Right-Wing Orthodox Jews Find Voice in Rabbi Aharoni

Rifkin is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Rabbi Dov Aharoni is a man of paradoxes.

He rails against what he calls the spiritual emptiness of suburban American Jewish life, yet lives comfortably in one of the nation's pre-eminent suburban communities, the San Fernando Valley.

He is a ferocious supporter of Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, but admits that the greatest disappointment of his life was his unsuccessful attempt to adapt to living in a West Bank settlement.

And although he counts himself among that generation of Americans who came of age in the free-thinking 1960s and '70s, his radicalization left him rooted even deeper in the authoritarian Orthodox Judaism of his upbringing. Rather than burn his draft card, Aharoni's days of rage were played out on the streets of his native Brooklyn in support of the militant Jewish Defense League.

Aharoni arrived in Los Angeles just three years ago, but already his ability to turn a phrase and his willingness to take the heat for controversial positions has made him the media darling of Los Angeles' growing Orthodox Jewish community. The city is home to between 60,000 and 80,000 Orthodox Jews, the second-largest concentration in the nation.

Aharoni's essays--often strident, uncompromising and sardonic--are published regularly in the city's Jewish English-language newspapers, as well as on the opinion pages of The Times and other publications, extending his influence far beyond his small Woodland Hills synagogue, Beit Hamidrash Congregation. Articulate as well as literary, he is also a fixture on the local Jewish lecture and debate circuit, his views always to the right of his fellow panelists.

These views run the range of Jewish religious and political issues. "He seems to be able to take a position on everything," said Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Aharoni has lambasted the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles for earmarking charity dollars for a mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood in Israel rather than spending it at home on purely Jewish institutions. He routinely castigates Conservative and Reform rabbis for their less-stringent standards for conversion to Judaism, accusing them of turning the process into a money-making endeavor.

He has written disapprovingly of Jewish teen-agers socializing with non-Jews, saying it might lead to intermarriage, and he has berated Jews for caring more about the homeless and other social concerns involving non-Jews than they do about strictly Jewish needs, such as the religious education of their children.

Cohen, also Orthodox, said Aharoni is the first visible spokesman of the Jewish right-wing in Los Angeles.

"Is he the spokesman for orthodoxy?" Cohen asked. "No. But there are quite a number of people in the Orthodox community who are very proud of him."

"Influencing the public is the name of the game," added Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. "A good number of us in the community encourage him to publish as often as he can because we don't have anyone else who is willing to say it like he is."

Not everyone is enamored with Aharoni. Reform Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Bel-Air's Stephen S. Wise Temple calls Aharoni "knowledgeable, even if I don't agree with him on many issues." Zeldin noted that the vast majority of the 600,000 or so Jews in the Los Angeles area are Reform, Conservative or secular and "would find most of what Rabbi Aharoni says to be anathema."

One Orthodox critic of Aharoni is Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the highly liberal (by Orthodox standards) Hillel Council campus rabbi at UCLA.

"He may be knowledgeable, but his views on Israeli politics fly in the face of Jewish morality," Seidler-Feller said. "Unfortunately I think he reflects the views of a growing number of people in the community."

Aharoni, boyish-looking at 36, clearly relishes all the attention.

"Traditional orthodoxy was defensive about its views, but I see no value in playing the isolationist and tending to my small flock of followers," he said. "I believe in going on the offense."

Aharoni insists that he has tempered his tongue considerably since his angry college years when he wrote his first book, "Jews for Nothing." In that volume, he charged that institutional Christian anti-Semitism is still a dangerous reality. Non-Orthodox, suburban American Judaism, he wrote, is a sterile religion of "nursing-home owners" that "extols the paganistic bar mitzvah . . . a religion of shameful Portnoys, bagels and sonorous ministers."

"Ideologically, I haven't changed one iota," Aharoni said during a recent interview in his Woodland Hills home. "But I've mellowed out tremendously. I don't use the same terminology now as I once did."

He points out that from an Orthodox perspective, he is a centrist on many theological issues. Unlike most ultra-Orthodox rabbis, he allows women to attend his religious studies classes and does not shun the non-observant.

Aharoni came to Los Angeles following two frustrating years in Israel. He and his family moved into a new West Bank Jewish settlement with the intention of never leaving. He even adopted a new name, dropping the family name Fisch in favor of the Israeli-sounding Aharoni.

"I went to Israel with the greatest of ideals," he said. "My commitment to aliyah (settling permanently in Israel) was as much as anything my reason for becoming a rabbi. And then I got there and one by one I saw my dreams turn to puffs of smoke."

In his writing, Aharoni blames his disenchantment with Israel on that nation's struggling, socialist-driven economy and overbearing bureaucracy. In conversation, however, he admits that his failure to adjust also stemmed in large part from his fondness for middle-class American life.

"We just didn't realize how much we had come to love our American life style," he said.

Aharoni's return to the United States was facilitated by a sister who lives in Tarzana and put him in touch with Beit Hamidrash Congregation, a struggling Orthodox outpost that needed a rabbi.

"So far, he's fit in like a glove," said Alan Shapiro, Beit Hamidrash's board president. "His being so public hasn't hurt either. He arouses people's curiosity and that brings them to our synagogue."

In Aharoni, the synagogue secured a dynamic leader with a growing reputation. He has written two books (his second book was a defense of Israel's controversial Gen. Ariel Sharon) and served as national executive director of Herut Zionists of America and as a right-hand man in New York to Rabbi Meir Kahane, the JDL founder who advocates the forcible expulsion of Arabs from Israel.

Aharoni, meanwhile, took over a congregation comprised of mostly like-minded souls (the Los Angeles leader of Kahane's overseas support organization is a member). One-third of the congregation is made up of expatriate Israelis, while many others are Americans who also tried life in Israel but returned to the United States. Ninety percent of the congregation is ba'alei teshuvah , formerly non-observant Jews who have recently become Orthodox.

Under Aharoni, Beit Hamidrash has more than doubled its membership to about 60 families. Its day school, the West Valley Hebrew Institute, has about 40 youngsters in the first three grades.

The congregation recently won city approval to move to a larger location in Woodland Hills, a converted home on Fallbrook Avenue, and it attracted more than 300 people to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services held in an apartment complex meeting room.

Aharoni said the congregation is in the process of changing its name to Woodland Hills Synagogue. "I want a name that is more compatible with the West Valley," he said. "This is not Fairfax. This is the Valley, and out here most Jews can't even pronounce Beit Hamidrash, no less look it up in the phone book."

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