September 24, 2018

The war against intermarriage has been lost. Now what?

When the nation’s largest Jewish federation convened its first-ever conference recently on engaging interfaith families, perhaps the most notable thing about it was the utter lack of controversy that greeted the event.

There was a time when the stereotypical Jewish approach to intermarriage was to shun the offender and sit shiva.

A generation ago, the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showing intermarriage at the alarmingly high rate of 52 percent turned into a rallying cry. No matter that subsequent scholarship revised the figure down to 43 percent, interfaith marriage was seen as the core of the problem of Jewish assimilation in America. Jewish institutions poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building with an eye toward stemming intermarriage.

Fast forward two decades and the question is no longer how to fight intermarriage, but how Jewish institutions can be as welcoming as possible to intermarried Jews and the gentiles who love them.

“Clearly, Jewish communal attitudes have changed,” said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, which hosted the one-day interfaith conference in June.

“One of the results of the whole process begun with the 1990 study was that in a free America we’re all Jews by choice. That’s been a profound insight that has permeated a lot of the work of the Jewish community in the last 20-plus years,” Mallach said. “It shifted the discussion from the classic stereotypical sitting shiva and never talking to a person again to saying that if we’re all Jews by choice, let’s also sit with this segment of the community and offer them that choice.”

In 1973, the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a nonbinding resolution opposing officiating at intermarriages. Today, more than half the movement’s rabbis perform interfaith weddings.

In 2010, a task force at the CCAR recommended shifting away from focus on preventing intermarriage to reaching out to intermarried families and adapting rituals to include non-Jewish family members. Now the movement is considering a further step.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the new president of the rabbinical seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told JTA last week that HUC is planning to take a “very serious look” at whether to end the school’s longstanding policy against admitting intermarried rabbinical school students.

In the Conservative movement, it’s no longer uncommon to see non-Jews on the bimah during a bar mitzvah service. Some Conservative synagogues even grant voting rights to non-Jewish members. Officially, the movement’s only rules on the subject are that rabbis must neither perform nor attend interfaith weddings. But the latter regulation often is ignored.

“First someone has to make a complaint, and nobody has ever brought a complaint against a colleague for having attended an intermarriage,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “It would be hard to imagine that someone would be punished for it.”

Even in the Orthodox movement, the idea of shunning the intermarried is passe, seen as counterproductive to the ultimate goal of getting unaffiliated Jews to embrace their Jewish identity.

“The preponderance of intermarriage has made it usually pointless to shun those who have married out,” said Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. “Once upon a time, intermarriage was a sign that the Jewish partner was rejecting his or her Jewish heritage. That is no longer the case, of course, and hasn’t been for decades.”

While there have been no national studies of Jewish intermarriage rates since the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, which reported an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, anecdotal evidence and general population surveys suggest intermarriage is on the rise.

A landmark 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-third of all marriages in the United States are now interfaith, and Jews are the most intermarrying ethnic group of all (Mormons are the least). The survey also found a growing number of Americans switching religions: Twenty-eight percent no longer belong to the religion in which they were born, or 44 percent if switching Protestant denominations is counted.

“What was once seen as abnormal, socially taboo, something you did not publicize has become socially acceptable,” Erika Seamon, author of “Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity,” said at the UJA-Federation conference in June. “This is a huge shift.”

Today, the very notion of fighting a battle against intermarriage in America seems as likely to succeed as a war against rain: It’s going to happen, like it or not. The question is how to react.

Given that the children of intermarriages are only one-third as likely as the children of inmarried couples to be raised as Jews, according to the 2000-01 NJPS, the overall strategy appears to be the same across the denominations: Engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism.

That’s true from the Reform movement to Chabad, with the exception of some haredi Orthodox. Where the denominations differ is how far one may go in that embrace, and how strongly — if at all — to push for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse.

At Orthodox synagogues, non-Jews cannot ascend to the bimah, and many synagogues go so far as to deny certain ritual roles to Jews married to non-Jews.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism leaves it to the discretion of its member synagogues to set the rules on how to treat non-Jews. Rabbi Steven Wernick, the association’s executive vice president, says conversion of the non-Jewish spouse should be a goal. The only question is tactical — how and when to bring it up.

“Do you have the conversation about conversion first, or do you welcome them in and then have the conversation about conversion?” Wernick said. “You build the relationship first and then you have the conversation.”

In the Reform movement, there is some question about the significance of formal conversion.

“There are plenty of people who want to sojourn in the synagogue and not convert and still know they’re part of the Jewish family,” said the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who has advocated a vision for the movement as a big tent with the flaps wide open.

“He’s living in the Jewish community. He’s trying on Jewish commitments,” Jacobs said. “Conversion can’t be the only thing we talk about, but it also should not be off the table. We’d be delighted to have people join the Jewish people.”

Perhaps more than anything, the shift in attitudes has changed the conventional view of intermarriage as a net loss to the Jewish community, in the form of the out-marrying Jew, to a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.

“Once you’ve intermarried, it doesn’t mean you’ve left the Jewish faith,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, acting dean at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

“As times go on, we have to constantly evaluate what is the best response,” he said. “Given that it happens, what’s the best way for the community to approach it? The last thing we’d want that person to do is to throw everything away just because they’re intermarried.”

Poem: Grandchild

Elohai, neshama….

I take her to the park, I swing her in the little swing
Help her on the slide, lotion her face and arms against the sun
She runs around in her little bluejeans

The sun is getting higher, as it does every morning
The game now is for me to chase her
The air is dusty and warm

My God the soul you gave me is pure
When another child comes into the playground
She points excitedly and shouts: baby!


From “The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979-2011” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012). Reprinted by permission of the author.  Alicia Ostriker has published 14 volumes of poetry. She received the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry in 2010 and has appeared in numerous Jewish literary journals and anthologies.

Cleveland kidnappings: We must be our brother’s keeper

It is not our place to judge the neighbors of Ariel Castro. We don’t know enough about the particular circumstances of those who lived near this man who allegedly held three women hostage for a decade to be able to judge whether things could have been different had they been paying closer attention. But a story like the one that developed in Cleveland over the past 10 years compels every one of us to ask the following questions: “Could such a thing have happened on my block? Do I have a Jewish ethical obligation to familiarize myself with my neighbors and their lives so that I can know if something is awry? Or is this degree of precautionary vigilance beyond the reasonable limits of ethical responsibility? And what of the revered Jewish principles of granting people the benefit of the doubt, and of not being reflexively suspicious of others?”

As I thought about these questions, I realized that it would be disingenuous and inaccurate to assert that Jewish law demands that we proactively sniff out trouble. The numerous mitzvot that require us to remediate or at least diminish the travail of suffering of others are all reactive in nature. We must visit the sick of whom we are aware, but have no specific obligation to seek the sick out. The same holds true for the mitzvah to ransom captives, to feed the indigent, to comfort the bereaved. We mustn’t stand idly by the blood of another. But this mitzvah, too, presumes that we have already become aware of the difficult circumstances that another is facing. 

At the same time, though, in numerous different ways, the Jewish ethical tradition recognizes the stark reality that when we are purely responsive and not proactive, we will invariably drop many vulnerable individuals right between the proverbial cracks. Yes, it is necessary to be responsive to people in trouble, but necessary is not always the same as sufficient. 

Three young women were kidnapped and held hostage in Cleveland for a decade. From left: Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.

The most dramatic expression of this recognition comes in the form of a story told in Avot of Rabbi Nathan, a compilation of wisdom and teachings from the period of the Talmud. The story is that of the young Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who is born into a wealthy, land-owning family but whose heart is captured by the voice of study that is emanating from the beit midrash of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, the great master of that generation. Eliezer’s father, who foresees Eliezer’s future in conducting the affairs of the estate, is displeased by his son’s interest in study. The text relates what happens next:

One day, Eliezer announced, “I am going to learn Torah from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.” Said his father to him, “You will eat not a morsel today until you plow an entire furrow.” Eliezer arose early, plowed the furrow, and set off. It is said that this occurred on a Friday and that he ate that night at the home of his father-in-law, but others say that he did not eat at all. Instead, he placed rocks in his mouth, and some say the excrement of cows. He took up residence in an inn, and came to study before Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. At some point Rabbi Yochanan noticed that a bad odor was emerging from Eliezer’s mouth. “My son, have you eaten at all?” the sage asked. Eliezer was silent. Rabbi Yochanan summoned the innkeeper and asked him, “Did you feed Eliezer?” “I thought that perhaps he had eaten with you,” the innkeeper replied. “And I thought he had eaten with you!” replied the sage. “Between me and you, we lost Eliezer in the middle!”

By the time anyone realized Eliezer was in trouble, it was late, almost too late. What was missing and what was needed was the initiative to inquire, to ask questions, to uncover the circumstances by which this young man had appeared in the beit midrash, and to be in position to help before the trouble began. Simply responding to need is necessary, but not always sufficient. 

The value of being vigilant and proactive is also expressed by one of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s students who, when asked by his master, “What is the most important quality a person can have?” responded by saying, “That of being a good neighbor” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). He did not say “a good friend,” rather specifically a “good neighbor,” because it is the neighbor who is the set of eyes and ears able to detect even small changes in the daily routines of those immediately around him, and who can inquire and intervene at the first hint that something is amiss. And this very same value is almost certainly imbedded in the mitzvah to “love the other as yourself.” As is clear from its context, this mitzvah is intended to transcend the long list of response-type mitzvot that precedes it. It is the mitzvah to see and to feel broadly and expansively, including taking the time to wonder what that scream was that came from the house down the block. 

And, yes, at the same time, we are to give others the benefit of the doubt and to avoid being reflexively suspicious. But halachah strenuously sweeps these — and all Torah laws — aside whenever there is even the possibility that human life is at stake. 

I am the first to admit that I am not the neighbor I should be. And I can offer all the same excuses that so many of us can make. But in light of what has been revealed in Cleveland, it’s clear that our religious tradition would identify this particular moment as one when we are required to ask, “Could this have happened on my block”?

Suspected kidnapper Ariel Castro


Rav Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

A mitzvah called shmooze

In a crummy economy, people are always looking for good investments — a promising stock, a real estate opportunity, a star mutual fund. It’s really not that different in the “mitzvah economy”— donors and do-gooders are also looking to squeeze the maximum amount of goodness out of every charity investment.

On that note, I’d like to share with you a mitzvah that has a ridiculously low investment and an incredibly high return.

It’s a mitzvah called shmooze.

I think of this mitzvah every time I’m stuck in freeway traffic and I call my mother in Montreal. Nine times out of 10, especially during the long winter months, the first words out of her mouth will be (in French): “Ah, mon fils, je pensait justement à toi!” (Oh, my son, I was just thinking of you!). 

You see, my mother has this quirk when it comes to phones: When she hears a ring, she always picks up. She’s not big on screening calls. She doesn’t make those quick calculations of whether such and such person is worth talking to. I’ve never asked her this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she shmoozes with telemarketers who pitch her great deals on ink toners.

Ever since my father passed away 10 years ago, the ring of the phone in my mother’s home has come to symbolize the promise of human contact. Whereas for me it might mean an unwanted interruption, for my mother it is a welcomed trumpet that announces the interruption of loneliness. 

I try to interrupt that loneliness as often as I can. It helps that our conversations are light and breezy and require little concentration on my part. It’s as if we have this unwritten agreement that if she’ll go easy on me with the questions, I’ll stay on as long as she likes (or until I get to my “meeting”).

Sometimes I’ll be in a silly mood and make her crack up. I might tell her something funny one of my kids said. Occasionally, we might talk about a serious family matter, and she’ll weigh in with her suggestions (read: orders).

But typically, we’ll just shmooze about family stuff: How are the kids doing? (Baruch Hashem.) Is Noah getting taller? (I think so.) Who’s cooking for Shabbat? (I don’t know yet — probably Mia.) Did you tell the housekeeper you won’t need her next Wednesday? (I will, I promise.) Do you speak to your sister? (All the time.) And how about your brother? (Yes, on e-mail.)

From my end, I will lob back questions about her health (“How’s your knee?”) or I’ll ask about Shabbat plans (“Will you be with Judy, Sandra or Samy?”). Our favorite subject, of course, is travel, and it consists mostly of two questions: “When are you coming to Montreal?” and “When can you come to Los Angeles?” 

After about 15 minutes or so, we’re usually ready to wrap up. We throw in a few words of caution (Me: “Please watch the steps!” Her: “Please be careful!”), some tender sentiments (“Kiss everyone” and “I love you”), and, voilà, it’s, “Goodbye Meme, I’ll speak to you very soon.”

But as I run off to another meeting, Meme hangs up and goes back to an empty house.

The difference, though, is that now, in that empty house, the words of our conversation will echo pleasantly in her consciousness. She’ll be thinking about all the good stuff we talked about. That’s because words that interrupt loneliness have a time-release quality. They keep ringing gently in one’s ears long after the phone has stopped ringing.

I invest 15 minutes in sweet shmoozing, and, in return, I get hours of motherly joy. Wouldn’t you call that a good investment? 

The truth is, you don’t have to be related to someone to offer good conversation — in fact, it could be an advantage not to be related. So, I wonder: How many elderly Jews are there in our sprawling community who spend their days alone and could use a good shmooze?

Why not twin those elderly Jews with younger Jews who could put a spark in their day with some lively conversation? 

It’s a mitzvah that works both ways: The elderly have great wisdom and stories to share, which could enrich anyone’s day.

Los Angeles seems like the perfect city to try this idea out — there are plenty of elderly at home alone, and there’s certainly no shortage of cell phone-addicted shmoozers stuck in traffic.

The beauty is that it’s simple. No event planning, no shlepping — just a phone call. Multiply that by a few thousand calls and that’s a lot of loneliness interruption.

Every community can start their own schmooze project. You need a good organizer, of course, to recruit people and coordinate all the vetting. But the basic idea is not complicated: volunteer “shmoozers” get a short list of willing elderly “friends” to call on a regular basis.

In the meantime, don’t wait for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to call your parents or grandparents, or anyone else you know who can use a good shmooze. Especially for people fighting loneliness, one little call can brighten up a whole day.

Like my mother would say, now that's a bargain.


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

Yom HaShoah: An eternal nation, bound together by our faith

A few months after my bar mitzvah, my father disappeared.

We didn’t know what had happened to him.

In our apartment in Budapest, there was a couch under the window and I would stand on it day after day looking into the street, watching, waiting for my father to appear.

In a way, I waited for almost 50 years.

In all that time, I never forgot him.

Even in my dreams.

As I slept, I would feel him bending over me.

And I would wake relieved that he was there … and then confused that he wasn’t.

I had this dream on and off for almost 50 years.

It was only when my family found out what happened to him that the dreams stopped.

Once I knew what happened, I wanted to do something.

I wanted to honor his memory. 

But mostly, I wanted to stand in the place where he perished to see if I could feel him.

So here I am, with all of you in Birkenau.

I know he was also here, under this same sky.

Just like almost half a million Hungarian Jews, he came to this place in a wagon, and almost immediately after arriving, disappeared as smoke into this sky

I was 13 when I lost my father and now I am 82 and, you know, I still miss him.

To the young people here today, I want to say that your mother and father always matter — even when you get to my age.

And honoring your parents matters very much while they are alive — and when they are no longer with us.

I still feel the loss of my father, but there is something I have gained.

You see, there were things about him that i did not know. 

I knew he was a good man, a good father, a religious Jew who believed in God.

He worked as a travelling salesman and he was modest.

I never realized that he had strength — the spiritual strength — to take on the brutal guards here in Birkenau.

No matter how hard they hit him, he protected the sanctity of his tallit and tefillin.

They could break his body but they could not break his spirit.

The tallit and tefillin were part of him, part of his personal relationship with god and he was ready to die for them.

And he did.

He did so in front of others who knew what was in his little bag and who tried to stop him from protecting it.

In front of all his people, he fought for his faith with a spiritual courage I never knew he had.

You see, my father was an ordinary man.

But in extra-ordinary times, people do extra-ordinary things, if they have it in them in the first place — well,  he certainly did.

Hugo’s legacy lives on in four generations. Besides me,  three grandsons and a great-granddaughter represent them here today.

Also here today are two people who are important to my father’s story.

Allan Lowy, who you just saw on the film, is the son of Meyer Lowy who witnessed what happened to my father and told us about it.

Meyer Lowy was not a relative but grew close to my father on this journey and lived to tell the story.

And Dr. Roland Huser, from Germany, is also here with us.

We found the wagon at his museum and he gave it to us to restore and place it here in Birkenau.

Three years ago when the wagon was brought here, I had the privilege to place my own tallis and tefillin in the wagon, to replace those torn from my father’s hands.

For me, this helps to heal the brokenness of the past.

Some two centuries ago, Rabbi Nachman of Breslev taught, “If you believe the world can be broken, then know that it can also be fixed.”

Fixing means understanding what happened, healing the pain, and building a better future.

The Nazi’s wanted not only to destroy the physical presence of the Jewish people, but to wipe us out spiritually as well, and leave no trace.

But look at us here today.

Perhaps all those Hungarian Jews, including my father, who disappeared into this sky are looking down on us today.

They see how young, how strong, and how full of promise you are.

They see how the plan to break and crush us, has made us stronger.

Throughout history, others have tried to destroy us as a nation but none have succeeded.

We are an eternal nation, bound together by our faith.

Am yisroel chai!


Frank Lowy, co-founder of the Westfield group, delivered this speech at the March of the Living ceremony held April 8, 2013 in Auschwitz, Poland.  The ceremony honored his father, Hugo Lowy, who was murdered in the concentration camp.  The speech followed a six minute film entitled, “Spiritual Resistance” which tells the story of Hugo Lowy. The video begins at 1:11.

Newtown temple opens fund for family of Noah Pozner

Noah Pozner, the youngest victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, was remembered at his funeral as a child who liked to explore how things worked mechanically.

Monday afternoon's funeral for Noah, a Jewish boy who turned 6 in late November, was the first among the 26 victims of Friday's massacre at the school in Newtown, Conn. The Associated Press reported on memories of Noah's inquisitiveness about things mechanical.

Teddy bears and a bouquet of white flowers accented by a single red rose were placed at the base of a maple tree outside the Abraham L. Green and Son Funeral Home in Fairfield, Conn., Fox News reported.

In advance of the funeral, the family's synagogue began collecting money for the Pozners.

[Related: Funerals begin for Newtown victims as schools confront tragedy]

Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown, Conn., posted a notice on its website announcing that it was accepting money to help support the Pozners “during this terrible time.” It also recommended two charities for the other victims: United Way of Western Connecticut and Everribbon.com.

Among the messages of condolence pouring in for the victims of the school shooting were letters from Israeli leaders.

“On behalf of the people of Israel, as friends and as parents, we stand with you today in contemplation and grief over the atrocious, incomprehensible massacre of 20 children and six adults — educators — at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” Israeli President Shimon Peres wrote to President Obama. “No experience with death can be likened to that of a parents’ loss of their child. No crime is more heinous than the killing of a child.”

Twenty children and six school employees were killed when Adam Lanza, 20, forced his way into the school building and opened fire. Lanza killed himself at the school.

Prior to the school shootings, Lanza, who had attended the Sandy Hook school, killed his mother, Nancy, in the Newtown home they shared.

Chanukah models of courage

My 4-year-old son is obsessed with superheroes, dressing up at every opportunity as the superhero du jour to do battle with the bad guys lurking around the corner. (My 2-year-old daughter is just as enthusiastic, but at her age all she can really muster is a “meanie” face.)

From a developmental perspective, I know this fantasy play is his way of exercising control over a world he is learning is increasingly out of his control. But I also see other qualities — his desire to be strong, to stand up for the good guys — in short, to be courageous.

Becoming courageous doesn’t happen overnight. It develops when children have opportunities to stand up for what’s right and to take responsible risks. Through experiences my husband and I provide, and the stories we tell them, we can lay some groundwork.

As I think about a central message of the Chanukah story and the way I want to portray it to my kids, models of courage abound. From Judah Maccabee to Judith and Hannah and her seven sons, heroes and heroines fought for the right to be different, to be Jews who refused to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture.

When Antiochus Epiphanes came to power, and observance of the most basic mitzvot (circumcision, Shabbat celebration and kashrut) were turned into capital offenses, their acts of courage formed the basis of a central narrative of the Chanukah story that has been passed down through the generations.

Consider Judah Maccabee, whose army used guerrilla tactics and religious zeal to defeat the stronger Assyrian-Greek army. He forced the Assyrian Greeks to rescind the policies that forbade Jewish practice, and in 164 B.C.E. liberated the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it as a place of Jewish worship.

Consider Judith, who did her part to prevent the siege of Jerusalem in her hometown of Bethulia by seducing Holfenes, the Assyrian-Greek army general, and then decapitating him. Her bravery is so highly esteemed by the rabbis that it is because of her act of courage that Jewish women are obligated to light Chanukah candles.

And consider Hannah and her seven sons, who refused to bow down to Zeus and Antiochus and eat nonkosher meat. The Book of Maccabees relates that each of her sons and then her mother were tortured to death.

These acts of courage seem extreme and even unpalatable to our modern era — what woman would sacrifice her son, not to mention all seven? And aren’t we a peace-loving people who should not extol brute force?

But they also lead us to a deeper question about the nature of courage. Are there values and beliefs for which we are willing to make great sacrifices, and if any of these values or beliefs were to be violated, would we be stirred to action?

While these figures present us with one narrative of the Chanukah story — of heroism in battle and martyrdom — a second narrative is favored by the ancient rabbis. The story begins with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the faith that the Jews had that the small cruse of oil, which should have lasted for one day only, could last for eight (in time for others to travel and get more oil).

The second narrative downplays the military victory won by human hands and elevates the story to one in which our faith in God and God’s miracles are kindled. It reminds us that courage is born when we continue to have faith and hope even in our darkest time. Having faith in itself is an important kind of courage.

While the call to be courageous is central to the Chanukah story — spiritually or physically — it is also daunting. But the rabbis offered another way for us to understand how to live a courageous life and be our own heroes.

“Who is a hero?” the rabbis ask. “One who overcomes his urges?” (Mishna, Pirke Avot 4:1).

Overcoming our most natural desires and exercising personal restraint is another kind of heroism. This is a kind of everyday courage.

When we are present in a difficult conversation with someone we care about even though our impulse is to leave, we are a hero. When we resist the urge to say something that we know will offend another person, even if we think it is warranted, we are courageous. When we have vowed not to feed a habit that is destructive to us, and when tempted and resist (a smoke, an extra piece of chocolate cake), we are being our own heroes.

This Chanukah, celebrate all of the dimensions of courage by dedicating each night to one of them:

Candle 1 to the classic Chanukah heroes of Judah Maccabee, Judith and Hannah.

Candle 2 to the courageous acts of our children who welcome a new kid to the school, speak out against bullying or have faith that the next day at school might be a little better than today.

Candle 3 to someone in your community who took up a cause you believe in and fought for it.

Candle 4 to someone in your family — perhaps a parent or grandparent — and a courageous act they performed during their lives.

Candle 5 to American and Israeli soldiers who are fighting to protect values and ideals that are sacred to us.

Candle 6 to the courage that you have exercised by restraint — with a co-worker, spouse, child, friend or parent.

Candle 7 to a person in your life who exemplifies courage the most.

Candle 8 to that quality of courage in ourselves that enables us to bring light into dark places and for the energy to continue to stoke the embers of our own sense of courage.

Life in Southern Israel on hold during Gaza situation

Two weeks ago, Noami Cohen and Uzi Madar had a traditional engagement party for Jews from Arab countries called a “hina.” They dressed in colorful costumes, danced and partied with 120 of their friends. They were looking forward to their wedding and were expecting 500 guests.

But one day before the wedding scheduled to be held at the Agamim hall in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, Israel killed Hamas military commander Ahmed Al-Jabari. Soon afterwards, rockets began landing throughout the south of Israel. The phone started ringing – was the wedding on or not?

“The Israeli Home Front Command (in charge during conflict) said we could go ahead with the wedding but we could only have up to 100 people,” Naomi, 23, told The Media Line. “I’m getting married once in my life, and I don’t want to make it smaller or be afraid during it.”

So Naomi and Uzi postponed the wedding. They went on Facebook and made dozens of phone calls. Relatives from Tunisia and France who had come for the wedding turned around and went home. The hall, the flowers, the DJ, and the honeymoon in the southern resort town of Eilat were all cancelled.

“I just couldn’t stop crying,” Naomi said. “I just feel so bad. Now, I have to start planning all over again. I waited for this so long, and then, boom, it’s just gone.”

Her fiancé Uzi, 27, who works for the army, said he watched the clock on Thursday night.

“Right now I was supposed to be breaking the glass, (a traditional Jewish custom to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD),” he remembers thinking. “It’s very depressing. We planned this for a whole year and then we couldn’t do it.”

Hundreds of weddings and other celebrations have been cancelled all over the south Israel – the region of the country most frequently targeted by Hamas rockets. Throughout the rest of the country, even when events have been held as scheduled, guests who live in the southern area have cancelled, afraid to be out driving when a missile hits.

“Everything has been cancelled since Thursday,” Shalom Gibli, the owner of the Agamim wedding hall, told The Media Line. “Usually we make people happy, and it’s always happy here, but now it isn’t. I told most of my workers to stay home.”

Agamim has two halls – one that can seat 1000 guests, and the other 500. Both are normally full every night, he says, and sometimes during the day as well for circumcision parties or other events. Gibli estimates he has already lost almost $200,000 in income. He says that even though legally he can charge Naomi and Uzi one-third of what they should have paid, his conscience won’t let him take any money.

But even without the wedding hall, Naomi and Uzi are already out thousands of dollars.

“We have to make new invitations, and we had already cooked a lot for the special Sabbath meals after the wedding,” Naomi said. “We will have to pay a cancellation charge on the honeymoon. We can’t get the DJ we booked so we’ll have to take someone more expensive. I cried for six hours on Thursday.”

Naomi lives in Moshav Zimrat, a small farming community just a few miles from the Gaza Strip. She says she hears the booms of rockets sent from Gaza exploding daily as well as Israel’s return air strikes.

“I don’t remember being as scared in my whole life as I was this past week,” she said. “I had to leave the house after being inside for almost a week – I was going crazy.”

She said her two-year-old niece is terrified every time the warning siren goes off. She freezes and is unable to move. Naomi says she lives in an old house and there is no reinforced room as is required in newer homes. She and her family go to an inside room when they hear the sirens.

Naomi says she’s tired of living with uncertainty, and Israel must strike hard against Hamas in Gaza.

“We’ve been living like this for too long,” she told The Media Line. “We have to deter them once and for all. We should cut off electricity and food. This is our country.”

She and Uzi have not yet set a new wedding date. She says she couldn’t bear to cancel a second time and will wait until the fighting ends before she gets married.

My Single Peeps: Rick S.

At 48, Rick is a happy guy. He likes life. He likes smiling. He’s also a bit irritating to be around when you’re exhausted and barely have enough strength to open your eyes after a blink because you’ve been up all night with a cranky 5-month-old and a 2-year-old who’s having night terrors that she can’t explain but that have something to do with tap shoes, swimming and some Spanish words she picked up from the nanny. But I can’t blame Rick. He drove all the way from Simi Valley to meet me, and he seems like good peeps.

Rick’s a family physician who spent years as a traveling doctor. “It was really fun meeting a lot of different people, and you know it was kind of neat to just jump into a new lifestyle — different town, different people. I kind of thrived at it, because I love learning about new people and getting new life experiences. I’m really interested in learning about other people’s experiences and trying to build on learning more about life.

“The downside of that was I was living away from my home base and [wasn’t] able to establish any long-term relationships. I traveled a lot with this Jewish singles group called Amazing Journeys — they do cruises and trips all over the world. I’ve met and made a lot of friends from all over the U.S. But it’s time to meet that right girl that I can enjoy traveling [with] to new places.”

Rick’s an extrovert but says he’s not used to talking about himself. “I’m used to getting to know the person that I meet,” he says. Rick lived in Spain after college and became fluent in Spanish, which comes in handy at work. “I became a family doctor rather than a specialist because I like talking to people. I’m very busy because I give my patients time. [I’m] conscientious, compassionate and I’ve enjoyed taking care of different generations of families over the years. I love what I do. I take it seriously, but I also know how to enjoy life when I’m off. I go to conferences and take classes to stay current because I pride myself on taking the best care of my patients.”

He wants a woman in her 30s to early 40s — “Family oriented because I’m close with my family. Looking to have kids in the future. I would like to meet someone who likes to take care of herself and is interested in starting a mature, possibly long-lasting relationship. When I go on those single sites, I don’t click on any girl who’s not smiling. It’s just one of my pet peeves. I’m done traveling with work; I’m staying local and actually just bought my first house. But I’d always love a female perspective on interior decorating. I love dancing. I’ve taken swing and salsa classes, and on my singles trips I’m usually the one out on the floor dancing. I love dogs. I don’t own one yet, but I am considering that. I almost became a veterinarian but I decided on becoming a people doctor because they could tell me where it hurts.”

Rick tells me a story about a date that didn’t work. But they became friends, “which I’m always a fan of.”  He likes to be liked. He tells me he doesn’t discuss politics “in mixed crowds.” I’m not sure what that means but I assume he means among acquaintances. While talking, he uses the term “BS” instead of the more colorful curse word. I ask him if he’s always careful about his language. He says, “I have a pretty easygoing temper. I lose it every once in awhile … not in mixed crowds. That’s not who I really am.” 


Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife two children. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.

 

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sept. 29 – Oct. 5, 2012

[SAT SEPT 29]

MUSEUM DAY LIVE!

Smithsonian magazine hosts a free day at participating museums, including the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, The Grammy Museum, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Autry National Center. Zimmer Children’s Museum, which is closed on Saturdays, will be open for Museum Day on Sunday, Sept. 30. Sat. Free (registration required, ticket information on Web site). Various times, locations. smithsonianmag.com/museumday.


[SUN SEPT 30]

 SUKKOT PICNIC

Join the Israeli Leadership Council, MATI and Mitchabrim — organizations dedicated to strengthening the Israeli-American community — at this folksy Sukkot festival. Arts and crafts, Israeli folk dancing, sukkah decorating, kids’ activities and more make it a can’t-miss event for the entire family. Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Free. Warner Center Park, 5800 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 466-6454. jewishla.org.

11TH ANNUAL WEST HOLLYWOOD BOOK FAIR

West Hollywood’s celebration of the written word features more than 220 authors and artists. Speakers include “Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch (“Girl Walks Into a Bar”) and comedy writer David Misch (“Funny: The Book”); Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky (“Inventing L.A.”); political commentators Robert Scheer (“The Great American Stickup”) and Nancy L. Cohen (“Delirium”); novelists David Brin (“Existence”), Seth Greenland (“The Angry Buddhist”), Tod Goldberg (“Living Dead Girl”), Gregg Hurwitz (“The Survivor”), Stephen Jay Schwartz (“Beat”) and Jerry Stahl (“Pain Killers”); and children’s writers Amy Goldman Koss (“Side Effects”) and Eugene Yelchin (“Breaking Stalin’s Nose”). Attend writer’s workshops, poetry readings and performances, and peruse more than 75 exhibitor booths featuring publishers, booksellers and writing groups. Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free (includes admission, shuttle and parking). West Hollywood Library and West Hollywood Park, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood. westhollywoodbookfair.org.


[MON OCT 1]

“VOICES UNITED”

Comedian Sarah Silverman joins actor Russell Brand and singer-songwriters Catie Curtis and Mary Gauthier in headlining this Americans United concert in support of church-state separation. Mon. 7:30 p.m. $25 (standing room), $50 (rear orchestra), $100 (front orchestra). El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. au.org/voices-united-la-tickets.


[TUE OCT 2]

MAC MILLER

YouTube clips of the Pittsburgh native effortlessly freestyling are viral classics, and his records — including debut album “Blue Slide Park” — showcase Miller’s knack for lacing his rhymes with humor. The 20-year-old rapper makes a stop in Los Angeles as part of his Macadelic Tour. Hip-hop act Travis Porter and rapper YG also perform. Tue. 8 p.m. $30-$35. Nokia Theatre, L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, Los Angeles. (213) 763-6030. nokiatheatrelalive.com.


[THU OCT 4]

“IS ALTRUISM A WONDER DRUG?”

David Levinson, Big Sunday executive director and author of “Everybody Helps, Everybody Wins,” joins bioethicist Stephen Post (“The Hidden Gifts of Helping”) and Stanford University School of Medicine neurosurgery professor James Doty in a discussion about the latest in medical science and altruism. They draw on recent studies that found that frequent volunteering among older adults led to reduced risk of an early death, and that nonvolunteers were more likely than volunteers to experience a major illness. Moderated by Lisa Aliferis, editor of KQED health policy and public health blog “State of Health.” Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. zocalopublicsquare.org.

“RECOVERED VOICES”

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon’s concert series restores two generations of composers that were wiped off the map by the Third Reich. Tonight’s chamber music concert features performances of lost works by Austrian composers Alexander von Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schreker; and Czech composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff. Pacific Trio and friends accompany Conlon. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $37-$65. Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200. thebroadstage.com.

 

“UNAUTHORIZED: THE HARVEY WEINSTEIN PROJECT”

Documentarian Barry Avrich’s latest film offers an unflinching portrait of Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Weinstein Co. and Miramax Films. Avrich turns to Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, John Irving and others to examine the influence that Weinstein holds in Hollywood. A post-screening Q-and-A with Avrich follows. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $10 (general), $7 (LACMA members, seniors, students). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000. lacma.org.

‘The Ariela Foundation’: A family in grief chooses life

In July, Ivonne Goldberg was at the park with her 3-year-old son, Mikey, and with Nofar Mekonen, a sunny 14-year-old girl visiting from Israel. Nofar was chatting on and on about her trip to Los Angeles, her family, her school.  

“Where did you get your English?” Ivonne asked her, amazed at Nofar’s fluency. 

“It’s thanks to Ariela that I have this English,” Nofar answered.

Ivonne’s heart swelled hearing Nofar’s answer.

Nofar was referring to the Ariela Foundation, an organization that helps highly motivated and gifted young Israelis of Ethiopian origin, like Nofar, get the extra support and guidance they need to thrive. The Ariela Foundation provides Nofar with English and math tutoring, as well as science enrichment and a mentor. 

The foundation is named for Ivonne and Daniel Goldberg’s daughter, who died in a drowning accident five years ago, when she was 19 months old.

When Nofar, or the 60 other young people being aided by the foundation, talk about how Ariela has helped them, they usually use just the girl’s name, not “The Ariela Foundation.” And each time the Goldbergs hear what Ariela has accomplished, Ivonne and Daniel feel empowered and proud, knowing that their daughter, who brought so much joy to their lives, is still affecting others in a positive way. 

Daniel’s brother, Eric, runs the Ariela Foundation from Israel, and Daniel and Ivonne spend considerable hours working for Ariela US, an independent nonprofit that raises funds to support Ariela’s programs. 

“When you go through such a difficult experience, you of course reassess your priorities,” Daniel said. “The desire to do something good to express your loss in a positive way becomes very strong. We heard about using all those feelings as a motor for change, to express your loss by helping others,” Daniel said.

[For more on the Ariela Foundation, read 'Ivonne and Daniel Goldberg said they were open to all paths of healing after the June 2007 accident.

For those who might think, “I could never go on after something like that,” the Goldbergs offer an example of how to go on.

With depth and spirit, Daniel and Ivonne, and their children, Ilan, Talia and Michael — ages 15, 12 and 3 — have worked to heal themselves, and in the process they have become an inspiration to the friends, family and communities that surround them (among whom I count myself).

They have not denied their pain or hidden from it. But, at the same time, they have chosen to live. And through that choice they have affirmed their belief in their marriage and their family, they have turned to God and to people, and they have learned how to be joyous. 

They have asserted that life is stronger than death, that giving is stronger than what was taken from them.

On Yom Kippur, when tradition demands that we examine how we live, the Goldberg family is a model for how circumstances — even nightmarish circumstances — don’t have to upend guiding convictions that are backed by unwavering values. 

“We heard that a very difficult or tragic experience can have a strong effect, and it can be either positive or negative. Families can either split apart or grow together,” Daniel said, holding the hand of his wife as they sat on their living-room couch on a recent morning. “So we made an immediate decision that we were going to go through this together and become stronger as a family — in memory of our daughter and for all of us. And making that decision was very important, because it directs your actions toward that goal.”

They said they were willing to try anything anyone suggested that might make them whole again — therapy, support groups, prayer, yoga, spiritual counseling, charity, community support. 

 “One of the things we heard, but it takes a long time to understand, is that you can be both happy and sad at the same time, and being very sad doesn’t prevent you from expressing happiness,” said Daniel, 50, a documentary filmmaker currently working on a film about Crypto-Jews in Mexico and the Southwest United States —  people who retained traditions although their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism centuries ago.

The Goldbergs are originally from Mexico City. They moved to Toronto in 2003 and to Los Angeles in 2005 — just a few months before Ariela was born.  Ivonne, 44, is a clinical psychologist who worked in schools and private practice before she stopped working to care for her family.

“It makes me feel very happy to talk about Ariela,” Ivonne said.

She holds a small stack of Ariela’s baby books and albums on her lap.

She flips open a calendar titled “Our New Baby Daughter,” in which she meticulously documented small milestones in Ariela’s life on pink-polka-dot framed pages, starting with Ariela’s birth in November 2005.

Ariela had her mother’s big brown eyes and springy curls, and a spark that brought immense joy to the whole family. 

“She loved music,” Daniel said. “From the moment she was able to stand up, she started to dance whenever there was any type of music.”

Ariela and Talia, who was 6 when Ariela was born, shared a room, and Ivonne would often open the door in the morning to find them snuggling together in the crib. Ivonne had always wanted Talia to have a sister.

Ivonne thumbs through the books and albums as she talks, wearing the wistful smile of a mother who knows she’ll never get back those early days. Sometimes the tears flow, especially when she talks about the two sisters together.

“I got some very good advice in the beginning. Someone told me if the pain comes, let it be, and it will pass. Don’t resist it,” Ivonne said. “That was very wise.”

On a Thursday in June 2007, Ariela fell into the pool in the family’s Beverlywood backyard. She lived for four days in the hospital connected to life support. 

Through that blur of days, the Goldberg’s school and synagogue communities converged in the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center waiting room, holding prayer vigils, bringing food and keeping the family company. Friends and family flew in from Canada, Mexico and Israel. Ivonne talked to Ariela constantly, and Ilan and Talia hung drawings in her room and sang to her.

But although one doctor said he had seen miracles in these kinds of cases, most doctors offered little hope. The whole family came to say goodbye when it was clear she would not survive.

Daniel remembers vividly what Ilan, then 10, said to his sister.

“Ariela, you are going to go up to heaven, and you are going to be very close to God,” Daniel recalled, speaking through tears. “And in heaven, you are going to meet the souls of great people. You’re going to meet the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and you are going to meet the soul of Moshe. Please thank them for giving us the Torah.”

Talia, 8, showered her sister in kisses.

“We’re going to give you many, many kisses,” she told her sister, “so you can take them with you, and keep them very close to your heart, and every time you miss us, you can take one of these kisses and put it on your heart,” Daniel remembered.

“It is hard to describe in words,” Daniel said. “We were devastated. We felt this emptiness, this void that nothing could ever fill. But at the same time, we knew we had to be strong for our two older kids. Friends told us, ‘You have to be strong. You have to continue living and get up for your children. They will help you. Taking care of them will help you.’ ”

The house teemed with visitors during the shivah, the seven-day mourning period. Many had advice that Ivonne and Daniel couldn’t absorb at the time but came back to later.

“One piece of advice we heard was that only God brings consolation. And we understood that God brings consolation through people,” Daniel recalls. The Goldberg kids attend Pressman Academy, and they are members of Temple Beth Am and B’nai David-Judea. Both communities stepped in with tremendous support and deep friendship, Ivonne said.

Particularly helpful were visitors — strangers, mostly — who had themselves lost children. 

One visitor had lost his daughter about 10 years before. He said he thought of his pain as a sheet of paper. “Sometimes he folds it up neatly and puts it in his pocket. It’s still there, but it’s all folded up. And sometimes he opens it up if he has to,” Daniel said. “He said there is always something that brings up the pain, so you have to accept it, but then you are able to fold it back up and put it in a different compartment.”

Perspective often came from unexpected sources, such as Ilan.

“One person during shivah came to us and said, ‘I’m sorry something so bad happened to you.’ And Ilan was sitting on the armrest next to me, and he immediately reacted. He said, ‘How do you know it’s bad? It’s very sad, but not necessarily bad,’ ” Daniel recalls. “That was an amazing thought.”

Ivonne surrounded herself with strong women. In the hospital she asked women to pray, and during shivah and for months after, she invited family and friends to sit with her.

Sometimes they sang, prayed or studied Torah. But for Ivonne, the main thing was their presence.

 “It was very scary to me to be alone with my loss. I needed people around me, and women especially inspired me. I needed to see them close to me,” she said.

The days right after shivah were the hardest. 

“There was a woman who had lost her son. And I called her a few days after shivah, and I said, ‘I can’t. I can’t.’ And she came right over, and I remember her standing by my bed, and just for me to see her — she had lost a son in a very similar way, at a very similar age, and I could identify with her. And she was standing and she was strong,” Ivonne said.

She remembers wondering whether she could walk Talia into day camp. But she did. Later, they sent Ilan to Camp Ramah, as planned, and they went to Israel as a family.

“Much advice was given to us in shivah, and one was to take care of your marriage,” Ivonne said. “And I decided that was my No. 1 priority.”

In counseling, they learned how to respect  one another’s different ways of grieving. They learned to express themselves and to listen. 

“I remember thinking, I lost Ariela, I cannot lose anyone else in my life,” Ivonne said. 

They attended a retreat for bereaved parents through Chai Lifeline, an organization that supports families with seriously ill children. They are still friends with some of the parents they met there.

“We had all of this inside of us and we had to let it out by all means available,” Ivonne said. 

After checking with rabbis, Daniel decided to say the Kaddish mourners’ prayer for a full year, not the customary one month. Ivonne remembers absorbing the power of the congregation the first time she said Yizkor, on Yom Kippur. 

“God gave us a lot of strength and faith, and that was and continues to be one of the ways in which we have been able to cope,” Daniel said. “We believe in the afterlife and in the soul, and that is part of what gives us faith.”

A few months after the accident, the Beverly Hills Moms Club, a group Ivonne and Ariela had belonged to, sponsored a backyard benefit concert in Ariela’s memory. 

For what would have been Ariela’s second birthday, in November 2007, the Goldbergs sponsored a birthday party at a low-income school, bringing in cake, a magic show and presents.

On the first anniversary of her passing, her yahrzeit, the Goldbergs hosted a Saturday afternoon get-together at B’nai David, which they called Shirat Ariela (Ariela’s Song), to thank the Beth Am and B’nai David communities and leaders. 

Because it was Shabbat, there were no instruments, and the Goldbergs had designated some friends to lead soulful singing for the hundreds of guests.

“We had no idea what was going to happen. The singing was so beautiful, and suddenly the kids began to move and to crawl and to dance, and then we were all dancing and it was beautiful. It was a simcha, and we were celebrating life, and that we were together,” Ivonne said. 

The Ariela Foundation was established about a year after Ariela died. Many people donated money after the accident and asked the Goldbergs to designate a charity.

They opened a donor-advised fund at the Jewish Community Foundation with the $10,000 that had come in. They made some initial distributions, mostly for children in hospitals, but still wanted a long-term project. At the same time, Daniel’s brother, Eric, who has lived in Israel for more than 20 years and works in international marketing and business development, had been thinking about doing something to give back. He established the foundation in Ariela’s memory and is its volunteer director. About a year later, Daniel and Ivonne established Ariela US.

The visit this summer from Nofar Mekonen and Aviva Dese, 24, an aspiring young singer also being helped by the Ariela Foundation, marked the first time Daniel and Ivonne made such a public appeal for the foundation, and to them it felt right to bring in the community that had so supported them. 

There was also one piece of advice that Ivonne resisted. People told her that true healing would happen if she had another baby.

“I didn’t want more kids. She was a miracle, she was perfect,” Ivonne said. “It was so hard for me to hear the idea that one baby could replace another baby. It made me very angry.”

But, slowly, Daniel warmed to the idea and over time Ivonne began to hear him.

“I remember thinking, I trust you, and I need to trust you because I want to survive, and I want to live again,” Ivonne said.

Michael was born on March 3, 2009.

Ivonne said that her commitment to Talia and Ilan was what initially made her want to live again, and Mikey’s birth brought in new energy.

“Every single minute with Michael has been like a remedy for each one of us. One hundred percent. I think that is what is behind everyone saying, ‘Have another baby’ — it brings the force of life back into your life,” Ivonne said.

The family tells Mikey all about the sister he never knew. He associates bubbles with Ariela, because the family has a stash of bubble bottles from memorial events.

The Goldbergs have also kept Ariela as a living presence in their family through photos and stories.

“She continues to be our daughter even though she is no longer here physically, and we love her as much as we love each one of our children,” Daniel said.

On Ariela’s yahrzeit this year, Ilan chanted a portion of Torah at Camp Ramah in her honor, and his friends stood up with him when he said Kaddish.

Talia keeps a big picture of her sister right on her desk. Ivonne said just looking at Talia brings Ariela back to her.

It’s on Friday nights that Ariela is most present with the family.

Ariela used to love the rituals before the Shabbat meal, in particular the hand washing, and always chimed in with “amen.” So, they look at a picture of her on the wall by the sink and remember her amens. And every Friday night, when Daniel puts his hands on each of his children’s heads and recites the priestly blessing, he blesses Ariela as well.

For Ivonne, just looking at her family makes her feel lucky to be alive, she said, and grateful to have so much joy and so many options ahead.

“Life is the strongest thing. There is nothing stronger than that,” Ivonne said. “The life in my children’s eyes is stronger than the death of my daughter.

“Life is stronger than death.”


For more information about the Ariela Foundation, visit ” target=”_blank”>ArielaUS.org and

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Kenneth Feinberg: The 9/11 mediator who listens

When massive tragedy strikes in the United States, when half a dozen or a score or thousands of people are killed in a single incident, when disaster hits a region, Kenneth Feinberg often gets a call.

The Washington attorney is perhaps best known for his work as the administrator of the fund that paid restitution to the families of 9/11 victims and the one that compensated individuals and businesses harmed by the BP Oil spill in 2010, but his phone rings on all sorts of unhappy occasions, most recently in the wake of the shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in August.

They call Feinberg because he has made a career in mediation, dealing with particularly complicated situations involving death, environmental disaster and financial upheaval. They call him because he’s been called “Solomonic” on more than a few occasions — a label that Feinberg rejects — and because he has demonstrated an ability to exercise and implement good, fair judgments.

But as Jews around the world, Feinberg included, prepare for another season of holidays centered on the theme of judgment, it’s notable that a major element of Feinberg’s process is something deceptively simple: He listens.

“When you have face-to-face meetings, you give victims an opportunity to vent, and they welcome that opportunity to vent,” Feinberg said, speaking to the Journal by phone from his Washington, D.C., office in August. “I find that these one-on-one meetings are very important in convincing claimants in grief about the bona fides of the program that you’re trying to run.”

Feinberg was referring to the more than 900 meetings he had in the aftermath of 9/11 with families of victims, a process he repeated in administering a much smaller fund compensating the victims injured and families of victims killed in the 2007 shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech. In both cases, Feinberg remembered that most of the people who chose to meet with him did not talk about dollars and cents, but came to tell stories, sometimes with photo albums and mementos in hand, “in order to validate — on the record, in writing, face-to-face — the memory, the good works of a lost loved one.”

In compensating individuals in the wake of tragedy, Feinberg has found the meetings to be essential, because they show that somebody is listening.

“There is an individual — not a bureaucratic device, but there is an actual human being listening to what I have to say about my dead wife or husband or brother or sister, son or daughter,” he said.

Individual meetings aren’t always possible, particularly when dealing with large numbers of claimants who have all suffered different kinds of damages, as Feinberg did when he administered the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which paid out more than $6.14 billion from BP to more than 500,000 claimants from all 50 states and 38 foreign countries.

But in many instances, direct listening in face-to-face meetings can have a strategic purpose, as well. In his role as the U.S. Treasury Department’s “pay czar,” tasked with setting the compensation of 175 high-ranking executives at the largest of the financial firms bailed out by the American taxpayers in 2009, Feinberg heard petitions from CEOs, CFOs and their lawyers.

That role was a distinct reversal for Feinberg. “There I was fixing the compensation of alleged, not victims, but perpetrators, who had caused the 2009 financial meltdown,” Feinberg said.

Which is why, as he wrote in his book “Who Gets What: Fair Compensation After Tragedy and Financial Upheaval,” published by Public Affairs earlier this year, one of the ground rules Feinberg set for the meetings with the executives of bailed-out companies was that they had to take place in Washington, D.C.

The Tribute in Light is illuminated marking the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, on Sept. 10. Photo by REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

“As an experienced mediator, I knew the importance of conducting meetings in the most effective venue,” Feinberg wrote. The “lavish and imposing” Treasury Building fit his aim perfectly, making immediately clear to the corporate officials “that they were up against a formidable negotiating partner — the federal government.”

In their own ways, the meetings Feinberg had with the companies’ officials didn’t focus on money — or at least not the immediate exchange value of money.

As the “special master” of an office in the Treasury Department overseeing executive compensation, Feinberg and his staff were dictating to these seven companies the exact amount they could pay their top employees. The goal was to balance the interests of the executives and the firms, who wanted to be able to compete on hiring with other corporations, against those of the taxpayers and congress, who had loaned these companies billions of dollars and wanted that money repaid as quickly as possible and in full but who also wouldn’t tolerate excessively lavish compensation.

In the meetings with executives, Feinberg said that the conversations were never about money or material gain — “I need money to buy another summer home, I need money to send my kinds to private school” — but instead were about compensation as a “litmus test of self-worth or integrity or contribution to society.”

“ ‘Look, Mr. Feinberg,’ ” Feinberg said, recalling the executives’ emotional pleas, “ ‘what you’re paying me demeans my value to society, it demeans my value to the community, to my family. You are getting very personal; you are reducing my compensation, thereby diminishing my overall self worth.’ ”

Feinberg’s ultimate decisions were, in his words, “very cold and calculating.”

“I looked at statistics governing compensation — what is a CFO worth, or a CEO worth — studied the competitive pay scale of others similarly situated, looked at what incentives should be incorporated into a compensation package, and calculated the actual awards,” he said.

In administering the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — which Feinberg said is still the most challenging assignment he’s ever faced — Feinberg’s meetings were very different. They took place all over the country, often in the offices of law firms. And while the meetings were essential to convincing some of the families of victims (particularly those of the wealthier victims) to join the fund and not litigate their claims in court, it’s clear that the emotional tenor made them difficult for Feinberg.

“Unless you have a heart of stone, you can’t remain dispassionate,” he said. “You try and … limit the impact of that emotion, but you cannot help but be affected by the death and tragedy involved.”

And, Feinberg learned, people react differently — unpredictably, even — to tragedy. The group meetings he held for victims’ families in California, Feinberg said, were “very touchy-feely,” particularly in contrast to the meetings he’d held in New York and Virginia.

“Everybody wanted to hold hands and pray collectively and to reinforce each other,” Feinberg recalled.

And if half of the families of 9/11 victims decided that the tragedy had “ended, once and for all, any belief they may have had in God or religion or an afterlife,” the other half, Feinberg said, told him that “the tragedies reinforced their religion and their beliefs.”

“Do not attempt to predict human nature,” Feinberg said.

Feinberg doesn’t keep in touch with the families of victims, nor does he have a particular way of commemorating the anniversary of 9/11. This year, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks, Feinberg was scheduled to speak at a conference organized by an insurance group in Canada.

On Rosh Hashanah, Feinberg said, he would be thinking about the future, not the past.

“I think about the year to come, in hopes that I and my family can enjoy health and happiness,” Feinberg said. “And on Yom Kippur, I sort of muse and reflect on the year gone by and what I could’ve done differently, or better.”

Feinberg described himself as “a believer,” so it seemed fair to ask him whether he feels that there is a listener to his prayers.

“I don’t put it in those terms, is someone listening,” Feinberg replied. “I’m hoping that — by raising the level of thought to a conscious level, so that I’m actually reflecting on the past and the future — I’m listening. And I think that’s what’s important.”

High Holy Days: Father and son

On these High Holy Days, there will be empty seats in our synagogues. This is a letter found on one of those seats …

Dear Dad,

This year, I’m not coming to shul for the holidays. I know this will hurt you, and you’ll be angry, but perhaps you’ll hear me out.

I have always loved the synagogue. I like the rabbis and the cantors, and the sanctuary is familiar to me, but I just can’t go back. Something is missing; the service feels passive and almost perfunctory. I don’t feel like I belong anymore. When I was young, I appreciated seeing my friends from school, but when I left home for college I met new people who seemed to care about praying. There was singing and dancing, Dad. And then I came back to be with you and Mom, and found nothing in the services that moved me. 

I’m of a generation that expects excellence. I search all over town for the most authentic Indian food, the most authentic clothing, and strive for the most authentic experiences. I think the same should apply to my Judaism as well. I want to experience the presence of God as I pray. I don’t feel the presence of God in your synagogue. You and your generation created a glorious cultural, humanistic, ethical Judaism. But you left God out. I want God back in my life. And I believe somehow that God wants me back. 

I feel that I’ve spiritually outgrown the pageantry of services at the shul. The truth is, I care more about substance than loyalty. Please understand, Dad, this isn’t petulant adolescent rebellion. I’m searching for something … a treasure you told me many times is waiting for me in the Jewish tradition. 

You taught me that the 613th mitzvah commands every Jew to write a sefer Torah. Even if our ancestors bequeathed Torah to us, every Jew has to write his or her own. So Dad, I’m taking you seriously. I’m beginning my own Torah, in my own voice. A few of us are gathering in someone’s apartment for our own services. We won’t wear suits and ties. It won’t be polished and professional. But it will be ours. Please understand I’m doing this because I love you and what you taught me. I will always be,

Your son.

An e-mail sent immediately after the holiday:

Dear Son,

One of the joys of my life is to gather our family together on these holidays. As the years go on, I become more aware of how precious these moments are. Time is an unyielding centrifugal force. As you move into your own life, I miss you, and I cherish the moments we can be together. I look around the synagogue and see the empty seats of old friends who are gone now, and I feel the need to gather us all in together. 

There was a time when I, too, checked out of shul. The issue then wasn’t spiritual, it was political. The country was burning up. We were fighting a war that was deeply misguided. We watched the rise of black power, of feminism and environmentalism; we experienced a sexual revolution. We declared ourselves a counterculture and challenged every authority. We sought liberation. To all this, the synagogue had little to say. The cantor grew a mustache and sang Simon & Garfunkel melodies. But there was nothing in Judaism to answer our yearning. So we left.

Years later, I realized that my generation asked all the right questions. But we didn’t have the resources to find the answers. For a very simple reason — we were only talking to ourselves. Like you, we believed we were the first to challenge what is, in the name of what ought to be. Like you, we believed that our parents were hopelessly lost and only we possessed the courage to find truth. I don’t mean to belittle your search. It’s just now I can see this process at work. To find God, Abraham left his father’s house. Just what I did to my father … and now you to me.

About the time you were born, I realized that I needed wisdom older and deeper than my own. So I returned to the synagogue, and I began to find answers. You’re right — the synagogue does not speak in my voice. That’s what I love about it … the opportunity to listen. There is wisdom here. There are resources for living life. I don’t go to shul to express myself. I go to listen. So don’t build your community entirely of people who look like you, think like you, live like you. Don’t just talk to yourselves. Find the humility to hear wisdom. Open the Torah and listen deeply. 

My generation didn’t banish God. After the Holocaust, it was impossible to talk about God. Jews have always felt the presence of God in history — that’s what the Bible is all about. But after the Holocaust, how could one even entertain such an idea? So we did something else. We stopped talking about God, and we acted in God’s image. We did what God needed done in the world. God creates, so we created schools and synagogues, the State of Israel. God redeems, so we rescued Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. God demands justice, so we fought for civil rights for black people and for gay people, equality for women, dignity for working people and support for the poor. God didn’t speak in the Holocaust, so we were God’s response. God was in our hands.

It saddens me that you do not feel that this place is your home, and that you don’t sense God in the synagogue. I look at the thriving life of this community, and I do feel God is close. Remember that Judaism is an embodied spirituality. There is no Judaism without Jews. And there are no Jews without community. And there is no community without institutions. So be very careful before you dismiss or deride or destroy institutions. They were not easy to create. They are not easy to sustain. If your prayer group grows into something, you’ll surely find this out. 

I wish you a year of blessings, 

Your father.

E-mail response posted at 2:30 a.m. that night:

Dear Dad,

Thank you for the seriousness of your response. 

I am not ungrateful for the institutions your generation built. But you went well beyond protecting these institutions. You got so involved in them you forgot their higher purpose. For me, sitting in a folding chair in a basement praying with real feeling is better than sitting quietly in a cold cathedral. 

In reality, much of your Judaism is about defense. Like the fighters of Masada pitted against an intractable foe, your generation’s sense of purpose is derived from some ever-present, impending crisis — anti-Semitism, Jewish survival, the survival of Israel. 

Deep down, it’s all motivated by fear. And a commitment rooted in fear is bound to bear bad fruit. Out of fear, you pushed away those who intermarried. Out of fear, you pushed away those who questioned Israel. And out of fear, you pushed away Jews who don’t agree with you. Fear is no basis for a Jewish life. Ultimately, that fear will dominate your inner life and choke it to death. Dad, I want a Jewish life based on love, spirit and joy, and not fear. 

You battled anti-Semitism so I would never know that hatred. I’m grateful to feel so much at home in America. And I know there are still people who hate us. But while you were so engaged in fighting those who hate us, we assimilated so much hate of our own. Just listen to the way Jews talk about immigrants, or Muslims. Listen to the way we talk about each other. The hate that crept into our communal vocabulary is more vicious and more destructive today than the hate we face from anti-Semites!

You battled for Jewish survival. You identified intermarriage as a communal catastrophe. I get that. We’re a small people, and getting smaller. But I also know lots of good Jews who fell in love with partners who weren’t Jewish. It wasn’t a gesture of rejection — they still want to be Jewish. They’re all are looking for a way into our community, some as converts, others as seekers. If we keep talking about intermarriage as a catastrophe, they will always be intruders — unwelcome and rejected. Is that what you want? Perhaps we’d get farther with an open door and a word of welcome, no?

When it comes to Israel … Dad, you and I are really going to disagree. You taught me the importance of Israel, how it’s our refuge and homeland. So I chose to go to Israel when I was in college. The Israel I found wasn’t what I had expected to find. When we talk about Israel here in America, it’s always in the high-pitched tone of crisis. There is always an imminent threat, a looming disaster. It’s always about the conflict, the desperate struggle for Israel’s survival. That’s a part of life in Israel, but it isn’t everything. What I loved in Israel had nothing to do with crisis and conflict and struggle. That’s not how I engage Israel … because Dad, that’s not how Israelis engage Israel. What I loved was the life of Israel: Jews creating new Jewish art and music. It was about the Jewish life that thrives there despite the conflict. 

You taught me to be a critical thinker — except when it comes to Israel. I feel constrained never to criticize or object to what Israel does, and if I ever questioned Israeli policy I would be immediately labeled a communal traitor. 

Your generation is concerned with Israel’s existence. My generation is concerned with Israel’s character. Grandpa called himself a Labor Zionist. You call yourself an American Zionist. I’m a Critical Zionist. I love Israel. And I will demand that it live up to my Jewish values … the ones you taught me. I love Israel enough that when it falls short of our values, I’m going to speak out. I’ll support Israel, Dad, by supporting those in Israel who work for an Israel I can be proud of. 

I just hope the fear within you doesn’t keep you from remembering that I am and always will be,

Your son. 

E-mail posted the day before Yom Kippur: 

Dear Son,

The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi says that there are two kinds of Jews — Pesach Jews and Purim Jews. Pesach Jews hear the biblical commandment, “Remember you were a slave in Egypt.” Because we were slaves, we bear a special sensitivity to the rights of human beings. Purim Jews embrace a different biblical commandment: Remember Amalek. Remember there is evil in the world, and remember that you were the object of that evil. The Pesach Jew is the bearer of Jewish conscience and lives by the rule: don’t be brutal. The Purim Jew is the bearer of Jewish resilience and lives by the rule: don’t be naïve. 

You, my son, are a wonderful Pesach Jew. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that you are so adept at finding our flaws and failures. I’m proud of your Jewish conscience. 

I, on the other hand, am a Purim Jew. Perhaps it comes with being a father. The Jewish People is my family. And like any father, I have a keen instinctual sense for the dangers that affect my family. 

When you demand a more ethical Jewish community, I’m proud of you. You’re certainly right that hate has infected us, especially in the ways we speak to one another. But at the same time, I don’t see that our fight against anti-Semitism is over, nor do I see that our continuing vigilance is wasted. I wish you were right, but we’re not done yet with anti-Semitism.

We are not as far apart on Israel as you think. I appreciate your stance as a “Critical Zionist.” You have a right to criticize. It’s the question of the tone you choose when you criticize. When we criticize someone we love, we use a special tone. We don’t want to hurt the other. We want to inspire the other to grow. You want to protest the policies and practices of Israel, that’s fine. But do it with humility, care and love. 

You’re not worried about Israel’s existence. I am. Israel, thank God, is strong, but far from invulnerable. Iran is building a nuclear weapon, and once again the destiny of the Jewish people rests in the hands of others. In the meantime, the world is convincing itself that the creation of Israel was a mistake. Israel is currently engaged in an ideological war for its own legitimacy. That legitimacy has to be earned. I think you and I would agree on this: Israel’s policies are politically sustainable only if they are morally defensible. So I offer you this deal: When you perceive that Israeli policies violate our values, speak up. Your critical voice is welcome. But when Israel acts with reasonable morality and the world unjustly accuses it, you become Israel’s character witness. When double standards and ridiculously biased judgments are cast upon Israel, you must stand up and say: This is not an evil nation. This is a nation striving toward a moral ideal. Do we have a deal? 

You’re right about the destructive effects of fear. The problem is, there are real enemies out there, there is real evil in the world. And we have to fight it. I promise you that I will not let fear separate us. We need to learn from one another, you and me, your generation and mine. We are a people strong enough to accommodate a vigorous debate. We are a people wise enough to learn from one another. I know that your group is meeting on Yom Kippur. Come be with us for Neilah. When the gates close, I don’t want them to close us off from one another. Bring your friends, too, we have plenty of lox. 

Dad.

Text message sent immediately:

Is there really room for us? 

Text message sent in reply:

There is always room for you.

Text message sent in reply:

Then, deal. We’ll be there. Shanah Tovah, Dad. I love you.

Text message sent in reply:

I love you, too. 


This is an edited version of a sermon delivered during the High Holy Days two years ago by Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Noah Zvi Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative synagogue in Encino.

Shabbat without religion

How do you talk about Judaism in a way that's not too “Jewish”? How do you convey Jewish ideas to Jews who might get turned off by religious ideas? Is it possible, in other words, to talk about the Jewish religion in a nonreligious way?

Those questions were on my mind last Friday night when I was asked to speak to a group of Jews who had gathered for a wedding weekend. Because many of them were disconnected from the Jewish religion, I thought: Why disconnect them even more? A “religious” talk on the parasha of the week would surely have risked doing that.

Still, I confess, I had an agenda. I wanted every nonobservant Jew in the room to come out of the evening thinking: “Wow, we ought to try this Shabbat thing ourselves once in a while. It was quite enjoyable and it made a lot of sense — religious or not.”

Knowing that their minds were already tainted by the idea of anything too “religious,” I had to find ideas that transcended religious language. 

So, I focused on two ideas: gratitude and peoplehood.

The gratitude part was easy. I spoke about the annual American ritual of Thanksgiving and how Shabbat took that great idea and made it a weekly ritual.

The weekly Shabbat meal, I said, was a time to gather with family and friends and thank our Creator for all our blessings. No matter how difficult or complicated our lives can be, Shabbat comes to remind us that there are always reasons to be grateful.

I could see many heads nodding. Gratitude is one of those great universal ideas. And a meal of gratitude works on so many levels: It brings families together, adds warmth to our homes and injects meaning into our lives. How can anyone be against that?

By the time I brought up specific Shabbat rituals — lighting the candles, welcoming the angels of peace, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, the blessing over wine, washing our hands, blessing the bread, etc. — each ritual glowed under the umbrella of a universal idea.

The rituals were not in the service of “religion,” but in the service of the human idea of gratitude.

The next part is where it got trickier, because I connected the rituals to Jewish peoplehood.

Why was this tricky? Well, because Jewish peoplehood can easily be interpreted as a religious idea. If Jews gather to do religious things like pray in synagogues and make blessings at a Shabbat table, doesn't that mean that being Jewish is, first and foremost, a religious idea?

And if I'm not crazy about the idea of “being religious,” why should I be crazy about belonging to a people that worships religion and religious rituals?

So, I decided to go Hollywood and speak about a mind-blowing miracle: How is it possible that the Jewish people could be scattered around the globe for about 1,900 years — since the destruction of the Second Temple — and then, when they finally meet up in a place like, say, Pico-Robertson, they discover that they're all still using the same holy words?

How could it be that after not seeing one another for 1,900 years, we're still reciting the same blessings at the Shabbat table and reading from the same Torah? How is that possible?

“We probably do more editing in one day at The Jewish Journal than the Jews have done to their holy texts in 2,000 years,” I told them, only half in jest.

Again, I saw many heads nodding. The idea that we were all there, gathered at a Shabbat table, doing what our ancestors have been doing for centuries, was not a sermon or a religious idea.

It was simply a moving historical fact.

I spoke about how, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews became a “people of software rather than hardware,” and how the Shabbat table became the weekly centerpiece of this idea, serving to honor “software” ideas like gratitude, holiness and family togetherness.

The rituals of the Temple evolved into the rituals of the Shabbat table, and without this Shabbat table, it's hard to imagine how the Jewish people could have survived.

Our gathering on that Friday night, then, was a continuation of this miraculous story of survival.

The two ideas had merged: We were gathered in a joyous atmosphere to express our gratitude for all our blessings, and one of those blessings was the very idea of Shabbat.

In the same way that the Shabbat ritual has helped to protect and nurture individual Jewish families, it has helped to protect and nurture the Jewish people for centuries.

And, as far as I could tell from all the head nods, you didn't have to be too religious to appreciate that miracle.


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

From Rosh Hashanah in a tent to standing on my own two feet

A growing number of once proud, working-class Israeli families are being transformed into the “working poor,” as they’ve failed to keep up with increased taxes as well as rising food and gas prices. Without the assistance of outreach social service organizations such as Meir Panim, the Mirilashvili family might have endured more than one Rosh Hashanah on the streets of Israel. Instead, they are not only regaining their independence but are giving back to the community too.

Sometimes, a chance encounter with someone special can change the course of a lifetime. Such was the meeting between Ilanit Hafuta, director of the Or Akiva branch of Meir Panim in Northern Israel, and Ilan Mirilashvili, a resident of the city, who four years ago found himself in a dire financial and housing crisis. What began as a charitable gesture to help a family of six who had set up a makeshift ‘home’ in a tent outside the City Hall, has developed into a lifelong relationship, leading Ilan to join the cycle of giving in aiding Israel’s most needy people.

“I help my dad deliver bread to families on Fridays and it makes me feel really good” says Sandy Mirilashvili. From left: Lishai, Hodayah and Sandy Mirilashvili.

“Four years ago, we spent Rosh Hashanah in a tent on the grass outside the City Hall,” recounts 35 year-old Ilan. “We’d been made homeless after a long and drawn out financial and bureaucratic nightmare. I had four little children to feed, two of whom were sick, and my wife was eight months pregnant. I felt as though I’d been pushed up against a wall and had no choice but to ‘cry out’ for help. We sat in that tent for three weeks. I was working every night and would come back to the tent, exhausted, during the day. I was a broken man.”

“Toward the end of the three weeks, I was told there was a woman from an organization called Meir Panim who would be able to help us,” continues Ilan. “Ilanit came to our tent and sat with us patiently while I explained our situation. She then looked me in the eye and said ‘We have a long battle ahead. We’re going to do this together and I’m going to need your help.’ Using her strong connections with the local administrative system, she literally walked us through the entire bureaucratic process and one month later, we had a new home. And this apartment didn’t look the way it looks now,” he adds. “Ilanit organized a whole group of volunteers from Meir Panim to come and renovate it for us. Some volunteers brought furniture and others came to paint. It was all literally a miracle.”

The relationship between Ilan and Ilanit did not end with the acquisition of the apartment. “Ilanit has been like an older sister to me, guiding me and my family every step of the way. After we moved and as soon as things got back to routine, I started volunteering for Meir Panim. I’m a truck driver by profession and am therefore able to use my van to pick up food from companies, shops and bakeries and then deliver it to families in need. I have no other way of thanking Meir Panim besides giving back,” Ilan says with emotion. “The organization helps so many families with such a big and full heart and it made me want to do the same. I didn’t want to leave this loving family once things were okay for me—I only wanted to stay and help.”

In fact, two years ago, Ilan won the organization’s ‘Volunteer of the Year’ award for the energy and amount of hours he was putting in to his volunteering.  “I learned from Ilanit and from Meir Panim just how important it is to help those who need it. One of the people I take food to, for example, is a widowed father who is bringing up his four daughters alone. Being able to provide a family like that with hot meals is a feeling that fills you up inside and gives you the strength to deal with your own troubles. My children have also become part of the cycle of giving, and it is the best education they could ever receive.”

]The Mirilashvili family together with Ilanit Hafuta, Director of Meir Panim in Or Akiva.

Ilanit has been director of the Or Akiva branch of Meir Panim for the last eight years. The charity, which operates a network of food and social service centers throughout Israel, is particularly active in Or Akiva. Activities include running after-school clubs and summer camps for kids, organizing weddings and other celebrations for needy families, providing food shopping cards to enable people to purchase their own groceries, distributing food packages for the Jewish holidays and a plethora of other formal and informal assistance. “Our goal is not only to meet the vital needs of the disadvantaged population, but to do so while preserving people’s dignity and enabling them to become self-sufficient,” shares Dudi Roth, President of American Friends of Meir Panim. “And it’s amazing to see how a cycle of social responsibility has developed. Almost all of the people we have helped give back in some way. Or Akiva is one big warm family and everyone has something to give. Everyone has a talent that someone else can benefit from. For example, Ilan’s wife Sam is a fantastic baker and she regularly bakes delicious cakes for the children who attend Meir Panim’s after-school clubs.”

Although it would be unrealistic to expect these families to suddenly be living picture-perfect lives, it is evident just what a strong and positive impact Meir Panim is having on so many of Israel’s neediest people. “I leave for work every morning at 6am and often don’t return until midnight and I’m still only earning very minimally,” admits Ilan. “The kids hardly see me, I work very hard, and it’s sometimes difficult to remain optimistic. But I thank G-d a million times over that Meir Panim has helped me regain my independence.” Ilanit adds, “There is a lot of pain with this work but there is also a lot of happiness. To help a family to be able to stand on their own two feet is the most rewarding thing.”

For more information about Meir Panim, please visit www.meirpanim.org.

Families reading together: Two summer novels for children

When was the last time your fifth grader read a book written in free verse? How about a children’s version of life in Stalinist Russia?  These two very unusual novels for young people from two Los Angeles children’s authors make excellent summer reads and particularly good discussion starters for families to read together.

Looking For Me… in This Great Big Family

by Betsy R. Rosenthal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, NY. $15.99)  Grades 4 – 7.

It’s not so easy to get children to read a book of poems. But there is a particular genre of children’s literature called free-verse novels that has been very successful in doing exactly that. These books offer up a succession of individual poems that tell an entire story. They contain fine characterization, tense plots, gripping conclusions, and very few words per page. They are considered perfect for reluctant readers, but also for literature lovers who like to linger on a good turn of phrase. Often these free verse novels have won the highest awards of children’s literature (see Karen Hesse’s, “Out of the Dust” or Margarita Engle’s “Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba”). Now Betsey Rosenthal, A Los Angeles author of delightful picture books, has hit the mark with her first novel, which she based on anecdotes from her mother’s poignant childhood in depression-era Baltimore.

The book is short, and each page is graced with a poem, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not—more often not. Each poem is titled and captures the distinct voice of 11-year-old Edith Paul, Rosenthal’s mother and the fourth of 12 siblings. “In my overcrowded family/ I’m just another face./ I’m just plain Edith/of no special place.”  As the young girl searches for her individual identity within her large and boisterous Jewish family, she also wonders about the type of person she can become. Rosenthal relies on extensive interviews with her mother, along with the many stories she was told as a child to recreate what life was like in the tumultuous depression years of 1936-37. This young girl sees herself only as she imagines others see her: as a “good little mother ” to her younger siblings, or a child worker in her gruff and distant father’s diner. When a caring teacher finds that spark within her that lights her way to imagining herself as the first of her family to go to college, she is able to break out of her musings about her invisibility and see into the future, knowing she is on her way “to being so much more/than just plain Edith/who’s number four.”

The Judaism practiced by Edith’s family will intrigue today’s children. Edith sincerely describes her struggles to fit in. She is pleased her family changed its name from Polansky to Paul and astonished to discover that a “dumb neighbor” thinks Jews have horns. She is also embarrassed at having to refuse a ham sandwich at a friend’s house, but then eats crab cakes with her sisters on a paper plate at home (“sometimes we cheat”). At Rosh Hashanah services, she wonders whether God is listening to her prayers (“Even though I don’t understand a word of it,/I like hearing the sounds—it’s like a visit with an old friend.”), and empathetically recounts the difficult choices made by her immigrant grandmother on the day she had to leave Russia for America.

Readers will particularly appreciate Rosenthal’s inclusion of an author’s note at the end of the book, including a black-and-white photo of young Edith Paul, along with a glossary of the Yiddish terms she has seamlessly woven within the text.

This beautifully written short poetic novel is a great choice for a young person to share with parents. Each poem is a little gem and readers will admire the author’s ability to be able to create entire characters out of just over 100 individual poems. Pair this one with Sydney Taylor’s classic, “All of a Kind Family,” for a take on what it was like to grow up in a Jewish family in the first half of the 20th century.

“Breaking Stalin’s Nose”

by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt and Co. 2011. $15.99) Grades 5 – 8

Artist Eugene Yelchin never imagined his first novel would win a Newbery honor medal, the highest award in children’s literature in the United States. Previously known as a fine artist before emigrating from the Soviet Union, Yelchin began illustrating for the Boston Globe and other magazines, and then moved on to picture book illustration. He illustrates his intriguing Kafkaesque novel for kids with engaging black-and-white graphite drawings that add immeasurably to the book’s disturbing atmosphere of Soviet life in the Stalinist era.

The story revolves around ten-year-old Sasha, who idolizes his father, a staunch communist, until events occur that make young Sasha question his own beliefs in the goodness of his perfect society. In fact, Yelchin dedicates the book to his own father, “who survived the Great Terror”.

In literature, a “dystopia” is defined as “an imaginary place in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.”  In fact, children’s literature is so full of novels describing horrific dystopian future societies, (see: “The Hunger Games” and practically every other popular YA novel) that it is astonishing that up until now, no one has yet tried to tackle this subject for children: a real life dystopic society that actually existed not so long ago. Yelchin’s short novel remarkably achieves that goal while at the same time it is deceiving in its simplicity. It begins: “My dad is a hero and a Communist and, more than anything, I want to be like him. I can never be like Comrade Stalin, of course. He’s our great Leader and Teacher.”

It must be hard for an American child who has never heard of the Soviet Union to understand just what happened there. Did children really inform on their parents? Did millions of people really revere their leader like a god? Did this beloved leader really kill his people ruthlessly while they blindly declared allegiance to him? It seems that it shouldn’t be a topic for a children’s book, but the way the author tackles the subject is appropriate and compelling and will leave young readers asking the right kind of questions about the past.

Yelchin’s narrative takes place over a two day period during the 1930’s; a period that condenses the entire Stalinist regime of terror into the experience of a young boy. The “large, happy family” life of young Sasha who lives together with 48 “hardworking, honest Soviet citizens” (who share a single communal kitchen and toilet) is shattered the day his father is arrested. He has been reported on by a neighbor who covets the extra space that will be gained when father and boy are removed. Sasha’s father’s final words to him as he is dragged away by guards are, “It’s more important to join the Pioneers than to have a father.”  The creepiness factor begins as the illustrations appear more ominous and Sasha now becomes a ward of the state. The boy must fend for himself in a place where informing on your friends and neighbors seems to be society’s highest objective. With a nod to the great Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, Yelchin narrates the various antics that ensue when Sasha accidentally knocks the nose off a plaster statue of Stalin while proudly swinging the patriotic banner of his beloved Pioneer movement.

By the end of the novel, Sasha’s eyes have been opened to reality and he begins to rethink his place not only within the Pioneer movement, but within the only world he knows.

The anti-Semitism Yelchin experienced as a child is relived through the experiences of Sasha’s young friend, “Four-Eyes Finkelstein”  who justifiably disobeys a teacher but is sent to the principal after a “democratic” vote by his classmates. The author explains in his afterword that “fear was passed on from generation to generation. It has been passed on to me, as well. This book is my attempt to expose and confront that fear. My family shared a communal apartment. My father was a devoted Communist. And like my main character, I, too, had to make a choice. My choice was about whether to leave the country of my birth.”

This serious book is so gripping that it will not leave your mind for quite a while. Children with no knowledge of the Stalinist regime will wonder about it (and maybe check online to find out more) while others will simply see it for the cautionary tale that it is. Either way, Yelchin’s award winner will serve as a “1984” for the grade school set and will be an important conversation starter that teaches the nature of innocence in a time of great evil.


Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.

Family murder-suicide devastates Arizona Jewish community

Following a businessman’s destruction of his family, the Jewish community of Tempe, Ariz., has “no answers,” according to a local rabbi.

Sometime during the early hours Shabbat, June 1-2, James Butwin murdered his 40-year-old wife, Yafit, and their three children—Malissa, 16; Daniel, 14; and Matthew, 7. Then, he killed himself.

“There are no answers for something this tragic,” Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel, where James Butwin was a member of the synagogue board, told mourners during a June 6 service. “It is time to come together, to be together in our shock and horror and fear… Expect no answers tonight.”

Although in the process of divorce, Yafit had celebrated her husband’s birthday, posting a photo and a message—“Happy Birthday Jim, I am so proud of my three children :) and they know why”—on Facebook.  Hours later, in the middle of the desert, all were dead. Pinal County officers found the burned SUV holding their five unrecognizable corpses June 2.

The Butwin family was an active part of the Jewish community in Tempe, Ariz. Rabbi Shapiro said the family had a “circle of friends full to bursting.” Only friends mourned the Butwin family; no relatives had yet arrived from Israel, Yafit’s homeland, or from New Jersey, where James is from. JointMedia News Service spoke with Temple Emanuel member Paul White June 6, just prior to a “service of grief.” More than 600 attended “a very brief service, bringing the community, the schools together,” White said.

The service was not a funeral. In the tradition of placing a stone on a grave, for more than 20 minutes the 600 mourners filed past five holders, placing symbolic glass beads.

Temple Emanuel board member Steven Gotfried has been designated as the congregation’s spokesperson, a role he called “very challenging and difficult.” In an interview with JointMedia News Service, he said “the word that comes to mind is shock.” “Disbelief and a sort of a numbness…We are trying to grasp this, to get an understanding…sad,” he said.

Gotfried said a Butwin neighbor had commented that “this was not the Jim that we know. There was something going on that caused this—something physically going on with his brain and his mind. The Jim we knew and loved and played with was not the Jim that did this.” James Butwin, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, was described by Gotfried as having been a “warm, personable person… just a nice guy, kind, very laid-back, a man who listened more than he spoke.” 

“There was a profound sense of shock and grief when the news was known,” said Gotfried. “A need for people to get together, to comfort each other.”

JointMedia News Service asked Gotfried, whose daughter had shared a Hebrew school class with Daniel Butwin, the older boy, if anyone in the family had sought help, either from the rabbi or any other community resource. “Even if so,” he said, “they were private conversations, not to be shared.”

Now, after the tragedy, Jewish Family Services of Phoenix has responded very publicly, providing counselors for adults and children and helping form a Jewish community crisis group, offering advice to staff and lay leaders “trying to make sense of it,” and providing “advice on how to talk to your children,” Gotfried said. 

Gotfried noted that the investigation is revealing “more and more information” about the Butwins’ once private lives. Court records confirm the divorce proceedings, but with no history of domestic violence. Jim Butwin’s divorce lawyer, Bill Bishop, told the Arizona Republic that domestic and financial issues “were being handled professionally,” and that “there was no indication whatsoever that he was upset or anything.” He said “this is one of the most cowardly acts that anybody could ever do.”

Cowardly, but not unplanned. Tempe police revealed that during the week before the devastating murder-suicide, James Butwin had sent a key to the family’s Corona Estates home and a letter to his business partner. Sgt. Jeff Glover of the Tempe Police Department on June 7 said a police inspection of the home revealed “suspicious and concerning evidence” including blood and shell casings in bedrooms and two guns inside the torched SUV found in the Sonoran desert June 2. A second suicide letter has also been found.

Steven Wolfson, Yafit’s attorney, confirmed that the Butwins’ continued to share their home during the divorce proceedings. An order issued by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jay Polk charged that “both parties shall be cordial to each other in the marital residence and respect each other’s privacy.” 

“This is out of the blue as far as we’re concerned,” said Wolfson.

James Butwin was involved in commercial-property deals. Yafit Butwin, a devoted mother, had recently graduated from Northern Arizona University and started an interior design business.

Neighbor Robert Kempton, speaking to the Associated Press, called the tragedy “totally unexpected to the point of almost being unbelievable.”

Tempe family died of gunshot wounds, medical examiner determines

The Tempe, Ariz., family found burned to death in the family’s SUV died of gunshot wounds.

Police believe that James Butwin died of a gunshot wound that was likely self-inflicted, according to the Arizona Republic. His wife, Yafit, 40, and their three children—Malissa, 16; Daniel, 14; and Matthew, 7—also died of gunshot wounds, according to the Pima County chief medical examiner.

Police also found two detailed suicide notes, which has convinced them that the deaths were a murder-suicide, according to the newspaper.

The bodies were found in a burning SUV on June 2 that was registered to the Butwins but had been missing from the family home, Tempe Police said.

Butwin and his wife were going through divorce proceedings but still lived together with their children.

The Associated Press reported that James Butwin had sent his business partner detailed instructions on how to run the business without him. AP also reported that the couple was fighting in court over their assets, which caused tension. Neighbors of the Butwins also said that James had a brain tumor, according to reports.

Anne Frank, in her family’s eyes

Anne Frank, the single most famous name among the six million victims of the Shoah, entered the realm of history and literature with the posthumous publication of her own diary and has been used — and, some would argue, abused — by others who have depicted her on the stage and screen, in novels and comic books. So much so that the flesh-and-blood Anne Frank has wholly disappeared under the accretion of myth and magical thinking.

Now comes another answer to the provocative question that Nathan Englander posed in the title of his controversial story, “

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Old becomes new as couples personalize wedding ceremonies

In the months before his wedding, Jon Citel cringed at the notion of having his friends dance him to his bride at a traditional bedeken ceremony, where he would place the veil over her face.

The concept “was completely foreign to me,” he said. It “felt too traditional.”

But his bride, Ashley Novack, 26, was entranced by the tradition. “I love dancing, and this sounded like an amazing opportunity definitely not to be missed,” she said.

Rabbi Shira Stutman, director of community engagement at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington and the officiant at their wedding, had a suggestion: Reverse it.

“Subverting thousands of years of tradition, I would dance over to Jon,” said Novack, who called it one of her favorite moments of their 2010 wedding. “I was filled with love and joy as the remarkable women in my life encircled me and danced me over to Jon.”

Citel, 27, ended up loving it, too. “The sound of Ashley’s entourage approaching was thunderous and powerful,” he said. “I probably ended up liking it even more than Ashley.”

The Conservative-raised Philadelphia couple’s twist was by no means traditional, but it was an example of a growing practice of couples putting new spins on ancient wedding traditions. From adapting non-egalitarian parts of the ceremony to having friends officiate, it’s all part of a trend toward personalizing the wedding ceremony.

“It’s very important for people to incorporate their voices,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of the progressive Ikar community in Los Angeles. “That’s the way the old becomes new.”

Sara Cohen of Somerville, Mass., and her bridegroom decided to forego a rabbi, instead asking close friends to officiate at their 2009 wedding.

“We didn’t have a rabbi in our life that felt like ours,” said Cohen, 41. “The bigger reason was we really liked the idea of having people who know us really well do the wedding.”

They asked a lifelong friend of hers, a Jewish studies professor with Universal Life Minister credentials, and a close friend of his to perform the ceremony. But the couple also consulted with a rabbi about the ceremony, which included the traditional hallmarks.

There is no Jewish legal requirement that a rabbi or cantor officiate at a wedding; according to halachah, two witnesses are required to make the ceremony official. Having a rabbi can also add $1,000 or more to the cost of a wedding.

Some rabbis are nonplussed by the idea of clergy-free nuptials.

“It may make for a lovely ceremony, but it does not serve in any way to connect the couple in an official way to the Jewish community by someone who’s been ordained by the community,” said Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, the Union for Reform Judaism’s worship and spirituality specialist. “I think it’s sad and it’s a diminishment of connection to community and tradition.”

He also warned of the loss of premarital counseling by clergy.

But Perlmeter praised the notion of having friends participate in the wedding service in other ways. Couples long have had friends and honored guests recite the seven traditional blessings, but now couples are asking friends to add their own creative translations, blessings or even poetry readings to the blessings.

They are “personalizing it and rendering it unique,” Perlmeter said.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, rabbi in residence at Be’chol Lashon, an initiative of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, says there are practical reasons to have a rabbi officiate, including smoothing over family squabbles.

“When the rabbi takes care of it, there’s a pastoral piece involved,” she said. “Weddings are very, very emotional.”

Ra’anan Boustan, Abusch-Magder’s brother-in-law and one of the officiants at Cohen’s wedding, dismissed such concerns. Laypeople can do those things just as well or even better than a rabbi, he said, particularly if, as in many cases, the rabbi doesn’t know the couple very well.

Noting that he and his wife didn’t know their officiating rabbi well, and did not have premarital counseling with him, Boustan says, “I don’t see that was terribly preferable to the three cases in which I married my best friend from college, my wife’s sister-in-law and a friend from childhood.”

More commonly, couples are making egalitarian adaptations to ceremonies that until recently largely had been ignored outside of Orthodoxy.

For example, Orthodox brides traditionally encircle their grooms seven times under the chuppah. It’s now common for many brides and grooms to circle one another; typically each circles the other three times, then they walk around once together.

Dual-ring ceremonies, long the norm in the non-Orthodox world, are no longer unheard of among Orthodox couples.

And the tisch—a traditional time for the men to get together, discuss Torah, celebrate and sometimes be silly while the bride and female guests hold their own party as they await the bedeken—has gone egalitarian, too, with the bride and groom each holding a separate, often mixed-gender tisch.

That’s one of several suggestions that Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of the Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School in New York, offers to give women a greater role in Orthodox wedding ceremonies.

Linzer also suggests that after the groom has put the veil on the bride, she wrap him in a tallit; that the couple’s Hebrew names include the mother’s as well as the father’s names; and that women are asked along with men to recite the seven wedding blessings, albeit the woman would do so in translation.

Julianne and Justin Miller of Canandaigua, N.Y., each had a tisch at their 2000 wedding and a double bedeken.

“At the first part of the ceremony, I put his kipah on him before he put the veil on me,” said Julianne Miller, 38.

Not only did that make the ceremony more egalitarian but, Miller says—in jest—it also was a chance to be sure she had the right groom.

Her husband is an identical twin.

“Before I put the kipah on him, I looked in the crowd to make sure I saw his brother,” Miller said.

Rabbi Julia Andelman, 36, and her husband, Eitan Fishbane, a professor at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, opted out of kiddushin, the betrothal portion of the wedding ceremony in which the bridegroom “acquires” his bride by giving her a ring.

“We wanted something equally binding for both parties, and God forbid the marriage would not work out, we wanted something that would not require a get,” she said, referring to the religious divorce decree. “You need a get to dissolve to kiddushin, so if you don’t have kiddushin, you don’t need a get.”

But the couple retained the “nisuin” portion—the seven blessings known as the “sheva brachot”—binding them together as husband and wife.

“There are certainly people who could argue we’re not halachically married,” said Andelman, a former congregational rabbi who directs the Engaging Israel Project in North America.

She and Fishbane also each wore a kittel, the white robe traditionally worn by men at weddings and certain other special occasions.

Some of the creativity at weddings stems from efforts to create meaningful ceremonies within a Jewish framework for same-sex couples, said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a senior Jewish educator at the Tufts University Hillel.

“There’s a little more permission to look outside the old box,” said Ruttenberg, who maintains a website, the Kiddushin Variations (http://alternativestokiddushin.wordpress.com/), with postings on rabbinic opinions regarding egalitarian ceremonies.

Aaron Dorfman and his bride, Talia Milgrom-Elcott, wanted to eliminate any portion of the ceremony that spoke of acquisition, including exchanging rings.

Instead they borrowed rings from other people and used those rings as exchanges. This way, the rings “could not be perceived as halachically effecting legal acquisition because they were not ours to give,” Dorfman said.

As a sign of protest that most U.S. states don’t sanction gay marriage, the couple, who live in New York, borrowed from a Passover tradition: As seder participants reciting the Ten Plagues traditionally spill a drop of wine for each plague in recognition of the pain of others, they spilled some of the ceremonial wine before drinking it to signal some diminishing of joy.

Learn to listen to your own kid, not the voices in your head

There is some unwritten statute of limitations on how long one can whine about a crappy childhood, a negligent parent, a few too many chicken pot pies, summers with the grandparents, days spent on Greyhound buses and with dubious caregivers and creepy neighbors. There is just a moment in an adult’s life when the complaining and sad-sacking about how our parents got divorced, or lost custody, or bailed, or otherwise stank up the joint is just kind of pathetic. Let’s face it, that moment had come and gone for me.

Then I had a child myself, and twinges of pain in that amputated leg known as my relationship with my mother started to send fiery jolts into my nervous system. I thought I would get a do-over (as opposed to my childhood, which was a do-under), but instead I got something unexpected: When my son was around 18 months old, I started to freak out. Whatever it is that made her look at the job of motherhood the way an angry teenager views a Friday night shift behind the Frialator, whatever she had, maybe I caught it. 

This is the day, I would think, driving my toddler to day care, or swinging him at the park, or slipping a Grover T-shirt over his giant, blond head, this is the day it happens. This is the day I start to suck at this. This is the day I start to hate it. This is the day of reckoning, when I realize that I’ve been judging my mom for not enjoying my company or any part of raising me, but I’m no better. And this is the day the symptoms start manifesting in me. This is the day I realize that while I see other mothers having moments of both great struggle and magical, indescribable delight, I will only experience the former, because there are just some bullets you can’t dodge.

When I started to panic about my ability to be a parent, it wasn’t about physically being there or providing, it was about something else; it was about the ineffable ability to enjoy my child, because as sure as I won’t forget the phone number of Haystack Pizza down the street, or the smell of the back of a city bus during Indian summer, or the look of abject boredom on my mom’s face across the dinner table, I also won’t forget the feeling of being a tedious wretch, a burden that was ruining everything.

Here’s where having an OK childhood rescues you. Most new moms, I gather, realize early on that the venture isn’t wholly exalted.

They catch on to the reality that normal might mean 17 thrilling, awe-inspiring minutes in a 12-hour day of parenting. Kids can be annoying, they can dawdle, they can cry uncontrollably at what to us is nothing (the green cup is dirty, here’s the yellow one; see you in 27 minutes when you have come back from the brink of insanity). They can be scary, flying off couches and spiking high fevers. They can be, as a matter of course, a bit dull, unless watching the same video of a garbage truck dumping a bin of trash into its hopper repeatedly on YouTube is somehow gratifying for you.

It was about a month into my panic when I turned the ship around. And by the ship I mean my Honda. My son, on the way to day care, uncharacteristically moaned from his car seat, “Don’t want to go to school.”

We pulled over into the parking lot of an Albertsons. I stared back at him.

“Want to ride train,” he said. A tear fell onto his puffy coat.

That was the moment, wedged between a meth-head blasting classical music from his station wagon and a Mini-Cooper glinting in the sun, that I became not a women running from a fear that she will fail at parenting, but a woman running toward one simple day at the mall with her baby. And off we went to the indoor mall in Sherman Oaks with the Ladybug train that runs past the chain stores all day long. Phoning day care to say we wouldn’t make it, cancelling any plans I had for that day, I knew that nothing could make me happier, and in knowing that, I was at least partially free.

If I love being with this boy, even just to share a Wetzel and ride a rickety indoor train for hours, if I love this more than anything else I could possibly imagine doing today, then I can stop worrying. If I had been playing tag with the bogeyman that was “turning into my mother,” this was one very small, yet somehow enormous, “NOT IT.”

No one in my family is sentimental, and I think that’s OK. I don’t have a baby book for my son, I didn’t keep track of when he got his first tooth or tricycle.

That’s why lately, pregnant with my second boy, when I have syrupy thoughts about the baby I can only just now feel moving and kicking, it’s like a million cars turning around in a million parking lots. I love you already, I think, as I rub my hand over my stomach. Sappy. However, when I find myself thinking that this little being is good company already, and enjoying him even now, before he is born, I feel myself turning and turning in the right direction.

In a way, it’s not about my own mother anymore. I may not honor her, specifically, but as I think about that commandment I think the best I can do is to honor motherhood in general, and I can only do that by letting myself get better at it as I go. It’s on me now, as it has been for a very long time.

It’s on me to know that sometimes it’s OK to be less than thrilled with the minutiae of motherhood, the ordering of diaper cream online, the scraping of uneaten carrots from an Elmo plate. It’s OK.

As long as there are days, and they will come when I can’t predict them, when my main function in this life is not to drive my babies forward, but to turn them around. If I can find supreme usefulness in sitting on a train to nowhere, just staring at my baby as he stares into the world, just taking him in and letting the smell of his hair and the feel of his chubby hands fall into the pages of the baby book in my mind, I am not just avoiding becoming my mother, I am getting to stop at all the stations she missed. “All aboard,” says my son to the mall conductor. All aboard.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Young families bringing new life to Budapest synagogues

Linda Ban is a rebbetzin, but with a mass of curly hair and chunky rings on the fingers of both hands, she hardly fits the stereotype of a Central European rabbi’s wife.

A mother of two in her mid-30s, Ban is married to Tamas Vero, the 38-year-old spiritual leader of Budapest’s Frankel Leo Street Synagogue, a neo-Gothic building hidden in a courtyard near the Danube.

The congregation may hold a key to the Jewish future in Hungary.

“My husband and I are building a Jewish community at our synagogue,” Ban says. “But my goal is that our members take Judaism home—into their homes.”

Frankel Leo is among a handful of Budapest synagogues that has seen an upsurge of membership and communal engagement in recent years thanks to active young rabbis and a family-friendly focus.

“A year-and-a-half ago, after I took over as rabbi, our synagogue was almost empty, with just eight or nine people coming on Friday nights,” said Rabbi Istvan Darvas, 38, of the Dozsa Gyorgy Street Synagogue. “Now we have 60 or more each Friday, and we are still growing.”

Another of these congregations, Bet Shalom, had such an increase in membership that it outgrew its premises.

The week before Passover, Bet Shalom, which in the past decade or so has jumped from about 20 members to approximately 250, celebrated the gala inauguration of a rebuilt synagogue complex that includes a new sanctuary that doubles the seating of the previous one to 169. 

The event received mainstream media coverage; speakers included the Israeli ambassador.

“It’s the first time in 80 years that a congregation has grown so much that it needed a bigger synagogue,” said Jozsef Horvath, 43, Bet Shalom’s president. “Our old synagogue was too small for the number of people, and there was no place for kiddush and no space for learning.”

With an estimated 80,000 Jews, Budapest has the largest Jewish population of any central European city. It is home to about 20 Jewish congregations, ranging from the dominant Neolog (moderate Conservative) stream to traditional Orthodox and Chabad, to American-style Reform, to informal minyanim such as Dor Hadash, an independent egalitarian congregation that is associated with the Masorti (Conservative) movement.

As in other post-communist countries, there has been a revival of Jewish life and identity since the Iron Curtain came down more than 20 years ago. But the rate of intermarriage remains high—according to surveys about 50 percent—and most of the city’s Jews have nothing to do with organized Jewish life.

Studies show that those who do affiliate often experience Jewishness outside the home and outside the synagogue through organizations that range from the city’s Jewish community center, to youth groups, to the Jewish summer camp at Szarvas in southern Hungary.

Many self-identifying young Jews reject established Judaism and gravitate toward an alternative Jewish youth scene that focuses on cafes and cultural events in the trendy downtown Jewish quarter.

Against this background, the Frankel Leo, Dozsa Gyorgy and Bet Shalom synagogues are, some say, changing the face of Jewish religious life in Hungary.

Led by local rabbis who came of age after the fall of communism, they are attempting to engage young people within the organized mainstream and promote the synagogue as the focus of community, learning and long-term Jewish continuity.

“Real and strong communities can grow around synagogues where families are engaged,” said Mircea Cernov, an educator who attends the Dozsa Gyorgy synagogue. “Probably the children raised in this environment will have an influence in future years.”

Horvath, a civil engineer whose wife is a convert to Judaism, agrees. “This is the future,” he said.   

He said he had grown up in an unaffiliated, nonreligious home. It wasn’t until he was about 20 that he learned his mother, a child survivor of the Holocaust, was Jewish. He drew closer to the Jewish world, and to Judaism, when he began to play basketball for the Maccabi sports club in his 20s. He eventually served as the chairman of Maccabi in Hungary for 12 years.

“It was when my first son was born that we decided to start keeping more Jewish rules at home, to light the candles,” Horvath said. “And then, two or three years ago we started coming to Bet Shalom as a family.”

Each of the growing congregations has a different orientation, but all three come under Mazsihisz, the official Jewish umbrella organization. Vero, Darvas and Zoltan Radnoti, the rabbi at Bet Shalom, were all trained at the Neolog Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest.

Radnoti now regards himself as Modern Orthodox, and the new Bet Shalom sanctuary includes a mechitzah, the ritual barrier separating men and women.

He and Darvas both reach out to intermarried families or other non-Jews who wish to convert.

Most of the congregants at Frankel Leo are young couples and families who joined Jewish youth organizations and went to the Szarvas Jewish summer camp as children and teens but had little else to do with organized Jewish life afterward. Now that they are married and have children, said Linda Ban, they are coming back.

“Our congregation is totally based on people we knew at Szarvas or other youth activities, but some of them we haven’t seen for 15 years,” she said. “When they become a family, they want to be Jewish again. But they don’t know how to bring Judaism home, how to have a Jewish home. And I find that sad.”

A rarity in Hungary, Ban and her husband both grew up in traditional Jewish homes. They use their own lives and upbringings as examples in their teaching of Jewish values, traditions and culture to the young families now joining their congregation. 

In particular, Ban has incorporated her own family history and experiences in a series of illustrated children’s books that explain and explore Jews, Jewishness and Judaism in simple yet meaningful terms geared toward everyone in any extended modern family.

“Countless parents have difficulty talking to children about Judaism because they are full of unanswered questions themselves,” she wrote in “What Does It Mean to Be Jewish,” one of her books that also was published in an English-language edition.

“I would like to create opportunities,” she wrote, “for all members of the family—grandparents, parents, step-parents and children, Jews and non-Jews, believers and non-believers alike—to talk to each other openly and honestly about Judaism, without taboos, expectations or prescribed answers.”

Chasing parental boredom while catching some foreign films

I was in seventh grade when my dad took me to see a Turkish movie exploring the lives of five prisoners given a week’s home leave in the aftermath of a coup d’etat.

Why did he take a kid to see the movie “Yol”? To teach me a valuable lesson about suffering? To expand my world-view beyond Brandeis Hillel Day School and ballet class and working weekends at my mom’s coffee shop? No. My dad wanted to see the movie.

And if I wanted to hang out with my dad, that was the deal. Yol.

Not only did I see that movie — which consisted mainly of tight shots of tortured souls walking up hills into wind — but also a multitude of other age-inappropriate films, thanks to my Pops and his bi-weekly Sunday visits during which he dragged me to everything from documentaries about coal mining and obscure folk singers to lengthy Swedish films. At the time, I really cared more about Swedish fish.

Now that I am a parent, I realize that my dad was onto something, and I’m looking for ways to emulate him.

My dad’s concept was to choose an activity that he loved and bring me along, thus he would never be bored or resentful that he was doing something lame like hanging out watching me try on clothes at Wet Seal. If he could convince me to share his love of art house films, he could kill two birds with one long, boring cinematic achievement: He could spend time with his kid while enjoying a favorite pastime.

You might think, wow, what a selfish dude.

Maybe his daughter was exposed to things that were adult and therefore disturbing. Or maybe his daughter was bored. Or maybe he should have sucked it up and gone to the mall, or perhaps to see “Footloose,” which involves teens in perhaps emotional prisons, but not actual prisoners.

To that I say, yes, it was uncomfortable watching some of the films, and confounding at times. On the other hand, I loved hanging out with my dad on Sundays, and I didn’t really care what movie we saw. Maybe, to his credit, because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, he exuded a certain happiness and calm. And kids read that kind of vibe. So, I never got the feeling my dad didn’t want to hang out with me.

There should be a word for that in Turkish.

As the mother of a 2-year-old, I thought it was a stroke of genius when I saw a father at a skateboard park with his toddler. This little girl was an incredible skateboarder, shredding, as one might say, on a giant half-pipe. When I spoke to the dad while marveling at his girl, he told me they go there four afternoons a week. This guy, I realized, had found his Yol, an activity that wouldn’t suck the life out of him, something that might somehow enrich his daughter’s life (while maybe jacking up her shins or teeth) and one that he could do without too much personal sacrifice. Sure, this guy could have sat through an endless series of tea parties, but he would have hated that, so he taught his daughter to skate and now he has a skate partner for life. Or at least until she is old enough to decide whether to resent him.

So I continue searching for my Yol.

Loving my child is no problem. However, filling toy dumpsters with torn-up bits of paper towel before dumping them over into a plastic garbage truck is more depressing than an Ingmar Bergman film festival (yes, my dad took me to one, so I know). At this point, the things my boy likes to do — play with trucks, fill pails with sand and water to make sand castles, your basic hide-and-seek — well, those are wrenchingly, painfully dull.

Turns out, the word Yol is actually Turkish for “the way,” and I need to find mine. Hopefully, it won’t be headed uphill into the wind.

Opinion: Liberation

It’s fashionable to look at Passover as a universal idea. This makes sense; after all, how much more universal can you get than the theme of human freedom? Also, it’s a lot easier these days to be outer-directed and feel outrage at injustice. Thanks to the Internet, millions can now watch YouTube clips of people being oppressed in the Sudan or demonstrating in the Middle East.

So, when Passover arrives, it’s not surprising that many of us would associate this powerful Jewish holiday with tikkun olam — with the global struggle for justice and freedom.

But there’s another dimension to freedom that has little to do with what’s happening in Africa and everything to do with what’s happening inside each one of us. This is a deeply personal and intimate view of freedom, and Passover is an ideal time to try to connect with it.

I got an unexpected lesson on this subject the other day when I asked my friend Rabbi Yoel Glick, a teacher of “spiritual wisdom” who was visiting from his home in the south of France, to share some thoughts on Passover.

“Our personal journey of freedom is reflected in the four names we use for the festival of Pesach,” Glick told me over coffee. “Each name represents a different step in this journey.”

In other words, each step is like a “mini seder” that we must experience before moving on to the next step. As Glick went on, I thought: “This is so Jewish. As soon as you think you’ve accomplished something, a little voice tells you: ‘Don’t get too excited — you’re not done yet.’ ”

The first name for Pesach — Chag HaHerut (the festival of freedom) — represents the first, basic step of our liberation, when we are released from physical bondage. It’s not a coincidence that one of the seder rituals at this stage is to break off a small piece of matzah (yachatz) and put away the larger one. This is a sign, according to Glick, that there’s still a lot more work to be done.

What is that work? It is to realize that the freedom to do anything is not the same thing as the freedom to do the right thing.

This is the second level of freedom, as symbolized by the second name of the holiday — Chag HaPesach (the festival of Passover) — which features, among other things, the sacrifice of the Pascal lamb.

Here, we are called upon to sacrifice our animal natures for the sake of our higher selves. Just as Moses sacrificed the material benefits of being a prince for the spiritual benefits of doing God’s work, we are challenged to rise above our animal desires — such as unbridled hedonism — and use our newfound freedom for a higher purpose.

By now, you’re probably thinking: “Hey, this is a pretty high level. What else can God want from us?” Well, like I said, with Judaism there’s always something.

As Glick explained it, once we have managed to discipline our animal bodies and to make the right choices, we slowly realize there is yet another bondage that has a hold on us — the bondage of the mind.

We are enslaved to prejudice, dogma and ideology.

So, the third step in our journey to personal liberation, which is symbolized by the third name of Pesach — Chag HaMatzot (the festival of unleavened bread) — is to free ourselves from dogmatic thinking.

That’s why this step is symbolized by the matzah, the flat bread that is made without yeast and is not allowed to rise. Yeast represents the ego, and the unleavened matzah represents the freedom of an open and expansive mind.

But hold on, we’re not out of the woods yet. There’s still the fourth name for Pesach — Chag HaAviv, the festival of spring — which ushers in the final level of personal liberation.

This final step is when we are liberated from our most fundamental fears, such as the fear of old age, sickness and death.

Glick calls it “joining the mind of God,” which represents the eternal and the timeless. We no longer fear the end because, at this level of spiritual consciousness, there is no end, only constant renewal. As we recite the final psalms of Hallel, we are reminded that there’s also no end to God’s love, and we experience a state of “never- ending spring” when every living thing is part of one single great consciousness.

Now, if you’re wondering how you can experience all this spirituality while the wine is flowing, the kids are yelling and the guests are arguing over whether Obama is good for the Jews, here’s some good news: After the seder, you still have 49 days to go. According to the kabbalah, we are to use the 49 days between Passover and the festival of Shavuot — the days of the counting of the Omer — to reach higher and higher levels of spiritual perfection.

And for those of us who preach tikkun olam, I have no doubt that this spiritual process includes the obligation to help with the liberation of others.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being Jewish, it’s that no matter how spiritually elevated we get or how many good deeds we’ve done or how much we’ve learned or how many people we’ve helped … we’re never done.

And that’s a pretty universal idea.


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

Survivor: Miriam Rothstein

“I don’t know where I am.” After three days and nights in a cramped cattle car, Miriam Rothstein — neé Farkas — was thrust onto the Auschwitz-Birkenau platform. Her sister Margaret and Margaret’s three children were sent to one side,  her brother Baruch to another. Where was Rachel? Only a year and half older, Rachel was like her twin. Suddenly a man in a crisp SS uniform, wielding a whip and accompanied by a German shepherd — later she learned he was Dr. Josef Mengele — called, “Here, here, gypsy girl,” pointing her in yet another direction. She heard an orchestra playing and saw prisoners with shaved heads and striped uniforms. “They look like crazy people here,” she thought. At last Rachel caught up as they were pushed into a big hall. It was June 1, 1944; Miriam was 23.

Born in Satu Mare, Romania, Miriam was born ninth of the 11 children of Gershon, a businessman who never laid a hand on any of them, and Gittel, a homemaker who regularly brought food to the poor. The family was educated and observant.

When Miriam was 4, they moved to Yasinya, a village in the Carpathian Mountains, then part of Czechoslovakia, where her mother’s well-respected and wealthy family lived. But life changed after Hungary annexed Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Miriam’s studies were interrupted and the family business was shuttered.

Miriam lived in continual fear. Hungarian soldiers appeared everywhere; one even stalked her. Often, from a distance, she glimpsed other Jews running from the nearby Polish border toward Russia. Then, in August 1941, Jews lacking Hungarian citizenship were apprehended. “We heard that they were shot,” Miriam said.

In March 1944, with the Germans controlling Yasinya, Miriam’s family learned that all able-bodied Jews were to be rounded up. At their mother’s urging, Miriam and Rachel boarded a train for Uzhorod, a city in Transcarpathia, then part of Hungary, where older sister Margaret and brother Baruch lived.

But in April, the Jews in Uzhorod were ordered to report to the ghetto there. Miriam and Rachel instead hid in a shed for three days until Miriam feared they would be discovered and shot. She changed into a two-piece red silk dress, attaching her mother’s diamond ring to an inside button, and the sisters entered the ghetto. It was an old brick factory, overcrowded and unsanitary. “I wished we would leave,” Miriam said. Finally, at the end of May, they were lined up and squeezed into cattle cars, headed to Poland.

In the big hall at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Miriam’s clothes were ripped from her body, the red dress with its concealed diamond tossed into a huge pile. Her head and other areas were shaved, and her vaginal cavity was searched for hidden jewelry. She was handed another dress, with no regard for size.

The group was then moved to Lager (camp) C, a huge bloc that Miriam heard held 1,000 women. That evening they were given “soup,” one pot to be shared among five people. Miriam, however, spotting worms, refused her portion. Everyone slept on the floor. Miriam used her dress to fan Rachel, who was faint from the heat. From outside, they heard people screaming.

There was no work, only “appel,” or roll call, where they had to line up, again by fives. “Every day, people were taken out: one, two, three, four and out. They went straight to the crematorium,” Miriam said. They could see the flames and smell the burning flesh. Miriam was always afraid, but more afraid that she’d lose Rachel than for herself.

In September, Miriam was selected for work and directed to a different bloc. When Rachel was not called, Miriam began screaming. “My throat got infected,” she said. In the evening, however, Rachel sneaked in. The next morning, the group was taken by train to an area near Krakow, where they built a shelter for 50 girls, a bed of branches with a canvas covering. At night, Miriam and Rachel huddled together, with one sweater over the branches and another covering them.

Work consisted of digging anti-tank trenches and later laying cable. Miriam felt lucky to have two kind, high-ranking SS officers overseeing them. The accompanying Latvian guards, however, were harsh, twice gratuitously whacking Miriam with a rifle and constantly threatening to shoot the girls.

By January 1945, with the Russian army approaching, the SS officers dismissed the Latvian guards, gathered up food and escaped with the girls. After days of walking, they reached a large estate. The officers then departed, telling the girls to remain hidden.

But Miriam, Rachel and another girl ran away. In the bitter cold, with a full moon shining, they finally came to a farm where they slept in the barn until Russian soldiers liberated them.

Eventually Miriam and Rachel returned to Uzhorod. There Miriam learned her parents, sister Margaret and youngest brother Yehuda had been killed. Baruch had survived, as had her other siblings, many of whom had previously left for Palestine or America.

Later, living in Podmokly, Czechoslovakia, Miriam met Herman Rothstein, a guard for the Czech president. They married in 1946 and their daughter Vera was born in 1947. In 1949, they immigrated to Israel, where their son, David, was born in 1953. A year later, a challenging form of tuberculosis, which attacked Miriam’s bones, prompted a move to Chicago, where Herman had relatives. Their youngest daughter, Mindy, was born there in 1957.

Miriam and Herman moved to Los Angeles in 1992. Herman died in 2000, and Miriam currently lives at the Jewish Home for the Aging. Because of a bad eye, she can no longer read, which she misses, but she enjoys playing Bingo and attending the rabbi’s talks.

Miriam regrets never telling her story to the Shoah Foundation. She’s also sorry she never learned the names of the kind SS officers. But with three children, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, she says, “I had a wonderful life. All the best for the children.”

You, with a kid

I’ll never forget asking my therapist the following question when I found out I was pregnant: “Who am I going to be?”

“You,” she answered. “With a kid.”

That was comforting that day, on that couch, staring at those Matisse prints, being that person who was terrified of mom jeans and my life thrown into a bouncy house to sprain its ankle and barf.

Now, that’s not so comforting.

In fact, there are days I don’t want to be just me, with a kid. I want to be a version of me that knows how to cook, so I won’t be defrosting gluten-free microwaveable burritos and calling it dinner. That’s right, preservatives and cost overruns, my friends. I’m not proud. But I had a baby, and I didn’t become that lady who subscribes to Real Simple, and I don’t understand what it means to “blanch” or even “julienne” a vegetable.

What’s more, I also didn’t become a fun, wildly animated lady. I’m still the pretty serious, reading a book on the history of fonts, inhibited, never even sings karaoke kind of lady. The woman who swings her child upside down over a sandcastle as she does a perfect Cookie Monster voice? I didn’t become her, and now sometimes I want to.

I’ve seen progress, which I’ll get to.

(And by the way, “progress” is just the kind of buzzword therapists love. It’s their catnip. It sounds very self-reflective, but not grandiose.)

The rush of love for your kid, not to mention the constant exposure to other parents to whom you can’t help but compare yourself, can make you feel like a real bummer, like you aren’t doing it right or aren’t doing enough, or having enough fun, or serving enough kale. If you can’t cook or maybe teach the essentials of good pitching technique or tutor in algebra or even play a decent game of hide and seek, you might be hard on yourself, as I can be, because I just want to be good, like a kid just wants to be good. I just want to be ebullient and have a minor in childhood development and maybe another in the art of drawing with sidewalk chalk. Is that too much to ask?

I am who I was before, and I wasn’t exactly making balloon animals and singing songs that require accompanying hand gestures.

What my therapist didn’t mention, because her purpose in that moment was to stop me from panicking about changing, is that what I used to be wasn’t all that glamorous, and that maybe a few changes would do me good.

My son loves rocks, loves trucks, loves being outdoors, loves watching motorcycles whiz by. I don’t inherently enjoy any of these things. The progress is that I’m starting to get it. A pile of rocks has its charm.

Last night, my son stopped his tricycle on the sidewalk and spread himself out on a bed of rocks, staring up at the sky. He motioned to me, and I spread myself out on the pile of rocks right next to him, and we both looked up, saying, “Sky. Trees. Airplane. Birds.” And I genuinely enjoyed the feeling of those rocks against my back, the setting sun on my face. There are times I see a motorcycle and genuinely find myself thinking, “Those are cool.”

Who is this? Did I change a little? Open myself to the little wonders a toddler digs because I want to love him the right way, and to do so I have to get dirty? Am I making the slowest, most imperceptible progress toward being one of the moms I admire? Have I become so lame at expressing myself I just ask a series of rhetorical questions meant to point toward some conclusion? I am still who I was, because I was always decent at experimenting, failing, trying again.

Looking up at the birds, that sounds idyllic and all for most people, but it was just never my thing. Now that my son is my thing, so are his birds and his rocks. I’m just me, with a kid, and grass stains on my heels.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.


Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

Tears flow amidst a determination for democracy

The Jewish community in New York gathered for a memorial service at the Consulate of France Tuesday afternoon.  The well-attended service was organized by Rabbis Joseph Potasnik and Avi Weiss. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Senior Rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, offered the comfort of psalm and prayer.  The warm sun belied the shutter felt deep in the souls of all who listened as Cantor Paul Zim intoned the “El Male Rachamim,” plaintively calling for the souls of the victims to be gathered to Gan Eden.

In a private conversation with Annette Herszkowicz, the aunt of Eva Sandler, widow of the assassinated Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and mother of Gavriel and Aryeh, she spoke of the joy and happiness the Sandlers were enjoying as they began a life of academic and outreach activities in the Jewish community of South Western France.  “They have killed innocents.  Wonderful young people who had no time to enjoy life and happiness,” she said, as tears ran along her cheeks.

“They were so happy.”  Herszkowicz, who had “exchanged blessings” with her sister during a Sunday night telephone call, said she now had no words to say, no way to comfort her sister or her niece.  She has not spoken with them since the tragedy occurred.

Jonathan and Eva Sandler had returned to their native France from their home in Jerusalem only seven months earlier.  He would teach Torah to the Jewish community of South Western France and do kiruv—outreach—in the community.  At 30, he was already well known as a columnist in Kountrass, a Lithuanian Haredi monthly newspaper distributed in France and Israel. He did outreach work as a volunteer for Shoresh, bringing Judaism to secular Jews.

Eva, a mother of three small children, could be close to her mother. Of Sephardic heritage, she was raised in Paris. Jonathan was of Ashkenazi background.  He had studied in Toulouse before making aliyah. Several members of his family had survived Auschwitz, said Herszkowicz.

“They were overjoyed about life, their children, and one another. Jonathan was scholarly, dedicated to enhancing Torah knowledge.  They were reveling in their growing family, pleased with the birth of a little girl, following her two big brothers,” said their disconsolate aunt.

The massacre at the entrance to the Ozar HaTorah Jewish school in Toulouse, France, brought death to four members of Annette Herszkowicz’s family.  Miriam Monsonego, the 8-year-old executed by bullet to the head, was a cousin.  Jonathan Sandler had come to France to teach at the school her father directed.

In Israel, MK Danny Danon, Chair of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, called for an urgent debate stressing that “the attack on the Jewish school in France is a red warning light for the whole of world Jewry. The countries of the world must unite against such attacks against the Jewish People, and take action to destroy the seeds of anti-Semitic terrorism being planted around the world. We shall not permit the pogroms of the early 20th century to be repeated in Europe.” 

In New York, Consul General Philippe Lalliot spoke privately with JointMedia News Service. Calling Monday “a difficult moment for all, but a day of solidarity,” the Consul said, “the entire national community of France is devastated by the tragedy. There is a profound sense of unity.”

Consul General Lalliot continued, saying, “We have to educate people and make sure that all children learn from history” He stated with determination, “This will not happen.  Never Again.  Never again.”

In a conversation with the Consul General and Dr. Paul de Vries, President of the New York Divinity School and member of the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, both the diplomat and the clergyman spoke of their identification with the tragic events as parents.  “The Consul General termed it a “horror that is beyond words. A democracy must remain vigilant,” he continued.  “We must stand for the rights of all people.”  Lalliot commended the spontaneous gathering in support of the Toulouse community when 200,000 gathered in Paris Monday night.  “France is a democracy, governed by the rule of law, not hatred and killing.  We must stand for our principals.”  The Consul was adamant about the need to create awareness from a child’s earliest years.  “We must teach courage, we must teach respect.  We must recognize the core value of every member of humanity.”

The words of New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler reflect the thoughts of many in the American community.

“I am,” he said, “absolutely horrified by the senseless and cowardly act of violence at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, France. That Jews continue to be targets of hate and violence by lunatics and feeble-minded anti-Semites is despicable. And that a madman would single out children is unspeakably depraved and tragic.”

Disabled adults find second family in group home

Tamir Appel scampers to his room to pull out a photo album of his latest trip to visit family in Israel.

He sets it on the dining room table, where some of his housemates are gathered to talk about their daily life at the Ryzman Family Group Home for Men in Valley Village, one of three run by the ” title=”Finding their place” target=”_blank”>Twentysomethings with special needs are mainstreaming themselves into independence


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Finding their place [VIDEO]

Lauren Levine is settling in with a group of friends apartment to watch “American Idol,” when a look of panic comes over her face. She rummages around, finds her keys and darts out.

“I left the hair thing on,” she says when she returns, breathless, from her own apartment downstairs. “I was straightening Jasmine’s hair before we came up here, and I forgot to turn it off. Wow. That was close.”

Levine has wide blue eyes accentuated with sparkly eye shadow, and her voice is spiced with a sense of interested wonder. She wants to be a cosmetologist — she’s taken some classes — but for now she is just happy to be living on her own, and working the front desk at a gym in Century City.

Levine’s developmental delays are less obvious than those of her roommate, Jasmine Banayan, who has Down syndrome. Banayan is gregarious and warm and asserts herself as something of a leader among the dozen or so friends who live in a cluster of apartments in Westwood.

The group gets together every night to hang out at one or another of their homes, or to go out to dinner, and, on Friday nights, the five Jewish members of the group are regulars at Shabbat dinner and services at nearby UCLA Hillel.

All are participants in a parent-led experiment in independent living for adults with developmental or cognitive disabilities.

Today’s 20-somethings with disabilities have grown up at the vanguard of a successful mainstreaming model, and they and their parents now are determined to continue to break the mold, to live adult lives with high expectations, in keeping with the ideal that not only is there a place for them within mainstream society, but that they can contribute in meaningful and enriching ways.

While the impetus for change exists, needed funds won’t necessarily follow. Government budget cuts are endangering existing programs, and start-up costs for new programs can be prohibitive.

Story continues after the video.