Is beauty a Jewish value?


When we talk about Jewish values, we usually refer to things like justice, compassion, generosity, humility, honesty, faith, wisdom and so on. We rarely talk about beauty.

Beauty is vain and superficial, we’re so often told.

And yet, the word “beautiful” is prominent on this week’s cover of the Jewish Journal, which features an unusually beautiful sukkah, created by designer Jonathan Fong.

Normally, our instinct would be to focus on a deeper meaning of the holiday — the sukkah as a metaphor for humility; as a wake-up call to help the homeless; as a physical, palpable link to our ancestors; as a paradox of frailty and strength; or as an eternal symbol of Jewish endurance.

Those angles are all more profound and meaningful than the notion of beauty. So, why would we feature aesthetics on our cover this year?

One answer is that maybe we simply need a break from all the heaviness. Yes, we can overdose even on things like depth and meaning. Let’s face it, especially at this time of year, we’ve all been marinating in one deep sermon after another. Serious, heavy issues are weighing on us — whether about Israel, society’s ills or the need to transform our lives.

So, it’s quite possible that a light, beautiful sukkah might be just the right antidote to holiday heaviness — an ideal opportunity to lighten up and let all this depth sink in.

Or not.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in Judaism, meaning lurks everywhere — even in something as superficial as beauty.

“Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses,” according to “Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year” (Central Conference of American Rabbis). “Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension.”

In other words, by adding beauty to what we see, hear, taste and feel, we enhance our spiritual experience of the mitzvah, which brings us closer to the mitzvah itself.

Beauty is also defined, in the Jewish tradition, by the virtues of endurance and permanence.

As Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains in the magazine Jewish Action: “The Torah requires: ‘And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day (of Sukkot) a fruit of a beautiful tree — pri etz hadar.’ The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a beautiful tree by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar.

“The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word ‘hadar’ is interpreted to be a fruit which ‘dwells continuously all year on the tree’ (ha-dar, literally, ‘that which dwells’). Thus, they understand the word ‘dar’ to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French ‘duree’ or the English ‘endure’).

“The etrog tree fulfills this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm — it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.”

In addition to its permanence, beauty is also an expression of love. 

As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech said to me over lunch last week, adding beauty to a mitzvah — such as making a sukkah beautiful — is an expression of love because it’s a sign that “we are doing the mitzvah not just because we have to, but because we want to.” We glorify God’s presence by going beyond the minimum requirements, by pouring out our love for Him just as we would for those we deeply love.

As the rabbi spoke so beautifully about love, I reflected on another aspect to beauty that is often overlooked — and that is, the beauty of the words we speak.

I don’t care how beautiful we make our sukkahs or holiday tables, if some well-intentioned guest decides to ambush the conversation with a rant against Obama, or Israeli settlers, or the tragic mess in Syria, or any number of incendiary topics best left for another time — all that aesthetic beauty we’ve spent so much time creating will be immediately colored ugly.

If beautiful sounds contribute to the human enjoyment of religious acts, I can’t think of a more beautiful sound than that of pleasant conversation that stimulates the mind and warms our hearts.

In short, by making our sukkahs beautiful and adding meaningful and beautiful conversation, we can honor the enduring value of Jewish beauty, enhance our spiritual experience and deepen our love for the Almighty.

How’s that for superficial?


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

Teens should follow in footsteps of volunteerism


As I watch the first of my six granddaughters prepare to become a bat mitzvah this spring, I am filled with pride. She and young Jews like her around the world are following in the footsteps of generations of youth who came before them, affirming to their communities that they are prepared to take on the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.

Every society has a way of marking significant stages in our lives when we celebrate our transitions and mark phases of maturing.

Moments of tremendous learning and growth, these “rites of passage” — often transformative experiences — are forever imprinted in our memories. Like rites of passage in other societies, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies have become nearly universal experiences in the Jewish community. While many children of bar mitzvah age are unable to grasp all that their newfound responsibilities entail, each one recognizes the occasion as an important turning point in their lives as Jews.

The bar mitzvah epitomizes obligation to our religious and cultural ideals.

But should the bar mitzvah be the only demonstration of a young person’s communal allegiance? There are so many values that the Jewish community embraces — values that are truly universal in nature — for which we have no outward tradition of affirming with the gravity of a bar or bat mitzvah. We say we are a people committed to chesed, or lovingkindness; tzedek, or justice; and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but oftentimes we fail to see our engagement in such activities as an expression of who we are as Jews. As a people, we need to develop a new rite of passage devoted to these pillars of Jewish action.

These Jewish values were instilled in me at an early age. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of my father involve the time I spent with him visiting and helping care for people I remember calling the “little old ladies” — women who were probably no older than I am today. My father never talked in terms of charity. He spoke only of improving lives and, in turn, making the world a better place for us all. Time and again he would say, “Each of us is worth only what we are willing to give to others.”

Through our frequent volunteering I came to see that tzedakah, or giving money, is not enough — it must be coupled with its sister tzedek, bringing us closer to the people who benefit from our giving, and impressing upon us the importance of getting our hands dirty for the sake of others. The physical aspect of service is much more transformative than writing a check.

Schools and universities are catching on, adding service to standard classroom work. Service leaders in the United States also believe that they can ignite a fire in young generations who, through service work, come to think of themselves as responsible citizens, dedicated to their civic identities and to the ideals of democracy. Just as these American leaders hope to leverage service to benefit American society, so too can the Jewish community utilize service to touch both those who serve and those who are served.

We cannot underestimate the profound impact Jewish service has on its participants. First, service adds another rich layer to the lives of those already committed to Judaism. It is a channel for young Jews to expand their Jewish identities, to think about Judaism as a holistic living experience.

At the same time, service also reaches out to the Jewishly uninspired. Many young people today speak the language of universalism, choosing to view the world from that vantage point and inadvertently turning away from the particulars of Judaism.

Accordingly, Jewish service can give universalists a chance to live out their broader values in a Jewish context, to learn that they can be both Jews and humans.

Thinking about all this as a philanthropist, I began to tackle the question of how I could encourage more young Jews to engage in service. How could my philanthropy help to make service a universal Jewish experience?

Our Center for Leadership Initiatives, a new operating foundation that I helped establish in 2006, sponsored 550 young adults’ participation in service projects in northern Israel this winter, to assist the region after this past summer’s war. More than 3,000 young people from around the world applied to our Leading Up North program, and this incredible number alone shows how much this generation is eager to be involved.

When the volunteers we took to Israel finished their days fixing bomb shelters and preparing charred forests for replanting, they spent their evenings in discussion with young Israelis who have chosen to live in the socio-economically challenged regions of the country in order to bring about change. They met with Israelis and other Jews from around the world who are deeply engaged in service, working with non-Jewish as well as Jewish communities.

It was incredibly moving for me to spend time with them in Israel, hearing their impassioned words and responses. With more opportunities, they will come to see service as their unique contribution and as their duty.

In response, our foundation has not stopped with Leading Up North. We continue to support Jewish service in many ways, including J-Serve, a national Jewish teen day of service, and an online networking site and follow-up programming for alumni of Jewish service programs.

Whether you call it volunteerism, community service, tzedek, social action or something else altogether, an intense service experience must become a rite of passage for all young Jews. When it does, our community will be living the values, invested in positive change — both within the Jewish community and the general society — planting the seeds for their children to flourish, and returning the favor in a never-ending cycle.

And so I challenge all of us to step it up. Let’s step up the number of young Jews doing service. Let’s step up support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs, significantly expanding their reach. Let’s step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam. Let’s unite our community with a sincere, shared obligation to Jewish service. Let’s make service universal.

This column courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Lynn Schusterman is chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Education in the synagogue should aim for enhanced Jewish living


For professors in a university’s Judaic studies program, Jewish literacy appears to be a straightforward proposition. They can insist on prerequisites, delineate academic standards, articulate a curriculum, impose the extrinsic motivation of grades and design objective tests of students’ achievements. That is because their program is one of Judaic studies, as opposed to Jewish education, and their goal is to impart information, rather than influence behavior.

For synagogue rabbis, Jewish literacy is much more of a moving target. Jewish education in the synagogue aims for enhanced Jewish living, as opposed to striving simply for increased Jewish knowledge. It addresses the mind, heart and soul. It addresses children, adults and families – people at every stage of life, with varied backgrounds and divergent interests.

Nonetheless, it is possible, even desirable, for a synagogue to design and promote a systematic program of Jewish education and enculturation that moves its members toward Jewish literacy. For some Jews, it is sufficient motivation to know that we are commanded to engage in study as a lifelong endeavor – the mitzvah of Talmud Torah.

For other Jews, the synagogue needs to help them understand that active Jewish living will enhance their lives, that a vibrant Jewish community gives them a context for celebrating life’s joys and coping with its challenges, that Jewish texts and rituals give them a vocabulary for expressing the deepest yearnings of their souls and that learning for its own sake can be profoundly rewarding. Often, the greatest barrier for individuals is a lack of confidence and competence. A program that moves its members toward Jewish literacy fills this gap.

There are some Jews who will eagerly respond to such a program and have the time and inspiration to immerse themselves in regular, serious study. The synagogue is obligated to respond by providing opportunities for learning.

But most synagogue members are not prepared to study regularly. The synagogue must respond to this population, as well, by offering introductory programs and then helping it progress beyond the basic classes.

Synagogue membership that is diverse in background, knowledge, experience and interest also challenges synagogue leadership to be teachers of Judaism. That teaching must be guided by the conviction that Jewish literacy is not simply about book learning but also Jewish heritage and life.

To be Jewishly literate, a person need not know everything. Rather, he or she must be familiar with the basic aspects of the religion: the rhythms and cycles of the Jewish year; sacred texts; Jewish history, ethics and values, and the obligations and opportunities of being a Jew. Also, a person needs to know Hebrew – not necessarily to be fluent but at least conversant with the vocabulary of Jewish life.

Jewish literacy is a goal to be sought. Synagogues need to create communities of learning wherein members come to understand that it isn’t so much the attainment of that goal that is meaningful as the journey to get there. l

Rabbi Michael Weinberg is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, Ill., and a past president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low


Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

The “Choosing Jewish” report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

Many converted Jews — 40 percent — are described as “accommodating Jews-by-Choice.” They come to Judaism because they are asked to do so, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said. Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews — they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as “activist Jews,” or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually indistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The American Jewis Committee (AJCommittee) hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should “not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass,” said Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of contemporary Jewish life.

Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

“We should not see conversion as the end of the story,” he said. “What we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism. We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts.”

But that requires a proactive approach.

First and foremost, Jews need to “wave the banner of inmarriage,” advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as “the single best outcome.”

“We need to be up front about our preference for conversion,” he said.

To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the “nurturer of would-be converts” and the need for Jewish family members to “be clear about values and objectives.”

In addition, Bayme advocated raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, because attempting to combine religions would be “a disaster Jewishly.”

Edmund Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

“I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively,” he said. “If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in.”

Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don’t convert — not just those who do — should be paramount.

“The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life,” he said. “It’s important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

“I think its important to communicate a message of welcome,” he continued. “The message we need to send to [intermarried] non-Jews is, ‘We’re grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are.'”

Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach — less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

Bayme said “it’s a bit premature” for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.

 

$61.8 Billion


Of the 50 wealthiest Angelinos, 27 are Jewish.

Each year, The Los Angeles Business Journal uses legwork and a little guesswork to discern who’s worth the most in Los Angeles. Once the list comes out, as it did this week, I like to run it through the old “Who’s a Jew?” detector.

I’m well aware that the only people who habitually do such things are the heads of Jewish charities and anti-Semites. The former do it to garner fundraising leads, the latter do it to “prove” a worldwide conspiracy. I do it because I have something I want to tell these people — my Sermon on the Count.

My count a few years back put the number at 25. This year there are two more, including Jamie McCourt (Jew), vice chairman of the L.A. Dodgers and listed with husband Frank McCourt (not a Jew). So it goes, this slightly unseemly business of sussing out religious affiliation on a list that reveals just net worth, business interests and a bit about philanthropic activities.

It’s, of course, on that last subject that I’d have the most to say. Adding up the numbers provided by the Business Journal, I get a combined net worth of $61.8 billion.

Three things struck me about this year’s list. The first is: wow. Jews make up barely 2 percent of the Los Angeles’ population, but more than 50 percent of city’s richest of the rich. There have been precious few times in history when Jews have been blessed with so much wealth, along with so much freedom. In a city of openness and opportunity, these men and women have made the most of their chances.

Despite their common membership in a rarified group, these folks are a diverse lot.

Most are L.A. — or even American — transplants, with roots in Canada (eBay’s Jeffrey Skoll); Israel (Alec and Tom Gores, Haim Saban) and elsewhere. Their backgrounds range from Holocaust survivor (Leslie and Louis Gonda) to able scions of family fortunes (Anthony Pritzker). Their political affiliations run the spectrum, from Hollywood liberal (DreamWork’s Jeffrey Katzenberg), to George W. Bush stalwart (Ameriquest’s Roland Arnall, now ambassador to Netherlands). Their religious practices range from observant to none of your business.

You might think with great wealth has come great assimilation, as previous generations of Jews often had to choose between asserting their religious identity and social acceptance. But another striking fact of this list is how many of these people are deeply involved in Jewish communal life and causes. Westfield’s Peter Lowy is chair of the University of Judaism. The Milkens, Michael and Lowell, are pillars of Jewish philanthropy. Biomedical innovator Alfred E. Mann gave $100 million to Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology last year. As for Spielberg, there’s a little something called the Shoah Foundation. By my estimate, most have given to Jewish causes.

And this is not to sniff at their non-Jewish philanthropy. Eli Broad (No. 4 on the list) has been at the forefront of efforts to improve education and art in Los Angeles. DreamWorks’ David Geffen donated $200 million to UCLA’s School of Medicine in 2002, the largest contribution ever to a U.S. medical school. For a man worth $4.2 billion, that’s almost real money.

At the same time, the larger picture is that L.A. County trails behind other places in terms of charitable giving. As reported in the Business Journal, a 2003 Chronicle of Philanthropy study of IRS tax returns concluded that L.A. County residents with incomes greater than $50,000 gave only 7.3 percent of their income, or about $4,000, to charity. New Yorkers gave 10.9 percent and Detroit residents, the national leaders, gave 12.1 percent. In California, San Francisco residents gave 9.3 percent, people in Long Beach 8.4 percent, and residents of the city of Los Angeles 6.9 percent.

I wonder if the Jewish billionaires on the list skew the averages in L.A.’s favor. I hope so.

The last thought to strike me as I reviewed this year’s list was how incomplete it is. The Business Journal stops at 50. But there’s serious wealth from 50 to 100, from 100 to 10,000, and loads more down the line. In short, there are many challenges this community faces, but lack of resources is not one of them.

Jewish professionals often complain to me that there just doesn’t seem to be enough money. But there is — and then some.

There is enough money, I suspect, to develop a social service program to help every one of the 7 percent of L.A. Jews who live beneath the poverty line.

There is enough money to build and sustain a network of first-rate Jewish camps and give every child a chance to attend one — and there are few better ways to instill Jewish values than camp.

There is enough money to pay Jewish communal workers a wage that enables them to participate fully in Jewish life.

There is enough money to provide significant scholarships for every child in need who wants to attend a Jewish day school and to improve the quality of public schools.

There is enough money to sustain a network of state-of-the-art communal centers — either Jewish community centers or synagogues — inviting, welcoming and affordable to the entire community.

Any one of these would revolutionize the face of Jewish Los Angeles for the better, and most could be accomplished just by upping our average giving to the standard set by … Detroit.

If only our vision were equal to our assets.

Disengagement Dashes, Spurs Dreams


The evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements is not just a struggle over the question of the future of the territories. At the very core, the pullout was the first big battle on the question of religion and state.

They [religious settlers opposed to the withdrawal] have their own dream. The first stage is the “whole land of Israel,” filled wall-to-wall with Jews-only towns. True, Palestinians and Thai workers can come in to do the dirty work but no more.

The second stage is to transform Israel into a halachic state, a country ruled by Jewish religious law. Elections, the Knesset, the government and the courts may continue to function, but settler rabbis will decide just what issues are appropriate for these bodies to decide and what issues are too “holy” and important to be left to the people and their elected officials.

In their dream world, there is no place for secular Israel: Its culture is not culture; its values are not values; its opinions are not opinions.

In the eyes of the settlers, we are all poor, underprivileged children who never had the chance for a Jewish education. In their dream, our task is to become religious and to join them or at least not to stand in the way while they bring the Messiah.

We must nullify ourselves, and in return, they will hug us, sweetly, of course, and with lots and lots of brotherly love. But if we refuse, the brotherly love and the hugs will go out the window, and we will become little more than traitorous leftists or Nazis.

But we nonreligious Israelis also have a dream. We want to live in an enlightened, open and just country, not in some messianic, rabbinic monarchy and not in the whole land of Israel. We came here to be a free people in our own land.

To be a free people means each person is entitled to choose which parts of Jewish tradition are important to him and which to leave behind. It means to have the freedom to run our country according to our free will, rather than rabbinic dictates.

It means recognizing we are not alone in this land — and demanding from the Palestinians that they do the same.

It means to free ourselves, once-and-for-all, from the nightmare of being an occupying, uprooting, exploiting, settling, expropriating, humiliating, discriminatory country.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has choked the dream of free Israelis. The dream of the whole land of Israel and a messianic kingship drains daily the hope of being a people free to build a just society.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has trampled my dreams and those of my friends. But because of this, I can understand the settlers’ pain and desperation as they watch their dream collapse before their eyes.

They are experiencing exactly what my friends and I have gone through because of them, all this time. I opposed their project from the onset, from the very first settlement.

I look into their eyes, and I see true desperation and true pain, and without the slightest joy, I can say: The pain you are going through today is very similar to the pain you have put free Israel friends through for more than 30 years.

I will respect your mourning by remaining silent, but I cannot share in your grief.

And what will be after all the grief? Israel, for all her faults, is all we’ve got. It’s easy to throw stones at her, but this is not the country we prayed for.

The floor is deep, the ceiling cracked, the lights go off three times a day.

It’s easy to come up with substitutes for this Israel, easy to build castles in the sky about messianic monarchies on one hand and post-Israelism on the other.

But Israel, for all its faults, is all we’ve got.

Perhaps instead of kicking her, the time has come to get up and start fixing a little bit: to free ourselves of the occupation that continues to corrupt us; to renew our social solidarity.

A bit less “brotherly love,” a bit more responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves. A bit less holiness; a bit more justice. A bit less of the whole land of Israel, and a State of Israel a bit more whole with itself.

Through the murky cloud of poetic words and sobs, we can sometimes see during these very days the State of Israel’s quiet, beautiful face: [These are] the faces of youngsters in uniforms who chose, despite the pressure and violence, despite the curses and false hugs and emotional manipulation, to get up and protect with their body the dream of being a free people — to not rule over the Palestinians and to not be ruled over by rabbis.

The beaten, humiliated, slapped-on-the-face soldier boy, the police officer who was spat in the face — at this time they are the brave defenders of the State of Israel in the face of the unruly wave of zealousness.

The young soldier girl, her throat choked by tears, barely 19 years old, already carries the burden of the 2,000-year hope to be a free nation in our country on her shoulders.

Not in Palestinian Gaza, but rather, in our country.

With assertiveness and silent courage, but also with restraint, wisdom and compassion, this female soldier is currently protecting our most vital border — the border between what is allowed and what is not.

This is the border without which we will have no state and without which there is no freedom, no society, nothing but fiery zealousness, messianic-hysterical extremism and complete destruction — a state of affairs the Jewish people has known more than once in the past.

Reprinted with permission www.ynetnews.com.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most celebrated authors. This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 21, 2005, following the disengagement. He will speak at Sabbath services on Friday, May 19, at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. The public is invited. For more information, call (310) 475-7311.

 

Throw a Party With a Purpose


“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

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I Love You, Carnivore


This column is in response to last week’s Torah Portion by Rabbi Zoë Klein, who confessed her secret enjoyment of meat, despite her family’s predominantly vegetarian diet.

To: My Not-So-Flesh-Eating Wife

From: Her Closeted Carnivorous/Publicly Vegetarian Husband

Worry not, my dear, your struggle is safe with me over vegetarianism. I try to be one, but you know the truth of my dilemma, although it is less debilitating for me than it is for you. After 20 years, I think I’m close to being true to myself when I ignore the leftover Shabbos schnitzel from our Hillel caterer.

You see, as you know, I love meat. Love it! Growing up, although it wasn’t kosher, I took extra delight in my mother’s marinated flank steak. She also made great meatballs, and do I ever miss Shake N’ Bake chicken. How fun it was to overcook hotdogs until they blistered on the grill outside, while watching “60 Minutes” on Sunday evenings as a family.

I have absolutely no repulsion toward seeing carcasses; only a sadness that others are troubled by it. Ultimately, “we are like vanity; our days are as a shadow that passes,” as you and I read when we officiate at funerals, so why not accept that the life on the paper plates used in our homes for the kids eating a little meat is temporal? When medical shows present brain surgeries, complete with machines sucking the blood away, I can watch without any angst.

You, on the other hand, must turn the station, and at the site of roadkill, you bristle and say, “God bless it.” Actually, thank you for teaching me to do the same.

“Does it really matter if I don’t turn off the water while I brush my teeth?” one of my environment-conscientious students queried me the other day. Elizabeth had been caught by another conservationist in the throes of committing what some consider a chilul Hashem, desecration of that which was holy. Wasting water is an act of bal tashchit, our tradition’s way of saying that we are stewards of the planet and as such, we have no right to waste or destroy needlessly.

“Industries and big businesses waste far more water every day than people do brushing their teeth and watering their lawns,” she added. “Truth be told, I knew that I should turn off the water faucet, but does it really matter?”

“Maybe the key is to try to turn it off but not feel immense guilt for keeping it on, since it has virtually no effect on the environment,” I offered as a compromise. She seemed content.

As we left this “lunch ‘n’ learn” at USC’s health science campus, I had an epiphany. I wondered whether Elizabeth was channeling Torah from Sinai for me with my struggle to conquer my yetzer hara, the evil impulse toward consuming fleishigs: If I privately eat the Persian kabob leftovers after our weekly Wednesday barbecue, so that no one knows and it has no impact on anyone, might that be the ideal?

My act of civil disobedience — refusing to consume the flesh of once-living, breathing animals — has virtually no effect, perhaps none whatsoever. Agribusiness decides far in advance how many cows to raise and then slaughter without regard to my individual case.

It is almost entirely unlikely that the good folks at Rubashkin’s or some other slaughterhouse would ever take an inventory that would reflect my decision. It seems that being a vegetarian in America is as effective for slowing down meat production as trying to convince our son, Rocky, that muesli tastes better than marshmallows.

However, perhaps eating leftovers is still a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of these animals. Kabbalah teaches that when we eat foods, we elevate the divine sparks within them, so by consuming these leftovers, I am ensuring that these sparks are not wasted. It would be wrong to let the leftovers get dumped, as that would certainly be a violation of the law of bal tashchit.

The purposeful consumption of leftover meats then makes sense. However, if anyone were to find out that I was not a true vegetarian, they might never consider a vegetarian lifestyle. This would betray my values: While I can’t individually change the meat production levels in this society, creating a vegetarian movement would help keep cows jumping over the moon in perpetuity. I’m pretty much convinced that had my sister, Sylvia, never been a vegetarian, I might have never ended up in this dilemma, which pits my conscience against my cravings.

So, dear, continue to chew gum after eating a hamburger in order to mask the taste of once-living animals on your breath. Even as I argue for public vegetarianism with a strictly private consumption of leftovers, I am beginning to reach the point where even my interest in meat is disappearing. One too many PETA videos, I suppose.

Hoisting and shackling the cows horrifies me, and while kosher, I would much rather take my cues from the likes of Shlomo Goren, Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.I. Agnon and A.D. Gordon, not to mention Albert Einstein, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, all famous Jewish vegetarians.

Our prayers are for Moshiach, a messianic era in which the world order will improve in its very essence. When I say “Bayom Hahu,” on that day, I join Rav Kook in imagining a world when we need not sacrifice animals on any altar ever again.

I love you, even if you do sneak a roast beef sandwich from time to time.

Jonathan Klein is the Allen and Ruth Ziegler rabbinic director at USC Hillel.

Parental Values Do Influence Children


It was 12:45 a.m. on a Sunday, and my 14-year-old son and I were returning from a rap concert. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the entertainers were talented, and it had been fun dancing along with the concert crowd. The occasion also gave my son and me time for one of our many small intergenerational exchanges.

I admitted to my son that I didn’t understand the thrill of people shouting the infamous “N” word from the stage or the responding cheers of the audience. He said that he could understand my bewilderment because he couldn’t see why anyone (meaning me, of course) would listen to the Beach Boys. We both laughed.

By the time we arrived home, we had discussed various musical styles, how music can be an expression of cultural rage, sexual inquiry and misogyny, and how music often tells the stories of lives very different from our own. We felt close. It was a satisfying parental moment.

Having an open dialogue — about things like rap music, Xbox games or Polly Pockets — is essential for raising moral and ethical children. Creating the stage begins in infancy. There are no guarantees about the results of our parenting efforts, but there are ways we as parents can tilt the odds in our favor.

The competition is tough: television, movies, popular music, billboards, computer games, Internet access to almost anything and that most powerful competitor — peer pressure.

We will never eliminate the presence and ultimate access to views and values that we would rather they not have. But we can influence our children by displaying our own values through our behavior and words, and by understanding their world so that we can develop a relationship where anything can be talked about with mutual respect for views and feelings.

We can place our children in a school and community where they are likely to meet families with values similar to our own. But we cannot escort our children to every party, or to every friend’s house, or supervise every access to Internet pornography or even illicit drugs.

As my own children grow into adulthood, I do not want to — and can’t –control their choices; however, I do want to be a part of their internal and external discussions as they make their own choices.

Here are seven tips for creating and sustaining that kind of parent-child relationship.

1. Hold, cuddle, and talk with your children from birth. Look into their eyes; be aware of their body tension and yours — at every age. Bonding with parents is the cornerstone of moral development. Talk about moral and ethical issues in the course of daily life and help them understand the meaning of behaviors and events. While parents often worry about trusting their children as they become adolescents, the bigger issue is whether they will trust you.

2. Empathy is essential for moral and ethical behavior. Let your children know how their behavior affects you and others. Teach them to care for other people and their feelings.

3. Observe Shabbat and the holidays, using them as opportunities to celebrate Jewish values. Invite friends to the Shabbat dinner table and guarantee time and attention for each person’s thoughts and feelings, regardless of age. Use Shabbat to teach your children to make time to just think and contemplate — essential ingredients for moral behavior.

4. When your children are young, get on the floor and play with them. Then talk about these adventures both with your children and with adults when your children are present.

5. When your children become adolescents, listen with them to their music. Get the words to the songs. Talk with them about their music as an expression of their world, as you would talk with your friends about their interests. Do not condemn your child’s taste; this stops the conversation (as it would for you). Share the car radio.

6. Compliment moral and ethical behavior. When they make tough decisions, exhibit pride for their contemplation. Disagree with a choice or a behavior, but don’t attack them personally — and always do this away from their friends to protect them from humiliation.

7. Create “car talks” when you want to talk with your children about something important but which is uncomfortable for them. A car talk is a pre-planned opportunity to say one brief idea. Limit it to about 10 sentences and five minutes. In a car ride you have a captive audience for a few minutes. You and your child know this is going to be over soon. Car talks, of course, don’t always have to take place in the car.

Raising moral and ethical children in an often-immoral world can be difficult. Tilt the odds in your favor by creating the conversation.

Dr. Ian Russ is a marriage and family therapist in private practice, and consults at many Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

 

My Jewish Intermarriage


What did you and your spouse discuss after it was clear that you would have a chuppah and ketubah in your future? Probably something that turned out not to matter like, “How many kids do you want?” or “What is your dream vacation?” or “If we have twins, do you think we should dress them the same?”

If you were anything like my husband, Jeff and me, you probably completely overlooked the real marital make-it-or-break-it questions like: “During the Passover seder, do you think the adults should hide the afikoman and have the kids look for it, or the reverse?” Or “Even though neither or us keeps kosher, is bacon OK?” “Is there an exception if I’m following Atkins?” “What is your position on latkes? Scratch or box?”

Let’s face it. Every marriage between two Jews is an intermarriage. I’m not talking about the obvious ones, like a marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a Jew-by-birth who is not at all religious. Clearly if one spouse davens three times a day and the other spouse uses Mapquest to find her way to synagogue on Yom Kippur, a silver anniversary is not in their future. I’m talking about the rest of us.

Because so much of our Jewishness comes from how we were raised — and we were all raised differently — spouses never seem to be identical in the way they live their Judaism. My husband and I are a perfect example of this. Although we both grew up in families that were members of Reform Valley synagogues, our Jewish childhoods were day and night. When my husband was young, his family celebrated Chanukah, and dabbled in Christmas. In contrast, Christmas at the Jaffe home only meant that Bullock’s was closed, dinner was Chinese and that our station wagon would be headed to the nearest movie theater.

My husband’s family showed up at temple twice a year for the Big Two: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And although my mother-in-law became a temple regular after her children were grown, my husband did not chalk up a lot of synagogue time when he was a child. My brother, sisters and I, on the other hand, spent a huge chunk of our childhood at our synagogue, Temple Judea. We first started Hebrew school when we were still in diapers (or so it seemed) and continued through confirmation. We didn’t miss a holiday (OK, I don’t have any specific memories of Tisha B’Av), and much of my family’s social life revolved around our havurah and temple events. If sports camps existed when we were kids, we didn’t know about them; it was a given that we would go to Jewish overnight camps.

(I have no doubt that when my husband reads this, he will point out that the reason my siblings and I did not attend sports or rustic sleep-away camps had less to do with Jewish zeal, and more to do with my family’s complete lack of coordination and irrational fear of camping. And I admit that there is some anecdotal evidence to support that position.)

While many years of celebrating holidays together has put my husband and me mostly on the same Jewish page, our different upbringings occasionally seep through. I feel it every Passover when his family breaks into a song with an unfamiliar melody, when he chooses a salty noodle kugel like his mother used to make rather than the sweet ones that I grew up with, and when we have Shabbat dinner on Friday nights.

I know Jeff and I are not alone in trying to merge the religious habits of two different childhoods. Several friends who had very traditional upbringings are married to Jewish atheists, who could take — but mostly leave — services. These friends have become the synagogue version of the football widow, and frequently attend temple events without their spouses.

By the time you read this, my husband and I will be approaching a dozen years of marriage. So why am I dissecting our relatively minor Jewish differences now? Two reasons.

First, I have written a book about the main causes of divorce. The book is predicated on interviews with 100 divorce lawyers from all over the country. I asked each lawyer for their opinion on why people are getting divorced in droves. While not a single one of them mentioned disagreements over whether the prayer over the wine is spoken or sung, let’s just say I am hypersensitive to anything and everything that might cause marital friction.

The other reason that this is on my mind is that in a few months, summer camp will be in session. This year is the year that we intend to force our children to go to sleep-away camp purportedly for their own good, but really so that we can go on some great adult vacation. No doubt I will vote for a Jewish overnight camp, and my husband will lobby for River Way Ranch Camp. Each of our preferences will be based on what is familiar from our childhoods.

So if you know anyone trolling JDate for a husband, tell them to stop wasting their time on trivial discussions of common goals and values, and get straight to the important questions like: “If we were married, and attending High Holiday services, would you prefer to sit in front near the choir or in the back by the door?”

Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer living in Bell Canyon. She is also the author of “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide to Staying Married,” which will be released later this month from Volt Press. She can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

Valentine’s Day.com


“J-ated,” as in “jaded,” might be the best way to describe the ennui that has set in among many JDaters these days, singles tired of the merry-go-round of endless possibility and disappointment.

In spite of that, or because of it, new dating Web sites seem to pop up every day.

Remember that scene in the movie “Singles,” where the desperate woman asks the airline to seat her next to a single man — and she ends aside an obnoxious 10-year-old? Ostensibly that won’t happen on AirTroductions.com, which is not a Web site for mile-high clubbers (if you don’t know, I can’t explain it here). Nor is it solely for Jews. This outfit targets people who want to make business or personal connections either on the flight, at the airport, or with other travelers in the same city. If they find someone who matches your itinerary, you can pay $5 to contact that person. (It might beat hearing, “Can you take off your belt, Miss?” from the security guy….)

For more personal intervention, try the new Jretromatch.com, which uses paid matchmakers to set Jews up (that’s the retro part). The site, which launched Feb. 6, is based on the successful SawYouAtSinai.com. (Get it? All Jewish souls were originally at Mount Sinai, so it’s based on the pickup line, “Haven’t we met before? Didn’t I see you at Sinai?”) SawYouAtSinai aims for traditional and religious Jews and has a firm foothold in the Modern Orthodox market. It claims 14,000 members and 95 married success stories.

If you don’t want to leave your entire fate to the matchmaker, Jretromatch.com (and its non-Jewish counterpart, retromatch.com) also will let you peruse the database on your own. At $35.95 for a gold membership (which gets you six months plus two “free bonus months”) it’s less than JDate for the same amount of time, although with a much smaller membership (launching with 2,500 non-Orthodox culled from SawYouatSinai’s lists). Still, Jretromatch promises that matchmakers will interview all members and verify that they’re Jewish, something that JDate does not guarantee.

There are a handful of other Web sites aimed at religious and traditional Jews. The main one is Frumster.com, which skews toward the more religious of the Orthodox community (hence the word frum, which means “religious” in Yiddish), although now it has opened up to all “marriage-minded” Jews, according to Ben Rabizadeh, CEO of Frumster. The Web site claims 20,000 members and 542 couples (married or engaged) and starts at $8.95 per month, but still seems aimed most at the very religious, especially given that it requires users to specify levels of observance. You can choose between Traditional and Non-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox-Machmir, Modern Orthodox-Liberal, Yeshivish Modern, Yeshivish/Black Hat, Chasidic, Carlebachian, Shomer Mitzvot.

Other religious Web sites include UrbanTraditional.com (“putting traditional values back into Jewish dating”), Orthodate (“Your Bashert could be just a click away”) and Frumdate (“Our first priority is not simply to make a match but to help singles draw closer to Hashem and find the best within themselves”).

In addition to religiosity, there are other niches in the Jewish online dating market. Consider DarkJews.com — not a racist term, but a statement about skin tone for some Sephardic Jews — a new Web site for Syrian, Persian, Bucharian, Moroccan, Israeli, Egyptian, Yemenite, Spanish, and Turkish Jews. There’s even a category for half-Sephardic and “other,” which defies easy understanding in this context. Another category is “Come to America” where the choices are: Born, Toddler, Adolescent, Teenager, Adult or I’m Not in America.

DarkJews.com is based on the myspace.com and friendster.com models, which allows users to add their friends and their friends’ friends and is more of a social connector than a straight dating Web site. Right now it’s free, and popular among Persian Jews in California. Lumping all “dark Jews” together doesn’t work even for all dark Jews, because many of Far and Middle Eastern origin prefer to date within their own, more narrowly defined communities. Bjews.com, for example, for Bukharian Jews (from Uzbekistan and Central Asia) includes a dating site.

The most retro thing of all, though, might be to leave the computer behind. “Just let it happen naturally,” as your married friends will advise, putting aside the problem that natural meetings often mean the UPS man (or woman) delivering your Amazon.com orders and your neighbor asking you to turn your music down. Bar hopping is equally random and can lead to options with less to offer than the hardworking UPS delivery person.

If that leads you back to JDate, well, it does claim half a million members. And JDate is throwing a party at The House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard on Feb. 13.

Who knows?

 

Friedan: Universal Woman, Particular Jew


Betty Friedan was, like most ordinary mortals, a mass of contradictions.

She was loud and sometimes imperious, yet she could be charming, funny, gentle, kind and winsome. A public persona, at times her ego needed massaging, but she remained surprisingly unassuming and unpretentious.

Though she exuded self-confidence, her vulnerabilities were right out there for all to see. She could fix her eyes and set her jaw in a ‘take no prisoners’ position, but she could also listen to opposite views, change her mind, and soften at the distress of others.

Friedan, who died last weekend at age 85 at her home in Washington, D.C., was both universal woman and particular Jew. The word Jewish does not appear at all in “The Feminine Mystique,” her seminal work, yet every heartbeat was a Jewish one. Once, in her 50s, after fame, fortune and independence had filled her life, she asked one favor of friends — to find her a nice Jewish husband.

She wrote about the drudgery and mindlessness of family work, yet her family was the sustained love of her life. She was totally invested in her children and longed for grandchildren well before they came.

This complicated, complex woman changed all of our lives, even those who never read “The Feminine Mystique” or never heard of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

She spawned perhaps the most profound social revolution of the last few centuries without a drop of blood being shed. She will go down in history as one of the great change agents of modern history; and for us, she will be a continuing source of Jewish pride, characterized in our own history books as one of the contributions we made to the world.

How and why was her impact so great? For that matter, how was it that she changed my own life as a Jewish feminist — for I came from a very different place in the 1960s, from a community that offered women great satisfaction and sense of value in their roles as wives and mothers?

Her book seemed to be anti-family, anti-men. Though her chapter “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available” carried some truths, mostly she managed to put down so many of the great women I knew, full-time homemakers and mothers. Moreover, as the women’s movement got off the ground in the ’60s, building on her book’s steam, it quickly became more radicalized. The rhetoric of family as locus of abuse and man as exploiter grew more shrill. I’d have none of that!

Yet along with the excesses of early feminism was the underlying idea Betty Friedan offered the world: gender equality. This meant much more than the women’s vote. It meant equal access, equal talent and brains, equal dignity of women — and all of it a matter of justice.

For me, she did not adequately answer the question of equal careers and who would make lunch for hungry toddlers, prepare for Shabbat dinner with guests or meet the school bus each afternoon. She could not, because someone had to do the drudgework that accompanied the peaks and joys of raising children and running a Jewish household — and society was not yet organized to split these roles. But once she implanted in our minds and hearts the idea of equality of genders, once she posited this as ethics rather than as a battle between the sexes, each of us would try to work out the details in our own lives.

More than that, she opened the door to broader application of the idea of equal access and dignity to other spheres of life. In 1963, I made no connection between feminism and Jewish religious life, the imbalances in traditional Judaism created by gendered religious roles, the prevailing limitations on women studying Talmud or even the real disabilities in Jewish divorce.

But others did. These were a handful of Jewish women of the 1960s, women of Ezrat Nashim, women of other denominations who were writing about or modeling the new values, women who mediated secular feminism into Jewish feminism. Once these pioneering Jewish feminists established the connections, I could apply them to my own community — not out of a sense of abuse for I still felt none, but out of a sense of ethics, of meeting the original biblical paradigm — male and female created as equals in the image of God.

Friedan taught us several other important lessons. Not content to rest with the mighty power of her pen, she understood the covenantal nature of organizational life: For a job to be done and the work to continue, one needed more than an idea, more than cohorts. One needed organizational structures that would allow others to find an address and to take up the work. Friedan went on to found or co-found NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the First Women’s Bank and Trust Company. She co-organized the first protest march and the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. In 1969, though already beleaguered by opposition to feminism, she was unafraid to publicly take on the abortion issue, founding NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League.

These organizational models and her writings spawned hundreds of others. A spate of books and periodicals followed hers, and many hundreds of independent feminist organizations were created on these shores and far distant ones. Thus, her work in the world was multiplied in the arenas of politics, domestic life, religion, economics, education and all of the professions. It was, I believe, more than some of her sisters in the movement would acknowledge in later years.

As for her Jewishness, Friedan wore it proudly. In 1975, Rabbi Isaac Trainin and I invited her to join a New York Federation Task force, then called Jewish Women in a Changing Society. She joined in an instant, as if she’d just been waiting for the Jewish community to invite her in.

At her first meeting, she spoke of how Jewish values of justice had influenced her feminism, indeed her entire outlook on life. Later, we would learn that being a smart, Jewish girl growing up in Peoria, Ill., would shape her sensitivities as an outsider and sharpen her abilities to engage confrontation, both of which helped her in the early feminist battles.

She also was concerned specifically about the Jewish family. Once, in the early 1980s, as she, Susan Weidman Schneider and I shared a panel in Chicago on “Feminism and the Jewish Family.” I quipped that I was a slow learner for I had read “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 while pregnant with my second child but went on to have three more children. (In the book, she caricatures the woman with a vision of five children). Friends though we were by then, she took considerable umbrage at my comment for she disliked being associated with a decline in the Jewish birth rate.

She saw Jewish feminism as a logical extension of secular feminism; the same rubrics applied: access and education; the need for ‘outside’ or public roles as well as inside ones defined as women’s primary space; freedom to control one’s destiny in marriage and divorce.

In those years, the Task Force held conferences on the agunah (the problem of women who have trouble obtaining a Jewish divorce), on infertility, on the Jewish family. Though peripherally involved in those conferences, she remained curious and interested in their outcomes.

Friedan’s greatness also lay in her ability to rethink matters. In publishing “The Second Stage,” she recognized that she had gone too far in “The Feminine Mystique” in denigrating women’s roles in the home. She wrote of transcending the false polarization between feminism and family, between men and women. She addressed the realities of work in the home and the satisfactions of women who chose that as their primary role. She was criticized by some of her more radical counterparts for selling out the original vision, but then, as earlier, she held her ground.

She once acknowledged that some of her writing in “Second Stage” was influenced by her contact with Jewish women of the federation world who successfully put together family and service and who made sequential choices in their lives regarding family and career.

Jewish history is full of flawed models, sometimes more powerful because of their flaws, and certainly more accessible. Betty was straight as a narrow, totally transparent, nothing behind a veil. What you saw was what you got, including anger or bruised ego. But that made the love, the caring, the creative mind, the generous spirit and the passion for justice all the more precious.

Blu Greenberg is founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and founding chair of One Voice: Jewish Women for Israel.

 

Choosing Pluralism


We were all seated in our respective minyanin when a large outburst sounded from the Orthodox group down the hall. Within a few moments, teenagers were running out from every direction, anxious to see what the excitement was about. As I edged closer, I realized it was not disagreement, but joyous celebration filled with shrieks and songs.

Before I could gather my thoughts, someone grabbed my hand and I was swept up in a whirlwind of excitement and shoved against Jewish teenagers of every denomination in a celebration of Shabbat, Israel and Jewish pluralism.

Attending the North American Association of Jewish High Schools’ (NAAJHS) leadership conference last year awakened me to the great possibilities of Jewish pluralism. NAAJHS was founded as a forum for Jewish community high schools to exchange ideas and work toward the betterment of Jewish education.

Sensitive to the needs of students that affiliate themselves with different denominations, the heads of the program offered a variety of minyan choices, from liberal nature services to Orthodox services with a mechitza. However, as Shabbat approached and we gathered in our separate alcoves, a spark of enlightenment surged across the room as we felt the need to enact the Jewish pluralism that we discussed in our daily seminars.

Clasping hands with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews, we proclaimed our love for Judaism in an outburst of song and dance, putting our differences in belief behind us.

Hidden beneath such Jewish rituals and celebration lies the true nature of pluralism. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis discusses in his essay, “The Pendulum of Pluralism,” the Talmud prescribes benedictions for all of life’s wonders — upon seeing a rainbow, nature, the ocean — but upon witnessing a Jewish audience we are commanded to pronounce: “Blessed is he who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, as is the face of each different from the other.”

Are we living up to this commandment?

Earlier this year, Rabbi Schulweis came to Milken Community High School to engage in a discussion with teachers and students about pluralism. As a school that prides itself on pluralism within a community setting, Milken sought clarity and distinction about a concept that can become cloudy and convoluted.

I was seated on a panel with other students and faculty members, and after our prescribed questions were asked and answered, one teacher in the audience asked a monumental question, one that broadened the question of internal Jewish pluralism to our place in a larger, pluralistic culture: How can we truly embrace pluralism within our society if we are the chosen people, deemed by God to be prosperous and blessed?

Rabbi Schulweis answered the question without hesitation.

“I don’t believe that any religion is chosen by God,” he said, “I believe that we are a choosing people, not a chosen people.”

If we as Jews were to walk around deeming ourselves higher than our surroundings, we would fail to accept others as equals. However, the first step in solving this problem of universal pluralism is addressing the problem of denominational pluralism within our own faith.

Too often we neglect the tension that exists between the Jewish people in order to focus on more prominent, global concerns. By choosing to engage in study and discussion with Jews from all denominations, we will instead model the very behavior we wish to incorporate into larger American society. As the modern enactors of our ancient covenant with God, we must emphasize “choosing” over “chosen,” equality over factionalism and denominationalism.

This transition from passivity to action must first be implemented in solving what Rabbi Schulweis identifies as a key tension within Judaism — the sectionalism among Jewish youth. Conservative teens attend United Synagogue Youth (USY) events, Reform teens attend North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) events, and Orthodox teens attend National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Each youth group provides a comfortable environment for teens to interact with one another, forming friendships that emphasize Jewish values and the importance of Israel. After reviewing the mission statement on each group’s Web site, I found an abundance of overlap and commonality. Each group aims to develop a strong attachment to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel by engaging in study, participating in services, and living a Jewish life. Why don’t these groups explore their own beliefs and values through interaction with each other?

As a student of Milken Community High School, a school in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teenagers study together, I have made it my personal goal to traverse the boundaries of my affiliation with the Conservative movement. If we take a step back from our differences in opinion — take a step back from the confines of our denominations, the limits of our beliefs and the restrictions of our own subjectiveness — we will truly be able to embrace pluralism. As Rabbi Schulweis writes, “Pluralism is not the surrender of debate or the bleaching of passionate conviction … pluralism calls forth an ethic of openness, a disposition to inclusiveness.”

Ashley Reich is a senior at Milken where she is co-editor of The Roar, the school’s newspaper.

The ‘Munich’ Concern Is Us — Not Film


Lyndon Johnson once famously observed, “The difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals don’t eat their friends.” His aphorism is no less apt today in discussing Jews and their treatment of one another. Since early December, there has been a disturbingly venomous campaign directed at Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Munich,” by machers, opinion molders and self-appointed pundits in the Jewish community.

Of course, there is room for different opinions about the complex issues raised in the movie, as there is with virtually anything written or produced about the Middle East. We recognize that there are those who may view the questions the movie poses differently than we do. However, many of these critical voices have chosen to assault, not critique, the movie and its director in a series of vitriolic ad hominem attacks on Spielberg.

Here is a sampling of what has appeared:

  • “…. Munich is about not upsetting terrorists … [it is] filled with fakery … made me sick to my stomach … thanks for blaspheming these murdered athletes’ lives, Spielberg … the memories of these innocent victims of terrorism are desecrated … Abu Spielberg — minister of disinformation.” (Debbie Schlussel, syndicated columnist)
  • “An anti-Zionist epic … not the expression of Jewish values but the contradiction of them.” (Samuel G. Freedman, Jerusalem Post)
  • “By naming his movie ‘Munich,’ he advances the message of appeasement. It’s as if the writers and director were intent upon ignoring the questions of interest in favor of creating a politically correct ‘Mein Kampf’ for our time.” (Kate Wright)
  • “No, let’s overanalyze ‘Munich’ for what it is. It’s dangerous…. Steven you are naively taking on the role of ‘Tokyo Rose,’ and you don’t even realize it…. Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth….” (Joel Leyden, Israel News Agency)
  • “Spielberg smears Israel … a falsehood at its core … cinematic manipulation rooted in lies.” (Andrea Levin, Camera)
  • “Spielberg is too dumb, too left and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival….” (Andrea Peyser, New York Post)
  • “It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian.” (Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post)

What could provoke such venom against the man who brought the world “Schindler’s List” — as important a film on the Shoah as has yet been made? The man who chronicled the visual histories of 50,000 survivors for posterity, and who, through the Righteous Persons Foundation, supports creative Jewish endeavors throughout America.

Were Spielberg another too-left Hollywood type who cavalierly flirted with the tough issues posed by “Munich” with no previous record of involvement or concern about Jewish matters, one might begin to fathom the nastiness of the attacks and the gratuitous personal barbs. But he comes to the movie with a distinguished, if not unparalleled, track record of achievement vis a vis the Jewish community, Israel and its image.

One has to ask: Why such vitriol?

There is a common subtext in these attacks that betrays a worldview that is anachronistic and fatalistic.

The critics seem to share a view that by portraying ambivalence on the part of the Israeli avengers or by allowing the terrorists to briefly enunciate their claim, the movie will encourage audiences to be equivocal in their understanding of terror and its perpetrators. Filmgoers will conclude, “A pox on both your houses, all you violent fanatics!”

It is hard to imagine that in a post- Sept. 11 world most audiences won’t have in their minds and guts a very clear view as to who today’s terrorists are and how they brazenly act in violent, irrational and heartless ways. The massacre at Munich is characterized as the original sin, distinct in its wantonness and brutality.

Any thinking American understands that responding to terror, even if violent and brutal, is qualitatively different than indiscriminately and purposefully targeting innocents. If you don’t get that message from “Munich,” you aren’t watching the film.

Equally mistaken, the critics fear that filmgoers will weaken their support for Israel because they will no longer see Israel as a victim. If its avengers commit violence, while betraying some ambivalence about the acts they carry out, the case for Israel, the critics fear, is weakened.

Americans’ support for Israel is not contingent upon being perceived as either infallible or as a victim. Israel is one of the world’s leading military powers; its armed forces have very few equals, certainly none in the region.

Americans respect its achievements and successes. An honest discussion of the issues surrounding terror won’t change the reality of with whom most Americans identify.

Losing the victim label does mean greater scrutiny. Greater scrutiny means occasional self-doubt and open, democratic questioning of how one acts. Israel was created precisely to give Jews power over their own fate, to act and not to quiver. Neither the Israelis nor we are powerless victims.

Like other democracies, Israel has its debates in the open. Anyone with an Internet connection can read and marvel at them. Spielberg hasn’t created those debates, he reflects them. The fear of washing our linen in public ought to be gone; Israel is a nation like others.

There is no need for a mentality of fear, for the embrace of victimhood or for the nastiness that permeates much of the anti-“Munich” diatribes. We can ask questions, we can worry about what we do, we can challenge each other in public and we need not fear for Israel’s security or our safety.

What we should fear is becoming like President Johnson’s former friends and devouring each other.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations agency. Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting


 

When attorney David Karp reminisces about his time in the Cub and Boy Scouts, the good memories come flooding back. He remembers taking long nature hikes, making close friends and fashioning a pinewood derby car from a block of wood, four nails and four wheels. The Scouts, he said, taught him how to work well with others, play fairly and know right from wrong — qualities that have served him well as an adult.

After the birth of his son, Samuel, in 1990, Karp decided that he would one day introduce the boy to the joys of scouting. But Karp wanted to touch more lives than just Samuel’s. Through the Western Los Angeles County Council Jewish Committee on Scouting of the Boy Scouts of America, he has found a way successfully to combine his two great loves: scouting and Judaism, both of which shape his ideas, values and conduct. In the process, Karp, a Reform Jew, has done more than perhaps anyone in Southern California to bring local Orthodox Jews into the world of scouting.

“Once I accepted that I wanted to make a place for Jews in scouting, it was only a matter of time before I decided we had to be inclusive of all Jews,” said Karp, who headed the Council Jewish Committee from 2002 to 2004 and remains treasurer.

Under his direction, Karp said he and other council members helped oversee the creation of a Boy Scout troop and later a Cub Scout pack at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Subsequently, Karp’s efforts have helped lay the foundation for other shuls to form scouting units.

“David Karp made it possible for us to have this program,” said attorney Yacov Greiff, scoutmaster of Troop 613 at Shaarey Zedek. “Aside from personal kindness and modesty, exemplary menschlichkeit and tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish community, he deserves particular recognition for going out of his way to reach across sectarian lines.”

Karp also helped make it possible for Orthodox Jews to participate in the Kinnus weekend, an annual committee-sponsored event that attracts hundreds of Jewish scouts and their families from the Southland and beyond. At the suggestion of several religious Jews, Karp and others approved the serving of strictly Kosher meals, offered Orthodox Shabbat services and set up an eruv, or boundary, which permits the carrying of supplies and other goods during the Sabbath. The result: Orthodox Jews now account for more than half of Kinnus, participants, up from zero in 2001.

“David’s been instrumental in uniting the three Jewish denominations into one identity as Jewish scouts,” said Jeff Feuer, cubmaster of an Orthodox pack sponsored by Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “In my personal opinion, it’s best if we work together and understand and learn to celebrate our differences.”

As a professional mediator, bringing together Jews under the banner of the Scouts has come naturally to him.

“I suppose I’m a facilitator,” said Karp, who is now a Boy Scouts of America district chairman for the East Valley. “I like to find common ground.”

 

David Karp

MORE MENSCHES


Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

Making Mensches


Barbara Gereboff counts among her proudest moments an argument between two of her middle school boys. When Gereboff asked the hallway adversaries what the problem was, one boy responded, “He’s not treating me with kavod [dignity].”

The students had learned the term kavod through a values program at Kadima, a Conservative day school in West Hills where Gereboff is head of school. She says that teaching kids to be mensches is as high on the priority list as helping them master algebra and topic sentences.

And for the boys in the hall, something positive seemed to be sinking in.

The goal of shaping high-quality people is especially foremost during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At Kadima and elsewhere, educators and students turn their attention to teshuvah, repentance, encompassing the whole process of character development and self-improvement.

But High Holiday lessons can ring hollow if becoming a better person is not a year-round pursuit. In a growing number of schools — Jewish and secular — programs on building character are being integrated into the curriculum. As the incubators of tomorrow’s adults, schools have begun to recognize a responsibility to produce graduates who treat each other well and are dependable members of society.

The challenge lies in ensuring that kids are not just memorizing lists of values and tucking them away with other academic minutiae, but are internalizing and applying them in everyday situations.

For Gereboff, the fact that a boy could summon the language of kavod in the heat of argument signaled that Kadima’s approach is making a difference.

Kadima starts with behavioral principles based on the notion that all people are created in the image of God, which requires them to act honestly, treat people with dignity, and improve the world in partnership with God.

These principles are posted around the school, and form the basis for a value-of-the-month program, which includes classroom lessons, recognizing exemplars of that value and a special assembly. Teachers look for moments in both formal teaching and in social interaction to reinforce those values.

This year, Kadima Rabbi Jacqueline Redner introduced a set of 20 Earth Angel value cards. Students can earn a card by displaying the particular value — such as honesty, or treating your environment well. They also can pull a card from a deck, which establishes a value they can aspire to through activities at home and in school.

“I really want to give the kids a sense of what it means to live your life in Kedusha [holiness], and what it means to be part of a people that is supposed to be holy in this world,” Redner said.

At New Jewish Community High School in West Hills, all students spend their first year of Jewish studies with Rabbi David Vorspan, who pioneered an approach he calls Kodesh Moments – moments of holiness.

On a recent Monday in early September, Vorspan introduced the concept to a class of freshly minted ninth graders.

“What does holy mean?” he challenged them. “What has the capacity to be holy?”

The students offered a white-board full of thoughts that Vorspan narrowed down. Holiness is the highest level of human behavior. It is acting most God-like. And it is being the best we can be, he said. Kodesh moments, he told them, arise when you sanctify an ordinary moment by looking for ways to elevate your behavior. That might mean stopping yourself from gossiping, he offered, or helping an injured friend up the stairs.

“The concept of Kodesh moments takes a teenager who thinks he can’t avoid temptations, and it shows them they can,” Vorspan said. “It puts them beyond the level of what teenagers think they can actually do,”

Kodesh Moment signs are posted around the school, programs and assignments deal directly with ethical development, and teachers are always on the lookout to point out a Kodesh moment — or its antitheses.

The administration is careful not to overuse the catch phrase, knowing that if trivialized, it could become a running joke among students at the four-year-old transdenominational high school.

Students say they take interpersonal ethics seriously, and according to some 10th- and 12th-graders, the emphasis on values creates an atmosphere of communal caring.

“I noticed with my parents that I have conversations with them and I don’t jump to conclusions, so I can have a more thorough discussion,” said J.J. Berthelson, a 10th grader who lives in Tarzana.

Reaching that level of penetration and practical application takes persistence and deliberate plan, says Michael Josephson, founder of Character Counts!, a Los Angeles-based program now being used by 6 million students in schools, athletic programs and youth clubs nationwide, including the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD).

“You need to make a conscientious effort to be proactive and pervasive in the way you emphasize values… so it becomes part of the natural framework in which children think,” said Josephson, whose short commentaries on ethics are featured daily on KNX-AM 1070.

Character Counts, a project of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, provides training and materials based on six pillars: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Developed at a 1993 summit by academics, religious leaders and mental health professionals, these characteristics, Josephson contended, are ones that every culture and religion can agree on.

Character Counts has been adapted by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as “Catholic Character Counts,” and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades — where Josephson is a member — will be the first Jewish school to translate the six pillars into Hebrew and add the notion of holiness for a pilot program called Menschlichkeit Matters.

Josephson tailors the training not just for teachers, but for athletic coaches through a program called “Pursuing Victory With Honor,” and for student leaders such as team captains and student body presidents.

Of course, the program is only as good as the educators implementing it. It works even better, they say, when the ideas are reinforced at home.

But research suggests that in Character Counts schools academic achievement improves, according to independent analyses of school records in several states where the program has been successfully utilized. In a study conducted by South Dakota University, everything from crime to drug problems to bullying and racism dropped at Character Counts schools across the state.

Bob Weinberg, a principal and former football coach, has spent five years making Character Counts central to his program at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, a grade 4-through-12 magnet school.

“Academics are obviously important at this school — that is what we’re all about — but unless you have them in conjunction with ethics and treating each other with respect, all you really have is nothing, kind of an empty shell,” said Weinberg, past president and still a board member of LAUSD’s Association of Jewish Educators (AJE).

Weinberg begins each day with a PA announcement that includes a short anecdote on someone — in the school, in the news — who showed strong character, and he ends each announcement by saying, “And remember, character counts.”

In the high school, Weinberg said, the focus turns toward honesty and not cheating — whether it be cheating on tests or by downloading illegal free music or term papers.

Weinberg is a formidable role model for the students, and he expects a lot of them. In 2004, several players from a baseball team that had already clinched a spot in the championship series decided not show for the last two regular-season games, thus forfeiting the games. Weinberg, with his eye on character rather than the playoffs, had the team forfeit their spot in the postseason. Last year, that action won him the Pirkei Avot Award for ethical behavior from the AJE.

“Character is what you do and the decisions you make when no one is looking,” said Weinberg. “The most important thing is being true to yourself and true to what you know is right.”

Tribe


Back when I was working at a newspaper in New York, my editors and I tried to come up with a teen-sounding headline for a story on voting for our new teen section.

“How about ‘Gettin’ Out the Vote’?” my editor offered.

As if dropping a “g” off the end of the word is all one needs to do to appeal to teens.

I knew then, and I know now, that to really speak to teens, you just have to be one.

Adults can affect any sort of teenish language they want; they can claim to understand how the teenage mind works, to get the issues teens are thinking about. But teens know a fake when they see it.

That is why The Jewish Journal has decided to hand this page over to teenagers. Once a month, we will choose columns, feature articles or news stories submitted by teens in grades 9-12.

As you can see on this page, Natalie Goodis, a junior at Marlborough High School, has inaugurated the page with a column about how her experience in Eastern Europe and Israel changed her.

Here’s your chance. Write an article about what a teenager has to weigh when deciding whether to date only Jews. Send us your thoughts on evolution vs. creationism. Tell us about what you think about Ariel Sharon, about this country’s hurricane response, about your grandmother. Describe an event at your school that moved the whole student body to action.

The topics are up to you; the voice is yours.

We hope the monthly page is just the beginning. We want teens to talk to us — to have some input into what their peers should be writing about. That is why we are creating a Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee. (How would that look on a college resume?) The committee will meet several times a year to determine what topics you want covered in these pages, and to get your feedback on where things should go.

Being a teenager is intense. It is when you form your values, you solidify lifelong relationships, you choose a path for your future. Most teens are profoundly aware of just how pivotal these years are, and a lot of teens have something to say about it.

If you’re one of them, we’re waiting to hear from you. This is your chance to help more than 100,000 Jewish adults get a glimpse into your world.

Action Items:

  • Articles: First-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words — submitted as an attachment to an e-mail.
  • Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee: Send your name, age, school and up to 200 words on why you should be on the Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee.

Ground Rules

Entrapment, Surrender and Silence


If recent press reports regarding the government case against two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) employees are to be believed, then I am increasingly outraged at the government’s case, AIPAC’s response and the silence of the American Jewish community.

A word of caution is in order: Because grand jury testimony is secret — or at least should be — we do not know the full nature of the government’s case against these individuals, and will not know it unless an indictment is delivered and they are charged with a specific crime or crimes. But press reports, if they are accurate, point to an outrageous setup of the two and a muteness on the part of our community.

According to recent reports in the Washington Post and Ha’aretz, Keith Weissman, an AIPAC staff member, was told by Lawrence Franklin, a midlevel Pentagon official working in the office of Assistant Secretary of Defense Doug Feith, secret information that the Iranian government had targeted Israeli agents working with the Kurds for death in Iraq. According to the newspapers, he then took that information to his superior in AIPAC, Steven Rosen, who made three calls: two to check out the story and a third to warn the Israelis of risks to their agents in the field.

Given what Weissman was told — the information turns out to have been false, deliberately so because Franklin had set him up — Rosen could assume that Israel, an ally of the United States in the region, was working with the full knowledge and consent — active or tacit — of the United States. One may presume that the Israeli government or Israeli intelligence would not operate in such a sensitive area of American activity during wartime without finding a way of informing their ally.

Secondly, an American government official working in an office so friendly to Israel would not casually leak such sensitive information. There was a purpose; the information was to be conveyed elsewhere. In short, the Israelis were to be warned.

This is not the Jonathan Pollard case.

Neither Rosen nor Weissman were American government officials who had broken the laws of secrecy, the commitments that come with any level of security clearance, let alone top-secret clearance. They were not agents of a foreign government (although it seems that this is the goal of the U.S. government investigators and prosecutors — to require Americans Jews working in the U.S.-Israel foreign policy arena to declare themselves foreign agents of Israel). The Israeli government did not pay them for their services. They did not transmit documents.

If press reports are correct, they had acted as conduits for information leaked to them that was designed to save the lives of Israelis working with the consent and knowledge of the United States — at purposes agreed upon by the United States — to support American policy and the interests of both the United States and Israel.

Little did they know and less could they imagine that the information given to them was a sting operation by government investigators who already knew Franklin, the American government official, would be charged with criminal misconduct for allegedly mishandling classified documents by removing them from his office and taking them to his home.

Rosen and Weissman were attempting to save lives, not compromise lives or engage in a political vendetta. They had every reason to believe that they were operating with the active consent of the Pentagon, which had given them the information in the first place. According to press reports, they did not solicit the information; they merely listened to what was told them.

AIPAC initially gave these two officials administrative leave, continued them on salary and agreed to pay for their defense. They were working for AIPAC and trying to save Israeli lives, trying to further the alliance of the United States and Israel.

It seems that over the past month — in advance of its much-heralded and highly successful conference that featured U.S. government officials from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on down — AIPAC caved and fired these officials. It has told its key supporters that it will continue to fund their defense, but it has left them to fend for themselves economically at a time when both men will be preoccupied with their own defense and virtually unemployable.

Both of these men have made important contributions to the U.S.-Israel relationship — Weissman, an expert on Iran, and Rosen, a principal architect of the U.S.-Israel strategic cooperative relationship for more than 20 years.

And why the silence of the American Jewish leadership, which should be outraged by government entrapment on civil liberties grounds, and which should be furious that the bait the government chose to use was Israeli lives?

I lived in Washington when Pollard was arrested, and was the editor of a Jewish newspaper who joined the chorus of condemnation of both Pollard and the Israeli government for their ineptitude and stupidity in using an American Jew as an agent. It sent a chill throughout Washington officialdom, especially among a new generation of committed Jews, supporters of Israel, who were working throughout the government in every level of government service and in every agency.

This is different.

Weissman did what any person in his position is supposed to do. He went to his superior with important, albeit secret, information that purported to tell him that Israeli lives were at risk — immediate, tangible risk, information given to him in a quasi-official fashion, but what he presumed to be a most reliable source. And Rosen acted on such information to save the lives of agents working in direct alliance and with the presumed consent of the United States.

This was not a question of dual loyalty or conflicting loyalty, but of saving lives. From the perspective of Jewish tradition, if press reports are to be believed, they acted honorably in a manner prescribed by tradition, and Jews should not be adverse to defending those traditions, affirming those values and to supporting these men.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and an adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism.

 

An Oleh Love Story


During my first visit to Israel when I was 24, fantasies of aliyah and Israeli women captured my imagination.

I pictured myself waking up every day to the tangerine Jerusalem sun in a narrow Nachla’ot apartment that overlooked the city.

Then I imagined falling in love with one of those loud, rosy-cheeked, Teva-sandal-and-flowing-skirt-wearing Israeli girls with wild curly hair and big dusty backpacks.

I knew I would find myself back in Jerusalem. But marrying a native Israeli, speaking only Hebrew together and building a home removed from the Western Anglo community and culture where I lived my whole life somehow seemed unrealistic.

Inherently, I knew I would end up marrying a woman with a similar worldview. But only recently, after becoming engaged to an idealistic high school English teacher named Dena Stein, do I realize how our similarities, the big ones as well as the seemingly minute ones, make all the difference.

Coincidentally, we both grew up in Pittsburgh. I lived there until I was 12, and Dena lived there until she left for college in Michigan. We both enjoyed a middle-class American suburban-type lifestyle: a four-bedroom house, two cars, a backyard lawn and cable television.

We both are the oldest of two kids, and each of us has a younger sister. Our parents are connected but secular Jews, who consider Israel important but not a potential home.

During our young adulthoods, we both pursued a more serious relationship with Judaism and, through our travels, discovered a deep love for Israel.

Last summer, Dena returned to Israel and, subsequently, met me, after finishing her first year teaching English in a Philadelphia high school. After a four-year hiatus from Israel, she had to return to ask herself a question that she could not avoid: Despite all the challenges, can I really imagine myself not living in Israel?

As we walked along the boardwalk in Jaffa, it seemed that our shared vision of building a home in the Judean Hills charged the salty air between us. It was those two points, religion and Israel, that I assumed were the magnets that drew our futures together.

But looking back on our magical summer, our complaints about the small struggles in Israeli culture — like having to push people in the bakery line to place an order — allowed us to forge an even deeper connection.

Just as important as the fact that we were looking ahead in the same direction, the fact that we stood on a common cultural foundation was an integral factor in our bonding.

One of my rabbis used to tell American guys in Israel that they should date within the Anglo community.

“There are going to be enough differences between the two of you just simply because you are a man and she is a woman. Therefore it’s best to have as much in common from the start as possible,” the rabbi would say.

Among my Anglo friends in Israel, all but one married other Anglos. Even my friend Nati, who made aliyah from South Africa with his parents when he was 12 and went through Israeli schools and the army, married Michelle from Ohio, who came to study for a year at Hebrew University and never left.

Even Nati, who identifies as Israeli and not South African, admitted that he still needed that comfortable cultural viewpoint that only another Anglo could provide.

“Coming from South Africa, there’s just a general outlook that is very different than Israel. It has to do with being more open-minded, the way you treat other people and cultural norms. You have to have that sense of familiarity in order to feel at home,” he said.

“Plus, Israelis don’t like Burger Barn as much,” Nati added, noting the affection that Anglos have for this Israeli hamburger chain.

I, too, am finding that the connection Dena and I share lies in the small details. Yes, we love to ponder the poetry of Milton as well as Israeli politics and the Torah portion of the week. But we also can console one another when we receive bad customer service at a supermarket, because we grew up expecting a certain standard.

These small similarities and cultural values ingrained in our personalities are as important as the big dreams.

Those big dreams are important, too, because they’re the visions we’ll be following after our wedding and Dena’s aliyah this summer. We also share the dream of a beautiful young woman in a flowing skirt and wild curls — but that vision is of the daughter we hope to have — one day.

The Measure of a Jew


One of the signal contributions of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) over the many years has been its stream of publications reporting on and analyzing our community. Its annual American Jewish Yearbook has long been a staple in Jewish libraries; as David Harris wrote in his foreword to Volume 100, which appeared in the year 2000, “In the pages of the Yearbook’s 100 volumes one can trace the full trajectory of the Jewish experience over the last tumultuous century.” (From 1899 to 1908, the Yearbook was published by the Jewish Publication Society; from its 10th volume on, the American Jewish Committee took on the central responsibility.)

Now we have a new and fascinating volume, titled “Jewish Distinctiveness in America, A Statistical Portrait,” written by Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. Herewith, to conform to the limitations of space, an appetizer:

Some years ago, in a free-ranging discussion of Jewish social science research with Steven M. Cohen, the eminent sociologist of American Jewry, and Milton Himmelfarb, the senior resident intellectual and ever-engaging provocateur of the AJC itself, Himmelfarb proposed that Cohen and I were wrong in defining America’s Jews as overwhelmingly liberal.

“Look at the data,” he said. “We look liberal only on issues of personal freedom: abortion, homosexuality, free speech. But when it comes to welfare issues, we are not terribly different from other Americans. We are libertines, not liberals.”

Spoken as a true conservative, which Himmelfarb — brother of Gertrude Himmelfarb, brother-in-law of Irving Kristol, and no slouch in his own right — doubtlessly was. It was he, after all, who coined the memorable — yet often misquoted — phrase, “American Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.”

But the truth of the matter is that American Jewish liberalism is a very complicated thing. Himmelfarb wasn’t right in dismissing it, but neither was I in proclaiming it. (Cohen can more than adequately speak for himself.) Smith’s new volume sheds some light on the matter.

At first pass, we seem not libertine (“one who acts without moral restraint; a dissolute person”) so much as libertarian (“one who believes in freedom of action and thought”), a term that had little currency back when Himmelfarb used the other, more sneering word. On all the personal freedom issues, we are an astonishingly different breed from other Americans: Abortion for no reason other than that the woman wants no more children? Forty-two percent of Americans approve; 82 percent of Jews. Suicide if a person has an incurable disease? Fifty-nine percent of Americans agree; 84 percent of Jews. Is premarital sex always wrong? Twenty-six percent of Americans agree; 4 percent of Jews. Is homosexual sex always wrong? Fifty-nine percent of Americans approve; 18 percent of Jews. And so on.

We’re distinctive also by virtue of our overwhelming agnosticism (65 percent of Americans “know” that God exists, compared to 25 percent of Jews) as also by a range of other judgments in the arena of belief. (Thirty-nine percent of Americans approve the Supreme Court’s ruling against school prayer, compared to 84 percent of Jews; one-third of Americans believe the Bible is the exact word of God, compared to 11 percent of Jews.) And then, of course, we’re hugely different in our voting in presidential elections, 25 percent or higher more Democratic than the national average.

But when it comes to government spending, we’re quite close to the national averages on most items, and sometimes (e.g., whether government is spending too little in assistance for the poor) actually lag behind the national average. We’re very close to the national average on whether government should provide special help for blacks, on whether black-white differences are due principally to discrimination, and on affirmative action (just 15 percent of Jews as well as the rest of the nation think blacks should get preferences in hiring).

Yet we come back to attitudes usually associated with liberalism, and distinctive when compared to most others, on whether there ought to be law against black-white intermarriage, on whether blacks should push for rights. Personal freedom, again.

Others, perhaps, will be intrigued that our per-capita income is nearly twice the national average and our mean household income some 70 percent higher, and considerably higher than “liberal Protestants,” a category that includes Episcopalians; that 61 percent of us have at least a four-year college degree compared to 23 percent of the general population, and compared to 33 percent of liberal Protestants. I am as intrigued by the fact that while 40 percent of American households have a gun, only 13 percent of Jews do. Still, when it comes to capital punishment, the national average of approval is 70 percent, and ours not far behind at 64 percent.

In short, it’s complicated. “Libertarian” doesn’t fit, nor is “liberal” sufficiently exact.

But there’s another point that wants stating here: What real difference does it make whether we are distinctive by virtue of demography, politics or general social attitudes? Idle curiosity may be satisfied by marshalling such data, but there is a difference between interesting things and important things.

The important thing is that we remain devoted to Jewish purposes. Yes, some of that devotion can be measured in terms of political and social values, but a more, much more telling measure is how we act. What about our charitable giving? What about our volunteering in agencies and organizations that feed the hungry or that lobby for a more generous food stamp program? What have we done to halt the genocide in Darfur? How have we advanced and internalized Jewish culture? Smith is silent, but it is a proper answer to such questions that would speak to the kinds of distinctiveness that really matter.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

 

Why Scapegoat?


 

On March 31, The New York Times ran an astonishing page: a photo showing Christian, Jewish and Muslim clerics gathered in what the newspaper called “a rare show of unity.” What brought these sometime enemies together? The headline told the story: “Religious Chiefs Decry Gay Pride Fest in Jerusalem.”

Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, sent the article out to many of us in the community with a short introduction:

“Finally, the way to peace in the Middle East. Uniting against us!”

Do we laugh or cry? The people in the photo would have us hang our heads in shame, but instead we shake our heads in disbelief. When I read further, I realized why they are afraid — the people they imagine us to be are not the people we are. They envision a scary “other,” a kind of “terrorist” actively seeking to destroy their way of life, while I picture people I actually know, people like me and my partner and my congregants — Jews who take Judaism seriously, living Jewish lives in a caring community. Like many who journey to Israel, we look forward to visiting Jerusalem in the company of others who would gather to study, to pray, to celebrate respect and appreciation for one another, earnest in our belief that we too are created in God’s image, and charged with the responsibility of making our world a better one.

This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, gives us the first of two verses in Torah that have been understood for generations as prohibiting men from having sex with other men: “You shall not lie with a male like lying with a woman: it is an offensive thing” (Leviticus 18:22). Along with Leviticus 20:13, the verse continues to be the source of much agony in our time as gay men and lesbians struggle for civil rights and for a place in religious communities. During discussions of marriage equality or who can be a rabbi, it is still the verse most commonly quoted.

In response to the three clerics who made the front page of The New York Times, in just one week several hundred clergy, mostly from the United States, signed on to a letter of support for WorldPride in Jerusalem, saying, among other things, that “Jerusalem, a living, holy city, a pilgrimage site for people of many faiths and many beliefs, increases in holiness when all are welcome within her walls.”

I am grateful to be hearing voices of other clergy speaking out. But I’m also saddened by the necessity of pitting ourselves one against another, spending our time and energies fighting each other instead of looking for common ground.

Acharei Mot begins with a different set of instructions before arriving at the litany of sexual prohibitions. God instructs Moses to instruct Aaron on the sacrifices of expiation to be offered on Yom Kippur. Therein we find the original scapegoat — an actual goat on whose head “Aaron shall lay both his hands … and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites” (16:21) before sending it off into the wilderness. Ever since this practice ended (or maybe before it began), individuals and groups have served as scapegoats — the declared cause of this, that and another ill that has befallen society or that prevents people or nations from being all they could be. Having invented the idea of scapegoat, Jews ironically are no strangers to serving as one. So we know the unfairness and inaccuracy of the practice, yet we ourselves also often manage to engage in scapegoating. Liberal Jews scapegoat Orthodox Jews and vice versa, to name but one example.

But as Aaron did with the original scapegoat, when we scapegoat human beings we also send them away into the wilderness. We banish them from our lives by describing them as enemies, by imagining we have nothing in common, by deciding to fear each other, by condemning or dismissing or blaming one another. All of which, of course, makes it increasingly unlikely that we will ever instead get to know one another, ever look for our common humanity, ever discover our shared respect for the values and ethics of our shared religions or our shared God.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach begins, a time to ready ourselves for this z’man kheruteinu — the “season of our freedom.” Wouldn’t it be a wonder if “this year in Jerusalem” we found both freedom of religion and the freedom that comes to each of us when we feel true respect for one another?

Chag Pesach sameach.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

 

Let My Students Go


 

To celebrate Passover, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy preschoolers spent time in ancient Egypt.

Teachers and students transformed hallway bulletin boards into a colorful representation of the story of Passover. The journey begins with the pyramids, and then students pass through a parted Red Sea with thick tulle and crinkled tissue paper on either side — some gauze and cellophane even hang above. Life-size kindergartners silhouettes represent the Israelites dancing at the other end of the sea, coffee-stained butcher paper evokes the desert, and the trip ends in Jerusalem.

“[The artwork] makes the holiday come alive for the children, so that it’s just not just a flat learning experience,” said Cecelie Wizenfeld, the school’s early childhood director. “They’re a part of it.”

Wizenfeld is not alone in her efforts to find memorable ways of helping children connect with the holiday. While model seders, seder plate illustrations and handmade afikomen bags have become standard educational fare in the classroom, many Southland religious and day school teachers are finding that creative and unusual holiday projects make more of an impact.

Second-graders at Adat Ari El Day School will reenact the Exodus from Egypt as they embark on a two-hour journey around the school grounds. Head of School Lana Marcus will play the role of Moses, while sixth-grade students will dress up as taskmasters, following the children. Other journey highlights include the parting of the Red Sea (the sprinklers will come on), receiving “manna” from heaven (teachers will drop marshmallows from above) and finally, the arrival to the Promised Land (a grassy area on the property) and pitching tents, eating, singing and dancing in celebration. Afterward, teachers will lead a discussion about the journey.

By second grade, the children have a familiarity with the holiday, but “acting out the story of Passover makes the children think what [the Exodus] must have been like for the Israelis,” said Sari Goodman, the school’s general studies director.

Rather than focusing on the journey like the students at Adat Ari El, this year the kindergartners at the Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple decided what material things they would bring on such a journey and, in turn, what they value. Each child decorated a “Passover backpack” and chose a few items from home to bring to Israel. In past years, these prized possessions have included teddy bears, prayer books, baseballs and pictures of family.

Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, who oversees the Judaic studies department, said that these activities allow the children to “enter into the text of the haggadah in a new way.”

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Temple Isaiah’s religious school experienced yet another aspect of the Exodus when they attended a special weekend retreat at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu on April 15.

One of the weekend activities was a homelessness simulation in which students received “eviction notices” on their cabin doors. Students worked together to combat their plight and attempt to get back on their feet.

“We’re equating homelessness with the Exodus of the Jewish people,” said Lisa Greengard, the synagogue’s youth group director. Greengard hopes that this modern take on one of the key aspects of Passover will help children empathize with our ancestors and ultimately, make the holiday more meaningful.

Temple Israel of Hollywood’s fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students will indulge in a “chocolate seder” in which the regular items on the seder plate are replaced by their supposed chocolate equivalents. Roasted eggs are substituted with chocolate eggs. Instead of dipping parsley in salt water, the students will dip strawberries in chocolate sauce. Chocolate milk will replace wine. Trail mix with M&Ms is the new charoset.

Carrie Frank, a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical student who is interning at Temple Israel, adapted the chocolate seder — a concept typically aimed at college students — to make the experience more relevant to younger students. Her goal is to help the children move beyond the story of Passover and take in the core values of the holiday and the concept of enslavement.

By getting the kids’ attention with tasty treats, Frank hopes to touch on deeper issues. She replaces the 10 plagues with what she deems the “10 modern plagues,” so the seder will include more familiar issues like hunger, inequality and disrespect. When the youngsters sip their cups of chocolate milk, they will be reminded of the things for which they are thankful.

“With the kitsch thrown in, it allows you to sneak in some of the good stuff, like values,” Frank said. “And they will absorb that.”

 

Where Will a Teen’s Schooling Continue?


 

When Amy Cohen graduated from Adat Ari El’s day school in 2003, her family faced a decision: Where would she continue her education?

While eighth-graders at Orthodox day schools generally continue on to Jewish high schools, graduates of Conservative, Reform or community day schools matriculate to any number of school settings, including Jewish, public, magnet and private secular.

At this time of the year, parents and students face the task of setting priorities and examining realities that will determine where a Jewish teen’s education will continue.

As the Cohens discussed options, “It became clear that she didn’t want to continue in a religious setting,” recalled Amy’s father, Dennis Cohen. “She wanted to sample the wider world.”

The Studio City family briefly considered public school for Amy, but decided that she would be better served in a private school that could offer small classes and individualized attention. Amy was accepted into Pacific Hills, a private school in West Hollywood. Cohen says his daughter enjoyed the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the student body and quickly adjusted to her new setting.

Similarly, Cohen’s son, Geoffrey, now 18, left Adat Ari El after fifth grade to attend the gifted program at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood. There, Cohen said, his son enjoyed “getting lost in the crowd and having a bigger social circle.”

Although Cohen said he would have been happy to send his children to a Jewish high school, he did not object to their preferences.

“You try to lay the foundation for their Jewish observances at home … and you hope it takes root,” he said. “Eventually, they’re going to go into the secular world.”

Although neither of his children is continuing with formal Jewish education, Cohen said that their synagogue remains a central part of the family’s life.

It’s difficult to determine the exact number of families like the Cohens who are choosing to leave the Jewish day school world after the elementary years. Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, said that one might conclude that fewer students are making the transition from Jewish elementary schools to Jewish high schools, given that last fall there were 685 eighth-graders in day school, and only 621 entering high school students this fall. That number also includes some who enter Jewish high school after attending a secular middle school.

At the same time, Jewish high school enrollment is substantially higher today than five years ago. According to Graff, there were 502 ninth-graders enrolled in Jewish high schools in 1999, compared to the 621 today.

With annual private high school tuition averaging from $18,000 to the mid-20s, the option is beyond the means of many families.

Debbie Gliksman sent her three children to Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. But when it came time for her eldest child, Lianna, to start high school, “our options were limited,” she said. Gliksman would have liked to send her daughter to Milken Community High School, but “it’s a very, very expensive proposition to send three kids there,” she said.

Instead, her daughter enrolled this fall in the humanities magnet program at Hamilton High, her local school.

“There’s a big difference [between private and public],” Gliksman said.

She and other parents recommend that families who may want to send their children to a magnet school begin accruing points as early as possible. (For more information about points, visit www.lausd.k12.ca.us/welcome.html and click on “FAQs” under the “Discover LAUSD” tab.)

For other families, only a Jewish high school will do. In June, Maureen Goldberg’s son, Joshua, will graduate from Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge. Goldberg said her family had been “struggling for the last couple of years” over the issue of where he should go next.

Several weeks ago, she said the family “came to an epiphany” while attending an open house for a secular private school they were considering. The school had put out an extensive buffet, and as Goldberg approached the tables and saw the ham and cheese.

“My heart sank,” she said.

She turned to her son and said, “I don’t think I can go back.” And he responded, “I don’t think I can, either, mom.”

“It crystallized for us that we weren’t ready to give up the Judaic experience,” said Goldberg, who added that she considered it even more important for adolescents than younger children to learn Jewish values. “He might get that at a secular school, but I know he’ll get it at Milken.”

Goldberg also said she was disappointed that although 75 percent of her son’s class went on to private schools, only three chose to go to a Jewish one.

Like many other parents sending their children to private school, Goldberg said the family had to sacrifice to afford the steep tuition.

“I’d rather live in the smallest house in the worst neighborhood and send my kid to a private Jewish day school, than live in the largest house and go to public school,” she said. “The sacrifice is worth it. I have a really menschy, kind kid, and he got a lot of that from Heschel.”

 

Charities Seek Ties to MTV Generation


 

Jewish charities, already having a hard time because of intermarriage, assimilation and growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, face what could be their biggest challenge yet: finding a way to appeal to legions of young Jews who stand to inherit billions over the next 20 years, but whose Jewish identities are generally weaker than that of their parents.

If Jewish federations and agencies fail to forge a close relationship with this highly independent generation of Jews, Jewish charities, experts say, might struggle greatly in years to come. That could mean less money to combat Jewish poverty, bury indigent Jews or provide food and shelter for the elderly and infirm at Jewish nursing homes.

To prevent that nightmare scenario from materializing, federations and Jewish institutions around the country have taken aggressive steps to reach the elusive under-45 set. Whether those efforts can succeed remains to be seen.

Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) earlier this year inaugurated a program that brought together Los Angeles teenagers and schooled them in principles of Jewish philanthropy.

Over two months, eight girls and six boys — all nominated by affluent JCF donors, including family members — learned about the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and g’milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). They gained exposure to several local Jewish and non-Jewish charities, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Puente Learning Center in East Los Angeles, which offers computer and literacy programs for the Latino community.

The young students, after making on-site visits and presenting their findings to one another, then voted on how to divvy up the $10,000 the foundation had given them to donate to their favorite causes. So how did the young Jewish philanthropists-in-training decide to spend the money?

Two non-Jewish organizations, the Los Angeles Free Clinic and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), topped their list. At the behest of JCF executives, group members later added Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, a Jewish organization.

“I thought it was a little ironic that we were doing this for the Jewish Community Foundation and we picked two non-Jewish organizations,” said Scott Cutrow, a 15-year-old 10th-grader at Crossroads who participated in and said he benefited from the JCF youth program. “I don’t think that was the ultimate goal of the people who set it up.”

Ironic? Yes. Surprising? No.

Unlike past generations, young Jews consider themselves “much more American than Jewish,” said Gerald Bubis, a former board member at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and founding director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. Whereas Jews 50 years ago gave largely to Jewish organizations, especially federations, younger Jews are now just as likely to give to such universal causes as the environment, universities or the arts, he said.

Jewish affairs expert Gary Tobin said he found that development unsurprising. The president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco said that only about one-quarter of American Jews belong to synagogues, with lower participation rates among the young.

The MTV Generation largely stays away from temples and other Jewish institutions, Tobin said, because many of those organizations lack warmth, a sense of community and a welcoming spirit. As a result, young Jews are failing to build the communal bonds that could one day lead them to contribute their inherited or earned wealth to Jewish causes.

“A lot of Jewish institutional life is not very interesting,” Tobin said. “If it’s a turnoff for a 70-year-old and for a 50-year-old, it sure as hell isn’t going to turn on a 25-year-old.”

Another turnoff is the heavy-handed approach Jewish institutions sometimes take toward young and other donors, said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network in New York. Some federations and other Jewish organizations, he said, have an arrogant, expectant attitude and treat donors like money machines who deserve little gratitude or explanation about how their gifts will be spent.

That approach might have worked in the past but not with young donors, who demand a more personalized approach to giving, Charendoff said. Simply put: They want direct control over how their dollars are spent and are willing to bypass federations altogether to ensure that happens.

To that end, an enormous network of family foundations have sprung up over the past seven years, from about 2,500 to 8,000 today, he said. Those foundations fund a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to the environment, and have siphoned money away from federations and other traditional Jewish charities, Charendoff said.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for the nation’s federations, has seen donations stagnate in recent years. In 2003, volunteers raised $827.5 million, about $500,000 less than in 2000.

Partly to reverse that trend, federations around the country have made building bridges to young Jews a major priority.

“We have an absolute obligation to reach down to that younger generation to make sure they’re not only involved but engaged and excited in ways that will encourage them to lead the community,” said Gail Hyman, UJC senior vice president of communications.

In that vein, about 40 federations have created “Blue Knot” affinity groups over the past couple years that cater to mostly young, high-tech workers, she said. The Las Vegas Federation recently held a Vodka Latka Chanukah celebration that attracted 200 hip revelers.

(Interestingly, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the sponsor of the original Vodka Latka, has stopped holding the party, even though the most recent one in 2002 attracted about 1,000 young Jews. Craig Prizant, the Los Angeles Federation’s executive vice president of resource development, said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time and was too big to expose revelers to The Federation’s important work.)

The Los Angeles Federation, which eliminated its money-losing young leadership initiative a couple years ago, has replaced it with a Young Leadership Division that combines Jewish education and fun. At monthly meetings, young Jews attend movie screenings, meet for java at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or gather for Shabbat dinners, where, in addition to socializing, they learn about The Federation and Jewish values, Prizant said. He estimated that the revamped leadership program has added an extra $750,000 to The Federation’s coffers.

In recent years, the organization also helped create the Los Angeles Venture Philanthropy Fund (LA-JVPF), a self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals that has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits that benefit Jews. Several LA-JVPF participants have become first-time Federation donors.

Other local Jewish agencies have begun emphasizing the need to recruit young Jews.

In October, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) created a 14-member young professionals advisory group to raise awareness about the organization’s mission and to develop the next generation of leaders and donors, said Danielle Walsmith, JFLA’s director of communications. At present, most JFLA donors are 55 or older, she added.

The Zimmer Children’s Museum has recently reconfigured its board to include more young members, executive director Esther Netter said, adding that she thought Jewish institutions should make an effort to educate very young Jews about the importance of giving to Jewish causes.

That appears to be happening, said Ann Cohen, a business consultant who has worked with UJC and other Jewish organizations. The rise in attendance at Jewish day schools over the past decade should inculcate those youngsters with Jewish values and an understanding of tzedakah (charitable giving), she said. That could translate into more money flowing to Jewish institutions in the future.

JCF’s Marvin Schotland said he remains optimistic about his and other Jewish organizations abilities to eventually win over younger Jews (see page 13). Even though the group of students participating in the Foundation’s pilot program favored non-Jewish charities over Jewish ones, Schotland said time is on JCF’s side.

“We’re building a relationship with them,” he said. “Fifteen or 20 years from now, some of them are going to be back here, and we’ll have credibility with them. We’ll also have some idea what [causes] they’re interested in and be able to bring them something in the Jewish community consistent with their interests.”

“We have a very long view,” Schotland added.

Q & A With Marvin Schotland


by Marc Ballon, Senior Writer


The Jewish Community Foundation turns 50 this year. Under the direction of Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive officer, the charitable gift-planning and grant-making organization has grown into the 10th-largest Los Angeles foundation, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. During Schotland’s 15-year tenure, the foundation’s assets under management have mushroomed to nearly $500 million from $90 million.

Since 1989, the foundation and its donors have allocated more than $420 million to a host of local Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Centers, Zimmer Children’s Museum and the Koreh L.A. literacy program.

Jewish Journal: How did you boost the foundation’s assets by so much?

Marvin Schotland: I think growth is a result of greater awareness of the role the foundation plays in the community. Uniformly, the foundation is seen as outstanding professionally, and that has given our donors an increased confidence level in us.

Second, there’s been a diversification of membership on the board of trustees. Its more representative of the Jewish community, both in terms of its male/female makeup and the religious, political and age groups. Our board members help disparate parts of the community better understand our charitable gift-planning role and our grant-making process.

JJ: With so many Jewish family foundations sprouting up, why should a philanthropist give to the foundation instead of creating his or her own?

MS: If you have $500 million, is it in your best interest to establish a fund with us? Probably not. You can hire your own staff to help you make decisions. But if you have $100,000 to $50 million, I think we can help you out. We know the community intimately and have the broad and deep professional expertise to strategically and effectively guide philanthropists in planning their charitable giving.

JJ: What percentage of your assets do you distribute annually? Some in the community have complained that the foundation could be more generous.

MS: The foundation has adopted a 5 percent spending rate for its permanent endowment funds that support the community. That allows us to continue growing our permanent funds without risking the capital that’s been entrusted to us by the community. If we had a much higher payout rate, we’d have to invest our money in much riskier securities, which we don’t want to do. That’s a conservative philosophy, but we’re an organization that takes a long view, which I think is prudent.

JJ: Why hasn’t the foundation given more to the Jewish Community Centers (JCC)? Given your assets, the foundation could easily afford to save the foundering centers.

MS: We have given to JCCs over the years in many different ways. When they were viable and healthy, we funded all sorts of programs [including] an early childhood education and family center in the early ’90s in the [now shuttered] Conejo Valley. We’ve always been a funder of programmatic initiatives of the JCC and, in certain cases, capital initiatives, like the $2 million we gave to the [Bernard] Milken Jewish Community Campus, which houses the New JCC at Milken.

But when the centers began imploding, we didn’t have enough resources to bail them out. The reality of it was that, as we understood the situation from all the information we had, the issues were not only economic issues but issues of management and broad-based community support. We very quietly talked to donors who had funds with us, and they weren’t interested, because they didn’t think the JCC problems were purely economic. Our dollars will be better served being spent on new programmatic initiatives and on those centers that survive, once the dust settles.

JJ: What are you most proud of during your tenure?

MS: I think we’ve been a wonderful agent for seeding new and emerging projects in the community.

For instance, our early support of Beit T’Shuvah, an agency that helps Jewish individuals with addictions, helped it get off the ground in 1987. Today, it has grown into a successful, independent agency that serves more than 2,500 people a year

The Zimmer Children’s Museum was established in 1992, thanks to seed funding from the foundation. We were also a seeding agent for Koreh L.A., which got its start in 1999 from a modest grant from us and has gone on to be a very, successful literacy program.

We provided substantial seed money to create the College Campus Initiative, a multiyear initiative begun in 2000 to engage local college students more actively in Jewish life. I’m also proud about the establishment of our Family Foundation Center in 2001, which helps donors and funders engage in their philanthropy in a more effective way.

JJ: How much longer do you plan to remain on the job?

MS: I’m hoping to be here until I retire. I’m 58 and not interested in retiring any time soon. I love what I do.

For more information about the Jewish Community Foundation, call (323) 761-8700 or visit www.jewishfoundationla.org.

Secular Connection


I fell in love with a brilliant, attractive and witty Filipina woman last year. She was a fallen Catholic, didn’t accept Jesus as her savior and was totally cool with raising kids Jewish. When I went to her uncle’s place for a birthday party and everyone was singing "Sunrise, Sunset" on the karaoke machine, you’d be hard-pressed to find a closer, warmer, more Jewish family than theirs.

Apart from the fact that our cuisine is superior, I was amazed at how similar the dynamic was: Abundant food, loud overlapping conversations, juicy gossip and more food. I felt like I was at home, except for the fact that I was only white guy in the room.

I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island. I went to a public high school that had roughly the same percentage Jewish population as a yeshiva. My local synagogue was so Reform I think they closed down on High Holidays. And yet, of the women I’ve dated post-college, I’ve had exactly two Jewish girlfriends. What, in the name of my concerned Jewish mother, is going on here?

Well, it’s certainly not due to my love of the other major religions out there. Once you’ve had one drunken girlfriend speak in tongues, and had another say that, despite how much she loves you, you’re still going to hell, it’s hard to be sympathetic to non-Jewish zealots. My guess is that it’s just a numbers thing. There are 2 percent of us and there’s 98 percent of them. The odds are stacked in favor of intermarriage. Four out of my five cousins went that route and are all very happy. This poses an obvious dilemma: How important is it to marry within our religion?

On Passover 2002, I e-mailed my very close, very bright, very agnostic friend a simple "Happy Pesach" to greet her in the morning.

She innocently replied later, "Happy Peaches?" Ugh. You gotta be kidding.

In other relationships, I’ve had women suggest that we could raise our kids in both religions and let them decide what they are when they’re older. Yeah, right. Those kids won’t be Jewish — supporters of Israel, consumers of gefilte fish, complainers about drafty rooms — they’ll just be two more white kids in search of racial, ethnic or religious identity. That’s not a crime, per se, but it’s certainly not what I want for my children.

The Filipina and I ultimately didn’t make it as a couple, but not because of religion. Still, I decided to get serious and start dating Jewish women.

A lot of people don’t understand — or can’t accept — the strangely powerful hold Judaism holds for secular Jews like me. What makes me Jewish? My bloodline? My last name? My prominent nose, mop of hair and acute sense of sarcasm? It’s pointless to isolate individual qualities, especially ones that play to stereotypes, but as far as I can determine I’m Jewish because I was raised that way. I identify with others who were raised that way.

When I attended college in North Carolina, where only 20 percent of the student body was Jewish, all of my best friends were Jews — even though I wasn’t hanging around the Hillel. I didn’t seek them: I found them. We were like-minds sticking together in a foreign environment. And while many bristle at this comparison, my Jewish experience, far more cultural than religious, is more akin to being black than it is to being Christian.

Jewish neighborhoods in New York aren’t homogeneous ghettos because we’re forced to live there. They result from the desires of people who are looking for quality public schools, short commutes to the city and access to good bagels.

By any definition, I’m a bad Jew. I don’t keep kosher. I haven’t been to Jerusalem. I don’t belong to a synagogue. In fact, there are years that I don’t go at all because tickets are scarce and davening with Chabad isn’t my idea of a good time. So what difference does it make to me who I marry? I’m not sure, but it does. Not because of parental pressure, because I have my mother’s blessing no matter what I do. Not because Jews are better, as the best relationship I’ve yet to have was with a non-Jew. Rather, I see myself marrying a Jewish woman because of internal pride, shared values and cultural identity. Because of the commonality of knowing that our people have been persecuted for millennia and are still thriving. Because regardless of how often I demonstrate it publicly, there’s one important and undeniable fact: I am Jewish.

And whomever I end up with had better know off the bat that the satin thing I grab from the box in temple once a year isn’t called a beanie.

Evan Marc Katz is the author of the “I Can’t Believe I’m Buying This Book: A
Commonsense Guide to Successful Internet Dating” (Ten Speed, 2004) and is the
founder of e-Cyrano (

Irvine Orthodox Plan to Erect Eruv


Ten years ago, Sean and Linda Samuels moved to Irvine, home to both a Chabad center and the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, along with other synagogues.

As the couple grew more observant and had children, they wanted the family to be part of their journey, which, of course, included weekly walks to shul.

But how? Irvine had no eruv, an unbroken boundary that uses existing electrical lines and fencing to encircle a synagogue and neighboring homes, which, according to rabbinic law, encloses a “private” space where observant Jews may carry objects on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. Without an eruv, people who need to carry, or push strollers or wheelchairs, are stranded at home.

Sean Samuels, a Beth Jacob board member, was instrumental in the quest to erect Irvine’s eruv, which should be operational by Rosh Hashanah. His initiative underscores Irvine’s reputation for welcoming people of many faiths and how the Orthodox community aims for inclusiveness.

At least eight others eruvs are in the works around Southern California, too, a reflection of observant communities taking hold outside urban areas. With an estimated 5-mile perimeter, Irvine’s boundary is a triangle bordered by the San Diego Freeway between the Michaelson and University exits, and University and Harvard avenues.

“It’s going to make Irvine this whole new playground,” said Samuels, who still needed to raise two-thirds of the eruv’s projected cost, $27,000.

“Having an eruv is a huge attraction,” he said, claiming property values will increase within its boundaries because of demand by observant Jews. Howard Shapiro, the project manager of a 50-mile perimeter eruv in West Los Angeles completed in January 2003, is now consulting on eight projects regionally. Most are on the scale of Irvine’s, he said.

“An eruv becomes another sign the community is coming of age,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, the West Coast director of the Orthodox Union, whose members are Modern Orthodox synagogues. “It’s a very important sign that people don’t look singularly in Pico-Robertson and North Hollywood,” he said, where eruvs have existed for at least 20 years.

The number of observant Jews and their proportion among American Jewry appears to be increasing, as does the potential for municipal clashes over eruvs.

An eruv is a modern phenomenon, Kalinsky said, which was unnecessary in Europe’s walled cities and enclosed ghettos, but were erected beginning 40 years ago in the New York area. The highest-profile and longest-running eruv battle divided Jew against Jew and sparked charges of anti-Semitism in Tenafly, N.J. Although the resulting court case focused on the legality of allowing a religious use of public property, proponents say the eruv’s critics, including some Reform Jews, exploited the constitution to bar Orthodox Jews from their neighborhood. Opponents of the eruv said their opposition was not based in anti-Semitism, rather in the fact that Orthodox Jews often spoiled community endeavors, such as public schooling (they send their children to private school) and local politics (they don’t participate).

Orange County’s Jewish denominations lack the rancor seen in Tenafly and other Eastern cities, said Benjamin Hubbard, chair of Cal State Fullerton’s comparative religions department. “Here, there is not the same history of bad will; interreligious feuding is the nastiest kind,” he said.

Without dissent, the eruv was approved on the consent calendar by the Irvine City Council on July 13. Even so, the project took two years to complete because of the number of public and private entities involved, including supervision by an eruv authority, Rabbi Gershon Bess of the Rabbinic Council of California, whose members are Orthodox rabbis. Besides stringing fishing line between 58 Edison poles, Bess required installation of five new poles and the addition of four poles to existing fences.

Samuels said Irvine’s Chabad is considering expanding the eruv to encircle its location in Woodbridge. The Chabad’s Rabbi Alter Tanenbaum could not be reached for comment.

While in some areas of Los Angeles an eruv tended to buoy property values in a flat market, Ethyl Krawitz is uncertain Irvine will experience such a phenomenon. “It’s only appealing to the very observant; it means nothing to anyone else,” said Krawitz, a RE/MAX Realtor in Irvine whose clientele is 80 percent Jewish.

Irvine’s new Jewish Community Center already is a more potent magnet, she said. Krawitz sees the JCC’s location influence housing decisions of people relocating to the area, as well as Jews relocating internally from Anaheim, Orange and San Juan Capistrano.

“It’s a wonderful draw,” she said.

To maintain the eruv, the line’s integrity will be checked weekly. Once the eruv is up, results will be disseminated by e-mail and at www.irvineeruv.org. For more information, e-mail drsamuels@pacbell.net.

New Prayer Communities Seek Spiritual High


Don’t call them synagogues.

They are minyanim, or spiritual communities. They have evolved from shared and individual dreams and from serendipitous, profound and beshert connections. They are new, egalitarian, independent, warm, collaborative and vibrant.

And they are all led by female rabbis.

Ahavat Torah, with Rabbi Miriam Lefkovits-Hamrell, meets Saturday mornings in rented space at Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles.

Ikar, with Rabbi Sharon Brous, holds biweekly Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills.

And Nashuva, with Rabbi Naomi Levy, hosts a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Westwood.

Technically, a minyan is a quorum of 10 people, traditionally men, which is necessary for reciting certain prayers and performing certain rituals, according to the Mishnah.

In the United States, however, the minyan emerged as an independent prayer group created and led by lay leaders in the late ’60s and ’70s, an outgrowth of the havurah movement. An example is the Library Minyan, formed in 1971 and originally housed in Temple Beth Am’s library. A more recent example is Shtibl Minyan, founded in 2000, which meets in The Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles.

“A minyan is a natural answer to what many refer to as Judaism’s ‘edifice complex.’ It attracts Jews interested in praying, who can do that anywhere,” said Isa Aron, professor at Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and founding director of the Experiment in Congregational Education.

These new minyanim, however, attract not only practicing Jews but also what Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president of University of Judaism and co-founder of Synagogue 2000, calls “spiritual seekers.”

“I think a lot of people are looking for that spiritual high and, guess what, these independent minyanim are actually offering it,” Wolfson said.

They’re also offering fellowship, a commitment to social action and a rabbi at the helm.

Ahavat Torah

“Right now I really consider myself living my dream,” said Lefkovits-Hamrell, who was ordained in May 2003 through the Academy of Jewish Religion and who became the spiritual leader of Ahavat Torah, meaning love of Torah, shortly thereafter.

As a child in Israel, the goal of becoming a congregational rabbi was unreachable. She would sit in shul, a mechitzah between her and her father, and ask why they had to be separated.

“On Simchat Torah I yearned to hold and dance with the Torah,” she said.

Finally, when Lefkovits-Hamrell and her family moved to Los Angeles in 1969, she was able to hold a Torah and later become a bat mitzvah. And while she married and raised three now-grown sons, she continued to pursue her dream, always studying and working as a Jewish educator. Along the way she even acquired her own Torah, which sits in a case in her living room.

Her dream became a reality when a friend introduced her to a group who had formed Ahavat Torah as a lay minyan a few months prior.

“We had been roaming around to different congregations to see if we fit,” founding member Blanche Moss said. “Finally we decided we fit together.”

And they decided Lefkovits-Hamrell fit with them.

She described her minyan, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, as “Conservative/Reform/Chasidic,” with lots of singing, clapping and even spontaneous dancing in the aisles. She and lay cantor Gary Levine, an executive at Showtime, lead it. Adhering to their motto “One Torah, Many Teachers, One Community,” it is participatory, with congregants reading Torah, presenting d’vrai Torah and leading discussions.

Following services, members share a potluck dairy lunch.

Learning continues during the week, with many taking part in one of three study groups that Lefkovits-Hamrell facilitates. They also observe holidays and socialize together. Ahavat Torah also boasts a strong program of gemilut chasadim — acts of lovingkindness.

“We give each other a lot of help, being there as family,” member Lois Miller-Nave said.

And Lefkovits-Hamrell remains in close and constant contact with her congregants.

Membership numbers about 70, with a goal of 120. Visitors are effusively welcomed, and dues are reasonable “so as not to exclude anyone,” said member Rick Nave. Most congregants are in their 50s and 60s, though the minyan has celebrated its first bar mitzvah, with a second one coming up.

And this year, Ahavat Torah will hold its first High Holiday services, at Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

But the Saturday morning minyan, which attracts between 40 and 70 people, remains the group’s focus.

“These people deeply care about Judaism and search for meaning and spirituality. That’s what unites us,” Lefkovits-Hamrell said.

For more information, call (310) 362-1111.

Ikar

“For the last couple of years, I’ve been dreaming about what kind of spiritual community I could help build,” said Sharon Brous, rabbi of Ikar, which means root or essence.

One force fueling this dream was her two-year stint as a rabbinic fellow at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — which she describes as “the country’s most vibrant, compelling Jewish community — following ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The other force is her continuing work as rabbi for Reboot, a network of 25- to 35-year-old Jews who are creative and intellectual trendsetters but don’t always resonate to traditional Jewish ways.

Additionally, she met parents and others who were “hungry for Jewish learning and real spiritual encounter.”

Brous’ dream began to materialize when a friend connected her with three couples desperately seeking to make Shabbat central in their lives.

“We sat on the verge of tears, feeling something of great importance was happening. It felt beshert,” Brous explained.

They held an experimental service in April, expecting 40; 135 showed up. The group then raised enough money to hire Brous full time.

Since June, services have been held biweekly, a family picnic followed by Kabbalat Shabbat. The service, led by Brous and second-year rabbinic student Andy Shugerman, is primarily in Hebrew, a combination of the Conservative siddur and Shlomo Carlebach melodies. Text study is incorporated into the service, and Brous’ d’var Torah weaves together congregants’ reflections.

More than 200 adults and children attend each service, clapping, swaying, dancing and holding babies. A few bring drums. The crowd is diverse, ranging from observant Jews to people like Reboot member Josh Kun, who admitted, “I don’t understand 80 percent of the service, but the intense mixture of connection and spiritual enthusiasm is incredibly appealing.”

Ikar is planning to hold High Holiday services at the Westside Jewish Community Center, and afterward will add a monthly Saturday minyan to the schedule.

Brous and the Ikar board work closely to create a community that reflects the group’s values in all areas, from the arrangement of chairs to the structuring of dues. In addition to money, members are asked to contribute toward community building, tikkun olam and learning.

Tikkun olam is especially critical to Brous. She wants people’s spiritual development to lead to transforming the world.

And the learning piece, which will include studies for children in kindergarten through bar and bat mitzvah, is important to many parents.

“We want the intellectual, spiritual and social justice values transmitted to our children,” founding parent Melissa Balaban said. “We want them to fall in love with Judaism.”

But the core values remain important to everyone.

“We want to do away with what’s orderly, precise and dignified and build a place where people have a spiritual encounter that’s profound and joyous and creative and transformative,” Brous said.

For more information, call (310) 450-9679 or visit www.Ikar-la.org .

Nashuva

“Naomi, it’s time.”

“Time for what?” Rabbi Naomi Levy asked two friends who had invited her to breakfast last April.

“Time to start a service.”

Levy knew from age 4 that she wanted to be a rabbi. She entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in the first class of women and spent seven years as rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. She has spent the last seven years writing the best-seller, “To Begin Again” (Ballantine, 1999) and “Talking to God” (Knopf, 2002).

Levy decided to act. Looking for an available location, she cold-called a church whose facade she often admired.

“Did you call me because you know my husband is Jewish?” the reverend asked.

“No,” Levy answered.

“Well, my husband is Jewish and there is nothing I would like more. It would be such an honor.”

Levy and the Rev. Kirsten Linford-Steinfeld met that afternoon.

“We both felt like we were led to each other, like we’d known each other our entire lives,” Levy said.

Things promptly fell into place. Levy knew the name would be Nashuva, meaning “we will return,” from the last line in Lamentations. She also knew prayer would be meaningless if not linked to social action, and immediately she and Linford-Steinfeld committed to joint monthly projects.

Levy also knew she would offer new translations of the Hebrew prayer book that would be “accessible, personal and soulful.” And she knew she wanted to work with musicians who could, “get congregants out of their seats and on their feet.”

Levy, who is married to Jewish Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman, met with 11 founding members around her dining room table to make this happen. She created a prayerbook with every Hebrew word transliterated and with accompanying English prayers in simple, poetic language. She also assembled a group of eight musicians and gathered music from Jewish Eastern European, Sephardic, African and other traditions.

Founding member Wanda Peretz handpainted and appliquéd a wall hanging for the bima, a Tree of Life with the words of Lamentations, “Turn us to you, O God, and we will return.”

Levy committed to one service each month, beginning last June. And each so far has overfilled the church, which seats 250. Nashuva is also planning a Tashlich service for Rosh Hashanah, with a drumming circle, shofar blowing and dancing on Venice Beach. Other High Holiday services will be announced on Nashuva’s Web site.

Last month, the standing-room-only crowd showed that Levy’s joyful and intimate approach has touched a chord among all types of Jews: young parents (Nashuva provides free child care and a children’s service), singles, seniors, interfaith couples, traditional affiliated Jews and adults whose last visit to shul was on their bar mitzvah.

They swing and sway to upbeat and moving melodies. They listen raptly to Levy’s engaging and insightful d’var Torah. “There’s a wonderful sense of community in the room, even if you don’t know anyone,” said Carol Taubman.

At this point, Nashuva is privately funded. Levy said she believes people who value the experience will make free-will offerings.

“When people come to Nashuva and feel elevated and [have] an honest communication with God, I feel blessed. When people come to Nashuva and then go and serve in the community, I feel overwhelmed,” Levy said.

For more information, visit www.nashuva.org .

Are these new minyanim a threat to established synagogues?

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., when Jewish life became cooperative rather than hierarchical, Jews have been forming, disbanding, merging and splitting prayer communities.

“This is an old tradition in the Jewish world,” Wolfson said.

To be fair, synagogues themselves are offering minyanim and alternative services, from Beth Jacob Congregation’s Happy Minyan to Adat Ari El’s One Shabbat Morning to University Synagogue’s Great Shabbos.

And, as Levy herself said, “Shuls in Los Angeles are doing incredible work.”

But in the meantime, as Aron points out, “The new minyanim are making more Jews more intensely Jewish, and that’s basically a good thing.”

Bar Mitzvah Cheer — Without Cheerleaders


We were halfway through my older son’s bar mitzvah year, and I’d been stumbling through an emotional landscape littered with caterers’ proposals, reception hall bills and unanswered e-mails from my wife demanding that I "please, please call the band and ask them if they are available on the 12th."

I’d also been picking my son up at his classmates’ bar or bat mitzvah celebrations, including some that combine the quiet good taste of a Fox reality series and the aesthetic subtlety of a Super Bowl half-time show.

Most of all, I’d been tormented by the feeling that, after years of smugly criticizing those who still insist on these "Goodbye, Columbus"-style extravaganzas, pride and peer pressure were going to drive me to arrange a simcha on a similar scale.

"Did you book the Lakers cheerleaders?" asked Rabbi Steven Leder, referring to a notorious bar mitzvah party in Los Angeles, where he is rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I had been talking to Leder about his recent book on Jews and money, "More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul" (Bonus Books, 2004).

When I told him no, he said there was still hope.

Here’s his approach to prospective b’nai mitzvah parents: "I sit them down and say, ‘If you were an anthropologist studying the Jews and you were in attendance watching the Saturday morning ceremony, what are the values you would determine as belonging to the tribe of the Jews?’"

The typical family lists Torah, spirituality, prayer, family tradition.

"Then I draw a line on the blackboard, and write ‘Saturday evening.’ Same anthropologist, same tribe — now tell me what the anthropologist would say."

At first the families say all the acceptable things: family, celebration, joy. "And then it starts pouring out: materialism, sexuality, alcohol, conspicuous consumption."

"Listen, I’m not Amish, not a Puritan and I enjoy a nice meal and a glass of wine," Leder said. "The question is: How do we take the values in the morning and make sure they exist in the evening?"

Yes, rabbi. How? How?

Leder says you start by infusing the celebration with ritual. Havdalah on a Saturday night, perhaps a d’var Torah by a child or elder. And then he tells congregants about MAZON, the nonprofit that urges families to donate a percentage of the catering bill to their fight against hunger.

That I can do, I realize. But don’t I have to send the kids home with monogrammed pajama pants, holographic snow globes and glow-in-the-dark necklaces?

"Why not have a station where the kids make something that goes to the sick, poor or needy?"

Leder has another piece of advice for parents, this one more controversial. "In front of their children, I say, ‘You should never put children in an adult environment, a sexually charged environment.’ You’ve seen the spaghetti-strap dresses on 12-year-old girls. There are 100 kids at the party: Do you know what’s going on in the bathrooms?"

"I don’t care what your children want. You are the parent, you are in charge, you are paying for this. Talk about what you believe money is for and not for,’" he said.

I told Leder that my son had his heart in the right place and neither wants nor expects a bacchanal. Even still, won’t his relatives and friends be expecting more than Kiddush and a d’var Torah?

"Here’s the ironic thing," the rabbi said. "Everyone tries to be more unique and over-the-top than anyone else. And you know what, for the kids on the ‘circuit,’ this week feels the same as last week. The kids have become immune to it. If you want to be unique, do something down-to-earth and value-centered."

Leder has his own theories as to why, after years of rabbis’ exhortations, the super-sized bar and bat mitzvah is back in style. People are having kids later, he said, and have more money when their children come of age. Grandparents are older as well, and, with less chance that bubbe and zayde may make it to the grandchildren’s nuptials, b’nai mitzvah celebrations are starting to look and feel like weddings.

But with all these sociological pressures, what does Leder really think he’s achieving with his lists and sermons?

"I think I’m doing two things. I’m giving people with good values permission to hold out against the tide of pop culture," he said. Second, Leder is helping people be more thoughtful about the role money plays in their lives. "This is a subject most rabbis are afraid to talk about. They fear that big donors will be offended and funding sources will dry up."

But won’t they?

"I have a different view. The most generous supporters of the temple are people who have a very healthy and mentschy attitude toward money. I still feel we have an obligation to speak out."

So what did Leder do for his own son’s bar mitzvah? A barbecue at a camp run by his synagogue, a sleepover for the boy’s closest friends and a family brunch the next day.

"One of the proudest days of my life," Leder said, "is the day after, when he looked at me and said. ‘I really think we did this right.’"

Six months later, after my own son’s bar mitzvah, I think we could say the same thing. Noah read Torah like a pro, davened like an angel, and the Kiddush luncheon that followed was tasteful and tasty. And there was barely a spaghetti-strap in sight.

We Must Renew Presbyterian Dialogues


Late last month, the 493 delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC-U.S.A.) adopted a series of deeply troubling “overtures” (their term for policy statements).

The General Assembly defeated an attempt to cut off funding for “messianic” congregations, which target Jews for proselytization and conversion. It condemned the Israeli security fence and, in an overture supporting the Geneva peace accords, called for divestment from companies doing business in Israel.

One of the rabbis I spoke to observed that, when taken together, the refusal to suspend funding for proselytization of Jews and the statement opposing the security barrier suggest that PC-U.S.A. believes that “Jewish souls are worth saving, but not Jewish lives.”

These statements reveal a significant chasm separating the Jewish community and PC-U.S.A. But however tempting it may be to entrench ourselves behind defensive and divisive rhetoric, for the sake of Israel, our long-standing friendship with the Presbyterians and our common values and concerns, we must strive to mend bridges rather than burn them.

Sadly, with one very important exception, none of these gestures is really new. PC-U.S.A., like many of the mainline Protestant denominations, claims to be “even-handed” in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, by equating terrorist acts committed against innocent civilians with legitimate Israeli military actions, they ignore the very security on which Israel depends. One can be a critic of particular policies of the Israeli government or of specific terror-fighting tactics without falling into the trap of moral equivalency.

What is new, and therefore most troubling, is the call for divestment. PC-U.S.A. has set a double standard by singling out Israel for economic and political sanctions.

Where is the PC-U.S.A. overture on holding accountable the Palestinian Authority officials who facilitate terrorism through the misuse of Palestinian and international funds? Where is the overture demanding true political reform in the Palestinian Authority? And where are the overtures divesting from countries with far, far greater human rights abuses than the democratic country of Israel: Myanmar, North Korea, China, Iran?

It has long been a linchpin of doves in Israel and their supporters around the world that the more economically and militarily robust Israel felt itself to be, the more willing it was to take risks for peace when the time came about. An Israeli economy weakened by divestment undercuts that willingness, and if shaped to include military contractors, divestment could weaken Israel’s security.

Although I know that many within PC-U.S.A. earnestly seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, its endorsement of divestment threatens to gravely destabilize the dynamics that are indispensable to a real peace process.

In response to these unprecedented overtures, some in our community have called for ending all dialogue with Presbyterians. I believe that is exactly the wrong response. What we need is a renewed dialogue that would occur on two levels.

On the national level, we need to reach out to the leadership of PC-U.S.A. and explain to them — without rancor or disdain — that the repercussions of their actions belie their stated support for Israel and deter progress toward a lasting peace.

On the local level, synagogues across the country need to reach out to Presbyterian churches in their communities and embrace a dialogue around Israel that will be difficult and may not lead to complete agreement but is absolutely essential.

Part of that difficulty will be responding to these gestures in a firm and critical manner without resorting to exaggeration or distortion. For example, PC-U.S.A.’s overture did not, as one national Jewish organization claimed, “call Israel a racist, apartheid state….” Such distortions distract from the sincerity and effectiveness of our response.

To address the immense criticism facing their endorsement of divestment, PC-U.S.A. clarified that “the assembly’s action calls for a selective divestment and not a blanket economic boycott, keeping before us our interest in Israel’s economic and social well-being.”

While welcoming that clarification, it is now our job to explain to them that divestment in any degree threatens the very existence of Israel and the prospects for peace. And it is our job to ensure that PC-U.S.A. lives up to its promise to keep Israel’s well-being not only in their words but in their deeds. Only through honest and sustained dialogue can this be achieved.

We must have the resolve to reach out across the chasm to our Presbyterian neighbors. We must do whatever we can to assure that, where the Presbyterians have gotten it wrong, they will work with us to get it right.


Mark J. Pelavin is director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism and associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Your Letters


Jewish Cool

The torrents of ink on “Jewish hip,” “Jewish cool” and “Jewish pop culture” obscures a simple truth: Only Jews who take seriously Judaism — the religion — can count on having Jewish grandchildren (“From Jew to Jewcy,” July 23). This is because in an open society only Judaism provides a compelling answer to the question, “Why be Jewish?”

Other “Jewish” paths are dead ends, and literally sterile — they can’t reproduce. They have Jewish value insofar as they may be a person’s door into Judaism, and thereafter enrich one’s practice of Judaism.

The remaining question is whether the organized, “secular” Jewish community will include this insight into its outreach efforts before it’s too late.

Paul Kujawsky, Valley Village

Tisha B’Av Today

Dr. Aryeh Cohen (“Tisha B’Av Today,” July 23) has got one thing right — we do need Tisha B’Av today. Unfortunately, he has the reasons all wrong. His assertion that on this Tisha B’Av we must consider “how all our cherished hopes for ourselves as a community based on ethics and a commitment to social and economic justice can — and at times have — slipped through our hands” is misguided. Indeed, Tisha B’Av has nothing to do with confronting our inability to “create an ethical polity” or with being “allied with the forces of injustice.” Despite Cohen’s evident discomfort with the idea of Jewish victimhood, Tisha B’Av is, in fact, a day dedicated to the great tragedies which have befallen our people, including the ongoing calamity of the confusion of Jewish values with the politically correct agenda of the day. On Tisha B’Av, our thoughts should be directed toward bridging the huge gulf between God and the Jewish people, which is symbolized by the continuing absence of the Temples in Jerusalem whose destruction is the main focus of the day. That is what Tisha B’Av is about today, as it has always been.

Ben Taylor, Los Angeles

Test-a-Jew

I hate to burst Mark Miller’s stereotype-laden bubble, but my granddaughter has blond hair, blue-green eyes and a straight nose (both her parents are Jewish) (“Test-a-Jew,” July 30). Continuing to analyze my granddaughter’s family tree vis-a-vis Miller’s standards: My granddaughter has two Jewish parents. Her maternal grandmother (that would be me) has blond hair (natural, but now gray) and blue eyes; her three first cousins (on my side) all have blue eyes; and her paternal grandfather has blue-green eyes. Two of her first cousins on her father’s side have blue or green eyes.

Both of my parents (both Jews of Russian heritage) had blue eyes.

I think a higher percentage of Jews have blue or green eyes than people of any other faith.That study would be a ridiculous waste of time, but since Miller brought it up.

Name withheld by request, Los Angeles

Faith and Pork

I believe that Micah Halpern (“Balancing Acts of Faith and Pork,” July 23) is blind to the possibility that the State of Israel’s secular founding fathers are turning over in their graves by the monster they created by subsidizing Orthodox Jewish “students,” who now number in the scores of thousands (along with their enormous families). They are a burden on the economy, and have politically disenfranchised all non-Orthodox Jews. What kind of “democracy” is it that insists that all marriage and divorce for Jews be in the Orthodox traditions in order to be legal? In comparison, Ireland is a true democracy. Although about 88 percent of the citizens are Roman Catholic, civil marriage and divorce is quite legal. A Jewish state does not have to be a fundamentalist Jewish state.

Martin J. Weisman , Westlake Village

Reverse in Israel

Gideon Levy writes about a disabled Palestinian man killed during an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) house demolition and a Palestinian professor and son shot in their home and asks for our reactions if the situation were reversed (“If the Situation Were Reversed,” July 30). However, Levy admits that the IDF considered the death of the disabled man “a death that shouldn’t have happened.” In both cases, the aim of the IDF was not to indiscriminately kill Palestinians and that both cases are being thoroughly investigated to determine the cause of these tragedies and methods to prevent them in the future. One can quibble about how thorough and how serious the IDF are in these matters, but the fact is that they aren’t pinning medals on the soldiers responsible.

If the situation were reversed, for instance, after the bus bombing in Tel Aviv on July 10 that killed Maayan Naim, groups like Yasser Arafat’s Al-Aqsa Brigades proudly take credit for intentional murder. The perpetrators’ goal is to murder as many Jews as possible, and their communities hail them as heroes. These incidents will be studied by these Palestinian groups not to prevent them in the future, but to learn how to repeat them and to learn how to murder more Jews.

Dr. Steven Ohsie, Los Angeles

Correction

In “Presbyterians Ignite Divestment Uproar” (July 30), Rabbi Mark Diamond is the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.