Keeping the Faith


I am a regular temple goer throughout the year, but there is something about the high holidays that brings me peace I don’t know how to properly articulate. I love my faith and could listen to my Rabbi give a sermon all day, every day, but there is nothing better than Kol Nidre with Rabbi Naomi Levy.  It is a moving service and I feel like I am in the presence of God on this particular day. Perhaps it is because I am surrounded by such a large group and we are all in prayer together, or maybe it is just because my heart is completely open on this day. Open to joy and sorrow, happiness and heartache. It is a day that matters to me.

I am going into Kol Nidre this year with both relief and fear. Relief to unload the weight of so many things on my soul, and fear about what my life will look like without so many burdens pent up inside me. After a year with so many unanswered questions and trials and tribulations, I have no expectations, but real hope when I go to Kol Nidre services. I simply want to be free. Free of my demons, of which there are many, and free of the busyness in my mind that prevents me from sleeping. I want my choices to be unaffected by cancer, and I want my future to become clear. No guarantees, just clarity after foggy days.

I am not the type of person who looks for guarantees in life. Things happen, both good and bad, and I am a roll with the punches kind of girl. I will think about the last year, thank God for holding my hand through all of it, and pray for the strength to be always be brave, even when I don’t think I can. I shall search for forgiveness, knowing it will come. I shall search for clarity, knowing it will come. I shall ask for sleep, knowing it will find me. I shall envision all of our names being inscribed in the book of life, and I will focus on keeping the faith.

 

 

Worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Jan. 17. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

L.A. clergy respond to the Kotel controversy


We have seen the selling out of the Jewish people for crass political power.  However, it isn’t usually done by a prime minister of Israel to Jews around the world. Benjamin Netanyahu’s crass political move to renege on the compromise reached with the Reform and Conservative Movements and Women of the Wall on appropriate egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel is alarming and shameful.

The plan to build egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall was negotiated by the prime minister’s own representatives. His representatives Natan Sharansky and now-attorney general Avichai Mendelbilt were the ones who spoke for the Israeli government. It was hailed as an historic agreement by the prime minister’s own office. Netanyahu came to the U.S. and himself addressed American Jewry about the importance of this.

I sat across from the prime minister a year ago February in his office when he assured me and rabbinic leaders of the Reform Movement, “It will happen.”  Following the meeting at the annual convention of the Reform rabbinate in 2016, we held the first services in what was to eventually become the new space. It was a spiritually uplifting and moving experience to pray with my fellow rabbis next to the ancient and historical symbol of our people’s continuity, men and women together as is our authentic Jewish experience.

The prime minister, who claims to speak for all Jews, has betrayed a significant portion of the Jewish people by giving in to Charedi demands.  He is not a man of his word or a man of honor and he is leading the government of Israel to act immorally.

The sacrifices of the ancient Temple were designed to restore wholeness and holiness to individuals who have sinned and to the Jewish people. Prime Minister Netanyahu instead has sacrificed the majority of American Jews on the altar of his political expediency, reinforcing the very sin that destroyed the ancient Temple: sinat chinam, the hatred of Jew against Jew. This is the sin our Talmudic Sages teach destroyed the Temple. Netanyahu’s actions further alienate American Jews from finding a place and connection to the Jewish homeland. As a Reform rabbi I try to build up that connection and help Jews find their way home. The prime minister has increased the distance and removed the welcome mat from the doorway.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami


I am saddened, of course, that things had to come to this point, and that no effective compromise was brokered that could avoid the considerable pain experienced on both sides of the divide. I cannot say that I understand what happened.

I am saddened by the hype and the untruths that are being spread. While I can understand some of the feelings of let-down in the non-Orthodox world, I cannot understand charges that this move is a repudiation of their Jewishness. It is rather, for better or worse, nothing but the affirmation and continuation of a long-standing policy recognizing the holiness of the Wall as defined by halachah. No one — no one — is barred from participating in prayer there. The leaders of the movement to carve up the Kotel were not motivated by lack of a place where they could pray according to their fashion. Robinson’s Arch would have been more than adequate. The word that they have used has been “visibility,” i.e. they wished to make a statement about the legitimacy of their beliefs in high profile. Let’s at least be honest that this is not about equal access. It is about marketing.

Mostly I am saddened that the rift between Jewish brothers and sisters has become so cavernous that people speak of “rethinking” their commitment to the State of Israel. Do we support it because of what it can do for us, or because of its centrality in Jewish thought? Could it be that lots of non-Orthodox folks in Israel sense this wavering commitment, and are therefore prepared to listen to the Orthodox position, recognizing that only a halachic tradition will be a guarantor for the Jewish future?  I suspect that the heterodox movements have lost far more through this than a place at the Southern Wall.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Co-founder of Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought


This is a triumph of expediency and fear over principle and unity. We all understand the political calculation involved, and the need for the prime minister to keep his coalition happy. But as Harry Truman memorably said, sometimes you have to put your principles aside and do what’s right. This betrayal tastes bitter in the mouths of those who love our people and our land.

Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple


This move by the government of Israel reneging on the Kotel agreement and promoting the conversion bill that would disenfranchise 500,000 people in Israel and around the world is a violation of the trust of the Jewish people. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has allowed a small group of religious extremist fanatics to separate the Jewish people from the State of Israel so that he can remain Prime Minister regardless of the importance of maintaining the unity of the Jewish people.

Jews everywhere should insist that the Prime Minister withdraw the conversion bill from consideration in the Knesset and reverse his government’s decision to ignore the Kotel agreement. The Prime Minister should also apologize to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who at the Prime Minister’s request five years to find a compromise agreement on the Kotel that unifies the Jewish people, did so and then Netanyahu dismissed the compromise agreement without even informing Sharansky in advance. Netanyahu’s decision humiliated one of the great heroes of the Jewish people.

Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood


In December 1988, I was a first-year rabbinic student living in Jerusalem when the first group of women naively took a Torah scroll to the women’s side of the Kotel and held a prayer service. Their heartfelt offering did not sit well with many who witnessed it. I was not among that original group, though several of them came to our living room later that afternoon to debrief and cry.

That year brought new meaning for me to the terms “hard rock” and “heavy metal,” for in the months afterwards I served the newly forming women’s group as a shomeret (a guard). The guards formed a ring around those praying, and faced the angry ones so the others could turn inward, trying to worship.

We tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to protect those praying from the vitriol, spittle, tear gas canister (thrown at us by one of the Orthodox men who picked it up after the police threw it at them), and one heavy metal chair that suddenly came flying through the air in our direction, injuring one of the women as she prayed.  It was the first year of the first Intifada, but the rocks coming over the Kotel from above made more sense to me, and were in some ways less frightening, than the weapons and words thrown by Jews at Jews.

The soldiers who protect the Jews at the Kotel were as taken aback as we were.  On a later visit a woman carried a Torah scroll on loan from the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in a baby blanket through the ever-tightening security: “Oh,” laughed the guard as he peeled back the blanket, and waved us through, “beautiful baby.”

No one is laughing now.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim


We Jews must surely be the laughing stock of the world! Even as the United Nations actively delegitimizes our connection to the Temple Mount and ancient holy sites in Jerusalem and Israel, we are busy fighting with each other as to who can pray where and how, as if any of this really matters.

Both sides in this dispute ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Do any of the protagonists really think that they are making God happy by fighting with each other? The Talmud tells us that the Temple was destroyed and the exile was decreed by God as a result of the endless pointless squabbling between Jews. And yet, almost 2,000 years later, we are still squabbling! How pathetic.

Instead of fighting each other, we need to be joining forces and together fighting our real enemies — those who wish to deny the Jewish connection to our holiest site — not the Kotel, but the Temple Mount, where our Temple once stood, and will stand again, but only if we can focus our energy on making it happen, instead of wasting energy point-scoring against each other, pointing fingers, and creating ill-feeling.

In this fight, no matter who prevails there are no winners. Instead of this nonsense, our goal must be to protect Israel from its enemies, and to create a thriving center for Jewish revival and triumph in our ancestral homeland.

Rabbi Pini Dunner, Beverly Hills Synagogue


That the Israeli governing coalition reneged on its own agreement to provide a separate, cordoned off area, discretely to the side and far from the postcard courtyard that we all think of as the Kotel can’t really be a complete surprise. Politics is politics, and all politics is local. Most Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and nondenominational voices will decry this short-sighted and discriminatory decision (as do I); most Orthodox, Charedi, and Chasidic voices will support and celebrate the power to impose their monopoly. Obviously, this has a lot to do with pluralism (which some see as a threat), and with women acting with authority in public (which even more people see as threatening).

Personally, I feel the need remind us of three simple truths: First, an Israel that circles the wagons and enacts religious policies that sound like they could have been proposed in Teheran or by the Westboro Baptist Church reveals itself to be motivated by fear and considerations of power, more than by faith and wisdom. That’s not good for Israel in the long run.

Second, if we are going to make the Wall into a locus of Jewish faith, then there has to be room for us all, each in our own way, or the imposed exclusion will itself become a justification for those marginalized and slighted to walk away from Judaism and from Israel, and that’s not good for Israel in the long run.

Third, nowhere in the Torah does it suggest that God is accessible at that Wall more than anywhere else. The portability of Torah, the insight that holiness is to be found in acts of tzedek (justice), shalom (peace) and chesed (lovingkindness) remains Judaism’s greatest insight and core conviction. So, by all means, let’s fight for our space at the Wall, but let’s remember that we show real love for God and Torah, and real solidarity with Israel, when we work for a Jewish community — here and there — that observes mitzvot, loves the stranger, learns Torah, and pursues peace.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University


I can pray at the Kotel, but my wife cannot. I can hear the Torah read at the Kotel, but she cannot. If she dons a tallit for private prayer at the Kotel, she will be arrested. If she prays aloud, she will be shouted down or escorted away.  Her spirituality, her voice, is deemed an affront to the Kotel. The great symbol of our collective destiny has become a political token, a tool of division. And sinat hinam, unbounded rivalry, our inability to embrace one another, the very reason we lost the city twice before, burns once more.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom


I have been spat and yelled at (and worse) while davening at the Kotel.  I stand behind the efforts to bring egalitarian services there.  I am a supporter of Women of the Wall.  And I am pained (but somehow not surprised) by the recent reversal by the government, which does feel like a betrayal, and which stymies admirable efforts to open the Kotel to the full array of Jewish religious expression.  And at the same time, I choose not to wring my hands or wallow today.  I choose to celebrate, and thus identify with Rabbi Akiva in the famous story from the Talmud in which his rabbinic peers tore their garments upon seeing the ruins of Jerusalem.  They see the moment frozen in time, a destruction prophesied by a particular Biblical verse. Rabbi Akiva smiles, however, reminding them that the end of that very verse also prophesies redemption.  Now that the nadir envisioned by the verse has come to pass, the eventual ascension/aliyah is also inevitable. 
 
So why do I celebrate today?  Because even though the Charedi hold on Israeli politics is at times painful and corrupt, as the Kotel fiasco attests to, for me redemption is not tied to a particular wall. I am sometimes bemused by the fact that so much focus is put on prayer at the ruin of the Temple by the very Jews who least ache for that spot to re-emerge as the center of Jewish spirituality.  For the progressive-traditional Jew, who sees rebirth of meaningful and resonant Judaism within Israel as one of Zionism’s greatest contributions and challenges, what transpires at the Kotel may be symbolically important, but pales in comparison to the evolutions transpiring throughout the land—the mash-up of secular seekers and traditional liturgy at various Kabbalat Shabbat phenomena that are growing; the strength and vitality of Masorti and Progressive synagogues and communities despite the infrastructural challenges which inhibit them; the will exhibited by myriad Israelis to reject the authority and monopoly of the rabbanut by making decisions (which, yes, they ought not have to make) to marry creatively rather than under near-theocratic conditions.  Last summer I attended a cousin’s wedding on an Orthodox kibbutz, where the officiant was female, and at which the hordes of sweaty, tzitzit-flying, tichel-wearing celebrants saw no conflict between traditional Jewish rituals and practice on the one hand, and female religious leadership and party-style mixed-dancing on the other.  This same cousin, who helped found yet another Orthodox/egalitarian minyan in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, recently posted on Facebook wishing a mazal tov on the recent wedding…of Moshe and Eran, two of his closest male friends and fellow B’nai Akiva alumni. 
 
I’d tear a tiny thread in my clothes, as I really do wish that on my next visit to the Kotel I, and my daughters, can pray in the manner we find sacred.  But this symbolic setback is dwarfed by the extraordinary successes we see playing out in spots that are, indeed, more important to the Jewish future even than those venerable stones.  I honor the leaders of WOW and wish them strength.  And yet I know we will not win every engagement.  And the perfect is the enemy of the good.  And Robinson’s Arch is a beautiful place to hold egalitarian prayer (and a bit shadier, too!).  And if we scope out beyond those square meters, and if we are witness to (and financially contribute to) the efforts to egalitarian-ize and modernize and evolution-ize the many Judaisms of modern Israel, then we can stand with Rabbi Akiva, and celebrate the burgeoning redemptions.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am

I stood at the Wall in 1967, having returned “home” on Aliyah with my husband, an Israeli officer. My eyes filled with tears as I approached the Wall which I could only see from the top of the Mt. Zion hotel when I was a young student in Jerusalem in 1960. I prayed and cried tears of gratitude at the open Wall.

I returned to the Wall for the Bar Mitzvah of my son in 1986. There was a mechitzah, but it was low, and no one seemed to mind when I held on to his tallit and prayed out loud, as I draped myself over the barrier from the woman’s side.

A decade later, things had changed. The mechitzah was now a wall itself and the woman’s section became smaller each year. The “Fashion Police” at the entrance to the woman’s section were more insistant, and I was chastized when I gathered my congregants near me in prayer as we visited the holy site.

By the year 2000, the Kotel area had become a war zone, not only for the intifada, but the epicenter of Jew against Jew. Rocks were thrown directly at me. On Rosh Chodesh, the catcalls and whistles grew louder and louder until the level became deafening. The Schechinah decamped elsewhere.

Robinson’s Arch was to be a worthy compromise that honored the unity of the Jewish people. I was lucky enough to lead a Shabbat servce for my congregation in the proposed Plaza area, and it was one of the holiest moments of all of our lives. Swallows flitted in and out of the crevases, the sound of the Arab call to prayer intertwined with our “mixed” daavening as the holy silence of Shabbat decended on Jerusalem.

Today, there is no holy silence. There are only tears for the pain of the Jewish people, and the opportunities we have lost.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy, Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue


Israeli media is full of news, debates and analysis regarding the recent religion/state battles. While many of you may think that what Israelis are focusing on are the security threats from the outside and terror with Israel, you would be wrong. The war over religious freedom and equality is clearly a key component in shaping Israel’s path.

One cannot over exaggerate the serious nature of the current conflict, by just noting the fact that the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors, convening in Jerusalem, decided to cancel a festive dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset and to replace its normal schedule with deliberations regarding the recent government decisions. It never happened before!

Understandably, the non-Orthodox movements (along with the Women of the Wall) put the emphasis on the collapse of the Kotel compromise and its underlying reason: the triumphalist threats by the Charedi parties and the Chief Rabbinate, delegitimizing Diaspora’s major Jewish streams. However, this would be both a narrow focus and a misunderstanding of the larger picture that Israel is facing as it is attempting to forge its Jewish and democratic identity. The three current battles, regarding the Kotel, conversion and Shabbat, are interrelated.

The first of these targets non-Orthodox Jews, the second widens its scope to include Modern Orthodox Judaism, and the third hits the broadest swath of Israeli society — in Tel Aviv and beyond, aimed at blocking municipal ordinances that allow for opening of convenience stores, and preventing public transportation on Shabbat. It should behoove Diaspora Jewish leadership and the streams to focus solely on the affront done to them and lose sight of the larger battle over Israel’s character.

All three initiatives are in direct opposition to the will of the overwhelming majority of Israelis, as repeatedly demonstrated in public opinion polls, such as Hiddush’s own systematic polling.

The recent actions of the government cause severe damage to Jewish unity and the fundamental values of Judaism and democracy. It is time to move beyond niceties, resolutions and verbal expressions of dismay. The time has come for American Jewish leadership to state publicly, loudly and clearly, that all Israeli politicians who vote for these reprehensible laws and policy decisions, are not welcome to your communities so long as they undermine the Jewish People and erode Jewish unity.

Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel

Eyes open and eyes shut: A pre-High Holy Days meditation


Paul Gaugin, the famous 19th-century French artist, commented: “When I want to see clearly, I shut my eyes.”

He was referring to two different ways of perceiving reality. With our eyes open, we see surface reality — size, shape, color, etc. But with our eyes shut, we contemplate the context of things, our relationship to them, the hidden meanings.

With our eyes open, a dozen roses are 12 beautiful flowers. With our eyes shut, they may be full of memories and associations — roses given or received on our first date; roses at our wedding; roses growing in our childhood home’s backyard; roses on our grandmother’s Shabbat table.

How we see fellow human beings is also very different with open or closed eyes. With our eyes open, we see their physical features. With our eyes shut, we remember shared experiences, friendships, happy and sad moments. When we want to see clearly — comprehensively — we shut our eyes.

Mircea Eliade, a specialist in world religions, wrote in his book “The Sacred and The Profane” about the pagan view of New Year. For them, human life is a series of recurring cycles, always on the verge of chaos. On New Year, people descend into this primordial chaos: drunkenness, debauchery, chaotic noise. 

The Jewish view is radically different. For Jews, reality isn’t a hopeless cycle of returns to chaos, but a progression, however slow, of humanity. Rosh Hashanah is not a return to primeval chaos, but a return to God, a return to our basic selves. Our New Year is observed with prayer, repentance, solemnity and a faith that we — and the world — can be better. 

The pagan New Year is an example of seeing reality with open eyes. Things really do seem to be chaotic when viewed on the surface. Humanity does not seem to improve over the generations. We always seem to be on the verge of self-destruction.

The Jewish New Year is an example of viewing reality with our eyes shut, of seeing things more deeply, more carefully. While being fully aware of the surface failings of humanity, we look for the hidden signs of progress and redemption. We attempt to maintain a grand, long-range vision. This is the key to the secret of Jewish optimism. While not denying the negatives around us, we stay faithful to a vision of a world that is not governed by chaos, but by a deeper, hidden, mysterious unity.

The problem of faith today is not how to have faith in God. We can come to terms with God if we are philosophers or mystics. The problem is, how can we have faith in humanity? How can we believe in the goodness and truthfulness of human beings?

With our eyes open, we must view current events with despair and trepidation. We see leaders who are liars and hypocrites. We see wars and hatred and violence and vicious anti-Semitism. We are tempted to think that chaos reigns.

But with our eyes shut, we know that redemption will come. We know that there are good, heroic people struggling for change. We know that just as we have overcome sorrows in the past, we will overcome oppressions and oppressors of today.

Eyes open and eyes shut not only relate to our perception of external realities, but also to our self-understanding. During the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we focus on penitential prayers. We confess our sins and shortcomings. But as we think more deeply about our deficiencies, we also close our eyes and look for our real selves, our deeper selves, our dreams and aspirations.

Rabbi Haim David Halevy, the late Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, noted that the High Holy Days period is symbolized by the shofar. The shofar must be bent, as a reminder that we, too, must bow ourselves in contrition and humility. 

During the month of Elul, which began Aug. 27, it is customary to sound the shofar either as part of Selichot/penitential prayers, or at the conclusion of prayer services. Indeed, the shofar is a vital symbol of Rosh Hashanah services, and also is sounded at the conclusion of Yom Kippur services.

But shortly after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, with the lulav as a central symbol. The lulav must be straight, not bent over. The lulav teaches us to stand strong and tall, to focus on our strengths and virtues. The holiday season, then, encourages us to first experience humility and contrition; but then to move on to self-confidence and optimism. Our eyes are open to our shortcomings; but when we shut our eyes, we also can envision our strengths and potentialities.

Rosh Hashanah reminds us to view our lives and our world with our eyes open — but also with our eyes shut. We are challenged to dream great dreams, to seek that which is hidden, to see beyond the moment.

Rosh Hashanah is a call to each individual to move to a higher level of understanding, behavior and activism. Teshuvah — repentance — means that we can improve ourselves, and that others can improve, and that the world can improve.

This is the key to Jewish optimism, the key to the Jewish revolutionary vision for humanity, the key to personal happiness.


Rabbi Marc Angel is director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org), and rabbi emeritus of the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City. His most recent book is a collection of short stories, “The Crown of Solomon and Other Stories” (Albion-Andalus Books, 2014).

Women of the Wall agrees to pray in egalitarian space, with conditions


Women of the Wall agreed in principle to pray in a new egalitarian space adjacent to the Western Wall Plaza, provided the space meets several conditions regarding design and management.

Until those conditions are met, Women of the Wall said in a statement Monday that it will continue praying at the women’s section of the Western Wall, as the group has for 25 years.

Before now, though, the group had said a new egalitarian section of the wall would not be “relevant” to its needs.

Monday’s policy change brings Women of the Wall in line with other non-Orthodox groups in Israel, such as the Conservative and Reform movements, which saw the new section as an answer to their requests for pluralism at the holy site. Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Conservative movement in Israel, called the change “a very positive step.”

The egalitarian section, to be located in an area adjacent to the plaza known as Robinson’s Arch, was first proposed in April as part of a plan by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky to resolve religious conflict at the wall. Sharansky, along with Knesset Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, is due to release the full plan in the coming weeks.

Women of the Wall meets at the beginning of each Jewish month for a women’s service at the Western Wall. Its chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, told JTA that the policy change will give Women of the Wall more influence over how the new section is designed.

“For an organization that’s always been small and very dedicated, we are now going to become players at the political table, which means we’ll have to compromise on our demands,” she said. “Pure ideology does not reality make.”

The group’s new policy, however, will not lead to a change on the ground in the near future. In order to pray in the new section, Women of the Wall is demanding that the section be equal to the existing plaza in size, topography, budget and facilities. In addition, the group is demanding a unified entrance and a shared plaza between all of the wall’s sections.

Women of the Wall also is demanding that a body of Jewish leaders, with equal women’s representation, runs the new section. The existing plaza is managed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a haredi Orthodox organization.

Some of the changes may be difficult to implement. Altering the topography of the plaza would require approval from the Islamic Wakf, the body that controls the Temple Mount and historically has been resistant to any such changes. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett had a temporary platform erected at Robinson’s Arch in August, but Women of the Wall said it does not meet their needs.

Until Monday, Women of the Wall seemed defiant in its commitment to keep praying in the women’s section. The group scored a legal victory in court this year that allowed its members to pray without fear of arrest, but members have faced ongoing opposition and harassment from traditionalist opponents.

The group’s most recent service, on Friday, was the calmest in months, but the women still encountered opponents screaming and, according to some reports, spitting as they prayed.

“We had a choice,” Hoffman told JTA — “to continue being marginalized and insist that we pray at the women’s section, or to say here’s how we envision the Western Wall, open to all and friendly and clean.”

Women hold prayer service at Kotel without incident


Ten women from Women of the Wall held a public prayer service at the Western Wall without incident.

The service, during which the women sang and wore tallit prayer shawls and tefillin, was held Wednesday because an American supporter of the group was in town and would not be present for the next monthly service next week, according to Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall.

Participants from Women of the Wall gather at the beginning of each Hebrew month for a women’s Rosh Chodesh service at the Western Wall, usually drawing hundreds of women. In recent months, the women have been met with protesters throwing eggs, water, coffee and chairs. Last month, the group was barricaded far from the wall by police, who said the barrier was for the group’s protection.

“The disturbance of the peace and all the problems come from those who protest Women of the Wall, and the lack of police intervention with that,” Pruce told JTA. “If the police would stop the people disturbing the prayer, it would just be a prayer.”

Pruce said that Women of the Wall plans to pray adjacent to the Western Wall plaza for the service next week and will oppose any police barricade. In April, a Jerusalem district court ruled that the women’s service does not contravene the law.

The problem with prayer


If the practice of Judaism is based on synagogue attendance, and if synagogue attendance is based on the passive recitation of prayer, then Judaism is in trouble.

The ritual of repetitive communal prayer might have worked in the shtetls to keep Jews Jewish, but it doesn’t work in today’s America.

For many Jews — especially the nonobservant — the very act of prayer can seem odd. What am I praying for? Does God really owe me anything more than all the blessings I already have and take for granted? And if I decide to pray for something — like being healthy — am I not better off going to the gym and watching what I eat? 

Prayer, in fact, might be the most problematic point of entry into Judaism. Why should people waste their time doing something they don’t really understand and don’t believe will benefit them?

Synagogues sense this. That’s one reason they put so much emphasis on the value of community. Becoming a member of a synagogue means belonging to an extended “family” that will provide you with a network of support and friendships, rabbinic assistance for lifecycle events, High Holy Days privileges, special classes and programs, and so on.

Synagogues depend on membership dues to survive. That’s why this time of year is so critical, when people make decisions about whether to renew their memberships for the coming year.

This traditional synagogue model will not — and cannot — go away any time soon. But if the Jewish world is looking for a breakthrough to attract the unaffiliated, the disconnected and the disenchanted, they’d do well to take this old model and experiment with some meaningful upgrades.

A good place to start would be to redefine prayer so that it can stand on its own.

A lot of promising work has been done in this area in synagogues across the country. One particular example can be found in the spiritual communities — such as IKAR, Nashuva and the Carlebach minyans — where prayer services share an almost tribal quality, with melodies and communal chanting that simply elevate you.

But one prayer method that I feel doesn’t get enough attention and that I find especially promising is the notion of following a “prayer narrative.” This method is more introspective, allowing a prayer service to become a personal spiritual journey that keeps you connected from beginning to end.

I ran this notion last year by my friend Rabbi Yoel Glick, a spiritual teacher who lives in the south of France and runs the Web site Daat Elyon. He was intrigued enough to write up an insightful “seven-step spiritual journey” for the Shabbat morning prayer service.

This seven-step guide doesn’t change the actual prayers, it simply frames them in a way that injects deep personal meaning. 

Each prayer section offers a theme that connects to the next one. The first three build up to the climax — the Shema — while the last three are the denouement.

Glick themes the seven steps as follows: “Awareness,” “Gratitude and Appreciation,” “Recognition of God and the Good,” “Affirmation — Light and Love,” “Communion,” “Contemplation” and, finally, “Tikkun Olam and Oneness.”

For each theme, Glick includes spiritual insights around which to meditate as you pray. For example, in the first phase (“Awareness”), you meditate around “a series of blessings constructed to make us conscious of the extraordinary blessing of being a living, breathing, self-aware human being.”

The journey takes effort and concentration, but the idea is that by the end of the service, you will come out more spiritually alive and more connected to Godliness, as well as to your own unique purpose in life.

The prayer guide is like a spiritual workout. Just as a personal trainer guides you to work out different parts of your body, Glick guides you to work out different parts of your soul and humanity.

It’s hard to imagine how this personal and introspective approach — which anyone can apply to any style of prayer service — would not be an improvement over passively reciting arcane prayers many of us don’t even understand.

The best part for me, though, is that Glick offers a meaningful response to a question modern Judaism must urgently answer: “What do I gain from Judaism?”

We needn’t be offended by that question. It’s just reality — in today’s world, Judaism will succeed only if it can offer something real and meaningful.

Redefining prayer in more personal and meaningful ways is a crucial ingredient if we want to attract the millions of Jews who prefer spending their Saturday mornings anywhere but at a house of prayer.

With seven weeks to go before the big crowds show up for their annual High Holy Days pilgrimage, spiritual leaders ought to be thinking about their own ways of making their prayer services even more meaningful. 

Simply put, people are more likely to come back to pray during the year if they feel the experience is something that will improve their lives, spiritually or otherwise. 

I look at it this way: If people come out of a gym feeling like a million bucks, why can’t they feel as good coming out of a prayer service?

Isn’t God more powerful than LA Fitness?


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

A South African-born rabbi reflects on Nelson Mandela and the Jewish community


Members of South Africa’s Jewish community have joined the rest of the country in praying for Nelson Mandela following his admission to hospital for the third time this year.

As prayers were said for the anti-apartheid hero in churches across the country, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein said: “The prayers and thoughts of the South African Jewish community are with former president Nelson Mandela and his family at this difficult time.

To me, as a South African, Mandela, or “Madiba” as he is affectionately known, is an icon and one of the great leaders and statesmen of our time. Here is a real leader, a man who is willing to sacrifice and place the country’s needs above his own. He is largely responsible for the great peaceful transformation that took place in South Africa after apartheid.

I remember the day Mandela was released from prison, on Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990. The event was broadcast on TV as Mandela walked to freedom with his wife, Winnie.

[Rob Eshman: Mandela/Moses]

The Friday before he was released, every student at school was sent home with a directory of phone numbers for all the families in the school and a telephone chain system was arranged. (This was before e-mail and phone-tree systems). The thought was that we were not sure if there would be chaos after he was released, or if it would be peaceful. If it became a dangerous situation, then school would be canceled and each family would call the next in the phone chain to make sure everyone knew not to come to school. (It's amazing how much the world has changed technologically, but that's for another day…) Miracle of miracles, there was a peaceful transition.

 In the years leading up to Mandela’s release there was great unrest in the country, and Jews were leaving by the thousands. During those years, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson told many leading rabbis from South Africa not to fear, as there would miracles and a peaceful transition.  We saw clearly the Rebbe's prophetic blessing fulfilled.

Jewish South Africans feel a great sense of connection and thanks to Mandela for everything he did to help transform and free our country of Apartheid. Whether you are a South African living abroad or in South Africa, Mandela is special to you.

The Jewish community has a very special connection to Mandela. In fact, when Mandela first came to Johannesburg as a young man, he got a job at a Jewish law firm, Itkin, Sidelsky, and Eidelman . Mandela was hired as an articled clerk. It was there that Mandela met his first white friend – a young Jewish boy by the name of Nat Bregman, who had a deep influence on Mandela and the way he viewed Jewish people. In addition, there were many prominent activists against Apartheid who were Jewish.

When Mandlea became President later on in life, he became close friends with the Chief Rabbi of South Africa Rabbi Cyril Harris. In fact, there is a fascinating story about the two men.

In 1998, about two months before Mandela got remarried, to Graca Machel  — the wedding was kept a secret — Mandela called Harris, with whom he has a close personal relationship, and asked the rabbi to hold the date of July 18 to attend a special meeting.

Rabbi Harris said: “I checked my calendar and realized it would be Shabbat.”The chief Rabbi called back Mandela and told him, “That while he had to respect him as president of our country, I owed higher respects to the good Lord,” Harris said. “He laughed and said he would try to make alternative arrangements for the previous day.”

One month later, at a meeting of religious leaders in Cape Town, the president took Harris aside and said, “Cyril, I am getting married on July 18 and would like you to give us a blessing.”

The president made special arrangements for Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and his wife Ann to be present the day before. On Friday, the day before the wedding, which took place on Mandela’s 80th birthday, the rabbi bestowed a blessing on the couple, wishing them “deep contentment.”

“He has real `derech eretz' — respect for every religion and for young and old alike,” the chief rabbi said in an interview, adding that Mandela “accommodated my Jewish observance instead of expecting me to fall in with his plans.”

This story underscores Mandela's approach to all people. He realized the best way to win people's hearts is to show them you truly respect them and their beliefs. That relationship with the Jewish community continued, and Mandela is considered a good friend of the Jewish community.

As a South African living in America, I feel a great deal of gratitude to Mandela and pray for his health and the future of South Africa. He is a source of inspiration for me as a Rabbi and leader in our community, to always strive for more and show every person respect and love.


Rabbi Avi Rabin is the leader of Chabad of West Hills.

Respect, inclusion and tolerance at the Western Wall


“There are no villains in this story.”  Those were the calming words of Natan Sharansky, renowned human rights champion and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The story was of in-fighting that has erupted among Jews at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.  Sharansky, tasked with resolving the issue by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to a group of Los Angeles Rabbis last week, knowing that the monthly Jewish holiday of Rosh Hodesh will arrive this Sunday – and many Jews will gather again for prayer at the Western Wall.  The prospect of clashes has unsettled the Jewish world. 

Some of those gathering will be part of “Women of the Wall,” a group of women and men meeting every Rosh Hodesh for almost 25 years. The women will be praying as a group in the women's section. Others will be women and men who believe that the way “Women of the Wall” pray violates Jewish law. Last month on Rosh Hodesh these differences led to an ugly confrontation. As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a generation ago, “From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.” From the place where we are right, violence erupts.

We are American rabbis from different denominations; we know there are different ways to be a Jew.  We know that the ability to disagree civilly does not grow spontaneously. It takes many years of cultivating relationships and building trust through meeting, listening, sharing, and working together. This is a process that diaspora rabbis and Jews have been engaged in for decades, one which has begun to bear real fruit in recent years.

[RELATED: L.A. rabbis urge calm at the Kotel]

Here in Los Angeles many of us are reaching across our divisions to model a relationship of respect and dignity.  Despite our deep differences, we all equally love the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We dare not demonize or dehumanize one another.

The Western Wall is a central symbol to all Jews.  But this Wall that has united people can also divide us.  Winston Churchill used to say that Americans and the British are two peoples separated by a common language. The two groups vying for control of the Western Wall are two communities separated by a common scripture, the Torah. Matters of conscience are not themselves amenable to compromise or negotiation.  Still, we all believe that a principal element of conscience is to listen and learn from one another and to show the respect and dignity that befits an ancient people and a great tradition.

Few know that better than Natan Sharansky, who languished in the gulag for eight years. He was chosen by Israel’s Prime Minister to come up with a solution, one that would defuse a dispute that spilled over to Jewish denominations in the United States, and strained relations between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel at a time that she is threatened existentially by Iran and the possibility looms of a front opening up with Syria. Sharansky reminded us that while each was – and still is – convinced of the justice of his or her position, there was another side to be heard.

Freed in exchange for a Soviet spy in 1986, Sharansky explained that he was whisked off to Jerusalem, now in the company of his wife Avital from whom he had been separated so many years before, right after their marriage. One of his first stops, of course, was the Western Wall. He clung to Avital’s hand to remind himself that this was no fantasy, no dream from which he would wake up in solitary confinement once again. Nearing the Wall, however, he and Avital had to briefly part company, as men and women are separated in prayer in Orthodox tradition.  He did not convey this with any resentment. (His wife, in fact, is Orthodox.) He told us of what he understood at that moment. The Western Wall serves as a place to pray for countless Jews. But it also serves as a powerful focus of national Jewish yearning and aspiration, quite apart from religious belief. Somehow, both have to be satisfied, and that is what his plan would try to do, embodying the key Jewish and democratic values of mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance. Sharansky and the Government of Israel should be commended for engaging in this ambitious effort to resolve such a difficult problem.

We believe that this is a message that resonates not only among the Jews of our great city, but among all our neighbors as well. At a time when the Middle East faces increasing upheaval and bitter partisanship has become a norm even within many democratic countries, this is a theme worth amplifying and repeating. And with the help of G-d, perhaps some of our determination will reflect back to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” and make it more peaceful yet. With some gentleness we can ensure that flowers will always be able to grow.

Signed,
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Denise Eger
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Rabbi Morley Feinstein
Rabbi Laura Geller
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
Rabbi Eli Herscher
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Rabbi Kalman Topp
Rabbi David Wolpe
Members of a Task Force on Jewish Unity comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Progressive and Reconstructionist leaders

A prayer for Oklahoma


Lord our God, we stood before You just a week ago to receive the Ten Statements of Your Torah. We stood, as though with our ancestors, and listened to the Torah reader chant descriptions of the smoking mountain, the thunderous rumbling, and the long-awaited voice of God.

This afternoon, the people of central Oklahoma did not stand to hear the voice of God. We sat, we paced, and we huddled. We listened to the voice of the meteorologists and watched as dark clouds swirled together over a cone of destruction. The rain fell upward, not down, and the thunderous roar of the swirling winds carried, and we saw the awesome power of God. This was not Shavuot — the Feast of Weeks that marked our days of freedom. This was minutes that seemed like years and trapped us into watching the same images of destruction.

Merciful God, a great and powerful windstorm has passed, and it has torn apart the buildings and shattered the rocks before You. You told Elijah, the prophet, that You were not in the windstorm. Please, then, be in the still, small voices of the children crying out to be found. Be in the voices of the rescuers calling out for survivors. Be in the cries of those who are lost and of those who have lost.

May it be Your will that those who are missing be found alive and be cared for well, and may the people of central Oklahoma find strength in You and in one another as we rebuild what we can.

A prayer of hope after the Boston Marathon bombing


“Behold days are coming, says the Lord…and they shall rebuild.” From our Haftarah this Shabbat Amos 9:13

God of peace, God of healing
God of the grief-stricken,
We call You, we invoke You
We pray to You:
Oh my God, we called out to You
as a day of celebration
Turned to mourning.
Oh my God
The shock
The senselessness
Innocent lives cut short
Wounded victims
Heartbreaking cries of panic and grief.
But through the darkness came
The light
The hope
The heroes
The selfless caring of first responders
Arms extended in comfort and love,
Your messengers on earth.
God, send comfort to grieving families,
Send healing to the wounded,
Send wisdom and strength to doctors and nurses
Send calm to hearts filled with panic.
Bless us with peace, God,
Show us that we will rebuild
In the face of tragedy. 
Grant us the power and wisdom
To bring justice to those who harm us.
Teach us that we will triumph over terror.     
We will not let this tragedy twist our spirits
We choose hope over fear.
We are resilient, we are strong
We are one nation under God
We will come together, hand in hand
We will rebuild.
Amen.


Rabbi Naomi Levy is spiritual leader of Nashuva, and the author of Hope Will Find You and Talking to God. This prayer was distributed by the Rabbinical Assembly.

Fight for women’s equality at the Western Wall fails to move secular Israelis


Few American tourists to Israel forget their first visit to the Western Wall. They put notes in the cracks, whisper prayers and take photos against the backdrop of Judaism’s holiest site.

But Kobi Bachar of Tel Aviv can't remember the last time he visited.

“I was there maybe 10 years ago,” said Bachar, who is secular. “It doesn’t interest me.”

For years, American Jewish organizations have railed against the haredi Orthodox restrictions placed on religious expression at the Western Wall that prohibit egalitarian prayer and bar women from singing out loud and donning religious articles.

In response to the criticism, which has amplified in recent months in the wake of several highly publicized confrontations between Israeli police and female activists at the wall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to review the wall’s policies and recommend changes.

But among the Israeli secular majority, such restrictions rank near the bottom of a long list of church-state issues they would like to address.

The prohibitions are “something we need to be done with, but there are other issues that affect larger sectors of society,” said Alon-Lee Green, an activist with the far-left Hadash political party. Green said he was more passionate about other issues of women’s rights in Israel, as well as with Israel’s prohibition of civil marriage.

Haredi rabbis dominate Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and thus control not only the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, but also civil matters such as marriage, divorce and burial. For most Israelis, religious rules governing these aspects of their lives are far more intrusive and onerous than limitations on prayer at a site they never visit.

“Many people feel there are so many battles to be fought, they just gave up on the Kotel,” said Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes a monthly women’s service at the wall. Sachs and other worshipers at the service are frequently detained by police for disobeying the Kotel's prohibitions.

For many Diaspora Jews, the Kotel is a symbol of the millennia-old Jewish connection to the promised land and an inspirational place of pilgrimage and prayer. Secular Israelis are more apt to see the site as a national monument for which Israeli blood was shed during the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel recaptured eastern Jerusalem from Jordanian control.

“It’s a religious bubble there,” said Ofer Pomerantz, a secular Tel Aviv resident. “The average Israeli is not religious. When I think of those places, I think of the blood spilled over them.”

Many secular Israelis also see the fight for egalitarianism at the wall as a distinctly foreign issue. The Reform and Conservative movements, whose members have championed the cause of women’s prayer at the wall, remain quite small in Israel. Most secular Israelis see Orthodoxy as the normative expression of Judaism.

“It’s a holy site,” said Shalhevet Adar, a secular artist who also lives in Tel Aviv. “People who go there know where they’re going. It’s a little annoying, but I’m not fighting.”

Adar described the Kotel as Israel’s version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a national landmark with historical significance but little spiritual appeal.

Tamar, a filmmaker who asked that her last name not be used, says when she goes to the Kotel, “I’m not looking for more than to be there and put a note in the wall.

“I don’t think about it,” she adds. “I’m busy with my life.”

Netanyahu asks Jewish Agency to look into women’s prayer at Western Wall


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked the Jewish Agency to come up with a solution for non-Orthodox women's groups that want to pray at the Western Wall.

Netanyahu asked the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, to examine the issue, the Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed Israeli government official.

The AP quoted Jewish Agency spokesman Benjamin Rutland as saying that Netanyahu told Sharansky that the Western Wall “must remain a source of Jewish unity rather than division.”

Earlier this month, four women were detained at the Western Wall by Israeli police for trying to enter the site with prayer shawls to pray with the Women of the Wall organization.

Women of the Wall has held a special prayer service at the holy site almost each month for the last 20 years on Rosh Chodesh, or the beginning of a new Hebrew month, at the back of the women's section.

Women participating in the Rosh Chodesh service have been arrested nearly every month since June for wearing prayer shawls or for “disturbing public order.”

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.

A prayer of healing from the tragedy in Newtown


Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries innocent children and brave teachers.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair
So that all children can go to school in peace, God,
Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.
Amen.


Rabbi Naomi Levy is the founder and spiritual leader of Nashuva: The Jewish Spiritual Outreach Center. Her books include Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration.

Despite mounting criticism, Western Wall remains in haredi Orthodox hands


Sitting in his office 20 feet above the Western Wall Plaza, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is unperturbed by the simmering tensions below.

For years, Israeli and American Jewish groups have agitated for greater religious freedom at the Wall, which currently allows for only Orthodox worship. Occasionally the outrage boils over.

In October, Israeli police arrested Anat Hoffman, the chairperson of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes monthly women's services at the holy site, for wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl.

As the chief rabbi of the Kotel, as the Western Wall is known in Hebrew, and chair of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the government funded non-profit that governs the wall, Rabinowitz has sole authority to accommodate liberal Jewish practices.

But as a haredi Orthodox rabbi, Rabinowitz refuses to abide any deviation from traditional Jewish law, which prohibits women from singing aloud, reading the Torah and wearing a tallit at the Kotel. Violations are punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of about $125.

“The decisions are mine,” Rabinowitz said. “If everyone does their own custom, the house will explode.”

Rabinowitz is a political appointee, named to his post in 2000 by then-Minister of Religious Affairs Yossi Beilin. His authority stems from a 1981 law that gives the Kotel’s chief rabbi power to “give instructions and ensure the enforcement of restrictions.” The law also establishes that any prayer at the Kotel must be according to “local custom.”

Who determines local custom? Rabinowitz.

Rabinowitz further exercises authority through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Founded in 1988 to promote tourism and support the Kotel’s physical upkeep, the foundation is now a government subsidiary, given full authority over the Kotel's administration in 2004. Last year it received nearly $8.5 million in government funds, the bulk of its budget. The foundation's 15-member board includes no non-Orthodox representatives and steadfastly has resisted attempts to legalize non-Orthodox worship.

“The body which has been given the keys of the Kotel by the Israeli government is a non-democratic, non-elected body,” said Lesley Sachs, Women of the Wall’s director. “It’s not a body that gives any kind of representation to world Jewry or Israeli Jewry. They have turned [the Kotel] into a haredi synagogue.”

Critics charge that Rabinowitz has carte blanche to do what he likes, but the rabbi insists he doesn't “change things.” He merely applies millennia-old Jewish laws.

“This is the order that’s been there for 45 years,” he said, referring to the period since 1967, when Israel conquered the Kotel from Jordanian control.

Prior to Israeli control, things were different. Photos from the British Mandate period show worshipers praying at the wall without a mechitzah, the religious divider that slices the plaza into separate sections for men and women. But Rabinowitz says the photos are meaningless, since the wall wasn't under Jewish sovereignty at the time.

“They couldn’t read Torah or blow the shofar,” he said. “They could hardly pray there. The British did terrible things. You want to go back to that? The British didn’t establish local custom.”

Rabinowitz calls the Kotel “the biggest synagogue in the world,” and it's almost certainly the busiest, with 8 million visitors annually. The courtyard of 22,000 square feet that abuts the Kotel hosts constant, simultaneous prayer groups, in addition to rows of people resting their foreheads on the ancient stones, yelling their prayers or placing notes in the Kotel’s cracks. In the women's section, which is about a third the size of the men’s, group prayer is much rarer because women are not allowed to sing out loud or read Torah.

“Praying at the Kotel is a disaster area,” said Rabbi Jay Karzen, who has been officiating at Kotel bar mitzvahs since 1985. “You’re going to have 20 to 30 simultaneous bar mitzvahs and everyone is doing their own thing.”

Despite its apparent chaos, though, the Kotel is a tight ship. “Organizational” ushers, working in teams of 10, patrol the plaza around the clock, stacking chairs, pushing mops across a shiny floor of Jerusalem stone and returning used prayer books to surprisingly orderly shelves. Although visitors come and go constantly, few books are stolen.

Enforcing the Kotel’s religious restrictions falls to “informational” ushers who sit on the men’s side near a box of yarmulkes for visitors who arrive without one. While religious laws on prayer and modest dress can be complex, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has boiled them down to seven rules posted on a placard near the entrance. Karzen says disciplinary action is rare.

“People come there to do their own thing,” Karzen said. “Mostly people cooperate.”

The biggest exception may be Women of the Wall, which has met at the back of the women’s section at the beginning of every new Jewish month since 1988. Over the years, the group has faced arrest by the police and occasional harassment. So far, though, no one has succeeded in changing the 1981 law, despite several attempts.

Israel’s Supreme Court repeatedly has rejected Women of the Wall’s petitions for a change in local custom, most recently in 2003. In that ruling, the court suggested that the group pray at Robinson’s Arch, an area adjacent to the Kotel that is open to non-Orthodox prayer. The group rejected the option.

Now the Israel Religious Action Center, an advocacy group affiliated with the American Union for Reform Judaism, plans to petition the Supreme Court to mandate a change in the makeup of the foundation's board. While Rabinowitz would still hold ultimate Jewish legal authority over the Kotel, it is hoped that the board can provide a check on his power.

“They’re the ones with the budget,” said Einat Hurwitz, who heads the center's legal department. “The Kotel gets money from this group. If it becomes more pluralist, it will affect the separation between men and women.”

It’s unclear whether the latest effort will gain traction. Nitzan Horowitz, a parliamentarian from the left-wing Meretz party and chair of the Knesset’s religion and state lobby, believes the courts are not the most effective forum for change on this issue.

“There are things the courts can do and the media can do and protests can do, but the deciding factor in the end is a political decision,” Horowitz said.

Or a religious one, made by Rabinowitz. Sitting high above the Kotel, protected by law from his ideological adversaries, he sees Women of the Wall as more of a nuisance than a threat.

“It’s a group of women that yell and want to make an event,” he said. “There’s order. You can’t just do what you want.”

Sandy stories: Destruction, recovery and human kindness


A week after Sandy swept into the New York area with fierce winds, driving rain and a high tide for the history books, the nation’s largest Jewish community was still picking up the pieces. JTA gathered stories from around the storm zone about Sandy’s destruction, the recovery and the remarkable tales of human kindness.

Houses of prayer as places of refuge

Some synagogues in the stricken area have seen more congregants this week than during the High Holidays. Many came for prayer, but others flocked to shuls for their offers of shelter, hot food, heat, recharging of electronics, wireless Internet and children's programming.

Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, N.J., hosted a free pizza night, but the real draw for area residents was the offer to charge electronics. In White Plains, N.Y., in suburban Westchester County, Jewish community members used an email listserv to trade information about which gas stations were open and where the lines were shortest.

In Mahwah, N.J., near the New York State border, locals packed into the social hall at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom to use tables set up with power strips so they could go online.

“I’ve been using my synagogue social hall as an office,” Joe Berkofsky, managing director of communications for the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA. “I’ve been powering things up and have been able to get some work done.”

Russian-American Jews unite

Steve Asnes, an activist in the Russian Jewish community, was helping neighbors in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn on the night of the storm when a sudden surge brought water careening through the streets and up to his neck, according to Mordechai Tokarsky, director of the Russian American Jewish Experience. Asnes managed to hang onto a piece of scaffolding until he could reach safety.

At the nearby RAJE center, Michael Britan watched the center’s first floor turn into a swimming pool. The full extent of destruction became apparent only the next day. Cars lay on top of each other. The RAJE center was under 12 feet of water, its beit midrash study hall wrecked, and classrooms, offices, a boiler room and the elevator shaft all waterlogged.

Community activists who came to help clean up ended up spending much of the time at a high-rise apartment building across the street assisting elderly residents trapped in their homes without power or hot water, Tokarsky said. With the help of Esther Lamm, a RAJE alumna who heads the young leadership Russian division of UJA-Federation in New York, the volunteers quickly organized a command-and-control center that played a key role in relief efforts throughout the neighborhood.

Tokarsy said it would require plenty of work and help from private funders to get RAJE back up and running.

UJA-Federation providing $10 million

The lights were still out and the gas lines still miles long in parts of New York City when the UJA-Federation of New York announced Monday that it was making $10 million available immediately to synagogues, Jewish day schools and federation agencies providing direct care and support in storm-hit communities. The money will go toward cash assistance, temporary housing, food and “whatever else is needed,” federation CEO John Ruskay told JTA. The unanimous decision was made in an emergency board meeting on Sunday night.

The money will come from the federation’s endowment and reserves, and will be offset by any storm-related donations. “The point of having reserves and an endowment is to enable our agencies, our synagogues and our community to respond to people at times like these,” Ruskay said. It's the largest-ever commitment of UJA-Federation funds for a natural disaster, according to Alisa Doctoroff, chairwoman of UJA-Federation of New York.

Schools destroyed

Several schools, notably in beach areas, took a big hit from Sandy. Two of the three campuses of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach on Long Island reportedly suffered major damage, including at the boys high school, which was flooded. Though the elementary school is situated on the boardwalk of the New York suburb, the building reportedly escaped structural damage but was left with a mess.

The 120-student Yeshiva of Belle Harbor in hard-hit Far Rockaway, Queens, was flooded beyond repair, The New York Jewish Week reported. Water flooded past the ceilings of the first-floor classrooms, and by last Friday the school had decided to merge with the Crown Heights Yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Mill Basin neighborhood, the paper reported. At the Mazel Academy in Brighton Beach, books, furniture, classrooms and Torah scrolls were destroyed in a building that was renovated just last year.

Away from the beach, at the SAR Academy in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, the school managed to reopen despite no electricity by relocating classes to neighborhood synagogues.

Help wanted

They came from Manhattan’s Upper West Side and went to buildings without power or heat on the Lower East Side. They baked challahs and distributed them throughout the city. They sent a bus to take residents of Far Rockaway to Kemp Mill, Md., for a “relief Shabbos.” They started a clothing drive in Berlin.

All over the world, volunteers mobilized to help with storm relief. Some offered spiritual succor: A rabbi in Berkeley, Calif., composed a Sandy-inspired prayer beginning “Elohei ha'ruchot,” “God of the winds.”

Chasidic singer loses recording studio

When the surge hit the community of Sea Gate in Brooklyn, four or five feet of water ran through the streets from the ocean to the bay, leaving behind houses now condemned, a dramatically altered shoreline and destruction everywhere. In a YouTube video, Chasidic singer Mordechai Ben David offers a tour of his deluged recording studio, where the water that submerged his equipment rose to the bottoms of pictures of rebbes hanging on his walls before stopping.

“Everyone that lives in Sea Gate got hit badly,” Ben David said. “But Baruch Hashem, we’re fine, we’re alive.”

Donations

To donate to storm relief, please visit http://blogs.jta.org/telegraph/article/2012/11/06/3111241/donate-to-storm-victims.

Jews asked to pray for end to Iranian nuclear threat


Jews are being urged to pray during Yom Kippur services for an end to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America are asking their congregations to dedicate time during their High Holy Days services despite the fact that “Yom Kippur is not a day for politics.”

“The threat is dire and demands our attention on our holiest day,” the two groups affiliated with the Orthodox movement noted in a statement sent to member congregations.

“Yom Kippur 5773 is different. On this Yom Kippur — the world faces an evil regime whose leaders have publicly committed themselves to destroying the State of Israel and to harming Jews worldwide; in addition, the Iranians are a threat to the global community.”

On this High Holy Day, “God determines which nations shall face war and which shall enjoy peace,” the statement reads, and therefore Jews should “contemplate with anxiety the fate of the State of Israel and her people, of Jews throughout the world and, indeed, of civilization as a whole.”

A Shabbat prayer for the victims of the Sikh shooting


This prayer was written to recite for the victims and survivors of the Aug. 5 shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  Rabbi Naomi Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva, wrote the prayer on behalf of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which distributed it to congregations around the world.

Let Us Stand Up Together (נעמדה יחד)
–From our Haftarah this Shabbat, the second Haftarah of comfort (Isaiah 50:8)

We stand together in grief
For the innocent victims
Of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin
Who perished in their house of prayer.
May their memories be a blessing,
May their lights shine brightly on us.

We stand together in mourning
For broken hearts,
The senseless loss, the shock, the emptiness.

We stand together in outrage,
Weary of this war-torn hate-filled world.
And together we pray:

Send comfort, God, to grieving families,
Hear their cries.
Fill them with the courage
To carry on in the face of this tragic loss.
Send healing to the wounded,
Lift them up, ease their pain,
Restore them to strength, to hope, to life.
Gather the sacred souls of the slaughtered
Into Your eternal shelter,
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.

Work through us, God,
Show us how to help.
Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning,
Open our arms so we can extend our hands,
Transform our helplessness into action,
Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Let us stand up together
Our young and our old,
All races and faiths,
All people and nations.
Rise up above hatred
And cruelty and indifference.
Let us live up to our goodness
Let us learn from this tragedy
Let us walk together
Filled with hope
On a path of peace, Amen.

– by Rabbi Naomi Levy

Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dances into the new year


Aish brings together rhythm, beats and davening for their Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dancing spectacle that parodies LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Here’s the chorus from the lyrics, but be sure to watch the video for the full effect.

Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight
All the world is passing through the light
Let’s all get written in the book of Life
Shana Tova—it’s High Holiday time

 

Reform Jews must refashion Shabbat


The following remarks are edited from an hourlong sermon delivered at the biennial of the Union of Reform Judaism held in San Diego on Dec. 15.

…. In the last half century, working patterns have changed. Not everyone works on Saturday now, and Jews, more than ever before, crave spiritual sustenance and meaningful ritual.

With members returning to the synagogue on Friday nights, we had hoped that some of them would also be drawn to our Shabbat morning prayer and to a serious conversation about the meaning of Shabbat.

But this has not happened, and we all know one reason why that is so: the character of the Shabbat morning service. With the morning worship appropriated by the bar and bat mitzvah families, our members who come to pray with the community often sit in the back of the sanctuary and feel like interlopers in their own congregation.

On erev Shabbat, we invite our members in, but on Shabbat morning, we drive them away. On Friday night, we entice them with exuberant prayer and a community of celebration and song. But on Shabbat morning, we leave them turned off and disappointed.

…. The bar mitzvah, like other significant moments in Jewish life, is meant to occur within the context of an open and caring community. But our members now feel that they are entitled to a private, individual bar mitzvah. And this means that what should be public and inclusive has become private and exclusive, with the focus more on the child than on the community.

The results are tragic. We lose young families, whose children cannot stay up late on Friday. We lose seniors, who avoid nighttime driving and prefer to pray during the day. We lose those wanting to say Kaddish and those who are simply looking to join their community in prayer. And not only that, we are also sending a message about bar mitzvah that we do not want to send.

Bar mitzvah is the occasion, symbolically at least, when a young person joins an adult community of Jews. But you cannot join what does not exist. A regular community of worshippers, who would be best suited to mentor the child, is not even present. At the average bar mitzvah, what you almost always get is a one-time assemblage of well-wishers, with nothing in common but an invitation.

And worst of all, absent a knowledgeable congregation, worship of God gives way to worship of the child — and self-serving worship is a contradiction in terms. Rabbis, cantors, educators and presidents all told me how painful it is to sit in a service where the child is the star and the theme is “Steven Schwartz, King for a Day” or, “Sarah Goldstein, Queen for a Day.” Inevitably, this leads to speeches in which every boy or girl is smarter than Einstein, a better soccer play than Mia Hamm, more of a computer whiz than Bill Gates and more of an activist than Bono.

Let’s be honest. There is something profoundly wrong here. On every Shabbat of the year, there are hundreds and hundreds of bar and bat mitzvahs in Reform congregations. But rarely does anyone walk out of those worship services saying: “That was so spiritually fulfilling that I can’t wait to come back next week.”

…. What I am hearing from our rabbis and cantors is that the time has come to say: If it’s not working, let’s not do it anymore. If I want to go to temple on Shabbat morning but I won’t presume to do so without an invitation from the bar mitzvah family, the time has come to try new things.

We all recognize that this will not be easy…. The best answer is an integrated service — a service in which the child joins the congregation and the congregation does not merely watch the child; a service in which the child’s obligation is not to perform but to lead the congregation in prayer; a service in which parents are encouraged to reshape their speeches as blessings; a service that remains truly meaningful for the bar mitzvah family without feeling like a private family event.

The best answer is public, communal worship that all of us, and not just the bar mitzvah family, want to attend.

….This discussion in the Reform movement is part of something larger — and that is a readiness to look seriously at the broader question of Shabbat observance…. Because we now understand that Shabbat was always central to Reform Judaism.

Isaac Mayer Wise was a firm proponent of a traditional Shabbat. And for classical Reform Jews, Shabbat was a serious matter. True, they significantly reduced both the duties and the prohibitions of the day, but what remained was observed with scrupulous dedication.

Also, other approaches to enhancing Jewish life have failed. Communal leaders outside of the synagogue love to talk the language of corporate strategy. They engage in endless debates on the latest demographic study. They plan elaborate conferences and demand new ideas. But sometimes we don’t need new ideas; we need old ideas.

We need less corporate planning and more text and tradition, less strategic thinking and more mitzvot, less demographic data and more Shabbat. Because we know in our hearts that in the absence of Shabbat, Judaism withers.

But most important of all, Reform Jews are considering Shabbat because they need Shabbat. In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating…. But families take the worst hit. The average parent spends twice as long dealing with e-mail as playing with his children.

For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah’s mandate to rest looks relevant and sensible…. We are asked to put aside those BlackBerrys and stop gathering information, just as the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.

And this most of all: In synagogue and at home, we are asked to give our kids, our spouse and our friends the undivided attention that they did not get from us the rest of the week. On Shabbat, we speak to our children of their hopes and dreams. We show them that we value them for who they are and not for the grades they get or the prizes they win. During the week, we pursue our goals; on Shabbat, we learn simply to be.

There is God in this place


Jacob departed. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who went forth, lech lecha, in response to God’s command, Jacob departs, vayetze, from everything he knows to
escape his angry brother and find a wife in Haran. He leaves a comfortable, established life to find himself in the chaos and confusion of exile. Jacob enters the void.

In November 1992, I departed from Santa Fe, N.M. I left my home of more than 20 years, and a network that included a job, family and friends, and stepped into the void. In response to a vague job offer and a stirring inside of me, I piled my most treasured books, plants and paintings into my aging Toyota and left New Mexico for the unknown reaches of Los Angeles.

As the sun rose outside of Needles, Calif., I reached back to cover the asparagus fern I had placed just behind the front seat. (At that time I was told no out-of-state plants were allowed.) The car swerved, ran over the embankment and careened down a ditch at top speed. I felt my world lose all boundaries as the car rolled over twice before landing on its side.

My angels were working overtime that day as I stumbled out of the car bruised but unharmed. Only now can I see the irony of the smashed poster that was hanging off of the back seat. It was Georgia O’Keefe’s “Ladder to the Moon,” which features a ladder hanging in space over New Mexican mountains.

My world had moved, but I was immobile, transfixed to the spot until rescued some hours later by the CHP. They never mentioned the plant.

Like Jacob, I had stopped in “a certain place” for at least the day, which was unfolding hot and cloudless before me.

Two miles outside of Needles, I was nowhere, lost in the void. I cried. I prayed, or at least begged God to rescue me. My world had turned upside down, which, it turns out, is integral to the process of truly leaving, or departing from one place to another.

Lost in the “no-place” on his first night way from the familiarity of home, Jacob prayed.

According to Midrash Rabbah, Jacob established that in the evening one should pray: “May it be thy will, O Lord My God, to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

Jacob prays in the gathering darkness of sunset, establishing evening prayer for all time.

The only difficulty with this is that it was not sunset at all, but closer to high noon, according to the Midrash. So God, who wants to speak to Jacob in the intimacy of darkness, changes the day into night.

According to rabbinic tradition, the certain space, hamakom, is synonymous with Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple. Rashi states that God wanted to show Jacob the place where prayers would ascend to heaven, the site of the earthly Temple, which stands opposite the Heavenly Temple on high. God wanted to reveal the entire future of the Jewish people to Jacob, their exile and their return to this very spot, the axis mundi of the world.

The problem — Jacob is not in Jerusalem, but on the road to Haran. Therefore, it is said, “the earth jumped beneath him” and Mount Moriah moved, for the moment, to where he was. Prayer, indeed, can move mountains.

But hamakom is much more than a specific site on earth or in the heavens above. Hamakom is another name for God, and God is not limited by time or space. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “There is no place without God.” Hamakom, God’s presence, is everywhere, surrounding us, infusing us, enveloping us with its essence.

When someone dies in our community we say, “May the Holy Place, The Divine One, bring you comfort and consolation.” We cry out, in the darkness of our loss and despair, and pray that God will bring us to the light. While the familiar place of our community provides comfort, only The Place of God can bring us true consolation.

God’s presence, however, is not limited to physical, grounded space. The Torah’s commentaries show us that time can change and mountains can move as long as we are connected to the Source. By returning to that place within, what the Gerer Rebbe, calls the inner space, we are able to connect with the presence of God, which is everywhere.

Although it may seem easier to access that connection in places that we hold sacred, such as the Wall in Jerusalem, or the mountains of New Mexico, the “place” is infinite and universal. Wherever I am, God is with me. I just need to be able to stop, breathe, rest, sleep, meditate and open my inner eyes.

We are now at the darkest time of the year, when the sun seems to set not long after noon.

“Please God,” we pray, “may it be Thy will to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

The month of Kislev, the month of Chanukah, is dedicated to prayers that bring the light. We reach out beyond time and space to the “place” of the Holy Temple, in order to bring its light into our homes, lighting our menorot against the darkness.

Angels, dressed as the CHP, came to rescue me. I was towed into California, and have found God at every step along the way during these past 14 years. My “place” is now here. Now, I can say, along with Jacob: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).

Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.

Water and pumpkins mark eco-friendly Sukkot


During Sukkot, families of Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., will gather together for a special celebration. Socializing in the synagogue’s sukkah, they will be treated to a tantalizing array of chocolate cakes and candies, accompanied by delicious cups of … tap water.
 
“Which are you enjoying more, the sweets or the water?” congregant Evonne Marzouk will ask, knowing full well that the cups of water will remain largely untouched.

This activity is a set up. It’s modeled on Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the festive water-drawing ceremony that took place during Sukkot while the Temple was standing but that is rarely commemorated today. Reconfigured, however, as part of True Joy Through Water, a new outreach program created by Canfei Nesharim (“the wings of eagles”), an Orthodox environmental organization, it’s designed to educate the primarily Orthodox community about the importance of water, its imperiled state and ways to conserve it.

“At the time of the Temple, people lived on the land and understood that if there wasn’t rain, there wasn’t food. That absolute dependence is still true today, but we don’t think about it because we live so far from the land,” said Marzouk, who serves as executive director of Canfei Nesharim, which was founded in January 2003.
 
The True Joy Through Water activities, text studies and instructive sukkah decorations have been requested by more than 30 Orthodox congregations across the United States.

In Los Angeles, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky hopes to perform several of the True Joy Through Water activities with synagogue members, especially those in the youth group, in the sukkah. No formal program is planned for Young Israel of Century City, but Rabbi Elazar Muskin has distributed the materials to his congregants and is hoping that “people will take an interest in this important endeavor.”
 
True Joy Through Water is one of several programs that Jewish environmentalists are promoting this Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Friday, Oct. 6, to encourage people to take stock not only of the earth’s bounty but also of the earth itself — and to take action to repair it.
 
At the Shalom Institute in the Malibu Mountains, about 80 teenagers will be working directly with the earth on Sunday, Oct. 8, preparing the soil and planting in the Marla Bennet Israel Garden. The ninth- through 12th-graders, participants in Camp JCA Shalom’s Teen Camp weekend, will learn about Sukkot as well as their responsibility to nature, according to Einat Gomel, an environmental educator from Israel now serving as the year-round director of the Shalom Nature Center.
 
In the afternoon, the Shalom Institute is hosting a family Sukkot celebration. “We will talk about how we can help kids build a better world and make it eco-related,” Gomel said. Families will also participate in a ceremony and service in the sukkah.
 
“The fragility of the sukkah and its shelter is eloquent testimony to both our dependence on the environment and the environment’s dependence on us,” said Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., who is considered by many to be the father of Jewish environmentalism.
 
Gendler, who admits to a fondness for pumpkins stemming from an overflowing pumpkin patch he visited yearly as a Midwestern youth, invented the “Yaakov Lantern.” It’s a bright orange pumpkin, home-grown by Gendler every year, on which he carves a typical jack-o’-lantern face on one side and a Star of David on the other. Inside, he places a candle.
 
At night, the Yaakov Lantern invokes the “ushpizim,” the biblical forefathers and foremothers whom Gendler refers to as the “ancestral spirits” and also illumines the sukkah in an environmentally friendly manner.
 
“It’s hard to imagine the sukkah with wires attached,” said Gendler, who invented the first solar powered “ner tamid” (everlasting light), and espouses alternative energy sources.
 
Another long-time environmentalist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, is hosting an expected crowd of 250 to 350 Jews, Christians and Muslims to address the question, “What can our religious traditions do to help heal the planet from the climate crisis of global ‘scorching?'”
 
Leaders from all three Abrahamic faiths will speak to the participants, who will also engage in prayer and song and build a sukkah together. In addition, they will have the opportunity to sign petitions asking for reductions in global warming and increased use of alternative energy sources, which will be delivered to national, state and local legislators.
 
“I’m hoping to have some direct impact right there on the spot, both in terms of public policy and in terms of congregations’ and congregants’ energy use,” Waskow said.
 
The event takes place on Oct. 8 and jointly celebrates Sukkot and the month of Ramadan, as well as the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). It is co-sponsored locally by The Shalom Center and is part of a nationwide effort initiated by “The Tent of Abraham, Hagar & Sarah,” a network of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
 
For Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Sukkot, as a harvest holiday, is a perfect time to talk about healthy foods for a healthy planet.
 
“Many individuals who have joined community supported farms and co-ops are bringing their organically grown fruits and vegetables into the sukkah,” she said.
 
On the first day of Sukkot, Lerman-Golomb herself is slated to speak at the Conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn during the morning service.
“I coined the phrase ‘energy observant,'” said Lerman-Golomb, who will present the Jewish response to environmental issues and encourage people to lead more sustainable lives.
 
In particular she will stress the problem of global warming, part of a nationwide campaign the coalition launched in August — billed as “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?” — which will culminate at Chanukah.

Holiday tunes for when you haven’t got a prayer


I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.
— Jerome K. Jerome


 
Perhaps it is the intensity of the emotions raised by the liturgy itself. Or the power of worshipping in a sanctuary filled with people. Or the sense that everything is at stake.

 
I like to think it’s the music.

 
But whatever the reason, the High Holidays provide some of the greatest frissons one can experience in a synagogue. And the music is, indeed, a big part of those rising chills. One need look no farther than four new CDs that include generous helpings of music for the Days of Awe to hear evidence of the power of these holidays to inspire composers and performers.

 
Sometimes the simplest music has the greatest impact. Consider “Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” a CD by Cantor Lois Welber of Temple B’nai Israel, Revere, Mass. Almost all the music on this recording is from Israel Alter, one of the great Conservative cantors of the 20th century.

 
Alter didn’t write classical hazanut; his compositions are devoid of the coloratura pyrotechnics of the Golden Age cantors. Rather, his settings of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies, published 35 years ago, are straightforward, emotionally direct and comparatively simple. And that is the source of their power.

 
Welber opts for an equally simple and powerful approach. Accompanied only by organist Ernest Rakhlin or pianist David Sparr, she tackles Alter’s music head-on, not with flash but great feeling. Welber has a resonant mezzo voice, not glitzy but profoundly effective. The result is a tribute to the power of simplicity.
 
The mandolin i
s an instrument whose sound resonates with poignancy. In the hands of masters like Dave Grisman and Andy Statman, the gentle ringing of its strings carries a powerful emotional charge.

 
Put those two musicians together with “a collection of timeless Jewish melodies,” as their new CD “New Shabbos Waltz” bills itself, and the result is a sterling blend of deeply emotive music.

 
The set kicks off with a melancholy “Avinu Malkeinu,” with Statman’s plangent clarinet stating the traditional tune while Grisman comps behind him. The duo deftly trade leads on this and the other cuts on the record, aided immeasurably by some silky slide guitar from Bob Brozman and rock-solid timekeeping by Hal Blaine on drums and Jim Kerwin on bass.

 
Statman is in a more playful mood than on his recent excursions into Chasidic mysticism, and his interplay with Grisman is delightful throughout.

 
Two of the latest entries in Naxos Records’ series of Milken Archive recordings feature contemporary orchestral pieces inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. In fact, both Herman Berlinski (“From the World of My Father”) and David Stock (“A Little Miracle”) have tried their hand at re-imaginings of the shofar service for Rosh Hashanah. (Given that this year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat and there is no shofar service, I find this an amusing coincidence.)

 
Berlinski (1910-2001) was a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, albeit an unhappy one, and I think I detect some of her influence in the rich, dense sound tapestry of Berlinski’s “From the World of My Father,” a lovely 1941 piece that pays homage to the synagogue and folk music of Eastern Europe. His 1964 “Shofar Service” is a fairly straightforward setting of the old Union Prayerbook liturgy, here ably performed by the BBC Singers conducted by Avner Itai.

 
Not surprisingly, Berlinski blends two trumpets with the shofar itself, to considerable dramatic effect. Although he was a friend of Olivier Messiaen and his circle, on the pieces included here, Berlinski is not interested in the less-is-more aesthetic of Messiaen; his is a resolutely post-Romantic palette, whether he is writing for organ (“The Burning Bush”) or full orchestra (“Symphonic Visions for Orchestra”).

 
Stock, who was born in 1939, is of a more obviously modernist bent than Berlinski. His operatic monodrama, “A Little Miracle,” which retells an extraordinary story of Holocaust survivors, owes a bit of its rhythmic drive to Schoenberg (perhaps with a nod to Gershwin).

 
But his “Yizkor” is surprisingly conservative, powerfully melodic and quietly restrained. By contrast, his shofar piece, “Tekiah,” written for trumpet and crisply performed by Stephen Burns and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble with the composer conducting, has moments that are distinctly reminiscent of the heyday of minimalism. One hears echoes of Glass in the repetitive ensemble figures behind the staccato trumpet line, and the contrast between foreground and background is a fruitful one. The result is an intriguing recording, but I don’t imagine your local shul is going to try it any time soon.

 

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses,” will be published by Shocken Books in October.


 

“Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” can be purchased at www.loiswelber.com.

 

“New Shabbos Waltz” can be purchased at www.acousticdisc.com

“From the World of My Father” and “A Little Miracle” can be purchased at www.milkenarchive.org.

Jews in the Military: High Holidays Under Fire


Who shall live and who shall die.
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.

Ralph Goodman recited those words in a hillside tent in southeastern Belgium. Warren Zundell’s “shul” was a patch of no-man’s-land somewhere in North Korea. For Robert Cirkus, it was a jungle clearing in the bug-infested Central Highlands of Viet Nam. And for Lee Mish, it was Saddam Hussein’s former palace.

The four men have never met, but they share an uncommon bond. They represent four generations of Jewish servicemen for whom the High Holidays — and their signature Unetanah Tokef prayer — took on new meaning.

For all Jews, the words of the emotionally charged Unetanah Tokef are a powerful reminder of mortality. All the more so for Jews serving their country in wartime — such as Goodman, Zundell, Cirkus and Mish — where every day is Judgment Day and where prayer, righteousness and repentance can’t always avert a decree of death.

Here are the stories of these American servicemen who observed the High Holidays not in conventional synagogues, but on far-flung battlefields. The worship services they participated in were often improvised and incomplete. But the jarring juxtaposition of war and prayer, faith and fear, continues to resonate with these men.

A Tent on the Side of a Hill
A Tent on the Side of a Hill
Fays, Belgium
September 1944

“Colonel, the Jewish community wants to observe Yom Kippur. What can you do to help us?”

Ralph Goodman, attached to the 1st U.S. Army’s Headquarters Commandant in Belgium, was unable to celebrate Rosh Hashanah because his unit was traveling.

But Yom Kippur was fast approaching, and the 24-year-old enlistee from Pittsfield, Mass., was determined that the Jewish servicemen, now encamped at a temporary base near Verviers, Belgium, be given a place to pray.

He had already approached the 1st Army’s chief chaplain, who offered nothing except a few prayer books. But Goodman’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Harry F. Goslee, was more accommodating. He ordered a large blackout hospital tent set up on a hillside, with chairs and a portable electric generator.

On Yom Kippur, Sept. 27, 1944, about 25 soldiers and airmen congregated in that tent. Two Orthodox laymen acted as cantor and rabbi.

Goodman sat by the tent flap opening, his gun on his lap. He was juggling several different prayer books, trying to find the correct pages for Unetanah Tokef. He finally located the prayer and recited the words. But what he really was saying that day was, “Please, God, bring my buddies and me home.”

Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up to see a chaplain he didn’t recognize, a fresh-faced, sandy-haired man about 30, who asked permission to address the troops.

“How lovely are your tents, Oh Jacob,” he began, intoning the words to a prayer Jews say each morning.

He talked about five minutes, thanking the men for allowing him to speak and commending them for assembling a service.

Goodman, who still lives in Pittsfield, thinks about that service often, proud that he and his buddies were able to make it happen. He wishes he could share another Yom Kippur with them.

But 62 years later, he still regrets that he never asked the name of that fresh-faced Christian chaplain who reached out to a group of Jews on the holiest day of their year.

“God bless that man,” he said.

Above the 38th Parallel, North KoreaAn All-Jewish Convoy
Above the 38th Parallel, North Korea
October 1951

Warren Zundell, an orthopedic surgeon with the 11th Evacuation Hospital in Wonju, South Korea, wasn’t eager to attend Rosh Hashanah services. It meant traveling 40 miles on an unpaved, mountainous road to 10th Army Corps headquarters, over the border into North Korea. Zundell, 27, had a baby daughter back in Fall River, Mass., whom he had never seen, and he didn’t want to risk encountering snipers or land mines.

But Zundell was the unit’s only Jewish officer, and the Catholic chaplain on his base was insistent that Zundell escort the convoy.

“There are about 30 Jewish boys around here who want to go,” said the priest, who planned to remain in Wonju at the hospital.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 30, 1951, in the priest’s jeep with a white cross painted on the hood, Zundell led the way. A few truckloads of Jewish soldiers, all heavily armed, followed. Perhaps the only all-Jewish convoy ever to travel into North Korea, they arrived safely several hours later at the camp, a war-scarred patch of ground that sported some tents and housed perhaps a few hundred soldiers.

The next morning, a rabbi conducted services in a large tent, with about 300 soldiers, many who had traveled there from other units, sitting on the ground or on boxes. There was no ark, no Torah and no prayer books, except for the rabbi’s.

“I just sat there and listened,” Zundell recalled. “I didn’t think about where I was.”

After services, he traveled back to Wonju with the same soldiers.

Even less enthusiastic about observing Yom Kippur, Zundell was again induced to return to the prayer site. On Yom Kippur day, the convoy again traveled above the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. The scene was identical to what Zundell remembered from Rosh Hashanah, except, instead of 300 soldiers in the tent, there were now 150.

“Where are the other boys?” Zundell asked the servicemen sitting near him.
“Heavy casualties during the week,” one of them replied.

Zundell doesn’t remember his exact reaction; he imagines the service was pretty sad. Afterward they loaded up the trucks and headed home.

Since then, every Rosh Hashanah, the Coral Gables, Fla., resident sits in temple and remembers Korea.

“It never leaves my mind,” he said. “I think about those boys who didn’t make it back for Yom Kippur.”

Central Highlands, Vietnam

A Jungle Clearing
Central Highlands, Vietnam
September 1966

While stationed in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry, Army Spc. 4 Robert Cirkus often didn’t know what day it was. But somehow the 21-year-old draftee from Passaic, N.J., knew the High Holidays were coming. And he knew he wanted to attend services.

A rabbi was dispatched to the forward base camp in the Central Highlands where Cirkus was working as a weapons repairman. Around noon on Rosh Hashanah day, Sept. 15, 1966, Cirkus, three infantrymen and a medic, all strangers to one another, gathered together in a cleared-out jungle area.

The rabbi set up a small ark on a bench in the back of his open Jeep. Inside was a traveling Torah. Cirkus and the others sat on the ground in the hot sun, the air muggy and bug-infested. He wore a tallit over his uniform, holding his submachine gun and his prayer book on his lap.

Cirkus, who now lives in Clifton, N.J., remembers that the service was truncated and that he and the others were not really at ease. They were praying, but they were also alert to every sound, especially gunshots off in the jungle. He knows he wasn’t thinking about life and death. Or about Judgment Day. He didn’t want to think about what was really going on.

Afterward, the rabbi handed out cans of tuna fish, bread, wine and kosher C rations.

“We sat, we chitchatted and we went our separate ways,” he said. “But we knew we were all Jews.”

Until 10 years ago, Cirkus was too traumatized to discuss his Vietnam experience at all. Even now, he can’t talk about all of it. But he’s able to look back on that Rosh Hashanah in the Central Highlands, where, for a short time, five Jews who didn’t know each other sat around together with a rabbi praying.

“I don’t want to say it like it’s jerky, but you felt like you were being watched by God,” he said.

Saddam's Palace

Saddam’s Palace
Tikrit, Iraq
September 2004

September 2004 was a tense time in Tikrit, Iraq, where Special Agent Lee Mish was stationed. Roads were impassable, bridges were blown up and food and water were rationed. Plus, with flights grounded, the rabbi assigned to Tikrit couldn’t leave Baghdad.

Despite these obstacles, erev Rosh Hashanah services were held on Sept. 15. And Mish, 27, a Conservative Jew from Sharon, Mass., who enlisted in the Army nine years ago, walked to Saddam Hussein’s former palace, now under control of the U.S. military.

There, in a large room with marble floors and ceilings and a gold chandelier, a room once used by Saddam’s servants, Mish encountered three other Jews. They included a captain who served as the Jewish lay leader, a sergeant and a civilian contractor.

Wearing kippot, the uniformed men sat around a card table on folding chairs, their guns by their sides. For about 20 minutes, they read from prayer books sent by Hebrew school students in Wisconsin. Mish doesn’t remember the specifics, but he recalls saying prayers for all the soldiers and being aware of Rosh Hashanah’s message of mortality.

“When you’re in a situation where your friends are dying, where people all around you are dying, any time you pray, it hits home more,” he said.

Afterward they shared a bottle of wine and ate some “normal food,” including bagels with jelly. They also read Rosh Hashanah cards that the students had decorated with honey pots and apples and inscribed with messages such as “Be safe” and “Hope you come back soon.” Inside the holiday cards, the students had placed prepaid phone cards.

Despite its informality, that service resonated with Mish, now stationed in Wurzburg, Germany. Rosh Hashanah had always been important to him, a way of confirming his Jewishness. But being in Iraq had given him more time to reflect on death and destruction, and he was feeling more religious while stationed there. Also, he had recently learned from his Iraqi translator, who was born and raised in Mosul, Iraq, that during Saddam’s reign, the Jews in that area were barred from observing holidays in public and were forced to celebrate secretly in their homes. That day, however, Jewish soldiers were praying openly in Saddam’s palace.

“I felt honored,” Mish said.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.

To learn more about today’s Jews in uniform, visit Jews In Green, the”ultimate resource for Jewish service members.”

Saddam Hussein’s palaces have also been the site of Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Pesach and other Jewish celebrations, as this Jewish Journal story from 2004 relates.

Fight the Enemy by Being More Jewish


I was at a big, beautiful Jewish wedding two weeks ago when something unusual interrupted the traditional chuppah ceremony: someone came up and read a poignant prayer inEnglish in support of our suffering Jewish brethren in Israel.

Initially, there was no doubt in my mind that this was an appropriate thing to do: dozens of Israeli soldiers had been killed in the preceding days, and the pain of this loss as well as the tremendous hardships in Israel over the past few weeks were undoubtedly on the minds of the assembled guests. But as the prayer wore on and the reader got all choked up, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was bringing unintended sadness to a moment of personal joy.

A great many of us are consumed by the nasty war of existence Israel has been fighting, by the international diplomatic backlash against the Jewish state, and by the renewed chutzpah of an enemy intent on destroying us. It is natural that we should do anything we can to help, whether through charitable donations, public demonstrations or even prayers at weddings.

But in our zeal to do something, in our all-consuming anger at a cowardly and unjust enemy, it is easy to fall into a trap of putting other important things on hold, like our Jewishness.

Think of how many Shabbat dinners have been littered with conversations about Katusha rockets, anti-tank missiles, hypocritical U.N. resolutions and the need for more ground troops. Not that these things are unimportant, but are they more important than our age-old traditions of joyful songs and holy conversations on Shabbat? I’ve often thought that one of Yasser Arafat’s hidden victories against the Jewish people was the darkening of millions of Shabbat dinners around the world.

The silver lining of Jewish unity in times of war is overrated. We forget how wars can throw us off our game. When you’re transfixed in front of Fox News or Arutz Sheva, who has the inclination to take the kids to do a mitzvah? When you spend hours at dinner tables and in living rooms railing against the injustices visited on the Jewish people, who can focus on increasing his or her Jewish learning, or going to a conference on honoring our parents or strengthening our relationships?

Wars are brutal: We yell, we fight, we give money. Judaism is anything but brutal. It’s delicate, complex, subtle. A war-like mentality is not our first choice. Wars promote coarseness, cockiness and smugness, not the ideal Jewish traits. We fight like lions when we have to, we express our outrage when we must, but we still keep an eye on the bigger fight: the need to strengthen our Jewish identity, beyond the temporary boost we get in times of war.

Cease-fire or no cease-fire, we seem to always be in crisis mode, which means we must be extra vigilant. When we’re fighting only to survive, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes us thrive. When fundraising letters promote one big crisis after another, it’s easy to abandon the little details and daily obligations that make up the core of Jewish identity. This gives succor to our enemies, for they seek to destroy not just Jews but Judaism itself.

It seems to me that one way we can foil this enemy is to stop agonizing so much over the news and start doing more Judaism.

I, for one, will make a vow to spend two fewer hours complaining about Israel’s situation and take my kids next Thursday to Tomchei Shabbat, the organization that provides Shabbat and holiday meals to the needy.

I will take another few hours from reading The New Republic, Commentary and The New York Times to take the kids to a retirement home to sing Shabbat songs.

I’ll take some more time from watching Bill O’Reilly and Hannity and Colmes to play Aleph Bet Bingo and the Rashi Memory Game with the kids, and I might even find time to set up that Rambam class with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller we keep talking about.

And on Friday night, I promise not to talk about Katusha rockets, and I will sing quite loudly (to my children’s great torment) my favorite melodies.

Of course, I will continue to raise money for needy families in Israel, I will RSVP “yes” to any event that will help Israel, and I will continue to pray for the well-being of our brothers and sisters in Israel.

In other words, I will kvetch less and do more.

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

Song of the Sons


The centerpiece of the third section of the Tanach, the section known as Ketuvim (the Writings), is the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms contains some of the most majestic poetic images in the history of the Hebrew language. They express awe at the artistic power of the Creator and express wonder at the reality of all Being. They reflect on the redemptive design of the God of history who took us out of Egypt and anticipate the ultimate redemption at the end of days. They cry out in the pain of human suffering and appeal to a God of healing. They protest the injustice that surrounds us and the domination of the powerful over the weak. They sing of the yearning for communion with God. And more.

Nowhere is the relationship between God and the Jewish people articulated with more poetic power or artistic beauty than in the 150 chapters of the Psalms. The Psalms have withstood the test of time with their undiminished power to inspire, to move, to touch and elevate the human soul.

The original purpose of the Psalms was liturgical, written to be sung by a choir of Levites during the sacrificial service in the Temples in Jerusalem. Still, in our own day, many of the Psalms are used liturgically and comprise entire sections of the prayer book, the most obvious examples being Psukei d’Zimrah (the preliminary service recited daily before the Shachrit prayers) and Hallel, (the thanksgiving liturgy recited on holidays and Rosh Chodesh), the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century used Psalms when creating the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which introduces the Shabbat evening prayers with great beauty.

Although the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) ascribes authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David, even the Talmud ascribes composite authorship, insisting that David incorporated earlier collections of Psalms into his own. Among those the Talmud identifies are two collections, Psalms 42-49 and Psalms 84-88, 13 in all, that were written by the sons of Korah.

It is a stunning statistic that almost 10 percent of the Book of Psalms was written by the sons of Korah. The very name, Korah, symbolizes all that can go wrong in communal life. Korah was the cousin of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, who protested the undemocratic centralization and personalization of power in the other side of the family. Korah led a rebellion in the wilderness against the authority of Moshe and Aharon. In the guise of egalitarianism and inclusiveness, with the claim that all of the Levites are equally holy, Korah incited 250 followers to join him in his rebellion. The rebellion was immediately recognized as a thinly veiled exercise of political opportunism and a shameful power grab. The rebellion ended badly, as it should have, as it was destined to. In the final scene, Korah was swallowed up by the earth, his minions and his ideas disappearing with him into the depths.

But his sons were not with him.

One might think that because his end was so dramatic, so violent, and so final, that Korah was wiped out once and for all. Remarkably, even though Korahism was dealt a fatal blow in the wilderness, the line of Korah did not die. The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms.

That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Psalm 49 was selected to be read in a house of mourning. Beyond the ideas contained in the words themselves lies the power of the Psalm’s authorship. The heading of the Psalm reads: “To the leader: A Psalm of the sons of Korah.” The message of Psalm 49, a lesson the sons apparently learned from the bad example of their father, is that death comes to everyone, rich and poor alike. The importance of wealth and status in life is exaggerated because neither can protect us from death; nor are they of any use to us after we die. What is important in life, and in death, are the relationships we have formed with loved ones, with friends, and with God. Love transcends death. Love is eternal, and lives on after us.

Korach is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world; his sons comfort the bereaved. Through the words of the sons of Korah, and by their example, we are inspired to embrace life with gratitude, with optimism and with passion, as long as our souls remain in our bodies.

Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at pnetter@tbala.org.

20+ Ideas to Jump-Start Jewish L.A.


David Suissa:
“Drink more coffee.”

One big, bold idea to energize L.A.’s Jewish community?

Three words: Drink more coffee.

I’m not kidding.

A new study from the University of Queensland in Australia suggests that drinking coffee makes people more open to a different point of view. In other words, it can make all of us more open-minded.

Can you imagine what would happen if our precious Jewish community in Los Angeles became more open-minded? Let’s go on a high-octane ride together:

Imagine if on one Shabbat, every synagogue would “open up” to a different rabbi. For example, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky could switch with Rabbi Yacov Pinto, Rabbi Yosef Shusterman with Rabbi David Toledano, Rabbi Laura Geller with Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Elazar Muskin with the Happy Minyan, Aish with Chabad, Rabbi Steven Weil with the Persians, and so on. All over Los Angeles on this One Sharing Shabbat, Jews would experience something different, but very Jewish. If it’s a hit, we can make it a monthly tradition, and yes, the chazans would also switch, to give us the full effect.

Want a refill?

On campuses, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller would down a double espresso and invite hard-nosed right-winger Mort Klein, of the Zionist Organization of America, to speak. Seidler-Feller himself would go (with three bodyguards) to give his message of peace at Rabbi Moshe Benzaquen’s shul.

You get the picture: cross-promotion across all the colors of Judaism to energize a great community. All we need to put this ingathering of exiles together is one enthusiastic volunteer who is not afraid of rejection and has a good phone plan. (Any takers? E-mail me at dsuissa@olam.org)

This is peoplehood, my friends. We are one big, noisy, opinionated family, and we are diverse. But what good is a diverse family if we all stay in our own rooms? How can we strengthen our bonds if we so rarely hang out, pray, eat, sing and learn with each other? The opposite of love is indifference. Instead of obsessing over Jewish continuity, we should ignite Jewish curiosity. Sure, the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable, but in this case it has one thing going for it: It’s Jewish!

Forget the whiskey club. For those of Jewish unity, let’s all choose the coffee bean.

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

 

Robin M. Kramer:
“Welcoming, modern, accessible, authentic Jewish nursery school experience….”

What if a welcoming, modern, accessible, authentic Jewish nursery school experience were available to the families of every 3- and 4-year-old Jewish child in Los Angeles?

The result would be new dynamism, connection and community, judging by the experience at my shul, Temple Israel of Hollywood, which has tried to create a program worthy of emulation.

What are the characteristics of a top-quality nursery school program? A school’s learned and loving faculty should reach out in the best tradition of Abraham and Sarah, welcoming strangers and those less connected to the Jewish tent, extending the community’s embrace to grandparents and to families of all configurations, including the diversity of faith traditions. Where isolation exists in our big city, the school community should offer warmth and connection — a family-centered, holistic port of entry to Jewish life. This essential school should, with mirth and through experience, mark the sacred moments of the Jewish year, and introduce the literature, music, art and soul of our people, bringing to life the belief that every individual is both special and part of a larger human family. A fine nursery school experience builds family demand for an ongoing pipeline of robust Jewish invention and education, both formal and informal. This could be catalytic.

But how could this be affordable for all Jewish families? It would require unprecedented focus, partnership, wisdom and vision — as well as the development of millions of dollars of new financial and institutional resources. Regional and master plans for early education could provide a roadmap, which would include support for educator preparation, increased salaries, and ongoing professional development. Another key is providing facilities and scholarships to ensure universal accessibility that does not presently exist.

All told, it would be a massive undertaking, but relatively speaking, the investment would be modest, given the potential yield of enduring communal dividends.

Robin M. Kramer is chief of staff for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Gary Wexler:
“The physical center could be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.”

The idea is about ideas.

In my work with Jewish communities throughout America and Canada, I have learned that Los Angeles possesses a wonderful characteristic that none of those other communities have.

We are blessed with the absence of ingrained tradition, free of the boundaries cast by “the way things are just done.” Unlike the New York, D.C. and Boston Jewish communities, we aren’t committed to pass our thinking and ideas through a paralyzing hyper-critical sieve encumbered with an inner lining of hyper-intellectualism, hyper policy orientation, and a hyper-sense of ownership of all things Jewish.

The L.A. Jewish community is a wide-open environment where we can embrace the vibrant, free flow of ideas. It is time we grabbed that opportunity. Los Angeles, with its thriving creative industries, is poised to become the center for the creation of new ideas in Diaspora Jewish life and beyond.

If we will it.

We even have space where this mission could be planted, nurtured and allowed to flourish. The physical center could be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, an institution that has for years been in search of its mission. The Institute could convene the best Jewish and non-Jewish minds in Los Angeles, even establishing a creative and thinking discipline, a Los Angeles/Brandeis-Bardin brand — something that would be celebrated, respected and sought after.

Four times a year, the best minds would convene to discuss such topics as

American values and how they are influenced by Jewish traditions, including themes like education, literature, music, Next Generation issues, Israel/Diaspora relations, medicine/healing, humor, etc. The participants would represent diverse perspectives so that we are not just exchanging the same ideas back and forth. Ideas, like genes, need to be cross-pollinated, or you have a flawed process.

The Institute would have to be strategically and carefully reconstructed so that the Jewish world would wait to see what ideas are coming out of Los Angeles, the natural environment for this gestation. The discipline would lend itself to all other offerings of the Institute, including its camps, and community activities, turning them into national models.

The Brandeis-Bardin Institute would have to give up a lot of what it is holding on to, which is actually holding it back. It would need to form the type of board capable of bringing this to reality. (Imagine that process!)

Of course, you could expect that the East Coast Jewish establishment would reflexively try to negate what we do. The owners of Jewish life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan would write articles challenging our every move.

It could be just what Los Angeles and the Diaspora Jewish community needs.

Gary Wexler is the founder and president of L.A.-based Passion Marketing.

Lisa Stern:
“More children … born, adopted, fostered and reared in loving Jewish homes.”

Twenty years ago the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and my son were born.

In the ensuing years I, indeed my generation, have been busy chasing the illusive balance between career, community service and family. Many of us delayed marriage and restricted the size of our families so we could collect degrees and worldly possessions. We had the lowest birthrate in our history and the trend, we are told, is getting worse. In that echo we may have short-changed our community and ourselves.

It’s time to do something about this. We cannot afford to let our legacy evaporate. This will involve sacrifice. Our progeny may have to do more with less and those who are able will have to fund this vibrancy.

Ours is a shared mission because we are a covenantal people; our fate is inextricably bound one to another. History teaches us that even during the most cataclysmic times our people did not deviate from the Jewish narrative: the preciousness of life, family, community and continuity.

My vision for the future is both simple and radical. I pine for a bold and transformative era where more children are born, adopted, fostered and reared in loving Jewish homes.

Lisa Stern, a Hancock Park attorney, has long been active in local Jewish causes and spearheaded litigation that forced Nazi-era insurance companies to pay benefits to families of Holocaust victims.

Joan Hyler:
“The next generation must learn.”

We are at a key moment — our culture must engage a conversation between the Heeb generation and The Federation generation. The way to do this is to develop a single citywide program that will identify, train and involve these young up-and-coming adults. The program must transcend organizational and denominational boundaries.

We who have come before already know the essentialness of The Jewish Federation, synagogues, the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, etc. The next generation must learn and, indeed, must take over. To make this transition successful, these vital organizations will have to do something that they don’t always do well: work together. The future of the Jewish community in Los Angeles depends on a focused collaboration among these well-funded, mainstream institutions.

As someone who helped initiate start-up groups in Los Angeles (MorningStar Commission under Hadassah and the National Foundation of Jewish Culture’s Entertainment Council), I’ve witnessed the difficulty in getting these large unwieldy institutions to talk to one another. They must do so, and open up to new conversations with the 20-somethings who are pouring into public life — or waiting for the right invitation.

Along the way, we must embrace the tension of not knowing who and what is next.

Joan Hyler, a former William Morris Agency senior vice president, runs Hyler Management, a boutique entertainment company and agency.

Rachel Levin:
“Bring back salons.”

Conversation. That is my “bold” idea to help invigorate Jewish life (and just plain life) in Los Angeles — good old, face-to-face, word-flying, idea-exchanging talk. In a city dominated by cell phones, Blackberries and dinner reservations, the idea of inviting people to your home to sit in person and talk about things that matter may just be a radical notion.

Specifically, I am suggesting we bring back salons — a structure for conversation that originated in 16th-century France, eventually making its way to 19th-century Germany, where the most important salons were run by Jewish women. These evenings mixed Jews and non-Jews, artists and aristocrats and according to some, were “nothing less than central to the development of modernity.”

Lest I scare you off with the weight of these previous gatherings, have no fear. I am not talking about the wittiest of hostesses and guests the likes of Klimt or Rodin. At their core, salons are just “talking parties” and, according to Mireille Silcoff, who started one in Toronto (and is the inspiration for this idea), for a salon to work you only need four things: (1) a willing host; (2) a good mix of people (you don’t want “like minds to sit there and be in agreement all night”); (3) someone to keep the conversation on track; and (4) food and drink. Add to that a topic of your choice – anything from “Jewish Guilt and Pleasure” to “What’s great about our city/What’s missing?” and you’re set. (See www.rebooters.net to download topic ideas and readings.) Now imagine if 100 of these were happening around the city – with people of all ages and backgrounds. Imagine how they could change the way people experience community – not to mention the new ideas they could spark. Now go talk amongst yourselves!

Rachel Levin is the associate director of Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.

Rabbi Marvin Hier:
“24-hour satellite network….”

Today, the majority of Jews are unaffiliated, and our challenge is how best to reach them. In a world dominated by media and technology, one of the answers is through the medium of television. The time has come for the creation of a 24-hour satellite network that would combine films, concerts, theater, educational programs and live coverage of breaking news events that have particular relevance to Jews around the world. After all, there are specific cable networks for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, etc.

While it is true that such an undertaking would require significant funds, it is also true that the Jewish community has the resources and its prominence would surely be an incentive for the major network and cable television providers to offer the programming.

Let us remember that our world has changed. If we want to reach the unaffiliated, we must think beyond our small neighborhood and the traditional methods to deliver the message of Jewish continuity as widely as possible.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

Zev Yaroslavsky:
“We cannot afford to be silent or absent from the compelling issues facing our community.”

Years ago, when I was active in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, there were two Jewish Community Relations Committees that made a huge difference. The JCRC chapters in San Francisco (under the leadership of the legendary Earl Raab), and Cleveland, Ohio, stood tall and pushed the envelope of social activism. They successfully rallied the Jewish and non-Jewish community to pressure our government and the international community to do the right thing. Our cause was helped, our community was energized and our relations with other communities were strengthened.

It’s time to bring that formula to Los Angeles.

The JCRC of The Jewish Federation should be a forum for discussion, advocacy and action on the issues that affect us and our relations with others. The JCRC should be invigorated by making room at the table for representatives of the wide variety of stakeholders within our community. This should include the breadth of the religious spectrum, our diverse social welfare and social action organizations, and the myriad active youth movements.

We cannot afford to be silent or absent from the compelling issues facing our community or our neighbors at this critical time. We should speak out on foreign affairs, domestic policy, immigration and much more. Our voices need to be constructively heard both within and outside our organizational walls.

We really don’t have a minute to waste.

Zev Yaroslavsky is a Los Angeles County supervisor.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis:
“We need a believable Jewish theology, not a set of dogmas.”

Can the Siddur be taught without Jewish theology? Can you pray without a conception of God? Can you read the Torah or haftorah without understanding the philosophy of the Bible? Can you observe the Sabbath or keep kosher without understanding its sense of purpose?

You can.

It is being done in school and shul, and to our great loss. We have been taught and learned to mimic the “how,” “when,” and “where” of ritual behavior, absent the “why” and “what for.” That sort of practice will not satisfy our spiritual and moral yearnings.

Jewish theology deals with ultimate questions: to whom do we pray; for what do we pray; and can we pray for anything? What is the nature of the God we worship? What are the attributes of Godliness, and can they be imitated in our lives? Stripped of Jewish teleology — the Jewish sense of purpose — we are left with a mindless orthopraxy. Fluency in reading Hebrew does not reveal the meaning of the sacred prayer and biblical text.

The common complaint is boredom. Boredom signifies the emptiness that comes from belief-less living. Add responsive readings, enlarge the choir, multiply musical instrumentation, shorten the sermon and all to no avail. Prayer is poetry, but it is poetry believed in. Without belief, prayer is reduced to rhetoric.

Belonging, behaving and believing are the three marks of Jewish identity. We have wrongly thought that we can overcome the need to believe and fill its vacuum with belonging to institutions, paying dues and making contributions. We have wrongly thought that ritual busyness can substitute for the rationale of our behavior.

The Sabbath; the salting of the meat; the binding of the tefillin; and the blessing over lights, bread and wine — must not be gestures of mechanical behaviors.

We need a believable Jewish theology, not a set of dogmas. We call not for a monolithic set of doctrines, but for the adventure of the ethical and spiritual wrestling with our angels of conscience. Our goal is to persuade the so-called Jewish atheists and acquaint them with the rich theological alternatives within the Jewish tradition. The role of Jewish theology is to awake in our people the excitement and moral sensibility of ideas as ideals, which makes our earned belief system credible and actionable.

C.S. Lewis sagely wrote, “When a person ceases to believe in something, it is not that he believes in nothing, but that he believes in anything.”

Human nature, Jewish human nature as well, abhors a vacuum. A theological hole is soon filled with magic, superstition and cultic sectarianism. Neither esthetics nor edifices can serve as surrogates for the foundation of religious rationale. The three intertwining threads of belonging, behaving and believing must not be unraveled.

Harold Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Daniel Sokatch:
“Jewish tradition is just as insistent that Jews respect the rights of workers as it is that Jews adhere to the rules of kashrut.”

Observant Jews in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) look for a certificate of kashrut, a heksher or a teudat heshgoha on a product or on the wall or window of a restaurant or market. These symbols tell them what they can buy and where they can eat. These foods, these restaurants, are certified as strictly following Jewish ritual observance.

Similarly, many Jews and non-Jews have come to rely on the county health department for its own version of a teudat heshgoha: letter grades, portrayed in bright colors on a uniform white placard – to determine, at a glance, the level of cleanliness at restaurants and markets. Whether a restaurant has a blue “A,” a green “B,” or (God forbid) a red “C” has become part of the calculation Angelenos make when considering where to dine.

But there is a next, important step to take. It’s beyond the reach of county inspectors but entirely in keeping with Jewish tradition. The notion of what is “kosher” should extend beyond preparation of food in accordance with ritual law; it should encompass the way in which human beings treat one another.

Jewish tradition is just as insistent that Jews respect the rights of workers as it is that Jews adhere to the rules of kashrut. We can tell if the restaurant we are about to enter is clean and kosher by looking for the certificates. But how does it treat employees?

Los Angeles needs a Human Rights heshgoha. We should insist that businesses that want Jewish customers treat their workers fairly and pay them a living wage. Those that do so could proudly display the blue aleph. And we would know to avoid the businesses with the red gimmel in the window – until they improve working conditions.

Who knows? Other community groups might just follow our lead, making Los Angeles fairer and better for all its inhabitants.

Daniel Sokatch is executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

 

Uri D. Herscher:
“Jews do not and cannot thrive as “a people that dwells apart.”

For many centuries of the Jewish people’s history, the world outside was hostile at best, lethal at worst. In such a world, insularity was tempting, and sometimes essential. We now live in a nation that strives, if not always successfully, to realize democratic ideals that include openness and inclusiveness. The Skirball Cultural Center was founded on the conviction that Jews need to respond in kind, that Jews do not and cannot thrive as “a people that dwells apart.”

And full Jewish participation means that our good works, too, must resist insularity. The Jewish obligation to help the needy, to heal the sick, to school the unschooled only begins in the Torah. It ends on the street, whether that street runs through Fairfax or Pacoima.

If we offer a Judaism that stops at the margins of the Jewish community, we will have marginal Jews. They will walk a narrow path, and a futile one. For we have learned, to our sorrow, that unless the society at large is safe, Jews will never be safe. In an open society, insularity is a grave danger. Even if we could exist in a vacuum, there would be no air to breathe. Whatever the future holds for the Jews, our destiny is tied to the society as a whole, the two strands intertwined — a double helix, like life itself.

When the Torah commands, “Open your hand to your needy brother,” it does not qualify the statement. The person in need is not subjected to an identity test. Jewish concern is ultimately human concern.

We should discover and give voice to people within and beyond the Jewish community. Examples matter! We must seek out opportunities — as individuals and through our organizations — to make positive examples of ourselves. And we should focus the benefits of our good deeds where such acts are most needed — outside the Jewish community as well as within. To open our hands to those in need is to open them as wide as we can.

Uri D. Herscher is founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center.

Dr. Michael B. Held:
“Build inclusive schools where all students benefit from diversity.”

As awareness of “full inclusion” grows, the distinction between “regular” and “special” education is changing. In truth, every child has both typical and special features and Jewish education should be for every child regardless of ability or challenge.

By typical standards, 10 percent of all students have special needs. Given that, we would expect to find 1,000 students with special needs out of the 10,000 enrolled in local Jewish day schools. But fewer than 100 such students have been identified in this category. Why are so many students apparently excluded and how do we go about creating “inclusive” Jewish schools?

Largely because current efforts to help special-needs children are simply inadequate.

Local educators have sincerely tried to address the need, by adding on special services, but in a piecemeal fashion. Rather, we can build inclusive schools where all students benefit from diversity, state of the art curriculum, and a truly collaborative, team-based approach.

In other words, there needs to be a paradigm shift from the goal of simply creating make-do programs to adopting a human rights model, guaranteeing full access for all Jewish students.

As utopian as that sounds, it is the only way to create and sustain access for special needs children and improve education for all students.

And it is doable. Anyone who doubts this should visit the CHIME Charter Elementary School in Woodland Hills, an inclusive public school. CHIME’s Academic Performance Index (API) jumped an amazing 77 points in one year. Further, the school was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for innovative education.

It is not about the money; it is about transforming Jewish education by including 900 new students who belong in our school system with programming that is educationally sound and morally right. Let’s not delay!

Dr. Michael B. Held is the founder and executive director of the Etta Israel Center.

Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin:
“Any child in Los Angeles who wants a Jewish education should get one.”

Any serious discussion about revitalizing Los Angeles’ Jewish community must focus on one thing: our children. They’re our most precious resource, and we must protect and nurture them to safeguard our future as a people. Sadly, we’re neglecting this responsibility each day that we fail to guarantee them access to an affordable Jewish education.

This is a real crisis. Whenever a child is denied a Jewish education by prohibitive tuition costs, we lose something that can’t be replaced. We squander a chance to impart our values to a new generation- and we abandon the future leaders of our community.

Simply put, any child in Los Angeles who wants a Jewish education should get one. At Chabad schools, we strive to accept every deserving child who comes to us, regardless of family income, so that nobody is denied for lack of funds. Now our entire community must step forward with generous scholarships for all of Los Angeles’ Jewish schools to ensure that no child is ever turned away, anywhere.

Other major American Jewish communities are already doing this. Does it cost money? Yes. But we live in a city of riches. And if we don’t make this investment today, we’ll pay a terrible price tomorrow.

Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin is director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley:
“Outreach Centers for Jewish Life and Learning as ubiquitous as Starbucks….”

I am pro-synagogue, but synagogues as they now function do not serve all Jews well enough. The problem for these Jews and other potentially interested spiritual seekers is that affiliated Jewish life is too expensive, too boring, too irrelevant, too far and just too “other.”

That’s a shame, because it’s vital to bring in as many unaffiliated Jews as possible to the wonders and beauties of Jewish life, study and practice. And as a people, we need all possible Jews to commit to Judaism and to the state of Israel. Many good people and good places are taking on this mission, but they are not networked nor coordinated, and they are under funded.

What’s needed, communitywide, is the outreach energy of Chabad and Aish HaTorah. We need to reach the hundreds of thousands of Jews (and un-churched Americans) who will not become Orthodox, who may be turned off by worship services, who might not believe in God, for whom Hebrew is (at least for now) too high a threshold for participation in Jewish life.

I would like to see Outreach Centers for Jewish Life and Learning as ubiquitous as Starbucks, as inviting as the as the first sentence of a leather-bound classic. They should feature libraries and bookstores filled with Jewish books, music and videos — for all ages, intellects and interests. There should be ongoing classes conducted by deep, learned engaging teachers who will bring the profundities of Jewish wisdom to bear on people’s lives. And these classes should be geared to different types of beliefs, learning styles, ages, and goals. These gathering spots should include a Beit Midrash (study hall) — some should remain open 24 hours a day.

Because some people are turned off by worship, or by conventional styles of worship, there should be more create ways to celebrate Shabbat. Maybe a group could read and discuss Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Harold and Larry Kushner, etc. There could be Learners’ Minyans for those who would like to break the code of Jewish prayer. How about music-oriented experiences, meditative experiences, even political discussion (with knowledgeable, fair and balanced moderators)?

As for the next steps…. Well, the possibilities are many, but first a few caveats.

This effort will take substantial funding. Jewish educational institutions – undergrad program, grad programs and seminaries must be ready and able to produce hundreds of talented teachers (who ought to receive excellent salaries and benefits, and lots of variegated support in their work). And synagogues and other communal institutions need to be ready to transform.

What are we waiting for?

How wonderful it would be to send the word out: “All unaffiliated Jews: Come home. We are now ready.”

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and rabbinics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Dr. Bruce Powell
“Pay all, or a significant part, of every third child’s Jewish day school tuition.”

Millions of dollars have been expended by our fabulous national mega-donors for the Birthright Project — two free weeks in Israel for college-age students who have never been on an organized program. This is real vision.

What I now suggest is the next big step: The Birthrate Project.

Married couples with two children, and who value Jewish day school education, have told me that they have chosen not to have a third or fourth child because they cannot afford one more child in a Jewish day school or Jewish overnight camp. These choices portend a Jewish demographic reality that does not even replace our current population of Jews in America, given that many who are physically able have one or no children at all. If we believe that Judaism, and by extension, Jews, have an important contribution to make to America and the world, this situation cannot stand. We have not even replaced, in 60 years, those souls lost in the Shoah.

My “Modest Proposal” is to launch the Birthrate Project where the national community makes a commitment to pay all, or a significant part, of every third (or perhaps fourth) child’s Jewish day school tuition, kindergarten through 12th grade and/or for Jewish overnight camp. All awards would be based on financial need. A fourth or fifth child might also be funded in partnership with the local Jewish schools. If, for example, this funding produces 100,000 new kids, the total yearly cost at, say, $15,000 a year for tuition, is $1.5 billion.

Imagine the historic implications for the community, over time, of a 100,000 new, Jewish human beings all in possession of deep Jewish knowledge, vision and values from day school — or deeply identified through their Jewish camp experiences. Now imagine our Jewish future without this new life.

I’m ready to follow up on this idea. Are you?

Bruce Powell is head of school at New Community Jewish High School.

Randall Kaplan
“Adopt-a-cause, create a fun event, and make it easy for volunteers”

Our business model was relatively simple. We started with the idea for a different kind of fundraiser — a fun and cool event for a great cause — and then recruited between 20 and 30 of our most talented friends to serve on our planning committee and sell tickets and sponsorships.

But here’s where we were different. We weren’t well-heeled people in our 70s, or even in our 60s or 50s. We didn’t do this after our primary careers, after we’d made money. We were in our 20s.

And that’s how The Justice Ball was born about 10 years ago. Each year, it raises vital dollars for Bet Tzedek, a legal aid service for the poor, disabled, elderly and homeless. During nine straight sellouts, we’ve raised more than $3.6 million — making the Justice Ball the most successful under-40 nonprofit fundraiser in the country. Besides making donations, our more than 16,000 attendees and contributors have been introduced to the wonderful work of Bet Tzedek.

We started The Justice Ball at ages when conventional thought dictated that we would be more focused on careers than on philanthropy. In reality, most people in their 20s are interested in philanthropy and simply don’t know how to get involved. In essence, we made it easy for them — we formulated our idea after choosing a great cause, and with those in hand we targeted a specific but untapped group of talented volunteers.

This “adopt-a-cause, create a fun event, and make-it-easy for volunteers” approach is transportable and would work in other contexts. There are tens of thousands of young professionals in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) who want to get involved. Each synagogue could appoint a rabbi or lay leader to identify future leaders. Nearly 130 synagogues exist in Los Angeles, and if each of these adopted a cause and put its best young leaders together, this formidable but unused human capital could be harvested to do an incredible amount of good.

Randall Kaplan is CEO of JUMP Investors.

Gerard Bubis
“No economic barriers limiting the creativity and creative continuity of Jewish experiences….”

We live in a silo community — many vibrant communities throughout the city that connect and cooperate, if at all, intermittently throughout the years.

My wish is to ascertain, in a thoughtful and representative way, the driving Jewish visions for the greater Los Angeles Jewish community. Are people and institutions ready to set forth an over-aching vision for our collective future? Are there those who would act to bring those visions into reality?

I propose a series of town meetings throughout the community. Participants would be asked to ponder:

Is it important that a Jewish community exist in Los Angeles that is devoted to the cultural, social, psychological, and physical betterment of Jews here and around the world?

If the answer is some form of yes, then I would want to explore exactly how to enhance Jewish identity and how to expand interactive and purposeful relations with likeminded Jews throughout the world.

I would have as many venues as possible; the gatherings would be heavily advertised. I would train 100 or so discussion leaders to keep the focus on the question. Discussions could then lead to specific proposals to satisfy those answering the question in the affirmative.

The first stage of the follow-up would be bringing together 15 to 20 opinionmakers, shakers and doers from the worlds of business, the arts, academia, the rabbinate, Jewish educators and communal professionals. Their charge would be to refine the suggestions into an action program, set priorities and put a price tag on the visions about which there was sufficient consensus. This group would become the sales force to package and sell this set of visions to those individuals and organizations that could assure and underwrite the effort.

What do I imagine could come of such an enterprise?

I’d like to see no economic barriers limiting the creativity and creative continuity of Jewish experiences for individuals and families

What if education, trips to Israel, memberships in all manner of organizations were truly open to all, regardless of economic or social status? How much more would Jewish life flourish if more scholarships were available for those prepared to spend the lives as educators, communal professionals and rabbis serving the Jewish community? What if subsidies were available to pay decent wages for those now staffing services that assist the Jewish community in a manner related to their Judaism?

We live in a golden city and could produce a truly Golden Age of energetic,

creative and purposeful Jewish life here. Are we ready? I would hope so.

Professor Gerald Bubis is the founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Presently he is vice president and fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and adjunct professor of social work at USC.

Rabbi Laura Geller
“A year off between high school and college to volunteer for a Jewish “Peace Corps.”

What if we could change the culture so that most American Jewish teenagers took a year off between high school and college to volunteer for a Jewish “Peace Corps” in the United States or somewhere around the world? What if this year of service was organized in such a way that these young Jewish people would be placed in meaningful work situations with social justice or social service organizations so that they would be serving the larger community? What if, at the same time, they would be living together with other Jewish young people, studying Jewish texts about justice, making decisions together about Shabbat and kashrut, and reflecting together on the work they were each doing?

What if that year were sufficiently funded so that these young Jewish people could earn enough money to live (and maybe even save something for college), and that the program could support the training and placement of spiritual mentors, counselors and resident advisers who would live with the participants? What if other young Jews around the same age from all over the world, including Israelis (before army service), also participated in the program so that all these young people came to understand the reality of Jewish peoplehood simply by living, working, learning and becoming friends with Jewish people from different backgrounds?

Maybe then … our kids would actually be ready for college when they got there, because they would have come to understand that to be a mensch isn’t measured by SAT scores.

Maybe then… these young people would have a better understanding of the world, because they would have lived in another culture. And they would be more grateful for all the privileges that they have because they will have worked with people who have so much less.

Maybe then … they would feel more able to make a difference in the world. And they would feel part of the Jewish people, because they would have developed deep and lasting relationships with Jews from other countries and other perspectives.

Maybe then … they would be turned on to Torah study, and understand how profound the connection between Jewish learning and living can be.

And maybe then … the foundation of their future Jewish lives would be enriched by an experience that transformed their lives.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
“A community-funded, community-owned and community-operated House of Torah Learning.”

I dream that one day, Los Angeles Jewry will have the vision to create a community-funded, community-owned and community-operated House of Torah Learning. This centrally located House of Learning would not be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Persian, Israeli or Russian. It would belong to the entire Jewish community. Its common agenda, ideology and language will be one and the same — Torah study. It would offer no academic degrees, no rabbinic ordination and no teaching diplomas. There would be no prayer services, no “prestigious fellowships,” and no one rabbi would be called “the rabbi” in this building. This House of Learning would be open to every Jew, irrespective of background, age group or financial status.

In this House of Learning, Jews would seek spirituality through the intellect, finding God in a page of Talmud. Singles would ask each other out on a “study date,” and would meet at the House of Learning to get to know each other over a Midrashic text. Lay leaders would gather there to take a break from community meetings, and at the end of the night, new ideas would be inspired and born out of an intense study of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. Newlywed lovers would spend a few hours reading Yehuda Ha-Levi’s poems and S.Y. Agnon’s stories, and parents would sit with their children and study Rashi’s commentary to the Torah. Text study would no longer be the realm of a select few rabbis and scholars, but it would belong to everybody. It would suddenly be cool to sit and study text, and the House of Learning would become L.A. Jewry’s hottest hangout. The new Jewish greeting in Los Angeles will be, “Hi, how are you, and what are you learning these days?”

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.


Janice Kamenir-Reznik
“The Circuit Rabbis’ services would be provided free of charge.”

All too often, affiliated Jews and the leaders who serve them, become territorial. This territorialism often clouds the greater sense of purpose of what it should mean to be a Jew or a Jewish leader. Their priority becomes the survival or success of their particular institution, rather than a desire also to serve the broader community or to propose a broader and grander Jewish message. Such behavior presents a special problem in Los Angeles because the Jewish community is so large and dispersed — and because it takes a lot to stimulate people to positive Jewish action in Los Angles’ Hollywood-centered society. Thus, dynamic leaders and dynamic programs need to be even more dynamic.

Here’s one potential remedy: The community could hire 10 outstanding rabbis and/or other leaders to serve as “Circuit Rabbis.” They would travel to various L.A. venues, providing dynamic impetus to stimulate new programs in existing institutions. The Circuit Rabbis would have no bond whatsoever to any existing institution; nor would they have to fundraise as part of their jobs. Their only objective would be to serve as a resource and to work together with the synagogue and organizational leaders and rabbis to improve and elevate programming, learning, and Jewish life. The Circuit Rabbis would be cutting-edge thinkers and effective, collaborative and dynamic doers.

The Circuit Rabbis’ services would be provided free of charge, inasmuch as this program would be underwritten by visionary and generous members of the Jewish community.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is president of Jewish World Watch.

John R. Fishel
“Our mission is to work toward true community.”

A recent issue of Commentary Magazine contains a provocative article by two well-known Jewish scholars. They hypothesize that the concept of Jewish peoplehood is becoming rarer as efforts to stress individualistic approaches to Judaism and Jewish life in the U.S. increase.

This dilemma manifests itself visibly in Los Angeles. We live here as associated Jews in a vast expanse, but are we a “community” at all or merely a highly diverse group of individuals? Do we coalesce in a meaningful way or are we just occasionally bound together by religious or political ideology, geographic residence or, perhaps, ethnic origin?

I believe our mission is to work toward true community.

A Los Angeles Jewish community that could meld the entrepreneurial creative energies and dynamic singular expressions of Jewish identity with the traditional strength of a collective concern for all Jews as a people, regardless of their beliefs, could set the tone for a potential revolution across the country.

John R. Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

 

The Circuit


Built to Last

Team Mortorq from Beverly Hills High School won two prestigious awards recently at a robotics competition: The Entrepreneurship Award and the Autodesk Visualization Award for animation.

The Entrepreneurship Award recognizes a team which, since its inception, has developed the framework for a comprehensive business plan in order to scope, manage and obtain team objectives. The team should also display entrepreneurial enthusiasm and the vital business skills for a self-sustaining program.

The Autodesk Visualization Award for Animation recognizes excellence in student animation that clearly and creatively illustrates the spirit of the first Robotics Competition.

The Beverly Hills High team also was scheduled to compete in Las Vegas.

Sherman Speaks

Nearly 200 visitors, community leaders and members of the local Iranian Muslim media gathered at the The New JCC at Milken in West Hills March 26 to hear speakers address the growing threat of Iran’s nuclear program.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian Jewish Federation, were panelists at the event.

Sherman, a member of the House International Relations Committee, discussed upcoming measures Congress will be taking to combat Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

“It is unlikely that we can stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Sherman said. “Iran is subject to economic pressure and we must use our maximum economic and diplomatic steps to slow down and stop their ability to get these weapons.”

Kermanian’s discussion focused on the beliefs and core goals of Iran’s current regime to impose its fundamentalist Islamic ideologies on the West by use of force. Following their speeches, both speakers answered questions from the audience concerning Iran. Also in attendance was Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine. — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Ain’t That a Kick?

Gold and silver were the colors of the day for New JCC at Milken’s Kenshokan Martial Arts Academy last month. The American Judo and Jujitsu Federation held its national convention and freestyle championships in San Ramon recently and in the youth division, Tyler Mclean came away with second place. Program instructor Gregory Poretz, who came back from a stunning upset in 2005 in last place was able to make a clean sweep of the black belt division and take the gold.

Sensei Poretz, Mclean and the rest of the Kenshokan will be training to defend their titles in 2007 in Santa Rosa.

For more information, visit

Works of Renewal and Celebration


The Chasidic masters had a custom of creating short lists of practical spiritual advice for their followers, and some of the devotees would write these on small pieces of paper and carry them in their pockets as frequent reminders. These spiritual practices, or hanhagot, is a genre of Chasidic literature that hasn’t received much attention from scholars or seekers, as Or Rose explains in the introduction to his new book, "God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters," edited and translated by Rose with Ebn D. Leader (Jewish Lights).

"These brief teachings are designed to aid the devotee in applying the Hasidic ideals to daily life," he writes, noting that Chasidic rebbes emphasized the possibility of encountering the Divine everywhere, whether in traveling, the marketplace or in conversation.

Often, these hanhagot — dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries — are found appended to other texts. Rose, a doctoral candidate in Jewish thought at Brandeis University, culled, selected and translated them from Hebrew, and organized them thematically, from "Awakening and Renewal" to "In Speech and In Silence." Translations appear on one page, and a facing page includes commentary. Rose says — using contemporary language — that the hanhagot would be used for spiritual centering. Included is guidance on dealing with conflicts, fear, arrogance, sexual relations and prayer; the reader sees that even the most righteous people sometimes have problems with concentration in prayer.

At present, the tradition or writing hanhagot continues. At the back are two neo-Chasidic hanhagot, by Hillel Zeitlin, a writer and martyr of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Arthur Green, a contemporary scholar and theologian, who is the author’s mentor.

Rose speaks of the power of these texts, particularly helpful at a time of introspection, like this period of preparing for the holidays. This might be a good book to tuck away and bring to synagogue as supplementary reading.

While there have been many books on the subject of forgiveness, there are few focused on apology. Aaron Lazare, chancellor, dean and professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, has written "On Apology" (Oxford), a wise analysis of the vital, powerful interaction that is transformative, a process at once simple and entangled. For Lazare, apology is the acknowledgement of an offense followed by an expression of remorse and, often, expressions of shame and acts of reparations.

Lazare quotes the talmudic teaching that says that God created repentance even before creating humankind: "I take this statement to mean that the sages who authored this sentiment were acutely aware of the fallibility of humankind and the need for religion’s prescriptions to heal offenses. Repentance (or its secular approximation of apology), therefore, would be so important for sustaining a just and livable society that an infinite and all-powerful God would put it in place before creating mankind."

His own interest in the subject grew out of an unpleasant personal experience. He looks at the relationship between apology and forgiveness, and focuses on both the individual level of apologizing and also at groups and nations, citing Abraham Lincoln’s apology for slavery, and the German government’s apology to the victims of World War II.

In China, as he notes, there are several apology companies and radio talk shows centered on apology on state radio. It’s possible to hire a paid surrogate to write letters, deliver gifts and offer explanations.

"Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah" by Rahel Musleah, illustrations by Judy Jarrett (Kar-Ben) is a book for the holiday table. Musleah, who grew up in Calcutta (her family traces their ancestry to 17th-century Baghdad), presents the seder that her family would conduct on the eve of Rosh HaShanah: saying blessings and eating traditional foods in a prescribed order. The tradition dates back 2,000 years to a custom suggested in the Talmud, that at the beginning of the new year people eat certain foods that grow in abundance and symbolize prosperity. The Rosh Hashanah seder is practiced in communities around the world, particularly in Sephardic communities from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.

The book includes blessings, folk tales, activities, crafts and recipes for pumpkin bread, beets in ginger and honey, fruit salad with pomegranate, roasted leeks and other dishes featuring traditional foods. In her introduction, Musleah explains that the blessings may be based on a particular characteristic of the food to be emulated (i.e. the sweetness of the apple) or wordplay. She includes the traditional Hebrew blessings, although in the translations, she adds "positive wishes for peace, friendship and freedom."

She writes: "You might have to wait a few extra minutes before you eat dinner, but in that time you can literally ‘count your blessings.’"

Musleah, a Jewish educator, singer, writer and storyteller who lives in Great Neck, suggests these wishes for friendship in connection with leeks: "May it be Your Will, God, that our enemies be cut off. (She points out that karti, the word for leek, sounds like yikartu, the word for "cut off.") Without enemies, we hope for the blessing of friendship. Like we eat this leek, may our luck never lack in the year to come."

B’nai Mitzvah for the Young at Heart


Last February, a class of 17 retirees jumped at the chance to pursue a Jewish rite of passage bypassed in their youth by circumstance or cultural rigidity.

One student was 90; the youngest, 63. One is a Holocaust survivor; another uses a wheelchair. Since sessions commenced, one student died, another was stricken by cancer and a third dropped out after an extended vacation.

The 14 who persevered conducted an unusual joint b’nai mitzvah service on Aug. 14 at Laguna Woods’ Temple Judea, near the retirement community where they all reside. Proudly intending to wear their newly earned fringed trophies to High Holiday services this month, most anticipate experiencing the holiest days of the Jewish year with a new sense of entitlement. For others, their achievement yields a palpable connection to previous generations that eluded them over a lifetime.

Entering synagogue used to feel like a foreign experience to Roslyn Fieland, 76, a lifelong New Yorker who moved to Leisure World five years ago.

"I felt I was in a place I didn’t belong, an immigrant," she said. "Without a doubt, the holidays will be more meaningful. I’ll have much more understanding than I’ve ever had before. Now, I’m comfortable."

Fieland’s formal Jewish education ended at age 9 when she and her sibling were expelled from religious school. She had grabbed a ruler from a teacher, who had slapped it across her brother’s face, still tender from surgery.

Her single mother arranged for a Hebrew tutor, but just for her brother.

"Girls didn’t matter," Fieland said. She retained that meager schooling and ended up tutoring some classmates in the b’nai mitzvah class because of her ease relearning Hebrew.

"Here, I have a closeness to my religion I never felt before," Fieland said.

After learning and rehearsing the proper delivery of transliterated Hebrew, the class was divvied up into foursomes that took turns at the pulpit, reciting their selection of the morning Sabbath service in unison. Laura Feigenbaum, 63, dutifully attends High Holiday services. But she expects to absorb a different spiritual pitch this time. She can picture herself at services draped with a hard-earned tallit.

"Now, I’ll feel like I’m a bigger part of it," said Feigenbaum, who suggested the b’nai mitzvah class to the chair of Temple Judea’s religious committee, Ed Fleishman. The last b’nai mitzvah class at Judea — a multidenominational synagogue of 1,000 members, whose average age is 68 — was offered in 1995. Their instructors were congregants Rachel Jacobs and Jack Falit, the Torah reader at the synagogues’ Monday and Thursday minyans.

Feigenbaum, née Levitt, was raised in the Toronto home of her grandparents, whose level of observance included cutting toilet paper before Shabbat. As a child, she learned Yiddish in an after-school class. Although when Hebrew was introduced, she was banished. As an adult, she felt a similar sense of exclusion at the synagogues where her children were enrolled.

"I always felt like an outsider," she said.

Her hunger for Jewish rituals began in Judea’s welcoming environment.

"When we came here," she said, referring to her husband, Paul, "we were taken in like family."

Faithfully rehearsing her prayer portion even while vacationing this summer in Europe, Feigenbaum said becoming a bat mitzvah intensified her Jewish identify and fulfilled an unrealized longing to belong.

"Now, I feel part of the religion," she said. "I’m going to start Hebrew classes next. That’s the last link in the chain. I think we need it."

Toby Weiner, 66, also never felt at home in synagogue.

"I felt like I didn’t belong because I didn’t understand," said Weiner, who quit attending temple out of anger over the death of her husband, Harold, in 1986. Her own family was secular.

Thrilled at the opportunity to at last learn the sanctuary rituals, she is looking forward to the High Holidays with new pride in her own traditions.

"The reason we do rituals, I’m learning why and asking questions I never did before," Weiner said.

The class’s only male member was Arthur Oaks, who dropped out of religious school at age 13, the same year his grandfather died. His mother thought continuing would be disrespectful to his grandfather’s memory. Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, Oaks recalls feeling he missed a milestone. As an adult, he’s been called to the Torah many times since.

"At age 76, I’m finally coming of age," said Oaks, who read directly from the Torah during the b’nai mitzvah service, which is more traditional. "I never thought I would have the opportunity. When they announced the class, I jumped at the chance."

Maryan Feingold, 90, suffered a stroke six months ago and was told she wouldn’t walk again. Defying the dire forecast, Feingold ascends the bimah with unsteady legs and pronged cane in hand. She said: "I’m taking the class to thank God I’m walking and talking again."

Rediscover the Role of the Synagogue


A small but meaningful reversal of the exodus took place after Sept. 11. Jews in communities across the country returned to their synagogues for spiritual sustenance during this crisis. Indeed, although they came on Sept. 11 and the days that followed, what will motivate them to keep coming back? As we acknowledge the upcoming anniversary since that extraordinary day, it seems timely and important to look at what our synagogues can and could be contributing to the healing and strengthening process. The timeliness is amplified, of course, by the presence of the High Holidays, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur coming in its shadow.

In considering the impact of what is arguably the single most cataclysmic event to befall the United States in this generation, professor Lew Smith of Fordham University wrote in Education Week that social institutions such as schools must seize this moment in our history to define their purposes. We believe that there is a strong parallel to his question in the recurring question that seems to be asked by many in our community: “What are shuls for?”

The American Jewish community is in a rare state of clear universal need for guidance and direction. Will synagogues move toward greater relevance and vitality? Will they renew and transform their relationships not only with congregants but with their communities? Following a framework established by Smith as a guide, we provide some guidance to aid in these important reflections. They represent aspects of the human condition that make our lives fulfilling, enriching and contributing. As you read them, consider not only the extent to which each describes a synagogue with which you might be affiliated, but also ask yourself where, in your life, you find this purpose being filled in addition to, or instead of, the synagogue.

While your answers may surprise you, they may serve as an outline for your community’s plan for synagogue renewal, as well as your personal, spiritual renewal.

Synagogues as Centers for Caring and Comfort

Amid the current crisis, many synagogues have become expanded sources of support and concern. Even bikur cholim (visiting the sick) and related activities of reaching out to those in need have accelerated. There have been more town meetings and more caring phone calls from synagogue leaders, professionals, rabbis and fellow congregants. Synagogues have served as places where those touched directly or indirectly by tragedy can find a comforting hand.

This need not happen only in times of disaster. Must one have dramatic needs in order to receive caring and comfort from the community?

Synagogues as Centers for Service

When the rabbis wrote in Pirke Avot that the world was founded on the pillars of Torah (law and ethics), avodah (prayer and service) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), they did not make an addendum that stated, “only in difficult times.”

At the World Trade Center, as well as at the Pentagon, people of all faiths and of no faith have come together out of deep human kindness to provide service to those they knew and loved and those they did not know. Such service is the glue that binds humanity. It is what helped us to overcome the evil that beset us in Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and the skies over Pennsylvania, a reminder that the core of humanity remains essentially good. Yet, too often, the service activities in our synagogues are responses to crisis, relegated to special committees, or pursued as sporadic concerns. We know those who serve are better for it, as are those who are served. However, such work stands in competition with the siren song of pop culture and material concerns that seem to lure us away from opportunities to nourish the soul and brighten the lives of others. The synagogue can be a force to help communities pull together and enrich those who engage in the work in ways that “C.S.I.,” “Monday Night Football,” the latest DVD of “Shrek” with director’s cuts and, yes, even reruns of “Friends,” cannot quite approach.

Synagogues as Centers of Thoughtful Inquiry

The best of our rabbis threw out their sermons for the High Holidays and created something new to match the events unfolding. They modeled thoughtful inquiry. How do the events around us relate to Jewish tradition, law, custom and practice? What insights can we get to help us understand and act constructively? What conflicts do we find? What values are in competition within our tradition? Within our secular institutions? In the way in which our religious lives and secular lives intersect? Inquiry should also encompass the question, “What does our congregation stand for? What are our strongest beliefs and commitments? From where do they emanate, and how shall we enact them thoughtfully?”

The world around us contained terrorism before Sept. 11. It contained threats to our freedom at the cost of security. It contained injustice and unfairness. Before Sept. 11, our communities constantly posed challenges with regard to our youth, our senior citizens, those who are ill, troubled, homeless, hungry or bereaved, and our relationship with Israel, with other congregations, and with other religious institutions. These matters were, and are, begging for our attention, both Jewishly and intellectually. Some would maintain that thoughtful inquiry, in congregational life, is like physical exercise.

Done continuously, one’s capacity increases, ability to meet new challenges expands, and positive sense of health and accomplishment deepen. Done sporadically, exercise is a source of discomfort, even embarrassment and hardly fulfilling. It leads to a feeling of one step forward, two steps back. The same may be said about thoughtful inquiry in congregational life. Synagogues can serve individuals, their Jewish constituents, and their surrounding communities as catalysts of conscience. But do they?

Synagogues as Centers for Dynamic Leadership

In America, it is well-known that shy people are at a distinct disadvantage. The same may be said about shy shuls. What is the source of “shul shyness”? Consider this lesson from Sept. 11. A businessman saw the collapse of the Towers and ran toward the rubble, once the dust cloud allowed, to help out. He started working with firefighters and other rescuers to pull away massive amounts of debris, to free the living and give dignity to the dead.

After those initial, frenzied hours, he remained at Ground Zero to assist in the rescue and recovery operation. When asked about his actions, he said that he never did anything like this before in his life and never imagined that he could. He allowed himself to listen to his heart and to respond to the needs around him. He did not care what he looked like, what objections he might encounter, who might think it was inappropriate, or whether he was “good enough.” He reacted at the most human level and from his soul emerged the work of gemilut chasadim.

Synagogue leaders speak out when there is a visible and clear threat. They risk dealing with controversy in their communities, within their congregations, or with other organizations, whether secular or Jewish. But there were many threats to the Jewish soul — of the individual and of the community — before those misdirected planes were crashed into buildings. If we had the courage to look at each incident of terror as an abomination worthy of our concern and vociferous objections, perhaps terrorists would gather less momentum and strength and events like those of Sept. 11 could be prevented.

Dynamic leadership is proactive, as well as reactive. Dynamic leadership is not “followership.” It promotes a shared vision, builds capacities of individuals and groups in its organization, challenges people to do what they do better and to think about what else they can do, and galvanizes subgroups and the whole to act in meaningful and fulfilling ways. Dynamic leadership was important on Sept. 10; indeed, lack of leadership in the days prior to Sept. 11 might well have contributed to the tragedy. Dynamic leadership will continue to be important as the events of Sept. 11 unfold and as other horrific events occur. To what extent do our synagogues provide dynamic, and even anticipatory, leadership?

Synagogues as Centers of Spirituality and Community

Seymour Sarason, emeritus professor of psychology at Yale University, one of the founders of the field of community psychology and a preeminent observer of the human scene for the better part of the 20th Century, said in 1974 that we face an epidemic of loneliness and alienation in our society. He believes that this is the result of growing individualism in our culture and the rejection of the compromises and inconveniences of community life and institutions.

Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen’s “The Jew Within” (Indiana University, 2000) and Bethamie Horowitz’s “Connections and Journeys” study has found a growing trend toward “pick and choose” Judaism that is rooted in the preferences of individuals rather than the commitments to the community. There is always a balance of such considerations, but the data from recent research suggests that the pattern is shifting strongly away from community.

Spirituality emanates from an integration of the individual, the community and tradition.
But spirituality is also about bridging the gap between the individual and God through a covenantal relationship. And this, for sure, must be nurtured by the synagogue.

These trends fly in the face of what Sarason and others have identified as a deep human need for transcendence, to believe that life has meaning and purpose beyond the experiences of the moment. Sarason believes that a sense of community is an essential element of human well-being. Somewhere in their lives, people need forums to ask questions about the meaning of life and the importance of community. They need to nurture that part of themselves that is spiritual. It is obvious that the synagogue should be the most logical place for this to happen, but it does not seem to be so. What do we derive from our communal gatherings to pray? How can we sustain our communal liturgy while also meeting individual needs to express other things? These are questions of deceptive complexity and will be disquieting if pursued.

As the Jewish tradition shows with great insight, spirituality emanates from an integration of the individual, the community and tradition. But spirituality is also about bridging the gap between the individual and God through a covenantal relationship. And this, for sure, must be nurtured by the synagogue.

For most people, attaining a sense of spirituality is a cherished but fleeting occurrence. In its pursuit, people are likely to experience as much uncertainty as they do comfort because they will be immersed in community and tradition as well as their own individual needs and preferences. Too often, however, synagogues seem reluctant to confront difficult questions and hard moral and ethical choices brought about by Jews interactions with the secular world.

Perhaps fear of raising difficult questions relates to fear of losing members and the dues they represent. The classical Hebrew prophets were willing to confront humanity in all its aspects as necessary to bring us closer to God, but are synagogues ready to add a bit of existential inner turmoil to their agendas in the service of that goal?

Synagogues Must Be Based On Principles

The events of Sept. 11 have added angst to all of our agendas. Perhaps the level of discomfort is more intense than before, but it is not about something that is unknown in our experience. Yet angst did not prevail, nor did despair. In both America and Israel, senseless destruction, tragic loss, horrific acts perpetrated by people on those who were innocent and, in some cases, even of people of shared beliefs, lack of vigilance, have been juxtaposed against tremendous heroism, selflessness, leadership, ingenuity, and courage. The American culture seems to be most responsive to big events, big losses, big injustices, big tragedies.

While the scale of human tragedy often motivates community response, synagogues must be places that are based on principle. And principle is not a matter of scale. Some would maintain that synagogues need to be the beacons of light –Torah-generated light — in a sea of relativistic and consumer-oriented morality.

Finding Spirituality

We maintain that comfort and caring, service, thoughtful inquiry, dynamic leadership, spirituality and community are essential aspects of human life. To be fulfilled as human beings, people need to find places where these aspects of life can be experienced in positive and constructive ways. For Jews, the synagogue may not be the only forum in which to meet these needs, but the shul that addresses them will be a place of great value. What is a synagogue for? What is the place of a synagogue in your life? Through what affiliations do you find you are most able to fulfill the essential aspects of human life outlined above? These questions may not have had pressing importance prior to Sept. 11; now, they should point the way toward a rediscovery and renewal of the role of synagogues in our communities and in our lives.

Dr. Maurice Elias is professor at the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and FAS Department of Psychology at Rutgers University. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York City and is a fellow in the Center for Jewish Studies, Graduate School and University Center, CUNY. They can be reached at mjeru@aol.com.

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