Finding ‘Jewtopia’

I sat somewhere between anxious and bored in my seat, picking at the polyester threads as they unraveled from the sleeve of my robe. One after one, my classmates were called to the bimah, and in the same sing-song cadence of their bar or bat mitzvah speeches, they started their presentations which all began (at the direction of our teacher) “I am a Jew because … ”.

Our class was comprised of a much smaller group than had made the b’nai mitzvah circuit 3 years before. Now what remained was a group whose parents either guilted them or bribed them to continue their studies through Confirmation (most of them) and those who actually enjoyed learning more about Jewish heritage, prayer and texts (me). But I played along and rolled my eyes during the boring parts.

The Rabbi called the name of one of my classmates once, twice – but no one appeared. “Bueller, Bueller,” the class clown said just loud enough to send a wave of laughter through the room. Suddenly, our giggling was interrupted by what sounded like elephants clomping up wooden stairs.

“I can’t believe he showed up!” Someone exclaimed as our classmate, shirt untucked, hair umkempt and kippah holding on by a half of a pin for dear life, clamored up on stage to give his speech.

He pulled out a piece of crumpled paper from his pocket..

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In producing Jewtopia, Courtney Mizel mixes her passion for the arts with business acumen garnered over decades of experience in the entrepreneurial, consulting, sales, marketing and entertainment industries. She is also the Founding Director of the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, and a voiceover artist. Courtney is most proud of her endeavors in the philanthropic world and of her two amazing daughters, Zoe and Isabella.

Democrats decry delay in vote for Hagel as defense chief

Chuck Hagel's nomination to be U.S. defense secretary went into political limbo on Thursday as Republicans stepped up blocking tactics and Democrats accused them of putting the country at risk by delaying the filling of a major security post.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made an impassioned appeal for Hagel's confirmation amid questions over whether he could get the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican roadblocks preventing a vote.

“This isn't high school getting ready for a football game. We're trying to confirm somebody to run the defense of our country,” Reid said on the Senate floor after Republicans said they would try to block Hagel's confirmation.

The Senate is to consider on Friday whether to clear the way for the confirmation vote.

Sources said Republicans were in heated negotiations with the White House on a compromise under which at least a handful of Republicans would agree to let the confirmation go ahead. A major sticking point is the Obama administration's refusal to release more information about the deadly September attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

The struggle over Hagel's nomination is one of many battles raging between Obama's Democrats and Republicans in Congress, including disputes over gun control, immigration rules and dealing with huge budget deficits.

Reid, a Nevada Democrat, accused Republicans of trying to score political points by coming up with one reason after another to delay confirmation of a new Pentagon chief. He said is was a shame Republicans were using the blocking tactic known as a filibuster for the first time ever to prevent a vote on a defense secretary nominee.

“For the sake of our national security it is time for us to put aside political theater, and that's what it is. People are worried about primary elections,” Reid said.

If confirmed, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska, would replace Leon Panetta, who is retiring. Panetta said he will not leave before his successor is in place, but has expressed eagerness to return to his home in California.

Democrats, who have united in support of Hagel, control 55 seats in the 100-member Senate and could confirm Hagel without any Republican backing. A Cabinet nominee requires the support of only a simple majority to be confirmed.

However, they need the support of 60 senators to clear the procedural hurdles and allow the vote.


Hagel broke from his party as a senator by opposing former President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq War, angering many Republicans. Some Republicans have also raised questions about whether Hagel, 66, is sufficiently supportive of Israel, tough enough on Iran or capable of leading the Pentagon.

His performance at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee also drew harsh criticism. Even some Democrats have said he appeared unprepared and at times hesitant in the face of aggressive questioning.

Earlier, two Republicans had said they would vote for Hagel and several others said they would oppose procedural hurdles, but those positions may have changed.

Republican Senator John McCain, for example, had said he opposed procedural tactics to block the vote on Hagel, but was reconsidering to press the White House to release more information on Benghazi.

A senior Senate Democratic aide said Republicans had informed Democratic leaders that there were not enough Republicans willing to join the Democrats to yield the 60 votes to allow the vote to go through.

Republicans insist that Reid brought the problem on himself by trying to rush Hagel's confirmation. Obama nominated Hagel on Jan. 7 and his hearing before the Armed Services panel took place on Jan. 31.

Democrats said a wait of two weeks for a vote after his hearing was not unusually short. They also noted that many of Hagel's most vocal opponents served with him during his two terms in the Senate from 1997 to 2009 and knew him well.

A White House spokesman said Obama still stands strongly behind Hagel, and said the “unconscionable” delay does not send a favorable signal to allies or U.S. troops.

“The president stands strongly behind Senator Hagel,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on board Air Force One. “It does not send a favorable signal for Republicans in the United States Senate to delay a vote on the president's nominee, a nominee who is a member of their own party, to be Secretary of Defense.”

The confirmation of another of Obama's national security nominees, John Brennan for CIA director, also faces a delay amid jockeying between the White House and lawmakers over the release of sensitive documents, including some related to Benghazi.

Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Phil Stewart and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Warren Strobel, Doina Chiacu and Vicki Allen

Senators assail Obama’s Hagel nomination, question judgment

Republican lawmakers harshly attacked Chuck Hagel on Thursday at a contentious hearing over his nomination to become the next U.S. defense secretary, questioning his judgment on war strategy and putting him broadly on the defensive.

In one of the most heated exchanges, influential Senator John McCain aggressively questioned Hagel, interrupting him and talking over him at times. He openly voiced frustration at Hagel's failure to say plainly whether he was right or wrong to oppose the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.

“Your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not,” McCain said.

Hagel, who like McCain is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, declined to offer a simple yes or no answer, responding: “I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out.”

As President Barack Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon in his second term, Hagel may yet win Senate approval with help from majority Democrats, but he appeared to pick up little fresh Republican support as his hours-long hearing wore on.

Hagel's fellow Republicans dredged up a series of his past controversial statements on Iran, Israel and U.S. nuclear strategy, trying to paint him as outside mainstream security thinking. Even in polarized Washington, the grilling was highly unusual for a Cabinet nominee.

Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina laid into Hagel for once accusing a “Jewish lobby” of intimidating people in Washington, comments Hagel repeatedly said he regretted. Asked whether he could name one lawmaker who had been intimidated, Hagel said he could not. It was one of the many times he appeared uncomfortable.

“I can't think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel and the Senate or the Congress than what you said,” Graham said.


If he is ultimately confirmed, Hagel would take over the Pentagon at a time of sharp reductions in defense spending, but with the United States still facing major challenges, including China, Iran and North Korea.

Hagel, speaking publicly for the first time since the attacks against his nomination began, at times seemed cautious and halting. He sought to set the record straight, assuring the panel that he backed U.S. policies of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and supporting a strong Israel.

“No one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” Hagel said in opening remarks to the packed hearing room.

“My overall world view has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world.”

In an unusual reversal of partisanship, Democrats, more than his fellow Republicans, gave Hagel sympathetic support and time to air his views.

The committee's Democratic chairman, Carl Levin, said his concerns, especially over Hagel's past comments about unilateral sanctions on Iran, had been addressed. “Senator Hagel's reassurance to me … that he supports the Obama administration's strong stance against Iran is significant,” Levin said.

Despite the harsh tone from many Republicans, some senators from the party approached Hagel more collegially.

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia called Hagel by his first name and exchanged jokes with him during his testimony. He served alongside Hagel in the Senate. Roy Blount of Missouri had a cordial exchange about the strength of the country's industrial base.

But Hagel years ago angered many Republicans by breaking with his party over the handling of the Iraq war.

It was one of several contentious chapters of modern U.S. history that surfaced during the session, from the Vietnam War, where Hagel served as an infantryman and was wounded, to President Ronald Reagan's call for nuclear disarmament.

Hagel also was questioned on his view of the Pentagon budget. He is known as an advocate for tighter spending controls.


Even before Hagel started speaking, James Inhofe, the panel's senior Republican, called him “the wrong person to lead the Pentagon at this perilous and consequential time.”

“Senator Hagel's record is deeply troubling and out of the mainstream. Too often it seems he is willing to subscribe to a worldwide view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends,” Inhofe said as the hearing opened.

McCain's harsh attitude toward Hagel – who he also singled out for opposing Obama's surge of forces in Afghanistan – was a far cry from their past, warm ties. McCain campaigned for Hagel in 1996, and Hagel was national co-chairman of the Arizona Republican's unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid.

On Thursday, McCain said that concerns about Hagel's qualifications ran deep.

“Our concerns pertain to the quality of your professional judgment and your world view on critical areas of national security, including security in the Middle East,” he said.

In the entire Senate, which would vote on Hagel if he is cleared by the committee, only one of the 45 Republicans – Mississippi's Thad Cochran – has said he backs Hagel.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida on Thursday joined the list of Republicans who said they will vote against Hagel.

In written responses to wide-ranging questions submitted by lawmakers ahead of the hearing, Hagel said that if confirmed, he would ensure that the military is prepared to strike Iran if necessary but stressed the need to be “cautious and certain” when contemplating the use of force.

Hagel told lawmakers all options must be on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon – language used to suggest the possibility of a nuclear strike.

“My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment,” he said.

Hagel also voiced support for a steady U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, pledged to ensure equal treatment for women and homosexuals in the military and assured the committee that the United States would maintain an “unshakeable” commitment to Israel's security.

Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Warren Strobel and Jackie Frank

Saying “Amen” to Life

When my husband and I put our 2-year-old to bed, we help him with the usual array of activities: changing into pajamas, reading a book, drinking milk, singing songs
and — most beloved to me — chanting the Shema and Ve’ahavta.

Each evening at the conclusion of the nighttime Shema, my son says something he reserves for this prayer and no other. Taking a breath and a pause from his bottle, he shouts out: “Amen to that!” and then goes back to drinking.

My son’s nightly affirmation informs my reading of Parshat Mishpatim this year. In this week’s Torah portion, the Children of Israel respond fervently to words of Torah, repeated by Moses: “All the people answered in one voice, saying, ‘All the things that Adonai has commanded, we will do!'” (Exodus 24:3).

Moses then puts the commandments in writing and reads them aloud, and the people confirm their commitment: “All that Adonai has spoken we will faithfully do” (Exodus 24:7).

It raises the question: How do we respond to God’s words and Torah’s laws? It’s hard to imagine contemporary Jews embracing Law and Covenant as our ancestors did. Most of us are too impatient to tolerate the repetition, too ambivalent for such unbridled enthusiasm. Unconditional, all-inclusive agreement may seem foolhardy to us. Do we really mean that “all Adonai has spoken, we will faithfully do”?

“We will faithfully do” is a translation of the famous Hebrew phrase na’aseh venishma, which could also be translated as: “we will do and obey” or “we will do and harken.” The verse is classically interpreted to mean: “first we will do or practice these commandments, and only then, thereby, we will come to understand them.” The root ‘sh.m.’ allows for all these renditions, because it can mean listen, harken, obey, do or understand.

“Na’aseh venishmah” — like “Amen to that!” — is a way of saying “yes!” to life. We are so used to saying, “yes, but …” that it might seem normal, wise or at least prudent to do so. This week’s parsha encourages us to cultivate radical agreement and enthusiasm. “Yes” to life and to God — no ifs, ands or buts. “Yes” to Torah, even if we don’t understand it all yet. “Yes” to wherever it leads us. Caveat-free covenant.

Some things — in fact, some of the most important things in life — cannot be fully understood before they are assented to. While you can select a partner wisely, you can never know what marriage will be like before you say, “I do.”

(Checklists and cost-benefit analyses are inadequate, if not irrelevant.) No amount of research or weekend babysitting can prepare you for what it means to have a child. These relationships, like our relationships with God or Torah, can’t be neatly mapped or easily explained; they must be experienced. Life’s biggest decisions are leaps of faith and, in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s phrase, “leaps of action,” too. If you wait until you are completely ready, until you have all the knowledge and tools to “do” them, you will wait forever. Covenant — whether under the chuppah or at Mount Sinai — is not a single event or decision; it is ongoing discovery, awakening and growth. The journey starts with a committed “yes.”

Covenant, radical agreement, “na’aseh venishma,” “amen to that” — all these phrases mean “love without a net.” A profound and daring “yes” should not be offered lightly or blindly. The cause and stakes and partner must be worthy. When they are, unreserved commitment fosters not just love and generosity but also freedom and security. There is power in “yes.” Strength comes with and from this kind of commitment. Doors and possibilities open for “yes” that will never open for “maybe.”

It may feel safer to weigh your options than to measure your growth against a declared goal, but actually, quite quickly, it is less safe. Staying undecided saps you and distances you from your purpose. The prophet Elijah challenged the people of Israel, “How long will you straddle [or hobble between] two opinions?” (I Kings 18:21).

Imagine what we could do collectively with all the time and energy we now spend in ambivalence about holy causes. It would be nothing short of miraculous.
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, the Elders indeed experience a miracle as a result of their radical assent: “They saw the God of Israel and under His feet there was the likeness of sapphire pavement, like the very sky for purity…. They beheld God.” (Exodus 24:10-11).

Following this vision, Moses ascends the mountain to receive the tablets, the inscription of God’s words by God’s own hand. Only we, humanity, have the power to say “yes!” and “amen!” to that. Again this year, we are called. How shall we answer?

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life” (Jewish Lights), is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at