S. Carolina massacre suspect seemed troubled, had past brushes with police


His uncle worried he was cooped up in his room too much. The few images of him found easily online suggest he had a fascination with white supremacy. And for his birthday this year, his father bought the young man a pistol, the uncle said.

Dylann Roof, 21, was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of having fatally shot nine people at a historic African-American church in South Carolina on Wednesday.

Those who know him described a withdrawn, troubled young man. Roof himself told a police officer who was arresting him earlier this year for illegal possession of prescription painkillers that his parents were pressuring him to get a job.

Roof's uncle, Carson Cowles, recalled telling his sister, the suspect's mother, several years ago that he was worried about Roof, and that the “quiet, soft-spoken boy” was too introverted.

“I said he was like 19 years old, he still didn't have a job, a driver's license or anything like that and he just stayed in his room a lot of the time,” Cowles said in a telephone interview.

He said he tried to “mentor” his nephew. “He didn't like that, and me and him kind of drifted apart,” Cowles said.

Cowles, 56, said Roof's father gave him a .45-caliber pistol for his birthday this year, Cowles said.

“I actually talked to him on the phone briefly for just a few moments and he was saying, 'well I'm outside target practicing with my new gun,'” Cowles said, describing a phone call around the time of Roof's birthday in April.

“Nobody in my family had seen anything like this coming,” Cowles said, speaking shortly before news of Roof's arrest. “If it is him, and when they catch him, he's got to pay for this.”

MALL INCIDENTS

In February, Roof unnerved employees working at the Columbiana Centre shopping mall in Columbia, South Carolina, by asking what they told police were unusual questions about staffing levels.

A patrolling police officer was called over. Roof, becoming increasingly nervous, told him “his parents were pressuring him to get a job,” according to a Columbia Police Department incident report.

The officer asked to search him and found an unlabeled bottle filled with strips of buprenorphine, an opioid painkiller that is sometimes misused by people addicted to opioid drugs, which include a range of substances from heroin to oxycodone.

The incident report said Roof tried to pass them off as breath-freshening strips before admitting that a friend had given the prescription-only drug to him, and the officer arrested him for possession of a controlled substance. The case appeared to still be pending, according to county court records.

Columbiana Centre banned Roof for a year, but two months later, police were called to the mall again. Roof, described as 5 foot 9 inches (1.75 meters) tall and weighing 120 lb (54 kg), was arrested in the parking lot for trespassing. His car was turned over to his mother, and the mall increased the ban to three years.

It was not immediately clear whether Roof had a lawyer.

JACKET WITH APARTHEID-ERA FLAGS

A Facebook profile apparently belonging to Roof was created earlier this year. The only public photograph on the page is a blurry snap of him stood in front of winter-bare trees, looking glumly at the camera, bowl-cut brown hair falling over his forehead.

In the picture, he wears a black jacket that prominently features the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, from when the two African countries were ruled by the white minority.

The page lists him as having a little over 80 Facebook friends on Thursday morning, but that number appeared to be dropping, perhaps as others chose to sever their online ties with him.

One of the friends, Derrick “D-Gutta” Pearson, wrote on his own Facebook page on Thursday morning that he was “wondering why I woke up to 15 friend requests,” adding that he didn't know where Roof was.

Pearson warned people to stay away from Roof if they saw him, writing that it was “obvious lives do not matter to him.” Pearson also published a photo that appeared to show Roof sitting on the hood of a black car with a license plate that says “Confederate States of America”, a reference to the pro-slavery forces from the U.S. Civil War.

“That's his car and him,” Pearson wrote.

The U.S. Department of Justice said federal authorities would investigate Wednesday's attack as a hate crime, or one motivated by racism or other prejudice.

Roof grew up shuttling between his parents' homes in South Carolina, according to his uncle. His father, Ben Roof, runs his own construction business, and he remarried after divorcing Dylann Roof's mother.

Roof and his older sister, Amber, lived part of the time with their father and the father's wife, Paige, until Ben and Paige divorced.

Amber Roof, 27, is engaged to be married and a profile on TheKnot.com shows her wedding is scheduled for Sunday in Lexington, South Carolina.

A woman who answered the cellphone of the suspect's mother Amelia Roof, also known as Amy, declined to comment on Thursday morning.

“We will be doing no interviews ever,” she said, before hanging up.

Unorthodox venues for High Holy Days services


The question “Where are you going for services?” is a mainstay among Jews around this time of year. Numerous congregations that ordinarily perform Shabbat services at their own locale often need to find larger, and more spacious, nontraditional venues — often churches, theaters or hotels — for the High Holy Days to accommodate the many who come only then to meet their spiritual needs. 

Congregation Or Ami, the Calabasas-based Reform shul, rents the Fred Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza to accommodate the more than 1,000 ticket holders for their High Holy Days services. Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Or Ami’s spiritual leader, wanted a location that would be both comfortable and provide outside space to welcome the community to the prayer services. “The High Holy Days are not meant for pain and distress, but to be transformative and introspective,” Kipnes said. “The more we remove any obstacles of discomfort, the more we can open our hearts and our minds to the purpose of the holidays — it becomes more meaningful.”

Up until four years ago when Or Ami began to rent the Kavli Theatre, High Holy Days services were held in a community center auditorium with limited seating. The theater, by contrast, is comfortable and has a sophisticated audio and visual system, with plenty of stage space for the medley of instruments and performers, including a violinist, cellist, pianist and soloist who enhance the services. “We have an incredibly musical and dramatic service,” Kipnes said. “The theater undergoes a shift from just a stage and curtains to an ark and podiums, all set up by experienced movie set installers, with the exception of the Torah, which travels with me.”

Transporting the Torah, Kipnes said, takes special care. “We recite the traveler’s prayer, Tefilat HaDerech, before the Torah is transported to the theater in my car,” he said. “It is lovingly wrapped and goes from Or Ami straight into the ark.”

To help offset the expense of the Kavli Theatre, Congregation Or Ami budgets for the venue with ticket sales and a High Holy Days appeal.

Paying a rental fee for a larger space for the High Holy Days is a necessary expense says Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Congregation in Mar Vista, which he co-founded with his wife, Meirav. Since 1995, Ohr HaTorah has spent the holidays at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, a Broadway-style, live-performance venue, with attendance that fluctuates from 700 to more than 1,000 worshippers. “There is a cost benefit,” Finley said of renting the theater. “We don’t want to miss all the prospective members who come to the High Holy Days services; but we don’t turn anyone away because of cost.”

“The Ebell is really a beautiful setting,” he added. “It looks like an old-style synagogue, with full-backed theater seats facing toward the bimah. When people see the carefully constructed stage, the Torah tables covered with tablecloths, and the holy ark, it makes the room a sanctuary — it’s a nice facility and becomes familiar to everyone.”

Ohr HaTorah used to rent space from churches for their High Holy Days services, but Meirav Finley said she loves that the Wilshire Ebell is now their spiritual hub. “When you create or enter a space, that becomes a tradition — the traditions and the values of the old create a wonderful, sacred space,” she said. “People connect and find their own space within the holy environment.”

Ohr HaTorah Congregation in Mar Vista has held High Holy Days services at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, a Broadway-style, live-performance venue, with attendance that fluctuates from 700 to more than 1,000 worshippers.

Art Pfefferman, vice chair of The New Shul of the Conejo, a Conservative congregation in Agoura Hills, was the facilitator in securing its current venue for High Holy Days services. Growing under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Michael Barclay, The New Shul has held Friday night services at a local hotel but found that space could not accommodate the increasing High Holy Days turnout. “We were looking for a location that would house the estimated attendance of typically 700 people,” Pfefferman said. They found it at The Canyon Club in Agoura Hills.

A popular concert venue, The Canyon Club offers a dedicated sound and lighting person, along with security and free parking, which made it attractive. “We bring in everything that makes a shul a shul,” Pfefferman said. “We hang white curtains, bring in an ark, Torahs, a Torah table — all the necessary accoutrements.”

“It’s an intimate, yet large venue,” Barclay added, saying its wide layout makes it easy to connect with the congregation to create a sacred space. “When a rabbi is performing on an elevated bimah,” Barclay said, “people are observing, not practicing, Judaism — everything is so far away — it’s like watching a performance. The Canyon is set up in a way that allows us to all be together — I’m with everyone.”

Lance Sterling, owner of The Canyon Club, also created movable standing screens that can condense and expand as needed. “If you have 500 people on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and then maybe 150 on the second day, people may feel lonely when surrounded by empty seats,” Barclay said. “The benefit is that we can move these screens around, creating a smaller, more intimate space, and now the venue becomes a place that holds 150 people.” 

Joe Lehrer, a member of The New Shul pointed out that the intimacy of a performance venue is one of its advantages. “There are no obstructed seats,” he said. “You can see the rabbi and be a part of what’s going on — it’s roomy and comfortable.”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are meant for creating a personal relationship with God, Barclay said. “The venue becomes our sacred space — kavanah, our intention — it’s a reflection of how we are and how we want to be in the world.” 

Rabbi Moshe Bryski of Chabad of Agoura Hills officiates High Holy Days services at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza Hotel. Anticipating more than 1,800 people, Chabad uses the grand ballroom and the ancillary rooms, including the foyer and lobby. 

“We have a team of about 10 that are both volunteers from Chabad and the hotel staff, who transition the facilities in about three to four hours,” he said. “We have a mobile ark and we set up the bimah, with the Torahs arriving the night before services.”

Chabad has a history of outgrowing their High Holy Days venues in the Conejo Valley, moving from a local elementary school to several area hotels before finding the much-needed space at the Hyatt. “They really go above and beyond for us,” Bryski said of the hotel staff. The variety of spaces at the Hyatt also allows Chabad rooms for childcare, a youth shul and prayer discussion groups.

Chabad and the Hyatt also have created an optional retreat program for the observant who live too far away to walk to services. “We have a few hundred people who stay at the hotel,” Bryski said. “It’s like Little Jerusalem.”

But the real sanctity of High Holy Days services always comes from the people once the room fills up and everyone begins chanting, Bryski said. Being in such a large venue allows all Jews to come together. “Observant, secular, affiliated, nonaffiliated, Sephardic, Ashkenazi — it doesn’t matter if you are totally secular or totally observant,” Bryski said of the High Holy Days. “We are all Jews, We are all one, and being all together in this location brings out the real spirit of what the holidays are all about.”

For a guide to where you can attend High Holy Days services, visit jewishjournal.
com.

Vatican rejects bishop’s calling Jews ‘enemies of the church’


The Vatican rejected comments by the head of a breakaway traditionalist group calling Jews “enemies of the church” and reiterated that it was committed to dialogue with the Jewish world.

“It is impossible to speak of the Jews as enemies of the Church,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Monday. He said the Catholic Church “is deeply committed to dialogue with Jews” and stressed that the Vatican’s position on this was “clear and well-known.”

Lombardi called Bishop Bernard Fellay’s remarks “meaningless” and “unacceptable.”

Lombardi was responding to comments  made by Fellay, superior of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, during a Dec. 28 address at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Academy in New Hamburg, Ontario.

According to an audio recording posted on YouTube two days later, Fellay spoke about the society's three years of discussions with the Vatican over the society's future and explained how he interpreted behind-the-scenes communications.

Fellay asked, “Who during that time was the most opposed that the Church would recognize the society? The enemies of the Church: the Jews, the Masons, the Modernists.”

Canadian senators warn church against boycott


In a rare move, nine Canadian senators have warned the United Church of Canada that its proposed boycott of goods from Israeli settlements would harm already tense relations with the Jewish community.

The nine senators, all United Church members and representing the Conservative and Liberal parties, wrote in a June 27 letter to UCC Moderator Mardi Tindal that the denomination risks setting back Christian-Jewish relations if it approves a boycott of products from West Bank settlements.

Earlier this year, a working group established by the church issued a report urging a boycott of all goods from Jewish settlements, arguing that the communities are illegal and stand in the way of peace. The move angered many Canadian Jews.

The report, however, rejected a boycott of all Israeli goods.

“Such a distinction will be lost upon Israelis and upon the Jewish community in Canada,” the senators wrote. “What will be made clear to them is that the United Church has chosen sides, declaring Israel guilty and the Palestinians the only injured party.

“To put it bluntly, the Church cannot maintain credibility in criticizing Israeli policies (such as settlements and the security barrier) while relieving the Palestinian leadership of its own duty to advance peace.”

The senators urged the moderator to “speak out against these proposals.”

In a reply on July 3, Tindal said she joined the Church’s Working Group on Israel Palestine Policy but “intentionally withdrew from the process recognizing the need to remain neutral and unattached to its recommendations,” given that she will preside over the voting process.

The church’s highest body, the General Council, will decide in a vote expected Aug. 14 whether to endorse the boycott.

“It would, therefore, be inappropriate for me to comment on the report,” Tindal said.

In his response to the senators, Bruce Gregersen, who staffs the Church’s Working Group on Israel Palestine Policy, wrote that the report “does reflect with great care the complexities of the issue. But it also makes a choice that remaining neutral in respect to the difficult realities of the region is not acceptable after 45 years of continued occupation.”

One of the signatories, Conservative Sen. Nancy Ruth, said she fears that Canadian Jews will feel singled out by anti-Israel sentiment.

“I’d say it’s a matter of diplomacy,” she told the Globe and Mail newspaper. “I don’t think it will be helpful for Jewish-Christian relations.”

Canadian senators are unelected and are appointed to the upper chamber of Canada’s Parliament by the prime minister. They rarely speak out on such sensitive issues.

The United Church of Canada is the country’s largest Protestant denomination. It counts 650,000 members, but more than 2.5 million people identify themselves as followers of the church.

Shimon Fogel, head of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said boycotting settlements alone is no different than a larger boycott aimed at delegitimizing Israel. In the church’s proposal, “there’s an effort to disguise what the real intent is,” he told the Globe.

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.”

The 17th century hero behind the separation of church and state


From the vantage point of 2012, the state of Rhode Island is an afterthought, except perhaps for those who reside within its borders. It is small geographically and seems to lack influence in just about any realm imaginable.

Yet during the seventeenth century, Rhode Island became a colony that defined religious freedom in the future United States of America. Its main city, Providence, did not achieve that name by happenstance. The leading citizen of Providence, Roger Williams, created something special for religious minorities, a category that would include the Jews.

Roger Williams (1603?-1683), whose life story is told by John M. Barry in “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty” (Viking, $35), is more than a footnote to American history. Still, it seems safe to state that many Americans who cherish religious freedom and secular liberty know little if anything about his remarkable legacy. He defied the conventional wisdom, he placed his life in danger, because of his principles. Those principles are easy to take for granted today. During Williams’ lifetime, however, they constituted heresy.

Author John M. Barry fell into the category of mere passing acquaintance with Williams’ legacy until he fully realized Williams’ contribution almost by accident—or maybe through a sort of mysterious providence.

Previously, Barry had written books of popular (in a good way) and relatively recent history, tackling, for example, the devastating Mississippi River flooding of 1927. What became the Roger Williams biography started out as an examination of the United States in 1919, at the end of World War I. Barry planned to build the narrative around Billy Sunday, an evangelist preacher whose fervor spilled over into politics.

As Barry delved into Sunday’s life to examine the intersection of religion and secular governance, “the more I was drawn to that subject itself,” Barry recounts, “and specifically to the source of the debate.” Barry determined the origin revolved around Williams and John Winthrop, Puritan governor of the Massachusetts colony. Winthrop’s vision embodied “a city on a hill, with its authoritative and theocentric state.” The Puritans envisioned a Christian nation, favored by God.

Williams demurred. His vision, in Barry’s resounding words, called for “utter separation of church and state, and individual rights.”

Barry posits, persuasively, that the seventeenth-century disputes he delineates are relevant now. King James, who died in 1625, cited “reasons of state” to justify expanding his authority during what he perceived as a time of terrorism. The Justice Department of President George W. Bush asserted the same arguments during the opening decade of the twenty-first century. The king and the president implied both wisdom and power emanating from the Almighty.

In contrast, Williams’ mentor Sir Edward Coke and Williams himself “fought to establish the power of habeas corpus,” according to Barry, believing that every person’s home is that person’s castle. No king, no president, no divine intervention should breach the doorway to the home, where the right of the individual, where the freedom of conscience, should trump mainstream church authority and over state power.

Williams was a rebel according to the standards of his era, but he was no anarchist and no atheist. As Barry shows, Williams had “absolute faith in the literal truth of the Bible, with absolute faith in his own interpretation of that truth, with absolute confidence in his ability to convince others of the truth of his convictions.” Yet Williams would refuse “to compel conformity to his or anyone else’s beliefs.”

Trying to establish Rhode Island as a colony of tolerance, and Providence as its epicenter, could have provided Williams full-time duty on the North American continent. But he could not divorce himself completely from England, because the Parliament wielded fearsome power over the colonies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. One of the most compelling extended passages in a wholly compelling book is set during 1644. Williams has made yet another arduous passage from Rhode Island to London hoping to solidify the future of the renegade colony. Powerful members of Parliament plotted against Williams, hoping to transfer authority over Rhode Island to the governor of Massachusetts.

“As to ‘toleration,’ the word itself seemed dirty…to Parliament,” reports the author. “It also seemed impossible. Where would one draw the line? Was toleration to be offered only those who agreed on all fundamentals of Calvinist theology? Was it to be toleration for the plethora of sects just beginning to emerge? That opened the way to chaos, error, and sin. Was toleration even to allow worship by Catholics, Turks, and Jews? That seemed utterly abhorrent. And atheists? That went beyond blasphemy. One shuddered at the idea.”

Williams was not a member of Parliament. But he could lobby to have his views heard. So that is what Williams did. Not only the fate of Rhode Island rode on the outcome—so, perhaps, would the fate of individual liberty in a new nation conceived because of tyranny back home in England.

Fortunately, Williams prevailed. Not easily, and he could never relax until his death.


Steve Weinberg is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

Mormon church apologizes for proxy baptism of Wiesenthal’s parents


The Mormon church has apologized for the posthumous baptism of the parents of Simon Wiesenthal.

A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last month submitted the names of Wiesenthal’s parents for posthumous baptism, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. Wiesenthal was a Holocaust survivor who died in 2005; his mother was killed in the Nazi death camp Belzec in 1942.

Posthumous baptism, which is done by proxy, is also known as “baptism for the dead.” It allows members of the church to stand in for the deceased to offer them a chance to join the church in the afterlife. 

In 2010, the church agreed after meetings with Jewish leaders to halt the proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims unless the names were submitted by their direct ancestors.

The church said Monday in a statement that it “sincerely regret[s] that the actions of an individual member … led to the inappropriate submission of these names,” which were “clearly against the policy of the church,” the newspaper reported.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, participated in many of the high-level meetings between Jewish leaders and Mormon officials.

“We are outraged that such insensitive actions continue in the Mormon Temples,” he said in a statement on the organization’s website. “Such actions make a mockery of the many meetings with the top leadership of the Mormon Church dating back to 1995 that focused on the unwanted and unwarranted posthumous baptisms of Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust.”

Meanwhile, some members of the church have submitted the name of Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel for proxy baptism, who is still living, the Huffington Post reported.

The submission was uncovered last Friday by Helen Radkey, a former Mormon who lives in Salt Lake City. Wiesel’s father, who died in the Holocaust, and his maternal grandfather also were proposed for proxy baptism, according to the report.

A church spokesman said Wiesel’s name was submitted for inclusion in the church’s massive genealogical database, not for baptism.

Church voting site nixed after Orthodox concerns


An attempt to move a voting site to a Brooklyn church was nixed over concerns that Orthodox Jews would be disenfranchised.

According to a news release issued from his office, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew, intervened after residents in New York’s 73rd and 74th election districts were notified that their polling site was being moved from a public school to St. Agatha’s Church over worries that the school could not accommodate enough voters.

Hikind said there were large crosses on the interior and exterior of the Catholic church.

“Who knows how many Orthodox Jewish or other voters would have been disenfranchised by the Board of Elections’ decision to move these voters to a church?” Hikind said in a statement.

A new site has not yet been identified in time for an upcoming primary for Civil Court judge. Voters will be allowed to cast their vote at the Brooklyn Board of Elections by selecting the “Religious Scruples” box.

Dad can take daughter to church, court rules


A father may take his Jewish daughter to church, a court in Chicago ruled.

Cook County Judge Renee Goldfarb, who had denied Joseph Reyes permission to take his daughter Ela to Easter services, said in a divorce judgment handed down Tuesday afternoon that Reyes could take his daughter to church during his visitation times, which are to include Christmas and Easter, according to reports.

Goldfarb said her decision to allow Reyes to take his daughter to church was based on “the best interest of the child,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported. 

Reyes grabbed headlines last winter when he took Ela to church and had her baptized despite a temporary restraining order filed by his estranged wife that barred him from exposing their daughter to anything but the Jewish faith.

Reyes converted to Judaism when he married his wife, Rebecca, and according to her promised to raise Ela in the Jewish faith. But after the couple filed for divorce, he returned to his Christian faith and baptized his daughter without his wife’s knowledge.

VIDEO: Palin Pastor: ‘Israelites’ run the economy




Yes, he says ‘Israelites’! (MSNBC)

A pastor who blessed Sarah Palin’s run for Alaska governor said Christians should emulate “Israelites” and run the economy.

The 2005 video of South African Pastor Thomas Muthee laying hands on Palin, the Republican vice-presidential pick, surfaced this week on the Internet.

Muthee precedes the blessing with a sermon calling for Christians to assume control in seven areas of society.

“The second area whereby God wants us, wants to penetrate in our society is in the economic area,” he said in the sermon. “The Bible says that the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous. It’s high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity running the economics of our nations. That’s what we are waiting for. That’s part and parcel of transformation. If you look at the — you know — if you look at the Israelites, that’s how they work. And that’s how they are, even today.”

The pastor also calls for Christian control of schools.

“We need God taking over our education system,” he said. “Otherwise we, if we have God in our schools, we will not have kids being taught, you know, how to worship Buddha, how to worship Mohammed, we will not have in the curriculum witchcraft and sorcery.”

McCain team: Palin rejects views of church’s Jews for Jesus speaker


NEW YORK (JTA)—Vice presidential pick Sarah Palin says she doesn’t share the views of a Jews for Jesus leader who in a speech at her church suggested that violence against Israelis resulted from God’s judgment against Jews who have failed to embrace Jesus.

David Brickner, the executive director of Jews for Jesus, suggested in his Aug. 17 sermon at Wasilla Bible Church that the refusal to accept Jesus was responsible for the long history of devastation visited upon Jerusalem. He also described his group’s successful targeting of Israeli Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere.

“Judgment is very real, and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television,” said Brickner, according to a transcript posted on the church’s Web site. “It’s very real. When [my son] Isaac was in Jerusalem he was there to witness some of that judgment—some of that conflict—when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment—you can’t miss it.”



Audio and transcript

Awakening schmawakening, Darfur’s hope is grass-roots action


The Great Awakening

ALTTEXT

Am I the only reader who finds your celebration of the Rev. Rick Warren’s interviews with our presumptive presidential candidates very chilling (“The Great Awakening,” Aug. 15)?

The first nationally televised meeting of these candidates in a religious setting is frightening. It indicates again the growing erosion of our valued separation of church and state.

Is no one outraged by Rev. Leah Daughtry’s Faith Based Convocation before the Democrat’s Convention in Denver? Since when are Democrats the party of the religious? I thought Republicans had that franchise.

This is such pandering to religious voters right, left and center, it makes me wonder, where are our civil libertarians?

Please, wake up. Warren is not bringing the “Great Awakening.” He is dismantling our Constitution while too many of us sleep.

June Sattler
via e-mail

I almost always enjoy your column, and I did this one too. But to the best of my knowledge, including Internet research, Billy Graham is not “the late.” He is reported to be alive at age 89 and retired.

Michael Leviton
via e-mail

Dear Condi:

As your readers well know, Jewish World Watch has been at the forefront of Darfur activism in Los Angeles for the past four years. During those four years, our coalition of almost 60 synagogues has demanded from President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Hu Jintao and many others, immediate and significant action to stop the ongoing slaughter of innocents in Darfur, Sudan. We have done it through letters, phone calls, rallies, marches, and vigils. Those actions have led to incremental successes.

We are pleased to now have David Suissa participating in our calls for action, through his “Live in the Hood” column. (“Dear Condoleezza Rice,” Aug. 15)

We all know the frustration of continuing to watch this genocide enter its sixth year. In fact, last year we witnessed first-hand the suffering of the survivors by visiting the Darfuri refugee camps in Chad. The Darfur activist community knows that Sudan will not be stopped without significant international pressure, not only from the United States, but from China, Russia and, significantly, other African and Arab nations.

The only way to get this kind of international pressure is through persistent grass-roots movements, like ours, that make action in the face of genocide a domestic issue, with political consequences. It is the grassroots work that will, more likely than not, serve as the impetus for and foundation of whatever action our government takes in response to genocides like the one in Darfur.

We welcome Suissa’s letter and hope that it contributes to re-energizing our community in what may well continue to be a long road ahead.

Janice Kamenir Reznik
Co-Founder and President
Tzivia Schwartz Getzug
Executive Director
Jewish World Watch

In his column, David Suissa wrote movingly about his recent experience learning about the horrors of the Darfur genocide from a Darfuri refugee speaking at Beth Jacob Congregation. Suissa was so moved he felt compelled to write an open letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her to intervene.

I couldn’t agree more with his passionate plea, but I was taken aback by his cavalier dismissal of the community-wide efforts that are so crucial to persuading policymakers here and at the United Nations. Suissa writes that when people asked what can be done, “The answers, of course, were weak. How could they not be? … typical activist ideas like ‘write a letter to your congressman’ (sic) ‘get on the Web and make a donation’ and ‘tell everyone you know’ are simply no match for this level of crisis.” I beg to differ.

While it’s possible that all it will take to move Rice to act is to hear from Suissa, those of us who have been working to end the genocide for years are in our turn skeptical of this strategy. I have the privilege of representing Temple Israel of Hollywood on the Jewish World Watch Synagogue Council, and we are among those thousands of activists who have been writing letters to our members of Congress, making donations and organizing community events and activities to tell everyone we know.

As someone who has been an advocate for civil rights for more than 25 years I know that success is not only difficult but a long-term proposition. Ending the genocide in Darfur is only possible if we are working on all fronts because this is what keeps the pressure on policymakers and leaders like Rice. It is our thousands of voices, letters and postcards that create an atmosphere in which it is impossible for Rice to turn away. Without them, it’s just Suissa’s voice crying in the wilderness, and while he’s both persuasive and important it’s hard to believe his column alone can do what all these other voices have yet to be able to accomplish!

Abby J. Leibman
Los Angeles

David Suissa’s open letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strikes a personal chord. As a member of the board for Jewish World Watch, I have struggled with similar frustrations throughout these long years of combating genocide in Darfur. The work to end the genocide is daunting to say the least — it is difficult to continue work when successes are small, infrequent and feel only slightly incremental.

Within the already daunting task of ending genocide, it is easy to discount a donation to refugee relief as a Band-Aid solution. But Band-Aids serve their purpose — they staunch bleeding while we wait for a doctor. Refugee relief work in Darfur is having a very real — and very essential — impact. Solar cookers are protecting women and girls from rape by reducing their reliance on firewood.

Water reclamation projects are teaching long-term skills of conservation and helping to irrigate much-needed vegetable patches. Backpacks filled with school supplies and hygiene items are giving children an opportunity to see a future as doctors, teachers and translators, not soldiers in rebel armies.

Relief work won’t end the genocide. We must certainly continue our education and advocacy work worldwide in an effort to bring long-term solutions to Sudan. We must continue pressure on our government and international players to implement these long-term solutions. And in the meantime, we must work to ensure that the people of Darfur stay alive, safe, and are able to live with dignity while the work to end genocide continues.

Joy Picus
Board Member
Jewish World Watch

David Suissa adds his voice to the chorus demanding that something be done to stop the genocide in Darfur. He advises Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “go to Darfur” and “make a stink. Knock a few heads. Expose the criminals…. Create an urgent global coalition to save the Darfurians.”

The criminals have already been exposed. A global coalition to do what? I am still waiting for a prominent Darfur activist to call for what would actually stop the killings: A U.S./NATO-enforced no-fly zone, and U.S./NATO peacekeepers who would shoot back if the janjawid attacked them or attacked the refugees.

Without these, the genocide will go on until the killers decide to stop. Let’s not pretend; let’s not fool ourselves.

Paul Kujawsky
Valley Village

Meet Harry Schwartzbart — defender of the First Amendment


Harry Schwartzbart proselytizes as hard as any Christian clergyman in this country.

He makes about 2,000 phone calls a year. He speaks two or three times a month at various houses of worship within a 100-mile radius of his Chatsworth home. And he books lunch or dinner engagements with any clergy member of any faith who will give him 90 minutes of his undivided attention.

To date, he counts more than 500 meals with individual priests, rabbis and ministers.

But Schwartzbart isn’t on a religious mission. Rather, he said, “I am determined to keep the United States from becoming a theocracy.”

To accomplish this, the 84-year-old retired Rockwell engineer and metallurgist consultant works tirelessly as president emeritus of the San Fernando Valley chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national education and advocacy organization of 75,000 members that “devotes 100 percent of its time and resources to church-state separation.”

The group meets quarterly at varying Jewish and Christian sites. At its most recent meeting on Jan. 28 at Temple Judea, the San Fernando Valley chapter featured as its guest speaker Nick Matzke, an expert in debunking “intelligent design” claims.

A member almost since its establishment in 1947, Schwartzbart did not become active until 1994, when Pat Robertson was “scaring the hell” out of him. At that time, he founded the San Fernando Valley chapter, which quickly became the largest and one of the most active of the organization’s 70-some local chapters.

Strictly a volunteer, he served as president until two years ago. Now, as president emeritus, he retains his position as the one-man membership committee — which he considers his most important duty — as well as the sole speakers bureau representative.

From the first meeting on Oct. 5, 1994, Schwartzbart’s single, unstoppable focus has been to make as many Americans as possible aware of what he considers the 16 most important words in the English language, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

While his success is difficult to measure definitively, he claims to have enlightened a significant number of people.

“I’m persistent as hell; I never give up,” he said, explaining that he calls himself Harry “Nase Shmate” Schwartzbart, translating the Yiddish as “wet rag.”
“Some of my very best friends won’t take my calls anymore,” he added.

He also laments that he has never succeeded in engaging any Orthodox rabbi in dialogue. The Orthodox, he said, primarily because of the voucher issue, side with the Robertson supporters.

Having discovered early on that his most useful tool is the telephone, Schwartzbart calls every person on his mailing list no less than once a year. The number has remained steady at about 2,000 names, with a turnover of about 5 percent each month.

A self-professed Luddite, Schwartzbart keeps all his contact information on 3-by-5 cards he arranges alphabetically in five long file boxes, meticulously logging every phone conversation, donation and even “do not call” request. His wife, Mary, backs up all the data on a computer.

“Harry is literally an organizational genius, and he was one even before anyone invented the Internet,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. Lynn frequently dispatches Schwartzbart to other parts of the country to help volunteers establish new chapters.

In addition to his phoning, Schwartzbart speaks as often as possible. He says he requires five hours to do his subject justice. He’s happy to talk that long or as little as five minutes.

Preferring to run a lean organization, he eschews fundraisers, but he does hold four general meetings a year. He also actively monitors Establishment Clause law violations and intervenes when necessary.

“Being a Jew” is Schwartzbart’s short answer to what motivates him to do this work, maintaining that any Jew who does not support separation of church and state is an “idiot.”

And while he admits to being raised Orthodox, he won’t discuss his theological views, claiming they are irrelevant to his work in Americans United, which counts in its membership a cross-section of believers of all faiths as well as nonbelievers.

Pressed further, he explains that he was the first in his family to be born in the United States. His parents left Ukraine, escaping political persecution, and settled with their four children in Altoona, Pa., in 1921. Schwartzbart was born two years later.

While the United States has had its share of fundamentalists and religious extremists throughout history, Schwartzbart believes that “the religious right has a degree of political power unprecedented in this country.”

He sees today’s hot-button issues as women’s reproductive rights, gay rights and the teaching of intelligent design. Additionally, sex, prayer in school and the flag remain continuing concerns.

Outside of Americans United, his only organizational commitment, Schwartzbart is devoted to his family. He has been married for 53 years and has three grown children.

Music is Schwartzbart’s avocational passion. In fact, he met his wife while playing viola in the Altoona Symphony Orchestra, where she played the violin. Until about 10 years ago, they played string quartets in their house at least once a week.

Additionally, Schwartzbart is a staunch Shakespeare buff. He reads some of the Bard’s work each day and has been diligently keeping a journal for the last two decades — one for each year — titled, “My Daily Shakespeare,” in which he enters quotations pertaining to historic or personal events.

Schwartzbart’s biggest worry is the future of Americans United in the San Fernando Valley, even though the current president is actively engaged.

“I am sorely afraid that when I am gone, the chapter will die,” he said.

In the meantime, showing no signs of slowing down, Schwartzbart intends to keep working on behalf of Americans United.

“There’s nothing that drives me harder. I do whatever I think it takes to help the cause,” he said.

For additional information on Americans United, visit the San Fernando Valley chapter at www.ausfv.org, where you can read Schwartzbart’s monthly commentaries, or the national organization at www.au.org.

Movie on pedophile priest puts a face on evil


In October 2004, journalist Amy Berg cold-called a defrocked priest she has nicknamed the “Hannibal Lecter of pedophiles.” While serving Central California parishes in the 1970s and ’80s, the Rev. Oliver O’Grady allegedly molested dozens of children — boys and girls, infants and adolescents — according to Berg’s new documentary film, “Deliver Us From Evil.”

He did so with the knowledge of church officials — including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony — who moved him from parish to parish when parents complained, O’Grady alleges.
 
After months of phone conversations, Berg persuaded the priest to appear in a documentary that “has heightened interest among law enforcement officials … in considering a criminal case against [Mahony],” The New York Times reported on Oct. 8.
 
In a Journal interview on Oct. 9, Tod M. Tamberg, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, called the movie “very heavily biased.”
 
“This film was heavily edited and weighed in favor of Amy Berg making the cardinal the culprit and completely ignoring … that O’Grady is a skilled liar and a master manipulator,” Tamberg added.
 
“Evil” — which won the nonfiction prize at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival in July — presents for perhaps the first time a convicted pedophile speaking graphically about his actions on camera. O’Grady’s words provide “the backbone of a deeply disturbing documentary about the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis,” the Associated Press said.
 
When O’Grady first answered Berg’s call with a cheerful “Hello and good evening,” to her surprise he didn’t curtly dismiss her as had other pedophiles she had telephoned to be in her film. Berg believes he ultimately agreed to talk, in part, because he was angry with church officials.
 
“I should have been removed and attended to,” he says in the film.
 
O’Grady, who arrived in California in the early 1970s, remained a parish priest until he was convicted on four molestation counts in 1993. After seven years in prison, he was deported to his native Ireland.
 
In the movie, O’Grady describes having been molested by an older brother as a boy, and how he, in turn, abused a younger sister. As a priest, he says he sometimes started fondling children while sleeping over at their homes: He would often begin by hugging a child, then let his hand stray if they did not protest.
 
He recollects his crimes in a detached or avuncular tone that contrasts with anguished testimony from his victims. In the film, one father cries and screams as he blames himself for allowing O’Grady to abuse his daughter: “At 5 years old — for God’s sake, how could that happen?” the father says.
 
The film also includes never-before-seen taped depositions in which Mahony says he was unaware of the abuse and did not know O’Grady well when he served as bishop of Stockton from 1980 to 1985. But in the movie, excerpts from court documents, superimposed over Mahony’s testimony, suggest otherwise.
 
In response, Tamberg said Mahony’s testimony was heavily edited and facts omitted to make Berg’s points. Tamberg said Mahony did not know O’Grady had committed abuse until the former priest was arrested in 1993 and that “Evil” largely presents the opinions of plaintiffs’ attorneys, who stand to gain financially by suing the church.
 
Tamberg said he believes the documentary poignantly depicts the victims’ anguish, which is “its greatest strength but also its greatest failing. Because then we are asked to put all of O’Grady’s lying and manipulation aside and believe him…. [But] he lied to his bishop, he lied to the families, he lied to victims and I believe he even manipulated the filmmakers.”
 
Berg indignantly denied that she was ever manipulated, and that her documentary takes undue potshots at the church.
 
“If this is the best they can come up with, then let them respond to the allegations in the film, for once,” she said.
 
She wants church officials to answer questions such as “‘Why didn’t you take O’Grady Out?’ ‘What are you hiding?’ ‘[And] how many are still out there?'”Despite her bravado, Berg admitted she previously declined to tell reporters she is a Jewish, divorced single mother (she lives with her young son, Spencer, in an apartment in Santa Monica). She worried that the information might make her appear biased against the church and that the diocese might somehow interfere with the release of her film, since it successfully delayed the airing of some of her CNN pieces.
 
Tamberg said Berg’s news pieces were delayed because “we asked for fairness, and CNN management agreed.”
 
The 36-year-old filmmaker was raised Reform in Valley Glen; she attended Jewish Camp Swig in Saratoga and became a bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village. But when public high school proved too large and overwhelming for young Amy, her parents enrolled her in a Catholic school because it was affordable and many other Jewish students were enrolled there, as well. All students were required to attend religion class, but Berg said she used to ditch because she did not believe some of the teachings after having been raised Jewish. “Children were saying ‘Hail Marys’ to be forgiven for chewing gum or not brushing their hair,” she recalled of her school.
 
Years later, while producing for CBS and CNN, Berg was drawn to covering the church’s pedophilia crisis because victims exuded “this unbelievably raw, lonely, ‘Where do I turn?’ mentality.”
 
She convinced O’Grady to allow her to film him only after speaking to him every Sunday for five months. In December 2004, she flew to Dublin to meet with him in the city center (he would not tell her where he lived.) The eight-day shoot in April, 2005, was “brutal,” both physically and emotionally, she says. For example, O’Grady nonchalantly spoke of his attraction for children as kids were playing in a nearby park; in the film he even peers over the fence to look at them.
 
To keep herself calm during the process, Berg turned at the end of each day to meditation, including exercises from Melinda Ribner’s “Everyday Kabbalah: A Practical Guide to Jewish Meditation, Healing and Personal Growth.” After a week of listening to O’Grady describe his molestations of children, she said, “I was completely overwhelmed and exhausted.”

Arrested development: Young Jewish activists voluntarily go to jail in support of union rights


Sarah Leiber Church and Laura Podolsky had big plans for the evening of Sept. 28 — getting arrested.

They were part of a protest march that took place along Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport aimed at hotels that allegedly have been preventing employees from unionizing. During the late afternoon, approximately 2,000 people marched down the major thoroughfare, cutting off traffic. In what has been called the largest act of civil disobedience in Los Angeles, more than 300 of those people later deliberately sat down in the street, were arrested and jailed for up to 24 hours.

Both Church and Podolsky say their Jewish heritage is an important motivation for their activism for labor rights.

“From a young age I learned there’s a really strong message [in Judaism] about the importance of standing up for justice, and the importance of being directly involved,” Podolsky said.

Both she and Church are members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a group dedicated to social justice in Los Angeles. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of PJA, estimates that the group had anywhere between 50 and 100 people present at the protest, and that about 10 of those were arrested.

One part of the PJA’s larger goal is to reexamine the meaning of “kosher” among the Jewish population of Los Angeles.

“We’re working to expand the definition of kosher for the Jewish community, to go beyond how food is prepared to how workers are treated in institutions,” said Jaime Rapaport, program director for PJA. For example, she said, “The LAX Hilton is not a kosher hotel. Their kitchen may be kosher, and they may serve kosher food, but the way they treat their workers is not kosher.”

Church, the PJA’s Bay Area program director, said the timing of the protest, during the holiest part of the year, added meaning to her participation.

“The time in the Jewish calendar was very important to me in making the decision to take the steps to risk arrest … it’s a time when you take stock of how you’ve treated people over the last year,” she said. “I can think of no better way to start off 5767 than by supporting hotel workers and hard-working immigrant families in their fight for dignity in the work place.”

The sentiment was echoed by many, including Rabbi Jason Van Leeuwen of B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester,who presided over a blessing of the challah in front of the Westin Hotel — one of three blessings that took place: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. The challahs used were round, he said, “as a symbol for the cycle of the year, but also as a symbol of a message to the hotel management — what goes around comes around.”

Church said the religious service had been a highlight of the march.

“They said, ‘We give you bread for the journey,’ and passed out challahs to everyone. I remember hearing from some of the women later that the bread was just exactly what they needed, because they were feeling a little faint; they were feeling a little scared, frankly, and they said that having something to eat whether or not they were Jewish was really important to them.”

When the marching stopped, the sitting began. Those being arrested sat down on Century Boulevard — the main thoroughfare to LAX — where the police warned them that, unless they moved, they faced arrest. All wore matching shirts that read, “I am a human” in English and Spanish, echoing signs held at the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. The 300 arrested offered no resistance as officers put them in plastic handcuffs.

En route to jail they sang songs.

“I wanted to lead songs in Hebrew and teach people, but it didn’t seem like the right environment,” Church said. “But we sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and we sang ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ in English and Spanish.”

Even as they were arresting the protesters, many police seemed supportive of the action.

“I was speaking to one of them who was taking my fingerprints,” Church said, “and he said, ‘You know, I think I support what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘You’re unionized, right?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, and if we weren’t I’d want you all to be out on the streets.'”

This was a first arrest for both Church and Podolsky.

“Jail is cold, dingy and boring,” Podolsky said. “But I would do it a lot more, if it were necessary in order to stand up for these issues.”

Other arrestees shared cells with prostitutes or drug dealers.

Both Church and Podolsky spent the night in jail in South Central, released at 3:30 and 6:30 a.m., respectively.

Van Leeuwen agreed that the action was in accordance with Jewish teachings.
“The Torah repeatedly tells us that we should love the stranger; that they should be subject to laws and rights we’re subject to,” he said.

Though tired from a long march and a night spent in jail, everyone seemed in good spirits by Friday, proud of what they had accomplished.

“It was an incredible experience, and it was also an uncomfortable experience
… it’s something that I look back on with pride,” Church said.
Said Podolsky, simply, “It’s a good way to be Jewish.”

Local minister, dressed as High Priest, stages Yom Kippur service for evangelicals


On Sunday morning, while Jews are preparing for Kol Nidre, a group of Christians in Simi Valley will be participating in a Yom Kippur service of their own.

For the fifth year in a row, Kevin Dieckilman, senior pastor of the evangelical Simi Hills Christian Church, will lead a High Holiday service designed to teach Christians their Jewish roots.

Christians have been known to host Passover seders, portraying Jesus as the paschal lamb, but rarely — if ever before — have Christians observed the Jewish Day of Atonement.

For Dieckilman, 56, acknowledging the day only makes sense. “If it’s the highest holy day for the people of God, then Christians should not overlook it,” he said.

On the morning before Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on Sunday, Dieckilman will don a high priest costume. He will wear a blue robe and white hat, affixed with a golden crown.

Over the robe, he will put on a breastplate with colorful glittered ovals, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

Bells on the costume will jingle when he walks, because in the time of the Temples, “the high priest never walked in the presence of God without the sound of worship,” Dieckilman said.
For the service, Dieckilman will create a replica of the biblical tabernacle, or “Tent of Meeting,” which the Israelites used as a sanctuary while wandering the desert after fleeing Egypt.

An ark, containing a Torah, a jar filled with “manna” (bread) and a rod representing Aaron’s staff, will stand on stage, as will a sacrificial altar. Red drapes embroidered with golden guardian angels will create a backdrop.

In his sermon, Dieckilman will explain the meaning of these biblical symbols. He will also talk about Jesus.

Dieckilman said the primary goal of the service was to help Christians understand their Jewish heritage. Too often, Christian churches ignore the Torah and focus only on the New Testament, he said. They forget that the Christian religion owes a lot to Judaism.

Christians have a shameful past when it comes to Jews, he added.

“What the history of the Christian church has done to the Jews is despicable,” he said. “We can only come humbly and honestly to the Jewish community to ask forgiveness and offer our apologies.”

Dieckilman has studied Torah, learned Hebrew and been to Israel. In fact, he takes a group of Christians to Israel each year. On Sukkot, Dieckilman builds booths at the back of his church. He has hosted Passover seders. And on Yom Kippur, he fasts.

In his office, Dieckilman displays a Star of David, a shofar and a kippah — but no cross. (“Now that you mention it,” he said with a smile, “I better get one.”)

The way Dieckilman sees it, Jews are God’s Chosen People and Christians are simply “grafted on” to that group.

“There’s no question Jews are the people blessed by God and chosen by God to bring redemption to earth,” he said.

David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, said, “A Christian church seeking out its Jewish roots without attempting to uproot them is historically significant.”

“Christianity spent a lot of time — centuries — denying its explicitly Jewish foundation,” he said.

Since the conclusion in 1965 of Vatican II, which denied the claim that Jews killed Jesus, many Christians have come to assume more sympathetic attitudes toward Jews, Myers said. Christian scholars have recast Jesus as a Jew, and Jews are typically no longer held responsible for Jesus’ death.

Shimon Erem, president of Israel-Christian Nexus, a nonprofit group that brings together Christians and Jews in support of Israel, has been to the service twice. He went because Dieckilman, a member of the group’s advisory board, invited him.

Erem, an 84-year-old former Israeli military general, said he was “very impressed.” What moved him was the attitude of “great respect and awe” displayed by the Christians attending the ceremony.

Erem praised the service as “only one part of the effort of the evangelical community to respond to the Jewish community with outstretched arms.”

Still, some Jews are troubled by the idea of a group of Christians observing Yom Kippur.
“I just feel that it’s our day, and these are our rituals,” said Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood.

“While I’m sure his intentions are good,” Schuldenfrei added, “I think that … just to look at Yom Kippur in a biblical vacuum doesn’t quite capture the essence of Yom Kippur today.”
Jews do recollect the way Yom Kippur was observed in Temple times, he said. “But we relive it through our words and not through dressing up or creating physical structures. It’s in our poems, in our songs, in our prayers.”

JewsOnFirst.org Continues Fight Against Aggressive Christian Activities


Several months ago, activist Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak learned of a Jewish family allegedly forced to flee its Delaware town after protesting aggressive Christian activities in the public schools.

The Los Angeles rabbi is co-founder of JewsOnFirst.org, perhaps the only Web site exclusively devoted to the Jewish take on separation of church and state (and a counterpart to Christian efforts such as Leftcross.com). Its mission, according to the site: “Defending the First Amendment against the Christian Right, because if Jews don’t speak up, they’ll think we don’t care.”

One goal is to champion cases largely ignored by the mainstream press.

Thus Beliak zeroed in on the Delaware family — Mona and Marco Dobrich and their two children — who had filed a lawsuit along with a family known only as the “Does” about a year ago. Their complaint alleges that teachers preached Christianity, that Bible Club students received special privileges, and that a local minister prayed for one of the children to accept Jesus at her high school graduation, among other charges. The Dobrichs moved to Wilmington, Del., when the suit allegedly made them “the focus of hostilities from neighbors and local media,” Beliak said.

The rabbi and his JewsOnFirst co-founder, union activist Jane Hunter, promptly conducted extensive research on the case, including interviews with school officials and the Dobrichs’ attorneys. After they published their Web expose in June, The New York Times interviewed Beliak and Hunter for its own story, which ran on July 29. In the Washington Jewish Week, an Anti-Defamation League official praised JewsOnFirst for its “robust” amount of information on church-state issues.

Beliak and Hunter created the site after becoming alarmed by increasing efforts by churches to back political candidates. Last week’s site included articles with titles such as “Religious right powerhouses mobilizing for 2006 elections,” “New Jersey school district to approve pro-prayer ruling” and an e-mail petition on behalf of the Dobrichs.

Most of the conflicts take place in Bible Belt states, Beliak said, because “those areas present a more accurate picture of this country than cities like Los Angeles. Most of America is not comfortable with diversity.”

JewsOnFirst will monitor how Los Angeles churches use an upcoming California pro-life ballot measure to back candidates — because lending support to individual candidates violates religious institutions’ tax-exempt status, Beliak said.

“Jews understand that liberty must be constantly guarded, and where we see threats, we must mobilize,” he added.

Jesus’ Man Has a Plan


Are there any Jewish Rick Warrens?

That’s not a fair question.

There are few people of any faith like Warren.

As I sat listening to him speak at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live Shabbat services last week, I thought of the only other person I’d met with Warren’s eloquence, charisma, and passion — but Bill Clinton carries a certain amount of baggage that Warren doesn’t.

Warren spoke at Sinai as part of the Synagogue 3000 program, which aims to revitalize Jewish worship.




Rick Warren’s speech at Sinai Temple. Audio added 8/14/2008


The program’s leader, Rabbi Ron Wolfson, met Warren a decade ago and was influenced by the pastor’s first book, “The Purpose-Driven Church” (Zondervan, 1995). And to demonstrate what such a church looked like in action, Wolfson brought two busloads of synagogue leaders to Warren’s Saddleback Church in South Orange County to experience firsthand the pastor’s success. The church has 87,000 members. Its Sunday service draws 22,000 worshippers to a 145-acre campus in the midst of affluent, unaffiliated exurbia. Clearly, Warren has reached the kind of demographic synagogues had all but given up on.

There are two aspects to Warren’s success, and both were on display Friday night. First, he is an organizational genius. His mentor was management guru Peter Drucker.

“I spoke with him constantly,” Warren said, right up until Drucker died last year at age 95.

It is Drucker’s theory of “management by objectives” that Warren replicates in every endeavor — translating long-term objectives into more immediate goals. Here let’s pause to consider that Jews are learning to reorganize thier faith from a Christian who was mentored by a Jew.

In his church, Warren serves as pastor to five subordinate pastors, who in turn serve 300 full-time staff, who administer to 9,000 lay volunteers, who pastor 82,000 members spread out among 83 Southern California cities.

“It’s the individual cells that make the body,” he told the Sinai crowd. All his church’s endeavors — from working to cure diseases in African villages to reinventing houses of worship — work according to a model that parcels larger goals into smaller ones, empowering believers to take action along the way.

The other secret to his success is his passion for God and Jesus. Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring. But make no mistake, the driving purpose of an evangelical church is to evangelize, and it is Warren’s devotion to spreading the words of the Christian Bible that drive his ministry.

Good for him and his flock — and not so bad for us either. His teachings apply to 95 percent of all people, regardless of religious belief. As he put it to a group of rabbis at a conference last year — using a metaphor that might be described as a Paulian slip: “Eat the fish and throw away the bones.”

Warren told Wolfson his interest is in helping all houses of worship, not in converting Jews. He said there are more than enough Christian souls to deal with for starters.

The success of Warren’s second book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” (Zondervan, 2002), demonstrates his ability to turn a particular gospel into a universal one. As Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told the capacity audience of some 1,500, “The Purpose-Driven Life”turned the self-help model on its head by asserting that the answer to personal fulfillment does not reside with the self.

“Looking within yourself for your purpose doesn’t work,” the book begins. “If it did, we’d know it by now. As with any complex invention, to figure out your purpose, you need to talk to the inventor and read the owner’s manual — in this case, God and the Bible.” “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold 25 million copies in 57 languages.

As Warren pointed out — with an odd ability to be humble and matter of fact about it — it is reportedly the biggest-selling nonfiction book in American history. It brought him fame and fortune. Warren spent much of his sermon describing how he dealt with his new-found money and influence, turning his personal solutions into lessons on confronting the spiritual emptiness and materialism that all comfortable Americans face.

The pastor said he practices an inverse tithe — giving away 90 percent and keeping 10 percent of his income. He takes no salary from the church and returned the 20 years of income he received from it.

I haven’t checked his portfolio to verify this, but the message is an impressive and important one.

“We do not go into this line of work to get rich,” he said. “If you give it to God, he will bring you to life.”

Similarly, Warren has leveraged his fame to bring attention to AIDS in Africa and other global problems. He said he’d just come from a photo shoot at Sony Studios with Brad Pitt and was about to meet overseas with the leaders of 11 countries in 37 days. While he was at Sinai Temple, his wife, Kay, was at the White House.

“The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have none,” he said.

Warren wore a kippah made by the Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda and gifted to him by the country’s president. Before his sermon, he sang enthusiastically with musician Craig Taubman, who performed along with Saddleback Church music director Richard Muchow.

“This is my kind of service!” he said when he took the stage to deliver his remarks.

Afterward, as one Friday Night Live contingent repaired to a ballroom to carry on the hard work of scoping out other singles, another filled Barad Hall to get more time with Warren in a Q-and-A.

Along the way, he described in detail how he organized a national Purpose Driven Church campaign to get some 30,000 houses of worship across the world to define and implement their mission. He also punctuated his anecdotes with simple statements about God’s role in our lives: “God created you to love you,” he said, “and to love him back.”

I have no doubt the people who turned to Warren to help them reinvent synagogues for the 21st century can and will learn a lot from the man’s organizational skills. But the deeper message he conveys, his unstintingly devoted and enthusiastic faith — how in the world can we Jews learn that?

All Saints’ IRS Fight Gets Jewish Support


For a church facing an assault from the Internal Revenue Service, the outspoken clergy of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena acted neither fearful nor repentant Sunday.

The IRS is “welcome in our pews,” said Rector J. Edwin Bacon to loud applause, but “not welcome in our pulpit.”

The IRS has threatened to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status for speaking out strongly on political issues. But Bacon showed no signs of backing down. And based on the reaction from the Southern California rabbinate, rhetorical reinforcements are already in place.

The IRS dispute arose out of an anti-war sermon given by the Rev. George Regas on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. The IRS interpreted the impassioned homily as an endorsement of John Kerry over incumbent President George W. Bush. Tax-exempt nonprofits, such as churches and synagogues, are not allowed to endorse candidates.

Bacon told the packed congregation last weekend that the church is “energetically resisting” the attack on its tax-exempt status. If left unchallenged, the IRS action “means that a preacher cannot speak boldly about the core values of his or her faith community without fear of government recrimination.”

Bacon added that All Saints has received a “surprising outpouring of solidarity” from a “host of other believers.”

Jewish leaders are among those speaking out against the IRS action. They say that their own synagogues, too, could become targets.

“I would have given the sermon that Regas gave with honor,” said Rabbi Steven Jacobs, of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. He added that he regularly gives sermons that “challenge my congregation” by addressing difficult political issues. If these sermons have reached the attention of the IRS, he doesn’t know about it.

Jacobs said he hopes that the controversy will stir rabbis and other religious leaders to take more chances in their sermons and not cower in face of intimidation.

“There is a great risk to our personal souls if truth has to be suppressed and doubt unspoken, “Jacobs said. “When ‘united we stand’ means everyone must think alike, something is seriously wrong with our democracy. Jeremiah spoke truth to power in the Babylonian times and All Saints is doing it now.”

It was two days before the 2004 election that Regas, All Saints’ former rector, gave a guest sermon in which he imagined a debate between Jesus and then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas harshly criticized the government’s record on poverty, abortion and nuclear arms, but his most pointed remarks concerned the war in Iraq. He said Jesus would have told Bush, “Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine [that] has led to disaster.”

The Sept. 11 attacks did not justify “the killing of innocent people” in Iraq and elsewhere, he added.

In that sermon, Regas also said he did not endorse either candidate, but he asked the congregation to take “all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker” to the ballot box and “vote your deepest values.”

The IRS viewed the sermon as a possible endorsement of Kerry. In June, it sent a letter telling the church that it “may not be tax-exempt as a church” because Regas’ remarks raised questions concerning the church’s “involvement in … political campaign intervention.”

The federal tax code permits tax-exempt organizations to speak out on political issues but not to endorse candidates. The IRS has recently investigated more than 100 nonprofits, including the NAACP, for possibly promoting candidates, according to published reports.

So far, there’s been no public indication that the targets have included synagogues, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. Nevertheless, he and other Jewish leaders have been quick to stand behind All Saints Church.

“I spoke with Rev. Bacon and assured him of our support,” Diamond said. He added that he is working with other rabbis and religious leaders to develop a coordinated response across political and denominational boundaries. “Tomorrow the IRS may well target a conservative Baptist congregation in the South,” he said.

Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus of Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, has an especially close tie to All Saints, where he serves as rabbi-in-residence.

The IRS investigation is a “selective application of the law,” he said, and a “deliberate act of attempted intimidation” against clergy who criticize the administration. “No one’s going to intimidate this church, but some churches and synagogues may be intimidated.”

“I don’t think we give up free speech because the president has chosen to go to war,” Beerman added. “Regas wasn’t telling people how to vote. He was critiquing the lies that brought us into the war and the impact of the war on American and Iraqi life. This fundamental belief in the sanctity of every life lies at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition and is what propels Regas and I to be opposed to war.”

The IRS has denied any political motivation to its tax probes.

As it happens, the joint activism of Beerman and Regas reaches all the way back to a raucous anti-Vietnam War rally in Exposition Park in 1973.

“Regas got up to speak in his Episcopal collar and he put his whole body into the speech,” Beerman recalled. “Immediately we were drawn to each other and we became engaged together in opposition to the war.”

The two have worked together on anti-war and other causes ever since.

For some rabbis, the controversy highlights the duty of Jewish leaders to take risks by speaking out.

“The Jewish tradition teaches that silence is riskier than the wrath of opposition,” said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Whittier. “It’s from the prophets and the rabbinic tradition. Leviticus says you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.”

Nevertheless, “instead of being leaders, most rabbis have decided not to make waves” since the war started, Beliak said.

The sermons of Rabbi Steven Leder generally deal with “more timeless issues of the human condition and spirit,” as opposed to politics. Nevertheless, Leder can see an instance where he would make an exception. He said he would ask his Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregation not to vote for someone like David Duke, the open anti-Semite who ran for office in Louisiana.

During the summer, the IRS offered to settle with All Saints “by having us say that we were wrong and would never do it again,” Bacon said. The church refused.

The IRS’s demand for an admission of wrongdoing “reminds me of something out of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s,” USC law professor Ed McCaffrey said.

The church’s response was the right one, said Diamond: “The settlement offer is very dangerous because the case is truly about freedom of the pulpit. For members of the clergy to be stifled in expressing deeply held religious and moral views is blasphemous.”

“Rather than intimidate rabbis [or anyone else],” he said. “It’s made a whole lot of clergy persons mad as hell.”

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Rehnquist’s Legacy: Church-State Rulings


Chief Justice William Rehnquist was often the sole dissenter on the separation of church and state after he joined the United States Supreme Court in the early 1970s, arguing that while religion did not deserve extra protection, it merited federal funding.

But now, after leading the court for 19 years, Rehnquist’s legacy is a court majority — and the law of the land — much closer to his perspective.

“Initially, he was the person crying in the wilderness,” said Steven Green, the former general counsel for the nonpartisan group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “With time, he was able to get a coalition and move the court in his direction.”

Rehnquist, 80, died Saturday, after a long battle with thyroid cancer. His death creates the second vacancy on the high court; Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the court and its moderate core, announced her resignation on July 1.

Defining the line that separates church and state was one of the hallmarks of the Rehnquist court. The chief justice, joined by two other conservatives and two centrist jurists, consistently allowed government funding of religion, including school vouchers. But the court stopped short of allowing public religious exercises like school prayer, despite Rehnquist’s support for the practice.

At the same time, the Rehnquist court will be remembered for limiting special protections for religion and for undoing protections for religious expression that were sanctioned by previous justices.

And while it was not particularly progressive on civil rights issues, the court will likely be remembered for the times that it bucked the political trend in recent decades away from civil liberties, analysts said, notably decriminalizing sodomy and integrating state military academies.

Bush moved quickly to fill Rehnquist’s seat. On Monday, he nominated Justice John Roberts, whom he had originally named to replace O’Connor, for the post of chief justice.

Rehnquist’s deepest impact may lie in the area of church-state separation. The court set a high bar for proving the government was violating the Constitution by endorsing religion. It ruling in 1989 that a depiction of the Nativity in a county courthouse endorsed religion, for example, but said a menorah and Christmas tree on display outside the court did not.

“As long as it treats all religions equally, he would argue nothing in the establishment clause prevents supporting religion and endorsing religion,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who is also a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University.

Rehnquist’s dissents in school-funding cases, in which he argued for greater government aid to parochial schools and religious institutions, were at first a lone voice. But as the court became more conservative throughout the 1980s, he persuaded fellow justices to back school vouchers.

They were found constitutional in 2002, two years after the court had allowed state educational equipment and computers to go to religious schools.

Rehnquist also backed prayer at football games and graduation ceremonies and the practice of holding a moment of silence in public schools. That’s where he lost the center of the court — Justices O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy — who were concerned about the potential for coercion is such school prayer.

Rehnquist’s opinions made uncomfortable the large majority of the American Jewish community that seeks a strong wall separating church and state. Orthodox groups often took the alternative view, seeking increased governmental support and funding for religion.

Even among the Orthodox, however, Rehnquist had a mixed record. He believed religion should not get any special treatment, either positive or negative. Free exercise protections were limited under Rehnquist, requiring religious liberty advocates to seek congressionally mandated protections for areas like prison accommodations and land use.

“You’ve got this mixed verdict,” said Nathan Lewin, the counsel for the National Jewish Coalition on Law and Public Affairs, an Orthodox group. “Jewish groups have been able to operate better in terms of establishment clause constraints, but the harm that the Rehnquist court has done to the free exercise clause is enormous.”

Rehnquist wrote the 1986 majority opinion that found an Orthodox rabbi in the Air Force could be denied the right to wear a yarmulke.

“I think he had less sensitivity to the religious needs of minorities than other justices,” said Lewin, who argued for the rabbi, Simcha Goldman, in the case.

In 1990, Rehnquist joined Justice Antonin Scalia in a ruling against two Native Americans who sought unemployment compensation after being fired from their jobs for smoking peyote as part of a religious ceremony.

The court found religious beliefs do not excuse people from compliance with a valid law. The majority opinion said allowing exceptions for laws that affect religion would require exemptions for most civic obligations, from compulsory military service to payment of taxes.

“We’ve been in very different territory since,” Saperstein said. “We have a long way to go to get back to where we were.”

The ruling was widely criticized in Washington, and Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, with support from Jewish groups. The law said government could not burden religious exercise without a compelling government interest.

The court found the act unconstitutional in 1997, saying Congress could not enact legislation that infringed on states’ rights. A narrower law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed Congress in 2000. The Supreme Court upheld one aspect of the new law, which allowed for greater religious accommodations for prisons, earlier this year. The second part, requiring a compelling reason for government to deny religious organizations reasonable land use, may also be challenged in the future.

Rehnquist was first nominated to the Supreme Court in 1971 by President Nixon. He was elevated to chief justice in 1986 by President Reagan. Many expected the Rehnquist court to overturn the legal right to an abortion. That never happened, but Saperstein said Rehnquist “prevailed around the margins” by approving waiting periods and parental notifications for abortion.

The Rehnquist-led court “has done a remarkable amount of what it was expected to do,” Douglas Laycock, a religious-liberty scholar at the University of Texas School of Law, said of the court. That includes restricting habeas corpus review for prisoners, upholding the death penalty and creating obstacles to federal civil rights cases.

But, Laycock said, it will likely be best remembered for rulings that bucked the conservative trend. That includes the 2003 rulings that decriminalized sodomy and legalized the concept of affirmative action. Rehnquist himself took positions against both reforms.

The court will also be remembered for its affirmation in 2000 of Bush’s win in Florida and of the presidency. Rehnquist wrote that much-analyzed opinion, which seemed to contradict his decades of support for states’ rights when it overruled the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court. Rehnquist also presided over the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton, in 1999. Supreme Court scholars said Rehnquist was not openly devout and that he was not driven by a social agenda. Instead, they said, he was motivated by a belief in states’ rights, despite the apparent exception of Bush v. Gore.

“He seemed to be very deferential in religion areas to allowing the government to regulate as it wishes,” said Green, a professor at the Willamette University College of Law in Oregon. “Sometimes that means infringing religious liberty, sometimes that means bringing down the wall.”

 

The Inner Sanctum


I had just finished up with a tour of the new Mormon Temple in Newport Beach when I came face to face with Kathleen. Forthright, with a shining smile, straight shiny hair and the physique of a beach volleyballer, she seemed to embody the ideal of young Mormon womanhood.

Kathleen grew up just blocks from where the temple now stands, and is looking forward to a life in its embrace. After spending three hours at the temple, I had a lot of questions, and Kathleen had answers.

The tour was part of a public open house that all temples hold just once. After a temple is officially consecrated, its inner sanctum is open only to Mormons in good standing. You need a bar-coded card, good for one year at a time, to get in after that.

But for a week before consecration, non-Mormons, called gentiles, are allowed to visit. Earlier this month, tens of thousands of people did. I joined in with a group from the American Jewish Committee, which has worked to enhance interfaith relations with the LDS Church.

The beautifully landscaped temple grounds were filled with tour groups; the parking lot seethed with cars and tour buses. The gleaming buildings, the immaculately laid out gardens and paths and the unfailingly cheerful tour guides in sensible dresses or suits and ties gave the day an efficient, theme-park feel. A dozen Jews at a synagogue Kiddush couldn’t maintain that kind of order.

To the uninitiated or unprepared, Mormon theology is weird. Not bad weird, or wrong weird, just strange to those who are used to God’s revelation coming to a close with Deuteronomy. Founding prophet Joseph Smith began receiving his revelation in 1823 in the form of a book of gold pages, presented to him on a hill in upstate New York by the angel Moroni.

The book detailed a strange and fabulous story of the former inhabitants of North America. Having left Jerusalem 600 years before the birth of Jesus, two tribes of Israel, the Nephites and the Lammanites, battle for supremacy until Jesus comes to America to make peace between them.

He leaves, then the Lammanites eradicate the Nephites, whose leader was Moroni’s father, Mormon. The Book of Mormon imparts this bloody story as well as Mormon’s wisdom, though Smith and his followers continued to receive divine messages.

The revelations led to strict codes of conduct: no alcohol, no caffeine, no tobacco, clear lines of patriarchal authority, a solemn and powerful church hierarchy and tithing — about half of all Mormons tithe 10 percent of their pre-tax earnings to the church.

The Mormon Church abandoned polygamy in 1890, and entered mainstream American religious life with what author Jon Krakauer, in his excellent study, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” called, “stunning determination.” They were the Lord’s Elect, or Latter-Day Saints (LDS), with the mission of establishing the One True Church, and preparing the way for the Second Coming.

What’s fascinating to me about the LDS Church is not its fabulistic ur-text. These are narratives, like the Bible and Quran, that believers take on faith. What’s almost unbelievable is the church’s newness. Now, 150 years after its founding, the LDS Church has 13 million members worldwide. There are about the same number of Jews in the world. (True, millions of us were murdered, but we also had a 4,000-year head start.) Now, the race for hearts and minds really isn’t even close.

Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates the LDS Church will grow to 265 million members by 2080. At any moment, about 60,000 Mormon missionaries are spread around the globe, proselytizing on behalf of their faith. “No other American religious movement is so ambitious,” wrote professor Harold Bloom in “The American Religion.” “And no rival even remotely approaches the spiritual audacity that drives endlessly toward accomplishing a titanic design.”

To the extent organized Jewry is organized and has anything approaching a “design,” it is merely to stop what is seen as the inexorable attrition of Jewish souls. Meanwhile, some 300,000 people join the LDS Church each year, the largest growth rates being in Africa and South America.

Touring the sanctum santorum of Mormon belief, I tried to divine what accounts for this appeal.

The rooms are large, though not cathedral grand. They have reproduction French furniture and crystal chandeliers. Large clerestory windows pour light onto simple religious-themed paintings and murals.

Other than the baptismal room, which features a Jacuzzi-like pool supported on the backs of huge oxen statues, the other rooms are — just nice rooms, decorated more like the Century Plaza Hotel than Lourdes or the Crystal Cathedral or, for that matter, Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

In these rooms, Mormons engage in distinct, personalized rituals — baptizing themselves or deceased ancestors in the True Church or sealing themselves in eternal marriage. One room, the Ordinance Room, is painted with bright murals of California landscape. It could be a Hollywood screening room — and it is, in fact, where Mormons sit and watch a movie about the founding of Mormonism.

Since that recent beginning, the LDS Church has splintered into numerous sects, some of which, as author Krakauer documents, can be as unbendingly fundamentalist as the Taliban. But within the mainstream movement, orderliness abounds. The ideals of 19th century America — hierarchy, the patriarchal family, charity, temperance, personal revelation — are enshrined.

“Salvation,” one Mormon leader told our group, “is a family affair.”

After the tour, when I found myself face to face with Kathleen, I asked her what happened to the golden tablets, which Joseph Smith said he translated from their original “Reformed Egyptian.” She explained that they had been lost.

I also had another question on my mind. I explained to her that a large segment of Jewry believes that while our holy books reflect eternal truths, they are not necessarily literally true. I wondered: Did Latter-day Saints believe in the literal truth of the Book of Mormon?

Kathleen’s smile didn’t waver, and her voice was strong and sure.

“I understand metaphor,” she said, “and I understand history. My degree is in history. But we believe in the revelation of the prophet as it is written.”

Combine that powerful belief with a duty to proselytize, and it’s no wonder this new religion will soon fill a far larger portion of the world and the religious firmament than our own.

 

Political Journal


Expatriates’ Vote

It’s long been more socially acceptable for Jews to immigrate to Israel than to emigrate out of it. Some Israelis feel that they’re abandoning the project of the Jewish state, not doing their part, not facing the same risks as those they leave behind.

So it’s somewhat understandable that Israelis living abroad have never been able to vote in Israel’s elections, even though other democracies make such allowances for their citizens abroad.

However, attitudes are shifting both here and in Israel. Between 150,000 and 300,000 expatriate Israelis live in the Los Angeles area, and some of them are pushing for the right to cast absentee ballots in Israeli elections. The Council of Israeli Community L.A., a group that organizes local cultural and political events for Israelis, is stoking the debate.

Israel “deals with the question of its own existence on a daily basis,” said Moshe Salem, president of the Tarzana-based nonprofit. So it is “in the interest of [Israel] to grant the Diaspora Israelis the right to vote.” Israelis in America “have a vested interest.” They “want to know what’s happening.”

Israel maintains about 350,000 Israelis on its voter rolls who can’t cast ballots because they live abroad.

“Granting voting rights would unite them around Israel, and means they will influence [non-Israeli] Jews around them,” Salem said.

He’s discussed the matter with Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Los Angeles Consul General Ehud Danoch, Israeli Maj. Gen. Doron Almog and several members of the Knesset. Salem reported that all have supported the idea.

Bills expanding balloting to overseas Israelis have been raised and defeated in several recent Knesset terms. In January, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he supported the notion; he even appointed a high-level committee to examine the details, the Jerusalem Post reported.

But earlier this month, opposition emerged from left-leaning Israeli parties, which fear introducing hundreds of thousands of absentee Jewish voters who are generally perceived to be more hawkish. The measure was defeated in the Knesset 25-23. It’ll be at least six months before the Knesset can take up the matter again.

Supporters point out that a growing Arab population could eventually eclipse Jewish voters, and Israelis from abroad could act as a counterbalance. Besides, many expats have served in the Israeli Defense Forces, pay taxes to Israel and intend to return some day.

A compromise that would honor individual rights ought to be within reach, given that numerous democracies around the world have successfully preserved voting rights for their citizens abroad. But any policy that could alter the balance of power between left and right and between Jews and Israeli Arabs is destined to be contentious.

“Everybody will be tuning in,” said Salem, describing the benefits of Israelis voting worldwide. “In a way, you’re affecting the entire Jewry outside of Israel. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is going to happen.”

Battling Over Message

The college campus has always been a central battleground for hearts and minds — and that includes education about Israel. In Washington, that battle is engulfing H.R. 509, legislation being supported by a range of groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

The bill would re-authorize decades-old grants that pay for foreign affairs education, while simultaneously creating a new advisory board to review the instructional content of programs receiving funds. The aim, at least among Jewish supporters, is to balance perceived anti-Israel bias with other perspectives.

“What we’re having now in the college campuses is basically professors using their desks as pulpits for political propaganda,” said Sarah Stern, director of the office of governmental and public affairs for the AJCongress. These academics, she said, are “looking basically at the entire world through the paradigm that America is a colonial hegemonic occupier, and Israel is the persona non grata of nations.”

The underlying argument is not new, as right-wing groups have railed for years about professors brainwashing students with leftist ideology. Common complaints feature professors (like Columbia’s Joseph Massad) supposedly berating a student about Israeli or Zionist “war crimes,” accounts that often turn out to be exaggerated or provoked.

Many professors and Muslim groups, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, vigorously oppose the proposed advisory board as undue interference in academic freedom, because although the board cannot hire or fire academics, its recommendations to the secretary of education would be influential.

Blurring Church-State Separation

A number of Jewish groups are lining up against an education-related measure that could allow the Bush administration to further blur the line of separation between church and state.

At issue is an amendment, HR 2123, which would allow faith-based groups to limit hires to people of their faith in federally funded Head Start programs. Head Start provides child care and education services to low-income families. Amendment supporters, most of them Republican, call the issue “charitable choice.”

Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, are vehemently opposed, saying that charitable choice deviously groups overtly sectarian churches and synagogues together with service providers like Jewish Family Service by classifying all of them as faith-based organizations.

“The rubric ‘faith-based’ is a ruse,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council. “They’re trying to use the term in order to get pervasively sectarian organizations into play.”

If the amendment passes, legislators who side with the Jewish groups might have to vote against the entire Head Start re-authorization, which means hurting the low-income families who benefit from the program.

The Jewish Seat


Seven American Jews have served on the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

Make that eight — if you include Sandra Day O’Connor.

O’Connor, who announced her retirement from the bench last week, isn’t Jewish (you read it here first). But her legal opinions have had a profoundly positive effect on American Jewish life, which underscore the potential impact of the person President Bush nominates to replace her.

Appreciation is pouring in for O’Connor from streams of Judaism that rarely flow together. Orthodox groups have lauded her for her moderation, while more liberal denominations have praised her swing vote on issues dear to them.

“Justice O’Connor so often has been the decisive vote on the court in support of fundamental rights: religious liberty, civil rights, reproductive rights key among them,” wrote Robert Heller, chair of the Union for Reform Judaism’s board of trustees.

For many years, there really was such a thing as “the Jewish seat” on the nation’s highest court. The first Jew seated on the court was Louis D. Brandeis, nominated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. A native of Louisville, Ky., Brandeis graduated Harvard Law School at age 20, and soon established a reputation as a brilliant defender of progressive rights, championing trade unions and women’s suffrage, among other causes.

As Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in a recent article on Jews in the court, Brandeis, who was not religious, was renowned for his ardent sense of ethics and social justice. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s name for him was “Isaiah,” after the biblical prophet.

President Herbert Hoover appointed Benjamin Cardozo to the court in 1932. The descendant of an illustrious Sephardic family, Cardozo wrote extensively on the relationship of law to social change, defending most of the New Deal measures against the court’s more conservative justices.

Following Cardozo, who died after serving six years on the bench, Roosevelt appointed Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard Law professor who helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and defended labor unions, as well as anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.

Frankfurter adhered to Cardozo’s dictum that “the great generalities of the Constitution have a content and a significance that vary from age to age.” In a day and age when the term “activist judge” was a compliment, not a curse, these two men had a tremendous impact on the lives of less fortunate Americans.

President John F. Kennedy appointed Arthur Goldberg to the court in 1962, following Frankfurter’s retirement. Goldberg, the youngest of 11 children born into a poor immigrant family, was also a staunch defender of organized labor. A World War II veteran, he went on to serve as secretary of labor, U.S. representative to the United Nations and ambassador at large.

When Goldberg resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations., President Lyndon Johnson appointed Abe Fortas to the court. Fortas was also a champion of individual rights, a man who stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Cold War and argued successfully in Gideon v. Wainwright for the right to publicly funded counsel for indigent defendants.

The lone, liberal “Jewish Seat” became the plural “seats that happen to be filled by Jews” when President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg in 1993 and Stephen Breyer in 1994. There was no great political or social upside for Clinton in choosing a Jew, and certainly no downside he had to brave. During Brandeis’ tenure, by contrast, one justice refused to be in the same room with him.

Breyer, for his part, looks little like a crusader for the separation of church and state in the court’s two recent decisions on public displays of the Ten Commandments. Breyer voted with the strict separationists on the court in one case and with those favoring the display of religious symbols on public property in the other.

O’Connor, ironically, adopted the purer position, arguing for the separation of church and state in both cases, ending up once on the winning side and once with the losers in the 5-4 decisions.

Over her entire career, O’Connor, more than any other justice, was able to discern the middle ground in socially divisive cases. This mattered for the nation at large, but also for a Jewish community that is more and more split — perhaps not 50/50, but passionately so — on complex issues like school vouchers, religious symbolism, affirmative action and abortion. She was a justice who could fairly and firmly assert a consensus that helped bridge divides within our community and between Jewish Americans and others.

Consider her lucid opinion striking down the display of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courtroom. “Those who would re-negotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question,” O’Connor wrote. “Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

It is a conservative argument in defense of a cause liberals hold dear.

Bush needs to put forward a name in the O’Connor mold. To paraphrase O’Connor herself, why trade someone whose judiciousness has served us so well, for someone whose rigid ideology may not?

 

O’Connor Played Key Church-State Role


The modern-day legal guidelines on how religion fits into the American public square have largely been the creation of one woman: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been fiercely divided for a quarter-century, with four justices opposing religious images in the public square and all federal money to religious organizations, and with four allowing for both.

At the center has been O’Connor, the first woman on the high court, who announced her resignation last week.

O’Connor’s view — allowing for religious funding but crafting strict rules for religious symbols — has tipped the balance in many of the church-state cases since she joined the court in 1981. It has been her analysis that has led to federal funding for school vouchers, but has limited public displays of religious symbols.

“She feels government money doesn’t make anyone feel unequal,” said Noah Feldman, a law professor of New York University. “Symbols have the capacity to make people feel excluded.”

Numerous interest groups, including a wide range of Jewish organizations, are expected to mobilize for and against President Bush’s choice to replace O’Connor, 75. The stakes are high, because a conservative jurist, which Bush has suggested he would nominate, likely would change the court’s stance on some of the issues the Jewish community cares about.

Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor, said O’Connor “single-handedly kept the wall of separation between church and state standing.”

“If she had not been on the court, we would have Christian prayer in the schools, Christian religious symbols displayed in public places,” he said.

On many issues, O’Connor split the difference between the court’s ideologues. Lawyers and activists say they often tailored briefs to court her vote, even including many of her previous opinions as background material, knowing she would be the swing justice on the issue.

“There was a joke among lawyers that you would just file briefs in her chambers and ignore the other eight justices,” said Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress.

O’Connor established an “endorsement test” on religious symbols in 1984, suggesting that the message a religious icon conveys is as important as the intent of those who crafted it.

“What is crucial is that a government practice not have the effect of communicating a message of government endorsement or disapproval of religion,” she wrote in Lynch v. Donnelly. “It is only practices having that effect, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that make religion relevant, in reality or public perception, to status in the political community.”

That analysis led to split decisions on the public display of nativity scenes. A cr?che by itself was seen as religious, but incorporating other religious and secular symbols changed the context and made the display more about a holiday season.

At the same time, O’Connor sided with conservatives and members of the Orthodox Jewish community, who argued in favor of permitting school vouchers and government funding for computer equipment to religious schools.

“The fact that she was a justice on the court while this evolution was going on meant it happened at a more moderate pace and more moderate tone than if you had a bloc of conservative justices,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

O’Connor also was a strong proponent of religious liberty, arguing that the government must show a compelling interest before infringing on religious exercise.

In one of her final opinions last month, O’Connor argued against the public display of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses.

“It is true that many Americans find the commandments in accord with their personal belief,” she wrote in McCreary County v. ACLU. “But we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”

Nathan Lewin, an Orthodox attorney who argued before the Supreme Court on numerous occasions, said O’Connor was the observant Jewish community’s best friend on the combination of the establishment clause and issues tied to the free exercise of religion.

“She is very understanding and sympathetic of the needs of religious minorities and the ability to display those needs publicly,” Lewin said.

O’Connor’s appointment was historic. Nominated by President Ronald Reagan, she became the first woman on the high court.

“She’s been a role model, a distinguished jurist and furthered the advancement of women through her decisions, personality and presence,” said Judge Norma Shapiro, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Court analysts say O’Connor made decisions based on fact, not ideology, and looked at each case on its merits. She also looked to ensure that the court did not move too quickly. She provided the swing vote in many of the civil rights reforms of recent years, including repealing sodomy laws and upholding the principle of limited affirmative action.

“She came in as a moderate conservative,” said Steven Green, former general counsel of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “She quickly fell under the influence of Justice Lewis Powell, who was the preeminent fence sitter and saw issues in shades of gray.”

When Powell retired in 1987, O’Connor became the court’s center.

O’Connor’s moderate positions won her many fans in the American Jewish community. While she did not go as far as many liberal Jewish groups wanted on church-state cases, she was seen as preventing a total erosion of that constitutional separation.

“There’s no question there is more left of the high wall of separation because O’Connor was on the court,” Stern said.

Orthodox leaders also cite her as the reason that vouchers and other programs for religious schools are available today.

O’Connor traveled to Israel in December 1994 with the National Association of Women Judges. In Jerusalem, she read a psalm at the women’s section of the Western Wall and was so moved at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, that she nearly collapsed, said Judge Shapiro, who was on the trip.

“She’s not anti-religion, but she respects the separation of church and state,” Shapiro said.

Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas and staff writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this report.

 

Orthodox Lobbyist in Eye of Ethics Storm


 

Missions to Israel are a staple of Jewish organizations, but when Pepe Barreto leads a group tour there in August, it’ll represent something new.

Barreto is perhaps the most popular drive-time host on Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles and a major player in a new drive to boost travel to Israel among California Latinos.

The campaign is a key part of a program outlined by Daniela Aharoni, the recently arrived director of the Israel Government Tourist Office for the Western United States. With Hispanics/Latinos making up nearly half the population of Los Angeles County and one-third of the state, this demographic will be of ever-growing importance in the years to come.

“We have found that Latinos are free-spending tourists, with a strong religious interest in the Holy Land,” said Aharoni, sitting in her office with an expansive view of midtown Los Angeles.

Aharoni served previously as deputy director of the Israel tourist office here from 1994-98, and she has been amazed at the rising influence and economic status of Latinos during the intervening seven years.

While American Jews remain Aharoni’s main clientele, she is also putting increased effort into attracting the Christian community.

“If we can convince the pastor of a church to go, his congregants will follow him,” said Aharoni, who is now organizing specially tailored seminars and promotional material for pastors and ministers.

Next year, Aharoni plans to explore the possibility of increasing tourism from the large Korean community in Southern California.

Her jurisdiction includes 13 Western states, Alaska and Hawaii among them, and she acknowledged that it’s tougher to sell Israel tourism in her territory than in the Northeast and Midwest.

“You have a much longer travel time to begin with, and Israeli sunshine isn’t that much of a selling point to people in California or Arizona,” she said.

After a near-disastrous slump in tourism to Israel during the past four years of the intifada, the statistics are beginning to look better. In 2000, the last “normal” year, a record-breaking 2.7 million tourists arrived in Israel. Two years later, the figure had plummeted to 206,000, rising to 379,000 for 2004.

The upswing is continuing, with figures in January and February of this year in the key North American market showing a 15 percent to 20 percent improvement over the same months last year. If the general Middle East situation doesn’t worsen drastically, Israel expects a total of 1.7 million tourists in 2005, 1.9 million in 2006 and 2.1 million in 2007.

Despite the gloom of the intifada years, Israel has been busy improving its tourism infrastructure and added a host of new attractions, Aharoni said. Off the top of her head, she reeled off the Davidson Center and archaeological park near the Western Wall, a new Yad Vashem historical museum, Israel Park in Latrun, Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv and Begin Museum in Jerusalem. There’s also easier access to Masada and new facilities and projects in Sefad, Tiberias, Akko and Eilat.

Aharoni’s office will trumpet Israel’s old and new attractions at the May 15 Israel Independence Day festival in Woodley Park in Van Nuys. A week later, on May 22, Eilat will join 20 other Los Angeles sister cities at a fair at the Page Museum gardens, next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Aharoni hopes that the easing last month of the U.S. State Department warning against travel to Israel will further encourage tourism from the United States.

Aharoni’s father arrived in Israel as a youngster from northern Iran, near the Kurdistan border. The tourist office director, who was born in Jerusalem, regrets that she didn’t learn Farsi (she’s picking up Spanish), but is now learning how to cook Persian-style.

After army service, Aharoni studied at Hebrew University and Israel’s official School of Tourism. She first joined the Ministry of Tourism in 1988 and has been working in the tourism field since, both for the government and in the private sector.

“Tourism is absolutely vital to Israel and its economy,” she said. “For every additional 100,000 visitors, 4,000 new service jobs are created.”

For information about Israel tourism, call (323) 658-7463 or visit www.goisrael.com.

 

Episcopal Church Saves Silver Lake JCC


 

Just two months before its probable closure, the Silver Lake Independent Jewish Community Center has gained a new lease on life thanks to the efforts of a benevolent high-ranking member of the Episcopal Church.

In a bid to save the center, Bishop Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has joined forces with the Silver Lake group and jointly purchased the property from its owner, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). The $2.1-million deal closed April 20 and gives the Episcopalians a 49 percent ownership stake and the Silver Lake supporters a 51 percent share. They will share the facility, with the Diocese planning to hold Sunday services and night programming.

"I’m thrilled. I’m in heaven. It’s still hard to believe we did it," said Silver Lake president Janie Schulman, who spearheaded efforts to save the center, which has more than 100 children enrolled in its preschool and kindergarten and offers many social, education and cultural programs.

Bruno grew up in the area and played basketball at the center in his youth. He dipped into a church discretionary fund to help with the purchase.

If Silver Lake proponents had failed to purchase the property, JCCGLA planned to put it on the market and shutter the center June 30, Schulman said.

For Silver Lake supporters, the sale represents a happy ending to their four-year struggle to keep alive what they consider an important piece of Jewish Los Angeles that has helped create a sense of community among Jews in Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz.

Even though Silver Lake has constantly made a profit in recent years, its fate was tied to the JCCGLA, the property’s owner and, until recently, the overseer of the cities Jewish community centers. Plagued by financial mismanagement and debt, the JCCGLA shuttered the Conejo Valley JCC and the Bay Cities JCC threatened repeatedly to sell Silver Lake — much to the chagrin of its supporters. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of the Southland’s largest philanthropic groups, held a $550,000 lien on the Silver Lake property.

The Federation, long criticized for failing to forgive the debt that Silver Lake inherited from JCCGLA, contributed no money to the recent purchase. Instead, Bruno, individual contributions from center supporters and a loan from Far East National Bank made the deal possible, Schulman said. The Federation, which in recent years has allocated more than more than $2 million in total subsidies and free services to Valley Cities JCC in Sherman Oaks, the Westside JCC and West Valley JCC, has offered Silver Lake no financial support.

"My focus is on the terrific new partnership and looking forward," said Jenny Isaacson, a Silver Lake board member. "That [relations with the Federation] is water under the bridge."

 

Membership Briefs


Humanistic High Holidays

Three secular humanist groups — Adat Chaverim, Society for Humanistic Judaism and The Sholem Community — will hold High Holidays services in the Los Angeles area.

Adat Chaverim, whose “celebrations” have been led by a madrich, or trained lay leader, since its founding four years ago, will welcome an ordained humanist rabbi, Miriam Jerris, for the first time at its Yom Kippur service.

In another first, the services will be held at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Sherman Oaks, instead of the Methodist church, which has housed Adat Chaverim until now.

“It’s nice for our 65 members and their guests to come together at a Jewish venue,” co-founder Joe Steinberg said.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism will meet in West Los Angeles, and The Sholem Community in Culver City and Rancho Park.

For more information, contact: Adat Chaverim, (818) 623-7363, www.vchj.net; Society for Humanistic Judaism, (213) 891-4303, www.shjla.org; and Sholem Community, (818) 760-6625, www.sholem.org. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Biblical Meets Digital

An Israeli company has come up with a unique way of helping people search through the myriad Jewish religious texts that have accumulated since the Torah was given on Sinai 5,000 years ago. DBS International has put more than 500 texts, including the entire text of the Tanach and the Talmud, onto two CD-ROMs called Torah Treasures.

“It’s like the Concordance but much more efficient,” said Rabbi Yoseph Gubits, the director of the American office for DBS International, referring to the classic Jewish reference texts that lists the sources for any mention of a name or place in the Tanach and Talmud. “You type in a word, and then in a few seconds you receive a list of all the places that word is mentioned. If you click on [the listing] you get the whole page, and then if you click on it again you get the commentaries on that page. And you can search through any or all of the books.”

DBS sells two versions of Torah Treasures. Version nine has 512 books on it and costs $310; version 10 has 562 books and costs $420.

Gubits thinks that the CD-ROMs will be indispensable to rabbis and teachers who need to prepares talks and classes.

Currently, the texts on the CD-ROMs are only available in Hebrew.

For more information, visit www.dbsus.com or call (718) 437-7337. — Gaby Wenig, Staff Writer

Synaplex Revives Synagogues

This September, two Los Angeles-area temples will be among five new synagogues that will begin participating in the Synaplex Initiative, a program of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), which is designed to boost synagogue attendance.

Synaplex (a combination of synagogue and multiplex, as in movie theatres) is already in place at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, University Synagogue in Irvine and at nine other synagogues across the country.

Synaplex supplements the traditional Friday night prayer service with a range of options — anything from Torah-based yoga to a family-friendly pizza party, a community service project to a guest lecturer — to get people excited about Shabbat. Any or all of the activities could be going on in a Synaplex synagogue at the same time.

On average, Synaplex synagogues have seen their attendance increase by 78 percent on Friday evenings. Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills has increased its average attendance on Synaplex Shabbats by 940 percent.

“Synaplex is an expression of how the Sabbath can be celebrated in a way that speaks to modern individuals and families and restores the synagogue to its traditional position as a communal and spiritual center,” said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of STAR.

For more information, visit www.starsynagogue.org . –GW

We Must Renew Presbyterian Dialogues


Late last month, the 493 delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC-U.S.A.) adopted a series of deeply troubling “overtures” (their term for policy statements).

The General Assembly defeated an attempt to cut off funding for “messianic” congregations, which target Jews for proselytization and conversion. It condemned the Israeli security fence and, in an overture supporting the Geneva peace accords, called for divestment from companies doing business in Israel.

One of the rabbis I spoke to observed that, when taken together, the refusal to suspend funding for proselytization of Jews and the statement opposing the security barrier suggest that PC-U.S.A. believes that “Jewish souls are worth saving, but not Jewish lives.”

These statements reveal a significant chasm separating the Jewish community and PC-U.S.A. But however tempting it may be to entrench ourselves behind defensive and divisive rhetoric, for the sake of Israel, our long-standing friendship with the Presbyterians and our common values and concerns, we must strive to mend bridges rather than burn them.

Sadly, with one very important exception, none of these gestures is really new. PC-U.S.A., like many of the mainline Protestant denominations, claims to be “even-handed” in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, by equating terrorist acts committed against innocent civilians with legitimate Israeli military actions, they ignore the very security on which Israel depends. One can be a critic of particular policies of the Israeli government or of specific terror-fighting tactics without falling into the trap of moral equivalency.

What is new, and therefore most troubling, is the call for divestment. PC-U.S.A. has set a double standard by singling out Israel for economic and political sanctions.

Where is the PC-U.S.A. overture on holding accountable the Palestinian Authority officials who facilitate terrorism through the misuse of Palestinian and international funds? Where is the overture demanding true political reform in the Palestinian Authority? And where are the overtures divesting from countries with far, far greater human rights abuses than the democratic country of Israel: Myanmar, North Korea, China, Iran?

It has long been a linchpin of doves in Israel and their supporters around the world that the more economically and militarily robust Israel felt itself to be, the more willing it was to take risks for peace when the time came about. An Israeli economy weakened by divestment undercuts that willingness, and if shaped to include military contractors, divestment could weaken Israel’s security.

Although I know that many within PC-U.S.A. earnestly seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, its endorsement of divestment threatens to gravely destabilize the dynamics that are indispensable to a real peace process.

In response to these unprecedented overtures, some in our community have called for ending all dialogue with Presbyterians. I believe that is exactly the wrong response. What we need is a renewed dialogue that would occur on two levels.

On the national level, we need to reach out to the leadership of PC-U.S.A. and explain to them — without rancor or disdain — that the repercussions of their actions belie their stated support for Israel and deter progress toward a lasting peace.

On the local level, synagogues across the country need to reach out to Presbyterian churches in their communities and embrace a dialogue around Israel that will be difficult and may not lead to complete agreement but is absolutely essential.

Part of that difficulty will be responding to these gestures in a firm and critical manner without resorting to exaggeration or distortion. For example, PC-U.S.A.’s overture did not, as one national Jewish organization claimed, “call Israel a racist, apartheid state….” Such distortions distract from the sincerity and effectiveness of our response.

To address the immense criticism facing their endorsement of divestment, PC-U.S.A. clarified that “the assembly’s action calls for a selective divestment and not a blanket economic boycott, keeping before us our interest in Israel’s economic and social well-being.”

While welcoming that clarification, it is now our job to explain to them that divestment in any degree threatens the very existence of Israel and the prospects for peace. And it is our job to ensure that PC-U.S.A. lives up to its promise to keep Israel’s well-being not only in their words but in their deeds. Only through honest and sustained dialogue can this be achieved.

We must have the resolve to reach out across the chasm to our Presbyterian neighbors. We must do whatever we can to assure that, where the Presbyterians have gotten it wrong, they will work with us to get it right.


Mark J. Pelavin is director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism and associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Say Hello Before They Say Goodbye


Jews for Jesus, Jews attending churches, low synagogue membership, astronomical rates of intermarriage — as complex as these issues are, there is at least one remarkably simple and inexpensive solution to encouraging Jewish participation. It’s called a warm greeting.

A friendly smile, a warm greeting, an invitation to lunch. If you think that is silly and simplistic, think again. As part of their course work, I require my students to interview two Jews. Because many of them — all non-Jews, primarily from the South Bay — lead very narrow lives, they do not know how to find Jews and turn to familiar institutions, one of which is church. Lo and behold — as the most recent National Jewish Population Survey has finally shown — they find Jews there.

Over the years, of the 40 or so of these interviewees, about three-quarters said they were drawn to the church because of the support of their non-Jewish spouse and the friendliness of the Christian congregation. They felt welcomed.

Compare that with my experiences and those of friends. I cannot begin to enumerate all the Shabbat morning (and Friday night) services I have attended where not one single person greeted me. The list includes at least 16 of the major synagogues in Los Angeles County — of all streams. Nor is it just Los Angeles. I received the same reception in the largest Conservative synagogues in Manhattan, Queens, San Diego, Vancouver, Miami, Cleveland and Toronto, as well as the largest synagogues (Orthodox) in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Istanbul. And in Israel, in Hebrew-speaking congregations — forget it. One is invisible until one attends regularly for six months.

Nor is it just synagogue life. Over the past three years I attended two lectures at the Yiddish Culture Club. In each, I was one of two or three people under 65 years of age. Would it not seem natural that they would greet me warmly? Think again.

Not a word. (The lectures, in Yiddish, were first-rate, so I would go again.)

In the spirit of ecumenicism, I had the same experience at St. Stephen’s Serbian Orthodox Church last month. There were only about 25 people who attended the Vespers (evening) service and not a single one came up to greet me.

Not all synagogues (or churches) are so aloof. I have been approached and invited out at Beth Jacob, Aish HaTorah and some, but not all, Chabad synagogues. At the Movable Minyan, members are required to speak to guests. When I bring students to a Shabbat service, I bring them to Mishkon Tephilo, in part because the people tend to be friendly, a trait not lost on the students. All the students who report on their experiences have a positive predisposition and they invariably mention — indeed emphasize — the friendliness of the congregants.

It’s almost too simple. Among both Jews and Christians, which movements are growing the fastest? Those that engage in outreach and that offer the strongest sense of community — those that are the most welcoming. Indeed, one of the charges against cults is that they are too friendly. Few synagogues have to worry about that charge.

A few years ago, synagogue leaders created a commission, Synagogue 2000, to devise new guidelines that would make stagnant synagogues more alive. Among the suggestions was making synagogues more friendly. But when, in July 2001, I went to services on a Shabbat morning to the synagogue of a Synagogue 2000 leader, there were 23 people, not a single one of whom greeted me. Maybe that’s why there were only 23 people.

It is not as though we need to seek out the secrets of evangelical Christian churches.

Hospitality goes back to the first Jew, Abraham, who even in extreme discomfort, welcomed the wayfarers to his home. One of the common themes throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, especially for the patriarchs and matriarchs, is that of hospitality. The Hebrew, hachnasat orchim, literally means “causing guests to enter [one’s home].”

Nor did this virtue escape the sages. We say a special blessing for guests on Sukkot. We start the seder with an invitation to all who are hungry to join us at the table, an Aramaic expression taken directly from Rabbi Huna who, according to legend, went outside and publicly invited all the needy (koll ditzrich yatay v’lechol) to join him at every meal (Taanit 20b). Rabbi Yochanan avers that hospitality is equal to prayer; Rabbi Dimi disagrees, stating that hospitality is greater (Shabbat 127a-b). In a passage included in the morning service of traditional prayer books, the rabbis included hospitality as one of the major mitzvot.

Will a smile, friendly greeting and an invitation to lunch solve all synagogue problems? Hardly. But it’s a better start than what we are doing now. If you don’t believe me, then I can recommend lots of churches where Jewish-born men and women now belong. Ask them.


Alan Fisher is a political science professor at California State University Dominguez Hills.

Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion


Controversial syndicated radio-show host and public advocate of Orthodox Judaism Laura Schlessinger — "Dr. Laura," as she is known to her 12 million daily listeners — confessed on air this month that she will no longer practice Judaism.

Although Schlessinger — who very publicly converted to Judaism five years ago — said she still "considers" herself Jewish, "My identifying with this entity and my fulfilling the rituals, etc., of the entity — that has ended," she said on "The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Program" on Aug. 5.

Syndicated nationally since 1994, Schlessinger has won over listeners with her hard-edged advice and razor-sharp tongue. Yet her brash style, not to mention her espousal of a strict "moral health" code — including controversial condemnations of homosexuality as "a biological error" — put her at odds with wide swaths of the Jewish community. Many found her moralist, black-and-white, you’re-with-me-or-against-me stance to be more representative of evangelical Christians than of Jews, who were often among her most outspoken critics.

Schlessinger’s office said she was unavailable for comment.

In her 25 years on radio, Schlessinger said she was moved "time and time again" by listeners who wrote and described that they had "’joined a church, felt loved by God’ and that was my anchor."

Schlessinger even hinted at a possible turn to Christianity — a move that, radio insiders say, would elevate her career far beyond the 300 stations that currently syndicate her show.

"I have envied all my Christian friends who really, universally, deeply feel loved by God," she said. "They use the name Jesus when they refer to God … that was a mystery, being connected to God."

Of her conversion to Judaism, Schlessinger said, "I felt that I was putting out a tremendous amount toward that mission, that end, and not feeling return, not feeling connected, not feeling that inspired. Trust me, I’ve talked to rabbis, I’ve read, I’ve prayed, I’ve agonized and I came to this place anyway — which is not exactly back to the beginning, but more in that direction than not."

Born to a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, Schlessinger was raised in Brooklyn in a home that was without religion. Approximately 10 years ago, prompted by a question from her son during a viewing of a Holocaust documentary, Schlessinger, 56, began exploring her Jewish roots.

She underwent a Conservative conversion in 1997, and later decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion instead.

"I still see myself as a Jew," Schlessinger said on the air. "But the spiritual journey and that direction, as hard core as I was at it, just didn’t fulfill something in me that I needed."

Even Schlessinger’s detractors were shocked by the news. "I can’t tell you how significant this is," said fellow Jewish media star and "Kosher Sex" author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has sparred with Schlessinger over her comments on homosexuality.

"Dr. Laura always equated her morals and ethics with Jewish morals and ethics," he said. "That placed the American Jewish community in a real fix; on the one hand, she made Judaism very popular, on the other, she made it vilified and hated by many people."

"It seems incredible that an ethicist and moralist of her standing would invoke such shallow arguments," added Boteach, who was en route to an appearance on the syndicated television show "Blind Date." "I never got great applause for my work from the Jewish community — but my people are my people, whether they love or hate me."