Poem: After


After a loss you live

with your gasp, your gaze,

with your hungry mouth as you lift the fork.

Something Sane. Open the door.

A guest sits down at the kitchen table.

Washing evening dishes:

something simple, something sane.

Water dreams over your wrist,

your hand, a round

transparent dish.

Something Simple. Night, rusty fire escape.

Even the rain: sane.

Urgent street voices; screech

of a hinge. Simple. A clanking

bang,

somebody is closing a gate

or opening one.


From “Morning Prayer” (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005)

Eve Grubin is poet-in-residence at the London School of Jewish Studies and teaches at New York University in London.

After-School Kabbalah Comes to LAUSD Campuses


Along with homework time, crafts and supervised games, grade school students in several Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools this spring are getting something different at their after-school programs: spiritual awareness.

Dozens of San Fernando Valley children are enrolled in Spirituality for Kids (SFK), a program founded and run by officials of the Kabbalah Centre of Los Angeles, whose curriculum teaches socially conscious behavior. Brought to the campuses of four San Fernando Valley public schools through a local after-school enrichment company, the program aims to help kids resist peer pressure, treat others with tolerance and build problem-solving skills.

The Kabbalah Centre has for years drawn the ire of critics claiming its popular version of kabbalah — made famous by such high-profile devotees as Madonna — is a sham.

Critics fear the program — which was founded by Kabbalah Centre International co-founder and co-director Karen Berg, and whose president, Michal Berg, is a Kabbalah Centre official and Karen Berg’s daughter-in-law — promotes concepts that echo the Kabbalah Centre’s teachings. Core terms in the SFK curriculum are also found in kabbalah, such as sharing “the light,” defined by SFK as a force of goodness in all people.

SFK staff, however, claim the program is not religious in nature. “It’s an empowerment program,” said Wanda Webster, director of curriculum for SFK. “We come at it asking ‘What tools would help children in life?’ We teach resiliency, meaning it gives them the tools to deal with the problems and issues they’re facing every day in school, or at home — anywhere they’re interacting with people.”

Webster defines the “spiritual” aspect of the program as “our connection to ourselves and to each other.”

“We don’t touch upon ‘the right thing to do’ — we just don’t go there,” she said. “We never use language like, ‘that’s right, that’s wrong,’ or ‘that’s good, that’s bad.’ What we talk about is, if you make this choice, will that get you what you want?”

A 2008 study by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, found that students enrolled in SFK classes in Florida showed improved communication, leadership and study skills and decreased attention problems and withdrawal.

Founded five years ago, SFK now operates in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, London and Panama City, as well as in Israel, Mexico and Malawi. The program has been criticized by top rabbis in London, but has garnered praise from educators who say it helps at-risk youth make positive choices for their futures.

Most of what the curriculum — the same at each school — teaches is “social competence skills,” such as self-esteem, self-control and sharing, said Jody Myers, professor of religious studies at California State University Northridge (CSUN) and author of “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America” (Praeger, 2007), which includes a chapter on SFK.

The SFK concept of the “true voice” versus the “opponent” echoes the Jewish concept of yetzer hatov (the tendency to do good) versus yetzer hara (the tendency to do bad), but is expressed in non-religious language, she said.

“They don’t teach worship, they don’t teach rituals or talk about God,” Myers said. “If you look at religion as belief in a higher power, they don’t use that language. The curriculum deals with conscience and emotion and intuition, but it’s not religion.”

Among the themes SFK explores are the causes and effects of reactive behavior and the relationship between physical objects and “spiritual powers” — happiness, love and excitement. A major part of the curriculum is the promotion of “caring and sharing behavior” over selfishness, Webster said.

Physical activities and games are included in the weekly 90-minute classes, such as a human knot game to illustrate the idea that “what we do affects others,” Webster said. According to the program literature, students are taught “rules to the game of life” — short adages including, “Take care of others and your needs will be fulfilled,” and “Share and make room for all life’s blessings.”

SFK classes are offered at Kester Avenue and Riverside Drive Elementary schools in Sherman Oaks, Nestle Avenue Elementary School in Tarzana and Tulsa Street Elementary School in Granada Hills through E3, an after-school enrichment program that operates in nine LAUSD elementary schools.

Social awareness among children often suffers because of a gap in “life skills” education in public schools, E3 director Linda McManus said.

“We’re sensing that our kids need more,” McManus said. “They’re getting enrichment, but there wasn’t much addressing life skills at this age.”

In September, E3’s entire staff trained with a team from SFK in the program’s terms and principles. McManus said she hoped the training would help her employees with classroom management and discipline.

E3 offers parents and their children alternative programming during class times SFK is offered, for those who don’t want their children in the 10-week program, McManus added.

Many parents say the program is a boon to their children — or at least an acceptable pastime during the after-school hours.

Maria Tapia of Van Nuys said her daughter seems to enjoy SFK at Kester Avenue Elementary School, where the program is geared toward third- to fifth-graders. “She says she enjoys it. Sometimes I come to pick her up and she says she wants to stay more,” Tapia said of Jennifer, a fourth-grader.

Jennifer Bahat of Encino said both her children had already taken SFK classes at the Kabbalah Centre last year, and her daughter, Shani, 6, is now enrolled again in a course for first- and second-graders at Nestle Avenue Elementary School.

“I love the program,” Bahat said. “Kids learn a lot of useful things. It’s natural for kids to be selfish and only think about what they want. As parents, we’re always teaching them to think of other people. Here they learn to be more thoughtful and considerate.”

Bahat said she has also taken kabbalah classes through the Centre before, and believes spirituality is a beneficial part of childhood education. Since starting SFK classes, Shani has become more aware of the consequences of her actions, Bahat said.

SFK isn’t the first educational program with ties to a controversial religious organization to draw criticism locally. The New Village Leadership Academy in Calabasas, founded by actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith last year, generated buzz for its use of “Study Technology” developed by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. School publicists have said the facility does not teach Scientology.

An LAUSD spokeswoman said the school district contracts with several enrichment companies, some of which bring in programming with known religious affiliations.

“The Los Angeles Unified School District accepts and supports having programs such as Spirituality for Kids on LAUSD campuses,” said Sharon Thomas, assistant general counsel to the district, in a statement. The district must abide by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by maintaining “strict neutrality in religious matters,” she said, and any program is acceptable as long as it does not run afoul of that.

But some still question whether the Kabbalah Centre is a legitimate religious institution.

“The Kabbalah Centre is to true kabbalah what Jews for Jesus is to true Judaism,” said Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder and director of the anti-missionary and anti-cult center Jews for Judaism. “It’s making it look like it’s Jewish, but it’s not.”

In general, kabbalah is viewed as too “weird” or “out-there” for most mainstream Jews, said Myers, the CSUN professor. But while the Kabbalah Centre’s brand might not hew to the holy tradition on which it is based, it has nevertheless become a ubiquitous part of the religious landscape.

“Little bits and pieces are coming into normative Judaism,” Myers said. “Kabbalah is out of the bag.”

Don’t Expect Arab Democracy Anytime Soon


Those expecting democracy to spring to life in Iraq soon
after an allied invasion might wish to recall the fate of another Arab
strongman from 36 years ago.

In June, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser was
sitting in the darkened studios of Cairo Radio, with barely a candle to
illuminate his script. His voice cracking, he delivered his political
testament:

“We expected the enemy to come from the east and the north,
but instead he came from the west. I must accept full responsibility for this
disaster that has befallen us and must now resign as your president.”

No sooner had he spoken than the hum of Israeli Mysteres
could be heard in the skies above the city and the crack of anti-aircraft
batteries filled the air.

Nasser had just led his country into one of the most
humiliating military debacles in history. In the course of three days, the
Israeli army, responding to months of Egyptian provocation, had destroyed the
Egyptian air force and crushed an army five times its size. It now stood at the
gates of Cairo.

In any modern Western country, such a catastrophe would
precipitate a leadership crisis. But that was not to be Nasser’s fate. No
sooner did he deliver his valedictory address than the streets of downtown Cairo
were filled with hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

“All of a sudden,” recounted Mahmoud Raid, an Egyptian
journalist, “I found myself wading through multitudes of people clamoring for Nasser
to stay.”

Within hours, messages of support arrived from the rest of Egypt
and from the leaders of many other Middle Eastern countries — all of whom had
ample reason to mock the presumed leader of the Arab world, yet all of whom
urged him to remain.

Many suspected that Nasser, in his usual theatrical style,
had orchestrated the mass demonstration. But Eric Rouleau, the Middle East
correspondent for Le Monde at the time, would have none of it:

“People may have despised Nasser for leading them to
disaster, but they also loved him as a father. And the Egyptians did not want
to be left fatherless.”

In focusing on the paternal relationship between Nasser and
his people, Rouleau identified something significant about Arab political
systems. Dictatorships thrive in the Arab world because strong men are admired
and fill the authoritarian role in the popular imagination usually allocated to
the father in traditional Arab society.

The Arab nuclear family is dominated by the father whose
authority is total. Mothers and daughters play submissive roles within this
structure and have little influence on the family’s destiny. Sons are much
desired, their role being largely to satisfy their father’s sense of honor and
secure his position in society. Absolute obedience is expected of them and
severe punishment meted out for waywardness. From childhood then, Arabs become
accustomed to a high level of absolute authority where challenge and
questioning — the root of free and democratic society — is not encouraged.
Instead, undivided respect and subservience is reserved for a single man.

Given this paternalistic structure, it should come as little
surprise that the political culture mirrors the social hierarchy. Reposing
faith in the beneficence of the strong man is a natural consequence of the Arab
world’s societal atrophy. It produces an emotional dependence on leaders and
political systems with no elasticity.

Dictatorships therefore thrive in the Arab world in much the
same way autocracy has always flourished in Russia: the leader is a cult
figure, whose unquestioned authority and arbitrary power will, it is assumed,
always be exercised for the good of his population. The adulation that
consistently greets the failures of such leaders as Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam
Hussein and Libya’s Mummar Qaddafi is directly attributable to the need of the
Arab street not to be left either fatherless or orphaned.

While an American invasion will almost certainly assure the
fall of Saddam, it is foolish to believe that democracy will gain an immediate
and firm foothold in a liberated Iraq. Without social and cultural reform, the
emergence of a new strongman, more partial to the West perhaps, but no less
determined to squelch resistance to his rule than Saddam, is almost certain.

Not until Arab social and cultural systems are reformed can
the West be assured that political systems enshrining freedom and human dignity
will take root in the Arab world. And that, sadly, will take a level of
self-mobilization for which the nations of the Middle East are not yet
prepared.  


Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic studies in Los Angeles and the senior editorial columnist for the online magazine Jewsweek.com . Dr. Khaleel Mohammed is a Kraft-Hiatt postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Brandeis University.

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