September 22, 2018

‘Manifest’ Mixes Mystery, Drama and Spiritual Questions

An airplane encounters severe turbulence midflight and lands safely. When the passengers disembark, they’re astonished to discover that five years have passed. This intriguing scenario is the premise of the new NBC drama “Manifest,” but it’s only one element in a series that creator, executive producer and showrunner Jeff Rake likens to “Lost” meets “This Is Us.” 

“It’s a serialized event mystery but also a grounded relationship drama,” Rake told the Journal. “I think people will see elements of both in ‘Manifest.’” 

Rake came up with the idea 10 years ago while on a family road trip. “I thought, ‘What if a family was traveling in two separate planes and one of them disappeared?’ I pitched it around town. Nobody bought it,” he said. Six years later, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished, “and my idea didn’t seem so outrageous after all.” When his series “The Mysteries of Laura” was canceled, he re-pitched the idea.

Although the pilot centers on passengers Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) and her brother Ben (Josh Dallas), “almost every episode presents a window into the life of a passenger we may not have met before,” Rake said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we meet some Jewish characters along the way.”

Michaela and Ben also represent opposite sides in an age-old debate: faith vs. science. “She believes that faith explains the mystery of the disappearance and return and the inexplicable things that are happening to them,” including the voices they hear compelling them to act, Rake said.

“Ben, on the other hand, is a mathematician, a man of science and is convinced that there must be an earthbound explanation for everything. In a very organized fashion, he starts breaking down who is and isn’t experiencing these callings, how they’re experiencing them and if there are similarities and differences. It’s one of the puzzles of the show but that question will be answered.”

Rake pointed out that although Michaela’s spiritual reference is the New Testament, “we’ll discover other people from other cultures and different faiths have their own explanations of what is happening to the passengers of this flight. Everyone in the series asks themselves the same question: how and why did this happen? We are not presenting one religious point of view, but offering the idea of faith in the most universal sense. It’s my intention that any person of faith has a way into this conversation,” he said.

“As a Jewish writer, I’m inspired by Jewish themes of redemption, second chances and tikkun olam,” he continued “We come to discover that the characters are flawed human beings who’ve been given a second chance, an opportunity to redeem themselves.”

Rake grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Los Angeles and hit the typical Jewish milestones: bar mitzvah, United Synagogue Youth, Camp Hess Kramer as a camper and counselor. He and his wife, Paulette Light, are founding members of IKAR, where her brother David’s wife, Sharon Brous, is the rabbi. Their four kids go to Camp Ramah, and the youngest will celebrate his bar mitzvah in February. “Judaism is a very important part of my life,” he said.

“I’m inspired by Jewish themes of redemption, second chances and tikkun olam. The characters are flawed human beings who’ve been given a second chance.” – Jeff Rake

Involved in speech and debate and drama in high school, Rake put creative interests aside to go to law school. Working for a law firm, he realized he’d made a mistake. He’d written a hip-hop musical about Elvis Presley and took a leave of absence from his job to mount the play at a theater in Hollywood. Soon after, “I quit my job and figured out how to write screenplays.”

He currently has a pilot in development with Warner Bros. for a Freeform show about a female assassin. “I’d love to get back to the theater some day,” he said. “I have a musical that I’d love to get off the ground. But right now it’s all ‘Manifest,’ all the time.”

Intricately plotted, high-concept shows are often hard to sustain and viewers are wary about getting attached to them. Rake acknowledged that fact but believes that “what ‘Manifest’ has going for it is it’s a triple hybrid: A combination of serialized event mystery, grounded relationship drama and procedural because there are closed-ended elements in most episodes that I think the audience will find satisfying as we inch along the mythology,” he said.

“Because we give a lot of real estate to emotional drama and procedure, it allows me to not have to burn through mythology so quickly. I think the serialized mysteries that haven’t worked petered out because they were so reliant on mythology that they had to burn through a lot of story very fast. That’s one pitfall we’ll be able to avoid.”

While the central mystery of the plane’s disappearance and return won’t be answered right away, “you have to turn cards over throughout the course of the series in order to make the audience feel rewarded,” he said. “A big card will be turned over in episode 13.” 

The initial order is for 13 episodes, with the option for nine more. “There will be goal posts along the way where we’ll make major revelations, but in every episode, there will be kernels of information,” Rake promised. “Putting aside the seemingly supernatural elements, I think the emotional drama is very compelling and reason enough to watch, but with the mystery, the procedure and the mythology, there’s something for everyone in this show,” he said. “I hope people will give it a watch and decide for themselves.”

“Manifest” premieres at 10 p.m. Sept. 24 on NBC.

The Complexity of Israeli Reality

Photo from Wikipedia.

I’ve never met Rabbi Sharon Brous. The spiritual leader of Los Angeles’ IKAR community thinks she knows me, though.

I am the “other side,” Rabbi Brous. Nice to meet you.

In a recent column in the Los Angeles Times, Brous writes about a trip she took with members of her family to the Jewish settlement of Hebron, a tiny, heavily fortified enclave abutting a large Palestinian city. Jewish tradition sees it as a holy city, where our Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried. In 1929, 67 unarmed Jews, including women and children, were butchered by rioting Arabs. Today it is the epicenter of what most Americans associate with the most extreme West Bank settlers.

“Trust me, Ima,” her daughter told her. “I love Israel. I need to see the other side with my own eyes.”

What she saw included the hardships that many Palestinians face there, as well as the frankly extremist views of some Jewish residents. One of them expressed support for the notorious murderer Baruch Goldstein, the physician and Hebron resident who, in February 1994, opened fire on a hall full of Muslim worshipers, killing 29. The resident called Goldstein’s victims “animals.”

Brous then goes on to extrapolate from Hebron to everything that bothers her about the Israeli government—the oversimplifications of pro-Israel messaging, the alienation of American Jews from Israel, and so on. When you see the most extreme counter-reality, she seems to be saying, you know that the government is encouraging a line that no American Jew with a conscience can abide.

It is a moving piece, in part because she prefaces it with the genuine love she shows for Israel—a love that includes not just reading the news, but taking her kids to Israel and making sure they’re in constant touch with family in Tel Aviv.

The visit to Hebron, she writes, was meant to teach them the “complexities” of Israel.

Here’s the thing. I’m a well-read, socially liberal, fairly secular, free-market, geopolitical hawk. I opposed the surrogacy law and support the Nation-State Law. I oppose Occupation, but am realistic about the impediments to a deal right now and the risks of unilateralism, and the need to learn lessons from the Oslo disaster. I’m likely to vote center-right, but I’m in nobody’s pocket.

I’m representative, in other words, of the actual Israeli “other side,” the kind of Israeli that Likud, Yesh Atid, Kulanu, Kadima, Israel Beiteinu and Jewish Home are dying to reach. We are the silent majority of Israel, the answer to liberal American Jews’ endless bafflement at why Bibi keeps winning elections when everybody they know hates him.

Israel’s “other side” has virtually nothing to do with the people in Hebron—or at least, nothing that can be learned from a brief tour of it. If I want to show my kids the “other side” of America, I’m not taking them to a KKK rally.

And I sure wouldn’t have taken them to Hebron with Breaking the Silence—an organization whose credibility has been repeatedly called into question, and whose spokesperson, Dean Issacharoff, was caught fabricating his own purported beating of a Palestinian prisoner.

If you want your kids to understand the complexity of Israeli reality, challenge them for real.

Why do Israelis consistently vote for right-wing parties, when they clearly don’t share the views of the settlers of Hebron? Because the Left, very simply, failed them. Golda Meir failed them in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and in the disastrous economic policies of the 1970s. Rabin and Peres failed them in the calamitous Oslo accords in 1993, which led to none of the peace they promised and a lot of dead Israeli friends. Ehud Barak, Labor’s last Prime Minister, failed them with his flailing impotence to stop the Second Intifada.

Nothing like losing a loved one in a terror attack or a war to focus the mind on the consequences of your vote on election day.

Like it or not, the leadership of the Right has led to a prolonged period of relative economic and physical security. Israelis—both Jews and Arabs alike—feel safer, and have an easier time paying their bills, than ever before. They do not have the luxury of risking that in exchange for leaders who sound nice, who say the things Jews in America want to hear.

Brous is obviously right when she says that “to love a place… does not necessarily mean to love its government.” There’s plenty to love in Israel’s diverse, eclectic and resilient society. But real love is not an abstract thing. It’s about listening to the other—really listening. Hearing uncomfortable opinions, serious opinions, presented as compellingly as possible.

With the new generation of American Jews, it means challenging them to think. It means exposing them to Israel’s many flaws and mistakes, yes, but also to the most reasonable version of opinions and views they disagree with. It means exposing them to the full complexity of Israeli reality.

I don’t know you, Rabbi Brous, and I do not question your love for Israel. But if you want to hear more about the real Israeli “other side,” call me on your next trip.

David Hazony is an author and Executive Director of The Israel Innovation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Israeli culture in the world.

IKAR Becomes ‘Safe Parking’ Partner

Every Angeleno has seen the “tent cities”: homeless encampments under bridges, near parks and freeway entrances, and in long stretches of downtown streets. But what we may not have seen are the more than 15,000 people in Los Angeles who are dangerously close to becoming homeless. 

According to the 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, 15,888 people spend nights in their cars, vans or RVs. Now, Safe Parking LA aims to work with community partners to provide a sense of safety for that vulnerable population. 

Last week, the South Robertson neighborhood council approved a bid by Westside spiritual community IKAR to become a Safe Parking LA partner. IKAR will allocate up to 10 spaces for vehicle dwellers in the lot of the property it recently purchased, on La Cienega Boulevard.

“IKAR is committed to living out the core values of our faith, including the belief that all people are created in God’s image, are deserving of dignity and worthy of love,” IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous said in a statement. The offer of a safe place to park is “a small but meaningful way for us to help our most vulnerable neighbors achieve a more dignified existence,” she added.

Safe Parking LA provides a port-a-potty and arranges for an overnight security guard. Host sites provide parking spaces, electricity, water and Wi-Fi. According to Safe Parking LA founder Dr. Scott Sale, “We welcome everyone.”

Sale started Safe Parking LA as a pilot program at Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, where he is a member, in April 2017. “Leo Baeck is the founding Jewish institution of Safe Parking,” Sale said.

IKAR will be Safe Parking’s fourth L.A. location. The other locations all opened this year, in Koreatown, at the Department of Veterans Affairs Campus in Westwood and in Hollywood. 

Some potential partners have expressed concern about community safety. But Sale said that participants are carefully vetted over the phone and in person before they are allowed access to a lot. He also invoked Safe Parking’s history in Santa Barbara and San Diego to allay concerns. 

“For the last 15 years, there have been 750,000 nights of safe parking between those two programs without one incident of vandalism,” Sale said. According to the Safe Parking LA website, San Diego had two instances of vandalism, but they were from people outside of the program. 

Sale is speaking with two Valley synagogues and a Hollywood synagogue as potential partners. And the Los Angeles Unified School District and Los Angeles Valley College have approached Sale to talk about the program.

“Offering a safe place to park is a small but meaningful way for us to help our most vulnerable neighbors achieve a more dignified existence.”  — Rabbi Sharon Brous

Before IKAR’s program can start, the requested funding of $100,000 needs to be approved by 5th District L.A. City Council Member Paul Koretz. Safe Parking is listed under Koretz’s homelessness initiatives on his website. Sale said Safe Parking is always working on other sources of funding.

“We’re ready to go,” said Brooke Wirtschafter, IKAR’s director of community organizing. Wirtschafter also spoke about IKAR’s intention “to find connections and build community with the people who take advantage of the program, to find ways to build relationships and engage.”

JEN’s New Rabbinic Fellows

Members of Jewish Emergent Network’s inaugural rabbinic fellowship group, including Rabbi Nate DeGroot (top row, far right) come together. DeGroot has served as a rabbi at IKAR for the past two years as part of this rabbi-training fellowship. Photo courtesy of Jewish Emergent Network.

On July 1, Keilah Lebell, who will graduate this month from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, will become a Rabbinic fellow at IKAR, one of the most celebrated synagogues in Los Angeles.

Her fellowship will last two years, as part of her inclusion in the Jewish Emergent Network (JEN) program. JEN is an organization comprising seven independent spiritual communities around the country that trains early career rabbis to become leaders in the Jewish community, placing them in temporary rabbinical positions.

As part of the fellowship, each of the seven communities hires someone who has worked at a congregation for three years or less. The fellows will work in communities that serve, among others, young adults who are disengaged from Jewish life as well as families with young children. They will lead, revamp and tinker with the synagogues’ social justice, chesed (acts of kindness) and young professional programs in their attempt to appeal to these two sought-after demographics.

Lebell is a member of the second cohort of the JEN rabbinic fellowship. The inaugural cohort launched in 2016 and will conclude in June. Lebell will succeed IKAR’s previous JEN fellow, Rabbi Nate DeGroot.

Lebell, 32, told the Journal she was excited about beginning her fellowship and viewed it as a “residency.”

“You know how doctors have to do a residency after their actual training in school? This feel likes a residency to me; a two-year fellowship, an opportunity to work and be out in the field, but the expectation is that I am learning,” she said. “So I consider this a continuation of my learning, and I am so excited to grow during these next two years.”

IKAR is the only Los Angeles synagogue in JEN. The others are Kavana in Seattle; The Kitchen in San Francisco; Mishkan in Chicago; Sixth and I in Washington, D.C.; and Lab/Shul and Romemu in New York.

“To me, these rabbis who founded these emergent communities are my Jewish superheroes. They are redefining what is Jewish practice and Jewish life, and what Jewish community can really feel like.”   Keilah Lebell

The Jim Joseph Foundation is the largest financial supporter of JEN. In 2016, the grant-making organization provided a $3 million grant to JEN.

IKAR serves as JEN’s fiscal sponsor, accepting financial contributions on JEN’s behalf because JEN is not its own nonprofit entity.

JEN communities share a lot in common, including the fact that none of them pays dues to any major denomination. They are all independent communities.

Tarlan Rabizadeh is a Los Angeles native who grew up in the Persian-Jewish “Tehrangeles” community. As part of the fellowship, Rabizadeh will be serving at The Kitchen, a self-described Jewish startup in San Francisco. In a phone interview, the 32-year-old described the JEN shuls as “disruptors.”

“They remind me of Apple. They come up with a new audio plug and they disrupt the system and I have to go buy new headphones that match my phone,” she said. “They are making us rethink things.”

Although JEN shuls have no formal affiliation, the rabbis in the fellowship are graduating from a variety of rabbinical schools affiliated with the major denominations. Ziegler, from which Lebell will graduate, ordains Conservative rabbis. Rabizadeh is graduating from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, a Reform seminary.

After JEN’s conception in 2016, JEN Program Director Jessica McCormick said there were those who suspected the participating “spiritual communities” — a term often preferred over “synagogue” among these nontraditional shuls — were forming their own movement.

“A big misconception when they launched was they wanted to be a movement. I think they laid that to rest,” McCormick said. “They definitely don’t want to be a movement. I think they like being independent.”

McCormick, who works out of IKAR, said the network’s goal is to elevate the participating synagogues’ activity in order to impact their own communities, the rabbinic fellows and the world beyond their respective communities.

McCormick added that DeGroot’s contributions to IKAR during his two-year fellowship show the impact a JEN rabbinic fellow can have.

“Nate DeGroot breathed new life into the young adults program [Tribe] at IKAR. It hadn’t died, but it wasn’t cutting-edge anymore,” McCormick said. “IKAR had started to age, so the people who were once in Tribe had babies. He re-envisioned the whole thing, changed the face of Tribe and brought a lot of learning to the group.”

Other participants in the second cohort, beginning July 1, are:

• Emily Cohen, who has worked with senior citizens on Jewish environmental activism and will be working at Lab/Shul, an experimental Jewish community in New York;
• Jessie Palkin, who has worked as a rabbinic intern at the liberal organization New Israel Fund and will be serving at Washington, D.C.’s Sixth and I, a nondenominational, nonmembership and nontraditional synagogue;
• Jeff Stombaugh, who will receive rabbinic ordination as well as a certificate in Jewish nonprofit management from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He will work at Mishkan Chicago, a self-described “down-to-earth” synagogue;
• Josh Weisman, who before rabbinical school worked as a grass-roots organizer at various Jewish nonprofits and will be serving at Kavana, an independent community in Seattle.
Romemu, the seventh congregation in JEN, was still in the process of selecting a fellow as of press time.

The rabbinic fellowship has been JEN’s main program since its inception. However, JEN is about to expand its outreach to the larger community. On June 1-3, JEN will hold its inaugural, Shabbat-based conference, “(Re)vision: Experiments and Dreams From Emerging Jewish Communities.” The conference, taking place at IKAR, will introduce the community to JEN’s second cohort and will feature laboratories, galleries, interactive experiments, panels and guest speakers.

While Ziegler’s rabbinic leaders have been formative in Lebell’s Jewish development, the mother of two young children said the rabbis of the independent communities in JEN are like superheroes to her.

“To me, these rabbis who founded these emergent communities are my Jewish superheroes. They are redefining what is Jewish practice and Jewish life, and what Jewish community can really feel like,” she said. “It can feel deeply welcoming and open but also, they are offering a Judaism that demands a lot of the people who walk in.”

Melissa Balaban, executive director at IKAR and the chairwoman of JEN, concurred. She said IKAR and the other six communities in JEN ask a lot of the worshippers who walk into their prayer spaces.

“We share a passion for radical inclusivity, passion for rethinking Jewish models and engaging those who were not inclined to be engaged in Jewish life before,” Balaban said. “It’s not like, ‘People are not engaged in Jewish life, so let’s make it simple and easy.’ It is sometimes challenging. Our services aren’t short.”

Tales of Jewish Diversity

At “United Colors of Jews — A Storytelling Event,” members of the community got an opportunity to share stories of their diverse backgrounds and to meet their “multicultural mishpacha” at The Braid in Santa Monica.

The Jan. 31 event was organized by Next @ The Braid (the Jewish Women’s Theatre’s group for young performers) and Jews of Color and supported by The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles Cutting Edge grant. It was co-hosted by IKAR, the egalitarian spiritual community.

“Jewish people come from everywhere and many are descendants of parents of mixed-heritage families,” said Abbe Meryl Feder, producer of Next @ The Braid. “Current events have brought diversity to the forefront, and many people from diverse backgrounds want to share their histories.”

According to, 20 percent of the U.S. Jewish population consists of persons of Africa American, Asian, Latin, Sephardic, Mizrachi and mixed-race descent.

The event’s charismatic emcee, Joshua Silverstein, a Jewish and Black performer who refers to himself as a “He-Bro,” was the first of the evening’s eight storytellers, each of whom stood before a photo of their family and presented intimate, moving, humorous and inspiring tales from their past and their current life. Silverstein shared his own sad story of his dysfunctional relationship with his father who, ever since Silverstein adopted his Jewish wife’s two children, has never wished his son a happy Father’s Day and still hasn’t met the kids, who are now 5 and 10 years old, respectively.

“More than half of the slaves stolen from Africa came from ancient Jewish tribes, so 50% of today’s blacks are their descendants.” — Benny Lumpkins

Marissa Tiamfook Gee, the product of a Jewish mother and a half-Black/half-Chinese father from the Caribbean, told how, after her mother died when she was 10, her father encouraged her Judaism. “It turned out my mom married a nice Jewish boy after all,” said Gee, who introduced her Ghana-born husband in the audience. (She noted that, for Hannukah, he had given her a handmade tallit made from his grandmother’s African tribal cloth.)

Another speaker, Benny Lumpkins, a black Jew, stated, “More than half of the slaves stolen from Africa came from ancient Jewish tribes, so 50 percent of today’s blacks are their descendants.” He spoke regretfully of leaving his synagogue after having been made to feel “that I was a unicorn.” He affirmed to the audience, “You are my family; I am a member of your tribe.”

Negin Yamini’s story, read by Eric Green, dealt with her Iranian Jewish parents’ bitter divorce, 16 years of no contact with her father, and then re-establishing a relationship with him after her mother’s death. As it turned out, her father’s very close best friend, a fellow security guard, was a Palestinian. “Some paradoxes cannot be explained; they can only be lived,” Yamini wrote.

Meridythe Amichai spoke about how she adored her grandmother and her grandmother’s lifestyle: “By 8 [years old], I knew that I loved the life of a senior citizen.” After her grandma’s death, Meridythe felt the woman returned in the form of a dove trapped in her home’s atrium.

Courtenay Edelhart told the audience she identifies as a Black Jewish liberal feminist single mother. She spoke with gratitude of one memorable Hanukkah in Bakersfield when an unusually generous stranger provided unexpected holiday gifts for her and her children that Courtenay would otherwise not have been able to afford.

Emily Bowen Cohen’s family story was about having a Jewish mother and an Native American father. After falling in love with an Orthodox Jew and throwing herself into that life, Cohen said she began feeling physical pain for not acknowledging her Native American heritage. So, she  searched out members of her father’s side of the family and made amends. “I stopped trying to be acceptable for other people’s comfort,” Cohen said.

Ingrid Gumpert — a psychologist who is Black, Jewish, Mexican and Indian — had a unique way of describing her diverse heritage. “I’m not fragmented; I contain multitudes,” she said. She noted that diversity has always been part of her life. At the rehearsal dinner for her wedding to her Jewish husband, a mariachi band played; and at their wedding they played Louis Armstrong’s version of “Sunrise, Sunset.”

“My superpower,” Gumpert said, “is seeing the divine nugget of potential in people.”

Mark Miller is a humorist, journalist and author of the humor essay collection “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”

IKAR Taps Rabbi David Kasher for Associate Rabbi Post

IKAR, a progressive spiritual community in Los Angeles, has concluded its national search for an Associate Rabbi. Rabbi David Kasher, formerly of Berkeley, CA, will join the Rabbinic team in July, working alongside Rabbis Sharon Brous and Ronit Tsadok.

“We were deeply moved not only by Rabbi Kasher’s incredible rabbinic journey, but also by the depth of his Torah, the sensitivity of his rabbinic voice, his understanding of the IKAR vision and community, his kindness and his decency,” Brous told the Journal. “It felt to many of us that this was simply beshert (meant to be).”

“IKAR lives right at the intersection of the ethical and the spiritual, and that combination, I think, is the very essence of Judaism,” Kasher told the Journal. “It’s an incredible honor to be invited to join their rabbinic team – really a dream job in a dream community.”

Kasher was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. “I went to an incredible rabbinical school, which is very much Modern Orthodox – and so was I, at the time. But it’s been over a decade since I was ordained, and my religious life has been constantly shifting and evolving in the meantime. I think that’s the nature of the religious life: dynamic, changing, growing in the search for God and meaning. I have a lot of love for Orthodoxy – it nurtured me for many years – but I wouldn’t say I strongly identify as Orthodox now. I think of myself as a religious Jew, an observant Jew – but not a denominational Jew. I feel most comfortable in a pluralistic setting, where all kinds of ideas and practices are welcome, and even celebrated.”

Kasher’s own family story contains different experiences. He was raised in the Bay Area by a progressive, secular mother, and spent summers in Brooklyn with his father, who re-married into the Satmar Hasidic community. After bouncing back and forth and trying to decide which world he belonged to, “I realized that I loved both, and didn’t want to give either one up. I’ve been trying to integrate them ever since.”

He has a doctoral degree from Berkeley Law, served on faculty at the Wexner Heritage Program, Reboot and BINA, and taught at Pardes, SVARA, The Hartman Institute, Dorot and at various Limmud conferences.

Kasher was part of the founding team, taught, and developed the pedagogical approach at Kevah, a non-profit aiming to deliver “the powerful energy of the Beit Midrash (study hall)” via small Torah study groups in people’s homes.

Kasher is passionate about Torah commentary, which he also covers in his blog and podcast, Reading this text with its history of commentators is “like witnessing a continuously unfolding revelation,” he said.

“We have been reading this one book, over and over again, for thousands of years. Yet every time we look at it, something new emerges. That, to me, is wondrous, and a testament to the awesome power of this text. In the spaces between these little black letters, are centuries of theology, philosophy, law, ethics, mysticism, poetry and good old-fashioned storytelling.

At IKAR -“one of the most exciting spiritual communities in America,” he said –  Kasher hopes to amplify its culture of Torah study, and “help infuse it into everything they do.” After years of Torah study, “IKAR is giving me the opportunity to apply that Torah in the world,” he said.

Kasher is also excited about the move to L.A., where Jewish community exists alongside other vibrant communities and cultures.

“The power – and the challenge – of Los Angeles is that everyone is here, together, one city functioning as a microcosm of the globe, trying to figure out how to live together. I’m expecting to learn a lot from this city.”

David Light’s View of Zombies, Being Married to a Rabbi and the Trump Era

ZOMBIES - David Light, screenwriter. (Disney Channel/Edward Herrera)

David Light, 44, is a Los Angeles-based comedy writer whose first produced feature — Disney Channel’s “Zombies” — premiered last month to an audience of more than 10 million. Co-written with partner Joseph Raso, the song-and-dance musical tells the story of star-crossed high-school freshmen (a zombie and a cheerleader) who learn to love each other despite their differences.

Outside of Hollywood, Light is best known as the “rebbetzin” at IKAR, the politically progressive activist community founded by his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous. “When I was going around for meetings when I first got to town, the idea that I was a comedy writer was not particularly interesting, but the fact that I was married to a rabbi was — and still is,” Light said. We caught up with him last week to discuss the relationship between Jews and Zombies, how Camp Ramah inspired his writing career and why Hollywood could be a vehicle for decency.

Jewish Journal: The last time I interviewed you was in 2007, for a story about what it’s like to be married to a rabbi. Now you’re a big Hollywood writer. Which job is harder?

David Light: (laughs) Don’t you mean which job is more fun?

JJ: “Zombies” is about a zombie and a cheerleader who are both outsiders. How does being Jewish give you insight into the marginalized, especially since American Jews today are so well integrated?

DL: Being Jewish makes you both an insider and an outsider, and we’re constantly balancing between those worlds. I grew up the Jewiest kid in public school, so navigating that taught me a lot and gave me experiences to draw from.

JJ: Can you elaborate on how being Jewish informs your writing?

DL: I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos (in Pennsylvania), [and] there was ‘mail day,’ when you’d send a letter home to prove you were alive and surviving at camp. But I figured out how to game the system, since [the counselors] weren’t checking content; they just wanted an envelope. So I started to address empty envelopes and send them home, week after week. After like, six weeks, I finally got a “package” slip — and [I] opened it up and it was empty. My mom totally one-upped me. When I got home, I was grounded until I could write a letter for each week of camp. Out of that moment, I fell in love with writing.

“What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster.”

JJ: “Zombies” incorporates the timeless appeal of people from different backgrounds being attracted to each other. How do you reconcile that cultural trope with the fact that you’re part of a tradition that discourages intermarriage?

DL: Ugh. [laughs] So you’re asking me to answer why ‘star-crossed lovers’ and make the case for not marrying out of the tribe?

JJ: I’m just curious how you square “loving the other” as a broad cultural value with the fact that Judaism discourages the intermingling of difference when it comes to romance.

DL: Look, I think we’re living in a profoundly indecent time. It just feels like the world is so polarized right now and we wanted to do a movie that values open heartedness and decency. And in the Disney canon, a movie about humanity makes sense; but right now, it feels countercultural. So we thought if our cheerleader could find a way to open her heart to a monster, that there’s real humanity to that.

JJ: Even if the monster is, say, the NRA?

DL: Oh, gosh. That’s the Rorschach you’re putting on this?

Some of us might have different ideas about who the monster is. So are we talking about being open-hearted to all monsters or to a certain kind of monster?

I don’t think being a card-carrying NRA member makes you a monster. But I do think we should hear more voices coming from those members who are more moderate about gun control and sensible reform. I keep wondering, where’s the law enforcement that’s in the NRA? How can they possibly want more assault rifles on the streets?

JJ: Movie monsters have often been a political or cultural metaphor for the prevalent fear of the moment. What do your zombies represent?

DL: Are you asking me, “Are the Israelis or the Palestinians zombies?” (laughs) What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster. They don’t have the sex appeal of a vampire or the cool powers of a witch. They’re just relentless; they keep coming. The [Centers for Disease Control] even did a whole zombie-preparedness campaign because it helped people think about, “What if it all goes wrong? What if the apocalypse really does come?”

JJ: IKAR, the community your wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founded, and which you helped build, has developed a national reputation for political activism. How are things going during the Trump era?

DL: IKAR was founded during the (George W.) Bush years, so we were forged in the fires of resistance. I think there was a lot of core value alignment during the (Barack) Obama years and now we’re back to a moment of resistance and opposition.

IKAR Readies Its Next Chapter

Since 2015, IKAR has been holding services in the Shalhevet High School gymnasium. Photo courtesy of IKAR

After operating for nearly 15 years in temporary rental spaces, IKAR has purchased a permanent home.

On Jan. 22, the progressive egalitarian spiritual community closed escrow on a property on South La Cienega Boulevard, between West 18th and Airdrome streets, IKAR Board Chair Yoni Fife said in a Feb. 2 statement.

IKAR paid $6.9 million for the 21,000-square-foot storefront property, according to figures obtained by the Journal.

As the IKAR community prepares for a capital campaign to fund the construction and anticipated operating costs of its future home, IKAR also has begun the process of hiring an associate rabbi who would join the clergy team of IKAR Senior Rabbi and co-founder Sharon Brous and IKAR Associate Rabbi and Director of Community Learning Ronit Tsadok.

“We are looking for someone who can teach, preach and be a part of the IKAR community,” IKAR co-founder and Executive Director Melissa Balaban said.

Fife said IKAR has been searching for a permanent home since the fledgling days of the organization.

“It’s something we have been thinking about frankly since pretty close to Day One, giving ourselves a sense of permanency and long-lasting stability,” Fife said.

And Balaban said the purchase would serve IKAR’s longtime goal of becoming a center for progressive Jewish life in Los Angeles.

“We always had the idea of building something beyond a traditional shul — a hub of civic engagement, art and culture, and spirit.” — Melissa Balaban

“We always had the idea of building something beyond a traditional shul — a hub of civic engagement, art and culture, and spirit,” she said.

Founded in 2004 by a small group of Jewish leaders who were frustrated with the status quo in the local Jewish community and wanted to create a place that would accommodate experimental expressions of Judaism, the nondenominational, social justice-oriented community has operated in rented facilities since its establishment.

The Westside Jewish Community Center housed IKAR until it relocated to Shalhevet High School, its current home, in 2015.

Two IKAR families, which IKAR leaders declined to identify, donated the lead gifts to the community toward the purchase of the property.

The property includes several vacant buildings on three parcels of land. The only current tenant is Vanos Architects, now a tenant of IKAR. The property is located on the western side of South La Cienega Boulevard.

It could be years until IKAR moves into the building, but on Feb. 2, 65 people affiliated with Tribe, IKAR’s young professionals group, attended a Shabbat dinner at the purchased site, gathering in an empty warehouse on the northern end of the property. When the Journal visited the property several days later, a table with IKAR signs hanging above it remained inside the warehouse near the front entrance.

The congregation is conducting a study of construction costs and needs with the help of capital campaign consultants, board members and mentors, including Uri Herscher, founding president of the Skirball Cultural Center, Brous said.

“We want to be careful how we go about this massive fundraising effort,” Brous said. “Ultimately what matters is we’re able to run our community, our organization, our program for this space.”

Community support will be necessary for a successful fundraising campaign, Fife said.

“We now have a lot of work ahead as we move to the planning phases of a campaign to raise the funds we’ll need to design and construct a new building at the site,” Fife said. “We will need the full support of our community to make our dreams a reality.”

Even as IKAR, once a scrappy startup-like organization, grows, Balaban said IKAR would continue to commit itself to the qualities that have made it unique among Jewish organizations today.

“The fortunate thing of building something from scratch is you can put all your values into it, whether environmental, inclusion, etc. We can think through all of those aspects literally from the ground up and a lot of places don’t have that luxury because they are starting from something that already exists,” Balaban said.

One reason for the choice of location is it is geographically desirable for many IKAR members in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood who are Shabbat observant and do not drive on Shabbat.

“We drew a striking zone of about a two-mile radius from the heart of the Jewish neighborhood [when searching for a property],” Brous said. “We have a combo of walkers, who all live in that neighborhood.”

The new property also will allow IKAR to consolidate its operations in one location. Currently, it holds services and religious school at Shalhevet, has offices in the Mid-Wilshire district and runs an early childhood center on Venice Boulevard.

“There are a lot of pieces of the overall vision we haven’t been able to fully realize because we have been in multiple rental properties,” Brous said. “I think this will give us an opportunity to more fully manifest our dreams and visions for this organization.”

The move to a new home means Brous will be dedicating more of her time to fundraising than she has previously. And the evolving nature of Brous’ job, coupled with Tsadok taking on responsibility for IKAR education programs last year, has necessitated the hiring of an additional clergy member, Balaban said.

IKAR is seeking someone who has more than four years of experience for the clergy position. IKAR Vice Chair Rachel Waranch is leading the search committee.

“We’re putting it out to networks, to people in different fields,” Balaban said. “The Jewish rabbinic community is smaller than one would think.”

IKAR is also in the process of interviewing individuals to succeed its two-year Jewish Emergent Network rabbinic fellow, Rabbi Nate DeGroot, whose fellowship concludes this year.

IKAR’s membership comprises more than 600 households. Among them are Dan Messinger, who runs a kosher café on Pico Boulevard, and his wife, Deena, a Pressman Academy teacher, who live in Pico-Robertson with their two sons. The family walks more than 35 minutes to attend IKAR services at Shalhevet, located at West Olympic Boulevard and South Fairfax Avenue.

IKAR’s move to its new location will reduce the Messingers’ walk by more than 20 minutes, he said.

“They are moving a few blocks from where I live, so I feel like everything is working out according to my master plan,” Messinger said.

While his older son, Max, 11, will likely have his bar mitzvah at the current IKAR site, Messinger said he anticipates his younger son, Isaac, 8, will become a bar mitzvah at IKAR’s new home.

“There is always a long time between when the announcement is made and when the ribbon is cut, so to speak, but it is great for IKAR,” he said, “and I think it will be great for L.A.”

Oh baby, baby: Five options for dealing with babies on the High Holy Days

Photo by Deposit Photos.

New parents have a lot to figure out: how to get their baby to sleep through the night; when to introduce food; how to binge-watch Netflix while being sleep deprived. The High Holy Days present one more thing for new parents to figure out: how to atone for your sins while taking care of your baby.    

While most synagogues offer a plethora of childcare options for children who can walk and talk, most new parents are trying to decide what the best option may be for their babies. Here are just a few helpful suggestions for new parents to consider.

Find services made for young families

Many synagogues offer High Holy Days services specifically designed for young families during which crying, nursing and screaming not only are tolerated, but expected. These services are often under an hour and free. For instance, Temple Judea in Tarzana offers a “Tot High Holiday” service where clergy appear in costume and put on “a fun and wild show,” according to Ellen Franklin, Judea’s executive director. “It’s entertaining but with some traditional prayers.”

At Sinai Temple, there is a 45-minute volunteer-organized “Shofar Blast” service that is “by kids, for kids,” according to Rabbi Nicole Guzik. The service features a “highlight reel” of prayers including Avinu Malkeinu and the mourner’s Kaddish and leads into the synagogue’s “Torah-in-the-Round” family-friendly service for those who choose to stay for a fuller High Holy Day experience.

During Shofar Blast, “you’ll get a message from the rabbi and a puppet show,” said Guzik, who noted that the service is not designed for parents to chitchat but really to connect to their kids and to the spirit of the holiday.

Be there but be flexible: Go to adult services

For many parents with babies, attending regular adult services is still an option. While some synagogues explicitly discourage babies from adult-only High Holy Days programming, others are fine with infants so long as parents follow the implicit rules of High Holy Days decorum.

When Betsy Uhrman’s children were babies, she would transport them in a carrier and follow her synagogue’s  “unspoken etiquette” of sitting in the back or near an exit.  If her baby started making noise, Uhrman simply stepped out, which happened often. “I was happy to have them there but I wasn’t actively present in services,” she said.

This year IKAR, the spiritual community located in Mid-City, is setting up a “Pray-ground” with toys for children younger than 4 in the balcony overlooking the space where their main services are being held. There will be a closed-circuit feed for parents to hear the full service, including the sermon. 

“We are trying to create space that makes parents feel part of the service even if they are not in the room,” IKAR Executive Director Melissa Balaban told the Journal.

It takes a village: Attend services with family and friends

Childcare doesn’t need to be a one- or two-person task during the High Holy Days. Many new parents choose to attend services with their support networks to divide the childcare responsibilities.

Last year, Tova Leibovic Douglas, a rabbinic student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, wanted to spend some of her time in services actually praying — not just watching over her 18-month-old daughter, Eve.

For the High Holy Days, Tova and her husband, Austin, split their time between their home shul and the synagogue where Tova’s extended family was attending services.

“It made it easier for us,” she said. “Instead of Austin or me being the ones to have to watch Evie, we got to split the responsibility among ourselves, my parents and my sisters.” Austin added that in addition to being helpful, “going to services with my in-laws was a good opportunity for them to spend time with Evie,” adding that “it made services more enjoyable for everyone.”

Stephanie Steingold Bressler’s village of support wasn’t family members but other congregants at her synagogue. “When my kids were too young to go to official child care, I let rebellious teens, who were already in the lobby, take turns hanging with my kids,” she said.

Parents’ night out: Get a baby sitter

For some parents, the important work of accounting of the soul is more easily done when the kids are not around at all, so they choose to hire a baby sitter. 

Betsy Uhrman, who does attend most services with her children, always hires a baby sitter on Kol Nidre. “It is really rare that my husband and I carve out time for our own spiritual reckoning,” Uhrman told the Journal, “so on Kol Nidre, it’s important that we are both present.”

Uhrman chose Kol Nidre as the time for a baby sitter because of how “powerful” the service tends to be as well as for the importance of maintaining bedtime for her kids.

Synagogues on occasion make accommodations for baby-sitting young children. Wilshire Boulevard Temple offers baby-sitting to member families that preregister for children at least 3 months old, and at Sinai Temple families can request caregiver passes — which enables nannies to enter the building to watch over children without having to purchase tickets.

Bowing out: Staying home

For some new parents, the right answer for their High Holy Days experience is to stay home with their children and observe the holidays in other ways.

For Jenny Platt, taking her 16-month-old son, Sawyer, to services last year was going to be too big of an ordeal.

“I read Rosh Hashanah books with him and he watched a video of shofar blowing on the computer,” she said. An unconventional solution, but Platt said she was grateful that she could still celebrate the holiday with her son.

For some parents with young kids, staying home feels like the only option. “When you have an infant and a 2-year-old that wants to run around and there is no programming for them, you stay home,” according to Tamar Raucher, whose husband, Noam, is the head Rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. When her kids were too young for formal programming, she said, “the day became about celebrating with friends afterward at Rosh Hashanah lunch.”

Interfaith L.A. vigil decries Charlottesville hate march

Photo courtesy L.A. Mayor's office.

A diverse crowd of several hundred Angelenos filled the pews of Holman United Methodist Church in mid-city to condemn white nationalist violence rocking the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.

A collection of the city’s faith leaders and faith-based organizations banded together Aug. 13 to organize the “Love Transcends Hate” interfaith prayer vigil. Local congregation IKAR, whose Miracle Mile area sanctuary sits just across the 10-freeway from Holman’s, was one of the co-sponsors for the event.

Holman Pastor Kevin Sauls welcomed guests, including dozens of Jews in attendance, explaining that a national conference call with Christian leaders the day prior sparked the idea to hold vigils across the country. He and others reached out to a citywide base of interfaith leaders and organized their own event in under 24 hours.

“The coming together of our faith leaders, elected officials and all of you sends a powerful message,” he said, surveying the packed church. “It says that truly love is more powerful than hate.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson looked on from the front row. IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous sat next to Mayor Garcetti.

After Pastor Saul’s opening remarks, a troupe of Holman women in colorful dresses adorned with ringing chimes danced on stage and through the aisles. A lively drumbeat accompanied the performance as guests clapped along. An organ player and the Holman choir also led the audience in a rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”.

Speeches from elected officials and faith leaders followed. Rabbi Brous delivered a brief speech that referenced Israel’s ancient port city of Jaffa, which neighbors Tel Aviv.

“[Jaffa] is a place where Jews and Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, secular and religious all find a way to live together as equals in harmony, which is very challenging for many people in a region that’s seething with polarization,” she said. “A few years ago a group extremists came to sow division and hatred in this precious town and to break the delicate balance. But the citizens of that town stood together, arm in arm, blocking the arteries and shouting, ‘Hell no. Not in this place. We reject your violent rhetoric. We reject your racist screed.’ They created a sanctuary of love and justice, which is precisely what we are here to do today across this nation.”

Councilmember Dawson, who is African-American, shook his head in disbelief after Brous’ speech.

“Only in Los Angeles does the rabbi come in to a black church and preach like nobody’s business,” he said, eliciting laughs from Jews and many of Holman’s African-American congregants.

In his speech, Mayor Garcetti, who had just returned from a weekend in New Orleans holding meetings with mayors of other major American cities, took digs at the Trump administration for not placing sole blame on white supremacists for the troubling events in Charlottesville. He directly addressed President Trump’s comments made during a recent press conference in which the president doled out blame to “many sides” for the “hatred, bigotry and violence”.

“There is still, I believe, good and bad, right and wrong, truth and lies,” Garcetti said. “There are not always two sides to a story. To my fellow ancestors who died because they were Jewish, there wasn’t another side to the story.”

Yalley Beth Shalom Rabbi Noah Farkas, Temple Beth Hillel Senior Rabbi Sarah Hronsky and Jewish attorney Wendy Heimann, who co-founded “RiseUp LA”, a grassroots sociopolitical movement committed to protecting progressive values, also spoke.

Farkas, who was one of the event’s organizers, delivered  closing remarks. He told the assembly that, “the best way to respond to organized hate is with organized love.”

38-year-old Adam Overton, a young religious leadership fellow at Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) who attended and wore a yarmulke, said Holman was the perfect setting for the vigil.


Photo courtesy of L.A. Mayor’s office.

“It was very special to be with everybody in the space and to just really feel the power of Holman United Methodist Church, which is really a ground zero for a lot of social justice in Los Angeles,” he said. “I found myself feeling really connected to the history of social justice throughout this country.”

Leonard Muroff, a community rabbi who mainly specializes in hospice care, wore a blue Dodgers shirt with “Dodgers” spelled out in Hebrew. He will be traveling to Virginia Tech University’s Hillel next month to help out with High Holy Day services. The Blacksburg, Virginia campus is about a two and a half hour drive from Charlottesville.

“I will be there standing with those against hate,” he said. “Hearing the mayor tonight was very instructive. I just want to bring strength and love and peace to Virginia when I’m there.”

More than 200 liberal U.S. rabbis want Israel to lift travel ban on BDS leaders

Ben Gurion Airport courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

More than 200 rabbis from the liberal movements of American Judaism signed a letter opposing Israel’s travel ban on leaders of the boycott movement against Israel.

The rabbis signing Wednesday’s letter were responding to an incident last month in which Rabbi Alissa Wise of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, was prevented from boarding an Israel-bound airplane leaving Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.

Four other people traveling to Israel as part of an interfaith delegation, including two other Jews, a Christian and a Muslim, were also prevented from boarding the flight at the request of the Israeli government.

“We hold diverse opinions on BDS. Even though many of us have substantive differences with Rabbi Wise and other rabbinic colleagues who support the BDS movement in some or all of its forms, we believe that the decision to bar Rabbi Wise from visiting Israel is anti-democratic and desecrates our vision of a diverse Jewish community that holds multiple perspectives,” read the letter, which had been signed by 212 rabbis as of late Wednesday morning.

“Boycotts are a legitimate nonviolent tactic that have been used both in our own country and around the world in order to create justice for marginalized and oppressed communities. Whether we support boycott is a controversy for the sake of heaven. It endures because we struggle together and debate how we can create peace, justice, and equality for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” the letter said.

The signers included Rabbi Sharon Brous, of the independent IKAR congregation in  Los Angeles; Rabbi Amy Eilberg of Los Altos, California, the first women ordained by the Conservative movement; and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

In March, the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, amended the Law of Entry to prevent leaders of the BDS movement from being allowed into Israel. The amendment applies to organizations, as well as the leadership and senior activists of those groups, that take consistent and significant action against Israel through BDS and threaten it with material harm.

JVP said at the time of the incident that it was the first time the amendment had been enforced before passengers boarded their flights to Israel and the first time that Israel has denied entry to Jews, including a rabbi, for their support of BDS.

An anti-BDS bill making its way through Congress would expand existing law that bans boycotts imposed by foreign governments to include those imposed by international organizations like the European Union and the United Nations.

L.A. rabbi arrested in Washington for protesting health care bill

Rabbi Sharon Brous being arrested July 18 in the Russell Senate Office Building. Photo courtesy of Sharon Brous

Rabbi Sharon Brous of the Los Angeles congregation IKAR was arrested July 18 with about a dozen other faith leaders outside the Washington, D.C., office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) while protesting Republican efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Brous and the other clergy members were arrested for refusing police orders to disperse, according to United States Capitol Police. They were singing, praying and giving speeches before they were arrested, Brous said.

“I did find it to be ironic that it is illegal to stand in the hallway of the Senate building and it’s not illegal to plot how to make cancer patients lose their chemotherapy,” Brous told the Journal in a phone interview.

Brous said she traveled to the nation’s capital to protest Republican health care legislation because she felt obligated as a person of faith, but also because both of her parents are cancer survivors and another close relative is fighting cancer, and she believes proposed bills would deny vital services to cancer patients and others facing grave illnesses.

The most recent Congressional Budget Office review of Republican health care legislation estimated that the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act of 2017 would result in 32 million people losing health care. As Senate majority leader, McConnell is responsible for steering Republican efforts to pass the legislation.

“As people of faith, we are called to operate in a way that is just and right and compassionate in all cases, but we’re asked to have special care for the most vulnerable,” Brous said. “And this does exactly the opposite.”

Brous said the protest was organized by members of the interfaith Auburn Senior Fellows program, including the Rev. William Barber II of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.

Among those also arrested was Rabbi Alana Suskin of Americans for Peace Now, a group that opposes Israeli military control of Gaza and the West Bank.

Brous said there will be more demonstrations if Republicans persist with their efforts. The July 18 arrests came as one of several waves of protest. At least 11 faith leaders were arrested five days earlier, also in front of McConnell’s office.

“You call yourself religious people and you put your hands on a Bible when you swear the oath of office,” she said of Republican lawmakers. “And you’re undermining everything that we as people of faith hold to be true.”

She and the other protesters arrested with her were released the same day after paying a $50 fine, according to Capitol Police.

Moving & Shaking: Garcetti inauguration, LAMOTH vigil, AFMDA gala

IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous delivers the invocation at the inauguration ceremony for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The gathering at Los Angeles City Hall marked the start of Garcetti’s second mayoral term. Photo by the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous delivered the invocation at the inauguration ceremony for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s second term.

“Holy One, protect and strengthen our mayor, who wears the clothes of a politician but has the heart of a prophet,” Brous said on July 1 at Los Angeles City Hall.

Garcetti, 46, the city’s first elected Jewish mayor, took office in 2013. He was re-elected in June. Because of a shift in the city’s election calendar, Garcetti’s second term will last 5 1/2 years instead of the standard four-year term.

Garcetti’s father, former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, is Mexican American with Spanish, Native-American and Italian ancestry. His mother, Sukey Roth, is the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants.

Garcetti regularly studies Torah with Brous. The two co-starred in a comedy sketch titled “Clergy in Cars Getting Coffee” — a takeoff on a similar Jerry Seinfeld internet video series — for the 2016 IKAR Purim spiel.

The inauguration ceremony also featured the swearing-in of newly elected and re-elected L.A. City Councilmembers, including L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz, whose district includes the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Brous highlighted how local elected officials have fostered religious unity during polarizing times:

“Our mayor and our city leaders have turned this city into a holy hot spot, an oasis of love and justice, a place where Jews and Christians and Muslims and Sikhs and Buddhists and Hindus and Catholics and atheists stand together against hate crimes, form holy alliances to fight homelessness and combat racism, work side-by-side to strengthen and support our immigrant communities, declare our commitment to protecting one another and our fragile planet.”

From left: Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, AJC Los Angeles Director Dan Schnur and Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev commemorate 25 years of friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan. Photo by Anna Rubin

Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg and the Consulate General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev commemorated 25 years of friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan on June 7 at Sinai Temple.

The event featured Grundwerg and Aghayev in a conversation moderated by Dan Schnur, director of the L.A. office of American Jewish Committee, a global advocacy organization.

Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe opened the event by recalling his trip to Azerbaijan in 2015 with 50 members of his congregation, which sponsored and delivered a Torah to the mountain Jews of Baku.

Grundwerg and Aghayev discussed their backgrounds, their respect for each other and the friendship between their two countries. “Israel was one of the first countries that recognized Azerbaijan following its independence in 1991,” Grundwerg said. The two countries have been diplomatic partners ever since.

Aghayev highlighted his Muslim-majority country’s history with the Jewish people. “The Jewish people have been in Azerbaijan for more than 2,000 years,” he said, adding: “The Jewish people have been safer in Azerbaijan than anywhere else in the Middle East.”

Chinedu Nwogu, a Nigerian foreign exchange student at Cal State Northridge, attended the event and said he found the discussion encouraging. “It was inspirational to attend this event and see the strong friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan, despite the country’s Muslim majority, and it gives me hope that one day such a friendship will exist between Israel and Nigeria,” Nwogu said.

Additional attendees included philanthropists Naty and Debbie Saidoff; former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad; Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles Akira Chiba and Consul General of Germany in Los Angeles Hans Jörg Neumann.

The Shalhevet High School choir sang a rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold,” recognizing the 50-year anniversary of Jerusalem’s 1967 liberation in the Six-Day War.

Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

CNN International anchor Isha Sesay. Photo courtesy of CNN

CNN International anchor Isha Sesay spoke about her experiences reporting on women’s rights violations, particularly the terrorist group Boko Haram’s April 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the Chibok region of Nigeria, when she addressed a group of about 50 people after the Beverly Hills Jewish Community’s June 24 Shabbat services at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She emphasized the moral imperative to mobilize against such global atrocities.

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Civil Society, introduced Sesay and described his own activism against the torture of Yazidi women and girls by ISIS in Iraq. Berkowitz has worked with Chaldean Christian groups to advocate for the Yazidi girls to the United Nations and the White House. He said he became passionate about the cause after he learned of it from the news and, as the father of four girls, felt he could not stand idly by.

“I recalled the phrase from Psalms: ‘Karati, v’ein oneh’ — ‘I called, and there was no answer,’ ” Berkowitz said. “It seemed that the world heard the Yazidi girls and did not answer. We as a Jewish community have an obligation not only to help our own, but wherever and whenever there’s injustice and suffering.”

Sesay related her passion for international women’s rights to her upbringing in Sierra Leone, where she said 90 percent of women are subject to genital mutilation. She said she hoped to balance journalistic objectivity in her news reports with her personal commitment to human rights activism.

“It is not enough as a journalist to sit at the desk and read a prompter,” Sesay said. “Some stories cannot be left at the studio door. You must use every tool at your disposal to keep the story alive.”

Sesay, who currently is writing a book about the Boko Haram kidnappings, urged congregants to be “upstanders” rather than bystanders, and to engage with nonprofit organizations already working to empower women in developing countries.

Sesay’s appearance was sponsored by the Jewish Journal and organized by the Jewish Platform for Advocacy and Community Engagement, and the Beverly Hills Jewish Community’s speaker initiative.

— Gabriella Kamran, Contributing Writer

Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz appears at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust for a vigil commemorating the refugees aboard the MS St. Louis in 1939. Photo by Jill Brown/Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) held a community vigil to commemorate the refugees aboard the ocean liner St. Louis in 1939. The St. Louis was full of Jewish refugees when it was turned away by the United States after leaving Nazi Germany.

At the June 11 event, the 85 attendees remembered those who were killed after being sent back to Europe, while LAMOTH highlighted the importance of helping present-day refugees. Those who attended came from various synagogues and organizations, including University Synagogue, Cool Shul, Temple Sinai of Glendale, Kehillat Israel, Leo Baeck Temple, USC, HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), IKAR, the Anti-Defamation League, Temple Beth Am and Temple Isaiah.

LAMOTH Director of Education Jordanna Gessler said it was important for the museum to hold the event because lessons of the Holocaust are relevant today, and important for members of the Jewish community to come together to “learn about the past, reflect on the present and change the future.”

LAMOTH was founded in 1961 by a group of Holocaust survivors whose narratives are at the core of the museum’s galleries and education.

Henry Slucki, a Holocaust survivor, was a participant at the commemoration who spoke about his experiences of being a refugee. Slucki said his family was assisted by HIAS, which for 130 years has protected refugees and helped them rebuild their lives.

L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz also spoke at the event about his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and refugee.

Beth Kean, LAMOTH executive director and a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and refugees, discussed honoring the memory of those who died as a result of the events surrounding the St. Louis.

— Caitlin Cohen, Contributing Writer

From left: Actress and activist Sharon Stone, Magen David Adom (MDA) Chief Operations Officer Ori Shacham, new MDA Chairman of the Board Rabbi Avraham Manela, MDA paramedic Naty Regev and American Friends of MDA Western Region President Dina Leeds. Photo by Orly Halevy

American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA) held a June 21 luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills to mark the launch of its Iron Dome Protectors of Israel Women’s Division for Magen David Adom (MDA) in L.A.

The event featured a discussion with actress and peace activist Sharon Stone and philanthropist and businessman Michael Milken.

Organized by AFMDA Western regional chair Dina Leeds, the Jewish National Fund and Israel Bonds, the event drew more than 200 women in support of the Eshkol region of Israel, which has been a target of terrorist groups’ rocket and mortar attacks in recent years, and is not protected by Israel’s Iron Dome.

“We want to offer love and resources to our brothers and sisters in Israel who need it most due to the high-risk parts of the country they live in,” Leeds said. “Where there is no literal Iron Dome anti-missile system, we will be their ‘Iron Dome’ of emotional and lifesaving support.”

The event also raised funds to purchase two ambulances for the emergency-response efforts MDA performs in Israel and around the world.

“We unite people of Israel, of all ethnicities, backgrounds and religions,” Leeds said. “We have paramedics who are Jewish, Christian and Muslim, all serving the singular task of saving lives.”

Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse participated in the event via video.

“I commend each and every one of you for being such strong and determined women, each of you leading by example and making a difference,” Bosse told the attendees.

Carolyn Ben Natan, director of public affairs for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, also attended.

“We stand on the shoulders of those righteous and fearless biblical women of the Exodus,” Natan said, “and now we have modern Israeli women on the world stage, and there is a direct line from Golda Meir to Gal Gadot.”

Other attendees included Beny Alagem, owner of the recently opened Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills; David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media/Jewish Journal; philanthropist Gina Rafael; Susan Azizzadeh, president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation; Jodi Marcus, associate director of the Jewish National Fund in Los Angeles; Yossi Mentz, AFMDA Western region director of major gifts; and Gadi Yarkoni, mayor of the Eshkol region.

— Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

With this issue, the Jewish Journal is proud to announce our newest columnist, Ben Shapiro.

Ben Shapiro. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund

Shapiro, 33, was born and raised in Los Angeles, where he attended Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Boys High School. He went on to UCLA, where he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa at age 20, with a bachelor of arts degree in political science.

He graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in 2007 and subsequently practiced law at Goodwin Procter LLP. Today, he runs a Los Angeles independent legal consultancy firm, Benjamin Shapiro Legal Consulting.

Shapiro, who lectures widely on college campuses across the United States, has written seven books, including 2004’s “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth.” He currently writes a column for Creators Syndicate and is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire. He is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the media watchdog group Truth Revolt and former editor-at-large of Breitbart News. He resigned from Breitbart after what he felt was the website’s insufficient support of its reporter Michelle Fields after she was allegedly assaulted by Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager.

In a March 1, 2016, cover story for the Jewish Journal, “Why the Republican Party Is Dying,” Shapiro decried the candidacy of now-President Trump.

Shapiro’s other books include “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV” and “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans,” which appeared on The New York Times’ best-seller list.   

He married Mor Toledano, an Israeli citizen of Jewish-Moroccan descent, and lives in Los Angeles. They have two children and belong to an Orthodox congregation.

Shapiro’s column will appear in the Journal twice monthly, alternating with Marty Kaplan.

The Journal is devoted to presenting a pluralistic forum for the many strong, divergent voices in the community, and we are thrilled that Shapiro’s voice now will be among them.

We also want to thank Dennis Prager, who contributed loyally to this publication over the years. He will continue to contribute occasional columns as his time and schedule permit.

— Rob Eshman, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email 

Moving and Shaking: HUC benefit gala, Schoenberg and IKAR come of age

The Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education recognized Valley Torah Girls High School students Adina Ziv (third from left), Meital Shafgi (fourth from left) and Aviya Gaviel (fifth from left) on May 18. Photo courtesy of the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) fourth annual benefit gala, held at the Skirball Cultural Center on May 16, honored Peachy Levy, Rhea Coskey, Rochelle Ginsburg and other women leaders of the Western region.

Levy sits on the board of overseers of the HUC-JIR Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. Coskey became involved with HUC-JIR when her daughter, Laurie, entered rabbinical school, and she went on to mentor students and chair the school’s advisory board. Ginsburg is the chair of the HUC-JIR’s national school of education advisory council.

Sally Priesand, an HUC-JIR ordinee who in 1972 became the first woman rabbi to be ordained in America, was featured in the ceremonies.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion honored (from left) Peachy Levy, Rhea Coskey and Rochelle Ginsburg at its fourth annual benefit gala. Photo by Edo Tsoar

The more than 430 attendees included Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Laura Geller; Leo Baeck Temple Rabbi Ken Chasen; Kol Ami Rabbi Denise Eger; Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin and his husband, Temple Akiba Rabbi Zachary Shapiro; Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback; and Shana Penn, executive director of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture.

“It was our biggest turnout ever,” HUC-JIR Public Affairs Associate Joanne Tolkoff told the Journal.

Proceeds from the event benefit HUC-JIR students and faculty.

Founded in 1875, HUC-JIR is a Reform seminary focused on academic, spiritual and professional leadership development, with campuses in Los Angeles, New York, Cincinnati and Jerusalem.

“From Generation to Generation,” a community celebration concert, was held May 25 at Sinai Temple on the occasion of Joseph Schoenberg becoming a bar mitzvah. Approximately 1,200 people attended.

His parents, Pamela and Randol Schoenberg, sponsored the event, which was held in memory of Joseph’s great-grandfathers, composers Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl.

Participants in the musical program included conductor Nick Strimple, associate professor of choral and sacred music at the USC Thornton School of Music and an expert on the works of composers persecuted by the Nazis. Strimple led the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale. Additional participants were Los Angeles Voices, the BodyTraffic dance company, and London-based pianist and organist Iain Farrington.

BodyTraffic, which included new addition Natalie Leibert, performed to liturgical works for chorus and organ by Schoenberg and Zeisl, and a newly commissioned work for chorus and organ by composer Samuel Adler.

Randol Schoenberg is an honorary director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. He is an attorney who has worked to retrieve artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II, as was depicted in the film “Woman in Gold.”

Joseph, whose bar mitzvah was May 27, volunteered with Food Forward, which saves local produce that otherwise would go to waste, leading up to his bar mitzvah. He donated produce from his bar mitzvah weekend to hunger-relief agencies and, through the website, had environmentally friendly centerpieces at his luncheon. 

celebration and fundraiser held in honor of the 13 years since the founding of the egalitarian spiritual community IKAR was held May 21 at Playa Studios in Culver City.

The “bat mitzvah” event raised about $370,000 and drew a crowd of more than 375 founders, members and supporters, including Richard and Ellen Sandler, Marvin and Sandy Schotland, and actress Lisa Edelstein.

The party had a 1980s theme, with music from that decade playing throughout the event. Attendees viewed a video retrospective on IKAR’s place in the community and were treated to a classic b’nai mitzvah-style candlelighting ceremony.

Attendees dressed in costumes that featured neon tights, blue eye shadow and other staples of ’80s fashion, with some guests invoking Ferris Bueller, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Mini Rubik’s Cubes, slap bracelets and centerpieces featuring jellybeans, malted milk balls, Reese’s Pieces and Good & Plenty candy adorned the tables. IKAR members Shelley and Steph Altman, who own Playa Studios, donated use of the venue, and Diana Kramer designed the interior theme, which featured full-size video game machines and other era-appropriate décor.

The Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews, director of clergy organizing with PICO National Network, the largest grass-roots, faith-based organizing network in the United States, offered words of welcome. “History is past, present and future all at the same time. We are all one people,” he said.

“It took a lot for us to get this thing off the ground, none of it with any assurance of success,” IKAR founding Rabbi Sharon Brous said. “Thank you for casting your lot with us. This is about fighting for civil society.”

— Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

The Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) West Region held community events on May 16 and 18 at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

On May 16, the CIJE Co-Ed Engineering Conference featured SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub as its keynote speaker. Addressing approximately 150 teenagers, Winetraub discussed how his organization is aiming to make Israel the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon. Additional speakers included Sari Katz, Western Region director for Rambam hospital in Israel. Katz announced a partnership between Rambam and CIJE that would provide a scholarship to students who develop an outstanding biomedical device in 2018.

Students from day schools in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Seattle and Dallas attended.

“Nobody knows precisely what jobs will be around when you all graduate from college within the next eight to 10 years,” CIJE President Jason Cury told the students. “Which is why it’s so important to develop the skills which will be required, and to be prepared for whatever challenges and opportunities that present themselves.”

From Tarbut V’Torah in Irvine, students Mika Ben-Ezer, Zeke Levi and Julian Wiese received the Award for Innovation for their “Sonic Jacket,” which serves the visually impaired. Harkham-GAON Academy in Los Angeles students Aliza Leichter, Oze Botach and Shani Kassell won the Award of Social Value for designing a car seat that detects when a child is alone in the vehicle. And the Award for Best Visual Display went to Mendy Sacks, Aryeh Rosenbaum and Daniel Jackson from YULA Boys High School for a digital portable piano teacher known as “Teachapii.”

CIJE Vice President Jane Willoughby gave the closing remarks.

The May 18 Girls Engineering Conference drew students from YULA Girls High School and Valley Torah Girls High School.

In the keynote address, engineer Yvette Edidin discussed how “the different fields of engineering need and would benefit from more women,” a CIJE press release said.

Valley Torah’s Adina Ziv, Meital Shafgi and Aviya Gaviel were awarded Project of the Year for their sensor that detects when automobile drivers are getting sleepy and alerts them using a vibrating device.

At the 2017 ADL Entertainment Industry dinner, “Big Bang Theory” co-creator and ADL honoree Bill Prady (second from left) joins (from left) award presenter Wil Wheaton, ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind and event emcee Joshua Malina. Photo courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) honored Bill Prady, co-creator and executive producer of “The Big Bang Theory,” at the 2017 ADL Entertainment Industry dinner on May 24 at the Beverly Hilton.

Actor Joshua Malina (“Scandal”) served as master of ceremonies and actor Wil Wheaton, a recurring guest star on “The Big Bang Theory,” presented the award to Prady.

“While preparing my remarks for this evening, I emailed Bill and asked him if it will be honest and accurate to tell you that Bill is an outspoken voice for the most vulnerable among us,” Wheaton said. “And Bill said, ‘There is no sentence that begins with, Bill has been vocal about — that is not true.’ ”

Prady, in his speech, talked about his childhood in Detroit.

“Anti-Semitism was a pretty abstract idea. I knew what it meant only from a distance,” he said. “I knew it from the punchline from a Woody Allen movie. Growing up in my Jewish Detroit suburb, I didn’t know anti-Semitism. And it’s not only that. For me, racism was something in social studies class. And hatred of immigrants? I never heard of such a thing. My world was filled with immigrants, so many that I thought that when you grow up, you have an accent. But I know all these things now. We hear it on the news, from our politicians, online.”

Prady explained why he is a supporter of the ADL, which was established in 1913 to combat hate and bigotry.

“After the election, I made a decision to change my personal focus from politics to the front line. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) was battling the attack on freedom, and Planned Parenthood was fighting for women reproducing rights, but who was fighting to dig out the weed of hate that had taken root in modern technology? It was the Anti-Defamation League,” Prady said. “So I called them up and I asked what I can do to help. And they said to do this, and I said, ‘It’s going to be a pretty boring night.’ So, I called the Barenaked Ladies.”

The Canadian band, which wrote and recorded “The Big Bang Theory” theme song, provided the evening’s entertainment.

Additional speakers included An Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and an ADL National Youth Leadership delegate.

— Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

Here are 5 places you can pray outdoors this summer

IKAR holds Kabbalat Shabbat at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills on the first Friday of each summer month. Photo by Scott Shulman

What better place to find the Tree of Life than in nature? And what better spiritual guidebook than a siddur?

A number of congregations in the Greater Los Angeles area take Friday night services outside during the summer — singing nigunim on the sand in Malibu, shul-hopping on bicycles in Venice and picnicking before prayers at public parks. And if you’ve ever wanted to bring your dog to shul, this is probably your best opportunity.

Holding services outdoors has become a popular way for local synagogues to reinvigorate the prayer experience. With services stripped of the formality and physical constraints of a sanctuary, congregants can more vividly experience the wonders of God’s creation — or simply enjoy the Southern California weather in a Jewish context.

“Experiencing God in all the manifestations of nature, we find we are connected with the Creator,” said Cantor Marcelo Gindlin of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, which will meet at Westward Beach every Friday night from July 14 through Sept. 8.

The Friday night services with Gindlin include a live band, and usually more than 100 people attend, bringing picnics, blankets and beach chairs. The cantor begins at around 7, though many arrive earlier to set up and eat. “The dolphins show up when I sing ‘Shalom Aleichem,’ ” Gindlin said.

The Malibu congregation is not alone in taking advantage of the beach. Open Temple practices hitbodedut, a meditative form of prayer, at Venice Beach in August. The proceedings include traditional prayers, contemplative moments, and what Rabbi Lori Shapiro called “sound baths on the beach.” There’s also a gong.

Leonard Atlas, 54, said Open Temple’s outdoor programming is its most authentic.

“Being in nature is the purest form of prayer,” Atlas said. “With the sand under our feet, it feels like we’re in Sinai — but not quite in the desert.”

Open Temple also does a communal bike ride that makes stops at several area synagogues for different parts of the Friday night service. The riders sing nigunim on the road. This year’s Bike Shabbat Shul Crawl will be on July 21.

Other synagogues venture into the wilderness — or at least to the park.

On June 9 and July 14, Valley Outreach Synagogue will hold “Shabbat in the Park” at Oak Canyon Community Park in Agoura Hills. A crowd of 400 to 600 people, along with their pets, create a Hollywood Bowl-style amphitheater effect, says Rabbi Ron Li-Paz.

No beautiful sanctuary is as beautiful as the sky and the mountains and the trees,” he said.

Li-Paz also heralded the informality of the natural setting for its appeal to interfaith families. “A synagogue might be challenging for some families to walk through the doors, just as a church might be,” he said. The casual, kibbutz-like atmosphere of Shabbat in the Park can be more inviting to non-Jewish family members.

But the appeal of praying outdoors is universal, says Loren Witkin, 50. He and his family have come to Shabbat in the Park for several years. Witkin noticed that his sons, who had had difficulty connecting to Judaism in their early adolescence, enjoyed a more laid-back presentation of the religion.

“The kids — they’re building memories and an experience that will draw them back in,” he said. “It gives you optimism for the future because we know how disengaged [young] people are becoming from their congregations. Seeing all these young people having a good time together reinforces some sense that this is going to continue.”

The spiritual appeal of praying in nature goes beyond the pleasure of a good view. There are actual references to nature in the liturgy, explained Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, a prayer community that meets once a month in Brentwood.

“We sing so many songs about nature [in regular prayers], but you say them inside a building,” Levy said. “The re-creation of each day, and seeing God in the heavens and the sky — to take all those prayers and put them where they were probably written, by someone who was in nature, experiencing the majesty of God in nature … [one can] really feel the power of the words.”

Nashuva holds services at the beach on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and in a Temescal Canyon meadow on the second day. There’s a band, and members are encouraged to bring their own instruments.

“It just feels like nature is waking us up from all the enclosures of our lives,” Levy added.

IKAR holds an outdoor service at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills on the first Friday of each summer month. An abridged Kabbalat Shabbat starting at 6:15 p.m. is preceded by a communal picnic (bring your own), followed by a group discussion led by Rabbi Nate DeGroot that is targeted for a young professional audience.

Convening outdoors eases a lot of the social pressures of praying that are inherent to more conventional settings, said Matthew Weintraub, assistant executive director at IKAR.

“When you walk into a room, it’s easy to look around and see who’s sitting where and who are the people who you know,” Weintraub said. “But when you go outside and people are socializing informally, laughing and connecting, and then going right into a service from [that place of] comfort, it prevents barriers to entry from forming. It doesn’t feel so closed off.”

The bottom line, as it often is in California, is the weather.

“People want to get out and enjoy the summer months and it being light outside for longer,” Weintraub said. “Being able to come in shorts and flip-flops and have a meal and a prayer experience — it just feels different.”

Trump acts on politics in the pulpit with executive order

President Donald Trump displays an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty on May 4. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

President Donald Trump’s executive order to weaken a prohibition against religious and other nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates has driven a wedge between Jewish religious leaders. Some cite it as a victory for First Amendment rights while others view it as a threat to the separation of church and state.

The prohibition is a 1954 provision to the federal tax code known as the Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofit organizations from certain political activities.

On one side of Trump’s action are clergy, such as Rabbi Marvin Heir, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who argue that religious leaders should speak out on issues they support. Hier once was censured by the Federal Elections Commission for violating the prohibition.

“We should fully honor the separation of church and state, but that has nothing to do with giving a sermon,” said Hier, who led the prayer at the White House ceremony on May 4 when Trump signed the order and who spoke at the president’s inauguration. “When you’re a rabbi or a priest, and you feel strongly about an issue, you can name names! And you can say don’t vote for him! It wouldn’t be such an aveira,” he said, using the biblical Hebrew word for sin.

Other Jewish leaders and institutions, however, expressed dismay at the order, saying it sanctioned oppressive behavior and undermined the role of clergy as unifying figures. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), a social justice advocacy group representing 900 Reform congregations across the United States, called the order “dangerously broad.”

Rabbi Joel Simonds, the RAC’s West Coast director of policy and associate rabbi at University Synagogue, said that while the pulpit should be used to rally against injustice, “justice isn’t partisan.”

“There are plenty of organizations and communities that can be partisan and that can speak out,” Simonds said. “But we have a unique place in our society and in our community to not dehumanize the other … and to preserve that safeguard [between church and state].”

The Johnson Amendment is named for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), who later became vice president and president. It forbids nonprofits from endorsing or opposing candidates, contributing to election campaigns or otherwise influencing legislation with public statements. Violating organizations may see their tax-exempt status revoked — although the Internal Revenue Service has seldom enforced the rule.

It does not prevent religious organizations from expressing views intended to support one side of an issue.

The president’s executive order, titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” instructed the Treasury Department not to single out religious organizations for speaking “about moral or political issues from a religious perspective” when similar activity would not be considered a violation by a secular nonprofit.

The language used in the order was a relief for those concerned that Trump favored granting religious institutions even wider latitude. In February, he had vowed to “get rid of and totally destroy” the amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast. (Only Congress can fully repeal it.)

For those who had anticipated a more drastic measure, there still was plenty to dislike about the president’s action.

“I’m concerned about what drove this executive order,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and senior rabbi of the synagogue IKAR. “I believe that if this administration were really concerned about religious freedom, that this would not be the step that one would see.”

Brous pointed to the rising tides of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as issues of religious freedom that demanded action from the White House.

“There are actual vulnerable religious minorities in the country right now that need protection, and this executive order is a bit of a dance with the players who created the ‘War on Christmas’ in order to play to the [conservative] base, and to create the sense that we are getting the back of those religious figures,” she said.

The order also directs federal agencies to consider amending the mandatory inclusion of birth control in health insurance policies offered by private employers, a change widely sought by the religious right.

The Orthodox Union (OU), a national organization that supports the Orthodox Jewish community, applauded the order for giving people the right to incorporate personal religious views into workplace policy.

Nathan Diament, the group’s executive director for policy, said supporting religious freedom had been a White House priority until Barack Obama took office in 2009.

“[President Trump] is reasserting religious liberty as a primary consideration for how the executive branch implements law and policy,” Diament said. “We don’t have as Jews the same view [as Christian groups regarding contraceptive coverage]. But we do believe religious freedom needs to be protected — and the Obama administration could have but chose not to.”

Diament added that the OU supported the Johnson Amendment and likely would not have supported the executive order had its language been more aggressive. “We’re concerned about rabbis in synagogues being pressured into taking political stances that they may not want to take and may divide their community,” he said.

Hier pointed out that clergy making political statements is already a fact of life, an assertion that Brous agreed with. Moreover, Hier said, if someone came along who really was threatening — a candidate who was anti-Israel or a supporter of Louis Farrakhan, leadero of the Nation of Islam, were his examples — there would be an obligation to speak out.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984, Hier found himself in such a scenario. Jackson had referred to New York City as a “Hymietown,” using a derogatory term toward Jews.

“We condemned it and basically said that nobody should vote for him because it indicated to me the commitment to anti-Semitism,” Hier said.

Shortly thereafter, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a nonprofit organization, received a warning letter stating that it had breached the Johnson Amendment. That encounter informs Hier’s opinion of the law today.

Brous agreed with Hier that clergy should not shy away from bad political actors. But she disputed the need to oppose them at the pulpit. “There’s a candidate that’s been trafficking in racism and bigotry and misogyny of all forms, and I did not need to stand up ever and say vote for this person or vote for the other person.

“It’s enough to say, this is about democracy versus authoritarianism, this is about decency versus indecency, this is about moral right versus moral wrong, without having to hold people’s hands and pull the lever in the voting booth.”

Still, Hier conceded, if Congress repealed the amendment, he doubted that a rabbi would have much influence over his congregants: “People don’t adopt policies based on what the rabbi says. That we have to leave for the time of the Messiah.”

He said that he would not weigh in on future elections from his station. But for those who don’t want to hear about politics when they go to pray, Hier joked “they shouldn’t join a shul.”

At a cemetery, leaders promote tolerance

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks at the "We Stand Together" event in Los Angeles on March 26. Photo by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries

The images of toppled headstones at Jewish cemeteries deeply saddened, even infuriated Aimee Ginsburg Bikel.

Thoughts turned to staging a protest, something intimate and “folksy” to make her point, that this is wrong.

“But then I realized that I didn’t want to protest against cemetery desecration,” Ginsburg Bikel told the Journal. “I wanted to affirm something, to show we are as one and to stand together.”

On March 26, she was overcome with emotion as all that came to fruition with the sight of nearly 400 people gathered at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in a showing of “unity, love and mutual respect.” The crowd, made up of elected officials, law enforcement, clergy and community members, was a kaleidoscope of people in headscarves, hijabs, yarmulkes, priestly robes and turbans.

“I wish all of you could see what I see,” Ginsburg Bikel said from a podium. “This is some view. It’s astonishingly beautiful. All of your faces look like flowers in a garden.”

Everyone joined together for her interfaith “We Stand Together” event to hear prayers, songs and speeches promoting tolerance and embracing diversity. It was held atop a hill overlooking most of Sinai’s lush 82-acre burial grounds nestled in between Griffith Park and the buzzing 134-freeway. The park is owned and operated by Sinai Temple.

The event was organized by Ginsburg Bikel, the widow of civil rights activist and film actor Theodore Bikel, along with Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica and Hazzan Mike Stein, cantor at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, under the auspices of the Theodore Bikel Legacy Project. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries also sponsored the event. 

Ginsburg Bikel drew on the words and experiences of her late husband to demonstrate to her audience the importance of standing together and being heard during times of peril.

“We know what happens when good people stay silent, [Theo] used to say often, alluding specifically to the occupation of his beloved Vienna when the Nazis took over in 1938 a few months after his bar mitzvah,” she said. “We celebrate Theo’s legacy here today by raising our voices now and not later asserting that the red lines have already been crossed and that we won’t allow it. We will stay united and we will build a world of peace together.”

Beneath Sinai’s “Heritage Mosaic,” a mural spanning 145 feet made of Venetian glass depicting a panorama of American Jewry, guests included local rabbis, imams, ministers, pastors, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh priests and representatives from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Controller Ron Galperin and California Assembly member Laura Friedman were also in attendance.

The event wasn’t advertised to the general public for security reasons, according to Ginsburg Bikel.

Aimee Ginsburg Bikel speaks on March 26. Photo by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries

Aimee Ginsburg Bikel speaks on March 26. Photo by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries

In a ceremonial candle lighting ceremony, community leaders read aloud from works by such peace icons as Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama. LIFE (Love Inspiration Faith Everlasting), a gospel choir, performed a stirring rendition of Barry Manilow’s “One Voice”.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino delivered a fiery speech in which he drew parallels between Jewish cemetery desecration and a recent wave of hate crimes against Muslims, Sikhs, gays, transgender individuals and other minority groups.

“The woman who wears the Islamic head scarf and is assaulted on a New York subway by someone who tells her ‘Go back to your country’ is my sister, and she is my problem,” Feinstein said.

“If you can’t live in your own soul and in your own heart there’s no neighborhood in this land that will be home to you,” he added. “The narrative of otherness is what we’ve come to declare war against. We are one. We will be one. Only as one will we ever have peace.”

Garcetti, who told the crowd he has an uncle buried at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, had come straight from a celebration of Bangladeshi independence, to attend. Wearing a yarmulke, he said during difficult times he chooses to opt for hopefulness, focusing on how to continue building up the city as a beacon for diversity.

“It’s time for us to stop thinking so much about the most powerful person in this country and to start thinking again about the most vulnerable people in this country,” Garcetti said to applause.

Religious and elected leaders stand together. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries

Religious and elected leaders stand together. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries

Joseph Schwartz, 51, heard about the event at IKAR, the synagogue he attends, and felt compelled to participate. He said the attendance of elected officials was both a highlight and encouraging.

“It was very good, very moving,” he said. “It shows that officials on the local and state level are truly committed to doing what is right.”

A unity pledge was available for all elected officials and clergy present to sign. Ginsburg Bikel said that she plans to display the pledge, a proclamation of unifying principles, at a different house of worship for several days at a time over the next year.

She told the Journal that she’s glad the event helped some in the community heal from a collective sense of sorrow in light of recent events. She said organizing more unity events might be in her future. 

“People have been telling me they feel inspired and refreshed,” she said. “They feel that they’re not in this alone and they now know they’re surrounded by like-minded people. They want to know what the next thing is. What are we doing next? That’s the response of elected officials, clergy and the public. I have to take it under advisement. I wasn’t expecting to start a movement.”

Moving and Shaking: L.A. celebrates Purim, IDF soldiers celebrated, Elon Gold reignites Jewish comedy

From left: Michael Robin, Melanie Zoey Weinstein, Marnina Wirtschafter and Jaclyn Beck sing a politically themed song parody of “Seasons of Love” as part of IKAR’s Purim celebration. Photo by Len Muroff.

Mayim Bialik suited up for the Velcro wall at Valley Beth Shalom’s March 12 Purim carnival. Photo courtesy of Mayim Bialik.

Los Angeles Jews celebrated Purim across the city and around the world on March 11 and 12.

On the Westside, Shtibl Minyan and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills held “Hamilton”-themed shpiels, “Hamalkah: A Purim Musical” and “Esther: A Purim Musical,” respectively. Temple Isaiah hosted “The Late Late Show Purim,” with Rabbi Joel Nickerson playing talk show host James Grogger and featuring characters from the Purim story as his guests. At Temple Beth Am, senior staff and interns dressed as either Little Orphan Annie or her dog, Sandy, to convey the message that “the sun will come out tomorrow.” Aish Los Angeles held a jungle-themed Purim party for young adults ages 21 to 32 at Morry’s Fireplace.

Venturing to Club Fais Do-Do, IKAR held a combination Megillah reading and shpiel, featuring slides with funny images. Between chapters, the shpiel team screened a number of video shorts, including “IKARaoke,” starring “Royal Pains” actor Mark Feuerstein. The spiel ended with a politically themed song parody of “Seasons of Love” (from the musical “Rent”). Costumes, too, skewed political, with Rabbi Sharon Brous dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

Festivities continued Sunday around the region, with carnivals at Temple Judea, Temple Isaiah and Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), among other places. At VBS, actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”) was one of the carnival-goers who suited up for the Velcro wall.

In Israel, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was spotted dancing after a Megillah reading at the Tel Aviv Hilton with his son, Avi Hier, and Andrew Friedman, president of Congregation Bais Naftoli.

— Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

Soldiers who traveled to Los Angeles as part of Lev Chayal “Trip of a Lifetime” gather around businessman and philanthropist Marvin Markowitz (top row, seventh from left, seated). Photo by Debra Halperin Photography.

Soldiers who traveled to Los Angeles as part of Lev Chayal “Trip of a Lifetime” gather around
businessman and philanthropist Marvin Markowitz (top row, seventh from left, seated). Photo by Debra Halperin Photography.

Lev Chayal held its second annual “Toast to Our Heroes” party on March 4 at The Mark for Events on Pico Boulevard. The party honored 10 Israel Defense Forces soldiers who were wounded during hostilities with Hamas in Gaza in 2014.

Lev Chayal, which translates to “Heart of a Soldier,” is a group dedicaxted to honoring wounded Israeli soldiers by offering them free leisure trips to Los Angeles. Chaya Israily and Brocha Yemini founded the group in 2016 under the auspices of the Chabad Israel Center.

The black-tie evening coincided with the second trip for soldiers sponsored by Lev Chayal. During their 10-day tour of Los Angeles, dubbed “The Trip of a Lifetime,” the soldiers attended a Lakers game, toured the headquarters of dating app Tinder and visited the Getty Villa museum, among other attractions.

Businessman and philanthropist Marvin Markowitz donated the use of the event space and paid for a significant amount of the event’s expenses.

Some 200 people attended the event, which raised nearly $50,000. Lev Chayal is preparing for the next trip for soldiers in December.

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer

Alan Dershowitz and Roz Rothstein at “Combating the Boycott Movement Against Israel” conference. Photo courtesy of StandwithUs.

Alan Dershowitz and Roz Rothstein at “Combating the Boycott Movement Against Israel” conference. Photo courtesy of StandwithUs.

More than 250 people participated in the “Combating the Boycott Movement Against Israel” conference on March 4-6, organized by the group StandWithUs, which focused on countering the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Supported by the Diane Shulman and Roger Richman Israel Education Fund, the conference at the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles International Airport drew students, professionals and activists from the United States, Canada and Israel. Attendees and members of StandWithUs, a nonprofit pro-Israel organization, shared their experiences with the BDS movement and the tactics they have used to challenge it on college campuses and other places.

“Today, you can’t say anything about minorities, about gay people, about Palestinians, about Muslims or about Arabs,” said Harvard University law professor emeritus and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz. “But when you put a shoe on the other foot, you can say analogous things about the nation-state of the Jewish people, about the Jewish lobby, and ultimately about Jews.”

He said college campuses should “demand a single standard” that is fairly applied to both sides.

“Whatever the left says is hate speech against them, we must demand that that be deemed hate speech against us on the other side,” Dershowitz said.

Other guest speakers included Judea Pearl, father of late Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl; Yaki Lopez, consul for political affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles; and Anne Bayefsky, director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust.

Hannah Karpin, 17, StandWithUs High School Intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, said the conference enabled her to learn more about the BDS movement.

“I think it should be acknowledged as an anti-Semitic movement,” said Karpin, who is planning to attend college next year. “It was shocking to hear that some recognizable organizations were behind the BDS movement.”

— Olga Grigoryants, Contributing Writer


Elon Gold. Photo by Ryan Torok.

Comedian Elon Gold performed at a Purim comedy concert at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on March 9, during which he talked about why Israel is the nipple of the Middle East breast (Gold said Israel is the most sensitive area and he doesn’t get to visit it as much he would like) and acted as Abraham negotiating with God over how much should be cut off during a circumcision (with God sounding like Marlon Brando and Abraham like Woody Allen).

Gold is Modern Orthodox and his material focused almost exclusively on the Jewish experience. He asked at one point if any gentiles were in the crowd. When nobody raised a hand, he insisted there were a couple of goy but they were hiding. He then asked the non-Jews how it felt for them to be the ones hiding.

Alex Edelman, a stand-up comedian who opened the show, gleaned material from his Jewish upbringing and did an eight-minute bit about the year his family celebrated Christmas, much to the chagrin of his yeshiva teacher.

The several hundred attendees included Pico Shul Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and his wife, rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein; Jacob Segal, co-chair of the Southern California Israel Chamber of Commerce; David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media Corp., and his daughter, Tova; and Scott Jacobs of JooTube.

On a more serious note, Gold took the opportunity to denounce the anti-Semitism that has been on the rise over the past couple of months, with Jewish community centers being targeted with bomb threats and several Jewish cemeteries vandalized.

“You mess with the Jews, you lose,” Gold said.

From left: FIDF Chairman Ari Ryan and FIDF board members Francesca Ruzin and Michael Spector. Photo courtesy of S&N Photography.

Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) held its Young Leadership Western Region Spring Mixer on March 9 at the Nightingale Plaza dance club on La Cienega Boulevard.

Some 650 young donors mingled over cocktails under violet lighting as house music blared, celebrating the work FIDF has done to support Israeli troops. Life-size posters of IDF soldiers in uniform beamed at the guests.

For an extra $18 above the $36 ticket price, attendees were able to send a Purim gift package to an IDF soldier.

The event, chaired by Danielle Moses, Mimi Paley, Francesca Ruzin and Miles Soboroff, raised more than $41,000 for FIDF.

In 2016, FIDF supported, by its own count, 66,000 soldiers, veterans and bereaved family members, including 14,500 through educational programming, 2,800 through assistance to so-called lone soldiers who don’t have immediate family in Israel, and 8,000 soldiers needing financial assistance.

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer


Michael Janofsky

Michael Janofsky, a former correspondent for The New York Times and more recently managing editor of LA School Report, has joined the Jewish Journal as an assistant editor. Janofsky was a sportswriter, national correspondent and Washington, D.C. reporter over 24 years with the paper. After moving to Los Angeles in 2006, he worked as a speechwriter for the dean of UCLA’s business school and a freelance writer and editor before joining the Journal.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email 

L.A. Jews, Muslims show solidarity at Shabbat Services

To express solidarity with the Jewish community, a small group of Muslims joined the Friday night service at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills on March 10. Photo courtesy of Marium Mohiuddin.

In her Shabbat sermon at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills on March 10, Rabbi Sarah Bassin spoke about “showing up.”

“We have all had the experience of someone showing up for us in a real way,” she said. “And, I would venture to guess, that we have all had the experience of someone failing to show up.  We remember what people do in our time of need.”

She directed her remarks to all her congregants, but especially to her Muslim friend Marium Mohiuddin, who sat with a small group of other Muslims as part of Mohiuddin’s eight-week initiative with help from the Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC) to bring Muslims to Friday night services at various synagogues.

Launched on March 3 at IKAR with 15 Muslims participating, the program continued a week later at Temple Emanuel, with four Muslim guests. In the coming weeks, Muslims have been invited to Friday night services at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Temple Beth Shir Shalom, Temple Beth Am, Beth Chayim Chadashim and Leo Baeck Temple, and, after Passover has concluded, on April 21 at B’nai David-Judea.

“I’ve been at marches my whole life since the 1990s,” Mohiuddin said, but until the recent protest at Los Angeles International Airport against the Trump administration’s travel ban, “I hadn’t experienced people showing up for me. This was so incredible, it moved me and reminded me how important this is.”

The travel ban signed by President Donald Trump is aimed at people from select Muslim-majority countries. Meanwhile, anti-Semitic activity has been rising in the United States, inspiring Muslims and Jews to show up to support one another. In one prominent example, a Muslim activist started a crowd-funding campaign that has raised more than $160,000 from Muslims and Jews for desecrated Jewish cemeteries. Also, some Muslim military veterans have offered to stand guard at Jewish holy places and places of worship. Online, people of all faiths have promised that if there were to be a registry of U.S. Muslims, they would sign up in solidarity.

And L.A.-area Jews are reciprocating. In the face of threats or attacks against the Muslim community, Jews have gone to the ICSC to support them during prayers.

The presence of Muslims attending Shabbat services in Los Angeles is an expression of support that echoes efforts in other cities to promote community unity after anti-Semitic activities that include bomb threats to Jewish community centers and defacings of synagogues.

“I really want the Jewish community across the country to know about this, especially where people don’t have these dialogues, [to] show them that this is what L.A. is doing,” said Mohiuddin, a consultant who formerly was the communications coordinator at the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

As an alumna of a fellowship at NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, Mohiuddin has many Jewish friends and participates at Jewish events so regularly that it’s not unusual for people to ask her if she is considering converting to Judaism. (She isn’t.)

Through the fellowship, she met many rabbis who became her friends, and she reached out to them to join her solidarity initiative. Bassin was the first rabbi on her list, but the idea grew from there: Eight rabbis signed on to host Muslims at services. The Islamic Center, NewGround and the Pacifica Institute helped promote the program to the Muslim community.

For Mohiuddin, a Friday night service at Temple Emanuel was a perfect opportunity to show solidarity, she said, because it’s an important part of what it means to be Jewish.

“If you get to be 40 and you don’t know what Shabbat is, you’re missing a lot of fundamental information about Jews,” she said. “You’re missing this weekly tradition, and that’s not acceptable. Shabbat is such a beautiful service, and why can’t we reap the benefit of that time of reflection?”

Mohiuddin also expressed envy for the experience of Shabbat in a small community.

“I’ve always loved the idea that at the end of the week, you put everything to rest, that for 24 hours some people even put technology aside,” she said. “There’s so much beauty in it. I love seeing people walking in Pico-Robertson. … What if all my friends lived in the same neighborhood and we all went to the same shul?”

Participants receive an email explaining where to be and when. In some cases, a rabbi will meet the group a few minutes early to describe the upcoming service, what it means and how it is observed. Muslims who commit to all eight — or even four — of the Shabbat services emerge with a better idea of the styles of Jewish worship in Los Angeles and how they may differ from one synagogue to another.

“We see that the songs are the same but sung differently,” she said. “I didn’t realize you could put your own melody to the songs — that’s so creative. [Before the Temple Emanuel service] I hadn’t met a female cantor. I’m also understanding the power of women rabbis,” she said.

Mohiuddin said the program is not a typical interfaith dialogue. It’s about being there in a space with people. It’s about interfaith relations, but it’s also about showing up for people.” 

“For marginalized groups and groups that are targets of our current administration, there are few things that feel more important right now than recognizing our shared humanity and showing up for one another,” said Rabbi Nate DeGroot, rabbinic fellow at IKAR. 

“Having our Muslim brothers and sisters show up at Shabbat services felt incredibly meaningful,” said IKAR member Neil Spears. “The room felt so much more full, so much more safe and alive. This is such a scary time for Muslims, Jews, immigrants and so many others. Literally showing up for each other is a powerful way to resist, to say that we are in this fight together. If there is anything positive that’s coming out of these divisive times, it’s a new sense of partnership between Jews and Muslims.”

Not only is it a scary time for Jews, it’s a scary time for Muslims, too, Bassin said in her sermon, adding that this was a moment “when two peoples know what it is to feel uncertain and vulnerable, this moment when two peoples under threat feel a little bit stronger — knowing that someone else is there to show up.”

“My Jewish friends have shown up for me so many times,” Mohiuddin said. “But we need to show up, too. We all do.”

Sharing love, lessons in the face of hate rally

Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church protest early on the morning of Feb. 27 outside Shalhevet High School. Photo by Oren Peleg.

Nine members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for hate speech directed at Jews and the LGBT community, staged a 30-minute demonstration early on the morning of Feb. 27 outside Shalhevet High School, a Modern Orthodox high school in the Miracle Mile neighborhood.

The protesters had flown to Los Angeles to hold a protest outside the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 26 in Hollywood. They also demonstrated outside the Islamic Center in Hawthorne over the weekend.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic hate groups, calls Westboro Baptist Church “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.” According to the church’s website, it has held  more than 59,000 demonstrations in 994 cities.

In an email to the school community several days ahead of the demonstration, Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s Head of School, said classes would start at 9:30 a.m., about two hours after the demonstrators were scheduled to be dispersed. He also said extra Shalhevet security, as well as Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, would be on hand and urged against any counterprotest, on advice from school security officials.

“This group is looking to incite a response. I strongly urge our entire community to not give them the satisfaction of an argument or a response,” he wrote.

The protestors — teens to middle-aged adults — gathered on a busy section of Fairfax Avenue directly across the street from Shalhevet’s gated parking lot entrance. With LAPD officers and Shalhevet’s armed security guards on alert, protestors played music on a stereo, sang along and held up signs, including those that said “Tranny Sin Dooms Nations” and “144K Jews Will Repent,” a reference to scripture, the protestors claimed. The group believes Jews to be ardent supporters of homosexuality and the murderers of Jesus.

Timothy Phelps, 53, the son of Westboro’s founder, Fred Phelps, was among the protestors, but he did not offer much of a reason for choosing Shalhevet over other Los Angeles Jewish schools. He cited its location near a busy intersection, saying the group would get to other Los Angeles Jewish schools, such as YULA, in due time. He went on to refer to Judaism as a “dead religion” and talked about how sin in various forms is synonymous with Judaism.

“Idolatry, adultery, sodomy, fornication, pride, all of those … it’s rampant in the Israeli culture, in the Jewish culture,” he said.

With some in the Shalhevet community calling for a counterprotest off-site, Principal Noam Weissman favored the idea of a special learning program as a response to “virulent anti-Semitism.”

“We didn’t want to give them the attention they were seeking,” Weissman said. “We thought: Why not respond from a Jewish perspective and use this hatred as a springboard to be more proud of our Judaism?”

Segal found a willing partner in Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Beverly Hills, which offered use of its facility. Heads of three area Jewish high schools — de Toledo High School, YULA Girls High School and Milken Community Schools — expressed an interest in having their students participate in whatever Shalhevet planned. Approximately 60 students from the three schools joined nearly 240 Shalhevet students and some parents who gathered at Beth Jacob at 8 a.m. for a tefilah service and Torah learning centered around Purim.

“This brought out the best in so many people,” Segal said. “Whatever Westboro was hoping to do, they accomplished the exact opposite.”

Weissman added: “They preached hatred and we celebrated love, friendship and peace in a most incredible way.”

After the program, Shalhevet students walked the 40-minute route back to campus in what Segal and Weissman called “the peace and love march.”

Segal said the rest of the day went smoothly, though he called the day as a whole “one of the craziest” during his time there.

In response to the protest, IKAR, a Jewish community that holds prayer services inside Shalhevet’s gymnasium, sent an email to its community, urging donations to the Trevor Project, an organization that provides life-saving support for transgender youth and adults. IKAR also collected donations from its members for a separate fund that was used to purchase sweets that were delivered Monday afternoon to Shalhevet students.

Segal said he was touched by the support from colleagues and the students at other schools. However, he added that he hopes moving forward, Jewish schools can look to come together in a proactive way, rather than just in reaction to troubling circumstances.

“I spoke with the leaders of the other schools and we all agreed that it shouldn’t just be something negative that brings us together,” Segal said. “The schools coming together to do good things together shouldn’t just be a reaction to people coming to tear us down. It should also happen to celebrate something positive.”

Staff writer Eitan Arom contributed to this report.

Trump’s immigration order elicits action from Jewish community

President Trump in the Oval Office on Feb. 8. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

Jewish leaders around Los Angeles have begun speaking out —  some more forcefully than others — against President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. And many temple congregants are doing more than merely listening.

“People are stepping forward because they see a direct call to their Jewish values in this moment,” said Senior Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple. “The values in the Torah and rabbinic literature are clear, and they are now being threatened. [Activism] feels like a very organic way to live out our Jewish values.” 

Trump’s effort to restrict entry to immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran and Iraq, has touched off protests around the country and a legal war that is likely headed to the Supreme Court to determine if the ban is constitutional. One protest in New York this week led to the arrests of about 20 rabbis affiliated with the liberal group T’ruah, according to The New York Times.

No arrests have occurred in Los Angeles, but the ban and other Trump actions have sparked outrage among many Jewish groups.

More than 200 Leo Baeck congregants participated in the Women’s March in Los Angeles the day after the inauguration, and large numbers attended a pro-immigrant demonstration at Los Angeles International Airport the following weekend. Chasen said he’s taking calls daily from people who ask what they can do to get involved.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills said 65 congregations participated in the Women’s March, and last week, the synagogue hosted a class on immigration and refugees from a Talmud and Torah perspective. An American Civil Liberties Union representative talked to the group as well.

Bassin said she encourages her members to speak up and participate, even if she personally doesn’t have the same political views.

“I just gave a sermon on how we’ve channeled our civic engagement into yelling on social media and how that’s not civic engagement,” she said. “I don’t care where people are on the political spectrum as long as they responsibly and thoughtfully lend their voice into the public sphere from a place that’s motivated by Jewish values.

“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith,” she added. “It’s very important that people have a safe space to articulate their values.”

“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith.” – Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Rabbis Lisa Edwards and Heather Miller of Beth Chayim Chadashim are infusing their sermons and prayer commentaries with news and have added a weekly prayer for the country.

Edwards attended two meetings for interfaith clergy at the Islamic Center of Southern California, “aimed at what our communities can do in particular to help support Muslims and undocumented immigrants” and at the Holman Methodist Church, organized by Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice-Los Angeles and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She learned that, “People are afraid and anxious. Anxiety is the more operative word than fear. People feel very aware about possible deportations.”

IKAR’s founder and Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous is also collaborating with other faith communities. The weekend of the inauguration, she organized events involving congregants from her synagogue as well as those from the Islamic Center mosque and All Saints Church in Pasadena.

“We have very robust and growing multi-face community relationships we work on and continue to prioritize right now,” Brous said. “We’re much more effective when we join together with mosques and churches.”

Brous, who spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., said the history of Jews as immigrants should prompt action.

“Our sacred texts demand that we stand up and fight for the most vulnerable people in our midst,” she said. “This is not about political preference. This is about moral imperative.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, distributed a letter by email in which he did not take a position for or against the president’s executive order, but detailed Federation’s work with Jewish immigrants and refugees. The letter said that since 1973, Federation has helped more than 27,000 refugees.

Other Jewish leaders made their feelings known through letters to their congregants.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback and his fellow clergy at Stephen Wise Temple indicated that “… because our Torah calls upon our Jewish people to be a moral light unto the nations, we feel it necessary to voice our profound protest to the President’s recent executive order that has the effect of banning people from certain Muslim majority countries, as well as all refugees for a period of 120 days, from entry into this nation.”

They reminded members of the temple’s namesake and his work for compassion and social justice: “We proudly commit ourselves to advocating for a society that embodies the teaching of our Torah: ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

For the past year and a half, Temple Beth Am has had a refugee task force. In a letter to his congregants, Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said Trump’s executive orders “trouble me, to say the least.” But he acknowledged the complexity of the issues: “No country willy-nilly flings its doors open to anyone who wants in. There are reasonable fears regarding how the wrong immigration policy could enable terrorism, as some recent events in Europe have sadly shown. We have to take it seriously. Deal with it in some meaningful way. But we cannot let it paralyze us.”

Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom found inspiration for his letter by imagining his zayde confused, sitting in a detention cell at LAX. He called Trump’s order “destructive” and said we must be inclusive and “welcoming to those seeking the freedoms we cherish.”

Representatives of four religious groups — the Academy for Jewish Religion, California; Claremont School of Theology; University of the West; and Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school — collaborated on a statement, saying, “As interreligious partners, we live the dream of inclusion, understanding, and compassion. We know there is a better way — better than building walls and banning human beings based on religious beliefs or country of origin.”

Without addressing the ban or taking sides in his letter to congregants, Senior Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple encouraged people to volunteer with the Karsh Family Social Service Center and to help build houses for the poor.

“Although I will not assume the role of political pundit, upholding the extremely high value Jewish law places on Shalom Bayit — maintaining a peaceful home and community — is a role I cherish,” he wrote.

The shape of things to come: Jewish L.A. in 30 years

In commemoration of the Jewish Journal’s 30th anniversary, Jewish leaders discuss their hopes and predictions for the next 30 years of L.A. Jewish life.

Melissa Balaban

Executive director of IKAR

balabanMy greatest hope for the Jewish community in Los Angeles in the next 30 years is that we come together to rededicate ourselves to finding areas of commonality, rather than focusing on our divisions. We are at our best when we work toward common goals, using the wisdom of our tradition toward achieving a shared vision of the world. I would love to see an end to the divisiveness surrounding Israel, as we all work toward ensuring that Israel is a thriving Jewish, democratic and secure state, which reflects its highest Zionist ideals.

Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Kehillat Israel

When I spoke with KI congregants who have lived here for 30 years about what they hope the Jewish community will be like in the next 30 years, they said that they hope it will be a community that is warm, close, inclusive, vibrant, prosperous and safe. They hope that it will be a community that is socially engaged, as well as engaged with the larger community—where all factions get along, where there are no “others,” and where we can truly celebrate the diversity of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Mayim Bialik

Actress and scientist

I cannot even imagine personally what 30 years from now will look like but I guess I would like to see Los Angeles Jews continue to be what I see as an example of the openness and the inquisitiveness and the beauty that Judaism really models and provide for us as a guide – I would hope that in 30 years no matter what happens politically or globally that L.A Jews continue to lead the way as part of a very significant and thriving community that we always have been.

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

Pico Shul

Most of the growth in the community, as it has been for the past 10 years, is going to be within what is called the more traditional side of the equation on the spiritual, cultural and religious continuum. … I do have a fear that we will lose a substantial portion of millennial Jews to assimilation … but I also feel like we have the ability to do a lot to prevent that from happening. But it’s going to require a lot of dedication on the part of the community and to approach it with multiple means.

Rabbi Noah Farkas

Valley Beth Shalom

I wish day school tuition wasn’t a hindrance for people going to school.

Jesse Gabriel

Attorney and Jewish community leader

The energy, idealism, and optimism of young Jews is going to reinvigorate our communal institutions and enable us to be guided by our hopes rather than our fears. Their embrace of diversity, commitment to pluralism and inclusion, and willingness to move beyond past divisions will allow us to navigate the inevitable challenges and build a stronger and more deeply engaged community. We have much to be optimistic about!

Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills


[I predict] there will be fewer synagogues because the current funding model will no longer work. … Instead of membership in a particular synagogue many people will join a “kehilla” which would be a collaboration of many different synagogues that would hire clergy and teachers. … The large and growing cohort of older Jews will create alternative housing arrangements, including new ways to age in place. … What I hope will also happen is that our community becomes more inclusive, welcoming all kinds of Jews, and that we will have learned to talk to each other about difficult issues with civility and respect, including what it means to love Israel, which has remained Jewish and democratic.

Arya Marvazy

Assistant director of JQ International

aryaMy sincere hope and prediction is that these next few decades will encompass a greater wave toward radical inclusion – embracing others and their unique differences, understanding that at our core, we are all carbon copies of one another. What we express and how we identify with respect to race, religion, sexual orientation and lifestyle will serve far less to divide us, and we will truly focus on those elements of our humanity that make us one gigantic global family.

Patricia Glaser

Attorney and Jewish community leader


Over the next 30 years, I expect the Jewish community to continue to make a substantial contribution to the culture, business and very fabric of Los Angeles. Within the Jewish community, I hope that there is a conscious effort to better understand each other; that a movement emerges to bring together the disparate views and various religious groupings within Judaism in order for an intrafaith dialogue to develop that helps all of us to better understand our community and each other. I hope that younger Jews learn to understand the significance of being a Jew in America and support the State of Israel and to understand that –  whether it is $50, $500, $500 – giving is not a choice; we all must give.

Brian Greene

Executive director of the Westside Jewish Community Center


My hope is that in 30 years – if not sooner – Jewish communal life in L.A. will be inclusive and collaborative. Cultural and denominational divisions between Jews will feel so “ancient.” Our strength will be our commitment to being a unified community that is open and welcoming to all.

Sam Grundwerg

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles

Given the fact that the Jewish people make up only less than half of 1 percent of the world’s population, it is nothing short than a miracle that we are able to contribute to the world in so many ways, from lifesaving discoveries to high-tech innovation and medical advances. In the next 30 years, may we see Jewish L.A. become more unified, spreading that spirit and passion. When we work together as a community we grow together and we are able to better serve the incredible Los Angeles community. Just like Israel, L.A. is truly a melting pot, and provides us all an opportunity to build stronger bonds with the communities around us.

Aaron Henne

Artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk

Jewish L.A. will be the fertile soil from which provocative, challenging and adventurous artistic work from a Jewish perspective grows. We will be rich in diverse viewpoints, expressed through a variety of forms and techniques, colliding, collaborating, and contradicting each other.  We will dive deep into our Jewish narratives in order to then turn our gaze outward, engaging in the world in humane, empathetic, and mindful ways.

Samara Hutman

Executive director of Remember Us

Marie Kaufman

President emeritus of the Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles


Our hope for them [this generation of young adults] and for all of us is that we honor all communities, that we remember our roots and how we all got here and bring that to our daily work, our lives and our community.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea

kanefskyI hope that the next 30 years bring a more affordable cost of Jewish living to Los Angeles, so that the exodus of our children to other cities might slow down. I also hope that we make the effort to really listen to each other, and learn that right and left both love Israel, that traditional and liberal both love Judaism, and that in the long run, we will pay a bitter price for the momentary pleasure we receive from screaming at each other.

Jessie Kornberg

President and CEO of Bet Tzedek

jessica-kornberg-special-to-the-daily-journal-4At Bet Tzedek, as in so much of L.A.’s Jewish community, our identity has been indelibly shaped by our commitment to meet the needs of aging Holocaust survivors. Our identity for the next 30 years will similarly reflect how we respond to the needs of new populations seeking refuge in our city from violence, war, and persecution.

Kosha Dillz


kosha-dillzThe next 30 years of Jewish L.A. are quite vibrant. I predict that … more and more Jews from around the world will migrate to our beloved, sunny Los Angeles. Tech, music and film will continue to thrive and grow to the forefront of their respective industries. We will continue to be unapologetic in our support for Israel, yet continue to engage in our criticism to be better at it, and always engage in conversations with those most critical in an educational way.

Esther Kustanowitz

Jewish Journal contributing writer and editorial director at


I hope that Jewish L.A. will comprise and embody the best that both terms – “Jewish” and “L.A.” –  have to offer; that it will continue to be a bright example of creativity, innovation, diversity and community, and that the geography of this place continues to inspire and reflect the potential that we all have.

Shawn Landres

Co-founder of Jumpstart Labs, senior fellow at UCLA Luskin, and chair of the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission and the city of Santa Monica Social Services Commission

shawn-landresHere in Los Angeles, our continuing mandate will be to connect our core values with the aspirations and needs of our neighbors of all backgrounds and creeds, especially the most vulnerable. No doubt, individual Jewish Angelenos will continue to contribute across all sectors of our vibrant region. Our broader task is to deepen our  relationships – as a Jewish community and as stewards of Jewish tradition – with everyone in the L.A. mosaic. In 2017, too few Jewish communal leaders (and not only in Los Angeles) are willing to say “Black lives matter” or “Muslim and immigrant lives matter” without qualification or apology. Whether more of us can do so in 2047 – with whoever may need our solidarity – will define L.A. Jewry’s significance in this century.

Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz

Adat Shalom

I pray that our community plays a greater role in modeling how we can love Torah, love Israel, love one another and love our greater community without conflicting values.  

Adam Milstein

Philanthropist and Israeli American Council board chair

milsteinThe Israeli-American community will be an integral part of Jewish Los Angeles for the next three decades. It will serve as an important connector to the State of Israel, as a vibrant home for pro-Israel advocates, and as a source of strength for the broader Jewish community in our great city.

Moishe House Residents

Downtown Los Angeles

moishe-house-residentsMoishe House DTLA hopes the next 30 years will bring greater unity to the Jewish L.A. community, allowing our community to be a symbol of hope and acceptance for others in the L.A. area.

Ayana Morse

Executive Director of Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center

In 30 years, I see a Jewish L.A. that is a model for the best in local engagement, innovation and creativity. Let’s open our city’s metaphorical gates to each other and delight in the knowledge and mastery that emerges.

David N. Myers

Professor at UCLA



I think the next 30 years will bring an intensification of two noticeable trends in L.A. Jewish life: more drift away from institutional affiliation for the majority of L.A.’s Jews, and growing prominence and market share for the Orthodox population in town. In between, we may well see a blurring of the boundary between Reform and Conservative institutions. In this way, L.A. will be like the rest of the country, except more.

Sharon Nazarian

President of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation

nazarianJewish L.A. will mirror our great city of Los Angeles, a city reflecting reflecting the richness of its immigrant communities. When we refer to the Jewish Community of Los Angeles, we will be referring not only to European Jews, but also Russian Jews, Persian Jews, Israeli Jews, Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Argentine Jews, Mexican Jews, Ethiopian Jews. While we will continue to celebrate the strength of our cultural uniqueness, we will have consolidated our Jewishness and our cohesion as one community.

Julie Platt

Board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

plattOver the next 30 years, The Jewish Federation will continue to be a convener for the Los Angeles Jewish community, bringing us together from every spiritual region and every geographic region, casting as wide a net as is necessary. Our Federation will continue to strategically impact this community, informed by our Jewish values and with clear and nimble focus and mission. We will always continue to work together to care for Jews in need, ensure the Jewish future and engage positively with our broader community.

Bruce Powell

Head of school at de Toledo High School

My hope and prediction for the Jewish future of Los Angeles in 2047 is simple: I believe that the thousands of students now in our Jewish day schools will become the leaders of our community and thereby create a vibrant and even more brilliant L.A. Jewish life and vision.

Jay Sanderson

President and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

As the president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I live with every day with the question of where we will be over the next 30 years. We are focusing on looking at the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities facing our community and the Jewish people. And the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity facing the Jewish people is how do we connect to the next generation of Jews? How do we connect to millennials? How do we make Judaism relevant, and how do we make the Jewish community open and accessible to all Jews?

Rabbi Lori Shapiro

The Open Temple

lori-shapiroWe are going through a Jewish renaissance in Los Angeles and these seeds will proliferate. Los Angeles will become a center of Jewish spiritual creativity and art, and our ritual practice will include film and new media. I predict that our spiritual communities will have not only rabbis on staff but universalist ministers as well as artists and media producers.

Rachel Sumekh

Founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger 

I predict that over the next 30 years, L.A. will see the peak of its burgeoning cultural renaissance and there will be a beautiful Jewish component to it –– and one thing I know won’t change is that, Persian Jews will hold the title for greatest Shabbat dinner parties.

Amanda Susskind

Anti-Defamation League regional director 

So for the next 30 years of Jewish L.A., my hope is that we will continue to work in coalition with other minority communities as the city continues to thrive as one of the major diverse communities in the world. But my fear is there will be so many issues to deal with around the world, from climate change to hate to nuclear proliferation, that we will have very, very big challenges to stand up to injustice, and that’s why I think the work of the ADL is going to be so critical, because we do build those coalitions and bridges to other communities.

Craig Taubman

Founder of the Pico Union Project

craigtaubman-2The future of the L.A. Jewish community will bring to us what we bring to it. Rabbi Harold Schulweis said it best: “Think ought. Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be?” This could be the anthem for our children who, unlike us or our parents, don’t determine their future on what was done in the past. They ought to be inspired by the City of Angels they live in, and like angels strive to be messengers of goodness, kindness, righteousness and beauty. This is the Jewish community I aspire to build.

Rabbi David Wolpe

Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple

Today we will play prophets
Tomorrow, we’ll be fools:
Who will and won’t belong?
We’re certain to be wrong.
Whose words will never fade?
Predict, and be betrayed.
Triumphs may bring tears
‘Lasting’ disappears.
Who knows in thirty years?

Sam Yebri

Attorney and Jewish community leader

When I think of the next 30 years of Jewish Los Angeles, I think of my own daughters and look at that question through their lens. What I hope for in Jewish Los Angeles is there to be a Jewish community that represents the best of our values as Iranian-American Jews – love of family, tradition, and of Israel – as well as the best of our American-Jewish experience –  a community that is progress-oriented and open-minded, that is engaged civically, Jewishly and philanthropically – and also that cares deeply about the greater community and the greater world.

Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback

Stephen Wise Temple

Jewish life 30 years from now? Well, in addition to colonizing space, I have two words for you: rabbi robots. I’m joking, of course, that would be awful for me, personally. What I really see happening over the next 30 years is growth. I think our Los Angeles Jewish community, given its diversity and creativity, is going to grow, both in terms of the number of Jews engaged in Jewish life and in terms of how deeply they are engaging in Jewish life. Because actually now, more than ever before, people need meaning and purpose and that’s what Judaism offers. I’m very excited to be part of that story.

IKAR’s progressive Shavuot learning experience

IKAR, a politically liberal Jewish community with a focus on social justice, went progressive in another sense during a June 11 Shavuot Torah study program. That’s when about 130 participants started at one member’s home and, over the course of the night, walked to the backyards of two other IKAR members to continue studying. 

At each stop of the IKAR Shavuot Street Crawl, attendees basked in the warmth of heat lamps, consumed vegetarian chili and mini-desserts of the brownie and cheesecake variety, and got down to studying source sheets with some of the community’s leading teachers. 

Upon arrival at each location, guests were asked to wear a sticker that answered a question; these were then used as icebreakers. For instance, at the first stop — the home of Steven Rubenstein and Laura Spitzer — people were asked whom their dream dinner date would be: Barbra Streisand, Moses, Larry David or Ruth Bader Ginsberg (whose stickers disappeared quickly).

To launch the evening, IKAR Cantor Hillel Tigay and his trusty guitar led the assembled in a rousing Havdalah marking the separation between the holiness of Shabbat and the holiness of Shavuot, the day which commemorates the Jewish people’s receipt of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Under slightly cloudy skies, participants took seats in dozens of folding chairs all over the backyard, some of them adjacent to rosemary plants that filled the air with their distinctive fragrance.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at American Jewish University, launched the learning with an exploration of the kabbalistic sefirot, the 10 attributes or emanations of God, charging participants to consider which sefira — crown, wisdom, understanding, power, love, beauty, splendor, eternity, foundation or presence — best described the manner in which they received their own personal Torah. Artson also guided participants through texts that explored the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Tigay provided musical transitions between elements of the evening, playing diverse tunes like “Norwegian Wood” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” as people took their seats or availed themselves of refreshments.

Stop No. 2 was the home of Amy Slomovits and Jeremy Goldscheider, where the arrival stickers featured favorite inventions — like telephones, the internet and ice cream makers — and the presenting rabbis stood in front of a wooden swingset as they spoke. 

IKAR Associate Rabbi Ronit Tsadok charged attendees to think about a time when they were absolutely convinced that they had all the right information, only to discover that they were absolutely wrong, and discuss it with a partner who had the same sticker; some conversations focused on information that comes over social media and is widely distributed, only to be proven to be false later. 

Then Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University, led the group in identifying anxieties about participation in prayer, including not knowing the prayers, the tunes, the language, the expectations of the community. Greenwald suggested, based on an idea by writer Anne Lamott, that there are three ways that everyone can pray: “help,” asking for something that’s needed; “thanks,” acknowledging the things for which we are grateful; and “wow,” an expression for something amazing in the world. 

For the 50 or so people with the stamina to last beyond midnight, the final stop of the night — with stickers asking guests to designate a “spirit animal,” an animal with which they felt a particular affinity, like a mouse, a unicorn or a giraffe — was at the home of IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous and David Light. 

As chocolate-covered strawberries made the rounds, guests paired up (designated by finding another person with the same sticker) to study some formative texts about Moses: his birth and extraction from the Nile; his encounter with the Egyptian beating a Hebrew; and his involvement in defending the daughters of the priest of Midian.

After Brous concluded, the group dispersed, and while a few stalwart students (and a few of the teachers) made their way to Temple Beth Am for all-night study, most returned to their homes for some well-deserved rest, having brought in the holiday with both study and sweets.

Jewish campus organizations offer students support after UCLA murder-suicide causes campus lockdown

In the wake of an apparent murder-suicide that claimed two lives on Wednesday at UCLA, the UCLA Jewish campus organization Hillel at UCLA is offering counseling to UCLA students in need of assistance.

“[We will] find out where students are at,” Hillel at UCLA Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Lerner said in an interview at his office Wednesday. “I don’t want to put anything on them and say they must be traumatized, but there’s also the possibility this brings out real stuff, real trauma.”

Hillel, which serves approximately 1,500 students on campus, went into lockdown in response to the incident, as did all of the buildings on the sprawling West Los Angeles campus.

“Our job is to be there for them,” Lerner said of the students served by Hillel.

The shooting occurred at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Boelter Hall. The shooter and one victim died in the incident, according to the UCLA newsroom’s webpage.

Chabad of UCLA is also making itself available to students in need of support.

“Just please know that we are here for you and whatever emotional, mental, or spiritual needs you may have, whether it may be counseling, discussing the event, venting, praying or just being together and hearing the words of encouragement,” a statement at reads.

IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous was participating in a meeting at Hillel at UCLA at the time of the incident. In an interview Wednesday afternoon, she denounced the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

“There’s really no place we’re safe from gun violence in this country,” Brous said.

Life at the UCLA campus appeared to return to normal by around 12:45 p.m. Students were walking on campus, discussing the day’s events and boarding buses at the intersection of Hilgard and Westholme avenues, across the street from the Hillel at UCLA campus and more.

Jen Pierre, graduate student, was among those walking on campus after the conclusion of the lockdown.

“We heard an active shooter was at the engineering building; we went into lockdown,” Pierre said. “I’m thankful I’m still alive,” Damien, a musicology student who asked to go by his first name only, told the Journal outside of the university’s law school building.

Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) was among local elected officials to respond to today’s tragedy.

“My thoughts and prayers – and those of my entire staff – are with those affected by today’s tragic events at UCLA,” Lieu said in a statement. “My office stands ready to assist in any way.”

Thriving indie Jewish communities join forces to create rabbinic fellowship

In the summer of 2011, Lizzi Heydemann returned to her native Chicago to establish a Jewish community loosely modeled on Ikar, the Los Angeles congregation where she had spent two years as a rabbinic intern.

She set about harvesting email addresses and putting out the word on social media. Heydemann called her community Mishkan – the Hebrew word for the mobile sanctuary built by the ancient Israelites from communal donations.

Heydemann’s first Shabbat service, held in someone’s living room, drew 65 people. The numbers snowballed from there – 90, 120, 150 for the monthly service. Mishkan’s first High Holiday service, in 2012, drew 600 people. The following year, it was 900 – among them Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his daughters. Last year, the service had 1,400 worshippers, comparable to what many large and established synagogues draw on the High Holidays.

“Synagogues just haven’t been doing it for the vast majority of Jews in America,” Heydemann said. “And that means there are a lot of really thirsty people out there.”

At a time of communal hand-wringing over declining rates of Jewish identification and synagogue membership — evident most recently in the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews — a handful of independent rabbis like Heydemann have demonstrated a consistent knack for drawing large numbers of mostly younger and mostly unaffiliated Jews to religious services.

Now seven of those rabbis are joining together in an effort to share their methods of connecting with this elusive cohort, which the institutional Jewish community has spent millions trying to reach.

The Jewish Emergent Network — a new partnership of communities widely hailed for their innovative spirit and proven success in attracting the young and unaffiliated — announced last month that it was establishing a fellowship for early-career rabbis. Modeled on the fellowship Heydemann did at Ikar, the program will place the seven rabbis in each of the participating communities for two years, during which they will receive mentorship and other training. Funded by the Jim Josephs Foundation and the Crown family of Chicago, the fellowship will begin in June.

The participating communities — in addition to Ikar and Mishkan, the group includes Lab/Shul and Romemu in New York, The Kitchen in San Francisco, Kavana in Seattle and Sixth & I in Washington, D.C. — are among the most successful young congregations in the United States.

They are led by rabbis routinely named to various annual lists of the most influential Jews and top American rabbis. Two of the seven showed up on the website Jewrotica’s lists of the sexiest rabbis. They use buzzwords like “high-content Judaism” and “DIY Judaism.” They have “spiritual directors” instead of rabbis and “live entertainment managers” in place of cantors. Their services tend to be lively and musically oriented, and they are explicitly committed to welcoming all comers, regardless of level of religious practice or sexual orientation — or even whether the participants are Jewish.

And even though none of these communities are affiliated with the major denominations and most don’t have a regular space, let alone their own building, they are consistently able to draw hundreds to weekly Shabbat services and thousands on the High Holidays. The vast majority of attendees are under 40 and unaffiliated with traditional synagogues.

“People in the network are simply doing R&D in the trenches,” said Amichai Lau-Lavie, the director of Lab/Shul, a 3-year-old “everybody-friendly” and “God-optional” community that drew more than 2,000 people to High Holiday services last year. “I think by the nature of things, the seminaries will catch up. The seminaries will always be behind people in the trenches.”

Though the individual communities differ somewhat in their particulars, they share a conviction that declining synagogue affiliation rates are not evidence that Jews have lost interest in Judaism. Rather, members suggest that traditional synagogues are largely unable to speak to the Jewish masses — either because they are too rigid and dogmatic, or because they have watered things down to the point where Judaism fails to inspire.

“The secret sauce is some kind of combination of being radically accessible and welcoming on the one hand, and raising the bar on engagement [on the other],” said Ikar leader Sharon Brous, who was named America’s top rabbi in 2013 by The Daily Beast.

“At Ikar we strive for an environment that really welcomes and embraces everyone – including folks who are ambivalent, atheist or just cynical about community, ritual, even God,” Brous said. “And at the same time, we don’t lower the bar for them. If we did, they’d walk in and run out.”

Whatever it is, the approach appears to be working. Noa Kushner, the fourth-generation Reform rabbi who leads The Kitchen, drew 1,000 people to High Holiday services last year in the most secular major metropolitan area of the country. A self-described “religious start-up,” The Kitchen is experimenting with a range of Silicon Valley-esque products, from a Pause app to create space daily for awe and gratitude to a deck of Passover cards to help newbies run their first seder.

“We don’t check pedigrees at the door,” Kushner said. “We have radical access. Anyone can stand up and say Kaddish. If you want to roll up your sleeves and do Jewish, we want you there.”

The Jewish Emergent Network came about through informal discussions among the communities over the past two years. So far it has raised $4 million toward a projected budget of $6 million that would fund two fellowship cohorts over four years.

Participants hope the fellowship will help spread their methods and thinking to other communities and, more broadly, that the network will help strengthen communities doing similar work. Beyond the fellowship, they are unsure where their partnership will lead, but they are certain where it won’t: For a group whose independence from the constraints of denominational affiliation has been their calling card, they are careful not to become what they have rebelled against.

“Some people have suggested, you’re building a movement. And I say, God forbid,” Brous said. “I have no interest in creating new institutional spaces with national conferences that people will roll their eyes at going to.

“My interest is in supporting each other, lifting the American Jewish community out of the demographic free fall and inspiring creative work.”

IKAR gets $3 million to support national rabbinic fellowships

The Jim Joseph Foundation has granted more than $3 million to IKAR for a rabbinic fellowship program that will involve a national coalition of seven spiritual communities known as the Jewish Emergent Network.

The fellowships will target rabbis early in their careers, mentoring them to be community builders who can bring Jews in underserved populations closer to their heritage. 

“We want to contribute to the reanimation of American-Jewish life and we believe that strengthening leadership is one of the best ways to do that,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of IKAR. 

The network will launch its program in June by sending one rabbinic fellow to each participating community for two years. Then, in 2018, a new group of fellows will be dispatched. Participants, along with IKAR, include Romemu and Lab/Shul in New York, Sixth & I in Washington, D.C., Chicago’s Mishkan, The Kitchen in San Francisco and Seattle’s Kavana.

The total cost of the program over four years — including pay for the rabbinic fellows and a project manager — is expected to be more than $6 million, according to Melissa Balaban, executive director and founding president of IKAR. That means the Jim Joseph Foundation grant of about $3.2 will cover more than half of it; the network has to raise the rest by reaching out to other organizations. (The Chicago-based Crown family has contributed $400,000 to the effort as well.) 

Brous said this program is important because of the dwindling participation in Jewish life among some of the Jewish population. 

“Over the course of the past decade in the American-Jewish community is the trend of diminishing affiliation in non-Orthodox circles,” she said. “There is a lack of engagement and affiliation, particularly among young people.”

Brous referred to the 2013 Pew Research Center study that found that 22 percent of Jews in the United States describe themselves as having no religion. 

“At the same time, there is a burst of innovation and a renewed interest that has emerged in a number of small pockets around the country,” she said. 

The participating synagogues of Jewish Emergent Network each offer unique approaches to community involvement and Jewish life. Romemu is an egalitarian shul in New York City that practices yoga alongside prayer. Kavana in Seattle promotes farming and community-supported agriculture, which supplies customers with organic produce from local farms. 

IKAR itself encourages members to volunteer by feeding the homeless and hosts monthly house parties that highlight spiritual practices such as kashrut and tzedakah. The synagogue, which was established in 2004, serves more than 570 member households and hosts Shabbat services at Shalhevet High School.

Over the new program’s four years, the two sets of rabbinic fellows will work in their congregations, and then meet once every six weeks at one of the institutions.

“After two years, they will not only have the experience of a deep immersion in one of the seven communities, but they will also have real exposure to all seven communities,” Brous said. 

Dawne Bear Novicoff, assistant director at the Jim Joseph Foundation, said it awarded the grant to the network because the program will ultimately help connect young people to Judaism. 

“Our interest is in finding and investing in opportunities that will encourage young Jews to live dynamic Jewish lives,” she said. “Folks in their 30s and young families are finding it hard to identify ways to engage in opportunities around their Judaism. We see this as a way to help cultivate that field and develop further opportunities for engagement.” 

According to Bear Novicoff, the grant will be doled out throughout the four years of the program’s lifespan. “It’ll taper from Year 1 to Year 4,” she said. “There is still funding to be raised in each of the four years by the network and by the individual communities on their own.” 

The idea for the Jewish Emergent Network was originally inspired by Brous’ own time as a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. She said the opportunity transformed her. “I’m not sure I would have started IKAR without that experience,” she said. 

Now she’s excited about the opportunity to help others have the same experience.

“On the basis of my personal fellowship in New York and the IKAR program, we feel really confident that it’s a profound way to have an impact in the Jewish community and that intensive mentoring can change the trajectory of the rabbinate. That’s why we feel so excited about this funding and the opportunity to have that impact.”

After tragedy, Muslims and Jews join in prayer

It was with a healthy dose of ambivalence that I approached a joint Muslim-Jewish prayer experience on Dec. 6, where 150 local co-religionists convened to declare, “We Are Not Enemies.”

This was just days after two radicalized Muslims slaughtered 14 people in San Bernardino and injured many more. Paris was still fresh in the collective consciousness. Stereotypes and certainties about Islam dominated international discourse. 

I couldn’t find myself in one camp or another. My intellect was split in violent opposition: I refuse to demonize all Muslims, but I also refuse to exonerate Islamic jihad. Approaching the interfaith love-fest, I thought, I want to love Muslims, BUT.

The group assembled included participants from B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica and IKAR, along with Muslims from diverse communities. They came together both in spite of — and because of — the terrible act of carnage that tore a nearby California city apart. It was as urgent a time as ever to affirm their belief that interfaith friendship matters. 

The question is: Does friendship make any difference? 

Organized by the Southern California Muslim-Jewish Forum, a 2-year-old group of imams, rabbis and religious activists who seek to build “communication and cooperation between Muslims and Jews” in Los Angeles, the event was part of a larger initiative launched by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), which promotes Muslim-Jewish relations in more than 20 countries. 

It’s a noble effort, and perhaps a necessary one, as xenophobia toward the Muslim-American community is on the rise in response to a radical Muslim minority whose cruel theatrics in the Middle East and elsewhere have captivated and terrified an international audience. Just one day after the local Muslim-Jewish kumbaya, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.

“Even at this time, this terrible time, when terrible things are happening, it’s time to come together and build communication and friendship and trust,” Walter Ruby, FFEU’s director of Muslim-Jewish relations, said Sunday.  

Interfaith events often characterize themselves as “bridge-building,” sometimes over very treacherous waters. They have long been popular (or politically expedient) among Jews seeking to “build bridges” with Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Blacks or Latinos — the list goes on. But there is perhaps no relationship more fraught, more fragile or historically entwined for Jews than their relationship with Muslims. 

All the more reason, some might say, to come together in peace and in prayer. Introducing the holiday of Chanukah to the Muslims in the room, Rabbi Laura Owens of Congregation B’nai Horin prayed for miracles — “which might be just what we need right now.” 

A spokeswoman for MECA — Muslims Establishing Communities in America — called for “dialogue, heartfelt connections and building relationships.”

Following the series of sentimental speeches, the organizers asked audience members to partner with someone of the other faith to answer a series of questions: “Why are you here today?” “What value or belief in your faith tradition really speaks to you?” The goal was for participants to feel “excited” and “frustrated” that they didn’t have longer to engage with one another.

I was sitting next to Karim Gowani, who identified himself as a member of the Ismaili Muslim community, a Shia sect whose Harvard-educated leader, his Highness the Aga Khan, is considered a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. I skipped the shmaltzy list and got straight to it: If Islam is a religion of peace, why do some Muslims commit terrible acts of violence in the name of Islam?

“In Islam, we believe that if you’re killing one person, you destroy the whole community,” Gowani responded. 

That’s funny, I told him. “In Judaism, we believe that if you save one life, you save a world.” It was weird to find commonality so quickly.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve wondered whether it’s unfair to single out Islam as a potentially “dangerous” religion, when the Torah also calls for some pretty medieval punishments: slaying the first-born sons of Egypt, wiping out the Canaanites upon entering the Promised Land, death for those who break the Sabbath — to name just a few. 

“There is anger in every tradition,” Beth Shir Shalom’s Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels reminded the crowd. “This week, we had an event that, for Muslims and Jews who work together, hurt particularly, [one that threatens] to take us miles backward. … Today is a day we must say to each other, ‘Your children are my children; my children are your children.’ ”

Some people believe gatherings like this one have the potential to open hearts and minds, or even create deep bonds. And perhaps that is true. But it is also true that the people who come to such events are probably already open-hearted and open-minded, so do they really change anything? Or anyone? 

It’s easy to be sweet in discussion, but can it be sustained? What happens when someone’s relative is killed or injured in the next war with Gaza? 

There was a very awkward moment toward the end of the afternoon, when the organizers introduced the prayer session. Jews and Muslims were asked to retreat to the back of the room and pray from their own traditions, side by side. Explaining the liturgy of Judaism, one Jewish organizer had to offer a clarification regarding a line about God and Israel, “meaning, the people [Israel], not the country,” she said. 

Muslim women pray during a joint Muslim-Jewish prayer at an event organized by the Southern California Muslim-Jewish Forum

While everyone else was praying, I contemplated my opposing beliefs: 

Some Muslims want to kill in the name of Islam; some Muslims want to get together with Jews on a Sunday afternoon for conversation and prayer.

Interfaith dialogue can be pointless and naive … interfaith dialogue can be the first ripple in a sea change

Maybe we still secretly hate each othermaybe this is what peace between us actually looks like. 

At the back of the room, Muslim and Jewish children were dancing together to chants of “Allahu ahad” — God is one. Sound familiar? It was beautiful and powerful to see Muslims and Jews murmuring their ancient prayers together, bowing, prostrating, calling and responding, side by side.  

God knows it’s easier to “not be enemies” here. But what of the relationship between Jews and Muslims in Israel? Or in France? Our friendly local efforts are not yet formidable enough to impact the Middle East or the rest of the world — and maybe they never will be. 

But maybe this is where we start.

Moving and shaking: Janet and Jake Farber honored; Aziza Hasan appointed by Obama and more

The inaugural Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Lifetime Achievement Award Gala honored Janet and Jake Farber on Oct. 1 at the Skirball Cultural Center. The award was in recognition of their setting the “highest bar for philanthropy and leadership in our community,” according to a Federation statement. 

Jake Farber, a World War II veteran, is a former Federation chairman, and his wife is a former president of Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. Their daughter is Federation Valley Alliance Chairwoman Rochelle Cohen

The event raised approximately $1.2 million for Federation’s new L.A. Jewish Teen Initiative, a figure that includes a dollar-for-dollar matching grant courtesy of the Jim Joseph Foundation, according to Mitch Hamerman, Federation senior vice president of campaign management and communications.

Among the evening’s 450 attendees were Federation leaders Jay Sanderson, CEO and president; board Chairman Les Bider, who presented the award to the Farbers, and Julie Platt, general campaign chairwoman. Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard of Adat Ari El, where the Farbers are members, was on hand as well.

Laurie Davis Gray and Steven Gordon; Amy and Harold Masor; Jill and Steven Namm; Virginia and Frank Maas; and Sharon and Leon Janks co-chaired the evening.  

Next year’s honorees will be Dorothy and Ozzie Goren, according to Federation.

Los Angeles interfaith pioneer Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, has been appointed to President Barack Obama’s third Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, according to a Sept. 24 White House statement. 

Aziza Hasan Photo courtesy of Aziza Hasan

“It is an honor to serve in this capacity,” said Hasan, who is Muslim, in a Sept. 25 email. She works to bring together Muslim and Jewish teenagers through NewGround, the award-winning organization she co-founded.

Hasan said she learned it is possible for people of different faiths to work together during her childhood.

“In many ways, my upbringing prepared me to join a team of change-makers to collaborate in building NewGround into the incredible organization that it is,” she said. “Striving to build a future where Muslims and Jews transform communities through the power of lasting partnerships.” 

The president’s council is charged with advising the government on issues related to “the work of faith-based and neighborhood organizations” according to Currently, there are 18 members on the council, including Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

In a statement, Obama said all of the appointees would work together to affect positive change: “I am confident that these outstanding men and women will serve the American people well, and I look forward to working with them.”

About 60 people, including members of the Latino community and members of the egalitarian congregation IKAR, turned out to Proyecto Jardin, a community garden in Boyle Heights, for a festive Aztec-influenced Sukkot celebration Oct. 4. 

“It’s a wonderful thing to see different people participating,” said Alisa Schulweis Reich, co-chair of the IKAR Green Action team, which is part of the IKAR Minyan Tzedek program and which co-organized the event. “It just has morphed in three years of doing it from an exercise in cultural diversity to feeling like a family coming together.”

Marcia Brous, mother of IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous, blew a shofar at the event, which also featured live dancing by Danza Tlaltekuhtli. Other activities included creating Sukkot decorations, reciting blessings in English, Spanish and Hebrew, and the passing around of the lulav and etrog. 

Marcia Brous blows a shofar Oct. 4 at a festive Aztec-influenced Sukkot celebration. Photo courtesy of IKAR Green Action team

Erica Huerta, captain of the Danza dance team and a Mexican Jew, discussed traditions and values shared by both Jews and Aztecs, such as a commitment to “social justice, equality and care of the earth,” Schulweis Reich said in an email. 

Other attendees included Devorah Brous, Rabbi Brous’ sister, who is founding executive director of food justice organization Netiya.

IKAR is a synagogue that emphasizes social action. The synagogue’s Green Action team and Proyecto Jardin are frequent collaborators, according to Schulweis Reich. 

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) President Randy Schoenberg offered a crash course in genealogy research Oct. 11 as part of an event organized by 3G @ LAMOTH. 

L.A. Museum of the Holocaust President Randy Schoenberg leads a recent genealogy workshop. Photo by Ryan Torok

Schoenberg, an attorney who won a famous case involving a Gustav Klimt masterpiece that was stolen by Nazis from a Jewish family during World War II, addressed a crowd of approximately 50 people and reviewed a variety of genealogy websites that help people build family trees. The websites include,, and more. These sites offer assistance to those interested in discovering their roots in Poland, Hungary, Russia and elsewhere. 

Among those in the audience were Samara Hutman, LAMOTH executive director, and Jordanna Gessler, director of LAMOTH education programs. Gessler, a third-generation survivor, serves as co-chair of the 3G executive board. 

The event kicked off with sushi and wine in the museum’s atrium, with attendees gathering underneath the permanent exhibition, “Tree of Testimony,” which hangs on the wall in the lobby. Schoenberg’s lecture followed and lasted about an hour.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email 

Atheism as my path to High Holy Days enlightenment

Not long ago, I was having lunch with a colleague and we got around to the almost-always-perilous subject of religion. He asked me how I define myself, and I said, “I’m Jewish. And an atheist.” He laughed and said, “No, really, what are you?”  

For my colleague, a non-Jew, one is either religious or an atheist. Even more baffling to him was when he learned that, as a totally nonreligious Jew, I helped found a synagogue (IKAR), am married to IKAR’s founding president and executive director, revel in the study of Talmud, celebrate Shabbat dinner every Friday night, attend services almost every Shabbat morning, and regularly vacation with my rabbi and her family. The fact that atheism hasn’t diminished my deep connection to the Jewish tradition, people or even practice seemed utterly incongruous to him. But hardest of all for my colleague to understand was how my evolution into atheism has actually enhanced my enjoyment of Judaism over the years. 

For most of my life, I comfortably identified as agnostic. God never made much sense to me on either a scientific or ethical level, yet I felt that to be an atheist implied a degree of arrogant certainty that I preferred to reserve for my strident politics. Nevertheless, opening the prayer book as an agnostic was a maddening and fundamentally alienating experience because I believed that, to be a good agnostic, I was compelled to remain open to the possibility of God. I would stand in the midst of earnest, shuckling Jews, searching the words of the Amidah, for example, for meaning: 

Blessed are You, Lord our God … the great, mighty and awesome God, exalted God, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things, who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and who, in love, brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for the sake of His Name.

The only meaning I could discern was that God was an insecure narcissist who doesn’t seem to merit the required exaltation — as evidenced by the dismal state of the world. All that forced love and fawning praise seemed like a theology of rigid obeisance to a needy and ineffectual deity, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to flee. Invariably, I’d put the book down and retreat to the lobby where the scotch (and politics) flowed liberally.  

At some point, however, my agnosticism evolved into full-blown atheism. This was not the result of a single epiphany but was, rather, the consequence of my accumulated experience of the state of the world and my deeper understanding of the science underlying the world. 

The effect of this evolution (or devolution, depending on whom you ask) has been nothing short of miraculous. No longer feeling that it was incumbent upon me, as a Jew, to find a way of embracing God, I am finally able to enjoy Judaism. And beyond that, once I liberated myself from the impenetrable language of the prayer book and its force-feeding of praise for a reckless and imperious deity, I was able to see something pure and, yes, even holy, in the communal engagement characteristic of great and compelling services. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous has often said that religion, at its best, is a call to allow oneself to experience awe. While I have no doubt that belief in God can be a catalyst for the appreciation of awe, awe can be experienced in a myriad of ways. And, for me, experiencing the power of a community rooted in and fueled by the ethical imperative embodied in the Jewish tradition has become one of my greatest sources of awe.     

With that in mind, services became a vehicle through which I could experience community in the purest sense, a space to share sorrow, gratitude and fear; a place to find fortitude, moral clarity and hope. The inevitably huge turnout of the High Holy Days only magnifies the intensity of that experience, especially when combined with the powerful call for self-examination and rededication to personal and communal responsibility that are the hallmarks of the holidays. 

I am galvanized and humbled by the extraordinary passion and possibility of a committed and intellectually serious community — so much so that it doesn’t even bother me anymore that some of my closest people and fellow IKARites are true believers. Indeed, I’m grateful that IKAR is strong enough to allow space for both the God-inspired and the godless.

Now, with God out of the picture, I’m finally able to have a truly religious experience.

Adam F. Wergeles is a Los Angeles technology lawyer and a co-founder of IKAR.

Rabbis’ High Holy Days sermons to emphasize spirituality, not politics

Over the last several weeks, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation have been gathering signatures from rabbis across the country opposed to the Iran nuclear agreement. So far, more than 1,200 have signed on. 

Bookstein has blogged about the deal, filled his Facebook followers’ news feeds with critiques and even hosted Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a fierce opponent of the agreement, at his synagogue to discuss it with his youthful congregation during a recent Shabbat service. 

When the High Holy Days arrive, however, the Orthodox rabbi said he will take a break from talking about the topic that has dominated conversations throughout the Jewish community. Instead, he plans to return to his principle of not mixing politics with preaching, discussing instead the broader issue of engaging in spiritual activism.

Bookstein said he will  address “the mandate to make the world a better place, help our fellow who is in need and stand up for the Jewish people — as opposed to just focusing on the current Iran situation.”

Rabbis across all denominations and political leanings have been wrestling with the question of whether — and how — to speak about the Iran nuclear deal as they prepare their High Holy Days sermons this year. The debate over the agreement, which was announced in July, has monopolized conversation in the Jewish world. As the Sept. 17 congressional deadline to vote draws close, rabbis who strongly oppose the agreement, and those strongly for it, have not been shy about making their opinions known. They have participated in rallies, lent their names to petitions and advertisements, held lectures and debates in their synagogues and sermonized on the deal from the pulpit.

Judging from interviews with numerous area rabbis, local clergy will be responding to the issue in a multiplicity of ways during the High Holy Days.

At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the leadership sent a mass email to congregants, letting them know that upcoming services will be an Iran-free zone, in an effort to avoid acrimony during this season of repentance and awe. “Looking forward to the High Holy Days, we know that this issue will still be looming large; yet, you will not be hearing about this issue from your clergy team on the bima,” it stated.

Senior Rabbi Laura Geller, who said she supports the deal, said the letter to her congregants was a way to set expectations for people in her community before they come to synagogue.

“The High Holy Days [are] a time for us to focus on our own spiritual work and yet to connect ourselves to the larger Jewish community,” she told the Journal. “It is not the time to take a stand about an issue like this that might be divisive. That’s not what the High Holy Days are for. The conversation needs to take place, but to take place in a multiplicity of voices. In a High Holy Days sermon, there is no multiplicity of voices.” 

By contrast, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad West Coast, said he has no choice but to speak about the topic directly from the bimah. An opponent of the agreement, he plans to bring up Iran during the High Holy Days when he leads services at Chabad West Coast headquarters in Westwood. 

“It’s not politics, it’s [about] the life of our people,” Cunin said.

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, Senior Rabbi John Rosove, who has expressed support of the deal in these pages and elsewhere, plans to reiterate that support only briefly in a sermon he will deliver on Rosh Hashanah morning titled “Fighting for the Soul of the Jewish People.”

 “I’m not arguing the Iran deal; that’s not what my sermon is about. I am arguing the larger issue of the state of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the State of Israel and what we’re doing as a people, what the state of our people is vis-à-vis each other,” he said. 

Whether they feel the Iran deal represents an existential threat to Israel or the best agreement available, many rabbis are opting not to speak about it. Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah said doing so would only take away from the purpose of the occasion.

 “The main thing I talk about is moral and spiritual well-being, how to live well with others, how to solve struggles, spiritual wholeness,” said Finley, who opposes the deal. “If I start advocating positions, if I start saying positions, I alienate people who need to hear other things I want to say.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, one of the synagogues that has sponsored discussions about the Iran deal, said his sermon will express his dismay over the lack of respectful discourse in the community in the wake of the uproar over the agreement.

“What I am going to talk about on the holiday is how Jews argue,” said Feinstein, who has not taken a position on the deal. “What disturbs me the most about it is how divided and vicious this conversation has become, and I think the community has forgotten its core values — why community matters, why solidarity matters, and why you don’t sacrifice Jewish community solidarity and respect no matter how serious the issues we’re debating. That’s what I want to address.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of the egalitarian spiritual community IKAR supports the deal, but she, like many other rabbis, will focus more on the community’s response to the proposed agreement. 

“I would be shocked if we don’t hear a lot of people in the community talking about growing divisiveness in the community and how dangerous that is,” Brous said.

Conservative Sinai Temple will hold breakout conversations on Yom Kippur, at one of which Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, will talk about how we disagree with one another, especially how we can do so without character assassination. Artson, who is leading services during the High Holy Days in Sinai Temple’s Barad Hall, said he is deeply concerned about the problem of discourse.

“As in a marriage, the important thing isn’t if you fight or not, but if you speak to each other during the fight in a way that makes it possible to hold each other after the fight is over,” he said. “I would like Jews to speak to each other in a way that they could embrace after the fight is over.”

Artson also said that it is difficult to imagine a political sermon about Iran having any of the “rabbinic value” that is essential for any High Holy Days sermon. 

“I have strong personal opinions, but there is nothing of rabbinic value in those, so what I try to do is mobilize Torah wisdom,” he said. “If there are things people can say that enhance people’s lives or help them develop questions for things they need to develop opinions about, I would focus on those.” 

Others concerned about the divide in the community — as evidenced, for example, by the backlash to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ July 21 statement of opposition to the deal, encouraging all in the community to lobby Congress against it — include Congregation Kol Ami’s Rabbi Denise Eger. She plans to lead a prayer of unity on Kol Nidre. 

“Mostly, we will be saying we have permission to pray together with those who support and those who oppose and to try to create one community. That is the only reference I will make to [Iran] during the holidays. It will not be in a sermon. It will be in a prayerful meditation at the beginning of worship on Kol Nidre,” said Eger, who, as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest organization of Reform rabbis in North America, signed a letter that declined to take a position on the agreement. 

Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said he will give a nod to people’s passion about the deal without offering his own opinions. (The Reform temple’s leadership issued a statement on Aug. 19 that declined to take a position.)

 “I think there is a difference between going into the nuts and bolts of the deal and mentioning that moment, and even praying for that moment. Whatever you feel about the deal, whether you are in favor or against or ambivalent, [saying], ‘We join in prayer, with hopes that our elected officials …’ — that kind of conversation — it is referencing the deal and talking about the deal without going into, [for example], the five reasons I am concerned,” Zweiback said. “Because I am going to address it, but not in an ‘I favor’ or ‘I am against, and here is what we should do’ fashion.”

Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said he understands rabbis’ obvious aversion to tackling the difficult topic head-on, but he said he thinks it is possible for a rabbi to deliver a sermon that addresses the issue without demonizing those who may disagree — as long as the rabbi knows the audience.

“I can absolutely see both sides of the argument, and I think rabbis need to know their communities, and they need to understand what their communities can tolerate in terms of discourse and have to really make a thoughtful judgment about that,” he said.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who spoke at a July 26 “Stop Iran” rally at the Federal Building in West Los Angeles, said he will not deliver a High Holy Days sermon about Iran because he has already made his feelings known in writings and during public appearances. 

“My position is already well known. I have spoken and written about it and … it’s the High Holy Days. It’s not a time, to me at least, for political mobilization [but a time] for people to learn Torah and understand their souls better,” he said. “As important as the issue is, I think both the synagogue, and also I, have done what we need to do, and these are the High Holy Days.”

Still, Wolpe said he is unable to resist discussing broader topics related to the controversial topic.

“Without giving you too much detail,” he said in a recent phone interview, “I am going to talk about the Jewish root of the way we talk about Israel and the debate about Israel. So it has implications for the discussion about Iran, but it’s going to be Torah, not nuclear throw-weight.”

In other words, he continued, “It’s not going to be about reactors. It’s going to be about Torah.”