Kyle Clark, Brandon Rittiman should moderate all the debates


Kyle Clark. Photo courtesy of KUSA

And Brandon Rittiman. Rittiman and Clark (above) of KUSA-TV in Denver are the winners of this year's Walter Cronkite Awards for Excellence in TV Political Journalism.  Photo courtesy of KUSA

Rittiman and Clark are political reporters at KUSA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Denver. Their station says it has “adopted a ‘pro-fact’ philosophy… which requires tenacity in a world full of tailored-to-fit narratives cooked up by political operatives.” I’d love to see Rittiman and Clark go all pro-fact on Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, and on Hilary Clinton, too, the way they did with Gardner and Udall. I’d love to see Rittiman fact-check presidential campaign ads as mercilessly as he has for state races in Colorado. That these two guys in local TV news are getting the airtime and resources they have is an industry exception that ought to be the rule.

Do you watch local TV news? Do you know many people who do? I don’t. Most people I know have written off local news as all crime, all the time, plus vapid chatter about weather, sports and accidents. I don’t think that’s wildly unfair. In Los Angeles, if I want hard news, the last place I’d think to look for it would be a TV set tuned to local news.

But that just proves what a freaking bubble I live in.

In fact, local TV news is the “>http://www.learcenter.org/project/ca/. For Rittiman’s ad watches, KUSA has also won a prize named for Brooks Jackson, founding director of “>Handicapping the likely suspects has already begun. Personally, I can’t think of a better plan than to have all the presidential candidates subjected to Rittiman and Clark.

I don’t doubt that current White House contenders are preparing their own versions of Newt Gingrich’s

Learning to argue on Tisha b’Av


As we approach Tisha b’Av, the State of Israel is at war. The day’s commemoration of sorrow and pain, and urgent calls for introspection and reflection, couldn’t be coming at a more needed time.

On Tisha b’Av we take upon ourselves the burden, and the grace, of our connection to all Jews past, present and future, in times of suffering, as in times of joy. Maintaining that solidarity isn’t easy, and it takes work, on Tisha b’Av itself, and the whole year through.

Jews love to argue, above all with one another. The higher the stakes, the higher the decibels, and at times, things can get ugly, and worse. This current war has fostered much consensus within Israel, but large arguments are not far beneath the surface, and outside Israel they are out in the open. Can we argue with one another and still remain whole?

From the Bible onward, death and destruction have been seen not only as challenges to overcome but as occasions for us to come to grips with our own flaws and responsibilities. The Second Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud famously said, was destroyed in 70 CE because of “sinat chinam,” literally free hatred, or hatred for no reason.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of modern Palestine and the leading theologian of religious Zionism, famously said that the Temple will only be rebuilt through “ahavat chinam,” freely given love. But in light of current events, and the heated debates they have unleashed, it’s worth focusing on a different dimension of Rav Kook’s teachings — and that is how to fight with one another.

Today’s debates are ferocious, but so were the Jewish arguments of the last century.  Zionists, socialists, nationalists, Orthodox traditionalists, liberals and more argued intensely, often bitterly, over how best to secure Jewish physical and cultural survival. Kook, who made aliyah from Eastern Europe in 1904, found himself at the center of those debates and tried, with the aid of vast learning, theological daring and his own richly conciliatory personality, to find a way to forge some kind of peace while honoring the integrity of different positions.

In one of his reflections, he wrote, arrestingly, that three forces are at work within all people: “the holy, the nation, humanity.” The revolutionary changes of modern times have torn them apart, yielding, among Jews, three different, regularly antagonistic  currents — nationalism, liberalism and Orthodoxy.

All three have truth on their side, and must try to appreciate one another — not by wishing away disagreement but recognizing the integrity of each other’s positions: Nationalism’s rootedness in real love of one’s community, Orthodoxy’s rootedness in a flaming desire for God, liberalism’s rootedness in an ultimately divine perspective of all humanity as created in God’s image.

What synthesizes all three elements — religious commitment, national identity and ethical universalism — is, Kook continues, a sacred energy deriving from and driven by God.

Kook urges us to engage in a studied appreciation of our ideological opponents and the genuine values animating them, while also taking a genuine stand on behalf of the ideals in which we ourselves truly believe. He urges each one of us to recognize not only that our opponents are fellow human beings – and, in the context of intra-communal debates, fellow Jews — but also that they have a piece of the truth that may be unavailable to us. God and His truth are large, and He speaks as best He can in a tortured, fragmentary world.

Much has changed since Kook’s time: Party and ideological lines have shifted, and the Jewish people have been faced with crueler fates and more complicated dilemmas than he could have imagined, stemming both from ultimate victimhood and newfound power. But his ideas point toward a way of thinking, of arguing, passionately and heatedly, while keeping a sense of our ultimate solidarity alive.

There is one caveat: The ideological combatants with whom Rav Kook engaged were all, each in their way, passionately committed to Jewish survival, to the well being of other Jews, and were willing to live out their commitments and live with the consequences. When we urge our positions on our fellow Jews, that is the test we have to pass, the hard question we have to ask ourselves, on Tisha b’Av and every day.

(Yehudah Mirsky teaches at Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and is the author of the recently published “Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.”)

 

The next president’s gums


It’s surprising that 40 years passed between the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, which won the largest viewing audience in television history until then,
and the airing of the first season of “Survivor,” a monster hit that launched the “reality” boom that’s dominated television ever since.

Those presidential debates were arguably the first reality show. What took so long for television executives to figure out that there’s gold in them thar unscripted hills?

Maybe it’s because “debate” is such a high-minded term. Maybe we’re too embarrassed to admit that the history of presidential debates is actually a branch of the history of show business.

We speak with reverence about the Nixon-Kennedy debates, as though judging their outcome by whose 5 o’clock shadow looked worse on TV doesn’t amount to Exhibit A of our susceptibility to stagecraft. We love recalling Ronald Reagan’s putting away the age issue with a gag (“I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience”), as though his getting off a good joke were enough to undo our complicity in his subsequent cluelessness about Iran-Contra. We delight in noting how Al Gore’s sighing, George H.W. Bush’s looking at his watch and Michael Dukakis’ unwillingness to bite Bernie Shaw’s head off because of a hypothetical about his wife Kitty being raped, could well have lost them the White House, as though deciding presidential elections on “American Idol” criteria weren’t an indictment of the shallowness of the media-political complex.

Yet, we keep on insisting that how a candidate does in a presidential debate is a useful surrogate for how he would do as president. What was there about George W. Bush’s opposition to nation building in the 2000 debates that could have enabled us to anticipate his aggrandizing freedom-on-the-march agenda? What was it in Dick Cheney’s performance during the debates that could have prefigured the most arrogant flouting of the Constitution in the history of the Republic? For that matter, what was it that Bill Clinton said to Bob Dole in 1996 that might have forewarned us of the indiscipline and heartache to follow? Only hindsight makes any of those encounters illuminating.

As an inveterate goo-goo, I know I should be encouraged by the new proposal from the Commission on Presidential Debates: To junk the 30-second timers and to give the candidates eight 10-minute segments to discuss single topics that are lobbed in by a moderator who then withdraws to the sidelines. But this strikes me as tinkering at the margins.

Candidates have an innate horror of going off message. That’s why debate prep is a quadrennial growth industry in campaignland. Thick binders, with tabbed Qs & As on every conceivable topic, are already being assembled. Key phrases are being polled and focus-grouped. The most wounding attacks are being imagined and countered. Potentially embarrassing votes and quotes are being catalogued and repudiated. Jokes and one-liners are being contributed by advisers and gag-writers. Stand-ins for the opposition are being coached for rehearsal. Gimmicks and stunts are being compiled and considered: issuing a challenge to sign a no-new-taxes pledge, say, or to have your gums examined by a panel of independent periodontists.

Presidential debates are solemnly portrayed by the media as great learning opportunities for the public. But unless something goes very wrong, there is nothing substantive a candidate will say in a debate that he has never said before. We are conditioned by the press to expect spontaneity, candor, a bombshell, a Perry Mason ending. “Did you hear that? He’s for the Arabs! He admitted it!” Or: “See? He’s a just another Republican, in maverick’s clothing.” But what we actually get is political kabuki — scripted and choreographed down to the last gesture and gerund.

The early press reaction to the Commission on Presidential Debates’ proposed format is a microcosm of what now counts for political analysis. At two of the three debates, candidates will sit together at a table. This, we are told in various media accounts, will have the effect of neutralizing the height advantage that Obama, at 6 foot 1, has over McCain, who is 5 foot 9.

I don’t doubt that for some American voters, a candidate’s height is a worthy proxy for his presidentiality. Nor do I doubt that for other Americans, race or age or rumors will determine whom they choose. I am also aware — though it depresses me deeply — that the outcome of the election will likely depend on those voters who reach Election Day still undecided. Apparently a two-year campaign will have offered these swing voters in swing states insufficient information on which to base a decision.

That the result of a presidential race may depend on the limbic systems of a million or so Americans is a feature, not a bug, of universal suffrage. What Thomas Jefferson and James Madison proposed as countervailing measures to combat the potential dangers of self-government were a thriving public education system, an ingenious mechanism of checks and balances and a robust Fourth Estate. Unfortunately, none of these systems for safeguarding democracy from ignorance and subversion is in notably healthy shape today, which leaves us at the mercy of sound bites, canned quips and body language.

Instead of applauding genteel format tweaking, why don’t we junk the Commission on Presidential Debates entirely? It was an outrage when, in 1986, the two political parties seized control of the debates from the League of Women Voters. Ever since, the candidates have signed Memoranda of Understanding under party auspices that virtually guarantee the twin hazards of civic piety and packaged zingers.

Rather than holding the debates in college auditoriums full of “soft supporters,” why not broadcast one of them, say, from a crowded classroom in Dorsey High during lockdown and see which candidate can best connect with the future American workforce? Rather than pretending that questions like, “How can you do everything you promise and still balance the budget?” will get honest answers, why not ask the viewing audience to text in after each response whether they believed what they heard?

My first question for the candidates? “If you don’t do something in your first 100 days that pisses off half the public, you’ll be a lousy president who’ll break the country’s heart again. Energy, education, immigration, Iraq: nothing’s got easy answers. Which of you has the balls to tell us some hard ones?” Well, maybe not “pisses off” and “balls.” But you get the idea. And so should they.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears weekly in this space. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.


Election Education


Democrats and Republicans may have done their best to get out the vote, but nothing quite does it like making it part of the school curriculum. At schools around the city this week, regular classes were suspended so that kids from elementary to high school could dip their young toes into the political waters.

On election day at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, the student council ran a polling place in the gym for pre-first- through eighth-graders, complete with official booths and “I voted” stickers. In the weeks leading up to the elections, kids as young as 5 learned to identify the major candidates and older kids learned about the electoral process (something about “electoral universities” sixth-grader Rebecca Asch said) and the issues at stake in this election.

All that came into play last week when seventh- and eighth-graders participated in mock debates before the rest of the school.

Students who had prepared position papers as part of an assignment for Hal Steinberg’s history class presented ideas on health care, taxes, the war in Iraq and social security. They delivered impromptu responses to their peers’ offerings, and were able to be a little more forthright than the actual candidates. Here, Sen. John Kerry (Simha Haddad) said President George W. Bush’s ego and his need to finish his father’s war drove him to make unwise decisions. Bush (Daniel Lazar) said it wasn’t fair to tax rich people for money they worked hard for.

“It was interesting because we could see both sides of the issues, which are difficult, in ways we could understand,” seventh-grader Benny Gelbart said.

And lest we think this is just some quaint academic exercise, Steinberg sees it otherwise.

“Some of these kids will be voting in just six years,” he said. “This gives them a chance to see that every vote is important.”

Sunday Best

For several years now synagogues have been scheduling adult education classes on Sunday mornings in a sometimes successful attempt to challenge the parental ritual of dropping the kids off at Hebrew school and then killing two hours at Starbucks or the gym.

This year, National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) — the people who brought us Shabbat Across America and Read Hebrew America — is taking that a step further, introducing the Great Jewish Parenting Challenge. NJOP has collaborated with shuls nationwide to offer its signature crash courses in Hebrew, Judaism, Jewish history and the holidays on Sunday mornings.

“There are a lot of congregations within this one congregation, so we offer things when people are available,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, which is participating in the Sunday morning Parenting Challenge.

The five-week Hebrew reading course, which will kick off the program at Beth Shir Shalom, is also being offered at dozens of Los Angeles-area shuls at different times during the week. So parents who are loathe to give up those two hours of freedom on Sunday morning can opt to schlep out on a Wednesday evening instead.

The first part of Beth Shir Shalom’s Great Jewish Parenting Challenge goes from now to Dec. 5, and students can join midcourse. Call (310) 453-3361 for more information. For other locations, call (800) 444-3273 or visit www.njop.org.

‘Tis the Season …

…to worry about church-state separation. With December just around the corner and Chanukah coming quite a bit earlier than Christmas this year, the wink and nod behind the generic “holiday” celebrations becomes even more disingenuous, especially in public schools and other government settings. The Anti-Defamation League has some balanced and detailed information on its Web site on what exactly constitutes breaches of the church-state wall, and which public decorations and celebrations are and aren’t allowed. An example: Singing Handel’s “Messiah” — good. Singing 23 Christmas carols without so much as one dreidel made out of clay — not so good. Hanging a wreath on the teacher’s lounge door — joyous and welcome. Hanging a crucifix with “Jesus Loves Me” on the third-grade bulletin board — try again.

For more information, look under the “Religious Freedom” menu on the left-hand side of the home page at www.adl.org.

Positive Parenting

Just as in any other profession, parenting requires the input and knowledge of experts and the group networking and support a good conference can provide. Recognizing that need, the Orthodox Union, with funding from The Jewish Federation, is holding its third annual Positive Parenting Conference on Nov. 14.

“There may be challenges to our parenting where our own resources, based upon our experiences and our own education, may not give us enough to be able to effectively deal with issues,” said Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, dean of the Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center, which is hosting and co-sponsoring the event.

Experts will address issues such as helping children deal with anger; the consequences of overindulging children; monitoring Internet access, friends and afterschool activities; dealing with religious differences within a family; and the emotional and academic issues linked to learning disabilities.

The conference will be held Sunday, Nov. 14, 8:45 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center, 15365 Magnolia Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Admission is $10 in advance (via mail) and $15 at the door. For reservations and information, call (310) 229-9000, ext. 6.

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at julief@jewishjournal.com or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.

Israel in the Classroom


“Before [the crisis], our approach to teaching Israel was just positive and idealistic. It was all about kibbutzim and how Israel is so beautiful and we all want to go there,” said Ellen Goldberg, the principal of Temple Isaiah Religious School. “We want [the children] to love Israel, but they hear people saying that people are doing bad things there. We have to find way to make them care about it and love it anyway so they will have that connection.”

While the war in the Middle East continues, teaching Jewish children about the historical and current significance of Israel proves to be a challenge for religious schools and day schools alike. The dilemma has forced educators to find creative ways to help students understand and appreciate the Jewish homeland. In Judaic studies programs in Los Angeles, teachers have risen to the challenge.

At Temple Isaiah, fourth- and fifth-graders participated in debates on how to solve the crisis in Israel and wrote letters to Israeli soldiers. They also raised money to purchase an ambulance and medical equipment for Magen David Adom (Israel’s National Emergency Service). Goldberg believes that the key to teaching students about Israel is staying informed. “You don’t really know what’s happening in children’s minds, but you do need to be prepared for anything they ask, so one of my roles is to give them as much information as possible,” she explained.

Goldberg stays in close contact with the Bureau of Jewish Education for new developments. “We want [students] to have the facts as opposed to rumors,” she said.

At Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School in Encino, fundraising efforts for Israel are both educational and helpful in providing a sense of community. In December, students, parents and congregants worked together to raise money to buy an ambulance for Magen David Adom. On the fourth night of Chanukah, the Student Council encouraged the day school students to ask their parents to donate money for the cause in lieu of giving gifts. The vehicle was delivered to the school playground during a Yom HaAtzmaut celebration. “I think what’s unique to our school this year is how we have celebrated Israel in light of what’s going on,” said Tamar Raff, director of studies-Judaic at Valley Beth Shalom.

In addition, Rabbi Edward Feinstein spoke to the students about the difficulties of making peace. “He challenged the kids to go home and the next time they got in a fight with a sibling, to say they were sorry, instead of trying to figure out who was right or wrong,” Raff said. “A couple kids came back and said that the rest of the family went into shock!” she said laughing, but pointed out that the exercise helped children to understand the Middle East crisis.

Fourth-grade students created an Israel museum, collecting items from home, including books, coins, postcards, toys and pictures. All of the students, from kindergarten through sixth-grade, visited the display. “[We want] our children to feel like Israel is our country. Not a place to visit, like France, but ours,” Raff said.

At Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox day school in Los Angeles, Rabbi Karmi Gross strives to find the balance between sharing the harsh reality and focusing on the positive. “The fear is that if we build up how dangerous the situation is and relay every single incident, the students will think Israel is a dangerous place to go. We don’t want to overdo the danger, but we want students to feel very connected with what’s going on,” Gross said.

Through Project Kesher, the school has adopted a family that lost a loved one in a suicide bombing. In addition to raising money for the family, students also write letters to the children in the family. “[The experience] is making it personal for them since it’s something that’s happening very far away,” Gross said. “[The situation] is something we care deeply about, but we also tell our students that Israel’s a thriving, beautiful country and children play in the streets every day just like you do.”