‘A new era in Jewish history’

Rabbi Seth Farber tries to carve a path toward a religious establishment that is more respectful and responsive.

Rabbi Seth Farber  (photo credit: COURTESY ITIM)
Rabbi Seth Farber
(photo credit: COURTESY ITIM)
Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of Itim, the Jerusalem- based organization that helps people navigate Jewish religious bureaucracy in Israel, sits back in his chair and smiles.
Farber, whose boyish looks belie his 50 years, is explaining Itim’s origins. The idea of creating an organization that would ease the average individual’s encounters with religious bureaucracy in Israel did not come about through a long and careful thought process, he says, but rather because of a unique set of circumstances surrounding a trip, a wedding, and a shiva visit.
In 1996, Farber and his wife, Michelle, went on an arduous hike to Nahal Dragot, near the Dead Sea. When they reached the peak, Farber realized that they were stuck, with no ropes to get down.
“We simply sat there and waited, and eventually a couple arrived, and accompanied us back down to the bottom.”
As they rappelled down the mountain, the couple told him that they were not planning to get married, because they couldn’t find a rabbi who was appropriate for their needs. Farber, dressed in decidedly non-rabbinic garb of shorts and a T-shirt, informed them that he was licensed to perform weddings in Israel, and that he would be happy to conduct the ceremony. He ended up officiating at the wedding, but that was not the end of the story. Several weeks later, the groom’s father died, and Farber, feeling a connection with the family, returned to offer his condolences.
At the shiva, Farber spent a great deal of time not only trying to comfort the bereaved, but listening to the friends of the newly married couple, and trying to understand why they felt so alienated and disenfranchised from Judaism. It was from this encounter that the idea for Itim was born.
SETH FARBER (also known as Shaul) was born in 1967, and seems to have been in a hurry ever since. Raised in Riverdale, New York, his was a typical Modern Orthodox American upbringing. Farber finished college in three years, attended New York University, studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, returned to the US to attend Yeshiva University, and had received both rabbinic ordination and a master’s degree by the time he was 22.
He spent five years teaching in Boston, where he founded Maayan, a women’s Torah study institute. He moved to Israel in 1995, and received his PhD from the Hebrew University in 2000 in Modern Jewish History.
Farber says that his doctorate represents more than a title before his name.
“I am one of the few people who is using a degree in modern Jewish history as a springboard for something,” he says, chuckling.
“I believe that we are at the beginning of the creation of a new era in Jewish history. I like to believe I am playing a role in formulating what Jewish life is going to be like. There are two opposite approaches. One is that Jewish life is going to be the same as it was in the Diaspora 300 years ago, and the other is that the Zionist enterprise so fundamentally changed the trajectory of Jewish life that we have to turn our backs on 2,000 years of Jewish history. I think that there is a way to incorporate the two.”
Farber did not always aspire to a rabbinic career – in addition to his heading Itim he serves as a synagogue rabbi in Ra’anana – and confesses that he never would have predicted that he would end up doing what he does.
“I know how lucky I’ve been,” he says, and adds that he could have just as easily ended up working in an investment banking house.
Itim, which was originally founded with the support of former Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior as part of the B’Yachad organization, started with a staff of two, answering phone calls. Its name derives from the Hebrew word itim, which means “times.” The organization attempts to help people in all aspects of the Jewish life cycle and “times” of their lives.
Today, Itim is comfortably ensconced in a spacious office in a Jerusalem hightech park, and fields a staff of 22, including four full-time lawyers and two research assistants. In the past year alone, Itim’s phone hotline has provided answers, guidance, and help for almost 5,000 inquiries. Itim is privately funded; more than half of its $1.6 million budget currently comes from the United States, with the largest funder being the UJA Federation of New York.
“A lot of people like our work.” says Farber.
Itim not only advocates for change, but it causes change, by virtue of its activist stance.
“Our real strength is that we have our ear to the ground. We are not just screaming that policy has to change – we have real cases behind all the things that we've done.”
While Itim is perhaps best known for its work in authenticating and verifying the Jewish lineage of Russian immigrants whose Jewishness has been challenged by the rabbinate, the organization is active on many different fronts. Itim has actively lobbied for significant changes in laws that affect how people interact with the religious bureaucracy in Israel, ranging from allowing couples to register for marriage anywhere in the country, to enabling parents of children who died within the first 30 days of life, while in the hospital, to locate their child’s place of burial, and place a memorial headstone there. Previously, Jewish burial societies did not inform parents of children who had died at an early age of the location where they were buried.
More recently, Itim helped spur the adoption of a new law that removes the requirement that women attendants be present when women use the mikve (ritual bath).
Itim also serves as a co-sponsor of the Giyur Ke’Halacha conversion court, along with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone organization, and the Tzohar rabbinical association. The Giyur Ke’Halacha courts are headed by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovich of Ma’aleh Adumim.
Farber points out that Itim’s work benefits all members of the community.
People of all backgrounds and nationalities – including ultra-Orthodox, national religious, and secular – have interactions with the religious establishment at various points in their lives, and Itim’s work benefits everyone.
"When we finished the mikve litigation, which removed the requirement that attendants be present, 40% of the calls that we received came from haredi women who told us that until then the mikve had been a place of fear for them. Now for the first time, they feel like they can go there without feelings of fear and intimidation.”
Farber is not only dealing with Itim’s role in the present, but foresees a major role for the organization in the future as well.
“I want an Israel that is respectful and responsive to the Jewish needs of the Jewish people. We don't want to be reactive. We're already working on a master plan, which doesn't involve only taking things apart, but also asking ourselves what Jewish life will look like in this country in the year 2100. We really think that we are building something for the long term.”
Farber says that he regularly consults with rabbis, both in Israel and abroad, with Federation leadership in the US, and with Jewish leaders, including the political leadership here in Israel, about the role that Judaism will play in the coming years.
“My grand vision is to create a respectful and responsive religious establishment in Israel. The way we do that is by making sure that everyone has equal access to the best services that could exist here.”
I ask Farber to name his heroes. Who are the figures that have most influenced his life? He seems a bit taken aback by my query, and does not respond immediately.
Finally, he names two individuals: Natan Sharansky, the famous Israeli activist, author and politician who spent nine years in Soviet prisons before being freed in 1986, and the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, renowned rabbi and head of Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Alon Shvut, where Farber studied.
Why Sharansky and Lichtenstein? “Sharansky was and is an intellectual who could have just been a thinker and policy maker. Instead, he recognized that circumstances put him in a position to shape Jewish and human history. Rabbi Lichtenstein managed to maintain moral clarity as a rosh yeshiva. He was incredibly disciplined and a champion of the human spirit.”
Farber’s office is not adorned with large and impressive degrees, nor does it boast an impressive collection of books.
There are two items, though, that stand out. One is a diagram of his family tree, which traces back his lineage to his great-great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762-1839), better known by the title of his main work, Hatam Sofer. Schreiber, who was one of the leading Orthodox rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the 19th century, was known as a fierce opponent of change or modifications in Judaism, as expressed in the phrase hadash asur min hatorah (that which is new is forbidden by the Torah). Farber says that he looks at the family tree each day, and in a sense he feels that what is doing a form of damage control, to counteract the work of the students of the Hatam Sofer.
Orthodoxy at that point in history, he says, was not a movement, but had adopted a defensive posture. Today, says Rabbi Schreiber’s great-great-great grandson, “we have to decide that this is who we are, and we have to move forward together… I am very committed to the Halachic process, and I am very committed to the integrity of Halacha. But the Halacha that I believe in is alive and dynamic, and interacts with the modern world.”
The second item that stands out, near the door to Farber’s office, is a rather plain, black-and-white photograph from 2011, of Farber conducting a wedding ceremony. He explains that the bride and groom in the photo – Maxim and Alina – initially were ruled to be ineligible to marry by the rabbinate in Ashkelon, which did not accept the bride’s conversion, even though it had been conducted under the army’s Nativ conversion course. Farber persisted in his efforts, which led to the passing of a law that requires the rabbinate to accept conversions performed by the army and the national authority.
At the time, Farber vowed to conduct the wedding ceremony, even if the rabbinate would take away his license, which they did for a short time. There is a Hebrew inscription on the photo, presented by the couple, which reads, “In thanks to Rabbi Shaul Farber. The world is divided into two groups: those who believe in the impossible, and those who actually carry out that which is thought to be impossible.”
Since 2002, Farber has attempted to make dealing with the official religious bureaucracy in matters of life and death, conversion and marriage – something that has long been thought to be difficult, if not impossible – not only possible but sometimes even meaningful and rewarding.