The blogger is a dog


Or a lunatic, extremist or just someone whose opinion you would dismiss were you really to know him.

Like the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon, where one dog explains to the other that “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog,” we are inundated today with information from sources we know nothing about. So though it is unlikely that the blog or column that you are reading actually was written by a dog, it is more than possible that it was written by someone with a personal or political agenda.

Over the past two decades, the media have undergone a massive evolution with the introduction of new technologies. From the onset of cable TV with its nonstop 24-hour news networks, to the rise of the Internet, we have become inundated with an ever increasing number of “news” sources, some more credible than others.

For whatever reason, when the written word appears on the computer screen, readers check their critical thinking skills at the keyboard. We teach our children to be wary of “friends” who approach them online, while we willingly believe “facts” written by people about whom we know nothing.

Online bloggers have become arbiters of truth. Suddenly these random commentators, who often write nothing more than unsubstantiated remarks and nearly libelous personal observations, have access to a wide public forum without any context.

When I was a young editor working at The Jerusalem Post, the legendary Alex Berlyne would walk around the newsroom repeating his golden rule of reporting: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Confirmation by a second source was the rule, not the exception. Journalists saw themselves as servants of the third estate committed to unraveling the truth and defending the greater public good.

No such standards apply to bloggers or, for that matter, columnists now appearing in your daily paper. Once segregated onto pages clearly labeled as opinion, these essays have become an inexpensive source of page filler and page views. News sites link to a range of writers under the banner that all opinions are equal without vetting credentials. And we, as consumers, rarely check the background of the writer, trusting that someone has done the legwork. But that simply isn’t so.

Recent events around the world remind us once again that in the open marketplace of ideas, the loudest voices are usually those of the most extreme points of view. Talk radio has become talk-back Internet, where one link simply leads to another. Without the moderating influence of editorial accountability, the blogosphere has become a place of black and white, with no room for the gray tones of a more complex reality.

This is particularly true in Israel, where bloggers are taking a cue from the country’s politicians and turning up the volume of the debate. Labels such as anti-Zionist and fascist are the new grenades being tossed around in a battle of the words that has turned cyberspace into a very dangerous place. More often than not, it turns out that those at the forefront of the battle are motivated by their own agenda, positioning extreme ideologies as an objective reality. Scratch a blogger behind the ears and you may discover his political affiliations are not what you expected.

This is where we as consumers have to learn to be wary. We have to sniff out the reliable commentators, research our sources carefully and become our own investigative journalists.

So the next time you read a blog or column citing seemingly shocking “facts,” check out the source. You may just find that the writer’s name is Rover.

(Faye Bittker is a former journalist who now works in media relations at an Israeli university.)

Briefs: Blogging for Israel@60, Weil makes it official


Blogging for Israel’s Anniversary

Craig Taubman loves to brainstorm. That’s how he came up with many of his ideas for Israel’s 60th anniversary — such as the “flash mob,” where 60 people will converge in a Los Angeles street (he won’t say when and where), stand still for 60 seconds, then take off shirts to reveal a 60for60 Israel T-shirt, or the Faith Jam for Peace, an interfaith, multicultural jam session featuring artists from around the world scheduled for May 8.

Taubman of Craig ‘n Co is heading Israel for Israel in preparation for Israel’s 60th anniversary. He teamed up with Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, founder of the Jewlicious Festival, and David Abitbol, founder of Jewlicious.com, to produce “60 Bloggers for Israel.”

They commissioned bloggers from around the world — Jewish and non-Jewish, old and young — to start posting on April 8 what Israel means to them (60bloggers.com and www.letmypeoplesing.com). Bloggers will include Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa and The Calendar Girls, as well as others. Titles of recent entries include, “Israel, Not a Travelogue,” “What CNN Forgot to Tell Me About Israel,” “Oh Israel, How Do I Love Thee?” and “What I Did on My Honeymoon, or Why I Love Israel So Much.”

“A blog is a dynamic medium — this is not some promotional department,” Bookstein said. “These are people who are putting up their close-held thoughts and ideas and experiences to share with the world what Israel means to them.”


Calendar Girls Dikla Kadosh and Danielle Berrin’s contributions are here.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Warschaw Funds Chair in Politics at USC

Philanthropist and community activist Carmen Warschaw has pledged $3 million to fund USC’s first named-chair in politics, officials announced this week.

The Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics will impress upon students the need for civic involvement in a democracy and will connect them with elected officials, candidates and their staffs. The chair, which will be filled following a national search, will also help plan courses and conferences that encourage political participation.

“This is a very propitious time to start the chair, because this is the time when we have so many people active” in politics, Carmen Warschaw said in a statement. “We want to keep them participating.”

A 1939 USC graduate who currently serves as a trustee, Warschaw said her political participation, which has included serving as a Democratic delegate at every national convention since 1948, began when she was a student and member of the Young Democrats. Warschaw later became a member of the California Coastal Commission and the first female chair of the state’s Fair Employment Practices Commission. The Los Angeles Times named her woman of the year in 1976.

Ten years ago, Warschaw and her husband, who died in 2001, helped found USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. They established the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture Series a year later. It has featured, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), as well as Reps. Howard Berman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy, among others.

“A great college needs great benefactors, and Carmen Warschaw’s continuing generosity and support are an inspiration,” said Howard Gillman, dean of the USC College of Letters Arts and Sciences.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Rabbi Weil to Head Orthodox Union

Rabbi Steven Weil, who has led Beth Jacob for the last eight years, has officially accepted the position of executive director of the Orthodox Union (OU).

In an April 15 letter to his congregants, Weil called his decision to leave the community “bittersweet.” It has nearly doubled in size since his arrival and has become the largest Orthodox synagogue on the West Coast.

“But there are untold numbers of Jews all across the map in the smaller cities who are missing out on a real connection to the richness and beauty of Jewish life because they don’t have the resources, critical numbers, not tools for growth,” he wrote.

The OU provides kosher certification and works to stop assimilation with the teen branch of the National Council of Synagogue Youth and on college campuses with the Jewish Learning Initiative.

“It is my dream that this position will afford me the opportunity to help these isolated shuls and schools build the kinds of programs that we have built and experience the opportunities that we have experienced,” he continued.

Weil’s contract expires in the summer of 2009, and he has committed to helping Beth Jacob in the transition process.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to help the Jewish people,” he told The Journal.

— AK

Holocaust Survivor Stories to Highlight Heschel Yom HaShoah Program

On Yom HaShoah, Friday, May 2, Holocaust survivors will tell their harrowing stories with the help of eighth-graders at the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge.

Twelve survivors will be honored during a ceremony at the intimate, 390-person school, featuring film clips from the student project, highlighting interviews they conducted with the survivors that were recorded by Jodi Binstock.

Enthusiastic students, who will share their reflections on the Holocaust project during the ceremony, teamed up in small groups. They asked the survivors probing questions, such as how they rebuilt their lives after the war and what life lessons they hope to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

The school facilitated the project with the support of Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that helps students learn about diverse backgrounds and examine racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism in order to promote the development of a more humane society.

“This whole experience is meaningful to me,” said eighth-grader Jonathan Sanders, who interviewed survivor Edith Frankie. The survivor was 13 when she was taken from her home in Hungary and transported to Auschwitz. Jonathan said he was grateful to learn face-to-face about Frankie’s experience in the concentration camps. “One thing that Edith wanted us to get out of this is not to ever hate anyone,” he said.

For more information visit, http://www.facinghistory.org.

— Celia Soudry, Contributing Writer

Brave + mensch = ?


Three years ago, we were sitting around our offices dreaming up an end-of-the-year issue, inundated with examples from other magazines: The Ten Best Movies, The Ten Richest Angelenos, The Ten Most Powerful Hollywood Players, The Ten Top Restaurants, The Ten Hottest Bars and et cetera.

Since these lists are both celebration and statement, we decided we wanted to promote something a little different. What if a list championed a Jewish value, not people, things or bars (not that there’s anything wrong with them….)?

Thus was born The Mensch List — a roster that, humans being human, is far more difficult to crack than one tabulating power or wealth or even cool.

But this year, after we made the list, I — in the spirit of some holiday — checked it twice. And there are four people missing.

These are people I’ve come across in 2007 who didn’t make this list but who deserve some special notice of their own. That’s because they are not only mensches, they are also remarkably courageous.

Funny that the Yiddish adjectives that mean “strong” and “brave” never made the jump into the modern Jewish vernacular. Somehow, schnorrer and shmendrick and ferklempt remained near and dear to our tongues, but mutik and bahartst are no more a part of our lives than Benny Leonard or Kingfish Levinsky. When great Jewish prizefighters like these went down for the count, so did the words their fans used to praise them. That leaves shtarker. But shtarker has baggage that mensch doesn’t begin to carry.

I’m no Yiddishist, but to my ears, the word has always been said with a wink, the speaker already knowing that strength and health, no matter how abundant, are fleeting. To this day, when I drop my son off at a teen party, my last words aren’t “Be a shtarker!” but “Be a mensch.”

So I don’t know what neologism will suffice for someone who is both extraordinarily brave and a mensch to boot. What word describes those Jews and non-Jews who risk their lives to stand up for the things we all believe in? This year, I found four, and I suppose their names will suffice:

Benji Davis and David Landau

These two young men packed up this year and left their comfortable lives in Los Angeles and moved to Sderot, the beleaguered Israeli town under near-constant bombardment by Qassam rockets launched by Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

Davis is a college student from Beverly Hills volunteering at an elementary school in Sderot — there is a charmingly awkward YouTube video of him trying to folkdance with his young charges — and at the Sderot Media Center, which tries to raise awareness of what Israelis within the Green Line are faced with every day.

“Sderot’s residents deserve protection,” Davis writes on his blog, 90210tosderot.blogspot.com. “Sderot’s children deserve some sense of normalcy. Sderot deserves our help.

“We can protect Sderot from the terrorists — it’s up to you.”

Landau is 19. When I asked his father, Fred, why his son moved — of all places — to within two miles of Gaza, he said, very matter-of-factly, without a hint of boastfulness, “Because he’s a Zionist.” Many of Sderot’s own residents have moved away, the Israeli government has for a year now struggled to come up with a response to the Qassams, Jews from Tel Aviv to Tarzana have gone about their normal lives, but Davis and Landau have chosen to risk their lives to remind us that, no, not all is milk and honey.

They’re on my list.

Wafa Sultan

Sultan is the Syrian-born psychiatrist who has become well-known for her outspoken condemnation of Muslim extremists and the so-called Muslim moderates whose unwillingness to speak out forcefully serves as tacit approval of the fanatics.

The Journal was the first newspaper to run the text of Sultan’s famous February 2006 rant against two Muslim clerics on the Al Jazeera network. I finally met Sultan last week when I interviewed her on the bimah during the One Saturday Morning service at Adat Ari El Synagogue in North Hollywood.

Beyond the extremists who shower the L.A.-area-based, 49-year-old mother of three with almost daily death threats, Sultan has many liberal critics who deride her for condemning all of Islam and thereby feeding the most negative stereotypes many Americans already harbor.

I asked Sultan about that charge. “I read classical Arabic,” she said. “I know what is in the Quran.”

As a woman, she also personally experienced the most painful and misogynistic aspects of her culture. If the religion is to be saved, she seemed to be saying, the culture would have to drastically change. And Sultan, at great personal cost, refuses to back down from her demands that it do so.

Mordecai Sorkin

I started reading Moti Sorkin’s blog this summer, and I continue to be astounded by his combination of courage and clarity. Sorkin is currently an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan, with the 82nd Airborne Division.

He grew up in Sacramento and attended Claremont McKenna college. He is young, married and idealistic. Sometimes he can blog at motisorkin.blogspot.com about where he is and what he’s doing; sometimes he can’t.

A while back, I e-mailed him to ask how he’d like to be identified in The Journal. He wrote back: “You can write, ‘He is serving in the Army because he believes in making the world a better place, and defending America against radical Islam is one of the best ways to accomplish that goal.'”

That is four names on a my new rarified Top Ten list — in the coming year, may we all aspire to be one of the other six.

Virtual, viral fundraising brings real donations


Hoping to raise money for a three-day bike ride over Labor Day to benefit the Jewish environmental organization Hazon, Ariela Pelaia turned to her blog.

Pelaia, 26, thought she could find donors by raffling off books on her personal Web site, “>Facebook.com and

Generation Next — a new vision for the Jewish future


This speech, by writer/editor/blogger Esther D. Kustanowitz, was delivered at the 2007 General Assembly convened in Nashville by United Jewish Communities as part of the “Next Generation” plenary. At the plenary, a range of young Jewish and Israeli activists, bloggers, an Oscar-winning filmmaker and others described their visions of community building and the power of the collective.

When I moved to New York in 1994, my community centered around my friends from Camp Ramah and the people I met in synagogue. We used e-mail, but mostly we relied on an ancient device known as “the telephone.” A few of us were experimenting with some new-fangled thing called “Instant Messaging.”

Today, you can forward an e-mail, a Web site or a YouTube video to hundreds of people, creating a network based on a shared experience or affiliation. The Jewish world has always operated that way — the community mobilizes to address an issue or to fill a need.

Today’s technology has altered the modes and frequency of connection, and today’s Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, perceiving gaping holes in the community’s agenda, are seeking each other out using the full power of technology. Web sites, blogs and social networking sites are thriving. It’s a grass-roots uprising.

There is a lot of concern over the development of this kind of vast online community network, largely because of the generational technology divide. But what’s clear is that Federation professionals, volunteers, donors, and publications that want to stay relevant to “Generation Tech” need to significantly increase their techno-literacy.

People also perceive the emergence of online life as a threat to in-person relationships and connections. But our online world does not replace our offline life. Expanding our personal and professional connections; cross-pollinating our projects with others, our initiatives emerge strengthened and energized, and new ideas keep us active and inspired, on- and offline.

Today, the “social” in social action, social entrepreneurship and social networking enables everything else. The power of the collective — not of one organization or charismatic leader — enables change. The collective transforms one idea into something more valuable.

Facebook, for example, had a simple concept: to create a Web site that replaced the traditional college “face book,” the directory of new students. The company, recognizing that the product could probably use a few tweaks, encouraged the users’ input. Call it a different kind of tikkun olam: Facebook users fixing the world of Facebook.

A friend recently remarked that Jews, particularly, are in love with Facebook-wondering who their friends know and which of their friends’ friends they’re already friends with. This is because this activity is a new, easy-to-read iteration of our favorite pastime: Jewish geography. (“You know David from camp? I went to college with David!”)

Jews, living in dispersed locations for thousands of years, have learned how to harness the power of the network as a survival instinct. You need a place for Shabbat? Or an in with David’s cousin Murray, the hotshot lawyer? Or maybe, you’ve got a nephew who’s just perfect for me or some other Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel or Leah? Jewish geography. The friend (or relative) of my friend (or relative) is my friend. Or a relative.

This is the power of the network. As Jews create communities online, large and small, political and social, community becomes more true to the word itself: call out the obvious “unity” at the end of the word, and you’re left with “comm,” which I like to think stands for “comm” communication and commitment. This enigmatic “new generation” is not any less committed than the previous one; we’re just communicating that commitment differently. And to be relevant to the new media generation, old-school organizations have to embrace new modes of communication and new models of commitment.

When I was asked to do this session, I was curious how many of us “new generation” types were on Facebook and attending the GA, so I formed an online group — “Going to the GA in Nashville and Under 45” — today, there are over 140 members.

My generation is not emotionally tied to the traditional structures that served as their parents’ main connection to Jewish community, because we don’t have to be. We are creating our own online and offline publications, initiatives and minyanim, in reaction to having examined what does exist and finding that it doesn’t fill our needs. For example, I’m on dozens of mailing lists and read about 50 blogs a day. I read lots offline too, but most of the programs and events I find out about through Facebook, blogs, e-newsletters, or e-mail. I can’t tell you the last time I attended an event that didn’t have a Facebook profile.

Online, I’ve become involved in opportunities I never would have known about otherwise. I am a team member for the Jewlicious Festivals, an celebration of all things Jewish attended by hundreds of college students each year. I’m involved in the ROI Global Summit for Jewish Innovators, an annual Jerusalem gathering of 120 Jewish leaders in my age cohort from around the world. And through my involvement in PresenTense Magazine, a content-laden magazine for Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, I’ve also been able to experience a broad swath of Jewish life in the here and now. I’ve also experienced new permutations of Zionism, through this summer’s PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism.

Today’s Jews in my generation aren’t connecting to Federation the way our parents did. And I know this relationship, or lack thereof, troubles you. So view yourselves through our eyes. Are there campaigns, events or initiatives in your community that do draw participation from our age cohort?

Our generation lives generously, but gives differently: in measure, in method and in means. We need to feel the return on our investments — of both time and money — in our hearts and souls. And for those of us who are single or not parents, the community needs to expand the definition of commitment beyond Hebrew school tuition: just because some of us aren’t engaged to be married doesn’t mean we’re not engaged in pursuing a Jewish life.

Because our ideas, our commitment and our initiatives begin online and bleed into real life, Jewish organizations that seek new, younger members must commit to it not only in mission, but in action, supporting and forming partnerships with younger, innovative initiatives, not hoping to subsume them, but to work together with them.

By managing these kinds of creative partnerships effectively, and mobilizing our global Jewish social network, we will forge a future that is strong, vital, and a source of creative inspiration.