Big Thinking

In the few courses that I have taken and books that I have read on management, one of the main components of success is the ability to engage in “big
visioning” or “blue sky” thinking. By not letting barriers, restrictions or even reality get in the way, we must find ways — and have leaders who inspire any given group — to imagine a future of their dreams, a future that looks radically different from the present, a future that can be reached for by all.

Without this kind of big thinking, an organization, family, nation, religion or individual will find itself being left behind, stuck in the rut of the unimaginative. From seminal thinkers like Peter Drucker and Edwin Friedman, we have learned these lessons. And in this week’s parsha, I would argue that the Torah offers itself as one of the original voices on the subject of “big thinking.”

Parshat Behar teaches us two big lessons:

First, the shmitah, the seventh year of rest for the fields, a Shabbat for the land, reminds us that however much we feel in charge of this glorious Earth, it is really God’s land. “Li kol ha’aretz,” the Torah says, “All the land is Mine.”

And second, the Torah instructs us that the 50th year is the Jubilee, the year of the shofar, the year where the biggest idea possible — true freedom for all human beings, release from slavery, debt and financial suffering, and the ability to reclaim lost property, lost dignity and new life — is envisioned.

I understand the Torah to be providing us a remarkable opportunity to bring holiness and God’s divine presence into our world today. The ideas in Behar, like Kedoshim a few weeks ago, remind me that God commands us to reach for the highest ideals possible, the holiest ways possible and the most fair, just and equitable society imaginable. We should never let failure to achieve these goals stop us from continually striving to reach them.

Similar to Shabbat, we are to “sanctify” the Jubilee year, make it holy through our actions. It is not a mere observance or a passing moment but rather an active engagement of will and energy, changing our behavior to bring holiness into the world. We are to proclaim, to call out “liberty, freedom” in the land.

In a section regarding the Jubilee, “ukratem d’ror ba’aretz, l’chol yoshvehah” (proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants) (Leviticus 25:10), scholars understand the word “d’ror” to stem from an ancient Akkadian word, “anduraru,” which refers to an edict issued by Mesopotamian kings when they have ascended the throne. As a gesture of royal benevolence and power, they would proclaim a moratorium on debts and indenture, thereby releasing those bound by servitude.

The release of debt is such a crucial aspect of being free, as one who is indebted to another remains under their power, under their constriction; it is humiliating and debilitating. Whether it is an individual who is saddled by credit card debt, student loan debt (I know about that one), health insurance debt or another kind of debt or it is a nation that has been crippled by national debt to another nation (like many African countries), the Torah is teaching us this week that no person, no nation can or should be in debt forever.

And in a fascinating addition to this idea, the “Pnei Yehoshua,” the work of Rav Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, an 18th century master, teaches that “the Jubilee year brings freedom not only to the slaves but also to the slave owners, freeing them from the dehumanizing situation of having such power over other human beings.”

We bring God into the world when we free ourselves of controlling others’ destinies, for that is God’s role, not ours.

Today, we need the big thinking of the Jubilee more than ever. With our nation in tremendous debt, both as individuals and collectively, we have become addicted to credit, which has ruined so many people. Wealthy nations lord over poorer nations loans that can never be paid back, which has left millions of people in collective debt, with their countries unable to climb out from under the mountain.

Debt relief, a hot topic a few years back, is still necessary if we are ever to level the playing field among nations. The Torah is reminding us this week that nobody deserves to be in debt forever; nobody deserves to be punished forever; everyone deserves to receive mercy and benevolence, a trait of God with which we human beings have always struggled.

Are things better than they once were? Absolutely, for many.

Yet, today, for the first time in history, we have enough resources to feed, clothe, house and educate every person on Earth in every nation. Dr. Jeffrey Sachs has been brilliantly teaching about this for some time now.

We need a global Jubilee, one that restarts the clock for us all, bringing us all into the 21st century, sharing the wealth, distributing fairly and wisely and releasing the debt. Let us proclaim “dror la’aretz,” a liberty and freedom throughout all lands. This is big thinking. This is dynamic dreaming. This is holy action.

Let us bring the mercy of God into this world through our hands. And when someone says, “We can’t do this; it is not possible,” let us remind that person, and all of us, of one of the deepest teachings of Pirke Avot: “It is not up to us to finish the job, but neither are we ever free to stop trying.”

For the sake of our children, for the sake of our world, the Jubilee is one big idea worth trying.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center ( He also serves as national secretary of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, corresponding secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and on the board of Jewish World Watch. He welcomes your comments at

Staying Active at 50

The state of Israel isn’t the only Jewish institution celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. On Sepulveda Boulevard, in West Los Angeles, the renowned Leo Baeck Temple is celebrating its Jubilee, commencing with a series of events Dec. 11-13.

And like Israel, many temple members are finding it a struggle to maintain the activism of the temples early years.

Founded in 1948 by a group seeking to expand Reform Judaism in Southern California, the temple has gradually built a reputation for social activism. The congregation’s founding rabbi, Leonard Beerman, was one of the first in his profession to speak out against the war in Vietnam. Beerman and then-Associate Rabbi Sanford Ragins later participated in the “no nukes” protests in the late 1970s — a battle Ragins continues to fight, even making a point of commenting on the recent nuclear tests in India and Pakistan in his 1998 High Holiday sermon.

Ragins said he is simply following in the footsteps of the congregation’s namesake. Rabbi Leo Baeck, one of the premiere rabbis of Berlin prior to World War II, spoke out not only against Hitler but also reproached the Lutheran Church for turning its back on the victims of the Nazi regime. Baeck survived the Thereisenstadt concentration camp and went on to teach in London and the U.S.

Picture Imperfect

“A Dream No More,” an ambitious documentary on Israel’s first 50 years, intended originally as a highlight of the nation’s anniversary jubilee, is, indeed, a dream no more. Nearly completed, the film has been permanently shelved by the producing Simon Wiesenthal Center, to the considerable dismay of the documentary’s chief creators.

There are two different diagnoses for “Dream’s” demise, one advanced by the film’s director-writer Mark Jonathan Harris and his co-writer Stuart Schoffman, the other by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s dean and founder, joined by Richard Trank, executive producer for the center’s Moriah Films division.

Harris and Schoffman believe that the project was scuttled because American Jews — and by extension the Wiesenthal Center — are unwilling to accept a realistic representation of Israeli life and history, depicting the shadows along with the light.

To Hier and Trank, it’s a simpler matter of creative and conceptual differences between producer and director, a familiar Hollywood story, and they are now working on a new version of the film.

The Hier-Trank team, as co-producers, have won Oscars for two documentaries, “Genocide” in 1981 and this year’s “The Long Way Home.”

Schoffman, an American-born Israeli, went public with the controversy this month in the Jerusalem Report magazine through his regular column.

Schoffman writes that he and Harris decided to encapsulate the story of Israel’s statehood through a “mosaic” of different voices, “precisely because there are so many vigorously competing versions of the development, present-day priorities and future prospects of the Jewish state.”

After initial script approval, various revisions and extensive filming in Israel, Moriah “shut down production in June 1998, on the grounds that the film wasn’t working,” writes Schoffman.

At that point, the dates for a series of “world premieres” of the film, in such prestigious venues as Washington’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Radio City Music Hall had already passed.

In the end, Schoffman writes, and confirms in an interview, “‘A Dream No More’ was unacceptable as the official, feel-good Diaspora jubilee film… What this confirms, I think, is that on the occasion of Israel’s 50th birthday, the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is in serious need of re-examination.

“It would seem that a great many American Jews find Israel too complex, disturbing and problematic to confront head-on, leaving them with a set of flawed alternatives: they can tune Israel out; or else cling to the pristine picture of Israel that no Israeli, whatever his or her political coloration, can take seriously.”

Harris largely agrees with his co-writer and brings considerable authority to the discussion as a veteran filmmaker and teacher. A professor at the USC School of Cinema-Television, he has won an Academy Award in his own right and was also the director-writer for the Wiesenthal Center’s Oscar-winning “The Long Way Home.”

“We worked very hard on this film for 14 to 15 months, and I am very disheartened that it will not be shown,” says Harris. “We tried to give a positive, but also accurate, portrayal of Israel, and I think we gave a very balanced picture, of which I am very proud.”

Harris says he tried to present a cross-section of Israeli opinions in the film, including the voices of writers, settlers, kibbutzniks, businessmen, Orthodox leaders, philosophers and ordinary people of various ethnic backgrounds.

“These are very articulate, passionate and attractive people, who express the dynamism of Israel and grapple honestly with the country’s problems,” he says.

Harris says that Hier and Trank did not see their final cut of the film, but acknowledges that it was in trouble from the first cut early this year.

He believes the Wiesenthal Center was concerned that the film, in its planned format, might offend the center’s influential supporters. In a deeper sense, he adds, the film’s problems reflected the political and artistic controversies that plagued Israel’s entire 50th anniversary celebration.

To Hier and Trank, the subtleties of Diaspora attitudes had nothing to do with axing the film.

Hier acknowledges that when the filmmakers first presented their basic concept, he was willing to give it a try, “But when I saw the first cut, I was 100 percent convinced it wouldn’t work,” he says.

“The film was full of talking heads, of people who had played no major roles in the actual historical events, debating in cafes,” he maintains.

“We wanted a film that would excite young people, who knew little about Israel’s past,” he adds. “In our previous documentaries, we had real historical depth, and we did that by showing great archival footage of the leading figures who actually shaped the events.”

The other major problem was that “Dream” did not have a narrator, who would provide continuity and historical background, says Trank.

“Without a narrative or coherent timeline, what we got was a film that kept jumping from one topic to another, and two hours of different scenes strung together — some worked and some didn’t,” he says.

When numerous attempts to fix the film didn’t work out, Trank said he made the artistic and fiscal decision in June to shut down production.

Hier vigorously denies that fear of offending supporters, or officials in Jerusalem, where the Wiesenthal Center hopes to erect a Museum of Tolerance, played a part in scuttling the project.

He says that before making the final decision, he consulted with colleagues, trustees and “intellectuals and journalists in Israel. They all agreed it was a non-starter,” he says.

Trank says the film was budgeted at about $1 million. Of this amount, some $300,000 to $400,000 was for the purchase of historical and archival footage, which will be salvaged and incorporated in the new documentary, covering the same five decades in Israel’s history.

Out-of-pocket losses come to about $250,000, says Hier, and some $300,000 will have to be added to complete the new, as yet untitled, version.

Wiesenthal Center trustee Merv Adelson, who exercises oversight of Moriah Films, could not be reached for comment. But the veteran Hollywood and media executive, say Hier and Trank, was fully supportive of their decision, even at the cost of $250,000.

Another trustee, Rosalie Zalis, says that funds for the film division come from specified individual contributors, and are separate from the general Wiesenthal Center operations.

“When I was in Israel last May, I was told that the film was in trouble,” she says. “Nobody likes to lose money, but given the reputation and track record of Moriah Films, it would be stupid to risk that by coming out with a bad film.”

The script for the new film is being written by noted Oxford historian Martin Gilbert, based largely on his book “Israel: A History,” in collaboration with Hier and Emmy award-winner Scott Goldstein. Trank is the director.

It is hoped that one of Hollywood’s most distinguished actors will serve as narrator.

The new documentary will not prettify Israel’s history or current problems, insists Hier. “We won’t produce a feel-good Jewish National Fund film,” he says. “That wouldn’t have any credibility.”

The documentary, to be completed in four to five months, will be, if anything, “more honest and hard-hitting” than the aborted project, promises Trank.

Celebrating Israel’s 50th

The “America Salutes Israel at 50” show at the Shrine Auditoriumis hardly the only celebration in and around Los Angeles planned tocommemorate Israel’s jubilee year. Here is a list of some other localevents.

April 26 — South Bay Israeli Festival at the TorranceCivic Center, sponsored by the Federation South Bay Council and SouthBay synagogues.

April 26-May 10 — Community Yom Ha’atzmaut mission toIsrael, led by Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance President Arthur andMady Jablon.

April 30 — Yom Ha’atzmaut Celebration, sponsored by theConsulate General of Israel.

May 3 — Los Angeles Israeli Festival at Pan Pacific Park,sponsored by the Jewish Federation and the Council of IsraeliOrganizations.

Oct. 22 — United Jewish Fund benefit concert at the1,800-seat Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, sponsored by the ValleyAlliance and produced by Canto Chayim Frankel.

The Schoolmaster

RabbiLaurence Scheindlin, pictured with (seated, from left), Gail Nussen,Sheila Leibovic and Debi Ben Aharon, dinner co-chairs. Standing fromleft, Rose Derhy, Jacki Ahdout, Jory Goldman and Lise Applebaum,auction co-chairs.

Not long ago, at a playground near the Venice canals, a group ofyoung parents were debating the merits of local private schools. “Wepulled our son out of that school,” said a father. “I didn’tlike the principal.”

“Oh, come on,” countered a mother. “How important is a principal?”

People at Sinai Akiba Academy could answer that question with adate: Jan. 24. That’s when the school is celebrating its 30thanniversary at a dinner honoring Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, theschool’s headmaster.

In 1977, Scheindlin left a pulpit job and moved out West to headup what was then the 181-pupil Akiba Academy, the first ConservativeJewish day school in Los Angeles. Twenty-one years later, Sinai AkibaAcademy (the school merged with Sinai Temple in 1987) has 512students in grades kindergarten through 8, and has been consistentlyrecognized as one of the finest schools on the West Coast.Scheindlin’s guiding principle: “We really want kids to besuccessful, and we really want them to have strong Jewish values. Wewant compassionate, caring winners.”

He has joined that philosophy to a seemingly tireless enthusiasm.Donning a hard hat, he marches a visitor through Sinai Akiba’s $25million expansion, as proud of the cavernous parking garage as he isof the new, wider hallways and playing field.

“He has an open mind and a generous spirit,” said Janet Rosenblum,a school parent. According to Julie Platt, chair of the Sinai AkibaAcademy Committee, Scheindlin has helped the school “set newstandards” in Jewish education.

Those standards include a first-rate general education wedded tointensive Jewish studies. As parents have increasingly chosen Jewishday schools as an alternative to unsatisfactory public schooling andas a way to ensure their children’s Jewish identity, schools such asSinai Akiba have flourished. Four Westside schools — WilshireBoulevard Temple, Beth Am, the Milken Community High School and SinaiAkiba — have invested more than $100 million over the past fiveyears to expand their day-school programs.

Of course, success has brought a new set of challenges.Scheindlin, 53 and a father of three Sinai Akiba graduates, has seentuition rise from about $1,700 in 1977 to $7,000 today, a sum out ofreach to many families.

And, in the push for higher and higher academic achievement,Scheindlin said he hopes that schools pay attention to the spirituallife of their children. “Traditionally, elementary schools have notdone a great job at that,” he said.

But Scheindlin expects to continue at Sinai Akiba to see thesechallenges through. “It’s a bull market for Jewish day schools,” hesaid. “I’m optimistic.”

For more information on Sinai Akiba’s 30th Anniversary Dinner,call (310) 475-6401 — Staff Report

Cemetery Has

New Buyer

Anew potential buyer for the bankrupt Hollywood Memorial Park,which includes Beth Olam Cemetery, has come forward, after theprevious bidder, Callanan Mortuary, dropped out.

He is Tyler Cassity, a St. Louis cemetery operator who has put upa $75,000 non-refundable deposit. Tyler has until March 16 tofinalize the sale, and a new court hearing has been set for March 20.

The cemetery will remain open for visits and burials, but willhave to cut back on ground maintenance, said David Isenberg, attorneyfor the bankruptcy trustee. — Staff Report

UJ’s Shechter Is Arts Programming Dean

Dr. Jack Shechter

Dr. Jack Shechter, who has served as dean of the University ofJudaism’s department of continuing education for 21 years, was nameddean of the school’s arts programming division by universityPresident Dr. Robert Wexler.

Shechter will oversee the school’s performing arts series,Elderhostel cultural arts programming, the Platt Gallery and theSmalley Sculpture Garden. He also will be responsible for expandingan already extensive array of instructional arts classes at the UJ.

An ordained rabbi, Shechter is a graduate of Yeshiva Universityand the Jewish Theological Seminary. He earned his doctorate inbiblical studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Before coming tothe University of Judaism in 1976, he was rabbi at Congregation B’naiIsrael in Pittsburgh for 10 years.

Federation Raises $42.4 Million

Despite worries that the religious pluralism debate and stalledpeace process in Israel would hurt the Jewish Federation’s 1997fund-raising efforts, the organization raised $42.4 million for itsUnited Jewish Fund, surpassing its goal for the year.

Bill Bernstein, Federation associate executive vice president anddirector of the fund, said the total was “within range of where wehoped we would be.” He called it a “great achievement” for the LosAngeles community in a difficult year. “I think we helped donors torealize that it would be a wrong decision to penalize thebeneficiaries of the United Jewish Fund by withdrawing theircontributions, since it would hurt those people who need the dollarsmost,” Bernstein said. He credited UJF 1997 general chair Todd Morganand Carol Katzman, chair of the Women’s Division, for their”phenomenal” leadership.

Sources close to the campaign said that possibly an additional $1million to $1.5 million would have been pledged if not for donordissatisfaction over the pluralism issue.

In 1998, the Federation has set a lofty goal of raising $50million, a number that coincides — not by accident — with Israel’s50th anniversary. Reaching that figure will be “a stretch,” Bernsteinadmitted, but isn’t impossible. Contributions hit the $50 millionmark in 1989.

To sweeten the appeal for donations this Super Sunday (Feb. 22),phone volunteers will for the first time be offering bonus miles onAmerican Airlines. Other federations and the Jewish Home for theAging have used the mileage incentives with good results, said SusanBender, special assistant to Executive Vice President John Fishel.The mileage is given, however, only when the pledge is actually paid.— Ruth Stroud

A Day for Learning

More than 1,000 Jewish learners descended on Taft High School inWoodland Hills recently to attend Yom Limud, a community-wide all-dayevent that was the Bureau of Jewish Education’s way of celebratingits 60th year in Southern California.

About half the participants were teachers from religious schoolsand day schools across the Southland. But lay people, too, turned outin droves to hear the intellectual stars of our community –professors, rabbis and lecturers from all the Jewish movements –explore Judaism from many angles.

Attendees could choose an Orthodox rabbi’s take on women’sopportunities in traditional Judaism; a college professor’s analysisof the golden age of Spanish Jewry; a Talmud-based discussion on theJewish educator’s right to strike; an introduction to Jewishcyberspace; or a Yiddish sing-along. Virtually every session wasstanding-room-only.

A particularly engaging discussion was provoked by Rabbi LauraGeller, who examined the legacy of two 20th-century giants: the Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Gellerdisclosed how her own youthful passion for civil rights in the wakeof King’s assassination ultimately put her on a path to therabbinate.

Quoting extensively from both leaders, she noted how much theSouthern Baptist minister and the Warsaw-born rabbi had in common,despite their vastly different backgrounds. For both, a Bible-basedtheology, heavily flavored by the book of Exodus, led inexorably to acall for social justice.

As Geller’s listeners began asking questions, the session movedinto a probing consideration of how institutionalized Judaism hasfailed to heed Heschel’s message that “prayer is meaningless unlessit is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and ruin the pyramidsof callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.” Why do most Jewsturn a deaf ear to Heschel’s bold imperatives? In Geller’s words,”People come to synagogue — when they come — because they’relooking for comfort.” They may be persuaded to turn inward and findspiritual renewal, but they’re not ready to be forced into action onbehalf of the world’s oppressed peoples. — Beverly Gray

‘Family Stories’ at the Skirball

JoyceDallal’s “It is a Tree of Life to Those that Hold Fast to it,” at theSanta Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Drop into the Skirball Cultural Center this week, and you’ll findwork by artists Jewish and Japanese and Native American.

You’ll find the same six artists exhibited side by side at theJapanese American National Museum and the Santa Barbara Museum ofNatural History. It’s all part of “Finding Family Stories,” athree-year project that aims to create multicultural dialogue in LosAngeles. “All the artists deal with issues of family, so we’re hopingthe people of Southern California will see a bit of themselves in thework,” says the Japanese American National Museum’s Cynthia Endo.

This is the first time the Skirball is participating in theproject, and the first time the show has included Jewish artists.Joyce Dallal’s installation piece, “Finding Home,” for example,describes the struggle of her Iraqi-Jewish father to emigrate to theStates.

There are works by Eddy Kurushima, a Japanese-American artist whoendured the internment camps of World War II. Painter Judith Lowrydepicts a lost friend, a powwow dancer comatose since a car accident,dancing with an angelic figure in “Rolling Thunder, Dancing AcrossAmerica.”

Mixed-media artist Aaron Glass, meanwhile, recalls a childhoodmemory in “Aronit Ha’Zikharon (Little Cabinet of Memory),” abirch ark adorned with images of an unusual family heirloom. Thepiece recalls how, at the age of 8, Glass first saw a large fabricthat had been discovered in a suitcase under his grand-mother’s bed.The fabric turned out to be an 18th-century German Torah curtain, theproperty of forebears descended from Glass’s blue-blooded Jewishancestor, Jacob Bassevi von Treuenberg, the first ennobled Jew inGermany, the artist says.

A panel discussion with the artists will take place on March13, at 7 p.m., at Self-Help Graphics in Los Angeles. Choreographerssuch as Naomi Goldberg and Hiroki Hojo will explore “Dance asDialogue” in a Skirball workshop on March 15, at 2 p.m. Forreservations, call (213) 660-8587. — Naomi Pfefferman,Senior Writer.

Children of Chernobyl

The children come from cities such as Gomel, Mozyr, Berdichev andBobrusk, in the shadow of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Since1990, Chabad has airlifted 1,527 of them to Israel, to escape thedeadly radiation poisoning that accumulates with each breath of airor sip of contaminated milk.

Now, Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program has been honored witha new Israeli postal stamp — a rare Postal Authority tribute to aprivate organization — that was recently unveiled in the Knesset.The colorful NIS 2.10 stamp depicts smiling children disembarkingfrom an airplane in Israel. Twenty-one other countries unveiled theirown stamps honoring the program at a United Nations ceremony inApril.

When the Chernobyl meltdown unleashed 90 times the radiation ofthe Hiroshima bomb in April 1986, several hundred thousand Jews livedin the surrounding area — the eastern edge of what once was theJewish Pale of Settlement. Thousands of Jewish children begansuffering neurological, respiratory and digestive ailments, whilethyroid cancer increased 200-fold. Milk and food were contaminated,and medical care was poor or nonexistent.

Chabad has responded by evacuating at-risk children on 32 flightsso far; in Israel, the children are whisked to doctors and housed inthe Kfar Chabad complex until their parents arrive in the Jewishstate. Immune systems are strengthened, and enlarged thyroid glandsare closely monitored for signs of malignancy.

Yula, 12, is one of the lucky ones. Her mother wrote to her fromback in Gomel: “Many children are sick. Like you, they have somethinggrowing in their throats. They’re getting sicker, while you’regetting better.” — Naomi Pfefferman