Rabbis for Romney


Many political organizers talk about themselves as reluctant activists, but when Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg said it wasn’t his intention, initially, to establish the group Rabbis for Romney, it’s hard not to believe him.

“I don’t hate Obama, and I don’t glorify Romney,” said Rosenberg, a 64-year-old Orthodox-ordained rabbi who leads Congregation Beth-El, a conservative synagogue in Edison, N.J. “I just know what I have, and I’m not happy with what I have, so I’m willing to throw the dice with someone new.”

Rosenberg, who said he is a registered Democrat who voted twice for President Bill Clinton, launched Rabbis for Romney in September with little more than an organization name and a solicitation e-mail. Even today, aside from a list that he won’t share of what he says are 100 rabbis’ names, the group doesn’t have much of a presence on the Web or on the campaign trail.

Its entire reason for being, Rosenberg said, is not so much to oppose the re-election of President Barack Obama as to oppose the members of Rabbis for Obama who have endorsed him.

“I don’t think there should be rabbis for anybody,” Rosenberg said. “But then 613 rabbis decided they were going to make a whole to-do in the press, and that’s wrong.”

Those 613 Rabbis for Obama helped reignite a long-running debate about whether Jewish clerics should take positions on political issues.

But unlike those rabbis, who all have made their names public, and who include some pulpit rabbis, next to nothing is known about the majority of the Rabbis for Romney group.

Rosenberg, who said he received hate mail in response to organizing Rabbis for Romney, would not release the names of the rabbis who have contacted him to join the group, but he did disclose that every rabbi on his list of about 100 is male. Eighty percent of the Rabbis for Romney are Orthodox-ordained; the rest are Conservative, he said. Some work for synagogues, others as educators, and still others are retired. None lives on the West Coast, but some live in Israel, Rosenberg said. 

Although the group is called Rabbis for Romney, at least some of its members appear to be inspired more by antipathy for Obama than by love for the Republican nominee.

Rabbi David Algaze of Havurat Yisrael, an Orthodox synagogue in Queens, N.Y., is co-chairman of Rabbis for Romney. Speaking to The Jewish Star of Long Island, N.Y., Algaze reportedly said the “main purpose [of Rabbis for Romney] is to counter the impression of Rabbis for Obama.”

Calling Obama “one of the most hostile” presidents toward Israel and the Jews, Algaze told The Jewish Star that “Romney will do even better for Israel. We saw his presentation of [God] and values rather than the atheistic and other values of Obama.”

Rosenberg was less sanguine than was Algaze about Romney — “I don’t know the guy, I never went out to dinner with him” — but was no less opposed to Obama’s re-election.

“I don’t trust Obama,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not saying he’s been bad to Israel; I’m not one of those guys. I just don’t like his apologizing to the Arab world. I don’t like him dealing with extremist Muslims. He’s not my cup of tea.”

And though Rosenberg said he hoped Romney, if elected, would take a different tone in his interactions with Israel than Obama has, the rabbi acknowledged that such talk is, at this point, purely speculative. Nevertheless, Rosenberg said the Republican could count on his vote. 

“With me, Romney is going to be a better president because, economically, he knows something about business,” he said. 

The Jews of Kaifeng, China


Jewish liturgy and ritual frequently remind us that the Israelites were scattered to the “four corners of the earth,” as symbolized by the four fringes of the tallit, or prayer shawl. The extent of the geographic dispersion of the Jews over millennia has been vast, ranging from Baghdad to Burma, Marrakesh to Melbourne, Jerusalem to Los Angeles. 

But it wasn’t until I arrived in China for a two-and-a-half week stint to teach Jewish history that I realized just how dispersed these “four corners” are.

In Kaifeng, where Jews once lived — and still do — I witnessed the past and present of one of those dispersed “corners.” I also learned what it is like to teach Jewish history in China, where the field of Jewish studies is undergoing a surprising growth spurt.

The absence of a firm trail of historical evidence leads some to maintain that reports of a medieval Jewish presence in China are unfounded. I tend to agree with another group of scholars, who believe that there was such a presence — and that Kaifeng (pronounced “Ky fung”), in Henan province, is the oldest known Jewish community. This group argues that Jewish merchants, most likely originating in the Middle East, traveled along the vaunted Silk Road and made their way to and through China as early as the seventh century C.E. A document written in Judeo-Persian detailing business activity dates Jews in China to the early eighth century. Meanwhile, scholars surmise that sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries C.E., Jewish traders — likely of Persian origin — laid roots in Kaifeng. Kaifeng was no mere station along the Silk Road, and surely no backwater. It was one of the “Seven Ancient Capitals of China,” serving as the administrative center for five dynasties. Even more remarkably, Kaifeng was reputed to be the largest city in the world in the 11th and 12th centuries, with a population estimated at between 700,000 to 1.5 million. The list of other leading urban population centers in this period includes Córdoba (Spain), Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo and Baghdad, all of which were or would become home to large populations of Jews. In fact, the Jewish romance with the city was not a modern invention. In a city, one could find a spirit of openness, new ideas and, of course, abundant commercial opportunities. In this sense, it would be no surprise that Jews made their way to medieval Kaifeng.

Kaifeng in its golden age was a masterfully designed city, with three sets of city walls, at the center of which was the elaborate Forbidden City where the emperor and his court were located. The Jewish community lived within the city walls, dwelling in close proximity to the community’s first synagogue, built in 1163, whose construction was commemorated in a stele dated to 1489. Unlike many of their medieval co-religionists, the Jews of Kaifeng, it appears, were largely unscathed by discrimination or persecution. The Song Emperors, based in Kaifeng, held the Jews in high esteem. And the Jews maintained good relations with their local Chinese neighbors. 

It is reasonable to assume that amiable relations hastened the pace of cultural integration. Within several hundred years, many of Kaifeng’s Jews, who at their peak numbered several thousand (some estimate as high as five thousand), lost knowledge of the Hebrew language. And yet, a key feature of traditional Jewish life remained throughout the entire existence of the community, even up to today: Jews in Kaifeng abstained from eating pork. Another distinctive feature of the Kaifeng community also survived: One of the Song Emperors, who could not pronounce the Hebrew names of the Jews in his realm, bestowed on them seven Chinese family names that are still in use today.

The existence of this community was unknown to the West until 1605, when the intrepid Jesuit scholar and missionary in China, Matteo Ricci, received a visit from a Kaifeng Jew in Beijing. After an initial confusion in which the two thought they belonged to the same religion, Ricci recognized that he was dealing with a previously unknown phenomenon: a native Jewish community in China. This well preceded the later communities established in the late 19th century in Shanghai and Harbin. 

A model of the Kaifeng synagogue at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Some decades later, the city of Kaifeng, including its Jewish community, confronted a major disaster. In 1642, a devastating flood of the Yellow River wreaked massive destruction upon the city, killing large numbers of residents, including Jews, and laying waste to much of the city’s infrastructure, including the synagogue. The glory days of Kaifeng as a world center of commerce were over.

After the flood, the Jews did manage to rebuild their synagogue, distinguished, like the original one, by a large Chinese-style roof, along with a number of other distinctive Chinese features. But the community’s best days were past. Fewer and fewer Jews attended the synagogue or had familiarity with Jewish ritual. In 1841, another major flood hit Kaifeng, again destroying much of the city, including the second synagogue. And this time, no communal institutions were available afterward to provide support or services to Kaifeng Jews. 

One might assume, on the basis of this story, that the history of Kaifeng Jewry has come to an end, a victim not of anti-Semitism but of Chinese hospitality. My visit to Kaifeng suggests otherwise. My host in China, professor Xu Xin, one of the founding figures of Jewish studies in China (about whom more later), took me to visit Esther Guo Yan, a woman of about 25 or 30 who preserves one of the seven Jewish family names. Esther is the granddaughter of the last renowned Jewish notable from Kaifeng, and she runs a tiny, rough-hewn shrine to the history of Kaifeng Jewry. She waits for the occasional tourist to find her home, which is located in the historic Jewish quarter. Her interests are both to recall the old Jewish community and to bring knowledge about Chinese culture to what she refers to as her “hometown,” Jerusalem.

Indeed, a strong connection to Israel marks the larger group of Jewish descendants whom I met in Kaifeng. I first visited them at the end of their weekly four-hour study session of English and Hebrew with their ebullient, chain-smoking Israeli teacher, Shulamit Gershovich, who had been sent by Shavei Israel, an international group that seeks out lost Jews. She is concluding a six-month stint teaching the Kaifeng group and lives in one of the two rooms that now serve as a kind of community center under the name Beit HaTikvah (House of Hope). This name was bestowed by the center’s founder, a young American Jew named Eric Rothberg, who began to work with and teach the group two years ago. 

On a Thursday evening, I met with a group of eight students, some of them bearing the ancient names of Kaifeng Jews who, thus, are “descendants,” and others who have no Jewish blood but are married to descendants. Here in Kaifeng, as in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the most important criterion of Jewishness is not the rabbinic standard of matrilineal descent. Rather, it is the willingness and desire to be a Jew. Against remarkable odds, the members of Beit HaTikvah are assiduously studying what it means to be a Jew. Though a small number of younger family members have been sent off to Israel or the United States to study and undergo formal conversion, the majority of the 25 or so attendees at Beit HaTikvah are on their own path of Jewish self-discovery in China, where they likely will remain. (I should add that, in the ancient and venerable ways of the Jews, there is another group of a similar size studying at a different locale in Kaifeng with a Messianic Jew named Tim Lerner, though I did not get to meet them.)

Without a doubt, the highlight of my time in Kaifeng, and a reflection of the group’s indomitable spirit, was the Shabbat I spent at Beit HaTikvah. I was brought to the Friday night gathering by Ari Schaffer, an Orthodox undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, who is conducting research on the community. The small, nondescript room was filled with some 25 people, ranging in age from 16 to 75. On one wall was an unusual array of symbols: the flag of the State of Israel on the right, the flag of the People’s Republic of China on the left, and in the middle, the Shema prayer flanked by a pair of Hebrew words, shemesh and kamon.  

Shemesh means sun. Kamon’s meaning is a matter of dispute; some scholars believe it refers to an angel, while others maintain that it connotes moon. In any case, this pair of words seems to have served a sort talismanic function for the community.

After candlelighting, Gao Chao, the leader of the small community, began to sing “Yedid Nefesh,” the medieval poem sung at the outset of Kabbalat Shabbat. Typically enough for this community, Gao Chao is not of Jewish descent. He is married to a descendent, but has taken on the responsibility of learning Hebrew and Jewish prayers so as to serve as the prayer leader on Friday nights. He led the community through Kabbalat Shabbat, with members joining in in their Chinese-inflected Hebrew (which was rendered into Chinese characters for them to follow). The degree of ritual fluency for a community that does not include a single halachic Jew and has been studying Hebrew intensely for only two years was remarkable. The community chanted with gusto and competency many of the standards of Jewish liturgy and custom on Friday night: “Lechah Dodi,” “Ve-shamru,” and “Shalom Aleichem.” It was particularly moving when the congregation joined with Gao Chao to sing the penultimate line of the Friday night Kiddush: “For You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations, and with love and good will given us Your holy Shabbat as a heritage.”

After services, the entire group sat down to a potluck vegetarian Shabbat dinner, my first with chopsticks as the utensil of choice. Dinner was tasty and spirited, but a mere prelude to the memorable post-meal singing. We sang the grace after meals and then spent several hours singing zemirot and other Hebrew and Israeli songs at the top of our lungs — aided, it must be said, by a potent Arak-like beverage native to the region. One member of the community — not herself a Jewish descendant, but married to one — had assumed the Hebrew name Netta. She seemed to know virtually every Hebrew song sung. She had an infectious smile, beautiful voice and a true sense of oneg Shabbat — the joy of the Sabbath. Other members did not know many of the songs, but added their own enthusiastic and well-timed rhythm by clapping and pounding the table.

The one song that all knew was the one whose name adorns the current Kaifeng community: HaTikvah. At a certain point in the midst of the cacophonous frivolity, the group rose as one to offer a sonorous version of “Hatikvah” — in Chinese! Those of us who knew followed in Hebrew. It was another stunning moment in an evening of stunning moments. Few of the community members are likely to make aliyah, but somehow they have managed to develop a strong bond with and sense of pride for Israel. There was also a strong sense among all of us present of the past and future shared by Jews. Assembled at a long Shabbat table in Kaifeng, we experienced, in the rawest and purest form I’ve ever witnessed, the unbroken spirit that links Jews scattered over the four corners of the world, from California to China.


Follow the Jewish Journal on Twitter:

Religious zealots attack “immodest” Jerusalem shops


A sign at the ice cream parlor may caution men and women not to lick cones in public, but the warning didn’t stop Jewish zealots vandalizing the shop in Jerusalem’s main ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Other businesses in Mea Shearim, including a book store and dress shops, have been damaged in night-time attacks by Sikrikim, a group of some 100 ultra-religious men who want one of the holy city’s most tradition-bound quarters to become even more conservative.

“Promiscuity” reads graffiti scrawled in black at the entrance of a clothing shop selling dresses whose lengthy hemline and drab colors have been deemed too racy by the group.

Other stores in the neighborhood, where men wear traditional black garb and women bare little but their face, have had their windows broken, locks glued and foul-smelling liquid smeared on walls.

“They also threw once a bag of excrement inside and smashed our windows three times,” said Marlene Samuels, manager of the Or Hachaim bookshop, whose bright lights and large storefront sign stand out among smaller and more dimly lit businesses.

The shop has been attacked more than 10 times since it opened a year and a half ago, Samuels said. The latest assault was last week when one of the store’s branches had its locks glued overnight.

Samuels said the shop’s owner met with the Sikrikim several times. The store stocks only religious books, but they include volumes published by Orthodox institutions that are Zionist—anathema to the Sikrikim, who believe a Jewish state can be established only with the coming of the Messiah.

Named after a small Jewish group which 2,000 years ago fought against Roman rulers and suspected Jewish collaborators, the modern-day Sikrikim strike at night and some wear masks to hide their identities.

“They use aggressive tactics and they also ask for protection money which involves paying (a religious inspector) coming in and removing the books he deems unfit,” Samuels said.

Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem councilman from the secular Israeli Meretz party, voiced concern that the existence of the Sikrikim, although a tiny minority, signified a growing divide among Jews in Israel.

“Society is becoming increasingly extremist. With the Sikrikim particularly, who are religiously motivated and rule out any position but their own, one cannot reckon, only fight them,” Margalit said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 8 percent of Israel’s 7.7 million population. With an average of eight children per family, they are a fast-growing population. Many live below the poverty line and keep to dozens of their own towns and neighborhoods.

Mea Shearim area is small, less than half a square mile (1.3 square km), and home to about 30,000 residents considered among the most tight-knit and reclusive of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It takes about a minute to walk from Jerusalem’s city center to Mea Shearim, but the dozens of synagogues and Hassidic courts dotting its narrow alleyways are a world away from the cafes and bars of downtown Jerusalem.

Sikrikim attacks have also been reported at Beit Shemesh, a mixed secular and religious town with a growing ultra-Orthodox community, about half an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. The latest target there has been a religious girls’ school.

The Sikrikim who reside near the school object to the way the girls dress. Since the school year began in September they have regularly picketed outside shouting out at the students, most of them younger than 12, that they are promiscuous.

“They claim to be religious but what they do is a crime against God, against the Torah and against humanity,” said David Rotenberg, who works at Or Hachaim.

“SACRILEGE”

Up the road, the Zisalek ice cream parlor has separate entrances for men and women and a sign—posted at the request of local religious authorities—asking them to avoid any show of immodesty by licking cones in public.

“They (the Sikrikim) had a real ball with us,” said Guy Ammar, one of Zisalek’s owners, describing vandalism similar to attacks against other shops in the area.

“But we were not deterred. Residents here told us not to give up and business is going well now.”

Sikrikim shun the media and have made no public comment about their activities.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said an investigation was under way following two complaints lodged by Or Hachaim Center but no suspects have yet been arrested.

Some business owners in Mea Shearim said police has been slow to act, reluctant to get involved in what they see as internal disputes among different religious sects of a closed community.

Rosenfeld said that no other businesses have filed formal complaints in recent weeks.

A few minutes walk from Zisalek Ice Cream is the Greentech music shop, where Hassidic music plays in the background and one DVD in a collection of ultra-Orthodox movies is a suspense film about the battles of a rabbi against Christian missionaries.

The Sikrikim “do not like anything that changes the character of the shtetl and the way it was a hundred years ago,” a worker in the music store said, using a Yiddish term for the small towns where Eastern European Jews lived before the Holocaust.

Shlomo Kuk, an ultra-Orthodox journalist from Jerusalem, said the Sikrikim shouldn’t be seen as representative of devout Jews known as “haredim.”

“One thing is certain: they may dress like haredim but what they do is utter sacrilege which blackens the name of the entire haredi community,” Kuk said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

Lauder letter to Olmert urging Disapora role in Jerusalem negotiations stirs passions


The president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) has roiled the organization’s branch in Israel by writing to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a plea to allow Diaspora Jews a voice in any decisions on Jerusalem’s future.

Ronald Lauder, in his Jan. 8 letter on WJC letterhead, wished Olmert success during President Bush’s visit to the region and expressed the hope of world Jewry that Israel can attain peace.

Lauder closed the letter urging Olmert to take into consideration “the prayers, the hopes and the views of Jews around the world when you discuss the future” of Jerusalem.

“While recognizing Israel’s inherent prerogatives as a sovereign state,” Lauder wrote, “it is inconceivable that any changes in the status of our holy city will be implemented without giving the Jewish people, as a whole, a voice in the decision.”

Among those complaining about the letter was Shai Hermesh, chairman of the WJC’s Israel branch, which was listed at the top of the letterhead, along with the WJC’s world headquarters in New York. Hermesh said the letter was sent without any consultation with the Israeli branch and contradicts the WJC’s longstanding policy of keeping out of Israel’s political affairs.

“Ronald Lauder is allowed to print a letter or do whatever he wants, but he should take into consideration that never, never, never in the past did Jews in the Diaspora make decisions for Israel,” Hermesh said last week.

“We feel that Jews around the world are our brothers, and their support is very important to us, but political decisions should be taken only by the Knesset and no one else, including the Israeli branch of the World Jewish Congress,” he said. “That is totally unacceptable by us. Decisions should be taken only by the elected government and no one else.”

The flap over Lauder’s letter comes as right-wing and Orthodox groups in the United States are waging a campaign to keep Israel from sharing or dividing Jerusalem in any future deal with the Palestinians. The effort has reignited the argument over what role, if any, Diaspora Jews should have in deciding Israeli policy.

Lauder said he sent the letter without consulting the WJC’s governing body, though he did run it by the WJC’s secretary-general, Michael Schneider. Schneider said he approved of the letter, as long as Lauder made it clear that Israel is a sovereign state with the ultimate right to make its own decisions.

The goal of the letter, Lauder said, was not to pressure Olmert or Israel into taking a hard-line stand on Jerusalem but to foster debate on what he sees as the most important decision facing the country. Lauder added that he would not have taken a similar step regarding other territory up for discussion, including the Gaza Strip, West Bank or Golan Heights.

“The letter simply states that it was important to discuss Jerusalem with the Jews of the Diaspora, because we all play a role and Jerusalem is a key factor,” Lauder said.

The WJC was not going to take an official position on Jerusalem, he added.

“I was speaking for both the World Jewish Congress and the Jews of the Diaspora, and saying please listen to the Jews of the Diaspora,” Lauder said.

Lauder said he was unaware of any protocol for sending out such a letter on WJC letterhead but believed he had to act quickly.

“That is the job of the World Jewish Congress,” he said.

The spat could signify a clash of personal political differences among WJC officials. Lauder has been a longtime supporter of hawkish factions and leaders in Israel, including Knesset opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Hermesh is a member of Olmert’s Kadima Party.

The feud that ultimately led to years of scandal and turmoil at the WJC began with a fight over the decision by Edgar Bronfman, Lauder’s predecessor and a supporter of left-wing Israeli politicians, to send a letter on his own stationery to Bush urging him to pressure Israel to cease settlement construction.

Hermesh and Lauder dismissed any suggestion that a political fight was brewing, saying that the WJC’s policy is to avoid jumping into Israel’s political fray as an organization.

Lauder, who took over in June as WJC president after a contentious battle with Bronfman’s son, Matthew, has long been an outspoken critic of any plan to divide Jerusalem.

In 2001, when he was the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Lauder sought permission from the umbrella body to speak at a rally in Jerusalem that was organized to head off the reported willingness of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to make concessions on the city’s status in talks with the Palestinians.

After failing to secure approval, Lauder proceeded to speak at the rally anyway, saying he was doing so as a private individual. His decision to speak at that event pushed the Presidents Conference to adopt a policy forbidding its chairman from speaking publicly, unless he or she has a clear mandate from its member organizations.

Matthew Bronfman, who ultimately became chairman of the WJC’s governing board after deciding last spring to run on a joint ticket with Lauder, was in Latin America and unavailable for comment, Schneider said.

Contacted about the issue, Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the WJC’s executive, a separate body from the governing board, was vacationing in Cape Town, South Africa, and said he was unaware of the letter. Kaplan, a South African steel magnate, was the primary opponent of Lauder and Bronfman in the leadership election last year.

Lauder’s letter comes after Olmert took heat in November for telling reporters that Diaspora Jews should not have a say in what Israel does regarding Jerusalem. Those remarks came as right-wing groups tried to put pressure on the prime minister in the lead-up to the peace gathering in Annapolis, Md.

Olmert later clarified that he welcomed comments from Diaspora Jews but never rescinded his position that Israel alone is sovereign in conducting negotiations.

The Bloods, the Crips and the rabbi


In 1970, Abraham David Cooper was arrested by Washington police during a sit-in across from the Soviet embassy and put behind bars in a jammed holding cell. The then-20-year old Yeshiva College student came away from the experience with two important observations that may have changed his life:

  • First, that he didn’t like being in jail.
  • Second, that the established Jewish organizations had been missing in action in what Cooper considered the defining Jewish struggle of the time.

In the intervening 37 years, Cooper has made a point of being present in many of the world’s hot spots, and, at the same time, managed to stay out of prison. And during roughly the same time span, he has played a key role in creating one of the most activist Jewish organizations in the world, working outside the boundaries of the traditional organized community structure.

Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Cooper’s formal title today is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). That curious academic rank is a holdover from his initial work with the SWC-affiliated Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but it hardly defines his role and influence on this Jewish institution whose mission is to promote understanding among the world’s people.

Cooper, 57, is, in most respects, the alter ego of Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and the 33-year-long relationship in which their interaction and division of labor are defined by a kind of shorthand telepathy, requiring no organizational chart or chain of command.

But if today the SWC is a worldwide presence — with seven offices at home and abroad, a landmark Museum of Tolerance, a reported 400,000 member families, high-profile donors and entr�(c)e to presidents and kings — a considerable share of the credit goes to Cooper.

While Hier is the ultimate decision maker and both men respond interchangeably, and instantly, to the endless real or perceived crises facing Israel and the Jewish people around the globe, Cooper does have specific areas of responsibility and expertise.

One is interfaith relations; another is the burgeoning area of cyberspace. Cooper testified before Congress as long as six years ago that the increasing sophistication of Internet propaganda by hate groups, white supremacists and Islamic extremists was exerting growing influence among younger people.

From his Pacific-oriented vantage point in Los Angeles, Cooper is the point man for relations with Japan, China and other Far Eastern nations, introducing Holocaust exhibits, exposing anti-Semitic literature, and establishing ties with political and religious leaders.

“Abe is the Wiesenthal Center’s ambassador to most of the world,” Hier said.

This “ambassador” also shows up in some unexpected places and situations.

Last year, for instance, Cooper was drafted as witness to a peace treaty signed by the so-called O.G.s (original gangster), the founding elders of the Bloods and the Crips, two of the most fearful rival gangs in South Los Angeles.

He was recruited for the assignment by Katy Haber, a London-born film producer, who has been working for many years with at-risk youth and the homeless in the African American community.

Haber had met Cooper while working as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance and had no doubt that he was the right man to win the confidence of the gang members.

“Who would be more appropriate than a man who works on conflict resolution with world leaders?” Haber asked rhetorically. “Besides, he is a man of deep intellect, extraordinary sensitivity, and one of the major humanitarians in our community.”

In the introductory meeting and after guiding the O.G.s through the Museum of Tolerance, Cooper complemented the broad lesson of mutual understanding with concrete specifics on community activism, finding jobs and how to deal with authorities.

Cooper said he has no particular formula or technique for bringing opposing sides to the table or bridging differences.

“Part of it is my background as a New Yorker, an American and a Jew, which has given me a certain quiet self-assurance,” he said. “Another part is the example set early on by my father.”

By way of contrast, Cooper was on the other side of the world last summer, on the Indonesian island of Bali. He was there as the organizer of the “Tolerance between Religions” conference, which brought together such unlikely participants as leading Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, victims of the three faiths targeted by suicide bombers, and a Holocaust survivor.

In one speech, carried by Arab networks and worldwide, former president Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, upbraided Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his denial of the Holocaust.

Cooper’s organizing partner was C. Holland Taylor, CEO of the Libforall Foundation, which works with Muslim religious, educational, business and entertainment leaders to stem the spread of Islamic extremism.

After the Bali conference, Taylor and Cooper led a high-profile peace delegation from Indonesia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, on a weeklong mission to the Jewish state.

The experience impressed Taylor, who in a phone call from Indonesia described Cooper as “a brilliant strategist, who grasps immediately what can be done and who can juggle a dozen issues simultaneously.”

In the relationship between the Wiesenthal Center’s two top men, Cooper’s loyalty and admiration for Hier is unquestioned, but there is one easily noticed distinction between the two Orthodox rabbis.

As the Center’s clout has increased over the years, so has criticism of the institution within the general, and Orthodox, communities.

Complaints, mostly sotto voce, are aimed at the center’s alleged intrusions on the turfs of older community organizations, its political influence, the high salaries paid its top executives, violations of standards for nonprofit organizations, alarmist tactics and, in Israel, plans to build a $200 million Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.

In practically all these criticisms, the target is Hier, who is sometimes described, in awe, fear or derision, as a “New York street fighter.” By contrast, Cooper gets off unscathed.

Don’t dismiss Iran Holocaust conference as harmless fringe elements


Even Borat, the bumblingly anti-Semitic comic character, could not have contrived a more absurd and utterly offensive assemblage: David Duke, erstwhile Imperial
Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, alongside Robert Faurisson, the French pseudo-academic who argues that the Holocaust never happened, accompanied for dramatic effect by a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews whose anti-Zionist fanaticism motivates them to desecrate the memory of millions of murdered Jews.

On Monday and Tuesday, they and other likeminded sociopaths “debated” at the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Tehran whether or not my grandparents and my 5 1/2-year-old brother were gassed at Auschwitz. And the sponsors of the “International Conference on ‘Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision'” are the very folks James Baker and Lee Hamilton, authors of a recent re-evaluation of U.S. policy in Iraq, want to enlist to stabilize the Middle East.

Other participants in this perversion included Australian socialite Michele Renouf, who explained that anti-Semitism is caused by “the anti-gentile nature of Judaism,” and Rabbis Moishe Arye Friedman from Austria and Ahron Cohen from England, who strutted through the conference halls and gladly posed for the cameras.

Friedman told the press that he believes that only about 1 million Jews perished in the Holocaust, and Cohen declared that he does not consider Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sponsored the conference and who has called frequently for the Jewish state to be destroyed, an anti-Semite.

The Tehran reunion of misfits demonstrates conclusively why the Ahmadinejad government cannot be allowed anywhere near responsible political endeavors of any kind. If the international community ostracized South Africa during apartheid and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it should isolate present-day Iran in the most remote diplomatic Siberia imaginable.

Ahmadinejad has made it clear that his espousal of Holocaust denial is a pretext for his desire to destroy the State of Israel. In response, a group of Iranian students showed tremendous moral courage by publicly demonstrating against their president, burning his picture and protesting the “shameful conference” which, in the words of one student, “brought to our country Nazis and racists from around the world.”

In contrast, the reaction of the U.S. government was surprisingly, even shockingly, subdued. Substantially after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Tony Blair all sharply condemned the Tehran conference, the White House issued a statement calling the event an “affront to the entire civilized world” and accusing the Iranian regime of providing “a platform for hatred.”

President Bush, however, has not personally spoken out on the subject, relegating his administration’s response to an institutional press release. The man who usually never misses an opportunity to bash one of the charter members of his Axis of Evil seems to have developed laryngitis.

So, apparently, have Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Their failure to use their bully pulpit on this occasion not only plays into Ahmadinejad’s hands, but serves to empower Holocaust deniers generally.

Why does the Tehran conference have ominous significance? Because Duke, who managed to get 43 percent of the vote in his unsuccessful 1990 U.S. Senate campaign from Louisiana, will now be able to tell students at colleges in heartland America with a straight face that his contention that there were never any gas chambers has international academic and institutional support. And because the noxious views emanating from the podium in Tehran are hardly unique.

Pat Buchanan, a former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and now a well-paid television commentator, would have fit in perfectly. He once wrote that it would have been impossible for Jews to perish in the gas chambers of Treblinka and has referred to a “so-called Holocaust-survivor syndrome” which he described as involving “group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics.”

Professor Deborah Lipstadt has long maintained that while we should never engage Holocaust deniers in debate, we must nevertheless expose them at every opportunity. The Tehran conference is not just another gathering of skinheads in some obscure beer cellar; it is a government-sponsored effort to evoke and manipulate the darkest, most heinous impulses in society.

Every single one of us, from the president of the United States on down, must repudiate this inexorable obscenity publicly, unambiguously and in person.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a lawyer in New York, is founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

Finding Deeper Truths in Fiction — the Best About Israel


In recent weeks, many of us “Diaspora Jews” kept ourselves neck-deep in news from the Middle East: jumping out of bed to check the front page, keeping the television on all night, refreshing Web sites for the latest headlines. Of course, our routine paled in comparison to many Israelis, who were dashing into bomb shelters, being forced from their homes, arranging funerals. Still, it was a change, part of our anxiety-propelled, bottomless need for information.

But information does not necessarily breed understanding. This is especially true for us who are here and not there, and the distance is a complicating factor. Even those who have planted themselves firmly on one side or another of the political spectrum have been struck by new, different, often uncomfortable thoughts. (“How can I accept the killing of innocent Lebanese civilians, even by Israel?” one asks, while another wonders whether he should up the ante of his support by joining the Israeli army.) Behind these questions is the desire to get a better hold on the exact contours of one’s individual relationship to the State of Israel — not necessarily by figuring out one’s politics as much as by plumbing one’s emotional connection.

The answers to these questions cannot be found on CNN (thankfully). For this, we might be more successfully aided by fiction. One should read Israeli writers, of course — Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew’s relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.

One of the best of these books is “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s 1986 masterpiece. Less a linear tale than five riffs revolving around the same set of characters, the book acts as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope on Jewish identity; with each slight shift of perspective, a whole new picture emerges (think “Sliding Doors,” but smarter). The structure is designed to put the author’s famed alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, face to face with characters who challenge his identity as a Jew — vis-?-vis signature Roth topics (sex, family, psychoanalysis, sex, assimilation, sex) as well as broader ones: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and, most evocatively here, Israel. Nathan’s good, moderate, American values are challenged — from his resistance to religious ritual and distaste for the political right (“We do not wish to crush the Arab,” a settler leader explains, “we simply will not allow him to crush us”), to his subtle romanticization of Israeli life.

“Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals,” says his friend Shuki, a wearied Israeli journalist, “with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate a good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: We are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.”
The book is not exclusively about Israel, but those were the sections that moved me. And they are what I’ve found myself rereading over the past weeks.

“The Counterlife” is only one of many, many books about Israel by Americans — from “Yehuda” (1931) by Meyer Levin to “Exodus” (1958) by Leon Uris to “Light Years” (2005) by Tamar Stein (see sidebar). Perhaps it is this kind of reading that can begin to provoke understanding of the conflict a continent away. l

To push fiction as a complement to the newspaper, the television and the Internet in our quest for information and understanding about Israel, we asked readers to help us create a list of the best novels and short stories about Israel written by Diaspora authors:

  • “Yehuda” by Meyer Levin: Based on the author’s own experiences, this book is the first known novel depicting life set on a kibbutz in then-Palestine of 1931 (1931).
  • “Exodus” by Leon Uris: A detailed account of the transition from the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe to the founding of Israel sets up a fictional background for political arguments on issues of the 19th and 20th centuries (1958).
  • “A Weave of Women” by E.M. Broner: A group of very different women band together to save a shelter for wayward Jewish girls (and learn a lesson or two in politics, when they change its official name to “Home for Jewish Future Homemakers”). “Life’s contradictions live throughout this novel,” wrote one reviewer (1978).
  • “Preparing for Sabbath” by Nessa Rapoport: A young woman’s spiritual quest, set in Jerusalem (1981).
  • “The Hope” by Herman Wouk: An epic novel about Israel’s fight for statehood. The author delves into the personal lives of the dramatis personae, including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat (1993).
  • “Operation Shylock: A Confession” by Philip Roth: An impostor, calling himself “Philip Roth,” causes a furor in Israel by advocating “Diasporism,” the polar opposite of Zionism, encouraging Israelis to return to Eastern Europe (1993).
  • “The Jewish War” by Tova Reich: A radically religious, polygamous man, Jerry Goldberg transforms from a mere social worker in the Bronx to a terrorist leader of a group of American Jews in Israel who secede a portion of the West Bank to form their own nation in this satire (1995).
  • “From a Sealed Room” by Rachel Kadish: The lives of a young woman from New York, a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli housewife intersect (1998).
  • “Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone: A journalist in Jerusalem, reared both Jewish and Christian, feels devoid of a true sense of identity, despite the fact that he is surrounded by some of the most devoutly religious peoples in the world. “The characters in ‘Damascus Gate’ may be ‘God-struck,'” wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, “they may dream insistently of a better world, but like so many Stone characters, they end up captives of history and their own very human illusions” (1998).
  • “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” by Nathan Englander: “A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud,” noted Kirkus (1999).
  • “The Family Orchard” by Eve Nomi: Spanning six generations, this epic follows the lives of one family grounded in Jerusalem (2000).
  • “House of Guilt” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen goes on a hunt to find a tycoon’s wayward son, with his search leading him right into the heart of the West Bank (2000).
  • “Strange Fire” by Melvin Bukiet: A dark comedy about a speechwriter for the Israeli prime minister (2001).
  • “Crimes of the City” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen must track down the killer of two nuns in Jerusalem while contending with a host of religious and political tensions (2001).
  • “The Ascent of Eli Israel” by Jon Papernick: In seven modern-day stories, the scene is established in Israel, and the plots are mostly driven to underscore hypocrisy, touching on cultural tensions and war (2002).
  • “Quiet Street” by Zelda Popkin and Jeremy A. Popkin: A woman living in the suburbs of Jerusalem must come to terms with reality as she watches her 18-year-old daughter take on the role of soldier instead of farmer (2002).
  • “Seven Blessings” by Ruchama King: Set in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. King has been described by writer Wendy Shalit as “a writer who writes about a devout lifestyle that she actually lives” (2003).
  • “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy” by Aryeh Lev Stollman: “An expert weaver, Stollman brings together themes of religion, science, and love into an emotional whole,” noted Kirkus (2003).
  • “Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller: A cohort of Jews from the United States ventures to the West Bank to build a new community, but their settlement becomes a primary target of violence (2003).
  • “The Butcher’s Theater” by Jonathan Kellerman: A chief inspector of police who is also a Yemenite Jew begins work on a case involving the death of an Arab woman. After a second killing occurs, the inspector bears witness as Jewish-Arab conflicts ensue (2003).
  • “Ten Thousand Lovers” by Edeet Ravel: A novel, set in the 1970s, about the relationship between a Canadian émigré and an army interrogator. “The tragedy here is both anticipated and inevitable,” said Booklist, “but the textured personal story rises above its political context like a melody soaring beyond the steady rhythm pulsing below it” (2003).
  • “An Hour in Paradise” by Joan Leegant: This collection of 10 short stories covers a breadth of characters — from the secular to Orthodox, young to old — through whom Leegant poses questions about faith, love and change (2003).
  • “The Place Will Comfort You” by Naama Goldstein: In this collection of short stories, American Jews make aliyah and Israelis immigrate to America (2004).
  • “Faith for Beginners” by Aaron Hamburger: An American Jewish family teeters on the edge of collapse. In a last resort, they travel to Israel on a package tour with a mission to reinvigorate their spirituality (2005).
  • “The Task of This Translator” by Todd Hasak-Lowy: According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Hasak-Lowy artfully reveals layers of personal and national identity,” including one story about an Israeli ex-journalist working in the cafe at Yad Vashem who clashes with an American businessman over a stale pastry (2005).
  • “The Covenant” by Naomi Ragen: Set in 2002, a pregnant Israeli woman, her husband and their child are abducted by Hamas (2004).
  • “Light Years” by Tammar Stein: A 20-year-old woman leaves Israel for college in the United States after her boyfriend is killed by a suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv restaurant (2005).

— Compiled by Elisha Sauers

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward

This Week – In and Out


Last Friday, when the sun went down in Los Angeles, the Jewish community came alive.

At Sinai Temple in Westwood, 2,000 people packed the sanctuary — standing-room only — to hear Elie Wiesel speak during Friday Night Live services as part of the temple’s centennial celebration (see story on page 13). Afterward, hundreds of 20-somethings stayed for a special Q-and-A session with Oprah’s favorite Holocaust author.

Not three blocks away, Israeli novelist Amos Oz held an overflow Shabbat evening crowd of 800 in his thrall as Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel’s guest speaker.

I stopped in at two other synagogues that night: at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform shul in Bel Air, a capacity crowd attended the usual, uplifting service, and on La Cienega Boulevard, at Conservative Temple Beth Am, 100 United Synagogue Youth from around California greeted Shabbat on the rooftop, a foretaste of raucous summer camp nights to camp.

On the way home — you may have gathered that, yes, I drive on Shabbat — I took Pico Boulevard, quiet but for the dozens of Orthodox Jews walking home from services.

That’s just a few square miles of L.A. Jewry — I never made it over the hill, or even to the hill, where hundreds flocked to services at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

There’s only so much herring one Jew can eat, my grandfather used to say; it’s hard to be two places at once.

You’d think by now the fact that Jewish life is lived so intensely in Los Angeles would cease to amaze me — after all, this is the second largest Jewish population in the United States. But there remains such a constant wailing over the state of Jewish life that I occasionally have to wonder whether the worriers actually know any, um, Jews.

The latest round of “Oy Veying” was transatlantic. Two weeks ago, the profoundly talented Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told an audience of American Jews in Washington, D.C., that Jewish life is experienced more completely in Israel than anywhere else.

There is, he said, “a fundamental boundary between Jewish identity in Israel and Jewish identity in the Diaspora.”

The former, he argued, was richer, more meaningful and authentic, rooted in the land and language of the Jewish people. The latter, he said, led to an attenuated sense of Jewishness.

“I cannot keep my identity outside Israel,” he said.

Outside Israel, Yehoshua argued, one wears one’s Judaism like a coat that can be taken on or off. Inside Israel, one wears it like skin.

The remarks before the American Jewish Committee touched off a war of words among Israeli and American Jews. The Israeli daily Haaretz ran essays with supporting and competing views. Yehoshua apologized for the bluntness of his remarks in subsequent interviews, but held to them in a more refined way. It’s an argument Yehoshua and a certain stream of Zionists has been making for years. And while I logically rebel against it, there’s a part of me that understands Yehoshua.

Many years ago, I met him while he was on a speaking tour in Los Angeles. We stepped outside his Marina del Rey hotel so he could smoke his pipe. We spoke, in Hebrew, about how the feeling of one’s Jewishness is of a different quality and intensity in Israel, where I had just been living, than in, say, Marina del Rey.

There was a bit of silence. He knocked the dottle from his bowl and turned to me.

“You have to come back,” he said, then walked inside.

If there weren’t a grain of truth in what he’s still saying, people wouldn’t be so upset. But there are other truths as well about Jewish identity: competing, confusing, contradicting ones that I have come to appreciate in the years since. Having lived in Israel, I can tell you the Jews there don’t all walk about aglow with the flame of their Jewishness. Yehoshua’s novels are populated with characters as spiritually bereft in Tel Aviv as Philip Roth’s are in Newark.

As it happens, I do meet Israelis all the time who are leading rich Jewish lives — they’re in Los Angeles.

Diaspora just may be as important to the Jewish existence, and the Jewish psyche, as Zion. There is a practical aspect — money and political support from outside Israel helped create and helps sustain the state — as well as a more ethereal one. The power of being the landless outsider, some might argue, roots us in ideals.

“In the name of nationalism,” wrote Douglas Rushkoff in “Nothing Sacred,” “Jews abandon iconoclasm, the long-standing insight into the false idols of land-based peoples…. Zionism has become a mantra for Jews fighting against assimilation. But Judaism itself was formulated as a way of transcending the obsession with physical territory and focusing instead on the supremacy of time and the realm of ideas. What’s more assimilated than rallying around a flag and fighting for a plot of land, just like everybody else?”

Yehoshua isn’t saying that our existence depends on in-gathering — he knows that argument falls flat in the face of 2,000 years of Jewish existence in exile. But he fails to appreciate the fact that so many of us live in the tension between his truth and Rushkoff’s, belonging everywhere and nowhere, forever trying to be in two places at once.

 

Israel Should Accept All Jews as Jews


 

On March 31, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that 17 foreigners converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbinic courts must be considered as Jews under the Law of Return. The Law of Return has long extended legal recognition as Jews to Reform and Conservative converts who have moved to Israel from the Diaspora.

What is novel about this recent ruling is that while the ritual requirements necessary for conversion were completed outside the state under non-Orthodox rabbinical auspices, these particular proselytes were already living in Israel, and they were prepared for conversion by Reform and Conservative teachers in yearlong courses within the state.

While the court did not address the issue of non-Orthodox conversions completed within Israel, the logic put forth in the holding could well be extended to define non-Orthodox conversions finalized in Israel as legally sanctioned as well.

Reform and Conservative religious leaders — and I include myself among them — have predictably applauded this decision for its affirmation of Jewish religious pluralism, and many secular Israelis have expressed the hope that this holding may open the door to Judaism to the 250,000 persons already residing in Israel whose entry into the Jewish people and religion has been delayed or denied in recent years by the state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbinical courts.

Orthodox leaders have just as predictably labeled this development as “tragic” and Shas leaders have gathered the requisite signatures required to call a special session of the Knesset, where their hope is that they might weaken the impact of this legal ruling. An Orthodox rabbi ridiculed the decision by caricaturing such conversions as being akin to “conversion by fax.”

Such negative responses to Reform and Conservative conversions by Orthodox rabbis are hardly novel, and these statements echo a position that has been adopted by numerous Orthodox rabbis during the last 200 years.

I regret the stance these Orthodox authorities have adopted. As the late Conservative authority Rabbi Isaac Klein pointed out in “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” (Ktav, 1979), the members of a Jewish court convened for purposes of supervising a conversion need not be ordained rabbis.

He therefore argued that it would be wise to affirm the authority of all rabbis — whether liberal or Orthodox — to conduct conversions and to regard them as valid in all instances where the traditional rites of conversion are observed. As Klein put it, such a policy would embody the rabbinic principle of mipnei darkhei shalom — following the ways of peace.”

His advice in this instance strikes me as prudent in a diverse Jewish world, where most Jews do not identify as Orthodox, and especially so in Israel, where a vast majority of Jewish citizens do not regard themselves as Orthodox, and where all are yet tied to Jewish fate.

As the late Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik maintained, in a contemporary setting of competing Jewish religious and secular expressions, most Jews will not affirm a brit ha-yi’ud — a covenant of common religious purpose. Yet, even if such “common religious purpose” cannot be attained, he recognized that all Jews are nevertheless bound together by a brit ha-goral — a covenant of common destiny and fate.”

While I acknowledge that Soloveitchik himself would not have applied this typology to the issues of Jewish personal status, the logic inherent in his notion, that there is “a covenant of common destiny” that unites all Jews, allows for a definition of membership in the Jewish people that extends far beyond the confines of the traditional religious definition. Such definition better addresses the vast reality that is Jewish life today.

The Reform and Conservative batei dinim that brought these petitioners “under the wings of the Divine Presence” correctly recognized that these persons who have come to live in Israel have attached themselves to the drama and joy of Jewish history and destiny in the most concrete ways possible.

These men and women pay taxes and choose service in the Israel Defense Forces for themselves and their children. They live their lives as Jews according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and displayed their commitment to Judaism by undergoing lengthy periods of study. In confirming the legal validity of their conversions, the Supreme Court has acknowledged their tangible signs of Jewish devotion.

The Israeli Supreme Court has wisely chosen not to punish these converts by denying them recognition as Jews. In so doing, the court has performed an act of tikkun olam (healing the world). Let us hope the Knesset does no less by not revoking the full rights of Israeli citizenship that has now been granted these people as the Jews they are.

David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

 

Shas Blinks First


Prime Minister Ehud Barak last weekend won his first trial of strength with his religious coalition partners. The Israel Electric Corporation defied Orthodox protests and laboriously transported 250 tons of turbine parts over Friday night from a factory in Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, to a new power station 80 miles away in Ashkelon.

Officials appeared to have postponed the shipment while they reviewed alternative routes and timings, but, with the panache of a commando operation, they decided at the last minute that they had no choice and sent the massive load on its 13-hour journey at 8 p.m. Hundreds of secular Jews lined the highway and cheered the convoy of flatbed trucks that was accompanied by nine police cars and crawling along at barely 5 miles per hour.

The traffic police argued that moving the turbine on a weekday would snarl up major roads for hours in the heart of the country. Engineers ruled out minor roads for fear that bridges would collapse under the weight. Another suggestion, to transport the load over three nights, was dropped because no suitable stop-over points were found along the route.

The Sephardic Shas Party, which had threatened to pull its 17 Knesset members out of the coalition if the turbine rolled, was left spluttering with indignation. National Infrastructure Minister Eli Suissa, who spearheaded resistance to the move, branded it “unprecedented chutzpah.”

The Electric Corporation decision was endorsed in advance by the prime minister, who insisted afterward that it was a professional, not a political, matter. “In line with the status quo, which has been in place for 50 years,” his office announced, “the movement of such unusually large loads has been carried out on Shabbat and festivals.”

Government officials pointed out that 20 similar journeys had taken place on the Sabbath over the past six months, two as recently as July. Until now, the religious parties had never complained.

The battle of the turbine is not yet over, however. Another five shipments, each as huge as last weekend’s, have still to be moved south. The same experts who couldn’t find an alternative to Sabbath “desecration” last week are looking again, but the dilemma hasn’t changed.

Shas is still breathing fire and brimstone, with United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party panting reluctantly in its wake. But few, if any, political observers believe it will pull out. Shas leaders know that Barak could manage without them. He would have little difficulty adding secular fringe parties to the 58 seats he would still command in the 120-member parliament.

The turbine campaign is widely interpreted as part of the struggle to succeed the disgraced Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, who is due back in Israel this weekend after a summer’s seclusion in New Jersey. Eli Suissa, who wants to stop the loads moving, is pitted against the more malleable Labor and Social Affairs Minister Eli Yishai, who enjoys the blessing of the movement’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

More to the point, Shas cannot afford to be out of government. Rabbi Yosef said so in as many words during the coalition negotiations in June (which made it much easier for Barak to bring Shas on board with a minimum of concessions). The Shas independent school network, the foundation of its power in the impoverished “development” towns and inner-city slums, has a deficit of at least 65 million shekels (about $16 million).

“As of today,” Shlomo Ceszana wrote in Ma’ariv this week, “the network is on the verge of collapse. It has no money for salaries, and, though it expands every year by thousands of pupils, it wants to keep growing. Such growth is only possible if the funds keep flowing.”

For funds read state subsidies. Over the past decade, Shas has eaten into the Likud’s blue-collar heartland by providing free education, from kindergarten up, for more hours a day than the state secular and religious schools can afford. It throws in free meals as a bonus. All of this is paid for by the often-reluctant taxpayer.

The expansion was particularly marked during Binyamin Netanyahu’s precarious government, when religious parties were constantly upping the price for their allegiance. Barak promised to bail out the Shas schools, but only if they opened their account books, taught secular as well as Torah studies and raised their teaching standards.

Rabbi Yosef knows that this is his only hope. Without the fund-raising talents of Aryeh Deri, who is appealing a four-year corruption sentence, Shas has no alternative source of finance. It would also lose the patronage commanded by the party’s four ministries, which provide hundreds of jobs for Shas loyalists.

Ma’ariv’s Ceszana estimates that Rabbi Yosef “controls the tap on a budget of about 1.5 billion shekels in the Religious Affairs Ministry, and the appointment of local rabbis and religious councils.”

Without the schools, without the charismatic Deri and without the pay packets, Shas would soon shrink back to its old level of about four Knesset members. It doesn’t look like a party about to commit suicide.

Taking the First Step


Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core.”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom, or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha, or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am, the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”

The Thirteen Wants


What can American-style liberalJudaism offer Israel? After the battle over the proposed conversionbill is settled, that question will remain. We can puff up our chestsand demand equality with Orthodoxy over who is a Jew. But,inevitably, every political victory in the Knesset will beshort-lived unless we find a way to talk to Israeli Jews about theirown lives.

“Equality,” “legitimacy” and “pluralism” areWestern-style fighting words that seem like special pleadings withoutmuch resonance to Israelis. These words, inherently adversarial, mayinspire American Jews to boycott and disrupt fund raising, but theywon’t give us what we want — a homeland where all Jews are welcomein peace.

Progressive Judaism has to answer the red-hotmilitancy of the Orthodox community with some fervor of its own. Thismeans selling not only the ideals of American democracy (courts,rights and justice) but the ethics and values of Judaism itself. Whatis it about Jewish life, American-style, that Israelis want?

Rabbi Judith HaLevy of Malibu Jewish Center andSynagogue, who recently returned from the Jewish Federation Councilmission to Israel, said that secular Jews there long for a liberalalternative.

“They know that by ceding the religious terrain tothe Orthodox, they’ve given up a piece of their inheritance,” shetold me.

We need to express a nexus of faith as powerful asthe Orthodox belief in the 613 mitzvot. Without such a statement, wesound like John Locke or Betty Friedan, enlightened democrats andcivil libertarians, but strangers. Meanwhile, Orthodoxy retains itsposition as “the real thing.”

I found an answer in, of all places, a 71-year-oldprayer written by Mordecai Kaplan. Rabbi Kaplan, arguably the mostprofound American Jewish thinker of our age, knew the troubles of aJewish people drifting apart. Born and educated Orthodox, Kaplan hadhis books burned and subjected to a herem(excommunication) when he tried to analyzeJewish tradition according to the John Dewey-style social scientificprinciples of his days. From his belief that Judaism is an evolvingcivilization, the Reconstructionist movement emerged.

Here is a slightly rewritten version of Kaplan’s1926 prayer, originally entitled “The Criteria of Jewish Loyalty” andalso published as “The Thirteen Wants.” See how many of them arestill relevant to you.

1) We want Judaism to help us overcome fear, doubtand discouragement of our mortality.

2) We want Judaism to guide us toward responsibleuse of God’s blessings.

3) We want the Jew to be a true light amongnations.

4) We want to learn (from the Jewish calendar) touse our lives to their best physical, intellectual and spiritualadvantage.

5) We want the Jewish home to be a center of love,virtue and holiness.

6) We want Jewish children to be raised for moraland spiritual growth and to revere their Jewish heritage.

7) We want the synagogue to be a house of sincereworship.

8) We want our religious traditions to beunderstandable and relevant to our present-day needs.

9) We want to participate in building EretzYisrael as a focus for the renaissance of the Jewish spirit.

10) We want Judaism to find expression inphilosophy, letters and the arts.

11) We want Jewish organizations to activatespiritual purpose and ethical endeavor.

12) We want to be part of the people of Israel,offering mutual help and cooperation in time of need.

13) We want the Jewish values of justice, freedomand peace to influence and inspire individuals, nations and theworld.

These 13 principles (paralleling Moses Maimonides’13 principles of faith) provide remarkably useful, cant-free goalposts for modern Jewish values. I’d give these 13 to anyone seekingto know what we believe.

Coincidentally, Rabbi David Teutsch, dean of theReconstructionist Rabbinical College, was in Los Angeles last week. Ispoke to him about what Reconstructionism might offer to IsraeliJews.

“Reconstructionism is probably the one liberalmovement that can readily adapt to Israeli society,” Teutsch said.”Reform and Conservative Judaism are synagogue-based. Israelicommunities don’t have synagogues as their focus; that’s why thosemovements have such a hard time taking root.

“Reconstructionism is based on the chavurah, smallstudy groups of friends getting together. It’s a natural forIsraelis, who know the language of the text, and who like to gettogether. We’ve got an intense outreach program going on in Israelright now. I think we’ll catch on strong.”

Teutsch conceded that liberal Judaism is waking uplate to Israel’s need for an alternative to Orthodoxy.

“We need to be involved in a massive reorientingof money and energy to Israeli society,” Teutsch said. “We stood bysilently while the Orthodox built schools and gained politicalstrength. We didn’t pay attention.”

Late as it may be, Israel needs us now.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of TheJewish Journal. Her Skirball Cultural Center series, “Conversations,”continues on Dec. 7 with authors Jonathan and FayeKellerman.



SEND EMAIL TO MARLENE ADLER MARKS
wvoice@aol.com

November 14, 1997Music to MyEars

 

November 7, 1997Four Takes on50

 

October 31, 1997ChallengingHernandez


October 24, 1997CommonGround


October 17, 1997Taking Off theMask


October 10, 1997Life’s a MixedBag


October 3, 1997And Now ForSomething Completely Different


September 26, 1997An OpenHeart


September 19, 1997My BronxTale


September 12, 1997 — Of Goddesses andSaints

 

August 22, 1997 — Who is Not a Jew

 

August 15, 1997 — A LegendaryFriendship


July 25, 1997 — A Perfect Orange


July 18, 1997 — News of Our Own


July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes


July 4, 1997 — Meet theSeekowitzes


June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life


June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites


June 13, 1997 — The Family Man

+