Photo from Wikipedia

Jewish identity beyond bagels and lox


As always, the time for panic about Jewish religious identity is now.

That’s been true for some 3,000 years. Judaism has never been great at retaining a crowd. Since the Exodus from Egypt, Jews have been fractured and fractious; censuses of the Jews in the books of Exodus and Numbers famously show identical numbers, despite the passage of years. Even when we’re not assimilating, we’re winnowing out ourselves somehow.

But a new poll from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that American Jews younger than 30 are particularly unlikely to identify as religiously Jewish (47 percent); the rest identify as culturally Jewish. That contrasts sharply with Jewish seniors, who identify as religiously Jewish rather than culturally Jewish by a 78 percent to 22 percent margin. Furthermore, fully 37 percent of all Jews in the United States refuse to identify an affiliation with a particular religious movement; they identify as “just Jewish.”

These numbers aren’t particularly shocking — another PRRI poll from 2012 showed that only 17 percent of Jews found their Jewish identity in religious observance, and only 6 percent found that identity in cultural heritage or tradition. Most shocking, only 3 percent said they found a general set of values in Judaism. Fully 46 percent cited a belief in “social equality” separate from Judaism as somehow creating a Jewish identity.

The effort to somehow carve off Jewish religious activity from Judaism has been ongoing since the Enlightenment. But it’s a project destined to fail. That’s because the unifying factor among Jews has been religion. Trash the Torah, trash the identity. We can find values of social justice in John Rawls or Robert Nozick; we can find “culture” in Woody Allen movies. But we can’t find a common identity.

Jewish identity isn’t merely a shared reference to a set of movies or foods. It’s a set of values springing from religious identity — from God. That doesn’t mean that you have to keep kosher or turn off your phone on Sabbath to experience Jewish identity.

But it does mean that you have to respect the notion that Judaism is concerned with such matters — and more importantly, that Judaism reflects God’s immanence in the world, and that the revelation of His presence passed down from generation to generation is worth honoring.

Over the course of the holiday season, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, we work to recognize this truth. And then we celebrate this truth during Sukkot. When we sit together in the sukkah, we aren’t just eating good food and enjoying good friends. We’re not just hanging out with family. Sukkot isn’t an outdoor meal at the Olive Garden. It’s a representation of the fragility of our world — a metaphor rebuking materialism. It’s a reminder that all the things we value mean nothing without the God who infuses our lives.

And it is our task, collectively and individually, to experience the joy of knowing God. The Torah commands us no fewer than three times to rejoice on this holiday. And as Maimonides says in “Guide for the Perplexed,” we have the capacity to experience joy in what we understand of God, when we turn our intellects to Him.

Jewish identity isn’t merely a shared reference to a set of movies or foods. It’s a set of values springing from religious identity — from god.

So, how do we understand God on Sukkot?

First, we understand that there is a meaning behind the material world. Atheist materialism posits that we live in an accidental universe devoid of meaning, and wander through it alone in deterministic fashion. Sukkot and the history of the Jewish people rebuke this notion. We are participants in history, and our participation matters. We know the sukkah is temporary, but we beautify it anyway because we have been commanded to do so.

This is a uniquely Judaic notion, and one that animates even the most atheistic, secular Jews who spend inordinate amounts of time fretting over “social justice.” Why bother unless we have independence of action and a mandate to better our world?

Second, we understand that our heritage doesn’t spring from ourselves. We honor our ancestors with the ushpizin — we remember Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. We are not the source of our tradition or our values. They come from a more ancient source.

Finally, we understand that God cares about all of us. We are commanded to pick up the lulav (palm frond), along with the hadas  (myrtle) and the aravah (willow) and the etrog (citron). According to the midrash, the lulav represents those who study Torah but do not do mitzvot; the hadas represents those who do mitzvot but do not study; the aravah represents those who do not study Torah and do not do mitzvot; the etrog represents those who both study and do mitzvot. Why not pay homage to God with the etrog alone, then? Because the Jewish people are composed of all of these sorts of people — and only together, recognizing our inherent worth and value to God, can we stand before our Creator. We can’t leave one another behind.

All of which means that Sukkot is an ideal time to reach out to our fellow Jews who see themselves as cultural. God doesn’t care; they are welcome in the sukkah. It is their job to join with us, no matter our different priorities; it is our job to infuse our sukkah with light, so that they may see a world filled with the presence of God, not merely an ancient superstition with bagels and lox.


BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

Varied community/congregation at the Western wall

Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan


Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

There’s an old joke that underscores our almost impish impulse for our streams of Judaism to deviate no matter what: One pious Jew was stranded on a desert island and built two synagogues. When rescued, the crew members asked, “There was only you and your limited resources, so why two  places to worship?” The Jew answered, “One was for me to pray in. The other one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” Hmm, maybe the “other congregation” had a different way of handling the Mourner’s Kaddish. I have been reciting it for my father who died last December. In some synagogues, only the mourners rise to recite it, while in others everyone stands and says it to support the mourners or to say it for those who passed but have no survivors to say it for them.

I have said this prayer in both kinds of congregations, and I have mixed feelings about each procedure. On the one hand, if a few other people and I rise to say it, I feel acknowledged that yes, I am stepping through the peculiar passage of my first year without my father. Anyone who still does not know I had lost an immediate family member can later ask who I am mourning for and potentially become an additional source of support. On the other hand, I feel self-conscious drawing such attention to myself, like a scarlet “M” has sprouted on my forehead.

In the “other” synagogue, I feel more protected and less vulnerable as mourners and non-mourners alike participate in this ritual. But I feel that this dilutes my feelings or minimizes them as they are “distributed” across the group. What do you non-mourners know about my feelings and those of the others grieving? The intention, of course, is fine, but it reduces the significance of the ritual for me. If everyone is carrying it out, then I am not doing anything special to mark my relationship with the deceased or to drive home yet again to myself the reality of the loss. I feel deprived of the power of this ritual.

If I and some other hapless survivors of another ship wreck had joined the Jew stranded on that desert isle, as a rabbi I would have instituted the following compromise: Everyone rises but only the mourners actually say the prayer.

But wait, I hear an objection from the Chair of the Board of Trustees: “That’s not the way to do it! Everyone recites, but only the mourners rise.” Alas, we will need two synagogues after all.

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan photo

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. For more details including reviews, you can go to the publisher’s page or to amazon.com. There is also an audio version of Encountering the Edge: the Audiobook. Comments to the author are welcome by email or via her blog, Offbeat Compassion. She has recently authored a second book, Curiosity Seekers which is gentle science fiction about an endearing couple in the near future (Paperback or Kindle).

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is October 18th.

If you are interested in teaching for a session, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have completed three or more Gamliel Institute courses should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. We plan to begin this Fall, in October and November. The first series will be on Psalms. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact us –  register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Photo from Wikipedia

Study finds more than half of young Jews have ‘no religion’


A new survey examining the religion of Americans shows a growth in the number of Jews of no religion, compared to findings of the PEW survey of American Jews from four years ago. It also shows that the numbers of Jews claiming to be Reform and Conservative are declining while the number of those who identify with no denomination is on the rise.

The PRRI survey found that among the 2.3 percent of Americans who identify as Jews, about a third are “cultural Jews.” The study found that among those under age 30, fewer than half, 47 percent, identified as religiously Jewish while 53 percent are Jews of no religion (which this study calls “cultural Jews”).

The main part of the study deals with the general state of religion in America, naturally focusing on changes concerning Christian America. White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., the study tells us, “now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country.” Moreover, “fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian.”

What follows is an attempt to explain some of the data concerning the Jewish community and the possible implications of it.

1.

The most dramatic finding of this study concerns the “Jews of no religion,” as PEW’s study, Portrait of Jewish Americans, referred to them in 2013.

PEW reported that 22 percent of all Jews are such people of “no religion.” Namely, Jews who do not respond to the question — What is your religion? — by saying Jewish, but do indicate in a follow-up question that they are Jewish in some other way.

The PRRI study indicates that the number of such Jews is rapidly growing. It calls these Jews “cultural Jews” and explains that 1.5 percent of Americans “identify as Jewish when responding to a question about their religious affiliation.” An additional 0.8 percent of Americans “identify as culturally but not religiously Jewish.” So about a third of all Jews are cultural Jews.

“Cultural Jews” are the PRRI study’s version of “Jews by no religion” from the PEW study. “To identify culturally affiliated Jews,” the PRRI study explains, “we asked all respondents who claimed no formal religious affiliation the following question: ‘Do you consider yourself to be Jewish for any reason?’ Any respondent who said ‘yes’ or ‘half’ was classified as culturally Jewish.” This methodology is practically identical to the one used by PEW to identify “Jews by no religion.”

So according to PRRI, about a third of all American Jews are people who have no specific answer when asked about their religion. What does this mean? A paper I wrote for JPPI a while ago argued that calling these Jews “cultural Jews” would be a wrong choice: “Jews ‘not by religion’ are not ‘cultural’ Jews, they are disconnected Jews,” I wrote, based on the clear-cut data from PEW.

Here is more from what I wrote three years ago:

There can be no doubt that the data point to the possibility that about a quarter of American Jews will find it much harder to pass on their Jewishness to the next generation (and the one after that). Those who reacted to the Pew survey have taken care — and rightly so — to emphasize that there are many exceptions in the Jewish story and that among “Jews not by religion,” too, there are those strongly committed to the Jewish people. The statistical picture, though, does not change because of anecdotal exceptions. The value of a comprehensive quantitative study is precisely that it allows us to adapt policy to large groups.

What changed from PEW to PRRI? I assume nothing much, except that now it is not “a quarter” of all American Jews — it is a third.

1a.

Or maybe something else changed.

Prof. Uzi Rebhun noted that according to PRRI the share of Jews in the U.S. slightly increased, from 2.2 percent (PEW) to 2.3 percent. So it is true that the share of Jews not by religion among the total Jewish population increased, according to PRRI, but so did the total number of (adult) Jews in the country (a 0.1 percent increase is equivalent to an absolute growth of some 250,000 people over a period of only three years).

Hence, we can make another assumption by way of interpreting the data: some Jews are, indeed, becoming less connected (cultural Jews), but at the same time there are also people who avoided identifying themselves as Jews in the past and now feel a need to identify as such and connect themselves, albeit weakly, to the Jewish people.

2.

The change is clear when PRRI examines the differences between age groups. “Among Jews under the age of 30, fewer than half (47 percent) identify as religiously Jewish, while a majority (53 percent) identify as culturally Jewish. In sharp contrast, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of Jewish seniors (age 65 or older) are religiously Jewish, while 22 percent identify as culturally Jewish.”

To understand what this means, I will refer you to another JPPI study, by my colleague Shlomo Fischer. When we spoke yesterday, Fischer reargued his case: this change reflects a change in what Jewishness means in America. For many Americans, it is no longer a defining feature of identity — it is an anecdotal fact of which they are proud (as the PEW study proved), but not much more than that.

“Jews of no religion,” he wrote, “accept their Jewishness as a matter of fact, like having blue eyes. It does not enjoin much of a sense of solidarity or any normative commitment to the welfare or continuity of the Jewish people or to Jewish culture.”

What changed? In the PEW study, Millennial Jews (born after 1980) of no religion were 32 percent. In the PRRI study, Jews of no religion under 30 are 53 percent. So nothing changed, except the even higher numbers. These numbers present the organized Jewish community with a challenge of abandonment that is not even close to being resolved.

3.

Denominational belonging of the Jews is always a topic of discussion, and the new study presents us with a question. Its denominational portrait is significantly different from the one presented four years ago by the PEW Research Center. The main question we need to ask as we look at the numbers is as follows: is this a result of a different survey methodology and articulation of questions — or the result of rapid changes in the community (of course, the same question should also be asked about Jews of no religion).

If the latter is the correct answer — if what we see here is rapid change — there are more worrying signs in this study for the two main Jewish progressive movements, Reform and Conservative. Reform Judaism still tops all other denominations in numbers, but the gap is shrinking. Seven points down in four years is significant. Conservative Judaism is also continuing to shrink. It is now not much larger than Orthodox Judaism.

4.

When we look at denominational questions, age is again the key to understanding the trends. To make it easy, here is a table of how Jews older than 65 define themselves and how Jews aged 18 to 29 define themselves. Note how among young Jews the Orthodox group has already surpassed the Conservative group and is getting close to the Reform group. Also note that close to half of all younger Jews do not belong to any denomination.

“Jewish seniors are about 10 times as likely to identify as Reform as they are to identify as Orthodox (35 percent  vs. 3 percent, respectively).” Among Jewish youngsters, the difference is just 5 percent. Three Orthodox for every four Reform.

Where is this going? Easy: “More than six in ten (62 percent) Orthodox Jewish parents say they have at least three children living in their household, compared to 17 percent of Jewish parents who identify as Reform who say the same.”

5.

The study is based on interviews with more than 100,000 Americans. Most of them are not Jewish. But changes among them will have a huge impact on America, and hence on Jewish America — and also on Israel. One such important change is the decline of white evangelist America. “Fewer than one in five (17 percent) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23 percent) in 2006.”

This group is one of the most supportive of Israel in the U.S. and is considered by some right-wing Israelis to be even more important than the Jews of America when it comes to backing its security and strategic needs.

But as Israel ponders its future relations with America, as it worries about trends concerning American Jews, and about trends concerning the American left, it ought to also consider these larger changes that could reduce the influence of evangelical whites (in the shorter term: 35% of all Republicans, more than a third, identify as white evangelical Protestants).

Words Matter…Dammit!


The violence in Charlottesville was scary, upsetting, vile and – unfortunately not surprising. 

The United States has become a country deeply divided by wealth, education, color, religion, opportunity and politics. It should not be surprising that people feel threatened by the stranger they do not know. The more separate we are from each other, the more fearful and suspicious we have become of the other.

It doesn’t help when our President spends so much time defining what is real and what is fake news, rather than condemning obvious hatred. He is better than this and this is a distraction we can ill afford. The stakes are too high for us to make a mockery of justice and the freedoms that our constitution guarantees us.

The book of Genesis teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price.

Our Jewish legacy is that we are a people of the book, a book that reminds us that words matter. The beginning of the book (i.e. Genesis) teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price. Today is the day to break down the boundaries between us and them.

When we started the Pico Union Project four years ago, I sensed it was time to bring multiple faiths and cultures together under one roof. I had no idea how critical it would be to create a space for people to get to know each other, without judgement or fear. This is what I’ve learned:

  • We can do better
  • Anything is possible.
  • We can say yay when everyone else is saying nay
  • It’s better to focus on service than ‘serve us’
  • Upward mobility is not just a dream, it’s achievable.
  • We are honored when we honor all of creation.

The American way – the Pico Union Project way, begins with YOU and includes all of US.  If you have yet to check us out, The PUP doors are always open -and our eternal light is always on!


Craig Taubman

The Pico Union Project is a multi-faith, multi-cultural center committed to living the principle to “love your neighbor as you want to be loved.” We recognize that in order to love, you must first get to know your neighbor.  We use spirituality, arts, and a deep commitment to community activism as tools to draw individuals together, deepen a sense of self-awareness, and open eyes, minds, and souls to the value and potential of our community.

 

Can we change the Swastika to mean something different?


Recently, I came across a commercial charging humanity to change the Nazi symbol into a symbol of peace by a T-shirt company called Teespring and KA Designs. They suggested this symbol we have come to know as a symbol which reflects hate, devastation, tragedy, and murder can be redesigned by repurposing it for a symbol of tranquility and love just by coloring it a multitude of pastel pink, green and blue colors and willing it so.

My first reaction to this suggestion was visceral. It was filled with pain and disgust. It felt like I was being manipulated versus inspired. I have learned that when I get that feeling that lives deep inside my gut, that feeling which tells me something is wrong or untrue, I should listen to it.

I spent a great deal of time reflecting on my negative reaction to this suggestion. After all am I not a self evolved person who has the ability to transform hatred into kindness if I wish it so? Am I not evolved enough to see this suggestion as a transformation versus a disfiguration? Is it really so bad that a group of folks want to redirect our thinking when seeing the Swastika to reflect peace versus hatred and murder? After all, the Nazis took an innocent Eastern symbol which originally meant “Good Fortune” in Hinduism and Buddhism, when turned clockwise, and twisted it to mean hatred and anti semitism.  Why can’t we turn this back around to a new meaning of peace and love? Isn’t it just a symbol, aren’t symbols what we choose to make them, and how we choose to give them meaning? Is it so radical to think we cannot rededicate the most radically perverted symbol in the world to mean something different- to mean love?

The way we communicate with one another is complex and nuanced. We use words, eye contact, gestures, body language and symbols to create tone and to tell our stories. Yes, a symbol is the meaning we dictate it. A symbol carries with it stories, lives, human narrative and communicates our deepest selves. A symbol showcases history and human connection. The suggestion that a symbol which stood for lives being broken, ended, gassed, burnt, wiped out and destroyed can suddenly be erased to mean something different is erasing the very stories affected by that symbol as well. We don’t transform ourselves because we change what that symbol means, we merely lose ourselves. Transformation is the ability to take something and change it, shift it, redesign it, not delete, obliterate or ERASE it.

The suggestion that the Swastika could represent love when it was designed to represent hatred is preposterous and not because of what it is asking from us, but because of what it is taking from  us. While I applaud those who want to switch the meaning, you cannot switch a meaning without erasing the first one. You are not asking us to transform, you are actually asking us to regress. By asking us to erase it’s original meaning, you are asking us to erase the stories that assembled because of and in spite of that symbol.

Essentially, you are asking us to forget. And that’s why my gut turned. Because you are asking too much. I imagine the Eastern originators of the Swastika symbol felt the same way- like their stories had been hijacked by a black cause that created suffering versus the enlightened meaning it was meant to inhabit. When the Nazis stole their symbol, they stole and erased their stories as well – just as you are asking to steal and erase ours.

You are insulting us by assuming evil could be erased. You are not asking us to redesign our thinking,  you are asking us to stop thinking, to stop communicating our stories and who we are because of- rather- in spite of that symbol. Because that symbol carries with it the stories of those times, and by erasing those stories, you erase those people, my people. You are asking us to forget them. You are asking us to discredit them.

A symbol carries the weight we associate to it. And in this case, it carries the stains that bleeds on it as well. If you want to change thinking, create a different symbol that carries with it a new weight and reflection of that communication of peace, don’t insult us to believe our stories associated with that horrid symbol can merely become erased just because we will it so.

The Nazis chose to steal this symbol. It was hijacked. It cannot be reinvented without hijacking the stories behind the symbol as well. You are asking us to have our truths stolen away, to have our history expunged, to have our records erased into oblivion. You are asking us to change the symbol’s meaning, which essentially pirates our stories just as the Nazi’s stole the originator’s stories.  The end doesn’t always justify the means. Changing the swastika meaning doesn’t change the result that occurs because the action is well intentioned. In this case, the result is  the feeling of having our narratives deleted, our truths and lives inconsequential all over again.

When healing from pain, we can’t negate it’s existence to become enlightened, we must acknowledge the pain first, then reposition ourselves around it, and redesign something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to reflect the lessons learned and the knowledge acquired out of the ashes. We don’t pretend the pain never existed by coloring it a pretty pink and willing it so.

Rabbis must navigate politics and morality


Like many others, I read Rabbi David Wolpe’s op-ed on politics and the pulpit with a sense of profound ambivalence (“Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” June 9). I found myself caught between ovation and objection.

The ancient rabbis begin in a similar place. Religion has no place in the public square because the town center is full of sin, it is depraved and consumed with self-interested politicians. “Be wary of the government, for they befriend no one unless it is out of self interest.” (Pirkei Avot 2:3).

The English word for holy spaces, “sanctuary,” comes from the Latin “sanctus,” meaning separate. Religion is a refuge against all that’s dirty and repugnant in the world. We come to the sanctuary to find comfort in one another’s embrace, protection from the harshness of the political world.

There is a something comforting about hunkering down against the weekly tweetstorm. Something heartwarming and freeing to not be bothered by CNN for a few hours. It feels good to rest.

However, our tradition forbids us to pray in a room without windows. We must be able to look outside and see the hour, including the pressing hour, the sha’a dakhaq, upon which our world is squeezed ever more presently.

The rabbis tell us, “Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” (Shabbat 55a). There is no sanctus in Judaism, nothing takes us out of the world. There is only kedushah a sense of holiness that pushes us back into it.

Hence my ambivalence toward the good rabbi. Every leader must make a decision for his or her community, and I believe ultimately that the false distinction between religion and politics makes both worse. It makes religion a reverential Polaroid of ancient times. It makes faith static, metaphysics frozen, and theology moribund. If religion has nothing to say about the world we live in, if it addresses no reality outside our door, especially when that reality causes anguish and pain, what then do we need religion for? We risk slipping into the great void where all our windows become mirrors.

A state without a transcendent moral ethic of religion can become imperiled. George Washington, in his farewell address, understood that, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” One of Washington’s great fears was that a society that is based in freedom would eventually free itself from morality and succumb to the bare clash of naked self-interest. As my teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l writes, “Religion … acts as a check on the State’s politics affirming that that which is harmful to the general good is impious and must be altered immediately.”

Religion is a durable good for society; it can hold the conscience and aspiration that make democracy work. Religion gives a tailwind to those who want to see that the injustices of yesterday cannot dictate the freedoms of tomorrow. The rabbi’s role is not to pick winners and losers in both party and personality, but to be the navigator, making sure that both congregant and congressman do not run aground on shoals of selfishness.

I fear, however, that Washington is proving to be right. In an article in the Atlantic Magazine, Peter Beinart shows convincingly that as Americans participate less in religious activities, the more polarized our politics become. “For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict,” Beinart concludes. “It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.”

It is because religious spaces like synagogues are some of the only platforms of mediation today between those who look and act enough like us so that we can listen to differing points of view. When we hear a rabbi teach an ethic of selflessness, transcending the ego in service to ideals higher than our own narrow desires, we can build havens of communication and solidarity in the chaos of the political world.

With the loss of these religious spaces we easily lose our affection for one another. Without sacred humility we lose the capacity to hear one another. If we leave all politics at the door when we enter the synagogue, then we lose a crucial nurturing structure that knits together our society.

Church and state can and should remain separate. But religion and politics are joint authors of our book of life.


Rabbi Noah Farkas is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; founder of Netiya, a Los Angeles Jewish nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners; and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

A view of the KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in 2013. Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

80% of Reform rabbis are Democrats. That’s higher than any other clergy.


The vast majority of Reform and Conservative rabbis affiliate as Democrats, according to a new study.

The study, published Sunday by Yale University, found that more than 80 percent of Reform rabbis, and about 70 percent of Conservative rabbis, affiliate as Democrats. Both were among the top five most Democratic clergy of the Jewish and Christian denominations in the United States, with Reform rabbis topping the list.

Among Orthodox rabbis, nearly 40 percent identify as Democrats and a quarter as Republicans.

By contrast, Evangelical pastors are almost all Republicans, as are most Baptists. The Black Protestant African Methodist Episcopal clergy, as well as Unitarians, are heavily Democratic. Catholic priests are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

The study’s findings reflect existing data on the politics of American Jews. Solid majorities of American Jews consistently vote for Democrats — 70 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in the November presidential race — with polls showing that Orthodox Jews are more likely to vote Republican. Reform Jews have been on the front lines of protests against President Donald Trump.

Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of the American Jewish population, various studies show. One-third, or 35 percent, of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 18 percent identify with Conservative Judaism, 6 percent with other movements and 30 percent with no denomination, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Yale study also shows that rabbis’ political views track with congregants’ views on policy. For example, 40 percent of Orthodox rabbis are Democrats, and some 40 percent of Orthodox congregants are pro-choice, while about 30 percent of congregants believe gays and lesbians should be legally allowed to marry. Likewise, large majorities of Conservative and Reform rabbis are Democrats, and large majorities of their congregants are pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA earlier this year that Reform rabbis’ generally liberal politics are a reflection of their Jewish values.

“The idea of Jewish spiritual community being about feeding the hungry, clothing the homeless, caring for the stranger — these are fundamental core pieces,” Jacobs said in January. “If we don’t talk about those things in our religious communities, we’re irrelevant.”

Orthodox Jews also cite Jewish values in explaining their support for Republicans, noting a preference for the GOP on Israel and conservative support for school choice programs and religious exemptions for various government mandates.

In total, the data cover 186,000 clergy, including approximately 2,700 rabbis. The data were collected via denominational websites cross-referenced with voter registration records. Some denominations and religions — including Mormons and Muslims — are not included due to lack of reliable clergy lists.

The data also show that the Reform rabbinate is the second-most female of any denominational clergy. Forty-five percent of Reform rabbis are women, as opposed to an average of 16 percent across the denominations surveyed. About a quarter of Conservative rabbis are women; nearly all the Orthodox clergy are men.

An analysis of the data by The New York Times found that rabbis on average lived in the most affluent neighborhoods of any clergy. The median household income of Conservative rabbis’ neighborhoods is nearly $100,000 on average, compared to a national median household income of $53,000. The Times article noted that average neighborhood income does not necessarily reflect pastors’ salaries.

Israeli Light #3 – Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem of Holon, Israel


I received two urgent emails on Friday morning, May 5, asking me to contact Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, the Rabbi of Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol in Holon, Israel with whom my congregation was in a sister synagogue relationship. Both asked me to extend Galit my emotional support.

One came from Rabbi Nir Barkin, the Director of Domim, a program funded jointly by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) that links Israeli synagogues with Diaspora congregations. The other was from my ARZA President, Rabbi Joshua Weinberg.

Earlier that day in Jerusalem, Rabbi Noa Sattat, the Executive Director of Israel’s Religious Action Center, asked me to give Galit a hug for her that night when my leadership tour would be spending Shabbat with her congregation.

None of the three explained what had occurred that provoked them to reach out to me. I am well aware of how challenging Galit’s work is and I assumed they were just encouraging me to be as supportive as I could be.

Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem began this Holon Reform community located southeast of Tel Aviv five years ago. A thriving city of 250,000 mostly secular middle-class Jews, it is fertile ground for the growth of non-Orthodox liberal Judaism. Given Galit’s keen intellect, open heart, liberalism, and her infectious enthusiasm, if anyone can build a community there, she can.

Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol does not yet have its own building. It rents space for services and classes and has enormous potential to be a center of Reform Jewish life in Holon. Its congregants include people of every walk of life and many highly educated and professionally productive members. For example, the community’s chair is Heidi Pries, a researcher, and lecturer at Tel Aviv University School of Social Work. Her husband Ori is a lead web developer in a Tel Aviv-based web company. Another member, Anat Dotan-Azene, is the Executive Director of the Fresco Dance Company and her husband Uri is the tech director of a leading post production sound studio for Israeli television and film. Another member, Michal Tzuk-Shafir, is a leading litigator in the Israeli Supreme Court and was President Shimon Peres’ (z’’l) legal advisor. Her husband Nir is an industrial engineer working as an information systems manager. Galit’s husband Adar is the former chief inspector of civic studies and political education of the Israeli Ministry of Education and is the soon-to-be manager of teachers’ training at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In association with her congregation, Galit created a Reform Jewish elementary school that is a part of Israel’s national secular school system. More than 100 children are enrolled in kindergarten, first and second grades and a grade is being added every year.

Despite all the activity, Kodesh v’Chol faces substantial financial and space challenges because unlike Israel’s orthodox synagogues and yeshivot, the Reform and Conservative movements receive no government funds due to the political hegemony of the Orthodox political parties.

In the secular city of Holon, Galit did not anticipate what was to take place the night before my leadership group joined her for Shabbat services, which turned out to be the reason for the two emails and Noa Sattat’s concern.

Galit’s elementary school had been offered classroom space in a Holon public school for this coming year by the Holon municipality, and a meeting was planned on the night before our arrival with all the parents. However, four uninvited parents from the public school that was hosting Galit’s congregation’s school crashed the meeting and began screaming obscenities against Reform Judaism, Rabbi Cohen-Kedem and the planned-for presence of the students in the local public school building.

They viciously threatened Galit and warned that the children themselves would be in danger should the congregation’s school be on the premises. They said that they would spit on the children.

Galit confessed to me that she lost her cool, but when I asked what that meant, it was clear (recalling Michelle Obama) that though Galit was deeply offended and upset by the behavior of these parents, ‘when they went low she went high.’

Galit called the principal of the school and though apologetic and embarrassed, she would not take action against the offending parents.

Galit called the municipal authorities who had given the Kodesh V’Chol School its space and demanded that they find new classroom space. At this time, we are waiting to learn where the school will be housed.

I and our group were stunned, but in hindsight, we should not have been surprised. The Reform movement in Israel still has a long way to go in establishing itself as broadly as possible.

At the moment the Israeli Reform movement attracts 8% of all Israelis. According to surveys, however, when Israelis are asked about their attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Judaism, between 30% and 40% say that if there were a Reform or Conservative synagogue in their neighborhood, they would attend.

I told Galit how proud I am of her for the dignity and resolve with which she stood her ground and responded with moral indignation to those offending parents. I was moved as well that she placed the welfare of the children first. She refuses now to use this public school out of concern for the well-being of the children.

I also expressed my own conviction that this ugly incident could be a watershed moment for her community.

When word spread of the Thursday night encounter, many more families showed up for services. There were more than a hundred men, women and children singing and praying together. The children came under a tallit for a special blessing. Modern Hebrew poetry and music was sung along with music from the American Reform movement. The service was warm-hearted, upbeat and joyful.

Galit delivered a passionate and moving sermon based on two verses from the weekly Torah portion Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) – “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart” and “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

She did not mention the incident from the night before, but everyone understood the context of her remarks.

Galit represented the very best of Judaism generally and the Israeli Reform movement specifically.

That was a Shabbat service I will never forget and Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem has shown herself to be one of the bright lights in the firmament of Israeli leaders.

The Case Against a Kosher Casket By David Zinner


[Ed. Note: Again this week, I am presenting a previously published blog entry. We are working on improving the presentation of the blog articles for readability, style, and appearance. I would appreciate hearing from you about this blog, particularly if you are having any difficulties, problems, or issues accessing or reading it. If you have any comments – or a blog submission, please contact me at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org. — JB] 

Kosher Casket

A Kosher Casket?

A Kosher Casket?

Kosher means fit or proper for ritual use, but unlike the biblical delineation of which foods are kosher, there are no biblical rules to give guidance regarding manufacture of kosher caskets. The Talmud contains dozens of occurrences of Hebrew words that are translated to English as “casket”, “coffin”, “bier”, “chest” and more. But nowhere in Jewish writings is there a discussion of what makes a casket kosher.

Tachrichim (shroud or burial garment) manufacturers have suggested that there are “kosher” tachrichim dependent on the observance level of the workers and certifying that the product was not made on Shabbat. The rationale for this seems slim for tachrichim, and even slimmer for caskets. Basing Kashrut on worker’s level of observance is a novel approach not practiced in kosher food manufacturing. More interesting and fruitful pursuits to define a kosher casket might include looking at working conditions, wages and health benefits of the employees, as well as the environmental impact of the manufacturing ingredients and process.

Simple & Inexpensive

The Talmud directs that all aspects of funeral and burial should be kept simple and inexpensive, and by extension fit and proper. BT (Babylonian Talmud) Moed Katan 27a- 27b contains an extended discussion of funeral practices and a story about Rabban Gamliel. This discussion can open a window to the meaning of ‘Kosher’ in relation to a casket.

Formerly, they were wont to bring out the rich [for burial] on a dargesh [a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets] and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor felt shamed: they instituted therefore that all should be brought out on a plain bier, out of deference for the poor.

 Without knowing the difference between a dargesh and a bier in Rabban Gamliel’s time, the implication is clear – the dargesh is fancy and affordable to the rich; the bier is simple and used by those who are poor. The dargesh made it easy to carry the body and to show off wealth. The bier (Hebrew – mitah) is a simple stand or platform that holds and/or carries the body.

Jewish Law (Halachah)

The Shulchan Aruch allows for burial with or without a casket, but gives no indication of how to determine if a casket is Kosher. Rabbi Mosha Epstein in his Taharah Manual of Practices quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein could find no source for an all wood casket. He cites Rambam, yet Rambam in his Book of Judges – Laws of Mourning – 4:4 says: “It is permissible to bury the dead in a wooden casket.”

In the 1960’s, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America negotiated funeral standards with the Jewish Funeral Directors of America. The Orthodox Rabbis were successful in incorporating taharah, tachrichim, Shmirah, and ground burial into the standards. They failed in their attempt to include simple plain caskets.

Plain Pine Box

It was only 60 years ago that an expensive all wood casket became acceptable in the Jewish community. Our Moed Katan example goes back over 1,700 years. We should pick up Rabban Gamliel’s cause and champion a simple casket (or none at all) as a return to less expensive funerals and burials.

David Zinner is the Executive Director of Kavod V’Nichum (honor and comfort), and of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as instructor for the non-denominational Gamliel Institute, a nonprofit center for Chevrah Kadisha organizing, education, and training. In his role as executive director Zinner co-teaches courses on Chevrah Kadisha history, organizing, taharah and shmira (sitting with the deceased until burial),  and building capacities in Jewish communities that enable all participants to meaningfully navigate these final life cycle events.

David Zinner

David Zinner, Executive Director of Kavod veNichum

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          GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings, in the Spring semester starting March 28, 2017.

CLASSES

The course will meet on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses.

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, participants raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and the moderator calls on and unmutes participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly and easy to use platform.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions begin at 5 PM PST; 8 PM EST.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

On registration, you will receive an automated acknowledgement. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information for the upcoming session.

You can view a recording of the sessions, uploaded after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, we plan to hold time for questions and discussions at the end of each program. 

Again, the entire series is free, but we ask that you make a donation to help us defray the costs of providing this series. The suggested $36 amount works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and extraordinary teachers that present it.

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome. 

The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual and actions around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with Israelis and British students joining us on occasion.

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Looking ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register, and make your hotel reservations and travel plans now!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

Registration is now open. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org
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DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Pro-Israel supporter in New York City. (photo credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Young Jews in America and Israel: Rising levels of religiosity, widening political gap


Conferences are a good way of meeting people and listening to what they have to say, often based on information that they have and you don’t. So last week, at the JPPI conference on the future of the Jewish People, I listened attentively to Prof. Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University as he presented a few numbers from a paper he authored with Ariela Keisar of Trinity College. He then kindly agreed to send me the slides that the two of them presented at the conference of the Association of Jewish Studies back in December of last year.

Like many papers, it has a fancy name: Contrasts and Comparisons of American and Israeli Jews: Millennials Under Scrutiny. Like some papers, behind the name there is information. In this case, it’s information about a group that the professional Jewish world is highly concerned about: millennial Jews in Israel and America. The two studies by PEW, in America and Israel, have comparable numbers to work with. So the authors decided to compare these two groups.

They are different, of course. Beginning with the fact that some Israeli millennials are still serving in the military while their cousins in the US go to college. Continuing with the fact that most US millennials are still single (90%) while their Israeli cousins have already begun getting married (31%) and having children.

DellaPergola and Keisar have discovered a few interesting things about Jewish millennials in the two largest and most significant Jewish communities today. For example: that religiosity among Jewish millennials is on the rise – a result, no doubt, of the demographic composition of this group compared to other groups of Jews (that is, it is more heavily Orthodox). The authors looked at the percentage of Jews agreeing with three statements: Weekly attendance at religious services; Religion is important in my life; I believe in God or universal spirit.

Take a look at the graph: younger Jews in Israel are becoming more religious, and so are younger Jews in America (in which you can also see a clear difference between Jews that were and were not “raised Jewish”).

Gap1

In a similar way – looking at the number of Jews who agree with three statements – DellaPergolla and Keisar examined the sense of peoplehood among younger Jews. The statements are: Being Jewish is important in my life; I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews around the world; and I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. In this case, the response is split: those raised as Jews – in Israel or America – feel more Jewish than the older generation. But the sense of peoplehood among those who weren’t raised Jewish is in decline (this should not come as huge surprise).

Take a look:

Gap2

The Israel support index is based on positive responses to two statements – and in this case it is possible to make the case that maybe the questions do not reflect exactly what the authors claim (support for Israel). The statements are “Caring about Israel / Living in Israel is essential to my Jewish identity”; “the Israeli government is making sincere efforts to bring peace with Palestinians.” Clearly, the first statement is direct and reflects support or identification with Israel. But the second question is trickier: does disagreeing with the contention that a certain Israeli government is making a sincere effort to achieve peace make a person less supportive of Israel? In recent JPPI studies we asked groups of Jews the same question and found what DellaPergola and Keisar also found: that Israel’s efforts are not considered sincere by many Jews in other countries. But they show us that the lower the age, the higher the skepticism of Israel’s sincerity.

The same doubt can be raised about the index they call Jewish Nationalism and which is based on the following three questions: Settlements help Israel’s security; God gave the Land of Israel to Jews; I do not think a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully. Why do I find this index somewhat problematic? Because the first and third statements are political in nature, but the second is a cultural-theological question. In other words: the authors inadvertently assume that believing in a God-given land is connected with believing in the benefit of the settlement project. And while this assumption is probably valid in the real world – I do not think it is valid in the world of ideas.

DellaPergola and Keisar examined other questions, but sticking to politics, their last graph is the most interesting – as it paints vividly what we recognize as the growing political gap between young Israelis and young Jews in the US.

This graph uses again the “Israeli efforts for peace sincere” statement, but adds to it the mirror image statement “Palestinian efforts for peace sincere.” The index based on these two statements shows the percentage of difference between sincere Israeli and sincere Palestinian efforts, among young Israelis, young “raised Jewish” American Jews, and young American Jews (including those who weren’t raised Jewish). The result is a graph that tells the story of a growing gap. Young Israelis have much more confidence in Israel’s sincerity compared to the sincerity of the Palestinians, while US Jews don’t see as much difference between the sincerity (or lack thereof) of Israelis and Palestinians.

Here it is:

Gap3

What do we learn from this? That Israel might be successful in convincing its youngsters of its narrative, but it fails to convince young American Jews that it still wants peace. If young Jews in America, as they grow older, will view Israel as a country that doesn’t pursue peace, it will surely make it more difficult for them to support it – no matter if they are correct in their conclusion or widely off the mark.

The abuse of Halacha: Keeping Halacha under control


Judaism is in trouble. More and more of the unacceptable is being done and said in its name. Besides causing infinite damage to Judaism’s great message, it is a terrible desecration of God’s name. And all of this is seen and heard by millions of gentiles watching television, browsing websites, or listening to the radio. Many are repelled when they witness horrible scenes in which Jews attack each other in the name of Judaism. Media outlets around the world portray religious Jews in most distressing ways. While it cannot be denied that anti-Semitism plays a role and tends to blow the picture out of proportion, the unfortunate fact is that much of it is based on truth. Non-Jews are dumbfounded when they read that leading rabbis make the most shocking comments about them, thereby demonstrating gross arrogance and discrimination. Even worse, many of them read about rabbinical decisions that seem to lack all moral integrity. 

Twenty one years ago, Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in the name of Halacha (Jewish law), claiming that the prime minister was a rodef (someone who is attempting or planning to murder) because he brought all of Israel’s citizens into mortal danger by having participated in the 1993 Oslo accords. Amir therefore believed that the prime minister deserved the death penalty according to Jewish law. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Arabs in a mosque because he believed that Judaism obligated him to create havoc in order to stop Arab terror attacks, which had already killed thousands of Jews. Several years ago, the book Torat HaMelech was published. The authors, learned rabbis, argued that it was permissible to kill non-Jews, even without proper trial, if they became a serious potential threat to Jewish lives. Minorities such as the LGBT community are being insulted by powerful rabbis who seem to be ignorant of the multifarious circumstances of fellow human beings. Less than two weeks ago, a most important and brilliant ruling issued by the Tzfat Rabbinical Court in 2014, concerning a get in which a woman was freed of her agunah status, was suddenly challenged by the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Israel. The latter completely ignores the fact that such a move is not only halachically intolerable (See Rabeinu Tam….) but undermines the very institution of Jewish divorce itself. And so on. 

How can it be that such things are carried out, or even expressed, in the name of Judaism and Jewish law? Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of Judaism is fully aware that nothing within genuine Jewish law would condone, or even suggest, such outlandish ideas and immoral acts. 

Why does this happen? 

Throughout the years, several rabbinical authorities have made the major and dangerous mistake of reducing Judaism to a matter of law alone, a kind of Pan-Halacha. They sincerely believe that Judaism consists only of rigid rules. In this way, they are paradoxically similar to Spinoza, who was also of this opinion and therefore rejected his faith. He referred to it as obsessive, a type of behaviorism, and an extreme form of legalism. (See, for example, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus III, IV, and XIII.) That Spinoza made this claim is one thing, but the fact that these learned rabbis agreed with him is an unforgivable blunder. Nothing is further from the truth than labeling Judaism a legal religious system without spirit, poetry, and musical vibrations. This is proven by the almost infinite amount of religious Jewish literature that deals with non-halachic matters. 

The main reason for this terrible mistake is that these rabbis have failed to study the basic moral values of Judaism as they appear in the book of Bereishit (Genesis). It is well known that, with a few exceptions, this book does not contain laws; it is mainly narrative. To appreciate this, one needs to consider the following. 

In this first biblical book, we encounter Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as the foremost players. They are considered the first Jews in history. But this makes little sense. How could they have been Jews if the Torah was given only hundreds of years later to Moshe at Mount Sinai? Although a Jew is a Jew even if they do not observe the laws of the Torah, it is still the Torah that defines them as such. How, then, could the Patriarchs be full-fledged Jews when the Torah was denied to them? Would it not have been logical to have given the Torah to Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and their wives long before Moshe? Only upon receiving the Torah could they have been real Jews! So why was it withheld from them? (Even though some midrashim claim that they did observe several commandments, it is clear that this was done voluntarily.) 

The answer is crucial. No law, including divine, can function if it is not preceded by a narrative of the human moral condition and an introduction of basic ethical and religious values. These values cannot be given; they must develop within, through life experiences. No academic instruction, not even when given by God, would be of any benefit. Such ethics need to develop gradually, on an existential level, and predicated on innate values that God grants to each person at the moment he or she is born; a kind of categorical imperative in the human soul. 

More than that, laws become impersonal and therefore dangerous because they cannot deal with emotions and the enormous moral paradoxes encountered by human beings. As a result, they run the risk of becoming inhuman and even cruel. 

It is for that reason that God did not give the laws of the Torah to the Patriarchs. First there was a need to learn through personal trials and tribulations. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs had to see with their own eyes what happens when people are not governed by law. But most important, they had to become aware of basic moral values, such as the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God, that all are equal, that human life is holy, and that there is only one God Who is at the root of all morality. Only after people have been deeply affected by these ideas and values can law be introduced as a way to put it all into action. 

It was only after the existential, moral turmoil in which Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov frequently found themselves, as well as their often problematic encounters with God, that a virtuous and religious awareness was born. This consciousness continued to work its way, with all its ups and downs, through the bondage in Egypt, the Exodus, and the splitting of the Reed Sea. Not until that point was there a chance that the law could be received and be beneficial when given at Sinai. And even then it was not very successful, as recorded in the many disturbing biblical stories about the Israelites failing to live up to the law in Moshe’s days and long afterwards. 

But it is not just the fact that narrative, ethical values, and encounter with the Divine are necessary to have before the law can be given. There is another important message: no law, including divine, can function without constantly and continually taking guidance from these former values. There is almost nothing worse than divine law operating on its own, without primary, innate moral values. It runs the risk of turning wild and causing great harm. It needs to be constrained. 

This is the purpose of Sefer Bereishit. (See Netziv’s introduction to Bereishit in his Ha’amek Davar.) It is a biting critique of the halachic system when the latter is applied without acknowledging that these prior moral values are needed in order to function. The book of Bereishit, then, keeps Halacha under control. It restricts and regulates it, and ensures that it will not wreak havoc. 

Truly great poskim (halachic arbiters) cannot lay down their decisions on the basis of Jewish law alone. The Shulchan Aruch (Codex of Jewish Law) by Rabbi Yoseph Karo, and the Mishneh Torah of Rambam can become dangerous if applied in a vacuum. What these poskim must realize is that they need to incorporate the great, religious moral values for which Sefer Bereishit stands. 

To be continued. 


Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.

At Maccabi, forging Jewish identity between the baselines


When I was 10, my family got frum, and I started playing baseball. Oddly, the overlap wasn’t a coincidence: Our new rabbi added me to his Little League team and taught me how to throw; I broke in my first mitt — and a new peer group — playing catch with his son. For me, a connection between the national pastime and Judaism is not just easy to make on a personal level. It’s seminal to my interest in both.

I’m not sure that’s what qualified me to coach a cadre of bright-eyed, bar mitzvah-aged ballplayers in this summer’s JCC Maccabi Games, an annual Olympics-style tournament for Jewish teens held in Stamford, Conn., this month. But there I was, shooing a gaggle of over-sugared charges through security and, along with more than 100 other boys and girls from our Westside JCC delegation, onto a plane headed for John F. Kennedy International Airport. That everyone in the group was Jewish — a unique, fledgling Jewish identity for every plane ticket — struck me as remarkable and exciting. There were kids who went to Jewish day school and kids who’d never had bar mitzvahs, and the vast majority fell somewhere in between. In other words, it looked like a cross-section of American Jewry.

At the same time, it seemed clear from the outset that Jewish identities would not be getting the workout on this trip. The chaperones were coaches, not rabbis, and other than the occasional allusion to “Jewish values,” the programming stuck to sports. Religion was more a selection criteria than unifying theme, and it stayed in the background most of the time. Which was fine! The kids were being Jewish without their parents; for more than a handful of them, the games could end up being the only Jewish thing they do all year.

Maccabi’s ideologically aloof playing field instead lent itself to a more organic contemplation of Jewish faith, at least on the team I coached. In fact, it turned out to be the ideal space for dialogue — low-stakes, diverse and totally voluntary. When Judaism did come up, I observed these sunflower seed aficionados shell, chew and spit religious ideas with bracing open-mindedness and originality. The discussions were more brief than shallow; these athletes were also budding intellectuals, which is to say, growing friends.

It started during the Friday night meal at our hotel — you couldn’t really call it Shabbat dinner since there was neither Kiddush nor challah — when the boys started considering who at the table was “actually” Jewish. “Both my parents are Jewish,” our center fielder began, with a modest whiff of self-assurance. “I’m half,” volunteered the left fielder, rather fearlessly. Which half? the others needed to know, for obvious reasons. “My dad is Jewish,” he responded, evidently knowing where this was headed because he then added, “I have Jewish blood.”

The crowd was tougher than the sell. “But you’re not Jewish!” the center fielder exclaimed. Here, I finally jumped in with what is at least tacitly Maccabi’s eligibility guideline: “You’re Jewish if you say you’re Jewish,” I said. “Who’s to say you’re not?” “The Conservative movement,” quipped the center fielder, who goes to Jewish day school. The left fielder (a Hebrew-schooler) called him off, unimpressed: “Who gives a” — and here he said a word that I, his baseball coach, did not teach him and do not condone using — “about the Conservative movement?” They laughed, and went back to testing each other’s memorization of baseball statistics.

Later that week, at an amusement park for their evening activity, two teammates broached the topic of God. While working on a mouthful of hamburger, our second baseman volunteered his theory that the ocean — the origin of life and forever unknowable — is God. Our shortstop countered that God might be the invisible, all-powerful force of gravity. The middle infield got pretty abstract.

All the while, their rookie baseball coach felt stuck, torn between helping them navigate Jewish ideas and just letting them make a fine mess. Was I to join these conversations and risk curtailing their reach? (Is God not on land or in space? I asked, unhelpfully.) What did these restless, creative minds — whose spiritual bandwidth was just beginning to stretch — have to gain from anything I had to say? Sure: God can be anywhere you look. Does saying that really help someone who is already experiencing God at the beach? And of course: Your parents don’t determine whether you’re Jewish, you do. Does that help a young Jew, who’s already comfortable defying the Conservative movement, understand that faith is inexorable, and inexorably personal?

Our oldest player was barely 14 years old — he and his teammates are a long way from answering Judaism’s big-picture questions, and that’s as it should be. What’s important is that they have already started to talk about those questions — and that their new friends will listen to and challenge their ideas as they evolve. They went to Connecticut to play baseball, and yet here they were, negotiating Jewish identity. And, perhaps, forging a meaningful connection between their Jewish experience and their favorite sport. I can’t say where any one of them will wind up. It was just a treat to see all of them on their way.


Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles who can now say he has coached baseball. You can find more of his writing on his website at VICE Sports, and at www.keene.la.

Forgiveness


I was standing with my brother on the top floor of a hotel in Atlanta having checked in for a conference he had organized.  The elevators were jammed and they didn’t have enough to accommodate all the guests.  More, some of them went to the lower floors and others to the upper.  We stood waiting for a long time.  I looked at the six doors, and said, “You know, not all of the elevators even come to this floor.” My brother looked at the doors, and then backs at me. “Um, David” he said, “These do.” 

We laughed uncontrollably.  When I told my sister-in-law, she recounted how her brother, a navy seal, was in his final exams for the position and his commanding officer walked him around the pentagon.  “Now you understand the structure of the building?” he was asked.  “Yes” he answered, “its an octagon.”  “Noooo” said his C.O. “it’s a pentagon.” 

We all make stupid mistakes. They are often the basis of humor.  For example: Once Sherlock Holmes decided to take Watson on a camping trip.  In the middle of the night, Holmes looked up at the stars and woke Watson.  “Watson” he said, “what do you observe?”

“Well” said Watson, clearly knowing he was being tested, “I observe a slight trail which suggests a shooting star.  And I see the constellation Orion.  And the moon is slightly less than half, but growing.”  Proudly, he said to Holmes, “And what do you observe?”

“I observe,” said Holmes, “that while we were sleeping someone stole our tent.”

Yes, we make foolish mistakes.  And we make serious mistakes, as well.  Often there is one way to get something right and endless ways to get it wrong. That is true in the moral sphere as well as the physical one.  That’s why the idea that you can just follow your heart, or listen to your dream and all will be well is a fiction.  We feed it to our children, but it is not true.

In fact, in the shema we are told, “do not follow after your heart and your eyes that lead you astray.”   Of course, following your heart can often bring satisfaction and depth.  But it is hardly foolproof.  Is there a parent in the world who with the best intentions and love hasn't hurt his or her child?  Or a child who has not done the same in reverse?  We wound from good intentions as well as bad, and often when we think we are following our heart, in retrospect we wish we had listened to our own reservations. 

It is a paradox that we learn as we get older, but to feel something is right doesn't always make it right.  For the world is more complex than simple guidelines, and there will always be much we do not, and even cannot, know. On Yom Kippur we confess to sins we did knowingly and those we did unknowingly. At times we do not understand the impact of our own actions until much later; the unknowings of life are cumulative, and I know how much more I don’t know now, than I used to know when I knew less! 

We go about jangling the heartstrings of others, carelessly and painfully, often without meaning to.  That recognition should sting; it is not against Jewish law to feel bad, or have a sense of sin or sleepless nights. 

Yet we neglect this lesson with our children.  Too often when I ask the bar or bat mitzvah child, “What would you like to change about yourself,” I get the proud answer – “nothing!” I see that the child thinks it is the “right” answer.  Actually, it is exactly wrong.  Is there nothing to do teshuva for, to improve, to do less or more or better?  The idea that we are perfect on instinct is pernicious and untrue.  We can hone our instincts and be better, but the world does not allow for seamless perfection.  Moral struggle is essential, and we need to teach its reality to our kids.

Heschel was once approached by a man who said he did not feel he needed the synagogue or God because he was a pretty good person.  Heschel answered, “I envy you.  I don’t feel so good – I am always saying or doing the wrong thing, hurting someone by words or silence.  I need God, and I need prayer.”

Just as it is dangerous to be without a sense of sin, it is dangerous to luxuriate in it.  We cannot be stuck in sin, mired in our own mistakes. The Jewish answer to a serious sense of our own moral struggle, mistakes and sin is forgiveness.  Sin is our action, not our identity. 

To forgive is hard.  To forgive someone else, you must give up your power over them, release your grudge.  No longer do you get to feel morally superior, since they hurt you.  We are all in need of forgiveness, human and divine, because no one gets it right all the time.

And if we do some emotional excavation. we discover that the same sense of over-expectation that we direct to others, we focus on ourselves.  As we need to forgive those who have hurt us, we need to forgive ourselves.  If we understand that mistakes and even sins are inevitable, are human – then we can forgive ourselves. 

After all, to judge yourself is to be weirdly split.  Who is the “I” that is judging “me”?  To forgive is to reach wholeness, shelemut.  We recognize that another person is like us, so we reunite as common, flawed humans.  And we realize we are one person, so the sin and the judgment come from the same individual who can let both go.

We all of us, of the broken lives and the picked up pieces, of the faltering promises and mislaid resolutions, we who walk in darkness with flickering lights, who know we might be better.  And we know that the release of forgiveness helps us to be better.

Yes, we have serious requirements for forgiveness.  You have to try to make it right, to apologize, resolve not to commit the same transgression.  Forgiveness is not an escape hatch, it is a struggle and a gift. 

And yet.  If you have ever forgiven, truly forgiven, or been forgiven, you know that it is a transcendent moment.  The moment of forgiveness is one of those in which the human and the Divine touch.  It is the reaching toward one another, as in the famous depiction by Michelangelo of God and Adam.

Michelangelo, we are told, used to keep a candle in his cap, to eliminate the shadows on the picture he was painting.  Forgiveness is that candle, the one we carry with us, that brings light into the world.

You can carry that candle for others, and for yourself. 

Many years ago my father told me a story of Calvin Coolidge, who was famously laconic.  To get more than a few words form him was a chore.  Once, he returned from church, and his wife asked, “What did the preacher talk about?”

“Sin.” He answered. 

“What did he say?”

“He was against it.”

I hope this does not resolve to “What did the Rabbi talk about?” 

“Forgiveness.”

“What did he say?”

“He was for it.”

It isn't that I'm for it.  It is that I believe that without it, we are doomed, and with it we are saved. Not saved to another world, but saved in this one. 

If God can forgive us, surely we can forgive ourselves and one another?  We cannot do it all at once, but begin forgiving others, forgiving yourself.  You will discover when you do the reality of God's light and warmth, and feel some peace.

Happy new year, Pope Francis


Dear Pope Francis,

I’m sure your much-anticipated visit to the United States was not timed to coincide with our season of holy days, a time of personal renewal and return to God, all in celebration of the world’s creation. But we are delighted to share this special season with you, since you are a religious teacher who so deeply appreciates its meaning. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that the most urgent task of religion in the 21st century will be that of helping humanity to understand that we must change our attitude toward the natural world of which we are a part. Unless we come to see ourselves as responsible stewards of this planet and its resources, rather than their consumers, we will simply not survive. The changes in behavior that will be required of us, both as individuals and societies, are great. They will not be effective if they are simply imposed upon us from above, either by governmental fiat or international declaration. They must rather be changes of heart and mind, welling up from below and leading to a different and more modest way of living, a sense that we all share this beloved planet with one another and with all of God’s creatures, and that each must be given its due. Religion, including the spiritual traditions of all humanity, is the greatest key to that transformation of human hearts and minds.

Your recent encyclical Laudato Si’, “On Care for Our Common Home,” demonstrates your awareness of this and your readiness to turn the vast resources of the Catholic Church toward this purpose. I greet this document with great and humble gratitude. Your firm leadership on this issue will make a great difference to our world, hopefully opening the doorway to responsible action by political leaders who will follow your example. We, the Jewish people, “the fewest among all the nations” (Deuteronomy 7:7), cannot sway so vast a population. Nor is our voice as united as that of your single church. Nevertheless, we share with you — and with all others whose faith is rooted in the Abrahamic tradition — a most important resource, one I would like to call to our collective attention, working together to make it useful in the great struggle that stands before us. I refer to our shared faith in the world’s creation, that which we celebrate in this season.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all stand on our faith in God as Creator. The seven-day creation story of Genesis 1, culminating in God’s sanctification of the Sabbath, is the tale of origins that helped to create and sustain Western civilization over more than 2,500 years. While most of us no longer relate to that narrative literally, accepting that our world is many billions rather than 5,776 years old, it remains a guide to our spiritual sense that the natural world is shaped by a divine hand or infused with divine presence. The Psalmist taught us all to hear the chorus of praise that emerges from every creature and to view ourselves as part of that great symphony.

The transition from literal faith in the Genesis story to acceptance of the current tale of origins as told by astrophysicists, geologists and evolutionary biologists has been a wrenching one. Too many of the forces of our religious traditions were devoted to a hapless fight against the emerging scientific consensus. Instead, they should have been concentrated on preserving what is most important: our ability to view the world with a sense of awe and wonder, an understanding that the miraculous is present within the everyday, that the natural world is the supernatural, if we learn how to truly open our eyes to it.

That is the faith we must work together to preserve, the language we must learn to speak again. The evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all, if we learn how to open our hearts to it. We must learn how to use our faith in creation not to fight the scientific paradigm, but to infuse it with the sense of the sacred that is our true shared mission. That will offer us a vision of sufficient depth with which to turn to humanity and cry out: “Help us to preserve God’s world!”

Since we Jews believe in embodying great truth in concrete deeds of religious praxis, I have recently issued a call to faithful Jews around the world to renew our ancient practice of calling out the day of creation, from the Genesis narrative, on each day of the week. This daily practice is there to remind us that we live in a created world, that such resources as air, soil and water are all gifts of God, that forests and grasslands, birds and fishes, are all divine handiwork. “God saw all that He had made, and behold it was — and still is — very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Welcome, Your Holiness. We are deeply in debt to your wisdom and leadership on this matter. Let us set aside theological divides and painful histories to work together on this most vital of all issues.


Rabbi Arthur Green is rector of Hebrew College Rabbinical School and author of “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers.” This column originally appeared in Wexner Fellows newsletter. Reprinted with permission.

Power plays


I want to share a story about a couple who’ve been married for 19 years.

Their relationship is a series of power plays in which they subtly and sometimes not so subtly try to control one another.

They're’ from the Boston area. 
They have 2 kids
. Both have special needs – one learning, one emotional. She used to work outside of the home, has a PhD in science, but stopped working when her children’s needs became a full time job.

He makes a good living in law.

Here’s where their control issues come to play: She wants to move from the big city, to be in a house surrounded by trees, have a less-stressful life, downsize their financial pressures and be able to reconnect with her professional passion.

He says she’s not realistic, he needs to work long hours in his big-city practice to support their family’s needs. How could she insist that they move away from his parents just because she’s unhappy with the big city? How could she uproot their family right at the time their kids are finally enrolled in suitable schools that address their learning and emotional challenges?

She says he doesn’t consider her feelings, wants and needs. Though she loves him, she’s lonely and disconnected from her husband.

He says he doesn’t want to leave his city of birth and won’t move just because she’s unhappy.

They’re literally stuck, frozen in their apartment and their marriage – because neither one is willing to compromise. Like two people in a boxing ring they stand in position waiting to see who will fall first.

Their power play deeply upsets me – as hear about how they manipulate each other in order to control their family’s future. Rather than work together as a unit, their marriage is game of who will win and who will lose.

Listen, marriage can be difficult –anyone who tells you otherwise – is lying. But frankly, ALL relationships have the capacity to lure us into power plays – in which we try to gain control over another person or a situation.

These dynamics play out at work and school, between genders, in social media, over the environment, among nations, and between religions.
Exerting one’s control over another is pervasive. And as a result it can rip apart our homes, our character and our world.

Now it’s true that sometimes it’s necessary to control and dominate another person if we’re bullied or if a nation feels its safety is endangered. But today I’d like to look at the many power plays we partake in that destroy our souls, and offer 3 some ways we can avoid the allure of trying to dominate and control others.

Let’s start with Torah.
Unfortunately Torah’s very familiar with power and control. In Deuteronomy, Moses blesses the Israelites:
“Be the head and not the tail.” (Deut. 28:13)

It’s as if to be blessed we need to be both in control of our subordinates, and be controlling of them.
The head looks forward, not back.
The head advances onward, without negotiating with its tail. Yet effective leaders are often those who use their positions of power to empower others.

What about taking the back seat sometimes or listening to the opinion of those we lead?
How about the value of being a follower or collaborator?

It’s a tough tension, because even God teaches us to relish power. Torah describes how God encourages Adam to name all the animals of the earth – an ancient tactic of acquiring control over living beings.

And frankly the power to name, can be a very positive tool of control even today.
As of this February, Facebook gives everyone the option of choosing to name oneself from 51 gender categories.

A person can be: Agender, bigender, cis, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, gender variant, intersex, pan gender or transgender (to list a few) – & if you don’t know what some of these gender categories are – you’re not alone.
 The point is – I imagine that those of us who are one of these genders feel validated when we can actively name ourselves. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/15/the-complete-glossary-of-facebook-s-51-gender-options.html).

Yet naming others in a demeaning or controlling way can be used as a way of exerting power over someone else. Perhaps you’ve heard of how ISIS “educates” their soldiers to name their captured women ibadah – meaning “worship,” and then instructs their soldiers to pray before they rape them, and then pray after they rape them –
justifying their violation as a “prayer to God,”
telling the women that they are their ibadah – their tools of worship. I find this obscene … (NYT, Enslaving Young Girls, Aug 14, 2015)

The Torah also gives many examples of power plays between brothers and sisters.
Remember when the siblings Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for having a close relationship with God? (Numbers 11)

It’s as if they’re vying for “Big-daddy-in-the-sky’s” attention. Sounds like the dinner fight my brothers and I would have around our table –
who got to sit at the head, how much extra food were we served, who was mom and dad’s favorite & who had to wash the dishes.

And the competition and one-upmanship sadly continues when we become “grown up” siblings:
•Like the tension when a father dies and leaves his children unequal inheritance without an explanation. • or a sister- in-law who’s controlling and pushes her spouse into a family feud…..

These power plays are usually about attention and love ….. and often they leak into our bedrooms.

Think of the power and manipulation our patriarch Jacob held over his two wives -who were sisters – Rachel and Leah.
I imagine they wondered who he’d go home to each night and if he favored one over the other.

Today there are many spouses who wonder whether their partner is out late at a business meeting -
or finding intimacy with someone he met on-line
or through work.

How about the manipulative power in the business world? Think of Korach, in the Torah, who wanted even more control than he already had as a Levite (Numbers 16:1+).
He criticized Moses for being power hungry
even though it’s clear that Korach was really interested in promoting his own ego needs.

This type of power-play in the office is all too common today. Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook and author of Lean In, cited a recent study that found that when women executives speak more than their peers,

They’re punished with 14% lower ratings,
but when male executives speak more than their peers, they’re rewarded with 10% higher ratings of competence. Sexual hypocrisy has not disappeared from our conference rooms.
(NYT “Speaking While Female”, Jan 12, 2015).

And how about domination over women in many parts of the world today?
 Should we take literally, the Torah’s teaching that when a man goes to war he can take any woman he wants by power after 30 days of bringing her into his house… or should we follow other biblical injunctions that teach that all human beings are created in the image of God? (Genesis 1 and Deut. 21:10-14)

The 14.2 million women and girls who are sold into slavery each year are told they are a man’s booty, while I assume most of us understand this as an outdated justification of holy texts to manipulate and control the vulnerable.

(UNFPA, 2012, Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage. New York: United Nations Population Fund).

Then there’s the power we humans have wielded over our environment.

Remember what the Torah teaches: after humanity was created God told us “to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and watch over it.” (Gen 1:28)
But what’s going on today?!
We’re not protecting our environment.
Instead of watching over our earth
we’re watching as we level our forests,
strip the earth of its resources
and create a global warming disaster.

Let’s not ignore our children –
how about the power-plays in our schools?
It’s no wonder many public & private schools have instituted uniforms to try to level the playing field –
and even then it becomes about what shoes you wear,
your haircut or jewelry –
anything to show your status.

Or consider how social media has become a tool to manipulate and influence one’s “friends.”
Now with a swipe of a finger 25% of teenagers report that they’ve experienced repeated bullying via their cell phone or on the internet, and of the teens who reported cyber bullying incidents, 33% of them said that their bullies issued online threats. (http://nobullying.com/cyber-bullying-statistics-2014/

Power in marriages, among friends, between family members, in the work place, between men and women, over the environment and on social media – are constant tightropes we all traverse. How much we dominate, pull, push back, speak out, submit, or resign ourselves to the allure of participating in these power dynamics- constantly changes.
At work we may be submissive, while at home very dominant – Or vice versa….

This year in America, we can’t ignore the light that’s exposed the power-plays between white and black people.
The Midrash teaches that the reason one “Adam”, one person, was created first, and not two people – not Adam and Eve – was so no person could say “My ancestors are greater than yours.”(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

In other words, no matter our color, race, culture or gender – we all come from the same place and we’re all equal.
Yet – that’s not the world we live in.
Just look at the streets of Ferguson, Mo where Michael Brown was killed, or Staten Island where Eric Garner was choked to death.

As a white women reading Ta-Nehisi Coats’ book Between The World and Me I felt embarrassed.
He shares that “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology.
The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”

His words upset me.

I wondered as a white, relatively privileged American – what I do, subconsciously, to promote and accept racism around me?

Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, taught: “racism is so universal in this country,
so widespread and deep seated, that it’s invisible because it is so normal.”

And I wonder: how have I actively or passively participated in the invisible nature of racism?
Am I engaged in my own power-plays and not even aware of them?

Talking about race in America – and how it’s connected to power is very uncomfortable.
I confess with shame that when I worked in Central Park for 3 summers during high school, I resented and felt deep dislike toward the Puerto Rican community.
You see every year, in early June, there was a Puerto Rican parade down 5th Avenue – right next to the park – and the whole surrounding area would get trashed.
After the parade, the community would go into the park and BBQ (which was illegal),
leave their garbage everywhere (also illegal)
and drink alcohol in public (illegal).
I deeply resented the Puerto Ricans.
And then…. And then a close relative, who I love dearly, married a Puerto Rican. And she’s wonderful.
And her sister and parents are good, kind, caring people.

I had to confront my racism and rework how I viewed the Puerto Rican community.
I was forced to see them as individuals, rather than as one group of people.

And of course I have to make note of some radical Jewish extremists whose warped power-play deeply embarrassed me this year.
Though as Jews we don’t promote racism as part of our ideology, as say ISIS does, I was horrified when a Jewish extremist at this summer’s LGBT parade in Jerusalem stabbed Shira Banki to death, a 16 year old girl.
And then on that same weekend in July, a group of Jewish radicals threw two firebombs into 2 Palestinian homes, in the West Bank, in the middle of the night, killing an 18-month-old boy and his parents.
That’s a sick corruption of Jewish power!

In all these examples of control, dominance and power – whether it’s in a relationship, in the office, between genders, of the environment, among races, religions and nations – what’s gained?

Why is the allure of control so seductive?
And why do we continually fall into the trap of participating in power plays?

Well, first – Clarity.
Being right is so satisfying.

But sometimes our ability to distinguish right from wrong becomes blurry:
whether it’s a spouse gone astray,
a boss who favors men,

a white cop who strangles a black guy,
an ISIS solider before he rapes his “wife”…
we believe we are right because we justify our actions with human desire, history, culture, society or religion on our side.

What else is gained? –
the self-indulgent notion that the most important person is me, my wants, my desires, my point of view.
When we put “me” at the center –
we misled ourselves into thinking that everything that goes my way, is the best way.
And when we only look at one side,
our side,
we strip away any hope for sympathy, empathy and respect – ingredients for a balanced relationship.

And with these false gains of power plays, what’s lost? So much more.

As Yehudah Amichai, Israel’s poet laureate once wrote: From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right is hard and trampled Like a yard.

God made the world with different people, holding several points of views and various dispositions to teach us that one way isn’t the only way.
And ironically – when we focus on dominating or manipulating others, our relationships feel disconnected, stuck and stagnant.

The author Shannon L. Adler describes the effects of yielding our power in relationships:

“When you think yours is the only true path you forever chain yourself to judging others and narrow the vision of God. (You see) The road to righteousness and arrogance is a parallel road…. but what makes them different is the road to righteousness is paved with the love of humanity — while the road to arrogance is paved with the love of self.”

I’d like to offer some ways we can walk the road of righteousness and escape the allure of the road of power- plays- to improve our relationships and the world we live.

First — I’ve found that the less I take the bait of a power-play, step back, take a pause, and recalibrate my goal of connecting rather than dominating, the more I deepen my relationships to those I love.

It’s really about walking the road of Teshuvah. And I don’t mean Teshuvah as a noun – it’s not “say you’re sorry.”
Instead it’s Teshuvah as a verb:
●It’s the act of taking a deep, honest, hard look at oneself.
●It’s the proactive review of one’s strengths and weaknesses. ●It’s the courageous act of sharing those insights with someone you trust or with God.

●And it’s the counter cultural choice to change what’s not working in your life, rather than blaming others.

If we really do this, it’s no longer about whose on top,
who’s right, or who’s winning the competition-
instead it’s about uniting, joining & coming together with those we love, those with whom we work, or those who have a different skin color, gender, culture or religion than we do.

It’s no wonder the NYT Modern Love column “Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” generated more than 5.2 million visits since its publication in January.
In case you missed it, Mandy Len Catron described a Cupid— like technique she developed of 36 questions,

which get increasingly intimate in nature,
that 2 people can answer while facing each other.
Apparently, if you follow her list of questions, any two people, even strangers, can fall in love! (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/modern-love- to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html)

The reason this technique is so powerful is because it’s really an act of Teshuvah. Teshuvah as an honest self-assessment
and Teshuvah as a turning toward the person you want to become – which has temporarily been covered with layers of arrogance or inflexibility…..

Take out your mirrors for a moment. (Note: mirrors with questions on the back were put on everyone’s seat)
The ones on your seats.
This is my gift to each of us: Our Teshuvah mirrors.

On it you’ll find 5 questions – like the 5 books of Moses. Each one focuses on a different aspect of our lives that may have succumbed to the allure of power.

The first is about an interpersonal relationship:

1. Think of one person you have hurt this year. How can you address this wound?

The second asks us to focus on our character:

2. What is one realistic change you can do to make yourself a better person this year?

The third challenges us to look at our professional life:

3. What can you do this year to become a better student, professional, parent or retiree?

The fourth expands our hearts to the greater world:

4. What is your prayer for the world this year?

And the last one invites us to open our souls toward a force or power beyond ourselves:

5. What is one thing you can do to strengthen your relationship with God this year?
(based on Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe by Erica Brown, page 126)

Let’s spend the next 10 days between RH & YK contemplating our answers to these questions with humility—
as we walk the road of righteousness.

Our challenge is to remember to not take the bait when it comes to power-plays, control and dominance.
It’s so alluring,
So easy to succumb to its self-satisfying pull, but it leaves us lonely, disconnected, and keeps us from looking at ourselves.

Instead, look into your Teshuvah Mirror, Carry it with you the next 10 days.

I wish each of us the strength to be honest on our journey. Shannah Tova.

A walk to remember: Parashat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)


Most mornings, I can be found walking the streets of my neighborhood, shoes laced up, with a baseball cap firmly in place. Especially in winter, I see this as one of the great gifts of living in Southern California, where weather so often permits such a routine. 

I love to witness the lengthening and shortening of days, as well as the changing of seasons, which, as every Angeleno comes to know, may be subtle, but is clearly present. Or, in these days of purple-bloomed jacaranda trees, is advertised brighter than any Sunset Boulevard billboard.

When I walk, I suddenly take in a different view of my neighborhood, from front door colors — orange seems to be (delightfully) trending in Silver Lake — to sidewalk cracks and evidence of drought. I’m quickly connected to a different view of myself, too. I get much of my best thinking done while walking. The acts of moving and mindfully stepping inspire a similar motion in my own reflections.

In this week’s double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “If you walk [telechu] in my laws and observe my mitzvot [commandments] …,” blessings and goodness will come to you (Leviticus 26:3). Leaving aside the challenging notions of reward, not to mention the fear-inspiring punishments that follow this passage if God’s commandments are not obeyed, we are left with a simple spiritual notion: Our engagement with God, mitzvot and sacred practice is meant to be active. Being an engaged Jew means, as Deuteronomy 28:9 echoes, walking in the ways of God. Jewish life is all about walking. This, of course, is the reason that we call Jewish law “halachah,” which comes from the same Hebrew root word, “to walk.”

This week, though, when considering Torah’s message, it is helpful for us to remember: There are many different walking ways and purposes. Sometimes we meander with no end in sight, and sometimes we move briskly, our destination the only point in mind. There are times for touring and exploring, as well as for exercising. Sometimes our walking is meant to be forward pushing, intentional and rhythmic. Other times it involves stumbling or dragging our feet. 

As Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, comes to a close this week, God finishes delivering the collection of laws that are spoken to Moses at Mount Sinai. Moses begins preparing to move the Israelites to their next destination. The Israelites are in a state of transition. With Sinai’s laws received, the priests ordained, the construction of the mishkan (Tabernacle) complete and the sacrificial system in operation, the Israelites are left considering what will come next for them. 

We know, as readers of Torah, that the years to follow will not be easy. As Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, will soon reveal, the Israelites slip into spaces of doubt and distrust. They will question Moses and God’s authority. They will complain, break into active revolt and invent false memories of Egypt’s bounty. Wandering, we realize, may not be the best backdrop for meaning making, even when it occurs on the heels of incredible miracles and relational moments of awe.

As we read the final words of Leviticus and we, too, prepare to step away from Mount Sinai, we are invited to reflect on the current state of our own Jewish walking. Our ancestors’ missteps provide a cautionary tale for us. The pace we take, the path we choose and our attitude toward our own stepping makes all the difference in the world. 

I am currently enrolled in a parent-and-me music class at my synagogue with my 5-month-old daughter. One song we sing, as we all beat in rhythm on a large drum, has a simple refrain, “Walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking.” I have found myself singing these words as this week goes by, raising Torah’s critical spiritual questions. I invite you to join me:

What is one spiritual practice with which you are currently struggling? Why? And how might you move the practice forward?

Where are you headed in your relationship with the Sacred in your life? Which aspects of the relationship need to be tended?

With whom are you traveling? What are some steps you might take to care for your fellow travelers?

This morning, as I stepped outside, the scent of night-blooming jasmine lingered. The boomerang effect of a series of hot days followed by cooler ones left the air feeling crisp. My mind drifted quickly toward this walking song, my feet began pumping, and my soul lifted a bit higher. Something tells me a grand adventure awaits us all as we step beyond the foot of the mountain.


Rabbi Jocee Hudson is a rabbi educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.

Father says 7 children who died in NYC fire were ‘so pure’


The father of seven Orthodox Jewish children killed in a Brooklyn house fire told hundreds of mourners at their funeral on Sunday that the only way he can survive the tragedy was “complete, utter and total surrender” to his religious beliefs.

The grieving man, Gabriel Sassoon, spoke at a packed funeral chapel where white curtains separated hundreds of men wearing black hats and yarmulkes from women in modest dress.

His eulogy for the seven children, ages 5 to 16, was broadcast to an even bigger crowd outside. Many of the mourners rocked back and forth in reverence as he spoke.

“My children, they were so pure,” said Sassoon, looking at the seven small, wooden coffins at the Shomrei Hadas Chapels. The coffins were to be loaded into seven hearses headed for John F. Kennedy International Airport, then flown to Israel for burial.

Only an eighth child, 15-year-old Siporah, and Sassoon's wife, Gayle Sassoon, 45, survived the blaze, which the Fire Department blamed on a malfunctioning hot plate that observant Jews use to heat food without violating the Sabbath rules. Both are hospitalized in critical condition.

“I don't know how I could have everything and now I have nothing,” said Sassoon, who was at a religious conference when the flames broke out at his home around 12:30 a.m. on Saturday.

“There's only one way to survive this: It's complete, utter and total surrender,” he wailed.

Around the corner from the charred home, the Fire Department handed out pamphlets titled “Fire Safety for Jewish Observances” as well as smoke alarms and batteries.

Orthodox Jews closely adhere to strict rules that define rest and work on the Sabbath, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Prohibitions include turning on and off electric appliances, said state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the heavily Jewish district.

“A lot of people use these hot plates to keep food warm for the next day,” Hikind said. “They put them on Friday and they are left on for the entire Sabbath, 25 hours.”

An online version of the Fire Department pamphlet about dangers during the Sabbath and Jewish holidays tops the list with the warning: “Stay in the kitchen – don't leave cooking food unattended.”

Hikind said he uses a water-filled urn that he heats up before the Sabbath starts.

“I called my own daughter, who has six kids, to tell her to stop using that hot plate,” he said.

It was the city's fourth deadly fire in 15 years sparked by hot plates or use of ritual candles, according to the Jewish Forward newspaper, including a 2000 fire in Williamsburg that killed the granddaugther of the Satmar Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum and her 5-month old baby.

Hikind said that scam artists immediately launched a phony fundraising scheme in the Sassoon family's name, and he warned followers on Twitter not to contribute.

“People's heart aches – Jew and non-Jew alike. They want to help. We don't want you to waste your money,” he later told Reuters.

Although smoke alarms are required on every floor of a home, according to a Fire Department spokesman, the New York Times reported the Sassoon home only had a smoke alarm in the basement.

The Fire Department did not immediately respond to questions about the home's smoke alarms or about previous deadly fires tied to religious observances

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).

Why evil committed in the name of God is worse


If I could ask one question of a religious person — of any faith — it would be, “What is the worst sin in your religion?”

The answer to this question can often tell you more than that of any other question about that person’s religion, or at least about that person’s own religious values. If someone were to respond, for example, “non-marital sex” or “atheism,” that would be, most of us would agree, unimpressive. These are sins in every monotheistic religion, but they are hardly the worst sins. Most of us would surely deem murder, or torture, or any serious act of immoral violence as a far worse sin.

The answer to this question is one of the few issues about which most religious Jews agree. When it comes to naming the worst sin in Judaism, they would respond “chillul haShem,” desecrating God’s name. This means doing evil while acting religious — or, to put it more simply, doing evil in God’s name.

From a Jewish perspective, as horrific as murder is, murder committed by an atheist individual or government is not as damaging as murder by a religious individual or government. From the victim’s perspective, of course, there is no difference. 

Why is murder committed in the name of God worse? Because it ruins God’s name. And belief in a morally demanding and morally judging God as the only means to a better world is at the heart of the Jewish message. When God is rendered the source of evil rather than the source of good, hope for a good world is shattered.

That is why the evil committed in our time by Muslims in the name of God and of religion has had a particularly negative effect on this generation’s faith in God. Never has atheism been as robust as it has been in the last few decades. 

It cannot be a coincidence that this period has also seen more evil done in God’s name than any time since the Middle Ages. And while religious spokespeople have, of course, condemned Islamic terrorism, few Jewish or Christian — not to mention Muslim — clergy have regularly spoken out against all this evil in God’s name. Instead, far more Jewish and Christian clergy have devoted considerable time to speaking out against “Islamophobia.” They have inferred from all the murder and maiming done in the name of Allah that it is not God’s name that most needs defending, but Islam’s. In so doing, these Christians and Jews have damaged religion and the essential religious message that God is good and demands good.

One might add that the Roman Catholic priests who molested young boys — and sometimes, but much more rarely, young girls — also not only horrifically harmed their victims but God’s name as well. 

Exactly 40 years ago, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and I wrote our book “The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.” One of the nine questions was, “If Judaism Is Supposed to Make People Better, How Do You Account for Unethical Religious Jews?” 

We ended our answer to that question with an appeal to observant Jews who were known to be dishonest in their business affairs: If you are known for keeping kosher and also known for shady business practices, we wrote, please stop those practices. But if you do not stop those practices, please stop keeping kosher.

If Jews and Christians better understood the commandment against “taking God’s name in vain,” perhaps the greatest sin would have been more obvious to them.

“Do not take the Lord your God’s name in vain” is how the King James Version translates what Jews call the third commandment (Jews and Christians number the Ten Commandments somewhat differently). This translation is understandable, but it is a serious mistranslation.

Literally translated, what the commandment states is: “Do not carry [or “lift”] the Lord your God’s name in vain.”

And who is it that carries God’s name in vain? The person who commits evil in God’s name. The proof that this is the correct translation is not only linguistic. The very fact that God says that this is the one commandment whose violation He will not forgive makes it clear that this is the worst sin, and that it cannot possibly mean one who says “God” in a non-religious context — such as saying, “God, that was a terrific movie.”

If religious Jews and Christians want to make a moral dent in the world, there is no greater place to start than by announcing loudly and clearly what the greatest sin is. Until then, atheism will only increase. No atheist arguments alienate people from God as much as bad religious people do. 

And when the religious world is largely silent about the religious evil that permeates our world, it reconfirms the irrelevance of God and religion to making a good world. As I said, the problem is not protecting Islam’s reputation — that is the job of Muslims — it is protecting God’s reputation.


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

Q&A with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks


Jewish Journal: What are you able to do differently now that you are no longer Chief Rabbi?

Rabbi Sacks: My first passion has always been teaching and rabbi means, “my teacher,” and although I did a fair amount of teaching as Chief Rabbi I didn’t have the chance to really focus on it. I think the first and most important thing is to be able to teach. We have not gotten there yet but I hope one day I will have a little more time for writing because I’ve written 25 books so far but the list of books I have still to write, which I’ve carried around in my head for many years is many more than 25. I haven’t even gotten halfway yet.

JJ: What do you see as your role both to the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world?

Sacks: First, as the Jewish people are concerned I repeat, I just hope to be a teacher. Anyone who has had the privilege as I had of leading a community for 22 years has to set as his or her main priority to raise up a generation of successors. So the most important thing that I’ve set myself to do is to try and inspire young Jews to become leaders. That’s what I’m doing here; it’s what I’m doing wherever I travel. I’ve said many times, for many years, that my decisive encounter was with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And I said about that encounter, “A good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.” My great ambition was simply to travel as far as I could and encourage young people to lead. I once called Judaism “God’s call to responsibility.” What I’m really saying to young Jews is, “Don’t complain about the Jewish world. Go and make the Jewish world.”

JJDo you have any thoughts on followers? Every leader needs people to follow.

Sacks: I’ve been very touched by the extent to which Jews I’ve met in America and in fact around the world have been reading [my work]…the kind of letters and emails they send, the kind of thanks that they give is just incredibly humbling. I just feel that there a lot of people out there who welcome the chance to sit and learn together about what it is to face the challenges of our time through the Torah. And I just find this big audience for that. It’s not a massive audience. But it is an audience of people who think hard.

JJ: Any thoughts on Orthodoxy’s tendency to remain insular?

Sacks: One of the many things I tried to do and, indeed, my late predecessor, Lord Jakobovits also did was to bring the Jewish voice into the public domain. And when you do that people really appreciate it. Whether they agree with you or they don’t, they like the fact that we are joining the conversation. And a lot of non-Jews say, “You know what? Judaism makes sense to me.” It doesn’t mean they are about to become Jewish but they feel reinforced by the knowledge that we are fighting for the same things as they are. And I’d love to see that happen in the States as well. One of the things we did a couple of weeks ago together with Yeshiva University was we had 500 kids who were doing what they called the Model United Nations. I was in a room with 500 kids around 18 years old…all of whom want to play a leadership role, and all of them feel very engaged with the big wider social issues of the day. So I’m getting the feeling that Orthodoxy is developing that sensitivity.

JJ: What should be the goal of Orthodox Jewry when engaging with non-Orthodox Jewry?

Sacks: I think the goal of Orthodox Jews should be to welcome every other Jew in love and respect. I think the rest either follows or it doesn’t follow as a consequence. I just think that anyone who takes a stand on being Jewish, who makes sacrifices for Judaism and the Jewish people is worthy of our respect. As for all other matters, I leave that to God. He does that so much better than we do.

JJ: It sounds like you believe that Orthodox Jews are inheriting the mantle in the U.S. of representing Judaism. If you agree with that, how can the Orthodox prepare for that role?

Sacks: You had sequences of immigration to the States. You had, essentially, the Sephardic Jews who came over, ultimately from Spain, in 1655 and thereafter. And then you had Jews, mainly from Germany, who came in the 1820’s. Little by little those communities kind of married out and assimilated. Orthodoxy found itself in the minority in the United States. There are only two places really where that was true. The United States and Israel. It’s one of the great ironies that America was predominantly non-Orthodox and Israel predominantly secular. So it took a long time for Orthodox Jews to be able to develop the techniques and the skills…to allow them to hold their own. Now, with the Pew report, it has become really clear that Orthodoxy is the only element of the Jewish people in America that’s growing. I’ve really been encouraging, as you noticed, throughout the weekend, Orthodox Jews to begin to look outward…They have been very focused inward, “How do I keep my kids frum [observant]?” And that was the challenge of the previous generation. The challenge of the next generation: “How am I going to get my kids to lead?” And that means looking a bit more broadly outward. Facing the challenges of the world.

JJ: Do you believe that religious Jews should disseminate the message of the Torah through any medium possible?

Sacks: Every new form of communication or information technology, whenever it appears, I hear kol dodi dofek [listen, my beloved knocks]. I hear God knocking at our door saying, “Use me. Use this gift that I have given you to spread my message.”…I came into the office the morning after the 27th of January 2010 when Steve Jobs launched the iPad. We all knew that the iPad wasn’t a massive technological breakthrough. It’s basically a big iPhone. But I came into the office, I said, “I have seen the face of the future.” This is the game changer. We just haven’t had enough time, to be honest with you, to develop the real resources for the Web and the iPad.

JJ: Is the Orthodox world coming around?

Sacks: I hope it is. I don’t mind whether it is or it isn’t. If we have to lead the way, we’ll lead the way. T.S Eliot wrote a poem called, “The Waste Land.”…There’s the poem, right? [Using an iPad app] You want all the commentaries to the poem, mikraos gedolot [great scriptures], right? You’ve got all the commentaries. You want to see the original manuscript with the notes of Ezra Pound. Can you see? But what is magic about this, what is absolute magic is 34 videos from the greats in the world telling you about “The Waste Land.”

[Related: 

Conference explores potential for day schools


Last weekend’s Ravsak/Pardes Jewish Day School Leadership Conference, “Moving the Needle: Galvanizing Change in Our Day Schools,” focused on ways to transform day schools at a time when external factors such as the economy and demography have negatively affected enrollment. 

Hebrew College President Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, one of three keynote speakers during the Jan. 19-21 event at the Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel, stressed that day schools are uniquely positioned in communal life to build future Jewish leaders. 

“Jewish day schools are perhaps the only Jewish institution in North America in which the value of general human knowledge and the growth and development of human beings … is so closely linked with Jewish learning and community,” said Lehmann, whose school is located in Massachusetts. 

During a two-hour discussion that kicked off a conference attended by more than 500 board members, educators, administrators, Federation professionals and others, Lehmann explored the needs of the 21st century student. He said that schools must aim to value five qualities — creativity, hybridity, particularity, spirituality and ethical audacity — but that these values must be coupled with an educator’s emphasis on Judaism’s most sacred text.

“Torah, and a community that values creativity and nurtures a strong sense of student advocacy, encouraging learners to take the risk of being creative, will appeal to our generation,” he said.

Showing an appreciation of his forbearers, Lehmann drew on words of leading Jewish thinkers, including civil rights icon Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; the late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute; and former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Heschel’s “Israel: Echo of Eternity,” which calls for the “concept of spirituality as an education focus in our schools,” helped form the basis for one of Lehmann’s suggestions: that day schools ought to have a national summit on spirituality. Spirituality is a way, he said, to engage those families surveyed in the recent Pew Research Center’s report, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” who said that it is a belief in God, not observance, that turns them on.

In other suggestions, he said schools should operate a collaborative Web site and that their Israel programs should go beyond “twinning,” which entails an American school partnering with an Israeli school for learning opportunities.

 “We have to push the envelope to develop hybrid institutions with Israeli institutions … [with] common Web sites, blogs and collaborative communities of learning that will fully integrate our students and Israeli peers,” he said. “That is going to excite our students and parents. And it’s a hybridity that we uniquely can milk.”

Ken Gross, Milken Community Schools’ board vice chair, was one of the many local attendees who filled the first and second floor of the airport-adjacent hotel. He attended a set of sessions titled “Board Leadership Institute,” and said the importance of the board to a day school’s function should not be underestimated.

“I believe we are partnering with other people and together we are, in our small way, creating a better world,” he said. “We’re creating future Jewish leaders, we’re creating knowledgeable Jews who can make the decision when they are adults on how they want to practice.”

One of the discussions he attended was led by executive business consultant Ann Cohen, who did not sugarcoat the extent to which day school board members face challenges. From boards’ relationships with day school staff members to board members’ communication among themselves, Cohen offered tips to the dozens in attendance.

The conference’s main organizer, Ravsak, represents, develops programs for and advocates for approximately 130 schools across North America. Its partner, Pardes, serves as an umbrella organization for progressive Reform day schools.

“This year, when we thought of how to better focus on the needs of our network of schools, we invited Pardes to join us, as a smaller organization, but where the student bodies often feel similar,” said Idana Goldberg, associate director of Ravsak.

Attendees represented day schools from a wide spectrum of denominations.

The event featured more than 75 sessions over three days. Discussion tracts included “Small Schools and a Sustainable Future,” “Design Thinking and Adaptive Leadership,” “Tefillah: New Paradigms,” “Effective Technology, Effective Education,” “New Paradigms for Israel Education” and “Special Needs and the Diverse Classroom.”

For Rabbi Andy Feig, school rabbi at Sinai Akiba Academy, diversity was important. He said that a session focused on LGBT inclusion in schools was one of the highlights for him. 

Other local day schoold represented included New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) and Wise School (formerly known as Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School). One of the event’s presenters, NCJHS head of school Bruce Powell, led a talk titled “Head of School Support and Evaluation: How Do Our Jewish Values Inform This Critical Board Role?” 

Sometimes, conferences like these produce inspiration in unexpected places, he told the Journal.

“I would say 50 percent of the work at a conference like this goes on in the hallways, goes on in-between the sessions,” Powell said. “It’s the bringing together of ideas.”

On Jan. 19, outside the ballroom where Cohen spoke, vendor booths lined a hallway in the hotel lobby. Offerings were aplenty, from samples of custom-made kippot imprinted with school logos on them to famous children’s books translated into Hebrew. 

“That’s Jewish ingenuity,” said Leon Janks, Milken board chairman (and also a board member for TRIBE Media Corp., parent of the Jewish Journal) while at the booth for Klipped Kippahs. 

Janks was talking about the bobby pins sewn into the kippahs’ seams, but, with attendees bustling around him, he could have easily been referring to Ravsak and Pardes’ accomplishment: bringing hundreds of educators  together under one tent.

Are Jewish neighborhoods a good thing?


I would like to offer a view on Jewish neighborhoods that is so contrary to accepted wisdom that I can only ask that people read this column with as open a mind as possible.

On balance, after a lifetime of thought, I don’t think that Jewish neighborhoods are always a good thing for Jews or, for that matter, for our fellow Americans who are not Jewish. In fact, committed Jews living among non-Jews often does more good — for Jews, for Judaism, for Kiddush HaShem and for relations with non-Jews.

Having lived much of my life in Jewish neighborhoods, I think I am well acquainted with the arguments for many Jews living in one area of a city. 

One argument is comfort: People prefer to be among “their own.” That is why there are black, Latin American, Chinese, Korean, Armenian and other ethnic neighborhoods. 

Another argument that appeals to Jews in particular is that Jewish neighborhoods help prevent Jews from assimilating.

And for Orthodox Jews, there is simply no choice. If you don’t live within walking distance of a synagogue, you simply cannot attend a synagogue on Shabbat or any of the other Torah holy days. And you will be very lonely on Shabbat, as there will be no one with whom to share Shabbat meals.

These are significant arguments. And in the case of Orthodox Jews, there is almost no alternative.

But there are also powerful arguments against Jews congregating in one area. 

One argument is that Jews (and any other ethnic group) often become better people when they live among those who are not members of their ethnic/religious group.

Most people grow — intellectually and morally — when they have to confront outsiders. There are, of course, wonderful people who never leave their communities. But they are the exception. Most people do not grow when they lead insular lives.

In my travels through the 50 states, my favorite Jews have disproportionately been those who live in small Jewish communities. 

Having grown up an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn — having only Orthodox Jewish friends, and having attended Orthodox schools and Orthodox summer camps through high school — I know what insular ethnic/religious life is like. And I didn’t find it healthy. Among many other reasons, the non-Jew (and even the non-Orthodox Jew) wasn’t real.

I first seriously encountered Jewish alternatives to my insular upbringing in my early 20s, when I drove from New York to Texas with my dear friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Thanks to the “Jewish Traveler’s Guide,” we found the name of a Jewish doctor in Alexandria, La., who listed himself as providing a place for Jewish travelers in central Louisiana to have Shabbat meals and kosher food.

This man, the late great Dr. Bernard Kaplan, awakened my eyes to the good that a Jew living among non-Jews could do. He was Alexandria’s leading surgeon, and he was loved for his goodness by just about everyone in that town. He was, therefore, a living Kiddush HaShem. (And all his children grew up to be committed Jews.)

Kiddush HaShem is probably the greatest mitzvah a Jew can perform, and it usually concerns a Jew’s behavior in the eyes of non-Jews (that is, after all, the purpose of the chosen people — to be God’s representatives to the world). In that sense, it is obviously more likely that a Jew can serve as a Kiddush HaShem in Louisiana than in Borough Park, N.Y.

I suspect that Chabad rabbis who run a Chabad House outside of Jewish communities can attest to the power of a Jew living among non-Jews to be a Kiddush HaShem.

I also believe that they and most other identifying Jews who live among non-Jews can attest to its transformative nature. It makes you a better person and a better Jew.

Yes, it is comfortable to live among one’s own. But comfort in life rarely leads to personal growth. 

Or to Jewish growth.

It can’t be a coincidence that virtually every great Jewish religious work was composed outside of Israel, when Jews lived among non-Jews. We have, for example, two versions of the Talmud — the Babylonian and the Jerusalem. And it is the former that we study. Maimonides’ works were all written outside of Israel, sometimes in Arabic.

I cannot overstate how impressed I have been when meeting Orthodox Jews who live in small Jewish communities among non-Jews. I will never forget a black-hat Orthodox rabbi I met in the Midwest who founded a Jewish day school for the relatively few Jews in his city. He told me that he allowed non-Jewish students to attend his school. When I regained my composure, I asked him one question: Do your fellow frum Jews in New York City know about this? 

“No,” he responded.

What he did would be essentially impossible in New York.

My wife and I live in a non-Jewish suburb of Los Angeles — so non-Jewish that it doesn’t even have a Chabad House. The closest Chabad House, in Glendale (not a major Jewish metropolis either), is run by the inimitable Rabbi Simcha Backman. He has “appointed” me an honorary shaliach (Chabad emissary) in La Canada.

I think I build the only sukkah there, and when we opened our home one Sukkot, I recall the wide eyes of all the children of Jewish parents who had never seen a sukkah in their lives. Introducing Jews who have had little or no contact with Jewish life to Judaism is another mitzvah that a committed Jew living outside a Jewish neighborhood can engage in. 

I live in a cul-de-sac, and my immediate neighbors are an Arab-American couple, whom my wife and I adore. The other neighbor is Korean. My cul-de-sac is what America is supposed to be about. It’s still a good idea.


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

Ruling returns kosher meals to Florida inmates


A federal judge ordered the Florida prisons service to provide kosher meals to all prisoners with a “sincere religious basis.”

Judge Patricia Seitz of the U.S. District Court in Miami in a ruling issued earlier this month required the order be implemented by July 1, the Miami Herald reported Tuesday.

The Florida Department of Corrections had promised to reinstitute its kosher meal service in all its facilities by the end of this year but had been dragging its heels.

In August 2012, the U.S. government sued the corrections department in the Miami federal court for ending the kosher service, saying the current meal policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 that allows prisoners to worship according to their religious beliefs. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 13 inmates.

Kosher meals are now offered at one state prison, according to the Herald.

The department canceled its kosher meal service six years ago, citing the expense. An average of 250 inmates used the kosher meal service, including Muslims, The Associated Press reported. The state now offers vegetarian and vegan options.

At least 35 states and the federal government provide kosher diets in prison.

Agunah crowd shouldn’t target families


The preeminent sacred cow to many Jews is compassion for agunot (“chained” women whose husbands withhold a Jewish bill of divorce, or “Get”). But enough already: the Internet crowd attacking Avrohom Meir Weiss in his divorce from Gital Dodelson is becoming as heartless and halachically problematic as Weiss himself.

Dodelson fired the first public salvo with a Nov. 4 article in The New York Post stating that Weiss has refused her a Get for more than three years. She provided unquestionably disturbing details, such as that Weiss demanded $350,000 to back down and said “I can’t give you a Get – how else would I control you?”

I sympathize with Dodelson – and here I completely accept her version of the truth. Every agunah situation is a tragedy, more so when children are involved (the couple has a son). Dodelson’s supporters have organized a Web site, setgitalfree.com, and an associated Facebook page.

But their methods reflect poorly on the entire urgent movement to help agunot. Instead of the traditional focus on the recalcitrant husband, this bandwagon mostly targets Weiss’s relatives.

First, Internet warriors boycotted Orthodox publisher ArtScroll until it fired Weiss’s father and uncle. A Facebook commenter claimed victory, saying ArtScroll “heard us loud and clear, and they did exactly what we asked.”

Next, agunah activists turned against Yeshiva of Staten Island (YSI), where Weiss learns and which is run by his grandfather, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein. They demanded that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) remove YSI’s accreditation and reject rabbis ordained by the yeshiva’s sister school. They also convinced at least one synagogue to cancel an appearance by Rabbi Feinstein.

“Set Gital Free” even bullied Weiss’s elderly grandmother by publishing her telephone number and urging people to “politely and respectfully” inundate her with calls until a Get is granted.

The pro-Dodelson site calls these family members “enablers” who “support” Weiss’s actions. But the relatives are pretty much chained themselves – caught in the no-win position of wishing to succor a humiliated loved one while wanting an ugly divorce resolved. Besides, who knows what they’ve said to Weiss privately?

Those who punish relatives of Get refusers remind me of opponents of Israel’s policies on the West Bank who randomly say “I know – let’s boycott Israeli universities and scholars!” Only this improvisation is worse.

No act, however spiteful, justifies a posse deciding to assault the livelihoods and reputations of relatives and colleagues. It doesn’t seem very Jewish to me: Did a horde attack Jacob because of Esau’s misdeeds, or Jonathan because of Saul’s?

So I contacted RCA Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch, the rabbi “Set Gital Free” recommended to explain the Torah basis for their strategy. To my surprise, he said absolutely nothing in halachic literature endorses communal pressure on family members of Get refusers, and he never prescribed that approach. Thus, the activists are disregarding the counsel of the man they claim is their rabbi. Orthodox Jews just don’t do that.

I later consulted Rabbi Jeremy Stern from the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), who also could think of no text in a Jewish source describing anything like the “Free Gital” tactics – and he would know. ORA’s extensive Web site promotes many ways to pressure husbands but none to pressure relatives.

Rabbi Stern referenced the impressive “Kol Koreh” (proclamation) signed by ten leading American rabbis, including five from the renowned Council of Torah Sages and ORA’s halachic expert, Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

The Kol Koreh imposes more than a dozen harsh penalties on Weiss, but only one regarding his family: that ArtScroll must terminate the father and uncle. That directive clearly relates to the laws of a Jewish court (beit din), not those of agunot, since any man who flouts a beit din’s rulings risks retribution. But the rabbis didn’t call for a boycott. (The Facebook site’s supposed triumph over ArtScroll is absurd – as if it had more sway than our generation’s most respected rabbis.) The proclamation also says nothing about canceled speeches, disaccreditations, rejected ordinations, or harassment of old ladies.

Rabbi Schachter and several other Kol Koreh rabbis have been “consulted” throughout the process, Rabbi Stern said. But he would not answer specific questions whether Rabbi Schachter (who declined comment) approved the extreme actions against the relatives. Surely the Gedolei Hador (today’s leading rabbis) would have demanded further steps against the family in the Kol Koreh if they felt them licit and necessary.

It’s alarming that poor Gital’s agunah case would arouse the most disproportionate response in Jewish history undoubtedly due to a 2,500-word essay in a non-Jewish newspaper. Now, before you get out the pitchforks: I don’t defend Weiss one bit. I just think we should heed the measured voice of the Kol Koreh instead of the “Set Gital Free” overreaction.


David Benkof lives in Jerusalem, where he teaches Hebrew at a yeshiva and constructs the weekly Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle. He can be reached at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Netanyahu-pope meeting at Vatican explores Middle East, papal trip to Israel


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis in their first face-to-face meeting talked about the Middle East and plans for a papal trip to Israel, among other issues.

Also at Monday’s closed-door, 25-minute audience at the Vatican, Netanyahu presented the pope with a book about the Spanish Inquisition written by his father, the late historian Benzion Netanyahu.  The dedication read, ”To the great pastor and guardian of our common heritage.”

The Vatican said in a statement that the talks focused on the “complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the reinstatement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, expressing hope that a just and lasting solution respecting the rights of both parties may be reached as soon as possible.”

During the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated the invitation to the pope to visit Israel that was extended earlier by Israeli leaders. Media have reported that the pope may make the trip in late May, but Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said no date for such a visit had been set.

Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who also attended the audience, reportedly told the pope, “We are expecting you, we can’t wait.”

The Vatican statement said that “aside from indicating the Holy Father’s plans for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” the pope and Netanyahu considered “various questions” regarding the status of Christians in Israel.

It said they also discussed lingering financial and other questions that have stalled full implementation of a formal bilateral agreement between Israel and the Holy See “in the hope that the Agreement which has been in preparation for some time may be concluded forthwith.”

Following the meeting, Netanyahu held bilateral talks with his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta.

Netanyahu on Sunday night lit Hanukkah candles at Rome’s main synagogue, where he reiterated warnings about the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu kindled the menorah with Letta.

Speaking at the ceremony, the Israeli leader repeated his warnings that the recent deal on Iran’s nuclear program was a “historic error.”

Letta said he “knew Israel’s positions, doubts and fears.” He said the current economic and social crisis fed “extremism, hate and intolerance,” and he pledged to resist the “racism, intolerance and xenophobia” that were growing in Italy “in a worrying manner.”

Blind Spot: Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)


“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the entire earth is filled with his glory” (Isaiah 6:30). 

If Isaiah is correct, with every step we take, with every breath we draw, we cannot help but encounter God’s glory. And yet who among us is constantly aware of this fact, this daily miracle? 

Lack of awareness of the divine is a unique human flaw. It is both a curse and a blessing — a curse, because we are constantly missing holiness, blind to its astounding beauty; and a blessing, because perpetual awareness would render us speechless and paralyzed.  

Parshat Vayeshev challenges us to examine our own flawed awareness of holiness through Joseph’s journey and through the words and deeds of Jacob and his sons, who find themselves at the turning point of their lives. Through them all, we find ourselves at the axis of our history as a people. 

At the very onset of Vayeshev, Joseph takes over the narrative from his father, Jacob. The second verse of the parasha states: “Eleh toldot Yaakov Yossef ben Sh’va essre Shanna” (This is the story of Jacob: Joseph was 17 years old”) (Genesis 37:2). There is no break between Jacob and Joseph, as though Jacob flows into and becomes Joseph; as though Joseph is the essence of Jacob; his raison d’etre. We are to understand that the resolution of our story depends on Joseph.

Vayeshev challenges the blindness of the unaware: the blindness of those who will not see the hope and beauty of the future shining through the mundane veil that is their present reality. The blindness of Jacob, who did not see his own father, was not blind when he stole the blessing intended for his brother, Esau; Jacob, who does not see the beauty and the depth in the soft eyes of his first wife, Leah; Jacob, who, in spite of repeated divine visions and promises, does not see that God will always protect him.

This is the parasha of the older brothers who are blind to the gift of their younger brother, choosing instead to see only the annoying, spoiled brat before them, recognizing not a hint of his future greatness.

Vayeshev stands in total opposition to its title. “Vayeshev Yaakov” (“And Jacob sat”), so begins our parasha; Jacob settled. But there is no settling, no sitting, no rest in this parasha; it is a parasha of constant movement. This is the parasha of yerida l’tzorech aliya (descending for the sake of ascending). Joseph descends three times — once, when his brothers throw him into the pit; once when the Ishmaelites take him down to Egypt; and, finally, in Egypt, when he is thrown into the jail pit through no fault of his own. Each time, however, he is raised up again a better Joseph, destined for a better life. 

Judah, Joseph’s older brother, descends three times, both spiritually and physically, when he travels to the Dead Sea, taking for himself a Canaanite wife; then, again, when he wrongs his daughter-in-law, Tamar, banishing her to her father’s house and denying her offspring because he believes her to have caused his sons’ deaths; and, finally, when he sleeps with Tamar, assuming her to be a prostitute. Judah is finally redeemed through Tamar, who reveals her true identity, awakening Judah to his own blindness.

Vayeshev is the parasha of the birth of hope amid despair: the despair of Jacob, who believes his beloved Joseph to have been devoured by a beast; and the despair of Judah, who loses two sons. 

We have all been in dark places, whether physical, financial, spiritual, mental or even existential; places in which it is exceedingly hard to be aware of anything divine, holy or beautiful. We can all relate to Jacob’s darkest moment; we can relate to Judah’s misplaced fear for his last surviving son; we can certainly relate to the jealousy and irritation the brothers feel toward Joseph. But Vayeshev offers us redemption, showing us the birth of light and hope at the very darkest hour.

Vayeshev offers us hope by correcting our vision. Vayeshev helps us to become aware of God’s glory through Joseph’s tormented journey toward greatness — Joseph, who will eventually save the children of Israel by bringing them down to the safety and bounty of Egypt. Vayeshev takes us along Jacob’s journey from depression toward elation when he will finally meet his Joseph again. Finally, Vayeshev shows us that even our lowest moment can eventually lead to redemption, for King David — our greatest king, from whose house Mashiach will come — is the offspring of that dark liaison between Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah.

Indeed, God’s glory does fill the entire earth, but sometimes we need a dreamer like Joseph to help us become aware of it.


Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.

George W. Bush and Jews for Jesus


Former President George W. Bush spoke for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI) this past week, and this has led to a good deal of writing on Jews for Jesus and the ex-president’s address.

Some observations:

• Like nearly every other Jew, I was saddened by the news. The MJBI is not some quiet Messianic congregation consisting of Christians and born-Jews who affirm Jesus as their Lord, Savior, and Messiah; its entire raison d’etre is to convert Jews to Christianity. Needless to say, in a free society, such as ours, one should be free to engage in proselytizing. And if President Bush had spoken before a Christian organization whose purpose was to spread belief in Jesus, no one would have said a thing. 

But the MJBI is different. First, it is devoted solely to bringing Jews to Christian faith. Second, it does so by telling Jews that they do not become Christian when they accept Christ; they stay Jewish. They simply become “fulfilled” Jews. So unlike every other case of religious conversion in the world, the Jew who converts to Christianity remains a member of the religious group he previously identified with.

To most Jews, that is intellectually dishonest. Such Jews should call themselves by the name of the faith whose religious doctrines they now embrace — Christian. Jews may be saddened when a Jew leaves Judaism, but they can respect the decision. After all, if Christians can become Jews, Jews can become Christians. What Jews cannot respect is when Jewish converts to Christianity deny they are Christians, call themselves Jews, and devote their lives to converting other Jews.

• Even many Evangelical Christians who are genuinely and selflessly devoted to fighting on behalf of the Jewish people and Israel find it difficult to understand why Jews react so negatively to Jews for Jesus. The best way I have found to explain this to them is by comparing the Jews’ attitude toward Jews for Jesus to Evangelicals’ attitude to Mormons. Evangelical Christians have no more problem with there being Mormons than they do with any other religious group; their problem is with Mormons calling themselves Christian — just as Jews have no problem with the existence of Christians, only with Jews who convert to Christianity who still call themselves Jews — and claim that the only authentic Jew is one who is a Christian. 

• Jews should not allow their opposition to Jews for Jesus to bleed over to opposition to Christian Zionists, as a writer on this subject recently irresponsibly did in the liberal Jewish newspaper The Forward. Christian Zionists have been the best friends Jews have had for most of the last two centuries. As Andrew Brown, the religion writer for the British newspaper The Guardian, wrote this week:

“Without the belief of Victorian upper class evangelical Englishmen — almost exactly the equivalents of George W. Bush — there never would have been a Balfour Declaration. And without that declaration, there could not have been the Jewish immigration to Palestine that laid the foundations for the state of Israel.”

Today, groups such as Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and other Evangelical pro-Israel groups are the Jews’ and Israel’s best friends in the world — and they are not working to convert us. If the Evangelicals turn against Israel the way the liberal churches have, we will be in deep trouble.

• Concerning George W. Bush, it should not be difficult for Jews to object to his address to MJBI while continuing to express gratitude for his steadfast support for Israel while president of the United States. I think it is fair to say that nearly all the Jews of Israel are far more angered by President Barack Obama’s policies toward Iran than George W. Bush’s appearance at a Jews for Jesus institution. As Yossi Klein Halevi said this week (on my radio show), “a majority of Israelis today have no faith in the Obama administration’s will to stop a nuclear Iran.” Israelis did have faith in George W. Bush’s will to stop Iran. So, let’s not lose perspective because of one address to a group of Christians few people have ever heard of.

• For 40 years I have argued that Jews for Jesus pose little or no danger to Jewish survival. We Jews should be preoccupied with all the Jews for Nothing, the Jews for anti-Zionism, the Jews for radical Leftism, the Jews in PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who developed the obscene vegetarian campaign called “Holocaust on Your Plate” that equates the barbecuing of chickens in America with the cremating of the Jews in the Holocaust.

Our sons and daughters in college are not being alienated from Judaism, the Jewish people, and, of course, from Israel by Jews for Jesus, but by the secular left-wing professors who teach contempt for God, for religion, for Zionism and for Israel.

• The claim of Jews for Jesus that they are not Christians but Jews is false advertising, but the claim that they remain Jews is not false. Take, for example, the late Roman Catholic Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. He was born a Jew, Aaron Lustiger, and converted to Catholicism. On becoming Archbishop of Paris, Lustiger said: “I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”

Yet, Jews around the world came to revere Cardinal Lustiger for his unceasing efforts to rid the Catholic Church of anti-Semitism and to help Israel in the Catholic world. This Catholic, who considered himself Jewish, was a regular speaker for the World Jewish Congress and was even invited to speak at the Modern Orthodox Jewish seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York.

Of course, Lustiger did not devote his life, as Jews for Jesus organizations do, to converting Jews. But Jewish law regarded him as a Jew, mainstream Jews honored him, and he asked that the Kaddish be recited for him upon his death.

• The only positive Jewish response to Jews for Jesus is to figure out how to keep Jews Jewish so that they will not leave us for other secular or religious faiths. And the way to achieve that is to instill in young Jews faith in the Jewish trinity: God, Torah and Israel. Then they won’t seek any other trinity.


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

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


Naftali Bennett doesn’t like to waste time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish learning goes global


A global conference of Jewish learning, including music and art performances, will take place online over a 24-hour period on Nov. 17. The Global Day of Jewish Learning will broadcast “24×24” — 24 classes from 24 speakers around the globe — free of charge and live using Google Hangouts On Air and YouTube. Scholar Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz will speak at 10 a.m.  

The Global Day will unite 400 communities in 40 countries through the study of Jewish texts. Sponsored by the Aleph Society, the Global Day will be supervised by Rabbi Steinsaltz, who recently completed a 45-volume Hebrew translation and elucidation of the Talmud, the first such commentary since the 11th century. He is also the author of 60 books on philosophy, language, mysticism and history.

Rabbis, scholars, artists and professors will engage with this year’s Global Day theme, “Creating Together: Jewish Approaches to Creativity and Collaboration.”

Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe will teach “How Moses Learned to Speak,” and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar in New York, will challenge viewers with his talk, “How Can I Pray What I Don’t Believe? Creativity and Prayer Interpretation.” The band Stereo Sinai will perform songs and discuss their Jewish-text-based lyrics in their session “We Steal Lyrics From God.” Multimedia artist Hanan Harchol of Jewish Food for Thought, in his hour on “Making Jewish Wisdom Accessible Through Art,” will screen two episodes from his animated series and give a tour of his current exhibition. Novelist Dara Horn will describe the “The Theological Art of Storytelling.” 

Viewers around the world will be able to sit in on classes broadcast from in-person community events worldwide. Virtual communities and individuals at home will be able to ask questions live on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. These videos will also be available on YouTube.

Karen Sponder, Project Director, explained that “our use of Google Hangouts On Air marks the first time this platform will be used for Jewish learning on a global scale.  We hope that ‘24×24’ will inspire others to use the Internet to unite the worldwide Jewish community and make it easier to access Jewish learning.” 

I will be participating from Gettysburg, Penn., where I will be attending the festivities connected to the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”


Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His newest film, “Saving Lincoln,” explores Abraham Lincoln’s fiery trial as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his closest friend, Ward Hill Lamon. Continue the conversation at

Why Bush shouldn’t talk to the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute


A media firestorm kicked up last week after Mother Jones broke the story that President George W. Bush was to be the keynote speaker at the annual fundraiser of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute on Nov. 14. 

I blogged about the news as soon as I heard about it, and I’ve now had a chance to review what others have written, as well as the online comments. 

Keep in mind, judging the state of the American mind by reading Internet comment sections is like tasting a four-star meal by scooping it out of the garbage disposal. It’s weird and messy and slightly scary. But in Bush v. Jews, one constant refrain emerges: Why are Jews so upset? Religion is a private matter, the majority of commenters say. The people who invited Bush happen to believe Jews need to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The former president wants to speak to them. So what?

So let me explain. There is nothing private about the Irving, Texas-based Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. Its sole purpose is very public — to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. When Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah, these people believe, Jesus will return to earth and the End Times and Rapture will follow.

That may or may not happen — my guess is we’ll never know. But one thing for certain does occur when Jews believe Jesus is divine: They stop being Jews. This is something all Jews agree on. Think about that for a second: This may be the only thing about which all Jews agree. It’s what makes Jews Jews. 

“‘Jews for Jesus,’” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote on beliefnet.org some years ago, “makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Muhammad.’”  

Bush, therefore, is helping to raise money for a group whose reason for being is to stop there being Jews.

It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Bush supports would mean no more Jews. 

Of course, that’s not how the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute frames it. It tells those it proselytizes to that they can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. The thing is, the proselytizers know that not a single Jewish scholar, or text, or tradition, or belief, supports that claim. So, in order to do away with Judaism, they have to lie and engage in subterfuge and double-speak. Bush, a straight shooter, agreed to speak to some of the greatest snake oil salesmen in the great state of Texas.

Keep in mind: Jews have no problem with Christians believing in Jesus. Some of our best friends are Christians. Many Jews, like me, even like and admire Jesus, that fiery Nazarene, for his radicalism, his truth telling, kindness and courage. Don’t forget, as Reza Aslan, author of the Jesus biography “Zealot,” told the Journal, “Jesus was a Jew first and foremost, and everything he said and did has to be understood solely within a Jewish context, that his teachings were simply a form of Judaism that then became what we now call Christianity. He was a fervent, zealous, law-abiding Jew.”

But where we part ways with Christians, where we remain Jews, is that we don’t believe the man was God. 

For the wannabe Bill Mahers out there, this may seem just a foolish fight between two sets of what Louis C.K. calls, “believies.”

But for Jews, the distinction defines us. There are many theological reasons why Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah, but I believe the real reason goes deeper than theology, deeper than text.

For Jews, there is no Father and Son; there is no Trinity: there is only Unity. One. That is a mindset with vast implications for how Jews see the world and behave in it. God is ineffable, certainly not a man, and God’s power lies precisely in that mystery. We accept that the biggest piece of the puzzle is left unsolved — that missing piece is the engine of our spiritual journey. It makes us, as individuals and as a People, inquisitive, skeptical of authority, relatively tolerant, empathetic — for if God is One, we’re all in this together — and eternally dissatisfied. 

That’s why when we start believing in Jesus as God, we stop being Jewish — not just in name, but deep down, in our souls. 

According to its 2011 IRS filing, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, the group President Bush is supporting, spent $1.2 million attempting to convince Jews around the world not to be Jews. Read through the filing and you’ll see how the group goes about doing this. It spent $69,000 in Ukraine, $79,000 in Russia and a whopping $203,000 in Ethiopia (note to IRS — that seems like an awful lot of money in an inexpensive place where there aren’t many Jews left, anyway). The group spent only $20,000 in Israel, and no expenditures are listed for the United States or Western Europe. 

The Jews of the former Soviet Union, cut off from practicing their religion first by the Holocaust, then by the communists, are among the world’s least educated about Jewish belief and practice. The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute is piggybacking on a century of persecution to reach the low-hanging fruit of Jewish identity.

And now, they have a former American president to give them a boost.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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