After Santa Monica bombing, shuls ponder openness vs. security

Nobody thought much about the shabby but quiet middle-aged man who showed up last weekend at an Orthodox study hall in suburban Cleveland.

But when police came Monday and arrested the man, Ron Hirsch, 60, on charges of setting off a bomb next to the Chabad synagogue in Santa Monica, Calif., it sent shock waves throughout the Jewish community.

It also raised the question of how Jewish institutions should balance openness with security.

“You want people to feel safe, but still welcome,” said Howard Lesner, executive director of Sinai Temple, a large Conservative congregation in downtown Los Angeles.

Jewish institutions in the United States have beefed up security since 9/11, following the lead of Israeli embassies around the world as well as synagogues and Jewish centers in Europe and South America. But measures designed to thwart terrorists can make worshipers feel uncomfortable and newcomers unwelcome. No one wants to pray in a fortress, religious leaders say.

“It’s a dilemma we face every day,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, director of Chabad of Yorba Linda, Calif.

Cleveland-area Jews were particularly disturbed that Hirsch, a transient who often slept near the Santa Monica Chabad shul and asked for handouts at Jewish doors, sought out an Orthodox neighborhood when he fled Los Angeles for Ohio last Friday. Those interviewed surmised that Hirsch knew he would be welcomed as a fellow Jew, with few questions asked.

“He felt comfortable enough to come into a community that offered him shelter and offered him money because the Orthodox community is very hospitable and takes care of its own,” Rabbi Sruly Wolf of Cleveland Heights told The Associated Press.

Churches traditionally have kept their doors unlocked round the clock on the principle that the house of God should be open to all, but few U.S. synagogues follow that practice over concerns about everything from petty vandalism and Torah thefts to anti-Semitic attacks.

At the same time, some rabbis fear that overdoing security will keep away precisely those unaffiliated Jews they want to attract.

“We should not send the message to a Jew that walking into the synagogue is dangerous,” Eliezrie told JTA.

A year ago, he said, half a dozen unfamiliar young men walked into his synagogue right before Saturday morning services. He went to the lobby to check them out—“I was welcoming, but wondering,” he recalls—and learned that they were being initiated into a Jewish fraternity and had to visit five Chabad centers on one Shabbat.

Eliezrie invited them in for kiddush and wouldn’t let them leave until they listened to his 6-year-old grandson pontificate on the weekly Torah portion.

“If I would have overreacted, I would have driven them away,” he said.

Eliezrie said metal detectors and security guards do more harm than good—but he’s in a quiet suburb. Those in the big city, where transients are more common, have more to worry about, he acknowledges.

At Sinai Temple, a large Conservative synagogue in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, visitors are screened, wanded and eyeballed by a bevy of security personnel. Members of the congregation get a special decal allowing them to park in the building’s secure parking lot. The temple employs a full-time security director and brings in nearly three dozen guards for High Holidays services that draw upward of 5,000 people.

“On Shabbat we have 1,000 people at services,” Lesner said. “More than half of them are not members. They’re all screened, but we do it in a dignified manner. I’ve never had anyone refuse and walk away.”

Temple Beth Sholom, a large Reform synagogue in Miami Beach, Fla., also runs a tight ship. The synagogue was rebuilt four years ago, and a perimeter wall of Jerusalem stone was constructed around the building.

“It looks very pretty, but we did it on purpose,” Rabbi Gary Glickstein said. “There is just one entrance, so we can control access.”

Glickstein said it has the optimal balance between security and openness.

Beginners’ services, also called learners’ minyans, are particularly confounding for security concerns because they are consciously trying to attract newcomers rather than congregants who know each other.

“Too much security and people get turned away,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, which sponsors services for unaffiliated Jews throughout the United States. “We have beginners’ services, so that means you have all kinds of strange people walking in.”

The key, he says, is to keep tight security outside and a discrete watchfulness inside.

“We have a committee of lay leaders who keep an eye out to make sure nothing untoward occurs,” Rosenbaum said.

In general, rabbis say, worshipers who seem suspicious have to be watched, but discretely, so they and everyone else in the room is unaware of the surveillance.
Eliezrie says no one would be denied access to the kiddush or not counted in a minyan because of such suspicions.

“A human being is a human being,” Eliezrie said, adding that he’s never had to ask someone to leave his synagogue. “I’m going to treat everyone with respect. “I have to welcome him in and just wonder a little bit.”

Chabad Menorahs Gain Acceptance

Ten years ago, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) sued the city of Beverly Hills to block the local Chabad house from erecting a 27-foot menorah in a public park near City Hall. Displaying the menorah — a Jewish religious symbol — on public property, the AJCongress argued, was unconstitutional.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, allowing Chabad to put up the large candelabra. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision.

When it comes to displaying menorahs in public places, what a difference a decade makes.

This Chanukah, Chabad-Lubavitch plans to light more than 11,000 large public menorahs, from Bangkok to Miami Beach. Those lighting the Chanukah candles won’t come strictly from the ranks of America’s Chabad Chasidim; leaders of Jewish organizations across the spectrum, eager to take part in the public celebration of the Festival of Lights, will also be lighting Chabad’s candles.

The growing acceptance of the Chabad menorahs is just one example of a broader trend: As Chabad spreads throughout the United States and the world, America’s mainstream Jewish community is increasingly willing to embrace the movement, whereas in the past many Jewish organizations preferred to keep it at arm’s length.

“I think there’s less fear and more openness on the parts of both Chabad and the broader community to support all who can reach and touch Jews,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.

Chabad, though, said the recent past offers some indication of how far things have come — and where they may be headed.

“Chabad has not changed that much in a generation,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch. “The organized Jewish community has gone from being indifferent or harsh to being much more welcoming.”

Chabad insiders and observers cite several developments that highlight the change:

• Jewish federations around the country are funding Chabad projects, inviting Chabad rabbis to sit on their boards and committees and including Chabad synagogues in their listings of local places to pray.

• With each passing year, more U.S. Chabad houses become dues-based congregations — like most mainstream Jewish congregations — running on membership payments rather than simply on donations.

• Most Jewish groups no longer sue to prevent Chabad from erecting public menorahs.

• Chabad continues to secure support from Jews outside the movement, even non-Orthodox Jews like Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz.

The movement says its annual budget comes in at more than $1 billion, much of it raised by emissaries in the field for their own programming.

Chabad has made extraordinary efforts to reach out to Jews of every stripe, some of whom have grown to embrace the movement.

“In the market of outreach, Chabad looms large,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College.

Dancing rabbis on Chabad fundraising telethons have given the movement a public face, as have the movement’s mitzvah mobiles and the army of young Chabadniks who spend days out on city sidewalks asking passers-by if they’d like to put on tefillin or sit in a mobile sukkah and shake a lulav.

“I think that Chabad and much of Orthodoxy have come of age,” Heilman said. “Orthodoxy in general is much more a part of the discussion. Within that, there’s been a recognition that Orthodoxy is not just one thing.”

Part of the reason Jewish groups were wary of Chabad was the impression that the movement was not out simply to offer Jews positive Jewish experiences, but wanted to make unobservant Jews Chabad adherents. Chabad rejects this notion, although its officials do acknowledge that they wouldn’t mind if those who come in contact with them take on more Jewish rituals.

Two Women Rabbis Will Fill Pulpits

When Rabbi Johanna Hershenson set off from Orange County for Alaska’s sweeping vistas and majestic peaks, she was eager for a new congregational experience and professional challenges.

She discovered that most Alaskan Jews are exiles by choice who sought the wilderness of the nation’s largest state rather than institutional life.

Apart from the 175 member families she served at Anchorage’s Congregation Beth Sholom, Hershenson found little other Jewish life. As the only non-Orthodox rabbi in Alaska, she became a long-distance consultant to lay synagogue leaders in even more isolated areas, such as Homer and Fairbanks. A local Chabad rabbi and his wife were welcome colleagues, she said.

"It became clear there wasn’t a lot of room for me to grow professionally," said Hershenson, who left Alaska after three years and spent the last 12 months in Madison, Wis., for a self-imposed sabbatical. She considered pursuing a doctorate by researching the juncture of spirituality and psychology but ended up filling in for vacationing colleagues.

On July 1, Hershenson, 35, along with her family, will return to Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El, where she will serve as the assistant rabbi to Allen Krause for a second time. Then, like now, the senior rabbi is departing for a sabbatical, although this time Hershenson will not be on her own but helped by a temporary replacement rabbi.

"Jewish life is thriving there," Hershenson said, pointing out the congregation’s growth since 1998, the start of her first Beth El stint, from 425 families to 700. "It’s demography that changes; it’s not that the synagogue has magic pills."

Another female rabbi will also start work locally in July. Westminster’s Temple Beth David is Rabbi Nancy Myers’ first solo pulpit. She previously served for six years as associate rabbi of the 900-family Temple Chai of Long Grove, Ill. With a two-year contract at the smaller, 350-family Beth David congregation, Myers is the permanent replacement for Robert Klensin, who served a year as interim rabbi.

The opening arose because of the unexpected resignation of Beth David’s 13-year spiritual leader, Michael Mayershon, who stepped down in spring of 2002 (see story, page 9).

Myers, 34, impressed the Beth David search committee, which observed during a daylong trial as each finalist taught an adult education class, led a tot Shabbat service and offered pastoral counseling advice to a congregant struggling with teenagers, said Mark Sklan, the congregation’s past president.

"She was magnificent," he said.

Myers, along with her husband, Paul Prunty, and two toddlers, relocated last month to Cypress.

New Producers Join Chabad Telethon

Chabad’s annual "L’Chaim — To Life!" telethon will look a little different this Sept. 14 since two new producers are helming the 23-year-old fundraiser.

Barry Silver, who worked on "The Howie Mandel Show" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," and Michael G. Levin, who worked as a news producer for many years, have taken over production of the telethon from veteran producers Jeff and Jerry Cutler and associate producer Andrew Martin.

The telethon, broadcast annually in August or September and watched by 20 million people nationwide, is Chabad’s largest fundraiser, bringing in more than $5 million for Chabad programs. While the funds raised at the telethon do not support already existing individual Chabad houses, they are used to support the establishment costs of new Chabad houses and the Chabad infrastructure in California, which includes a girls’ day school and a drug rehabilitation center.

Over the years, the show has attracted A-list celebrities like Academy Award-winner Jon Voight and the cast of "Friends," who tout Chabad’s commitment to social justice causes and urge viewers to phone in their donations. The show is also famous for its rabbis, lead by Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the director of West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch, who join hands and dance the hora every time a new figure is displayed on the tote board.

While the basic format of the telethon — with its various segments of celebrity pitches, Jewish entertainment, taped greeting and, of course, those spirited horas — will remain the same, Silver and Levin have made some changes to the show this year.

Celebrities will not only appear for their five-minute segments, but actors like Jeffrey Tambor ("The Larry Sanders Show") and Mindy Sterling ("Austin Powers") will lend their talent for 60 to 90 minutes. There will also be more segments devoted to people who have been helped by Chabad over the years.

While in the past, these segments have typically focused on Chabad programs, this year’s program will concentrate on Chabad people, for example, following rabbis as they go about their "crisis intervention work" and filming inmates in state prison who have been touched by Chabad. The show will also feature more comedy sketches than in the past.

Rabbi Chaim Cunin, Chabad’s public relations director, said that the organization was able to expand the range of segments this year since the show attracted more collaborators than in the past, including Kevin Bright, executive producer and creator of "Friends," who is joining the telethon as a creative executive and segment producer.

"In the past, the telethon was run by a group of seven or 10 people that put in 24 hours a day to make it happen," Chaim Cunin said. "This year there are 40 people involved, and they all have their staff, so there are 150 people who are involved and working toward the telethon."

So far, the list of celebrities who will be appearing on the telethon include Martin Sheen, Regis Philbin, Serena Williams, Magic Johnson, Howie Mandel, "Spy Kids’" Darryl Sabara and the cast of "Friends."

The Chabad Telethon was started 23 years ago, when Jefferson "Jeff" Cutler came to the West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters in Westwood, hoping to do a documentary about Chabad, when her mission changed.

"We were putting our crew together, meanwhile a Chabad house burned down and three men were killed in the fire," Jeff Cutler said. "Rabbi Shlomo Cunin called my husband and asked if we could put something together across the street in a tent. We put together a one-act play, Arthur Hiller directed it, Ed Asner and Leonard Nimoy were in it, and it made a million dollars. We were rehearsing it during the day, and Rabbi Cunin asked us ‘Have you ever produced a telethon?’ We said ‘no,’ and he said, ‘Well, you’re going to!’" In six weeks we put together a four-hour telethon with Jan Murray as the host, and we made another million dollars. It was a very successful, amazing time, and we made it an annual show."

However, last year Jeff and her husband, Jerry, who produced the show for 22 years and were responsible for many of the big celebrity names the show attracted, along with Martin, who had worked on the telethon for 18 years, left citing difficult working conditions.

"’Severing ties’ sounds sinister. No, they just decided to do their thing and we didn’t want to be part of it. We are still friends [with the Cunins] but his children got much too involved, and my wife felt stifled," Jerry Cutler said.

"Chabad respects them and their decision to move on and wishes them well in their future endeavors," said Chaim Cunin.

Chabad’s "L’Chaim — To Life" Telethon will air Sept. 14 on KCAL 9, from 5 p.m.-midnight.