Program helps grandparents nurture interfaith grandkids


Bettina Kurowski is the chair of the 2008 fundraising campaign of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and active in her Conservative synagogue.

She’s also a grandmother of three young grandchildren. They give her great naches, or joy, she says, but she’s also worried — the children’s father is not Jewish, the kids are being raised in an interfaith home and Kurowski, for all her Jewish involvement, is not sure what role she should play in passing on the Jewish heritage that is so dear to her.

“My husband and I are the keepers of the Jewish tradition, the culture and values of Judaism — what it really means to be a Jew,” Kurowski said. “I took it upon myself to study how to be the best grandparent I could be while acknowledging the non-Jewish side of their family.”

“I didn’t want to give the children the sense that there’s something wrong with people who are not Jewish, but I still want to give them a sense of pride in being Jewish,” she added. “It’s a fine line.”

Looking around, Kurowski found few resources for grandparents like herself. She says she’s the only one in her circle of friends whose children intermarried, and she felt the need to share her concerns with others in her situation.

She got that chance last week when the Grandparents Circle held its first meeting at Valley Beth Shalom, Kurowski’s congregation in Encino.

The Grandparents Circle, which launched its pilot course on Jan. 8 in Los Angeles and will launch another in Atlanta on Jan. 29, is a new program created by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) to help grandparents present their Jewish heritage to their grandchildren in intermarried households.

Grandparents meet in groups of 20 to 25 for five weeks of guided discussion, share their concerns and learn specific skills for passing on Jewish history and tradition without forcing it on the children.

“They want to pass on their Jewish identity and background, they want to share their history and who they are with their grandchildren, but it has to be done in a way that’s interesting to the grandchildren,” said Liz Marcovitz, a program officer at the institute. “You can’t just start talking about Judaism with no context.”

The course is inspired by “Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do,” a 2007 JOI publication.

When Kurowski read the book last year, she and her husband donated the funds to build a curriculum around it. Her federation has earmarked funds to run the pilot course, and Kurowski says it hopes to expand the course to other synagogues in the Los Angeles area.

Marcovitz says the Jewish communities of Chicago and Hartford, Conn., among others, are interested.

Eventually, JOI plans to set up a national listserve for all such grandparents, whether they have taken the course or not.

Suzette Cohen is organizing the program in Atlanta. She notes that the city’s Jewish community, which has a 60 percent intermarriage rate, is in its sixth year of running the Mothers Circle, a JOI support group for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children. Many of the Jewish parents of those intermarried couples have asked for a similar program for them.

“They often dance around the issue, afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing” and offending their child or the non-Jewish spouse, Cohen said.

The first Atlanta circle is already oversubscribed; a second group is filling quickly.

The gist of the book and the course is to teach by example: Invite the grandchildren to Passover seders in your home, show them photos of your family, light Shabbat candles and tell them why it’s important to you.

Build “layers of Jewish memories,” the book suggests, that will remain with the children as they grow to adulthood.

Grandparents are an often-overlooked influence on the lives of their grandchildren, said JOI’s associate director, Paul Golin. The institute’s extensive research on the adult children of intermarried couples found that one of the major influences on the religious identities of these young adults was their grandparents.

But it’s not a straight shot.

“It’s not about parenting, it’s about influence,” Golin said. “It happens holistically. If the grandparents are just who they are and have contact with the grandkids, they’ll have that influence. That’s why we say, just be the best Jew you can be. You don’t want to come across as a Hebrew school teacher.”

The Grandparents Circle is designed for Jewish grandparents whose intermarried children are open to it. If the grandchildren are being raised exclusively Christian, Golin notes, it is a much more delicate matter.

That’s the situation facing Rose Sowadsky, an Atlanta-area grandmother whose two grandchildren are being raised Methodist.

The children “are aware” she is Jewish — they were at her home Christmas Eve and saw she had no tree — but they have never asked her about it.

“They must have been well prompted at home,” she supposed.

Sowadsky does not expect to have any influence on her grandchildren’s religious upbringing, but she signed up for the Grandparents Circle for moral support.

“I want to see how others cope with it,” she said.

Many participants come to the group as couples, and many others are single women, usually widowed, like Sowadsky, or divorced.

Dr. Bob Licht, a semiretired Los Angeles dentist, is the lone single man in the group at Valley Beth Shalom. When his wife of 62 years died last summer, he felt he needed help passing on his Jewish heritage to his 4-year-old great-grandson.

The boy’s father, Licht’s grandson, is Jewish, but the boy’s mother is not. Licht said his children and grandchildren, including the boy’s father, received an appreciation and understanding of Judaism from him and his late wife.

Now that she is gone, Licht feels somewhat adrift. The boy had a brit milah, but Licht wants to make sure he continues on a Jewish path.

Jewish parent + Christian parent = Jewish kids


In December, Patty Lombard and her husband, Bill Simon, took their two daughters to Florida to celebrate Christmas with her family, as they do every year. The children received presents, strung popcorn and decorated the tree — a Yuletide tradition they would never allow in their Los Angeles home.

That’s because the girls are Jewish, just like their father. When Lombard, a Catholic, and Simon married 18 years ago, they decided to raise their children in one faith: Judaism.

Such arrangements reflect a growing trend among interfaith families that feature a Jewish partner and a non-Jewish partner who isn’t planning to convert. And despite the Jewish community’s decades-long panic that shrinking population figures are a direct result of intermarriage, recent studies and anecdotal evidence are finding that interfaith families could be more of an asset than an enemy.

Many interfaith couples are raising their children to be Jews, even without conversion of the non-Jewish parent.

One reason for this radical shift in understanding: the release late last year of a new, groundbreaking study.

In Boston, the majority of children among interfaith households — almost 60 percent, far above the national average — are being raised as Jews, according to the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study commissioned by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the central planning and fundraising arm of Boston’s Jewish community. The study was carried out by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

Many observers say that the results of this study are due in large part to the Boston federation’s intense outreach efforts to interfaith families — more so than to independent decisions within the families themselves. Some suggest that communities that replicate the Boston federation’s efforts can bring about similar results.

Another study about the “December Dilemma” by online magazine InterfaithFamily.com showed that 75 percent of interfaith couples with children say they are raising them Jewish, as compared to 33 percent reported in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001. The InterfaithFamily.com survey covered a small, self-selecting sampling. The Web site reports that 759 people responded to the survey in 2006, nearly twice as many as had the previous year. The survey also explores how interfaith families celebrate Chanukah and Christmas, as well as what exactly those celebrations mean.

For example, while 44 percent of respondents said they planned to decorate a Christmas tree in their homes, only about 5 percent planned to tell their children the Christmas story. By contrast, among those same families, 99 percent of those said they were also lighting menorahs, and 63 percent of those were going to tell the Chanukah story. In other words, most of these families considered their Christmas celebrations to be secular (79 percent, according to the survey), while only 23 percent said that their Chanukah celebrations are secular).

These studies do not offer not hard evidence with any single conclusion, but the results do indicate that intermarriage will not destroy the Jewish community, as once was thought. What emerges from speaking to interfaith families is how committed many non-Jewish parents are to raising their child or children Jewish, even when they themselves have no intentions of converting.

Lombard was raised Catholic. She went to parochial schools through high school and attended Mass regularly.

“I’m not a lapsed Catholic,” she said. “I still identify myself as a Catholic.”

But Lombard and her husband did not want to make religion a deal-breaker.

“I didn’t want to say I can’t marry you because you’re not the same religion as me, because that seemed crazy,” she said.

So they agreed to raise the children Jewish — although she admitted that at the time, she didn’t exactly know what she was getting into: “Initially you think, ‘I really love this person, and I want to make it work,’ and then you think, ‘Oh my god, what did I do?'”

Lombard began taking classes at Temple Israel of Hollywood to learn about Judaism, but in general she said she lets her husband lead the family in matters of Jewish identity. On Christmas, Simon doesn’t want a Christmas tree in their house.

“I don’t care at all, it’s one less thing to put away,” Lombard said.

For her, Christmas is about spending time with her parents.

“As long as my parents are around, that’s all that matters. I feel in some ways that Christmas has very little meaning,” she said.

Lombard believes celebrating Christmas and attending church with their grandparents doesn’t make her daughters any less Jewish.

“They feel like they’re very much part of that holiday,” she said. “Just like my sister’s family would participate in Passover — it’s a kind of acceptance of where everyone is at.”

Neither does having a non-Jewish mother change the reality. When her older daughter, Emily, was younger, she said, “Oh mommy aren’t you sorry you aren’t one of us?”

But now, at 13, having just celebrated her bat mitzvah with all sides of her family, Emily understands more.

Lombard said she never felt the need to convert: “I felt like I was doing enough; the agreement to raise them Jewish was enough.”

She said it helps that about one-third of the families in her congregation are interfaith and that Rabbi John Rosove, the senior rabbi, is very accepting. “He’s always done his best to make me feel like I was a part of this place … he never made me feel like I had to convert.”

The Lombard-Simon family is evidence that a positive atmosphere toward interfaith couples can help bring the children into the fold, as the Boston study indicates. This year, Boston’s Jewish community invested $321,000 — 1.5 percent of its annual budget — into outreach for interfaith families and individuals, for programs run by the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services, the Reform and Conservative movements and other agencies.

“If you make the effort to be welcoming then it pays off,” said Ed Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com. “Why is that happening in Boston? What could Los Angeles do to emulate Boston’s success?”

Pluralistic rabbinical court seeks new funding; InterfaithFamily.com marks 200th issue


Pluralistic Rabbinical Court Seeks New Funding

The Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a local pluralistic religious court dealing with conversions, went on hiatus Jan. 1 due to lack of funding.

The beit din was founded in 2002 by George Caplan, in memory of his wife, Sandra Caplan. When Sandra Caplan, a Jew-by-choice, was dying, her husband promised her that he would work toward a unified conversion process for the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

Since 2002, Caplan, a former Jewish Federation president, has been the primary funder of the beit din, along with some of his friends. Caplan recently announced the court should seek funding elsewhere, according to Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, the beit din’s secretary.

“He feels he’s guided it through the first years to make it all possible — and he’s right,” Goldstein said.

Caplan will continue to fulfill his promise to his wife and is investigating funding for a communitywide mikvah, or ritual bath.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism (UJ), helped found the organization and serve as its co-chairs. As the beit din gained momentum, two-dozen rabbis from the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements joined the court. To date, the Sandra Caplan Bet Din has trained 96 dayanim, rabbis who can perform conversions.

Since its founding, the beit din has overseen the conversions of 107 people.

Goldstein and Rabbi Dan Shevitz, the av bet din, or the head of the court, insist the court is not closing, but is instead seeking other funding and structuring opportunities. They hope the court will be operational at the end of the month.

“There are fewer and fewer things that the denominations can do cooperatively with one another. The Jewish community has become splintered to an unacceptable degree,” said Shevitz, who is the rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. “Therefore it’s incumbent upon us for whatever we can do together we should do together. Welcoming converts not to one denomination or another but to the totality of the Jewish people — if we can do it, we have to do it.”

For more information, visit scbetdin.us.

InterfaithFamily.com Celebrates 200th Issue

Do the terms “interfaith family” and “interfaith outreach” seem to be everywhere you turn these last few years?

If so, that’s not only due to the rise in intermarriage, but perhaps because of the popular Web site catering to issues for this growing population, at InterfaithFamily.com. The Web magazine, published biweekly since November 1998, will post its 200th issue on Jan. 16.

“InterfaithFamily is a nonprofit that provides resources and services to couples with one Jewish partner and one non-Jewish partner,” said Micah Sachs, the publication’s online managing editor.

The Web magazine, which has 20,000 unique visitors per month, primarily features original personal narrative articles on topics of interest to interfaith families and couples, focusing on holidays, birth ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, weddings and mulitcultural relationships. It also features articles from other publications of interest to interfaith families.

The Web site provides a database of programs that are friendly to interfaith families, and does advocacy in the Jewish community to be more welcoming to interfaith families. This year they will host a conference of “outreach professionals” in Pennsylvania, and create a rabbinic resource on the subject of interfaith marriage.

Although the mission of InterfaithFamily.com is to “encouraging Jewish choices,” Sachs said, “by the same token, we’re very accepting of interfaith families where they are.

We advocate to the Jewish community to be more welcoming to interfaith families regardless of where they’re at. When you close the door to someone who’s on the fence you have no chance of influencing their decision.”

OU Offers $20,000 Award for Best Unaffiliated Outreach

The Orthodox Union (OU) is offering a grant of up to $20,000 to a member synagogue that can create an outreach program targeted at unaffiliated Jews with minimal or marginal synagogue involvement. The program should be able to be replicated by other communities.

The initiative, made possible through the OU’s Department of Community Services and the Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, comes at a time when the assimilation rate in the North American Jewish community is hovering at 50 percent or above, and there are a large number of unaffiliated or marginally affiliated Jewish individuals and families, according to the OU press release.

The award is intended to support a variety of activities in the area of outreach, including discussion series, multifaceted conferences, symposia, public forums, and hands-on learning experiences, among other initiatives.

This is not the first time the OU has made a large grant available for synagogue programming. Last year, the OU awarded grants of up to $20,000 for unique programs having a positive impact on their communities and synagogues. The programs included Israel action; education for children and adults; and lay leadership development, among others.

“Last year’s grants program was so successful that the OU was determined to bring it back,” OU President Stephen J. Savitsky said. “While last year’s programs touched on many aspects of Jewish life, given current Jewish population statistics the OU decided to dedicate the new initiative solely to outreach.”

“Outreach is one of the ways we show our care and love for our fellow Jews,” OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said. “With this grant, the OU is proud to encourage our synagogues to think of creative new approaches to involve more people in Jewish life.”

Applications are due at OU headquarters by March 1, 2007. Applicants will be notified by letter on or before March 29, 2007.

For an application more information, visit ou.org or call Frank Bushweiz at (212) 613-8188.

New Queen Esther flick is whole ‘nother megillah entirely



“‘Christian Money Makes Jewish Film,’ that’s the headline I’d like to see above your article,” Matthew Crouch, producer of “One Night With the King,” suggested in an interview.
 
The film, based on the biblical Book of Esther, “brims with adventure, intrigue, romance and wonder … it’s vision is to inspire a generation to embrace the destiny God has for them,” according to Crouch, the son of megatelevangelists Paul and Jan Crouch.
 
“A pumped-up Purim story,” observed a rather less enthusiastic Rabbi Richard Levy, Los Angeles director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
 
“One Night With the King,” which, despite its somewhat titillating title, contains nary a hint of sexual abandon or even suggestive cleavage, opens Oct. 13 at close to 1,000 theaters across the United States.
 
As a warmup to the premiere, Crouch and his co-producer/wife, Laurie Crouch, barnstormed 21 cities in 16 days, pitching the film and its message to clergy of all faiths.
 
The movie has aroused considerable advance interest in Hollywood and elsewhere, particularly as a major entry in the burgeoning genre of Christian-produced films aimed at “faith families,” in particular some 75 million Christian evangelicals in the United States.
 
Crouch himself is one of the pioneers in the field, who mortgaged his house to make the 1999 “Omega Code.” Launched without the usual mass-marketing campaign, the film found an astonishingly large audience among churchgoers.
 
But what really rang Hollywood’s bell was the phenomenal box office success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
 
“It took Hollywood a few years to catch up,” said Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident Films, but “Passion’s” $612 million worldwide gross did wonders to speed up the process.
 
Fuhr’s own company has just released “Facing the Giants,” billed as an inspirational film about a small town high school football team, whose six-year losing streak is reversed through faith in God.
 
“Giants” was made for $100,000 by an all-amateur company of writers, cast and crew from a Baptist church in Georgia, but expects to find its audience by mobilizing a national network of pastors.

The first major studio to finally get the message is Twentieth Century Fox, which has created FoxFaith, a new division that plans to produce around a dozen Christian-themed movies this year.
 
Significantly, major studios and distributors are joining up with the independent producers of faith movies, with Samuel Goldwyn Films partnering with “Giants” and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox studio handling the DVD sales for “One Night.”Up to now, Jewish organizations have not weighed in on the rapid growth of the Christian films phenomenon, either because it’s not yet on their radar screens or because of the fervent support of Israel by the evangelical community.

An exception is Rabbi Haim Dov Beliakof the Los Angeles-based www.JewsonFirst.com, who sees in the faith films a further encroachment by the Christian right on every aspect of American life, especially schools and popular culture.
 
On the other hand, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, sees a “positive impact” by “One Night” and urges potential Jewish critics to “stop being so prickly.”
 
Lapin, a Seattle-based ally of Christian conservatives, said he was consulted by the filmmakers on whether certain depictions in “One Night” might upset Jewish sensitivities.
 
Among other rabbis and Jewish spokesmen who had seen previews of all or part of the movie, opinions varied on the film’s artistic merit. But the general consensus had it that while the storyline departs in some details from the biblical original, the film provided a positive portrayal of Jews.
 
Most enthusiastic was Rabbi Harvey Fields, a veteran leader in Los Angeles interfaith relations, who praised the movie as “beautifully done and artistically and emotionally very satisfying.”
 
He lauded the filmmakers for omitting the final portions of Megillat Esther, in which the newly empowered Jews take bloody revenge on their enemies.
 
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he liked the film and “felt comfortable with it.”

Foxman, who had been one of the sharpest critics of “The Passion of the Christ,” said that “One Night” “is not the gospel and it’s not a documentary, but I found nothing offensive or troubling.”

Michael Berenbaum, professor of theology at the University of Judaism, gave the film a mixed review.
 
On the plus side, he liked the “compelling and wholesome beauty” of Esther, portrayed by newcomer Tiffany Dupont, and the movie’s emphasis that Jew-hatred is often motivated by a demagogue’s financial and political interests.
 
But Berenbaum, a scholar and author on the Holocaust, questioned whether “we need a movie on an incomplete genocide at this time,” or a film which “transformed a biblical story into a not terribly exalted love story.”
 
Most critical was Rabbi Levy of HUC-JIR, who described “One Night” as “a dull movie that has little to do with the Book of Esther.”

He strongly objected to a promotional flier attached to the preview DVDs, which described Esther as “an orphan minority,” but never mentioned her Jewishness.
 
“I find that offensive,” Levy said.
 
The American Bible Society, a Christian group that encourages biblical literacy and which rarely endorses a movie, has put its weight behind “One Night.”
 
“The film is consistent with the Bible and an inspirational story with a relevant message that will appeal to Christian and Jewish viewers alike,” said Robert Hodgson, dean of American Bible Society’s Nida Institute for Biblical Studies. “Films like this, with meaningful biblical messages, will soon become more mainstream as Hollywood recognizes their values.”
 
The 44-year old Crouch, who founded Gener8Xion Entertainment company in 1993, promotes his picture and message with biblical fervor, but is not without a sense of humor.
 
At one point in a lengthy interview, he pithily summarized his movie as “Cinderella Meets the Lord of the Rings.” Later on, he told of his futile attempts to persuade Hollywood moguls to make more pictures reflecting “family values.”

Bittersweet symphonies: the Pearls struggle to find life after Daniel’s death


Eight days after Yom Kippur, Judea and Ruth Pearl will commemorate what would have been the 43rd birthday of their son, Daniel. As on every Oct. 10 for the last five years, it will be a day of intensely personal reflection and remembrance by the couple and their daughters, Tamara and Michelle, intensifying their emotions of the other 364 days.
 
By contrast, the date also will be marked by public worldwide concerts celebrating the life of Daniel Pearl, an accomplished violinist, equally passionate about the classical, jazz, country and bluegrass musical idioms.
 
As of a week ago, the master calendar showed 166 different performances scheduled in 24 countries — from China to El Salvador and Kenya to Egypt — on and around Oct. 10. It is expected that the numbers will reach last year’s record of 300 concerts in 41 countries.
 
Music was Daniel Pearl’s avocation, but journalism was his profession. In pursuit of a story on Al Qaeda’s financial ties, the then-38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter was kidnapped in early 2002 in Pakistan and beheaded by Islamic extremists.
 



The life and death of Daniel Pearl on HBO
 
It has a handsome, brilliant, fun-loving reporter, who kisses his beautiful, pregnant wife goodbye as he goes off to track down an Al Qaeda financial network in Pakistan. His nemesis is Omar Sheikh, a man not unlike Pearl in background — intelligent, well educated, but who has become a fanatical terrorist.
 
Sheikh lures Pearl into a trap, where kidnappers abduct The Wall Street Journal reporter and withhold news of him for almost a month, while Pearl’s parents and wife, and much of the rest of the world, hold their breath.
 
The Pakistani police search everywhere for Pearl, while the same country’s intelligence service apparently shields the terrorist. Finally, the kidnappers release a grisly video in which Pearl is decapitated by a sword.
 
No wonder four different film projects on the case have been announced, although only one is actually ready for prime time.
 
On Oct. 10, the day on which Pearl would have celebrated his 43rd birthday, HBO will air “The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl,” a 90-minute documentary, which will be hard to beat for drama and intensity by subsequent movies.
 
The film was produced and directed by Ahmed A. Jamal, a Pakistani, and Ramesh Sharma, an Indian, with the full cooperation of Pearl’s wife, Marianne, and his parents, UCLA professor Judea Pearl and Ruth Pearl, both raised in Israel. It is narrated by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
 
What gives the film much of its emotional impact are lovely home videos of Pearl’s childhood in Encino, his passion for music, a makeshift seder conducted on a trans-Siberian railroad train, and the joyous wedding joining him to his Cuban Dutch wife.
 
The life of the secretive Omar Sheikh is, of necessity, less well documented, and at times the directors have to stretch quite a bit to force the two protagonists’ backgrounds into parallel lines.
 
There remain a number of yet unanswered questions, both in the film and in the actual investigations:

  • Did Pearl’s kidnappers sell him to an Arab gang that then murdered him?
  • What was the role of the Pakistani government?
  • Why has the death sentence, imposed on Sheikh by a Pakistani court in July 2002, never been carried out?

Until such questions are answered, the documentary serves as a riveting history of a case that has gripped the world’s attention.
 
“The Journalist and the Jihadi” airs at 8 p.m. on Oct. 10. It will be repeated on various dates in October on HBO and HBO2.

Check www.hbo.com for details.
 
— TT



Yet the wake of this tragedy is an extraordinary story of renewal in itself. Ruth and Judea Pearl are both high-achieving professionals. He is an emeritus professor of computer science at UCLA and internationally recognized for his pioneer research on artificial intelligence. She is an electrical engineer and for years was a highly paid industry consultant. Although quieter than her more exuberant husband, in the immediate days after the tragedy, “she was the captain and ran a tight ship,” her daughter wrote.
 
Both parents cherish their privacy and still shudder each time an inquiring reporter thrusts a mike in their face and asks, “Well, and how did you feel when you first heard that your son had been murdered?”
 
But on the day before Rosh Hashanah this year, sitting in the living room of their pleasant Encino home, they agreed to talk openly about their agonizing experience and how they transformed their lives by transmuting private grief into public good.
 
The story begins on the morning of Jan. 23, 2002, an ordinary day when life seemed especially good for Daniel Pearl. He was a highly respected and popular foreign correspondent for a leading American daily, married to fellow journalist Marianne, and the couple were expecting their first child.
 
That evening, Daniel went to a restaurant in the Pakistani port city of Karachi to meet a supposed source who could provide a break for his investigative story on the financing of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
 
That was the last time his family saw Daniel, except for videos released by his shadowy captors, one showing the journalist in chains with an unknown hand pointing a gun at his head.
 
It was the beginning of 28 days of hope and despair for the Pearl parents, and their six new houseguests from the FBI.
 
Repeatedly during that period, the Pearls were informed their son was dead and his body had been found, and each time the report turned out to be wrong.
 
Throughout the ordeal, Daniel’s colleagues and editors at The Wall Street Journal were in touch with the parents, lending moral support and advice. One of the editors’ main concerns was that other media might leak the fact that both parents come from an Israeli background, thus increasing the threat to Daniel’s life.
 
Judea was born in suburban Tel Aviv in the fervently Orthodox enclave of B’nai Brak, co-founded by his grandfather, and he had served in the Israeli army.
 
Ruth was born in Baghdad, when one-quarter of the Iraqi capital’s population was Jewish, and emigrated with her parents to Israel in 1951. She and Judea met as college students at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
 
In a rare display of professional solidarity in the competitive media, no one raised the Israeli angle until after Daniel’s death.
 
During the torturous waiting period, Barney Calame, a Wall Street Journal editor, phoned the Pearls daily with a situation report. “He was a slow, deliberate speaker and each time our hearts kept sinking until, at the end, he would report that there had been no new developments,” Judea recalled. “We finally taught him to open each conversation with the sentence, ‘I have no news.'”
 
In the last days before Daniel’s death, the Pearls were fairly hopeful.
 
“Danny was a careful professional, not a Don Quixote type, and he had always gotten himself out of any trouble before,” his mother said. “Besides, his goodness shone through, and we couldn’t believe that his kidnappers could live with him for weeks and not be affected by it.”
 
Adding to the hopefulness was the history of other journalists abducted in Parkistan previously, who had always been returned after a few days in exchange for enemy prisoners or ransom.
 
On the morning of Feb. 21, 2002, the last glimmer of hope was extinguished. “We were having breakfast when three FBI agents, two women and a man, walked in,” Ruth remembered. “One woman had tears in her eyes, and she asked me if I had anything cooking on the stove. Then she told us that she had bad news and that Danny had been killed.”
 
After the previous false alarms, the Pearls refused to believe the report. They phoned the American consul in Karachi, who confirmed that he had seen the gruesome video showing the decapitation of their son.
 
Pakistani police did not find Daniel’s mutilated body until May 16, and it took another three months until the remains were returned to the United States. Hours before the funeral, the FBI stopped the proceedings on the grounds that the agents needed four more days to perform an autopsy.
 
Finally, after the burial and the memorial service, the Pearls were left to ponder their loss and their future.
 
“I felt that my life was over,” Ruth said. “We would never again have a normal life. I still cannot comprehend it; I try not to comprehend it; there’s a mental mechanism blocking it.”Added Judea, “As human beings, we don’t have the software, the computational machinery, to comprehend the logical contradiction that such a beautiful person, who tried so hard to explain the Muslim world to the West, would be killed by people who elevated their grievance above all norms of civilization.”
 
But rather than the sad ending that might have happened, this is where the story takes a surprising turn. The Pearls faced three obvious options. One was to retreat into their private grief, another to resume their professional lives as best they could, and a third to do whatever they could to exact revenge on their son’s murderers.
 
They chose a fourth way. “We refused to accept the idea that Danny’s contributions to the world as a journalist, as a musician, as a gentle human being was ended forever,” Judea said.
 
“We decided on a different kind of defiance,” he added. “We would fight hatred with everything in our power, but we wouldn’t seek physical revenge — that’s what his murderers wanted.”
 
The parents found the vehicle to turn thoughts into action a few days later, as a steady stream of condolence cards, flowers and envelopes with $20 bills and other small donations arrived at the house.
 
“We didn’t know how to cope with all that,” said Ruth, so The Wall Street Journal arranged for a team of lawyers to advise the family.
 
The first decision was to set up a trust fund for Marianne and her soon-to-be-born son, Adam. As the discussions continued, all agreed that the most relevant way to honor Daniel’s life and death was to establish a foundation to perpetuate his work and ideals.
 
Exactly one week after the FBI agent reported Danny’s death, the legal papers establishing the Daniel Pearl Foundation were signed by Judea Pearl as president and Ruth Pearl as chief financial officer.

Three Generations of Pearls

Three Generations of Pearls. back row: Tosha Pearl (center) is flanked by her daughter-in-law, Ruth, and son, Judea, during a Tel Aviv family reunion. front row: Tamara Pearl and her brother, Daniel Pearl. Photo courtesy Ruth and Judea Pearl

“We wanted to fight the tsunami of hatred engulfing the world and we had a powerful weapon — the memory of Danny, respected by millions of Muslims, Christians and Jews, and through the three fields in which he excelled, journalism, music and dialogue.”
 
Working with a miniscule staff and a $400,000 annual budget, raised mainly through small contributions (“We don’t get any celebrities,” Judea said), the foundation has transformed Daniel’s legacy and the parents’ vision into reality.
 
In journalism, reporters and editors from Muslim countries annually travel to the United States for six-month working fellowships on American newspapers, including The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
 
Through the Web-based World Youth News, students at 20,000 high schools in 109 countries develop professional skills, unbiased reporting and respect for cultural differences.
 
In music, World Music Days will be celebrated this year Oct. 6-15. Among the hundreds of performers and performances will be Sir Elton John, world premiere of Steve Reich’s “Daniel Variations,” symphony orchestras in five different countries, neo-soul artist Nya Jade, Bo Diddley and Friends, Hollywood Interfaith Choir and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
 
Judea Pearl and professor Akbar Ahmed, a leading Islamic scholar from Pakistan, have engaged in dialogues before multiethnic audiences throughout the United States and in the British House of Lords.
 
“We have only two rules,” Pearl said. “No topic is taboo and both speakers and audience must maintain civilized tone.”
 
The foundation has promoted publication of books of Daniel’s own writings and about his beliefs. Among a number of projected films, HBO will air “The Journalist and the Jihadi” on Oct. 10.
 
Somewhat to their own surprise, Judea and Ruth have become accomplished and passionate public speakers and are constantly busy promoting and running the Daniel Pearl Foundation.They have also evolved into skillful interviewees, with Judea as the more animated and gesticulating responder, while Ruth is quieter on the surface and occasionally corrects her husband’s recollections.
 
But, Judea said, “I resist the idea that I’m doing all this for therapeutic reasons. If I didn’t believe that our work makes some difference, I would quit tomorrow.”Added Ruth, “Some days we are encouraged and on other days we are down. But we are doers and we don’t quit.”
 

 
Daniel Pearl

Letters 06-16-2006


Is It Kosher?
I applaud and appreciate that you were ready to take off the gloves and attack what merits attack, but I fear you left one on (“But Is It Kosher?” June 9). You were too much of a gentleman.

I understand that you were courageously tilting against the strongest and wealthiest single entity in the Jewish world, second only to the state of Israel: the kashrut entity. Think of all the products that bear the kosher seal — from my delicious Oreo cookies to my bottled spring water (water?) to my milk from Ralph’s. Think of the add-on for personal supervision on the premise by mashgihim at all the kosher events in town. Consider the kosher wine industry, and the Passover product annual gouging orgy, and I come to a guesstimate that we are talking about millions, perhaps billions of dollars in profits for some people somewhere.

Understand, I benefit from the many reassurances that I am consuming kosher products. If along the way some of those involved are misleading me, the transgression is on their heads.

However, the issue of money leads me to another excellent article in the same Journal: the problem of funding Jewish education, especially day schools, so as not to deny such schooling to those who cannot meet the high cost (“The Middle Class Squeeze”).

What I am proposing now is that the collective Orthodox community take the huge profits from kashrut in which we are all consumers, and feed that money back into education. It happens that the majority of all-day schools are Orthodox and it would behoove the Orthodox community to investigate what is happening with all the enormous profits in the kashrut industry which they have arrogated unto themselves and hopefully are reporting every penny to the IRS.

As to misconduct, which always seems to happen in huge human endeavors, let the Jewish community not be guilty of suppressing information and sheltering misconduct in the religious establishment as some other great religious establishments are doing.

There, Rob Eshman, I have taken off both gloves, and I hope that from the pivotal position you have in L.A. Jewry’s primary information source you will succeed where I have not in elevating the sacred regulation of kashrut to what it should be, namely: to guarantee to all Jewish children whose families devoutly wish to provide them with a high quality, deeply Jewish-rooted education, the opportunity to receive it at our hands.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman
Rabbi Emeritus
Temple Beth Am

It seems that “kosher” has devolved into a mere technicality, a trend which needs to be reversed. Jewish law forbids cruelty to animals, as they are part of God’s creation. We now know that the OU heksher does not signify a cruelty-free slaughter. We are forced to awaken from our slumber of ignorance and indifference.

We must follow the lead of Whole Foods and not buy Rubashkin’s products. (There are other kosher brands available.) And we must do this until kosher means kosher once again.

Sue Roth
Los Angeles

Bravo to editor-in-chief Rob Eshman for bringing up the controversial subject of meat labeled “kosher” but which derives from animals treated inhumanely in plants where workers are exploited. There is significant room for improvement in another segment of the kosher industry, as well — prepared foods. I have long struggled to feed my children healthy kosher food. It’s not easy! There is not one brand of kosher chicken broth that doesn’t contain MSG. The one brand of kosher powdered chicken broth without MSG contains partially hydrogenated oils, also known as “transfats,” which are now universally understood to be the most unhealthy fat of all and which have recently been cut out of the recipes from most major brands of baked goods. Almost every “kosher for Passover” cake, brownie or cookie mix available in the supermarkets and kosher markets I shopped in this year also contained transfats.

Feeding our Jewish children healthy kosher food we can feel good about shouldn’t be such a struggle. How about it, Maneshevitz and Streits? Why not remove the unhealthful additives and sell us foods that are truly “kosher”?

Stephanie Gold
Los Angeles

Welcoming Converts
The non-Jewish spouses of Jews often feel unwelcome in Jewish circles. Synagogues ostracize them. Rabbis ignore them. Families insult them. Spouses call them by ugly names. It’s no wonder that they don’t explore the possibility of becoming Jewish.

If Jews are proud of our Jewish tradition, then we should practice our values of generosity, kindness, warmth and inclusiveness with the non-Jews who are close to our community. Why drive pro-Jewish partners away?

I appreciated The Journal’s cover story on June 2 about “Court Seeks to Ease Way for Conversions.” It demonstrates a concrete way in which a unique transdenominational beit din is genuinely welcoming candidates for conversion into the total Jewish community. This community beit din will not embarrass or harass the non-Jews who seek to join the Jewish people.

Ninety Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis are associated with the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din (www.scbetdin.us). People can rely upon these rabbis to provide sensitive and constructive paths into conversion.

Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein
Secretary
Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California

The Journal’s articles on conversion were excellent. During my years of experience with converts to Judaism, I have discovered the reason that so many converts backslide or no longer show the interest in Judaism they once had is because of the indifference and apathy their Jewish spouses have toward Judaism and its traditions. When one converts to Judaism, he or she is excited to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays, go to synagogue weekly and keep some level of kosher observance. Unfortunately, after the conversion has taken place, the Jewish spouse thinks their former non-Jewish partner has now become “too Jewish” and discourages observance so that the convert’s enthusiasm for Judaism is dampened.

In our program, we encourage the Jewish partner to take our class with the potential convert, but many times the Jewish partner for various reasons refuses to enroll. However, when the Jewish and non-Jewish partners take our class together, they get closer, more knowledgeable and observant of Judaism. At the end of our program we have not only converted the non-Jew to Judaism, but also the Jewish partner, as well.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg
Director and Instructor
Judith and Louis Miller
Introduction to Judaism Program
University of Judaism

As a convert to Judaism, I was reassured to read your series of articles on those like me who chose to become Jews (“Did It Stick?” June 2). A lapsed Catholic with many Jewish friends growing up on Long Island, early on I was attracted to the ethics and worldly focus of Judaism. Following a course of study at Temple Emanuel in New York City, I converted in 1967 and my first wife and I raised our three children in the Jewish tradition.

In 1992, on the eve of her bat mitzvah, my youngest daughter asked if I would be bar mitzvahed with her. That glorious day came to pass at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, with Rabbi Harvey Fields observing that in the 130 year history of the temple, there was no record of a father and daughter having a b’nai mitzvah. At the party afterward, when Tessa and I greeted everyone, I said that I had checked around the room and I was the only person who had had a First Holy Communion and a bar mitzvah.

In my life in Los Angeles with my wife Wendy, inspired by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at UCLA and through my work with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, enriched by interfaith activities, Judaism has strengthened and complemented my struggle for civil liberties, human rights, peace and justice.

Stephen F Rohde
Los Angeles

Middle-Class Squeeze
Are education tax credits (let alone publicly funded school vouchers) so politically anathema to the Jewish community that they escape mention in a 3,000 word article subtitled “What Can Be Done to Make Jewish Day Schools More Affordable?” (June 9)?

Tax credit schemes avoid elements typically cited as objectionable by opponents of voucher plans. No money is conveyed by the government to private schools, either directly or indirectly. Since every dollar allocated to qualifying recipients is the product of a voluntary contribution, it cannot be argued that “my tax dollars are underwriting the operation of schools whose purposes I do not support.” And as for those who argue that tax credits divert scarce resources from public education, cannot the same be said of Jewish day school enrollment?

If supporting and augmenting enrollment in our Jewish day schools is regarded as a fitting community priority, on what grounds are education tax credits viewed as treif?

Dr. Ron Reynolds
Van Nuys

Each year, the Jewish community bemoans the high cost of a day school education, while touting its value with subjective quotes such as “Population studies have shown that day school alumni are more likely to retain a lifelong affiliation rate with Judaism and to educate their own kids Jewishly.” Objective statistics somehow are never included to support those claims.

In fact, commitment to Judaism stems from the home, not the school. If it appears that day school graduates are more dedicated, the likelihood is that they come from homes where Jewish values and observance are a priority. Those same graduates, had they attended supplemental schools, would be just as likely to become stalwart adult members of the Jewish community, without having impoverished their families in the process.

Despite the wonderful work being done by people like Miriam Prum-Hess, there will never be enough money to enable the vast majority of middle class families to utilize day schools. That’s because there are other very worthy causes, such as caring for the elderly, indigents, immigrants and the Land of Israel, that also deserve additional funding.

Unlike those other causes though, there is a day school alternative∑ the supplemental school. Supplemental schools are far more affordable, can usually provide financial assistance, and offer classes for kindergarten through 12th grade. Synagogues generally provide the kindergarten through seventh grade components, while community schools such as the Los Angeles Hebrew High School (LAAHS), offer classes for students in eighth through 12th grade. On June 12, LAHHS will graduate 68 students from its five-year program. This is its 55th graduating class.

Regretfully, during the past decade, many synagogues have downsized their Hebrew school programs from three days per week to two days or less, deeming them unattractive to committed families. Returning those programs back to their initial stature will provide middle-class families with a viable alternative that won‚t drive them to the poor house.

The Jewish community must refocus its efforts and resources to bolster supplemental education. Synagogues must revisit the curricula of their schools to assure that their students receive a rigorous and robust Jewish education. Finally, the Bureau of Jewish Education must raise its standards for accreditation of supplemental schools. Once synagogue-based Hebrew schools provide the level of Jewish education that they did in their glory days, middle-class families will no longer find it necessary to make great financial sacrifices when raising children, and a quality Jewish education will be accessible for all.

Leonard M. Solomon
Trustee
Los Angeles Hebrew High School

UCLA Palestine Week
As a student leader at UCLA, I was disappointed with the coverage of the recent campus anti-Zionism Awareness week (“UCLA Jews, Muslims Alter Protest Tactics” June 2). Unfortunately, the article implied that Jewish and Muslim students were the only major campus groups involved in these events and avoided discussion of the recent positive steps toward dialogue between our respective communities.

June 2, at noon, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) along with Hillel and other student communities of faith, assembled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for distribution to the homeless on skid row. That evening, members of MSA joined our community at Hillel for Shabbat Shavuot featuring a discussion with Dr. Nayer Ali on Islam. On June 5, MSA and the UCLA Jewish Student Union (JSU) broke bread together at an event marking the first time kosher/halal meals have been available to dormitory residents at UCLA, due to the successful year-long campaign organized by leadership of both JSU and MSA.

For the alarmists of our community, there exists a fervently anti-Zionist and often anti-Semitic campus community more numerous and less nuanced than our Muslim cousins. Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a sponsor of UCLA’s anti-Zionism week, and other Mexican-American empowerment groups see the Israel/Palestinian conflict as white male oppressors asserting their dominance over women and children of color and draw parallels between the occupation of Palestine and the occupation of Aztlán (Southwestern U.S. ceded after the Mexican-American War). Chicana/o students tend to invoke charges of deicide grounded in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic tradition and have been more vocally anti-Semitic, claiming the “Jews are the criminals” responsible for the plight of immigrant communities at a rally in April, for example.

We, as the Los Angeles Jewish community, have an obligation to promote education and dialogue efforts reaching the Chicana/o community and other communities of color who tend to have less nuance and far more misconceptions about Jews and Israel than members of the Arab and Muslim communities.

Andy Green
President Emeritus
Hillel at UCLA (2005-2006)

The Finkelstein Syndrome
Roz Rothstein’s article on the anti-Semitic Jew, [Norman] Finkelstein , highlights a major lapse in common knowledge abou Jewish history (“Beware the Finklestein Syndrome,” June 9). While every effort is made to inform the world about the Holocaust, very little information is disseminated about the history of lies and hate against the Jews, or its relationship to the Holocaust.( I have seen history books that devote two pages to Anne Frank, but fail to mention that Jews were patriotic Germans and no threat to Germany)

Theobald of Cambridge, a 12th century apostate to Catholicism, created the “blood libel” which has lasted to this day and caused thousands of Jewish deaths. If there was general awareness of the history of hatred against the Jews, then when people hear a Finkelstein, they can wonder, is he a whistleblower or a modern day Theobald? Those who wish to spread vicious lies against Jews today, do not convert to another religion; their venom is more credible when they remain Jews, especially if they can claim to be from a family of survivors .

Ronnie Lampert
Los Angles

Polish Holocaust
I note the reference in the article on the academic achievements of young Kenny Gotlieb that he is a grandson of a survivor of the “Polish Holocaust” (“Seniors’ Deeds Pave Path for Future,” June 9). Excuse me, but can someone explain to me what is a “Polish Holocaust?”?Is this suggesting that the majority of Holocaust victims were Poles? Or is it supposed to imply that the Holocaust was created by Poles? Surely neither of these. Is it supposed to mean that the Holocaust largely took place in Poland occupied by Nazi Germany? If so, then please say so. I am afraid that this constant coupling of the word “Holocaust” with the word “Poland” makes the young people of today forget that the author of the Holocaust was Nazi Germany whose armies conquered most of Europe and imposed the genocide of the Jews throughout the continent. So please call it the Nazi Holocaust or the European Holocaust, or best of all, just “The Holocaust” (for there was only one) and not “Polish Holocaust.”

Wiktor Moszczynski
Via e-mail

Da Vinci Code
Enjoyed your articles of the DaVinci Code, but only the first three gospels of the New Testament (Mathew, Mark and Luke) are synoptic gospels. They are synoptic because they are similar to each other and different from the writings of the fourth gospel of John.

Brett Thompson
Via e-mail

Correction
In “Seniors’ Deeds Pave Path for Future,” (June 9) Ruben Zweiban was sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys).

 

Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that requires a proactive approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Tis Never the Season for Chrismukkah


On Dec. 25, Rod Shapiro and Pat Wong will exchange Christmas and Chanukah gifts spread under a seven-foot Christmas tree. They will listen to carols sung by Johnny Mathis and Chanukah songs by the Klezmatics.

In the evening, this interfaith couple in their mid-50s, married two years, will light the menorah and invite friends to stop by their Long Beach home.

Welcome to Chrismukkah 2005, a holiday that offers greeting cards that feature a reindeer with menorah antlers and recipes for Gefilte Goose and Kris Kringle Kugel in “The Merry Mish Mash Holiday Cookbook.” Christmas tree ornaments decorated with Stars of David abound, as well as a children’s book called, “Blintzes for Blitzen.”

For Shapiro, who describes himself as culturally Jewish, Chrismukkah is a light-hearted solution to the familial conflicts that interfaith couples often face. “Personally, I think that more and more people should embrace their similarities and tolerate their differences, and Chrismukkah is a holiday that allows couples to do that,” he said.

But for others, who won’t be wishing their interfaith family and friends a Merry Mazel Tov, Chrismukkah is a superficial and commercial pseudo-holiday that presents multiple problems. And it’s compounded this year by Chanukah and Christmas coinciding on the same day, an every-19-year occurrence.

In fact, Chrismukkah created enough of a stir last year that the independent Catholic League and the New York Board of Rabbis issued a joint statement condemning it as shameful plagiarism and an insult to both Christians and Jews. The two groups will likely issue another statement this year.

“The criticism still stands,” said the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik. “I just feel it’s inappropriate to take two very distinct holidays that belong to two different faith groups and to synthesize them into one. It doesn’t respect the integrity of either one.”

And while the Board of Rabbis of Southern California will not be putting out a similar statement, Executive Vice President Mark Diamond said, “In the strongest possible terms, we would urge families and individuals not to participate in and not to sponsor these Chrismukkah festivities.”

Chrismukkah first jumped into public consciousness in a episode of the Fox TV show, “The OC,” on Dec. 3, 2003, where the main character, Seth Cohen, the son of a Jewish father and Protestant mother, decided that interfaith families should no longer have to choose between Christmas and Chanukah.

“I created the greatest superholiday known to mankind, drawing on the best that Judaism and Christianity have to offer,” he declared.

And while Chrismukkah may not yet have lived up to Cohen’s prime-time expectations, this hybrid celebration was featured for the third time on “The OC” on Dec. 15, in an episode titled, “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah.”

So is Chrismukkah nothing more than a made-for-TV, faddish, one-size-fits-all holiday that will fade from memory faster than Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle-Me-Elmo? Or is it a more sinister creation that threatens to dilute the religious significance of two distinct holidays even further, trivializing them and confounding children’s sense of religious identity?

This melding and mingling of customs is nothing new. Historians trace it back to the Jewish Christians who lived in the first century C.E. And interfaith couples for ages have been quietly celebrating both holidays. Weinukkah, for example, the German celebration of both Christmas, or Weihnachten, and Chanukah, is the subject of a current exhibit in the Jewish Museum of Berlin through Jan. 29.

Perhaps out of a drive for assimilation, perhaps a desire not to be deprived of a lovely tradition, albeit not their own, generations of Jews, particularly German Jews, in this country have put up Christmas trees in their homes and called them Chanukah bushes.

Meanwhile, the number of interfaith families has continued to increase. The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 counts 5.2 million Jews in the United States, with 47 percent of those, since 1996, marrying non-Jewish spouses.

And while estimates of the total number of interfaith couples widely vary, sociologist Bruce Phillips, professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, calculates the number at 624,000.

For these families, Edmund Case, president and publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, a nonprofit online resource for interfaith families, opposes combining elements of the two holidays.

His organization advocates raising the children of interfaith families as Jews, but he sees no problem in their participating in Christmas celebrations. “It doesn’t mean the kids won’t be Jewish; it doesn’t mean they’re rejecting Judaism,” he said.

In the Second Annual December Dilemma Survey sponsored by InterfaithFamily.com, two-thirds of the almost 400 self-selected respondents indicated that they planned to keep holiday celebrations separate. Additionally, 78 percent thought Chrismukkah a bad idea, while only 6 percent applauded the concept.

The Opper family of North Easton, Mass., hosts an annual Chanukah party, with latkes, cookies and games of dreidel. They also hold a separate Christmas celebration that includes such family traditions as lighting the tree, drinking hot chocolate and egg nog and making a gingerbread house.

“You lose the tradition and history of both of them trying to make a Chanukah bush out of a Christmas tree,” said Cheryl Opper, a practicing Protestant who, along with her husband, Neal, is raising their daughter Jewish.

And for 78 percent of the families responding to the InterfaithFamily.com survey, the Christmas celebrations are more secular than religious. Betty Bildner, who is Jewish, and John Power, a nonpracticing Catholic, have raised their three children Jewish, a decision made before they were married.

The Encino family celebrates Chanukah, but they also have a tree and a separate Christmas observance. For them, “Christmas is about giving and sharing and about getting together as a family,” Bildner said.

And to her husband, it’s a reminder of one of the happiest days of his childhood.

But for many families the distinctions are more blurry, and decisions regarding religious upbringing are often ignored until a child enters the picture. This was certainly the case for Ron Gompertz.

Gompertz, who describes himself as “a typical bar mitzvah boy from New York City,” is the son of Holocaust survivors but grew up with a Chanukah bush in the house. His wife, Michelle, the daughter of a Church of Christ minister, identifies more with Buddhism and atheism than anything. But it wasn’t until two and a half years ago, when their daughter, Minna, was born, that Gompertz, now 52, and his wife started thinking about religious issues.

As a result, the family moved to Bozeman, Mont., where in 2004 Gompertz created and launched Chrismukkah Web site (www.chrismukkah.com), which he first conceptualized as a way to make light of his own intermarriage.

The Web site, the subject of a current trademark conflict with Warner Bros., which produces “The OC,” serves as an online store to sell Chrismukkah cards and merchandise. It’s also a forum to publish Gompertz’ reflections on the subject, which range from whimsical to subversive, questioning the role of religion and God in the world.

“We celebrate Christmas and Chanukah separately, but laid over that is this metaphorical notion of Chrismukkah. We think about peace, love and brotherhood. It’s an attempt to reconcile rather than compete,” he said.

That concept works for Vanessa Hernandez and her husband, Joe Nierenberg, who are raising their children, 10 and 7, both Catholic and Jewish and who decorate their Oakland home with elements of both holidays. Stockings, for example, hang from a mantle that displays a menorah and dreidels.

“Chrismukkah is a trendy word and we don’t use it, but we definitely intermingle,” she said. “We do it out of respect for each other and being true to who we are.”

Gompertz’ rabbi, Allen Secher of Temple Shalom in Bozeman, supports such efforts. He sees no problem in commingling the holidays as long as the celebration doesn’t become obscene, such as people doing the hora around a Christmas tree.

But most rabbis disapprove.

“You cannot mix hot cross buns with latkes,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He is especially concerned with the misappropriation and misunderstanding of the holiday symbols, such as the evergreen tree, which represents the eternity of Jesus.

And it’s not only the rabbis who are troubled. The Rev. Paul Keenan, director of radio ministry for the Archdiocese of New York, said, “My real desire in all of this is to see Jews celebrate their holiday of Chanukah in as full and rich a spiritual way as they can and to be proud of that without feeling a need to adopt ours.”

Commercially, Chrismukkah might be gaining some ground. Gompertz reported that sales on his Web site are running about double of last year’s. He expects to sell about 75,000 Chrismukkah cards, with “Good Cheer With a Schmear,” a picture of four bagels with cream cheese, this year’s top seller. Still, “It’s a very small microgarage business,” he admitted.

And Elise Okrend, creator of MixedBlessing interfaith and multicultural cards, a retail and Internet business based in Raleigh, N.C., estimates sales of more than 350,000 cards this year, up from about 12,000 when she and her husband, Philip, founded the company about 15 years ago.

But spiritually, Chrismukkah remains a mystery.

“Why have any mishmash?” asked Schulweis, wondering what is drawing people, even in small numbers, to this celebration or concept, however misguided and misinformed.

“They’re looking for something, but they’re totally ignorant,” he mused.

Gompertz expressed surprise at last year’s vehement anti-Chrismukkah backlash by talk-show radio hosts and Jewish organizations.

“I’m a Jew and I’m a good Jew,” he professed.

Perhaps that’s why he’s been seriously researching the history of his European relatives. And perhaps that’s also why, during the past year, he and his wife made the decision to raise their daughter as a Jew.

Maybe that’s the real meaning — and miracle — of Chrismukkah.

December Dilemma: Distorting Chanukah


 

At Temple Beth Hillel, Mark Singer teaches his third-grade Hebrew school class about Chanukah using all the usual props: he lights a menorah, spins a dreidel and throws a doughnut and latke party.

However, considering that anywhere from 25 to 100 percent of his students come from mixed marriages, one thing he does not emphasize too strongly is that the real message of the Maccabean victory is a staunchly anti-assimilationist one. Instead, Singer adamantly informs his class that Chanukah celebrations should not be blended with celebrations of that other holiday of the same season.

“I think that [Chanukah bushes, etc.] demeans both holidays and detracts from both holidays,” said Singer, who has been teaching Hebrew school for 35 years.

Welcome to Chanukah and the December Dilemma. In Hebrew schools all over Los Angeles — and in temple discussion groups for intermarrieds on how to survive the holiday season — Chanukah is taught as a ritually dense Jewish substitute for Christmas that needs to elbow its way into some December shelf space, rather than a holiday that commemorates a group of Jews fighting against the forces of Hellenistic secularism to remain an insular, Torah-committed community.

It is ironic that Chanukah and its accompanying symbols — the menorah, dreidel and latke — are the most recognizable Jewish icons in America today, yet the holiday’s meaning is distorted by nuance to accommodate an audience where secularism is de rigueur.

It is not that Chanukah is denuded of its religious significance — if anything, in these Hebrew schools, Chanukah is taught as a religious holiday where practice and ritual are of paramount importance, but the deeper meaning of the holiday, while not censored, is glossed over.

“We teach how to observe the holiday, and we teach about the stories and the song, and the other issues [of anti-assimilation] are separate from that,” said Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue, who runs a Coffee and Conversation group for interfaith families and families where the partners have different degrees of observance. “Sometimes those issues come up, but they are best dealt with in a one-on-one private moment, because no family situation is exactly like any other.”

“My impression is that the anti-assimilation message has been ‘translated’ into a contemporary American message,” said Dr. David Ackerman, director of educational services for the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. “Certainly, the [non-Orthodox] movements have clearly staked out a position that says you can be Jewish, participate in a full, religious and ritual life and still enjoy the benefits of a modern American identity.”

“I think schools in which there are high percentages of intermarriage focus on the importance of heritage, while acknowledging — even if doing so tacitly — the possibility of dual cultural membership [American and Jewish],” Ackerman continued. “While it sort of sidesteps the issue of a household with two religious faiths, it’s a way to talk about Chanukah that can be ‘heard’ by constituents.”

Unlike other Jewish holidays, such as Sukkot, Pesach or Shavuot for which there is no non-Jewish counterpart, Chanukah now has to acknowledge its splashier Christian contemporary.

“We make a big distinction between Christmas and Chanukah, and we suggest to our families that Chanukah is for Jews and Christmas is for Christians,” said Rabbi Bruce Raff, education director at Temple Judea, which has 1,100 children in its Hebrew school.

Thus, in many of the schools and the discussion groups for intermarried couples, the question becomes how can we celebrate Chanukah in a society where Christmas prevails.

Arlene Chernow, regional director of outreach and synagogue community for the Union of Reform Judaism, runs discussion groups with interfaith families on navigating the December Dilemma. Chernow said she advises people on where they can purchase Chanukah cookie cutters so that they can transfer their Christmas cookie recipe into Chanukah cookies. She also helps them battle their way through the thorny question of whether to wrap presents in Christmas or Chanukah wrapping paper.

“I suggest that the most important thing is that if you want grandparents to give presents in Chanukah paper, then it is really important to explain to the grandparents that this is what you would like,” Chernow said. “They need to talk to their parents and their partner’s parents and work it out so that nobody is offended, and figure it out so that it doesn’t become an issue. I don’t want wrapping presents to become hurtful.”

Chernow said that she counsels people on how to use Chanukah to create “warm, happy, family time.”

“People feel inadequate, because they don’t know what to do, and they don’t know the story themselves,” Chernow said. “I think the way to help parents make it meaningful is to let them know how to celebrate, how to play dreidl, how to light the menorah. I don’t think the idea [of anti-assimilation] really becomes an issue.”

A recently released survey conducted by Interfaithfamily.com shows that the emphasis on ritual could be paying off. In a survey of 199 interfaith families, 99 percent of them lit the menorah in their home, whereas only 53 percent had a decorated Christmas tree. In addition, approximately 65 percent of the respondents said their Chanukah celebrations were more religious than secular, whereas 75 percent said their Christmas celebrations were more secular than religious.

But the point of Chanukah is that Jews should not be living in a society where there is a dilemma — in other words, Chanukah is about being so sure about one’s heritage that the other holiday is just a green blip on the horizon and not a force to be reckoned with.

“There are certain contradictions that aren’t going to pan out,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Project Next Step director. “I don’t think people should stop trying, and anything that leads to positive effect to children in Judaism is going to pay off, but there comes a point where you have so changed the essential message of Chanukah that it no longer resembles the original thing. It does disturb me quite a bit that the price we have paid in America of trying to popularize Chanukah comes at the cost of its original message.”

 

Tips to Engage Your Family in the New Year


"Dad, I have my first big test in biology next Thursday," Sandy explained.

"Next Thursday?"

"Yep."

"Sorry, honey, you are going to have to miss it. Next Thursday is Rosh Hashanah and I want you to go to services with me."

"Dad, I can’t miss the test. Mrs. Smith said that the only excuse was a death in the family or our own death — and I think she meant it, literally."

"No, you will go to services , end of discussion."

Sandy was very unhappy with her father’s position. Her father was Jewish, but he hardly stepped foot in the synagogue all year long. Her mother was a Seventh Day Adventist. She didn’t have a problem with skipping Rosh Hashanah services. And both of Sandy’s parents stressed the importance of school. Unlike her friends, she could never take a "personal" day off. Now that she wanted to be in school, her dad said no.

Sandy called asking for my support. She wanted me to call her dad and tell him to let her go to class on Thursday. She realized that it was strange asking a rabbi to persuade a Jew to let his daughter miss services, but Sandy was convinced there was morality in going to school and hypocrisy in going to services.

The blessings of interfaith families are many. However, when families are not clear about their faith direction, when parents struggle not just with their spouse’s faith but with their own, the results may be less than blessed. The question Sandy was trying to ask was, "How do interfaith families deal with the High Holidays?" It is an important — and, at times, difficult — question to answer.

The High Holidays are the central communal worship experience for Jews. For centuries, these days have drawn disparate Jewish families to the synagogue to recite prayers acknowledging our failures and searching how we might become better and more complete Jews and human beings. The essential themes of the High Holidays are repentance and renewal.

So what do interfaith families do with these High Holidays?

There are no simple answers. Each family will swim in interfaith waters with their own unique strokes. All I can offer are some simple coaching tips to make the swim easier and more enjoyable.

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• High Holidays are family events. Share in an erev Rosh Hashanah dinner before services. Have a family break-the-fast after Yom Kippur. Invite all members of the family, regardless of their individual faiths, to help create family memories, just like we do at Thanksgiving.

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• Attend High Holiday services as a family. Just because a family member is of another faith, the family is stronger when it celebrates together. If your synagogue permits, invite those members of your extended family who practice other faiths to join you at some of the High Holiday services. This will help them understand the history and importance that our Jewish traditions hold. (Of course, check with your synagogue first, to make sure you can get enough tickets for these family members. Also, selecting one of the shorter segments of the service for them to attend would probably be wise.)

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• As a family, take this season as an opportunity to do some soul-searching. Have a family meeting and share your successes and disappointments during the past (Jewish) year. Discuss what each family member can commit to doing that will help the whole family to grow. Make a family covenant, describing what you promise to one another. It can be a simple piece of paper or an elaborate family art project.

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• Rosh Hashanah is a wonderful time to plan out the family year — what vacations will be taken, what allowances will be given out, what curfews, house rules or chores will be expected of each family member. It is a way of acknowledging the start of a new year for your family.

There are dozens of wonderful ways to incorporate the High Holidays into an interfaith family. The key is to focus on making Judaism a part of one’s everyday life. Sandy’s struggle existed because Judaism was being imposed, as a foreign object.

My response to Sandy?

I asked her if she thought of herself as Jewish. She paused. Then she said, "No one has ever asked me that question before. I know I am not Christian. I don’t believe in Christian doctrine. I am not sure if I’m Jewish. Why?"

I explained to Sandy that if she felt she was Jewish, she should be at services for Rosh Hashanah, that it was central to her identity as a member of a community. However, if she rejected being Jewish, I would be happy to speak with her father. Sandy said she would think it over and let me know.

I didn’t hear from Sandy. Instead, at the end of Rosh Hashanah services, she approached me, smiling. Her test had been delayed a day, at her request. Then she said, "If I am going to be Jewish, I probably should learn something. Is there another class I can take?"

Keep Grandparents’ Legacy Alive


What is our role in the interfaith family unit? We are not just the grandparents; we are the Jewish grandparents. Their other grandparents are Christian, Muslim, Hindu or of another faith. Even when grandchildren are not raised within any particular faith, this is how we will be distinguished. Why? Because interfaith children are part of two-family cultures; therefore identifying us as such, is necessary.

We must begin to realize that one of the richest gifts we can give to our families is who we are. As their Jewish grandparents, we have the opportunity to impart our rich heritage to our grandchildren.

Why is it important to provide this legacy about your roots to your grandchildren? Because your roots are their roots. Their sense of identity will develop from a greater knowledge of their ancestors. Sharing your family information can help them understand their connection to their history, giving them something to draw on when making decisions for themselves as they mature. As the Jewish grandparents, we can also help our grandchildren learn and enjoy the feeling of Yiddishkayt, so much a part of our culture, by sharing traditions that have endured for more than 5,000 years. We do not know what spiritual choice they will make in the future, but we can enrich their lives by imparting our traditions while we are still here. Of course, do so only with the permission of their parents, to insure that you are not disrespectful of their own spiritual choices.

Here are some ideas to personalize your family history for your grandchildren:

1. Make a written family tree. Identify each person with his or her Hebrew name (if possible).

2. Put family photos into albums, with names and dates (if available). Enlist grandchildren to help out.

3. Write down your memories (childhood experiences of holidays, stories of raising your children, etc.) in a book for your grandchildren.

4. Send letters to grandchildren far away. Children love receiving mail. If they are nearby, work on holiday projects together.

5. Incorporate Yiddish words and expressions into conversations. Find Yiddish words that have crept into the English language and use them. Ask grandchildren for their meanings. They’ll love it!

6. Since food is such an important part of Jewish roots, invite family to holiday celebrations, or offer to come to their homes to help prepare for the holidays. Cooking specific holiday foods together will not only give them time with you, but they’ll be actively participating in a Jewish tradition as well, leaving an imprint on their memories that can never be erased!

7. Create a special recipe book of your own holiday foods. It’s one thing to say my mother made these great dishes, another to have recipes to recreate them for their own families.

8. Send treats for specific holidays, such as hamantaschen for Purim, to families far away. Include the recipes with a little history about their connection to the holiday.

9. Make a video history of family holidays. Conduct video interviews with older family members, asking questions that will stimulate their memories, such as about holidays, emigrating history, etc.

10. Read and tape holiday stories for younger grandchildren. Watch movies together with older grandchildren, such as “Crossing Delancey,” “Hester Street,” “Schindler’s List” and others. (Ask parents’ permission first, of course.) This will give you the opportunity to answer their questions.

Who knows, they may love these ideas so much that they, too, may want to continue these traditions with their own families for generations to come. It’s worth the effort!

Mixed-Marriage Study Defies Logic


Since the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) confirmed the continuing high rate of intermarriage, it’s been quiet on the "outreach"vs. "in-reach" front. The Jewish In-Marriage Initiative is slowly becoming active.

No new money has been added to the paltry funding the Jewish community devotes to outreach to the intermarried. As policy advocates search for support for their positions among a dearth of social science, Sylvia Barack Fishman’s new study, "Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage," takes on inordinate significance.

Fishman’s main conclusions are based on a very limited sample: interviews of 43 mixed-married couples who said they were raising all of their children as Jews, and four focus groups, each with perhaps eight children of intermarried parents.

Any qualitative study raises interpretative issues. Which of the participants’ behaviors and understandings does the observer choose to emphasize or even mention? Although Fishman said that the personal stories of her subjects, along with her analysis, "now become texts themselves for a broader discussion," only glimpses and excerpts, not the underlying interview transcripts, are available for interpretation by others.

"Double or Nothing" is replete with comments suggesting that Fishman is not a neutral observer: At the lowest point, she even implies that outreach advocates are "Christianizing."

In a comparable debate, the Boston Globe recently reported that proponents of gay marriage were criticizing, as methodologically flawed and politically biased, social science research that purported to reveal significant differences between children raised in opposite-sex and same-sex couples.

My main concern is Fishman’s assertion that the vast majority of mixed-married families who say they are raising their children as Jews "incorporate Christian holiday festivities" into their lives, which makes them "religiously syncretic" — combining Judaism and Christianity — such that Jewish identity is not transmitted to their children, even though they say that these festivities have no religious significance to them.

This central conclusion is not supported by the research itself, is inconsistent with other available evidence and provides a wholly inadequate basis for the very dangerous policies it will be used to justify.

Twice, Fishman suggests that the participation of mixed-married families in Christian holiday festivities amounts to an affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. She equates having Christmas trees and Easter eggs in the home to "bringing the ideas [and] beliefs of the Christian church into Jewish households."

This defies logic. When mixed-married couples explicitly deny that their conduct has religious significance, as Fishman acknowledges that at least some of her subjects did "emphatically," and when their children say they experience these holidays in a secular, commercial, cultural, nonreligious way, how can their behavior amount to an affirmation of a religious belief?

Fishman’s conclusion is inconsistent with other available information. In liberal American Jewish communities, it is hard to miss mixed-married families whose behaviors look as — if not more — "Jewish" than the average Jew’s, with the added component of nonreligious Christmas and Easter celebrations. It is equally hard to miss the many young adult children of such families who strongly identify as Jewish.

Last year the InterfaithFamily.Com Network’s essay contest, "We’re Interfaith Families Connecting With Jewish Life," attracted 135 personal statements from such individuals. While contest entrants are not a representative sample, the quantity and consistency of their statements — all of which are publicly available for observers to draw their own conclusions — suggest a positive theory that mixed-married families’ participation in Christian holidays need not compromise the Jewish identity of their children.

Fishman clearly has moved beyond the traditional equation that Christmas is not Jewish, so anyone who has anything to do with Christmas is not Jewish. She recognizes the possibility that, short of conversion, a mixed-married family can be "unambiguously Jewish" — if, in her view, their participation in Christian holidays takes place only outside their own home and is accompanied with explicit statements that the holidays are the relatives’ and not "ours."

While that is an excellent approach for mixed-married families to take, the boundary of acceptable conduct could be drawn more broadly to include families who say that their participation, whether in their own home or not, does not have religious significance.

This is a high-stakes disagreement. My fear is that we will now hear Jewish leaders saying that the "latest research" supports two destructive policies: That mixed-married couples who are trying to raise their children as Jews shouldn’t bother, because they won’t succeed, and the Jewish community shouldn’t waste resources on outreach to mixed-married families, because the vast majority are not "really" raising their children as Jews.

My hope is that any responsible Jewish leader would insist on conclusive social science research on a scale far beyond "Double or Nothing" before writing off the new families of the half of all young Jews who are intermarrying, thereby alienating their Jewish parents and relatives as well.

Instead of arguing about whether mixed-married families raising their children as Jews should see a Christmas tree in their own home or only in the home of relatives, rejecting the former but not the latter, everyone’s focus should be on increasing the Jewish engagement of all liberal Jews — including those in interfaith relationships.

The real question about the transmission of Jewish identity in mixed-married families is not what they do around Christian holidays, but what they do the rest of the year. As one contest entrant said:

"I am not worried that the sight of Santa will turn [my daughter] into an instant Christian. I have faith in the power of Judaism as a religion and as a way of life. Assimilation happens because what is outside, over there, looks better than what is inside. You don’t guard against it by building a higher wall between you and the rest of the world. What you do is make sure the life you have is irresistibly worth leading."


Edmund Case is publisher of

Your Letters


Schindler vs. Mel

It was extremely gratifying to read the editorials on the movie “Schindler’s List” in this week’s issue (“Schindler’s Impact” and “Celebrating 10 Years of ‘Schindler’s List,'” March 12). I was especially impressed by Tom Teicholz’s experiences in the Ukraine, and the tearful reactions of some who had just seen the movie. Considering the degree of anti-Semitism in that part of Europe, it was especially encouraging.

Now we have Mel Gibson and his “The Passion of the Christ.” I wonder what people will be saying about it 10 years from now. I especially wonder if much of the understanding and positive effects of “Schindler” will be undone by the “Passion.” What will be the effect on young people who saw the latter film?

It was Gibson’s right to make his movie as he saw fit. It was also his responsibility to think to what consequences may have resulted from his work. Steven Spielberg’s message was one of understanding. Gibson’s message could well be interpreted as one of hate. Only time will tell which message is the stronger. If history proves to be the example, we already know the answer.

Elliott M. Brumer, North Hills

‘The Passion’

I am Jewish and I went to see Mel Gibson’s movie that has made some Jews (who have not seen it) nervous, “The Passion of the Christ.” If Gibson were Jewish, some people would be describing this movie as a “pro-Jewish propaganda.” This movie is definitely not anti-Semitic. This movie is good for Jewish-Christian relations. Jews should be its biggest supporters.

The movie shows the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as the person who made the decision as to what should be done with Jesus, and that his decision was made based on his assessment as to which would be most likely to result in a rebellion, antagonizing Jesus’ Jewish supporters or antagonizing Jesus’ Jewish enemies.

The movie shows a great deal of pain and torture inflicted on Jesus, but by a group of sadistic Roman soldiers under the command of Pontius Pilate.

If enough people see this movie, the claim of group responsibility of Jews will be a historic oddity. Jews who stay away will be maximizing the effects of past anti-Semitism and wasting the potential for a new, positive era in Jewish-Christian relations to arise from this film.

Dan Persoff, Reseda

Culture War

Excellent editorial (“My Culture War,” March 12). Although I am not a Howard Stern fan, and I am a Mel Gibson/”The Passion of the Christ” fan, you do make great points about free speech. Let the audience have selective choice.

However, how does society present a way to allow audiences to make choices/selections of what kind of media entertainment they want to hear or watch without exposing children and teens or others to negative, violent or pornographic material? I ask you and your readers to think about this. Think about inventing ways to control free selection of media choice. Whoever invents this will either be labeled as “Big Brother” or will be even richer than 50 Cent or Howard Stern. My patent application is already in the mail.

Bill Hodges, Santa Clara

The Hague

Reading Rabbi Avi Weiss’ account of the demonstrations at The Hague regarding the wall Israel is building should give all of us concern (“Bearing Witness at The Hague,” March 5). Again, as it is often the case these days, we are on the defensive.

We are on the defensive because we are distorting the facts. The Arab complaint against us is not that we are building a wall! The complaint in front of the court is that we are taking about 17 percent (estimates vary) of West Bank territory as we build such a wall.

Why can’t we build the wall along the Green Line? [Benjamin] Netanyahu and others claim that it’s not defensible. But the Green Line was defensible from 1948 until 1967! Are we weaker militarily then we were in 1948?

Irwin Grossman, Los Angeles

John Kerry

I noticed your article several weeks ago that the support for John Kerry was getting soft and your article about Bush with the Jewish Republican Coalition (“Local Kerry Support Shows Softness,” Feb. 27). I have only one question: When will you have an article about the Jewish Democratic Coalition and Jewish people who are supporting Kerry? It is very important that The Journal attempts to be viewed as balanced and fair. I’m looking forward to it. Thanks!

Marcia Albert, Los Angeles

JCC Shutdown

Thank you for the enlightening articles about the impending closures of the Valley Cities and Silverlake JCCs (“Valley Cities JCC Slated to Shut Down,” March 12).

For many years my family participated in activities at the Westside JCC; we felt we were part of the Jewish community. No more.

Two years ago, I was at a meeting at the Westside JCC when The Jewish Federation assured us that it would continue to support the Westside JCC if the members could raise a certain amount of money by a certain date. They did. But, even so, The Jewish Federation abandoned the Westside JCC.

As a result, my grandchildren identify less and less with the Jewish community. And my family and many friends no longer respond to The Jewish Federation when it appeals for our contributions. Instead, we donate to more worthy charities, such as the Irene Epstein Memorial Scholarship fund that helps financially needy, academically deserving seniors at Fairfax High School go to college.

George Epstein, Los Angeles

Interfaith Couples

In her article “Keeping Jews in the Flock,” (March 5), Loolwa Khazzom argues that interfaith relationships bring Jews closer to the Jewish tradition and therefore one should embrace those couples. She supports her argument claiming that her friend Rebecca, a secular Jew, after marrying Jamal, a devoted Muslim man, began celebrating Shabbat, attending Orthodox services and is moving toward keeping kosher.

Many communities in Los Angeles accept interfaith married couples into their midst. Nevertheless, one cannot impose on communities who wish not to do so without what they see as proper conversion, to surrender their principles in favor of certain individuals. Do communities have to shape their ideologies to those who choose to practice Judaism in a way different from theirs? I think not. Societies or religious communities thrive because they adhere to their principles rather than cater to the individual. It is not a matter of Jewish communities not wanting to accept those who have managed to find love, respect and laughter outside Judaism. But just as interfaith couples wish that their feelings and sensitivities should be respected, they, too, must learn to respect those communities who do not agree with their way of life.

Danny Bental , Tarzana

Health Care

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl is to be commended for trying to lead us to the promised land of universal health-care coverage (“Bill Seeks to Cure Health-Care Plague,” March 12). But just as God and Moses found that the Israelites were too accustomed to Egypt (they complained about being set free to starve in the wilderness), we will have to wait for a new generation for a different system to work. As a medical director of a health plan, I’m sure I represent Pharaoh in this story but the enslaving administrative costs that the senator condemns are necessary to prevent unlimited use of the expensive medications, procedures and hospitalizations.

Just as God waited 40 years for a new generation ready to enter the Promised Land, it may take a new generation of providers willing to adhere to practices that have been shown to be effective and of patients willing to improve their health habits. Even if her estimates of 25 percent to 27 percent of administrative costs are true, it is eclipsed by the 50 percent of estimated health-care costs attributable to lifestyle choices of overeating, smoking, excessive drinking and sedentary activity. Even 40 years of wandering in the desert won’t produce the attitude changes required for Kuehl’s proposal to work.

Dr. Gil Solomon, West Hills

Viva Vashti

I am not a writer or a philosopher, I am a Jew who has read Jane Ulman’s article, “Viva Vashti” (March 5). Was this article a Purim shtick? I hope so. Ulman deliberately missed out the central part of Purim and that is of Esther and Mordechai. The Megillah is called Megilat Esther, because it was through her, through her self-sacrifice and her determination that the Jews were saved.

When I celebrate this most joyous of all holidays with my children, I explain to them the difference between the Jews and the other nations, how Mordechai respected Esther, how he cared for her every move, and in contrast, how Ahasheverosh and Haman and their entourage respected their women (Haman was willing to risk his job to advise Ahashevrosh to kill Vashti).

Ulman has left out the most important part of the Megilah: When Esther speaks up, and how she tells Mordechai that she will risk her life to go to the king uninvited, to defend her people. The Megillah then tells us many times how Esther actually goes to the king and speaks up for her nation.

After reading Ulman’s article, I have concluded two scenarios. One, she is a self-hating Jew that cannot tolerate to see other Jews celebrating their victories, their miracles that God sent onto them. The other scenario is that she fulfills one mitzvah of Purim, and that is to drink until she does not know any difference. I am afraid that both are true.

Zalman Solomon, Los Angeles

Cherish and Respect

In reference to “Cherish and Respect” (Feb. 13) Rabbi Haim Ovadia says that Shabbat is a gift to us from God. Humans need lots of attention and companionship, especially young children. After school our children are shlepped to music or karate or whatever. In the evening the older kids lock themselves in their rooms with the phone to call friends and do homework. As for the younger children, either we’re too busy or too tired for them.

Then there is Shabbat. I don’t cook or shop or talk on the phone. I don’t use the computer and I don’t drive anywhere or watch TV. So, what’s left to do? Happily and importantly I give my children and my grandchildren undivided attention. We play games, take walks or just sit and look at each other and talk. Children have a lot to say and they have many questions.

As simple as that may seem, it is the most precious gift you can give your children. The positive repercussions this causes will effect your children and family for the rest of their lives. Not to mention the happy moments you will derive, which will add up to many unforgettable memories.

Miriam Fiber, Director Maohr Hatorah Preschool Santa Monica

Married to It


Kim and Rob Cavallo had worked out a lot of the tough issues
that confront an interfaith family. But when she asked him to get rid of the
Christmas tree because it would confuse their two children, Rob, who was raised
in an Italian-Scottish Catholic home, pushed back. And he used a strategy he
knew would work.

“We went to the rabbi, and I said I would agree to do
anything the rabbi says,” Rob explained. “And I knew the rabbi would say I
could have the tree. I knew he would take the position that if I couldn’t be
who I truly am, that would destroy the marriage and the family.”

Rob was right.

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, the
Conservative rabbi who had counseled the family in the past and built up a trusting
relationship with them, told the Cavallos to keep the Christmas tree.

“Here I am sitting down with this family, trying to help
them initiate a new Jewish relationship for their family, and you can’t demand
this kind of give-it-all-to-me-now approach, because it’s just not fair,” Vogel
said. “If somebody like Rob is willing to build a Jewish home, you have to give
that time to evolve. So for that family, at that time — and that is a very
important distinction — in the evolution of their journey, I felt it was the
right place to begin.” 

Now the family actively celebrates Chanukah — they also
sleep in their sukkah and celebrate Shabbat every Friday night — and they share
Christmas with daddy.

Kim and Rob have come a long way since Kim showed up at Temple
Aliyah looking for a preschool six years ago and ended up in Vogel’s office,
moved to tears by a Judaism she was ready to reconnect with. With Vogel’s help,
Kim and Rob made compromises, with Rob agreeing to send the children to day
school, sometimes joining her at synagogue and even getting into the
philanthropic work that Kim took on at The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance
and Heschel West Day School.

“Rabbi Vogel was really supportive of us as a couple, not
just of me as the Jewish partner, and that was key in making it so my husband
felt super comfortable, not feeling like every time he turned around we were
taking something away from him,” Kim said. “We’ve been able to take baby steps
and incorporate Judaism into our lives, not have it take over and make it so
Rob doesn’t know where he stands and doesn’t feel comfortable in his own home.”

Not that it hasn’t been difficult.

“Marriage is a series of compromises, but I guess religion
seems so pure, and when you have to dissect it all the time, it loses a
little,” Kim said.

Last year Temple Aliyah honored Kim and Rob — who is a Grammy-winning
producer of such entertainers as Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, Fleetwood Mac and
Phil Collins — for their service to the wider Jewish community.

The fact that an intermarried couple was honored at a
Conservative shul is an indication of a newly surfacing willingness among a
growing number of rabbis — even traditional rabbis — to integrate intermarried
couples into Jewish life.

“Rather than tolerating them, we need to openly embrace
them,” Vogel said. “If we really want to help them create caring, committed
Jewish homes, then we have to actively welcome them.”

Roughly half of all American Jews who marry choose non-Jews,
a number that held relatively steady in both the 1990 and the 2001 National
Jewish Population Surveys. The vast majority of those families — two-thirds,
according to some numbers, a lot more according to others — will write Judaism
out of their lives. The children of intermarriages have only a 25 percent
chance of marrying another Jew.

“If nothing is done, you are dealing with the hemorrhaging
of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who has initiated an
aggressive new outreach program at the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom.

However, others fear the open embrace will send a message
that intermarriage is fine and that long-held Jewish norms will be left in
tatters.

“We have a responsibility to educate and inspire [interfaith
couples] to try to raise a Jewish family,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive
vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “If you ignore them
or alienate them, you lose the real potential to impact their lives.

“At the same time,” he said, “I think one has to be careful
not to ignore the fact that the goal is to raise in-marriage, so policy has to
be designed along the lines of not creating the false impression that there is
no difference as to whether you in-marry or intermarry, because it could all be
fixed up anyway.”

Even within the Orthodox community, there are subtle shifts
in attitude.

While intermarriage is still condemned in no uncertain terms
— most Orthodox rabbis advise their congregants not to attend the mixed
marriages of immediate family members — only a small minority of Orthodox Jews
still follow the age-old custom of sitting shiva over children who intermarry.

“In terms of the statement made through intermarriage, it is
not the same act of rebellion it once was because we live in such an open
culture,” said Rabbi Asher Brander of the Westwood Kehilla, “so all the
accessories that used to go with intermarriage — like sitting shiva — I really
haven’t heard of that being done today.”

There is a recognition today, more than in the past, that
Jews who intermarry — even the growing number of strongly affiliated Jews who
intermarry — still want to keep Judaism as an integral part of their lives, and
if the non-Jewish spouse is willing to go along, the community is more willing
to embrace him or her.

What the Jewish community is facing then is a fluctuating
definition of success in the universe of Jewish marriage. Is the goal to bolster
Jewish identity to lower the rate of intermarriage? Is it to increase the rate
of conversion? And if a spouse doesn’t convert but agrees to raise the children
Jewish, is that too a success?

Even those who hold up prevention as the answer — pointing
to the fact that the more Jewish education a person has had, the less likely he
or she is to intermarry — acknowledge that even hugely successful efforts to
encourage in-marriage will still leave hundreds of thousands of interfaith
families who need to be tended to or lost.

Most in the community strive to uphold the Jewish-Jewish
marriage as the ideal while reaching out to the intermarrieds, but others say
those goals can be mutually exclusive.

 “When you state affirmatively that intermarriage is not a
good thing and should be prevented, that has negative consequences for people
who are already intermarried or who are going to be intermarried,” said Edmund
Case, founder of Interfaithfamily.com, a Web site with 20,000 readers. “What
they are going to remember is that their relationship is not approved of and
then they won’t want to get involved.”

While to some this smacks of giving up on in-marriage
altogether, demographer Gary Tobin thinks that a radical change in attitude is
what can turn the intermarriage numbers around, bringing in converts to cushion
the deficit from those who leave the fold.

“The Jewish community has an enormous opportunity to grow
itself if it quit being so insular and paranoid,” Tobin said. “There are a lot
of people interested in being part of the Jewish people, and it is our fear and
obstructionism that makes intermarriage a self-fulfilling prophecy of disaster.

“If you don’t do anything to help those families be Jewish,
then you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of them end up not being Jewish,”
said Tobin, who spoke at Valley Beth Shalom on Dec. 3.

When it comes to creative and proactive outreach to
intermarrieds, Los Angeles is far ahead of the rest of the nation, Tobin said.
Reform synagogues in Southern California consistently win a disproportionate
share of the movement’s annual awards for outreach.

At Valley Beth Shalom, Schulweis has made outreach a
priority, focusing a Rosh Hashana sermon on it and hosting a lecture series on
the topic through the fall. He established a mentoring program, in which
members are paired with those who are unaffiliated.

An intermarriage discussion group at Shomrei Torah in West
Hills met for six weeks this fall and will be followed by a more intense
program. The group at Shomrei Torah was led by Ken Elfand, who was trained as a
lay consultant through the Keruv program of the Federation of Jewish Men’s
Clubs (FJMC), a group on the cutting edge of pushing the Conservative movement
toward involving intermarrieds in Jewish life.

The program, which also publishes material and holds
conferences, initially met with resistance both at the top levels of the
Conservative movement in New York and among some lay leaders.

“Some institutions are afraid that by reaching out to
intermarrieds, we are conveying the message that we are accepting of
intermarriage,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of FJMC. But
grass-roots support from synagogue lay leaders and rabbis in the field has made
the program a success.

“We find that couples and members’ children who have
intermarried are for the first time feeling comfortable going to synagogue,
because they realize they are not going to be turned away,” Simon said.

The Reform movement’s “Taste of Judaism” three-session
icebreaker has reached hundreds of thousands across the country, as have its
programs aimed at preschool and Hebrew school parents.

The success rate of such programs is impressive. A survey
conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute, a group in New York, found that
synagogue affiliation, ritual observance and cultural participation all jumped
considerably for intermarried families who had taken part in programs as
diverse as intense introduction to Judaism classes or one-time events.

There is a growing bank of anecdotal evidence that suggests
that more people convert after marriage, usually attached to a life-cycle
event, according to Tobin.

Schulweis, along with Tobin and a handful of other leaders,
encourage both rabbis and family members to invite potential Jews into the
faith. Jews-by- choice, Schulweis said, are often more committed than the born
Jews they marry, a fact that should help the Jewish community get past its
ingrained prejudice against converts and the misconception that converts “water
down” Judaism.

However, some non-Jews bristle at the idea of being asked to
convert.

“Just the idea that someone would want you to convert is so
upsetting,” said Judy Arad (not her real name), who has sent kids to day school
and kept a kosher home for 20 years, despite never having converted.

“It’s such a personal decision — it doesn’t get any more
personal than that,” she continued. “I don’t think anyone should ever convert
because they are getting married. If you convert, it should be because you are
really embracing Judaism.”

Schulweis said it is all in the approach, in not offering an
ultimatum but an opportunity.

“I am asking for them to feel the ambiance of Jewish wisdom,
and I am convinced they can be persuaded to eventually become Jews-by-choice,”
Schulweis said. “It must be a process as opposed to ‘do it now for marriage or
it’s all off,'” he said.

That was the case of Charity Brockman. Raised in a strict
Christian home, where her father preached his own brand of Christianity,
Charity felt no affinity toward her faith. When she and her husband, Adam, were
married by a Reform rabbi, she had no desire to convert but agreed to raise the
children Jewish.

The Brockmans celebrated the Jewish holidays with his family
at Valley Beth Shalom and had a Christmas tree at home.

“As time drew nearer for us to think about having kids, I
wanted to take a class or get some more knowledge about what does ‘raising my
children Jewish’ mean,” she said.

She enrolled in the University of Judaism’s introduction to
Judaism class, which has a high rate of conversion among its graduates.

“I think if they had been pressuring me, it would have
pushed me away from the idea, but they were so open and accepting, saying this
is what it is, this is our community and this is our lifestyle,” Brockman
continued. “The fact that I felt so enveloped in the community gave me a real
inside view of what it meant to be Jewish.”

Brockman converted last October and renewed her vows with
her husband. Their daughter, Rachel, was born a few weeks later.

To get to the point where an intermarried couple feels
comfortable being part of the community, rabbis are figuring out both halachic
technicalities and the choreography of including non-Jews in synagogue life.

Can a non-Jewish parent of a bar or bat mitzvah address the
child from the bima? Can the parent stand on the bima for an aliyah or even say
the blessings? And rabbis face a whole series of questions around brises, baby
namings and even funerals when a non-Jewish spouse dies.

In Reform synagogues, non-Jews are welcomed as members.
Official policy in the Conservative movement does not allow non-Jewish members,
although most shuls now offer a family membership to intermarrieds.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah, who has been officiating
at interfaith weddings for 35 years, complains that too many of his Reform
colleagues are being pulled by Reform’s return to tradition and won’t officiate
at intermarriages, effectively closing the door on any relationship between the
couple and the rabbi.

Rabbis who won’t officiate at intermarriages are more
sensitive today than they were 20 years ago, working to soften the rejection of
“I can’t marry you” and to leave the door open for future affiliation.

That is an approach that may have sat better with Arad,
rather than the outright pressure to convert she received from family, friends
and the rabbi before she married.

 “I remember how horrible I felt after we spoke,” Arad said
of the Westside Conservative rabbi who she and her husband met with before they
married. “I remember the rabbi saying that our kids would be rejected from the
community, that we were going to have problems, that life would be difficult
and that we were doomed if I didn’t convert. It was all negative, with no
sensitivity or compassion.”

Today, compassion has entered into the framework of
intermarriage, even in Orthodox circles, where intermarriage retains nearly all
of its historic stigma. Still, outreach-oriented groups are more likely than in
the past to accept non-Jewish partners who want to learn about Judaism.

Blanket rules have given way to a more nuanced approach, in
which rabbis take into account each individual situation and then may decide,
for instance, that it is not appropriate to follow the standard dictum of
turning a potential convert away three times.

“In some cases, because of concern for the family, you do
what you can to unify the couple and unify the family, to get them to express
Judaism more and get them to a relationship that is more peaceful,” said Rabbi
Yaacov Deyo, who runs programs and meets individually with young couples
through Aish HaTorah. “We have our beliefs, and we have to love people, and we
need to do both.”

Tobin argues, though, that passive tolerance won’t do the
trick. What is needed, he said, is serious investment. And that, he noted, is
nowhere to be found across the spectrum of the Jewish community.

“If you look at the total budget being spent on helping
interfaith families become part of the Jewish community, it is as statistically
close to zero as it could possibly be,” Tobin said.

While the Conservative movement publishes some material, the
only program they have right now is through the FJMC. In its major budget
crisis a year ago, the Reform movement cut all its regional outreach directors,
though enough money was raised locally to keep the Pacific Southwest regional
director going for two more years.

“It is the biggest mistake the Jewish community makes, not
spending more time and effort and dollars on these folks,” he said.

Tobin is convinced, as is Schulweis, that bringing people in
does not have to mean lowering standards or watering down Judaism. In a
best-case scenario, the spouse converts and the community grows. In a
second-best case, the spouse doesn’t convert, but the family is Jewish.

For now, Kim and Rob Cavallo are happy to be in that second
camp.

“My own Italian Catholic heritage is too strong to allow me
to turn my back on it,” Rob said, “so we live in a mixed household, and it
actually works.”

With the children in day school and the home unmistakably
Jewish, Rob and Kim are both happy with the choices they’ve made.

“We wanted to give our kids something that Kim did have and
I didn’t, which was a religious moral background and a feeling of belonging to
a community,” Rob said, “which I think is great gift.”  

Plan Seeks to Draw Potential Jews


When Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis asked a group of approximately 80 retirees in his Conservative congregation how many had a non-Jewish member in their family, almost every hand shot up.

"At first, I was genuinely shocked," said Schulweis, the spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Then the rabbi, widely known for his innovative ideas and projects, decided to transform shock into positive action.

He outlined his concept in a recent address titled, "Inreach-Outreach and the Jew by Choice," at the Rabbinical Assembly, the national association of Conservative rabbis.

The aim of the program, Schulweis said, "is to turn a cadre of our congregants, many of whom are passive Jews, into active mentors of potential Jews. It involves personally bringing the seeker into the Jewish homes, into the shul, into the Jewish lecture, the Jewish concert, the Jewish camp."

Since there is no better way to explain a subject than by trying to teach it to someone else, the "inreach" portion of the equation would force the mentors to find answers to their own, and their children’s, question: "Why be Jewish?"

While the basic motivation of "Inreach-Outreach" is to welcome the potential convert, who seeks to join the Jewish community because of marriage to a Jewish partner or the spiritual attraction of Judaism, there are also persuasive demographic reasons.

Citing "stark statistics" and projections, Schulweis estimated that by 2005, almost two-thirds of "Jewish" marriages will involve a non-Jew and that by 2010, converts will make up 7 to 10 percent of the Jewish population.

Yet, in the face of low fertility rates and rising intermarriage, of the 750,000 children now living in mixed-marriage households, less than a third are raised as Jews, and fully half learn nothing about their Jewish heritage.

Schulweis assigned much of the blame to "the sorry reputation of the synagogue as exclusionary, distancing and judgmental" and the failure of his own Conservative movement to welcome the intermarried. In its most extreme form, the belief that the convert will never be a fully authentic Jew, is summarized in the Yiddish expression, "A shikse bleibt [remains] a shikse and a goy bleibt a goy."

Schulweis criticized this attitude as "flirting precariously on the boundaries of racism" and denounced some modern Jewish scholars, who assert that Jewishness is defined by "Jewish blood" and through biological and genetic inheritance.

Pointing to the repeated biblical injunction to love and understand the heart of the stranger and the example of Ruth, Judaism’s most celebrated convert, Schulweis declared that "Ruth teaches us that a Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes or blood type. We embrace those who come to us with heart, mind and soul."

Although he hopes that "Inreach-Outreach" programs will eventually be adopted by all Conservative synagogues, the rabbi believes that he will first have to prove the validity of the concept in his own congregation.

"On Rosh Hashanah, I will talk to my congregants and call for volunteers to train as mentors and open their homes to interfaith couples and other potential converts," he told The Journal.

Schulweis also hopes that the board of Valley Beth Shalom will weigh the possibility of accepting the non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages as full members of his congregation.

The importance and urgency of his project, Schulweis believes, is reinforced by a recent study that concluded that Jews throughout the world are "disappearing" at the rate of 50,000 a year, adding, "We must turn this demographic challenge into a spiritual opportunity, both for Jews and for seekers."

Beth Sholom’s Engel Gets Kudos for Outreach


Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom named Monica Engel as the
congregant of the year for her enthusiasm for teaching Judaism to interfaith
families.

Raised in an Orthodox home, Engel’s own family scrapbook has
a different character, reflecting a blend of Judeo-Christian life-cycle events.
“It’s been a great experience telling my daughter-in-law who we are,” said
Engel of her son’s Christian wife. “We respect each other’s religion.”

Yet, Engel, 69, of Lake Forest, says her own family
situation is not what led her to undergo training in Cincinnati to become the
outreach point person in Orange County for the Reform movement’s Union of
American Hebrew Congregations.

“Intermarriage is a fact of Jewish life and it’s time we
opened our doors and made everyone welcome, not just Jews,” said Engel, who
said that at her own synagogue that interfaith couples felt marginalized
because of their ignorance of Jewish practices.

Beth Sholom in January will host for the third year Engel’s
six-week class, “New Beginnings,” which she subtitled “putting the ‘ish’ in
Jew.” In it, she explains daily customs such as Shabbat blessings. Rabbis
throughout the county use the class, along with another taught at the temple,
an introduction to Judaism taught by Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein, as a resource
for individuals considering conversion.

Engel also has taught numerous holiday workshops and shares
her experience as a Jewish grandparent at sisterhood conventions.

“I love being Jewish and I love our traditions and I love
sharing it with them,” Engel said.

Ask Wendy


Absent Father Wants to See
Daughters

Dear Wendy,

My father left my mother when my sister was 8 and I was 5. His visits became increasingly infrequent until, about 20 years ago, we stopped hearing from him altogether. Recently he got in touch with my sister, told her he was dying of cancer and asked her to come visit. Where my sister sees closure, I see the opening of something I sealed off years ago. But she is afraid to go alone and wants me to go with her. She needs the moral support, and I don’t want to let her down.

Knotted Up Over Family Ties

Dear Knotted,

Your sister, if she decides to go, is embarking on a journey, not a simple day-trip. She may view this reunion with your father as a necessary excursion, but it sounds like you view it as heading off on something of a safari. Unarmed. I agree that your sister should not make her trek alone. But there must be plenty of other travelers — with nothing at stake — who would be happy to go along for the ride. A word of caution: Resolving one’s feelings is very different from “sealing them off.” Make sure you know the difference before you decide against seeing your father. This may be your last chance.

Gram’s Caretaker Thinks Judaism Is
Evil

Dear Wendy,

My ailing grandmother lives in a Jewish nursing home in Florida. She has a sweet and devoted caretaker who attends to her needs six days a week. I am very thankful that we have found her. There is one small problem: The caretaker is a devout Christian. She has informed me, on more than one occasion, that she prays every day that Jesus will open our hearts. The last time we spoke, she informed me that Judaism is an evil religion. I worry that she will take advantage of my grandmother’s confused state to convert her to Christianity. My mother and my aunt — my grandmother’s daughters — are amused by my account. But I am angry and very bothered. Any advice?

Worried About Grandma

Dear Worried,

If your grandmother is anything like mine was, it is more likely she will convert her caretaker to Judaism before she welcomes Jesus into her heart — no matter how vulnerable or confused she may be. Your grandmother’s caretaker may be the wrong religion for your taste, but I’d rather have a devout individual who feels she is doing God’s work than a hired hand who cares only about making a living. Or worse, someone whose caring and kindness you question as soon as you leave the room. My grandmother had a driver in her later years when her eyesight had failed. He would drink and make anti-Semitic remarks; when he was sober there was no sign of his prejudice.

Caring for the elderly is not a job many people seek. If you are not prepared to care for your grandmother yourself, be grateful that she has a companion who is above reproach in every way that matters. If it makes you feel better, I suggest you specify that when reading aloud to your grandmother, she select portions found in the Torah and not the Christian Bible.

Mixed Relationship Has Woman
Confused

Dear Wendy,

My mother is Jewish, my father is not. Growing up, I never knew what I was. I recently went on a Birthright Israel trip and felt deeply connected for the first time to my Jewish heritage. Here is my problem: I have been dating a non-Jewish man for over a year. If I ended the relationship I would regret it for the rest of my life. But I am constantly weighing my relationship with him against my feelings for the land of Israel and my desire to return there. I could not ask someone to convert to satisfy my needs. But if we have children, they would grow up as I did — confused, with nieces and nephews of other religions.

Struggling With Interfaith Issues

Dear Struggling,

There need be no such thing as a confused child. There are only ambivalent or ineffective parents who fail to transmit a clear identity to their progeny.

Yours is not the typical tale of crossed lovers. You cannot fault yourself for having discovered late in life what being a Jew means to you, nor for having fallen in love with a non-Jew before you did. Your dilemma is black and white but the solution is not. This is a matter of the heart. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to impose a deadline by which time you must choose either your religion or your man. The decision will come to you, and when it does, it will be clear. Your boyfriend will also have something to say about how this turns out. Just keep walking and see where you end up.

A Nation Says ‘Kaddish’


Flags flew at half-staff. People on the street made a stronger-than-usual effort to meet each others’ eyes, acknowledging the sadness of the day. Parents lingered on schoolyards well after drop-off, watching their children, perhaps thinking of the hundreds of other parents who were brutally deprived of this opportunity on that dreadful day one year ago.

In Jewish tradition, the one-year anniversary of a loved one’s death marks the unveiling of their gravestone. This year, Sept. 11 marked the mourning of a nation, and the unveiling of numerous memorials for those who suffered and died in last year’s tragic attacks on our country.

At the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Wednesday morning, a moving ceremony was held, starting with the blowing of the shofar. Among those attending were consuls-general from 20 countries, including Israel. Others who attended included Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, County Fire Department Battalion Chief Juan Gonzalez and LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish. Also present were Cmdr. Robert Anderson, director of the Navy’s information office, along with other military personnel.

"One year ago, America changed forever," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, center founder and dean. "Americans of all creeds stared down the ugly face of evil.

"In the year that has passed, we still don’t know what to say to the families of the victims," Hier said. "It is not only the victims who must never be forgotten, but we must never forget their murderers as well."

The rabbi quoted from a speech Winston Churchill gave in 1937: "For those who say that the case is fraught with danger, the greater danger is to do nothing."

"If we don’t defeat the terrorists today," Hier said. "America will have to pay, and make greater sacrifices to defeat them tomorrow. We owe it to the victims that there will never be another Sept. 11."

The ceremony included a display of artwork inspired by Sept. 11 that was created by Los Angeles schoolchildren. In addition, the lighting of memorial candles was conducted, each candle inscribed with the name of one of the more than 3,000 victims.

One of the biggest ceremonies took place at the newly opened Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. More than 3,000 people attended the interfaith remembrance service, whose sponsors included the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the Interreligious Council of Southern California and the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council.

Prayers were offered by a diverse group, including representatives of the Sangha Council of Southern California, Vedanta Society of Southern California, Los Angeles Baha’i Center, First African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Islamic Center of Southern California.

"Though we may be people of different tribes, of different religions, and individual convictions … we are all one under God," said actress Anjelica Huston, who hosted the service.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, called people to prayer with the blowing of the shofar.

"May the sharp, piercing blasts of the shofar shatter our complacency and arouse us to redeem our broken world…. May the loud clarion of the shofar herald the day when all people, all of God’s children, live in peace and harmony," Diamond said.

A number of Los Angeles-area synagogues also held memorial services, some in cooperation with nearby churches. Mayor James Hahn, who attended the ecumenical service at the cathedral, said such gatherings serve two purposes.

"One is to remember and honor the memory of those who lost their lives, to remember the heroes: the police, the firefighters, the paramedics and the ordinary citizens like those on Flight 93, who made sure more lives were not lost," Hahn told The Journal. "[They are also] to remember that America is united, stronger today than we were before, and to understand the only way this country works is for all of us to be united."

On that same theme, congregants of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills joined with members of next-door neighbor St. Bernardine of Sienna Catholic Church for a joint service called, "One Community, One Humanity."

"It really reflects the Sept. 11 mentality of trying to respond as Americans, as one people, and to show a sense of unity," said Aliyah’s Rabbi Stewart Vogel. "When someone attacks your family, no matter what differences divide you, you put those aside to respond as one."

Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice held a similar service with its Catholic neighbors at St. Clements Church, with shared prayers and a rendition of 19th century composer Louis Lewandowski’s "Halleluyoh," a cantorial version of Psalm 150.

"For Jews and for all people of faith, death and life go together in many subtle ways," said Rabbi Dan Shevitz, leader of Mishkon Tephilo. "At the same time we share our sadness and our grief over loss, we also come from a religious tradition that death is not final.

"The heroism and values articulated in a good life are ultimately more lasting than death," he said. "Mourning the dead and celebrating the lives given in heroism are not two distinct things, but part of the same tradition."

Earlier in the week, Museum of Tolerance officials gave high school students from Los Angeles, St. Louis and Garrettsville, Ohio, an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about Sept. 11 via a video conference. Most of the discussion centered on how the students felt as Americans, their views on the U.S. response to terrorism and the lasting implications of the terrorist attacks.

"Sept. 11 was an awakening of what is going on in the rest of the world, and what happens in Israel every day," said Nadav Geft, a student at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. Some students objected to the media’s coverage of the attacks, and to the sometimes excessive displays of patriotism in the wake of the attacks. Chris Membribes, an 11th-grade student at North High School in Torrance, said that with the sale of patriot-themed T-shirts and keychains, "we gave the terrorists the publicity they wanted."

The discussion included a lecture by terrorism expert Sabi Shabti, author of "Five Minutes to Midnight." "Things are not going to be the same. I don’t think they will ever be the same," Shabti told the students. "Ultimately, terrorism is a war against democracy, because in the aftermath, people are willing to give up civil liberties and freedom for safety, security and order," he said. "We must not allow that [to happen]. It will take everyone in our society to protect our democracy, our rights, our way of life."

On Tuesday evening, Rabbi Allen Freehling spoke to more than 1,000 members at the Gathering for Civil Liberties and Peaceful Tomorrows, which was sponsored by the Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice, which was held at the First Baptist Church in Mid-Wilshire.

"Let us not make our Constitution the ultimate victim of what happened a year ago," Freehling declared. His remarks echoed similar sentiments of speakers throughout the night, which centered on First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and the importance of dissent in a democracy.

Bringing the principle home, syndicated columnist Robert Scheer questioned the Bush administration’s pressure for a war with Iraq. "Even his own people are asking, ‘What proof, why now?’" Scheer said. "It just doesn’t fit."

The Interfaith Communities gathering, with its emphasis on politics, was an exception. Most memorials emphasized faith over politics and focused on the victims.

"At this hour of sacred memory, we cry with their families, friends and colleagues," Diamond said. "We cry with our fellow Americans for the loss of our innocence, our way of life as we knew it. We cry with all people of good will that a monstrous evil has struck God’s creation, and dealt a heavy blow to God’s creatures."

It was a long, heart-wrenching day. At the end, the flags remained at half-staff. But we, as a people, as a nation, stood tall.

Michael Aushenker, Rachel Brand, Charlotte Hildebrand and Gaby Wenig contributed to this story.

Finding Middle Ground


First comes love, then comes marriage. But when baby makes three, an interfaith couple has to face hard decisions about their child’s religious upbringing. Arlene Chernow, who for 16 years has headed the outreach department for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, believes it’s vital for parents to commit to a single religious identity for the entire family. If the interfaith family rejoices in Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, their youngster will not be perturbed by the fact that some relatives wrap holiday gifts in red and green, and celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. If, from the start, the child knows he or she lives in a Jewish household, Hebrew school can be a strong and positive experience.

Unfortunately, says Chernow, “we see more and more children coming into classrooms not knowing who they are religiously.” In some cases, non-Jewish spouses are resentful of the religious school obligation, fearing the loss of their own religious identity as their youngsters are schooled in Jewish tradition. At times, a child’s enrollment in Hebrew school sparks a tug of war between two parents who can’t articulate to one another their own feelings about their religious inheritance. If parents divorce, the situation intensifies.

Chernow feelingly describes one small boy who was brought to temple religious school weekly by his non-Jewish dad, then went home with his Jewish mother. At first, the child dealt with the turmoil in his home life by disrupting the classroom, making everyone miserable. Finally, he settled on his own private solution. Once he arrived at school, he would duck under his desk for 10 minutes, speaking to no one. Then he’d emerge, saying, “I’m Jewish now.”

When Chernow meets with Jewish religious school educators, she stresses their crucial role in making an interfaith family feel part of the congregation. One challenge for a teacher is reassuring interfaith children that they are truly welcome in the classroom, no matter what non-Jewish customs and attitudes may persist at home. These children often ask tough questions, because they’re covertly seeking to establish the fact that they’re truly Jewish. For Chernow, the three key strategies are “support, respect, refocus.” If, during a lesson on Chanukah, a little girl asks why daddy has a Christmas tree, the teacher should support the girl as a valued member of the class, encourage respect for each family’s individual choices, and — for the benefit of the rest of the students — refocus the discussion on dreidels and Maccabees.
When a child hops into the car after Hebrew school, excitedly displaying an ornament for the sukkah, it’s only natural for his non-Jewish parent to feel intimidated by this unfamiliar holiday. Chernow points out that parents who want to share in their children’s excitement can turn out to be a hidden asset in the classroom. She has met many non-Jewish mothers, in particular, who strongly desire a religious identity for their family. Once they gain a basic knowledge of Jewish practice, they sometimes become the teacher’s best friend.

Such is the case of Patty Lombard, the mother of two daughters at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Though herself a Catholic, Lombard has spearheaded the writing of a parents’ guide called “Celebrations.” This looseleaf notebook — which includes background on each major Jewish holiday along with vocabulary, activities, recipes, songs and blessings — was presented to every preschool family when school began in September. The purpose, Lombard says, is to “try to give parents enough information that they can enjoy celebrating with their child.”

Chernow insists that parent education is the key to turning an interfaith family into a family engaged in raising happily Jewish children. She says, “I really see a child’s Jewish education as something that has an impact on the whole family. The more that a temple and school can do to educate the parent while they’re educating the children, the stronger the child’s identity will be.”