‘Forward 50’ heavy on politicos; Faith groups petition Supremes re Prop. 8


Forward 50 Heavy on Politicos

The Los Angelenos in this year’s just-released Forward 50 list include an Orthodox rabbi who suggested that Israelis should be able to decide the fate of Jerusalem, a rabbi who led efforts to fight Proposition 8 and a Westlake School for Girls graduate who this year was an Olympic-gold-medal swimmer.

The Forward 50, a list of Jewish movers and shakers published annually by The Jewish Forward, is heavy this year on Jews involved in politics, particularly in President-elect Barack Obama’s successful campaign and developing the new administration. Three of the top five standouts are Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s new chief of staff; Penny Pritzker, his national campaign finance officer; and Sarah Silverman, whose video for The Great Schlep encouraged Jews, young and old, to vote for Obama. (The other two members of the top five are kosher activist Rabbi Morris Allen and Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the dovish lobby J Street.)

“Jews played an outsized role in the presidential election campaign, and, by the looks of it, will continue to do so in the new Obama administration,” Forward Editor Jane Eisner said in a statement. “This was also the year the kosher meat industry faced its greatest legal, consumer and ethical challenges and in the process exposed major lapses in the U.S. justice and immigration systems, prompting rabbis of all denominations to examine the moral dimension of a central Jewish tenet.”

Those honored from Los Angeles, in addition to Silverman, are: Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, who last fall wrote an op-ed for this paper that broke an Orthodox taboo and said Israel should have the independent freedom to negotiate over Jerusalem; Rabbi Denise Eger, founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in West Hollywood, and a leading activist against Proposition 8; U.S. Olympic gold-medalist Dara Torres, who at 41 stole the show in the Water Cube from everyone but Michael Phelps; U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), who became chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee after the death of Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos; and, for the third time in six years, Daniel Sokatch, who served as founding executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and left Los Angeles this summer to lead the San Francisco Jewish community.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Faith Groups Petition Supreme Court, Challenge Prop. 8

On Nov. 17, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) joined a coalition of Christian organizations in filing a petition asking the California Supreme Court to invalidate Proposition 8, the statewide ban on same-sex marriage.

The petition argues that the controversial ballot measure threatens the U.S. guarantee of equal protection, and was too dramatic a revision of the state Constitution to be passed by voters without Legislature approval.

“The Progressive Jewish Alliance is proud to join with our friends in the Christian community who likewise recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” PJA President Douglas Mirell said in a statement. “We hope our petition will remind the court and other faith communities of the dangers posed when a minority group … is deprived of equal protection by a simple majority vote. If Proposition 8 is allowed to take effect, there is nothing to stop voters from writing religious, racial or ethnic discrimination into California’s Constitution through the next statewide ballot initiative.”

Other signatories of the petition included the California Council of Churches, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The PJA is the only Jewish organization to take part.

— Rachel Heller, Contributing Writer

Jewish Free Loan Establishes Housing Fund

The Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) has received a $100,000 donation from the Annenberg Foundation to establish a housing loan fund that will offer $3,000 interest-free loans to individuals struggling to pay their mortgage.

The fund is a direct response to the home foreclosure crisis, which, thanks to risky lending and the subprime mortgage meltdown, led to a majority of California homes sold last month being bank-owned.

“Given the current housing climate, it was critical that JFLA establish a fund that can meet the growing needs of our community,” said Mark Meltzer, executive director and CEO.

The housing loan fund will complement JFLA’s emergency loan program, which has provided $3,000 loans to help renters avoid eviction or cover a security deposit and has assisted homeowners with utility bills and emergency repairs.

JFLA has seen a surge in emergency loan applicants this year. The nonprofit plans to raise another $750,000 during the next three years through foundation grants and individual contribution and to increase the average housing loan to $5,000 within the next few years.

Loans are available to people of all faiths. For more information on loan programs or procedures, visit the JFLA Web site at www.jfla.org or call (323) 761-8830.

— BG

Resource Guide for Elderly Visitors Available

The Older Adult Task Force is offering a free, quick reference for families who need advice about how to best accommodate older relatives throughout this holiday season.

OATF, a coalition of approximately 40 social service agencies in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles, says the guide contains information about social and health services, housing, transportation and financial assistance. Specifically, it highlights commonly asked questions and concerns and then “provides a listing of agencies with their phone numbers that can assist in addressing the relevant issues.”

The coalition has distributed the guide to relevant organizations, libraries, pharmacies, churches and recreation centers. To have a copy of the guide mailed to you, call (310) 394-9871, ext. 411, or send e-mail to olderadulttaskforce@yahoo.com. A downloadable version of the guide is available at http://www.smpl.org/pdf/quickreferenceguide.pdf.

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Archdiocese, ADL Partner to Educate Teachers

California’s Catholic school educators will be better armed to field questions about anti-Semitism in the classroom, thanks to a three-day conference sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The “Bearing Witness” program delved into the theological and political roots of anti-Semitism, as well as the methods for teaching certain delicate subjects in schools: anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the historical relationship between Jews and Christians. The Rev. Dennis McManus, associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, and Rabbi Eliot Dorff, professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, were among the speakers.

The conference, held Oct. 28-30, culminated with a special Shabbat dinner that included participants, program alumni and ADL leaders. The program is now in its sixth year and has reached more than 1,300 schoolteachers.

— LF

The debates won’t matter


Let me hedge my bet.

At the vice presidential debate, the talking points Sarah Palin’s handlers have been stuffing her head with will come out of her mouth so butchered that even Republican voters will say, like Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness”: “The horror, the horror!”

Or, at one of the remaining presidential debates, a contemptuously smirking John McCain will finally become so enraged by having to share a stage with Barack Obama that he will pop his notorious cork right there in front of a hundred million Americans.

Or maybe Obama or Joe Biden will goof or gaffe or otherwise give such a bloody bit of chum to the media sharks that the gazillionth replay of the sound bite will drive every swing voter in the country away from them. But I don’t think so.

Sure, cable yakkers will declare after each debate who won on points, and who on body language; who played Nixon, and who played Kennedy; who won their focus groups of undecideds, and who flatlined with them.

But my guess is that the prestige press headlines will continue to play it safe, as they did after the first debate — “candidates clash” (New York Times), “differ sharply” (Los Angeles Times), “quarrel” (Washington Post) — and that on television, it will be concluded that no one delivered a knockout blow, which will require audiences to remain in suspense, and therefore to keep tuning in, until the photo-finish end.

This election won’t be won or lost at the debates. Nor will it be determined by the two campaigns’ “ground games” — their get-out-the-vote efforts. Nor, unfortunately, will its outcome even depend on how many Americans wake up on Election Day intending to vote for one candidate or the other.

Instead, my fear is that the Electoral College results will hang on the swing state voting systems’ vulnerability to sabotage.

It’s already happening.

In El Paso County, Colo., the county clerk — a delegate to the Republican National Convention — told out-of-state undergraduates at Colorado College, falsely, that they couldn’t vote in Colorado if their parents claim them as dependents on their taxes.

In the towns of Mount Pleasant and Middleton, Wisc., Democratic voters received a mailing containing tear-out requests for absentee ballots pre-addressed to the wrong addresses. Both mailers were sent by the McCain campaign.

Florida, Michigan and Ohio have some of the country’s highest foreclosure rates. “Because many homeowners in foreclosure are black or poor,” The New York Times says, “and are considered probable Democratic voters in many areas, the issue has begun to have political ramifications.”

If you’re one of the million Americans who lost a home through foreclosure, and if you didn’t file a change of address with your election board, you’re a sitting duck for an Election Day challenge by a partisan poll watcher holding a public list of foreclosed homes. In states like New Mexico and Iowa, the number of foreclosures is greater than the number of votes by which George W. Bush carried the state in 2004.

In the 2006 election, according to the nonpartisan Fair Elections Legal Network, black voters in Virginia got computer-generated phone calls from a bogus “Virginia Election Commission” telling them that they could be arrested if they went to the wrong polling place; in Maryland, out-of-state leafleters gave phony Democratic sample ballots to black voters with the names of Republican candidates checked in red; in New Mexico, Democratic voters got personal phone calls from out of state that directed them to the wrong polling place.

Does anyone think this won’t be tried again in 2008?

The reason behind Alberto Gonzales’ attempted purge of U.S. Attorneys was that some of them wouldn’t knuckle under to Karl Rove’s plan to concoct an “election fraud” hoax that would put Republicans in control of the nation’s voting lists.

“We have, as you know, an enormous and growing problem with elections in certain parts of America today,” Rove falsely told the Republican National Lawyers Association, an evidence-less problem crying out for a draconian solution. Does anyone think that Rove’s move from the White House to Fox has dampened Republican ardor for this ruse?

And if all of that doesn’t alarm you, consider the new report on electronic voting systems from the Computer Security Group at the UCSB, which concluded that “all voting systems recently analyzed by independent security testers have been found to contain fatal security flaws that could compromise the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the voting process….

Unless electronic voting systems are held up to standards that are commensurate with the criticality of the tasks they have to perform, the very core of our democracy is in danger.”

And did I mention that on Election Day, some polling places in minority precincts in battleground states will be shocked, simply shocked, to discover that so many people want to vote that it will take hours of standing in line to vote? That is, of course, unless they run out of ballots.

So while the presidential and vice presidential debates will make for swell political theater, the likelihood is that victory will be determined not by how the debates move a small percentage of undecided Americans off the fence, but by the voting experiences of a few thousand voters in a few swing states on Nov. 4.

Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said, “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.”

I think he had it half right.

Those who decide who cast the votes also decide everything.

Meditating spies


Ah, so much chaos, so little time.

In this parsha we deal with the message of the spies; insecurity leading to depression and fear; rebellion and anger by the people, Moses and God; and several severe punishments, including the major one of wandering in the desert for an additional 40 years and the minor one (in size and scope, but not in significance) of killing the Shabbat wood collector. We end with a collective breath, and more importantly, a call for awareness and attention to the inner workings of our soul, with the final paragraph instructing us about tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our garments and tallitot (prayer shawls), which is said daily as the third paragraph of the Shema prayer.

Why is there so much disillusionment, fear and unsettling behavior in this parsha? And what can we learn from the chaos?

In practicing and teaching Jewish meditation — a central focus of my rabbinate work alongside my passion for social justice and peace — I have come to understand that an awareness of our inner spirit can greatly affect how we interpret events in the world around us, as well as how we perceive ourselves and how Judaism can help ground us in lives of meaning and fortitude. After 12 years of almost daily practice, I understand that each day brings new challenges and new barriers, along with old habits and lifelong obstacles, all of which are trying to thwart my progress.

As we say in the liturgy: Just as God renews each day, so, too, must we renew. And this is what I see happening in Shelach Lecha, albeit in reverse order.

The lack of confidence that the spies bring back — embodied in the famous line, “And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33) — is a classic case of not being fully aware and awake. The fear that the spies bring back, which may have been justified, overtakes them and causes the entire Israelite people to lose faith, lose hope and react with chaotic perplexity.

In meditation, one can begin to develop a sense of connection to God, one’s own heart and the notion that the more awareness we have in our life, the better decisions we are able to make. We don’t read of the spies taking any time to process their findings, meditate on their experience before sharing it; rather, they blow into the camp, rally the fears of the people and cause a scene that cannot be stopped, one that will climax next week with the rebellion of Korah.

I find it fascinating that this one line about the grasshoppers speaks volumes about the inner life of the spies. Their real mistake was not in sharing their fears, but rather in not being present in their sharing, such that they conveyed not only physical fears, but also their own unprocessed and undifferentiated emotional and spiritual fears.

Moses loses control of the people and almost loses control of the whole exodus enterprise. According to the Talmud, the spies, and thereby the entire people, actually think that not only can’t they overcome the inhabitants of the land, but that even God is outmatched.

In a challenging reading of the text, Sotah 35a says that Numbers 13:31, which reads, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we,” should be read, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than Him [God].” They translate the word memenu, as “than him,” rather than the traditional reading “than us.” So, in their fear, the spies not only reject the notion of conquering the land, they reject the whole premise that God is with them at all. Without a sense of presence and consciousness, God is lost to them.

And, it is this mentality that causes the overreaction to the man collecting wood on Shabbat. There is so much fear, so much confusion and lack of confidence that the people, including Moses, don’t know how to respond.

I don’t see this story as one telling us that we should kill all those who break rules on Shabbat — we would all be dead! Rather, it’s a parable of what happens when we don’t bring ourselves fully present to any situation in our lives, including religious practice. When we act out of fear, we don’t make good decisions.

It is for this reason that I see the final portion about the tzitzit fitting in. When we stop to contemplate the higher meaning and value in life, a connection to God and our souls, we find ourselves making more healthy decisions. Reading back the idea of tzitzit into the rest of the parsha, I see it as coming as a corrective to the series of fear-induced decisions that plague the people, leading to chaos, 40 years of wandering in the desert and killing someone for a small violation of a newfound religious practice. By taking time to breathe and notice the tzitzit, we find a way to operate more calmly, with greater confidence coupled with greater humility. This combination is a hallmark of Jewish meditation, one that is signified by the gathering of the tzitzit. Certainly, if our ancestors had practiced a bit more awareness meditation, imagine how differently things might have turned out.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

Recycling on the fashion runway


Ever since the nonprofit organization Earth Pledge teamed up with Barney’s in 2005 during New York’s renowned fashion week to demonstrate that sustainable fashion and style can coexist, eco-fashion activists have been quipping that “green is the new black.” Almost overnight, environmentally conscious designs shed their reputation of looking like burlap sacks made for hippies and were transformed into stylish, chic and fashionable clothes.

On the New York runway, Richie Rich’s striking yellow-and-pink skirt, made out of corn fiber, was topped off with a flashy silver bustier made from recycled polyester. And Linda Loudermilk’s luxury eco line has an express goal of giving eco-glamour “a fabulous look and a slammin’ attitude that stops traffic and shouts the message: Eco can be edgy, loud, fun, playful, feminine (or not) and hyper-cool.”

Levi’s recently released a line of “green” jeans made from 100 percent organic cotton and fashion icons such as Oscar de la Renta and Proenza Schouler hail the use of sustainable materials. Even celebrities are taking part in the growing global trend; Bono launched a new line of eco-fashion titled “Edun.”

New, organic raw materials that are both sustainable and grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides or insecticides are more widely available too. Far beyond just organic cotton and hemp, contemporary eco-fashion designers can now choose between bamboo, soy and corn fibers, cottagora, eco-fleece, organic wool, linen, silk, tencel and ecospun — to name just a few. Eco-friendly, low-impact dyes and responsible manufacturing processes (employing people in good working conditions with fair wages close to home) are also part of the “reuse, recycle and renew” philosophy that define eco-fashion, according to the Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP).

The widespread international movement has not escaped fashion designers in Israel, more and more of who are starting to incorporate eco-friendly principles into their own creative, unique styles.

But there have been bumps in the road. Organic fabrics are almost impossible to find in Israel and have to be imported at great expense. But for some young Israeli designers, this is an opportunity rather than a detriment. Instead of bringing in costly fabrics from abroad, they look for ways to use inexpensive materials that already exist at home.

For Irit Vilensky, the fabric of choice is plastic. By recycling the ubiquitous plastic bags that litter Israeli beaches and parks, she makes an uber-chic, colorful line of accessories called: Satik.

“I wanted to create something beautiful out of what everyone already has at home, so I decided to make things out of plastic bags,” she said.

Each one-of-a-kind bracelet, wallet and purse is handmade, and Vilensky says that the concept of using noxious non-biodegradable plastic bags, already banned in many countries due to their widespread damage to the environment, serves two purposes: to reuse waste and to rid the world’s landfills of a few more plastic bags.

Elanit Neutra was heavily influenced by environmental concerns in Toronto, where she studied film production. Two years ago she began using the inner tubes of black rubber tires to make her stylish, soft leather-like accessories.

“I have always been a collector, taking things from the street to make new things, and when I saw the tires, I decided to try and make something nice from the raw material,” she said.

Although the process of finding material and cleaning the rubber is long and difficult, Neutra said part of what makes her work original is that she maintains the texture and any imperfections.

“Each piece is handmade, and I spend a lot of time looking for the right composition and shaping the rubber into something elegant,” Neutra said.

Gili Ben-Ami makes brightly colored necklaces by stringing together car fuses, and Ayala Froindlich recycles comic books, inflatable pool floats and even encyclopedias to make her eco-friendly handbags. Artist Ossi Yalon paints new scenes on vintage clothing in order to refurbish the old.

“Today’s society, especially women, is obsessed with buying new clothing all the time and throwing everything away,” she said. “I am trying to point out that the same therapeutic endeavor can be accomplished by recycling the old and rejuvenating it.”

Recycled plastic bottles filled with colored water are crushed into funky toothbrush holders, mugs and vases in Doron Sar-Shalom’s designs for the home, and Zohar Yarom puts leftover sofa fabric samples to good use in her unique handbags.

“Each bag is reversible and designed to last for many years,” she said. “Part of the unique thinking in Israel requires reinventing ourselves and using what we have available, because importing is not as good for the environment, and materials from abroad are more expensive.”

Despite the greater challenges that pro-environmentalists face in Israel, such as the Israeli government’s lackadaisical interest in efforts to be more environmentally friendly in the fashion industry, some stores are still finding ways to create eco-fashion.

Cotton is an eco-friendly clothing chain in Israel founded in 1992 that now has 12 branches across the country. It is owned by fashion designer Galit Broyde and her husband Erez Moded, and Broyde designs all of Cotton’s stylish and comfortable clothing out of organic materials that are easy to clean and durable. The company adheres to environmentally friendly local production, sells reusable shopping bags, and tries to promote education in Israel.

“For us, green fashion is not a trend; it’s a lifestyle. It’s something that we always did at home, but we started to do more in Cotton in recent years,” Broyde said. “We do everything we can, but no one is ever 100 percent green. For that, we’d all have to go back to caves.”

According to Nirit Sternberg, the owner of Le’ela, a design store that sells exclusively Israeli creations, the number of designers exhibiting eco-friendly work in the store has seen a tremendous increase in recent years — so much so that she was able to put on an eco-design exhibit with more than 35 creators this February. Nevertheless, she points out that it’s still not as popular in Israel as one might expect: “Eco-fashion is still just beginning here. The awareness is not there yet.”

British immigrant and organic baby clothing designer Sohpie O’Hana agrees. She started her own line, called Tinok Yarok (green baby), about a year ago, after searching futilely in Israel for eco-friendly baby clothing.

ADL’s decision doesn’t go far enough


Last week’s news that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had reversed course and decided to recognize the Turkish massacres of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 as a genocide is a necessary step forward for that organization.

Unfortunately, it does not go far enough in rectifying the ADL’s mystifying policy on this question. For while acknowledging that the massacres were a genocide, the ADL and its national director, Abraham Foxman, continue to refuse to support the congressional resolution (HR 106) that officially recognizes the Armenian genocide.

This points to a logical inconsistency, as well as lingering obduracy, on the part of the ADL. There is also a certain disingenuous quality to the ADL’s half-shift.

For years Foxman has repeatedly stated, when asked why his organization holds to its stance, that the issue of whether there was a genocide of Armenians should not be decided by American Jewish communal leaders but rather left to historians. And yet, he has repeatedly ignored the opinion of an overwhelming majority of historians that the Turkish massacres were a genocide. Moreover, his decision last week to acknowledge the genocide was based less on any serious and sober consultative process (precisely what he should have engaged in years ago) than on a hurried decision to avoid intense public pressure and calls for his resignation.

What precipitated this abrupt change of course was a spiraling set of developments in the Boston area several weeks ago. Controversy had been brewing for some time in Watertown, Mass., home to a large number of Armenians, over the ADL’s sponsorship of its No Place for Hate program in that town.

A groundswell of popular concern led the Watertown town council to sever its relationship with the No Place for Hate program in light of the ADL’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide. Throughout this controversy the ADL’s regional director, Andrew Tarsy, heeded the ADL line that Armenians did not suffer a “genocide,” — until on Aug. 16 when he broke with the organization’s declared position and decried it as “morally reprehensible.”

For this brave act of conscience Tarsy was summarily fired, prompting several members of the ADL’s New England board to resign in protest. Shortly thereafter on Aug. 21, Foxman issued a statement asserting that “the consequences of those (i.e., Turkish) actions were tantamount to genocide.” However, he continued by proclaiming that “a congressional resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion.”

But how, in light of the first statement, could acknowledgement of a genocidal atrocity be a “counterproductive diversion?” And why should Tarsy, whose courage and conviction set in motion the ADL’s shift, be the victim of his own organization’s bad judgment?

These questions push to the surface a set of larger and troubling concerns about American Jewish organizational life.

First, the ADL’s clumsy and insensitive handling of the Armenian question exposes the way in which shortsighted political goals can easily cloud the moral judgment of the organized Jewish community. Foxman and others who resist HR 106 fear that the resolution will antagonize the Turkish government and prompt it to rethink its military alliance with Israel and the United States.

Yes, Turkey is Israel’s best friend in the Muslim world. But apart from the improbability of that country severing its relations with either Israel or the United States, we must ask whether supporting those who falsify and distort the historical record is ever in our or their interests.

Moreover, do not Jews, of all people, have a special responsibility to raise their voices at the sight or prospect of genocide? The answer, as groups such as Jewish World Watch make patently clear, is that we can never abdicate our responsibility to act against ethnic cleansing or genocide, whether committed by friend or foe.

Second, this episode reminds us of how detached and undemocratic our Jewish communal leadership is. No referendum has ever been held in the Jewish community on the question of the Armenian genocide or, for that matter, on any other major issue of substance. And yet, Foxman and his counterparts at other national Jewish organizations routinely adopt policies and speak on behalf of the community based on their own sense of what is best for the Jews.

Often, and surely in this case, their judgment rests on what they deem to be in the best interests of the State of Israel. But who appointed or elected them to speak in our name — either on the question of what’s in Israel’s best interests or of whether to recognize the Armenian genocide? The time has come to scrutinize anew the power that these communal leaders arrogate to themselves.

Finally, this episode raises serious doubts about the leadership of Foxman at the helm of one of the country’s most venerable Jewish organizations.

There can be no question that Foxman has fought tirelessly against anti-Semitism over the course of his career. For that he is to be commended. But he has also grown imperious and detached, playing the role of defender-in-chief of the Jews with a somewhat dictatorial air.

He has brusquely pushed out colleagues in the ADL, such as Tarsy in Boston and David Lehrer in Los Angeles, talented and devoted community leaders who dared to speak their mind. He has created an organization in his own image, one that breeds obeisance rather than independence.

As the Armenian genocide debate makes so clear, what is needed from our Jewish communal leaders is a different set of qualities than those evinced by Foxman — open-mindedness, nuance, historical knowledge and fealty to core Jewish values. Enough is enough. We deserve better.

Foxman should follow the logic of his own statement and take the essential next step of supporting HR 106. Further, he should admit the error of his abrupt action and restore Tarsy to his position.

In parallel, our local Anti-Defamation League board should either announce its support for HR 106 –if not here in the heart of the Armenian diaspora, then where? — or renounce the organization’s declared mission “to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.

Challenge Your Child


This was my bar mitzvah portion 51 years ago, and I still remember what the rabbi said to me about it on the pulpit. So for all you parents and rabbis who speak to young adults becoming bar or bat mitzvah, take note: your words just may be remembered.

My rabbi, Rabbi Louis J. Swichkow, spoke about the 12 spies. Only two of them had the faith in God and the courage to say that the Israelites could conquer the land of Canaan, but they were right. Indeed, the entire Jewish people had to spend the next 40 years in the wilderness because of the faithlessness of the majority’s report.

Because I had spent the previous summer at Camp Ramah, and because at the time you had to be taking at least six hours per week of Jewish studies during the year to go back to Ramah, I was going to continue with my Jewish studies after my bar mitzvah. Rabbi Swichkow therefore used me to say to the congregation that real leaders are often in the minority, but they, like the spies, are often right.

I was more than a little embarrassed about that talk. It was bad enough that I was being singled out in public; no 13-year-old wants to be seen as different from the crowd, even for purposes of praise. Moreover, in my case I knew that the praise was less than completely warranted.

After all, I was not continuing with my Jewish studies out of a pure desire for more Jewish learning; I just wanted to go back to Ramah! That made me feel guilty as well: I was being held up as a leader for reasons that were not worthy of real leaders who sacrifice something for the good of others. In my case, my motives were instead completely, and embarrassingly, utilitarian.

I have often thought about that talk. In part, I suppose, that is because even though I knew that the rabbi was not accurately describing me at the moment, I somehow felt challenged to measure up to the kind of leader he said I was. I do not know whether I have accomplished that particular feat, but it is not a bad thing to give teenagers — and adults, for that matter — goals to reach for.

As Rabbi Jack Bloom, a psychologist, taught me as a part of a group of rabbis many years later, the very act of presenting a person with a view of himself or herself that is positive — perhaps even somewhat more positive than the person actually is — sometimes gets the person to think of him/herself that way and to strive to manifest that positive characteristic.

“You are a leader,” “You are a compassionate person,” “You like to learn about your heritage,” “You make sure that others feel good about themselves,” etc. are all important things to say to people, not only when they are deserved, but when you want to reinforce their own desire to aspire to a good goal. That is an important lesson for parents to learn in raising their children, for supervisors to use in encouraging their workers and for any person to know in interpersonal relations generally.

Another lesson that I learned from Rabbi Swichkow’s talk as I thought about it over the years is that human actions often are motivated by a variety of desires. In fact, we rarely do things for one reason alone — we may have one primary motive in our consciousness, but when we think about it, there are also other reasons why we do what we do.

A potential convert to Judaism, for example, may begin a process for conversion primarily in order to marry a Jew, but that person should only ultimately convert if over the course of the conversion process he or she also becomes motivated to become Jewish for the sake of Judaism itself.

When I was a bar mitzvah, I was not continuing my Jewish studies because I had made a conscious decision that I wanted to learn more about Judaism, and I certainly did not do that to be a model and a leader among my peers. But there was, in truth, a part of me, that part motivated by a previous summer at Ramah, that wanted to return there to be further exposed to living a Jewish life as it had been presented there. That desire to probe my tradition further became a greater part of my conscious motivations as life went on, but it was there in nascent form already on my bar mitzvah day.

And so I return to the spies. Caleb and Joshua saw the same land that the other 10 spies had seen, but they announced that the Israelites could conquer it despite its challenges. Sometimes that kind of positive self-perception and that kind of faith in oneself and in God is all that is needed to accomplish more than we ever thought we could.

So even if my rabbi’s bar mitzvah talk engendered embarrassment and guilt in me, I now want to thank him for challenging me in the way he did that day.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, is the author of “Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics” (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

My second childhood


It took eight decades, but at last I know what is meant by “second childhood.”

In my first childhood, my social life consisted of dating attractive young women. This second time around my calendar is just as full but my partners are all doctors.

The world looks different to me now that I have reached 80. It isn’t that I feel any older, it’s just that everyone else appears so much younger. And more distant. And a bit blurry around the edges. And much more difficult to hear. My ears have taken early retirement and last year, out of consideration for my fellow citizens, I gave up driving at night.

I am told that this last one is almost like a rite of passage; if you move to a retirement home to become one of its few available males, your popularity depends on your ability to drive at night. I will report to you further on this when and if the occasion arises.

The world sees me differently as well. What used to be bad taste (sloppy clothing, for example) is now acceptable. People are much more helpful; they see my four-legged cane and pause to open doors. If I should sit in my car for a few minutes trying to figure out the intricacies of cruise control, someone will rap on the window and ask if I am all right. At the supermarket I have been presented with my own key for the electric carts that are not equipped, thank heavens, with the latest gadgets dreamed up in Detroit. Besides, I no longer walk: I shuffle.

There is yet another problem. There are rows of keys on my computer’s keyboard whose meaning I fail to comprehend and icons on its screen whose purpose passeth all understanding. The makers of these gadgets assume that their customers are all graduates of MIT. In 688 pages of “Mac OSX for Dummies” there is not a single definition of the oft-used phrase “default position.” My wife and children, all highly computer literate, have given up trying to explain these matters to me; they use PCs and regard Macs as childish toys suitable only for the technologically challenged.

Despite this litany of whiney self-indulgence there are some advantages to being long in the tooth.

Even though the Iraqi quicksand is gradually swallowing us up, I am not likely to be drafted again for military service. Nor am I personally threatened by global warming, awakened in the morning by an alarm clock, paying for anyone’s college tuition or worrying about the state of my (nonexistent) portfolio.

Three sessions a week of cardiac rehab do much, I am told, for one’s physical well-being and has led to a discovery that will please the Bush administration.

They were expecting to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Well, I found them right here in my home city of Providence, R.I., at Miriam Hospital’s cardiac center.

And my brain, upon which I used to depend for solving The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, now is exercised by following the antics of Brad, Angelina, Britney, Paris, Nicole and their exes.

I used to imagine that life in the Golden Years would feature an endless series of visits from adoring grandchildren, all yearning to sit at the feet of the Fount of Wisdom so as to benefit from his experiences and profound utterances on issues of great moment. I have since discovered that grandchildren tend to live thousands of miles away and have interests of their own that rarely include the accomplishments of the Yankee teams of the 1930s or the pleasures of riding on the Sixth Avenue El all the way to the Battery. Instead, they chatter on about Game Boys, text messaging and other modern time-wasters, which will, in due course, turn them into members of the genus illiterati.

I know that it will all come to an end in a month or a year or perhaps another decade, but I don’t know how or when. Nor am I particularly anxious to find out. If there is one thing about which we elderly codgers are aware, it is that in becoming elderly we are riding a wave of good fortune.

After all, consider the alternative.

Yehuda Lev, The Journal’s first associate editor, lives in Providence, R.I., where his business card reads Editor Emeritus. He can be contacted at yehudal@cox.net.

Partners in Creation


Roger Gottlieb makes the case in his book, “A Greener Faith,” that we are in need of an ecotheology — to view the Earth in a more divine and holy way. He writes that
we have so separated ourselves from nature we don’t actually feel our interconnectedness with it; rather, we value the Earth only for what we can take from it. In order to have a meaningful teshuvah from the sins of taking the Earth’s resources for granted, we need a positive outlook with forward vision and hope.

Jews, it can be argued, already have an ecotheology. The Torah is clear when it discusses our relationship to the Earth.

This week, in Genesis, we are told, “God took the first human being, Adam, and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to watch it” (Genesis 2:15). Yet, a misinterpretation of an earlier verse has guided our human relationship to the Earth for too long. In the first chapter of the Torah, God says: “….Fill the Earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:27-28).

Dominion is too often read as “mastery over,” freedom to control and use at will, which easily leads to exploitation. However, there are many commentators who understand the word “dominion” as correlating to “uniqueness.” In this reading, humans have the unique responsibility to care for the Earth and its inhabitants. Rather than dominate, humans are called upon to make moral choices on behalf of the Earth, for we are the only creatures that God created with the capacity to reason and with the gift of free will; we alone have the capacity to destroy or protect the planet.

Gottlieb writes that we are not concerned by the signs of global warming, or in developing widespread renewable energy sources, or in how our progress has affected the planet’s ecosystem because we see ourselves as outside of nature, rather than integral to it. We substitute “environment” for “nature.”

Through semantics, nature has become an “issue,” something we can be involved in or not. Our sense of being unaffected by nature, as superior to nature, is a danger — indeed an idol — that the Torah warns us against. We must return to viewing ourselves as a part of nature.

Dr. Nathan Lewis, one of my congregants, a Caltech professor and expert in climate change, stated bluntly to me, “The next 10 years will determine what kind of planet we will live in; if we keep on this same path, we will leave our children a planet unlike the one we received.”

Lewis is most concerned about the irreversibility of our actions, even as he acknowledges that science cannot prove definitively what will happen. He argues that we shouldn’t be betting against the indicators that imply what can happen. Waiting to find out will be too late.

Many rabbinic texts detail our long tradition of ecotheology, explicitly supporting the idea that caring for the Earth is a distinctly religious imperative. Long before we started talking about fuel emissions, the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited inefficient use of fuels, saying: “Whoever covers an oil lamp [so that it burns less efficiently], transgresses the mitzvah of ba’al tashchit, do not destroy” (Shabbat 67a).

Long before recycling was the norm, the 16th century manual Sefer HaHinuch taught that “tzadikkim, righteous people, waste not even a mustard seed in this world; they use their strength to conserve everything possible.” These texts illustrate that our ancestors recognized our responsibility to nature, and that our actions must be directed by the holiness of mitzvot.

We created this problem, intentionally or unintentionally; we are responsible for fixing it.

Lewis told me that we get more energy from the sun in one hour than all the energy consumed in one year. Using God’s resources and our brains, we can solve the challenges we face.

California is poised to become the environmental leader in our country. And religious groups around the country are joining its efforts. The Reform movement has a nationwide campaign for “greening” its institutions. The Pacific Southwest Region of Conservative Judaism continues to back its Green Sanctuaries campaign, partnering with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California is expanding that campaign to all synagogues that wish to participate.

We each can make a difference. I challenge us to try some, if not all, of the following:

  • Raise or lower the thermostat in your homes by two degrees;
  • Use compact fluorescent light bulbs in your home;
  • Carpool, walk or ride a bike once weekly;
  • Invest in fuel-efficient transportation;
  • Reduce waste and recycle seriously;
  • Visit the COEJL Web site for more information and ideas.

Every change has an impact. We are called by God to live in consort with the Earth, as God gave us the awesome responsibility to be partners in creation. Let us strive to live up to that divine gift. As Pirke Avot teaches, “It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to ever stop trying.”

Now more than ever, we need this attitude toward our Earth.

This d’var Torah is an adaptation of Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater’s Yom Kippur sermon. To read the sermon in its entirety, visit ” target=”_blank”>www.coejl.org
Green Sanctuaries:

It May Be Time to Change Goals, Ideas on Philanthropy


I have a dream in which Jewish early childhood educators in the United States, who currently receive an average salary of $9.66 an hour, can raise their own children without having to take out loans or marry rich. I have a dream in which Birthright Israel does not have to keep tens of thousands of potential participants on waiting lists for lack of funds. I have a dream in which non-Orthodox day schools truly rival the best private schools and the Jewish socioeconomic elite clamor to enter them.

While these dreams are remote and quixotic, American Jews have achieved levels of wealth unprecedented in our history. The problem is that we no longer give much to Jewish causes.

We are donors to universities, museums, orchestras and hospitals, but when it comes to Jewish philanthropy, we fall short. Today, perhaps 20 percent or less of Jewish giving goes to Jewish causes.

In the middle of the 20th century, it was about 50 percent. Only half of the Jews surveyed in 1990 claimed to have given to a Jewish cause. Of the $5.3 billion in megagifts given by America’s wealthiest Jews between 1995 and 2000, a mere 6 percent went to Jewish institutions.

Among those who do give, the levels of giving are weak. Only 11 percent of Jews donate over $1,000 to Jewish causes.

Can you name a serious non-Orthodox American Jewish philanthropist below the age of 50?

There may be one or two, but it would be looking for a needle in a haystack. Even those who give Jewishly give smaller amounts to Jewish charity than to secular causes.

Too many ignore programs of Jewish education and culture, focusing instead on antiquated preoccupations, such as the fight against anti-Semitism. In North America, the greatest threat to the Jewish people is not the external force of anti-Semitism but the internal forces of apathy, inertia and ignorance of our own heritage.

People’s giving is a mirror image of who they are. Over time, we have become meaningfully more American and less Jewish. That is reflected in our philanthropy.

We have lost not only our connection to Jewish roots but also our understanding of why Jewish identity and involvement matter. It’s an unfortunate cycle: attenuation of identity leads to reduced philanthropic giving, which, in turn, hobbles our efforts to create programs to enrich identity.

How, then, does one revive Jewishness in an increasingly secular American world?
Not easy. Too many of our needs are no longer fulfilled Jewishly. Today’s synagogues and other institutions no longer appeal to the Jewish spirit the way they used to.

Tzedakah is an outcome, an end product of what we care about, what we want to enhance, what we believe in and what we want to see grow. If we were to apply these hopes to our present community, I’m not sure we would like what we see.
The community has not operated by a set of norms and standards of what constitutes appropriate tzedakah. People who have amassed enormous wealth are told by ‘professionals’ that they’re the most altruistic individuals since Robin Hood, regardless of what they give. There are few role models in the community who represent our tradition of giving 10 percent of income or assets.

Historically, the rabbis of past periods anticipated neither the wealth nor the longevity of many contemporary Jews. If they had, they surely would have insisted on even higher levels of giving.

Recognizing that we are far removed from the bare-bones survival of the immigrant generation, it may be time to reconfigure what is the right level of tzedakah and what we should expect from our givers. One of our philanthropic goals may be to develop an ethic of higher levels of giving in relation to net worth.

For a person with assets of $100 million — and there are many such people today — annual philanthropy of $500,000 or $1 million is not serious. Yet, the community fawns as if these individuals have given amounts that are truly selfless.

At present, there is little accountability between wealth and philanthropy. This must end. A person earning $45,000 who gives $5,000 in tzedakah should be acknowledged as heroic, even though he may not get his name on a building.
We need to become part of a movement to change the perception of giving, to spread the notion that real meaning in life comes from selfless acts of philanthropy and to inculcate a sense of responsibility for the fate of klal Yisrael among those who have achieved high levels of wealth.

The challenge is daunting. In a community where people want their names up in lights, where we have a cadre of professionals known as ‘directors of development,’ whose ambition is to separate rich Jews from their money, how can we create a sense of justice, of fairness between rich and poor and recognize true philanthropy? How can we accomplish this in a free and open society?
On the one hand, we value our privacy. How many of us enjoyed the public displays when there was card-calling at events? For many of us, there is something unseemly about it.

I’m not immune to the conflict. In my various philanthropic efforts, I have valued the Maimonidean principle of modesty and indeed anonymity. Yet I, too, have had my name put on some projects and buildings. I frankly feel deeply conflicted.

I think it is a higher calling not to use one’s name, but I haven’t always been able to reach that higher level.

One of the goals of the emerging Fund for Our Jewish Future is to usher in a culture of vastly increased levels of Jewish giving. The fund plans to raise tens of millions immediately for priority action in Jewish education.
Hopefully, this will be followed by a series of focused funds to revivify Jewish commitment levels. Another goal of the fund is to approach individual communities and offer local philanthropists the opportunity to receive significant outside funds for projects that they are prepared to give meaningful down payments toward.

It is clear that what we need is imagination to view our Jewish future in a way that will capture the spirit of those Jews who are mostly on the sidelines today.

We don’t have many of the needed answers. But through hard work, creativity and, again, imagination, we can begin to reach the presently unreachable. With success, the result will be a renaissance of Jewish life in which our flourishing communal structures inspire greater Jewish involvement and commitment, which in turn inspire even greater levels of tzedakah.

Michael Steinhardt is co-founder of Birthright Israel.

NGOs Feel Sting of Hamas Ban


Nearly three months since Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority, Western governments aren’t the only ones trying to figure out how to deliver aid to the increasingly needy Palestinian population without inadvertently supporting its extremist government.

Nongovernmental organizations — which Western governments opposed to ties with Hamas view as the most viable medium for delivering aid to the Palestinians — are themselves running into problems trying to maintain their operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With the Palestinian Authority in disarray and Western governments still in the process of defining what is permissible vis-?-vis links to the Hamas-run government, many nonprofit groups operating in Palestinian areas are facing serious funding problems, confusion about whom they are allowed to talk to and work with, and the challenge of having to establish ties with a completely new — and far less institutionalized — Palestinian bureaucracy.

The situation is nothing short of a crisis, many officials with these groups, sometimes known as NGOs, here say.

“I have never seen as much policy confusion in government as I have seen when Hamas was elected in the Palestinian Authority,” said John Bell, director of the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground in the Middle East.

“Who can we have contact with? Can we be in the same room as a Hamas person? There are many legal issues for us to consider,” Bell said. “Unfortunately, we’re a bit in the realm of the absurd.”

A variety of officials from nonprofits operating in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip discussed the challenges of operating in Hamas-run territory at a conference last week on nonprofits, human rights and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The forum, hosted by NGO Monitor, was held June 14 at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.

Many officials from nonprofit groups complained that American, European and Israeli restrictions on contacts with the Hamas government are too far-reaching, threatening nonpolitical and even pro-peace activities, such as the teaching of coexistence curricula in Palestinian schools. Because those schools are now under the aegis of Hamas, coordination with officials from the Palestinian Education Ministry is now banned by Western governments.

“It’s virtually impossible to fund Palestinian society today in the West Bank without encountering Hamas,” said Daniel Seideman, legal adviser to Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates for a binational Jerusalem and promotes services to Palestinian residents of the city.

But many Western observers argue that the funding crisis in the Palestinian Authority — precipitated by Western sanctions — is a necessary part of getting the Hamas-run government to abandon terrorism.

“This crisis is necessary and overdue,” said Saul Singer, an Israeli newspaper columnist who spoke at the conference. The idea, Singer explained, is to use the crisis to force Hamas to accept the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We’re talking about a game of chicken here,” Singer said, between the principles of Hamas, a terrorist group that mandates Israel’s destruction, on the one hand, and the principles of the international community — abandonment of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of existing Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements — on the other.

“I think Hamas should give in,” Singer said.

While this game is played, however, groups funded by Western governments must figure out how to adjust to the new reality of maintaining their activities in a territory where cooperation with the local government is restricted.

There are pitfalls and obstacles everywhere, officials with these groups say.

Other organizations report that donors’ targeted gifts are harder to use because of the new bans. Some say they have been forced to return funds to donors.

Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, says his group does not accept funding from the Palestinian or Israeli governments in order to steer clear of restrictions and conflicts of interest. But his reliance on other governments, such as that of the United States, has come at a cost.

According to Bell, the United States is more stringent than Israel when it comes to restrictions on nonprofits’ activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The United States “is putting out extremely stringent demands and conditions,” Bell said. “The Israelis are a lot more practical about it. They know things have to be done, and they’re trying to get them done while at the same time the U.S. government is prohibiting very common-sense activities.”

Many officials with nonprofit groups say Western bans on contacts with Hamas should be more nuanced — both to facilitate easier aid to the Palestinians and to help bring Hamas around to a more moderate point of view.

“I understand the logic behind a government boycotting Hamas,” Baskin said. “I don’t think that has to limit nongovernmental actors in trying to effect change.”

“I would like to see the international community looking for ways that can help us to move the Hamas from where it is to a different place, to a better place, to a reformed political platform, which I believe is inevitable,” Baskin said. “We have to be very careful about both boycotts against Israel and boycotts against Palestine that prevent peaceful NGOs from doing their work.”

 

Abbas-Hamas Showdown Looms


Three and a half months after fundamentalists swept to power in the Palestinian elections, the Islamicist Hamas and the secular Fatah are on the brink of a major showdown that could have far-reaching implications for Israel and the government’s plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian territory.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah seized the initiative in mid-May, by backing a call by Palestinian prisoners for a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders with Israel. In doing so, he forced Hamas to face up to the challenge of recognizing Israel or losing power. Abbas’ move also opened up the possibility of international pressure on Israel to negotiate on the basis of those borders.

Abbas’ move could also clear the way for ending the Palestinians’ diplomatic isolation and freeing the flow of much-needed international funds. Those funds were blocked in the wake of the Hamas government’s refusal to recognize Israel, accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renounce terror. But while the Fatah leader’s initiative could break the diplomatic logjam, it is fraught with danger.

Fighting between small groups of Hamas and Fatah members on the streets of Gaza shows signs of intensifying. Both sides have mobilized large forces in Gaza and the West Bank, and some Palestinian observers are predicting civil war.

Abbas’ call in late May for a national referendum on the prisoners’ document pushed the sides closer to the brink.

Yet despite the mounting tension, the Fatah-Hamas confrontation could still play itself out politically.

On Tuesday, Abbas was supposed to set a date for the referendum, but the Fatah executive deferred the deadline for agreement on the prisoners’ document for a “few days,” ostensibly to give the sides more time to negotiate. But the move was seen as an effort to step back from confrontation.

Even if Abbas eventually does set a date for a referendum, the outcome could still be a nonviolent political solution.

In one scenario, victory for Abbas in the referendum could bring Fatah back to power. A loss on the other hand, could see Hamas winning the presidency as well as maintaining control of Parliament and the government. Or, an 11th hour agreement between the two parties could see the formation of a national unity Fatah-Hamas government, with Abbas taking the lead in Palestinian diplomacy on the international stage.

Abbas’ determination to go through with his initiative and the way he has gone about winning support for it has gained him considerable prestige on the Palestinian street. He spent weeks traveling the Middle East getting Arab leaders behind the initiative. He also met with Jack Wallace, the American consul in eastern Jerusalem, to coordinate the move with Washington.

Often seen in the past as a weak, vacillating leader, afraid of confrontation, Abbas is now perceived by Palestinians as someone who could make a difference.

A recent poll showed that if the referendum goes ahead, Abbas would win with more than 80 percent of the vote. Since he embarked on his initiative, his own rating has gone from 51 percent to 62 percent, and that of Fatah from 34 percent to 45 percent.

Conversely, support for Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is down from 49 percent to 38 percent, and Hamas is down from 42 percent to 29 percent. The figures reflect Fatah’s newfound confidence on the street. The freezing of international aid is starting to bite, and many Palestinians blame the Hamas government for the nonpayment of salaries and the lack of food and medicine.

Heartened by the new mood, Fatah leaders have stopped their internal bickering and are rallying around Abbas. Fatah received an additional fillip last week when it won a sweeping 80 percent victory in student elections at the Gaza branch of Al-Quds University.

As tension mounts, both Fatah and Hamas have been trying to show their strength. Fatah, which wields considerably more firepower in the West Bank, has put large forces on the streets in Jenin and other West Bank cities. Hamas has beefed up its street presence in Gaza, where it is believed to be stronger.

Nevertheless, 10,000 mainly Fatah security personnel demonstrated in Gaza last Thursday against the Hamas government for its failure to pay their salaries.

Commenting on the street clashes and the general mobilization on both sides, dovish Fatah leader Kadoura Fares declared that he could see ”all the signs of civil war.”

Fatah leaders depict the prisoners’ document as an attempt to find the lowest common denominator for a Fatah-Hamas agreement that, once adopted, could get the wide international boycott of the Hamas government lifted.

“The referendum constitutes a lifeline to the Hamas government to rescue it from international isolation, but they are finding it difficult to grab hold of it,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top PLO official, declared.

For Haniyeh, the internal dilemma is that if he accepts the document, he could run afoul of the more radical Hamas leadership abroad; if he doesn’t, he could come in for criticism from the influential Hamas prisoners who signed it.

Whether or not he reaches agreement with Abbas on the document, Haniyeh opposes the referendum idea in principle. He sees it as a ploy to overturn the result of the January election that he won. Some Hamas spokesmen say ominously that the movement will not allow a referendum to be held, others that they will merely boycott it.

Either way the looming clash with Fatah, whether violent or political, could change the face of Palestinian politics.

So far, Israeli leaders are studiously avoiding comment on what they describe as an internal Palestinian affair. But the implications for Israel could be huge.

A clear-cut Hamas victory could accentuate questions about whom Israel would be handing back territory to after a unilateral withdrawal. An unequivocal Fatah victory could lead to pressure for a negotiated settlement. In the face of Palestinian developments, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have to draw on all his diplomatic skills to keep his unilateral withdrawal plan on the table.

 

Rising Singing Star Pitches New Sound


Many young girls dream of a life on the stage, but few could have envisioned the career now enjoyed by Hila Plitmann, a Jerusalem-born soprano who these days makes her home in Studio City. Plitmann, 32, is not famous in the way that, say, sopranos like Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Anna Netrebko are. She is not a star. But she is making a name for herself, and not by singing music by Puccini, Mozart, Strauss and Wagner.

Instead, Plitmann is building a career based largely on new music by composers like David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, Roger Reynolds and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the latter the longtime music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and something of a Plitmann champion. Indeed, Plitmann was one of two featured soloists in the premiere of Salonen’s “Wing on Wing,” written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and dedicated to its architect, Frank Gehry.

That work — for orchestra, two sopranos and Gehry’s voice sampled on tape — has become something of a calling card for the soprano, who most recently sang it at Disney Hall on May 31. That concert came on the heels of another at Disney Hall on May 9, in which she participated in premieres of Unsuk Chin’s vibrant “Cantatrix Sopranica” and Reynolds’ sprawling, multidimensional “Illusion,” two works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.

On June 7, she’ll appear in a less likely space, at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, joining two other singers — mezzo-soprano Alma Mora Ponce and tenor Mark Saltzman, cantor at Congregation Kol Ami synagogue — for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and a selection of Yiddish songs. (The trio gave the same program at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla on May 24.) She’s doing this in part, out of friendship for Neal Brostoff, who is producing the concert and accompanying the singers.

Though Shostakovich, who died in 1975, used Russian translations of the poems for his song cycle, musicologist Joachim Braun restored the original Yiddish texts in the 1980s. And it’s that version Plitmann and her colleagues are singing.

“From Jewish Folk Poetry” doesn’t require Plitmann to enter the vocal stratosphere, but her ability to do so has served her well and marked her for distinction. A coloratura soprano with a silvery tone who seems utterly at ease projecting high notes, Plitmann says, “I was always a screamer.”

She describes her father, an academic, as having “a beautiful voice” and her mother as a classical music enthusiast, but neither was more than a hobbyist. Both remain in Israel, as do the singer’s sister and brother.

Early on, Plitmann was an ambivalent pianist, and though she sang in a youth choir, she gave it up for athletics, particularly gymnastics, dancing and running — something her needle-thin dancer’s body still attests to. But she missed singing and soon found herself taking private lessons and enrolling in a music high school.

Unable to find the advanced vocal training she needed in Israel, Plitmann, at her teacher’s urging, enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But talented singer or not, she still had an obligation to the Israel Defense Forces.

“I did my basic training for the Israeli army in the summers, during my second and third years at Juilliard,” she says. “I learned how to shoot Uzis and run around in the dirt. It was very bizarre.”

Juilliard is also where she met her husband, Eric Whitacre, a composer.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I married him,” she says. They now have an 8-month-old son, Esh.

Whitacre is composing an opera for his wife. Titled, “Paradise Lost,” and described as “opera electronica” on Whitacre’s Web site, the work is an amalgam of styles, including, techno, rave and ambient. Plitmann likens the music to that of Bjork and the Postal Service (the band, not the letter carriers).

Often, classical artists come to appreciate the rigors of modern music once they mature, but not Plitmann. Her interest in the new dates back to her childhood. That youth chorus her mother sent her to emphasized contemporary Israeli music. At 14, she appeared in her first opera, singing the role of Flora, the bewitched little girl at the center of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” And while still in high school, she sang Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the Israel Philharmonic.

Plitmann describes her specialization in new music as “an accident that turned into a choice,” noting that she likes “the challenge of learning something difficult, whatever the era,” yet singling out modern works for their “many dramatic elements.”

She says that audiences can’t be forced to love new music but insists that committed performances from artists like her can help sway them to be more open-minded.

“I find there’s more in contemporary music that can be used expressively than both musicians and audiences realize,” she says. “People think contemporary music is cold and intellectual, but that’s not always true.”

Plitmann is certainly no snob when it comes to music. Her personal interests extend to various forms of pop music, and even professionally, she makes choices that some might consider too populist. Her limited discography will soon include a song cycle to Bob Dylan texts called “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score to the film, “The Red Violin.” And though she isn’t exactly getting star billing, Plitmann is the vocal soloist on Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to “The Da Vinci Code.”

She got the job through a close friend of her husband’s and made the recording in London, an experience she calls “amazing.” The lyrics, she says, are meant to mimic Latin, though no actual language is being sung. The soprano admits that the score is “not the most complex music,” yet it has another virtue: it sounds good.

“I love singing beautiful music,” Plitmann says.

The “Shostakovich at 100 Concert” will be held at 8 p.m. on June 7 at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 788-6000 or visit

Choice of Seminary Leader a Bold Move


The selection of professor Arnold Eisen as the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) represents a bold move of unpredictable consequences for its leadership.

Eisen is a distinguished scholar of modern Jewish thought and an insightful student of the American Jewish community. His work, “The Jew Within,” written jointly with Steven Cohen, explores the identity of marginally affiliated contemporary Jews and illustrates the crisis that institutional liberal Judaism has in maintaining the allegiance of a new generation of American Jews.

Few are as equipped as Eisen to understand the dilemmas of Conservative Judaism, which has been buffeted on the right by Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy and on the left by Reform Judaism. More traditional Jews, including many of those trained by the institutions of Conservative Judaism, such as Ramah and the Solomon Schecter Day Schools, move into Modern Orthodoxy. The less devout easily move to a retraditionalized Reform Judaism, and the categories of Conservative Judaism, a liberal, historically oriented halachic Judaism, are alien to virtually all of its members — save their rabbis — and to the overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews who seek to find their own Jewish path. For the religiously innovative, the renewal movement has been attractive, and the denominational identifications of the past generations have proven more porous among contemporary Jews who have chosen a congregation and a community rather than a movement

Eisen is a scholar and not a rabbi.

The unanswered question raised by his appointment is whether he will chose to be the head of an institution or the leader of a movement.

Traditionally, the chancellor of JTS was the principle spokesman, its most recognizable and authoritative voice in Conservative Judaism. Unlike Reform Judaism, where there are two centers of power, the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) and the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the JTS chancellor was unrivaled for leadership of the movement. It is not known whether Eisen will choose to lead a declining movement or confine himself to rebuilding an academic institution whose graduates of the 1950-1970s dominate Jewish studies in universities and colleges throughout the world. Either way, his appointment is a serious diminishment of rabbinic authority within the Conservative movement.

The rabbi was once a figure of authority because he — and until the 1980s, all Conservative rabbis were men — alone was Jewishly learned; he alone had mastery of text and was intellectually equipped to handle Jewish learning. In the liberal movements of Judaism, learning has moved to the campus, where Jewish scholarship is flourishing and is no longer the monopoly of the rabbi.

Power now has to be shared. For almost a century, JTS was the only place where Conservative rabbis could be trained. Today, New York is one of several centers where Conservative rabbis can be trained. Students can chose Los Angeles or Jerusalem, which now produce rabbis for Conservative congregations. Hebrew College, the new seminary in Boston headed by Arthur Green, one of the most distinguished of JTS graduates from the ’60s, should also be producing rabbis, skilled men and women of serious religious commitment.

Eisen inherits an institution that had recently found itself in the unenviable position of being forced to dispose of valuable Manhattan property to rescue itself from cumbersome debts, all this at a time when elsewhere in the Jewish world, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised for Jewish scholarship.

As a nonrabbi whose brilliant work is not oriented to classical texts and whose categories of interpretation are not those of Conservative Judaism, he will have quite a challenge in bringing JTS forth into the 21st century.

I would hope that he chooses to lead the movement and not just its seminary, for one wonders whether JTS can thrive without the Conservative movement to produce its students and employ its graduates. Without the congregational base, why would one choose the seminary when the academic study of Judaism is readily available elsewhere.

Were Eisen to assume leadership of the movement, he will find that it has many assets, synagogues where there is genuine community and also serious religiosity, liberal style. The movement includes Camp Ramah, which has been successful for more than half a century and has produced its current and Solomon Schecter schools, which are thriving. There is also the potential of the Masorati movement in Israel. There is much upon which to build.

If Eisen does not lead the Conservative movement, then leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from rabbis, scholars or perhaps lay leaders who can provide a vision of the new generation. Otherwise, the Conservative movement, despite its many assets, will fade from the scene. In conversations with colleagues last weekend, some see the diffusion of leadership as a major virtue, even though it will diminish the influence of JTS, which could not produce a viable candidate within to head the institution.

If reports are to be believed, the search committee rejected the obvious choice, Gordon Tucker, the rabbi who combined academic learning and rabbinic leadership. He faced the problem of many inside candidates whose flaws were known and whose manifold skills were taken for granted. One also suspects that the opponents he made more than a decade ago as dean of the rabbinical school got even and exacted their pound of flesh.

Furthermore, he was an outspoken supporter of the ordination of gays, a position that earned him the enmity of the chancellor, who felt it divisive to the movement and to those on the religious right of Conservative Judaism. Seemingly, Tucker could not be defeated from the right, so an outsider was chosen whose views were unarticulated, although one suspects clearly known.

American Jewry is best off with a strong center, with movements that are thriving; synagogues that are innovating; rabbis who are challenging, spiritually significant and religiously inspired. So one wishes Eisen well as he embarks on his boldest challenge.

Still, in the evolving Judaism of the 21st century, one must marvel at the irony of contemporary Jewish life that the president of HUC-JIR is a far greater student of classical texts, far more immersed in the text of halachic Judaism, than the chancellor of JTS or the president of Yeshiva University. Only in America!

Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

 

PASSOVER: Try to Avoid Asking the Fifth Question


While there are only four questions posed in the haggadah, most seders struggle with the unasked fifth question, “When are we going to eat?” It is asked, not only by hungry children, but also by adults who feel disconnected to the rituals of their ancestors. As if reenacting the hurried way in which the Israelites left Egypt with Pharaoh’s army bearing down upon them, families today rush through the seder. While they are supposed to be reenacting the Exodus through the rituals of the haggadah, instead, unbeknownst to them, they emphasize the hurried nature of the experience. Whether due to hunger or boredom, Jewish families are fast-forwarding to the food and neglecting the command to “see themselves as if they left Egypt.”

I remember my own childhood seders, when eating prior to the motzee (blessing) over the matzah was strictly forbidden. How could a 7-year-old sit for an hour or more in a seder that was largely done by rote and in Hebrew? I was able to remain focused only because I was mesmerized by my zayde (and slightly terrified by the glare he would give if any of his grandchildren got out of order). If I would dare reach for a carrot or any other food item on the table, an adult hand, like one of the Divine plagues unleashed against the Egyptians, would quickly respond with a light slap on my hand. My family did not know about the rabbinic rule stipulating that after reciting the blessing over the karpas (parsley or any green) at the beginning of the seder that any food grown from the ground may be eaten. With great wisdom the ancient rabbis created this rule in order to avoid the fifth question. Therefore, at our seders today we put carrots and celery on the table for people to eat after the parsley.

Once the question of hunger has been resolved, then the issue of boredom can be addressed. Abbreviating the haggadah is fine, if relevance is found in other ways. Ask your own questions, like “Why is it important to remember the Exodus?” and “When do we feel enslaved in our own lives?” as a means of making the seder relevant. Why are questions so important? Because they reflect interest and concern. We ask questions when we care about things. To make the seder relevant, we must ask our own questions and let the answers (there should be no singular answer) give us new meaning.

Reducing the need for the dreaded fifth question beforehand makes us more relaxed until it’s time for the bountiful food, family inside jokes and the rest of a warm and celebratory evening. The seder guests become sated, coffee is served, conversation is plentiful until the announcement, “It is time for the second half of the seder.” During my childhood seders, we never had to make the announcement, because at some point after the meal my uncle would walk a couple of steps over to the couch and take a nap. Some time later (I have no idea whether it was 15 minutes or an hour) when he would wake up, we all knew it was time for the second half of the seder.

Through classes and discussion groups I have discovered that many families do not complete the seder. “Is there really a second half to the seder?” I am asked. But how is this possible? Without the second half, there are only two cups of wine, no afikomen and no opening of the door for Elijah. Without the second half of the seder, there is no completion — there is no hope. So how can families fulfill these second-half rituals? Don’t serve dessert until the very end.

I want to preface this suggestion with an acknowledgement that it is contrary to the traditional Jewish law to eat dessert after partaking of the afikomen. But for families who do not usually complete the rituals of the seder, I would rather they embrace my suggestion. It has become clear to me that most seders fall apart over coffee and cake. Just as the national anthem indicates for many people the beginning of a ball game, dessert means that it is time to go home. With the coffee cup empty and only crumbs remaining on the dessert plate, people begin to think about the next day.

Excuses begin to be offered: “The children need to wake up for school tomorrow” (I would love for children to tell their parents that Passover should be a day off from school), “I have a busy day tomorrow.” Before the haggadot can be brought out again, coats are on, lips are puckered and another Exodus begins. Therefore, finish the meal, clean up some of the plates and then just as they are expecting dessert, bring out the haggadot again. Be gentle with them the first time — perhaps only 15 minutes. But you can do enough in 15 minutes; eat the afikomen, open the door and welcome Elijah, drink two more cups of wine and even sing a couple of songs at the end of the seder. Finally, bring out the coffee and dessert and enjoy the end of an evening that is no longer rushed. Who knows, perhaps they will enjoy the second half so much that, within a couple of years, dessert can be put back in its proper place.

One of my favorite rituals actually occurs during the second half of the seder. Unbeknownst to many Jews, the Cup of Elijah is supposed to remain empty until the fourth cup of wine (see your haggadah). Rather than just pouring wine from the bottle for the Cup of Elijah, it is our custom to pass the Cup of Elijah around the table and each participant pours some wine from their cup into Elijah’s. We open the door each year at Passover with the hope the Elijah will come to announce the coming of a messianic era, a time when wars will cease, hunger will be nonexistent and peace will reign. But we are partners with God in creating this perfect world. So this year, pass around the Cup of Elijah, ask each person to pour a little bit from their cup and as they do, to think about how they will help to bring about the messianic era. What acts of kindness will they perform, how will they save the environment and in what ways will they contribute to the betterment of humanity? How do we acknowledge and thank God for the blessings of life? By engaging in tikkun olam — the perfecting of His world. The full Cup of Elijah represents the Divine-human partnership and serves as a reminder of what ultimately the Exodus should mean to us.

What should be the goal of your Passover seder this year? Make it more meaningful than last year. Ask more questions to show that you care. Challenge more people to reflect on the lessons of the Exodus. Help expedite the coming of Elijah. When your seder is more than just a rushed meal you can truly feel as if you were redeemed from Egypt.

Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel is spiritual leader of Temple Aliyah.

 

PASSOVER FOOD: Treats to Leaven Desire for Dessert


Passover desserts are a challenge to the cook because so many ingredients are forbidden, among them flour, grain, cornstarch, baking powder or baking soda. So we substitute matzah meal, potato starch and versatile fresh egg whites to bake all of those traditional favorites — and lots of new ones, too.

The good news is that it is not difficult — all of these carefully tested delicacies are fairly simple to prepare and will be a welcome addition to your seder dinner, as well as for family meals during Passover.

For all the chocolate lovers, the food processor Cocoa-Pecan Cookies will become a favorite. Just prepare the dough and have the children or grandchildren help by dropping them by the spoonful onto the baking sheets. The batter can be kept in the refrigerator and a fresh batch of cookies can be baked each day.

Something new for the holiday, use the charoset ingredients to make a Passover Fruit Cake filled with nuts and dried fruit that offers a tasty and a crunchy treat. It is similar to the Italian delicacy known as Panforte that originated in Sienna. The mixture is tossed together in a large bowl, spooned into parchment-lined baking pans, and baked for an hour and a half. The good news is that these loaves will easily keep for the eight days of the holiday.

During Passover last year we were invited to the home of Alice and Nahum Lainer, who love to entertain. Alice served a delicious Apricot Torte, and I persuaded her to share her recipe for this wonderful pastry. Because some Jewish households do not use matzah meal or cake meal, the combination of egg whites, apricot puree, spices and a topping of apricot jam make an ideal dessert. It is the perfect after-dinner pastry to serve your guests, accompanied by a glass of sweet wine or hot tea.

For another sweet treat, pass a plate of Rocky Road Clusters, everyone’s favorite. They are made with only three ingredients, chocolate, marshmallows and pecans. Simply melt the chocolate, add marshmallows and nuts, and fill small paper cups with the mixture. This is another great project to do with the children.

Bring a platter of the Cocoa Pecan Cookies or Rocky Road Clusters as an edible gift to share with friends and family at the Passover seder meal.

Alice’s Apricot Torte

1 1/2 cups blanched whole almonds, plus 1/4 cup sliced for garnish
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter or nondairy margarine for pan (one-quarter)
1 cup sugar, plus more for pan
1 1/2 cups diced dried apricots
Zest and juice of 1 small lemon
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
8 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup apricot jam
Passover powdered sugar (recipe follows, optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Place whole nuts in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet and sliced nuts in a single layer on another baking sheet. Toast nuts until golden and aromatic, five to eight minutes. Shake the pans halfway through toasting to make sure nuts brown evenly. Set aside to cool.

Brush a 10-inch spring form pan with melted butter or margarine, sprinkle with sugar and tap out excess. Set aside.

Place 1/4 cup sugar, whole almonds and apricots in the bowl of a food processor; process until finely chopped, one to two minutes. Add lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and pulse to blend. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk egg yolks and 1/2 cup of the sugar on high speed until light and fluffy. Transfer to a large bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites with salt and lemon juice until frothy. Slowly add 1/4 cup sugar, and continue whisking until peaks are stiff but not dry. Fold beaten whites into egg yolks. Add apricot and almond mixture, and fold in until just combined. Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake for about 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and a wooden pick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. If necessary, cover torte lightly with foil to avoid burning. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the torte, and release from pan. Allow to cool completely on wire rack.

Place apricot jam in a small saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and strain. Brush onto cooked torte. Sprinkle with sliced almonds and powdered sugar.

Makes one 10-inch torte.

Passover Powdered Sugar

1 tablespoon Passover potato starch
1 cup sugar

In the bowl of a food processor, combine potato starch and sugar. Process until very powdery and resembles powdered sugar, about two minutes. Let sugar settle for about one minute before removing processor cover.

Makes about 1 cup.

Passover Fruit Cake

2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter or nondairy margarine
2 cups pitted dates, thinly sliced
2 cups dried apricots, quartered
1 cup golden raisins
1 1/2 cups toasted whole almonds
1 1/2 cups toasted walnuts pieces
3/4 cup coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate, optional
3/4 cup matzah cake meal
1 tablespoon potato starch
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla or orange juice

Heat the oven to 300 F. Brush one (5-by-9 inch) loaf pan or two (3-by-7 inch) loaf pans with melted unsalted butter or non-dairy margarine and line with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the dates, apricots, raisins, almonds, walnuts and chocolate, if using. Combine the matzah cake meal, potato starch and sugar and mix well. Add to fruit mixture and mix evenly. Beat eggs and vanilla to blend. Using a rubber spatula or hands, stir into fruit mixture until well blended. Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan and spread evenly, press into corners of pan.

Bake until golden brown, about 1 1/2 hours. Cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes, then turn out of pan. Peel off paper and let cool on rack.

Wrap in plastic wrap and foil. Chill at least one day or up to two months. To serve, place cake on a wooden board, and using a sharp knife, cut in thin slices.

Cocoa-Pecan Cookies

1 1/2 cups toasted chopped pecans
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/4 cup matzah cake meal
1/4 cup potato starch
5 large egg whites
1 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped semisweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Combine pecans, 1 1/2 cups of sugar, cocoa powder, matzah cake meal and potato starch in a food processor and pulse on and off until nuts are finely grated. Add 1/2 cup of egg whites and pulse to blend.

Transfer batter to a large bowl and stir in the nuts and chocolate. In a separate bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the remaining egg whites until soft peaks form, add the remaining sugar and beat until a stiff meringue forms. Using a rubber spatula, mix half of the meringue into the pecan/chocolate mixture and then fold in the remaining meringue.

Drop batter by well-rounded teaspoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheets, leaving 1 inch between cookies.

Bake for eight minutes. Cookies should be dull, but very soft. If not dull, bake for one more minute. Transfer parchment to a rack to cool, before removing.

Makes about two- or three-dozen cookies.

Rocky Road Clusters

1 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
1 cup miniature marshmallows or large marshmallows cut in quarters
1/2 pound semisweet chocolate, melted

Place small paper candy cups on top of a large tray and set aside.

In a large bowl, toss pecans and marshmallows together. Add melted chocolate and mix well. Spoon chocolate mixture into the candy cups and refrigerate for several hours until firm. Store in refrigerator.

Makes about 24.

 

Selling Judaism: Let’s Make It Harder


When it comes to marketing Judaism, especially to young adults, it is hard to imagine a program, innovation and –dare I say it — gimmick that has not been tried. I would like to suggest one.

Let’s make Judaism harder.

Really, I am serious.

This has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with human nature. I think, at least as far as Generation X is concerned, “user friendly” is killing us. From the time our children are small, we teach them that individual growth and accomplishment require consistency, discipline, obligation, resolve, patience and the willingness to experience short-term discomfort in exchange for long-term growth.

There is also another important requirement – sweat. The sweat can be physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual, but there has to be some real sweat.

We have taught them that all serious relationships and endeavors require these things. There are no exceptions.

Why should their relationship with Judaism be any different?

Our children have learned the lesson well. They simply do not trust or take seriously that which does not make serious demands on them. They seek serious challenges to define themselves. Yet, the overwhelming majority of our young people see the Judaism being marketed to them as profoundly counter-intuitive and not worthy of their time or their serious involvement.

Don’t ask me to cite statistics. You can come up with your studies. I can come up with mine. I ask you to do your own thinking. Look around your synagogue or temple on a plain vanilla Saturday morning, when there are no single events and no bar or bat mitzvahs being celebrated. How many single people do you see between the ages of 18 and 40?

When young adults want to grow, they seek out teachers and professionals whom they expect will make demands on them. I am talking about personal trainers, psychologists, dieticians, yoga teachers, martial arts instructors, etc.

All these people tell our young people: “You came here to grow, not to be entertained. Expect to sweat. Expect to be challenged. Expect to deal with discomfort and find within yourself the character and determination to work through it. You don’t get to choose the parts of what we do that you like. Suspend your disbelief, at least temporarily, and dive in. If you stick it out, however, you will be transformed.”

Not only are so many young people willing to do these things despite the initial discomfort, they actually welcome the challenge. They know that to be seriously formed, they have to be willing to place themselves between the hammer and the anvil.

With notable exceptions, the only people who resist approaching our youth in this manner are our rabbis. To be fair, our rabbis are constantly being reminded by boards of directors, funding groups and even their own rabbinic organizations not to do anything to make our young people uncomfortable. As a result, our youth seek that legitimate discomfort that is an intrinsic aspect of real growth somewhere else.

Let’s call this marketing model I just described as the “personal growth model.” Some Jewish groups use this model to great effect. Most of these are Orthodox outreach groups but not all.

Although the demographic is a bit younger, Camp Ramah has successfully associated the notion of Jewish practices, Jewish standards and, yes, Jewish discipline with a kind of positive sense of obligation and esprit de corps. In fact, Camp Ramah sells the idea of a structured, disciplined Judaism so well that parents are often surprised when returning children want to keep kosher and observe Shabbat.

Another great success is the day school movement. Day schools are able to create committed Jews, at least in part, because they successfully combine Judaism with discipline and standards of excellence. This results in a student’s relationship with Judaism that emphasizes the intuitive, resulting in legitimate self-esteem earned through serious effort. This relationship between the student and a disciplined Jewish life becomes an intrinsic part of the student’s self definition and continues indefinitely, even when formal education comes to an end.

Yet most Jewish groups and institutions avoid using the personal growth model, which emphasizes discipline and structure, because they believe it will alienate our young adults. (Could they possibly be any more alienated?) Instead, these groups and institutions use what I call “the hobby model.”

They market Judaism with programs that try to tell young Jewish singles that Judaism is entertaining, nonobligating, enjoyable and will never make them uncomfortable. Also, these Gen Xers are told that they don’t have to buy the whole package but, rather, can just choose to do whatever they find appealing.

I am not saying that those who use this marketing approach believe that Judaism is a hobby. I am saying that whether they realize it or not, this is how their selling approach is perceived.

A few months ago, Rabbi David Wolpe was quoted in The New York Jewish Week as having said, “Presenting a Judaism of joy is much more powerful to people than presenting a Judaism of defiant, rear-guard obligation.”

Surely Rabbi Wolpe is correct, but a proactive, disciplined, obligating Judaism through which we receive that unique joy associated with challenging our comfort level is the most powerful model yet. It is the model that resonates with every other important endeavor and relationship we have in our lives.

Seeking joy in a Jewish context, while reducing the importance of obligation, will likely produce nothing more than an epicurean joy at best. In our tradition, as with the modern self-help model, serious joy always comes with a plan and a purpose.

We are, for example, commanded to be joyful on the festivals. Not surprisingly, that plan almost always challenges our comfort level. The psalmist tells us, “Serve God joyfully.” The operative word is “serve.” Joy comes from service.

The other problem is that our idea of what is joyful is constantly changing. Remember the parent, teacher or boss we hated, only to look back on those people years later with the greatest respect, affection and admiration. Finding joy by seeking it or isolating it reminds me of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. By the time we get there, there is already somewhere else.

The best and brightest of our young people are not looking for excuses, shortcuts and obfuscation. They want clarity, a good reason and a plan.

Young people often relate to sports. Sports have rules. In sports, you have a goal. Progress and results are measurable. Mastery and excellence are achievable. Our common-sense experience of life as human beings and as Jews tells us we need to spend less time searching for spirituality and more time working at it.

There is an old expression: “You can like because, but only love in spite of.” When we try to engineer all of the “in spite ofs” out of Judaism, there is nothing left to love.

The week after my son Judah’s bar mitzvah, he began training in the martial arts. He chose to join a particularly difficult Okinawan style known for its tough testing requirements and serious challenges to a student’s mind and body. Promotions through the various colored belt ranks took about twice as long as they did in other schools. Last month he received his black belt the week before his 22nd birthday.

Some years back, in a moment of weakness and false fatherly pride, I reminded him that had he gone to another martial arts school, he would have had his black belt already. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Dad, it’s not the destination, it’s the road.” His comment made me feel both ashamed and proud at the same time.

In most cases, being involved with those other roads is fine, but as regards a serious, intuitive, principled approach to Jewish life, we have, in large measure, denied our young people the experience of that road.

These wonderful young men and women are willing and able and more than capable of walking this road. It’s time for our rabbis and leaders to show them how to find it.

Rafael Guber is a professional genealogist, curator and author who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles. He is a featured expert on the PBS series “Ancestors” and co-creator of “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves” at the Museum of Tolerance.

 

Where the Boys Aren’t


The Chanukah party for Adat Ari El’s junior United Synagogue Youth group had all the elements the seventh- and eighth-grade members had requested: latkes, a gift exchange and a fierce board game competition. Yet, said, Julee Snitzer, the synagogue’s youth activities director, of the 13 who participated — only two were male.

Her experience is not unusual. Many of the informal Jewish education activities geared to teens in the greater Los Angeles area — such as camps, synagogue youth groups, school clubs and Jewish community centers — draw more girls than boys. The ratio in formal Jewish activities, such as Jewish high school and religious school, appears to be more gender balanced.

“Looking at what’s happening locally and nationally, we’ve found that fewer teen boys enroll in informal Jewish activities than they did in previous years,” said Lori Harrison Port, senior associate director for planning and allocations at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

A survey done by her department showed that informal Jewish education programs generally attract 60 percent girls and 40 percent boys. The lack of participation among boys could lead to a weakening of their Jewish affiliation over time, some fear.

A special report analyzing results from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01 indicates that participation in camping and youth groups may impact Jewish identity as much as or more than attending up to six years of supplementary religious school. The impact is directly linked to the length of involvement in those youth-oriented activities.

Last fall, The Federation and the Bureau of Jewish Education hosted a conference for Jewish youth professionals to explore the issue and generate ideas for cultivating greater male involvement in informal Jewish activities. Held at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, the program was an outgrowth of the bureau’s Youth Professional Advisory Council, which facilitates sharing of ideas and resources for those serving Jewish teens.

Keynote speaker Bob Ditter, a Boston-based psychotherapist who consults nationally with camps and other youth-targeted agencies, shared insights about boys’ development and led attendees in discussing how to design their programming and marketing to attract boys.

“The central [element] in boys’ development is task and action. Boys want to feel that they’re good at something,” Ditter said. “Boys develop friendships through the stuff they do. Girls develop friendships and then go do stuff.”

Ditter said that boys engage in activities — such as tossing a ball or comparing video games — as a way to connect. He suggested that youth group leaders and counselors allow boys to do an activity first before expecting them to sit and talk.

He also urged group leaders to recognize that boys initiate connection through a challenge or dare. For example, Ditter witnessed a teen participant make a sarcastic comment to his counselor at a camp’s opening campfire. Rather than feeling threatened or insulted by such remarks, leaders “need to hear the invitation [to engage] rather than the challenge” he said.

“It’s a myth that adolescents distrust or don’t respect adults,” he added. “They’re hungry for meaningful connections to adults they respect and feel respected by.”

The group also discussed the underlying pressures that children of all ages face to compete and excel, whether that means getting into the right preschool or taking the most Advanced Placement courses.

“At social events, they just want to hang out,” Ditter said. “They need to depressurize.”

Looking at how these factors might affect marketing to teen boys, the conference participants agreed that programs — and their promotional materials — must reflect teens’ reality and clearly state the benefits of participation, such as providing community service hours or leadership opportunities.

Ellie Klein, Wilshire Boulevard Temple youth director, noted that many students are attracted to participate in the synagogue’s Wednesday night program, which consists of dinner, a recreational elective and a Jewish-themed seminar, because there is excellent tutoring available through the program’s supervised study room.

Wilshire Boulevard bucks the norm by attracting more boys than girls at its programs. Klein said she’s baffled by the male-to-female ratio, although it helps that eight of her 11 staff members are men and one of the synagogue’s rabbis, Dennis Eisner, is popular with the youngsters and actively recruits participants.

“I’m not selling basketball,” she said. “I’m selling community and connection.”

Temple Sinai’s Sinai High, an educational program for eighth through 12th-graders that draws from the synagogue’s religious school graduates, also boasts a good ratio between boys and girls. Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei, who oversees youth programs, said programming is specifically geared to attract boys. As an example, he noted a popular series of classes that examined Jewish values as evidenced in “The Simpsons.”

Schuldenfrei said the trend of females outnumbering males is not limited to the teen realm. Sinai’s ATID group for young professionals in their 20s and 30s struggles to attract a male audience. For Sukkot, ATID held a Sukkah Sports Night, offering a televised game and beer, as well as a holiday teaching under the sukkah, and was rewarded with more male participants than normal. Schuldenfrei said that programming “needs to speak to males, as well as females.”

This advice may apply throughout the age spectrum. “In liberal communities,” said Rabbi Karen Fox of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, “60 percent to 70 percent of people participating in adult education are women.”

 

Fit L.A. – Let’s Take a ‘J-Walk’ Around the Block


I enjoy walking if it’s through a store during a sale or to show off a grandchild. But walking for the pure fun of it isn’t fun for me. The last time I exercised was when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles, and I jumped up and down in the living room as they played.

Enter the Neshoma Orchestra and their two CDs to walk by, “J-Walking” and the recently released “J-Walking the Next Step.”

After schlepping 40 years in the desert, it’s hard to imagine a CD to exercise by coming from a people who have harbored a subconscious distrust of walking. But with my daughter’s upcoming nuptials, my unending kvetch about fitting into the dress won out over my skepticism.

Tuesday, 8 p.m.

I dusted off the portable CD player, stuck an earphone in my ear, put on as flattering an outfit as I could conjure up and hit the open road, one foot in front of the other.

Before I knew it, I had gone a block, then two, humming along with the familiar Yiddish melodies that played faster and more upbeat than I ever remembered. Strains of “Chabibi” coursed through my veins.

My mother’s Yiddish musical selections ran more toward, “My Yiddish Mama” and “Make Mir a Bisala Yingala” from The Barry Sisters. “Sob Your Heart Out Greatest Hits.”

So there I am, walking along at a jaunty pace, humming and moving without my usual stops to check the time, but actually enjoying the pace.

At three blocks I began forcing myself to ignore the objections of my feet and focus on the beat.

I had made it through four songs and I was feeling empowered. Suddenly, the old anti-exercise gene kicked in and my body began to rebel and slow the pace. I fought valiantly and luckily, the next selection was more upbeat. I kicked into overdrive to “Reb Shlomo’s Niggun.”

I was feeling good, and a bit shocked that I had just absorbed five Yiddish songs without shedding a tear.

I decided to push my luck, so I kept walking, farther than I had planned. I wasn’t sure if it was endorphins or the music, but I was feeling good; so good in fact, I pressed forward, another street, another, until I had gone farther than ever before.

I was pretty sure that by now, my pushy Jewish genes had taken hold, awakened by the chemicals released in my brain to combine with more than 5,700 years of feistiness.

Whatever it was, it was working, so I tested myself even more and attempted an uphill walk. This was major since the flat terrain was enough of a challenge.

I looked up toward Sunset Boulevard. It could’ve been Mount Sinai. Oy, that’s steep, I thought. But I was pumped with Yiddishkayt and defeat was not an option. I began the ascent. Gevalt, could I be this out of shape?

The songs had gotten to me and Yiddish was flowing out of my mouth now like lies from a politician. “Hodu” suddenly kicked in, and so did I. Breathing heavily, I climbed ever upward, inspired, pumped, lungs aching, feet screaming obscenities. I could not be stopped. I was a Jewish walking machine, sucking in air as I ascended higher and higher toward Sunset Boulevard. Mouthing silent oys as I schlepped, the beat growing faster and more upbeat, I was inspired and — oy, was I tired. Could I reach the promised land of Sunset Boulevard? I knew I would pay for this the next morning, but I didn’t care. I refused to look upward and focused on my feet so as not to notice how high I was climbing. I wondered how long I might lie on the street if keeled over before someone would find me.

I could be lying there, Yiddish music blasting from my unconscious ears, my headband covering my eyes, just another exercise victim who had crossed a threshold of pain.

This daydream diverted my attention long enough to get my second wind and I was off. Huffing and puffing nearing the top, almost there, thousands of years of Jewish determination pounding in my veins, two feet more, one, I was there. I stood on Sunset Boulevard and peered downward like Moses glimpsing the River Jordan.

The beat compelled me onward, so I walked along Sunset, so filled with accomplishment I thought I would burst.

I walked toward home until I found a downhill street on which to begin my descent. Whoa, this downhill was almost as hard. I fought to keep the rhythm, until I reached Santa Monica Boulevard. I trudged up the steps and tore my shoes off, the music still filling my ears, joyous, upbeat. I had done three miles and walked uphill. There was no talking to me now. I was filled with hope. Tomorrow I could do this again. I felt it; I knew it.

Wednesday, 8 a.m.

I opened my eyes, and flush with optimism I stepped out of bed. Oy, flush with pain.

But there was no stopping me. I was a Jew with her music and a worthy goal of fitting into the dress for her daughter’s wedding.

 

Negev + Galilee = Israel’s Future


“The Negev and the Galilee comprise 70 percent of the area of the State of Israel with 30 percent of its populace, but they guarantee 100 percent of the future of the state,” said Ron Pelmer, the director of Or National Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that helps to develop Israel’s periphery.

Pelmer spoke at November’s Sderot Conference for Social and Economic Policy, at a session devoted to developing the Negev and the Galilee. The phrase “Gedera to Hadera” — referring to the metropolitan sprawl where most of Israel’s populace lives — was oft heard in comparison with the Negev and the Galilee, considered Israel’s peripheries. Attracting people to the peripheries will take an overall strategy, he noted.

Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski, who chaired the session, described the agency’s role in bringing together Israeli philanthropists and their Diaspora counterparts to help the government implement its decision to develop the Negev. In June, the agency agreed to the multiyear funding of Daroma, a company comprising Israeli and Diaspora businesspeople and public officials who will devote time and resources to develop the Negev. Likewise, Tzafona will be established to help develop the Galilee.

“Real Zionism is to encourage all to move to the Negev and the Galilee,” said Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, adding that the key to developing the peripheries lies in improving transportation to the center of the country. Efficient transportation, he said, will change the periphery into suburbia.

Sheetrit would like every citizen to be able to reach a large urban center within half an hour. Train lines have expanded in recent years, and further expansion is planned. A new train line will shorten travel time from the Negev to Tel Aviv, and another line will bring the Galilee closer to Haifa. Highway 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway) already connects Gedera to Hadera. By 2007, two new sections will extend the highway north and south.

Sheetrit rejected the government policy of offering tax incentives, since only 20 percent of the periphery’s residents reach tax brackets entitling them to such incentives. “It would be better to take the money and invest in a long school day, thus providing equal opportunities for each child. Education is the real answer for social change,” he said.

“The State of Israel will not advance without the Negev and the Galilee. We will have serious problems if we don’t develop these areas,” said Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick of the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a private family fund dedicated to assisting the underprivileged in Israel’s geographic and social periphery. Although an interministerial government committee has been established, Brick stressed the role of nongovernment organizations, some voluntary, in filling the gap until the government becomes more involved.

The Or movement hopes to market homes in the Negev to 108,000 people by developing housing, services and employment opportunities. It has already helped establish six settlements — five in the Negev and one in the Galilee — and expand 25 moshavim and kibbutzim.

Pelmer moved with his family from Petah Tikva to Sansana in the northern Negev, providing an example for others. “In the Negev there are 200 professional job offers every month, and in the Galilee, 400,” Pelmer said. He wants to prevent people from leaving these areas and attract more young and young-at-heart residents. Since army bases dot the Negev, families of military personnel will live there if services are sufficiently developed, he said. Or is also trying to attract large companies to the area.

The Strauss-Elite food concern is an example of a large firm reaping the financial benefits of operating in the periphery. “It’s a win-win situation,” Director-General Giora Bar Deah said. “There are economic advantages in these areas, like tax breaks and benefits. There’s no shame in benefiting from them.”

Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss-Elite Group and a Jewish Agency board member, provides an example of industry’s positive involvement by volunteering as a driving force behind the agency’s Babayit Beyahad program that matches veteran Israelis with new immigrants.

Representing local government, Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri placed the blame for his city’s decline since 1982 on government policy, along with lack of local leadership and a master plan. At Acre’s helm since 2003, Lankri has improved infrastructure, developed tourism and stemmed the tide of residents leaving the city. Acre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“As a mayor, I have taken upon myself to improve a city with potential. We must not be alone in this. Without the government bringing strong populations and increasing grants, we are unable to do it alone,” he said.

Young people are seen as the key to development. Discharged IDF soldiers founded the Ayalim association with the aim of keeping students in the peripheries after they complete their studies. Today there are some 26,000 students at southern venues, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Sapir College, where the Sderot Conference took place. There are some 47,000 students in northern colleges and universities. Most will later return to the center of the country to find employment.

The main crop of Kibbutz Ashbal in the Galilee is education. Founded a few years ago, its 60 members — all graduates of the Hano’ar Ha’oved Vehalomed youth movement — are involved in educational projects, some unconventional. They work with 4,000 local children and youths from all social sectors, including Jews, Arabs and Bedouin. The kibbutz has a dormitory for Ethiopian immigrant youths who might otherwise have dropped out of school, and has established five study centers in Arab villages.

Professor Alean Al-Krenawi, head of BGU’s Department of Social Work, feels that the Israeli Arab population is ignored. A Bedouin whose brother is mayor of Rahat, Al-Krenawi believes that the programs and initiatives for the Negev serve to weaken the Bedouin population and increase the gaps between them and their Jewish neighbors.

“One cannot ignore the 1.5 million Arabs in Israel. The Arab Bedouin population of the Negev is in a dire economic situation,” he said.

Eitan Broshi, head of the Jezreel Valley regional council, bemoaned the lack of government involvement but also noted the dearth of leaders from the periphery. “Since the days of Ben-Gurion there has been no national leadership from these areas,” he said.

Broshi argued that transportation options are not the solution for outlying areas. “Young people need a purpose and the means to live in these areas. Once people moved to these areas as a national mission. Today they look for self-fulfillment.”

Although the challenge of developing Israel’s peripheries is daunting, Bielski suggests to “look at what we’ve done in the past 57 years” and gain encouragement for the future.

 

A Surprise Might Attract More To Shuls


In many synagogues across the country today, the $64,000 question is the same: How can we get more people to come more often?

Unlike the old days of quaint ghettos and neighborhoods, Judaism has become a choice. Synagogues today compete against Starbucks and other distractions, as much as they compete against themselves.

So how can we better compete?

Everyone seems to agree, whatever the denomination, that we should make the synagogue experience more enjoyable, more engaging, even more spiritual. You want to feel like you got something more than the fulfillment of an obligation.

As someone who’s been immersed in consumer marketing for 20 years, I want to throw one little insight into the mix, and invite anyone who’s interested to build on it.

If there’s one thing in marketing that piques interest, it’s the element of surprise. For synagogues, however, this is easier said than done, because so much of a prayer service is based on repetition. And repetition itself has an emotional benefit: It makes us feel safe and comfortable.

But still, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could add a dash of anticipation — a sense of pleasant unpredictability — to the synagogue experience?

One way would be to not get stuck on the same prayer melodies. Why not have our chazans constantly mix it up?

I was invited to an ultraliberal Ashkenazi Friday night service recently, and out of the blue came this hard-core Sephardic melody that my grandfather used to sing in Morocco. It blew me away, because I hadn’t heard it in years. It was totally against type.

It’s hard to overstate the delight of discovering a new melody or rediscovering an old one. I have a friend who would sometimes sing “Lecha Dodi” to the tune of “Michelle, Ma Belle.”

You don’t have to go that far. You could have a repertoire of three or four melodies for each prayer, and decide on the spot which one to sing. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the standard melody of “Ein Keloheinu,” it’s like a double shot of Valium. I once heard a Chasidic version of that prayer that really brought the words to life.

You get the picture. Mix it up, add, delete, go as far as you can without creating a shul mutiny.

Melodies can surprise and delight the heart, but what can surprise the mind? Most synagogue sermons connect with the calendar, either with the Torah portion of that week or with a specific holiday. It would be silly of me to challenge that imperative, but I do think there is an opportunity to break with the calendar, not just to surprise but to inspire.

We make a big deal about keeping the lessons of our holidays in our hearts at all times. So why couldn’t we pull the holidays out of their time zones and make them more visible throughout the year? In the same way that we can mingle our timeless melodies, why couldn’t we mingle our timeless holidays?

For example, any given Shabbat could honor a different holiday, and weave it into the discussion of the weekly Torah portion. I can envision a very powerful sermon on the subject of Yom Kippur — one month after Yom Kippur — that would play up the continuing relevance of the Day of Atonement.

At the beginning of an actual holiday, why not create a miniceremony that would honor the previous holiday?

When we’re so used to going forward, it really gets people’s attention to go backward, especially when it makes sense. We all have a tendency to go through our holidays and then put them away in storage. Wouldn’t it make sense to keep bringing them back, to follow up and make sure that we are still living their message?

We have such creative minds in our spiritual leadership that I can see a constant flow of holiday ideas at odd times of the year. If Rosh Hashanah is about personal renewal, why not surprise people by celebrating that holiday idea in the middle of the year? When it’s not Shavuot, why not celebrate the spirit of Shavuot with a Torah learning day? During the summer, why not do a spirit of Chanukah event for tikkun olam?

In other words, keep people on their toes and challenge their expectations. Bring back not just the biblical past, but the experiential past that we can personally relate to — our holiday treasures.

Ultimately, whether it’s through changing melodies or going back on holidays, people would get the comfort of the familiar, but they would also look forward to a touch of the unexpected. And who knows, they might even hold off on Starbucks for a few hours. What’s another boring latte?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

 

Mental Workouts Keep Your Brain Fit


I work out regularly — power walking, aerobics, weight lifting, yoga. But none of these have exhausted me as thoroughly as my first year sitting in a college classroom as a “nontraditional” (a.k.a. “old”) student. By the end of each day of classes, I felt like I’d run a 10K carrying two toddlers and a week’s worth of groceries.

That’s not surprising, said Duke University neurobiologist Lawrence Katz, explaining, “The brain uses an enormous amount of the body’s energy. Even under normal circumstances, it uses about 20 percent of your body’s entire energy production.

“When you work your brain harder, you use more. The blood flow goes to the brain, and it’s really like working out.”

The good news is that by my sophomore year, exhaustion was replaced by exhilaration — comparable, perhaps, to an athlete’s being “in the zone.”

Going to college is on the power-lifting level of brain exercise, but the more researchers learn about the brain — and this is “the century of the brain” said Sandra Chapman, executive director of the Center for BrainHealth and a professor of behavior and brain science at the University of Texas at Dallas — the more they stress the power we each hold to keep our brains fit throughout our lives.

One myth brain researchers want badly to debunk is the idea that the brain is “an untouchable black box,” Chapman said. Rather, she pointed out, “the brain is highly modifiable by everything we do.”

Katz said that the adage that after age 30 we lose 100,000 brain cells daily is just another depressing myth.

“Basically, the human brain remains intact until very late in life,” he said. “What does happen is that the richness of the connections between cells begins to decline.”

Granted, as with a lot of things, we lose speed as we age.

“As people get older, they learn more slowly,” said Guy McKhann, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of “Keep Your Brain Young: The Complete Guide to Physical and Emotional Health and Longevity” (Wiley, 2002) “But once they get it, they keep it as well as younger people.”

Teaching your brain new tricks is like a workout for the mind. It’s never too early to start, and you don’t have to ante up tuition to start your brain fitness program.

Warm ups: In his book, “Keep Your Brain Alive” (Workman, 1998) Katz suggested simple ways to stimulate new neural connections within the brain, including brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand and taking a new route to work.

“Do routine things in a nonroutine way to use new pathways in the brain,” he said. “This can lead to greater flexibility and agility in the brain. Rearrange your desk. Put your telephone or wastebasket in a different place. You will be amazed, if you move your wastebasket, how long you’ll throw paper on the floor.”

Social interactions also appear to benefit the brain. When you have time, skip the self-service gas pump or bank ATM and conduct your transaction with a person instead.

“These interactions are unpredictable,” Katz said. “Because so many parts of our brains are evolved to respond to other human beings, social interaction stimulates large parts of the brain.”

Travel, too, provides new experiences that create new neural pathways, especially if you step out of your chain hotel.

Katz conceded that these theories work backward from the observation that strong social connections and active lives correlate with better cognitive functioning in older people, and even novice researchers can tell you that correlation does not mean causation.

However, Katz is convinced that the connection works two ways: Better brain function causes more active lives and richer social networks, and people with active lives and rich social networks maintain better brain function.

Aerobics: You may have heard that working crossword puzzles is good exercise for the brain and that’s true — for the crossword-puzzle-working parts of the brain. If you enjoy crossword puzzles, have at it. Indulging in activities that work the brain is always great exercise, and choosing activities you love will keep you engaged, be it crossword puzzles, playing the piano or writing poetry.

“Whatever you spend time doing is what part of your brain is going to strengthen,” Chapman said. “Don’t do random things. Ask yourself if that’s the part of your brain you want to build.”

In her work with stroke patients, Chapman noted, “We see people who lose a lot of their ability, but the first thing to come back is the thing that they did the most.”

To keep building brain strength, you must keep reaching for new skill levels. Brain imaging reveals that learning uses large portions of the brain.

“Once you’ve gained expertise in that skill, less of the brain lights up [when you do it],” Chapman said.

Power lifting: Going to college, learning a language, taking up Japanese calligraphy — these sorts of things are the power lifting of brain exercise.

However, just as you don’t want to try hoisting 200 pounds your first day in the gym, you must allow yourself time to master a new challenge, Chapman said.

“You can get better at anything,” she noted, “but it’s important to give your brain time and practice.”

Exercising higher-level, big-picture thinking is another form of power-lifting.

“Read a paragraph and in one sentence give me the higher-level meaning,” Chapman suggested. “Abstract it. That requires a lot of brain power, using world knowledge, using text information. It’s pulling in all your resources.”

Stretching and cool down: Jeffrey Schwartz, a research professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute advocates mindful breathing for controlling out-of-control worrying, as well as for relaxation.

“The key really is the refocusing,” said Schwartz, whose specialty is the research and treatment of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. “When you refocus, you activate alternative brain machinery.”

Sitting quietly and focusing your attention on the in and out of your breathing “really is like going to the gym; you’re strengthening your brain,” Schwartz said. “When you stop doing it, you have a stronger brain.”

Schwartz described mindful breathing techniques in his book, “Dear Patrick: Life Is Tough — Here’s Some Good Advice” (Regan, 2003) but cautioned that it takes more strength than it appears to require. He recommended 20 minutes of the meditation technique, but said “not everyone gets up this point.”

For a cool down from the day that benefits the brain, turn off the TV and relax with a book instead. Reading is far better for keeping the brain on its toes.

“Reading is a very complex process when you stop to think about it,” McKhann said. “You have to recognize the letters and the words they make, you have sentence structure, you have to take this input information — which is all being brought in visually — and relate it to what your brain already knows. It’s an awful lot of cross-talk in the brain.”

If you must turn on the TV set, feed your brain “thinking TV,” such as history documentaries, in which you must incorporate new information, instead of just empty entertainment.

And remember, these researchers stressed, you’re never too young to start a fitness program for the mind. Developing good brain habits early can keep your brain in shape well into your later years — and vice versa when it comes to bad brain habits.

“Habits are increasingly hard to break as you get older,” Katz said.

So use it before you lose it.

Sophia Dembling is the author of “The Making of Dr. Phil” (Wiley & Sons, 2003).

Panel Rejects Texts Over Religious Bias


In a surprise move, an advisory body to the California Board of Education rejected a sixth-grade history program that Hindu and Jewish groups blasted as biased, erroneous and culturally derogatory.

During a two-day late September hearing before the state’s Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission, Jewish critics lambasted the Oxford University Press textbook and related materials for subjecting early Jewish history to a more rigid standard of proof than Christian or Muslim history, for including stories that have traditionally fomented anti-Semitism and for misstating key concepts of Judaism, presenting it as a religion of reward and punishment, rather than one of social justice and morality.

The rejection was a major upset for the prestigious publishing company, which for the first time was trying to enter the lucrative California market for kindergarten through eighth-grade teaching materials. California is the nation’s largest textbook purchaser, and often sets the tone for what is adopted by other states.

David Gershwin of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles laid out for the commissioners Oxford’s depiction of the Exodus. Not only, he said, does the Oxford text note that there is no historical record of the Exodus — a caveat not included in descriptions of the seminal religious events of other faiths — it incorrectly states that the story is important to Jews mainly as a way to set themselves off from other people.

When Jewish groups asked Oxford to change that passage to reflect the importance of the Exodus as a story of national and personal liberation, they were rebuffed.

“It is difficult for us to comprehend why the beliefs of other religions are presented without critical comment, while the essential event of Judaism is subjected to a historical analysis that can only be described as disdainful and highly subjective,” Gershwin testified.

One Hindu speaker pointed to a chapter called, “Where’s the Beef?” and said it offended him to have his faith presented “in the manner of an outdated television ad.”

Following the public criticism, 14 commissioners voted last Friday against adopting the Oxford materials, and one commissioner abstained. Their rejection came as a surprise, because a special review committee had recommended its adoption to the commission.

California has mandated the study of religion since 1987. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are studied in sixth grade, and Islam is covered in seventh grade.

Oxford is one of 12 publishers whose programs were being considered for adoption by the state. Approval of materials means school districts can use state money to purchase them. The Curriculum Commission rejected the programs of two other publishers, as well, but those had not been recommended by the review committee, which said they did not meet state standards.

The state Board of Education will make its final decisions on all the programs Nov. 3.

Although Jewish groups picked out Oxford’s materials as the most egregious, none of the publishers escaped criticism.

Jackie Berman, educational consultant of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and policy analyst Susan Mogull spent the last few months poring over the offerings of all the programs vying for the California market.

Speaking for the JCRC’s new Institute for Curriculum Services project, they sent extensive reviews of the proposed materials to state commissioners in late August. Their reviews said that “many of the texts contain narrations of the Crucifixion that blame or clearly implicate the Jews, presentations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that identify uncaring passers-by as Jews and Paul as a persecutor of Christians when he was the Jewish Saul — all have been used throughout history as a means of implanting anti-Semitism in young minds.”

Berman said that while other publishers “worked well with us” to resolve issues of concern to the Jewish community, the Oxford team did not.

In a Sept. 27 memo to the Curriculum Commission, Oxford criticized the Institute for Curriculum Services’ concerns as “an apologetic defence of Judaism” and said the Jewish group was “not looking for historical objectivity but a religious agenda.”

The Oxford response stated it “is not relevant” to bring up how the Good Samaritan parable may have been used by anti-Semites throughout history. “Many religious texts in all traditions have been used to justify bad behavior,” the memo said.

However, Anne Eisenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women told commissioners, “Teaching religion to sixth- and seventh-graders is a high-stakes challenge. Jew hatred still exists and, in some places, thrives. This is a book that millions of children could potentially read.”

In addition to rejecting the Oxford text, the Curriculum Commission passed a motion requiring publishers to make changes requested by the Institute for Curriculum Services before their programs can be adopted by the state board in November.

After the hearing, Oxford representatives said they had “misunderstood” the public comment procedure, and are eager to work with Jewish and Hindu groups to make changes before November, when they plan to resubmit their program to the California board.

“We will be reaching out to the Jewish and Hindu organizations that brought up specific issues in our text, so they’ll feel comfortable withdrawing their objections,” said Casper Grathwohl of the reference division publisher of Oxford University Press.

The “Where’s the Beef?” chapter heading was intended “to grab readers’ attention,” said Amanda Podany, a co-author of one of the Oxford sixth-grade textbooks. “No offense was intended,” she said, and the heading will “certainly” be changed.

Both she and Grathwohl said that the Oxford series devotes more space to Judaism than the other course programs under consideration. This both indicates their serious interest in the topic, and provides more to criticize, they said.

 

‘Call Waiting’ Rings Emotional Bell


There’s pain and then there’s the big pain.

Pain is what happens in a regular life — the predictable illnesses, disappointments and aggravations. The big pain is something like the Holocaust and the aftermath of surviving it.

The larger pain makes the regular mode of suffering seem unworthy, even whiny.

Coming to terms with someone else’s anguish is one subject of “Call Waiting,” a new film about the bedridden daughter of Holocaust survivors. The film stars Caroline Aaron, who recreates her successful turn from the stage version. Aaron can relate to the material, both because she is Jewish and because her family has its own significant pain.

“It’s odd how life morphs into art,” Aaron said.

In the film based on Dori Fram’s play, the fictional Judy Baxter (played by Aaron) is paralyzed not only by her excruciating bladder disease, but also by her inability to write her parents’ Holocaust story. There’s also a wartime secret that threatens Baxter’s relationship with her sister.

“So she represses her feelings, which makes her ill,” said playwright Fram, who also wrote the movie.

Aaron performed the hilarious, poignant play to rave reviews in 1994 and 2001. And she could personally identify with her character’s belief that as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, her own suffering doesn’t count.

Aaron’s late mother was a survivor of another sort. A Virginia civil rights activist, she had to endure cross-burnings on her front lawn and, more tragically, the loss of her husband and both parents at the age of 38.

“You don’t feel entitled to your pain when you come from the big pain,” Aaron said.

Aaron also related to the movie character’s sibling rivalry, because she, too, had a difficult relationship with a strong-willed older sister, Josie Abady — a prominent director. Abady resisted employing her sister because they were related.

“I wanted nepotism to be on my side, but it was not,” Aaron said.

Her resentments melted away when Abady was diagnosed with terminal cancer some years ago.

“I realized I didn’t have time for sibling rivalry, because the luxury of growing old together was off the table,” she said.

The Los Angeles-based actress often flew to New York to spend time with her sister, attending every medical procedure and caring for Abady in the months before her death in May 2003.

She’d already been cast for the film version of the play, but had second thoughts after her sister died, because the material hit so close to home. Aaron was uncertain about whether she wanted to proceed when she met with director Jodi Binstock (“Boy Meets World”) and producers Dan Bucatinsky (“All Over the Guy”) and Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex”).

“I thought the film would either give me a safe, constructive place to express my sorrow, or it would expand it into a gaping wound,” she said.

In the end, Aaron decided to use her anguish. She believed her performance would be more convincing, because she connected to the material in a new way: “For the first time, I understood what it meant for Judy to challenge her sister and risk losing her forever,” she said. “I knew the stakes, and it heightened and intensified my work.”

The 48-year-old Aaron (“Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Bounce”) recently discussed the movie — which has won awards on the festival circuit — in her homey Hancock Park living room, surrounded by photographs of Abady and other family members. She exudes the same manic Jewish humor and melodramatic flair as her character, and like her character, also seems addicted to the phone, cocking her head each time the answering machine picked up (which it did four times in a half hour).

Dressed in black sweats and heavy silver jewelry, she recalled how she was startled when the producers said they wanted to shoot “Call Waiting” as a one-person movie. She had assumed that they would hire other actors to portray the characters on the other side of her character’s phone conversations. After all, one-person films are rare (one example is Robert Altman’s acclaimed “Secret Honor” (1984) starring Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon).

The producers believed such a movie would work, because “Caroline’s conversations in the play are so vivid, it feels more like a show with a dozen characters,” producer Roos said. Even so, the producers planned to make the monologue more cinematic by adding several scenes with one new character, who also is played by Aaron.

The new character is “desperately afraid to admit she’s needed by others, while Aaron’s character is scared to death to acknowledge that she needs her sister,” producer Bucatinsky said.

For Aaron — who often talks about how much she misses Abady — the film did not provide any kind of emotional catharsis.

“I don’t feel like I’ll ever completely work through the loss of my sister,” she said. “But at least the movie gave me a safe place in which to express those feelings.”

“Call Waiting” screens Oct. 5 at the Arpa International Film Festival. Other Arpa Jewish films include the documentaries “Between Two Worlds,” about a Jewish World War II pilot, and “American Holocaust,” which draws parallels between the Nazi and Native American genocides. For information, go to www.affma.org

“Call Waiting” will also screen Oct. 7 at the Majestic Crest Theater in Westwood: www.westwoodfilmfestival.com.

 

Shoah Slave Driver to Disney Designer


In Nancy Keystone’s “Apollo — Part 1: Lebensraum,” Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, now the darling of the United States space program, gushes about how Americans will reach the moon. Punctuating his remarks are the memories of a ghost, a Hungarian Jew, who describes the underground factory in which he and 20,000 others died while building von Braun’s Nazi missiles.

“Gray skeletons push and drag insane loads,” he says of the slave labor. “The SS guards whip and club the terrified prisoners.”

When von Braun proudly displays his model space ship, the ghost pours ashes out of the interior.

It’s a pivotal scene in “Apollo,” a multidisciplinary piece about how the U.S. military secretly brought 118 German scientists here to build Cold War-era missiles and our space program. The work joins a subgenre of plays that explore the Holocaust from the margins, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “I Am My Own Wife,” which spotlights a German transvestite and opens June 14 at the Wadsworth Theatre.

The acclaimed, 42-year-old Keystone, who is Jewish, described her play in a conversation that ranged from matter-of-fact historical discussion to ironic laughter. The writer-director said she was drawn to the subject upon reading a 1990 article on the military operation that erased war crimes from the dossiers of scientists such as von Braun and Arthur Rudolph. While von Braun died a hero in 1977, the Office of Special Investigations called on Rudolph in 1984 and eventually deported him.

“What interested me about the story was not the Holocaust,” Keystone said. “It was in what we did by bringing these people into the country and later by kicking them out. We whitewashed Rudolph’s record when we decided he was important for national security. But when the game is over, can you really change the rules and is that justice?”

To begin creating the daunting project in 2001, the writer-director and her cast read FBI reports, Rudolph’s interrogation transcripts and books on the slave laborers and their concentration camp, Mittelbau-Dora. Keystone also visited two of the surviving German scientists; although she had been warned they would not discuss Dora, they enhanced her “sense of how these people deluded themselves and how they cared only about rocketry.”

As Keystone developed the play in seven six-week workshops, one challenge was describing the camp without tapping into viewers’ “Holocaust fatigue.”

“Depicting the [Shoah] is aesthetically very difficult,” she said. “All our impulses go to the banal, the hackneyed. So we kept using different poetry and images and guards and beatings and it was completely ineffective.”

A breakthrough occurred when the von Braun character stood on a rolling chalkboard and scribbled as the prisoner pushed him around the rehearsal room. In the play, the image “reminds us of the human cost of making these rockets, and raises questions about the price of progress,” Keystone said. “When the people of the United States celebrated the fiery liftoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, few knew that … came on the backs of thousands of innocent Holocaust victims.”

Another reminder is the ghost himself (Richard Anthony Gallegos), who lurks onstage throughout much of the play. While the Latino Gallegos initially wanted to make his character highly emotive, Keystone said she wanted the prisoner to seem detached from his words; to retell the story, not relive it, as if he had achieved inner wisdom and peace.

“So the hardest part for me, as a human being, is relating his memories while feeling disconnected from them,” Gallegos said.

Keystone, whose husband lost relatives in the Holocaust, isn’t completely disconnected from those feelings, either. While her play empathizes with Rudolph as a pawn of our government — which she acknowledges will be controversial — it also forcefully condemns his actions in Germany.

Her anger at von Braun emerges in a blackly comic scene with Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney, who put von Braun on TV and hired him to help design Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. In the satirical sequence, the oblivious Mickey declares of the slave factory, “A mine! Gee! Little men working underground. Heigh ho!”

“I have a lot of rage about how people like von Braun could be so self-serving and amoral,” Keystone said of the scene. “And von Braun got away with it, unlike Rudolph.” In the Disney scene, his loving concern for the astronauts contrasts with his utter disregard for the Dora prisoners, “Which is what makes me so crazy,” she said.

Yet the director doesn’t simply want to label the scientists “evil Nazis.”

“If we do, we are letting ourselves and our government…off the hook, and we perpetuate the profound denial surrounding our own actions and our culpability in this affair,” she said.

Keystone believes that culpability continues today: “We created Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, then turned the tables because of our self interest,” she said. “My hope is that ‘Apollo’ provokes questions about how we can act responsibly, as individuals and as a society.”

The play runs June 12 to July 3 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. For tickets and information, call (213) 628-2772.

 

‘Jubana’ Memoir Rescues Its Author


“Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess” by Gigi Anders (Rayo/HarperCollins, $23.95).

Three years ago, Gigi Anders found herself down and out in Hackensack, N.J. Her fiancé couldn’t go through with their wedding, she had quit a job at a nearby newspaper and her friends lived elsewhere.

“I was alone and without a safety net,” she recalls. “Then there was my hair, my weight, etc. Writing was the only noninsecurity I had.”

Surviving on cases of TaB and cartons of cigarettes, Anders spent the ensuing years squeezing memoir material out of her childhood, adolescence and Byzantine relationship with her larger-than-life mother. Due out next week, “Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess” simultaneously reads like a classic coming-of-age tale, Jewish history lesson and stand-up comedy routine. Born in Havana, the now 47-year-old Anders left Cuba and an upper-middle-class life of wealth and privilege before her third birthday. After a brief period in Miami, her family settled in Washington, D.C., where her doctor father and social worker mother tried to rebuild their lives. Though Anders’ tribulations and the legacy of Fidel Castro’s regime certainly loom large in the story, the highly glamorous and opinionated “Mami Dearest” frequently steals the show.

“She’s my best material,” admits Anders about her mother. “If I had a boring mom, I’d having nothing to write about.”

For Rene Alegria, publisher of the HarperCollins’ Rayo imprint that focuses on books by and about Hispanics, Anders’ memoir “was unlike anything I ever read. I hadn’t really seen this type of Hispanic Jewish story before,” he said. “Then there’s the fact that Gigi is just incredibly funny and she really brought her story to life in a way that’s universal.”

On the telephone, Anders speaks exactly like the book she’s written. Candid, passionate and prone to interspersing the conversation with hysterical impersonations of her mother’s Cuban-accented English, Anders also emphasized that she “fiercely loves” her parents, now in their 70s.

“I wanted very badly for no one in my family to feel ambushed,” she says. “I didn’t write the book for axe-grinding and score-settling. I would call my mother every Sunday and we would talk about what I was writing. She never once said, ‘Don’t write that.'”

For Anders, the biggest challenge lay in depicting key tragic events while maintaining the wildly humorous tone.

“I didn’t know whether or not go there,” she says of the traumatic sexual awakening she experienced at 14. “I didn’t want to hurt my parents or have people feel sorry for me. But this was my life and that experience changed me forever.”

Anders claims that the term “Jubana,” meaning “Cuban Jewess,” “has been floating around for awhile” in her family. To be her family’s style of Cuban and Jewish, she says, means there’s no conflict between lighting Chanukah candles and enjoying roasted pork loin afterward.

“But the Jubana thing also means you’re a minority, minority, minority — that no matter what, you’re an outsider,” she said. “Sure I’m white, but not like how other people are white.”

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Anders attended elementary school where she identified with the African American kids.

“I would go to their birthday parties and try to get their parents to adopt me,” she recalls.

Later, when her parents moved to a different D.C.-area neighborhood and could afford private school, Anders attended Sidwell Friends, an elite prep academy. There, she “faced rich, white kids who weren’t Jewish and who seemed to be happy all the time. It seemed like they could just say, ‘I think I’ll go to Harvard’ and it would just happen, while I was at home killing myself,” she said.

At Beaver College, a private school in Pennsylvania now called Arcadia University, Anders had more contact with Jewish kids, but once again, could not relate.

“They were equally as rich as the Sidwell kids, but these girls wanted to get married immediately,” she says. “I had always associated the Jewish side of myself with education and achievement.”

Anders says her “Hispanic side” had more to do with “choosing the right red lipstick and having anxiety about becoming a writer. I got very nervous about being competent and relatives would tell me to dumb myself down or I wouldn’t get a man,” she said. “I had this conflict of beauty vs. brains, this long-term conditioning of if you’re a girl and you’re not married then it’s a double whammy for your Hispanic family.”

Upon graduating from college, Anders briefly worked as a waitress before responding to a job listing from the circulation department of the Washington Post. After a year on the job, she managed to get transferred to an editorial department and eventually became a special correspondent. She also began writing for a variety of other publications, including Glamour, Allure, Latina and The American Journalism Review.

Recently, Anders gave an in-house reading for her publishers and experienced “the best moment of my life. It was the first time that I didn’t feel like an outsider. People were listening to me read and they were laughing but I felt they understood,” she said. “It’s so strange. The things in life that made me feel terrible about myself led to this moment where I thought, ‘This is who I was meant to be.'”

 

Will Successor Tread Pope’s Jewish Path?


 

As the College of Cardinals prepared to begin secret deliberations next week to choose a successor, the question remained to what extent John Paul’s exceptionally proactive policy regarding Jews would endure.

“It seems unlikely that the next pope will have the same interest in the church’s relations with the Jews, and the same sense of responsibility in combating Christian anti-Semitism,” said professor David Kertzer of Brown University, an expert on papal relations with the Jews. “John Paul II had an extraordinary biography for a high church official in his early relations with Jews, and of course, lived through an extraordinary moment in history,” he told JTA from Rome.

Born Karol Wojtyla in the small Polish town of Wadowice, John Paul II, who died April 2 at 84, had Jewish friends and neighbors. During his life, he was an eyewitness to both the Holocaust and totalitarian communism. As a bishop, he took part in the Second Vatican Council, which modernized aspects of church practice and doctrine. In 1965, the council issued the Nostra Aetate declaration that condemned anti-Semitism and called for “mutual understanding and respect” between Catholics and Jews.

Elected pope in October 1978, John Paul IImade bettering Jewish-Catholic relations a cornerstone of his papacy. He repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust and met with Jewish leaders and laymen. He also oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

Against this background, observers considered John Paul II’s decision to mention Toaff in his will to be highly significant, seeing it as an indication to his successor not to turn back from his path. Toaff and John Paul II’s longtime secretary were the only living people mentioned in the will.

“It is a significant and profound gesture for Jews,” the retired Toaff told the Rome daily La Repubblica. “But I think it is also an indication to the Catholic world.”

John Paul, he said, “wanted to indicate a road aimed at further destroying all the obstacles that have divided Jews and Christians through the centuries.”

He said he hoped the next pope would uphold John Paul II’s legacy and “do even better.” However, he added, “it is unlikely that there will be someone else like him. Even if we are optimistic, I see many difficulties in finding a successor of his stature.”

Much of John Paul’s teachings about the Jews have been promulgated as church doctrine, and thus, technically are official church policy. But even before John Paul II died, there were indications that his policies had not been accepted unanimously among church leaders — or that they had trickled down to the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

“The most important challenge for Catholic-Jewish relations is to take the historic changes in church teaching concerning Jews, Judaism and Israel from the Olympic heights down to the grass roots,” Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told JTA some time before John Paul II died.

“In many parts of the world there are even bishops who are ignorant of the teachings on this subject, let alone the rank and file,” Rosen said. “Ignorance of this and the concomitant residual anti-Jewish attitudes still prevail in many parts of the Catholic world, and there is still an enormous job to do in this regard.”

Not only that, he said, but “the younger generation of bishops who have not been through the period of the Shoah and were not part of the official transformation of Vatican II do not necessarily appreciate the historical, as well as theological imperatives, involved.”

Brown University’s Kertzer said he already had noted “backsliding in the last few years, when the pope had become infirm and no longer really in control. There has clearly been an important reactionary movement within the church that resents much of the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, and with it the sense that the church has a historic problem with anti-Semitism.”

At a January conference in Washington, for example, Cardinal Avery Dulles, a major Catholic theologian, affirmed the traditional belief that Christians will want “all men and women, Jewish and gentile” to “benefit from Christ’s teaching” and convert to Christianity.

Kertzer also said, “Even John Paul II was unwilling to criticize any of his papal predecessors, nor directly rebuke past versions of canon law. He was thus unwilling to fully come to terms with the church’s institutional responsibility for anti-Semitism in the past. There is little likelihood at the moment that this history will be seriously revisited by John Paul II’s successor.”

Nonetheless, Jewish leaders hope his legacy will prevail.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, who attended the pope’s funeral, said the unprecedented gathering of world leaders, religious representatives and faithful “really showed the capacity and the potential of a righteous person to be a magnet for pulling the world together.”

Whoever was present at the funeral, he said, “would just have to, in his memory, embrace a legacy of coexistence, a legacy of reconciliation.”

Observers noted that in addition to mentioning Toaff in his will, John Paul IIalso highlighted the Second Vatican Council in his testament. He called it a “great gift” to which the entire church and clergy was indebted, and a “great patrimony” he wished to entrust to future generations of Catholics.

“I hope that there is neither a slowing nor an inversion of the road that was opened by the Second Vatican Council and consolidated by John Paul II in the course of his pontificate,” said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “It was a pontificate characterized by a dialogue relationship with the Jewish world that was very satisfactory, and I hope that in the future, this relationship could extend also to the other great monotheistic religions, Islam, and to the secular world.”

JTA Staff Writer Rachel Pomerance contributed to this story.

 

Abbas Tries to Prove His Strength


 

Four months after he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas is fighting for his political life — and possibly for the survival of the peace process.

Last week, Abbas fought off militants’ attempts to challenge the authority of the Palestinian government and dismissed a number of senior officers who had failed to prevent the challenge.

Abbas forced the resignation of West Bank security chief Ismail Jaber after riots aimed at the P.A. president ended with shots fired at his Ramallah headquarters.

Abbas took the move primarily to prevent the possible collapse of his rule, but it also is an advance payment to President Bush, with whom he was scheduled to meet later this month. According to the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan, the many P.A. security bodies should be whittled down to three.

Jaber had been commander of the national security force, which with 15,000 police officers is the largest security body in the West Bank. Israel recently has exerted a great deal of pressure on Abbas to get rid of Jaber, considered too weak to cope with terrorists.

Avi Dichter, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, recently met with Abbas and expressed Israel’s concern at the P.A.’s failure to reform the security services, disarm militant groups and stop terrorist attacks against Israeli targets. Even in Jericho and Tulkarm, the two cities Israel already has handed over to P.A. control, the Palestinian Authority is refusing to implement promises to disarm specific wanted terrorists and restrict their freedom of movement.

As a result, Israel has delayed handing over additional cities to P.A. control.

Abbas issued a presidential decree over the weekend mandating the forced retirement of thousands of police officers over age 60, cutting both the size of the armed forces and his budget. Yet in a confrontation with the core of his opposition, the Al Aksa Brigades, the terrorist militia of his own ruling Fatah party, Abbas backed down.

In an apparent initial attempt to restore law and order, P.A. officials last week ordered six terrorists who had found shelter at the Mukata, Abbas’ headquarters in Ramallah, to give up their weapons, join the P.A. security forces or leave the compound.

Instead, the men instead went on a rampage. They were joined on March 30 by other brigade members, who fired shots at the Mukata and in the streets of Ramallah and damaged businesses and restaurants that senior P.A. officials frequent.

Abbas was in the Mukata during the shooting, but escaped unharmed under heavy security. Similar incidents were reported in other places in the West Bank, especially in the Bethlehem and Tulkarm regions.

Some Al Aksa terrorists threatened to violate the truce declared Feb. 8 if the Palestinian Authority continued to pressure their men.

After the March 30 riots, Abbas ordered a crackdown on the militants. He fired the Ramallah commander, Younis al-Hass, whose men did nothing to stop the gunmen.

But he did not go further, and ultimately he agreed to a deal allowing the terrorists to keep their weapons. That showed Abbas still has a long way to go on implementing Palestinian promises to take the weapons from all but authorized members of the P.A. security services.

The riots, and Abbas’ failure to cope with them, intensified the P.A.’s internal crisis. To protest Abbas’ deal with the terrorists, the commander of the general intelligence forces in the West Bank, Tawfik Tirawi, resigned March 31, charging that his fellow security commanders were not doing enough to restore law and order.

As the commanders met with Abbas, Tirawi told him, “The commanders around you are not telling you the truth. I cannot work when others do not do their job and when the Palestinian resident is deprived of the necessary feeling of security.”

Abbas turned down Tirawi’s resignation and Tirawi eventually withdrew it.

P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei condemned the March 30 riots and called on Palestinians to abide by the law.

“These acts serve the interests of those who are against our people,” he said. “We must all respect the rule of law.”

But Qurei’s own relations with Abbas have deteriorated considerably in recent months. Ehud Ya’ari, Arab affairs analyst for Israel’s Channel Two television, reported over the weekend that Qurei was keeping information from Abbas in order to weaken the president.

According to Israeli intelligence, senior figures surrounding Abbas are compartmentalizing him, reporting to him in a distorted manner or ignoring his orders altogether.

Abbas might name Jibril Rajoub, the P.A.’s national security adviser, to Jaber’s old job as head of all West Bank security services. Can Rajoub meet the complex challenges of the job?

Rajoub, 52, was Yasser Arafat’s longtime national security adviser until the two had a falling out and Arafat fired him.

He is considered a pragmatist in terms of relations with Israel and is feared on the Palestinian street. If anyone can confront the militants, it is Rajoub.

Only if Abbas and Rajoub succeed in stabilizing the situation will the Palestinians be able to demand that Bush pressure Israel to speed up the timetable for handing over additional Palestinian cities and dismantling West Bank roadblocks.

Palestinian officials have claimed time and again in recent weeks that it has been difficult to gain popular support for anti-terrorist measures because Israel is dragging its feet on relaxing security restrictions.

They also have been discouraged by Israel’s plan to expand the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim to effectively link it to Jerusalem from the east, inconveniencing Palestinians traveling between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank.

Israel rejects Palestinian claims that P.A. security forces have been so crippled by Israel’s anti-terror operations during the intifada that they now can’t act.

However, after four years of intifada, power on the Palestinian street flows from the barrel of a gun, and for many, especially the young, weapons are a major source of respect, authority and livelihood.

The militants are feared but at the same time are still popular, considered by many Palestinians as the heroes of the intifada.

Meanwhile, the fundamentalist terror group Hamas grows stronger each day. Abbas has to take drastic measures to take the P.A.’s reins, and Israel has to prove to the Palestinians that they can gain more with Abbas at their helm than anyone else.

If there is no progress, Hamas may turn out to be a decisive political force in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for this summer. Then P.A. officials may rue their failure to confront the terrorist groups during the 12 years since the Oslo peace process began.

 

Two Finish Lines


 

What is the touchstone that unites a 26.2-mile marathon with a Siyum Hashas celebration of completing the 7.5-year page-a-day Talmud cycle?

The concept shared by both events is human striving — or in the language of the Lithuanian yeshiva, the commitment to shteig, to stretch one’s limits. Someone who studies one page of Talmud a day, Daf Yomi, logs text pages; the marathon runner logs miles. Trappings of mortality bedeck the starting line — the talmudist seeking better understanding of his mortality, and the marathon runner physically defying that same mortality.

This unlikely comparison of both fetes of transcendence occurred to me, based on my bicoastal participation at a Siyum and a marathon. One night, in early March, I was at New York’s Madison Square Garden celebrating the completion of the Talmud cycle; the following afternoon I was flying to the Quality of Life Expo prior to the Los Angeles Marathon, the nation’s fourth-largest long-distance race.

Adding my voice to thousands of my fellow Daf Yominiks at the Garden, I passionately and thankfully shouted, “May His great name be blessed for now and for eternity,” and swayed to the musical beat of the chasidic songs.

At the three-day expo preceding the marathon, I manned a booth together with my editor, Peri Deavaney, promoting my book, whose theme is also one of striving. This first biography of the founder of the New York City Marathon (“Anything For a T-Shirt: Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon, the World’s Greatest Footrace,” Syracuse University Press) shows how an impresario convinced the plodders and shleppers of the world that they could go a marathon’s seemingly fearsome distance.

The similarity between these two enterprises crossed my mind during a slow patch Thursday afternoon where. Viewing a large-screened film clip in the auditorium of past L.A. marathons, particularly the slow runners and the wheelchair athletes, my thoughts somehow turned to the simcha I reveled in only a day and a half earlier in New York. Both of these events, I thought, were triumphs over human ordinariness and complacency.

True, on the surface, there was no hashava (the Talmud’s word for common denominator) between these two enterprises — and a God-fearing Jew would be best off uttering a lehavdil (a statement of demarcation) before drawing similarities between a siyum and a marathon. After all, one undertaking is spiritual; the other, physical. The marathon represents a legacy of a hedonistic ancient Greek culture; the Talmud, a work of faith and holiness.

But is there any question about the commonality of obstacles facing the student of the daily page of Talmud and the marathon runner in training? Both often launch their daily trajectory at dawn, defy sleep, knowingly cut into family time and are undeterred by inclement weather and life’s distractions. Many runners mark their miles in the company of other runners, encouraging one another. The Daf Yomi learner also tackles his talmudic page in a shiur, a group setting, rather than by himself.

While the runner’s gear is his sneakers, and the Daf Yomi stalwart his Talmud, each striver calls on aids making the challenge more manageable. For instance, the runner applies breathing strips to his nose, eats protein bars (some of which hold kosher certification) and carries instruments measuring his speed. The talmudist not only cites other commentaries helping him to understand the sugya (topic) at hand, but brings in visuals and diagrams (the layout of the Temple in Jerusalem, the anatomy of a bull) to clarify an obscure text.

In my Riverdale, N.Y., Daf Yomi group I see daily examples of discipline and modesty on the part of the text’s presenter, but this should not be surprising since immersion in holiness enhances character traits. But in this, my first experience in manning a booth, I also was exposed to real examples of humility.

Marathon officials had arranged to give gift copies of my book to some 300 “legacy” runners. These were finishers at the 19 earlier marathons and honorees, in a sense, at the marathon’s 20th anniversary. Two of these legacy runners came to my booth carrying copies of my book asking for my autograph. Both were men probably in their 50s. I learned that one worked as an air-traffic controller and the other in the county court system. The air-traffic controller told me that he had completed a total of nearly 50 marathons. What stood out was the modesty from both these marathon runners in response to my compliments; neither of the two seemed boastful or truly regarded themselves as exceptional.

To be sure, the Talmud uses the metaphor of running in stressing the superiority of Talmud study over ephemeral, worldly pursuits.

“We run, and they run,” states the Talmud in celebrating the completion of a tractate. The Jew “runs” toward eternal life, the others pursue vanity. Without minimizing the spiritual superiority of the Daf Yomi goal, the marathon runner also obeys the Torah’s edict “to watch carefully one’s soul,” interpreted by Jewish commentators as including health and physical fitness.

In competing against themselves, both the Daf Yomi student and the marathon runner are testing their limits and proving something about their core identities. May they both be blessed with the faith and energy to cross the finish — the Daf Yomi learner to go m’chayil l’chayi (from strength to strength), and the marathon runner to “go the distance.”

Ron Rubin is a professor of political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY.

 

Weiss Support Strong Despite Challenge


 

For most L.A. City Council members, the March municipal election is less a race than a stroll in the park. Mayor Jim Hahn faces four serious challengers, but just before the December filing deadline, it seemed that the only serious council race was in the Westside’s 11th District, where newbies Flora Krisiloff and Bill Rosendahl are squared off to replace Cindy Miscikowski, who has been forced out by term limits.

No other councilmember faces term limits, and the usual reasoning is: Why should a hopeful take on an incumbent when that incumbent will be out of office in just another four years?

Since Los Angeles’ voters imposed the two-term limit in 1993, only one single-term incumbent has been forced out.

But in December, at almost the last possible moment, a challenger emerged in the Westside’s other district — the UCLA-centered 5th District, long the stronghold of present County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The 40-year-old incumbent — boyish, mild-mannered former federal prosecutor Jack Weiss — faces a moderately funded effort by unknown attorney-businessman David T. Vahedi.

The 39-year-old Vahedi contends that he speaks for disgruntled citizens who say Weiss has an unsatisfactory record on crime, traffic and development. Weiss has countered that crime is actually down, and even many of his past opponents have spoken out to support him.

Weiss has raised $301,000. Vahedi, who unlike Weiss is taking city matching funds, has raised $111,000, including $32,500 in city matching funds and personal funds of $22,500. According to January filings, Vahedi has raised more money than any other candidate this year who is challenging a council incumbent.

“I decided to run at almost literally the last minute,” Vahedi said. “My wife and I went door-knocking, and we were able to gather the 1,700 signatures we needed in just a few hours.”

“I was the 81st of all of the 82 people to file their eligibility petitions in this city election,” Vahedi said in an appearance at a Westside meeting of the local Fairness and Accuracy in Media group in Santa Monica.

The tall, dark candidate was by far the youngest and, arguably, best-dressed person in the room, wearing a light-absorbing black, single-breasted suit and a sky-blue necktie, like the ones both President Bush and Hahn have sported of late.

Vahedi accused Weiss of allowing the destruction of Century City’s Schubert Theater and of letting it be replaced by an office tower that, he argued, will bring thousands more rush-hour car trips.

Actually, the plan was in place under Weiss’ predecessor, Mike Feuer. However, Vahedi said Weiss should have known better and done something.

This audience was quite receptive to Vahedi’s attacks on Weiss, consisting as it did of fans of former state Sen. Tom Hayden, whom the then little-known Weiss narrowly defeated in the 2001 5th District council race.

Vahedi, a Democrat like Weiss, isn’t running to the left of moderate Weiss. Rather, Vahedi contends that Weiss failed to live up to his billing as the practical, pothole-filling alternative to the controversial Hayden.

“I decided to run because I saw a need, because people are complaining about things like overdevelopment and traffic,” Vahedi said.

This isn’t his first political sally. He also recently ran unsuccessfully for the State Board of Equalization.

Vahedi mentioned Westwood, and said that the one-time entertainment mecca of West Los Angeles today has nearly the same aura of desolation it had in 2001. “And there is increasing crime,” he added.

In a later interview, Weiss countered with LAPD statistics suggesting that crime in his district has dropped 12 percent. He insisted that he’s one of the toughest anti-crime council members: “I was a federal prosecutor. I used to put people in jail for a living.”

Weiss received a vote of confidence from Sandy Brown, who heads the Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Association, the local homeowners group. Weiss has done a lot to turn Westwood around, she said, even though problems remain.

Brown strongly supported Hayden in 2001, but she’s been won over: “Jack was obviously not a seasoned politician when he started. But since then, we’ve found him most receptive to constituent concerns.”

She contended that Weiss even managed to bring around a satisfactory solution to the sprawling Casden residential-commercial development in Westwood Village — a project that stalled under three previous developers and two previous councilmembers.

“He made no decision without consulting residents,” she said.

Westwood is the centerpiece of the 5th District, which includes pieces of Encino, Sherman Oaks and North Hollywood, plus Bel Air, Century City and Los Angeles from the 405 Freeway to east of Beverly Hills and south nearly to Culver City. It also contains the city’s chief Jewish regions: the Chandler Boulevard,

Fairfax Avenue and Pico Boulevard corridors.

Even before a youthful Yaroslavsky stormed aboard in 1975, it was long represented by Jews: Ed Edelman, who was preceded by Roz Wyman. These predecessors have endorsed Weiss.

Vahedi’s Persian name might suggest that he’s Jewish, too, but he isn’t.

Vahedi’s made some inroads against Weiss. He got the county Federation of Labor endorsement and an interesting range of bricks-and-mortar union backing, including that of the county Building Trades Council. Vahedi’s major elected endorser is Democratic Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally.

But there’s been no major groundswell against Weiss, with 19 of the district’s 20 homeowner groups endorsing him. Weiss also has the backing of the local Democratic Party organization and almost every local legislator, including Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood).

So even with a spirited challenge, it’s hard to see this race going to anyone but Weiss. Vahedi may have to wait until 2009 — that’s when Weiss terms out.

Marc B. Haefele is news editor of the Los Angeles Alternative Press and comments on local government for KPCC-FM.

 

U.S. Faces Tough Policy Challenges


 

With Sunday’s elections, the Bush administration got something it demanded from the Palestinians: the beginnings of a democracy. Whether that produces a real, functional democracy remains to be seen — and as that drama plays out, the administration faces some tough decisions and some big policy snares.

Mahmoud Abbas won the battle to replace the late Yasser Arafat as undisputed Palestinian leader, after a campaign that included both examples of his vaunted “moderation” and statements suggesting that he isn’t so different from his predecessor, after all — such has his insistence that he will never abandon the demand for an unlimited Palestinian right of return, a guaranteed deal breaker.

Peace process supporters in this country say that was just an acknowledgment of the political realities he faces; critics say it’s the same old Palestinian line in a new package.

All of this will create some huge challenges for the Bush administration in the months ahead. Here are a few of the big questions officials here will face:

How Much Democracy?

When, exactly, will the Palestinians have achieved enough democratic reform to justify a serious, new U.S. peace push, not just feel-good talk about Palestinian statehood?

Abbas will probably be a big improvement over Arafat, but he will be setting up his government in a society seething with undemocratic forces and in a region where democracy is regarded as toxic by autocratic leaders.

The transition will be uneven and incremental, providing the perfect excuse for those here and in Israel who want to use the democracy demand as a way to bar any new peace negotiations or any new U.S. pressure on Israel.

Finding a realistic democratic threshold that encourages the Palestinians to move forward and strengthens Abbas, without letting him get away with just the trappings of democracy, will be one of the toughest tasks for the administration in the next few months.

What About Hamas?

In recent municipal elections, the terror group decided to engage in the electoral process and did much better than analysts predicted. It boycotted the presidential election but did nothing to interfere, and has promised to cooperate with Abbas.

What will the U.S. attitude be if Hamas involvement grows, especially after parliamentary elections in June?

Will the Bush administration make the judgment that these groups are moving toward peaceful coexistence with Israel, and that participation in the emerging Palestinian democracy could accelerate the process? Or will it react according to its post-Sept. 11 view of a world sharply divided between terrorists and their uncompromising opponents?

A lot of that will depend on how Hamas leaders respond. Softening their rhetoric, curbing attacks and indicating a willingness to accept Israel’s existence will make it easier for the administration to give a cautious yellow light to their political involvement, or at least not to regard it as the poison pill of Palestinian democracy.

The Corruption Conundrum.

International donors have met in recent weeks to discuss a big infusion of aid to help a Palestinian population mired even more deeply in poverty, and President Bush has given $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, with promises of more to come.

But this time, international donors are demanding mechanisms for accountability and transparency to make sure that the money doesn’t end up lining the pockets of P.A. officials or financing new weapons. But financial responsibility — not exactly the norm in the Arab world — won’t come overnight, and the need for an infusion of aid is immediate and overwhelming.

Just how accountable do the Palestinians have to become before they get the aid that’s been dangled before them? Without aid, the plight of ordinary Palestinians will not improve, spawning new terrorism and dimming hopes for new negotiations. But throwing more money at corrupt officials could undermine the Palestinian experiment in democracy.

Dealing With Sharon.

With Abbas’ election, there is a widespread assumption that the administration will become a little firmer in pressing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to fulfill his part of the Mideast “road map” peace plan, including freezing settlements and rooting out illegal outposts. But Sharon is also in the middle of a ticklish Gaza disengagement plan, which the administration has incorporated into its road map.

Just how hard can Washington push without creating a domestic backlash in Israel that will make it harder for the premier to get out of Gaza quickly?

Too often in the past, Sharon has used the specter of domestic opposition to turn aside prodding from Washington, but with settlers in open revolt and the threat of virtual civil war looming, there’s little question he faces an unprecedented domestic challenge.

Pressure is a matter of fine tuning that will test the talents of incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Too much pressure could topple Sharon’s shaky coalition and derail the Gaza plan; too little could damage U.S. credibility in the region.

What About Europe and the Arab Nations?

How can the Bush administration encourage these countries — too often the willing enablers of corrupt, reckless Palestinian leaders — to play a more constructive role?

Without U.S prodding, these nations could lapse back into their unhelpful role, but too much prodding will only play into the reflexive anti-Americanism that leads many to oppose almost anything America proposes, with especially disruptive results in the Middle East.

That will require nuanced diplomacy, not the brute-force approach to international relations that characterized the first Bush administration.