Should Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi be Allowed to Speak at JACLA
By Aryeh Rifkin
First, I want to thank the rabbaim, community leaders and worldwide Jewish community for this opportunity to learn and grow. I unwittingly walked into the middle of a bloodbath. It stretched my experience and knowledge of Torah to a new level. Both sides stood to gain and lose by my decision, and how will the Higher court judge me for the way I deliberate and final decision? I sincerely wished to avoid judging another Jew.
Second, I need to apologize. I hoped to find a way to decide without hurting anybody. Whether I turn left or right, somebody will be unhappy. Whoever disagrees, forgive me. I am the most imperfect person I know, and perhaps you could have handled it better than me. When I was younger, I would have rushed to decide. But given my own extensive list of sins and character flaws accumulated over the years, I’m not running to lynch anybody.
HOW I MET RABBI MIZRACHI
About 4 months ago, one of Rabbi Mizrachi’s local supporters messaged me on Facebook asking if Rabbi Mizrachi could speak at JACLA. I provided our fee schedule, and a rental structure was arranged where his supporters would be asked to make a donation at the door. This is a common structure. More people showed up for his shiur than the most well known rabbis in LA that appeared at JACLA. Rabbi Mizrachi packed the house with nearly 200 people. His shiur was motivational, he was charming and everybody liked him. A great night.
A few months later, he asked to speak again and I agreed. A well known local rabbi I respect approached me in protest, bringing some of Rabbi Mizrachi’s loosely spoken words to my attention. I kept that in mind, but did not consider banning him on those grounds. Rabbis, like everybody else, have fans and opposition. The event was as successful as his first event. People were happy.
This Monday, January 11 at 6 pm was scheduled to be Rabbi Mizrachi’s third appearance.
Rabbi Mizrachi released the Holocaust video after he was scheduled to appear at JACLA. Since I’m not a follower of Rabbi Mizrachi, I was first made aware of the video when the attacks began on JACLA (my non-profit), Social Dashboard Inc (for profit) and me personally. I had never been attacked like that before. I love my fellow Jews with all my heart, but people I had never met from New York, Israel, London, Canada, Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles were calling me names, threatening me, contacting my friends on Facebook, calling my mobile phone, destroying JACLA’s ratings on Facebook, posting disparaging comments everywhere and anywhere they could, and requesting other Jews to do the same. The mob had formed, and they did not care who they hurt in the process of achieving their mission to lynch Rabbi Mizrachi. What would you do if you woke to discover over 10,000 negative comments involving you? Would you stand between a mob and the accused?
I considered banning Rabbi Mizrachi for a few reasons. Number one, I personally did not agree with the way he got his point across in several of his unrehearsed videos. As a former public speaker myself, I knew the repercussions of his mistakes. Anybody associated with him would be asked how they felt about women, handicapped, cancer patients, and the Holocaust. I was further disappointed when I saw screenshots of how he spoke in a private Facebook chat – although what the other party said worse, he is supposed to be the bigger man. Second, I considered the impact of his appearance at JACLA on members of the local community, which JACLA serves. I did not consider cancelling the event for any financial loss to myself or threats of a smear campaign.
As the head of JACLA, LA’s most active Jewish venue, I cannot exercise the luxury of rash decisions. No Jew should rush to hurt another Jew’s parnassa or reputation, G-d forbid. It would have benefited me to think only of myself, but that would not be brave. My Plan was to gather evidence, hear the public and consulting with other rabbaim.
Honestly, before the public hearing I was 95% sure it would be cancelled. I told my rabbi I was going to cancel it. I hoped people would show up and give me the extra 5% I needed to cancel it. That would have been an easy way out. But I held my ground even from myself so not to rush to judgment. Videos were watched, documents reviewed and everybody was heard. It was supposed to be only opposition, but 2 people spoke in favor of Rabbi Mizrachi.
The surprise was that each person who opposed Rabbi Mizrachi were in favor of him coming if he recanted and made an apology. In a private conversation I had with Rabbi Mizrachi earlier, he already expressed willingness to recant and apologize.
There is no question the videos are legitimate. I found several screenshots digitally altered, and they were not considered. Rabbi Mizrachi produced a letter of endorsement from the Bais Din of New York. He also proved he does in fact have smicha (rabbinic ordination). I heard from nearly a dozen rabbis from all over the world.
It appears a compromise was reached without me having to decide anything. Those who oppose Rabbi Mizrachi demand a full apology and retraction, which he agreed. I am delighted a peaceful compromise was reached. Had I given in to fear of financial loss, the parties would not have compromised and a great injustice would have been done. I thank G-d for giving me the strength to persevere the social media attacks against me and JACLA.
The ultimate verdict came when HaRav HaGadol Chaim Kanievsky called me back. He is generally considered the leading poskin alive in the world today. Here is the audio clip between me and his grandson, Rabbi Aryeh Kanievsky saying, “the Rabbi (his grandfather, Chaim Kanievsky) said ‘let him come’“.
Moreover, our community can show more love and kindness towards one another, and not run too quickly to judge and sentence our fellow Jew. Subject to Rabbi Mizrachi’s written recant and apology, he is welcome at JACLA. His topic, which I chose, will be “Effect of Loshon Hora on the Community”.
You already know where I’m going with this. It has to be said. “Baseless” does not refer to being devoid of truth or invalidating hurt. Running to slander somebody in social media causes hatred. Joining a mob because it is unsafe not to makes you just a guilty. Listening to and repeating, G-d forbid, causes hatred. On a personal level, we are required to have a personal opinion. When you opinion targets somebody else and you have not yet confronted the person you are speaking about, that causes bases hatred. G-d’s Shechina does not dwell among quarreling Jews. If somebody in our community is speaking loshon hora or in any way causing baseless hatred, run – don’t walk – in the opposite direction. But before you tell somebody else “so-and-so speaks loshon hora and I am avoiding them” know that it also loshon hora. If you have a problem with somebody, speak to that person or keep your mouth shut.
People asked me to rush to hurt another Jew. Torah required me to speak directly with Rabbi Mizrachi and review all facts. Some people demanded I kill Rabbi Mizrachi’s career without taking those steps. They were unable to understand why I delayed. To demand immediacy is like a spoiled child in a candy store. That doesn’t work with me.
Communities worldwide have been polarized over this issue. My Mission at JACLA is Unity. It is easy to talk unity when there’s no conflict, but we must fight for unity.
Events must benefit the Jewish community and only kosher food is allowed. My personal beliefs weigh heavily on what qualifies. For example, I would not allow anything anti-Israel. I do not allow anything hateful or inciting others to anger and hate (because that leads to suffering, and that leads to the dark side – Master Yoda).
People must feel safe, and their experience must bring them closer to Torah in some way. I do not have to agree with their politics or level of observance, but it must pass my own “is it Orthodox” filter.
Would I allow an Orthodox gay and lesbian group to use JACLA? Yes, as long as they did not promote their sins, G-d forbid and the event brought Jews closer to Torah, G-d willing. Since my own sins great and numerous I am not able to judge somebody else’s sin. As far as I know that could be their only sin and therefore they are greater than me.
I will not allow fighting among Jews at JACLA. Any unruly member of the crowd will be ejected, just as I would personally get up in stage and stop a speaker from crossing the line.
It struck me how quickly a Jewish lynch mob formed and the distance they went to hurt a fellow Jew. Being outraged and hurt does not justify bullying in social media or collateral damage to neutral 3rd parties. I have always stood up to bullies. It doesn’t matter how much money or power they have. You have found I cannot be bought. I will not back down from a bully. I do not retaliate. I guard my soul from mud slinging. I do not rush to conclusion. I heard both sides. I reviewed evidence. I verified facts. I consulted with the highest rabbaim in the world today. What more I could have done is unknown to me today, but my imperfect conclusion is this: Rabbi Mizrachi is welcome to speak at JACLA.
Pico-Robertson is the best Jewish community outside Israel. This issue exposed something very wrong that must be fixed right away. I’m speaking to the leaders and rabbaim in our community. 2 months ago, I was incarcerated and my life was very much in danger. I am suffering severe physical issues because of it. Yet our leaders were silent. Not one leader in the community lifted a finger to safe my life, and I contribute quite a bit to the community. In contrast, a rabbi from New York who spoke a few offensive words in attempt to teach Torah to his own audience stimulated local rabbis and leaders to raise all kind of hell – allowing their fellow Jews to eat each other alive in social media, threaten businesses, and cause tremendous strife – because they chose one side over another. My dear peers, we have to straighten our priorities. To all my friends in the community, with love I cannot judge Rabbi Mizrachi unfavorably about the numerous dumb things he said without pointing out the horribly hateful and strife causing things that occurred to a much greater extent by members of our own community.
Moreover, our community can show more love and kindness towards one another, and not run too quickly to judge and sentence our fellow Jew.
Aryeh Rifkin, President
JACLA – Jewish Activities Center of Los Angeles