When the rabbi talks politics from the pulpit


In 2006, Rabbi Nancy Myers of Westminster’s Temple Beth David used her Rosh Hashanah sermon to address the horrors of the Abu Ghraib scandals.

She was about to make a point about acting morally as Jews when a congregant walked down the sanctuary’s aisle with his hands crossed in a time-out signal. Myers, new at the time to the Reform synagogue, thought the interruption was because someone had had a heart attack, so she stopped talking.

Instead, the man shouted out, “You have no right to get up there and say those things from the pulpit; you have no right to talk politics!” The rabbi heard some murmurings of approval from the congregation and considered for a moment simply walking out herself, thinking her views were in conflict with her new congregation.

But then another congregant stood and said, “I was finding it interesting what the rabbi was saying, and I want her to finish.” This was followed by some applause. So Myers continued where she’d left off, and the angry congregant was escorted outside.

As it turns out, he did not leave for good. “He was angry for about a year, and now he loves coming here,” Myers said recently. “He’s one of my strongest supporters.”

Although Myers said the incident taught her “about being more sensitive to my audience and about the diversity of my membership,” she continues to believe rabbis should comment on current events. “I believe it’s an important part of the rabbi’s job to raise a whole host of different issues,” Myers said.


In recent weeks, as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama came under fire for incendiary remarks made by his now-former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, new interest has arisen in how controversial statements made by clergy can play out. Obama, in his speech in response to the outcry, talked about healing racial divides, but he also admitted that he had been aware of remarks harshly critical of America and of whites made by this man who had been his longtime spiritual guide. “Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely,” said Obama, who went on to suggest: “Just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”

So what happens when rabbis make controversial remarks offensive to their constituents? Do people leave, or do they, like Obama initially did, stay on out of loyalty even when they disagree with the comments? How do such situations play out in the Jewish community?

There are, to be sure, many religious positions in Judaism that offend some people, and the reactions depend on the individual.

For example, Liz, a social worker who preferred not to give her last name, attended High Holy Day services with a friend a couple of years ago and was shocked by the rabbi’s sermon. “He was talking about all the terrible things going on in the world — Iraq, global warming, disease — and then he said, ‘You know, a lot of interfaith marriages are happening,'” she said, paraphrasing the Orthodox rabbi, whom she declined to name.

“Did he just connect the Iraqi war and global warming to intermarriage?” she wondered at the time. As the child of an interfaith couple, Liz said, “it was very offensive to me that he would take catastrophic things and connect it to a personal choice.” She has not returned to that rabbi’s — or any other — synagogue since.

When it comes to world politics, too, Jews have many opinions — and many aren’t afraid to voice them. Yet rabbis who take stands on political issues often face objections from congregants who disagree. Indeed, one of the first rabbis in America to make a political statement that offended congregants almost paid with his life.

In 1861, the Reform Rabbi David Einhorn vociferously denounced slavery to his congregation, Har Sinai Congregation of Baltimore, which was a pro-slavery state. A mob threatened to tar and feather him, and he had to flee north.

Yet his call for social justice was historic, according to Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “He established freedom of the pulpit. Rabbis have the right to preach what they feel is appropriate to their congregation,” Diamond said. “But they have to deal with the consequences.”

Most rabbis aren’t so literally chased by mobs, but there is a modern-day equivalent in the outraged congregation, or in public responses to a rabbi who takes a strong political stance.

That’s what happened after Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea congregation in Pico-Robertson, delivered a sermon about the need to consider a divided Jerusalem. He published his remarks as an op-ed in this newspaper, which was followed by a Los Angeles Times article covering the outrage caused by the scandal. In the aftermath, Kanefsky held closed-door meetings with some upset congregants.

Although Kanefsky declined to talk about the specific incident, he said that in general a rabbi has to maintain a precarious balancing act.

“The balance between saying what, as a member of the clergy, you think needs to be said and respecting the diverging opinion of the congregation, is an extraordinary balance to maintain,” he said, adding, “I’ll be clear it’s something that I think, and not some God-given proof.”

When to be political is a judgment call, agreed Rabbi Leibel Korf of Chabad of Los Feliz. “If it’s necessary to take a stand and make a point about something, I will not hesitate to take a stand,” Korf said. But not all the time. “If you’re a rabbi trying to do outreach and bring people closer to Yiddishkayt, it’s not my responsibility to bring up every single issue or the more unacceptable issues as constant preaching.”

But he added, “I say the truth. I believe in my uncompromised opinion rather than what people want to hear,” he said. “When we are suffering in Israel, and I truly believe we have a right to be there — and if people will be offended by it — I’m not going to change my topic.”

Groups, Shuls Fundraise for Tsunami Aid


 

Cantor Alison Wissot of Temple Judea felt the pull of the Asian tsunami at a Friday morning meeting of the women’s group at her Tarzana Reform shul.

“There was an outpouring of, ‘This is so awful,’ ‘How do we deal with this event?’ ‘How do we not feel helpless?’ ‘How do we just do something?'” Wissot said.

“At first, this was something that people have in their nightmares,” she continued. “Over the last week, this has become something that has been made real to people.”

“This huge act of God came and wiped out a huge number of people,” Wissot said. “Of course, people feel helpless.”

By watching lifeless, water-logged bodies pile up half a planet away for more than two weeks now, the tugs of Judaism’s responsibility to humanity are prompting Jewish community donations and fund-raising efforts.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said this week that its Southeast Asia Relief Fund has brought in $200,000 in donations. That will be part of about $10 million raised by Jewish federations nationwide, plus the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, United Jewish Communities and 35 other groups forming the new Jewish Coalition for Asia Tsunami Relief.

The Jewish response has been strong at the community level, and rather than doing their own fundraising, synagogues are urging congregants to donate to national relief funds.

“Because there’s so many opportunities, we are really promoting people to go to the Jewish organizations and give to the Jewish organizations that are already giving, rather than set up our account here,” said Howard Lesner, executive director at Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple, where Rabbi David Wolpe discussed the tsunami in his New Year’s weekend sermon.

While encouraging donations to national funds, Lesner said that young donors at Sinai’s Akiba Academy want to give, too.

“Some of the school kids are raising … funds that’ll be directed toward some tsunami relief,” he said.

An Australian Jewish couple was confirmed dead this week in Thailand. So far, local Jewish connections to the tsunami deaths are minimal, although in Sherman Oaks, the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center said that a former Israeli exchange student who worked at its summer camp several years ago was killed in Thailand.

A poll of 1,800 people conducted by the Jewish Web site, www.aish.com, found that about 60 percent of respondents said they believed that God caused the tsunami, with half those surveyed also saying the tsunami increased their belief in God. In addition, 80 percent of those polled said the tsunami prompted them to do good deeds.

Rabbi John Rosove of the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood said his shul has donated $5,000 from his synagogue’s social action fund.

During its Jan. 7 Shabbat service, Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills hosted about 10 members of a nearby Indonesian Christian church, plus the deputy consul general from Indonesia’s L.A. consulate. Although Indonesia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, the diplomat was warmly welcomed, and the temple women’s group announced a $500 donation.

“If there is any Jewish society that would like to contribute, you can always send donations to Indonesia,” Deputy Consul General Handriyo Kusoma Priyo said. “Regardless of the race, at this time of mourning people are coming [to see that] this is one brotherhood.”

“I want to give money, and I want to help; I just go basically from my heart,” said Kol Tikvah member Brenda Gillis, a mother of two who said she was deeply moved by seeing the tsunami dead. “Those images definitely do sway me as a mother. I gave blood last week.”

Roz Rothstein of the Israel advocacy group, StandWithUs, said that friends she has spoken with want to make the right kind of tsunami donation.

“People were worried about giving to reputable organizations and preferred to trust their money to Jewish groups with reputations for two reasons,” Rothstein said. “They wanted the money to come through Jewish organizations as a show of love from the Jewish community, and they are worried about stories they heard following 9/11, when groups that received money didn’t release the funds in a timely way.”

During the Indonesians’ visit, ignored were the Kol Tikvah’s sanctuary’s fundraising cans for the Sudan’s Darfur genocide victims. Reform Rabbi Steve Jacobs said the tsunami “did blow Darfur off the map,” but that Jews can and should maintain simultaneous compassion for two distant, seemingly non-Jewish issues in Asia and Africa.

“It’s not either/or,” Jacobs said. “It’s both.”

On Jan. 19, Israeli folk dance instructor David Dassa and Wilshire Boulevard Temple will host a midweek, combination tsunami/Sudan fundraising dance class at the temple’s West L.A. campus on Olympic Boulevard.

The Workmen’s Circle will host a Jan. 16 fundraising concert for the American Jewish World Service’s tsunami efforts, featuring an anti-Bush comedy troupe.

National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles, under the direction of the Consulate of Sri Lanka, will ship donations of clothing, sheets, blankets, tents and first aid kits to tsunami relief programs over the next few weeks via their seven thrift store locations.

Temple Judea’s Wissot said her synagogue has been reminding people “that the Sudan situation is still going on” and to not “leave behind whatever it is we were dealing with a month ago.”

Wissot knows Asia’s tsunami and Darfur’s genocide touch different parts of the Jewish soul.

“One is an act of God, one is an act of people; it’s just a different sense of helplessness,” Wissot said.

She added that any clergy comparisons of the tsunami to the Bible’s flood story should reiterate that event’s ending — about redemption and God’s promise never again to destroy the Earth.

“The world hasn’t been destroyed, and there are people to rebuild,” she said. “The world isn’t destroyed by this. Be partners with God in rebuilding, so the promise remains. There are some tragedies that just need time.”

 

Synagogue Perks Entice Unaffiliated


What does $1,000 buy you these days in Jewish life?

Maybe, if you’re lucky, a full-year family synagogue membership. But what exactly does that mean? Two tickets to High Holiday services? Free parking? Entree to Kiddushes?

At a time when families have limited time and money and so much competing for it, synagogue leaders are realizing the need to offer more to potential and existing congregant.

The Journal surveyed a number of synagogues in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley to find out what membership brings these days. Remember: Membership has its privileges.

No. 1: The "Come Join Our Synagogue So You Can Enroll in Our Day School" Model

A family membership at Temple Beth Am (www.tbala.org) costs $1,925. The price might seem a bit steep, but not only does the membership come with two High Holiday tickets, but it also gives members the privilege of sending their children to Pressman Academy, the synagogue’s affiliate day school. Pressman Academy is named after Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Beth Am’s rabbi emeritus, and, according to its Web site, it teaches students "to be serious and committed Jews and responsible American citizens." The only way you get to send your kids to Pressman is if you are a Beth Am member.

If those are not enticements enough, then Beth Am also has a social coordinator who helps members meet each other by organizing havurahs, or social groups. The havurahs are grouped together according to age, and they that meet various times throughout the year for different activities, like going out to dinner and to the park.

No. 2: The "Join Our Synagogue So You Can Get a Discount on Our Other Institutions" Model:

With 2,500 members, Wilshire Boulevard Temple (www.wilshireboulevardtemple.org) is one of the largest synagogues in Los Angeles, and it requires you to be a member of the synagogue (cost of family membership: $1,728, includes High Holiday tickets) before you can enroll your children in its religious school. But if you are wanting more religious education for your children than what a secular school can offer, you can enroll them in the temple’s nursery or elementary school. Both are open to members and nonmembers, but members get a substantial discount and get bumped up the waiting list.

"It makes financial sense to be a member in order to get in," Wilshire Boulevard Executive Director Stephen Breuer said. "Our schools are subsidized by the congregation, and the day school tuition for a member is substantially cheaper than for a nonmember. Our schools are part of the total synagogue experience — they are not stand-alone businesses that we operate."

Breuer said that in addition to the schools, the synagogue offers everything from children’s services on Shabbat to grief counseling.

No. 3: The "Come Join Our Synagogue So You Can Send Your Kids To Our Religious or Nursery School" Model.

Most synagogues are not fortunate enough to have a day school attached to them, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about Jewish education. A good number of synagogues offer an afternoon or Sunday religious school program for children attending non-Jewish schools. Many also have nursery schools attached to them.

At most of these synagogues you need to join before you can enroll your children in its religious school.

Temple Aliyah (www.templealiyah.org) in West Hills charges $1,950 for a family membership, which includes High Holiday tickets for parents and children younger than 18 and the right to send children to its religious school. Temple Aliyah also offers a children’s program during High Holiday services.

No. 4: The "Join Our Synagogue Because We Make Religious Life Easy For You" Model

Beth Jacob (www.bethjacob.org) in Pico-Robertson is the largest Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, and while it can’t offer its members anything in the way of affiliate schools, it does offer a full range of religious services that are designed to fit into any schedule. Membership at Beth Jacob is $1,000 for a family, which includes two High Holiday tickets, but throughout the year that membership entitles you to your choice of three Shacharit minyanim every morning, as well as a large range of Torah classes throughout the week.

No. 5: The "Our Shul Needs You" Model

Unlike other congregations, Aish HaTorah Los Angeles (www.aishla.com) says its primary mission is not building a congregation, but outreach to unaffiliated Jews.

"We are looking for people who want to be part of that commitment," said William Gross, chair of the Aish Hatorah Los Angeles Community. "Our membership is not just for the synagogue — we are packing it together with the outreach organization as well. If we sell $1,000 worth of tickets to the High Holidays we have failed, but if we get 10 people to help us achieve our mission [we have succeeded]."

Therefore, a family membership at Aish is $1,800, but built into that membership is not only two High Holiday tickets, but also two tickets to Aish HaTorah’s annual banquet, which supports its outreach activities.

There are other membership models, too. Shuls like Beth Shir Sholom (BSS) in Santa Monica which want 2 percent of your gross income as membership, with a suggested minimum of $1,500, which excludes anyone earning less than $75,000 a year (in fairness, a spokesperson for BSS said that people needing to pay less than $1,500 "could work it out with the executive director.")

There is a shul in Pico-Robertson, which offers a $600 family membership that includes High Holiday for all family members, but they don’t want to publicize it because "we don’t want people who are just going to come for the High Holidays and not come the rest of the year."

Despite the secrecy, that shul has managed to boost its membership from 100 families to 210 families within one year.

But the good news for those seeking synagogue memberships is most of the synagogues that The Journal spoke to, in many different parts of Los Angeles, said that they would not turn away any Jew because of financial problems. In other words, getting Jews to be religiously affiliated is more important than money in the bank.

Alternative Scene


The Shabbat morning services last Saturday were wonderful.

The bar mitzvah did a fabulous job. The weekly drash was thought-provoking, rich with morality and relevance. And the kiddush? Complete, including even those little rainbow squares that you can only seem to find at shul on Shabbat morning.

Sounds perfect. Traditional in so many ways. A blast from the past.

Only I wasn’t there. Again.

And I’m not alone.

The Shabbat morning service just doesn’t move me the way it does for the 150 or so congregants who are routinely transported through Sabbath rituals at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue with more than 900 families in Valley Village. There always seem to be other places to go on a Saturday, other priorities.

Put me in the twice-a-year camp. It would have been easy for Adat Ari El to write me off.Rather, it has only increased the congregation’s resolve to get me and many of my fellow congregants back into temple.

“The conditions are right for a change,” acknowledges Rabbi Moshe Rothblum, one of the architects behind a revolutionary new Sabbath morning service debuting Nov. 4 at Adat Ari El and being watched with interest across the United States. “There’s a spiritual revival, a great spiritual interest that people have expressed and are looking for in Saturday morning services,” he said. “We are trying to respond to that interest.”

One Shabbat Morning at Adat Ari El draws inspiration from the successful Friday Night Live at Sinai Temple and myriad experiments at synagogues nationwide attempting to reconnect individuals and families looking for a more spiritual Shabbat experience while retaining appeal to synagogue regulars. The liturgy is being scaled way down. The bimah will be centered in the room. Original music, played by a full band, will deliver the spiritual heft.

By design, this is not my father’s Shabbat morning service, nor is it the one I grew up with – and it has done the trick in grabbing my attention. Consider: There’s going to be one aliyah during the Torah service, not seven. The weekly portion will be read in Hebrew and English. Several prayers from the traditional musaf have been cut. Even the weekly sermon has been dispatched to a preservice study session. Best of all: The running time is no more than two hours.

“People have a difficult time tolerating three hours of meditation on a Saturday morning,” notes Craig Taubman, a contemporary Jewish musical artist and Adat member who has composed much of what will be heard during One Shabbat Morning. “The question is: How do you maintain integrity, yet have it speak to the heart and the passion of your average Jew on the street, who might be a member of a congregation, but might not be comfortable with traditional, Conservative liturgy?””One Shabbat Morning is an example of bridging Conservative Judaism with more contemporary methods of prayer,” Taubman said.

Changing the paradigm of worship is not unique to Jews, nor an endeavor undertaken without a lot of consultation, heartburn and whispered prayers. In some respects, One Shabbat Morning’s reliance on congregant participation, upbeat music – and maybe even some hand waving – hints at activities typically reserved for contemporary Christian churches.Not that there’s anything wrong with that, organizers of One Shabbat Morning say, especially if the services retain rabbinic tradition, enhance the experience and draw people in. Cantor Ira Bigeleisen, who will co-officiate at the new service with Taubman and Rothblum, notes that worship has always been influenced by popular culture: by German Jews who prayed in 19th Century Berlin to music composed by Louis Lewandowsky; to Jews in Babylonia in 500 B.C.E. who prayed in both Aramaic and Hebrew.

It’s only natural, Bigeleisen says, for American Jews who have completely integrated into American society and helped shape it politically and culturally to do the same.

“Today’s American Jews want to integrate this culture into their Jewish lives, just as Jews all over the world have done through the ages,” Bigeleisen said.

While there will be those who will criticize One Shabbat Morning for its departures, the project’s organizers are not without credential. Funded in part by grants from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Los Angeles and the Stone Family Foundation of Baltimore, Maryland, the project has had several collaborators, including Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College; Dr. Ron Wolfson, co-director of Synagogue 2000; Cantor Alberto Mizrahi of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago; and Cantor David Lefkowitz of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.

As the San Fernando Valley’s oldest congregation, Adat Ari El has experience pioneering new traditions. Organizers expect One Shabbat Morning will attract its share of the curious to the alternative service, some of whom might peek in and then retreat to the concurrent traditional service down the hall.

But Rothblum and Taubman, as well as the lay leadership of the temple, are upbeat about the potential of the project, which has been months in the making.

“I want people to leave and say, ‘I’m coming back the next time because I’ve found community. I’ve found joy. It moves me. It touches me,'” Taubman said. “But, more importantly, I hope they’ll say, ‘I want more.'”

One Shabbat Morning will be held one Saturday each month beginning Nov. 4 at Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. Informal study session, 9 a.m.; services begin at 9:45 a.m. A children’s Shabbat program (preschool through third grade) from 9 to 11:45 a.m. is available with preregistration. For more information, call (818) 766-9426, ext. 416, or visit the Adat Ari El Web site atwww.adatariel.org

Deaf Synagogue Relocates


Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf (TBS) has a new home. The congregation, which for 35 years was located in Arleta, is now renting space at Temple Judea in Tarzana.

The congregation had been under pressure for several years to sell its Arleta property and finally had a buyer but no new site, according to temple administrator Jan Seeley. Then Rabbi Bruce Raff, Judea’s religious school director — who has also been serving as spiritual leader for TBS — stepped in with an offer from Judea’s senior rabbi, Don Goor, to use the synagogue’s library for its services.

Seeley said the final service at TBS’ old location was an emotional experience, with congregants sharing stories and memories of the synagogue’s rich history.

“The hardest part was going into an unknown and giving up our own place,” Seeley said. “We were one of the few independent deaf synagogues in the United States, so that was a real loss for our members. But after they saw the place and met with the people at Judea, they began to get really excited and embraced this move.”

More than half of TBS’ 130 members live in the San Fernando Valley area, according to Seeley, who hopes through the new location to be able to offer more and varied activities for both older and younger congregants. TBS will share an interpreted Shabbat service once a month with its host synagogue and plans to offer classes in sign language for Temple Judea members, in order to improve communication between the two groups.

“One of the nice things about this arrangement is that there are TBS members who are hard of hearing as well as hearing members of deaf families who miss the music, and Temple Judea has a wonderful cantor,” Seeley said. “It’s just one of the ways we will be able to fulfill more needs.”


Multimedia Seder

Community seders can be especially challenging for deaf people who must juggle reading and looking to an interpreter.

In what is sure to become a model program, the Jewish Deaf Community Center (JDCC) — with grants from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and the Ruth and Allen Ziegler Foundation — will once again use multimedia technology to bridge this synchronization gap at their Sixth Annual Community Seder. Large video screens, placed at opposite ends of the hall, will broadcast passage readings karaoke-style so that everyone can follow along.

The Sixth Annual Community Seder will be held at Burbank Temple Emanu El on Wed., April 19. For more information, call (818) 845-9934 (TTY), (818) 845-9935 (voice); or send e-mail to jdccnews@aol.com. — Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Body Building


Rabbi Barnett Brickner sits, frowning in his study at Temple Judea of Massapequa, N.Y. He’s been asked his opinion of the proposed new “platform” of Reform Judaism, which comes up for a vote next May at a national convention of Reform rabbis. The platform says that the Torah was revealed by God at Sinai and that its commandments “call to us even though we live in modernity.” It urges Reform Jews to pray daily, to make the Sabbath a holy day, to follow dietary laws, and more. Brickner is alarmed.

“As much as I believe in it, I’m not sure it’s the right move for Reform Judaism,” says Brickner, son and grandson of Reform rabbis. “I’m concerned that it’s going to throw a spotlight on the gulf between where the rabbinic community is and where the congregants are.”

Massapequa is as good a place as any to seek the pulse of today’s congregants. A Long Island suburb 25 miles east of New York City, it’s a sea of 1950s-era tract houses, neither affluent nor poor, best known as the home of Jerry Seinfeld and Joey Buttafuoco. Jews and Italians are so intermingled that locals sometimes call it Matza-Pizza.

Temple Judea sits, improbably, on a leafy thoroughfare called Jerusalem Avenue. Shortly before Thanksgiving, the curbside message board announced the week’s bar mitzvah: Sean Donohue.

That’s just Brickner’s point. “My God,” he says, “when I’ve got a bar mitzvah boy named Donohue, and a McCurdy coming up, do you think they’re going to seriously consider kashrut?”

Similar reactions have been surfacing nationwide since the platform, “Ten Principles for Reform Judaism,” was published in Reform Judaism magazine and mailed to every Reform family in August. Rabbis are discussing it in sermons, teaching it in adult-ed classes, presenting it at board meetings. Reactions are decidedly mixed.

“I am not hearing a groundswell of, ‘Oh boy, this is just what the Reform movement needed,'” says Rabbi Michael Zedek of Congregation B’nai Jehuda in Kansas City. “It can be a healthy catalyst for those who are searching for holiness in their lives. But that’s far from everybody. Much of the comment I’ve heard is along the lines of, ‘What in the world are we becoming, some kind of Orthodoxy?'”

Some congregants are less delicate. “These people apparently haven’t read the demographic data in this country,” says lifelong Reform congregant Sylvia Leff, a retired academic in Walnut Creek, Calif. “I think they are absolutely out of their minds.”

The first official statement of Reform Judaism, adopted in Pittsburgh in 1885, declared much of Jewish tradition obsolete, including kosher laws and restoring Zion. The second, in 1937, embraced Zionism but made few other changes in substance. The third, the Centennial Statement of 1976, was more traditionalist in tone, but was never adopted as a formal platform.

The new platform, by contrast, is deeply spiritual, sometimes downright mystical. An early draft said that, while “Reform Judaism’s founders” judged Jewish belief by standards of modernity, “we proclaim that the mitzvot of the Torah are our center, and Judaism is the scale by which we shall judge the modern world.”

The platform’s author, Rabbi Richard Levy of Los Angeles, outgoing president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, is quick to note that the document is still being rewritten. Clearly stung by the negative reactions, he recently took a new draft — his fourth — before the Reform rabbinical group’s board. The latest version drops the attack on modernity and tones the kosher business way down.

“The Reform movement operates a big tent,” Levy says. “There are many seekers in the movement. And there are many people who are fulfilled where they are. The movement needs to reflect and embrace both.”

Critics say that Levy simply doesn’t know Reform laity. A career Hillel rabbi, he’s spent his life working with students in search, not surly bar mitzvahs. “He’s way to the right of where the movement is,” says one colleague.

Levy insists that the movement is moving in the same direction he is. He points to the growing popularity of head coverings, Hebrew and spirituality retreats. Still, he’s listening and rewriting. “This is a work in progress,” he says.

To Levy’s backers, that’s the best part of it. “I find the whole process extremely exciting,” says Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. “What’s stunning is that people are actually choosing to talk about what it means to be a Reform Jew.”

Geller admits that many congregants are “troubled by their first impression” of the platform, but most warm up once they’ve studied it. “This has been presented in a way that seems to imply there will no longer be individual choice,” she says. “That’s not what Richard is saying. What will be expected of people is serious, informed engagement. I think that serious Reform Jews are ready for that.”

At Beth Torah, a Reform temple in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, a group of congregants is enthusiastically studying the principles in a weekly class with the rabbi. The congregation even drafted its own “covenant,” which reads a lot like Levy’s platform. “People want more out of their religion than just intellectual discussion,” says congregant Robin Silverman, who chaired the drafting committee. “Reform Jews don’t like being told what to do, but it’s good to consider things.”

The question is, what becomes of congregants who don’t take the classes? How many will read the principles and just walk away?

Too many, says Sylvia Leff, the California congregant. “If these Reform rabbis are really concerned about enlarging their constituency and not just complaining about the number of unaffiliated Jews, this is not the way to do it.”

Back in Massapequa, though, Sean Donohue’s mother, Janet, says that the furor doesn’t affect her. Sean’s bar mitzvah, now past, was a huge success. Her relatives, Jewish and non-Jewish, were “overwhelmed at the beauty of the service,” and she wouldn’t change it. “I like it right where it is,” she says.

On the other hand, changes from the top won’t deter her. “My younger son, Troy, is in his second year of Hebrew school now,” she says, and — platform or no platform — “he’ll be called to the Torah soon.”


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

Reviving a Shul, One Goat at a Time


Note to future rabbis: If you want to make a lasting firstimpression with your congregants, nothing beats farm animals on thebimah. Just ask anyone at Temple Adat Shalom in West LosAngeles. It’s been almost four months since Michael Resnick took overthere, and they’re still talking about his goats.

Mort Schrag, the congregation’s president, put it succinctly: “Hereally has a lot of unique approaches.”

Resnick trotted the two goats out in front of the congregationduring his sermon on Yom Kippur. Earlier that week, he was driving tohis parents’home in Northridge, wondering how he could bring thebiblical concept of the scapegoat — recounted in the holiday’s Torahportion — alive for his congregants. He passed a petting zoo thatadvertised animal rentals.

Fast-forward to Yom Kippur. Resnick lays out a waterproof tarp onthe bimah — one of the goats is called Tinkle, a name based purelyon reputation. The rabbi takes a long dagger from his lectern andthen, in accordance with the biblical narrative, draws lots todetermine which goat will be slaughtered for the sins of thecongregation, and which will be set free. Amid nervous laughter andrapt silence, some 700 congregants watch the tall, commanding40-year-old grasp the doomed goat, raise its neck, and draw the bladeacross its throat.

“Don’t worry,” says the rabbi, patting the animal’s head andputting aside the dagger, which is just a letter opener. “We’re notgoing to hurt this little goat.” The point of the exercise, he tellsthe assembly, is that “no one can make atonement for ourtransgressions but ourselves.”

Whether the congregation took the sermon to heart is hard to tell– until next Yom Kippur. But there is no question that the new rabbigot congregants’ attention. And that, as any rabbi in the late 20thcentury will tell you, is at least half the battle.

“Whatever I can do to make the traditions come alive and berelevant,” Resnick says during an interview in his office, “I’lltry.”

The creative approach seems to fit the youthful, energetic rabbi.A native of Sepulveda, he attended Har Zion Synagogue (it has sincemerged with Temple Ramat Zion) but stopped his Jewish education atage 13. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, he embarked on acareer in advertising. But a visit to Israel during the Gulf Warinspired him to change course. He attended the Pardes Institutethere, then returned to the States to study and receive hisordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

He took the pulpit of Adat Shalom in August, replacing therecently retired Rabbi Morton Wallach, who served there for 24 years.Demographic shifts had been tough on the 50-year-old Conservativeshul, whose modern structure sits on a prime block of Westside realestate across from Trader Joe’s market on National Boulevard. AdatShalom has been losing members for the past six years. About 250families and individuals belong to the congregation now, down from apeak of 450. The decline also plunged the shul into a series offinancial crises. “We need to energize the congregation and attractyoung families,” said Schrag.

Resnick, then, seems the perfect fit. In his final year at JTS, heserved as rabbi to the Jewish Home for the Aged in Manhattan. “Therewere 500 people over 90 years old. I did 150 funerals,” he says. Buthe also learned to lead inspiring, song-filled services, based, inpart, on his experience at such lively New York congregations asB’nai Jeshurun, which draws hundreds of young people to Shabbatservices.

The rabbi is working to create some of that same magic on theWestside. “When Judaism is made relevant and alive and exciting,people respond. People are looking for a sense of belonging, arelationship with their tradition,” he said.

Along with a new rabbi, the synagogue also hired a new cantor,Ralph Resnick. The two are not related, but members have startedreferring to their shul as Resnick & Resnick.

On Sukkot, both rabbi and cantor joined with a klezmer band tolead congregants in the procession with the Torah, and provided icecream sundaes for the children. The issue of whether to have music inConservative ceremonies is a touchy one, but Rabbi Resnick sees thevalue in raising it. “I want people to wrestle with what it means tobe a Jew. I can’t force anyone to keep kosher, but I can challengethem.”

Resnick also wants to create social-action programs and developbonds with local non-Jewish congregations. He hopes to create ascholar-in-residence program and build up the temple’s preschool andreligious school, which now have about 80 children.

“I want Judaism to be surprising,” says the rabbi.

Cops and Chassids


Rachmiel Steinberg is a “Bostoner” Chassid, but, he quips, he is also the Los Angeles Police Department’s “show-and-tell rabbi.” That’s because the Yavneh Hebrew Academy teacher has taken on some unusual students lately: officers of the LAPD’s Wilshire Division.

Steinberg attends roll-call sessions as a representative of the area’s significant, diverse Orthodox community; there are approximately 5,500 families and 16 synagogues in the areas served by the Wilshire and Hollywood divisions. Some congregants have experienced a culture clash with the LAPD, the rabbi says.

A typical incident took place on a Saturday afternoon not long ago. A teen-age boy, en route to the Chabad yeshiva, stepped off the curb just as the light at Melrose Avenue and Poinsettia Place changed. Hollywood Division officers stopped him and required that he sign a jaywalking ticket. But the frightened teen insisted that it was the Sabbath and that he could not sign. The officers then told him that he was under arrest and that he must ride in the squad car until they checked out his story — forcing him to violate the Sabbath.

“I was hearing about so many of these incidents that I realized there was just confusion about what an observant Jew can and cannot do,” says Steinberg, who also has attended law school and earned master’s degrees in archaeology and Jewish education.

And, so, several months ago, he teamed up with Orthodox activists Stanley Treitel and Howard Winkler. Together, they devised an LAPD seminar (you could call it “Orthodoxy 101”) and approached Wilshire Division Capt. John Mutz. Before long, they had scheduled two training sessions for officers and detectives, sponsored by the Community Research & Information Center.

At the most recent session, this summer, the activists explained that “work” on the Sabbath is construed differently than “work” in the common culture, that observant Jews cannot write or carry anything or drive a car. No, they replied to an officer’s question, Orthodox Jews don’t carry ID on the Sabbath. And, yes, Orthodox Jews will waive Sabbath prohibitions if the situation is one of life and death.

The some 70 officers keenly watched as Steinberg, who arrived in his black frock coat, made the switch from his round black hat to his Shabbat shtreimel, “to show what a Chassidic Jew looks like.” They were impressed when he offered to create for the LAPD’s community-relations department a web site that will describe not only the Orthodox Jewish community but all the diverse communities of Los Angeles.

From now on, officers will sign any tickets issued to observant Jews on the Sabbath, and they will deposit the tickets at convenient drop-off sites, Steinberg says.

“We’re focusing on finding practical solutions to common problems,” he says.