My Vision: A Response to the Karaite Jews of America’s Open Request

I have thoughts for what should happen here and beyond.

Over the past few weeks, the Karaite Jews of America asked members of the community at large to share their vision regarding the future of Karaite Judaism. I did not respond directly to the KJA, because I thought that a very courageous public request deserves a public response. So, here are my thoughts.

Dear Karaite Jews of America,

You have done so much with so little, and under very difficult circumstances. It is time for us – the individual and collective Karaites – not only to provide our vision, but to provide the support to carry it out. My vision centers around organizing a currently disorganized movement. We don’t need full-on Religious Rabbinate-style organization, but we do need to learn more from the Jewish movements around us. Although I will focus on the experience of Karaite Jews in and around Daly City, much of what I share here can be applied to creating experiences for those more distant.

So, here is my vision and I commit to doing everything I can to making this vision a reality. I pray that others will join me. As I have said before, if this generation of American Karaite Jews fails, it will be very difficult to restart the movement in any meaningful fashion.

  • Creating a Meaningful Religious & Ritual Experience

Let me start with a simple reflection. A few years back, I was speaking with H’ Moshe Firrouz at a dinner. I expressed my concern about the future of American Jewry in general. He responded with something that has fundamentally changed the way I think about ritual. He said (with respect my perception that American Jewry is fading), “Know that your view of American Jewry and the state of American Judaism will never change until people stop thinking of Judaism as simply a culture or as a simply a tradition. Judaism is about our relationship with our Creator. And if you are engaging in activities as a cultural experience, your paradigm is different from those who are trying to interact with their Creator.” (Paraphrased only slightly.)

It struck me: he was right. The reason Orthodox Jews keep Shabbat and keep kosher is generally because they view it as a relationship with their Creator. Look at the Chabad movement: every mitzvah is a joy and every mitzvah that they can help someone else observe is done to bring people closer to the commandments of God, as they understand them.

The problem is that because much of Karaite liturgy is out of print or in accessible to Americans, we don’t have meaningful ways to perform our ritual. And for many people ritual is still the preferred way to interact with our Creator. To make my point as clearly as possible: Jews everywhere know exactly what to do on Passover, because we have a Haggadah. First you read this, then you sing that, then you do the blessing over this, then you eat that.

So, one of my visions (and I must credit a few others anonymously here) is to create guides for each of the holidays and for each major life event. Of course, it won’t read as a guide, but if a family or community in North Carolina or New York or Oklahoma wants to observe Sukkot in a meaningful way, they should have a book dedicated to the holiday with songs and explanations and uplifting words. Something they can read and use in the sukkah.

To be clear, the problem will not be solved by simply printing books, we will need to be 100% committed to teaching these materials and training people how to lead ritual and ceremonial functions.

  • Developing Karaite Jewish Resources

In addition to creating guides for holidays and life cycles, we also need our own religious resources. For example, every tallit at the KJA synagogue in Daly City has the Rabbanite blessing on them – none of them have the Karaite blessing. With the exception of a few, every single set of blue fringes comes from Rabbanite sources. This is not a problem in and of itself, but the issue is that the traditional Rabbanite color for the blue is not the same as the traditional Karaite color. And the traditional Rabbanite source of the dye comes from an impure animal. The longstanding Karaite belief is that the dye must come from a pure source. The few sets of fringes that come from non-Rabbanite sources come from The Ancients Blue, who has also offered to help getting us more fringes.

The issue of Rabbanite-sourced religious materials repeats itself over and over again throughout the Karaite experience. As another example, we need to make Karaite meat more accessible. Right now, there is only Travis. I could go on with a thousand other examples, but my general point is that we need to identify and support people who are helping bring an authentic Karaite Jewish religious experience to the public.

  • Launching an Annual National Conference

Over the previous two years the KJA has hosted two really great shabbatons. The first one was for Shavuot 2015; the second, in September 2016 when you announced the renovation of the synagogue. This is a wonderful start. But it is not enough. We need a full-fledged conference. As a rabbinical student recently told me, there is something special about the conference modality – the staying up late and talking, the face to face learning, the informal interactions – that has an uplifting and lasting impact on attendees.

For our purposes, the conference is a success even if it is the same size as the shabbatons you’ve hosted – that is, even if all we do is add a little bit more programming and education to the existing model, we’ll do great. From there, we can grow the experience, and then we can replicate it in smaller fashion in other cities. And then in larger fashion in other cities.

*  *  *

I acknowledge that none of this easy. Much of it costs money – something that is in short supply in a small community. But beyond money it takes people who are dedicated to the cause. It takes people who want to help others interact with our Creator. If anyone at the KJA or out here in the internet would like to help me, drop me a note:



Filed under Karaite Jews of America, Shechita, Tallit, Techellet

27 Responses to My Vision: A Response to the Karaite Jews of America’s Open Request

  1. Keren DeTornos

    You ask for us to reply, yet I have sent you several emails and they have never been responded to or my needs addressed. I responded in writing in a blog post to your last posted appeal and inquiry of should we be pursuing a more direct and assertive approach to have the Karaite Jews be seen and heard in the US, after the article you wrote and posted, and I heard not a word back in response.
    How are we to collaborate in assisting this crucial cause of our origin of Jewishness beliefs when even simple emails are not getting responded to and individuals who have the most sincere interest in participating in the Karaite rituals and continuance of its longevity for future generations, is not taken seriously, nor are they assisted in guidance by just responding to my questions, to ensure they can get the Karaite contacts and get inside the network so that they can become a contributor and enrich their own personal Karaite growth.

    this has been my experience with attempts to interact with the Karaite communications in the current email system for obtaining required information for the last year.
    I humbly request an honest reply as I have been stalled and stifled in my networking attempts for growth as a member of the Karaite US “community”.
    I wish to see and contribute to help the Karaite’s THRIVE in the entire US, as well as in Israel.

  2. Keren DeTornos

    Oh, and yes, I need to mention that I do contribute tzadakah routinely to the Makor Foundation so that you and others have accessible funds to print our Karaite materials and to provide some sort of communications and correspondence to those who are of Jewish Karaite belief and practice.

    • Keren DeTornos

      And that I have purchased hundreds of dollars of the Blue Press Publications, to assist the project, and to pass and spread the beliefs and rituals in print to others.

  3. Ayit mi'beit Lavi

    Perhaps having a simple siddur freely avaible online would improve karaite liturgy spreading.

    There are people everywhere [I’m writting to you from Portugal, Europe for example] who would like to join the Karaite movement and pray like a Karaite, but withought easily obtainable resources, they end up by praying like rabbinic jews [like myself] whilst being karaite at heart or atempting to coinciliate both views. Having a free siddur [and a more complete, printed version that could be sold] would be a great way to “gain” terrain against “Messianic Jews” and Rabbinic jews alike.

    When a potential convert in countries with little to no visible jewish community startes taking the first steps, the first thing they do is looking for a free siddur. Unfortunantly, the first thing they get is almost always a Messianic siddur, and that, allied with the easy way to “convert”, ends up by snaring most converts. Providing a basic siddur for weekday prayers with a handfull of karaite blessings [or something close to this: ] would be a good way to spread Karaism over the internet and would probably lead to more karaite centers to develop over the world.

    Also, if you’d like a Portuguise translator for anything, I’d volunteer for it 🙂

  4. Jacob Metz

    A worthy goal; I pray for its attainment.

  5. I love the picture of ritual as a vehicle, rather than an obligation.
    May it be a unifying vehicle.

  6. Frank Wassermann

    I often look at the Karaite University’s website for new material, I feel that is the most urgent need in my case. I use ” The Jewish Study Bible” of the JPS and the Gutnic Chumash as well as a few other books for my studies. All are Rabbinic and I hope that one of the knowledgeable Karaite members would produce such materials for the Karaite Jews. I believe knowledge of The Holy One and the love for Him that grows from that knowledge is more important than ritual correctness, observing His decreed days will be understood and observed much more once a believer gains such knowledge.
    I live in remote Tasmania and I am very isolated, to such Jews a Karaite Bible is all the more essential.

  7. If we all did our best to come together in and live out Moshe Firrouz’s advice to you, I think the future of Karaite Jewish thought will be alive and well in the United States. May we all work hard towards that goal so that we not only be able to experience this wealth of spiritual insight for ourselves, but also have something to leave to our children and grandchildren as well.

  8. Anne Simon

    Respectfully, I think that the first ever true Karaite Jew should be studied more. Not what was said about him, nor the religion that was built around him, but what he said himself: Yehoshua (Jesus). His first teaching was ”Repent!” meaning to go back to Torah. He was all about putting God’s commands and laws first in a time when traditions and greed were making people’s lives impossible. There is nothing wrong with studying the life and sayings of a just Jew.

    • Zvi

      Studying whatever is known that JC said is was alleged to have stated is extremely problematic IMHO, since his utterances are interwoven with the Non Testament’s Pauline Christianity and paganism generally.
      This is why the vast majority of Jews balk at such a preoccupation and I believe you should take this into account and understand it.

    • Frank Wassermann

      Anne, I have found that most of what Jesus/Yeshua/Y’Zeus ? supposedly said actually comes from the Jewish Bible and were deliberately mistranslated or distorted to suit the theology of the Christians. That is very well explained by, among others, Tovia Singer’s “Lets get Biblical”

  9. Jacob Metz

    Anne, even if I were to accept that Jesus was a Karaite, I would not claim him to be the first of the movement; he merely mimicked the call of his cousin John. Please don’t take this as an endorsement for John being the 1st Karaite either.

  10. Keren De Tornos

    I understand the core nature and issue of Anne’s hypothesis above.
    That being, that I too, have observed how many centuries of extraneous additional LAYERS of man-made, Rabbinical dictates, additions of rituals and additions of so called HOLY texts, and additional extraneous so-called LAWS have been now misconstrued as a part of the Karaite Acceptance of our rituals and Creators LAW. It is all even based on a pre-formated calendar system that no longer is true or obedient to the new moon sighting cycles to conduct those Ordained feasts.

    I would like for us to stick with paschat of our core beliefs, being TORAH, and not to venture down the modern expansion theology of Judaism outside of that dictate for our Karaite LAWS.

    That is where I focus my beliefs on Karaite Practice and any Jewish Rituals.

    Anything outside of those boundaries, which are known as being “JEWISH”, perhaps yes, they indeed are, but are they Karaite?

    If we do not preserve our CORE Karaite roots, we will become morphed, like every other Jewish “sect” that has evolved on earthtime, by the ongoing evolution of centuries of Rabbinical corruptions of LAW, with their multiple distorted interpretations and additions of LAWS and rituals and even added feasts.
    ALL these modern corrupted versions of Judaism we witness today in practice around us throughout the world, have veered off due to not adhering to the BASIC tenets of the foundation of the Moshe and the original People of ISRAEL, and instead adjusted the LAWs and practice to accommodate society and community enlargement.

    Is this what we must also do to increase our fold? Or, do we stay obedient to our Makers Instructions?

    • Anne Simon

      Wow! You are articulate. I am limited in my intelligence and my written expression but you said it best. Do not add to Tanak and if you do, the traditions should not take over or replace God’s laws and principles. That’s all. Just to put my grain of salt regarding the feasts: In Canada, the feasts are impossible to keep with Israel’s dates of harvest. It makes no sense. There are no first fruits on Shavuot, no harvesting during Succot and so on. I am troubled by all this.

  11. Raoul Brandon

    I can only add that the success of this movement all depends on doing it for it’s sake (or his sake if you will). I myself see beyond the religious aspect I see a Global movement bringing awareness knowledge and greatness of (the One that Exist) YHWH, your efforts to preserve revitalize and disseminate the method of Karaite Judaism is a much needed necessity for TRUTH to be available for the Judean and the nations. How can I get involved?

  12. Anne Simon

    Thanks for taking the time to answer. You are so right! There were more like these guys for sure. All the prophets were Karaite in essence. ”John’s” words were also wise. ”John” is righteousness in a nutshell: Repent, confess and get a good washing. (1rst century sheep in the temple were too expensive for a lot of poor people, I guess…I don’t know much). Have a nice day!

  13. Keren De Tornos

    What are the plans for the 2017’s convening, or Conference?
    Has any definite dates yet been posted, or s
    Since the building is not completed, is this years convening to be postponed until a later date than usual or not convened at all?
    Shawn, Please post what and if there is a plan for this years gathering, so others can consider making the trip and finding accommodations.

    toda raba


  14. Andrew

    Shalom Shawn,

    I don’t know how Karaite life works so I am curious: how does your community deal with the “blackout” of Karaite slaughtered meat in the West? Do people go vegetarian out of piety? Do they settle for Rabbinic meat as a less than ideal option? It’s not easy is it.

  15. Emilio

    Shalom, deberian abrir sinagogas en sudamerica la verdad aqui hay mucha gente que quiere retornar a la torah y al judaísmo de cualquier tipo que le abra las puertas y le permita estudiar torah como leí más arriba los mesianicos son los que más aprovechan esa sed de torah que existe en sudamerica. Es solo un consejo. Jabad lo esta haciendo pero lamentablemente aceptan a muy pocos.
    Perdón por escribir en español soy sudamericano y ese tambien seria otro consejo sería bueno que ampliaran sus textos al idioma español. O algun canal de youtube en español he notado que solo hay en ingles al igual que las paginas web. Para leer este post tuve que pasarlo por el google translate Jabad tiene muchas paginas web en español y han inundado las webs de sudamerica con jasidismo en especial en argentina.
    Saludos cordiales.

  16. Andrew

    Shalom, Shawn:

    I want to ask you to give your two cents on why all Karaite communities use Torah scrolls taken from rabbanite Sofrim, and have no tradition of making their own.

    I can certainly see the advantage in using hand written over printed, of course: organic is always better, when you can afford it.

    But like all things having to do with artisanship these days, the leveling forces of mass market global factors, and general decay of character, means it just ain’t quite what it used to be.

    I mean, nearly all Torah scrolls the sofrim make today are on qlaf parchment rather than the gevil of Gemara and the ancient world, only a 1000 year old tradition. While the Rambam brings down that all a k’tav needs to be kosher is that it is readable (going by Gemara), today’s Orthodox are extremely exacting in this regard and would dismiss a mezuzah or a sefer Torah as pasul just because of how the shin is shaped. Or they’ll say Sephardi Torahs are only kosher for Sephardi Jews and can’t back it up with halakha worth a crap. It’s madness. The advent of computer checking software has taken all of the local variations out of the scribal profession, so the modern Torahs from Israel are all standardized in every aspect including number of columns and layout, which didn’t used to be the case. It used to be the custom for women to sew the finished pages together with the sinew, but bogus pan-halakhism has come to prohibit this. The parchments usually come from unborn baby cattle, which should be very problematic for you Karaites because your ritual slaughter altogether forbids killing the mother cow while it’s pregnant. Most scribes study techniques like scraping the parchment with pumice stone in Yeshiva, but it has nothing to do with what they do in the real world. And the list of disappointing facts on the ground go on and on…

    My guess is that Karaite Jews feel compelled to use Sifrei Torah from the rabbanites because despite being Karaite it’s something they wouldn’t want to be without, especially because the finished product is still very marvelous in its beauty (well, much more so if you remain blissful ignorant).

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