September 24, 2018

Using the Bully Pulpit on High Holy Days

Editor’s note: Over Rosh Hashanah, local rabbis spoke on a variety of topics, but three in particular took aim at the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica made national and international headlines when he excoriated his former congregant, Stephen Miller, now Trump’s senior adviser. IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous received a thunderous standing ovation after her 30-minute sermon pointing out how unwell our country is but that it’s not too late to build a new America. And Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple spoke about the “daily cocktail of anxiety” we see in the news and how the Unetane Tokef prayer can help guide us in these troubled times. Below are edited excerpts from their Rosh Hashanah sermons.   

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels: An Open Letter to Stephen Miller
I was once your rabbi. When you were about 9 or 10 years old, your family belonged to Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. You attended our religious school.

The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my/our Jewish message. I understand that you were a major contributor to the zero-tolerance policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions initiated to punish and deter desperate families from coming to the United States by separating children from their parents at the border. That notion is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.

Mr. Miller, the policy that you helped to conceive and put into practice is cruel. What you would have learned from me is that ours is a spiritual path that is focused on one task: bringing the shattered pieces of the vessel in which the universe was born back together in both a literal and spiritual repair — a healing of transcendent influence and impact. Mr. Miller, Judaism is a way of responding to the mundane and the unexpected, always seeking the response that is at once the most just and the most merciful. We Jews have chosen our history to be our mandate. We choose to recall and emphasize our most ancient ancestor, Abraham, as a “wandering Aramean,” i.e., a refugee, an immigrant. We choose to remember and underscore that the quintessential experience of the Jewish people is both the slavery in and the exodus from ancient Egypt. We are all refugees, Mr. Miller.  

Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border. It’s not that we can’t reverse what you’ve done. We can, we are, and we will. 

We’re not going away, Mr. Miller, and whether you identify now as Jew is not really my concern. What is troublesome is that some of my colleagues and others are concerned about what I might have taught you when you were a member of our community. I can assure you, as I can assure them, that what I taught is a Judaism that cherishes wisdom, values honed over four millennia, wide horizons and an even wider embrace. 

Is there still time, is there still a chance that you might change your attitude? That’s up to you, Mr. Miller. I will never give up hope that you can open your heart.

In the meantime, I will act in accordance with the values that our tradition conveys, values that go beyond the superficial and time-limited expediencies of your allegiance to party and a temporal leader, and I will engage against you in a machloket l’shem shamayim, a struggle for the sake of all that is righteous, not merely what you may deem as right.

Know this: Regardless of whether the Trump administration decides to be accountable, we are choosing to be accountable. We believe, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us so precisely, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Because we want this society to remain free, we will continue to act. Someone needs to clean up this mess and, in concert with many others, it will be your long-suffering, uncomfortable Jewish people.

Do you know the Yiddish word mensch, Mr. Miller? In Yiddish, a mensch is a fully-constituted, human and humane being. In Hebrew it parallels to the word ish. Hillel the Elder taught us: “B’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil l’hiyot ish”. (Avot 2:5) In other words, “In a place where no one is acting like a mensch, be one!” That’s what we will be doing, Mr. Miller, because that’s who we are. We can only hope you will decide to join us.

Read more of his sermon’s here. 


Rabbi Sharon Brous: Building A New America
We are not well when racist dog whistles today sound more like bullhorns, when Black athletes are scorned and penalized for engaging in nonviolent protests against police violence. When the Justice Department actively works to roll back civil rights achievements of previous administrations

Yes, it’s a victory that only a dozen pathetic Nazis showed up to march in [Washington,] D.C. on the anniversary of Charlottesville, but friends — they’ve moved from the streets to the ballots! There are now several avowed white nationalists, Holocaust deniers and Nazis on the ballot in state and federal races this fall. Organizations that monitor hate groups say it’s clear that white nationalists feel emboldened when the president himself advances their agenda every time he discharges an insult about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans. No, we are not well.

We are not well when there are one or two shooting incidents in American schools every single week. When middle schoolers report being afraid to return to the classroom because they’re scared they might get shot. And when the Secretary of Education toys with the idea of allowing states to siphon federal funding intended for the arts and music, mental health and technology programs instead to the purchase of guns for teachers. We are not well.

“Oh, keep your politics off the pulpit!” they say. 

As if our Torah is not an inherently political document. As if the story of slaves rising up before the most powerful ruler of the ancient world to demand freedom and dignity is not a political message. 

This I know: Our Torah did not survive thousands of years only to be muted precisely the moment its eternal message matters most. We make a mockery of our tradition when we suggest that the way we live in human society, the way we treat one another, the way we care for — or neglect to care for — the least among us is outside the scope of religion.

What we need is not to return to a time of mythical greatness. We need to build America anew, equipped to hold us in all our diversity and complexity. 

Yes, we are unwell, but we can — and we must — build a new America.

And it’s already happening. This year, we witnessed the beginning of a nonviolent revolution, as a million students walked out of their classrooms and took to the streets. This army is led by 16-year-olds who, while hiding under desks and behind file cabinets, saw their friends shot. Who saw the sickening inaction, the hypocrisy and complacency of our elected officials, and stood up to insist that if the grown-ups wouldn’t do it, they would bend the arc of history themselves.

Our children are in the streets shouting, Pasul! Pasul! It’s not kosher! This is old America, the America of greed, corruption and hatred, of systems built to protect and sustain white supremacy, to entrench power in the hands of the few and keep guns in the hands of the many. It is foul and corrupted. And unlike us, the grown-ups, these kids won’t even consider that change is impossible.

It is their passion that will lead the way to a new America. It’s their moral clarity. Their fidelity to the truth. Their chemical allergy to hypocrisy. They are leading, and we need to stand behind them now, with the full force of our political, spiritual, intellectual and material resources. To do anything less would be a gross abdication of moral responsibility.

There may be a time when it really is too late to redeem America. Thank God, we are not there yet. 

The new America won’t come easily; we’re going to have to fight for it. 

We will rebuild this nation with love. There is a new America being born, and it is fierce, gorgeous and fair. It is built on justice and mercy, and it makes room for everyone. 

To usher this new America into the world, we — every one of us — will need to be brave, brave, brave. 

Read, listen or watch the full sermon here.


Rabbi Steven Z. Leder: Double Down on Your Relationships
I suffer from anxiety. It is very real and sometimes very frightening. It can ruin parts of days, weeks, months and years. As a rabbi, I see so much dysfunction, so much hurtful gossip, so much cancer and death that it is hard not to feel like I’m next.

And, of course, there is the news. That daily toxic cocktail of mind-boggling instability, criminality and drama in Washington, tweeting and testing the very fabric of democracy itself — wildfires, Putin, Assad, Iran, North Korea, global warming, Mueller, racism, corruption, sex scandals, immigration cruelty, floods, homelessness — over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And tonight we’re supposed to wish each other a shanah tovah? Really? Yes. Really.  

Our ancestors put celebrating on Rosh Hashanah ahead of the past remorse we face on Yom Kippur. First comes hope in the future, then the muck of our past. And believe me, the sages knew a lot more about anxiety than we do. Consider the Unetane Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah. The one that asks, “Who by water? Who by fire? Who will be troubled? Who will be needy? Who shall live and who shall die?” That prayer was written at least 13 centuries ago.  

Life 13 centuries ago was nothing but anxiety. Rape, murder, muggings, death by fire or flood or plague or starvation or war were regular, daily occurrences. But our ancestors had a different, more powerful prescription for managing their anxiety and fear. I try to use it every day. Remember how that prayer ends; what comes after that long list of terrible things to worry about in the coming year? It ends with three simple things that can get us all through. “But teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (generosity),” says that wise prayer, “Ma-a-virin et roah ha-gezarah (will make whatever comes next year easier to live with and through).” 

This was the ancient rabbis’ simple, three-part formula for surviving in their time, and it can be ours, too. First, teshuvah — repentance. And what is repentance really, other than trying to make things right with others? Our ancestors lived in small villages, where the key to survival was the quality of relationships with a handful of people who really mattered. Are we any different? Do any of us have more than a small handful of people in our lives who really matter?    

So double down, says the Unetane Tokef. When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid — double down on your relationships. Cherish them. Nurture them. Whoever you came here with tonight or called to wish a shanah tovah, that person by your side right now, he loves you, she loves you, he will shelter you when the rain falls, she will hold you when the darkness is too dark to see. No one endures suffering better alone. Tend to your relationships with teshuvah. Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart.

Double down. Make things right with the people you love. For only love can lift us from our suffering and our fear. Click here to read the entire sermon. 

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

Follow David Suissa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

Check out this episode!

Howard Rosenman: Award-Winning Producer Opens Up

What’s it like to be a gay Israel lover in Hollywood? To act with Sean Penn? To be on top of your game at 74? Hollywood wunderkind Howard Rosenman shares his life’s scoops.

Follow David Suissa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Check out this episode!

Rob Long: Hollywood Writer Talks Trump

Award-winning Hollywood showrunner Rob Long talks about happiness, craziness and, of course, Donald Trump.

Follow Rob and Ricochet on Twitter 

Check out this episode!

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

Homeland vs. Homeland

Photo from Flickr.

How does an Iranian-American Jew who was born in post-revolutionary Iran, granted refugee asylum in the United States at the age of 7, and now remains unabashedly supportive of Israel, process the possibility of a hideous war between her former homeland and her eternal homeland?

She has a stiff drink every time Israel strikes an Iranian military base or arms shipment in Syria (to celebrate Israel’s miraculous might), and a stiffer drink every time an Iranian leader vows to “level Tel Aviv to the ground” (to aid with sleep).

Anxiety over Iran-Israel tensions is nothing new to Iranian-American Jews, many of whom struggle with the complexity of their triple identity as Iranians who lost their homeland, Jews who embrace Israel as their beloved, and fiercely patriotic Americans who can watch the horrible conflict between Iran and Israel unfold from the comfort of their patio chairs.

My final goodbyes — to my family, home, school and, basically, to everything — when we escaped Iran in the late 1980s have left me traumatized, and I am often confused over my own feelings toward Iran.

I was born after the revolution, into the murderous country we’ve known for 39 years as the Islamic Republic of Iran. I also was born into the mandatory headscarf, the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the heinous air raids of the Iran-Iraq War. It was truly a special time to be alive.

Even my grandmother’s first name was Iran. The irony was not lost on us when she escaped to Israel.

I should hate Iran, but like many who fled there, I compartmentalize the country. There’s the regime, which evokes my hateful repulsion; the people, most of whom are just looking to live free, normal lives filled with family, work and reasonable inflation rates. And then, there are my memories and my heritage; the fact that nearly every one of my ancestors was born and buried in the land; the romanticizing of the space that held my childhood flights and fears. Even my grandmother’s first name was Iran. The irony was not lost on us when Iran escaped to Israel.

It makes me sick to my stomach that the land of my birth poses the most violent threat to the land of my soul.

Do I miss Iran? Sometimes, although it often feels like missing your first tattoo (if your first tattoo ended up being a horrible disaster). The nostalgia that stems from the fact that it was your first always will remain, but so will the seemingly irreparable emotional pain and physical damage that it caused you, especially if you got your first tattoo on your posterior. Then, it forever remains … a pain in the ass. I guess that about sums up my relationship with Iran.

For me, Israel encompasses unparalleled pride over its might and morality, and palpable despair over anyone attacking the Jewish state. As an Iranian-American Jew, I also experience my share of guilt over Israel, because the closest that my community comes to sending its children into a war zone is when we drop them off at a kosher Persian market on a Friday morning.

For Iranian Jews in America, Israel is also tied to our past trauma, when we consider whether our safety in the U.S. would ever deteriorate so much that we would have to flee to Israel. We know exactly what it was like to have fled home because home was no longer habitable. The possibility that we would again have to flee (if the U.S. took a turn for the worse) after several decades here makes us cringe with pain as we wonder: How many times can one person flee “home” in a lifetime?! Cashing in on our miraculous insurance policy through Israel’s exquisite promise of protection for global Jewry isn’t something most Iranian-American Jews might want to do, because it means that America will have failed us. I hope that if I ever make aliyah, it will be through a joyful choice, and not persecution or war. I can’t take that again.

Of course, America’s miraculous embrace comes at a price: My community has everything it needs here, whether in Beverly Hills or Baltimore, which makes me wonder when exactly former homeland and eternal homeland will be replaced in our hearts and memories with the glorious country that took us in and gave us everything, including the Bill of Rights, UCLA and Costco.

I’m giving it two more generations.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.

The Day My Mother Fell in Love With America

Anne, circa 1942.

As a child, whenever I asked my mother to tell me about her escape from the Nazis, she always had the same answer: “Let me tell you about my arrival in America.”

It was April 19, 1940, when the SS Nova Scotia, a freighter re-outfitted to carry passengers across the Atlantic, steamed into Boston Harbor after a 14-day passage from Liverpool, England. It carried several crates of Irish whiskey and 130 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. One of them was 12-year-old Anne Forchheimer, my mother.

She would describe that day in almost epic terms: “There were red, white and blue balloons — bundles of them — tied to the docks and some floating up into the sky. I had never seen balloons before. There was a band on the docks playing music. And there were United States flags waving everywhere I looked. And bunting. And streamers.”

What she didn’t know at the time was that April 19 was a holiday in Massachusetts, Paul Revere Day.

In Boston, Paul Revere has long been a local hero. His famous midnight horseback ride on April 18-19, 1775 — to alert the colonial militia of the approaching British forces — was critical to launching the American Revolution. The state made Paul Revere Day, also called Patriots’ Day, a holiday in 1896. It was observed on April 19 until the state legislature moved it in 1969 to the third Monday in April. The Boston Marathon is run on this day.

In 1940, my German-born mother had never heard of Paul Revere, since she hadn’t yet studied U.S. history. “I had no idea,” she always told us, “that the party was for anyone other than us.”

“I had no idea, that the party was for anyone other
than us.” — Anne Rubin (nee Forchheimer)

Aboard the ship, she and my grandmother, grandfather and uncle, along with the other passengers, waited on the deck for their turns to meet with immigration officers and marveled at the festive tumult around them.

The S.S. Nova Scotia, the ship that carried Anne across the Atlantic. Photo from cruiselinehistory.com.

My mother, Anne Rubin, would always conclude her story the same way: “I saw the flags, the streamers, the balloons, the band, all of it. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve and said to her, ‘What a wonderful country, Mother! Look how they welcome the refugees.’”

Most refugees have fond recollections of arriving in the United States, but I can’t imagine many experienced the awe, wonder and deep affection that inspired my mother that day. She remained a patriotic American from that moment until she died nearly seven decades later.

And every year on April 19 she would remind us how many years she had been in the United States, what a wonderful country it was and how lucky she was — and we were — to be here.

She knew she had done nothing special to merit an entrance visa. She simply was lucky to be born into a family with a relative in the U.S. willing and able to navigate the ever-increasing mountains of paperwork the government required before issuing entrance visas to Jewish refugees.

Although I had heard that story my entire life, it was only a couple of years ago, in the summer of 2016, that I had the chance to visit Boston. My husband and I wanted to get a small taste of what my mother experienced that day, so we took a boat tour of the harbor.

When I told the tour guide my story, she pointed out the now-empty pier where the immigration offices had been in 1940. At the time my mother arrived, the tour guide  explained, Boston had been the nation’s second-busiest point of entry for European immigrants. (I learned from my family-history research that at least one other ship carrying immigrants docked in Boston Harbor on the same day.)

“If this is where the ship docked,” I asked the tour guide, “then where was the party?”

“Everywhere!” she answered. “A new arrival to Boston on April 19 could not have missed the party. It was just too big.”

I love the vision of America that my mother saw that day in 1940, an America that celebrated its history and also welcomed refugees with streamers and balloons and flags and music, an America filled with welcome and hope and promise.

That is the America I want to live in.


Rachel Rubin-Green is a writer, mother, grandmother and retired teacher living in Los Angeles. She writes about her mother’s experiences at moreluckthanbrains.com.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Check out this episode!

Poll: Pro-Israel Sentiment Near Record Highs Among Americans, But Partisan Gap Widens

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A newly released Gallup poll shows that pro-Israel sentiment among Americans are currently near records high levels, yet there is a widening gap among the two major political parties on the issue.

The poll, conducted from Feb. 1-10, found that 74% of Americans have a favorable view of Israel; the highest level since 79% of Americans felt that way in 1991. Only 21% currently have a favorable view of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the same level in 2000.

Additionally, 64% of Americans said they were sympathetic to Israel over the PA, equaling prior record highs in 1991 and 2013. Only 19% said they were sympathetic to the PA and another 16% said they weren’t sure.

The poll also found that half of Americans believe that the onus needs to be on Palestinians to make peace while only 27% felt that way about Israel.

Among partisan lines, the highest support for Israel registered among Republicans, as 87% said they were more sympathetic toward the Israelis over Palestinians. Fifty-nine percent of Independents and 49% of Democrats answered the same way.

Lydia Saad, who presented and analyzed the polls’ findings at Gallup, noted that while the 49% figure for Democrats was an increase from 42% in 2001, there is a sizable gap between Democrats and Republicans on support for Israel.

“Republicans have consistently shown greater support than Democrats for Israel, partly because of conservative Christians’ beliefs about the biblical significance of Israel,” Saad wrote. “Another key factor in the especially wide gap since 2002 is likely Israel’s strong backing of the United States at the start of the Iraq War in 2003 and the strong support that Republican President George W. Bush showed for the Jewish state.”

While the gap in Gallup poll isn’t quite as stark as the gap in the Jan. 23 Pew Research Center poll, it’s still large and it is growing, as the gap between Republicans and Democrats on sympathy to Israel grew from a 34-point gap in 2017 to a 38-point gap in 2018 in the Gallup poll. Journal columnist Ben Shapiro has written on how the divide stems from Republicans’ embrace of the West and Democrats viewing the West “as the provocative agent.”

“Republicans live in a post-9/11 world; Democrats live in a pre-9/11 world,” Shapiro wrote. “That has dramatic, unfortunate implications for Israel: In a polarized political environment, the historic bipartisan support for the Jewish state is quickly eroding.”

As much as the overall findings of the Gallup poll are encouraging for the pro-Israel community, the widening gap between both the political parties on the matter needs to be kept in mind.

We Are All Sh*tholers

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an interview with Reuters at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

I spend most of my time on Facebook criticizing the left. Pointing out all of the ways it has become illiberal. For this, I have been called all sorts of names and blocked by friends of 20 years.

During the 2016 election, I switched to the more urgent task of arguing why Donald Trump shouldn’t be president. After the election, I went back to criticizing the left.

I rarely mention Trump, although I have praised him when deserved: his appointment of Nikki Haley; his recognition of Jerusalem; his support for the Iranian protesters.

So, I was quite surprised by the response I received when I wrote that the president of the United States should not have said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” referring to Africa. “Why do we need more Haitians? Why don’t we take more immigrants from places like Norway?”

That evening, I actually thought that all of Trump’s hardcore supporters would disappear from Facebook for a bit. I was quite wrong. They wrote endless defenses of his use of the word.  Defenses — complete with vile imagery — that left little doubt of the commentator’s prejudices.

What was most astonishing is that these were not his alt-right supporters. I’m not friends with alt-righters. These were otherwise rational conservatives who had befriended me because of a shared desire to defend Israel.

Aside from vile jokes about the countries, the word that kept coming up was “refreshing.” How refreshing it was to finally have a president that spoke “the truth.”

After unfriending the worst commentators, I asked a simple question: “Would you find it refreshing if he called Israel a shithole?” But Israel is not a shithole, they replied, missing my point.

I tried another tactic: “Well, my family comes from that sh*thole country Russia. I look forward to hearing Trump talk about it that way.” No response from the president’s defenders.

That night, I wrote: “Here’s the sad irony of Trump supporters who are unable to even say, ‘he shouldn’t have said that.’ For years, we all begged Obama peeps to admit when he made a mistake. To just say it, and move on. But they couldn’t do it, no matter how bad it was. And now many of those same peeps are doing the very same thing.”

But the fact that Trump supporters had become a mirror image of President Barack Obama supporters, who they loathe, also had no effect.

Instead, for the crime of saying Trump shouldn’t have used that word, I was called: a leftist; a virtue signaler; a traitor; a snowflake; and, perhaps most interestingly, a “so-called columnist at the Jewish Journal.”

There were some Trump supporters who had no problem criticizing his language. And I was happy to see that Commentary quickly posted a beautiful “Letter from a Shitholer,” by Iranian American Sohrab Ahmari: “The toxic discharge flows daily from your office and Twitter account into the stream of national affairs — and the homes of Americans struggling to raise children amid an already-vulgar culture. … It is a new moral low point for the American presidency.”

It doesn’t matter that the leftist media get hysterical over everything he says and does. It doesn’t matter that President Barack Obama ended up doing far worse things to African countries, most notably by helping to create a slave trade in Libya.

What matters is that we now have a president who doesn’t understand the essential promise of America.

It matters even less that we have a president who uses language not fit for a bar in Queens.

What matters is that we now have a president who doesn’t understand the essential promise of America: that people come from all sorts of countries to live in freedom and dignity. That the idea of taking white Europeans over nonwhites from poor countries is the same sort of bigotry that was used a hundred years ago against Eastern European Jews.

Jews were thought to be “undesirable,” “of low physical and mental standards,” “filthy” and “un-American.” And now we have Jewish Americans saying the same things about Africans and Haitians.

The left has many problems. But this problem on the right is truly ugly. Perhaps it’s time for some Jews to look in the mirror.


Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author living in New York.

Words—Historic and Current—To Be Heeded

In November, 1953, less than a year into his first term in office, during the height of the McCarthy era, President Eisenhower received an award from and delivered the keynote address at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual board meeting in Washington, D.C. As the story was recounted to me by someone who was there (I worked for the ADL for 27 years), those in attendance thought it would be a routine address by the new president making nice to one of the country’s leading civil rights/Jewish organizations, kind of a pro forma “you are nice and do good work”.

Shortly before the speech, ADL leaders learned that the national press and the then novel TV cameras would be observing and what was going to be routine was now a “major policy address.”

It turned out that the speech was among the, if not the, first times that Ike spoke out and distanced himself from Sen. Joe McCarthy. But it was by indirection, he never mentioned McCarthy’s name (to that point Ike was still trying to ignore McCarthy, as if the senator didn’t matter).

To those in attendance, it wasn’t clear what the news was, but by the next morning the message had gone out. Eisenhower had spoken about the right of every American to meet “your accuser face to face”, the “right to speak your mind and be protected in it.” He extolled the values of the “soul and the spirit” that make us proud to be Americans; who the threat to those values was became apparent:

Why are we proud? We are proud, first of all, because from the beginning of this Nation, a man can walk upright, no matter who he is, or who she is. He can walk upright and meet his friend–or his enemy; and he does not fear that because that enemy may be in a position of great power that he can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges and with no recourse to justice. We have the habeas corpus act, and we respect it.

And today, although none of you has the great fortune, I think, of being from Abilene, Kansas, you live after all by that same code in your ideals and in the respect you give to certain qualities. In this country, if someone dislikes you, or accuses you, he must come up in front. He cannot hide behind the shadow. He cannot assassinate you or your character from behind, without suffering the penalties an outraged citizenry will impose.

                                                                   ****

….I would not want to sit down this evening without urging one thing: if we are going to continue to be proud that we are Americans, there must be no weakening of the code by which we have lived; by the right to meet your accuser face to face, if you have one; by your right to go to the church or the synagogue or even the mosque of your own choosing; by your right to speak your mind and be protected in it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the things that make us proud to be Americans are of the soul and of the spirit. They are not the jewels we wear, or the furs we buy, the houses we live in, the standard of living, even, that we have. All these things are wonderful to the esthetic and to the physical senses. [Emphasis added]

I was reminded of this historic statement by two speeches this week from leading Republicans, who, like Eisenhower, bravely took on one of their own and made clear what others fear, or lack the courage, to say. They laid down markers as to what is acceptable conduct in American politics and, without being explicit, who was engaging in conduct that was beyond the pale.

On Monday night, Sen. John McCain spoke at the National Constitution Center as he received its Liberty Medal. It’s a passionate statement about what’s important and unique about America.

During the course of the speech he offered the following:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to. [Emphasis Added]

Like Eisenhower, without mentioning the name of his antagonist, the senior senator from Arizona got his message across loudly and clearly.

Then on Thursday, former President George W. Bush delivered a speech in which he never mentioned Trump, but the sinner he was referring to was transparently clear:

Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication…. We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.

                                                                 ***

This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally AmericanIt means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed. And it means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.

We need a renewed emphasis on civic learning in schools. And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

In short, it is time for American institutions to step up and provide cultural and moral leadership for this nation. [Emphasis Added]

The McCain and Bush speeches are historic moments; perhaps the beginning of a wave of revulsion at the lies, distortions, hate and awful policies that emerge from the Trump White House. When two pillars of a party, much like Eisenhower in 1953, say enough is enough and that it is time to “step up”—perhaps people will listen.

Why Hasn’t Israel Had Mass Shootings?

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth holds a toy gun near a man holding a chicken during the Kaparot ritual, where white chickens are slaughtered as a symbolic gesture of atonement, ahead of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Rob Portnoe, a Jewish educator from Minneapolis, is visiting family in Israel. He thinks it’s his 10th visit, and one of his sons served as an infantry soldier in the Israeli army. He is accustomed to seeing guns in Israel, from those toted by soldiers on leave to those carried by security guards. But, he says, the gun culture in Israel is different than in the United States.

“Israelis view guns as a necessity while Americans see them as a right,” Portnoe said. “There is a sense in Israel that if people didn’t feel they needed those guns, they wouldn’t carry them. In the U.S., people feel entitled to carry a gun.”

“Israelis view guns as a necessity while Americans see them as a right. There is a sense in Israel that if people didn’t feel they needed those guns, they wouldn’t carry them. In the U.S., people feel entitled to carry a gun.” – Rob Portnoe, a frequent American visitor to Israel.

Israel has compulsory military service and many citizens continue to do reserve duty well into adulthood. They are trained to view guns as potentially dangerous and are drilled in their safety.

What is regarded in Israel as a mass shooting occurs when a gunman kills at least four people, and outside of terrorist attacks, this has happened only once in recent years. In 2013, a disaffected man killed four Israelis in a bank in the southern town of Beersheva before committing suicide when police arrived.

In the U.S. during the same period, there have been some 1,500 mass shootings, which killed more than 1,700 people and wounded 6,000 more, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The Congressional Research Service estimates Americans own more than 300 million guns.

Israel limits the approval of gun permits, with 40 percent of applications denied. Permits are granted only if the government believes the person in question has a specific need for a gun — for example, if an individual lives in the West Bank, where there have been many Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. Permits must be renewed yearly, and every six years, gun owners must undergo a psychological evaluation.

Gun owners in Israel are allowed to own only one handgun and 50 rounds of ammunition. Supporters of these restrictive laws say they are the reason Israel has not been plagued by mass shootings.

Robby Berman, the head of an organ donation society in Israel, applied for a gun permit in 1991 when he was living in Jerusalem’s Old City. His application was approved, and he purchased a pistol and went to a shooting range, where he learned to use the gun.

Several years later, he says, he went through a period of depression and began seeing a therapist. She insisted that he give up the gun, fearing he could harm himself, and he agreed.

“Two years ago, when all of the stabbing attacks happened in Jerusalem, I wished I had the gun,” Berman said. “So I started carrying a switchblade and Mace with me. Once at a mall in Jerusalem, the knife set off the metal detector at the entrance. When I asked the security guard if he wanted me to leave it with him while I shopped, he said, ‘No, everyone here has a knife. Go ahead.’ ”

The Israeli army has grown increasingly concerned about guns being used by soldiers to commit suicide. About 15 soldiers each year do so with military-issued guns. The army recently changed its regulations, with soldiers going home on extended leave told to leave their weapons on base rather than bring them home with them.

Some in Israel, however, believe the country should be more like the U.S. when it comes to owning guns.

“The right to defend oneself and carry a gun is a basic human right, not a right that the government gives you,” said Moshe Feiglin, a former Israeli parliamentarian who recently formed his own political party called Zehut. “I am not talking about an AK-47 or an M-16 but a pistol for self-defense.”

As a first step, he said, anyone who has served in the Israeli army and knows how to use a gun should be given a gun permit automatically. He said that in the 1990s, Jerusalem made a mistake by allowing Palestinian policemen to carry AK-47s, and these guns have been used to kill many Israelis in the years since then.

In the U.S., the cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Washington and Detroit are responsible for 25 percent of gun deaths, and all four have restrictive gun laws. Accordingly, Feiglin says the idea that more restrictive gun laws will protect people is a fallacy. By contrast, he says that if more people in Las Vegas were trained to use guns properly, perhaps they could have stopped the recent mass shooting earlier.

Watch Trump’s High Holy Days greeting

President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House Sept. 13. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Per White House tradition, President Donald Trump released a greeting ahead of the Jewish High Holidays. The White House sent the video message on Monday, ahead of Rosh Hashanah, which starts this year on Wednesday evening.

Below is the transcript and video of Trump’s address:

“On behalf of all Americans, I want to wish Jewish families many blessings in the New Year. The High Holy Days are a time of both reflection on the past year and hope for renewal in the year to come. Jewish communities across the country, and around the world, enter into a time of prayer, repentance, and rededication to the sacred values and traditions that guide the incredible character, and spirit, of the Jewish people. We reaffirm the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel, and we ask God to deliver justice, dignity, and peace on Earth. Melania and I wish everyone a sweet, healthy, and peaceful year, which we hope will bring many blessings to all. Thank you, God Bless you, and God Bless America.”

What’s new on Hulu this fall: A steady stream of Jewish talent

Seth Rogen is director and executive producer of “Future Man.” Photo by Brandon Hickman/Hulu

If comedies and science fiction top your TV viewing list, you’re in luck: New series from Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen are coming to the streaming service Hulu, along with a show about superpowered teens with a real reason to hate their parents.

Meet the Jewish talent working on camera and behind the scenes on these Hulu shows.

“I Love You, America”

Creating a news/talk show for Hulu, Sarah Silverman didn’t want to preach to the urban, liberal choir. With “I Love You, America,” she aims to bridge the widening political gap between left and right thinkers through what she calls “aggressively dumb comedy.”

“It’s not going to be derived from, ‘We’re smart and right and they’re wrong.’ The comedy won’t come from that. It’s about connection,” Silverman said, noting that the mix of in-studio pieces and field reports will aim to find common ground among Americans.

“We may be getting our facts from very different places in a time where truth has no currency and facts don’t change minds, but I think comedy at its best can get people’s porcupine needles to go down,” she said. “We are ultimately the same, and we have to get back to that. With this show, I want to get to the root of humanity in this country.”

One field segment will send Silverman, also a writer and the executive producer of the show, to Slidell, La., to have dinner with a family that has never met a Jew.

Sarah Silverman is the creator
of “I Love You, America.”

“There are 10 of us on the writing staff and I’m the only Jew. It’s shocking!” she said. “What happened to ‘liberal Jews’ who run the media?”

Other Jewish references and bits are likely to surface. “I can’t get away from it. I am Jew-y, I am Jewish — culturally,” Silverman said. “I can’t imagine there’s a God, but I don’t know.” 

She attributes her edgy, no-filter comedy to her upbringing in Manchester, N.H.  “I’m a product of how I was raised, by a couple of liberal agnostic Jews,” she said. “I come from a family that expresses themselves how they see fit.”

In another project, Silverman plays a Jewish character, Tennis World magazine founder Gladys Heldman, in the film “Battle of the Sexes,” which chronicles the 1973 match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). It opens in theaters Sept. 22.

“I Love You, America” begins streaming Oct. 12.

“Future Man”

Actor Seth Rogen has broadened his showbiz horizons in the past few years, adding producer and director to the acting and writing on his resumé. His latest project, as both executive producer and director, is “Future Man,” a time-traveling comedy series about a movie- and video game-loving slacker (Josh Hutcherson) whose joystick skills get him conscripted for a mission to prevent the apocalypse.

“It’s a guy’s journey from janitor to the potential savior of mankind,” Rogen said, describing the format as “a serialized comedy with a lot of plot and story to it. It’s inspired by a lot of the science fiction movies that we grew up on. Pretty much any science fiction movie from the last 35 years influenced the show.”

Rogen won’t appear in “Future Man,” but he will be seen in the film “The Disaster Artist,” a dark comedy opening in December about the making of a notoriously bad film called “The Room.” The cast includes Ari Graynor, Dave Franco, James Franco (who also directed it) and Hutcherson.

“I got to act in great things that, thank God, other people put me in, but I don’t expect it to happen. I’ve never had an acting career that I put in other people’s hands,” Rogen said. “I’m used to doing my own thing. If there’s something I really want to do, I’d write it.”

Born and raised in Vancouver, the son of Jewish socialist parents who met on a kibbutz in Israel, Rogen was a “funny kid” whose flair for comedy emerged early. After realizing he could make his family laugh, he started doing stand-up routines at 12. But his shtick didn’t quite fly at a big occasion the following year.

“I did terrible at my bar mitzvah,” Rogen said. “If you could get ‘fail’ at a bar mitzvah, I would have.”

“Future Man” begins streaming Nov. 14.

“Marvel’s Runaways”

“Marvel’s Runaways” cast: Ariela Barer (from left), Lyrica Okano, Rhenzy Feliz, Gregg Sulkin, Virginia Gardner and Allegra Acosta. Photo by Paul Sarkis/Hulu

 

Those familiar with tween-oriented TV fare may recognize Gregg Sulkin from his roles in “As the Bell Rings” and “The Wizards of Waverly Place” on Disney Channel and Freeform’s “Pretty Little Liars.” But it was the Jewish actor’s first major role as a bar mitzvah boy in the movie “Sixty Six” that launched his acting career when he was 13.

Three years later, he moved from his native London to Los Angeles, where now he’s starring in “Marvel’s Runaways” as one of six affluent Brentwood teenagers who discover they have unusual abilities and their parents belong to a secret, murderous cabal.

Sulkin’s character, Chase Stein, “is from a dysfunctional family. His father is an egotistical maniac and they don’t get along. The other kids have family issues, too, and they don’t really like each other,” he said. “But they have to get to the bottom of one thing: Are their parents evil? And if they are, what are we going to do about it?”

Chase is a lacrosse star, but Sulkin excelled in soccer and took part in the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel. It wasn’t his first trip to Israel: Sulkin became a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“It was the most special day of my life,” he said. “I remember the rabbi saying to me, ‘Gregg, may God bless you always and in all ways,’ and from that day I’ve been very lucky. My career has continued to grow.”

“Marvel’s Runaways” begins streaming Nov. 21.

Words Matter…Dammit!

The violence in Charlottesville was scary, upsetting, vile and – unfortunately not surprising. 

The United States has become a country deeply divided by wealth, education, color, religion, opportunity and politics. It should not be surprising that people feel threatened by the stranger they do not know. The more separate we are from each other, the more fearful and suspicious we have become of the other.

It doesn’t help when our President spends so much time defining what is real and what is fake news, rather than condemning obvious hatred. He is better than this and this is a distraction we can ill afford. The stakes are too high for us to make a mockery of justice and the freedoms that our constitution guarantees us.

The book of Genesis teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price.

Our Jewish legacy is that we are a people of the book, a book that reminds us that words matter. The beginning of the book (i.e. Genesis) teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price. Today is the day to break down the boundaries between us and them.

When we started the Pico Union Project four years ago, I sensed it was time to bring multiple faiths and cultures together under one roof. I had no idea how critical it would be to create a space for people to get to know each other, without judgement or fear. This is what I’ve learned:

  • We can do better
  • Anything is possible.
  • We can say yay when everyone else is saying nay
  • It’s better to focus on service than ‘serve us’
  • Upward mobility is not just a dream, it’s achievable.
  • We are honored when we honor all of creation.

The American way – the Pico Union Project way, begins with YOU and includes all of US.  If you have yet to check us out, The PUP doors are always open -and our eternal light is always on!


Craig Taubman

The Pico Union Project is a multi-faith, multi-cultural center committed to living the principle to “love your neighbor as you want to be loved.” We recognize that in order to love, you must first get to know your neighbor.  We use spirituality, arts, and a deep commitment to community activism as tools to draw individuals together, deepen a sense of self-awareness, and open eyes, minds, and souls to the value and potential of our community.

 

God Bless America & PS, Trump is Mentally Deficient

As a little girl I used to dream about living in the United States. I grew up watching American television, trying very hard to lose my Canadian accent, and would always tell my parents I was going to live in Los Angeles one day. I have now lived in Los Angeles longer than I lived in Canada. This is where my son was born, where my dreams came true, where I found peace, and where I have built my life. I love the United States, I love California, and I count my blessings each and every day.

For the first time in my 25 years here, I feel uneasy. I am embarrassed by the President of this beautiful country and have said I am Canadian more in the past 9 months than I have in my entire life. I am sad and scared about what is happening here. Trump’s America is dark and depressing. The Fourth of July is a special day for everyone who is fortunate enough to live here, but with each day Trump is President we become a less fortunate nation because he puts us at risk.

On this Fourth of July I will pray. Pray for each and every one of us. Whether or not you support the 45th President of the United States, you should be afraid. Afraid of not only what you know he is doing, but more importantly, what you don’t know he is doing. He is making a mockery of his job and putting us in harm’s way. From healthcare, to being in charge of the military, to cries of fake news, our futures are in jeopardy. Important to note this is not about our political affiliations.

I know many great Republicans and there is a difference between a Republican and a Trump supporter. Republicans believe in different things than I do, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad, just different. A Trump supporter however, is just as dangerous as their leader. I have yet to meet a Trump supporter who can articulate why he a good President. They can’t because they are mentally deficient. Is that mean? Sorry, but it is time to get real and sometimes that can be mean.

I am exhausted by all the fake kindness and political correctness. I believe Donald Trump is dangerous and mentally deficient. Those who support him, by association, are also dangerous and mentally deficient. Too harsh? I don’t think so. It is my 1st Amendment right to say what I think so I will say it again. Donald Trump is mentally deficient. That feels good! Have a happy and safe 4th. God Bless America, and PS God, sorry about Donald Trump. Don’t give up on us because we are praying.

As I read this I know it will upset a lot of people. It is a politically charged time and there are lines drawn in the sand, but that does not and should not change how I write. I have never worried about what people will think about what I write, but rather worried about how I would feel about myself if I was not honest in my writing. So now it is out there. No tiptoeing, just honesty. I am scared, but I am hopeful. He got lucky when he won and we will be lucky when he is impeached.

May God Bless America. I am sending prayers and good wishes to all those who are serving in the military and putting their lives on the line for our freedom. To the military families, thank you for your sacrifices too. I am blessed to live in America and I pray for her safety. I pray for all of us actually. I hope we make it through this difficult time and come out the other side united and strong. Wishful thinking to be sure, but it is possible. All it requires is for all of us to keep the faith.

 

 

 

 

Which do you love more: Football or America?

I understand that there are American athletes, cheerleaders, members of bands in professional, college and even high school sports who believe — mistakenly — that America is so racist that they cannot, in good conscience, stand when the national anthem is played.

I also understand why the NFL and some college and professional teams allow this to take place. Cowardice is far more common than courage.

What is much more difficult to understand is why the majority of fans in the stadiums and watching on television continue to attend and to watch these sporting events. Why would people who love America, venerate the flag, and wish to honor those who have fought and died for that flag, continue to patronize any team that allows its players or others affiliated with the team to dishonor that flag and country?

There is only one possible answer: Such people value their seat at the stadium or watching the game at home more than they value honoring the country.

No one disputes the legal right of any player not to stand during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In America, you have the legal right to stomp on and burn the American flag. At the same time, however, any team or league has the right to set rules of conduct during a game. For example, no player is allowed to place the name of a candidate or to write a political message on his hat, helmet, or uniform.

Leagues and teams should make it clear that one of their employees’ obligations is to stand during the national anthem. But with few exceptions, when their players don’t, the leagues and the teams do nothing. And, saddest of all, few fans do anything. After all, how many fans are going to waste their expensive season tickets by leaving, or by not showing up at, a game? 

Yet, just imagine how powerful it would be if half, or even a quarter, of the stadium emptied out after players refused to stand for the national anthem. Or imagine if a significant percentage of TV viewers simply stopped watching this mockery of every American soldier, sailor and Marine who fought for, let alone died for, that flag. That would constitute a great moral and patriotic message — and quickly end this behavior.

Until then, however, the message being sent is that there is no price to be paid for public disdain toward the American flag and anthem. And when there is no price paid, the message sent is that what these players, cheerleaders and band members are doing is entirely acceptable.

More than acceptable — made famous. Time magazine, for example, featured the leader of the contempt-for-the-flag movement, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, on its cover. 

America, like Europe, is a society that is committing suicide. Those who have only contempt for the greatest country ever created dominate our news and entertainment media and teach this contempt to America’s young people at virtually every college in the country. This past month, every UCLA freshman was required to read a hate-America screed, “Between the World and Me,” by the radical Black nationalist writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

This is how Coates is described by Joel Kotkin, a Presidential Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a lifelong Democrat (until this year, when he registered as an independent):

“To Coates, America itself seems irredeemable, its very essence tied to racial oppression and brutality. America is [about] . . . a legacy of ‘pillaging,’ the ‘destruction of families,’ ‘the rape of mothers,’ and countless other outrages. Today’s abusive police — and clearly some can be so described — are not outliers who should be punished but ‘are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.’ His alienation from America is so great that he admits to little sympathy for the victims of 9/11.” (Italics added.)

That’s the one book every UCLA freshman has to read this year — and the reading is followed by workshops on American racism, where students hear from UCLA professors such as Safiya Noble, professor in the graduate school of education, who tells them, “We must all think about who we are in the face of persistent anti-Blackness.”

Colin Kaepernick and others won’t stand for the flag that represents the least racist country in recorded history — the country to which far more Black Africans have immigrated voluntarily than ever arrived on a slave ship.

If you watch a game in person or on TV in which any player or other on-field participant refuses to stand during the national anthem, you have told everyone in your life, especially your kids, one of two things: either that you agree with not honoring America because it is such a bad country, or that football is more important than America.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Politicians will never make us happy

According to a 2015 Pew report, just 19 percent of Americans say they can trust their government “always or most of the time,” while only 20 percent would describe government programs as “being well run.”

This is not a shocking statistic — we’ve been hearing about the declining faith in government for a long time.

What is surprising, though, is another finding in the same report: Americans still expect a lot from that same government they don’t trust, with majorities saying they “want the federal government to have a major role in addressing issues.”

This dissonance reflects the dysfunctional nature of the political process: To get elected, politicians feel they must promise the moon, and when that moon never shows up, well, we are disappointed. So, on the one hand we’re conditioned to expect a lot, but on the other we’re resigned to feeling let down.

It’s like ordering one of those miracle workout machines that promise you the perfect body in 30 days and then seeing it end up in your bedroom as a piece of furniture to hang your clothes on. In the advertising business, we call that “antisappointment”— you anticipate, and you’re disappointed.

But promises are intoxicating. We want to believe. We know deep down we’ll get burned, but we’re eternally seduced by the drug of hope.

Politicians never stop feeding us that drug. The more cynical we are, the more hope they promise. It’s a race to the bottom, with antisappointment becoming a permanent American condition.

If you watched the Republican and Democratic conventions, you may have noticed that very few speakers, if any, demanded something back from the voters. In addition to the usual maligning of the other party, it was the same classic playbook: “We promise you the moon, and in return you vote for us.” Never mind that voters will probably get burned again.

A friend of mine used to ask waiters in restaurants, “What’s not good here?” If they answered honestly with an item, he would trust them when they told him something was good.

If Hillary Clinton wants to beat Donald Trump this year, she might want to try that approach. Don’t just tell us that Trump is horrible, and don’t just tell us what you can do. Be straight with us: Tell us what the government cannot do, what the government is not good at.

Here’s a presidential stump speech I’d love to hear:

“Look, I can stand here and promise you that my policies will transform our country and improve your lives, but I’d be lying. That’s not how it works. I can promise you I’ll work really hard to generate more jobs, level the playing field, upgrade our education, care for the downtrodden, make the world safer and cleaner and so forth, but that doesn’t ensure I will succeed or that your lives will improve.

“The truth is, no politician can make you happy. That’s something only you can achieve. You can work harder and smarter. You can take better care of your health. You can control your anger and be more forgiving. You can spend more time with your family. You can get more involved with social and civic causes and your local communities. You can enjoy the arts and the beauty of nature. None of those actions has anything to do with whom you will vote for.

“Of course, I will do my best to make sure the odds are on your side. But, at the end of the day, your well-being is mostly on your shoulders. It’s about what you can do for yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your city, your country, your world.

“My platform is to bring out the best in Americans by reminding you how needed you are and how much potential you have. I will do my share, but I expect you to do yours. My campaign slogan is, ‘Bringing out the best in America,’ because the best of each American is what our great nation deserves.

“If you can handle that truth, I will accept your vote.”

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

As terror engulfs Europe, Americans ponder: What will become of us?

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb and Eric Ciotti (R), President of the Departmental Council of the Alpes-Maritimes, stand at the memorial to the victims of the July 14, 2016 truck attack, in Nice, France, September 29, 2017. Collomb attends the Euro-Mediterranean conference of cities on the prevention of radicalisation and for the fight against terrorism. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

After the July 14 attack on the Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France, one of the more quizzical pieces of internet flotsam to bubble up was a 2014 interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that made rounds on social media.

In a video clip, Netanyahu tells a French reporter: “If we don’t stand together, then this terror plague will come to you. It’s just a question of time. It will come to you. It will come to France.”

The words rang with eerie prescience in the wake of the latest massacre in France by a man driving a truck through a crowd of revelers in Nice, killing 84, injuring more than 200 and leaving a mile of carnage in its wake.

With Netanyahu’s prophecy a reality, Americans are facing their own troubling set of questions: Could we be next? And what can we do about it?

“We can reduce the risk but we can’t eliminate the threat, and Americans need to get used to that concept,” Erroll Southers, a USC counterterrorism expert and a consultant with the Israeli security company Tal Global, said in an interview. “Israelis are already used to that concept.”

In the aftermath of events such as the Bastille Day massacre, news viewers are used to hearing calls to harden so-called “soft” targets — unprotected civilian institutions or events with the potential for high casualties if attacked.

And, Southers told the Journal, “It always make sense to harden the targets.”

But when it comes to terrorism and counterterrorism, “It’s a cat-and-mouse game.”

“We put up a barricade; they find a way to go around it,” he said. “We implement technology; they find a way to compromise it.”

Using strategies published in Islamic State magazines, lone-wolf actors have figured out how to become “force multipliers” in terms of maximizing causalities, he said.

“The fact that an attack is successful does not mean there was a counterterrorism failure. That’s another notion we need to get rid of — these are adaptive adversaries.”

Jim Featherstone, president of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that facilitates cooperation between public, private and civic sectors to advance public safety and homeland security, agreed that a successful attack does not necessarily mean a law enforcement breakdown.

“Public safety assets in this country and across the world have to be right 100 percent of the time, 365 days a year,” he told the Journal. “The terrorists only need to be right once.”

While Featherstone agreed with Southers that terrorism deaths here are unavoidable, he differed on how Americans should internalize the inevitable.

“We should work to safeguard and preserve every life,” Featherstone said. “Are there going to be some situations where that’s not going to happen? Of course — look at the events of the last few months. I don’t think it’s in the American mindset, and certainly not in the public safety mindset, that there’s an acceptable loss.”

Featherstone mentioned involving communities in their own security as one key step toward building a safer Los Angeles, citing the mantra frequently piped over airport P.A. systems: “If you see something, say something.”

The American Jewish community knows that mantra better than most, said Ariella Schusterman, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for the Pacific Southwest.

“The Jewish community is fairly sophisticated when it comes to knowing what suspicious activity looks like, or at least reporting it,” she said in an interview.

Each year, the ADL holds a briefing for local Jewish organizations on relevant security issues. On Aug. 23, it will convene community leaders to hear from San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan on lessons from the December shooting attack at a community center there, in which 14 were killed and 22 wounded.

That massacre was the deadliest terror incident on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. It held that record for only seven months, until a man murdered 49 people and wounded at least 50 more at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in the early hours of June 12.

Ivan Wolkind, chief operating and financial officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said that in recent years, Federation has funneled increased attention and funds into the issue of keeping L.A. Jewish institutions safe.

In 2013, it launched the Community Security Initiative, which offers free security assessments, recommendations and training for its constituent organizations, employing five full-time ex-law enforcement and military personnel.

But Wolkind, a reserve L.A. Police Department officer, said vigilance should not be a reaction to a specific terrorist event, but rather a calculated response to the global threat level.

“Unless a particular attack shows a new threat we’ve never seen before, the reaction … should be nothing,” he told the Journal. “What the Jewish community and the American community should do is to recognize the fact that, unfortunately, we’re at a point where we do need to be security conscious at a constant, steady state.”

There’s a fine line between vigilance and fear.

From the “shrill and obsessive” media coverage of the violence, “people indeed can get the wrong impression that, ‘Terrorism is here and I’m going to be next,’ ” said Reuben Vaisman-Tzachor, a Santa Monica-based forensic psychologist who advised the Bush administration on the psychology of terror in the wake of 9/11.

Vaisman-Tzachor, who grew up in Israel and served as a captain in the navy there, said terror is enhanced when the culprits and their motivations are shrouded in mystery.

He pointed to the suspense thrillers of Steven Spielberg to illustrate a point about the psychology of fear: Often, the monster isn’t shown onscreen until well into the movie, a tactic used intentionally to heighten terror. The same theory that applies in “Jaws” applies to a terrorist: The devil you know is less frightening than the devil you don’t.

“Most Israelis aren’t walking around looking behind their backs and fearing that someone’s going to stab them,” he said. “There is a sense of security that doesn’t necessarily come from the fact that there is no terror. There is a sense of security because people understand exactly who are the terrorists and what are the situations they should avoid or be careful with. And so, in general, they are not living in fear.”

He added, “If there’s anything American society has to learn from, it’s that.”

And yet, the recent spate of attacks, from the ISIS-inspired shooter in Orlando to the lone-wolf sniper who slew five police officers in Dallas, is not driven by well-defined networks and clarity of purpose but by disgruntlement and social isolation, said Asli Bali, a UCLA law professor specializing in international law and arms control.

Watching the events of recent months, she said she’s noticed a “lowering of the threshold” for mental illness and disaffection to turn into staggering acts of violence. The result is not only a counterterrorism problem, but also a “multidimensional sociological problem” encompassing issues such as mental health.

A reflective Bernie Sanders, acknowledging Clinton as nominee, talks Trump, Larry David and what mov

Acknowledging for the first time that he will not be the Democratic presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders said he was not yet ready to endorse Hillary Clinton.

In an expansive interview aired Wednesday on C-Span, Sanders said he hoped to speak at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia next month, but did not yet know if he would.

“It doesn’t appear that I’m going to be the nominee, so I’m not going to be determining the scope of the convention,” he said.

During the hourlong interview Sanders, the first Jewish candidate to win major nominating contests, spoke of the prejudices that American society had overcome, including against Jews, only to encounter them again in the campaign of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The Independent senator from Vermont said he remained dedicated to defeating Trump.

He also reflected on how moved he was by the support his insurgent campaign garnered and joked about the influence that comedian Larry David, who handled Sanders impressions on “Saturday Night Live,” had on his campaign.

“Think of what this country has had to go through since its inception, since we had slavery and discrimination, what we’ve done to the Native American people, the prejudice against the Irish, the Italians, the Jews,” Sanders said.

“Now to have a candidate for president of the United States who is insulting Mexicans and Latinos and Muslims and women and veterans and African Americans,” he said of Trump. “This guy must not become president of the United States. I’m going to do everything I can to prevent that.”

On Thursday evening, Sanders is scheduled to speak in New York to his followers on “Where do we go from here.” Sanders, 74, said he hoped to chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the next Senate, and would likely run again for the body — for a third term — in 2018.

Clinton has secured the needed number of delegates for the nomination. Sanders said he was holding out his endorsement of the former secretary of state because he wants to see how much of his platform she embraces.

“We want to see Secretary Clinton stake out the most progressive positions that she can,” he said, adding that Clinton should also select a progressive running mate, one who does not “have roots” on Wall Street.

Sanders appeared relaxed and at times relieved to be out of the race. He implicitly acknowledged one of the top Clinton campaign criticisms: That he was underexposed to the gritty American reality as a white senator from an overwhelmingly white state.

“I’m kind of a small-town guy,” he said.

Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and attended the University of Chicago, but apart from a stint in Israel in the mid-1960s has lived in Vermont since the late 1960s.

He said he had not been viscerally aware of issues like institutional racism and the plight of undocumented immigrants until he started traveling for the campaign.

“There are beautiful people all over this country,” said Sanders, a campaigner otherwise notorious for his one-note focus on economic policy and hating feel-good talk. He acknowledged being moved to near tears at times by the support he encountered.

Sanders was enthusiastic about reshaping the Democratic Party platform. As part of a peacemaking effort, the Democratic National Committee, which has feuded with Sanders, allowed him to name five members of the 15-member platform drafting committee. Clinton named six.

Outlining where he hoped his views would influence the platform, Sanders notably did not mention Israel or foreign policy. Three of his appointees are Israel critics who are striving to have the platform recognize that Israel is occupying Palestinian land in the West Bank.

“It is fair to say that the Democratic platform will be by far the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party,” he said, “in terms of economics, in terms of climate change, of criminal justice, in terms of immigration reform, in terms of higher education and in many other areas. Yeah, I think it is going to be a very progressive platform.”

Asked by his C-Span interviewer why terrorists “hate the United States,” Sanders’ reflex was to first blame extremist attitudes in the Middle East for creating a breeding ground for terrorism.

“They do not believe that girls should get an education,” he said of groups like the Islamic State. “They have a weird sexual approach. They feel threatened by a society that has a looser sexual approach.”

Sanders said other factors included extreme poverty in the region driving frustrated young men toward terrorist groups. He also faulted previous American administrations for an overly interventionist policy that lacked follow-up.

“There is a perception out there that the United States thinks it has the right to impose regime change without thinking about what happens the day after,” he said.

Freed from the bitter rivalry that characterized the last months of the election, he praised Clinton as capable and intelligent.

Sanders laughed heartily when reminded of the David impressions of him and suggested that he benefited from the mimicking of his Brooklyn accent, especially David’s pronunciation of the word “huge.”

“Let me tell you something, it has an impact, in any speech that I gave, if I used the word ‘yuuuuuuge,’” he said. “It had a huge reaction.”

David, he said, nailed him.

“He is good, my God, yes,” Sander said. “I was trying to convince him to get out there on the campaign trail, he could be a clone there — but it didn’t work out.”

Can French comedian Gad Elmaleh make America laugh — in English?

In a small living room in Montreal on a quiet Shabbat afternoon in around 1990, about a decade before Gad Elmaleh became the biggest comedian in France and 25 years before he made his improbable move to America, I was hanging with him and a few friends, trying not to talk about the weekly Torah portion.

Elmaleh, like many other young Moroccan Jews at the time, had caught the religious bug, which meant that observing Shabbat was the cool thing to do.

But we had our limits. We still wanted to laugh.

So, as we were schmoozing on that afternoon, someone brought up a “fashion show” that was coming up in the community. Elmaleh, who was then about 20, took the phrase and ran with it — in Arabic. 

Using only the words “fashion show,” he mimicked the way our parents sound when they speak Arabic. He threw in some facial expressions and dramatic gestures, and basically told us an entire story using only two words.

Years later, I watched a video of Elmaleh performing in front of a huge crowd in Paris. I remember his bit about, “There’s no such thing as a small rabbi—they’re all big. I’m just looking for a small, good-looking rabbi.” This was exactly the same guy who made us laugh in that living room. He could take any little observation and run with it. Only now, instead of a few buddies laughing in Montreal, it was a few thousand people laughing in Paris.

By then, Elmaleh had become the funniest man in France. What started with small, local shows for the Montreal Sephardic community — where his signature act was to imitate old Moroccan Jews living in the modern world — quickly grew to major events once he moved from Montreal to Paris in the early 1990s.

He made history in 2007, when he sold out the prestigious Olympia (the French version of Carnegie Hall) for seven consecutive weeks, something no artist had done before. 

His comedy was a hit in Paris for the same reason it was a hit in Montreal — he could make little observations, create characters and deliver stories with timing and body language that made everyone crack up.

Although he’s also had some starring roles in movies, his first love has always been to perform live, feeding off a crowd’s energy.

But here’s where the plot thickens. Elmaleh, who’s a youthful 45, has made it to the top by performing in his first language — French. In the past, even when he’s performed in Los Angeles for sellout crowds, it was for the local French community. It never dawned on anyone that he’d want to switch to English-speaking comedy clubs. 

But that is exactly what he is doing now.

Because of his ability to find laughs in the smallest things, some people have called him a French version of Jerry Seinfeld, who last year featured Elmaleh on his Web show, “Comedians in Cars getting Coffee.” There is some truth in the comparison, but it’s too easy.

About two years ago, at the pinnacle of his career, he decided to push himself to see if he could make America laugh — in English.

So, with his broken English, he set out on the road and started performing in little clubs. Since January, he’s been a Tuesday night regular at the famous Joe’s Pub in New York City, where he now lives. 

Thanks to lots of classes and plenty of practice, his English has significantly improved. But while he’s starting to get the hang of the language and making people laugh, the transition to American comedy is still a high-wire act. No one knows yet how far he can go or how long it will last. 

It helps that Elmaleh has very funny body language, which is universal. But stand-up comedy lives or dies with words, with material, with jokes. When a comic comes onstage, he has to break the ice and create an instant connection with strangers.

How do you do that if you’re not immersed in the language, the dialect and the culture of the country in which you are performing?

Or, using comedian slang, how do you “kill” in America if your first language is definitively French? 

These days, making America laugh is all that matters to Elmaleh. This was evident when he visited my house a few weeks ago for a little schmooze.

He was preparing for his three gigs this past week in Los Angeles at Largo. Although we normally speak to each other in French, he wanted to speak only in English. We talked about what makes Americans laugh. He was a sponge. He took more notes than I did.

He doesn’t want to be just a French comic in America; he wants to be a French Jewish comic in America. That’s a bigger canvas.

He has become a student of Jewish-American comedy. Because of his ability to find laughs in the smallest things, some people have called him a French version of Jerry Seinfeld, who has already featured Elmaleh on his Web show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” There is some truth in the comparison, but it’s too easy.

Elmaleh is developing his own voice based on his unique journey. He admitted to me that it’s all a work in progress. He’s observing everything around him and trying to find humor in a brand new culture. 

“It’s fun because it’s like I’m starting all over again,” he told me.

Part of his new material is to poke fun at American quirks. “Americans love to be nice,” he says. “When I told my neighbor that I am French, he told me: ‘Oh, I have a cousin who went to Italy last year!’ I’m thinking: What’s wrong with you guys? Thank you, but this is stupid information.”

He can also go broad. One of my favorite bits is a riff on how France donated the Statue of Liberty to America, after considering and discarding other options (free health care, free college, etc.). When Amazon Prime delivered the gift to the Americans, they learned that “people who bought this are also interested in the Eiffel Tower.”

What will be especially fascinating to watch, for me at least, will be how he interprets the Jewish part of his new comic identity. He admires the way Jews are so integrated into American culture. He loves how Jewish humor has a long and storied tradition in American life.

Elmaleh is not a religious Jew, but he’s a proud Jew. He grew up in Casablanca, so he has a deep connection to his Sephardic Moroccan heritage. Maybe because he’s become friendly with many Jewish-American comedians, he’s thinking of hosting Friday night dinners at his place in New York. (That would, no doubt, be the hottest Shabbat ticket in town.)

Gad Elmaleh. Photo by Cyril Dodergny

I can’t wait to see what he comes up with when he decides to poke fun at the Jewish-American community. He’ll have plenty of material to work with. 

He has his own Jewish mother jokes. His mother, he says, doesn’t speak a word of English, yet she gives him notes and feedback after his performances. After one of his recent shows in New York, he told her he didn’t think it went very well.

“No. I was in the crowd,” she replied. “It was much worse than that.” 

Elmaleh still has a deep attachment to France. He loves the culture, the way of life, the sophistication. It helps that during his long career, as he became a media celebrity, he’s managed to steer clear of politics and controversy. He has always just wanted to make people laugh. His fans come from a diverse background — Jews as well as non-Jews.

But although he still loves France, it’s also true that in America, Elmaleh feels a new sense of possibility. People are not as uptight. Jews are more accepted. He sees this new chapter as an opportunity to broaden his craft.

Mixing it up in small comedy joints has rejuvenated him. Here’s a guy who’s made millions yet absolutely loves it when a club owner gives him $30 after a performance. “The pizza I buy with that money is extra delicious,” he says. 

It comes down to making people laugh. “If I’m in front of 1,000 people or 10 people,” he says, “it’s the same challenge. Can I make them laugh?” 

But will Elmaleh make Americans laugh? Will he create his own brand of French-Jewish-Moroccan-American humor that will make him part of the American comedy landscape? 

So far, he’s been somewhat under the mainstream radar. But as he goes on late-night television (he has already appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”) and continues to expand his presence, the scrutiny will increase.

Elmaleh is thinking about the long game. He has two English teachers, one who focuses on grammar and the other on dialect. He doesn’t want anyone to miss a joke because they can’t understand him.

In a sense, his comedy follows a common blueprint for comedians — he makes acute observations about the world around him. Comparing American and French cultures is a natural. 

When he ate at a Chinese restaurant recently and read the hopeful message in his fortune cookie, he couldn’t help but wonder how that would translate in France. “You open your baguette,” he says, “and inside you find this message: ‘Don’t reach for the stars, you will never reach them,’ or ‘If you have big dreams, that means you are sleeping.’”

Although he pokes fun at everything around him, his humor is not mean or condescending. He has a friendly demeanor that infuses his humor. As you’re laughing at his jokes, it’s easy to like the guy. 

Throughout his career and for as long as I’ve known him, Elmaleh has been that likeable guy making people laugh. No subject is too small. Old friends from his high school days in Montreal recall how he would suddenly start up a long conversation with an eraser — making the whole class, including the teacher, explode in laughter.

Playing in small clubs in a new country has helped him recapture some of that raw intimacy. These clubs have become his personal salon, where he is immersing himself in a new culture and language as he tries to make a new audience laugh.

Over the next few months, that audience will grow.

His big coming out will happen this August, when he kicks off the North American tour of his all-English set, “Oh My Gad,” in major cities across the country, including Sept. 9 in L.A. at the 1,600-seat Theatre at Ace Hotel.

In June, he will open for Seinfeld in New York and Montreal. And, as if he needed more pressure, it was just announced that he will play, yes, Carnegie Hall next Feb. 11.

Is he nervous?

“I’m always a little nervous,” he says. “Only now I try to be nervous in English.”

Why I can’t vote for Donald Trump

As a well-identified Republican in the Los Angeles Jewish community, for weeks and months on end I have repeatedly been asked the same question by Democratic friends and colleagues, and I usually sense it coming by the person’s shifting body language: “So, would you vote for Donald Trump?” My diplomatic but evasive response came to be, “It depends on who is running against him.” But I never thought it would really come down to that. Now it appears likely.

For me, it’s time to publicly change my previous answer before it’s too late : Yes, I would Dump Trump. If it came down to the choice between Hillary Clinton (another terribly flawed candidate) and him, I would either not vote at all or support a third-party conservative candidate, if that were an option. Sometimes, regrettably, taking the least bad choice is the best option.

Trump’s outrageous statements and behavior are well worn by now: His disparagement of one ethnic group after the other; his making fun of the disabled; his admiration for Vladimir Putin; his belittling of one person after the other, from Sen. John McCain to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly to former governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush and on and on. Remember his prank of reading Sen. Lindsey Graham’s cellphone number to a crowd? Is this befitting of a president? First he “shlonged” Hillary Clinton, and then he insisted on talking about his own in a nationally televised debate. Mr. Trump: The American presidency isn’t some vulgar reality show.

Trump currently claims to be a Republican, but Republican after Republican are disowning him. His views are certainly not consistently conservative. Using eminent domain for personal interests certainly isn’t. The problem is that no one knows what he consistently believes. His views shift in the wind from day to day or minute to minute. One minute, he would order the military to torture people, the next minute, he wouldn’t. One minute, George W. Bush lied us into war, the next day, he didn’t. How can someone who is so erratic be elected to represent a major political party, let alone be trusted with the codes to unleash the arsenal of the nuclear triad, the meaning of which he was unaware of a short time ago?

As a Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor, what scares me about Trump is his treatment of people as groups, using negative stereotypes to stir up the emotions of uneducated and disaffected people, and appealing to the worst instincts of people. He disparages minorities before he says he “loves” some of them. For now, it’s Mexicans, Muslims, the Chinese. Jews, after all, are the ultimate minority. During the Diaspora, Jews spread out and shifted from country to country, based on acceptance by the majority in the countries to which they migrated. During World War II, we all know what happened when Jews found the doors shut. While I am not arguing for uncontrolled migration, the demonization of people seeking shelter or a better life is not compatible with our history.

One of Trump’s ex-wives alleges he kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside. I have no idea if this is true, but the fact that she thought people would find it credible is disturbing. I haven’t heard that come up in even the bitterest divorces. Trump’s failure to immediately disavow the KKK makes you wonder.

Furthermore, Jews don’t demean women. Woman are revered. Modern synagogues treat the matriarchs as we do the patriarchs, honoring them in daily prayers. Shavuot celebrates Ruth, and Purim, Esther. Jewish adults don’t make fun of a woman’s menses.

On Israel, Trump seems uninformed and naive. Being an even-handed broker between a Democratic ally and Hamas is ridiculous. The fact that he approaches diplomacy as he would a business deal (which for him often ended in bankruptcy) is foolishness. Trump’s defense of his bona fides on Israel is that he once marched in an Israel Day parade. This is reminiscent of the fact that he gets foreign policy advice from watching “the shows.” There is no substance here.

I am writing this from Paris. A friend of mine told me people in the tolerant Republique de France are shocked that so many Americans would be supporting Trump for president. Americans? They have managed to marginalize Marie Le Pen in France amid all the xenophobia but Trump is winning in America? Il n’est pas possible. A few days ago, I was in London with my daughter. A friend of hers who works in the financial district told me that Trump is a hotter topic of conversation among her colleagues than “Brexit” (Great Britain leaving the European Union). “Europe depends on America,” she told me. “Europe is scared.”

Twenty-eight years ago, my wife persuaded me to join the Republican Party because it was more aligned with most of my core political beliefs. My wife and I were frequently challenged and chastised about our conversion by Westside friends, so-called “liberals,” who charged us with greed, sexism, racism, homophobia and misogyny. Having become well versed in the writings and speeches of Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, George Gilder, William Buckley and Ronald Reagan, we had no problem arguing successfully for conservative values based on sound, intellectual arguments. We occasionally changed minds, especially in the early 2000s, as George W. Bush, 9/11, and the Second Intifada produced a wave of “9/11 Republicans,” Jews who were willing to follow facts and abandon old beliefs and emotions.

In 2016, I am still a conservative, a constitutionalist and a Republican. However, I cannot defend Donald Trump on any political or intellectual grounds. He presents a challenge to much of what I believe in and is a potential danger to the United States and our friends and allies. For these reasons, I am adding my voice to a chorus of other Republican leaders in affirming that I cannot vote for Donald Trump, and will use all of my energies to defeat him.


Joel Geiderman is the California Chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition and the former Vice Chairman of the United States Holocaust Museum, appointed by George W. Bush. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or individual with which or whom he is currently or was formerly affiliated.

Taking in refugees is good for America

We all intuitively understand that if your friend loses his house in a hurricane, the right thing to do is to invite him to stay with you. But what if 10 of your friends lose their houses? You might call on your other friends to help with the cost of hotel rooms. And if you don’t actually know the unfortunate souls who lost it all? You might still lend a hand through the many private charities that assist those in distress.

The same philosophy should apply today, as the American people decide whether to accept a portion of the estimated 4.2 million Syrian refugees currently trying to escape their civil war-torn nation. And yet resistance to the idea is strong.

In 2015, the United States admitted 70,000 refugees combined from countries such as Iraq, Iran, China and Indonesia. For 2016, President Barack Obama proposed increasing the ceiling to 85,000 — higher than at any time since he took office, but many fewer than the 207,116 refugees — mostly from Asia — that we welcomed into the country in 1980.

Obama also requested that 10,000 refugees from Syria be accepted — a number that barely begins to address the humanitarian needs of the millions displaced by war. It also pales in comparison to the 1.1 million Syrian refugees who have found a home in Lebanon and the 815,000 allowed to resettle in Turkey. Unfortunately, with the rise of radical Islamism and recent terrorist attacks in countries such as France and the United States, many Americans (and American presidential candidates) are concerned about the national security implications of allowing in any refugees from that region.

Protecting U.S. citizens is obviously a priority, and the government has a responsibility to vet refugees before letting them settle here. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds, because reliable background checks may be hard to obtain and people who have fled their homes may have a difficult time providing verifiable proof of their identities.

Those difficulties shouldn’t be deal breakers, however. Arguably, no act of terrorism has been committed in the last 40 years by refugees in the United States (though a tiny number of refugees have been arrested on terrorism-related charges, and depending on the precise definition of refugees used, the Boston Marathon bombing or other incidents may count). And the long wait time and high cost of entering the country as a refugee make that an extremely inefficient way for terrorists to get in.

Meanwhile, countries that refuse entry to refugees — forcing them to reside in terrible living conditions in camps near the theater of conflict — may inadvertently be facilitating recruitment by extremist groups. A 2013 study in the journal International Interactions shows that when large numbers of refugees are placed in countries that have historically had tensions with their country of origin, it increases the risk of terrorism. Georgetown University’s Anne Speckhard, who studies terrorist psychology, said: “Experience from many conflict zones teaches us that the longer these refugees are left to languish in despair in camps, the more prone they become to radicalization.” In other words, there are serious security downsides to not accepting refugees.

Resettlement in the United States is only the first step in the process, of course; assimilation is also important. Thankfully, past efforts on this front have met with positive results. “Refugees adapt quickly to the U.S. economy, complement existing workers and settle rapidly into their new homes,” argued Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration specialist at the Cato Institute.

Because refugees cannot return to their homeland as many economic migrants do, Nowrasteh explained, they tend to make serious long-term commitments to learning English and other relevant skills. The data confirm this point: A paper by Kalena E. Cortes, published in The Review of Economics and Statistics in May 2004, looked at how implicit differences in the time horizons of refugees and economic immigrants affected subsequent human capital investments. She found that a decade after their arrival, refugees who settled here between 1975 and 1980 earned 20 percent more in wages, worked 4 percent more hours, and had improved their English skills 11 percent more.

“Unlike other immigrants, refugees do have immediate access to some welfare programs,” Nowrasteh added, “but they generally leave them rapidly and are more likely to enter the workforce than natives or other immigrants.” This is a good thing, because the availability of welfare doesn’t do much to help assimilation and may even hinder refugees’ well-being.

A 2000 paper by Andrey Vinokurov, Dina Birman and Edison Trickett in International Migration Review looked at the psychological impact of working on 206 (mostly Jewish) Soviet refugees in the United States. It compared Russians who settled in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn to those who settled in the Washington, D.C., area.

The New York refugees had more access to welfare. However, the data show that those in the D.C. area were more satisfied with their lives and more upwardly mobile. The more the job matched  a refugee’s original skills, the more positive the impact. There was no real difference on the level of acculturation.

But what about the impact of these new entrants on Americans? Economists have shown that immigrants generally increase the host country’s overall gross domestic product (GDP). The result on GDP per capita is a source of debate, but the literature suggests that the effect depends on the relative skill set of refugees compared to the native population. Highly skilled refugees would add much more to the average per-person income than low-skilled ones. But does that mean that low-skilled refugees have a negative impact?

That doesn’t seem to be the case. In a well-known 1990 paper, economist David Card looked at the impact on the Miami economy of 125,000 Cuban refugees who arrived during the Mariel boatlift crisis. Although the immigrants increased Miami’s labor force by 7 percent — and were concentrated in less-skilled occupations — contrary to people’s fears, the influx had virtually no effect on the wages or unemployment rates of the city’s less-skilled workers, even among previous Cuban immigrants.

Low-skilled refugees, like other immigrants, tend to boost the employment opportunities of native workers, either by providing cheap child care services that enable women to increase their labor force participation or by pushing native workers to pursue more complex occupations and higher wages. A 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri, for instance, looked at the effect on Danish workers of a large inflow of non-European refugees between 1991 and 2008. It found real positive wage effects set in after five to six years, as the rest of the economy adjusted to the increase in workers, and the native laborers moved into more complex jobs. The flexibility of the Danish labor market played to everyone’s favor, much as the strong economy in the U.S. in the 1980s did.

Assuming these results hold true today, accepting more refugees is not just the moral thing to do. It’s in everyone’s best interest.


Veronique de Rugy is a columnist at Reason magazine and an economist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Reprinted with permission from Reason.

Sanders campaign sets new TV ad to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’

A television ad for Bernie Sanders in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses is featuring the song “America” by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.

The one-minute ad for the Democratic presidential candidate started running in the state on Friday in advance of the Feb. 1 vote. It includes images of Americans on farms, in offices and at home; people at Sanders’ rallies; and the family of the Vermont senator set to the iconic song by the Jewish duo, members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A voiceover by Sanders appears in the last four seconds saying he approves of the ad’s message.

Garfunkel told CNN in an interview that he supports the Brooklyn-born Sanders, an independent running in the Democratic race, though a campaign spokesman has been careful to point out that use of the song does not imply an endorsement from the artists.

“This campaign is not about me,” Sanders was quoted as saying in a news release announcing the new ad. “It is not about Hillary Clinton or any other candidate. This campaign is about you, your kids and your parents. It is about creating a political movement of millions of people who stand up and loudly proclaim that this nation belongs to all of us and not just a handful of billionaires.”

Roman Polanski, 10 other Hollywood Jews open up about surviving Holocaust

The Hollywood Reporter is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust with a feature on 11 survivors who went on to careers in American entertainment. The project, released Wednesday morning online and in print, includes moving video interviews with all the subjects, including director Roman Polanski and sex therapist Ruth Westheimer.

Director Steven Spielberg, the founder of the USC Shoah Foundation, wrote an essay for the feature. Below is a look at each subject’s testimony.

Roman Polanski, 82, director of seminal films like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown” and “The Pianist”

Polanski, whom the U.S. has repeatedly attempted to extradite from Europe on sexual assault charges, is wary of speaking to American reporters. But he spoke to Peter Flax, an editor at THR, for an hour about his Holocaust experience.

Polanski tells the story of the first person he saw killed: “Some old woman was crying and wailing in Yiddish — I didn’t quite understand because I did not speak Yiddish,” he says. “And at one moment she was on all fours, and suddenly there was a gun in the hand of that young SS man, and he shot her in the back, and the blood came out, like the little fountain that we have in the offices, you know, a bulb of blood.”

Flax was also allowed to view Polanski’s five-hour testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation, which has never been made public. He describes Polanski’s narration of the video, which filmed him walking through his native Krakow, Poland.

“He points out the spot where he slipped through barbed wire to escape the ghetto, tours the first ghetto apartment his family called home and muses about how opposite sides of a city street could demarcate life and death,” Flax writes.

Branko Lustig, 83, Academy Award-winning producer of films like “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator”

When the British army liberated Auschwitz, where Lustig was a prisoner at age 12, the sound of their bagpipes made him think that he “had died finally, and that was the angels’ music in heaven.”

Years later, he met Spielberg when the director was developing “Schindler’s List.”

“He kissed my number [from the concentration camp, tattooed on Lustig’s arm] and said, ‘You will be my producer.’ He is the man who gave me the possibility to fulfill my obligation,” Lustig says.

Meyer Gottlieb, 76, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films and producer of films like “Master and Commander,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Tortilla Soup”

After leaving Poland as a child in the early 1940s, Gottlieb didn’t visit his native village — where most of his relatives were forced to dig their own graves before being shot by the Germans — until six decades later, in 2008.

“The truth of the matter is that the weapons of massive destruction are not bombs — they’re hatred, intolerance and bigotry,” he tells THR.

Robert Clary, 89, film, TV and stage actor best known for his role on the sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” set in a German POW camp

Clary credited his natural joie de vivre and energy with sustaining him in the Buchenwald concentration camp as a child. He sang and performed with an accordionist for German soldiers every Sunday.

“Singing, entertaining and being in kind of good health at my age, that’s why I survived,” he says. “I was very immature and young and not really fully realizing what situation I was involved with … I don’t know if I would have survived if I really knew that.”

Leon Prochnik, 82, screenwriter and editor, known for adapting the script of the play “Child’s Play” into a film directed by Sidney Lumet

Prochnik grew up the son of a chocolate factory owner in Krakow. He nicknamed the tub that filled with melted chocolate “milka” and thought it had magical powers. When he repeatedly visited it to steal chocolate, great things would happen: One time, his father connected with diplomat Chiune Sugihara, the “Japanese Schindler” who help thousands of Jews leave Europe. Another time, a Nazi officer missed a Jewish prayer book in a search of the factory.

Ruth Westheimer, 87, sex therapist and TV and radio talk show host

Ruth Westheimer reflected on her Holocaust experience to The Hollywood Reporter. Photo courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

By the time the legendary sex guru was 10 years old, she would never see her deported parents again. By the time she was 17, she had moved to British-controlled Palestine to train as a sniper in the Haganah, a precursor to the Israel Defense Forces (even though she only stood 4 feet 7 inches tall).

“Looking at my four grand-children: Hitler lost and I won,” she tells the magazine.

Curt Lowens, 90, film and stage actor known for portraying Nazi characters, including the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele in the Broadway play “The Deputy”

After escaping Berlin and taking on a new identity in a small town in Holland, Lowens (née Loewenstein) joined a three-person Dutch resistance cell that saved 123 Jewish children by delivering them to families who hid them. After V-E Day, Lowens received a commendation from then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for rescuing two fallen American airmen.

Bill Harvey, 91, cosmetologist to the likes of Judy Garland, Mary Martin, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Liza Minelli

After being transported from Auschwitz to Buchenwald on a frigid cattle car, Harvey fell unconscious and was left for dead in a pile of corpses stacked by the crematorium. Someone pulled him out days later. He was 21 years old and weighed about 72 pounds.

“My humble explanation for all the tragedies and the bad people who want just to kill is that maybe there have to be some bad things in order to appreciate all the good things that this world gives you,” Harvey says.

Ruth Posner, 82, founding member of the London Contemporary Dance Company, actress and former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company

One day, while living in the Warsaw Ghetto, Posner and her aunt casually crossed from the Jewish to the Aryan side of the street. They shed their yellow armbands and assumed new identities. She would escape and keep her story secret for decades.

“Now when I talk about it, it seems like I’m describing my role in a play,” Posner says.

Dario Gabbai, 93, actor in the 1953 war film “The Glory Brigade”

Gabbai is likely the last living former member of the Sonderkommando, a set of Jews forced to assist the Germans with various morbid tasks in the concentration camps.

“I have inside some stuff I can never tell,” Gabbai says. “I saw so many things. Even now, I like to cry to get it out of my system. But it doesn’t go out.”

He recalls one time seeing two of his friends from his native Thessaloniki, Greece, in line outside a gas chamber. All he could tell them was the best way to stand inside to minimize their suffering.

Celia Biniaz, 84, supporter of the USC Shoah Foundation whose testimony was included in the DVD version of “Schindler’s List”

Biniaz was on the list of Jews saved by Oskar Schindler. When Liam Neeson was first cast for the film, some involved in the production thought that he was too handsome for the role.

“I told them that Mr. Schindler was very handsome, so he gets the job,” Biniaz said.

An American Immigrant Family’s Responsibility

Last week, we had the honor of celebrating Chanukah at the White House. Joined by President and Mrs. Obama, we watched as the candles of the festival of light were lit by Rabbi Susan Talve. As the lights danced, we couldn’t stop reflecting on how remarkable it was that we, children of refugees, were taking part in such an occasion.  The illumination emanating from the White House Menorah seemed to symbolize the lights of the Statue of Liberty shining on our parents and other family members who escaped Nazi Europe to land in New York on boats in 1939.

We the children of refugees, along with other descendants of immigrants, have accomplished incredible things as Americans—and that is why we feel compelled to call on this country to open its borders to the tired, hungry, and poor from Syria and elsewhere. That is our proud history as Americans, to welcome those without a home. 

Our parents had no idea what our family’s future would hold when they arrived on American shores. They only knew that America offered freedom, safety, and generosity. Our parents escaped from Nazi rule; from places like Germany where our mother’s childhood ended so young, and from Vienna where our father and his friends were forced to clean the streets with a toothbrush as Hitler readied to enter the city. Coming to America was literally a matter of life or death for our family; our great-grandmother was told she could not stay in the United States after she arrived here and was forced to return to Europe where she was murdered by Nazis. That’s what happens when America closes its doors to refugees.

As children growing up in California, social justice and Judaism were intertwined in our household – but not abstractly. And the issues weren’t partisan, they were not matters of being a Democrat or Republican. They were matters of right and wrong. They were matters of saving lives.

Our parents instilled in us a sense that in America each person is valued as an individual. They instilled in us a sense that all are welcome in the great American mosaic. They instilled in us a sense that anything is possible here.

And anything is. In 1980, we became the first brother-sister in history to be ordained as rabbis. Karen was a pioneer, the first female rabbi to work for the Reform Movement, the first woman congregational rabbi in Los Angeles—and the fourth in all of Jewish history. She served at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles as a rabbi for 25 years and today she continues to teach rabbinic students. As head of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Steve is honored to lead the largest organization of Rabbis in the world, with colleagues not just in North American but in Jewish communities in Europe, the FSU, and Israel.  Both live full Jewish lives that our parents or grandparents could only have dreamed of.

None of this would have been possible without American generosity. More specifically, none of it would have been possible without Americans who opened their borders to our family.

That’s precisely why our family feels a special obligation to call on America to live up to its highest ideals, to live the words of the Statute of Liberty, and to offer its blessings to refugees from around the world. It is especially vital for America to maintain a humane immigration policy when we hear ignorant, demagogic calls to close our borders to people simply because of their religion or nationality. Our family knows those fears well, and we know what happens when America acts on them.

We also know what happens when America is truest to its best traditions. Our ancestors in Europe who often were forbidden even to practice their Judaism could never have imagined their children – their direct descendants – being rabbis and being invited by the leaders of most powerful country in the world, into the home of our President, to celebrate Chanukah.

That’s what America has done for us. And we need to make it possible for others to come here and realize the American dream. That’s the Jewish way. And that’s the American way. 

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Karen Fox is Rabbi Emerita at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Elan Carr on the San Bernardino shooting

Like all Americans, Dahlia and I are outraged and heartbroken over yesterday’s murders in San Bernardino. Our prayers are with the many families affected by this heinous attack.  We offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends who lost their loved ones, and we pray for a speedy and complete recovery for those who were injured. We also salute the brave police officers and sheriff’s deputies who displayed exemplary professionalism in bringing the crisis to a conclusion. 

 A government’s most important job is to keep people safe. This was a planned, premeditated attack on county employees in a county facility. All Americans understand how vulnerable we are in the face of dramatically increasing threats from crime and terrorism. I call upon the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to make public safety their absolute top priority.

Rescuing God

This is the first holiday in 45 years that Rabbi Harold Schulweis will not be on the bima. In his memory we offer this sermon.

Elie Wiesel offered a parable about our times:

Once upon a time, Man complained to God: “You have no idea how hard it is to be human — to live a life darkened by suffering and despair in a world filled with violence and destruction, to fear death and worry that nothing we do or create or dream matters.  You have no idea how hard it is to be human!”

God responded, “You think it’s easy being God? I have a whole universe to run, a whole universe demanding constant vigilance. You think you could do that?”

            “I’ll tell you what,” suggested the Man, “let’s switch places, for just a moment. For just a moment, You be Man, and I’ll be God, and that way we’ll see who has it harder.”

            “For just a moment?” God considered, “Agreed.”

So Man and God switched places. Man sat upon God’s throne. And God descended to the earth. After a moment passed, God looked up and said, “OK, time to switch back.” But Man refused. Man refused to give up the throne of God. This is our world — where Man plays God, and God is exiled.

Once upon a time, our ancestors attributed everything in their lives to the will of God. Health and sickness, war and peace, poverty and affluence, were rewards and punishments cast down from heaven.  No matter how random, arbitrary and cruel their fate, they had faith that this too is God’s will, inscrutable and mysterious as it may be. But there came a time when we lost that faith.  We coveted the power to control our destiny. So we turned our efforts from deciphering God’s will, to discovering the patterns in nature and society that might help us predict and control our world.

Sickness, we discovered, is not a divine punishment, but the result of infection, faulty genetics, the deterioration of organs and cells. Drought and deluge are the products of shifts in atmospheric pressure and moisture. The movement of tectonic plates brings earthquakes, and the movement of capital markets produces economic booms and busts. We don’t look to God’s will to explain our fate. We look out upon a reality shaped by politics and economics, by forces of nature, by our own choices. God has been dethroned, and for better or worse, we control things now. We sit upon God’s throne.

Even when we achieved that dominion, we weren’t finished. We set about liberating ourselves of all vestiges of the old faith. We demythologized, desacralized, secularized. We admit no authority beyond ourselves. We tore down heroes, debunked myths, discarded taboos.

Once upon a time, we had heroes: moral heroes, great leaders, sports stars. On our walls hung pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Sandy Koufax. Who do we revere today? Political leaders today are just politicians representing entrenched special interests. Sports heroes are free-agents, playing for the money, or cheaters, or felons. Instead of artists, we exalt celebrities, and we cheer on the circus antics of their narcissism.

We subjected our myths to rigorous revisionist historiography and relished the opportunity to point out all that is unheroic and flawed. When I was young, I was taught to revere the American Founding Fathers – that extraordinary gathering of wise men, who cherished liberty, fought the Revolution for American freedom, and framed our Constitution. Now, we open a textbook and discover that the Revolution wasn’t fought to establish freedom but to defend the interests of a colonial merchant class. Just steps from Independence Hall in Philadelphia where our Founders declared “all men are created equal,” you’ll find the newly-excavated quarters where George Washington’s slaves stay while the Constitution was being drafted. In Monticello, you learn about all the children Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hennings. Lincoln was a depressive. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were notorious for their White House peccadillos. It is as if, one by one, we’re tearing the images off Mt Rushmore.

Who is left to revere today?

I grew up with Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, who told me each night: And that’s the way it is. And we believed him. Is there anyone we believe today? According to a Readers Digest poll, the most trusted Americans are Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington, Merle Streep, Four actor. We don’t know them, their values or their character. We only know the parts they play on screen.

We have lost our heroes, we have lost our myths, and ultimately, – we are losing the sacred. What is the sacred? The sacred is that which we serve with love and loyalty; the core of value upon which we build a life; the ideals which inform life with purpose. The sacred lifts us above the ego, above the endless desires and drives of the narrower self, to reach a bigger, truer, more generous self. Modernity is committed to liberate us from repression, superstition and authority. But in the process modernity, has subverted all that is sacred.

What is sacred today? What is inviolable?  

Patriotism? Patriotism is sullied by the divisiveness of our politics – the radically different views we hold about what America is, who it belongs to, and what it ought to be. Patriotism has become just another advertising slogan. 

Religion? The most popular Broadway show of the last decade is “Book of Mormon.” I’ll confess, it’s hysterical. But halfway through the show, you realize what it’s about. It’s a complete denigration of a community’s faith. What if they’d written “Book of Moses” instead? Would we be laughing? 

Family?

Once upon a time, we saw family as sacred. But research at the University of Michigan found that American children today spend about 20 hours a week interacting with their parents, but more than 30 hours a week, outside of school, in front of a TV screen or a computer monitor. Think of what those kids are seeing on TV. Is family really sacred?

The images of ISIS destroying ancient artifacts and places of worship shock us. But the truth is that we’ve been destroying the sacred for a long time now.

The problem is that human beings can’t live without a sense of the sacred. We need a core of value to motivate and inspire and provide purpose for life. We need myth – we need organizing narratives that answers our deepest questions – Who am I? What am I living for? What matters? Where do I belong? What’s my purpose?

People are so hungry today for myth and meaning, for the sacred, they run to embrace all sorts of belief systems. It was once imagined that as science progressed, all closed systems of belief would disappear in the face of scientific skepticism. The opposite has occurred. As modernity has progressed, fundamentalism has thrived.  No matter how irrational, intolerant, authoritarian, people run to embrace fundamentalism because it fills the deep hunger for the sacred. In fact, it seems the more authoritarian, the more attractive it is.

Of the five armed forces in the US – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard – which one do you think has the most success recruiting young people? The Marine Corp. By far. In fact, there is a wait list to get in. Why the Marine Corp? Why would the most demanding and authoritarian, of the armed service be so popular? Listen to their slogans — The Army promises that you can “be all you can be.” The Navy offers you the chance to see the world. The Marines offer myth. In the Marines, it’s not about you. It’s Semper Fi. It’s about belonging, serving, sacrifice. In the Marines you give up the self to become one of the few, the chosen.

Modernity asks questions, modernity casts doubt. The fundamentalist has no doubts. He has certainty, and there is a charisma that comes with that kind of certainty. He has absolute truth. That’s compelling.  Standing in the presence of absolute conviction, we can imagine that the sacred is at least possible. Even if the God he worships is sexist, chauvinistic, domineering, abusive, even if his ideology is primitive and prejudiced — at least he believes with all his heart, soul and might, without qualification or condition. That provides a kind of security. Even if it means relinquishing our critical sensibility, and democratic values, standing in the presence unqualified faith, we are granted a momentary reprieve from the spiritual emptiness of modern life.

Fundamentalism today is growing. So is addiction.

The human soul craves the sacred. And if we can find nothing sacred, nothing to serve, we live with a hole in the soul. And that hurts. So we run to fill that hole with something to numb the pain. Drink and drugs, shopping and acquisition, sex, pornography, exercise, fantasy, obsessive work, and the relentless pursuit of entertainment. Karl Marx once condemned religion as the opiate of the people. Rabbi Schulweis pointed out that today, it’s the other way around. Today, opiates are the religion of the people. Addiction fills in the hole where the sacred once lived.

In another gripping tale, Elie Wiesel tells of the day his boyhood synagogue was filled with worshippers, when the crazed shamas ran it, and screamed, “Sha. Quiet Jews. Don’t you know that God is hunting the Jews of Europe?  Sha. Don’t let Him know where we are!”

The Holocaust was the capstone of the project of Modernity. As Dostoevsky predicted, when anything goes, everything goes. Absent a sense of the sacred, the unthinkable is suddenly possible. It is as if Western Civilization brought absolute evil into the world just to prove once and for all there is no Father in Heaven who will save us. 

In the chilling words of Wiesel’s memoir, Night:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

In a moment of painful candor, my teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, once asked, how is it that we say the same prayers, pray to the same God, observe the same holidays after the Shoah, as before? How has this cataclysm not changed us indelibly? The question raised by Job in the Bible and revisited throughout the generations of Jewish existence – How can a just and loving God tolerate a world of such suffering? That question comes to a climax in the Holocaust. In the presence of a million and half murdered Jewish children, Greenberg argued, we simply can’t talk about God in the same way anymore.  An April, 1966, cover of Time Magazine asked, in huge bold letters, Is God Dead? After all we’ve witnessed, is there any way today to speak about God, about faith, about God’s role in the world?

The purpose of religion is to identify the sacred, and cultivate and nurture our sensitivity and connection to the sacred. The sacred is rooted in our narratives, our myths. Sacred values grow out of the stories we tell. In Jewish tradition, our core values are rooted in the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of God at Mt Sinai – the story of a God who hands down mitzvoth, commandments, to a covenanted people. The problem is, so many of us don’t believe those narratives any more. Science questions their facticity. Modernity makes it impossible to admit any transcendent source of values. But most of all, we find the tradition’s images of God, impossible to accept. What we’ve witnessed in the 20th century has changed us. We have known too much horror to embrace the old narratives of a God who interrupts history to save His people. We just can’t tell those stories any more. No amount of theological sophistry can bring us back the faith of our ancestors.

This is the task that Rabbi Harold Schulweis faced when he first stepped onto this pulpit, 45 years ago: Addressing a generation deeply yearning for the sacred, but a generation for whom the old narratives, the old beliefs, simply don’t work. That’s what every one of his books, his articles, his sermons are about.

Rabbi Schulweis did not deny or ignore or censure the disillusionment experienced by this generation. He didn’t blame us for doubting and question what our grandparents believed. On the contrary, he honored our doubt. He recognized that our questions of God didn’t grow from cynicism or indifference or despair. Our questions grew from love – love of the Jewish people, love of humanity, love of justice. He recognized in this generation’s doubt what the Talmud called “chutzpah klpei shamaya” – holy protest, sacred dissent. He perceived that our difficulties with the tradition’s image of God are rooted in a set of expectations that reflect traditional, Jewish sacred values. He heard in our questions the voice of Abraham: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do Justice? Ironically, it is our very fidelity to traditional Jewish sacred values that makes it impossible to believe in the traditional narratives about God.

This is precisely where Rabbi Schulweis begins to rebuild faith. If we can no longer find the tradition’s sacred values in a narrative about God, he taught, let’s turn the process around, and root a new narrative of God in our sacred values. The goal of Judaism, he argued, is not to make us believers in a God above. It never was. The goal of Judaism is to make us vessels of divine holiness here on earth. It’s not about God, but Godliness, about the sacred values we express in our conduct of life. God is a verb, he taught, not a noun. Not a Someone. But a way of encountering the world.

This sounds strange to many of us, but it wasn’t to him, and most importantly, it wasn’t to the Jewish tradition. This idea has been in our tradition from the beginning. Open Maimonides. The greatest book of Jewish philosophy ever written, the majestic Guide for the Perplexed begins with the same dilemma, the God we inherit from tradition, we can no longer believe in. In the 12th century, Maimonides set about developing a radically new idea of God and religion. The ultimate goal of human life, he taught, is to perfect oneself so that one can know God. Moses is the Maimonides’ model of the most realized human life, and Moses’ ascent up Mt Sinai, is his metaphor for the journey of human perfection. But one important fact of Moses’ story vexed Maimonides: Having achieved perfection, and standing face to face with God, Moses turns around and descends the mountain. He returns to his people, and all their trouble. Why Moses doesn’t stay on the mountaintop with God? Only on the very last page, the very last paragraph  of the Guide to the Perplexed does Maimonides gives the answer: the perfection in which man can truly glory is attained by him when he has acquired knowledge of God, and God’s Providence, … Having acquired this knowledge, one will then be determined always to seek kindness, justice, and righteousness, and to imitate the ways of God.  Do you hear that? Achieving intellectual perfection and knowing God is but a penultimate objective. The real goal of human life is to embody God’s justice and lovingkindness in the world – to live God, to do God. The last line of Maimonides is the first line of Schulweis. Godliness is the goal of human life.

You know this. You know that the fundamental building block of Jewish prayer is the brachaBaruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam. If the purpose of faith is to express belief in a God above, then the bracha should have stopped there. That says it all: Praised is God, Ruler of the Universe. Period. Why say anything else? But we continue — Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz; borei pri ha-gafen, Shehechianu V’keemanu because the real purpose of the bracha is to build a vocabulary of sacred values, to identify what in life is sacred. Tradition commands that we recite a hundred brachot a day. This is our Jewish spiritual discipline. Its aim is to train our sensitivity for the sacred in life everyday.

Ralph Waldo Emmerson wrote that we become what we worship. The bracha invites us to move beyond the boundaries of the self, beyond our endless needs and desires and moods, to become Godly. To recite a bracha, is to recognize our capacity of self-transcendence, to care, to heal, to help, to give, to touch the lives of others. When we recite a bracha, we bind ourselves to a vision of what we can yet become – to the Godliness latent within.

Rabbi Schulweis believed that this curriculum of self-transcendence had to be more than a solitary spiritual experience. So he introduced a program of initiatives, beginning here at VBS and spreading throughout the country, which re-made the American synagogue.  All of the initiatives he introduced to the synagogue share this quality of breaking boundaries. He perceived the loneliness of suburban life, and so he gathered us into havurot. He felt our need to care for one another, so he trained us to serve as para-rabbinics, and para-professional counselors. He decried the divisions within the Jewish community, and called for cross-denominational youth programs. He felt the narrowness of the Jewish community, and so he reached out to welcome Jews by choice through a program of Keruv, he built a relationship with the Armenian community to commemorate our shared experience of Holocaust together, and in his ninth decade, he demanded we respond to genocide in Darfur and the Congo, and established the Jewish World Watch. Every initiative, an exercise in self-transcendence – becoming more.  

But he still faced one problem. How do we believe in anything after the horrors of the Holocaust? In the face of that evil, that absolute evil, how can we maintain any sense of meaning? 

A few years before Rabbi Schulweis came to VBS, he was attending a Jewish community affair at a hotel in San Francisco, when the owner of the hotel, Ben Swig, introduced him to hotel’s maintenance supervision, a German immigrant named Fritz Graebe. Graebe shared his story with the Rabbi. During the war, Fritz Graebe ran a construction company under contract with the Nazi, on the German-Ukranian border. Graebe had once been a member of the Nazi party. But he grew to hate the Nazis. He witnessed the massacre of Jews in the Ukranian town of Dubno, and it sickened him. So he told the Nazis he needed large numbers of workers, and he took Jews off of trains, and out of concentration camps, and put them to work on his projects. He invented projects, and inflated projects, so the Nazis would give him more work permits. When the Gestapo announced new deportations, he put Jews on trains to nowhere, holding bogus work permits. He used all the privileges afforded him as a civilian contractor, and he used up all his wealth, to save Jews. The Nazis had suspicions, but when they came to arrest him, he escaped to the Allies’ lines. Eventually he would testify at the Nuremberg trials. And when he received death threats, he moved his family to San Francisco. How many Jewish lives did Fritz Graebe save? There were 5000 Jews on his payroll on the day the war ended. 5000 rescued Jewish lives.

Fritz Graebe was only the first of the rescuers that Rabbi Schulweis discovered. He soon found Jacob Gilat, a young mathematics instructor Berkley who, with his brothers, was hidden and rescued by a German Christian family. Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved 3500 Jews in Kovno, Lithuania. The Bulgarian royal family who defied the Gestapo’s order and allowed them to take not one Jew from their country. And so many more.  Collectively, they testified that God did not die in the concentration camps. They rescued Jews. Through their testimony, Rabbi Schulweis rescued God. Even in the deepest darkness, there were sparks of Godliness. 

In our history, there is a rare and special tradition of Jewish spiritual revolutionaries who were called upon to rescue Judaism at moments of profound disruption: Yohanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Temple, Maimonides when philosophy shook the foundations of Jewish faith, the Baal Shem Tov addressing a generation deeply disillusioned and despairing of faith. At these extraordinary moments, Jewish existence reached a crisis – when the sacred narratives of the past expired, and new narratives were yet to be born. These were the singular personalities who perceived that the survival of the community depended on its ability to transcend, to transform, to reinvent its ideas and institutions. They provided resilience, the courage and the inspiration to let go of the old, and to imagine the new. Rabbi Schulweis stands within that extraordinary tradition. As we sing at Hannuka: Hen b’chal dor, yakum hagibor, goel ha-am. In every generation, a hero arose to save our people.

He didn’t grow up in synagogue. Far from it. His father rebelled against religion, and raised him in a rich tradition of secular Yiddish culture. He didn’t set foot in a synagogue until he was 12 years old. It was Rosh Hashanah, and school was out in his Bronx neighborhood, so he was wandering the boulevard, when he heard the most remarkable music coming from one of the storefronts. He entered, and because he was small, they assumed he was a kid looking for his mothers, so they sent him upstairs to the women’s section, where he sat transfixed by the majesty and melody of the service. And so for the past 45 years he has sat here, again, transfixed by the majesty and the melody, the prayers and yearnings of the Jewish people.

Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be our blessing. 

Rabbinical Council of America conversion panel issues recommendations

A committee established by the Rabbinical Council of America to review its conversion processes has submitted its report featuring recommendations in nine areas of the process.

The review was put in place nine months ago after one of the RCA’s leading conversion rabbis, Barry Freundel, was arrested on voyeurism charges. Freundel was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for videotaping dozens of nude women at his former congregation’s ritual bath in Washington, D.C.

The recommendations focused on support for conversion candidates during and after their conversions, professionalism, transparency of expectations, sensitivity to candidates, educational experiences, the responsibilities and support for rabbis and rabbinic judges, and oversight, supervision, and grievance processing.

“I am hopeful that this report will make it better for American conversion candidates going forward,” committee member Bethany Mandel said last week when presenting the report to the national convention of the RCA, the country’s main modern Orthodox rabbinic association. “The framework we’ve laid out here … is a great start, but it’s up to many of you in this room today to make sure that the spirit of these recommendations is carried out.”

Some 439 conversion participants from a pool of 835, along with 107 sponsoring rabbis in a pool of 216, responded to an anonymous survey. Five focus groups also were conducted in New York, Montreal and Washington, D.C.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the committee’s chair, called the review process a “historic moment.”

“Recognizing the critical importance of their perspective, we involved converts, our stakeholders, throughout the committee’s lengthy deliberations,” he said. “In addition, we encouraged them to publicly present their feelings, positive and negative, to our entire convention last week. The result was deeply moving and potentially transformative for our members.

“The review process helped us better understand the conversion process generally and will help us fulfill our religious mandates with greater sensitivity and responsibility.”

The review committee was comprised of six men and five women, including two female converts to Judaism.

Among the committee members were Abby Lerner, the admissions director and a teacher at Yeshiva University’s high school for girls in New York; Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York’s Kehilath Jeshurun and Ramaz school; Bracha Rutner, a female adviser of Jewish law; various rabbis and a psychotherapist.

The two converts on the panel were Mandel, a recent convert of Freundel’s who penned a proposed Bill of Rights for converts after the Freundel scandal broke, and Evelyn Fruchter, an attorney.

22 senators sign letter to Obama urging Israel support

Nearly one-quarter of the U.S. Senate signed on to a bipartisan letter urging President Barack Obama to support Israel around the world.

Twenty-two senators signed the letter, which was written “in response to your welcomed recent remarks at Congregation Adas Israel” on May 22 concerning his commitment to Israel’s security. The letter was sponsored by Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

While welcoming Obama’s “unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security, the signers also want the Obama administration to remain committed to the United States’ “long-standing policy” of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as the way to peace.

The letter specifically asked the administration to oppose Palestinian efforts for membership in the United Nations and other international bodies.

Among the signers are five Jewish Democrats: Ben Cardin of Maryland, Barbara Boxer of California, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

The signers wrote that they were “deeply concerned by previously reported and unattributed comments by U.S. officials that the U.S. might change its approach to the peace process at the United Nations Security Council.”

“The United States has a critical role to play in facilitating these direct negotiations,” the senators wrote.