What Karaite Jews *Must* Learn from Orthodox Jews

Agudath Israel of Baltimore

Agudath Israel of Baltimore

This past Sunday, I gave a talk on The Rise and Decline of the Karaite Movement to a group in Columbia, Maryland. Before that, I spent the weekend in Baltimore with an Orthodox Rabbi affiliated with Agudath Israel.

For those who do not know, Agudath Israel is about as Orthodox as it gets in the United States. Every conversation I had was filled with insight. I learned a lot more than religion; I saw first hand what Karaites must do to survive the next generation and beyond.

First, I should tell you a little about this congregation. The membership comprises about 300 families and about half of the adult men in the congregation are ordained rabbis. Yes, you read that right: half.

  • Lesson #1: You can never have too many educated people. Put differently, being educated is not just for the congregational leader. This reminds me of something Eli Shemuel once told me. His peers view him as super-religious and super-knowledgeable. He told me that in an ideal world, his current level of knowledge would be right in the middle of the road.

The congregation supports 300 families with only two employees (a rabbi and a janitor) and about 80 volunteers. In fact, I happened to be there for a volunteer appreciation kiddush. The rabbi with whom I was staying was noticeably *not* eating the cholent. I told him that he better eat up, otherwise people might think he is a heretic. [1]

  • Lesson #2: We can accomplish a lot with committed volunteers. Agudath Israel has a volunteer whose sole job is to replace all the burned out light bulbs. This is his role and it is awesome. The Karaite Jewish movement actually has a nice stable of volunteers. We generally have only a few full-time employees – the KJA has none.
  • Lesson #3: Thank your volunteers. This seems like it would be obvious, but we all (especially Karaite Jews) can do a lot better in this department.

One of the most inspiring stories I heard while at the synagogue was that there is a 74 year old rabbi who teaches a class on Jewish business ethics. He teaches this class to approximately 30 people every Thursday night at 11 p.m. And after he finishes this class, he goes to another congregation and teaches the same class to another group of people at 12:30 a.m.

  • Lesson #4: Learning takes dedicated teachers and students. The Karaites in Israel are doing a much better job of this than the Karaites in the United States. But if we want Karaite Judaism to succeed, we need to get serious about education. And we cannot just rely on blog posts and online videos. We need serious face-to-face education. And we need to be open for business (almost) 24 hours a day and (almost) 365 days a year.

After services on Saturday at Agudath Israel, the rabbi whom I was visiting introduced me to another rabbi who was leading a class on the weekly Torah portion. The class was geared toward beginners or casual learners and there were only three students: (i) me (a Karaite); (ii) another man; and (iii) a woman.

  • Lesson #5: There are never too few students for a class. This reminds me of something Hakham Moshe Firrouz told me. He was leading a class of young Karaites somewhere in Israel. At the first class, there were only two students, and one asked, “Only two of us?” Hakham Firrouz responded, “There are more with us than with them.” (See 2 Kings 6:16.) By the way, the class grew to 10 students in just a few weeks and is still going (and growing) strong.

Agudath Israel does all this with a less than glamorous synagogue. According to my rabbi friend, the synagogue was cobbled together as the community grew.

  • Lesson # 6: The vibrancy of a community is measured first by its people and programs and then by its facilities. This is something we Karaites need to be mindful of. First build a community, then build a building.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who came to my talk in Columbia, MD. I hope to see you all again soon.

*   *   *

[1.] Because Karaites objected to open flames on Shabbat, they historically ate cold food on Shabbat, and any Jew who did not eat hot food on the Sabbath was also suspected of being a Karaite. See John Cooper, Eat and be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, p. 102 (“It is likely that the clash of opinion between the rabbis and the Karaite apologists in the Middle Ages led to a renewed emphasis on serving hot food on the Sabbath and to the further evolution of the Sephardic dish of hamin, from the Hebrew word for hot, and its Ashkenazic equivalent known as cholent. Both the Geonim and a later fourteenth century rabbi known as Abudarham held that anyone who refrained from eating hot food on the Sabbath was drifting close to heresy.”)


Filed under Eli Shmuel, Karaite Rabbanite Relations, Moshe Firrouz, State of the Movement

18 Responses to What Karaite Jews *Must* Learn from Orthodox Jews

  1. Morris Moussa

    Another inspiring article , Shawn. Thank you for the sharing of your experiences and knowledge . I wonder if calling out “Rabbi ” in a crowed room at Congregation Agudath Israel would be confusing?

  2. Albert Gamill

    “I learned a lot more than religion; I saw first hand what Karaites must do to survive the next generation and beyond.”
    Please enumerate what did you learn and what the Karaites must do to survive for the next generation. Please Tell me how to convince the leaders of the Karaite Universal organiztion (Just Organiztion) in Israel to wake up and do something beneficial, instead of asking only for contribution.
    The one who does not know his history, does understand his present and does not protect his future. As they say in Arabic: . من لا يعرف تاريخه لا يفهم حاضره ولا يصون مستقبله
    Also انصح الجاهل يعاديك
    ِAlso: Don’t advise anybody, because if he is smart. he does not need it, and if he is stupid he would not listen.
    واقرأ الجواب من عثوانه
    وطوبى لمن أفتى

  3. Henry Mourad

    Even though, we Karaites adhere to tradition and heritage, the lessons you enumerated are very valid. We have to be open minded to what goes on around us. We love our place of worship and must learn from the lessons you cited of how to involve more people to participate in our services. We need to make our services a spiritual experience so our Karaite community will come back for more.
    Great feedback from your trip. Keep it going.

  4. David Despotovski

    “We need serious face-to-face education.” I sign up to be the student! I’m eager for face-to-face education (via Skype)! If there is such kind of education available, I’m in! And thank you! 🙂

  5. Isaac S

    What can we do to establish educational programs– or better, karaite schools– around the U.S. ?

  6. David Marshall

    Shawn, I am interested to know, did you give your talk about Karaite Judaism to the Agudat Israel congregation? The reason I ask is that they are usually not very tolerant towards lesser-observant rabbinic Jews, let alone Karaites. My sincere prayer is that Orthodox Judaism in North America moves towards seeing Karaites as fellow Jews and as their allies in the traditionally observant Jewish camp, against assimilation. Do we have any hopes of this occurring?

    • No, my talk was to another group in Columbia, MD. But the rabbi I stayed with knew I was a Karaite, as did one other Rabbi there.

      The rabbi and his wife were impressed with what I shared about Karaite tradition/views.

    • David R

      Sorry David, but I disagree with that we should hope for orthodox Jews to “ally” with us.

      Being a minority should show us that one needs to show tolerance and respect towards other people and beliefs, something orthodox Jews have not done and will not do. (just look at their beheviour in Israel)

      I see our allies more in Reform/Conservative Jews especially as they are closer to us in term of religious thought – rejection of the oral law and/or at least they are questioning it.

      • David Marshall

        Frankly, I disagree because Karaites appear to me (as a rabbinic Jew) to be waaay more serious about the mitzvoth than Reform or Conservative.

  7. adam

    Couldn’t disagree more. Rabbinic Jews to most Jews is the only game in town (they have never heard of Karaites) and yet only 10% are Orthodox. Conservative and Reform Judaism are basically a more lenient of the same Rabbinic Judaism as they almost never take a more strict position or different position then Orthodox Judaism and yet despite only 10% consider themselves Orthodox. How is that success?? And this hasn’t changed despite the propaganda that Orthodoxy has very high birth rates which if they still are only 10% would mean that many of these children would leave Orthodoxy even though they were raised in it. So I really don’t agree and the only reason for Orthodoxy success as it is the only version of Judaism people have heard of and some even though they don’t like Rabbinic Judaism feel they have to belong to some religious group like their non-Jewish neighbors. In fact thinking this way (that somehow ORthodoxy has been a success) I don’t think can work for Karaites because they will never enjoy the monopoly that Rabbinic Judaism has had unlike other religions that don’t have just one sect with some more strict and some lenient but the same basic sect.

  8. mona balogh

    This is such an inspiring article. I facilitate a little Torah study group at my home every week and sometimes it’s just me and one other student, and we learn just as much as if there were 10. At the Torah study we just read the parasha and discuss it as if we were all experts. We don’t have a rabbi or leader, but it’s most enlightening learning from each other. I learned about Karaite Judaism ‘by accident’ when I traveled up the coast to visit my sister and stayed in a hotel near the Karaite synagogue. It was Shabbat so I visited the synagogue. I found out that this group studies the Torah the way we do. Most interesting! I, too would like to learn how to educate others, and spread the word. Please keep up the good work.

  9. Frederick

    Stop worrying about being excepted by the other groups…They will never except you as a equal. Love yourself, Just teach the Torah, (Karaite tradition). If G-d be for us, we will not fail…Remember, G-d did not pick his people because they where large in number. He wants us to be faithful, love him and worship only him. Keep his commands, and the Sabbath…Also, look at all the tribe, only one or two stayed faithful. Reform and the other groups are not the answer, KEEP YOUR TRADITION AS IS!…Stop whoring after other, even if it’s in the same faith. The written Torah is all that’s needed…Sorry for the harshness, It just sad too see this going on.
    I’m in Southern California, (LA area). Is there a Karaite group down here, that I can fellowship with? If so, please help me contact them. Thanks you,

  10. Josh Moussa

    Team Karaite

  11. zachary lichaa

    this is an amazing blog really learned a lot 🙂

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