It takes a shul: programs target Jewish literacy via congregants

Pick up a synagogue bulletin, and you are likely to read about a variety of programs. From book discussions to Torah study to lectures by local and visiting scholars, there are many opportunities for adults to learn.

Walk into the congregation’s religious school classrooms and you will see children engaged in activities. There will likely be many resources around: colorful textbooks, art materials and idea books for the teacher.

We aim to engage our congregants – young and old. We want to be sure that they are choosing to attend and leaving happy and enthusiastic about being in our congregations. Often our programs for adults are developed by a variety of committees, each addressing different interests. Classroom activities are developed by classroom teachers without an explicit weaving of one lesson’s activities into other aspects and goals of the curriculum.

A few years ago, the leadership of Temple Society of Concord, my Reform synagogue in Syracuse, N.Y., decided that we were doing many programs and activities, yet we were not sure where they were heading and whether we held the same vision of Jewish learning. What did we think our congregants wanted to know? What did we feel should be learned? Who was coming to study and who was missing? Were our programs addressing the same themes and missing others?

We brought committee chairs, congregational professionals and lay leadership together to begin to wrestle with these questions. Our goal was to engage all of our congregants in learning by better meeting their needs through a coordinated program that addressed many facets of Judaism. Our hope was that learning would lead to increased engagement in the congregational and wider Jewish community.

At the same time, our religious school’s board of education decided that it was time to review our curriculum and school program. The curriculum committee’s process used the understanding by design model. Instead of focusing on what should be taught at each grade and what textbooks should be used, they began with what they wanted our students to use in the future.

Interestingly, both groups arrived at the same conclusions, which led to our seven guiding principles. No matter their age, we wanted our congregants to:

  • Understand that our purpose as a Jewish people is tikkun olam – to make the world a better place.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to apply Jewish values to our everyday lives.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to understand Jewish history and experiences in order to articulate the uniqueness of the Jewish people.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to use both Hebrew and English in prayer, ceremonies and celebrations.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to articulate our ongoing connection to Israel.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to engage in ongoing study of Torah and integrate its teachings into our lives.
  • Have opportunities to share their joy, pride and enthusiasm about Judaism and the Jewish community.

We also articulated some understandings that underlie our work and ongoing decisions. First, our overall goal was to ensure that learning focused on promoting Jewish living. Judaism is not meant to be an academic subject alone. We are meant to use our Jewish knowledge to guide our decisions and interactions.

We also want our congregants to see Jewish learning as a lifelong pursuit. We want our children to see their parents and other adults of all ages attending classes and one-time programs. We create opportunities for families to learn together and for our entire congregation to engage in learning and “doing Jewish.” Jewish professionals should also remain learners, continuing our own professional growth and Jewish study.

As Jewish educators, we hope that through their learning and experiences, our congregants’ values will include education. And that they will become educators themselves through their actions and deeds.

Iris Petroff is director of membership and programs, family educator and confirmation teacher at Temple Society of Concord, a Reform congregation in Syracuse, N.Y. She is also the president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.)

Rabbinical marriage counseling works — up to a point

Rabbi Karen Fox remembers the moment when she decided she needed to pursue a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
In the late 1980s, Fox, a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, decided to create a support group for several couples who had privately sought her out to discuss their fertility problems and the resulting strain on their marriages. By bringing those temple members together, Fox did what scores of rabbis across the country do daily: She tried to improve congregants’ relationships and lives by offering free counseling.
Problem was, Fox now admits, she didn’t really know what she was doing. Having received only the most basic training in marital and other counseling during her rabbinic studies, she lacked such vital tools as empathetic listening and a deep understanding of the form and function of families. Much to her chagrin, Fox could do little more than offer sympathetic words of encouragement.
“Just as doctors specialize, I think it’s important that rabbis interested in counseling study it and train for it,” said Fox, who earned her master’s in 1991 and later became a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Otherwise, they might not have a broad enough vision and a wide enough ear to understand what’s going on with a couple.”
Like other clergy, rabbis have dispensed marital and other advice to congregants for generations. With a deep knowledge of Jewish texts and values, they have long played an important role in helping couples headed to the chuppah learn how to incorporate God and Judaism into their lives. Those premarital interventions, spiritual and otherwise, often increase the odds for marital success by teaching Jewish couples how to make their union sacred and loving, rabbis and their supporters say. Overall, rabbis earn generally high marks for premarital counseling, which focuses on the rudiments of good communication.
However, critics say rabbis are less suited for long-term marital counseling, even though desperate couples with crumbling marriages often turn to them for salvation. Although rabbis can play a positive role in brokering a reconciliation in couples with relatively minor problems, they are generally ill-equipped, both educationally and often temperamentally, to grapple with spousal abuse, depression, bullying and other serious issues that can destroy marriages and souls. Untrained in these areas, rabbis can do congregants a great disservice when they fail to refer them to professionals for help, experts say.
“The rabbinate encourages pronouncements and directives, but counseling is about listening and hearing subconscious messages,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, dean of the Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Program at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. “So, if as an authority figure you tell someone what to do, you might curtail the process of emotional expression that is essential for a couple’s growth.”
Judaism considers marriage to be a holy union with partners entering into a sacred relationship with one another and God. Several texts enshrine institution’s centrality in Jewish life. Genesis 2:18, states: “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” The Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b, says: “Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing and without goodness.” Midrash, Yalqut Shimoni, Ruth 606: “He who marries a good woman is as if he fulfilled the whole Torah from beginning to end.”
Given Judaism’s emphasis on marriage, it is hardly surprising that many rabbis offering premarital counseling infuse their sessions with religiosity. Rabbi Michael Menitoff, an instructor in the psychology departments at the University of Judaism and the Academy for Jewish Religion, said that when he worked as a congregational rabbi he would encourage couples to make their future home sacred by observing Shabbat and keeping kosher.
Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe said he also emphasizes the importance of Shabbat, which he calls “an opportunity to not be tyrannized by the modern world and to create a space in which personal interactions can exist away from the constant [inundation] of information and opinion and all the things with which we are bombarded day-to-day.”
In his nearly two decades as a congregational rabbi, Rabbi Mark Diamond would discuss the meaning and importance of Jewish wedding rituals before the big day. For instance, Diamond, now the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, would explain that the sixth blessing recited under the chuppah teaches that newlyweds begin married life with a clean slate and rejoice together. But the seventh blessing, Diamond says, suggests that Judaism also calls on partners to celebrate their individuality and give one another space to grow. Diamond’s point: Understanding the meaning behind Jewish marital customs gives couples a roadmap to better navigate their futures together.
In the bad old days, rabbis received scant counseling training of any type in the seminary. That meant they relied on little more than gut instinct when advising couples on how to grapple with issues such as alcoholism and infidelity. In recent years, observers say, rabbis and rabbis-in-training have received better pastoral counseling education. The Academy for Jewish Religion, for instance, now requires rabbinical students to take two counseling courses, which, among other subjects, address such topics as the power of active listening, the therapeutic process and crisis management. In recent years, the Board of Rabbis sponsored a series called, “The Rabbi as Counselor: Issues & Challenges,” which dealt with issues ranging from marital counseling to infertility to mental illness and depression.
The improvements notwithstanding, congregants coming to rabbis with serious marital and other problems have often come away disappointed, said Rabbi Abner Weiss, former rabbi at the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.
In a 1999 survey of more than 200 Jews at Beth Jacob, University Synagogue and Valley Beth Shalom, Weiss found that the majority of temple members who had gone to rabbis and licensed professionals for advice found the marriage counselors, psychologists and social workers to be more helpful, although the majority of Orthodox congregants preferred going to a rabbi.
Despite rabbis’ good intentions, some temple members complained that clergymen had betrayed them by using their personal dramas as the basis for sermons, Weiss said. Others said that even if rabbis respected their privacy, too many temple members saw them going in and out of his/her offices for counseling and gossiped. Finally, many groused that rabbis knew far less than the trained professionals.
“When there’s a real problem, what’s really required is a good referral,” said Weiss, himself a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Rabbis often can’t recognize what’s really going on in a relationship and should be honest enough to say so.”

I Ate the Whole Thing!

I Ate the Whole Thing!

Rap music and matzah balls? Hey, Jews can rap. Just ask the group, Chutzpah, which showed up in full rapping gear for the weighing of the 26-pound-matzah ball at Canter’s Deli last week to celebrate the DVD release of “When Do We Eat?” The weights and measures officials arrived in uniform to record the official weight to send to Guinness, and guests and regulars ogled the giant treat. Not exactly like grandma used to make, but in this case bigger was better.

The matzah ball weigh-in was all part of the 75th anniversary celebration for the legendary L.A. deli, with Assemblyman Paul Koretz doing the honors of presenting an official proclamation from the state of California. Alan Canter, representing the second generation of family ownership, accepted the honor; he has spent practically his whole life keeping Canter’s one of Southern California’s most beloved and long-lasting dining establishments.

Koretz saluted the restaurant for its many years of great food, legendary service and extensive community involvement.

Two longstanding employees, head waitress Jean Cocchiaro and manager and main sandwich man George Karkabasis — considered by many to be the fastest and best sandwichmaker in town — were also surprised with certificates of commendation.

Together, they have worked at Canter’s for more than 100 years! Jacqueline, Gary and Mark Canter were on hand to celebrate their family’s famous fressing history with Dad, Alan.

The Canters reminisced about old times with Koretz, noting the table where Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller sat on Friday nights, the visits from sports stars like Wilt Chamberlain and Hank Aaron, the joking of regulars like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett.

Solidarity Brother

Responding to the crisis in Israel, Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple, and the synagogue’s director of education, Metuka Benjamin, quickly organized a solidarity mission to Israel. The group of 21 congregants met with high-level military and political leadership for a crisis update, visited military bases directly involved in the conflict and experienced first-hand the mobilization of essential services for Israelis in the north who were directly affected by this war. Herscher and Benjamin led the temple’s leadership as they brought gifts to wounded soldiers at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. They also visited a summer camp organized by the Joint Distribution Committee to serve children affected by the bombings in the Haifa area and met with handicapped Israelis who were evacuated to hotels in the center of the country. The temple has scheduled three other Israel missions for the coming year and raised $1.4 million dollars toward meeting Israel’s immediate crisis needs.

Zev on the Mount

Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries named Bob Zev director of marketing. Zev, who has a bachelor’s from CSUN and an MBA from USC, has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience serving as the vice president of marketing for a financial institution.

Zev grew up in Los Angeles, became a bar mitzvah at Sinai Temple, and attended Hillel Hebrew Academy, Hebrew High School, Camp Ramah and spent a year in Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

‘Lost’ in the Art World

Even though Jack Bender didn’t win the best director Emmy Sunday night for his work on “Lost,” he was very much a winner at the premiere of his one-man show, “Found” at the Timothy Yarger Fine Art Gallery in Beverly Hills on Aug. 26. The exhibition was a “lost and found” of sorts for Bender’s friends, colleagues and admirers, who all converged onto the swanky gallery floors to view his colorful, explosive mixed-media paintings and, of course, to socialize.

The paintings could hardly be viewed through the talkative crowd of well-dressed art lovers, gallery clients and Bender’s circle of friends, who were sipping vodka-based cocktails named in Bender’s honor, such as “On a Bender” and “Castaway.” Across from “The Hatch Painting,” made famous for its appearance in “Lost,” students from View Park Prep in South L.A. played smooth jazz for the guests.

Among the celebs present to gush over Bender’s artwork were actress Blythe Danner; Jacqueline Bisset; J.J. Abrams, creator of “Lost”; Carlton Cuse, “Lost” producer; “Lost” star Evangeline Lily (who plays Kate) and “Sex and the City” actor Evan Handler (Charlotte’s Jewish husband).

“I don’t know how he did all of these,” Danner enthused to Entertainment Tonight, at the gallery.

Works exhibited are those he completed during breaks from filming “Lost” in Hawaii these past two years. Bender has been painting ever since he was a teen.Lilly, however, wasn’t surprised by Bender’s creative output on display: “It’s an expression and extension of himself,” she told The Journal in the gallery’s backroom, where Bender shared exhibition space with Chagall and Picasso. “He’s very spontaneous as a director and doesn’t like to premeditate things.”Bender summed up the evening: “It’s wonderful to be in this extraordinary environment. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a long ride.”

— Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer

Beit T’Shuvah’s New President Honored

Brindell Gottlieb recently opened her home to celebrate Nancy Mishkin as the new president of Beit T’Shuvah. Mishkin’s two-year term with the Westside congregation and rehabilitation center began in July. The annual Steps to Recovery Gala on Jan. 28, 2007, honoring Ron Herman, Dr. Susan Krevoy and Diane Licht, will be the first event highlighting Mishkin’s presidency. Beit T’Shuvah’s mission is to insure the physical, emotional and spiritual health of individuals and families within a supportive Jewish community. For more information, call (310) 204-5200, ext. 211.

Car Crash Claims Beloved Northridge Rabbi

The beloved rabbi of a Northridge synagogue apparently committed suicide in the wake of personal disclosures that jeopardized his job. These disclosures had to do with allegedly “inappropriate” actions by the rabbi, but nothing that was criminal or illegal, said officials of Temple Ramat Zion.

This new information emerged Thursday night at a congregational meeting that was held to address questions and concerns.

Rabbi Steven Tucker, 47, the longtime spiritual leader of Ramat Zion in Northridge, died in a solo car crash that authorities have called a suicide. He left behind a lengthy note whose contents have not been released. Tucker’s speeding car veered off Wawona Road near the Wawona Tunnel in Yosemite National Park at about 7 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10.

Temple officials presided over a somber and reverential Sabbath services last weekend, but initially released no information about the rabbi’s death even as rumors swirled about his job status.

More than 300 congregants attended the Thursday gathering at Ramat Zion, which was called by the board of directors. The meeting was not open to the media, but the temple released a brief pubic statement at the start, and a temple spokesperson also answered some questions afterwards.

The temple’s account of events is that its executive committee had voted to recommend against offering a new contract for Rabbi Tucker. The full board of the temple had not yet acted on this recommendation at the time of the rabbi’s death. One factor in the evaluation was information about the rabbi that came to light during a review process.

“Rabbi Tucker subsequently indicated to the executive committee that he had engaged in behavior which was not criminal in nature, but was determined by the rabbi and the executive committee to be inappropriate behavior for a rabbi,” said synagogue board president and executive committee member Bill Wendorff. All parties agreed to keep the information confidential.

Tucker’s car was traveling at high speed when it left the pavement and then rolled, said Gail Sgambellone, the assistant coroner for Mariposa County. Parts of that roadway are steep and treacherous.

Park rangers are investigating, but have called the incident a suicide because Tucker left a suicide note, Sgambellone said. Tucker’s wife Gabrielle had reported her husband missing on Nov. 9.

News of the rabbi’s death was met with disbelief and grief during Friday night services at Ramat Zion.

“It is with great sadness that I must tell you that our beloved Rabbi Tucker has passed away,” Cantor Paul Dorman announced from the bimah to a standing-room only crowd of several hundred. “We are all here tonight to pay our respects to him, and we will never, never forget him.”

Some congregants wept openly. Following a moment of silence, Dorman asked those gathered to chant the Mourner’s Kaddish for Tucker, the father of three. He later recalled how Tucker would frequently ask him to sing the niggun after the Amidah. Following this tradition, the cantor led the congregation in the wordless chant.

Congregants described Tucker as a gentle, caring man. He also attained prominence among his peers, once serving as president of the Pacific Southwest chapter of the Rabbinical Assembly, a leadership organization for Conservative rabbis.

Rabbi Sally Olins, who later succeeded Tucker as president and became the first woman to head the chapter, called him a close friend and mentor.

Tucker had the gift of always seeing the lightness of life and putting a smile on people’s faces with his warmth, said Rabbi Moshe Rothblum of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.

“There’s an expression that a person is the same on the inside as on the outside,” Rothblum said. “I think that for Steven Tucker that was true. He came across as a mensch, and he was a mensch.”

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills called Tucker “a healer of people.”

Born in San Bernardino and raised in Costa Mesa, Tucker had a lifelong love affair with Judaism that blossomed during his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. After his graduation in 1980, he decided to become the first rabbi in his family.

Following his 1987 ordination at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Tucker accepted a posting at an East Windsor, N.J. synagogue. He came to Temple Ramat Zion in August 1992, replacing Rabbi Solomon Rothstein.

“There is a great need here for some quality Jewish education,” Tucker said of the synagogue in an interview prior to his installation.

On Friday, the synagogue community went ahead with a previously scheduled bar mitzvah, largely because it honored the rabbi’s commitment to Jewish education.

“I think that it shows the synagogue that we … continue with what our tradition is,” Dorman said.

Several hundred mourners attended funeral services for Tucker on Nov. 15 at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Simi Valley.

The Silencing of the Left?

No one — neither Rabbi Paula Reimers nor board members who voted not to renew her contract — believes that she was let go just because of the Israeli flag incident. After all, the decision about the woman who had led Temple Emanu El in Burbank for seven years was surely more complex, more multifaceted. But no one will deny that the episode in the sukkah last year loomed large in the minds of many congregants.

Last fall, after Sept. 11, Reimers, who had never been shy with her congregants about her pacifist Middle East politics, invited some local Muslims to join congregants in the sukkah for dinner, to put a personal face to the Muslim community that filled the media.

At the same time, amid the flag-waving following Sept. 11, Rachel Robbins, the temple’s president, had asked her husband, Gil, to hang large American and Israeli flags on the sukkah walls, much as her family had done in her childhood sukkahs.

When Reimers entered the sukkah a few hours before the event and saw the large Israeli flag pinned on the wall, she asked that it be taken down.

“I’m not opposed to the Israeli flag … but in this context it was a direct slap in the face [to the Muslim guests],” Reimers said. “That flag in this context is saying to people, ‘You are not welcome; we don’t want you here.'”

Robbins resisted Reimers’ orders, saying the Muslim guests would understand that they were coming to a Jewish place of worship, where Jewish symbols are displayed.

“I felt this was a matter of principle.” Robbins said. “We are synagogue in America, and I don’t see anything wrong with flying our flag in our synagogue.”

Finally, a compromise was reached: they took the flags off the wall, and instead brought in the Israeli and American flag stands from the social hall and placed them in the corner of the sukkah.

Still, the damage was done. The incident, set in the broader context of Reimers’ extremely dovish politics, was the subject of several meetings. In January, three of the four executive board members voted not to renew her contract.

“The philosophical breach had become too wide and we decided it was time to make a change,” Robbins said, emphasizing that she was speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the congregation.

Just how much Reimer’s Israel politics had to do with her termination is hard to quantify. But some in Los Angeles’s broader Jewish peace camp point to it as an extreme example of a dangerous attitude that has taken hold and grown, along with the crisis in Israel: the community’s unwillingness to entertain perspectives on Israel that are perceived to be too far to the left of the mainstream’s position.

There is a reluctant acceptance in the mainstream Jewish community of the idea that for the sake of security and survival of Israel, some personal views and opinions should be limited, in order to present a united front in support of the Jewish state.

At the center of the argument for a unified voice lies the mainstream belief that Israel’s very existence is at stake — a premise much of the left, while as horrified as everyone else at the suicide bombings, believes to be unsound. Without this key element, the argument that wartime calls for different standards of freedom of expression doesn’t hold much sway for those on the left.

“It’s a painful moment in Jewish life, because there isn’t a place for honest and open discourse,” said Gerald Bubis, founding head of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a longtime dove. “People can have very strong differences of opinion about where to go and how to resolve things, but that discourse does not have a place right now. Rather there is vituperative argumentation and excoriation.”

Others say there is no hush campaign, intentional or not, but that the diminution in the left’s ranks and the undercutting of many long-held beliefs have left it considerably weaker and ineffective in getting its voice heard.

“There are a lot fewer people who feel that the peace camp has a legitimate position, and I think that some people find it such an incomprehensible or so grossly naïve point of view that it’s hardly worth speaking that viewpoint,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, western regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). “It’s still an open marketplace of ideas, and they have their right to their point of view, but how come they are not getting it across”?

To those on the left — a multilayered group with a variety of opinions, approaches and values — the answer of why that message isn’t getting out is clear. They offer a host of occurrences and utterances, both blatant and subtle, that they say demonstrate that free speech in the Jewish community, at this time and place, has some serious limits.

At the top of everyone’s local list is an event at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills last spring, at which hecklers tried to drown out a presentation by two Israeli army reserve officers who refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. But even worse than the hecklers, some say, was the pressure placed on Temple Emanuel, which hosted but did not sponsor the event, by influential synagogue members to distribute a disclaimer saying the temple believes the community should be exposed to all responsible views on the Mideast situation. The reservists’ appearance at a Sacramento synagogue the following week was canceled, according to Women in Black, which sponsored the event.

The episode at Emanuel is one of a few places nationally where public events have turned ugly. At a pro-Israel rally in Seattle, two Jewish peace activists were arrested when they refused to move to a counter-rally across the street or take down their signs supporting Palestinian rights and the people — but not the government — of Israel.

At the pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C., last April, many community members were appalled by the booing of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz when he mentioned Palestinian suffering.

In May, commentator Avi Davis, in an Internet article on, attacked Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA, for his views, impugning his loyalty and motives and bringing in Nazi-era references. Davis later apologized for his excesses.

At a Los Angeles rally at The Federation building in July 2001, members of Americans for Peace Now, a co-sponsor of the event, had to be escorted away by police after they were physically threatened.

There have been financial threats as well. Communal leaders, who are normally quite outspoken about their political views, refused to go on record for this article. They feared that donors would follow others who had already pulled funding from projects unrelated to Israel because of political views held by the organizations’ leaders.

Outright threats are still rarer than more subtle, but perhaps more damaging, developments: the narrowing of the definition of who is included under the umbrella of Zionism, and a redrawing of the line where legitimate criticism ends and Israel bashing begins.

“The organized Jewish community has essentially identified itself hook, line and sinker with the Sharon government, and that organized community has formally or informally labeled us as being outside the pale, and they don’t make much of a differentiation between the Zionist and the anti-Zionist opposition,” said Arthur Stern, co-chair of the western region of Americans for Peace Now, vice chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council and chair of the Israel and World Jewry Commission of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

That has placed many Zionists on the left defending their loyalty to Israel.

Rabbi Sanford Ragins of Leo Baeck Temple said that in his sermons, he “never felt a smidgen of pressure to say anything” other than his true thoughts, but he does make sure to show “total solidarity with Israel in this time of horrible suffering.”

Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel in Hollywood echoed that idea. “As long as my listeners know how passionately in love with Israel I am, and how supportive I am of it, then they can hear whatever criticism I have of specific actions or policies.”

But while about a dozen rabbis interviewed for this article said they felt free to be open with their congregants, many seemed to know some colleagues who did not feel as open. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said that before the High Holidays, he had about 10 phone calls from rabbis concerned about how best to present what might be unpopular opinions.

That tension in synagogues exists among congregants as well. When Elaine Hoffman, co-chair of the western region of Americans for Peace Now and a member of its national board, told a friend that she would be switching to a synagogue that held more progressive views on Israel, the friend said she preferred “a pro-Israel synagogue.”

“Just because you look at things differently doesn’t mean you’re not pro-Israel,” Hoffman said.

But in the view of the peace camp, that is the message the mainstream community presents when all the speakers at communitywide rallies are supportive of Ariel Sharon’s policies, or when far-right politicians are headliners at events meant for the entire community. Peace activists assert that organizations like StandWithUs, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations produce written materials that do not reflect the views of those on the left end of the spectrum.

The United Jewish Communities’ recent decision to send philanthropic dollars over the Green Line cemented this perception for many on the left.

“There has been sort of ‘our way or the highway’ type mentality that the organized Jewish community has promulgated through its intensified PR efforts,” said Doug Mirell, president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

However, Elliot Brandt, western states director of AIPAC, said his organization, as well as the Conference of Presidents, has done well at representing all points of view. “Unless we truly are a big tent we are dead in the water, because if we hitch our wagons to one side or the other and the government in Israel or the United States changes, our ability to connect to the process would shut down,” he said.

AIPAC has tripled its new member enrollment since the beginning of the second intifada, Brandt said.

The AJC’s Greenebaum said the mainstream hasn’t bought into right-wing ideas, such as the Greater Land of Israel, but they have, for now, abandoned left-wing ideas like land for peace when peace partners are not to be found.

“I think that mainstream is wider than at any time in my memory,” Greenebaum said. “I think the left tends to depict the great center as being more to the right than it is. People I talk to are just as much ohavei shalom [lovers of peace] as they’ve always been, they just don’t know where to find shalom,” Greenebaum said.

Greenebaum and Brandt, along with other communal leaders, hail the great unity the crisis in Israel has produced among American Jews. But many in the progressive camp say the unity that has so energized the community has also stifled the debate.

“A desire to have a coherent sense of mission has gone hand in hand with legitimate fears of an impending doomsday to produce a new conformism that I think, as a general matter, is understandable in historical and sociological terms, but is unfortunate,” said David Myers, a history professor at UCLA and a peace activist.

Myers said some of the conformism in the Jewish community can be attributed to President Bush’s rhetoric after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Here in the United States, you are either ‘with us or against us,’ either 100 percent in the battle, or you are aiding and abetting the enemy,” Myers said.

Ironically, in Israel, and to an increasing degree here, observers said, there is a growing acknowledgment among the mainstream that the eventual outcome of the conflict, whether in 10 months or in 10 years, will be a two-state solution — the very thing the left has been fighting for for years. Even with that, the left is still trying to regain the footing it lost when the intifada erupted and shattered long-held values, hopes and strategies.

“People are terribly dispirited and disillusioned. A lot of us had to wake up to the fact that the right was right about Yasser Arafat,” Sokatch said. “But when you are confronted with the train wreck of the peace process, will you throw your hands up and walk away, or fight until thousands more are dead and you’re back in the same place, or will you roll up your sleeves and do the unglamorous work of doing what you can to lift the train back onto the tracks.”

Others acknowledged that a holding pattern may be necessary until both Sharon and Arafat are out of the picture. David Pine, executive director of Americans for Peace Now western region, said that the left is not nearly as weakened as has been portrayed.

“We are stronger than people think we are,” he contended. He said there has been evidence of broad support, such as more hits on the Web site.

Observers noted that peace demonstrations in Israel have been growing larger and more frequent, and recently in Los Angeles there has been more activity among the left, with more ads and events, and even new groups springing up.

“I think what we are seeing is the left having gotten over our shock over what happened with the breakout of the intifada, where we ended up seeing that a lot of horrible mistakes were made, but that our basic assumptions are still correct,” said Luis Lanier, a West Los Angeles attorney who is national co-chair of Americans for Peace Now.

Some of those basic assumptions have been reshuffled on the priority list. While Peace Now has always espoused peace for security, that pragmatism has overtaken the other driving force: the human rights argument, the ethics and values arguments, which many on the left say have all been trampled during this intifada.

Nevertheless, stalwarts on the left — like those on the right, the center and elsewhere — believe that they have Torah and Jewish values supporting their views, and that their way is the only way to ensure a safe and secure Israeli future. And that is why this battle, perhaps more than any other in the Jewish community, is as impassioned as it is.

“I think the right flies off the handle, and I think the left flies off the handle,” Greenebaum said. “And I think the large center is mostly giving forth with a very big sigh.”

The Reform movement is organizing a nationwide teach-in on Sunday to debate the Israeli-Arab conflict, mobilize support for Israel and provide a forum for open discussion and debate about the difficult issues surrounding the peace process.

"In Search of Peace and Security: A National Teach-In on Israel," the event will launch a Reform campaign to strengthen ties between American and Israeli Reform Jews. The Sept. 29 date is meant to commemorate the second anniversary of the intifada. So far, nearly 300 congregations across North America have signed up to participate.

The synagogues in the Los Angeles area hosting the teach-in are:

  • Congregation Or Ami, Agoura Hills

    Contact: Rabbi Paul Kipnes

    (818) 880-6818

  • Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

    Contact: Rabbi Laura Geller

    (310) 288-3742

  • Temple Ner Ami, Camarillo,

    Contact: Michael Lotker

    (805) 388-3824

  • Temple Sinai, Glendale

    Contact: Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

    (818) 246-8101

  • University Synagogue, Los Angeles

    Contact: Rabbi Zachary Shapiro

    (310) 472-1255

  • Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge

    Contact: Rabbi Jerry Brown

    (818) 360-2258

  • Temple Beth El, San Pedro

    Contact: Rabbi David Lieb

    (310) 833-2467

  • Congregation Kol Ami,

    West Hollywood

    (323) 606-0996

    Also on Sunday, Americans for Peace Now will sponsor a joint dialogue between Sari Nusseibeh, senior Palestinian representative in East Jerusalem and Al-Quds University president, and Israeli Knesset member Avshalom Vilan of the Meretz Party at the Beverly Hills Hilton at 7:30 p.m. The two will hold a joint discuss the Middle East peace process and regional politics For more information contact David Pine at (323) 934-3480.

  • L.A. Trembles

    Although "Trembling Before G-d" has enjoyed a successful theatrical run in Los Angeles, drawing in theatergoers is only part of the mission of Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s documentary about gay Orthodox Jews struggling to reconcile conflicting parts of their identities.

    "Dialogue is what the film is about, ultimately," said Dr. Mark Kramer, the national education outreach coordinator working for "Trembling." In terms of using the film to start a dialogue with Orthodox rabbis and their congregations, Kramer said, "Los Angeles has been a tough nut to crack."

    The film, which broke box office records for a documentary in New York, was also well received there by nearly a dozen Orthodox rabbis, who hosted post-screening discussions of the film with congregants. When Congregation B’nai David-Judea hosted a screening of the film on March 9, it became the first — and so far the only — synagogue in Los Angeles to do so.

    Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, the only Orthodox rabbi who did agree to the screening, originally planned to take a more conservative approach, screening the film privately with the synagogue’s board of directors. "There was a lot more interest in viewing it as a synagogue community than we anticipated," said Kanefsky, who agreed to congregants’ requests. Approximately 200 congregants filled the synagogue’s auditorium to watch the film and discuss its implications with their rabbi.

    After a closed-door session, three of the film’s subjects joined the group to answer questions. Los Angeles resident David and Florida couple Leah and Malka — who only go by their first names in the film and in person — addressed an audience as curious about the individual, personal questions the three faced, as the halachic possibilities for Orthodoxy and homosexuality.

    Congregants’ reactions to the documentary reflect Orthodox Judaism’s opposition to the issue of homosexuality and a desire to show compassion, especially for homosexuals who live otherwise Torah-observant lives. "The film was persuasive for me in defining homosexuality as not a choice," said one woman at the B’nai David-Judea screening, who declined to give her name. "Where people are struggling with who they are, that was important to me as far as, I don’t want to say accepting, but as far as understanding," she added.

    Not everyone in the audience was swayed by the film, however. One man spoke to the widespread concern that gay Orthodox Jews are trying to change halacha, or Jewish law. "I think there’s things in life you just can’t reconcile," he said. "It was a good film, but I don’t know what they want from us. Do they want a sign outside, ‘We Welcome Homosexuals’?"

    But even among those in the audience who remained troubled by homosexuality, the individuals from the film who addressed them were warmly welcomed. "I think I’ve always had a concern about the gay subculture, not gay people," said one congregant. "The subculture troubles me. But the people here tonight, they’re part of our subculture. Tonight helped me separate that out."

    Some people involved in promoting the film in the Orthodox community believe that fear of judgment from their colleagues explains rabbis’ resistance to the film, rather than a perceived anti-halachic message. "Rabbis are very concerned with the political ramifications of getting involved with the film," said Yehiel Hoffman, who volunteered to help promote the film within the Orthodox community in Los Angeles.

    Though Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the director of Project Next Step for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has not seen "Trembling," he did consult with Rabbi Avi Shafran on Shafran’s article in The Journal that called the film "incomplete and distorted." "It quickly becomes apparent what tack the film takes," said Adlerstein, who believes the filmmaker and advocates of "Trembling" want to reinterpret halacha to make homosexuality more acceptable. "The notion of reinterpreting is anathema to halachic life," he said.

    "Trembling" subject David sees the goals of the film’s outreach program differently. "At the very most we want halacha to be reexamined," he says, "But at the very least, I want families not to reject their children, and kids not to reject themselves and commit suicide. For a rabbi to say he’s not going to screen the film, I think that’s disgraceful; I think that’s not Jewish. It’s saying we don’t want to discuss this, we want this to go away."

    Adlerstein explains his opposition to the film: "On one hand, there is value in an educated laity, and open discussion, but it can also be seen as liberalizing some of the rules, and that’s where you get into trouble. Some will say, see, the Orthodox community is already changing."

    "Even before the movie was released, I felt we ought to be doing something," Kanefsky said. "The law is the law, but there are a whole slew of attitudinal issues to deal with." But he adds, "The purpose of the screening and discussion was not to kick-start a process of changing halacha."

    For DuBowski, who like his documentary subjects is both devout and openly gay, the discussion is the purpose. "The Orthodox community has the compassionate resources to deal with this," he told The Journal.

    But as David says and all involved can certainly agree, "This is a very touchy subject."

    Road Trip

    In celebration of HUC-JIR’s impending 125th anniversary, faculty members from the Los Angeles campus will be fanning out across Southern California during the next few weeks to bring the college to the congregants.

    “We’ll be celebrating directly with the congregations and the people,” said Dr. Lewis M. Barth, dean of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school, “utilizing this opportunity to speak about the college in the context of a larger message about our role in the shaping of Reform Judaism and Jewish life in America.”

    Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the campus’s School of Rabbinic Studies, will speak at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks on March 23; Barth will speak at Leo Baeck Temple April 13; Dr. Willis Johnson, assistant professor of Talmud, will speak at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood March 30; Dr. Bruce Phillips, professor of Jewish communal service, will be at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge on March 30; and Barth will speak at Leo Baeck Temple on April 13.

    For more information, call the college at (213) 749-3424.