Everything is easier than doing good


Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.


Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Pico-Olympic traffic plan on hold after judge’s decision


Granting a temporary victory to neighborhood councils, a judge today ordered the City of Los Angeles to conduct a new environmental impact report (EIR) before implementing the Pico-Olympic traffic plan.

For the last six months, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Jack Weiss have been promoting a three-phase plan to change traffic through portions of the city and Beverly Hills. But a preliminary injunction filed by the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce (GWLACC), which has served as a spokesperson for its member businesses as well as numerous homeowners groups, has stopped the plan.

“The city of Los Angeles is ordered to fully comply with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act by conducting an appropriate, complete and comprehensive environmental study for the project,” Superior Court Judge John Torribio worte in his decision. “Respondents are restrained from any actions in furtherance of the project unless the resulting document has been prepared, publically circulated, and approved in a manner required by law.”

Jack Weiss said, “While still looking closely at the decision, I’m inclined to move forward with the environmental review to get it done as quickly as possible to relieve traffic in West L.A.”

Recycling on the fashion runway


Ever since the nonprofit organization Earth Pledge teamed up with Barney’s in 2005 during New York’s renowned fashion week to demonstrate that sustainable fashion and style can coexist, eco-fashion activists have been quipping that “green is the new black.” Almost overnight, environmentally conscious designs shed their reputation of looking like burlap sacks made for hippies and were transformed into stylish, chic and fashionable clothes.

On the New York runway, Richie Rich’s striking yellow-and-pink skirt, made out of corn fiber, was topped off with a flashy silver bustier made from recycled polyester. And Linda Loudermilk’s luxury eco line has an express goal of giving eco-glamour “a fabulous look and a slammin’ attitude that stops traffic and shouts the message: Eco can be edgy, loud, fun, playful, feminine (or not) and hyper-cool.”

Levi’s recently released a line of “green” jeans made from 100 percent organic cotton and fashion icons such as Oscar de la Renta and Proenza Schouler hail the use of sustainable materials. Even celebrities are taking part in the growing global trend; Bono launched a new line of eco-fashion titled “Edun.”

New, organic raw materials that are both sustainable and grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides or insecticides are more widely available too. Far beyond just organic cotton and hemp, contemporary eco-fashion designers can now choose between bamboo, soy and corn fibers, cottagora, eco-fleece, organic wool, linen, silk, tencel and ecospun — to name just a few. Eco-friendly, low-impact dyes and responsible manufacturing processes (employing people in good working conditions with fair wages close to home) are also part of the “reuse, recycle and renew” philosophy that define eco-fashion, according to the Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP).

The widespread international movement has not escaped fashion designers in Israel, more and more of who are starting to incorporate eco-friendly principles into their own creative, unique styles.

But there have been bumps in the road. Organic fabrics are almost impossible to find in Israel and have to be imported at great expense. But for some young Israeli designers, this is an opportunity rather than a detriment. Instead of bringing in costly fabrics from abroad, they look for ways to use inexpensive materials that already exist at home.

For Irit Vilensky, the fabric of choice is plastic. By recycling the ubiquitous plastic bags that litter Israeli beaches and parks, she makes an uber-chic, colorful line of accessories called: Satik.

“I wanted to create something beautiful out of what everyone already has at home, so I decided to make things out of plastic bags,” she said.

Each one-of-a-kind bracelet, wallet and purse is handmade, and Vilensky says that the concept of using noxious non-biodegradable plastic bags, already banned in many countries due to their widespread damage to the environment, serves two purposes: to reuse waste and to rid the world’s landfills of a few more plastic bags.

Elanit Neutra was heavily influenced by environmental concerns in Toronto, where she studied film production. Two years ago she began using the inner tubes of black rubber tires to make her stylish, soft leather-like accessories.

“I have always been a collector, taking things from the street to make new things, and when I saw the tires, I decided to try and make something nice from the raw material,” she said.

Although the process of finding material and cleaning the rubber is long and difficult, Neutra said part of what makes her work original is that she maintains the texture and any imperfections.

“Each piece is handmade, and I spend a lot of time looking for the right composition and shaping the rubber into something elegant,” Neutra said.

Gili Ben-Ami makes brightly colored necklaces by stringing together car fuses, and Ayala Froindlich recycles comic books, inflatable pool floats and even encyclopedias to make her eco-friendly handbags. Artist Ossi Yalon paints new scenes on vintage clothing in order to refurbish the old.

“Today’s society, especially women, is obsessed with buying new clothing all the time and throwing everything away,” she said. “I am trying to point out that the same therapeutic endeavor can be accomplished by recycling the old and rejuvenating it.”

Recycled plastic bottles filled with colored water are crushed into funky toothbrush holders, mugs and vases in Doron Sar-Shalom’s designs for the home, and Zohar Yarom puts leftover sofa fabric samples to good use in her unique handbags.

“Each bag is reversible and designed to last for many years,” she said. “Part of the unique thinking in Israel requires reinventing ourselves and using what we have available, because importing is not as good for the environment, and materials from abroad are more expensive.”

Despite the greater challenges that pro-environmentalists face in Israel, such as the Israeli government’s lackadaisical interest in efforts to be more environmentally friendly in the fashion industry, some stores are still finding ways to create eco-fashion.

Cotton is an eco-friendly clothing chain in Israel founded in 1992 that now has 12 branches across the country. It is owned by fashion designer Galit Broyde and her husband Erez Moded, and Broyde designs all of Cotton’s stylish and comfortable clothing out of organic materials that are easy to clean and durable. The company adheres to environmentally friendly local production, sells reusable shopping bags, and tries to promote education in Israel.

“For us, green fashion is not a trend; it’s a lifestyle. It’s something that we always did at home, but we started to do more in Cotton in recent years,” Broyde said. “We do everything we can, but no one is ever 100 percent green. For that, we’d all have to go back to caves.”

According to Nirit Sternberg, the owner of Le’ela, a design store that sells exclusively Israeli creations, the number of designers exhibiting eco-friendly work in the store has seen a tremendous increase in recent years — so much so that she was able to put on an eco-design exhibit with more than 35 creators this February. Nevertheless, she points out that it’s still not as popular in Israel as one might expect: “Eco-fashion is still just beginning here. The awareness is not there yet.”

British immigrant and organic baby clothing designer Sohpie O’Hana agrees. She started her own line, called Tinok Yarok (green baby), about a year ago, after searching futilely in Israel for eco-friendly baby clothing.

Books: Bird-watching and ‘the Jewish question’


No doubt because I once worked at a Jewish newspaper and have written a novel about a woman rabbi — not to mention a work of nonfiction called “The Talmud and the Internet” — I am sometimes asked if my new book about bird-watching, “The Life of the Skies,” is a Jewish book.

At the risk of sounding like the joke about the zoology student obsessed with Jews who called his thesis “Elephants and the Jewish Question,” I invariably find myself answering, “Of course!”

It may seem strange that a book that talks about John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau and Roger Tory Peterson, and that includes a quest for the possibly extinct ivory-bill woodpecker, seems to me to be so obviously Jewish. Must everything be about Jews? The answer, of course, is yes, everything is about the Jews — or at least Judaism is about everything.

I began bird-watching 15 years ago and, unlike many activities, I can trace it back to its originating moment. I was at Shabbat lunch one day in Manhattan, and a man — a rabbi, as it turned out — observed that “the warblers will be coming through Central Park soon.”

It was March. I had no idea what warblers were, but I knew I wanted to go out and find them. I felt, almost mystically, that they might lead me somewhere.

I’ve been following them ever since, and they have led me many places — outward into this country and other countries — especially Israel, where birds are movingly abundant, and also into myself, my own evolutionary origins and the mysterious questions about what my relationship is to the natural world that produced me and from which I was nevertheless oddly cut off.

“Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly they reveal the thoughts of the skies,” wrote D.H. Lawrence. That phrase, “The Life of the skies,” has theological overtones.

Whether you believe birds were created on the fifth day of creation, as the Bible tells us, or that they evolved in slow, painstaking eons from a dim reptilian past, their existence embodies and raises religious questions.

Are birds the life of the skies because the skies have no life outside of the biological world that fills them — no divinity? Or are they the life of the skies because divinity, creation itself, is implicit in them? Even as it may be implicit in us, animals though we be.

Environmental questions are at heart religious questions. What do we owe the natural world and why? Must we save the natural world because the earth is the Lord’s, as the psalmist said so beautifully? Or because it is ours?

Either way, we should care about saving it, but I think it is important to push through to the questions — the religious questions — at the heart of our interest in the environment.

I worked at The Forward newspaper for 10 years, beginning in 1990. It never once occurred to me that Abraham Cahan, the creator of the Yiddish Forverts, was a bird-watcher. But then I read that in 1903, when the Kishinev pogrom broke out, Cahan was off bird-watching in Connecticut and, according to a friend’s memoir, rushed back to New York, binoculars and bird guide in hand, because he “wanted to be with other Jews.”

This of course might tell you that there weren’t a lot of Jews bird-watching in Connecticut in 1903, when bird-watching was just coming into its own. But it makes great sense to me now that Cahan was a watcher and namer of birds.

His whole project as a journalist, in addition to the search for justice for working people, was to help Jewish immigrants feel at home in America. His newspaper, for that reason, used increasing amounts of English and answered questions continually about the habits of the country.

Birds for Cahan were, I suspect, another dimension of the vocabulary of America. We sturdy ourselves in new places by leaning on the natural world.

Audubon, who arrived in America from France in 1803, was an immigrant as much as Cahan, and by creating “The Birds of America,” he was in some sense assimilating himself into his new home, even as he was giving his new home a wild, animal aura.

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, when he was off on a diplomatic assignment, “Do you know that European birds have not half the melody of ours?” That quotation appears as an epigraph in Alfred Kazin’s landmark study of American literature, “On Native Grounds,” which Kazin published in the dark year of 1942.

Kazin was himself a child of immigrant readers of the Yiddish Forverts, and one feels in his whole book the urge to establish himself as part of the American landscape. Much as any founding father — or founding mother, which Abigail Adams really was — he wanted to put his country on equal footing, both morally and politically and also environmentally, with Europe.

Birds are the language spoken by the land itself. In that sense, they are transcendent of any single nation, even as they reinforce national identity.

Birds raise complex questions of belonging, much as Jews often have.

I was once talking to Kazin, and he told me his daughter was living in Israel.

Well, I said, “She’s really on native ground.”

Kazin became extremely upset. “You think that’s funny,” he said, “but it’s not.”

He had labored too long as a child of immigrants to fit himself into a single place. He wanted to be a bird of America.

But even the birds of America nest in one region, winter in another, pass through a third during migration. I see birds in Central Park that come from Costa Rica and are on their way to Canada.

Kazin’s ethnic anxiety mirrors a larger anxiety about where we ourselves belong in the natural world. We all must figure out where we belong geographically but also metaphysically. We are technically in the animal kingdom but also in a kingdom of our own devising that sets us apart from the animals.

Renewal seeks consistency in its rabbinical training


Karyn Berger, a slight, dark-haired woman wearing a royal blue tallit, steps up to the microphone to introduce herself and her four colleagues. All are about to be ordained as Jewish Renewal spiritual leaders — two rabbis, two rabbinic pastors and one cantor.

“We were born in Austria, Budapest, the Bronx, Toronto and Oklahoma,” she begins. “We grew up atheist, Reform kosher, socialist-Zionist. Two of us went to Orthodox yeshivas. Our average age is 49, and collectively we’ve been married for 75 years.”

When the laughter dies down, Berger continues more seriously.
“All five of us got our call to serve, and here we are,” she said. “Our calling is to heal souls — the souls of the Jewish people.”

The candidates’ teachers and mentors are then called up to stand behind their former students, who literally lean back into the arms of those who taught them, receiving ordination via hands-on transmission.

This very personal, emotion-filled ceremony on Jan. 7 — the highlight of the annual Ohalah Convention, the professional association of Renewal rabbis — is in keeping with the mission of Jewish Renewal.

It’s an egalitarian, neo-Chasidic Jewish practice that is reaching for greater internal consistency and standardization of its rabbinic training.

Often derided or acclaimed as “New Age Judaism,” Renewal focuses on environmentalism and direct spiritual connection to the Divine. It’s part of the burgeoning world of transdenominational Judaism — the growing number of synagogues, rabbis and prayer groups that eschew affiliation with a Jewish stream.

Renewal is “not a denomination” but an attempt to revitalize Jewish practice by emphasizing its spiritual depths, said Rabbi Marcia Prager, dean of the rabbinic program for Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The approach was developed four decades ago by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a former Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who is still the movement’s spiritual head.

Renewal today claims 40 affiliated congregations. Since 1974, 112 Renewal spiritual leaders have been ordained — 98 rabbis, three cantors and 11 rabbinic pastors. Sixty are graduates of the Aleph rabbinic program, created in the late 1990s to bring greater consistency to the course of study and relieve the pressure on Schachter-Shalomi, who had been personally overseeing each student’s progress.

The Aleph program differs from other seminaries in that it is completely off site. Each student has an individualized program developed and overseen by a mentoring committee. That can include classes at other seminaries, synagogues and universities, independent reading and traditional hevruta, or Torah study in pairs, as well as teleconference courses led by Aleph teachers.

In addition to Hebrew, Jewish text, history and philosophy and professional development courses, Renewal students study Chasidic literature and philosophy, meditation and prayer. They are each assigned a mashpia, or mentor, who guides their personal religious journey. The mashpia system is a staple in the Chasidic world.

Whereas other seminaries have carefully structured five-year rabbinic programs — six if a preparatory year is required — an Aleph course can take from two to 10 years or more. Few students are full time. Most are older and cannot leave family and career behind to attend a traditional seminary.

Daniel Siegel, the first Renewal rabbi ordained by Schachter-Shalomi in 1974 and now an Aleph teacher, said each seminary has its strengths. Aleph’s focus is pastoral care.

“We’re trying to train people who are drawn to the service of other people,” he said.

Leaders of other seminaries raise concerns about Aleph, not for the quality or sincerity of its students or faculty, but for its lack of standardization.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, noted that Aleph has not sought accreditation, and he questioned its reliance on distance learning.

“Our program is five or six years for a reason,” Ehrenkrantz said. “We want people to have certain socialization experiences that are crucial in the development of a rabbinic identity.”

In fact, when prospective students approach Aleph, if their goal is to become a pulpit rabbi, they are encouraged to enter another seminary to increase their job opportunities. Many have done so, ending up with double ordination.

Rabbi Alicia Magal was already well along in her Aleph studies when she decided to seek concurrent ordination from the Academy of Jewish Religion, a nondenominational seminary founded in New York in 1956. A Los Angeles branch was established in 2000, but two years later, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, now located at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, separated from New York, although the academies maintain common philosophies on pluralism and spirituality.

Magal said she missed “rubbing elbows with other students.”

Part of the lack of standardization is intentional.

“The key to Renewal is autonomy,” Schachter-Shalomi told the Ohalah gathering. “We bring heart to the situation. We bring compassion.”

But it’s also something Aleph’s leadership is working hard to change. The establishment of the school in 1995 was itself an attempt to bring greater consistency to the preparation of Renewal rabbis, a process that continues. There’s an extensive application process, course work is continually evaluated and two years ago a stable curriculum was created with courses that rotate.

The creation of Ohalah was a second step in the same direction, said Aleph board member Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh, immediate past president of Ohalah.

“In the early days, a person who was ordained was out on their own,” she said. “Now we have Ohalah to provide things rabbis need as they move forward in their profession.”

But she acknowledged that Renewal is still fighting for acceptance. That’s nothing new. When Reconstructionism emerged in the early 20th century, the other denominations looked askance.

“Then Renewal came around, and Reconstructionism became part of the establishment,” Baugh said.

One day, Renewal, too, could be supplanted. But for now, she admitted, “we have that chip on our shoulder that comes from being the new kid on the block.”

A Festival of Lights — lite


How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?

Here’s a hint: Sing this song by Deborah Kornfield to the tune of “I Have a Little Dreidel”:

I have a brand new lightbulb,
It’s a miracle you see;
It lights the room completely,
Using half the energy.
Oh compact fluorescent lightbulb.
I really have to kvell;
It’s just so energy efficient.
And it saves you gelt as well.

The question is, in fact, the name of a campaign launched by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Humorous title and cute lyrics aside, COEJL is on a serious mission to heighten ecoconsciousness in a Jewish context, and this initiative focuses on — you guessed it — energy-efficient lightbulbs.

COEJL’s Web site describes its three-pronged approach of “engaging the Jewish community in awareness, advocacy and concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote energy conservation and sustainable legislation,” in order to “change how American Jewry responds to … daunting environmental problems.”

This all sounds good, but why, you may be wondering, is this a Jewish issue?
God said this to Adam: “See My works, how good and praiseworthy they are? And all that I have created, I made for you. [But] be mindful that you do not spoil and destroy My world — for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

And, COEJL argues, Jewish values such as tikkun olam and tzedek should be extended to include not just people but other animals and plants.

OK, you’ve conceded. It is Jewish. But is this really about Chanukah?

Well, what about the Festival of Lights? About making resources last longer than we thought they could? Like for eight nights, perhaps?

High-efficiency lightbulbs actually last eight times longer than regular lightbulbs. Imagine that. And speaking of the number eight, see COEJL’s list of eight actions in eight days as a simple and concrete way to bring some ecoconsciousness into your Chanukah holiday practice.

So, you might be left wondering, just how many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb? As many as possible. As of the writing of this article, more than 20,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs have been sold through COEJL, saving 8,250 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

So, as you nosh on your latkes this Chanukah, be a modern-day Maccabee — take action against global warming and environmental degradation.

Rachel Kantrowitz is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Water and pumpkins mark eco-friendly Sukkot


During Sukkot, families of Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., will gather together for a special celebration. Socializing in the synagogue’s sukkah, they will be treated to a tantalizing array of chocolate cakes and candies, accompanied by delicious cups of … tap water.
 
“Which are you enjoying more, the sweets or the water?” congregant Evonne Marzouk will ask, knowing full well that the cups of water will remain largely untouched.

This activity is a set up. It’s modeled on Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the festive water-drawing ceremony that took place during Sukkot while the Temple was standing but that is rarely commemorated today. Reconfigured, however, as part of True Joy Through Water, a new outreach program created by Canfei Nesharim (“the wings of eagles”), an Orthodox environmental organization, it’s designed to educate the primarily Orthodox community about the importance of water, its imperiled state and ways to conserve it.

“At the time of the Temple, people lived on the land and understood that if there wasn’t rain, there wasn’t food. That absolute dependence is still true today, but we don’t think about it because we live so far from the land,” said Marzouk, who serves as executive director of Canfei Nesharim, which was founded in January 2003.
 
The True Joy Through Water activities, text studies and instructive sukkah decorations have been requested by more than 30 Orthodox congregations across the United States.

In Los Angeles, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky hopes to perform several of the True Joy Through Water activities with synagogue members, especially those in the youth group, in the sukkah. No formal program is planned for Young Israel of Century City, but Rabbi Elazar Muskin has distributed the materials to his congregants and is hoping that “people will take an interest in this important endeavor.”
 
True Joy Through Water is one of several programs that Jewish environmentalists are promoting this Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Friday, Oct. 6, to encourage people to take stock not only of the earth’s bounty but also of the earth itself — and to take action to repair it.
 
At the Shalom Institute in the Malibu Mountains, about 80 teenagers will be working directly with the earth on Sunday, Oct. 8, preparing the soil and planting in the Marla Bennet Israel Garden. The ninth- through 12th-graders, participants in Camp JCA Shalom’s Teen Camp weekend, will learn about Sukkot as well as their responsibility to nature, according to Einat Gomel, an environmental educator from Israel now serving as the year-round director of the Shalom Nature Center.
 
In the afternoon, the Shalom Institute is hosting a family Sukkot celebration. “We will talk about how we can help kids build a better world and make it eco-related,” Gomel said. Families will also participate in a ceremony and service in the sukkah.
 
“The fragility of the sukkah and its shelter is eloquent testimony to both our dependence on the environment and the environment’s dependence on us,” said Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., who is considered by many to be the father of Jewish environmentalism.
 
Gendler, who admits to a fondness for pumpkins stemming from an overflowing pumpkin patch he visited yearly as a Midwestern youth, invented the “Yaakov Lantern.” It’s a bright orange pumpkin, home-grown by Gendler every year, on which he carves a typical jack-o’-lantern face on one side and a Star of David on the other. Inside, he places a candle.
 
At night, the Yaakov Lantern invokes the “ushpizim,” the biblical forefathers and foremothers whom Gendler refers to as the “ancestral spirits” and also illumines the sukkah in an environmentally friendly manner.
 
“It’s hard to imagine the sukkah with wires attached,” said Gendler, who invented the first solar powered “ner tamid” (everlasting light), and espouses alternative energy sources.
 
Another long-time environmentalist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, is hosting an expected crowd of 250 to 350 Jews, Christians and Muslims to address the question, “What can our religious traditions do to help heal the planet from the climate crisis of global ‘scorching?'”
 
Leaders from all three Abrahamic faiths will speak to the participants, who will also engage in prayer and song and build a sukkah together. In addition, they will have the opportunity to sign petitions asking for reductions in global warming and increased use of alternative energy sources, which will be delivered to national, state and local legislators.
 
“I’m hoping to have some direct impact right there on the spot, both in terms of public policy and in terms of congregations’ and congregants’ energy use,” Waskow said.
 
The event takes place on Oct. 8 and jointly celebrates Sukkot and the month of Ramadan, as well as the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). It is co-sponsored locally by The Shalom Center and is part of a nationwide effort initiated by “The Tent of Abraham, Hagar & Sarah,” a network of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
 
For Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Sukkot, as a harvest holiday, is a perfect time to talk about healthy foods for a healthy planet.
 
“Many individuals who have joined community supported farms and co-ops are bringing their organically grown fruits and vegetables into the sukkah,” she said.
 
On the first day of Sukkot, Lerman-Golomb herself is slated to speak at the Conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn during the morning service.
“I coined the phrase ‘energy observant,'” said Lerman-Golomb, who will present the Jewish response to environmental issues and encourage people to lead more sustainable lives.
 
In particular she will stress the problem of global warming, part of a nationwide campaign the coalition launched in August — billed as “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?” — which will culminate at Chanukah.

Skateboard Creator Builds Business on Performance


Don Tashman doesn’t look like a skater boy, not with his scraggly, brown hair and three-day-old unshaven stubble that’s yet to materialize into a beard.

This religious boy from Beverlywood doesn’t even look like a surfer boy — which he is, as these things usually go hand in hand, along with snowboarding. Tashman certainly doesn’t look like the creator and owner of Loaded Boards and Pigeons Inc., the hip skateboarding company that has brought performance boards back to the industry.

No, 31-year-old Tashman doesn’t look like a dude, not with his short-sleeved, button-down shirt, untucked over loose, brandless blue jeans, but that’s OK, because his co-workers do. The long, lean, sun-kissed blond boys stack skateboards according to styles (Fish, Hammerhead, Pintail, Vanguard) or sit on yoga stability balls at computers, looking like they’re playing video games or designing specs — something that makes them almost as happy as riding a board — any board: skate, surf, snow.

Tashman doesn’t need to look the part of the people he designs skateboards for, because he’s got the attitude, for sure — laid back, imperturbable, chill.
These are the qualities that have gotten Loaded a reputation for authenticity in a world clannishly obsessed with it. It’s been four years since he founded the company, and Tashman said he can’t keep up with demand (he declines to give actual figures) and will be forced to move offices soon from mid-Wilshire, where he shares space with his father and brothers, who work in real estate and futures exchange.

Skateboarding runs in the Tashman family, although not on the paternal side. His mother, who also grew up religious, skateboarded when she was a kid. She was sponsored by a local Velcro company. “She took her old roller skates and nailed them to a two-by-four for her first skateboards,” Tashman said. Since he was 3 years old, “she would attach me to my skateboard and pull me down hills and our neighbor’s empty swimming pool,” he said. “She always wanted me to be a cantor, though.”

Tashman didn’t become a cantor. He grew up Orthodox, attended Yeshiva University Los Angeles (YOLA) and then moved to New York to become an English major at Columbia University in 1994.

“I was short-boarding and couldn’t get around,” Tashman said, referring to the shorter boards in vogue then, which were hard to maneuver around the streets of Manhattan. He started developing his own boards for his own use. After he finished college in 1999, he went to study at a yeshiva in Israel. After a few months there, someone convinced him to work as a traveling salesman for an Israeli technology company. He spent a year at that, then, in his wise and quiet way, Tashman cashed out his stock options two weeks before the market crashed in April 2000.

With about $150,000, Tashman spent the next two years developing the boards he’d begun designing at Columbia. Performance was key but so was finding environmentally friendly materials, like bamboo instead of oak.

Tashman said that because he surfed here growing up, he became interested in making the environment better.

“Surfing in L.A. water is to feel the toxicity — people aren’t even aware of it,” he said. Although Tashman’s is a small company, he believes that if other small companies like his and big ones like GE are more environmentally conscious, “I think we can inspire people to be aware of what they consume, what they use and how they can live more sustainable lives.”

In the end, the company created longer, high-performance skateboards, tailored for hills or parks or streets or long distances. The skateboards were unlike the other black-topped, fancy logo boards.

“We had no graphics,” Tashman said. “It was the ride first and foremost. Most boards were driven by graphics, and we wanted to separate ourselves.”

Separate the company he has, with clean, bamboo long boards that appeal to 20- to 40-year-olds, as opposed to the “17-year-old male from the O.C.,” Tashman said. The boards sell for $215 to $300 and are sold in about 350 stores nationwide and have been featured in men’s magazines like FHM and Maxim. Loaded is looking into expanding into apparel as well as snowboards, and the prototypes are laying around the office. But the company will always focus on skateboards, Tashman said.

Now that he has established the company for performance-driven boards, Loaded is adding graphics in the form of a bird — a kite to be precise, a kind of a sparrow drawn sparingly in white and gold on the undercarriage of the Vanguard.
“We’re seeing what we can get away with, and where we can go with it,” Tashman said.

Imagine standing on a high wire, suspended midair and bouncing on it. That’s the experience of being on the Vanguard, a long and flexible skateboard designed for stability. There’s a sensation of coiled-up energy, as if the rider is a spring ready to be sprung, an arrow ready to be shot — loaded, like the company name.
For Tashman and his five full-time employees, the key to the business is having fun.

“Stoke ’em,” is part of the company motto, which, Tashman explains, means, “We’re here to get people excited about the underlying excitement, to promote the visceral experience of the flow.”

The flow.

Some people talk about finding meaning in life, and others talk about religion, but for adrenaline junkies, flow is the buzzword. “There is a spiritual thing [about skateboarding] — the flow, the pure exhilaration of the experience.”
Tashman also finds inspiration in Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

“It’s an exciting time to be Jewish in L.A. Jewish culture seems very vibrant — people are excited about their heritage; it’s starting to filter out from New York, and it’s like it never was when I was growing up.”

Tashman admitted it’s unusual to be a religious skateboarder, but he finds similarities between the two worlds.

“My religiosity has existed synergistically with my skateboarding. The visceral sense of flow, the intense personal engagement and the stoke it has generated and allowed me to pass on are enriching. Skateboarding culture has historically exhibited a strong sense of community. Like Judaism, I find that it promotes personal development and environmental awareness,” he said.

Aren’t they so different, these two separate worlds of Jewish life and skateboarding?

“They go hand in hand — a big part of skateboarding is how you present yourself,” he said. In the skateboarding industry there’s always the question of authenticity, whether you’re a “core” company — the rap equivalent of street cred — or an outsider trying to make a buck.

“I’ve always skirted the issue. If I can make people excited, great; if not, OK, I don’t need to classify myself in a group to achieve that,” Tashman said.
And that’s how he feels about religion. He said he’s “traditional, shomer Shabbat” but doesn’t define himself as Orthodox. “I do the things I find meaning in, and I don’t do things I don’t.”

“Both worlds can be alienating, in that myopic, or xenophobic tendencies, tend to miss the broader universalist picture,” he said. “In my opinion, the need to promote in-group behavior at the expense of creativity and exploration is sad. I can’t really be bothered by those approaches — there’s too much fun to be had.”

Parent Wins School Pesticide Battle


A new law that bans that use of experimental pesticides in schools is the latest achievement of Robina Suwol, a Jewish anti-pesticide activist.

The law, which took effect last month, grew out of a presentation two years ago before an L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) advisory committee of which Suwol was a part.

As Suwol recalled it, a researcher asked to use LAUSD school sites to test an experimental pesticide.

“The woman said, ‘We use less [pesticides] and they’re stronger [so] therefore they’re safer,'” Suwol said. “We all kind of laughed and politely declined.”

But in the back and forth, the researcher mentioned that a school site had already been secured in Ventura County for the experimental product.

“That haunted me, and I began to research it,” she said.

What Suwol said she found was an arena of murky practices and documentation. It wasn’t clear that experimental pesticides were being used at any schools, she said, but it also wasn’t clear that they weren’t or that they never had been — or that they wouldn’t be tried at school sites in the future. So she decided to do something about it.

Suwol soon met with various environmental and public health organizations to marshal opposition to experimental pesticides in schools: “Everyone was on board that this was a curious loophole.”

Assembly member Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando) agreed to author the legislation, which became Assembly Bill 405. Assemblymember Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) backed it, as did organizations including the California Medical Association, the state PTA, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and many others.

An early critic of the effort was the state’s own Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), which has responsibility over these matters. At the time, officials there characterized the proposed restrictions as potentially redundant, confusing and over-reaching.

While permission to test can, in fact, be granted to experimental pesticides whose safety has not been determined, these permits “are time-limited, relatively few, and are closely controlled under very specific and restrictive conditions,” said Glenn Brank, director of communications for the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

He added that the department “has never allowed an experimental pesticide project at an active school facility, and we never would.”

Suwol said she had trouble obtaining data from the department about experimental test sites. Brank insisted, however, that such data is publicly available on request.

As it happens, even the researcher whose comment prompted Suwol’s quest contends there was a misunderstanding. This different version of events was reported by a pesticide industry news e-journal on Pesticide.net called Insider, which identified the researcher in question as UC Berkeley entomologist Gail Getty.

Getty told Insider that she did indeed give L.A. Unified a presentation on an anti-termite poison that she was researching called Noviflumuron. But as for the Ventura County school test site, Getty told Insider that it was an abandoned school building fenced off from the public due to extreme termite damage — though she acknowledged that she did not mention this fact during her Los Angeles presentation. She added that her aim was simply to make LAUSD aware that a potentially helpful product was in the works. In the end, Getty told Insider, her test in Ventura never happened anyway. Noviflumuron received EPA approval in 2004.

Whatever the case, as far as Suwol and the legislation’s backers are concerned, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Lawmakers passed AB405 in 2005 and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law. The Department of Pesticide Regulation says it fully supports the new regulations in their present form. The bill was eventually amended to avoid the problem of creating potential legal hurdles if a school used a widely accepted product, such as bleach, in ways not specifically mentioned in regulations.

Suwol’s interest in the subject of pesticides dates to 1998, when a worker accidentally sprayed her 6-year-old son, Nicholas, with a weed killer as he walked up the steps of Sherman Oaks Elementary.

“I saw someone in white near the steps,” said Suwol, then “Nicholas yelled back at me, ‘Mommy, it tastes terrible!'”

Nicholas suffered a severe asthma attack afterward. Suwol started meeting with doctors and scientists, and she began raising concerns with L.A. Unified officials. At first she was treated like one more crazy mom, but she persisted, eventually getting the attention of the school board, where she got backing from board members Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky.

In some cases, she made officials consider the obvious: Why should pesticides be sprayed when children are present?

Today, Suwol heads California Safe Schools, an L.A.-based nonprofit that advocates lower-risk pest control in schools, including barriers and natural predators, and keeping parents and school staff informed when poisons must be used. Its advisory board includes directors of various environmental organizations, including Dr. Joseph K. Lyou of the California Environmental Rights Alliance and William E. Currie of the International Pest Management Institute.

At L.A. Unified, her efforts bore fruit in the 1999 creation of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, which recommends a more holistic approach to eliminating pests and weeds than simply dousing them with poisons. It was before the district’s IPM oversight committee, on which Suwol sits, that she first heard from the pesticide researcher and became convinced there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

The governor’s office and others, Suwol said, “recognized that this was a situation that, even if it happened in just a few instances, should be stopped.”

 

Wake Up and Smell the Fish


For UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond, the fall of a great civilization can come down to fish.

“Fish prices have tripled; fish form a significant part of our diet,” Diamond told The Journal. “At the rate we’re going, most of the world’s major fisheries will be gone within a decade.”

He doesn’t expect Los Angelenos to obsess about it. “Fish don’t focus the attention the way a single earthquake does,” he said.

But Diamond knows what he’s talking about. He’s the author of the best-selling nonfiction book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Viking, 2004). His book is the inspiration for a special exhibit at the L.A. County Natural History Museum. Diamond will talk about his book and his ideas on Jan. 10 at a Writers Bloc Presents lecture at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Diamond, who received a 1985 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction with his earlier book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (W. W. Norton & Company). The scope of Diamond’s research spans not only geography, but also ornithology, physiology and environmental history.

In the earlier book, Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. “Collapse” looks at the flip side: What caused some of the great civilizations to collapse into ruin and what can people today learn from their fates?

Some of what happens could come down to fish, Diamond said, or to other somewhat overlooked factors. Diamond expects a future massive fish decline to be a global version of the New Orleans levees breaking during Hurricane Katrina. A world without fish, he said, will result in “countries collapsing…. A substantial fraction of the world’s people rely on fish for protein.”

The Cambridge-educated Diamond, who is Jewish, said he has not found evidence that Jews, Judaism or any other major religion played a dominant role in why a civilization ended.

“I have not noticed that one particular religion is more prone or less prone to collapse,” he said.

Nor does he list the modern scourge of terrorism among crucial factors — at least it doesn’t rank nearly in importance with the supply of fish. “People don’t get excited about the gradual disappearance of fish,” he said, “until 2 billion people start sending out terrorists because they’re starving.”

Jared Diamond will discuss “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” at Writers Bloc Presents on Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 855-0005.

Sacred Words Come Naturally


Ellen Bernstein has been called the birth mother of the Jewish environmental movement. In 1988, she founded Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth), the first national Jewish environmental organization, and since leaving the group in 1996 has been an educator, consultant and writer. Her new book, “The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology” (Pilgrim Press), is a gem, beautifully written and produced. While it is inherently a narrative about ecological issues as framed by the first chapter of Genesis, it is really a deeper poetic work about being alive to life’s wonders, feeling connected to creation and to the Creator.

Although Bernstein is a person of action, her goal is not so much to foster activism as to help people gain appreciation of the environment as well as Judaism. Readers will learn about nature and experience what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Bernstein, one of the few Jewish authors besides Evan Eisenberg who writes lyrically about nature, describes seeing with the soul and cultivating intimacy with the earth.

“Genesis I is particularly beautiful and poetic,” she says. “I was inspired … to contextualize environment in a totally different way.”

In seven chapters, each devoted to a day of creation, Bernstein weaves biblical text, midrash, the writings of naturalists and autobiography. In her chapter “Water, Earth and Plants: The Third Day,” she gracefully slips from talking about the physical qualities of water to its natural flow to open-heartedness in a few paragraphs.

While growing up in what she describes as a lackluster Jewish environment in New England, Bernstein sought solace and adventure in the woods. After pursuing environmental studies at Berkeley, she studied Eastern religions but revisited the Bible in search of wisdom she might have missed. She came to realize that “ecology and the Bible were using different languages to describe the same thing…. Both teach humility, modesty, kindness to all beings, a reverence for life and … that the earth is sacred and mysterious,” she writes.

In the 10 years it took Bernstein to complete “Creation,” she studied theologians such as Nachmanides and the 19th-century German Orthodox Rabbi Raphael Hirsch, “who expressed an uncanny ecological perspective,” she says.

As she was writing, she heard the words of the 11th-century philosopher Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda: “Meditation on creation is obligatory. You should try to understand both the smallest and greatest of God’s creatures.”

 

Community Briefs


ADL Sponsors “Safe Community” Program inEncino

Earlier this year, a string of arson attacks on five houses of worship rocked the interfaith community. Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sponsored an interfaith forum to prepare the community in case such events should reoccur.

“The series of attacks served as a wake-up call that we must remain vigilant,” ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind said.

The First Presbyterian Church of Encino, which suffered $75,000-$100,000 in damages after it was firebombed on April 26, held the June 2 program, “Making Your Community and Religious Institution Safe,” featuring a panel of security experts and city officials, including Cmdr. Mark Leap of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter Terrorism Bureau; Chief Bill Bamattre and Assistant Chief Dean Cathey of the Los Angeles Fire Department; Col. Yoni Fighel, director of the educational program at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel; City Councilman Jack Weiss; and L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Each panelist stressed the importance of community involvement.

“We would not have identified that suspect if it were not for a few people in the community that actually stepped forward…. I encourage you to form alliances in your community,” Leap told the audience. “Certainly [form] interfaith alliances, so that if we do have a situation like we did a month ago, there are already those built in lines of communication so that you can get the word out.”

Yaroslavsky reminded participants to put acts of hate into perspective, but to also respond with total vigilance.

“We need to celebrate one another,” he said. “To walk a mile in each other’s shoes. We need to understand what makes each other tick. Because when we do that, we find out that our differences are far outweighed by our commonalties. We have the same ambitions, we have the same aspirations, we have the same frustrations, we have the same fears.”

Participants also received a copy of the ADL’s security handbook, “Keeping Your Jewish Institution Safe.”

To order a copy of “Keeping Your Jewish InstitutionSafe,” call (310) 446-8000 or visit www.adl.org . — Rachel Brand, Contributing Writer

Camp Valley Chai Returns to GranadaHills

Camp Valley Chai, the only Jewish day camp in the north side of the Valley, is back after a one-year hiatus. The camp, which will continue to operate out of the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, is returning for a ninth summer.

“We want everyone to know that we’re back, we’re reopening and we’re bigger and better than before,” said Amy Grofsky, the camp’s director, who is returning to the position she’s held for six years after being away last summer.

The Jewish day camp is available to children from kindergarten through eighth grade and will offer the usual camp fare, in addition to swimming, karate, gymnastics, Shabbat services on Fridays and an Israeli cultural experience.

Camp begins June 30. For more information, call (818) 366-0907. — Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer

Heschel West Holds Hearing on NewComplex

Like the plight of most Angelenos, Abraham Joshua Heschel West School’s biggest obstacle in obtaining permission to build its new campus is all about traffic. The Heschel West School Board had its second hearing before the Los Angeles County Planning Commission on May 7 in an effort to obtain a conditional-use permit to build a nine-building school on a 70-acre site near Chesboro Road in Old Agoura in the Conejo Valley.

The hearing focused on the property’s Environmental Impact Report. In addition to concerns like noise and destruction of the area’s rustic charm, the opposition is currently focused on the expected influx of traffic.

“They haven’t begun to satisfy traffic access. Their stated access is unacceptable,” said Jess Thomas, president of the Old Agoura Homeowners Association.

Representatives for Heschel West say its current site, near the Liberty Canyon exit of the 101 Freeway, is inadequate for the growing student body.

Brian Greenberg, president of Heschel West, said the school’s board will respond to the traffic concerns and was clearly not thrown by the prospect of additional hearings.

“This is the process, and we knew ahead of time that it’s long and complicated process,” Greenberg said. “I personally don’t see any surprises.”

A third hearing is set for Sept. 10. — SSR