Rays of light


A couple of events over the past week have given me a nice dose of optimism for the Jewish people. The first event was a Little League baseball game in a Jewish league called Blue Star, where my son Noah’s team, the Rays, were playing a very talented team called the Jays.

For a while, I thought I was in one of those “Bad News Bears” movies, where one team fumbles everything while the other team is smooth and confident. And just like in the movies, near the end of the game, the Jays scored five runs to go up 6 to 1 (they have a “mercy” rule in this league where they stop an inning if you’ve scored five runs).

Now it was the Rays’ last chance. These cute little kids came into the dugout and, instead of being demoralized by the five runs they had just given up, decided they were going to rally. No kidding. In their first two games, they had barely managed to get one or two hits, and only walks and an error gave them their only run. It’d be a miracle just to get someone on base — let alone score five runs!

You could just imagine the thought bubbles over the parents’ heads: “These kids are in for some hard lessons, like you better learn to lose and it takes more than enthusiasm to make it in life.”

But these little guys didn’t know from grown-up realism. It’s as if they completely forgot their past failures at scoring runs, and this was simply a brand new inning where anything could happen. While I was bravely trying to match their enthusiasm, all I was thinking was: There will be peace in the Middle East before the Rays score five runs against the Jays.

Well, 30 minutes later, I was feeling a lot better about peace in the Middle East. Don’t ask me how, but the Rays scored those five runs. Grounders, errors, fly balls, a few walks, gutsy running, an amazing double and lots of wild cheering from the dugout — including an improvised backward twist of their cap that they called the “rally caps” — gave the Rays a miracle comeback that they’ll probably still remember when they’re grandfathers.

When the shock wore off, part of me felt like an idiot for having been so “realistic,” and for not taking more seriously the optimism of these courageous munchkins. For the first time in years, I started thinking without cynicism about the incorrigible optimism that some of my friends on the political left have always had for peace in the Middle East — an optimism I have rarely taken seriously.

It took a little miracle at my son’s baseball game to make me consider the possibility of other miracles. When I shared this story with a friend who is to my political left, he took over my role as the cynic and joked that when it came to peace with our enemies, Israel might as well be “miracle proof.” Of course I knew where he was coming from, but on that cool and windy Sunday in the San Fernando Valley, the miracle of Noah’s Rays was so mind-blowing that I was in a mood to think only of miracles — even unimaginable ones.

The second event that has fueled my optimism happened at my friend Rabbi David Wolpe’s Sinai Temple. For those of you who were around about seven years ago, you might remember that a good chunk of the Orthodox community wanted to run the Conservative Rabbi Wolpe out of town for suggesting at a Passover sermon that the Exodus might not have happened exactly how it is explained in the Bible. Although Rabbi Wolpe’s ultimate message was to promote faith and mitzvahs despite any doubts one might have about the literal veracity of Bible stories, this idea got lost in the front-page coverage of the Los Angeles Times, and the controversy sparked a firestorm that simmers to this day.

You can imagine, then, my shock and awe when I saw Orthodox rabbis and all these Orthodox Jews gathered at Sinai Temple on a Monday night to help launch an organization called Standing in Unity. About 200 Jews of all denominations were there to listen to Rabbi David Baron of the Reform Temple of the Arts, Rabbi Yitz Jacobs of the Orthodox Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Wolpe and the Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan speak passionately about Jewish unity in honor of the eight fallen yeshiva students of Jerusalem.

What was remarkable was that the Orthodox were not simply participants, but were instrumental in putting the whole event together. Rabbi Jacobs talked about transcending our differences by focusing on the things that bind us, like preserving Jewish lives and Jewish peoplehood. Rabbi Wolpe connected Mordechai’s message to Queen Esther in the story of Purim — that she was given the unique power of a queen precisely to help save the Jewish people — with the idea that our generation has been given unique powers and resources precisely to help our brothers and sisters in Israel.

Everyone — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — spoke about Jewish unity.

Of course, it was easy to be a cynic and remind yourself that only tragedies seem to bring Jews together; or that Jewish unity is a tribal idea that undermines the importance of healthy self-criticism; or even that a night of unity hardly makes for a movement.

But cynicism and even realism don’t allow for miracles. Jews coming together despite their sharp differences is a little miracle, even if it took a crisis to make it happen. It’s like the story Rabbi Jacobs told of the British soldier during the Falklands War who pointed his gun at a lone Argentine soldier left in a foxhole. The Argentine covered his eyes and started saying the “Shema,” at which point the British soldier, who was also Jewish, dropped his gun, hugged his “enemy” and said the “Shema” with him.

It was a week to be reminded that miracles do happen, in foxholes, baseball dugouts and even synagogues.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

The message


Thank you.

That’s the profound message of this column: Thank you. The instigators, organizers and volunteers who brought Limmud to Los Angeles last weekend deserve our gratitude for challenging one of the long-held orthodoxies of the L.A. Jewish community: There is no Jewish community.

It’s something I hear myself saying to people who ask me to describe L.A. Jewry. It’s something the leaders of our putative community bemoan when trying to explain their lack of success in galvanizing widespread support or funding for their causes: We are divided; we are spread out; we are the Balkans. Tosh, as Limmud’s British founder, Clive Lawton, would say.

The idea of LimmudLA, which came to the Costa Mesa Hilton last weekend, was to bring L.A. Jews together to study and learn. Man, did it work.

“I get tears, really, just walking the hallways,” said Moshe Shapoff, an outreach coordinator for the Karlin-Stoliner Chasidic sect who flew in from Jerusalem for the conclave. I met Moshe just after dinner Saturday night. He was still wearing his traditional Shabbat outfit: black ankle-length satin frock and a shtreimel.

I told him how unusual it is for Jews anywhere to mix it up like this, for the secular feminists to learn beside the Chasidim, beside the Conservative academics and the unaffiliated and undeclared. For someone like me to be spending a weekend with someone like him.

But that’s the essence of Limmud — not just Jews learning from other Jews but experiencing the breadth and depth of tradition, culture and spirituality in one place, in a weekend. One Limmudnik looked over some 700 people, mostly Angelenos, in the dining room Saturday night: “This is going to save me returning a lot of calls,” he said.

That evening, Moshe and other Karlin-Stoliners led a post-Shabbat course in traditional niggunim, or songs. I couldn’t make it, but I heard a schnapps bottle made rounds between tunes, and the 12 or so Jews who showed up — mostly non-Orthodox — got pretty joyous.

I was in another session, hearing four stand-up comedians, including a Chasid, a Palestinian and Aaron Freeman, a black convert to Judaism, joke about all the hilarious stuff that happens in the Mideast. That was after a full day spent dipping into one class on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik, another on the meaning behind the Hebrew calendar and innumerable hallway and, yes, barstool discussions and debates with everybody from the Russian scholars to Hollywood players to major philanthropists to street-level activists to post-denominational observant Israeli American rock musicians (they were in the hot tub with me, along with a brilliant Reform aerospace engineer from Manhattan Beach — go figure).

The vast majority of Jewish conferences set a bar that excludes the vast majority of Jews: The Wexner Program skews toward upscale leaders-in-the-making; the various movement gatherings stick to their movements; gatherings of Jewlicious and Reboot skew young; too many other Jewish conclaves skew old.

But Limmud succeeded in breaking down those barriers for a long weekend. Much credit goes to volunteer conference organizers Shep Rosenman and Linda Fife, who tapped their personal networks to ensure diversity from the start; Executive Director Ruth Rotenberg, who got what will surely become an annual event off to a smooth start; and the Jewish Community Foundation, which gets kudos for kicking in $250,000 (to be paid out over three years) to help it all happen.

Sure, everybody had suggestions for improvements: better outreach to the Reconstructionist, Reform and secular communities; more involvement of the many superb Jewish academics and rabbis in town (Where were Stephen S. Wise, Wilshire Boulevard and Sinai Temple?); more outreach to Los Angeles’ Persian and Israeli Jewish communities; more teen activities; a venue that offers some outdoor opportunities.

Do all this, and the consensus was next year’s Limmud will double in size. But last weekend no one was complaining (let me rephrase: I heard a near-miraculous lack of complaining, considering the sheer mass of people with a, um, propensity for critical analysis).

Instead, people were urging Limmud on, hoping next year would be bigger and the year after that bigger still. For the individual Jew, it’s a chance to learn about the widest variety of Jewish topics from a wide variety of teachers. For the community, it offers, among other benefits, a prophylactic against the kind of communal divisions that come when you simply haven’t met, learned with or shared a Shabbat meal with, your neighbor.

Limmud won’t make us all agree or stand united, but it will help us all learn more about the people with whom we disagree, and it will enable us to treat them with the kind of familiarity that breeds respect.

At the Middle East comedy night, I heard Freeman tell a joke that, in its twisted humor, perfectly explained Limmud.

“When I converted,” Freeman said, “they said, ‘You have to look into your heart and ask, “Do I love Jews?” If the answer is yes — you are not a Jew.'”

Or perhaps you are — a Limmud Jew.

LimmudLA: Chance encounters, many choices



LimmudLA – By the Numbers

Participants:* 634
Sponsors: 14
Presenters 133
Sessions: 262
Films: 21
Artists: 23
On-site volunteers: 227
Steering committee: 14
Chairs: 2
Executive director: 1
*Participants for the entire conference. An additional 16 joined for Sunday only and an additional 32 participated as vendors in the Shuk on Sunday.

Cost of LimmudLA: Still being calculated. The fee of $450 per adult covered only part of the actual cost, while Limmud subsidized the rest. Significant scholarships were awarded. The Jewish Community Foundation provided the largest grant at $250,000, paid out over three years.


Breakdown by denomination:
Conservadox 56
Conservative 144
Chasidic 11
Humanist 4
Just Jewish 32
Modern Orthodox 150
Orthodox 30
Post-Denominational 27
Reconstructionist 5
Reform 68
Renewal 4
Secular 9
Traditional 14
Unaffiliated 14
Prefer not to answer 21

Breakdown by age (range, 0-87):
0-2 28
3-12 68
13-17 9
18-34 163
35-50 163
51-64 135
65+ 25

Breakdown by geography:
Within CA

Conejo Valley 5
Los Angeles Area 412
San Gabriel Valley Area 14
San Fernando Valley 79
Ventura County 7
Northern California 8
Orange County 20
Long Beach 7
South Bay 6
San Diego 8
Santa Barbara 1

Other states:
Colorado 1
Florida 3
Georgia 1
Illinois 3
Massachusetts 4
North Carolina 1
New Jersey 4
New York 22
Ohio 1
Pennsylvania 4
Texas 1
Virginia 1
Washington 1

Other countries:
Canada 6
Israel 7
United Kingdom 9

Friday 4:51 p.m.

We have 27 minutes until Shabbat, and we need to check in to the Costa Mesa Hilton, register at the LimmudLA desk, unpack and get three children and two adults showered and into our Friday finest before candle lighting. All this while my husband, Alex, and I are still shaking off the tension of three hours — three hours — on the 405. The hotel lobby is chaotic, but it’s an excited kind of mania, because no one here really knows what to expect from LimmudLA. Yet we’re all aware that we’re about to become part of something momentous: Southern California’s initiation into this potentially transformative Jewish festival/Shabbaton/retreat.

More than 100 volunteers and one paid professional worked insanely long hours over the past two years to bring together more than 600 Jews from every denomination, age group and area of Southern California for 262 study sessions, 21 films, two concerts, a comedy show, an off-Broadway play and countless hours of connecting.

Over the past few years, Limmud has spread from its original location in England, where it began 27 years ago, to 30 communities around the world — Istanbul, Johannesburg, Basel, Berlin, Sydney, New York — brought to life by an organically grown volunteer army in each location.

So two years after conference co-chairs, attorney Shep Rosenman and chronic community activist Linda Fife, dreamed of bringing Limmud to Los Angeles, here we are, arriving, chaos and all, for day one.

5:25 p.m.

I make the candle-lighting window, but the 405 hasn’t yet worn off, and the schedule is 93 pages long, so I’m feeling overwhelmed. I try to figure out which services to go to. Liberal Egalitarian with Debbie Friedman, Jewish folk singer extraordinaire? Traditional Chasidic? Traditional Egalitarian? I end up bopping around between them and don’t get much out of any of them.

Dinner is raucous, and when Rosenman stands on a chair to welcome everyone to the first annual LimmudLA, the ballroom erupts into cheers.

He offers advice that would have served me well for services: Limmud is about choices. Own your choices.

But I still haven’t learned my lesson as, after dinner, I slip out of “Feminophobia in Religion” after just a few minutes and sneak into a back row of “Guerilla Girls of the Talmud,” which sounded like it would have been really great if I had heard the whole thing.

There are more sessions scheduled, but Alex and I head into LimmudLA Cafe, stocked with snacks and drinks. In one corner, three tables are pushed together, and people are singing Shabbat songs, telling stories, sharing some schnapps. Most of us are schmoozing. As I head off to bed around midnight — while the place is still going strong — I think about choices. Tomorrow, no more sampling, I decide. Tomorrow I commit.

Saturday, 9 a.m.

While I usually go to an Orthodox shul on Shabbat morning, today I’m going secular. Limmud, after all, is about stepping out of your comfort zone.

I head into a session about secular spirituality — Judaism without a supernatural God — headed by Mitchell Silver, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and head of the Boston Workmen’s Circle, a Yiddish secularist society.

Not the venue where I would expect to have my most spiritual moment in a long time.

Changing the playing field


What do Jews do when they seriously disagree with one another? Sometimes they hold their noses, other times they do worse — they disconnect. Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a nice sampling of Jewish disagreements, and it’s made me think about the value of occasionally changing the playing field.

The first episode was during an Orthodox outreach event. About 100 young, mostly Persian Jews gathered at my house late on a Friday night, as part of Aish HaTorah’s new effort to reach out to the Sephardic community.

After a Shabbat meal at the Aish Outreach Center, the guests walked the two blocks to my house for some “Oneg Shabbat” and an “Ask the Rabbi” session in my backyard. The rabbi, a hip and strictly observant Sephardic Jew who lives in Jerusalem, did a little stand-up routine to warm up the crowd, and then the questions began.

One of the questions was why we should bother with seemingly trivial details like which shoe we should tie on first. The rabbi didn’t flinch and drew an analogy to other trivial details, like the dot in an e-mail address. If you forget this tiny detail, he explained, your message will never get through. God has a plan, and all the details are crucial parts of God’s plan to get through to us, and for us to get through to Him.

So far, so good. But then, someone decided to ask the one question you never want to ask at a singles event: “Rabbi, how come we’re not allowed to touch until we get married?”

Talk about an attention-getter. I think even the bartender stopped pouring drinks to see how the rabbi would get out of this one. What could anyone say to convince amorous young Jews mingling under the midnight stars that you shouldn’t even hold hands or kiss your date goodnight?

Nothing.

Oh, the rabbi tried. But no matter how eloquent, witty or spiritual he got, it was clear that no one was ready to buy into such a radical message. Still, while some people “held their noses,” nobody got so offended that they left (I’m sure the Grey Goose helped).

A couple of weeks later, I saw another example of sharp disagreement, this time with a less salutary ending. I was speaking at a salon discussion called “What’s Your Story?” at Sinai Temple, right after their Friday Night Live event. The interviewer asked me about something I’d recently written about tikkun olam: “Can this grand love affair with repairing humanity become a runaway train that will take Jews further and further away from the binding glue of Jewish peoplehood?”

I elaborated and tried to be as delicate as possible — but then I got carried away and said something a Jew should never admit in public: “I put my people first.” Busted. I tried to soften it up and say “I love all of God’s children, of course, but there’s a special place in my heart for my Jewish family,” but it was too late. I saw two people make that face you make when you say “feh” — and walk out. Me and my big mouth.

At yet another event, a comrade from the political right chastised me because I have Jewish friends on the political left — and asked how I could possibly defend a Jew whose views on dealing with the Palestinians were so different than mine.

And on it went. It seems that everywhere I go these days, I see Jews holding their noses — at other Jews. Of course, the idea of Jews getting easily offended by other Jews is nothing new, but it still pains me to see Jews boycotting each other. In the Jewish community, love isn’t blind — ideology is.

Mutual tolerance sounds nice, but it’s often a polite euphemism for mutual avoidance. That’s why I think it might be a good idea, once in awhile, for Jews to take a break from the drama of ideological divisions and look for different playing fields that can help us reconnect — like Jewish culture.

This notion dawned on me the other day when one of my “left-wing friends,” UCLA professor David Myers, invited me to see his new initiative to create a world-class archive at UCLA relating to Jewish cultural creativity. As he put up slides that showed examples of Jewish cultural treasures — and articulated a vision whereby this collection would serve as a “stimulus to ongoing and future creativity” — my mind wandered, and I started dreaming about … my neighborhood.

I imagined what it’d be like to have a Jewish Cultural Museum right here in Pico-Robertson — a museum that would serve as a sanctuary of Jewish connection, where Jews of all stripes would admire the creativity of our ancestors throughout the ages.

I thought: Who could argue with culture? Great art isn’t left wing or right wing or Reform or Orthodox. Ancient archives are not there to offend us with another opinion. Instead of telling us how to live, culture delights us, enlightens us and arouses our curiosity — not to mention our Jewish pride. In the middle of our ideological arguments, while we all dig in our heels, culture is a gentle reminder that Jews have survived for so long not just by arguing, praying and sermonizing, but also by creating.

Culture is an integral part of the Jewish buffet, and for many young Jews disconnected from their Judaism, it might even be the most inviting door back.

Of course, we have great Jewish cultural institutions in Los Angeles, like one of my favorites, the Skirball. In my dream, I would see a mini-Skirball right in the heart of the hood, nestled among the shuls, food markets and falafel joints of Pico Boulevard. I love the idea that as people walk and drive through the neighborhood, they will see that Jewish creativity is part of the soul of Jewish life — at least as important as a Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs or even a house of worship. In a neighborhood where many people stick to their own communities, the museum would be the place for all communities — the place that would celebrate peoplehood right in the hood.

And if we find that all these good feelings about the museum are creating too much Jewish unity, well, we could always pick a fight over the location.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Volunteers drive eclectic learning at LimmudLA



You can feel the ruach in this Limmud UK video

At the Limmud conference in England three years ago, Angeleno Judy Aronson attended a session on the Jews and the Beatles, where she sat next to the former neighbor of Beatle’s manager Brian Epstein. She tried to keep up with Romanians teaching Israeli folk dance, she learned a new way to understand the “Shema” and she discussed Chasidic stories with secular Israelis. After participating in a session on Hebrew poetry, the retired Jewish educator was inspired enough to use her academic Hebrew to write a poem of her own — for the very first time.

Now, Aronson is one of more than 80 volunteers who have jumped at the chance to bring Limmud to Los Angeles this February, giving Southern Californians their first taste of the independent, non-denominational, volunteer-run Jewish learning experience that has swept the Jewish world.

“I never saw people so excited about learning anywhere in my life, and I think that was because everyone felt personally addressed by this conference,” said Aronson, who has chaired major Jewish conferences in the past and will run family and children’s programming for LimmudLA. “It was a very diverse group of attendees, and I felt this tremendous energy for learning and for playing together.”

Limmud was founded 25 years ago in England, where each December more than 2,000 people gather for a five-day conference. In the last six or seven years, the Limmud model has spread around the world, with conferences in Russia, France, Canada, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Australia and New York.

The goal of LimmudLA, slated for Febrary during President’s Day Weekend at the Costa Mesa Hilton, is to bring together the broad spectrum of Los Angeles Jewry to experience the richness of Judaism through intense days packed with the arts, shared meals and conversations, and a quirky and diverse offering of text studies, lectures and workshops. At Limmud, all the teachers are participants, and many of the participants are teachers, so everyone learns from each other.

“It has no objective — not to make you leaders, not to make you more religious, not to make you act politically, not to make you give — other than for you to grow and learn as a Jew,” Holocaust scholar and self-described Limmud addict Deborah Lipstadt told The Jewish Journal.

Organizers are hoping that the non-hierarchical, unifying model will leave a lasting imprint on a community that is geographically and ideologically diffuse.

“I think this is going to be an amazing thing for L.A.,” said LimmudLA co-chair Linda Fife, an educator turned full-time volunteer. “What excites me most is that I don’t think there is any place else where we are coming together in cross-communal conversation.”

The conference, including hotel and all meals, will cost $500 per person (lower for kids), a price tag that covers about two-thirds of the actual costs of hotel, food and programming. Scholarships are available, because organizers don’t want cost to deter people. Attendance is capped at 600, to keep things manageable in the inaugural year.

Organizers are hoping the energy of the conference will counteract the leave-in-the-eighth-inning culture that often plagues Los Angeles events.

Programming from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., with about 10 sessions offered simultaneously, might include a jam session led by Jewish singing icon Debbie Friedman; a cholent cook-off; yoga; a class in theology with a Reform lay person and another in Jewish history with an Orthodox woman; nature walks; text studies of everything from Genesis to the Talmud to kabbalah; and workshops in bibliodrama, Jewish songwriting or Judaism and astrology. Babysitting, kids programming and teen programming will give parents freedom to attend the sessions, and family programming will offer time with the kids.

But much of the program won’t be set for a while, since most of the presenters, artists and teachers come from the ranks of the conference goers. Online registration, which opens this week at www.LimmudLA.org, will ask for attendees to present sessions in their area of expertise — and that will determine most of the programming.

Some more well-known presenters — many of them fans who attend Limmuds all over the world — have already signed on: Rabbi Danny Landes of the Pardes Institute in Israel; Bible and law teacher Arna Fisher; Chabad philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman; Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt; David Solomon, who has made his name by teaching things like “The Whole of Jewish History in One Hour”; and Jewish World Watch founder Janice Kaminer-Reznick.

But even professionals on the Jewish scholar circuit will not get paid, and will in fact have to pay their own way for the conference. Only a select few — a list that remains secret and is never the same two years in a row — get their travel and conference fee comped.

Many point to this militant egalitarianism, along with souped-up volunteerism, as the key to the sense of ownership that gives Limmud its aura.

“It’s fluid in a very real way,” Fife said. “The definition of what we are about is developed by the people sitting around the table, and they represent a whole conglomeration of the different segments of the community.”

Everything, from fundraising to catering to programming, is handled by volunteers, about 20 of whom are putting in second-job type hours. Only one paid professional, executive director Ruth Rotenberg, pulls the pieces together.

Despite the challenges volunteerism brings — conflicting visions, flakiness, lack of time — organizers say the sense of ownership and diversity of input is what makes Limmud work.

“One of the most meaningful conversations we had was about Shabbat and what Shabbat would look like,” Fife said. “You’re sitting around a table with people for whom the definition of Shabbat is very different from your own. We tend to stay within our own silo communities and throw around vocabulary and terminology and we think everyone understands it the same way we do — and that’s not true. This is wonderful opportunity to really understand others.”

After hours of discussion, the steering committee decided traditional halacha, Jewish law, would be observed in conference-wide venues, such as the communal Friday night dinner, but that smaller venues would have more freedom. Sessions or services with activities that might offend some but are key elements of celebrating Shabbat for others — such as the use of musical instruments or microphones — will be clearly identified, so people could opt out of those.

Harry Potterstein?


As I, along with millions of others, sped through “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” I found myself picking up on more than a few new spells and the ingenuity of J.K. Rowling’s enthralling writing (don’t worry — it’s safe to read on. No spoilers here).

Behind Harry’s lightning-bolt scar and Hogwarts ancient walls lay a message that echoed through each page. Whether Harry ultimately defeats You-Know-Who, you must read to find out, but one thing is for certain: Harry’s continued survival was dependent on one thing — the unity and respect he creates among the entire magical community. Whether he befriends a wizard, house elf or giant, Harry Potter is a true role model for how we in the “muggle world” should treat those around us, irrespective of religious denomination or social standing.

That message first hit me when I was reading book five one Friday night a few years ago. I dragged my feet up the stairs after my Shabbat meal and while silently humming “Lecha Dodi,” I opened to the first page of the fifth book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. While looking over stories of mayhem, magic and muggles, I searched for a way in which Harry’s adventures might be applicable to real life. After all, with billions of dollars in sales, there must be something more to it than interesting names, fascinating spells, and powerful wands. When I ultimately reached page 204, I saw how blind I had been to the deafening message found in black and white right before my eyes.

To those who are not ardent Potter fans, let me fill you in: Harry Potter and his friends return for a fifth year to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where they learn to hone their magical talents. At the conclusion of the fourth book, Lord Voldemort, evil wizard extraordinaire and Harry’s nemesis, made a fearful return to the wizarding world.

As the Hogwarts students shuffle into the Great Hall for their start of term feast, headmaster Albus Dumbledore retrieves the Sorting Hat, a magical hat that is placed upon each new student’s head and reveals to which of the four houses of Hogwarts the student will belong. In the fifth year, however, in the wake of evil wizard Voldemort’s return, the song of the Sorting Hat has changed and possesses a new message — a message that I found to be particularly applicable to world Jewry of the 21st century:

I sort you into Houses
Because that’s what I’m for,
But this year I’ll go further,
Listen closely to my song:
Though condemned I am to split you
Still I worry that it’s wrong,
Though I must fulfill my duty
And must quarter every year
Still I wonder whether sorting
May not bring the end I fear.
Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
The warning history shows,
For our Hogwarts is in danger
From external deadly foes
And we must unite inside her
Or we’ll crumble from within.
I have told you, I have warned you …
Let the sorting now begin.

As I read the message that a bewitched hat sent to a group of young wizards, I myself wished that such a message could be directed to modern Jewry. For hundreds of years, Jews have been split into different denominations corresponding to their level of observance and beliefs on the divine origin of the Torah, or by their lack of affiliation with Judaism as a whole. We have seen throughout history that this divide can be destructive and cause internal battles between people who are ultimately seeking the same goal: the perseverance of the Jewish nation.

Just as Harry Potter and his friends were advised to come together during a time of great need, now — and not tomorrow — is the time in which Jews of all walks of life must band together to fight the evil forces that cause the slow deterioration of the Jewish population. Such epidemics as terrorism in Israel and exterior foes who desire to see the Jews and the land of Israel “wiped off the face of the Earth” continue to gain power while we argue about trivial matters. Whether one is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated, a Jew is a Jew, and has the responsibility to ensure the continuity of our great nation.

We read in the Passover haggadah the unavoidable fate of each generation of Jews: “For not only one has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation they rise against us to annihilate us; and the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”

Sixty years ago we were faced with Hitler and the wrath of the Nazis, over 2,000 years ago we were enslaved in Egypt, and now we face new threats in the form of mass casualties and leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad preaching anti-Jewish sentiments.

It is incumbent upon each Jew to join forces and fight, for we are warned by our sages that we will be challenged with adversity in each generation and a divided battalion has no hope to win a war. I agree it may have been cooler to hear it from a talking hat, but the message is directly before us and it is now in our power to grasp it.

Listen, I am not na?ve, nor am I proposing an immediate alteration to the social dynamic of Jews all over the world; however, I do urge individuals to take steps in their lives to come to the goal of mutual respect among all Jews, regardless of denomination or social standing. If Harry Potter can befriend a house elf, owe his life to the kindness of a centaur and unite the magical world, we too must come to realize the importance of some true R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

So the next time you find yourself at the market, rather than ignoring that woman you think you may have met at temple some months back, or turning the other way when spotting that guy you argued with at your uncle’s Passover seder, say a friendly hello, sans judgment. Who knows, maybe they’ll even let you cut in front of them in line.

Jina Davidovich is a senior at YULA high school for girls in Los Angeles.