GOP platform offers strong support for Israel, veers right domestically


MINNEAPOLIS (JTA)—John McCain’s Jewish supporters characterize him as a Republican maverick who shares his party’s bedrock support for Israel and combating anti-Semitism. Critics dismiss him as the standard-bearer of a staunchly conservative party at odds with the Jewish community on a host of issues.

They’re both right, judging from the platform approved this week at the Republican convention in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The platform includes a call for an end to all government-funded embryonic stem-cell research and a ban on all abortions—positions that, polls show, are contrary to those of most Jewish voters. Of course, they also do not conform to the views of McCain, who has said that he would revoke President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research, permit abortions in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother.

On immigration, McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona who is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has pressed for legislation that would provide undocumented workers with a path toward citizenship, but the platform declares: “We oppose amnesty.”

The McCain campaign reportedly decided to avoid significant fights over the platform rather than upset leaders of the party’s conservative base, many of whom have expressed concern over the GOP nominee. His supporters argue that the platform is irrelevant to understanding McCain and that voters will make their decisions based on how they view the candidate.

Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro, the only Jewish female Republican in her state legislature, said that the platform is “not what guides my everyday” decision-making and doubts voters will be using it to make decisions either.

They will and should be “looking at John McCain and his positions and record,” she said.

Another Jewish delegate from Texas, Houstonian Stuart Mayper, said the strong “pro-life” language in the platform could be a problem for some Jews. But, he quickly added, the platform contains language strongly supportive of Israel that should be attractive to the Jewish community.

Sources familiar with the formation of the platform say the language dealing with Israel and fighting anti-Semitism was drafted in consultation with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups.

The platform echoes AIPAC’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for a two-state solution but placing the onus on the Palestinians to take several key steps and calling on nearby Arab countries to play a more constructive role. It also declares support for “Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.”

Both McCain and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee, have said that the status of Jerusalem ultimately would be decided in negotiations between the two sides. McCain has pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem right away—a promise that the Obama campaign rejected, essentially calling it a lie.

The GOP platform calls for the isolation of Hamas and Hezbollah and vows to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge in military technology over its enemies—all positions shared by Obama and McCain.

In several contexts, the platform stresses the need to combat anti-Semitism—on university campuses, in Europe and across the world—and declares that “discrimination against Israel at the U.N. is unacceptable.”

It says that Iran cannot be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons, calls for a “significant increase in political, economic, and diplomatic pressure” on Tehran and insists that the United States “must retain all options” in dealing with the situation.

Without naming Obama, the platform draws a contrast with the Democratic nominee’s previously stated willingness to meet with the Iranian president. It states: “We oppose entering into a presidential-level, unconditional dialogue with the regime in Iran until it takes steps to improve its behavior, particularly with respect to the support of terrorism and suspension of its efforts to enrich uranium.”

Teens should follow in footsteps of volunteerism


As I watch the first of my six granddaughters prepare to become a bat mitzvah this spring, I am filled with pride. She and young Jews like her around the world are following in the footsteps of generations of youth who came before them, affirming to their communities that they are prepared to take on the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.

Every society has a way of marking significant stages in our lives when we celebrate our transitions and mark phases of maturing.

Moments of tremendous learning and growth, these “rites of passage” — often transformative experiences — are forever imprinted in our memories. Like rites of passage in other societies, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies have become nearly universal experiences in the Jewish community. While many children of bar mitzvah age are unable to grasp all that their newfound responsibilities entail, each one recognizes the occasion as an important turning point in their lives as Jews.

The bar mitzvah epitomizes obligation to our religious and cultural ideals.

But should the bar mitzvah be the only demonstration of a young person’s communal allegiance? There are so many values that the Jewish community embraces — values that are truly universal in nature — for which we have no outward tradition of affirming with the gravity of a bar or bat mitzvah. We say we are a people committed to chesed, or lovingkindness; tzedek, or justice; and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but oftentimes we fail to see our engagement in such activities as an expression of who we are as Jews. As a people, we need to develop a new rite of passage devoted to these pillars of Jewish action.

These Jewish values were instilled in me at an early age. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of my father involve the time I spent with him visiting and helping care for people I remember calling the “little old ladies” — women who were probably no older than I am today. My father never talked in terms of charity. He spoke only of improving lives and, in turn, making the world a better place for us all. Time and again he would say, “Each of us is worth only what we are willing to give to others.”

Through our frequent volunteering I came to see that tzedakah, or giving money, is not enough — it must be coupled with its sister tzedek, bringing us closer to the people who benefit from our giving, and impressing upon us the importance of getting our hands dirty for the sake of others. The physical aspect of service is much more transformative than writing a check.

Schools and universities are catching on, adding service to standard classroom work. Service leaders in the United States also believe that they can ignite a fire in young generations who, through service work, come to think of themselves as responsible citizens, dedicated to their civic identities and to the ideals of democracy. Just as these American leaders hope to leverage service to benefit American society, so too can the Jewish community utilize service to touch both those who serve and those who are served.

We cannot underestimate the profound impact Jewish service has on its participants. First, service adds another rich layer to the lives of those already committed to Judaism. It is a channel for young Jews to expand their Jewish identities, to think about Judaism as a holistic living experience.

At the same time, service also reaches out to the Jewishly uninspired. Many young people today speak the language of universalism, choosing to view the world from that vantage point and inadvertently turning away from the particulars of Judaism.

Accordingly, Jewish service can give universalists a chance to live out their broader values in a Jewish context, to learn that they can be both Jews and humans.

Thinking about all this as a philanthropist, I began to tackle the question of how I could encourage more young Jews to engage in service. How could my philanthropy help to make service a universal Jewish experience?

Our Center for Leadership Initiatives, a new operating foundation that I helped establish in 2006, sponsored 550 young adults’ participation in service projects in northern Israel this winter, to assist the region after this past summer’s war. More than 3,000 young people from around the world applied to our Leading Up North program, and this incredible number alone shows how much this generation is eager to be involved.

When the volunteers we took to Israel finished their days fixing bomb shelters and preparing charred forests for replanting, they spent their evenings in discussion with young Israelis who have chosen to live in the socio-economically challenged regions of the country in order to bring about change. They met with Israelis and other Jews from around the world who are deeply engaged in service, working with non-Jewish as well as Jewish communities.

It was incredibly moving for me to spend time with them in Israel, hearing their impassioned words and responses. With more opportunities, they will come to see service as their unique contribution and as their duty.

In response, our foundation has not stopped with Leading Up North. We continue to support Jewish service in many ways, including J-Serve, a national Jewish teen day of service, and an online networking site and follow-up programming for alumni of Jewish service programs.

Whether you call it volunteerism, community service, tzedek, social action or something else altogether, an intense service experience must become a rite of passage for all young Jews. When it does, our community will be living the values, invested in positive change — both within the Jewish community and the general society — planting the seeds for their children to flourish, and returning the favor in a never-ending cycle.

And so I challenge all of us to step it up. Let’s step up the number of young Jews doing service. Let’s step up support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs, significantly expanding their reach. Let’s step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam. Let’s unite our community with a sincere, shared obligation to Jewish service. Let’s make service universal.

This column courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Lynn Schusterman is chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low


Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

The “Choosing Jewish” report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

Many converted Jews — 40 percent — are described as “accommodating Jews-by-Choice.” They come to Judaism because they are asked to do so, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said. Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews — they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as “activist Jews,” or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually indistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The American Jewis Committee (AJCommittee) hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should “not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass,” said Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of contemporary Jewish life.

Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

“We should not see conversion as the end of the story,” he said. “What we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism. We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts.”

But that requires a proactive approach.

First and foremost, Jews need to “wave the banner of inmarriage,” advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as “the single best outcome.”

“We need to be up front about our preference for conversion,” he said.

To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the “nurturer of would-be converts” and the need for Jewish family members to “be clear about values and objectives.”

In addition, Bayme advocated raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, because attempting to combine religions would be “a disaster Jewishly.”

Edmund Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

“I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively,” he said. “If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in.”

Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don’t convert — not just those who do — should be paramount.

“The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life,” he said. “It’s important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

“I think its important to communicate a message of welcome,” he continued. “The message we need to send to [intermarried] non-Jews is, ‘We’re grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are.'”

Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach — less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

Bayme said “it’s a bit premature” for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.

 

Throw a Party With a Purpose


“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

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Rabbi’s Focus on Family a Little Fuzzy


The first episode of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Shalom in the House,” which aired April 10 on the TLC network, was a fast-paced account of five days the rabbi spent with a family in Philadelphia. Beatrice Romero, a single mother raising three teenage daughters and a 7-year-old son, sent the rabbi a tape asking for his help in bringing some peace to her home.

We see segments of the family’s prior life, with the children beating each other up and the mother absent from the picture or ineffective in making them stop. We are told that Luis, the father, had an 18-month affair, and the couple’s 17-year marriage ended about two years ago. Luis admitted to the affair when confronted by his 16-year-old daughter.

To complicate matters, one of the other daughters has begun a secret sexual relationship with her boyfriend, despite being forbidden by her mother to date until she is 18.

Boteach enters the picture on a mission, although we are not sure from the outset what it is. He introduces himself as having counseled thousands of families and being the author of a best-selling book on family life. As he drives to Philadelphia, he tells us that his own parents divorced when he was 8. “I was devastated, and at that early age, vowed I will make a difference.”

He might have chosen to become a family therapist or a child-focused therapist. Instead, he is a rabbi with a deep desire to fix problems. He reminds us that he practices what he preaches, since he has eight children of his own.

If he were a therapist, he would begin his work with this family by taking a thorough account of their history. He would want to know about the mother’s own experiences as a child, her parenting style, the kind of discipline she uses, how effective it is, what kind of relationship she has with each of the children, what is special and unique about each child and what kind of marriage she had prior to her divorce, as well as the current custody arrangements and the current relationships between the children and their father.

Boteach does not ask these questions. He makes his diagnosis immediately. He decides that the main reason the children are assaulting each other is because of their parents’ divorce.

“Without dad, Luis, the Romero family is losing its way,” he says. His solution is equally straightforward: “Divorce is a tragedy, and if we can save them from going through this torture, we must,” he tells the parents.

His mission is now clear: Boteach is going to get the parents back together and help them work as a team to parent their children. No, not as in the traditional help a therapist might offer divorced parents, such as assistance in understanding that they need to find a way to communicate with each other, because their children still need them to be effective parents. Instead, he focuses on actually getting the two back together as husband and wife, so that they can both be there to parent their children.

How does Boteach try to achieve his goal?

He does not rely on the therapeutic process, in which the person in therapy comes to understand his or her own feelings, obstacles and baggage, thereby finding renewed energy and motivation to change behavior. Boteach’s approach consists of using persuasion, gentle pressure, guilt, rabbinic wisdom and his ability to coach a basketball game.

Rabbinic wisdom is dispensed freely. When Beatrice expresses her frustration at not knowing how to stop the children from arguing and fighting, Boteach tells her that her daughters, who should be giving off softness and nurturing energy, are instead behaving like boys in the locker room — something he claims they learned from her, because she has been distant and withdrawn from Luis.

When Luis expresses disappointment that his daughter is having sex with her boyfriend, Boteach comes down hard on him: “A girl at 16 needs a man to tell her she is special. Your daughter needs a father now, not a boyfriend. You need to be a father to her and a husband and protect your daughter. You need to tell her she is special.”

Apparently, Luis also needs to know that it’s not Beatrice’s job to lay down the law in the home.

“Luis,” he says, “it is your job to lay down the law. Don’t be weak. Do the right thing.”

Later, Boteach addresses the audience, telling us that most men who have affairs are not thinking.

“If Luis can be a man, a dedicated, monogamous, loving husband, maybe I can bring this family back together.” he says.

To bring everyone together, Boteach says he needs to do something really different. He does this by bringing the family onto a basketball court, and as a “good coach” — as he refers to himself — he makes the mother and father play on one team and the children on the other. His goal, he says in an aside to viewers, is to make the parents work together in hopes that they will stop bickering and begin enjoying each other’s company.

He tries the same tactic again later, upping the ante. The family is going to engage in another activity — cleaning out the basement. This time, the rabbi informs us, “divorce is only a necessity if you can’t fix the situation.”

Before the family meets, he has a t?te-?-t?te with Beatrice. In the conversation, he uses guilt to make her give him another chance, telling her Luis still loves her. He has a similar conversation with Luis, in which he tells him, “The secret to life is that you can do whatever you want. If you want her back, and are sincere, you can make it happen.”

Then, as the family cleans out the basement, with Luis intentionally made the leader of the project, “even though he does not live there,” Boteach pipes in suggestions through a remote walkie-talkie, suggesting to Luis to get a drink for his wife and telling Beatrice to thank him for it. The family activity is topped off with Boteach telling everyone how much they need to respect Luis for doing something so selfless.

Based on the shots of the family taken two months after the episode, everyone seems to be doing better.

So, what exactly happened?

I am not sure, but it seems that the rabbi’s conservative, traditional values were well received and echoed by the values of the family. We are not told what the family’s religious affiliation is, but the girls appeared to be dressed in parochial school uniforms. Capitalizing on their religious values, Boteach was able to sermonize to them about right and wrong, to hold up traditional roles for men and women as an ideal and to make the family members believe that they had made a mistake that could be corrected.

In the second episode, airing Monday, April 17, Boteach relies on the same rabbinical wisdom, pop psychology and common sense to fix the problem of the Maxwell family, who requested help disciplining their 3-year-old only son, Zackary. We see Zack running down the street toward the curb, throwing temper tantrums. We see the child refusing to listen to his mother, brush his teeth or sleep in his own bed.

The parents, Greg and LynnSue have not slept alone together for most of the year, and Greg has a hobby of videotaping Zack’s every move and then posting the clips on a Web page, which gets hundreds of hits a day.

Boteach summarizes Zack’s problems as “a simple problem of discipline. Zack simply has too much control, and the parents need to sleep together in the same bed, without Zack there.”

So far, Boteach’s thoughts, though simplistic, and formed without much more information than what viewers have been given, seem to be on the right track.

To remedy the situation, he tells the parents that it is their job to set the rules, that 3-year-olds do not understand the concept of boundaries in an intelligent way and that children need their parents to set down the law. Having witnessed the parents struggling with Zack during bedtime, we can accept the notion that Zack feels he is the boss and needs some clear guidelines, with consistency and follow-through, all of which seems to be missing at the Maxwell home.

What becomes excruciatingly painful to watch are the couple’s attempt to keep Zack sleeping in his bed, having been told that it will only take two or three attempts over a couple of nights before Zack will comply.

I became furious watching Greg and LynnSue change Zack’s routines cold turkey, leaving him feeling helpless, lost and angry.

Boteach focuses only on fixing the problem, without regard to the complicated issues that come up for parents in setting limits, withstanding their children’s cries and being firm but gentle. He ignores the important process of helping parents set realistic expectations. When their new routine fails, he is taken aback by their displeasure with him.

The last telling and painful segment revolves around a video Greg shot of Zack having a temper tantrum. Zack was throwing around his trains and was given a warning to stop or lose the privilege of playing with them. Zack continues to throw the trains, and the parents gather up the whole set and put it away.

Greg takes out the camera to record Zack’s reaction. Zack becomes enraged, partly about losing his trains but also about being filmed, and he tells his father to stop. Greg ignores him.

When Boteach discusses this clip, he focuses on the problem of letting Zack express this much rage, which he believes needs to be “reigned in.” As a good Chasidic rabbi, he is following the dictum of “having anger is likened to serving idols.” By telling the parents that they simply need to find a way to control the temper tantrum, he not only loses their attention, but he also offers nothing to help the next time.

The rabbi shrugs off their disconnect, blaming the father for being insecure, fearful of being ordinary and resistant to his message. His parting words to the father are to forget about the camera and Web site, to focus on the family and the precious moments one has with them and not go after big bucks and fame. The father’s look has a mixture of frustration and thoughtfulness. Boteach is happy.

I was not.

As a religious Jew, Boteach’s sermons have a somewhat familiar, comfortable tinge. But, as a therapist, his mission and his methods grate on my professional ethics, my psyche and my nerves.

It is almost excruciatingly painful to see him in the first episode impose his own agenda on a family and through guilt, coerce them into making promises to him; telling them that he has the cure for all their ills, and finally committing one of the cardinal sins of working with children of divorce: asking the children in a suggestive way if they would like to have their parents back together.

It is equally enraging in the second episode to see Boteach “play therapist,” assuring the family he knows what he is doing and then watching them feel inadequate, let down and humiliated at their failure.

But, the most insightful piece for me, as a therapist, was to see how Boteach’s deep-seated painful feelings surrounding his own parents’ divorce remain with him — unprocessed and unconscious — and his deep-seated wish to have had someone walk into his home and do what every child of divorce dreams of: bring the parents back together, continue to live on in the present and be the driving force for one’s life work.

I also now can sleep better, knowing that therapists really do offer people something very different than clergy, co-workers, relatives, friends and colleagues.

Irine Schweitzer, a licensed clinical social worker, has a private practice in Sherman Oaks.

I Love You, Carnivore


This column is in response to last week’s Torah Portion by Rabbi Zoë Klein, who confessed her secret enjoyment of meat, despite her family’s predominantly vegetarian diet.

To: My Not-So-Flesh-Eating Wife

From: Her Closeted Carnivorous/Publicly Vegetarian Husband

Worry not, my dear, your struggle is safe with me over vegetarianism. I try to be one, but you know the truth of my dilemma, although it is less debilitating for me than it is for you. After 20 years, I think I’m close to being true to myself when I ignore the leftover Shabbos schnitzel from our Hillel caterer.

You see, as you know, I love meat. Love it! Growing up, although it wasn’t kosher, I took extra delight in my mother’s marinated flank steak. She also made great meatballs, and do I ever miss Shake N’ Bake chicken. How fun it was to overcook hotdogs until they blistered on the grill outside, while watching “60 Minutes” on Sunday evenings as a family.

I have absolutely no repulsion toward seeing carcasses; only a sadness that others are troubled by it. Ultimately, “we are like vanity; our days are as a shadow that passes,” as you and I read when we officiate at funerals, so why not accept that the life on the paper plates used in our homes for the kids eating a little meat is temporal? When medical shows present brain surgeries, complete with machines sucking the blood away, I can watch without any angst.

You, on the other hand, must turn the station, and at the site of roadkill, you bristle and say, “God bless it.” Actually, thank you for teaching me to do the same.

“Does it really matter if I don’t turn off the water while I brush my teeth?” one of my environment-conscientious students queried me the other day. Elizabeth had been caught by another conservationist in the throes of committing what some consider a chilul Hashem, desecration of that which was holy. Wasting water is an act of bal tashchit, our tradition’s way of saying that we are stewards of the planet and as such, we have no right to waste or destroy needlessly.

“Industries and big businesses waste far more water every day than people do brushing their teeth and watering their lawns,” she added. “Truth be told, I knew that I should turn off the water faucet, but does it really matter?”

“Maybe the key is to try to turn it off but not feel immense guilt for keeping it on, since it has virtually no effect on the environment,” I offered as a compromise. She seemed content.

As we left this “lunch ‘n’ learn” at USC’s health science campus, I had an epiphany. I wondered whether Elizabeth was channeling Torah from Sinai for me with my struggle to conquer my yetzer hara, the evil impulse toward consuming fleishigs: If I privately eat the Persian kabob leftovers after our weekly Wednesday barbecue, so that no one knows and it has no impact on anyone, might that be the ideal?

My act of civil disobedience — refusing to consume the flesh of once-living, breathing animals — has virtually no effect, perhaps none whatsoever. Agribusiness decides far in advance how many cows to raise and then slaughter without regard to my individual case.

It is almost entirely unlikely that the good folks at Rubashkin’s or some other slaughterhouse would ever take an inventory that would reflect my decision. It seems that being a vegetarian in America is as effective for slowing down meat production as trying to convince our son, Rocky, that muesli tastes better than marshmallows.

However, perhaps eating leftovers is still a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of these animals. Kabbalah teaches that when we eat foods, we elevate the divine sparks within them, so by consuming these leftovers, I am ensuring that these sparks are not wasted. It would be wrong to let the leftovers get dumped, as that would certainly be a violation of the law of bal tashchit.

The purposeful consumption of leftover meats then makes sense. However, if anyone were to find out that I was not a true vegetarian, they might never consider a vegetarian lifestyle. This would betray my values: While I can’t individually change the meat production levels in this society, creating a vegetarian movement would help keep cows jumping over the moon in perpetuity. I’m pretty much convinced that had my sister, Sylvia, never been a vegetarian, I might have never ended up in this dilemma, which pits my conscience against my cravings.

So, dear, continue to chew gum after eating a hamburger in order to mask the taste of once-living animals on your breath. Even as I argue for public vegetarianism with a strictly private consumption of leftovers, I am beginning to reach the point where even my interest in meat is disappearing. One too many PETA videos, I suppose.

Hoisting and shackling the cows horrifies me, and while kosher, I would much rather take my cues from the likes of Shlomo Goren, Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.I. Agnon and A.D. Gordon, not to mention Albert Einstein, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, all famous Jewish vegetarians.

Our prayers are for Moshiach, a messianic era in which the world order will improve in its very essence. When I say “Bayom Hahu,” on that day, I join Rav Kook in imagining a world when we need not sacrifice animals on any altar ever again.

I love you, even if you do sneak a roast beef sandwich from time to time.

Jonathan Klein is the Allen and Ruth Ziegler rabbinic director at USC Hillel.

Parental Values Do Influence Children


It was 12:45 a.m. on a Sunday, and my 14-year-old son and I were returning from a rap concert. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the entertainers were talented, and it had been fun dancing along with the concert crowd. The occasion also gave my son and me time for one of our many small intergenerational exchanges.

I admitted to my son that I didn’t understand the thrill of people shouting the infamous “N” word from the stage or the responding cheers of the audience. He said that he could understand my bewilderment because he couldn’t see why anyone (meaning me, of course) would listen to the Beach Boys. We both laughed.

By the time we arrived home, we had discussed various musical styles, how music can be an expression of cultural rage, sexual inquiry and misogyny, and how music often tells the stories of lives very different from our own. We felt close. It was a satisfying parental moment.

Having an open dialogue — about things like rap music, Xbox games or Polly Pockets — is essential for raising moral and ethical children. Creating the stage begins in infancy. There are no guarantees about the results of our parenting efforts, but there are ways we as parents can tilt the odds in our favor.

The competition is tough: television, movies, popular music, billboards, computer games, Internet access to almost anything and that most powerful competitor — peer pressure.

We will never eliminate the presence and ultimate access to views and values that we would rather they not have. But we can influence our children by displaying our own values through our behavior and words, and by understanding their world so that we can develop a relationship where anything can be talked about with mutual respect for views and feelings.

We can place our children in a school and community where they are likely to meet families with values similar to our own. But we cannot escort our children to every party, or to every friend’s house, or supervise every access to Internet pornography or even illicit drugs.

As my own children grow into adulthood, I do not want to — and can’t –control their choices; however, I do want to be a part of their internal and external discussions as they make their own choices.

Here are seven tips for creating and sustaining that kind of parent-child relationship.

1. Hold, cuddle, and talk with your children from birth. Look into their eyes; be aware of their body tension and yours — at every age. Bonding with parents is the cornerstone of moral development. Talk about moral and ethical issues in the course of daily life and help them understand the meaning of behaviors and events. While parents often worry about trusting their children as they become adolescents, the bigger issue is whether they will trust you.

2. Empathy is essential for moral and ethical behavior. Let your children know how their behavior affects you and others. Teach them to care for other people and their feelings.

3. Observe Shabbat and the holidays, using them as opportunities to celebrate Jewish values. Invite friends to the Shabbat dinner table and guarantee time and attention for each person’s thoughts and feelings, regardless of age. Use Shabbat to teach your children to make time to just think and contemplate — essential ingredients for moral behavior.

4. When your children are young, get on the floor and play with them. Then talk about these adventures both with your children and with adults when your children are present.

5. When your children become adolescents, listen with them to their music. Get the words to the songs. Talk with them about their music as an expression of their world, as you would talk with your friends about their interests. Do not condemn your child’s taste; this stops the conversation (as it would for you). Share the car radio.

6. Compliment moral and ethical behavior. When they make tough decisions, exhibit pride for their contemplation. Disagree with a choice or a behavior, but don’t attack them personally — and always do this away from their friends to protect them from humiliation.

7. Create “car talks” when you want to talk with your children about something important but which is uncomfortable for them. A car talk is a pre-planned opportunity to say one brief idea. Limit it to about 10 sentences and five minutes. In a car ride you have a captive audience for a few minutes. You and your child know this is going to be over soon. Car talks, of course, don’t always have to take place in the car.

Raising moral and ethical children in an often-immoral world can be difficult. Tilt the odds in your favor by creating the conversation.

Dr. Ian Russ is a marriage and family therapist in private practice, and consults at many Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

 

My Jewish Intermarriage


What did you and your spouse discuss after it was clear that you would have a chuppah and ketubah in your future? Probably something that turned out not to matter like, “How many kids do you want?” or “What is your dream vacation?” or “If we have twins, do you think we should dress them the same?”

If you were anything like my husband, Jeff and me, you probably completely overlooked the real marital make-it-or-break-it questions like: “During the Passover seder, do you think the adults should hide the afikoman and have the kids look for it, or the reverse?” Or “Even though neither or us keeps kosher, is bacon OK?” “Is there an exception if I’m following Atkins?” “What is your position on latkes? Scratch or box?”

Let’s face it. Every marriage between two Jews is an intermarriage. I’m not talking about the obvious ones, like a marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a Jew-by-birth who is not at all religious. Clearly if one spouse davens three times a day and the other spouse uses Mapquest to find her way to synagogue on Yom Kippur, a silver anniversary is not in their future. I’m talking about the rest of us.

Because so much of our Jewishness comes from how we were raised — and we were all raised differently — spouses never seem to be identical in the way they live their Judaism. My husband and I are a perfect example of this. Although we both grew up in families that were members of Reform Valley synagogues, our Jewish childhoods were day and night. When my husband was young, his family celebrated Chanukah, and dabbled in Christmas. In contrast, Christmas at the Jaffe home only meant that Bullock’s was closed, dinner was Chinese and that our station wagon would be headed to the nearest movie theater.

My husband’s family showed up at temple twice a year for the Big Two: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And although my mother-in-law became a temple regular after her children were grown, my husband did not chalk up a lot of synagogue time when he was a child. My brother, sisters and I, on the other hand, spent a huge chunk of our childhood at our synagogue, Temple Judea. We first started Hebrew school when we were still in diapers (or so it seemed) and continued through confirmation. We didn’t miss a holiday (OK, I don’t have any specific memories of Tisha B’Av), and much of my family’s social life revolved around our havurah and temple events. If sports camps existed when we were kids, we didn’t know about them; it was a given that we would go to Jewish overnight camps.

(I have no doubt that when my husband reads this, he will point out that the reason my siblings and I did not attend sports or rustic sleep-away camps had less to do with Jewish zeal, and more to do with my family’s complete lack of coordination and irrational fear of camping. And I admit that there is some anecdotal evidence to support that position.)

While many years of celebrating holidays together has put my husband and me mostly on the same Jewish page, our different upbringings occasionally seep through. I feel it every Passover when his family breaks into a song with an unfamiliar melody, when he chooses a salty noodle kugel like his mother used to make rather than the sweet ones that I grew up with, and when we have Shabbat dinner on Friday nights.

I know Jeff and I are not alone in trying to merge the religious habits of two different childhoods. Several friends who had very traditional upbringings are married to Jewish atheists, who could take — but mostly leave — services. These friends have become the synagogue version of the football widow, and frequently attend temple events without their spouses.

By the time you read this, my husband and I will be approaching a dozen years of marriage. So why am I dissecting our relatively minor Jewish differences now? Two reasons.

First, I have written a book about the main causes of divorce. The book is predicated on interviews with 100 divorce lawyers from all over the country. I asked each lawyer for their opinion on why people are getting divorced in droves. While not a single one of them mentioned disagreements over whether the prayer over the wine is spoken or sung, let’s just say I am hypersensitive to anything and everything that might cause marital friction.

The other reason that this is on my mind is that in a few months, summer camp will be in session. This year is the year that we intend to force our children to go to sleep-away camp purportedly for their own good, but really so that we can go on some great adult vacation. No doubt I will vote for a Jewish overnight camp, and my husband will lobby for River Way Ranch Camp. Each of our preferences will be based on what is familiar from our childhoods.

So if you know anyone trolling JDate for a husband, tell them to stop wasting their time on trivial discussions of common goals and values, and get straight to the important questions like: “If we were married, and attending High Holiday services, would you prefer to sit in front near the choir or in the back by the door?”

Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer living in Bell Canyon. She is also the author of “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide to Staying Married,” which will be released later this month from Volt Press. She can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

Friedan: Universal Woman, Particular Jew


Betty Friedan was, like most ordinary mortals, a mass of contradictions.

She was loud and sometimes imperious, yet she could be charming, funny, gentle, kind and winsome. A public persona, at times her ego needed massaging, but she remained surprisingly unassuming and unpretentious.

Though she exuded self-confidence, her vulnerabilities were right out there for all to see. She could fix her eyes and set her jaw in a ‘take no prisoners’ position, but she could also listen to opposite views, change her mind, and soften at the distress of others.

Friedan, who died last weekend at age 85 at her home in Washington, D.C., was both universal woman and particular Jew. The word Jewish does not appear at all in “The Feminine Mystique,” her seminal work, yet every heartbeat was a Jewish one. Once, in her 50s, after fame, fortune and independence had filled her life, she asked one favor of friends — to find her a nice Jewish husband.

She wrote about the drudgery and mindlessness of family work, yet her family was the sustained love of her life. She was totally invested in her children and longed for grandchildren well before they came.

This complicated, complex woman changed all of our lives, even those who never read “The Feminine Mystique” or never heard of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

She spawned perhaps the most profound social revolution of the last few centuries without a drop of blood being shed. She will go down in history as one of the great change agents of modern history; and for us, she will be a continuing source of Jewish pride, characterized in our own history books as one of the contributions we made to the world.

How and why was her impact so great? For that matter, how was it that she changed my own life as a Jewish feminist — for I came from a very different place in the 1960s, from a community that offered women great satisfaction and sense of value in their roles as wives and mothers?

Her book seemed to be anti-family, anti-men. Though her chapter “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available” carried some truths, mostly she managed to put down so many of the great women I knew, full-time homemakers and mothers. Moreover, as the women’s movement got off the ground in the ’60s, building on her book’s steam, it quickly became more radicalized. The rhetoric of family as locus of abuse and man as exploiter grew more shrill. I’d have none of that!

Yet along with the excesses of early feminism was the underlying idea Betty Friedan offered the world: gender equality. This meant much more than the women’s vote. It meant equal access, equal talent and brains, equal dignity of women — and all of it a matter of justice.

For me, she did not adequately answer the question of equal careers and who would make lunch for hungry toddlers, prepare for Shabbat dinner with guests or meet the school bus each afternoon. She could not, because someone had to do the drudgework that accompanied the peaks and joys of raising children and running a Jewish household — and society was not yet organized to split these roles. But once she implanted in our minds and hearts the idea of equality of genders, once she posited this as ethics rather than as a battle between the sexes, each of us would try to work out the details in our own lives.

More than that, she opened the door to broader application of the idea of equal access and dignity to other spheres of life. In 1963, I made no connection between feminism and Jewish religious life, the imbalances in traditional Judaism created by gendered religious roles, the prevailing limitations on women studying Talmud or even the real disabilities in Jewish divorce.

But others did. These were a handful of Jewish women of the 1960s, women of Ezrat Nashim, women of other denominations who were writing about or modeling the new values, women who mediated secular feminism into Jewish feminism. Once these pioneering Jewish feminists established the connections, I could apply them to my own community — not out of a sense of abuse for I still felt none, but out of a sense of ethics, of meeting the original biblical paradigm — male and female created as equals in the image of God.

Friedan taught us several other important lessons. Not content to rest with the mighty power of her pen, she understood the covenantal nature of organizational life: For a job to be done and the work to continue, one needed more than an idea, more than cohorts. One needed organizational structures that would allow others to find an address and to take up the work. Friedan went on to found or co-found NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the First Women’s Bank and Trust Company. She co-organized the first protest march and the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. In 1969, though already beleaguered by opposition to feminism, she was unafraid to publicly take on the abortion issue, founding NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League.

These organizational models and her writings spawned hundreds of others. A spate of books and periodicals followed hers, and many hundreds of independent feminist organizations were created on these shores and far distant ones. Thus, her work in the world was multiplied in the arenas of politics, domestic life, religion, economics, education and all of the professions. It was, I believe, more than some of her sisters in the movement would acknowledge in later years.

As for her Jewishness, Friedan wore it proudly. In 1975, Rabbi Isaac Trainin and I invited her to join a New York Federation Task force, then called Jewish Women in a Changing Society. She joined in an instant, as if she’d just been waiting for the Jewish community to invite her in.

At her first meeting, she spoke of how Jewish values of justice had influenced her feminism, indeed her entire outlook on life. Later, we would learn that being a smart, Jewish girl growing up in Peoria, Ill., would shape her sensitivities as an outsider and sharpen her abilities to engage confrontation, both of which helped her in the early feminist battles.

She also was concerned specifically about the Jewish family. Once, in the early 1980s, as she, Susan Weidman Schneider and I shared a panel in Chicago on “Feminism and the Jewish Family.” I quipped that I was a slow learner for I had read “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 while pregnant with my second child but went on to have three more children. (In the book, she caricatures the woman with a vision of five children). Friends though we were by then, she took considerable umbrage at my comment for she disliked being associated with a decline in the Jewish birth rate.

She saw Jewish feminism as a logical extension of secular feminism; the same rubrics applied: access and education; the need for ‘outside’ or public roles as well as inside ones defined as women’s primary space; freedom to control one’s destiny in marriage and divorce.

In those years, the Task Force held conferences on the agunah (the problem of women who have trouble obtaining a Jewish divorce), on infertility, on the Jewish family. Though peripherally involved in those conferences, she remained curious and interested in their outcomes.

Friedan’s greatness also lay in her ability to rethink matters. In publishing “The Second Stage,” she recognized that she had gone too far in “The Feminine Mystique” in denigrating women’s roles in the home. She wrote of transcending the false polarization between feminism and family, between men and women. She addressed the realities of work in the home and the satisfactions of women who chose that as their primary role. She was criticized by some of her more radical counterparts for selling out the original vision, but then, as earlier, she held her ground.

She once acknowledged that some of her writing in “Second Stage” was influenced by her contact with Jewish women of the federation world who successfully put together family and service and who made sequential choices in their lives regarding family and career.

Jewish history is full of flawed models, sometimes more powerful because of their flaws, and certainly more accessible. Betty was straight as a narrow, totally transparent, nothing behind a veil. What you saw was what you got, including anger or bruised ego. But that made the love, the caring, the creative mind, the generous spirit and the passion for justice all the more precious.

Blu Greenberg is founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and founding chair of One Voice: Jewish Women for Israel.

 

Let My Students Go


 

To celebrate Passover, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy preschoolers spent time in ancient Egypt.

Teachers and students transformed hallway bulletin boards into a colorful representation of the story of Passover. The journey begins with the pyramids, and then students pass through a parted Red Sea with thick tulle and crinkled tissue paper on either side — some gauze and cellophane even hang above. Life-size kindergartners silhouettes represent the Israelites dancing at the other end of the sea, coffee-stained butcher paper evokes the desert, and the trip ends in Jerusalem.

“[The artwork] makes the holiday come alive for the children, so that it’s just not just a flat learning experience,” said Cecelie Wizenfeld, the school’s early childhood director. “They’re a part of it.”

Wizenfeld is not alone in her efforts to find memorable ways of helping children connect with the holiday. While model seders, seder plate illustrations and handmade afikomen bags have become standard educational fare in the classroom, many Southland religious and day school teachers are finding that creative and unusual holiday projects make more of an impact.

Second-graders at Adat Ari El Day School will reenact the Exodus from Egypt as they embark on a two-hour journey around the school grounds. Head of School Lana Marcus will play the role of Moses, while sixth-grade students will dress up as taskmasters, following the children. Other journey highlights include the parting of the Red Sea (the sprinklers will come on), receiving “manna” from heaven (teachers will drop marshmallows from above) and finally, the arrival to the Promised Land (a grassy area on the property) and pitching tents, eating, singing and dancing in celebration. Afterward, teachers will lead a discussion about the journey.

By second grade, the children have a familiarity with the holiday, but “acting out the story of Passover makes the children think what [the Exodus] must have been like for the Israelis,” said Sari Goodman, the school’s general studies director.

Rather than focusing on the journey like the students at Adat Ari El, this year the kindergartners at the Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple decided what material things they would bring on such a journey and, in turn, what they value. Each child decorated a “Passover backpack” and chose a few items from home to bring to Israel. In past years, these prized possessions have included teddy bears, prayer books, baseballs and pictures of family.

Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, who oversees the Judaic studies department, said that these activities allow the children to “enter into the text of the haggadah in a new way.”

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Temple Isaiah’s religious school experienced yet another aspect of the Exodus when they attended a special weekend retreat at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu on April 15.

One of the weekend activities was a homelessness simulation in which students received “eviction notices” on their cabin doors. Students worked together to combat their plight and attempt to get back on their feet.

“We’re equating homelessness with the Exodus of the Jewish people,” said Lisa Greengard, the synagogue’s youth group director. Greengard hopes that this modern take on one of the key aspects of Passover will help children empathize with our ancestors and ultimately, make the holiday more meaningful.

Temple Israel of Hollywood’s fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students will indulge in a “chocolate seder” in which the regular items on the seder plate are replaced by their supposed chocolate equivalents. Roasted eggs are substituted with chocolate eggs. Instead of dipping parsley in salt water, the students will dip strawberries in chocolate sauce. Chocolate milk will replace wine. Trail mix with M&Ms is the new charoset.

Carrie Frank, a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical student who is interning at Temple Israel, adapted the chocolate seder — a concept typically aimed at college students — to make the experience more relevant to younger students. Her goal is to help the children move beyond the story of Passover and take in the core values of the holiday and the concept of enslavement.

By getting the kids’ attention with tasty treats, Frank hopes to touch on deeper issues. She replaces the 10 plagues with what she deems the “10 modern plagues,” so the seder will include more familiar issues like hunger, inequality and disrespect. When the youngsters sip their cups of chocolate milk, they will be reminded of the things for which they are thankful.

“With the kitsch thrown in, it allows you to sneak in some of the good stuff, like values,” Frank said. “And they will absorb that.”

 

Secular Connection


I fell in love with a brilliant, attractive and witty Filipina woman last year. She was a fallen Catholic, didn’t accept Jesus as her savior and was totally cool with raising kids Jewish. When I went to her uncle’s place for a birthday party and everyone was singing "Sunrise, Sunset" on the karaoke machine, you’d be hard-pressed to find a closer, warmer, more Jewish family than theirs.

Apart from the fact that our cuisine is superior, I was amazed at how similar the dynamic was: Abundant food, loud overlapping conversations, juicy gossip and more food. I felt like I was at home, except for the fact that I was only white guy in the room.

I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island. I went to a public high school that had roughly the same percentage Jewish population as a yeshiva. My local synagogue was so Reform I think they closed down on High Holidays. And yet, of the women I’ve dated post-college, I’ve had exactly two Jewish girlfriends. What, in the name of my concerned Jewish mother, is going on here?

Well, it’s certainly not due to my love of the other major religions out there. Once you’ve had one drunken girlfriend speak in tongues, and had another say that, despite how much she loves you, you’re still going to hell, it’s hard to be sympathetic to non-Jewish zealots. My guess is that it’s just a numbers thing. There are 2 percent of us and there’s 98 percent of them. The odds are stacked in favor of intermarriage. Four out of my five cousins went that route and are all very happy. This poses an obvious dilemma: How important is it to marry within our religion?

On Passover 2002, I e-mailed my very close, very bright, very agnostic friend a simple "Happy Pesach" to greet her in the morning.

She innocently replied later, "Happy Peaches?" Ugh. You gotta be kidding.

In other relationships, I’ve had women suggest that we could raise our kids in both religions and let them decide what they are when they’re older. Yeah, right. Those kids won’t be Jewish — supporters of Israel, consumers of gefilte fish, complainers about drafty rooms — they’ll just be two more white kids in search of racial, ethnic or religious identity. That’s not a crime, per se, but it’s certainly not what I want for my children.

The Filipina and I ultimately didn’t make it as a couple, but not because of religion. Still, I decided to get serious and start dating Jewish women.

A lot of people don’t understand — or can’t accept — the strangely powerful hold Judaism holds for secular Jews like me. What makes me Jewish? My bloodline? My last name? My prominent nose, mop of hair and acute sense of sarcasm? It’s pointless to isolate individual qualities, especially ones that play to stereotypes, but as far as I can determine I’m Jewish because I was raised that way. I identify with others who were raised that way.

When I attended college in North Carolina, where only 20 percent of the student body was Jewish, all of my best friends were Jews — even though I wasn’t hanging around the Hillel. I didn’t seek them: I found them. We were like-minds sticking together in a foreign environment. And while many bristle at this comparison, my Jewish experience, far more cultural than religious, is more akin to being black than it is to being Christian.

Jewish neighborhoods in New York aren’t homogeneous ghettos because we’re forced to live there. They result from the desires of people who are looking for quality public schools, short commutes to the city and access to good bagels.

By any definition, I’m a bad Jew. I don’t keep kosher. I haven’t been to Jerusalem. I don’t belong to a synagogue. In fact, there are years that I don’t go at all because tickets are scarce and davening with Chabad isn’t my idea of a good time. So what difference does it make to me who I marry? I’m not sure, but it does. Not because of parental pressure, because I have my mother’s blessing no matter what I do. Not because Jews are better, as the best relationship I’ve yet to have was with a non-Jew. Rather, I see myself marrying a Jewish woman because of internal pride, shared values and cultural identity. Because of the commonality of knowing that our people have been persecuted for millennia and are still thriving. Because regardless of how often I demonstrate it publicly, there’s one important and undeniable fact: I am Jewish.

And whomever I end up with had better know off the bat that the satin thing I grab from the box in temple once a year isn’t called a beanie.

Evan Marc Katz is the author of the “I Can’t Believe I’m Buying This Book: A
Commonsense Guide to Successful Internet Dating” (Ten Speed, 2004) and is the
founder of e-Cyrano (

Bar Mitzvah Cheer — Without Cheerleaders


We were halfway through my older son’s bar mitzvah year, and I’d been stumbling through an emotional landscape littered with caterers’ proposals, reception hall bills and unanswered e-mails from my wife demanding that I "please, please call the band and ask them if they are available on the 12th."

I’d also been picking my son up at his classmates’ bar or bat mitzvah celebrations, including some that combine the quiet good taste of a Fox reality series and the aesthetic subtlety of a Super Bowl half-time show.

Most of all, I’d been tormented by the feeling that, after years of smugly criticizing those who still insist on these "Goodbye, Columbus"-style extravaganzas, pride and peer pressure were going to drive me to arrange a simcha on a similar scale.

"Did you book the Lakers cheerleaders?" asked Rabbi Steven Leder, referring to a notorious bar mitzvah party in Los Angeles, where he is rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I had been talking to Leder about his recent book on Jews and money, "More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul" (Bonus Books, 2004).

When I told him no, he said there was still hope.

Here’s his approach to prospective b’nai mitzvah parents: "I sit them down and say, ‘If you were an anthropologist studying the Jews and you were in attendance watching the Saturday morning ceremony, what are the values you would determine as belonging to the tribe of the Jews?’"

The typical family lists Torah, spirituality, prayer, family tradition.

"Then I draw a line on the blackboard, and write ‘Saturday evening.’ Same anthropologist, same tribe — now tell me what the anthropologist would say."

At first the families say all the acceptable things: family, celebration, joy. "And then it starts pouring out: materialism, sexuality, alcohol, conspicuous consumption."

"Listen, I’m not Amish, not a Puritan and I enjoy a nice meal and a glass of wine," Leder said. "The question is: How do we take the values in the morning and make sure they exist in the evening?"

Yes, rabbi. How? How?

Leder says you start by infusing the celebration with ritual. Havdalah on a Saturday night, perhaps a d’var Torah by a child or elder. And then he tells congregants about MAZON, the nonprofit that urges families to donate a percentage of the catering bill to their fight against hunger.

That I can do, I realize. But don’t I have to send the kids home with monogrammed pajama pants, holographic snow globes and glow-in-the-dark necklaces?

"Why not have a station where the kids make something that goes to the sick, poor or needy?"

Leder has another piece of advice for parents, this one more controversial. "In front of their children, I say, ‘You should never put children in an adult environment, a sexually charged environment.’ You’ve seen the spaghetti-strap dresses on 12-year-old girls. There are 100 kids at the party: Do you know what’s going on in the bathrooms?"

"I don’t care what your children want. You are the parent, you are in charge, you are paying for this. Talk about what you believe money is for and not for,’" he said.

I told Leder that my son had his heart in the right place and neither wants nor expects a bacchanal. Even still, won’t his relatives and friends be expecting more than Kiddush and a d’var Torah?

"Here’s the ironic thing," the rabbi said. "Everyone tries to be more unique and over-the-top than anyone else. And you know what, for the kids on the ‘circuit,’ this week feels the same as last week. The kids have become immune to it. If you want to be unique, do something down-to-earth and value-centered."

Leder has his own theories as to why, after years of rabbis’ exhortations, the super-sized bar and bat mitzvah is back in style. People are having kids later, he said, and have more money when their children come of age. Grandparents are older as well, and, with less chance that bubbe and zayde may make it to the grandchildren’s nuptials, b’nai mitzvah celebrations are starting to look and feel like weddings.

But with all these sociological pressures, what does Leder really think he’s achieving with his lists and sermons?

"I think I’m doing two things. I’m giving people with good values permission to hold out against the tide of pop culture," he said. Second, Leder is helping people be more thoughtful about the role money plays in their lives. "This is a subject most rabbis are afraid to talk about. They fear that big donors will be offended and funding sources will dry up."

But won’t they?

"I have a different view. The most generous supporters of the temple are people who have a very healthy and mentschy attitude toward money. I still feel we have an obligation to speak out."

So what did Leder do for his own son’s bar mitzvah? A barbecue at a camp run by his synagogue, a sleepover for the boy’s closest friends and a family brunch the next day.

"One of the proudest days of my life," Leder said, "is the day after, when he looked at me and said. ‘I really think we did this right.’"

Six months later, after my own son’s bar mitzvah, I think we could say the same thing. Noah read Torah like a pro, davened like an angel, and the Kiddush luncheon that followed was tasteful and tasty. And there was barely a spaghetti-strap in sight.

Your Letters


Jewish Cool

The torrents of ink on “Jewish hip,” “Jewish cool” and “Jewish pop culture” obscures a simple truth: Only Jews who take seriously Judaism — the religion — can count on having Jewish grandchildren (“From Jew to Jewcy,” July 23). This is because in an open society only Judaism provides a compelling answer to the question, “Why be Jewish?”

Other “Jewish” paths are dead ends, and literally sterile — they can’t reproduce. They have Jewish value insofar as they may be a person’s door into Judaism, and thereafter enrich one’s practice of Judaism.

The remaining question is whether the organized, “secular” Jewish community will include this insight into its outreach efforts before it’s too late.

Paul Kujawsky, Valley Village

Tisha B’Av Today

Dr. Aryeh Cohen (“Tisha B’Av Today,” July 23) has got one thing right — we do need Tisha B’Av today. Unfortunately, he has the reasons all wrong. His assertion that on this Tisha B’Av we must consider “how all our cherished hopes for ourselves as a community based on ethics and a commitment to social and economic justice can — and at times have — slipped through our hands” is misguided. Indeed, Tisha B’Av has nothing to do with confronting our inability to “create an ethical polity” or with being “allied with the forces of injustice.” Despite Cohen’s evident discomfort with the idea of Jewish victimhood, Tisha B’Av is, in fact, a day dedicated to the great tragedies which have befallen our people, including the ongoing calamity of the confusion of Jewish values with the politically correct agenda of the day. On Tisha B’Av, our thoughts should be directed toward bridging the huge gulf between God and the Jewish people, which is symbolized by the continuing absence of the Temples in Jerusalem whose destruction is the main focus of the day. That is what Tisha B’Av is about today, as it has always been.

Ben Taylor, Los Angeles

Test-a-Jew

I hate to burst Mark Miller’s stereotype-laden bubble, but my granddaughter has blond hair, blue-green eyes and a straight nose (both her parents are Jewish) (“Test-a-Jew,” July 30). Continuing to analyze my granddaughter’s family tree vis-a-vis Miller’s standards: My granddaughter has two Jewish parents. Her maternal grandmother (that would be me) has blond hair (natural, but now gray) and blue eyes; her three first cousins (on my side) all have blue eyes; and her paternal grandfather has blue-green eyes. Two of her first cousins on her father’s side have blue or green eyes.

Both of my parents (both Jews of Russian heritage) had blue eyes.

I think a higher percentage of Jews have blue or green eyes than people of any other faith.That study would be a ridiculous waste of time, but since Miller brought it up.

Name withheld by request, Los Angeles

Faith and Pork

I believe that Micah Halpern (“Balancing Acts of Faith and Pork,” July 23) is blind to the possibility that the State of Israel’s secular founding fathers are turning over in their graves by the monster they created by subsidizing Orthodox Jewish “students,” who now number in the scores of thousands (along with their enormous families). They are a burden on the economy, and have politically disenfranchised all non-Orthodox Jews. What kind of “democracy” is it that insists that all marriage and divorce for Jews be in the Orthodox traditions in order to be legal? In comparison, Ireland is a true democracy. Although about 88 percent of the citizens are Roman Catholic, civil marriage and divorce is quite legal. A Jewish state does not have to be a fundamentalist Jewish state.

Martin J. Weisman , Westlake Village

Reverse in Israel

Gideon Levy writes about a disabled Palestinian man killed during an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) house demolition and a Palestinian professor and son shot in their home and asks for our reactions if the situation were reversed (“If the Situation Were Reversed,” July 30). However, Levy admits that the IDF considered the death of the disabled man “a death that shouldn’t have happened.” In both cases, the aim of the IDF was not to indiscriminately kill Palestinians and that both cases are being thoroughly investigated to determine the cause of these tragedies and methods to prevent them in the future. One can quibble about how thorough and how serious the IDF are in these matters, but the fact is that they aren’t pinning medals on the soldiers responsible.

If the situation were reversed, for instance, after the bus bombing in Tel Aviv on July 10 that killed Maayan Naim, groups like Yasser Arafat’s Al-Aqsa Brigades proudly take credit for intentional murder. The perpetrators’ goal is to murder as many Jews as possible, and their communities hail them as heroes. These incidents will be studied by these Palestinian groups not to prevent them in the future, but to learn how to repeat them and to learn how to murder more Jews.

Dr. Steven Ohsie, Los Angeles

Correction

In “Presbyterians Ignite Divestment Uproar” (July 30), Rabbi Mark Diamond is the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Dinner Celebrates Families


Aphilanthropic couple and a young family with a preschooler are to be recognized at the 9th annual Jewish Family Service of Orange County (JFS) dinner celebrating family.

The contributions of Gerald and Eleanor Weinstein, of Tustin, are getting notice because Jewish tenets about giving and righting social ills are reflected in their chosen careers and volunteer commitments, said Mel Roth, director of the agency, a provider of psychological services.

Both former health professionals, the couple has known each other for 25 years but only married in September 2001, following the loss of their spouses.

JFS hopes to raise $60,000 from the event, supporting the agency’s $825,000 annual budget. JFS receives 30 percent of its funding from the O.C. Jewish Federation and is its largest beneficiary. The agency’s 11-person staff, including four full-time counselors, annually serve about 7,000 people in support groups, counseling, older adult services, volunteer opportunities, refugee resettlement, information and referral, a healing center and with interest-free loans.

Also under the spotlight are Stacy and Phil Kaplan, of Newport Beach, who met at a young Jewish leadership get-together. The couple, who have a 2-year-old daughter, remain involved in numerous O.C. Federation programs.

"It is a special privilege to honor the Weinsteins and the Kaplans, who set an example of model families enriching the Jewish and general community by teaching the values love, honesty, education, loving kindness and giving back to the community," Roth said.

The $100-per-person dinner is to be held at the Hyatt Newporter Hotel in Newport Beach May 20 at 6 p.m. For more information, call JFS at (714) 445-4950.

Your Letters


New NPR Standards

I have no reason to believe that Kevin Klose’s new standards for fair coverage at NPR means anything (“New Standards for Fair Coverage at NPR,” Aug. 15). For so long, NPR has been so biased against Israel and beholden to Arab/Muslim interests that it does not know how to behave otherwise. When I hear people like Steve Emerson and Daniel Pipes on NPR speaking as often as the Arab representatives, and when I hear proper vocabulary such as “terrorists” instead of “militants, etc.,” then I believe there is hope.

Rachelle Mand, Torrance

Maahj

I had to laugh at your article about maahj (“Maahj Cracks Fashionistas,” Aug. 15). It sounds like women are rediscovering sliced bread! I started playing maahj in 1958 as a young bride in Winnipeg, Canada, where, I might add, my aunts, cousins and friends never stopped. I began again in Northridge in the ’60s, and after many years of hiatus, we are playing again.

S. Kussin, Northridge

Marine in Iraq

I was profoundly moved by Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s article about his son Kayitz’s service as a Marine in Iraq (“Jewish Values Guide Marine’s Life in Iraq,” Aug. 8). And I was pleasantly surprised to see you acknowledge that there are actually Jews and even rabbis who support our government’s efforts in Iraq, because it is the right thing, the Jewish thing to do.

My family and I had the honor of hosting Rabbi Finley and Kayitz for a Shabbat dinner just before he began his service. Rabbi Finley’s praise of his son’s character is not just parental pride and hyperbole. Kayitz is an example of what makes America great and what has made the Jewish people great. We are taught to pursue justice, to not stand idly by when our neighbor is in need.

Serving in the military of our great democracy helps to further those ideals and to make tikkun olam (repairing the world) a reality and not just a nice phrase mouthed by Hebrew school students.

I think it is important for this generation to know that our Jewish ideals and vision for a better world, a more just world, a freer world, are not just platitudes said around the seder table while we’re rushing to get to the main course.

Rabbi Jay Levy, Or Emet

I was moved by Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s description of his son Kayitz’s attempts to live out his Jewish values while serving in Iraq as a Marine. As a father, Rabbi Finley has a lot to be proud of.

I was disappointed, however, at the misleading headline on the cover. The answer to the question “Why We’re in Iraq” owes more to a complex web of deception on the part of the Bush administration than to any Jewish values. It is obvious now that the president misled the nation about both the presence of weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s imminent nuclear capability. It has also become clear that there were no connections between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

The president and his right-wing minions have dangerously set a precedent for a policy of preemptive attack that need not be backed up by any evidence. As I learned as a soldier serving with the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank, the ethical actions of individual soldiers cannot counteract the immorality of an illegal occupation.

Dr. Aryeh Cohen, Chair Rabbinic Studies, University of Judaism President-elect Progressive Jewish Alliance

Friend Zone

Carin Davis laments in her article (“The Friend Zone,” Aug. 8) that she can’t get guys to ask her out; they just look at her as a friend. There is a simple solution to this problem — Carin, get up your courage and ask the guys out. I can tell you that from this guy’s perspective, I love it when I’m asked out.

I can almost guarantee that you will soon find yourself dating instead of “friending” the guys you like. If you don’t believe me, run it by some of your guy friends, or better yet, in the words of Nike: Just Do It. Carin, take the plunge and let us know how it goes in your next column.

Peter Weinberger, Los Angeles

Mitzvah for Ayelet

When Palestinians secrete terrorists and locate bomb factories amid their civilian population, subjecting innocent children to injury and even death from Israeli retaliation, we are appalled (“A Mitzvah for Ayelet” Aug. 8). However, I find Vered Kashani’s tragic article about the murder of her cousins while en route to Emmanuel, a settlement in the West Bank, to be similarly disturbing. Although settlers and their visitors may be willing to sacrifice their own lives to ideology, the callousness with which they risk the lives of their offspring is absolutely unconscionable. Whether we believe that Judea and Samaria should belong to Israel or to Palestine, willfully endangering children is wrong.

Barbara Kaplan, Los Angeles

Too Jewish

I read Maryann Gray’s column and felt like it could have been written by me (“On Being Too Jewish” Aug. 15). Having grown up with the Easter baskets and Christmas trees, I can relate to her experience, both with sadness and pain. As I have matured and opened my heart to embrace my Jewishness, I too have moved from fear of being “too Jewish” to not being Jewish enough.

Allyson Rowen Taylor, Valley Glen

Ziering Dominates With Blonde Ambition


"People are shocked to discover I’m Jewish," Nikki Schieler Ziering said.

In her red, white and blue string bikini on the cover of July’s Playboy, the blonde model-actress looks like a sexier version of the all-American girl. She is better known for playing bombshells in films such as "Serving Sara" than, say, making a brisket.

But on radio’s "Loveline" recently, Ziering — who plays a campy dominatrix stripper in "American Wedding" — revealed that she cooks brisket and practices Judaism. When co-host Adam Corolla countered, "You’re not a real Jew," she said she converted before her 1997 wedding to actor Ian Ziering and that she’s continued practicing since they separated in 2001.

"People always ask me, ‘Are you still Jewish?’ and I say, ‘Of course,’" she told The Journal over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I fell in love with Judaism because it’s all about family values and having good morals. It’s something I made a commitment to and that I take seriously."

So seriously that she easily beat Corolla at an impromptu "Jew off" game featuring questions such as, "How many candles are there on a menorah?"

"I had you at ‘Shalom,’" she said.

Ziering, 31, didn’t know many Jews growing up in a mostly Christian area of Brea, but her own household wasn’t religious. Her Norwegian American mother, who had rebelled against her own strict, Protestant upbringing, didn’t baptize Nikki or require her to attend church.

During a period of adolescent soul-searching, Ziering, then 15, had herself baptized and started frequenting a hip, Orange County church.

"It was a phase," she said.

By the time she graduated from high school, she was more focused on jump-starting her career — which began when a modeling scout discovered her while she was working as a dental assistant around 1993. Ziering went on to model for companies such as Frederick’s of Hollywood, to pose nude in Playboy and to be one of "Barker’s Beauties" on CBS’ "The Price is Right."

In 1994, she met her future husband while playing a bit part on his series, "Beverly Hills, 90210." "I had never had anyone close in my life who was Jewish," she said.

As she fell in love with Ian Ziering, she also fell in love with his religion.

"The family aspects appealed to me, because my parents divorced and I didn’t have that," she said. "Initially, I worried that his parents would reject me as ‘the shiksa,’ but they were totally accepting."

Although there was no pressure to become Jewish, Ziering decided to enroll in the 22-week conversion class led by Rabbi Jonathan Aaron at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. "I think it’s important to raise your children with something, so I just went in with an open mind, not specifically to convert," she said.

Studying Judaism changed her mind. "I loved that on Yom Kippur, you are not only supposed to ask for forgiveness, but also to forgive," she said. "I love how you cover the challah when you say the blessing over the wine because you don’t want to ‘hurt its feelings.’ That’s such a great way to teach children compassion; it’s just such a sweet thing."

On the morning of her conversion, Ziering felt nervous. "It was that residue of what you’re taught as a Christian — that everyone else is going to hell," she said. She relaxed while answering questions in front of the bet din (the rabbinical court): "I just felt so accepted, I started crying and I knew I was doing the right thing."

Ziering then immersed in the mikvah; in the temple that evening, she carried the Torah, "which was quite an honor," she said.

When she got married under a chuppah at the Beverly Hills Hotel in July 1997, she said it was the first Jewish wedding she had ever attended.

Over the next few years, observing rituals such as lighting Shabbat candles proved easier for Ziering than mastering some cultural aspects of Judaism.

For example, she said, "I learned how to not use the word, schmuck."

Then there was the Rosh Hashana dinner for 20 guests she prepared as her mother-in-law guided her by phone from New Jersey. "I hung up before she told me what to do with the gefilte fish, but as I’d been cooking for two days, I was feeling all confident, and I figured, I’ll just pop them in the oven for 20 minutes,’" she recalled. "My guests laughed hysterically that I not only cooked the gefilte fish, I burned them."

Ziering has continued to observe the holidays since separating from her husband — and to field questions about being Jewish. When people ask why a nice Jewish girl is appearing topless in films such as "American Wedding," (her Officer Krystal dominates the outrageous bachelor party sequence) she says, "I have no problems being naked because the human body is beautiful."

When they ask if she’s really Jewish, she tries to maintain her sense of humor. As she told Corolla: "I used to be a ‘shiksa,’ but now I’m a Jew."

"American Wedding" opens today in Los Angeles.

Spiritual Parenthood


Sometimes we wonder how the translators arrived at the names they designated for the books of the Bible. But our parsha, the opening one of the book of Bamidbar, makes the translators’ choice self-evident. After all, what is this parsha more than a collection of Numbers?

Why did God count the Jews in this protracted census? And why did the Torah bother to tell us about it? Rashi explains that God wanted to demonstrate to us, his children, how dear we are to him. Like a caring shepherd who counts his flock after each storm and attack, God repeatedly counted us in the wilderness to exhibit and communicate the special place that each Jew holds in His heart. Thus, the exhaustive detail that the Torah affords each census: Tribe by tribe, and family by family, the Torah shares with us the numbers breakdown to stress the singular affinity that God has for every Jew.

Amid the details of the general census, the Torah takes pause to reintroduce us to the family of Aaron, the high priest. The associate kohanim — Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar — are introduced by the following repetitive clauses: "These are the offspring of Moshe and Aaron…. These are the names of the sons of Aaron."

"Where is the mention of the sons of Moshe?" the sages of the Talmud ask. "And what does Moshe have to do with the sons of Aaron?"

The subtle implication of the text, the sages explain, is that the sons of Aaron were also the sons of Moshe, their teacher, because, "Whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah, Scripture views him as if he birthed him."

The Torah elevates the holy task of the educator to spiritual parenthood. A good teacher, a great giver who imparts wisdom to his or her disciple, plays an essential role in rearing and shaping the student and is akin to a mother or father.

The Torah imparts this notion in another place as well. Jews around the world read the "Shema" every day and night, where it says, "You shall speak them to your sons" (Deuteronomy 6:7). Here, too, the sages of the Midrash explain, "’Your sons’ — these are the students."

The Torah once again defines the relationship between teacher and student, between rabbi and congregation, in familial terms.

But why did the Torah have to demonstrate this more than one time? In Numbers it taught that the student is like one’s own child. Why restate it in Deuteronomy?

Some years ago, a teacher of mine shared an answer: the Torah recognizes two distinct dimensions of a mentor or teacher. One role of the teacher is to impart information — an intellectual achievement that continues to provide for a student long after he or she leaves the classroom. But the teacher also plays a distinct role in influencing the subtleties of personal development and spiritual growth. Every child — indeed every person — must acquire knowledge. More importantly though, that same person must acquire wisdom.

One must recognize that those two roles can be satisfied by more than one person.

When it comes to our children — and our own spiritual growth — we must stay conscious of who those mentors are. Yes, our children are learning from us and from their teachers about the rich history and culture of Jewish tradition (not to mention algebra and chemistry), but their senses of morality and life values might be the product of prevailing popular conceptions, celebrity sound bites or even fictional characters. Our teachers may be Rabbi X or Rabbi Y, but our rebbes (mentors) might be Judge Judy or Forrest Gump.

Our responsibility to ourselves and to our children demands that we find spiritual mothers and fathers in those bearers of the millennial wisdom that has been our key to survival and success: the Torah. Together, we must teach our children how to steer through life guided by the moral compass of Torah wisdom.

Rabbi Gidon Shoshan is the director of outreach at the Los Angeles
Intercommunity Kollel (LINK) in Westwood. He can be reached at ravgidon@LinkLA.org.

Crisis Manager


On March 11, Paul S. Nussbaum trudged down the driveway in
his bathrobe, picked up the Los Angeles Times and headed back into his house —
part of his early morning routine. Moments later his wife handed him a fruit
protein shake, he cracked open the paper and pulled out the business section.

Nussbaum was “astounded and dumbfounded” by what he saw.
Under a headline that read, “Wells Refuses Belgium Claim,” Nussbaum learned
that Wells Fargo & Co. said it would not contribute $267,000 to a war
reparations fund for Belgian Jews, making it the only financial institution of
22 banks named in the $59 million settlement to balk at paying. Wells Fargo
argued that it had no legal obligation, because it had inherited the liability
through its acquisition of a small Belgium bank.

For Nussbaum, the son of two Holocaust survivors, the bank’s
actions came as a double shock. For one thing, Wells Fargo had cultivated a
great deal of good will in the Jewish community by contributing hundreds of
thousands of dollars to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jewish Family Service
(JFS) and other Jewish organizations. For another, Nussbaum, 46, is senior vice
president for Wells Fargo in Beverly Hills.

Turning to his wife, Nussbaum said: “The bank has done
something incredibly stupid that I have to deal with.”

And he did.

A day later, after a barrage of calls by Nussbaum to senior
executives at Wells Fargo and Jewish leaders, the bank said it would pay the
reparations. In a statement, Wells Fargo Chief Executive Dick Kovacevich
apologized to the Jewish community and called the Holocaust “the worst form of
discrimination and violation of human rights.”

The bank’s quick reversal probably minimized long-term
damage to its business interests and reputation. It also reflected the
crisis-management skills of Nussbaum, a Jewish philanthropist who has spent
much of his corporate career guiding organizations through roiled waters.

Although they sometimes cause him sleepless nights and an
upset stomach, difficult times bring out Nussbaum’s most analytical and
creative side, he said. Like a general calmly barking orders as bullets whiz
by, Nussbaum said he becomes ever more focused in a crisis, when his
“just-fix-it” personality kicks in.

During his career, he has helped clean up the portfolio of a
faltering savings in loan, put in 80-hour weeks to help Orange County tame its
budget to emerge from bankruptcy and single-handedly revived Wells Fargo’s
regional commercial banking office on the Westside.

In 1984, Nussbaum joined American Savings & Loan, just
as panicky investors had withdrawn $6.8 billion in one of the biggest bank runs
in history. Over the next five years, Nussbaum, working in conjunction with
then-American Savings CEO William J. Popejoy, helped the institution collect as
much as possible on its bad loans and remove them from the company’s books.
Nussbaum said his efforts saved taxpayers billions.

Later, he joined Wells Fargo. In 1995, the bank gave him a
paid leave so that he could serve as an adviser to his mentor Popejoy, then-CEO
of bankrupt Orange County. At first viewed suspiciously as a Popejoy lackey,
Nussbaum won over a lot of skeptics with his long hours and dedication toward
making the county solvent, experts said.

Nussbaum was part of a group of officials who slashed the
county’s budget 41 percent.  Although Nussbaum left after only five months,
Popejoy said, “I don’t think anyone made a bigger contribution that helped the
county regain its footing. Paul was one of the unsung heroes.”

Four years ago, Wells Fargo asked Nussbaum to reopen a
commercial banking office in Beverly Hills that had been shuttered during an
earlier consolidation. Starting from scratch, he has built a team of 16 people
and increased by fourfold the number of Wells Fargo loans to Westside companies
and individuals.

“I think Paul has done an exemplary job of establishing us
in a market we had tried to break into in the past but had been largely
unsuccessful,” said Paul Watson, Wells Fargo head of commercial and corporate
banking. “He’s a good banker and very involved with the community. When you put
that together, you have a successful formula.”

Nussbaum’s commitment to business is matched only by his
community activism. A board member at JFS, the Wiesenthal Center and Stephen S.
Wise Temple, he has encouraged Wells Fargo to donate hundreds of thousands of
dollars to those and other groups, including $150,000 this year to JFS.

Mark Berns, past president of Stephen S. Wise, said Nussbaum
makes contributions to the temple, both big and small. Recently, Nussbaum volunteered
to cook food all afternoon “over hot flames and in the sun” at a Purim festival
that raised $40,000, Berns said.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, has known
Nussbaum for seven years. He said the banker’s efforts to coax Wells Fargo to
pay the reparations reflect Nussbaum’s deep commitment to Jewish values.

“I think he saved the bank a lot of heartache by making such
a big fuss,” Hier said. “He did the right thing.” 

Queen of Laughter


Imagine emceeing an event following Sept. 11. Rhea Kohanknows that feeling. The mistress of ceremonies for countless local Jewishorganizations hosted Friends of Sheba Medical Center’s annual Women ofAchievement Luncheon just 48 hours after the terrorist attack.

“I was dreading it, because who was in the mood to laugh,”Kohan said of the Sept. 13, 2001, engagement. “I told them, ‘Why don’t youcancel? Even the Emmy Awards was canceled.”

But the luncheon’s honorees — including “Will & Grace”star Debra Messing and cartoonist Cathy Guisewite — did not cancel, so Kohankept her commitment, as well.

Attendees of that post-Sept. 11 function recalled how deftlyKohan negotiated the line between comedy and solemnity.

“People walked in absolutely confused, distraught, upset,”recalled Ila Waldman, Friends of Sheba Medical Center’s executive director.”After the luncheon, they walked out uplifted. It was a real catharsis.”

The self-described raconteur refuses to label herself astand-up comedian. But Kohan’s wit has, over the last decade, made her asought-after personality in the local Jewish community, and she refuses tocharge money for her humorous hostessing.

“When I get calls from [organizations such as] Israel Bondsand Sheba Medical Center,” Kohan said, “I find it very hard to say no.”

Comedy and music run in the family. Kohan is married tocomedy writer and composer Buzz Kohan, winner of 13 Emmy Awards. Son DavidKohan co-created the Emmy-winning “Will & Grace” and plays guitar; his twinbrother, Jono, plays piano and drums and is a partner in the music productioncompany, 1st Born Entertainment; and daughter, Jenji Kohan Noxon, won an Emmyin 1996 as supervising producer for “Tracey Takes On.”

Days before the 75th Academy Awards, Buzz Kohan took a breakfrom working on this year’s Oscar telecast to discuss his wife.

“I like her,” Buzz said with comic understatement. “We’vebeen together for 40 years. No sense trading her in now.”

Kohan has collaborated with her husband on specials, such as”The Funny Women of Television.”

“She contributes a Jewish sense of humor, sense of valuesand heart [at her gigs],” Buzz said. “She has a wonderful way of lighting up aroom, which is so rare for people who don’t do this for a living. She sizes upthe people at an event and makes wonderful, pithy observations about them.”

The Kohan offspring report that their mother has always beensupportive of their comedic and musical aspirations.

“Comedy is taken seriously,” said daughter Jenji, 33. “Ourdinner table was a rough room. I didn’t talk for years. Everyone was very quickand had standards for funny.”

Rhea Kohan grew up in “the best place in the world –Brooklyn.” She met her husband while working as a canteen girl in the resorttown of Lake George, N.Y.

“He came from the Bronx, so we would never have metotherwise,” she said, half-joking.

In 1967, “‘The Carol Burnett Show’ made Buzz an offer hecouldn’t refuse,” Kohan said, and they moved to Los Angeles, where her wickedwit was the hit of a friend’s birthday party. Word of Kohan’s gift of gabspread after hosting a Jewish Family Service gala honoring a friend.

“She’s just able to see things clearly and put a comedicspin on it,” said Jono, 38.

Kohan greatly influenced David, the sitcom creator.

“One summer, we were all away in camp,” David recalled ofwhen he was 13. “She had a chance to sit down with her legal pad, and she wrotea novel. A couple of years later, she wrote another.”

Unlike Buzz Kohan’s penchant for sketches and musicalcomedy, “all of my mother’s humor comes from character and the absurdity of asituation,” David explained.

“Up until the day of the banquet,” David continued, “she’sconvinced herself that she’s going to be an abysmal failure, and then she’sbrilliant. She’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Particularly whenshe criticizes my life choices — that’s a scream.”

“Sometimes I bomb like Hiroshima,” Rhea Kohan said, “but Ialways feel that I’m doing it for a good cause, not for the career of RheaKohan.”

The Beverly Hills-based Kohans remain a tight-knit clan.

“Every Shabbat, our family gets together for dinner,” Jonosaid. “We just have a great time together.

Kohan loves working Jewish galas and the community loves herback.

“She is just the most delightful human being,” said State ofIsrael Bonds’ Brigitte Medvin. “She can be a stand-up comic. She researches thehonorees and weaves wonderful stories about the people she introduces.”

“We’ve had her emcee our Women of Achievement Luncheon forthree years now,” Waldman said. “She’s synonymous with the luncheon. I can’tthink of doing it without her. To us, she’s our perennial woman ofachievement.”

Rhea Kohan will emcee the State of Israel Bonds’ Women’sDivision’s Golda Meir Club Luncheon on May 8 at the Four Seasons Hotel, WestHollywood. For information, call (310) 996-3004.

Kohan will also host Women’s Group of Friends of ShebaMedical Center’s Women of Achievement Luncheon on June 5 at the Four Seasons.For information, call (310) 843-0100. 

New opportunity arises to Aid Jews in Former Soviet Union


Fifteen years after we stood together in Washington, D.C.,
to rally for Soviet Jewish emigration, we have a second opportunity to save
hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Through the National Council of Soviet Jewry’s (NCSJ)
efforts in the successor states of the former Soviet Union (FSU), we fight
anti-Semitism, work for the return of Jewish communal property and help create
an atmosphere in which Jewish life can once again flourish.

The story of post-Soviet Jewry is told through the many
people who work every day with survivors of the Shoah, with young adults who
are transforming life in Ukraine and with the children who represent the future
of the Jewish community.

Rabbi Yakov Bleich, chief rabbi of Ukraine, has lived in
Kyiv for 13 years. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine,
has lived there for 10. They have built new lives and are raising their
children there.

Elsewhere, representatives of the Joint Distribution
Committee, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, some of whom grew up
in the FSU and made aliyah, have returned to Ukraine — frequently bringing
Israeli-born family members with them — so life will be better for Jews in the
21st century than it was in the last.

The NCSJ’s advocacy work allows these remarkable people to
build a vibrant Jewish community there — to succeed, unimpeded by obstacles. We
are proud to assume the helm of NCSJ, through which U.S. Jewry maximizes its
political and communal potential.

As the umbrella organization for advocacy on behalf of Jews
in the FSU, NCSJ is uniquely positioned to focus communities and governments on
the civil and political needs of more than 1 million Jews.

Our latest visit to the FSU, just prior to assuming
leadership of NCSJ, reaffirms the important role that U.S. Jews can and must
play. These successor states are home to the third-largest Jewish population in
the world.

This past October, we visited Ukraine. Government and
community leaders, including the president, prime minister, speaker of the
parliament and state secretary for foreign affairs, engaged us in extensive
discussions about expanding opportunities for Jewish life. It is true that
significant difficulties remain for Ukraine’s 400,000 Jews, but U.S. Jews who
sustained the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s would be amazed
to see the Jewish revival occurring all across the FSU.

In Dnepropetrovsk, we observed a community with a major
synagogue, a day school with 750 students, Jewish outreach and educational
programs and health facilities that are a model for other communities in the
FSU. We met and were thoroughly impressed with local lay leaders, who give of
their own time and resources to build communal institutions.

We saw firsthand the work that the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee and local communities like Boston have achieved in true
partnership with the community that is generally considered the most successful
and effective example of Jewish revival and continuity in the FSU. This trip
reinforced the message that U.S. Jewish political advocacy fosters the
development and revival of Jewish communities in the FSU.

As the past year has reminded us, Jews in the FSU continue
to confront serious anti-Semitism. In Belarus, cemeteries have been desecrated,
vandalism is rampant and a new religion law criminalizes unauthorized religious
and communal activities.

In Russia, booby-trapped anti-Semitic signs called for
violence against Jews, and individual Jews were singled out for physical abuse.
In Ukraine, a mob attacked Kyiv’s historic Brodsky Synagogue. Sadly, the roots
of anti-Semitism are stronger than those of tolerance.

To their credit, political leaders in Russia, Ukraine and
several other successor states have condemned anti-Jewish violence and
propaganda and have begun implementing proactive measures to combat hatred of
Jews. While problems remain in every country, these leaders are learning
lessons from their national history and applying them to the future, for which
Americans and American Jews can rightly claim some of the credit.

The organized U.S. Jewish community persistently reaches out
to convey that anti-Semitism is incompatible with integration into the modern
world. We advocate pluralistic and democratic values. Ironically, the
repudiation of popular anti-Semitism in some of the successor states surpasses
that of some established Western European democracies.

Since October 2001, when President Bush sought U.S. Jewish
support for “graduating” Russia from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, an important
evolution in U.S.-Russian relations has been realized. No longer do Russian
leaders dismiss concerns for religious freedom as meddling in their internal
affairs.

In the November 2001 historic exchange of letters between
Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, both
governments reaffirmed the importance of fighting anti-Semitism, restituting
communal property and observing international commitments regarding religious
freedom. Such developments underscore the impact U.S. Jewish advocacy continues
to have at home and in the successor states, and of the indispensable role the
United States plays in promoting freedom and democracy.

Restitution of communal property, including confiscated
synagogues and other buildings and land, is addressed in the U.S.-Russian
exchange of letters. This issue is vital to the revival of Jewish communal
life.

Service-providing organizations on the ground must spend
millions of dollars on welfare and education, leaving scant resources available
for purchasing buildings. Getting back communal buildings, stolen by the
Soviets and Nazis, could make all the difference in assuring the continuity and
intensity of Jewish life.

Elderly survivors of communism and the Shoah deserve decent
dining and medical facilities; their grandchildren deserve schools; all deserve
access to the synagogues and community centers that once proudly stood at the
heart of their cities. Time is running out as elderly Jews perish, and too many
youngsters grow up without the chance to learn about Jewish religion or
culture.

Our travels also remind us that these community leaders and
activists are equal partners with us. They still have tremendous political and
economic needs, but they have a developed sense of community agenda and
direction, of responsibility as leaders and of their connection to Klal Yisrael
(the Jewish people).

Across the successor states, U.S. communities are turning
relationships into partnerships, along the lines of NCSJ’s Kehilla Projects.
American Jews are not just supplying financial resources but helping to carve
out a safe and secure niche for communal activity.

We must continue our efforts. We invite you to join us as we
witness the rebirth of this vast Jewish community. Personally inspiring, it is
also a responsibility we owe to our brethren and to our own ancestors, so many
of whom emigrated from there.

There are tremendous needs and risks still ahead, which
demand our continued involvement. But the payoff has already proven beyond the
wildest dreams of rallies and refusenik visits that now seem so long ago. The
rules have changed, but the game is the same: securing a Jewish future.

Dr. Robert J. Meth and Joel M.
Schindler are, respectively, chairman and president of the National Council of
Soviet Jewry: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States
Eurasia (

Do Jewish Schools Make Good Neighbors?


Every Jewish school should have a neighbor like Scott Meller of Feldmar Watch & Clock Center.

The Pico-Robertson business, which has been around for over 40 years, is located directly across from the Chabad educational institutions on Pico Boulevard (Bais Chana School for Girls, Bais Rebbe Junior High and Bais Chaya Muska Elementary School). "They’re great," said Meller, whose family owns Feldmar. "It’s nice because the whole area is affected by the fact that the schools are there. It brings people to the neighborhood so the property value increases. They’re good as neighbors."

Meller doesn’t bat an eye when discussing the big hole in the ground across the street — otherwise known as the future Bais Sonya Gutte campus — where an additional school building is under construction. When it’s completed, it will house the high school, junior high and elementary students, as well as the children at the Gan Israel/Garden Preschool, whose facility is down the street. Traffic is a concern, Meller conceded, but on the whole he wasn’t bothered.

"We’ve always had a nice relationship with the neighborhood," said Rabbi Danny Yiftach, the school’s administrator. When local residents expressed worries about traffic and parking, they decided to build two subterranean floors in the new building for extra parking, Yiftach said.

Local schools are anything but a deterrent for those interested in the community, said Meredith Michen of Landmark Realtors, which services the Pico-Robertson area. "Most of the people who move to that area think it’s a good thing to have the schools there," said Michen, adding that Pico-Robertson real estate prices are affected by demand, not by the schools in the area.

But not all Jewish schools are as fortunate. For Jewish parents, who often seek out a particular neighborhood just to be closer to a day school to send their children, sometimes there is such a thing as too close. Issues such as construction, noise, traffic, parking and environmental concerns cause residents to wonder: do Jewish schools make good neighbors?

Currently, the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West campus sits on a rented hillside property in Agoura Hills. In a plan to expand the school, Heschel West purchased 70 acres off of Chesboro Road in Agoura Hills five years ago. Throughout the permit process, the school board received concern from local residents who live in an area known for its open space and semirural environment.

Jess Thomas, president of the Old Agoura Hills Homeowners Association, is opposed to the project, because he said that the scope of the project has increased over time. "They said they were going to build a smaller school in the back of the canyon and away from the homes and the number of students they were talking about didn’t seem like a problem," he said. Because of the large number of additional students, Thomas feels that the amount of traffic will overwhelm the streets’ capacity in the surrounding area.

"We’ve put a fair amount of time into addressing the neighbors’ concerns," said Brian Greenberg, Heschel West’s school board chairman. Greenberg plans to stagger school hours so as not to overlap with traffic from other local schools. In addition, Heschel West has changed their proposed placement of the new school’s entryway three times to accommodate the neighbors’ preferences.

Over in West Hills, the New Community Jewish High School opened its doors this September inside the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Center. Head of School Dr. Bruce Powell, who was responsible for opening both Yeshiva University Los Angeles High School and Milken Community High School, said that local residents were supportive.

Powell, who owns a consulting company, Jewish School Management, which helps open Jewish schools around the country, is only too familiar with neighborhood complaints. "Neighbors see the word ‘school’ and think the [students] are going to be rowdy like any other high school kids," said Powell, who has broken up only two fights in his 23 years in the field. "First of all, [these students are] at a Jewish school. They care about education. We’ve got ninth-graders here taking 10 classes. They’re serious, college-bound kids." Powell feels the school has a responsibility to educate the neighborhood as such.

Before Yavneh Hebrew Academy moved into their Hancock Park neighborhood four years ago, finding a home in the former Whittier Law School building on Third Street, locals filed lawsuits with worries of noise and traffic — but that was then. "Our neighbors have thanked us," said Headmaster Rabbi Moshe Dear, who attributes the positive relationship to mutual cooperation. Making accommodations like quiet hours and rules for carpooling to ease traffic problems has earned Yavneh respect.

While there are some people who feel that living near a school is a drawback to community living, others find a sense of security in education. Ira Sherak, 32, said that when he decides to purchase a house in Los Angeles someday, he does not want to live within a one-block radius of a public high school. When it comes to Jewish institutions, the Brentwood renter is less wary. "A Jewish school is a private school, so you know it’s not that bad," said the New Jersey native. "[The students] are not generally hanging out and looking for trouble."

Above all, local Jewish educators seem to agree that developing good neighbor relationships means practicing what one preaches. "As a Jewish school we want to teach good values and mitzvot," Dear said. "And part of that means we should be good neighbors."

Heschel West’s administrators expressed similar sentiments. "Our philosophy is commitment to Jewish learning and internalizing Judaic values. Part of our community outreach is to go out in the community and befriend them," said principal Jan Saltsman. Greenberg agreeed. "My sense is that since we’re a religious school, we’re going to be more sensitive to being good neighbors."

Festival Welcomes Amigos, Haverim


Bagels, Broza and Brentwood. Enchiladas, Enrique and East L.A. On the surface, the Jewish and Latino communities of Los Angeles don’t seem to have much in common. But scratch the surface of the relationship and you will find a common set of values that activists from both communities hope to build on for Fiesta Shalom 2002, a celebration to be held June 30 at Woodley Park in Encino.

"We share a strong sense of family, a strong sense of our heritage and history, a commitment to helping people in need and the desire to improve the quality of life of our children," said Barbara Creme, principal assistant to Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, who served on festival’s organizing committee. "We have all kinds of issues in common. We need to understand that our similarities are stronger than our differences."

This is the second such gathering between the two diverse communities. The first Fiesta Shalom took place in September 2000 at CSUN and attracted about 5,000 people. The festival was the brainchild of Reut Ness, a then-staffer of State Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-San Fernando Valley). The senator currently chairs the Fiesta Shalom 2002 honorary committee and said he was pleased that many of the people involved in planning the first festival signed on for another hitch.

"Those relationships are where I believe the true community-building occurs," Alarcon said.

The most notable alteration in this year’s festival is the change of venue to Woodley Park. Organizers said there was concern after the previous festival that the event was too difficult to find, hidden as it was in the quad area of the campus. They believe the move to a more central and familiar location would attract greater participation from the Latino community.

Another change in the event was the elimination of the panel discussion, which last time focused primarily on affirmative action and discrimination against Latinos. Since the hottest political topic of the summer is secession — a potential source of conflict between the two communities — organizers thought better of the idea. Instead, there will be a ceremony to bestow the Fiesta Shalom Award, created to honor groups or organizations currently engaged in improving relationships between Jews and Latinos. This year’s recipient is the Hispanic Jewish Women’s Task Force, a project of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance’s Jewish Community Relations Committee established in 1997 to help nurture the fledging relationship between female activists in both communities.

Creme is a co-founder of the task force, along with Virginia Rafelson, director of the group Basic Adult Spanish Education, and Margaret Pontius, director of the Guadalupe Center in Canoga Park.

In addition to visiting the usual food (some kosher), art/jewelry and organization booths (representing agencies such as the Anti-Defamation League and the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council), families can participate in a children’s craft corner, with Judaica crafts sponsored by the West Valley Jewish Community Center, and a piñata-making workshop for those whose kids need to work off a little extra steam.

Entertainment for the festival includes folklorico dancers, a concert by the Kadima Conservatory of Music youth orchestra and performances by Klez-Mex, a combination klezmer and mariachi band created by local attorney/musician Barry Fisher, founder of the Ellis Island Band.

Fisher said he became fascinated several years ago by the long history of Jews in Spanish culture and worked with local mariachi musicians to create a musical blend of the two traditions.

"There were Sephardic Jews who settled in Mexico after the Spanish Inquisition and Ashkenazim who came to Mexico to fight with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution," Fisher said. "For a Latino audience it is interesting because they don’t know about this Jewish history or of Jews speaking Ladino. Even among [Latino] musicians it is a real consciousness-raising experience, to be willing to explore singing in Yiddish and to hear their own music with the inflection of a klezmer band."

Creme said she hopes Jewish agencies and organizations will encourage their members to participate in Fiesta Shalom.

"I don’t know that the Jewish community and the Latino community find themselves in the same place at the same time very often. This is a wonderful opportunity for sharing information and sharing our culture," she said.

School’s Out — Forever?


At a time when many Jewish day schools in the area are bursting at the seams and new ones move closer to opening their doors, Temple Isaiah Day School is making plans to go out of business.

The formal decision about the fate of the school has just been handed down by the Reform congregation’s board of directors, who concluded that their membership can no longer afford to underwrite the school’s operations. According to the timetable laid down by the board, the school will cease to exist at the end of June.

Temple Isaiah, a K-through-6 school founded a decade ago, has always struggled in its effort to build a student population. While Westside day schools at Temple Emanuel, Beth Am, and Sinai Temple each attract more than 300 students, Isaiah has not had the same success; its student body currently numbers 76, down from 80 a year ago.

Concerned observers have long noted that graduates of Isaiah’s popular preschool tend not to feed into the day school. In fact, in recent years, Isaiah’s preschool parents have largely reversed the familiar trend of preferring a private education for their children.

Susie Leonard, who heads the preschool, confirms that among 60 children who moved on to kindergarten last year, only 25 opted for private schools of any sort. Of these 25, a mere four entered Jewish day schools. Two of the graduates would probably have joined a sibling at Isaiah’s day school, but were apparently scared off by the school’s enrollment woes.

Isaiah’s decision to end its day school does not sit well with parents. They have nothing but praise for Director Sari Goodman and for a school they see as exemplifying the best in Jewish family values. Many are also angry at what they regard as the temple’s insensitivity; they believe that the letter they received in December, warning of a possible closure, did not give them time to take constructive action.

A parent active in the movement to keep the school open argues that Temple Isaiah has never made the strong commitment needed to shore up the school’s finances. He questions the dedication of the congregants to the school’s existence — “the school and the congregation are pretty well divorced” — and cites the lack of money and personnel for recruitment efforts as a reason the school has floundered.

Parents plan to attend this week’s temple board meeting en masse, bearing their own proposals for making the school viable. Among their ideas is a scheme to affiliate with other congregations that have preschools, in hopes of incorporating them into a feeder system for Temple Isaiah Day School.

Isaiah’s senior rabbi, Robert Gan, disputes the parents’ contention that the school has been underfunded from the start. He insists that there has always been “a heroic and enormous commitment on the part of the temple to sustain this school.” But the consistently low enrollment figures, coupled with the fact that fully 40 percent of the school’s students attend on scholarship, have pushed the temple into the reluctant decision to pull the plug.

Gan argues that parents have long known about the school’s precarious situation, and that the letters sent in December were a responsible way to warn them to pursue other alternatives for next fall.

Countering the accusation that Temple Isaiah devalues Jewish education, Gan points to a flourishing religious school, with more than 400 children enrolled. He also mentions a new family life center, now on the drawing board, that will serve the educational needs of congregants of all ages.


Make the Time Count


Child rearing, it turns out, is a relativelyshort-term project. The truth is that we don’t have them for verylong. Eighteen years, that’s all. Eighteen years, from birth untilthey move away to Stanford. If your child is 5, you’ve got 13 yearsleft. If your child is 8, you’ve got 10 years. If your child is 11,you’ve got only seven years — just a few years to put them to bedwith a story and a song, to make them breakfast, to stick artwork upon the fridge.

It’s also a very few years to teach values, toshape character, to instill a way of life. If it takes a lifetime tocreate a masterpiece of art or music, how do we shape the characterof our children in just a few years? We used to hope that they’dlearn by example — watch us and model their behavior after ours.That’s difficult these days. We can’t assume that by living a certainset of values, our kids will model their values after our own. Theoutside culture produces too much static interference. The mediaculture is powerful, intrusive and pernicious. For every parentalwarning to think carefully and to act reflectively, there’s a Nike adadmonishing, “Just Do It!”

It takes more than modeling to teach valuesbecause the values that we think we are modeling, the values we thinkwe are living, aren’t always visible to our kids. When we write acheck to a charity that we deem important, how do our kids know? Whenwe go to a meeting of the community, leaving them at home with thesitter, how are they to know?

To raise kids with strong values, we must be muchmore affirmative in our efforts. We must know our own values. And wemust work — consciously and creatively — to make our values visibleto our kids.

Begin with this assignment: What do you want yourchild to take to college? No, not the Toyota or the computer, butwhat values, what commitments, what ethics? Make a list of the 10values you want your child to have. Post the list on yourrefrigerator door. Ask yourself each day how these values have foundtheir way into your child’s life.

Qualities of character are communicated byimmersing children in an environment rich with symbols, rituals andstories. Because children need to see and to hear and to touch ourvalues, the Torah teaches: U’k’tavtem al mezuzot beitecha — “Writethem on the door posts of your house” (Deuteronomy 6:9). Read yourhome. Read the values that are visible in your home. Do you have atzedakah box? Do you have Shabbat candles? Does your home — thevisible and the tangible environment in which you bring up yourchildren — bespeak your deepest passions and purposes? Are thererituals in your life, rituals that communicate your ethics? Do youshare stories at bedtime, at holiday times, at special moments? Arethese stories that help kids find their place in a greater story,stories that give kids courage to face life?

We have them for so little time. Make the timecount. The greatest gift we give our kids is a sense of life’spurpose and meaning, the values we uphold, the commitments we fightfor, the passions that make life worthwhile. The Rabbis warned us:”Hazman katzar, vi’hamalachah miruba’at.”

The time is short, and the task substantial. Starttoday.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.


 

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