First Person – Will You Be at Peace?

I always knew that it would be very difficult to stop a genocide. I just never appreciated how difficult it would be merely to demonstrate against a genocide.

I was among a group of nearly 100 Los Angeles Jews who traveled to San Francisco on Sunday, April 30, to participate in the “Day of Conscience for Darfur” rally. In addition to being accompanied by more than 30 of my congregants from Leo Baeck Temple, I was delighted to be joined by a number of colleagues, including Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and the board’s bresident, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

The majority of us flew into Oakland that Sunday morning, and the rally organizers had arranged for us to be transported to the rally by bus — only the bus never arrived. Forced to fend for ourselves, we quickly filled every taxi we could hail, urging the drivers to take us to the Golden Gate Bridge on the double.

As my cab began to depart from the airport, I remember being stunned when the driver indicated that he did not know how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge. There was no time to lose, so I started to fetch directions for him on my mobile phone. But as I focused intently on my job as our cabbie’s navigator, I couldn’t miss the conversation that he was having with my fellow passengers.

The driver identified himself as a recent immigrant from Darfur. Incredible. When he learned we were headed to the rally, he shook his head slowly, asking, “Are you Jews?”

When we confirmed his hunch, he snickered and said, “That explains it.”

We couldn’t resist taking the bait: “What do you mean by that?”

“There is no genocide taking place in Darfur,” he replied. “I know. I lived there. This ‘genocide’ has been concocted by the Jews as a means of diverting the world’s attention from what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.”

As the conversation continued, he peppered his verbal assault with a few disparaging references to the “Israel Lobby,” insisting that the truth would soon come out.

It was a rather surreal circumstance from which to emerge on the Golden Gate Bridge with 5,000 demonstrators determined to save Darfur. The rally was filled with inspirational moments. We heard from impassioned Washington legislators. Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders implored us to stop the murders. Eyewitnesses to the slaughter relayed their heartrending accounts. African musicians filled the air with glorious song. It was an extraordinary day. But the episode in the cab served as a dark reminder of just how much vigilance it will take to stop this genocide before we are left to mourn it.

The 20th century offered repeated incontrovertible proof that launching a campaign against genocide, getting it to permeate the collective consciousness and mobilizing the masses to take action is a difficult challenge.

There are many, like our cabbie, who possess personal and political reasons to deny the atrocities, and their efforts are bolstered by the very banality of genocide. That is to say, genocide is not always especially newsworthy. Nothing new happened today in Darfur that didn’t happen yesterday … and that won’t happen tomorrow.

This keeps a catastrophe like Darfur’s out of the news, fueling the lies of the deniers and the disinterest of the millions whose righteous indignation will be needed to motivate the world to take action.

With the notable exception of Nicholas Kristof’s venerable work in The New York Times, there is an embarrassing paucity of news about Darfur. Hundreds of thousands have been murdered, and millions have been displaced, but it is largely left to our imaginations to hear the cries of the victims. But if we listen closely enough, they can be heard. There are screams. Screams of women being branded and raped — right now. Screams of children being chased from their homes. Screams of men knowingly taking their final breath.

Just another day in Darfur.

Can we remain silent and live with ourselves?

We have a responsibility because we are neither the deniers nor the disinterested. There may not be enough news about Darfur, but we cannot claim that we are uninformed. Talking about the tragedy is not enough. Weeping about the tragedy is not enough. We must relentlessly urge our legislators to move the world to action. On Capitol Hill and at the White House, they count up our phone calls. That’s how they decide whether this genocide matters to us. That’s how they decide whether we want them to take life-saving action. Knowing this, calling daily isn’t too often.

As Jews, who know the scourge of genocide too well, we should each ask ourselves one question every day: “When this atrocity in Darfur is over, and the final losses are known, will I be at peace with what I did to stop it?”

During the week of the Darfur rallies in Washington and San Francisco, Jews all over the world were studying our famous command from the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

Five-hundred more will perish in Darfur today. When the killing is over, will you be at peace with what you did to stop it?

Ken Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air.


Back when I was working at a newspaper in New York, my editors and I tried to come up with a teen-sounding headline for a story on voting for our new teen section.

“How about ‘Gettin’ Out the Vote’?” my editor offered.

As if dropping a “g” off the end of the word is all one needs to do to appeal to teens.

I knew then, and I know now, that to really speak to teens, you just have to be one.

Adults can affect any sort of teenish language they want; they can claim to understand how the teenage mind works, to get the issues teens are thinking about. But teens know a fake when they see it.

That is why The Jewish Journal has decided to hand this page over to teenagers. Once a month, we will choose columns, feature articles or news stories submitted by teens in grades 9-12.

As you can see on this page, Natalie Goodis, a junior at Marlborough High School, has inaugurated the page with a column about how her experience in Eastern Europe and Israel changed her.

Here’s your chance. Write an article about what a teenager has to weigh when deciding whether to date only Jews. Send us your thoughts on evolution vs. creationism. Tell us about what you think about Ariel Sharon, about this country’s hurricane response, about your grandmother. Describe an event at your school that moved the whole student body to action.

The topics are up to you; the voice is yours.

We hope the monthly page is just the beginning. We want teens to talk to us — to have some input into what their peers should be writing about. That is why we are creating a Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee. (How would that look on a college resume?) The committee will meet several times a year to determine what topics you want covered in these pages, and to get your feedback on where things should go.

Being a teenager is intense. It is when you form your values, you solidify lifelong relationships, you choose a path for your future. Most teens are profoundly aware of just how pivotal these years are, and a lot of teens have something to say about it.

If you’re one of them, we’re waiting to hear from you. This is your chance to help more than 100,000 Jewish adults get a glimpse into your world.

Action Items:

  • Articles: First-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words — submitted as an attachment to an e-mail.
  • Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee: Send your name, age, school and up to 200 words on why you should be on the Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee.

Ground Rules

We Must Renew Presbyterian Dialogues

Late last month, the 493 delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC-U.S.A.) adopted a series of deeply troubling “overtures” (their term for policy statements).

The General Assembly defeated an attempt to cut off funding for “messianic” congregations, which target Jews for proselytization and conversion. It condemned the Israeli security fence and, in an overture supporting the Geneva peace accords, called for divestment from companies doing business in Israel.

One of the rabbis I spoke to observed that, when taken together, the refusal to suspend funding for proselytization of Jews and the statement opposing the security barrier suggest that PC-U.S.A. believes that “Jewish souls are worth saving, but not Jewish lives.”

These statements reveal a significant chasm separating the Jewish community and PC-U.S.A. But however tempting it may be to entrench ourselves behind defensive and divisive rhetoric, for the sake of Israel, our long-standing friendship with the Presbyterians and our common values and concerns, we must strive to mend bridges rather than burn them.

Sadly, with one very important exception, none of these gestures is really new. PC-U.S.A., like many of the mainline Protestant denominations, claims to be “even-handed” in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, by equating terrorist acts committed against innocent civilians with legitimate Israeli military actions, they ignore the very security on which Israel depends. One can be a critic of particular policies of the Israeli government or of specific terror-fighting tactics without falling into the trap of moral equivalency.

What is new, and therefore most troubling, is the call for divestment. PC-U.S.A. has set a double standard by singling out Israel for economic and political sanctions.

Where is the PC-U.S.A. overture on holding accountable the Palestinian Authority officials who facilitate terrorism through the misuse of Palestinian and international funds? Where is the overture demanding true political reform in the Palestinian Authority? And where are the overtures divesting from countries with far, far greater human rights abuses than the democratic country of Israel: Myanmar, North Korea, China, Iran?

It has long been a linchpin of doves in Israel and their supporters around the world that the more economically and militarily robust Israel felt itself to be, the more willing it was to take risks for peace when the time came about. An Israeli economy weakened by divestment undercuts that willingness, and if shaped to include military contractors, divestment could weaken Israel’s security.

Although I know that many within PC-U.S.A. earnestly seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, its endorsement of divestment threatens to gravely destabilize the dynamics that are indispensable to a real peace process.

In response to these unprecedented overtures, some in our community have called for ending all dialogue with Presbyterians. I believe that is exactly the wrong response. What we need is a renewed dialogue that would occur on two levels.

On the national level, we need to reach out to the leadership of PC-U.S.A. and explain to them — without rancor or disdain — that the repercussions of their actions belie their stated support for Israel and deter progress toward a lasting peace.

On the local level, synagogues across the country need to reach out to Presbyterian churches in their communities and embrace a dialogue around Israel that will be difficult and may not lead to complete agreement but is absolutely essential.

Part of that difficulty will be responding to these gestures in a firm and critical manner without resorting to exaggeration or distortion. For example, PC-U.S.A.’s overture did not, as one national Jewish organization claimed, “call Israel a racist, apartheid state….” Such distortions distract from the sincerity and effectiveness of our response.

To address the immense criticism facing their endorsement of divestment, PC-U.S.A. clarified that “the assembly’s action calls for a selective divestment and not a blanket economic boycott, keeping before us our interest in Israel’s economic and social well-being.”

While welcoming that clarification, it is now our job to explain to them that divestment in any degree threatens the very existence of Israel and the prospects for peace. And it is our job to ensure that PC-U.S.A. lives up to its promise to keep Israel’s well-being not only in their words but in their deeds. Only through honest and sustained dialogue can this be achieved.

We must have the resolve to reach out across the chasm to our Presbyterian neighbors. We must do whatever we can to assure that, where the Presbyterians have gotten it wrong, they will work with us to get it right.

Mark J. Pelavin is director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism and associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

UC Irvine Graduation Clash Fizzles

A feared confrontation between Jewish and Muslim students during graduation ceremonies at UC Irvine was largely avoided June 19, following a week of heated charges and countercharges.

Several members of the Muslim Student Union wore stoles, or broad strips of green cloth, over their graduation gowns inscribed with the word Shahada in Arabic letters, whose meaning and symbolism were at the center of the dispute.

Muslim student leaders claimed that about 30 graduates wore the stoles, although Jewish students thought that the number was considerably smaller.

As a counterforce, adult members of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) and StandWithUs arrived on campus in solidarity with Jewish students. After the ceremonies, Jews and Muslims formed small, peaceful discussion knots, which contrasted with the intense emotions of the preceding days.

When the Muslim students first announced their intention to wear the stoles, three national Jewish organizations and pro-Israel students protested that the stoles, similar to those worn by members of Hamas, were intended as a show of support for terrorism and suicide bombers.

Spokesmen for the Muslim students and for the Council of American-Islamic Relations countered that the inscriptions translated as a profession of faith in Allah and included the words, "God, increase my knowledge."

However, the on-campus Jewish groups and their off-campus allies, like StandWithUs, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and AJCongress, said that such statements of faith are typically also used by radical Islamic leaders to inspire their followers to become "martyrs" or suicide bombers.

On-campus Jewish groups were upset that the administration did not get outside verification of the meaning and symbolic nature of the stole, said Jeffrey Rips, executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County.

"I’m not saying the message is right or wrong, but any Muslim who does not have an agenda would not wear the stoles," said Tashbih Sayyed, a practicing Muslim who is the president of the Council for Democracy and Tolerance and the editor-in-chief of two Muslim newspapers: Pakistan Today and Muslim World Today.

The local dispute was given national currency when Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly reported that the Muslim students planned to "signify their support for the terrorist group, Hamas."

"The university has received 400 e-mails and faxes from all over the world on this issue — and many threatened violence at the commencement," said Randy Lewis, UC Irvine’s executive associate dean of students.

Local and national officials of the ADL, Zionist Organization of America and AJCongress protested the planned Muslim display to UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone and asked him to intervene or at least criticize the students’ action.

University officials responded that the Muslim students’ right of expression was protected by the Constitution and that similar commencement displays last year at UC Berkeley and UCLA had taken place without causing problems.

Seven commencements for undergraduates from different schools and departments were held on the Irvine campus without any reported incidents, although security was unusually tight.

Merav Ceren, 20, president of Anteaters for Israel — using the name of the UCI mascot — said her group, which had protested the Muslim display to the campus administration, had decided not to disturb the commencement ceremonies.

Yet, after careful deliberation, the Jewish groups decided against signing a statement the administration proposed last Thursday in a meeting with the Jewish groups "in support of a dignified and safe commencement ceremony."

Joseph Hekmat, a member of the pro-Israel group, was one of the graduates at the School of Social Sciences commencement. Although a number of Muslim students were in the same graduating class, Hekmat said he did not see anyone wearing the controversial stole.

However, the dispute pointed to the strong underlying tensions on campus. Last year, a display by Hillel students commemorating the Holocaust was vandalized. Last month, an Anti-Zionist Week on campus featured an extremist Islamic cleric and a rabbi from the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Israel Naturei Karta, Ceren said.

Arab students, in turn, protested when a cardboard "wall" they created, symbolizing Israel’s security fence, was set on fire. No perpetrators have been identified in any of the incidents.

"The Jewish students here definitely live in an atmosphere of tension," Ceren said.

But in the wake of "stolegate," there are currently moves on campus to diffuse the tensions. Byron Breland, director of student judicial affairs, is putting together a "conflict escalation prevention team," in which students can enroll to serve as middlemen to put out fires when fights arise.

Also, campus administration officials are trying to organize a dialogue between the Muslim and Arab student groups and the Jewish student groups, something the Jewish students said they have wanted for a long time.

Staff writer Gaby Wenig contributed to this report.

An Unorthodox View of Who’s Orthodox

Who knew that an article on Jewish love would generate a little debate?

A while back, I wrote a piece titled, "Shut Up, I Love You!" (Feb. 14) about how Jews are great at giving to each other but lousy at taking from each other. I suggested you honor your fellow Jews by taking or learning something from them. This makes every Jew feel needed and important, and encourages the unifying dynamic of reciprocity.

Well, what do you know? I received numerous responses, some of them quite challenging. In particular, I want to respond to my observant friends who have asked me to answer this question: What can they take from a Jew who doesn’t believe the Torah is the word of God and who feels no need or obligation to follow His commandments? What can they take from that "truth"?

This is perhaps the toughest question on the subject, and if a godly answer could be found, it might unlock the secret to Jewish unity.

So let me start with this: There is no such thing as a nonobservant Jew. When a secular Jew visits a sick person in the hospital, at that moment he’s not secular, he’s Orthodox. He is performing the all-important mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the sick) whether he calls it that or not.

Similarly, I have a lifelong colleague who is a Reform Jew and who goes to synagogue once or twice a year. In the parlance of the day, he can be labeled "nonobservant." But when it comes to the critical commandment on lashon hara (guard your tongue from speaking evil) he’s a fanatic. In fact, on that mitzvah, he’s more observant than many Orthodox people I know.

Conversely, when an Orthodox Jew transgresses — whether by doing lashon hara or getting angry or anything else — at that moment he is nonobservant. The fact that his beliefs are Orthodox does not make his actions Orthodox.

And isn’t it an accepted Orthodox view that Judaism is more a religion of action than of beliefs? If that’s the case, then we can even say that all Jews are Orthodox or even ultra-Orthodox — it just depends on the time of day.

Now imagine if the Orthodox Jews of the world would reach out to the non-Orthodox and actually validate their good deeds as manifestations of halacha (Jewish law)?

I don’t use the word halacha loosely. For example, picture a Reform Jew who is actively involved in social or environmental causes, like feeding the hungry or fighting against pollution. Those causes are also commandments from God. They are bona fide mitzvahs that do something all Orthodox Jews love to do: create "Kiddush Hashem" (sanctifying the name of God). That’s not just a good idea, that’s halacha.

To take this dream even further, imagine if observant Jews would take or learn a few mitzvahs from the nonobservant: like a group of ultra-Orthodox demonstrating for the revival of the Los Angeles River, because the river’s desecration is destroying Hashem’s creation, or kippah-wearing Jews setting up a soup kitchen on Skid Row, because we are "our brothers’ keepers" and God wants us to do just that.

Was there ever a greater "Kiddush Hashem" than when the Orthodox Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in the 1960s with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for blacks’ civil rights?

If a Jew does something that creates "Kiddush Hashem," is that mitzvah any less valid or important than, say, putting on tefillin? The Torah offers many ways to honor the name of God and create a dwelling place for Him.

So here’s a challenge to Torah scholars: Study the good deeds of nonobservant Jews and see if there is a Torah or halachic rationale for these good deeds. You might find that there are more frummies among us than you ever dreamed of.

The central idea here is that we should all take a step back and stop trying to change each other, which doesn’t work. What might work better is a two-way relationship in which we exchange good deeds, judge actions rather than people and recognize that not only are all Jews created equal, but all mitzvahs are created equal.

If we started on this more open road, we could create a new dynamic in Jewish life. By celebrating the holiness in each other, we’d be building not a patronizing or superficial unity but a unity of need, in which every Jewish soul contributes to the common destiny. We would not be accepting the status quo, we’d be making it holier.

Perhaps most beautifully, we would be inviting more reciprocity, which would ignite more mitzvahs. If you’re an Orthodox Jew, for example, and your mission is to make Jews more observant, by acknowledging the mitzvah of a nonobservant Jew, you’d make it more likely that he’d repay the favor and open his heart to Shabbat, tefillin, kashrut, mikvah, etc.

In other words, by exchanging, we can all win. And in a true loving relationship, when real unity reigns, everybody wins — even God.

David Suissa is founder and CEO of Suissa Miller Advertising, and founder/editor of OLAM magazine and the activist site He can be reached

Haitian Songs

The following piece was written after a recent trip to Haiti, during which a delegation from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger was hosted by the Lambi Fund, one of MAZON’S longtime grantees.

It starts with a song. Soft at first, then louder, like slow rolling thunder, gentle harmonies that keep time with the clapping of hands.

Soon there will be time for serious talk — of politics, hard labor and the struggle to find food — but for now there is only the music.

Every Haitian man, woman and child knows this music, and during a recent trip to Haiti, I came to know it, too. I was there to visit several grass-roots organizations that help Haitians — most of them poor, many of them hungry — develop the skills they need to improve their everyday lives.

Haiti is a startling place. By all accounts is seems to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Driving around, I found a vast, barren wasteland, what you’d expect to find on a desolate moonscape or in some futuristic science fiction movie. Plagued by years of war, famine and political mismanagement, the country has been stripped of its natural resources, and with them its industry. Electricity is undependable, and running water an unheard of luxury. With mile after mile of nothing but rocky dirt road, Haiti seems like a place without hope, and certainly a place without a viable future.

And yet, five minutes into a conversation with a Haitian woman, I realized my first impression was wrong. I visited a grain mill in the center of the country, where local women bring their corn. In Haiti, women bear the brunt of the work burden. They are responsible for milling grain and working as vendors at local markets, while simultaneously tending to the needs of their families. The mill represents a significant improvement for the women who use it, and who previously had to walk great distances to process grain for family meals.

Despite their heavy loads, the women I met bubbled over with enthusiasm. These were not bitter, defeated women resigned to a life of poverty. In fact, the women — and the men — were decidedly upbeat. They recognized that they were poor but not powerless, and that systemic change would have to start with them.

Take Marie-Carmel. A 35-year-old mother of three, she understood what it would take to turn her fortunes around. When we were first introduced, she didn’t hesitate to make her views known.

"The politicians will do what they will," she said dismissively. Then she pointed to the mill and said, "This is my president. This is what I believe in."

In the face of extreme poverty, Haitians retain a tremendous sense of dignity. They may be dressing in rags caked with mud and clinging to machetes, but their children are spotless, wearing immaculate school uniforms and clutching battered books. Like parents all over the world, Haitian parents will sacrifice everything to give their kids a chance at a better life.

Several days into my trip, I drove through a torrential downpour to visit an agricultural site in a mountaintop village. After my visit, I climbed back into a rickety van with threadbare tires and began to descend the mountain, which was rapidly deteriorating into sludge. Several miles outside the village, the van sunk into the mud and was stuck. Within the hour, what seemed like the entire village had descended to help me. There was a sense among these people of the need for collective action, of getting around a problem and solving it. As I stood getting soaked, pushing the van out of the muck side by side Haitian men, women and children, I understood how poverty (unpaved roads, decrepit transportation) can be a physical obstacle to getting things done. But I also felt inspired by a sense of community and possibility.

For weeks leading up to my trip, I wondered what relevance all of this could have for the American Jewish community. For me, the question was more than academic, since I’ve dedicated the past several years of my life to raising funds from the Jewish community and distributing them to fight hunger in our country and around the world. How does Haiti affect Jews when it is a country with so few of us?

I found my answer in the faces of the Haitian men and women I was fortunate enough to meet. We are a people consumed by a vision of a more perfect world, and we are a people, many of us blessed with abundance, who can help build it. As Jews committed to tikkun olam, we send food to poverty stricken Haitians for the same reason we teach inner-city children to read and provide housing assistance for new immigrants in this country. We do it because we believe in kevod ha’beriyot, the respect due to every being. MAZON, the anti-hunger organization I head, was founded with this in mind, and shaped by the principle that Jews don’t discriminate.

Every meeting I attended in Haiti started with a song, and every song told a story. As I’ve replayed the lyrics in my head, I’ve become more convinced that the stories hold a lesson for us as Jews. It’s true that we have our own stories and songs. But ever since I’ve been back from Haiti, it’s struck me that it is the overlap, where our stories meet, where the real work gets done.

H. Eric Schockman is the executive
director of MAZON. For more information on MAZON, call (310) 442-0020 or visit

Hadassah Encourages Women to ‘Check Out’ Program

Janine McMillion was 29 when she married, entered her third year of law school and was diagnosed with breast
cancer. Today, the Huntington Beach resident is an employment lawyer, whose
survival story was the centerpiece of “Check It Out,” an early-detection
program for youth put on by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization.

The program was instigated by Adena Kaufman, 34, of Aliso
Viejo, compelled to action by the loss of a girlhood friend to breast cancer in
2001. “It’s made me grateful to be alive,” she said.

The December event for the Bureau of Jewish Education’s
TALIT students was the first presentation in Orange County by Hadassah, which
introduced the program in Texas a decade ago. About 90 girls and their mothers
attended the program at Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom. They received bags
stuffed with brochures, an anatomically correct breast model with simulated
lumps, instruction on self-examination and genetic risk factors.

“Nobody ever explained that to me before,” 15-year-old
Daniella Gruber told her mother, Roe, afterward.

“She got something out of it,” Gruber’s mother said.

Despite winning a $5,900 grant in December 2001 from the
Susan G. Komen Foundation to present the program free to 2,000 students,
Hadassah’s Long Beach-Orange County chapter has, so far, found few takers.

“We’ve had a difficult time getting into public schools,”
said Michelle Shahon, director of the 3,200-member Costa Mesa-based group, “If
you teach them good life habits early on, that’s the best method of early
detection,” she said.

Shahon intends to seek an extension of the grant and keep
knocking on doors.

Man as Creator

A woman who had taken fertility treatments became pregnant only to learn that she was carrying four embryos. Her doctors suggested multifetal pregnancy reduction, a process to eliminate some of the embryos so that the remaining ones would have a better chance of normal development. What does Jewish medical ethics advise her to do?

The above incident was one of the hypothetical scenarios put forth by Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who along with Dr. Judith Partnow Hyman, VBS congregant and psychotherapist, convened a panel of experts — a rabbi, a perinatologist and a medical ethicist — to discuss conception issues for the first of three Medical Ethics Beit Dein programs, "A Time To Be Born: The Creation of a New Life," examining modern medical issues from a Jewish perspective. (The second program, "Healing the Body, Soothing the Soul, The New Role of the Physician," took place on Nov. 21.)

Human beings are now called upon to make choices once considered "decisions that only God has the wisdom to make," Feinstein said. The series addresses the moral conflicts people face today as a result of advanced fertility technology.

Jews often face dilemmas surrounding conception because they generally marry and start families later in life, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a University of Judaism professor and panel member who serves as vice chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. This makes them more likely to need such procedures as fertility treatment or in vitro fertilization in order to conceive.

The instance of multiple fetuses has grown dramatically with increased use of reproductive technology. The more fetuses present in the womb, the less likely each is to survive, said panel member Dr. David Braun, regional director of perinatal care for Southern California Kaiser Permanente. Those that make it to birth are prone to experience serious long-term health problems. In addition, having multiple fetuses increases the mother’s chances of experiencing life-threatening complications. "Because of that, we tend to recommend seriously considering reduction of the pregnancy to fewer babies," Braun said.

If the parents’ goal of undergoing these procedures was to have a healthy baby, "very quickly one reaches the question: How can they not do multifetal pregnancy reduction?" said the panel’s third member, Dr. Neil Wenger, chair of the UCLA Medical Ethics Committee and a professor of medicine. At the same time, Wenger said, couples and their doctors should clarify their goals and values ahead of time, discussing the likelihood of multiple pregnancy and how it would be handled prior to facing the situation.

"In Jewish tradition, God owns our bodies," Dorff said. "We have them on loan for the duration of our lives and we have a responsibility to take care of [them]." This means we are forbidden from mutilating our bodies, and at the same time we are obligated to take action to save our own lives, even if it means sacrificing a part of our body.

Thus in the case of the multiple pregnancies, Dorff said, "It seems to me from a Jewish perspective [the mother] would have the requirement to reduce the number of fetuses in her womb in order to save her own life and health as well as the [remaining] fetuses. There are stages in coming into life and … in leaving life. Your halachic status depends upon what stage you’re in in that process." Our tradition, he said, does not recognize the fetuses as full-fledged human beings.

In vitro fertilization presents its own set of ethical challenges. Dorff pointed out that potentially there can be up to five individuals involved in the conception — the couple wanting the child, an egg donor, a sperm donor and a woman to carry the fetus to birth. (To which Feinstein commented, "Practically a minyan.")

More problematic is the issue of screening the embryos for gender, disease or — if it ever became possible — personality traits. Dorff said that because the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" is only fulfilled once a couple has both a boy and a girl, there may be religious grounds for allowing gender selection.

Wenger suggested looking at the broader picture. "There is something called a communal ethic, where each individual or couple has a responsibility to the rest of its social network." Selecting by gender could harm the community by ultimately swaying the population in one direction or another.

As for selecting for traits such as athletic ability or musical talent, Wenger said we have a responsibility "not to use science in such a way that our whim gets satisfied [at the expense of] society as a whole."

"Jewish tradition respects the power of human intellect and human imagination and human judgement," Feinstein said. "We’ve always been a pro-science community because we respect the power of human beings to make the right judgments."

The final program "A Time to Live, A Time To Die, Accepting the End of Life," will take place Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m at VBS, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, call (818) 530-4093.