Israeli ministry plows ahead with ‘world Jewry’ project, even as funding and future remain uncertain


With a budget reaching $300 million, it was conceived as a broad partnership between the Israeli government and leading Diaspora Jewish groups. Its goal: to create a stronger connection between global Jews and Israel.

But nearly two years after its launch was announced with much fanfare — and after a string of delays — the Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry has yet to get off the ground. Even as an Israeli government ministry moves forward with appointing its staff, two of the three bodies that once led the project are now distancing themselves from it, and funding remains uncertain.

“There’s been a lot of politics surrounding this initiative,” said Jay Ruderman, whose Ruderman Family Foundation focuses on strengthening Israel-Diaspora ties. “This initiative is talking about being around for the long term. The important question to ask is, who’s in charge? Who’s making the decisions? How open are they to learning about the Diaspora and treating them as equals?”

Inaugurated in November 2013, the initiative was conceived to fund Israel education and Jewish identity-building programs in Diaspora communities —  in camps, schools and on campus — and finance young Diaspora Jews coming on short- and long-term trips to Israel. The project hopes to replicate the success of Birthright Israel, the free 10-day trips to Israel that have drawn more than 500,000 participants, by building platforms for similar trips and programs that will make Diaspora youth feel closer to Israel.

But what has happened instead is a series of delays, caused in part by a war and last year’s election campaign, and further exacerbated by vague promises and a lack of concrete funding. When the project was approved in June 2014, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky predicted program proposals would begin to be issued within a month, but they have yet to materialize. Funders from the Diaspora, meant to provide a majority of the budget, have not yet committed to donating.

Israel’s Cabinet approved the project last year as a tripartite partnership: Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office would direct the initiative in concert with the Jewish Agency, which would represent major Diaspora organizations, and the Diaspora Ministry would manage the day-to-day operations.

The Cabinet voted to invest $50 million in the initiative by 2017 and a total of $100 million by 2022. The government wanted Diaspora sources — federations, philanthropic foundations and individual donors — to contribute double those sums for two-thirds of the initiative’s $300 million total budget.

But the initiative has yet to launch. A subsequent Cabinet decision in June, weeks after Israel’s new governing coalition formed, put the Diaspora Ministry in charge of the initiative’s policy and its operations — effectively removing the Prime Minister’s Office. In early August, the Jewish Agency quit the project, complaining in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it had been frozen out of the decision-making process.

“Until the program is returned to its original conception and direction, we no longer see this as the joint initiative between the Government of Israel and World Jewry and therefore can no longer see ourselves part of it,” Sharansky and his agency’s board chairman, Charles Ratner, wrote in the Aug. 6 letter. “This undertaking has transformed simply into a funding framework for programs to be conducted by a single government Ministry.”

The Diaspora Ministry says it has remained faithful to the initiative’s original goals and that it will begin funding programs across the Jewish world by early 2016. But a Diaspora Ministry official told JTA that the ministry will have exclusive final say over which programs are approved.

The ministry official said the funding will be allocated across the Jewish ideological spectrum. A steering committee appointed by the ministry includes a former Sheldon Adelson deputy, a Detroit federation executive, a Holocaust education activist and an Israeli philanthropist. The Jewish Agency has also been offered a seat on the committee.

“The professional staff will work together with federations, philanthropies,” the official said. “The initiative doesn’t look at denominations or political affiliations. It looks at platforms.”

However, the ministry official could not name any confirmed funders who have committed to matching the government’s budget for the project. And the umbrella Jewish communal organization in the United States, the Jewish Federations of North America, supports the Jewish Agency’s protest of the initiative.

“We are proud of the Jewish Agency’s ongoing effort to meet the needs of the Jewish people, and we support their strategy as they move forward with the Government of Israel’s initiative,” JFNA President Jerry Silverman said in a statement to JTA.

It isn’t even clear whether the Diaspora Ministry has Netanyahu’s support; a spokesman for the prime minister would not comment on the issue. And Netanyahu sent a letter to Sharansky and Ratner, the Jewish Agency chairs, weeks after their split with the Diaspora Ministry suggesting that he would like to continue working with them toward the initiative’s goals.

“The Jewish Agency is our historic and invaluable partner to this end” of strengthening Israel-Diaspora ties, Netanyahu wrote on Aug. 17. He added that he hopes to “expand our cooperation even further.”

Despite the conflicts and unknowns, the Diaspora Ministry is optimistic that the initiative will move forward. The ministry is hiring a professional staff to oversee it, housed in a government-funded nonprofit that manages the project. The official said the nonprofit would launch pilot programs within the next several months.

“There are a number of foundations and philanthropies who have already been in talks with the ministry,” the official said. “It’s good to be ambitious.”

Are Jews losing their story?


As we look back on the triumphs and failures of the past year, let’s reflect on one of the perennial shortfalls of the Jewish world — how we consistently overlook the importance of teaching the extraordinary story of the Jewish people. 

When I say “the story of the Jewish people,” I don’t mean biblical stories like Moses splitting the Red Sea or modern stories like the tragedy of the Holocaust or the miracle of Israel. Those are obviously important, and we hear about them often.

What I’m referring to instead are the fascinating stories of the “in-between” period — the 18 centuries of Diaspora history between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the beginning of the Holocaust. When’s the last time we heard any of those stories?

Seriously, where did those 1,869 years go? How did they become the big, black hole of mainstream Jewish learning? 

Try this test: Ask any bar or bat mitzvah kids if they know the story of their ancestors. Ask a Persian kid if she knows the epic story of Persian Jews. Do the same with Polish Jews, South African Jews, Moroccan Jews, German Jews, Iraqi Jews, Russian Jews and so on. Then ask the grownups the same question.

Chances are you’ll find that few Jews today know their own history. This shouldn’t surprise us. Compared to other items on the Jewish agenda, the story of pre-Holocaust Diaspora Jewry is simply not a priority.

This is a shame. As historian Deborah Lipstadt writes, “Those who do not know from whence they have come often have a hard time knowing where they are or where they are going.” Yes, we come from our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, but we also come from a long line of bubbes and zaydes.

It’s one thing to hear legendary stories about King David slaying Goliath during biblical times, but it’s quite another to hear about your great-great-grandfather David who studied kabbalah in Marrakesh.

The story of Diaspora Jewry is history with a family name — it’s a history we can feel and touch and own in a personal way. For too many Jews, though, it’s also a history full of mystery.

Where did our ancestors go after the trauma of losing the Second Temple? How did they split up? How did they forge a Jewish tradition without their holy Temple? 

Why did Maimonides study with Muslim philosophers? What ignited Reform Judaism? How did the Chasidic movement start, and why was it so vehemently opposed?

How did anti-Semitism come about and unfold over time? How did Jews adapt to their surroundings? 

Perhaps most important, how did Diaspora Jewry contribute to their adopted societies?

We’re always talking about building Jewish pride. What better way to do that than to teach our people the amazing Jewish contributions to humanity?

It’s sad to think that so few Jewish kids today are learning about the great Jewish scientists, artists, social activists, philosophers, musicians, rabbis, poets and writers who for centuries made such a mark on their world. 

Our Diaspora ancestors didn’t have the epic drama of our biblical heroes, or the tragic drama of Shoah victims, or the triumphant drama of Israeli pioneers. Maybe that’s why we’ve had a tendency to overlook them. But these ancestors are the resilient, unsung heroes who persevered and kept the Jewish flame alive for 18 long centuries.

Teaching our history need not conflict with teaching Jewish tradition or talmudic discourse. On the contrary, history provides a narrative context that enhances appreciation for that very tradition and discourse. History also enhances our humanity by shining an honest and candid light on our communal conflicts.

What about the critique that “history is boring”? Well, is it any more “boring” than any other subject? As historian and former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren once said to me, when you turn history into “story,” you make it a lot more interesting. Any Hollywood screenwriter will tell you that what makes the industry tick is the power of the story. We may be the people of the book, but are we not also the people of the stories?

It’s understandable that the horror of the Holocaust and the subsequent miracle of Israel have dominated our collective memory. If the Shoah represents the deepest darkness and Israel the brightest light, they both conspired to overshadow the formative journey that preceded them.

But, as much as the Holocaust and Israel are defining Jewish moments, they are the culmination of 18 eventful centuries that have shaped who we have become as a people, a nation and a culture.

We are blessed to be living in a generation where those 18 centuries of Jewish history can be felt right here in America, where Jews from around the world have gathered to create a phenomenal diversity. 

Just look around your own communities. See all the different countries and cultures that are represented, and imagine all the stories. How sad it would be to let those stories go. How great it would be to rescue them and share them with one another.

My wish for the New Year is that our schools, synagogues and outreach groups reignite the flame of Diaspora history. After all, how can we ask our people to continue the great Jewish journey if we skip over 1,869 incredible years?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Financial planning for a move to Israel


What I know about Israel comes from a variety of sources, including the news and commentary in this newspaper, countless books, my own experiences as a traveler to Israel, and the Facebook postings of my friends who live there. But the information and insights in “A Financial Guide to Aliyah and Life in Israel” by Baruch Labinsky (Mosaica Press, $19.99) filled in a great many gaps in my knowledge of the jewish homeland.

Labinsky is a financial planner and investment manager, and his book is intended for readers who are seriously considering — or who have already decided to make — a move to Israel. Much of the financial advice Labinsky offers is similar to what we might hear from a financial advisor in any country of the world.  But it also contains information for any reader interested in Israel, even if he or she has no intention of making aliyah.  Indeed, what I discovered in the pages of this book was fresh, surprising and illuminating.

The author acknowledges that there are many reasons a Jew in the Diaspora might choose to live in Israel — “religious beliefs, familial or culture ties,” among others — but he confines his book to single pointed query: “Can I afford to make Aliyah?” The practical issue becomes a lens through which to glimpse day-to-day life in Israel, a fascinating exercise even for those who are not yet packing up their possessions. It is also true, however, that Labinsky does not entirely ignore issue of faith: “Take things into your own hands,” he writes, “and with G-d’s help you can make it happen.” The point is made, by the way, in the playful illustrations by Menachem Jerenberg  — almost all of the men, women and children are shown wearing a kippah or a head-covering.

Mostly, however, Labinsky accounts for how financial issues can shape one’s experience of Israel.  Thus, for example, he discloses that “[a]ll Israeli citizens are entitled to join one of four health funds,” which cover basic medical services and offer supplementary insurance coverage.  However, not everything is covered, and if you arrive in Israel with a medical condition that requires medicines or treatments not covered by Israel’s socialized medical system, the lack of coverage may impose costs so high that they “can even undermine an entire Aliyah plan.”

He is also alert to the practical problems of daily life.  A new arrival in Israel “can get by with little or no Hebrew” in Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Efrat, he writes, but postponing the study of Hebrew may also make it difficult to “integrate professionally in Israel and attain financial stability.” 

There are many other important considerations: Putting a stop-payment on a check, he cautions, “is considered a crime,” and he recommends consulting an attorney before doing so. U.S. Social Security payments received in Israel are not taxed at all in Israel  but distributions from an IRA or a 401(k) account are taxable in both places (with a credit in the U.S. for taxes paid in Israel).  He urges olim to master one of the most ancient practices of the Levant: “Living in the Middle East requires Westerners to change their ‘fixed-price’ mentality and start negotiating on all purchases,” he advises. “Don’t be embarrassed – that’s the way Israel operates and no one will think any worse of you.”

Some cherished myths are shattered along the way. “A once highly desirable option for olim was to look for a kibbutz to join,” he explains. “In recent years, however, most kibbutzim have been privatized.  While kibbutz life still remains an option for some, the overwhelming number of olim aren’t interested in that lifestyle, and the options are far fewer with today’s kibbutzim.”

Other insights will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Israel as a tourist. “Consumers pay significantly more for goods and services than their counterparts in most other Western countries,” which means that American spending habits can be catastrophic to a family budget. “For example, the average Israeli family spends about NIS 2,200 [about $625] a month on food,” he writes. “The average large Anglo family, when it comes to Israel, spends at least twice to three times that amount.”

Above all, however, the author insists that financial decisions are not purely a matter of dollars and cents. Holding onto one’s home back in the United States, for example, may be a prudent step for a new arrival to take, but Labinsky points out that it may weaken the resolve that is necessary for a successful aliyah: “Sometimes having an easy fallback plan prevents people from giving the Aliyah experience a real try,” he writes. “Psychology can play a tremendous part in whether or not Aliyah is successful.”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

On Israeli religious reforms, Naftali Bennett still figuring out road map


Naftali Bennett doesn’t like to waste time.

In the eight months since he took over three Israeli ministries — religious services, economy, and Diaspora and Jerusalem affairs — Bennett has pushed through legislation to give Israeli couples more freedom in choosing which rabbi officiates at their wedding, worked with coalition partner Yair Lapid to lop $11 billion off Israel’s budget and fast-tracked a resolution to the showdown over women’s prayer at the Western Wall.

On this last achievement, Bennett managed an end run around the debate over a controversial compromise proposal by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky by ordering the construction of a platform for egalitarian services adjacent to Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at the southern edge of the wall.

“The guy came and said, ‘Well, let’s bring it to government for approval.’ I said, ‘No, just go build the thing,’” Bennett recalled. “Within six days it was up and now we have an egalitarian pluralistic plaza. Everyone can go, no questions asked.”

But on some of the other issues considered crucial to American Jewish advocates of religious pluralism in Israel — establishing civil marriage, granting state salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis, and recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions — don’t expect Bennett to rush into things, if at all.

“When you talk about marriage, when you talk about conversion, it’s much more sensitive,” Bennett told JTA. “I do want to set expectations: I won’t go all the way. It’s going to be a fine line of balancing everyone’s positions. These are very, very delicate issues. It’s going to be a very slow process.”

In a wide-ranging interview last Friday at JTA’s offices in New York, Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, talked about his plans for religious reforms, what sort of Iran deal Israel might be willing to accept and how Israel’s “startup nation” ethos could be extended into good works projects overseas.

He also described how his approach to religious pluralism was influenced by his personal experience. The Israel-born son of American immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett, who is Modern Orthodox, moved to New York in 2000 shortly after marrying his “totally secular” Israeli wife, Gilat. It was in Manhattan that Gilat first began attending synagogue — a beginner’s service at Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side.

“We had to fly to New York from Israel for my wife to get closer to Judaism,” Bennett said.

“Here’s an area that I think Israel can learn a lot from American Jews. This no-questions-asked approach — I loved it,” he said. “I want to import it, albeit cautiously.”

Bennett says his approach to religious reforms is governed by three considerations: The changes must be good for Israel, done in discussion with the relevant constituencies and cannot contravene Jewish law, or halachah. Some Orthodox rabbis merely enabling egalitarian prayer, as Bennett did by building the Kotel platform, violates halachah. Bennett said he’s still figuring out where his red lines are.

“Any move by any Jew that gets him closer to Judaism, to our heritage, is a good thing,” Bennett said. “At the same time, there is a value — notwithstanding the disagreements — there is a value of having, on an official level, let’s say, lines that we don’t cross.”

It’s not clear how much wiggle room that leaves Bennett on such issues as non-Orthodox conversions or Conservative and Reform weddings that do not conform to halachah. He has made clear he opposes civil marriage legislation, though he says he wants to find some kind of solution for couples who have no ability to marry under Israeli law, such as interfaith couples.

“This is perhaps one of the most sensitive issues that we’re only starting to learn and map out what we can do,” he said. “What we don’t want to do certainly is encourage couples that can get married according to halachah and encourage them to get married in a different way.”

Bennett said he met for the first time two weeks ago with coalition partners Lapid, Tzipi Livni of the Hatnua party and Avigdor Liberman of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu to discuss areas in which they can push religious reforms. Bennett already is promoting a bill that as with marriage, would make it easier for Israeli non-Jews to convert to Judaism by enabling them to choose any rabbinical court in the country for their conversion.

Though he leads Israel’s fourth-largest political party, Bennett is a relative newcomer to the Israeli political scene. Following his army service in the elite Israeli Defense Forces unit Sayeret Matkal and law school, Bennett became a successful software entrepreneur. The technology company he founded in his 20s, Cyota, was sold for $145 million when Bennett was 33.

Bennett said his combat experience during the Second Lebanon War of 2006 changed his career trajectory, propelling him into politics. He worked as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff for a couple of years, returned to the world of technology to run another company (Soluto, which was sold two weeks ago for approximately $100 million), led the Yesha Council of Israeli settlers and decided to run for the Knesset.

Stunning the Israeli political establishment with his meteoric rise, Bennett transformed what had been a moribund political party — the National Religious Party, which held three Knesset seats — into Jewish Home, which captured 12 seats in last January’s elections.

Bennett quickly formed an alliance with Lapid, the other rising star in Israeli politics, whose newly founded Yesh Atid party captured 19 Knesset seats. Together the two forced their way into Netanyahu’s coalition government, sidelining the haredi Orthodox parties, which were left in the opposition for the first time in years.

“This was a tactical alliance, but it grew into something that today is more profound,” Bennett said of his relationship with Lapid, who is now finance minister. On their work together cutting Israel’s budget, Bennett said he and Lapid jumped off the proverbial cliff together, like “Thelma and Louise.”

Bennett says economic issues occupy 60 percent of his time, with the balance divided between his other two ministerial portfolios, being a member of the inner security Cabinet, politics and life. Bennett, 41, has four children under the age of 10.

One of his main economic projects is getting haredi Orthodox Israelis to work. Bennett is promoting a bill that would grant a four-year reprieve from the military draft to 50,000 haredi Israelis if they enter the workforce. He wants to complement this with a $142 million program to train the haredim for the labor market, incentivize them to work and employers to hire them.

Bennett wants to do something similar for Israeli-Arab women, who have relatively low participation rates in the labor force.

Though Bennett maintains a hard line on Palestinian issues — he opposes Palestinian statehood — he says it hasn’t really come up much. Few in the current Israeli government seem to believe the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will bear significant fruit.

The primary regional issue that preoccupies Bennett is Iran. He spent part of last week in Washington lobbying U.S. lawmakers against easing sanctions pressure on Tehran during the current negotiations, arguing that only economic pressure will prompt the mullahs to agree to a deal.

“We need to create an either-or situation,” Bennett said. “Either you have an economy or you have a nuclear program.”

He also praised the Obama administration for being a “very good friend of Israel” and hailed what he called a “quality leap in defense ties” between the two countries.

But what Bennett seems most excited about is what he views as a historic opportunity for the current Israeli government to tackle domestic issues.

“I call it the 70-70 rule: Seventy percent of Israelis agree on 70 percent of the issues, but we spend most of our time on the 30 percent,” he said. “So this time no, we’ll do the 70 thing.”

List of acceptable Diaspora rabbis does not exist, Chief Rabbinate says


Israel’s Chief Rabbinate said it does not have a list of Diaspora rabbis whose testimony it accepts on clarifying one’s Jewish or marital status.

Responding to a request made in September by the Tzohar rabbinical organization to see such a list, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate told The Jerusalem Post that “no list exists either hidden or public.”

According to the report, which appeared Monday, the spokesman said every request made for clarification of Jewish and marital status “is examined individually and thoroughly.”

Tzohar says an increasing number of Jewish couples from North America have had difficulty  in registering upcoming marriages with the Chief Rabbinate because the testimony of their communal rabbis was not recognized.

It had made its request under the freedom of information law, The Jerusalem Post reported after seeing the request. The request was filed on Sept. 12; the Chief Rabbinate was required to respond in 30 days.

Tzohar Chairman Rabbi David Stav told the newspaper that he recently met with Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi David Lau to discuss the issue.

The Chief Rabbinate spokesman told the Post that for a Diaspora rabbi’s criteria to be accepted, he must be ordained by a recognized Orthodox Jewish institution; he and his community must live according to Orthodox Judaism; and he must have the appropriate skills and knowledge to sign such a document.

The spokesman said the number of rabbis currently being rejected is consistent with previous years.

Meanwhile, the Knesset Caucus on Religion and State is scheduled to hold a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of letters certifying the Jewishness of immigrants to Israel by North American Orthodox rabbis.

The hearing comes after a request by the ITIM organization, an Israeli advocacy group that helps Jewish Israelis obtain services for life-cycle events, that the rabbinate be required to clarify what it takes for a rabbi’s testimony to be recognized.

In a letter sent to the chief rabbis last week, ITIM called for a clear policy relating to who can certify someone’s Jewishness.

“We believe that the rabbinate should recognize Orthodox rabbis who come from established institutions,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM. “It is an outrage that rabbis are being rejected based on individuals merits or demerits.”

Under a proposal floated by ITIM, institutions that have existed for more than 10 years with more than 50 members would have their members automatically accepted by the rabbinate.  The proposal also includes mechanisms that prevent abuses.

ITIM made the proposal in the wake of the rejection by the Chief Rabbinate of a letter vouching for the Jewishness of an American couple marrying in Israel written by well-known U.S. Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Temple Mount closed to Jewish visitors


Jerusalem Police closed the Temple Mount to Jewish visitors based on intelligence that Palestinians planned to cause disturbances there.

Tuesday’s closure, during the festival of Sukkot when tens of thousands of Israeli and Diaspora Jews visit Jerusalem, came after police received the  information about the potential unrest, according to reports.

Thousands already have visited the site during the weeklong holiday. Jews are not permitted to pray there. The site has limited visiting hours.

Last week at the start of the holiday, two Israeli police officers were injured at the site when dozens of Arab youths threw rocks at police and visitors. The Islamic Movement in Israel has called on its supporters to riot at the Temple Mount.

The closure forced the cancellation of a visit by hundreds of Jewish children and teens as part of an annual educational event sponsored by the Women for the Holy Temple Organization. The visit had been coordinated with police.

Knesset member Shuli Muallem of the Jewish Home party also had coordinated a visit for Tuesday.

On Monday, Temple Mount activist Michael Fuah was arrested for performing a Sukkot ritual — shaking a lulav and etrog — at the site.

Is Sharansky the only one who doesn’t want confrontation at the Western Wall?


In the last two years, the Western Wall in Jerusalem — also known as the Kotel — has become a place of controversy as much as of worship. It’s the site of a battle that has long been waged by a group called Women of the Wall, who are demanding they be able to pray in the women’s section wearing tallits — Jewish prayer shawls — and also be permitted to read from the Torah, rights that the rabbi of the Kotel, backed by the police, wouldn’t give them. 

Suddenly, however, the battle has peaked with the assistance of North American Jewry. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hearing reports that this issue was becoming highly disruptive in Israel-Diaspora relations, asked Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, to find a solution. About a month ago, Sharansky presented to Jewish leaders a solution that goes well beyond the issue of Women of the Wall. It proposes that the Jewish people take back control of the Kotel, removing power over it from the rabbinate in order to make it a place where all Jews feel comfortable. Sharansky proposed adding a third section, a place where Jews of non-Orthodox practice could pray near the Kotel as they please. 

The proposal was initially well received and seemed to be on the right track. It was, that is, until an Israeli court highly complicated things by ruling against the authority of the rabbinate, thereby turning attention away from the long-term compromise and reigniting the battle over whether women activists can wear tallits in the women’s section.

A climactic moment in this controversy was deflated by the rough humor of the big-mouthed Knesset Member Miri Regev (Likud), the head of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, having just ended a short speech before the committee during its discussion on the Kotel, pulled a tallit from her bag and wrapped it around her shoulders. This was no big surprise: Hoffman has always been somewhat theatrical in her presentations. Her opponents attribute such behavior to her desire for public attention — her supporters say drawing such attention is the only way forward to winning her cause, which they believe she is on the verge of achieving.

[Translation of Women of the Wall Jerusalem District Court decision]

That day at the Knesset, though, Hoffman came up against an opponent as capable of grandiose gestures as she is. Regev, head of the committee and not an avid supporter of Women of the Wall — she’s traditional and close to the Orthodox establishment — flatly demanded that Hoffman take off the tallit. The Knesset, Regev said, isn’t a place for shows. Hoffman treated this demand as an insult. Can I not get into the Knesset with a tallit? she asked. Regev refused to play this game of indignation. “Yesterday,” she said, cutting short the discussion, “a group of greengrocers was here, and they weren’t allowed in with their cucumbers either.”

A month and a half have passed since Sharansky presented the outline of his proposal for compromise to Jewish leaders in New York and got a nod of approval. A couple of days later, traveling with Netanyahu to London, he got another nod of approval, and he moved to the planning stages of the process in meetings with Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser and with National Security Council Adviser Yaakov Amidror. Sharansky’s compromise was moving forward when the judge’s ruling caught its architects by surprise, threatening now to overturn their hope of compromise.

It was a classic case of government folly where everybody is merely doing their job, no one is really at fault, and yet the outcome was unfortunate. On April 11, police detained five Women of the Wall activists — just as it used to do whenever women were caught with a loaded tallit at the Kotel. That same afternoon, the detainees were in court and then released by a judge who couldn’t find any reasonable justification for the arrest. 

The government — sensing a blow to any future similar arrests, and hence to its long-standing position that women can only pray at the Kotel if they abide by the rules set by the rabbi of the Kotel — decided to appeal. Bad mistake: This led to the second decision, by a district court, this time officially repealing Israel’s policy at the Kotel. The Women of the Wall, the judge ruled, can pray there as they wish and the state has no business dictating strict Orthodox custom in the women’s section. Thus, the government lost twice: It not only lost the appeal and its self-proclaimed mandate to manage prayers at the Kotel, but it also lost the path to compromise as the new rule made the implementation of Sharansky’s plan much more complicated, hence reducing the chances of what seems the only solution that could put an end to the ongoing friction.

This was evident in the second Knesset discussion, at which Sharansky himself was invited to speak. He believes a solution to the problem can’t be found at the courts or by attempting to win the case through legislation. But many others seem to have other beliefs. Some are like Hoffman, who feel they are winning without having to compromise. Others are like the Charedi members of Knesset — too angry to listen and in a vindictive mood. On Monday, in a meeting at the Rabbinate Council, Sharansky heard from the rabbis that the Kotel is a red line. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar explained to his guest that Hoffman achieved something remarkable by unifying the Charedi camp. Or, as Amar preferred to describe it at the meeting: “She unified the Israeli society.” 

Sharansky’s plan includes building a new platform at the southern side of the Mughrabi Gate that will serve as a third area for prayer near the Kotel. There, people would be able to pray as they wish, men and women together, Reform and Conservative. In the meeting with the rabbis, the speakers were weary of the objections: Israelis, one of them warned, might actually prefer having the third section. In the rabbinate’s dictionary, giving the public a choice is dangerous. Thus, the rabbis don’t yet approve of the plan and are waiting to hear from the Ministry of Religious Services as to what concessions and guarantees might be extracted from its dialogue with Women of the Wall leadership in exchange for such a section.

Anat

 Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, wearing a tallit at the Western Wall, is detained by Israeli police.

Last Sunday afternoon, I called Hoffman in Kansas City, where she was visiting, and found her in no mood for either concessions or guarantees. In recent weeks, Hoffman has changed her tone a little bit, moving from fully supporting the Sharansky plan to fully supporting the “process.” At the Knesset she said she was too busy worrying about “now” to be able to support “an imaginary scenario.” On Sunday, she was even clearer: “I will not commit to a plan on paper.” A veteran of many battles, Hoffman is scarred by unfulfilled promises and unmet commitments. Of course, she wants “a negotiated solution” and “to avoid confrontation,” but right now, with the court on her side, she has little reason to jump onto the compromise train.

Sharansky’s plan, meanwhile, is slowly moving forward according to the schedule he laid out at a Knesset committee meeting. There are licenses to get, plans to finalize, negotiations to conduct. In two weeks’ time, he will have another meeting with the Jewish leadership to whom he initially presented the plan, and they will discover that advances have been made. 

Thinking about the way forward, Sharansky had two obvious obstacles to overcome: first was the archeologists, who voiced vehement opposition to a plan that would put their findings of ancient Jerusalem under the roof of the new platform. At the Knesset meeting, they went as far as threatening Sharansky that they will turn to United Nations’ agencies to put pressure on Israel until it abandons its plan. But talks with them in recent weeks give reason for hope that theirs is a manageable problem. A second possible opposition might stem from sensitivity toward any new construction by Israel in the Holy Basin. Even some proponents of the Sharansky plan wonder whether it can overcome possible objections from Jordanian and Palestinian authorities. In government circles, there was some debate whether Israel should talk to the Jordanians in advance, or whether it would be easier for both sides if Israel doesn’t corner the Jordanians into having to spell out a position on this matter.

These difficulties may be serious, but they pale in comparison to the real threat for the Sharansky plan: that his plan will be deemed extraneous within the Jewish world in light of the court’s decisions. At least in the short term, until everybody comes back to their senses. 

Just as Women of the Wall and some of its allies have altered their postures and are focusing on their post-court-ruling tactics, the Orthodox camp has also toughened its language since the ruling. “Along with the Chief Rabbinate and other great rabbis, we must examine if we should oppose the proposal referring to Robinson’s Arch,” Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Kotel, said in a statement. Rabinowitz is a slick and well-connected operator — last week he was the rabbi presiding over the much talked-about wedding of Interior Minister Gideon Saar and celebrity TV anchor Geula Even. For him to reconsider his support of Sharansky is probably a calculated move: He does it because he sees more battles ahead.

Sadly, Rabinowitz is probably correct in this assessment. When it comes to religious affairs, the Jews love the battle more than the compromise and seem ready to keep it going. Knesset Member Yitzhak Herzog, the former minister and cabinet secretary, who was intensely involved in the first Kotel compromise (when the Robinson’s Arch area was first cleared for limited religious use about a decade ago), warns that “those who want an uncompromising legal solution to the problem will only lead to unnecessary confrontation.” Alas, Sharansky seems to be the last man standing who doesn’t want confrontation.

On May 10, Rosh Chodesh Sivan (the first day of the month of Sivan), and following a decision by the attorney general not to appeal the court ruling, women were allowed to pray at the Kotel for the first time without the threat of arrest by police. Of course, this didn’t mean a calm and peaceful prayer. Charedi rabbis — and even some Zionist-Orthodox rabbis — sent thousands of Charedi men and women to protest against the new rules and against the praying women. The protest was, at times, violent and ugly. And the battle became uglier still this week, with a vandal’s painting of graffiti reading “Women of the Wall are scum” and “Jerusalem is holy” on the home of Women of the Wall member Peggy Sidor. 

Some of the rabbis, asked for their interpretation, privately say that the current turmoil is all the fault of the court: “The judge essentially told us that the only way for us to prevent this provocation [Women of the Wall prayer] is to be aggressive,” one of them told me. So, aggressive they intend to be. June 6 will be the next Rosh Chodesh prayer service on the Women of the Wall calendar, and rumors started spreading this week that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, might attend in person, making the June confrontation much more volatile than last month’s — as he will not be coming alone. 

If this battle was only about Women of the Wall’s original goal of praying once a month wearing a tallit in the women’s section, some of the rabbis might have caved by now. “A couple of women coming to the Kotel from time to time with a tallit” is no big deal, one rabbi told me. However, they look at Hoffman and don’t really believe that this is her true endgame. They see in her a determination to keep pushing the envelope. The ultimate goal of Women of the Wall, as an official background document states, is to “enable freedom of religion and freedom of observance for all in the Western Wall.” The meaning of “freedom” and “for all” is open to interpretation, and the Orthodox don’t much trust either Hoffman or the courts to have the interpretive power over such matters.

In fact, the Sharansky compromise is also about much more than Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer. It is about having a Kotel that serves Jews of all stripes and denominations, a Kotel where any Jew can pray, or just visit, without being compelled to abide by rules of Charedi making. Sharansky has an ambitious goal for which he needs partners. But those partners, despite their faith in Sharansky, have little faith in one another, and apparently no one has yet reached the point of battle fatigue.

The women don’t trust the government and see the court victory as a sign that compromise might not be necessary. The Orthodox don’t trust the women and don’t yet understand that Israeli society is changing and is losing patience with Orthodox monopolies. The government doesn’t trust the progressive movements, and suspects — not without reason — that ending the friction at the Kotel would prove to be the beginning of some other conflict somewhere else. The progressive movements don’t trust the Orthodox or the government — and why would they, after so many years of condescending marginalization? 

Thus, as someone jokingly said in a recent meeting with Reform and Conservative leaders, when it comes to the Kotel compromise, “They all behave like Palestinians.” Namely, they would all reject a good compromise in the hope that someday they can have it all. Of course, such an approach could also end in losing it all.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Historical experiences and perception


Brief synopsis: The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be that after 65 years of violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, directly impacting every conflicting issue is the broader psychological dimension of the conflict, which makes it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the conflict, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and how to alleviate them as prerequisites to finding a solution. This is the second of six articles; click here for the first article.

Underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the scars that each side carries from their respective traumatic pasts. Their perceptions of each other were engendered by their independent religious traditions as well as their historical experiences as they related to one another. Unfolding events – violence, mutual recrimination etc. – between Israelis and Palestinians over the past seven decades, however, have made it virtually impossible for them to settle their differences. Maintaining an adversarial mindset toward each other has thus provided the justification and rationale to perpetuate their historical grievances through constant rancorous public narratives, placing the blame for the continuing discord on the other.

The Jewish experience throughout the Diaspora was one filled with discrimination, persecution, anti-Semitism, and expulsion culminating in the Holocaust. The genocide perpetrated during the Holocaust was surely something new in history: never before had a powerful state turned its immense resources to the industrialized manufacturing of corpses; never before had the extermination of an entire people been carried out with the swiftness of an assembly-line. The fact that many Jews were prevented from avoiding death camps by immigrating to Palestine added yet another layer to the horrific experiences of the Jewish people. The Jews have carried the scars of this past with them and still hold to the view that it can happen again unless they remain vigilant and relentless in protecting themselves at any cost. With this past in mind, the establishment of the state of Israel was seen not only as the last refuge to provide protection for the Jewish people but also the realization and hope of both secular Zionism and biblical prophecy (i.e. the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland). Thus, religious and non-observant Jews believe this trust must be guarded with absolute and unwavering zeal.

Yet, this historical sense of victimization and injustice has served to nurture the allegiance that each Israeli feels towards the state and each other with naturally-engendered, negative emotional sentiments towards the enemy. From the Israeli perspective, the establishment of Israel on the heels of the Holocaust was seen (and continues to be viewed) as the last chance to create a refuge; they must therefore remain on guard to protect Jews’ welfare and wellbeing wherever they may live and at whatever cost. This sense of being victimized resulted from an intentional infliction of harm in the past, universally viewed as utterly unjust and immoral. Yet, it has led to a lack of empathy towards perceived enemies; for example, it manifested itself in Israel shirking responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and violating human rights, all the while promoting self-righteousness.

Compounded, these conditions inherently endure, particularly when accompanied by extensive and continuing violence against Israel and growing concerns over national security. They are further strengthened by the Palestinians’ public narrative, which openly promotes the rejection of the very existence of the state. The Palestinians, for their part, have hardly made any serious effort to comprehend and appreciate the psychological implications of the Jews’ historical experience of religious persecution. Instead of understanding the Israeli mindset that was formed by the horrific past, the Palestinians have either denied the Holocaust altogether, or bemoaned that it did happen. It is not that the Palestinians should be held responsible for the Jews’ historic tragedy, but they failed at a minimum to appreciate the Israelis’ mindset in effectively dealing with the conflict.

For the Palestinians, the experience of the Nakba (the catastrophe), precipitated by the 1948 war, was no less calamitous. From their perspective, they were living in their own land, albeit for centuries under Ottoman rule and then under British Mandatory authority. They are absolutely convinced that during the 1948 war they were forced out of their homes by Israelis (in fact, many were encouraged to leave by their Arab brethren and return “following the defeat of Israel” for the spoil.)

Either way, over 700,000 Palestinians found themselves as refugees, an experience that has lasted for decades and continues to endure, leaving an indelible impression on their psyche; currently, nearly 5 million Palestinian are refugees. This traumatic experience served to bind Palestinians together in the same way that the Jews coalesced following the Holocaust, with each side believing their tragic historical experiences are unparalleled in scope and magnitude. The fact that the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian refugee problem over many decades to their advantage does not change the reality on the ground; it did not alter the Palestinians’ mindset, their perception of what the Israelis have done, or their sentiment and disposition about their plight.

Subsequent and frequent violent encounters between the two sides, especially after the 1967 war, further aggravated the Palestinian refugee problem. This war not only created another wave of refugees, but also set the stage for a bloody confrontation, during which many thousands lost their lives on both sides. The Israeli settlement project provided daily blows to Palestinian pride while demonstrating the futility of their efforts to stem Israeli encroachment on their territory, especially in the West Bank. The occupation and the repeated humiliation of the Palestinians further deepened their resolve to oppose the Israelis at whatever cost, but all was to no avail. The Israelis have proven to be a formidable foe and the Palestinians’ resentment, hatred and animosity have naturally only increased.

Israelis have never fully understood the significance of what the Palestinians have been enduring, how this has impacted their psychological dispositions, and why they have shown no desire to reconcile their differences with Israel. Israelis often argue that since nearly 800,000 Jews left their homes (or as many believe, were forced out) across the Arab Middle East and North Africa and largely settled in Israel, the Palestinian refugees must be considered a de-facto swap with the Jewish refugees. This view not only dismisses the historic trauma experienced by the Palestinians, but also disregards their national aspirations to establish a homeland of their own, especially in light of the 1947 UN resolution (known as the Partition Plan) which called for separate Jewish and Palestinian states. This psychological fixation, reinforced by public narratives and education in schools, has prevented either side from coming to grips with the inevitability of peaceful coexistence.

Understanding the Israeli and the Palestinian mindsets from the historical perspective is central to appreciating their respective resistances to change, which is detrimentally empowered by their historical experiences, especially if they continue to harbor political agendas that overshoot what they can realistically attain. That is, will their historical experiences, bequeathing a sense of mutual victimhood, be mitigated by the changing reality, or will they hold onto it until they achieve their objectives, however illusionary they may be? Indeed, do the Jewish people’s and the Palestinians’ unprecedented historical suffering – although they do not fall into the same category – somehow ontologically elevate them from “victims” to “Victims,” guaranteeing them, and by extension contemporary Israelis and Palestinians, an unconditional status of moral untouchability?

The French philosopher Alain Badiou is right to suggest that we need to question the presumption “that, like an inverted original sin, the grace of having been an incomparable victim can be passed down not only to descendants and to the descendants of descendants but to all who come under the predicate in question, be they heads of state or armies engaging in the severe oppression of those whose lands they have confiscated” (Polemics, 2012). Indeed, the victim mentality has become a political tool in the hands of those who seek to promote their interests at the expense of the opposing political parties, not to mention the enemy.

The Palestinian culture of victimhood, on the other hand, was equally divisive in that it perpetuates the refugee problem by promoting popular refusal of permanent resettlement. Palestinian leaders have also used it as a tool for public indoctrination, ensuring that the Palestinian plight remains central to any political and social discourse. Palestinians and their leaders have carefully and systematically ingrained their victim mentality in the minds of one generation after another through the media, schools and places of worship.

Israelis and Palestinians alike (especially those who, like Hamas, seek the destruction of Israel) must become more self-critical in their use of victimhood; both sides need to realize that neither has a monopoly on the position of “the victim,” and neither is granted a morally unimpeachable status as a consequence of their historical experiences or the shifting realities on the ground. The effect of adverse historical interaction, however, can be mitigated over time or reconciled through dialogue, eventually leading to changes in perception.

Notwithstanding their traumatic historical experiences, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can or should use history to foreshadow the present requirements to make peace. Historical experiences can be both instructive and destructive; a student of history must learn from past experiences but not emulate them and thus obscure a contemporary reality that can no longer be mitigated short of a catastrophe, in particular Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. The Palestinians have every right to demand the immediate end to the occupation and live with dignity; Israel has equal rights to satisfy its legitimate national security concerns. These two requirements are absolutely compatible and provide the only basis on which to build a structure of peaceful coexistence.

Without denying the Jews’ and Palestinians’ sense of victimhood, perpetuating their conflict ironically creates new generations of victims, robbing them of their future only because their elders want to cling to the past.


Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

David Hartman remembered: A voice that was freed – and now is silence


Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before he made a monumental contribution to Jewish life and a significant contribution to Jewish thought.

Best known for his pioneering work as founder of  the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is a innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for  teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both Rabbinic and lay. It all its program, and especially within teacher training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition and its many texts to students often alienated  from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone David Hartman must be revered.

Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted to most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.

For most of his career he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the preeminent of Jewish 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history; Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until… until he could no longer defend it.

As he approached 80 and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice that accepted some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of no-Jews whom he encountered and knew well and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious world view. Unlike Haredi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world, unlike Modern Orthodoxy that seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith,  and unlike Conservative Judaism did not make history paramount and push the halakhic world view to the side.  A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.

He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements yet deeply regret his untimely passing for there was much that he left unsaid, one he was free to speak out.

Hartman’s personal journey is significant, a product of Brownsville, Brooklyn when it was the second largest Jewish community in New York and also in the United States, he began his studies in the Haredi world, learning in Lakewood, New Jersey, which was then a small but growing Yeshiva. He then moved to Yeshiva University when he encountered the Rav and his marvelous example of religious studies and secular thought. The Rav was immersed in the world of Jewish texts, at home in the spiritual struggle with the religious experience that gave rise to these texts and their understanding of God, religious law and humanity and he was masterfully knowledgeable of the major philosophical traditions – classical and modern – that underscored religious thought.

It was he who advised Hartman to study philosophy with the Jesuits at Fordham University and thus to encounter classical philosophy, Roman Catholic theology – and secular thought – through the eyes of believing Catholics who engaged these text and their own faith. He went to Israel in the euphoria of the post 1967 excitement and could not quite fit in to Israeli institution. Religious institutions were narrow, the secular university was often equally parochial in a rather different way. A believing Zionist, he founded his own institution that gave voice to the issues on the top of his agenda and became a meeting place for secular Jews wanting to encounter Jewish texts and for religious scholars willing and able to engage secular thought.

In his last two books, Hartman has come clean. As he approached 80 and in failing health, with his achievements there is little reason to hold back. He spoke in his own voice and in his own name, struggling to make sense of the world in which he lived.  He was emotionally bound to the world of his youth, the Orthodoxy that reared him to a love of Torah and a passion for halakhah and yet he was a denizen of two worlds not one. He has engaged and accepted the categories of modernity, its engagement with ideas of equality, empowerment and engagement and its moral understanding of freedom. Unlike contemporary his master, the Rav, who was fortified and insulated in his encounter with modernity by an unchanging halakhah that was a historical and who could thus encounter modernity and its value system believing in the unchanging categories that established the framework of the world he encountered and unlike some in contemporary Orthodoxy who reject the modern world in its entirely and build a religious tradition that is oppositional and unlike some in contemporary so called modern Orthodoxy who want to live in a bifurcated world, a modernity untouched by their religious faith and a religious tradition untainted by modernity, Hartman was seeking a synthetic religious life; not a patchwork of dissident notions but an integrated religious tradition, embracing halakah and also engaging and being influenced by modernitry.

He knew and readily admits in the introduction to his work that others might then call him a Conservative Jew, but that was not who he was or where he wanted to go even though he wrestles with the poetic neo-Orthodoxy of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the religious sociology of Mordecai Kaplan, Yet the more he wrestles with these contemporary issues, the more he takes seriously the need to change in response, the more his situation resembles the religious circumstances of those who gave rise to Conservative Judaism passionately loving the tradition,   yet finding that the more they engaged the modern ethos the greater the tension with their faith of origin and their own sense that halakhah could actually accommodate modernity without an openness to change and a willingness to change.

Others will have to carry out that task. They could not do better than to use Hartman as their guide.

Taglit-Birthright Israel roundup


Since its inaugural trip in the winter of 2000, more than 340,000 participants ages 18-26 have traveled to Israel for the first time through Taglit-Birthright Israel. The 10-day excursions have attracted people from 62 countries, bringing together Jews from virtually every cultural and socio-economic background in the Diaspora. To fit the growing demands of such an eclectic cross section of participants, Taglit-Birthright also offers a host of niche trips, including theme and topic-focused programs (think LGBTQ, musicians, finance) and ones catering to those with special needs (there are programs for the hearing impaired, the physically disabled and those with developmental challenges). And if 10 days isn’t long enough, participants can extend their stay in Israel, choosing from a variety of four-day extension trips ranging from the adventurous to the relaxing, or a combination of both. 

Jewish people “come in all sorts of shapes, colors, personalities and backgrounds,” said Traci Szymanski, Taglit-Birthright alumna and former Oranim Educational Initiatives executive. “It is important for Birthright to accommodate young Jews from all facets of life. They have done a great job at partnering with a diversity of organizations to make sure that there is something for everyone.” 

Registration for Birthright trips from the United States and Canada for spring and summer 2013 begins at 10 a.m. EST on Feb. 13.
Past applicants can access early registration at noon EST on Feb. 11. For more information or to register, visit birthrightisrael.com.

The following is a sampling of some specialized Taglit-Birthright trips: 

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles expects to send 360 young Angelenos to Israel on nine trips through a number of different organizers, according to Michael Gropper, program director for Birthright at Federation.

Foremost is their flagship, 10-day program that includes visits to Masada, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. In addition, Federation this year is organizing “Recovering Israel,” in partnership with Beit T’Shuvah, targeting Jews in addiction recovery and those who want to live in a drug- and alcohol-free environment.

Another program, “L.A. LGBT & Ally” is designed for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths, along with their friends and families. There is a trip focused on the outdoors, and “LA 2 Israel — Persian Style” is geared toward the local Persian community.

Information: 323-761-8186 or mgropper@jewishla.org.

Shorashim

This trip caters to those who want to travel with Israelis for the entire 10-day trip (rather than just part of the time like many of the other programs). Shorashim staff members program alumni with several years of leadership experience who are committed to a pluralistic Jewish experience. Shorashim reaches out to all Jews, from secular to observant. Participants teach each other about Jewish life and culture in Israel and the United States. israelwithisraelis.com.

 

Crohn’s and IBD Birthright Trip

Organized by Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), the trip is intended to provide an experience that counteracts the feelings of insecurity among many young adults with Crohn’s and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). In addition to being provided with emotional support, participants stay two to a room (rather than the standard three). “Although young adults with Crohn’s typically lead productive lives, the episodes of bowel dysfunction that accompany the disorder create potential for shame and social anxiety in this age group,” said Beverly Daley, a social worker at CHLA, who helped found the trip. “The fear of being in public places inhibits international travel; our program is organized around the need for frequent restroom stops and sensitivity to bouts of fatigue and abdominal pain.” For more information, contact Beverly Daley at (323) 361-2490. 

 

No Limits — In Motion

Routes Travel-Amazing Israel sponsors this trip, which is geared for those in wheelchairs or with mobility limitations. amazingisrael.com.

 

Ou Israel Free Spirit

For hiking, biking and nature enthusiasts, this trip (affiliated with the Orthodox Union) is for the adventure buff who wants to combine a passion for outdoor activities with the discovery of the land of Israel. israelfreespirit.com.

 

Sachlav — Israel On The House

One of the largest organizers of Taglit-Birthright trips, Sachlav is a nondenominational trip that features an all-encompassing itinerary offering a mix of outdoor adventure with hands-on experience with Israeli culture and people. Highlights include getting involved with the Lone Soldier campaign and being a guest in the home of Sachlav’s founder and CEO, who meets and greets every participant. israelonthehouse.com.

 

Aepi And Aephi Members Experience

For sorority sisters and fraternity brothers who want to party after last call at the on-campus keg party, Tlalim-Israel Outdoors offers a few trip options, including Israel Quest, Israel on Foot and Israel by Bike. israeloutdoors.com.

Conference sessions suggest new fundraising model, praise Israel-Diaspora cooperation


Delegates to the Jewish People Policy Institute conference proposed a new model for Jewish communal fundraising and stressed the importance of cooperation between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities.

At a conference session on how the global Jewish community spends its funds, former CBS executive and Fox News founder Mark Pearlman suggested that the community shift in part from focusing on umbrella Federation funding, and instead emphasize funding based on causes — though he noted the importance of Federations to American Jewish communal life.

He also said that Jewish communities should develop better online fundraising, and set up an organization that can monitor fundraising groups and direct donors to specific causes.

“It's not about auditing,” he said. “We need to continue to support the federated system but we need to promote a marketplace like this to get funding to solve causes.”

The conference, taking place Tuesday and Wednesday in Jerusalem, is called “The Conference on the Future of the Jewish People” and brings together more than 120 Jewish leaders and experts from around the world. The Institute is a think tank focused on developing policy for the Jewish world.

Israeli President Shimon Peres also addressed the delegates on Tuesday.

Aside from the Jewish communal budget, the conference's sessions dealt with Israeli and Jewish identity and geopolitics.

Tuesday's keynote speaker, French Jewish public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, praised increased unity between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities, as compared to Israel's early days as a state.

In earlier years, “there was the feeling in French Jewry that Israel was a reality that had to be accepted but that it would probably create more problems than it would solve,” he said. “This whole debate seems over. Today it seems the Diaspora and Israel are like the two pillars of the Jewish world and one cannot work without the other.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, JPPI's parent organization, also appeared at the conference on Tuesday.

Where’s the tough love for Obama?


When it comes to criticizing Israel, liberal supporters of Israel routinely quote the Jewish value of self-criticism. Try telling a pro-Israel critic the following:

“Israel is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the world community; it is being demonized and boycotted by a global movement trying to eradicate the Zionist project; it is surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction; and it already has plenty of criticism and dissent within its own country. Should we, as Diaspora Jews, pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy — or should we push back against these exaggerated attacks and make Israel’s case to the world? Why give our enemies more ammunition to hurt us?”

The typical answer you’ll get is: “Because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! It’s not just a right to criticize Israel, it’s an obligation! That’s how we improve. Israel needs our public criticism. It’s the highest and deepest expression of our love for the Jewish state.”

I understand that sentiment: We can’t grow in life without getting some tough love.

But what I don’t understand is this: Why won’t liberal critics of Israel use the same argument for President Obama? If self-criticism is such a noble value, why won’t they show the same kind of “tough love” for the president and criticize him as loudly as they do Israel?

I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen liberal supporters of Israel get all aggressive when criticizing Israel’s policies, but then, as soon as the subject turns to Obama’s policies, they suddenly get all defensive.

Apparently, not all self-criticism is created equal.

This is a shame, because the president could use a lot more criticism from liberals, especially on issues that liberals care deeply about.

In a recent post on the Atlantic Web site titled “Why do Liberals Keep Sanitizing the Obama Story?” Conor Friedersdorf pleads with liberals to “stop ignoring President Obama’s failures on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the separation of powers, treating them as if they [don’t] even merit a mention.”

Friedersdorf takes to task several prominent liberal writers, among them Jonathan Chait, whom he calls “the latest to write about the president as if his civil liberties abuses and executive power excesses never happened.”

Referring to a long assessment of Obama by Chait in New York Magazine, Friedersdorf writes:

“Apparently it isn’t even worthy of mention that Obama’s actions in Libya violated the War Powers Resolution … and the legal advice provided to him by the Office of Legal Counsel.

“Perhaps most egregiously, Chait doesn’t even allude to Obama’s practice of putting American citizens on a secret kill list without any due process.

“Nor does he grapple with warrantless spying on American citizens, Obama’s escalation of the war on whistleblowers, his serial invocation of the state secrets privilege, the Orwellian turn airport security has taken [and] the record-breaking number of deportations over which Obama presided.”

Seriously, how often do we see prominent liberal writers publicly criticize the president for some of these vexing actions, which certainly can’t be blamed on the previous president?

“Why is all this ignored?” Friedersdorf asks. “Telling the story of Obama’s first term without including any of it is a shocking failure of liberalism.

“What does ‘better than the Republicans’ get you if it means that executive privilege keeps expanding, the drones keep killing innocents and inflaming radicals … the Pentagon budget keeps growing, civil liberties keep being eroded, wars are waged without Congressional permission, and every future president knows he or she can do the same because at this point it doesn’t even provoke a significant backlash from the left?”

Friedersdorf says it just won’t cut it “for smart writers and prestigious publications to keep writing big think pieces about Obama’s tenure that read as if some of its most significant, uncomfortable moments never happened.

“Civil liberties and executive power and war-making aren’t fringe concerns. … They’re central to the Obama narrative, and the American narrative, as the president himself would’ve affirmed back when he was articulating lofty standards that he has repeatedly failed to meet.”

So, given all these liberal failures, why are Obama’s liberal supporters “sanitizing” his story? Even before this election season, why have so many of them been reluctant to publicly criticize their president and give him the kind of “tough love” he needs?

Well, here’s one possibility. It’s not that they think Obama is perfect and can do no wrong. Rather, it’s that they see how Obama is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the conservative community, and they say to themselves:

“Why should we pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy? Better to push back against these exaggerated attacks and make a strong case for our side. Our opponents are so much worse than we are — why give them more ammunition to hurt us?”

Why? For the same reason you criticize Israel — because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! Because self-criticism is not just a right, it’s an obligation!

Because if your beloved Israel deserves your tough love, then so does your beloved president.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Documentary traces changes in kibbutz life


Back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Diaspora Jews desperately needed a symbol of Jewish strength and pride, the brawny, sunburned kibbutznik became the poster image for the new Jew emerging in Palestine.

Two generations further on, the straightforward picture has become blurred. The kibbutznik astride a tractor has been largely replaced by the high-tech entrepreneur as the face of modern Israel, and most kibbutzim have had to drastically change their outlook and functions in order to survive.

The history and contradictions of this social, ideological and economic movement are explored in the 79-minute documentary “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment.”

The film, richly studded with black-and-white footage of early kibbutz labor and celebrations, provides a useful, unsentimental look at kibbutz life, from the founding in 1910 of Degania Alef, the flagship commune, to a more recent phenomenon, the urban kibbutz.

Toby Perl Freilich, the film’s director, producer and writer, discovered kibbutz life in the 1970s, while visiting her younger sister, who, to the horror of her immigrant parents, had decided to chuck the American dream and live in a kibbutz.

For her documentary, Freilich visited some 25 of the existing 270 kibbutzim and selected five for closer examination.

The first is Kibbutz Ein Shemer, between Haifa and Netanya, founded in 1927 along the pure ideological lines of a communist commune, a realization of a vision that the Soviets never accomplished.

All property and assets belonged to the kibbutz; children were, for the most part, raised in a group away from their parents; and committees regulated lifestyles and settled disputes. In return, members received all of life’s necessities, from food and clothing to education and health care.

Among the original settlers was Aliza Amir, who proudly declares, “Without the kibbutz there would be no Israel.”

This is no exaggeration. Although in 1948, the year of Israel’s independence, kibbutz members made up only 5 percent of the then-600,000 Jewish population, their ranks were the source of the new nation’s political leaders, ideological shapers, the shock troops of the Palmach and the officers of the defense forces.

Yet another veteran pioneer, David Ben Avraham, is less upbeat. None of his five children has stayed in Ein Shemer, and, voicing the fears of fellow old-timers, he asks plaintively, “How will we survive if our children and grandchildren leave us?”

Ben Avraham has put his finger on the kibbutz’s sorest spot. As Israel has turned from a socialist to an entrepreneurial capitalist society, most of the second and particularly the third generation are abandoning the egalitarian dream for the challenges and rewards of a freer, more competitive and individualistic outside world.

In this sense, the kibbutz history parallels the fate of the utopian communities in America built before and during the 19th century. Few such enclaves could retain the fervor and idealism of their founders beyond one or two generations.

In the late 1960s, the stability and image of the kibbutz movement started to disintegrate. There were bitter internal political splits and growing dissatisfaction with the collectivized lifestyle.

Kibbutzim built large swimming pools, much envied by city dwellers, and many assumed large debts, which they could not repay when the economy soured in the 1980s.

The kibbutzim that have best met the challenges of survival are those that adapted to the new social and economic realities of Israel. These days, almost all kibbutzim have added an industrial and manufacturing component (frequently high-tech), reward managers with higher salaries and have returned responsibility for child rearing to the parents.

There are some cautiously encouraging signs for the movement’s survival. Recent statistics puts kibbutz membership at an all-time high of 140,000, though the figure is somewhat deceptive — considering the tenfold increase in the country’s Jewish population since 1948, the percentage of kibbutz members has actually dropped from 5 to 2.3 percent.

Over time, many kibbutzim have transformed themselves from purely collective to semi-privatized communities. This change, for instance, allows many young couples who work in outside jobs to live and raise their children in the open kibbutz spaces.

Another interesting development is the formation of a few urban kibbutzim, such as Kibbutz Tamuz in the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Its members hold a range of city jobs but pool their resources and strive for the equality and social cohesion of the old rural kibbutz model.

As the film’s subtitle indicates, Freilich considers the kibbutz an ongoing “experiment,” the outcome of which is yet to be determined. “My film ends with a question mark,” she said. “The jury is still out on the final verdict.”

Freilich’s resume includes numerous awards for the documentaries “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII” and “Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.” Her largest financial support for the kibbutz film came from the Foundation for Jewish Culture.

“Inventing Our Life” opens June 8 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.

Diaspora communities can help with peacemaking, Jewish leaders tell Abbas


The presidents of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and Latin American Jewish Congress expressed hope for progress in Middle East peace at a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Latin American Jewish Congress President Jack Terpins described the positive experience of Arab and Jewish communities’ coexistence in Latin America, where they often live side by side harmoniously, during a Jan. 15 meeting in London. He said it was a model that should be replicated everywhere in order to lower tensions.

The Jewish leaders emphasized the urgent need for a permanent solution to the conflict in the region and underlined the role Jewish and Palestinian communities in the Diaspora can play.

“Jewish and Palestinian Diaspora communities have a role to play in fostering better understanding,” WJC President Ronald Lauder told Abbas.

Terpins added, “Peace, unlike war, cannot be declared unilaterally; it has to be agreed between the parties. Both communities in the Diaspora, Jewish and Palestinian, must work together to achieve a better understanding.”

Also present at the two-hour meeting was Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian Authority negotiator.

“Reaching peace with one’s neighbors is part of Jewish yearning, and I am convinced that better cooperation between Jewish and Palestinian communities around the world can help to build the peaceful future both our peoples want,” Lauder said.

Song contest searches Diaspora for ‘the next Jewish star’


When Israeli music producer-to-the-stars Eitan Gafni put on a global song contest for Jews nearly two decades ago, finding contestants was difficult. At the time, he called on Jewish Agency shlichim residing in capitals around the world to find young Jews with musical talent and ask them to send an audition tape, a process that took months.

The Hallelujah music project ran for three years, beginning in 1992, but a lack of funds caused its cancellation.

Seven months ago, Gafni decided to put his song contest out there again, after a friend of his son’s—who was a teenager at the time of the original contest—returned home to Israel from an extended stay in Australia and encouraged him to help young Jews in the Diaspora to reconnect to Israel through song.

Though there was a comparatively short lead time running up to the contest—the finals will be held August 25 in Israel—it was considerably easier to find contestants this time around. Gafni and his partners got the word out through Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites, in addition to the myriad organizations that work with young Jewish adults. Audition videos were sent in by e-mail or posted on YouTube.

The result is that, whereas nearly all of the participants in the Hallelujah Global Jewish Singing Contest 20 years ago were affiliated with the Jewish community, many of the 260 Jewish singing-sensation wannabes who vied to participate in 2011 are not affiliated with any Jewish organizations in their home communities.

“These are the people we want to reach,” Gafni said.

The contest’s slogan is “Who’s going to be the next Jewish star?” (Using a phrase like “Jewish idol” to play off the popular American television show would not have sounded right, Gavriel notes.)

A panel of judges, including veteran singer and actor Yehoram Gaon and other Israeli musicians, viewed the auditions and chose 30 semi-finalists to come to Israel to continue competing. The contestants came from around the globe, including the U.S., Canada, South America, Russia, Turkey and Belgium, as well as one Israeli contestant currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Nearly all of the contestants, ages 16 to 26, already had a music background and had already performed before audiences, which will make the final more professional, says Gafni, who has been a producer for the last 40 years for such Israeli music stars as Shlomo Artzi, Motti Caspi and Ruthi Navon.

Adam Dahan, a 17-year-old singer and piano player from Quebec, uploaded an audition just days before the deadline, after reading in The Canadian Jewish News about two women from his community who had entered the contest. While they didn’t make the cut, he did.

Dahan, who says he practices music between two and seven hours daily, including time spent with his vocal coach, attended music school in Los Angeles. Recently, he noted, a record label got in touch with him.

“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to connect to the rest of the world through my music,” said Dahan, who is a sometime hazan in his synagogue in his hometown of Cote St. Luke.

Dahan says he has thoroughly enjoyed the Hallelujah experience, traveling throughout Israel with the 30 semi-finalists. (Dahan was eliminated in the contest’s August 18 semi-finals.)

Tzachi Gavriel, a co-founder of the MASA program, which brings young Diaspora Jews to study, volunteer and work in Israel, worked with Gafni to shepherd the song contest along for the last seven months. He said the contest is an “unconventional” way to reach Jewish young people “through the back door.”

Gavriel, who has volunteered his time and expertise—until two months ago he was a senior advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—marvels at the combined power of a singing contest and Facebook to reach the young generation, saying “you can probably reach the computer of every young Jew in the world.”

The Israeli government has recognized the power of reaching young Diaspora Jews through song, and four government ministries, including the ministry of culture and sport, provided about $350,000 to get the contest off the ground. Other funders include Keren Nadav, the foundation established by Russian tycoon and philanthropist Leonid Nevlin; and the city of Ramat HaSharon, where the finals will take place.

The winner of Thursday’s finals, in which contestants are performing popular Hebrew songs, will receive an $8,000 cash prize and record a duet with an Israeli artist to be broadcast on local radio stations and Jewish radio stations worldwide. The winner will also give a concert tour in Jewish communities around the world.

A DVD of the contest is also being put together and is set to be distributed for showing in Jewish venues around the world.

Plans for next year include holding auditions and semi-finals in Jewish capitals including Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London.

Gavriel predicts that the number of people vying to participate will increase exponentially by next year’s contest.

“We’re not just talking about what it means to be Jewish,” he explains. “We’re taking them on an adventure.”

Live in the ‘hood: lingering Shabbat


I thought I understood the unique power of Shabbat, until I moved to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood a few months ago.

It’s not like I’m a novice on thesubject. For several years, in the late ’80s and early ’90s in Venice Beach, I was part of an eclectic band of yuppie frummies who made Shabbat a major happening (Shlomo Carlebach slept in my house!). And for more than a decade after that, in Pacific Palisades and in Beverly Hills, I participated in more than my fair share of Shabbatons, farbrengen tables, shiurims, melave malkas, you name it; we didn’t just do Shabbat, we invited everyone to celebrate along with us.

So how is it possible that moving to a heavily Jewish neighborhood could change my perception of this one day that I thought I knew so well?

It hit me indirectly on the day after Sukkot, when I was invited to the neighbors for the first post-sukkah holiday meal. Someone made the comment that it was sad to see the sukkah now, because the magic was gone, and someone else added that that was precisely the point — the sukkah was there to remind us of how transient life can be. Next year, the sukkah and its magic will come again, and it will go away again.

That, I realized, is pretty much how I’ve always seen Shabbat — as a magical celebration that comes and goes every week.

I can tell you that in this neighborhood, Shabbat does not just come and go every week. In fact, it never really goes away. It’s more like a state of mind, a way of life, an energy source.

You can probably imagine what the actual day of Shabbat looks like in this neighborhood. Time stops. A thousand strollers are out. On Pico Boulevard, shul goers walk with a sense of purpose to their respective shuls. Most of the stores are closed, and the car traffic is reduced, but you can still see that it’s a major thoroughfare.

I feel the Shabbat energy more in the residential part of the hood. From certain Shabbat tables (I was in one of them), you can see and greet neighbors walking by (more and more, I hear Ashkenazim say “Shabbat Shalom” and Sephardim say “Good Shabbos” — long live integration). Well-dressed families stroll along the quiet streets, adding a sense of dignity to the atmosphere. Kids play on the street, and on my block at least, most of the front doors stay open. Needless to say, the Shabbat feeling is everywhere.

But what I find especially revealing in this neighborhood is what happens after Shabbat — the way the Shabbat energy overflows into the regular week. I spend a lot of time here during the week, and much of what I see and feel is similar to what I see and feel on Shabbat. The special restrictions — like no driving — are gone, of course, but the peaceful nature of Shabbat is still very much present.

You can feel this quiet energy that encourages you to keep certain Shabbat rituals going. Who needs video games and TV during the week?Why not have a few more get-togethers? Why not spend more time with the kids, or do more reading and, learning like we love to do on Shabbat?

It’s a classic neighborhood dynamic. The people you eat, pray, learn and play with on Shabbat are often the same people you see everyday — in one of the local shops, at a Torah class or just on the street. So the Shabbat memories are always fresh; they “live” with you throughout the week.

This phenomenon — the lingering Shabbat — is very alive in my new neighborhood.

And it can have as much, if not more power, than the day of Shabbat itself. Many of the Shabbats I had in the Diaspora (Pacific Palisades) were actually more intense than the ones I have in the hood. But when Sundays rolled around, boy would you feel the exile. Here, when Sunday arrives, Shabbat still “carries” you; all the familiar “Shabbat faces” are still walking around the neighborhood, as they do throughout the week. The friendly glow of Shabbat does not easily fade.

Some people might find this lingering Shabbat suffocating, others comforting. I actually find it helpful, because I like to be reminded of the Shabbat way: peaceful, joyous, unplugged. During the week, these “Shabbat moments” keep me centered, and help me navigate the uncertainties of life.

Because the source of power for the lingering Shabbat is the day of Shabbat itself, the weekly rhythm is critical. You’re never more than a few days away from the big day. This anchors you. You celebrate some big ones — Passover, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, etc. — once a year, but thanks to Shabbat, your weekly source of power is always right around the corner. When you leave a holiday celebration, and you say “see you next year” instead of “see you next week,” that does not anchor you. It’s more likely to just blow you away (literally), like a Super Bowl or an Academy Awards show might, until you get blown away again next year.

Shabbat, the way I experience it in this neighborhood, doesn’t blow me away. It blows me in. I live it one day, then I feel it lingering around me all week long, and I better understand its elusive power.

To tell you the truth, I love the lingering Shabbat as much as I love Shabbat itself. I want more of it. I need more of it. I need the peacefulness that I taste on Shabbat to kick in on Wednesday morning, just before I’m tempted to yell at the kids because they’re late for school; or on Thursday afternoon, just before I’m tempted to say something that might hurt my mother’s feelings; or on Monday night, just before I plug in to the computer instead of plugging in to my kids.

The Kotzker Rebbe once explained that the commandment to keep the Shabbat also means that we should keep it with us at all times.Until I moved to the hood, I never totally understood what he meant.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

L.A. gets ready to be the center of Jewish universe


In just three weeks, more than 3,000 leaders of the international Jewish community, including the prime minister of Israel, are coming to Los Angeles.

What, you hadn’t heard?

This season’s best-kept secret among L.A. Jews seems to be that the 75th annual General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities is being held in Los Angeles — the first time in 26 years this city will host one of the largest annual gatherings of Jews in North America.

“This is a great opportunity for Los Angeles to participate in this national convention, where we don’t always have a critical mass participating,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “More importantly, we have some extraordinarily talented Jewish human resources and some extraordinarily creative programming in L.A., and this will be an opportunity for us to highlight those individuals and programs.”

But while some locals have already signed up, and hundreds have volunteered, a mention of the GA is more likely to elicit a blank stare than an excited nod in most Jewish circles.

“Never heard of it,” said Marlene Kahan, a teacher who lives in Beverlywood. “But it sounds interesting. I’d love to read about it and find out what happens there.”

The GA is one of the largest Jewish events on the North American calendar (the Reform movement’s biennial conference surpasses the GA, with about 5,000 attendees), with thousands of lay and professional leaders from hundreds of communities gathering to explore the state of the Jewish world, and to set a vision for the year to come.

The United Jewish Communities represents 155 Federations and 400 independent communities, and the four-day conference, Nov. 12-15 at the Los Angeles Convention Center downtown, brings together Federation machers as well as other organizations and activists from around the world. Anyone who wants to be a player in the Jewish community is at the GA.

The powerful bloc of participants attracts an impressive roster of leaders, scholars and experts to run daily plenaries and a menu of hundreds of sessions on topics from global anti-Zionism to new trends in Jewish education to savvy solicitation techniques.

Anyone can register as a delegate. Southern Californians are offered a local’s discounted rate of $275 (non-residents pay $525), and people who have volunteered to help out for a few hours can attend the conference on that day (volunteer slots have been filled). All events — including a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday, Nov. 13 — are open to registered delegates and volunteers only.

But word has been slow to trickle out to the far-flung L.A. Jewish community.

While a call for volunteers went out to synagogues and organizations months ago, full-page ads have only shown up in the last few weeks, and the UJC Web site didn’t post program details — such as speakers and session topics — until early October.
There are currently 425 local delegates signed up, along with about 300 to 400 student delegates, some of them at Southern Californian schools, signed up through Hillel. About 750 Angelenos have also volunteered to staff the convention, which is estimated to attract 3,000 delegates and an additional 1,000 exhibitors, organizers and staff, according to Judy Fischer, who is the Los Angeles Federation staff GA director. Fischer is working with lay host community chair Terri Smooke to organize the event.

Organizers admit publicity has been slow because the program was revamped following the war in Israel.

“The focus was transformed in light of what happened over the summer, and particularly in light of the implications of the war for Israel and for the Jewish people in our communities and across the world,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Chicago Federation, and head of programming for the GA. “There is a strong sense of connection with Israel, and recognition that as much as this means as a single war, it wasn’t just that. It has a deeper meaning.”

The theme chosen over the summer was “On the Frontlines Together: One People, One Destiny,” meant to encompass the war’s implications regarding the Israel-Diaspora connection, global Jewish security, Israel’s identity, its military, its leadership and how that reverberates out to Jewish communities across the world.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to deliver the keynote on Tuesday evening (though in the past prime ministers have often ended up canceling or speaking through video feed). A record four Knesset ministers are also scheduled to address the group, including foreign minister Tzipi Livni, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s ministers of education and tourism.

During and following the war, federations from across the country funneled $330 million dollars to Israel through UJC.
“In some ways this was kind of a breakthrough in the recognition of the centrality and significance of the UJC Federation system,” Kotzin said. “The prime minister wants to be able to come and participate to express his appreciation and to advance ties between Israel and the North American Jewish Community. The GA exists at a moment where we can really keep up with what is going on and move things forward.”

Other speakers include Canadian Parliament Member Dr. Irwin Cotler; Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levi.

A plenary on “The Jewish Future” will feature a panel with Norman Cohen, provost of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Insitiute of Religion; Arnie Eisen, chancellor-elect at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University.

But all other conference-wide sessions will focus on Israel, as will more than half of the smaller sessions.
It is a shift that not everyone is thrilled with.

“As someone who lives in Israel and is a Zionist, I think it is unfortunate and actually speaks to the lack of an overarching vision for the future of the Jewish people,” said Yossi Abramowitz, founder of Jewish Family and Life, who now blogs daily at peoplehood.org.

Abramowitz has attended around 20 GAs, and moved to Israel this summer.

Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar to visit Los Angeles


The Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel will visit Los Angeles next week for the first time, a move that signifies the growing importance of the religious community here around the world. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who has been serving as chief rabbi since 2003, along with Ashkenazi counterpart Rabbi Yona Metzger, comes to Los Angeles Oct 22-28 to meet with leaders of Los Angeles Jewish community — both Ashkenazic and Sephardic — to offer religious and spiritual support.


“This is the first time he’s coming to the West Coast, and he will learn about the vast Jewish activity here, from the schools and the shuls to the institutions and the mikveh and the eruv,” said Rabbi David Toledano of Magen David, the Sephardic Syrian community of Beverly Hills, who is coordinating and hosting the trip.

Amar, also respectfully referred to as Rishon L’Tzion, will meet with community leaders from the Wiesenthal Center, the Rabbinical Council of California and various Sephardic rabbis. He will also visit several Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox schools (including Hillel Hebrew Academy, Torath Emet, Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, Yeshiva Gedola, Chabad, Ohr Eliyahu, Bais Yakov and Yavneh), as well as staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Israel Consul General Ehud Danoch, who is also helping plan the trip, has set up an interfaith meeting between Amar and 100 Christian clergy.

“This will help open dialogue with different religions,” Toledano said.

He is also set to meet with government officials such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and hold “kabbalat panim” reception hours in Toledano’s home by appointment. In addition to his lectures and shiurim Torah studies, Amar will be honored on Thursday, Oct. 26, by Em Habanim in North Hollywood. Amar will spend Shabbat in the city at Mogen David in Pico-Robertson and will appear on a panel open to the public on Saturday afternoon.

Amar is the first Sephardi chief rabbi not of Iraqi descent (he is Moroccan). He is known in Israel for his changes to the conversion and divorce laws, which are administered by the Israeli government. According to an announcement from the Rabbinate last December, Jews converted in the Diaspora by rabbis not recognized by the religious courts will have to undergo another conversion in Israel in order to be recognized by Rabbinate courts as Jews.

Women granted a get, or Jewish divorce, by rabbis not recognized by the courts, will also have to go through the process again.

Toledano stressed that by setting down standards and a list of accepted rabbis, the chief rabbi has streamlined the process and eliminated corruption from the system.

“The most important thing is the proper approach,” he said. “It’s not random anymore, not anyone can [do a conversion or divorce] so it’s more kosher.”

Ask A (Different) Rabbi

Can a religious businessperson keep his Internet site open on Shabbat? What about a Web site uploaded on Shabbat — can a religious person look at it? Are you allowed to watch television on Shabbat if the set has been on since before sundown?

These types of modern-day halachic questions aren’t addressed in the Talmud or the ancient rabbis’ books of wisdom, but they are at Jerusalem’s Eretz Hemdah Institute, The Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies.

Rabbi Yosef Carmel, dean of the institute, which trains rabbis for advanced, post-ordination study (equivalent of a Ph.D), will be visiting Los Angeles this week.

The Institute, which opened in 1987 to train future Zionist rabbinical leaders of the State of Israel, has graduated some 100 rabbis from its seven-year course. The institute also grapples with modern-day questions of Jewish law. Its Web site, “Ask A Rabbi,” which is affiliated with the Orthodox Union, has answered more than 1

1,000 questions pertaining to Jewish law.
Last summer, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah, Eretz Hemdah (“beautiful land”) opened a special hotline for soldiers. Some questions: What should a soldier do with his car if he has to drive to base on Shabbat? How can a man in combat celebrate his son’s pidyon ha-ben (redemption of the oldest son).

Carmel will lecturing at Rabbi Daniel Korobkin’s school, Kehillat Yavneh (5353 W. Third St.) on Friday Oct 27 and Shabbat Oct. 28, on topics such as “Dilemmas in the World of Halacha” and “Indirect Business Transactions on Shabbat.”

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Ignorance is not really bliss, as current events have proved. Rather, knowledge brings about understanding and peace, especially when it comes to faith and religion. That’s why Wilshire Boulevard Temple has opened up The Center for Religious Inquiry, an adult education institution hoping to build bridges between all faiths.

Partnering with the Center for Religious Inquiry at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York and St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, Wilshire Boulevard’s new center will feature religious leaders, scholars, ethicists and scientists from different religious backgrounds and is open to Angelenos of all faiths. Its motto is “Mipnei d’archei shalom” (Because it leads to paths of peace).

“After 144 years, we are recommitting our historic temple campus not just as the center of Jewish life and practice, but, now, as a home to all religious exploration,” said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein, director of the Center for Religious Inquiry.

Programs include the tried and true, such as “Intro to Judaism,” and special lectures such as “The Jewish Bible in Christmas Art,” and a lecture series titled, “America: The Moral Nation,” whose last panel discussion, “What Is a Just War?” is scheduled for Nov. 14. Next semester’s programs will include a deeper look into different faiths, as well as classes on Jewish topics, such as “Not Madonna’s Kabbalah,” an introduction to Jewish mystical literature.

The center is one of a number of Los Angeles Jewish organizations featuring lectures and classes for adults, but hopes to be different because “rather than presenting a speaker on a topic or himself, we’re hoping to thread these into a larger socio-cultural context,” Stein said.

“It’s necessary because the world is an increasingly complicated place,” he said. “It’s becoming ever more focused on religious ideas. And in our small, humble way, we hope to be a center where people can come and encounter learning and explore religion in a safe environment.”

Finding Deeper Truths in Fiction — the Best About Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Compiled by Elisha Sauers

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward

Lawsuit Filed in Granada Hills Jewish Community Center Shooting


Lawsuit Filed in Granada Hills Jewish Community Center Shooting

Families of the victims of the 1999 North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC) shooting in Granada Hills are suing the state of Washington for allegedly failing to supervise the man who committed the crime. The $15 million lawsuit filed Aug. 18 says the state’s Department of Corrections failed to adequately monitor Buford Furrow Jr., an ex-convict on probation from a Washington state jail. On Aug. 10, 1999, Furrow burst into the North Valley JCC and opened fire. He wounded two small boys, a teenager and an adult receptionist, and later killed a Filipino-American letter carrier nearby. Furrow is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Young Quits After ‘Hurtful’ Remarks

Andrew Young resigned as a Wal-Mart advocate after disparaging Jewish, Arab and Korean shop owners. A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta, Young resigned as head of “Working Families for Wal-Mart,” and apologized. The Los Angeles Sentinel, a black newspaper, asked Young how he could advocate for an organization that displaces “mom and pop” outfits. Young said he was pleased when those stores were “run out” of his neighborhood. “Those are the people who have been overcharging us — selling us stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables,” he said. “And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs, very few black people own these stores.”

Olmert Pressed on War Inquiry

Ehud Olmert is under pressure to establish a state commission of inquiry to investigate how officials handled Israel’s war with Hezbollah. The Israeli prime minister told the attorney general to see what alternatives exist for such an investigation, ranging from inquiries that would be made public to those that might remain confidential within the Cabinet. Meanwhile, criticism of how the war was conducted is mounting. Petitions have been circulating by reserve soldiers who have returned from fighting in Lebanon with long lists of complaints.

Diaspora Money Heads North

World Jewry is expected to contribute about $344 million to rehabilitating Israel’s northern towns and cities. The money, according to an Israeli government plan announced Sunday, would contribute to the overall cost of repairing damage and providing assistance to northern residents, estimated at about $1 billion. Money would go to financial aid for residents and businesses, repairs, psychological counseling, rebuilding schools and other projects run by a newly formed Israeli government committee. An emergency campaign in the United States has already raised $220 million for assistance to the North.

Israeli Officials Face Sexual-Harassment Charges

On Monday, police seized computers and documents from President Moshe Katsav’s Residence in Jerusalem, seeking possible evidence related to charges by a former employee who has claimed that Katsav coerced her into sexual relations. Katsav has denied any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Israel’s justice minister resigned in the wake of sexual-harassment charges. Haim Ramon announced his resignation Sunday. Israel’s attorney general said he plans to indict Ramon on charges that he forcibly kissed an 18-year-old soldier at an office party July 12, the day the war started between Israel and Hezbollah.

“I am sure that I will succeed in court,” Ramon said. “A kiss of two, three seconds, based on the version of the complainant, cannot be turned into a criminal act.”

Israeli Children Anxious After War

About 35 percent of Israeli schoolchildren who stayed in the North during the war with Hezbollah are suffering from anxiety, nightmares and other problems, a survey found. The 16,000 or so children also were found to have difficulty concentrating and are crying more often, the Tel Chai Academic College found in the survey. Problems are especially acute among preschoolers.

Major Israeli Writer Dies

Writer Yizhar Smilansky, an Israel Prize-winner better known by the pen name S. Yizhar, died Monday. One month shy of his 90th birthday, Yizhar died of heart failure. Known as a major innovator of Hebrew literature, he wrote prose, poetry and children’s literature. He also was well-known for his essays, which gained attention at the beginning of the war in Lebanon in 1982. His writing, which often challenged the Zionist narrative and the morality of the army, was the subject of intense controversy.

Israel: Hezbollah Used Russian Weapons

Israel complained to Russia that Russian-made anti-tank missiles reached Hezbollah fighters, who used them with devastating effect against Israeli troops. An Israeli delegation traveled to Moscow earlier this week to deliver the complaint, Ha’aretz reported. The anti-tank missiles proved to be one of Hezbollah’s most effective weapons in the monthlong war in Lebanon, responsible for the deaths of at least 50 of the 118 Israeli soldiers killed in the fighting. Israel protested in recent years when Russia sold advanced weapons to Syria, warning that they would be forwarded them to Hezbollah, but Russia dismissed the concerns. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said it was “impossible” that Russian weapons could have reached Hezbollah.

Jewish-Owned Market in Moscow Bombed

An explosion at a Jewish-owned market in Moscow killed at least 10 people and left 16 to 40 wounded. According to preliminary reports, no Jews were hurt in the blast at the Cherkizovsky market. The market is believed to be owned and operated by members of the “Mountain Jewish” community, which has its roots in Azerbaijan. At least two children died in the Monday morning blast in Moscow. Investigators say the explosion, which caused a two-story building to collapse, could have been a settling of scores among gangs, but officials are not ruling out that the blast was a terrorist attack.

Restaurant in India Named After Hitler

A new restaurant in India is named after Hitler and has swastikas on its walls. The owner of the Hitler’s Cross restaurant in Bombay told Reuters that he just wanted to stand out from the crowd. India’s Jewish community is protesting the name.

Annan Chides Iran on Holocaust Cartoons

Commenting on an exhibit of cartoons questioning the Holocaust, Kofi Annan’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said that the U.N. secretary-general has made clear in past conversations with Iranian officials that while he supports free speech, “people need to exercise that right responsibly and not use it as a pretext for incitement, hatred or for insulting beliefs of any community.”

A museum in Tehran opened the exhibit last week, in response to the publication in Denmark last year of cartoons that targeted Mohammed, the Muslim prophet.Exhibit organizers say they took their cue from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called the Holocaust a “myth.” Annan is to visit Iran in coming weeks as part of a tour to follow up on the Lebanon-Israel cease-fire.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

For Middle East Women, ‘Cavemen’ Are Not Wanted


Little noticed among the vast media coverage of the latest Middle East crisis were a couple of dispatches by journalists highlighting the actions of an admittedly few
women in Israel.

Given that it is an act of considerable bravery to protest in the streets at a time when their fellow citizens were so up in arms about the Hezbollah rocket attacks, I knew the sentiments of this handful of protesters would be shared by many more Israeli and Palestinian women who could not be there. After all, I had spoken during the past 30 years of covering the Middle East to many of these women — Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, rich and poor alike — who have told me again and again how appalled they have been at the seemingly endless number of wars in the region.

Tamara Traubman and Ruth Sinai-Heruti, both correspondents for the leading Israeli daily, Haaretz, pointed out at the bottom of their July 17 article, “More Than 500 Protest in Tel Aviv Against Israeli Defense Force Raids in Lebanon, Gaza,” that a “woman’s protest was also held Sunday morning next to the central Haifa train depot, where a Hezbollah rocket landed early Sunday, killing eight people.” The women, they added, “said that in the coming days, they would be assembling a new group of Arab and Jewish women against the war.”

Rory McCarthy of the United Kingdom’s Guardian daily, in a dispatch the same day titled, “Israeli City Shaken by Hizbullah Rocket Attack,” noted that “as the sirens continued to sound, a small group of women stood outside the entrance to the train depot to lodge a small protest against the fighting. Yana Knoboba, 25, a psychology student from Haifa University, sat on the pavement holding a banner that read in Hebrew: ‘War will not bring peace.'”

“We don’t want a great war in the Middle East,” McCarthy quoted Knoboba as saying. “We want Israel to negotiate to bring back our soldiers and stop the re-occupation of Gaza. It isn’t about showing strength. I think strength is making peace, not war.”

Three years ago, here in London, I was a guest at the local Quaker meeting house, where a panel of eight women from Israel had been invited to speak. Having spent so much of my life covering “men’s” activities in the Middle East — investment and trade, oil and politics, as well as outright war — I thought it about time I took a look at what women were doing. The panel included four Palestinians and four Israelis, all from divergent backgrounds: a poet, sociologist, historian, social worker, Christian, Muslim and Jew.

There were some quite direct, pointed questions from the audience about where truth, justice and progress lay. Would Israelis be better off without the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? Would Palestinians agree to end suicide bombings? The answers varied, both among the Palestinian and Jewish women and amongst themselves, whatever their nationality.

But when the moderator asked the final question, “What, in your opinion, do you think is the worst problem you face?” the answer was surprising. One would have expected the Palestinian women to say, “The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel since 1967.” For the Israeli women, one would have thought the answer would be, “Security, a right to live in peace with Israel’s neighbors and, above all, an end to suicide bombings.”

Surprise, surprise. One by one, the eight women stood up, faced the 70 or so in the audience of mostly women and declared: “The militarization of our men.”
For the Palestinians, seeing their sons subjected to the cannon-fodder rhetoric of ignorant sheikhs, the test of manhood their teen sons were exposed to when it came to throwing stones or the death and injury of their fathers, sons and brothers were the key points. For the Israeli women, the brutalization of the men they must live with, their sons, brothers and spouses in the Israel Defense Forces, was the main point.

And, unlike the Palestinians, Israelis are required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces unless they can prove they are conscientious objectors or members of certain Jewish religious denominations.

Shades of Vietnam here? Just as then, members of the peace movement in Israel have highlighted the comments of former members of the Israeli military who have spoken out against the climate of opinion in the forces, which, in their view, disregards the value of civilian life, whatever the faults on the other side may be.

But such sentiments must often be put aside by their fellow draftees, they say, resulting in a dehumanization of the attacker, as well as the attacked. The result: As in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, there is a growing refusal by some Israelis to serve in the military, particularly when it comes to fighting in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

What I wondered yet again the other day was what were the Jewish women in Israel doing and feeling? Were those women at the Quaker meeting house representative of their compatriots? And how had the peace movement there affected the willingness of women, as well as men, to accept conscription into the Israeli military forces?

Further south in Tel Aviv, McCarthy’s article gave me a clue and a sense of what might really be wrong. A quote he published from Abir Kobti, an activist in Israel’s Coalition of Women for Peace, who was on the front line in Israel’s capital city when Israeli police broke up their peaceful protest on July 16, said it all:

Return to the Promised Land


“Do you think we’re crazy?” Avi Rembaum is sitting with his wife, Sharon, on a couch in his parents’ lovely living room in the Pico Robertson area, while their impish, blue-eyed 21-month-old, Ella, runs back and forth between her parents, and her brother Itai, 8, is watching a video in the family room. Ella’s other brother, Dani, 5, is out at a sleepover.

The Rembaums don’t look crazy. They don’t even look like many of the bearded or skirt-wearing flag-waving people being interviewed on television who are moving their families to Israel on group flights sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the American organization that gives grants to North Americans who want to immigrate to Israel. By the end of the year, Nefesh B’Nefesh will have sponsored 10,000 olim, most of whom are Orthodox.

No, the Rembaums don’t look crazy, or militant. Avi, 35, is wearing a green baseball cap and khaki shorts, and Sharon, 38, is wearing cargo pants, a short-sleeved T-shirt and matching tan plastic Crocs, and they look just like any other couple you might see in the parking lot at Pressman Hebrew Academy, a Conservative school their sons attend that is affiliated with Temple Beth Am, where Rabbi Joel E. Rembaum, Avi’s father, is the senior rabbi.

But the Rembaums could pass for a typical American family living in Israel, perhaps one from an anglicized neighborhood in Jerusalem or Ra’anana. They look that way because that’s what they once were, when the couple met and married 10 years ago. And it’s what they were about to become again, just last week, as the family prepared to once again make Israel home.

Last Sunday, while thousands of Los Angeles Jews were rallying in front of the Jewish Federation headquarters to show support for Israel, the Rembaums were showing a different kind of support for the Jewish state: They were on a plane moving there.

After living six years in Israel, and nearly the same amount of time in America, the Rembaums have weighed their options, compared the two countries, debated which lifestyle is better for their children — and themselves — and come up with one conclusion: Israel. They hope, they say, this time they’ll stay for good.

While this back and forth story sounds unusual, it’s not as uncommon as one might think; theirs is a conflict that many Diaspora Jews struggle with — an inexplicable, heart-wrenching love for and attachment to Israel, versus a pull toward a native country filled with family, friends, better economic opportunities and, especially as of late, better security. This struggle is experienced not only by people who have lived in Israel, but also many who have visited there — on summer tours or one-year programs or university semesters, or on missions – as well as virtually any child who goes through the Jewish school or camp system, with their strong emphasis on the State of Israel and Zionism. And it’s a struggle that is often heightened in times of war.

“The bottom line,” Avi’s father, Rabbi Joel Rembaum told his wife Fredi when they were discussing how upset they were over Avi and Sharon’s departure, “is that when you train your children to be Zionists, somebody’s bound to want to live in Israel.”

The rabbi of Beth Am tells the same thing to parents who want to send their kids to Pressman: “We tell the people who sent their kids to the school here: ‘Expect that your kids are going to be turned on to Judaism — you may get back a child who is different from the one you sent.'”

It’s the same thing with teaching Zionism, he told his wife: “If you’re really serious about it, then [someone making aliyah] is bound to happen, and it did.”
The Rembaum children were trained to be Zionists, attending Jewish day schools, summering at Camp Ramah, growing up in the home of a Conservative rabbi. Joel Rembaum has been the leader of Temple Beth Am for the last 21 years, and Fredi, who is now director of development for the Western Region of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was director for overseas relations for the Federation for eight years, and has traveled to Israel as often as four times a year.

Zionism stuck particularly with Avi, who moved to Israel at 22 and attended the World Union of Jewish Students, a one-year program in Arad that teaches Hebrew and Jewish studies and helps new immigrants integrate into the Israeli job market. That’s where he met and fell in love with his future wife, Sharon Isaac, a new immigrant from London.

“My parents were Israeli, and I grew up in a very Zionist home, and I had a huge family in Israel,” Sharon said. “It was always Israel, Israel, Israel. I was always torn.”

Sharon’s parents had moved to England in 1966, where her father had citizenship, and always planned to go back.

“They got wrapped up in life there,” Sharon said. Her parents moved back to Israel after Sharon and her sister did.

In Israel, Avi worked in the booming hi-tech industry, and Sharon worked at the BBC and then became a correspondent and anchor for the local English TV news, a program widely watched by Americans and diplomats and tourists who don’t speak Hebrew. They lived mostly in and around Tel Aviv, and tried to make life work there.

But reporting daily on the deteriorating political situation was depressing for Sharon.

“After Baruch Goldstein, everything went downhill,” she said, referring to the American Jewish doctor who killed 29 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

“I remember the bombings, and I remember the assassination [of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin]. It was relentless, it was every other day; the beeper would go off every morning, so it was very hard to live in it and breathe in it,” Sharon said. “Most Israelis have the opportunity to close it out,” she said. But she couldn’t because she was immersed in it for her work. “Israel is a great place to be a journalist if you’re removed from it, if you’re [a Brit] working for the BBC, but when you’re Israeli, it’s different.

The economic situation is what got to Avi.

“We were overwhelmed by our overdraft, we weren’t able to make ends meet, and our financial situation was going downhill,” Avi said. When his company offered to move the couple and their one child to Boston, they decided to go.
“We wanted to come to America. We wanted to have more kids. It made more sense to move here,” Sharon said.

There’s a figure that new immigrants in Israel throw around to determine whether a person will make it: Seven years. If someone stays seven years, it’s likely they’ll be there a lifetime. Even Nefesh B’Nefesh’s generous gifts are dependent on a family staying three years. That’s because people leave. Some for economic reasons, others for security reasons. Some, like Sharon, just want a break.

“I wanted to be somewhere that I didn’t have to think about it for awhile. But our intention when we left was always to go back.”

That’s another thing about new immigrants who leave Israel. Most plan on coming back. Some have a monetary goal, others set a time goal: the three-year plan, the five-year plan, the 10-year plan.

“We didn’t have a plan,” Sharon said. But they knew it was the right thing to do.

“When we left, at the airport, I turned to you and felt like someone [leaving] Europe in World War II,” Avi said, addressing his wife. “It felt like the time was right.”

Indeed, only seven months after the Rembaums moved back to America, in the beginning of 2000, the second intifada broke out. The next four years were a tough time for Jews in Israel; they shut themselves in, avoiding the threat of crowded places like malls, the movie theaters, restaurants and cafes, for fear of terror attacks.

Avi and Sharon really liked Boston.

“It was amazing; it was an incredible community,” Sharon said.

But Avi’s company shut down after a year and a half, so they decided to come to Los Angeles.

“It was a bit too cold, and we wanted our kids to have grandparents,” Sharon said. “If we would have stayed in Boston, we might have stayed [in America.]”
Sharon wasn’t crazy about Los Angeles at first.

“When I first moved here, I vehemently hated it. I couldn’t stand the fake boobs, the plastic-ness.”

But then she got involved with Pressman school and the Beth Am community, and she started working at KCRW, as a producer of “To the Point,” the call-in news show hosted by Warren Olney. “That was when I started to really like L.A.; I saw a very different side of it,” she said.

Avi, who describes himself as the “optimist” in the family, didn’t have problems with Los Angeles, perhaps because his family and childhood friends were here. But, he said, “Israel’s always been on my mind.”

There is a moment, for some people — one particular Eureka moment — that they can point to as an impetus for any decision, and especially for the decision to move to Israel. For Sharon, it was when her father died a year ago, and she was sitting shiva in Israel. “It was a very emotional time for me,” she said.
Her sister, who lives in the north of Israel, said to her, “Sharon, do you want to grow old in the city of Los Angeles?

“Oh God, no,” Sharon replied, repeating the emphasis as she retold the story.
“I didn’t want to live forever here, and I wanted to live my life there,” Sharon said now, explaining her vehemence.

“I am a better person there,” she said, choking back tears.

As she spoke, Avi took her hand in his. For him, it’s always been what he calls a “gestalt” thing.

“I am the happiest person when I’m there,” he said. “I’m most confident as a person when I’m there.”

For both of them, though, it was also about their children.

“It was about the life we want our kids to love, the freedom to be children. It seems hard to raise sane, Jewish children in L.A.,” Sharon said. “It’s very expensive here. You have to pay through the nose. In Israel it’s a no-brainer [because school is free]. You don’t have to work on chag. Here you get two weeks of vacation, if that, a year, and you have to take it off on the holidays.”
After spending Passover in Israel, they seriously began to consider moving back. But this time they weren’t going to be undone by the economic realities of Israel.

“We had three criteria: Sell our house for more money, buy a house for a lot less money and get a well-paying job,” Avi said.

They expected this would take them some time — months, maybe even a year.
“We did all those things in two weeks,” he said. Less than a month ago, they bought their tickets to Israel.

Ironically, it was Sharon, the non-native, who had a harder time leaving Los Angeles.

“It was very hard for me to leave. Even though we never said we wanted to stay here forever, I could have stayed,” she said. But “in many ways, it was now or never.”

But Sharon wasn’t the only one having a hard time leaving.

“I feel sad that they’re leaving,” said Fredi, her mother-in-law, in what was surely an understatement. “It’s going to be a big hole in our lives.”

Avi jumped in: “I reminded [my mother] that she dragged two kids to Israel in the middle of the Yom Kippur war, so she has no right to say anything.”
There is a strong parallel. In 1973, Rabbi Rembaum and his wife took a sabbatical in Israel — arriving there on the eighth day of the Yom Kippur war, when Ariel Sharon was leading the campaign to cross the Suez canal.

“When our El Al flight came to Israel we were accompanied by Phantoms,” Fredi recalled.

“As long as Israel is letting us in, we’ll go,” Rabbi Rembaum said at the time. Those words have come back as a strong reminder that each family has to choose its own way, the rabbi said, “We have no moral grounds on which to tell them they shouldn’t go.”

And besides, even though he’ll miss them, “I’m proud of them. I’m a Zionist.”
As the family talked about this landmark decision, about moving to Israel, no one really mentioned the current military actions going on, the fact that Israel is fighting in Lebanon, that Katyushas are being fired on the Northern cities, and the country might soon be in a state of war.

“I’m less distressed about the situation they’re going back to than about losing them on a daily basis,” Fredi said.

When the fighting started, Sharon said, “We looked at each other and said, ‘Are we doing the wrong things for our kids? Are we taking them into a potentially difficult situation?’ The only thing we always think about is our children.”

But they’re moving to Ra’anana, at the center of the country, where the rockets don’t hit. And they’ve already sold their house, shipped their stuff and enrolled the kids in school.

“In some ways it makes us want to go more,” Sharon said about the situation.
Avi added: “It’s happening now, but it could have happened three months from now, and we’ll be living there. It’s just the way that living in Israel is.”

Why, then, was Sharon crying? Was it because of the war, leaving Los Angeles and her family or moving to Israel?

“I just got emotional thinking about Israel and all the amazing things,” she said. “I love the fact on Friday at 3, 4, 5 in the afternoon it’s quiet, and you start to smell chicken soup, and the country just relaxes,” she said. “I love the unity that we see when times are bad: It’s the only county in the world that opens its arms and says, ‘Come.'”

Evangelicals Slate Pro-Israel Lobbying


Some 2,000 extremely pro-Israel community and religious leaders will meet in Washington on July 19, fan out across Capitol Hill and, in effect, tell their legislators: If you want our political backing, you must support the Jewish state — no ifs or buts.

There won’t be a single Jew among the citizen lobbyists. They will all be evangelical Christians, mainly ordained and lay pastors, embarking on the first major public action of the newly formed Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

The founder and leader of the group is the Rev. John C. Hagee of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church of San Antonio, Texas, and a televangelist whose broadcasts reach millions in the United States and 120 other countries.

In 1978, in the first of his 21 trips to Israel, “I went as a tourist and returned as a Zionist,” Hagee said.

Last week, Hagee visited Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego to enlist support for his 4-month-old organization –both among fellow evangelicals and in front of generally enthusiastic, but occasionally skeptical, Jewish audiences.

Addressing the Board of Rabbis of Southern California at the L.A. Jewish Community Building, Hagee outlined two major projects, in addition to the July summit in Washington:

  • Expand the existing “rapid response network” of 12,000 pastors, who can mobilize their congregations instantly to flood the White House and Congress with e-mails on any legislation affecting Israel’s security and well-being.
  • Institute an annual “Night to Honor Israel” in every major American city to assure Israel and Jews everywhere that “you do not stand alone.” The emotional event is already a fixture in large Texas cities and in other Southern states.

Hagee and his followers have given a total of $8.5 million to Israeli causes, including an orphanage and for absorption of Russian immigrants, he said, but the major impact of CUFI is likely to be on the political scene.

The pastor didn’t spell it out, but his associates made clear that they view CUFI as a kind of super American Israel Public Affairs Committee, representing some 50 million evangelical Christians. This constituency, in sharp contrast to the Jewish community, shares the conservative social outlook of the present administration and represents its hardcore political base.

This kind of influence cannot be ignored by U.S. Jews, said Shimon Erem, founding president of the Israel-Christian Nexus, who introduced Hagee.

“We don’t have too many friends; we cannot prevail without them,” said Erem.

CUFI’s purpose, according to its official brochure, is “to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, parachurch organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to biblical issues.”

The last six words may sound vague, but they are key to the evangelicals’ deeply rooted advocacy for Israel. As unquestioning believers in the inerrant truth of Scripture, Hagee and his followers are convinced that every inch of the God-given land belongs to the Jews alone and forever.

Hagee insists that he never interferes in the decisions of the Israeli government, but his opposition to the withdrawals in Gaza and the West Bank, for instance, gives concern to liberal Jewish organizations.

However, it is mainly Orthodox spokesmen, who otherwise agree with Hagee’s social and biblical views, who have publicly questioned whether the pastor’s underlying motive is the conversion of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

The Rabbinical Council of America, representing Orthodox rabbis and congregations, has officially protested the Israeli government’s license to Daystar, the second largest Christian network in the United States, to broadcast 24/7 over an Israeli satellite network.

Hagee, a major Daystar supporter and on-air personality, has consistently affirmed that he will not proselytize Jews, although the network’s lineup also includes “messianic” Jews with long pro-conversion records.

When Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, head of the anti-cult Jews for Judaism, raised this issue with Hagee at the Los Angeles meeting, the pastor did not respond directly, but his genial Southern folksiness took on a harder edge.

“If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians,” Hagee said.

 

This Week – In and Out


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wandering Jew – Spiritual Headliners


Dozens of young giggling girls dressed in their finest skirts and blouses crowded the front of the Universal Hilton ballroom, which was hot and stuffy and filled to standing-room only capacity with women in anticipation of the big event.

When the music started all the girls and women jumped to their feet and started clapping, beatific, expectant smiles on their faces.

It could have been a rock concert — perhaps the debut of famous boy band — but it was not that kind of music and these were not that kind of girls. For most of the 3,000 men and women — seated in separate rooms, with a video screen for the women — the happening was one of the most important ever in Los Angeles and in the lives of these ultra-Orthodox Jews.

These members of Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox community had come together for an asefa, a spiritual gathering, to see and hear two of Israel’s greatest rabbis speak words of Torah and offer spiritual reinforcement to this far-flung Diaspora community.

These were gedolei hador, luminaries, leaders of the generation and the heads of the two separate — and often divided — factions of the ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Yakov Aryeh Alter, known the Gerrer Rebbe, represents the Chasidic faction, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman leads the Litvak, or Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) faction.

To the outsider, the sea of black hats might look monolithic, but these were worlds among worlds gathered in the room. The Chasidim, with their long curly peyos (sidelocks), furry streimel hats and shiny black kaputa coats, came from a long tradition that began in the 17th century, one that emphasizes spiritual joy in addition to academic Torah study.

More austere in trim beards and black suits were the Lithuanians, or Mitnagdim, literally meaning opponents to Chasidism. But today the word usually refers to black-hat non-Chasidic Jews who have a more analytic approach to learning, as practiced in their yeshivas.

It was like the Jets and the Sharks coming together. In the men’s section, a three-level podium contained a veritable who’s who of the Los Angeles rabbinical world: Rabbi Avrohom Union of the Rabbinical Council of California, Rabbi Meyer May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Sholom Ginsberg of Toras Emes, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, Rabbi David Toledano of Adat Yeshurun Sephardic Congregation, Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik (an actual Gerrer Chasid). There, too, standing out in a black hat and startlingly royal blue tie, was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

To start things off, a number of rabbis spoke leading up to the two luminaries. They explained the significance of the evening.

“How could we be zocheh [meriting] for two gedolei hador to come here?” Rabbi Baruch Yehuda Gradon, from the Los Angeles Kollel, asked in that English-Hebrew-Yiddish mixture so prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community.

“It’s hard to believe we’re on the West Coast of the United States,” he said.

Rabbi Ginsberg took pride in the growth of the community in this nonheavenly city.

“We in Los Angeles, we are not Eretz Yisroel [Israel], we are not New York, we are not even Lakewood,” he said, referring to the New Jersey community where the men learn full-time in Kollel yeshivas.

But, he said, this city has its own network of Kollels, yeshivas and outreach institutions.

In recent years Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest Jewish community, has become a stop for visiting Jewish dignitaries — especially politicians, hoping to tap into the fundraising network here. The visit of these two luminaries — together for the first time — also put Los Angeles on the map as an up-and-coming spiritual center. And perhaps, this appearance also was a testing ground for such an unusual pairing, an event that might get out of hand in a community as big as New York or New Jersey or Israel.

The occasion was also an effort to show unity between the two factions.

“There is no division between a Chasid and a Mitnaged, between Ashkenaz and Sephard, and between a businessman and yeshiva man,” Rabbi Ginsberg said.

There were some divisions, of course, with the men and women in separate rooms. According to the Israeli press, the two rabbis chartered a special El Al flight with no women stewardesses and no women in first class — and without movies. But this is de rigueur for a community accustomed to segregation (especially the Chasidic community).

The main purpose of the evening was to offer a lifeline of spiritual support to the Los Angeles community — a soulful community in a city of soul-seekers and religious innovators.

Rabbi Steinman, 93, clutched the podium, his face pale as paper, flanked on each side by rabbis for support. He spoke for 20 minutes in Yiddish. The Gerer rebbe, Yakov Alter, a more robust man with white hair and peyos and heavy lidded eyes, delivered a short, one-minute speech from his chair.

Both men’s words were translated by Rabbi Usher Weiss in a crisp, booming European-accented English.

“If all we would do here tonight is look and listen, then this effort would be in vain and this trip would not have achieved its goal,” he said to the rapt audience, some of whom were taping the remarks on their PalmPilots and other electronic devices.

Weiss was mostly translating the words of Rabbi Steinman, but he seemed to intersperse his own comments, as well: “A person must feel every day that our worship of yesterday is not enough. Every day is a new responsibility. The angels are great but they have no tests. For us it’s all about [personal] growth.”

“What matters is not how big you are but how much you grow,” said Weiss in his translation/commentary.

It was no accident that this gathering fell on the holiday of Lag B’Omer, a celebration in the middle of a mourning period, the 49 days of counting the omer. Jewish groups around the city made traditional bonfires to mark the holiday, which, by some accounts, marks the end of an ancient plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

At the Universal Hilton, Weiss spoke of Rabbi Akiva, whose most famous teaching was love thy neighbor as thyself.

“Mutual respect, this is the lesson we have to learn on this day,” he said.

He blessed the rabbis and the audience, his voice ringing out loud and clear: “I am confident that each of the participants will remember this day to the last of his days.”

 

A Young Violinist With a Lot of Pluck


Her name is Camilla Tsiperovich. But, growing up in Azerbaijan, there were times she wasn’t allowed to use it. As a 9-year-old violinist performing for world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, she was told to call herself Camilla Gadjieva. Her headmaster at the Azerbaijan Conservatory considered this a more suitable name, one that reflected the Muslim heritage of her country. While representing Azerbaijan in international music competitions and spending her first year of high school at the famed Moscow Conservatory, she always understood that “there was something wrong because you were Jewish.”

Tsiperovich no longer needs to hide who she is. A year ago, her talent was noticed by Anita Hirsh, whose work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has given her a deep commitment to the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Hirsh, the widow of The Jewish Journal’s late publisher, Stanley Hirsh, sponsored Tsiperovich’s entrance into the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Now, at age 17, Tsiperovich is flourishing as a full-time student who divides her days between academic subjects and an intense focus on her chosen instrument.

Idyllwild Arts Academy, a boarding school nestled in the mountains above Palm Springs, is home to 270 high school students who are preparing for careers as artists, dancers, actors, filmmakers and musicians. The atmosphere is international, with about one-third of the student body hailing from Europe, Asia and Latin America. As an entering student with shaky English skills, Tsiperovich is enrolled in a basic course in English as a Second Language. She introduced herself to her classmates by saying, “I’m from Azerbaijan. None of you know where that is.”

The course has required her to write and speak often about the homeland she’s left behind. Todd Bucklin, the school’s ESL teacher, commends her for being frank and responsive: “It’s great having her strong presence in the class.”

He also admires her social progress. In her dormitory she’s been spotted watching Korean-language movies with her new Asian pals, reading the subtitles to understand what’s going on.

At Idyllwild, all academic classes are held in the morning, to leave afternoons free for lessons, rehearsals and practice sessions. Life is so busy that Tsiperovich finds time to practice her violin only five or six hours a day. Back home, her passion for the instrument led her to practice 12 hours daily. Such devotion had its downside: she was prone to developing injuries in her hands, wrists and feet.

Her family, though always supportive, is not especially musical. In fact, a career in music was completely Tsiperovich’s idea. She was only 3 when she saw a televised concert of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G and became obsessed with learning the violin. She began lessons before she turned 4, and it wasn’t long before she was winning competitions and presenting public recitals. She is also a gifted visual artist, who received her current instrument from an American oil company after it used one of her paintings in an advertising campaign.

Tsiperovich admits that in Azerbaijan it’s almost impossible to follow the rules of religious Judaism (her family’s tiny synagogue is now defunct). Nonetheless, she learned from an early age to respect Jewish tradition. She was active in her local chapter of the World Jewish Agency, also known as Sochnut, an organization that encourages Diaspora Jews to feel connected with the State of Israel. It was Sochnut that paved the way for her to participate in an Israeli music festival, where her violin performance won first prize. Because her stay in Israel coincided with her 13th birthday, she was able to celebrate an impromptu bat mitzvah in a local synagogue. Though her parents were far away, she was by no means lonely.

In Israel, Tsiperovich says in her careful, accented English, “I felt like I am at home. I felt so warm. People were so close to me.”

Now she’s learning to feel at home in the United States. She says Hirsh often acts as “my parent in America” and sees her during holidays. Hirsh took Tsiperovich to Utah over winter break for her first attempt at skiing. Still, it’s hard for her not to miss all that she has left behind. When her school took its spring break in late March, she flew to her home city of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, to reunite with her family for the first time in five months. As luck would have it, she was able to share in the festivities of her favorite holiday, Azerbaijan New Year.

Tsiperovich is determined to follow high school with four years at a major American music conservatory. Because her long-range goal is to forge a career as a soloist, it’s likely she won’t be spending many more New Years in her native land. The life of a professional musician can be heartbreakingly tough, but it offers one great reward.

“When you play music,” Tsiperovich says, “you feel really free.”

 

‘Top Gun’ Lawyer Aims to Aid Likud


The latest, and certainly most colorful, addition to the ranks of the local Likud leadership is Beverly Hills lawyer Myles L. Berman.

He is better known to citizens facing drunk driving charges — and to connoisseurs of advertising slogans — as The Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney, but these days, it’s the defense of Israel that is uppermost on his mind.

Last June, fed up with what he considers the failure of established organizations to involve the American Jewish and Israeli expatriate communities, he founded the Beverly Hills Chapter of the American Friends of Likud.

So far, he has recruited 11 upscale families, drawn primarily from the Iranian Jewish community, to which his wife, Mitra belongs. The members make up in financial clout what they lack in numbers, with a combined worth of over $1 billion, according to Berman.

Born into a strongly Democratic family but later a founder of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Berman, at 51, is a man of strong physique and opinions.

“I am fed up with intermarriage and with rabbis who reach out to gay and intermarried couples,” he said during an interview in his spacious Sunset Boulevard office.

A member of Sinai Temple, Berman fears that “to some extent, rabbis and lay leaders are unable to instill Jewish identity” into their constituents.

Currently, Berman is focusing his considerable energies on two primary issues:

One is to assure the election from America of a large pro-Likud slate for the upcoming quadrennial Congress of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), dubbed “The Parliament of the Jewish People,” and his own election to the No. 5 spot on the slate.

He is concerned, he said, that so few American Jews realize the importance of June elections for the WZO Congress, which plays a major role in determining relations between Israel and the Diaspora, the running of the Jewish Agency and the dispersal of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Berman’s second immediate goal is to persuade the Israeli government and Knesset to allow Israeli citizens living abroad to vote in Israeli elections.

“It matters to both Israel and American Jewry what the expatriates say and do,” he observed.

Berman has “grabbed [the two issues] in my teeth,” he said. With Berman that means putting his money and advertising savvy behind the effort. Indeed, his penchant for publicity elicits knowing smiles even from fellow Likudniks.

Berman is laying out $50,000 of his own money to place his messages on Israeli cable TV programs popular with Israeli expats, and in the Anglo-Jewish and Hebrew-language press in the United States.

“I hope the efforts will further my ultimate aim of bridging the gap between Israeli leaders and American Jews,” Berman said.

Any Jew over 18 is eligible to vote for delegates to the Congress of the World Zionist Organization online or via mail by Feb. 15. For details, go to www.azm.org or phone (888) 657-8850. The Congress will meet June 19-22 in Jerusalem.

 

Bye Bye Diaspora, Hello ‘New Jews’


“New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora” by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer (New York University Press, 2005).

Earlier this month, I participated in a consultation on “Jewish community in an era of looser connections.” Despite the presence of various paradigm-shifting luminaries, more than one reference was made to three absent influences, specifically, two people and a book. The people: Aaron Bisman and Matisyahu; the book: “New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora.” Bisman’s JDub Records seeks “cross-cultural … dialogue” through music indigenous to just about anywhere except Israel; Matisyahu, JDub’s breakout idol, is a baal teshuvah Lubavitcher who sings “Chasidic reggae.” They are the New Jews to whom the book’s authors, Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, refer.

Aviv, a sociologist, and Shneer, a historian, are both native Angelenos who now teach at the University of Denver. They argue that the bipolar models of home and exile, center and periphery, Israel and Diaspora, no longer apply to contemporary Jewish life. “What,” they ask, “does … an upper-middle-class professional, secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a working-class Israeli Sephardic religious Jew in Bnei Brak except the fact that each one calls herself a Jew?”

The authors propose a new map with “multiple homelands” that displaces Israel from “the center of the Jewish universe.” They point out that since the mid-19th century, most Jewish religious innovation has originated in the United States, rather than in Europe or Israel. As of 2003, more people emigrated from Israel to Russia than vice versa, and New York is the communal and philanthropic center of Jewish life. Ultimately, the authors find, contemporary Jews are at home wherever they live. “New Jews,” they argue, “connect emotionally and culturally with multiple places and traverse routes across national boundaries but are nonetheless rooted in a specific place they call home.”

In five case studies, Aviv and Shneer explore the implications of their argument. In Moscow, they find an increasingly vibrant Jewish urban center where Jews want to live, not leave. An examination of organized youth tourism to Poland and Israel uncovers a manipulative identity-building agenda that reveals the desperation of late 1990s “continuity” campaigns — but also points toward a future in which Jews crisscross the globe to explore their diverse cultural heritage. Two other chapters complement one another. A minisequel to their previous book, “Queer Jews,” considers collective identities that connect across geopolitical boundaries, and an ethnographic meditation explores the deep diversity cohabiting within the boundaries of New York City.

Finally, Los Angeles stars in a study of the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center. Aviv and Shneer provide long-overdue histories of the creation of these two institutions — and important critiques of their respective programs. At the Museum of Tolerance, the authors highlight the tension between the universalistic message of tolerance and the particularistic focus on the Shoah, a tension that leaves the visitor “suspicious of the comforts of America.” At the Skirball, they find a deeply assimilationist message in which Jewish values explicitly are presented as indigenously American. Even as the Skirball upends the logic of Diaspora and exile, the authors observe, it remains “intolerant of difference” when such difference might divide Jews from other Americans.

Religion largely is absent from the discussion, though this appears to be by design. Freed from the theological bonds of Klal Yisrael — though by no means dismissing its importance — the authors make no apologies for their challenge to the political centrality of Israel in secular “Jewish geography, culture, and memory.” They question the sociological utility of thinking about some entity called The Jewish People.

“The only thing that Jews have in common,” Aviv and Shneer conclude, “is the fact that they self-identify as Jews.”

To those who grew up within the narratives of the Holocaust and the return to Zion, this will be distressing; to those in Aviv and Shneer’s generation, like Bisman and Matisyahu, as well as to Chabad emissaries no less than Conservative and Reform outreach advocates — it is old news.

“New Jews'” greatest strength — that it is an open-ended introduction to a conversation, rather than a self-contained argument — also may be its primary weakness. Although I agree with Aviv and Shneer’s assertion that contemporary Jews are at home where they are, rather than in exile from an imagined homeland, I would have liked to see them explore some of the more dynamic implications of Jewish cultural transnationalism, or what scholars call “flows.” To study flows is to follow the movement of ideas, money, even music. Debbie Friedman tells of a Polish youth group’s request to hear the “traditional” melody for “Havdalah” (they meant her own, of course); I have sung Adat Ari El Rabbi Moshe Rothblum’s “V’Shamru” at a Czechoslovak Shabbaton. The late Pakistani Sufi musician Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan wrote a qawwali called, “Allah Hu”; a group of Americans and Israelis living in Israel adopted, adapted and exported the chant to the United States, where it was popularized by Debbie Friedman, Danny Maseng and New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun as the liturgical song “Hallelu.”

The authors also do not contend with the sporadic but serious conflicts over Jewish being-at-home, whether in Paris and Brussels or on “Bill O’Reilly” and MSNBC. In the United States, controversies last year over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and this year over “Christianization” and the “War on Christmas” paradoxically juxtapose cultural complacency and communal insecurity. In Western Europe, anti-Semitic attacks by immigrant Arabs reflect both anti-Israel political violence and the jealous rage of the socially marginal against those perceived to have made it “inside,” those who are “at home.” These, too, are the experiences of “New Jews.”

Still, one hardly can fault the authors for provoking the reader to respond. And this is Aviv and Shneer’s greatest achievement with this book: to force us, gently but insistently, to consider the global implications of a world where Zion is a given and not a proposal; where perfectly respectable Jews emigrate from Jerusalem and make pilgrimages to New York; where, indeed, Los Angeles is the center of a Jewish universe.

J. Shawn Landres is the director of research at Synagogue 3000 and a visiting research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies.

 

L.A. Jewry Needs More Exploring


Like any self-respecting East Coast native, I arrived in Los Angeles more than a decade and a half ago armed with the usual stereotypes of this city — namely, it lacked intellectual and cultural “gravitas,” was distinguished by its traffic and smog and defied all known logic of urban organization. Almost immediately, I came to realize that while there was a grain of truth in all of these claims, Los Angeles had many virtues. To begin with, it was far more playful and open to reinvention than the solemn and self-serious East Coast cities in which I was raised and educated. More substantially, it is the site of immense cultural energy that encourages initiative and innovation.

Since arriving, I’ve also shed another stereotype that I had brought with me as a historian of the Jewish experience. Trained as a Europeanist, I had been inculcated to believe that Los Angeles was to New York as America was to Europe — a pale imitation of the real McCoy, a “parvenu” in a world in which antiquity and social stratification bestow merit. This view, unfortunately, is all too common among East Coast or Eurocentric academics.

It is quite surprising, for example, that Los Angeles, the site of frequent innovation, merits no place in the definitive account of American Judaism recently authored by Jonathan Sarna. What this lacuna suggests is that we are in need of more research on the L.A. Jewish experience leading to a new scholarly synthesis that blends cultural, political, social, religious, and institutional stories into one tale. This research must attend to both the local and national contexts of L.A. Jewry.

For it is hard to deny that America has been one of the most successful sites of Jewish settlement in history, if not the most successful of Diaspora communities. Nor can one quarrel with the premise that Los Angeles is one of the most interesting laboratories of urban experimentation today, including its Jewish community.

What make Los Angeles and its Jews so interesting and worthy of attention? Indeed, why should the L.A. Jewish community be a subject of serious study for researchers. Here are some reasons:

1) Size — Los Angeles is the second-largest Jewish city in North America and one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world. Starting with but eight young men in 1850, the L.A. Jewish community has exploded in population over the course of its 150-year history, reaching its current population of 500,000-600,000. It has developed a vast network of organizations to which Jews of different religious, cultural and political persuasions belong. It also has a sizable majority of Jews without affiliation of any sort, who represent an important and largely untapped source for those intent on studying the challenges facing the American Jewish future.

2) Diversity — Similar to the larger city, the L.A. Jewish community is blessed with rich cultural and human resources. The arrival of thousands of Jews from Iran, Israel and the former Soviet Union over the past 30 years has injected tremendous diversity and energy into Jewish communal and institutional life. In Los Angeles today are some of the most textured and diverse ethnic Jewish neighborhoods anywhere in the world. We have an opportunity to observe in these neighborhoods, and among the recent arrivals, familiar patterns from the history of immigration to this country — the initial desire to organize among one’s own group, followed by a desire for integration into the mainstream, followed by a desire to reclaim parts of a fading or lost native culture. We also have the opportunity to juxtapose these recent waves of migration with the internal American waves that brought thousands of Jews to Los Angeles in early- to mid-20th century.

3) The Sunny Side — Jews have come to Los Angeles for the same reasons that millions of others have: sunny weather and an accompanying sense of social optimism and economic opportunity. Los Angeles has been very good to its Jews, who have assumed positions of prominence in Hollywood, the real estate business and local politics. Moreover, Jews have thrived on the ethos of social mobility and cultural experimentation for which the city is known (and often mocked elsewhere). Thus, they have constantly moved, often westward, in search of open space. And they have constantly remolded themselves from new arrivals into city elders, political radicals, moviemakers, and neo-kabbalists. In this sense, the L.A Jewish experience may not diverge radically from the larger American Jewish template of opportunity and upward mobility. It is the same (in terms of seizing opportunity), just more so.

4) The Dark Side — Some have observed that the “sunshine” narrative of Los Angeles must be tempered by a healthy dose of the “noir.” According to that darker story, evoked by Mike Davis in “City of Quartz ” and more recently in the film, “Crash,” Los Angeles’ veneer of opportunity and mobility barely conceal the barrenness of a vast urban wasteland, marked by anomie, isolation and a glaringly absent center. This “noir” account of the L.A. Jewish experience cannot be dismissed out of hand. It pushes us to think not just of the Hollywood studio bosses, but of the blacklisted writers accused of communist sympathies; not just of the conspicuously affluent, but of the invisible working-class poor; not just of the self-assured guardians of the faith, but of those who struggle to find anything meaningful in their lives as Jews.

Ranging between the narrative extremes of sunshine and noir, the Jews of Los Angeles make for one of the most intriguing and complex Jewish urban centers around. This is all the more remarkable given how understudied L.A. Jewry is. To say this is not to diminish in any way the pioneering labors of Rabbi William Kramer and Norton Stern, who did much to preserve the historical legacy of L.A. Jewry. Nor is to take credit away from groups like the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly or the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, which work to continue the work of Kramer and Stern.

Rather, it is to say that the last major monograph devoted to the history of Jewish Los Angeles was written 35 years ago by Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gartner. Their “History of the Jews of Los Angeles” (1970) covers a great deal of ground, especially in tracing the institutional history of the community over the course of its first century. But much more remains to be studied and written, especially since the city has grown and changed in dramatic ways. Scholars ranging from Deborah Dash Moore to George Sanchez to Raphael Sonenshein have shed considerable light on one or another of the city’s Jewish history. But we need more.

A step in this direction will take place this weekend when leading scholars, community activists and political officials gather for a conference, “L.A. Jewry Then and Now,” to be held on consecutive days at the Skirball Cultural Center, the Autry National Center and the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. At the heart of the deliberations will be two sets of key questions. First, how do L.A. Jews, in all their ethnic diversity and geographic dispersion, fit into the larger cultural and social mosaic of Los Angeles? In what ways is the Jewish experience different from and similar to the experience of other groups in this explosively multicultural city (Mexicans, Chinese, Koreans, Armenians, etc.)? A second set of questions is refracted through a broader national lens: What is the place of L.A. Jewry in the larger narrative of American Jewish history? Is L.A. Jewry unique or typical of the American Jewish experience?

Answers to these questions will, of necessity, be provisional. But they will set the stage for more systematic work over the coming years, work that will begin to fill large gaps not only in the history of the city of Los Angeles, but also in the history of the modern Jewish experience.

For more information about the Nov.11-13 conference, contact UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies at (310) 267-5327 or visit www.cjs.ucla.edu.

 

Jewish Weddings in Space


Joss Whedon’s quirky space Western, “Serenity,” features outlaws who act like Wild West gunslingers, an assassin who forces his victims to commit hara kiri, a telepath who inexplicably goes berserk, a Buddhist planet — and Jewish nuptials in space.

Based on Whedon’s short-lived 2002 TV series, “Firefly,” whose fan base helped spur the movie, “Serenity” revolves around the outlaws’ attempts to discover the telepath’s true identity after she beats up everyone in a bar.

Enter hacker broadcaster Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), who plays the bar’s security tapes for the renegades — as well as a video of his wedding to a bimbo android. In one of the film’s funniest moments, she looks on robotically as Krumholtz (CBS’s “NUMB3RS”) ecstatically stomps on a glass at the end of the Jewish ceremony.

Mr. Universe is not the first member-of-the-tribe character the non-Jewish Whedon, has created, says Jewhoo Editor Nate Bloom; his titular Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a sidekick named Willow Rosenberg, among other multicultural pals.

Whedon said he created “Serenity,” which opens Friday, as a kind of “Wagon Train” in space. That’s about how Gene Roddenberry described his conceit for the original “Star Trek” series. But unlike “Trek” and many other sci-fi works, “Serenity” depicts real, rather than invented, human religions. So while a Jewish wedding in space may sound offbeat, hey, just think of it as the final frontier for the Diaspora, though don’t expect bubbe to approve of the intermarriage android thing.