Guns, God and politics in “Church and State”

In the new play “Church & State,” onstage at the Skylight Theatre in East Hollywood, a conservative Southern Christian politician running for re-election to the United States Senate has a crisis of faith. After a school shooting in which 39 children are massacred, including two friends of his own children, Sen. Charles Whitmore (Rob Nagle), whose campaign slogan had been “Jesus is my running mate,” suddenly expresses doubts about God’s existence to a blogger, who asks the senator if he prayed after the tragedy. Whitmore’s answer goes viral, to the dismay of his Jewish campaign manager, Alex Klein (Annika Marks), and the outrage of his deeply religious wife, Sara (Tracie Lockwood). Whitmore also begins to question his support for unregulated gun ownership.

Playwright Jason Odell Williams said in a recent interview that the impetus for the story grew out of the recent spate of mass shootings in the United States, beginning with the one at Virginia Tech in 2007, near where the playwright attended college. That incident was followed by the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in suburban Tucson, Ariz., (2011), and then the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 young children were killed, along with six adults. 

“Sandy Hook was the one that really broke me,” Williams said, “and I was just devastated. It’s very close to where we live in New York. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out later that the close friend of a really good friend of mine lost a son at Sandy Hook.

“I didn’t know it, and the play was already mostly finished, but it just proved to me again that this can happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone.” 

Williams went on to describe his play’s three main characters, who could easily have become stereotypes, but whom he has carefully fashioned as fully believable, three-dimensional human beings. Whitmore, the junior senator from North Carolina, comes from a political background. “His father was in politics. His brothers are in politics. And he’s sort of going into the family business. He never really did it because of his passion. He just kind of did it because he could. 

“He’s a Republican who isn’t necessarily married to the core values of the GOP,” Williams said. “He’s a man of faith, a family man. He’s very devoted to his wife and kids, and he’s just slapped in the face with this event.”

Meanwhile, Whitmore’s wife, Sara, is drawn as a lovable, deeply God-fearing Southern Christian who can be overbearing but is also very funny. While her husband’s career made it necessary for her to come across as a supportive housewife who stays in the background, there is really more to her than meets the eye. Williams considers this character to be, at her core, a serious woman of depth and complexity. “I think she’s a very smart person, and I think she was a very successful real estate agent in her day, while they were both working,” he said. “And then once they had kids, things changed. I love all my characters, but she’s one that is particularly fun to write, because she just has a vernacular and a cadence and a way of talking that I love.”

Although Sara often clashes with Alex, the liberal Jewish campaign maven from New York, the two women are allied in their insistence that Whitmore remain true to his original belief system and not risk alienating his constituents. The playwright describes Klein, who puts her own progressive views aside in order to manage the senator’s re-election bid, as a political player whose star is on the rise and who sees Whitmore as a horse that she can ride to the White House.

“I think being Jewish is just one of her many layers, [including] the fact that she is more liberal than Charlie and Sara are, the fact that she is from New York, and she is fast-talking, fast-paced, with three BlackBerries in her pocket.”

Although Williams said he grew up as what he called a “Christmas and Easter Christian,” he is very familiar with Judaism. His wife, actress-singer-producer Charlotte Cohn, is Israeli and was raised in an Orthodox home. “Then she came to America,” he explained, “was very secular and embraced American, Western ‘who cares about religion’ kind of culture. And as our relationship progressed and we got married, and we had a daughter, she has kind of found her way back to it, slowly. We’ll go to synagogue once in a while.”

He continued, “I love going to those places with her. I just don’t like it when it gets fanatical and becomes an obsession.”

With respect to his current play, Williams acknowledges that his own views are echoed in the definitive speech Whitmore gives near the end, in which he pleads passionately for responsible, moderate gun control.

“I know that, for the most part, we’re preaching to the choir right now,” Williams said.  “We’re doing it in New York, New Jersey and California, but the goal with the play is to get it in as many venues as possible across the country, and that means Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, any red state you can think of. So, hopefully, at some point, he [Whitmore] will be making that speech to audiences whose minds we can actually change.”

For show times and ticket information,

ADL again slams Santorum on church-state issue

The Anti-Defamation League once again reprimanded Rick Santorum for his advocacy of a church role in governing.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator vying for the GOP presidential nod, told ABC over the weekend that a landmark 1960 speech outlining church-state separations by then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy almost made him “throw up.”

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?” Santorum said. “You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?”

In a letter, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman and ADL National Chairman Robert Sugarman suggested that Santorum was misrepresenting the speech.

“The genius of the Founding Fathers was to find a way, with the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, to protect the new nation from the kind of religious persecution that had resulted from official state religions and religious wars in Europe,” the letter said.

It was the second time this election season that Santorum was rebuked by the group. In January, Santorum told a caller on a talk show that “we always need a Jesus guy” in the campaign, which the ADL rejected as “inappropriate and exclusionary.”

Public money for Jewish schools: Free not-quite-but-sort-of Jewish education

At the Ben Gamla school in Hollywood, Fla., students can get kosher food in the cafeteria, and many wear kippahs to school. They engage in acts of chesed, they worry about speaking lashon hara, and they are taught to treat each other and their teachers with derech eretz. But administrators at the school say that using those Hebrew words to describe the universal values of kindness, not gossiping and respecting one another doesn’t make this a Jewish school. In fact, it is not allowed to mean students are getting a Jewish education, because Ben Gamla is a kindergarten through eighth-grade public charter school funded by the State of Florida’s taxpayers.

Ben Gamla is currently entering its second year, with 600 students enrolled and many more who didn’t get in. Ben Gamla is one of several nascent efforts to found Hebrew-language charter schools and has caught the attention of Jewish parents, including some in Los Angeles, who have begun to lay the groundwork for a school here.

Publicly funded Hebrew instruction is seen by some as an important component for the future of Jewish education, either as an alternative to a costly private Jewish education or as a way to reach the significant minority of Jewish children who are not getting any Jewish education at all. Others are simply excited about creating an academically excellent public school where children can graduate fluent in Hebrew.

The movement to create such schools got a high-profile bump last May when the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life in ALTTEXTNew York, the philanthropic entity behind some of this generation’s most innovative and successful programs, threw its backing behind a Hebrew charter start-up in Brooklyn.

But where some see innovation, others see a duplicitous and threatening end-run around the Constitution, trying to get the state to fund what almost amounts to a religious day school. Critics say enterprises like Ben Gamla, the first Hebrew-language charter school in the country, are a lose-lose proposition: If the school is teaching Hebrew stripped of its Jewish resonance, as required by church-state separation, the Hebrew language and Jewish education suffer. Conversely, if too much of the cultural context or flavor of Judaism seeps in, the school threatens to breach the church-state wall Jews have spent decades fortifying.

They also worry, with good reason, that free Hebrew schools — where not all, but most of the kids are Jewish and some Jewish culture is embedded in the curriculum — will threaten existing day schools and congregational schools.

The debate, while important in formulating a community approach, will not determine whether these schools are founded. Charter schools — paid for by school districts, but run privately — can be established by anyone with enough vision, energy and startup money to make it happen. Spanish and Japanese charter schools already are flourishing in Los Angeles, and Arabic, Greek and Chinese schools are among those succeeding elsewhere.

Now, at least two separate efforts by parents in Los Angeles have begun pursuing Hebrew charter schools.

“This is going to happen, whether we do it or someone else does it,” said Tanya Mizrahi Covalin, a former journalist for NBC News who is laying the foundation for a Hebrew language elementary school in Venice Beach. Covalin calls Hebrew an integral part of her identity; she grew up in Montreal and her husband is from Mexico City. Their three small children speak English, French and Spanish, and Covalin and her husband speak Hebrew when they don’t want the kids to understand.

“Talk about the American dream,” she said of the charter school process. “I can make the school I want for my kids. I can put in the elements I want and find amazing people to help make it happen.”

Covalin envisions a progressive, developmentally directed program with a strong Hebrew language component, located, most likely, in the Venice area. She doesn’t have a firm timeline, but has already paired up with some forward-looking educators to generate the vision and plans necessary for applying to the school board for a charter.

A separate group of parents, many of them day school parents, have been discussing for about a yearthe notion of a Hebrew language charter as an alternative to costly day school education.

Covalin doesn’t see her vision as a Jewish endeavor at all, and she has not attempted to engage Los Angeles’ organized Jewish community. But if the plans move forward, Covalin’s school will find itself at the center of an educational experiment that will most likely have a significant impact on existing Jewish institutions and Jewish families across the city.

“The leadership, lay and professional, of the Jewish community in Los Angeles and in any other places where they are building these schools should work together from the beginning to make sure they understand everything, make sure they work in a collaborative manner, not one against the other,” said Moshe Papo, executive director of the Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education in Broward County, Fla.,where Ben Gamla is located. “Work together to make sure it is suitable for your community, or you will wake up in the morning and find out it’s not good for you and it’s hurting your schools.”


Democratic platform sticks close to Jewish positions

DENVER (JTA) — When it comes to the Middle East and Sen. Barack Obama’s Democratic Party platform, things are staying pretty much the same — which, in this case, is the kind of change pro-Israel activists can believe in.

The platform committee appears to have heeded recommendations by the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) advising the party not to veer too far from previous platforms when it comes to the Mideast.

“The Middle East planks of previous platforms have been carefully crafted and have served us well as a party and a country,” Ira Forman, the NJDC’s executive director, advised the committee in July. “We urge the platform committee to stick closely to the 2004 platform language.”

It was advice that hews to the overall strategy of the campaign to elect the Illinois senator as president: Reassure Americans that this young, relatively unknown quantity will bring “change we can believe in” — but not too much of it.

The strategy is informing this week’s convention in Denver, with former military officers and party elders — chief among them former President Bill Clinton — lining up to vouch for Obama’s foreign policy credentials.

Notably, the preamble to the platform’s foreign policy section emphasizes security and defense. Five of its seven points focus on building up the military and combating terrorism.

When it comes to Israel, the platform hews closely to traditional language.

“Our starting point must always be our special relationship with Israel, grounded in shared interests and shared values, and a clear, strong, fundamental commitment to the security of Israel, our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy,” the platform says in an unusually long passage titled, “Stand With Allies and Pursue Democracy in the Middle East.”

“That commitment, which requires us to ensure that Israel retains a qualitative edge for its national security and its right to self-defense, is all the more important as we contend with growing threats in the region — a strengthened Iran, a chaotic Iraq, the resurgence of al-Qaeda, the reinvigoration of Hamas and Hezbollah,” it says.

The rest of the passage repeats talking points that would not be out of place on an American Israel Public Affairs Committee prep sheet: a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, no return to the pre-1967 Six-Day War lines and no “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

The intensification of concerns that Iran is nearing nuclear weapons capability post-dates the 2004 platform, but here, too, the Democratic Party platform sticks closely to the pro-Israel lobby’s line.

The platform emphasizes Obama’s preference for tough diplomacy: “We will present Iran with a clear choice: If you abandon your nuclear weapons program, support for terror and threats to Israel, you will receive meaningful incentives; so long as you refuse, the United States and the international community will further ratchet up the pressure, with stronger unilateral sanctions; stronger multilateral sanctions inside and outside the U.N. Security Council, and sustained action to isolate the Iranian regime.”

Even as it plays up the possibilities of sanctions, the platform also includes the magic words: “keeping all options on the table” — continuing the Bush administration’s implicit threat of military action should Iran get to the nuclear brink.

The sharpest foreign policy departure from the Bush administration and from the position of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is in Obama’s pledge to end the war in Iraq — an area where polls have shown that the vast majority of American Jews agree with Democrats.

On domestic issues, the platform also stays close to positions favored by the Jewish community, a predominately moderate to liberal demographic. It advocates abortion rights, environmental protections, energy independence, expanded health care and poverty relief.

In one area, however, the platform diverges from traditional liberal orthodoxies on church-state separation: Obama advocates keeping Bush’s faith-based initiatives, albeit with First Amendment protections.

“We will empower grass-roots faith-based and community groups to help meet challenges like poverty, ex-offender reentry, and illiteracy,” it says. “At the same time, we can ensure that these partnerships do not endanger First Amendment protections — because there is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution. We will ensure that public funds are not used to proselytize or discriminate.”