The quantum theory of presidential politics


Future events decide what happens in the past.

That’s not science fiction. It’s science. Quantum physics, to be precise.

“Quantum physics is a weird world,” begins a Digital Journal “>Australian scientists confirming the weirdness of quantum theory. “[W]hat happens to particles in the past is only decided when they are observed in the future.” Reality isn’t real until you measure it.

This is pretty mind-blowing, but it doesn’t just occur in the subatomic world. Future events decide the past in presidential politics, too.

We experience politics as a narrative marketplace, where competing stories clamor for attention. Those stories are unstable. Each day’s news requires retroactive adjustments. When a candidate moves ahead or falls behind, when a president’s fortunes turn, hindsight requires us to revise the past – to reverse-engineer a new plot that leads inexorably to an event we didn’t see coming but that just happened.

Barack Obama entered the national political narrative with his red states/blue states/United States speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention. Best. Orator. Ever. His Philadelphia speech on race during the 2008 campaign was acclaimed as honest and inspirational. You would think those events would have cemented his reputation for eloquence, and for thoughtfulness on racial issues. But during his first term, a counter-narrative captured attention: the Republican talking point mocking him for being clueless without a “>paper published in Science last year reported on a study conducted from 1974 to 2014 that tracked how Americans have remembered and forgotten presidents. Most people could name nine: the Founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison); the Civil War era (Lincoln, Johnson, Grant); the World War II presidents (Roosevelt and Truman). But after Truman, as a New York Times

Analysis: Gaza crisis is opportunity for Obama


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Does the mini-war underway between Israel and Hamas in and around the Gaza Strip present President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration with a crisis or an opportunity?

Israel’s aerial bombardment, the most intensive in the Gaza Strip in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has killed at least 320 people, most of them militants belonging to the terrorist group Hamas, although tens of children were reported dead in surprise attacks on the crowded strip.

The assault, which started Saturday, came after days of intensified rocket attacks launched from Gaza on Israel’s southern towns and farms. The Palestinian rocket fire, launched even before a Hamas-Israel ceasefire formally lapsed Dec. 19, has killed at least four Israelis and is emptying the south of its residents. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, warned of “all-out war,” possibly including a land invasion

Buried beneath the fretting over whether the renewed conflict would kill talks between Israel and the relatively moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority were hints that it could in fact bolster the negotiations, if only by marginalizing Hamas. That, in turn, could help Obama clear the ground for a breakthrough, a prospect Obama’s team seemed to recognize by limiting its reactions to expressions of support for Israel.

“He’s going to work closely with the Israelis,” David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday when asked about the outbreak. “They’re a great ally of ours, the most important ally in the region. And that is a fundamental principle from which he’ll work.”

Washington pundits and officials in European capitals are casting the flare up as a crisis that could scuttle Obama’s stated intention of developing talks — first launched a year ago by the Bush administration — into a final status agreement.

Jackson Diehl, the deputy editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page, said the war was the final failure for Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister who is to leave office by March to face corruption charges. “His failure represents another missed opportunity for Middle East peace — and probably means that the incoming Obama administration, like the incoming Bush administration of 2001, will inherit both a new round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and a new Israeli government indisposed to compromise,” Diehl wrote in Monday’s Post.

Meanwhile, Israel is casting the war first of all as one of necessity: The bombardment of Israel’s south, in the days before Israel launched its aerial counter attacks, at times reached 70 rockets a day. The effect has been to devastate the region’s economy and to create levels of anxiety that Israelis regard as intolerable; the retaliatory strikes earned the support of the vast majority of Israelis in weekend polling.

Sallai Meridor, the Israeli envoy to Washingtons, cautioned that the action was not undertaken with the peace process in mind. “The direct reason for these activities is to remove a threat over the head of 500,000 Israelis — not a theoretical threat, a real one,” Meridor told JTA. “Three were killed only today. No country would sacrifice its citizens to terror.”

Meridor added, however, that an Israeli success could have salutary effects on the peace process. “Indirectly, the chances for peace are dependent on the weakening of the enemies of peace. If Hamas strengthens, the chances of peace weaken; if Hamas weakens, it contributes to the chances of peace.”

In remarks Sunday to his Cabinet, Olmert said the aim was to “restore normal life and quiet to residents of the south who — for many years — have suffered from unceasing rocket and mortar fire and terrorism designed to disrupt their lives and prevent them from enjoying a normal, relaxed and quiet life, as the citizen of any country is entitled to.”

Another factor might be political calculation. Little love is lost between Olmert and his government partners: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has assumed control of his Kadima Party, and Barak, who heads the Labor Party. Yet Olmert, Livni and Barak are united in hopes of keeping Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition Likud Party who has vowed to bring talks with the Palestinian to a halt, from coming to power; the first post-assault polls show their chances of doing that substantially improving.

The effect Israel’s current leadership sought was not simply to remind the public that doves are capable of defending Israel, but that the onslaught would help reinforce the current round of talks. The aim, Director of the Shin Bet security service Yuval Diskin suggested at the weekly Cabinet meeting, is to isolate Hamas. “The mood among a not unsubstantial part of the Palestinian population understands that the operation is against Hamas, which has inflicted great suffering on the residents of Gaza,” Diskin said in remarks relayed by Oved Yehezkel, the Cabinet secretary.

That approach was echoed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in remarks Monday on P.A. television.

“I say in all honesty, we made contact with leaders of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip,” Abbas said in a translation made available by Palestinian Media Watch. “We spoke with them in all honesty and directly, and after that we spoke with them indirectly, through more than one Arab and non-Arab side … We spoke with them on the telephone and we said to them: We ask of you, don’t stop the ceasefire, the ceasefire must continue and not stop, in order to avoid what has happened, and if only we had avoided it.”

Ziad Asali, an Abbas ally who founded the American Task Force on Palestine, said it was notable that Abbas and other Arab leaders were muted in their calls on Israel to draw back.

“There is a certain withholding of outright support” for Hamas “that usually would accrue to any party in active conflict with Israel,” he said.

Arab frustration with Hamas stemmed from its refusal until now to defer to Abbas as the lead negotiator in peace talks and its insistence on armed conflict as the only way to confront Israel, Asali said.

“There is no military solution to this conflict,” he said. “At the end of the day there has to be a negotiating process, and the people who are clearly authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians are the P.A. folks.”

He warned, however, that there was a limited window to exploit Hamas’ marginalization, and joined a number of dovish pro-Israel groups — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum — in calling for an immediate cease-fire.

“We don’t know how the parties on the ground will react,” Asali said. “We see ever increasing human suffering in Gaza that would add to the pressure to bring about some kind of ceasefire.”

Should the bloodshed intensify, the sufferings of ordinary Palestinians, joined with public outrage on the “Arab street” with Israel’s actions and the chaotic nature of the conflict, could turn an opportunity into a crisis — and an Obama administration faced with a crisis on Jan. 21 might not be equipped to respond.

“The issue is how urgently they would prioritize this conflict,” Asali said.

Hamas’ responsibility for re-launching hostilities, coupled with a desire to corner the terrorist group into deferring to Abbas’ negotiations with Israel, was likely behind the near unanimous backing in Washington for Israel’s actions.

Most significant was the Obama transition team’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s right to respond, albeit expressed with the requisite deference to George W. Bush as the sitting president.

“The president-elect recognizes the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” Axelord, Obama’s adviser, said on CBS. “It’s an important bond, an important relationship. He’s going to honor it. And he wants to be a constructive force in helping to bring about the peace and security that both the Israelis and the Palestinians want and deserve. And obviously, this situation has become even more complicated in the last couple of days and weeks as Hamas began its shelling and Israel responded.”

Pressed, Axelrod suggested Obama’s strategy would be shaped by his own visit over the summer to Israel’s frontlines.

“He said then that when the bombs are raining down on your citizens, there is an urge to respond and act and try and put an end to that,” Axelrod said. “You know, that’s what he said then, and I think that’s what he believes.”

The Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties also issued statements squarely blaming Hamas, followed up with pleas to Israel to curb civilian casualties.

“Peace between Israelis and Palestinians cannot result from daily barrages of rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza,” U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement. “Hamas and its supporters must understand that Gaza cannot and will not be allowed to be a sanctuary for attacks on Israel. “

The White House sounded a similar note: “Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop. Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people. The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza.”

The dark side of Chanukah


Almost anyone who celebrates Chanukah today knows at least the rudimentary outline of its story. A righteous Judean clan in the 2nd century B.C.E. led an uprising against Greek-influenced Seleucid rulers who had desecrated the Temple and outlawed the traditional practices of Judaism. The revolt led to the recapture of Jerusalem, the purification of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

But there are a number of darker events related to Chanukah and its aftermath that have been swept away in the aroma of frying latkes and the whiz of spinning dreidels. The first is that the war Chanukah commemorates was in fact a civil war, fought between Hellenizing Jewish reformers and Jewish traditionalists whose Temple-centric life had been severely compromised by Greek influence and rule. The fratricidal conflict consumed 34 years in the life of the nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

With the conquest of Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. and the complete defeat (although annihilation would be a better description) of the Hellenizers 22 years later, the lone surviving brother, Simon the Maccabee, stood widely recognized as ethnarch and high priest of the first independent Jewish state in 440 years. It would, then, be his progeny and descendants who would dominate Judean life over the next century.

Simon was succeeded by his able and fervent son John Hyrcanus, who expanded the realm and remained faithful to the example laid down by his father and uncles. It was during the reign of his grandson, Alexander Jannaeus (104 B.C.E.-76 B.C.E.), however, that the Hasmonean legend began to disintegrate. Alexander had no interest in the religious fervor of his ancestors and exhibited a particular hatred for religious rigorist sects, such as the Pharisees and Essenes. He carefully aligned himself with the upper-class Sadducees and in one incident massacred 6,000 Pharisee worshippers in the Temple courtyard after receiving a personal insult from them during the Festival of Sukkot. The incident spurred the renewal of a civil war that resulted in 50,000 more Jewish deaths. In one further event, after returning to Jerusalem following a victorious campaign in the north, Alexander had 800 of his Jewish male prisoners crucified, but not before murdering their wives and children before their very eyes.

After the death of Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmoneans continued as rulers of Judea for another 40 years — in and out of civil war — until finally being all but eliminated by Herod the Great (37 B.C.E.-4 B.C.E.), an Idumean usurper who feared the family as a threat to his rule.

The point of recalling this gruesome tale is to illustrate a historical truism. History often comes full circle, rendering meaningless the achievements of previous generations because memory has lapsed and the commitment to former ideals is absent. The Hasmoneans began as liberators and ended as oppressors. They started as fervent adherents to Judaism and concluded as its deniers. In the end, they far more resembled the Greek-inspired Hellenizers they had fought to eliminate than the vaunted redeemers portrayed in legend.

Ancient Judea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, also has much to learn from the historical lessons of the Hasmoneans. As a country that formed 60 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, the current state is transforming into a bitter parody of itself. Rampant political corruption, an incompetent and self-serving echelon of leaders, an oligarchical economic structure that places 60 percent of the country’s assets in the hands of less than 1 percent of its population and a poverty level that hovers around 33 percent, are all signs of the imminent collapse of idealism and foundational principles. The abandonment of the Jews of Gaza, evicted from their homes in 2005, is yet another sad example of how deeply bruised is the Israeli notion of respect for and protection of Jewish life, property and dignity.

It is important to remember that men can never predict how their descendants will act or how their legacy of achievement will be treated. But the burning question the full Hasmonean story presents to us is how can nations protect the memory of past struggles and make them meaningful and relevant for the current generation? Ironically, the institution of the Festival of Chanukah was such an attempt. And in large part it succeeded. But the nagging question remains — why did things go so terribly wrong in ancient Judea within such a relatively short period of time? Given our current national challenges, this Chanukah our thoughts should be firmly on that question, as much as on the great Hasmonean triumphs of 2,000 years ago.

Avi Davis is the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance.

Q&A with Howard Blume: What’s next for LAUSD with Brewer gone?


Last week the Los Angeles Unified School District board voted to spend more than $500,000 to buy out the two remaining years on the contract of Superintendent David L. Brewer III, a retired Navy vice admiral who took over the struggling district two years ago. Brewer’s supporters point out that under his leadership, test scores have risen, more students have graduated, a malfunctioning payroll system was fixed and voters passed the largest-ever school bonds package.

Critics say Brewer’s lack of experience in education made him an ineffective leader unable to push through the radical reforms needed to shore up a district with some of the nation’s lowest retention rates, per-student spending and test scores. With midyear cuts necessary to close a budget deficit of up to $400 million this year and a deeper deficit projected for next year, critics said there was no time to waste in removing Brewer.

Ramon Cortines, a retired superintendent who stepped in to lead LAUSD in 2000 and who since April has been serving as Brewer’s second in command running the district’s day-to-day operations, is likely to take over as acting superintendent until a replacement is found.

Howard Blume, education writer for the Los Angeles Times, was a lead reporter on this story, and has been covering education in Los Angeles for 20 years, with a brief tenure as an editor at The Jewish Journal. He answered some questions about what Brewer’s departure means for Los Angeles.

Jewish Journal: In the current economic climate, we’ve been hearing a lot about Jewish parents considering sending their kids to public school after having been at Jewish day schools or at independent schools. What do you think this whole mess means for parents who are taking a fresh look at public schools?

Howard Blume: It’s hard to say. It does mean that forces that have been impatient with the pace of reform feel that they have won a victory, because they were never entirely sold on Superintendent Brewer, although he vigorously defends his record. Both inside and outside the school district there have been influential forces who feel that things have not been changing and improving fast enough, and most of those have applauded this move.

For parents contemplating L.A. Unified, there generally have been acceptable, high-quality programs for parents who are willing to make the effort to find them and go through the process necessary, which can be a bit of an ordeal. Those would be applying to magnet programs, investigating charter schools, or Schools for Advanced Studies, which is basically a renaming of what used to be called a gifted program.

In some ways, where the district has failed in the eyes of many is with families who feel they don’t have a choice. In the poorer areas of Los Angeles, where families cannot afford private school, many of those schools would be absolutely unacceptable to middle-class families, and they’re frankly unacceptable to many of the families that are in them, but they don’t really have much choice.

JJ: It seems like part of what is going on is indicative of problems in the larger system — the size of the school district, the huge bureaucracy, the politics. Do you think this will push forward some serious systemic changes?

HB: It could. Brewer believed systemic changes were necessary, and his critics felt that he wasn’t always making the right decisions and he wasn’t able to get the system to respond to his ideas, even when he was headed in the right direction, because in some cases there is a lot of resistance to change.

There is also a lot of disagreement over what the changes should be. When you have different forces having different beliefs in how to fix things, then it really does take a superintendent who knows what he wants to do and also has the moxie to pull it off.

JJ: It seems as if politics played a huge role in this — racial and ethnic politics, mayoral politics, school board races — and the students are the ones who got stuck in the middle of this mess.

HB: If you’re Brewer, it’s all about politics, because he knows he’s trying hard and he thinks he’s done a good job. If you’re Brewer’s critics, it’s not about politics at all, it’s about finding a way through the political process ultimately to remove the superintendent to find a more effective leader.

So how you interpret the politics of the situation and whether you interpret it positively or negatively depends on whether you think Brewer was effective.

What ultimately happened is the board exercised its right to buy out his contract, and they paid the price for it — and that is not that unusual when you have a change in the board majority. Sometimes the superintendent simply loses favor, but other times what happens is that a different board majority will get elected and wants to choose their own person.

While it’s not uncommon, it’s not necessarily a good thing. One of the problems school districts have in this country is a lack of stable leadership.

JJ: Even if it’s not uncommon, a $500,000 buyout seems extreme when you have this huge deficit looming over the district.

HB: They’re looking at midyear cuts of $200 million to $400 million, which is an incredible task to do because you’re halfway through the year.

You’ve already spent the money on half the program of the year, so it would double the impact of the cut. For example, if you cut one teacher at the beginning of the year, now you have to cut two teachers to make the equivalent impact. Next year you’re looking at an additional $400 million deficit and another deficit of similar parameters the year after that, so they are in major budget-cutting mode.

JJ: I guess the feeling was that $500,000 spent on getting Brewer out right now was worth it.

HB: The feeling was not unanimous. Two board members voted against it. The vote was five to two. And some people believe that the job of superintendent is really too big for one person, and it actually made some sense to divide the job between Cortines and Brewer. They felt that things are actually going pretty well with the dual leadership arrangement. But that view did not prevail.

There has been some pressure externally and internally for a Latino superintendent, given that more than two thirds of the students are Latinos and many of those are limited English speakers, so it isn’t as though that’s entirely irrelevant. And it also must be said that advocates for black students feel that they’ve never really gotten the attention they deserved in the district and that their dropout rate and that their scores on standardized tests attest to the lack of focus on black students.

When Brewer was chosen, while I think the school board felt it was choosing the right person for the job at the right time, they also were aware that it could be politically tricky for Villaraigosa, as a Latino mayor, to engineer the ouster of an African American superintendent, especially before he had chance to prove himself. So while it may not have been the reason the prior board went with Brewer, they knew that by choosing Brewer they would hamstring Villaraigosa’s influence in making a change, especially early on. Now, at the time they didn’t know what was going to happen, because Villaraigosa at that point was trying to take over the school district or at least gain authority and it looked like he might succeed. It turned out he was unable to do that, and instead he elected a new board majority that was never won over by Brewer.

With Villaraigosa’s own re-election looming, he did not want a repeat of what happened with Jim Hahn, when Jim Hahn lost support of many black voters because he failed to renew the contract of an African American police chief. The thinking now was that Villaraigosa has some political space to act because no well-funded challenger has emerged against Villaraigosa. I also heard that they wanted to act before the question of superintendency became an issue in the upcoming school board races, because that could repoliticize the issues all over again.

But now to the last part of the question — was Brewer replaced because of racist tendencies, or would he turn this into ethnic issue? I think he in the end decided not to do that. If Brewer had been able to persuade the board that he was the right fit for the job, it would not have mattered to them in the end, even though there was some pressure to bring in a Latino. He could, for example, have done what he did, which was bring in a Latino educator to work under him. Had they been satisfied with Brewer, bringing in Cortines underneath him probably would have been enough.

JJ: This is a huge, problem-fraught district, and Brewer points to significant successes under his leadership. Do you think Brewer had enough time to prove himself? Do you think he got a fair chance?

HB: Superintendent Brewer correctly points out that test scores rose while he was here and the school district passed the largest school bond ever.

And he also points to other measures that he regards as positive. The problem is you’re not going to a get a read on the success of his superintendency until far down the road, so the school board is in the difficult situation of having to make a judgment based on inconclusive evidence. And in fact the short-term evidence points arguably favorably toward Brewer, but they felt he wasn’t the solution for the long haul and they weren’t willing to wait to see that play out. If they’re right about that, than that’s the right decision, because you don’t want the fate of children to be diminished because you’re bending over backward to give top administrators a chance to prove themselves.

But if you’re asking flat out, did he have enough time to settle the question irrefutably about whether he was an effective superintendent, probably not.

Broadband: Not for kids only


“It doesn’t matter if my parents have broadband or not — they’re just as clueless about a computer with a fast connection to the Internet as a slow one.”

The words came from a musician in his 20s, a well-educated African American who works with artists in hip-hop culture. He was one of seven of us sharing a table in the ballroom of the Radisson Hotel across the street from USC, and we were among a couple hundred people who turned out the other weekend for a Los Angeles town hall meeting about the future of the Internet.

As I drove to the meeting, Barack Obama was on the radio explaining how he intended to spend the massive economic stimulus package he was preparing. I heard him say it would go to improving the American infrastructure in a way that would eclipse even the building of the transcontinental highway system during the Eisenhower years, and that he’d invest billions in roads, schools, sewer systems, mass transit, dams, electrical grids and other public utilities. I heard him say he’ll be asking Congress to create green jobs, whose workers will build windmills, install solar panels, develop alternative fuels
and retrofit homes with fuel-efficient heating and cooling systems.

But it was when he talked about broadband that he really got my attention. “It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption,” he said. “Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online.” When it comes to infrastructure, the Information Superhighway isn’t just a metaphor any more.

What the president-elect didn’t say, though I learned it at the town hall meeting, was that America descended to our 15th-place standing during the Bush years, at the start of which we had been fourth. He might have added that broadband is way more expensive and way slower in the United States than in many other countries. The average broadband offering in Japan is 10 times faster than the average service available to U.S. consumers — at half the cost. People in countries like Finland, France, Korea, Sweden and Italy also pay less to get more.

Though Obama singled out children as particularly in need of access to the Internet, he could also have pointed to the economic, geographic and racial dimensions of the digital divide. While only 24 percent of American households earning more than $50,000 per year are not connected to the Internet, nearly three times that amount — 65 percent — of homes with less than $50,000 in annual income are not online. Nearly 60 percent of rural households don’t subscribe to broadband. Fifty-five percent of white households have broadband, compared to 36 percent of black and 35 percent of Latino households.

I’d be thrilled if every kid in the country had broadband. Accomplishing only that would at the same time put a nice dent in the economic, geographic and racial disparities in high-speed access to the Internet. What troubles me is that it could have minimal impact on the Americans who aren’t spring chickens — like the parents of my hip-hop tablemate who don’t go online.

Don’t get me wrong. I know people in their 90s who browse the Web and people in their 80s who are more adept at editing video online than I am. I know baby boomers who are on Facebook, much to their children’s chagrin. I know many people who are not young enough to have grown up using computers, but who nevertheless read political blogs obsessively, upload pictures to Flickr, watch television clips on YouTube and television programs on hulu, use Zillow to find out how much their houses are worth, get driving directions from Mapquest and Google the people their kids are dating.

But I suspect that the reason I know so many adults who depend on broadband is that most of the people I know are older and more educated and affluent and white than the majority of the country. At my table at the Internet for Everyone town hall, there was a librarian who described the stream of people who had no computer at home — who came to the library because they were told to apply for a job online but had no idea how to use a Web browser to do that and no e-mail address to put on their application. A Latina at my table, who works in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park neighborhood, described parents who have no idea how to help their children use a computer to do homework. These Americans are as important to our economic and civic life as everyone else.

What’s the downside to focusing a national broadband build-out on schoolchildren? Sure, it’ll prepare them for the future. But it’s their parents who are being laid off and who need all the information they can get about job alternatives and emergency assistance. And it’s their parents and grandparents who need the Internet to participate in political movements, to pry information out of governments and hold officials accountable, to give voice to community concerns and give reach to minority views. Like it or not, broadband has become the spine of our economy and the glue of our society, and every American adult who can’t easily get online is as disenfranchised as every kid who doesn’t have access to broadband is disadvantaged.

If you’d like to be part of the conversation that began at the Radisson, you can do it via an online forum — the Digital Town Hall at

Don’t cut support to innovative nonprofits


From New York to Los Angeles to San Francisco, the impact of the global financial crisis feels like an eerie parallel to the days after Sept. 11. No one knows whether the acute phase is over or whether there will be further shocks. For some, little has changed; for others, life will never be the same. Everyone knows someone who has been directly affected.

Our major institutions are struggling to adjust, react, prepare but most of all to respond to those most harmed. News outlets strive to explain and advise; houses of worship have added services; social service agencies brace for increased demand even as they anticipate reduced charitable and government support. Each organization is focused on what it can do to minimize and mitigate the effects of the crisis on our city, our country and our world.

Amid this outpouring of effort, we have been dismayed by intimations, in the Jewish media and elsewhere, that smaller, newer nonprofit organizations will and perhaps ought to lose funding support in order to allocate more to immediate concerns: a warm meal, a place to stay, income stabilization. While we agree that protecting the most fragile is key, we disagree with this last-hired, first-fired funding mentality.

The argument against the new nonprofits is both simple and disingenuous. The simple argument is that they are risky investments, ephemeral champions of the latest passing fads. The disingenuous argument is that these innovators are self-indulgent narcissists, insubstantial and erosive of the communal fabric. These arguments are not only wrong, they are counterproductive.

Far from risky ventures, new start-ups like Darkhei Noam, Hadar, Jewish Milestones, IKAR and the Progressive Jewish Alliance actually are fulfilling the promise of engaging a new generation of Jews in their own idiom and on their own terms. It is this generation’s connection to Judaism that ultimately will determine the future of Jewish life and of its larger institutions. They build innovative new minyanim and educate young leaders who in turn will strengthen their communities. They develop, test and promote new models of community involvement that will be the foundation for generations to come.

From Hazon to Jewish Mosaic to Matan to Sharsheret, they use new tools and methods to promote environmental responsibility, ensure our community welcomes Jews of all backgrounds, widen the reach of special education and put resources into the hands of those afflicted with deadly diseases — all missions at heightened risk in the period of social and economic turmoil we are entering.

While the big boys debate scalpels and hatchets, these new start-ups quietly perform laparoscopies without cutting open the patient. Bootstrapped together with all the advantages of today’s cost-saving technologies that many established Jewish organizations have yet to discover, these start-ups are models of industry and investment that will help America emerge from recession. They can feed for a year on what their larger brethren consume in an hour. They are lean, staffed more austerely than their older, bigger peers and subsist by sweat equity donated by those for whom they mean a great deal.

Putting the attention on new start-ups distracts us from asking the tough questions of our most venerable institutions, many of which have lost sight of their original missions in the struggle for institutional survival.

But these start-ups are also fragile, without reserves to fall back on, and do not yet possess long-term funding relationships to be called upon in times of crisis. They lack the confidence and reputation — and the sheer seniority — conferred on larger nonprofits by decades of service. Questioning the viability, merit or necessity of nascent nonprofit organizations risks becoming self-fulfilling. Moreover, it’s unfair to do so without also challenging the unquestioned assumptions governing larger nonprofits.

New ventures are essential to our recovery and are ideal places for funders to invest to stabilize the community. Individual or institutional funders seeking ways to make fewer dollars go further should take a closer look at the group of emerging nonprofit organizations ready to rise to the occasion if given a chance. These new groups do far more than put on hip-hop concerts and publish risqué magazines. From a communal investment perspective, these organizations provide tremendous value.

Just as after Sept. 11, the priority is on rebuilding — not only our portfolios but also our souls. We must succor those re-examining their values and goals, and support those for whom economic distress leads to personal distress. Financial crisis is often the mother of religious crisis, during which the quest for meaning becomes not only more potent but more critical. It is precisely in trying times that we must focus on efforts that can best distill and transmit the essence of Jewish values in today’s complex and decentralized world.

The age of an organization doesn’t correlate to the significance of its mission. In 1798, when our new nation faced a grave economic and political threat from France, John Adams summoned leaders of each of the nation’s diverse faiths to organize “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer,” during which citizens were asked to pray “that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it.” The message was clear — strengthening committed communities strengthens our nation.

The new groups formed by our most gifted social entrepreneurs are just such committed communities — some religious and others not — and now is the hour when they can do their finest work.

Shawn Landres is the CEO of Jumpstart, a thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation in Los Angeles. Toby E. Rubin is the founder/CEO of UpStart Bay Area, igniting Jewish ideas and supporting Jewish start-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Martin Kaminer is the New York-based chair of the board of Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas.

Obama — who won 78% of Jewish vote — faces global disarray, Mideast challenges


WASHINGTON (JTA) – Barack Obama emerges from a maelstrom into a vacuum.

The U.S. senator from Illinois has survived the longest and roughest election season in memory to assume control of a free world in free fall: A collapsing economy, a resurgent Iran, an obstreperous Russia.

“He’s going to have his hands full with a recession, a housing crisis, Wall Street, domestic legislation, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran,” said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Center for Near East Policy.

No matter who was elected president, they would have to to re-accrue the political capital squandered by President Bush in his last years of office, said Steven Spiegel, a political scientist at UCLA. Obama, however, makes a better case than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his Republican rival, Spiegel said.

“What Obama is really offering is the olive branch in one hand and the other is a fist,” he said.

Conservatives and some Republicans tried to use Obama’s exotic background against him, particularly in the Jewish community. But in the end, voters went with the son of a woman from small-town Kansas and a nominally Muslim father from the Kenyan hills–a choice that some observers say will be likelier to repair relations with an international community alienated by a president who once famously said nations either stand with or against the United States.

“Obama can say ‘I’m a different person with a different approach, we’re going to work with you on global warming, family planning, we’re going to be broader in our approach, we’re not looking for fights with Russia, we have a much more nuanced policy,” Spiegel said.

M.J. Rosenberg, the legislative director of the Israel Policy Forum, which strongly favors an increased U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, said Obama’s unlikely path to the presidency was a game-changer when it comes to foreign policy.

“He was elected to the Senate four years ago, he defeated Hillary Clinton, he defeated John McCain, he’s African American. Because it’s a transformational presidency, he can do things other presidents might not have been able to do,” Rosenberg said.

It is precisely this possibility of possibility that excites or worries Jewish political activists, depending on their political stripes. Obama’s Jewish backers argue that his victory will provide a significant boost in U.S. credibility and influence that can be used to increase international pressure on Iran and support for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Detractors, on the other hand, have predicted that in his desire to win international respect, Obama could end up pressuring Israel and backing away from confrontation with Iran.

What’s clear, experts say, is that Obama faces an almost unprecedented challenge for a new president. Yoram Peri, a Tel Aviv University political scientist on sabbatical at American University in Washington, described a world facing fundamental historic changes.

“I’m thinking of periods such as after the Second World War when the super powers devised a new world, or the Vienna Congress” of 1814-1815 that re-configured Europe. “You need a complicated, comprehensive approach to the new situation.”

Don’t worry too much about Obama being “tested” as a young, inexperienced president, as the McCain campaign had charged, said Yitzhak Reiter, a Hebrew University professor who just published “War, Peace and International Relations in Islam”.

“Being an Israeli, I know that whenever a radical group has a plan in mind and are able to carry it out, they carry it out,” he said. “If they were able to challenge America, they would have done it by now.”

The most serious challenge, Peri said, is the potential of an Iran with nuclear weapons – a possibility, Israel believes, that could occur within two years.

“It will totally change the balance of power in the Middle East, not just because Iran might use the bomb, but because conventional power has been defined by non-conventional power, the fear that Israel has a nuclear capability,” he said. With a nuclear Iran, “assuming Hezbollah or Syria attacks Israel, Israel will be deterred from deterring them.”

The same goes for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states that fear Iranian hegemony. “The whole balance of power in the conventional sphere changes,” Peri said.

Obama’s likely path may be determined by those who advises him, Peri said, noting the preponderance of Clinton administration veterans who favor diplomatic engagement as the best path for ensuring Israel’s security. For example, in recent months, former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross has emerged as Obama’s senior adviser on Israel and Iran; and his top staffer on Jewish issues has been another Clinton administration veteran, Daniel Shapiro.

“The people I know who are surrounding Obama have a more progressive view of the Middle East, want to see a peace between Israel and Palestinians, they see the differences in the Arab world and understand you have to take into account Arab interests vis-a-vis Iran,” Peri said.

Ross argues that the United States needs to play a more consistent and involved role in Israeli-Palestinian talks. But he also has ruled out the establishment of any “artificial” timelines for establishing a Palestinian state. On Iran, Ross has echoed Obama in arguing that the United States needs to increase its level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran–but says such an approach must be coupled with tougher sanctions in order to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Mitchell Bard, the director of the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise and the author of “Will Israel Survive?,” was heartened by the Obama campaign’s stated intention to make Iran a priority in its first months. “He has to make some decisions early on to create some action to prevent Iran from getting to the point of no return,” Bard said.

He said Obama’s ability, proven during his campaign, to build alliances across the political spectrum would serve him well.

“He has the personal chemistry, the potential for building relationships,” Bard said, noting that Bush’s first term was well served by the personal relationship he developed with Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time, despite policy differences.

Spiegel said Obama’s willingness to engage diplomatically suggested he would succeed where the Bush administration ran into a wall, in building an international alliance to isolate Iran.

“Obama starts out popular, people want to establish good relations; it’s going to be much easier to sell sanctions,” he said.

Under those circumstances, Spiegel said, Iran should soon face a ban on imports of refined fuel. Iran, with a refining infrastructure in disarray, relies on imports for 40 percent of its petroleum use. Such a ban, coupled with the decline in the price of crude, should hit the Iranian economy hard.

“If the price of oil is dropping and not rising, and with truly effective sanctions, then you’ve got a much better chance” of getting Iran to stand down from its weapons program, he said.

Obama has said he would couple sanctions with diplomatic outreach as a means of persuading Iran. Makovsky predicted that such an outreach would not take place until after Iranian presidential elections next summer in order not to hand a victory to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and who wishes Israel did not exist.



Jewish vote: Obama 78-21

By Eric Fingerhut

The first exit poll on the Jewish vote is out, and it has Barack Obama bettering John Kerry’s Jewish vote total from four years ago.

The preliminary poll, which is likely to be updated later this evening or tomorrow, has Obama receiving 78 percent of the Jewish vote, to just 21 percent for John McCain. Kerry garnered 74 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, and Al Gore won 79 percent of the Jewish vote (with a Jewish running mate) eight years ago. The Jewish vote was 2 percent of the poll sample.

If those numbers hold up, it would vindicate Jewish Democrats like Rep. Robert Wexler, who claimed this summer — to skeptical reporters at the Democratic convention — that Obama would hit traditional levels of the Jewish vote for Democratic presidential candidates. At the time, Obama had been totaling slightly more than 60 percent in polls of Jewish voters.



If such outreach fails, Makovsky said, an Obama administration will at least have earned greater credibility if it is forced into a military option.

“If those negotiations don’t work, he will have some very tough calls to make but he will probably believe he is stronger for having made the approach,” he said.

Obama, who emphasized the Iraq quagmire during much of his campaign, was until recently believed to be likelier than McCain to have attempted to reshape the international alignment, tamping down tensions with Russia and refocusing international attention on Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That is less likely now with the economic crisis, Peri said. “Without the economic crisis, I think global issues would have been dealt with sooner,” he said.

Even with narrower expectations, experts agreed that the likeliest beneficiary of Obama’s victory in the Middle East would be Israel-Syria talks; Bush has discouraged this track, and McCain’s campaign suggested they would have continued that policy.

Israel and Syria, having engaged in back-channel talks through Turkey, have all but reached an agreement, including security arrangements, analysts say. Syria is seen as close to agreeing to pull itself out of Iran’s orbit and to cut off terrorist groups. The remaining obstacle is Syria’s desire to get back into the good graces of the United States, something that American hawks have been resisting in part because of Syria’s continued designs on Lebanon.

“It won’t take more than a few months to reach an agreement,” Peri said. “With a green light from the United States, the deal is done.”

Another factor favoring a Syrian agreement is that all the leading candidates in the Israeli elections – including Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu – have in the past committed themselves to a peace with Syria that would include a concession of at least part of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Experts disagreed on what the Obama victory means for Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Peri and Makovsky noted the intractability of the Palestinian split, between moderates in the West Bank and Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip–a balance of power many believe makes the creation of a Palestinian state impossible at this time.

But Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum predicted that despite the Palestinian disarray, Obama would press the negotiations forward. The outline of an agreement is known, and achieving it would facilitate every other foreign policy initiative, he said.

“You get a hell a lot of mileage out of getting these two peoples together,” Rosenberg said. “A president who has the leadership to have a signing ceremony looks like a magician.”

But Obama’s Jewish detractors are concerned. Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his group had deep-seated worries about Obama, but as a tax-exempt organization could not speak of them until now.

“We are worried that he will put enormous pressure on Israel to make one-sided concessions to the Palestinian Arabs without demanding that the Palestinian Arabs fulfill their obligations” under peace agreements, Klein said.

Klein cited as a basis for his concerns Obama’s advisers, including Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Tel Aviv who has counseled pressuring Israel, and friendships with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi, all strident critics of Israel.

Regarding Iran, Klein referred to Obama’s pledge last year to meet with Ahmadinejad, saying: “Someone who said he will sit down with this Iranian Hitler, Ahmadinehjad, without preconditions is clearly someone who will not do what needs to be done to prevent nuclear weapons in his hands.”

Livni must demonstrate new type of leadership


Tzipi Livni’s victory in the Kadima Party primary is the result of the Israeli version of the clamor for change that we are seeing across the democratic world. She prevailed despite ruthless attacks on her experience, her judgment, her appearance and her gender. Her record of probity, her straightforward style and — most significantly — her decidedly civilian aura definitely worked in her favor.

But does Livni have it in her to capitalize on these currents and take the risks necessary to cement a new kind of politics in Israel?

She faces incredible opportunities and formidable challenges. Ultimately, the test of her leadership rests on her ability to move Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to an equitable and durable conclusion.

The new head of Kadima must begin to prepare herself and her party for the likelihood of new elections in the spring. Her main opponents — Ehud Barak of Labor and Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud — justifiably perceive her as the single-most- serious threat to their respective political ambitions.

These two former prime ministers hoping for a second chance cannot ignore the polls that consistently show Kadima under Livni’s leadership pulverizing Barak’s Labor Party and giving Netanyahu’s Likud Party a close contest. That is why they did everything in their power during the primaries to promote Livni’s main intraparty rival, Shaul Mofaz. Now, they can be expected to step up their attacks on her.

Livni also faces ambiguity abroad. Indeed, her key negotiating partners present their own set of challenges. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way out, as may be Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose term is set to expire next January.

Under these circumstances, the conventional wisdom is that Livni has two diametrically opposed options: She can put negotiations on the back burner and call for new elections as soon as possible, in the hope of taking advantage of her current popularity to consolidate her political position. Or, she can try to delay new elections as long as possible — by acceding to inevitably exorbitant demands from coalition partners — and use the limited amount of time at her disposal to reach an accord with the Palestinians.

Livni may be sorely tempted to follow the first course. Her advisers and some of her closest supporters believe that continuing the negotiating process that began last year in Annapolis would be an electoral liability, especially given the growing preoccupation of the Israeli electorate with domestic socioeconomic issues.

Opting to proceed quickly to the polls, while forgoing the possibility of making progress on the Palestinian front, Livni would be left with little ability to affect policy in the immediate term. Livni might then opt to fall back on a politics rooted in style and personality in the run-up to new elections.

Should she choose this route, however, she will be playing directly into Netanyahu’s hands. He knows full well that several months can be a lifetime in politics, enough to darken Livni’s halo with clouds of doubt regarding her leadership abilities and her decisiveness. Wrangling with recalcitrant party cohorts and getting muddied in Israel’s political quagmire would risk sacrificing the clean image that ushered her to where she is today.

But forming a new government without elections may be impossible, given the distribution of seats in the current Knesset, especially since only Labor — which can expect to do poorly at the polls — has a strong interest in maintaining a Kadima-led government. And even if a coalition arrangement is reached, the political price would be prohibitive. Capitulating to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party would prove to be a major liability down the line in terms of public opinion, and striking a deal with the Palestinians would, in any event, probably destabilize such a tenuous coalition.

Thankfully, Livni does not have to buy into the binary vise devised by the pundits. There is a third alternative: She can call for new elections and, in the meantime, step up talks with the Palestinians with a view toward concluding a comprehensive agreement that can be presented for public approval at the polls.

Such a move may speak to her Palestinian and American partners, who share her sense of urgency. It would at least temporarily confound her domestic opposition. Above all, it could salvage the last chance for a two-state solution.

The success of such a daring strategy hinges on Livni’s capacity to muster real political courage. She must be willing to inject new substance into the faltering negotiations with the Palestinians. This requires a readiness to revisit the roots of the conflict and to recognize the fundamental asymmetry that has plagued past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

While success is not guaranteed, conditions are ripe for progress — especially if Livni takes the additional (and long overdue) step of embracing the Arab Peace Initiative, something that would have strong regional, as well as international, resonance.

Could Livni pull this off? The answer is unclear. What is evident is that if she fails to take an audacious step of this sort, her political career will be short-lived and prospects for a negotiated settlement will dim and perhaps disappear entirely.

It is up to Livni to demonstrate that her victory in the Kadima primaries augurs a new type of leadership. Otherwise she — like her once-promising predecessors — will become a footnote in the history of an Israel still desperately looking for ways to open up a new political horizon.

Naomi Chazan is president of the New Israel Fund. She is a former deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, where she represented the Meretz Party from 1992 to 2003.

Tzipi Livni wins Kadima contest — now the real work begins


JERUSALEM (JTA) – With her decisive win in the Kadima party primary on Wednesday, Tzipi Livni’s next major task will be assembling a coalition government so she can become prime minister.

Then all she’ll have on her plate is figuring out how to arrest the threat to Israel from Iran, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a historic peace deal, neutralize the threat on Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah and run the country.

If she ever gets to it.

The immediate challenge faced by Livni, until now the foreign minister, is piecing together a coalition that will hold without pulling her government in too many different directions. If she fails, Israel will be headed for new general elections.

In Wednesday’s vote at 114 polling stations around the country, about 50 percent of Kadima’s 74,000 members voted for party leader – relatively low turnout by Israeli standards. Even so, Livni complained of “congestion” at polling stations and argued for an extension of voting time by an hour. In a compromise, Kadima decided to extend voting by 30 minutes.

Exit polls showed Livni won about 48 percent of the vote, beating out her primary rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by at least 10 points and avoiding a runoff by surpassing the 40 percent threshold. The two other contenders in the primary, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, garnered an estimated 7 percent each.

Livni’s victory is historic in several respects. She won the first-ever primary held by Kadima, the three-year old political party founded by Ariel Sharon. Her election also brings an end to the Olmert era, though Ehud Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a coalition is assembled.

And once she puts together a coalition, Livni will become Israel’s second female prime minister, following Golda Meir.

Livni will have 42 days to form a government. She has made it clear that she wants to base her new government on the existing coalition – Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Pensioners party — with the possible addition of other parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu on the right, Meretz from the left and the fervently Orthodox Torah Judaism party.

Livni wants to limit the current transition period, which she sees as a potentially unhealthy period of two-headed government. Olmert will continue as acting prime minister until Livni forms a new government.

Kadima leaders argue that there already is a functioning government and there is no reason it shouldn’t continue its work. They maintain that all the Labor party asked Kadima to do was change its leader, and, now that Kadima has done that, continuing with the present coalition shouldn’t be a problem.

But Livni’s main coalition partners have no intention of giving her an easy ride. Labor argues that a prime minister effectively elected by only 18,000-20,000 Israelis has no legitimacy and that the Israeli people as a whole should be allowed to have their say in new elections.

Shas is also threatening new elections unless Livni meets its demands for more generous child allowances and a pledge to keep Jerusalem off the negotiating agenda with the Palestinians.

If Livni fails to form a coalition, there could be an election as early as next spring. If she succeeds, she could govern for a year or two before going into a new election with the incumbency advantage.

During the campaign, Livni gave a slew of interviews in which she spelled out her priorities:

  • Moving ahead on the Palestinian track: Over the past few months, she and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia have been drafting a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Both sides say that although they have made progress, closing the wide gaps that still exist will take time.

    Once Livni is installed as prime minister, one key issue will become more difficult to resolve: refugees. Livni has repeatedly said that she will not agree to any resettlement in Israel proper of Palestinian refugees, because allowing just one Palestinian refugee in would chip away at Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

    Livni might ease conditions on the ground by dismantling illegal settler outposts in the West Bank, which successive Israeli prime ministers have failed to do. She argues that any government she heads will assert the rule of law.

    As for Gaza, Livni warns that she will consider a large-scale ground offensive if Hamas uses the current truce to smuggle in huge quantities of arms.

  • Ascertaining the seriousness of the Syrian track: Ever since Israel and Syria started conducting new peace feelers through Turkish auspices in January 2007, Livni has not been in the loop. She has argued that by going public with the talks, Israel has given Syria a degree of international legitimacy without getting very much in return.

    Livni will want to see for herself whether Syrian President Bashar Asad is ready for a peace with Israel that entails a significant downgrading of his relations with Iran.

  • Dealing quietly with the Iranian nuclear threat: Livni says as far as Israel is concerned “all options are on the table” and that to say any more would be irresponsible. But she has intimated in the past that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran by establishing a very clear deterrent balance.
  • Introducing a new style of cleaner government: Livni, who won the leadership race at least partly because of her squeaky clean image, will want to signal early on that she intends to introduce a new style of governing. Livni will want to clean up party politics by breaking the power of the Kadima vote contractors who drafted people en masse to vote for a particular candidate. One idea is to set a minimum membership period — say, 18 months — before party members get voting rights.

By electing Livni, Kadima voters seemed to be saying enough of the generals at the top, and enough of wheeler-dealer politics. Livni, dubbed Mrs. Clean, is seen as a straight-thinking, scandal-free civilian clearly out to promote Israel’s best interests.

She has a full agenda, a chance to change the tenor of Israel politics and to make historic moves vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Syria.

But first she will have to put together a viable coalition.

Q&A with Rhoda Weisman — Jewish woman on top


Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, which is designed to engender and support a new generation of leaders in the Jewish community, talks about why the Jewish establishment needs to change, why young leaders are just as crucial as big donors and what it’s like to be a woman at the top.

Jewish Journal: Working in a Jewish organization doesn’t sound like a sexy job. Why should people want to go into Jewish communal work?

Rhoda Weisman: I think I have the sexiest job. Because sexy jobs are jobs that provide you with a lot of room to be creative moving toward a real sense of purpose and meaning.

JJ: Jewish institutions seem to be inordinately focused on engaging young people. Why is it important to cultivate young Jewish leaders?

RW: I don’t think that we as a larger community have been successful in creating a very strong pipeline connecting the baby boomers to Gen X and Gen Y. There’s never been a time when leaders in their 20s and 30s have been as equipped for leadership as now: Many of them have come from homes of privilege where they’ve been able to advance themselves in a whole number of areas. So, you have people in their 20s that have the same skills and talents etc., as people my age and in their 40s.

JJ: What do Jewish organizations need to do to entice young people?

RW: The power structure has to be changed. The old model is autocratic, and the new model has to become decentralized and democratic so that the next gen that comes in will have the same say as people who have been there for a while.

JJ: But it seems that the Jewish establishment is resistant to allowing young leaders the same kind of power that big donors have.

RW: They need to learn from the boomer generation of parenting — to look at younger talent as partners and provide them power to make decisions.

JJ: Being of the baby boomer generation yourself, do you ever feel inadequate compared to young ‘talent’?

RW: Not only do I never feel that way — there’s not a day that I’m not excited about growing people’s potential. The future of American Jewish life depends on being able to grow this potential that can carry on the 3,000-year-old Jewish story in new ways.

JJ: What’s the biggest problem facing the Jewish communal world?

RW: A lack of courage and a lack of leadership. But also, the inability to look at oneself and be self-reflective. When an organization is not effective, either change it or let it go out of business. We are at a very crucial point in which the next 20 or 30 years will determine the quality of Jewish life in America over the next century. And the biggest problem is a fear of busting out of the old model.

JJ: You seem to be an unconventional thinker. What does it take to think outside the box?

RW: I never think that something’s not possible. Anything can be moved; anything can be changed. But if something really doesn’t work, than I stop, put it to bed, and move on. I believe in excellence, and there’s no excuse for anything less — Jews in America are used to that.

JJ: Why does philanthropist Michael Steinhardt trust you with his money?

RW: He trusts me because I deeply care about him; he’s not a conduit for his money, he’s a partner. We’re true partners. And, because I have the courage to stand up for what I believe in, in a world where oftentimes women don’t and men do.

JJ: You have a reputation for being intimidating and intense. Why do you think people describe you this way?

RW: To create organizations that are successful, it takes time, a commitment to excellence, motivating individuals, hard work and tenacity. When these traits are attributed to men, they are called driven, visionary, a real leader. When these traits are attributed to women, they are often referred to as intimidating, aggressive, intense, tough.

I’m intimidating because I’ll press for people doing their very best, even when it’s not comfortable. And I’ll live with the fact that people don’t like me sometimes.

JJ: What is it like to be a woman at the top?

RW: It’s a lot of fun! One of the reasons that I’m at this place is that I don’t think about it that much. It’s not been a burning issue for me. It didn’t even occur to me that I didn’t have a place at the table. I felt that I had a responsibility to add to the conversation.

JJ: Is there still a glass ceiling?

RW: Yes. I don’t believe one sex or another should be dominant. Gender balance in positions of power is what creates a healthy community. But there’s a dark side — I don’t know how to say that my back is black and blue from the women that I thought were going to help me. People take out their jealousies on you.

JJ: How would you describe your leadership style?

RW: Leading younger Jews is a tremendous responsibility, and I think what we do is very holy work. I believe that I have someone that I’m constantly reporting to. I’m a deeply God-driven person.

For me the most exciting part about anything I’ve done in all of my work is opening doors and getting as many people into these conversations impacted, inspired, longing to lead, wanting to make the Jewish community a thousand times better than it is.

Fatah fighters’ escape to Israel and what it means


Even for the complex Middle East it was a moment of exceptional irony. Some 180 Fatah loyalists fleeing a series of shootouts and summary executions by Hamas

on the streets of Gaza ran for the border — banking on the mercies of the enemy they usually target.

Remarkably, Israeli soldiers braved Hamas fire to save the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, opted to return the fighters to Gaza. The first group of 35 returnees was promptly arrested by Hamas.

Seeing the danger to their erstwhile foes, the Israel Defense Forces balked at transferring the rest of the Fatah men, while the Association for Civil Rights in Israel appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court to block the forced repatriation. Finally, Israel prevailed upon Abbas to give safety to his own followers, and they were sent to Jericho.

The reaction in the Arab world to this incredible turn of events is instructive. Writing in Beirut’s Daily Star, columnist Rami Khouri offered an assessment of the larger issue:

“This is the latest and most troubling example of how a once-grand and noble Palestinian national liberation movement has allowed itself to degenerate into ineptitude…. As Fatah and Hamas battle it out like a bunch of armed neighborhood gangs, it will not be surprising to see some friends of Palestine quietly walk away, mumbling that if the Palestinians wish to kill each other and destroy their own society, they are free to do so.”

Writing in Al-Hayat, Mohammad Salah goes even further:

“The flight by Ahmad Hilles and other Palestinians to Israel in search of safety away from the bullying and aggression of Hamas affirms that the Palestinian issue is on its way to disappearing, evaporating and being forgotten. It also proves that Israel, for many Palestinians, is a refuge or objective one seeks and heads toward when Palestinians oppress each other.”

The border episode should have been cheered by nongovernment organizations and church groups who insist that peace will come to the Middle East not through governmental fiat, but when people on both sides recognize the humanity of the other.

Other developments, however, indicate that we are a long way off from moving beyond widely held stereotypes in the Arab World that depict Christians as bloodthirsty crusaders and Jews as the offspring of pigs and monkeys. The reaction to a University of Haifa course shows just how much toxicity prevails in the Arab street.

Professor Ofer Grosbard, assisted in a project by 15 Muslim students, quoted verses from the Quran that would help Muslim psychologists reinforce in their religious patients concepts like respect, responsibility, honesty, dignity and kindness. Their selections were vetted by three Islamic clerics.

Nonetheless, the project drew furious responses. Speaking to Gulf News, Dr. Abdullah Al Mutlaq, of the Senior Ulema Board in Saudi Arabia, insisted that the project should not be trusted by Muslims, because it is run by Jews who openly show their hatred to Islam and Muslims, and that Grosbard’s interpretation of the Quran’s lessons in human dignity and kindness would give Muslims the wrong impression of their religion. Not surprisingly, officials of the Palestinian Authority concurred.

Don’t expect the caretakers of the global civil society to challenge the Arab world anytime soon. Some self-appointed activists, operating in the rarified moral high ground of nongovernmental organizations, refuse to be impacted by the facts. For even as Israelis fought to obtain the safety of Arab fighters on Aug. 5, two boats in Cyprus were preparing a mission to burst through Israel’s sea blockade into an embrace with Hamas. The success of the mission was to be measured by Google hits on BBC and Iranian media coverage, not by any humanitarian cargo for the beleaguered residents of Gaza.

Israel has consistently allowed such supplies in and arranged passage for many critically ill patients to Israeli hospitals. This despite the fact that at least one ill woman from Gaza used the privilege of shuttling back and forth to an Israeli hospital to try to smuggle a bomb that would blow up the very facility and doctors who treated her.

Most nongovernmental organizations (NGO) that see themselves as protectors of Palestinian interests remain blind and silent, both about the Israeli largesse and the rupture of Palestinian society. Have they ever wondered what issues Israelis grapple with, what their needs are in the Gordian knot we call the Holy Land?

Did anyone consider the reaction of the parents of Gilad Shalit to the Fatah rescue? Shalit is the Israeli soldier kidnapped near that very crossing where the Fatah members were saved by other Israeli soldiers.

And what of the bereaved families of Vadim Nurhitz and Yossi Avrahami, two Israeli reservists who took a wrong turn into Ramallah? Taken to a PA police station, they were brutalized and dismembered by a mob. Rather than protect the two soldiers, a PA policeman at the station participated in the lynching.

For too many, repeating empty mantras about the “occupation” is much easier than rethinking the nature of a future Palestinian state and how it would treat its own citizens or its Jewish neighbors. Indeed, too few in the international community care enough to demand a modicum of accountability from the Palestinians.

These events present a microcosm of a clash not between two governments but of two fundamentally different cultures. Nothing will ever change until the world comes to understand the truths that led the Fatah fighters to choose the Israeli enemy over their Palestinian brothers?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith relations for the Wiesenthal Center.

VIDEO: Woody Allen and the Jewish robots (from ‘Sleeper’)


Woody Allen is fitted for a new suit by robot Jewish tailors—from ‘Sleeper’

 

Digital archaeologist traces history of Berlin, Jews


Todd Samuel Presner is a time traveler who combines modern technology and past knowledge in a way that might have astonished a Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

The UCLA professor glides easily across the centuries by way of a construct he labels alternately as digital archaeology, information navigation, hypermedia and time-space documentation.

Along the way, he has tracked the interwoven histories of Jews and Germans during Berlin’s 800-year history and in the future plans to depict the many-layered history of Jaffa and its upstart neighbor, Tel Aviv.

The 35-year-old, self-described “techie-humanist” is an associate professor of Germanic languages and Jewish studies, and from a small book-jammed office in UCLA’s venerable Royce Hall, he helps direct the Center for Digital Humanities.

“Mankind has been telling its stories in many ways, first through oral tradition, then through the written and printed page and now through the interactive Web,” Presner said.

His current showpiece is “Hypermedia Berlin,” which allows even a computer-challenged visitor to uncover layer after layer of the German capital’s historic and physical evolution, from its initial human settlement in the 13th century through kings, emperors, dictators, composers and philosophers to the present.

He and a team of 18 students and scholars draw their underlying information from documents, paintings, archives, photographs and architectural drawings and carefully assemble the Web-based maps of Berlin at roughly 10- to 50-year intervals.

As in a stratified archaeological dig, layers of maps are superimposed on each other, allowing viewers at a glance to compare the street grid and landmarks of 17th century Berlin with the city’s expansion and infrastructure two centuries later.

Integrated with information on historical events and leading personalities of the different eras, the maps display the 18th century Jewish quarters and Frederick the Great’s “Charter of the Jews of Prussia” and later the Scheunenviertel quarter of East European Jewish immigrants after World War I.

A click reveals the location and appearance of Gestapo headquarters on the 1936 map, and later maps show the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall and, most recently, the city’s Holocaust memorial.

The multimedia and multitasking technique, which Presner labels hypermedia, “reveals the layers of the past and the evolution of cities,” he said.

His pathbreaking work on Berlin will be followed by similar hypercity models of Los Angeles, New York, Rome and Lima, Peru. Farther down the line, he hopes to explore Jaffa and Tel Aviv in cooperation with Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion universities.

For the time being, he lacks the expert collaborators for the daunting task of recreating the deeply layered history of Jerusalem.

Presner traces his personal lineage to both Sephardi and Ashkenazi grandparents. He earned double doctorate degrees from traditional rivals, Stanford University (comparative literature) and UC Berkeley (art history, media studies).

His interest in the “deeply entangled and connected” history of Germans and Jews was triggered by his studies of the Holocaust.

Besides teaching a course on the cultural and urban history of hypercity Berlin, Presner also conducts a class on “The Holocaust in Film and Literature.”

The Holocaust course has quickly developed into one of the most popular on campus, drawing some 240 students. He estimates that only about a quarter of the enrollment is Jewish, while some 50 percent are Asian or Asian American students.

A wide-ranging and prolific researcher, Presner authored two books last year.

Mobile Modernity” explores the interconnection among “Germans, Jews and Trains,” from the first railroad tracks in 1835 between heavily Jewish Fuerth to Nuremberg, where Jews could work but not live, up to the boxcars rolling toward Auschwitz.

Jumping nimbly to a different subject, Presner also wrote “Muscular Judaism: The Jewish Body and the Politics of Regeneration” (Routledge, 2007). Among other topics, the book examines the dichotomy between the traditional Jewish concern for intellectual pursuits and early Zionism’s emphasis on gymnastics and the sturdy physique. The book taps another of Presner’s interest: His parents sent him to gym classes for about 10 years, and he is now a dedicated rock climber.

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — New mentoring program grooms tomorrow’s leaders


Young Iranian American Jewish professionals discuss their involvement with a new mentoring program for teenagers in the community.

” title=”Iranian American Jews”>Iranian American Jews blog.

Bedouin life from a child’s eye view through a camera


A young Bedouin boy casually leans against a rough-hewn wooden table, his kaffiyeh blowing in the wind. Laid before him are some of the traditional tools of Bedouin coffee-making, essential to their culture of hospitality. A mortar and pestle for grinding the beans, a large cast-iron pan for roasting them, and a bacraj, or coffeepot.

Behind him is a section of a cinder-block wall, a sign of the permanent housing that is gradually replacing traditional Bedouin tents. English writing appears across the chest of the Western-style sweatshirt he wears beneath his jalabiyya jacket.

The photograph is part of an exhibition titled, “Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” which continues through Sept. 30 at the Venice Arts Gallery. According to Kim Frumin, the educator, artist and Fulbright Fellow who designed and implemented the project, this and other photos in the exhibition accurately show the fluidity between tradition and modernity at Abu Kaf. Frumin sees the boy’s relaxed pose, amid artifacts ancient and new, as epitomizing a “great harmony … between the past and the future” in the children’s lives.

The seeds of this project were sown in the summer of 2003, when Frumin visited Israel on a community service trip. Walking through the Bedouin village of Wadi El Na’am, Frumin felt like the “pied piper of 35 millimeter film.” Fascinated by the camera slung over her shoulder, the children followed her around, excitedly calling out in Hebrew: “Take my picture!”

Frumin was intrigued by the fact that “in a village without water or electricity … the children were so excited about the camera.” Concerned with escalating tensions between the Negev Bedouins and Israel over land disputes and access to basic services, she thought about ways she might help create bridges between the cultures.

“I realized that my experience and expertise lay in art education and in working with different cultures,” she said.

With the children’s excitement for photography fresh in her mind, Frumin decided to use art “as a tool for communication and expression.”

From December 2004 through April 2005, Frumin worked with 10 youths at a school in the recently recognized Bedouin village of Abu Kaf. The students practiced taking and developing pictures — none had ever used a camera before — and examined photographs taken by other children around the world.

Frumin and the children also “spent a lot of time with the idea … of how the camera gives you new eyes to see everyday things in new ways,” she said. “I hoped that spending time examining and reflecting on their community would foster a pride in their unique culture and a love for Israel.”

Though shy at first, the students quickly became eager to write and talk about their culture.

“The project tapped into a wellspring of thoughts [and] feelings about their community and their traditions,” Frumin said. They also “knew they had a unique perspective to share, the experience of being a Bedouin child,” a notion that was very “empowering” for the children.

In another photo, a young girl is counting on her fingers as she kneels for prayer. Frumin explained that “she is praising Allah the prescribed number of times and is showing how kids remember to count the correct number.”

The principal of the Bedouin school, Ali Abu Kaf, has been so impressed by the children’s “work, their ideas … and the power of their writing and photographs,” that he suggested Frumin undertake an expanded second round of the project. This time, however, he’d like the Bedouin children to partner with children from Jewish kibbutzim in the area.

As Frumin said, “the project would be a ‘living together’ — not just tolerating each other or existing together — project.” Frumin hopes to begin this second round in February or March and is “actively looking for sponsors.”

“Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” through Sept. 30. Venice Arts Gallery, 1809 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. (310) 822-8533.

R.E. Hard Crash? Soft Landing? Bursting Balloon? Leaking Balloon?


Mark Cohen thinks those doomsday scenarios about an impending Southland housing crash miss the mark. And the founder and president of Beverly Hills-based Cohen Financial Group has learned a thing or two about real estate over the last 20 years.

With an MBA from USC and a law degree from Loyola Law School, the 47-year-old mortgage broker helped secure nearly $1.1 billion in home loans last year, making him the No. 1 individual mortgage loan originator in the country, according to Mortgage Originator Magazine.

When not spending time with his three children and wife Laurie, Cohen has been involved in the local Jewish community.

A member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Real Estate and Construction Division, Cohen has also played an active role at Sinai Temple for more than two decades. He and his wife have long supported ATID (which translates as future in Hebrew), a Sinai program that trains future Jewish leaders. They also recently contributed funds toward the writing of a new Torah.

The Jewish Journal spoke to Cohen about the recent reversal in the local housing market.

Jewish Journal: Why has the housing market slowed in Southern California?

Mark Cohen: Southern California is a great place to live, which is why so many people want to live here. However, that also means the supply of apartments, houses and condos is limited. Over time, this supply-and-demand situation in housing has pushed prices up dramatically, pricing many people completely out of the market. Added to this are the interest-rate hikes by the Fed. Rates have increased by about 2 1/2 percent over the past few years, and that has made the cost of borrowing more expensive, closing the door on even more potential homeowners.

JJ: If the Fed raises interest rates to keep inflation in check, will that help or hurt the market?

MC: The jury is still out on whether or not the Fed will continue to raise rates. It all depends on whether or not they can keep inflation under control. If there are more rate increases in the near future, they will likely have a negative effect on the market in the short term. However, if the Fed is successful in keeping inflation in check, they can keep the door open for future rate cuts should there be a slowdown in the economy. Recent economic reports are showing that inflation has moderated for the time being, which means the Fed’s tightening cycle may be over. And that would have a positive impact on the real estate market.

JJ: What areas of the Southland are most at risk of having the bottom drop out? Why?

MC: It’s difficult to single out specific areas in Southern California that have the most risk. However, right now, San Diego seems to have an oversupply of new condominiums on the market due to all the speculation that occurred over the past few years. There’s also usually a deeper correction in areas where there has been excess in new construction. Palm Springs is an example of this. On the other side of the coin, the Westside, South Bay and San Fernando Valley will likely fare better during a slowdown because of the lack of new construction, limited supply of homes and desirability.

All in all, Southern California is a great place to live and historically, over time, real estate here has proven to be a great investment.

JJ: Do you anticipate a hard or soft landing locally?

MC: A soft lading will depend on several factors. First, the direction of interest rates will have a big impact, as will the strength of the local economy. As long as jobs are being created and the economy stays at its current growth levels, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll experience a hard landing.

Obviously, the actions by the Fed in the next few months will affect the local real estate market for the foreseeable future.

JJ: How long do you expect the market to remain soft?

MC: It really depends on the economy. If we have continued job creation and continued economic growth, the market will recover more quickly. Fewer jobs created and slower growth will mean a longer slowdown. The real driving force behind the real estate market isn’t interest rates; it’s the economy. That’s because even though fixed-interest rates have risen recently, they are still at manageable levels.

JJ: How is this housing market of today different from the boom-and-bust cycle of the late 1980s and early 1990s?

MC: This is a very different market from the one we saw in the late 1980s or early 1990s, primarily because the Southern California economy is now much more diverse. During that period, the economy here was based on the aerospace, defense and entertainment industries. Today our economy is much more diverse, with financial services, technology, biotechnology and other industries playing major roles on the region’s vitality. A more diverse economy means the chances of a hard economic landing are reduced, and this, in turn, helps to support the housing market.

JJ: What kind of industries might suffer in a soft housing market, and how could that impact the entire local economy?

MC: The real estate industry has a large effect on the Southern California economy, because there are so many people employed in it either directly or indirectly, including lenders, title companies, escrow agents, real estate sales agents, contractors, and developers, This means that a prolonged slowdown would hurt the folks employed in these industries and the overall local economy as well.

JJ: How much do you expect housing in Southern California to drop in the next year? What price ranges will be hit hardest?

MC: I don’t expect prices will fall more than 5 percent to 10 percent from the market highs of a couple years ago, with the hardest hit homes being those in the mid-level price range between $1 million to $3 million.

JJ: What advice would you give to someone who is considering buying or selling a home in Los Angeles?

MC: I’m a big proponent of home ownership. Don’t we all work hard so we can eventually own our own home? My advice is for people to feel comfortable living in a new home for at least five years so interest rates and real-estate-cycle influences are reduced. I don’t think we’re in a market that allows for short-term housing speculation, since the market is extremely volatile.

Jewish Journal September 1, 2006 43

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It May Be Time to Change Goals, Ideas on Philanthropy


I have a dream in which Jewish early childhood educators in the United States, who currently receive an average salary of $9.66 an hour, can raise their own children without having to take out loans or marry rich. I have a dream in which Birthright Israel does not have to keep tens of thousands of potential participants on waiting lists for lack of funds. I have a dream in which non-Orthodox day schools truly rival the best private schools and the Jewish socioeconomic elite clamor to enter them.

While these dreams are remote and quixotic, American Jews have achieved levels of wealth unprecedented in our history. The problem is that we no longer give much to Jewish causes.

We are donors to universities, museums, orchestras and hospitals, but when it comes to Jewish philanthropy, we fall short. Today, perhaps 20 percent or less of Jewish giving goes to Jewish causes.

In the middle of the 20th century, it was about 50 percent. Only half of the Jews surveyed in 1990 claimed to have given to a Jewish cause. Of the $5.3 billion in megagifts given by America’s wealthiest Jews between 1995 and 2000, a mere 6 percent went to Jewish institutions.

Among those who do give, the levels of giving are weak. Only 11 percent of Jews donate over $1,000 to Jewish causes.

Can you name a serious non-Orthodox American Jewish philanthropist below the age of 50?

There may be one or two, but it would be looking for a needle in a haystack. Even those who give Jewishly give smaller amounts to Jewish charity than to secular causes.

Too many ignore programs of Jewish education and culture, focusing instead on antiquated preoccupations, such as the fight against anti-Semitism. In North America, the greatest threat to the Jewish people is not the external force of anti-Semitism but the internal forces of apathy, inertia and ignorance of our own heritage.

People’s giving is a mirror image of who they are. Over time, we have become meaningfully more American and less Jewish. That is reflected in our philanthropy.

We have lost not only our connection to Jewish roots but also our understanding of why Jewish identity and involvement matter. It’s an unfortunate cycle: attenuation of identity leads to reduced philanthropic giving, which, in turn, hobbles our efforts to create programs to enrich identity.

How, then, does one revive Jewishness in an increasingly secular American world?
Not easy. Too many of our needs are no longer fulfilled Jewishly. Today’s synagogues and other institutions no longer appeal to the Jewish spirit the way they used to.

Tzedakah is an outcome, an end product of what we care about, what we want to enhance, what we believe in and what we want to see grow. If we were to apply these hopes to our present community, I’m not sure we would like what we see.
The community has not operated by a set of norms and standards of what constitutes appropriate tzedakah. People who have amassed enormous wealth are told by ‘professionals’ that they’re the most altruistic individuals since Robin Hood, regardless of what they give. There are few role models in the community who represent our tradition of giving 10 percent of income or assets.

Historically, the rabbis of past periods anticipated neither the wealth nor the longevity of many contemporary Jews. If they had, they surely would have insisted on even higher levels of giving.

Recognizing that we are far removed from the bare-bones survival of the immigrant generation, it may be time to reconfigure what is the right level of tzedakah and what we should expect from our givers. One of our philanthropic goals may be to develop an ethic of higher levels of giving in relation to net worth.

For a person with assets of $100 million — and there are many such people today — annual philanthropy of $500,000 or $1 million is not serious. Yet, the community fawns as if these individuals have given amounts that are truly selfless.

At present, there is little accountability between wealth and philanthropy. This must end. A person earning $45,000 who gives $5,000 in tzedakah should be acknowledged as heroic, even though he may not get his name on a building.
We need to become part of a movement to change the perception of giving, to spread the notion that real meaning in life comes from selfless acts of philanthropy and to inculcate a sense of responsibility for the fate of klal Yisrael among those who have achieved high levels of wealth.

The challenge is daunting. In a community where people want their names up in lights, where we have a cadre of professionals known as ‘directors of development,’ whose ambition is to separate rich Jews from their money, how can we create a sense of justice, of fairness between rich and poor and recognize true philanthropy? How can we accomplish this in a free and open society?
On the one hand, we value our privacy. How many of us enjoyed the public displays when there was card-calling at events? For many of us, there is something unseemly about it.

I’m not immune to the conflict. In my various philanthropic efforts, I have valued the Maimonidean principle of modesty and indeed anonymity. Yet I, too, have had my name put on some projects and buildings. I frankly feel deeply conflicted.

I think it is a higher calling not to use one’s name, but I haven’t always been able to reach that higher level.

One of the goals of the emerging Fund for Our Jewish Future is to usher in a culture of vastly increased levels of Jewish giving. The fund plans to raise tens of millions immediately for priority action in Jewish education.
Hopefully, this will be followed by a series of focused funds to revivify Jewish commitment levels. Another goal of the fund is to approach individual communities and offer local philanthropists the opportunity to receive significant outside funds for projects that they are prepared to give meaningful down payments toward.

It is clear that what we need is imagination to view our Jewish future in a way that will capture the spirit of those Jews who are mostly on the sidelines today.

We don’t have many of the needed answers. But through hard work, creativity and, again, imagination, we can begin to reach the presently unreachable. With success, the result will be a renaissance of Jewish life in which our flourishing communal structures inspire greater Jewish involvement and commitment, which in turn inspire even greater levels of tzedakah.

Michael Steinhardt is co-founder of Birthright Israel.

Mid East




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What Will Life Be Like in 2026?


In honor of The Jewish Journal’s 20th anniversary, yeLAdim asked some of our young readers at the May 7 Israel Independence Day Festival: What will you be doing in 20 years?

“I will run a restaurant with spaghetti and macaroni and cheese.”
— Hannah F., prekindergarten, B’nai Tikvah Nursery School

“Airplane pilot.”
— Preston, second-grader, Heschel

“I want to be a pharmacist when I grow up, so I can make lots of money and have a great life.”
— Gil M., sixth-grader, Millikan Middle School

“I want to be a basketball player in the NBA.”
— Aaron R., seventh-grader, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies

“When I grow up I want be a pharmacist or a basketball player.”
— Avin M., sixth-grader, Millikan Middle School,

“A cop. I will help the world with bad things.”
— Emil R., fifth-grader,Brentwood Science Magnet

“I will be a professional chiropractor and married with a beautiful girl. I’ll live wealthy for 120 years.”
— Jonathon A., seventh-grader, Etz Jacob

“I’m going to be a rich person in a recording studio. I’m going to be really rich.”
— David A., ninth-grader, Tarbut V’Torah

“I’m going to be 34 years old.”
— David J., ninth-grader, Reseda High School

“An NBA basketball player.”
— Pedy F., ninth-grader, Tarbut V’Torah

“When I grow up I want to be an acting teacher, because it will help kids be able to do something with their time and it’s a fun thing that most people enjoy. Hopefully I will be a mom and get married.”
— Esther L., fifth-grader, Heschel

“I’ll be a Jewish doctor. I will help all ill and injured Jews. I’ll help my people stay alive. I’ll probably live near a shul. I don’t know. Hashem will show me the way.”
— Daniel V., seventh-grader, Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School

“A veterinarian because I love animals and taking care of them.”
— Shaiel G., fifth-grader, Heschel

“Hopefully living in Israel and helping the government. I will try to make it in as a governor or as a dance teacher. I want to be in the government helping out those in need. And I also want to be teaching the people the joy of dancing.”
— Josue V., eighth-grader, Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School

“I want to work with my dad at Al & Ed’s Autosound.”
— Lerone H., third-grader, Emek Hebrew Academy

“I think I will be teaching classes in a synagogue as a rabbi. I think I could also be a dancing teacher. I think I would be a teacher in Israel teaching people how to sing.”
— David G., seventh grader, Lindbergh Middle School

“An Olympic champion because I ice skate and I will win the gold medal. I try my best and I will love to win in 2026. I hope my future there is great.”
— Sarah W., fourth-grader, Nestle Avenue Elementary School

“Playing my GameBoy.”
— Liad C., prekindergarten, Kol Tikvah

“Playing dress up.”
— Shani C., prekindergarten, Kol Tikvah

“I would like to be a motorcycle policeman to protect the city.”
— Brian S., first-grader, Encino Elementary School

“I want to live in a big house with 100 dogs.”
— Brandon H., second-grader, Wilbur Avenue Elementary School

“I want to be a judge because I’ll have a lot of power. I want to be richer than Bill Gates.”
— Ron V., fourth-grader, Hancock Park Elementary School

“I want to be a lawyer because I like defending people.”
— Robert B., fourth-grader, Hancock Park Elementary School

“A fire medic (aka paramedic)”
— Lisa C., preschooler, Gan Bet

“Playing basketball on the Lakers.”
— Freddy C., kindergartner, Sinai Akiba Academy

“I will probably be a linguist 20 years from now. I want to also be a photographer and have a few other jobs. I want to help people and solve problems between countries. I want to live either in Israel or somewhere in Europe.
— Raj G., eighth-grader, Columbus Middle School

“I will want to live next to the ocean, be in the NBA and have a big house.”
— Esther S., fourth-grader, Kadima Hebrew Academy

Back in 1986…

  • The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes.
  • The U.S starts the first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
  • Refurbished Statue of Liberty opens.
  • Millions take part in Hands Across America charity benefit.
  • Pope John Paul II visits the Synagogue of Rome.
  • Soviet Refusenik Nathan Sharansky is freed from prison.
  • Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • “Sarah, Plain and Tall” by Patricia MacLachlan receives the Newbery Prize for children’s literature.
  • “The Cosby Show” is No. 1 on TV, followed by “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” “Murder She Wrote” and “The Golden Girls.”
  • Actress Amanda Bynes is born in Thousand Oaks.
  • Actor Shia LaBeouf is born in Los Angeles.
  • Actor Ricky Ullman is born in Eilat, Israel.
  • “We Are the World,” by USA for Africa is named record and song of the year at the Grammys.
  • New York Mets win the World Series.
  • The Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl.
  • The Nintendo Entertainment System makes its debut.

Conservatives Focus on Intermarrieds


Stephen Lachter didn’t know what to expect when a friend dragged him to a men’s club meeting at his Conservative synagogue five years ago.

“My father was in a men’s club, and to me, it was guys sitting around playing pinochle and volunteer ushering,” he admitted.

Instead, Lachter was surprised to see “interesting people having serious discussions,” and he “fell into a session on kiruv,” or outreach, to intermarried families. “I said to myself, this is something shuls need to be talking about.”

Today, Lachter is a kiruv consultant, a lay leader trained to reach out to intermarried families in his Washington congregation. He’s part of a nationwide program run by the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which is aimed at making Conservative synagogues more welcoming to their non-Jewish members.

The initiative comes at a time when the Conservative movement is concerned about declining numbers. The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has consistently been ahead of the Conservative movement in reaching out to the intermarried.

That groundwork is bearing fruit. Last December at its biennial convention, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced its own kiruv initiative, advocating a more open attitude toward members’ non-Jewish spouses, while still holding conversion as the preferred goal.

The document, which has been distributed to Conservative congregations around the country, doesn’t go as far as the Men’s Club kiruv initiative, but it’s a big step in the right direction, said Rabbi Chuck Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.

“Four years ago, we set our goal to put kiruv on the Conservative movement agenda within five years. We did it in three and a half,” he said.

In the past three years, the Men’s Club organization has held seven training seminars for lay leaders and now has close to 40 kiruv consultants working in Conservative congregations around the country. The consultants set up kiruv committees at their synagogues and organize discussion groups with intermarried couples, their parents and grandparents.

At Kiruv consultant Lachter’s congregation, “people have come out of the woodwork,” he said. “How do you talk to your child who is interdating? We don’t have that language. How do grandparents deal with their grandchildren, teaching them what Judaism is without treading on toes?”

The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs also has organized rabbinic seminars for interested Conservative rabbis on the assumption that kiruv consultants have to work closely with their rabbis to be effective. More than 120 rabbis have taken part in such seminars, including about 30 at a gathering held recently at Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom.

In its April 2006 edition, the federation’s Kiruv Initiative states its position as “in favor of conversion if possible,” while recognizing that many non-Jewish spouses “lead Jewish lives and raise Jewish families” even if they don’t convert themselves.

“The [federation] favors meeting these people where they are and assisting them in making Jewish choices,” the document concludes.

That’s a subtle distinction from the United Synagogue position. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the United Synagogue’s executive vice president, spoke diplomatically about the federation approach.

“Anything one can do to encourage people to identify more clearly as Jews is good,” he said. “It’s not the approach we’re using, but it’s hard to be against an attempt to reach out to people.”

Rabbinic and lay training seminars are planned for Cincinnati and Anaheim in November, with more to follow next spring. This winter, the federation will begin an online evaluation of cultural change in the congregations taking part in the program.

At the Berkeley gathering, some of the rabbis, including Netivot Shalom’s Rabbi Stuart Kelman, were part of the Tiferet Project, a four-year effort that culminated with last year’s publication of “A Place in the Tent,” a booklet that urges the Conservative movement to adopt a more welcoming attitude toward intermarried families.

“For me, it’s not even a question,” Kelman said of the kiruv consultant idea. “One of the reasons there’s no bimah in my congregation is I’m trying to create a congregation that is accessible. I don’t think the rabbis can do it themselves; the best way to create cultural change is to empower lay people.”

Many of the rabbis have practical concerns: Their members are intermarrying, and they don’t want to lose them.

Rabbi Chai Levy of Marin County’s Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon noted that the most recent statistics in the county show that 90 percent of children ages 2-5 in families that identify as Jewish have a non-Jewish parent.

“The future of my congregation is, obviously, intermarried couples,” she said. “I have to think seriously about these people.”

 

Top 10 Things to Do Before the Change


No matter where you are in the menopause transition, it’s never too late (or early) to get your health act together to ensure the next 40 or so years are as terrific as or better than the first were. Here are 10 things you can do right now.

1. Choose the right health-care provider

Perimenopause is the perfect time to find a health-care provider you can trust to help you manage any serious medical problems, should they arise in the future. Ask your friends for recommendations or check out the NAMS list of credentialed Menopause Practitioners (

Disengagement Dashes, Spurs Dreams


The evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements is not just a struggle over the question of the future of the territories. At the very core, the pullout was the first big battle on the question of religion and state.

They [religious settlers opposed to the withdrawal] have their own dream. The first stage is the “whole land of Israel,” filled wall-to-wall with Jews-only towns. True, Palestinians and Thai workers can come in to do the dirty work but no more.

The second stage is to transform Israel into a halachic state, a country ruled by Jewish religious law. Elections, the Knesset, the government and the courts may continue to function, but settler rabbis will decide just what issues are appropriate for these bodies to decide and what issues are too “holy” and important to be left to the people and their elected officials.

In their dream world, there is no place for secular Israel: Its culture is not culture; its values are not values; its opinions are not opinions.

In the eyes of the settlers, we are all poor, underprivileged children who never had the chance for a Jewish education. In their dream, our task is to become religious and to join them or at least not to stand in the way while they bring the Messiah.

We must nullify ourselves, and in return, they will hug us, sweetly, of course, and with lots and lots of brotherly love. But if we refuse, the brotherly love and the hugs will go out the window, and we will become little more than traitorous leftists or Nazis.

But we nonreligious Israelis also have a dream. We want to live in an enlightened, open and just country, not in some messianic, rabbinic monarchy and not in the whole land of Israel. We came here to be a free people in our own land.

To be a free people means each person is entitled to choose which parts of Jewish tradition are important to him and which to leave behind. It means to have the freedom to run our country according to our free will, rather than rabbinic dictates.

It means recognizing we are not alone in this land — and demanding from the Palestinians that they do the same.

It means to free ourselves, once-and-for-all, from the nightmare of being an occupying, uprooting, exploiting, settling, expropriating, humiliating, discriminatory country.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has choked the dream of free Israelis. The dream of the whole land of Israel and a messianic kingship drains daily the hope of being a people free to build a just society.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has trampled my dreams and those of my friends. But because of this, I can understand the settlers’ pain and desperation as they watch their dream collapse before their eyes.

They are experiencing exactly what my friends and I have gone through because of them, all this time. I opposed their project from the onset, from the very first settlement.

I look into their eyes, and I see true desperation and true pain, and without the slightest joy, I can say: The pain you are going through today is very similar to the pain you have put free Israel friends through for more than 30 years.

I will respect your mourning by remaining silent, but I cannot share in your grief.

And what will be after all the grief? Israel, for all her faults, is all we’ve got. It’s easy to throw stones at her, but this is not the country we prayed for.

The floor is deep, the ceiling cracked, the lights go off three times a day.

It’s easy to come up with substitutes for this Israel, easy to build castles in the sky about messianic monarchies on one hand and post-Israelism on the other.

But Israel, for all its faults, is all we’ve got.

Perhaps instead of kicking her, the time has come to get up and start fixing a little bit: to free ourselves of the occupation that continues to corrupt us; to renew our social solidarity.

A bit less “brotherly love,” a bit more responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves. A bit less holiness; a bit more justice. A bit less of the whole land of Israel, and a State of Israel a bit more whole with itself.

Through the murky cloud of poetic words and sobs, we can sometimes see during these very days the State of Israel’s quiet, beautiful face: [These are] the faces of youngsters in uniforms who chose, despite the pressure and violence, despite the curses and false hugs and emotional manipulation, to get up and protect with their body the dream of being a free people — to not rule over the Palestinians and to not be ruled over by rabbis.

The beaten, humiliated, slapped-on-the-face soldier boy, the police officer who was spat in the face — at this time they are the brave defenders of the State of Israel in the face of the unruly wave of zealousness.

The young soldier girl, her throat choked by tears, barely 19 years old, already carries the burden of the 2,000-year hope to be a free nation in our country on her shoulders.

Not in Palestinian Gaza, but rather, in our country.

With assertiveness and silent courage, but also with restraint, wisdom and compassion, this female soldier is currently protecting our most vital border — the border between what is allowed and what is not.

This is the border without which we will have no state and without which there is no freedom, no society, nothing but fiery zealousness, messianic-hysterical extremism and complete destruction — a state of affairs the Jewish people has known more than once in the past.

Reprinted with permission www.ynetnews.com.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most celebrated authors. This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 21, 2005, following the disengagement. He will speak at Sabbath services on Friday, May 19, at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. The public is invited. For more information, call (310) 475-7311.

 

Invitation to a Ritual


My hair is starting to go. I sent out a notice to the friends who have banded together to support me since I received my cancer diagnosis:

To: All recipients
From: anejenzmom@aol.com
Subject: Upfsherin

Peter, who has been cutting my hair since 1981, will be coming over at 7 p.m. this Sunday night to give me a buzz cut. Since strands of hair have been lingering in my brush and on my sweaters and tickling my face, the time has come to celebrate the fact that the elixirs are doing their job.

An upfsherin is traditionally a ceremony for 3-year-old boys getting their first haircut, but I will be renewing this tradition to mark the progress of my healing journey. You are invited to join me and be a witness for this rite-of-passage. Please bring goodies or musical instruments. I will be providing the hair.

Over the last weeks, I have received gifts of head coverings. A friend, who is both a rabbi and a cancer survivor, brought the beautifully embroidered crown kippah that graced her shining dome during her treatment. A student sent three hand-knit “comfort caps” made by women in her synagogue to cover cancer-tender heads like mine. Several friends have suggested sheitl (wig) shopping.

I don’t think I’m the sheitl type. While I am tempted to see what I would look like with perfect hair and make no judgments about those who choose to cover chemo-induced baldness with manufactured manes, I’m not sure it’s for me. I fidget a lot. My fingers fiddle and scratch at irregularities in fabric and skin. I can’t see me keeping my hands off the hairpiece or wearing it with grace. Also there is a tendency for things around me to be askew — paintings, mirrors, papers. My eyeglasses are always lopsided. I suspect that my wig would reflect this cockeyed balance. I’m not sure I could pull the wig thing off.

Moreover, I’m not sure I want to wear a wig. I don’t want to sugar coat the fact of my cancer. While there is no telling what caused my disease, I think that the fact of cancer –so much cancer — is something we need to look in the face. Cancer, like the devastation that I witnessed in the post-Katrina Gulf South, reveals the diseased infrastructure that riddles our ailing planet. Cover-up and denial exacerbate deterioration.

I don’t feel like an individual singled out to get this rare and nasty cancer. I feel like an envoy sent on behalf of planet earth.

“Look at me,” I want to say. “I am the face of the planet we share. I am your face. Look at me and take healing action. I am not going away. I become more toxic with every gallon of gas, every paper plate, and every soda bottle not recycled You have a choice. You can cover me over with a veneer and deny the future or you can meet my gaze and enlist to save the earth.”

I have spent my career making visible things that are often carried silently inside. To wear a wig, so that the world would not know that I have cancer and to protect those who see me from the reality of my illness, would betray my work and my values.

I am the ribbon lady. I give out rainbows of ribbons to mark what’s really happening with people. My ribbons mark mourning (black) and other life changes (blue), such as divorce, ending a relationship, relocation, loss or change of job, illness or becoming a caretaker for someone else who is ill. I have ribbons for yahrzeits (green) and ribbons for those who have dealt with any of these challenges in the past and have found them to be their teachers (purple). These categories actually reflect the Talmud’s description of those who walked the mourners’ path in the Temple: “mourners, those with someone sick at home, those who have lost a significant object, and excommunicants.” Inevitably, when I offer ribbons, most everyone takes one or more. It appears that just about everyone is in the midst of some sort of personal challenge. The assumption that “normal” means “good” is shattered.

Being marked with the ribbons makes it easier for people to feel more authentic. Visibility brings relief from the incongruity felt when inner experience is masked by the persona they felt obliged to present to a community unaware of their challenges or committed to the myth of normalcy.

When those who suffer do not have to mask, their energy is diverted from hiding to healing. Without the burden of covering up brokenness, people are able to attend to their deeper needs. Without veneers, people are given the comfort of authenticity. When we encounter them, we look honestly into the face of human experience. We surrender the illusions about what normal looks like. Hopefully with eyes opened, we will not avert our gaze and respond with compassion.

The season of masking is past. Both Mardi Gras and Purim are behind us. It’s time for being visible. I guess it is no wig for me.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

Memories and Music


Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

For more information, go to

Abortion Doc’s Son Weighs Thorny Past


“Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City and the Conflict That Divided America” by Eyal Press (Henry Holt and Co, $25).

Every father should be a hero to his child. But a child’s hero and an adult’s hero are often two different people, even when they inhabit the same body. Eyal Press, in his debut book, undergoes the difficult but riveting task of reconciling those two versions of his father, whom he clearly holds in heroic esteem. As the child of a Buffalo, N.Y. gynecologist who performs abortions, Press had a front-row seat for the abortion debate during its most tumultuous and violent years of the 1980s and ’90s, peaking with the 1998 assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Press’s father’s colleague. Gunned down in his home by an anti-abortionist sniper’s bullet after attending Friday night services, Slepian became a symbol of the violent wing of the movement to oppose abortion.

The release of “Absolute Convictions” could not be more auspiciously timed, given the recent passage in South Dakota of the most far-reaching anti-abortion legislation nationwide. That law, and proposed bills in other states, has reignited debate over the future of Roe vs. Wade. The case, decided in 1973, “would turn tens of thousands of Americans, some of them housewives, others previously disengaged evangelical Christians, into full-fledged crusaders,” Press writes.

It would also deeply affect the career of Press’ father and the life of his family — who arrived in Buffalo in February 1973, just three weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision came down.

Over the next three decades, the Presses would find themselves at the center of an increasingly shrill and dangerous abortion debate, one that would lead to the death of their colleague and bring terms like “24-hour surveillance” and “death threats” into their own lives. Less than a decade after Slepian’s death, Press returned to his hometown to dive into the cavernous questions of “life,” “choice” and “freedom” that the abortion debate encapsulates. The book, a well-reported work of journalism with a personal heart, is not content to simply recount the fear and chaos that followed Slepian’s murder, but instead seeks to understand how such a violent act came to pass in the first place. The great strength of this fine book is that it successfully presents twin narratives: a clear-eyed journalistic look at the evolution of a movement — political and religious — to oppose legalized abortion, and the story of a son coming into an adult’s understanding of his father and the role he played in that larger drama. Press, a left-leaning investigative reporter who has published in The Nation, the American Prospect and The New York Times Magazine, adeptly mines his family’s history while never losing his journalistic passion for social policy issues.

Press writes of his admiration for his father, Israeli-born Dr. Shalom Press, in somewhat simple terms — the pride a child feels in the vague sense that his dad does something worthwhile for a living. Throughout “Absolute Convictions,” however, Press’s admiration graduates from that youthful feeling of “My dad does the right thing” into an adult appreciation that enables him to report and reflect more thoroughly on the history and meaning of the anti-abortion movement.

The moment in the book when Press embraces this mature and more complex view takes place in the Rev. Rob Schenck’s Washington, D.C. office. Schenck is the founder of the evangelical advocacy organization Faith and Action and a leader in the pro-life movement. Sitting in Schenck’s office, listening to him describe with exhilaration and passion why he felt that protesting abortion clinics — including Press’s father’s practice — was “one of the most spiritual exercises [he] had ever engaged in,” Press is forced to admit that there is genuine conviction behind the pro-life perspective.

“If I place myself in Schenck’s shoes, I can imagine his sense of exhilaration,” he writes. “At the time, I could not contemplate the idea that a noble impulse might be motivating the protesters — they were doing their best to make my father’s life miserable. But if I step into the moral universe Schenck described to me — a world where every unborn child represents God’s creation and life begins at conception, where this is not a matter of debate but of truth as handed down in Scripture — the ethical imperative is clear.”

At a moment when all eyes are cast forward, Press’ account is a wise attempt to look back, reminding ourselves of how this issue, which once attracted the attention mainly of Catholics, became the center of the moral and political universe for so many evangelical Protestants — some of whom demonstrated their convictions through violent means. Press’s complicated journey takes his readers to that murky crossroads where religion, politics, family and law all meet.

Article courtesy The Forward.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Mass.

 

First Person – A Coming Out (of Egypt) Story


Sixteen years ago this month, I planned to take the Passover message of liberation to heart. I was going to come out of the closet to my sister and my parents and, in doing so, free myself from the bondage of keeping this huge and personal part of me from them. I was going to verbalize the secret I had feared revealing to them for more than 15 years since I first was able to put words to the feelings.

I grew up in a small, quaint New Jersey suburb of New York, a commuter town ideal for raising children. Since having moved to Los Angeles in 1987, at the age of 25, I generally visited my parents and sister back in New Jersey an average of once a year. That once a year was usually Passover time, since I had the time off from my work as a day school educator (and would enjoy the additional bonus of being able to lock up my home for the holiday and sell my chametz without having to go through the cleaning and other laborious pre-holiday preparations and rituals).

Perhaps my plan to come out during Passover was just practical, since that was when I typically returned home; or perhaps it was a flair for the dramatic or symbolic, since I had come to think of the emotional bondage of keeping my secret as a modern-day equivalent to the physical slavery of my ancestors. Either way, it was during Passover of 1990 that I had planned to come out to my parents and tell them I’m gay. I returned to my childhood home that year armed with several articles and a book titled, “Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality,” all designed to prove how normal it was to be gay.

I had come out a year earlier (also at Passover) to Rob, one of my best friends from college on whom I had had a crush. We got in his car, and I asked him to pull over on the way to wherever it was we were going because I had something really important and serious to tell him. He pulled into a parking lot (my elementary school parking lot) and turned off the engine. I loosened my seatbelt, turned to face him, took a deep breath and said, “I’m gay.”

To which he responded, somewhat anticlimactically, “Is that all?”

I don’t know if I was more relieved or disappointed, but there was no rejection. My first coming out was successful.

It took an entire year after that to muster the courage to tell my sister — who responded, “I still love you, and of course I won’t tell anyone.” To this I said that I wasn’t telling her so that she would now have to keep the secret. Coming out to my sister was planned to precede the coming out to my parents by several days. It was my warmup, my practice. But anticipating these two experiences, as anxiety-filled as they were, was nothing compared to the immeasurable angst I felt as I practiced and replayed over and over how I would reveal my secret to my parents.

The day I was going to tell them, I went to New York City to visit friends. I took the commuter train back to our town and felt the rumbling in my stomach as I anticipated freeing myself from my personal Egypt. The train sped closer and closer to home. With each station the train pulled into I could feel the rumbling in my stomach increase, and as I walked to my parents’ home (my childhood home) my stomach was on the verge of exploding. I tried to eat normally, but my appetite was limited. The meal, the conversation were overshadowed as I got closer to the point of expelling my truth, all the while wondering whether I would actually be able to follow through on my plan.

After dinner, I told my parents that I had something I wanted to say. They sat down at the table, dishes already cleared. With the gasses in my stomach doing triple axels, I mustered the courage — more courage than I had ever needed to do anything to that point in my life — and I said the words that liberated me from the self-imposed oppression that I had endured since realizing years earlier (beginning in third grade, if not even before) that I felt different than what I thought others felt: “I have something that’s really hard to say … I’m gay.”

Silence. Unbearable silence. To fill the silence I gave them the book and articles that I had brought. Perhaps I had brought them as much to help my parents through this new world as to prove to them that I was serious and that this was thought out. My father’s first words were: I’m shocked but I’m not shocked. (I had never really dated girls and though not effeminate, I fit some of the stereotypes.) My mother, tears filling her eyes, expressed her fears and her anxiety for me — I wouldn’t have a happy life, I would be alone — I did my best to assuage the concerns, but I had, after all, been working toward this moment for years and for them it was all new. And, frankly, I hadn’t thought through the post-liberation experience. The idea of telling my parents that I’m gay was so overwhelming that I hadn’t thought past anything but their initial reactions.

My father left to go to a meeting. My mother went to the sink to do the dishes. There was quiet again, but this quiet was the aftermath, the quiet that occurs when the truth and all of its realities, some becoming known and others not yet thought, become real, and we are trying to make sense of the implications. I felt a confusing mix of feelings – relief, anxiety, disappointment – and freedom from the mitzrayim, the narrow places, in which I had been stuck all those years.

On reflection, I wonder whether, thousands of years ago, the Israelites, too, didn’t experience the disappointment that the liberation wasn’t quite as easy and complete as expected. I suppose the fantasy was that I would come out of the closet and would be told, “Is that all?”

But my parents had more invested than my college friend. Their picture of my future, and by extension their future, would take longer to sort through, reimagine and come to terms with. The beginning of my liberation was now, in some ways, their new wilderness. It would be up to them whether they would turn it into a self-imposed bondage.

Due — in no small part — to my coming out, I have come to believe that our primary task in life is to know ourselves, accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to hope that those who love us will do the same. Each year we are to imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to re-experience the bitterness of the oppression symbolically through retelling the story and through the sensory experiences of the seder. We are to think about the way we are enslaved and oppressed today, how we oppress ourselves and how we can help end the oppression of others. How we can take ourselves out from our personal house of bondage. How we can free ourselves and how we can come out.

Jeff Bernhardt is an educator, Jewish professional and writer living in Los Angeles.

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday April 18, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

What Do Gen-Y Jews Want? Everything


Brandeis University just released a new study of Jewish college students. It found that they’re proud to be Jewish, largely unaffiliated, attracted to Jewish culture more than religion, like diversity and don’t feel strong ties to Israel or Jewish federations.

Reboot, a nonprofit that promotes creative Jewish initiatives, just did a study of the same age group, and found that they’re proud to be Jewish, avoid institutional affiliation, are interested in Jewish culture and have diverse allegiances.

Sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York did a similar study, as did Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and they both found … guess what? Young Jews are proud, unaffiliated, pro-culture, pro-diversity and anti-tribal.

The last few months have seen a flood of studies of Gen-Y Jews — all trying to map their sense of Jewish identity, affiliation patterns, needs, hopes, beliefs and behaviors.

Why is everyone looking at the same population?

First, there are the numbers: almost half a million Jewish college students, the future of this country’s Jewish community. The very few studies on record, particularly the 1990 and 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Surveys (NJPS), indicate that large numbers of young Jews aren’t going to synagogue, joining Jewish organizations, marrying other Jews or giving money to Israel or Jewish charities.

They’re opting out, which has led to great hand-wringing and head-shaking on the part of American Jewish officials.

Yet the new studies show an up-and-coming generation that is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, is coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.

Researchers say it’s cause for cautious celebration.

“There has been a general angst about the Jewish future for the past two decades, a continuity crisis,” says Roger Bennett, senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which sponsored the March 2006 Reboot study, “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices.”

Describing his study’s findings as “very positive,” Bennett says, “I hope this study assuages almost all the fear. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.”

The question for Jewish funders and organizations is what they’re going to do with the information, Bennett says.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says that while Jewish leaders in the late 1960s and early ’70s were “very unhappy about developments in the youth culture, and took a long time to reconcile themselves to it,” today’s Jewish leadership “is inquisitive, wants to know more.

Even while the older generation “may be shocked at things like Heeb,” an irreverent youth magazine, it “sees that something is going on and is paying attention,” Sarna says.

But if all these new studies are yielding pretty much the same information, are they useful?

Yes, researchers insist. First, each study asks slightly different questions, reflecting the needs of the sponsoring organization.

For example, Hillel’s study was prompted largely by one figure from the 2000-2001 NJPS, which showed that two-thirds of Jewish college students don’t attend Hillel activities, says Julian Sandler, chair of the group’s strategic planning committee. Hillel will release its long-awaited study of Jewish college students in late May.

The statistic “troubled us immensely,” Sandler says. Hillel engaged in two years of research “to try to understand what it is that today’s Jewish students are interested in.”

Hillel already has put some of that information to work. One of the central findings of its study is that young Jews have “a strong desire to find out more about their Jewishness, especially from an ethnic perspective,” which can “be manifested in multiple ways.”

One popular way is through tzedek, or social justice work. To that end, Hillel last month sent hundreds of students on a spring-break trip to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild communities hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“Tzedek will be a major emphasis [of Hillel programming in the future],” Sandler says.

Amy Sales, co-author of “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” a new study by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, says her data, collected in 2003, helps the people funding Jewish campus activities to use their dollars more effectively.

Her study found, among other things, that Jewish college students are interested in Jewish studies, want events that have a Jewish “flavor” but are open to non-Jews and need help in finding meaningful, compelling ways to engage in Jewish life.

She and co-author Leonard Saxe used that information to propose that Hillel customize its programs for each campus and develop better relationships with university administrations, other campus groups and local Jewish communities, creating “Jewish-friendly campuses” rather than focusing on simply reaching as many Jewish students as possible.

In fact, Hillel is doing just that, incoming President Wayne Firestone says. The group is convening a Washington summit May 21-23 to bring together funders, university administrators and Jewish organizational heads to talk about how to improve working relationships on campus, the first time such a targeted meeting has been held.

Researchers from all the studies agree that today’s young Jews can be a willing and energetic audience if the organized Jewish community steps up to the plate in time, and with a message that is relevant.

“They are looking for a positive Jewish experience, and every Jewish institution that answers that and puts its faith in young people will have a rosy future,” Bennett says. “Any funder that wishes to innovate is going to prosper.”

 

The Ones Left Behind


The bus bounces its way along the road from Axum to Shire, generating a huge cloud of dust as it barrels through the brown, rocky highlands of Tigray.

Bombed-out tanks that were brought to a standstill 20 years ago by Tigrean rebels fighting Ethiopia’s communist government still sit near the road in the places they were stopped, as much a part of the landscape today as the thatched-roofed tukuls, barren fields and dry riverbeds that comprise the territory of northwestern Ethiopia in summer.

The bus comes to a sudden halt as the driver spots a funeral procession alongside the road, a sign of respect accorded to the dead here. The passengers fall silent while the mourning procession walks by — first men carrying flags and rifles, then wailing women carrying parasols and trailing the body.

A bit farther along, the bus slows again as it takes a hard, cliffside curve; the passengers crane their necks to see an overturned truck that appears to have tumbled off the road just minutes before, its load of plastic crates spilled all over the hill.

It takes about two hours to travel the 35 or so miles from Axum to Shire, and then another hour of driving over dirt roads and empty fields to reach Adigereb, a remote village populated exclusively by Jews until 1980, when they all left for Sudan.

There have been rumors of some Jews still left in Tigray, holdouts who opted not to join their co-religionists embarking on the arduous and dangerous journey to Zion in the early 1980s.

“In the beginning, I didn’t want to go to Jerusalem because I was scared of the journey,” confessed Shirva Goyto’om, one of the lone Jews remaining in the province. Shirva lives in a small town about 30 miles west of the city of Shire, which itself has but one paved road.

“In recent years, we went to Addis — I was there — but because of the economic situation, people stay in Addis for three to five years and then come back,” Shirva said.

Like a few other Jews scattered about in this region, Shirva married an Ethiopian Christian and now has a sizeable family. He is a farmer, like his father was. His mother lives in Israel.

Shirva says he no longer keeps the Jewish traditions because they are impossible to maintain without the support of a community. Also, without the ability to immigrate to Israel — he tried but was unable to gain the ear of Israeli officials in Addis Ababa, he says — he has lost interest in practicing Judaism.

All over Tigray, the locals have the same response when asked about the Jews. The Beta Israel left years ago, they say, using the Ethiopian appellation for members of the Jewish caste. A few use the more pejorative term, Falasha, which means stranger.

But even when absent, the Jews are remembered. The houses they once occupied are still called by the names of the Jewish families who used to live in them.

The Tigrean Jews were the first large group of Ethiopians to immigrate to Israel, coming in secret Mossad operations in the early 1980s, before Operation Moses. They passed through Sudan on their way to Israel, sneaking with forged documents onto Athens-bound planes from Khartoum, moving through Port Sudan onto clandestine Israeli naval vessels, or getting airlifted from the Sudanese desert on illicit flights.

Some Tigrean Jews had to wait for up to two years in Sudan before being taken to Israel, and many died along the way. By 1984, approximately 6,000 Tigrean Jews had come to Israel in small groups. Most of them went to live in Beersheba, where Israel’s Tigrean population is still concentrated.

Here and there, in bigger cities like Axum and small villages like Aduhala, a few Jews remain in Tigray.

When everyone else left, they, or their parents, remained. Some stayed behind because they were afraid to leave their homes for an unknown place. Others were fighters with the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, the rebel army fighting the forces of Ethiopia’s central government, and they were too caught up in the war when the Jews left. (The rebels won in 1991, and rebel leader Meles Zenawi is now Ethiopia’s prime minister.) A few were married to Ethiopian Christians and didn’t want to leave their families behind.

A Tigrean community leader in Israel estimates that there are as many as 2,000 to 4,000 Jews left in this remote region. The governor of the region, who is from the historic city of Axum, where Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant resides, is Jewish.

But the Jews who remain here are no easier to distinguish from the local Christian population than the Falash Mura, whose ancestors converted to Christianity from Judaism decades ago. Unlike the thousands of Beta Israel who lived here 25 years ago, the Jews that remain no longer maintain the Jewish practices that made them easily identifiable to outsiders as Jews.

As one official with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee put it, the Jews here are like the Jewish remnant in other countries whose Jewish populations experienced mass exodus: Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq. There will always be a few who remain.

Before leaving for Israel, the Jews of Tigray were cut off from the outside world, known to a few Jewish scholars and advocates but largely ignored by and ignorant of the world beyond their fields, villages and marketplaces.

A lot has changed since they left.

Though camels, mules, cows and other livestock still roam the streets of Shire, they wander past the city’s Internet cafe and CD stores. Shire now has an airport, though the runway is unpaved, the terminal has no electricity, and an empty shipping container serves as the passenger waiting area.

Perhaps most significantly, Tigray’s isolation has been tempered by a close relationship with its most prominent expatriate community: Tigreans in Israel.

Israelis born in Tigray come back to visit, and the people of this region — even the farmers who live in places cars cannot reach and where electricity sheds no light — have grown used to seeing the occasional visitor from the outside world.

Zeudei Adem, an old Ethiopian woman of indeterminate age, lets out a yelp when she suddenly realizes that the foreign visitor in her stone-and-straw home is the son of her old friend and neighbor, Workunesh. Her niece looks on with a wide smile as Zeudei embraces the visitor.

“We knew you made it to Israel,” Zeudei says, rocking back and forth on the mud bench in her niece’s home. “Too bad you didn’t take us.”

The Israelis often come bearing gifts — clothing for former neighbors, cash, badly needed medicine.

One young Ethiopian man living near Adigereb said the area has suffered since the Jews left. The grasses in winter do not grow as tall as they used to, groves of trees have been cut down to make way for military installations, and the cows seem even thinner than before. Somehow, one Tigrean lamented, the Jews took their good fortune with them.

Ethiopian Israelis returning here for heritage visits are as amazed by the locals as the locals are by them. The Ethiopian villagers marvel at the Israelis’ attire, digital cameras, and money, and the Israelis marvel at how they ever lived in as primitive a country as this, where people live without running water or electricity and little prospects for a future different than that of their great-grandfather.

“As soon as we saw the way they live here, we said, ‘Thank God that we left this place,'” said Mazal Rada, who left Ethiopia with her family when she was 3. She now works in security in Kiryat Gat, Israel.

“I stayed at one ‘hotel’ in some town that was so bad it made me cry,” she said. “I want to go home.”