Everything is easier than doing good


Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.


Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Amid the ravages of wildfires, Colorado Jews band together


The Sidmans are among the lucky ones: Their Colorado Springs home is still standing, nearly untouched by the flames that left many of their neighbors’ houses in ashes.

“I was just sobbing uncontrollably, even though my house was perfect,” Renee Sidman told the Colorado Springs Gazette.

For the past week Sidman and her family—among some 30,000 Colorado residents who were evacuated from their homes as wildfires spread—have found refuge with fellow congregants from Temple Shalom, which was not in the evacuation area.

As of Tuesday, the fire in Waldo Canyon, which sits on the western edge of Colorado Springs, had destroyed at least 347 homes and claimed two lives, according to the Denver Post.

Temple Shalom, which is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements, had about 20 member families evacuated, according to the Sidmans’ host, Julie Richman.

“It’s been kind of a blur,” Richman told JTA about having her family of four now sharing their home with the four Sidmans.

Ironically, Richman’s younger son, Adam, 13, and the Sidmans’ son, Daniel, 12, had just spent two weeks together as bunk mates at summer camp.

The temple’s Facebook page helped to ensure that everyone was accounted for, Richman said, noting that “Everybody in the congregation was kind of tracked down within about 24 hours.”

She said the synagogue also served as a temporary home to the Alpine Autism Center for a few days.

The communal sense was widespread, both in and out of the Jewish community, Richman added. The Jewish-owned Poor Richard’s restaurant gave out free meals to evacuees, individuals picked up restaurant tabs for police and residents put up signs thanking firefighters for keeping them safe.

“Everybody here has been struck by the extremely strong sense of community,” Richman said, reporting that the shelters set in place for evacuees never reached capacity because most people found home hospitality.

Temple Shalom held a healing service Friday night.

“When we Jews suffer pain and tragedy, we come together to strengthen one another. That is how we begin to heal,” said a notice sent to congregants by Rabbi Mel Glazer.

Unlike Temple Shalom and the city’s other synagogue, Temple Beit Torah, Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado Springs was in the evacuation area.

Chabad’s Rabbi Moshe Liberow and his family evacuated ahead of the flames on June 26, finding refuge in Denver. He returned two days later with rabbinical student Zalman Popack to volunteer at one of the shelters.

Police escorted them to his home and synagogue, so they could retrieve some items. The rabbi was relieved to see that there was no damage to his home or synagogue, or his community’s mikvah.

At his home he picked up a cotton candy machine, which he and Popack took along with beverages and other snacks to one of the Red Cross-run shelters.

“People so enjoyed it; adults and children were lining up for the cotton candy,” he said.

Popack has established a relief fund, as has the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, in conjunction with local synagogues, community organizations and national partners.

Jewish federations throughout the United States have been directing donors to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund online or to send checks with the notation “Colorado Fire Relief Fund” to the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, 300 S. Dahlia, Suite 300, Denver, CO 80246.

The donations to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund will go to directly combat the fire and help victims. There will be no administrative fees taken out, said Melissa Gelfand, the federation’s marketing and public relations director.

“We’re working locally with the local VOAD [National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster] to help victims, firefighters and any other first responders,” she said.

As of Monday, she was not certain how much money the federation fund had raised nationally, but said $30,000 had been raised locally.

The Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center is serving as a Red Cross drop-off location for supplies.

Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado Springs is also is collecting relief funds.

“Our heart goes out to those affected,” Liberow said. “We want those people to feel uplifted. Hopefully their lives will be on the mend.”

Israel: More Reform, Conservative than Charedi Jews


Eight percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as Conservative or Reform Jews, compared to just 7 percent of Israelis who define themselves as “Charedi” (ultra-Orthodox). Amazing? I think it is quite amazing, given the never-ending discussion of Charedi power and growing population and the very little regard given to the liberal streams of Judaism within Israel.

But commentary and amazement aside, the data is what counts here, and this data was found buried deep within the vast survey of the Guttman Center — a survey about which I wrote here several weeks ago.

However, you won’t find this data in the final Guttman Report.  The report divides Israelis by more common categories of “Charedi” (ultra-Orthodox, 7 percent), “religious” (15 percent), “traditional” (32 percent), “secular” (43 percent) and “anti-religious secular” (3 percent). Another question that does appear in the report, and that was released to the public, examines Israelis’ practical adherence to tradition. Fourteen percent say they observe tradition “meticulously,” 26 percent observe the Jewish tradition “to a great extent,”  44 percent “to some extent” and 16 percent “not at all.” 

A majority of Israelis (61 percent), we read in the report, “agree that the Conservative and Reform movements should have equal status with the Orthodox in Israel.”  We also read that “most Israeli Jews (69 percent) have never attended a prayer service or religious ceremony in a Reform or Conservative synagogue.”

Does this mean that more than 30 percent of Israelis did attend a service in a liberal congregation? That is not an insignificant number, and it is indeed the number one can find by opening the full SPSS file of survey data now available online (Inbal Hakman of the Jewish People Policy Institute assisted me with the file and with finding the data). (For links, visit this story at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.)

The question is narrowly tailored: “Did you ever attend/not attend a service or a religious ceremony in a Conservative or Reform synagogue?” And the response reflects both the low number (or low level of commitment) of people frequently attending the liberal places of prayer, and also the surprisingly high number of Israelis exposed to services in such places. (Regularly, 1 percent; frequently, 3 percent;  yes, but rarely, 26 percent; never, 69 percent.)

The much more interesting finding, though, is related to the self-definition of Israelis — the one I mentioned in the opening sentence of this article. Question No. 157, the answers to which were not included in the Guttman Report, asked: “How would you define yourself religiously?” The options were: Charedi, Charedi-Leumi (Zionist ultra-Orthodox), Dati-Leumi (Zionist-Orthodox), Conservative, Reform, Other, Do not belong to any stream.

The full list is: Charedi, 7 percent; Charedi-Leumi, 2 percent; Dati Leumi, 22 percent; Conservative, 4 percent; Reform, 4 percent; other, 12 percent; No stream, 50 percent. This latter group constitutes the more than 40 percent of the self-defined “secular,” and probably some “traditional” Israelis, as well. But the combined number of “liberal” religious Israelis, 8 percent, is most surprising. 

Intrigued by the numbers, I called professor Tamar Hermann, the academic supervisor of the Guttman Center. She told me to be careful about jumping to overreaching conclusions based on this very thin data. Hermann believes that many of the Israelis who defined themselves as “Conservative” and “Reform” were really “Israelis with strong religious sense that do not see themselves identifying with the Orthodox establishment.”

Hermann sent me the data for the same question from the Guttman survey of 1999. For some reason, the phrasing of the 1999 question was somewhat different, and that is always a reason for caution: “Do you see yourself as belonging to any stream of Judaism — which one?” it asked. The options were also different: “non-Zionist Charedi,” “Zionist-Charedi,” “Zionist-religious,” “Conservative,” “Reform,” “no stream.” Seventy percent of the 1999 respondents didn’t identify with any of the streams (compared to the 50 percent in 2009), and the combined percentage for Conservative and Reform was smaller: 5 percent (compared to 8 percent in 2009). This might be a result of how the question was asked, but it could also reflect a surge in the sense of Reform and Conservative belonging.

Here are some possible conclusions and speculations in light of this new data:

1. If you’re one of those panicked over the strengthening of the Israeli Charedi community, you might want to reconsider.

2. If you’re a Conservative or a Reform leader, tired of hearing that these streams have no way of succeeding in Israel — here’s your window of opportunity, opened wide.

3. Commitment does matter, a lot. Having many self-defined Conservative and Reform Israelis is nice, but it will not be truly important if the number of practicing Conservative and Reform Israelis doesn’t significantly grow.

4. The old formula of dividing Israelis into “religious” and “secular” with some “traditionalists” in the middle is losing relevance. There’s a center of moderates. An important silent center of moderates that needs to be heard. Variations are numerous, but old clichés die hard.

Conservatives’ challenge to Orthodoxy’s near monopoly on kosher gets more serious


The Conservative movement’s ethical kosher initiative may not have been intended as a wedge into the Orthodox monopoly over kosher supervision. But the planned rollout this summer of the Conservative-backed seal of ethical kosher production, the Magen Tzedek, coincides with an increase in the number of Conservative rabbis acting as kosher supervisors.

“I see an uptick,” said Rabbi Paul Plotkin, chairman of the kashrut subcommittee of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the legal body of the Conservative movement.

At a time of growing activism in the Conservative movement around the issue of kashrut, the Conservative rabbinate seems to be moving into the kashrut business like never before.

Conservative rabbis for years have been giving kosher supervision to their own synagogue kitchens, as well as to local caterers and retail establishments patronized by their congregations. But they largely left commercial kosher supervision to the Orthodox.

That’s beginning to change, say Conservative rabbis active in the field. It’s partly due to the energy generated by the Magen Tzedek initiative, which will rate kosher food manufacturers according to prescribed standards of ethical behavior regarding workers, animals, the environment and financial dealings. It’s also a natural extension of Conservative interest in promoting kashrut, rabbis in the movement say.

“Our rabbis are as knowledgable about kashrut as their Orthodox colleagues, and care about it as much as they do,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s main rabbinical group. “But our emphasis is on raising Jewish adherence to kashrut observance rather than professional ritual kashrut supervision. Magen Tzedek is our unique contribution to building awareness around the impact that kashrut is intended to have upon our full development as Jews.”

The Magen Tzedek is being tested at three kosher plants to see how well the auditing process works. Once testing concludes after Passover, those three manufacturers will go through the actual Magen Tzedek evaluation procedure, and the first kosher foods carrying the new seal should be on supermarket shelves before Rosh Hashanah, according to commission co-chair Rabbi Michael Siegel.

The identity of the companies involved in the trial is being kept under wraps, but at least one is a “major food producer,” according to Rabbi Morris Allen, Magen Tzedek’s program director.

Conservative Judaism, like Orthodoxy, accepts the Torah’s commandments as obligatory, including kashrut. While the same general laws of kashrut apply, there are some distinctions—notably the standards governing wine, cheese and certain fish.

In recent years, Conservative kashrut certification has grown.

In 2008, Rabbi Jason Miller of Detroit founded Kosher Michigan, which certifies nearly 30 products and establishments. In addition to the bakeries and ice-cream parlors typically supervised by Conservative rabbis, Miller oversees a company that makes dried wheat used as an ingredient in other kosher products, and in March he opened the glatt kosher dining plan at Michigan State University.

“I got into this reluctantly, but once I did, it became a passion and a mission to show that kosher-observant individuals need not rely on Orthodox hashgachah,” he said, using the Hebrew word for kosher certification. “I wasn’t waving the banner five or 10 years ago, but once I became part of the kosher certification world, I realized the injustice of the Orthodox monopoly.”

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, a group of Conservative rabbis launched MSP Kosher last July. Headed by Rabbi Avi Olitzky of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, the agency does not charge for its service, which Olitzky says is aimed at providing more kosher food for Jews who do not necessarily adhere to the stricter standards required by Orthodox supervision, such as glatt kosher meat.

“Plenty of people in the Jewish community who keep kosher will eat dairy out,” he says. “I’m not interested in going into hashgachah as a business. I don’t think it should be a business.”

In the past two decades, Conservative rabbis have spearheaded lawsuits challenging a number of states’ kosher laws on the grounds that they constitute government interference in religious matters. In every case, the courts agreed that the existing laws indeed privileged Orthodox definitions of kashrut and overturned them. New kosher laws in those states only require that establishments advertising themselves as kosher disclose their kosher standards, not that they subscribe to Orthodox certification.

“It’s a fair, nonsectarian way to acknowledge there are different approaches to kashrut,” said Rabbi Shalom Lewis, who was behind a recent case brought on his behalf in Atlanta by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Orthodox reaction to these legal challenges has varied from shrugs to protestation. In New York and New Jersey, Orthodox rabbis in charge of enforcing the new laws say they do a disservice to kosher consumers who, the rabbis say, are interested only in Orthodox certification.

In Georgia, Rabbi Reuven Stein, director of supervision of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission, said he was “disappointed” by Lewis’ lawsuit, calling it unnecessary and unhelpful.

“Conservative rabbis do give hechsherim, and we’ve never had an issue with it,” he said, using the Hebrew word for kosher certification.

Conservative leaders long have said that Magen Tzedek is not a replacement for Orthodox kosher certification, and only will be given to manufactured products already carrying a recognized kosher label, or to raw products such as fruits and vegetables that don’t need certification.

Even so, the Magen Tzedek leadership characterizes its relationship with the Orthodox Union, whose label will appear on two of the three first products carrying the new ethical seal, as friendlier than the OU describes it.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s Kosher Division, stands by the position he articulated soon after the May 2008 immigration raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant. The Iowa plant’s demise pushed the Magen Tzedek project to the front burner of Conservative movement priorities.

“We believe that all these important issues—the environment, workers’ rights and so on—are most effectively handled by government agencies that have the expertise and the mandate to monitor them,” Gernack told JTA.

He said the OU was “dismayed” at Allen’s appearance on a recent episode of the TV show “American Greed” devoted to former Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin, who is now serving a 27-year prison sentence for financial fraud.

“The sentence is a travesty,” Genack said.

That doesn’t mean the OU will hinder Magen Tzedek or any other additional certification a kosher food manufacturer might seek.

“If there is a company that wants to use Magen Tzedek, we will not object to it appearing on the label. We also would not object to them putting halal on their label,” Genack said, referring to Muslim dietary laws. “These are marketing decisions the company makes on its own.”

Conservative responsa approves selling, renting to non-Jews


Up to 50 Conservative rabbis signed on to a religious responsa that says it is permissible to rent or sell homes to non-Jews in Israel.

The statement, issued Monday, counters a rabbinic ruling signed by about 50 Israeli municipal rabbis that prohibits the same.

Written by Schechter Institute President Rabbi David Golinkin, it examines the issue from biblical sources to modern opinions.

It concluded: “(A)ccording to Jewish law, it is perfectly permissible to sell or rent houses to non-Jews in the Land of Israel for all of the reasons cited.

“Finally, if we are concerned that certain areas of the country such as the Galilee need more Jews, we must achieve that by Zionist education, not by discrimination. If there is concern that blocks of apartments are being bought up by Iran and Saudi Arabia, then the government of Israel must deal with this national problem.”

War enhances intensity of Israel trip


The siren went on for at least a minute.

It was a Friday evening in early July 2006, during the war with Hezbollah, and I was sitting on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, getting ready to welcome in the Shabbat with the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers.

Unlike the previous week, when we quickly evacuated the north, the siren we were hearing now was not an air strike or emergency alarm. It was the customary siren sounding the start of Shabbat, unique to Jerusalem.

Along with 44 other teenagers and six staffers, I was on the Eastern Europe-Israel Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth. We had arrived in Israel that week after spending two weeks traveling through Prague, Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow and Budapest, and everyone was so enthusiastic and completely ecstatic that the air was charged with happiness and excitement. As we sat there, we had a moment of silence listening to the alarm.

We had been supposed to spend our first week on the banks of the Kinneret, but the plans were canceled after five rockets hit a town 15 minutes from our hostel. Even though it was Shabbat, we were immediately evacuated back to Jerusalem. Later, our free time in public places was suspended because a suicide bomber was caught right before entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate, which we used regularly.

While our family and friends back home voiced concerns for our safety when we called them, nobody in our group felt in danger or unsafe. Nobody wanted to go home. Instead of fear, I felt anger that there was a war and anger that Israel still has to fight for her existence.

Being at that hilltop as we welcomed the Shabbat and listening to the siren and watching the Old City’s walls as the Holy City went dark, I felt so many emotions. Though we had been there a week, the realization that I was in Israel — the country of the Jewish people — our land — hit me hardest at that moment. I held back tears of gratitude, joy and happiness as we went around the circle we were sitting in, discussing our favorite part of the week. Mine was that moment.
The strong feelings I had came not only from the realization that we were in Israel. It was the magic of the moment or the magic of the city — the lights were so astoundingly beautiful, the walls gave off an air of age, history and religiousness and the view could not have been more perfect. The breeze ruffled the treetops, and I felt that God was hovering over us, watching.

What made this unforgettable experience even more irreplaceable was the two weeks that came before renewed my understanding of how much Israel means.
While traveling in Eastern Europe, our close-knit group visited the concentration camps, sites of mass murder and mass graves, the ghettos and places of resistance. Viewing all these places where history made its horrific mark was actually proof of what we had been learning since elementary school. We saw the gas chambers, the crematoria, the indentations in the earth that formed years after a mass grave was filled.

We saw what happened, and it became real in our eyes. It was no longer something we read about in textbooks — the ashes kept at Majdanek were once people, Jewish people; at Mila 18 in Krakow, the bunkers where the partisans of the Krakow ghetto had once fought. I understood more about the Holocaust and the resistance. I also understood how much Israel means to our people and to me.

I looked at the partisans, the resistance fighters, the Zionists, the Haganah fighters, the early halutzim or pioneers, and I saw the determination and love they had for Israel. I understand now that Israel is not just the place toward which we face when we pray daily, or the distant homeland, or the place where our forefathers lived but our haven and our land. It is the place where Jews from all over the world look to for hope in seemingly hopeless times.

Especially the week after being in Krakow, when the war started, I felt so lucky to be there, so lucky to actually have an established Jewish state.

Instead of making me feel cautious and insecure, being there during a time of war allowed me to connect more with Israel. I only realized with stronger effect that Israel truly is my homeland and haven — the one place in the world I can be a Jew in the land of my forefathers.

While I was in Jerusalem, I bought a ring that I hope to wear at least until I return. On it is engraved a passage describing my sentiments exactly: “Libi be’mizrach, veanochi b’sof ma’arav,” meaning, “My heart lies in the east while I am far to the west.” Especially after my journey, Israel will never be far from my heart.

Daniela Bernstein is an 11th grader at the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy.

Jewish Voters to Play Key Primary Role


In Democratic districts on Los Angeles’ Westside and in the Valley, next week’s primary will not only determine the Democratic winner but also the person who will almost certainly win in the fall’s general election. And Jewish voters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, will play a key role in the outcome.

The local Jewish community has a relatively small percentage of genuine right-wingers. But otherwise, there’s a wide spectrum of opinion, from pro-labor liberals, such as Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), to moderate, pro-business Democrats like Bob Hertzberg and moderate Republicans like Steve Soboroff and Assemblyman Keith Richman of Granada Hills. Both Soboroff and Hertzberg did very well with Jewish voters when they ran for mayor in the 2001 and 2005 mayoral primaries.

Ideological division among Jews also plays out geographically, with Valley Jews generally more moderate than Westside Jews. The Daily News tends to reflect the moderate-to-conservative side, while the L.A. Weekly holds to the liberal corner, with the L.A. Times in the middle of this broad swath.

At the federal level, the ideological diversity among Jews and Jewish politicians is less overtly apparent much of the time. That’s because opposition to the highly partisan Bush administration has created unprecedented unity among Democrats. It is politically unsafe within the party to be too accommodating or friendly to this White House.

This has created problems for Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. No Democrat has been more worshipful of the Bush Iraq strategy, nor a more useful tool to the White House’s foreign policy propaganda. As a result, Lieberman, who is Jewish, now faces a strong primary challenge from Iraq War critic Ned Lamont.

An echo of Lieberman’s struggle has emerged here, in the 36th Congressional District, which includes Venice, Manhattan Beach and San Pedro. It’s represented by Jane Harman, another Jewish Democrat perceived as a foreign policy hawk. By no means as pro-Bush as Lieberman, Harman nonetheless outraged many Democrats by seeming to back the Bush domestic spying program. Now, she has a liberal Jewish opponent, Marci Winograd, in her heavily Democratic district.

The 36th once was a swing district, and Harman’s moderation was essential to her survival. Redistricting in 2002 has since made the 36th safely Democratic, making her liberal critics less forgiving.

As a result of these primary challenges, both Lieberman and Harman have been at pains to highlight their disagreements with Bush. Harman recently referred to the Bush administration as “lawless.” Adding to Harman’s woes is Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is considering bumping Harman from her senior post on the Intelligence Committee.

It helps both Harman and Lieberman that their challengers are underfunded and that the party establishment has rallied to each of these incumbents. For that matter, Jews are likely to understand better than other Democrats the cross-pressures on foreign policy, such as support for Israel, that frequently make Jewish Democrats more hawkish than might otherwise be true. Yet Lieberman’s egregious Fox News attacks on Democrats — as insufficiently supportive of Bush — seem likely to alienate even many natural backers, while Harman’s affinity for the viewpoints of the intelligence agencies also has introduced some doubt.

At the state level, Jewish voters will choose in the Democratic primary for governor between Steve Westly and Phil Angelides, neither of whom is Jewish. The more traditionally liberal Angelides, backed by most of the union and liberal blocs in the party, presents himself as the one leading Democrat who was opposed to Arnold Schwarzenegger when the governor was popular. He also defines himself as the person willing to call for higher taxes on the rich. The L.A. Times has endorsed Angelides. The L.A. Weekly’s endorsement has not been announced as of this writing.

Westly, endorsed by the Valley’s Daily News, says he is the moderate alternative on taxes and other issues and that he can best defeat the governor. Both are well regarded in the Jewish community as friends and as supporters of Israel. But, of course, so is Schwarzenegger.

Had this election been held last year, when Schwarzenegger seemed bent on destroying his own governorship with his turn to the right, any decent Democrat could have prevailed. This year, Schwarzenegger has begun to substantially rehabilitate himself with the center and even parts of the left.

An example is how he has mended fences with much of the education establishment. He had originally provoked the ire of educators and their unions when he reneged on an agreement to repay school funds he’d borrowed during an earlier budget cycle. But the harsh political fallout and the state’s improved tax revenues have prompted him to start redeeming his original promise.

This year’s budget includes a down payment on the school funds he had used for other purposes. He also has appointed Democrats to high posts. And he has fought with the Bush administration on some issues. He’s even started to work effectively with the Democratic Legislature, whose leaders will campaign at his side this fall for a bond measure to improve the state’s infrastructure. And he has stopped running his mouth as though his primary mission were to appease right-wing talk radio.

These are the kinds of moves that will appeal to moderate Jewish voters, who have long been willing to vote for moderate, pro-choice Republicans. This is troubling news for the winner of the Democratic primary.

What could still beat Schwarzenegger in the fall is a massive Democratic turnout in the congressional races that is aimed at crushing the Bush national agenda. Then, too, Schwarzenegger’s past attacks on Democrats and their values may have left some lingering animosity. The “governator” dug himself a deep hole last year, and he has not necessarily climbed all the way out.

The moderate-liberal split also plays a role in the campaign to replace Fran Pavley in the coastal 41st Assembly district. Barry Groveman, Julia Bromley, Lelly Hayes-Raitt, and Jonathan Levey are the main contenders. All are touting their progressive environmental credentials.

Groveman, the mayor of Calabasas, is the only one of the four who does not live in liberal Santa Monica. He has the backing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and centrist Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver.

Groveman and Levey have dominated in fundraising, while Bromley, president of the Santa Monica school board, boasts endorsements from Pavley and popular state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles). Levey has won both the Times and the L.A. Weekly endoresements. Groveman received the Daily News endorsement.

Another race of local interest is the one to replace Paul Koretz in the 42nd Assembly District, which cuts across from Los Feliz through West Hollywood to the Westside and includes part of the Valley. One candidate, former L.A. City Councilman Mike Feuer, lost a close race to Rocky Delgadillo for city attorney in 2001. He’d previously served as executive director of Bet Tzedek. His rival, Abbe Land, is a former member of the West Hollywood City Council and former co-chief executive of the L.A. Free Clinic.

These two progressive and very formidable Jewish candidates cannot be easily separated by the liberal-moderate rubric. Feuer has won the backing of outgoing incumbent Koretz, as well as from both The Times and the L.A. Weekly. Land has endorsements from L.A. Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and from Goldberg and Hertzberg. Both Feuer and Land have a host of labor endorsements. (In the interests of transparency, I should note that Feuer is a friend whose campaign I support.)

Then there are the Jewish incumbents who face no serious challenge. Preeminent among them are county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Yaroslavsky continues to work effectively, if often invisibly, in the mixture of power and obscurity that marks the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Waxman has been an outspoken and highly effective critic of the Bush administration and may become a central player in national government should the Democrats win back control of the House. The vision of Waxman with subpoena power must keep White House aides up at night.

One Jewish Republican deserves comment. Assemblyman Richman is running for state treasurer in the primary. Richman, endorsed by the Daily News, has been a force in building bipartisan alliances in Sacramento and was popular enough in the Valley to lead the field in the campaign to become the Valley’s “mayor.” In that same 2002 election, Los Angeles’ voters defeated Valley secession.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how Jews respond to Proposition 82, the initiative to provide free preschool to all California children through a tax on the wealthiest Californians. Generally, Jewish voters are extremely supportive of any education measure, especially school bonds. Many progressive groups support Proposition 82. While the L.A. Chamber of Commerce also supports it, most of business is against it.

The Times has called for a “no” vote, arguing that there are more cost-effective ways to cover those who do not have access to preschool. The Daily News also is opposed. The L.A. Weekly favors Proposition 82.

Supporters contend that Proposition 82 may be the last best opportunity to reach the goal of universal preschool with standards. While Schwarzenegger opposes it, his ally and friend, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, is a big supporter. The measure is very close in the polls, and Jewish voters may play a key role in determining the result.

Once these primaries are over, the internal dynamics of the Jewish community’s politics will become less visible, at least until the next set of primaries. Of course, as November approaches, there will be talk about how many Jews might vote Republican. But given the unifying Democratic hostility to Bush, don’t bet on it.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

Them and Us


“Jews are just stupid. I’m telling you Rob, they’re just stupid.”

“Can I quote you on that, rabbi?”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis hesitated a second, then said, “Sure, you can quote me.”

Of course, he wasn’t talking generally. Some of the rabbi’s best friends are Jews. He is passionate in his love of Judaism, second to none.

That’s why it sends him into a rage to see how the Jews — from the leaders of his Conservative movement to the man and woman in the street — deal with converts and the whole issue of conversion.

And he’s right.

At 81, frail of body but sharp-tongued and wise, Rabbi Schulweis has made it his mission to preach the gospel of conversion to the Jews. That is we, as individuals and as a people, must seek and embrace converts. Doing so will not only improve Jewish life but improve our own lives as Jews.

Here’s the second half of his quote:

“Jews are losing such an opportunity to enrich their lives,” Rabbi Schulweis said. “I want them to see the blood transfusion into the veins of the people. Converts are the most articulate and dedicated Jews I have met in a long time. For the life of me, I don’t understand why there should not be a proactive effort to accept converts.

“It’s a mitzvah to embrace these people.”

On June 1, Schulweis’ synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, held a Shavuot service welcoming converts within the community. The holiday has special meaning for converts. On it, we read the Book of Ruth, the story of a non-Jewish woman whose love for God and Torah led her to convert to Judaism.

To coincide with the VBS event, the synagogue created and distributed “Your People, My People: Journeys,” a 36-page booklet compiling the personal stories of 27 converts. I didn’t get to the service, but I did get the book.

What’s inside are the kind of heartfelt, moving stories of personal transformation that Oprah would kill for.

Cheryl Gillies had little religious upbringing and was out searching for a meaningful tradition when she read about the VBS outreach program. She walked in and found a tradition that matched her inner yearnings. “Judaism,” she writes, “places emphasis on the deeds and actions one performs in this world, and the accountability hit home.”

Chris Hardin fell in love with Jennifer Rea, who was studying for conversion at the time they met. He attended some classes with her and grew to feel he belonged. “Judaism,” he concluded, “is the best kept secret in the world.”

Elisabeth Kesten was raised a devout Protestant in Germany, the step-granddaughter of a concentration camp officer. As she read more about Judaism, she resisted the feelings that drew her toward it.

At 13, she decided to learn Hebrew; at 14, she was confirmed in the Protestant church. “Being Jewish didn’t seem like an option to me,” she writes, “but God wasn’t giving me the choice.”

She stopped going to church and joined the small Jewish community in Nuremburg. She informed her parents she was converting.

“A protestant evangelical minister told me I would go to hell for rejecting Jesus. I asked him if all Jews murdered by the Germans would go to hell. He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Then I’ll be with them, and that would be fine with me.’ Only when I am Jewish,” Kesten writes, “am I truly happy.”

And yet … Jewish organizations and synagogues refuse to make conversion more of a priority.

There are several reasons Jews treat conversion like kryptonite, all of them bad. In Roman times, according to the historian Salo Baron, Jews who proselytized were beheaded. Under the Emperor Constantine, converts were burned alive. Eventually, their punishments became our aversion.

Today, with no such threats hanging over our heads, why do we still desist?

My guess is twofold: blatant ignorance and subtle racism.

In order to reach out to others, we must first know what we are talking about, and most of us don’t. Why be Jewish? What does it mean? What does it offer, and what does it require?

If only we could answer these questions for ourselves (go ahead, try it), much less discuss them with non-Jews.

Jewish leaders who oppose widespread conversion efforts often use this very reason: There is so much education to be done among our own, why go outside?

But Rabbi Schulweis has found that engaging his congregants in conversion efforts actually increases their own understanding.

“One cannot have outreach without inreach,” he said. “And you can’t have inreach without outreach. Jews can only learn when they can teach. The only way they learn is to do something with their learning. They have to discover what is so important about Judaism. Our outreach program complements our inreach program.”

The other barrier to such programs is nastier. Many Jews cling to their identity as a status marker — it makes them feel different and special. To admit the multitudes is, in their minds, to dilute the brand, to fling open the gates of the country club. This is a message too many Jews never fail to convey to spiritual seekers from other faiths.

“They are scared of us,” said Schulweis of those seeking to learn more. “They are scared of the synagogue, because they have been told to be a Jew is a racial matter. They’re told it’s a matter of birth, and you can’t come in, because you will not be trusted and not be embraced.”

Few groups are bucking this trend. A Web site — www.convert.org — exists to make it somewhat easier, and VBS is leading the way among synagogues.

At his shul, said Rabbi Schulweis, prospective converts “are overwhelmed by the greeting. They know the rabbis of VBS love these people.”

As for the critics who say VBS is wasting too much time and money on outreach: “When they became us,” said Rabbi Schulweis, ” they are no longer them.”

For information on how to receive a copy of “Your People, My People” e-mail Jane Jacobs at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue: < href="mailto:jjacobs1@vbs.org">jjacobs1@vbs.org

 

New JTS Head Faces Trouble, Opportunity


Arnold Eisen doesn’t need to be reminded that he’s not a rabbi. It’s certainly not news to him.

The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) announced this month that Eisen, 54, the chair of Stanford University’s religious studies program, would become just the second nonrabbi to serve as the New York City seminary’s chancellor and the first since 1940. He succeeds Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who held the post for two decades.

“I would have preferred a rabbi in this position, too,” said Eisen with a laugh. “I’ve been writing and thinking for 25 years about changes I’d like to see made, and now I have a chance to help make them.”

Eisen ascends to the helm of a Conservative movement that is hemorrhaging memberships on a congregational level and cannot, at present, reach consensus about whether to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis. Perhaps more than any other branch of American Judaism, the Conservatives must walk a difficult line in maintaining a coherent identity as halachic Jews in the modern world. Eisen is well aware of these quandaries and has spent a lifetime considering various solutions.

Take the pressing question of what to do about openly homosexual rabbis. Eisen offered a three-part answer.

“No. 1, this is a halachic movement, period. I want honesty and integrity in the halachic process carried through, and I would be upset if it were not. And No. 2, it’s a faculty matter. The faculty has to teach the people who are going to be ordained. So there will be a halachic decision by rabbis and there will be faculty discussion as well. Then, I voice my personal opinion about how I’d like things to turn out, and you know what that is.”

Eisen personally favors the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, while also insisting, “I’m not qualified to decide on matters of rabbinic law. That’s one of the things that changes” with a nonrabbi at the reins of the seminary. The halachic decisions of the JTS will now fall to a yet-to-be determined rabbi or perhaps even a number of rabbis. They simply haven’t figured it out yet.

Bay Area Jewish community leaders, while intrigued by the novelty of having a nonrabbi lead a rabbinical seminary, were far more preoccupied with praising Eisen’s record over two decades as one of the nation’s foremost scholars in the field of modern Jewish thought.

Because the JTS selection committee chose to look outside the rabbinate, the Conservative seminary now has a leader who was never mired in political infighting, said professor Lee Shulman, the president of Stanford’s Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching and a longtime colleague of Eisen.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom said that Eisen’s academic record indicates “that the seminary, which has consistently stood for academic excellence, will continue to do so.”

“Arnie didn’t live in [a] cloister,” added Rabbi Brian Lurie, former director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. “He mixed with students and donors and is a person who understands what’s going on on the street. His research at school really gave him a very unique and strong vantage point on the American Jewish community. They didn’t give this job to some ivory tower isolated person.”

A colleague praised Eisen as a scholar with his feet firmly planted on the ground and one who has long devoted thoughtful consideration to issues of the Jewish community.

“The questions that have engaged him most as a scholar are arguably the central questions that engage Jews today,” said Steven Zipperstein, Eisen’s Stanford colleague.

Eisen’s dissertation explored the ramifications of being both Jewish and American. A subsequent book, “Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming” (Indiana University Press, 1986) explored Jewish feelings of being at home and homeless in the Diaspora.

“His concerns begin with the preoccupations of everyday Jews,” Zipperstein said.

And, as far as Eisen is concerned, too few everyday Jews are preoccupied with Torah.

“There are literally a couple of million Jews in this country who have never had Torah taught to them in a live and exciting way. They just don’t get it. They don’t get how much Jewish tradition could mean to them. So they’re turned off and disconnected, and we’ve got to reach them better,” he said. “I now have a chance to help train a lot of the people who are going to be serving them for the next generation.”

Eisen, an active congregant at Palo Alto’s Kol Emeth, can’t deny the declining synagogue rolls in the Conservative movement but insists that “the numbers for all [affiliated] Jews are down…. It’s a very strong movement, and I don’t understand the sense of malaise some people feel.”

Rather than obsess solely on wooing new members (or disenchanted old ones), Eisen said that the movement must provide more for its existing membership: “We need a better prayer experience, better schools, better adult learning and better communities. If we can do any or all of these things, we will have an improved movement.”

Conservative thinkers have, for some time, pondered how to invigorate the movement. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood has suggested a name change to something that better reflects the direction and potential of the movement. He suggested Covenental Judaism.

Eisen disagrees with that approach: “Rather than have a name change [of the movement], I’d rather we live up to our potential.”

For his part, Wolpe has enthusiastically embraced the choice of Eisen.

Eisen’s selection to head the JTS follows a trend. Richard Joel, the former president of Hillel, took over the presidency of the Orthodox Yeshiva University in 2003; like Eisen, Joel is not a rabbi. In 2001, David Ellenson took over the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). And while Ellenson is a rabbi, he is best known for his scholarship in Jewish studies.

“That JTS needed to go to Stanford to pick their president a couple of years after HUC had to go to Los Angeles to get David Ellenson, now the myth is finally broken. The West Coast is not a backwater of the Jewish community. Indeed, it’s very likely the cutting edge of the new leadership of the Jewish community,” said Stanford’s Shulman.

Eisen, for his part, downplayed any rivalries between East Coast and West Coast Conservative Judaism, namely Los Angeles’ University of Judaism and New York’s JTS. But, as a native Philadelphian who has lived in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years, he says he could serve as a natural bridge.

He’s also not quite ready to leave the Bay Area yet, and as “chancellor designate,” he doesn’t have to assume full duties until July 2007. In the meantime, he will serve at both Stanford and the seminary. But he says he’s ready to take on the challenges, while also realizing the inherent limitations of his new mission.

“You know, I’m a pluralist,” Eisen said, “and I don’t think Judaism is the only way to be a good person and serve God. I don’t think Conservative Judaism is the only way to be a good Jew. But having said that, I’ve been a Conservative Jew all my life, and this is the path that matters most to me. And I will do all I can for it.”

This article is reprinted from the J Weekly, a Northern California publication.

Spoof Rockers Pen ‘UnOrthodox’ Tunes


Two minutes into a What I Like About Jew concert, singer Rob Tannenbaum hears chairs scraping and feet trudging toward the exit.

“We tell people, ‘Look around, because not all of you are going to be here until the end,'” says the band’s co-founder, Sean Altman.

Never mind that the Boston Globe called the musical comedy duo “racy and funny and smart and affectionate … for a generation of fully assimilated Jews who grew up on punk rock and ‘South Park.'” The chair-scrapers apparently do not appreciate the band’s hillariously crass, politically incorrect, subversively funny and X-rated musical chutzpah, which makes Adam Sandler look like a choirboy. Consider “Reuben the Hook-Nosed Reindeer,” who is forced to buy Santa’s toys wholesale; the circumcision ditty, “A Little Off the Top”; and “Hot Jewish Chicks,” who put “the whore in hora.”

“They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Let’s Eat,” adds dandruff and acne to the list of Passover plagues.

The artists, who have performed together for seven years, will play for the first time in Los Angeles on April 20 and 21 at Tangier Lounge in Los Feliz. The revue will include a performance by Jewish comic Morgan Murphy (a writer on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show”) and songs from the band’s new CD, “UnOrthodox.”

What I Like About Jew is more irreverent than unorthodox, which is typical of artists immersed in what critics call the bourgeoning “hipster Heeb” movement. Like Jewcy T-shirts and the “Jewsploitation” flick, “The Hebrew Hammer,” their work sets out to replace images of the neurotic nebbish with an new persona: the cocky, hard-ass Jew.

“We’re having fun rejecting, embracing and acknowledging the stereotypes,” Altman, who is in his 40s, says from his Harlem brownstone.

“Our music appeals to Jews who connect to their roots by watching edgy comics like Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart,” Tannenbaum, also 40-something, says from his Manhattan office. “People have criticized hipster Heebs for being glib and superficial and not getting Jews into synagogue, but we don’t have a cattle prod, which is what we’d need to get these Jews into temple. What we can do is share with them some of our own experiences about post-assimilationist Jewish identity.”

Actually, the musicians have lured Jews into shul, when they’ve played the occasional synagogue gig. Rabbi Lia Bass scheduled them for a concert at her Conservative, Arlington, Va., shul in 2005 — in part to draw a younger demographic to her congregation.

“The band has its pulse on the unaffiliated Jewish community,” she explains. But she was sure to warn congregants “that the show was raunchy and that they should come at their own risk.”

Rabbi Chava Koster wasn’t sure she’d be able to sit through her first What I Like About Jew concert at a club several years ago.

“But it proved to be an eye-opening take on American Jewry,” recalls the spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Reform B’nai Israel-The Village Temple. When the act later played at her synagogue, “people first squirmed, then you heard furtive laughter, and then roaring at the jokes about Christmas envy and factory bar mitzvahs.”

“Today I Am a Man” mocks the bandmates’ own bar mitzvahs, both of whom were so secular, “mine almost had a pork bar,” Tannenbaum says.

Tannenbaum met Altman at Brown University, where the two were (and still are) a study in contrasts. Altman, a professional musician and former front man of the band, Rockapella, is 6-foot-5, jovial and happily married to an opera singer he met on the Jewish online dating service, JDate. Tannenbaum is shorter, with a wicked wit, a day job as music editor of Blender magazine and a grudge against the 18 women who consecutively rejected him on JDate.

What I Like About Jew began in 1998, when Tannenbaum showed Altman a song he had written after performing in a punk-metal band in order to write about the experience for Details magazine. It was a December dilemma diatribe, satirically sung like a Nat King Cole ballad, which cheekily cites a certain anti-Semitic slur.

The impressed Altman immediately invited Tannenbaum to perform the song with him at a downtown Christmas concert, where the club’s manager dourly approached them during intermission. Some patrons had been offended by their use of the K-word, the manager said. Undaunted, the musicians enunciated the epithet even more clearly during their next set.

“I thought, ‘African American rappers aren’t afraid to use the N-word; gays aren’t afraid to say, “fag,” but Jews are still terrified of the term, “kike,”‘” Tannenbaum recalls. “It’s part of that old Jewish fear that if you stand out, someone’s going to take you to Auschwitz. But we wanted to deflate the power of the slur by not making it taboo anymore.”

The performers decided to stand out during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal by writing “Hanukah With Monica,” which describes “Eight whole days of goin’ nuts/on the presidential putz.” The clever ditty received national radio airplay in 1999 and put the band on the Manhattan club circuit.

The musicians went on to play sold-out crowds and receive mostly rave reviews everywhere, from the Village Voice to the Washington Post. (“If I were a rich man, I’d plunk down the cash to see this show,” The New York Times quipped).

Their repertoire now includes “J-Date,” where “everyone’s funny and everyone’s smart/and 20 pounds heavier than they say they are.” “Let’s Eat” mocks the musicians’ own ignorance about Judaism: “We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt; the year was 1492. Hitler had just invaded Poland. Madonna had just become a Jew.”

Then there’s “Jews for Jesus,” which came about when the songwriters mused that while they’re unobservant, they haven’t sunk so low as to become Christian. The Ramones-inspired tirade attacks the sect with punk rock vitriol: “Jews for Jesus, I wanna chop you into pieces … I hope you get lots of diseases. You’re born again, that’s nice. Stay dead — that’s my advice.”

But while the performers are bad boys, “We’re bad Jewish boys, which means we’re not really so bad,” Tannenbaum insists. True, there are those chair-scrapers and the reviewer who couldn’t decide if the Rat Pack-style “Chicks” was racist or misogynistic.

Altman insists the song is affectionate in both ways: “We present the characters as buffoons, like Archie Bunker in ‘All in the Family,’ so you can’t really take them seriously.”

What I Like About Jew will play the Tangier Lounge, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, April 20 at 7:30 p.m. and April 21 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets are $15. For tickets, contact (323) 666-8666 or www.virtuous.com. The “UnOrthodox” CD is in stores.

The “UnOrthodox” CD is in stores or can be purchased online at www.whatilikeaboutjew.com.

 

Truthbusters


In the checkout line of any Whole Foods Market, you can pick up a copy of a magazine called Adbusters. It’s a 120,00-circulation leftist journal, published in Vancouver, with a corresponding Web site that prides itself on deconstructing the commercial forces its editors believe erode “our physical and cultural environments.”

The current March/April issue features a lead-in piece by editor Kalle Lasn titled, “Why won’t anyone say they are Jewish?” In it, Lasn points out the fact that of the 50 or so neocons influencing United States diplomatic and defense policy either within government or in media and think tanks, about half are Jewish.

“Deciding exactly who is a neocon is difficult since some neocons reject the term while others embrace it. Some shape policy from within the White House, while others are more peripheral, exacting influence indirectly as journalists, academics and think tank policy wonks. What they all share is the view that the U.S. is a benevolent hyper-power that must protect itself by reshaping the rest of the world into its morally superior image. And half of the them are Jewish.”

The last sentence wasn’t an aside, it was the point. To prove it, Lasn thoughtfully listed alphabetically every neocon he could think of (he missed some) and put a black dot next to the Jews (he missed some). The design department may have flirted with the idea of a yellow star, but decided to go for understated. The fact that many of these post-Cold War warriors are Jewish has been remarked upon and written about quite a bit since the lead up to the second Gulf War, especially in the European and Arab press. Pat Buchanan has been hyperventilating about it for years.

Lasn presented his point not in the spirit of revelation, but of social inquiry. “But the point is not that Jews (who make up less than 2 percent of the American population) have a monolithic perspective,” he wrote. “Indeed, American Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat and many of them disagree strongly with Ariel Sharon’s policies and Bush’s aggression in Iraq. The point is simply that the neocons seem to have a special affinity for Israel that influences their political thinking and consequently American foreign policy in the Middle East.”

And the point of “The Passion of the Christ” was not to prove that heinous Jews dressed as medieval Shylocks killed Christ, just that the Temple priests had an affinity for power and money that led to the death of the Christian savior. Hey, as Mel Gibson says, the facts are the facts.

At the end of his piece, Lasn posed the question, “Does the Jewishness of the neocons influence American foreign policy in the Middle East? Or is this analysis just more anti-Semitism?”

I think on “Law and Order” they call that leading the witness. On the eve of Gulf War II, I wrote that if it were to turn into Vietnam II, fingers may very well start pointing at these Jewish neocons. After all, as David Brooks wrote in that Jewish neocon redoubt, The New York Times, in the code language of conspiracy mongers, “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish.'” The hard left and hard right converge, as humorist Tom Lehrer always knew they would, in their suspicion of “The Jews.”

A policy maker’s religion can be relevant, whether you are Jewish, Muslim or born-again Christian.

Adbusters is free to single out Jewish names on a list, but to do so without a deeper, considered analysis of what that so-called phenomenon means is an invitation to anti-Semitism and conspiracy-mongering. It’s incitement under the guise of insightfulness.

We are on the cusp of Purim, a joyous, joke-filled holiday (see cover) that recalls a time Jews found themselves in the corridors of power yet faced with an existential threat. Then, as now, Jews were powerful and weak, poor and rich, assimilated and separate, liberal and conservative; yet the Hamans of the world were all too happy to scapegoat them all and be done with it.

“If you can give your foes a collective name – liberals, fundamentalists or neocons – you can rob them of their individual humanity,” Brooks wrote. “All inhibitions are removed. You can say anything about them. You get to feed off their villainy and luxuriate in your own contrasting virtue. … Improvements in information technology have not made public debate more realistic. On the contrary, anti-Semitism is resurgent. Conspiracy theories are prevalent. Partisanship has left many people unhinged.”

Happy Purim.

The DeLay Factor and the Jews


The recent clamor over Howard Dean’s demand for U.S. "evenhandedness" in the Middle East was sweet music to the ears of Jewish Republicans, who hope 2004 will be a watershed in their long but frustrating effort to rally Jewish voters to their cause.

But the Republicans could overplay their hand, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who sometimes makes Ariel Sharon sound like a peacenik, is just the man to do it.

The Texas congressman, who has emerged as a powerful friend of Israeli nationalists and right-wingers, was on the attack last week, lashing out at Dean, the surprise frontrunner in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

But DeLay’s pro-Israel ardor, while galvanizing to a small Jewish minority and useful to mainstream leaders, could neutralize the positive political impact of President George W. Bush — whose support for both Israel and an active peace process may play well among Jewish swing voters.

During his 18 years in Congress, DeLay, a former Houston exterminator, has been known mostly for his intense partisanship, his hard-right views on domestic subjects and his close relationship with groups like the Christian Coalition.

For much of that time he was considered cool to Israel — hostile to foreign aid, and not particularly sympathetic to the pro-Israel cause on Capitol Hill.

That began to change in the mid-1990s as pro-Israel conservatives courted the increasingly powerful DeLay, and as a key segment of his core constituency — conservative Evangelical Christians — began to put their version of "Christian Zionism" at the top of their list of priorities.

Some analysts say that agenda is based heavily on Christian biblical prophecies, which require constant warfare in the Middle East and a terrible fate for those Jews who do not jump aboard the millennial bandwagon.

Whatever their motives, their support has been welcomed by pro-Israel groups, which face mounting hostility from liberal "mainline" Protestant denominations. It was especially welcomed by the Jewish right, which for the first time had a politically powerful champion in Washington.

DeLay was reborn into the pro-Israel faith with a vengeance.

In 2000, he was one of only three lawmakers voting against a congressional resolution praising Israel for its withdrawal from Lebanon, claiming that Israel was making a big mistake giving back any land.

In 2002, DeLay headed a congressional effort to deflect pressure on Israel from the leader of his party, President Bush.

This year, he delighted hard-liners when he told the pro-Israel lobby that Israel has a perfect right to keep Gaza and the West Bank.

"I’ve toured Judea and Samaria," he said, "and stood on the Golan Heights," he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). "I didn’t see occupied territory. I saw Israel."

He repeated that claim last week to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Jewish right-wingers here applaud such talk; mainstream Jewish leaders, while not entirely comfortable with it, are grateful for his support, and some swallow their discomfort over his hard-line views.

But if DeLay is the spearhead of a new GOP effort to woo Jewish voters, the party may be in trouble. Poll after poll shows that American Jews remain committed to the fundamentals of land-for-peace negotiations.

Despite the way Jews from across the spectrum have rallied behind a terror-beset Israel, there is very little support here for the settlers who are determined to hold onto their West Bank and Gaza outposts, or the neo-Kahanists who dream of "transferring" Palestinians somewhere else.

American Jewish leaders have expressed great skepticism about the Bush administration’s "road map" for Palestinian statehood, but polls indicate most American Jews support its principles.

DeLay may score points with some top Jewish leaders, who are interested mostly in his ability to serve as a counterweight to administration pressure on Israel, and with single-issue pro-Israel groups, which easily overlook a domestic record that makes him the prince of the Christian right.

But the majority of Jews are centrists whose votes are shaped by a wide array of issues, not just Israel. On both the foreign and domestic fronts, Jewish voters, while not as liberal as they once were, are poles apart from DeLay and his ultra-conservative colleagues.

On the Middle East, President Bush has struck a balance that may appeal to that Jewish mainstream: strong, unequivocal support for Israel, but also for a genuine peace process that everybody knows can only end with the creation of a real Palestinian state.

That combination could be especially attractive next November if the Democrats nominate a challenger beholden to the party’s left flank, where Israel isn’t exactly the most popular cause in town.

DeLay represents a support for Israel’s most extreme factions and a harsh vision for the future of the region that is repellent to many of the Jews the Republicans hope to attract.

Turning GOP in O.C.


An emerging conservatism among Jews has rattled traditional Southern California partisan allegiances, and local Republicans are claiming a surge of new Jewish recruits. But in Orange County, one of the most conservative strongholds in the nation, party leaders say the migration has been going on for years.

“I think it has been rather consistent and ongoing for quite some time,” said Tom Fuentes, chairman of the O.C. Republican Party. “What I’ve seen is a philosophical motivation among practicing Jews involved with their faith finding a value compatibility with the values of the Republican Party.”

The conservative trend, as well the presence of Jewish Republicans on the ballot in the upcoming election, has energized the once-dormant local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which has bloomed to 75 members.

“It sort of petered out over the last several years, but now it is thriving,” said Bobby Zemel, an RJC member from Anaheim. “I think recent events in the Middle East have really shaken American Jewry into understanding which party has the interest of Israel in mind. I think they are especially attracted to Jews in leadership within the Republican Party in Orange County.”

Zemel pointed to Adam Probolsky, a pollster from Costa Mesa who heads the 400 Club, the O.C. Republican Party’s largest fundraising arm. Zemel also cited his father, former Anaheim City Councilman Bob Zemel, who serves as the party’s second vice chairman and is currently seeking to reclaim his council seat, and Jon Fleischman, a deputy with the O.C. Sheriff’s Department and former executive director of the California Republican Party.

Taking exception to Zemel’s thesis is Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, a high-profile Democrat whose re-election race is of countywide interest because of Irvine’s role in reshaping the much-contested El Toro airport into a multiuse park complex.

Agran is running against a Republican, Mike House, and is campaigning on a slate with two other Jewish candidates. Agran said he did not “buy it for a minute” that Jews were leaders of the local Republican Party.

“I think this business about Jewish people in high positions in the Republican Party of Orange County is largely a myth,” said Agran, whose running mates for two city council seats are incumbent Beth Krom and Mitch Goldstone. “The fact of the matter is that Jews share progressive values that are most reflected in the Democratic Party and in independent thinking.” Agran said it was in a democratic spirit that neither his running mates’ religious affiliation nor his opponent’s became an issue in their races.

House is joined on the Republican ticket by Irvine City Council candidates Christina Shea, a former two-term mayor of Irvine, and Chuck DeVore, an aerospace executive.

DeVore, Goldstone, Krom and Shea are vying for two open seats, along with Libertarian candidate Linda Lee Grau.

Fuentes said Jewish Republican candidates in Orange County have benefited from the local support, especially Republican County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is running for a state Assembly seat. Spitzer, who leaves open a highly coveted seat, is expected to defeat his Democratic opponent, Bea Foster, a teacher from Santa Ana, mainly because of the highly Republican makeup of Assembly District 71 and his popularity in leading the defeat of El Toro.

Although the Republican Jewish Coalition has not formally endorsed Orange County candidates, it supports candidates along strict partisan lines. One candidate, however, seven-term Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), has posed a unique challenge to some Jewish Republicans.

Rohrabacher’s Jewish opponent, Gerrie Schipske, a Long Beach community college trustee and the Democratic nominee for the 46th Congressional District, has accused Rohrabacher of being “anti-Israel.” Rohrabacher, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for Rohrabacher vehemently denied Schipske’s portrayal of the congressman.

Rohrabacher was one of only 21 House members to vote against the May 2002 resolution in support of Israel. According to the spokesman, however, this was a vote in support of President Bush, who was trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, not a vote against Israel.

“I count Dana as a friend,” said Probolsky. “He has voted very differently than what I hoped he would vote regarding Israel, but I think there are a whole lot of efforts by friends of his to try to get him to see a different perspective.”

Taking the First Step


Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core .”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom , or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha , or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am , the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”

Taking the First Step


Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core.”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom, or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha, or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am, the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”

Power, Politics And People


New York publishing executive Steven Baum is a lifelong Conservative Jew who recently joined a Reform temple, and he’s not happy about it. “There’s hardly any Hebrew,” he says. “They don’t wear yarmulkes. It’s just not the Judaism I grew up with.”

So why did he make the switch? Because, he says, his oldest child was reaching bar mitzvah age and his Conservative congregation had introduced a rule that bar mitzvahs must attend services with their families twice a month for the year before being called to the Torah. “There’s just no way we can do that,” says Baum (not his real name). “We had no choice. My shul drove me out.”

Steven Baum is one of a growing number of American Jews who are victims of the most troubling and least discussed conflict in Jewish life today: the war between the Jews and their rabbis.

It’s a war that cuts through the heart of every Jewish denomination, but most sharply through the two biggest ones, Conservative and Reform. It leaves rabbis feeling lonely and abused, and congregants feeling angry and abandoned. Indirectly, it is helping to embitter the conflicts among the denominations.

To hear the rabbis talk about it, the problem is simply that Jews are wandering off the reservation. But it isn’t true. Most American Jews are still quite Jewish by their own definitions. Those just don’t happen to be the rabbis’ definitions.

Upward of 80 percent of all American Jews attend a Passover seder and light Chanukah candles every year, according to most recent surveys. Nearly that many fast on Yom Kippur and send their children for bar mitzvah training (including those married to non-Jews). As many as 95 percent say that being Jewish is very important to them.

The trouble is that’s quite enough for most of them. Only about a quarter to a third do much more: going to synagogue regularly, lighting Sabbath candles, participating in organizational life, celebrating Israeli independence day. For the rest, Passover-Chanukah-atonement-bar mitzvah is as Jewish as they want to be. Like it or not (for the record, this correspondent doesn’t much like it), they are going to show up three times a year, year after year, period.

This is not any rabbi’s conception of Judaism. Rabbis are trained to lead their congregants toward ever-higher standards of piety. Watching the flock sit there and glare at them, flatly refusing to move, must be deeply frustrating to the shepherd.

In fact, it’s one of the little-noticed side effects of the modern era. When the ghetto gates were thrown open 200 years ago, rabbis lost their age-old authority to enforce rabbinic law by fining violators or casting them out of the community. Jews were suddenly free for the first time in history to do whatever they pleased, and that’s just what they did. Rabbis have been fuming about it ever since.

The rabbinic frustration has flared up into helpless rage in recent years, fueled by the nationwide panic over intermarriage rates. For many rabbis and their closest lay allies, nonobservance and intermarriage are two sides of the same deadly coin, like marijuana and heroin. Skip services, end up in the gutter with grandchildren named Chris.

Lately, rabbinic alarm is turning histrionic. At the recent Dallas convention of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, devoted most of his surprising keynote speech to attacks not on the Israeli chief rabbinate but on backsliding Reform Jews. “Never in our history has the gap between the serious Reform Jew and the non-serious Reform Jew been so great,” Yoffie told the delegates, adding that the non-serious “are the majority, even in our synagogues.”

Conservative rabbis are, if anything, even more upset. At a recent Conservative symposium on Long Island, some of that movement’s leading rabbis expressed “despair” at the low level of ritual observance among their congregants. To the rabbis, Conservative Judaism is a doctrine of binding rabbinic law — evolving, updated, streamlined and user-friendly, but still binding. Only a fourth to a third of their congregants buy into it at all. This depresses the rabbis deeply. “An ignorant, empowered laity is dangerous,” said Rabbi Neil Gillman, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

How do the lay folk react to all the fireworks? Based on anecdotal evidence and fragmentary hints from surveys, it appears that in the seven years since the Great Intermarriage Scare began, nonstop rabbinic breast-beating has essentially heightened the polarization between the deeply committed (25 percent or 30 percent) and the three-times-a-year majority.

Day-school attendance is creeping up, taking in a somewhat larger minority of Conservative congregants. At the same time, afternoon-school attendance is shrinking, as more and more families settle for the two-years-and-out model of bar mitzvah training. Similarly, sales of kosher food are booming among a growing minority, while surveys show that a strong majority now expresses no alarm at the prospect of intermarriage.

Overall, both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism have lost ground as shares of the Jewish population in the last generation. The Conservative movement, for generations the largest American wing, has dropped to second place in the last decade as it raised its standards of piety, driving increasing numbers of young families into the less rigorous Reform movement. Reform Judaism, in turn, finds itself under pressure to shift from its longtime tradition of voluntary halacha and begin to adopt standards of behavior for members.

If and when that happens, it’s not clear where the rest of the Jews will go. They clearly don’t want to leave Judaism. But they don’t want anyone telling them what to do either. Just ask Steven Baum.


Dues and Don’ts

Brandeis study finds benefits in free-membership policy at synagogues

By Susan Jacobs, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

A Brandeis University researcher is maintaining that synagogues can increase their numbers by offering free membership.

Joel Streiker bases his thesis largely on a recent study he conducted for San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El, which last year began to offer new members free membership for one year. Between July 1996 and June 1997, 220 people joined the Reform congregation. Usually, 50 new members join every year.

In his survey, Streiker found that 78 percent of the new members said that the dues policy was important in their decision to join the synagogue. About 73 percent of those surveyed had never belonged to a synagogue as an adult.

After one year of free membership, nearly half of the new members decided to pay the annual dues and become regular members of the congregation.

“There is a perception in the Jewish community that Jewish living is expensive,” said Gary Cohn, executive director of Temple Emanu-El. He said that the congregation wanted to tell prospective members that “the most important thing is to get connected.”

Although members who could not afford dues were never turned away from the temple, “people are embarrassed to ask,” said Cohn.

The no-dues policy eliminated this embarrassment.

Temple Emanu-El’s membership dues are $1,400 for families and $800 for single adults. Different rates are available for young adults and senior citizens.

A similar program is now being tested at Congregation Shearith Israel in San Francisco, said Streiker, but such programs require considerable financial risk by the congregation.

“Emanu-El has a lot of financial resources. Any synagogue that tried this would have to have deep pockets,” he said. Temple Emanu-El did not lose money, because nearly half of the new members decided to begin paying dues, he added.

Streiker was enthusiastic about the potential success of such programs, but said, “If synagogues don’t have anything to offer, after a year, new members will drop off.”

According to the study, the cost of membership is often a deterrent to potential members for financial and
psychological reasons. New members were “reluctant to make large payments for benefits they didn’t know about or didn’t appreciate,” said Streiker.

Emanu-El has been inundated with questions from other congregations about the program, said Cohn, who estimates that as many as 20 congregations across the country will adopt similar programs within the next year.


Pushing Each Other’s Buttons


>

Predictably, it happened again. Conservative and Reform Jews choseto demonstrate their right to worship at the Kotel in their way, menand women together. This time, however, the worshipers had officialclearance. But their permit did not help. Sadly, but alsopredictably, Orthodox Jews prevented them from praying in their way.Passions flared. The scene became ugly. Religious extremists,unconcerned about Torah prohibitions against striking another person,became violent. Hurt and humiliated, the non-Orthodox worshipers wereforcibly removed by the police. And, of course, the media had beenprepped. The cameras were ready. They captured the tears of thevanquished and the jeers of the violent. The angry scenes wereflashed across the world.

Effective Demonstration

I do not doubt that the only motive of most of the Reform andConservative worshipers was to experience Tisha B’Av in the precinctsof the Temple, whose destruction they had come to lament.

But I do have a sneaking suspicion that the organizers of theservice had something else in mind also.

I am a veteran of political demonstrations. During the apartheidera in South Africa, I learned how to get the most attention for thestruggle against racism. I simply had to figure out which buttons topush in order to enrage the other side and make it react violently.It was easy to do. It transformed the demonstrators into innocentvictims, and their attackers (usually the police) into vicious thugs.The media was always advised that a good story was in the making.Sympathy for the victims and odium for their powerful attackers wereinstantly seen on television screens around the world. Obviously,these tactics served a holy purpose — the eradication of anauthoritarian, intolerant and evil system.

Which Orthodox buttons did the Conservative and Reform workers atthe Kotel push? What irreconcilable principles were at stake?

Principles in Conflict

The non-Orthodox worshipers asserted two principles by coming tothe Kotel to pray in their way. They wished to demonstrate thatJudaism’s holiest site belongs equally to all Jews, that it is not anopen-air Orthodox synagogue. They also wished to demonstrate thattheir mode of worship is as valid as gender-separated Orthodoxprayer.

Their Orthodox opponents were motivated by equally powerfulprinciples. Worship in the ancient Temple had always beengender-separated. In the 30 years since the liberation of the Kotel,this ancient tradition had been honored. The insistence on mixed,egalitarian worship in the Kotel precincts was regarded as no less anact of chutzpah than would be the forcible intrusion of asimilar group into an Orthodox synagogue for non-Orthodox worship.

These were the buttons. These were the principles. All theingredients for a good television story were present.

Tisha B’Av Tragedy

The violence at the Wall could not have come at a worse time. Thenews of the battle between the Jews in Jerusalem broke while I wasteaching my congregants the Talmudic account of the destruction ofthe Second Temple. The Talmud asserts that the destruction was theresult of causeless hatred between the Jews of that generation. Is itnot tragic that hatred should characterize the contemporaryobservance of Tisha B’Av? Have we learned nothing from our history?

The Talmud also records a dispute between a certain RabbiZechariya and the Sages. Under normal circumstances, both parties inthis dispute would have agreed that the imperatives of the Torah areabsolute and that there is no room for compromise on halachicprinciple. But, on this occasion, the Sages felt that even venerableprinciples should be compromised for the sake of the common good.Rabbi Zechariya refused to allow the Sages to take the initiative inbending the law to save the Jewish people. The Talmud records thathis insistence on placing principle above peace caused the Temple tobe destroyed and the Jewish people to be exiled.

Alternative to Confrontation

We have witnessed the bitter consequences of the refusal tocompromise this Tisha B’Av. Neither side would budge. Like adysfunctional family, each pushed the other’s buttons, and theconflict escalated.

May I suggest a workable compromise. The southern section of theKotel has been newly excavated and is the site of a beautifularchaeological park. There is no tradition of gender-segregatedworship there. It is far from, and out of the line of vision of, thefar more numerous Orthodox worshipers at the other end of the Kotel.Bat mitzvah services are already held there. It could easily bededicated for Conservative and Reform prayer. All Jews could worshipG-d in their own denominational way.

Am I optimistic that this kind of solution will be acceptable?Although it makes sense, I do not believe that it will happen.Demonstrators have more to gain from political conflict than fromspiritual tranquillity. Confrontation alone will keep the strugglefor denominational acceptance alive and in full view of unhappy Jewsaround the world.

Therefore, I predict that there will be more confrontations, morevictims and more violence.

But I am hoping against hope that I am wrong. The Jewish peoplecannot afford to relive the Tisha B’Av experience. The State ofIsrael cannot afford more wrenching conflicts. The Jewish Diasporacannot be made to stand up against the Jewish State. Perhaps saner,gentler counsel will prevail and an intelligent compromise will beoffered and accepted.

Abner Weiss is rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation of BeverlyHills.

All rights reserved by author.