Service Reaches Out to Jews by Choice

It fit somehow that this recent Saturday service for converts to Judaism took place in a synagogue library. Because this gathering, at Temple Beth Am near Beverly Hills, was both an exercise in worship and in teaching. Maybe it even fit that this was a children’s library, because many of the 40 adults who sat in folding chairs are young in relation to their Judaism.

This program, called Judaism by Choice, is “a way of educating the people while they’re in the service itself, teaching it while they’re doing the service … the terms of the synagogue, the geography of the service,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the program’s creator.

Judaism by Choice moves converts out of the classroom and into a synagogue setting. Developed by Weinberg earlier this year, the explanatory Shabbat service is a helpful alternative to leaving would-be Jews to learn about Shabbat by sitting along in the back of a sanctuary trying to unravel a ritual’s nuances.

“The whole idea behind this is to get people integrated into the synagogue community,” Weinberg said. “Many times when people convert, we leave them dripping at the mikvah.”

In the midst of library book titles such as “ABC Dog” and “I Wish I Were a Princess,” the Conservative rabbi delivered a relaxed but focused instructional service-seminar.

“It goes at a slower pace, and Rabbi Weinberg really goes over every detail of the service,” said Emily Camras, a convert whose brother-in-law is Rabbi Richard Camras at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. “It’s not just any old regular service.”

An Aug. 6 debut gathering at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino attracted about 70 people, said Weinberg, who also runs the Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles

The Beth Am service had the typical face of a conversion crowd: a few seniors; a younger Ashkenazic man walking arm-in-arm with a blonde woman; and several 20-something couples, mostly Jewish men with Asian or Hispanic fiancées.

People are free to interrupt the service to ask questions, something they can’t do at regular services. One woman asked if there’s a difference between “Shabbat Shalom” and “Good Sabbath.” There is not, Weinberg said. “We can explain these things to them,” Weinberg told The Journal. “Things we take for granted that aren’t obvious to people who are new.”

This fall, Judaism by Choice will hold services at five local shuls. Funded by anonymous donors in cooperation with participating synagogues, the program is on the verge of nonprofit incorporation.

Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweiss said Judaism by Choice is sorely needed.

“The Conservative movement in particular has to wake up, that you have to reach out,” he said, adding that some converts perceive a typical synagogue as “not cordial” to outsiders.

Among the 80 participants at Temple Beth Am in late August was Fredya Rembaum, the wife of Beth Am Senior Rabbi Joel Rembaum — a sign that synagogue leadership is taking note of those who might be shul shopping.

The group will meet again Sept. 10 at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

“We hope that by exposing people to who we are, that those who agree with our philosophy will be motivated to join us,” Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe said. He wants the converts to see “all the things that make us special. You don’t only want to speak to people inside your walls.”

Weinberg described Judaism by Choice as “rigorous and consistent with the philosophy of Conservative Judaism.” He also has a slightly altered Shabbat service for the Reform temples he’ll visit with the converts this fall.

The immediate success of the program doesn’t surprise Weinberg, who said converts are eager to participate in religious life.

As the Temple Beth am service came to a close, the rabbi included one last instruction. “Turn to the person next to you and say, ‘Shabbat Shalom.'”

Judaism by Choice services: Sept. 10, Sinai Temple in Westwood; Sept 24, Adat Ariel in North Hollywood; Nov. 5, Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air; Nov. 19, Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills; and Dec. 17, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown.


7 Days In Arts

Head to Topanga Canyon tonight for an evening of theater under the stars. Lillian Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine” opens tonight at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum outdoor amphitheater. When Hellman wrote it in the late 1930s, she intended it to serve as a warning against American isolationism in the face of growing fascism in Germany. Unfortunately, her call went unheeded, and it served instead as a harbinger. See if it holds up these many years later.8 p.m. $8-$25, or free (children 5 and under). 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. (310) 455-3723.


Those wishing to support labor come together for an afternoon of Jewish activism and entertainment today. Progressive Jewish Alliance and The Jewish Coalition for Hotel Workers sponsor Justice in the Park, an event aimed at educating and mobilizing the community in support of hotel workers, while having some fun. Families are invited to picnic, enjoy the klezmer/jazz/funk fusion music of the Alef Project, debate the issues and participate in storytelling and art workshops. They are also asked to bring rice, beans, diapers, detergent and toothpaste in support of the workers.2:30-4:30 p.m. Roxbury Park Auditorium, 471 S. Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills. (323) 761-8350.


Mythic-looking figures float in dramatic pose before elemental backdrops, watery or fiery or both at once, in the emotional paintings of Arina Sleutsker. Her images are fantastic, depicted in rich, swirling color suggesting movement. Titled “Flight of Fancy,” her current exhibition opens this week at Finegood Art Gallery.10 a.m.-9 p.m. (Mon.-Thurs.), 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri.-Sun.). 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 885-0430.


Dropping today is the new Lisa Loeb album, “The Way It Really Is.” At times poppy, at other times acoustic and folky, Loeb’s new CD offers catchy tracks, including “Would You Wander,” with pretty harmonies provided by The Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers.$17.98.


Playwright Yehuda Hyman lends his talents to a free writing workshop for seniors continuing today. Music, movement and dramatic situations will all be utilized to help participants hone their creativity and use personal and Jewish cultural experience in their writing. Although the four-part series began Aug. 4, those interested can still enroll for the last three sessions.3-5 p.m. Free. Ages 65+. Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (213) 613-1700, ext. 36.


Slime and bubbling potions distract the kids from the fact that they’re learning today at the Zimmer Children’s Museum. Head over with them this afternoon for some “Mad Science.” They’ll don their lab coats and meet the Mad Scientist, who, with the help of some test tubes and a little flare, introduces children to the amazing world of science.2 p.m. Free (members), $3 (nonmembers, in addition to admission fee). 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, Los Angeles. (323) 761-8998.


Tonight, begin with Ophelia and end with Neil Diamond. Ptero Dance Theatre presents “Candle in the Sun,” a five-piece dance suite that moves from darkness and struggle to light and enlightenment. They begin with “OmPaHdEnLeIsAs (Madness Within Ophelia),” then move to “Scrape,” “Where the Body Ends” and “A Woman in There Somewhere” and end with “Diamond Dances,” a celebration of life set to three songs by the sparkly shirted one.8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 7 p.m. (Sun.). Special youth concert on Aug.15, at 3 p.m. Through Aug. 22. $10-22. Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. (310) 399-3132.

One Powerful Parchment

Jono Wagmeister’s bar mitzvah adventure started at a friend’s bat mitzvah in Atlanta last April, and took him on a virtual journey across the world and through centuries of Jewish history.

It was in Atlanta that Jono first heard about the 1,564 scrolls the Nazis collected and catalogued for a future exhibit on the extinct race. In 1964 the decaying scrolls were transported to Westminster Synagogue in London, where they were repaired, catalogued and made available on loan to synagogues around the world through the Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre.

When Wagmeister returned to Los Angeles, he found out that University Synagogue, where he had attended Hebrew school since first grade, had just such a scroll.

“I thought, ‘How come we have this special thing and no one knows about it?'” said Wagmeister, a seventh-grader at Harvard-Westlake School.

He found out that Rabbi Allen Freehling, rabbi emeritus at University Synagogue, acquired the scroll in 1974. Wagmeister continued his research by Internet and phone, and found out that the scroll was scribed in 1690 and was from Kolin, a small Czech town near Prague.

Susan Boyer, a resident of Los Angeles and a founding member of the Czech Torah Network, which links institutions with scrolls, helped him get in touch with Hana Greenfield, one of a handful of survivors from Kolin.

Greenfield, who lives in Israel, was deported to Terezin, then to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Her story is documented in her autobiography, “Fragments of Memory: From Kolin to Jerusalem” (Gefen Publishing) and she has been involved in Israel and the Czech Republic in educating children about the Holocaust.

Greenfield accepted Wagmeister’s invitation to his bar mitzvah (he is paying for her ticket with the gift money he will receive) and will be called to the Torah for an aliyah when Wagmeister reads the Torah portion from the scroll from Greenfield’s hometown.

“Now I feel that there’s this connection between my synagogue and this scroll, and the synagogue that the scroll came from before the war,” Wagmeister said. “I hope that every time people see this scroll in synagogue now, it will be more meaningful for them.”

Hana Greenfield is speaking on Monday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m.
at University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255.
For more information on the Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre, visit .

You Take the Good, You Take the Bad

The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that we are created with yetzer hatov (good inclination) or yetzer harah (bad inclination).

And, like Harry Potter and the evil Lord Voldemort, they’re engaged in a never-ending battle. And have been since birth.

Indeed, with apologies to John Locke, the 17th-century philosopher who claimed that human beings are born a blank slate to be imprinted upon by family and society, I can tell you that my four sons emerged from the womb fully wired with good and bad proclivities and with essentially the same personality, and personality quirks that they possess today.

And while they didn’t arrive with an instruction book — only a no-exchange, no-return policy — they did come equipped with free will, giving them the ability to make decisions regarding their actions. Of course, not necessarily decisions that further their best interests, decisions that require harnessing, suppressing or redirecting their bad inclination.

But that’s our job as parents — to help our children make sound choices, control their bad inclination and become solid Jewish citizens.

"I thought your job was to make us happy," Jeremy, 14, says.

"No, our job is to educate and civilize you," I answer.

"You can’t tame us," Danny, 12, protests.

"Maybe we should be reading ‘The Training of Wild Animals’ instead of ‘The Good Enough Parent,’" my husband, Larry, says.

Here’s my unscientific take on parenting: Kids are hard-wired at birth. We can do myriad things to mess them up — and a few things to improve them. But mostly they learn through example. Our example.

I also believe that kids are not innately bad, despite the fact that our family used to sing "Bad to the bone, bad to the bone, B-B-B-B-Bad to the bone" to Danny as an infant to calm him down.

Kids certainly act mischievously. In preschool, one of mine, who shall remain nameless, would check to see that his teachers weren’t watching and then slug his archenemy classmate. Kids also act selfishly, refusing to share their toys or snacks. And they act meanly, by boasting, teasing, hurling hurtful adjectives at each other and forming impenetrable cliques.

But I’ve also seen my sons spontaneously befriend a shy or less-popular classmate. I’ve seen them berate other children for their prejudiced or nasty behavior. And I’ve seen them collect food and clothing to give to the needy.

In my experience, when kids exhibit abnormally unkind or otherwise egregious behavior, it usually signals some kind of emotional or learning issue that needs attention rather than punishment.

Additionally, despite its name, the bad inclination is not an entirely bad thing. In one midrash, Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman even calls it "very good." He says, "Without the yetzer harah, no man would build a house, take a wife, beget a family or engage in work."

It energizes us. And without it, no person would appreciate or do good things.

And so, our goal is not to eradicate, but rather to monitor and master the bad inclination, which is not dissimilar to what psychologist Carl Jung calls the shadow, the unpleasant and negative side of the personality that we keep hidden.

But there’s nothing hidden about the bad inclination this time of year. For during this penitential period, which begins on the first of Elul and extends through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are commanded to scrutinize our behavior over the past year, especially confronting those instances in which our unattractive, antagonistic and animal nature prevailed.

"Have you done anything this year that you’re not proud of?" I ask my sons.

"A few years ago, I pushed a kid’s head against a brick wall," Danny volunteers.

"What about this year?"

"I can’t remember."

This is not an easy exercise for children. It’s even more difficult for them to ask forgiveness from people they have injured or harmed and from God for any promises they have broken.

But that’s how moral growth takes place, by confronting these issues step by step, year by year. And Judaism has granted us this phenomenal, what educators call, "teachable moment."

Does it mean anything to kids that on Rosh Hashanah we are given an initial ruling — life, death or undecided? That we have 10 days to kick our good inclination into high gear and, through repentance, prayer and mitzvot, avert an adverse decree? And that if we are successful, we are inscribed in the Book of Life at the close of Yom Kippur and essentially given a year’s reprieve? No, probably not.

But this is an opportunity for kids to begin to reflect on their admirable and less-admirable actions. It is an opportunity for them to vow to live more virtuously.

As Mark Twain once observed, "There is a great deal of human nature in people."

We Jewish parents have always known this. It’s the good and the bad news.

Interfaith Ties Bloom

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Sande Hart grew increasingly disgusted by disparaging remarks some of her friends — both Jewish and not — made about Muslims. The Koran, they said, preached killing Jews and other infidels; Islam was a hate-filled religion, with few redeeming qualities.

Hart, a Rancho Santa Margarita resident with two young children, said she knew in her heart that the anti-Islamic remarks were small-minded and a reflection of the overwhelming fear engendered by the terrorist attacks. But with no Muslim friends and a limited knowledge of the religion, she felt unequipped to do battle with the hate-mongers.

So Hart, a longstanding supporter of multiculturalism, decided to educate herself. She and her friend, Theresa Barnett, vowed to form an interfaith group that would bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together. In June 2002, the two Orange County residents founded Sarah, a women’s group that meets monthly to dispel stereotypes, build cultural bridges and increase understanding.

In less than a year, Sarah’s size has more than doubled to 42 members, made up of 18 Jews, eight Muslims, 15 Christians and one Baha’i. Because of that growth, members’ homes can barely accommodate meetings. Some future gatherings will be held in community centers.

"What we’re saying is it’s time to express love and appreciation," Hart, 42, said. "We’re becoming each other’s friends, and our kids now play together. We’re trying to create a culture of peace, one where people are no longer pointing guns at each other."

The organization — named after Abraham’s wife — is more than just an armchair salon for highly educated, liberal women. Sarah has sponsored several events to raise money for a variety of causes, including world hunger.

The group recently put on a seminar on domestic violence. To promote unity, members have given away handmade "peace tapestries" to like-minded organizations.

Sarah’s popularity reflects a major political and social shift underway in Orange County, said Bill Shane, executive director of the local branch of the National Conference for Community and Justice — formerly the National Conference of Christian and Jews — which is dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism. Once a bastion of white Protestant conservatism (and former national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan) the county now has 24 synagogues, 12 mosques, a Jain Temple and a new Buddhist Temple in Irvine.

As religious diversity has flourished, so have links among the various faiths. Shane estimated the county now has 25 interfaith groups, up from 20 in 2002.

"There’s no question that Orange County today is very different than Orange County of just a generation ago," he said.

Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo applauded the changes. Krause, whose synagogue dispatched more than two dozen volunteers after Sept. 11 to serve as security guards at local Muslim parochial schools, said Sarah and other interfaith organizations "are making the world a little nicer."

Not all groups promoting cultural understanding have fared as well. The Cousins Club of Orange County, a 15-year-old Jewish-Palestinian organization that advocates peace in the Middle East based on Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, has seen interest wane as the cycle of violence has spiraled in the Holy Land.

Many Palestinian members have ceased attending meetings, because they feel "desperate and depressed" about the situation overseas, said Robby Gordon, Cousins Club co-chairman. Similarly, Jewish participation has dropped off due to a sense of impotence.

"I hope we get a new wind of members," Gordon said. "But I can’t predict the future."

Thanks to the enthusiasm of members like Nadia Miri-Ali, Sarah membership, by contrast, has soared. A 36-year-old Muslim mother of two, Miri-Ali said the warmth of fellow group members has helped renew her faith in the United States, a bond that was temporarily shaken by the upsurge of anti-Muslim prejudice post Sept. 11.

The Trabuco Canyon resident said she particularly enjoys the wide-ranging discussions at Sarah meetings.

Among other subjects, the women have talked about prominent female religious figures, the tenets of their respective faiths and how their grandmothers used to stuff them with food when they visited.

Miri-Ali said she was fascinated to learn of the many cultural similarities between Muslims and Jews, including respect for the elderly, strong family values, love of food and dietary laws forbidding the consumption of pork.

Sarah member Karen Mueller, an Episcopalian, said she liked the group’s focus on women’s spirituality.

"I think ‘woman energy’ can make a big contribution to healing and reconciliation in the world," she said.