The Hitman’s Bodyguard is flying under the radar to the detriment of audiences looking for a good popcorn flick.  Prior to the heavy movies of Oscar season, this buddy comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L Jackson is pure fun as the actors embrace roles that seem tailor-made for them.

There’s nothing new and noteworthy here and if you don’t like Samuel L Jackson in pretty much any other role he has ever played, then this isn’t the movie for you, either.  While The Hitman’s Bodyguard doesn’t reinvent the wheel, there’s enough action, comedy, camaraderie and chemistry to keep it afloat.  Salma Hayek seems to relish her role as the female baddie as well.

For more about The Hitman’s Bodyguard, including the significance of all the clocks in the movie, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

All photos and video are courtesy of Lionsgate.

Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.

No healing the world here — Humanistic Jews are ‘building’ the world

Rabbi Greg Epstein, the young Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, maintains that the question “Do you believe in God?” is totally meaningless and that “tikkun olam,” to repair the world, is the wrong concept.

But he also affirms that religion will never disappear and that the “New Atheists” don’t have the answers to meeting human needs.

In his 31 years, Epstein seems to have done most everything, from being a singer and composer in a professional rock band to studying ancient Aramaic literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

During a lengthy phone conversation, he previewed some of the points he will raise when he speaks at Rosh Hashanah services at Adat Chaverim, the local Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, points that he analyzes more deeply in his forthcoming book, “Good Without God.”

Humanistic Jews do not believe in an omnipotent supernatural power, “but in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to be,” he said.

“If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if your god stands for nature, or the universe, or love, that’s fine,” he added.

“The real point is that this is the only world we can ever know and that this life is the only chance we get to make a difference.”

Epstein also thinks that the oft-repeated injunction to repair the world misses the mark, because it assumes there once was a perfect world, which degenerated and must now be fixed.

“I prefer the phrase ‘bniyat olam,’ to build the world,” Epstein said. “Humanistic Judaism teaches that there never was a utopia, but this lack of perfection is no excuse for intellectual or spiritual laziness.

“We must build our relationship to our fellow humans and the world brick by brick, for we are responsible for one another and no one else will do the work.” He added facetiously, “The most pernicious rhyme in our language is ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ the idea that there was once a perfect white egg which shattered into a million pieces, and no one could put it together again.”

Many, but not all, Humanists are atheists or agnostics, but Epstein is no fan of such popular proponents of the “New Atheism” as writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

In an early story about these writers in Wired Magazine, the cover proclaimed “No heaven, no hell — just science.”

That distillation oversimplified a “painfully complex” question, Epstein said. “Science is the best tool for determining the truth about us, but that is not the same as doing something about it. It is not enough to just observe, we must engage in our community and do something.”

Epstein also distinguishes his philosophy from that of Jewish, mostly Yiddish-speaking, secularists of previous generations, who maintained that religion would ultimately disappear as mankind became increasingly rational.

“Religion is not primarily about faith in God; it is about community, identity, heritage and being of service to others,” he said. “We Humanists must also do more to meet these needs, rather than complain about what others believe.

“As a friend pointed out to me, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, he did not say, ‘I have a list of complaints,’ but ‘I have a dream.'”

Questioned about the role of religion in the current presidential race, Epstein recalled that slamming the other candidate’s religion or piety has a long, dishonorable tradition in American politics.

In the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, an Adams partisan, swiftboated Jefferson in the following advertisement.

“The Grand Question Stated: At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD _ AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for Jefferson – and no god!!!”

Epstein was born in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., then a widely diverse, multiracial community, and he had his bar mitzvah in a local Reform synagogue.

“It seemed to me then that no one took the message of religion seriously, and everyone recited prayers just by rote,” he said. “So I soon started exploring everything except Judaism and visiting every place except Israel.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Epstein studied Buddhism in Taiwan and China, then joined the rock band Sugar Pill and recorded two albums. Like many of his contemporaries, Epstein said, “I wanted to express myself through art and music, rather than religion.”

At this point, Epstein discovered the pioneer Humanistic Judaism congregation established by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in suburban Detroit, and “I finally connected to my heritage, but also realized that I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me.”

The process began with five years of study in suburban Detroit and Jerusalem at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, followed by a master’s degree in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, and another master’s degree in theology and comparative religion from the Harvard Divinity School.

Four years ago, he became a chaplain at Harvard, where he advises students in the Secular Society, Interfaith Council and the Harvard Humanist Graduate Community.

Epstein’s thoughts are frequently expressed in national publications and on radio networks, and he is one of a select group of invited panelists for the On Faith blog, started jointly by Newsweek and the Washington Post.

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, there are 1.6 million American adults and children who define themselves as “just Jewish,” and who are either secular or without any denominational affiliation.

Epstein said that one out of five young American Jews between ages 18 and 25 fall into that category, and that globally 1.1 billion human souls do without formal religion.

If all secular and unaffiliated American Jews joined together, they would form the country’s second largest Jewish denomination, barely trailing Reform membership.

The problem for Epstein and other Humanist leaders is that the 1.6 million are not organized and are not joining the existing congregations/communities of the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

After more than 40 years on the North American scene, the movement claims only some 10,000 adherents and 30 congregations, according to national executive director M. Bonnie Cousens.

Only six of the congregations are led by ordained rabbis, the others by lay leaders or “madrichim.”

What accounts for the low figures, given the large pool of potential members?

There are no clear-cut answers, but Cousens and other national leaders speculate that secular Jews, having arrived at this state through personal doubts and mental wrestling, are just not prone to join any organization.

Another cause may be that there is still, at times, an onus attached to “coming out” as a secular or atheistic Jews, though reactions by more traditional Jews seem less shocked and outraged than in the past.

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, bemoaned the society’s lack of popular visibility, saying, “There are so many Jews out there just waiting to discover us.”

Epstein is more upbeat. Drawing on his four-year experience at Harvard, he said that in the beginning only four students regularly attended his meetings.

Now his meeting rooms are crowded and last year, when he organized an international conference on “The New Humanism,” some 1,100 people attended.

“We may be a small minority, but minority groups can have a profound impact on mass movements,” he said. “Even now, I believe, liberal mainstream congregations are speaking more to human needs than divine needs.”

To have a growing impact, Humanistic Jews “must sing and must build, and I mean that literally and metaphorically,” he said.

So Epstein is hopeful, but within reason. Quoting playwright Tony Kushner, Epstein said, “We are optimists, but we are not stupid optimists.”

Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?

These are nervous-making times.

No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”

Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

Timing is everything in the Olympics — and in Darfur

Next week, people the world over will be riveted to the TV set as the spectacle of the Beijing Olympic Games unfolds and athletes go head to head in the competitions for gold medals.

Many of the races will come down to a matter of milliseconds. Finish-line results may be determined by momentum generated at the starting gate.

In other words, timing is everything.

The same thing could be said of the movement to stop the genocide in Darfur.

The Olympics is a time of celebration, human achievement, civility and a respite from the violence and chaos that fills our daily news. The Olympics are steeped in history, and the torch provides a symbol of hope for all of humanity. Like many people, I eagerly await the excitement of the Olympic Games.

However, I also live with the images of the many people I have met in Darfur and Chad who have seen their communities and lives torn apart. These vulnerable, precious human beings also yearn for the world’s attention. They are not anticipating medals; they simply want to know that the world cares and that we have the resolve to act.

A few months ago, southwest China was rocked by a massive 7.9 earthquake that left nearly 70,000 people dead. As China struggled with the enormous human and economic toll, the world responded with an outpouring of sympathy and relief. Many human rights advocates, including many Jewish organizations that had been aggressively pressuring China to take a more principled position on Darfur, temporarily suspended their efforts.

That was then. This is now.

With the Olympic Games fast approaching, it’s time for advocates to gear up once again and urge the Chinese government to act responsibly. The stakes are simply too high to hold back any longer.

A web of economic, military and diplomatic ties binds China to the Sudanese government’s systematic program of terror, rape and murder in Darfur. Over the past decade, China has invested more than $10 billion in commercial and capital investments in Sudan. Today, China is Sudan’s biggest trading partner, importing about two-thirds of all Sudanese exports and providing one-fifth of Sudan’s imports.

It is also Sudan’s number one small arms dealer, accounting for 90 percent of the small weapons imported into the country since 2004. These are the same weapons used by Janjaweed terrorists and other rebel forces to slaughter thousands of people .

Given these interests, it’s not surprising that China has been Sudan’s staunch ally in matters of diplomacy, steadfastly opposing sanctions proposed by the U.N. Security Council and other resolutions aimed at holding the Sudanese government accountable for the genocide of more than 400,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million more.

Since the May 12 Chinese earthquake, the situation has only grown more dire.

For example, in mid-May, an estimated 50,000 people were forced to leave their homes in Abyei, a border region between north and south Sudan after fighting broke out between Sudanese government forces and south Sudan ex-rebel forces.

U.N. officials have warned of a major food crisis in the region, the result of a perfect storm of mounting violence, poor harvests and overcrowding in refugee camps. Since May, cereals, sugar and other essential rations have been reduced by half. Hundreds of thousands of lives are being threatened by the lack of food and disease. Each and every day, including the Olympic days, more and more human beings in Darfur and Chad will be affected by this growing regional crisis.

On July 14, International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked the court to issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Lt. Gen. Omar al-Bashir, charging him with several counts of genocide and many other war crimes. This is the first time the ICC prosecutor has prepared a case against a sitting head of state.

On July 8, a peacekeeping patrol in north Darfur state was ambushed. Seven African Union-U.N. peacekeepers were killed and several were wounded. These reasons and more are why advocates must turn up the heat on China. We are urging the Chinese government to do the following:

  • Publicly condemn the violence in Darfur. China’s silence on this issue has been deafening. Taking a hard-line position against the continuing genocide is an important first step.
  • Agree to end the sale of all small arms to Sudan. China sells small arms to Sudan with full knowledge that Khartoum continues to violate a U.N. arms embargo prohibiting the transfer of weapons into Darfur.
  • Call on Sudan to stop the genocide and comply with all existing U.N. Security Council resolutions. This includes pushing for the rapid deployment of African Union-U.N. Mission in Darfur forces to Darfur. Currently only 10,000 of the approved 26,000 are on the ground. Without their presence, the Janjaweed will continue to pillage the region.

China’s inaction to date is especially galling, given the theme of this year’s Olympics: “One World, One Dream.” According to the official Web site of the Beijing Olympics, the theme is meant to convey China’s commitment to “peaceful development, harmonious society and people’s happiness.” These words will ring hollow unless they are backed by real commitment on China’s part to end the violence in Darfur.

Now is the time to celebrate the achievements of the Olympic athletes; much more importantly, now is the time to celebrate the Jewish imperative to pursue justice in an active, passionate and strategic way. Our acts will make a difference; they are our legacy.

As the world’s leading athletes race for the gold this month, concerned citizens of the world — including many people of Jewish faith for whom Darfur has tragic, historical resonance — will be racing, too, to turn the Olympic spotlight on China’s track record in Darfur. The world will be watching. Timing is everything.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is American Jewish World Service Western Region executive director. Since 2004, he has made several trips to Darfur and Chad. To learn more about efforts to stop the Darfur genocide, visit

Students translate charity lessons into action

For most kids, time off from school means hitting the beaches or other fun-filled attraction. For 17-year-old Neta Batscha, spring break sent her to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast to assist with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Under the auspices of Milken Community High School’s YOZMA social action leadership initiative, the 11th-grader and more than 100 of her classmates spent four days clearing away debris in parts of Natchez, Miss., and in New Orleans, which was still reeling from the hurricane’s destruction. She also built homes with Habitat for Humanity, and, with money raised by her Milken peers, replenished provisions at food shelters unable to meet the ongoing need for assistance.

“It made everyone feel good about themselves, that we can make a difference,” Batscha said. “In my school, we’re taught to give back, even when we’re younger. We’re taught not to be selfish. In Judaism, it’s important for everyone.”

More and more, Jewish kids are taking the lessons they’ve learned about tikkun olam, Judaism’s spin on community service, and translating it into action. Through school-based programs like YOZMA, b’nai mitzvah service projects or simply their own initiative, children are finding creative ways to channel their interests and desire to help others into unique, personal contributions to those less fortunate. In so doing, they are building a reservoir of critical skills and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of compassion and civic responsibility in the Jewish tradition.

“Doing mitzvot and tikkun olam are in everything we do in Judaism, in every book we read,” said Daniel Gold, director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education’s (BJE) Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning. When children perform charitable acts, Gold added, they connect teachings from God with the work they do on earth, and to their own identities.

Josh Lappen’s work on behalf of Jews in Ethiopia has played a formulative role in the development of his Jewish awareness. Since the age of 5, Josh, now 12, has been fundraising under the auspices of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), a nonprofit group that helps Jews survive in Ethiopia and reach Israel.

He accompanies his grandparents, active NACOEJ members, to local festivals where they sell Ethiopian handcrafts, and he recently began his own initiative selling cookies at his Hebrew school.

“My work gets me involved in the community. I almost feel like I’m getting to know them,” said Josh, who has studied the history of Ethiopian Jews and occasionally speaks with groups to raise awareness of the challenges they face. While he has never seen the fruits of his labor firsthand, Josh feels a deep connection with Ethiopian Jews and is planning to participate in NACOEJ’s bar mitzvah twinning program with an Ethiopian boy in Israel next year.

Realizing tikkun olam as a central pillar of Jewish practice, synagogues throughout the country require children to perform service projects before becoming b’nai mitzvah, sensitizing them to their growing responsibilities toward others as they approach adulthood. In many cases, these projects have been the inspiration for ongoing philanthropic endeavors.

Clara Clymer had intended to donate books to a neighborhood school for her bat mitzvah project. Instead, on the advice of Hebrew school staff at Leo Baeck Temple, she decided to become a tutor for KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ youth literacy program. The 12-year-old from Brentwood now meets once a week with a first-grade student, helping to strengthen her reading and comprehension skills. And while Clara was only required to fulfill five hours of service, her satisfaction knowing that she is making a difference in someone’s life has been all the encouragement she needs to continue as a KOREH L.A. volunteer for the foreseeable future.

“If everybody helps somebody who needs help, it makes it a nicer place to live,” she said.

In addition to the religious benefits, studies show that children who volunteer have higher self-esteem than those who do not, are happier and feel empowered by the knowledge that they are bringing about positive change, BJE’s Gold said. On the academic side, they consistently demonstrate higher test scores and rates of school attendance. Community service also helps children develop good work habits and job skills, such as leadership, planning and organization.

“Kids who participate in community service must determine what they want to achieve and figure out creative ways of meeting their goals,” said Sande Hart, who facilitates youth volunteer workshops for the Orange County BJE.

Hart saw proof of this when her son, Matt, organized “Shoot Away Cancer,” a basketball tournament to raise funds for pediatric cancer research at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, as his bar mitzvah project three years ago. Matt secured support from a local basketball league and brought together 180 elementary- to high school-age students for a day of three-on-three play in Santa Ana. While teams paid a $30 registration fee, most of the $7,200 Matt raised came from raffled gift certificates and donations he solicited from local businesses and attractions.

Now 15, Matt continues to volunteer to help those in need. For the past five years, he has been traveling to Mexico where he spends time with orphaned children and helps build houses for homeless families on behalf of the Irvine-based Corazon de Vida Foundation.

“Volunteering gives you a warm feeling that you’re dong something right,” the Rancho Santa Margarita High School sophomore said. “It has changed me as a person. If more kids would go out and do this, I think the world would be a lot better.”

A Festival of Lights — lite

How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?

Here’s a hint: Sing this song by Deborah Kornfield to the tune of “I Have a Little Dreidel”:

I have a brand new lightbulb,
It’s a miracle you see;
It lights the room completely,
Using half the energy.
Oh compact fluorescent lightbulb.
I really have to kvell;
It’s just so energy efficient.
And it saves you gelt as well.

The question is, in fact, the name of a campaign launched by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Humorous title and cute lyrics aside, COEJL is on a serious mission to heighten ecoconsciousness in a Jewish context, and this initiative focuses on — you guessed it — energy-efficient lightbulbs.

COEJL’s Web site describes its three-pronged approach of “engaging the Jewish community in awareness, advocacy and concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote energy conservation and sustainable legislation,” in order to “change how American Jewry responds to … daunting environmental problems.”

This all sounds good, but why, you may be wondering, is this a Jewish issue?
God said this to Adam: “See My works, how good and praiseworthy they are? And all that I have created, I made for you. [But] be mindful that you do not spoil and destroy My world — for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

And, COEJL argues, Jewish values such as tikkun olam and tzedek should be extended to include not just people but other animals and plants.

OK, you’ve conceded. It is Jewish. But is this really about Chanukah?

Well, what about the Festival of Lights? About making resources last longer than we thought they could? Like for eight nights, perhaps?

High-efficiency lightbulbs actually last eight times longer than regular lightbulbs. Imagine that. And speaking of the number eight, see COEJL’s list of eight actions in eight days as a simple and concrete way to bring some ecoconsciousness into your Chanukah holiday practice.

So, you might be left wondering, just how many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb? As many as possible. As of the writing of this article, more than 20,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs have been sold through COEJL, saving 8,250 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

So, as you nosh on your latkes this Chanukah, be a modern-day Maccabee — take action against global warming and environmental degradation.

Rachel Kantrowitz is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Partners in Creation

Roger Gottlieb makes the case in his book, “A Greener Faith,” that we are in need of an ecotheology — to view the Earth in a more divine and holy way. He writes that
we have so separated ourselves from nature we don’t actually feel our interconnectedness with it; rather, we value the Earth only for what we can take from it. In order to have a meaningful teshuvah from the sins of taking the Earth’s resources for granted, we need a positive outlook with forward vision and hope.

Jews, it can be argued, already have an ecotheology. The Torah is clear when it discusses our relationship to the Earth.

This week, in Genesis, we are told, “God took the first human being, Adam, and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to watch it” (Genesis 2:15). Yet, a misinterpretation of an earlier verse has guided our human relationship to the Earth for too long. In the first chapter of the Torah, God says: “….Fill the Earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:27-28).

Dominion is too often read as “mastery over,” freedom to control and use at will, which easily leads to exploitation. However, there are many commentators who understand the word “dominion” as correlating to “uniqueness.” In this reading, humans have the unique responsibility to care for the Earth and its inhabitants. Rather than dominate, humans are called upon to make moral choices on behalf of the Earth, for we are the only creatures that God created with the capacity to reason and with the gift of free will; we alone have the capacity to destroy or protect the planet.

Gottlieb writes that we are not concerned by the signs of global warming, or in developing widespread renewable energy sources, or in how our progress has affected the planet’s ecosystem because we see ourselves as outside of nature, rather than integral to it. We substitute “environment” for “nature.”

Through semantics, nature has become an “issue,” something we can be involved in or not. Our sense of being unaffected by nature, as superior to nature, is a danger — indeed an idol — that the Torah warns us against. We must return to viewing ourselves as a part of nature.

Dr. Nathan Lewis, one of my congregants, a Caltech professor and expert in climate change, stated bluntly to me, “The next 10 years will determine what kind of planet we will live in; if we keep on this same path, we will leave our children a planet unlike the one we received.”

Lewis is most concerned about the irreversibility of our actions, even as he acknowledges that science cannot prove definitively what will happen. He argues that we shouldn’t be betting against the indicators that imply what can happen. Waiting to find out will be too late.

Many rabbinic texts detail our long tradition of ecotheology, explicitly supporting the idea that caring for the Earth is a distinctly religious imperative. Long before we started talking about fuel emissions, the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited inefficient use of fuels, saying: “Whoever covers an oil lamp [so that it burns less efficiently], transgresses the mitzvah of ba’al tashchit, do not destroy” (Shabbat 67a).

Long before recycling was the norm, the 16th century manual Sefer HaHinuch taught that “tzadikkim, righteous people, waste not even a mustard seed in this world; they use their strength to conserve everything possible.” These texts illustrate that our ancestors recognized our responsibility to nature, and that our actions must be directed by the holiness of mitzvot.

We created this problem, intentionally or unintentionally; we are responsible for fixing it.

Lewis told me that we get more energy from the sun in one hour than all the energy consumed in one year. Using God’s resources and our brains, we can solve the challenges we face.

California is poised to become the environmental leader in our country. And religious groups around the country are joining its efforts. The Reform movement has a nationwide campaign for “greening” its institutions. The Pacific Southwest Region of Conservative Judaism continues to back its Green Sanctuaries campaign, partnering with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California is expanding that campaign to all synagogues that wish to participate.

We each can make a difference. I challenge us to try some, if not all, of the following:

  • Raise or lower the thermostat in your homes by two degrees;
  • Use compact fluorescent light bulbs in your home;
  • Carpool, walk or ride a bike once weekly;
  • Invest in fuel-efficient transportation;
  • Reduce waste and recycle seriously;
  • Visit the COEJL Web site for more information and ideas.

Every change has an impact. We are called by God to live in consort with the Earth, as God gave us the awesome responsibility to be partners in creation. Let us strive to live up to that divine gift. As Pirke Avot teaches, “It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to ever stop trying.”

Now more than ever, we need this attitude toward our Earth.

This d’var Torah is an adaptation of Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater’s Yom Kippur sermon. To read the sermon in its entirety, visit ” target=”_blank”>
Green Sanctuaries:

First Person – Will You Be at Peace?

I always knew that it would be very difficult to stop a genocide. I just never appreciated how difficult it would be merely to demonstrate against a genocide.

I was among a group of nearly 100 Los Angeles Jews who traveled to San Francisco on Sunday, April 30, to participate in the “Day of Conscience for Darfur” rally. In addition to being accompanied by more than 30 of my congregants from Leo Baeck Temple, I was delighted to be joined by a number of colleagues, including Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and the board’s bresident, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

The majority of us flew into Oakland that Sunday morning, and the rally organizers had arranged for us to be transported to the rally by bus — only the bus never arrived. Forced to fend for ourselves, we quickly filled every taxi we could hail, urging the drivers to take us to the Golden Gate Bridge on the double.

As my cab began to depart from the airport, I remember being stunned when the driver indicated that he did not know how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge. There was no time to lose, so I started to fetch directions for him on my mobile phone. But as I focused intently on my job as our cabbie’s navigator, I couldn’t miss the conversation that he was having with my fellow passengers.

The driver identified himself as a recent immigrant from Darfur. Incredible. When he learned we were headed to the rally, he shook his head slowly, asking, “Are you Jews?”

When we confirmed his hunch, he snickered and said, “That explains it.”

We couldn’t resist taking the bait: “What do you mean by that?”

“There is no genocide taking place in Darfur,” he replied. “I know. I lived there. This ‘genocide’ has been concocted by the Jews as a means of diverting the world’s attention from what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.”

As the conversation continued, he peppered his verbal assault with a few disparaging references to the “Israel Lobby,” insisting that the truth would soon come out.

It was a rather surreal circumstance from which to emerge on the Golden Gate Bridge with 5,000 demonstrators determined to save Darfur. The rally was filled with inspirational moments. We heard from impassioned Washington legislators. Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders implored us to stop the murders. Eyewitnesses to the slaughter relayed their heartrending accounts. African musicians filled the air with glorious song. It was an extraordinary day. But the episode in the cab served as a dark reminder of just how much vigilance it will take to stop this genocide before we are left to mourn it.

The 20th century offered repeated incontrovertible proof that launching a campaign against genocide, getting it to permeate the collective consciousness and mobilizing the masses to take action is a difficult challenge.

There are many, like our cabbie, who possess personal and political reasons to deny the atrocities, and their efforts are bolstered by the very banality of genocide. That is to say, genocide is not always especially newsworthy. Nothing new happened today in Darfur that didn’t happen yesterday … and that won’t happen tomorrow.

This keeps a catastrophe like Darfur’s out of the news, fueling the lies of the deniers and the disinterest of the millions whose righteous indignation will be needed to motivate the world to take action.

With the notable exception of Nicholas Kristof’s venerable work in The New York Times, there is an embarrassing paucity of news about Darfur. Hundreds of thousands have been murdered, and millions have been displaced, but it is largely left to our imaginations to hear the cries of the victims. But if we listen closely enough, they can be heard. There are screams. Screams of women being branded and raped — right now. Screams of children being chased from their homes. Screams of men knowingly taking their final breath.

Just another day in Darfur.

Can we remain silent and live with ourselves?

We have a responsibility because we are neither the deniers nor the disinterested. There may not be enough news about Darfur, but we cannot claim that we are uninformed. Talking about the tragedy is not enough. Weeping about the tragedy is not enough. We must relentlessly urge our legislators to move the world to action. On Capitol Hill and at the White House, they count up our phone calls. That’s how they decide whether this genocide matters to us. That’s how they decide whether we want them to take life-saving action. Knowing this, calling daily isn’t too often.

As Jews, who know the scourge of genocide too well, we should each ask ourselves one question every day: “When this atrocity in Darfur is over, and the final losses are known, will I be at peace with what I did to stop it?”

During the week of the Darfur rallies in Washington and San Francisco, Jews all over the world were studying our famous command from the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

Five-hundred more will perish in Darfur today. When the killing is over, will you be at peace with what you did to stop it?

Ken Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air.

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?


To try to figure out all the volunteer projects social worker Karen Gilman is involved in — and where she finds the time to do them all — is to sift through a complex maze of stories of individuals who need help, or organizations that need help, or a volunteer staff that needs organization, or funds or whatever she can give.

For her job, Gilman is a social worker, who deals with parents of developmentally disabled children ranging in age up to 3.

“Some of my work-work interferes with my volunteer work,” she joked.

That volunteer work is vast. She served as the sisterhood president of Temple Israel of Hollywood and currently co-chairs its AIDS lunch project, which distributes food once a month. Gilman is also social action chair for the Western Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which presents the women’s positions on legislative policy.

She also works with Shane’s Inspiration, a nonprofit group that creates handicapped-accessible playgrounds around Los Angeles, and serves on the Special Olympics Mini Meet committee, as well as Fiesta Familiar, a yearly training program for parents of children with disabilities.

There’s more — like volunteering at her temple gift shop and working with the day school children on volunteer projects — but the real questions are: How does she do it? How does she not get burned out?

By way of an answer, she tells stories of second-graders who donated money anonymously so a poor person could celebrate Purim, the school lunch lady who called her to find out what to do for a severely lactose-intolerant child on pizza day and the parents who advocate for their children and “turn their pain in something for their families. That keeps us going,” she said, although even the mere question of what motivates her is curious to her.

“Once in a while, someone will do something out of the kindness of their hearts for someone else,” she said. “When you’re able to pull together the research and make something happen for someone, and they can utilize the resources, it’s gratifying.”

That’s Gilman’s main motivation. She was raised by socially conscious and politically active parents and grandparents in Chicago.

“They set the stage that this was the right thing to do,” she said.

“She doesn’t seek the limelight,” said Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood. “She really does it modestly. She just cares a lot — she knows she has the ability, and she knows a mitzvah and how to do it.”

That’s why the temple decided to surprise her by honoring her — only her — last year.

“They really shouldn’t have done it,” Gilman said, more embarrassed than upset. “Everyone works together on all these projects, and no one person is more deserving than another for praise. The highest form of giving charity is doing so anonymously, so it’s not really good to draw attention to oneself in one’s charitable work.”

For Gilman, volunteering is a team effort, one that requires motivating others to join her: “They are doing something good together with their friends, you get to spend a great time together with your community and it will make you feel good. People love giving anonymously and selflessly. Usually, Jewish people are easy to convince. They usually understand the concept of charity pretty well.”

Karen Gilman


Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting


Back when I was working at a newspaper in New York, my editors and I tried to come up with a teen-sounding headline for a story on voting for our new teen section.

“How about ‘Gettin’ Out the Vote’?” my editor offered.

As if dropping a “g” off the end of the word is all one needs to do to appeal to teens.

I knew then, and I know now, that to really speak to teens, you just have to be one.

Adults can affect any sort of teenish language they want; they can claim to understand how the teenage mind works, to get the issues teens are thinking about. But teens know a fake when they see it.

That is why The Jewish Journal has decided to hand this page over to teenagers. Once a month, we will choose columns, feature articles or news stories submitted by teens in grades 9-12.

As you can see on this page, Natalie Goodis, a junior at Marlborough High School, has inaugurated the page with a column about how her experience in Eastern Europe and Israel changed her.

Here’s your chance. Write an article about what a teenager has to weigh when deciding whether to date only Jews. Send us your thoughts on evolution vs. creationism. Tell us about what you think about Ariel Sharon, about this country’s hurricane response, about your grandmother. Describe an event at your school that moved the whole student body to action.

The topics are up to you; the voice is yours.

We hope the monthly page is just the beginning. We want teens to talk to us — to have some input into what their peers should be writing about. That is why we are creating a Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee. (How would that look on a college resume?) The committee will meet several times a year to determine what topics you want covered in these pages, and to get your feedback on where things should go.

Being a teenager is intense. It is when you form your values, you solidify lifelong relationships, you choose a path for your future. Most teens are profoundly aware of just how pivotal these years are, and a lot of teens have something to say about it.

If you’re one of them, we’re waiting to hear from you. This is your chance to help more than 100,000 Jewish adults get a glimpse into your world.

Action Items:

  • Articles: First-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words — submitted as an attachment to an e-mail.
  • Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee: Send your name, age, school and up to 200 words on why you should be on the Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee.

Ground Rules

Never Been Mugged

This piece was excerpted from the writer’s “Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada” (Other Press, 2005).

Over time I have learned to drive to a few locations in Jerusalem, but I am never sure when I start out if I indeed will reach my destination without getting lost, circling, poring over maps and asking person after person for directions. I have succeeded in mastering the twists and turns of Tel-Aviv, but driving into the hodgepodge of Jerusalem is as daunting as facing the illogic of Boston’s one-way streets after the comforting geometric symmetry of Manhattan.

In the door pocket of my car I have one road atlas of Israel, one map of the streets of Tel Aviv, one map of the Galilee and, at last count, no fewer than five of Jerusalem. I am always apprehensive of taking the wrong road, and winding up where I might be perceived as an unwelcome intruder.

One day my apprehensions were borne out in a way I couldn’t have predicted. All my life I have seen myself as a civil libertarian, a liberal, a peacenik. In sum, a Democrat. But my behavior proved me no better than the most hypocritical old salon communist.

I had driven to the capital to attend an evening meeting, but was delayed in traffic. Night had fallen and I was late. A double outsider, I was frightened of crossing the invisible borders of the “unified” city into intifada territory where, with my poor mastery of direction, I felt I might be an easy target.

I suddenly recalled advice given to me by a fellow American also based in Tel-Aviv: When in doubt in Jerusalem, leave your car in the guest parking lot at the old Hilton Hotel at its periphery and hop into a cab.

With relief, that’s what I did. Opening the back door I slid into the first cab of the taxis lined up waiting to collect passengers at the hotel entrance. I was just sitting back in the seat, starting to relax, when — through his accent — the driver revealed his nationality.

“Blease,” he repeated my destination back to me, “Hillel Street.”

In the mouth of a native Arabic speaker the English “P” turns into a “B”.

I froze, managed to mumble, “I forgot something,” then fled the cab.

Half panicking, I accosted the astounded hotel doorman and pleaded with him, “Get me another taxi.” I groped for words. “I want a driver with, with–” I searched for a euphemism.

Finally I blurted it straight out: “Find me an Israeli driver.”

Even as I stammered the words, I felt waves of shame rising. I was ushered into the next cab in line, obligingly driven by a Jew.

I kept my eyes focused on the ground, but I felt the dark stare of the Arab upon me as he stood idle beside his idling motor. Humiliation aside, he must have hated me for his lost fare. But however he judged me, it could be no harsher than my own verdict on myself.

My years of so-called convictions hadn’t proved strong enough to hold up a feather when it came to reality. I was too chicken to take a 10-minute drive in a registered taxi through western Jerusalem with an Arab driver at 8 p.m. And I was only going from the Hilton to Hillel Street — not from Jenin to Ramallah.

They say a liberal is a bigot who hasn’t yet been mugged, but my anxiety anticipated the unthrown stone. Unassisted, I put the dagger in the driver’s hand. By my blatant action and blunt words in those brief seconds, I did more damage to the cause of co-existence than I could ever counterbalance by a lifetime of dues to the Association for Civil Rights.

It’s no justification protesting that it was the prudent thing to do, an excusable overreaction, that “you never know,” or that I have a responsibility to my family as well as my ideals. For when I heard that driver speak and saw his dark eyes in the rear-view mirror, I was light years away from any convictions. When push came to shove, I was handed the opportunity to show where I stood, and I did. I failed the taxi test.

And I am doubly damned. For I know that, presented with the same test, I might again refuse the ride, again feel relief as I got out.

I can no longer whitewash my true colors. I, too, am a casualty of the occupation and the intifada it caused — and for that I ask the driver’s pardon. I used to just be waiting for peace. Since that abortive ride, I am also waiting for my conscience to give me peace.


The Circuit

Tackling the Taboo

The leadership of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center hosted an interactive lecture event on Aug. 7 at its Tarzana location, focused on discussing drug and alcohol abuse, frequently a taboo topic among Iranian Jewish families.

The audience of nearly 200 Iranian Jewish parents and their children listened to the event’s panel of experts, including Iraj Shamsian, the founder of the Iranian Recovery Center in Westwood; Dara Abaee, an Iranian Jewish community volunteer helping drug addicts; criminal defense attorney Alaleh Kamran; and Dariush Sameyah, an Iranian Jewish L.A.P.D. sergeant.

“We have been the only Iranian Jewish organization trying to help drug addicts in our community for years to get them to rehab,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. “This is the first time we have gone public with this issue because this epidemic is really getting out of hand with our young people.”

Recovering Iranian Jewish drug addicts also openly spoke to the crowd about the horrors of drug abuse, which in recent years has become more prevalent in the Iranian Jewish community. — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

State of the Valley

On Aug. 12, nearly 100 Valley community leaders and members gathered at the El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana for the Anti-Defamation League’s third annual State of the State Valley Legislative Breakfast. Five members of the San Fernando Valley’s delegation to the state legislature discussed issues ranging from hate crimes and bigotry to traffic and the environment. The event was hosted by Leon Lewitt and Brad Hertz, who also chaired.

Delightful Dodgers

The mood was happy and upbeat as spirited professional competition recently joined with good cheer when 100 Chai Lifeline children, parents and siblings watched the Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Cincinnati Reds during the organization’s annual Dodger Day.

Families gathered in a reserved section of Dodger Stadium with catering by Jeff’s Gourmet Kosher Sausages. Following dinner, Chai Lifeline volunteers passed around goody bags, compliments of Chai Lifeline and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who also provided the evening’s tickets. The Children were given the chance to reunite with fellow campers and counselors and relive happy memories.

Chai Lifeline provides emotional, social and financial support that enables families to cope with the short- and long-term repercussions of life-threatening and chronic pediatric illness. On the West Coast, the Sohacheski Family Center offers two-dozen free year-round programs and services to children, their families and communities.

For more information about becoming a Chai Lifeline volunteer or donor, or for assistance, contact the Sohacheski Family Center at (310) 274-6331.

Stand for Hadassah

Take a Stand, a newly established program at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is capturing the attention and imagination of its young leaders and donors. At the recent convention it raised $180,000 — in one day.

The program is designed to allow women, 45 and younger, to put their Jewish values to work. Take a Stand offers participants the opportunity to advocate on behalf of stem cell research in the United States and support the state-of-the-art Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

“We want to give young women in the Jewish community the opportunity to take action,” said Shelley Sherman, national chair for Young Founders. “This is the group that is considered the sandwich generation…. By both advocating for favorable stem cell legislation in the U.S. and supporting the scientific developments at our hospitals in Israel, these women can make a difference in the lives of their relatives and friends.”

Hadassah, the largest women’s organization in the U.S., is the leading proponent in the Jewish community of embryonic stem cell research and funding. This past spring, in the largest advocacy effort of the organization’s 92-year history, Hadassah delegations visited 50 state capitals to urge their legislators to pass favorable legislation. And, just recently, some 1,800 Hadassah delegates to Hadassah’s national convention visited Congressional representatives from 37 states in Washington, DC, holding more than 150 meetings to encourage favorable stem cell legislation, among other issues of concern.

For more information about Take a Stand, call (866) 229-2395 or e-mail


Washington Watch

Air Force Fight Moves to the Hill

The issue of religious coercion at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is starting to reverberate on Capitol Hill — with what one Jewish legislator said are ugly overtones.

And a chaplain who was fired for raising the issue of proselytization at the service academy said this week that a “disappointing” internal investigation by the Air Force demands strong congressional action.

In an interview, an angry Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said some of his congressional colleagues “just don’t get it. What I have learned is that the problems may not be confined to the Air Force Academy; the problem is here, in the halls of Congress.”

Last week, Israel introduced an amendment to a defense authorization bill expressing support for personal religious expression at the Air Force Academy, and demanded “corrective action reports” on “coercive proselytizing, intolerance and intimidation” at the school, he said.

Israel accused fellow lawmakers of “a jarring insensitivity to our concerns.”

Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) denied the existence of a problem at the Air Force Academy and warned that Rep. Israel’s amendment “would bring the ACLU into the United States military, it would bring the silly thinking of several of our judicial systems.”

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said the only problem at the controversy-plagued school is one of “political correctness.”

“Their response, essentially, was that the problem wasn’t those doing the coercing, but the victims who are complaining,” Israel said. “My colleagues seem to feel that the officers at the Air Force Academy who are pressuring subordinate cadets to adopt one religious view over another are simply pursuing their own personal religious freedom.”

Israel’s amendment, stripped of language that included “coercion” and “proselytization,” was rejected by the Rules Committee.

Israel accused the Republican leadership of “continuing to cater to right-wing extremists; any attempt to insist on moderation and pluralism and tolerance is struck down.”

Capt. Melinda Morton, the assistant chaplain at the school who was fired for raising the issues of religious intolerance and anti-Semitism, cast the problem in nonpartisan terms.

“Congressional oversight is very important,” she said. “The Air Force Academy is a direct reporting unit; we report to Congress, and the men and women who come here are appointed directly by congressmen and senators. So there’s a direct responsibility.”

She charged that an Air Force investigation into claims of religious intolerance has been superficial, at best. Despite her central role in the controversy “they didn’t even speak to me until noon on the last day they were to complete their report.”

Israel said that Jewish groups are not doing enough on the issue of religious coercion at the service academies.

“Any Jewish group that sat in on the Armed Services Committee last week would have realized that the problem is much more serious than they originally thought,” the lawmaker said. “I’m hoping the Jewish community — and the Catholic and Protestant communities — rise to this challenge.” — James D. Besser, Washington Correspondent

Big Church-State Battle Looming

Jewish groups are gearing up for what one activist called “the single-biggest faith-based vote by Congress ever” as Congress gets set to reauthorize the popular Head Start program.

The issue: Congressional Republicans, with strong White House backing, have announced plans to introduce an amendment that would explicitly allow faith-based groups that get federal Head Start money to discriminate in hiring employees.

Those provisions are necessary, supporters say, to allow churches and synagogues that participate in the program to maintain their religious character.

Orthodox Jewish groups agree.

“We call it religious freedom,” said Nathan Diament, Washington director for the Orthodox Union, which will support the expected amendment.

But church-state groups insist that it would open the door to widespread job discrimination using taxpayer dollars.

“We are arguing that Head Start is unique because of its pervasive nature, with Head Start programs in almost every congressional district,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. “And it’s a core civil rights and anti-poverty program; the idea of allowing discrimination in such a program is odious.”

Lieberman said it will be “the first time the House will vote to actually repeal an existing civil rights law in a floor vote,” a precedent that alarms civil rights groups.

It will also turn the Head Start reauthorization, one of few genuinely bipartisan bills in congress, into a partisan hot potato.

The amendment will be introduced on the floor by Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, which recently approved the Head Start reauthorization by a 48-0 vote.

Even opponents predict relatively easy passage in the House, but the measure could get slowed in the Senate, where the administration’s faith-based agenda has faced tougher going. — JB




The Fight for Freedom

In last week’s Torah Portion, the Israelites sat back and watched as God brought seven plagues upon the Egyptians. This week, in Parshat Bo, we read of the last three plagues. All of a sudden, the Israelites are told that they must help God in the last plague by smearing the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their houses. This was so that God will know not to strike those houses with the plague of the first-born and would “pass over” those houses. But didn’t God know which homes were Jewish?

God decides it is now time for the Israelites to become a nation, and to do that they must take action and learn about right and wrong. So God says: you must participate in your release from slavery. You will become free – and with freedom comes responsibility.

All About Egypt

This is the last week the Israelites will spend in Egypt. Have you ever been to Egypt? Do you know where it is? Unscramble the words to discover what continent it is on and which countries border







Who Should Own Nazi-Looted Art?

In a significant move by the U.S. government, FBI agents have seized a Picasso painting claimed as Nazi-looted art by a descendant of the original German Jewish owners.

Agents from the Los Angeles bureau confiscated the painting, valued at $10 million, at the Chicago home of the present owner, although allowing it to remain at the residence for the time being.

“This represents a strong signal by the government to dealers and collectors that Nazi-looted art must be returned, no matter how many hands it has passed through,” said Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg.

In another development in this complex and contentious legacy of the Hitler regime, California courts are also dealing with a demand that actress Elizabeth Taylor return a prized van Gogh painting.

In contention in the Picasso case is his “Femme en Blanc” (“Woman in White”), showing a contemplative woman in a white gown, stemming from the painter’s “classic” period after World War I.

It was originally purchased in 1925 by a Berlin couple, Robert and Carlota Landsberg. As the persecution of German Jews by the Nazis escalated, the Landsbergs sent the painting for safekeeping to a Paris art dealer in 1938.

When the German army took Paris in 1940, the art dealer fled and the Nazis looted his collection, including the Picasso painting.

After passing through various hands, the painting was purchased in 1975 from a private gallery by a Chicago art collector, Marilyn Alsdorf, for $357,000.

Alsdorf put the Picasso up for sale in 2001 through a Los Angeles art gallery, at which point London’s Art Loss Registry made public the painting’s tainted provenance. The registry notified both Alsdorf, the present owner, and Thomas Bennigson, the grandson and sole heir of original owner Carlota Landsberg.

Bennigson, an Oakland law student, filed suit to recover the painting, but on the day of the initial hearing in the case in December 2000, Alsdorf transported the Picasso back to Chicago.

This action was unlawful, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, which charged that Alsdorf had transported the painting across state lines “with knowledge that it was stolen, converted or taken by fraud.”

Attorney Schoenberg, representing Bennigson, applauded the government charge and subsequent FBI seizure of the painting, saying that, “A person who finally after 60 years tracks down a Nazi-looted painting shouldn’t have to chase it from state to state.”

In Chicago, Alsdorf and her lawyer are contesting Bennigson’s claim, and suits and counter-suits are now pending in both Illinois and California courts to determine which state has jurisdiction in the matter.

Once that is settled, a court will determine the actual ownership of the wandering “Woman in White.”

In the Elizabeth Taylor case, at stake is van Gogh’s “View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy,” which the actress bought 41 years ago for $257,000 at Sotheby’s.

In a flurry of contending lawsuits pending in federal court in Los Angeles, it is charged that the painting had belonged to another Jewish art collector in Berlin, Margarete Mauthner.

Mauthner’s great-grandson, Canadian attorney Andrew Orkin, claims that Taylor should have known that the painting “had likely been confiscated from a victim of Nazi persecution.”

Taylor, who reportedly tried to sell the van Gogh for $10 million in 1990, responded that Mauthner had sold the painting in the 1930s to finance her family’s immigration to South Africa and that there was “not a shred of evidence that the painting ever fell into Nazi hands.”

Given the thorny legal and moral issues spawned by Nazi-looted art cases, the Beverly Hills Bar Association’s Committee for the Arts will present a panel discussion on “Law, Justice and the Recovery of Holocaust Art” on Nov. 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Panelists will be attorneys Schoenberg, Thad Stauber, Steven E. Thomas and Simon Frankel, and Christine Steiner will moderate.

Both lawyers and laypersons are invited to the event, said Irena Raskin, chair of the arts committee, who noted that, “I cannot think of any aspect of art law more important than the recovery of Holocaust art, involving precedent-setting cases.”

The panel discussion will be held Nov. 16, 4-7 p.m., at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Leo Bing Theater. Tickets are $20 in advance and $30 at the door. There are additional fees for attorneys wishing to receive professional credit. For information and registration, call (310) 553-6644, or visit

We Must Renew Presbyterian Dialogues

Late last month, the 493 delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC-U.S.A.) adopted a series of deeply troubling “overtures” (their term for policy statements).

The General Assembly defeated an attempt to cut off funding for “messianic” congregations, which target Jews for proselytization and conversion. It condemned the Israeli security fence and, in an overture supporting the Geneva peace accords, called for divestment from companies doing business in Israel.

One of the rabbis I spoke to observed that, when taken together, the refusal to suspend funding for proselytization of Jews and the statement opposing the security barrier suggest that PC-U.S.A. believes that “Jewish souls are worth saving, but not Jewish lives.”

These statements reveal a significant chasm separating the Jewish community and PC-U.S.A. But however tempting it may be to entrench ourselves behind defensive and divisive rhetoric, for the sake of Israel, our long-standing friendship with the Presbyterians and our common values and concerns, we must strive to mend bridges rather than burn them.

Sadly, with one very important exception, none of these gestures is really new. PC-U.S.A., like many of the mainline Protestant denominations, claims to be “even-handed” in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, by equating terrorist acts committed against innocent civilians with legitimate Israeli military actions, they ignore the very security on which Israel depends. One can be a critic of particular policies of the Israeli government or of specific terror-fighting tactics without falling into the trap of moral equivalency.

What is new, and therefore most troubling, is the call for divestment. PC-U.S.A. has set a double standard by singling out Israel for economic and political sanctions.

Where is the PC-U.S.A. overture on holding accountable the Palestinian Authority officials who facilitate terrorism through the misuse of Palestinian and international funds? Where is the overture demanding true political reform in the Palestinian Authority? And where are the overtures divesting from countries with far, far greater human rights abuses than the democratic country of Israel: Myanmar, North Korea, China, Iran?

It has long been a linchpin of doves in Israel and their supporters around the world that the more economically and militarily robust Israel felt itself to be, the more willing it was to take risks for peace when the time came about. An Israeli economy weakened by divestment undercuts that willingness, and if shaped to include military contractors, divestment could weaken Israel’s security.

Although I know that many within PC-U.S.A. earnestly seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, its endorsement of divestment threatens to gravely destabilize the dynamics that are indispensable to a real peace process.

In response to these unprecedented overtures, some in our community have called for ending all dialogue with Presbyterians. I believe that is exactly the wrong response. What we need is a renewed dialogue that would occur on two levels.

On the national level, we need to reach out to the leadership of PC-U.S.A. and explain to them — without rancor or disdain — that the repercussions of their actions belie their stated support for Israel and deter progress toward a lasting peace.

On the local level, synagogues across the country need to reach out to Presbyterian churches in their communities and embrace a dialogue around Israel that will be difficult and may not lead to complete agreement but is absolutely essential.

Part of that difficulty will be responding to these gestures in a firm and critical manner without resorting to exaggeration or distortion. For example, PC-U.S.A.’s overture did not, as one national Jewish organization claimed, “call Israel a racist, apartheid state….” Such distortions distract from the sincerity and effectiveness of our response.

To address the immense criticism facing their endorsement of divestment, PC-U.S.A. clarified that “the assembly’s action calls for a selective divestment and not a blanket economic boycott, keeping before us our interest in Israel’s economic and social well-being.”

While welcoming that clarification, it is now our job to explain to them that divestment in any degree threatens the very existence of Israel and the prospects for peace. And it is our job to ensure that PC-U.S.A. lives up to its promise to keep Israel’s well-being not only in their words but in their deeds. Only through honest and sustained dialogue can this be achieved.

We must have the resolve to reach out across the chasm to our Presbyterian neighbors. We must do whatever we can to assure that, where the Presbyterians have gotten it wrong, they will work with us to get it right.

Mark J. Pelavin is director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism and associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Left, Right Playing Blame-Israel Game

Conspiracy theories unite the political extremes, a fact that stands out starkly as the fruitcake left and loony right converge around theories blaming Jewish neoconservatives for an Iraq War they despise.

The blame-Israel surge, which erupted on the Senate floor recently when Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) defended his claim that "President Bush’s policy to secure Israel" was the reason for the war, is unlikely to subside with this week’s handover of sovereignty to Iraq’s new government amid continuing violence.

On the other side of the partisan divide, check out, a Web site for — among others — disgruntled Republicans and libertarians like former GOP presidential contender Pat Buchanan. Here, too, a common theme is the neocon cabal that tricked the nation into a catastrophic conflict.

To the far left, the Iraq War represents a kind of perfect storm: an imperialist United States colluding with a colonialist Israel against innocent Third Worlders.

To their kissing cousins on the far right, convoluted conspiracies involving Jews have never gone out of style but are particularly attractive these days, because they seem to explain why an otherwise-conservative president has gotten sucked into a war they deem disastrous.

Those theories reflect misinformation and outright bias, but they were given a boost by an administration that didn’t hesitate to use pro-Israel arguments to sell the war to Congress last year.

The facts point to the outrageousness of these claims.

Everything we know about President Bush suggests that he came into office determined to complete the work his father left unfinished in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush ended the Gulf War without removing Saddam Hussein from power. Ditto Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Their motives were varied, ranging from family duty to protecting vital oil interests to a frantic concern about weapons of mass destruction in the aftermath of Sept. 11, but Israel was never near the top of the list.

Once in office, the president and his top advisers picked underlings who reflected their viewpoints, including those most often mentioned as part of the neocon conspiracy: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, National Security Council official Elliot Abrams and former Bush defense adviser Richard Perle. Some of the neocons had written about the Iraqi threat to Israel, but in fact, they brought a variety of motives into their pro-war arguments.

But the administration bolstered the blame-Israel line of reasoning by using the threat Iraq posed to the Jewish state to sell the war to skeptical Democrats, hinting that a vote against the war was a vote against Israel’s security. But that was politics, not policy; protecting Israel was never central to the administration’s Iraq aims.

The people making these charges seem to blame not just a handful of influential administration officials who happen to be Jewish but the Jewish community itself — a charge that smacks of outright anti-Semitism. That, too, ignores some obvious facts.

Some pro-Israel groups were supportive of the war — quietly, out of concern for a possible backlash — but there’s no evidence they played a major role.

Polls showed Jews were more skeptical about the need for military action against Iraq than the overall electorate. According to an American Jewish Committee survey done in the long run up to the war, Jews were about 10 points less supportive of the war option than Americans in general. Almost a year later, long after the official "victory," that proportion was unchanged.

Nor was Israel a big cheerleader for the war.

Israeli leaders are happy Saddam is languishing in a prison cell instead of arming and funding terrorists, but for years they made it plain that Syria and Iran were much bigger threats to their nation’s security. As the war drums beat louder in Washington last year, some expressed serious reservations about the repercussions to Israel of a U.S. attack on Iraq. Israeli officials did not lobby for U.S. military action.

But on the left and the right, those seeking simple explanations for a tangled path to war aren’t limited by mere facts. Their eagerness to blame Israel and a coterie of Jewish neocons suggests a passion for scapegoating, a virulent anti-Israel bias, anti-Semitism, a woeful ignorance of how policy is decided in Washington — or all of the above.

The claim that the president and his team were hoodwinked in the interest of protecting Israel is dangerous hogwash. Politicians who fall into the blame-the-Jews trap are playing with fire and deserve to be condemned in the harshest terms.

At the same time, Jewish leaders have to be more proactive in making it clear: For good or bad, this is a war being fought because the top leaders in our government believed it was in America’s interests.

Israel was not a significant part of the equation when Bush took office, eager to wreak vengeance on Iraq. At best, it was an excuse when the administration was trying to build support for the war.

UC Irvine Graduation Clash Fizzles

A feared confrontation between Jewish and Muslim students during graduation ceremonies at UC Irvine was largely avoided June 19, following a week of heated charges and countercharges.

Several members of the Muslim Student Union wore stoles, or broad strips of green cloth, over their graduation gowns inscribed with the word Shahada in Arabic letters, whose meaning and symbolism were at the center of the dispute.

Muslim student leaders claimed that about 30 graduates wore the stoles, although Jewish students thought that the number was considerably smaller.

As a counterforce, adult members of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) and StandWithUs arrived on campus in solidarity with Jewish students. After the ceremonies, Jews and Muslims formed small, peaceful discussion knots, which contrasted with the intense emotions of the preceding days.

When the Muslim students first announced their intention to wear the stoles, three national Jewish organizations and pro-Israel students protested that the stoles, similar to those worn by members of Hamas, were intended as a show of support for terrorism and suicide bombers.

Spokesmen for the Muslim students and for the Council of American-Islamic Relations countered that the inscriptions translated as a profession of faith in Allah and included the words, "God, increase my knowledge."

However, the on-campus Jewish groups and their off-campus allies, like StandWithUs, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and AJCongress, said that such statements of faith are typically also used by radical Islamic leaders to inspire their followers to become "martyrs" or suicide bombers.

On-campus Jewish groups were upset that the administration did not get outside verification of the meaning and symbolic nature of the stole, said Jeffrey Rips, executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County.

"I’m not saying the message is right or wrong, but any Muslim who does not have an agenda would not wear the stoles," said Tashbih Sayyed, a practicing Muslim who is the president of the Council for Democracy and Tolerance and the editor-in-chief of two Muslim newspapers: Pakistan Today and Muslim World Today.

The local dispute was given national currency when Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly reported that the Muslim students planned to "signify their support for the terrorist group, Hamas."

"The university has received 400 e-mails and faxes from all over the world on this issue — and many threatened violence at the commencement," said Randy Lewis, UC Irvine’s executive associate dean of students.

Local and national officials of the ADL, Zionist Organization of America and AJCongress protested the planned Muslim display to UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone and asked him to intervene or at least criticize the students’ action.

University officials responded that the Muslim students’ right of expression was protected by the Constitution and that similar commencement displays last year at UC Berkeley and UCLA had taken place without causing problems.

Seven commencements for undergraduates from different schools and departments were held on the Irvine campus without any reported incidents, although security was unusually tight.

Merav Ceren, 20, president of Anteaters for Israel — using the name of the UCI mascot — said her group, which had protested the Muslim display to the campus administration, had decided not to disturb the commencement ceremonies.

Yet, after careful deliberation, the Jewish groups decided against signing a statement the administration proposed last Thursday in a meeting with the Jewish groups "in support of a dignified and safe commencement ceremony."

Joseph Hekmat, a member of the pro-Israel group, was one of the graduates at the School of Social Sciences commencement. Although a number of Muslim students were in the same graduating class, Hekmat said he did not see anyone wearing the controversial stole.

However, the dispute pointed to the strong underlying tensions on campus. Last year, a display by Hillel students commemorating the Holocaust was vandalized. Last month, an Anti-Zionist Week on campus featured an extremist Islamic cleric and a rabbi from the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Israel Naturei Karta, Ceren said.

Arab students, in turn, protested when a cardboard "wall" they created, symbolizing Israel’s security fence, was set on fire. No perpetrators have been identified in any of the incidents.

"The Jewish students here definitely live in an atmosphere of tension," Ceren said.

But in the wake of "stolegate," there are currently moves on campus to diffuse the tensions. Byron Breland, director of student judicial affairs, is putting together a "conflict escalation prevention team," in which students can enroll to serve as middlemen to put out fires when fights arise.

Also, campus administration officials are trying to organize a dialogue between the Muslim and Arab student groups and the Jewish student groups, something the Jewish students said they have wanted for a long time.

Staff writer Gaby Wenig contributed to this report.

Are Sex Abuse Guidelines Working?

A lengthy battle over how the Reform movement should handle a charge of sexual misconduct against a California rabbi is coming to a head.

On June 20, the board of trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the movement’s rabbinical arm, is expected to decide whether to uphold its earlier reprimand of Rabbi Michael Mayersohn or to censure him, a more serious step, which the conference’s Committee on Ethics and Appeals initially had recommended.

The issue stems from a May 2002 complaint by Chavah Hogue of Huntington Beach, who alleged that Mayersohn tried to seduce her during a closed-door marital counseling session while he was the rabbi at Temple Beth David in Westminster.

Mayersohn, who has since left his congregation and now is a full-time pastoral counselor, vehemently denies the charge.

The California case returns the spotlight to rabbinic ethics policies in the wake of several high-profile cases of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, as well as the well-publicized scandals of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Perhaps the most prominent Jewish scandal in recent years involved Rabbi Baruch Lanner, an Orthodox day school principal in New Jersey, who was convicted and jailed in 2002 for sexually abusing teenage girls and women and physically abusing boys as an official of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

A report for the youth group’s parent organization, the Orthodox Union, found that Lanner’s superiors did not act forcefully enough to intervene after receiving complaints about his behavior.

"The Lanner case and what happened with the Catholic priesthood raised the awareness of the public, and gave the public the sense that we should not ignore it if a member of the clergy is doing something wrong," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Hogue, 44, who was raised in an Anglo-Catholic home, said she discovered Jewish roots in her family and joined the Reform congregation in 1999, changing her name to Chavah from Lori and converting along with her daughter in a Conservative ceremony a year after joining the Reform temple.

Her husband did not convert. Hogue said she chose a Conservative conversion to ensure that her young daughter would be accepted by most Jews in America when it comes time to marry.

In a telephone interview, Hogue alleged that Mayersohn began "hitting on me" some eight months after she joined the temple, trying to kiss her, hug her or touch her inappropriately.

Hogue was experiencing marital problems involving interfaith issues, and at the rabbi’s suggestion began attending pastoral counseling sessions alone with him, she said. After asking about her sex life in their first session, the rabbi "groped me and kissed me and tried to convince me to have sex with him" in a second meeting, she said. Hogue refused.

In May 2002, Hogue filed a formal sexual misconduct complaint to the CCAR’s Committee on Ethics and Appeals, which handles such charges. Her complaint against Mayersohn alleged "sexual boundary violations."

Mayersohn, 52, has flatly denied all of the allegations to Reform movement officials, and he reiterated his denials.

"There was absolutely nothing inappropriate about our relationship and there was nothing, from my end, that was sexual about it," he said. "Nothing that she alleges happened in those meetings happened. Unfortunately, like all rabbis who meet with people behind closed doors, I am vulnerable to people’s fabrications."

The rabbi also maintained that it was Hogue who initiated the pastoral counseling sessions, which he said he conducted with many congregants.

Though Mayerson said he sometimes touched congregants in public in a "warm, friendly" manner, Hogue "confused" his gestures for something else.

She "mistook my rabbinic concerns for her well interest" for "romantic or sexual interest," he said.

He also told the ethics panel that he took pre-emptive action against Hogue’s "misperceptions," notifying the temple board and CCAR of her assertions soon after their counseling sessions.

After the three-member ethics committee’s investigating team looked into the case, the panel in June 2003 said in a report to Gold that Hogue’s charge "cannot be clearly confirmed or denied," but that it was "troubling to dismiss her experience here as having been entirely imagined."

Although the panel could not prove Mayersohn was guilty of any ethical lapse, it maintained that "there is an indication of a rabbi in need of some kind of support and/or training."

The panel found there was sufficient evidence Mayersohn had "exercised poor judgment" in his dealings with Hogue and in August voted to censure him. That was less than the gravest possible penalties — expulsion or suspension — but more serious than a letter of reprimand.

Under the Reform code of ethics, a reprimand remains the least serious form of punishment. It takes the form of a private letter to the rabbi involved.

By being censured, Mayersohn was required to undergo psychological evaluation, therapy and counseling for teshuvah (repentance).

If a censured rabbi fails to fulfill such orders or additional problems surface, the CCAR could recommend that they be removed from some or all of their professional duties.

In a letter notifying Hogue of the censure, the ethics panel’s chair, Rabbi Rosalind Gold of Reston, Va., said Mayersohn had the right to appeal to the rabbinic conference’s board of trustees.

Yet the full board overturns such decisions only "when the proper process of adjudication has not been followed; I do not believe there is any ground for such an appeal in this case," she wrote at the time.

Mayersohn stepped down from his pulpit that same month, after giving his temple a required six-month notification. He said the action against him and his leaving "have nothing to do with each other," but that after 13 years in the pulpit, he wanted to be a full-time pastoral counselor.

Mayersohn also appealed the censure, a move that forestalled any of its requirements, and in January 2004, Gold wrote Hogue that the CCAR’s board had reduced the penalty to a reprimand.

Ultimately, neither Mayersohn nor Hogue was happy with how the seven-month investigation was handled.

"I understand the difficulty of their task, but I do believe either flaws in the system or mistakes in the process have resulted in injury to me," Mayersohn said.

For her part, Hogue said, "They were dragging their feet and taking as long as possible to conduct this case."

Gold, CCAR President Rabbi Janet Marder and other conference members declined to discuss the case, citing confidentiality policies.

Meanwhile, the full CCAR board acknowledged that in deciding to overturn the censure, it ignored a rule in the movement’s rabbinical ethics code, forcing this month’s second hearing on the matter.

Under the code, the board, before deciding on a complaint, is supposed to allow both the person making the charge and the rabbi involved to make their case, but this time only Mayersohn was invited to give his input beforehand.

Ultimately, Hogue maintains the CCAR was "falling down in their sacred duty to protect those who come to them for help."

"I felt they were not giving my case the importance it deserved," she said.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the group’s executive vice president, defended the way the rabbinic conference handles complaints about members.

"Anybody who looks at our process and how it has been implemented over the years would be hard-pressed to say it’s not serious," Menitoff said.

In a typical year, the rabbinic conference fields five to six complaints of rabbinic sexual misconduct, he said, and the charges are found worthy of some action "more often than not."

But he and other officials would not discuss the details of those cases.

Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer, a professor of law at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who advocated for tougher Reform ethics rules and who helped shape the current guidelines in the mid-1990s, said the movement was among the first streams to get tough on rabbinic sexual misbehavior.

Now Schaefer hopes the movement will mandate more classes on sexual misconduct issues for rabbis and seminary students to prevent further abuse.

Record Gridlock Good for Liberals

Stalemate has become standard operating procedure for Congress in recent years, but this year’s legislative gridlock could be headed for the record books. That’s a source of frustration for Jewish activists across the political spectrum — but also of guilty relief for some.

Important bills have little chance of moving forward in a session marred by election year politics and a new, venomous partisanship. But for liberal Jewish groups, the clogged congressional arteries also mean a partial respite from the conservative onslaught.

Still, no Jewish group takes any joy in a legislative tangle that blocks good legislation and bad and keeps Congress from dealing with a host of long-term problems that are just getting worse as lawmakers quibble.

The reasons for the current gridlock are many, but they can be boiled down to a few basic ones, starting with the rancorous, uncompromising mood of the congressional leadership. In the age of Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh, you don’t debate and find the middle ground, you maul.

In the House, the GOP leadership has made almost no effort to reach across party lines to the Democrats. Things are hardly any better in the Senate, where the traditional collegiality is now just a memory.

One particularly graphic example: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) recently traveled to South Dakota to campaign against his Democratic counterpart, minority leader Tom Daschle, a spectacular breach of the etiquette of that body.

The Republicans have a solid enough majority in the House to pass most conservative legislation, but Senate rules that give added power to the minority are proving an insurmountable roadblock to congressional action.

But there are other reasons for the legislative gridlock, including the fact that in this election year, lawmakers are reluctant to confront problems that don’t conform to their simplistic campaign slogans.

The budget is a mess and everybody knows it is going to take Draconian action to deal with it — huge program cuts or tax increases — but that’s the last thing nervous partisans on both sides of the aisle want.

The Bush administration, preoccupied by the deteriorating situation in Iraq, has not aggressively pushed its domestic legislative agenda, adding to the congressional malaise.

While nobody cheers the results, this latest do-nothing Congress has a silver lining for liberal Jewish groups.

"A lot of things we expected would go through very quickly in this Congress have stalled," said an official with one group, "and given the current political climate, that may be the best we can hope for."

An example: the stalled effort to reauthorize the controversial 1996 welfare reform law. The original law included the first national "charitable choice" provisions, whic opened the door to government contracts for religious groups to provide social services; the reauthorization was expected to renew and expand those provisions.

But the bill was yanked when senators got hopelessly bogged down in debates over minimum-wage provisions, and nobody, apparently, thought it was worth trying to hammer out a compromise.

Overall, the president’s faith-based initiative is not likely to get much of a hearing in a Congress ideologically disposed to it, but not disposed to find the compromises it will take to enact the plan into law.

And some legislation is more useful stalled than passed.

A constitutional amendment barring gay marriage and an extension of the controversial Patriot Act are unlikely to move this year, in part because many Republican leaders expect to gain political mileage by blaming the Democrats for holding them back. Many Democrats are working to block those bills — and the Republicans aren’t trying very hard to get past those roadblocks.

But the gridlock is also sidelining measures these Jewish groups support, including an expanded hate crimes statute and the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA).

Jewish leaders are pushing legislation to provide $100 million in homeland security money to help nonprofit agencies, including synagogues and Jewish schools, protect themselves against terror attacks.

But congressional leaders are much more interested in playing partisan "gotcha" than in figuring out how to the provide the money.

And then there’s the budget time bomb.

Congress didn’t deal with the soaring deficit last year, when it failed to pass 11 of 13 appropriations bills, and it’s unlikely to do much better this year. Instead, most observers expect another big, pork-laden "continuing resolution" — Congress-talk for a gimmick to put off hard budget decisions.

That’s good news — sort of — for agencies that expect big cuts when Congress finally does start dealing with the runaway deficit. But in the end, putting off a serious budget reckoning will only compound the problem.

Jewish groups don’t have magic answers to the budget crisis, but almost all agree: the longer Congress fiddles while the budget burns, the worse will be the ultimate consequences.

And forget about meaningful Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security reform to keep the vital programs solvent when the Baby Boom generation hits the Golden Years.

Recent history suggests the "What, Me Worry" Congress will be overwhelmingly reelected on Nov. 2, but it sure won’t be because of its distinguished legislative record.

Just Do It

Back in 1981, when I was attending rabbinical college in Boston, there was a young rabbi — fresh out of seminary — who founded a small congregation in the Boston suburb South Brookline. He would often hang out with us as "one of the guys." From the day he started up his shul, he was quite successful. He developed a strong following and quickly put his name on the map. I often wondered to myself wherein lay the key to his success and popularity. Upon meeting him, one really could not notice anything particularly remarkable about him.

One day, I picked up a newspaper only to find a picture of this young rabbi sitting and chatting with President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, accompanied by a write-up about how he was sharing the message of Chanukah with the president. The story was carried nationally. That was enough for me. I had to find out how this young "shnook" was doing it. I asked him how he managed to accomplish all of these wonderful things. He put it very simply: "It’s because I want to. It’s not about brilliance, eloquence and experience [though those things are certainly useful and important] as much as it is about confidence, persistence and performance."

He went on to say: "Look, I decided I had something to say to the president and that I wanted to meet with him, so I went out there and made it happen."

In the first of this week’s double Torah portion of Vayakel-Pekuday, we learn about the various items contributed by the different groups among the Israelites toward the building of the Mishkan (the Holy Tabernacle) during the journey in the desert. The Torah tells us that the Nesiyim — the leaders of the tribes — donated the precious gems for the breastplate of the High Priest.

The commentator Rashi takes note of the fact that when using the word "Nesi’im" to describe the leaders’ participation, the Torah deliberately misspells it as "Nesm" as an indication of a flaw and deficiency in the leaders’ manner of participation.

What was the flaw? You see, when the time came for each group to come forward and state what they would give, the Nesi’im volunteered that they would cover whatever was missing after all other donations came in. As it turned out, the outstanding items were the stones and, as such, this was their contribution.

Now why is this manner of service — agreeing to underwrite whatever was not already covered — somehow deemed deficient? After all, it demonstrated a willingness to be there in whatever capacity they’d be called upon. And, in fact, they did end up donating some rather pricey materials. Where was the flaw in their approach?

The keys to the success of any significant project are capability and motivation. Potential + perseverance = success. Now between the two, which is primary? Our sages teach us, "There is nothing that can stand in the way of one’s ratzon [genuine will and desire]." Simply put, skill without will leaves one an underachiever, whereas drive and perseverance enables one to rise above one’s shortcomings and achieve greatness.

For example, this Torah portion describes the workers who volunteered to build the Mishkan as "every man whose heart inspired him." These Israelites had absolutely no experience in this type of unique construction. What then made them qualified to carry it forth? The answer: Their "hearts inspired them." In other words, they had a desire. They were eager to do it. And by virtue of this desire and eagerness, they became qualified and rose to the occasion.

This is what God wants to see from us. "Don’t tell Me how talented or untalented you are," the Almighty says. "Just tell me what you’re ready and willing to do, and let Me worry about the ‘able’ part."

So they ask these Heads of the Tribes: "What will you folks be donating to the Mishkan?" Essentially, they answer, "Well … whatever. Just give us a call when all is said and done and let us know where you need us to come in. Metals, boards, stones — we’ve got it all."

That’s very nice — extremely generous. It’s nice to know what you’re capable of. As leaders of the Jewish people, however, these Nesi’im should have demonstrated that when there is a call for action, it is not a time to talk about what you can do, but what you will do. With the excitement of the construction campaign in the air, the Nesi’im should have been the first in line — not the last — to act with initiative, diligence and specificity. Their failure to do so, however well-intended, is seen as a deficiency.

We’re taught that the most essential ingredient is not contemplation or analysis, but action. When we’re presented with an opportunity to do a mitzvah, to become more religiously observant or to get involved in a worthwhile endeavor, let us lighten up a bit on the philosophical introspection and self-examination and "Just do it!" It is not when we become spiritual that we can first decide to act spiritual. Indeed, it is only if we act spiritual that we can become spiritual.

I’ve seen it time and time again; it really is not about brilliance, eloquence and experience as much as it is about confidence, persistence and performance. In fact, I think I would like to have a conversation about this very issue with President George W. Bush.


Rabbi Moshe Bryski is executive director of Chabad of Agoura Hills and dean of the Conejo Jewish Day School.

Summit Focuses on Recruiting Teachers

Joseph Kanfer deftly wrapped wires and affixed pieces of material to a truncated test tube. Then he glued the Hebrew letter “shin” to the creation, producing a mezuzah.

While the scene resembled a preschool project, it signified much more. Kanfer, former chairman of the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and a major donor to Jewish educational projects, was taking part in Avoda Arts, a cutting-edge initiative to elevate arts instruction in Jewish schools.

So far, the program has produced five Jewish educators and helped dozens of college students create Jewish-themed artworks in disciplines ranging from film to sculpture.

“We are absolutely a recruitment process,” said Carol Brennglass Spinner, Avoda Arts’ executive director.

Such efforts are part of a wider, unprecedented campaign to attract and hold onto Jewish teachers at a time when Jewish education in North America has grown into an estimated $3 billion enterprise — little of which goes to educator salaries.

Kanfer, whose GOJO, Inc. of Akron, Ohio, manufactures Purell hand cleaner, was participating in an unprecedented summit here this week that brought many of the Jewish philanthropic world’s biggest funders into a room with 350 educators, administrators and communal professionals to devise plans to bring new respect and rewards to the Jewish teaching profession.

Such talk of change is hardly new. The terms “recruitment and retention” have been around since the 1980s, and talk of low teacher pay is hardly news.

However, participants insist that the first Jewish Education Leadership Summit will prove a radical departure from the norm. Sponsored by JESNA, the summit included intensive sessions where megadonors like Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt sat alongside teachers and school administrators and hashed out detailed proposals to recruit and retain a new generation of Jewish teachers.

“What’s different about this conference is that there are no talking heads,” said Laura Lauder of Atherton, Calif., who co-chaired the summit. “Whether you represent a $100 million foundation or you’re a teacher on the ground, everyone has a seat at the table.”

Many of the donors involved have contributed millions of dollars to Jewish schools and organizations. But, in another big shift, they now are calling for educators to come up with serious business plans that, as Lauder put it, spell out the tachlis or details of overhauling Jewish education.

“We want plans with measurable outlines that we can be accountable for,” said Lauder, who married into the philanthropic Lauder family and is a major donor in her own right.

“It’s not doing business as usual,” said Arnee Winshall of Boston, another summit co-chair, who has contributed significantly to Jewish educational causes. “I’m much more willing to write a larger check when I can see how it’s going to make a difference.”

Summit organizers said the work they did here will meet Winshall’s standards. Over the course of the conference, participants hashed out ideas in intensive sessions covering areas from early childhood education to congregational education to day schools.

Hundreds of pages of notes from the meetings will be incorporated in coming months into a larger effort called the Jewish Educator Recruitment/Retention Initiative Action Plan. The idea is to mount a national drive to find and keep top Jewish teachers.

Already, Winshall said, there are pockets of innovation that lead to hope that teachers are getting their due.

Jaynie Schultz, board president of Akiba Academy, a modern Orthodox day school in Dallas, said that four years ago, the school began paying salaries that were 95 percent of teacher salaries at the highest-paid non-Jewish suburban schools. In the four years since, the school has had little trouble hiring top teachers, and few faculty members have left, she said.

Meanwhile, Marc Kramer, executive director of Ravsak, a network of 82 multidenominational day schools across North America, announced a substantial grant from the Avi Chai Foundation to give heads of Jewish day schools’ Judaic studies programs a better Jewish education, themselves.

Many school chiefs are skilled at administration or fundraising but personally lack a solid Jewish grounding, he said. The administrators can attend summer and winter courses and use a new online distance-learning service called, JskyWay, to enhance their own Jewish education.

“We won’t be creating great Talmudic minds, but we can strengthen their capacity to advocate for their schools,” Kramer said.

Over the past five years, Helene Tigay, executive director of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia, has led a successful drive to recruit teachers for supplemental, or Hebrew, school.

Five years ago, local synagogue schools typically started the school year with about one-quarter of teaching positions unfilled due to lack of qualified candidates, Tigay said.

Armed with an initial $25,000 grant from her local Jewish federation — and now with a three-year, $100,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation — Tigay launched a catchy ad campaign and compiled a database of more than 100 teachers. She managed to fill the open slots.

She also compiled a manual for recruiting and retaining teachers and helped schools build a vision for their programs. Now Tigay is ensuring that the new teachers are given counseling, professional workshops, stipends for professional trips and other “in-service” support, she said.

“We’ve been so successful at recruitment, that our focus is now retention,” Tigay said.

Others are finding that they need to focus on the less-tangible qualities of Jewish education to win over potential hires. Helene Kalson Cohen, dean of the Jewish Academy of Metro Detroit, a multidenominational school, said she tells candidates that what they get as Jewish educators they won’t find in secular or other private schools. The school offers a “supportive community” with mentoring programs, professional development efforts and involved and motivated students and parents.

Despite these advancements, many at the conference said it remains to be seen whether a national, unified approach like the Jewish Educator Recruitment/Retention Initiative will make a real difference.

Kalson Cohen, who also is a JESNA board member, said the plan’s impact will depend on how it is delivered. Educators like her are busy professionals who may ignore a massive, national plan that fails to include components that target specific local areas, Kalson Cohen warned.

“I almost want to say that I never want to see the whole thing together, otherwise it will be a trophy that will end up on shelves and then it will lose its power,” Kalson Cohen added.

Still, much talk at the conference reflected what some hope will be a tipping point in Jewish education, where educators devise a real action plan that rallies philanthropists.

“The belief and the hope is that this might be one of those moments in time where a number of factors will emerge to allow systemic change to occur,” Kalson Cohen said.

Vote Yes on 57, 58: They Will Ease Crisis

It certainly is an unusual situation, but we Republicans are encouraging you to vote to increase the debt of the state of California, and we are doing it with a straight face.

As you know, Proposition 57 is asking Californians to commit to a bond issue of $15 billion. This commitment will allow our state budget to be stabilized, so that we can begin the process of moving forward.

If you study the state budgets over the last few years as I have, you would see that we have had a deficit at the end of each year that keeps getting larger each and every year. Even when revenues were perceived to be at a peak, we were outspending those revenues. The state budget began each year in the hole that just got deeper as the months went by.

Now we have a twofold problem. We must deal with the backlog created from prior years and try to balance this year’s budget, where expenses still are outstripping revenues. Proposition 57 will allow us to focus on eliminating the current budget imbalance without the draconian past debt facing us.

As it is, we will face serious cuts in our state budget. The growth in expenditures will have to be eliminated and actual cuts in important programs will have to be made.

As much as some of us would like to effect the cuts now that are necessary to erase this debt, we have come to the conclusion that it would significantly harm our state’s economy. This would stifle the immediate economic growth we need to reach budget equilibrium.

This new debt is not going away. That is understood. We are going to have to pay it back over the next decade. It will be in a fashion that will allow our legislators to craft a budget that will not start wallowed in debt before the opening discussions begin. By our good fortune, this debt will be financed at today’s very low interest rates.

The question then becomes how do we prevent this disastrous situation from re-occurring. We must pass the companion proposition — No. 58. It specifically makes it illegal to create any future bonds to finance a budget deficit again. It requires the Legislature to balance the budget.

Proposition 58, in addition to requiring a balanced budget each year, establishes that there must be a budget reserve in case projected revenues fall short. This is an important part of the measure.

A year in advance, some very smart people sit down and project what the revenues are going to be for the next 12 months for the world’s sixth largest economy. As smart as they are, it is a Herculean task, where it is easy to be off a billion dollars or more. This reserve will recognize that projections are only projections, and we should provide a cushion for dealing with the inevitable changes.

These new budget requirements can only be deviated from when there is a fiscal emergency upon which both the governor and Legislature agree. Some would say that a balanced budget should be locked in stone.

Those feelings are certainly justified after the dismal performance of the last few years. Once we divorce ourselves from those feelings and look at the budgeting process on a long-term basis, it becomes easier to see that this is a necessary clause that allows our elected officials to act responsibly, when a true disaster happens. If, God forbid, another earthquake occurs matching the damage caused by the Northridge quake, we would all want our leaders in Sacramento to do what is necessary to return our lives to normal.

These are the reasons why a broad spectrum of the political and financial universe is supporting both Proposition 57 and 58. It is a reasoned plan of action.

There may be alternative plans that seem good, but this one is worked out and ready to go. Let’s give it a chance and make judgment about its success after we see the full effects.

There are many important votes to cast on March 2, but none is more important for the future stability of our state than to vote yes on Proposition 57 and 58.

Bruce L. Bialosky is the Southern California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Targeted Killings’ Other Casualties

Killing Hamas leaders wounds the terrorist group, Israeli and Palestinian officials agree. At question is whether moderate Palestinians — and U.S. influence in the region — are also casualties of Israel’s targeted strikes.

Israel has killed at least 11 leaders of Hamas since the group claimed responsibility for a deadly Jerusalem bus bombing on Aug. 19, which killed 21 people, including at least five children.

Israel declared "all-out war" against the group after the bus bombing.

The new frequency of the killings — and the targeting of political as well as military leaders — have led some to wonder whether the Bush administration’s "road map" peace plan, which envisions an end to terrorism and a Palestinian state within three years, is still viable.

"It has a serious effect on the Hamas leadership, on the one hand," Edward Abington, a former U.S. diplomat who now lobbies for the Palestinians in Washington, said of the killings.

On the other hand, he said, "it undermines U.S. credibility on the road map."

Abington said the killings would shift moderate Arab regimes — key to the Bush administration’s plans not only for Israelis and Palestinians, but for Iraq — away from support for the United States.

"Israel is assassinating left and right, and the appearance is that the United States is acquiescing," Abington said.

The lack of moderate Arab support in 2000 helped scuttle the Camp David talks when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat refused to take painful steps — such as conceding parts of Jerusalem — knowing he would be on his own.

Israelis say that defeating Hamas ultimately could remove the extremist yoke that has held back the Palestinian leadership until now.

"Hamas has no interest in any political solution," said Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Israel would have preferred the Palestinian Authority to handle Hamas, but they have consistently refused to meet their road map responsibilities and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure."

In any case, the Hamas attacks — and Israeli retaliation — may mean that the United States fundamentally has to reassess its policies in the region.

"American policy is now in a shambles, the road map no longer seems viable, the cease-fire is in tatters," said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

If the United States has problems with the intensity of Israel’s reaction, its public expressions have been muted at best.

"Israel has a right to defend herself, but Israel needs to take into account the effect that actions they take have on the peace process," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said after Israel killed top Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab in a rocket attack on Aug. 21.

Shanab was a political leader who helped broker the recent cease-fire, signed onto by the main Palestinian terrorist groups, which led to a brief period of calm. His killing came just two months after Israel attempted to kill Hamas spokesman and senior member Abdel Aziz Rantissi.

Any American attempt to distinguish between political and military leaders runs the risk of hypocrisy, said Matthew Levitt, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"We don’t make a distinction between Osama bin Laden and his foot soldiers, even though bin Laden is not the trigger puller," Levitt said. "Those who commit acts of terrorism and those who order them carried out are just as culpable."

Gold said that political leaders and spokesmen serve the same tactical ends as bombmakers.

"Israel does not accept the argument that there is a difference between the political and military wings of Hamas," he said. "The U.S. used to be very concerned when Al Qaeda spokesmen would appear on Al-Jazeera because they could have had operational messages mixed into their language. The same is true for Hamas spokesmen like Rantissi."

Targeting political leaders is not new: Israel made no distinctions between political and military officials in its famous action against Black September after the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Still, Israel’s recent intensity against Hamas is unprecedented in the way it has confronted the 3-year-old intifada.

Levitt, a former FBI analyst, said there is a tactical advantage to maintaining the intensity of the attacks.

"Having a situation in which all of Hamas has to go underground, moving it from desktops to laptops, is a significant blow to its ability to carry out operations," he said.

Abington agreed that is true in the short term — but is worried that ultimately the targeted killings would only reinforce the militant group.

"It undermines Abu Mazen," Abington said, using the popular name for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

"One reason he has been reluctant to take moves against Hamas is because he thinks the Palestinian street does not support him. Assassinations only inflame support for Hamas."

It was a point echoed by Brown,

"From the Israeli perspective, it’s clear that suicide bombing depends first on capability, and also on a social environment that makes it possible," Brown said. "Assassination targets the first, but makes the second worse."

Still, Brown said, "It strikes me that the killings are motivated by the lack of other options."

British Writer Snubs Pro-Israel Letters

A British newspaper columnist who admits that he ignores pro-Israel letters to the editor if the writer has a Jewish name will not be punished, the country’s media watchdog has decided.

Richard Ingrams, a columnist for the Observer newspaper, made the remark last month in a column criticizing Barbara Amiel, a journalist and the wife of Jerusalem Post proprietor Conrad Black.

"I have developed a habit when confronted by letters to the editor in support of the Israeli government to look at the signature to see if the writer has a Jewish name. If so, I tend not to read it," Ingrams wrote in his July 13 column.

The Observer received about 50 letters and e-mails in response to the column, including one from the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews.

Neville Nagler, the director general of the board, called Ingrams’ position "quite unacceptable."

"If a Jewish person chooses to support the Israeli government, this does not make his argument any less legitimate than a non-Jewish person’s," Nagler wrote. "It is deeply worrying that a journalist of your paper is so willing to blind himself to one side of this sad conflict."

Another person who complained to the paper about the column pointed out that many Jews are highly critical of Israel.

"Ingrams would thus exclude names such as [Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and David Grossman — all fierce critics of Israeli policy –] from the public debate on Israel, on much the same ethnic principle as Jews were once blackballed from certain gentlemen’s clubs," R.J. Chisholm wrote.

The Observer’s own journalist employed to investigate reader complaints admitted that the piece was "inflammatory" and "bigoted."

"I agree with a reader who pointed out that Ingrams’ piece displayed such a degree of prejudice against Jews that it will be impossible ever again to take seriously anything he writes about Israel," journalist Stephen Pritchard wrote on Aug. 3.

But the Press Complaints Commission, which received two formal complaints about the piece, has decided not to take action against Ingrams.

"It is clear there has been no breach of the code" governing newspapers, commission spokesman Stephen Abell told Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Complaints were filed on two grounds, he explained: accuracy and discrimination.

The column did not breach the accuracy clause because it was clearly labeled opinion, rather than news, Abell said. And the code’s discrimination clause applies only to named individuals, not to groups, he said.

"[Ingrams] wasn’t naming individuals, he was making a point about a group," Abell said.

The column might have been offensive, he said, but that is not a violation of newspaper guidelines.

"Matters of taste and offensiveness aren’t covered by the code," he said.

Norman Lebrecht, a former columnist for Britain’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper, supported the commission’s decision.

He called it a matter of courtesy to read one’s mail, adding, "If a columnist chooses to be discourteous, that isn’t a matter for the Press Complaints Commission."

"There is no anti-Semitism" in Ingrams’ refusal to read mail from Jews in support of Israel, he told JTA.

The reaction to the column stemmed from anxiety in the Jewish community, Lebrecht said.

"There is an awful lot of nervousness in the community at the moment, [and the complaints] are a manifestation of that," he said.

In May, the Press Complaints Commission rejected a complaint that a cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a baby was anti-Semitic. The commission said it based its decision on the grounds that the cartoon criticized Sharon’s policies, not his religion.

An Unorthodox View of Who’s Orthodox

Who knew that an article on Jewish love would generate a little debate?

A while back, I wrote a piece titled, "Shut Up, I Love You!" (Feb. 14) about how Jews are great at giving to each other but lousy at taking from each other. I suggested you honor your fellow Jews by taking or learning something from them. This makes every Jew feel needed and important, and encourages the unifying dynamic of reciprocity.

Well, what do you know? I received numerous responses, some of them quite challenging. In particular, I want to respond to my observant friends who have asked me to answer this question: What can they take from a Jew who doesn’t believe the Torah is the word of God and who feels no need or obligation to follow His commandments? What can they take from that "truth"?

This is perhaps the toughest question on the subject, and if a godly answer could be found, it might unlock the secret to Jewish unity.

So let me start with this: There is no such thing as a nonobservant Jew. When a secular Jew visits a sick person in the hospital, at that moment he’s not secular, he’s Orthodox. He is performing the all-important mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the sick) whether he calls it that or not.

Similarly, I have a lifelong colleague who is a Reform Jew and who goes to synagogue once or twice a year. In the parlance of the day, he can be labeled "nonobservant." But when it comes to the critical commandment on lashon hara (guard your tongue from speaking evil) he’s a fanatic. In fact, on that mitzvah, he’s more observant than many Orthodox people I know.

Conversely, when an Orthodox Jew transgresses — whether by doing lashon hara or getting angry or anything else — at that moment he is nonobservant. The fact that his beliefs are Orthodox does not make his actions Orthodox.

And isn’t it an accepted Orthodox view that Judaism is more a religion of action than of beliefs? If that’s the case, then we can even say that all Jews are Orthodox or even ultra-Orthodox — it just depends on the time of day.

Now imagine if the Orthodox Jews of the world would reach out to the non-Orthodox and actually validate their good deeds as manifestations of halacha (Jewish law)?

I don’t use the word halacha loosely. For example, picture a Reform Jew who is actively involved in social or environmental causes, like feeding the hungry or fighting against pollution. Those causes are also commandments from God. They are bona fide mitzvahs that do something all Orthodox Jews love to do: create "Kiddush Hashem" (sanctifying the name of God). That’s not just a good idea, that’s halacha.

To take this dream even further, imagine if observant Jews would take or learn a few mitzvahs from the nonobservant: like a group of ultra-Orthodox demonstrating for the revival of the Los Angeles River, because the river’s desecration is destroying Hashem’s creation, or kippah-wearing Jews setting up a soup kitchen on Skid Row, because we are "our brothers’ keepers" and God wants us to do just that.

Was there ever a greater "Kiddush Hashem" than when the Orthodox Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in the 1960s with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for blacks’ civil rights?

If a Jew does something that creates "Kiddush Hashem," is that mitzvah any less valid or important than, say, putting on tefillin? The Torah offers many ways to honor the name of God and create a dwelling place for Him.

So here’s a challenge to Torah scholars: Study the good deeds of nonobservant Jews and see if there is a Torah or halachic rationale for these good deeds. You might find that there are more frummies among us than you ever dreamed of.

The central idea here is that we should all take a step back and stop trying to change each other, which doesn’t work. What might work better is a two-way relationship in which we exchange good deeds, judge actions rather than people and recognize that not only are all Jews created equal, but all mitzvahs are created equal.

If we started on this more open road, we could create a new dynamic in Jewish life. By celebrating the holiness in each other, we’d be building not a patronizing or superficial unity but a unity of need, in which every Jewish soul contributes to the common destiny. We would not be accepting the status quo, we’d be making it holier.

Perhaps most beautifully, we would be inviting more reciprocity, which would ignite more mitzvahs. If you’re an Orthodox Jew, for example, and your mission is to make Jews more observant, by acknowledging the mitzvah of a nonobservant Jew, you’d make it more likely that he’d repay the favor and open his heart to Shabbat, tefillin, kashrut, mikvah, etc.

In other words, by exchanging, we can all win. And in a true loving relationship, when real unity reigns, everybody wins — even God.

David Suissa is founder and CEO of Suissa Miller Advertising, and founder/editor of OLAM magazine and the activist site He can be reached

Haitian Songs

The following piece was written after a recent trip to Haiti, during which a delegation from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger was hosted by the Lambi Fund, one of MAZON’S longtime grantees.

It starts with a song. Soft at first, then louder, like slow rolling thunder, gentle harmonies that keep time with the clapping of hands.

Soon there will be time for serious talk — of politics, hard labor and the struggle to find food — but for now there is only the music.

Every Haitian man, woman and child knows this music, and during a recent trip to Haiti, I came to know it, too. I was there to visit several grass-roots organizations that help Haitians — most of them poor, many of them hungry — develop the skills they need to improve their everyday lives.

Haiti is a startling place. By all accounts is seems to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Driving around, I found a vast, barren wasteland, what you’d expect to find on a desolate moonscape or in some futuristic science fiction movie. Plagued by years of war, famine and political mismanagement, the country has been stripped of its natural resources, and with them its industry. Electricity is undependable, and running water an unheard of luxury. With mile after mile of nothing but rocky dirt road, Haiti seems like a place without hope, and certainly a place without a viable future.

And yet, five minutes into a conversation with a Haitian woman, I realized my first impression was wrong. I visited a grain mill in the center of the country, where local women bring their corn. In Haiti, women bear the brunt of the work burden. They are responsible for milling grain and working as vendors at local markets, while simultaneously tending to the needs of their families. The mill represents a significant improvement for the women who use it, and who previously had to walk great distances to process grain for family meals.

Despite their heavy loads, the women I met bubbled over with enthusiasm. These were not bitter, defeated women resigned to a life of poverty. In fact, the women — and the men — were decidedly upbeat. They recognized that they were poor but not powerless, and that systemic change would have to start with them.

Take Marie-Carmel. A 35-year-old mother of three, she understood what it would take to turn her fortunes around. When we were first introduced, she didn’t hesitate to make her views known.

"The politicians will do what they will," she said dismissively. Then she pointed to the mill and said, "This is my president. This is what I believe in."

In the face of extreme poverty, Haitians retain a tremendous sense of dignity. They may be dressing in rags caked with mud and clinging to machetes, but their children are spotless, wearing immaculate school uniforms and clutching battered books. Like parents all over the world, Haitian parents will sacrifice everything to give their kids a chance at a better life.

Several days into my trip, I drove through a torrential downpour to visit an agricultural site in a mountaintop village. After my visit, I climbed back into a rickety van with threadbare tires and began to descend the mountain, which was rapidly deteriorating into sludge. Several miles outside the village, the van sunk into the mud and was stuck. Within the hour, what seemed like the entire village had descended to help me. There was a sense among these people of the need for collective action, of getting around a problem and solving it. As I stood getting soaked, pushing the van out of the muck side by side Haitian men, women and children, I understood how poverty (unpaved roads, decrepit transportation) can be a physical obstacle to getting things done. But I also felt inspired by a sense of community and possibility.

For weeks leading up to my trip, I wondered what relevance all of this could have for the American Jewish community. For me, the question was more than academic, since I’ve dedicated the past several years of my life to raising funds from the Jewish community and distributing them to fight hunger in our country and around the world. How does Haiti affect Jews when it is a country with so few of us?

I found my answer in the faces of the Haitian men and women I was fortunate enough to meet. We are a people consumed by a vision of a more perfect world, and we are a people, many of us blessed with abundance, who can help build it. As Jews committed to tikkun olam, we send food to poverty stricken Haitians for the same reason we teach inner-city children to read and provide housing assistance for new immigrants in this country. We do it because we believe in kevod ha’beriyot, the respect due to every being. MAZON, the anti-hunger organization I head, was founded with this in mind, and shaped by the principle that Jews don’t discriminate.

Every meeting I attended in Haiti started with a song, and every song told a story. As I’ve replayed the lyrics in my head, I’ve become more convinced that the stories hold a lesson for us as Jews. It’s true that we have our own stories and songs. But ever since I’ve been back from Haiti, it’s struck me that it is the overlap, where our stories meet, where the real work gets done.

H. Eric Schockman is the executive
director of MAZON. For more information on MAZON, call (310) 442-0020 or visit

Health Care Requires Resuscitation

Eric Moore is frustrated. Within weeks after losing his computer consulting job, the 30-year-old UCLA graduate collapsed from a pulmonary embolism. He has since recovered, but faces a $14,000 hospital bill.

Dr. Alexandra Levine is frustrated. The head of the USC-Norris Cancer Center faces numerous barriers to providing the care she’d like to provide to her patients. One patient required a medication that could be taken at home via injection. Since Medicare doesn’t cover prescription drugs, but will pay if the drug is administered in the hospital, Levine’s 91-year-old patient was forced to make a thrice-weekly trek from the Valley to the center, and each time the tab to Medicare was twice as high as it would have been had the medication been taken at home.

Luis Jiminez is frustrated. The 29-year-old entrepreneur started an online marketing and Web business, which now boasts a staff of 11. But he can’t afford to provide health insurance for his employees.

"We have a continuing crisis in this country of millions of Americans without health insurance, and that’s just plain wrong," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who will speak Friday, April 25 at Leo Baeck Temple as part of a series on health care.

In 2001, approximately 41 million Americans — more than 14 percent of the nation’s population — went without health insurance for the entire year, and another 20 to 30 million lacked coverage for part of the year. With health care premiums increasing at about 11 percent a year, big companies are paying a smaller percentage of those premiums, and small businesses are finding they can no longer afford to provide health care at all. These factors, combined with job layoffs resulting from a weakened economy, have left a growing number of people without health insurance.

Meanwhile, health care costs are skyrocketing. In 2000, $1.3 trillion was spent on health care in the United States, a 7 percent increase from the prior year.

According to Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., the average family spends four times as much on health care today as it did in 1980.

"This country has yet to make a decision that every man, woman and child has a human right — a civil right — to health care," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, speaking at Leo Baeck Temple last month. While implementing such a decision "may be complicated and expensive," he said, "it’s not as expensive as not doing it — not as expensive financially and not as expensive morally."

Because those without coverage tend to postpone seeing a doctor, preventable conditions become severe illnesses, needlessly harming patients and unnecessarily driving up health care costs. The uninsured also tend to use emergency rooms as their only source for medical treatment, limiting the ability of those facilities to provide more urgent care. And while many believe the majority of uninsured are unemployed, 80 percent of the uninsured come from working families.

In Los Angeles County, one out of every three residents lacks health insurance. More than 80,000 of the uninsured are children. Budget shortfalls spur continued cuts to county health services. Twelve public care centers and four school-based clinics have closed since June 2002, and High Desert Medical Center in Lancaster and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey are currently targeted for closure. These closures put an added burden on remaining facilities, raising the troubling specter that crucial services will be unavailable when we most need them.

"Whether you live in Bel Air or in Torrance or in Pomona … you have a stake in providing health care to the maximum number of people," Yaroslavsky said. Otherwise, he said, you had better hope "that a mother who has a kid with an ear ache doesn’t come to the ER … and gobble up space … while your heart attack is going on."

For those who consider the predominantly poor, immigrant patients who use county facilities somehow less deserving of care, USC’s Levine had sharp words.

"Who we see at this hospital is you — your mothers, your grandmothers, your great-grandmothers. All of us were immigrants in this country…. And what do these people do? They train every physician in the U.S. Did I learn how to do a spinal tap on you? No I did not. I learned on someone in the county hospital…. We owe them because of our roots and because of what they do for all of us on a daily basis."

As for the national picture, "reform must become a reality because we have no other choice," Saperstein said. "The question no longer is whether there will be health care reform, but what form these changes will take."

A number of proposals are on the table nationally and on the state level. Some aim to expand availability of health care coverage by pooling individuals or small employer groups into large groups. Others seek to expand Medicare, Medicaid and/or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Still others propose use of tax credits to help families purchase insurance or tax incentives to encourage employer-sponsored plans and benefits.

Waxman is particularly critical of the Bush administration’s approach to health care.

"The Bush administration is trying to undermine the programs we’ve got, and nowhere is this more obvious than Medicare. They refuse to add a meaningful prescription drug benefit to traditional Medicare…. Instead, they want to use a drug benefit … to force people into private insurance plans or HMOs, where they won’t have guaranteed benefits or assurance that they can see their own doctors."

Saperstein and Yaroslavsky say the way to get effective legislation passed is to make sure lawmakers know health care is a priority for voters. Politicians need to hear from their constituents about this issue, and to know that it drives contributions and votes.

"We have got to raise the political stakes nationally to make provision of health care a priority," Saperstein said.

Rep. Henry Waxman will speak about "The National Crisis in Health Care," on Friday, April 25, at Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Services begin at 8 p.m. For more information, call (310) 476-2861.

Hadassah Encourages Women to ‘Check Out’ Program

Janine McMillion was 29 when she married, entered her third year of law school and was diagnosed with breast
cancer. Today, the Huntington Beach resident is an employment lawyer, whose
survival story was the centerpiece of “Check It Out,” an early-detection
program for youth put on by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization.

The program was instigated by Adena Kaufman, 34, of Aliso
Viejo, compelled to action by the loss of a girlhood friend to breast cancer in
2001. “It’s made me grateful to be alive,” she said.

The December event for the Bureau of Jewish Education’s
TALIT students was the first presentation in Orange County by Hadassah, which
introduced the program in Texas a decade ago. About 90 girls and their mothers
attended the program at Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom. They received bags
stuffed with brochures, an anatomically correct breast model with simulated
lumps, instruction on self-examination and genetic risk factors.

“Nobody ever explained that to me before,” 15-year-old
Daniella Gruber told her mother, Roe, afterward.

“She got something out of it,” Gruber’s mother said.

Despite winning a $5,900 grant in December 2001 from the
Susan G. Komen Foundation to present the program free to 2,000 students,
Hadassah’s Long Beach-Orange County chapter has, so far, found few takers.

“We’ve had a difficult time getting into public schools,”
said Michelle Shahon, director of the 3,200-member Costa Mesa-based group, “If
you teach them good life habits early on, that’s the best method of early
detection,” she said.

Shahon intends to seek an extension of the grant and keep
knocking on doors.