Relationship advice: Marry young


I know the arguments that people give for delaying marriage: 

“I’m not ready.”

“I need to be financially secure first.”

“Right now, I’m preoccupied with ____” (fill in the blank).

“To tell you the truth, I’m having too much fun to settle down.” (This argument is usually offered by males — and generally told only to other males.)

Others cite data suggesting that marrying later means less likelihood of divorcing.

I would like to make some arguments on behalf of early marriage.

The first and best argument for early marriage — providing, of course, that one meets a good person and believes this person will also be a good parent and/or provider — is that it forces you to grow up.

Nothing — and I mean nothing — makes us grow up as much as marriage does. Children are a close second, but the maturity leap from singlehood to marriage is still greater than the maturity leap from marriage without children to marriage with children.

The problem today is that becoming mature is not even on the list of most young people’s life goals. If anything, staying immature — committing to no one and remaining dependent on others — is more of a goal.

That is what “not ready” usually means.

Putting aside the financial issue, which we will address, “not ready” almost always means not willing — not “not ready” — to take on the permanent commitment to someone else that marriage entails.

Why were people throughout history ready to commit to marriage at a much younger age than people today? Only because society expected them to become adults at a younger age than today. Nothing makes you an adult as much as responsibility does. And no responsibility makes you an adult as much as marital responsibility.

And why, even today, are religious Jewish and Christian young men and women ready to marry in their early 20s? Because their values and their culture expect them to.

Let’s be honest. “I’m not ready” is usually a statement of emotional immaturity even when the person is otherwise a wonderful and responsible man or woman. 

As for the financial aspect of “not ready,” this is puzzling. People who say this may be entirely sincere, but they may also be fooling themselves. For one thing, two people living together cuts many costs almost in half. For another, nothing spurs hard work as much as marriage (and family) does. Married men make more money than single men. Moreover, many of the happiest and most bonding memories of couples are the early days when they financially struggled.

Another argument pertains to each sex separately. 

To women, I would argue that:

a) More good marriageable men are available when a woman is 23 than when she is 33, not to mention 43. To deny this is to deny reality. To dismiss this as “sexist” is to complain that life is sexist. Moreover, it is irrelevant whether it is “sexist”; all that matters is whether it is true.

b) She will learn little more about men and relationships by either going from relationship to relationship after college or by living with a man for many years without marrying. In other words, all those years a woman spends avoiding looking for a man to marry are largely wasted. There is rarely major emotional growth — this is just as true for men — during those unmarried years. And, in the meantime, she might have been able to find a good man and begin the most satisfying thing in life — making a home and, hopefully, a family. 

c) The notion that marriage will interfere with her career means she believes that, in the long run, career success will bring her greater joy and happiness than marital success. For the vast majority of women, this is not true. Young women who do not believe this should speak to successful single women in their 40s.

To men, I would argue that:

Guys who spend their lives avoiding marriage are, as a general rule, not impressive. That is one reason committed bachelors rarely get elected to high office. Neither sex thinks much of them. I understand men “sowing their wild oats” in the belief that it can help later on in life if they are plagued with curiosity about what it would be like to be with another woman. But after a certain age, chasing women is quite pathetic, and men doing so are spinning their wheels in terms of personal growth. Unfortunately, not all men want to grow up — just ask all the women looking for a man who complain of a surfeit of “man-boys.” 

I learned all this first from traditional Judaism, and later from life and from callers to my radio show. 

In order to be a judge on the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, a man had to be married and a father. Also, in traditional Jewish life, a man could not wear a tallit (prayer shawl) in synagogue until he was married. It was the community’s unsubtle way of telling males that until they committed to a woman in marriage, they were still considered a boy.

There are, of course, exceptions. But in general, boys and girls stay single. If they want to become men and women, they marry.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Letters to the Editor: Wilshire Boulevard Temple, peace talks, Women of the Wall


Celebrating L.A.’s ‘Grand Dame’ Synagogue

Thank you so very much for your column about the rescue and restoration of Wilshire Boulevard Temple — the “grand dame” of synagogues in Los Angeles (“Wilshire Boulevard,” Aug. 2). 

I am one of the fortunate who attended religious school and confirmation at the Wilshire Boulevard campus. Every religious memory I have from childhood emanates from that building — be it standing in the sukkah in the courtyard, sitting in the small auditorium viewing the first Holocaust film I ever saw, or continually staring at the unbelievably beautiful murals that captivated our attention at services. 

I compliment Rabbi Leder and the congregants who funded this restoration. In a city that rarely respects the old and tears down quicker than it builds, the restoration of this landmark is not only courageous and forward thinking; it is respectful as well. Buildings like this are not just tents that can be erected and broken down at will. They are living, breathing structures that can modify and mold to the changing needs of their inhabitants.

Leslie Aranoff-Hirschman via e-mail


On Peace Talks

David Suissa thinks Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory might be legal (“Why Peace Talks Will Fail,” Aug. 9).

He should think again.

In 2004, the highest judicial body in the world, the International Court of Justice, issued an advisory opinion. All 15 judges sitting on the court agreed that Israel settlements are illegal. There was no dissent or disagreement. It happens that two of the judges, Rosalyn Higgins and Thomas Buergenthal, are Jewish. (Buergenthal is also a Holocaust survivor.)

Unless the judges are suffering from mass psychosis, the legal question would appear to be resolved.

Norman G. Finkelstein via e-mail

David Suissa responds:

Mr. Finkelstein missed something important. The international panel he quotes is littered with members from anti-Israel, anti-democratic countries whose positions tend to stay loyal to the foreign policy of their respective regimes. To cite just one example of its bias, in reaching its conclusion, the panel used the work of U.N. “expert” Jean Ziegler, the man who created the Muammar Gadhafi human rights prize. If Mr. Finkelstein were interested in a serious advisory opinion, he could have cited the legal scholar who headed the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Stephen Schwebel, who wrote in 1970 regarding Israel’s legal case: “Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against that prior holder, better title.”


The Western Wall as an Emotional and Religious Barrier

Either Leah Aharoni is unaware of or hostile to the democratic ideal of separation of church and state (“Women of the Wall’s Collateral Damage,” Aug. 9). That is what Women of the Wall is attempting to achieve; gender equality is its ultimate goal. It is disingenuous for Ms. Aharoni to suggest that gender equality in civil matters such as marriage and divorce, among others, is the law of the land. In Israel, it is not. Gender equality should be a guaranteed civil right, not a religious beneficence. 

We are forbidden by the second commandment to worship symbols. While the Kotel is a holy site, we may only pray at it, not to it. But, among many ultra-Orthodox Jews it seems as if the latter holds more sway than the former. Any Jew should be allowed to pray anywhere along the length of the Wall without fear of obstruction, intimidation or arrest. Bear in mind, those women arrested were detained by civil authorities.   

Finally, don’t make waves in front of the world? Pathetic. Acknowledge the problems, address them, and fix them. They are real, undemocratic, inhumane, painful and shameful.  

Robert Barash, Los Angeles


There is more reason for Diaspora Jews to feel disconnected. On my first trip to Israel, about two years ago, I went to the Western Wall with a dear friend. We were dressed appropriately in long skirts and arms covered and were not wearing tallit or yarmulkes. There were Orthodox women seated in front of the Wall sitting on white plastic chairs. We politely asked to be able to touch the Wall and gestured our wish in case they didn’t understand English, as neither of us spoke Hebrew. We tried several times in several places. No one would let us in. Finally, we just pushed our way in. It was hard to pray when I was angry. 

On the other side, my husband and a friend who isn’t Jewish but wore a yarmulke were allowed at the Wall and into the study rooms.

The wall is not exclusively for the Orthodox. All of us should have access. I had no connection to [Women of the Wall] previously, but I certainly do now! Who gives anyone in Israel the right to decide who is a Jew and who is not and who should be allowed in holy places? If the Orthodox wish us to monetarily support Israel, they should cultivate us, not reject us.

Rhoda Becker via e-mail

Nice Jewish goys


On a recent Friday night, a group of 20-something foodies gathered to celebrate Shabbat. Well, maybe not 'celebrate' in the traditional sense of prayers and candles, but a Sabbath meal all the same. In the back of a thrift store in downtown Manhattan, two long wooden tables had been erected for a family-style eating experience among the displays of distressed jeans and vintage belts.

Several times a week, the store is turned from a Soho boutique into City Grit, a 'culinary salon' founded in 2011 by Sarah Simmons, an emerging chef recently named one of “America's Greatest New Cooks” by Food & Wine magazine. Ms. Simmons was standing in front of a comfortably packed room, explaining the genesis of her 'Southern Shabbat' dinner, which we'd soon be tucking into.

“Tonight is really special for me, which is funny, considering that I'm a Presbyterian from North Carolina,” she told the assembled, who had each paid $55 to attend the dinner (pricey wine assortment not included). “But I've been going over to friends' houses for years for Shabbat, and hopefully soon I'll become an honorary Jew myself.”

“Though I'll have to wait till my grandmother dies,” she added ruefully. “And I don't want that to happen anytime soon.” Ms. Simmons' take on the classic Sabbath meal featured a buttermilk-dressed salad, a thick chickpea stew–or “hummus soup,” as Ms. Simmons put it–that included rice grits and kofta meatballs, a barbecued main course from the newly opened BrisketTown and a dessert of chocolate mousse over mini-latkes. “I always loved dunking Wendy's fries into Frosties,” Ms. Simmons offered by way of explanation.

Was it traditional? Well, no. Was it kosher? Well, it was kosher-ish, and no one was complaining. “When Shabbat is offered to you, it's hard to say no,” said Stephanie Feder, a series producer at ITV Studios. Also in attendance were a New York Post features reporter and a relocated Australian couple who had scoured the Internet to find an inclusive Shabbat meal in the city.

“We try to go to Shabbat dinner every week,” said Jordana Shell, a social media consultant who had run the online division of a fashion magazine back in Australia. Her husband, Adam Shell, works in finance. “It's a good excuse not to cook at home,” she said.

“It's not like there are a lot of Jewish people in Australia,” Mr. Shell grinned.

Shiksa Simmons's concept of a culinary Shabbat–more of a meal than a Sabbath–was something she picked up from the Young Manhattanite Shabbat. So was mine.

The first time I ever heard of lobster kugel was at the home of Andrew Krucoff, web content director of 92Y and founder of New York's most brutal media Tumblr gang, Young Manhattanite (YM). It was 2011, and I was in awe of the individuals who would come over to Mr. Krucoff's cramped Lower East Side apartment and linger in the 7-by-3-foot kitchen. On any given weekend, you could find Sloane Crosley (who did, in fact, bring cake–a flourless chocolate one, to be precise), various Gawker alums and performance artist Nate Hill, infamous for dressing like a dolphin on the subway and offering free lap rides, as well as for putting up posters in Williamsburg for a “crack” delivery service. (The crack was candy, but people seemed to love the novelty of ordering it anyway.)

The whole YM Shabbat scene was as treif as can be, and not just in the kugel sense. Non-Jews frequently outnumbered the Jews, or at least the practicing ones–though you could always count on at least one person to remember the blessing over the wine, if not the theme of his bar mitzvah. One time, I proudly slaved for 20 whole minutes on matzo ball soup mix, only to have it served with a pepperoni pizza that had just been delivered. A Coke cake–the kind that comes from a can, not a Colombian cartel–stands out as a particularly delicious example of the flagrant disregard for tradition, both cultural and culinary.

“I was purposely putting out nonkosher food like shrimp cocktail,” said Mr. Krucoff, who began having “YM Seders” in 2006. “But I wouldn't say I was trying to have Shabbat ironically. The parties wouldn't have been fun if [The Forward cartoonist] Eli Valley hadn't been there, doing the hamotzi [blessing over the challah] and reading and interpreting the d'var Torah [Torah portion] of the week.”

Of course, what counted as a d'var Torah had a very loose definition; in one notable instance, BlackBook senior editor Tyler Coates just read aloud the climatic scene from Sophie's Choice. One night there was no food, and everyone just sat in a circle and took turns reading their favorite portions from the erotica collection Coming and Crying.

“We weren't that religiously observant, but we liked the idea of this self-created religious ritual,” said Mr. Valley. “For me, it's about carving out a space of personal ownership with friends. It's a way of connecting to each other but not abiding by any of the rituals that we don't consider necessarily holy, in and of themselves.”

But if YM Shabbat was on the fringe edge of hipster sacrilege–enough to warrant a small piece in The New York Times and a much longer piece on The Awl–it was reflecting a larger movement in millennial culture. After two decades of Wall Street-like ambition, in which having your BlackBerry on-hand during family meals and working through the weekend was en vogue, the events of the early 21st century hit urbanites where it hurt.

We weren't, as Tom Wolfe put it, “Masters of the Universe.” The world would keep revolving if we took it easy on a Friday night or, hell, the whole weekend. There was the 'slow' movement in food and lifestyle (the latter adopted by Arianna Huffington and promoted on her 24/7 newsicle website, which always seemed a little suspect). Self-help gurus like Timothy Ferriss urged us to work less and take short cuts. It doesn't take a leap of logic to figure out why the idea of Shabbat–literally, a day of rest–would be appealing, no matter what your religion.

All of which isn't to say that traditionalism has flown out the window, or that every Sabbath dinner is some freaky free-for-all. Take Zachary Thacher. A 39-year-old with his own digital ad agency, Mr. Thacher has spent every Friday for the past 11 years holding his own form of Shabbat dinner in a “traditionalist egalitarian” community he created on Manhattan's Lower East Side, called Kol haKfar.

“It does matter to me that it's all in Hebrew, that people are actually following the traditions,” he said. “But it's equally important to be progressive. We have women leading the service, and we have had a long-time member of the minyan who is African-American and converted to Judaism. And we've had other women of color as participants. so we're very open to any kind of people, as long as they are open to learning and being serious.”

At first blush, Messrs. Thacher and Krucoff may seem to exist on separate ends of the theological spectrum, yet they are both examples of how the rules of Sabbath can become flexible when adapting to modern times. Yes, even in the Orthodox community. If you don't regularly attend temple, for instance, you can just log on to Shabbat.com, a sort of Airbnb for Jewish dinners. And while inviting total strangers into your home might seem unnatural to New Yorkers–who tend to avert their eyes in the elevator to avoid knowing their neighbors–one member who contacted me over the phone claimed that the honor system works. “You can leave reviews for people, and to join the site you need to have some Jewish references,” said the man, who only wished to be identified as a 'practicing Orthodox' individual.

“We open our home to everyone, gay or straight, man or woman,” he said, noting, however, that the people would have to be either Jewish or seriously interested in Judaism. Not that he would pass judgment on someone else's version of Shabbat.

“There's a whole Jewish universe, and one of the nice things about Shabbat.com is that it's open to everybody,” he stressed. “We don't have someone at the door checking ID.”

When asked what kind of people usually sign up to attend, rather than host, meals, our source made Shabbat sound like JDate. “Oh, it's usually young, single people,” he said. “And you sound like a nice, young Jewish girl” he trailed off.

And there it was, as brazen as the gefilte fish matzo tacos that once sat as a centerpiece at a YM Shabbat: the implied question that every young person will find herself being asked on a Friday night, no matter what her religious beliefs happen to be.

“You're single, right?”


 

This article first appeared in the New York Observer, Jan. 23, 2013.  Reprinted by permission.

Lance Armstrong and the disease of wild narcissism and ruthless ambition


Lance Armstrong proved surprisingly poor at backpedaling. His stone-faced, reluctant regret made many who watched the interview wonder if this was an illness. Why did this man mow down associates, besmirch employees, lie, cheat and bully his way to the top of a sport he is now insouciantly tearing down around him?

One way to understand disease is to map its contagion. So let’s look for Armstrong’s ailment throughout our society. In sports, Barry Bonds was headed for the hall of fame. But that was not enough. So the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were in a (steroid fueled) home run derby, Bonds began to dope as well. Five neck sizes later, his head swelled in every literal and metaphorical sense, people began to suspect. Of course Bonds was not alone; he is just a standout in a widespread scandal of those for whom good enough was not good enough. A keen diagnostician begins to detect signs of Armstrong illness.

Corporations are another place to look. CEOs now command salaries not twice as much as workers, which used to be the case, but 20, 30 and even 40 times as much. Even with this steroidal salary rage, there have been a string of indictments for misdeeds on Wall Street, because apparently hundreds of millions of dollars are no disincentive to cheating to make money.

The disease is a compound of wild narcissism and ruthless ambition. It threads its way unchecked through our social and political life. Music is a fertile breeding ground: Songs that once spoke of yearning or searching have turned increasingly to boasting and strutting. Awards shows proliferate as self-celebration becomes the preferred mode of public presentation. Turn on the radio at random: The socially conscious ode has given way to the sexually flamboyant shout-out. Sometimes it seems that the whole world is doing an end zone dance.

The illness is not ambition. Ambition is the engine that drives achievement. But Armstrong and Wall Street and sports figures and so many other areas parade before our weary eyes the wreckage of ruthless ambition. The greater good is a sucker’s succor feeding the individual good. Why don’t I want a background check if I sell a gun individually? Because it is me, that’s why! Any infringement on my autonomy, no matter how considerable the benefit to society, violates the code of ruthlessness that dictates that my good supersedes others. Ego needs are their own justification. The new motto is Ego ergo sum.

The biblical counterexample is worth remembering. When God chose Moses to lead the Jewish people, it was not because Moses leapt in the air, in the manner of Shrek’s donkey, yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” Rather Moses repeatedly protested his unworthiness. His humility qualified him for leadership. Self-effacement no longer gains traction in our age of wild narcissism. Television ads proclaim the perfection of each candidate. Our candidate is ideal and our positions unassailable. Partisan unwillingness to concede any wisdom to the other side reminds us of the great axiom of the age: anyone else’s triumph diminishes me.

As income disparities rise and social mobility freezes, good fortune is reinterpreted as merit. I am on the top of the heap not because I was born with certain attributes to certain parents but rather because I am, quite obviously, great. There was a generation (think the Kennedys, the Bushes) when enviable advantages of birth were a call to public service. Jacob Astor, one of the richest men of his day, deliberately stayed on the Titanic as it sank to give way on the lifeboats to women and children. How many modern hedge-fund tycoons would emulate him? Now riches are a call to steroidal self-regard. In the storm of the “I” no community can exist. We are alone together.

Lance Armstrong is the ugly face of American exceptionalism. This blessed country became prosperous with the ethic of individual work benefitting the larger community. Teamwork overrode stardom; the soloist paid obeisance to the band; public service was about being vessels, not victors. Now the plural is invoked to evade responsibility; so Armstrong cannot recalled who “we sued” as though he was part of the law firm of Armstrong and cannot be expected to remember all the small fish caught up in the netting of his litigation.

This spells trouble. The prophet Micah’s advice for life: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God, no longer tracks for our children. To do deals, to love spotlights and to swagger self-importantly – that is more near the lesson they are learning. Such lessons come with consequences.

At the founding of the republic Ben Franklin put it crisply: We must all hang together, he said, or we will all hang separately. The gallows may be gilded but wise old Ben is still right. Our greatness, after all, is dependent on our goodness. 


Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

For science and U.S. jobs: Allow Israelis to visit America visa-free


The majority of Americans are supportive of Israel. Still, for good reasons, many in Jewish and pro-Israel communities are deeply anxious about both the security of Israel and the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon and maintaining U.S. support for Israel in a chaotic and dangerous Middle East will remain pillars of the pro-Israel movement.  Nonetheless, there are other goals the community should pursue that will help truly deepen our nations’ ties, promote medical solutions and help boost much-needed economic growth in America.

American–Israel cooperation in high-tech sectors, including biotechnology and medical research, green energy, defense, homeland security, and information technology have spurred countless vital joint business and research endeavors.  Too often, however, Israeli entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists have to wait for several months to get a visa to visit America.  Conferences and meetings in the medical community and private sector to promote joint innovations and ventures are made unnecessarily difficult.

Israel is currently not included from the 37 countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which includes most of Europe as well as Australia and several Asian countries including South Korea and Japan.  Most recently, Taiwan was admitted to the program in 2012.  The citizens of these countries can visit the United States for business, tourism, or seeing friends and family for up to 90 days without a visa.  Israelis with passports can visit most of Europe, Latin America, Canada, and several other countries around the world, visa-free.

Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX), senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are spearheading a new bill in the House of Representatives to add Israel to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.  In a remarkable sign of support, over 30 Representatives, including many senior members, join with Sherman and Poe in introducing the legislation this week.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the new Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, is introducing the same legislation in the Senate.

Congressman Sherman introduced this bill in the House last year with 13 members including lead cosponsor Congressman Poe.  34 Members cosponsored Sherman’s bill, which brought much-needed attention to this important issue.  Sherman, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship, is now spearheading an even bigger coalition on Capitol Hill to move this bill through the new 113th Congress.

There are many indicators of how breaking barriers between Israelis and Americans would enhance an already vibrant scientific and economic relationship. With a disproportionately huge number of per capita scientific papers, patents filed, and startup companies in Israel compared to the world, there is great potential for increased U.S-Israeli business initiatives to the benefit of both nations.

With increased collaborations in finding ways to stop things like Alzheimer’s, Autism and other health issues, more close contact can only mean progress on the human level. This is vital as today another American gets Alzheimer’s every 68 seconds, and that number will only double as the baby boomers get older.

Moreover, the CDC says that 1 out of 88 American children have Autism. Jews need to take a special interest in that area as there is a link between the age of the father and the likelihood of a child having Autism. Jews wait longer to have children than any other demographic group in America. In the waiting rooms of the top medical experts for Autism, there is a minyan of Jewish mothers waiting for help for their children.
 
The Israeli life sciences and biotechnology industry is growing at an astonishing rate.  A nation of 7 million, Israel has about 1,000 life science companies, hundreds of them formed within the past few years.

The Jewish state’s highly educated and savvy entrepreneurs have invested in American jobs and growth. The Israeli private sector has invested well over $50 billion in the United States since 2000.  Israeli Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the United States was $7.2 billion in 2010 alone.

During an April 2012 trip to Israel, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie promoted U.S.-Israeli business and signed a letter of cooperation with Teva, one of the largest, most cutting-edge pharmaceutical and drug manufacturing companies in the world.  Teva has hundreds of employees in New Jersey and has been offered financial incentives by that state to build more facilities and add to job growth.

It’s that kind of entrepreneurial spirit that led Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway to make its first-ever foreign acquisition in Israel and declare that, “Israel… has a disproportionate amount of brains and energy.”  Berkshire Hathaway purchased 80% of Iscar, an Israeli maker of precision blades and drills, in 2006.

It’s time for the U.S. to let Israeli entrepreneurs and travelers to visit our country freely.

The increased travel of Israelis to the U.S. would also help America’s tourism sector. Trips to the U.S. by Israelis totaled nearly 320,000 annually the past three years.  In 2011, Israelis spent over $1.6 billion in travel and airfare to the United States.  If Israel enters the program, closer to half a million Israelis are expected to travel to the United States per year.

With 7.8% unemployment and tepid GDP growth in the U.S., we can benefit financially from the innovation resulting from greater American-Israeli science and technology cooperation and business – as well as boosting our tourism and domestic travel sectors.

The Jewish and pro-Israel community should join with U.S. business leaders and representatives of information technology, biotechnology, medical research, defense, and other high-tech industries in backing the passage of theVisa Waiver for Israel Act into law this year.


Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the Founder & President of www.LaszloStrategies.com and the Co-Founder and Director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust.

Is murder wrong?: Progressive dialogue


In my last column, I made the case that if there is no God who declares murder wrong, murder is not, in fact, wrong. While human beings can believe that murder is wrong, without God, right and wrong are our moral opinions, not moral facts.

This is so basic and so logically obvious that no prominent secular or atheist philosopher I have dialogued with over the past 35 years has disagreed with it. Professor Jonathan Glover, one of Europe’s preeminent moralists, acknowledged this at the beginning of our debate at Oxford University. So did professor Steve Stewart-Williams, lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Swansea University in Wales, an atheist who is the author of “Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life” (Cambridge University, 2010). The very premise of his book is that because there is no God, there is no ultimate morality or meaning to life, so we have to fashion a godless morality and meaning. And one of the most revered liberal philosophers of the modern era, Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty, wrote that for secular liberals (like himself), “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’ ” (“Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” [Cambridge University Press, 1989]).

The other point I made is that I believe that this fundamental moral issue of life — if there is no God, murder isn’t evil — is rarely preached from non-Orthodox pulpits or taught in non-Orthodox seminaries. I would like to add two points. One is that I have no denominational agenda here: I am not Orthodox, and I have attended a Reform synagogue for about 25 years. The other is that the divine basis of morality and the need to spread that idea was one of the core beliefs of Reform Judaism when it was founded.

What I want to discuss in this column are Jewish Journal reader reactions to this column.

First, reactions as printed in the Comments section of jewishjournal.com.

Comment by Dern: “Were I to submit such an article to any credible institution, I would expect them to throw it in the trash, not put it on the front page. This article is so bad I just had to comment on it. Why does JewishJournal print this stuff?”

Comment by Reader: “I see three possibilities here: 1) Dennis Prager is intellectually dishonest; 2) Dennis Prager is just not very bright; 3) both of the above. This kind of straw-man argument is just pathetic and I hoped I could expect better from the Jewish Journal (guess not as long as you keep publishing this tripe).”

Comment by Craig S. Maxwell: “So much then (I guess) for Jefferson’s self-evident truths. Or does Dennis think our nation was founded on a mere poetic fiction? … See Peter Kreeft for more details at: http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/05_relativism/relativism_transcription.htm”

Comment by Rheda Gomberg: “What a waste of my time. What the hell did he say? How can anyone be so full of himself and say so little. Shame on JJ.”

Comment by LA Reader: “Mr. Prager’s tripe is a continuing embarrassment to this newspaper. Let him leave it in talk-radioland, where it finds an eager audience.”

There was also one letter in the printed edition of the Jewish Journal. It came from Joshua Holo, dean of the Los Angeles Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 

Dr. Holo wrote, among other things: “I object to his heedless and gratuitous hostility. It is difficult not to read Prager as a provocateur, claiming incisive and close analysis, while in fact painting in broad strokes of facile caricature.

“HUC-JIR and every other synagogue and seminary with which I have interacted teach God as the source of morality, even if they do not always cast aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently.”

I cite these reactions because they typify the way too many on the left react to ideas with which they disagree: belittle the person who made the argument and demand he not be published (or be invited to speak at a university or to a progressive church or synagogue).

No one, including Dr. Holo, refuted my thesis that if there is no God, murder isn’t wrong. 

For example, Craig S. Maxwell cites Jefferson’s “self-evident truths” as a refutation of what I wrote. But one of Jefferson’s self-evident truths is that humans “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” No Creator, no unalienable rights. Sounds like what I wrote. And Mr. Maxwell’s citing Peter Kreeft is even odder. Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, just made a video course for Prager University titled “If Good and Evil Exist, God Exists.”

Nor does Dr. Holo deny that murder is wrong only if God says so. On the contrary, Dr. Holo writes that Reform rabbis and the Reform seminary clearly affirm this principle. That was good to hear, although I suspect that it will come as somewhat of a surprise to the many Reform rabbis and congregants who believe that good and evil exist quite independently of God’s existence. It is even better news — although, I admit, hard to believe — that Reform rabbis “teach” this to their congregants.

Dr. Holo accuses me of “facile caricature.” But the only facile caricature here is Dr. Holo’s of me. He describes me as a “provocateur” engaged in “heedless and gratuitous hostility,” who “always cast[s] aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently.” I grant Dr. Holo the moral sincerity of his progressivism. Why can he not respect the moral sincerity of my opposition to his progressivism? Or does he believe that to oppose the left is, by definition, the act of a provocateur engaged in heedless and gratuitous hostility? And as for casting “aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently,” in a lifetime of writing and speaking, I have never done that. I deeply admire atheists who lead moral lives. 

Hopefully one day, Jewish progressives will hear a critique and respond not with ad hominem put-downs, but with, “Could there be some truth in this critique — especially when it comes from a committed, and non-Orthodox, Jew?”


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Fiscal cliff or path of righteousness?


There is a lot of talk about the fiscal cliff — the self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline by which time a budget agreement must be passed and signed or there will be automatic cuts to defense and social programs of more than $1 trillion. In order to avert this self-imposed disaster, President Barack Obama has proposed to sunset the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, those earning more than $250,000, while maintaining needed tax cuts for the other 98 percent.

A fascinating story in the Talmud discusses labor relations in late antiquity. A certain rabbi by the name of Rabbah bar bar Hannah hired two porters to carry jugs of wine for him. Something happened — whether negligence or accident is not clear — and the jugs broke. Rabbah bar bar Hannah was understandably angry and grabbed their cloaks as compensation for the damage. The porters went to another rabbi named Rav to adjudicate the dispute and perhaps get them their cloaks back. Rav immediately ordered that the garments be returned.

The porters then cried out: “We have been working all day, and now we have no money and nothing to eat.” Rav ordered that Rabbah bar bar Hannah pay them their wages. Rabbah was not happy. He challenged Rav: “Are you ordering me to do these things because it is the law? Or are you doing this in your capacity as a pastor and you are urging me to hold myself to a higher standard than the law?” Rav answered: “It is the law. The ruling is grounded in a verse from Proverbs: ‘So follow the way of the good and keep to the paths of the just.’ ”

Rav, 1,500 years ago in Babylonia, laid claim to the principle that one cannot morally separate economic issues from matters of justice. A just community is a community of obligation, according to the Jewish tradition; it is a community in which residency is measured by the legal obligations that one has to support the various parts of the social safety net (funds for food, clothing, housing, etc.). The ancient rabbis recognized that the needs of the community were not going to be met by personal philanthropy. Even the biblically mandated tithing and gleaning and gifting to the poor were geographically based and therefore inefficient in reaching the largest number of needy people with the maximal resources. They therefore set it up as an obligation on the city itself, through its political mechanisms, to support the needy.

Jewish communities over the centuries, when they have had judicial autonomy (that is, the opportunity to rule themselves according to Jewish law), set up systems of taxation in order to ensure that the poor and needy were taken care of.

We now live in a time that maximizes the ability to participate in the political process and thereby to be responsible for its effects. This is also a time when the economic crunch hits the most vulnerable among us the hardest. According to a report authored by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, 30.7 million children will be affected by the $2.7 billion in cuts that will be necessary if we shoot ourselves in the face by not reaching a budget agreement. On the other hand, the money that is raised from the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans (from a tax increase that starts only on income earned after the first $250,000) can allow the government to fund the programs that keep hunger at bay, homelessness under control, and allow children to start down a path of education and growth that will develop them as human beings and citizens of this country.

This is the choice we face. The way toward a more perfect union is the path of righteousness and justice. For this reason, we must urge our representatives to back the president’s plan to allow the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to expire. It should be the law because it is just and good.


Rabbi Aryeh Cohen is professor of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Literature of the American Jewish University. He is the author of “Justice in the City: An Argument From the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism” and is on the national board of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

Principled rabbis; Important, but flawed statement


Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, 

Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, New Jersey. 

Past President, Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

I have celebrated Shabbat several times at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue,  affectionately known as BJ.   Its prayer service conveys a powerful ruach and kavannah, spirit and personal dedication, which invariably draws me closer to the Source of my being.  Along with thousands of New York area Jews, I have long admired the rabbis and leaders of that synagogue for their courageous stances and their progressive values. 

No wonder that The New York Times earlier this month reserved front page space two days in a row to report on the controversial email that BJ’s rabbis sent to their membership applauding the decision of the United Nations General Assembly to elevate the status of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to that of non-member observer state.  I said to myself, “Good for them for standing up for what they believe,” and I also said, “I wish they had done it differently.”

Here’s what I liked.  Too many rabbis today fail to speak out on issues of conscience.  Too many of my colleagues have lost their prophetic voice.  Too many rabbinic leaders avoid the subject of Israel altogether because it has become so polarized that they fear repercussion.  I admire the statement because it affirms the responsibility of the rabbis of America to weigh in on the central issues facing the people of Israel.  Indeed, a significant number of Israelis, who are on the front lines, have urged the Jews of America and their leadership to become more vocal on these matters.

I also admire what was implicit in the statement (but unfortunately not expressed), that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is closing fast, that continued settlement initiatives are counter-productive,  and that the PA, being the only potential partner for those negotiations, needs the support of all of us who seek  a just and secure peace.  These are positions embraced by recent  US administrations both Republican and Democratic. 

What do I wish the rabbis had done differently?  First, I wish they had been more careful about how they developed their communication.  In a follow-up email, they apologized for including, without approval, the names of the Cantor, President, Executive Director, and Director of Israel Engagement.  They also acknowledged that the email was an incomplete version which failed to recognize  the diversity of their synagogue membership on this issue and to emphasize that they were speaking only for themselves.  These errors undermined the message,   conveying the impression that it was synagogue policy.   My advice:  take 12 more hours and get it right.  The synagogue and its members – let alone the profound issues of this conflict — deserve more careful attention.

And they should have done something else.  If they feel so strongly about this matter, and I am pleased that they do, they should have offered their membership a pathway to learning and to action.  One example:  there are responsible, effective organizations that focus everyday on Arab-Jewish relations, restarting the peace process, and a two-state solution.  Groups such as the New Israel Fund and JStreet, among others, are committed to continuing dialogue  among American Jews and to taking steps “the day after the resolution” to advance the peace effort.

And let’s not forget, the resolution which the PA brought to the UN is not all benign.  We know, for example, that it opens the door for the PA to bring a complaint against individual Israeli leaders to the International Criminal Court, the consequences of which can be profoundly threatening to those individuals and to the Jewish state.  No small matter! 

Their email also lacked balance.  It noted that the resolution addresses a “needed sense of dignity and purpose” for the Palestinian people.  This is a necessary prerequisite for the peace process to move forward.  But humane leaders ought not speak about such matters without calling on the Palestinian people to reject terrorism and anti-Israel attacks in any corner of their society.

My rabbinic colleagues across our nation share diverse positions on the Arab-Israeli struggle.  I respect this diversity because we are nearly all unified by our profound devotion to the Jewish state, the Israel Defense Force, and all of its citizens.  I would need to search far and wide to find colleagues more devoted to Israel  — in word and deed – than the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun.  I pray that the discussion which their email provoked will lead to honest, effective conversation about how we can all become more engaged in the pursuit of a two-state solution built on justice and peace.  

On Einstein and God


On October 8, 2012, a handwritten letter was set for auction on e-bay.  It sold, 10 days later, with a winning bid of over $3M.  The handwritten letter was penned by Albert Einstein to Jewish philosopher Eric B. Gutkind in January 1954, a year before Einstein’s death.  In the letter, the Nobel Prize winning physicist called religion childish and made light the idea of Jewish “chosenness.”

“For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions,” Einstein wrote.  “…As far as my experience goes, [the Jewish people] are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything chosen about them.”

Einstein’s genius was, undoubtedly, his clarity.  Where scientists the world over struggled to explain phenomena which didn’t follow a trajectory, he sensed the framework which pulled them together.  He saw order where others saw confusion, rules where others saw chaos. His genius was more than mere brilliance – being able to compute facts and figures quickly.  It was his vision, sensing the sum where others saw parts, the end where others saw the process.  His discoveries were rightfully lauded because they uncovered physical order in a complicated world, and resolved age old dilemmas.  

Science is amoral; the splitting of the atom can be used for good or evil purposes.  It is also “areligious.”  Einstein had the equal opportunity to attribute the organization he discovered to an Organizer who purposefully desired for life to flourish, or to the random forces of happenstance.      

Religion and science are said to be the great rivals of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  But, in truth, they share significant points of agreement.  Both science and religion agree that God that cannot be seen under the microscope.  Both science and religion agree that God cannot be measured, charted or bent.  The debate is whether God can be experienced, spoken to, and connected with.  Judaism says that He can, via the soul, a spark of Divine within each one of us, the force the pulls us to the permanent, the force that pulls us to eternity, the force that pulls us to morality.  Science does not comment as it can only study physical phenomena.  Judaism says that the soul cannot be measured or charted, but that it is the most central part of our being, an idea that mirrors the experience of the majority of mankind.  Science does not comment, as it, by definition, recluses itself to assessments of entities within time and space. 

Einstein was raised secular, lived secular and was most animated by secular ideas; it is hard to imagine that he could have connected the dots from persistent design to purposeful Designer.  A cultural Jew, his comments on life and living, history and theology are those of one trying to make sense of the Jews in a god-detached world.  His understanding of anti-Semitism and the historical oddity of the Jew were spot on, but when he speaks of God he speaks, not of science which has no comment, but of his own experience. He did not have a relationship with God.

In a March 24, 1954 letter, he is quoted as writing, “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.

Einstein was perhaps the most famous agnostic of his time.  Yet, I would argue that he held an underlying appreciation of God in the most traditional Jewish way. 

In October 1933, Einstein took a position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey.  This was the final chapter is his research, and, coming at the height of his fame, a period that allowed him to expound upon any area of science he chose.

He chose to spend much of his time working on the Unified Field Theory.  Simply put, there are four interactive forces which keep the physical world together: strong interaction, weak interaction, electromagnetic interaction and gravitational interaction.  In the Unified Field Theory, Einstein worked to discover the force that holds it all together.  He spent all that time searching for unity because, undoubtedly, he intuited that there is a Unifying force.

Einstein spent 20 years trying to find the “one” in “four.”   Interestingly, the Torah speaks about the spiritual taking on physical form as one becoming four.  Genesis 2:10 recounts: And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it was parted, and became into four streams.

Man’s ability to connect to and speak to that God is the wonder that Judaism taught the world.  It is the gift that never stops giving.  The human is predisposed to this relationship and its soul craves it. In retrospect, it is unfortunate that Einstein, in a 20 year search for the idea that keeps it all together, failed to relate to the Hand that holds it all together.

As of October 18, the most expensive paper Einstein ever wrote is one that negates much of traditional Jewish belief. But to me, the most important paper he ever wrote is the one he never completed, the Unified Field Theory.  It is, in fact, the mission of the Jew that remains until this day: promoting monotheism, a United God, who is the source of all pleasure and challenge, hope and purpose. May we encourage the world to connect to the Force that, truly, holds it all together.


The author of two books and the  Director of The Jewish Centre’, Yaakov Rosenblatt is a rabbi in Dallas, Texas 

Opinion: Obama has made Israel stronger than ever


A famous scholar of American Jewish life once observed that we “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans”.  We are committed to building a just and compassionate society and want our nation to provide a safety net with basic social services, even if we might not personally benefit from such programs.

We also know that on women’s issues, on gay rights, on Medicare, and on making sound investments in our economic future there is simply no comparison between the parties.  Between President Obama’s humane values and the Republican dog-eat-dog vision for society.

The Republicans know that they cannot hope to appeal to Jewish voters when domestic issues are what’s on the table.  Rather than offering a sensible domestic program that our community might support, they have therefore courted our votes the only way they know how: on foreign policy.  But try as they might, the GOP cannot obliterate the fact that President Obama has spent four years making our ally Israel stronger than ever before.

Faced with this daunting situation, Mitt Romney and the GOP have built a campaign for Jewish votes on rumor and innuendo, suggesting that we have somehow thrown Israel “under the bus”.  They have used Super PACs and unfettered secret money to fuel a massive negative advertising campaign targeted at Jewish voters.  But they keep coming up against an inconvenient obstacle: the truth.

President Obama has demonstrated a very serious commitment to defending Israel against Iran.  He has rejected a policy of merely trying to contain and deter an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.  Instead, he has vowed he will never permit Iran to get to that point.  And he has made clear he will not shy away from using force to stop Iran’s nuclear program should it get that far.

The Republicans advocate taking a risky gamble on Mitt Romney’s lofty promises, but only President Obama has a proven track record on this issue.   He has imposed more severe unilateral sanctions than ever before and leveraged America’s restored prestige to convince our European allies to embargo Iranian oil.  As a result, Iran’s currency has crashed and its leaders are panicking.

Meanwhile, it seems we learn more information every day about how Mitt Romney has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars from his own fortune in Russian, Chinese, and other foreign companies that do sensitive business with the regime in Iran.  How can we trust Romney’s public promises when his own behavior says otherwise?

Nor can the GOP hide Governor Romney’s repeated gaffes on the campaign trail, which betray a dangerous misunderstanding of Israel’s strategic challenges.  In private settings, not only does he suggest that 47% percent of Americans should be abandoned by their government, but he also mistakenly claims that the West Bank shares a border with Syria and argues that helping Israel seek peace would not be worth his while if elected president.

Many Republican advertisements have even twisted the words of Israeli leaders for domestic political gain. Yet we know that treating Israel like a partisan football is bad for America and bad for Israel.

Far from abandoning Israel, President Obama has helped make the Jewish State stronger than ever before, delivering more military assistance than any prior Republican or Democratic administration.

President Obama has also  provided critical support for Israel’s protection against missile attacks or rockets, doubling our funding for the Arrow and David’s Sling defense systems.  He pioneered the idea of providing U.S. funding for the Iron Dome anti-rocket program that has already begun to save Israeli lives.

Obama secretly gave Israel “bunker buster” bombs in 2009, which Bush repeatedly refused to do, constraining Israel’s capabilities versus Iran. Obama expanded American efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program in secret, and those efforts – including the Stuxnet computer virus – have slowed Iran’s ambitions considerably.

Israel’s leaders know the truth of the President’s record. That’s why Netanyahu told AIPAC that “our security cooperation is unprecedented.” and soon afterwards suggested Obama deserves a “badge of honor” for his defense of Israel at the UN.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has praised the President for Washington’s “wide, all-encompassing, and unprecedented” security cooperation under his watch.  He observed that, “honestly this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything I can remember in the past.”

Put simply, even if he and Netanyahu are not exactly the best of buddies, when it comes to Israel’s security President Obama never says one thing in public and does another in private.  He is a president who feels a visceral, personal commitment and then follows through.  A commitment to Israel’s defense.  A commitment to fighting nuclear proliferation, starting with Iran.  As journalist Jeffrey Goldberg describes it, a leader who really feels it in his kishkes.

President Barack Obama has passed the kishke test.  Now, there’s one more problem for Republicans: can we really say the same about Mitt Romney?


Dr. Weinberg is a Non-Resident Fellow at the UCLA Center for Middle East Development and formerly served as a Mideast advisor to the late Representative Tom Lantos.

An open letter to Dr. Talaat Afifi, Egyptian minister of religion


Dear Dr. Afifi,

Many of us involved in global contacts between leaders of the world's major religions seek to understand the new Egyptian government views about non-Muslims. Last week, Mohammed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, gave the world a sample of his. In remarks published both in Egypt's official newspaper, Al-Ahram, and on the Brotherhood website, Badie launched this anti-Semitic call for Jihad: “Jews have increased the corruption in the world, and … shed the blood of Muslims … Muslims must realize that restoring the sanctuaries and protecting honor and blood from the hands of Jews will not happen through the parlors of the United Nations, or through negotiations. The Zionists only know the way of force.”

We then searched online to learn more about attitudes of those in government about Christians, Jews and Hindus. Our search led to you, Dr. Afifi.

We found you on your government's official website, your photograph (under Ministry of Religious Endowments) and contact information providing your website as www.awkaf.org. We learned there that you also head the Faculty of Preaching at Al-Azhar, the venerable first among universities in Egypt, dating back over a thousand years. This means that you are uniquely suited to speak to our inquiries. You represent not only the government of Egypt, but also its theological brain trust.

Back in 1995, a Simon Wiesenthal Center delegation had the honor of visiting the then Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. During our meeting we expressed our growing alarm over suicide bombings in the Middle East. While no one expected any major breakthroughs, we remember how we were received cordially and respectfully and that we returned that respect. The Grand Mufti did respond favorably upon our request for him to dialogue with Israel's Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and they did indeed meet eventually in Alexandria.

Frankly, Dr. Afifi, we are trying to figure out what has changed in the last two decades. Sheikh Tantawi spoke the language of diplomacy, but we find little respect or diplomacy on your website.

Under the heading “Non-Muslims,” in a document entitled “Islam and others (sic) monotheistic Religions,” we find open contempt, denigration and mockery of Christianity and Judaism — all the while praising Islam for its universality and fairness.

The essay states, “only Islam possesses an authentic scriptures (sic).” It claims that the other monotheistic religions can only lay claim to corrupted texts and translations, and even what they do have they cannot accurately understand because “the languages of the former revelations to the Jews and Christians have long been dead. Today nobody can speak those languages.” Apparently the people of Greece and Israel are unaware they are speaking dead languages.

Islam is praised for its universality while finding fault with Christianity. “The acceptance of secularism on principle virtually negates Christianity's claim to universality … Christianity's propagation of the doctrine of the Trinity and the vicarious atonement of mankind's sins by Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) nullifies all its moral values.” Is this an example of tolerance?

As for other faiths, it offers the following: “If Muslims cannot regard Judaism or Christianity on a plane of equality with Islam, the non-Muslim will wonder what kind of treatment Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, agnostics and atheists can expect to receive under Muslim rule?” “Only God can give His faith to whom He will, the Muslim regards every non-Muslim as a potential Muslim. For this reason, he is commanded to be fair and just even to those non-Muslims who are his confirmed enemies.”

A far cry from “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Do some “enemies” merit fairness only because they remain potential converts, but not because all humans are created in the image of G-d?

Dr. Afifi, are these your views and the government you serve?

Recently, Egypt's new President, Mohamed Morsi told the United Nations General Assembly, “Insults against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, are not acceptable. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or by deed…”

We respectfully suggest that you and your government spare the world any more lectures about religious insults — until you acknowledge and deal with your own.

This essay was co-authored with Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Director of Interfaith Affairs.

Rabbis for Obama: A president of values and vision


Jewish voters know the scene well. Politicians show up at our synagogues, community events and Jewish homes for the aging—all talking up “Jewish values,” all trying to speak the language of the Jewish community.

This election season, we are seeing more of the same. Yet the trick for our community and congregations is to decipher who really means it. It is to judge our political figures not by how well they can pronounce certain Hebrew terms, but how effectively they act on our shared values.

By this standard, there is no contest: President Barack Obama is the candidate who best represents our Jewish values. He is a leader of vision and integrity. His record reflects the embodiment of our deepest obligations: tikkun olam, tzedakah, shalom—to repair the world, to pursue justice, to seek peace.

When the president spoke to the Union for Reform Judaism late last year, he offered an unexpected d’var torah on that week’s parsha, delivering a powerful meditation on the term “hineini—“Here I am.”

As he made clear in those remarks, his words are not meant as hollow promises; they reflect tangible actions. As he has done throughout his first-term in office, on the priorities important to American Jews, President Obama answers: “Here I am.”

The president has been there to advance a vision of responsibility and compassion at home, in our neighborhoods, in our cities and in our communities. With health care reform, his efforts have helped us to heal the sick and lift up the weary; to live up to the call that says, “when we save one life, we save the world.”

With a focus on higher standards, better teachers and more resources in our schools, his policies put education front and center—a recognition of the rabbinic reminder that children are truly building blocks of our future and that students increase peace in the world.

With support for clean energy, higher fuel efficiency, and environmental protection, his actions reflect our duty to protect God's creation and preserve a cleaner planet from generation to generation, l’dor v’dor.

With financial reform, investments in jobs, and assistance to the less fortunate, the President adheres to the words we recently read in the Torah: to “open wide your hand to your brother [and sister], to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”

In all these areas, and more, President Obama’s accomplishments and commitment help us work toward tikkun olam and tzedakah.

And on yet another core value, shalom, the president has earned our trust and support—because he knows full well that the pursuit of a lasting peace for Israel is contingent on the safety and security of the Jewish state. His achievements for Israel are second to none.

Under this Obama administration, Israel has received record levels of security aid. Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge has been restored and strengthened. And Israel’s families in Sderot and Ashkelon and Be’er Sheva are now protected from rocket attacks, thanks to President Obama’s investment in the Iron Dome system.

As Iran’s leaders pledge a world without Israel, President Obama has made it his promise plain and clear: We must not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. That’s why he worked with Congress to impose hard-hitting sanctions against Iran that are already dramatically affecting the Iranian economy. That’s why he built a global coalition to enhance our sanctions and isolate the Iranian regime. And that’s why he has promised to take no options off the table to counter the threat of a nuclear Iran—including military action. And as we’ve seen time and again, this president means what he says.

When no one would stand for Israel at the United Nations, the President has taken up the cause; he has said, “here I am.” When the Carmel fire threatened to spread and risk even more Israeli lives, the President ensured that Israel got everything it needed to halt the flames; he said, again, “here I am.” And when six Israelis were under siege by a mob at their embassy in Cairo, and no one in Egypt would take Israel’s calls, the President intervened to secure their safe passage home; in Israel’s time of need, he said, once more, “here I am.”

This is the character of President Obama—always there, prepared to carry the banner of our values, ready to move forward for peace, for justice, and for a better world.

As it is written in the Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Luckily for our community and our country, our president is a man of vision and strong character, integrity and faith. His values are Jewish values. They’re American values. We need his values in the White House for four more years.

Rabbis Steven Bob, Sam Gordon and Burt Visotzky are the three co-chairs of “Rabbis for Obama.”

Indigo: Remembering Iran


You’re in school six days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or later, and afterward, you have hours of homework every night. The only time you’re on your own and without a task to perform is on the walk to school and back, and sometimes in the middle of the night, when you wake up and go to the edge of the third-floor terrace of the house where you live, look over the 10-foot, golden-brick wall into the street immersed in moonlight and watch the cars speed through the red light at the intersection. 

You’ll often think of this  — the sky of Tehran in winter, the glassy liquid quality of the light, the blue of the mountains in the North. You don’t know yet, but this is how you will remember the city of your childhood, how you’ll hold on to it even after it’s lost, how you’ll make your peace with the memories.

At home, you head directly up to the second-floor dining room, drop your books on the heavy, wooden table, and go to work without changing out of your uniform or taking a break until dinner. You sit cross-legged on the floor, on top of a red-and-blue Persian rug — a rose garden afloat in a sea of indigo raise yourself up on your elbows and read the lines of whatever poem or prayer you’ve been ordered to memorize that night. It’s an essential part of your education, this process of training your mind to retain all the words and numbers thrown at it every day, but it comes easily to you, because of the girl who sits across from you on the other side of the rug and listens to you recite the lines. 

She’s always there, this girl who must be about your age — 5 years old, in first grade —  but who has the earnest look and the concentration of a much older child. She wears a short, flared skirt over a pair of baggy pants and ties a white scarf around her face and neck. She crouches on the reverse side of a horizontal loom, staked to the ground and onto which a multitude of thick, woolen threads are tied from end to end in both directions. She has a soft, round mouth and dark eyes and the physical tension of a small creature that can bear a weight many times its own. The room behind her is sparse and poorly lit. There are other people — younger children, old women — in the background, but the girl never turns around to look at them. Nor does she seem aware of you or your siblings who live on the other side of this net that divides you. Her mind is entirely focused, and her hands are lightning fast as she ties one minuscule knot of dyed thread after another onto the rows of colorless wool thread. She’s weaving the rug you’ll one day sit on, and though you’ll never know her name or hear her voice, she’ll put into it enough of herself — of her youth and health and quiet, lasting talent — to give it, if not herself, near-eternal life.

No matter how late you go to bed or how early you wake up, the girl is awake and at work. The only time she leaves the loom is when the indigo is in bloom. Then she goes into the fields with an army of other girls, picks off the leaves to bring home to her mother to boil. This is how they obtain the dye for the many shades of blue they use on the rugs. Persian indigo, it’s called, but you don’t know this yet.

The knots she makes are so small, you cannot imagine them ever coming together to form a shape. You cannot fathom the kind of patience, the constancy and meticulousness this girl has to exert to make certain every knot is the right size and in the right place — that months or years later, when the rug is finally finished, every line is perfectly straight and every dome and paisley and petal in the right place. Yet she’s indispensable to the job, a requisite for the finest and most complicated of designs, because the smaller the finger, the more minute each knot will be. She’s going to grow up on this loom, you know, raise it from the ground one twist of a colored thread at a time, knowing all the while that the moment she’s finished — the moment she’s done with this picture that will not be erased by light or force or time —  it’s going to be taken away from her and sent to places she’ll never be.

Years later, away from that house and the girl on the loom, you’re reminded of this every time you step on a rug for the first time or drive by the window of a new store in Paris and New York, Berlin and Los Angeles. What did she get, you wonder, in the bargain for her skill and artistry? What did she trade for her childhood, give up school and sleep, the chance to run instead of sit? 

You’ll rue the injustice of a system that robs the creator of her creation, that pays with tin and sells for gold, puts on display in magisterial halls and exalted museums the works of nameless girls in unnamed villages, who start to apprentice around the time that you started school, grow up and grow old in the same mud hut on the slopes of the same blue mountain, become hunchbacked and tubercular and blind before they are forced to stop. The spine curve from being bent forward for countless hours a day, every day of the week. Wool particles destroy the lungs. Bad lighting and the smallness of each knot ruin the eyes. 

How is it, you wonder, that so many Persian poets are enshrined and lionized, musicians and miniaturists are recognized and celebrated, while these other artists, no less worthy, live and die in obscurity? How is it that they can leave no trace, claim no ownership, on a canopy of colors that will not fade? 

Until one day you learn that this isn’t entirely true — there being no trace of the weaver in the work: Your untrained eye will never notice, you learn, but no Persian rug is ever truly perfect. Somewhere in the web of interconnected or geometric patterns, in the rose garden or on the hunting ground, every master signs her rug with a single, purposeful mistake. 

It’s an enchanting secret — this affirmation on the part of the artist that only God is capable of perfection, that true, enduring beauty is achieved only in the pairing of good and bad, faultlessness and flaws. But to you, and perhaps, you hope, to the artist, it will be more than that: It will be a small measure of fairness, a quiet act of defiance, an invisible fingerprint that cannot be removed except by unraveling every thread and opening every knot — a shadow of the master in an ocean of blue light.


Gina Nahai left Iran in 1974. She is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.


Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history

PRO PROP 37: Should genetically engineered foods be labeled?


[Read the con argument here]

Did you know that you have been enrolled in the largest research study ever conducted in the United States, but you never signed a consent form or agreed to participate? That’s because since 1996, you — and basically everyone you know — have been eating genetically engineered foods.

Genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are created by forcing a piece of DNA from a totally different species, such as bacteria or viruses, into the DNA of a plant or animal. For example, genetically engineered soybeans have DNA from bacteria and viruses spliced into their DNA to help them tolerate weed killers such as Roundup.

This genetic feat creates a whole new species of plant that would have never occurred in nature. Most soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, some zucchini, yellow squash and alfalfa are genetically modified. Products such as oil, high fructose corn syrup and sugar are created from these crops and added to processed foods. This explains why nearly 80 percent of processed foods, including baby formula and most fast foods, contain GMOs.

The question is, are GMOs safe for us and the environment? The answers are not clear. When we decided to write an article on GMOs, we quickly realized there is no evidence that GMOs are safe for humans. We also found that the Food and Drug Administration did not do its own safety testing before GMOs were put into our food supply. The “studies” done by the companies that created the seeds compared genetically modified corn to regular corn and found that they were similar and thus thought to be safe.

However, there are animal studies with negative findings, including organ damage, tumors, infertility and immune system changes. Toxins from GMO corn and soy have been found in the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their umbilical cords. It is clear that more research is needed.

The environment is another issue. What are the implications when a genetically engineered plant crossbreeds with other plants? Monarch butterflies are declining due to the destruction of milkweed. Super bugs and super weeds are already appearing. What other consequences are possible? Do we really want to irreversibly change the face of plant life with unknown consequences?

The bottom line is that we have a product in our food supply with unknown health and environmental implications. At the very least, we should have these foods labeled. However, try as we might, we cannot make that happen in the United States. Polls show 90 percent of people want them labeled, but the biotech companies and food manufacturers do not. If their products are beneficial and safe, why not be proud of those products and label them? Nearly 50 countries, including China, require GMO labeling, and some countries ban GMOs. Don’t we have a right to know what’s in our food?

What do Jewish leaders have to say about labeling? The Resolution on Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods issued by Reform Judaism’s Commission on Social Action states that “GE [genetically engineered] products ought to be labeled as such, since the concealment of vital information (and this information is vital, important to the decision of the consumer to use it) is a violation of the prohibition against deceitful advertising.” (Shulchan Aruch) Similarly, a Conservative rabbi and a Chabad rabbi told us they support labeling because “it’s important for Jews to know what is in their food.”

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) says that kashrut would need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Surprisingly, kashrut agencies may decide that salmon with eel genes (which may soon be sold unlabeled) is kosher. But, observant Jews may feel otherwise and want to avoid it. Vegetarians may prefer to avoid ice cream that is now sold with GMO yeast with fish genes in it. 

Everyone has the right to be informed, through labeling, and thereby avoid foods that violate their personal standards of conscience and religious observance.

Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, will be on the November ballot. Companies such as Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta will probably create ads telling us that labeling is expensive and unnecessary because GMOs are safe. But, prices did not increase when Europe introduced GMO labeling in 1997 or when companies began labeling trans fats in the U.S.

Food labels already tell us if a food has high fructose corn syrup, trans fat or is irradiated. Why can’t we know if it’s genetically engineered? These companies’ biggest fear is that once GMOs are labeled, we won’t want to eat them anymore. And that may happen, just like it did when we found out there was pink slime in our hamburgers.

Our country is based on a free-market economy. If you supply a product the public does not want, the market dictates it will go away. So, biotech companies and food manufacturers will probably spend $50 million to $100 million to prevent the labeling of GMOs.

Whether you are concerned about health and fertility, the environment, or kosher or ethical eating, we hope you will join us and vote for the right to know when there are genetically engineered ingredients in our food.

Adapted with permission from an article at laprogressive.com.


Carole Bartolotto, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in exercise physiology, has worked in the field of diet and health for more than 20 years. She blogs about nutrition and health at healthyeatingrocks.com. Lisa Goldwag Kassner lives in Northridge and can be reached at labelgmos80@gmail.com.

PRO: Should rabbis endorse candidates?


[Read the con argument here]

I celebrate the courage of the more than 613 rabbis who have chosen to endorse President Obama for a second term. It is impossible for me to represent all of them. Each rabbi must make his or her decision based on a number of factors, including the possibility that they could lose their jobs, damage their reputations or alienate donors and board members. There are consequences for each member of Rabbis for Obama in this diverse and distinguished group. Significantly, this group has doubled in size from 2008 to 2012.

Why?

I can speak only for myself and give my reasons for endorsing the president through Rabbis for Obama. I note with pride that none of the rabbis endorsing President Obama does so by announcing his or her congregational or institutional affiliations. We are aware that we must observe the law that disallows our religious institutions from endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Each of the rabbinic endorsers does so — to borrow a phrase from Rabbi David Wolpe, who gave a prayer at the recent Democratic National Convention — “off the pulpit.”  Rabbi Wolpe did not endorse the president.    

But when we rabbis became “teachers in Israel,” we did not forfeit our First Amendment rights. The pulpits of congregations are there for teaching Torah. Rabbis are allowed to advocate from the pulpit for issues and values but not candidates. Even in the area of issues advocacy, prudence and good congregational democratic process calls for us to be sure that a diversity of opinion is presented.

In the 2008 presidential election and again in 2012, we have been confronted with a profound challenge to the integrity of political discourse. The unprecedented level of falsehood, innuendo and demonization spread about President Obama was and is without precedent in our political system. That level of dishonest political rhetoric reminded me of a story of the consequences of the silence of the ancient rabbis. According to our legends, the rabbis stood by silently and allowed an act of sinat hinam (baseless hate) to boil over, and eventually it led to the upending of Jewish history, the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the end of Jewish sovereignty for 1,800 years. This is the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, whose feud had disastrous consequences. The silence of the rabbis is a cautionary tale for our time, too.

In 2008, the whisper campaign that circulated in the Jewish community was delivered through the Internet. The lies claimed that Obama was disqualified from office because he was a closeted Muslim, was anti-Israel, was not born in the United States and was a socialist-radical. All these verbal attacks continued through the campaign and during the past four years. They are beyond the pale of normal political rhetoric. For the second time in 2012, the Republican Party did not break with its “wing nuts” but instead tried to incorporate, fund and appease these factions. These rumors and lies had to be responded to in a public and organized way by Judaism’s teachers primarily because the “doozies” reflected badly on the good name of Judaism.

I grew up in Barry Goldwater’s Arizona and still remember real conservative Republicans. Certainly, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican and now independent, remembers a different Republican Party. He, too, did not take a vow of silence when he left the Republican Party. The two senators from Maine, Olympia  Snowe and Susan Collins, issued their demurrals, but to no avail.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, the “dark money” groups paid for the distribution of 28 million copies of “Obsession.” This scurrilous movie and the accompanying “culture of lies” mobilized for a new round of Islamophobia. The movie was an attempt to brand Obama as a Muslim and create a diversion from the economic free fall at the end of the Bush administration. The movie stirred up the Christian right, especially Christians United for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition, which launched an unprecedented assault against political and civic norms on the Web site I co-founded, JewsOnFirst.org.

My reading of the underlying message of hate and disdain against the president and the manufacturing of religious hatred toward Muslims impelled me to join Rabbis for Obama. My Judaism cannot countenance sly messages of religious hate toward fellow Jews or Muslims or any religion. Jewish history reminds me of the apostasy committed by the majority of the German Catholic and Protestant churches’ priests and ministers in the 1930s.

Noted philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s new book, “The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age,” analyzes the nature of the fear based on religion with which so many communities continue to grapple. We need to articulate the moral principles and practices to evaluate this fear and to question the actions the fear motivates. No teacher with integrity can sit quietly on the sidelines.

[Read the con argument here]


Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak lives and works in Los Angeles and Poland.

Shabbat without religion


How do you talk about Judaism in a way that's not too “Jewish”? How do you convey Jewish ideas to Jews who might get turned off by religious ideas? Is it possible, in other words, to talk about the Jewish religion in a nonreligious way?

Those questions were on my mind last Friday night when I was asked to speak to a group of Jews who had gathered for a wedding weekend. Because many of them were disconnected from the Jewish religion, I thought: Why disconnect them even more? A “religious” talk on the parasha of the week would surely have risked doing that.

Still, I confess, I had an agenda. I wanted every nonobservant Jew in the room to come out of the evening thinking: “Wow, we ought to try this Shabbat thing ourselves once in a while. It was quite enjoyable and it made a lot of sense — religious or not.”

Knowing that their minds were already tainted by the idea of anything too “religious,” I had to find ideas that transcended religious language. 

So, I focused on two ideas: gratitude and peoplehood.

The gratitude part was easy. I spoke about the annual American ritual of Thanksgiving and how Shabbat took that great idea and made it a weekly ritual.

The weekly Shabbat meal, I said, was a time to gather with family and friends and thank our Creator for all our blessings. No matter how difficult or complicated our lives can be, Shabbat comes to remind us that there are always reasons to be grateful.

I could see many heads nodding. Gratitude is one of those great universal ideas. And a meal of gratitude works on so many levels: It brings families together, adds warmth to our homes and injects meaning into our lives. How can anyone be against that?

By the time I brought up specific Shabbat rituals — lighting the candles, welcoming the angels of peace, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, the blessing over wine, washing our hands, blessing the bread, etc. — each ritual glowed under the umbrella of a universal idea.

The rituals were not in the service of “religion,” but in the service of the human idea of gratitude.

The next part is where it got trickier, because I connected the rituals to Jewish peoplehood.

Why was this tricky? Well, because Jewish peoplehood can easily be interpreted as a religious idea. If Jews gather to do religious things like pray in synagogues and make blessings at a Shabbat table, doesn't that mean that being Jewish is, first and foremost, a religious idea?

And if I'm not crazy about the idea of “being religious,” why should I be crazy about belonging to a people that worships religion and religious rituals?

So, I decided to go Hollywood and speak about a mind-blowing miracle: How is it possible that the Jewish people could be scattered around the globe for about 1,900 years — since the destruction of the Second Temple — and then, when they finally meet up in a place like, say, Pico-Robertson, they discover that they're all still using the same holy words?

How could it be that after not seeing one another for 1,900 years, we're still reciting the same blessings at the Shabbat table and reading from the same Torah? How is that possible?

“We probably do more editing in one day at The Jewish Journal than the Jews have done to their holy texts in 2,000 years,” I told them, only half in jest.

Again, I saw many heads nodding. The idea that we were all there, gathered at a Shabbat table, doing what our ancestors have been doing for centuries, was not a sermon or a religious idea.

It was simply a moving historical fact.

I spoke about how, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews became a “people of software rather than hardware,” and how the Shabbat table became the weekly centerpiece of this idea, serving to honor “software” ideas like gratitude, holiness and family togetherness.

The rituals of the Temple evolved into the rituals of the Shabbat table, and without this Shabbat table, it's hard to imagine how the Jewish people could have survived.

Our gathering on that Friday night, then, was a continuation of this miraculous story of survival.

The two ideas had merged: We were gathered in a joyous atmosphere to express our gratitude for all our blessings, and one of those blessings was the very idea of Shabbat.

In the same way that the Shabbat ritual has helped to protect and nurture individual Jewish families, it has helped to protect and nurture the Jewish people for centuries.

And, as far as I could tell from all the head nods, you didn't have to be too religious to appreciate that miracle.


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

Opinion: Israel must punish rabbis who preach hatred


Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin apologized to Jamal Julany, one of the victims of a racist attack in Zion Square, during his visit to the 17-year-old.

“We are sorry,” said Rivlin, a Likud Party leader. He went on to say, “It is hard to see you hospitalized because of an inconceivable act” and “What happened is the responsibility of every leader and member of Knesset.”

The Jewish month of Elul calls us to evaluate our actions and mend our ways to avoid the same mistakes next year. An honest evaluation will reveal that this unprovoked attack on three Arab youths by dozens of Israeli teenagers is part of a phenomenon much broader than the character of these youths. It is the result of the chronology of prolonged Israeli government tolerance toward Jewish religious extremism and its manifestations, and of the government’s tacit acceptance of racist incitement toward Israel’s Arab minority by certain members of Knesset and a number of extreme Orthodox rabbis.

Every religion has its extremists; Judaism is no different. Notably in this raging culture war, the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, has repeatedly called Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens “the enemy” and urged Jews not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs. He also claims that all Arabs have a violent nature. In his manifesto published in March 2008, he wrote, “The time has come to tell the truth. Providing a livelihood for our enemies leads to grave consequences.”

Shmuel Eliyahu is not alone. There are approximately 50 state-employed Israeli rabbis who, like Eliyahu, engage openly in racist rhetoric toward non-Jews with impunity. While Israeli law clearly states that racist incitement is a criminal offense, there have been no disciplinary measures or a serious police investigation.

When leading public figures dehumanize others, the descent from hateful speech to violent acts is often swift and severe. These rabbis did not physically attack the three Arab teens still recovering in the hospital, but their words and teachings were a major catalyst and a spiritual motivation for their impressionable young followers to take the next step and actually commit a violent act.

There is a direct connection between the immunity given to rabbis and the ease with which a group of teenagers beat up a 17-year-old Arab boy to “teach him a lesson” about eyeing Jewish girls in Zion Square. If the government of Israel is truly appalled by the attack in Zion Square, here is a suggestion: As the state has the power to fire civil servants who are racists, why not use this power immediately?

The Israel Religious Action Center is monitoring racist statements by rabbis and pursuing legal and public action against them. Our recent report, “Love the Stranger as Yourself? Racism in the Name of Halacha,” details this disturbing trend.

Racist incitement recently has taken on a new focus: Jewish women and their purity. In Zion Square, flyers are being distributed in Arabic that read “Our girls are dear to us, just like you don’t want a Jew to date your sister, we also are not willing to accept an Arab dating one of our women. Just like you would do anything to stop a Jew from dating your sister, so would we! Last week, an Arab who thought he could come here and find a Jewish girlfriend was hurt, we don’t want you to get hurt, respect the honor of our girls because they are dear to us!”

Misogyny and racism meet again, this time disguised as Judaism. The Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism is working to answer the questions that these recent events pose: What is our Jewish obligation to the non-Jewish minority in Israel? How do we respond to the objectification of women in service of racism?

Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora must offer answers to these burning questions. Jews everywhere have the responsibility to respond to racist statements by Jewish extremists. It is our duty as Jews to remind others and ourselves that the Torah commands us to love the stranger 36 times more than any other commandment.

Jamal Julany remembers nothing of the attack. He is struggling in his hospital bed to gain back the use of his limbs, his eyes and his ears. We must remind ourselves, and the State of Israel, of every blow he received and demand that the state stop turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to racism in its own ranks.

(Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center.)

Fear and Daniel Gordis


For reasons I can’t quite understand, many leaders in the pro-Israel community continue to insist that the young generation of American Jews has abandoned Israel.

That’s just not true. 

“Ours is the first generation in which the centrality of Zion in Jewish dreams is beginning to fade,” Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote in this week’s Tablet, an online Jewish magazine. “It is fading rapidly, and we know why. … [A] younger generation for whom war is anathema and occupation is morally unbearable has begun to drift away. …Young Jews today, discouraged by Israeli policies that they cannot abide, either explicitly or tacitly join those who condemn the Jewish State.”

Cut to:

John F. Kennedy International Airport, Aug. 14. Amid the bustling crowd, one group of 15 men and women, ages 18 to 22, all clad in dark green T-shirts, stands out. Although they shout to one another in English, their T-shirts have just Hebrew writing: “Olim Tzahal” — Israeli Army Immigrants.

They are on their way to join the Israel Defense Forces.

This year, a record group of 127 men and women flew on the Soldier Aliyah flight sponsored by the Israeli immigration group Nefesh b’Nefesh. Thirty-two of these young volunteers are from the greater Los Angeles area. They were joining an increasing number of young Angelenos who choose to enlist in the IDF.

I know a lot of these kids. Ezra, the Milken student who lives down the block and used to carpool with my son — soon he’ll be driving a tank. Alexi Rosenfeld, who just graduated from Milken, snapped the “class picture” of the group at JFK Airport and sent it to me with a note, “Hi Rob, As you may remember I have decided to join the IDF and will be postponing my photography career (unless the IDF sends me back!).” The daughter of a friend who is participating in secret training maneuvers in the Negev. The son of another friend, who just completed parachute training.

But this is just a small group, right? Anecdotal evidence is hardly proof that the rest of American Jewish youth isn’t drifting away. 

Except it just isn’t.

Gordis writes: “A recent study asked American Jews if the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy for them. … Amazingly, 50 percent of those 35 years old and younger said that Israel’s destruction would not be a personal tragedy.”

Amazingly! Amazingly, Gordis considers a study conducted in 2006 to be “recent.” And amazingly he neglects to mention a truly recent study that completely contradicts his point. In May 2012, Steven M. Cohen, who conducted the 2006 survey, completed a new study that found “Non-Orthodox younger Jews, ages 35 and under, are substantially more attached to Israel than those ages 35-44.”

That’s right: There is no evidence Israel is losing the next generation of American Jews. In fact, the opposite is true.

This proves a couple of things: 

1. Never ask a young person if the loss of anything would be a “personal tragedy,” unless you’re talking about his immediate family member or his fake I.D.

2. In the pro-Israel community, bad news travels fast, good news takes the 405 at rush hour.

Trading on the “next generation” fear is a useful device for Jewish leaders across the political spectrum. Peter Beinart got a whole book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” out of it. 

“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at the door,” Beinart famously and hyperbolically wrote, “and now, to their horror, they are finding many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

Except, of course, they haven’t.

Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award for “Saving Israel.” Get it? “Saving Israel,” “The Crisis of Zionism” — though Beinart and Gordis disagree publicly, and stridently, on Israeli policies, they have a kind of Mutual B.S. Pact, bonded together in their common fear mongering. 

So why? Why do we insist on looking at the dark side? The thing we most repress comes to define us, Carl Jung once said. If the Jewish people’s shadow is fear, is it surprising that Israel adopted as its national anthem, Hatikvah, “The Hope?”

We want hope, but we can’t quite embrace it. And when good news comes, when our hopes are realized, we continue to live in its opposite. 

In the case of Israel, I believe that’s because the truth is just a bit messier than Gordis and many in the pro-Israel community would have it. The point of Gordis’ (truly) recent essay is that American Jewry depends on Israel for its very survival.

“This is the point that today’s younger generation of American Jews simply do not understand,” he writes. “American Jewish life as it now exists would not survive the loss of Israel.” 

Hard to argue with a sentence that includes the phrase “as it now exists.” Because it’s impossible to imagine a world without Israel in which Israel’s largest protector and supporter, the United States of America, would turn its back on its ally, or not have the power to protect it. In that scenario, the loss of Israel might be just one of a host of American Jewish worries.

But dangling visions of post-nuclear Armageddon before us is just Gordis’ way of trying to tell us how much Israel strengthens American Jewish identity.

“Jews today no longer think of themselves as a tiptoeing people,” he writes. “Without the State of Israel, the self-confidence and sense of belonging that American Jews now take for granted would quickly disappear.”

Again, after the Apocalypse I’m not sure our biggest worry will be our depleted self-confidence, but so be it. 

Where Gordis, and to a lesser extent Beinart, misread or misrepresent young American Jews is in not defining more carefully the word, “Israel.”

The American Jewish romance with Israel, like America’s relationship with Israel more generally, changed dramatically after the Six-Day War in 1967. What had been a largely supportive community turned overnight into a passionate, proud and activist one. After that war, romance turned into love.

The reasons for this are integral to understanding the truly recent statistics.

In 1967, Israel fought and won a defensive war against daunting odds. Israel was restrained until it couldn’t be, tough and brilliant when it had to be and united as much as it ever would be. The Six-Day War burned an ideal of Israel deep into the American, and American Jewish, psyche.

In the 45 years since, the closer Israel comes to achieving that ideal, the more American Jews are drawn to it. The farther it drifts, the farther their affections do as well.

So when Gordis writes that it is Israel that has stiffened American Jewry’s spine, he is only half right. It is a certain kind of Israel — that state that strives toward its ideal state — that resonates, and will always resonate, with American Jewish youth.

There is no blank check of American Jewish love for Israel, but there is a lot of money, a ton of money, in the account. The idea that support for Israel has ever been completely independent of its actions is ahistorical, and doesn’t apply to any Jewish group — Orthodox, right, left, secular.

The bottom line is this: If we who love Israel worry about quality, the quantity will take care of itself.

You can—you should—follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @foodaism.

Everyone knows Israel’s true capital


In international relations there is sometimes a situation of political make-believe whereby states conduct themselves in a manner that actively and consciously ignores reality.

On some occasions this is warranted in order to avoid a crisis or mitigate conflict. And once-relevant self-deception can become ingrained after time, even though its usefulness is debatable at best. Such is the case (or perceived to be) with Israel’s capital city.

Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. The government is located there; so are the Supreme Court and the Bank of Israel. All are located in West Jerusalem, which is seen by the international community as part of Israel’s sovereign territory — and would almost certainly be so following a future peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

East Jerusalem is another matter. The international community objects to Israel’s official position whereby East Jerusalem is considered an integral part of a unified city under Israeli sovereignty. The status of East Jerusalem (and the West Bank), as far as the international community is concerned, ought to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority with the aim of establishing a Palestinian state next to Israel.

However, the international community explicitly accepts that West Jerusalem is part of the sovereign territory of Israel and implicitly understands that the Jewish neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city would remain under Israeli rule after a peace agreement.

Given all this, why can’t the world accept West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? Why keep pretending that Israel either has no capital or has one in Tel Aviv?

There are some who refer to Jerusalem as “Israel’s self-declared capital.” But aren’t all capitals self-declared? Of course, the implied meaning is that Jerusalem is Israel’s self-declared and unrecognized capital.

After all, Jerusalem was not intended to be part of the Jewish state under the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947. So why even recognize parts of Jerusalem as part of Israel’s sovereign territory?

Well, there are other territories that were not supposed to be part of the Jewish state according to the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947. While the Arab states and the Palestinian leadership failed to endorse the plan, these too became part of the newly created Jewish state.

This was controversial, but nevertheless the international community sees these territories as sovereign Israeli territory. So why not West Jerusalem? If the Armistice Lines of 1949 (the so-called 1967 borders) are regarded as the basis for a future settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, why make a distinction between, say, Acre, Jaffa and West Jerusalem?

If logically no distinction ought to be drawn, what is the problem with recognizing, or at least accepting, that West Jerusalem is Israel’s capital?

Certainly, the present situation is comfortable to all concerned except Israel – and perhaps the ambassadors who travel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem each time they have to meet with a government official.

Pretending that Jerusalem — or at least its western part — is not Israel’s capital may be avoiding a crisis with the Arab and Muslim world. This line of thought is understandable, though peculiar. After all, most Arab and Muslim states ostensibly call for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. West Jerusalem would remain within Israeli sovereignty. So what is the problem, then, of recognizing de jure, or at least accepting de facto, that West Jerusalem is Israel’s capital?


This article was originally published on Politics in Spires, a blog on the Politics and International Relations/Studies Departments of Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England Web site.

Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer in the diplomacy program at Tel Aviv University. He received his Ph.D. from St. Antony’s College, Oxford.

How to bring religion into politics


For nearly two millennia politics was poison for the Jewish people.  The principle aim in understanding the machinations of power was to make oppression less onerous.  Great swaths of tradition that spoke to the exercise of power lay mostly unexplored.  Today there is a resurgence of interest and I would like to highlight three crucial lessons from the anomalous historical experience of Judaism.

Vote not veto.  Religious convictions cannot be exiled from the public sphere.  To ask someone to set aside their religion is to exile passion, conviction and principle.  Imagine the analogy; we would say of a candidate, or a voter, “you may enter public life, but whatever you believe deeply you must set aside.”  It is ludicrous.  So a public declaration of faith as a determining factor in a vote on an issue or a candidate is both sensible and inevitable.

At the same time, my religious conviction cannot serve as argument in the public discourse.  Religion is not an irrational belief, but it is an orientation of soul.  To ask you to see with my eyes, or vote with my conscience, is tyrannical.  This is not to discount the ability of religion to persuade; it is a caricature that it relies only on unfounded assertions.  But the argument must follow the same rules as political argument in general and work by persuasion, not prophetic fiat.

Against the tyranny of majority or minority.  The first is clear and arises as a special fear from Judaism as a minority tradition in every land except for modern Israel.  In religion the majority will inevitably set the parameters but precisely because we are dealing with the deepest convictions of a community, special care must be taken to carve out the greatest possible space for the minority. 

These are easier principles to enunciate than to practice.  Is not working on the Sabbath a ‘right’ such that an employee cannot penalize a worker for his refusal?  Does covering one’s face with a veil in public impinge on the public’s right sufficiently to warrant prohibition?  The decision in such cases is of course a balance, but I am arguing for the weightiness of the minority community, whose unusual practices are too often unsupported because unsympathetic.

However we are familiar with the phenomenon of minority groups so passionate that the numbers of the many bow before the frenzy of the few.  Intensity of belief is a delicate calculation in politics because often the indifference of the many is due to failing to envision the consequences of lassitude.  When the law is enacted or fails, suddenly there is recognition of what is at stake. Jews, along with many others, have been as often victimized by a galvanized minority as by a cruel majority. 

Mutability.  The Jews passed through innumerable lands and saw many different political configurations.  Even today in Israel the situation has changed often and is still in flux.  So here is a plea for something in politics that we could use more of in religion as well – epistemological humility.  These are complicated questions and we are unlikely to get them right without many wrong turns. Moreover, they are questions whose surrounding conditions will change, so even if we did get them right, they will not necessarily be right in changing circumstances.  An indulgence that may be permitted a small minority for example (use of a drug in a religious ceremony is one example) may prove impossible if the minority grows larger.

“Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’” is some wise and often unheeded Talmudic advice. 

What is most needed?  Clichéd though it may be, civility and an assumption of goodwill.  Respect for the other is a constant challenge as we encounter the other in an age of immigration and the growth of cities.  We will increasingly jostle up against each other.  The difference with religion is that as it poses the problem it also suggests the solution.  There is nothing in the ideology of nationalism that encourages amity. Different cities or sports teams spur division but do not instruct us on tolerance. But religion, while sometimes serving as a generator of differences, also teaches that all human beings are in God’s image.  So as it divides it provides the impetus for uniting.  It is up to us to be faithful uniters and that begins by making the public sphere open, raucous, opinionated, respectful and kind.

Perspectives: Religion and Public Life is a blog series about the relationship between religion and secularism run by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The aim is to offer a wide range of opinion and expertise on the subject, drawn from around the world. Rabbi Wolpe’s reflection is part of this series. Find the latest blogs here (http://www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/religion-public-life)


David Wolpe is senior rabbi at Sinai Temple. This article is excerpted from a longer essay written for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation as part of its ongoing series, “Perspectives: Religion and Public Life.”

Algemeiner’s transparent ploy: Naming Romney top non-Jew


I consider Dovid Efune a friend and believe he should be applauded for his work at the Algemeiner Journal. As editor, he has managed to revive and electrify the newspaper. Dubbed in the 70s as the largest Yiddish weekly in the United States, today, since switching to English, the Algemeiner and its website have become well-read sources of news and information on Israel and Jewish happenings for the readers around the world.

That said, I am disappointed with the Algemeiner’s recent political gimmick. While not expressing outright support for Mitt Romney’s candidacy, the paper named him number 1 on its list of “Top 10 Non-Jews Positively Influencing the Jewish Future 2012”.  Of course, President Obama didn’t even make the list.

Efune’s reasoning “Romney’s vocal support for Israel as a contender for the world’s top job, has challenged the incumbent and many Americans to rediscover their own understanding of the United States’ special relationship with the Jewish state. His tough stance on Iran has put the Ayatollahs on notice.

In his recent trip to the Holy Land, he acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cited the historic connection of the Jewish people with the land, which has gone a long way in underlining the Jewish narrative regarding Israel on the world stage, thereby earning him the top spot this year.”

The transparent ploy of choosing Romney, demonstrates, at the very least a basic lack of journalistic integrity bordering on outright deceit.

Efune surely knows that the last three presidents, while running for office, all made similar statements, and only a naïf could believe that Romney, if elected, would actually be able to follow through on his statement “to move our embassy ultimately to the capital (Jerusalem).”

Bill Clinton in 1992 supported “the principle of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”

George W. Bush vowed in 2000 to “begin the process of moving the U.S. ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital.”

And in a speech in June 2008, Obama said, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”  And later on, while on a trip to Israel, Obama said on ABC News, “The fact is thatJerusalem is Israel’s capital. And so I was simply saying a fact.”

On Sep 23, 2011, I was present in the United Nations for Palestinian President Abbas’s address.  Minus the short distraction of a fistfight when the Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to enter the guest section, instead of the area assigned to dignitaries, the vibe and general atmosphere in the room were overwhelmingly in support of Abbas.  The Palestinian president was interrupted several times, with standing ovations and the crowd even broke out in song in support of his bid for statehood.  In contrast, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke, the only people I saw clapping were the Israelis, Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel, and a few elderly women in the guest section.

It was President Obama who stood up to the international community and played the lead role in outmaneuvering the statehood bid, which if successful, would have been a serious blow to the safety and continuity of Israel.

I too, like many in the Jewish community, wasn’t happy with Obama’s speech of a “Palestinian state based on 1967 borders”, and I didn’t feel his clarification at the the AIPAC Policy Conference “Mutually agreed swaps means. By definition, it means that the parties themselves, Israelis and Palestinians, will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967” was sufficient.  But that speech gave him the needed credibility with the international community to stop the statehood bid.

And all this hogwash that Obama didn’t visit Israel in his first term and therefore isn’t a friend—surprise surprise, George W. Bush didn’t either, but Bill Clinton did.

During his presidency, Obama has surrounded himself with people like White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew, and Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, a traditional Jew and strong friend of Israel. Former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was a civilian volunteer assisting the IDF during the Gulf War.

All Romney did was make a few statements to garner votes; Obama actually acted for Israel. The current administration has given more in security aid to Israel than any other White House administration in the history of Israel.

On the way out of the United Nations, I rode the elevator down with Alan Dershowtiz. Someone asked him what he thought of Obama’s speech about the 1967 borders. He replied, “This is what I told the president, ‘Mr. President, the problem is not the actual speech it’s the background music. You need to change the background music.’”

I believe Obama has since changed that background music.

If the Algemeiner wants to support Romney, so be it, but don’t insult our intelligence. Take him off the list.

Rabbi Yaacov Behrman was ordained by the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu in 2006 and received a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership in 2009. The views expressed above are his own.

Opinion: At the New Year, let’s give animals a new Jewish chance


Shortly after I became a vegan, around 20 years ago, I ordered my first “vegan option” at a Jewish organizational dinner.

It arrived: a plateful of raw celery and carrot sticks arranged around a cup of something ranch dressing-ish that probably wasn’t even vegan.

Since then, things have changed considerably.

Teenage servers at fast food places know what vegan means even if they have to deliver the news that there is nothing there that fits the description. And at most Jewish organizational dinners today, the vegan option is so delicious that others at my table invariably cry, “Oh, I wish I had ordered that!” when they see it.

Things have changed, but not nearly enough for animals.

Enter the Jewish new year for animals—an initiative to transform an ancient and largely forgotten holiday, Rosh Hashanah l’Ma’aser Bemeima, or New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals, into Rosh Hashanah l’ Beheimot, a New Year for Animals devoted to considering how Jews can improve their relationships with animals.

Animals raised for food, whether on factory farms or “free range,” live and die in unspeakably horrible conditions, treated not as living beings but as the commodities they are. Dairy cows are crammed into tiny stalls and kept impregnated so they will produce milk perpetually. Their calves are taken from them shortly after birth and raised as veal in crates too small for them to turn around in.

Chickens, as several recent undercover videos now available on YouTube have documented, are kept in cages so small they can’t even raise a wing, and they are de-beaked without anesthesia so they don’t peck each other to death, as animals kept in such unnatural conditions are wont to do.

And that’s not even mentioning animals in circuses, product testing labs, the fur trade and other forms of what writer I.B. Singer called “eternal Treblinka.” Nor does the list address other related issues such as human health and its connection to diet and the link between animal agriculture and climate change.

The so-called new Jewish food movement, laudable though it may be, is more concerned with issues of locally grown produce, sustainable agriculture, healthy eating and social justice for workers than with the treatment of animals.

And yet animal cruelty is very much against Jewish teaching. As Richard Schwartz, the president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and a tireless crusader for animal rights and a plant-based diet, points out, “tsa’ar ba’alei chaim,” causing harm or sorrow to animals, is a Torah prohibition.

That’s evident in many ways, from the mandate that farmers not muzzle an animal while it is threshing in the field (so it can eat some of the grain) to the admiring way the Torah treats the compassionate actions of Moses and King David toward their sheep.

Yet today, as Schwartz writes on the Jewish Vegetarians website, “with regard to animals, the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings and education are on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter, with relatively little time devoted to Judaism’s more compassionate teachings related to animals.”

That’s why Schwartz and a coalition of Jewish groups have proposed the initiative to turn Rosh Hashanah l’Ma’aser Beheima into a New Year for Animals. (Disclosure: I am a member of some of these groups.) The holiday occurs on the first day of the month of Elul (this year, beginning Saturday evening) and initially was devoted to counting domestic animals intended to be used for sacrificial offerings.

This wouldn’t be the first time an ancient holiday has been reclaimed for a related but very different purpose.

Tu b’Shvat—the New Year for the Trees and a day originally intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings—has evolved into a holiday devoted to appreciating and healing the natural world.

Schwartz, who along with Jewish Vegetarians of North America is leading the campaign to establish the new holiday, suggests that Jews use it to consider ways to apply traditional Jewish teachings on compassion toward animals to today’s issues, such as factory farms and moving toward a plant-based diet.

That seems particularly appropriate since Elul is considered a month of introspection as Jews examine their words and actions in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The initiative’s first event is a seder set for Sunday evening at Caravan of Dreams, a vegetarian restaurant in New York City. Other vegetarian seders are taking place at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., and at a resort in Ontario, Canada.

A number of other groups are supporting the initiative, and several prominent Jewish leaders have endorsed the idea of the new holiday. Modern Orthodox scholar and author Rabbi Yitz Greenberg says in a statement that “it is a beautiful idea to renew/revive a classic day … Your contemporary application … in the form of addressing humanity’s relationship to animal life and the widespread mistreatment of food animals and environmental abuse in today’s economy, marked by industrial farming and animal husbandry, is inspired.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles succinctly summarizes the idea of the holiday, writing in a statement, “The Jewish tradition mandates that we are stewards of all God’s creation. In our day we are increasingly sensitized to suffering of those living creatures in our care; this initiative helps us recognize our obligation to animals and so helps us be more fully human.”

Schwartz and others realize that restoring and reclaiming an ancient holiday can’t be done all at once. Plans include setting up a website and Facebook page that would feature a collection of material on Jewish teachings about animals and creating a haggadah for a seder, modeled on the now-widespread Tu b’Shvat seder.

For now, I’m hoping that awareness of these efforts leads to greater attentiveness to issues related to animals, issues that many of us would like to push out of our consciousness, along with other “inconvenient truths,” as we buy our neatly wrapped and packaged meat.

To start things off in a modest way? Read more about the initiative and find links to related sites at www.JewishVeg.com.

And think about having a veggie burger for lunch or dinner.

(Pauline Dubkin Yearwood is managing editor of the Chicago Jewish News.)

Ben-Aharon


My childhood best friend was Billy Thein. We met at Encino Elementary School in Mrs. Bernstein’s third-grade class, and were pretty much inseparable after that. Billy was funny and smart and cool — and in a public school packed with the striving, anxious, gawkward spawn of suburban Jewry, cool stood out.

So did handsome and blond and tan — Billy was a young Glen Campbell when there really was a young Glen Campbell. He once brought his guitar to class and sang “Blackbird,” hitting all the high notes. I swear I saw the teacher tear up.

Billy lived in a ranch house on a large lot, just a few blocks away from mine. The year we turned 11, his father died of brain cancer. His mother struggled to raise Billy and his little brother. As we grew into teens, I loved going to Billy’s house. There weren’t as many rules, and once we walked up his long driveway, I felt free.

Billy, on the other hand, liked my house. My mom and dad made Billy part of the family, and they were well aware of our comings and goings. There were family meals and holiday celebrations. At my house, Billy felt secure.

In college, Billy converted to Judaism.  It was more a confirmation, he explained, than a conversion. “As I grew into my Judaism, it felt akin to my innate sensibilities and beliefs.” While a student at UC Berkeley he also lived and studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Judaism fit the soul of the man he had become, and it provided guidance for the man he hoped yet to be.

And when it came time to choose a Hebrew name, Billy took Aharon — my father’s name.

I understood why. My father is devoted to family, deeply engaged in his work and his community, a fun companion and a wise adviser. Like the biblical Aaron, he is a man who leads through kindness. The name, Billy explained to me, was, a “touchstone, inspiration, comfort.”

If you want to be the kind of Jew who scolds and cajoles and lays down the law with an outstretched arm and a mighty sword, pick another name. But if you want to raise people up by drawing them close to you, by setting an example, then, as the sage Hillel said, be like the disciples of Aaron. 

Many years ago, Billy met a very nice, smart Jewish woman. He and Sharon now have two children. This past Saturday, I sat in a pew at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and watched their son, Adrien Thein-Sandler, become a bar mitzvah.

I don’t know Adi well, but unless his parents, friends and rabbi are lying, he is not only a top student and athlete, but also a kind soul. He is — surprise! — tall and blond and cool, and watching him now at the age his father and I once were made time seem both painfully fast and reassuringly cyclical: sunrise, sunset and sunrise again.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, in his blessing to Adi, told him to look at his parents’ faces, beaming — tearing — with pride and joy. Remember those faces, the rabbi said, and try always to act in a way that will inspire and honor the look you see now.

Adi spoke about the Ten Commandments, which he read as part of his Torah portion. What, he asked, is the most important commandment of them all? “Honor thy father and thy mother,” he said, echoing the wisdom of Abraham Joshua Heschel. If you strive to do that, you will naturally keep the other commandments as well.

All this wisdom came distilled for me in a single moment. When the cantor called Adi to the Torah, he used his Hebrew name: Adin Ben-Aharon, Adin, the son of Aaron.”

Long ago I understood why Billy had taken my father’s Hebrew name, but only then, at that moment, did I realize what it meant. 

My father hadn’t just inspired and set an example for my friend. He was, through this power of ritual, the continuity of community, passing that name — its values, its traditions, its expectations, its love — on to future generations.

My mother and father, thank God, were at Wilshire Boulevard Temple that morning, too. I watched my father watching Adi. How could he have ever imagined, when he was a man not much older than I am now, that my childhood friend would have a son, and that boy, whom he had never met, had never spent a moment raising or teaching, would one day be called to carry his good name into the world?

My father had earned the tears of joy that, at that moment, he shed.

People say they despise religion, and religion has done its best to earn their disdain. But how better, in an age — in a week — when private morality and public integrity are in such short supply, do we transmit and enforce the ideals of character? How else do we let our children know that it is not just their mothers and fathers whom they must face, but all the men and women who have come before them, whose lives and actions — whose good names — are a constant standard for their own?

It’s a truism of many religions that the tree we plant today will only bear fruit in the future. Of course it will: it’s a fruit tree. 

The real mystery, the real miracle, is we will never know, even in our lifetime, who will come and eat it.

Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @foodaism.

U.S. Jewry faces challenge as national movements decline


We are in the midst of one of the most significant downturns of traditional membership-based organizations in this country’s history.  Unions, service clubs, membership organizations and umbrella institutions are all reporting a decline in members and affiliates. Of particular importance is the marked decline in ideologically based social and religious movements.

According to social scientists, these trends date back to the 1970s as Americans began nearly half a century ago to pull back from their civic connections. Pamela Paxton of the University of Texas has suggested that democracy is based on having citizens connected with one another in promoting a shared identity and a mutual sense of responsibility. Any decline in civic participation is seen by Paxton as problematic to our democracy as it undermines the social capital of a society.

More recently, a combination of factors seems to have accelerated this pattern of disaffiliation. The economic crisis and the loss of trust in institutions are seen as two key elements. Loyalty to particular institutions has given way to a new consumer mentality where the value of acquiring the “best deal” has replaced the ideal of sustaining one’s organizational commitments.

Life-long loyalty to traditional institutional relationships has given way to a growing investment in single-issue initiatives and to specific social causes. In today’s marketplace, there are multiple and competing options with regard to affiliation and participation. In turn, the millennials represent a generation that is more readily prepared to jettison their parents’ institutional choices in favor of alternative ways to engage in the public square. Social networks for this generation are replacing traditional membership patterns.

For the Jewish community, these declining numbers are particularly problematic, as we are witnessing a transformational change across the nation in the composition and structure of our institutions. The closing of synagogues, the merger of schools, the downsizing of national organizations and the retrenchment of personnel reflect the contemporary communal landscape.  In the end, fewer Jews are supporting more of these core institutions.

Religious movements from all faith traditions are confronting an array of institutional pressures including the loss of members, policy conflicts over doctrine and practice, and leadership challenges. The Indiana University Center on Philanthropy reported that “increased competition from a proliferating number of non-religious organizations, a decrease in church attendance, and a general lack of sophistication within religious institutions regarding fundraising” represent specific factors that might be contributing to this decline within the religious sector. Experts on religious movements have suggested that a number of these bodies were constructed around “slow-moving bureaucracies that need to find a way to stay nimble in the 21st century.”

This declining confidence in institutions is not unique to religion. Americans are less confident in the leaders of many kinds of structures than they were in the 1970s. Still, confidence in religious leaders has declined faster than with representatives of other institutions. People now express as low a degree of confidence in religious leaders as they do, on average, with public figures from other major institutions.

As a result of these social pressures and changing demographic trends, we can document a series of specific trends within the Jewish institutional world. Organizations report a return to localism, where institutions with global and national ties are opting instead to focus their resources in community-based efforts. Local affiliates appear often unwilling to sustain their levels of commitment to their parent or national governing units. Correspondingly, national systems faced with declining resources have been forced to downsize their service delivery options and curtail national programs.

As local institutions and their membership base are experiencing a rapid change in the types of services and resources required to manage their operations, community-based groups are frequently bypassing their national partners in favor of securing assistance from other types of management and organizational service centers. In this new paradigm, Jewish organizations will need to demonstrate a level of risk-taking in delivering their messages and in packaging their services if they wish to capture unaffiliated and disconnected Jews as well as reconnect with their former membership base.

Religious movements and national institutions inside the Jewish world will need to address these challenges by investing in an array of new strategies that will focus their energies on leadership development, infrastructural reorganization, social networks, and alternative policy and program initiatives that are designed to recapture the attention of the “street,” i.e. the general public. Movements of all types need to reframe their core messages as a way to affirm their legitimacy and brand their identity. Creating centers of learning and action will be core to a movement’s sustainability and growth. In the past, highly successful institutions had the luxury of ignoring their competitors, yet in more recent times, most great organizations have learned to build alliances, create partnerships and systematically enter into arrangements where allied or competitive groups were integrated or merged into their system. 

If movements and national institutions are to regain their legitimacy and standing within American Jewish life, they will need to assert a more transparent policy process, frame messages that respond to the values and behaviors of the millennial generation and serve the needs of the baby-boomer community, as well as reflect a structural nimbleness necessary to compete in the 21st century marketplace.


Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. His writings can be found on

Jan Perry’s quest: Spirituality, pursuit of L.A.’s well-being


I asked City Council member Jan Perry, a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, if she was on a spiritual quest when she converted to Judaism. “Right,” she replied. “Your question is a good way to put it.”

Perry, whose conversation offers a mixture of the spiritual and practical politics, is perhaps the most interesting of those planning to run for mayor in 2013.  She’s Jewish, African-American, a woman and an articulate challenger of the insider old-boys club that runs City Hall. She currently is the only woman on the 15-member City Council, which another woman, Pat Russell, once led as president and where, in the past, other female council members have had considerable power.

I found her discussion of spiritual values intriguing, considering all her years in a city hall where standards are governed mostly by campaign contributions and political deals. Perry, who is currently in her third four-year-term representing Council District 9, has taken part in those deals and has both won and lost.

She was victorious in her efforts on behalf of the downtown projects of AEG, the entertainment giant, pushing through city financial aid and favorable zoning for Staples Center, subsidies for new nearby hotels, and her support was crucial to the development of the entire AEG L.A. Live complex of theaters and restaurants. She also won city financial aid for the company for its proposed National Football League stadium in the area.

But she was a loser earlier this year when she went up against fellow Council member Herb Wesson and voted against him for the council’s top job of president. Wesson prevailed, then, supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had the council pass a reapportionment plan that stripped development-rich areas of downtown from Perry’s district.  Wesson obviously believes in the political adage, “Don’t get mad, get even.”

Perry and I talked over lunch at the Omni Hotel on Bunker Hill, one of the areas removed from her district in the reapportionment. She was friendly, relaxed and confident. Even when she was lashing out at the council’s ruling clique — my words, not hers — her voice was modulated and her manner calm. She doesn’t seem much different now than when I met her during her time as top aide to Rita Walters, the council member who previously represented her district. The mother of an adult daughter, Perry is divorced from her husband of 17 years. “We were friends then; we are friends now,” she said.

She’s the first of the potential mayoral candidates I’ll interview over the next several months. Best known among the others are City Council member Eric Garcetti, City Controller Wendy Greuel, radio talk-show host Kevin James, developer Rick Caruso and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Of these, only Perry, Garcetti, Greuel and James have formally announced their candidacies.

We talked about her journey from the Protestant home of her politically active parents in Cleveland to her embrace of Judaism while a student at USC about 30 years ago. Her spiritual quest took her to Rabbi Laura Geller, who then headed Hillel at USC. Perry said she was “on the hunt for something big. Why am I here? What is my purpose, my role as a woman, my role in society?” She also studied with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Felder, director of UCLA Hillel, and then converted.

“The big moment for me in being Jewish was to be more community oriented in developing my observances, being part of a community,“ she said. For example, she said that on Yom Kippur, “When I was younger, I didn’t understand how important it is” on this day of repentance and atonement to pray “in a community,” among those who share her beliefs.

I can see something of her religion in her handling of one of her biggest and most complex issues, Skid Row, where she is following the Jewish imperative of reaching out and helping those in need. Politicians and the rest of Los Angeles avoids visiting the dangerous neighborhood, or even thinking about it. But, according to Jon Regardie, executive editor of the Los Angeles Downtown News, Perry has “spent more time addressing Skid Row than any other official had in decades.”

Skid Row, recently removed from her district in the reapportionment, is a wide area just east of the commercial heart of downtown Los Angeles, reaching eastward from around Main Street to near the Los Angeles River. It is filled with the homeless and other down-and-outers, many among them substance addicts, mentally ill, physically ailing and victims of the recession. Skid Row’s population also includes families with children, as well as a group of dedicated nonprofit organization workers who strive to provide housing, medical help, rehabilitation and other services, despite many obstacles.

Perry told me Skid Row should be a “recovery community,” where the homeless can find housing, make appointments with doctors, see therapists and drug counselors, a place “where they can rest” rather than live the risky life on the streets.

By coordinating efforts with the several nonprofit organizations in the area and helping them with the complicated task of obtaining public and private financing, Perry said she spurred construction of 1,200 units of permanent housing, with facilities for counseling and medical care. In addition, 5,000 units of low-income housing have been built within the boundaries of the area she represented in pre-reapportionment days.

As Perry sees it, Skid Row encapsulates the kinds of problems she would face as mayor. It’s poor. She dealt with conflict between property owners who want the homeless out of there, and with human-rights advocates who stand up for the poor and see her as a hard-hearted ally of business. She also worked with the Los Angeles Police Department, which tries to control the rampant drug dealing and other crimes on Skid Row, to enforce public health statutes and also comply with court decisions protecting homeless rights.

Also in her downtown district, Perry, in addition to supporting L.A. Live, is credited by council observers with helping developers build the condos and apartment houses that have upscaled parts of Skid Row and the areas around it. Critics have called her a handmaiden of AEG and other downtown developers, but she defends her support for the company, saying it’s a model for how to bring in more jobs and housing. She said she would “be a strategic job creator.” She wants more hotels downtown for conventions and would “promote jobs along transit lines and make sure housing is available.”

After our lunch, I wondered how she would do if elected mayor. Although I am more cynical than spiritual, I was impressed by her spiritual qualities, nurtured by her mentors, Rabbis Geller and Seidler- Felder, both of whom I respect. But being a student of practical politics, I was also impressed with her toughness. If she wins, the City Hall old boys may find out whether she, like them, follows the political rule of “Don’t get mad, get even.”


Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Diversity is good for Jewish college students


In case you haven’t heard, Orthodox Judaism has pretty much taken over Jewish life on U.S. college campuses. I say this not because I’m smug and happy about it, but as a wake-up call to the Conservative and Reform branches to get their acts together.

If diversity is good for the Jews, then it’s even more important for college students.

College life is the ideal time for students to experiment and search for their own truths. If they’re exposed to a diverse religious menu, they’ll be more likely to find their personal Jewish path.

Unfortunately, they’re not finding much religious diversity these days.

According to a report last week in The Jewish Week by Sam Cohen, a senior at New York University, the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism have virtually abandoned their outreach efforts on campus. As he writes, “Last month the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism drove the penultimate nail into the coffin of KOACH, its college-programming branch, by announcing it would end the program unless supporters raised $130,000 by the end of the year.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, Cohen adds that “KOACH lasted three years longer than its Reform companion Kesher, which the URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] closed down after a similar stretch of inadequate funding and underwhelming impact.”

Meanwhile, Cohen notes how Orthodox outreach efforts are thriving: “The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program (JLIC), which places young Orthodox rabbis and their wives to live full-time on college campuses, has grown to include 15 locations. Chabad on Campus continues to expand rapidly with a $28.8 million budget (equal to the URJ’s entire annual budget), and other Orthodox outreach programs (such as 21-campus Meor, with a budget of $5.7 million) have grown as well.”

He laments that “what’s at stake here is not merely denominational pride. It’s the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in this country.”

I think it’s worse than that: What’s at stake is the future of Judaism itself — or at least its vitality.

As Cohen reminds us, “Going to college is the single most common factor for American Jews — 85 percent of all college-age Jews in the U.S. are in college. Every year, 100,000 Jews begin their freshman year, and 100,000 graduate and begin making decisions about the Jewish life they want to live and the family they want to raise.”

So, if we don’t engage this hugely influential group in a rich and diverse way, what kind of future will Judaism have in this country? Sure, if it were up to me, every Jew on the planet would observe the Sabbath and eat kosher. But an “Orthodox-only” model is a fantasy. That’s not the world we live in. The new generation must make its own decisions on what Jewish connection they will have, if any.

The Orthodox, God bless them, are making their pitch. But what about the non-Orthodox?

In my view, they’re too consumed with labels and self-definition. And even when they’re not, they use labels like “egalitarian” or “non-denominational.”

For my money, there’s only one label worth its salt in Jewish outreach: Passionate Judaism.

I don’t care if it’s a Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chasidic, Orthodox, post-denominational or Sephardic experience. Just make it passionate.

Passionate could mean Chabad’s “unconditional love” approach, or a Carlebach minyan’s “ecstatic joy” experience or creating your own lively “medley minyan.” It could also mean offering passionate engagement with Jewish texts, Jewish history and Jewish culture. In other words, passionate means that whatever style of Judaism you practice, make it pulsate with passion and excitement.

Labels like “Reform” or “Conservative” don’t convey passion. You don’t think of passion when you think of “reforming” or “conserving.” The Orthodox label is not as much of a problem, because people assume that the more observant you are, the more passionate you are.

That’s why the non-Orthodox “spiritual communities” and independent minyanim that have sprung up in recent years don’t label themselves as Reform or Conservative. It’s no longer about the label. It’s about the experience.

Religious diversity on campuses is a must, but it’s not enough. If Jewish organizations want to make a lasting impact with today’s Jewish college students — whose hearts and minds are more loyal to their careers and their iPhone screens than to their religious tradition — they will need to offer a lot more than Judaism Lite or Judaism Friendly.

They’ll need to offer Judaism Deep, Judaism Spiritual and Judaism Never Boring.

I’ve sat on the board of UCLA Hillel for years, and the challenge of attracting students to Jewish life is consistently at the top of our agenda. The programs that work best always seem to have a passionate and pluralistic flavor — such as our Friday Night Unity Shabbats and our Challah for Hunger baking sessions.

We need many more such efforts. I’d love to see the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism team up to launch a campus movement with the simplest of labels — as simple as “The Jewish Center” — and offer a vibrant Judaism that Jewish students will want to keep for life.

Passion doesn’t belong to the Orthodox. For Judaism to thrive in America, we need every branch to show intensity and enthusiasm for the Jewish practice of its choice.

That will make it a lot easier for young Jews to choose that label called Judaism.


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

A 220-year-old lesson


Last week, while on a family vacation in Philadelphia, my wife and I visited the new National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Square. We toured the wonderful installation chronicling American Jewish history from the first immigrants to the current period. The permanent exhibition alone is worth a few hours of touring.

We were especially lucky to be present on the first day of a new show that runs until the end of September: “To Bigotry No Sanction — George Washington and Religious Freedom.” The exhibition centers on the August 1790 letter that Washington sent to the “Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island.” The Museum recently acquired the original letter, which had been hidden away for the past decade. Due to the delicacy of the original, it can only be on display three months a year.

It is an extraordinary document and is especially worthy of attention in the days surrounding the Fourth of July. The letter was handwritten by Washington shortly after he received a letter from Moses Seixas, the “warden” of the Newport synagogue. In Seixas’ letter, he welcomed Washington to Newport and thanked God for having led the Jews to America:

“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People … generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine. … [W]e desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness to the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of mortal life. And when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the after of life and the tree of immortality.”

In Washington’s response, a few days later, he laid out a vision of religious tolerance that likely had no historic precedent (the French legislation emancipating its Jews was not adopted until September 1791).

In a few terribly moving paragraphs, Washington declares that “the citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

In beautiful prose, he invokes the words that Seixas had included in his letter: “For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving on all occasion their effectual support.”

In what is a rather prescient view of societal dynamics, Washington makes clear that it is really not for one set of citizens to express “toleration” for another — acceptance is not theirs to give. Liberty is, after all, the exercise by the minority of their “inherent natural rights.” (You can find the full text of Washington’s letter at jewishjournal.com. It’s worth a read.)

It probably needn’t be noted, but the exquisite language of tolerance that Washington expressed in 1790 did not extend to slaves, women or Native Americans and did not reflect itself in the laws of many of the states, which had attitudes that were considerably less benign. The Emancipation Proclamation (freeing the slaves) was 73 years and a civil war away. And as recently as the past decade, seven states still had statutes on the books (though unenforceable) that had religious tests for holding office.

Notwithstanding the fact that Washington’s vision took a while to realize — “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid”— it was an aspiration that helped set the bar for what America was to become, a nation that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”


David A. Lehrer co-directs Community Advocates Inc. with Joe Hicks. They write The Wide Angle blog at jewishjournal.com/thewideangle, where this piece originally appeared.

Health care for all: It’s an American — and a Jewish — imperative


From antiquity to the 20th century, preventive medicine was not bad. The Torah (Leviticus 12-13) already knows about quarantine as a method to contain communicative diseases, and the Talmud knows about such things as the importance of fruits and vegetables in one’s diet, the dangers of obesity, and many other aspects of taking care of our health that our doctors still recommend today. Moreover, the psychosocial aspects of care of the sick were arguably better than what we do today because when you were sick, you were at home among family and friends rather than in a hospital or nursing home. Curative medical treatment, though, was largely ineffective and was, therefore, inexpensive.

This changed dramatically with the advent of antibiotics (penicillin came into widespread usage in the early 1940s), followed by a host of other new medicines, vaccines and surgical procedures discovered or invented in the last half of the 20th century and continuing into the present. Some of these new interventions are relatively inexpensive, but many cost quite a bit, and some are very expensive. As a result, only the very rich can afford many medical interventions available today, and all too many of us cannot afford even visits to primary care doctors. 

Canada, Western European countries and Israel responded to this situation through instituting a system of socialized medicine in which the government pays for both primary care and more expensive interventions for every citizen (and often tourists, too). Socialized medicine has its own problems. It is often hard to add to the package of services available as medicine develops, and people need to wait in line, sometimes for months, for important and effective surgeries that are not emergencies (such as hip replacements). Even so, for decades now, nations with socialized medicine have provided access to health care for all of their citizens.

Virtually alone among democracies, the United States has failed to do that. American individualism, at the root of some of the great blessings of freedom and pluralism of our country, is also the ultimate cause of our inability as a nation to come together to provide health care for us all, in shameful contrast to all the other Western democracies. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) is a plan finally to enable us to accomplish that end. Still, it was adopted in Congress by a slim margin, only after prodigious effort on the part of the president and his allies, at the cost of a number of members of Congress losing their seats in the subsequent 2010 election, and it has now been approved as constitutional by the slimmest of majorities of the Supreme Court as well. Furthermore, Republicans now vow to repeal the law, primarily because it imposes a duty on all Americans to contribute to the health care of us all. American individualism does not succumb easily to demands of the government, even for a plan to help us all as an American community.

Moreover, the president’s plan is a uniquely American way to provide health insurance for us all. It is not socialized medicine, for it is private parties, not the government, which will provide the medical care. The government, though, will function to organize insurance pools to act as the insurer of last resort for those who do not get health insurance from their employers and who cannot afford it on their own. Thus the American values of individualism and private enterprise are retained in the president’s health plan.

As American Jews, we inherit not only the American heritage of Western liberalism, but also the Jewish heritage that is much more communitarian, that requires us as a community to take care of the poor and sick in our midst. The Torah has multiple rules that require us to take care of the poor, and the rabbis added even more. Based on the Torah’s demands not to stand idly by the blood of your brother (Leviticus 19:16) and to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), later rabbis extended this duty to the sick as well. The Jewish part of us, therefore, applauds loudly for the fact that we Americans have finally found a way to come together to achieve this morally important goal. 

But the American part of our identity must also applaud. Pragmatism, after all, is also part of our American heritage. This includes the theory of pragmatism (e.g., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty) as well as the impressive achievements by Americans in all areas of engineering and technology. We are, in a significant sense, the “can do” society.

Until the new legislation, however, people without health insurance or who are underinsured have obtained the services they need but in the most expensive way possible — through the emergency room. This is not only morally problematic because it forces people to suffer the pain of diseases often for months or years before they get medical help, it is also fiscally irresponsible. It is no wonder that for the last 20 years, we Americans have been spending 15 to 18 percent of our gross national product on health care while Canadians, Europeans and Israelis have spent half that, and, according to annual United Nations ratings, they get much better results in health outcomes than we do.

So the pragmatic, American side of us, as well as the morally insistent Jewish side of us, should celebrate the fact that we as a nation finally have a way to provide for health care for us all. May it be put into effect fully and speedily.


Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at American Jewish University and chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Dear Matisyahu


Dear Matisyahu,

Tonight you performed at the WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma, 70 miles from my Dallas home. The distance may seem far, but in Texas proportion, it is right around the corner. I did not attend your concert. I could not. Frankly, I do not plan to see you again. You have disappointed me greatly. I will play your CD’s from time to time and hum your songs when the mood sets in. But you have let me down. All my life I’ve been waiting for and praying for a Charedi Jew to offer a message that resonates with America — a blessed country built on Judeo-Christian values but now listing toward secularism — and helps right it. How appropriate it would be for a member of one of the proudest, most observant Jewish groups to water the spiritual roots of American culture and give nourishment to its base. When your song “One Day” was chosen to be the theme melody of the 2010 Winter Olympics on NBC, my heart fluttered with pride.

Charedi, to me, means a Jew to whom Judaism — Torah values, Torah practice and Torah study — is numero uno and everything else is numero dos. It means someone to whom Judaism is not an identity but a life, not an ethnicity but a purpose. It would have to be someone who could capture the God-centeredness of the Charedi lifestyle and express it in lyrics that America could sing.  With your flowing beard, passionate vigor and refreshing creativity, I thought you were the one.

When your beard came off and your large black yarmulke remained, I took pause, but your reassuring tweets kept my hopes high. The pictures you recently tweeted of you and Wiz Khalifa — you with dyed blond hair sans yarmulke and Wiz smoking a joint — made me realized that you are no longer singing Z’miros in reggae. You are singing a different song. 

I drive by the Windstar World Casino often. It is just across the Texas state line, in Oklahoma, built on an Indian reservation where the Judeo-Christian values of the heartland don’t have jurisdiction, but close enough to tempt the millions in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex to turn gelt into glitter, savings into flashing lights. The dreamy theme of the building is a concrete version of the joint Wiz was smoking. It is not the place to offer even the most watered-down Jewish values.

Your transition followed a path that has been traveled before. A creative Orthodox message becomes a broader universal message, and a broader universal message becomes a self-centered message. What was “Look at God” becomes “Look at me.” 

“Me” is the currency of our pagan-light pop culture.

I grew up in New York, where God is glorified in the religious community but chided and derided in the surrounding culture. Twelve years ago, my wife and I left the Northeast to move to Dallas, where we joined the Dallas kollel and subsequently started a meat business. It is a land like I have never seen growing up; God is revered, and Jews are respected. 

Over the years, I came to the conclusion that we need not be as insular as we were in New York and can speak values to the world around us, as our patriarch Avraham did. The culture is utterly receptive; if it is listening, should we not speak? You, Matisyahu, were an example of what could be done if only we would speak.

But now I am discouraged. You recently tweeted: “I felt it was time to walk a new path. What that exactly means or looks like I am still figuring out, and will be for the rest of my life, I hope.” Saying those words at this point in your life says, to me, that you have been sucked into the culture you were trying to influence. You have become connected to the hedonism that abhors rules and undermines values. And it says that I will, too, if I go it alone as you did. 

Sometimes I lie under the moon and think each observant Jew should reach out and touch the world. Now I see that community is the protector of God-centeredness and that discipline is the precursor of kiddush ha-Shem — sanctification of the Name.

I still believe that the American ship is listing precariously and the inspired Charedi community has a lead role to play in righting it. I still believe that if we speak, the world will listen. But I now appreciate, more than before, that it needs to be within a framework of community. And I pray that God helps us create and sustain a community that rallies behind the banner of kiddush ha-Shem, living passionate Charedi Judaism in a way that the world can observe, understand and appreciate.


The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock” literally and figuratively, as the CEO of A.D. Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC, and as a rabbi at NCSY — Dallas.

Divestment: What the Presbyterian vote could mean


In the next few days, the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), will convene in Pittsburgh. If delegates pass any one of several resolutions calling for punitive economic measures against Israel, the Church will have capitulated to one of the worst assaults on Jewish integrity coming from any church group since the Holocaust. That blow to Jewish history, belief and aspiration is contained in the Kairos Palestine Document (KPD), ironically, a document unknown to most Presbyterians.

About two-and-a-half years ago, KPD was penned by a group of Palestinian Christians. Redolent with Scriptural references, it is a powerful appeal for Christian sympathy for the plight of Palestinians.

KPD is also, however, a frontal assault on the very legitimacy of Israel, and an attack on Judaism itself. The Kairos Palestine Document justifies (but does not recommend) terrorism. It assigns all the blame to Israel for the Middle East’s problems. It acknowledges nothing about Palestinian terror, rocket attacks, or the teaching of virulent anti-Semitism in schools, on Palestinian Authority television, and in mosques.

It denies any Biblical link between the Jewish people and the Holy Land. It rewrites modern history as well, by promoting the canard that Israel was created in sin, an imposition of Western colonialists, driven by guilt for the Nazi Holocaust, on the backs of the true owners of the land. It conveniently ignores 3,500 years of a Jewish presence in the Holy Land, and erases a 150 years of peaceful up-building of the land by Jews before the establishment of the state.

It gets even worse. Kairos’ appeals to Scripture take the classic form of Replacement Theology, in which all references to the Jews in the Bible, all covenants with them, are replaced, as Christians become the New Jews. The old Jews, thereby, become the discards of history. (Christians invoked Replacement Theology, together with the charge of deicide, for centuries to justify persecuting Jews). Finally, this document culminates in a core political demand of Israel’s enemies: the cessation of all US military aid to Israel, and for economic boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Jewish state.

[Related: Church of Nativity gets Heritage status over U.S., Israel objections]

Jewish leaders voiced their dismay and outrage when a PCUSA recommended adoption of Kairos at the 2010 General Assembly. KPD made a mockery of the 1987 Presbyterian document, “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews.” The 1987 document contained seven theological affirmations, among them that the identity of the Church “is intimately related to the continuing identity of the Jewish people”; that both “Christians that Jews are in covenant relationship with G-d”; and a pledge that they would “put an end to the teaching of contempt for the Jews.”

KPD devalued the identity of the Jewish people, denied any continuing covenant, and was contemptuous of the way Jews looked at themselves, their beliefs and the centrality of their Land.

While Kairos was not formally adopted, it was “lifted up for study,” “along with a pledge to Jewish groups that a new spirit of fairness to all sides would soon prevail.”

It never happened. A new study guide on the Middle East that was just released betrayed that promise.

While it was supposed to provide two perspectives on the Middle East, it did nothing of the sort.

At the General Assembly that begins this week, PCUSA will vote on a number of resolutions incorporating the worst influences of Kairos. A call for divestment has the backing of a prestigious standing committee of the Church. Passing any one of the anti-Israel resolutions will mean that Presbyterians have responded to the call of Palestinians with nothing less than a repudiation of the principles that governed dialogue with Church leadership for decades.

Their votes will not help a single Palestinian but will leave Jews little choice but to end all ties with Presbyterian leadership, and ignore their unfair and unfaithful pronouncements on Israel in the future.

The Jewish community has some difficult lessons to absorb from this fiasco masquerading as dialogue.

We have to clearly articulate that any group’s inability to come to terms with Israel as a Jewish state is not only a deal-breaker, but also a signal of contempt for Jews and Judaism.

It is almost beyond belief that as the ground literally burns beneath the Christian faithful in Egypt, Nigeria and Iraq that PCUSA stays fixated in aiding and abetting the de-legitimizing of Israel. All other mainline Christian denominations have either rejected or shelved divestment measures. If Presbyterians go it alone, they will have made an unnecessary but clear choice between the narratives of two people.

A huge number of ordinary Presbyterians reject the actions of their church leadership. They enjoy a mutually warm and respectful relationship with Jewish friends. Those valued friendships will continue.

But as far as PCUSA denominational leadership, the upcoming vote may bring us to the end of the road.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

This essay originally appeared at jpost.com