Israelis fret about risk of isolation but concern may be overdone


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's re-election last week has prompted alarmed chatter in the cafes of Tel Aviv and on talk shows about the risk of Israel losing the support of its closest allies and being left isolated in the world.

It is clear Netanyahu still has fences to mend with President Barack Obama, despite rowing back from his rejection of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, which prompted new calls for sanctions from campaign group BDS.

But fears in Israel that another Netanyahu government, this one more right-wing than the last, will lead the country towards isolation appear to be running ahead of reality.

While the United States talks about a “reassessment” of its ties with Israel, it has so far put little flesh on the bones of the suggestion, instead wielding it as a stern verbal warning to Netanyahu not to push the situation too far.

On defense and security, the White House has made clear there will be no change in policy, and Israel's director of military intelligence recently returned from a working visit to Washington saying there was no cause for concern.

Foreign investment flows, which normally react to the possibility of a country being sanctioned or isolated, show no signs of declining: they have risen steadily over the past four months and hit $710 million in January alone.

Figures for March – taking into account any impact from the election – are not released until early May, but the clear trend is upwards. The Tel Aviv stock exchange has gained more than 2 percent since the election and the shekel is steady against the dollar. Moody's is positive.

The biggest concern for Israel is likely to come from its largest trading partner, the European Union, which has repeatedly criticized Israel for its settlements policy in the past and taken steps to restrict loans to research institutes that have operations in the West Bank.

While there is the prospect of further measures along those lines, including EU-wide labeling of Israeli goods produced in settlements, they have long been in the works.

It is not a step that would be taken in reaction to a right-wing prime minister being re-elected, EU diplomats said.

“There will be noise and perhaps some attempts, but nothing real will come of it,” said one.

Even if a number of EU member states were determined to turn up the heat, anything approaching sanctions would require unanimous agreement among all 28 countries. Israelhas several strong EU defenders who would stand in the way of that, including Germany, the Czech Republic and probably Britain.

ATTACKS ON THE LEFT

That is not to say, however, that all is plain sailing for Netanyahu, 65, as he prepares for a fourth term in office.

He is locked in an uphill battle to convince the United States that the emerging deal withIran on its nuclear program is a bad one. His campaign rhetoric, and his partisan speech to the U.S. Congress on the issue two weeks before the election, has done little to win him allies in that fight.

Regionally, too, his anti-Arab comments on election day – accusing left-wing NGOs of busing Arab-Israelis to the polls “in droves” to vote against him – has not enhanced his standing with neighborhood allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

But perhaps the biggest problem Netanyahu faces is stitching back together a deeply divided country, where tensions between left and right have spilled over into abuse since the vote.

His attack on the Arab community left the 20-percent minority angry and feeling isolated and prompted stern words from President Reuven Rivlin.

“People should be careful about what they say, especially people in high places whose words are heard by the whole world,” he said. “We must never forget it is also a democratic state.”

On Saturday, a well-known Israeli author and songwriter was punched at his own home by an unidentified man who called him a “lefty”, “murderer” and “traitor”. Ahinoam Nini, a pro-left singer better known as Noa, said she was verbally assaulted at Tel Aviv airport by two men who called her an “enemy of Israel” and threatened the same treatment as the author.

While Netanyahu won a clear victory, he achieved it with just 23 percent of the popular vote. His emerging right-wing coalition will probably have a sizeable majority, but he will have to work hard to ensure the whole country feels represented.

Obama appoints Ebola ‘czar’; Texas health worker isolated on ship


President Barack Obama appointed a former White House adviser as U.S. Ebola “czar” on Friday and a Texas health worker who may have had contact with specimens from an Ebola patient was quarantined on a cruise ship amid growing concerns about the spread of the virus in the United States.

Obama, facing criticism from some lawmakers over efforts to contain the virus, appointed Ron Klain, a lawyer who previously served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, to oversee the U.S. response to the virus.

Klain's appointment and the cruise ship incident highlighted efforts in the United States to contain Ebola even though there have been just three cases, all in Dallas, Texas. They were a Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed in the country, and two nurses who cared for him.

The worst hit countries have been Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where nearly 4,500 people have died. The World Food Program said on Friday that food prices in those countries have risen by an average of 24 percent, forcing some families to reduce their intake to one meal a day.

Klain, the president of Case Holdings and general counsel at Revolution LLC, a technology-oriented venture capital firm based in Washington, has been asked to take on coordination of the entire U.S. government response to Ebola, reporting directly to homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser.

The Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital worker aboard the cruise ship, who did not have direct contact with the now-deceased Liberian patient, Duncan, but could have processed his bodily fluids, left Sunday on a cruise from Galveston, Texas, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

The health worker has been self-monitoring since Oct. 6 and has not developed a fever or other symptoms of Ebola, the State Department said.

Carnival Cruise Lines said Friday it had been notified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that a passenger on the Carnival Magic was a lab supervisor at Texas Health Presbyterian. It said she was deemed to be “very low risk.”

The ship can carry 3,690 passengers and 1,367 crew, according to the company's website. Carnival is owned by Carnival Corp.

The State Department said the worker may have processed samples from Duncan 19 days ago. The maximum incubation window for the disease is 21 days, according to the CDC.

The worker and a companion voluntarily isolated themselves in their cabin. “We are working with the cruise line to safely bring them back to the United States out of an abundance of caution,” Psaki said in the statement.

The government of Belize said in a statement that it had denied a request by U.S. officials to use a Belizean airport to transport a cruise ship passenger who was considered very low risk for Ebola.

“The passenger never set foot in Belize,” the statement said. “When even the smallest doubt remains, we will ensure the health and safety of the Belizean people.”

TRAVEL BAN?

Klain was appointed the day after U.S. lawmakers held a congressional hearing about the administration's handling of Ebola, with some calling for a ban on travel from West Africa, as other politicians have in recent weeks

Obama said he had no philosophical objection to a travel ban but that some travelers might attempt to enter the United States by avoiding screening measures, which could lead to more Ebola cases, not fewer.

On Thursday, he authorized calling up military reservists for the U.S. fight against Ebola in West Africa.

U.S. Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta told reporters separately that the government was assessing whether to issue a travel ban “on a day-to-day basis.”

In a sign the disease can be beaten, the World Health Organization said on Friday that the West African country of Senegal was now Ebola-free, although the country was still vulnerable to further cases.

The CDC has said it was expanding its search for people who may have been exposed to Amber Vinson – one of the nurses who treated the Ebola patient in Texas – to include passengers on a flight she made to Cleveland, Ohio in addition to those on her Monday return trip to Texas. Vinson went to Ohio at the weekend on Frontier Airlines while running a slight fever.

Dr. Christopher Braden, a CDC spokesman, said Vinson may have been ill as early as Friday, when she boarded the flight from Dallas to Cleveland.

Lawrence Vinson, Amber Vinson's uncle, told CNN on Friday that no travel restrictions were imposed on the nurses who treated Duncan and that his niece did not believe she was putting anyone in danger by boarding the plane to Ohio.

“They were given gear that was supposed to provide isolation and they were given protocols to follow that they believed would protect them,” Lawrence Vinson said.

He said his niece did not contact the CDC directly, but health workers in Texas had checked in with her in Ohio and made multiple calls to the CDC to get the go-ahead for her flight back to Dallas on Monday.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC director, has said it is unlikely passengers who flew with Vinson were infected because the nurse had not vomited or bled on the flight, but he said she should not have boarded the plane.

The first nurse to contract the disease in the United States, Nina Pham, was in fair and stable condition, U.S. health officials said on Friday.

Spain said on Friday that the four people hospitalized on Thursday as suspected Ebola patients had tested negative for the disease.

Palestinians outline Israel isolation strategy


The Palestinian Authority is considering a multi-pronged strategy to isolate Israel, including seeking redress in international courts and ceasing security cooperation.

The Associated Press reported on the strategy in a story published Thursday. Palestinian officials told the AP that they will first press for renewed talks after Israel's Jan. 22 elections but will insist on a settlement freeze as a precondition.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks set for reelection, has rejected another freeze, saying the Palestinians did not come to the table until nine months into the last partial freeze, in 2010, and then left because he would not extend it beyond the 10 months he had pledged.

Should Israel not agree to those terms, the officials say, they will seek war crimes charges against Israelis in international courts, will lobby for sanctions on Israel, organize mass protests and suspend the security cooperation in the West Bank that has helped maintain the peace there while the Gaza Strip, under Hamas control, has exploded into violence multiple times in recent years.

“There will be no security cooperation as long as there is no political horizon,” Mohammed Ishtayeh told the AP.

Panetta: Israel must address its growing isolation


U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called on Israel on Friday to take diplomatic steps to address what he described as its growing isolation in the Middle East.

Panetta, in prepared remarks that he was due to deliver in Washington on Friday evening, stressed U.S. efforts to bolster regional stability and to safeguard Israel’s security.

“Israel, too, has a responsibility to pursue these shared goals—to build regional support for Israeli and United States security objectives,” Panetta said, according to portions of the speech released to reporters before delivery.

“I believe security is dependent on a strong military but it is also dependent on strong diplomacy. And unfortunately, over the past year, we’ve seen Israel’s isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow.”

Panetta lamented the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, which he said had “effectively been put on hold.”

Panetta’s comments echoed remarks he made on a visit to Israel in October, his first since taking over as defense secretary in September.

Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, in 1949, but relations worsened last year when Israeli commandos boarded an aid flotilla challenging a naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, killing nine Turks in ensuing clashes.

Israel is also closely watching developments in Egypt, where the country’s new rulers may be more susceptible to widespread anti-Israeli sentiment than it was under ousted president, Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptians voted on Friday in the opening round of the country’s first free lection in six decades. The Muslim Brotherhood’s party and its ultra-conservative Salafi rivals looked set to top the polls.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Christopher Wilson

Gilad: Israel faces isolation ‘no less severe than war’


The chief of Israel’s diplomatic-security bureau warned this week that Israel faced an isolation “no less severe than war” should the United Nations recognize Palestine as an independent state this September.

In remarks carried by Channel 10, General (res.) Amos Gilad said behind doors that the Palestinian Authority leadership was organizing an “international assault against Israel”.

The Palestinians have warned that if peace talks with Israel do not resume by the deadline set for December, they will ask the UN general assembly to recognize their sovereign state.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Olmert: Netanyahu leading Israel to political isolation


Former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

Speaking at an Industry, Trade and Labor ministry conference, Olmert said that the government’s refusal to accept the United States request that Israel extend a freeze on West Bank settlement construction for two months could lead to Israel’s political isolation in the world and damage Israel’s economy.

“There are people who think it is possible to separate the political situation from the economic situation and they use the phrase ‘economic peace’,” Olmert said, alluding to Netanyahu. “This is a lovely phrase but it reality doesn’t exist.”

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

‘Undue influence’ is dangerous form of elder abuse


A woman in her 70s has a sizable estate acquired from a lifetime of hard work and smart investments. Lonely and overly trusting, she falls prey to a much younger man who persuades her to sign over her assets to him.

A frail widower hires an attractive housekeeper to help him with various household tasks. She eventually sweet talks him into giving her large gifts of money to pay for nursing school, clear her debts and pay for her mother’s operation.

The elders in these scenarios do not have dementia. Most courts would find them competent. How then are they bamboozled into losing what has taken a lifetime to accumulate? These examples of financial abuse (a form of elder abuse) occurred because of an insidious process called undue influence.

The perpetrators use various techniques and manipulations to gain power and compliance, exploiting the trust, dependency and fear of older adults. Over time, the perpetrators gain control over the decision making of their unwitting victims.

Anyone can be unduly influenced, including the stressed, ill, sleep deprived, lonely or frightened of any age, but the elderly are particularly at risk because of failing health, isolation and a tendency to trust. Margaret Singer, an expert on cults, brainwashing and persuasion, pinpointed several factors that perpetrators commonly use to groom potential victims.

These include:

  • Isolation from others. Telling the victim she was abandoned by her relatives and cutting off outside communication by telling visitors or callers that the senior does not want to see or talk to them.
  • Building a siege mentality. Making the victim believe that enemies (including health care providers and family members) are lurking everywhere. They convince their victims that these “enemies” are going to take away their houses, pensions and Social Security, and that they are going to put them in nursing homes.
  • Fostering dependency. They create the fiction that the influencer is the only trustworthy person and the only one who cares about the older person.
  • Creating a sense of powerlessness. Slowly but surely, the influencer persuades the senior that only they have the power to do anything to help the elder.
  • Making the senior fearful by exaggerating their illnesses and disabilities.

The perpetrator treats the elder more and more fragilely, exaggerating their ailments.

Who Are the Perpetrators?

Unfortunately, individuals who prey on vulnerable seniors are often the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. They may appear to be warm, sympathetic and selfless friends, caregivers and even family members, but they are not. Their numbers include:

  • Psychopaths or sociopaths, who get wind of the money, resolve to go after it and have no conscience about committing financial abuse.
  • Individuals with character defects whose greed is an overriding motivation.
  • People who perceive themselves as entitled to the money. They feel that they deserve to have the elder’s money or assets because their own lives have been fraught with hardship or because the older person wasn’t as appreciative of them as they should be.

What Can You Do?

Family, neighbors, friends and professionals who come in contact with older people can help in the following ways:

  • Check that the elder’s health and nutritional needs are being taken care of. A perpetrator may try to weaken an elder’s will by getting the senior to discontinue medications, neglect their health and eat poorly.
  • Keep the elder socially involved. The best insurance is for the older person to stay connected to relatives and people who they have known for a long time. Senior centers and social service programs are also excellent resources.
  • Provide the elder with information about undue influence and unscrupulous people who prey on senior citizens. Urge them to be careful.
  • Advise anyone who has contact with seniors to be on the lookout for signs that someone is attempting to control the elderly person for their own gain.

Should you suspect that an elder is a victim of undue influence, as soon as possible put every detail and all dates down in writing. States vary on abuse reporting requirements and procedures. However, each state has a service designated to receive and investigate allegations of elder abuse. The Eldercare Locator is a federal agency that will provide a referral to the proper agency for the area that the elder lives in.

Reporting suspicions of financial abuse via undue influence to the appropriate authority will begin an investigation and may prevent financial ruin or at least bring a halt to the elder’s suffering.

For more information, call (800) 677-1116 or visit drrzuk@aol.com.

How to Be Jewish 101


There are more than 3,000 synagogues in America. Why do some of them struggle week after week to make a minyan, while others are bustling with energy, song and laughter?

What is the magic that transforms certain shuls into sacred communities that embrace and uplift their congregants, while others just seem to be going through the motions?

These are questions that have been attracting communal attention since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey suggested that many Jews in this country weren’t joining synagogues, and even when they joined, they weren’t going as often as they used to.

Alienation from the synagogue is a worrisome trend because the shul, by default, has assumed a greater role in American Jewish life than ever before.
At a time when the home is no longer the prime source of Jewish education for many, the synagogue has become the central address for American Jewry.

Shepherding Jews through their major life-cycle events, the synagogue is now the chief institutional bulwark against assimilation.

“Synagogues are the place where Jewish identity is formed,” said Dru Greenwood, director of synagogue renewal for the UJA-Federation of New York.

If older generations “came to synagogue to express being Jewish,” today’s attendees “come to learn how to be Jewish,” added Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of the Minneapolis-based program known as STAR — Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal.

Synagogue involvement is important, since it seems to be related to Jewish engagement in other spheres. But membership is only half the story. While 46 percent of American Jews belong to synagogues, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, only a quarter of them show up for services even once a month. In order to reach more Jews more deeply, the synagogue, according to University of Judaism educator and innovator Ron Wolfson, must rethink its mission and become “a sacred community.” That is, a place where Jews can find knowledge, meaning and connection with other Jews.

Home Is Where the Bimah Is

An array of programs aimed at creating “sacred communities” have cropped up since the early 1990s. The vast majority of them are used in non-Orthodox synagogues, although there are some noteworthy exceptions.

Emanating from both national organizations and individual shuls, these programs run the gamut in terms of style and substance. Many of them aim to cultivate a sense of comfort and belonging among congregants — a homey feeling that the term “program” doesn’t capture, according to Rabbi Jonah Pesner of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Boston.

“Congregations are about people, not programs,” said Pesner, who has drawn hundreds of people into social-action work at his synagogue through community-based organizing. He is now trying to incorporate that model throughout the Reform movement. “Synagogues are organized backwards,” he added. Instead of asking people what they want, “we start with programs and wonder why people don’t show up.”

Encouraged to cultivate what one trailblazer calls “a culture of experimentation,” rabbis and other leaders have examined virtually every mode of Jewish expression, from worship to Jewish scholarship to social activism, in an effort to find common ground with congregants and enhance the synagogue experience. Likewise, they have appealed to a wide range of personal interests — from fine arts to music to theater.

“We feel the arts is a wonderful doorway into Judaism,” said Michael Goldberg, program director at the arts center of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, which sponsors lectures, chamber concerts and play readings, most with Jewish themes.
Temple Israel in Memphis has reinvigorated itself by instituting a rousing Friday-night “ruach,” or spirit, service that employs a house band, said the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus, Harry Danziger, president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The music isn’t just a device to lure young people, Danziger added. “Our drummer,” he said, “is a 70-year-old dentist.”

One Size Does Not Fit All

Change-minded synagogues have experimented with shorter services, smaller services, neighborhood-based services, earlier Friday-night services for families who want to eat Shabbat dinner together — even services written by the congregants themselves.

Beth Smith, a longtime member of Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City, Mo., decided the Shabbat service at her shul was “boring,” so she gathered a group of congregants together to write a new one. The resultant lay-led service, called Tefillah 2000, doesn’t always run as smoothly as the main service in the sanctuary. But participants find it appealing precisely because it is homegrown.

Some congregants do without services altogether, preferring instead to worship in other ways.

“I don’t go to shul,” said Beth Barry, a member of the board of The Brotherhood Synagogue in downtown Manhattan.

Rather than attend services, Barry and several other congregants serve free Shabbat lunch to isolated and homeless Jews as part of Synaplex, a national synagogue revitalization program Brotherhood is participating in. “This is what I do,” Barry said on a recent Shabbat as she urges an elderly lunch recipient to “take some of the chicken home.”

“It doesn’t have to be one size fits all,” Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said of synagogue renewal efforts. His shul, Beth El in New Rochelle, N.Y., for example, has a variety of Shabbat offerings, including a learning service and a chavurah, or small fellowship of congregants with common interests.

In fact, the chavurah, which originated in the late 1960s as a boutique-like alternative to institutional worship, has become popular in many large congregations that are seeking to shed their aura of impersonality and encourage individuals to develop bonds of friendship linking them to the larger community.

Congregation Beth Israel, a large Reform congregation in San Diego, instituted its first chavurah two decades ago. Today, it has 28 chavurot linking people by age, family status and personal interests.

“In a big congregation, people feel lost,” said Beth Israel program director Bonnie Graff, who is in charge of matching congregants to an appropriate chavurah. “If you get them into a chavurah as soon as possible after they join, it bonds them. They have people to call and say, ‘let’s go to services tonight.'”

Meanwhile, more synagogues have become “learning congregations,” where Torah study and the practical application of Torah values are considered as integral a component of Jewish involvement as meaningful worship.

Adult learning programs in particular have become more popular.

“If the theme of the 20th century was learning for kids, the 21st century is about learning for adults,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Some synagogues highlight the family nature of Shabbat. Recognizing that many Jewish families do not make Shabbat at home themselves, these shuls are encouraging families to come to the synagogue to worship and learn together.

Thirteen years ago, Congregation Beth Am, a large Reform synagogue located in Los Altos, just south of San Francisco, created Shabbaton, a three-hour Shabbat-afternoon program for entire families. Parents and children study a topic together for an hour, break apart into age-based groups for a second hour of study, and come together again for the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat. Then, each family picks a tzedaka, or charity, project for the coming week.

Seventy families take part in Shabbaton, said congregational president Amy Asin, including her own.

“We’ve built a community of people who know each other, who go out to dinner together,” she said. “Shabbaton is about coming to the congregation as a family and being Jewish, as opposed to learning about being Jewish.”

Leadership Matters

Programs come and go. But experts agree that the key intangible that makes synagogue transformation possible is strong rabbinic and lay leadership — the human catalyst that links the pulpit to the congregation.

“It’s about who’s sitting out there and the ability of whoever is on the bima to connect with them,” Freelander said.

For example, Rabbi Laura Geller at Reform Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, who hosted an African American church at her congregation’s Passover seder and got every participant, Jew and Christian, to commit to a social-action project.
Or Rabbi David Fine at Congregation Beth Israel Abraham and Voliner in Kansas City, Mo., who brought a national synagogue revitalization program, Synaplex, into an Orthodox shul.

Or Rabbi Ron Shulman of Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative congregation in Baltimore with about 1,400 families. Soon after his arrival two years ago, Shulman instituted Shabbat Yachad, a monthly event in which worshippers from all the congregation’s Saturday morning services gather in the sanctuary to watch the kids parade around with the Torah. Then everyone adjourns to their separate minyans, coming together again afterward for a communal lunch.

“People talk to each other,” said congregant Glenn Ulick, who attends Shabbat Yachad with his wife and children. “They never did that before.”

There are also dedicated lay leaders, like Bernie Scheiman at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, N.Y., who delivers a Medicare “tip of the week” on Thursdays during the shul’s senior lunch program. The program is part of Leisure Thursday, a revitalization initiative created nine years ago by the synagogue’s rabbi, a congregant and a handful of lay leaders.

Consider also lay leader Mona Yaguda Ross, who joined Reform Temple Shalom in Newton, Mass., 10 years ago. Her expectations were, she said, “fairly low.” She wanted “a place where my family could be comfortable.” She quickly became very involved. Last year, she headed up a group that wrote its own curriculum for an in-house leadership development class, which will debut this fall.

Her volunteer work has, she said, transformed her relationship to her synagogue.
“Temple Shalom is my home, it nurtures me and I nurture it,” she added. “Each time you get involved, you have more ownership and you meet more people. You develop a depth of friendship you can’t get by just dropping off your kids in the parking lot.”

The Agonizing Toll of Sexual Addiction


One Friday night 33 years ago, when Yisroel Richtberg was 12
years old, an older boy sneaked into his dorm room at his Chasidic yeshiva in Israel,
pulled off Richtberg’s pajama pants and raped him. The same thing happened the
next Shabbat.

The boy told Richtberg (not his real name) that if he ever
told anyone, the two would be blacklisted at all the yeshivas, and the attacker
said he would kill himself.

Richtberg didn’t tell.

Instead, he sank into a cycle of depression, shame and
isolation, one that would lead to a 20-year addiction to prostitutes,
pornography and drugs, fronted by a double-life as an upstanding Chasidic
rabbi, businessman and father of 12.

Today, Richtberg is alive to tell his story because he got
help from therapists and 12-step programs. He has made it his life’s mission to
help others conquer an addiction so coated with shame that it resides at the
very bottom of the hierarchies of addiction.

Identified in the 1970s by Patrick Carnes, author of “Out of
the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction” (Hazelden, 2001), sex addiction
has the same psychological and physiological underpinnings as alcoholism, drug
abuse and other addictions, but cultural proscriptions against openly
addressing sexual behavior problems have made it one of the least understood of
the addictive disorders. Addicts are either feared as offenders, which only a
small percentage are, or mockingly revered with a that-sounds-like-fun wink.

But addicts say there is no pleasure in being a slave to a
compulsion so strong that it affects the body and mind as acutely as a drug.

“There is still this judgment of ‘what a sleazy guy,’ but
what they don’t understand is that the addict has a psycho-biological disorder
in which he is seeking a drug that he himself produces,” said Robert Weiss,
clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute, on Olympic Boulevard, just
outside Beverly Hills. “He is literally dosing himself with his own
neurochemistry, like a drug addict with a needle in his arm.”

Whether acting out by compulsively masturbating to
pornography, having serial affairs, frequenting prostitutes or habitually
seeking homosexual or heterosexual one-night stands, sex addicts sink into a
pit of shame and self-loathing, often threatening their families and
livelihood.

It is difficult to determine whether the incidence of
addiction is higher or lower in the Jewish community than in the general
population, where Carnes estimates that about 5 percent to 8 percent of adults
have a sexual compulsivity disorder. Conversations with several mental health
professionals who work with the Jewish community, from ultra-Orthodox to
unaffiliated, revealed that all had a significant number of patients dealing
with sex addiction, including several rabbis. Several pulpit rabbis revealed
that congregants had sought counseling from them about sex addiction.

Weiss believes the vast majority of sex addicts are men, and
pointed out that female sex addicts might be too embarrassed to seek help, or
might be getting paid to act out as prostitutes or exotic dancers.

Weiss estimates that about 20 percent of addicts are sexual
offenders, usually engaging in exhibitionism or voyeurism. Occasionally addicts
are guilty of molestation or rape, but not all sex offenders are addicts.

In a world where clothing styles, entertainment and
marketing have stripped away sexual inhibitions, triggers are everywhere for an
addict. Free-flowing pornography on the Internet has added to the mix a population
of addicts who never showed such tendencies before (see Web, p. 11).

The changing reality of cybersex has forced Jewish community
leaders, educators and rabbis to begin battling a seemingly inbred denial and
acknowledge that the community must aid its addicts.

In Los Angeles there are indications that awareness is
growing. A Jewish Federation conference on addictions in the fall of 2001
attracted 250 people.

This year, 880 people attended the annual dinner of Beit
T’Shuvah, a residential rehabilitation organization in Los Angeles that uses
Judaism at the core of its treatment — the only such facility in the country.

With the help of Rabbi Juda Mintz, himself a recovering
addict to Internet pornography, Beit T’Shuvah and the Board of Rabbis of
Southern California recently co-sponsored a series on addictions. It was at the
session on sex addiction, and in private conversations with The Jewish Journal,
that Richtberg told his story.

Addiction or Just Bad Behavior?

Richtberg is a Chasid with a scraggly beard, wide-brimmed
hat, long coat and knickers tucked into his thin black socks. Thick glasses
cover his tired blue eyes, and his Yiddish accent belies his American birth and
Israeli upbringing.

Two years after Richtberg was raped, his parents transferred
him to a new yeshiva in Jerusalem, hoping to reverse his baffling
transformation into a depressed and isolated C student.

A rabbi at the new yeshiva, an ad hoc counselor for boys who
have sexual problems, was the first person Richtberg told about the rape and
his subsequent behaviors: compulsive masturbating, viewing pornographic
materials and a sexual relationship with another boy. (Years later, Richtberg
found out that the boy, after he married and had a family, committed suicide.)

While the rabbi was more compassionate than others in the
yeshiva system who scolded and blamed Richtberg, he was not a mental health
professional and was more interested in getting Richtberg to stop his behaviors
than in healing him. Richtberg said he would promise the rabbi that he would
stop, but then would come back crying in shame when he didn’t.

“Today I know I was an addict from the start because I had
so much pain, and I didn’t have a person to talk to about my pain, and I tried
to do something to cope,” Richtberg said.

Experts say his symptoms — compulsive, self-destructive
behavior, followed by shame and heartfelt-but-futile promises to stop — were
classic signs of addiction, whether caused by an acute trauma or more subtle
emotional trouble.

“All addiction is caused by a hole in one’s soul, and a need
to fill it with something,” said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, spiritual leader of Beit
T’Shuvah. “It’s about loneliness and emptiness. We turn to addictive behaviors
and substances as a solution to this experience of not fitting in, of not being
good enough.”

Despite an understanding that the addiction is destroying
his life, the addict’s attempts to stop will fail until he gets outside help,
experts say.

“An addiction becomes the center of your life,” said Rabbi
Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and an expert in Jewish
medical ethics. “It becomes like an idol, theologically speaking, and
everything in your life is centered around it, and most other things that are
really important get lost.”

While society has come to accept an individual’s
powerlessness in relation to drugs and alcohol, because of the brain’s chemical
dependency on these substances, the terminology of addiction seems harder to
justify in reference to gambling, overeating or sex, which most people can control.

However, experts report that sex addicts have the same
genetic predisposition toward addictive behavior as other addicts. And once an
addict gets hooked on a behavior, his body treats it — and the pursuit of it —
as a drug.

“Neuropsychological research shows that the exhilaration
that people feel when in pursuit of the object of their addiction can
approximate the high in and of itself, so that not only are they seeking the
thrill through the drug or illicit behavior, but even the pursuit is generating
an exhilarating high,” said David Fox, a clinical psychologist and rabbi.

Just how to classify sex addiction is still a matter of
debate in the medical community. Sex addiction made its way into the DSM III,
the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, in 1980, but was
pulled with the release of the DSM IV in 1994. Weiss is confident that current
research has quieted most debate and that the diagnosis will be reinstated in
the next edition.

All of this makes it difficult to use sex addiction as a
legal defense, and Weiss notes, it is hardly a defense that conjures much
empathy among jurors.

The Double Life

Mark Altman (not his real name), a 40-something married
professional, who was a sex addict for more than 20 years and has been in
recovery for five, was raised by two alcoholics and suffered a childhood trauma
that set off his addiction.

He began sexually acting out as a teenager, “numbing out” by
compulsively masturbating, he said. Starting in college, he sought sexual
liaisons with men at sex clubs, bathhouses and park restrooms, while in his
public life he dated women. He continued his double life through 15 years of
marriage, raising three children and belonging to a Reform temple.

“Every New Year’s, every birthday, every Rosh Hashana, every
time there was some sort of event when I could make a resolution, I would swear
to myself I would stop, because it was killing me,” Altman said.

“I was leading a good family life, I was there for my kids,
I was there for my wife,” he continued. “I just carried on this charade, and I
was dying inside. And I couldn’t stop, no matter how hard I tried.”

At one point, he planned suicide. He sought therapy, but it
didn’t give him the tools to stop. At the height of his addiction, he was
acting out almost daily — adult bookstores, cybersex, phone sex and cruising
for sexual encounters.

Altman knows now that what he was searching for was
validation — the comfort of believing, however fleetingly, that someone else
thought he was worthy of love and attention. It was never about the sex, he
said.

“The thing I was really looking for was somebody to hold me
and rub my back and tell me I’m an OK guy, not such a bad person,” he said.
“You feel so bad about yourself, and as an addict, you look to the exterior to
find something to fix you.”

But the fix never lasted long.

“I would act out,” Altman recalled, “then feel really crappy
about it afterward, saying, ‘I can’t believe I did this,’ then go home to my
wife and kids, and feel awful and shameful and guilty and horrible, and the
only way I knew to make it stop was to act out again.”

Experts say the cycle Altman described is characteristic of
all addictions and is usually augmented by what is referred to as boundary
crossing, where increasing levels of the substance or behavior are needed to
achieve the same high.

Richtberg can mark each of the milestones in his life with
another boundary crossing. When he was 19, on the advice of the rabbi who was
counseling him, he married. His first introduction to the female body quashed
his desire for men, but enhanced his addiction.

He stayed clean for three weeks after he married. But the
first night his wife cooked dinner, he took a bus into Manhattan’s redlight
district instead of going home.

“I cruised the streets and went to some peep shows,”
Richtberg recalled, “and came home about 3 a.m.”

It was his first time at a live show. “Today, I know it was
too hard for me to deal with my life, and I had to run.”

He celebrated the birth of his first daughter by seeing a
prostitute for the first time. As his habit grew more expensive, he left
kollel, where he was studying full time to earn rabbinic ordination, and
started a business.

At around that time in 1983, his third child was born, a son
with a serious genetic disease. “I knew for sure that Hashem is punishing me,
and that’s why he gave me such a sick child,” Richtberg said. “And I kept
promising myself that I’m going to stop.”

Two years later, another child was born with the same disorder,
and two years after that another child was born with a different chronic
illness. Another child died in infancy.

With each trauma, Richtberg crossed another boundary. He
began to use drugs — first marijuana, then cocaine, then crack.

“At a certain time, it’s hard to say exactly when, I gave
up,” Richtberg said. “I stopped making promises and decided to live a double
life. My goal was to make a lot of money and to make sure that my two worlds
don’t mix.”

Getting Help

Getting into drugs killed Richtberg’s illusion of control.
Within a year and half, he lost his business and started bouncing checks within
his own community. In 1990, he pleaded guilty to business fraud for which he
later served a 20-month sentence. His double life was falling apart.

It took a well-timed external kick to finally induce
Richtberg to get help. The nurses who lived at Richtberg’s home to care for his
disabled children told his wife that they thought he was on drugs. His
brother-in-law brought him to a clinic.

Richtberg yo-yoed through the first few months of therapy,
which focused only on his drug problem, until his therapist insisted that he go
to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and intense outpatient rehabilitation.
Richtberg went on his last cocaine binge in October 1991.

Richtberg said he stayed away from prostitutes for a full
year. But then one day, he found himself in Manhattan, in tears and with a
prostitute. The next day, he and his therapist came up with one last hope: Sex
Addicts Anonymous (SAA).

Richtberg went to a meeting that day and has been clean
since.

“Treatment for any addiction is directly related to
motivation, so if someone is really motivated to change, it is possible, but it
is an active process,” Weiss said.

Unlike gambling, drugs or alcohol, sex cannot simply be
sworn off. Rather, sex addicts construct parameters in which they can have sex
— with a loving partner, for instance — and still stay on the path toward their
life goals.

Altman went to his first SAA meeting after he was arrested
at a park where men hung out to pick up sex partners.

“I never really thought that I could ever find a group of
people talking about the kind of things that I was sure nobody else did,”
Altman said. “Twelve-step gives you tools you can work with to stop these
behaviors, to really live your life. It’s not just about stopping the sexual
activity. It’s about living your life with integrity and honesty and being
accountable for your actions.”

Spiritual Treatment for a Spiritual Malady

Borovitz of Beit T’Shuvah, himself a recovering alcoholic,
believes that spiritual counseling, prayer and Torah study are essential to
integrating all the elements of a Jewish addict’s soul.

“One of the things that most people speak about in recovery
is finding their authentic soul and how important it is that they can take a
breath and be who they are, rather than who everyone else expects them to be,”
Borovitz said.

He said addicts need to harness God’s power to make their
recovery successful.

“Turning my life and will over to God’s care is a statement
by me that the creative energy of the world is available to me to learn and to
follow the derech [the right path],” Borovitz said.

While some might mistake admitting powerlessness for
relinquishing responsibility, Borovitz said the admission brings a renewed
sense of moral culpability.

“Once I have a connection with God, I have to accept the
yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” he said. “I can’t lie to myself anymore.”

Both Altman and Richtberg had to re-envision their
relationship to Judaism and God to succeed in SAA’s 12-step program.

“When I was first forced to go to AA meetings, I felt that
it’s goyish, it’s not for me,” Richtberg recalled. Meetings are often in
churches, God is invoked as the higher power and sessions end in “The Lord’s
Prayer.”

Richtberg wove together the 12-step process with the Jewish
path of teshuvah (repentance), growing closer to God and stronger in his
Judaism as he made amends with himself and others.

“This is like a cancer, my addiction, and based on the
prognosis, I can’t stay sober,” Richtberg said. “But there is a God who can
help keep me sober if I turn to him every day,” he said. “Every day, I get up
in the morning, and I say, ‘Tati [Daddy], I’m powerless, I can’t stay sober and
I’m asking you for a toivah [favor]. Please keep me sober for today. I’m not
asking more, just for today.’ That has been working for 10 years.”

Altman, a self-described atheist who grew up in a
“spiritually empty” family that belonged to a Reform temple, said he had “to
get away from a lot of initial religious baggage before I could develop my own
concept of a higher power.”

Altman now has a “constellation of ideas” that constitute
his higher power. One of those ideas incorporates the ongoing conversation in
his own head between what he calls “my addict” and the person he was born to be
— the one who can discern right from wrong, the one who can learn to love
himself for who he is.

“The program consists of people helping each other,” he
said. “Two people are always stronger than one person alone, so I cannot deny
that that is a power greater than me.”

With Help, Hope

Altman is honing his new conception of God with Rabbi Paul
Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Agoura Hills, who has worked with addiction
for years.

“Every rabbi should have the big book of Alcoholics
Anonymous, as well as some of the Jewish recovery books, on their shelf just
over their shoulder, so everyone knows that we’re here, and that we’re open,”
Kipnes said.

Harriet Rossetto, CEO of Beit T’Shuvah, said that opening
Jewish opportunities for recovery is especially vital for rabbis, who often
have no one to talk to about the conflicting realities of their public image
and what goes on inside them.

“It’s time to address rabbis as human beings and acknowledge
that they have these issues and provide treatment, rather than putting them up
on this pedestal and knocking them off and stepping on them,” Rossetto said.

Beit T’Shuvah, with Mintz’s help, is putting together an
anonymous 12-step group for rabbis.

Mintz said that working to raise awareness of addiction in
the Jewish community has become his tikkun — a mission of healing that is his
life’s purpose.

Richtberg, who hides his secret from his Chasidic community
and the small congregation he runs, believes his ordeal also has a divine
purpose. He makes himself available to rabbis, doctors and mental health
professionals. He started an SAA group in Israel and he often runs the minyan
at international SAA conventions.

And if in his past life his milestones were marked with
sinking deeper into his addiction, he said they are now marked with saving more
lives.

On the very day last year that his son, disabled from birth,
died as a teenager, Richtberg got a call from an Israeli friend who was in the
United States and needed the support of a fellow recovering addict. With
Hatzolah paramedics still in his home, Richtberg at first explained that he
just couldn’t. Then he called back and told the man to come right over.

“My son left in the spirit of somebody who was reborn,” he
said. “I helped somebody recreate a new life and another one left.”

In the 10 years that he’s been clean, Richtberg and his wife
have had three healthy children. On their anniversary this year, his wife, who
considered leaving him when he revealed his secret, told him she now treasures
each minute she is married to him.

“If you ask me what is the basic change that has happened to
me in the last 10 years, it’s that 10 years ago, I did not believe I had
anything to give, that there would ever come a time in my life that I would
have something to give,” Richtberg said.

“Now people feel that I’m something,” he said. “People value
me. Sometimes I still have a hard time believing it.”

Comedy Is Not Pretty


Mark Schiff’s friends looked at him funny after reading an early version of his play, “The Comic.” “It ends with a murder-suicide,” the comedian concedes. “But it’s funny.”

The play revisits the years when Schiff spent 30 weeks a year on the road, playing Tuesday-night crowds with nine people in the audience, telephones ringing throughout his act. “The Comic” recalls the smelly, divey motels he stayed in and the chronic loneliness. “It gets to the point where every town looks the same,” says Schiff, who was one of Johnny Carson’s favorite comics. “You eat every meal by yourself, you spend all day by yourself, and you’re a comedian onstage by yourself. You lay around for 17 hours a day, watching TV and eating bad food.”

The isolation got so bad that Schiff used to tear up every time he glanced at photographs of his wife and kids. At first, he hid the photos. But by 1990, he had had enough.

The character of Sid, the washed-up 58-year-old comedian of “The Comic,” first came to Schiff as a caveat to himself, a warning to get off the road. “These old guys get tortured,” he says of some old-timers he’s known. “They’re like cars with 500,000 miles on them. They’re tired, wrecked, bitter. They’re doing the same trick, over and over. They’ve given up.”

Instead of continuing to fill his inner emptiness with the fleeting attention of the stage, Schiff decided to begin a journey toward observant Judaism. He cut back his road trips to corporate and cruise gigs. He reinvented himself as a writer, serving on the staff of the TV show “Mad About You.” Finally, he penned his first play, “The Comic,” which focused on the limbo of the road.

Schiff actually hoped to write plays since he was 16, when he’d sneak into Broadway shows at intermission. Instead, he chucked his theatrical ambitions for the “instant gratification of standup comedy,” he says.

Finally, at 44, Schiff’s first play is being staged by arcade; one of the artistic directors is ex-comic Michael Patrick King of “Sex and the City.” “I’m nervous,” admits Schiff, who elected not to star in his play. “Writing it was painful enough. I didn’t want to live in it.”

“The Comic” shows Nov. 15-19 at arcade, 8741 Washington Blvd., Culver City (in the historic Helms Bakery). Admission is free, but reservations are essential: (310) 253-9097.

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