The middle way is killing you

An “aha moment,” according to the dictionary, is a moment of sudden realization, insight or comprehension. As we begin the month of Elul, leading up to the High Holy Days, how do we identify our “aha moment”? 

How do we pinpoint the paradigm shift that enables us to tackle issues keeping us up at night, such as raising children, connecting with God in a meaningful way, finding financial success? 

How do some of us answer the questions recently posed by Jewish Theological Seminary professor Jack Wertheimer in Mosaic magazine: Can Modern Orthodoxy survive? Can a serious Judaism flourish that is fully committed to the Torah and its sages and, at the same time, not be afraid to engage the modern world and totally encourage and support the State of Israel?

To begin addressing all this, I’d like to take you back to 1976, when composer Philip Glass and theatrical director-producer Robert Wilson premiered an opera called “Einstein on the Beach.” It lasted for five hours, and viewers were invited to come in and walk out at will. Movements within the opera repeated over and over, dance numbers went on for extended periods of time. The creative concept was to have the audience lose themselves entirely to the piece.

When I reflect upon “Einstein on the Beach,” I think about what our Judaism wants of us. God wants us to lose ourselves in the experience. God wants us totally immersed. Even the simplest mitzvah and the most common act of living should be committed with intensity and passion.

Judaism is not reserved only for our relatively few moments in shul. No, we must be totally invested. Judaism is alive when we sit down for breakfast. Judaism is being experienced when we help our children with their homework. It vibrates in every part of our lives.Being a Jew in the modern world doesn’t mean that we are committing ourselves to a middle way. Middle way is pareve, boring and insipid. We are proud and we are strong because we carry the totality of time as we move through it. I recently picked up a new sefer that is more than 300 pages of halachic analysis on issues that have newly risen because of the internet. It is projects like this that reflect how our tradition is meant to be totally lived, not partially. 

There is a wonderful book filled with anecdotes and sources aimed at building greater enthusiasm for learning Torah; it’s called “Shteigen.” Let me share with you a stark illustration used in the book. 

Imagine a waiter at an amazing wedding. He hears the dynamic band, he gets to taste the same delicious food, and he sees the same important people that everybody else at the wedding gets to see. But something is different. He’s estranged, detached, removed. Why? Because he isn’t truly part of the celebration. He is there but he is not there.

This story nails the necessity of our full engagement and integration with our Jewish experience. We can’t stand on the sideline watching our mitzvot go by. We can’t just let Shacharit be something that we observe and go through the motions. We need to fully integrate the experience. Why are we davening? Who are we davening to? Go totally in.

Our effort to be in the middle is simply killing us. Our effort to be neutral, “modern” or normal is sucking the life out of our experience. Living as a Modern Orthodox Jew is not about being in the middle or in one space in the Jewish time continuum; it’s about living with HaShem fully in everything that we do.

This past week was the yahrzeit of the saintly Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. Rav Kook, in his “Orot HaKodesh,” writes that the great tzadikim are the ones who see the world in all of its beauty and respect it. They see the exaltedness of the world. They don’t look around and say, “Feh, this world is unkosher.” 

They look at history, at art, at creativity and notice the awesome power that HaShem has bestowed onto humanity. They notice that even among the backdrop of intense horror, there is a tremendous capacity for love and healing. The tzadik’s Judaism is total and complete; it embraces the light of the entire world.  

This is our “aha moment.” It’s the realization that the best shot we have at our struggles and challenges is to live with a holistic yiddishkayt. HaShem is not only our adviser in shul, but also in school, on Wall Street and on the street.

With prayer, it’s not an on-and-off occupation. With prayer, we must be all in. There is no middle way; there is the complete way, where every experience of our lives is worth a prayer.

Let us live our Elul fully, and in that merit, may there arrive a truly life-changing Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015).

Preparing for the year end and the new year

The beginning and end of each year are times that stimulate all of us to think. Even those who are not in the habit of making a daily “accounting of this world” (Bava Batra 78b) tend to do so at these moments, these days that are so conducive to examining, summing up and planning. 

Beloved are the People of Israel. The Almighty gave us times and festivals at the beginning and end of each year, for contemplation; for receiving answers to our most urgent questions; and for confronting the challenges that we may face in the (hopefully better) days ahead. 

And if this is true every year, how much more must we think, repent and make good decisions when the days of the year give us no rest, and when the routine of daily life blurs our most fundamental thoughts: What is life about? What do we live for? Where are we going? 

The days of the month of Elul, and the following month — the seventh month, Tishrei, with its numerous festivals and special days — are bountiful both in their commandments and in their prayers. All this is so much to take in, we may become insensitive to the days’ messages. Furthermore, the month of Elul and the festivals of Tishrei each demand very different intentionalities on our part. 

The month of Elul does not have a specific focus, unlike Yom Kippur, which is a single day of total concentration. And the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which have a stern aspect to them, are not at all like the days of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, days of relaxation and joy. 

In each case, we will not be able to understand or fathom the significance of the answers that we may receive, unless we first pose the appropriate questions. It is said that the wise person’s question contains the seed of the reply. Therefore, to prepare for the end of the year and the beginning of the next, we first need to contemplate the questions that ought to be asked. By honing our questions, we create the soil upon which the answers can sprout into substantial influence. 

This kind of preparation for the festivals is an ancient custom. Our rabbis say we should begin public study of an upcoming festival quite a long time before its arrival (Pesahim 6a). Beyond the need to teach and remind ourselves of the festival’s laws, there is also a psychological purpose to this study: to prepare ourselves both for the rituals that we will do and for our mindset, how we are going to enter into the festival. This is the work of plowing, which prepares the soil to take in the gifts of heavenly bounty and make them grow. 

In all aspects of spiritual life there is, of course, room for a great amount of privacy and individuality. In the words of the wisest of all men (Proverbs 14:10): “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger has a part in its joys.” Private, inner experiences cannot be fully shared with others. Perhaps it is only the ministering angels who can “accept from each other” (see Targum Yonathan to Isaiah 6:3). 

Still, “He fashions their heart alike” (Psalms 33:15), which could also be translated as, “He creates their hearts together.” Despite all the differences and partitions dividing one soul from another, Jewish souls are bound in some way. This closeness enables us to be givers and receivers even in those things that come from the innermost recesses of our hearts. We must therefore try to receive from each other virtues and emotions that will help each and every one of us find our own personal path to the Almighty Creator. 

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is a leading Jewish scholar and author of more than 60 books, including an acclaimed commentary on the Talmud.

Hebrew word of the week: Elul

The Hebrew exiles in Babylonia remained loyal to Judaism but were also influenced by the Babylonian culture, including borrowing the names of the months from the Babylonians.* Indeed, the names don’t have any Hebrew etymology. The rabbis tried to Hebraize Elul by interpreting it as an abbreviation: Ani Ledodi Wedodi Li —  “I (Israel, Jewish people) am my Beloved’s (God), and my Beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). However, the Akkadian (Babylonian) name elulu means “bringing in (crops), harvest,” a cognate of the Aramaic ’alalta “crops, income”; me’alle shabbetha / yoma Tava, “entrance (Eve) of Sabbath / holiday.”

The month of Elul is followed by Tishre, whose name stems from Akkadian Tashritu “beginning (of the year),” a cognate of the Aramaic root sh-r-y, “begin; have breakfast.”

*English, by contrast, kept the pagan names of the weekdays: Sunday, Mo(o)nday, etc., even after the conversion to Christianity.

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Chesed by choice

For many of us, the month of Elul and the High Holy Days are our personal and communal time for introspection. The work we do for ourselves as Jews is significant as we take the opportunity to make teshuvah (forgiveness) to others and to God and to improve our lives. 

This year, I believe that recent experiences in my life offer powerful lessons for growth. My hope is that by sharing my story, I can lend consolation to anyone who has been mistreated by words and to prevent others from repeating the wrong done to me. 

Fifteen years ago, I became a Jew by Choice. I made this transformational decision willingly and with a whole heart. I was married under a chuppah, and, two years later, my husband and I were blessed with our first son. We rejoiced in the life of our son — another Jew to be counted in the world. We were highly motivated to give him a strong Jewish identity and education, so we enrolled him in the nursery school at our synagogue and immersed ourselves in our new role as parents. 

The battery of questions began immediately from people we barely knew. “Did you convert?” “How does your family and your husband’s family feel about your conversion?” “Do you celebrate Christmas and Christian holidays?” “How are you raising your children?”

I understood that people were naturally curious, so I welcomed the opportunity to introduce myself to them, to be open and frank, and to tell my story and even share personal experiences with them. 

A few years later, our second son was born. By now, we were “tenured parents,” yet the routine questions about my conversion still persisted from parents who were new to us. This time I resented the questioning and thought people were out of line. After all, we had been members of the synagogue for five years, and I felt so at home and comfortable in my Jewish skin. We celebrated Shabbat, kept a Jewish home and had our children on a secure and substantial Jewish path of learning, both at school and at home. 

I suppressed my longing to resist and not answer. Instead, I decided to be a good sport with the understanding that this was a new and curious group of folks who wanted to learn about me, or, at worst, felt entitled to ask any questions they wanted. I became a pro at answering them and could even predict which questions would come first, second and third. I literally could have passed out an answer sheet, because the questions were so predictable and repetitive. 

Fast forward to now. I am an involved parent and resident in my local community. Recently, I was in the presence of two friends having a conversation about local politics. One of them cautioned me about getting too involved in the local scene and told me that I would be looked upon as a “convert” and that my “children are not really Jewish.” I immediately responded that I never wanted to hear that said to me or anyone and that the comments were offensive. Unfortunately, the other person present remained silent in the face of what was said.

I felt consumed with shame and sadness, but most of all I felt as though someone had literally put a stake into my heart and soul. This was a transgression committed by a Jew against another Jew — the convert. I was unprepared for the unfurling of such hateful words, even in politics. I wanted to tell my mother and brother, but I could not bring myself to do that. What would they think of my life, my community and the lives of my three children? I told my husband, which proved to be an extremely painful experience for both us. 

So why am I writing this today? As a Jew by Choice, I know there are some who will never see me as an authentic Jew. That does not bother me as much as the vulgar and judgmental remarks about my children’s Jewishness. As a Jew by Choice I chose my life, but my children came into the world through me and know no other life. Yet some Jews feel entitled to judge my children openly, as well as through whispers. This experience has allowed me to understand prejudice not from outsiders, but from those within my own community. The enormity of the lesson here is that in the absence of courage, silence is wrong, and that words have tremendous power. 

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed writes, “After a person converts to Judaism, he is like any other Jew. In fact, one must be more sensitive to his feelings than those of other Jews. This is because of the extreme difficulties that a convert faces.” This year, these words have resonated through my experience and have served as a pillar of strength during the month of Elul. 

As the High Holy Days approached, I recently spoke to my rabbi about this experience. I asked him, “How do I forgive the other, when that person has failed to ask me for forgiveness for the hurt and pain they caused?” He paraphrased a teaching by Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and philosopher, who defined chesed (which we often translate as “loving kindness”) as acting more generously toward someone than they deserve. And the greatest act of chesed is life itself, given to us by God, because who among us earned consciousness before we got it? My rabbi also passed on a wonderful drash by Rabbi Shai Held. Held speaks of our signature role in life being to pay chesed going forward by acting more generously to others than even perhaps they have earned. One way of doing that is by granting forgiveness, even if it has not been begged for. It is an act of chesed not only to the other, but to the self, because it frees the self and the soul from the gripping tension of being angry, even legitimately angry. 

I remain on the path I began 15 years ago and can reconcile myself with my creator, and I go forward with Jewish wisdom as my touchstone. Today, I choose chesed. This year, more than ever, I understand the powerful opportunity we as Jews are given year after year to forge new beginnings. It is an amazing gift, and I feel deep appreciation for the personal meaning and significance of the High Holy Days. Fifteen years ago, I chose the path of Ruth, and today, more than ever, I remain deeply committed to the teachings of the Torah that are alive for me and for each and every one of us. 

L’Shanah Tovah.

Letters to the Editor: Mark Rosenblum, Homeless Sukkah, Vista Del Mar

More on the Crusader

Rob Eshman’s praise of Mark Rosenblum’s decades-long battle for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is well deserved (“The Crusader,” Aug. 23). I’ve worked with Mark for years, share his passion, if not his energy in working for the two-state solution and fearing for Israel in the years ahead if the two-state solution fails. Charting current birth rates, Jews could be a minority in an Israel with a Palestinian majority. And then what happens? Following Mark’s vision, we must keep trying because failure leads to a very bleak, troubled tomorrow.

Richard Gunther
Los Angeles

While some may find Mark Rosenblum’s steadfastness and refusal to quit Peace Now’s liberal agenda [admirable], others would characterize it as a refusal to give up a pipe dream with no basis in reality.

No matter how much Peace Now wants to join with the Palestinians and carve out a beautiful and peaceful Middle East, the simple fact is the Palestinians don’t have any interest in this kind of partnership with us — not even Peace Now’s beloved PA [Palestinian Authority], which celebrates the murderers of our children as conquering heroes and won’t allow for a single Jew to live in its state if it were ever so fortunate to gain one. 

Rob Eshman finishes his fawning of Rosenblum by stating that the Palestinians “will have to find a formula to accept Israel as a Jewish state.” If they have so much trouble with this basic idea, and they do, what hope could there possibly be for a real peace except in the minds of dreamers and those with delusions who refuse to admit they were wrong from the get-go?

Allan Kandel
Los Angeles

In the Time of Elul

Lovely, David Suissa (“Love in the Time of Elul,” Aug. 23). I believe your answer is a) Forgiveness and b) Community! In Micah we find the prayer “Mi El Kamocha.” Micah does not see God as a Creator, nor a King, but a Forgiver.

Afshine Emrani

A  Sign of the Times

I agree with the letter writer who pointed out that buying the homeless person’s sign will deprive them of their communication device until they can manage to find the materials to make another one (Letters, Aug. 23; “,” Aug. 16). In the meantime, they may have lost their opportunity to get other donations. I have an alternate suggestion.

Don’t take their sign, just give them the donation. But, if possible, ask to take their photograph with their sign. Then print the photos large, and write their first name on it (so that they are not merely anonymous) and put them inside your sukkah on the walls as ushpizin guests. At night in the Sukkah, you can tell the story of where you met them, and their name, and their story if you know it.

Miriam Lippel Blum
Tucson, Ariz.

What’s Special at Vista Del Mar

Thank you so much to the Jewish Journal for sharing Vista Del Mar’s Jewish programming for families with children with special needs with the community (“Welcoming Special-Needs Families at Vista Del Mar,” Aug. 23). I wanted to clarify that our Nes Gadol (Great Miracle) b’nai mitzvah and confirmation classes and our amazing new Sundays at Vista Judaica serve children of all abilities. Many of our students with autism and other special needs are highly verbal, while others are challenged in the area of spoken communication. Whatever the case, we cherish our students and strive to create avenues for them to share their gifts with the community and shine. Founded on the principles of Elaine Hall’s the Miracle Project, all of our students are joyfully celebrated and embraced by the Vista Del Mar community. 

Rabbi Jackie Redner
Rabbi in Residence, Vista Del Mar

Cuba’s Painful History

The heartfelt article by Isabel Kaplan is the story of hundreds of a younger generation of Cubans anxious to discover the origins of their identities (“Cuba: Land of My Bubbe,” July 26). Cuba was the home of their families, divided, destroyed and uprooted half a century ago. For somebody, like me, who left Havana so many decades ago, I deeply understand the need we all have to go back, some to learn where they come from, some to walk on the pages of our history. But it is not so easy. At least for me, and for many of my generation.

What was once a dream was turned into a nightmare; what was a republic was transformed into a totalitarian state; where religions flourished, the land was made an atheist state. To say that “even Fidel Castro has a soft spot for the Jews” is very naive. The man is a chameleon and will do and say anything in order to achieve his purposes.

Castro does not have a soft spot for Jews, or Catholics, or intellectuals, or gays. Castro, who destroyed a very prosperous nation (with all the imperfections that that implies), will do anything to stay in power. And now, at his very old age, because he needs outside help, all of the sudden he has become like a gentle grandfather. Don’t buy it.

Raul De Cardenas
Los Angeles, CA

Love in the time of Elul

I confess there’s something that’s always bothered me about this time of year, when we put such a big emphasis on reflecting on our mistakes. Why only now? Isn’t this something we should be doing all year? As a community, we certainly do plenty of it, through the very act of constantly challenging one another.

We don’t wait for the month of Elul to expose our communal failures. We do it every day on Facebook, on blogs, in our community papers, in letters to the editors, at our Shabbat tables, at conferences and anywhere else we come into contact with Jews with whom we disagree.

The essence of this time of year, however, is very personal, and it calls for repentance — the notion that after we identify our mistakes of the past year, we must repent to God and to those we have hurt.

But if we have to repent, why wait a whole year? 

Wouldn’t it be better to ask for forgiveness promptly, while the mistakes are still fresh in everyone’s mind and before they have a chance to fester?

This is why the year-end ritual is often not taken seriously, with many people asking for mechilla (forgiveness) just to be safe, without being exactly sure how they messed up.

I understand the religious timing. The 40 days that comprise the month of Elul and the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur symbolize the 40 days some 3,300 years ago at Sinai when our ancestors wondered if God would ever forgive them for their fling with the Golden Calf.

When Moses came down from the mountain on the day that is now Yom Kippur to announce that God had indeed forgiven the Jews and given them a second chance (and a second set of tablets), it gave these 40 days a halo of Divine goodwill.

“During the month of Elul, G-d is more accessible, so to speak,” Rabbi Yossi Marcus writes on “During the rest of the year He is like a king sitting in his palace, receiving guests by appointment only. … Not so during Elul. Then the King is ‘out in the field.’ He’s in a good mood and anyone can come and talk to him. The protocol of the palace is discarded.

“Elul is the time when we are given a leg up, a Divine boost, in our spiritual careers.”

I get that, but it still bothers me. First, God can’t forgive us for our sins against other people, and those people are always available if we want to seek forgiveness. And two, as far as our sins against God, shouldn’t an all-powerful Creator always be in the field to listen to our pleas and help our “spiritual careers”?

Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that we took more of a yearlong approach to the spiritual staples of Elul and the High Holy Days. What, then, could we focus on at this time of year? What spiritual staple could we add? 

I would vote for love.

Yes, love.

It’s a word Christians use religiously, but Jews evidently find too shmaltzy and nebulous.

But here’s the point: Until we remind ourselves of what and why and whom we love, we can’t truly repent and, ultimately, renew ourselves, which is the highest purpose of the High Holy Days. Love elevates and deepens the whole process.

The more we love, the better we repent, the deeper we renew.

We can deepen our love in countless areas. There is our love for the gifts God has given us; our love for the world He has created, with all its imperfections; our love for our people and our story, with all our imperfections; our love for our family, our Torah, our friends, our community, our soul mates, and the needy stranger; our love for repairing the world.

Just as we delve into Torah study, we can delve into love. We can study what our Sages, holy books and commentators say about love. We can contemplate the unique power of this commandment and why it’s a lot more complicated than just saying or thinking, “I love you.” 

By developing a deeper spiritual and intellectual attachment to love, we may also find it easier to ask for forgiveness as well as to forgive.

Of course, the more we refine and practice love, the less we’ll hurt people and have to ask for forgiveness in the first place. 

Elul itself suggests love. In Hebrew, the word is also an acronym for “I am my Beloved and my Beloved is mine” (“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”), the famous quote from Song of Songs 6:3, where the Beloved is God and the “I” is the Jewish people. What better way to honor the month of Elul than through a reaffirmation of our love for all God has given us, including love itself?

Jews are very good at the tough stuff — the criticism, the tough love, the arguing, even the diligent davening. Maybe what we need now, in preparation for the hard work of repentance, is to immerse ourselves in the even harder work of internalizing that elusive and transcendent commandment we call love.

How could God not love that? 

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Elul and Jewish pluralism

A typical study session for Elul, a pluralistic Israel-based beit midrash (house of study), doesn’t confine itself to a discussion of Abraham’s journey in Genesis. It naturally segues into a rabbinical story about the patriarch breaking his father’s idols, followed by a poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and a couple of open-ended questions about drawings that illustrate the same topic. 

Perhaps most important, it does so while appealing to all Jews: religious and secular, men and women, young and old.  

On a recent Shabbat, about 30 Modern Orthodox men and women got a taste of this in the backyard of a West L.A. home. That’s where Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz, Elul’s incoming executive director, helped lead one of several events at various L.A. Jewish venues, part of a U.S. tour aimed at making American Jews aware of what Elul does and to gain both vocal and financial support for it in the United States. 

The group was founded in 1989 by Ruth Calderon, an Israeli academic who recently became a member of the Knesset in the Yesh Atid Party. The name “Elul” is a contraction from a talmudic passage in which, during a dispute between two factions, a voice calls out and tells those who are arguing, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim — both “these and those are the words of the living God.” Calderon’s point was that no particular version of being Jewish has cornered the market on truth; both “these” and “those” may be valid.

For nearly 25 years, the organization’s task has been to get “these” and “those” to listen to one another.

“There are two parallel Jewish nations in Israel, one secular and one religious,” Roni Yavin, departing executive director, told the Jewish Journal. “These two don’t meet, never intersect. Religious track. Secular track. 

“Yet both are Jews, both are Israelis, both have a common history, the same roots. We need to focus on what these two have in common. We need to study and discuss across this divide to find what values are shared, and develop those, develop a common language and culture.” 

She continued, “When people of different backgrounds study together, like at Elul, and really talk with one another, listen to one another, they find things in common. Each generation has to look at Judaism and make interpretations that are appropriate to the time. When people study together, like at Elul, they find new interpretations.”

Calderon, in her maiden speech given before the Knesset in February, spoke passionately about the importance of a new Jewish model, one that includes secular Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox, as well as everything in between.

In this speech, which has become something of a YouTube sensation and gotten tens of thousands of hits, Calderon stated one of Elul’s cornerstone principles: The Torah is a living document, not only because of its rich fount of wonderful stories, but also because it provides us with the tools for dealing with current issues. She said that secular Israelis bear responsibility for having ceded “ownership” of religious texts and thought to religious Israelis. 

“Nobody took the Talmud or the rabbinical writings from us,” Calderon said. “We gave it away at a time when it seemed there was a more urgent and important task at hand — to build a nation. … Now the time has come to reclaim what is ours.”

Elul’s headquarters are in Jerusalem, but there are chapters throughout Israel, with hundreds of Israelis using its resources on a regular basis. It reaches out to thousands, especially children, on special occasions throughout the year.

At the Jerusalem beit midrash, you might find a storyteller acting out a biblical story for children, an immigrant women’s group finding guidance in rabbinical wisdom or a Talmud study group that includes a secular leftist, a right-wing settler and an Orthodox rabbi. 

In Los Angeles during the recent gathering, there was a lively give-and-take that explored the story of Abraham and his father, Terah: what it means to turn away from the path of your parents and grandparents — what you gain and what you risk by smashing your father’s and grandfather’s idols. 

People talked about their own experiences as parents and children. Instead of giving answers, Ravitsky Tur-Paz asked questions and encouraged dialogue, respecting all comments. The most poignant moments may have been when Ravitsky Tur-Paz, 39, and Yavin, 54, talked about “breaking idols” in their own families, and how that has affected them and the choices they’ve made. 

Ravitsky Tur-Paz, an Orthodox and traditional Jew, spoke of how her mother encouraged her to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) because she had been forbidden the opportunity by her own parents. As a result, Ravitsky Tur-Paz became a paratrooper and officer, then later an attorney. She has remained observant while promoting feminist causes as well as religious and educational pluralism.

Then Yavin told her own family story. While traveling to Palestine in 1913 as part of the Second Aliya, her grandfather, epitomizing his new life as a chalutz, a pioneer, threw his religious texts into the sea. Yavin and her parents were brought up in Israel as fervent — and secular — Zionists.

Elul’s approach may be slightly unconventional — they employ dramatic presentations, art, music, even “pub crawls” — but it’s always Jewish texts they deal with, the same ones that Yavin’s grandfather threw over the side of a ship 100 years ago. So, by having led Elul for 10 years, Yavin has figuratively smashed the idols of her grandfather just as Ravitsky Tur-Paz did when she joined the IDF. 

The two women come from different points on the Israeli religious spectrum, yet they work and study together, and both are passionate advocates for Elul’s objectives: promoting pluralistic Judaism, strengthening Jewish identity, creating social change in Israel and ensuring a rich future for Judaism.

The time for this kind of work has finally come, Yavin said.

“The pioneers, like my grandfather, abandoned religion because they had so much else to do at the time,” she said. “In those early years of the 20th century, there were so many things involved in building the foundation of the state that they had no time for religion, and they gave away that aspect of Jewish life to the Orthodox. But we secular Jews also feel that we are spiritual, so we want our religion back, because it belongs as much to us as it belongs to them. 

“Our aim,” she concluded, “is to take back Judaism.”

From Ramadan to Elul: A spiritual journey

For Lee Weissman, a Breslov Chasid in Irvine, the recent onset of Elul caps a spiritual journey he began a month ago with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Weissman, a teacher at the Tarbut v’Torah Community Day School in Irvine and a scholar of Southeast Asian religions, says similar themes run through Ramadan and Elul, the Hebrew month of repentance, charity and extra prayers leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days. And he says his close ties with local Muslims have helped put him in the “correct” frame of mind to begin his own month of penitence and prayer.

He recalls attending a talk about Ramadan given a few years ago by an imam in Orange County.

“It was a very bizarre experience — he talked about different levels of the soul, about the animal soul. It was classic chassidus. He could have been talking about Elul,” Weissman said, using the Ashkenazi intonation.

Weissman, 56, says that in the past several years, as Ramadan has coincided with the Jewish High Holy Days (two years ago) and with Elul itself (last year), the similar themes have added richness and depth to his own spiritual quest.

“Everybody knows about the fasting part of Ramadan, but there is so much more to it than that,” he said. “It’s an all-encompassing experience — people try to give additional charity [the Arabic word ‘zaikai’ is nearly identical to the Hebrew ‘tzedakah’], they try to add extra prayers, and they try to concentrate on them, and they try to think about God’s plan for the world and how they can serve Him more completely. That is exactly what Elul is supposed to be for us.”

Weissman says he was attracted as well to the Ramadan ideal of community — an entire society of people working together on their character traits and focusing on repentance. He quotes a Quran verse about Ramadan that refers to a month of repentance.

“So my Elul has absolutely become Ramadan-ized. I now take Elul as a much more complete experience, not just as a lead-up to Tishrei [the month of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur],” he said. “That could even include fasting; I’m not sure yet. Fasting is certainly a legitimate Jewish part of the teshuvah process.”

Weissman says that although his first exposure to religious Islam came while he was conducting graduate research in southern India in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until he became Orthodox in his Jewishness that he developed a personal appreciation of Islam. Especially attracted to Judaism’s concern with peace, tzedakah and peaceful relations with others, he forged relationships with Muslim students at UC Irvine, during the difficult years of the second intifada in the early to mid-2000s.

Two occurrences in the past 10 years started him on the path to appreciating Islam, he says.

“The Ashkenazi style of Selichot always left me feeling a bit dry spiritually speaking,” Weissman said. “So when a Sephardic community developed here in Irvine, I took an interest in their customs, and especially in the full month of Selichot prayers, which were much more powerful to me.”

Also, Weissman became involved with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at UC Irvine. In much of the Jewish community, the group is known for its members’ verbal disruptions and for heckling during a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, at a campus event in February 2010. Several students involved in the outbursts were arrested and are on trial for conspiracy to disturb a meeting. The MSA subsequently was suspended temporarily by the university.

For Weissman it was a learning opportunity.

“There was a lot of tension between them and the Jewish students on campus, and I wanted to see what it was all about,” Weissman said. “I’m a generation older than most of the students, which already made me a bit less threatening, and I’m religious, so I could really empathize with some of the challenges and struggles with drinking and sex that religious Muslim students face in an American university setting.”

Weissman blanches when asked if he is a Zionist — although he is not anti-Zionist, he says he is uncomfortable with the triumphalism and nationalism of modern-day Israel. He stresses that his relationship with Muslim students does not touch on politics: “It’s not where my head is,” he says. But, like most things related to Arabs and Jews, politics worked its way in.

Weissman recalls a Muslim student at his house on Shabbat picking up a bencher on the table and noticing in the English translation that the Grace After Meals is about giving thanks for the Land of Israel.

“He asked me why that is, and we talked about it,” Weissman said, “and then, all of a sudden, the student got it.

“ ‘Wait a second. Israel’s like a holy place!’ ” he remembers the Muslim student saying. “That was a concept he could understand. He couldn’t understand why Jews had to [in his opinion] take a country away from other people in order to make really great cell phones, but he could relate to the idea of a holy land.”

Weissman says his relationships with the students also has had a positive effect on campus.

“Once they felt they had a friend in the Jewish community who wasn’t interested in politics or fighting, they were able to hear some of my concerns,” he said. “For instance, they decided last year not to host Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an openly anti-Semitic Islamic preacher, at UC Irvine this year because it wasn’t the image they wanted to spread of Islam and of Muslims. That was their decision. I had nothing to do with it, but it wouldn’t have happened were it not for the true relationship we’ve formed.”

With the start of the 2011-12 academic year at Irvine, Weissman says he will continue to befriend Muslim and Jewish students on campus, but for the next month he will concentrate on transposing the values of Ramadan — charity, prayer, penitence and introspection — onto the Jewish scorecard.

“I think the Jewish community is terrific, but I also think we’ve got a lot to learn from the Muslim community here,” Weissman said. “Many people take their religion very seriously, they go to mosque every day, they pray more and are more careful about how they speak to people. That ethical dimension is very inspiring to me.

“If I can be encouraging to others, I certainly try to be. And I take encouragement from them, too.”

‘Jewels of Elul’ offers candidates’ wisdom

What is the dream of the future president of the United States?

For the answer, check out your e-mail or a pocket-sized, 36-page booklet called “Jewels of Elul IV,” which is subtitled “29 Dreamers and Their Dreams.”

Others include Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, Muslim artist Salman Ahmad, Mars Phoenix project leader Barry Goldstein and philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.

Craig Taubman, spiritual folk rocker, composer and producer, who has written and played the songs of his people for 30 years, conceived the project four years ago.

It started when Taubman was commissioned to write a song for Elul, the 29-day-long month of the Hebrew calendar, during which Jews are to meditate and look within themselves in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Among the first to respond to Taubman’s requests for submissions this year were Obama and McCain.

The month of Elul runs this year from Sept. 1-29 and Craig ‘n Co., the publisher of “Jewels,” would release only excerpts from the various responses.

Obama’s reads, “We must reclaim that basic American Dream for all Americans—the idea that if you work hard, you can support a family; that if you get sick, there will be health care you can afford; that you can retire with the dignity and security you have earned; and that every American can get a world-class education.”

The McCain excerpt reads, “As we look to the future, it is helpful to remind ourselves that there is no problem or challenge we cannot overcome together.”

In a lighter vein is the Dershowitz excerpt, “I almost never dream. On that rare occasion when I do, it’s the typical dream that Freud would be proud of. I fly through the air.”

An unexpectedly somber thought came from Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks: “Dreams aren’t all fluff and pastels. Dreams can hurt. Dreams can make incredible demands on us. And, unlike in animated movies, dreams don’t always come true.”

Taubman, 50, sent out requests to five to 10 potential contributors at a time and then waited to see how many responded and impressed the judges before sending out the next batch.

The only limitation is that the submission be 250 words or less, and Taubman tries to roughly balance the final picks by gender and age.

Costs of the project are underwritten by different foundations. Last year’s edition featured the theme of “Inspirations of Hope and Healing.” It was sponsored by the American Committee for Shaare Zedek and included such contributors as Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, Kirk Douglas, Deepak Chopra and Rabbi Harold Kushner.

The upcoming edition is sponsored by the Stefan Adelipour for Life Foundation, in memory of Adelipour, a 22-year old Boston University senior who lost his life in a fire.

Keeping up with the Internet times, Taubman will send out one message a day by request via e-mail, starting Sept. 1 and continuing for the next 28 days, without charge.

Taubman said he gets no payment for the considerable time he puts in on the project, though it doesn’t hurt him in spreading his name and drawing attention to his numerous record albums and countrywide concerts.

“I love doing this,” he said. “It’s my favorite mitzvah.”

Tri-ing to raise funds for Israel; gems of wisdom for 5767

Tri-ing to Raise Funds for Israel
Forever diffusing the image of schlubby Orthodox slackers who don’t see much of the sun, six members of congregation B’nai David-Judea completed the Los Angeles Triathlon Sept. 10, and raised $8,000 for Israel in the process.Noam Drazin, Ivan Wolkind, David Mankowitz, Sheldon Kasdan, J.J. Wernick and Yigal Newman successfully completed the race at the Olympic level, which includes a .9-mile ocean swim, a 24-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.
But this summer, their rigorous training schedule — a 5 a.m. bike ride and run on Sundays, a 6 a.m. ocean swim twice a week — began to feel frivolous as bombs fell on Israel.
“We realized that while we were spending our time running, biking and swimming, many people in Israel were fleeing their homes and fearing for their lives,” said Wernick.
Newman, an Israeli, has a brother who was called to Lebanon as a reservist in the Israeli army.
The group sent e-mails to family and friends, asking them to donate on their behalf to Amit’s Israel Emergency fund, a favorite charity of Wernick’s recently deceased mother.
The group hopes to bring the total up to $10,000 with post-event fundraising, and they plan to continue training.
“We started with yuppies and made them into guppies,” said the team’s coach, Olympian Clay Evans. “These guys came to us barely able to swim 100 meters last year and are now right up there in the middle of the pack.”
To donate, or for information, visit
— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor
Gems of Wisdom for 5767
“I learned in bodybuilding that the best way to gain strength was to take my muscles to their absolute limit — to the point of failure — where they were so out of energy that they couldn’t even lift a small amount of weight. Then, after a few day’s rest, they would not only be ready to lift again, but they were now bigger, stronger and able to lift more than ever before,” writes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the new High Holiday Web site, “Jewels of Elul” ( Craig Taubman started the project last year to provide inspirational stories — one for every day of the month of Elul, the last month on the Hebrew calendar, to prepare for the High Holidays.
The governor wrote his under the heading “Pushing The Limits,” and it continues: “Just like in bodybuilding, failure is also a necessary experience for growth in our own lives, for if we’re never tested to our limits, how will we know how strong we really are? How will we ever grow?”
Taubman, a musician, entertainer and music producer of Craig n’ Co., had been searching for inspiration last year, “and I wanted to find it in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee,” he said. So he gathered stories from community leaders, teachers, artists and thinkers.
“We asked people to write on a deceptively simple theme, ‘What I have learned thus far…,'” Taubman said of the 29 essays.
Contributors to this year’s anthology include a young Jewish soldier fighting in Iraq; a recovering drug addict; a Muslim educator; and the producer of Will & Grace, David Kohan.
“My mother tried to instill in me an ethos of toughness and self-respect through the oft-repeated aphorism, ‘Never let anybody spit in your kasha.'” Kohan writes. “I have taken those words to heart and have never, not once, served kasha.”
“My father showed me by example that a deeply contented life can be had if lived by the abiding principles of kindness, graciousness, respect for the dignity of others, and major denial of all things scary and bad,” he continued. “I, myself, have concluded thus far that life is glorious and magnificent beyond description, and the notion that we live this life fully aware of its inevitable end is fundamentally a comic one. Laughter, therefore, seems the most appropriate response to that Universal Joke.”
Most of the jewels are not as funny as Kohan’s. Consider “Echoes for Eternity,” by Max S. Phillips, a 21-year-old Specialist (E-4) deployed in Iraq: “Strength and honor…this world and the next. So on good days, I really do know that my life and mission make a difference for my country and my world. And on the bad days when I have been awake for 24 straight hours and the temperature in the Humvee is over 140, I still know that the guys in my truck are counting on me and counting on the way we work together and rely on each other, despite all the ‘dissing.’
“Before I left, my Abba and I were considering getting matching tattoos (I know, not very Jewish). Mitzpah Genesis 31:49 says: ‘For he (Jacob) said, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.”‘ We didn’t need to get the tattoos on our wrists, because the words were in our hearts.
“HaShem is watching over us. We are together in this world. My life is creating its own echoes for the next.”
The Jewels, which are sponsored by Mt. Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, can also be ordered online as gifts.
— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Polish the Soul for Elul

I spent the first three days of Elul polishing a lamp that has hung in the upstairs stairwell of my home for 80 years. I thought that the lamp was made out of cast iron,
but discovered after applying a mixture of abrasive compounds and elbow grease, that it was crafted of shiny brass.

Only after finishing the project did I catch the appropriateness of the endeavor. For Elul is traditionally a month for polishing the soul. During this time, we search ourselves for blemishes. Then, through the process of teshuvah, we polish and refine ourselves. The culmination of this refinement is the fast of Yom Kippur, from which we hope to emerge as shining and radiant as my restored lamp.

The word “teshuvah,” heard so often during the month of Elul and the first 10 days of Tishre, is unfortunately translated as “repentance.” Thus, the word carries a harshness that can lead us to feel shame about ways we may have blown it during the previous year.

Teshuvah, however, is more about cultivating compassion than about being held in judgment. Legend tells us that teshuvah was created even before the creation of the world.

This suggests that built into the structure of the universe is the understanding that mistakes will be made, as well as the consolation that there is always the opportunity to begin again. Judaism provides a spiritual technology for continually acknowledging both that to err is human and that we can repair our mistakes.

The first mechanism for this process of renewal (perhaps a more apt translation of the word “teshuvah”) is to cultivate compassion. Compassion is the theme of the chant that we sing over and over during the High Holidays:

Power of Words

Each night before retiring, the great Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would make a list. At the end of a long day, he would write down all the wrongs he had committed — against other people, against God, against himself. Nachman would read the list over and over again, with increasing levels of agitation and remorse, until he welled up with sorrow.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are encouraged — commanded really — to write something down. Upon crossing the Jordan River and entering the land of Israel, the people are to “set up great stones, and coat them with plaster. You shall write on them all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3). The commandment seems clear enough: to convey a message in writing. Yet generations of debates have ensued over what words, exactly, were to be inscribed on those stones. Was it the entire text of the Torah — what we call the five books of Moses? Or, was it just a list of mitzvot (commandments), which encompass the legal aspects of the Bible? Or perhaps these stones simply reiterated the Ten Commandments, and that was the “Torah” spoken of in the verse. What was on these stones?

The answer to this question remains a mystery. We don’t know for certain what words were inscribed. But we know something was written. In the end, what is meaningful was not what they wrote, but that they wrote. Immediately upon arriving in the land — after 40 years of desert wandering — the Israelites took the time to record something. They created a monument with words — words perhaps recounting their history, their trials, their legal system, their beliefs, their collective wisdom.

For us, this is a season of building monuments with our words. Throughout this month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our tradition invites us to think, in detail and with brutal honesty, about ourselves. We are encouraged to devote these days to a cheshbon ha’nefesh (inventory of the soul) in which we evaluate our behavior over the last year and humbly seek to make improvements.

During these days before the New Year, we — like the Israelites who were at a dramatic, transitional moment — also stand at the edge of a precipice. The work of looking deeply within can be terribly dangerous. The liturgy of the High Holidays suggests three possible ways to best approach the challenges of this season: through tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (righteous works) and teshuvah (repentance). In other words, the liturgy teaches us to do a cheshbon ha’nefesh by turning in three different directions: turning upward (to God, in prayer), outward (to others, in acts of righteousness), and inward (to ourselves, in contemplation and improvement).

Each of these turnings — containing the power to make radical change — is done with words. The Israelites at the Jordan River also understood this. As they literally walked out of their old existence and into a new one, they marked their transition with words. And God commanded that their enormous change be accompanied by words not just spoken, but written. Once the wisdom was inscribed, it somehow seemed that much more real.

When Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav sat considering his own behavior, he, too, opted to go even further than the spoken word. He, too wrote down the inventory of what he might alter in himself. Why? Why not just stop at speaking the words? It is said that after repeatedly reading the list, he felt such great sorrow that he started to weep. The teardrops would fall upon the written words, and actually blur them beyond distinction. By reading the words he had written, he moved himself to the depths of emotion that might affect real change in the days to come. Perhaps this is the truest meaning of the phrase of greeting we use on Rosh Hashanah: Shanah tovah tikatevu: May you be inscribed — and may you inscribe yourself — for a good and sweet new year.

This column originally appeared Sept. 15, 2000.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is founder and facilitator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for parents of special-needs children. She can be reached by e-mail at





Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the High Holidays

Goodbye summer; hello High Holidays. While Rosh Hashanah falls later in the calendar than normal this year (Oct. 3-5), it’s never too early to get ready for the Jewish New Year. Besides, preparations traditionally begin in the Hebrew month of Elul, which started Sept. 4.

If you didn’t know that — and were too afraid, too preoccupied or too unknowing to ask — then we have just the thing for you: this handy guide to get your mind, body and soul in the spirit, so to speak, for the Days of Awe.

We’ve included Frequently Asked Questions about the High Holidays; a how-to on finding a synagogue (no, it’s not too late); a music and book list for inspiration and explanation; and a primer for those new to the faith.

We also have prepared our special Congregation Directory (pages 40-47), a comprehensive listing of Los Angeles congregations sorted by neighborhoods.

Stay tuned next week for a delectable Food Issue with some of Los Angeles’ top chefs. For now, read on and prepare to be a little more in the know for the High Holidays.


For the Kids

Back to School in Elul

What’s Elul?
It is the 12th and last month of the Jewish year. It’s a month in which Jews take some time to think about the New Year: What will I do differently? What will I do the same? What do I need in order to succeed? It’s kind of like going back to school. When we get to school the first day, we wonder: Who will my teacher be? How will this school year go?

Ready for Judgment?

This week ushers in Elul, the month when Jews traditionally prepare for the High Holidays. In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, we judge ourselves, conducting a full cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). The Torah portion Re’eh can serve as a checklist for forgiveness, repentance and renewing our lives. Its various laws and themes each suggest avenues for real and lasting change:

Blessing and Curse

The power to choose is staggering — and inescapable. Will we align ourselves with mitzvot and blessings or rebellion and curses? It might seem that our choices are not so stark, or that we can remain safely in “neutral territory.” But Deuteronomy asserts that, on some level, the options we face will incline us either toward life and blessings or toward death and curses. How will you choose life this year?

You Are on a Journey

The Israelites stand at the Jordan, a minor crossing that will take them into the Promised Land. So it is with the small changes of teshuvah (repentance). Turning to God is ein klein drei (one small turn), and yet it covers an immeasurable distance: “As far as East is from West” (Psalms 103:12). What is the Jordan that you need to cross?

Destroy Idolatry

Trying to repent while holding onto sin is, in Maimonides’ image, like immersing in the mikvah (ritual bath) while holding onto a snake. Sin, harm, idolatry and temptation must be relinquished. Is there anyone or anything in your life that is corrupting and corrosive to you spiritually?

Create a Spiritual Home

In Deuteronomy, Jerusalem is established as the central spiritual home. Each of us needs to create centralized places for spiritual focus. Which synagogue will be the locus of your spiritual work this year? Where in your home will you pray, eat mindfully and create rituals, as the Israelites did in Jerusalem?

Choose a Leader Worth Following

It is a mistake, we know, to follow those who desecrate God’s name or ask us to violate divine principles, no matter how charismatic or successful they appear. We need to guard against the tendency to add to, or take away from, the Torah. Checking an idea or opinion against the Word of God is a good test to prove its spiritual worth. Who are your spiritual mentors? How will you filter and assess advice this year?

Your Body Is Holy

Repentance isn’t an abnegation of the body in favor of the soul. Repentance requires the elevation of both body and soul. The laws in Re’eh, like those for Yom Kippur, include restrictions on food and skin care. Many sins are committed through the body, but the solution is to love the body more, not less. How will your honor your body this year?

Tithe to the Temple and the Poor

Bonding to God without supporting community is an incomplete Jewish spiritual expression. What have you done this year, and can you do next year, to create a regular structure and percentage by which you will support a local synagogue and the needy?

Forgive Debts

Re’eh talks about forgiving monetary debts. Elul is the time of year when we tear up the IOU on emotional debts. What grudge, expectation or righteous indignation can you let go of to enter the New Year lighter?

Love Freedom More Than Security

The servant who would rather remain with his master than go out into the world is an extreme example, but all of us have, at one time or another, chosen security over freedom. A familiar sin can seem appealing compared to the unknown, open territory of a changed life. Repentance is a daring act because it requires that we abandon comfortable behaviors and predictable consequences. Is there a destructive pattern in your life that “feels like home,” which you are now willing to give up?

Give First — and Best — to God

Many people give tzedakah (charity) based on how much money is left over at the end of the year. Or we give so much of ourselves at the office that we have little energy to offer family or volunteer organizations. What if, as Re’eh instructs, we paid godly causes first? What if we gave the best that we have — materially and spiritually — to what is most holy, rather than what is most pressing or lucrative?

Honor Tradition Throughout the Year

Re’eh reviews the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. How might the themes and observances of those holidays support your cheshbon hanefesh? How does each holiday represent a pilgrimage back to yourself, as well as back to Jerusalem? What holiday observances will you engage in again, or newly, this year?

May you find inspiration in Torah, as step by step, inquiry by inquiry, you prepare to enter the High Holidays.