November 14, 2018

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

Martin Storrow: Putting creativity toward the greater good

Martin Storrow. Photo courtesy of Martin Storrow

Name: Martin Storrow
Age: 34
Best-known for: #First100Ways
Little known fact: “I played cymbals in the school band. I was the disruptive person. At my mercy, a song could have a great or disastrous ending, depending on when I clashed the cymbals.”

From professional music to young adult engagement to projects of social good and activism, Martin Storrow, 34, approaches all aspects of his life creatively.

He co-founded #First100Ways, a campaign designed to mobilize people around small, positive actions they can take every day for 100 days to benefit a cause or an organization. Before that, he launched Keys for Refugees, a refugee-awareness campaign.

Storrow has worked for or volunteered with many Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Entwine program for young Jewish leaders and Moishe House, where he planned and coordinated retreats for young Jews.

What do you consider your life’s central purpose?

To use creativity for good. That’s what ties it all together. I’m happiest and feel most fulfilled — through music or social good — when I’m doing something that utilizes my creativity toward what feels like the greater good.

What did #First100Ways achieve, and what’s the next step now that the campaign has concluded?

The best thing about it was we ended up with this team of people, the combination of whom was so weird: artists and policymakers in [Washington] D.C., and advertising and media professionals and lawyers. All these people together in the room would have been the funniest little party you can imagine. We started with an email — “Does anyone want to do something?” A group of 15 people were at our core, with an outer team of 100 people, and we were able to build it together.

The biggest lesson was that perception plays such a huge part in our experience. [After the last election,] people around us were living in uncertainty and, in the face of that, we were able to create productivity in a way that was in its conception nonpartisan and inclusive. Our goal was to be progressive but never to be partisan. The goal now is to figure out a meaningful next step for our community of 7,000 active users.

How have Jewish values helped power or inspire your work or creativity?

I grew up with creativity as a Jewish value. We are a part of creation, and just as creation is responsible for us being here, creativity is at the core of Jewish life. It feels really natural that those two go together: being encouraged to question everything, not always as a deconstructive process but as a constructive process building toward new ways that things can be done.

How did you meet your fiancée?

This is a wonderful Jewish Journal question. I met Rachel Brandt, who works in advertising, at a Moishe House retreat in Northern California. She was not involved in anything Jewish at the time. And now her parents always tell me how happy they are that we met! She has constantly raised the bar, encouraging me to be my truest and best self. When I get a crazy idea for what I want to create, she’s the one who tells me to do it, let’s just do it. I don’t think I could have done any of these projects without a partner like her.

We owe a lot to the Jewish community. We’ve had a lot of great experiences because of the Jewish community. Local organizations like the Pico Union Project gave us opportunities to get involved, and JDC trips to places like Ethiopia, Turkey, Georgia and Cuba have enhanced and enriched our lives. We can see the world because people are generous. There’s a lot of generosity out there.

What’s the most important business lesson you’ve learned?

You can’t do it alone. I had a mentor early on who told me this but I had to live it in many iterations to learn it. It’s a wonderful thing when people can dream with you and help make your dreams reality. Having an awesome team, we accomplished something together we couldn’t have accomplished individually. Finding the right people is important.

How do you stay inspired when things get challenging?

I read a lot. And I’m always looking at how I can get my hands dirty with whatever’s happening in the world. The thing that keeps me inspired is knowing that it’s a rare day when someone is going to knock and say here’s how you can help. But I know that you don’t have to be an expert to help out. If I’m feeling uninspired, I think about where the needs might be.

If money were no object, which issue in the world would you devote your attention to?

That we could ensure that every single person on this planet had a home. It wouldn’t be that hard if we just decided to do it.

Which three songs and three Jewish values would you say are essential to you?

Songs: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which I listened to for the first two months of this year on repeat. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” — it’s not a very Jewy choice, but still. And “Landslide,” by Stevie Nicks. One of the first songs I ever learned on guitar, but no one sings it like she does.

Jewish values: Tikkun olam, Tikkun olam, Tikkun olam.

What’s an interesting thing about you that most people don’t know?

I’m a secret writer. I have kept a journal for 13 years. It’s a Word document that is 1,300 pages long, single-spaced.

So, if you turned that into an autobiography, what would you title it?

“Just Make Up Your Mind Already: The Martin Storrow Story.”

Who would play you in the movie version of that autobiography?

Until Maya Angelou died, I had this dream that she was my spirit animal in some way. … She would have played me. I aspire to be the kind of person that Maya Angelou could have portrayed in a movie. But let’s not kid ourselves, probably Ben Stiller.

50 years on, Bernie Sanders still champions values of his Israeli kibbutz

Every morning, Bernie Sanders would wake up at 4:10 a.m. to pick apples and pears.

Leaving the cabin he shared with a few other American college student volunteers, Sanders would have a quick bite of bread before heading out to the orchard. After 2 1/2 hours of work, he and the other 20 or so volunteers would sit down for a traditional 30-minute Israeli breakfast of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, butter and hard-boiled eggs.

Then it was back to work. Probably.

It’s hard to know his routine for sure, but that spartan schedule was standard fare for American and French volunteers at Shaar Haamakim, the Israeli kibbutz where the U.S. Democratic presidential candidate apparently spent several months in 1963. The name of his kibbutz had remained a mystery until last week, when Haaretz unearthed a 1990 interview with Sanders identifying the agricultural commune.

No one currently at Shaar Haamakim remembers Sanders, who has preached his doctrine of democratic socialism on the campaign trail. No records with his name survive.

But Albert Ely, 79, who managed the kibbutz volunteer program in the early 1960s, remembered someone named Bernard. And he said that if Sanders was there, he was probably picking fruit before the sun rose.

“I was astonished that the name Bernard, which is French, belonged to an American,” Ely told JTA, sitting in his home here. “I remember a lot of volunteers. I don’t remember him. If he was here, he was with the Americans.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders campaigning in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders campaigning in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2016. Photo by Andrew Harnik via JTA

Founded in 1935 by immigrants from Romania and Yugoslavia, Shaar Haamakim sits at the nexus of two valleys near the northern port city of Haifa. During Sanders’ time, its members grew apples, peaches and pears, and were opening a factory for solar water heaters. The kibbutz also boasts a flour mill.

But as much as agriculture or industry, ideology drove Shaar Haamakim in the ’60s. The kibbutz belonged to the Israeli political party Mapam, which in the 1950s had been a communist, Soviet-affiliated faction. Kibbutz members had admired Joseph Stalin until his death, and they would celebrate May Day with red flags. They spoke of controlling the means of production, taking from each according to his abilities and giving to each according to his needs.

“All the members were equal in all ways,” said Yair Merom, the kibbutz’s current chairman. “They lived in identical houses. There wasn’t a salary; everyone received according to their needs. The kibbutz gave everything: food, shelter, education, health.”

Merom says Shaar Haamakim is proud to have hosted a U.S. presidential candidate who trumpets its principles.

“Our values of mutual responsibility are social democratic values, and we choose willingly to create that society,” Merom said. “Sanders is talking about the social democratic approach that gives freedom to the individual, but with responsibility for the whole. We do that in a practical way.”

Socialist ethos permeated kibbutz life in the ’60s. All of the kibbutz’s 360-some members wore the same uniform: khaki slacks with a matching button-down shirt. After working in the morning and early afternoon, members often would attend committee meetings where they would discuss the kibbutz’s problems. Until 1991, as at many other kibbutzim, kids lived apart from their parents at a children’s house.

Several things, according to Ely, were considered “taboo” or bourgeois: skirts, playing cards, neckties, ballroom dancing. Instead, when they weren’t working or holding meetings, kibbutzniks would take classes on anything from English language to choir singing. Once or twice a week they would dance to Israeli folk songs. Tuesday was culture night.

“In the ‘60s, the members were very idealistic,” Ely said. “They believed in the path they were going on. They thought it was [also] the solution to other problems. They thought they had a mission to help the population outside to do as they did on the kibbutz.”

Kibbutz members tried to impart some of those values to volunteers, most of whom stayed for a one-month program of work and a weeklong hike. After they finished picking fruit at noon, ate lunch and rested for a few hours, volunteers would attend lectures on Zionism, the history of Israel and kibbutz life.

Fewer than 100 volunteers came annually to the kibbutz in the early 1960s, Ely estimates. Those who stayed longer than a month, like Sanders, likely would have worked in the cowshed or the fishery. Some volunteers also built relationships with adoptive families on the kibbutz.

Although Shaar Haamakim, like many other kibbutzim, underwent privatization in the early 2000s, its members still jointly own its factories and maintain a fund to support kibbutzniks in need.

Skip college — embrace Judaism and learn a trade

The conventional profile of American Jews is that they tend to be highly educated and work in professions like medicine, finance, law and the academy.

Jews, of course, “value education,” as the trope about the “People of the Book” goes. And American Jews, since they started arriving in the United States, have pushed for their kids to get the best education as a means of guaranteeing a successful life.

It isn’t a Jewish value to be a doctor, lawyer or neuroscientist, however. Professional achievement isn’t the measure of Jewish success. And the higher education prescribed by Jewish tradition is not of the variant offered at American colleges. In fact, what Judaism has to say on matters of education and profession are quite different than the current American Jewish norm.

Given the realities of the job market — 12.2 percent unemployment for young workers and slowing economic growth — Judaism’s 2,700-year-old position may be extraordinarily relevant for young Jews today.

The most famous rabbinic declaration on education can be found in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a). The passage enjoins Jewish parents to teach their children Torah and a trade, along with getting first-born sons circumcised, finding them a spouse and teaching them to swim.

Of course, this is not all our sages had to say on the matter of parenting: There are discussions about corporal punishment (if you have to do it at all use only a shoelace) and the importance of modeling good behavior (because other forms of advice are likely to be rejected). But this accounting of what parents owe their children is the backbone of Jewish wisdom on parental responsibility.

Lifelong Torah study — and not, say, the pursuit of an M.D. or a J.D. — represents the higher education to which all Jews are meant to commit. But why is a trade so important? The rabbinic commentaries emphasize the idea that a trade, like swimming, builds independence and self-sufficiency.

Later in that same Talmudic passage, there is a warning to parents who fail to provide their children with such tools: “Anyone who does not teach his son a skill or profession may be regarded as if he is teaching him to rob.” This is an amazing degree of seriousness — the rabbis are essentially saying that without independence there is ruin.

Centuries later, in 1912, the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky took up the same cause, beating the drum for commerce and the trades, in large part because he believed the desire among young Russian Jews to move into the professions was contrary to Jewish tradition.

“For generations doing business was the pillar of Jewish life – why abandon it now?” says the main speaker in an article by Jabotinsky called “A Conversation.” “Back to the shop counter! Back to the stores, the banks, the stock exchange – not only to buying and selling, but to industry, to manufacture, to everything ‘practical.’”

In 2015, is such a message really relevant? After all, we hear a lot about how college has become indispensable. President Obama argues that everyone must have access to college, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have competing proposals for making public universities tuition-free.

Yet, a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report offers a surprising retort. The government says that currently there are 6 million more people with bachelor’s degrees than jobs available for them. So college today clearly isn’t the inexorable path to a good job that it once was.

Even those with jobs don’t have the type of employment that a college education once practically guaranteed. The Economic Policy Institute reports that among college graduates, the underemployment rate is 16.8 percent. (Underemployment means the “highly skilled…working in low paying [and low-skilled] jobs… and part-time workers that would prefer to be full-time.”)

Difficulty finding a job isn’t the only reason to consider skipping college in favor of the trades: The vast majority of graduates are leaving school with huge loans and no clear path to repaying the debt. As reported by USA Today earlier this year, there are “40 million people across the United States who have monumental student debt” for a total outstanding debt burden of $1.2 trillion. CNN reports that between 2008 and 2014 — the recession years — student loans increased by 84 percent, “and are the only type of consumer debt not decreasing,” according to a study from Experian over the same time period.

These are staggering numbers and the impact is not merely in the area of employment. College debt and a challenging environment in which to get hired have led to a whole generation of young Americans who are delaying adulthood. Couples are renting instead of buying their first house, getting married older and many women are delaying having children until they have established themselves in the workforce, which is taking a decade or longer.

Of course, training to be a welder, a carpenter, electrician, plumber, HVAC specialist or franchise owner is not everyone’s professional fantasy. But here’s something to consider: It takes two fewer years to complete a trade school degree than it does an undergraduate college degree. So while the college student is racking up debt, the trade school grad would be earning on average $71,440 in the same amount of time, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

We are not quite at the point where Jewish mothers across the land will proudly introduce their kid as “my son, the plumber!” But going to college, incurring massive debt and spending years toiling to pay back your loans isn’t necessarily the perfect trajectory – or a Jewish value – either.

(Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based writer whose first book, “No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government out of Parenting,” will be published next year. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter and on Facebook.)

Why Jews unite more than Christians

Imagine that you are a Jew, and that you are president of the United States. Your security adviser has just whispered in your ear that 200 Jewish girls in Africa have been kidnapped and are being threatened with rape.

Or imagine that you are the most prominent rabbi in the world and you’ve just heard that a Jewish village in Iraq has been massacred by terrorists.

What would you do?

I ask those questions because of two parallel items. One, the frightening persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa over the past few years, and two, the frightening silence of the world’s two most prominent Christians: The President of the United States and the Pope. 

How could they stay so quiet when people of their own religion are being massacred?

Call me politically incorrect, but for Jews, this is a natural question. We can’t imagine keeping quiet when “one of our own” gets hurt. When a Jew gets attacked in Paris, Tel Aviv or Buenos Aires, Jews in Los Angeles and Montreal go nuts. That’s just who we are.

But why? 

The question came up last Friday night at my friend Jonathan Medved’s home in Jerusalem, where I was invited for Shabbat.

Medved’s answer was so simple and yet so resonant, that it lingered with me for several days. It’s hardly the first time I’ve heard it– we’ve all heard it. But maybe it was the wine, or the war, or something– this time the answer hit home a little stronger.

Unlike Christians, he said, we’re more than a religion, we’re a people.

It felt right to hear that answer at a Shabbat table, the Jewish ritual that, perhaps more than any other, has kept the Jewish people together for millennia.

When one of the great scholars of our time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, had to describe the Jewish people, he had plenty of options to choose from. After all, we are the people of the book; the wandering Jews; God’s chosen people; the people of Jewish law; the citizens of Zion; we are so many things, in so many expressions, in so many places and times.

Steinsaltz found a way to wrap all these complexities of identity in one neat, elegant package. He went even further than peoplehood. 

Jews are a family, he wrote. 

However schmaltzy or idealistic that may appear to the cynic who sees Jews fighting all the time, there is an intuitive plausibility to that idea.

For one thing, since when does a family never fight or argue? A family that tells you it never fights is either a family that lies, or a family that never sees each other. 

But more importantly, the idea of “family” speaks to the marriage of diversity and identity. In Judaism, regardless of what you do or believe, you're still part of the Jewish people.

You may be an atheist, your brother may be ultra-Orthodox, your sister may be a poet who plays in a punk band, and your younger brother may be dabbling in Buddhism, but still, you are all family.

When your ultra-Orthodox brother invites you to the marriage of one of his ten kids, chances are, you will show up, even if you don't believe in God. And if your hippie sister doesn’t show? So what. She’s still his sister, and he’s still her brother, and that still counts for more than something.

Simply put, Jews and Judaism are too diverse, and the Jewish story too complex, to wrap up in one identity or ideology. This has been both a source of confusion and alienation (who are we?) and a source of strength (we are all).

It makes sense, then, that in times of danger, the cerebral confusion of identity would dissipate and the primal clarity of family would rise to the surface. Even if you can’t stand the ideology or crazy lifestyle of your sister, when you get a phone call that she's in danger, how can you not go nuts?

In the multicultural zeitgeist of America, where we worship the secular religion of inclusion, it’s often uncomfortable to express this tribal impulse. It’s more acceptable to express the sentiment of caring for all humans, which many Jews see as the ultimate Jewish value, since it honors the Jewish teaching that every human is created in the image of God.

But just as there’s a difference between friends and family, there’s a difference between sentiment and impulse. In times of safety, I have the luxury of expressing sentiments of love for all my neighbors. But in times of danger, I am moved by an impulse to protect my people; the same impulse, perhaps, that would make me instinctively protect my daughter.

Does this explain why our Christian president and our Pope have been so lethargic in their response to the persecution of Christians? I don’t know. It may explain the unique bond between Jews, but ultimately, at the level of global leadership, none of that should matter.

If I were president, every human being would be a Jew.

Jewish values inspire immigration reform

Gabby’s grandmother is dying.

Of all the stories of the human condition, in many ways, this is quite ordinary. It’s a story of an elderly grandmother and her granddaughter; of familial love and loss. But this story is far more complicated because Gabby hasn’t seen her grandmother in 18 years. And though she wants nothing more than to hug her elderly abuelita, the failure of United States immigration laws make that impossible. I know Gabby’s story intimately because members of her family have worked in my home for most of Gabby’s lifetime. 

When she was 3 years old, Gabby’s parents took her from her birthplace in Puebla, Mexico, and crossed the Southern U.S. border. Gabby completed elementary school, high school and then went on to a community college, knowing no other home than California. She worked as manager at a fast-food restaurant until she was forced to resign when her undocumented status was discovered. Now Gabby spends her days waiting until her application for legal residency is approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative. It has been seven months since she applied, her documents lost in the bureaucracy, but, truthfully, Gabby has been waiting for the past 18 years. 

In the bizarrely twisted Gordian knot that is U.S. immigration policy, one of the only ways for Gabby to give her grandmother a last kiss before she dies is to be deported. Because she possesses neither a passport nor a driver’s license, she can’t travel. Of course, if she were deported, she could never return to her family in California. 

So, stuck here in the only country she knows, yet unemployable, and unable to leave or continue her education without loans, Gabby lives in constant fear. If she is stopped for a traffic violation or finds herself in a situation where she is fingerprinted by police, she faces the risk of deportation. 

Under the Secure Communities (S-Comm) law, a person’s fingerprints are sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a review of their immigration status. If ICE officials determine that this individual is undocumented, they ask the local jail to hold that person (sometimes for days), until ICE officials arrive and then begin deportation procedures. The result is that undocumented immigrants must avoid the very same police that you or I turn to for protection. Battered spouses do not report abuse, victims and witnesses of crimes do not turn to the police for help, families living in danger from gangs do not alert police, because police contact might put them in jeopardy. So they live in the shadows.

One strand of this hopelessly tangled knot could become untangled if State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s TRUST Act (AB 4) is approved by the California legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. It directs local law enforcement to only hold those individuals who are convicted of a violent or serious crime, thereby allowing police officers to continue keeping cities safe while rebuilding trust with California’s immigrant communities. Currently, certain cities in California (Los Angeles and San Francisco) already apply such a policy to varying degrees, but it is not universally practiced throughout the state. In fact, the police in Gabby’s city hold all undocumented immigrants until federal authorities arrive. 

Reform CA, an initiative of the California Reform Jewish community, is committed to working with Gov. Brown and the legislature to secure passage of AB 4. On May 23, Reform rabbis and Jewish lay leaders from throughout California were scheduled to gather in Sacramento to make the case for humane immigration. Even while we insist that national immigration reform must remain a priority, we recognize that state initiatives such as the TRUST Act will drive the national conversation. We act knowing that Reform Jewish advocates from coast to coast are also working with their state partners for national reform. 

The Jewish community has benefited beyond measure from the immigration policies of this nation, which allowed Jews to immigrate to these shores for centuries. We are compelled to act because we remember our core story: We were strangers in a land that was not our own. The imagery of the Exodus and the Jewish story of immigration and rejection, of landlessness and powerlessness, continues to animate us and guide our consciousness of the fate of others. We have experienced the pain that comes from the separation of families, of closed borders, of inhumane immigration policies. Because Jewish memory is both eternal and inspirational, we believe that we must act to achieve immigration reform. We are proud to bring our own set of values to the forefront as we stand beside our many partners in the Asian, Latino and other faith communities on behalf of the undocumented and to seek justice for immigrants in California and throughout the United States.

Rabbi Ron Stern is a member of the clergy at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.

Patriot Jew

Two distinct kinds of Diaspora Jews have emerged over the millennia: the two “P” Jews. One is Persecuted Jew, the Jew who has lived through governments and regimes that have been most unkind to their endemic Jewish populations. Sadly, this has been the majority of our Diaspora history.

The other is Patriot Jew. This is the Jew who has lived during a time of relative tolerance and benevolence, and who has reacted in kind to his government with gratitude and civic service. In fact, Patriot Jew has typically been more fervent in his fealty to the ruler of the land than his non-Jewish counterpart.

Small pockets of time for Patriot Jew have existed over the past 2,000 years. The 10th and 11th centuries were known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. So welcomed were Jews into the general Moorish society that great Jewish civic servants also emerged, such as Chasdai ibn Shaprut (d. 990), vizier to the caliphs Abd al-Rahman and Hakem. Half a millennium later and in a different part of Iberia, Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel (d. 1508) was treasurer to King Afonso V of Portugal.

So great was the patriotic spirit of Jews that it became common practice for the Shabbat liturgy to include a prayer for the welfare of the government. One may still detect German Jews’ patriotism before the Third Reich from the few still extant old German siddurim containing a prayer for the welfare of Kaiser Wilhelm.

Considering Jews’ tendency to obediently serve their governmental leaders, what was Mordechai’s problem? Why did he so boldly refuse to bow down to Haman, as recorded in the Book of Esther (3:2)? This was, after all, the king’s edict, that all should be obeisant to Haman. It was the law of the land.

Furthermore, when Haman realized that Mordechai was breaking the law, why didn’t he just have him arrested and/or executed for this act of sedition? We also never find that Haman ever reported Mordecai’s offense directly to King Ahasuerus.

Perhaps we’re looking at the story the wrong way. It wasn’t Mordechai’s disregard for the king’s law that prompted him to break it. It was his high regard for Ahasuerus and the monarchy that prevented him from bowing to anyone other than the king.

Mordechai was conscientiously objecting to any subordinate of the king being accorded that kind of honor. He viewed it as compromising the king’s power and command. Mordechai genuinely felt it was his patriotic and civic duty to peacefully disobey this one law in order to strengthen all the other laws of the king.

We could then understand why Mordecai was not arrested on the spot by the king’s officers. How can you arrest someone who is upholding the honor of your king? We also understand why the officers present reported Mordecai’s refusal to bow directly to Haman instead of to the royal police or courts, who might have let the case get buried out of respect to their king.

Looking at the story in this light, we find that ultimate salvation came to the Jews of Persia because of Mordechai’s insistence on supporting the honor of his government.

As the Talmud states: “A person should strive to greet non-Jewish kings.” Out of one’s respect and loyalty to his non-Jewish rulers, he will eventually merit his own powerful Jewish government.

Not only did the Jews gain salvation from Haman’s death squads in the Purim story, but they later received permission to rebuild the Temple and return to Israel.

Some recent negative press in our community indicates, lamentably, that some Jews in America still view themselves as Persecuted Jew instead of Patriot Jew. Of course, we all can learn from Mordechai how to maintain a pristine patriotism for the country that has been so good to us.

Perhaps one way to strengthen our people and our Jewish leaders — both in Israel and in the Diaspora — is to show proper respect for the laws of our land and commit even more to civic duty. When it comes to preserving this sweet land of liberty, we, too, must refuse to bow.

Happy Purim!

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region.

Darfur project cooks up first for Bronfman prize

The simplest innovations sometimes lead to the greatest rewards, as Rachel Andres learned this week when she was named the 2008 recipient of the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize.

The annual prize is awarded to a person or team under 50 years of age, whose Jewish values spark humanitarian efforts that contribute to the betterment of the world.

In Andres’ case, her work gives succor to some of the most helpless and brutalized people in the world, the 10,000 refugee families, mostly fatherless, who have escaped the massacres in Darfur.

The genocide in the Sudanese province, now in its fifth year, has so far claimed 400,000 murdered civilians and created some 2.5 million refugees, predominantly women and children.

For the past two years, Andres has directed the Solar Cooker Project of the Jewish World Watch (JWW), which has expanded from a small Los Angeles base to synagogues, churches, schools, Girl Scout troops, civic organizations and individual contributors across the United States and parts of Canada and Australia.

The solar cooker concept is an elegantly simple response to a terrifying fact of life facing the women and young girls in the Iridimi and Touloum refugee camps on the Sudan-Chad border.

While foraging for scarce firewood outside the camps for basic cooking and water purification, the women and girls were in constant danger of gang rapes by roving bands of Arab terrorists.

If the women could somehow find an alternative source of heating within the camps, they could largely eliminate the assaults, reasoned Andres and her colleagues. Her answer was an effective sun-powered cooker made of cardboard and aluminum foil at a cost of $15 each.

Andres discovered a small Dutch company to furnish the material, which is shipped to the refugee camps. Doubling the mitzvah, the cookers are assembled in small camp plants by the women and girls over 14, who get paid for the work and become income earners for their families.

So far, 15,000 cookers have been distributed, which have also proven an environmental boon, slowing the deforestation of the region and cutting down the time women have to spend over open brick fireplaces.

Since each family needs two of the $15 cookers, JWW has pitched its donation appeal at $30. So far, more than $1 million has been received from some 20,000 contributors, mainly in $30 donations, though there have been larger gifts.

In the Los Angeles area alone, nearly 60 synagogues, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, have joined up with JWW. As Andres was talking to a reporter, she interrupted herself to announce jubilantly, “I just got an e-mail from the United Methodist Church in Seattle, and its members are sending us $3,200.”

Andres, born and reared in Dallas, has been an activist since graduating from UCLA with a degree in political science. She credits her paternal grandmother for her sense of Jewish responsibility toward others, regardless of race or religion.

“Bubbe left Suwalki in northern Poland in 1919 and came to Texas,” she recalled. “Most of her family stayed behind, and 22 relatives perished in the Holocaust.”

Grandmother Andres took Rachel and her other grandchildren along to learn by doing.

“She had three sons; she worked in her husband’s grocery store; she wrote four books of Yiddish poetry; she met new immigrants at the airport and helped settle them; she was involved in the Arbeter Ring [Workmen’s Circle],” Andres said. “Her legacy to me was her sense of social justice. She was larger than life.”

In following her grandmother’s inspiration, Andres worked for 10 years at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as director of its Commission on Cults and Missionaries and subsequently as a volunteer for AIDS Project Los Angeles. She was also involved in a variety of other projects, such as the Breed Street Shul renovation and the Museum for the History of Polish Jews.

Now 45, she lives with her husband, Ben Tysch, chief administrator for the regional Planned Parenthood, 6-year-old Rebecca and 10-year-old Ezra in the Hancock Park neighborhood.

Andres is an active member of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation, and her two children attend the temple’s day school.

Asked how she manages her various responsibilities, Andres laughed and responded, “I really don’t know; I’ll have to think about that.” And, after a pause, “It’s a bit of a juggling job, but I’m focused on whatever I’m doing. I try to give it my all.”

She will use the $100,000 prize money “to expand the solar cooker project to more camps and to publicize the desperate needs of the refugees.”

JWW president Janice Kamenir-Resnick noted that “Rachel’s work with Jewish World Watch has made a huge impact on the lives of thousands of refugees.” Kamenir-Resnick joined Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in co-founding the organization and in nominating Andres for the Bronfman Prize.

Andres and her colleagues are sometimes asked why they spend their energies on the suffering in Darfur, rather than focusing on specifically Jewish and Israeli concerns.

She agrees with the answer given by Schulweis: “Some people say about the Darfur genocide that it’s an internal matter; that reports have been exaggerated. These are the same excuses we heard during the Holocaust,” Schulweis said.

“There is always an alternative to passive complicity,” he said. “If we now turn aside, that would be our deepest humiliation.”

The Charles Bronfman Prize was established by the children of the Canadian philanthropist in honor of his 70th birthday.

Andres is the fourth person and the first woman to receive the prize, which will be formally awarded May 6 in New York.

This year, some 80 nominations were received from individuals or for projects in 16 countries, including Iran and Belarus. One member of the prize selection committee, Dan Meridor, Israel’s former minister of justice, summed up the basis for this year’s choice: “The thread woven through Rachel’s life and professional career is that of uplifting others, especially the neediest, so that all individuals may live to their fullest,”

He added, “Caring for others is among the highest Jewish ideals, and Rachel’s work fully embodies that ideal.”

For more information on Jewish World Watch, visit www.jewishworldwatch.org

Did we need blood?

A fascinating debate has broken out among certain members of the community regarding the appropriateness of publicizing people’s personal e-mails. A week ago, this paper went public with some incendiary e-mails from a rabbi who was trying to discourage women — who were considered non-Jewish according to the Orthodox tradition — from crashing his singles parties and dating Jewish men.

Since then, a few people have come to me and asked: Where do we draw the line? What if there are e-mails from other rabbis or leaders of the community that expose hypocritical, inappropriate or hurtful behavior? Are all those e-mails now fair game? Is a hurtful e-mail against a fellow Jew any less newsworthy than a hurtful e-mail against a non-Jew?

And what should people do with hurtful e-mails? Forward them to newspapers and blogs to expose the writers — or deal with their personal grievances in more private ways?

As fate would have it, all these questions were twirling in my mind when I found myself riveted to the teachings of a Conservative woman rabbi at the LimmudLA conference last weekend in Costa Mesa.

Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, who runs a congregation called Ahavat Torah inside the Village Lutheran Church in Brentwood, is not the schmoozy type. She has a gentle, loving face, but her expression tells you she’s not easily impressed. Through her Israeli accent, her words come out with sweetness and serenity. It’s clear that she takes words very seriously.

At the LimmudLA conference, she was giving a class on her lifelong passion: Mussar. The Mussar movement is one of those little-known undercurrents initiated in the Orthodox world that gets little attention. Founded by the 19th century Lithuanian Talmudic giant Rabbi Israel Salanter, Mussar is a Torah-based system of internalizing the central values of religious, moralistic and ethical teachings into one’s personal life. In other words, it’s a guide on how to perfect our characters and deal with each other.

The class I attended was on “Embarrassments and Insults.” After a brief introduction and history of the Mussar movement, Hamrell laid out some definitions, and then, slowly and quietly, began to make us uncomfortable. Eventually, she moved in for the kill and said something that made a few of us squirm.

Public humiliation is like murder, she said.

The rabbi delved into numerous Torah sources, but one quote stood out for me: “One who shames his fellow in public, is as if he shed blood” (Talmud Berahot 58b).

Hamrell was relentless but serene, as if to say: Don’t kill the messenger, this is your Torah. In addition to Torah law, she quoted several biblical stories to reinforce the notion that few things in the Torah are seen in a worse light than public humiliation.

Her talk was disturbing, but I wanted to know about the embarassing e-mails: Was the act of publishing them akin to shedding blood? Wasn’t there a Torah exemption for reporters seeking to inform readers?

I caught up with the rabbi on the last day of the conference and asked her point blank: Where do the Torah obligations of a Jew end and the obligations of a reporter begin?

“Your obligations as a Jew never end,” she said. “Your professions can come and go, but your Torah and your Judaism will never go.”

I felt like one of those young lads in the snowy mountains of Tibet inhaling the wise words of a great Zen master.

Still, I needed more clarity, so I got more specific: I told her the story of the e-mails and asked her what she would have done if she had received them. She said she was highly sympathetic to the women whose feelings were hurt, but instead of publicizing the e-mails and humiliating the rabbi in front of the whole world, she would have arranged individual meetings of apology and understanding between the women and the rabbi. As she explained it, fanning the flames of passion and turning them into swords of destruction is not the Jewish way.

In essence, what she said was: Hurting someone one-on-one might be a punch in the gut, but public humiliation is destruction.

It’s clear that reporters have the power to destroy, and that they must use this power with excruciating care. More often than not, the decisions are not difficult: Exposing criminals and child molesters ought to be done to protect the community, shame or no shame.

But publicly humiliating an individual because of hurtful e-mails he wrote as personal correspondence? That’s more tricky.

I’ve known the rabbi (“Schwartzie”) for 20 years, and I’ve never met anyone who has done more to rescue lost Jews and keep them in the Jewish family. I saw him almost cry once when he read an editorial encouraging Jewish women (who had trouble finding a Jewish mate) to date non-Jews, with the hope that they might one day convert.

Look at it this way: Would I scream, swear, offend, insult and go bananas if I felt it would protect my children from an intruder? Of course I would, which is precisely the problem with my friend Schwartzie: He treats Jews like they’re his children. When he sees non-Jews crash his parties, he’s so afraid that he might “lose” one of his children that he can get absurdly protective — to the point that in a few instances over 38 years, he has lost his cool and said inappropriate, hurtful and even bizarre things to keep “intruders” at bay.

Was that wrong? Absolutely. Did the rabbi see his mistake and feel contrition? He told me that he did, and that he apologized to the women mentioned in the article, and I believe him. Was it worth publishing his e-mails verbatim, publicly humiliating him and “shedding his blood”? You make that call.

The only call I’m making is to my friend Schwartzie, to let him know that I won’t pile on, I won’t kick him while he’s down and I won’t abandon him anytime soon.

That’s also the Jewish way.

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

What is valuable?

I am blessed that my children generally get along well. Now that they are 3 1/2 and 1 1/2, however, they do tussle over toys. A few times, my son, the elder, has screamed the toddler credo — “It’s mine!” — right in his sister’s face.

In light of such indignation, I reminded them of the rules against grabbing (her offense) and yelling (his). And then I introduced a meta-rule that seems to have touched and influenced my son: “People are more important than things.”

When I first said it, the rule stopped him in his tracks. He paused to think about it. Since then, at least so far, he has shared more graciously with his sister.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I lost my engagement ring. Like many Jewish women, I lose weight in my fingers first — an issue of theodicy for another column. Somewhere between my house, the library, the community center and a dinner meeting, the ring slipped off my newly svelte finger. I retraced my steps, I apologized to my husband, I cried. The meta-rule helped me to let go and to pray for serenity and gratitude, whether the ring is found or not.

My son kept me company as I searched through the trash today. We opened just two bags before we found it. This time, I cried tears of joy. I explained to my son when and why his dad gave me the ring. I asked, “Do you remember what I told you about people and things?”

He did.

We agreed that, the meta-rule notwithstanding, some things are very special.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, tells the ultimate cautionary tale about becoming enamored with things. Losing hope and patience as they wait for Moses to descend Mount Sinai, the Israelites build a Golden Calf and worship it.

We may have trouble relating to “primitives” who ascribed redemptive power to molten metal. Yet, gold is an idol in our culture, as much as it ever was in theirs. We readily assert the supremacy of people, values and, certainly, God over things. But, like the ancient Israelites, we pay homage to spiritually empty products of our own hands. We are regularly seduced by what glitters pleasingly, demands little and offers nothing of ultimate value. We conflate money with security, influence, approval, love and countless other projections.

Social scientists tell us that Americans in every income bracket believe they would be happy, if only they had one-third more income. Yet, by every available measure of happiness, additional “gold” makes no difference whatsoever in a person’s well-being — none — once they earn $50,000 annually. At the time of the Israelites, it was the calf that people mistook for a god. In our day, it’s the gold that people think will save them.

The Torah’s answer to materialism doesn’t lie in decrying money or renouncing things. At the start of our portion, God demands a census through a half-shekel — money that serves as a means of atonement. God then details things of worship and their uses: a bronze laver, anointing oils, incense. Five verses into the next Torah portion, Moses instructs the Israelites to bring gold as an offering to God for the Tabernacle. What built an idol will now build God’s house. Certain things and certain uses of money are very special indeed.

Some commentators believe that using gold in the Tabernacle aided the Israelites’ repentance, converting shame to glory. Others find inspiration in the idea that the Israelites merely needed to redirect their focus. Their service to Calf and Tabernacle used the same tool (gold) and relied on some of the same impulses (participation in community, connection to something larger than themselves, generosity). But one school of thought is troubled precisely because of the continuities.

Ask the Israelites for gold to fashion a calf and they freely give it; ask them for gold to build a Tabernacle and they do the same. Have they learned a lesson, or are they indiscriminate? Obviously, lucre can be used for good ends or bad. We could say the same thing of every tool, form of energy, ability and power. The question is not only where or how the Israelites use gold, but why. What do they really value?

Ki Tisa holds up a mirror and pushes us to ask ourselves the same question: What do we really value? What core principles and assumptions underlie our choices?

What is worthy of elevation above all we have, all we give, all we want and all we think we want? What has worth — not just as a commodity, but also as a reminder and promoter of righteousness, goodness, and holiness? What supersedes even iconic objects and symbols? Who and what are more important than our most treasured gifts and possessions? What is ultimately valuable?

Only in answer to these questions can we properly decide where to invest our time, energy, faith and money.

There are traditional answers — some of them (e.g., that the mitzvah of Shabbat and organizing time “trumps” the mitzvah of building the Tabernacle and organizing space) found in this very parsha. There are spiritually glib answers that can make you sound holy. But to be useful, the answers must be brutally honest and deeply personal. They must go beyond lip service to Torah and conscience to articulate — each of us in our own voice — the meta-rules we deliberately choose to live by.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (www.makom.org).

What makes a good politico?

What makes a good politician? More to the point for Jewish Journal readers, what makes a good Jewish politician?

I’ve been thinking about this since I spoke to the Westwood Women’s Bruin Club about my book, “Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics.”

In my talk, as I did in my book, I dug into this powerful old politician to figure out why he sought power so relentlessly. The idea intrigued a member of the audience.

“Why do politicians do it?” she asked. “How can they put themselves through all that?”

It’s a great question. Since I’m Jewish and write about politics for The Journal, I decided to devote this column to exploring what makes some of our local Jewish politicians good at their jobs.

Good politicians are like actors, a combination of ego and ambition mixed in with a public-spirited desire to help people.

The public-spirited aspect is — or should be — part of the makeup of good Jewish politicians. Whether they are religious or secular, many have been brought up to with Jewish values, including the belief that they should try make the world a better place and that they’ll be judged by the good things accomplished in a lifetime. They extend themselves beyond the confines of their jobs and think of ways to help all kinds of people.

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, whose 30th District reaches from Santa Monica through Los Angeles’ Westside and into the San Fernando Valley, is a good example of what I’m describing.

I don’t agree with him all the time. His years of opposition to a Wilshire Boulevard subway delayed the project so long that it may be unaffordable. But as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he has launched investigations into White House secrecy, steroids in baseball, the subprime mortgage mess, big drug and tobacco companies and the recent Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to block California’s tough clean-air standards.

With his chairmanship and his eye for newsworthy subjects, Waxman has become nationally known.

It’s not so easy for a politician slogging away in City Hall or the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration. That’s because the ethnic politics of Los Angeles have changed in recent years.

As political observer Joel Kotkin and others have pointed out, the interest of many of the rich Westside Jews, who once were a powerful force in local politics, have shifted to the glamour and high visibility of presidential politics.

In addition, political coverage in our shrinking newspapers has diminished, and it has become all but nonexistent on television. Who notices activities relegated to Page 3 of the Los Angeles Times California section? And that’s on a good day. Usually, they are ignored altogether.

Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick, another Jewish politician, has successfully struggled against the media blackout by conducting much-needed audits of major city departments that often make news. (Disclosure: Chick appointed me to the City Ethics Commission).

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents an area reaching from the Westside into the San Fernando Valley, has not been so fortunate. Like Waxman, he looks beyond his district. As a Los Angeles city councilman, he joined with his colleague, the late Marvin Braude, another good Jewish politician, as authors of voter initiatives that limited commercial developments near residential neighborhoods and stopped oil drilling in the bay off Pacific Palisades.

In those days, Yaroslavsky was hot news. He considered running for mayor. Influential Jews were still interested in City Hall. The newspapers –the Times, the Daily News and the now-dead Herald-Examiner — competed in the coverage of local politics. Television was interested, too.

Today, he’s the same Yaroslavsky, but not many people notice what he’s doing. That’s because he is a member of the five-person Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, a body that usually escapes media attention.

Yaroslavsky has deep roots in the Jewish community, and he works hard to maintain them. Most recently, he arranged for The Jewish Federation Council’s Menorah Housing Corp. to build a 45-unit senior citizen housing project on the site of the old county welfare office at Pico and Veteran boulevards in West Los Angeles. I live near there and think it’s a great project.

But he has also extended himself beyond his Jewish base into activities that benefit the whole city. As a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he was the major force behind the Orange Line busway across the San Fernando Valley. The busway connects to the Red Line subway, making it possible for those who live in the Valley and work downtown to use public transit.

Yaroslavsky also was the sponsor of a countywide tax increase that provided needed funds to trauma centers in danger of closing. And he has taken the lead on the Board of Supervisors in efforts to provide housing and services for the homeless, although chances for success in that area are dim, given the board’s taste for inaction.

There are other good Jewish politicians. I happened to pick three I know pretty well –Yaroslavsky, Waxman and Chick — because each, in his or her own way, illustrates how the values of Jewish life can be carried over into the secular obligations of public affairs. They have been doing this a long time, setting an example for a new generation that will make sure our community is deeply involved in Los Angeles civic life.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Lessons of gratitude

In the course of a lifetime, we encounter any number of friends.

Some are friends by happenstance — friends who happen to attend school with us, happen to work where we do or reside near us. When we graduate from school, change careers or relocate, most such friends slowly disappear from our lives — and we from theirs.

But there are others, fewer, whose friendship lasts a lifetime. They are the friends we invite to our child’s bar mitzvah or wedding, even though we have not seen each other, or perhaps even spoken, for years.

In the soul of the permanent friendships that account for such deeper love, we very often find rooted some unspoken aspect of gratitude — a friendship built within the trenches and foxholes when we faced unremitting attack, the friend who opened a door and welcomed us when we were alone, the person who was “there” when others were not.

In this week’s Torah portion, we see glimpses of the phenomena that lie beneath the love and gratitude. As so often happens, gratitude is not always consciously expressed. But in deeds and life behavior, the importance of gratitude — hakarat hatov — is a Jewish value that is at the core of our societal being.

Moshe is born into a world that has condemned him to death. In desperation, his mother instructs Miriam, Moshe’s sister, to place him in the river and to stand watch. Miriam stands guard faithfully. When Moshe is received and effectively adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam rapidly reports to her mother, and Yocheved appears at the palace to nurse and rear Moshe in the ways and values of the Hebrews (Exodus 2:2-8).

In time, Moshe becomes a young man at the palace — some midrashic sources say he is 20, some say 40 — when he sees a horrible persecution. As discussed in Midrash Tanchuma, an Egyptian taskmaster has raped a Hebrew woman in her home and now is torturing the life out of her enslaved husband, who has learned the secret.

Moshe looks both ways — some say that he simply is assuring that there are no witnesses; some say he is desperately looking for someone else to stand up and do what must be done, but “he saw there is no man. And he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). Soon after, at the first of many unpleasant encounters he will endure with Datan and Aviram, he is compelled to flee Egypt for his life.

He reaches the wilderness of Midian, where he will remain in relative solitude for the next 40 or 60 years. In that wilderness, as Rav Avigdor Miller has observed, he will have time to contemplate his life’s purpose and to weigh the meaning of his extended isolation from his persecuted people, continuing to withhold the unique life gifts and skills he gained while he was reared amid nobility and power.

At a well in that wilderness, he meets a shepherdess, Tzipporah, whom he first protects from attackers, then marries at the behest of a grateful father-in-law, Yitro, the high priest of Midian (Exodus 2:15-21). In so doing, he perhaps unknowingly continues the nascent Hebrew tradition that saw two of our patriarchs marry women found at the wells — Rivkah and Rachel. All’s well that ends well.

Soon, Hashem will reveal to his brother, Aharon, that Moshe will lead the nation to freedom, and Aharon — rejoicing in his heart (Exodus 4:14) — will come to draw Moshe back to Egypt.

And thus the background. Here is how the Torah value of gratitude will play out over the next 40 years. Moshe will never forget that Miriam stood by his basket floating in the water.

When she later will speak adversely about him and his relationship with his wife, eliciting on her Hashem’s punishment of biblical leprosy, Moshe patiently and lovingly will pray for her recovery and then will do as she did, waiting patiently with the nation he is leading until her status is restored (Numbers 12:11-16).

Aharon, who responded with joy to news of Moshe’s elevation over him, will be rewarded with the crown of the kehunah (priesthood) for all his generations. Unlike the contretemps that so gravely prevailed amid the jealousies of older Yishmael toward younger Yitzchak, older Esav toward younger Yaakov, and the older brothers toward Yosef, Aharon’s unilateral love and joy for Moshe’s elevation will seal the bond for a lifetime’s fraternity, transcending genetic brotherhood.

Hashem will repay Yitro for hosting and feeding Moshe, just as He did Lavan, who hosted and fed Yaakov — notwithstanding that each conferred hospitality for their own particular reasons — with sons who will continue their dynasties (Genesis 30:35, 31:1; Judges 1:16). Moshe will honor Yitro repeatedly, first demonstratively asking his permission to return to Egypt, even though Hashem has commanded Moshe to depart from Midian (Exodus 4:18). And later Moshe will welcome Yitro into the Hebrew nation’s midst, even adopting counsel Yitro offers.

Moshe, too, will demonstrate a fascinating gratitude toward the water that saved his life in infancy and the sand that hid the Egyptian tormentor whom he slew. Years later, when the first plagues hit Egypt in its water and earth, Moshe will not use his staff to strike those inanimate resources but instead will delegate that task to Aharon (Exodus 7:19, 8:2, 8:12).

These are the lessons of gratitude — and the wonderful impact with which this Torah value enriches the lives of those who perform great acts of friendship — and those who know how to carry hakarat hatov within their souls.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.

Keeping the peace

My wife Rosie, a professor of history, can be a formidable woman, especially when advancing upon some miscreant, tire iron in hand. That was the scene one midnight some years ago when she came across a man beating his wife in the middle of a Sunland street. Slamming on the brakes, she leaped out of the car prepared for battle. The offender promptly fled. Rosie gathered up the woman and her four small children and took them to our home where I awoke the next morning to find all five sleeping in our living room.

Several months later, Rosie received a letter from the LAPD, inviting her to accept a commendation for heroism from Police Chief Daryl Gates on Feb. 25, 1986. There were a number of good citizens being honored, and as each one received a certificate, they mumbled appropriate words of thanks and stepped down off the stage.

When her turn arrived, Rosie didn’t mumble. Instead, she gave the chief a three-minute lecture on how the LAPD discriminates against people of color. The chief sat through it, thanked her politely and moved on to the next honoree, while I made a mental note never to risk getting a traffic ticket from the LAPD.

In the 30 years that we have been together, I have yet to be the target of a wielded tire iron, but marriage to a political activist does require a certain flexibility of thought and dexterity of movement. Among the causes worthy of Rosie’s attention are advocacy for the homeless, the farm worker’s union, the security of Israel, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, same-sex marriages, racism, anti-Semitism, withdrawal from Iraq, the political defeat of anyone to the right of The Nation, and the gall of those Americans who believe that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America.

“How about those who were living here at the time. What were they, chopped liver?” the outspoken professor of Latin American history asks.

Nor does political activism end at the front door. As the principal family shopper, I am kept constantly aware by Rosie of changes in the political acceptability of some of the largest retailers and suppliers in the land. For some years, shopping at Target was forbidden (union busting), although it has now been restored to its place in the shopping pantheon; Wendy’s, because until recently it didn’t offer employment protection to gay and lesbian employees, and don’t even think of Wal-Mart as a beneficiary of our business.

It is true that I have not conducted any personal investigations to verify these accusations and that I am certainly not looking forward to any legal entanglements with high-powered attorneys representing American commercial interests. But shalom bayit, peace in the home, has been the foundation upon which a firm family relationship has been built and that not even Wal-Mart has the power to erode. So we buy produce from an independent greengrocer, coffee from a fair-trade company, eggs from a nice lady Rosie knows and, wherever possible, avoid those supermarkets that are not unionized.

(Countering this, and probably eliminating us forever from membership in the Sierra Club, is my 1992 Mercury Topaz, alias the anti-Hummer or “The Bummer,” which requires gassing up every month or so, not because it is stingy on gasoline but because I don’t drive much any more.)

The real secret for attaining successful family relations lies in what I propose as the 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not ask.” This runs counter to every warning about drug usage and other anti-social behaviors, and in favoring it I may be dead wrong, but I am dealing with a single family, not a nationwide sample. Of course, it only works if those involved trust one another, and while this may lead the family down some unfamiliar paths and unusual confrontations, it is a course wisely chosen and on a morally high level.

If you are still given to the old ways, be sure to avoid formidable women wielding tire irons.

Yehuda Lev, The Journal’s first associate editor, lives in Providence, R.I., where his business card reads Editor Emeritus. He can be contacted at yehudal@cox.net.

Reform Jews must refashion Shabbat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A moral dilemma — ‘No Country for Old Men’

The world is rapidly changing. Whether it be the greedy nature of mankind or the constantly upgraded weaponry, the world is evolving for better or for worse. This idea sets up the mainframe for the highly acclaimed new feature film, “No Country for Old Men,” a film that not only delves into the depths of human nature, but also poses a serious question: Do we, as human beings, have the capability to prevail against the evil way in which the world often works? The complex dilemma that is at the center of this film not only provokes thought, but also raises questions about what it means to be a Jew, and for that matter, what it means to be a human being.

The film is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same title (spoiler alert — this analysis reveals details about the story’s end). While the movie stays fairly true to its original source, it is the directors’ unique use of stylish cinematography and attention to detail that make the film such a mind-boggling piece of art. It is directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (often referenced as “The Coen Brothers”), Jewish siblings whose renowned films range from bizarrely comedic — such as “The Big Lebowski” and “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” — to psychologically dramatic, such as “Barton Fink” and “Fargo.” It is rather evident that “No Country” belongs in the latter of these two categories.

The film is about a man named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong near the Rio Grande. He decides to keep the loot and returns to his trailer park home. Unfortunately, the party in search of the missing cash finds out that Llewelyn is responsible for its absence and hires Anton Chigurh (Anthony Bardem) to hunt him down. What follows is an extremely intense game of cat and mouse. However, even though Moss and Chigurh have the most screen time, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the most essential character in comprehending the film’s overall meaning.

Bell is an aging police officer who is not only attempting to resolve the situation and protect Moss from the mess he has gotten himself into, but also is beginning to feel as if the world today is no place for a man of his kind (thus the title, “No Country for Old Men”). Toward the end of the film, Bell finds himself in a situation where he can finally catch Chigurh. Instead, he allows Chigurh to flee. One would assume that Bell’s neglecting to even attempt to prevent Chigurh’s escape was due to his realization that he could not change the way the world had become. He felt that even if he were to catch Chigurh, it wouldn’t correct the world of violence. People would continue to commit horrendous crimes, and there is nothing he could do about it. Soon after this, Bell retires. He basically gives up on humanity. This then poses the question: Is there any chance of reforming the inhumane ways in which the world now works, or did Bell make the right choice in giving up on mankind? The answer is, presumably, that Bell did indeed make the wrong decision.

Bell’s choice has tragic results: Chigurh continues to live and viciously destroy innocent life without obstacles in his path. Not even a severe car accident (toward the film’s conclusion) prevents him from continuing his existence filled with tremendous sin. In essence, giving up completely eliminates the possibility of repair. This idea is not only the essential idea of the film, but is also extremely important in understanding the principals of Judaism and tikkun olam.

The fundamental ideas of being a Jew revolve around helping others and performing good deeds. If Jews were suddenly to decide to give up on humanity and discontinue their performance of mitzvot with the assumption that the world is hopeless, the results would be similar to the result of the film. Without the performance of kindness, the world will be doomed with permanent misery.

It may be exceedingly difficult to fathom the idea of the world changing. Whether it be by combating crime, poverty or sickness, one must do everything one can to ensure that humankind never falls into oblivion. However, it is extraordinarily important that people understand that the world cannot completely be changed. Evil will always exist and never be completely eliminated. All we can do is continue to perform mitzvot and participate in the world of kindness. Though this will not completely alter the way the world works, it will certainly prevent the world from ever becoming hopeless. These ideals of everlasting hope are the very strings that hold society together.

Jason Berger is in the 11th grade at the Communication Arts program at Hamilton High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the January issue is Dec. 15; deadline for the February issue is Jan. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Chanukah and adult faith

A lot of people have trouble with Chanukah. I did, for years. I’d go to parties and nibble on my latke or sufganiyot while grumbling under my breath about how there was nothing here to celebrate. I’d light my Chanukiyah, but I’d only do the bare minimum needed to fulfill the mitzvah and I’d do my best not to enjoy it.

My problem then, and the problem of the people who this year have already informed me that they’re all but going to boycott the holiday, is that the history of this particular celebration is, well … complicated.

The war through which we celebrate Chanukah was, in part, a Jew-on-Jew civil war, in which zealous traditionalists attacked and killed the more assimilationist Hellenized Jews. The catalyst for the violent revolution was the reigning Syrian Greek king, Antiochus IV, who demanded that Jews worship false gods and violate the Sabbath, or die. The Jews who refused to do this were not very pleased with the ones who did.

Historically speaking, the miracle of Chanukah is that this small, bandit guerrilla army (the zealots) triumphed over Antiochus’ large army and formidable weapons, against all odds, not only taking back the desecrated Temple, but re-dedicating it as well.

The “Chanukah miracle” with which most kids are raised was apparently invented by rabbinic sages living 300-600 years after the Maccabean events took place — the first time we hear the story of oil that was meant to last for one day but instead burned for eight is in the Talmud. It’s not clear exactly when the story originated, but some scholars posit that the tradition originated when some of the rabbis still living under Roman rule figured it wouldn’t be that clever to publicly celebrate a holiday marking the violent overthrow of a foreign government, particularly (possibly) in light of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion. Instead, they came up with the much more kid-friendly version about the oil which, conveniently, lends itself much more to spiritualized interpretations of Chanukah.

Why was it eight days originally? There are a few theories. One suggests that the Maccabees were too busy waging war to celebrate Sukkot on time, so they did so later — but that doesn’t explain why Chanukah became a separate holiday in subsequent years. Two others offer a little more irony: one suggests that an eight-day winter festival of lights was widespread in Greek, Roman and Babylonian antiquity, and another notes that that’s how long the Greeks celebrated their military victories.

All this, frankly, wasn’t even enough to bother me — not even the Jew vs. Jew part. That’s nothing new as Jewish history goes. What happened afterwards, however, was really disturbing. After the Hasmoneans-Maccabees-zealots-heroes of our story won, once Israel was reclaimed and the Temple restored, Judah, the Hasmonean leader, and his brothers set to making a mighty Hebrew nation — by force. First they attacked the non-Jews on their own Hasmonean turf. As it says in the Book of Maccabees, “they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel” (I Maccabees 2:46) as a way of Juda-izing them — making them all Judean-like. (Again, note the irony — they had been upset when the Hellenizers imposed their own cultural signifiers as a way of denoting allegiance.)

It got worse after that. Judah “Maccabee” “took [a non-Jewish filled] town, and killed every male by the edge of his sword, then he seized all its spoils and burned it with fire” (I Maccabees 5:28). He then did the same thing to the innocent people in Maapha, Chaspho, Maked, Bosor, other towns in the region of Gilead, Hebron, Marisa, Azotus and other places in the land of the Philistines. There are a lot of stories: when the army “saw a tumultuous [wedding] procession with a great amount of baggage, they rushed on them from the ambush and began killing them … the wedding was turned into mourning and the voice of their musicians into a funeral dirge” (I Maccabees 9:39-41).

The people that were killed or circumcised here were innocent. I don’t feel any more OK that it was “our guys” doing the unprovoked attacking and killing; that makes me feel worse, more uncomfortable, more upset, and I feel compelled to take some sort of responsibility for it.

One can, perhaps, understand why this holiday made me so angry for so long — why I’d go to synagogue and blurt uncomfortable facts about military history while everybody else was trying to enjoy a nice game of dreidel. It wasn’t really a fun place to be.

Then something shifted. I don’t know what, or why. One year, though, I started sitting and meditating in front of my Chanukiyah every night, sitting and breathing with the candles as they burned, thinking about renewal, rededication, how to make something from what seems to be the utter desolation of nothing. It’s not that I had forgotten the atrocities committed at the end of the Hasmonean war, it’s that … they didn’t block me anymore.

A mature adult faith demands that we take in difficult, painful facts and allow them to become part of our understandings of God, our language of faith and connection. Chanukah is not a holiday about innocence. Neither is Purim, actually — Jews did some slaughtering there, too.

Part of adult faith is being able to look truth in the eye, to take responsibility for it, and to not get stuck by the fact that it’s not an easy story. It certainly requires us not to take out our frustrations on God. I know too many people whose faith was seriously shaken by biblical criticism — as though God changes just because our understanding of history might. As though God weren’t bigger and far more expansive than that. As though it’s God’s fault that we’re just getting some new information. As if it’s God’s fault that human beings sometimes behave in ways that are unforgivable. As though God’s Divinity might not shine through texts written at different times and places, for different reasons.

An adult relationship to this stuff has to include the facts of, in this case, bad human behavior and Jewish culpability, and yet also maintain the awe and reverence that God deserves. Is there any reason that I can’t be grateful for the survival of the Jewish religion while condemning the actions of those who were involved in its (miraculous) survival?

Jewish philanthropy in Israel will be marginalized if it doesn’t change

Jewish philanthropy in Israel is at a crossroads. Powerful trends are marginalizing its impact on Israeli society. More than a billion dollars of
philanthropic giving from Jews worldwide, spurred by endless goodwill, passion and care, are not impacting Israel or contributing to global Jewish peoplehood to the extent they should. The current system is in dire need of an overhaul.

I write this piece as an Israeli whose national identity is founded upon and deeply informed by his Jewishness. I am also a person who has realized a dream and established the Reut Institute, a policy group that provides strategic decision-support to the government of Israel because of the generosity of time, spirit and money by rabbis, lay leaders and philanthropists from the United States, France and England.

Why do I care? As an Israeli and for a variety of obvious reasons, I wish to ensure that these dollars are put to the best possible use. As a Jew, I view philanthropy as a critical tool of connecting the Jewish Diaspora with Israel and a key ingredient in the blood that flows in the veins of global Jewish peoplehood. As a grantee, I feel a debt of gratitude and a sense of responsibility to share my ideas openly with my partners.

Four major trends are marginalizing Jewish philanthropy in Israel:

  • Chronic inefficiencies, budget cuts and privatization have led to a decline in the Israeli government’s will and ability to address the needs of Israel’s population. Therefore, the menu of options for philanthropic giving has expanded while its resources have been stretched beyond capacity.
  • The rapid growth of the Israeli economy — by an estimated $7 billion in 2007 alone — is diminishing the overall impact of Jewish philanthropy.
  • The socioeconomic center of Israeli society is increasingly disconnected from Jewish philanthropy in Israel. Philanthropists are engaged with the poor and the needy or with very small, intensely intellectual and political English-speaking elite.
  • Finally, there is the belated and much-awaited rise of Israeli philanthropists, who are stepping in to address societal challenges and local needs.

As much as they are challenges, these trends also present opportunities. The menu of options for philanthropic interventions expands. Furthermore, Jewish philanthropy is in an excellent position to impact and lead the four rising sectors of Israeli society: the business class, philanthropists, local government and nonprofits.

The approach has to be qualitative. Raising enough money to keep up with the growing needs is not feasible. Being more efficient is very important but only amounts to an insufficient “technical fix.” The real challenge is to leverage much greater impact on Israeli society with the same dollars.

There are three parts to the needed qualitative approach: vision, organization, and focus and priorities. Each element requires a fundamental change of deeply embedded values and patterns of conduct.

First, on vision: Jewish philanthropists need to embrace a positive vision that can provide an overarching framework for their actions. The TOP 15 Vision, which aims to place Israel among the 15 most developed nations in terms of quality of life within 15 years, is one example of such a context. This is the vision that guides the work of the Reut Institute. It requires catapulting the quality of life in Israel toward the kind of sustained, out-of-the-ordinary growth seen in Ireland, Finland or China.

The link between philanthropy and the TOP 15 Vision is relatively straightforward. Leapfrogging Israel’s quality of life requires excellence in the private and public spheres, and massive investment in infrastructure, education and human capital, as well as the ability to thrive in a globalized world.

Crucial in this context is raising productivity and income in the low-tech sector, which employs 85 percent of the labor force and is significantly less efficient compared to developed countries. Much of this sector consists of governmental and non-governmental nonprofits that are often grantees of Jewish philanthropy.

Hence, Jewish philanthropy can play a central role in promoting the TOP 15 Vision through its material resources, as well as the vast experience and knowledge of its members.

Calling upon philanthropists to adapt the TOP 15 Vision as an overarching context does not necessarily mean that all philanthropic projects should focus exclusively on promoting socioeconomic growth. However, it does mean that every dollar spent can and should be leveraged toward greater excellence and productivity.

Second, on organization: The “heavy hitters” of Jewish philanthropy in Israel — the organized Jewish community, foundations, individuals and their professional staffs — should come together. Their agenda may include, for example, lobbying the Israeli government for tax reforms, policy, partnerships or recognition of their joint efforts; engaging the Israeli middle class that is not a recipient of their generosity; standardizing expectations from grantees to make philanthropy more efficient and accessible; or sharing information and discussing priorities, activities and specific organizations.

Third, on focus and priorities: The next wave of Jewish philanthropy in Israel must develop a new ethos and focus on institution and capacity building, as well as on government and market failures.

Institution and capacity building will ensure lasting impact on Israeli society. Philanthropists need to insist that their grantees uphold the requirements for good business: clear vision, mission, strategy, core values and unique value proposition; solid and quantifiable performance goals; strong boards; accountability, and stable and transparent financial oversight.

In addition, they need to create incentives for small nonprofits to grow, merge, synergize or shut down and help them transition from their founders to solid professional management.

This relatively simple idea actually requires a deep transformation. The current focus on quick, measurable results often creates incentives to sacrifice long-term sustainability and organizational development for short-term performance, programs and projects.

Israeli grantees are rarely expected to rise to the standards of their grantors. This is no longer acceptable and change should be demanded. Improving management in the nonprofit sector will not only enhance the effectiveness of every dollar but is also essential for fulfilling the TOP 15 Vision.

Furthermore, excellence in Israel historically has been driven primarily by academia, the high-tech sector and by elite parts of the defense establishment. Jewish philanthropists can transform the nonprofit sector into an additional engine of growth.

The need to focus on government and market failures is even more challenging. It requires identifying and focusing on the conditions where neither the Israeli economy nor the government of Israel can offer a resolution to a crisis. The logic is simple: This is where Jewish philanthropy can thrive and have the most powerful impact.

What falls within this category? Examples include addressing unacceptable realities such as individual cases of hunger or lack of medical treatment; supporting societal, organizational or academic experimentation and innovation; encouraging a deeper sense of global Jewish peoplehood among Israelis; or providing safety nets during difficult transitions.

While these are examples of needs that can only be addressed by philanthropy, at present we may not be able to say the same of replacing government in areas where it has a specific civic responsibility, such as building classrooms or immigration absorption.

Finally, Jewish philanthropists who work in Israel need to establish ethical, political and personal priorities based on the premise: “Give a person a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

For example, will you fill a government void or bring about change in government conduct? Will you deal with today’s problems or generate tomorrow’s solutions? Will you focus on a specific region such as the Negev or the Galilee, or on topics such as education or health? Will you address the needs of the general population or invest in change agents?

Too often we automatically equate philanthropy with leadership. The connection is not self-evident.

According to Ron Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, only activities that challenge values, priorities and habits to adapt to changing realities amount to leadership. This distinction is important because if Jewish philanthropy is to continue to play a central role in Israel, it will have to lead.

Philanthropic activity that catalyzes such change amounts to leadership. At the same time, a donation that serves to preserve an already existing yet irrelevant structure, organization or pattern may be the opposite of leadership. Therefore, sometimes declining a request — even if by the Israeli government or by other major Jewish institutions — constitutes a greater act of leadership than writing a check.

My conclusion is that the marginalization of Jewish philanthropy in Israel is not inevitable. If transformed, it can continue to play a central role in Israeli society and become an engine of Israeli prosperity and excellence. The overhaul is important for the grantees and grantors, for Israel and for world Jewry.

Courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute (www.reut-institute.org). This article summarizes a series of posts about Jewish philanthropy that Grinstein is writing for his blog at www.blogidi.com.

Don’t chastise Jews’ grants to non-Jewish causes

Jewish foundations are growing by leaps and bounds, giving away billions of dollars and supporting practically every cause and organization that you can

imagine. This is good news, unless of course you are in the camp that believes Jews and the foundations they create are misguided if they give to non-Jewish, rather than Jewish, organizations.

We examined about 50 of the largest and most prominent foundations established by Jews and looked at where they made their more than 8,000 grants in 2004 and 2005, the latest years for which comprehensive information is available.

The findings confirm our previous research: About 80 percent of the dollars they gave away went to general causes — higher education, health care, arts and culture, programs for the poor and elderly, the environment and more. About 20 percent went to Jewish causes, including 7 percent for Israel-related purposes.

A few of the foundations gave most of their dollars to Jewish causes, some split and a number gave nothing or almost nothing to Jewish organizations. It is a wide range and is to be expected.

Some of the Jews who established these foundations were or are devoted to building Jewish life through day schools, Jewish community centers and supporting Israel in any way they can. Others see their path differently; they care most about fighting AIDS in Africa or improving the quality of public education in our nation’s schools.

Foundations and their founders have varied goals and even more varied means to achieve them. It is wrong to assume that foundations established by Jews that give to secular causes have lost their way for choosing to give the way they do or to assert that they must not care much about being Jewish. Even worse is chastising them for being uncaring or even self-hating Jews. These are charges that often are leveled unfairly at Jews who are generous to America and the world.

Foundations make their grants because of compelling moral and ethical reasons. They are operating within the most important guidelines of Jewish law and tradition to help all people in need.

Our research on Jewish foundations should spur discussion and debate but also should be a cause for celebration for how well Jews have integrated into and succeeded in American society. Moreover, Jews are involved global citizens and many feel they can express their Jewish sensibilities by serving the larger society.

Nevertheless, Jewish foundations, as with all foundations, have room for improvement, especially in holding recipients accountable. For example, Jewish foundations donate millions to colleges and universities that do not do enough to deal with anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on their campuses. Such issues should concern Jews and Americans in general. How foundations provide proper oversight, however, is a different issue than choosing Jewish or secular causes.

Of course, Jewish causes and organizations need support, too, and legitimate questions should be raised about how to increase the proportions and totals of the dollars they receive from Jewish foundations. Legitimate questions, however, are not the same as whining, complaining, kvetching and somehow feeling entitled to foundation money because a founder is Jewish.

We have to ask tough questions about Jewish organizations themselves. Are they high quality? Are they efficient? Are they duplicative? Do they achieve the outcomes and results they promise? Do they add value to the lives of Jews and others?

Jewish organizations should not receive funding just because they represent the Jewish community. They deserve support if they have a compelling case. Sometimes they don’t.

Even when they do offer compelling causes to foundations, their message and tactics can be all wrong. The Jewish community tends to package and sell guilt to support Jewish education as a defense against our children marrying non-Jews and the Jewish community shrinking to nothingness. This works for a few donors, but not most. Rather we should simply promote day-school education as high quality and a good place to be a student.

Jewish foundations support so many wonderful causes because they should. If Jewish organizations want a bigger piece of the pie, they should stress the positive things they will accomplish, not berate foundations for representing uncaring Jews.

The information about Jewish foundations is an opportunity to think about how best to build the Jewish community, offer great programs and send a message of hope to achieve a vision for the Jewish future.

This certainly will serve us better and encourage more of our young Jewish entrepreneurs and businesspeople to engage in Jewish grant-making than bad-mouthing the foundations that give so generously to make a better world.

Courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Gary Tobin is the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

Be like God

I’ve always been fascinated by how words — even great, powerful words — can evaporate. We talk about the power of words and ideas to change people’s lives, but in reality we so easily forget them and move on with our lives.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ll hear a “life-changing” sermon, be blown away by it, share it with friends, resolve to internalize the message and make it a part of me, and then, a few weeks or months later, realize that its message has simply vanished from my consciousness, replaced by another fascinating new idea that I’ve just heard, say, this morning.

Maybe it’s human nature. There’s just so much we can expect from intangible things like words — even inspirational, soul-awakening words delivered with conviction. The words themselves might thrill us in the moment, but that’s a long way from changing the way we go about our lives.

The problem is that Judaism is all about changing the way we go about our lives — and our wisdom is conveyed through words. But if those words have trouble “sticking,” then what good are they?

Well, the other day I was lunching at Shilos with someone who thinks he has a solution.

He’s even written a book about it. It’s called “God’s To-Do List.” The author, Dr. Ron Wolfson, one of the shining lights of the Conservative movement, thinks that a huge dose of simple, practical advice can transform Judaism’s words of wisdom into action for everyday life.

As I heard him go on at lunch about ideas like writing down a “to-do list for God” every morning, I couldn’t help thinking about a former advertising client in the weight-loss industry. The problem was that their customers would be really motivated while they met each week with their “weight loss consultants,” but would lose that motivation when they went back to their daily lives.

It turns out that what those customers needed more than anything was simple reminders — even silly little stickers and refrigerator magnets — to keep the message from “evaporating.”

So maybe Wolfson is onto something.

You hear him talk, and it’s like listening to a time-management consultant, not a professor at American Jewish University, which is what he is. Compile. Keep track. Make lists. Itemize. Put these two notes in your wallet. Look in the mirror. Revisit, revise, refresh. If you get stuck, read this, and so on. This is Judaism?

This is a professor who understands reality.

He also understands that people love and need relationships — that we are more apt to change our ways if we have a “partner.” And being a passionate and observant Jew, he understands that in God, we have the ultimate partner.

We are created in God’s image; we are His partners in creation; and we can change our lives if we can learn to actively emulate Him, and not just passively obey Him.

As he explains it, God creates, so we ought to create. God clothes the naked, God visits the sick, God comforts the mourner, God attends the bride, God buries the dead, God does all kinds of good things, and we, as God’s partners, can create a better world by figuring out personal ways to imitate His goodness.

By establishing this divine premise, Wolfson has distinguished his book from the sterile world of self-help that also overflows with practical ways to “transform your life.”

But while this focus on emulating God adds a touch of holiness to the practical, it also presents a complication.

You see, oddly enough, what stuck with me from our lunch was one irritating question that, awash in our good vibes, neither one of us wanted to linger on: What about all the “bad” things that God “does?” Are we supposed to imitate those, too?

Wolfson is one of the most upbeat and positive people you will ever meet, and it was clear that he believes in the value of focusing on the good: in ourselves, in those around us — and in God.

But I’ve been digging deep to find a satisfactory answer for why I should emulate a God that has “allowed” some pretty horrible things to happen (along with all the good). It’s one thing to obey, fear, challenge and wrestle with God, and even to forgive Him; it’s another level of intimacy to actually emulate Him.

As it turns out, I found something in Wolfson’s book that suggests an answer. He says insurance companies give God a bad rap when they call disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes “acts of God.” He thinks they should be called “acts of nature.”

In that spirit, then, should we call disasters like the Holocaust “acts of man,” and assume that such horrors could never be on an all-powerful God’s “to-do list”?

Could it be as simple as the idea that God — by giving us a world full of wonders and an instructional manual for how to make it even better — has done His share, and now it’s our turn? That God’s gift of life, nature and Torah is so enormous and miraculous that we should cut Him some slack and look only for His goodness to emulate — and attribute any “bad stuff” to His wayward children’s misuse of their God-given free will?

In other words, that, despite all the bad that we see, “God is all goodness, and the rest is up to us?”

Wolfson’s book doesn’t elaborate on this, but as I see it, this explanation would make it easier for many of us to follow his 103 ways of emulating the goodness of God.

Now if I can only find a little sticker or refrigerator magnet to help me remember it.

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

Come, let us reason

The Writers Strike is a Jewish issue.

How do I know that? Because everyone is saying it’s not. The writers who are demanding a larger share of DVD rights and residuals for their work and the producers who refuse to give it to them both say, repeatedly, that despite the fact that so many of them happen to be Jewish, the strike is not — as Jewish writers and producers told our senior reporter Brad Greenberg last week — a Jewish issue.

To paraphrase a Clinton-era favorite, you can be sure that when everyone is saying it’s not about being Jewish, it’s about being Jewish.

Strip away the brand-name products and gossipy inside Hollywood milieu of this strike, and what you have is a question of fair compensation and just treatment of labor.

It is a question our sages wrestled with, beginning with a law laid down in Leviticus 25:14: “And when you sell something to your fellow, or buy from the hand of your fellow, don’t oppress each other.”

How shallow has our Jewish life become and how silent have our pulpits fallen when we blithely accept the idea that a 4,000-year-old ethical tradition has nothing to say about how we do business?

In my fantasy Jewish community, the writers strike would spur synagogues and other Jewish institutions to swing wide their doors and invite in Hollywood writers and producers to meet with rabbis and Jewish ethicists to discuss and debate their roles as ethical beings in society. The discussions wouldn’t be binding –just illuminating, thought-provoking and, perhaps, mind-changing.

“Business ethics is the arena where the ethereal transcendent teachings of holiness and spirituality confront the often grubby business of making money and being engaged in the rat race that often comprises the marketplace,” writes Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School. “It is the acid test of whether religion is truly relevant or religion is simply relegated to an isolated sphere of human activity. It is business ethics, one could posit, above all, that shows God co-exists in the world rather than God and godliness being separate and apart.”

In other words, rabbis aren’t there just to marry and bury us, and shuls don’t exist just to provide a backdrop for the bar mitzvah video.

The producers who kvell when their little girl or boy comes home from Hebrew school and recites the blessing over the challah might benefit from learning a little about the Hamotzi as well: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, you bring forth bread from the earth,” we recite.

But what is the Hamotzi but an affirmation that, as the sages said, “A blessing does not exist except through human hands.”

God makes wheat; humans, His partners in creation, make bread. The recognition that labor is intrinsic to realizing God’s gifts is foundational to Judaism: How we honor and reward it, how we show gratitude for what Rabbi Steven Z. Leder calls “the manna of work,” is worth discussion and debate — but I don’t see those kind of talks taking place amid the talks of this strike.

In some ways, it is like any other strike. I drive past Fox Studios on the way to work and see the writers walking their oval, wearing V-neck sweaters over solid T-shirts, holding their signs, cell phones and Starbucks. There are hardship committees and stories of guys this close to going into production on their very first show who suddenly find their career on the sidewalk. There are millions of dollars in lost revenues for the production support industries, from the people who make snacks on the set to the people who make the set.

In other ways, a Hollywood writers strike is — sorry — strikingly different. The 12,000 member Writers Guild is perhaps one-third Jewish. We’re not talking a line of longshoremen — the early morning sun, does not exactly, as Marx once wrote of French socialist workers, “shine upon us from their work-hardened bodies.”

E-mail notices about picketing locations include information on where to get parking validated. At stake for the consumer is not airline safety or garbage collection or medical care, but whether we can get our daily fix of “The Daily Show.”

So the writers, if they can’t rely on threats to public health or safety or outrage, have only two arrows in their quiver: the economic argument and the moral one.

As to the first, good luck. The Hollywood producers have a history of holding out and pleading poverty. During the Great Depression, the studios decided to peremptorily cut the salaries of actors and writers by 50 percent, Neal Gabler relates in “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.” “Weary and moist-eyed,” Louis B. Mayer explained the grave situation of his studio’s financial health to his MGM “family.” Most of them offered their whole-hearted support, stepping up to help poor Mr. Mayer out by accepting the cut. When it was over, Mayer, on the way back to his office, turned to his associate Ben Thau and asked, “How did I do?”

A few weeks after that meeting, Hollywood writers formed the Screen Writers Guild to represent them.

“Louis B. Mayer,” quipped screenwriter Alfred Hackett, “created more communists than Karl Marx.”

But of course it is not commies on the picket lines I see; it is card-carrying, Prius-driving, private-school-tuition-paying capitalists. All they want is a somewhat larger share of the fortune that new technologies like DVDs and the Internet are bringing into studios.

For some reason lost on simple outsiders like me, the sides can’t split the difference. Perhaps writers think this time will be different. Perhaps studios think the Internet and reality TV has made pesky creative types superfluous. At a restaurant last week, our Senior Editor Adam Wills overheard a producer at the next table boast that he could do a reality TV version of “The Office” just by putting a camera in … an office.

So if the economics are at an impasse, even more reason to engage the sides over the respective morality of their positions. It is here rabbis and ethicists can at least be reaching out — God knows the writers have time to attend some lunch-and-learn sessions, and their fellow congregants, the producers, would make the time, if the rabbi dared ask.



Oren Kaplan, the director of ‘Miram and Shoshana’ and writer (and Journal contributor) Seth Menachem are the brains and brains behind this new video ‘WGA Strike Gets Violent’. They add this note:Studios: Please do what’s fair before things get too bloody on the streets of Los Angeles.

Teen makes a difference for orphans in Kenya slum

Instead of splurging on a Wii or a state-of-the-art laptop, Ryan Silver, of Manhattan Beach, donated a portion of his gift money to orphans in a Nairobi slum.

“I think the best thing you can do is help another person,” said Silver, 13. “I have a better life than the kids [in the orphanage], and I wanted to help them.”

Silver’s inspiration stemmed from a 2006 family vacation to Africa. Silver, his parents and his younger sister went on safari and explored Kenya and Tanzania. While the incredible sights of wild animals and tribesman remain with him, Silver’s most memorable moments were meeting the children in the Nyumbani Orphanage in Mukuru, a slum in Kenya’s capital. The orphanage houses about 100 children whose families have been affected by AIDS/HIV.

Silver and his family had traveled with Micato Safaris and chose to participate in the New York-based tour operator’s nonprofit AmericaShare program, which allows travelers to spend time with the orphans in Nairobi.

AmericaShare supports about 2,000 Kenyan children, many of whom have been affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping the continent. The organization places underprivileged children in schools and orphanages throughout East Africa. Through Lend a Helping Hand, a subprogram of America-Share, travelers can meet local children and offer financial support if they so choose.

It’s “main accomplishment is travelers hooking up with children whom they now support,” said Dennis Pinto, Micato’s managing director. “Many of these children were homeless or living on streets, and this gets them out of that situation.”

Often, this means living in the safety of the orphanage and getting a boarding-school education.

For Silver, Mukuru was a far cry from the clean, upscale neighborhood he knows in Manhattan Beach, where he surfs daily and plays on the school lacrosse team. Home to about 700,000, Mukuru has no infrastructure and little access to water and electricity.

“It was shocking,” Silver said.

After walking through narrow streets filled with mud, past large piles of trash and tiny, rundown shops, he arrived at the orphanage.

When Silver entered the facility, two toddler orphans, a brother and sister, took him by the hand and showed him their play area and vegetable garden. The juxtaposition of the devastation and the happy children was overwhelming. Silver says he was overcome with emotion.

“They were the cutest kids I’d ever seen, and they were so excited to see us,” said Silver, his soft-spoken voice evoking a mixture of sympathy and enthusiasm.

During Silver’s visit, the children and their caretakers sang songs for him in Swahili and played games. Although he only spent about two hours there, the experience changed his life.

“It definitely made me realize how lucky I am to have a home and a family and have the food and I water I need,” said Silver, who is in the eighth grade.

According to Pinto, Silver is not alone. For many children, especially teenagers, a trip through the slums of Africa can be life- altering.

“It is an experience that reaches quite deep into the psyches of teenagers,” Pinto said.

When Silver returned home, he began preparing for his bar mitzvah. Without hesitation, he knew that his mitzvah project would involve helping the children in the orphanage.

When it was time to send the invitations for his March simcha, Silver enclosed a letter about the cause and asked guests to donate money to AmericaShare at the reception. At the party, he played a video of the children from the orphanage and gave guests handmade decorative pins and bracelets that they bought from the women from the orphanage. Between the guests’ donations and his own, Silver raised more than $2,700.

In addition to completing a Jewish rite of passage, Silver was pleased that his celebration helped educate others about the plight of the children in Africa and to ultimately offer financial support.

“Instead of just coming for a party, [my guests] came to see what Mukuru is like and how they can help,” he said.

Silver now sponsors a teenage boy from the orphanage named Evans. The donated funds cover Evans’ $1,500 tuition for one year, and the remainder of the money will go to help support an additional orphan.

Silver says he plans to continue to support Evans and other orphans in the years to come.

“Ryan is quite a special kid who is sensitive to the world beyond him,” said Rabbi Mark Hyman of Congregation Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach, who officiated at Silver’s ceremony. Hyman said that becoming a bar mitzvah means one becomes responsible for transforming the world — something the teen has certainly taken on.

Silver said his experience in Africa continues to influence him.

“It has definitely given me a more positive look on life,” he said. “We can make a difference helping kids less fortunate.”

For more information, visit http://www.americashare.org/

Stuck in the middle

My name is Isaac. You think you know me, but you really don’t.

I am stuck in between two generations, constantly overshadowed by my father, Abraham, and my son, Jacob. If you ask anyone to name the nation that eventually came from my family, they either refer to them as “the offspring of Abraham” or, more commonly, “the children of Israel.” You never hear anyone refer to this nation by my name: Isaac.

It’s not that my name isn’t mentioned in the Bible. My name actually appears 108 times, yet, virtually all of the stories where my name is mentioned and where I am involved as a character are told from someone else’s point of view, completely ignoring my perspective.

When I was just a little boy, I was out playing with my half-brother, Ishmael. The next thing I know, my mother throws him and his mother, Hagar, out of the house. To this day, I have no idea why this happened, and nobody ever asked me how I felt about losing my play partner. The next and only other time I saw Ishmael was when we buried our father, Abraham.

Some years after I lost my half-brother, there came what many of you call the “big test.” You have certainly heard about the most famous of stories that contains my name, “The Binding of Isaac.” The irony of having my name in the title of this story is that this story isn’t really about me at all. It’s all about my father: “After these events, God tested Abraham.”

Not once throughout this “big test of faith” is my voice ever heard, except when I asked my father why he forgot the sacrificial lamb. His answer: “God will provide.”

So there I was, bound on an altar, the fire burning and my father’s knife to my throat. Yet when it’s all over and God’s angel saves my life, only my father emerges as a heroic figure. Not once do we hear how I — Isaac — felt throughout this ordeal.

In case you’re wondering, I’ll start by asking if you ever noticed that after my akeidah, there is never again recorded in the Torah one single conversation between my father and me. Let’s add to this that when we came home, we found that my mother had died from the shock upon hearing what my father had done. So perhaps from your perspective, the akeidah crowned my father the “ultimate hero of faith.” As for me, my relationship with my father was ruined, I lost my mother and I spent the rest of my life traumatized. Not quite a “all’s well that end’s well.”

My father’s last act on earth was to send his servant to arrange my marriage. Funny, nobody asked me if I wanted to get married, and if I did, do you think I would have a say in who I would marry?

I ask this question because, yes, I did love my wife, Rebecca, but I have a hard time getting over how she went behind my back and convinced my son, Jacob, to deceive me. I favored Esau, and I have my own reasons for that. But once again, my feelings were not taken into account, and what should have been “Isaac Blessing His Sons” became “Jacob Deceiving Isaac.” My own blessing to my kids became the matter of a sibling rivalry and a sneaky plot by my wife. I had no say in the matter.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not writing all of this in order to invite your pity, because there is one story recorded about me for which I will forever be proud. It is the one and only story in the Torah that is all about me.

As you know, both my father and son were faced with severe famines in Canaan, and, as a result, both of them left and went down to Egypt. I, too, was faced with a “famine in the land,” but I did not leave. I stayed in Canaan, and I dug wells.

Perhaps I gained something when I was bound up on Mount Moriah. I became a survivor, and despite the trauma, I learned to tough things out. I am the only one in my family to never leave the land.

Throughout our history, my family’s descendants have been mistreated, traumatized and deceived (just like me), yet somehow, we always survived. We always insisted, either physically or metaphorically, on “staying in the land and digging wells,” despite “the famine.” So perhaps our people refer to themselves by the names of my father and son, but their inner character and strength as tough survivors comes from me, Isaac. It is my story — the story of a survivor — that is really their story.

Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Tikkun for which olam?

If you want to be popular in the Jewish world today, just say tikkun olam.Everywhere you go it seems that Jews of all stripes are jumping on this universal bandwagon.

It’s not just the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular, progressive and humanistic groups. Many Orthodox are also getting involved.

What’s going on? What is it about this notion of “repairing the world” that makes Jews go gaga? And who decided that we the Jews — with less than half of 1 percent of the world’s population — should become the Great Fixers of Humanity?

Recently, in one day, I got to experience three different views of tikkun olam. The last view was so politically incorrect, it was almost embarrassing.

Let’s start with the first one. It’s lunchtime at the Magic Carpet on Pico Boulevard, and I’m enjoying myself with two prominent progressive Jews of the community. It’s the kind of lunch where you get a big “l’chaim” just by blurting out words like social justice and universal health care. If you want a really big hug, just say “Palestinian rights.”

This is classic tikkun olam: There are problems and injustices in the world, and it is our duty to try to fix them. Economic injustice; reforming the criminal justice system; promoting interfaith dialogue; fighting hunger and homelessness; fighting global warming; helping the dying children of Darfur; and so on.

This approach has talmudic roots in the mishnaic term “mipnei tikkun ha-olam,” which can be translated as “in the interest of public policy.” As you can read on the Web site MyJewishLearning.com, the term refers to “social policy legislation providing extra protection to those potentially at a disadvantage — governing, for example, just conditions for the writing of divorce decrees and for the freeing of slaves.”

In modern-day America, classic tikkun olam has evolved into full-blown social activism that for many Jews is the primary expression of their Judaism.

I got my second view of tikkun olam several hours later when I attended “An Encounter With Jewish Spirituality” at the home of Rabbi Abner Weiss in Westwood. Rabbi Weiss is one of those renaissance Jews: an Orthodox scholar, author, trained psychologist, expert in kabbalah and leader of a congregation (Westwood Village Synagogue). He has just launched this new “Encounter” program to provide a “kosher” Jewish yoga and meditation experience for those who haven’t found spirituality in traditional Judaism.

In his introduction, the rabbi went back to the time of Abraham to talk about a world “not lit, but in flames” and how we partner with God to put out the flames. Abraham was the first hero of tikkun olam, not as a holy priest, but as an everyman who “chose God,” “loved without reason” and performed simple acts of loving kindness.

But in kabbalah, the rabbi went on, “Tikkun olam is a lot more than social activism.”

In this “spiritual” view, all mitzvot have the power to change the world. Because the mitzvah has a Divine origin, it also has a Divine effect. Thus, lighting the Shabbat candles, making a blessing before you eat or honoring your parents has the same cosmic power to “repair the world” as any demonstration in front of the federal building to raise the minimum wage.

While lauding the work of social activism, the rabbi impressed on us that in the mystical tradition, tikkun olam starts from the “inside out” — we repair ourselves through deep contemplation and by clinging to God and His commandments, like Abraham did, which, in turn, gives us the strength, humility and wisdom to make our world holy.

That same night, on an Internet reader forum, I stumbled on yet a third view of tikkun olam, one I can charitably describe as “tribal.”

It was a rambling, passionate rant that boiled down to this: “The Jews should take care of Jews, and let others worry about their own.” In other words: Tikkun, yes, but for our own olam.

This wasn’t just politically incorrect; it was downright offensive. How dare we focus on ourselves and forget the rest of the world?

But that response seemed too predictable, so I gave it some serious thought. That’s when it got embarrassing. You see, I confess that the tribal rant struck a deep tribal chord in me, and brought out stuff that had been brewing inside for a while.

I wondered: Have we gone a little too far with our passion for tikkun olam? Can this grand love affair with “repairing humanity” become a runaway train that will take Jews further and further away from the binding glue of Jewish peoplehood?

For every million we raise for children in Africa, certainly a worthy cause, how many hungry Jewish kids will we not feed or help send to a Jewish school?

I know the classic response: “It’s not either/or, we must do both.” Well, that may be ideal, but in the real world, where 90 percent of Jewish tzedakah goes to non-Jewish causes, too many Jews are not doing both.

Let’s face it: there’s something quite intoxicating about tikkun olam — this notion of a little tribe looking out for the whole planet. After you’ve tasted that global Kool-Aid, who feels like schlepping to La Brea Boulevard to pack food boxes for needy Jews?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about Muslim children dying in Darfur. But why can’t we hold accountable the billion Muslims around the world who haven’t lifted a finger to help their own brothers and sisters? If we encourage other groups and nations to take better care of their own, does that count as tikkun olam?

For Jews, what is the appropriate balance between “repair of the whole world” and “repair of the Jewish world”? Is it in balance now? Has our glorifying of tikkun olam contributed to the modest percentage of Jewish money that goes to Jewish causes — and the declining interest in Zionism among young American Jews?

If, for many Jews, social activism has become “the new Judaism,” will this overshadow foundational Jewish practices like Shabbat and Torah learning that may not seem as “sexy” and “relevant”?

And should we pay more attention to the spiritual approach to tikkun olam that teaches us that all of God’s mitzvot can help repair the world?

If you ask me, we’re due for an honest debate on the untouchable — and touchy — subject of tikkun olam.

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

The Upgrade Generation

I often think about the kind of life my grandfather led.In his small Jewish neighborhood of Marrakesh, the days resembled each other — you worked, you prayed, you learned, you spent time with family and neighbors. The days and weeks followed the same Jewish pattern, year in and year out.

The environment also followed a predictable pattern: You were born without a phone, and you died without a phone. The same things that were there at the beginning of your life were there at the end. If anything caused agony or disrupted the rhythm, it was an unforeseen event, like an illness, accident or personal setback.

Rarely did Jews agonize over their Judaism. They were more likely to agonize over which tomato looked more ripe at the local souk.

Well, like they say, if my grandfather could see me now.

In particular, if he could have seen me last week while I attended a three-day conference in Atlanta called “The Conversation,” sponsored by The Jewish Week, which brought together Jews from across the country to engage each other on the big Jewish questions of the day.

There we were, at least 50 of us, agonizing, debating, challenging, questioning, brainstorming and schmoozing during every waking minute on subjects as weighty as the future of Judaism in America, and what it means to be Jewish in today’s world.

I can just see my grandfather, wherever he is, looking down and saying, in Arabic: “Daouid, my boy, are you feeling OK? Why don’t you lay down a bit?”

We are living in interesting times.

What I found most remarkable about my experience in Atlanta was how familiar it all felt. It reminded me of these business retreats with clients, where we spend days trying to reinvent and upgrade everything about a company. In those retreats, the big question is always: How can we better understand our consumers so we can better cater to them?

To answer this, we put everything on the table: Reinvent the product, eliminate failing programs, test new approaches, upgrade the technology, change the advertising, challenge all assumptions — in short, be open to anything that will make your brand more relevant to the consumer.

We did pretty much the same thing in Atlanta, but with Jews and Judaism.

Here’s a sampling of what we debated in break-out groups: Can personal Judaism be reconciled with communal Judaism? What’s the difference between Americanism and Judaism? How do we leverage tech trends to build community? Is compromising selling out? Is Birthright Israel useful or a waste? What are rabbis for? What’s the next big idea? Is there a distinction between Jewish values and human values? What do we teach our kids if we don’t believe what we were taught as kids? Do Jewish artists have any special obligations? Why can’t we talk about Israel without feeling like we’re being censored? And so on.

Believe me, I’m glad I brought my Tylenol.

For three days, we dissected Judaism like a group of Apple engineers trying to upgrade the iMac or create an iPod. We had Jewish “engineers” from all walks of life — professors, activists, spiritual leaders, musicians, community leaders, historians, a stand-up comic, a gay Orthodox rabbi, a poet, a Chabadnik, a New York Times reporter, a filmmaker, web geniuses and, yes, even a Sephardic Jew (me).

Now, you’re probably thinking: Did anything come out of this “conversation,” besides lots of e-mail addresses and a hangover from a great selection of kosher wines? The answer, of course, is that it depends on what each person took away.

I took away two things: One, I love my people more than ever. I can’t tell you what it feels like to spend three days with Jews who absolutely, undeniably and positively care about their Judaism. Sure, I didn’t agree with everything I heard, but like a client once said to me: “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

These Jews cared.

The second thing I took away is that Judaism in America is going through a whirlwind like we’ve never seen before. A generation of Jews has been raised on a culture of continual upgrades — with an ever-changing technology keeping this generation constantly wired, stimulated and connected.

Like the technology that fuels them, they want their Judaism “upgraded” so it can help them navigate their speedy lives. This means everything is open for debate and up for grabs — peoplehood, the synagogue, Zionism, community, prayer, rituals, philanthropy and denominations. In a 100 million blog world that glorifies personal expression, this group is not defined by their Judaism. Rather, they define their own Judaism, and only as one of many facets of their lives.

And these are the Jews that have not turned their back on their faith.

A lot of what we talked about in Atlanta was trying to understand this restless “upgrade generation,” and how — or whether — Judaism needs to adapt to become more relevant to them. We are at the beginning of this debate. Since we can only assume that the frenetic, wired world we have entered will only get more frenetic, the Jewish world should buckle up for a wild ride.

Luckily, Judaism can hold its own in this wild ride — because it already has a very big “buffet” that can appeal to a wide range of different tastes. We get in trouble when we focus on only one part of this buffet as if it’s the whole thing. That smells like dogma. If we can display all the spiritual, cultural, mystical, intellectual, historical, ritual, artistic and communal courses of the great Jewish feast — and invite Jews to partake in its many delights — maybe the new generation will stop dismissing or trying to “upgrade” Judaism, and, instead, will explore what’s being offered until they find something that turns them on.

And when they do, who knows, they might even marry Jewish, move to a Jewish neighborhood, make Jewish babies and become as predictable as my grandfather was.

Now that would be a serious upgrade.

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

Good employment practices a sign for Israeli tourists

Israeli restaurant owners are well accustomed to the question, “Do you have a teudah?” referring to the official certificate deeming all food and food preparation to be kosher in accordance with rabbinical guidelines.

Yet, as a result of the efforts of Bema’aglei Tzedek, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization, consumers are now on the lookout for a second type of certificate indicating that the restaurant conforms to a completely separate set of kosher guidelines — good employment practices and accessibility for the disabled.

Called the Social Seal or tav chevrati in Hebrew, the certificate is now being prominently displayed in more than 300 Israeli eateries from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and in various other locales. It was introduced by Bema’aglei Tzedek to combat what the organization’s director, Asaf Banner, calls “an all too often ignored, yet deeply troubling, aspect of Israeli society.”

Banner, who was among the organization’s founders in 2004 said, “The way that tens of thousands of workers all over Israel are being treated without regard to their most basic human rights was a situation that demanded to be addressed. We saw that the Social Seal was a great way of bringing attention to this issue.”

While the campaign began locally in Jerusalem with organization representatives using the seal as a means to promote the good labor practices of shop owners, it has quickly gained steam and spread across the country.

Roey Zisman, who manages the popular Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem, believes that the seal is something many of his customers greatly value, as well as acting as a motivating factor for employers to improve worker conditions.

“The Social Seal is very important in our relationship with our workers,” Zisman said. “I hear many people coming in and asking about it, and we feel that there is a large clientele that comes to eat with us because of it.”

Since its founding, Bema’aglei Tzedek has been active within the Israeli school system and in the country’s numerous youth movements. According to Marla Haruni, a New York native and Jerusalem resident, it was her children who taught her about the seal, and since that time, the family will only visit eateries that have received the organization’s approval.

“My children have really come to view the Social Seal with the same level of importance as the kosher dietary certification,” the mother of four said. “I think it’s crucial that people recognize that a restaurant being truly kosher requires that they act in accordance with all Jewish values beyond just ensuring that the food is prepared properly.”

In order for an eatery to receive the seal, representatives of the organization visit the restaurant and observe overall conditions, as well as speak with the workers. According to Banner, several seals have been revoked after it was reported that workers’ rights were being repeatedly violated. Violations include cases where workers are being denied breaks or being paid below the legal minimum wage or where the restaurant is lacking appropriate access for the handicapped.

The seal has also gained the attention of many members across the political spectrum in the Israeli Knesset.

Amir Peretz, who until recently served as Israel’s defense minister and was the longtime head of the Histadrut national union, said the seal is establishing a new standard of ethical practice in Israeli society, and that “highlighting the issue of workers’ rights will create a better future for the people of Israel.”

Zevulun Orlev, a member of the Mafdal Party, noted that the effort brings to the forefront an issue that is of critical nature to the national and Zionist cause. “In order for us to be a fair and just society,” he said, “it is necessary that workers have the assurance that they will receive the proper treatment and compensation they deserve.”

As one of the numerous events throughout the year advancing the cause, Bema’aglei Tzedek held a conference, Fighting the Exploitation of Custodial Workers, in July at Jerusalem’s Rose Garden, across from the Knesset. The conference attracted 1,500 people, according to police estimates.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efratm, who addressed the conference, said that despite often being pushed to the side of the social agenda, workers’ rights is something that is deeply entrenched in Jewish values.

“The Torah teaches again and again that our ability to stay on this holy soil of Israel depends on our being a holy people, specifically in the realm of human relations – including those between employer and employee,” he said.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA, attended the conference. He said the lessons being conveyed by the organization were important ones for a younger generation that often could feel alienated by Jewish traditions.

“This effort serves to show the operationalization of Judaism by displaying how values are not just in the mind but need to be acted upon,” he said.

Banner believes that the Social Seal truly has the potential to change how an Israeli society, often ambivalent about these types of issues, views the question of how its workers are being treated.

“For every additional restaurant or cafe that joins the ranks of those bearing the Social Seal, we feel that we’re making that much more of a difference,” he said. “As more and more consumers become familiar with this seal, we know business owners across the country will begin to take notice, and at that point, anything is possible.”

Jeremy Wimpfheimer is a freelance journalist based in Beit Shemesh, Israel.

In Quest for Meaning

Man is a meaning-seeking animal. Hardly a second goes by in which our mind does not stop its routine activities to ponder the meaning of the input it receives from our senses or from its own activities.

When faced with meaningless observations, the mind invents its own fantasies to pacify its meaning-seeking urges. We find meaning and hidden messages in the position of the stars, in natural disasters, in coffee readings and, of course, in our very existence.

From a scientific viewpoint, “finding meaning” means embedding an event in a cognitive context capable of generating a rich set of expectations. Those expectations are comforting because they make the future appear less bewildering, hence more manageable. A God-governed universe is one such context, social Darwinism is another.

Our mind is a society of expectation-generating contexts that often contradict and constantly compete with one another for attention. For example, the idea of an omniscient Almighty (or even law-governed physics) contradicts the idea of free will, yet most of the time we live happily with this contradiction and, like the particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics, we manage to use the right model at the right time for the right purpose.

As we enter the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, these contradictions intensify because on this day we seek meaning for notions of an existential nature: man’s role in the universe, justice, good and evil, pleasure, sin, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, human suffering and, of course, the role of God in all of the above.

The meaning of human suffering, in particular, has perplexed generations of theologians and has not become any clearer since the time of Job. It has, in fact, become utterly incomprehensible to us Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

How can one reconcile such infinite suffering with the notion of divine justice and a caring God? Is there a hidden message in such shocks of incomprehensibility? Are they concealed tests of our faith or capacity to forgive? Is God unwilling or unable to interfere?

Christians, so I understand, have a more or less satisfactory solution to these questions; suffering in itself has divine virtue. Suffering somehow redeems us or redeems someone else, or prepares for us some kind of a better life in another world. The whole idea of Jesus dying on the cross to absolve men of sins is a product of this concept of divine power inherent in suffering.

But I find it hard to understand why the suffering of one individual would have anything to do with the redemption of another. As Jews, we are brought up to believe that our deeds, and our deeds alone can shape our redemption as human beings. Therefore, I would feel awfully guilty knowing that another person, however willing or divine, went through hardship or pain to absolve me from responsibilities that are totally mine.

I guess my Jewish and scientific backgrounds stand in the way of my attempts to internalize ideas that Christians find natural and appealing.

Frankly, I think that the connection between pain and redemption — the basis of all sacrificial rituals — may have evolved out of a mistaken interpretation of a Pavlovian, stimulus-response experience at childhood. Conditioned to expect the comforting presence of a loving mother each time he falls and scrapes his knee, a child can easily mistake pain to be the cause of comfort, and from here the road to mistaking sacrifice as a producer of care, forgiveness and redemption is not too far.

But putting aside the construct of redemption, I still cannot buy the notion that suffering carries hidden meaning to us as human beings. Save for the obvious fact that suffering, like any other mental shock, acts as an awakener that provokes a healthy examination of our assumptions about society, our paradigms of good and evil, and the enigmatic role of divine providence, I cannot see a particularly deep meaning in that senseless act of Lady Chance.

How then do I cope with the terrible injustice that befell our son Danny? How do I reconcile the crying contradiction between our intuitive notions of good and evil, reward and punishment, divine supervision, loving God and the brutal murder of the most gentle person I have known — the physical embodiment of all qualities and values one would ever wish to see in a person?

The truth is: I don’t, and I am not even going to try. I know that these deeply ingrained intuitions — however essential for cognition — are but poetic visions of reality, that history occasionally reminds us of their fallibility, and I resign myself to the fact that there is nothing particularly significant about when or how these reminders cross our path. So, as random victims of those reminders, my family and I simply put our minds on the opportunities that our private tragedy has imposed on us, rather than agonizing over a God who slept late on the morning of January 30, 2002.

Oh, God! How sloppy can an Almighty be?

I actually find support for this attitude in Genesis, in the story of the Akedah (Isaac’s binding): “And God tried Abraham, and said to him: ‘Abraham!’ and he said: ‘Here I am.'”

I have always felt uncomfortable with this perplexing, even depressing story of the Akedah. I never understood how people could admire a father sacrificing his son for some God who plays games with his creatures to see how much they love him.

What vanity! The very idea of a God who creates creatures in his own image, then tries them with suffering and guilt is unfathomable. Moreover, the Bible that commands us not to sacrifice children to deities, here praises a person who attempted to do just that — and all on account of some imagined sound saying: “Abraham! Take your son….”

But I have begun to understand the story from a different angle.

Listen and Respond

On the New Year we learn to pay closer heed to the words we speak, their impact on others and the subtle messages our words convey. As we listen more acutely
to the call for help from others, we also take upon ourselves the duty to respond in a timely manner and rally around those in need.

Ha’azinu begins with a word for careful, intentional listening. It is a type of focused attention. The root of the Hebrew word is ozen, an ear, or to lend an ear. One commentator suggests that it was strange to be told to listen before God’s words were actually spoken, but in reality, the opening of the heart and mind is a form of preparation to hear and receive (Kabbalah).

To paraphrase Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, who in his prayer book presents a prayer preceding the “Shema” that speaks volumes on this subject: Judaism begins with the commandment “Hear O Israel!” But what does it mean to hear?

The person who hears the news and thinks only of how it affects the market hears but does not really listen. The person who walks amid the songs of birds and only thinks of what will be for dinner hears but does not really listen. The person who hears the words of friends, husband, wife or child and does not catch the note of urgency — “Notice me, care about me, help me” — hears but does not really listen. The person who stifles the sound of conscience and says, “I’ve done enough already,” hears but does not really listen.

Cultivating our sense of listening is an essential skill for the sacred moments of a New Year. In the blessing we are commanded not to sound but to hear the sounding of the shofar. It gives us an opportunity for the sacred through holy listening.

Once we listen fully, how do we respond? Also contained in the sedrah for this Shabbat is a word that appears only twice in the Torah. “Like an eagle lights over its nest, over its young, does it hover.” The Hebrew word merachef, or hover, near the end of Deuteronomy, is found in Genesis describing God’s presence “hovering over the face of the waters” during creation.

Hovering implies an act of concern and an immediate presence. Our reaction to a call of distress cannot wait. On a personal note, friends who have lost loved ones, especially children, need to be surrounded by and given the overwhelming embrace of friends and family.

A time of crisis for our people demands no less. When we find Israel vilified at the European Parliament and by a former American president as an “apartheid state,” we cannot allow that perversion of truth and defamation to stand. When journalists like Philippe Karsenty expose the irresponsibility of the French state television in airing the fraudulent depiction of the killing of a Palestinian father and son, which resulted in mass hysteria in the Arab world, we must stand by him and demand justice. There will be many opportunities for us to listen and to hover in the coming year.

On these days of repentance and soul-searching, it is worthy to note that a teshuva, most commonly defined as repentance, also means a response. Let us listen and respond rapidly to the needs of our friends and neighbors. Let us be fully present for each other. May our prayers lead to actions that merit our inscription for a sweet year of life and peace.

L’Shana tova tikateyvu.

David Baron is rabbi of the Temple of the Arts at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills.

The Answer

I just spent two days listening to some of the most brilliant and famous Jewish scholars, rabbis and thinkers in the world discuss the question “Why Be Jewish?” and they didn’t give me one clear answer.

And that’s funny, because even before I came to the conference, I knew the answer. You know the answer. We all know the answer — I’ll get to that later.

But Jews like to talk. God talked to Moses and told him to talk to the people. The people talked back, and we really haven’t shut up since.

The Bronfman Foundation, which sponsored the conference last week in Deer Valley, Utah, is set to launch something called the Bronfman Vision Forum that will offer new ways to invigorate and revitalize Jewish life, and this conference was designed to help generate new ideas and programs, and, yes, more conferences. What an endearing and Jewish idea — that talking will save the Jewish people.

Among the 40 luminaries at the event were Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; New Republic columnist Leon Wieseltier; French philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Levy; kabbalist Arthur Green; Rabbi Avi Weiss; feminist Tova Hartman; author Anita Diamant; historians David Myers and Jonathan Sarna; therapist Esther Perel; psychologist Wendy Mogel; and Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood.

The names begged the question: if you could spend a couple of days at a mountain resort hearing these people teach, discuss and debate, why not be Jewish?

But let me be clear: I wasn’t invited to participate. I got in as a member of the Jewish press.

The conferees sat in a large horseshoe-shaped array of tables at the turbo-Nordic Stein Erikson Lodge (The participants, quipped Wieseltier, “put the Stein back in Stein Erikson.”) We handful of press members were told not to speak up during sessions and relegated to a row along the back wall.

But I’m not complaining. Jewish journalists have long been the Jews of the Jewish world — outsiders looking in on outsiders — and, besides, there are a lot of insights one can have staring at the back of a rabbi’s head for three hours that one might not have, say, looking at his face.

You might wonder why rabbis, scholars and activists who have devoted a large part of their lives to Judaism need to explain the value of being Jewish to one another.

“We are spending millions and millions of dollars in Jewish outreach,” said the Foundation’s Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, speaking of Jewish institutions, “and vast amounts of resources and energies that are going into the project of making people Jewish, and the question is ‘why are we doing that and should we be doing that?'”

But that seemed a dubious rationale: for one, they’ve spent millions and now they’re asking? And in any case, for years Jewish institutions have recognized that, freed from the ghettos and living in an accepting society, Jews can choose whether or not to be Jewish. How to get people to say yes? You’d think we’d know the answer already. The thing is, we do.

The several large sessions and smaller study groups attempted to get at the question through study of talmudic texts, spiritual writings and philosophical debate. But as often happens, the subject under the microscope kept shifting. People spent as much time enumerating why Jews were turned off to Judaism — moribund organizations, overemphasis on the perils of anti-Semitism, lack of apparent spirituality — as why be Jewish. But this group rejected the notion that Judaism based simply on the fear of Jewish extermination could survive. Jews cannot be, as Myers said, “a tribe in search of a rationale.”

In the end there seemed to be an unspoken consensus that the question doesn’t have one answer, and that one person’s reasons might not work for another.

“Being a Jew is simply the finest way I have found to understand life,” Wieseltier said.

“To be a Jew is to give permanence to ethics,” Levy said.

“Judaism is a countercultural force,” Green said. “It’s something that lifts you out of the plastic culture around us.”

“We need to think of Judaism as a potent antidote to the culture,” Mogel said. “It takes a tremendous amount of courage.”

“If there is something that is different and compelling,” Perel said, “it is bringing to a highly individualized society a sense of interdependence.”

But — pardon me — a simple question deserves a simple answer. If these scholars weren’t willing to risk appearing intellectually simple or reductive in offering one, I have no such compunctions. And the answer became apparent during those rare, refreshing moments when these giant minds checked their intellects and, unbidden, like the conference’s convenor Adam Bronfman, shared their personal Jewish stories. A rabbi raised in a devout Jewish home said his turning point came when he felt his community’s rejection after he married a woman who converted to Judaism — thus began his lifelong devotion to pluralistic Judaism.

Levy , the formidable philosophe, paused long enough to consider that there is something intensely personal about choosing to be Jewish: “There were a few times in my life when I felt I would be a little better off by going toward Judaism rather than withdrawing from Judaism.”

At another session Wolpe said that as a pulpit rabbi, it was apparent to his congregants what role his faith played in helping him though a series of severe and very public medical problems — his wife’s cancer, his brain tumor, then his lymphoma.

As he spoke — and as I stared at the back of his head going on hour three — the answer became clear. Why be Jewish? Four words. It’s good for you.

Deep community, spiritual succor, emotional comfort, a challenging intellectual framework for understanding why we’re here, a moral compass to guide you and your children, mental and spiritual discipline, an approach to the Infinite and a shared fate.

It may not always be easy, it may not always feel right, it may not always bring transcendence, it may not be right for everyone at every stage in life, but it’s good for you.

You, of course, may not agree. But we can talk about it.
The Journal’s full report on the conference will appear in next week’s issue.

Israeli, Iranian and Russian immigrants learn the American way of giving

When the Los Angeles Jewish community staged a rally to show support for Israel during the conflict with Lebanon last year, Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch was pleased by the numbers, but bothered by the fact that there were not many Israelis there.

“You would have thought 30,000 Israelis would have been on the streets,” he said. “I thought to myself that there is no correlation between the number of Israelis that live in Los Angeles and the actions that are being taken by them.”

One of the reasons Israelis didn’t turn out in droves to the rally — aside from the excuse they gave him of the sweltering heat — is that Israelis aren’t used to being involved here: in politics, in philanthropy, in volunteering.

“The Israelis here are Israeli; it’s clear to them that they are Israeli. They watch the Israeli news, the Israeli sports,” Danoch said, explaining why they don’t feel the need to be pro-active. “It’s like Israel’s TV slogan: Chayim B’America, Margishim Yisrael. (“Living in America, Feeling Israel.”)

Danoch decided then and there to start an organization to bring together successful Israelis to encourage leadership and philanthropy for the community here and tie it back to the community in Israel. The Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) met for the first time last week to discuss how to mobilize Israelis here.

Israelis aren’t the only ones living in America who feel like they are somewhere else.

Indeed, immigrant communities often struggle with loyalties to the social mores of their old country and their new one. In the world of philanthropy and volunteerism, many Jewish leaders have learned that immigrant Jewish communities also have attitudes different from their American-born Jewish brothers and sisters. Those attitudes stem from the political systems and types of communities from which they came and what was expected of them in their native lands.

In Russia, for example, there was no real word for charity, said Si Frumkin, chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

“There is a word, but it means giving away,” he said. “In general, people don’t give.”

Coming from a communist regime, where one was discouraged from doing anything for the community, he said, working for the individual was the only way to survive. This is an attitude they bring with them to America.

“The Russian immigrants come here and think you have to build a new life for yourself,” he said. “It’s not a question of being bad or good — it’s a different attitude.”

Israelis also come from a socialist country, where the government takes care of its people’s needs. Similarly, they are not used to a capitalist country where many of those needs must be funded by charity. But in Israel, unlike the former Soviet Union, there is an additional barrier to charity and volunteerism: army service.

Naty Saidoff “The Israeli community has been trained to be able to possibly sacrifice their lives for the community,” said Naty Saidoff (photo), a real estate investor on the board of the newly formed ILC. “They have to give in the way of survival. They give their children as cannon fodder, to protect the country through military service.”

“The Israeli community that came here, in a way, turned its back on the Zionistic dream, and they came here to chase the golden calf and some came to hide,” he said. “In my head I know that every Israeli that lives here really cares about Israel; they just need an outlet to make that energy come out.”

Saidoff didn’t let his own son serve in the Israel Defense Forces “for selfish reasons,” but had him volunteer in community service here instead.

The Iranian Jewish community, while also an insulated immigrant group, is different from the Israeli and the Russian-speaking communities.

“The Persians had a community in Iran, and giving was done — they are traditional, they feel an obligation of Jewish values to give in their community,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. So the notion of charity and community organization is as familiar to them as it is to many American Jews, he said, especially within their own community.

“You can see [it in] the nature of the proliferation of causes, programming and things that are related to members of their own community.”

Organized giving outside their own community, though, is a different story.

“They were involved within themselves … their synagogues and organizations, and their own people,” said Jimmy Delshad, the mayor of Beverly Hills and a leader in the Iranian Jewish community. “As time has passed, they really became more charitable toward Israel.”

In fact, Fishel said, the cause of Israel has inspired all three immigrant communities — Russian-speaking, Israeli and Iranian — to be more involved in charity. Whether for advocacy on behalf of Israel, donations to Israeli organizations or emergency fund relief for specific causes like the war, in the past few years all the Jewish organizations have stepped up.

“The Russian-speaking community picked up the issue of Israel and terror attacks,” said Eugene Levin, of Panorama Media Group, which owns six Russian newspapers, some of which ran ads for the gala to support Israel. This year the gala raised more than $250,000, he said.

“It’s a new culture [for Russian-speaking Jews] and they assimilated to a certain degree, and they understand this is a need for Israel and they donate money.”

They feel connected to Israel especially because of the influx of immigrants there from the former Soviet Union.

The Iranian community has also come together on behalf of Israel. “The Persian Jews are more Zionist-oriented and like to help Israel a lot,” Delshad said.

For example, Magbit, an Iranian Jewish charity in Los Angeles, was founded 18 years ago to donate money to Israel. Today, more than $10 million in interest-free loans are given to students in Israel.

“They started becoming successful in their businesses and it’s a way not to forget their brothers in Israel,” said Delshad, who was the president and now is the chairman of the board. Other Iranian Jewish organizations and synagogues with a heavy Iranian Jewish concentration have rallied around Israel to send missions and donate large sums of money.

Medical simulation technology wins Ziv $100K Bronfman Prize

Amitai Ziv, recipient of the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize in May, would like to see his work in medical simulation — a discipline that trains doctors and other health professionals to avert errors in times of crisis — expand to the entire Middle East, and well beyond the field of medicine.

Ziv, 48, was honored for his work as founder and director of the Israel Center for Medical Simulation (MSR) and as deputy director of the Sheba Medical Center, the largest medical center in Israel.

The prize, in honor of philanthropist Charles Bronfman and created by his children, has been given each of the last three years to an individual or team of people under the age of 50 “whose Jewish values infuse their humanitarian accomplishments and provide inspiration to the next generation.” The founders said that Ziv “represents the best of the young generation’s values, commitment, creativity and energy” through his work in “reshaping the way medical care is delivered throughout the world.”

A ruggedly handsome and friendly man, Ziv said the honor came as a total surprise to him and that he hopes the recognition will give added credibility to a form of medical education that can be applied in many creative ways on a global scale.

A former combat pilot in the Israeli air force, Ziv applied flight simulation training to the field of medicine by putting doctors and others through situations of great stress. Using actors in some cases and mannequins in others, the MSR program offers scenarios as varied as bombings and warfare, patients and families who need to be told of a devastating prognosis or dealing with a difficult and constantly complaining patient.

Such simulation has been used in medical facilities before, but MSR was the first program to employ it in a systematic way and on a national level, according to Ziv.

“We were the first to apply it as a must-have program, not just a nice-to-have program,” he said.

During last summer’s war with Hezbollah, Israeli medical teams that went into the battlefield were first trained by MSR and said the preparation helped them save lives.

MSR has worked with medical professionals from around the world, including several Jordanian health officials and more than 30 Palestinians, who came as individuals just before Hamas took power last year and were trained in dealing with medical trauma.

“We put politics aside and talked medicine,” Ziv said, “and they were extremely enthusiastic.”

His goal is to set up a regional center that he hopes would serve as “a bridge to peace.” But the political front on the Palestinian side “is a barrier,” he said. “I wish we could do more.”

MSR is partnering with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., which could be used as a “back window” for states hostile to Israel to benefit from the medical training.

In light of the current headlines about the political meltdown in Israel, could simulation techniques be taught to government officials who deal with matters of life and death?

Definitely, according to Ziv, who pointed out that it is human nature for one to simulate a scenario to help prepare for a situation, whether it is imagining the questions in advance of a job interview or thinking through a crisis in piloting a plane.

“It’s mostly applicable to high-stakes professions where there are grave consequences for error,” he said.

Simulation teaches a person not only to be a more efficient professional but a more humble person, Ziv said. “It creates situations where you have to push yourself to your limit and make errors. The hidden agenda is to see how you respond, to give you a sense of humility, caution and safety.”

Ziv noted that Judaism has much to say about learning from one’s mistakes, and he applies his work to his participation in Kolot, a pluralistic beit midrash, or study group, in Israel. In addition to offering study sessions on the notion of error, Kolot has a program for medical professionals who go through scenarios designed to highlight “the broken moments” between doctors and patients dealing with mistaken diagnoses and other errors, according to Ziv. They then “discuss it and link it” to Jewish texts.

“We are building a new language of simulation, medicine and Jewishness,” he said, applying the notion of learning from mistakes, appreciating Jewish values and “preparing ourselves for difficult moments.”

Reprinted with permission from jewishweek.com.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week.