18 Ideas for the Jewish Future


As the nation’s premier Jewish leadership summit — the 2018 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly — hits Los Angeles, we asked innovators, educators and community leaders to weigh in with their ideas for the Jewish future.

These are just the beginning. Over the next few months, we will be reaching out to more people for more ideas, and will publish many of them in print and online. If you’d like to contribute, send your great idea (in 100 words or less) to editor@jewishjournal.com.


Create a Reverse Birthright
Avraham Infeld, Renowned Israeli Educator

The “wow” experience of thousands of Taglit-Birthright participants is the sudden realization that what they thought being Jewish is, is not necessarily so. Israeli-Jewish youth are desperately in need of a similar experience that can be achieved only by educationally well-structured visits of thousands of Israeli youth to Diaspora Jewish communities. Ensuring our remaining one Jewish People is essential, achievable and well worth the investment. The time for a reverse Birthright is now!


Recruit Future Rabbis the Way Sports Teams Scout Talent
Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder, Jewish World Watch

We are in dire need of more dynamic and innovative rabbis from diverse backgrounds and fields. To attract them, we need to proactively cull high school youth groups and university student bodies, recruiting the best and the brightest the way sports teams search for talented athletes. I propose a diverse team of excellent, highly specialized and trained recruiters, jointly funded by all of the seminaries and the national Federation system. This squad would devise a strategy and, with purposeful intention, set out to find tomorrow’s rabbis and synagogue leaders. By increasing the number of dynamic and exceptional leaders, we can reach new heights.


Introduce a New Kind of Conversion
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea Congregation

In a time and place in our history when Jewish identity often is amorphous and tenuous, all of us together should adopt the practice of universal Jewish conversion. Upon reaching the age of 20, all Jews would undergo a conversion to Judaism, a ceremony that involves an articulation of faith, an affirmation of commitment and immersion in a mikveh. Naturally, the precise requirements and content of the ceremony would vary from one movement to another, from one synagogue to another, and from one Jewish organization to another; for instance, as organizations such as Jewish World Watch, StandWithUs and Bend the Arc would all have their own programs.


Promote Israel-Diaspora Connections
Zev Yaroslavsky, Former Los Angeles County Supervisor

American Jewry always has found common ground with Israel. However, there is a growing sense that the younger generation is finding less with which to identify on issues such as civil liberties and religious and political tolerance. I propose that Israel and the U.S. establish a nonpartisan Israel-Diaspora Initiative consisting of top leaders from both sides whose exclusive mission will be to nurture and strengthen the relationship. The objective would be to bring our communities closer together in shared values, understanding and mutual respect. United, Israel and Diaspora Jewry are stronger. Divided, we will sow the seeds for a growing divide.


Actively Include Everyone
Michelle K. Wolf, executive director, Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust

We need full disability inclusion of every member of our community, from the smiling kindergartner with Down syndrome to the towering, young adult with nonverbal autism who doesn’t speak but has a whole universe spinning in his head. We need large-print and Braille siddurim at every synagogue, and American Sign Language interpreters at every communal function. We need to replace the stigma of mental illness with empathy. This communal embrace requires more than just nice words — it requires proactive efforts. We need inclusion to be an everyday, year-round activity that is as deeply embedded as the parchment scroll in every mezuzah.


Give People Meaning
Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

Addressing the General Assembly in 1965, Abraham Joshua Heschel implored us to remove two words from our vocabulary: “surveys” and “survival.” “Our community is in spiritual distress,” he said, “Our disease is loss of character and commitment, and the cure cannot be derived from charts and diagrams. … The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, and source of meaning. …” There is yet more jargon we need to excise: “marketing,” “engagement,” “millennials.” Heschel was right: Our community is waiting impatiently for an assertion of collective purpose and a narrative of transcendent meaning. That’s the only “big idea” that matters now.


Mentor One Another
Rhoda Weisman, dean, Graduate School of Nonprofit Management, American Jewish University

In this age of disruption and innovation, millennials and boomers have knowledge, skills, experiences, values and wisdom unique to each of them. The InBetween Fellowship would pair boomers and millennials for a year to better one another through reciprocal mentoring. From creating satisfying career paths to personal lives informed by Jewish celebration, to understanding the latest social-media technologies, both generations will help each other to find deeper meaning and relevance in their lives.


Take Judaism Seriously
Rabbi Marc D. Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, New York City

The Talmud (Yoma 86a) quotes the sage Abayei, who interpreted the verse “And you shall love the Lord your God,” to mean that “the Name of Heaven should be beloved because of you.” Our words and deeds should inspire people to come closer to God and Torah, not repel them from God and Torah. Here is my paraphrase of the ensuing talmudic discussion: If someone studies Torah, is honest in business, speaks pleasantly to others, people will say, “How fine Judaism is! How righteous are the Jewish people!” The one essential point is: take Judaism seriously, proudly, naturally. Do your best and do not judge others. If we live a beautiful and righteous Jewish way of life, we can indeed be a “light unto the nations” — and a light unto our own selves and our families.


Meet Jews Where They Are
Jay Sanderson, president and CEO, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

The single best idea for the Jewish future is not one idea. It’s a change in mindset. We need to reimagine Jewish life to be more dynamic, more accessible, more engaging and more inclusive. We have to understand that we need to meet people where they are in their lives and in their Jewish journey and not expect them to come to our institutions. We have to be open to redefining Jewish engagement and transforming our Jewish community.


Learn and Practice Dignity
Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, founder, The Jewish Mindfulness Network

The Dignity Project would be a collaborative, international dialogue process in which people and leaders from all streams of Judaism would learn together and create shared agreements for how to treat one another with dignity, and guidelines for respectful conversation. We would explore existing Jewish texts about dignity and bravely tackle the multilayered dimensions of understanding the “Other.” We would examine the underlying thought processes and behavior that has led to the debasement of women and men, as revealed in recent, widespread sexual impropriety allegations. We’d address the rampant divisiveness among opposing political conversations. We would meet cross-denominationally, online and in person.


Build Wisdom and Virtue Academies
Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr HaTorah Synagogue

In addition to the other things that synagogues do, make them into wisdom and virtue academies, machon chochma umiddot. Wisdom includes insight into yourself, into others, and understanding where people are in the process of things. Virtue includes not acting in ways that are hurtful to others or your own well-being (osher in Hebrew), and reaches all the way into the transformation of character. Most people suffer because they don’t think well and because they cannot restrain their behavior (anger, for example) in a moment of stress, when the yetzer harah (the evil inclination) is trying to hijack our behavior. Help people become wise and strong!


Embrace Newcomers
Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director, Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, American Jewish University

Despite the fact that nearly 1 in 6 American Jews are converts, Jews by Choice are often forgotten in our communal conversation. Last year’s Slingshot Guide to Jewish Innovation contained not a single organization with conversion as a part of its mission. This is a tremendous blind spot in our institutional ecosystem. America’s spiritual landscape is increasingly characterized by dynamic movement between religions, and Judaism’s unique blend of intellectual openness, devotion to community, and passion for ethics has the potential to be tremendously attractive to people of all backgrounds seeking meaning and identity. Our commitment to not just accepting, but deploying our resources to actively embrace newcomers to our Jewish family is essential to our future vitality.


Invest in Boomers
Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emerita, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Invest in baby boomers, a huge population alienated from Jewish institutions that are focused on families with young children. Boomers have time and talent and want to give back to the community. Most want to age in place. Their major fears are invisibility, isolation and dependence. In L.A., two synagogues teamed to create ChaiVillageLA, a multigenerational community that enables congregants to stay in their own homes by providing assistance to one another, enriching one another’s lives and giving back to society as part of a self-governing “virtual” village supported by Jewish values. Village members no longer feel invisible, are no longer isolated and now think not of dependence but interdependence. Temples that once were competitors now are partners. People are joining these temples in order to become part of the Village.


Expand the Boundaries
Tova Hartman, Dean of Humanities, Ono Academic College, Israel

Recently, we read that Abraham, upon seeing three approaching strangers, “ran toward them” (Genesis 18:2). Just as the mitzvah of tzedakah requires us to actively seek out those in need and then offer help, we must actively pursue welcoming. Learning from feminism about making those invisible visible, we must always ask: Whom have we ignored? Who is here, but unnoticed? The Jewish community has overdosed on who does not belong, on creating boundaries that exclude. It is time to open our communities and institutions to those who did not know they could claim them.


Engage High School Grads in a Year of Service
Avram Mandell, executive director, Tzedek America

I suggest a strongly encouraged and financially backed Jewish service year for high school graduates. Generation Z and millennials care deeply about social-justice issues and feel disconnected from Judaism. A Jewish year of service — supported culturally and with dollars — would benefit our country and the Jewish people. In addition to volunteering, these young people would experience supervised communal living, experiential Jewish education and communal Shabbat involvement. Let’s get them hooked on their Judaism and the idea of making the world a better place before their identities solidify and they head off to college.


Give Tikkun Olam Context
Selwyn Gerber, CPA, Community Leader

Tikkun olam isn’t a Jewish idea, per se. It’s a wonderful universalist ideal. The sentence from which it is taken has a second half — b’malchut
Shadai (in the kingdom of God) — that largely has been silenced. Without an authentically Jewish component, it fades into the contemporary culture. Building a life and a home where the Shabbat table is a sanctuary, where the Jewish calendar becomes circuit-training for the soul, where each festival becomes an authentic self-improvement opportunity and then giving broad expression to being part of the Jewish people would give tikkun olam context and authenticity.


Make Learning Hebrew Fun
Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles, Temple Isaiah

Mystics spend their lives delving into the mysteries of Hebrew, believing it is the DNA of creation itself. But who has time for that? Many Jews have trouble engaging with Judaism because they cannot follow the prayer book, and they don’t believe they have the time or mental real estate to learn. Hebrew becomes an obstacle to participation rather than a vehicle for it. Let’s make learning Hebrew an event and fill theaters and stadiums with Jews and non-Jews, teaching the Alef Bet in an exciting, trend-worthy, memorable way, with music, comedy and graphics that are as simple as possible.


Birthright Beit Midrash
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director, Sephardic Education Center

“Birthright Beit Midrash” —Jewish philanthropists would fund scholarships for adult Jews to attend ten-day intensive Jewish study seminars of their choice. In these seminars, Jews would strengthen their identity through exploring Jewish texts. The texts of Talmud, Maimonides, Kook, Uziel and Agnon would become the common language of every Jew, and in the words of the great writer Herman Wouk, the new Jewish greeting will become, “What are you learning?”

Elad Salomon with his wife, Michal, and three of their children. Elad, his father and his sister were stabbed to death on July 21 in a terrorist attack at Halamish.

Lessons from the house of mourning in Halamish


Three days after an Israeli father and two of his children were stabbed to death on Shabbat by a Palestinian in a West Bank settlement, I found myself with 16 other progressive rabbis sitting shivah for the deceased, the Salomons, in a Charedi neighborhood.

It was perhaps the hardest moment of a recent visit to Israel — sitting with the other Americans, our shoulders, heads and legs covered as we paid our respects to this grieving family. We stood out among the others and were stared at by many, and yet, we found many surprising similarities between us and were received by the family with such grace and warmth and real gratitude that it moves me deeply just to recall it.

I have been coming to Israel for more than 20 years, and these visits have never been picture perfect. I lived here as a rabbinical student in the 1990s, during the huge marches for peace, which then brought about the tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin after he signed the Oslo peace accords. Shortly after I arrived with a group from my congregation in 2006, the second Lebanon war broke out. And a few years ago, when I brought another group, our ice-breaker the first morning ended with the sound of sirens and instructions to head to shelters because missiles had been launched and Iron Dome activated.

I’m used to arriving in Israel and having things change dramatically within hours or days, but I was hoping this time would be different. It wasn’t.

As Tisha b’Av approaches — it begins the evening of July 31 — I am keenly aware of the dual realities that animate Israeli life. The destruction of the Temples in flames, the massacre of other Jews in so many other times and places, all of the hatred that has been and still is directed at us as a people is real and palpable here as Israel continues to fight for legitimacy and the safety of her people. It pervades every political conversation, every heated argument, every major decision. The pain of the past and the fear our people have internalized, coupled with the fact that this is the Middle East, makes this place a tinderbox ready to ignite at any moment.

It took no time for me to be reminded of all this when I came last week for the American Israel Education Foundation Rabbinic Seminar to travel across the country with colleagues and learn from experts about the complex issues at play here. We arrived hearing that the government had rescinded the agreement that took years to craft, granting egalitarian services at the Western Wall. Local people and delegations from the United States turned out and protested the government’s reversal of policy.

But that was just the beginning. The big news as we arrived was the government response to a challenge from the Israel Religious Action Center, opposing government discrimination against gay and lesbian couples wanting to adopt children. The government alleged that being raised by a same-sex couple would prove harmful to a child because it would “load extra baggage on the child.” As a social liberal and as a lesbian mother, this was particularly painful and disappointing for me, as it was for all of our delegation.

We stood out among the others and were stared at by many, and yet, we were received by the family with such grace and warmth and real gratitude.

Immediately, 90,000 people signed a petition against the decision, including professional organizations of psychologists, mental health professionals, social workers and others. They argued that all research proves that children are better off in a loving home with loving parents of any kind. What amazed me was that, in Tel Aviv, 15,000 people turned out to protest the government’s position. I was deeply moved by how far ahead of the government so much of the Israeli public is on issues like this.

But as soon as there is a march to further the cause of social justice, there is another mass gathering resulting from another kind of deep tension here. Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians we’ve met with all agree on one thing: Narratives and symbols have great power here in Jerusalem and go beyond reason to powerful emotion very quickly. Actions taken even for good reasons become flash points because they trigger a deeper struggle — the struggle between two peoples and the narratives that express their existential understandings of themselves and their place in the world. And this is what is at the heart of what’s been happening recently on the Temple Mount.

On July 14, two Israeli Arabs murdered two Israeli Druze police officers guarding the Temple Mount. As a result, the government decided to place metal detectors at the entrance to the area. The decision to physically put them in place just hours after the shooting prompted a heated reaction from Palestinians, who saw this as a breach of the status quo at their holy site. Protecting Israelis from those who would murder them makes sense, and the Israeli government has every right to take any action it deems necessary to protect its citizens. What is so sad and shortsighted is that the decision was implemented in a way that completely ignored how this action would be perceived and used by extreme elements within the Arab world.

And it was used: Extremists claimed that Jews were preventing Muslims from praying at Al-Aqsa and called on their faithful to protest in massive numbers. Clashes with police happened on a large scale hours after 15,000 Israelis marched for LGBT adoption rights in Tel Aviv.  

After incitement by Hamas and other radical groups, thousands of Palestinians clashed with police July 21 in the West Bank, and three Palestinians were killed. Later that night, a 19-year-old Palestinian climbed the fence of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank where three generations of the Salomons were celebrating Shabbat and the birth of a new baby. The suspect stabbed three people to death and wounded another, leaving a bloody scene in his wake.

In the same 24 hours, Israel moved from a place with an active debate that would be celebrated in any democracy about social policy to a place where one action that should have made sense tore apart society.

The scene of the Halamish attack. Photo courtesy of IDF

The deep divides between the secular and religious, Palestinians and Israelis, haves and have-nots, hawks and doves will not be bridged in our lifetimes — if ever. As a wise teacher told us on this trip, the oldest Hebrew texts talk about peace and justice in terms of seeking, not of achieving. We are not a people of arrival but of journey “toward.” If there is a people who can model for the world that humans can vigorously pursue ideals they know they never will see fully realized, it is the Jewish people. If there is any country that can make titanic struggles into creative new paradigms, it is Israel.

Our teacher also taught us that he does not view the glass as half full but believes it is important to celebrate that the opportunity exists to pour water into the glass. We break a glass at every Jewish wedding to symbolize what is still broken in our world.

Tisha b’Av reminds us of this so well. What I love about Israel and her people is that even with all that I’ve described, there is a spirit of innovation, creativity, lust for life and defiant hope that also is ingrained in our people. While biblical Israelite religion was destroyed when the Temple burned, Rabbinic Judaism was born at the same time. With every tragedy and act of brutality that happens here, something new and unanticipated is created.

May we have the continued strength to crush glass at our most joyful times so that we remain mindful of the shattered and broken world we live in, the world of conflicting and sometimes flammable confrontation with one another. May we also bless the fact that we are given a glass and the opportunity, as our wise teacher said, to pour water into it at all.

Amid all of the tension and all the misunderstanding and mistrust in Israel these days, our experience of sitting with the Salomons, people in such pain, as a sacred act is an example of the only solution — encountering one another as human beings. As someone very wise once said, “If our hearts must break, let them break open.”


Rabbi Amy Bernstein is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Politics, poverty and prosperity


“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute laws for the indigent, and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. … No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will ever doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”

So Charles Darwin opined in his “The Descent of Man.” Thomas Malthus in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” disapproved of relief for the poor on the grounds that war, disease and poverty are natural antidotes to the rapid explosion of the population. Adam Smith projected an ideal laissez-faire state that would not interfere with society, leading many to oppose government assistance to the poor. 

There is a considerable history of contempt for the poor. Its echoes sound even louder these days. “There must be something wrong with people who can’t or won’t take care of themselves, who live off charity, depend upon the public dole.” I never heard anything like this in my home. Poverty, if it was a disgrace, reflected poorly upon God, not upon the hungry. It raised questions not about the character of poor men and women, but about the powerful and good God who — as we are reminded by the grace after meals — nourishes the whole world with food and sees to it that we never lack for food. “Blessed are You, Lord, who feeds everyone.” The Birkat ha-Mazon (grace) concludes with the bold assertion: “Once I was young and now I am old, yet in all my days I never saw a just person abandoned and his children begging for bread. The Lord will give His people strength. The Lord will bless His people with peace.”

Poverty is no virtue. As Mendele Mocher Sefarim put it, “It is no disgrace, but neither can you be proud of it.” Incorporated in the grace after the meal is the poignant prayer that we “not be in need of gifts from flesh and blood nor of their loans.” However benevolent the donor, it is no joy to receive alms. “Make us dependent only upon You, whose hand is open, ample, full, so that we may not be embarrassed or ashamed.” 

In my home, not poverty but wealth was something of an embarrassment, and the tradition, for all its this-worldliness, kept us at arm’s length from opulence. 

A Torah written in gold is pasul, invalid, and legend reports that when Alexander of Macedonia ordered such a Torah written, it was discovered by the rabbis and summarily buried. God’s name in gold?

A shofar covered with gold may not be used, and its sound is invalid. The sound of the broken notes from a sobbing heart out of a shofar of gold would make it lose its voice. 

The high priest on Yom Kippur must shed his vestments of gold and silver before entering the Holy of Holies. Who could appear to ask forgiveness in gold and silver apparel?

On Shavuot, the bikkurim (first fruits) could be brought into the outer court in gold baskets, but into the inner court only in baskets of straw. 

On Shabbat, money is to be neither touched nor seen. Before the Sabbath, the mitzvah is to search one’s clothes, to break off relations with “the pocket.”

At home I was taught that if a piece of bread fell from the table, it should quickly be picked up and kissed. Bread was God’s gift. I heard wondrous stories about the sacredness of a shtikel broit — “a little piece of bread.” Once, around the third meal of the Sabbath, the disciples of the Rebbe persisted in asking him to tell them where God is. He remained silent, but at last recited the Motzi and pointed to the loaf of bread on the table. God in a piece of bread? There is theology in a piece of bread. And it is important, particularly for children of entitlement living in the Garden of Gucci, to understand Ben-Zoma’s observation: “What labors did Adam have to carry out before he obtained bread to eat? He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound the sheaves, he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground, then sifted the flour, kneaded and baked, and then, finally, he ate. And I get up and find all things done for me” (Berachot 58a). 

Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz — that which brings bread out of the earth is godly. Consider the process, the givenness of earth and water and seed, as well as the human energy and ingenuity to turn sheaf into edible cake. “Which is greater, the works of man or of God?” the pagan Tinneius Rufus asked. Rabbi Akiva replied that the works of man are greater than those of God, and illustrated his contention by presenting Tinneius Rufus with sheaves of wheat and loaves of cake. The cakes are greater, not that the works of God are less worthy, but that the full measure of divinity is expressed through the interaction between God’s nature and the crown of His creation. The Motzi is not recited over sheaves of wheat and the Kiddush is not recited over clusters of grapes. The Motzi is recited over the bread, which is made through human effort, and the Kiddush is recited over the fruit of the vine, which human ingenuity cultivates. Both benedictions exemplify the power and goodness of God expressed through the works of human beings. 

Our sages knew that “a blessing does not prevail except through the work of human hands.” And it is in our hands to give bread to the hungry and to do so without ulterior motives, even for the sake of piety. Consider the Chasid who boasted to his rebbe that he had made a fellow Jew pray. A poor man had come asking for a meal, but the Chasid sought to save his soul. “First we must pray,” the Chasid insisted. They both prayed Mincha, then Ma’ ariv, and before the Chasid gave him the bread, he had him wash his hands and recite al netilat yadayim. Hearing his story, the rebbe grew sad. “You meant well, but you have not acted well. There are times when you must act as if there were no God in this world.” “No God in the world?” the Chasid wondered about this blasphemy. “Yes, no God. When a person comes to you in need, you must act as if there is no one, no God, no man, in the world except you yourself and that needy person.” “And what of his soul, his neshamah?” “Take care of your soul and his body,” the rebbe answered. 

Poverty is no blessing, but abstemiousness is no virtue. If you are blessed with wealth, you are bound to live accordingly. Once, some disciples overheard the rabbi chastising the village gevir, the wealthiest man in town, not because he was profligate with his money, but because he was stingy with himself. He would eat only black bread and drink water. The rabbi reminded him that he was a man of means and ordered him to eat fine meats and drink good wine. “Why such strange counsel?” they asked the rabbi. “Because if such a wealthy man is content to eat bread and drink water, he will be more likely to tell a poor man who comes to him, ‘If I, a man of affluence, can make do with food and drink, it is enough for you to eat rocks and sand.’ ” This wisdom the rabbi likely learned from the genius found in the book of Deuteronomy, where those who go up to Jerusalem with the second tithe are told to bestow the money “for whatsoever the soul desireth, for oxen or for wine or for strong drink, or for whatever thy soul asketh of thee.” But in the third and sixth years of the sabbatical year, instead of consuming the second tithe, let the tithe be given for the “Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with thee, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 14:22 f.). He who experiences the joy of food and drink may more likely feel the anguish of those who hunger. “Ye shall eat and be sated and bless the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The chronology is suggestive. On an empty stomach, blessings grumble in resentment. 

And whom are we to feed? For whom is the Passover Ha Lachma cry, “Let those who are in need come and eat; let those who are in need come and celebrate the Passover”? Why the redundancy? Rabbi Jacob Emden, the Ya’avetz, a distinguished talmudist of the 18th century, offered this explanation in his commentary on the haggadah. The first call to “all who hunger” refers to non-Jews who are ra’ ev la-lechem ve-lo ledvar ha-Shem, those who are hungry for bread and not for the word of God. The second call is for Jews who require the ritual celebration of the Passover, for whom matzah, not bread, is needed. Our obligation, Rabbi Emden declared, is toward both Jews and non-Jews. Here he cites the Talmud Gittin 61: “Our rabbis have taught: We support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the heathen along with the sick of Israel, console the bereaved of the heathen together with the bereaved of Israel, and bury the dead of the heathen together with the dead of Israel.” We do this for the sake of peace, for the sake of God. 

We begin the meal with bread, among other reasons, to remind us that we are men of flesh and blood, not angels. So it is told of Rabbi Israel Salanter that he would recite Shalom Aleichem, the hymn which greets the angels who visit us on Shabbat, after the Motzi, and not, as others practice, before the breaking of the bread. For angels do not eat or drink, but we and our family and the guests around the table are not angels. We have bodies and hungers. Eat first, and greet the angels later. 

There is much instruction in a piece of bread. 


More stories for Sukkot: 

‘The Ariela Foundation’: A family in grief chooses life


In July, Ivonne Goldberg was at the park with her 3-year-old son, Mikey, and with Nofar Mekonen, a sunny 14-year-old girl visiting from Israel. Nofar was chatting on and on about her trip to Los Angeles, her family, her school.  

“Where did you get your English?” Ivonne asked her, amazed at Nofar’s fluency. 

“It’s thanks to Ariela that I have this English,” Nofar answered.

Ivonne’s heart swelled hearing Nofar’s answer.

Nofar was referring to the Ariela Foundation, an organization that helps highly motivated and gifted young Israelis of Ethiopian origin, like Nofar, get the extra support and guidance they need to thrive. The Ariela Foundation provides Nofar with English and math tutoring, as well as science enrichment and a mentor. 

The foundation is named for Ivonne and Daniel Goldberg’s daughter, who died in a drowning accident five years ago, when she was 19 months old.

When Nofar, or the 60 other young people being aided by the foundation, talk about how Ariela has helped them, they usually use just the girl’s name, not “The Ariela Foundation.” And each time the Goldbergs hear what Ariela has accomplished, Ivonne and Daniel feel empowered and proud, knowing that their daughter, who brought so much joy to their lives, is still affecting others in a positive way. 

Daniel’s brother, Eric, runs the Ariela Foundation from Israel, and Daniel and Ivonne spend considerable hours working for Ariela US, an independent nonprofit that raises funds to support Ariela’s programs. 

“When you go through such a difficult experience, you of course reassess your priorities,” Daniel said. “The desire to do something good to express your loss in a positive way becomes very strong. We heard about using all those feelings as a motor for change, to express your loss by helping others,” Daniel said.

[For more on the Ariela Foundation, read 'Ivonne and Daniel Goldberg said they were open to all paths of healing after the June 2007 accident.

For those who might think, “I could never go on after something like that,” the Goldbergs offer an example of how to go on.

With depth and spirit, Daniel and Ivonne, and their children, Ilan, Talia and Michael — ages 15, 12 and 3 — have worked to heal themselves, and in the process they have become an inspiration to the friends, family and communities that surround them (among whom I count myself).

They have not denied their pain or hidden from it. But, at the same time, they have chosen to live. And through that choice they have affirmed their belief in their marriage and their family, they have turned to God and to people, and they have learned how to be joyous. 

They have asserted that life is stronger than death, that giving is stronger than what was taken from them.

On Yom Kippur, when tradition demands that we examine how we live, the Goldberg family is a model for how circumstances — even nightmarish circumstances — don’t have to upend guiding convictions that are backed by unwavering values. 

“We heard that a very difficult or tragic experience can have a strong effect, and it can be either positive or negative. Families can either split apart or grow together,” Daniel said, holding the hand of his wife as they sat on their living-room couch on a recent morning. “So we made an immediate decision that we were going to go through this together and become stronger as a family — in memory of our daughter and for all of us. And making that decision was very important, because it directs your actions toward that goal.”

They said they were willing to try anything anyone suggested that might make them whole again — therapy, support groups, prayer, yoga, spiritual counseling, charity, community support. 

 “One of the things we heard, but it takes a long time to understand, is that you can be both happy and sad at the same time, and being very sad doesn’t prevent you from expressing happiness,” said Daniel, 50, a documentary filmmaker currently working on a film about Crypto-Jews in Mexico and the Southwest United States —  people who retained traditions although their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism centuries ago.

The Goldbergs are originally from Mexico City. They moved to Toronto in 2003 and to Los Angeles in 2005 — just a few months before Ariela was born.  Ivonne, 44, is a clinical psychologist who worked in schools and private practice before she stopped working to care for her family.

“It makes me feel very happy to talk about Ariela,” Ivonne said.

She holds a small stack of Ariela’s baby books and albums on her lap.

She flips open a calendar titled “Our New Baby Daughter,” in which she meticulously documented small milestones in Ariela’s life on pink-polka-dot framed pages, starting with Ariela’s birth in November 2005.

Ariela had her mother’s big brown eyes and springy curls, and a spark that brought immense joy to the whole family. 

“She loved music,” Daniel said. “From the moment she was able to stand up, she started to dance whenever there was any type of music.”

Ariela and Talia, who was 6 when Ariela was born, shared a room, and Ivonne would often open the door in the morning to find them snuggling together in the crib. Ivonne had always wanted Talia to have a sister.

Ivonne thumbs through the books and albums as she talks, wearing the wistful smile of a mother who knows she’ll never get back those early days. Sometimes the tears flow, especially when she talks about the two sisters together.

“I got some very good advice in the beginning. Someone told me if the pain comes, let it be, and it will pass. Don’t resist it,” Ivonne said. “That was very wise.”

On a Thursday in June 2007, Ariela fell into the pool in the family’s Beverlywood backyard. She lived for four days in the hospital connected to life support. 

Through that blur of days, the Goldberg’s school and synagogue communities converged in the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center waiting room, holding prayer vigils, bringing food and keeping the family company. Friends and family flew in from Canada, Mexico and Israel. Ivonne talked to Ariela constantly, and Ilan and Talia hung drawings in her room and sang to her.

But although one doctor said he had seen miracles in these kinds of cases, most doctors offered little hope. The whole family came to say goodbye when it was clear she would not survive.

Daniel remembers vividly what Ilan, then 10, said to his sister.

“Ariela, you are going to go up to heaven, and you are going to be very close to God,” Daniel recalled, speaking through tears. “And in heaven, you are going to meet the souls of great people. You’re going to meet the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and you are going to meet the soul of Moshe. Please thank them for giving us the Torah.”

Talia, 8, showered her sister in kisses.

“We’re going to give you many, many kisses,” she told her sister, “so you can take them with you, and keep them very close to your heart, and every time you miss us, you can take one of these kisses and put it on your heart,” Daniel remembered.

“It is hard to describe in words,” Daniel said. “We were devastated. We felt this emptiness, this void that nothing could ever fill. But at the same time, we knew we had to be strong for our two older kids. Friends told us, ‘You have to be strong. You have to continue living and get up for your children. They will help you. Taking care of them will help you.’ ”

The house teemed with visitors during the shivah, the seven-day mourning period. Many had advice that Ivonne and Daniel couldn’t absorb at the time but came back to later.

“One piece of advice we heard was that only God brings consolation. And we understood that God brings consolation through people,” Daniel recalls. The Goldberg kids attend Pressman Academy, and they are members of Temple Beth Am and B’nai David-Judea. Both communities stepped in with tremendous support and deep friendship, Ivonne said.

Particularly helpful were visitors — strangers, mostly — who had themselves lost children. 

One visitor had lost his daughter about 10 years before. He said he thought of his pain as a sheet of paper. “Sometimes he folds it up neatly and puts it in his pocket. It’s still there, but it’s all folded up. And sometimes he opens it up if he has to,” Daniel said. “He said there is always something that brings up the pain, so you have to accept it, but then you are able to fold it back up and put it in a different compartment.”

Perspective often came from unexpected sources, such as Ilan.

“One person during shivah came to us and said, ‘I’m sorry something so bad happened to you.’ And Ilan was sitting on the armrest next to me, and he immediately reacted. He said, ‘How do you know it’s bad? It’s very sad, but not necessarily bad,’ ” Daniel recalls. “That was an amazing thought.”

Ivonne surrounded herself with strong women. In the hospital she asked women to pray, and during shivah and for months after, she invited family and friends to sit with her.

Sometimes they sang, prayed or studied Torah. But for Ivonne, the main thing was their presence.

 “It was very scary to me to be alone with my loss. I needed people around me, and women especially inspired me. I needed to see them close to me,” she said.

The days right after shivah were the hardest. 

“There was a woman who had lost her son. And I called her a few days after shivah, and I said, ‘I can’t. I can’t.’ And she came right over, and I remember her standing by my bed, and just for me to see her — she had lost a son in a very similar way, at a very similar age, and I could identify with her. And she was standing and she was strong,” Ivonne said.

She remembers wondering whether she could walk Talia into day camp. But she did. Later, they sent Ilan to Camp Ramah, as planned, and they went to Israel as a family.

“Much advice was given to us in shivah, and one was to take care of your marriage,” Ivonne said. “And I decided that was my No. 1 priority.”

In counseling, they learned how to respect  one another’s different ways of grieving. They learned to express themselves and to listen. 

“I remember thinking, I lost Ariela, I cannot lose anyone else in my life,” Ivonne said. 

They attended a retreat for bereaved parents through Chai Lifeline, an organization that supports families with seriously ill children. They are still friends with some of the parents they met there.

“We had all of this inside of us and we had to let it out by all means available,” Ivonne said. 

After checking with rabbis, Daniel decided to say the Kaddish mourners’ prayer for a full year, not the customary one month. Ivonne remembers absorbing the power of the congregation the first time she said Yizkor, on Yom Kippur. 

“God gave us a lot of strength and faith, and that was and continues to be one of the ways in which we have been able to cope,” Daniel said. “We believe in the afterlife and in the soul, and that is part of what gives us faith.”

A few months after the accident, the Beverly Hills Moms Club, a group Ivonne and Ariela had belonged to, sponsored a backyard benefit concert in Ariela’s memory. 

For what would have been Ariela’s second birthday, in November 2007, the Goldbergs sponsored a birthday party at a low-income school, bringing in cake, a magic show and presents.

On the first anniversary of her passing, her yahrzeit, the Goldbergs hosted a Saturday afternoon get-together at B’nai David, which they called Shirat Ariela (Ariela’s Song), to thank the Beth Am and B’nai David communities and leaders. 

Because it was Shabbat, there were no instruments, and the Goldbergs had designated some friends to lead soulful singing for the hundreds of guests.

“We had no idea what was going to happen. The singing was so beautiful, and suddenly the kids began to move and to crawl and to dance, and then we were all dancing and it was beautiful. It was a simcha, and we were celebrating life, and that we were together,” Ivonne said. 

The Ariela Foundation was established about a year after Ariela died. Many people donated money after the accident and asked the Goldbergs to designate a charity.

They opened a donor-advised fund at the Jewish Community Foundation with the $10,000 that had come in. They made some initial distributions, mostly for children in hospitals, but still wanted a long-term project. At the same time, Daniel’s brother, Eric, who has lived in Israel for more than 20 years and works in international marketing and business development, had been thinking about doing something to give back. He established the foundation in Ariela’s memory and is its volunteer director. About a year later, Daniel and Ivonne established Ariela US.

The visit this summer from Nofar Mekonen and Aviva Dese, 24, an aspiring young singer also being helped by the Ariela Foundation, marked the first time Daniel and Ivonne made such a public appeal for the foundation, and to them it felt right to bring in the community that had so supported them. 

There was also one piece of advice that Ivonne resisted. People told her that true healing would happen if she had another baby.

“I didn’t want more kids. She was a miracle, she was perfect,” Ivonne said. “It was so hard for me to hear the idea that one baby could replace another baby. It made me very angry.”

But, slowly, Daniel warmed to the idea and over time Ivonne began to hear him.

“I remember thinking, I trust you, and I need to trust you because I want to survive, and I want to live again,” Ivonne said.

Michael was born on March 3, 2009.

Ivonne said that her commitment to Talia and Ilan was what initially made her want to live again, and Mikey’s birth brought in new energy.

“Every single minute with Michael has been like a remedy for each one of us. One hundred percent. I think that is what is behind everyone saying, ‘Have another baby’ — it brings the force of life back into your life,” Ivonne said.

The family tells Mikey all about the sister he never knew. He associates bubbles with Ariela, because the family has a stash of bubble bottles from memorial events.

The Goldbergs have also kept Ariela as a living presence in their family through photos and stories.

“She continues to be our daughter even though she is no longer here physically, and we love her as much as we love each one of our children,” Daniel said.

On Ariela’s yahrzeit this year, Ilan chanted a portion of Torah at Camp Ramah in her honor, and his friends stood up with him when he said Kaddish.

Talia keeps a big picture of her sister right on her desk. Ivonne said just looking at Talia brings Ariela back to her.

It’s on Friday nights that Ariela is most present with the family.

Ariela used to love the rituals before the Shabbat meal, in particular the hand washing, and always chimed in with “amen.” So, they look at a picture of her on the wall by the sink and remember her amens. And every Friday night, when Daniel puts his hands on each of his children’s heads and recites the priestly blessing, he blesses Ariela as well.

For Ivonne, just looking at her family makes her feel lucky to be alive, she said, and grateful to have so much joy and so many options ahead.

“Life is the strongest thing. There is nothing stronger than that,” Ivonne said. “The life in my children’s eyes is stronger than the death of my daughter.

“Life is stronger than death.”


For more information about the Ariela Foundation, visit ” target=”_blank”>ArielaUS.org and

High Holy Days: In the rabbis’ words


5772Conscience 

by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

Civilization depends on conscience. Conscience is the mark of a free people. You and I were born in slavery, so we know what it means to be a slave. We are not slaves. A slave does not ask questions. A slave bites his tongue, shuts his mouth, kneels before power and grovels before the power of authoritarianism. But the God of Israel is not an intractable, implacable authoritarian. He listens, hears and responds to the cries of conscience.

A Jew questions. There is a quip that when the rabbi was asked a question by a stranger, “Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?” the rabbi replied, “Why not?” The question is a profound answer. What makes you think that an answer, no matter how dogmatically given with thunder and lightning, is not itself subject to question? Dogma is corrigible. Everything is subject to critique and correction.

So, no excuses. You and me! Clergy and congregants and disciples of all faiths — you cannot shrug your shoulders and say, “What can I do? It’s found in the Holy Scriptures. It is so written.” No. No. When the Koran or the New Testament or the Hebrew scriptures say something that debases humanity, that calls for tortured confession or genocide, your Jewish conscience must respond as did the Prophet and the rabbis — “This will not stand.”

So, preachers, whatever your denomination, cannot say “Do this because I am God’s spokesman and messenger.” You cannot stand idly by the imams’ fatwa to behead the infidel, or evangelical arrogance to consign to hell those who do not accept his orthodoxy, his revelation. You cannot hide behind scriptures. We are human beings and we see with human eyes. There is no infallible perception.

On Rosh Hashanah, Judaism speaks to the world. Do you want a world drenched in conformity that deifies authoritarianism and excuses holocausts, or do you believe that church, mosque and synagogue must develop a community of conscience?

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from a Rosh Hashanah Can we be optimistic about the coming new year?

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

As we carry on our annual tradition to wish each other a happy new year before this Rosh Hashanah, we have to stop and wonder whether this time the greeting is unrealistic. Can we, should we, really expect happy times ahead? In times such as these, is it rational to still be optimistic?

The answer, I believe, is that it isn’t simply permissible to be an optimist, it’s a mitzvah and it’s mandatory!

Which of the two is the Creator of the universe — an optimist or a pessimist? If we believe the words of the Bible, all we have to do is look at the opening chapter. Every day God created something different and then He figuratively stepped back to evaluate what He had brought into being. What He saw pleased Him greatly, and from day to day he gave His verdict that “it was good.” Then, when He finally completed His work with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

That’s why William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, was right when he said that, “Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.” A pessimist disagrees with divine judgment. A pessimist believes that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Too bad he doesn’t take seriously the opinion of the One who made it!

Rabbi and author Benjamin Blech is serving as guest rabbi at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills for this year’s High Holy Days. This excerpt is from a Return 

by Rabbi Zoë Klein

Growing the fruits of peace in El Salvador


Don Israel speaks no English, and I speak almost no Spanish. But I understood him well enough to realize that, as I began to plant one of the mango trees that would be placed in his field that day,  he obviously thought I was doing it wrong. Our mutual patience eventually conquered our communication barrier, though, and with time, I learned and understood. We went on to plant about a dozen mango trees together that morning.

Don Israel’s small parcel of land is in a rural village in the Lempa River region of El Salvador. I was there as part of a delegation sent by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), consisting of 16 extraordinary young people training to be rabbis, educators or leaders of Jewish nonprofits. (I was honored to be the scholar-in-residence for the group.) For 10 days, we labored alongside our hosts, planting trees, digging irrigation ditches and building latrines. But it became obvious fairly early on that our primary mission there was not to work (we were, after all, a fairly inexperienced work bunch), but rather to learn and to understand, as human beings and as Jews. Patience turned out to be our most important asset, as the story of the Lempa River region took time to comprehend. And though there is still much more to know, I left with at least the outline of a story of war and peace, of exile and return, of anxiety and hope, and of human courage and nobility. It is a story that has enriched my religious life and has expanded my sense of religious duty.

The story begins with an event that I had been embarrassingly ignorant about, the vicious civil war that wracked El Salvador through the 1980s. And although I had done some reading about it in anticipation of this trip, the event was still remote and emotionally inaccessible. But this changed suddenly and dramatically on our very first afternoon, as we gathered beneath the thatched-roof courtyard just outside Chungo Fuentes’ home. Fuentes is the bearer of the story, the embodiment of the memory.

Fuentes’ part of the story is rooted in the political dissent that had been growing throughout the 1970s among El Salvador’s lower economic classes. The dissent was fueled by bitter resentment against the military-backed government under whose rule the great majority of the country’s land was owned by fewer than 20 wealthy families, leaving much of the population struggling for sustenance. The Catholic Church became a major organizer of the political protest movement, whose voice was thwarted through the government’s rigging of elections, and the military’s tactics of physical intimidation and violence. The 1980 assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, a highly influential figure in the protest movement, helped to spark an all-out civil war between leftist guerilla groups and the Salvadoran military. Many rural villages whose civilian residents were sympathetic to the guerillas came under attack at the hands of military death squads, who killed indiscriminately, and who, in December 1981, carried out a horrific massacre of civilians at the village of El Mozote. (“Report of the U.N. Truth Commission on El Salvador” is an excellent source of further information.)

As this was unfolding, Fuentes led a group of nearly 1,000 villagers across the border into Honduras, and from there to the mountains of Panama, where they were granted political asylum. As he recounts the story for us, Fuentes speaks of the faith they all had that this exile would be temporary, and that they would return to their homeland one day. That day came 10 years later, in 1992, when the two sides signed a peace accord in which the government, among other things, agreed to distribute land to the common people, including Fuentes and his fellow refugees.

It is worth noting that all of us in the group reflexively drew parallels between the story we were hearing and our own national story. It was only the following week that we realized that we were far from the first to make the connection. The massive mural in town depicting the story dedicates one panel to the oppression at the hand of the government. It prominently features an image of the Egyptian pyramids.

As dramatic as it was, though, it was not primarily a story of war that we had come to El Salvador to learn and understand, rather a story of how people recover from war. It took time and required patience for the details of this story to come together, but when it did, what we learned is that recovery only happens when people on the ground are able to summon up the very best of what makes us human, and when people from the outside bring their core moral and religious convictions to bear on the situation of strangers.

The peace accords were far from a panacea. Yes, men and women now came to the Lempa River region to claim their new parcels of land. But as many of these men and women had been on opposite sides of the fighting, distrust and the potential for further violence came with them. In addition to which, no one had money to invest in farming, and nobody was trained in modern agricultural methods. The area lacked even the most basic infrastructure — to this day, in fact, most of the roads are unpaved, streetlights are few, there are no sanitation or postal services, and the nearest hospital is an hour and a half away — and on top of all of that, the new landowners were living, without any evacuation plan, right next to a river that regularly overflowed its banks. I can still see Fuentes holding his palm to his waist when he described the devastating floods of this past October.

That people aren’t fighting and aren’t starving in the Lempa River region today is due to a small group of residents who convened right after the war, pledging to create a peace zone in which grievances could be aired, but also that a commitment to putting aside past differences in the name of community-building would prevail. They pledged to go from village to village to hear what people most needed and also to enlist them in a voluntary cooperative through which they would become trained in sustainable methods of farming and environmental protection. They also would agree to work collectively to market their agricultural output, thus maximizing profit for all. They drew up an evacuation plan for the next flood (last October they succeeded in evacuating 7,000 people, losing not one soul to the disaster). A parallel women’s group created an NGO that provided micro-loans for war widows, enabling them to purchase livestock. (Today it provides all kinds of economic and social services to the women of the region.) People, scarred by years of poverty and war,  with every reason to be untrusting and suspicious of one another, instead formed a democratic, self-governing organization to forge a better life for everyone. Two of the organization’s directors today serve in El Salvador’s parliament.

But this is only one half of the story.

The other part is that none of this could have unfolded without outside help. There was plenty of evidence on the ground of the impact of USAID, most dramatically in the person of our local guide, Chema Argueta, who was plucked as a high school senior from a poor fishing village on the Jiquilisco Bay, trained for two years in Portland, Ore., in the management of natural resources, and returned to his community where he today humbly leads the effort to preserve the bay’s mangrove ecosystem, thus securing the future for the bay’s fisherman and their families. And then there was the ubiquitous presence of the AJWS, which has been making grants for community organizations in the Lempa River region for decades. One group after another gratefully acknowledged AJWS’ impact. It’s difficult to describe, by the way, the sense of pride we felt each time AJWS was mentioned by people who otherwise would never have had any contact with Jews, but who now know us as a compassionate, smart and forward-looking humanitarian partner. 

And this is the other half of the story we had come to learn: that visionary outsiders empower visionaries on the ground. It can’t happen any other way.

Torah study was woven through our 10 days in the country. Within our group we learned and analyzed texts concerning the halachic responsibility to respond to human beings in crisis, the imperative to extend justice to the disadvantaged, the command to preserve the dignity of those who are receiving aid, and the very complex question as to where tzedakah directed toward the wider human community fits within our tzedakah obligation toward our fellow Jews. As leaders and future leaders of Jewish institutions, we all intuitively understood how important this latter question is.

The story of the Lempa River region is far from over. Next year, hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. economic development aid will flow into El Salvador through the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). Local leaders are worried, though, that the MCC’s requirement that the recipient government invest the funds in a manner that will attract international private sector investment (not a bad plan in and of itself) might undermine their work by creating incentives and pressures on farmers to grow crops that will bring short-term profits but long-term soil depletion, or to sell their parcels to larger land owners, which will ultimately land them back where they were before the war. Good news might be bad news. Everything is complicated.

And of course, as the autumn approaches, everyone there will be keeping a wary eye on the water level in the Lempa.

On the plane ride home, I thought a lot about Don Israel, Chungo Fuentes,  Chema Argueta, and the many other men and women we met. I thought about the nobility of their common struggle, the fragility of their gains and the vulnerability of their livelihoods. And about the wise teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, who taught that while it is not ours to complete the task, we are not free to desist from it either.

For more information about American Jewish World Service, visit ajws.org.


Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Why I love Jews by Choice


The first conversion I ever performed as a rabbi was for a 45-year-old father of two who was in the final stages of liver cancer. John, who was born to a Jewish father but raised Protestant by his Christian mother, was so stricken with his disease at this point in our yearlong studies that his eyes could not focus to read, and it was difficult for him to speak more than two or three words at a time. To complete our studies, I would make cassette tapes for him (yes, it was that long ago), which he would listen to between our biweekly visits, and he would slowly write questions and responses for our in-person meetings.

I was a student rabbi, traveling twice a month to a far-off pulpit in rural Central California to lead services, teach religious school and to meet with John. The community had maybe 100 Jewish families and, early on, I asked John, a mathematics professor at the local community college, why he wanted to affirm his Jewish identity, and why now, as he was in the midst of chemotherapy with a bleak prognosis. John pointed to a phrase in the Ve’ahavta, which his daughter Blair had been studying for her bat mitzvah. “V’shinantam l’vanecha” — “and you shall impress these words upon your children,” the passage proclaims. John, who knew he was dying, turned to me and explained, “So they [his children] will never forget how important being Jewish is to me.” John died before he could hear his daughter chant those words at her bat mitzvah, but their memory echoes through his family, community and my rabbinate to this very day.

Every rabbi who has been privileged to study with Jews by Choice has a story like this and many more. At Shavuot, as we remember the story of Ruth, the first convert, we also remember that every student who comes to us for conversion is different and has a unique and very personal story, but three paths to Judaism seem to be the most frequently traveled.

One is that of the spiritual seekers looking to fill a void in their spiritual identity that either their religion of birth or life experience has not satisfied. I witnessed a powerful example of this in Chuck, a hard-nosed Korean War veteran and former POW who came to me determined to become a Jew. 

Chuck was that rare blend of scholar-soldier, an avid reader of philosophy and theology by night, as he trained with his Green Beret unit by day. After being captured behind enemy lines and tortured in a Korean POW camp, from which he later escaped, Chuck found himself pondering why people can be so filled with hatred and violence toward one another. Though not a pacifist, Chuck, like many veterans, saw a pointlessness to war and conflict that was hard to dispute, given all he had been through on the battlefield. It was during his period of attempting to reconcile his experiences that he started to reread the Bible with fresh eyes. He told me the only part that made sense to him was the Old Testament. And so, when he came to me, we started by studying the commentaries and Talmud (Jewish law). One day he turned to me, fixed me with a gaze I am sure he reserved for troops under his command, and said, “This is it, this is the only system that makes sense; this is the path toward peace.”

I didn’t know if I should convert him or salute; I guess in the end I did both.

A second path to becoming Jewish is often blazed by the bar/bat mitzvah-aged child of a non-Jewish parent. As a Reform rabbi, about 30 percent of my congregation at Temple Judea in Tarzana is made up of interfaith families. Many times over the years, the non-Jewish parent of a bar/bat mitzvah student has approached me or my colleagues about conversion as their child prepares to be called to the Torah. 

They are sparked by the warmth of Jewish tradition, the idea of wanting spiritual continuity in their family or, quite powerfully, because they are learning alongside their child about the beauty and relevance of Judaism. Their process reinforces my belief in the progressive Jewish approach to interfaith couples: By holding the door open to chuppah, and participation in synagogue life, we create the possibility that they — through their children’s studies, no less — will find a path to Jewish identity. I cannot begin to describe the feeling of standing on the bimah as the now-Jewish parent chants the Torah blessing for the first time before the child reads his or her bar/bat mitzvah portion.

A third path, which may be viewed by some as prototypical, is when the non-Jewish partner of an engaged couple comes to me for their wedding. While for me, conversion is not a precondition for doing their wedding, I do encourage and promote it. Miraculously, those who choose to enter the Jewish people around the time they enter into marriage often create two Jews, not one, in the process. The Jew by Choice is filled with a passion and need to express his or her new Jewish identity in very religious/symbolic ways, and the spouse who was born Jewish experiences Judaism with a fresh set of eyes. Through the eyes of their beloved, they see things they’ve missed, or never encountered as a child growing up in the religion. Suddenly, it is the Jew by Choice who is insisting they light Shabbat candles, attend services regularly and become involved in the synagogue. Presently, some of the most active couples in our congregation have followed this path.

One of my favorite examples is the story of Joshua and Christina (not their real names). Joshua was born in Israel and raised in the United States; prior to meeting Christina, his bar mitzvah was pretty much the first and last time he stepped foot in a synagogue. When he called looking for a rabbi for his wedding, Joshua proudly identified himself as a cultural Jew and explained that having Jewish wedding was important to him only as a way to honor the memory of his mother.

He gave me clear instructions over the phone before we met not to make the ceremony too Jewish. His fiancee, Christina, was raised Mennonite in the Midwest, and Joshua was one of the few Jewish people she had ever spoken with. She grew up with parents who were devout members of their church, but, from the time she was a teenager, she had always felt something missing in her faith and did not practice their beliefs. 

In our monthly meetings about the wedding, Christina asked more and more questions about Judaism, which, to Joshua’s credit, he did not dismiss. One day, she asked if she could start meeting with me one on one. Those meetings led to her enrolling in an introduction to Judaism class, which Joshua decided to attend with her so they could spend more time together (they were newlyweds, after all). At the end of the course she converted, and now they come together to synagogue nearly every Shabbat. Joshua is part of our weekly Torah study and sits on a number of temple committees, and Christina helps facilitate our young couples group and mentors others in the conversion process. A few months ago, I was privileged to name their daughter in our sanctuary. In her young life, their child has already been to synagogue more than Joshua had been in the 20 years before he met Christina.

It is because of stories like these that rabbis often say that one of the most inspiring and fulfilling aspects of our calling is to work with Jews by Choice. Every student we study with amazes and astounds us because, through their eyes, we see Judaism as something new, full of hope, promise, wonder, fascination and awe.

I did not have to wait to become a rabbi to observe the profound impact that choosing to be Jewish can have on another person. I guess you could say that making Jews is our family business. My maternal grandmother, Vera Kipnis, became the first private conversion tutor in the San Francisco Bay Area, more than 70 years ago. She tutored students for their studies with rabbis from across the movements, and for as long as I can remember, my mom, Patti Moskovitz, continued the work that my grandmother began. My mother tutored students in our home, believing that Judaism was dished out with cookies, soups and sandwiches as much as through Torah, Talmud and tradition. Her students were frequent guests at our Shabbat table and held a place of honor every year at our family seder — where, if our family singing didn’t scare them away, we knew our people had them hooked for good. In any given week, I would come home from school to witness a student crying tears of joy as he or she uncovered a part of the soul that previous religion, faith or lack thereof could not touch.

With every student my family has worked with through the years, the question lay before me: If I were born into another religion, would I have chosen to study and become Jewish? Could I leave behind family heritage and traditions I have known since birth? Could I say to parents and grandparents, as the biblical Ruth does in this week’s reading for Shavuot, “Your people shall be my people, your God shall be my God, where you go I will go”?

Modern life is already so packed with competing priorities and demands, why add to those the problems and challenges of leaving one’s family of faith and tradition to cling to another? And not just any faith, but Judaism — a small, minority community fraught at times with internal tsuris and an external experience of contempt in the eyes of so many. Would I be Jewish if I didn’t have to be?

Yes, even rabbis ponder this existential question — maybe we ponder it even more than others, as daily we see the joys and oys of Jewish life. We wonder about the families that come in and out of synagogue after b’nai mitzvah like it is a revolving door — one day, one generation will they not come back? We look at the survivors and children of survivors who sit uncomfortably in synagogue, who endured horrors we cannot even begin to understand — what is the source of their faith? We counsel the families who use Judaism and Jewish practice as a wedge between them, not eating in one another’s homes or davening in one another’s shuls, or attending one another’s funerals. Then there are the synagogue politics, the high cost of being Jewish and the reality that at any given time in history, someone is out to wipe us off the face of the earth. 

And yet, in the face of all that, in spite of all of that, in walks a successful, accomplished, intelligent and thoughtful adult who says simply but profoundly, “Rabbi, I want to become Jewish.” We should all be so fortunate to see Judaism through the eyes of someone who could chose to be anything else, anything other, but instead chooses this path, this people, this faith.

V’shinantam l’vanecha, indeed! The Jew by Choice impresses in so many ways, on their children for sure, but hopefully on each and every one of us, old and young alike.


Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (

Putting the Ten Commandments on display


Are the Ten Commandments only to be heard but not seen? And when they are seen, how should they look?

Some groups, notably the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), believe that public images of the Ten Commandments should be scarce.

“That the increasing call by private citizens and public officials for the government to post the Ten Commandments in schools, government buildings, courts and other public places — while often well-intentioned — is bad policy and often unconstitutional,” the ADL says on its Web site.

Other organizations advocate displaying them, even in schools. The conservative American Center for Law and Justice argues that the Supreme Court “should not prohibit their display in the absence of a clear showing that the display has the effect of endorsing a particular religion.”

Yet, as we approach Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the handing-down of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, just because there’s a debate about the public appropriateness of displaying the Ten Commandments doesn’t mean you can’t surround yourself with them at shul — or even in your front yard.

Available for purchase online, there’s an olive wood Moses and Ten Commandments for your desk or dresser, and a dog tag imprinted with them. There’s a matchbox cover emblazoned with the Roman numerals 1-10 to remind you of the commandments when you light a candle, as well as a refrigerator magnet printed with the words “The Top Ten” featuring the first words of the commandments in Hebrew.

Then there’s the version by Design Toscano of Illinois that’s 18 inches high, 21 inches wide and weighing 12 pounds. It’s cast in resin, and the scripture is written in English on one side and Hebrew on the other.

“Our faux stone tablet is both historic and inspiring, and makes a defining statement in your home or garden,” the company’s online catalog proclaims.

Probably not right for the temple driveway. But in the synagogue, where the Ten Commandments are read on Shavuot, what kind of imagery is OK? Just the usual twin tablet design?

In the Torah, the Ten Commandments are called “Aseret Ha’Devarim” — the Ten Words — which though seen as a moral code of behavior are considered even more as the overarching basis for the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, found in the Torah.

Growing up, the well-known double tablet image of the twin tablets welcomed me in front of my synagogue, as well as other temples I visited. Many synagogues continue to have the image of the Ten Commandments prominently displayed, and many Judaica Web sites that sell Torah covers feature a design with the commandments sewn on, usually represented by the first 10 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Now I wonder how contemporary designers might interpret them.

I called the New York design team of Michael Berkowicz and Bonnie Srolovitz-Berkowicz, who in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had recently dedicated a Holocaust memorial they created called “In the Shadow of Their Absence.” It was the same husband-and-wife team who had designed a pair of Chanukah menorahs for the World Trade Center that were destroyed in the 9/11 tragedy, which they plan to replace using steel from the demolished buildings.

Concerning the appearance of the Ten Commandments, I quickly discovered that there were more issues involved than if and where they should be displayed.

“Not everyone accepts the same shape of the tablets,” said Berkowicz, who finds that every Jewish design project leads to a journey.

Counter to what I thought, he told me that the oft-seen image of the tablets with rounded tops is not correct.

“The biblical interpretation is that they were rectangular,” said Berkowicz, who was set straight, so to speak, by a Chabad rabbi with whom he was consulting.

There went my lawn decoration.

“As they are usually seen, some of our clients view the Ten Commandments as a cliché,” said Berkowicz, who was born in Poland in 1944 to parents who fled Europe during World War II. “The challenge is how to interpret them.”

To meet that challenge, the couple designed a thought-provoking interpretation of the Ten Commandments for Congregation Micah, a Reform synagogue in suburban Nashville, Tenn. Srolovitz-Berkowicz noted that the couple won an award from the American Institute of Architects for the 1997 creation.

Encouraged by the synagogue’s founding rabbi, Kenneth Kanter, who now serves as director of the rabbinical school for the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, they made a pair of ark doors. But instead of the standard tablet form, with each commandment represented by either Hebrew letters or the first word or two of each commandment, they created a design that incorporated into the copper doors the entire text of Chapter 20 of Exodus, where the Ten Commandments are found.

Using a high-powered water jet programmed with the Hebrew text, the letters were cut through the metal. The doors are backlit by the ark’s interior lighting system.

“When you first see it from a distance, the letters are not apparent,” Berkowicz said. “As you approach you have an ‘aha’ moment.”

To the synagogue’s current rabbi, Laurie Rice, the ark represents “accessibility. It’s approachable,” she said.

“Cutting through allowed the light of the Torah to shine through,” Srolovitz-Berkowicz said.

Berkowicz adds, “The light of the Torah is being received.”


Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.

DIYers take on Pesach


At first glance, it’s hard to tell if Eileen Levinson’s Alternative Seder Plate is deeply thoughtful or merely playful. Or perhaps just coolly irreverent.

Levinson adapted her Alternative Seder Plate concept to design the ” title=”Theres an app. for that” target=”_blank”>There’s an app. for that]

Levinson’s art taps into the ethos today’s young adults are bringing to their seders. They want seders where the conversation is collaborative, the themes personally relevant and socially aware, and the resources as diverse as the people around the table. Traditions are important and respected, but also might be idiosyncratically altered or eliminated. A leader may be appointed to keep things moving, but the hierarchy is flat — the seder is a crowd-sourced effort that aims, ultimately, to produce a spiritual/socially relevant/Jewishly connected experience.

And it’s not only young people who are checking it out. Increasingly, adults of all ages are looking past the irreverence to see the potential for relevance in these new do-it-yourself seders.

“You are applying Passover to a generation of people who really enjoy creativity and getting their hands dirty as part of understanding something,” said writer/director Jill Soloway, founder of East Side Jews, an organization that holds monthly events “at unlikely venues during unpopular holidays for Jews with confused identities,” according to its Web site.

East Side Jews hosted a panel discussion that included Soloway and Levinson this week at Skylight Books focusing on the “New American Haggadah,” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and exploring ways to personalize seder.

A TRADITION OF REVOLUTION

To be sure, tinkering with the seder is hardly a new idea — in fact, it is built into the holiday and may be one of the reasons Passover is the single-most observed holiday on the Jewish calendar. Thousands of versions of the haggadah have been produced over many centuries.

“In every generation, you are obligated to see yourself as if you yourself left Egypt,” the haggadah demands.

And later on, “Whoever discusses the story extensively is praiseworthy.”

Will Deutsch’s sketches provide a caricature-like nostalgic take on Passover moments. A search for the afikomen.

“The haggadah gives you permission to make the seder experience speak to you, where you’re at, right now,” said Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of “Passover: The Spiritual Guide for Family Celebration” (Jewish Lights). “The seder is not supposed to be a history lesson. It’s supposed to be a multisensory experience of the Exodus from Egypt itself, and whatever Egypt is constraining you now. That ought to be the topic of the evening — how to place yourself not in history, but in the ongoing story of your spiritual life and your connection to Judaism.”

And Jews have read themselves into the haggadah for centuries. Artwork portraying the four sons, for instance, has included communists, emancipationists, Israeli pioneers, Chasidim or American rebellious teens as the simple, wise, wicked and nonverbal children.

In 1969, 800 blacks and whites attended the first “Freedom Seder,” which Rabbi Arthur Waskow hosted in the basement of a church in Washington, D.C., on the first anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The 1973 “Jewish Catalog,” a countercultural Jewish playbook by Richard Siegel and Michael and Sharon Strassfeld, suggested vegetarians might use a beet on the seder plate in place of the zeroa, traditionally a lamb shank, and the vegetarian “Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb,” edited by Roberta Kalechofsky, appeared in the mid-1970s. Feminist seders continue to be popular today.

21st CENTURY SEDER

So if all that started in the 1960s, what’s so revolutionary about today’s seders?

For one, many in the Jewish community never embraced the seder revolution of the 1960s and ’70s but instead stuck with the old take-turns-reading-out-of-the-Maxwell-House-haggadah model. And within families that have added more interaction, more theatrics, more activity to the seder, this next generation is simply eager to add its own layer to the story.

A 21st century seder uses technology to access a vast spectrum of resources, and it lets ideas emerge from conversation and activity rather than being frontally presented. The seder is less likely to be singularly themed — feminist or civil rights, say — than to incorporate a patchwork of personal and societal ideas that make up the hybrid identity of this generation.

They want ownership and personal meaning, and are not willing to wait for the natural turnover of generations so they can take the lead.

“I went home two seders ago, and at the end of it, I was like, ‘I can’t do that again,’ ” said Tami Reiss, a 30-year-old Web product manager who lives in Los Angeles.

Reiss’ parents live in Florida and are Orthodox; each year they go through the entire text of the haggadah, mostly with her father leading.

“I think there is a big difference between a patriarch leading the seder and being the main source of information, as opposed to everyone bringing some level of curiosity and ability to ask and reply to questions,” Reiss said. “When one person is leading, it’s harder to get that sense of ownership.”

Last year, Reiss hosted her own seder, with the benefit of a grant from Birthright Next. The organization reimburses alumni of Birthright Israel trips who host guests for Shabbat and Passover in their homes. Nearly 550 hosts have signed up through Birthright Next this year, with 35 seders in Los Angeles.

Reiss and her co-host supplied some prompts, but, for the most part, they let the conversation flow. She wrote the Passover timeline out on cards, which she handed out, asking her guests to organize themselves according to the chronological order of the events on their cards.

“It was vegetarian, and we had fun; we played interactive seder games — it was kind of everything I ever wanted a seder to be at my parents’ house,” Reiss said.

Ayana Morse, community director of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, said that non-Jews who have attended her seder have been impressed with the depth of conversation.

“It sort of epitomizes the Jewish idea of the importance of asking questions by providing this forum for guided dinner-party conversation. I think people are sort of desperate for that deeper engagement with friends and peers,” Morse said.

Can we afford kosher lettuce?


On a Monday morning in November, two men sat on the edge of a field in Carpinteria, 85 miles north of Los Angeles. The older one, middle-aged, wiry and bareheaded, had the face of someone who has served in the military, worked in agriculture or, in his case, both. Alongside him was a younger man who wore a black kippah and looked, from his complexion, like he spends his days indoors.

Between them, a young head of romaine lettuce sat on a table. It was cracked open, the small leaves splayed outward to reveal a few flecks of soil.

“Did you see anything moving?” the older man asked.

“No,” the younger one replied. “No, this looks very good.”

Yossi Asyag, 45, is an Israeli-born agricultural entrepreneur and the founder of a small farming operation that grows kosher-certified fresh lettuce and herbs. Yosef Caplan, 27, is assistant director of the kashrut services division at the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC). Every Monday, Caplan drives from Los Angeles to Carpinteria and then to another site nearby for his job as Asyag’s farm’s mashgiach, or kosher supervisor.

That nothing was moving in the lettuce on the table on this day left both Asyag and Caplan hopeful that no bugs inhabited the other 5,000 heads of lettuce growing in the greenhouse a few dozen yards away.

Harvest time would come two weeks later. Through a combination of careful monitoring and judicious application of pesticides, Asyag said, the lettuce in the greenhouse stayed bug-free. That week’s haul of romaine lettuce from the farm was certified as kosher.

Worse than a cheeseburger

The presence of even one whole bug, dead or alive, can render an entire vegetable treif — unkosher. On this matter, Orthodox rabbis are unequivocal.

“From a Torah perspective, eating a Big Mac or eating a salad with insects in it, the salad is worse,” Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, who runs the nonprofit Kosher Information Bureau, told me when I met him at his home office in Valley Village.

With stakes like that, it’s no wonder some kosher-observant Jews are willing to pay top dollar for kosher-certified produce. At one store in Los Angeles earlier this month, an RCC-certified head of romaine was selling for seven times the per-ounce price of one without the kosher designation. For East Coast consumers, who buy the majority of Asyag’s produce, most of the lettuce is first pre-cut and bagged as processed salads, and then sold at an even higher markup.

Greenhouse-grown, bug-free kosher lettuce is an Israeli innovation. First pioneered in 1990 in the then-occupied Gaza Strip, the growing technique is still often referred to as the “Gush Katif” method, named for the now-dismantled Jewish settlement where it originated.

Over the past five years, California has become home to the largest North American bug-free-growing operation, and it’s about to get bigger. Asyag, who has been selling RCC-certified lettuce under the brand California Kosher Farms since around 2008, is about to embark on a major expansion, aiming to double his farm’s output over the next 12 months to more than 1 million heads of lettuce a year. He’s looking to buy more land in Oxnard and has already started using Israeli-designed hydroponics to grow more lettuce in less space.

But while the equation “lettuce minus bugs plus rabbinic approval equals good returns,” might seem simple, the reality is anything but. This nascent industry is fraught with disputes, not just over what Jewish law requires, but over what price consumers and businesses should have to pay in order to keep their salads kosher.

Through dozens of interviews with growers, rabbis, local kosher caterers and staff from one local kosher supervision agency, a complicated picture emerges of a niche business that illustrates the complexities and the unusual financial challenges of the modern kosher marketplace. One thing is certain: It is the RCC supervisors who hold most of the cards.

The RCC does not have an ownership interest in the operations of the farm that grows the vegetables it certifies; nevertheless, the farm would not exist without RCC certification and support. In aiming for the absolute highest standard of kosher, the RCC — widely considered the most stringent and broadly accepted kosher certifying body in the region — has chosen to certify just one grower, granting him a monopoly and even privileging his interests over those of the caterers the RCC also certifies.

“These ladies were scrubbing the lettuce with soap.”

Unlike, say, the prohibition on eating pork or shellfish, few non-Orthodox Jews today know about the “no bugs” kosher requirement. A section about insects from the fourth edition of Eidlitz’s book “Is it Kosher? An Encyclopedia of Kosher Food, Facts, and Fallacies” suggests that even as recently as 1999, the author’s largely Orthodox readership wasn’t paying as much attention to keeping bugs out of their food as he thought they should.

“Although eating insects is strictly forbidden by the Torah, we find this concern often overlooked,” Eidlitz writes. In the 1950s and ’60s, Eidlitz said in an interview, when the application of dangerous pesticides, including DDT, ensured that very few bugs could be found on American produce, leading rabbinic authorities gave permission to kosher-observant American Orthodox Jews to “overlook” these laws.

Not anymore. In the last 20 years, Orthodox rabbis in general, and those involved in kosher certification in particular, have been working hard to introduce — reintroduce, they say — practices of checking fresh vegetables for bugs in observance of the laws of kashrut.

Blanket bans have been issued on the most bug-friendly and hardest-to-check produce: raspberries, blackberries, whole artichokes and more are entirely forbidden because they’re too complex and fragile in form (the berries) or too tightly closed (artichokes) to inspect. And the Web site of every major kosher certifying agency includes guidebooks, instructional pamphlets, even videos outlining a labor-intensive regimen designed to rid other vegetables of insects.

Such extreme cleaning and checking can seem unusual to an outsider.

“I was in Crown Heights last week doing a demonstration where these ladies were scrubbing the lettuce with soap,” I was told by Geila Hocherman, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef based in New York who co-wrote the cookbook “Kosher Revolution,” published last year.

But the insects they’re looking for are tiny — and seemingly everywhere. Arugula leaves and asparagus tips are potential hiding spots for thrips — 1-millimeter-long insects that can be seen with the naked eye but are easier to spot with a magnifying glass. Pinhead-sized aphids can lurk in and around the florets of broccoli and in bunches of fresh parsley. As for spider mites, which, despite their name, are not related to spiders, the minuscule creatures (less than 1 millimeter in diameter) can seem impossible to eliminate.

“When a spider mite gets into the lettuce, even if you wash it, it doesn’t let go,” Asyag said. “It’s like the leg gets in.”

This new vigilance has changed some observant people’s diets, too: Hocherman, who describes her own Jewish observance as “very Modern Orthodox,” included in “Kosher Revolution” a number of recipes that run afoul of the vegetable-related rules instituted by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment.

The main ingredient in Glazed Brussels Sprouts With Chestnuts, for example, “should not be used,” according to the RCC, as the sprouts’ tight leaves could hide bugs. Broccoli florets, an important part of Hocherman’s recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles With Broccoli and Tofu, must be parboiled before they can be checked, according to the Orthodox Union (OU), and if three or more bugs are found, the whole head must be thrown away.

And consider the situation facing green asparagus. “What they’re asking us to do is to cut off the tips and shave the sides,” said Errol Fine, explaining why the vegetable is no longer on the menu at Pat’s, the upscale restaurant in the heart of Pico-Robertson he owns with his wife. Pat’s restaurant and catering business both are certified by Kehilla Kosher, a Los Angeles kosher certification agency run by Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, and Fine said he can’t remember when Pat’s last served asparagus.

“We should’ve had a farewell party,” he said, ruefully.

And it’s not just homemakers in predominantly Chasidic or “black-hat” neighborhoods who are washing their lettuce with soap, shaving and circumcising their asparagus spears and keeping their fruit platters free of raspberries and blackberries.

“I think by now the Orthodox Jewish community has been well educated that there is, or can be, an infestation problem, and that they need to check,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, a large Modern Orthodox synagogue, also in Pico-Robertson. Muskin was president of the RCC for five years in the 1990s, and he said that in those days people worried they might not be thorough enough in checking. Today, however, Muskin said his congregants are more comfortable with the task.

Why we should attack Iran


[Counter-point: Why we should not bomb Iran]

This article has been adapted from an essay in the January/February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

The United States and Iran are on a path toward direct armed conflict. In early October, U.S. officials accused Iranian operatives of planning to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States on American soil. In early January, Tehran sentenced to death an American citizen visiting family in Iran on charges of alleged espionage. And, over the past month, Tehran and Washington have exchanged military threats over the Strait of Hormuz, the vital Persian Gulf waterway through which roughly 20 percent of the world’s oil supply passes. These events have underscored the real and growing risk that the two sides could go to war sometime soon — particularly over Iran’s advancing nuclear program.

This article has been adapted from an essay in the January/February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

For several years now, starting long before this episode, American pundits and policymakers have been debating whether the United States should attack Iran and attempt to eliminate its nuclear facilities. Proponents of a strike have argued that the only thing worse than military action against Iran would be an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Critics, meanwhile, have warned that such a raid would likely fail and, even if it succeeded, would spark a full-fledged war and a global economic crisis. They have urged the United States to rely on nonmilitary options, such as diplomacy, sanctions and covert operations, to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb. Fearing the costs of a bombing campaign, most critics maintain that if these other tactics fail to impede Tehran’s progress, the United States should simply learn to live with a nuclear Iran.

But skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease — that is, that the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a faulty assumption. The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.

DANGERS OF DETERRENCE

Years of international pressure have failed to halt Iran’s attempt to build a nuclear program. The Stuxnet computer worm, which attacked control systems in Iranian nuclear facilities, temporarily disrupted Tehran’s enrichment effort, but a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this past May revealed that the targeted plants have fully recovered from the assault. And the latest IAEA findings on Iran, released in November, provided the most compelling evidence yet that the Islamic Republic has weathered sanctions and sabotage, allegedly testing nuclear triggering devices and redesigning its missiles to carry nuclear payloads. The Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit research institution, estimates that Iran could now produce its first nuclear weapon within six months of deciding to do so. Tehran’s plans to move sensitive nuclear operations into more secure facilities over the course of the coming year could reduce the window for effective military action even further. If Iran expels IAEA inspectors, begins enriching its stockpiles of uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, or installs advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom, the United States must strike immediately or forfeit its last opportunity to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club.

Some states in the region are doubting U.S. resolve to stop the program and are shifting their allegiances to Tehran. Others have begun to discuss launching their own nuclear initiatives to counter a possible Iranian bomb. For those nations and the United States itself, the threat will only continue to grow as Tehran moves closer to its goal. A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region. Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, would likely decide to acquire their own nuclear arsenals, sparking an arms race. To constrain its geopolitical rivals, Iran could choose to spur proliferation by transferring nuclear technology to its allies — other countries and terrorist groups alike. Having the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy, and the battles between its terrorist proxies and Israel, for example, could escalate. And, Iran and Israel lack nearly all the safeguards that helped the United States and the Soviet Union avoid a nuclear exchange during the Cold War — secure second-strike capabilities, clear lines of communication, long flight times for ballistic missiles from one country to the other, and experience managing nuclear arsenals. To be sure, a nuclear-armed Iran would not intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war. But the volatile nuclear balance between Iran and Israel could easily spiral out of control as a crisis unfolds, resulting in a nuclear exchange between the two countries that could draw the United States in, as well.

These security threats would require Washington to contain Tehran. Yet deterrence would come at a heavy price. To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. Alongside those troops, the United States would have to permanently deploy significant intelligence assets to monitor any attempts by Iran to transfer its nuclear technology. And it would also need to devote perhaps billions of dollars to improving its allies’ capability to defend themselves. This might include helping Israel construct submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hardened ballistic missile silos to ensure that it can maintain a secure second-strike capability. Most of all, to make containment credible, the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack.

The big tent: Jews, Muslims, Christians celebrate spirituality in a shared sacred space


Whirling Dervishes, an elaborate feast and a lecture by a prominent Muslim scholar – Musallah Tauhid’s joyous celebration of its move to a new home in 2008 heralded good times ahead for the Sufi Muslim worship group. As a friendly gesture, the group invited its new neighbors for the occasion: members of both Village Lutheran Church, whose Brentwood facility Musallah Tauhid would now be sharing, and Ahavat Torah, a small Jewish congregation that also holds its services at the church.

But early in the festivities, a tense moment threatened the mood. As Muslim leaders called the gathering to prayer to bless the establishment, their opening invocation — “Allahu Akbar,” God is great — sent chills through Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Ahavat Torah’s spiritual leader. Those words, she realized with horror, are the same ones that suicide bombers in Israel often shout before detonating themselves.

“When I heard those words again, I started to shake,” Hamrell, a native Israeli, recalled. “It was an immediate physical reaction. I literally looked around the room and thought, ‘Who is going to blow themselves up?’ ”

Images flashed through her mind of two friends from her days in the Israel Defense Forces who were killed in a blast, and of the time she arrived at the scene of a bombing just after an explosion. It all came back — the blood, the smoke, the victims lying injured on the street.

Soon it was Hamrell’s turn to address the group of Muslims, Christians and Jews gathered for the event. She decided to tell them about her emotional reaction and personal history of trauma.

“I believe that a good relationship has to be based on truth. So I have to share with you what just happened to me,” she told them.

Hamrell elaborated later, “I have always felt that fear and struggle should not hold a person back from moving forward or overcome good judgment. It takes time, patience, trust and understanding to build a relationship. It takes keeping your heart open. And sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep your heart open. I told them, ‘I’m working on myself. It’s not easy. I promise and commit to try to overcome this personal struggle.’ ”

Many guests at the assembly, touched by her words, offered their sympathy. One Muslim leader recited a blessing for her: “May it become easier.”

That episode — one of many turning points in an unusual partnership of shared space and shared experience among the congregations of Ahavat Torah, Musallah Tauhid and Village Lutheran Church — marked a profound step toward the understanding and harmony the three faith groups now enjoy. They have built friendships, included one another in holiday celebrations and in the process created a unique interfaith bond based on education and respect. What began as a convenient rental agreement has blossomed into what many call a family.

Each year since 2008, Ahavat Torah welcomes members of Village Lutheran Church and Musallah Tauhid (“place of unity”) for interfaith activities on Tu B’Shevat, Pesach and Sukkot, during which Jewish congregants teach the essence of holidays in accessible language. At the end of Ramadan, the Musallah invites the whole community for an Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast. For their part, church leaders host an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration and have created joint Chanukah and Christmas parties over the years.

This communal ministry was something of a happy accident, said the Rev. Janet Bregar, Village Lutheran Church’s pastor for the past 15 years – yet a confluence of elements set the stage. The church, founded in the 1940s, has always had an open-door policy toward other local spiritual and 12-step recovery groups, Bregar said. And she and Musallah Tauhid founder Noor-Malika Chishti had both participated in interfaith work before through Monks Without Borders and the international Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Still, sharing a worship space, the three spiritual leaders found, proved to be a richer and more textured endeavor than any of them could have imagined. They have reaped gratifying rewards both in what they have learned from one another and in lessons they can pass on to their congregations. They have also weathered surprises as the learning curve has dredged up anxieties and preconceptions that have had to be undone.

“It takes courage to go into places where you know you won’t feel comfortable,” Hamrell said. “The question is, how can change occur if you always go where it’s comfortable?”

Three faiths under one roof

Village Lutheran Church is a modest brick building on the border of the otherwise tony Westside neighborhoods of Brentwood and Westwood. Each weekend, its chambers witness three sets of prayers uttered in three different languages — English, Hebrew and Arabic.

On Saturday mornings, Jewish congregants from Ahavat Torah festoon the sanctuary with Israeli flags and set up an ark for Shabbat. Saturday evenings, Sufi Muslim worshippers from Musallah Tauhid spread out carpets and pillows on the social hall floor, remove their shoes and kneel for their weekly communal prayer group. And on Sundays, the church’s Lutheran congregation fills the pews for its own Sabbath service.

The arrangement’s beginnings were serendipitous. When the newly formed Ahavat Torah was looking for a spiritual home in 2003, Hamrell, who was ordained that year at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, had just signed on to lead the 90-member, non-denominational congregation. The group’s cantorial soloist, Gary Levine, suggested they might rent space at a small church he’d heard about a stone’s throw from the 405 Freeway. A committee decided to approach the pastor and inquire.

The rabbi struggled with the prospect at first.

Top, from left: Ahavat Torah’s Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Noor-Malika Chishti, founder of Musallah Tauhid. Bottom, from left: Musallah’s leader, Karima Kylberg and the Rev. Janet Bregar of Village Lutheran Church. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

Meanwhile, Bahauddin and Karima Kylberg were preparing to make Hajj, the Islamic ritual pilgrimage to Mecca. Traditionally, Muslims readying for the journey must first ask forgiveness from their family and friends — much like the spiritual slate-cleaning required of Jews before Yom Kippur. Ahavat Torah’s Sukkot celebration offered the perfect opportunity to do that, Bahauddin Kylberg said.

It was also an opportunity for the Jewish congregation to give a meaningful gift.

When Hamrell heard the Kylbergs were going to visit the Kaaba, the stone shrine in Mecca that is considered one of Islam’s holiest sites, she felt a distinct sense of synchronicity. She ran to find the piece of Jerusalem stone she usually carried in her tallit bag.

“I said, ‘Wow, ancient rock from Saudi Arabia, ancient rock from Jerusalem,’ ” she recalled. “I thought they should have it. Instead of throwing rocks at one another, maybe with these two rocks we could build the cornerstone for our faiths to have a peaceful coexistence.”

An Ahavat Torah member offered her piece of the symbolic limestone to the Kylbergs. They took it with them on the Hajj, bringing it to some of the most significant places in Mecca and Medina. Surreptitious photos – photography is not permitted at many locations – show the stone in front of the Kaaba and at the Rawdah, the site of Muhammad’s tomb.

The couple brought the Jerusalem stone with them as they ascended Mount Arafat, the last stop on the Hajj, known as the “Mountain of Mercy.” There, they placed it on the sacred hill where Muslims believe Muhammad gave his last sermon.

“We believe that on Judgment Day, the places where we pray will witness for us that we did our prayer,” Bahauddin Kylberg said. “We thought, ‘Why not take the stone with us, as a witness for Ahavat Torah?’ Every year, the angels will be witnessing that that stone was there.”

Bahauddin Kylberg showed pictures from the Hajj at the church’s interfaith Thanksgiving celebration last month, which drew about 60 attendees from all three communities to the church’s social hall for a potluck holiday lunch. Kosher and halal cuisine steamed in adjacent glass bowls on a buffet table.

“What I’m going to ask you to do is to not sit with your familiar group,” Bregar told the roomful of guests before the meal. “Find someone you don’t know and sit with them and get to know them.”

Interfaith events give Muslims a chance to learn more about their religion’s similarities to Judaism and Christianity, said Rabiya Zeeshan, who worships at Musallah Tauhid with her husband, Zeeshan Masood, and their 1-year-old daughter, Aminah. Conversely, she added, it’s an opportunity to show others “what is Islam and what are Muslims” beyond what the mainstream media portrays.

“Before coming to this group, we had a lot of misunderstanding,” Masood said. “Usually, people don’t learn much about other religions. We know Judaism from a Muslim perspective — we know the prophet Moses and the ancient stories — but what we don’t know is, what is Judaism right now in its current state? That was a big reason we started coming.”

Masood recalled how the first time he heard the Shema chanted, he was struck by the realization that the Hebrew Adonai Echad and the Arabic Allahu Ahad were nearly interchangeable ways of saying, “God is One.”

“I was in a group, and I was singing the Muslim part and another lady was singing the Jewish part, and I could not hear the difference,” he said.

That isn’t an accident, said Karima Kylberg. “The God that I believe in is the same as the Christian and the Jewish God,” she said. “We are all people of the book.”

But the clergy of the three faith groups don’t try to downplay or whitewash major contrasts between their religions, Bregar stressed.

“There are real theological differences,” said the pastor, a religious studies professor at California State University, Fullerton. “We try to keep our own belief systems intact. But while there aren’t always bridges between beliefs, we can create understanding, and this is what we try to do.”

The letter she wrote designating the church’s annual day of reflection upon wrongs done to other faiths “didn’t happen overnight,” Bregar said. “It has taken years to set the stage for that. That’s why I think this is really a long-term commitment to trying to understand other peoples’ points of view. It’s like building any relationship — it’s a process.”

The Ahavat Torah community has watched Hamrell’s personal transformation with support.

“If you had told her eight years ago where she’d be today, she would have been shocked,” said Michael Stevens, one of the congregation’s first members. “Over all this time, it has been amazing to see how she has opened her mind to untraditional circumstances, bit by bit.”

Rabbi Hamrell herself sometimes can’t believe it, she said.

“I am amazed that these gifts have fallen into my lap,” she mused, shaking her head. “I thank God for putting me in places where I don’t always feel comfortable — for putting me in places where there is a chance to grow.”

The book of Maccabees, occupied


At the Dec. 5 meeting of the Los Angeles General Assembly — the utterly democratic body that acts to guide, if not exactly govern, Occupy Los Angeles — a facilitator named Chase posed the following question:

“Should we reoccupy a space? And, if so: Where, how and why — or why not?”

It was just six days after an army of 1,400 Los Angeles Police Department officers in riot gear evicted hundreds of Occupy L.A. protesters from their two-month-old encampment surrounding Los Angeles City Hall. Despite new concrete barriers topped with chain-link fence that now surround all of the formerly occupied spaces, the General Assembly, or GA, is still convening every evening at 7:30 on the City Hall grounds — a square block that protesters now call Solidarity Park.

On this day, however, thanks to the filming across the street of a movie starring Sean Penn, the protesters had to wait a full hour to gather on City Hall’s grand stairway on the west side of the building.

Some occupiers lobbied the film crew to end their shoot early, while others openly considered getting arrested by one of the dozen or so police officers on hand to keep the crowd of protesters on the sidewalk. A few occupiers also discussed the possibility of moving the GA to another location for one night.

“Personally, I think the GA is far more important than where it is,” protester C.J. Minster said, while acknowledging that a rule adopted by the GA in the days before the LAPD raid also would make the meeting difficult to move.

“Any change to that has to be approved by a GA,” she explained. “And if you can’t convene a GA at Solidarity Park, it’s kind of a vicious cycle.”

With the Occupy movement’s protesters in most cities across the country now forcibly removed from their encampments, the question of whether, where and how to reoccupy has taken on considerable urgency. And even though the Los Angeles protesters who attended the Dec. 5 GA probably weren’t thinking about Judah Maccabee — probably not even Minster, who was wearing a black knit kippah — perhaps they should have been.

Chanukah begins at sundown on Dec. 20, and this season it is worth remembering that Judah Maccabee — aka Judas Maccabeus — who led a small band of Jews in a successful armed revolt against the Seleucid rulers of Judea in the second century B.C.E., the act the festival of Chanukah commemorates — is one of Jewish history’s most famously successful occupiers. And the way Jews celebrate this wintertime holiday is shaped by that essential question facing the recently removed protesters — whether to reoccupy.

That isn’t the only parallel between the Maccabees of old and the occupiers of today.

Although Judah Maccabee (whose nickname Maccabeus means “the hammer”) was a freedom fighter, his battle against the Seleucids also pitted him, his brothers and their followers against fellow Jews in an internal struggle — a civil war, even — over the future directions of Judean society and Jewish practice. The Maccabees, who wanted to restore the temple to its traditional practices, fought and killed other Jews who had adopted the Hellenistic ways of the imperial overlords.

Similarly, the Occupy movement — which is, it must be said, a non-violent protest movement — pits groups of Americans with different ideas about the future direction of the country against one another. The occupiers portray the battle as one between the overwhelming majority of Americans (“the 99 percent”) and the rich and powerful of Wall Street (“the 1 percent), a division that, coincidentally, aligns with the Maccabean model, as Hellenized Jews were primarily wealthy Jerusalemites, and those fighting on the side of the Maccabees were poorer, rural Jews.

A protester is arrested as Los Angeles Police Department officers dismantle the Occupy L.A. encampment outside City Hall in Los Angeles on Nov. 30. The nearly two-month-old encampment is among the oldest and largest on the West Coast aligned with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations protesting economic inequality in the country and the excesses of the U.S. financial system.  Photo by Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images

Read closely, the story of the Maccabean revolt includes a few more unexpected parallels to the story of Occupy so far. To be sure, some of these allegorical links may take a bit more intellectual squinting than others to perceive.

Who knew, for example, that according to the second Book of Maccabees, Jews in Jerusalem and Judea first celebrated Chanukah by dwelling in booths? And weren’t those occupiers dwelling in outdoor temporary shelters, too?

I know I’m stretching somewhat: Of course, a sukkah is not a tent. And while we still remember the Maccabean armed revolt 2,000 years after it happened, it’s not yet known whether we will even be talking about the Occupy movement when Americans go to the polls next November .

Nevertheless, this comparison between historical precedent and current events presents Occupy as a movement at a crossroads, facing a choice not unlike the one the talmudic-era rabbis confronted around the first century C.E. when they created our Chanukah observances and began a process of downplaying the Maccabees’ significance.

And as other journalists already have tackled such important questions as whether Jesus would have been an occupier, or if Santa Claus should be the patron saint of the movement, why not indulge the “Maccabees as occupiers” idea, if only as an unconventional way of retelling the story of Chanukah?


Because most Chanukah stories focus on the miracle of the oil that lasted a full week longer than it should have, and not on the Maccabees’ military campaign, a quick recap of the Maccabean revolt — courtesy of the introductions to the first and second Books of Maccabees in the New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha — is probably in order:

The story begins around 175 B.C.E. The Seleucid Empire, which achieved the height of its glory and influence under Alexander the Great in 332-323 B.C.E., was slowly waning. In Judea, the Seleucid-imported Hellenistic culture, a mix of Greek and Semitic practices, divided the Jewish community, appealing to some Jews, but offending those who wanted to hold fast to their traditions.

Enter Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, who prohibited outright the central practices of Judaism — forbidding Jews from keeping the Sabbath, forcing them to eat non-kosher animals and outlawing the practice of circumcision. With the help of corrupt, Hellenizing Jewish high priests, Antiochus’ emissaries to Judea also plundered the city of Jerusalem, stole the temple’s sacred objects and profaned the altar by sacrificing a pig there.

These developments distressed the Jews who wanted to keep their traditional practices, and no one more so than a priest named Mattathias who lived in the town of Modein, outside Jerusalem. Over the next seven years, Mattathias and his five sons, including Judah, led a revolt that led to the death of Antiochus, the reclamation — or reoccupation — of the temple by Jews and the beginning of a century-long dynasty of effective independence for Judea.

Back to modern times: For just about 60 days, Occupy L.A.’s temple was City Hall Park (located just off of Temple Street, as it happens). And if democracy can be seen as the official religion of the United States, the occupiers saw themselves as publicly practicing its central rite — exercising their First Amendment-protected right to free speech. (Whether they had a right to set up a 24-hour encampment — which was initially welcomed by the City Council — is another matter.) It was also not uncommon to hear protesters accusing the American equivalent of Judean high priests — elected officials — of some type of corruption, and of looting the nation’s treasure to further enrich the “1 percent.”

For the sake of argument, let’s go one step further with this analogy of “Maccabees are to Temple-era Judaism as Occupy protesters are to American democracy.”

When Judah and his brothers recaptured the temple, they sent in …

“… blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. …” (1 Maccabees 4:42-45)

The people of Occupy L.A., a self-described leaderless movement, have pursued a similar two-pronged tactic when it comes to cleansing the American democratic process, which they see as having been defiled by unchecked corporate influence.

Some Occupy activists pursue agenda items through existing legislative channels; one speaker at a recent GA urged protesters to contact elected officials to express their opposition to the National Defense Authorization Act. In short, they haven’t discarded all aspects of American democracy — but by establishing their own representative body on the steps of City Hall, Occupy L.A. is sending a clear message: The “altar” of democracy in the City of Angels has been profaned, so we have established a new one in its place.

Gilad Shalit nation: Family first, country second


Seeing how Israel has reacted to Gilad Shalit’s imprisonment somewhere in Gaza over the last nearly five-and-a-half years — from the public campaign for his release, through the media’s reality-show treatment of him and his family, to the government’s decision to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds of killers, to bring him back — it’s hard to believe that this nation’s traditional symbol is the sabra, the cactus.

If Israelis were once described as sabra-like in their outer prickliness and inner sweetness, the Shalit saga, which captured the Israeli imagination like no other public issue in recent years (until this summer’s huge social protests), turned the sabra image inside out: The sweet, soft center came to the surface, the stickers receded out of sight. In the matter of Gilad Shalit, this country wore its heart on its sleeve.

It’s remarkable, the lengths to which Israel was willing to go — the attention and energy given the Shalit cause and finally the unmistakably high risk taken to win his freedom — considering how security-obsessed and macho this society still is. Something new has developed in the national character, a change of attitude that the Shalit affair revealed in high definition: In Israel today, the value of the individual and family trumps the state.

The Shalit affair also has demonstrated how the media and public “conversation” have fallen in line with this new, softer outlook: The Shalits’ ordeal was treated strictly up-close-and-personal, as a long-running, tear-jerking human interest story. Gilad Shalit became the baby-faced “son of the nation,” while Noam and Aviva Shalit were strong, resilient parents fighting without pause for the noblest Israeli value — not country, but family. Their son.

The popular media, especially the tabloids, couldn’t get enough of the story. They tugged at people’s heartstrings without letting up. They portrayed Gilad Shalit as a boy, a son — not a tank soldier on the Gazan border. There was no distance between the media coverage of the “Free Gilad” campaign and the campaign itself. Noam and Aviva Shalit, like their son in captivity, were turned into living saints. No journalist dared ask them a tough question, and anyone contradicting their position did so gently and apologetically — and never to their faces.

The treatment reflected, of course, a large element of cynicism on the media’s part: They knew they had a great story, and they played it for all it was worth. As for the mass public campaign led by the Shalit family, it’s fair to say it, too, engaged in emotional manipulation, even emotional blackmail, of the decision-makers in Jerusalem.

But the campaign also spoke to a genuine, powerful sentiment among the Israeli public. No one forced some 200,000 people to follow the Shalits in their pilgrimage from their Galilee home to Jerusalem a couple of years ago. No one forced drivers in cities across the country to halt traffic for five minutes to honor Shalit earlier this year. “Free Gilad” billboards were plastered throughout Israel, along with banners and bumper stickers. The Shalit family tent, set up near the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, became a kind of secular Western Wall, an obligatory stop for class trips to the capital, as well as for foreign dignitaries.

Nothing was more consensus-making, more all-of-Israel, than the “Free Gilad” movement. Everyone understood that to free the soldier, Israel had to be negotiating with Hamas, that hundreds of prisoners “with blood on their hands” would have to be released, yet the public was behind it, and their desires drew the politicians and security mavens in their wake. The leaders of the Shin Bet, Mossad and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) backed the deal, and the Cabinet went for it 26-3.  

The Shalit affair represents a radical reversal in the Israeli attitude toward POWs from what it was a couple of generations ago. In May 2008, while working on a story on Israeli POWs, I interviewed POWs who came home from the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, as well as a prominent research psychologist in the field and Defense Ministry officials. They all told me that in the past, Israeli society — above all the military — frowned upon POWs, and viewed them as cowards and screw-ups. After all, they had surrendered. 

According to Tel Aviv University professor Zahava Solomon, the pioneer of Israeli research into the psychological condition of POWs, the disapproval shown toward soldiers who had been tortured, many of them for months or years, was rooted in the traditional Israeli military ethic that an honorable soldier, as she put it, “fights to the death, to his last bullet.” The soldier was supposed to die rather than be taken prisoner, thereby humiliating the army, the nation, and allowing the possibility that he might give away secrets under torture. The model Israeli POW, Solomon noted, was Uri Ilan, who committed suicide in Syrian captivity in 1955, leaving behind a note that read, “Lo bagadti” — “I did not betray.”

The general Israeli attitude toward POWs during the country’s first decades was one of “blaming the victim,” Solomon said, comparable to early Israeli attitudes toward Holocaust survivors. “Like the Holocaust survivors, soldiers taken prisoner were considered weak; they surrendered, they weren’t the invincible ‘new Jews’ that Israel was creating.” But over the years, even as the public’s attitude toward POWs has become far more understanding and sympathetic, she said, there remains a large element of denial. “Soldiers taken prisoner and held at the mercy of the enemy confront Israeli society with a self-image of weakness, of vulnerability,” Solomon said.

The turning point came during the 1982-85 Lebanon War, the first unpopular Israeli war. Miriam Grof, whose son, Yoske, was captured with other soldiers by Palestinian guerrillas led by Ahmed Jibril, spearheaded an emotional public campaign for their release. She was the model for the Arad family — whose campaign for the release of their son, Ron, also captured in the Lebanon War, failed — as well as for the Shalit family.

A few months after the Lebanon War ended, Yoske Grof and two other soldiers captured with him came home in exchange for 1,150 Palestinian prisoners released to Gaza and the West Bank. Many of those prisoners immediately took their places as militant Palestinian leaders, and at the end of 1987 they would be instrumental in launching the intifada.

The “Jibril deal” became infamous and remains so. Yoske Grof became a national scapegoat.

He didn’t want to be interviewed now, but in 2008 he told me that people would come up to him and blame him for the intifada. “I heard it all the time. I still do, including from strangers,” he said. He was understandably bitter. “This country doesn’t like live POWs,” he told me. “It prefers that you come home in a coffin.”

If at one time there was a large amount of truth to that, the Shalit deal shows how times have changed, dramatically. The pioneering, self-denying Israelis of the country’s early years have given way to a nation that puts “me” above “we,” that gets its news up-close-and-personal, that reads self-help books, that attends parenting classes.

For many years, it’s been a complaint of army base commanders that parents of soldiers call them up with personal requests/demands that previous generations of parents wouldn’t have dreamed of making. Also, Israelis have become big criers. IDF recruits can be seen on TV hugging and crying at the funerals of their comrades, something that still incenses old-timers.

Israel remains a fighting nation, but it has developed a tender, sentimental side, and it is this softer side that has won the day, that has led the nation to rally behind one innocent-looking soldier and his devoted, plain-speaking parents. For all the reality-show elements in the Gilad Shalit affair, it was also a very real demonstration of humanity, solidarity and sacrifice by Israel’s society as a whole.

Israeli values regarding the individual’s relationship to the state have changed — and for the better.

Larry Derfner blogs at 972mag.com.

Obligation to redeem captive trumps heavy price paid


The announcement last week of the release of Gilad Shalit after being held in captivity by Hamas for more than five years was met here in Israel with mixed feelings: On the one hand, tremendous joy. And on the other hand, grave doubts about the price paid and fears about the ramifications of this deal.

In a column I wrote previously in The Journal (“Free the Hostage, But at What Price?” July 1), I tried to find some guidance by borrowing a page from Jewish history. I wrote that in Judaism, redeeming the captive is very important: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16). However, this cannot be done at all costs. One of the old Jewish sages clearly cautioned against it. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as the Maharam of Rotenburg, was one of the leading rabbis of Germany in the 13th century, when King Rudolph started persecuting the Jews.

The king arrested the Maharam, hoping to get a huge ransom for him — 23,000 marks silver. Indeed, the Jews started to collect money for that purpose, and leading rabbinical leaders like Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel managed to raise the funds. Yet the Maharam, from his cell in a fortress near Ensisheim in Alsace, issued a directive strictly prohibiting such a move, by citing the Jewish religious law: “It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth.” He pointed out that setting a precedent in his case would endanger all Torah sages, who would become instruments of kidnapping and extortion.

The Maharam died in prison after seven years. He became a symbol of resilience and for generations was cited as the ultimate source on how to stand against extortion. However, few people care to read on in the history books. Fourteen years after his death, a ransom was paid for his body by Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen, a rich Jewish merchant, who was subsequently laid to rest beside the Maharam at the Jewish graveyard in Worms.

The question, then, is: If a ransom was eventually paid for the Maharam’s body, wouldn’t it have been wiser to pay that money for the living sage? For, in the end, isn’t the rescue of a single human life equivalent to saving an entire world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)?

A few years ago, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the greatest poskim (authorities in the halachah) today, was asked to comment on the Maharam’s precedent, in light of a possible freeing of convicted Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Shalit. Rabbi Yosef said he believed that the Maharam’s argument was wrong. The dictum of the Torah, he said (“You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother”), is stronger than the edict of the sages (“It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth”), and therefore it overrules the latter.

Rabbi Yosef was not indifferent to the risks involved in a prisoners swap. He knew perfectly well that many of the terrorists released in previous swap deals had returned to their gruesome business of murder. His philosophy, however, is founded on the belief that the Arabs want to kill us anyway, and we are always in danger, under any circumstance. With regard to Gilad Shalit, Rabbi Yosef concluded that since there was a clear and imminent danger to Shalit’s life, the heavy price should begrudgingly be paid for his release.

All this discourse might sound strange to American ears, because the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Period. Many in Israel — myself included — wish we could do the same. Without even reading Benjamin Netanyahu’s books on the subject, one knows that in the long run, absolute refusal to negotiate is the right way to deal with terrorism. Yet Israel is not a superpower, and also, Jewish tradition and values guide us in different ways.

Once the celebrations of the return of Shalit are over, we will be left with the hard questions of the price paid for his release. However, with all the difficulties ahead, we will most certainly emerge from this event with a renewed feeling of solidarity: Kol Yisrael arevim ze la’ze, every Jew is a guarantor for his fellow Jew. This belief has helped us in dire times in the past; it will also help us today.

Uri Dromi, a columnist based in Jerusalem, was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments (1992-96).

Food Forward, gleaning the neighborhoods


On a recent weekend morning, sunlight lit up a band of eager workers in jeans and T-shirts who had ventured into a backyard at a home in Northridge. They were there to pick oranges.

No, these were not the usual laborers who toil daily in the region’s orchards. These were San Fernando Valley suburbanites willing to volunteer a few hours of hard work gleaning the ripe fruit of heavily laden trees so that it could be transported to food banks. While some of the workers set up ladders and then climbed up to begin picking, others used long wooden rods attached to baskets to gather the bright orbs, dropping the bounty into cardboard boxes or stuffing it into canvas bags slung across their bodies.

All of the volunteers came on behalf of Food Forward, a local nonprofit that Southern California homeowners can call to get their trees harvested for free, with the provision that all the fruit is then donated by Food Forward to hunger relief organizations. It’s a win-win proposition.

On this October morning, it took 10 volunteers just two hours to pick approximately 1,200 pounds of oranges from four trees — and that’s a small pick.

Since Food Forward got its start in early 2009, its troops have harvested approximately 575,000 pounds of fruit from more than 300 sites.

That’s “2.3 million servings of fruit,” Rick Nahmias, the organization’s founder and executive director, said proudly. “And of course every week that goes up.”

Food Forward donates nearly 100 percent of the fruit to more than 20 food pantries and agencies throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the first of which was SOVA.

Currently, the group organizes about 15 to 20 picks each month — most often in Northridge, Granada Hills, Chatsworth, Reseda and other areas of the San Fernando Valley. Before the region was developed into today’s suburban sprawl, it was nearly all orchards, and thousands of fruit trees in residents’ yards still yield an overabundance of citrus year round, thanks to the warm climate.

In this harvest season of Sukkot, Food Forward’s generous yet utilitarian mission seems more relevant than ever. Calling itself a “gleaning” organization, it recalls the Bible’s instructions to farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested, so that the food might be picked by the less fortunate.

There are two sets of volunteer/donors in the Food Forward equation: the property owners and the pickers. If a property owner has a fruit tree and can’t consume all the fruit that the tree bears, he can go onto the Food Forward Web site and register a tree. Food Forward responds within 48 to 72 hours, providing a volunteer visit to determine whether the fruit is ripe enough for picking. If it is, Food Forward sets up a date and time for a team to come for the harvesting.

Picks usually take place on weekend mornings, or in the evenings during the week. After the work is done, a Food Forward leader will drive the harvested fruit to the pantry or pantries, or those agencies will send their drivers to pick it up. 

In late September, Van Nuys resident Kelly Lichter donated the fruit of her orange tree for a weekday evening pick.

“It was very important for me to donate,” Lichter said. “I don’t like to waste things.”

Founder Nahmias, 46, grew up in Los Angeles, and, after graduating from New York University with a double major in film and religious studies, he worked as a researcher and writer for Arianna Huffington. While working for Huffington, he read Eric Schlosser’s book “Fast Food Nation,” which reminded him of the documentary “Harvest of Shame,” which he had seen while in college. The film focuses on the plight of agricultural workers and sparked Nahmias’ interest in food justice, particularly migrant workers.

Meanwhile, Nahmias had written a screenplay that garnered some notice in the industry, and his path to a film career seemed all but destined, even as he also interned for director Mike Nichols, famous for films such as “The Graduate” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

However, when he took a cooking class in Napa, Calif., he began thinking about where food comes from and started cooking more thoughtfully, leaving his job with Huffington and enrolling in the Epicurean School of Culinary Arts in West Hollywood.

While in cooking school, he also took photographs of California’s migrant laborers, traveling from Calexico to Sacramento to document their struggles.

Between 2002 and 2008, Nahmias built his own freelance photography company, shooting marketing materials for Cedars-Sinai, American Cancer Society and other organizations. He also made another art-and-advocacy series of photographs, “Golden Gates of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited,” exploring the religious practices of the marginalized; the work is currently on view at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, in downtown Los Angeles.

The idea for Food Forward came to Nahmias in January 2009 as he was walking his dog around his neighborhood in Valley Glen, on a route he’d traveled countless times before. At this point, however, as his dog was aging, the walks were getting slower.

“I started looking up and saw things I never saw before,” he said, counting them off —  tangerine trees, walnuts, pomegranates — and suddenly he “realized how much of that is just going to the squirrels.”

Troubled by the waste, he called a friend who lived nearby and owned a tangerine tree. He asked her if he could harvest the fruit off her tree — she readily agreed — but before starting, he did a quick Google search for the nearest food pantry.

Food Forward volunteers, with the organization’s managing director Meg Glasser, front row, left.

It turned out that the closest one was SOVA, in Van Nuys. So Nahmias posted an ad on Craigslist, inviting volunteers to help him harvest his friend’s tree. Of the four who responded, one showed up. Together, they harvested 85 pounds of tangerines and gave it all to SOVA.

Nahmias continued harvesting in his neighborhood, each time dropping off the bounty, usually about 100 pounds, to SOVA. Then came a breakthrough: In February, Fred Summers, director of operations at SOVA, received a phone call from a property owner in Chatsworth who had a three-acre orchard with 300 orange trees and was looking for a way to donate the fruit to SOVA.

“It was extremely fortuitous,” Nahmias said, “and Fred made that connection” between the Chatsworth property owner and Nahmias’ recent harvesting efforts.

“Fred and I saw that property together — we were a little intimidated by the scale of the property,” Nahmias said. “We’re talking 300 trees, not all of them in great shape, but, still, 300 trees.” There was at this point no formal organization called Food Forward, just informal efforts on an irregular basis.

“But, we said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ ” Nahmias remembers.

The job required more than 50 volunteers, far more than what Nahmias had been able to pull together up until that point. Calling upon the Slow Food network — whose membership is committed to supporting good food — and Craigslist, and by posting fliers at Starbucks, they came up with enough people who wanted to help.

Nahmias’ first “big pick” — as he calls it — took place in March 2009.

“It yielded not only 6,000 pounds, but our first core of serious volunteers,” he said.

One of them was Erica Kenner, who would later become one of the organization’s six board members and a driving force behind the success of Food Forward. Working as a full-time volunteer, Kenner has forged relationships with property owners throughout the Los Angeles area.

She has a “very high and well-deserved reputation” in the food justice community, said Gary Oppenheimer, founder and executive director of AmpleHarvest.org, a New Jersey-based resource for gardeners who have excess produce and want to find pantries in need across the country.

A month after that first monumental pick, Nahmias’ organization was finally christened Food Forward, although it did not receive its own official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status until about two months ago; up until then, it was sponsored by the Los Angeles Community Garden Council.

The recipient base expanded in June 2009. After meeting with Richard Weinroth, president and CEO of MEND (Meet Each Need with Dignity), which has a food bank kitchen in Pacoima and was founded by Catholic and Protestant church members, Food Forward started donating to them, as well.

“I think they have become one of our biggest donors,” Weinroth said. “I want to say they’ve given us well over 100,000 pounds since our inception.”

Given the cutbacks facing agencies like SOVA, Food Forward arrived on the scene at an opportune time.

“It’s a vast untapped natural resource,” SOVA’s Summers said. “Rick and his group have found a way to tap into it. It is a tremendous boost.”

So far this year, Food Forward has donated 58,000 pounds of fruit to SOVA. It has also donated to Project Chicken Soup, the American Diabetes Association and the Downtown Women’s Center.

“It’s crazy to think that what was a little thing I tried in a neighbor’s yard has now scaled to the point where almost two dozen agencies depend on us for fruit on a weekly basis,” Nahmias said.

For pantries to qualify as recipients, they must be able to provide refrigeration to preserve the fruit, be able to provide tax receipts to Food Forward and have a means to distribute the produce.

The operation and transportation also cost money, and these days, the Durfee Foundation and the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund are among Food Forward’s biggest financial donors.

In October 2009, the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund awarded Food Forward $25,000 — an unexpected gift, Nahmias said. He recalled what Evan Schlessinger, co-founder of the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, said around the time of the grant: “You are the first group that is not Jewish by identification [that we are giving a grant to]. You are the first group that we are soliciting rather than soliciting us.”

MAZON, a grant-making organization that describes its work as a “Jewish response to hunger,” also recently awarded a $5,000 planning grant to Food Forward to develop a farmers market recovery program.

Food Forward’s success also may seem improbable, given its size. Nahmias works with only two paid staff members: Meg Glasser, managing director and Master Gardener, who develops partnerships with recipient agencies, and Max Kanter, the volunteer coordinator, who works hands-on with fruit pickers.

Nahmias himself didn’t take a salary until April of this year, and he is only a half-time employee while also continuing to work on his photography.

He calls David Levinson, founder of Big Sunday, his mentor, and the two have met over lunches, with Levinson giving some guidance.

Rick Nahmias, founder and exectuive director, loads boxes of harvested oranges into the Food Forward van for delivery.

“I think he’s a great guy, and I think what he’s doing with Food Forward is really cool,” Levinson said recently.

Despite all that Nahmias, who is Jewish, has done for SOVA, he says he does not see Food Forward as in any way a specifically Jewish organization.

“I think there’s absolutely a place for nonprofits that create Jewish identity, but when we’re talking about issues of feeding people and the engine that Food Forward is, and the thousands of volunteers that get involved, I want that to be something that everybody feels welcome at,” Nahmias said.

But, he said, he’s ready to welcome all who are willing to work: “We have The Jewish Federation come out and do picks with us. We embrace faith-based groups.”

Nahmias also never dreamed that one day he’d be running a nonprofit. “I have to be honest, I had absolutely no experience doing this,” he said. “You learn as you go.”

For now, however, Food Forward appears to be the only organization of its kind in Los Angeles. In Northern California, there are two gleaning organizations: Village Harvest in San Jose and Backyard Bounty, which also operates in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley.

Randy Baer, a 56-year-old cinematographer from La Canada, was among the 10 volunteers on the Oct. 1 pick in Northridge. His reason for signing up? “They make it very easy to volunteer,” he said as he picked some low-hanging oranges off a tree.

To pass the time, volunteers made small talk — chatting about a wedding, movies, schools. Koa Cano, a senior at Chaminade High School, in West Hills, stood on a thick branch and swung around, grabbing oranges with both hands.

When he was back on the ground, Cano unloaded his bounty into a box that already held about 50 oranges, “This is my favorite part,” he said.

“It’s a group activity and an opportunity to meet a lot of people you wouldn’t otherwise have reason to interact with,” said Dawn Coppin, 38, who also raises funds for the Los Angeles Public Library and volunteers as a picker for Food Forward twice a month.

When they’d finished the harvest, the volunteers loaded some of the 15 boxes of oranges into the Food Forward van, a Ford decorated with pictures of orange trees and displaying the Food Forward logo — somewhat resembling the Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine. The license plate: FRTMBL1

Beyond the group’s obvious accomplishments, Nahmias also sees Food Forward as a means of building community. And in that, it has become, at least to some extent, a victim of its own success. Too many homeowners are signing up and have to go on a waiting list these days. The list now numbers 25 waiting to have their trees picked.

“I think the biggest setback right now is we are overburdened with properties,” Nahmias said. “We need more people who would become pick leaders … to get out once a month and lead a harvest.” Pick leaders must complete a brief training, including shadowing a pick leader.

At the same time, Fruit Forward is also trying to find more fruit trees to glean on the Westside, where there are far fewer trees than in the San Fernando Valley.

Nahmias said his organization’s ability to develop new programs is one of its best attributes.

“I think that’s why people were drawn to it at the beginning, and maybe still are, because it still pivots very quickly.” Among these is Can It!, created to bring in revenue that can go back into the organization. It produces jam from a portion of the harvested fruit, which is then sold online and at the Farmer’s Kitchen in Hollywood and at Clementine in Century City. Glasser is overseeing an effort to sell the jam to more bakeries, restaurants and specialty-food locations, particularly in the San Fernando Valley.

Nahmias remembers his early experiences of being up in a tree, surrounded by all the fruit, which to him meant, simply, so much potential to help people.

“It’s beautiful and maddening, because you realize you’re not going to get to it all,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”

Following her heart: A Yom Kippur story


This is what Ava Kaufman was wearing when she negotiated with God while in a seven-week coma following a heart transplant: a white turtleneck leotard with a white leather miniskirt, and white thigh-high boots.

In her hallucination, she was sitting in the palms of two giant outstretched hands, and this is what she told God:

If you let me continue to be Jade’s mom, I’ll give back.

Not exactly how most Jews might picture talking to God as they sit on tightly upholstered chairs in air-conditioned sanctuaries on Yom Kippur, invoking images of heavenly hosts and sheep before a shepherd and books of life and death.

But it is exactly what Yom Kippur is about, if we understand it to be a day of introspection and renewal that guides us toward scraping away what doesn’t matter and turning toward living what does.

God accepted Kaufman’s offer, and now — three years after she received in transplant surgery the heart of a 17-year-old boy, on her 58th birthday — she is still Jade’s mom, she is giving back, and in the process she is pretty sure she has narrowed down the exact reason God put her on this Earth.

“I’ve always been a rebel. I do things my own way, but I get things done and I do them honestly and fairly, and I think that is why this happened to me — because God had a plan for me,” said Kaufman, who is in the process of founding Ava’s Heart, a foundation to support heart transplant patients.

“I needed to get out of the life I was in before, and since I’m a very dramatic person, God made it all be dramatic so I would have a story to tell, so I could help people.”

Kaufman’s self-published book, “Heartless,” which she wrote with her friend, reporter and author Jason Thomas, will be released on Amazon later this autumn, and she plans for some of the proceeds to support Ava’s Heart. She speaks, through the Donate Life speakers’ circuit, to schools and other groups about the importance of organ donation and blogs on her experience at Modernmom.com. She also spends every Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Heart Transplant Patient Evaluation Clinic, peer-counseling people awaiting transplants.

Kaufman was raised in suburban New York in a traditional Jewish household, and still has the mien of the Beverly Hills player she was four years ago. At 61, she is valiantly fighting off wrinkles (more about her treatment for that later). Her dark, straight hair is probably neither of those things when left alone. A French-tipped manicure crowns fingers swimming in diamond rings. At 5 feet 3 inches tall, she still has the body of the professional dancer she was for decades, and she shows it off in skinny jeans and black heels, a purple silk blouse and a shabby-chic rose-colored blazer. She has a wry sense of humor and an easy laugh, and speaks with the confidence of a New Yorker and the poise of a performer.

But while she looks very Rodeo Drive, that isn’t her life anymore.

Before she got sick, Kaufman lived on $27,000 a month from a high-end furniture delivery and installation business she ran with her then-husband. Their clients included the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Four Seasons, as well as celebrities, and they lived in a four-story house with killer views east of Doheny Drive, north of Sunset Boulevard.

Now, Kaufman lives on a friend’s ranch in Fillmore, in the Santa Clara River Valley, where Jade, her 14-year-old daughter, does independent online school and rides her horse, Daisy, hours every day. They live off $1,478 a month in disability payments, supplemented by a modest malpractice settlement.

And she has changed along with her circumstances, Kaufman said.

“It’s weird — when you’ve been through something like this, there is no way you can’t look at life differently. You just do, because you’ve been so close to death and all you want to do is be able to walk, or to hold a toothbrush and brush your own teeth, or kiss your child or hug your child,” Kaufman said.

She said she’s learned to let go of her type-A personality tendencies, as well as of the pretenses and judgments of her old life.

“I’ve totally given up trying to control anything. I just leave it up to God,” she said. “I guess I enjoy everything more. I always enjoyed life; I always had energy and a lust for life, but I approach everything in a much calmer way than I did before.”

While she has reached out to her donor family, they are not yet ready to meet her. So she thanks them in her head every day for giving her the gift of life when hers was nearly snatched from her.

Around September 2008, Kaufman’s hands became unbearably itchy, especially around her knuckles. She went to the Beverly Hills dermatologist she saw regularly for Botox and Restylane injections, and the doctor prescribed a topical ointment for eczema and psoriasis. Kaufman was starting a new teen-fitness business and getting a divorce, so her doctor thought the itchiness might be stress related.

Over the next four months, she went to the dermatologist several times as symptoms worsened. Her nails grew thick and her nail beds starting turning black; her skin started to harden, and the rash spread to her back and shins. The doctor prescribed steroids, which helped a little, but never ordered any blood analysis. By January 2009, Kaufman’s body started swelling, and she says she started feeling weaker and weaker — and as an avid exerciser and black belt in tae kwon do, she knew her body well. She went to her internist.

The doctor immediately recognized the symptoms of an autoimmune disorder and put Kaufman through a battery of tests. The tests showed a problem with her muscles, so she sent Kaufman to a rheumatologist. The rheumatologist was in the process of running more tests to narrow the diagnosis down to dermatomyositis, an inflammatory disease that attacks the muscles, when, over the course of about two weeks, Kaufman got dramatically weaker.

“During that last week at home, I started thinking, ‘If I

die, what is going to happen with Jade? Who would she be with?’ ” she said.

At this point, Kaufman was using a walker and having trouble breathing. By the time a friend rang her doorbell to pick her up for her appointment to get a muscle biopsy, she crawled down the stairs and collapsed before she got to the door. An ambulance took her to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

It wasn’t long before doctors figured out that the dermatomyositis had attacked Kaufman’s heart — a rare occurrence — and destroyed it in about a week. She underwent surgery to hook her up to a ventricular assist device and an external pump kept her heart going. She was also on a respirator. But Kaufman continued swelling, blowing up to 200 pounds. Her normal weight is 110.

She was also heavily drugged and sedated, and has almost no memory of those days.

Kaufman, left, says thoughts of daughter Jade, right, kept her from letting go while she was in a coma. Photo courtesy of Ava Kaufman

“All of my friends are in show business, and not one of them bothered to take any pictures of me like that,” she said, laughing. “They told me, ‘We knew you’d be upset, because you’re so vain.’ But, really, everybody thought I was going to die.”

They even brought Jade, then 11, to say goodbye.

Though the doctors weren’t sure she would make it, even with a transplant — the disease could attack her new heart as well, and she was seriously weakened — Kaufman was listed as status 1-A on the transplant list, the highest priority.

After just 10 days on the list, the heart of a 17-year-old boy was helicoptered from Bakersfield to Cedars, and Kaufman underwent transplant surgery on Feb. 21 — her birthday.

She didn’t even know she had been a candidate for the transplant until she woke up from surgery and was told she had a new heart.

“I remember being woken up, and I remembering being surrounded by gazillions of people, and I remember my sister being there. Everybody was saying, ‘You’re a miracle! Just hang in there!’ And my sister said Jade was fine, and then they put me in an induced coma for seven weeks,” Kaufman said.

During those weeks, she remembers looking for the light and looking for her mom, gone five years then, and for her grandparents and her friend Jim.

She remembers people talking to her and hearing music, and she had some terrifying hallucinations. She remembers wondering which was harder — what she was going through, or being in a concentration camp.

And she remembers being pulled back by Jade.

“There was one day where I wanted to let go. Everything seemed so overwhelming and so confusing and so uncomfortable and so painful, I just figured it would be easier to let go. But then my daughter kept pulling me back. I would think about her, and I knew I just couldn’t leave. I knew there was no one that would love her the way I love her and understand her,” she said, breaking down at the memory. “So I made a deal with God. If he would let me be Jade’s mom again, really be her mom, I would spend the rest of my life giving back. I wouldn’t care about how much money I made — just let me be her mother,” Kaufman said.

Just before she woke up, she felt Jade’s breath on her face and sensed the outdoorsy smell of Jade’s hair when she pulled off her riding helmet. She imagined the two of them in a beautiful garden with flowers and waterfalls and women in bright Indian silk dresses.

But it was a different picture when Kaufman woke up.

She couldn’t move. At all.

The dermatomyositis had stripped her once finely tuned body of nearly all muscle.

“I was literally trapped in my body,” Kaufman said.

She had a feeding tube through her nose and was intubated, so she couldn’t talk. She demonstrates how she would lie with her arms pinned at her sides, clicking her tongue to get the attention of a nurse.

It took three weeks to be able to wiggle her fingers.

“When I was lying there like that, I said the serenity prayer like a million times, and I said ‘Shema Yisrael’ 3 million times,” she said.

She was in the intensive care unit for two months, then in the cardiac unit for two weeks and on the inpatient rehab floor for another month. She describes the pain and the indignities of those weeks of not being able to do anything on her own.

“I feel like I went through the worst of old age, and it’s horrible,” Kaufman said.

Top-quality care and a solid support system of friends and family kept her going.

Her friend Linda, about Kaufman’s age but already a grandmother with no kids in the house, gave Jade a home for months, though Jade said she did a fair amount of bouncing around. Kaufman’s sister and brother flew in from New York and took responsibility for medical decisions.

With Kaufman’s personality, it wasn’t long before she had hospital workers hanging out in her room, just for fun. One doctor would time his rounds to end in her room Monday nights so they could watch “24” together. The Jewish chaplain at Cedars came to see her regularly and played the flute for her.

She focused on rebuilding the body she was once so proud of.

“I was grateful that I was given the heart and the gift of life, but I wanted to walk again. I wanted to be a person again,” she said.

Kaufman is convinced her training as a dancer gave her the discipline she needed to do the hard work of rebuilding her muscles. During the ’70s and ’80s, Kaufman had been a backup dancer for Gloria Gainer, Donna Summer and Johnny Hallyday.

She also had some experience with recovery — she was treated for breast cancer in 1996, and had a hip replacement (professional hazard for a dancer) in 2005.

Now, she hoped to work her way up to lifting small weights — but first she had to be able to lift a banana off the counter without dropping it.

“It took me six months to be able to do this,” she said, showing how she would slowly lift off a chair and straighten her legs to push herself up to standing.

As soon as she was able to move on her own, she started making good on her pledge to give back. She got involved in the Donate Life Foundation to become an advocate for organ donation. She made rounds in the cardiac unit, visiting with transplant patients, and then she began meeting with patients at the Cedars Heart Transplant Patient Evaluation Clinic.

At the clinic, pretransplant patients go through a one-day evaluation, where they meet with doctors, social workers and psychiatrists to determine whether they qualify for a transplant. In addition to qualifying medically, those waiting for a transplant need to live — or move to — within 70 miles of the hospital, and they need someone who can take care of them for about three months after surgery. They need to have insurance and not have neared their lifetime maximum, and they need to be able to pay for their medications — usually between $800 and $3,000 a month, which most insurance covers, but often requires a significant copayment.

“We have to conserve our resources, so we know that we’re giving hearts to people who have the resources to care for themselves long term,” said Jenna Rush, who runs the evaluation clinic.

Cedars performed 76 heart transplants last year — more than anywhere else in the world — and has done nearly 700 heart transplants in its 22 years. Status-2 patients, those who are able to live at home while waiting for a heart, wait an average year-and-a-half through Cedars. About 10 to 15 percent of patients die waiting for a heart. Los Angeles, however, offers a fairly good supply of organs because of the size of the region, but the wait in other areas of the country is generally longer.

As part of their evaluation, patients meet with Kaufman.

Kaufman and dance partner Craig Morris competing in the 1998 Emerald Ball Dancesport Championships in Los Angeles.

“Ava can answer questions I can’t answer,” Rush said. “She can identify with patients and help them picture life beyond heart failure. … Sometimes, if patients are having trouble making decisions, they will ask if they can talk to her again.”

It was at the clinic that Kaufman and Rush came up with the idea for Ava’s Heart. They had both seen too many patients die or need second transplants after they stopped taking anti-rejection drugs when insurance fell through, or if they lost Medi-Cal when they went back to work.

The clinic once had an account of $100,000, now depleted, to help people bridge those gaps, and to pay for things like relocation costs to move closer to the hospital.

Kaufman has already completed most of the paper work for Ava’s Heart — she is just waiting for her IRS tax exempt number — and already has several doctors and Rush signed on to be part of her governing board, in addition to some businesspeople and Thomas, the co-author of her book.

Kaufman did some fundraising around the AIDS epidemic, and she plans to start with some of her own friends to seed the program. She has ideas for an Ava’s Heart fashion line, and thinks she can get people to donate salon services to help pamper patients and their caregivers. She hopes to get on the circuit of inspirational speakers.

She is also thinking about her own future.

“I wanted to start a nonprofit to help all these people, but I also had to find a way I was going to make a living. I don’t have to become a multimillionaire again, but I need to support my daughter,” she said.

When Kaufman got sick, her financial situation also began to fail. She and her husband were going through a divorce. The teen-fitness business she had begun to set up before she got sick fell apart. 

She had PPO medical insurance through 2009, and then was on Medi-Cal and now is on Medicare, which covers most of her costs. Cedars forgave some of her $4.5 million hospital bill as a charity case, she said.

Her family helped with the rent, first at a Wilshire Boulevard apartment and then at her friend’s ranch in Fillmore. She is now covering rent on her own.

A small settlement from a suit she brought against the dermatologist has also helped.

She learned during her illness that dermatomyositis shows up in the fine print in the waiver she signed when she started getting Restylane injections in 2006 to fill in laugh lines. She was advised that it was futile to sue Restylane, and was equally discouraged from suing her dermatologist, who over four months never took blood work, never sent her to another doctor and never connected the dots to Restylane.

But a state law caps pain and suffering awards at $250,000, and most lawyers didn’t think it would be worth their time. Even after Sands and Associates in Beverly Hills took her case, Kaufman said a judge at the Santa Monica Courthouse told her that doctors always win in Santa Monica. But Kaufman rejected an offer of $20,000 and went to arbitration. She is legally barred from disclosing the settlement amount, but she says it was a modest fixed number that left her with a small sum to set up her nonprofit and work on her book.

The writing process has been therapeutic and helped her get to know herself, she said. She has also taken up ballroom dancing.

“I was a jazz dancer, and I could never do now what I did then. But I’m just so happy that I found some form of movement that fills my soul. When the steps and the music and your body all come together, it is an amazing feeling.”

And she has focused on her relationship with Jade.

“Once I started to get well and was able to be her mother again, we talked about it a long time. She said, ‘It can’t be like it was before, because I’ve been on my own and had to take care of you, and I worry about you every day.’ So it took a while for us to find a balance.”

Three years out, Kaufman said she is finally feeling whole again. Her body is strong, and while dermatomyositis is a chronic disease and can return, she is in remission now and doesn’t spend time worrying. She stays positive and looks only forward.

“The whole thing is so surreal to me, still, that this is where I am in my life. But there is a part of it that is kind of really nice,” she said. “It’s hard to explain — I feel so not like me, but so like me. I guess I kind of feel like me when I was 20 — when you have a whole life ahead of you and you don’t know what is going to happen, and you have these incredible dreams. And I just feel like I’m going to make all these dreams I have come true now.” l

Ava’s Heart:
” title=”http://donatelife.net/register-now/”>http://donatelife.net/register-now/

Halachic Organ Donor Society:
” title=”http://www.uscj.org/images/Organ_And_Tissue_Donation.pdf”>http://www.uscj.org/images/Organ_And_Tissue_Donation.pdf

Union for Reform Judaism:
” title=”http://curriculum.jrf.org/books/time-prepare?page=1″>http://curriculum.jrf.org/books/time-prepare?page=1

Ani Ma’amin, I believe


I was raised in a world of great Jewish ideas. At our seder table, everyone’s questions were welcome. No one was labeled “wicked” or “simple,” and no one was silenced. My atheist brother, my socialist aunt, my Orthodox cousin, my Labor Zionist parents, even our Catholic neighbors — all had a voice at the table. It was noisy, but it was vital. There were arguments, but there was dialogue and listening. It was passionate, and it was loving. That’s the kind of Jewish community I cherish.

Ours has always been a culture of ideas, big ideas. But today, we find ourselves so immersed in the issues and calamities of the moment, so preoccupied with the community, the State of Israel, the direction of America, the condition of the world, we never have a moment to ask, What for? Because of this, we share a deep sense of crisis, but little collective direction. We have great energy but little shared vision. We are a community yearning for great ideas.

In the 1950s, the renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow solicited brief statements from people across America, great and ordinary alike, in a project called, “This I Believe.” Murrow believed there was no greater need in the America of his time than for assertions of principle and conviction. Recently, NPR renewed Murrow’s project. Our Jewish community shares the same predicament. So I suggested to The Jewish Journal editors that they initiate a project called “Ani Ma’amin, I Believe.” Together we have invited a number of Jews from the community to share a statement of their core beliefs. And we invite you to join them.

A few are printed here. We want to publish more on a regular basis in The Journal and online at jewishjournal.com. Instructions on our format and how to submit are on that Web site. For now, immerse yourself in your neighbors’ core beliefs.

Welcome to “Ani Ma’amin, I Believe”! I’m glad you can join us at this noisy, vital, loving Jewish table!

— Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

Click here to find out how to submit to our Ani Ma’amin collection.


I believe the world should be Fair

by Adlai Wertman

“What’s the matter, Adlai – did someone, somewhere, tell you that life was supposed to be fair?” That is what my investment-banking boss said to me in 1986 after we just lost a deal to a competitor who I didn’t think earned it. Over the next 25 years – and through two major career shifts into nonprofit work and academia – that line always stayed with me. Because I actually do believe that life should be fair – but it really isn’t. For the past decade, I have devoted my career to making the world a little bit fairer – not for investment bankers (life is quite fair for them) – but for the poorest people in our society. For them, life is not in any way fair.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue. The imperative is clear to me – but in real life, the notion of pursuing justice is quite challenging. In my mind, the call for justice reaches outside the courtroom and into society at large. So what, then, does it mean to create a just and fair society?

The injustice that seems the most glaring to me is poverty. We live in a world where there is an ever-growing chasm between the wealthy and the poor. All statistics show that the rich continue to get richer as the poor get poorer. This can’t be just and truly isn’t fair. And, very important for me, it runs afoul of a multitude of Jewish (and general moral) tenets — too numerous to cite. I believe that narrowing this divide is an important way of pursuing justice — and charity isn’t the only way.

Don’t get me wrong — I believe in capitalism. I had my undergraduate degree in economics, an MBA in finance and 18 years of experience as an investment banker before I began spending my life in the pursuit of “economic justice.” The free capitalist system is theoretically inherently fair. Anybody has the ability to succeed. All it takes is hard work, ingenuity and perseverance. Capitalism depends on free markets – the market for labor, the stock market and consumer markets, to name a few. If our economic system offers equal access to these markets, it is hard to argue that any results aren’t fair.

Unfortunately, we don’t all have equal access – which results in poverty for too many members of our society without it. The possible barriers are numerous and include lack of a stable family growing up, race or gender prejudice, health challenges or, unfortunately, poverty itself. In fact, growing up poor is, in itself, the greatest cause of being poor as an adult. This is most evident in education – those students attending schools in the poorest neighborhoods have little to no chance of getting an education that would allow them equal access to capitalism as an adult. This endless cycle of poverty cannot under any definition be fair.

I believe that it is incumbent upon me — whether following biblical and talmudic prompts or simply out of secular morality — to work to create a society where everyone truly has equal access to economic success. That success would, in and of itself, lead to better education, stronger families and a narrowing of our country’s growing divide. That would be fair, and that is my personal pursuit of tzedek.

Adlai Wertman is professor of clinical management and organization, and founding director of the Society and Business Lab at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.


I believe in Ponies

by Zane Buzby

My grandfather promised me a pony. Poppy (my grandfather, not the pony) arrived in the United States in 1907, running from the czarist regime, dreaming of America with its endless possibilities. He was from Odessa, a city of humor and storytelling, so it was only natural that he was gut-bustingly funny and a master storyteller. He had seven grandchildren and was a larger-than-life presence to all of us. He smoked cigars and married us repeatedly with cigar bands he saved on the rabbit ears of his console TV, in a ceremony he conducted in Russian gibberish. He worked hard, laughed hard and taught us that the best laugh was one that left you gasping for breath. He played a mandolin festooned with ribbons, believed that everyone should play a musical instrument, go to college and eat ice cream every day exactly at 3 p.m. He proved that one could be unconventional and unique in an age of conformity.

This was the man who promised me a pony.

On the day that the pony was to arrive, Poppy announced that he had just come from the train station, but the pony was nowhere to be found. We’d have to wait for the next train, or the next. Months passed. The train station was “called,” freight cars “checked.” No pony.

Eventually came the good news: The pony would arrive tomorrow! Poppy said the coming day would be so wonderful that we had better “sleep fast” in order to get up quicker and experience it all. Life was not to be missed. Who but my grandfather could get away with telling little children: “You’ll sleep when you’re dead”?

That morning, we rushed to the station to pick up the pony, but the train car was empty. Pointing to bits of hay and a broken rope that he had somehow planted, it was “clear” that the pony had been there, but had gotten loose and run away. We’d have to find another one. And the process would start again. This would go on for weeks, years, generations.

For me and my father before me, and probably all my cousins, waiting for the pony taught us that the best was always ahead of us, and anything was possible if we stayed optimistic and enthusiastic. It meant there was always hope, and so our days came alive with excitement and anticipation of a wonderful thing just about to happen. We came to have an unshakable belief in an extraordinary and bright future, where next time the pony will come.

Poppy was a shining example of someone living his dream — in this New World that he had so longed for and struggled so hard to reach. Where disappointment or discouragement never meant “game over” or “stop trying.” Where the challenge was always to find another way when the road ahead was blocked. He infused me with excitement, energy, enthusiasm and, above all, an insatiable appetite for life. He sent me on my way with my head full of dreams and the ability to make those dreams come true.

This is his legacy to me: this positive frame, through which I learned to view the world and my own life experiences. I believe this is a key element of who I am.

There are those who wait for Godot and those who wait for the Messiah. Me, I happily wait for the pony.

Zane Buzby is a television director and co-founder of The Survivor Mitzvah Project.


I believe in Caring

by Dr. Bruce Powell

In July 1960, while attending Camp Alonim, I heard Shlomo Bardin talk about his life in Zhitomer, Russia. He told us of a community of Jews within a large city who “cared.” He talked about how the community ensured that everyone who wished to marry was able to do so. He explained how the Jewish burial society (chevrah kadishah) handled each body as a sacred vessel, with dignity, with an understanding that that person had made a contribution to God’s world in some profound way, and how the community could now honor that contribution with the ultimate mitzvah of a dignified burial.

And Bardin told us the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews.”

In those moments at Camp Alonim, sitting in a barn-like room on Shabbat where Bardin explained that it was “we” who make the barn holy, that it is our obligation to “care,” to build our nation through Jewish values, my 12-year-old soul was shaken to its core.

It was in that “barn” that the seeds of my beliefs, and my entire career in Jewish education, took root. It was in the summer of 1960, where, to a 12-year-old, all was possible, that my current work at New Community Jewish High School was born.

As I grew and ventured into my career, I was almost possessed by Bardin’s vision. I wondered if it were really possible to create a community where the core ideals centered on “caring,” “active kindness,” “contribution” and the fulfillment of American ideals through a Jewish values lens.

Upon finishing my doctoral work, my belief in Bardin’s vision was not only complete, but fully supported by empirical data. One could actually build a school based not upon “measuring,” but upon “meaning and values and contribution.” We could be better Americans by being better Jews. We could create a community where two core Jewish values might meet: being an or l’goyim (light unto the nations); and b’tzelem elohim, where every person regards one another as if he or she were created in the image of God.

And, perhaps most importantly, and personally, I came to believe that one could build a life upon these values and visions. It wasn’t easy to really understand what it meant to serve as a role model, or to treat every person as if they carried the spark of Godliness. Could one’s values at work and at home become seamless? Could one find a life partner and raise children based upon these core beliefs and ideals? Was I a raving idealist?

Thirty-seven years into our marriage, four adult children raised, having helped to establish Jewish high schools in Los Angeles, this I now believe:

I believe that I must strive at being a role model (often failing); I believe I must regard each person as divinely created (often failing); and I believe that God demands of me contribution to our community and to our nation.

Dr. Bruce Powell is head of school at New Community Jewish High School.


I believe that the path to wholeness (holiness), wholeheartedness, begins with embracing our imperfections as a gift from God (yetzer tov tov – yetzer hara tov me’od)

by Harriet Rossetto

This belief liberated me from shame, freed me from the seesaw of hope and despair, grandiosity and self-loathing that kept me stuck. I had inherited a polarized consciousness. You are good or bad, right or wrong, winner or loser. I struggled to be perfect, to fit the script I was handed. Brené Brown once said in a lecture, “The difference between fitting in and belonging is that fitting in requires you to become who others want you to be; belonging is bringing your whole self and being accepted as you — the divine spark that is your essence.” I wanted to fit. I hid the parts of me that didn’t “fit” the group that I wanted to belong to. I couldn’t keep up the act for long, the “real,” authentic, unappreciated me would leak out, confirming my worst fears about myself, sending me back to bed. I believed I was inherently defective. I thought I was the only one.

My 25 years living and working with addicts, the families of addicts and the many pre-addicted families I know has convinced me that the source of our collective discomfort is shame and the facades of perfection we construct to defend against the shame of our imperfections. The majority of people I meet are addicted to appearances, the family photo albums of every event, which project the family we want others to see, concealing the family we are. Unfortunately, protecting ourselves from shame also “protects” us from connection and intimacy. Intimacy requires vulnerability, transparency and authenticity. We can only connect in truth.

Shame, not disobedience, was the original sin of Adam and Eve. When God called, “Where are you?” they hid and blamed each other. Had they not been taught about teshuvah? Did they not understand that their disobedience was also Divine?

I’ve often wondered if the story had told of Adam and Eve owning up to their “sin” (missing the mark) and making amends and growing from their experience, would we have developed without shame?

I still struggle with the opposing twosomes inside of me … yes, I can/no, you can’t … judgment/acceptance; blame/responsibility; compassion/vengeance; fear/love; blessing/curse; life/death.

At Beit T’Shuvah, the path to wholeness is one of struggle. We struggle out loud, revealing our “shadow” selves, practicing acceptance, connecting through our brokenness. We struggle to take the next right action, no matter what we feel, strengthening our spiritual muscles, moving closer to “walking in God’s ways.”

Harriet Rossetto is the CEO, founder and clinical director of Beit T’Shuvah.

Long, winding road brings new cantor to Temple Beth Am


“Let me show you the dogs,” Cantor Magda Fishman says as she excitedly pulls out her iPhone and scrolls through photos until she comes upon a candid shot of two gorgeous poodles. The dogs are not Fishman’s, but her enthusiasm in sharing the image is emblematic of her style. Her energy is evident from the moment you meet her — her mind races at a mile a minute, jumping from thoughts about Israel to Broadway musicals, to the mini-fridge she gleefully reveals hidden inside a cabinet in her new office.

But if any of this leads you to believe that Fishman is something of a lightweight, you’d be wrong. The same woman who jokes easily about her view of the ever-changing billboard outside her window is also a deeply soulful, thoughtful Jew with a beautiful voice who hopes to do justice to her predecessors as she assumes her pulpit at Los Angeles’ Temple Beth Am. 

Born in a hardscrabble area of Jaffa, Israel, Fishman knew from an early age that she was destined for a life connected to music. Her family was not particularly religious, though, she says, “Shabbat candles were there every Friday evening.”

As a child, she studied at Tel Aviv’s Ironi Alef arts school, acting, singing and playing the trumpet. Her talent led her to a stint with the Tel Aviv-Yafo Youth Orchestra, and eventually, once she’d turned 18, to a place in the Israel Defense Forces Orchestra.

Though she’s now known for her singing, Fishman originally tried to take a different path in the army orchestra. “I actually auditioned for trumpet,” she says.  After her audition was over, she hung around and “started singing ‘My Funny Valentine.’ ” The accompanist working at the audition called the conductor over.  Hearing her sing, the conductor told Fishman she could still play trumpet, but she’d be singing as well.

Fishman toured with the orchestra, relishing the opportunity to have some of the talented young composers in the army arrange songs especially for her. That time in the army orchestra is something that still sticks with her today. “I went up to Ramah,” she said of the summer camp in Ojai, “and there was a girl there who does exactly what I did, and some of the songs she sings were the arrangements that were written for me.” Fishman marvels at the smallness of the Jewish world.

Once her military service was done, she was lucky enough to be able to join the Tel Aviv-Broadway Musical Theatre Project, which gave her a chance to travel to New York. While there, she auditioned at the Manhattan School of Music and was later accepted. Fishman was unsure of what to do, but her grandfather, a musician himself, encouraged her to pursue her dreams. The only problem was, she had no way to pay for the schooling.

It was at this point that one of what Fishman calls her many “angels” stepped in. The late Janice Levin, a prominent philanthropist and friend of Israel who had seen Fishman perform and had taken a liking to her, offered to pay Fishman’s tuition. With no more excuses left, Fishman departed for America.

Arriving in the States with scant funds, Fishman worried about how she’d manage to survive in an expensive city like New York. “I remember calling my grandmother and saying, ‘I think I have enough money for 10 days of sandwiches.’ ”

But Fishman found herself uplifted by the kindness of strangers again, a pattern in her life. Host families invited her to stay with them. And it was with one such host family on Long Island that this mostly secular Israeli first discovered Reform Judaism. Growing up in Israel, she had only been exposed to the Orthodox Judaism of her grandfather, which had left her feeling isolated, as she had to sit up in the balcony, separated from him. For Fishman, the services here were something of a revelation, but her turn toward the chazzanut — the Jewish equivalent of classical music — was still to come.

Cantor Magda Fishman performs at the America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s 71st Annual Gala in 2010

After living in New York for a few months, Fishman received an invitation to breakfast at the home of Mary Rodgers, the daughter of famed composer Richard Rodgers, and a composer and author in her own right of such hits as “Once Upon a Mattress” and “Freaky Friday.” Fishman laughs as she recalls their first encounter. “I was wearing this velvet suit for breakfast, because I was so excited.” Despite being slightly overdressed, Fishman wowed Rodgers and her family enough that they invited her to live in their guest room as she sang and studied to be a Broadway star.

Soon however, Fishman found that just singing wasn’t sufficiently fulfilling, and with Rodgers’ blessing, she took a break from music to study acting and dance. Which is when the Israeli consulate, having kept track of Fishman’s progress in New York, began to pull her back in, asking her to sing “Hatikvah” at numerous functions. Around the same time, Fishman got a gig as a cantorial soloist at Sutton Place Synagogue. Suddenly, her Jewish identity and her musical identity were beginning to merge.

Transitioning to singing in the synagogue wasn’t hard, musically, for Fishman. “I read music, so it was not that hard to learn it.” However, the experience of connecting to God through her music was a big change. “I needed for a while to get used to the prayer mode. I feel like I’m in another sphere when I am praying, but still connected to the people around me;  like we are on this journey together and we are there to connect our souls.”

Fishman was introduced to Cantor Henry Rosenblum, then dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) cantorial school, a man Fishman calls one of her “greatest mentors.” Rosenblum saw the potential in Fishman and encouraged her to try studying to become a cantor. Fishman accepted the challenge and plunged ahead.

“I had to get used to it. It was a process,” she says of her time at JTS.  But through the guidance of Rosenblum, who was let go by JTS in a 2010 “restructuring” despite his popularity among the students, Fishman grew into her own as a cantor.

Fishman gravitates to a modern style of cantorial singing, but she still acknowledges that “because it’s where we come from … you build on your history, always.” Her voice betrays more than a hint of her Broadway past — she is dramatic and bold, but she also has a soulful punch that calls to mind a singer like Neshama Carlebach. 

She is also inspired by more folk-influenced artists. “I looked up to the late Debbie Friedman, who had light in her eyes,” she says, brimming with joy as she launches into “Oseh Shalom.” “I love singing;  I live singing.”

It was Fishman’s passion and energy that first caught the eye of Beth Am Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld. “Cantor Fishman blew into the room like a musical energy tornado,” says Kligfeld of their first meeting. “We knew instantly that it was something special.”

Kligfeld says he sees a new future for Beth Am and its nearly 1,000 member families with Fishman’s arrival. “Temple Beth Am should be a center for Jewish music on the West Coast,” he says. And congregants appear to share his rosy outlook. “I’m seeing it in my fundraising,” says Kligfeld, who hopes that Fishman will help “make Friday night a phenomenon here.”

For her part, Fishman is thrilled to be in Los Angeles. She drove cross-country with her husband, Zarin, an information technology specialist whom she originally met on JDate in New York. “Cue the commercial,” she jokes. As native Israelis, they’ve already taken a liking to L.A.’s weather and its beaches.

As for what she hopes to do at Beth Am, Fishman hopes that the community will “be a home that people feel happy to come to.” She says she already feels like it’s her home. “I love the people I work with. I step into the building, and I know that I have friends.”

Most of all, Fishman hopes to “pay it forward,” doing proud all of the angels who helped her along in life.  If early results are any indication, she’s well on her way to living up to their legacy.

The following video is Temple Beth Am promotional campaign.

10 years after 9/11, what has changed?


Even before the 110-story cloud of smoke cleared 10 years ago, America, and American Jews, grappled with a new desire to seek out the enemy — on the one hand to thwart him, and on the other to find out who he is, why he hates us so much and what we can do about it.

That desire has shaped a dichotomous response over the last decade — one of war, pumped-up security and more limited freedoms on the one hand, and of dialogue and a desire to open oneself up to help repair the world on the other.

Both the American government and watchdog institutions, particularly Jewish ones, increased their vigilance of Muslim extremism, and at the same time Jews challenged themselves to reach out to Muslims and to build personal and political relationships.

Often, the divergent goals of vigilance and building bridges played out within the same organization.

“Engaging people with hearts wide open, but also with eyes and ears wide open, was one of the main lessons for us and a key component for moving forward from 9/11,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

After 9/11, the Wiesenthal Center continued its vigilance of

anti-Semitism both among white supremacist and Muslim radicals, but it also created a new position, director of interfaith affairs, and founded a Web site called “Ask Musa,” which teaches basic Judaism to Muslims. The center forged relationships with Pakistani diplomats, and after the al-Qaeda bombing in Bali in 2002, it hosted a multifaith conference against terrorism there, with the Indonesian president as a featured speaker. It also held a multifaith solidarity remembrance in Mumbai to commemorate the 2008 attacks there.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has a similar two-pronged approach.

After 9/11, ADL created a center on extremism that monitors Muslim radicals. At the same time, it puts out curricula and runs programs on tolerance, including a special curriculum in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. ADL has also worked closely with Muslim leadership to combat anti-Muslim bigotry and to monitor instances where local communities object to mosques being built.

Amanda Susskind, director of the Pacific Southwest Region, said this dual approach is what attracted her to the ADL, after 9/11 prompted her to leave practicing law and enter public service. She believes monitoring hatred while building bridges and tolerance is not contradictory.

“The Muslim community groups and leaders that we work with and that we support in their fight against bigotry also speak out against Muslim extremism. These are not overlapping groups,” Susskind said.

The ADL also works closely with law enforcement, offering training and serving as a resource for information on hate crime trends. Locally, the ADL created a regular meeting between national, state and local law enforcement so they can share information with each other and get information from ADL on hate crimes.

While ADL held occasional security briefings for Jewish organizations before 9/11, in the last decade the annual pre-High Holy Days security briefing has become a must-attend event among synagogue leadership.

Certainly, security is one of the most visible changes 9/11 brought to the Jewish community.

Jewish institutions had some security before 9/11 — and most reassessed after the North Valley JCC shooting in 1999 — but the new, very real threat of al-Qaeda pushed all institutions to new levels.

After 9/11, Sinai Temple in Westwood revamped its security on the 377,000-square-foot facility that serves 1,950 member families and nearly 1,000 kids in its day school, religious school and preschool.

The temple has armed guards and 90 security cameras, and only one entrance to the building, according to executive director Howard Lesner. People entering the facility during the week have to have an appointment or someone to vouch for them. On Shabbat, everyone is wanded, and all bags are examined.

Security accounts for 5 percent of the budget, and each member and student is assessed to help cover it.

Often, security concerns run counter to the Jewish impulse of creating a welcoming atmosphere. Lesner said security has been woven into the general operations — most of the guards have been in the building for years and are familiar faces, who wish guests Shabbat Shalom or Shanah Tovah.

From the Streets of Delhi: The give and take of learning with India’s street children


“Have you ever been to the Jama Masjid?” The little girl looks up at me with bright, intelligent eyes, the yellow of jaundice and malnutrition already receding from around her irises, a brightly colored scarf hiding the long, curved scar rising up from just behind her ear. She is one of our newer girls. She had arrived two weeks earlier while I was out of town, and we had just met.

The little girl was sitting in on the English class of her own volition. Like all new children during their first month at Dilse, she was in her adjustment period and had not yet been assigned to any specific learning group. As we worked on alphabets, she watched everything with squinting, critical eyes. Then she began tracing the letters on her worksheet with the loving reverence of a devotee, as if carefully and repeatedly writing out the holy names of God.

Soon we had learned two letters and their corresponding sounds, and we began blending — articulating the sound of each letter as I pointed to it, and slowly putting two letter sounds together to make a syllable.  Back and forth, back and forth — “A, T, T, A. Ahhh, Ttttaahhh — AT,” “Ttttaaahhh, Aaahhh — TA!” The little girl’s eyes widened when she saw the connection. We started clapping in time to our voices and adding on different consonants to our base syllable, “AT.” And suddenly the girl was reading. “Hhh-AT, HAT! Ffff-AT, FAT! Ccc-AT, CAT! FAT CAT!”

When she realized that the sounds she was decoding were actually words with meaning, she looked up at me, startled. Peels of her laughter ricocheted off shoulders and elbows and danced in the air above our heads. She jumped up and ran in circles around the group of us sitting on the mat in the yard, singing in a singsong voice, “Fat cat! Fat cat! Fat cat!” pointing her fingers up at the sides of her head like pointed little feline ears. The child before me had just had her first taste of what it means to be literate — she had decoded the letters into words, and the idea of what they represented had come alive to her.

Jewish tradition has always placed great value on education and literacy. In addition to encouraging us to explore our own frame of reference, we are taught to learn with others, that knowledge acquisition is symbiotic. The very format of rabbinic literature instructs us to actively engage with both material and fellow learners, to debate, question, analyze and wrestle with the matters at hand. I have always felt that Judaism presents learning as a means toward attaining a more present and involved existence. We are encouraged to be mindful and aware of how our actions in the everyday fit into the larger scheme of things, and we are pushed to always learn more and actively widen our worlds. When letters came alive and became words for her that day, the little girl with the head scarf got a taste of how wide the world can be, and her appetite was whetted.

Children from Ummeed Aman Ghar for Boys in Qutub Minar, Delhi, enjoying a moment of leisure. Photo courtesy of The Dilse Campaign, New Delhi.

A few minutes later, we moved on to a new activity — words that start with the letter “S.” The little girl was equally engaged, chattering on incessantly about every word she could think of that started with an “Sssss” sound. Yet in midalliteration, she looked up at me suddenly, her mouth still open in a tiny “o,” and she asked again, “Didi (older sister in Hindi-Urdu), have you ever been to the Jama Masjid?” The Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, is the biggest mosque in Delhi, in the heart of the old city, and I had been there numerous times in the previous few months. Surprised, I answered, “Yes, I have.”

“Do you ever go there to take pictures, and do you ever wear a headband over your hair?” The headband is a trademark feature of mine, but today, my hair is loose. Taken aback, I again answered in the affirmative. “But how do you know that? Did you used to live there?”

The girl nodded her head vigorously, pushed back her scarf in her excitement, and continued with her questions, “I saw you first during Ramzan (“Ramadan” in Urdu). Does a bhaia (older brother) go with you, and does he have a very big camera?”  And during Ramadan I had gone to the mosque with my friend, Marti, who uses a large reflex camera. At my answer, she erupted again into giggles, and I shook her hand warmly, unable to stop smiling, “Nice to meet you again, Fatima, it has been a long time!”

Fatima had been one of the little street urchins who run in packs around the grand mosque steps and into the surrounding lanes spidering out into the old city. When she saw me, she was one of hundreds of children competing to stake their claim over the wide swaths of city streets — bartering, making deals, and scavenging for food and recyclables according to unwritten codes of law I will most likely never be able to understand. At one point, she was living with her mother and older sister, both of them hooked on “solution”—the mix of cleaning and whitener fluid often sniffed along with glue — and working migrant construction and day-labor jobs. Often they spent their nights at the Old Delhi Railway Station or, during the cold season, in the tent camps outside of Meena Bazaar, the busy marketplace behind the Jama Masjid. Fatima is about 8 years old, and several months ago she saw me, a foreigner, entering her territory in the big mosque. Perhaps I spoke with her, or perhaps she only saw me from afar. Now somehow, thanks to a talented and committed field team, she is living and attending classes at one of our schools at the Dilse Campaign, where I have been developing education programs for the last year and a half.

Growing up in Los Angeles as the daughter of two rabbis, living walking distance from the synagogue of which we were members,  and attending Jewish day school, summer camp, youth group — the works — I was part of a very tightknit Jewish community. At the same time, l lived side by side with people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. Be it tearing through the neighborhood on roller skates or scooters, playing basketball or getting to know fellow dog-walkers and runners, I was taught that worlds and realities of these different communities are all fundamentally linked. We all eat much of the same food, breathe the same air, compete for many of the same jobs, get pulled over for the same traffic law violations, and when we seriously err, we get sent to the same jails.

Likewise, benei adam, human beings, in different parts of the world, different communities and different religions often suffer from eerily similar issues — economic disparity, unfair working conditions, unequal distribution of goods, lack of awareness on how to access basic amenities such as good education, comprehensive health care and much more. And I was always taught that a major part of Judaism’s commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world, means engaging with other “people groups,” working toward making everyone’s olam a better place.

Israel’s new social contract


High and inclusive growth is Israel’s shared national goal, with the objective of becoming one of the 15 leading countries in terms of quality of life. The test of progress will be the accumulation of financial, human and social capital by all citizens and, particularly, children.

Communities are the foundational unit of Israeli society and the basis for local prosperity, resilience and inclusiveness. Vibrant community life is the basis for the individual to form his or her identity, realize capabilities and accumulate capital, and, therefore, must be available to every citizen. Each community should be entitled to all platforms and to a standard of resources and services. Micro, small and medium enterprises and initiatives are an inseparable component of a vibrant and prosperous community with the active support of the government.

Locally elected civic leadership has a right and an obligation to participate in shaping its community and its local institutions, together with the municipality and government of Israel. The Knesset and the government will regulate, broaden and incentivize civic involvement herein, primarily in schools, community centers, youth organizations, sports associations, and arts and culture institutions.

Long-term saving and investments are a shared responsibility of the government and households. The state will incentivize individuals to accumulate financial capital for their children through pensions and long-term investments designated for home ownership, education or entrepreneurship.

Free-market and fair competition are the foundations of Israeli economy and society. Government intervention will take place in market failures that compromise rapid and inclusive growth. 

The IDF (Israel Defense Forces), National Civil Service, universities and colleges are engines of inclusiveness. The state will broaden programs that support the involvement of weaker populations in these frameworks.

Flexibility in the labor markets and life-long learning of professional skills are shared national goals, which are essential for productivity and high employment. Government will improve transportation and communication infrastructures, as well as employment incentives for hired and independent workers.

Israeli society will be a working society in which wages ensure dignified living. The national goal is a full integration of two-thirds of the labor force in an appropriate employment framework. The average salary will be higher than the cost of basic goods and services. The government will utilize the tools at its disposal to lower the price of basic products. Educated and skilled civil servants will be entitled, at the minimum, to the average salary in the market.

Corporate social responsibility will be expanded to include the value of inclusiveness by enhancing the human capital of employees, restraining monopolistic conduct in basic products and services, providing equal employment opportunity to excluded populations, operating fairly vis-à-vis providers and preserving the environment.

The basket of “basic goods and services” will be determined in a shared process and will represent the right to include the following components: Housing, education, transportation, parenting, food, communications, health, water, electricity, water and banking. This basket shall be the right of every citizen.

Israel’s breakthrough opportunity


Over the past five weeks, Israelis have erected thousands of tents in 78 sites across Israel. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of all political, racial, economic and geographic backgrounds have taken to the streets, enjoying more than 80 percent public support. The nonviolent cry for social justice and a broad mix of demands not only have forced the government to revisit its economic and social outlook but also to consider technical fixes, such as early childhood education reforms, that have been frozen for years.

Make no mistake: Israeli society is at a crossroads. Violence, stagnation, deadlock and standoff, on the one hand, or a new societal and social contract toward inclusive growth, on the other. While the present crisis has been inevitable, it is also necessary in order to allow for the transformation toward realizing a vision of turning Israel into one of the 15 leading nations in terms of quality of life (see sidebar). In the apparent chaos of the current moment lay Israel’s transformative breakthrough opportunity.

This explosion was long coming: The middle class has been weakened and impoverished, gaps have been widening, and poverty has been expanding due to a triple whammy: stagnating available income, the rising cost of basic products and services, and shrinking public services. We had to pay for much more with the same or less. There are many symbols to this turmoil. One of them is a simple container of cottage cheese, an Israeli staple the price of which has risen above and beyond the surge in its production cost, enraging average consumers to mobilize a mass boycott. 

The working assumption of the past 25 years — that growth will trickle down and improve the quality of life of all citizens — did not materialize. As professor Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government warned, Israel’s economic boom has, in fact, become a “social program for the rich.” As in other countries, Israel’s growth has not been inclusive, and therefore, has been explosive. We should be deeply grateful that this eruption has been nonviolent, to date.

The silent victims of these dynamics are the next generation. Lower-quality public services and poorer homes compromise the education, health and financial security of Israel’s children and, therefore, affect their ability to participate and compete in future labor markets. The long-term implications of this perpetual hopeless poverty may not only be erosion of Israel’s human capital, but also a breakdown of solidarity with the state and an unwillingness to answer its call to duty. Readers who need a visual understanding of this risk should follow the events in London.

This reality is the outcome of the combined effects of globalization and a set of compounding structural and policy failures in Israel:

• Israel has been suffering from continued weakness in the capacity of the government to govern and deal with complex societal issues.

• It is the only developed country with a high population growth — 1.8 percent — that stems primarily from the weaker echelons of society.

• Government policy drove housing prices up while keeping salaries down. Its tax policies increased the burden on the middle class while exempting the weak and benefiting the wealthy.

• A few corporate and business people, the so-called “tycoons,” have been able to gain monopolistic positions in key markets of basic products and services, such as communications or food (such as, for example, cottage cheese).

• The labor unions have decreased productivity and market flexibility at the expense of nonunionized workers.

• Israel’s growth engine, the high-tech sector, failed to expand and increase jobs and overall productivity.

Hence, Israel needs a fundamental correction in its economic and social approach — a new vision and a period of structural reforms that will be driven by and reflect a change in our language, discourse, values, institutions, patterns of conduct and incentives. We must articulate a new social contract that will rebalance high growth with inclusiveness and government duty with civic responsibility. Technical fixes of efficiency, tax reforms or in government spending may satisfy protesters but pass the buck to future governments and generation. 

Hence, the focus of these reforms must be three-fold: First, we must increase real wages by driving productivity primarily within the struggling stratum of society. While our long-term national per-capita growth objective should be 3.5 percent, our lower-middle class must grow at 5 percent. This can be achieved by increasing competition, improving management and technology primarily within small and medium-size businesses, the public and nonprofit sectors and in the traditional industry, focusing on the Arabs, Charedim and periphery. Second, we must put in check the cost of basic services and products, such as housing, food, education, parenting, pension or transportation, by ensuring competition or regulation. Third, we must improve public services and strengthen the key public institutions that serve as the frontier platforms not only for breaking the cycle of poverty but also for improving the quality of life of all citizens.

The long-term key to improving the quality of life of Israelis is a vision of our society as a network of prosperous, resilient and inclusive communities shaped by strong and engaged local civic leadership. In fact, this vision would represent a full-circle return to the traditional model of Diaspora Jewry and to the original vision of Zionism, albeit in a uniquely modern Israeli manner. It is our communities that determine the space where children are raised and improve the quality of life of adults. The 2-millennia-old Jewish DNA of community building that has driven 150 years of the Zionist legacy, which has included the kibbutzim, moshavim and dozens of other forms of settlements, is the foundation of Israel’s new societal infrastructure. Thousands of buildings of community centers, schools or early childhood centers are available to serve as platforms, not only for developing the financial, human and social capital of all Israelis through education, vocational training, preventative medicine or financial education, but also their spiritual engagement with identity and heritage. This opportunity and invisible energy are driving thousands of young Israelis to form communities of social responsibility and to signal the direction for the rest.

The whole Jewish world has a central role to play in this vision. Direct connections between Diaspora and Israeli communities can provide a critical platform, not just for sharing best practices of community life, but also for enriching Jewish life. Put simply, if the Diaspora formerly saw its role as a financial donor and political supporter to the state-building project in Israel, it can now partner in a mutually enriching community-building enterprise.

The ISRAEL 15 Vision, which calls for Israel to become one of the 15 leading nations in quality of life, requires both inclusiveness and growth. This is the international experience and a logical conclusion. Doubling the pace of growth means doubling the pace of change, which doubles pressures on individuals and households to adapt and learn. Hence, turning our communities into bottom-up engines of growth, inclusiveness and resilience that share broad common characteristics but accommodate local culture, needs, traditions and values is the only way to achieve this goal.

Israel has a rare opportunity to turn the present unrest into a constructive, cross-sector, pragmatic dialogue on the long-term future of Israeli society. The present cacophony of the protests should turn into a coherent dialogue on the challenge of inclusive growth and leapfrogging the quality of life of Israelis within 15 years.

Today’s Tel Aviv feels like a cross between a summer festival and a beit midrash. Jubilation is mixed with grave concerns. Israel is at a crossroads that can lead to a historic breakthrough. We will have turned a corner in the summer of 2011 if vision and leadership are available and the voices of pragmatism prevail. All of us must work to make it happen.

Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Reut Institute, Israel’s premier strategy and impact group, which has created a draft proposal for a new social contract for Israel.

Let us reap wisdom sown by tragedy of Tisha B’Av


This week we observe the fast of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Last year before Tisha B’Av, The Jewish Journal published an article that loosely and foolishly spoke of the destruction of the Temple as a good thing.  Those who offer such opinions do not, perhaps, fully grasp that it meant the death of sages, scholars and countless less-distinguished women, men and children of Israel. They may not recall that it was the end of sovereignty for thousands of years and left Jews at the mercy of others — the often cruel fates that scar our history.  Psychoanalysts tell us that it is the unremembered history that controls us; Jews have always sought to remember our catastrophes — not because they control us, but so that they will not. We do not pretend that tragedies were hidden triumphs or that our sadness is misplaced. 

Since the Temple burned and our people were exiled, however, we sought to understand how to absorb our history to change our destiny. A resigned fatalism is alien to the Jewish spiritual DNA. Our ancestors suffered, but that does not mean our children must suffer. 

In the Talmud, we are told that on the day the Temple was destroyed, nifseka homat habarzel — an iron wall separated Israel from God. Several years ago, Rabbi Gordon Tucker brought a teaching from the late scholar Baruch Bokser, who points out that nifseka can be interpreted to mean either that an iron wall came down and effected a separation between God and Israel — or that the iron wall ceased. In other words, the destruction also had a side that released certain energies in the Jewish people. We lost many ways of serving God and of being a people when the Temple was razed. But potential that was unknown before came to fruition.

This lesson is particularly potent in an apocalyptic age. There are preposterous uses of the “end time,” clear in coinages like “carmeggedon.” But we do have a natural tendency to urge the end. As Frank Kermode pointed out some time ago in his book “The Sense of an Ending,” we say that clocks go tick-tock. But they don’t. They go tick-tick. We supply the tock. Our craving for conclusions is deep within us. We can’t stand to listen to music without the final resolving chord; we don’t like movies that refuse to wrap up neatly. Voldemort must die, Dorothy must wake up in her Kansas bed, and Odysseus return home. We check how many pages are left in the book until we get to the ending. Tock.

So Harold Camping convinces scores of people that the end is near. People find eschatological portents in numbers, wars, constellations and ancient prophecies. In every generation there have been predictions of the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the end, the tock.  Such yearning for the drama to end often leads to what scholar Gershom Scholem called a life “lived in deferment.” Too easily are impatient souls waiting for that concluding note and missing the music as it plays.

Tisha B’Av instructs us on another attitude toward catastrophe and the sense of the ending. Our sages teach that every tragedy contains within it the seeds of redemption. The destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the people was also an opportunity. The Temple served for some as a wall, separating them from a more direct relationship with God. Therefore, the spread of synagogues to replace the lost center of worship introduced something vital and wonderful into Jewish life. We know that, historically, synagogues already existed while the Temple was still standing. Without a Temple, however, they proliferated. It is a legacy of monotheism: You can only raise synagogues all over the world if you recognize that God is everywhere. God is tied to no single land or clime. Exile emphasized the Torah’s truth, that no place is empty of the Divine. Instead of a coffin, wandering became a cradle; rather than end our people, it provided new beginnings.

Story continues after the jump.

On Tisha B’Av, Ashkenazim do not wear tefillin at the morning service; for the only time during the year, we put them on later, in the afternoon. It signals the move from tragedy to promise. Following the wisdom of Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” we understand that the key term is “walk.” We cannot stay in the valley. As we wrap the tefillin, we are reminded that they cannot, in the poet’s phrase, “rust unburnished” but rather must “shine in use.” So with each soul; mourning is a temporary condition, and one must carry its meaning into the daylight.

History is never univocal. Destruction and creation, loss and renewal are twined together like voices in harmony. The Psalmist cries out that he does not know if his people could sing in the new land of Babylon (Psalm 137). But on those strange shores, the Babylonian Talmud was born. We became creative in virtually every living literature in the world. Jews contributed to all the societies that alternately welcomed and scorned them. Still, the memory of destruction was never far from our minds. Corners of houses were left unpainted, to remind us that we were not fully home. In our prayers, as today, we prayed for rain not when it was needed in France, or Russia, or Los Angeles, but in Israel. We kept our clocks set on Jerusalem time. 

This dialectic of all we lost and all we wove out of our losses is the guiding thread of Jewish history. Only a callow disregard for suffering would see the Temple’s destruction as less than a monumental tragedy. “Eicha Yashva Badad” — how does the city, Jerusalem, sit solitary, cries the lamentation that we read on Tisha B’Av. The pain of the exiled Jews is enshrined in words echoing through the ages: Jerusalem in ashes. But how sad and dispirited to miss the exuberant creativity and genius unleashed in the world by an enforced Diaspora. 

On Tisha B’Av, we cry for all we have lost. We have lost, we Jews, so very much.  But mourning will end. The state has been restored. Though we are embattled, we are no longer helpless. We may not all agree, but the cacophony of Jewish voices is free and strong. The lessons of Tisha B’Av, its sadness, its song, endure.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.

Citizens redistricting commission: (Almost) no Jews involved


Stanley Treitel, 66, is Orthodox, lives in Hancock Park and is one of the few Jewish Californians to have made a direct pitch to the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission on behalf of Jewish interests.

He went to Culver City’s City Hall on June 16 hoping to tell the 14-member panel, which had just released its first draft maps of the Golden State’s Congressional, State Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization districts on June 10, why he wasn’t happy about the lines they had drawn in and around his neighborhood.

“I thought that the Korean testimony was good, because they kept the Korean community together,” Treitel said, referring to a Korean-American group whose members testified before the commission early in the evening. “That would have been nice if they had done that for the Orthodox community,” Treitel said.

Redistricting takes place once every 10 years, and the current district lines, drawn in 2001 using data from the previous year’s U.S. Census, had split the three neighborhoods Treitel was focused on — Pico-Robertson/Beverlywood, Hancock Park and the area around Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue — into two Congressional, two State Assembly and three State Senate districts.

The newly formed commission, created by ballot initiative in 2008, is still working to finalize a new set of lines based on the 2010 census data. In the first draft of the redistricting maps,  which were released in June and differed significantly from the 2001 maps, Los Angeles’ Orthodox community remained fragmented; this is what motivated Treitel.

Making a single Congressman, State Senator or Assembly member responsible for the bulk of the Westside’s Orthodox Jews likely would, Treitel believes, make those politicians more responsive to his community’s specific concerns.

Voters endorsed creating a commission as a way to transform a politicized process that previously had been controlled by incumbent politicians whose goals were primarily to ensure their re-election. The commission was set up to become a transparent, bipartisan, citizen-led endeavor that would aim to empower communities in the hopes of ensuring all Californians get fair representation both in Sacramento and in Washington.

In some sense, all the speakers at the June meeting in Culver City were asking for the same thing as Treitel — that their communities be kept “whole.”

Leaders of organizations representing Latinos pointed to the growth of the Latino population in California, and argued that increase was not fully reflected in the first draft.  This, they alleged, would prevent the election of “candidates of choice” and thus would not comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Similarly, James Harris, an African American resident of South Los Angeles, pointed to what he believes is an under-representation of the black community. “The maps look like black and brown communities are being pitted against each other,” he said, “while other communities are enjoying the status quo.”

Treitel attempted first to make his own case on behalf of Los Angeles’ Orthodox Jewish community in May, by arranging for two local Orthodox organizations to send identical letters asking the commission to unify the three neighborhoods.

When the first draft did not accomplish this, Treitel headed to Culver City to address the commissioners directly. But because his speaker number was so high on the list — 149 — Treitel did not get the two minutes at the podium he was hoping for.

Aside from Treitel’s efforts, and a letter sent by 30 Years After, an association of young Jewish Iranian Americans,  Jews have been noticeably absent in this round of commission-led redistricting. And no major local or national Jewish organization has expressed any opinion about how the lines dividing up California should be drawn.

“Redistricting is intrinsically about electoral politics,” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, said, by way of explaining the absence of Jewish organizations involved in this discussion. “There’s fear that getting involved in a redistricting fight will convey the image that they’re getting involved in electoral politics generally.”

It isn’t that Jews haven’t been paying attention, or aren’t worried about the impact of redistricting, particularly when it comes to the seats of pro-Israel Congressional incumbents.

In 2010, billionaire Haim Saban lent $2 million to the unsuccessful campaign for Proposition 27, which aimed to eliminate the Citizens Redistricting Commission. Saban had supported the campaign for Proposition 11, which established the commission in 2008, and his reversal of course led some to speculate that Saban’s support of Proposition 27 was motivated by a desire to protect Rep. Howard Berman’s seat in Congress.

Asked to clarify Saban’s position on the redistricting panel, a Saban spokesperson responded with a prepared statement that first appeared in the L.A. Weekly in an October 2010 article.

Saban, the statement said, initially supported Proposition 11, but the media mogul later felt “it hasn’t worked out as intended.”

“Accordingly,” the statement continued, “Mr. Saban does not support expanding the commission concept to Congressional redistricting and agreed to make a loan, which has since been paid back.”

With the resignation last year of Rep. Jane Harman, a reliable pro-Israel voice in Congress, one might expect Israel supporters to speak up for other Jewish incumbent lawmakers. Working draft maps released in mid-July showed Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman drawn into one district and Reps. Adam Schiff and Henry Waxman drawn togetherinto another.

But Jews aren’t making the case, at least not to the commission. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has not made any public comments about redistricting, despite its ability to involve itself directly in politics, as a 501(c)(4) organization. Multiple calls to an AIPAC spokesperson were not returned.

One possible reason that Jews have not spoken up for Jewish incumbents could be that Jews have such disproportionate representation in state and federal government already. There are 37 Jewish lawmakers working in Washington today, including two senators and six representatives from California.

Jews make up, at most, just 2 percent of the U.S. electorate; advancing any legislation on local, statewide or national levels requires Jewish community leaders and lawmakers to work in coalition with representatives of other communities.

With efforts to develop partnerships between Jews and Latinos being undertaken by multiple organizations at a variety of levels, it could be that preserving so-called Jewish seats in Congress or state government is less important to Jewish leaders than building inter-ethnic relationships for the future.

According to relevant laws governing redistricting, Jews might not have had much of a case to make, even if they had tried to lobby the new commission.

“I don’t think it would’ve made much difference,” Raphael J. Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University, Fullerton, said. “I think Jewish voters would’ve been lumped in with white voters in general. They’re not a Voting Rights Act group.”

But Paul Mitchell, a Democratic political consultant whose firm Redistricting Partners has been closely monitoring the work of the commission, has seen evidence that even groups not protected under the Voting Rights Act can get the attention of the commission.

Working for Equality California, an organization representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Californians, Mitchell prepared a series of maps illustrating LGBT communities across the state. Watching the proceedings of the commission’s July 8 meeting, Mitchell said commissioners were consulting those maps in certain areas in an attempt to keep the LGBT communities intact.

“It’s the first time in the country’s history that a state commission has taken this kind of care to treat the LGBT community as a community of interest,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who is not Jewish, said it wouldn’t have been hard to do something similar to show where Jewish voters are concentrated, but without data-driven maps, he said, the commission is effectively ignoring local Jewish communities.

“They’re just flying blind,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think that I’ve ever heard it come up.”

Douglas Johnson, president of National Demographics Corp., said it’s already too late for the Jewish community to have much impact on the shapes of districts. The final drafts are set to be unveiled on or around July 28, and the commission could choose to hold a vote that same day. By law, the panel must certify the maps by Aug. 15.

“The consultants told the commission that for large-scale line-drawing directions, the last day [was] July 20,” Johnson said. “After that it’s only fine-tuning.”

Whatever the reason, Jews largely have been standing back and watching from the sidelines.

Treitel’s attempt at input, meanwhile, does not appear to have had much sway. Like the 2001 district lines and the June first draft, the July 16 visualization map of Los Angeles’ Congressional districts leaves Beverlywood and Pico-Robertson in a different district from the area around the intersection of Beverly and Fairfax. The same division is reflected on the most recent maps of State Senate and State Assembly district lines.

Boyle Heights: Not yet forgotten


The old man ambled up the cement stairs leading to the small front porch of his wood-plank, single-story house on Bridge Street. And, like the house, Adolfo Finkelstein, 85, is a reminder of a previous time when he would have represented the predominant demographic in the area, a time when he would have been part of the large Jewish community that once populated Boyle Heights.

For now, all that remains of that once-vast population are a few scattered remnants of the past — a Star of David along Cesar Chavez (once Brooklyn) Avenue, the aging brick edifice that is the Breed Street Shul and a handful of aged Jewish residents. The once-vibrant Jewish community has faded, but the echoes of its legacy remain with a scattered few souls.

Finkelstein is uniquely suited to have stayed in the largely Hispanic neighborhood. Having survived the Nazi occupation of his native Romania during World War II, he then immigrated to South America (sponsored by two uncles), where he set up and ran several businesses, and learned Spanish along the way. He later moved to Peru, married and raised three daughters. But business interests drove him to neighboring Columbia, Panama and Mexico. He shares the story of his imprisonment in a Tijuana jail for failing to pay a bribe to the immigration police chief: “He put me in the Tijuana central prison, but it was OK. I sold goods to the prisoners and made good money!” 

Eventually, he made his way to the United States and lived for a while in Los Angeles, in an apartment in the Fairfax district. But the loss of a roommate inevitably lead him to seek inexpensive housing in Boyle Heights, where he made a living selling goods in local swap meets. Now retired, he lives in his crowded home on Bridge Street, near the freeway. The house almost bursts with the goods he once sold — belts, ties, cameras and a various assortment of long-out-of-style men’s clothes. These articles, strewn across the floors, tables and chairs of his home, help solidify his image as the quintessential Jewish “soicher” (merchant) made famous in the writings of European Jewish authors.

The story of Eddie Goldstein is somewhat different. Goldstein, 78, was born and raised in Boyle Heights, where he has lived his entire life. He has lived in the same house on Folsom Avenue for more than 50 years, since he moved there with his mother and brothers after they were displaced by the construction of the Golden State Freeway, as were many other Boyle Heights residents in the 1950s. They used the proceeds from the government’s eminent domain actions to purchase their home. Goldstein attended Hollenbeck Junior High School and Roosevelt High School, though he says he was expelled from the latter before he could graduate, due to conflicts with teachers and other students. Long retired from the meat-packing business, these days he wiles away his time watching television and visiting with his children and grandchildren, and occasionally venturing onto iconic Ceasar Chavez Avenue to pay some utility bills or buy groceries.

Eddie Goldstein

Goldstein also has a strong connection to the predominant Latino community in the neighborhood. He married a Mexican-American woman and helped raise her children from a prior marriage. They adopted a child, Steve, who took his father’s last name. In his living room, Eddie displays the symbols of both cultures — a statue of the Virgin Mary and a replica of the flag of Israel. He says he feels quite comfortable sharing both cultures, though he straddles the edges of the two faiths. Since his children and grandchildren have been raised in the Christian traditions, he will attend church services for a family function, but makes it clear he cannot kneel before the symbol of Christ. “I’m Jewish” he says, “and we don’t kneel to Jesus.” 

But he enjoys celebrating the special foods of Passover, eating matzah brought to him by Chabad missionaries, and buying horseradish and gefilte fish. The celebrations seem to have become more important to him over the years, especially since his beloved wife, Esther, died. 

Goldstein’s uncle Louis Schwartzman once owned the Ebony Room on Brooklyn Avenue, one of the few bars on the street. The bar remained in operation until about 1980, according to Goldstein. For a time during his youth, Goldstein’s job was to stand lookout at the front door, keeping an eye out for the police, since the upstairs rooms were used sometimes for illegal purposes. He says that proprietor Schwartzman befriended some of Boyle Heights more infamous residents during the pre- and post-wars years –— known gangsters Mickey Cohen and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The Ebony Room, like so many other landmarks of Jewish Boyle Heights, has long since faded into history. “We had a lot of crazy stuff going on in those days” Goldstein recalls with a sly chuckle.

Harry and Barbara Cooper, also known as the “OGs” (Original Grandparents) for their blog, were two of Boyle Heights’ more notable recent Jewish residents. According to their granddaughter, Kim Cooper, Harry passed away last year. Barbara, now 94, no longer resides in Boyle Heights, but she continues to dispense her personal advice via her blog, and appears as spry as ever in her YouTube videos.

David Kipen

Like fading embers of a once-bright fire, Adolfo Finkelstein and Eddie Goldstein remind us of Boyle Heights’ Jewish past. New to the neighborhood, on First Street, next to the post office, another Jewish resident, David Kipen, once a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and literature director for the National Endowment for the Arts, has opened a bookstore/lending library to serve the community (see article on p. XX).  Called Libros Schmibros, it takes its name from both Spanish and Yiddish words. Kipen was raised in West L.A. and educated at Yale, and has attracted the attention of many in the neighborhood. A modern inner-city urban pioneer, his shop joins other First Street denizens, such as the community center (Corazon del Pueblo) and Josefina Lopez’s Casa 0101 Theater.

Long gone are the smells of Cantor’s Deli, the fashions of Zellman’s clothing store and the iconic bathhouse near First and Chicago streets.  Those symbols of Boyle Heights’ Jewish past, nevertheless, are examples of the evolution of the neighborhood, what professor George Sanchez has described as “creating multiculturalism on the Eastside,” the cooperation of the various ethnic groups that made Boyle Heights an example to the rest of America. “Few neighborhoods today in America are as ethnically dynamic, religiously and politically tolerant, and community proud” as Boyle Heights was more than 50 years ago, said Sanchez.

It’s not easy to identify more Jews currently in the neighborhood, and there don’t seem to be any current demographic studies on this subject — the U.S. Census does not identify residents by religion. For my study, I welcome the opportunity to meet Jews in the neighborhood and listen to their history. Perhaps this article will help uncover yet another long-time Jewish resident of Boyle Heights.

Irving Weiser was born and raised in Boyle Heights. He is an active member of the Boyle Heights Historical Society and has undertaken a personal project to find and document the last remaining Jewish Boyle Heights residents.

Bringing books to Boyle Heights


The other night, my city councilman was wishing aloud for a new word to call what’s happening lately with our neighborhood, Boyle Heights. “Revitalization” and “resurgence” came to mind, but they sounded a little on the generic side — no more appropriate to Boyle Heights than to downtown, say, or Eagle Rock. Unspoken was the eagerness to christen it anything but what a few have called it: gentrification.

As the founder of Libros Schmibros, a Boyle Heights lending library and used bookshop, naturally I’d rather not think of myself as an agent of gentrification. At Libros, we lend any book out for free. If folks want to keep a book, so much the better — we just ask for a suggested donation of half the list price. If they’re from Boyle Heights, we ask only a dollar.

So, if opening a bookstore counts as gentrification, would somebody please gentrify Beverly Hills — or, as we in Boyle Heights call it, “the other B.H.”? I used to bike home daily from Beverly Hills High School, back when bookstores still bloomed every few blocks there. Nowadays, the choice of bookstores in Beverly Hills is down to one, Taschen Books, whose pricing policy differs somewhat from ours.

If I sound a little touchy on the subject of gentrification, it’s not hard to guess why. I think of gentry as rich, which I’m not. I think of them as speculators, while I struggle to make rent every month. I also think of gentrifiers as having good taste in decorating, which I don’t, particularly. And last, rightly or wrongly, I think of gentry as gentile, and I am among the first Jews to move back into Boyle Heights since Los Angeles built the freeways.

Of course, with Jews like me, who needs goyim? I was confirmed at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform congregation across the Sepulveda Pass from the Getty. I admired the two rabbis who led it, but fundamentalist it wasn’t. We didn’t plant trees in Israel, we rehabbed single-room-occupancy housing on Skid Row. I went to Sunday school with bacon on my breath, and Cantor Sharlin played guitar.

Even today, if you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me what I am, before I’d identify myself as a Jew I’d probably call myself a Californian. But part of claiming California as your birthright is knowing your family’s history in it. What pathetically little I know, at least so far, leads back to a narrow little graveyard just over the East L.A. border called Agudath Achim, to two neighboring headstones for Anna and Israel Lake.

What I know about Anna and Israel fits easily into a paragraph. Not a Henry James-size three-pager, either, but a newspaper paragraph, wider than it is deep — rectangular, like the cemetery, or one of its plots. I know that Anna, Israel and I are related, because my family has told me as much. It’s not hard to get some of my relatives to talk about their parents’ generation. It’s just hard to get them to say anything I can actually remember.

I know that all the Lakes started out as Lefkowitzes, but beyond that, not much. When I ask about Anna and Israel, I want to know what did they look like, did they speak English, did they fall in love or were they fixed up by a yenta? My family would rather tell me how many times removed all the cousins are. I should press them, and write their answers down, but I don’t. All I know is, Anna and Israel made a life in and around Boyle Heights — not so different from what I’m doing now. 

A year ago, on July 19, I opened Libros Schmibros to the public. Nobody knew what to make of it at first — not my family and friends, not my new neighbors, really not me either. My beloved cousin Ella Zarky — who was honored this spring by The Jewish Federation in L.A. — regarded me with a mix of pride and healthy suspicion, as if I were somehow poaching on her territory. I’d never shown much in the way of philanthropic tendencies before. 

What she didn’t understand was that I opened a lending library/used bookshop in Boyle Heights for purely selfish reasons. I like hanging around with people who read, but lately readers have seemed thinner on the ground. I like bookstores and libraries, but most of the ones I knew were either closing early or shutting for good. It was either look for a job in a lousy economy, or make one up from scratch. I went for the choice that promised less rejection. How could I know that some kids would actually get turned on to reading at Libros Schmibros, and that I’d wind up doing a more street-level version of “reading promotion” than I’d ever practiced when I was the National Endowment for the Arts’ director of national reading initiatives? 

As for my neighbors, they couldn’t have been nicer, but I must have looked like a total dilettante. Almost every day, someone from right around the corner will still drop in for the first time and say, in effect, “I’ve been meaning to come in, but I figured you’d have given up by now.” Well, I’m not giving up. I’m having too good a time. I get to hang out with people who read, and I can’t decide which I like better, bookstores or libraries, so I run a combination of the two. 

The punch line is, after a year of denying that Libros Schmibros is a form of philanthropy, now I have to deny that it’s art, too. The Hammer Museum has invited Libros to create a pop-up version of our shop in its lobby gallery at Wilshire and Westwood from late August to early October. Running two crosstown shops, even just for six weeks, will probably bankrupt us, but if my sainted volunteers are up for it, so am I. Westwood just lost its last two bookstores a few months ago. Who’s to say some benevolent Westwood landlord won’t take a shine to us and invite us to stay on after the Hammer installation closes? 

Libros Schmibros comes billed as a lending library/used bookshop for Boyle Heights, it’s true. But if Libros could ever become a model to irrigate the book desert that my hometown is becoming, it wouldn’t be the first time that Boyle Heights led the way and Los Angeles followed.

Libros Schmibros, a lending library/used bookstore for Boyle Heights, is located at 2000 E. First St., Los Angeles.  E-mail: kipend@gmail.com.

Growing up in Jewish Boyle Heights


“Boyle Heights wasn’t just a geographical term, it was a mind-set.”

So says Abraham (Abe) Hoffman, and he should know.

Born and raised in Boyle Heights, a graduate of — and, later, a teacher in — its public schools, Hoffman is an academic and historian who at 72 serves as an adjunct professor at Los Angeles Valley College.

He is just off a 15-month project tracking down and compiling the reminiscences of 85 Jewish Boyle Heighters, now scattered across Los Angeles and points west, north and south.

The result of his labor of love is a special 326-page issue of the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, published by Gladys Sturman and David Epstein. The volume, also published in book form, is titled “Boyle Heights: Recollections and Reminiscences of the Boyle Heights Jewish Community in Los Angeles, 1920s-1960s” (Western States Jewish History Association, 2011).

For many years, Jews were the neighborhood’s majority ethnic group, but Boyle Heights — bounded by what is now the 10 Freeway on the north, Olympic Boulevard on the south, Indiana Street on the east, and Boyle Avenue on the west — was neither a ghetto nor a shtetl.

Depending on the year and the writer’s reliability, ethnic population estimates for Boyle Heights between world wars I and II fluctuated widely, but probably averaged around 40,000 to 50,000 Jews, 15,000 Mexicans and more than 5,000 Japanese, augmented by Armenians, Italians, Anglos, African Americans and Russian Molokans — a persecuted, kashrut-observant Christian sect that split from the Russian Orthodox Church. After 1945, a trickle of Holocaust survivors added to the mix.

Canter Bros. Delicatessen, 2323 Brooklyn Ave., Boyle Heights, circa 1938.  Photo courtesy of Len Canter

The boys and girls of all these groups met, played and formed friendships in the public schools and on the athletic fields.

The Rough Rider newspaper of Roosevelt High School ran a headline on Nov. 7, 1940, that read “Bees Triumph Over Favored Fremont Squad” when, naming two players, “Kitioka completed a forward to end Reznikoff, who went over the end zone for the second tally of the day.”

On Nov. 6, 1941, the newspaper noted that 23 seniors were in the honor society, six of them Japanese and 12 Jewish, and that the Japanese Club held a joint meeting with Los Caballeros.

George Masuki was elected president of the graduating class on March 12, 1942, just before the U.S. government ordered the evacuation of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. In a farewell note, Masuki wrote, “I am rather confused as to what will become of me when I leave school.”

As publisher Epstein observed, the young people of Boyle Heights absorbed diversity before diversity guidelines existed.

Delving into the book’s pages is like diving into a pool of vibrant humanity, none rich, most poor but without realizing it.

People worked hard to make a living. Larry Goldman remembers that his father, the manager of a shoe store, left home every morning at 8 a.m. and came home at 8 p.m., seven days a week.

Jake Farber celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Fairmount Street Shul, and “after the service, my mother made very small bags of raisins and nuts for the kids. For those who attended the service, we had herring, challah and a bottle of whiskey. That was it. No party afterwards.”

Growing up in Boyle Heights, Shimona Yaroslavsky and her brother (now L.A. County Supervisor) Zev Yaroslavsky, were strongly influenced by the ardent progressive Zionism of their Russian immigrant parents.

Both father and mother were Hebrew teachers at the nearby City Terrace Folk Schule, sponsored by the Labor Zionist Organization, where students received a secular Jewish education in both Hebrew and Yiddish, Shimona writes.

The school was the center for Zionist activities, including meetings of the Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair youth groups, and, in one notable innovation for the time, held a communal bat mitzvah for 12-year-old girls in 1950.

Copies of “Boyle Heights,” the book, can be ordered for $25 each. Make checks payable to Western States Jewish History and mail to 22711 Cass Ave., Woodland Hills, Calif., 91364. In addition, editor Abe Hoffman can be contacted for speaking engagements by calling (818) 883-7991.

On road to renewal, Shul gets multipurpose life


A plastic bag whips in the breeze, trying in vain to free itself from the coil of   barbed wire atop a chain link fence that surrounds the Breed Street Shul just off Cesar Chavez Avenue (originally Brooklyn Avenue) in Boyle Heights. The crumbling concrete stairway leading up to the double-arched doorway sags in the center, and while a stained glass Star of David crowns the facade in bright tones of amber, green and blue, a closer look reveals holes punched through the mottled panes. The window, above the proud words “Congregation Talmud Torah, Los Angeles” etched into the stonework, is boarded up from inside.

But there are signs of life in what was once know as the Queen of Shuls, the largest and last remaining of some 30 congregations that once populated Boyle Heights, the center of the Los Angeles Jewish community from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Blue and yellow extension cords snake from a fuse box outside into the building over the metal door that blocks the entrance. A contractor’s truck idles in a narrow parkway, and the sounds of drills and hammers announce that work has commenced.

For most of the last two decades, homeless squatters and opportunistic flocks of pigeons were the only inhabitants of this 18,000-square-foot Byzantine revival structure, condemned after its unreinforced masonry was badly damaged in the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. The occasional Jewish Historical Society of Southern California tour group came by, shaking their heads at the graffiti that defaced memorial plaques and folk art murals. Nostalgic Jews and, more commonly, neighborhood Latinos, peered up from Breed Street at the shattered stained-glass Jewish star and felt the tug of grandeur gone to waste, the sigh of a chapter of history surely closed.

Finally, after more than two decades of small steps and dogged efforts by a group of volunteers and preservationists, the first phase of construction is under way to convert Congregation Talmud Torah, known as the Breed Street Shul, into a center for the Latino community that now dominates the neighborhood as well as a destination for the Jewish community that abandoned the neighborhood long ago — and, perhaps most important, to help connect the two.

“When we embarked on this, our immediate goal was simply to stop demolition of something we considered a treasure, and to have there be an opportunity for the community to preserve its history and reclaim this important site,” said Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, who has spearheaded this effort from its inception. “As the project has evolved, it has taken on this additional, and I think equally — and perhaps even more — important aspect, which is using it as a resource and an opportunity to build a bridge between the Jewish community and the current neighbors of the shul.”

Peace Over Violence, a community-based nonprofit that offers Latino youth academic support and leadership opportunities, and the Jewish Free Loan Association are slated to move in. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California will house its archives here, and there will be a space where people can share their own oral histories.

Construction on the chapel building is expected to be completed by the end of summer — the small 1915 wood-frame bungalow housed Congregation Talmud Torah when it moved from downtown, where the congregation was founded in 1904. The bungalow was moved to the back of the property in 1921 to make room for the main shul. The last minyan was held in the main building in 1987, but services continued in the original structure until 1996.

A total of about $3.5 million in grants from governmental, Jewish and preservationist organizations, private donations and in-kind services over the past 15 years have repaired gaping holes in the roof, restored some of the site’s artwork, and completed some of the seismic retrofitting needed to make both buildings habitable.

There are enough funds now to complete renovations on the smaller building, and the Breed Street Shul Project plans next to launch a $10 million to $15 million campaign to renovate the main hall, which was designed by Abram M. Edelman, son of Los Angeles’ first rabbi and the same architect who created Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s iconic domed structure. When work is completed, the main shul will house an event hall with a catering kitchen, an exhibit on the multicultural history of Boyle Heights, nonprofit programs and office space, and a shared suite for nonprofit start-ups.

Ellen Sanchez, who is Jewish, and whose father grew up in Boyle Heights, is the director of Healthy Communities at Peace Over Violence and is heading up the Breed Street Shul Project. 

The chapel before restoration. Photo by Don Schwartz

“The first time we went into the shul with three or four youth leaders from Ramona Gardens,” she said, referring to the nearby public-housing project, “they had just finished renovating the mural, and Stephen Sass was giving us a tour. He explained that the Hebrew on the bottom meant, roughly, ‘stand for something,’ and that so resonated with them. You could immediately see them saying, ‘Oh, this is the work that has been going on inside this building over the years, and now we’re picking up and continuing it,’ ” Sanchez said.

She hopes to program joint activities with Jewish youth groups, and to host a Passover seder celebrating freedom.

Peace Over Violence is one of 40 Boyle Heights organizations that participates in Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year comprehensive effort funded by the California Endowment focused on strengthening health care, public safety, education and leadership in 13 communities throughout the state.

After school, Peace Over Violence kids will come to the Breed Street Shul for tutoring, homework help or classes in things like music instruction, poetry, urban art or filmmaking. A teen youth council will work on tackling the issues that face the community.

To make the bungalow suitable for programming, preservation architects opted to open up the space by removing the central bimah and the gates sectioning off the women’s area. Some restoration work already has been completed to repair vandalism — the doors to the ark that once housed the Torah were pulled off their hinges, and graffiti marred Yizkor plaques meant to memorialize the dead in perpetuity. Some of the defaced plaques will remain hanging, a testament to the building’s layered history.

The room will retain elements of the shul, most notably the wooden ark. A richly hued mural, restored last year, surrounds the ark with a lavishly painted wooden Ark draped in red velvet and golden ropes.

What was once the rabbi’s office will become a kitchen where kids can prepare their own wholesome snacks and meals and learn to cook for a healthy lifestyle.

During school hours, Sanchez hopes to run parenting classes, drawing adults to other services that might be offered. KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ literacy program, and Bet Tzedek Legal Services are considering opening up shop in the building. The Jewish Free Loan Association is already signed on to house mobile loan analysts at the shul and is working with a donor to set up a fund to serve the downtown area.

Work on the buildings sprinted ahead in the last two years after the Breed Street Shul Project, a nonprofit set up by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, hired Tsilah Burman as executive director. Burman, a long-time Los Angeles community activist whose professional experience includes nonprofit and real-estate work, has increased the fundraising, received multiple grants and managed the construction project.

Making the 1915 structure suitable for occupants is an important tangible first step.

“We can begin to show everyone what we really want to do, that this is what is going to happen on a larger scale when everything is complete,” Sass said.

Activities in the main building will be more extensive and varied, once it opens in a few years. The space will be available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras, and an expanded front lobby, with its original speckled terrazzo tiles in geometric insets, will house “The Power of Place,” an exhibit created for the Japanese American Museum about the multicultural history of Boyle Heights. Some of the artifacts from the original shul will be lent out to other shuls, but some will also be on display — heavy wooden pews, Torah mantles, and perhaps smaller items like the dusty and decaying prayer books now stacked on the bimah or cracked aleph bet chart that leans up against a rusted old radiator. Even old wine bottles still stand on a small table, as if they were never told the occupants weren’t coming back.

Robert Chattel, a preservation architect on the board of the Jewish Historical Society who has worked on the project for 20 years, says he wants to see the building be more than a museum and wedding hall.

“I want to see people in a computer class, in a reading workshop, learning Yiddish,” Chattel said. “I see this variety of things happening and maybe some of them are literally cross-cultural — there is some event that happens between 11 and 2, and another that happens at 3, and they are so different that the hour in between is when the business of becoming a community happens.”

The central bimah in the main sanctuary will be removed, but the ark and the platform leading up to it will remain. Murals around the room — folk art featuring symbols of the zodiac as well as symbols of Jewish holidays — have been partially restored.

From 2004 to 2009, the Judson Art Studio worked on restoring 47 stained-glass windows — rectangles of amber panes with jagged accents of greens and blues. (The guano was so thick that the workers who removed the windows had to wear protective suits.) Each window had an 18-inch round inset that displayed one of the 12 tribes of Israel, but only five remained. Judson restored those, and they will be on display in the historical exhibit.

Once called The Queen of Shuls, the main building will house an event hall and programming space to serve both the Latino and Jewish communities. Photo courtesy of The Breed Street Shul Project

Once the building is occupied, Judson will install reproductions of all the tribe insets.

The Star of David on the Breed Street facade will be restored (it was already restored once, then vandalized) and will remain visible from the main hall through the second-floor balcony, which once housed the women’s section. The balcony will retain the first few rows of seating, and behind that a glass wall will partition off the rest of the space for meeting rooms and a reception area.

The lower level, once the social hall, is now crowded with cobweb-covered heavy wooden tables and chairs. That space will be cleared out to make way for an office suite for nonprofit start-ups. The old stage, backed up by a mural and framed by carved wooden columns, will be glassed in to serve as a conference room. Down the hall, the old catering kitchen will be refurbished, its antique appliances replaced with easily kashered stainless steel equipment.

The architects used standards set by the secretary of the interior for preserving national landmarks to retain the feel of the shul while also making the space accessible and functional.

While Jewish law regulates decommissioning a holy space, Chattel notes that the building had been abandoned by the time the Breed Street Shul Project began its work.

Had the Jewish Historical Society not stepped in, the building could have been razed.

Jews began moving west to the Fairfax district and the San Fernando Valley after World War II. A small community still remained through the 1970s and ’80s, and the last service at the Breed Street Shul is believed to have been around 1996.

In 1988, a former Breed Street Shul rabbi and his son, not wanting to see their spiritual home given to other uses, applied for demolition permits, hoping to sell the lot to build a shul elsewhere.

Working pro bono on a political and legal strategy for more than a decade, Jewish Historical Society board member Allan Mutchnik of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Century City, got the city to have the building declared a Los Angeles historical and cultural monument in 1988, which immediately thwarted any demolition efforts. The city then put up a barbed-wire-topped fence to offer mandated protection for the monument. Because the building’s nonprofit owner — Congregation Talmud Torah’s board of directors, which was functionally, if not legally, dissolved — could not pay for the fence, the city put a lien on the building. With some arm-twisting from the Jewish Historical Society, the city enforced the lien and took title to the building. In the final move, the city tapped into a state law that allows a municipality to deed a landmark to a historical society. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California in 1999 created the Breed Street Shul Project to oversee restoration efforts and in 2000 took ownership of the building.

The shul was listed in the national registry of historic landmarks in 2001, and in the same year then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton named it as part of her Save America’s Treasures campaign.

Last month, the project held its second fundraiser, raising $150,000 and honoring Lucille Roybal-Allard, the congresswoman who procured a key U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Develoopment grant that partially funded the renovations on the 1915 building, and Yaakov Dayan, the Israeli Consul General who reached out to the Latino community, attracting 6,000 people to Fiesta Shalom in 2009, a celebration of Israel’s independence day that brought Latinos and Jews together for a street fair on Breed Street.

The shul, Sass says, has always held a place of honor in the Latino community, with Latino artists painting it and with Jewish iconography part of the local folk art. Having the building come alive will mean a lot to the local community as well as to the far-flung Jewish community, Sass said.

“On our new logo, the front doors are open, and that speaks to what we feel about this,” Sass said. “This was born of a Jewish experience in a particular time and a particular place, and that is still meaningful, and we want to share that meaning and expand it and reinvent it.”

The great California foreskin fight of 2011


As luck would have it, the day local Jewish leaders gathered in Santa Monica to discuss the community’s response to a proposed ballot measure aimed at banning circumcision in that city was the very same day the proposition was rescinded by its proponent.

Twenty-five people came to the meeting at the Milken Family Foundation offices on Fourth Street on June 6, including high-ranking Jewish professionals, local rabbis of all stripes and other Jewish community leaders.

Catherine Schneider, senior vice president for community engagement at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who orchestrated the two-week-long effort to fight the proposed ballot initiative, said the prevailing atmosphere in the room that morning was of deep concern.

“People had very strong opinions of what this would mean for their communities,” Schneider said.

“One of the concerns that I had was that people not look at this and say, ‘Look what those nuts in Santa Monica are doing,’ ” said Richard Bloom, the city’s mayor, who attended the June 6 meeting. Bloom, who is Jewish, spoke first. He pledged his full support to fight against the measure.

Bloom’s other concern — one expressed by many others at the meeting — was that people might not take the situation seriously. An entire genre of Jewish humor focuses on ritual circumcisers, or mohelim. (Have you heard the one about the wallet? How about the one about the storefront with the clock in the window?)

But aside from writers of pun-filled newspaper headlines, nobody involved in this fight is joking.

A measure identical to the one submitted and quickly rescinded in Santa Monica is set to appear on the ballot in San Francisco in November 2011. If passed, the new law would make circumcision of a minor — for any reason other than a medical emergency — a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in county jail. The Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) is currently leading a broad-based campaign against that proposition, which could cost as much as $500,000 — none of it tax-deductible. Last week, lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., independently announced that they would try to derail the ballot initiative by legislative means.

And, if you listen closely to the individuals on both sides of the Great Foreskin Fight of 2011, it becomes clear how committed they all are to their respective causes. Also apparent is just how complicated the debate around circumcision is — religiously, legally and, yes, medically.

Lawyers on both sides of the debate argue vociferously about what rights a parent should have vis-à-vis a child and whether cities should have any authority in matters of medical care. The foremost American medical authorities neither recommend routine infant circumcision nor explicitly discourage parents from circumcising their infant sons, leaving doctors and researchers to argue vehemently in favor and against the procedure and accuse one another of practicing junk science.

Meanwhile, mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers have been staking out opposing positions with equal passion. And while the overwhelming majority of religious leaders — particularly Jewish ones, but others as well — have spoken out against the proposed ban, a small band of Jews are working to make the decision not to circumcise one’s son into a legitimate Jewish choice.

Who are the intactivists?

Of the three anti-circumcision activists — intactivists, as many call themselves — who became the faces of the campaign to ban the practice in California cities, two are relative newcomers to the movement. But the fight over circumcision has been going on for decades, and the histories of all three can all quickly be traced back to the roots of the anti-circumcision movement, a small but vocal group that has never enjoyed as much attention as it is getting today.

Jena Troutman is the mother of two young sons who was behind the short-lived attempt to ban circumcision in Santa Monica. As an active member of the “natural birth community,” Troutman, who works as a midwife’s assistant and is a certified lactation educator and birth doula, is emblematic of a certain subgroup of the   intactivist movement.

Natural moms are, Troutman explained, the kind of moms who insist on delaying the cutting of a baby’s umbilical cord, to ensure that babies get as much of the placental blood as possible. These moms wear their babies and co-sleep with them. They oppose unnecessary Caesarean sections, prefer home births and are fierce advocates of breastfeeding. Some, Troutman said, question the need for and safety of vaccinations, and it’s no surprise, then, that they’d also be against circumcision.

“We call ourselves ‘lactavist intactivists,’ ” Troutman said. Troutman, who looks young for her 30-odd years and still has the voice of a much younger woman, is an unlikely candidate to spearhead a political campaign that was bound to be controversial.

“I was popular in high school,” Troutman said in an interview last week. “I’ve been popular my whole life. I don’t like it when people don’t like me.”

Troutman’s first exposure to intactivist ideas came in college. A women’s studies professor asked Troutman to explain why she thought circumcision shouldn’t be considered mutilation. “I said, it just isn’t; it’s just what’s done, and it’s not that bad,” Troutman recalled.

Troutman has come a long way since then, boasting a near-100 percent success rate in convincing her clients to keep their babies whole. In the last two years, Troutman has become much more active. In 2010, she founded wholebabyrevolution.com, a Web site for “parents still seeking answers to their circumcision questions.” She drew 30 people to a Genital Integrity Rally at Venice Beach in April as part of a nationwide campaign, and said she staged a few other protests outside local Santa Monica hospitals.

“I just can’t stand that I look over and see St. John’s and know that little babies are being cut in there,” Troutman said.

And so, in May, after hearing news of a toddler’s death following his circumcision in a New York City hospital, Troutman contacted Matthew Hess, the president of MGMBill.org.

Matthew Hess, an “intactivist” campaigning against circumcision, holds his foreskin restoration device. Photo by Will Parson

Hess, 42, lives in San Diego and has been a devoted intactivist for more than a decade. Hess, who isn’t Jewish, was circumcised as a baby in a hospital setting. Sometime in his late 20s, he began to notice a “slow, significant decline in sexual sensitivity.” He found his way to the Web sites of a few prominent intactivist groups, and was shocked by what he found.

“It showed what a normal foreskin looked like and the nerve endings that it contained,” Hess said. He found the photographs of particular interest. “It showed all kinds of circumcision damage. It showed what’s lost when you’re circumcised.”

Hess, who is married and has no children, used a “nonsurgical foreskin restoration” technique that entails pulling the remaining skin over the head of the penis and keeping it there, which, Hess said, can reverse the keratinization, or toughening, of the skin on the head of the penis. Hess said his sexual experience improved dramatically as a result. “It was night and day,” he said.

Radicalized by his own experience and frustrated by the rate at which routine circumcisions were still taking place in the United States, Hess became politically active.

In 2002, Hess went to a biennial symposium organized by the preeminent education organization in the intactivist movement, the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC). The four-day event, which took place in April and was NOCIRC’s seventh such conference, featured speakers from all over the United States and Canada, as well as from Europe, Australia and Israel. In all, about 100 people attended, and Hess left feeling energized.

“What can I contribute?” Hess remembered thinking. “What’s not being done?”

The answer was the MGM Bill. The acronym stands for Male Genital Mutilation, and Hess, who is not a lawyer (he wouldn’t disclose his profession, saying only that he does not work in a field related to medicine, circumcision or religion), took the language of the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995 and altered it to apply it to men. “It wasn’t like no one had ever thought of it before,” Hess said. “I was just the first one to do it.”

Indeed, when Congress was considering outlawing female genital mutilation, or FGM, some lawmakers had anticipated exactly this consequence. In an article dated Oct. 12, 1996, about the passage of the law prohibiting FGM, New York Times reporter Celia W. Dugger noted that the proponents of the law had some difficulty getting it through Congress, for two reasons. “Some members simply could not believe that the practice actually goes on,” Dugger wrote. “And some were worried that it would lead to proposals to abolish male circumcision.”

Hess purchased the domain name mgmbill.org on Nov. 21, 2003, and began soliciting comments on his modified version of the FGM law a few weeks later. Starting in 2004, and every year since, Hess and his network of volunteers have submitted copies of the MGM Bill to the president of the United States and to every member of the House and Senate. Hess and his partners across the country have also annually submitted state-specific bills to every lawmaker in their states.

In eight years, only one lawmaker, then Massachusetts state Sen. Michael W. Morrissey, has formally introduced the bill into a committee. It took three years, but on March 2, 2010, Hess and 16 other intactivists testified in favor of the bill at a public hearing before the Massachusetts Senate Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Three people testified against it, including one representative from Christians and Jews United for Israel. The committee rejected the bill and it expired at the end of the legislative term.

In 2011, the MGM Bill was again submitted to federal lawmakers as well as legislators in 14 different states. But in 2010, Hess had decided to try a new tactic: city-based ballot initiatives.

Lloyd Schofield, the proponent of the San Francisco ballot measure that could ban circumcision in the city, went to his first NOCIRC symposium in July 2010 in Berkeley. Hess was there, but Schofield doesn’t remember talking to him. “I think I just shook his hand,” Schofield said in a recent interview.

Schofield refuses to talk about himself much and wouldn’t even confirm the information he apparently gave to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter (who also found him somewhat reticent) in November 2010.

“So who is Schofield?” the Chronicle’s Heather Knight wrote. “He won’t say much other than that he’s a 58-year-old who used to work for a ‘major hotel chain.’ He lives with his partner near Buena Vista Park, and they have no children. His Facebook page notes he’s a fan of ‘The WHOLE Network,’ ‘Bring Back Saving Penises’ and ‘Catholics Against Circumcision.’ But don’t bother asking whether he had the procedure done himself.”

Schofield, who was raised Baptist, said he didn’t have to think much about circumcision. “I just knew this was wrong all my life,” he said.

Schofield said he thinks Marilyn Milos, the Bay Area founder of NOCIRC and the godmother of the intactivist movement, recommended him to be the San Francisco proponent for the MGM ballot initiative.

“I don’t think I was the first choice,” Schofield said, but he and Hess talked and e-mailed a few times, and eventually Schofield agreed to serve as proponent. Schofield didn’t do much of the collecting of signatures, and the first time he and Hess ever spoke to one another in person was on the morning of April 26, the day that they — along with Milos and others — delivered the more than 12,000 signatures that had been collected in support of the San Francisco circumcision ban to the office of the city’s department of elections. 

On May 18, 2011, San Francisco city officials announced that the ballot measure that Hess had written and that Schofield had put forward for San Francisco had qualified for inclusion on the November ballot.

The next day, in solidarity with Schofield, and in memory of Jamaal Coleson Jr., the toddler who died after being circumcised in New York, Troutman submitted her ballot initiative to the Santa Monica City Clerk.

“I think I talked to him once,” Troutman said of her contact with Hess. Hess modified the text of the ballot initiative to make it appropriate for the City of Santa Monica. All Troutman had to do was download the file.

“I printed out the papers,” Troutman said, and took them to City Hall. “It took me five minutes to submit.”

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