Lance Armstrong and the disease of wild narcissism and ruthless ambition

Lance Armstrong proved surprisingly poor at backpedaling. His stone-faced, reluctant regret made many who watched the interview wonder if this was an illness. Why did this man mow down associates, besmirch employees, lie, cheat and bully his way to the top of a sport he is now insouciantly tearing down around him?

One way to understand disease is to map its contagion. So let’s look for Armstrong’s ailment throughout our society. In sports, Barry Bonds was headed for the hall of fame. But that was not enough. So the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were in a (steroid fueled) home run derby, Bonds began to dope as well. Five neck sizes later, his head swelled in every literal and metaphorical sense, people began to suspect. Of course Bonds was not alone; he is just a standout in a widespread scandal of those for whom good enough was not good enough. A keen diagnostician begins to detect signs of Armstrong illness.

Corporations are another place to look. CEOs now command salaries not twice as much as workers, which used to be the case, but 20, 30 and even 40 times as much. Even with this steroidal salary rage, there have been a string of indictments for misdeeds on Wall Street, because apparently hundreds of millions of dollars are no disincentive to cheating to make money.

The disease is a compound of wild narcissism and ruthless ambition. It threads its way unchecked through our social and political life. Music is a fertile breeding ground: Songs that once spoke of yearning or searching have turned increasingly to boasting and strutting. Awards shows proliferate as self-celebration becomes the preferred mode of public presentation. Turn on the radio at random: The socially conscious ode has given way to the sexually flamboyant shout-out. Sometimes it seems that the whole world is doing an end zone dance.

The illness is not ambition. Ambition is the engine that drives achievement. But Armstrong and Wall Street and sports figures and so many other areas parade before our weary eyes the wreckage of ruthless ambition. The greater good is a sucker’s succor feeding the individual good. Why don’t I want a background check if I sell a gun individually? Because it is me, that’s why! Any infringement on my autonomy, no matter how considerable the benefit to society, violates the code of ruthlessness that dictates that my good supersedes others. Ego needs are their own justification. The new motto is Ego ergo sum.

The biblical counterexample is worth remembering. When God chose Moses to lead the Jewish people, it was not because Moses leapt in the air, in the manner of Shrek’s donkey, yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” Rather Moses repeatedly protested his unworthiness. His humility qualified him for leadership. Self-effacement no longer gains traction in our age of wild narcissism. Television ads proclaim the perfection of each candidate. Our candidate is ideal and our positions unassailable. Partisan unwillingness to concede any wisdom to the other side reminds us of the great axiom of the age: anyone else’s triumph diminishes me.

As income disparities rise and social mobility freezes, good fortune is reinterpreted as merit. I am on the top of the heap not because I was born with certain attributes to certain parents but rather because I am, quite obviously, great. There was a generation (think the Kennedys, the Bushes) when enviable advantages of birth were a call to public service. Jacob Astor, one of the richest men of his day, deliberately stayed on the Titanic as it sank to give way on the lifeboats to women and children. How many modern hedge-fund tycoons would emulate him? Now riches are a call to steroidal self-regard. In the storm of the “I” no community can exist. We are alone together.

Lance Armstrong is the ugly face of American exceptionalism. This blessed country became prosperous with the ethic of individual work benefitting the larger community. Teamwork overrode stardom; the soloist paid obeisance to the band; public service was about being vessels, not victors. Now the plural is invoked to evade responsibility; so Armstrong cannot recalled who “we sued” as though he was part of the law firm of Armstrong and cannot be expected to remember all the small fish caught up in the netting of his litigation.

This spells trouble. The prophet Micah’s advice for life: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God, no longer tracks for our children. To do deals, to love spotlights and to swagger self-importantly – that is more near the lesson they are learning. Such lessons come with consequences.

At the founding of the republic Ben Franklin put it crisply: We must all hang together, he said, or we will all hang separately. The gallows may be gilded but wise old Ben is still right. Our greatness, after all, is dependent on our goodness. 

Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

The darker side of college

CAUTION: This op-ed by a senior at a Los Angeles area school contains realistic and heartfelt language that some readers may find offensive. Note: some college names were changed to protect the innocent, or applicant.

With the coming of senior year comes a host of new opportunities: emotional, physical, and mental. But the biggest opportunity is obviously, college. As a senior, I have the chance to choose from many distinct colleges and decide which one I should go to. Being the person I am, I decided in 10th grade I was set on BU. So I applied there and that was great, go me. But one of the things I noticed in senior year is that any mention of college with an adult starts a whole dialogue about your future, and how you should look into, definitely look into, that one college. Here’s what every conversation goes like:

ME (at some function with old people): Hi person- who’s- name- I- forgot, haven’t seen you in ever. How’ve you been?

OLD PERSON: Great! Hey, I can’t relate to you in any other way because I’m so old, so what college are you going to apply to?

ME: Well, after hours of thought and work, preparation and meditation, I’ve narrowed down my list to BU. I think it really speaks to my personality, and such.

OLD PERSON: That’s fantastic. Great school. But you know what, here are another twenty other schools that I think are better than the shitty college you like, because I have successful friends who graduated from them.

ME: Go to hell.

So that’s basically how it goes. Note to all of you old people who made mistakes in your life, and are trying to communicate to me the importance of having options in choosing colleges, etc, etc: I get it. I know. I’m young, and you’re old, and so you’re naturally inclined to believe that I’m inexperienced and don’t know that much about making life decisions. And the truth is: you’re right. But I’m not going to get any better at making them if I don’t make any, right?

So keep your comments to yourselves. Yes, I’m sure University of New Hampshire is a great place. And OK, Swarthmore would fit my academic needs. But hey, if I wanted to go to fucking Swarthmore, I would’ve said so. So please, understand that I am more than just a stupid seventeen- year- old. OK, I am a stupid seventeen- year- old, but at the same time, I belong to the same generation that will run the world in forty years. And if you old people use all your time telling us how we should spend our lives, we won’t know how to run our own lives when it counts. And not to get personal, but you probably made the same mistake of listening to the old person of your generation, too. Otherwise you wouldn’t be wasting my time with your pointless comments forty years later.

Listen, old person, I’m not angry. Truly, I’m not. I’m annoyed. I want your trust, random old stranger, because I am a volatile fucking teenager, and I want the confidence to know that I’m making the right choice. The confidence that old fucks like you might be able to give me.

I guess you have taught me one thing, old person. When I’m an old person in your position, and a sleep- deprived high school senior starts talking to me about his first choice college, I’m not going to recommend to the kid a list of other colleges that are way better for that kid, or tell them about how much they will colossally fuck themselves by going to some other college. No. I’ll just pat that kid on the back, flash a smile to their face and tell them,

“You’re going to love it there.”

Counselors in demand as college applications soar

High school seniors don’t have it easy during this year’s college application season, which is expected to be the most applied-to year on record.

Just ask Jeremy Friedman, who is juggling 12 applications in addition to his class work and a part-time job.

“I didn’t think applying would be this stressful and difficult. I didn’t realize how many essays I’d have to write, how much organization it takes, how much research there is to do,” said Friedman, 18, a Beverly Hills High School student who is applying to Northwestern, Georgetown and University of Pennsylvania, to name a few. “You want to try to get an edge on everyone, because you really never know what the schools are looking for.”

To gain that elusive edge, Friedman worked hard for solid grades and strong test scores, and got help forming his college list from his school’s guidance department. But that’s not all — he and his family also hired two independent college consultants to make sure nothing was overlooked.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing any schools that would be of interest to me,” he said. “I had already done a lot of research, but maybe they had other ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of before.”

Friedman isn’t the only one looking beyond the confines of his school building this fall for extra help getting into the right college. A growing number of families are turning to private consultants to allay the competition that marks modern college admissions, local consultants and school officials say. And in the class of ’09 — which the U.S. Census Bureau predicts will be the largest graduating high school class on record — some students are looking for all the edge they can get.

“Putting together an application is a very complicated process. We help demystify it,” said educational consultant Jeannie Borin, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based consulting firm College Connections. “People use personal trainers to motivate them to stay in shape. Singers might hire a voice coach to reach the high notes. Coaching is common in countless fields. So it’s not such a crazy thought — if you’re going to make such a large financial investment as going to college, you want to get it right.”

Consultants cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on whom you use, and for what.

According to U.S Census Bureau statistics, college enrollment rose 17 percent from 2000 to 2006. As the applicant pool grows, so do students’ fears of being turned away from the school of their choice. This translates to students sending out more applications than ever — often as many as 12 or 15, Borin said.

“It used to be the case that when someone was qualified to go to a college, they knew they would get in,” she said. “Astonishing candidates are now being turned away. It’s somewhat of a crapshoot. Students are covering their bases and applying to more schools — that’s one of the factors that’s making this more competitive.”

Borin, formerly the admissions director at Valley Beth Shalom Day School, helps college hopefuls compile a list of appropriate schools, offers interview tips and aids in the process of honing the all-important — and much-dreaded — college essay. Students come to College Connections as early as their freshman or sophomore years to discuss their classes and extracurricular activities, so Borin can begin making recommendations based on their interests.

But do all students need another level of supervision as they select and apply to colleges? Not necessarily, say some high school guidance counselors. It just depends on what each family needs to feel safe.

“We’re finding that more and more, even the ninth- and 10th-grade parents are so worried about the college process they see coming a couple of years down the line,” said Leanne Domnitz, head guidance counselor at Beverly Hills High School. “We have over 600 seniors going through this process. Some of them are self-contained, they’re right on top of it, and they’re fine. At the other end of the spectrum are kids who are completely overwhelmed by this process and need their hands held. I understand that for some families, it’s just too much.”

Guidance counselors handle about 300 students each at Beverly Hills High, Domnitz said, so they don’t have hours on end to spend with students who need lots of one-on-one help.

Students, particularly in the public schools, often can’t get time from their overburdened high school guidance departments, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), based in Fairfax, Va. Rising demand for experts who can devote more time to students has fueled a striking growth spurt in the consulting industry: The number of educational consultants in the United States. has doubled in the last five years, and Sklarow expects it to double again in the next five years.

“In an average public school in America, there are 600 students for every counselor,” he said. “It’s worse in California than in any other state. Counselors are simply playing triage — they give a student what they can, but it’s often not very much.”

That isn’t the case at some of Los Angeles’ private Jewish schools, according to the guidance departments at Milken Community High School and New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS). At NCJHS, for instance, guidance counselors only handle 50 students each and can give kids more of the in-depth help that some seek, said Celeste Morgan, director of college guidance at the West Hills school.

“We really work with students on brainstorming topics for their essays, helping them edit them and making sure their college lists are balanced so they have as many options as possible in the spring,” said Morgan, who previously worked in the admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania and read as many as 23,000 college applications during her time there.

She doesn’t believe her students stand to gain anything from a private college consultant that New Jew’s guidance department doesn’t already offer. “At smaller, independent schools, where they have resources like our department available, that’s all they really need,” she said.

Joe Blassberg, director of college guidance at Milken, agreed. “The process that we take our students through gives them the tools they need to make the right choices about where they should be applying,” he said. “Certainly, if my skill set or experience doesn’t match what the student’s needs are, then I’d be happy to help that student find additional support services. But I haven’t run into that situation yet.”

Milken senior Jonathan York, 17, said he’s taking full advantage of his guidance counselor’s support as he works on his stack of 15 applications. “It’s not rare for me to stop into my counselor’s office every other day, if only to ask a quick question,” the Stanford hopeful said.

With all the aid he’s getting from Milken, York hasn’t felt the need to seek extra guidance from an independent consultant — but he admitted that he will be asking family members to read over his essays.

“Every kid doesn’t need an educational consultant,” said Sklarow, director of the IECA. “The best reason to hire a consultant is to cast a wide net. You’re looking not just for a college, but for a place where you’re going to grow up over the next four years. An educational consultant will help you make that match more effectively.”

IECA members must visit at least 50 campuses a year, so they have a wealth of first-hand knowledge that many high school guidance counselors lack.

This knowledge extends to Jewish life on different campuses, according to Borin of College Connections — how large the Jewish population is at a given school, whether the students sustain a thriving Hillel and whether it’s viable to keep kosher on campus.

Alexandra Dumas Rhodes, founder of Santa Monica-based Rhodes Educational Consulting, also considers it an asset that she can work with clients during the summer before senior year, when many students have limited access to their school’s counseling department.

But the cost of hiring a college consultant bars many families from doing so, said Mary Charlton, a guidance counselor at Van Nuys High School.

“If a student needs to be walked through the process, and you can afford to do that, great. But if you’re strapped for cash and can get good guidance from your school counselors, it’s superfluous,” Charlton said.

Ultimately, most agreed, what students need most is a level head and a realistic approach to the application process. If students focused more on themselves and less on the competition, said Morgan of NCJHS, the fall season might lose some of its frenzy.

“They don’t need to frame the process as something where it’s them against more students than have ever applied before,” she said. “What they need to look at is: have I done my best?”

Reform Shuls Object to Kol HaNeshamah

Objections raised by two established Reform congregations to
a start-up alternative shul in Irvine has forced the new group to temporarily

postpone seeking admission to the Reform movement’s national
organization, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Nearby
synagogues, Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm and Irvine’s Congregation Shir
Ha-Ma’alot, opposed UAHC membership by tiny Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, said
Rabbi Linda E. Bertenthal, associate director of the UAHC’s Southwest council,
which reviews new congregation applications.

Kol HaNeshamah, a self-described Reform congregation,
consists of 32 families that hold services monthly and religious school weekly
in low-cost, Irvine community centers. Dues are $650 a family. A
nondenominational seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion, ordained its
part-time spiritual leader, Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein, who is also the chaplain
of San Diego’s Jewish Healing Center. About half the families are refugees from
defunct Congregation Or Ami, which collapsed due to unable to meet their

“We’re not really a threat to anybody,” said Pat Goldman,
who with her husband, Howard, are co-founding presidents. “They don’t realize
how alternative we are,” she said, adding that Kol HaNeshamah has attracted
members who previously had no synagogue affiliation. “We have very low dues, no
building, no cantor. We offer much less.”

Perhaps, Goldman surmised, Bat Yahm, with 700 families, and
Shir Ha-Ma’alot, at 350 families, fear a repetition of the explosive growth
experienced by another newcomer established in the late 1980s: Irvine’s
University Synagogue today has 570 families. “We’re not going to grow; we’re
tiny,” she said. “I used to think we could grow to 45.”

Many synagogue budgets are shrinking as more congregants in
financial straits seek dues relief, fail to fulfill pledges and drop membership,
Bertenthal said. “They’re anxious for their own interests,” she said of Bat
Yahm and Shir Ha-Ma’alot.

Though UAHC congregations lack veto power over the admission
of new members, their opinions are solicited and territorial invasions that
undermine a congregation’s viability are reason for rejection, said Peter B.
Schaktman, UAHC’s new-congregation department director. About 30 new
congregations were admitted nationally since 2001.

“The level of displeasure by surrounding congregations was
surprising,” he said of Kol HaNeshamah.

At Bertenthal’s urging, the congregation agreed to withdraw
its UAHC quest to attempt to collegially quell concerns. Goldman said its
leaders intend to establish relationships with the other synagogues, including
attending the movement’s convention next month in Costa Mesa. She expects to
reactivate the congregation’s membership application in time for their
scheduled review in June.

More than one-third of UAHC’s more than 900 congregations
are small congregations of 150 members or less that seek membership to gain
access to the movement’s myriad resources, including political clout,
leadership training, placement services and education curriculum. Dues are
based on a formula that includes expenses and membership.

Kol HaNeshamah’s expected UAHC dues would be $500, Goldman
said. By comparison, Bat Yahm’s and Shir Ha-Ma’alot’s dues were $59,233 and
$19,289, respectively, says the 1999-2000 annual report, the most recent
available. Or Ami, which also raised objections, was delinquent in paying, the
report shows.

“We can pay our dues,” said Goldman, a previous Or Ami
member.  “We don’t have many expenses. We don’t ever want a building. That’s
what killed us.

“People don’t come to us because we’re cheap. We give them
something they don’t get,” she said, including a spiritual and intellectual
component, and less restrictive rules about participation in rituals.  

The Next Battle

The next chapter in the struggle for normality in Judaism on the part of gay men and lesbians will take place within Conservative Judaism over admission to rabbinical school.

Conservative Judaism defines the final battlefield for full equality because it forms the vital center of American Judaism, between Orthodoxy’s aspirations for Torah authenticity and Reform’s commitment to acute contemporaneity. And out of the Jewish Theological Seminary beats the lifeblood of Conservative Judaism through its rabbinical school.

Why the urgency? Because the sides are hardening, the issues passing from chronic to acute day by day. On the left, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism and their far-out competition (“New Age Judaism”) have ordained openly gay and lesbian rabbis for years. On the right, integrationist Orthodoxy finds ample halachic reason to reject the proposition, and self-segregationist Orthodoxy stonewalls the issue altogether.
The University of Judaism, through its dean, spelled out the present policy of Conservative Judaism: “One who says he/she refrains from gay or lesbian sex for halachic reasons would be considered for admission to rabbinical school (just as would the Orthodox rabbinical schools).”

That policy — the theological counterpart to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” — hardly promises a long-term, stable response to what is, in Judaism, an unprecedented aspiration. It is, quite simply, the demand to serve like anyone else on the part of practicing gay young men and women.

I see three reasons why “don’t ask, don’t tell” will not provide a long-term solution to the question of homosexuality in the Conservative rabbinate. First, because the centrist position is unstable. Second, because the political realities in this country have shifted, and liberal and left positions have redefined sexual attitudes and policies. Conservative Judaism’s position on homosexuality is inconsistent with its political liberalism.

Third, and most important, the human realities have changed. A generation has come along that will not stand still, that insists upon admission, and that will not be denied.

A colleague told me of a student on campus who wears a kipah, keeps kosher, davens every day, and is pursuing a degree in advanced Jewish studies. He is a campus leader, smart, kind and humble. In conversation, the young man mentioned that he would be in Israel in the summer to help plan a gay pride event in Jerusalem.

My colleague said he had never before met such an impressive, spiritual and pious person who spoke openly and unashamedly of being gay. The young man said he wants to become a Conservative rabbi. To be admitted, though, he would have to pledge celibacy. And he was not willing to accept those terms. He insisted on complete equality.

Such a story indicates that Conservative Judaism is turning its back on a self-defined minority of its own faithful who seek acceptance in terms of respect and dignity.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a halachic issue. After all, the vast majority of Conservative Jews are not halachic to begin with. At stake is religious public policy: the formation of a consensus that, in due course, will percolate upward into halachic formulation in the Conservative context (whatever that formulation yields).

I am nearly 70, so I well remember, three decades ago, when it was a sensation for a woman to be accepted into Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary. The second woman to go there was a student of mine at Brown University. She came for advice and asked if I thought she would make a good rabbi. I told her she would be spectacular. And she was, and is.

Over the next decade I was able to help at least one woman a year realize her aspirations to become a rabbi. By 1980 we stopped counting, as it was no longer noteworthy. So Conservative Judaism followed in the path of HUC, but only after a battle that ripped open the fabric of the movement and cost the seminary some of its best faculty.

This is going to happen again. But the coming battle for Conservative Judaism will certainly end with doors open to professing gay and lesbian young people to enter the rabbinate. Notice I don’t say, “to gays and lesbians.” They have been there all along. The only question is, will gays and lesbians enter openly and proudly, or surreptitiously and on sufferance?

Will the Jewish Theological Seminary put gays and lesbians through the crucible of self-denial that Jews in the Ivy League went through two generations ago, or will they come along normally and routinely and make the enormous human contributions that are theirs, perhaps uniquely, to make? The clock is ticking.

Jacob Neusner is research professor of religion and theology at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and a 1960 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Strangers No More

Each Yom Kippur, a vestigial loneliness creeps over me. I achingly feel that my parents and family are back East; that my cousins live in Japan; that some of my dearest are dead. On this day, dispersion and alienation seeps in, and I cling to my community like fog to the shore. And this is the way it should be.

On Yom Kippur, the last and greatest of the Days of Awe, Jews know that something big is at issue, the ebb and flow of life’s grand themes, who shall live and who shall die, when even individuality and family are not enough. Cynics and true believers alike, we meet in “holy convocation,” instinctively reaching out to each other, seeking the company of our truest soul mates. To my surprise, I find what I need not high on a mountain top alone, but on hard seats in overheated, cramped quarters, in, of all places, the synagogue.

The psychic angst of Yom Kippur may not be the most obvious lead-in to a discussion of High Holiday tickets, and yet, angst is the real bottom line. Synagogue is our community, it is the Jewish home base. For years it has been the whipping boy of Jewish life, the scorned symbol of everything staid and unmoving, resented and unloved. Yet now that the Holocaust and Israel have lost their force, the synagogue alone is our glue. When we choose our synagogue for the Holy Days, even as drop-ins, we seek the one that reflects us, the place where everybody (or somebody) might eventually know our name. Whether the cantor plays a tambourine, or the rabbi wears a designer tallis, community is our mirror. It is who we are. The question is, how do we get in?

My synagogue, Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, has had an “open tent” policy for some 10 years. We have a beautiful five-acre site overlooking the Pacific, but no permanent structure large enough for community services. Rather than adjourn to the local movie theater or high school auditorium, we erect a huge tent that stands between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which accommodates everyone. And, until this year, anyone could come, for free.

The no-ticket policy is one that I have advocated proudly as board member and resident propagandist. Sitting in that tent is one of the great spiritual moments of the Jewish calendar. It’s the way I find that prayer is possible, and I want to share it with everyone. I love it that we have not sold tickets, the paper symbol of Jewish elitism that has turned off so many. I love it that my community has a generous open heart, and I love the yearning crowds that answer its call.

Everything good about my synagogue has been summed up in the words “open tent.” But this year, that policy changed, and finally, in contemplating the needs of my changing community, I understand why. Money is not the issue. A building fund (though essential) is not the issue. Desire to punish some Jews who want something for nothing is not the issue either.

When the board voted to charge non-members for seating passes (while allowing members to bring their guests without charge), it picked the middle ground in a raging battle in Jewish life: what is the best way to get Jews back in. With affiliation rates so low, but spiritual hunger so high, “tickets yes or no,” can split a congregation in two. That it did not do so in Malibu testifies to the desire of a community to hang in there together, to know and hear each other.

I fought even the compromise policy for a long time, fearing we were reverting to selfishness and exclusivity. After all, the no-ticket policy cost nothing. Most synagogue boards insist that fiscal responsibility is the reason for selling tickets. It’s not true. The open tent policy actually made money, through the generous contributions from appreciative members and non-members who wanted to reward our institutional bravery. We turned a profit every year, and brought in amounts equaling what fair-market tickets would have earned.

Beyond actual donations, the policy bought us lots of good will. Many of our members recall when they were too poor to belong to a synagogue, or that they were turned away for having no tickets.

The no-ticket policy meant that ambivalent Jews could still walk through the door, and discover where they belong.

But what if just the opposite occurred? During emotional meetings of our congregation, our activist members charged that the no-ticket policy actually discouraged membership and the very sense of belonging that in our generosity we had hoped to build. Rather than encouraging all who were needy to participate without consideration of cost, maybe free entry made belonging only one-sided: we, the synagogue, belong to you. But do you belong to us?

What an irony! Most people say they won’t pay for tickets because they don’t want to go to a shul where they don’t know anyone. But what if the very act of paying for a ticket increases the odds you’ll try to make yourself known.

The great convocation is upon us, the in-gathering of Yom Kippur. But this year I’m asking, what does it mean to belong?

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is