Life of AEPi

The traditional approach to Jewish outreach — especially on college campuses — is to make it as easy as possible for Jews to get involved: free classes, free admission, no obligations, no memberships.

This makes sense for a young generation that cherishes its independence and wants to engage with the world as it pleases. Many young people today, when they think of membership, see themselves as already belonging to two primary groups: a group of One (thyself) and a group of 7 billion (humanity).

Similarly, for many young Jews today, this notion of “belonging to the Jewish people” doesn’t resonate. If one of your primary values is inclusiveness, then the natural choice is to belong to the all-inclusive human race.

That’s where college fraternities and sororities come in.

These groups encourage bonding and loyalty to a group. Today, by far the largest and most important Jewish fraternity is the 100-year-old Alpha Epsilon Pi, which has 9,000 members on college campuses in five countries.

I know very little about the fraternity world. They didn’t have a Jewish fraternity where I went to college (McGill University in Montreal), and all the college outreach efforts that I’ve been involved with — such as Hillel and Chabad — have been “nonmembership.”

So, when I was chosen recently to be honored as a “brother” at a major AEPi conclave in Las Vegas for my work with the Jewish community, my first thought was: Wow, what’s a brother?

My second thought was: This might make a cool column.

But here’s the wrinkle — yes, it was an incredible experience, but because the ceremony at which I was initiated is secret, I can’t tell you too much about it. I can tell you that I now have a secret handshake, a secret password, a secret knock and a lifetime bond with any of the thousands of other AEPi “brothers” around the world.

Why do I find that prospect so satisfying?

Well, I guess on one level it was the company I was honored with. I was initiated  next to some prominent Jewish men, among them the majordomo philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, whom I stood next to during most of the ceremony. Trust me, there are worse things in life than becoming “brothers” with one of the Jewish world’s largest donors.

But there was something else that moved me deeply — it was the very idea of belonging to a group.

There are myriad ways of connecting to Judaism, but in all my years of raising my children in the Jewish tradition, the most powerful connection I have found is the sense of belonging to a people.

Being Jewish is not just what you believe and what you do, I tell them, it’s also who you are and whom you are with.

None of us can be with everyone at once — that’s the fallacy of universalism.  Although we indeed can be “citizens of the world,” we have to select our primary circle, the one that defines our core identity. For Jews concerned with continuity, that primary circle is the Jewish one.

The fashionable term today to describe this sense of Jewish belonging is “peoplehood.” It’s the latest worry point of the Jewish community: We’re losing a new generation of Jews because they don’t have a sense of peoplehood, a sense of belonging to their people.

But what if this new generation got a taste of this “belonging” while still in college?

If you ask Elan Carr, AEPi’s international president, who presided over the initiation ceremony in Las Vegas, this is precisely what the fraternity tries to instill.

“We want the brothers to connect to their Jewish values and to one another,” Carr told me. “We want them to see that you can fully engage with the world without denying your membership to the Jewish people. It’s not either/or.”

There were more than 700 AEPi brothers at the conclave I attended, which took place on the campus of the University of Las Vegas. All those brothers had to apply to get in. It’s not automatic. There are dues, responsibilities and obligations.

There are also practical benefits. For one, you get to build a lifetime of contacts and a valuable social network. It’s like an alumni network, only here the alumni also go back 4,000 years. Where you come from, the brothers are told, is as important as where you’re going.

In everything it does, from Shabbatons to career counseling, the fraternity tries to mirror Jewish ethics and values, including, of course, support for Israel. In essence, it wants to make loyalty to AEPi synonymous with loyalty to one’s Jewish identity.

You might call it “Jewish peoplehood on campus.”

I call it a sense of eternal belonging. Yes, you can belong to your country, your college, your synagogue, your community and your family, but let’s face it, there’s something a little special about belonging to a 4,000-year-old people.

AEPi promotes Jewish continuity by promoting the identity of belonging.

I belong, therefore I am.

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

Versatile Israeli Violinist Gains ‘Dream’ Hip-Hop Hit

Perusing the hot R & B/Rap Billboard charts, one does not expect to see a red-headed Israeli artist — replete with a classic “Jewfro” mop of curls — represented by the No. 3 song. ” TARGET=”_blank”>Miri Ben-Ari, however, doing the unexpected is standard fodder; so it should come as no surprise that her new single, “Symphony of Brotherhood” (featuring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech weaving in and out of an extended string solo) topped the charts just one month after its radio release.

Given the violin diva’s penchant for multitasking high-profile projects, it also should come as no surprise that topping the charts is just a drop in the bucket for Ben-Ari. Since April, she has been featured on billboards internationally as the poster girl for Reebok’s “I Am What I Am” campaign; in May, she and Israeli hip-hop mogul, Subliminal, recorded a video, “Classit VeParsi” (Classical and Persian) — which topped Israel’s video charts.

Next Ben-Ari went on national tour with the popular hip-hop group, The Roots, even as she was getting ready to release a hip-hop single about the Holocaust. Meanwhile, VH1 announced her as a new artist working with its Save the Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to restore instrumental music education in U.S. public schools.

For many, it’s exhausting just to read Ben-Ari’s list of accomplishments, but the artist is full of energy. She is, after all, on a mission: “I want to bring music back,” she said matter-of-factly. “In an era where everything is music samples, I’m representing a movement that’s turning to live music again.”

Ben-Ari grew up as a classically trained violinist in Israel, and as a child prodigy, she caught the attention of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. Though she bowed to the top of one music competition after another, Ben-Ari was convinced that the classical scene was not for her.

“The whole time, I knew I wasn’t going to be a classical violinist,” she explained. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was really good with the violin. It was fun playing so fast on the instrument — almost like a sport. But I wasn’t feeling the orchestra thing.”

At 17, Ben-Ari won a scholarship to study music in Boston, where she was exposed to jazz for the first time. After hearing a Charlie Parker CD, she knew where her future lay.

“I had to study whatever it was that Parker was doing,” she said. “I had to be able to improvise like he did. I had to learn that language!”

Following obligatory service in the Israeli army, Ben-Ari packed her bags and moved to the Big Apple — where she hustled gigs every night. “If I walked into a club, and there was a stage,” she said, “I’d pull out my violin and play. If there was no stage, I’d still play. At first I’d get my ass kicked. But you go home, practice all day and go out and get your ass kicked again.”

Persistence and gutsy acts — which Ben-Ari attributes to Israeli chutzpah — got her noticed by jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and the late Betty Carter, as well as by hip-hop moguls like Kanye West and Wycleff Jean. Once the heavyweights got into her act, it was not long before Ben-Ari had played Carnegie Hall, The Apollo, and Jay Z’s Summer Jam — where she received a standing ovation from 20,000 screaming audience members.

“I was a nobody,” Ben-Ari chuckled, “but I had the second feature, after Missy Elliot.”

Since then, Ben-Ari has gone on to record and perform with pop icons like Alicia Keys and Britney Spears, and she won a Grammy in 2004 for her violin chops on Kanye West’s smash-hit single, “Jesus Walks.”

It is heartening to know that someone so openly Jewish and Israeli can receive so much love from the non-Jewish world.

“Wycleff Jean and Jay Z put me on the map,” Ben-Ari said with passion. “They were not Jewish white people. I’ll never forget that. This is also why I relate to [African American] history. I’ve been working with them. I got embraced by the black community, more than any other community — including the Jewish community. They loved me like one of their own.”

The fact that she is Israeli, Ben-Ari continued, actually strengthens her connection to African Americans, whether Jewish or not. “Struggle relates to struggle,” she said. “They appreciate that I’m from Israel, because I’m coming from struggle.”

That mutual struggle, Ben-Ari continued, was in fact the inspiration for her recent hit single: “MLK is the hero for the black American struggle. Of course, if you’re coming from a struggle yourself, you can’t help comparing…. It always crosses my mind — if we had MLK in Nazi Germany, would it have helped?

Would it have affected the outcome of the Jewish Holocaust?”

These kinds of questions are what led Ben-Ari to work on the Holocaust hip-hop single, due to be released in the coming months.

“It’s almost like they say, ‘music is therapy,'” she explained. “It’s a way to deal. There is no other way for me.”

Have a Very Jewish Xmas

Jewish law requires that we publicize the miracle of
Chanukah — both when we light and where we light. We light the Chanukah candles
after dark when they are most visible and we light in the
early evening when most people are still out and about. We place our chanukiot
by the window facing the street or at the entrance to our homes, again so as
many people as possible will know about the miracle. But what exactly is the
miracle we want the world to know about? Why do we care that other people see
the lights of Chanukah?

According to the liturgy, we thank God on Chanukah for the
miraculous victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks: “You [God] defended them,
vindicated them, and avenged their wrongs” (Al Hanisim). In the poem/song “Maoz
Tzur,” the author expands the miracle into gratitude for God’s protection of
the Jewish people from the Egyptians, the Babylonians, from Haman and, more
generally, from all of Israel’s enemies throughout history. Such protection
from our enemies is something we dare not take for granted. Giving thanks is
not only laudable — it is a mitzvah. But why is it so important for us to
publicize God’s protection of the Jews to the world?

On one level, the lights of Chanukah symbolize to the world
and to ourselves that God’s covenant with us has never been broken. Long after
the great empires of Greece and Babylonia and Egypt have faded away, it is the
Jewish people and culture and faith that continue to bring light into the
world. In a world where the darkness of anti-Semitism still looms, the lights
of Chanukah say proudly, “the Jews are still here!”

On another level, the Chanukah lights are lights of
brotherhood with all who suffer in righteousness. They spread a message of hope
to the downtrodden. Chanukah celebrates the victory of a small, weak people
against a great empire. We thank God who “delivered the strong into the hands
of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the corrupt into the hands of
the pure, the guilty into the hands of the innocent” (Al Hanisim). We put the
chanukiah in the window as a way of saying to those who are persecuted, those
who suffer, those who are weak and those who are pure, “there is hope.” There
is light in times of darkness. We know what darkness is and we have not
forgotten. You are not forgotten. The candles shine a message of redemption to
a broken world: never stop believing that the forces of light and goodness will
ultimately triumph.

Finally, maybe it is not only the world that needs to know
about the miracle; maybe it is we who need reminding. As the lights of Chanukah
shine into our own houses, they remind us again of what is most important — our
mission to bring God’s light into the world. The Chasidic tradition teaches
that the “final signing” of the year is not on Yom Kippur or Hoshanah Rabbah
(the last day of Sukkot), but rather on the last day of Chanukah. After a long
autumn of work and school and the toil of daily life, it is so easy to forget
our own source of light, so easy to forget the selves we meant to be when Yom
Kippur ended only a few short months ago.

This year, the sixth night of Chanukah is Dec. 24 — a night
known to our Christian neighbors as Christmas Eve. That night, many Christians
will be alone in hospitals and old age homes, in soup kitchens and homeless
shelters. What are you doing on Christmas Eve? Many Christians who normally
help the homeless or work in hospitals will be (or will want to be) home with
their families. Can you contribute? Can you bring some of the light of the
Chanukah candles into the world in a concrete way? This December, bring a
little Yom Kippur into Chanukah, and a little Chanukah into Christmas.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

Lee Baca’s Brotherhood Crusade

Two weeks after Muslim terrorists attacked America, L.A. County Sheriff Leroy "Lee" Baca stood in front of an audience at the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, clutching his personal copy of the Quran. After some preliminary remarks to an audience of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and others whom he had called together, the chief law-enforcement officer for the County of Los Angeles leveled his dark-brown eyes at the audience. "What," he asked, "does God want from us?"

It’s about the last question you’d expect coming from the man who oversees the largest sheriff’s department in the United States, the man responsible for 1,400 bailiffs serving 50 courthouses, 22,000 inmates, one of the nation’s largest food service operations (for the inmates), an enormous hospital system, mental health program and drug rehabilitation center, a staff of 13,000 sworn and civilian personnel, a police department serving some 40 contract cities and a $1.4 billion annual budget. But there he was, spending a long afternoon asking about God.

After rabbis, ministers, a priest and an imam delivered messages of unity, Baca told the 100-person audience that they need to worry about understanding one another, about learning the peaceful traditions of their faith and about getting on with their lives.

"I am in charge of your fear," he said. The words seemed very comforting: Baca has a firm, deep monotone and speaks with a lawman’s certitude. I’ll protect you, he seemed to be saying, you just look out for one another.

The meeting at the mosque on Washington Boulevard was the latest in a series of interfaith gatherings the sheriff has convened since Sept. 11. The first took place on Sept. 12, before Osama bin Laden was even on America’s "most wanted" list. Baca called about 60 religious and ethnic leaders, including rabbis Leonard Beerman, Steven Jacobs and Alan Freehling, to a meeting room in the Sheriff’s Department headquarters in Monterey Park.

"I knew we had to get our faith groups working together," he told The Journal, "or hate crimes will evolve to where we have no control."

A second interfaith meeting, convened by Baca on Sept. 20, drew California Gov. Gray Davis, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and some 70 participants, representing the spectrum of the county’s religions.

Out of that meeting came a consensus that dialogue was not enough. Baca called another meeting at the Museum of Tolerance on Sept. 28. There he put local television producers and directors on the stage with Muslim and Jewish representatives, in front of an audience of handpicked religious leaders. Because of that gathering, the stations joined in airing "Together," a 30-minute series of segments by 10 TV news departments explaining Los Angeles’ diverse cultures and stressing tolerance.

Baca relishes the coup. "How many people read an article in the Los Angeles Times from start to finish? 100,000?," he told The Journal. "But half a million people or more will watch the TV news."

There have been other gatherings, too. Baca helped organize an event at which the Islamic Center in Northridge hosted Rabbi Steven Jacobs’ Kol Tikvah synagogue on Oct. 14. About 700 people, including hundreds of young children, spent the evening together.

"The challenge is to demystify the Muslim faith," Baca said later of such meetings. "We don’t know enough about it. And I tell the Muslim community that in the interest of tolerance, they should come out and support the right of the State of Israel to exist. We need to allay the fear of the Jewish community that the Muslims hate Jews."

Interfaith dialogue is hardly a new idea in Los Angeles; entire institutions have grown out of it: county and city human relations commissions, nonprofit dialogue groups, long-running faith-based programs. There have been as many efforts at dialogue as there are previous participants who have soured on them as, at best, endless jaw-boning or, at worse, attempts by extremists to gain status by association with more mainstream groups.

But following Sept. 11, dialogue became high-profile, and Baca was stepping onto a near-empty stage. Following the attacks, L.A. Mayor James Hahn was first in Washington, D.C., at policy meetings, then focused here on airport safety and other issues. Baca stepped into the vacuum. His vast jurisdiction includes a swath of ethnic groups. His deputies were already responding to the post-attack rash of Muslim- and Sikh-directed hate crimes. Organizing meetings around tolerance and understanding seemed an obvious next step, and it earned the sheriff the spotlight.

And criticism. Baca’s entry into the field, while widely understood, has not been entirely above suspicion. Some critics see it as naive and simplistic, others as clever campaigning in a run-up to the 2002 sheriff’s race.

"It’s a short-term feel-good solution," said David A. Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. Lehrer and Baca have known each other for years, and in recent phone calls have found themselves disagreeing over the efficacy of bringing Muslim and Jewish leaders together. Mainstream Jewish leaders, Lehrer said, "understand the reticence of Arab Americans to speak up and they don’t have much truck with it."

Another Jewish dialogue veteran, who didn’t want his name used, was even more blunt, saying the effort rings of dilettantism. Baca chooses religious leaders who often represent relatively small constituencies, usually outside the mainstream, the veteran said. "This is what the sheriff should be doing?" he asked.

The question goes to Baca’s sincerity, which the sheriff, in the course of an hour-and-a half interview in his office, took pains to demonstrate.

The son of divorced parents, Baca grew up in his grandparents’ house in East Los Angeles, then a melting pot of Jewish, Latino and Asian immigrants. The pattern held: Baca, a Latino, is married to a Chinese American, and has a Palestinian brother-in-law. Dinner table discussions are heated interfaith dialogues. "I tell him what is the incentive for Israel to give you anything? Did the Palestinians go through the Holocaust? The pogroms? The two Crusades? The Inquisition? You don’t trust a partner who puts a gun at your head."

Merrick Bobb, Board of Supervisors-appointed special counsel to the Sheriff’s Department, acknowledges that the sheriff’s efforts are a first for the department. "It is not normal," said Bobb, who has sparred bitterly with Baca over inmate treatment and spending priorities. But, he said, the sheriff is in this case acting in the county’s best interest. "I think it is appropriate. The strength of community relationships is one part of what makes for effective law enforcement."

Beyond Baca’s personal history, in his career in the Sheriff’s Department he has shown evidence of real commitment to tolerance. He pushed through a new department core mission statement that affirmed the rights of minorities (including sexual minorities), reached out to form advisory boards in different ethnic communities, and earned the accolades of civil rights groups by launching an oversight board to investigate his own department’s actions.

The campaigning Baca might never be completely separate from the crusading Baca, but that’s the life of an elected official, said Donna Bojarsky, the co-chair of L.A. Works and a participant in the dialogues. "Every single person elected to public office politics," Bojarsky said. "But what’s impressed me about him is he went out and started to do this at a time when it’s important to do. You wouldn’t equate that with the sheriff. He walks around with a Talmud and Quran and he feels it in his kishkes. He has respect for all, but he is willing to call it as he sees it."

For supporters and critics alike, the questions that may help voters judge Baca’s effectiveness and sincerity on these issues have yet to be answered. They’ll want to see how long he sticks to his commitment to bringing the county’s faith groups together. Also, they’ll be looking at hate crime statistics. In the wake of Sept. 11, the sharp spike has leveled off for now.

The sheriff’s strongest critics say they’ll want to see how the values of tolerance and respect are manifested in the one L.A. community over which Baca really does wield power: the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

In the meantime, Baca has a ready answer to those who use pulpits in the county to preach violence or intolerance. As he said at the King Fahd Mosque that day, and numerous times since, "I know this: God is not an accomplice to murder, and we cannot allow any religion to give God a bad name."