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 facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist.

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 facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist, 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 facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist.

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