Israel allows government councils to pay non-Orthodox rabbis

The Israeli government will begin paying non-Orthodox rabbis and recognizing them as community leaders.

The attorney general’s office advised the Supreme Court Tuesday that Reform and Conservative rabbis in some parts of Israel will be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and will receive wages equal to those of their Orthodox counterparts.

Only rabbis in farming communities and regional councils—not in cities—will be able to receive this funding. The vast majority of Israeli Reform and Conservative communities are in large population centers.

The attorney general’s office has said that for now, up to 15 non-Orthodox rabbis may receive state support. Before this decision, only Orthodox rabbis received state funding.

The non-Orthodox rabbis will receive their salary from the Culture and Sports Ministry, rather than the Religious Services Ministry—which funds Orthodox rabbis. In addition, according to The Jerusalem Post, funding will go only to the rabbis of communities that request it.

“We have a long-term goal to have an inclusive, democratic, pluralistic Israeli society,” said Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “We’re going to be patient and persevere until the ideal meets the real. This is one step forward in that effort.”

The attorney general’s announcement follows out-of-court negotiations over a 2005 petition by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and Miri Cohen, a Reform rabbi in central Israel’s Kibbutz Gezer.

The movement and Cohen petitioned for the state to fund the Gezer Reform community and Cohen in the same manner it funds Orthodox communities and their leaders.

Earlier this month, the panel of judges presiding over the negotiations—led by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein—asked the attorney general to intervene.

Diaspora rabbis urge Israeli colleagues to speak out on rental ruling

Over 750 rabbis and cantors of all denominations signed a letter urging their Israeli colleagues to speak out against a ruling by 39 municipal rabbis banning renting to non-Jews.

“The recent halakhic ruling from community rabbis in Israel that forbids leasing apartments to non-Jews has caused great shock and pain in our communities,” said the letter, initiated by the New Israel Fund. “The attempt to root discriminatory policies based on religion or ethnicity in Torah is a painful distortion of our tradition.”

The letter, open for two days for signatures and released on Tuesday, concludes: “For the sake of our people, our Torah, and Israel, we beseech you to take a strong public stand and oppose those who misrepresent our tradition.”

Signatories include rabbis and cantors from the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox streams, including Rabbi Marc D. Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City; Rabbi Michael Lerner editor of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish and interfaith magazine based in Berkeley, California; Rabbi Leonard S. Levin, Jewish Theological Seminary Of America; Rabbi Rachel Cowan, director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality; and Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first woman to become a Reconstructionist rabbi when she was ordained in 1974.

The bulk of the signatories are from the United States, with significant numbers from Canada and Britain and a smattering from small communities.

A number of rabbinical leaders in Israel have condemned the original ruling as has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli attorney general is looking into whether the rabbis who ruled against renting to non-Jews broke the law in their capacity as government employees.

Big AIPAC turnout signals newfound voice for Angelenos

When the largest-ever Los Angeles delegation to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference swept into Washington, D.C., last week, excitement over an upsurge in Jewish Los Angeles’ pro-Israel activism spread contagiously throughout the vast convention center.

It was a momentous occasion for Los Angeles’ Jewish community, which has typically been generous with financial contributions to Israel but light on direct engagement. Many West Coast liberals are frequently accused of having a cavalier attitude about Israel and of not considering pro-Israel politics to be imperative. So when 1,000 area Jews traveled cross-country to participate in the three-day conference this year (twice the number from last year), the effort signaled a marked shift.

That shift was made especially clear at the opening plenary breakfast on June 2, when the pro-Israel lobby announced that three out of four synagogue delegations with more than 100 people in attendance were from Los Angeles: Sinai Temple (240), Stephen S. Wise Temple (160) and Valley Beth Shalom (105).

Overall attendance was strong given that it is both an election year and Israel’s 60th year of independence. More than 7,000 Israel advocates came to hear the most powerful people in Congress — including Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — voice their political support for Israel.

The Southern Pacific region represented the country’s largest delegation to the conference this year with 1,500 attendees from Southern California, Southern Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona.

“Clearly there is something special happening throughout the various Jewish communities across the L.A. area,” said Josh Block, director of strategic communications for AIPAC. “The enormous and record-shattering turnout is a genuine tribute to the strength and passions of the pro-Israel community in L.A. and those that led the effort, including the area’s lay leadership, rabbis and their congregants, and pro-Israel activists, all in partnership with dedicated staff.”

The Los Angeles numbers suggest a shift from the usual East Coast dominance. New York, home to a Jewish population twice the size of that of Los Angeles, brought slightly more than 900 delegates; Miami and Philadelphia, both highly populous in Jewish demography, brought even fewer numbers — approximately 350 delegates — combined.

“When I first went out to L.A. in 1978, my brother told me the granola joke — that Los Angeles is like a granola: Fruits, nuts or flakes — and that’s not true anymore,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, who brought the single largest synagogue delegation in the country.

The trip was organized by congregant Jan Zakowski, whose father, Larry Weinberg, is a former AIPAC president and chairman emeritus of AIPAC’s strategic planning committee.

Los Angeles has matured and grown its own indigenous political culture that is no longer comprised of first generation East Coast expats, Wolpe said. “Maybe the Los Angeles community, unlike say, the New York community, feels they have something to prove.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, perceives a Jewish cultural renaissance happening in Los Angeles, even while demographics of the larger American Jewish community suggest a diminishing vibrancy.

“We’re a superior Jewish community. We’re a community that cares — you can be a Jew in New York without even trying; if you’re a Jew in Los Angeles, it’s because you want to be,” Feinstein said.

Los Angeles’ newfound voice at the conference stems from several factors, including the AIPAC staff here as well as the overflowing pool of pro-Israel support found in Los Angeles. But the bulk of the upswing in support has come from synagogues, where lay leaders have taken an active role in engaging with legislators, and rabbis increasingly use their pulpits to educate congregants on how to support the Jewish state short of living there.

Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple, believes that as Israel celebrates 60 years of existence, American Jews are searching for meaningful ways to engage with the country.

“How do we find a meaningful relationship with an Israel that is now strong, that is vibrant?” Herscher asked. “How can we be partners — not just during times of crisis, not just when there’s war — but how can we have an ongoing relationship with Israel that isn’t only good for Israel, but gives deepened meaning to our Jewish lives here?”

When Stephen S. Wise was founded in 1964 and named for one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement, there was a Zionist culture ingrained in the vision of the synagogue, Herscher explained.

Four years ago, it was high school senior Drew Steinberg, now 21, who first brought AIPAC to the attention of the synagogue’s president — who also happened to be her mother. After interning at the Los Angeles AIPAC office, Drew inspired her mother, Eve Kurtin-Steinberg to galvanize support for AIPAC.

“I had been a Washington Club member not knowing anything, just sending them my money,” said Kurtin-Steinberg, referring to the minimum $1,500 annual contribution level that qualifies members for special programming during the conference.

The 54-year-old managing director of Pacific Venture Group met with AIPAC staffers over breakfast before persuading Herscher to throw in his support. Next, she hosted a parlor meeting at her home in Beverly Hills for the synagogue’s board of directors.

“I basically gently — maybe not-so-gently — said that I expected every member of the board to join AIPAC at least at a Washington Club level,” Kurtin-Steinberg said. “I told AIPAC, ‘If there’s somebody not doing what they should be doing, let me know and I will sit down with them and have a one-on-one.'”

Now, at her fourth policy conference, Kurtin-Steinberg can say that Stephen S. Wise brought the second-largest synagogue delegation in the country, and she can also boast about the substantial political network she has created in her community, which she said hosts from six to eight senators and representatives each year.

“We’re here. We’re a force. We want to be visible when it comes to our commitments to Israel,” said Herscher, who has seen his synagogue delegation double each year since 2006. “I think people are drawn to the policy conference because there’s an excitement generated. Where do you find 7,500 Jews in one room not fighting with each other? It’s a lovefest.”

Nation & World Briefs

Israel: No Hamas in Elections

Top Israeli leaders confirmed that they do not want Hamas to take part in Palestinian elections. It’s up to the Palestinians to “decide if they would like to have real elections,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told journalists in New York on Monday, noting that electoral gains by Hamas would “move us backward maybe 50 years.”

On Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that Israel wouldn’t stop elections that include Hamas, but also would not provide any support, which would make it difficult for the Palestinians to proceed.

The participation of Hamas, which maintains a terrorist military infrastructure and is committed to destroying Israel, would be “unbearable” for Israel, Sharon said.

Sharon Inaugurates UJC Project

Ariel Sharon endorsed a United Jewish Communities (UJC) effort to bring the remaining Jews of Ethiopia to Israel. The Israeli prime minister helped launch Operation Promise in a meeting last Friday with UJC leaders and supporters.

“I believe this must be a joint effort of Israel and the Jewish world,” Sharon said. “It is our duty, and so it is your duty.”

The program aims to raise $160 million to aid the emigration of Ethiopian Jews and the mainstreaming of Ethiopians already in Israel, as well as provide assistance to struggling elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union and help strengthen Jewish identity among young Jews there. The initiative is supplemental to the regular federation campaign.

EU Aid for Palestinians, Israel

The European Union (EU) boosted its funding to the Palestinian Authority. EU officials in Brussels said this week that the 25-nation bloc would increase its 2005 allotment to the Palestinians to more than $340 million, around 17 percent more than originally planned. The extra funds are intended to help reconstruction in the Gaza Strip, which Israel left this month. The Palestinian Authority expects to receive an additional $270 million in donations from individual E.U. member-states this year. The European Union also will give grants to environmental projects in Israel.

The European Commission announced more than $7 million in grants to environmental projects in the European Union’s neighboring countries, including two projects in Israel. The Upper Galilee Regional Council will receive more than $440,000 for the sustainable use of resources. The other Israeli recipient, the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, will receive around the same amount to help local governments throughout Israel build their environmental programs.

Israeli Police Cleared in Killings

Police involved in the killing of 12 Israeli Arabs during pro-Palestinian riots were cleared of criminal charges. The Israeli Justice Ministry said Sunday that there was insufficient evidence to indict any police personnel in connection with the October 2000 shootings, which put a major strain on racial relations in the Jewish state.

According to the head of the ministry’s Police Investigations Unit, the families of Arab youths shot dead during confrontations in Galilee refused to cooperate with the probe, making it impossible to assign guilt for the killings. Israeli-Arab lawmakers decried the ministry’s decision, saying they might try to sue police officers in international courts.

Several Israeli police were wounded in the 2000 riots, and a Jewish driver died after being hit by a rock thrown at his car by rioters.

Spielberg Foundation Comes to USC

Some 52,000 testimonies by Holocaust survivors and witnesses, videotaped by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, will be housed permanently at a new University of Southern California institute.

The collection of testimonies, making up the world’s largest visual history archive, will be transferred to USC Jan. 1, according to both Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and USC’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

Moving the collection to USC will ensure its preservation and access, said Spielberg, adding, “All of us know that the survivors and witnesses have given us a precious gift, whose wise use will build a better world for this and future generations.”

USC President Steven B. Sample noted, “The foundation’s preeminent collection of Holocaust materials will advance academic research and scholarship for centuries as we continue to honor the memory of Holocaust victims and survivors.” –Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

N.Y. Party Kicks Out Candidate

A political party in New York booted one of its leaders for making anti-Semitic statements. The Independence Party said comments by Lenora Fulani had hurt the party’s credibility. Fulani said earlier this year that Jews “had to sell their souls” for the State of Israel and had become “mass murderers of people of color” to keep it, comments that the party said were “phenomenally offensive.” Fulani also has labeled Zionism “Jewish corporate nationalism.” The Independence Party is backing Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his re-election bid this year.

Nazi-Hunting Attorney Dies at 60

Edward Stutman, a trial attorney at the U.S. Office of Special Investigations (OSI) who successfully brought cases that revoked the citizenship of 13 Nazis, died at age 60. Stutman, who served with OSI from 1992-2004, died Saturday in Washington of lymphoma, Eli Rosenbaum, the director of OSI, the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit, announced. He was buried Monday in his native Philadelphia.

Stutman traveled to remote areas of Russia to gather evidence and often faced long odds in making his case but nevertheless he often won. In 1999, Stutman launched a re-prosecution of John Demjanjuk, a decision termed “courageous” by The Washington Post, not least because an Israeli court had acquitted the Ukrainian native of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a notorious mass murderer at Treblinka. Under Stutman’s prosecution, Demjanjuk could not shake the allegation that he had lied about being a Nazi death camp guard, and he was ordered deported from the United States this year. Stutman was the leading expert on Trawniki, the Nazi facility in Poland where death camp guards were trained.

Torahs Saved From New Orleans

Jewish groups saved Torahs from the New Orleans area that were in danger because of Hurricane Katrina. Some 25 scrolls were rescued by a makeshift coalition of representatives from the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, national leadership from the Reform movement, rabbis from Baton Rouge and New Orleans and local law-enforcement officials.

“Among the 25 we saved were also a few that were rescued from the Holocaust, and here they’ve survived a second horrific disaster,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Washington-based Religious Action Center. Chabad officials rescued at least 15 scrolls.

“It is a bittersweet occasion,” said Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, the executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Louisiana. “Hurricane Katrina has destroyed our homes, synagogues and our city but has not destroyed our community.”

U.S. Jews of Mixed Origins Rising

Up to 20 percent of an estimated 6 million U.S. Jews, or 1.2 million people, are African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Sephardi, Middle Eastern or of mixed race. That’s the major finding of research conducted over the past four years by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, contained in the book “In Every Tongue” by the institute’s president, Gary Tobin, and co-authors Diane Tobin and Scott Rubin.

The figures are substantially higher than the usual estimates of 10 percent to 14 percent, the authors say. The research and interviews also showed that some of these Jews feel alienated from their ethnic or racial communities and from mainstream American Jewry but they continue to identify strongly with both.

Included in the population count are Latino “hidden” Jews reclaiming their Jewish roots in the American Southwest and long-established communities of African-American Jews in cities such as New York and Chicago.

Air Force Builds Chapels in Europe

The U.S. Air Force is to unveil separate chapels for Jewish and Muslim servicemen and women at its main European base in Germany. The synagogue and Muslim prayer room in Ramstein were created alongside the base’s interfaith South Chapel. The synagogue was schedule to open this week with a ceremony two weeks before the Jewish New Year. Rabbi David Lapp, the director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, and Rabbi Donald Levy, the base’s only Jewish chaplain, will officiate. Some 50,000 Americans are stationed in and around Ramstein.

According to Levy, about 60 worshipers are expected to attend High Holiday services at the base. The JWB Jewish Chaplains Council operates under the auspices of the JCC Association, the umbrella organization for the Jewish community centers in North America.

Neo-Nazi Concert Held in Czech Republic

Approximately 500 people attended a concert of neo-Nazi bands in the Czech Republic. Activists say Saturday’s concert in Krtetice was the largest meeting of supporters of extremist groups in the Czech Republic this year. The police did not intervene in the event, where undercover witnesses said participants chanted racist slogans, “Sieg Heil” and the name of Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler’s closest aides.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rabbinical Dispute Strikes Ukraine

A majority of Ukrainian rabbis blasted the election of a new chief rabbi as illegitimate. More than 30 Chabad rabbis affiliated with the Federation of Jewish Communities, the region’s largest Jewish group, issued a statement Sept. 15 saying that the election of another Chabad rabbi, Moshe Reuven Azman of Kiev, to serve as Ukraine’s chief rabbi was “illegitimate” and “insulting to the feelings of every believer.” A chief rabbi “can be elected only by rabbis working in Jewish communities of that country,” the statement said, referring to the fact that Azman’s election Sept. 11 was endorsed by a group of secular Jewish leaders but not by any rabbinical authorities.

The vast majority of rabbis permanently working in Ukraine these days are Chabad rabbis affiliated with the federation. Unlike other Orthodox rabbis working in Ukraine, Azman, who is Russian-born, is not affiliated with the Chabad-led federation and for years has received support from Vadim Rabinovich, a Ukrainian business magnate and leader of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress who initiated the election for chief rabbi.



Discussion Difficult

Bernard Goldberg’s response to Rob Eshman’s critique turns out to be a fine example of why some conservative voices make intelligent discussion so difficult (“My Work Is Not to Blame for Jew-Haters,” Aug. 5).

Goldberg starts out with, “Usually I only respond to fair and thoughtful criticism, but I’ll make an exception in this case, because people I respect tell me that Rob Eshman … is both a smart and decent guy.”

Let’s look at that sentence. Despite the begrudging “smart and decent,” Goldberg reveals that he really does not believe Eshman’s criticism to be “fair and thoughtful.” In that case, why is he sending in a response?

He goes on to whine, “It never occurred to me to count people by their religion. It’s my friends on the left who love to put people in groups…. Liberals love diversity — just not the intellectual kind.”

He says that liberals love to put people in groups — not some liberals, not even most liberals, just liberals. The man has just put all liberals into a group.

His book includes one or two conservatives like Michael Savage, whose ravings are so maniacal that even Goldberg cannot stomach them. But aside from these exceptions, it is clear that the “people who are screwing up America” are the liberals. Another prime example of those conservatives who think that those who do not agree with them are unpatriotic and anti-American.

Lou Charloff

Junk Science

In the fossil record, many forms of complex life all of a sudden explode on to the scene. There is not a smooth transition from one species to another (“Junk Science,” Aug. 12).

Darwin’s theory is one that believes in gradual changes. In fact, in Darwin’s book, he pleads with the reader to ignore the fossil record. The more of the fossil record that is unearthed, the more it disproves the theory of evolution as Darwin proposed it.

The idea of intelligent design is just as valid as the theory of evolution. To believe in evolution takes just as much blind faith as believing in intelligent design. To teach evolution as if it is a proven fact is junk science.

Dr. Sabi Israel
West Hills

Gaza Disengagement

I am loath to understand why Jews should be prohibited from residing in areas under Palestinian control, when almost 1.3 million Arabs live in Israel proper (“We Must Show Unified Pullout Support,” Aug. 12). Why must it be that to establish peace and live in harmony with Arab neighbors, their territory must be Judenrein. No Jews allowed?

The very idea of establishing policies which preclude even one Jew from living in even one place unearth historic realities that are painful.

Rabbi I.B. Koller
Richmond, Va.

The matter of Israel’s expulsion of Jews from Gaza keeps many of us up at night, uncertain as to the efficacy of such a policy. Reasonable people may disagree as to whether or not it’s a good idea.

The letter from Dr. Aryeh Cohen (“Letters,” Aug. 12) is a disturbing example of an illogical argument used to support a policy of which many Jews are wary.

Cohen uses the specious, context-free logic employed by those who wish to destroy the State of Israel — just point out some statistics, and it seems obvious that Israel is “mercilessly oppressing” the Palestinian people, who are being “denied” their “rightful” homeland.

Cohen’s flawed argument in support of “disengagement” from Gaza assumes that there’s no history — that the United Nations has not been backing the maintenance of the Palestinian refugee camps all these years, that the Palestinians have not purposefully murdered innocent civilians for their own political ends and that the Palestinians have not missed numerous opportunities to make peace.

If I buy Cohen’s argument, we may as well withdraw from all of Israel proper right now to avoid any chance of ever being an “oppressor,” and then go heal ourselves by “re-engaging with morality.” By insinuating that the Israelis are the only ones who have acted immorally, Cohen undermines his own position.

Time will tell whether Israel’s expulsion of Jewish settlers from Gaza was wise or not. Cohen’s use of the flawed logic of our enemies to defend what may be a reasonable position is more appalling than deluding ourselves that we are as blameless and innocent as he posits the Palestinians to be. That such an argument comes from a professor at our distinguished University of Judaism is more appalling still.

I hope and pray that something good will come out of this heart-wrenching decision by the Israeli government. Am Yisrael chai.

Gary Lainer
Los Angeles


Thank you for Toby Klein Greenwald’s thoughtful piece (“Barbed Wire Fails to Separate Hearts,” Aug. 12). Although I am sadly baffled by the pro-expulsion view of the Southern Californian Board of Rabbis, Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee (don’t they read “From Time Immemorial” by Peters or, I find it quite telling that The Journal’s “Losing Faith” (Aug. 12) headline really refers more to the Peace Nowniks’ unfortunate lack of faith, understanding in the Torah and vision of Yisrael.

Joshua Spiegelman


Rabbi Harvey Fields and David Pine mischaracterize support for ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Gaza Strip as support for Israel (“We Must Show Unified Pullout Support,” Aug. 12). Those who truly support Israel oppose that gift to our enemies over which they have prepared a celebration.

Anything those would-be genocides of our people celebrate is cause for our mourning. They have made no secret of their intent to use every parcel of our land they grab as a base for grabbing all the rest of it, “from the river to the sea.”

There is nothing “courageous” in surrender, particularly when the enemy is militarily and morally inferior. No relief can be expected when we give them control over their air, sea and land conduits for re-armament.

The dream of a Palestinian Muslim state as a “peace-seeking neighbor” is contrary to all their propaganda, their declarations (in Arabic), their education in the schools and their actions throughout the generations.

That Jews occupy 18 percent of the land and use 75 percent of the water in the strip is indeed a shame: Both numbers should be 100 percent, as the ancestors of the present Arab occupiers, when first they invaded from Arabia, themselves were calling all the land “the land of the Jews.” They are imperialist settlers in our country, and have no right to be anywhere in it.

Despite that, we have generously allowed full Israeli citizenship to those of them that want it. What would the writers say had Israel made any province of the country Arabrein? Is there any place in the world outside of our homeland that they think should be Judenrein? Is there any other people they think should not be allowed to live in certain places?

Louis Richter

Independent Mind

I am a Jewish voter, and I voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he runs again for governor, I will vote for him again (“Schwarzenneger Is Losing Jewish Votes,” Aug. 5) .

However, I vote as an individual and not as a member of religious or ethnic mindthink. This article states that Jews vote alike on a platform of democratic values, and are all pro-choice and advocates of reform.

While this may or may not be true, this is no different than the person who claims the African American vote is unilateral, and all African Americans think and vote alike. I personally find this not only a racist concept, but an offensive one. Jews, like all people, vote according to their own personal beliefs, and not part of a Jewish conspiracy.

I am also offended by the comparisons to the AM radio crowd, as if all who listen are again part of the vast right-wing conspiracy. I stand as woman, a Jew and a person who is capable of making up my own mind on how to vote, who to vote for and on what issues are important to me, a citizen of the United States, a resident in California and of independent mind.

Allyson Rowen Taylor
Valley Glen

Will IDF Soldiers Oppose Gaza Orders?

A group of prominent rabbis has called upon Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate Jews from Gaza. If the Gaza disengagement plan goes through the Knesset, many soldiers will face a bewildering dilemma, as they must choose between the orders of their commanding officers and the orders of their religious authorities.

These rabbis state their position as psak halacha, or the definitive expression of Jewish law. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. The halachic debate on this issue has generated two very different points of view. Whether you feel compelled or infuriated by the position that these particular rabbis have taken, it’s important to be able to place it within the framework of the larger halachic and ideological debate.

On the technical halachic level, this debate revolves around the biblical command to conquer and settle the land of Israel, and the accompanying prohibition against granting non-Jews — or perhaps just idolaters — any foothold in the land. There are some scholars of halacha, such as those mentioned above, who insist that these two items render evacuation from Gaza, or anywhere else in biblical Israel, a transgression of the halacha, in which no soldier who cares about halacha could participate. That it is the Israeli government itself that is implementing these evacuations matters not in this view. Even the biblical Jewish kings were beholden to Jewish law.

However, in direct contrast with these views is a school of thought that understands the mitzvah of conquest to have been addressed to the Jews of the Exodus story alone. This command was intended only for its own historical moment, and was never meant to take its place among the 613 eternally operable mitzvot. To be sure, we are instructed to eternally regard the land of Israel as our Divinely Promised Land, but the wars we fight today to gain the land, fall into the category of “permissible war,” not that of “commanded war.”

In the view of this school, the prohibition against enabling non-Jewish settlement of the land is to be evaluated within the normative halachic framework of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life. If the observance of this prohibition will cause a net loss of life, than strong consideration must be given to setting the prohibition aside, for preserving life takes precedence. Other factors must enter the analysis as well, but the determination that an evacuation is not merely permitted, but actually mandated by halacha, is an absolutely reasonable conclusion. This is the analysis that led influential Israeli rabbis to support and/or join with political parties that were pursuing territorial compromise in the hope of peace.

In the case of Gaza, how is one to determine whether evacuation will, in the long run, save lives, or God forbid, cost lives? The answer, for this second school of thought, lies in seeking the input of those most qualified to know — or at least to make the most informed, educated projection. Thus, if it is the opinion of the country’s military and political leaders that the evacuation of a particular place will save lives, and that remaining there will cost lives, then the halacha follows accordingly.

On a deeper level, beneath the surface of the technical halachic debate, there lies a passionate ideological debate. The position that disregards or dramatically diminishes the place of pikuach nefesh in this discussion is usually rooted in one of two ideological beliefs. One is that the religious importance of our possessing the land of Israel transcends the ordinary frame of halachic reference. Only, God forbid, a catastrophic loss of life, along the lines of what we faced during the Roman siege of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago could justify yielding territory. The other underlying ideological belief is that we are well into the process leading to the promised Final Redemption. Turning the process backward through retreating from territory that God granted us in war, would constitute nothing less than thwarting the Divine will in human history. Normative halachic analyses are thus out of place here.

On the other hand, the position that is open to territorial compromise and the evacuations that would come in its wake, is rooted in the ideological belief that the state of Israel — insofar as it embodies the people of Israel in our day — takes precedence even over the land of Israel. This gives primacy to those policies that help to ensure the state’s long-term physical security, and to preserve both its social viability and its moral character. Through a rigorous talmudic process, these priorities are articulated in classical halachic terms, which then generate concrete conclusions that are consistent with halachic precedent. This is the analytical process of the rabbis who don’t get the screaming headlines, but who have urged their student-soldiers to follow their superiors’ orders even in this emotionally wrenching case. (For the record, there is also a significant group of Israeli rabbis who oppose the disengagement plan on security grounds, and who nonetheless have urged their students to obey the orders of their commanding officers.)

There is no question that in the coming weeks and months, we will be discussing the Gaza disengagement plan over dinner, in shul and through the Jewish media, and will be doing so with great vehemence and passion. Clarity about the facts is vital to keeping these discussions useful and worthwhile, rather than caustic and divisive. And the one thing that is clear about the halachic dimension of this issue is that multiple opinions exist. Anyone who claims otherwise is, clearly, just plain wrong.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox congregation.

Our Madonna

Madonna’s just-completed visit to Israel has been called a lot of things: scandalous, threatening, inspiring, encouraging, cheap.

But what it mustn’t be called is shocking.

If Madonna really wanted to shock us, she wouldn’t have flown to the Holy Land with 2,000 other followers of the Kabbalah Learning Centre (see story, page 28). She would have joined a mainstream American synagogue, shown up in the sixth row on Rosh Hashanah and sat in rapt attention for the whole service, without fidgeting. Now that would be shocking.

Some Jews are stunned and others outraged that the Queen of Pop has been attracted to a newfangled iteration of kabbalah. Never mind that kabbalah itself, according to University of Judaism professor Pinchas Giller, over the centuries often appeared in newfangled iterations. Wouldn’t it be more astounding and inexplicable if Madonna adopted what passes for normative Jewish practice these days: an annual visit to synagogue, a limited donation to Jewish causes, no ongoing study, no Hebrew knowledge and no visit to Israel?

Some Jews can’t believe Madonna can find anything spiritually powerful and meaningful in Judaism because they find nothing spiritually powerful and moving about Judaism. How dare she appear to draw insight and power from a religion that they feel has left them spiritually bereft. Who is Madonna to become Esther when so many Jews have become Buddhist? A lot of the people disparaging Madonna’s Jewish practice have long ago given up their own.

Madonna’s faith is hardly newfound. I’ve had several long conversations with the men Madonna claims as her spiritual teachers, Eitan Yardeni and Michael Berg, both rabbis at the Kabbalah Learning Centre in Los Angeles. These conversations took place in 1998 when I wrote a long investigative piece on the center. At the time, it was a mysterious place on Robertson Boulevard that generated shadowy rumors of cult-like practices, yet drew scores of white-clad believers every Shabbat — including Madonna.

I attended services, interviewed current and former adherents, harsh critics and fervent supporters. I didn’t speak with Madonna, but I did say "Shabbat shalom" to Sandra Bernhard.

Rumors and accusations have long besmirched the center. In my mind there is no question that its claims and practices sometimes cross the line into the absurd and the unethical. In Israel, Madonna and other center adherents made a pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, the kabbalist whom center founder, Rabbi Philip Berg, claims as his spiritual teacher. But my own research found that Ashlag’s yeshiva issued a statement disassociating itself from Berg, as have the descendants of Berg’s other putative teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein.

The center sells water it claims contains special spiritual powers. When The Journal had the water tested by a reputable lab in September 2000, the lab reported that the water was indeed, water.

Perhaps most disturbing were the fervid sales and retention tactics some center adherents used on others.

"There was a constant push to give money," a former member told me. When a teacher at the center suggested the member write a check for $1,571 because it was "a special number" for him, the man’s skeptical wife asked her husband, "Can’t we just give $15.71? Why should God care about a decimal point? I’m sure he wouldn’t care if we gave $15,710."

Reports of center lapses have cooled in recent years. One scholar of religion told me that, like Scientology, whose marketing techniques Berg has emulated, success provides incentives to smooth off any rough edges, or at least keep them far from Madonna.

I don’t know Madonna, but, this being Los Angeles, I know people who know Madonna. They have sat at seder tables with her and found her engaged and curious. Her questions about the Passover story revealed a Jewish foundation built with the limited tools provided by center rabbis. But there are many Jews who take their seders less seriously, and many who don’t ever sit down at one at all.

The center has often served as a way station for people on a Jewish journey. By inserting Jewish spiritual practice into mainstream culture and New Age argot, it presents an appealing if (to the rest of us) bizarre face of Judaism. I know several people for whom the center was the first step to more serious Jewish learning and practice. They tired of the center’s particular approach, but they stayed intrigued enough by the Judaism to which it had exposed them.

These people stand in contrast to those for whom Judaism has remained a static inheritance, who have never strayed from their particular orthodoxy, whether that orthodoxy is one movement, one set of political beliefs, one rebbe or one service per year.

The variety of Jewish religious experience wholly embraces the kind of folk religion Madonna experienced in Israel. The country is filled with reputed graves of ancient mystics whose adherents gather to light candles and leave offerings and amulets in hopes of miracles.

Judaism, in all its various guises over the centuries, offers something lasting and important to those who explore it. It’s not a club, it’s a journey, and Madonna — I mean, Esther — is welcome on the path.

Three Rabbis to Pursue Diverse Sabbaticals

Three of Orange County’s senior rabbis have decided to take a sabbatical. While the three have decided on their own to take a respite from the 24/7 demands of being a rabbi, their congregations are taking a different approach to temporarily replacing an absent spiritual leader.

The most unique arrangement is that at Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek. Taking the pulpit in the place of Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein beginning Oct. 15 will be his daughter, Rabbi Rebecca Yael Schorr, who grew up in the congregation founded for her father in 1976.

Nepotism wasn’t a factor, they say. Schorr, along with other more seasoned candidates, submitted to interviews by a search committee, which made its recommendation to the congregation’s full board. Einstein and Cantor Linda Ecker, who knew the candidate as a teen, excused themselves from the final selection process in April.

In truth, Einstein thinks Schorr did have an edge over the other candidates. She, like her father, possesses a compelling personal trait, which congregants of B’nai Tzedek have come to expect of clergy.

“She is different from me,” said Einstein, 58. “The part that’s the same is being fully present in the moment. Every week people come up to me and say, ‘You really mean it, don’t you?’ It makes me sense that’s not what takes place elsewhere.”

“My dad’s gift is he connects with people,” said Schorr, 33, who served as an assistant rabbi at Long Beach’s Temple Israel for six years, which included an internship. She was ordained in 1999.

“I’m flattered to fill in for one of the great rabbis of his generation,” she said.

Schorr will get a trial run conducting four Shabbat services this summer, a time when her father enjoys sampling the sermons of colleagues.

Like the biblical instruction to leave fields fallow in the seventh year, clergy and academics are among a few professions that routinely grant long-term paid absences after seven years of service.

“It’s for the same reason as in the Bible — to give a rest,” said Einstein, who has a lifetime contract from the Reform congregation, now at 425 families. “We can have a day off, but if there’s a crisis, that’s the end of that.”

Einstein and his wife, Robin, plan to divide their time between the East Coast and Spain. He doesn’t have a specific goal to accomplish during his third sabbatical, other than a possible congregational tour of Israel around Purim.

“Each time when I came back, I was raring to go,” said Einstein, who is also a chaplain for the police department, involved with an interfaith council and teaches three on-going adult education courses and one semester a year at Cal State Fullerton.

Einstein recalled that a rabbinical career appealed to him, because he naively believed rabbis spent their time studying and reading. He knows better now.

“A sabbatical allows me to get back to that idealism,” he said.

In January, Allen Krause, rabbi of Temple Beth El for 20 years, will also begin his third sabbatical. He received a fellowship from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Jewish Studies, which chooses a single recipient annually.

Although the fellow is only required to study, Krause, 64, proposed reworking his master’s thesis into book form. His topic was Southern rabbis who participated in the U.S. civil rights movement. Revisiting their stories will return Krause to an epiphany that powerfully influenced his own career.

Through his research, Krause came to realize that congregational respect for clergy gives rabbis the buoyancy to support unpopular positions and not suffer career harm. One of his subjects, Rabbi Charles Mantindand of Temple B’nai Israel in Hattiesburg, Miss., was a vocal advocate of integration, a position much of his congregation opposed.

“He’s the one I’m most in awe of,” said Krause, who has openly criticized actions by Israel’s government, despite his congregation’s generally pro-Israel views. “I strongly believe a rabbi has to take moral stands.”

Krause’s research, ground-breaking in its time, underpins publications by several other authors who gained access to his initial 400-page work through Cincinnati’s Jewish American Archives.

“This is truly my own contribution,” said Krause, who intends to update his research. His wife, Sherrie, will accompany him.

“If it weren’t for sabbaticals, I’d never get anything done,” said Krause.

Beth El will hire a temporary pulpit replacement, who will work alongside Johanna Hershenson, returning as the congregation’s assistant rabbi beginning July 1 (see story below).

Elie Spitz, in his 17th year as rabbi of Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel will depart after Yom Kippur for the remainder of the academic year.

One option he is considering is traveling the globe with his wife, Linda, and home-schooling their three children. Another is trading housing for teaching in a foreign locale. Returning to Israel is a third option.

“Rabbinic families have a great deal of stress,” said Spitz, describing a high burnout rate among clergy, who often end up working seven days without days off. “The job is to be a teacher and a visionary. To do both, you need a break to engage in intense study to provide a hiatus for perspective.”

Six years ago, Spitz took his family on sabbatical in Israel, where he was able to write a book about reincarnation.

“The first sabbatical was a magical year,” he said. “There is no substitute for a block of uninterrupted time.”

As a substitute for Spitz, the Conservative congregation of 495 families will count on willing lay volunteers, who will help fulfill ritual functions, along with Cantor Marcia Tilchin, hired subsequent to Spitz’s earlier sabbatical break.

Your Letters

The Sadat Legacy

The Jewish Journal must be praised for publishing that very eloquent article by Yuval Rotem, the consul general of the State of Israel (“The Sadat Legacy: 25 Years Later,” Dec. 13).

But I must take issue with Rotem on one point. In the paragraph where he states that peace with the Palestinians will only come about when an enlightened leader emerges from the warring factions that lead them, and that Israel will surrender the occupied territories to them if they accept Israel and Jews in general.

I strongly disagree.

As long as Palestinian-inspired instability continues to exist in the Middle East, Israel must never surrender its sovereignty to anyone for whatever reason.

Dario Witer, Reseda

A ‘Final’ Decision

This entire feud has been instrumental in desecrating God’s name. Does Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin really need another building? (“A ‘Final’ Decision Courts Trouble,” Dec. 13.) Our rabbis are supposed to model kindness, piety and righteousness. I see none of this being emulated by Cunin if the motivating drive behind this feud is money and property. Cunin’s mixed seating telethons bring in millions. The Torah, as I learned it, does not allow one to diverge from the law for money in this manner. From where I sit, I only see one more man using God to practice capitalism, not religion.

Edward Andrews, Los Angeles

Up a Tree Looking for a Home

South Bay goes beyond Palos Verdes, like Lomita, where you may find trees, affordable houses and a Jewish Orthodox Oasis: Chabad of South Bay — with daily minyanim, Torah classes, a Jewish school, a library, a mikvah and much more for an intensive religious life (“Up a Tree Looking for a Home” Dec. 13).

Dr. Jorge Weil, Los Angeles


The L.A. Jewish community has lost a rare spiritual leader of exceptional insight in Metivta’s financial crisis, (“Severe Financial Crisis Hits Metivta,” Dec. 13). Rabbi Rami Shapiro is a master teacher whose insights nourish the spirit and promote critical thinking in the best Jewish tradition. His poems and prayers are included in the liturgy of siddurim all across the country. It is unaccountable, and sad, that Los Angeles is unable to support this most authentically contemplative center of Jewish spiritual practice.

As a Metivta supporter with an ongoing daily contemplative practice, the absence of Shapiro and Judy Gordon leaves a huge hole in our community resources.

Catherine Klatzker, North Hollywood Shoah Foundation

I was fortunate enough to cover the Shoah Foundation annual banquet on Dec. 5 (“Tackling the Future,” Dec. 6). As a 16-year-old professional journalist I was not emotionally prepared for the evening. When I arrived I was escorted to an area where I was allowed to access, by way of computers, testimonies of Holocaust survivors. I was given the opportunity to personally interview some survivors who attended the event. They told me about their experiences and showed me their personal photographs that were taken at the camps. As a product of Jewish day schools, I learned about the Holocaust, but listening to survivors’ testimonies really made a durable impression. For me, the evening ended with an interview with Steven Spielberg who explained to me that the Shoah Foundation started out as a project, but it is now becoming an institution. I truly believe that by providing access to these personal accounts of the Holocaust, we are building a more tolerant and more humane generation.

Fred Medill, Beverly Hills

Henry Kissinger

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, Southern California District, has addressed a letter to Dr. Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism (UJ), questioning the propriety of inviting Henry Kissinger to speak on Jan. 13 under UJ auspices (“Hit Lecture Series Tries New Format,” Dec. 6).

Normally, we would not challenge another Jewish institution about whom it invites as a speaker. But Kissinger is globally regarded as a war criminal and mass murderer. He is wanted for questioning in several countries: Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, East Timor. Here is a man known for a career of destabilizing and overthrowing legitimate governments, secret bombings, foreign invasions — secretly, because American sponsorship would have been too embarrassing to publicly acknowledge.

Kissinger has the blood of millions of people on his hands. What positive purpose is served now, in our multicultural city, by the UJ presenting this man as someone with the integrity and vision worthy of our Jewish traditions and institutions?

We are embarrassed, as Jews, and as United States and global citizens, that anyone would care to celebrate his career. Mass murder is not entertainment.

Eric A. Gordon, Director Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring

Something to Talk About

Their subjects will range from anti-Semitism to baseball’s Ted Williams, from the messianic era to Disney’s “The Lion King.” The High Holiday sermons of Orange County’s rabbis will be both as topical as today’s headlines and as traditional as 2,000-year-old tomes.

Rabbis spend weeks ruminating over topics and scouring scholarly texts before putting pen to paper or hunkering behind a keyboard. Last year, of course, their advance work never was never delivered. Sept. 11’s shock wave immediately before Rosh Hashana shredded every prepared text.

This year, the anniversary of the terrorist attack falls between the two High Holidays: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. With fast-shifting events in Israel, spiritual leaders remain a bit leery about committing too early to a subject only to see it turn stale in the wake of a suicide-bombing.

“It’s too precious an opportunity not to be purposeful,” said Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Tustin. “It’s the one time I have everybody there.” His intention is “to give them a fix of the joy of belonging. Living Jewishly is countercultural. I want to remind them of why it’s worthwhile and enriching to be in God’s presence in a communal setting.”

Spitz prepared for the holidays by attending an annual sermon seminar in Los Angeles and reading eclectically. He is the rare rabbi whose remarks are extemporaneous. “I just get up and speak it in the moment,” he said, describing his approach as generating the sort of titillation as “high-wire walking.” “Sometimes it’s better than others.”

Others nail down their outlines weeks ahead. Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr, a Reform synagogue in La Mirada, was ready in July. Among his topics are the philosophy of author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; anti-Semitism as a guise for anti-Israel sentiment; and the example of congregant Marcia Finkel, who found hope and laughter more effective than antidepressants before dying in June from cancer.

How to keep hope alive is also the focus of one sermon by Rabbi Michael Mayershon of Temple Beth David, a Westminster Reform congregation. His Yom Kippur address about Israel is equally sobering. It asks, “Are we witnessing a funeral for peace?”

A recent trip to Berlin figures in a sermon planned by Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Bat Yahm, a Newport Beach Reform congregation. Visiting a villa where the Nazi hierarchy plotted the Holocaust in 1942, Miller and others attending the legal conference spontaneously held a Shabbat service. “To have those prayers echoing in that room which echoed with ‘Heil Hitlers’ was overwhelming.”

Other Miller topics include the consequences of greed and avarice in corrupting corporate ethics, and the final inning of baseball legend Ted Williams, whose son is seeking his father’s immortality through modern-day mummification.

Another celebrity, Simba, will take the spotlight in remarks by Rabbi Neal Weinberg of Temple Judea, an independent congregation in Laguna Woods. Rather than a coming of age movie, Weinberg sees Disney’s “The Lion King” as a Jewish parable about returning to Jewish living.

Rabbi Rick Steinberg of Irvine’s Congregation Shir Ha Ma’alot, a Reform synagogue, intends to explore spiritually coping with unexplainable events. “The biggest challenge is to give word and voice to things that don’t make any sense,” he said. An example, Steinberg said, is as close as the traditional “l’chaim; it’s a powerful toast. We live for life.”

He also intends to draw a historical parallel to current events. “It’s not the Holocaust. It’s not the crusades. What’s going on is not anti-Israel; it’s anti-Jewish,” he said. “Every Jew no matter where they live is part of that.”

Being realistic about apologies and forgiveness is a theme of Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue, Irvine’s Reconstructionist congregation. “People have this fantasy that forgiveness should immediately transfer grudges and pain. Sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. His Yom Kippur sermon is action-oriented, moving from repairing the soul to repairing the world. “We have to move from the hard work of apologizing and forgiving to the hard work of giving funds to social transformation.”

Taking the least topical approach are the rabbis of two Orthodox congregations.

“I think it’s wrong for rabbis to speak about current events,” said Rabbi David Eliezrie of Yorba Linda’s Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen, although he concedes to bending the rule last year when he spoke about Israel. “It should be about the spiritual themes of the holidays; for the Jews who come to synagogue once a year, to give them that moment to connect them to their heritage and their spirituality.”

Viewing the current conflict through a 2,000-year-old theological perspective is Rabbi Joel Landau of Irvine’s Beth Jacob Congregation. His sermon will take an apocalyptic tone.

“It seems to be pretty clear that the Messianic era, whenever it is, it’s getting pretty close,” he said. “People ought to take their Judaism more seriously.”

His subtext is the potency of prayer and Jews who are inhibited by religious expression. By comparison to Muslims, he notes, who, no matter the circumstances, devotedly drop to their prayer rugs five times a day.

“Prayer is not a spectator sport,” Landau said. “It’s a contact sport.”

Rabbis With a Mission

As if they were recapitulating the last half-century of Jewish history, a group of 13 Southern California rabbis undertook a nine-day mission that began in Germany with Holocaust remembrances and ended in Israel with Israeli Memorial and Independence Day commemorations.

The trip’s sponsors, the tourism ministries of Germany and Israel and Lufthansa airline, conceived the mission as a way to increase tourism, but the rabbis found deeper meaning in it. The mission’s organizer, Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, called the journey a "rabbinic version of the March of Living."

Diplomatically avoiding mention that March of the Living dropped Israel from its itinerary this year, Diamond acknowledged that many of the rabbis had encountered "pressure" from family and congregants to do the same. "God forbid that we should feel safe to go to Germany and not Israel," objected Diamond, some of whose extended family were murdered by the Nazis.

Despite the security situation in Israel, he said, "if the Israel leg of the journey had been canceled, I would have canceled the trip completely." In the end, he added, none of the rabbis canceled.

Their six days in Germany included visits to the Jewish communities in Munich and Berlin, a memorial service at Dachau and a tour of the site of the 1972 Munich Olympics where Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes.

Standing in the square in Munich where Hitler was arrested in 1923, Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Los Angeles said the group of rabbis could feel the bittersweet combination of what had been destroyed with the fact of Jewish survival. "Wearing kippot, we had a beer in the hall where Hitler founded the Nazi Party," Rembaum said. "But we’re here and he’s not. The Jewish people still live."

Paradoxically, Diamond pointed out, Germany, with the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe, due to immigration from the former Soviet Union, remains probably Israel’s staunchest friend on the Continent. "A Foreign Ministry official told me after a briefing we received, ‘Please tell the people of Israel that we care about them,’ and I think he really meant it."

For Rabbi Larry Goldmark of La Mirada, the emotional high point in Germany came at the square the Nazis used for book burnings, when "we got a cell-phone message about the bombing in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda. My body was in Germany, but my soul was in Israel, with the deeds of Hitler replaced now by the atrocities of the terrorists."

Coming to Israel from Germany was "a shot of adrenaline" for Rabbi Rebecca Schorr of Long Beach, whose father, Rabbi Steve Einstein of Fountain Valley, was also on the trip. "After all, this is where the survivors came to rebuild."

Three rushed days in Israel included a visit to wounded Israeli soldiers at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where the rabbis distributed gift baskets purchased on the downtown pedestrian mall. A series of Palestinian terror bombings has greatly reduced traffic on the Ben Yehuda mall, and the merchants, according to Diamond, were both glad for the business and personally moved that the rabbis had made the trip to express their concern for Israel.

"Everywhere we went, in hotels and stores, Israelis said to us, ‘Thank you for coming.’ We deeply felt the existential loneliness of Israel now," he said.

The patients in the hospital included a soldier, whose father told the group that his son was injured "because Israeli soldiers don’t indiscriminately shoot people — the world needs to know that"; an injured girl, who, when she emerges from her coma, will discover that she is blind, and a Druse soldier, wounded while performing an act of heroism and whose Jewish comrades were keeping up his spirits.

In addition to the gift baskets, the rabbis brought with them a shipment of toys donated by the Mattel Toy Corp. in Los Angeles, which will be distributed by mail to families of terror victims around the country by Sela, the Israel Crisis Management Center, as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ $12.25 million special fund for Jews in jeopardy.

In Tel Aviv, the rabbis participated in a Memorial Day service at the Zeitlin School, which is twinned with two Los Angeles schools as part of The Federation’s "partnership" program. They also participated in a meeting with Israeli rabbis and received briefings by agency heads and municipal officials, including Tel Aviv’s deputy mayor, on other aspects of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv partnership. Then they returned to Jerusalem for a Yom haZikaron/Yom HaAtzmaut ceremony at the Har Herzl national cemetery and another commemoration at the Western Wall.

"The juxtaposition of Memorial Day, which is taken very seriously in Israel, and Independence Day is a very powerful experience," said Diamond. "It contains the lesson that we would not have one without the other. The events of this year added a special urgency to that."

Given the current situation, would the rabbis go back with their families for a longer visit? Opinion was divided, with some of the rabbis pleading security concerns as a reason for postponing a fuller visit or for leaving spouses and children behind. Others insisted that, with reasonable planning, a trip to Israel now is "as secure as driving around L.A." or urged a visit at a later time to "show support."

Rabbi Joshua Berkowitz of Hancock Park, who has children studying in Israel, struck a different note. "Israel is not Disneyland," he said, paraphrasing Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat in the West Bank. "You don’t come home only when times are good. In fact, sometimes you come home especially when times are bad."

Participating rabbis, many of them former officers of the Board of Rabbis, represented all denominations and all corners of the Board of Rabbis’ authority, which runs from Long Beach to San Luis Obispo.

The rabbis who participated in the trip were: Diamond (Conservative); Berkowitz, Shaare Tefila Congregation, Los Angeles (Orthodox); Denise Eger, Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood (Reform); Einstein, B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley (Reform); Goldmark, Temple Beth Ohr, La Mirada (Reform); Michael Gotlieb, Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav, Santa Monica (Conservative), and Eli Herscher, Stephen S. Wise, Los Angeles (Reform). Others were Gil Kollin, Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (Conservative); Elazar Muskin, Young Israel of Century City (Orthodox); Rembaum, Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles (Conservative); Steven Carr Reuben, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation, Pacific Palisades (Reconstructionist); Schorr, Temple Israel, Long Beach (Reform), and Stewart Vogel, Temple Aliyah, Woodland Hills (Conservative).

Youth Reinforcement

Russell Radwin came from Alabama to meet people, because there are so few Jews in Birmingham.

Judy Feldman came from Beverly Hills to get ideas from other cities on how to plan Jewish leadership programs for Los Angeles in the wake of recent Federation cuts.

For Claude Furman, a Buenos Aires native who lives in Washington, D.C., this was the first step toward greater political involvement on behalf of Israel.

And I? I came to Washington 13, the United Jewish Community’s (UJC) Young Leadership biannual conference, in order to find out what concerns the 2,500 Jewish 25- to 45-year-olds from North America who will be our future leaders.

What I found, of course, is no one thing, except this: They are interested. Interested in meeting other Jews around the country — yes, to socialize — but more importantly, to ultimately marry Jewish. Interested in how to make tradition more meaningful in their lives. They are interested and very confused about the situation in Israel and, like most Americans, concerned about the aftermath of Sept. 11 in the United States.

They came to the Washington Hilton for all of these reasons and because they are interested in getting direction from the generations before them.

For three days, beginning Sunday, Feb. 10, direction came from politicians, rabbis, terrorism and media experts, entertainers, social activists and Jewish community professionals. From Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.); to comedian Richard Lewis and “Survivor” winner Ethan Zohn; to Israel’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Melchior and the Israeli prime minister’s son, Omri Sharon; to Rabbi Elliott Dorff from the University of Judaism and Rabbi Levy Shemtov of the American friends of the Lubavitch, the impressive roster of speakers charged the attendees to take a more active role in the community.

“Leadership is a lifelong experience,” Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the board of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, said at a leadership forum session designed to motivate leaders to inspire their peers. “I believe that skills can be taught, but what can’t be taught is your vision, your fire within to see that your goal is accomplished. What we can do is help you define your vision.”

Not every person had a clear vision, though. And some people weren’t clear on what they would do with all they learned at the conference but said the advantages were more internal. Anthony Lowenstein came from San Francisco for his second conference and said it has “recentered” him. “I learned that I’m part of something bigger than myself, bigger than my career,” the criminal defense lawyer said.

The “leaders” at this conference aren’t necessarily at the forefront of their communities, either, though most are involved with their local federations. Yet the message throughout the conference was that everyone can be a leader, and every Jewish youth there can make a difference.

“Seize the moments of your youth to be not only the future leaders, but lead us today,” Lieberman told a packed plenary. “Judaism is about a dream. It’s about a future more perfect than the present,” he said. Deborah Lipstadt also echoed Lieberman’s sentiments, when the professor, who took on Holocaust denier David Irving in England, told a session that she couldn’t just sit back and “let someone else deal with it,” but to “stand up and be counted.”

Following the heavier political sessions, such as “Life in the Arab Street,” and even the less heavy relationship sessions, such as “Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smart-Mouth Goddess,” heated discussions followed into the hallways, dining hall and the bar.

“I don’t know the solution. Is there a role for American Jews to empower the Arab man on the street to help change them?” Sammy Kashy, a 35-year-old business developer from St. Louis told his friends on Monday night, with a cocktail in one hand and a plate of appetizers in the other. Kashy told me that there was a lot of information presented at the conference, but he wished there was more practical advice on what do with the information.

“What are we going to do now? I haven’t seen them provide impetus to action,” he said, quoting the conference theme: Abracadabra, Transforming Words Into Action.

But others felt a profound influence from lectures. Wearing a silver-and-black snug dress, Heather Greenberg from Los Angeles said at the black-tie cocktail party that she was very intrigued by the session “30-something, Jewish & Single: Am I Normal?”

“It made me think that you have to stay involved. I really need to marry Jewish! I always say, ‘He’s too Jewish,’ and I have to stop that.” She learned from that session that “there’s no such thing as too Jewish.”

For some, the conference reinforced their beliefs. David Crohn, a North Carolina native living in Los Angeles, first got involved last year at a regional conference in Phoenix. This year, he met up with his brother, Randy, from Atlanta. “I think it reinforces what I’m really interested in. Being involved Jewishly needs to be reinforced.”

For others, it was a chance to explore Jewish identity. Evan Busman, a 39-year-old from Atlanta who lives in Chicago, said what he got from the “30-something” session was that the elderly hold the key to identity. “A lot of the younger generation, 25-40, don’t have a clue,” he said. “We don’t have as much to put down, and that’s a big issue.”

Another big issue at the conference was Israel. Omri Sharon delivered an off-the-record meeting for UJC major donors, and smaller sessions dealt with the media bias, the chances for peace, foreign aid, and if we still needed Israel. (In one sad commentary on the price of terrorism, at a plenary, the audience was asked, “How many people plan on visiting Israel in the next year?” Only some 10 percent stood up.)

Israel’s needs, local Jewish community needs and international religious freedom were addressed as UJC followed up on its theme of turning words into actions by culminating the conference with a visit to Capital Hill. On Tuesday morning, the attendees divided into delegations and met with members of Congress and senators to discuss support for Israel and the war on terrorism, support for social service block grants (which restores $2.8 billion for essential community-based services) and to lobby for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities.

Feldman of Beverly Hills said she was excited to go to the Hill. “We really need to be out there,” she said. The 29-year-old used to belong to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ young leadership program until it was cut in December. Feldman once worked on the Clinton campaign, and said she enjoyed the conference’s bringing together politics and the socializing.

The social aspect was definitely the big draw for most people, though some said they found it “overwhelming.” Even comedian Lewis, disheveled from his trip from Los Angeles, took note of the mostly single masses and jokingly advised: “Mate like crazy. We need it.” Lewis confessed to finally dating an older Jewish woman. “If I had to explain Yom Kippur one more time to a 25-year-old….”

The socializing continued into the wee hours of the morning. Sunday night, each city hosted a party in its suite, with New York’s delegation (300 people) the big winner, with a DJ, knishes and hot pretzels. Los Angeles, with a smaller delegation of 80 (down a third from the last biannual conference, according to Monique Maas Gibbons, chair of the UJC National Young Leadership Conference from Los Angeles) was the only party with its own congressman, Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), wandering around.

Miami, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia all had sizable delegations, and there were impressive shows from San Francisco, Colorado, Las Vegas, Toronto and Israel.

As in Hollywood industry parties, Washington political circles and New York business affairs, it’s all about networking. And so was the UJC National Leadership Conference.

The conference brought together 2,200 people from all over the country, and a fiery ball of energy could be felt. They are interested, involved and wanting to contribute. Now, when they return to their homes, it is up to us to utilize it.

A ‘New Germany’

Jewish leaders in the United States and in Israel are encouraging an openness to what they describe as a “new Germany,” a place they say is truly atoning for its past. At the very least, they argue, it deserves the support of the American Jewish community because of its strong support of Israel and its embrace of Jewish immigrants who are streaming in at the rate of 10,000 per year.

This year marks the opening of a major Holocaust memorial in Berlin and a surge of travel to Germany by a half-dozen American Jewish groups venturing over a threshold that had seemed forbidden for decades.

The groups going to Germany include some of the most powerful in the United States. The North American Boards of Rabbis held its annual conference there this year, as did the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, both for the first time.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president for the Conference of Presidents, said he was pleasantly surprised at the Germany he encountered, a place where there are visible shows of contrition for the past, whether on TV, in school or in public memorials.

United Jewish Communities (UJC) is preparing a second mission to the country in October, anticipating that some 150 major donors will jump at the opportunity to meet German officials, connect with the world’s fastest-growing Jewish community and learn about the German-Israel alliance.

Mission co-chair Steve Selig, past president of Atlanta’s Jewish Federation and chairman of the human services and social policy section of UJC, said he goes with definite emotional baggage.

“When I see an elderly person driving a taxi cab, I’m going to wonder what they did in their earlier life,” Selig said. “But I’m going to try and go with an open mind and an open heart.”

Advising Caution

Other Jewish groups are also going. San Francisco’s Jewish Federation sponsored a mission to Germany this month, and next month a group of 15 graduate students from Brandeis University will experience living in Germany for 10 days, courtesy of the German government.

“The trip isn’t designed to open minds, but certain myths do fall away once you’re exposed to a living reality,” said Brandeis professor Eugene Sheppard, one of two faculty members who’ll accompany the students.

A colleague, Jonathan Sarna, chairman of the university’s Near Eastern and Judaic studies department, added that the trip also isn’t designed to whitewash the past “but to help people understand that 50 years later there’s a very different Germany than the one they read about in the ’30s and ’40s.”

Germany’s Jewish population now numbers about 100,000, two-thirds of them Russians who are taking advantage of economic incentives offered by the German government. Immigration to Germany is restricted to ethnic Germans and Jews, who are entitled to subsidies, language training and other social benefits.

Rebuilding internally and through tourism is fine, as long as Jews remain vigilant, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization dedicated to teaching the Holocaust and fighting on behalf of victims of racism, terrorism, genocide and anti-Semitism.

Israel is dependent on Germany as a trading partner and is its only champion in the European Union. American Jews, Hier said, need to be the voice that reminds Germany of its responsibility to world Jewry and to Israel “so that Germany doesn’t become one of the other European countries that can turn on a dime. The greatest thing Americans can do is make sure that Israel remains a free, strong Jewish state.”

But Hier worries about frequent right-wing and neo-Nazi incidents in Germany. And he is cynical about Germany’s attempts to memorialize the Holocaust. The United States built a major museum in Washington and cities throughout the country have opened their own permanent exhibits, whereas Germany’s new Holocaust memorial will be a static monument that can be apprehended only through the eyes, he said.

“I don’t doubt it’ll be very impressive,” Hier said, “but that’s not the way you educate a younger generation, by taking them to a place of silence and telling them to look at stones. What can one learn from the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial? I don’t think we get the essence of their lives through the memorials.”

Inside View

Having lived and worked in Stuttgart for nearly a year, Cyril Benitah isn’t quite sure what to think. The 30-year-old engineer moved from metro Detroit to Germany to continue working for DaimlerChrysler.

“On the outside, it seems to be open and friendly, but I’ve got some anxiety about letting anyone know about my background,” he said.

While they were sitting in a cafe one afternoon, an American friend who has lived in Germany for nearly 20 years as an army officer blurted out that hatred for Jews is still alive and well in Germany, an unbidden remark that threw Benitah off balance.

Of course, anti-Semitism is alive in Germany, a fact that even Berlin-based Eugene DuBow, senior advisor with the American Jewish Committee, concedes.

“I’m old enough to have lived through the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel,” said DuBow, 68. “I dealt with my prejudices by meeting people, many of whom were horrified by what went on in their country, what their parents and grandparents had done or not done. After a while, you find out that people are just people. Is there anti-Semitism there? Yes, but there are good people, too.”

Orthodox Women Rabbis

The time has come to educate women and give them the titular and legal authority to right that which has gone so terribly wrong in the Orthodox world

The furor raised in Orthodox circles by 27-year-old Haviva Ner-David, who is studying in Israel to become the world’s first Orthodox woman rabbi, should have been no surprise to anyone. Old habits die slowly, some say never. Although halacha (Jewish law) does not technically forbid a woman from becoming a rabbi, the Orthodox claim that tradition prevents a woman from becoming one. Furthermore, because a few minor limitations on a woman’s public role in a synagogue would prevent her from fulfilling some of the responsibilities of a pulpit rabbi, the Orthodox claim she should not seek ordination at all. This argument, of course, is fallacious. Aside from easy solutions to such minor obstacles, most male rabbis also do not perform the role of pulpit rabbis; nevertheless, they are ordained.

Still others argue that female ordination distracts and detracts from the most important issue in the Orthodox community, that is the issue of the agunah (the married woman who is unable to obtain her Jewish divorce from a recalcitrant husband). To the contrary. It is precisely the agunah issue that should inspire Orthodox women to become rabbis and have the right to interpret halacha.

Historically, the rabbis have been the sole interpreters of Jewish law, the judges of conflicts affecting Orthodox Jews and the deciders of Jewish legal issues. The Orthodox rabbinate has been comprised only of men. Ergo, Jewish justice and legislation has been the exclusive domain of men. And they have miserably failed in that job, especially in the areas of Jewish law that adversely impacts women, such as the get (divorce) and chalitzah (the body of law that prevents a childless widow from remarrying unless her deceased husband’s brother releases her to do so).

The myriad examples of rabbinical impotence and incompetence in this area of Jewish law are staggering. Witness the male rabbis who failed to obtain a get for a woman even after they turned over the extorted funds to the husband. Read accounts of the severely beaten wife being urged by the rabbis to obtain her get by giving her abusive husband the money to appeal his battery conviction. Listen to the tale of the widow whose child died before her husband did in an auto accident, and was thus forced to beg and barter her freedom from her brother-in-law because, as a childless widow she was bound to her husband’s brother by Jewish law. Notice the Orthodox rabbis squirm to admit that the effects of Jewish divorce laws wreak abominable horrors on Orthodox women and children, but that they “cannot change halacha.” It is time to respond with the paraphrase of a popular quote: “There is nothing wrong with Jewish law, only with the people who interpret it.”

It is no secret that men are the sole constituents of both the Orthodox pulpit rabbi and of the rabbis who head yeshivot. Women do not count in the minyan, they are not called up to the Torah, and their role in the synagogue is strictly silent and invisible behind the mechitzah. Furthermore, major yeshivot have been traditionally seats of Talmudic learning, reserved exclusively for men; thus, rosh yeshiva rabbis need not answer to any woman. It is no accident, therefore, that few Orthodox rabbis would deign to offend their male constituents, dare incur the wrath and disdain of their colleagues, or risk being shunned by the Orthodox rabbinate by decrying that any halachic interpretation of Jewish divorce law that allows Jewish men such unfettered power to abuse women and children is a chillul Hashem, and should not be tolerated.

When Orthodox women denounced the rabbis’ ineptitude with claims that, ‘where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way,’ these claims were dismissed by the rabbis as ravings of ignorant women. At the same time, women were deliberately prevented from learning Talmudic law because the rabbis claimed that the sages forbade the study of Gemara by women.

How right they were. It is precisely this forbidden education that has opened women’s eyes to the need to help themselves. In a Canadian Orthodox community, women organized a mikvah strike when they became frustrated with the rabbis’ inability to help a woman obtain her get. Not surprisingly, the mikvahs did not remain closed for long before the men assured that the agunah obtained her get. But Orthodox women are beginning to recognize that such “Lysistrata” strategy is not only demeaning to both women and men, it has very little impact on the agunah problem at large. Orthodox women are now realizing that using their intellect and education will be far more effective in bringing global solutions to oppressed women and children in the Jewish world.

While the title “rabbi” does not automatically confer wisdom or godliness in the eyes of the public, it does validate the opinions of its possessor. It is an unfortunate truism that in the Orthodox community, when a rabbi makes a halachic decision that may be contradicted by an eminent scholar who does not hold the title “rabbi,” the populace will automatically accept the rabbi’s interpretation, even if the rabbi’s opinion is indefensible. (This phenomenon is not unique to the Orthodox community. A university professor with a Ph.D. may be spouting nonsense during his lecture, but if his theory is rebutted by a scholar who lacks the Ph.D. initials after his name, it is unlikely that many will disregard the professor’s assessment.) Thus, when Rabbi Avi Weiss proposed, at the International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, that in lieu of ordaining women as rabbis, these Talmudically educated women should be given the title morot (teachers), he was oblivious to the psychological impact that the title “rabbi” confers upon its recipient. Can anyone deny that in a halachic debate between rabbis and morot, the rabbis will always prevail, regardless of the validity or their opinion?

Orthodox women do not seek to become rabbis simply to “be like men.” To the contrary, Orthodox women have been traditionally trained to take private, rather than public, roles in the Orthodox community. However, when male rabbis consistently shirk their duty to do justice for all Jews, there is little alternative to allowing women to test their remedies. The time has come to educate women and give them the titular and legal authority to right that which has gone so terribly wrong in the Orthodox world.

Is this phenomenon likely to occur within the next few years? Are we destined to see mass ordination of women by 1998 or 1999? Not likely. But those who predict the permanent demise of such a movement will have a better shot at stuffing an escaped genie back into its bottle.

Alexandra Leichter is a family-law attorney in Beverly Hills, and is a member of the Modern Orthodox Westwood Village Synagogue.

All rights reserved by author, 1997.