Israel suspends ties with U.N. body


Israel suspended ties with the cultural body of the United Nations over its decision to classify the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb as Palestinian.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is in charge of preserving historical sites, at the end of its biannual session last week adopted several proposals by Arab states classifying Jewish and Muslim holy sites. It classified Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem as a mosque and ruled that the Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs was integral to the Palestinians.

“Israel rejects all five of UNESCO’s decisions and has no intention of cooperating with the organization,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon announced Wednesday evening in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the decision last week in a statement, saying that “The attempt to detach the people of Israel from its heritage is absurd. If the places where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation are buried, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah and Rachel some 4,000 years ago are not part of the Jewish heritage, then what is?

“It is regrettable,” the Israeli leader added, “that the organization established to promote historical heritage sites worldwide is trying for political reasons to detach the ties between the Jewish people and their heritage.”

In February, Netanyahu included both sites on the country’s new national heritage list and allocated money to refurbish them. The decision was condemned throughout the international community; UNESCO asked Israel to remove the sites from the list.

Boston-area towns back pro-Palestinian resolutions


Voters in three Boston-area districts backed a nonbinding resolution supporting Palestinian rights in Israel.

The ballot question passed with 56.6 percent in favor in Tuesday’s election. Tallies were incomplete in two additional state legislative districts within Boston where the initiative appeared on the ballot.

The referendum, sponsored by a group called Massachusetts Residents for International Human Rights, an offshoot of the Somerville Divestment Project, asked voters if the state representative from their district should be instructed to vote in favor a no-binding resolution calling on the U.S. government “to support the right of all people, including non-Jewish Palestinian citizens of Israel, to live free from laws that give more rights to people of one religion than another.”

A question with the same text as Tuesday’s nonbinding resolution was passed in the Boston suburbs of Somerville and Cambridge in 2008.

Two years earlier, Somerville had voted against questions asking whether Palestinian refugees had the right to “return to their land of origin” and whether Massachusetts should divest its holdings in State of Israel Bonds.

Jews by Choice bolster ties with first Israel mission


Misty Zollars knew she wanted to be Jewish ever since she was 13, when her best friend invited her to her first Passover seder.

“I found the afikoman, and I knew I was going to be a Jew,” said Zollars, now 28, of Sherman Oaks. “The warmth of the family tradition and the concept of tikkun olam (healing the world) just made sense to me. After I converted, I felt this need to go to Israel, but I discovered there wasn’t really a trip out there for people like me.”

So Zollars helped create one.

Next February, the fashion designer will join a group of converts like herself to take part in a groundbreaking event: the first mission to Israel tailored specifically for so-called “Jews by Choice.” The 12-day trip, led by Rabbis Neal Weinberg and Joel Rembaum, will take up to 40 travelers through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and other locales to help foster a connection with the Jewish homeland that new recruits might not otherwise feel. Organizers say there are still openings for people to sign up before the Oct. 15 application deadline.

“This is a special trip for people who have become Jewish,” said Weinberg, director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University. “There are a lot of people who have converted to Judaism who are 27, 28, 29 years old. They’re too old for [Taglit] Birthright now, and yet they’re young and they’ve never had the experience of going to Israel. To them, Israel is a faraway country. This is a way of making it come closer to them.”

Many of the trip’s participants — who span all ages and are both single and married — are graduates of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program. Having led the program since 1986, Weinberg said he saw a need for more programs geared toward new members of the Jewish community who still had questions after their classes ended.

The trip to Israel is sponsored, in part, by Judaism by Choice Inc., an organization that Weinberg and his wife, Miri, founded in 2005. Its purpose is to aid students seeking inclusion into the community who might feel overwhelmed by the prayers and rituals of a typical Shabbat service.

“There is a lack of programming for this niche in the community — for people who have embraced Judaism,” Weinberg said. “Before you can learn to ride a bicycle, you’ve got to have the training wheels. What we offer is extra support.”

Weinberg appointed Zollars to the board of of Judaism by Choice, which holds Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning services each month at synagogues throughout the L.A. area, including Temple Beth Am, Sinai Temple and Valley Beth Shalom. Zollars had been observing Shabbat and keeping kosher since converting in 2006, but she also sought another, less-accessible part of the Jewish experience — going to Israel.

“I knew that if I was having these frustrations, there would be other people in the community, as well, looking for a trip like this,” she said.

Zollars suggested a mission to Israel to the board of Judaism by Choice, and enthusiasm grew. Jill Sperling, another board member, called Rembaum at Temple Beth Am to help arrange the trip.

“I thought the idea was exciting and important and said I’d love to help,” said Rembaum, who arranged the itinerary earlier this year. “Jews by Choice are wonderful miracles. Their addition to the Jewish community is an amazing thing.”

Visiting Israel is “the big hook” that helps converted Jews relate on a gut level to Jewish history and identity, Rembaum explained.

Just ask Sperling.

“Some of my defining moments as a Jew were in Israel — just to be there and feel that connection and feel accepted,” said the Los Angeles mother of two, who has been to Israel three times in the past five years. “For my family, our connection to Israel has really helped us grow as Jews. Israel is the key that inspires you and excites you. That’s something you can’t get in a classroom.”

Sperling, 44, took Weinberg’s Miller Introduction to Judaism program in 1989 with her husband, Skip Sperling, who is Jewish by birth. The course renewed the couple’s devotion to their religion, and they enrolled both their children — Sofia, 12, and Elliot, 15 — in Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am. Sperling and Sofia just returned in May from a visit to Israel with the Pressman Academy through The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program.

As an Israel “veteran,” Sperling said she hopes to be a mentor to her fellow Jews by Choice on the February trip. “Because I’ve already been there, I feel like I can support other people while they’re there,” she said. “This will be life-changing for people who have chosen to be Jewish.”

Participants will fly to Tel Aviv and visit Independence Hall, before embarking on a cross-country tour with stops at Masada, Yad Vashem, Safed (the birthplace of kabbalah), the Upper Galilee and the Kotel. Besides exploring popular landmarks, they will also meet with Israeli residents who have converted to Judaism — both those who converted in Israel through the Masorti (Conservative) movement and those who converted outside of the country and made aliyah.

“People often don’t think about the different needs of people who convert to Judaism on a trip to Israel,” Weinberg said. “Most of them are going to see the country for the first time with fresh eyes. They weren’t brought up with an understanding of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people.”

The program is open to Jews by Choice of all denominations, along with their spouses or significant others. The per-person cost of the trip — $3,000, including the flight — was kept low with support from Judaism by Choice, and scholarship funds are also available through several foundations and individual contributions. Weinberg said he is still seeking donations to further allay the cost for those who might not be able to afford the trip on their own.

Zollars said she is eagerly awaiting the chance to connect with the homeland to which she has always felt drawn.

“It’s almost like a graduation feeling,” she said. “It is, in a way, the last and first step in my journey as a Jew. Being surrounded and embraced by Judaism would make me so happy. It would be like a trip home for me.”

To learn more or sign up for the trip, e-mail MistyZollars@yahoo.com or Sperling@pacbell.net, or call Cori Drasin at Temple Beth Am, (310) 652-7353. The deadline is Oct. 15.

New Conservative seminary leader outlines goals


Long before he emerged as a leading scholar of American Jewry, and decades before he would be looked to as the potential savior of the Conservative movement, Arnold Eisen was gunning for a journalism internship at the Washington Post.

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Eisen was in the running for editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian — the position brought with it an automatic summer job at the Post.

Eisen lost the election in what he says was then the greatest disappointment of his life.

That election diverted Eisen’s career path from journalism to academia and initiated a journey that culminated Wednesday when he was inaugurated as the seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism.

But even as he settles into his new post as head of the movement’s chief academic institution, it is the values of the profession he did not pursue more than those of the academy that are figuring prominently in his plans.

In describing his vision for the coming year, Eisen speaks of dialogue rather than direction. He intends to spark conversations within the movement, facilitated by JTS, in place of “canned lectures.” And he believes being a Conservative Jew is largely about what journalists — and Jews — love most: talking.

“To be a Conservative Jew is in large part to want to be part of a certain conversation in word and in deed,” Eisen said recently in a wide-ranging discussion in his JTS office.

As workers made final preparations for the inauguration seminary in the courtyard below, Eisen described Conservative Judaism not as an ironclad ethos or series of principles, but as “a constellation of attitudes and behaviors and commitments that are coherent and that distinguish this movement from others.”

Eisen takes the JTS helm at a time when the Conservative movement is being seen by many as floundering, its numbers in decline and its ideological clarity muddled.

His predecessor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, in his parting message said the movement suffered from a “grievous failure of nerve.”

Once the largest synagogue denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has fallen into second place behind the Reform, and it has become routine to speak of the movement’s lack of direction and coherence.

All those challenges were awaiting Eisen when he arrived at his new office on Broadway and 122nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what concerns the incoming chancellor most is not the supposed apathy within the movement — a notion he says is “nothing less than absurd” — or even the decline in its numbers.

“Numbers don’t keep me up at night; Israel keeps me up at night,” Eisen said. “I’m worried about the security of Israel, and I’m worried about the apparent decline in attachment on the part of American Jews to Israel. This literally, from time to time, keeps me up at night.”

In the coming year, Eisen plans to focus his efforts on building stronger ties between American Jews and the State of Israel. It is part of a commitment by JTS to the Jewish people, one of three constituencies — along with the Conservative movement and the broader North American society — that Eisen wants the seminary to serve.

He also plans to promote dialogue between Jews and Muslims similar to the Jewish-Christian dialogue begun by Louis Finkelstein, the seminary’s legendary leader from 1940 to 1972.

It is the third constituency, the Conservative movement, where expectations for Eisen’s tenure are the greatest. In addition to declining numbers, the movement has been through a bruising year in which a controversial decision to ordain gay clergy polarized the rabbinic leadership and sparked fears that the denomination in the center of the ideological spectrum could not hold.

Eisen has said that the movement’s historic commitment to religious pluralism — the notion that competing views of halacha (Jewish law) can peacefully coexist — is not enough to hold Conservative Judaism together.

Instead, he wants Conservative Jews to think more deeply about the notion of mitzvah — a term normally described as a “good deed” or “commandment,” but which Eisen says is really a much richer idea. He has urged rabbis to talk about the concept in their High Holy Days sermons, and he intends to pilot a mitzvah project in 10 congregations to get Jews talking about what they feel obligates them.

It is a task, Eisen says, that is urgent for a movement that has struggled to straddle the gap between fidelity to traditional Jewish law and principled adaptation to modernity.

“To bring Jews closer to mitzvah, one has to enrich the conception they’re walking around with,” Eisen said. “And that’s part of the task.”

Eisen’s emphasis on the concept of mitzvah could end up further muddying the theological line between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, has been firm in insisting that his movement is best understood as mitzvah-oriented, not halachic-oriented — a distinction aimed at explaining that even as the Reform movement increases its embrace of ancient practices and rituals, it rejects the traditional Orthodox and Conservative notion of Jews being bound by an overarching system of religious law.

Eisen shows no indication of wanting to follow Yoffie’s lead in affirmatively severing the direct relationship between mitzvah and halacha. Yet he clearly sees the Conservative predicament in sociological terms, as a conflict between the traditional sense of commandedness and the modern ideology of the “sovereign self,” the notion that each person is lord and ruler of their own lives and practice.

In other words, Eisen’s opening of a discussion on mitzvah could be understood as an attempt to address the challenge of how to inculcate a sense of obligation among followers without their feeling from the start that they are being told what they must do.

Since being tapped for the chancellorship, Eisen has traveled the country on a “listening tour,” and what he found has made him optimistic. Conservative Jews want greater JTS involvement in their lives, he said. They want a clear message about what their movement stands for. They want improved quality and greater cooperation across the various arms of the movement. And on the eve of his inauguration, Eisen says he is poised to give it all to them.

Muslims and Jews must move on and strengthen ties


Muslim-Jewish relations in Los Angeles have undoubtedly undergone a test the past several weeks, the outcome of which is still unclear. But out of an acrimonious political battle,
many Muslims would like to move on and attempt to re-establish discussion and dialogue with our fellow Jewish Angelenos.

What is being referred to is last week’s decision by the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations to give its John Allen Buggs Humanitarian Award to Muslim leader Dr. Maher Hathout and the vitriolic rhetoric from a segment of the Jewish community in the weeks preceding. It has, amongst other things, been a trial for Muslim-Jewish relations. But interestingly enough, the period has also seen certain bonds between the two groups solidify.

Based on his past criticisms of Israel, a segment of the Jewish community engaged in what can be fairly called a smear campaign against Hathout. In doing so, it took a long-standing moderate and intellectual Muslim leader and painted him as an extremist in an attempt to make him, and the organizations he represents, politically radioactive.

In a Sept. 1 press release, the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) called Hathout “a radical Islamic leader masquerading as a moderate and deceiving the American public.” The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) on Sept. 6 accused Hathout of “promoting violence, hatred and divisiveness”; this again because Hathout likened Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to “apartheid,” a term even Israeli news organizations use to characterize Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories.

Led by these two groups, and eventually joined by others such as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the FBI-designated terrorist group, the Jewish Defense League, an unsuccessful campaign to rescind the award was orchestrated.

This unfortunate effort, filled with more anger by some of these groups than I care to describe, did nothing but build resentment in Muslims. In their view, this campaign continued a pattern of opposing Muslim political integration purely because of its differing viewpoint on a foreign country.

But to others in the Jewish community, Hathout was none of the above. In fact, Hathout and the organizations of which he is a part, should be embraced and recognized for their struggle to bring moderation to the Muslim community and harmony in interfaith relations.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance, Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple, Rabbi Steve Jacobs of Temple Kol Tikvah and David Wolf, son of the prominent late Rabbi Alfred Wolf of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, were among the numerous interfaith leaders attesting to Hathout’s genuine and decades-long effort to build harmony and trust amongst Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles. Yes, they acknowledge there are differences on the Middle East, but that should never exclude Muslims like Hathout from the political process or make him ineligible to receive the award.

To these Jewish leaders who had the courage to stand on principle, we express our deep thanks. Their actions should not only make many Jews proud; they have also set an example for us as Muslim Americans. They represent the best of what Muslim-Jewish relations can bring.

To the AJCommittee, ZOA, Jewish Federation and others who have never really engaged us in dialogue, we stand at the ready. We stand ready to meet and engage on our differences, not expecting to come to agreement but expecting to make things more civil.

Brutal tactics such as those used in this campaign risk poisoning overall Muslim-Jewish relations and building resentment. Such a negative outcome could potentially impact not just Muslims and Jews in Los Angeles but, unfortunately, extend into Muslim-Jewish relations around the country.

To those in the Jewish community who know us, it is time to take our efforts to the next level. Rather than predicate our relations on the dynamics of the Middle East (of which we have no control and to which we actually stand opposed to dictatorial Arab regimes), we should work on domestic issues, such as homelessness, health care, education and other issues which our respective faiths have much in common and which effect us equally as members of the same society.

At the end of the day, Muslims and Jews have far more in common than they realize. It is time to start building on those commonalities for the betterment of our communities, our nation, and our world.

Omar Ricci is chairman of the

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