From left: Orna Banai, Sharon Elimelech, Evelin Hagoel, Einat Sarouf and Yafit Asulin co-star in “The Women’s Balcony.” Photos courtesy of IMDb.com.

Israeli comedy probes religious and gender conflicts


The Bukharim Quarter of Jerusalem, the locale for the movie “The Women’s Balcony,” was settled by Jews from Central Asia in the 1870s and ’80s.

Their synagogue was the center of their spiritual and communal life, and they and their descendants took their religion seriously, though not rigidly, making allowances for human weaknesses and personal quirks.

During the past 30 or so years, the once tolerant and easy-going neighborhood — like other parts of Jerusalem — has been changed by an influx of ultra-Orthodox Charedim, and in the Israeli film, we sense the beginning of the transition.

The demographic transformation of Israel’s capital is a weighty topic, but the message is conveyed with a great deal of humor, leavened by the always-popular topic of the war between the genders.

As the film opens, neighbors are hurrying along the cobble-stoned streets to join in a bar mitzvah celebration, with the women and their husbands carrying pots of home-cooked food — no catering at a fancy hotel in those rugged times three decades ago.

At the synagogue, the men sit downstairs, stealing occasional glances at the women up in the balcony, who enthusiastically throw candy as the bar mitzvah boy approaches the bimah.

Precisely at this happy moment, the balcony collapses, seriously injuring the rabbi’s wife and putting the rabbi himself and the building out of commission for the time being.

In these dire straits, the young charismatic Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) appears as a savior, offering the congregation temporary quarters and himself as the interim spiritual leader. But soon the congregation learns that the new rabbi’s service comes at a price. He preaches that the crashed balcony was God’s punishment for the immodest garments worn by the women and urges the men to buy scarves to cover the hair of their wives and daughters.

Tension rises when Rabbi David, who also has put himself in charge of repairing the synagogue, decides to dispense with the balcony altogether and exiles the women to a shuttered ante room, out of sight of the men.

When the women protest and go about raising their own money for a new balcony, Rabbi David underhandedly diverts the money for the purchase of new Torah scrolls. The docile men heed the rabbi’s edicts, but the women, led by the formidable Etti (Evelin Hagoel), organize a resistance movement.

They take a leaf from the women in Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” who ended the endless war between Athens and Sparta by denying sex to their husbands and lovers until the men agreed to stop fighting. Though the concept of a sex strike is “not something one can say out loud in a religious community,” Emil Ben-Shimon, the film’s director, observed in a phone interview, the women achieved the same result by moving out of their houses.

Forced to choose between their wives and the unbending rabbi, the men folk finally grow a spine and bid farewell to Rabbi David.

Ben-Shimon, 41, has had a successful 15-year career in Israeli television as writer and director, but always dreamed of making a feature movie. Finally, he asked his ex-wife, Shlomit Nehama, to write the screenplay and set about finding the right neighborhood to re-create the Bukharim enclave of 30 years ago.

Ben-Shimon, who lives in Jaffa, said, “I was shocked to see that about 90 percent of the residents of the old Bukharim neighborhood were now Charedim and there were separate sidewalks for men and women. … People looked at me as if to say, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

The director noted that “The Women’s Balcony” was last year’s biggest box-office hit in Israel and that “audiences loved it.” However, there was no feedback from the Charedi community “since its members usually don’t go to movies. … Their rabbis won’t let them,” Ben-Shimon said.

It took the director about three years to complete the film and he has started work on his next project, which probably will be set in Jaffa.

“The Women’s Balcony” opens March 3 at Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles and the Town Center in Encino. 

High Holy Days: Chanting Torah for mom


“But what are you chanting for?” the woman cutting my hair wanted to know. She didn’t mean the glory of God or even my own spiritual well-being. It turned out she had once belonged to a 1970s church that chanted for things like shoes and better jobs. But when I am standing on the bimah on Rosh Hashanah, before the 1,500 or so people who fill the sanctuary at Temple Israel of Hollywood, I confess I ask myself the same question. I look down at the open Torah scroll, feeling certain that I have never seen these black letters before; the only thing I can think of is the old saying that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully. I hear the congregation settle. Someone coughs. And then, because everyone is waiting and the little silver yad sits pointing to a letter, there is nothing but for it to begin. Amen, four steps. Open the throat and let the mind slip in to the other place, where the shapes have meanings and the meanings are sounds. Then the whole world becomes the scroll, its faintly golden color a source of light, and the whole crowded sanctuary seems focused on the words I am giving my voice to. The moment of being just voice, of giving myself to the words, the experience of it is frightening but exhilarating. It is a unique kind of surrender. 

It is the start of Elul as I write this. Time to take stock, to look back and prepare for the Days of Awe and to take out the verses I am going to chant this year. Because I read Hebrew more or less letter by letter, I have to do a lot of preparation. When I was first asked to chant for the big Rosh Hashanah service, my mother offered to help me. This was in some way absurd since she was raised as a Methodist, converted to Catholicism, and knew no Hebrew, much less any trope. But she could hear me. She knew my voice. She could hear when I was true to the text and when my attention wandered. “One more time,” she would insist. And then, “Oh, that was beautiful,” when it was. It was something we did together, by phone, until she developed dementia and moved to Los Angeles. The first September she was here, I had to bring my pages of the tikkun to Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, where she was recovering from a fall. Chanting in front of her and the nurses really tested my courage.

I came to chanting Torah by accident. Before I began to study trope, I hadn’t sung alone in front of people since tryouts for a high school production of “South Pacific.” At my adult bat mitzvah, there were so many of us that no one got more than a verse or two to chant. It wasn’t until my friend and cantor Aviva Rosenbloom was about to leave Temple Israel that I signed up for whatever she was teaching, and it turned out to be this — this ancient practice.

Two months ago, after a decade of slow decline, my mom passed away. It might have occurred to me to say no when my rabbi, John Rosove, wrote to ask if I would chant again this Rosh Hashanah. But I did not. I’ve been a member of his congregation for all my Jewish life. We’ve known each other since our youngest children were babies. When my mother died, Rabbi Rosove led shivah services at my house. About my chanting this year without my mother, he wrote to me, “I’ll be beside you.” 

Last year, my mother was with me at the smaller second-day service to hear me chant. The verses were about Sara’s pregnancy and her joy, about the son she calls laughter because — and here the trope trills in lovely rising notes — everyone will laugh with her. 

Getting my mom settled in the chapel, finding a place for her wheelchair and trying to explain what was going on was complicated. Sometimes she was heartbreakingly present, oftentimes bitterly confused. It was hard to tell what she could hear or see or understand. When I got up to chant, I wasn’t thinking about the possibility that this might be the last time she would be there, listening to me. 

We said the blessing. I looked down at the unfamiliar, unpunctuated Hebrew letters, waiting for them to become words, trying to focus, to be present in this moment instead of worrying about what my mother was going to do or say or what was going to happen to her or me. I began. Amen. And then the words I had practiced and practiced with her took over. When I looked up again, it was done and she was there, her eyes closed, smiling, pleased in her very particular way, careful not to make too much of my success. As if it was what she had always expected from me. 

If there is an answer to my hairdresser’s question, it is probably this: I always long for the moment when I can step outside of the tangle of everyday worry and fear to feel the one-ness, the truth that we are all small parts of a large mystery — me, the scroll, my mom, the words and the letters that begin it all. 

Bar mitzvah honors child Holocaust victim


“I’m just one of more than 18,000 young people in over 750 congregations worldwide becoming a keeper of the flame of memory in the first post-survivor generation,” Trevor Goodman announced from the bimah during his bar mitzvah speech, referring to his involvement with Remember Us: The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project.

As part of his mitzvah project, Trevor, 13, honored Paul Lerner, who was 7 months old when he was killed at the Argelès-sur-Mer concentration camp in southern France, 71 years before this ceremony, to the day, on Aug. 11, 1941.

In addition to remembering Paul Lerner, Trevor’s Aug. 11 bar mitzvah also represented a first for Remember Us: Paul’s brother, Daniel Lerner, traveled from Israel to Los Angeles to attend Trevor’s bar mitzvah.

“This is something unique that I haven’t seen before,” Remember Us Executive Director Samara Hutman said, referring to Daniel’s attendance. “It’s profound.”

Remember Us invites young people to use the occasion of their bar and bat mitzvahs to commemorate children who were killed in the Holocaust before they could have their own bar or bat mitzvah. The organization provides students with the name and biographical information about a child lost during the Shoah and suggests simple acts of remembrance, including mentioning the child in a speech.

Retired Jewish educator Gesher Calmenson founded Remember Us in 2003 in order to fill what he viewed as a void in Holocaust education.

“Children who we were teaching about the Holocaust weren’t given anything to do with the content of the history. [They were] given the facts but not given any way to respond that was meaningful,” Calmenson said.

Drawing inspiration from 1980s twinning programs that matched American Jews having a bar or bat mitzvah with Soviet Jews who couldn’t practice their faith, Calmenson expanded Remember Us from a small pilot project operating within eight Bay Area temple religious schools to an international movement. The program spread via “literally thousands of phone calls” to congregations around the country and through word of mouth, Calmenson said.

“We realized the outreach was more than about the program. It was also to be available for the dialogue,” Calmenson said. “It originally started as a program to bring this to teenage bar and bat mitzvah kids, but the subtext of our program was we had innumerable conversations with people who just wanted to talk about the Holocaust.”

Los Angeles resident Hutman took over as executive director in summer 2011 when Calmenson stepped down. The nonprofit has since opened its first office in Santa Monica with a part-time staff and dozens of volunteers.

Remember Us partners with Yad Vashem to receive biographies of lost children, and its regional partnerships across the United States — with organizations including the New York Board of Rabbis and the Nathan & Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee — have helped the organization grow. Foundations — including the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Charles and Mildred Schnurmacher Foundation and Tauber Foundation — have provided financial support in the form of grants.

Hutman, whose daughter participated in the program before she joined it as a board member four years ago, said she is working to expand Remember Us by developing ways for post-b’nai mitzvah teens to examine contemporary issues of injustice and encouraging collaborations between teens and survivors.

“Like all things with meaning and value, the more it grows, the bigger and more powerfully it grows,” she said. “I would attribute that solely to the strength and the beauty of the idea and the value of the idea.”

In May, Trevor Goodman contacted Hutman, a family friend, and asked to be connected with a child from Albi, France — the hometown of his grandmother, Marie Kaufman, who is active with the group Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles. Using Yad Vashem’s database of biographies of Holocaust victims, a Remember Us representative found Paul Lerner and sent information to Trevor.

Paul Lerner’s Yad Vashem memorial page included contact information for Daniel Lerner, albeit in Hebrew. After Trevor’s Israeli cousin translated the address, Trevor wrote a letter that contained information detailing how he would honor Lerner’s brother during his upcoming bar mitzvah. He sent the letter — one copy in English, one in Hebrew — to a small town outside of Tel Aviv.

“I wasn’t expecting a response, because we didn’t know if he was still living in that house,” Trevor said.

The letter came as a surprise to Lerner, 69, who thought no one else knew of his brother’s existence.

“I was stunned. I was moved. I cried, which doesn’t happen to me very often,” Lerner said.

Lerner replied to Trevor’s letter in English. “I can find no words to express my feelings about what you are doing to commemorate my brother,” Lerner wrote.

Trevor and his mother, Deena, invited Lerner to Los Angeles to attend Trevor’s bar mitzvah. After several e-mails and a Skype session, Lerner accepted the invitation, changing plans he’d made to travel to Paris to conduct doctoral research on Jewish forms of resistance during the Holocaust, including his father’s experiences with an underground communist movement in Paris.

Lerner, a healthy-looking man with an expressive face, white hair and a white mustache, never met his brother, Paul.

His parents, Baruch and Hadasa, fled Paris for southern France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. Paul was born six months later, on Dec. 31, in the town of Albi. The couple was then interned at Argelès-sur-Mer, where Paul later died. Lerner’s parents then escaped and returned to Paris, where they fought for an underground resistance movement.

Daniel was born on Aug. 25, 1942. Less than a year later, the couple was caught by the French police. Baruch was handed over to the Germans, sentenced to death and executed on Oct. 1, 1943. Hadasa, who was sent to Auschwitz, survived and found Daniel, who was hidden by a non-Jewish family friend. Together, mother and son left for Israel.

On Aug. 11, after Trevor discussed his Torah portion — one of the last chapters of Deuteronomy, emphasizing the importance of gratitude — Lerner joined him on the bimah at Temple Isaiah to express how thankful he was that Trevor was honoring his brother.

Two days earlier, Trevor and Lerner were joined by family and friends, including Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, for an informal gathering at Trevor’s grandmother’s home, where child survivors discussed their memories and their pasts.

“We’re moving now from lived memory to historical memory, and consequently the more we can personalize it, the deeper we can make the ties, the more powerful,” said Berenbaum, professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

Berenbaum, also a Remember Us board member, said the organization, among other things, “recalls the memory of the deceased, and it rescues them from oblivion.”

“Look at this incredible story,” Berenbaum continued. “Here’s a man who never knew his brother — his brother died before he was born — [his brother has] been dead for 71 years, and all of a sudden somebody is remembering his brother. What powerful and unintended consequences for the family and both of them.”

When guests at Kaufman’s home asked Lerner about his past, he spoke of his time in the Israeli army, summarizing the quote written in every army camp: “People who have no past, have no future.”

“It took me many years to realize what it meant, and when I realized it, that’s when I started looking into my own past,” Lerner said. “Trevor, what he’s doing is exactly that.”

The power of the connection between Lerner and Trevor haven’t been on lost on the bar mitzvah student, who plans to remain in contact with Lerner.

Participation in Remember Us “could make a big difference in someone’s life,” Trevor said. “Dani, it was a big honor for him, and like he said, he was touched when he got my letter, and it meant a lot to him.”

For more information about Remember Us, visit remember-us.org.

Politics on the Bimah: Pesach 5772


“Keep the politics off the bimah.” We hear this in the synagogue whenever a rabbi speaks on a topic nearing the intersection of Jewish values and public policy. While argued most vociferously by those who disagree with the rabbi’s message, the critique itself that “politics has no place on the bimah” is a decidedly false characterization of the essence of Judaism and Jewish textual tradition. (Note: I am not speaking about endorsing a candidate for public office.)

Judaism speaks to every issue
Judaism has something to say (often multiple opinions) about any issue. The talmudic rabbis argued about everything — from commerce and capital punishment to property rights and personal behavior, to abortion, contraception and homosexuality. They took on poverty and hunger, distribution of wealth and health care. 

From our earliest incarnation as the faith of Abraham, our tradition has spoken truth to power. Who can forget Abraham preaching at God when the Holy One seemed to want to act wholly unjustly toward Sodom and Gomorrah? Later, as we became the Children of Israel, we accepted a legal tradition that set ethical standards for every aspect of our lives. Jewish tradition could not contemplate a separation between the personal and the public.

So when critics — Jews and non-Jews alike — argue that rabbis should be silent on matters of public policy, they are defying the essence of religion from the time of Moses and before. When complainers cry “politics” every time the rabbi speaks out against the status quo, they forget that we Jews have always been the agents for ethical living.

Moses, the ethical agitator
As Moses stumbled upon a bush that burned unconsumed, the character of the Jew was forever stamped in our souls. Out there in the wilderness, the personal became political. When Moses returned to Egypt to convey God’s message to Pharaoh to “let My people go,” he ensured that Jewish leaders would speak truth to power for generations to come. The life conditions of people — as individuals and a community — became a central concern of Jewish rabbinic leadership.

Who was Moses? Rambam characterized him as a rationalist religious thinker. Chasidic rebbes saw him as the ultimate tzadik (righteous person). There are those in every age who want to remake Moses in their image. But to reduce Moses’ influence to intellectuality or spirituality is to do revisionist history. Moses wasn’t content merely ministering to the broken souls of his people; he spoke out for a community oppressed. Moses wasn’t just a pastoral leader; he was an agitator, working for the freedom of his people.

So let’s stop trying to cleanse from Moses’ story — our story — the very essence of his leadership. Moses was a kind of visionary prophet. Like the prophet Nathan, who called King David on his unethical behavior, and Queen Esther, who went toe-to-toe with Haman, Moses saw reason for hope, and with deep faith spoke out against injustice.

This Passover, be Moses
To properly observe the Pesach seder, one must retell the story of the Exodus. One must recall a time when people were oppressed, and when Moses heard the call of the Divine and stood up to Pharaoh’s oppression. Passover is about bitterness sweetened and salty tears refreshed.

It is no accident that the Exodus features prominently in all movements for freedom and equality, from the anti-apartheid movement to the anti-slavery movement, from women’s suffrage to the American civil rights movement, to freedom for Soviet Jewry. The Exodus narrative, while profoundly spiritual and dripping with mystical insights, is at its root the story of injustice confronted.

Of course, to tell the story is to reimagine ourselves simultaneously as slaves moving toward freedom and also as Moses leading them there. Passover declares that inequities and injustices must be confronted and corrected.

Hear the call of the seder
So, next time your rabbi speaks up about public policy and Judaism — on economic justice or health care reform, marriage equality or Israel’s responsibility to work diligently for peace, our concern for the environment or our differing notions about when life begins — she is walking in the footsteps of Moses and Abraham, of Esther and the Nathan. Your rabbi is listening closely to the call of the seder, to stand up for the downtrodden and to cry out for the oppressed.

Hearing this call is often uncomfortable. But Passover is not about feeling good; it is about being ethical. Not about consuming good food, but feeding our hunger for righteousness. Pesach calls us to critique our world, our country, our homeland and our community. It pushes us to imagine a better way. It goads us to remake the world as it could be, as it should be.

So make your Passover meaningful. Hear the call to justice. And demand our leaders help bring it to fruition.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. He is co-editor of a CCAR Journal issue on “New Visions of Jewish Community.” He blogs regularly at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and Tweets @RabbiKip.

Barriers broken, female rabbis look to broader influence


Lynne Kern knew at 13 that she wanted to be a rabbi, even though in 1970 there were no female rabbis to act as role models.

So Kern became a writer, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

But she never forgot her passion, and in 2001 she completed her rabbinic studies and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Now, four decades since her bat mitzvah, Kern is working with filmmaker Ronda Spinak on a documentary about female rabbis. Kern was behind the camera in Boston last week filming a panel discussion by the first four women to become rabbis in their respective denominations.

The latest addition to the group was Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who had the title, a feminized version of “rabbi,” conferred upon her about a year ago by a Modern Orthodox rabbi, Avi Weiss.

The Dec. 6 event was the first time that the four women—Hurwitz, Reform Rabbi Sally Priesand, Reconstructionist Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Conservative Rabbi Amy Eilberg – had ever appeared together.

An audience of 600, men and women, packed the sanctuary at Temple Reyim, outside of Boston, for the program.

“These women were part of my narrative, part of my story that I tell,” Hurwitz told JTA. “To be standing in front of these real pioneers, it was an overwhelming sense of awe.”

The Dec. 6 program, titled “Raising Up the Light,” was sponsored by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. In a stirring tribute, 50 female rabbis from around the region who were in the audience were called up to the bimah to join the panelists at one point during the event.

“When I started, there was no one. I was alone,” Eisenberg Sasso said. “Now I wasn’t alone anymore.”

Priesand was the first woman to break the rabbinate barrier when she was ordained by the Reform movement in 1972. The Reconstructinist’s Eisenberg Sasso followed a year later. It was more than a decade before Eilberg’s ordination in 1985 by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Today there are 167 female Reconstructionist rabbis—approximately half of the rabbis ordained by the movement since 1974. The Conservative movement has 273 female rabbis worldwide among the total of 1,648. The Reform movement says it has 575 female rabbis in North America.

Hurwitz is the only Orthodox woman with the title of rabba; Weiss has said he will not bestow the title upon future female graduates of the institute he is launching to train women. The main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of America, has ruled against the ordination of women as rabbis.

With the barriers in the non-Orthodox movements long broken, some female rabbis say it’s time to move beyond talk of how they were pioneers to discuss how they are influencing the general Jewish community.

“It’s time we got beyond how innovative it is to have women rabbis,” Rabbi Barbara Penzner, who was ordained in 1987 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, told JTA. “These are women who’ve made significant contributions to Jewish life.”

When Priesand started out, she was the only female student at Hebrew Union College. Now she’s the rabbi emeritus at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J., where she served as the spiritual leader for 25 years. Priesand credits women not only with pushing their way into the rabbinate, but also with changing the way men practice the trade, making male rabbis more open and nurturing.

Eilberg’s rabbinic work has been focused largely in pastoral care through hospice, spiritual direction and conflict resolution. She also directs an interfaith dialogue program in Minneapolis.

While these are areas not exclusive to women, Eilberg said in an interview, the responsibilities require deep listening skills—skills with a strong resonance among women of her generation.

In interviews for her documentary with more than 25 female rabbis, Kern found a common thread in their pursuit of creating community through prayer while engaging in social action.

Anita Diamant, founder of a Boston-area mikvah called Mayyim Hayyim and author of the best-selling novel “The Red Tent,” said that many of the ceremonies observed at the mikvah by women and men owe a great deal to the insights and efforts of female rabbis who were ordained in the last 30 years.

Hurwitz, whose ordination was met with a sharp rebuke in some Orthodox circles, is the only one of the four first female rabbis who does not embrace full egalitarianism. Women cannot perform some ritual roles in Orthodoxy, she said, such as leading certain parts of the prayer services. But, she noted, women can serve in significant rituals and lifecycle events, such as officiating at weddings and funerals.

Hurwitz is now the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains Orthodox women to become spiritual leaders, and a member of the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where Weiss is the spiritual leader.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, does not believe that Hurwitz’s breach of the Orthodox line on female rabbis will lead to a shift within that community on the ordination of women. And outside the Orthodox community, he said, some congregations have concerns that the rabbinate is becoming feminized and, as a result, men are retreating from synagogue life.

Synagogues increasingly are being perceived as women’s prayer spaces and not male-friendly, Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman found in a 2008 report published by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.

Sasso Eisenberg, who yearned for the company of women during her student days and early years as a rabbi, said a sense of sisterhood is very important to her. But she also feels strongly that women should not focus on setting a separate table.

“Ultimately what we want to do is bring women’s voices and stories to the traditional table of Jewish life,” Sasso Eisenberg said.

Valley couple shares bimah for rite of passage


When Lee Larsen and Bob Clarke met in the 1970s at the 8709 Bathhouse — one of Los Angeles’ best known gay social spots of the time — they never imagined that they would one day share a very different kind of aquatic experience.

“We were so high after our mikvah,” Temple Beth Hillel member Clarke, who started down the path of conversion with his partner about three years ago. “I walked around in a state of bliss for hours.”

The experience was equally moving for Larsen.

“Our teacher [Rabbi Sarah Hronsky] told us that the mikvah doesn’t mean we’re abandoning the past but that we’re evolving into Judaism,” he said. “It did feel that important.”

With their conversion over, the next stage in Clarke’s and Larsen’s evolution into Judaism begins with their b’nai mitzvah on May 30, which they will celebrate on the bimah together.

Larsen and Clarke had each been a spiritual seeker before they met more than 30 years ago. Larsen, 65, was reading Ram Dass, experimenting with drugs and dabbling in meditation. In reaction to his parents’ open-minded secularism, Clarke decided to become an ardent Christian, studying Aramaic and following his restless muse from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Dallas and Cleveland.

“When we met, we weren’t too stable or responsible,” said Clarke, 71. “Then we started examining our lives, asking ourselves ‘What are we doing?'”

That earnest, companionable introspection has been the foundation for a relationship that both men credit with saving their lives.

“We shouldn’t have been successful,” said Larsen, who points toward the traumatic experience of growing up gay in a conservative Christian home as the source of the self-destructive behavior in his past. “But even when I was living the wild life, I was praying for a partner and thinking I really needed to be married.”

Clarke notes that without their commitment to each other, they might not have managed to avoid the fate that befell many other gay men in the 1980s.

“AIDS probably would’ve claimed us, too,” he said.

Over the years, as they’ve healed each other, the spiritual yearning that each man felt in his youth has taken shape as a desire to heal the hurting world they see around them. That hunger for spiritually motivated social activism led the couple down a few blind alleys until a client in their gardening business suggested that they visit a synagogue near their home in North Hollywood.

“I was pretty wary at first,” Larsen said. “I thought Judaism was like an even more conservative version of Christianity.”

But after the couple attended services at Temple Beth Hillel, Larsen felt immediately at home.

“At first I was shocked when I realized what was happening,” Clarke said. “I thought, ‘Now we’re going to be a double minority.'”

Clarke’s fear of marginalization turned out to be unwarranted at Beth Hillel. The couple says that the warm, wide cultural embrace at their synagogue encompasses other gay men, lesbian couples with children, atheists and agnostics, as well as straight people and deeply religious believers.

“Jews deal in reality,” said Clarke, who sees the synagogue’s eclectic demographic mix as its greatest strength. “And the reality is that we’re all here to make the world a better place.”

Lee echoes that assessment.

“Temple Beth Hillel isn’t so much faith-based as it is social-action based,” he said.

By their own account, Clarke and Larsen have blossomed at Beth Hillel — “our tribe,” as they call the congregation. In a short time they’ve both learned enough Hebrew to follow the prayers at services and have come to relish the observance of holidays on the Jewish calendar, particularly Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

“It just makes sense to take stock of your life and reaffirm your commitment to acting responsibly in the company of the people you share your life with,” Larsen said.

While the couple is looking forward to their b’nai mitzvah on May 30, Larsen is already looking past that event to their next rite of passage.

“We’re going to have a Jewish wedding,” he said.

Initially the men assumed they would need to have the ceremony at a gay synagogue, but the importance of publicly honoring their commitment to each other in their new spiritual community quickly became apparent.

“Rabbi Jim Kaufman said people need to see us get married,” Clarke said of Beth Hillel’s senior rabbi. “That’s when it felt like we’d really come home.”

To an outside observer, Larsen’s impatience to find himself under a chuppah in his seventh decade of life may seem a little puzzling, but to him it feels like a dream too long deferred.

“It has taken me a long time to grow up,” he said.

This book can help kick off successful year of study


Each week, children around the world partake in the b’nai mitzvah, a life-altering event that normally paves the way for greater Jewish participation. But how many of them actually know the meaning and origin of the simcha?

Given my own experience as a b’nai mitzvah instructor, I would expect it to be a relatively small number.

And before Bert Metter’s three sons went through their respective bar mitzvahs, he said he knew very little as well. Metter never had a bar mitzvah of his own, but he said after going through the experience with his children, he emerged a bit of an expert.

In 1984, Metter wrote “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: How Jewish Boys and Girls Come of Age,” a guide specifically geared toward the b’nai mitzvah student. But more than two decades later, Metter said the book deserved an update, because it no longer reflects contemporary ceremonies, especially since practices and celebrations have evolved.

“The whole position of the ceremony and cultural life has changed over the last 25 years,” said Metter, a 79-year-old Connecticut resident. “Many more non-Jewish people attend the ceremony, there’s more diversity now and the meaning of the ceremony has grown in importance.”

With the August release of his revised, “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: The Ceremony, the Party, and How the Day Came to Be” (Clarion Books), Metter hopes to impart some timely clarity before young adults take to the bimah, by providing a “concise background” for those with a vague understanding of the b’nai mitzvah.

“Most books are too complicated,” said Metter, who has written the book at a fourth-grade level. Instead, he wants “to bridge the gap between kids that are going through the ceremony and the more secular kids without the religious training.”

Framing the b’nai mitzvah as similar to coming-of-age rites the world over and throughout history, Metter explores the evolution of the Jewish ceremony. Less physical and more spiritual than its counterparts, the age for b’nai mitzvah was set at 13 for boys and 12 more recently for girls, because these were considered turning-point ages. He writes that this stands in contrast to Jewish law, which put draft and tax ages at 20.

And while the bar mitzvah has been a tradition for boys since the Middle Ages, Metter devoted equal time to the more recent active roles women have taken in synagogue life, from Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, daughter of Reconstructionist movement founder Mordecai Kaplan, the first female to become bat mitzvah, to passages about Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi.

In an effort to inspire students, Metter includes celebrity b’nai mitzvah testimonials from stars like Jamie Gertz, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marlee Matlin, Jeremy Piven, Ben Stiller and Zoe Weizenbaum.

Metter writes that Gyllenhaal’s party was in a homeless shelter, because his parents wanted him to appreciate how good his life was. But for Gertz, her bat mitzvah day was one disaster after another. She ran a 103-degree temperature, and a snowstorm kept half of her relatives from attending the ceremony. “I enjoyed my son’s bar mitzvah much more,” she says.

Covering ceremony basics, from the Torah scrolls and tallit to prayers, the book also provides insight as to what the student may be thinking on the nights prior to the ceremony.

“You lie in bed, and in your mind you go over the prayers that you are to read tomorrow. And you recite lines from your speech you will have to give,” wrote Metter, who spent several months researching the topic and interviewed one Reform and two Conservative rabbis to ensure the guide’s accuracy.

And besides the traditional reasons for the b’nai mitzvah — among them, publicly affirming one’s faith — Metter introduces young readers to the concept that preparation for the ceremony is helpful in that it helps them face “moral questions.” “The religious study encouraged by and required for the ceremony helps prepare them for facing these questions,” he writes.

Helpful to students, parents and tutors, “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah” provides an excellent overview of what the b’nai mitzvah is about. in addition to getting them excited about the whole process.

In addition to discussing the different b’nai mitzvah traditions and practices from cultures throughout the world, Metter also covers the growing practice of celebrating a b’nai mitzvah in Israel or in a congregation in the United States or abroad that has specific historical significance.

Although he’s more in favor of standard ceremonies and modest parties, Metter remains moderately balanced when explaining the different customs and styles of celebration. For every extravagant party that might feature Ja Rule or Ashanti, there is a modest small-town celebration, he writes, and yet both students will likely enjoy their simchas.

Written with a more religiously liberal crowd in mind, this book is one that can help kick off a successful year of b’nai mitzvah study.

Metter, an advertising executive, is currently at work on a book about helping kids improve their SAT scores. Expanding on the Jewish celebrations theme, he is also mulling over a book about the Passover seder.

As far as an adult bar mitzvah, another topic covered in his 80-page “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah,” Metter isn’t ruling out the possibility of studying to become a son of the commandment.

“I plan on doing one in near future,” he said.

Congregation Beith David Celebrates New Sanctuary


(From left) City Councilman Jack Weiss, L.A. County Supervisor Zev
Yaroslavsky, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Dennis Zine
join congregants at Beith David for their official move from their Reseda
Boulevard synagogue to a new building on Clark Street on Sunday, July 9.

City Councilman Dennis Zine grabs a Torah to carry to Beith David¹s new
building on Clark Street.

City Councilman Jack Weiss supports one of Beith David¹s Torah at the
synagogues Reseda Boulevard location.

Congregants remove a covering from the Torah Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
carried to Beith David¹s new Clark Street building.

(From left) L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine, L.A. Mayor Antonio
Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Simon Wiesenthal
Center associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper carry Beith David¹s Torahs down
Reseda Boulevard to the synagogue¹s new Clark Street location.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addresses congregants from the bimah at
Beith David¹s new Clark Street building.


L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa inspects anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled onto
a window of the Clark Street building. Beith David synagogue was the victim
of an arson attack on Friday, July 7.

Mayor Carries Torah to <br>Vandalized Tarzana Synagogue


On Sunday, in the intense heat of a mid-summer day, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, carried a Sephardic Torah for one-half mile along city streets in Tarzana to a new Persian synagogue that had been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack just two days earlier. Police are still investigating the arson attempt, which burned a rear door of Beith David Education Center on Clark Street, as well as anti-Jewish graffiti left at the scene, as a hate crime.

Villaraigosa was joined in the procession and the celebration of the new facility’s opening by L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Councilmen Jack Weiss and Dennis Zine, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean Abraham Cooper and Anti-Defamation League’s West Coast Director Amanda Susskind, as well as more than 300 congregants. The group carried 10 Torahs from the center’s original Reseda Boulevard location to the new building on Clark Street. The politicians and Cooper helped carry the Torahs along Reseda and Ventura boulevards in triple-digit temperatures.

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* Beith
David Ceremony:
Photo Essay by Adam Wills

* Arsonist
Attacks Persian Synagogue in Tarzana

Friday, July 7, 2006

“What an honor it was, a kid from Boyle Heights, to carry the Torah all the way over here,” the mayor said. He said he’d been told by Yaroslavsky, “‘If you do this 100 more times, you’ll be a Jew.'”

At the Clark Street shul, public officials took their places on the bimah as congregants engaged in celebratory ululation, throwing candy and crowning the Torah cases with lilies and other flowers.

In his address to the congregation, Villaraigosa referred to a call he’d made to the mayor of Sderot on Thursday, which was interrupted by a Kassam rocket attack, to call attention to how innocent Jews are still targets of hate, regardless of where they are in the world.

“We are absolutely committed to finding whoever did this on Friday and bringing them to justice,” Villaraigosa said. “A shul represents more than just a place of prayer or worship. It represents a place where faith binds a community.”

Zine, whom Beith David vice president Parviz Hakimi referred to as the shul’s own godfather for his strong support of the congregation during its two-year battle with local residence over parking issues, announced he would introduce a motion in the City Council to post a reward of $50,000 to find the arsonist.

“Our mayor has told me he would sign that motion,” Zine said. “We need to bring this person or individuals to justice. We will not tolerate that in the city of Los Angeles.”

During a tour of the synagogue’s damage, the mayor noted how the perpetrator had misspelled the anti-Jewish graffiti.

“It shows the level of ignorance of the person who did this,” Villaraigosa told The Journal.

 

Show Decodes Early Years of 2 Religions


Whether it’s good luck or good planning, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in the Cleveland area has hit the exhibition jackpot with its current show, “Cradle of Christianity,” which runs through Oct. 22. Because while the film version of “The Da Vinci Code” is generating buzz over a purported tale of Jesus, here’s an exhibition with tantalizing real objects that provide an actual glimpse from the years of early Christianity.

The exhibit’s revelations are more subtle than, say, an uncovering of a liaison between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but there is evidence of fascinating links between the older and newer religions: Judaism and Christianity.

That is especially evident in items used in liturgical contexts — two Byzantine oil lamps — one with a menorah and the other with a cross. The fact that both lamps are otherwise virtually identical is a useful reminder that, even in our own time, it’s often the decorative motifs rather than the object’s basic form that identifies the group using it — as, for example, in the case of drinking vessels or candlesticks.

Such a case is even more forcefully made with two almost identical chancel screens. The chancel is the area of the church (or early synagogue) where the bimah was placed. The bimah was (and is) a platform on which the clergy stand. And the chancel screen delineates its separation from the rest of the church, to keep it “inaccessible to the multitude” (as Eusebius of Caesarea wrote).

Each of the two Byzantine stone chancel screen panels on display has a central wreath sitting on a kind of scrolled form that ends in a heart-shaped arrow. But on one there’s a menorah in the center of the wreath, while on the other, the wreath is flanked by a pair of crosses. The similarity between the two suggests that the carvers of these reliefs could have been either Jewish or Christian.

This interplay between traditions should not be surprising; it’s probably a permanent feature of cultural intersection. Many of our most treasured Jewish ritual objects were made by non-Jews.

Yet there’s something magical about coming into direct contact with these works. A first century ossuary (bone box) bears the inscription “Jesus/Jesus son of Joseph, Judas son of Jesus.”

Maybe it would feed your appetite for Dan Brown’s inventions, but more important, it’s eloquent testimony to the fact that Jews were commonly using these names at the time. In other words, the Jesus/Judas reference is likely meaningless, in so far as the Jesus and Judas that people want most to know about.

That’s not the case with another artifact, the stone inscription, 26-36 C.E., found in Caesarea and originally part of a building constructed there by Pontius Pilate to honor the Emperor Tiberius. The Latin writing on stone bears Pilate’s name and title, the only such archaeological find.

Traditional Western Christian iconography developed early on; there’s a Byzantine pottery pilgrim’s flask with a worn but recognizable, depiction of the Annunciation and a small ceramic blessing token from the sixth or seventh century, showing the adoration of the Magi.

As for Jewish symbols, the menorah is the most important Jewish signifier in this exhibition, not the Magen David, whose common usage is much more recent.

The time of early Christianity also was a rich era for Jewish history. And this exhibit, put together by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, offers a rare opportunity to perceive this coexistence, contrast and clash through objects from that epoch. The Israel Museum’s co-curator of this exhibition, David Mevorah, said that it was this convergence of familiarities that made the exhibition such a hit in Jerusalem.

It ought to be exciting for Jews and Christians to see their earlier visual traditions in this kind of exhibition face-off. It’s enough to make one put down the fictional potboiler and discover the revelations to be found in museums.

Tom L. Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.

More Blessing, Less Bragging on Bimah


One mother thanked every one of her daughter’s teachers by name and grade, beginning with preschool. A father enumerated the scores of all his son’s soccer games. And another mother, with tear-filled eyes and a choked-up voice, used the occasion to present her daughter with her first diamond.

Ever since parents began speaking at their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs, they have raised the ante on length, competition and ostentation to the point where, according to University Synagogue’s senior rabbi, Morley Feinstein, we find that every child is more compassionate than Mother Teresa, a faster swimmer than Mark Spitz and a better mathematician than Albert Einstein.

But increasingly, rabbis have taken steps to reclaim the bimah. They have reined in parents’ freedom to present a laundry list of their child’s achievements, awards and, occasionally, shortcomings. Instead, they are requiring or strongly encouraging parents to reshape their speeches as blessings and keep their focus on the child and the sanctity of one of Judaism’s most significant rites of passage.

Donald Goor, senior rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, instituted the practice of parent blessings eight years ago “out of an attempt to ensure the holiness of the service.” He gives parents multiple examples and wording specific to blessings. He even provides a structured, fill-in-the-blank “create-a-blessing” guide that helps them express their love, pride and dreams for their child in the mandated 300 words.

For Kaye Bernstein, whose third child, Jeffrey, became a bar mitzvah at Temple Judea on Dec. 18, adhering to the guidelines was not a problem.

“I tended to focus on what’s distinguishing about his life, his personality and what he brings to the family mix,” she said.

For her husband, Fred, giving a blessing made him think about his words in a different way.

“It’s not a time to tell anecdotes or give a toast,” he said.

Goor does not vet parent blessings. Neither does University Synagogue’s Feinstein, who also provides parents with examples and who counsels them to keep their talks short and sweet and to recognize the holy nature of the day.

“I still have to trust parents. I don’t want to be a censor,” he said.

But at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, Rabbi Paul Kipnes insists that parents give him a copy of their remarks — limited to one double-spaced typed page — at least a week in advance. He is especially concerned that they not tease or embarrass the child, however subtly, humorously or unintentionally. He also wants parents to share words of praise with their child before coming on the bimah because he believes that it’s easy to compliment publicly, but the compliments that really matter are the private ones.

Most rabbis estimate that parents, primarily in non-Orthodox congregations, began giving speeches 10 to 20 years ago.

Many trace the custom to the traditional Baruch She-P’tarani blessing, dating back to the Middle Ages, that the father recited to mark his son’s bar mitzvah. This blessing — “Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy” — has been omitted, reframed or replaced by both parents reciting the Shehecheyanu in most Reform and Conservative services.

Some rabbis also believe speeches may be modeled on the blessings Jewish parents give their sons and daughters at the Shabbat table on Friday evenings.

Additionally, Jeffrey Salkin, senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta and author of “Putting God on the Guest List” (Jewish Lights, 2005) sees parent speeches as part of a trend in customs that used to occur at the celebration, such as a parent’s toast, being moved into the service.

“I’m tempted to say that it’s because people want to own the experience, to have more of a personal investment,” he said. For him, the practice isn’t problematic as long as parents don’t use the opportunity to competitively troop out their child’s talents.

In Orthodox shuls, parent speeches are generally not an issue as the predominant model, according to Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, since only the bar or bat mitzvah and the rabbi speak at the service. And at Muskin’s synagogue, that occurs after the service.

But it’s quite accepted that parents speak during the celebration, and, even there, Muskin believes it’s important that they incorporate some religious content, such as a d’var Torah or a spiritual charge to their child.

Sally Olins, rabbi of Temple B’nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, asks parents to speak on two occasions — on Friday night when they read the dedication that they have written in the siddur they give to their child and on Saturday mornings when they present the tallit.

Olins offers guidelines both individually and in classes she holds for pre-bar and bat mitzvah parents. She asks them to keep their words short and to focus on the child, not the congregation. For her, the worst — long-winded but not inappropriate — was a parent who began her remarks with a description of the child’s nine months in utero.

“I try to say, could you start a little later in life?” she said.

The process seemed overwhelming at first for Susan and Jeffrey Osser, whose daughter, Melissa, became a bat mitzvah at B’nai Hayim on Dec. 10. But it turned out to be very simple because they both, unintentionally and separately, wrote the siddur dedication and the tallit presentation and then melded them together.

“We both sat down at a time that was perfect for us individually when the creative juices were flowing and wrote from our hearts,” Susan Osser said. “It was so unplanned that it was authentic.”

In general, most rabbis believe that parents are becoming more aware of the significance and sanctity of bar and bat mitzvah. And while their words may not always be exactly in the language in blessing, parents are speaking less and less in the language of competition and aggrandizement and more and more in the language of love and support.

Said Salkin, “Every time I think of getting rid of this custom, I think of all the nice stuff I hear. I realize I would be punishing some very fine speeches if we decided not to allow this.”

 

In the Seats Around You


I got a new outfit for yontif. The clothes add to the newness of this time of year, just like the first day of school. I sometimes wonder if the synagogues crank up the air conditioning on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so we have an excuse to wear our new fall clothes.

The shul I grew up in had assigned seats — the bigger the macher, the closer to the bimah — so we got to know the people who sat around us. I came to rely on them being in their seats as part of the holiday: the woman a few rows in front with the beautiful silver hair; the board member who sat with his son in the section to our right, who was recently carrying his grandson up and down the aisle; the May-December couple who now look more like the a November-December couple, and the “lady doctor” who sat next to us. We knew she was a doctor because Dr. preceded her name on the pledge form we dutifully handed her each year. However, we’ve never learned her name because we didn’t have time to read the entire card as we were passing them on. I wish we had asked her name. Instead, we settled for a smile and a “Good yontif.” I still ask my parents how she is when I call home after services.

I remember the women who wore hats (my mother said women should wear hats on yontif). And I remember hanging out as a teenager, laughing and flirting. Since all the adults were in services and the teachers were busy with the younger children, the shul and its hallways were ours.

Funnily, I can’t remember the beautiful sermons my rabbi gave, but I remember these people. We marked the passing of our years by observing them — the graying of hair, the addition of grandchildren.

I’ve watched as the people having aliyahs have gone from being my parents’ friends to my friends. The children in the hallways are my children. When did this happen? The feeling of being itchy in my new tights and wool jumper, and eating apples and honey with my Hebrew school class is still so fresh in my mind.

The High Holidays make your mind wander — wander around the people around you and no longer around you. I remember sitting in the back of the sanctuary during Yizkor. I wasn’t supposed to be there. None of my friends were allowed to sit with me. But my sister did. We wanted to be there to remember our grandparents. And it was important to be in the sanctuary as if by being there we were lending our strength to our parents who were reciting “Kaddish.”

The first Rosh Hashanah away from my childhood synagogue was lonely. I was a stranger. My husband stayed home with our infant daughter so I could attend services. I sat in the front, not because I was a macher, but because I got there early. I looked around. No one had beautiful gray hair, I had no idea who the board members were and no one was sitting next to me. I saw some men drifting off, but they were not my father. I missed him as I missed my mother and my sister. I missed the familiarity of the hallways. I missed my congregation. I was wearing new clothes, but it didn’t feel like yontif. Suddenly, in walked a boy who I had grown up with, who I was in Hebrew school carpool with. He sat next to me and introduced me to his wife who was expecting their first child. He pointed out people he knew.

We reminisced about home. And with that, it wasn’t just some synagogue anymore — it was my shul.

Meredith Jacobs, author of the soon-to-be released “Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat” (HarperPerennial), runs

Many Factors Enter Into Temple Choice


When Mark Firestone was searching for a shul to join, he didn’t look for a shul that had a nursery school or Hebrew school attached. Nor did he fret about the services he’d be getting for his membership fee. Instead, he wanted a shul that was quiet.

“I wanted it to be very quiet, so you can hear yourself daven, and hopefully Hashem can hear it,” said Firestone, a Pico-Robertson life insurance salesman who belongs to Aish HaTorah. “I have been to other shuls where you can barely hear the Torah reading, because people are talking so much. Aish has zero tolerance for people talking in shul.”

For many Jews, the High Holidays is a time when they consider joining or renewing their synagogue memberships. However, what attracts them to synagogues, and what rabbis feel is important when choosing a synagogue, is not always the vast array of services that synagogues and temples provide.

Many members and rabbis feel that it is the intangibles — the atmosphere in the shul or the feeling of community that really attracts people, not the Hebrew school, youth program or adult education that is offered.

“I ride a motorcycle to shul on Shabbos, but they don’t tell me what to do,” said Malibu lawyer Ron Stackler of his synagogue, Chabad of Malibu, which prides itself on its informality. “One of my dear friends reads the Wall Street Journal during services, and nobody tells him not to do that.

“But the shul is authentically Jewish in its observance,” he said. “It doesn’t compromise — but it also doesn’t browbeat anybody or nudge anybody to be all those things.”

Rabbi Levi Cunin, Stackler’s rabbi at Chabad of Malibu, said that what people should look for is a warm and friendly environment when choosing a shul.

“I don’t run the shul in a very formal way for that reason,” he said. “Before the Torah reading, we have discussions about the parsha that allows people to ask questions. Some of the questions may come across as offensive to people from religious backgrounds, but I think they are important questions.”

Other rabbis concurred with Cunin that atmosphere is the key thing, but that people should choose synagogues that are most conducive to their spiritual growth. While many rabbis advise people to join congregations whose members have a level of observance similar to their own, they also admit that the rabbi leading the congregation can be a strong draw.

“It blows my mind when people say, ‘I am comfortable where I’m at,'” said Rabbi Aryeh Markman, executive director of Aish L.A. “You don’t go to a shul to say ‘I am comfortable.’

“You go to a place that challenges you to grow,” he continued. “And you have to relate to the rabbi. A rabbi should be getting the people to keep growing in their spiritual pursuits.”

“People are looking for clergy on the bimah who they can relate to and trust,” said Rabbi Dennis Eisner of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who also counsels people on the importance of joining a synagogue in the introduction to Judaism classes he teaches at the University of Judaism.

“They are looking for a rabbi that they like to hear from,” he said. “But they also want a group of people who have shared values, shared traditions and share the language of being Jewish — people to celebrate life and lifecycles with. The place we do that is the temple.”

More controversially, some rabbis feel that what should attract people to temples is not the temple’s attitude to Jews, but rather, its attitude to non-Jews.

“It is important to consider whether the synagogue is welcoming of non-Jews into the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Allen Maller of Temple Akiba in Culver City. “It’s a very important issue.

“Some synagogues are indifferent to welcoming non-Jews,” he noted. “There are many people in mixed marriages, and it is important to welcome them in and try to make them feel more Jewish, and, hopefully, they can become more Jewish.”

According to Maller, his aggressive outreach to non-Jews has inspired many converts, including one who became a cantor.

But most agree that people should have a higher purpose in mind when joining a synagogue.

“People will often join a synagogue because of the rabbi, but will only stay if they find a place in the community,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. “You want a synagogue that puts a priority on the things you care about, and whose leadership speaks about things that resonate in your soul, and that gives you the opportunity to grow as a Jew in the directions that you wish to grow.

“It’s more than just a social group — that you can find in a country club,” he continued. “You come to a synagogue to find a sacred community.”

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Reviving a Shul, One Goat at a Time


Note to future rabbis: If you want to make a lasting firstimpression with your congregants, nothing beats farm animals on thebimah. Just ask anyone at Temple Adat Shalom in West LosAngeles. It’s been almost four months since Michael Resnick took overthere, and they’re still talking about his goats.

Mort Schrag, the congregation’s president, put it succinctly: “Hereally has a lot of unique approaches.”

Resnick trotted the two goats out in front of the congregationduring his sermon on Yom Kippur. Earlier that week, he was driving tohis parents’home in Northridge, wondering how he could bring thebiblical concept of the scapegoat — recounted in the holiday’s Torahportion — alive for his congregants. He passed a petting zoo thatadvertised animal rentals.

Fast-forward to Yom Kippur. Resnick lays out a waterproof tarp onthe bimah — one of the goats is called Tinkle, a name based purelyon reputation. The rabbi takes a long dagger from his lectern andthen, in accordance with the biblical narrative, draws lots todetermine which goat will be slaughtered for the sins of thecongregation, and which will be set free. Amid nervous laughter andrapt silence, some 700 congregants watch the tall, commanding40-year-old grasp the doomed goat, raise its neck, and draw the bladeacross its throat.

“Don’t worry,” says the rabbi, patting the animal’s head andputting aside the dagger, which is just a letter opener. “We’re notgoing to hurt this little goat.” The point of the exercise, he tellsthe assembly, is that “no one can make atonement for ourtransgressions but ourselves.”

Whether the congregation took the sermon to heart is hard to tell– until next Yom Kippur. But there is no question that the new rabbigot congregants’ attention. And that, as any rabbi in the late 20thcentury will tell you, is at least half the battle.

“Whatever I can do to make the traditions come alive and berelevant,” Resnick says during an interview in his office, “I’lltry.”

The creative approach seems to fit the youthful, energetic rabbi.A native of Sepulveda, he attended Har Zion Synagogue (it has sincemerged with Temple Ramat Zion) but stopped his Jewish education atage 13. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, he embarked on acareer in advertising. But a visit to Israel during the Gulf Warinspired him to change course. He attended the Pardes Institutethere, then returned to the States to study and receive hisordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

He took the pulpit of Adat Shalom in August, replacing therecently retired Rabbi Morton Wallach, who served there for 24 years.Demographic shifts had been tough on the 50-year-old Conservativeshul, whose modern structure sits on a prime block of Westside realestate across from Trader Joe’s market on National Boulevard. AdatShalom has been losing members for the past six years. About 250families and individuals belong to the congregation now, down from apeak of 450. The decline also plunged the shul into a series offinancial crises. “We need to energize the congregation and attractyoung families,” said Schrag.

Resnick, then, seems the perfect fit. In his final year at JTS, heserved as rabbi to the Jewish Home for the Aged in Manhattan. “Therewere 500 people over 90 years old. I did 150 funerals,” he says. Buthe also learned to lead inspiring, song-filled services, based, inpart, on his experience at such lively New York congregations asB’nai Jeshurun, which draws hundreds of young people to Shabbatservices.

The rabbi is working to create some of that same magic on theWestside. “When Judaism is made relevant and alive and exciting,people respond. People are looking for a sense of belonging, arelationship with their tradition,” he said.

Along with a new rabbi, the synagogue also hired a new cantor,Ralph Resnick. The two are not related, but members have startedreferring to their shul as Resnick & Resnick.

On Sukkot, both rabbi and cantor joined with a klezmer band tolead congregants in the procession with the Torah, and provided icecream sundaes for the children. The issue of whether to have music inConservative ceremonies is a touchy one, but Rabbi Resnick sees thevalue in raising it. “I want people to wrestle with what it means tobe a Jew. I can’t force anyone to keep kosher, but I can challengethem.”

Resnick also wants to create social-action programs and developbonds with local non-Jewish congregations. He hopes to create ascholar-in-residence program and build up the temple’s preschool andreligious school, which now have about 80 children.

“I want Judaism to be surprising,” says the rabbi.