A promise for Rosh Hashanah: Remembering the value of dignity

After all the political speechmaking of the past few weeks, in the wake of all the claims  and fact-checking, name-calling and back-slapping, one simple word has stuck in my mind and my heart. It was spoken at the beginning of Barack Obama’s short tribute film that was shown just before the president made his speech to accept the nomination for re-election.

“We all understand work as something more than just a paycheck,” the president said as images of autoworkers building parts on a factory line flashed across the screen. Recognizing the economic hardship many have suffered over his term of office, Obama spoke of how work is “what gives you dignity. What gives you a sense of purpose.”

Dignity. More essential than a paycheck.  More vital than money. 

The value of dignity reverberates as we approach this High Holy Days season, perhaps because its importance so often gets lost in our love for consumerism, our culture of us-against-them and winner-takes-all. I have spent the last year listening to men — priests, politicians and talk-show hosts — disparage a woman’s right to have governance over her own birth control. I have heard both men and women talk about rape and violence against women and use the term “legitimate.” And I’ve encountered the fear of the redefinition of marriage — other people’s marriages — as if we should have the right to choose whom someone should love, or want to spend their life with, to share their finances and every dream and hope. Where, I have wondered, is the dignity of others in such discussions?

In Judaism, we are taught not to put stumbling blocks in front of the blind, to never withhold wages from workers and to see all men — and women — as created in God’s divine image. We are told to do unto others as we would have them do to us, which is to say, to offer dignity to everyone, as we would wish it be offered to us.

Perhaps, following those fundamental Jewish guidelines, we could do better in respect to judging how others should live and love.

In 2005, Hershey H. Friedman wrote an extensive academic treatise that explores “Human Dignity and Jewish Law.” In it, this professor of business and marketing at Brooklyn College whose recent writings include “The Talmud as a Business Guide,” describes the various ways that kavod habriot — Hebrew for dignity for all living beings — is fundamental to Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish life. So significant, he argues, that the rules surrounding it should be applied to the dead as well as to the living. Friedman’s detailed and footnoted essay explores how respect for our own dignity and our regard for others ought to govern our lives, not only in our day-to-day interactions, but also in some very contemporary issues: from allowing abortion under certain circumstances, to how to protect the dignity of a marriage. 

He also writes about business transactions, and, among his many modern and biblical citations, he tells of how one Israeli business has come up with a way to dignify the needy:

“A wonderful example of kavod habriot is the Carmei Ha’Ir soup kitchen in Jerusalem, where the people who enter receive honor as well as food. It was designed to look like any other restaurant, only with no bill to pay at the end of the meal. The restaurant serves 500 portions a day, and there is a large wooden box near the exit so patrons can leave anything they wish. Many leave a napkin with a scribbled thank you.”

In the United States, a similar effort has been launched by the Panera Bread restaurants, which, in an attempt to serve the hungry, has launched a 501(c)(3) organization, Panera Cares, to operate community cafes — each one transformed from one of their ubiquitous Panera salad, sandwich and bread shops. At the Panera Cares cafes, however, all menu items are sold on a “pay what you want” system, with a suggested list price. Recently, a National Public Radio reporter visited the newest of these community cafes, in the mixed-income Lake-
view neighborhood of Chicago. The restaurant looked almost like any other Panera, but in place of a cash register, there was a donation box.

“Panera does not track the numbers exactly,” the NPR reporter, Niala Boodhoo, told her “Morning Edition” audience, “but it says roughly 20 percent of Panera Cares customers give more than they’re asked. An additional 60 percent donate the suggested amount. The rest pay less or nothing.” 

Affording dignity should, of course, be a matter of every aspect of our lives, no less in our workplaces than in our synagogues and homes. In our working world, where jobs are often scarce and salaries aren’t rising as quickly as people might hope, we can always afford to give our colleagues dignity. My research on this began long before I listened to the president’s words, but I’ve found, searching through one management-advice Web site after another, that the message is very like his: “We all understand work as something more than a paycheck.” Treating employees with dignity, openness and caring is as vital to a worker’s success as any financial incentive, because, at the end of the day, dignity can remain within us even when the money is gone.

So, here’s my resolution for the new year: to keep my office door open, to listen well, to communicate with others, to show caring and to always offer appreciation. To avoid conflict, gossip and to live by the example I would like others to set for me.

A smile in a hallway can improve a day, even a dark one. The gift of dignity is priceless.

May the year ahead be a sweet, good year for all. 

Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. She can be reached at editor@jewishjournal.com. You can follow her on Twitter at

Bang the Press Slowly

“I will concede that conservative Jewish Republicans like myself are in the minority, especially out here on the Left Coast,” reader Gillee Sherman e-mailed me. “But we are growing in numbers every day, and this election should see a huge improvement for Bush in the Jewish community.”

Maybe she’s right, I thought. I was in a receptive mood, grateful for Sherman’s e-mail. That is, until I read the next paragraph, where Sherman stuck in the knife: “In conclusion, I would like to see if you will leave behind the left-wing bias that has to be institutionalized at The Times and cover both candidates.”

What? Give up the bias that nurtured me — and fed my family — through 30 years at the West Coast’s most influential center of left-wing thought?

Impossible, Gillee. I’m brainwashed. I’ve gone through too many liberal indoctrination sessions in The Times employee cafeteria, where I was forced to read the entire collected works of Noam Chomsky, Rabbi Michael Lerner and other left-wing theorists.

I’m kidding. All they served in The Times cafeteria was second-rate food, and nobody made you eat there. And I’d rather have been fired then read the lefty theorists who write in the style of Chairman Mao.

But I understand Sherman’s tactics. She was trying to make me feel guilty in hopes that I would write about her Republicans. The game is called “banging the press” and it worked.

I made an appointment to see Larry Greenfield, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Southern California, who is working hard to switch the predominantly Democratic Jewish community to the Republican side.

Greenfield, who grew up in Encino and graduated from UC Berkeley, has been with the coalition since March, after working as an attorney, business executive, financial adviser and vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation.

He has a tough job. A recent statewide poll of all Californians by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California has Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) ahead of Bush 49 percent to 38 percent.

But the Republicans have a strategy, heavily influenced by the recall election in which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican moderate, ousted Gray Davis.

“The Republicans are streaking toward the middle,” Greenfield told me as we chatted in the coalition office on the seventh floor of a West Los Angeles office building.

He sees Schwarzenegger building a moderate Republican coalition, one that will be more appealing to Jews than the anti-abortion, right wing, prayer-in-the-schools bunch that have been the public face of the California Republican Party for several years.

Recent events give some credence to Greenfield’s hopes. The big crowds greeting Schwarzenegger when he campaigned in suburban shopping centers during the budget battle may have scared the Democratic left and the Republican right into falling into line behind him.

California’s top Democratic politician, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, sees the danger. Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton reported that she told journalists in Boston, “My greatest fear is that [Kerry strategists] come to the conclusion that we don’t have to worry about California. California is a tremendously volatile state. Look at the recall, and you can see how volatile California is … you lose California, you lose the [presidential] election.”

If Feinstein’s fears are valid, the predominantly Jewish vote will be an important part of the Republican equation.

To balance out my coverage, that evening, I stopped by an event in Encino sponsored by Valley Democrats United and the Valley West Democratic Clubs. It was a dinner for former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, on a tour promoting his recent book, “The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity” (Carroll & Graf Publishers).

This was days before Kerry’s successful acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Even so, the substantial crowd of Valley Democrats who had come for cocktails and dinner were deep into the campaign.

Elizabeth Kaipe reported that meet-ups and other social events had been going well. Russ Lynn, president of the Valley West Democrats, said, “Our club has seen a huge increase in membership … [there is] an enormous sense of frustration that has driven people into our club.”

The fact that the audience had turned out and paid $45 per dinner to hear Wilson was a strong indication of disapproval of the Bush foreign policy and of the administration’s conduct of the war.

Republicans are charging that skepticism about the war means that Democrats are soft on national security, a charge that will be at the heart of their campaign to win the Jewish vote. The Republican Jewish Coalition’s Greenfield said, “The Jewish community has raised concerns about his wing of the party on national security.”

In Jewish political dialogue, this is code for being soft on Israel. As Democrat Ed Koch, who doesn’t speak in code, charged: The Democrats have a left wing which has “an anti-Israel philosophy, reviling that democratic state which shares the values held by a majority of Americans.”

Kerry, whose position on Israel is the same as Bush’s, sought at the convention to immunize himself from such attacks and to take the offensive on the national security issue. But he’ll be up against such skeptics as my reader, Gillee Sherman, who wrote, “I work in an office where five other Jews beside myself will be voting for Bush, along with my father who was a Democrat for over 40 years.”

According to the polls, Sherman’s office mates and dad don’t add up to enough for Bush in California’s Jewish community. But early polls can be misleading in this volatile state.

How many more Jews such as Sherman are out there? The answer to that question could be one of the most interesting political stories of the next three months.

Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic
life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles
Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist
for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Date of Atonement

At this Sept. 11 anniversary, we as a community are forced to remember where we were one year ago, when the world as we knew it turned upside down, and stayed that way.

Where was I the day the Twin Towers crumbled? I’m a little embarrassed to say, but the truth is, I was on a JDate — the online Jewish singles network where nice, little, single Jewish boys find nice, little, single Jewish girls to play with. Only instead of a friendly game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” it’s usually a delicate dance of, “I’ll do my best to hide mine, if you do your best to hide yours.”

I had been schmoozing online with a nice guy named “Josh” and we had made a plan weeks prior to meet for lunch at his favorite hamburger joint, Apple Pan, for an informal get-to-know-you burger. But when the news came on that morning, the greasy spoon’s cheese-covered apple pie was the last thing on my — or anybody’s — mind.

Around a half an hour before we were supposed to meet, Josh called me and we made a mutual decision to keep our plans. Whether it was a case of “maybe it was meant to be,” a respect for beshert or the comfort of perfectly cooked french fries, we’ll never know — but for some reason, we both felt “the date must go on!” as if it were opening night of a Broadway show.

So there we were, two strangers meeting for the first time on the most solemn of occasions. I felt guilty for going on with life as usual. I deeply felt that everything should stop. But how could it? We were in a stage of active paralysis. Going through the motions of life, but not sure what they even meant anymore. The news, playing louder than usual, provided an audio backdrop for our conversation. Small talk such as, “Were you in a sorority at Penn?” or “Do you play sports?” seemed irrelevant in the foreground of burning buildings and total urban evacuation 3,000 miles away.

But when all was said and done — we met, we ate and we actually made a connection during a time of complete confusion. Was our bond authentic or just a case of “safety in numbers?” There was no way to tell.

After lunch, Josh walked me to my car and we decided to go out again. Only problem was how would we match the drama and weight of a Sept. 11 first date? The only answer was to have our second date two weeks later on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year. A virtual self-denial-a-thon.

Both of us committed to fasting, but being ransplants from the East Coast, we hadn’t found a synagogue we felt at home in. So we decided to spend the day together reflecting.

Our Date of Atonement started in nature. We took a 100-plus-degree hike in the dry Malibu canyons, making resolutions and personal goals as we huffed and puffed up a dusty, shrub-lined trail. Together we shared a sweaty ablution of past sins, and brought to the surface potential new ones in an attempt to avoid them by exposing them in advance.

After our hike, we were stumped. What to do now? The usual date devices were not an option. Grab a coffee? No. Catch a movie? Uh-uh. After exhausting our possibilities, we agreed on taking a nap. And I’m talking a nap-nap, not a nap. Actual zzzs were involved.

When we awoke, having had not even an Altoid the entire day, we were ready to chow down, but the stubborn sun was not ready to set. After a while self-reflection can get a little monotonous. I felt like Narcissus on a starvation diet.

That day, I realized how much we singles hide behind date conventions. Movies, coffee, meals, music — dates revolve around activities for a reason. To provide a commonality, a place to start, something to focus on. But not on this day — it was just me and Josh. So by the time the sun went down and it was time to eat, we were tired and grouchy with that famous halitosis only a day of fasting could provide. There were no way it was going to work.

We survived the Day of Atonement together. But was struggling with temptation too much pressure for the second date? We got to know each other — maybe a little too well — and found out that hypoglycemia and dead air aren’t a recipe for romance, but possibly the start of a beautiful friendship. At the end of the day — the long day without food or activity — we realized that we were not “meant to be.” It would be our first and last fast together. But when I think back on our Yom Kippur kibitzing, I believe it’s better to have spent two emotionally gut-wrenching days — Sept. 11 and Yom Kippur — bonding with a complete stranger, than never to have bonded at all. Who knows? Maybe we will go out again. Maybe we’ll just have to wait for another disaster to strike for date No. 3.