The Men’s Trip

Author (far right) and friends on the 2018 AishLA/JMI Men’s Retreat in Running Springs, CA. Photo by Jonah Light Photography

I try to call my dad every day after I drop off the kids at school, a good way to fulfill the Fifth Commandment. I mention I’m going on a men’s trip for the weekend.

“No wives?”
“No, it’s a men’s trip with the same guys I went to Israel with in 2014. Plus fellas from the 2015, ’16, and ’17 trips.”
“And it’s Orthodox, so women aren’t allowed to participate.”
“Orthodox Judaism has women in it, Dad. This is a men’s trip for the same reason our wives take women’s trips. Some things serve the family best by happening separately.”

My father’s skepticism is not surprising. Modern secular culture promotes segregated “safe spaces” only for women and certain minorities. Not straight, white guys. Like many liberal Jews, my father believes that Orthodox Judaism is a sexist patriarchy.

Yet this trip for men was created by women. It began as a subsidized women’s trip to Israel organized by Lori Palatnik and her colleagues at the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, and Aish HaTorah, a Jewish outreach organization. Featuring immersion in Jewish practice, sisterhood and reconnection with one’s Source while visiting the Holy Land, the trip came to be nicknamed Birthright for Mommies.

We connected with ourselves as children of God, as Jews, spouses, friends and citizens.

Participants were re-energized as Jewish women, wives and mothers. Observance increased, but few became Orthodox. Rather, they brought key mitzvahs into the home, such as candlelighting and Shabbos dinner, and transformed the lives of their families by elevating the role of gratitude in the home.

Because they wanted the same experience for their husbands, the men’s trip was born.

My wife, Nina, and I participated in the trips in 2014 with Aish LA. Although we were already more observant than most of our travel companions, the experience was transformative. We connected with ourselves as children of God, as Jews, spouses, friends and citizens.

And I made lifelong friendships with guys I’d never met before. These things happened because we found ourselves in an unfamiliar space: the company of guys at the same stage of life, facing similar challenges in our families, in our careers and in our bodies.

It felt safe to open up to one another, sharing the failures of our pasts and profound fears about our futures. We learned we’re not alone in these journeys, and we shared the wisdom of hard-won experience. We were also blessed with great teachers and leaders. My trip was led by Charlie Harary, others by Saul Blinkoff. Both men were coming on the reunion trip to the mountains.

Nina said, “I would never begrudge you a men’s trip because I love the sisterhood of women-only events. I also like who you are when you return.”

Less than two hours from L.A., we found ourselves in the snow. Charlie opened by explaining a property of the human brain, neuroplasticity. This means that consistent repetition of thought patterns creates new neural pathways. When we learn a new language, for example, we actually alter the structure of our brains.

Thus, to become that better man we all want to be, we need to start thinking, speaking and acting like him. And in order to figure out who that guy is, we need to understand that life must be about service. The great paradox of the world is that one who negates himself for the sake of others will be empowered. One who strives for himself, however, will never become a great man.

Saul followed by sharing what the Torah says about males and females. Eve was created as an azer kenegdo to Adam, an “opposing helpmate.” When our wives oppose us, it can be irritating, even infuriating. But what if they’re actually doing their job? What if their opposition is crucial to us becoming that better man? Women know all too well the value of peace, yet they speak up for our own good. Think how much more peace there would be in the home if we just listened to the rebuke and then reflected on it. We might even figure out how to act on it.

I was invited to share my Accidental Talmudist story because it touches on the life of the soul, Torah learning, and the generational connection between our parents and our children.

Then we sang together like warriors, holding nothing back, and we charged each other to bring this fire back from the mountain.

Learn more about Sal Litvak’s Accidental Talmudist story, and join his followers at

Super Bowl With the Homeless

Two weeks ago, I received a crazy call.

“We’re putting together a Super Bowl Party for the Homeless. Last year’s video went viral, so now we’re expanding. Can you host the L.A. party?”

The caller was Meir Kay, a social media personality with more than 1 million followers, known for his infectious positivity. In his first viral video, he danced around New York City high-fiving people who were hailing cabs.

I have a million followers, too, but at Accidental Talmudist I’m on a mission to increase the peace by sharing Jewish wisdom with all people. In a video that caught Meir’s eye, I brought two Chasidic musicians downtown on Christmas night to see what would happen. We ended up jamming with a homeless guy named Antonio. Later, we passed the hat for him online and raised more than $600.

At Beth Am, I found that some of the maybes had actually showed up.

Meir told me we’d need a venue, food, a big-screen TV, dignity kits, volunteers, a film crew and homeless guests.

“Meir, this is a great idea. You should’ve called me a month ago.”

“Dude! Last year, I pulled it together in 24 hours!”

Respect. That video was pretty good. The New England Patriots even reposted it.

“How many homeless guys did you have?”


“It looked way busier than that.”

“Yeah, I brought them to a party at a bar. But a bar isn’t a good idea for these guys. Plus, the owner doesn’t want them back.”

I bet. So we had two weeks to pull it off. Walking away was obviously the right move. My soul said stay.

I called Rabbi Adam Kligfeld at Temple Beth Am. He agreed on the spot, and so did his staff. Lia Mandelbaum, director of programming, Shawn Gatewood, director of facilities, and all their personnel brought a problem-solving attitude.

So we had a venue. Then Dovid Leider of Leider’s Catering donated food for 50. Boom! This thing was coming together. My wife, Nina, recruited volunteers. Chasids from Hancock Park, whole families from Temple Beth Am, and non-Jews from our Facebook audience all got into the spirit.

Two days before the game, my cameraman bailed because of a family emergency. Then, Marty Markovits appeared, a documentarian with a great eye.

Sunday dawned.

“Hi! Would you like to attend a Super Bowl Party and have a great meal?”

The first invitee said yes. She spends her days by the 7-Eleven next door to the synagogue and was thrilled to go inside. The next 10 people we approached, however, all said no. They wanted to be left alone. Then a few maybes. I called Nina.

The diversity among homeless people is immense. Some wouldn’t attract a second glance at Coffee Bean. Others are alarmingly challenged regarding mental health and hygiene. Nina found two of the latter and drove them to the synagogue, God bless her.

I headed downtown. We found an encampment of eight. They told us to scram, but one fellow, Michael, said, “Hell, yeah, me and my wife are coming!” That convinced the others. I summoned a Lyft van.

At Beth Am, I found that some of the maybes had showed up. Our Lyft group became the boisterous nucleus of two dozen guests, plus an equal number of volunteers.

I’m a Giants fan, so I was rooting for the Eagles to beat the Patriots. This became the general consensus. Spirits rose. Plates were piled high with tasty wings and pastrami.

Real conversations were happening all around the room. I learned Ed was a 10-year veteran of the Air Force. Uncle Ray was just rooting for a good game.

When the Eagles scored, we erupted in “Yaaahs!” and high-fived like old pals, and we groaned every time the Patriots made a good play. In the end, we brought it home: an Eagles victory for the faithful!

The real triumph, however, came from Brandon after I shared Torah with him.

“Who is strong? One who controls himself. I like that. I’m in a halfway house now, getting it together. I don’t trust no one but God to help me, but I would like to volunteer for this temple. Mow the lawn or whatever. Thank you for doing a great thing for us.”

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at

#MeToo and Mashiach

Women’s Bureau 1920, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

I did not expect to hear a Torah teaching about the #MeToo movement in a Chasidic synagogue. Rabbi Reuven Wolf, however, is not your typical Chasidic rabbi.

On a recent Shabbat, he expounded some verses from one of the lesser-known books of the Bible, Habakkuk:

He shall speak of the end, and it shall not fail; though it tarry, wait for it, for it shall surely come, it shall not delay.

The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the water fills the sea … and

… a stone shall cry out from the wall.

In this prophetic description, the Age of Mashiach, i.e., the messianic age, will not be accompanied only by peace and goodness — the lion lying down with the lamb, etc. —  but also with knowledge of God, God’s plan and the true meaning of the elements in that plan. We will thus finally understand the spiritual purpose of everything, and everyone, in our physical environment.

At that time, even the rocks will testify whether we walked over them for a wholesome purpose or a selfish purpose. In other words, did we employ our resources to make God’s creation a place of greater holiness or less? A place of greater justice or less? A place of greater kindness or less?

If so for the rocks, Rabbi Wolf said, how much for the people in our lives? We will be called to account for the ways we treated everyone we met, and particularly those closest to us. Did we help them realize their true purpose in the creation, or did we exploit them for our own selfish ends?

It is a fact of biology that the human male gives the seed of life and the female receives it. Each provides half the DNA, but the female egg is vast compared with the tiny sperm, and it is the woman alone who nurtures the new embryo for the next nine months. So you would think that the male would be a humble, nurturing partner in the relationship.

Sadly, this has not been the case. Throughout the history of humanity, many men have exploited their size, strength and patriarchal role as giver of the seed to get what they want from women. The sexual relationship should be the holiest interaction on earth, one that enables both partners to join with God in the creation of new life, but men have often hijacked it to give themselves pleasure at the expense of women’s dignity. This is a grave sin — one that harms the woman, the man and the whole of creation.

The fact that we have now crossed a line, that people will no longer tolerate such an established pattern of behavior, is beyond momentous. In the annals of humankind, it is a change akin to the advents of consciousness, fire, language, agriculture, cities and democracy.

According to Rabbi Wolf, the #MeToo movement is not only a world changer, but evidence that the Shabbat of history is at our doorstep.

In the Hebrew calendar, the year is 5778. We are 222 years from Y6K, the dawn of the seventh millennium — a time that will be holy like the seventh day. Our Sages often liken the Age of Mashiach to Shabbat. And just as Shabbat begins before night actually falls, the messianic age is now settling in around us like dusk.

Jewish tradition, like Habakkuk, holds that the end “shall surely come,” and it will not come later than its appointed time. It may, however, come earlier.

We can hasten the redemption by earning it. If the human world grows in kindness and righteousness, Mashiach will come sooner and without pain. If we cannot achieve such growth, Mashiach will come with a sharp birth pang, more commonly known as the apocalyptic battle of Gog and Magog.

Such a battle is not hard to imagine on the current world stage, and its consequences would be horrific.

Let’s avoid that fate. Let’s buy in to Rabbi Wolf’s vision of an Age of Mashiach that we usher in by increasing peace, justice, lovingkindness and dignity in the world.

Let’s make sure the #MeToo movement succeeds in protecting women from exploitation and enables them to realize their true purpose as equal partners in the creation.

It’s a good bet. Even if Rabbi Wolf is mistaken, what have we lost? And if he’s right …

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at

Peace Through Raising Expectations

I support the plan to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I acknowledge this is a controversial topic, and I will observe the talmudic principle of stating the primary, opposing viewpoint before my own:

“The American Embassy in Israel shouldn’t be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem at this time because it will result in violence, impair the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and further destabilize a region already beset with violence and chaos.”

I disagree with this view because it expects the worst from Palestinian Arabs and Arabs in general. I believe it is racist to assume that these groups will become violent merely because something happens that displeases them.

It is true that actions by Israel and the United States have met with violence in the past. If we dig deeper, however, we find that the real obstacle to peace is a Palestinian leadership that benefits financially from the ongoing cycle of violence. One need look only at the personal fortune of Yasser Arafat at the time of his death — a stash worth more than $1 billion — to grasp the profound impact of the leadership’s corruption on the Palestinian people.

Fourteen years later, Arafat’s successors continue to hire protesters for suicide missions by offering lifetime payments of $3,000 a month to their families, distributed through the Palestinian Authority Martyrs Fund. Thousands of families receive these payments, funded entirely by foreign aid. Needless to say, the politicians take a huge cut for themselves.

The real obstacle to peace is a Palestinian leadership that benefits financially from the ongoing cycle of violence.

It’s a simple cycle: incite violence against Israelis, exploit the predictable military response for publicity, receive payments from sympathetic nations and skim for personal gain.

The leaders of this operation are not motivated to imagine peace with Israel because it would take money out of their pockets. Bypassing such leaders is the key to forging the elusive peace.

In announcing the intention to move the embassy, President Donald Trump noted that 1) the modern State of Israel declared Jerusalem its capital decades ago and has thus governed itself ever since; 2) the American pretense that Tel Aviv is Israel’s capital has not contributed to peace in the region; and 3) most importantly, Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

This truth has never been taught in Palestinian schools. The fact that Jerusalem is mentioned by name 622 times in the Torah and has been the focus of Jewish prayer for 2,000 years, and has never been the capital of any other nation, doesn’t matter if such facts are not communicated to the population that is being manipulated into violence.

The proposed embassy move, which carries tremendous symbolic weight, bypasses the Palestinian Authority gatekeepers and communicates to the Palestinian-Arab people that Israel and Jerusalem will never be parted. It brings us closer to peace by respecting them enough to assume that violence is neither their only form of communication nor negotiation, when presented with actual facts.

In its coverage of the embassy story, however, the Los Angeles Times noted on its front page that the president’s announcement sent “a sense of anger and apprehension coursing through the Arab world.”

This is the racism of low expectations. How can relocating the diplomatic office to reflect a historical and practical reality create apprehension for Arabs? Who is threatening them? It’s as if the L.A. Times already is justifying the violence it expects from the Arab world.

If more violence comes, and I pray it does not, it will not be because the United States respects Israel’s right to determine its own capital like every other nation. Such violence would arise from the same corrupt leadership that has always benefited from it. If we recognize these leaders and hate peddlers for what they are, we may well hasten the day when new leadership arises that seeks to build a genuine peace and more hopeful future for Palestinians.

This kind of revolution can’t happen if we don’t engage with the people directly. Let’s assume they want peace and they’re open to new ideas. Let’s raise our expectations.

Such assumptions won’t make the road to peace a smooth one,  but at least there will be a road.

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism every day  at

Into the Heart of Chabad

Shabbat begins. I follow Rabbi Reuven Wolf into 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn — Chabad World Headquarters. The prayer space is packed with bearded rabbis in black fedoras. We join a line streaming single-file toward the center of the room. Maximum occupancy by code is probably 350, but there are a thousand inside, and hundreds more arriving by the minute.

I’m here because my friends Rabbi Efraim Mintz and Wolf both invited me, each promising a unique experience. I once witnessed a fan getting trampled by a celebratory mob at a football game. I wonder if I’ve made a good choice.

Physical pressure builds with every step. I trip over someone’s foot and instantly flash back to the trampling, but the guys around me hold me up and carry me forward. It’s too late to turn back. Independent motion is impossible.

We reach the heart of the room. Our bodies sway as waves of energy pass through us. The crowd synchronizes as we chant Psalms, thanking the Eternal One for Shabbat, Torah and life.

We break into a wordless song, a nigun, composed for this very night 40 years ago, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe completed his recovery from a near-fatal heart attack and returned to this room. He created this army of singing, dancing rabbis. They are the teachers and lamplighters he dispatched to the corners of the earth, armed with love, Torah and unshakable faith in their ability to hasten the redemption of humankind.

Though the rebbe died 23 years ago, their work has never slowed. His army returns to Crown Heights in Brooklyn once a year for the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim (emissaries). They reconnect with friends and family, attend workshops and pray.

The soldiers of the rebbe’s army are not just men, but whole families. This week, the dads are in town. In February, the moms, or rebbetzins, will gather for their conference. Reoxygenated in Crown Heights, these families bring the light of Judaism to 100 countries, a number that grows every year.

The weekend culminates in the Sunday night gala. The event’s infrastructure is breathtaking. I recently attended a fundraising gala at the California Science Center and was impressed by scope of that event, which catered to 1,200 guests.

The Chabad gala welcomes 6,500.

The room is vast. Passing through elaborate security measures, we encounter 650 elegantly decorated tables, high-tech lighting, a camera crane, a massive video display nearly 100 yards long, a revolving stage and hot, tasty food for all.

What really sets this night apart, however, are two stories and an unauthorized nigun.

Rabbi Asher Federman of Chabad Virgin Islands shares how consecutive hurricanes crushed his beloved island just before Rosh Hashanah. Everyone was told to evacuate, but some simply couldn’t.

As Rabbi Federman’s large family boarded the last boat off the island, he bent to hug his children goodbye. Someone suggested he leave with them.

His kids immediately protested: “Daddy can’t leave! Who’ll take care of our Yidden? Who will blow the shofar for them on Rosh Hashanah?”

Rabbi Yonasan Abrams shared the story of a 9-year-old boy in San Diego, whose family had come to know the local Chabad emissaries. The boy asked his father if he could bring a Torah scroll home on Simchat Torah.

Without musical accompaniment or visible direction,

our voices rise in a stadium-like chorus of unrestrained joy.

He asked because his mother lay at home, too weak from chemotherapy to attend services. The next day, the Chabad family led a procession of singing and dancing worshippers, with Torah scrolls, to the boy’s home, where his mom celebrated her last Simchat Torah on earth with immense joy.

The boy dedicated his life to sharing that joy with others by becoming a Chabad emissary himself … the rabbi telling us this tale.

The night traditionally ends with singing and dancing, so the occasional outbursts of song around the room are quelled quickly to accommodate the three-hour program of speeches and videos. At one point, however, the rebbe’s recovery nigun spontaneously fills the room and neither the emcees, nor the orchestra, nor the VIPs can stop it. Without musical accompaniment or visible direction, our voices rise in a stadium-like chorus of unrestrained joy.

That’s when I finally grasp that the sea of matching beards, hats and fedoras actually is composed of rule-breaking iconoclasts like me, fueling up to battle soulless secularism with meaning and purpose. And I am all in.

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism at, where a video of the rebbe’s recovery nigun is available.

I Shot a Sex Offender

I frequently write about the importance of listening to the other side on tough issues, but are some positions so odious that they never deserve a hearing?

A couple of years ago, an Australian friend was directing a documentary about a difficult subject: child sex-abuse in his Jewish community. One of the interviewees was a former abuser who had gone on to live a normal family life for decades.

My friend had filmed a conversation between this man and a well-known sex-abuse survivor who had become a whistleblower. He needed someone to film the former abuser — now living in Los Angeles — reading a statement in his home. I’m a film director too, so my pal reached out to me. I figured that if a victims’ rights advocate was OK with interviewing this man, I was OK with filming him.

As I entered his house, I couldn’t help noticing that it was nicer than mine. Evidently, paying for his crime had not impeded his business. We were about the same age, and from the pictures on the fridge, his kids looked about the same age as mine.

His movements were a bit jittery, but he came across as intelligent and upbeat. It felt weird to be in a room with a man who had been convicted of child sex abuse. As a father, it occurred to me that it might be my obligation to clobber him with my tripod rather than film him.

As his story came out, there were some surprises. He had been relatively young when he committed the crime, about 10 years older than his teenage victim. Both had grown up in an ultra-Orthodox environment where people never expressed sexuality publicly and rarely discussed it privately. Masturbation was strictly prohibited. His ideas about sexuality were juvenile even after he became a legal adult.

The man in my viewfinder could have lain low. Instead, he chose to speak up because he felt a responsibility before God and his community.

He made it sound as if the episode that changed his victim’s life and his own was a bit of experimentation that occurred because he was such an immature adult.

In any case, he did what he did, got caught and paid a price. He then moved to a new country, rebuilt his life, started a family, and never again engaged in criminal conduct, according to his telling of the story. He could have sealed his past in a never-to-be-reopened box, he said, except that he now felt a responsibility to help other boys and young men who engaged in similar “experimentation” and then felt so much remorse that suicide seemed like their only option.

Apparently, this happened pretty often.

He noted that God forgives the truly penitent, and so should we.

As I filmed, my mind was racing. Suppose a kid does a dumb thing that doesn’t even rise to the level of criminal conduct, but he feels so bad about it that he becomes suicidal. He can’t discuss it with anyone in his ultra-Orthodox world, but hearing this guy’s statement might help him realize he’s got options.

The man in my viewfinder could have lain low. Instead, he chose to speak up because he felt a responsibility before God and his community. I wouldn’t call him a hero, but his teshuvah — his atonement and turning — appeared genuine.

If the harm he had caused years earlier was a one-time mistake, then this shoot would serve a valuable purpose.

But what if the film’s director and I were being manipulated to cover for a predator? My gut told me the guy’s statement was genuine, but, as my wife often reminded me, I was not always the best judge of character.

Maybe this guy was and continued to be a pedophile, I thought. Maybe I should just run out of there and trash the footage.

Then I learned that people in his current community knew about his past and accepted him anyway. His wife was supportive. He seemed to be the poster boy for rehabilitation.

Isn’t that a value to be promoted? Sure, but do I want him around my kids? There are limits to positive ideology. A halfway house sounds like a great idea — until the parole board puts it next to your home.

In the end, I completed the shoot and sent the footage to Australia. I pray I participated in a worthy project, and that the man I filmed will live out his life on the right path. Perhaps someone else’s life will even be saved. Please God, let it be so.

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at