Spectator – ‘Soprano’ Sings on Jewish Couch
What Do Gen-Y Jews Want? Everything
Brandeis University just released a new study of Jewish college students. It found that they’re proud to be Jewish, largely unaffiliated, attracted to Jewish culture more than religion, like diversity and don’t feel strong ties to Israel or Jewish federations.
Reboot, a nonprofit that promotes creative Jewish initiatives, just did a study of the same age group, and found that they’re proud to be Jewish, avoid institutional affiliation, are interested in Jewish culture and have diverse allegiances.
Sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York did a similar study, as did Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and they both found … guess what? Young Jews are proud, unaffiliated, pro-culture, pro-diversity and anti-tribal.
The last few months have seen a flood of studies of Gen-Y Jews — all trying to map their sense of Jewish identity, affiliation patterns, needs, hopes, beliefs and behaviors.
Why is everyone looking at the same population?
First, there are the numbers: almost half a million Jewish college students, the future of this country’s Jewish community. The very few studies on record, particularly the 1990 and 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Surveys (NJPS), indicate that large numbers of young Jews aren’t going to synagogue, joining Jewish organizations, marrying other Jews or giving money to Israel or Jewish charities.
They’re opting out, which has led to great hand-wringing and head-shaking on the part of American Jewish officials.
Yet the new studies show an up-and-coming generation that is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, is coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.
Researchers say it’s cause for cautious celebration.
“There has been a general angst about the Jewish future for the past two decades, a continuity crisis,” says Roger Bennett, senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which sponsored the March 2006 Reboot study, “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices.”
Describing his study’s findings as “very positive,” Bennett says, “I hope this study assuages almost all the fear. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.”
The question for Jewish funders and organizations is what they’re going to do with the information, Bennett says.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says that while Jewish leaders in the late 1960s and early ’70s were “very unhappy about developments in the youth culture, and took a long time to reconcile themselves to it,” today’s Jewish leadership “is inquisitive, wants to know more.
Even while the older generation “may be shocked at things like Heeb,” an irreverent youth magazine, it “sees that something is going on and is paying attention,” Sarna says.
But if all these new studies are yielding pretty much the same information, are they useful?
Yes, researchers insist. First, each study asks slightly different questions, reflecting the needs of the sponsoring organization.
For example, Hillel’s study was prompted largely by one figure from the 2000-2001 NJPS, which showed that two-thirds of Jewish college students don’t attend Hillel activities, says Julian Sandler, chair of the group’s strategic planning committee. Hillel will release its long-awaited study of Jewish college students in late May.
The statistic “troubled us immensely,” Sandler says. Hillel engaged in two years of research “to try to understand what it is that today’s Jewish students are interested in.”
Hillel already has put some of that information to work. One of the central findings of its study is that young Jews have “a strong desire to find out more about their Jewishness, especially from an ethnic perspective,” which can “be manifested in multiple ways.”
One popular way is through tzedek, or social justice work. To that end, Hillel last month sent hundreds of students on a spring-break trip to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild communities hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“Tzedek will be a major emphasis [of Hillel programming in the future],” Sandler says.
Amy Sales, co-author of “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” a new study by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, says her data, collected in 2003, helps the people funding Jewish campus activities to use their dollars more effectively.
Her study found, among other things, that Jewish college students are interested in Jewish studies, want events that have a Jewish “flavor” but are open to non-Jews and need help in finding meaningful, compelling ways to engage in Jewish life.
She and co-author Leonard Saxe used that information to propose that Hillel customize its programs for each campus and develop better relationships with university administrations, other campus groups and local Jewish communities, creating “Jewish-friendly campuses” rather than focusing on simply reaching as many Jewish students as possible.
In fact, Hillel is doing just that, incoming President Wayne Firestone says. The group is convening a Washington summit May 21-23 to bring together funders, university administrators and Jewish organizational heads to talk about how to improve working relationships on campus, the first time such a targeted meeting has been held.
Researchers from all the studies agree that today’s young Jews can be a willing and energetic audience if the organized Jewish community steps up to the plate in time, and with a message that is relevant.
“They are looking for a positive Jewish experience, and every Jewish institution that answers that and puts its faith in young people will have a rosy future,” Bennett says. “Any funder that wishes to innovate is going to prosper.”
The ‘Bigamist’ Versus the ‘Agunah’
The View From L.A.: Hoping for the Best
Los Angeles supporters of Israel’s political parties praised or mourned the results of the Knesset election, but even the winners weren’t entirely in a mood to celebrate.
Shimon Erem, a former high-ranking officer in the Israeli army, said he had planned to fly to Israel to cast his ballot for Kadima (Israel has no absentee voting). However, with pre-election predictions that the centrist party would gain around 40 seats, Erem felt his vote wouldn’t be needed.
Instead, Kadima got only 29 seats out of a total of 120, a showing he attributed to “faulty strategy due to overconfidence, to taking its support for granted.”
Dr. Yehuda Handelsman, a veteran leader of the local Israeli community, also backed Kadima, but had been more realistic.
“I think we did pretty well,” he said. “If Ariel Sharon had remained healthy and had led the party, I think we would have gotten 35-40 seats.”
As a new party, Kadima has not yet organized an American support group, but Handelsman predicted the establishment of such an organization in the next two years.
The Labor Party came in second with 19 seats and Bea Chenkin, regional executive director of Ameinu (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance), said she was satisfied.
“Considering that [former Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres jumped ship to join Kadima, we did as well as could be expected,” she said. “A lot of Israelis feel that the social problems of the country have been neglected, but now these issues are coming to the fore again.”
Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, said that the three religious parties had done a good job in mobilizing their base among the generally apathetic electorate.
“Shas, National Union-Religious Party and United Torah Judaism understood that there was a lot at stake for the observant community and managed to retain their strength, May said.
Even among the Orthodox parties, there are strong ethnic and ideological differences, noted Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a Loyola Law School faculty member and an Orthodox leader.
At least one of the religious parties, most likely the less ideological United Torah Judaism, will join a Kadima-led coalition, Adlerstein predicted.
Robert Rechnitz, national vice chairman and Western regional president of American Friends of Likud, said he was “obviously disappointed” by the election results.
Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, had been the largest party in the sitting Knesset, but will have only 12 seats in the next one.
Rechnitz blamed the decline on Sharon’s absence at the top of the ticket and defections by many retired and Orthodox voters, who had been hurt by Netanyahu’s past economic policies, as well as by what he called a “vicious” campaign against Netanyahu in the Israeli media.
The leftist Meretz Party managed only five seats, to the dismay of Dr. Isaac Berman, a national board member of Meretz USA.
“Similar to the Democratic Party here, Meretz didn’t seem to have clear message and didn’t make the right kind of noise,” Berman said.
Views on the road ahead in the peace process varied from wait-and-see resignation to cautious optimism among several community leaders interviewed by The Journal.
Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, said the situation in Israel is so fluid that it is difficult to make predictions about how events will unfold. Given the internal and external challenges Israel faces, though, she said that now is a time for unity.
“This is a time when Israelis need to pull together and work together,” Rothstein said. “You have the potential polarization of the Israeli society on the left and right on the inside and the Hamas threat from the outside.
A more upbeat assessment came from Mark LeVine, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine. He said that despite Olmert’s vow to draw Israel’s final borders unilaterally, a negotiated settlement could eventually emerge. Hamas, he said, despite its refusal to recognize Israel, is not opposed to cutting a deal. And because of its standing in the Arab street, the group has the credentials to do so.
“Assuming Hamas doesn’t engage in too much violence either against military targets or terrorism against civilians, I would assume that in the next couple years there’s going to be a repeat of the negotiations you had at Camp David in 2000 and in Taba,” said LeVine, who wrote the 2005 book, “Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil” (Oneworld). “They’re probably going to be using pretty much the same maps.”
A local Muslim leader weighed in with similarly cautious optimism.
“There’s a recognition by the bulk of the Israeli population that the Greater Israel Project is over,” said Nayyer Ali, past chair of the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council. “Unlike the mood in Israel in 2000 and before, we now have a consensus among Israelis that the end solution is a Palestinian state.”
Ali added that the rise of the terorrist Hamas group on the Palestinian side also should not be viewed as a fatal impediment to peace. Just as the Israeli left cannot make peace without the support of more conservative Israeli parties, Ali said, Palestinian leaders, absent Hamas, also could not make a binding agreement. Despite its vow never to recognize Israel, “like other ideological parties, I think Hamas will have to deal with reality now that it’s in power,” Ali said.
But Sabiah Khan, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Southern California chapter, said she sees nothing but a stalemate ahead in at least the short term: Israel, on the one side, refuses to negotiate until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes its right to exist. The new Palestinian government, on the other hand, won’t engage Israel until the Jewish state ends its “occupation,” recognizes the national rights of the Palestinian people and renounces terror.
“Basically, we have two groups saying the same thing, that they’re not going to talk to each other [until the other side does something that it isn’t willing to do], Khan said. “Outside intervention from the U.S., Europe, the United Nations or Arab governments is needed.”
Some or all of those parties, she said, could break the impasse by encouraging a negotiated settlement based on international law and existing U.N. resolutions.
Regardless of last week’s voting results, the local Israeli consulate was in campaign party mode on Election Day. Consul General Ehud Danoch and his staff festooned the consulate’s Jerusalem Hall with small Israeli flags, and had spread out a generous supply of pita, hummus, techinah and cookies for more than 100 guests who jammed together to watch the results of the first exit polls.
Danoch drew on his own political background for a running commentary on the merging trends and shared the general astonishment at the success of the Pensioners Party, which came out of nowhere to gain seven seats.
Israeli Producer’s Election-Day Risk
GOP ‘Munich’ Event
In his review of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s “Munich” event (“‘Munich’ Still Topic of Debate,” Briefs, Feb. 24), Robert Jaffee feigns surprise when he states, “Even with Republican sponsors and a largely Republican audience, the panelists at a recent discussion on Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ covered most of the spectrum from left to right.”
As moderator, I opened the event by stating the two conditions under which we agreed to co-host the event with Pepperdine. First was that it should be held as a nonpartisan event, since I do not believe there is an established Republican or Democrat position on the movie — nor should there be. As evidence, I cited critics of the movie on the left, such Alan Dershowitz, as well as defenders of it on the right.
My second condition was that I would not allow the discussion to devolve into ad hominem attacks on either Steven Spielberg, for whom I hold admiration (and as a guardian of the memory of the Holocaust, gratitude), or Tony Kushner, whom I do not particularly admire.
To the audience’s credit, they abided by these admonitions. And when two (out of almost 200) participants engaged the panelists with debate from their seats — as Jaffee noted with condescension — I reminded them of our agreement to submit questions on cards, and they also responded respectfully.
It is curious that Jaffee would leave out all mention of these comments by me.
Readers of The Jewish Journal should be reassured that if they choose to sample one of RJC’s thoughtful events, they will be greeted with respect, not with cream pie in the face, a fate that has befallen conservative speakers at some venues.
Dr. Joel Geiderman
Republican Jewish Coalition
Two recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have undermined David Klinghoffer’s impassioned statement on Jack Abramoff (“In Defense of Jack Abramoff,” Jan. 27). One demonstrated that Abramoff used charities as a place to park money, which he subsequently used as if it was his own, and from another, we learned that this self-described Orthodox Jew advanced the interests and facilitated a meeting for the president of Malaysia with the president of the United States. His client had made such well-publicized anti-Semitic statements that they were broadcast throughout the world.
I wonder if Klinghoffer’s op-ed should not be withdrawn by the author or at least by the papers which published it. We now know it was contrafactual and verifiably untrue when it was written.
I do not claim that Klinghoffer knew that his defense — or his attack on the so-called attackers — was untrue, but his failure to withdraw the story leaves such an impression on this — and I presume other readers. If he does not withdraw it, The Jewish Journal should.
Sigi Ziering Institute
University of Judaism
David Klinghoffer responds:
This correspondent missed the point of my article. That Jack Abramoff broke the law, abused the system and the trust of others was the premise of and occasion for the article I wrote. Once again: What I asked was, given that Abramoff has admitted serious criminal activity, that he’s publicly abased himself, that he’s now going to receive a hefty and deserved prison sentence, how appropriate is it for the Jewish community to continue to pour scorn and, indeed, hate upon him?
The lack of pity and compassion from so many of his co-religionists, the venom I’ve seen in numerous e-mails sent to me directly, is the real desecration of God’s name in this case. The fact that the writer of this letter can’t understand such an elementary point illustrates, rather than contradicts, what I tried to say.
On our trips to Israel we have seen Ethiopian Jews in modern dress, integrated into modern Israeli society. It was heartening. Your Feb. 24 cover showing a primitive Ethiopian and questioning whether such a person can be a Jew is a shameful dig or racist bigotry. It would be more appropriate for a Ku Klux Klan publication than for The Jewish Journal.
Not Made Clear
The Bush administration and the Israelis should have made it clear before the Palestinian elections that democracy does not mean that a people has the right to vote for “Nazis” (“U.S. Must Refocus Democracy Building,” Feb. 24). No fair-minded person would deny that Germany is a democracy, but certainly the Allies would never have let the people of (West) Germany govern themselves if they had elected Nazis, and if this happened, the Allies would not be called “hypocritical.
Another point of common sense. Now that everyone is aware how sensitive Muslims are about certain things, should the world not demand not only that Hamas recognize Israel and denounce terrorism, but that it end all hate speech against Jews.
Obviously, Jews certainly have the right to feel more sensitive about Holocaust denial, the blood libel and being called “pigs” and “dogs” than Muslims do about cartoons that truthfully depict their behavior.
I hope someone asked Elias Khoury at his book reading why the people who started the war against Israel with the intent of wiping it and it’s inhabitants off the face of the earth have the chutzpah to call themselves victims, after they lost their attempted genocide of Israel (“‘Gates’ Hold Key to Palestinians’ Pain,” Feb. 24). I hope someone also asked Khoury why the Arab perpetrators of the “nakhba” didn’t take care of there own refugees.
Howard Blume’s piece is precisely the kind of self-righteous equivocating that keeps the Jewish people off course and susceptible to attack (“Shlomo’s World,” Feb. 24). How dare he go on and on about one, count ’em: one person named Goldstein who killed Arabs while over the past five, 50, 100 and more years how many Arabs have killed how many innocent Jews?
Blume demonstrates that he has very little accurate knowledge of the history or purpose of his own people. A child of the civil rights movement, he does not see a religious Jew’s world as [Blume’s] own world — and therein lies the problem.
Blume was raised with the American civil rights movement as his religion. Has he or others like him really taken the time to see what the roots of that movement were and how it relates to Israel? It was and is the heroic story of the people of Israel that fuels and informs the struggle of black Americans for their freedom.
But Blume apparently refuses to see the cold, hard realities of the Middle East. He doesn’t believe it that when someone says they’re coming to kill you, they actually mean it. If Blume knew the history of his own people and understood what is truly his own world, he would have a very different view.
But, alas, he and others wish to remain in their give peace a chance/we are the world cloud, while denigrating the very religious Jews, who by the courage and devotion, continue to live and maintain the land of Israel. Give a thoughtful reading to from time immemorial will ya?
Read about some of your heroic brothers and sisters on israelnationalnews.com. And you are welcome to contact me for a thorough discussion of the real story of Israel in the Middle East.
Kudos to Howard Blume for his article, which clearly states that the fundamentalists of any religion can be quite evil. They believe that anyone who does not believe exactly as they do are fair game.
In 1977, my wife and I gave ourselves a 25th wedding anniversary gift by touring Israel. My first purchase was a blue-and-white Israeli hat that I wore throughout the tour.
Our guide took us through West Bank communities without any fear. There were soldiers around, but we comfortably fraternized with Arabs in their shops and on their streets. I was delighted to witness Arabs and Jews praying simultaneously in different rooms at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
I constantly wonder what the situation would be today if subsequent Israeli governments had chosen to separate synagogue and state and not encourage religious Zionists, like the murderer Baruch Goldstein, to settle in the West Bank and Gaza.
Martin J. Weisman
Blu Greenberg’s eloquent tribute to the late Betty Friedan reminds us how much courage it took for Friedan to stand up against American society’s treatment of women in the early 1960s (“Friedan: Universal Woman, Particular Jew,” Feb 10). Less well known is that more than 20 years earlier, Friedan spoke out for another unpopular cause — bringing German Jewish refugees to the United States.
Friedan was a freshman at Smith College in Massachusetts in the autumn of 1938, when Hitler unleashed the Kristallnacht pogrom. A debate soon erupted on campus over whether the United States should aid Jewish refugees.
On one side stood Smith President William Allen Neilson, a deeply principled humanitarian who believed America should be true to its tradition of welcoming the downtrodden. He urged the students to sign a petition asking President Roosevelt to let German Jewish girls enter the United States outside the immigration quotas, in order to enroll at Smith.
On the other side in the debate were most of the students, whose opposition to the refugees mirrored the bigotry and isolationism that was all too common in American society then. To Friedan’s surprise and dismay, some assimilated Jewish students joined the anti-refugee side.
Each student house held its own discussion on whether or not to sign the petition. “A number of girls spoke against it, about not wanting any more Jews at Smith,” Friedan later wrote.
There were four older, well-to-do Jewish girls in her house — “the type that spoke in whispery voices and became utterly anemic because they did not want to be known as Jews,” as she put it. “I expected them to speak up [in favor of the petition], but they didn’t. Finally, despite being only a freshman from Peoria, I spoke, urging that we open our doors to those girls fleeing persecution.”
Sadly, her plea fell on deaf ears — the petition was rejected by a large margin. But it is to Friedan’s credit that she stood up for what was right, even when it was unpopular to do so.
Dr. Rafael Medoff
David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies Melrose Park, Pa.
To read more letters this week, visit www.jewishjournal.com.THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or fax: (213) 368-1684
Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA
We were all seated in our respective minyanin when a large outburst sounded from the Orthodox group down the hall. Within a few moments, teenagers were running out from every direction, anxious to see what the excitement was about. As I edged closer, I realized it was not disagreement, but joyous celebration filled with shrieks and songs.
Before I could gather my thoughts, someone grabbed my hand and I was swept up in a whirlwind of excitement and shoved against Jewish teenagers of every denomination in a celebration of Shabbat, Israel and Jewish pluralism.
Attending the North American Association of Jewish High Schools’ (NAAJHS) leadership conference last year awakened me to the great possibilities of Jewish pluralism. NAAJHS was founded as a forum for Jewish community high schools to exchange ideas and work toward the betterment of Jewish education.
Sensitive to the needs of students that affiliate themselves with different denominations, the heads of the program offered a variety of minyan choices, from liberal nature services to Orthodox services with a mechitza. However, as Shabbat approached and we gathered in our separate alcoves, a spark of enlightenment surged across the room as we felt the need to enact the Jewish pluralism that we discussed in our daily seminars.
Clasping hands with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews, we proclaimed our love for Judaism in an outburst of song and dance, putting our differences in belief behind us.
Hidden beneath such Jewish rituals and celebration lies the true nature of pluralism. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis discusses in his essay, “The Pendulum of Pluralism,” the Talmud prescribes benedictions for all of life’s wonders — upon seeing a rainbow, nature, the ocean — but upon witnessing a Jewish audience we are commanded to pronounce: “Blessed is he who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, as is the face of each different from the other.”
Are we living up to this commandment?
Earlier this year, Rabbi Schulweis came to Milken Community High School to engage in a discussion with teachers and students about pluralism. As a school that prides itself on pluralism within a community setting, Milken sought clarity and distinction about a concept that can become cloudy and convoluted.
I was seated on a panel with other students and faculty members, and after our prescribed questions were asked and answered, one teacher in the audience asked a monumental question, one that broadened the question of internal Jewish pluralism to our place in a larger, pluralistic culture: How can we truly embrace pluralism within our society if we are the chosen people, deemed by God to be prosperous and blessed?
Rabbi Schulweis answered the question without hesitation.
“I don’t believe that any religion is chosen by God,” he said, “I believe that we are a choosing people, not a chosen people.”
If we as Jews were to walk around deeming ourselves higher than our surroundings, we would fail to accept others as equals. However, the first step in solving this problem of universal pluralism is addressing the problem of denominational pluralism within our own faith.
Too often we neglect the tension that exists between the Jewish people in order to focus on more prominent, global concerns. By choosing to engage in study and discussion with Jews from all denominations, we will instead model the very behavior we wish to incorporate into larger American society. As the modern enactors of our ancient covenant with God, we must emphasize “choosing” over “chosen,” equality over factionalism and denominationalism.
This transition from passivity to action must first be implemented in solving what Rabbi Schulweis identifies as a key tension within Judaism — the sectionalism among Jewish youth. Conservative teens attend United Synagogue Youth (USY) events, Reform teens attend North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) events, and Orthodox teens attend National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Each youth group provides a comfortable environment for teens to interact with one another, forming friendships that emphasize Jewish values and the importance of Israel. After reviewing the mission statement on each group’s Web site, I found an abundance of overlap and commonality. Each group aims to develop a strong attachment to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel by engaging in study, participating in services, and living a Jewish life. Why don’t these groups explore their own beliefs and values through interaction with each other?
As a student of Milken Community High School, a school in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teenagers study together, I have made it my personal goal to traverse the boundaries of my affiliation with the Conservative movement. If we take a step back from our differences in opinion — take a step back from the confines of our denominations, the limits of our beliefs and the restrictions of our own subjectiveness — we will truly be able to embrace pluralism. As Rabbi Schulweis writes, “Pluralism is not the surrender of debate or the bleaching of passionate conviction … pluralism calls forth an ethic of openness, a disposition to inclusiveness.”
Ashley Reich is a senior at Milken where she is co-editor of The Roar, the school’s newspaper.
Where the Boys Aren’t
‘One People’ Adopts Novel Plan on Book
Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei knew his congregants at Westwood’s Sinai Temple loved reading when about 20 of them braved the evening rush hour last November for an event at the University of Judaism (UJ) celebrating the 1939 talmudic novel, “As a Driven Leaf.”
“This was sandwiched in between two major adult learning weekends,” said Schuldenfrei, still amazed two months later.
The novel by the late Rabbi Milton Steinberg is currently being read at two dozen local synagogues in the new “One People/One Book” program, an attempt to broaden Jewish communal learning by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. It joins other Jewish book group gatherings at the Skirball Cultural Center and Orange County’s Bureau of Jewish Education.
The “One People/One Book” plan is for synagogue members to meet and discuss “As a Driven Leaf” in small groups at least four times between last November’s opening at the UJ and a closing event on May 24 at Milken Community High School.
“Every synagogue is sort of coordinating this in a different way,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, the board’s executive vice president. “In some synagogues, it’s just lay people studying.”
Steinberg’s well-received book is a fictionalized portrait of Elisha ben Abuyah, a dissident talmudic scholar in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. The “One People/One Book” study guide mixes the book’s ideas with Torah texts.
“This book lends itself to so many profound themes,” Diamond said. “Modernity vs. tradition, forgiveness and repentance.”
The board’s president, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Pico-Robertson’s Orthodox B’nai David Judea Congregation, worked last year to develop “One People/One Book” with Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of the Reform congregation, Temple Israel of Hollywood. The new learning program came after the board held annual interdenominational “Meeting in Torah” study nights for six years, but interest in that waned.
“For the first couple of years, it was very novel,” Kanefsky said. “Over the course of years, it became one part of the landscape.”
The new “One People/One Book” program replaces the one night of annual “Meeting in Torah,” with its opening and closing gatherings and smaller synagogue discussion groups.
“This way, we have two of those everyone-coming-together events and the four study groups in between,” Kanefsky said.
At Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, people are absorbing the book in clusters.
“We are reading the book in different settings around the congregation,” Senior Rabbi Laura Geller said. “Two different classes are including it in their reading, so it’s happening all around the congregation.”
Geller said she feels that her 50 to 60 congregants who are reading Steinberg’s book together are gaining “a deeper understanding of rabbinic Judaism. It’s putting flesh and blood on names. I also think that they are finding themselves in the book.”
Schuldenfrei said Sinai Temple will start discussing “As a Driven Leaf” in March, with the Conservative synagogue currently busy marking it its centennial anniversary.
Beyond “One People/One Book,” the Jewish community has other ongoing book groups.
The Skirball Cultural Center’s book group has an “Echoes of the Past” theme set around five novels and nonfiction books to be discussed at monthly meetings through June. The first meeting, on Feb. 14, will examine Australian writer Anna Funder’s “Stasiland: True Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall” (Granta Books, 2003).
Skirball book lovers in March will read Brian Morton’s “A Window Across the River” (Harcourt, 2003), followed in April by Edwidge Danticat’s “The Dew Breaker” (Vintage, 2005). In May, the book group will read James McBride’s “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” (Riverhead Trade, 2001) and in June Andrea Levy’s “Small Island” (Picador, 2005).
In Orange County, the Bureau of Jewish Education is in the midst of 30 weeks of Tuesday morning book club meetings around the women-driven theme, “Foundations: Making Our Wilderness Bloom.”
The bureau’s Web site lists six books anchoring the theme: Haviva Ner-David’s “Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination” (JFL Books, 2000); “A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey” (State University of New York Press, 1999), by Merle Feld, and Kim Chernin’s “In My Mother’s House: A Daughter’s Story” (Harper Perennial, 1994).
Also listed are the Rebecca Goldstein novel, “Mind-Body Problem” (Penguin, 1993); Anzia Yerzierska’s, “Bread Givers: A Struggle Between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New World” (G. Braziller, 1975), and Gina Nihai’s “Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith” (Washington Square Press, 2000).
In addition, the Santa Monica Public Library is exploring Jewish books with its program, “Between Two Worlds: Stories of Estrangement and Homecoming,” meeting the third Tuesday of each month. It will start on Feb. 21 with Eva Hoffman’s “Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language” (Penguin, 1990), followed March 21 by a discussion of Saul Bellow’s “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” (Penguin reissued edition, 2004). Scheduled for April 18 is the Andrea Aciman memoir, “Out of Egypt” (Riverhead Trade, 1996).
Where Streets Were Paved With Sorrow