An Israeli flag is seen near the minaret of a Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City. Nov. 30, 2016. Photo by Ammar Awad/REUTERS.

Why the aversion to conversion?

The discourse among Conservative, Reform and other progressive Jewish scholars and clergy has been dominated more than usual over the past few months by the theme of intermarriage. This recent round of debate seems to have been spurred in March by a vote of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s General Assembly to allow individual Conservative synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews. Since then, numerous articles by rabbis, academics and other Jewish professionals have appeared on this topic. The discussion has continued to pick up steam given the Jewish People Policy Institute’s early-June release of two significant studies: “Family, Engagement, and Jewish Continuity among American Jews” and “Learning Jewishness, Jewish Education, and Jewish Identity.”

The commentators go back and forth on whether, and how, synagogues and other Jewish institutions should welcome intermarried couples, but surprisingly, there is relative silence on a related, and even more significant, topic: conversion. True, some Conservative rabbis, notably Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, are attempting to highlight the importance of conversion and to emphasize the need for some leniency in the ceremony. In an April essay in The New York Jewish Week, Cosgrove wrote: “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” Despite his efforts to highlight a need for a new direction for his movement, much of the discussion in and about Conservative Judaism continues to grapple with how to address intermarriage rather than how to promote conversion to Judaism.

In some Reform congregations, conversion before marriage is not actively encouraged. One of my non-Jewish students is marrying a Jewish man this summer. When they spoke with the Reform rabbi who will be officiating, the rabbi actually discouraged my student from considering conversion prior to the marriage. According to my student, the rabbi said the decision to convert should be driven by her personal desire to convert, rather than by her desire to marry a Jewish man. Ironically, the Reform rabbi’s response about personal conviction comports with Orthodoxy with one significant difference: a Reform rabbi will still perform the marriage.

In recent years, sociologist Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky have proposed a means of joining the Jewish people that would not require a formal conversion according to Jewish law, halachah, but instead would allow non-Jews to acquire a Jewish cultural identity without a Jewish religious identity. In essence, this is a “cultural” conversion. To be fair, Cohen has long been advocating increased rabbinic conversion, and he sees their concept as a “half-step” between this and nothing.

Although Cohen and Olitzky get points for creativity, this proposal seems to assume that Jewish culture and Jewish law are distinct entities. From a theoretical perspective, however, the reality is that Jewish law and Jewish culture are completely tied together. The law has influenced the culture and the culture has influenced the law. Taken together, both the law and the culture are embedded in the entire chain of Jewish tradition.

I suggest that progressive movements need to develop better marketing skills, because the Jewish religion is a wonderful product. It is a way of life that touches both the mind and the heart. We need to take more pride in our product and encourage others — particularly those who are marrying Jews — to join us as members rather than as spectators. In short, we need to actively encourage conversion.

Of course, there can and should be flexibility as to what conversion standards should look like, depending on the overall nature of a particular Jewish community. But at a minimum, non-Jews contemplating marriage to a Jew must be educated as to the beauty of Jewish tradition and why formal membership matters to the couple and to their future offspring.

In this respect, progressive synagogues can take a lesson from Catholic communities. Recently, a close Catholic friend started taking her 8-year-old daughter to Mass at a liberal Catholic church. Her daughter was upset that she could not receive communion, given that she had not been baptized into the Catholic faith. My friend was told that the situation could be remedied if her daughter converted after taking a one-year program of instruction and initiation, including receiving the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation.

So why do Jews feel that what we have to offer the world should be accessed so much more easily? More lenient conversion standards do make sense for progressive Jews, but when we ignore formal membership as a criterion we do so at our peril.

A Jewish colleague involved with a non-Jewish partner wrote to me just yesterday about all of the current intermarriage discourse in the news and on social media. He remarked that these conversations served as a reminder that his life choices can have drastic consequences, and most significantly, that he may end up “ceding something wonderful.” Progressive Jewish communities should not be able to live with this result.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law.  She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2015) and is currently working on a book about transmitting Jewish tradition in a diverse world.

(Left To Right): Rabbi Marc Schneier (President - Foundation for Ethnic Understanding), Russell Simmons (Chairman - Foundation for Ethnic Understanding), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Consul General Sam Grundwerg, Mahomed Akbar Khan (Muslim community activist). Photo by Michelle Mivzari

An iftar … at the Israeli consul general’s house?

Sunset in West L.A. A swank little outdoor get-together, rosé and single malt at the bar, men in their Bonobos and Untuckits. The chat among a tribe of writers, managers and producers turns to that week’s plans.

“So, I’m going to this iftar,” one says. “At Wilshire Boulevard Temple.” An iftar is the traditional evening break-fast meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“Oh,” says a young TV exec. “I went to the NewGround iftar there last year. I’m going to one in Culver City.”

Suddenly, the game was on — that competition that happens when men gather in small circles and compare. And I wanted to play.

“I’m going to two,” I said. “One at the Israeli consul general’s house.”

“Oh!” one guy said. “Wow.”

I was feeling good. Winning.

“I was invited to that one,” the producer countered. “Couldn’t make it.”

We were five Jews, standing in a circle, one-upping one another over who was invited to the better Muslim break-fast. Could it be, I wondered, that in Los Angeles in 2017, iftars are the new Oscar party?

The first one I attended this year certainly felt exclusive. It was billed as the Jewish Muslim Leaders Summit. There were a couple dozen Muslims and Jews, half and half, in a function room at the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue. A lot of lawyers and accountants — and I’m talking about the Muslims. 

“People ask me to describe the American Muslim community,” one lawyer told me. “I always say, ‘We’re boring.’ ” Muslims go to school, work, raise families, he shrugged. What’s to say?

Edina Lekovic, one of the Muslim conveners, said Ramadan is the perfect time to engage in what we Jews call tikkun olam

“The absence of food and water can mean the presence of something else,” she said. Plus, she added, when you have to fast from dawn to past sunset, “It’s good to have something to keep you busy.”

We spoke of the current state of division in America, the sense of discrimination and how we can work together to create better polity and politics.

At 8:06 p.m., the fast was over. We each ate a date stuffed with a walnut, the traditional break-fast treat (note to Jews: excellent post-Yom Kippur idea). Across the hall, the imam chanted the call to prayer. We all were invited to pray, or to wait until the prayers finished. Then we ate — a banquet of hummus, salads, kebab, falafel and pita with za’atar. 

It was Lebanese food, someone pointed out.

Two days later, I was at the home of Sam Grundwerg, Israel’s new consul general in Los Angeles. Grundwerg, his wife, Julia, and their children had just moved into their new home in Los Angeles and were hosting their first event, an iftar.

“Thank you for helping us open up our home for the first time,” Grundwerg said. “I think it’s really making a statement.” 

That was an understatement. For 69 years, Israel has worked toward more equality, more integration of its 20 percent Muslim population, with many ups and downs. But the message of this evening was one of welcome and acceptance. At a time when Muslims are feared and singled out in America, including by our president, the consul general of Israel made them the first guests in his new home.

Getting Muslims to come the first time, Grundwerg recognized, would be a challenge. He lit on the idea of inviting someone with a high enough profile to lead the way, like, say, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. 

“I thought it would be difficult to get him,” Grundwerg said of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Lakers and UCLA legend. “But he loved the idea right away.”

About 50 guests sat in white folding chairs in Grundwerg’s living room. Abdul-Jabbar, stately, serious, towering over the second-tallest guest (me) by a foot at 7 feet 2 inches, led a panel discussion on tolerance and Muslim-Jewish relations with music impresario Russell Simmons; Mohammed Khan, director of interfaith outreach at King Fahad Mosque in Culver City; and New York Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.  

“As a Muslim and as someone who loves my country,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “I’m really concerned about what’s happening in our country. People are at each other’s throats. This is avoidable if we can talk to each other and learn to respect each other.”

Abdul-Jabbar, author of several books on history, spoke of the Golden Age of Spain, when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together and flourished.

“The beginning of the Renaissance came out of Spain and North Africa,” he said, “because Muslims, Jews and Christians cooperated and shared knowledge and shared solutions. That’s what I want to get back to, and that’s why I’m here this evening.”

Simmons, who identifies himself as a yogi, said he and Schneier have been doing Muslim-Jewish dialogue for 10 years, in 40 countries, but recently the need for it has become more urgent.

“Today it’s gotten so bad, it’s impossible to avoid a public discussion,” he said. “This idea of the children of Abraham being so separate is so disturbing. We need to give others what we want for ourselves.”

When the clock struck 8:06 p.m., marking the end of the fast, the consul ended the discussion. As the guests broke the fast with dates, consular officials and Julia Grundwerg hurriedly cleared the chairs and laid down a large rug. An imam issued the call to prayer, his voice echoing through the room. About a dozen of the Muslim guests then held a prayer service in the consul’s living room.

Allahu Akbar (God is great),” called out Khan, who led the prayer. “Allahu Akbar,” they repeated.   

There was a kosher buffet meal in the backyard: hummus, salads, kebab, braised lamb, stuffed grape leaves and pita with za’atar.

“Israeli food,” someone said.

The night wound down. Abdul-Jabbar took selfies and signed autographs. The Persian actor Navid Negahban, who played the Jew-murdering arch-terrorist Abu Nazir on the TV series “Homeland,” gave a moving, funny speech about empathy.

As I walked to the parking valet, it occurred to me that the surest path to empathy is experience — sharing one another’s lives, rituals and holidays, in person. Sure, we can imagine ourselves walking in someone else’s shoes, but it always will be more powerful to spend a few hours walking beside the person. May the competition for the best iftar invitations in L.A. only grow, I thought.

And as if I needed a sign that I was right, it was there on the booth where I picked up my car. The sign said, “Abraham’s Valet Parking.” 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Adam and Eve depicted on a 19th-century ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract, from the Norsa-Torrazzo Synagogue in Mantua, Italy. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

‘Jewish spouses matter,’ says a new demographic study. Let the battle begin.

One of the wisest things ever said about intermarriage came from former Atlantic sports columnist Jake Simpson: “No stat could have predicted … the wonder that was David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII.”

Granted, Simpson wasn’t writing about the high rates of Jews marrying non-Jews. He was complaining that the growing emphasis on statistical analysis in sports — sabermetrics — was undermining the human element of the game. A statistician will tell you who is likely to catch a touchdown pass. But only ecstatic Giants fans (and heartbroken Patriots fans) could appreciate the glories of Tyree’s improbable reception.

Another sportswriter, Joe Posnanski, described it as “the human record versus the human heart.”

It’s not a stretch to recognize a similar argument among those who care about Jewish “continuity” and what it means to live a meaningful Jewish life. On one side, the think tanks and sociologists are churning out statistics (Hebrewmetrics?) suggesting the dire toll intermarriage is taking on the strength and vitality of Jewish life.

On the other side, rabbis and others in the grassroots are demanding that Jewish leaders take into account the deeply personal stories of individual Jews and those who love them, lest they feed the alienation from Jewish institutions that the numbers crunchers complain about.

According to a new analysis by the Jewish People Policy Institute, or JPPI, analyzing stats on “non-haredi” American Jews aged 25 to 54, “just 21 percent are married to Jews, while well over twice as many [50 percent] are non-married and 29 percent are intermarried.” Only 15 percent of this cohort are in Jewish-Jewish marriages with Jewish children at home.

The implication, once you exclude the haredi Orthodox — as well as the modern Orthodox, who often marry before age 25 — is that the non-Orthodox Jewish population is in a steep demographic decline, perhaps perilously so.

As authors Steven M. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman point out in an essay for JTA, this decline is not only a function of intermarriage. It’s also the result of late marriage, no marriage and low birth rates.

Yet the Jewish engagement gap between the inmarried and the intermarried is “truly enormous,” according to JPPI. The inmarried are more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important, to have Jewish friends, to belong to a synagogue and to raising their children “in the Jewish religion.” By contrast, “non-Jewish spouses and children in the home each seem to diminish the likelihood of Jewish engagement.”

These kinds of analyses alarm Jewish institutions; they seek answers in institutional ways. Should more money be invested in a highly engaged “core,” or spread among outreach to the “periphery”? Does the smart money go to the hip startups that are trying to attract less-engaged Jews, or to the legacy institutions that still have large (if shrinking) membership bases?

Just days after the JPPI study came out on June 5, there was a much different kind of reaction to the intermarriage “challenge” coming from rabbis of at least three distinct stripes.

Clergy at B’nai Jeshurun, a big and influential synagogue on New York’s Upper West side, announced that they would begin officiating at the weddings of interfaith couples who commit to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. Downtown, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who runs the innovative Lab/Shul, said he, too, would officiate at intermarriages despite his training in the Conservative movement, which bans its rabbis from doing so.

And in an essay for The New York Jewish Week, Rabbi Avram Mlotek, who was ordained at the liberal Orthodox Chovevei Torah yeshiva, suggested that “it’s time we revisit our tribalistic approach toward intermarriage and our highly divisive conversion practices.” Mlotek was coy about what that would mean in practice, although he did suggest that the Orthodox and Conservative movements should take a cue from the Reform’s “welcoming posture towards families with non-Jewish partners.”

B’nai Jeshurun is not affiliated with a movement and its decision is internal; Lau-Lavie and Mlotek will have to deal with the consequences within their affiliated institutions. (Chovevei Torah already issued a statement reiterating that it forbids its rabbis from performing intermarriages.)

The denominational and halachic issues are intriguing for insiders, although the casual reader might be more taken with the personal stories each of the rabbis tells. In a nearly 60-page explanation of his decision, Lau-Lavie wrote of the the interfaith marriages he performed before his ordination as a Conservative rabbi, as well as the requests he continues to receive from “Jews and people of other heritages or faiths seeking a Jewish wedding, life, and community.

“Each story was unique,” he wrote. “I couldn’t bear saying no. The firsthand encounter with the pain of rejection and its consequences to the couple, to me, and to our community convinced me of the need for an urgent solution. It has become not just a practical issue but also one of deeply personal, ethical, and theological dimensions.”

Mlotek wrote of the young Jewish woman he met as a staffer on Honeymoon Israel, which takes interfaith couples on heritage trips to Israel. “Rachel” told Mlotek that her parents cut her off after she became engaged to an Arab man. 

“My guilt is tremendous and I understand my parents’ disappointment,” she explained through tears. “Still, is there any way there might still be a space for me within Judaism? I feel as if God has brought my partner and me together.” 

Mlotek wrote: “A posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.”

For the B’nai Jeshurun rabbis, the personal is theological, to borrow a phrase. Their decision came with the launch of what they are calling the Jewish Home Project, which will feature support programs, “resources for daily Jewish living, a more robust conversion program and rich Jewish education courses.” If rabbis a generation ago performed intermarriages to smooth the feelings of the Jewish partner’s parents, now they want to embrace the couple and do all they can to make them a part of the Jewish community.

Critics of the “stat heads,” as a baseball fan might put it, say that, unlike folks on the ground, they don’t see the people behind the numbers. These critics say the major studies and their authors treat the intermarried as a statistical burden rather than living and breathing individuals making sometimes hard, sometimes welcome choices. That interfaith couples feel judged by the “tribalistic” mainstream, and that Jewish institutions should accept people as they are, not as they wish them to be. Besides, critics say, the statisticians are working against forces they can’t resist and longing for a past that cannot be recaptured.

Meanwhile, the sociologists and pollsters insist that they are deeply concerned about Jewish individuals, not just faceless Jewish “communities.” They study Jewish belonging not because they are scolds, but because they believe that a vibrant Jewish community — with strong institutions, crowded events, knowledgeable members, and complex friendship and family ties — creates a deeply meaningful life. That the Jewish thing is not worth preserving for its own sake, but because of the difference it has made in the lives of individuals and the world.

And their research, as opposed to their gut, leads them to recommendations — and yes, judgments at a time when judging is out of favor.

The authors of the JPPI study take aim at their critics when they conclude, “Many regard all Jewish journeys and family configurations not only as equally valid, but as equally valuable for Jewish engagement and continuity. In contrast with such avowedly non-discriminatory and non-discriminating thinking, our study demonstrates that Jewish spouses matter, Jewish children matter, and, more generally, the configuration of Jewish families matters a great deal for current Jewish engagement and future Jewish continuity.”

The battle line has been drawn, and it runs right between the human record and the human heart.

Reuters/David W Cerny

Parashat Sh’lach: Curiosity over assumptions

was one of about 400 people in attendance last week at the NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

An iftar is the delicious, joyous evening meal eaten during Ramadan, when for a month each year Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, encouraging one another to focus even more on God, prayer, good deeds, study, charity, family and community. And NewGround is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based organization that holds yearlong training sessions for Jewish and Muslim high school students and millennials, bringing them together to build real relationships.

NewGround’s iftar not only was a tasty meal together, but an evening of learning about NewGround’s approach to relationship building. Among NewGround’s stated values is “Curiosity Over Assumptions.” 

While listening to the Muslim and Jewish NewGround fellows, I couldn’t help but think what the history of our religions might have been, or anyway what Judaism might have become, if the story told in Parashat Shelach Lecha had gone a different way.  

“Shelach lecha,” God says to Moses at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. “Send, for yourself, men to scout out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people” (Numbers 13:2).  

Moses chooses 12 men — a leader from each tribe — and they return after 40 days with grapes so big it takes two men to carry a single cluster.

The scouts return bearing not only fruit but also tales of who and what they saw. While Israel’s modern Ministry of Tourism logo uses the giant grapes as a symbol of the plentiful reasons to visit the Jewish state today, 10 of the scouts in our Torah story use them to illustrate a more ominous idea — the giant grapes fed giant people: “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. And the whole community broke into loud cries” (Numbers 13:32-14:1).  

What if those scouts, or the community they reported to, had taken a page from NewGround’s playbook and put “curiosity over assumptions”? Suppose they’d attempted to meet the people instead of spying on them? Attempted to talk with them, rather than make assumptions about them?  

And suppose they’d done the same with one another, encouraging one another rather than belittling themselves. In one midrash, God says to the doubtful scouts, “I can forgive you seeing yourselves as grasshoppers, but did you know how I made you look to them? Who can say that you did not appear in their sight as angels? What have you brought upon yourselves?” (Numbers Rabbah 16:11).

Indeed, they bring great harm upon themselves. While in last week’s Torah portion, day after day of “nothing but this manna to eat” had some Israelites reminiscing (misremembering?) the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they ate in Egypt (Numbers 11:5), now the report of the 10 pessimistic scouts has some saying, “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt … ” (Numbers 14:3). Infuriated by their fear of the future and their longing for a mostly imagined past, God kills the 10 scouts and condemns the entire first generation to die off before any may leave the wilderness: “You shall bear your punishment for 40 years, corresponding to the number of days — 40 days — that you scouted the land” (Numbers 14:34). God rewards only the two scouts Joshua and Caleb, imbued by God with ruach acheret, “a different spirit” (Numbers 14:24).  For attempting to encourage rather than frighten the people, they survive to enter the Promised Land with the next generations.

In a 2016 dvar Torah on Shelach Lecha, the esteemed British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passed along a teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson about where the 10 dubious scouts went wrong.

They liked the wilderness too much; they treasured God’s nearness there and didn’t want to leave that place. But, according to Rabbi Sacks, Rebbe Schneerson teaches: “That is not what God wants from us. [God] wants us to engage with the world … to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice with all the power of law, and combat ignorance with universal education. [God] wants us to show what it is to love the neighbour and the stranger … ”

No wonder the 10 scouts balked at the challenging future they imagined.

Of course, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, nor does Rebbe Schneerson, nor does NewGround.

Lest we find ourselves like our ancestors — crying out loud in fear and anger, unable to hear, let alone listen, to one another, longing to return to a time and place that existed only in our imaginations — perhaps we’d all do well to search for new ground, to find within ourselves ruach acheret, the “different spirit,” the angel that God plants within faithful, optimistic hearts and souls.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (, an inclusive Los Angeles congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue.

A still from “In Search of Israeli Cuisine.” Photo courtesy of

Calendar: March 31-April 6



“In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” a documentary directed by Roger Sherman, is a portrait of the Israeli people told through food. Profiles include chefs, home cooks, farmers, vintners and cheese-makers from more than 100 cultures in Israel, such as Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian and Druze. The film’s guide, Michael Solomonov, is the James Beard award-winning chef-owner of Zahav in Philadelphia, and other restaurants. Laemmle Royal Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino.


Join other young professionals living and working in the San Fernando Valley for a meal and an opportunity to learn more about The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles from hosts Karen and Mark Getelman. 7 p.m. $18. Private home in Tarzana; address provided upon RSVP. RSVP to or (818) 668-2349.



cal-kayeIs it possible to prevent genocide and mass atrocities? How can you become a change-maker in your community? Explore these questions and more at this weekend-long conference featuring panels of experts, film screenings and advocacy workshops that begins April 1. Speakers include: keynote speaker David Kaye, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and director of the International Justice Clinic at UC Irvine; Mike Brand, director of advocacy and programs at Jewish World Watch; Mac Hamilton, ‎executive manager at STAND (a student-led movement to end mass atrocities); Savannah Wooten, student director at STAND; and David Estrin, founding director of Together We Remember. Presented by Jewish World Watch and STAND. 9 a.m. Saturday; 9:30 a.m. Sunday. $35; $15 for students. USC, Los Angeles.



Adat Shalom and the Violet Harris Fund presents “When Do We Eat?” a 2005 film about an out-of-control Passover seder. Enjoy this screening and discussion with director Salvador Litvak. 7 p.m. $5 with reservation; $10 at the door. RSVP to (310) 475-4985. Adat Shalom, 3030 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles.


Join a 1-mile walk of solidarity  with neighbors, friends and colleagues of various beliefs and houses of worship, including the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Help lead the way toward peace and unity as you stand in support of everyone’s right to worship freely and to live peacefully. 1 p.m. Free. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, contact the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice at or (323) 454-0557.


This movie tells the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who served as vice-counsel in the Japanese consulate in Lithuania during World War ll. He disobeyed government orders and issued visas to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. It is estimated that Sugihara saved 6,000 Jews. 1 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101.


Follow in Moses’ footsteps to fight human trafficking. Actors will perform stories of survivors, and participants will learn what they can do to take action. 3:30 p.m. $5 suggested donation at the door. National Council of Jewish Women LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8514.


Young Adults of Los Angeles (YALA) is taking senior citizens to the prom. Volunteer and boogie down with bubbe while giving seniors an event to remember. 1 p.m. Free. Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles.


Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, Orthodox woman clergymember of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, will discuss “Changing Roles of Women in the Modern Orthodox World” at Westwood Village Synagogue. Q-and-A to follow presentation. 6:30 p.m. Free; RSVP to Westwood Village Synagogue, 1148 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles.



Christine Hayes from Yale University will explore two radically distinct ideas of divine law that emerged in late antiquity: Greek natural law, grounded in reason, and biblical law, grounded in revelation. Hayes will discuss the lasting impact of both and talk about the diverse ways that ancient Jews resolved this conflict. Moderated by Carol Bakhos from UCLA. 4 p.m. Free. RSVP to UCLA, 314 Royce Hall, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327.


Join Young Adults of Los Angeles (YALA)’s Wine Cluster in a tasting journey through France’s Rhone Valley, home to some of the country’s best wines. Enjoy a tasting of four wines while meeting new friends and learning about wine. 8 p.m. $25; tickets available at Vinoteque, 7469 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.



pas-Joan Nathan (c) Gabriela HermanKing Solomon is said to have sent ships around the world, initiating a mass cross-pollination of culinary cultures. With King Solomon’s appetites in mind, James Beard Award-winner Joan Nathan reveals 170 recipes in her new cookbook that span many eras. Come discover diverse Jewish cuisines. Q-and-A and book signing to follow the program. (Books available for purchase.) 2 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.


Enjoy a conversation between James Beard Award-winning Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan and Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. Book signing to follow. 7:30 p.m. Free. Irmas Campus, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 388-2401.

The cast of Freeform's "Switched At Birth." Photo courtesy of Freeform.

‘Switched at Birth’ gets an interfaith marriage dilemma just right

“Switched at Birth” has broken the mold for a show that some might have dismissed as a teen drama.

The series, which premiered on ABC Family (now Freeform) in 2011, is about how two families handle the discovery that their two teenage daughters, Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) and Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc), were — as you might have guessed — switched at birth.

But part of what makes the series unique is that Daphne is deaf — and the show often explores deaf culture. “Switched at Birth” employs many deaf actors, and once filmed an entire episode in American Sign Language, with no sound save background noise. The show is trailblazing in other ways, such as how it handled a campus rape case in what one critic called a “realistically messy and fraught” manner.

Now, in its 100th episode, the show has turned its attention to interfaith marriage, as a Jewish mom and Christian father debate what religion to raise their child.

First, a little backstory: At the end of last season, Toby (Lucas Grabeel), the biological son of the Kennishes, and Lily (Rachel Shenton), a British teacher fluent in ASL, had a child, Carlton, born with Down Syndrome. They move to England to be closer to her family, but this season, they returned to Kansas City and had an impromptu wedding.

Since Lily is Jewish, they had a huppah and an interfaith ceremony.

Katherine (Lea Thompson) lets her son Toby know that she wants to schedule a baptism for Carlton. At first, Toby is indifferent, but because it’s important to his mother, he goes along with her plan, and thinks Lily will too, since she isn’t very religious. When Toby brings it up to Lily, she says, “I thought we agreed not to raise him as anything. We’ll just do the fun stuff like holidays.” Toby replies, “We had a blended wedding ceremony and that worked. So Carlton can be both religions, Jewish and Christian.” Lily points out that you can’t be both if you’re baptized.

This is already territory that is seldom explored on television, where interfaith marriage is frequently played for laughs (“The Big Bang Theory,” “The Nanny”) or presents dilemmas no bigger than whether to celebrate Christmas or Hannukah (“The O.C.”)  — which often ends up with an agreement to observe both without even a discussion of what it means to practice two faiths. Seldom do shows address the hard questions that interfaith couples must grapple with, especially when kids are involved.

One scene especially shows how delicately the writers handle the conversations: Hoping to convince Lily to agree to the baptism, Katherine invites her minister to explain the details of the ritual. It backfires. “I just sat there growing more and more uncomfortable. Hearing that reverend say ‘Christ’ a million times, I have never felt more Jewish in my life,” Lily tells Toby afterwards.

Even though she isn’t religious, Lily realizes Judaism is an important part of her identity and she wants that for her son as well. “Jews are defined by being other than. Not Christian. For me you’re either Jewish different from the rest of the world and proud of it or you’re not. And I’m Jewish,” she says.

Even with multiple major story lines to juggle, the writers bring nuance and depth to scenes like these, as when Lily perfectly explains the cultural bond Jews feel towards each other: “We have our own history. Our own language. Our own food. Our own sense of humor. And everyone who is Jewish is bonded by that and I want my son to be in that little circle with me.”

Toby and his parents eventually come to terms with Lily raising Carlton Jewish. but they acknowledge they have a lot of learning to do. Toby says he will be taking some classes in Judaism, and Katherine responds that she will also. Hopefully the series will show them learning more about Judaism before it comes to a close.

The show’s creator Lizzy Weiss, who is Jewish, tweeted, “I am pleased we got to discuss how marriage and parenthood can change your relationship to religion, even culturally.” For that, we applaud her.

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein (center), Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez of Churches in Action, and Mohamed Khan of King Fahd Mosque (r), engaged in a joint prayer for peace, Feb 21, 2017 at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Honoring tolerance is not a judgement call. It is an imperative.

On February 21, 2017 a Bishop, a Rabbi and a Muslim faith leader gathered together at the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Joined by over 250 guests representing their respective communities as well as other faith communities and elected officials and diplomats, the three spiritual leaders were honored with the Interfaith Tolerance Awards presented by Nasimi Aghayev, Consul General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles.

The first part of the evening was committed to the honorees, recognized by the Consul General of Azerbaijan for their outstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusivity – the qualities and values at the heart of Azerbaijan’s success with interfaith peace. Awards and congratulatory speeches were delivered to Mahomed Akbar Khan of the King Fahd Mosque, Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez of the Churches in Action, and Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul and Shabbat Tent. The three leaders are, on the surface, quite different, yet each stands out for their impressive records of innovative and uniquely open minded approaches to outreach, engagement, and crossing the aisle to connect and improve the lives of many, many people. The evening was unique in and of itself – as the first Interfaith Tolerance Awards, and the first time such an event has been hosted at the Museum of Tolerance.

The awards ceremony was followed by the premiere screening of “Running from the Darkness”, a documentary on the Khojaly Massacre, a tragedy that occurred in 1992, when 613 innocent and unarmed Azerbaijani men, women and children were murdered by Armenian soldiers. Running From the Darkness was produced by California based nonprofit JConnect and One Wish Project, both Jewish-led ventures, and is the first U.S.-made documentary on the Khojaly Massacre. It is also the first Khojaly documentary that includes the testimony of an Armenian – a human rights activist.

Khojaly carries tremendous meaning; as a tragedy, a point of connection, and also a lesson on the power of perseverance in the face of unimaginable adversity. Despite the deplorable acts committed against Azerbaijan, the nation has never strayed from the deeply ingrained philosophy and policy of interfaith and interethnic tolerance that has positioned Azerbaijan above the regional fray for so many years. This commitment applies and has been tested by the most extreme events, like Khojaly. Despite the tragedies like Khojaly and the ongoing occupation of around 20% of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory by Armenia, over 30,000 Armenians continue to live in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku and other cities under total protection and equality, and Baku boasts a grand Armenian Church, protected by the government and respected by the community.  

The awards ceremony, the honorees and the documentary that followed share a unique connection. The Khojaly Massacre has become a touchstone for Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders, and one that has brought these otherwise often isolated communities together. Over the last several years, the same faith leaders honored at February 21’s awards have held joint memorial services for the victims and survivors of Khojaly, and in the process, have awakened a sense of shared loss and shared space between many varied faiths. This began with a memorial for Khojaly in 2015, held at the newly formed Pico Shul, led by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, one of the evening’s honorees. At this inaugural multifaith memorial service, Rabbi Yonah prayed for the Muslim victims and survivors, and his congregation learned about the lesser known tragedy in great and personal detail. The following year, the King Fahad Mosque hosted the memorial for Khojaly, and Bishop Mendez, Rabbi Yonah and Mahomed Khan all came together to pray as one. Over the years, all three of the leaders have formed a unique bond that ties them to their combined commitment to peace and tolerance.

Through these memorials, diverse groups of spiritual people have set an example of how one community can step up and make a significant difference with and for another, and build something powerful in the wake of loss and destruction. As Board President of the non-profit that was instrumental in making the film a reality, Josh Kaplan told the audience “that is why this documentary you are about to see fits so well into what we are here tonight to celebrate, because we must constantly possess a desire to inform ourselves about the tragedies of hatred and the healing nature of kindness.”

When the ceremony ended, I read the news at home about the Muslim community in St. Louis, and how by Tuesday, they had already raised over $50,000 to repair a local Jewish cemetery, where over 150 graves had been desecrated the night before. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of connection to what had  taken place at the Museum of Tolerance that evening; both glaring reminders of the power in our kindness and generosity of spirit. As Bishop Mendez quoted from the Christian Bible at the close of his award acceptance speech that night: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” An age-old concept that, as proven by these leaders and events, has immeasurable repurposing potential.

Rabbi Israel Barouk was ordained at Yeshivat Or Elchonon. Originally from Jerusalem and based in Los Angeles, Rabbi Barouk works with leaders and communities across the globe to study, understand and engage with how “positive multiculturalism” serves as a powerful mechanism toward peace.

Moving and shaking: JWW Global Soul Award, Matisyahu, Netiya and more

Jewish World Watch (JWW) awarded its 2015 Global Soul Award to the Katzburg Gabriel family on Nov. 18 during its annual gala event, held at UCLA Royce Hall.

“We look forward to working with you for the furtherance of this humanitarian mission,” Stuart Gabriel said upon receiving the award. The Katzburg Gabriel family includes Gabriel and wife Judith Katzburg as well as their adult sons, Jesse and Oren Gabriel. According to JWW materials provided to the Journal, Stuart is a longstanding member of the JWW board of directors; Judith is a nurse and health services researcher; Jesse is involved with the organization’s annual Walk to End Genocide; and Oren serves on the board of JWW.

Established by the late Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Harold Schulweis in 2004, JWW aims to prevent mass atrocities in regions including Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere around the world. Recent initiatives include raising funds on behalf of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. 

The evening raised approximately $400,000, according to Janice Kamenir-Reznick, JWW co-founder and president, and drew approximately 400 community members, including Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Ed Feinstein and his wife, Nina

The event’s honorary co-chairs included the Feinsteins, Ada and Jim Horwich, Alisa and Kevin Ratner, and May and Richard Ziman.

The evening featured a concert by avant-garde foursome Kronos Quartet and wrapped with a performance by Valley Beth Shalom Cantor Phil Baron

Reggae artist Matisyahu reaffirmed support for Israel at a Friends of ELNET: European Leadership Network gala Nov. 17 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

A Nov. 17 Friends of ELNET: European Leadership Network fundraiser at the Skirball Cultural Center drew (from left) performer Matisyahu; Aaron Dugan, Matisyahu’s guitarist; and Larry Hochberg, co-founder and chairman at ELNET, a European Israel advocacy organization. Photo by Ryan Torok  

“Hopefully we can do more to show our support for Israel and our love for Israel,” Matisyahu said, addressing approximately 150 attendees at the evening of cocktails, dinner, live music by Matisyahu, guitarist Aaron Dugan and more.   

The event raised approximately $500,000 for ELNET, according to Jonathan Boyer, director of the California office of Friends of ELNET. 

Matisyahu performed “One Day,” “Jerusalem” and more at the stripped-down concert. Joined by longtime collaborator Dugan, Matisyahu fielded requests from the crowd and told stories between songs. Following his set, he lingered and posed for photographs with audience members, including businessman and philanthropist Stanley Black, Occidental College history professor Maryanne Horowitz and others.

Prior to the performance, Eran Etzion, executive director of the Forum of Strategic Dialogue, delivered a keynote lecture. Spotlighting the European financial crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Syrian refugee crisis and the recent terrorist attack in Paris, he said upheaval in Europe makes the work of ELNET, a European Israel advocacy organization, more necessary than ever.

The organization had a victory this past summer when a music festival in Spain featuring Matisyahu sought a statement of support of the Palestinians from Matisyahu and made his appearance contingent on him doing so. With the help of ELNET, Matisyahu performed as planned without acquiescing to the demands of the festival organizers.

Event committee members were Black; Larry Hochberg and his wife, Sue; Tricia and Tom Corby; Yvette and Eric Edidin; Rhonda and Joseph Feinberg; Ada and Jim Horwich; Eve Kurtin; and Wendy and Ken Ruby.

“We empower pro-Israel Europeans to be effective,”
Hochberg, co-founder and chairman at ELNET, said. “The Matisyahu experience shows what can be done if things are coordinated and focused.” 

A Netiya gardening and education event on Nov. 15 at New Horizon School Pasadena drew 65 attendees from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist communities who together planted 14 fruit trees in an urban orchard, according to Devorah Brous, executive director of Netiya. 

An interfaith gardening event organized by agriculture group Netiya drew (from left) Barbara Williams, Stacey Inal, Cindy Roy, Leigh Adams, Karen Young, Yonathan Levenbach, Devorah Brous, Amira Al-Sarraf, Tahereh Sheerazie, Jane El Farra, Nahid Ansari and Lisa Friedman. Photo courtesy of Netiya  

It was the 15th urban orchard planted by Netiya, according to the Netiya Facebook page. 

Attendees included Amira Al-Sarraf, head of school at New Horizon School, a day school serving the American-Muslim community; the Rev. Jeff Utter of All Paths Divinity School; and others. The two were among those who discussed “mystical traditions around tree planting” prior to the gardening in the orchard, according to the Facebook page. 

Netiya, founded in 2010, is a Jewish network dedicated to advancing urban agriculture in religious institutions, nonprofits and schools across Los Angeles.

A slew of diverse religious leaders, including Temple Ramat Zion Rabbi Ahud Sela, Los Angeles Police Department Chaplain Ken Crawford and others, turned out at a Nov. 23 Thanksgiving-inspired interfaith service at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge.

From left: Temple Ramat Zion Cantor Daniel Friedman, the Rev. Ramon Valera of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Rev. Joseph Choi of Northridge United Methodist Church, Mufti Ibrahim Qureshi of Islamic Center of Northridge, Temple Ramat Zion Rabbi Ahud Sela, the Rev. Karen Murata of Northridge United Methodist Church and Father David Loftus of Our Lady of Lourdes. Photo by Joe Morchy

In total, the event attracted “over 600 people from all faiths,” according to Michele Nachum, a spokeswoman for Temple Ramat Zion.

Additional participants at the evening gathering included Temple Ramat Zion Cantor Daniel Friedman; Northridge United Methodist Church Senior Pastor the Rev. Joseph Choi and Associate Pastor the Rev. Karen Murata; Islamic Center of Northridge Mufti Ibrahim Qureshi; and Father David Loftus of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish School.

Described as an “interfaith service in Northridge to build community and understanding,” the event also featured an interfaith choir composed of members of Temple Ramat Zion, United Methodist Church and Our Lady of Lourdes. Conservative synagogue Temple Ramat Zion participates in an interfaith Thanksgiving event every year.

Article updated Jan. 21, 2016: The Journal mistakenly reported the Friends of ELNET event raised approximately $50,000, not $500,000.

How to not spoil your interfaith kids during the holiday season

“We get twice the presents!”

Most interfaith kids will utter this classic, and rather obnoxious, boast at some point during childhood. I have to admit, it makes me wince and grit my teeth a little. As an interfaith child myself, I understand all too well that bragging about Christmas and Chanukah gifts can be a defense mechanism designed to dazzle and deflect those who view interfaith families with skepticism and disapproval. 

But as the parent of two interfaith children, now 17 and 20, it was crucial every year to at least attempt to reduce the avalanche of holiday packages, boxes and bags. I really did not want my interfaith kids to feel entitled, superior or somehow wealthier than their single-faith playmates.

To be honest, I did try to give my kids double the gifts, but I wanted those gifts to be metaphorical or experiential, not material. The plan was to bestow on them deep connections to both Judaism and Christianity, education in the history and rituals and beliefs of both religions, and opportunities to celebrate with extended family on both sides. In lieu of buying stuff, my husband and I tried to focus on creating deep sensory memories for our children: frosting gingerbread houses and frying latkes, hanging ornaments and dancing around the menorah.

OK, so we are not total Scrooges, or Grinches, or ascetics. Each child got one pile of gifts for the holidays, and “Santa” delivered that pile on Christmas morning. I do understand why some families who don’t celebrate Christmas give a huge mound of presents on Chanukah instead. But giving two piles of presents on two overlapping holidays seemed to me like a misguided attempt to make the two holidays equal. 

Part of the beauty of celebrating both religions for our family is that Chanukah does not have to compete with Christmas. Instead, we let Chanukah be a more modest holiday, appropriate to its modest place in the Jewish liturgical calendar, where it stands behind Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot in terms of importance.

Part of our strategy was to communicate with all the grandparents and aunts and uncles our intention to try to keep the gift-giving under control, and instead focus on those who are truly in need. One visionary great-uncle gave donations to a different charity each year at Christmas in lieu of presents, and wrote a letter about his choice to each member of the extended family. My mother has taken to donating goats and sheep and chickens in the name of each of her grandchildren through Heifer International. And each year, we shepherded our children to the local Alternative Gift Fair, where they made charitable donations in lieu of Chanukah gifts on certain nights: drumming lessons for youth in detention, psychotherapy and fresh local vegetable deliveries for low-income Washington, D.C., residents, and bicycle-repair kits for people in Uganda and Honduras.

And cumulatively, over the years, I must admit they got a lot of toys and clothes and books.

But being an interfaith family provided fresh incentive each year to focus on the carols and the klezmer, the firelight and the candlelight, and spending time with both sets of relatives. It took a conscious effort to keep Chanukah and Christmas from disappearing under a drift of torn red-and-green and blue-and-white wrapping paper. 

We did not always succeed. But I hope that if you ask one of my nearly grown kids about the benefits of being part of an interfaith family, you will get a deeper answer than “Twice the presents!”  

Susan Katz Miller, a former Newsweek reporter, is the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.” She blogs regularly at, Huffington Post and The Seesaw interfaith advice column at The Jewish Daily Forward. You can find her on Twitter @BeingBoth.

‘Coming Together in Faith on Climate’ at the Washington National Cathedral

Zeh Hayom Asah Adonai – Nagila Venismicha Bo!
This is day God has given us; let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Many of us went to sleep last night, still stirred by the words of Pope Francis, reinforced by the additional teachings of faith leaders from across the spiritual spectrum that filled this cathedral with passion, commitment and hope, amplified by live streaming, Facebook and Twitter.
Now who would have imagined we would wake to news that China has finally committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through an ambitious cap and trade program?
Every day that God gives us is a gift, but thank you God, for giving us some news we can celebrate!
In his address to Congress and in the words of Laudato Si, the pope has not only challenged all of us to confront the catastrophic climate crisis, he has also modeled for us the critical role the faith community must play to avert ecological and social disaster.  Our role is threefold: We must make the spiritual argument, we must do the political work and we must inspire our people to act.
Let us begin with the spiritual argument. As faith leaders, we are uniquely positioned to call our society and our nation to task, to live up to our own ancient and enduring cherished values.
As a Jew, the spiritual argument to confront the crisis of our climate couldn't have been clearer as I sat in services the day before yesterday. As the world witnessed the pope being welcomed to our country by the President and thousands of people of faith, the Jewish people were gathered in synagogues across the world to conclude the High Holy Days – the 10 days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.  For thousands of years, the Jewish people have celebrated the New Year on Rosh Hashanah by rejoicing in God’s creation and then spending days reflecting on our transgressions, seeking atonement on Yom Kippur.  What a metaphor for the crisis humanity faces at this fragile moment.
If we really truly rejoice in the splendor of God’s creation; if we mean it when we say The Earth is God’s and fullness thereof; if we truly believe we have been enjoined to be stewards of the earth – then atone we must.
For human activity has led to a warming of our planet, a rising of the seas, a poisoning of our soil, seas and air.
Human greed has depleted our resources, led us to catastrophic consumption, and threatens to displace scores of humanity in the face of violent storms, and barren fields.
So yes, if we wish to celebrate the gift God gave us – the gift of existence, of living, and breathing, of seeing and tasting – then we must acknowledge the responsibility that human existence carries in the face of the climate crisis of our age. Atone we must for the sin of HASH-CHATA – laying waste to earths abundance.
Indeed, the liturgy of Yom Kippur is all plural. We repeat over and over “Al Cheit Shechatanu Lifanecha.”  For the sin we have committed against you… Our transgression against creation; our sin against the most vulnerable who will suffer the most can only be atoned when in an expression of achdut – oneness – we collectively say Al Chet Shechatanu Lifanecha. We have sinned before you God and we will atone. We will repair and we will heal the world which we have laid waste.
As faith leaders we know that redemption is possible. Our job is to echo the voices of the ancient prophets in making the spiritual argument, in calling out the moral imperative.
But sounding the moral alarm is not enough. We have work to do. And we have politics to do. For as Pope Francis reminded Congress yesterday:
“You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”
Let us hear the pope’s charge, and do some politics. Let us think globally and act locally, but let us also think locally and act globally.
On a local level, we know our institutions can be a beacon of sustainability. There are so many examples. Temple Emanuel of Kensington, with a leading edge renovation, models energy efficiency and conservation in its design, and is working to become carbon neutral. Congregations across the United States work with their members to reduce the carbon foot print of the their homes, in addition to a range of congregational projects like community gardens, composting, solar energy and many more strategies to act locally.  It must become a norm of religious life in the United States and across the world to model environmental sustainability in our own homes and institutions; to live out God’s call to till and to tend, to steward Creation.
But in our local communities and congregations, we also have enormous (if untapped) political power. Millions of people of faith in our congregations and institutions have the power to challenge local governments and municipalities to become sustainable communities.
We also have the capacity to become a political force that might transform our nation, and the globe. The president has placed an enormous stake in the ground with the rules limiting carbon emissions. These rules are being challenged in court and they are being implemented in 50 states. Imagine the pressure we could put on 50 state governments if millions of our members, state by state, demanded that the rules be fully implemented?
We can also leverage our political power to act globally.  The Green Climate Fund was established in 2010, within the framework of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, in order to aid developing nations and mitigate the impact of climate change.  The goal is to raise $100 billion by 2020, with $10.5 billion pledged so far. President Obama has pledged $3 billion to the Fund, but we must pressure Congress to heed the pope’s call and make good on that pledge. Imagine scores of representatives and senators hearing from our millions and millions of members on the moral imperative to support the Fund.
In fact, given the news of this very day – that China has committed to a program of cap and trade – imagine if our congregants, parishioners and people of all faiths joined in pressuring Congress to finally pass real legislation to meaningfully reduce our nation’s emission of greenhouse gasses. China’s commitment removes the core argument against passing such limits – as well as cap and trade – the notion that we wouldn't be able to compete economically.  Indeed, on the eve of the pope’s visit, members of the United States Senate introduced a bill to reduce our emissions even beyond the targets set by the Obama administration.  Theirs is an audacious goal, and it is upon us – people of faith – to build the political will and the spiritual conviction so that such a vision can be realized!
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “The hour calls for Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.”
And so, our final task is to inspire. For our spiritual argument will be ignored and we our political work will fail if we don't act boldly to energize our followers to act with courage.  Pope Francis has given us an exemplary model of religious leadership – and we must follow him. In our preaching and in our teaching, hundreds of thousands of clergy and lay leaders must raise up the call to action to challenge minds and stir hearts.
As I sat in synagogue on Yom Kippur, I was inspired to action by the liturgical words I encountered of Rabbi Harold Schulweiss, informed by John Donne, and inspired by the Shema prayer – that central Jewish doctrine that says Adonai Echad, the God is One.
I close by sharing it with you.
You are the One who unites all things,
Who links life to life in a sacred chain.
The forests anchored in the soil
Breathe air into our lungs.
Our faces are reflected in the creatures of earth;
We carry the sea within us.
Our fate is connected to rivers and deserts,
Our family a many-branched Tree of Life.
All beings intertwine in You;
All are encompassed in “Adonai Echad.”
Thus no man is an island;
No soul exists apart.
To say echad is to know this truth:
To see the world whole, humankind undivided.
Precious and holy are these words we speak;
Adonai Echad – We proclaim You One.
So let us close by joining hands and saying these words together, let's repeat them three times:
Adonai Echad
Adonai Echad
Adonai Echad

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 2,000 Reform rabbis. Visit for more.

At historic L.A. synagogue, songwriter pushes interfaith harmony and urban renewal

On the first floor of the Pico Union Project, members of the Women’s Mosque of America are preparing the historic sanctuary for prayers, spreading long bolts of cloth on the floor, hanging a banner from the organ loft and placing an open copy of the Koran in the just-vacated Holy Ark.

Outside, news crews — including one from an Italian television station — have gathered to document this gathering of the mosque, reportedly the first women’s mosque in America and already the subject ofinternational headlines. Across the street, police officers monitor the situation, just in case.

On the second floor, with the Torah just taken from the ark leaned against a wall nearby, Craig Taubman ruefully considers the flurry of activity.

“It’s just people praying,” he says with exasperation. “Why is this such a big deal?”

For Taubman, the building’s owner and the founder of the nonprofitPico Union Project, it seems perfectly natural that the oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles should play host to five prayer groups — the mosque, a Korean church, an African-American church, a new branch of an existing church and a Catholic ministry — as well as occasional Jewish Sabbath services.

“You can’t expect the world to love each other if you can’t model it in your houses of worship,” Taubman told JTA. “At such point in time that our houses of worship become more open, on that day, God will be one and God’s name will be one. It’s only at that point that it can happen.”

Uniting the world’s oft-quarreling religions under one roof is only one part of Taubman’s vision for the Pico Union Project, which is housed in a building erected in 1909 by Sinai Temple, the first Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. Taubman also wants the space to function as a performance venue, a community space and an advocate for the surrounding Pico Union neighborhood, a largely poor and Hispanic area on the edge of downtown that teeters on the brink of gentrification.

Taubman’s grand sense of possibility fits with the rest of his personality, which tends toward the unrestrained. Topped by a shock of white hair, Taubman, 56, is an outgoing, irrepressible fount of ideas, words and wisecracks.

A former composer of commercial jingles, and songwriter and performer for Disney, Taubman is known in the Jewish world for helping to launch the wildly successful Friday Night Live prayer service at Sinai Temple, which is now a pillar of L.A.’s wealthy west side Jewish community. The service regularly drew hundreds of young Jews every month for more than a decade.

Taubman was introduced to the building by his longtime friend Stephen Sass in 2012. The Welsh Presbyterian church that had occupied the building for 88 years was by then virtually defunct, and the church’s leaders wanted to sell the building back to the Jewish community. Sass, the president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, wanted to preserve the building, but he and the all-volunteer society had their hands full nursing the derelict Breed Street Shul back to life. Then he thought of Taubman.

“He has energy and drive, and he is passionate about things he gets involved with,” Sass said. “Once Craig came inside and I saw his eyes light up, it just seemed like a natural shidduch.”

The Pico Union Project is among a number of historic American synagogue buildings that have been repurposed by Jewish institutions. Some, such as the Vilna Shul in Boston and the 6th and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, include regular Jewish prayer services. Others, like the Eldridge Street Museum in New York City and the Lloyd Street Synagogue in Baltimore, function primarily as museums of Jewish and neighborhood history.

But none share the Pico Union Project’s emphasis on multiculturalism. Perhaps ironically, of all the religious groups he has invited into the space, Taubman has had the most difficulty in establishing a permanent Jewish presence. Jewish-themed concerts and theater pieces are held regularly, and Taubman has organized occasional Jewish prayer services, but no regular Jewish prayer community has taken root, even though the Jewish population in the downtown area has been growing in recent years.

“The indigenous Jewish community, they don’t want it yet,” Taubman said. “Not enough to come and build it.”

Still, Taubman argues that bringing diverse communities together is a profoundly Jewish endeavor — an objective that has resonated with the other religious groups involved in the project.

“What’s happening at Pico Union, the ways we connect, the way Craig brings us together, really is representative of Los Angeles,” said Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, leader of the Words of Encouragement Christian Church. “For me as a Christian, Christ love is all about the love of God, is all about loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Taubman has worked to put that mission into practice. He has brought trash cans for the neighborhood, helped plant new trees and hosted community resource fairs. He proudly points out that his building hasn’t been tagged with graffiti in two years.

But though local real estate prices are rising rapidly, the neighborhood remains impoverished and occasionally violent. Omar Perich, head of Victory Outreach Downtown LA, a ministry focused on gang members and recovering addicts that is housed at the Pico Union Project, said that gunfire erupted on Sunday night as his congregation was leaving the building, although nobody was hurt.

And on a recent afternoon, Taubman stepped outside to see an inebriated man slumped on a bench. Taubman brought the man a jug of cider, but he later confessed, “I don’t know what to do about it. I know, love thy neighbor, but … I’m not comfortable with it.”

Still, at a recent concert by the Israeli world music group Yemen Blues, Taubman watched silently and beamed as the group played and the audience danced in the aisles.

“There’s a word that Pico Union provides,” Perich told JTA, “and it’s ‘hope.'”

Moving and shaking: Celebrating MLK Jr., Avraham Fried concert at the Saban Theatre and more

The Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) sanctuary was overflowing, every one of the 1,000 seats downstairs and in the balcony filled on Jan. 18 with congregants, friends and guests from Los Angeles churches and other community groups. They came to celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a multicultural — mostly musical — program marking the 50 years that have passed since the civil rights leader spoke from the TIOH bimah at Friday night services on Feb. 26, 1965.

In his speech, excerpts of which were played during Sunday evening’s program, King spoke of racism, militarism and poverty as the defining problems of the time. 

In the evening’s keynote address, PBS talk-show host and author Tavis Smiley (“Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year”) raised those same problems as being just as relevant today. “Sound familiar?” he said, as he quoted excerpts from King’s 1965 sermon.

Keynote speaker Tavis Smiley apeared at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Photo by Ryan Torok

With a warning that he might offend some in attendance, Smiley also speculated on how King might have reacted to the cartoons in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which sparked a terrorist attack, as well as to the Sony Pictures film “The Interview,” which depicts the assassination of North Korean President Kim Jong-un. While clearly expressing his own disapproval of the terrorists in France and without condoning the leadership of the North Korean president, Smiley advocated for “civility” instead of criticizing another’s religion in cartoons and comic satires targeting the death of another country’s leader. 

“There can be no social mobility without social civility, and, frankly, as much as I treasure my free-speech rights, we can do better,” Smiley challenged the audience.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also spoke, vowing to tackle some of the serious challenges facing society that King focused on decades ago.

“Let us raise the minimum wage, as Dr. King called upon us to do. … Let us end homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles … for our veterans and, soon after, for all,” Garcetti said.

The evening also featured video reflections on their callings by area Muslim and Christian faith leaders, followed by brief appearances by each of them — including Greg Bellamy of One Church International, the Rev. Sam Koh of Hillside Church, the Rev. Ian Davies of St. Thomas the Apostle Hollywood and Imam Asim Buyuksoy of the Islamic Center of Southern California — as well as song and dance performances from church and community groups. Performers included the Life Choir (appearing with its founder H.B. Barnum) and the Leimert Park Community Program’s Harmony Project Youth Choir led by its music director, Kenneth Anderson. The latter performed Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which garnered the first standing ovation of several throughout the night. The 1964 song was an anthem for the civil-rights movement.

As a finale, a gospel-tinged performance, complete with hand clapping, of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” had approximately 75 singers onstage at once, including members of the TIOH choir, the Life Choir and the Harmony Project. The song closed out the concert portion of the evening, which began at 7:15 p.m. and ended around 9 p.m.

TIOH Chazzan Danny Maseng served as the night’s musical director, performing Elton John’s “Border Song” with a soulful singer identified only as MAJOR, of One Church Inernational. Demonstrating the range of musical styles, Shelly Fox, a member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and a frequent TIOH soloist, performed Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor” in a duet with Andrea Fuentes. Two groups of colorfully costumed young Korean-American dancers, one of near-toddlers, from the Jung Im Lee Korean Dance Academy, also performed, including a traditional fan dance.

The mastermind and producer of the event was composer and TIOH board of trustees vice president Michael Skloff (best known for composing the theme song from TV’s “Friends”). To honor Skloff’s efforts, TIOH Rabbi John Rosove presented the impresario with a framed and autographed photograph of King shaking hands with the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who was the congregation’s spiritual leader when King visited the synagogue a half century ago. Marta Kauffman, Skloff’s wife, an accomplished TV showrunner (“Friends”), staged the fast-paced and multifaceted event. Monica and Phil Rosenthal sponsored the evening.

Attendees included Smiley’s mother, Joyce Smiley; West Hollywood Mayor John D’Amico; and David Levinson of Big Sunday, a co-sponsor of the event and which held a clothing drive the next day at its Melrose Boulevard headquarters in honor of the MLK holiday.

Alicia Bleier, 54, a TIOH member, said she had enjoyed the evening. Speaking to the Journal during a dessert reception that followed the concert, she described King as “the most inspirational leader in the past 50 years. I pray and hope for a new Black leader who is as insightful and pragmatic as he was. … I can only hope we have another Martin Luther King.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day-inspired Shabbat services took place across Los Angeles last weekend. 

On Jan. 16, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and singer/songwriter/community leader Craig Taubman (Pico Union Project) led an interfaith service at Sinai in Westwood. Guests included the Revs. Chip Murray, Mark Whitlock and Najuma Pollard, all of  USC’s Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement. The evening included a performance by H.B. Barnum’s Life Choir.

Nearby at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills that same evening, Temple of the Arts’ Rabbi David Baron officiated a service and performance that honored the Rev. Ronald Myers, a civil-rights activist and founder of the modern movement promoting the holiday of Juneteenth. The evening drew approximately 500 attendees. 

Speakers and performers included Consul General of France in Los Angeles Axel Cruau, and jazz harpist and pianist Corky Hale. Actor Gabriel Macht (“Suits”) appeared, and television editor Ari Macht served as keynote speaker. Stephen Macht, an actor/director and the father of Gabriel and Ari, produced the event.

Events took place at Temple Aliyah and Beth Shir Shalom, as well. 

At Temple Aliyah, a Conservative synagogue in Woodland Hills, congregants came together on Friday with St. Bernardine of Siena Catholic Church, the Mohammedi Center and the Islamic Society of West Valley in “prayer, music and mutual respect” in celebration of King, a press release said.

Titled “Voices of Freedom: The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King,” the event featured Life Choir; gospel artist DeBorah Sharpe-Taylor, singer John Bilezikjian, Arabic singer and actor Ben Youcef, the Voices of Peace Choir, the  Kolot Tikvah (Voices of Hope) choir and others. 

Meanwhile, Beth Shir Shalom, which is based in Santa Monica and describes itself as a “progressive, Reform synagogue,” paired with the Watts congregation Macedonia Baptist Church for the weekend. Approximately 175 individuals turned out for Friday night services, which celebrated King, at Beth Shir Shalom. On Sunday, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom served as a guest preacher at Macedonia. 

“It’s an amazing, joyous spiritual experience for a rabbi to address this combined congregation of my people along with people from Macedonia,” he said in a phone interview about the Sunday event, which also featured Macedonia’s the Rev. Everett Bell. “It’s just a privilege and an honor, and we are so committed to doing more with each other than a once-a-year celebration.” 

Nearly 1,800 people packed the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on Jan. 11 to see Avraham Fried in concert during a musical extravaganza presented by the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation and the synagogue’s  Cantor Arik Wollheim. Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau also took to the stage and delivered an impassioned address, according to a press release.

Avraham Fried (right) sings during a concert at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. Photo by Joe Shalmoni © 2015. All rights reserved

Born and raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Fried is a Jewish singer, songwriter and musician whose musical style integrates variations of rock, pop and jazz, and features Jewish lyrics and themes. His hits include works sung in English, Hebrew and Yiddish. He has performed worldwide to large audiences, including a 2007 show in Jerusalem with Charedi superstar Yaakov Shwekey commemorating the 40th anniversary of the reunification of the city.

The event attracted large groups from Beth Jacob, Chabad yeshiva schools, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, Maimonides Academy, Beverly Hills High School, and YULA boys and girls high schools, as well as casual Jewish music fans, the press release stated.

Sunday night’s concert was a festive occasion, as Fried and Wollheim involved the audience from the outset, imploring them to participate by singing along, dancing and forming conga lines in the aisles. Wollheim asked why a city like Los Angeles, with such a vibrant Jewish community, isn’t host to more events like this.

A conga line formed during the Fried concert at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. Photo by Joe Shalmoni (C) 2015. All rights reserved

“What is it about Jewish-American culture that prevents this from happening, and why does Jewish music tend to be limited to weddings in this city?” the Israeli-born cantor asked, according to the press release. “Why are we not a major consumer of Jewish music?” 

Wollheim indicated that he hopes to change this trend in Los Angeles and is already mapping out ideas for a large-scale Jewish music event in 2016.

— Oren Peleg, Contributing Writer

Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles has appointed Erica Rothblum as its new head of school.

From left: Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Sheryl Goldman (executive director of Temple Beth Am), Erica Rothblum, Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny, Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman (director of Youth, Learning & Engagement) and Rabbi Ari Lucas. Photo by Lee Salem

“I am excited to help Pressman continue to push forward and continue to grow its excellent programs and reputation in the community while maintaining its warm, inclusive community,” Rothblum, who started July 1, told the Journal.  

Pressman Academy houses an early education center, the temple’s religious school and a Solomon Schechter Day School. Prior to Rothblum’s arrival, Rabbi Mitchel Malkus was head of school for 12 years. He left in 2013 to work at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.; Temple Beth Am Rabbi Emeritus Joel Rembaum served as the interim head of school.

Rothblum grew up in suburban Boston, received an Ed.D. in educational leadership from UCLA and began her teaching career in Compton as part of the Teach for America program. Before taking the position at Pressman, she was head of school at Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village.  

Rothblum said she was drawn to Pressman because of its national reputation for strong academics, particularly Judaic studies, and its local reputation for a strong community and “menschlikayt” behavior. She noted that there are many challenges the academy and Jewish day schools in general face. 

“We face what many Day Schools are facing. The rising costs of tuition, along with the expensive nature of being a Jew in Los Angeles, create a strain for our families. We need to continue finding ways to offer an excellent program to every Jewish child who wants a Jewish education,” Rothblum said.

— Rebecca Weiner, Contributing Writer

The Levantine Cultural Center’s 13th anniversary gala on Dec. 13 raised $50,000 for the nonprofit, which hopes to open a second, $1 million facility in either North Hollywood or Westwood by June 2015. 

Executive director Jordan Elgrably said the organization has come a long way since its inception but that the work it does is as necessary as ever. Located on West Pico Boulevard, the center presents arts and education programs on the Middle East and North Africa, according to its mission statement.

Levantine Cultural Center executive director Jordan Elgrably appears at the organization's 13th anniversary gala. Photo by Sheana Ochoa

“The need for this, I guess for better or worse, hasn’t diminished, it has only increased,” Elgrably said in a phone interview. “If you look at the events of this past summer — with the Gaza conflicts, the events in Ferguson [Mo.] — and the events in Paris last week, intolerance and racism and misunderstanding about each other is manifest, and our work — it sounds cliche to say it —  has only just begun. All I have done is scratch the surface of this.”

The gala, which took place at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, drew approximately 500 attendees and featured a “Sultans of Satire: Middle East Comic Relief” comedy show, with performers Aron Kader, Sammy Obeid, MT Abou-Daoud, Melissa Shoshani, Sherwin Arae and Tehran.

Guests included Bana Hilal and Josh Elbaum, members of the center’s national advisory board; Ani Zonneveld, president and co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values; Bassam Marjiya, an immigration attorney born and raised in Nazareth who has previously appeared at the center; and Nikoo Berenji, who has supported past Levantine events.

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

I miss his voice: Remembering Maher Hathout

As a rabbi who ran an interfaith organization, I had the opportunity to build deep relationships in the Muslim-American community.  And because of those relationships and my understanding of what Dr. Maher Hathout meant to that community, I mourn his passing.  He and I had few one-on-one interactions but I can say without equivocation that when I was in his presence, his wisdom and integrity were palpable.  There was something in him that I hope to embody in myself as a religious leader.

I say this knowing how polarizing he was to the Jewish community with his provocative statements about Israel.  I want to be clear that my mourning ought not to be mistaken for agreement with his perspective.  There were times when I felt myself triggered and upset by how he depicted the conflict.  But limiting a discussion of him in the Jewish community to his politics on Israel does a grave injustice to the historical importance of this man.

I cannot overstate the role that Dr. Maher Hathout played in the American Muslim community.  He was a founding father, a visionary who held a mirror up to his community and built a distinctly progressive American form of Islam shaped by and for our cultural context. 

When navigating the interfaith world, I often make the claim that part of the tension between American Muslims and Jews emerges from a discrepancy in our communal infrastructures.  Jews experience a void of Muslim voices in mainstream spaces in part because they do not have the robust array of organizations to represent their interests.  While Muslim communities have existed in America for centuries, the major influx of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia began in the middle of the 20th century.  To put it more crassly, American Muslim organizations are about 80 to 100 years behind those of American Jews.   

Dr. Maher Hathout was a leader in that early wave of Muslim immigrants to the United States who saw the American context as a blessing for Islam.  His vision and leadership built those early institutions with purpose.  “Home is not where you grandparents are buried but where your grandchildren will be raised,” he famously stated.  And he was not afraid to be a voice of self-critique in his own community.  His progressive, egalitarian values invited questioning, marginalized extremism, and raised an entire generation of thoughtful leaders.  The fact that so many of today’s rising Muslim leaders in the mainstream are his disciples is no coincidence.

To translate his significance to the Jewish context, his passing would be like the death of our early Reformers – Isaac Mayer Wise and David Einhorn.  These giants of Reform Judaism defined what it meant to be Jewish and American simultaneously without apology or compromise.  That is who Dr. Hathout was for so many of my Muslim friends who mourn him.
In the wake of the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris, I miss his voice.  He would have been unequivocal in condemnation to reclaim Islam for the center. I am grateful that his legacy was influential enough to leave a new generation to step up and fill that role. 

Rabbi Sarah Bassin serves as the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.  She also serves on the board of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change after her tenure at that organization as executive director

Opinion: Christians’ letter was reasonable, worded sensitively

There has long been an unwritten covenant between the Jewish establishment and Christian leaders when it comes to interfaith dialogue: “We can talk about any religious issues we like, but criticism of Israel’s human rights violations is off limits.”

Over the past few weeks, we’ve painfully witnessed what can happen when Christians break this covenant by speaking their religious conscience.

On Oct. 5, 15 prominent American Christian leaders released a letter that called on Congress to make military aid to Israel “contingent upon its government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies.”

While most Americans wouldn’t consider it unreasonable for our nation to insist that an aid recipient abide by U.S. laws, some Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, lashed out at their Christian colleagues, eventually walking out on a scheduled Jewish-Christian roundtable. They are now requesting that the Christian leaders come to a “summit meeting” to discuss the situation.

Considering the vehemence of such a response, one might assume that the Christian leaders’ letter was filled with outrageous and incendiary anti-Israel rhetoric.

But in fact their letter is a sensitively worded and faithful call supporting “both Israelis and Palestinians in their desire to live in peace and well-being,” as well as acknowledging “the pain and suffering of Israelis as a result of Palestinian actions,” the “horror and loss of life from rocket attacks from Gaza and past suicide bombings,” and “the broad impact that a sense of insecurity and fear has had on Israeli society.”

Yes, the authors of the letter also expressed their concern over “widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinians, including killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement, among others.”

As painful as it might be for these Jewish groups to hear, however, these are not scurrilous or arguable “allegations.” They long have been documented by international human rights groups, including the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. The letter points out that a 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices has detailed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.

Why has the Jewish establishment reacted so violently to a relatively balanced and religiously based call? Because by speaking their conscience, these Christian leaders had the audacity to break the unwritten covenant: If you want to have a dialogue with us, leave Israel alone.

A recent JTA Op-Ed by Rabbi Noam E. Marans, who serves as director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, provided an interesting window into the mechanics of this covenant. In his Oct. 21 piece, “Christians’ letter is an unworthy tactic,” Marans said nothing about the substance of the letter itself, choosing instead to vehemently attack the Protestant leaders and reject the statement as nothing less than “the opening of a new anti-Israel front.”

Marans went on to surmise that this reasonable, religiously based call for justice was the product of “certain leaders” who are frustrated with “their own failure to convince denominations to use divestment as a club to pressure Israel.” Nowhere did he address the issue of Israeli human rights violations (except to refer to them as “allegations.”) In the end, he suggested that this letter represents “the anti-Israel sentiment of some Christian leaders and their small but vocal, energetic and well-funded following who are attempting to hijack the positive trajectory of Christian-Jewish relations.”

It is difficult to read such a statement without concluding that Marans’ definition of “postive Christian-Jewish relations” means anything other than “no criticism of Israel allowed.”

It is important to note that the letter to Congress was not written by a few angry church renegades; it was authored by 15 prominent church leaders representing a wide spectrum of the Protestant faith community, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker agency) and the Mennonite Central Committee.

While it is painful to read such accusations leveled at respected Christian leaders by a Jewish director of interreligious and intergroup relations, it is even more saddening that some Jewish organizations have chosen to walk away from a scheduled interfaith roundtable, then demand that the Christian leaders attend a “summit” on their own dictated terms.

It is not the role of Jewish organizations to dictate how their Christian partners can live out their conscience or their values, no matter how much they may disagree. Unpleasant realities cannot be discarded simply because these organizations regard such issues as off limits.

We can only hope that these Christian leaders will stand firm and that this sad episode will lead us to a new kind of interfaith covenant — one based on trust and respect, a willingness to face down our fear and suspicion of one another, and a readiness to discuss the painful, difficult issues that may divide us.

Will the American Jewish establishment be up to such a task?

Rabbi Brant Rosen is the co-chair of the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace and a congregational rabbi in Evanston, Ill.

Editorial Cartoon: Interfaith Roundtable


Why the Wiesenthal Center left the interfaith roundtable

This article first appeared in The Jewish Press

Sometimes, only a period of separation will save a troubled marriage. That is why the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish groups are pulling out of the Christian-Jewish Roundtable. Fifteen liberal Protestant leaders, including those of the Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist denominations, chose the Jewish High Holiday season to urge Congress to curtail U.S. aid to Israel.

We were expecting a different initiative from our dialogue partners, one focusing on the tens of millions of Christians under siege from Nigeria to Afghanistan. The oldest Christian communities on earth in the Assyrian Triangle of Iraq have been all but ethnically cleaned. More than ten million Coptic Christians in Egypt live in perpetual fear of a government controlled by the extremist Muslim Brotherhood. Practicing Christians in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are incarcerated on charges of blasphemy; in North Korea, they languish in huge concentration camps. As for the plight of the Palestinians–more have been killed in Syria in the past few weeks than in almost four years of conflict with Israel, since the end of the Gaza War.

After decades of breaking bread together, we would have expected these church groups to ask us to join with them to shake the rafters with a prophetic scream on behalf of a religious minority under siege – Christians.

Instead, these groups stand mute while their own brothers and sisters are persecuted, and seek to invoke the wrath of Heaven and Congress on the Jewish state.

We’re not happy about the breakup of a relationship forged with optimism and sincerity. After WW 2, many Christians felt some responsibility for the theological anti-Semitism that set the stage for the racial anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Germany. For many, in the wake of images of Auschwitz, building bridges of understanding and respect to the Jewish world became a priority. At the same time, Jews saw the need to begin a new chapter in Jewish history, one in which Christian friends and neighbors were able to look to their own theology to find the dignity and validity of the Jewish experience. Decades of fruitful conversation and education followed.

There were always bumps in the road, particularly regarding the Jewish State. Unlike Evangelicals who were enthusiastic in their support, liberal denominations had a hard time fully accepting Israel and understanding its centrality to Jews. When Arab armies threatened Israel’s existence in 1948, ’67, and ’73, these denominations did not speak up, to the deep consternation of their Jewish partners. Both parties, however, remained in a less-than-perfect relationship, believing that a core mutual understanding could guide future dialogue. In the case of some signatories of the letter,there never was a relationship. The Mennonite “peace” church has never had anything but unvarnished contempt for Israel; the Quakers may be friends tomany, but not to the Jewish people.

Now, with the latest threat to vaporize Israel still ringing in our ears from Ahmadinejad's soon-to-be nuclearized Iran, with millions of Israelis livingwithin the target range of Hamas and Hezbollah rockets—these erstwhile friends choose this moment to call upon the U.S. to cut into Israel’s defensecapabilities.

Why the slap in the face? Thank God, their call to Congress will fall on deaf ears. Americans’ support for Israel remains bipartisan and strong. Did these church elite believe their initiative would lead to more scrutiny of foreign aid? Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt and the Palestinians would likely lose more from calls for greater transparency, not the Jewish state. Israel provides U.S. with vital intelligence, technological and military cooperation, and military aid to Israel creates American jobs.

If peace is these churches’ sole objective, shouldn’t they also criticize the PA’s corruption that led to losing the trust of their own people?

Why else release such a letter? Some suggest that the signatories are seeking to placate the entrenched, vocal anti-Israel extremists in their own churches. Those activists were incensed when the rank and file of several denominations adopted a policy not of divestment but of investment, a strategy that actually produces tangible benefits for the Palestinians.

Alas, we sense there is also a more basic reason at play. Some at this table really don’t like us. How else can we account for such a selective moral outrage, pounding the Jewish State for real and imagined sins, but yet to demand that the U.S. take action when their co-religionists face murder andethnic cleansing? Only a deep-seated hatred could turn these leaders deaf to all the other urgent issues raging around them.

We are in no need of staying in an abusive relationship. There are other voices in the Christian world, and other roundtables – with Catholics, with Evangelicals – that have been productive and mutually satisfying. Moreover, we will maintain our affection for the majority of churchgoers in these very same denominations whose table we are leaving. They, too, are being served poorly by the same people who misuse their mantle of leadership.

Why does it all matter? Because, in the past, Christians and Jews working cooperatively helped change the world. Only a few decades ago, Rev. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked arm in arm in the Deep South, helping the civil rights struggle to reach new heights. An injured world awaits all the good that could come from the positive power of collective religious conviction. When others are ready for a genuine relationship, we will be there.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

© 2012 JewishPress. All rights reserved.

‘Jewtopia’s’ universal truths

David Katz knew minutes into watching Bryan Fogel’s “Jewtopia,” a star-studded independent film adapted from the hit comedic play about interfaith dating, that it would anchor his Malibu International Film Festival. Unfortunately, Katz had his epiphany at 3 a.m.

“It was so frustrating,” he said. “I wanted to call Bryan, but I had to wait until a decent hour.”

Fogel, a Malibu resident, felt compelled to submit his first movie to his local cinema showcase. And Katz, the festival’s executive director, chose the film from more than 2,000 submissions. 

“Jewtopia,” which had its world premiere on April 26 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, screened opening night at the 13th annual Malibu International Film Festival on Sept. 22, winning its Audience Choice Award. 

“He deserves this,” Katz said. 

It took writer-director Fogel six years to make the film version of “Jewtopia,” about as long as it took to bring the play, which he co-wrote with Sam Wolfson, to fruition. 

“It was a tough one to get going,” Fogel said. “Getting a movie made is a miracle … because the studios are only interested in making ‘The Avengers.’ ” 

When it came to adapting the hit play, which opened in May 2003 at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse, Fogel looked to broaden its appeal. For instance, gone are the play’s in-jokes about the online Jewish dating site JDate.

“It’s very different from the play,” Fogel said. “Ultimately, it’s a great buddy movie. The play is a cast of seven; the movie has a couple hundred. It’s a very loose adaptation. In a play, the characters tell you the sky is falling. In a movie, you better show the sky falling.” 

“Jewtopia” revolves around Chris O’Connell (Ivan Sergei) and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore), two childhood friends who reunite years later. Chris, a non-Jew, feels comfortable dating decision-making Jewish women, while Adam escapes his Jewish roots by pursuing shiksas. The pair form a “Strangers on a Train”-style pact, schooling each other on how to score with their women of choice. 

Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jon Lovitz co-star in the film, which also features Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Nicollette Sheridan, Wendie Malick and Phil Rosenthal, creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” 

Most of the stars had not seen the play, Fogel said, but “the cast fell in like dominoes,” thanks to a strong script.

Fogel says that “Jewtopia’s” humor is universal because it taps into “an ongoing truth of humanity.” “I don’t think it’s just gentiles and Jews; it’s all religions and cultures. If you’re North Korean, being with someone from South Korea is taboo. It’s universal. It’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” he said.

Fogel says that the play — a hit with audiences from West Hollywood to Manhattan — was based on real-life experiences. 

“I never went through what Adam Lipschitz went through. I’m not that person. I didn’t go through those anxieties or have a nervous breakdown and enter a mental institution,” said Fogel, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox household in Denver and attended the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But there’s something very real going on in a Jewish home, having pressure on how to live your life and who you date.”

Although less Jewishly active today than during his youth, Fogel attends Jewish Federation functions and says his Jewishness informs everything he does. “It’s the sum of your existence, and how one is brought up ultimately affects who you are,” he said.  

Still friends with his collaborator, Fogel said he had not seen Wolfson, a television writer, in a few months and was unaware of what projects he was currently working on. Wolfson’s involvement with the film was limited to co-writing the script, Fogel said.

Andy Fickman, the play’s director, produced the movie, which was shot throughout Los Angeles, including in Sherman Oaks, Simi Valley, Burbank, Venice and the Santa Monica Mountains in July and August 2011.

Production designer Denise Hudson, costume designer Caroline B. Marx and art department assistant Jessica Shorten said they enjoyed collaborating on this first-time filmmaker’s production. 

“There were so many comedians on the set,“ Marx said. “It was a fun summer!”

At Saturday night’s after-party, revelers — Jews and non-Jews alike — smiled as they recalled the film. 

“It hit home for me with my own Jewish upbringing,” said Jeffrey Blum, who was among the 200 moviegoers at the Toyota-sponsored festival’s opening-night gala at Malibu Lumber Yard, an upscale shopping complex off Pacific Coast Highway.

Sonia Enriquez, who enjoyed the play, said she didn’t know what to expect from a film adaptation of “Jewtopia.” 

“I was pleasantly surprised,” she said. “It’s very different from the play. It’s a whole new experience.”

“There were times when the running joke ran too long,” said Mary Faherty, who added that the film was surprisingly good. 

“I love the film, even as a non-Jewish person. There are themes in it that are universal,” she said. “Everyone’s got their struggles with their culture and their parents. It feels good to know you’re not the only one being tortured!”

For more information about “Jewtopia,” visit

Rabbi reverses interfaith marriage policy

It’s not often that a rabbi’s High Holy Days sermon is interrupted by a standing ovation. But that is what happened — twice — when Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, dedicated his sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah to explaining why he was changing a long-held position and would from now on officiate at interfaith weddings.

“It’s almost like it opened the dam and the waters are just flowing,” Rosove said, describing the reaction both that day and in the week following. “People are crying at synagogue and at the nursery and day schools. I’m getting e-mail after e-mail of gratitude. It’s quite remarkable — a phenomenon I did not expect.”

Rosove recounted in his sermon a long process of decision-making that ultimately led him to go with his intuition.

“I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted, ‘Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire,’ ” Rosove told the 1,000 or so people gathered in the main sanctuary of the Hollywood Boulevard Reform congregation.

The Reform movement allows rabbis to make their own choice as to whether they will officiate at mixed-faith marriages. About 50 percent of marriages involving a Jew are now intermarriages, according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Later surveys have reported that around 25 percent of children in intermarried families are raised as Jews, compared with about 98 percent of children raised in all-Jewish families. 

At Temple Israel, about a third of the 1,000 member units are mixed-faith families, and Rosove estimates about 175 members are not Jewish. The temple has worked to embrace non-Jewish members and mixed families.

In his 25-minute sermon, Rosove explained how he has always struggled with declining to officiate at the weddings of clearly loving couples — even his own family members — when one member isn’t Jewish. That decision has become more difficult recently, when the people he is saying no to are people he’s known their whole lives — he was there for the baby naming, the bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation and family funerals.

“My ‘policy’ of officiating only when both partners were Jewish was based upon voices from Judaic texts and tradition, teachers and mentors who taught me that I was ordained a rabbi to help fulfill three vital purposes: to preserve the integrity of the Jewish covenantal relationship with God, the viability of the Jewish family, and the survival and continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. Those voices have sounded inside my head for decades along with the voice that commanded, ‘Thou shalt not officiate at an intermarriage ceremony!’ ” he said.

Rosove said he now believes he can fulfill those purposes in an increasingly diverse Jewish world by making Judaism a central component from the moment two people become a family.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it’s time for me to change my policy,” he said. 

Rosove placed some conditions on the weddings he will preside over. The couple must be connected to the synagogue and must be jointly committed to creating a Jewish home and to providing children with a Jewish education. The non-Jewish partner may not be active in any other religion, and Rosove will not co-officiate with clergy from another religion.

Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), says many rabbis in their 50s and 60s have recently changed their position on intermarriage. 

The Reform movement itself has moved to a more neutral position in recent years. Officially, the last resolution on the books is from 1973, and it opposes rabbinic officiation at mixed marriages, stating that interfaith marriage is contrary to Jewish tradition. It also recognizes that each rabbi will make his or her own decision. But in the last several years, the movement opted not to introduce any new resolutions on the topic.

“It’s not a yes or no, up or down question. It’s far more nuanced. The approach we are taking at CCAR is that our role is to help the rabbis process the question in a way that works best for him or her,” Fox said.

From 2008 to 2010, a task force worked to produce materials that offer the rabbis information and resources when making this decision and when counseling couples. Fox estimates that Reform rabbis nationally are split evenly on whether they officiate at interfaith weddings.

Rabbi Laura Geller at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills says she didn’t officiate at interfaith weddings for the first 30 years of her rabbinate, but her experience with highly committed, mixed-faith families caused her to change her mind.

“I came to understand that my role as a rabbi is to facilitate the creation of Jewish families, not Jewish marriages. I have discovered since that decision that when a rabbi takes planning a wedding very seriously, spending a lot of time with a couple, it becomes an opportunity to open a door that really can deepen a commitment to create a Jewish home,” she said.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, also a rabbi at Temple Israel, said that she struggles with this issue, and that she believes a couple can’t really know whether they are committing to a Jewish life when they are getting married, but will know later, when they join a synagogue or enroll kids at school. At that point, when they show up at temple, she is ready to fully embrace them, she said. But she is not willing to perform an intermarriage and gamble on a promise.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said he does not officiate at interfaith weddings, and he believes it is possible to say no in a way that people feel respected. 

He wonders whether “asking a non-Jew to stand under a chuppah, break a glass, utter traditional blessings, etc., is as disrespectful to the non-Jew and Judaism as asking a Jew to take communion in a church is to the Jew and Christianity,” Leder wrote in an e-mail. 

Rosove said he has already scheduled several weddings since the sermon. One young man who grew up in the synagogue had called him over the summer, and he had already met with the couple and is satisfied that they will raise a Jewish family. Another couple, married 15 years, asked him to perform a recommitment ceremony. 

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the more welcoming atmosphere would lead more of the non-Jewish members of Temple Israel to convert. 

Longtime Temple Israel member Darcy Vebber converted there in 1999, some 15 years after she was married. She was asked to lead a task force on the role of non-Jewish members in the congregation about 10 years ago, but the topic of weddings wasn’t even on the table, because the group knew Rosove’s policy. She says she was stunned and delighted by the rabbi’s change of heart.

“A friend of mine, for whom this is a pressing issue, feels a sense of relief, I guess in the same way that you would when any family member who you love fully accepts you,” Vebber said.

Messianic Judaism’s new interfaith push in Beverly Hills

Since it opened in 2011, the Interfaith Center of Beverly Hills has been sitting mostly empty.

On the one hand, it occupies a piece of prime real estate on the ground floor of a modern office building on a busy stretch of South Beverly Drive. Actors and agents take meetings at Urth Caffé, less than one block away. Just across the street, machers meet for coffee at Larry King’s Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. Although it’s hard to understand exactly what the stark, black letters above the Interfaith Center’s entrance mean, it’s just as hard to miss them.

Yet except for a few classes that take place during the week and a Christian prayer group that sublets the space for Sunday morning services, so few people use the spare storefront at the corner of Gregory Way and South Beverly Drive that the owner of the cafe across the street confessed she hadn’t ever seen anyone go in or out.

“I’d really like to know what goes on there,” said Anahit Hagopian, who owns the BeverLiz Café.

But for one older man who wandered in on a recent Tuesday afternoon — his full beard and long, curled sidelocks looking especially white against the black flat-topped, wide-brimmed hat on his head and his ankle-length black coat — there was little question about what he thought the space’s function was.

“I see a shul, mit seforim …” a synagogue, with scholarly books, he said, speaking a mix of English and Yiddish that would be instantly understandable to any Orthodox yeshiva student.

Despite the mezuzah on its doorframe and the bookshelves lining the back wall, the Interfaith Center isn’t a house of Jewish prayer. It’s the site of a new attempt by Messianic Jews to draw in the mainstream Jewish community.

“It’s not a synagogue,” Stuart Dauermann, a leader in the Messianic Jewish movement, told the old man, who left moments later, a cold can of cola in his hand. “It’s a study center — but not quite a beit midrash either.”

“Not quite this, but also not that,” is a description that might equally apply to Messianic Jews themselves. Some Jewish followers of Jesus — or “Yeshua,” as they call him, using the Christian messiah’s Hebrew name — have no problem calling themselves Christians; others reject that label, and all are, quite simply, not welcome in the mainstream Jewish world.

“Messianic Jewish congregations are not Jewish,” Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said. “And speaking of Jesus as ‘Yeshua’ is often an attempt to hide what a group truly believes in. They have every right to practice what they like, but call it what it is.”

Dauermann — who intersperses his speech with Hebrew and Yiddish words, wears tzitzit (the religiously mandated fringed garment) and says he “feels naked” when studying without his kippah — resists being classified as Christian and describes himself as an observant Jew.

In an interview with The Journal, Dauermann said the mission of the Interfaith Center is to promote “increased understanding between Jews and Christians.”

“We may not have agreement, but we can make progress,” Dauermann, the center’s chief visionary officer, said. Asked what would constitute “progress,” he answered vaguely, pointing to the center’s two-word mission statement, “Rethink religion.”

Dauermann, 67, has been rethinking religion for most of his life. Born into a Conservative Jewish family in Brooklyn, he turned to Jesus when he was 19. A noted composer of Messianic Jewish music, Dauermann has also become a leader within the Messianic Jewish community, which counts about 400 congregations and fellowships in the United States that range in size from a few dozen to a few hundred people.

In 2011, Dauermann stepped down from his post as rabbi of one such congregation, Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue (AZS), also located on Beverly Drive, where he had served for 20 years.

Dauermann said he stepped down from that post because he realized he was getting older and wanted to be “more focused” on his life’s work, namely, “interpreting the Jewish world to the Christian world and, perhaps, interpreting the Christian world to the Jewish world.”

“I spend a lot of time talking to Christians about Jews,” Dauermann said, “improving Christians’ attitudes and behavior toward Jewish people, toward one of greater respect.”

The Interfaith Center isn’t looking to engage with Muslims, Hindus or anyone other than Christians and Jews. Dauermann sees himself as uniquely placed at the “intersection” of those two religions; he wrote the brochure for the Interfaith Center, which mines that vehicular metaphor rather intensively.

“How many conversations or relationships between Christians and Jews you know have ended up as collisions? How many intermarried families do you know that are having their share of relational fender-benders?” reads the text of “Interfaith Intersections,” which can be downloaded from the center’s Web site. “We’re familiar with the intersection, and we’re here to help.”

The identity of the center’s parent organization — the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (MJTI) — isn’t hidden, per se, but neither is it trumpeted, only appearing in very small print on the brochure’s last panel. Similarly, while mainstream Jewish synagogues often plaster the names of their donors on walls, doors and all manner of other surfaces, the Interfaith Center offers no clear indication of its patronage, and Dauermann declined to identify any of the individuals who support the nonprofit MJTI.

“People like to preserve their privacy,” Dauermann said, “and I believe in derekh eretz [appropriate conduct].”

Nor would Dauermann specify exactly what leasing the space (which was most recently occupied by the high-end clothing retailer Lisa Kline) is costing the center each month. The most recent form filed with the IRS by the nonprofit MJTI covers a period before the opening of the Interfaith Center. That year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2010, MJTI ran a $1.17 million deficit, declaring $178,000 in revenues against $1.35 million in expenses. Most of that money — $773,000 — was devoted to employee salaries and benefits.

Dauermann did dispute the belief held by many neighbors that the center sits empty more often than it is in use, however.

“Daytime activities are not our forte, because most people are not free during the daytime,” he said, “and that’s part of the reason for that perception.”

The center could be more heavily utilized in the near future, Dauermann said, especially once Andrew Sparks, a messianic rabbi who was Dauermann’s partner in developing the Interfaith Center, returns to his duties as the person directly responsible for programming at the center. Sparks was seriously injured in June when he was hit by a car while crossing a street near Beverly Hills. Sparks was not available for comment; Dauermann said he is recovering. 

Although many often equate Messianic Jews with the Jews for Jesus organization, Joshua Brumbach, who took over for Dauermann as rabbi of AZS, said the two are different.

“Jews for Jesus is a Christian missionary organization; they exist to get Jews to convert to Christianity,” Brumbach said. “They attend churches, and they don’t believe that the mitzvot [Jewish religious commandments] are obligatory anymore.”

Messianic Jews, by contrast, want Jews “to be better Jews, instead of less so,” Brumbach said.

Brumbach, 35, said he was born into a Messianic Jewish family and that he studied in a yeshiva in Europe (which he declined to name). He represents a new generation of Messianic Jewish leaders, who are coming to the fore of a movement that has undergone some significant changes in recent years, according to Benzion Kravitz, an Orthodox rabbi who founded the Los Angeles-based counter-missionary organization Jews for Judaism in 1975.

“[It] has evolved from originally just being a ploy to Jews with the goal of getting people through it into the church,” Kravitz said, “to developing into its own movement separate from the church, which is what Stuart Dauermann wants.”

Brumbach would appear to share this goal. He said he is working to update services at AZS, making them “much more participatory, bringing in Carlebach-style melodies to make the davening [prayer] more engaging for young people.”

Kravitz said he tends to ignore Messianic synagogues unless he hears reports about them evangelizing to Jews, and that he hasn’t heard any such complaints about the Interfaith Center. But as a place that explicitly invites Jews to join in conversation with Messianic Jews, Kravitz said that the Interfaith Center is, in his view, “treif,” or unkosher.

“Their mishmash of Judaism and Christianity, in their minds, is the true way to practice Judaism,” he said, “which invalidates Reform, Conservative and Orthodox [Judaism], anything rabbinic.”

Dauermann, for his part, said he understands why many Jews oppose Messianic Jews like him.

“I encourage Jews to live as Jews,” Dauermann said, “and my preference is that they should live as Jews.”

But given that he believes that living as a Jew and believing in Jesus are not incompatible, doesn’t Dauermann want other Jews to accept Jesus as he has?

“I have great respect for the fact that people live their own lives and make their own decisions,” Dauermann said.

More Reform rabbis performing interfaith weddings

Danny Richter and his fiancée, Lauren Perkins, have never been to a Jewish wedding, yet this fall, the interfaith couple is planning to be married in a Jewish wedding ceremony.

The event marks other significant firsts: It also will be the first time that Rabbi Jill Perlman, assistant rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., has ever officiated at an interfaith wedding. In fact, it will be the first time that any clergy from the Reform congregation — Richter’s family synagogue for three generations — will have done so.

While the congregation has approved Perlman’s participation, it has yet to decide if intermarriages may take place within the synagogue itself.

The changes under way at Temple Isaiah are part of the new norm in the Reform movement as it continues to explore how best to respond to such unions, shifting its approach on the sensitive issue of its rabbis officiating at intermarriages.

The movement has “moved away from the debate of whether we should or should not officiate,” said Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement that represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America. “It’s part of the world we live in. The question is how do we engage these families into our synagogues,” he said.

CCAR does not have statistics on how many of its 2,000 Reform rabbis in North America officiate at intermarriages, but when pressed, Rabbi Hara Person, director of CCAR Press, said it’s about half.

The organization “believes it is not an appropriate way to judge someone as a rabbi,” Person said of performing the ceremonies.

While Isaiah’s senior rabbi, Howard Jaffe, describes the change since he was ordained in 1983 as seismic, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), says the change has been evolutionary. Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that it has become much more common in the past decade for Reform rabbis to officiate at intermarriages.

In fact, next month CCAR will publish a Premarital Counseling Guide for Clergy, the first such manual prepared for the organization, according to Person.

Written by Paula Brody, director of the URJ’s Outreach Training Institute, the manual is intended for use with all couples but includes a separate section for counseling of intermarried and conversionary couples. The goal is to give clergy more tools to help couples discuss the meaning of their faith background, Brody said.

Brody’s exercises delve deeply into both partners’ childhood experiences from their faith backgrounds to enable a couple to be able to discuss the sensitive issue of how they will raise any future children. “It means a tremendous amount to the person from a different faith background to know they are being recognized,” she said. 

The manual also includes suggestions for follow-up, a key factor that is now lacking, according to many observers.

Some rabbis set conditions before they’ll officiate at an intermarriage, such as joining a synagogue or committing to raising future children as Jews.

Rabbi Lev Baesh worries such conditions turn off couples. “It matters so much for a rabbi to say ‘yes,’ ” no matter where the couple is in the process, says Baesh, director of the resource center for Jewish clergy for, a resource and service organization that supports Jewish life for interfaith couples.

That’s why Isaiah’s Perlman agreed to do Richter’s wedding ceremony.

As a rabbinical student, Perlman said, she was not comfortable with the idea. But she has shifted her views since her 2010 ordination. “It’s a blessing, in my opinion, to be there in that moment,” she said.

Isaiah’s Jaffe remains deeply committed to the view that Jewish marriage can only take place between two Jews, and that the rabbi’s role is to facilitate this marriage. But, after a year of a year of study and discussion of the subject with Perlman and Cantor Lisa Doob, he says he is comfortable under certain circumstances with his associate rabbi officiating at intermarriages.

He also said he is no longer so certain that his personal opposition outweighs the potential loss of a couple from Jewish life.

As more congregants, like Richter, approach him as their family rabbi, he said he recognizes his view of Jewish marriage is seen as a rejection. “I am aware of the impact of my saying, ‘I love you, I want to welcome you into the Jewish community, but I am not able to officiate.’ I know that in most cases, the words, ‘I am not able,’ are heard as, ‘I am rejecting you,’ even though that is not the message I am intending,” Jaffe said. 

Jewish population studies have found that as many as 50 percent of Jewish households include a non-Jewish partner. Observers suggest that the number is even higher when one looks at the dating population.

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do not officiate at interfaith marriages. The Conservative movement does, however, engage in outreach work with interfaith couples at all stages of their lives, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Interfaith coalition urges candidates to eschew religious division

Several Jewish groups joined an interfaith coalition calling on presidential candidates to refrain from using religion as a political wedge issue.

Fifteen religious organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and the Union for Reform Judaism, issued an Interfaith Statement of Principles advising the candidates to abide by principles of religious liberty and avoid religious discord as they campaign for the November race.

The principles included calls for candidates to be responsive to constituents of all religions, conduct campaigns without appeals for support based on religion, reject messages that reflect religious prejudice and avoid actions that encourage religious division in the electorate.

“This statement of principles reaffirms our commitment to freedom of religion as enshrined in the Constitution, and our message to all candidates for public office is to set a proper tone where faith may be openly discussed, but avoid overt appeals for support on the basis of religion, or the denigration of another person’s views on the basis of religion,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, in a statement.

“Candidates should reject appeals to voters that reflect religious prejudice, bias or stereotyping,” he said, “and avoid statements intended to encourage divisions along religious lines.”

Other signatories to the statement included the Interfaith Alliance, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the National Council of Churches USA, as well as other Hindu, Muslim, Protestant and Sikh groups.

Interfaith program an intersection of religious leaders

Jewish, Christian and Buddhist religious leaders discussed their respective faiths’ support for reproductive choice during a recent program at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles’ (NCJW/LA) Fairfax headquarters on July 28.

“Choice: An Interfaith Perspective” included a panel discussion with Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, formerly of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills; Chandana Karuna of the International Buddhist Meditation Center; the Rev. Frank Wulf of the Methodist congregation United University Church; and the Rev. Carissa Baldwin of All Saints Church in Pasadena.

“As with all things Jewish, there is a wide range of opinions,” said Zimmerman, adding that the “Reform movement for decades has supported women’s right to choose.”

The California Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Miracle Mile NOW, Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles and NARAL Pro-Choice America co-sponsored the event, which included workshops on lobbying legislators and other hands-on advocacy.

Approximately 40 people attended the program.

Leanore Saltz, vice president of advocacy at NCJW/LA, said that this year, “We’re putting even more of an effort into the pro-choice movement … because the opposition is absolutely breaking down doors to chip away at Roe v. Wade, and each state has figured out how they can go around Roe v. Wade and do it on a state basis.”

Like Zimmerman, the other clergy members stressed their support for the pro-choice movement.

Wulf dismissed what he sees as misguided views on Christianity’s abortion stance.

“We need to put out in public that Christians aren’t unanimous in opposition to abortion … so Christianity doesn’t come off looking like some monolithic, anti-abortion religion,” he said. “It’s not that.”

Karuna said, while one of the basic precepts of Buddhism is not to take a life, it’s critical to examine the intentions of the person seeking an abortion.

“If somebody is choosing to go for an abortion, do they responsibly look at it? Is it to stop suffering?” she said, adding that Buddhist precepts are not fixed and that its adherents shouldn’t judge others. 

Zimmerman welcomed the opportunity to hear voices of other religions weighing in on the issue, saying, “I think it is always inspiring to work with prominent people of different faiths and different traditions who share common values.”

Pilot interfaith outreach program set for Chicago

A project to help interfaith families connect Jewishly will launch soon in Chicago. announced it has secured funding for InterfaithFamily/Chicago, a two-year pilot program aimed at helping Chicago-area intermarried families find Jewish resources and connect with the community.

The program will include a website offering local and national resources for intermarried couples making Jewish choices, inclusivity training for Jewish professionals and lay leaders, and online as well as in-person classes for the families involved.

A full-time director will start July 1, said Ed Case, CEO of Interfaith

The training will start in the fall, and workshops for couples will be held twice this year. Programs will be coordinated with existing resources provided by local synagogues, religious movements and Jewish institutions.

“When proven successful, the Chicago pilot will be replicable around North America, filling the missing link of local community programs in the interfaith engagement field,” Case said.

Supporters include The Crown Family, the Marcus Foundation, and the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund. is a Boston-based organization that empowers people in interfaith relationships to engage in Jewish life and encourages Jewish communities to welcome them.

Interfaith volunteers feed homeless on MLK Day

Volunteers from Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and Family of Faith Christian Center (FFCC) in Carson fed 150 homeless people from the Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission in North Hollywood in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the National Day of Service on Jan. 17. This is the second year the church and synagogue have come together to feed the homeless on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a tradition they plan to continue.

“Our tradition is as much about action as belief,” VBS Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas said.

The meal was served at the Central Lutheran Church in Van Nuys, where manicures and hairstyling services were also offered, as well as hygiene kits containing basic items such as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes. Trader Joe’s donated food for the lunch, which was supplemented by fresh produce picked by synagogue and church volunteers through Food Forward, a nonprofit that harvests fruits and vegetables from homes and public spaces to distribute to local food pantries. 

Farkas said the interfaith effort is inspired by the relationship between King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched together for equality in Selma, Ala. “These two incredible individuals could galvanize a community into action to change the way Americans see themselves.”

Farkas said it’s important to continue the tradition of giving and supporting those still fighting for betterment.

The synagogue and church have collaborated on service projects for the last four years.Their joint activities include Gulf Coast clean up following Hurricane Katrina and tree planting at Sun Valley’s Fernangeles Elementary School and Sun Valley High School. The Rev. Mike Andrews, FFCC’s executive pastor, said the ongoing collaboration with VBS is a way to continue King’s dream. “Right now, especially in the Christian community, there is a lot of talk about whether the dream has been fulfilled. Even if it has been fulfilled, we want to make sure it lives on.”

He said working with VBS and bringing together Christian African Americans and Jews “sparks another dream: to continue to grow with them and to work with them, to make it bigger.”

Interfaith service celebrates first night of Chanukah and World AIDS Day

On Dec. 1, the first night of Chanukah, Jewish and Christian clergy came together for a one-hour service to kick off the Festival of Lights and celebrate World AIDS Day.

World AIDS Day, an international health day, raises awareness about HIV/AIDS and falls on Dec. 1 every year.

The Los Angeles Queer Clergy Council organized the service, titled Interfaith Service of Compassionate Action and held at the Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles.

Approximately 40 people attended the service, which featured sermons, choral music and a candle lighting ceremony to commemorate victims of HIV/AIDS. Several chanukiyahs stood out amid the church’s Christian decor.

Clergy recited prayers for the HIV/AIDS community. “We’ll call aloud the names of our friends, our families, our partners and loved ones,” said Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood congregation Kol Ami.  “Hear our prayers, oh, God, on this day, World AIDS Day, heal the broken places, restore your people, and give us your peace.”

The Rev. Neil Thomas of the Metropolitan Community Church, taking the stage shortly after Eger, used a Chanukah metaphor to describe communities that stand up for compassionate social action for people living with AIDS or HIV, calling them “a light in the darkness that shines for more than eight days.”

Spielberg’s righteous foundation helps fund the Library Foundation’s ALOUD Interfaith Series

In 2008, Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation donated $100,000 to the Library Foundation of Los Angeles to buy a collection of Jewish books for the Los Angeles Central Library.

Recently, the foundation gave the Library Foundation $30,000, to help pay for a speaker series that brings together clergy and prominent members of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities for free, public discussions through ALOUD at Central Library’s Interfaith Series, which the Library Foundation, an independent nonprofit, holds at the downtown library.

The ALOUD interfaith series started in April 2010. One recent event featured Rabbi Laura Geller of Reform congregation Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in a panel discussion following a screening of excerpts from the documentary “Finding God in the City of Angels.”

On Jan. 12, Dr. Izzeldin Abeulaish, a Palestinian physician,  will be featured. He is best known for his call for reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, despite losing his daughters in an Israeli attack in Gaza.

Louise Steinman, director of Cultural Programming for the Library Foundation, said the ALOUD interfaith events, which typically feature a lecture and Q-and-A, help build understanding between people of different faiths.

“There are so many conflicts that stem from religious misunderstanding,” Steinman said, “so [we like] the idea of putting people together in a public situation where we can hear each other’s point of view.”

Spielberg founded the Righteous Persons Foundation in 1994, shortly after directing “Schindler’s List.” According to the foundation’s Web site, the grants support “efforts that build a diverse and vibrant Jewish community in the United States. The foundation awards grants typically from $25,000 to $50,000.

Other recent recipients of the foundation’s funds include the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and “Israel: Portrait of a Work in Progress,” a photography project.

Conductor Barenboim awarded German peace prize

Conductor Daniel Barenboim was awarded a German peace prize for his efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

The Westphalia Peace Prize, worth about $70,000, was presented by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in ceremonies Saturday in Muenster City Hall.

Barenboim, 67, a pianist and general music director at Berlin’s State Opera, was honored particularly for his creation, with the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together Jewish, Christian and Muslim musicians. The award will be shared with the orchestra, according to news reports.

Several musicians from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performed at the ceremony.

In delivering the prize, Westerwelle praised the project as “an orchestra without borders” that brings younger generations together. He said that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians must continue, with European support, but that Israel’s security is top priority and “not up for debate.”

Barenboim called the award “a great and deep honor” and added that a two-state solution to the conflict was urgently needed.

“It is not five before midnight, but 30 seconds before midnight,” said Barenboim, who has passports for Israel, Argentina, Spain and a pass for the Palestinian territories, which he was given after a concert in Ramallah in January 2008.

The prize is given every two years by the Economic Association of Westphalia and Lippe to individuals or institutions considered role models in building peace. Past recipients include former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and conductor Kurt Masur.

My big fat Dominican Orthodox Jewish wedding

I wanted to elope. He didn’t. Actually, toward the end of our wedding planning, he did — but his family, which is much larger than mine, was expecting a big fat Orthodox Jewish wedding. What they weren’t expecting was a big fat Dominican Orthodox Jewish wedding.

My husband, a Jew by birth, had been to many Jewish weddings. As a Jew by choice, I had only been to one — ever. I remembered nothing except the feeling that I didn’t know when to stand, when to sit, where to lean, what to wear and where to look. It was uncomfortable, and that wasn’t the feeling I wanted my guests to have at my wedding.

The rabbi who was marrying us had us both read “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage” by Maurice Lamm, but I was the one who needed clarification on some of the finer points of the Jewish wedding ceremony. Still, I found it fitting that Lamm should enter my life just then. He had taught me to become a Jew through his book, “Becoming a Jew,” and he was going to teach me how to be a Jewish wife, too.

Our rabbi was very hands-on. He wanted us to feel comfortable talking to him about tweaking different parts of the ceremony to suit our personalities and our relationship. My future husband found this hilarious when he realized that our rather understanding rabbi didn’t understand that I couldn’t imagine “tweaking” something that I had never experienced. I told them both that I just wanted “a regular Jewish wedding.” But as the wedding planning drudged on, I realized this wasn’t true.

I wanted my wedding to bring together both spiritually and physically two sides of my world: the Jewish world I had embraced and the Dominican world where I had been raised. It suddenly became incredibly, overwhelmingly important to me that people realize that they were coming to a Dominican Jewish girl’s wedding. And with three months to plan this shindig, we were at a loss for where to start.

The best way to start to incorporate our multicultural reality into our multicultural wedding would have been to make a list of all the parts and parcels of a wedding we could imbue with a Dominican flavor. But we weren’t organized, so we went with our intuition. What did we think of when we thought about how Dominican culture affected our lives?

Music! My husband had heard me rock out to enough Spanish-language tunes to start asking Jewish bands whether they could infuse their playlists with some Spanish blood. When one band started asking us for suggestions for actual songs, we were stumped.

Luckily, that same band came to our rescue, offering us a list of Spanish ditties that made me think of “home,” the culture that intertwined itself with my adopted American Jewish culture. We ordered some ballads, salsa, merengue and none of that loathsome bachata music my father loves.

Food! I wasn’t very optimistic about finding a kosher caterer who could cook my favorite Dominican dishes. “What would they know about Dominican food?” this Jewish bridezilla wondered.

Again, it was “ask and ye shall receive.” The caterer bombarded us with a list of delicacies from all over the Caribbean food palette. I did not have to sacrifice my love of rice, beans and plantains at my wedding. I hoped that discovering plantains and other surprises at the buffet would be a life preserver for Hispanic guests feeling lost in the sea of Jewish guests.

Favors! Since my first party, when my mother tied a bow with my name and the occasion’s date to a figurine, party favors have been synonymous with Dominican fiestas. But I couldn’t think of anything that I could give away to my guests that would be cost-effective without being touristy.

In desperation, I pondered having my cousins in the Dominican Republic ship 200 maracas. In the end, the maracas weren’t meant to be. Instead, Jewish and non-Jewish guests alike walked away with benchers, the book of Jewish blessings given away at Orthodox Jewish weddings.

If it had been up to me, there would have been little Dominican caricatures on the book’s soft cover (a girl can dream, right?). A non-Jewish co-worker later surprised me by pulling out my bencher at a mutual friend’s wedding. He thought it would be helpful at his “second Orthodox Jewish wedding ever.”

OK, when I think of Dominicans, I think of the Dominican Republic. And I flirted with the idea of dragging all the New Yorkers and all the Angelenos out to the Caribbean for a destination wedding. It would have helped my relatives bypass the need for visas.

But my husband’s baby blue eyes pleaded with my saner attributes. We finally settled instead on honeymooning in Santo Domingo and visiting most of my relatives then. But I promise you, folks, if I have my way, I’m renewing my vows barefoot on a beach with merengue and salsa in the background.

When planning your big fat multicultural wedding, it’s best to follow your heart and keep your guests in mind. Thoughtful wedding helpers created a pamphlet so that all our guests could follow along with the Jewish wedding ceremony.

But a bride and groom could easily draw up a similar informative pamphlet to explain any traditional aspects of their wedding. We kept the guests on their toes at our wedding. Jewish and non-Jewish guests alike never knew what to expect, but we wanted everyone to feel a part of our big day.

With flowers, colors, invitations and cakes, there are plenty of ways to incorporate some ethnic style into any wedding. A little birdie informed me that I could have ordered “white groom and brown bride” cake toppers: Jewish groom and Hispanic bride figurines to dance on my creamy cake.

With that kind of creativity out there, there’s no stopping us from putting together my daughter’s own big fat multicultural Jewish wedding. Well, except that she hasn’t been born yet.

Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and educator. This article was originally published by

Mosques and synagogues reach across divide

American Jews and Muslims, reaching beyond the Middle East conflict, are joining hands to battle prejudices within and against their communities.

Consider some of the signs:

  • Starting next week, 50 synagogues and 50 mosques throughout the United States and Canada will get together for three days of “twinning” and intensive discussions.
  • USC, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and an Islamic foundation have jointly established a Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.
  • At UC Irvine, usually pictured as a hotbed of Muslim-Jewish antagonism, student leaders of both faiths recently returned from a two-week trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, with many preconceptions transformed into more complex and realistic views.

The transcontinental “Weekend of Twinning,” under the theme, “Confronting Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism Together,” will be held nationally Nov. 21-23, but Los Angeles will get a jump on the rest of the country. Next Monday evening, Nov. 17, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills will host the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, with Rabbi Laura Geller welcoming mosque director Usman Madha.

Guest speakers will be two national leaders of the twinning project, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Islamic legal scholars.

Although past attempts at Jewish-Muslim dialogues have been generally short-lived in the face of Mideast flare-ups, Geller is optimistic that the twinning project will have a long life.

“This marks the first time that mosques and synagogues are giving their full support, and we are in this for the long haul,” she said.

Madha of the King Fahd Mosque warned that linking Muslim and Jewish interests would be a hard, long process, but that the election of Barack Obama “proves that the unthinkable can happen if we set our minds to it.”

Guest speaker Siddiqi, who also heads the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, said he was optimistic about the cooperative project and that it was widely supported by his members.

The twinning project got its start one year ago, when the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, headed by Schneier, an Orthodox rabbi, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, invited 13 Jewish and 13 Muslim spiritual leaders to a meeting.

“Our goal was to enlist 25 synagogues and 25 mosques, but we ended up with double the number,” said Schneier, whose foundation has largely concentrated on Jewish-black relations.

“Both American Jews and Muslims are children of Abraham and citizens of the same country, and we share a common faith and destiny,” Schneier said.

“Of course, we cannot ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — it’s the elephant in the room — but I see the emergence of moderate, centrist Muslim voices, particularly in the United States, and we must do everything possible to encourage such voices,” he added.

Urging Jews to reclaim some of the passion they invested in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, Schneier said that a similar outreach to Muslims “can serve as a paradigm for Europe” and perhaps even for the Middle East.

During the Nov. 21-23 weekend, twinning sessions between mosques and synagogues, as well as Muslim and Jewish student groups on campuses, will stretch from Seattle to Atlanta, and from Mississauga, Ontario, to Carrolton, Texas.

Participating in the Southland will be Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica with the Islamic Center of Southern California, Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo with the Orange County Islamic Foundation and Muslim and Jewish student groups at USC and Chapman College in Orange.

The weekend meetings, which will be publicized nationally through public service announcements on CNN and a full-page ad in The New York Times, may be expected to become emotional on occasion. Indeed, guidelines for discussion leaders encourage “all participants to listen to one another in a courteous and respectful fashion, without interrupting or shouting down those with whom they disagree.”

As the concept of the twinning project evolved, Schneier turned for expert advice to the newly formed Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.

The center is the first of its kind and was established through an agreement signed by the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, HUC-JIR and the education-oriented Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation.

The three partners, all located in the same neighborhood, had been working together for some time and have now decided to formalize their collaboration, said Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at HUC-JIR.

“There are some anti-Jewish attitudes in the Muslim world and some anti-Muslim attitudes in the Jewish world, but there is no inherent conflict between Judaism and Islam,” Firestone said. “We have much in common in our goals and aspirations.”

A respected author, Firestone has written books on “Introduction to Islam for Jews” and “Children of Abraham: Introduction to Judaism for Muslims.” Out this month is his latest publication, “Who Are the Chosen People? The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

Firestone and Dafer Dakhil, director of the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, are the co-directors of the new center, with Hebah Farrag, a recent graduate of the American University in Cairo, as associate director.

The center’s first major project will be to compile a massive database on the key Jewish and Muslim religious texts for the general public. For instance, someone searching for an authoritative definition of “kosher” would also be referred to the Islamic equivalent, “halal.”

On a more popular level, the center is planning a film series on Jewish and Muslim topics, Farrag said.

Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation has provided a $50,000 start-up grant to the center, but Firestone worries about future financing.

Taking note that previous cooperative ventures between the two faiths have foundered on political and nationalistic differences, Firestone said, “We’re aware of these hurdles, but what would kill us is not trouble in the Middle East, but lack of funding. There are not a lot of Jews or Muslims who want to invest in what we are doing.”

Besides religious and academic efforts to bridge the Jewish-Muslim gap, there are also private initiatives.

One is the Levantine Cultural Center, founded seven years ago by Jordan Elgrably, an American Jew of Moroccan descent.

“We have weekly programs that draw Jews, Muslims, Christians and Bahai, and we have Arabs, Armenians, Turks — people from all over the Middle East and North Africa,” Elgrably said.

They are mostly young people, and what they have in common is a love of popular music and culture, explored, for instance, in a recent program on Heavy Metal Islam.

Elgrably estimates the Levantine Center’s e-mail list reaches some 5,000, and its core membership is around 500.

“I don’t buy into the concept of an upcoming ‘Clash of Civilizations,'” Elgrably said. “What we are aiming for is an “Alliance of Civilizations’. There is something like this in the air, and, in a small way, we are trying to create a safe place for it to develop.”

Students Learn Nuances on Interreligious Mideast Trip

The campus at UC Irvine has been pictured for years as a hotbed of hatred riven over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making all the more remarkable the recent trip of a group of 15 Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze UCI students, who decided to go over there and see for themselves.

They spent two intensive weeks talking with Israelis and Palestinians, militants and peaceniks, government officials and falafel vendors, rabbis and imams, right-wing settlers and left-wing Tel Avivians, and came back with one overriding impression.

“Before we went, we had all the answers,” said one Muslim girl. “But the more we heard, the more confused we became.”

Isaac Yerushalmi, president of Anteaters for Israel (the anteater is the UCI mascot), had a similar take. “In the United States, you see everything in black and white. You don’t understand the complexity of the situation on the ground until you go there. There are a thousand different views,” he said.

“The land is so small, with more diverse opinions than I have ever encountered,” Paul McGuire said.

A Christian student observed, “Before I left, I thought all the settlers were crazy, right-wing Jews. But when we visited Ariel, I saw what they had built where there was nothing before. So maybe the settlements are not all bad.”

Before she left, Sally Moukkad’s parents warned her not to say anything against the government while she was in Israel. Once there, she found that “everybody says anything they want.”

It is one remarkable aspect of the project, called the Olive Tree Initiative, that it was conceived and organized by leaders and members of the Muslim Student Union and the Jewish Student Union, Society of Arab Students and Anteaters for Israel, as well as Hillel, Model United Nations, Middle East Studies Student Initiative, and simply interested students.

Just as noteworthy, everything was put together by the students, on their own, from holding weekly preparatory seminars for 18 months and raising $60,000 to cover expenses to lining up dozens of experts in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The UCI administration said it could not legally sponsor or underwrite the trip, but urged the students to “just go ahead and do it.”

Most of the participants were in their late teens to early 20s, with the exception of a major catalyst of the enterprise, a 29-year old doctoral student named Daniel Wehrenfennig, working with Katharine Keith, a graduate student in Middle East studies.

Wehrenfennig had both a professional and personal interest in the project. His study and research focus is on conflict resolution and citizen dialogues, and his laboratories are Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

He is also a German who had spent two months harvesting citrus fruits in Israel and is active in the Third Generation German-Israeli Dialogue. In addition, he wanted to rectify UCI’s negative image in the media.

In early September, the group flew to Tel Aviv with an itinerary so crammed and intensive that only a bunch of college students could have hacked it.

They met with students and professors, journalists, generals and government officials and participated in give-and-take discussions in West and East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, the Palestinian town of Qualqilyah, the Jewish settlement of Ariel, Nazareth, Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

Saturdays were free, so they went to the beach or sightseeing, toured the Dead Sea and Masada, studied the Bauhaus architecture of Tel Aviv and even squeezed in some shopping.

They learned about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem and prayed in synagogues, mosques and churches.

Two weeks ago, the travelers, including two advisers, reunited at the UCI Student Union and talked about their trip to a standing-room-only audience of some 500 students, who applauded each and every statement. Some questions from the audience were naïve (“I am not an Israeli or Palestinian. I am just a typical Southern California student — so why should I care?”) to the more perceptive (“How did the trip change any of your preconceptions?”).

Afterwards, a few student leaders were dragged out of a reception to talk to The Journal about the trip and about the mood and conflicts on campus.

“A few years ago, we had a pretty hateful situation here,” said Yerushalmi, the pro-Israel activist. “Now we feel quite comfortable as Jews, and no one is worried about his safety. It’s too bad that some outside people have tried to perpetuate the campus conflicts.”

Yerushalmi’s evaluation was seconded by Ali Malik of the Muslim Student Union and Amanda Naoufal, a former president of the Society of Arab Students.

For the future, the Olive Tree Initiative activists will continue to share the experiences and lessons of their trip with students at UCI and other campuses, at churches, synagogues and mosques, and at other forums.

“We are getting so many calls from other campuses that we are putting together a manual on our project for others to follow,” Wehrenfennig said.

For more information and a link to a video clip of the trip, visit

— TT

Liturgy reminds us what we can do to avert evil

Sept. 11, 2001, occurred just six days before Rosh Hashanah. It was the tail end of what had been a difficult 12 months on the Jewish calendar: violence in Israel, a presidential election arbitrated by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Enron scandal.

Then, on a particularly gorgeous morning, terrorists attacked New York and Washington, D.C. Rabbis who had worked hard on their High Holy Days sermons all August rushed to rewrite them.

The liturgy seemed stunningly relevant. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water? We acknowledge our vulnerability in light of death, the harsh decree. But, the liturgy tells us, teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteous deeds) will avert — not nullify, but avert — the evilness of the decree.

In other words, we cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

So here we are seven years later, about to enter the Jewish year 5769. The deaths of Sept. 11 have been compounded by more deaths in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. In many ways our world is more violent and certainly more fearful than it had been. Evidence of evilness abounds.

But this is also the time to take stock of the ways in which our liturgy speaks to a universal human theme. Many Americans, Jews and non-Jews, in the face of tragedy have chosen to move forward in these seven years — to engage in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.

Teshuvah: For some Americans, the first step of repentance was to say, “I don’t know enough; let me repair my ignorance.” Since early 1992, groups of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women have been joining together in living rooms to discuss books about their respective faiths. The Daughters of Abraham book groups began in Cambridge, Mass., when one Christian woman realized she didn’t personally know any Muslims. Now there are 14 such groups in the Boston area alone. We just began one in Philadelphia and already there is a waiting list.

Tefillah: In 2001, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of Albuquerque decided she wanted to pray for peace alongside Muslims. So she called the local mosque, where she knew no one, and found herself on the phone with a scientist and peace activist named Abdul Rauf Marqetti. They came up with the idea of a peace walk — a meditative, prayer-in-motion march for Jews and Muslims together.

In 2003, a group of Philadelphians decided to emulate them, and with no institutional backing, an ad hoc collection of Jews, Christians and Muslims began meeting monthly at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Kensington section of the city. The first walk began at the mosque, stopped for prayer at two churches and culminated at a synagogue. It drew 400 people. Plans are under way for the sixth annual Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace this coming spring.

Philadelphians are not the only ones praying with others. In 2000, The Hartford Institute for Religion Research conducted a survey to find out how many congregations, if any, had participated in an interfaith service in the past year. The answer was 7 percent. By 2005, the number had grown more than threefold to 23 percent.

Tzedakah: The Hartford study had even more striking news. When it asked about community services, the institute learned that 8 percent of congregations had joined with those of other faiths to improve conditions in their communities. Five years later it found 37 percent — a nearly fivefold increase.

Which brings us to Eboo Patel, a young Muslim born in India and raised in the American Midwest. In 2001, he was in England completing his studies as a Rhodes scholar. When he returned to the United States, he had a big idea. The way Patel saw it, young people want to change the world, and extremists are expert at giving them a cause to believe in, an exciting and dramatic movement to be part of. But what about moderate, pluralistic, liberal men and women, he wondered, those who saw religion as a way to work across faiths to make the world a better place? Could they offer young people a compelling counterpart to what the extremists offered?

Patel thought so. He founded the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago to bring together young men and women of different faiths to serve their communities. Since 2001, his staff has grown to 20; Jewish teenagers and college students throughout the country are joining with Muslim and Christian peers to create a national interfaith youth movement.

Something is happening out there, something good. It does not eradicate the very troubling developments precipitated by the Sept. 11 attacks, but in small ways it is helping our society achieve what Jews worldwide seek to achieve at this time of year — to avert the severity of the decree.

That’s worth remembering as we mark another anniversary of that beautiful and horrible September morning — and another Rosh Hashanah. This year our anxiety — who will live and who will die? — must be matched by our belief in our ability to make a difference.

We cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer directs the religious studies program at Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

åArticle courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency