Netanyahu raps statements by gov’t ministers, lawmakers attacking liberal Jews


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed statements by government ministers and lawmakers disparaging liberal streams of Judaism in the wake of Cabinet approval to expand the egalitarian section at the Western Wall.

“I reject the recent disparaging and divisive remarks by ministers and members of Knesset about Reform Jews,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Reform and Conservative Jews are part and parcel of the Jewish people and should be treated with respect.”

Netanyahu called the agreement approved Sunday to create the new non-Orthodox prayer section of the Western Wall “a historic compromise that ensures that the Western Wall will continue to be a source of unity and inspiration for the entire Jewish people.”

“This is the government’s policy. This is my policy,” Netanyahu said.

Some government officials attacked the liberal streams and associated movements that signed on to the agreement, including the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall and the Jewish Agency.

The most recent attack came Tuesday afternoon, when the deputy education minister, Meir Porush,of the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, was reported as saying Women of the Wall  should be “thrown to the dogs,” and expressed satisfaction that the new egalitarian section will be in an “out-of-the-way corner.” He also said, the Times of Israel reported, “The Reform are responsible for the terrible intermarriage that we’ve been witnessing in the United States.”

One secular lawmaker, Yariv Levin of the Likud party, on Sunday during a discussion of the agreement also attacked the Reform movement, saying: “Reform Jews in the United States are a dying world. Assimilation is taking place on a vast scale. They are not even tracking this properly in their communities. It is evidenced by the fact that a man who calls himself a Reform rabbi stands there with a priest and officiates at the wedding of the daughter of Hillary Clinton and no one condemns it, thereby legitimizing it.”

Following the vote, Moshe Gafni, a haredi Orthodox lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, said he would not recognize the decision and called Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”

Letters to the editor: Holocaust comparisons, Mr. Mom, BDS and laughter for all


Mixed Feelings on Holocaust Comparison  

Danielle Berrin’s piece (“Will America Re-Examine Its Shame?” Feb. 21) certainly has its virtues about what needs to be recognized as America’s sin, shame or national disgrace of 350 years as a house of bondage for black people — a story usually falsified for almost another 100 years by Hollywood. But her framing the issues the piece raises around “the black Holocaust” analogy — which deserves a trifecta for encouraging misunderstandings of the Shoah, of American slavery, and of the causes of current African-American problems — is not among the virtues.

I’ve explained before in other contexts what’s wrong and damaging about the analogy. Like many American-Jewish historians of my generation, I initially became a historian to understand the dynamics of slavery and race relations — not the Shoah —though my first serious scholarship back in the 1960s was a critique of Stanley Elkins’ work that conflated the two subjects. Because of or despite this, I am ambivalent about taking the flak in order to again explain what’s wrong with the analogy and why it matters.

If you think your readers really need to be reminded of what’s wrong with the analogy beyond just a question of a hyperbolic title, let me know.

Harold Brackman via e-mail

Thought provoking and well-written article. I appreciate that the Jewish Journal does articles like this.

Caroline Kelly via jewishjournal.com

A beautifully written, strongly worded piece on a subject that truly deserves to be discussed, and acted upon. It’s also a wonderful, thought-provoking piece for Black History Month. 

Stanley Schweiger via e-mail

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the Holocaust as “the killing of millions of Jews and other people by the Nazis during World War II or an event or situation in which many people are killed and many things are destroyed especially by fire.” Slave owners did not strive to exterminate the slaves. Why would they? They needed slaves to work in the fields and to do other household tasks. There is no comparison between the Nazis (yemach shemam) and slave owners. This is not to suggest that slavery was a walk in the park for the slaves.  It definitely was not. By comparing the Jewish Holocaust to slavery cheapens the meaning and experience of the Holocaust. World War II was a war to exterminate the Jewish people. Slavery was not intended to exterminate the black people.

Morton Resnick via e-mail


Laughter Is the Best Medicine

David Suissa has become my favorite conservative, since in so many ways he comes across as, well, liberal. His tongue-in-cheek recommendation to replace Foxman with Seinfeld is a prime example (“Replace Foxman With Seinfeld,” Feb. 21). If the ADL takes his recommendation seriously, it will develop humorous emissaries to put in front of its audiences whenever and wherever possible. Its motto might become “You don’t have to be Jewish to fight anti-Semitism.”

Roger Schwarz, Los Angeles

Great idea! Humor is really powerful and contagious. I think Seinfeld should actually  feel honored with this suggestion and accept.

Desiree Kindi via jewishjournal.com


Mr. Mom

What?! You mean that cooking, washing the dishes and cleaning the floor don’t make me more sexually appealing to my wife (“Egalitarian Marriages and Sex” by Dennis Prager, Feb. 21). Hey, you haven’t seen me do these things.  

Ed Burnham, Encino 


Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad BDS?

I feel that Gary Wexler’s article regarding the threat of BDS and our bad marketing should not threaten the Jewish community, but it should make us aware that our enemies have re-energized themselves with recent victories (Where Can I Sign Up for a BDS Marketing Course?” Feb. 7). I am aware of what’s happening with the amount of back-stabbing Jews joining this ongoing campaign along with the Southern California Shura Council. We should be putting our efforts into a continued strong, creative Jewish continuity both in the United States and the Jewish state. At age 71, my contribution will be, in the next 25 years of my life, to contribute $10 million to groups/organizations such as our fantastic Jewish Journal. I urge the Jewish community to follow my lead instead of kvetching. Our enemies are indeed united, so let’s think and take action for a strong, viable Jewish continuity — with or without BDS.

Dick Bernstein via e-mail

L.A. rabbis urge calm at Kotel


Rabbi Laura Geller, a spiritual leader at the Reform Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills, knows firsthand about the restrictions on non-Orthodox Jewish women’s prayer at the Western Wall.

In December 2012, as she was entering the women’s section, a security guard confiscated her tallit (prayer shawl), telling her the Orthodox rabbi with authority over the Wall and its plaza had prohibited women from wearing such garments there. 

Women of the Wall has been praying at the holy site for decades; last month, the group’s members — who, thanks to a court order, were allowed to wear prayer shawls and teffilin (phylacteries) and had police protection — were met by thousands of Charedi Israelis who attempted to halt their service, at times violently.

[Related: Respect, inclusion and tolerance at the Wall: An open letter from Los Angeles rabbis]

The Jewish calendar month of Tammuz begins this weekend, and the group Geller was with in December, Women of the Wall, is set to hold its monthly prayer service on Sunday, June 9. 

But Geller, who in December wrote in the Huffington Post that “the only approach left [for the women] is to battle,” this time sent a very different message. Together with 10 local rabbis — including four Orthodox spiritual leaders — Geller signed a letter urging “gentleness” from both sides.

Keep the peace at the Western Wall, the diverse group of rabbis wrote in an open letter published on June 6, and support Natan Sharansky’s proposed compromise for the holy site’s future.

The rabbinic group, the Task Force on Jewish Unity, includes local rabbis from across the denominational spectrum. David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, established the group last year, in the wake of the much-publicized arrest of Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall. The hope, Siegel said, was that the group could model for leaders in Israel and in other American cities how religious leaders could engage civilly with one another, even on issues where they fundamentally disagree.

Many of those rabbis participated in a meeting with Sharansky in Los Angeles last week. The former refusenik is now chairman of the Jewish Agency, and he has proposed a compromise that would convert a less well-trafficked section of the wall into a new area for non-Orthodox prayer. In their letter, the L.A. rabbis convened by Siegel came out strongly in support of Sharansky’s effort, despite its not being fully fleshed out. 

But the primary message contained in the 828-word letter was for everyone to stay calm.

“The eyes of the world are on Israel,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple, who was among the rabbis who signed the letter. “And so it matters how different branches of Judaism are able to hear one another.”

“We know the Temple was destroyed close to 2,000 years ago because of division and hatred,” said Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Beverly Hills, who also signed. “If anything the Kotel [the Western Wall] should remind us that we need to come together with respect for each other.”

“We want peace, we want people to act appropriately,” Young Israel of Century City’s Rabbi Elazar Muskin said. “That’s the real purpose of this statement. We want people to act appropriately, on both sides of this argument.”

But beyond the broad blanket statements about Jewish unity, the divisions between the rabbis who signed the letter remain as perceptible as ever.

Asked whether Women of the Wall’s plan to read from the Torah at the kotel on Sunday would constitute “appropriate” behavior, Muskin, who is also Orthodox, called it a provocation.

“You should allow for the compromise to occur,” he said, “that would be my recommendation to them. If you want a compromise, then you work with the compromise. If you don't want a compromise, then you provoke.”

And Geller, for her part, said she is looking forward to going back to the Kotel — this time with a tallit. “There’s absolutely no halachic reason why a woman can’t be wearing a tallit at the Kotel, or anywhere.” 

Of course, the ability of these Southern California rabbis to disagree civilly is kind of the point of the whole effort. 

Among Jews, “there are profound theological differences many of which are irreconcilable,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi in Orange County who did not sign the letter. “At the same time, we share a common destiny and we need to respect the spiritual quest of every single individual.”

It’s not clear that either side in the dispute is entirely on board with the compromise proposed by Sharansky. Still, the Israeli government is clearly devoting significant resources and energy to pushing it through.

“We have been as proactive as we can on this issue because we believe that it’s very important, both politically and morally, for us to do this,” Siegel said. “Our foreign ministry and the government of Israel are taking this very seriously from the prime minister down.” 

About the compromise itself, Siegel sounded hopeful.

“Maybe not everyone gets everything they wanted,” he said. “But there’s enough there for Charedim, for Orthodox, for Reform, for Conservative, and even for Women of the Wall.”

Madoff’s Redemption


If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Questions, Prayers and Shabbat Lights


Interfaith Questions

Why do bad things happen to good people? Or why do bad things happen to me? Dr. Aryeh Dean Cohen paraphrased these questions at an April 5 interfaith dialogue on theodicy or how to reconcile a benevolent God with evil.

The roundtable dialogue, “Jewish and Christian Perspective on Theodicy: How Could God Let Something Like This Happen and What Can We Do About It?” was sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Fuller Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Christian seminary in Pasadena, and was the second interfaith discussion on a series of topics.

“We have so much to learn from our Jewish friends, who give us permission to lament and engage in arguments with God,” said Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller.

Before Passover and Easter, rabbis and pastors listened to varying perspectives on how the two religions confront all the disasters occurring in the world.

“Can God’s justice be defended and should one even try to do so?” asked James T. Butler, associate professor of the Old Testament at Fuller. He said that it’s important to question, rather than accept things on blind faith or counsel others that it is God’s will.

“If we convey the fact that faith is strongest when unquestioned, we contribute to the spiritual infantilization of our neighbors,” he said. “We teach them to settle for the God we have, rather than God they read about…. Instead of discouraging those who suffer, we can be their voice.”

Cohen agreed: “Sometimes the only thing you can do is listen.” He said that at other times, “the only thing you can do is scream and yell and curse.”

But really, he added the question is not “why did God do this, but why did we do this?” When it comes to natural disasters like New Orleans or human atrocities like genocide, we can’t really answer the question of where God is. But “where am I is a question we have an answer to.”

Egalitarian but Spiritual

They say “two Jews, three shuls,” so why not one more alternative community?

That’s why a group of 20-somethings started PicoEgal, an egalitarian minyan where men and women, participating as equals, conduct an entire, uncut Shabbat and holiday service that incorporates singing and spirituality.

“The basic idea is to have a community with a davening in accordance with halacha that also has spiritual singing,” said one of the founders, Abe Friedman, a first-year student at the University of Judaism.

Modeled after New York’s Hadar congregation, which attracts some 300 people each week, PicoEgal is one of a number of recently established minyans here and around the world that don’t affiliate with a particular movement and don’t have a synagogue building. For now, the two dozen or so “members” of PicoEgal meet at apartments in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the first and third Saturday mornings of each month, but they are looking for a more permanent space to rent. However, unlike other religious communities that are looking for a permanent home — like Ikar, for example — PicoEgal has no plans to become a full-time congregation.

“We’re not a one-stop shop for everyone,” Friedman said. “We didn’t want this to be an entire community, so much as a davening community [that adds to] what was already available.”

In that same vein, PicoEgal is also starting a multidenominational Beit Midrash study program, beginning with a Torah portion class each Tuesday in May, taught by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers.

“While there are many opportunities for Jewish learning in the area, there is a lack of learning opportunities across the denominations. We wanted to try and provide a neutral forum for Torah learning outside any establishment,” Friedman said.

Just One Candle…

First it was Shabbat; now it’s candles…. What’s next? Kosher?

Ten years ago, Shabbat Across America began its campaign to get as many Jews as possible to celebrate Shabbat for at least one weekend a year. This May, a new organization is promoting “FridayLight,” a campaign encouraging 1 million women to light Shabbat candles — that’s 2 million candles!

“By lighting up each and every Friday night, you will not only bask in a personal moment of inner peace but also connect to a larger community of women everywhere who together hold the power to foster global peace,” reads the Web site (www.fridaylight.org), which features a pale redhead in a Oriental robe holding a fat, yellow candle — definitely not a traditional Shabbat candle for sure.

“With the flicker of a million flames each and every Friday night, we can bring light to some of the darkest places on earth and usher in peace throughout the world,” it adds.

The New Four Questions

Why is law important in the Jewish faith? Why isn’t the bible enough? Why does the practice of Judaism seem to be different from what is written in the Torah? How can Jewish law relate to modern issues?

These and other modern-day questions about religion will be addressed in “From Sinai to Cyberspace,” a course from the Jewish Learning Institute, a Chabad adult education program presented at Chabad locations in 150 cities around the world. Each course, taught by Chabad rabbis, provides a textbook and is supplemented by audio-visual presentations. The courses also are available online.

“From Sinai To Cyberspace” examines the interplay of the written and oral traditions and how they impacted the development of Jewish law, creating a vibrant and flexible system faithful to its roots.

The course begins in early May at Los Angeles at Chabad Centers throughout Southern California, including Los Feliz, Studio City, Burbank, Sherman Oaks, Northridge and Pasadena.

For more information on PicoEgal, e-mail picoegal@gmail.com.

For more information on the Chabad course and locations, visit www.myjli.com/courses.php.