
efforts, in particular to change Israel 's religious status-
quo. But they might also have had an unintended but not
insignificant ripple effect on the larger world. Reform
Judaism, after all, is an impressive, glossy publication
mailed to 310,000 addresses, not all of them Jewish homes,
and the national and international press routinely provides
broad coverage to Reform leaders' remarks. And the full
effect of negative rhetoric is sometimes not evident until it
is reflected back, grotesquely magnified, from other,
distant, fun-house mirrors.
And so it is deeply gratifying to note Rabbi Saperstein's
recent stance and remarks. And deeply stirring to imagine
that they may signal a retreat on the part of the Reform
leadership from the anti-Orthodox excesses of its past. Such
a change, especially coming on the heels of Reform movement's
recent and much-publicized acknowledgment of the importance
of traditional Jewish practice, could bode well indeed -- not
only for the image of Orthodox Jews in the eyes of the wider
world but for the future of the hundreds of thousands of
precious Jews who currently affiliate with Reform temples.
Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs of the
American Aguda. This article appears in the current issue of
Coalition, an internal publication of Agudath Israel of