Letters to the editor: Exodus, spirituality and anti-Semitism

Barking Up the Wrong ‘Free’

I must admit that each time I read a good argument supporting each position (1) the Bible is to be taken literally and (2) the Bible is not to be taken literally, I find I am moved by both positions (“Did the Exodus Happen?” April 18). They are both intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. The question then becomes, for me, what are my motives in accepting one position as opposed to the other. Which position brings me closer to God, a being I cannot prove exists? And if I cannot prove God exists, though I can experience his existence as I experience love, why am I required to prove these events occurred to a standard of scientific certainty? The desire for proof and certainty becomes the new prison, the new idol, the new Pharaoh, which prevents our heart from completely opening up to freedom so that we can then walk with God, as Moses did, and we can truly live the life of a free Jew.

Ilbert Philips via jewishjournal.com

To add another well-known name to the discourse, Freud described the story of the Exodus as a pious myth. And yet, in one of his controversial books he wrote profoundly and with reverence about Moses the remarkable national leader of the people of the Exodus. He followed his life from the time he was plucked out of the river until his death at the edge of the Promised Land. 

The story of Exodus, regardless how it happened, is a recurring event in Jewish history. It is the eternal struggle of monotheism in a polytheistic world with tragic results. The Exodus from Egypt probably was no different from the exodus of Jews from Muslim Iran, Czarist and Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or Catholic Spain. The Exile to Babylon and Rome would also classify as a reverse exodus. Whether Rabbi Wolpe or Dennis Prager is right is not the question. The issue is whether the unleavened bread displayed on a silver platter in a festive setting is the proper and worthy symbol of the struggle for freedom by a people willing to suffer and pay the price for it. So we ask: “Manishtana?”

Ken Lautman Los Angeles

To Thine Own Selfie Be True

Kudos to Danielle Berrin for her informative article on Alan Morinis and the Mussar Institute (“Selfie Spirituality,” April 18). I was privileged to learn about how effective this ethical system is when I visited the California Institute for Women where my friend, the Rev. Gabbai Shayna Lester, was honored on Pesach by inmates and her peers alike. The inmates — both Jews and gentiles — who took part in the Mussar classes, learned among other principles the importance of avoiding lashon harah — gossip and negative comments about others. And it was reported on several occasions that the parole board looked favorably on this program in their consideration of an inmate being found suitable for parole.

This was the most moving seder I have ever attended, written by the inmates themselves as part of a creative writing project. The inmates were also able to have a rare “real food” meal, and to socialize with outsiders like me who take our freedom for granted. I urge my fellow Jews to familiarize themselves with this program’s leader, Rabbi Moshe Raphael Halfon, and Am Or Olam. 

Gene Rothman, Culver City

Overseeing From Overseas

Adelson’s acquisitions simply because they are an interference in Israeli internal affairs from an outside entity would be just as wrong if they were from the left (“Why Adelson Newspaper War Matters,” April 18). We have the same problem in the UK with a Russian oligarch, Alexander Lebedev, buying up our press and now even owning a TV station, to say nothing of Rupert Murdoch and his all-pervasive influence in every corner of the media. It would be a simple matter for the state to pass a law preventing foreign influence in the media. Of course, the State of Israel will not do so until Netanyahu goes, but it is something for the opposition parties to think about before the next election.

Josephine Bacon via jewishjournal.com

Praying for the Enemy

I read with great sadness about the increased anti-Semitic violence in Los Angeles and the haunting viral hatred on the Internet (“Anti-Semitism sees decreased incidents, increased violence,” April 4). 

Those who hate to such extreme do so to mask an inner weakness that they will not admit to. They rise above their own shame through violence to prove themselves as brave. 

We saw it in the Nazi’s and we see it in people who use Nazi hatred for their self worth. 

The Jewish people have seen it all before. 

I pray not for the victims, but for those who use violence as a means of righteousness. 

For if we can turn hate into something better and useful, then society benefits in every way.

George V. Hill via e-mail

The 3 biggest Jewish stories of campaign 2012

Amid all the twists leading up to the 2012 election, Jewish stories turned up at each bend in the road. From the perpetual use of Israel as a political football to the little-known Jewish presidential candidate (the Green Party’s Jill Stein, who beat out the better-known Jewess Roseanne Barr for the nomination), the election season provided much material for Jewish politicos, reporters and comedians alike. Here are the three biggest Jewish stories of this political year. 


Sheldon Adelson’s millions 

Remember last December when Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” dismissed the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) Presidential Candidates Forum as a “tuchis kiss-off” of “incredibly religious Christian presidential candidates fighting over who loves Jews more”? 

Well, who’s laughing now? Less than a month after Stewart roasted Republican Jews, RJC board member and political mega-donor Sheldon Adelson made his first $5 million contribution to the super PAC backing then-candidate Newt Gingrich, catapulting the Las Vegas casino magnate into the spotlight as quite possibly the most generous single political donor in American history. 

Adelson and his wife would ultimately give a total of $16.5 million to Winning Our Future before Gingrich dropped out of the race, extending the former speaker’s doomed presidential bid by a couple of months, time that may have allowed Mitt Romney to hone his debating skills and also may have helped cement the eventual nominee’s embrace of many of Adelson’s preferred policies on Israel. 

The Adelsons’ contributions to the pro-Gingrich super PAC likely pushed Romney into  declaring his “severely conservative” credentials in an effort to win his party’s primary, and may have made it tougher for him to tack back to the political center in the general election, but the $5 million Adelson gave to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future in June certainly strengthened the ties between Adelson and the former Massachusetts governor. 

The Adelsons gave the pro-Romney super PAC another $10 million in October, saying that with President Barack Obama, labor unions and Jewish billionaire George Soros aligned on the other side, their money was an effort to “level the playing field.”  

Adelson, who owns the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which supports many of the current Israeli government’s policies, has said his reason for supporting Gingrich’s bid was due to the former speaker’s sharing Adelson’s Israel policies. Adelson has reportedly urged Romney to come out in favor of the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, which Romney thus far has not done. 

In September, Adelson told Politico that one major reason for his outsized political spending was his fear that, should Obama win a second term, the president might engage in “vilification of people that were against him.” Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., is currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice on allegations of foreign bribery. (A separate probe by the U.S. Department of Justice involving alleged violations by Las Vegas of money-laundering laws appeared to be moving toward a settlement, the Wall Street Journal reported on Oct. 28.) 

The Romney-Ryan tax plan likely would benefit Adelson, his relatives and his companies directly. Under a Romney presidency, the Adelson family and Las Vegas Sands Corp. could avoid paying as much as $2 billion in taxes, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. 

Although Adelson has not publicly spoken about how much Romney’s proposed policies could benefit him personally, he has been a vocal advocate of lower taxes, and his company recently distributed pro-Romney “voter guides” to its 8,500 employees in Las Vegas. According to The Huffington Post, the guides, which do not overtly endorse Romney, “suggest that Obama’s policies on energy, health care and taxes will hurt working people, while Romney’s will lead to working-class prosperity.”

Adelson has publicly pledged to spend up to $100 million to unseat Obama this election cycle and, together with his wife, is known to have given to date more than $50 million to the Republican Party and its candidates.

Of the mega-donors who have helped change the way American election campaigns are run,  Adelson arguably has had the biggest impact. His donations have advanced the hyper-politicizing of U.S. policy toward Israel that has characterized the 2012 race, making him the biggest Jewish story of the election. 



Rabbis consider the issues

In August, more than 613 rabbis from across the country signed onto a list of Rabbis for Obama, which led almost immediately to an outburst of criticism, as other rabbis argued that religious leaders shouldn’t weigh in on political matters. 

Many of the rabbis opposing Rabbis for Obama also professed their opposition to the president’s policies, even as they presented their dislike for the rabbis group as a principled stand against partisanship from the pulpit. 

Republican Congressional candidate Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote in the Journal that he would decline to join a Rabbis for Romney group; another New Jersey-based rabbi, Bernhard Rosenberg, who actually set up such a group, said his move was inspired not because he particularly liked the Republican nominee but because he was so dismayed by the perception that Jews and their rabbis would overwhelmingly back Obama (even though polls show that Jews are likely to do just that on Election Day).

And what of the rabbis actually on this much-discussed list? 

Los Angeles is home to a few of the most prominent of the rabbis backing the president, including Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR; indeed, Brous devoted part of a High Holy Days sermon this year to pushing back against the notion that rabbis ought not speak about political matters from the pulpit. 

Brous did not endorse a candidate from the pulpit on Yom Kippur, but her sermon — which described the destroyed city of Sodom as a place where nobody “would step forward to take care of the weak, the sick and the elderly,” a city that barred foreigners from entering and where those who sneaked in were brutally victimized — left little doubt about the rabbi’s own politics. (Full disclosure: This reporter, a member of IKAR, was present for Brous’ sermon.)

Brous said in an interview that she doesn’t know how she could be any other rabbi than the politically vocal spiritual leader she is today. 

“When I hear rabbis say that they’re willing to share words of Torah, Talmud and halachah, but they don’t believe that rabbis should engage in political matters, I wonder what they really mean,” Brous said. “Are matters of justice, righteousness, compassion and social responsibility irrelevant in the religious community because they don’t dwell exclusively in the realm of theology and philosophy, but deal with actual social realities? Is that realm not also a matter of religious concern?”

Other rabbis in Los Angeles who have not endorsed a specific candidate also waded into political waters through their High Holy Days sermons. Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, who delivered a benediction at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September, gave a sermon just a few weeks later in which he declared himself a “one-issue voter,” pledging to cast his ballot for the candidate he feels is most likely to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 

“If Iran gets a nuclear bomb,” Wolpe said on Rosh Hashanah, Israel will “face, simultaneously, Auschwitz and Hiroshima.”

Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation also sent a political (if not explicitly partisan) message on Rosh Hashanah, declaring the holiday a time to take the “questions we have been asking about the candidates and the country — and ask them of ourselves.”

Foremost among those questions, Topp said, is one that reverberated throughout the speeches delivered at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August: Is our country better off now than four years ago?

“The gift of Rosh Hashanah is that we can start again and have a great year,” Topp wrote to this reporter in an e-mail. “We can be better than we were four years ago. We can write a new story for ourselves. [Rosh Hashanah] is the time to think about creation and re-creation.”

Rabbis have long argued over what they and their colleagues should and should not say. But this year’s iteration of this long-running debate proved particularly heated, and at times enlightening — which is why it makes this list. 



The swiftly disappearing Jewish politician

Consider the following image, from the 30 Years After Civic Action Conference held in downtown Los Angeles last month: During a session about politics held near the end of the day, sitting on the stage was Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who announced a month earlier that he will retire at the end of his current term and not run for mayor of Los Angeles. Alongside him were two other Jewish politicians whose futures are up in the air right now. 

On Yaroslavsky’s right was Rep. Howard Berman, who is locked in a closely watched and hard-fought re-election race against another Jewish Democratic incumbent, Rep. Brad Sherman. (Sherman, who had grabbed Berman during a bizarre altercation at a debate a few days earlier, appeared at the conference earlier in the day.) 

To Yaroslavsky’s left sat Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who must abandon his seat in Sacramento as a result of term limits, and is just getting started on his race for Los Angeles City Attorney, his second bid for that job. 

Whether Berman or Sherman wins, there will be one fewer Jewish Congressman representing the San Fernando Valley in January 2013. 

Assemblymembers Bob Blumenfield and Bonnie Lowenthal both will be forced to follow Feuer out of the Assembly in 2014, setting up the possibility that the 80-member body could soon be without a single Jewish representative.

Of course, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom could beat incumbent Assemblywoman Betsy Butler in the race to represent the 50th District in Sacramento, but the trend of Jews leaving public office seems pretty unmistakable.

Adelsons give $5 million matching grant to Birthright

Philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson are giving a $5 million matching grant to Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The grant, which was announced Monday, aims to encourage new donors by doubling their gifts in an ongoing attempt to transition from large philanthropic to grass-roots funding.

Since 2007, the Adelsons have donated more than $100 million to the organization, which sends young Jewish adults aged 18 to 26 on free 10-day trips to Israel.

Earlier this year, the Israeli government announced a three-year commitment of $100 million in matching funds for Birthright.

More Jewish teens attacked in Paris, Adelson gives $30 million to Birthright

Jewish Teens Beaten in Paris Attack

Three Jewish teenagers were attacked in the same Paris district where another Jewish teen was beaten severely in June.

The victims, who were wearing kippot, were temporarily hospitalized for minor injuries on Saturday in what some officials are describing as another anti-Semitic attack in the 19th District.

Badly bruised and with some fractures, the three were shocked and worried about their safety, said Raphael Haddad, president of the French Jewish Student Union, who spoke to the victims on Sunday.

“Their attackers were also from the neighborhood,” said Haddad in a telephone interview, “so they are worried about what will happen if they see them again.”

The three reported the incident to Paris police on Saturday after going to the hospital. The attack took place at about 6:30 p.m. in the low-income, heavily Jewish and Muslim northeastern Paris neighborhood, where 17-year-old Rudy Haddad was beaten on June 21 by a group of young people.

Two of Haddad’s assailants were charged with “attempted murder and group violence aggravated by their anti-Semitic character.”

Richard Prasquier, president of the Jewish umbrella organization, CRIF, told Jewish Radio RCJ on Sunday that he was “certain” the three were targeted because they were identified as Jews.

“There isn’t a shadow of a doubt” concerning the “anti-Semitic character” of the crime, said Prasquier. “Let it be made clear — the boys who were walking by had a kippah.”

A Paris police spokeswoman said an investigation was launched to determine whether the incident was anti-Semitic, adding that the attackers reportedly did not speak to their victims.

The victims’ names were not made public by the French press, but the Jerusalem Post identified them as Bnei Akiva youth group counselors Kevin Bitan and David Buaziz, both 18, and Dan Nebet, 17.

Foundation to Give Birthright $30 Million

The Adelson Family Foundation has pledged another $30 million to the Birthright Israel Foundation.

Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who is chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, have now contributed nearly $100 million in gifts over the past two years to the foundation that supplies private funds to Birthright.

The latest pledge consists of a $20 million contribution for 2009 and $10 million for 2010, said Michael Bohnen, president of the Adelson Foundation, in a news release Tuesday announcing the gift.

Adelson said in the release that Birthright Israel “has proven to be the best vehicle we have to strengthen the Jewish community and our people’s connection with the State of Israel. We are honored to have helped Birthright Israel establish a track record of effectiveness on an unprecedented scale, and we look forward to its continued success.”

He called the gift a challenge to other philanthropists to step up during difficult financial times.

Adelson in September 2007 was ranked third on the Forbes magazine list of wealthiest Americans, with a net worth estimated at $28 billion.

Bronfman Prize Seeks Nominations

The Charles Bronfman Prize is seeking nominees for 2009. The prize, which includes a $100,000 award, celebrates the accomplishments of individuals, 50 years old or younger, whose Jewish values have infused their efforts to better the world.

The prize, named for the Birthright Israel co-founder, was launched in 2002 by his children, Stephen Bronfman and Ellen Bronfman Hauptman. Past Bronfman Prize winners include Jay Feinberg, founder of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, and Israeli environmentalist Dr. Alon Tal.

Deadline for nominations is Nov. 30.

For nomination forms or more information, visit www.thecharlesbronfmanprize.com.

— Staff Report

Entire Quebec Town Invited to Wedding

Jewish couple Hana Sellem and Moshe Barouk, invited hundreds of residents of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts to their wedding Tuesday as a gesture of good will after a series of anti-Semitic attacks in the town this summer.

Sellem, 26, an immigrant from France who follows Lubavitch-Chabad teachings, is vice principal of a Jewish teacher’s college in the town.

The couple printed wedding guides in French and English explaining the ceremony. About 300 residents attended.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.