The Hollywood treatment

“Fundamentally, your job is not that different from my job,” screenwriter Alex Litvak told a room full of rabbis assembled at American Jewish University for the annual High Holy Days conference sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

While most of the 165 attendees were off attending sermon workshops on topics ranging from social media to Mussar, about 20 opted to touch-up their Torah with insights from film and TV. Rabbi Jon Hanish from Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills began the session by asking a panel of eight Hollywood writers what was on their minds this year.

“Why am I here?” one said. “Materialism,” another said. “Political and social divisiveness,” a third added. 

It was a fun but unorthodox match, bringing Hollywood currency to holy categories. 

“I’d want to know what King David’s approval rating would be in the digital age,” said Seth Kurland, a sitcom writer and producer best known for his work on “Friends.” “You think of him probably as courageous and compassionate, but he kills Bathsheba’s husband! Even he must have had a Yom Kippur day; he must have asked, ‘Do I want to define my life by moments of weakness or moments of strength?’ ”

This second annual Professional Writers Workshop, which paired some of Hollywood’s finest with the rabbinate’s most fastidious, looked like an episode of “In Treatment,” offering the best sermon therapy money can buy (and for the bargain conference price of $150). In cross-denominational groups of three, the questions ranged from the practical (“Should I start with a question, crack a joke or tell a story?”) to the philosophical (“What would you say you’re trying to say in this sermon?”) to the political (“This is the time to go for it — make the big point!”). It was classic Freudian role-reversal, with the rabbis in the hot seat and the writers going righteous.

“I don’t know if by the end [of this session] we’re gonna pitch you sermons or you’re gonna pitch us TV shows,” said David Kendall, creator of ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey” who also worked on older hits like “Growing Pains” and “Boy Meets World.” 

In one group, Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Orange County puzzled over how to make a trite topic like tzedakah sexy. He worried about sounding “canned” and “predictable,” but even more so, Spitz said, “There is discomfort in asking for money on High Holy Days, when people want to be spiritual.” To which Kendall offered straightforward advice on the merits of truth: “Say, ‘It feels horrible to talk about this,’ ” Kendall said. “In writer’s terms we’d say, ‘Let’s hang a lantern on it,’ which means you’re going to do something obvious. If something is unavoidable in the plot or exposition, you ‘hang a lantern on it.’ ”

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller suggested that Spitz tell a story about an event that changed his relationship to money. “That takes people to very personal places,” she said.

But just how deep can you go, she wondered. “How personal can you get?” she asked Kendall. “My sermon is about growing older; about how we devote so much energy and resources to youth. Well, what about me? I’m not dead yet. How vulnerable do I get in speaking about my own fears about aging; how my mother’s getting older? How much do congregants really want their rabbi to reveal?”

Get intimate, he said. A message becomes more memorable if tied to a resonant or relatable story.

Things were less fraught for Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who will serve this year as interim rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley after the retirement of 36-year-veteran Rabbi Stephen Einstein. 

“Which gives me the luxury of reusing sermons,” Kaiserman joked to his Hollywood helper, Sam Baum, creator of Fox’s “Lie to Me.”  

“And,” Baum added guilefully, “you can swing for the fences.” 

Rabbi Daniel Feder was more interested in milking Baum for entertainment tips. “I always try to have one or two chuckle moments,” Feder said. “Maybe you could suggest, ‘Put Humor Here.’ ” 

Baum rejoined his request with plot-development 101: “I try to force myself to write a single sentence that gets at the core of the story,” he began. “The first couple of minutes are crucial to creating the feeling that there is a hand quietly guiding you.” And, as Hollywood proverbs go, action must follow inspiration. “It is crucial that in the last two minutes there is something actionable — you have to give the character something to do, not just something to think about.”

It is telling that the people who usually do the teaching were so willing to be taught. And perhaps a little bit ironic that those who often self-protect from congregants felt safe among storytellers with the world’s largest soapbox.

But as writer and producer David Sacks, known for shows “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Malcolm in the Middle” encouraged, be fearless! Don’t be cowed into feel-good Torah. Although this hardly compelled Rabbi Miriam Hamrell of Ahavat Torah in Brentwood: “Last year I gave a sermon on Israel, and people had a hard time with it,” Hamrell said. “People said, ‘We’re not here to hear politics. We’re coming here to heal, to listen, to open our hearts.” In the wake of that, she said, she had to lead a decompressing discussion circle.

Monica Henderson Beletsky, a Harvard graduate who writes for NBC’s “Parenthood” got a kick out of the strange and wonderful convergence of Hollywood and holy themes. 

“It’s so funny,” she said, “one rabbi wrote about being in a personal prison and another wrote about happiness, and they both came to the same conclusion. And, you know, we’re working with a similar theme on our show, but I can’t tell you about it.”

Hanish, an organizer of the event, said the confluence of high-minded rabbis with highly accomplished writers is a good fit.

“Rabbis know a thing or two about writing, but rabbinic school is about academic writing, and we end up writing things that are too intellectual and not connecting on a human level. Film writers understand how to write to the general populace and get deep messages across.”

And, of course, Hollywood is always seeking good material, a plentiful resource in the life of a rabbi.

“The writers get just as much out of it as the rabbis,” Hanish said. “They come for fun, but they get rejuvenated. Afterward, they’ll say, ‘I was on the fringe of my Judaism, but these rabbis understand today’s world’ —and some consider returning to Judaism.”

For Dahvi Waller, who won an Emmy for her work on “Mad Men,” things got a little too close for comfort. Last year, after a Jewish Journal article covered her session at the workshop, she was bombarded by requests for help from rabbis all over the country. “I can’t say ‘no’!” she gushed, explaining why she didn’t want her session to be written up this year. “They wanted way more than an hour of my time.”

Resilience: We can learn from our trials

How life teaches us! We read the wisdom of books and study the lectures of professors and we think we are ready for what life brings us. Armed with our learning, we venture into the world and discover that the formulas of the brain don’t help bind the wounds of the heart.

I remember the first time I went into a hospital room to counsel someone who was dying of a terminal illness. I was accompanied by a wise chaplain with many years of experience. We stood by the patient’s bedside and I expected that we would commiserate with his plight. We would explain that this illness wasn’t a punishment from God, but that these tragedies are random. With the inexperience of youth, I believed that nothing good can ever come from pain, that suffering is but an enemy to be vanquished, never a teacher to be heeded.

Imagine my horror, then, when the chaplain turned to the patient and asked, “What has your cancer taught you?” And imagine my surprise when the patient responded by offering many valuable lessons that he derived from his illness: renewed love of life, better priorities, deeper love for his family. This man knew exactly what the chaplain was addressing, and he was able to share the precious insights  that he had gained at a very high price.

Another memory: When I was 14 I was diagnosed as having a terminal, inoperable cancer. Having endured two years of terrible pain, a pain so embarrassing that I hid it from my family throughout that period, I finally couldn’t take it anymore. After I revealed my suffering to my parents, they rushed me to a doctor, who promptly hospitalized me. There I was poked and prodded by countless experts, each trying to get a fix on my malady and to decide on a productive response. Thank God, one clever dermatologist noticed some bumps on my arm and connected that to my internal affliction. Within two weeks I was undergoing rounds of chemo and radiation therapy that lasted for several months. 

I’m pleased to tell you that the assessment that my cancer was terminal and inoperable turned out to be an exaggeration. But the pain and fear I felt were not. I would gladly never have confronted that trial, never have suffered that anguish. But I also know that I could not be the rabbi, counselor, husband, father or friend I am today were it not for the lessons I learned from my own brush with death and pain.

The truth is that we all suffer at different points in our lives. Each of us faces challenges and endures pain — both our own and that of our loved ones. As creatures who are finite, mortal and flawed, it is not ours to choose whether we suffer. But we do have the power to choose how to respond. We may not be the masters of our fate, but we are the captains of our souls.

It is now in this light that I would like us to think about the binding of Isaac. 

Whenever we encounter this story, it makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Part of our struggle, no doubt, is that we object to a God who demands the sacrifice of what we love most. We hate that Abraham is called to demonstrate faithfulness by offering up his beloved son. We resent the imposition of suffering in a world that is too filled with pain and sorrow. Abraham, as our tradition recognizes, is a stand-in for each one of us. As the Talmud notes, “Sound a ram’s horn before Me so that I remember in your behalf the binding of Isaac and count it to you as though you had bound yourselves before Me” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). The trial of Abraham tries us all. We can all perceive our pain in his silent anguish.

Just like Abraham, we, too, must concede that life puts us on trial. Much as we might wish to determine our destiny, such control is not in our hands. We cannot choose whether we will suffer or not, but we can decide what to do with our suffering.

Abraham, our father, also faced such a choice. The Bible records, “God put Abraham to the test” (Genesis 22:1). Abraham has no exemption from suffering; indeed, his righteousness makes him even more aware of his own pain. As the midrash notes, “God tests the faith of the righteous in that God reveals to them only at a later time the ultimate meaning of the trials to which the are subjected” (Bereshit Rabbah 55:7). Like the rest of us, all Abraham feels is anguish and sorrow. In the midst of his suffering, he cannot discern purpose or pattern. Only pain.

In his experience of pain, he is no different than any other human being. Indeed, the Zohar recognizes that to live is to lose, that to be is to suffer and to grieve: “Rabbi Shimon said: we have learned that the expression ‘And it came to pass in the days of’ denotes sorrow, while the expression ‘And it came to pass’ even without ‘in the days of’ is still tinged with sorrow” (Zohar I:119b).

“Tinged with sorrow.” I can’t think of a better description of what it feels like to be alive. We know that the dominant flavor of life is bittersweet — even in our moments of greatest joy, we recall our losses. Even in our greatest grief, we draw consolation from our love and our hope.

Yet this test need not shatter us; being tried doesn’t have to destroy us. Interestingly, the biblical word for test, nisayon, develops into a word which in modern Hebrew can mean “experience” or “experiment.” We alone can transform our test into an experience — something that provides an opportunity for new understandings and deeper connections. With the right attitude, our trials can transform us. The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Our father Abraham learned a similar lesson. I think he would have said, “What doesn’t kill me can make me wiser and more compassionate.”

Why is Abraham’s resilience tested? We are never told. One possibility, however, is that suffering was a necessary — if regrettable — spur to depth, caring and meaning. Throughout his life, Abraham had known only success: a beautiful and devoted wife, great wealth, prominence and intimacy with the Creator of the universe. With all that bounty, how could he learn to empathize with others? How could he not feel smug and superior to other people with their failures and their sorrows? How could he not blame them for their sorrow? Suffering taught Abraham what success could not. The Zohar notes this salutary function when it asks, “Why is it written that God tested Abraham and not Isaac? It had to be Abraham! He had to be crowned with rigor. … Abraham was not complete until now” (Zohar 119b).

Perhaps the worth of Abraham’s trial lay in adding a layer of depth to his faith. How easy it is — when all goes well — to put God in our pocket, to think of God as a big buddy, a Santa in the sky. How tempting it is to think of God as merely there to indulge our obsession with ourselves! Suffering makes such a narcissistic and arrogant faith impossible. By undergoing the ordeal of his trial, Abraham could transcend the bartering faith of his youth for the more nuanced trustfulness of mature faith. As the psalmist sings: “You Who have made me undergo many troubles and misfortunes will revive me again. … You will turn and comfort me” (Psalms 71:20-21). While faith doesn’t exempt us from tragedy, it does provide comfort even amid the pain. Abraham learns that faithfulness between God and humanity is not wish fulfillment. It is commitment, relationship and steadfastness.

The Bible records no reason for Abraham’s trial. And few of us ever know why we must endure suffering and sorrow. But we do know that how we respond to our suffering has the power to transform us, for good or for ill. As 20th century spiritual leader Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan notes, “According to Jewish traditional teaching, a person is not trapped but tested. Our vicissitudes should serve as a challenge to our faith. … To deny the worth of life and to fall into despair because the promise is slow of fulfillment is to fail the test (“Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion,” p. 68). How we cope with the trials of life spells the difference between renewal and resignation, between spiritual growth and spiritual stagnation.

Abraham’s greatness lies precisely in his determination to respond to his trial with resilience and resolve. God calls out the test, and Abraham does not evade the challenge. His immediate answer is Hineni, here I am. Abraham’s willingness to set out on this gruesome path is rooted in faithfulness — to Isaac, to himself and to his God. In the words of 20th century Bible scholar Rabbi Julian Morgenstern, “This is the true faith, which enables us to endure all trials and stand all tests, and prove ourselves fit and ready for the great work for which, sooner or later, God calls every one of us.”

Abraham passes the test because he faces the challenge that is posed to him. Rather than fleeing what lies ahead, rather than cowering and allowing its struggle to cripple him, Abraham moves forward to do whatever needs to be done, to go wherever it is that his path in life will lead.

Abraham learns that suffering — as painful as it is — can be a source of insight. It is in this spirit that the 13th century medieval Jewish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nahman asserts, “All trials in the Torah are for the good of the one who is being tried.” Not that pain is good — true faith doesn’t celebrate misery. We don’t seek out suffering, and we certainly don’t enjoy it. But neither do we refuse to learn from life’s challenges. In the words of the Jerusalem Talmud, “Why do you scorn suffering?”(Peah 8:9) The great men and women of the Torah were able use their trials to derive great lessons about life. They wrestled with their pain and emerged wiser and better because of how they responded to it. In that sense — and in that sense alone — their trials were for their benefit. They used those trials as occasions for deeper understanding and connection.

Abraham learned from his trial, and it became a source of personal growth and spiritual depth. The Zohar recognizes a hint of that growth from the way the angel calls out his name as Abraham is about to slaughter his son. At the moment when Isaac is bound to the altar, as Abraham raises the knife high in the air, “An angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’” 

Why does the angel say Abraham’s name twice? “Rebbe Hiyya said that the angel repeated Abraham’s name in order to animate him with a new spirit and to spur him to new activity with a new heart” (Zohar 119b). Having faced his suffering directly, having been willing to learn from his terrible trial, Abraham emerges with a new spirit and a new heart. Indeed, the Zohar claims that the angels shouted “Abraham! Abraham!” to show that “the latter Abraham was not like the former Abraham; the latter was the perfected Abraham while the former was still incomplete.” Out of the horror of his suffering, Abraham changed. Abraham grew.

“God tries everyone in some way. … The real test is the way we offer our sacrifice, the willingness with which we give up what is dear, the perfect faith in God which we still preserve, and which keeps from doubting God’s wisdom and goodness (‘The Book of Genesis,’ p. 148).” These words of Rabbi Morgenstern, written almost a century ago, translate the great lesson of the test of Abraham: We do not seek to suffer. We do not deify pain. But we know that suffering and pain are part of the journey we call life, and we know that we can learn, and grow, even from an encounter with tragedy, especially from the trials life brings.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. This is an excerpt from “Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on the Trial of Abraham, the Binding of Isaac” (Jewish Lights).

5 theories you meet in heaven

What is the singular essence of Rosh Hashanah?

The core meaning of Rosh Hashanah is the sovereignty of the divine. By sovereignty of the divine, I don’t mean any particular level of Jewish practice. Jewish pietistic literature is well aware that anyone can go through the motions of outward observance. By sovereignty of the divine, I mean finding a way to find a standard for the duties and habits of the inner life.

Our inner thoughts, feelings, emotions, imagination, drives, impulses, sensations, perceptions, judgments and intuitions can all be askew and can push us in various ways in life, often contradictory ways. We need some standard, some criterion by which to assess ourselves.
Saying that “God is sovereign” is just not enough. If the divine will in its moral concern is expressed through the conscience, and if the concerns of the conscience can be expressed in language, then we should be able to come up with the values that ought to guide our lives — for example, love, justice, truth and beauty.

Words such as “love, justice, truth and beauty” remain only lofty concepts until we allow them to actually shape the inner life. When I think of words that name ultimate values shaping our lives, I keep in mind the Hebrew phrase “ohl malkhut shamayim,” the “yoke of the sovereignty of the divine.” The word “yoke,” which comes from the same Sanskrit root as “yoga,” has the sense of joining together, harnessing or directing, whether it is breathing, posture or consciousness. It seems a stretch, but actually it is not much of a stretch to think of Rosh Hashanah in particular, and the Days of Awe in general, as focusing on the yoga of divine consciousness.

How does one, then, take these divine values (I call them the Garments of the Mind of God) and have them, in a practical way, shape the inner life? My most recent articulation of a response to this question has to do with my adaption of the thought of a very fine book by Thomas Sowell, “Knowledge and Decisions.” Sowell demonstrates that one can assess the world of ideas through their relationship to the process of authentication. A vision, for example, cannot be authenticated. A vision for oneself, for society, can be inspiring or foolish (or both), but cannot be rationally assessed, because visions are not arrived at through any systematic process. A vision can be assessed only when it reaches the realm of “theory,” which means at some level it can and must be authenticated by reason.

When people ask me what I mean by the “yoga of divine consciousness,” from a practical perspective,  I respond:  “Do you have theories about what will shape you into the person you want to be, for the way you want your life to be?” Here is what I have discovered. Most people do, indeed, have lofty values, usually having to do with some facet of love, justice, truth and beauty. They might even have a practical theory or two. These values and theories, however, often are pushed aside in moments of moral stress.

For example, when I ask a person what their vision is for their family, they may say “love, safety, respect, nurturing” and so forth. Their values are good. When there is conflict or stress, however, the behaviors don’t seem to coincide with the vision. In the language of Jewish spiritual psychology, we say that the “yetzer harah” (a shaping toward destructiveness) has taken over, and provided the inner life with bad theories.

Here is a tool:  Whenever you are contemplating or assessing some mode of thought, feeling, speech or behavior, ask yourself: “What’s the theory?” and “How does this relate to the values that I hold?” Rationally speaking, does the real theory guiding my behavior line up with my values?

The problem we find is that many of the theories that rule our lives hide in the shadow of the self. Sometimes when I counsel a person, and ask them to give me a theory that accounts for their behavior, they are blank. They can’t come up with the theory. We dig deeper. Theories that often pop out of the shadows are, “If I yell at my kid/spouse enough, they will change,” “If I avoid confrontation, I will get my way,” and “If I had been more loving, it would have worked out.” And so forth.  The theories don’t stand up to rational inquiry, meaning that they don’t match the facts or lead to the realization of the values we hold.

If one starts with a reasonable set of values or axioms, as they apply to given situations, and is willing to work things through rationally, we can begin to distinguish between theories that lead to misfortune and those that lead to blessing.

In years of my work and counseling others, I think that there are several theories that nearly always guide us toward restraining destructive behavior, ridding us of bad theories and helping live lives aligned with our highest values. I’ve tried to boil them down to a few essential guides, metaphorically, “The Five Theories You Meet in Heaven.” Here is one version:

Obligations have to be subjected to rational inquiry. Some people exhaust themselves serving others. Not only clergy, therapists and physicians burn out; in nearly every family there is someone fatigued by meeting the needs of others. A demanding aged parent. A struggling child. An unhappy spouse. When I counsel a person run ragged by the demands of other people, I have them assess those demands by a simple rational calculus. What exactly is the obligation? How did that precise obligation come upon you in particular? Can it actually be done (this is especially important regarding the person who says, “You must make me happy.”)? Are you the only one who can do it? Might it get done in some other way? What is the cost to you, compared to the benefit to the other? Will the other person really be better off if you do this, and for how long?  What I find is that needy people often have a peculiar talent for working guilt-prone people. A good theory can help.

Love is a discipline, not an emotion. I often hear in counseling, “If he/she loved me, I would feel better.” I just turn the tables. “And how is your love for him/ her making them feel?” For some people, when they fall in love with someone, their theory is, usually unconsciously, that love will heal their deepest wounds, make them feel safe and treasured and will be a guarantor for happiness, and if this does not happen, then the other person is doing something wrong.
I offer a different theory, paraphrasing Charles Bukowski: “Love unleashes the dogs of hell.” Love fills us with often wild and unspoken needs and demands. How do we restrain the dogs from hell? See love as discipline of service, whatever the emotions may be. If I love someone, my love should bless them. My love should make their life better.

If you are hurt, this does not mean you have been wronged. It is entirely natural to experience hurt as being wronged. Any hurt or great disappointment looks for a cause, usually outside the self. If we see that another person is the proximate cause of the hurt, we blame them for having wronged us.

Not so fast. To know if we have been wronged, first we have to detail, as dispassionately as possible, what actually happened and it what order. People who like to stay hurt and believe they have been wronged typically never want to examine what actually happened. Their feelings are primary.

Those who want to live within the “yoke of divine consciousness” care about the truth; at a simple level, as much as possible, determine what transpired. I call this in counseling “the police report” — “just the facts, ma’am.”

After one has adequately determined what happened (which often means reconstructing the record with the person who you think wronged you), ask: What moral rule was broken here? For example, if I am not invited to a gathering where I thought I would have been a guest, I may feel very hurt, but I have not been wronged, unless a clear moral rule was broken. When our needs, expectations, entitlements and demands are not met, we feel hurt. It is a great leap from there to say we have been wronged. “Being wronged” has to be demonstrated, not assumed.

If I want to be a just person, I will care primarily about the truth and moral code, not about my bruised feelings.

It is very tough to get to the truth and work out the moral issues, which is why some people prefer just to stay angry. Anger fills you with arrogance. Truth and justice can humble you.

There are better and worse states of the inner life. We are obligated to create inner lives of beauty. I often hear from the angry, the resentful, from those who hate, that they are entitled to their feelings and emotions. “It’s a free country,” I am informed.

The Jewish tradition holds, however, that we should not “hate our kinsman in our hearts” and that we should not “bear a grudge.” The tradition of Jewish moral psychology (Mussar) has long lists of inner states against which the tradition warns us.  Unruly feelings are inevitable; cultivating them and expressing them is quite another thing. Anger and hatred especially make us feel self-righteous, closed off to hearing the truth, from acting justly and lovingly, and from creating harmony and goodness in our lives. Feelings of fear, guilt, shame and resentment, for example, also cloud our vision and impede our well-being. Living in a free country and having inner freedom are two entirely different things. The yoga of divine consciousness requires that, in general, we cultivate inner lives free of toxicity (including whatever those demonic Democrats or reprobate Republicans say next).

Good moral judgment is not judgmentalism. I regret having to subject the English language to enhanced coercion and use the neologism “judgmentalism,” but I have to find a way to distinguish between “using good moral judgment” from “excessive condemnation.” Oftentimes in conducting rational-spiritual counseling, using, for example, the theories listed above, I will hear that I am being “judgmental.” How can one say what love is? What inner feelings are better than others? That what I am doing is wrong? “Isn’t it all subjective?”

All morality, ethics, social justice, etc., requires a judgment: some things are right and some things are wrong, or put more softly, some things are morally better than others. Often times I see in a person’s desire to be tolerant and understanding (of others or of themselves), an unwillingness to assess morally a behavior or an inner state. All concepts, such as love, justice, truth and beauty, can be rationally discussed and applied if we believe that they name real metaphysical phenomena, not just inner states.

This list of five theories is not exhaustive, but rather indicates a way of thinking toward higher consciousness. Within the admittedly wide bounds of human nature, there really are better ways to think and feel, standards of truth that can be discovered, though often with difficulty. There are better and worse ways to love. And we really can create lives of inner beauty, as beautiful as anything you have ever seen or heard.

I hope you find your way to the Jewish “yoga studio” that serves your soul the best, and that you use these Holy Days upon us to shape your inner lives toward your furthest spiritual reach.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr Ha Torah in Mar Vista and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Confessing our sins

Few prayers are as well known to Jews as Ashamnu (“We have sinned …”) and Al Chet (“For the sin …”), the twin confessions of Yom Kippur. Belief in human sinfulness is more central to Judaism than we think. Sin may not be “original,” as it is in Christianity — inherited from Adam, that is, as a sort of genetic endowment ever after. But it is at least primal: It is there, patent, indelible and unavoidable. We may not be utterly depraved — the teaching with which American Protestantism grew up — but we are indeed sinners.

Talmudic practice, therefore, was to say a confession every single day, a precedent that continued into the Middle Ages and still survives in Sephardi synagogues. Ashkenazi Jews also announce that sinfulness daily in a part of the service called Tachanun (“supplications”), which includes a line from Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King, be gracious and answer us, for we have no deeds.” 

That translation misses the theological point, however. Classical Christianity believed that we are too sinful to be of any merit on our own. We depend, therefore, on God’s “grace,” the love God gives even though we do not deserve it. Jews, by contrast, preach the value of good deeds, the mitzvot. But Avinu Malkeinu hedges that bet. At least in Tachanun, and certainly from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we proclaim “we have no deeds” and rely on God’s “gracious” love instead.

Our two Yom Kippur confessions appeared in “Seder Rav Amram,” the first comprehensive Jewish prayer book (circa 860), and became standard thereafter.

But do Jews really believe we are as sinful as the confessions imply? Nineteenth century Jews, recently emancipated from medieval ghettos, doubted it. For well more than a century, philosophers had preached the primacy of reason as the cognitive capacity that makes all human beings equal. These two influences, political equality and the fresh air of reason, paved the way for a century when all things seemed possible. And indeed, scientific advances and the industrial revolution did seem to promise an end to human suffering just around the corner.

It wasn’t just Jews who felt that way. For Europeans in general, the notion of human sin, whether original (for Christians) or primal (for Jews), lost plausibility. Far from bemoaning human depravity, it seemed, religion should celebrate human nobility. Enlightenment rabbis began paring away Yom Kippur’s heavy accent on sin.

From then until now, new liturgies (usually Reform and Reconstructionist) have shortened the confessions, translated them to lessen their overall impact and created new ones that addressed more obvious shortcomings of human society. But traditionalist liturgies also tried to underscore human promise and explain away the aspects of the confessions that no one believed anymore. Al Chet “is an enumeration of all the sins and errors known to mankind,” said Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. It is not as if we, personally, have done them, but some Jew somewhere has, and as the Talmud says, “All Israelites are responsible for one another.”

Some would say today that as much as the 19th century revealed the human capacity for progress, the 20th and 21st centuries have demonstrated the very opposite. Perhaps we really are as sinful as the traditional liturgy says. Religious “progressives” respond by saying that we suffer only from a failure of nerve and that more than ever, Yom Kippur should reaffirm the liberal faith in human dignity, nobility and virtue. At stake on Yom Kippur this year is not just one confession rather than another, but our faith in humankind and the kind of world we think we are still capable of building.

I am not yet ready to throw in the Enlightenment towel. Back in 1824, Rabbi Gotthold Salomon of Hamburg gave a sermon in which he said, “All of us feel, to one extent or other, that, in spirit and soul, we belong to a higher order than the ephemeral. We feel that we are human in the most noble sense of the word, that we are closely connected to the Father of all existence, and that we could have no higher purpose than to show ourselves worthy of this relationship.”

Those words ring true for us today. We have something to gain from the Enlightenment’s belief that acting for human betterment is the noble thing to do, and that acting nobly is still possible.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is the author most recently of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism — Ashamnu and Al Chet” (Jewish Lights).

Camp Ramah marks 50 years

As Camp Ramah celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the list of camper and counselor alumni who once passed through its Ojai grounds grows ever more lengthy and impressive, becoming virtually a who’s who of Los Angeles machers.

Among the alumni: Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, Temple Beth Am’s Rabbi Perry Netter, Valley Beth Shalom’s (VBS) Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Temple Aliyah’s Rabbi Stewart Vogel, composer and Sinai Temple Friday Night Live impressario Craig Taubman and Bureau of Jewish Education Executive Director Gil Graff, just to name a few.

Having reached all of these future leaders in their formative years, Ramah can take some credit for the face of today’s L.A. Jewish leadership. Spiritual leaders, social justice advocates, educators and community board members all proudly trace their strong Jewish values and current commitment to Judaism to their summers at Ramah.

“Ramah is a place where campers and counselors have their first experience in not only participating in, but helping to form and lead the Jewish community in which they find themselves,” said Camp Ramah of California Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Greyber.

As it has throughout its history, the camp’s programming team sees as its mission to create dynamic ways to blend recreational summertime fun with specifically Jewish lessons on values and life. The campers’ days are divided into seven time slots allowing time for electives like drama, soccer or photography, as well as required classes like Judaic studies, Jewish music and Israeli culture.

Some activities are more recreational, others are more clearly Jewish, but the goal is that every activity shares a little of both. Sports, for example, teaches the Jewish values of respect, community, and taking care of one’s body. Judaic studies classes offer campers concrete lessons in principles.

At Ramah, tefillah is also meant to strike a balance between inspiring kids to want to pray and giving them the skills and literacy they need to pray. Daily services take place outdoors and usually follow a traditional format. Once or twice a week, counselors design creative services meant to emphasize the inspirational side of prayer. These services might be held on a hike, as a scavenger hunt, or carried out as an art project. Ramah’s weekly Shabbat afternoon Mincha services also famously overflow with spirit and song.

It’s this brand of spirituality that inspired VBS’s Feinstein. Having served as camp counselor and division head in the ’70s and camp director in the 1990s, Feinstein believes a balance of fun and spirituality is key to the camp’s success. It’s also key to his work at VBS.

“I run the synagogue a lot like I used to run the camp,” he says. “It’s got to be a joyful community.”

He believes summer camp is the most powerful Jewish experience, next to visiting Israel.

“Too often we forget that joy is a constituent element to all Jewish life,” Feinstein said. “It’s just so important to make joy the central part of Jewish living. That’s the most important thing I got from Ramah.”

Steven Spiegel, UCLA professor of political science, relishes Ramah’s combined intellectual and social environments. One of 92 youths to participate in the 1955 Ramah pilot program, Spiegel returned as a camper, then counselor, program director, and ultimately teacher.

Ramah afforded Spiegel the opportunity to work and study in close proximity to Jewish teachers like David Lieber, Chaim Potok, Walter Ackerman and Jack Pressman. For him, Camp Ramah of California was an educational awakening.

“I couldn’t be the kind of professor I am and do the kind of things I do without the Ramah experience,” said Speigel, who acts as the director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA’s Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. “Bringing people together and trying to resolve conflict, as well as working with students and colleagues, many of those patterns that I pursue I really first experienced at camp.”

Similarly, Ron Reynolds, a camper from 1959 to 1964 and a counselor from 1965 to 1967, credits Ramah with sparking his interest in education.

“At camp, I realized the incredible power of education in all its modalities. Not just formal studies, but experimental learning and informal education,” said Reynolds, who now acts as executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, an umbrella group that serves 1,750 private schools and 500,000 students,

Camp Ramah also emphasizes tikkun olam (heal the world) and engages campers and counselors in Jewish education. They are encouraged to debate, discuss and intellectually explore their Jewish world. They’re offered classes in topics like Israeli current events, social justice, the Holocaust, Jews in comedy and how to make choices guided by Jewish principles.

Throughout the years, Ramah has always encouraged campers to be aware of the world outside their Ojai utopia. Last summer, in association with Friends of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Ramah hosted Israeli youths who had lost a family member in service to the IDF. In getting to know these youths, the camp community was able to personalize the current events in Israel. In association with The Jewish Federation, the camp also hosted several youths from bourgeoning Jewish communities in the Baltic area.

“When we’re in camp, we’re keeping an eye towards the outside world, and ask ourselves in what way can what happens at camp help the world and the Jewish community at large?” Greyber said.

Tzvia Schwartz-Getzug attended Ramah in the late ’70s and early ’80s and recalls a day when she and others brought residents from the Ojai Home for the Aging outside to watch a parade, enjoy the sunshine and be part of the festivities. It was something, she says, “which they never would have been able to do if we weren’t there to take responsibility for them.”

“That was definitely part of what I learned and what I began in my Ramah days,” Schwartz-Getzug said.

Finding My Own Way

I hear you snuck off to shul,” my dad says. “Why?”

“It was Shabbes,” I say. Then I realize that even if he understands the word, he’ll pretend he doesn’t.

“It was what?”

“Shabbes. Friday night. The Sabbath for Jews, when –”

“Yeah, yeah. So you’re still mixed up in that?”

For six years now. Unlike the Tibetan Buddhist summer, the year of carrying a briefcase, or my entire first marriage, Judaism doesn’t seem to be a passing fad.

“Religion is for stupid people,” my father observes. “Didn’t I tell you that?”

“You did,” I say. “Lots of times.”

“It’s a crutch.”



From the book, “Holy Unexpected: My New Life as a Jew,” by Robin Chotzinoff. Copyright 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with

Judaism Finds Its Niche in Great Outdoors

There are Jews hanging from mountaintops all over Colorado. Others are lighting Shabbat candles on sailboats or discovering their spirituality on the ski slopes.

These Jewish adventure enthusiasts not only make an effort to do the hobbies they love with other Jews, but they do so looking for religious or spiritual meaning. By combining their dual interests, this growing cadre of adrenaline seekers is building a new definition of what it means to do — or be — Jewish.

Take Rabbi Jamie Korngold.

When Korngold realized that the Reform Jews she was trying to reach in Boulder, Colo., were more interested in skiing than sitting in synagogue on Saturday mornings, she strapped on a pair of snow boots and headed up the mountain: “For 30 percent of us, synagogue life is working really well, but the other 70 percent, we need new ways of reaching those people.”

“There are so many people whose religion is the outdoors, who really experience their spirituality outside of the synagogue,” said Korngold, who has biked from New York to San Francisco and competed in a 100-mile trail run. “So what I do is say, ‘You’re going to be outdoors, you say it’s a spiritual experience. Let me show you how it’s Jewish.'”

Korngold’s Adventure Rabbi program challenges participants to discuss Torah passages, as well as Judaism’s relationship to nature, during mountain minyan hikes, backpacking treks through the desert and Rosh Hashanah retreats to a ranch in the Rockies. Her trips are so popular that Korngold said her main problem is finding enough guides to meet demand.

“Our Web site gets 200,000 hits a month,” she said. “Our e-mail list is larger than the local federation’s.”

Rabbi Howard Cohen, a Reconstructionist rabbi who runs the Vermont-based Burning Bush Adventures organization, also talks about the need to build bridges between Judaism and the outdoors.

“I know so many Jews who have essentially grown detached from the Jewish community because as they were growing up, they couldn’t get what they wanted from the Jewish world,” he said. “So they went outside of it. But Judaism doesn’t have to be a separate part of their lives.”

Cohen calls the stereotype of the unfit, nonathletic Jew “residual anti-Semitism,” noting that Jews long have been involved in heart-pumping activities like boxing and farming.

Cohen himself is proof of the Jewish athletic tradition. Before attending rabbinical school, he spent 10 years working for Outward Bound. Now he leads day school students, among others, on such expeditions. Before going, participants are sent Torah portions, as well as a list of questions, quotes and readings.

Cohen promotes discussion on these materials out in the woods and has students keep Shabbat and bake challah in the field. Being with students in this context changes his ability to relate to them, Cohen said.

“There are a lot of rabbis who ski or play golf and put their kippah in their back pocket,” he said. “But rabbis who take their congregants skiing, they have a different bond.”

Cohen admitted that rabbis who follow this path may not serve Jewish community “needs,” such as Shabbat services and bar mitzvah training, but he said they do provide some of the “wants” Jews have from their religion.

Rabbi Nachum Shifren, an Orthodox surfer who rides waves in a wetsuit and full beard, said the surfing lessons he offers in Los Angeles and Israel offer catharsis.

“It’s definitely a therapeutic thing,” Shifren said. “Once you’re hooked on all that power and might of the ocean, you’re just never going to be the same.”

Shifren is working on a new program to wean innercity youngsters off drugs and gang life through surfing. Cohen also is developing a program for troubled youth.

“We tend to think of religion as a place where you have to toe the line … but there’s room for rebellion in religion,” Cohen said, citing “iconoclastic rabble-rousers” in the Torah such as Abraham.

The Chicago-based Steppin’ Out Adventures uses this community-building effect as a vehicle for matchmaking, allowing Jewish singles to schmooze while biking in Ireland or climbing the Inca Trail in Peru.

Robin Richman, director and one of the co-founders of the organization, described the bonding that takes place as “amazing.”

“When you’re on an adventure you plan as best you can, but things happen. Those are the things that become jokes between you,” she said, citing a weekend getaway to Wisconsin, where, due to three straight days of rain, the group wound up eating lunch in their underwear.

“It definitely brought the trip close together very quickly,” she said with a laughed.

Richman’s method has produced results. Since it began in 1993, Steppin’ Out Adventures has led to 60 marriages, 34 babies and “a whole lot of friendships and business partners,” according to the group’s Web site.

For the 20 members of the Chesapeake Bay’s Sailing Chavurah, the marriage of the outdoors and Jewish life also has proved transformative.

“At first, we all thought we were the only one” who sailed and was Jewish, said Julien Hofberg, the group’s commodore. But over time, boats named Tikkun Olam and Miss Shue Goss found each other, as did a Holocaust survivor, an accomplished Orthodox racer and a half-dozen Reform and Conservative Jews from the region.

“Now we hold Havdalah services every Saturday; we have a Chanukah party,” Hofberg said. “We share our expertise … and watch out for each other.”


Healing Torah Makes Hospital Rounds

One day last year Rabbi Levi Meier, the Jewish chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was summoned to the room of an elderly Russian man in the ICU who had cancer.

He was in poor spirits, so Meier decided to bring in the Torah from the chaplaincy ark. The patient’s eyes lit up at the sight of the Torah that Meier, and volunteer Sandy Gordon, brought into a room.

“Can you please bring me some water to help me wash my hands?” the ailing man asked. He washed and said a blessing and asked the rabbi to place the Torah next to him. After a few silent moments, tears began to stream down the man’s face, which became much more animated. Finally he spoke.

“Today is my Simchat Torah,” he told the rabbi, referring to the long-passed October holiday that celebrates the joy of the Torah. And then the man began to sing: “Sisu V’simchu, V’simchat Torah, u tenu kavod La Torah!” (Rejoice and be merry on Simchat Torah and give glory to the Torah.)

“He went from not being able to raise a finger, to raising his arms and singing a childhood song in Hebrew,” said Gordon, who has been volunteering at Cedars since 1988, when she attended the University of Judaism’s two-year Wagner Human Services Training Program for paraprofessionals in psychological training. “His eyes became very clear, and his face seemed like he was a boy or a young man, and when he smiled, it really lit his face up.”

When Meier and Gordon left the room some 20 minutes later, Gordon asked the chaplain: “Why doesn’t a Jewish hospital have a Torah they can take around, if it’s so profound?”

Meier, who has served as the hospital’s Jewish chaplain for the last 28 years, quickly acknowledged the need. So Gordon set out to fill the gap by endowing a Torah in honor of her parents, Florence and Milton Slotkin. Meier commissioned scribes in Israel to create a special lightweight Torah that could easily be carried to patients’ rooms on a daily basis. The completed Torah arrived last January.

Much has been written about the role of spirituality and faith in benefiting health and healing, but the effects are difficult to prove. There is no question, though, that Cedars’ new Torah has been uplifting the spirits of Jewish patients. Meier hopes other chaplains will also adopt the idea.

“Since we got the Torah, we’ve been taking the Torah around to selected patients, and the experiences has been amazing. Unparalleled,” Meier told The Journal.

In his nearly three decades at Cedars, he said, “we’ve been doing very well with all the patients, but the response with the Torah has brought it to a new level.”

Meier, an Orthodox rabbi ordained at Yeshiva University with a doctorate in psychology from USC, is a soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor, and when he uses words like “amazing” and “indescribable” about the Torah’s effect on patients, it seems more than hyperbole.

Indeed, it is difficult to portray in words the powerful emotional pull people exhibit toward the chaplain with the Torah.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, “Lisa,” a 30-something actress with cancer and other ailments, has been hospitalized for 10 days. She lies wan and listless on her side, her pale, bony arms poking awkwardly out of a checked green hospital gown. The radio blares in the background but she doesn’t move; had her eyes not been open, staring into space, she might be mistaken for sleeping.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” the chaplain says as he walks into the room and turns off the radio. “I’m going to place the Torah next to you on the bed.”

He takes the blue-velvet-covered scroll and places it on the pillow within breath’s reach. With effort, Lisa slowly moves her hands to it. She closes her eyes and smiles, like a baby having a dream.

“Can you pray out loud? To me?” Lisa asks in a murmur after a few moments. “In Hebrew?”

Meier says she should repeat after him, and she does, inaudibly, her lips barely moving. “Shema. Yisrael. Hashem. Elokeinu. Hashem. Echad: Hear O’ Israel, The Eternal God is One.”

Meier recites a blessing that the holy angels and divine presence should surround her and give her a complete recovery. Lisa’s eyes are now closed again, her long fingers resting on the Torah. She breathes deeply, as if meditating.

Finally, the chaplain stands up to go, and reluctantly takes the Torah from her bedside.

“Tomorrow you will have an MRI,” he says on his way out, “so think about this, and this should give you some comfort.”

Down the hall, an 89-year-old Hancock Park rabbi awaits hip surgery.

“How nice, how nice,” says the ailing rabbi in a thick European accent upon seeing the Torah. After wiping his hands with a washcloth, he reaches to touch and kiss it, not expecting anything more. But the chaplain places the Torah at his bedside.

“Tonight we pray that the surgery will go well, but the best prayer is the one you say yourself,” the chaplain says and leaves the room as the old man’s voice, loud and cracking with emotion as he recites Tehillim, the Psalms, echoes in the hallway: “Eso eynay, el ha’harim, me’ayin yavot ezri….” (I raise mine eyes to the mountains/where will help come from/Help will come from God, creator of heaven and earth.)

After the chaplain has collected the Torah from the rabbi, he appears awed and shaken: “I don’t even know if King David said Tehillim like that.”

Unlike the old rabbi, most people the chaplain visits with the Torah are not particularly religious. Meier says the Torah rekindles the pintele (Yiddish for “spark” of Jewishness) in people, memories of Hebrew school or a bar mitzvah or a grandparent in the past and it helps them connect to the next generation as well.

For Meier, this work is not a “religious” mission, but a spiritual one that overrides distinctions of denominations and practice. “Although in the outside world, when people are healthy, they make a differentiation between Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, here there’s no distinction. There is the meaning of life, solitude, family, reconciliations — everyone is part of what we call “the experience of the human condition. It’s an experience that the Torah alleviates.”

As the Jewish chaplain at Cedars, Meier receives a list with the names of the all the Jewish patients in the hospital. Together with his assistant and a couple of volunteers, they visit the sick. The Torah, a holy object in itself, allows the chaplain to have immediate spiritual relationship with a patient that otherwise might take much longer to achieve.

The healing process is not always about getting better, Meier said.

“Healing means whole, and it also means holy, so we talk about the path of getting toward wholeness, even if a cure is not possible,” he said.

You can be whole in different ways, with yourself, with your family, with your children, with God, he said.

“It’s a common fallacy and myth that this job is very hard,” he said. “I find that when I don’t do this, it’s very difficult. I give meaning to people and they always to a little better. I don’t do miracles, but it’s beautiful to add meaning to a person’s life and to help them in the smallest way possible.”


John Fishel

On Feb. 26, more than 150 volunteers gathered early at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for the annual Super Sunday megafundraiser. Having filled up on conversation, coffee and bagels, the enthusiastic, well-dressed men and women sat side-by-side at tables holding banks of telephones.

In 12 hours, 1,700 volunteers at three locations knew they had to raise almost 10 percent of The Federation’s entire annual campaign. Super Sunday can set the tone for the year. And with government funding shrinking, The Federation’s 22 aid agencies counted on this day as never before to help them meet the growing demand for their services. The Federation is a like a Jewish United Way; it acts as a single central source for donations, which it then distributes to various worthy causes. More specifically, The Federation supports Jews in need and programs that reflect on Jews here in Los Angeles, as well as around the world.

Before things kicked off, with so much at stake, the assembled got a final pep talk, but Federation President John Fishel, the man who holds possibly the single most important Jewish job in Los Angeles, didn’t deliver it. On this, the most important money-raising day for The L.A. Federation, where was Fishel?

Over the past 14 years, Fishel, a young-looking 57, has quietly, firmly and steadily led the Jewish philanthropic organization, determined to somehow unify the Southland’s geographically dispersed and largely unaffiliated Jewish community. In a city that prizes glitz and glamour, Fishel has shunned the spotlight, the backslapping and the glad-handing, preferring a low-key, almost professorial approach that places a premium on methodical problem solving. Whether attending the 50th anniversary party for the Westside Jewish Community Center, lobbying politicians to loosen the purse strings for Jewish nonprofits or taking a potential donor on a tour of Beit T’Shuvah, a Federation beneficiary agency that treats addiction partly through Jewish spirituality, Fishel routinely works six- or seven-day, 70-hour weeks.

“He’s the James Brown of the Jewish community, the hardest-working man in L.A. Jewry,” Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss said. “I see him everywhere.”

Although in some ways, Fishel is everywhere but nowhere. A bearded, slender man with a direct gaze, the shy Fishel seems to prefer keeping his own counsel. He sometimes materializes at events in his well-tailored suits and then slips away after talking to but a handful of folks.

Like Howard Hughes, The Federation president keeps his private self private. It is unlikely that many in the community know that the buttoned-down Fishel once sported long hair and promoted blues festivals in the early ’70s, or that he has never had a bar mitzvah.

Still, Fishel has left a notable mark in the Jewish world. He holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from the University of Michigan and once considered becoming an academic, and he has earned praise for his efforts on behalf of Jews abroad, especially in Israel. An internationalist in a largely domestic job, Fishel helped create the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership and has put the plight of Ethiopian Jews on the North American Jewish agenda.

Closer to home, his calm, analytical demeanor has allowed him to react effectively during crises, from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake to Hurricane Katrina. When others might panic, he coolly devises a plan of action for bringing far-flung members of the community together.

Fishel has fared less well on some of The Federation’s bread-and-butter everyday challenges. On his watch, several Jewish community centers have shut down and the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) has lost influence and standing (see stories on page 17). Most important, The Federation’s annual campaign, has grown sluggishly at a time when community needs have exploded.

So where was Fishel?

On this year’s Super Sunday, he was just where you’d expect: at The Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. In keeping with his low-key persona, though, Fishel stayed in the background, while others delivered inspiration to the volunteers.

Arriving at 7:30 a.m. — a full hour and a half before the fundraiser officially began — he greeted participants with a smile and expressions of thanks. Fishel spoke with Federation staff members to ensure that everything was under control. Then, he called potential donors and gave an interview to a KTLA reporter: “It’s wonderful to see people who live in different parts of the community, with different backgrounds and different ideologies, come together in a unified manner,” and chatted with bigwigs, including Councilman Weiss.

Fishel was just getting started. Around 11 a.m., he and a couple of Federation lay leaders left headquarters for the phone banks in the Valley. Later, he made his way to the Super Sunday fundraiser in the South Bay. That night, The Federation president returned to Wilshire Boulevard to mingle with the last shift of volunteers, mostly college students. He finally left The Federation to return to his Cheviot Hills home sometime after 10 p.m. — logging more than a 14-hour day.

This year’s Super Sunday raised about $4.4 million, about $100,000 less than last year, but still a solid financial foundation. And those involved included young and old, the religious and nonreligious, Israelis, Persians and Russians — an unprecedented rainbow of Southland Jews.


The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is the central address for the local Jewish community, from helping to underwrite the cost of Jewish burials to subsidizing free groceries for the poor, The Federation is involved in myriad vital facets, big and small, of Los Angeles Jewish life.

“If we didn’t have The [L.A.] Federation, we would have to create it,” said Steven Windmueller, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “Ultimately, a community needs an infrastructure for prioritizing, organizing, programming and crisis management.”

Federation initiatives include literacy programs for elementary and preschool students, a venture philanthropy fund that invests in fledgling businesses that benefit the Jewish community and, most recently, a program that coordinates services to Jewish children with developmental or severe learning disabilities.

The Federation most often makes its presence felt through 22 beneficiary agencies. Federation dollars help subsidize the SOVA Food Pantry Program for the hungry, pay for job training offered by Jewish Vocational Service and support the Jewish Free Loan Association, which offers Jewish couples interest-free loans of up to $10,000 for fertility treatments, among other programs.

“There are old people, children, homeless people, the disenfranchised and other people who constantly need help,” said Terry Bell, a former Federation chair who headed the search committee that recommended hiring Fishel. “We do extremely important things that people aren’t even aware of that wouldn’t get done without The Federation.”

The Federation’s reach goes well beyond Southern California. In times of crisis, The Federation has raised millions to help struggling communities around the world, most recently in Argentina. Federation allocations support everything from sending local college students to Israel to subsidizing Jewish day schools. Overseas, Federation dollars have helped support the renaissance of Jewish life in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

In some ways, The L.A. Federation is flourishing as never before. The charity’s international programs are stronger than ever. Under Fishel, the organization has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to respond to emergencies both at home and abroad, despite the bureaucratic nature of the federation system. The Federation has raised millions for special campaigns for Israel, Soviet Jews and other causes, and has an endowment of $67 million.

Locally, KOREH L.A., a literacy program that is reaching more students than ever, has burnished the Jewish philanthropy’s reputation, introducing scores of volunteers and clients in need to The Federation and its mission. Moreover, at Fishel’s prodding, The Federation increased its annual allocations to the Bureau of Jewish Education by $1 million, funding scores of scholarships for Jewish day school students and capital improvement projects at their schools.

But The Federation’s annual campaign, its lifeblood, has grown anemically during the Fishel era. In particular, The Federation has been largely unable to reach Hollywood money or attract huge donations from affluent Jews not already involved. A shrinking and aging donor base poses a real threat to future giving. And there’s the looming challenge of appealing to younger Jews, a group more attracted to non-Jewish causes than past generations.



Federation supporters know surprisingly little about the person most responsible for The Federation’s current and future prospects.

Ask board members, even those who consider Fishel a friend, and a steady stream of generic adjectives tumbles out: “Kind,” “brilliant,” “committed,” “thoughtful” and “hard-working,” come up most frequently. A JDate profile would provide more than that.

What about anecdotes?

Bell, the former Federation chair, said she and her husband hosted Fishel; his wife, Karen, and their daughter, Jessica, for one week at their home, back when Fishel was undergoing a second round of interviews for his current job. The Fishels, Bell said, were “easy to feed, easy to be around,” she said. “They didn’t demand anything.”

And what about John Fishel? What’s he like?

He’s well-read and interested in “everything under the sun,” conversant about art, politics, food, music and wine, Bell said.

Another Federation board member said he once saw Fishel materialize late one Saturday night at a jazz club clad in a leather jacket. They exchanged pleasantries.

Who is John Fishel?

He’s someone who wants to reveal the answer to that question on only a need-to-know basis. Through The Federation’s spokeswoman, Fishel turned down a request to trail him for the day during Super Sunday or to spend a large block of time watching him in action. Nor would he agree to a lunch or dinner appointment. Near the end of a second recent formal interview — and after years of contact — Fishel opened up, a little.

He was born in Cleveland in 1948. His late father, Richard, owned a company that manufactured sweaters. His late mother, Adelee, stayed home to care for John and younger brother Jim. His family belonged to a local Reform synagogue, where Fishel was confirmed but never bar mitzvahed.

At a young age, Fishel decided that he wanted to venture into the larger world. Even then, other cultures fascinated him. He majored in anthropology at the University of Michigan and later began, but never completed, an anthropology master’s program there.

Leaving the university, Fishel parlayed his interest in blues and jazz into a turn as a music promoter in the early 1970s, partnering with his brother, Jim. John Fishel promoted shows featuring B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and went on to produce the famed Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He developed enough of a reputation that Rolling Stone once quoted him.

Tiring of the hectic life of a promoter, Fishel decided to become a social worker. Graduating from the University of Michigan in 1972 with a master’s in social work, he soon landed back in Cleveland as a caseworker in the Welfare Department. A year later, he headed to Africa for an extended backpacking adventure.

His Jewish journey began a few years later, when Fishel took a position doing community work for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. There, he began to consider issues of Jewish identity and, on his own, studied Judaism and Jewish history. In effect, he began applying his anthropological training to his own roots. Fishel soon became an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Two years after arriving in Philadelphia, he moved on to became director of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, which has helped Jewish and other immigrants coming to the United States for more than 100 years. Through his new job, Fishel developed a deepening appreciation for the plight of Jews around the world, especially those fleeing post-revolutionary Iran and the Soviet Union.

Years later, after becoming executive vice president of the Jewish Federation in Montreal, Fishel finally made his first trip behind the Iron Curtain. In 1986, he visited Moscow and Lithuania. He came armed with hard-to-obtain Judaica and blue jeans that he gave to local Jews. He also secretly met with Refuseniks, Jews denied permission to emigrate.

In Lithuania, Fishel joined a group of Refuseniks who, in a park near the capital city of Vilnius, placed homemade Jewish Stars, fashioned from cardboard, where Nazis had executed Jews.

“I was really scared,” Fishel said. “But you want to know something? I figured, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? They’ll detain me and then let me go. I’m an American citizen. Those guys were stuck there. They were truly courageous.”


Fishel never visited Israel until after he turned 40, but he has since traveled to the Holy Land more than 50 times, spending time with prime ministers, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and fellow leaders in the Jewish communal world.

“I happen to believe that Israel is our Jewish state,” he said. “I think that the centrality of Israel as a focal point of Judaism and Jewish life historically and in contemporary times is very unique and very special.”

Fishel has played a major role in the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, a 9-year-old program that fosters cooperation and connections between local Jews and Jews in Tel Aviv in education, health, culture and economics.

Under the multifaceted partnership, 18 Tel Aviv and 18 local schools have been “twinned,” sharing programming and lesson plans and frequently interacting via video conferencing and e-mail. In addition, curators from museums in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, including the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have participated in institutional exchanges. Federation and other community leaders also successfully lobbied Israeli politicians to allow Tel Aviv to become the first Israeli city to issue municipal bonds (the proceeds funded a parking garage). The list goes on.

The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership is “a jewel and an unusually creative and innovative approach to relating to Israel in a new way,” said Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and the founding director of Hebrew Union College. “That is, as a partnership rather than the old liberal, colonial way of sending money to a benighted people.”

More than that, participating local residents have gained a greater appreciation of the larger Jewish world, their own Jewish identity and the importance of The Federation, experts said. The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership later spawned the successful Federation-sponsored Los Angeles-Baltics Partnership.

The Tel Aviv program might never have been birthed without Fishel’s dedication. Originally, the Jewish Agency, which called on federations across the United States to fund regional development in Israel, wanted The L.A. Federation to link with either Galilee in the north or the Negev in the south. Fishel, with the support of the lay leadership, rejected those options. Instead, he chose Tel Aviv, a large metropolis more appealing to local Jews because of its accessibility, sophistication, cultural life and large pool of potential individual and institutional partners.

Fishel’s willingness to defy the Jewish Agency, the bedrock of the Jewish communal establishment, reflects his ability to think, in his words, “out of the box,” especially on international issues. The Federation president would again employ that out-of-the-box thinking for the Jews of Ethiopia (see sidebar) and for Argentina’s Jewish community.

In December 2001, Argentina’s economy crashed. Almost overnight, the country’s middle class was plunged into penury; families lost their life savings. The crisis hit the Jewish community hard, with an estimated one-third of Argentina’s Jews falling into poverty.

Diana Fiedotin, a member of The Federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, viewed the economic collapse firsthand while visiting the country in February 2002, to attend a wedding.

After Fiedotin returned to the United States, she started the Lifeline to Argentina with local Rabbi Sherre Z. Hirsch of Sinai Temple. Fishel suggested that Fiedotin expand her fundraising to synagogues across the city. The Federation president put Fiedotin in touch with Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Fishel later made an unsolicited gesture that floored Fiedotin: The Federation would offer a matching grant of up to $1 million to Lifeline to Argentina. The campaign eventually reached that target and, thanks to Fishel and The Federation’s generosity, Lifeline contributed $2 million to alleviate the suffering.

“He’s always open to new ways of raising money and creative ways of bringing different elements of this community together,” Fiedotin said. “I never could have done this without John. I and the Jewish community of Argentina owe him.”

Fishel’s international efforts, dating back to his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry, have won him widespread respect from colleagues, said Bob Aronson, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “We turn to him for advice and guidance,” he said.

Still, some in the community think Fishel focuses on overseas issues at the expense of a domestic agenda. Carmen H. Warschaw, a longtime Federation board member and former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party, said Fishel’s international emphasis meant less money for such important beneficiary agencies as Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service.

“There has to be more of a balance, with more of an emphasis on things in our front and backyards,” Warschaw said.

Fishel said he believes The Federation allocates its resources well to ensure that the nonprofit meets both local and international needs. He makes no apologies about helping Jews in need wherever they are.

“I’m very committed to the concept of Jewish people-hood,” Fishel said.

About 70 percent of every dollar the local Federation raises in its annual campaign supports domestic programs. Thirty percent goes for overseas programming and relief.


Fishel receives consistently high marks, even from detractors, for his ability to bring the community together in times of crisis.

Within 48 hours of the devastating Northridge Earthquake, The Federation president had overseen the production of a manual containing names and numbers of the agencies victims could call for counseling, health care, shelter and other services, said Irwin Field, a Federation Executive Committee member and past Federation chair.

“He was the one who really got everything rolling, made things happen and saw them through to the end,” said Field, who also chairs the board of L.A. Jewish Publications, publisher of The Jewish Journal. (The Journal is not affiliated with The Federation.)

At the same time, Fishel had to ascertain whether The Federation staff would have to leave the 6505 Wilshire headquarters because of earthquake damage. After experts concluded the structure had become unsafe, Fishel oversaw the evacuation and move into temporary quarters. He later helped raise $22 million to renovate and retrofit 6505, said Herb Gelfand, former Federation board chair.

After the 1999 shooting spree by a white supremicist at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, Fishel quickly showed up on the scene. The Federation helped arrange counseling for traumatized victims and took measures to improve the center’s security.

Fishel recently again displayed his knack for quick response. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Fishel contacted Jewish federations and other agencies in Baton Rouge, La.; Jackson, Miss., and Houston to find out what evacuees fleeing to those cities needed. In just a few days, the L.A. Federation had raised $600,000 to help the Jewish and non-Jewish refugees.

The philanthropic group also brought local Jewish agencies together to provide therapy, job training and other services to homeless Katrina victims who made their way to the Southland. In addition, The Federation rented about a dozen trucks that transported clothing, canned food and other supplies collected by area synagogues to the Gulf Coast.

The Federation, at Fishel’s behest, also gave Hillel $20,000 to help underwrite the costs of sending students from USC and Cal State Northridge to the Gulf Coast to help with rebuilding efforts, said David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. The Federation’s generosity, he said, has improved its image among many Jewish college students, a demographic the philanthropic organization desperately wants to reach.

“John may be at his best when things are at their worst,” said Gelfand, the former Federation chair.

But some community leaders offer a more mixed assessment when it comes to issues not so clear-cut as providing emergency aid. One such complicated task is community building, which embodies the challenge of raising and distributing money, while simultaneously fostering Jewish identity.

The Boston Federation oversees two innovative adult Jewish education programs that have touched the lives of more than 2,700 area Jews and, in the process, strengthened ties to The Federation.

Me’ah (which means “100” in Hebrew) is a two-year, 100-hour intensive learning program that includes immersion in core Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible and rabbinics. More than 1,800 Bostonians have graduated from the course, which is heavily subsidized to maintain the low tuition price of $500 per person. The Boston Federation and Hebrew College also offer Ikkarim (“essence” in Hebrew), which provides Jewish education (and free child care during classes) for the parents of preschoolers.

“We want people to think it’s just as important to know Maimonides and love the Torah as it is to love Plato, Homer or Shakespeare,” said Barry Shrage, a leader of the effort and president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

The Boston Federation’s investment has probably already paid off. From 1995 to 2006, the annual campaign of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies increased by 57 percent to $34.2 million in a city of 200,000 Jews, growing at a significantly higher rate than the nation’s federations as a whole.

In contrast, a high-profile community-building effort in Los Angeles proved a bust.

In 2001, Fishel’s Federation lured Rabbi David Woznica to come West from New York City’s prestigious 92nd Street Y. In New York, Woznica oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures per year. More than 1,200 Jews regularly attended his High Holiday services. His travels and lectures around the world enhanced both his and the Y’s reputation.

In Los Angeles, Woznica was hired at a six-figure salary on the eve of Federation layoffs.

Then, critics said, The Federation never maximized Woznica’s talents by establishing forums for him to reach large numbers of Jews. So adrift was The Federation that it formed a special committee months after hiring Woznica to figure out how to best use him. The respected rabbi ended up becoming The Federation’s best-kept secret; he spent much of his time offering private tutorials to well-heeled donors and Federation executives. He left The Federation in 2004 for a rabbi’s position at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

“Fishel never really followed through,” said Pini Herman, a demographer and former Federation research coordinator who was laid off. “You would have thought that he would have paved the way for the success of a high-value personnel acquisition like Woznica, but he didn’t. Fishel left him kind of twisting in the wind.”

Woznica could not be reached for comment for this article. In the past, he has said he worked tirelessly at The Federation to help elevate the role of Judaism there and throughout the community.

Fishel responded that, in time, The Federation would have figured a better way to expand Woznica’s community visibility and impact.


Fishel has the challenge of raising money in a wealthy but difficult market. Failing in this task literally would mean fewer free meals for the hungry, the elimination of job-training programs or even the shuttering of homeless shelters.

On a macro level, federations, including Los Angeles, are “very healthy institutions, when you include all their assets, including endowments,” said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

But there’s reason for concern. The nation’s federations raised a total of $859.5 million in their 2004 annual campaigns, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That’s up only 4 percent from 2000.

Time was, federations received the lion’s share of Jewish charitable giving. In a world with virulent anti-Semitism and constant threats to Israel, federations were seen as the protector and exemplar of Jewish values and interests.

That began to change, though, as Jews became more assimilated. Hospitals, symphonies and universities that once shunned Jews not only began to accept their money but appointed them to their boards. That mainstream acceptance led Jews to give less to federations and more to secular institutions. Suddenly, the federations’ pull on Jewish giving began to wane.

“If you used to ask somebody about their Jewish giving, they would tell you about a nonprofit that had the word Jewish or Israel in its title,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, which represents more than 1,000 Jewish family foundations. “Now, especially with younger donors, they talk about charities that reflect their Jewish values, which could be a gift to a local food pantry or an environmental organization, rather than to a Jewish organization.”

Over the past eight years, the number of Jewish family foundations has exploded, jumping from about 2,500 to 8,000. Those foundations, Charendoff said, control an estimated $30 billion in assets and give to a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to education. They have undoubtedly siphoned money away from federations, which some megadonors see as distant, unresponsive bureaucracies.

Another problem is that L.A.’s Jewish community is geographically dispersed, lacking the traditional powerful machers who enforce community giving elsewhere. Recently, competing Jewish institutions such as the Wiesenthal Center and the Skirball Cultural Center have appeared on the scene, further complicating things.

And surveys show that Californians, including Angelenos, give less per capita than Americans in many other places. They also volunteer less, said Donna Bojarsky, a Jewish Community Relations Committee board member and a Democratic Party public policy consultant who advises such celebrities as Richard Dreyfuss.

“L.A. is a particularly hard nut to crack,” she said.

Fishel’s Federation has made some noteworthy attempts at trying.

In response to donor demands for more control, The Federation helped create the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles. Over the past four years, this self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to start-up and existing nonprofits that benefit Jews, including the teen magazine, JVibe, and a Jewish Vocational Service program that targets Jewish Russian and Iranian immigrants for training as certified nurses.

Several Venture Philanthropy participants, each of whom has contributed at least $10,000, were first-time L.A. Federation donors, said Andrew Cushnir, vice president of planning for The Federation and staff head of the Venture Philanthropy Fund.

“John has been a major champion of the fund,” Cushnir said. “He has been more than willing to let the fund experiment, learn and grow.”

The Federation has also greatly improved outreach to young Jews — tomorrow’s big givers. The Federation replaced a money-losing leadership program with the apparently more successful Young Leadership Division, which, unlike its predecessor, places more emphasis on Jewish education and spirituality, although a social component still exists. The Federation also funds Taglit-birthright israel, the New Leaders Project and young leadership groups within its women’s, real estate and entertainment campaign divisions.

Federation-supported programs have touched the lives of thousands of young Jews, said Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development. That outreach has more than paid off, he added. “On a yearly basis, our young leadership initiatives are now raising about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of our annual campaign.”

Not good enough, say critics. In 2005, The Federation’s annual campaign raised $47.3 million. (Overall, The Federation raised $55 million, when one-time gifts, special campaigns and other targeted giving are included.) Although last year’s annual campaign total represented a 6 percent increase over 2004, that’s only 2 percent more than the $46.4 million raised in 1990.

“I think at this point we ought to be around $60 million or $65 million,” said Leo Dozoretz, an ex-Federation board member and former president of the Valley Alliance, The Federation’s San Fernando Valley operation. “We’re the second largest community in the world behind New York. Los Angeles even has more Jews than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.”

Dozoretz doesn’t hold Fishel responsible for The Federation’s middling performance. A weak lay leadership, among other factors, has contributed, he said.

Others are less understanding. They point to Fishel’s lack of charisma, The Federation’s alleged indifferent treatment of donors who are not megarich and Fishel’s inability to entice Hollywood Jews and other potential megadonors.

Former President Bill Clinton meets John Fishel
Former President Bill Clinton meets John Fishel.

In Southern California, charisma counts. An actor, director or producer with a megawatt smile and engaging personality can get farther than an equally talented but bland counterpart. What’s true for Hollywood can also hold for the corporate and nonprofit worlds. That partly explains why a gregarious charmer like Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal center can so easily coax big donations out of supporters, said a former high-ranking L.A. Federation fundraising executive.

Fishel, by contrast, often fades into the background, appearing ill at ease at social gatherings. He lacks “star power,” said the fundraiser, who asked not to be identified.

Fishel’s low-key, no-nonsense manner might serve him well in a down-to-earth place such as Minneapolis or Milwaukee but is no asset in Southern California, the land of Botox and BMWs. “Look, people live next door to movie stars here. They want entertainment value,” the fundraiser said.

Fishel responded that he’d prefer being perceived as honest, ethical and committed, rather than as Mr. Personality.

Another former Federation fundraising executive said he thought the organization treated donors giving less than $25,000 with indifference. Sure, a $10,000 donor might get invited to a special dinner or to participate on a mission to Israel, but Federation officials, he said, make little effort to make that person feel special. That absence of a personal touch has turned off some givers, leading them to give elsewhere, the ex-fundraiser said.

“The attitude some donors have is that you come to me once a year, you get my money and you come back when you want more,” he said. “And, in between, I’m not really thought of a great deal.”

Fishel said The Federation tries to be accessible and engaged with the broadest base of donors, although, given the number of contributors, that can sometimes prove a challenge. Still, Fishel said, he personally calls or has the appropriate staff member phone all donors — and non-donors — who contact him for assistance.


Critics say that one of Fishel’s greatest failings has been his inability to tap into Hollywood. Imagine, they ask, how much bigger the annual campaign would be if such Jewish entertainment royalty as Barbra Streisand, David Geffen and Michael Eisner began writing million-dollar checks? Supporters counter that Hollywood is a narcissistic world unto itself, virtually deaf to appeals by anyone outside its small circle of players.

Some of the industry’s Jewish titans are “self-hating Jews,” said Lynn Pollock, a Federation board member and a former vice president at Paramount Pictures. Others have long identified more with “American Protestant” traditions, she said, rather than Jewish ones in their films and in their lives.

“How in the world is John supposed to accommodate these types of whimsical people, who are used to getting whatever they want and living in a kind of la-la land?” Pollock said.

Former Federation Chair Gelfand remembers his own brush with Jewish Hollywood and its unhappy ending. In the late 1980s, he persuaded two powerful entertainment executives to co-chair a major fundraising campaign for Soviet Jewry. The co-chairs — one a former studio head, the other a former talent agency bigwig — hoped to attract $10 million from their Jewish colleagues. After just three weeks, the pair resigned, having raised a grand total of zero dollars, Gelfand said.

Not everyone gives Fishel a pass. Movie producer Scott Einbinder said The Federation missed an opportunity to engage young, Jewish Hollywood when it unexpectedly pulled its sponsorship from Vodka Latka, a party/fundraiser he co-founded, which raised money for Jewish nonprofits. Vodka Latka also increased young Hollywood’s awareness about The Federation and funneled dozens of new members to the Jewish philanthropic organization, he said.

“Vodka Latka was definitely meant to be a bridge to The Federation, to show young Jews in the entertainment industry that The Federation could be more than an organization that just asks for money,” Einbinder said. “We wanted to help The Federation compete with sexier philanthropic organizations around L.A., organizations that are considered cooler and have more celebrities involved.”

After the 2002 event, which attracted more than 1,000 revelers to the Hollywood Palladium, The Federation bowed out. At the time, Federation executives said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time. Fishel suggested the event was terrific but on the verge of becoming stale. The Progressive Jewish Alliance now holds the Vodka Latka soiree.

In the entertainment business, as in some other industries in town, Fishel said, “there’s no clarity in terms of what makes them want to be engaged Jewishly.”

The same apparently goes for potential new donors among the megarich, said Bubis, the former Federation vice president who has such praise for Fishel’s international work. The Federation president, Bubis said, has failed to provide an overarching vision that would inspire those givers.

Last year, The Federation received no million-dollar gifts for its annual campaign. The organization has made going after large donors a bigger priority going forward, Federation executives said.

And there’s some good news on that front. Earlier this year, an anonymous donor made a $3 million unrestricted gift, sources confirmed.

So has Fishel done a good enough job making The Federation attractive to donors?

Fishel himself believes more needs to be done.

“When need outdistances the means to do all of the good things brought to The Federation for support, you always want to raise more,” he said.

Fishel took the helm of the L.A. Federation in 1992, during a period of great uncertainty. The Southland’s recession had taken a bite out of the annual campaign; the institution was in turmoil. Fishel righted The Federation’s finances through spending cuts and layoffs.

Besides restoring stability, he also worked on inclusiveness, several Federation leaders said. Over the years, Fishel reached out to Persian, Israeli and Russian Jews, said attorney David Nahai, a Federation board member.

Fishel has received mostly positive marks from Federation watchers, despite much dissatisfaction over the handling of the Jewish community centers and the Jewish Community Relations Committee. Tobin of the Institute for Jewish Community Research called him “one of the most thoughtful and really analytical executives in The Federation field.” UJC President and Chief Executive Howard M. Rieger called Fishel “one of the best we’ve got.”

The pressures of running The L.A. Federation have sometimes gotten to Fishel. A few years back, he briefly considered leaving The Federation after other Jewish organizations expressed an interest in him, including the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These days, though, Fishel insisted that he couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve had 30-plus years working in Jewish communal life. I’ve had a lot of really amazing experiences meeting some extraordinary people here in this country and around the world, ” he said. “I love what I do.”




Jokes, Lights and Songs

The Israel advocacy group StandWithUs filled the University of Judaism’s main auditorium for its Dec. 5 Festival of Lights concert. Actor-comedian Larry Miller hosted the event on crutches, and provided a light comic stream amid the tributes and music. He reminded the overflow crowd that expecting terrorists to have a change of heart is like holding out hope for sour milk: “The milk is sour; maybe it’ll be fresh tomorrow.”

Musicians Sam Glaser and Peter Himmelman, cantors Alison Wissot and Chayim Frankel and Israeli singer Hedva Amrani Miller all performed.

“Too bad the tourists don’t come; Israel needs our help,” Amrani said. “I have two hearts; one heart in Israel and one here.”

StandWithUs began in 2001 as a sort of informational guerrilla unit working among larger, entrenched Jewish institutions trying to grasp the extent of current anti-Semitism, especially on college campuses. Despite the Festival of Lights’ naturally festive mood, a video captured the gravity of what StandWithUs monitors, showing a Muslim cleric on Palestinian television saying, “Jews are dogs. Jews are pigs.”

Two of the group’s main backers, Newton Becker and Mark Karlan, were honored at the Festival of Lights with menorah trophies that almost dominated the stage podium.

“In Europe, Israel is perceived as Nazi Germany,” Becker said. “We’ve lost the war of ideas in Europe. The Jews in Europe have not countered the lies. They need our help and they’re not used to doing it themselves.”

Karlan praised StandWithUs for using donations effectively, saying, “I like the fact that they deliver more bang for our tzedakah buck.” – David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

ORT Support

The Jewish vocational organization ORT honored Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief William Bratton at its Dec. 5 Chanukah brunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Jewish community philanthropist Jona Goldrich pledged $10,000 to the ORT’s $500,000 annual budget goal.

The LAPD chief, who attended the brunch with his wife, Court TV personality and legal analyst Ricki Kleiman, was named the L.A. ORT chapter’s Man of the Year. Bratton told the 200 ORT supporters that police officers and ORT instructors are in similar roles because they try to “make a difference.”

KNX 1070 reporter and L.A. ORT advisory council member Laura Ornest was the emcee for the brunch, which was coordinated by third-generation ORT supporter Deena Eberly, while Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts gave the invocation.

Goldrich was not the only donor pledging big bucks to the organization. ORT’s L.A. chapter founder Stanley Black – whose name graces the L.A. ORT Technical Institute building on Wilshire Boulevard – started the brunch’s fundraising by pledging $18,000, and then Black’s 10-year-old grandson donated $10.

ORT’s global budget of $300 million supports schools in 60 countries.

“College prepared me for the advertising business, but ORT prepared me for the world,” said a young Argentine immigrant who studied at an ORT school. – DF

Hopes and ‘Dreams’

Domestic violence blights even wonderful communities, which is why organizations like the Jewish Family Service’s Family Violence Project (JFSFVP) are working to stop it. On Oct. 27, the mid-Wilshire Domestic Violence Prevention Collaborative – a joint venture of JFSFVP and 14 other organizations – honored eight individuals and two groups for their efforts to raise awareness of domestic violence in Los Angeles, especially in underserved communities where information on the issue has been largely unavailable.

The ceremony was held at the West Hollywood Community Center on Santa Monica Boulevard, and was hosted by West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tem Abbe Land. Other dignitaries in attendance included state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles), Beverly Hills City Councilman Jimmy Delshad and Paul S. Castro, executive director of Jewish Family Service.

Honored at the ceremony was the cast and crew of the NBC TV series “American Dreams.” Sarah Ramos, 13, who plays Patty Pryor in the show, spearheaded an effort on the set to help victims of domestic violence, and since the show’s debut two years ago the cast and crew have collected donations for domestic violence victims.

Other honorees were the Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation (Asian community); Dr. Gerry Rosen (African immigrant community); Esther Batres (Latino community); Sattareh Farman Farmaian (Iranian community); Matthew Pulling (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community); Cori Jones (Jewish Orthodox community); Maya Segal (Russian community); Julieana Tores (youth community); and officer Chris Curry, of the LAPD Wilshire Division (law enforcement).

Safire at Sinai

The Adult Education Committee at Sinai Temple, chaired by Rosa Berman Ruder, hosted award-winning New York Times columnist William Safire as its Rabbi Jacob Kohn scholar-in-residence on Nov. 20 and 21. Safire spoke twice over the weekend – once on Shabbat, where he discussed the book of Job, and then again at a breakfast on Sunday, where he spoke about his ardent support for Israel and U.S. politics. In his Sunday speech, Safire analyzed the 2004 presidential race with warmth and humor saying that the difference between President Bush and Sen. Kerry was that Bush was playing to win, whereas Kerry was playing to not lose.

“That’s why you had Bush’s certainty and Kerry’s nuances,” he said.

Safire said that he expected the 2008 democratic ticket to be headlined by Sen. Hillary Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He also said that he supported an amendment to the constitution that would allow foreign-born citizens to run for president.

After his speech, Safire sat down for a Q-and-A session with Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe.

Safire will soon retire from his New York Times Op-Ed column, but will continue writing the On Language column published in the New York Times Magazine.

Spiritual Relaxation

N’Shei Chabad of Los Angeles held its annual Rest and Ruchnius retreat – ruchnius is Hebrew for spirituality – at the Oxnard Marriott Oct. 29-31. The retreat was for women only – although they were allowed to bring along nursing babies – and its purpose was to provide some respite from the pressures of careers and home life by ensconcing the women in a nice hotel, with good food and great speakers. This year, the featured speaker was New York-based teacher and author Shimona Tzukernik, who spoke about chasidut (piety) and the spiritual lessons she learned on a recent safari trip through her native South Africa. Other speakers at the retreat included Devorie Kreiman and the Chai Center’s Olivia Schwartz.

Appointment Time

In August, Na’amat USA, an organization that raises funds to support the social service of Na’amat Israel, appointed its first president to hail from the West Coast – Alice Howard of Encino. Howard, who has taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years, previously served the national organization as coordinator for the Western Area, financial secretary and chair of the Golda Meir Child Development Fund. She is a second-generation Na’amat USA member– her mother, Sarah Bocarsky, is a life member and was president of California’s Lake Elsimore club for 10 years.

Na’amat, which is Israel’s largest women’s movement, supports the largest network of day care centers in Israel, as well as technological high schools, women centers, legal aid services for women, centers for the treatment and prevention of violence in families and many other services.

Dori Sher, who serves as director of after-school children’s services for Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Sherman Oaks, was recently accepted in the Teen Professional Mentor Program with JCCA of North America. Sher was the only person selected from the Western Region for this prestigious program.

The Teen Professional Mentor Program is a nationally recognized curriculum that invests $18,000 worth of training, in-service and conferences/trips into each participant. The program has achieved numerous honors over the years for their work with teens throughout the United States.

For more information on the program, call (818) 786-6310.

Planet Partners

On an unusually chilly autumn night under the stars, The Coalition of the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (COEJL/SC) presented its fifth annual Environmentalist of the Year awards. A far cry from its first awards, the elaborate party at the home of Richard and Daphne Ziman drew hundreds of Los Angeles’ Jews, environmentalists, businesspeople and politicians, like former Gov. Gray Davis, mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg and Michelle Kleinert, deputy director of community affairs for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“When you think about the environment and Jewish life in Southern California, you think Ed Begley,” said the lanky blond actor, who served as the master of ceremonies for the evening.Begley said he believes in COEJL/SC because it is sounding the clarion call to save the planet: “God gave us this planet, it’s our responsibility to preserve it.”

“Together, as a community, we can make real changes,” said Jewish Environmentalist of the Year Marlene Grossman, the executive director of Pacoima Beautiful. She pointed to TreePeople for its outstanding conservation work. “Tonight is the night we teach that to our children, and tonight is the night we bequeath it to us all,” she said.

Interfaith Environmentalist of the Year went to Terry Tamminen, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency; Business Environmentalist of the Year went to Toyota, which manufactures the hybrid Prius.

The lifetime achievement award was presented to Dorothy Green, the founding president of Heal the Bay. Green said she was honored and privileged to be able to work to restore habitat and that she was glad people of different religions were coming together to work on the environment.

“To bring together communities of faith – that is the future of the environment,” she said.

“Throughout all religions, teachings and moral commandments it is clear that we must care for creation to protect future generations,” said Lee Wallach, president of COEJL/SC. “Only in coming together we can do that.” – DF


Seniors Flock to OASIS of Learning

“Make the shape of a U with your hips,” coaches belly-dancing teacher Elexa Williams. Her students willingly comply, rolling their shoulders, gyrating their torsos and undulating their hips as they follow the teacher’s example. Around their waists, the participants wear scarves adorned with rows of coins, and as they move, the room fills with a rhythmic jingling sound.

Down the hall, students peer intently at computer screens, struggling to learn the nuances of sending e-mails and creating documents in Microsoft Word.

OASIS, a program offering educational, enrichment and volunteer opportunities. Part of a national network, OASIS in Los Angeles is a program of Jewish Family Service, and is co-sponsored by Robinsons-May, the Los Angeles Department of Aging and the Westside Pavilion.

OASIS provides an eclectic array of classes, many of which are free. Fitness fans can choose among such options as chair exercise, yoga and karate. Art buffs can study French and American impressionism or drawing. Others can explore Jewish spirituality, analyze Shakespeare or play guitar. Some of the classes are even taught by retired professors from UCLA and USC. And seniors who wish to travel can choose among a variety of day excursions and extended trips.

“I think OASIS is wonderful because they have so much to offer,” said Aura, a 72-year-old participant in the belly-dancing class. She also takes “The Rabbi Speaks,” with Rabbi Michael Resnick, and a bridge class, which she said “works the aging matter in your brain.”

“OASIS provides learning and growth opportunities for active people who live at home,” program director Victoria Neal said. “It’s a progressive alternative for those who might feel like they’re with old people’ when they attend senior centers or meal programs.”

Neal estimates that between 1,200 and 1,500 individuals ranging in age from 60 to 95 attend classes at OASIS’ Westside locations each week. Most Westside classes meet within OASIS’ warren of classrooms inside the Robinsons-May at the Westside Pavilion. Others meet in community rooms within the shopping center. Satellite locations include the Farmers Market, Park La Brea, Workmen’s Circle and Jewish Family Service’s Pico-Robertson Storefront and Freda Mohr Multiservice Center on Fairfax. In Woodland Hills, classes are offered in conjunction with Pierce College through the Encore-OASIS program.

The national OASIS program was founded in 1982 in St. Louis by educator Marylen Mann and Margie Wolcott May of the May department store family.

“They wanted to create a program fostering wellness, companionship and vitality for mature adults,” Los Angeles OASIS assistant director Rachelle Sommers Smith said. “They didn’t feel that existing programs offered sufficient stimulation for retired people.”

OASIS is now available in 26 cities nationwide.

For the past five years, Fanny Behmoiras, 66, has been making a weekly trek to Pico-Robertson from Encino to attend the life history writing class.

“I come rain or shine,” said Behmoiras, who has written 153 vignettes, including those describing her family’s flight from Cuba in 1961. During this session, she shares her account of the joy of her grandson’s bar mitzvah, followed days later by the anguish of losing a cherished family member.

Her instructor, Bea Mitz, explains that participants write their memoirs to leave a history for their children and grandchildren. “They do this so that whoever follows will not have to say, ‘I didn’t ask … I wish I knew.'”

Bella Haroutunian, 73, follows life history with an intermediate computer class.

“I started a year ago,” Haroutunian said. “I had very little knowledge about computers, and I wanted to write my memoirs.”

Now she uses the computer not only to compose her life story, but also to e-mail friends and family and research her upcoming trip to Europe and Russia.

It makes me feel that I’m a little bit up-to-date,” she said. “Before, I felt that I was so behind on this technology.”

Neal says many OASIS participants explore new hobbies or careers through the program.

“They’re doing what they love to do and never had a chance to do,” she said.

OASIS also provides volunteer opportunities for seniors, who help keep the program running. Ruth Morraine, 94, has been volunteering twice a week since 1991, assisting with clerical and bookkeeping tasks. She doesn’t seem at all daunted by the need to take a taxi and two buses to reach her destination. As Morraine says, “Age is just a number, honey.”

For more information, visit or call (310) 475-4911, ext. 2200 (Westside); (818) 710-4163 (Woodland Hills); (323) 298-7541 ext. 2517 (Baldwin Hills); (310) 547-0090 (San Pedro) or (562) 601-5010 (Long Beach/Lakewood).

Two Women Rabbis Will Fill Pulpits

When Rabbi Johanna Hershenson set off from Orange County for Alaska’s sweeping vistas and majestic peaks, she was eager for a new congregational experience and professional challenges.

She discovered that most Alaskan Jews are exiles by choice who sought the wilderness of the nation’s largest state rather than institutional life.

Apart from the 175 member families she served at Anchorage’s Congregation Beth Sholom, Hershenson found little other Jewish life. As the only non-Orthodox rabbi in Alaska, she became a long-distance consultant to lay synagogue leaders in even more isolated areas, such as Homer and Fairbanks. A local Chabad rabbi and his wife were welcome colleagues, she said.

"It became clear there wasn’t a lot of room for me to grow professionally," said Hershenson, who left Alaska after three years and spent the last 12 months in Madison, Wis., for a self-imposed sabbatical. She considered pursuing a doctorate by researching the juncture of spirituality and psychology but ended up filling in for vacationing colleagues.

On July 1, Hershenson, 35, along with her family, will return to Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El, where she will serve as the assistant rabbi to Allen Krause for a second time. Then, like now, the senior rabbi is departing for a sabbatical, although this time Hershenson will not be on her own but helped by a temporary replacement rabbi.

"Jewish life is thriving there," Hershenson said, pointing out the congregation’s growth since 1998, the start of her first Beth El stint, from 425 families to 700. "It’s demography that changes; it’s not that the synagogue has magic pills."

Another female rabbi will also start work locally in July. Westminster’s Temple Beth David is Rabbi Nancy Myers’ first solo pulpit. She previously served for six years as associate rabbi of the 900-family Temple Chai of Long Grove, Ill. With a two-year contract at the smaller, 350-family Beth David congregation, Myers is the permanent replacement for Robert Klensin, who served a year as interim rabbi.

The opening arose because of the unexpected resignation of Beth David’s 13-year spiritual leader, Michael Mayershon, who stepped down in spring of 2002 (see story, page 9).

Myers, 34, impressed the Beth David search committee, which observed during a daylong trial as each finalist taught an adult education class, led a tot Shabbat service and offered pastoral counseling advice to a congregant struggling with teenagers, said Mark Sklan, the congregation’s past president.

"She was magnificent," he said.

Myers, along with her husband, Paul Prunty, and two toddlers, relocated last month to Cypress.

Jerusalem Roots Sustain Jewish Life

I never created a professional work about Jerusalem. I didn’t write about Jerusalem in the days I worked as a journalist; nor did I, as a producer, make any films about the city. Nevertheless, Jerusalem is an integral part of all of my creations. Such is the power of Jerusalem that it gives every Jew an energizing flow of Jewish spirituality that inspires all his creative works, consciously and subconsciously.

Jerusalem, it seems to me, symbolizes three basic elements in our collective consciousness: 1. identification with the Jewish tradition, 2. yearning for the Land of Israel and 3. a desire for a divinely inspired, just society.

In recent generations, Jews have been able to give concrete expression to their loyalty to Jerusalem. Zionism deals with the renewal of the bond between the people of Israel and their land and language. But, as far back as close to a century ago, the Arab residents of the region initiated savage terror attacks against Jews wishing to settle in the Land of Israel.

Contrary to often-repeated claims, terror did not begin after the Six-Day War. Even the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), which later became the Palestinian Authority, was established three years earlier, in 1964, when there were no so-called "occupied" territories to liberate.

It was with great emotional difficulty that I decided prior to the release of my film, "One Day in September," to include at its end an authentic interview with the last surviving terrorist of the terror team in Munich, whom we located in a hiding place in Africa.

His words, however, proved tragically correct. He stated: "I do not regret our attack at the Olympic Games. We succeeded brilliantly in bringing the political aims of the Palestinians to the awareness of untold millions all over the world."

Terror, which sabotages our lives in every possible way, unfortunately is succeeding in winning the sympathy of public opinion in its war against Israel. The film, "One Day in September," warns against the destruction of the Zionist dream as a result of physical terror. But it doesn’t mention a terror that is possibly even worse: ideological terror.

Recent years have witnessed an alarming explosion of sophisticated Arab propaganda that has been delegitimizing the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. This attitude can be summarized by the phrase in a Palestinian schoolbook for the sixth grade which says explicitly: "The argument that Jews have historic rights in Palestine is the greatest lie in human history."

According to a study by Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, conducted for the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, even the history of Jerusalem has gradually been rewritten. The claim that Jews have no real connection to Jerusalem and its holy sites has been adopted by the Palestinian leadership and has become entrenched in Arab and Muslim communities.

At the heart of this new version is the argument that Arabs ruled Jerusalem thousands of years before the Children of Israel. The most amazing element of the new history is the claim that the First and Second Temples are lies, fabricated by the Jews. This view was even adopted by the Web site of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, which declared that there has never been any archaeological evidence of Jewish life in the Jerusalem of ancient times.

No wonder, then, that the Palestinians seize every opportunity to destroy in the most uncivilized way all the precious archaeological findings beneath the surface of the Temple Mount. What an irony: No other people except the Jews has ever made Jerusalem its capital, despite its conquest by many imperial powers. But now clear facts are denied and history is rewritten.

By denying the historic-religious bond between the Jewish people and its land, the Arabs portray the Jewish settlement enterprise in the entire State of Israel as theft of their lands. This includes even those lands on which Jews have lived for generations and those acquired at great cost and sacrifice.

Just as the blood libels encouraged the murder of Jews, the contemporary libel that speaks about the theft of the Holy Land by the Zionists and Israel legitimizes acts of terror against the Jews."

However, the accusation of "theft" in the Arab textbooks and communications media — or as the Palestinians call it, "The rape of Palestine" — is applied to the entire State of Israel, with no distinction made between Shechem and Tel Aviv, between Jericho and Haifa.

The influence of this historic revisionism, together with the vilification of Israel and Jews, on Arab youth — particularly Palestinian youth — must be of major concern to us. The media, the textbooks and the sermons in the mosques are fraught with perverse libels and lies that distort both the historic past and the present. They prevent any possibility of coexistence and peace in the foreseeable future and poison the minds of future generations.

Whoever wants to defend Zion and whoever holds Jerusalem dear must take an active role in the struggle against this ideological terror. He must utterly repudiate the false and libelous accusations and tell the true facts about both historical and contemporary events.

Movies can play a tremendous role — a recent pseudo-historical film has demonstrated just how strong their negative influence can be — but each person in his or her own way and according to the means at his disposal, must expose these horrendous lies and slanders against the Jewish people.

The deep and abiding connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem is both a historic and an existential fact. Just as dreams of Jerusalem sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations in their darkest moments, today, too, Jerusalem nourishes the Jewish people wherever they may be.

If Jerusalem does not belong to us, our entire connection with this land is in question.

Every person needs both roots and wings. Only he who is nourished by the firm ground of his past can give creative expression to his personal dreams. Nations, too, can only soar to new horizons if they are established on sound foundations.

The roots that have bound us to this land for thousands of years are strong and deep. They allow us to survive the strongest tempests and to persist in our unique way of life. Thanks to these roots, the Jewish people was able, even after the horrors of the Holocaust, to renew itself and flourish in all paths of life.

The winds of time cannot undermine us so long as stability of the foundations of our existence, our Jewish and Zionist roots, remain firm. Therefore, we must protect, with vigor and devotion the deep roots of our tradition in Zion and Jerusalem. We all must be defenders of Jerusalem. We all are Guardians of Zion.

This is an excerpt of the annual Distinguished Rennert Lecture that Arthur Cohn delivered in Jerusalem May 27, upon receiving the Guardian of Zion Award from the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar Ilan University. Cohn is the Academy Award-winning producer of numerous films, including "The Garden of Finzi-Continis" and "One Day in September."

Victor Haim Perera

Victor Haim Perera was haunted by a curse. His great-grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Moshe Perera of Jerusalem, had warned his sons and grandsons never to leave the Holy Land without consent “from now to eternity.”

The author of “The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey,” a nonfiction work largely about that curse, died in Santa Cruz on June 14. He was 69.

Perera’s parents were Sephardim from Jerusalem who immigrated to Guatemala City in the 1920s.

“Why Guatemala?” he asked in a talk sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture at Stanford University in 1998. “I’ve written four books to try to answer that question, and the closest I’ve come is, why Guatemala?”

When he was 12, his family moved to New York City. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he got a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Michigan.

Perera worked at various times for The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine. From 1972 to 1979 he taught journalism and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz, and then taught at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley from 1993 to 1998.

He was “a man of intense and diverse interests, all connected by a search for a kind of mystical affinity or spirituality,” his friend Bernard Taper, a retired UC Berkeley professor who met Perera back in his New Yorker days, said in a 1998 interview.

“The Cross and the Pear Tree” was not only about Perera’s own family, but about the history of Sephardic Jewry. In that work, he blamed his father, who turned away from Jewish ritual, for “all but turn[ing] me into a Marrano,” Perera told the Bulletin in a 1995 interview, referring to Sephardim who converted to Christianity but secretly continued to practice Judaism.

Doing the book was a form of therapy for him, Perera said. “It has lifted the sense of the curse. It has humanized the story for me.”

Perera’s ambivalence about Judaism continued throughout his life. In 1995, he described himself as “deeply Jewish” and “quintessentially Sephardic,” but also as a “twice-a-year Jew” who had no tolerance for strict observance.

“The Cross and the Pear Tree” is one of three books Perera wrote with Jewish themes. “The Conversion,” published in 1970, is a historic novel about the Jews of Spain, and “Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood,” published in 1986, is a memoir of his childhood.

He was a co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Ivri-NASAWI, an organization intended to promote Sephardi-Mizrachi culture.

In 1998, Jordan Elgraby, Ivri-NASAWI’s other co-founder, said Perera was irreplaceable in the Sephardic academic community. Elgraby is currently at work on an anthology of Perera’s work that will be published in the fall.

In 1998, Perera had just taken a swim at Tilden Park’s Lake Anza when he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. He then moved to a rehabilitation facility in Santa Cruz.

A year after his stroke, he had regained his ability to speak, but he was only able to do so with great difficulty.

In 1999, a benefit was held by his friends to help pay for his care. Held at the Portola Valley home of Myra Lappin, the event drew more than 100 people and raised nearly $5,500. Lappin, who had studied Ladino with Perera, said he inspired her to do genealogy work, which led to her discovery that she had some Sephardic roots.

“Victor was a large part of opening my eyes to a culture that I belonged to but was largely unaware of,” Lappin said.

Perera was divorced; he is survived by his nephew, Daniel.

Donations can be sent to: Ivri-NASAWI, 1033 N. Orlando Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90069.

Jewish Churchgoers on the Rise

It’s Sunday morning at the Church of Ocean Park, a Methodist church in Santa Monica that strangely lacks overt Christian insignia: there are no crosses or crucified Jesuses decorating the walls, but the stained-glass windows do picture a bearded figure tending to a flock of sheep, with a shaft of light illuminating his head.

Some 30 casually dressed people of varying ages sit in chairs arranged in two semicircles facing the Rev. Sandy Richards, who is discussing Lazarus, a character who appears in one of Jesus’ parables to teach Christians that the poor deserve our respect, not neglect. The service continues with hymns, tearful discussion of the morning’s topic (suffering) and “bread,” a ritual where a loaf of bread is shared among the congregants.

It’s all par for the course for another Sunday at church, except for the fact that at least one-third of these churchgoers are Jews. These aren’t Jews who have converted to Christianity. They still identify as Jews, and although some are intermarried, others are not. Many of them belong to a synagogue as well as the church, but most view the church as their first choice as a locus for spirituality and community, identifying with the congregation’s strong commitment to social justice.

According to the American Jewish Identity Survey (2001), coordinated by the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, only 18 percent of the American Jewish population is affiliated with Jewish organizations, and out of 5.3 million Jews, 1.36 million are estimated to be adherents of a religion other than Judaism. The Jews at the Church of Ocean Park have not turned their back on Judaism, but their enthused participation in the church raises questions for the Jewish community about what should be the appropriate response to religious assimilation.

The church was established in 1898 as a small beachside church, but by the 1970s, it had only a handful of very old congregants. It experienced a revival in that same period, when the Rev. Jim Conn (Richards’ predecessor) started Sunday night happenings, which attracted young people who got together to dance and discuss their opposition to the Vietnam War. The community grew, and the church got involved in Santa Monica political issues — such as rent control and saving the pier. Today, the church is well-known for its participation in the living-wage movement, and, although it is Christian, it sees itself as having a “progressive definition of Christianity,” according to Richards, which allows people of different faiths to partake in its services.

“I don’t ask that people make a hard allegiance [to Christianity],” Richards said. “You can be as Jewish as can be, and you may be offended from time to time, but we are all there together, and the diversity is part of our identity.”

“The church is a group of people who are very committed to being in community with one another,” said Beth Leder-Pack, a Jew who has been attending the church since 1990. “My definition of God is basically being in community and doing good works here on earth, and the Church of Ocean Park really lives out those values. I really love Judaism, but I have never considered leaving the church, and it is true that I have never felt that a synagogue brings me all that I need.”

Leder-Pack’s sentiments are shared by many of the Jewish churchgoers. Although they admit that their choice of Sunday activity causes shock among their Jewish friends and family, they say that the feel more at home in the Church of Ocean Park than they do at any synagogue.

For its part, the church has made concessions to its Jewish members. In deference to the people of other faiths, Richards no longer practices communion at the church. On occasion, the church brings in people like Cantor Steve Puzarne of Breeyah (a synagogue revival organization) to give classes on Jewish music, and this Passover, Puzarne conducted a seder at the church.

The Jewish presence in the church, Puzarne said, is a rebellion against Jewish materialism. He added that the Jewish community needs a concerted outreach effort to reach Jews who have stepped away from the faith by either attending church or by intermarrying.

“Synagogues have become so associated with big money, catering to the big machers [wealthy people], and building one huge edifice after another,” he said. “There is a gluttony of self-indulgence around the bar mitzvah, and whatever philosophies we proclaim, we are not walking the walk.”

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, the founder and West Coast director of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary organization, called Jewish affiliation with Christian organizations an epidemic.

“This is a horrific trend of the Jewish community,” he said. “I think it is a wake-up call when we hear these things, and we need to figure out what they are doing right and what we are doing wrong. Judaism is a beautiful, spiritual, fulfilling religion. If we value Jewish survival as a people, we have to double our efforts to make Judaism more spiritual and more welcoming to people.”

Menorah Lights Our Way

For three years, I lived in an apartment in Jerusalem next to a bus stop. The rhythm of my life quickly adapted to the bus schedule. Just by looking out my bedroom window, I knew exactly when to leave the house in order to catch the bus.

When I returned to California, I assumed my life’s association with buses would end. But this was not to be. I live in a neighborhood where buses abound. But the associations couldn’t be more different.

In Israel, a bus represented a possible tomb. Each passenger a could-be suicide bomber. Taking the bus becomes a statement of defiance in the face of unrelenting terrorism and the constant threat of death.

I had friends who stopped taking the bus in favor of taxis. Or if they saw someone who looked suspicious board the bus, they jumped off and waited for the next to come along. Here, boarding a bus means getting to where you need to go.

While the buses are different, so is the experience of Chanukah. Growing up, my family always lit a single menorah in an interior room of the house. In Israel, I learned the menorah is supposed to be placed near a window looking out onto the street to publicize the holiday, and each member of the household should light his own.

I quickly grew to love this enhanced way of honoring events that happened some 2,000 years ago.

We all know the story of Chanukah. The Syrian-Greeks occupied the land of Israel and commandeered our Holy Temple. They outlawed many of our religious practices and defiled the Temple. Then a group of Jews known as the Maccabees rebelled, drove the Syrian-Greeks out and reclaimed the Temple. Topping off the victory, a flask of oil meant to last just one day, miraculously burned for eight.

But the battle of Syrian-Greek versus Jew ran much deeper than a mere physical occupation of our land. It was the battle of two great forces — spirituality versus physicality.

Syrian-Greek culture placed beauty and intellect above spirituality and religion. It honored and revered all that the physical world represented. In their aspiration for aesthetic idealism, however, they denied the transcendence of the human spirit and rejected any notion of metaphysical reality. Thus it should not surprise us that they fought so desperately to uproot Torah, the spiritual compass for morality and spirituality.

Judaism teaches that the potential for human greatness is achieved not through the ascendancy of the physical, but by subjugation of the physical to the spiritual. We strive to break through the bounds of physical limitation and aspire for a higher reality, one that lies beyond materialism, beyond superficiality.

The Syrian-Greeks enjoyed a high measure of success in "converting" Jews who succumbed to the attractions of secular life. These Jews, known as Hellenists, thrived in the cultural ambivalence offered by the Syrian-Greeks to such an extent, that Jewish tradition was on the verge of disintegration.

The Jewish people had survived attempts by the Babylonians and the Persians to destroy them physically and spiritually, but never before had a movement from within sought to redefine the beliefs and practices that had shaped the Jewish national character since the time of Abraham.

Ultimately, the Macabbees routed the enemy, the Temple was rededicated, the oil miraculously burned for eight days and the Hellenists were discredited. And just who were these victorious Macabbees? None other than the Cohanim, or the priests, of the nation.

On Chanukah, therefore, we celebrate the victory of traditional Jewish culture over both the external forces that strove to overturn it, and the forces within that wished to dilute it.

Today we find ourselves in much the same shoes, but in an even more complicated mixture. Ideological sects lay claim to spiritual authenticity, separatist movements labor to set themselves apart and multiculturists demand a coming together. Terrorism, ethnic cleansing and hate crimes prod us to wonder if we may not be better off abandoning our culture and religion.

Had the ancient Syrian-Greeks not sensed their beliefs were threatened by Jewish monotheism, they would not have fought so desperately to crush Judaism. Had the Hellenist Jews felt more secure in the traditions of their ancestors, they would never have contemplated compromising their heritage by pursuing secular culture with such fervor.

The one who knows what he believes and why is both immune to the attraction of foreign culture and tolerant of sincere alien belief. He will be neither bullied nor seduced by the philosophies of others, because he is secure in his own. He will be able to live in harmony with others and work together for the common welfare without sacrificing his ideals or compromising his values.

For more than 2,000 years, the lights of Chanukah have burned as a symbol of spiritual wisdom. And it is the menorah that represents the way the soul finds its expression in this world. No matter how much darkness surrounds us, we still light the menorah, because we know who we are and who we can be.

This year, proudly place your menorah in a spot where the outside world can gaze in and see your spiritual light illuminate the darkness. Because sometimes a bus ride isn’t just a bus ride.

Marisa N. Pickar is a freelance journalist living in Laguna Woods.

The Champion of Spiritual Maturity

Who is your spiritual hero? Asked this at a recent conference, Irecalled a story from the Talmud.

The Rabbis of the first century considered the status of an oveninvented by an entrepreneur named Achnai. Rabbi Eliezer, thepatrician elder statesman of the academy, declared the oven pure. Buthis colleagues demurred and overruled him.

Rabbi Eliezer offered every argument. But his colleagues would notbudge. The oven was declared impure.

Enraged that neither his stature nor his argument could sway thedebate, Rabbi Eliezer produced a miracle: “Let the carob tree proveit!” he said. The earth shuddered, and the carob uprooted itself androcketed into the air.

“No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” the scholarsretorted.

“Let the stream of water prove it!” he said. And the streamproceeded to flow backward.

“No proof can be brought from a stream,” the scholars said.

Rage pent up soon becomes spite. And Rabbi Eliezer, now boilingwith frustration, turned to the walls of the academy and commandedthem to fall in upon the assembled scholars. But his counterpart,Rabbi Joshua, arose and addressed the walls: “When scholars are indebate, what right do you have to interfere?” And, so, the walls didnot fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua. But neither did they resume theirupright position, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. To this day, thewalls of Yavneh — indeed, of all Jewish institutions — lean overjust a bit.

Finally, beyond all restraint, Rabbi Eliezer invokes the highestauthority: “If I am right, let it be proved by Heaven.” Whereupon,reports the Talmud, a Heavenly Voice called out: “Why do you disputeRabbi Eliezer? In all things, the law agrees with him!”

At that moment, Rabbi Joshua arose again and quoted a verse fromthis week’s Torah portion: “It [the Torah] is not in heaven!”(Deuteronomy 30:12). What did he mean by this? Rabbi Yermiahexplained: “The Torah has already been given on Mount Sinai.Therefore, we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice.”

Rabbi Eliezer produced real and wondrous miracles. On this, therewas no dispute. Nor was there disputing the reality and authenticityof the voice from heaven. But the Rabbis vested authority in neithermiracles nor voices. Rabbi Joshua speaks for the tradition when heorders God to recuse Himself from the discussion. God gave us Torah.And, along with Torah, the authority to interpret it, using thepowers of human reasoning, imagination and compassion. Even GodHimself cannot interrupt that process. Once the Torah was given, Godwas no longer revealed in miracles and voices, but expressed in humanintelligence and conscience. And how does God feel about all this?Listen to the story’s postscript:

Rabbi Nathan was a mystic who periodically met with Elijah theprophet, God’s messenger. Rabbi Nathan asked Elijah, “What did God doat that moment” — the moment when Rabbi Joshua pushed Him out of theacademy?

“He laughed with joy,” Elijah replied, “and said: ‘My childrenhave defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!”

A spirituality of obedience and submission, dependent uponmiracles and voices from the sky, represents spiritual childishness.Spiritual maturity demands the chutzpah to put away the need forsigns and wonders, and to cultivate the authority of conscience andthe powers of intelligence. We may not always be right. After all,Rabbi Joshua’s position contradicts the Voice of Heaven. In giving upthe voice of Authority from outside, we give up a degree of certaintyin our religious life. But we gain the opportunity to becomeempowered as spiritual adults. That is the will and vision of a Godwho celebrates, “My children have defeated Me!”

Rabbi Joshua, the champion of spiritual maturity, is my hero. Heunderstands the radical depth of Moses’ teachings in this week’sTorah portion (Deuteronomy 30:11-13): “Surely, this Torah which Ienjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is itbeyond your reach. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Whoamong us can go up to the heavens and get it for us?… No, the thingis very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observeit.”

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

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