Photo by Shiloh Kanarti.

The Journey of a ‘Single Mother by Choice’

“How many of you bother reading all the emails from your kid’s school?”

When a presenter asked that question at a Tel Aviv conference for working mothers, it was met with peals of laughter and the shaking of heads. Only one woman in the entire auditorium raised her hand.

Yael Ukeles reads every note regarding her 6-year-old son, Amitai. She attributes her conscientiousness to the “tremendous power of choice” that brought Amitai into the world.

Part of a growing network of religious women who have chosen to raise children without a partner, Ukeles is a co-founder of KayamaMoms, an organization that supports such women and advocates for their needs in the wider community. Bordering on a misnomer, she said, the term “single mother by choice” fails to incorporate the emotional anguish that comes with the choice between being a single mother and not being a mother at all.

“You speak to any single mom by choice — Jewish or not Jewish, in America or in Israel — and it’s really the same story,” she said.

Unmarried and approaching 40, Ukeles realized that if she wanted to become pregnant, she would need to act quickly.

“I felt angry — well, maybe angry is too strong a word — but I felt pressured at having to make this choice. But I understood that no decision is a decision,” Ukeles said.

So she started to do research, speaking to psychologists, financial advisers and, being an observant Jew, to rabbis. She also had to let go of her lifelong vision of what her future would look like.

“The literature calls it ‘mourning the dream,’ ” she said, adding that clinging to vestiges of some ideal long past its expiration date was an irresponsible way to bring a child into the world.

“That child shouldn’t feel anything but 100-percent wanted,” she said.

Apart from letting go of ingrained paradigms, Ukeles’ advice to women considering to go it alone is to, well, not go it alone. Although she credits her family with being “150 percent on board” with her decision, it was really her community of Tekoa — a mixed religious-secular community in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem — that eased much of the burden.

“Find a community that you want to live in and raise a child in and be a part of that community by giving,” she said. “Give, give, give.”

That way, she said, by the time you need to ask for help, you’ll already have a built-in support network.

“I felt pressured at having to make this choice. But I understood that no decision is a decision.”

As her voice cracked, Ukeles recalled the exhilaration she felt at Amitai’s brit milah.

“It was beyond … just beyond. … When I walked into the room, I felt this swell, literally a wave of love and support. Every time I think about it I almost can’t breathe because it was just so beautiful.”

Six years on, is Amitai aware of his uncommon origins?

“Oh sure, we speak about it constantly,” Ukeles said.

Ukeles told Amitai before he turned 2 about how she wanted to have a baby, so she went to a doctor. When he was a bit older, she added that she had wanted to get married but didn’t find anyone, so she went to a doctor.

“And then I added a little biology,” she said with a laugh.

She has revealed to her son details about the sperm donor so that “it’s not a ghost in the house.” She has information about the donor because she used an American sperm bank. Israeli law requires that sperm and egg donors remain anonymous.

Still, in most ways, women wanting to become single mothers have it easier than their U.S. counterparts. In religious circles, the subject is less taboo in Israel, so there are more single mothers by choice than in comparable U.S. communities. And the state covers fertility treatments, which can be prohibitively expensive in the U.S.

To date, Ukeles — with KayamaMom co-directors Dina Pinner and Dvori Ross — has supported some 80 women in Israel and the U.S., and welcomed more than 100 KayamaMom babies into the world.

Although she never imagined her “Plan B would be this awesome,” she said, she hasn’t entirely lost sight of Plan A: “I’m still hopeful that I’ll find myself in a nurturing relationship someday.”

Why I’m Not a Rabbi

I never thought I’d find myself in the position of deciding whether or not to be a rabbi. After all, I came from a secular family and from a young age I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer.

But after four years of studying creative writing in college and one summer working at a literary nonprofit in Manhattan, I found myself in a crisis that would eventually lead to the rabbi question.

I was 21 years old and writing was the center of my life, to the exclusion of almost anything else. A good writing day made me feel like a good person. A bad writing day made me feel like a worthless excuse for a human being. This, I began to sense, was a form of idolatry; writing could not be the most important thing in the world. Life had value apart from words on a page!

Meanwhile, I had begun to grow interested in my Jewish heritage. And I’d also begun to fall in love, inconveniently, with God.

So, at 21, I decided to stop writing entirely. Instead, I would build my life around something eternal.

I quit my job, left everything I knew and traveled to Jerusalem for the first time, with nothing but a backpack and my violin. There, I enrolled in a progressive, coed yeshiva called Pardes.

I ended up staying at Pardes for two years, studying Torah during the day and playing music in clubs or on the street at night. By the time I left, there was no question about what was at the center of my life as I prayed, studied Talmud and led Friday-night services.

When I returned to the States, I continued to play fiddle; I began to teach Torah; and slowly, very slowly, I also began to write. Like an athlete learning to hold her body correctly after a bad injury, I had to craft my sentences carefully, watching for signs of too much ego or ambition. But I was able to build a serious writing practice back into my life.

I continued to write, play music and teach Torah through my 20s, without feeling a need to choose between these sometimes disparate ways of life. But as my 30th birthday approached, I realized I was going to have to make some decisions.

What was I? An artist who loved Jewish texts and traditions or a rabbi who loved music and writing? I knew titles like “rabbi,” “musician” and “writer” were never fully accurate, that every human transcended a simple title. But I also understood that they mattered. I sensed that the path I chose would define the way I spent my days, how I paid my rent, and what was appropriate to say in public.

I found that when I leaned toward one possibility, the other self would materialize strongly. When I placed art out front, the Hebrew letters shone through, seeming to be the inner essence of that practice. But when I foregrounded the sacred books, I would feel the gentle curves of my violin’s body, notes inside my fingertips, poems burning on my tongue.

I agonized over this decision for months.

In the end, as silly as it sounds, it was cursing that finally led me to decide not to be a rabbi. I am not particularly foul-mouthed, but I wanted to be able to drop F-bombs with impunity, in my writing and in my life.

Really, looking back, I see that this was symbolic. I wanted to be able to say anything, from the esoteric to the vulgar, without the pressure of representing my people and my tradition.

So I finally recycled the rabbinical school application.

Thankfully, Judaism is not terribly hierarchical, at least in the communities in which I live and work. As a layperson, I can lead services, teach the traditions, counsel seekers, and officiate my students’ bar and bat mitzvahs.

Thank goodness for all the rabbis who bear the honor and the burden of communal representation. As for me, I’m just a wandering melamed, grateful for the tools I have to find as much holiness as I can in the world: Torah, music and writing down the meditations of my heart — from the sacred to the profane. n

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

What Does Jewish Literature Have to Do With Jewish Education?

When I graduated high school, I chose to go to University of Toronto. It was close to home, and one of the best universities in the country. That said, it had more than 80,000 students, and I did not know a soul.

I felt out of my depth and out of place until, on a whim, I signed up for a Jewish literature course. I was hoping that my years of Jewish education would give me an upper hand in the class, but was shocked to discover I did not have answers to any of the fundamental questions underlying the course: What does being Jewish mean? Can a piece of literature be Jewish if it is written by a non-Jew? Is Judaism primarily a religion or a culture?

How had I gone through 12 years of a Jewish education and never thought about these questions?

While I completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees in English literature, that first-year Jewish literature course made more of an impression than any other class I took in college. Being introduced to Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick gave me new giants to look up to as both cultural and Jewish icons. Later, when I became a teacher, it saddened me that so many students graduated Jewish high schools with strong religious textual backgrounds, but little sense of their rich cultural Jewish heritage.

Intent on remedying the issue, last year I taught a yearlong Jewish literature course to seniors at Shalhevet High School. The students, however, were not as enthusiastic as I’d hoped.

When, at first, the students did not immediately love the Yiddish literature unit, I tried not to panic. I was only a year older than them when these texts were introduced to me. I had been floored by the sincerity and wit of the Yiddish stories, but perhaps my world was different?

As the modern Jewish literature unit began, however, it soon became clear that my students were struggling with the material. They were frustrated that there was no clarity in answering questions about what being Jewish means.

I surveyed my students at the year’s end and the results were illuminating: I had misidentified the point of the class. I had even misunderstood the effects that the earlier university course had had on my own identity.

As the teacher, I had my students analyze whether the texts had a Jewish identity, but had neglected to make them think enough about how these texts impacted their own Jewish identities. Instead of putting a text on trial to prove its Jewish roots, I should have been forcing my students to unearth who they were as Jews and how their personal identities connect to Philip Roth’s “Eli the Fanatic” or Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated.”

For me, college was a Jewish wasteland, compelling me to search for a way to connect my secular studies to my Jewish life. Most Jewish texts are about a Jewish character who lives as a minority in a majority culture, which is how I felt in college. It became important for me to understand that I was part of something culturally larger.

My students, on the other hand, are surrounded by Judaism and not looking for these connections during their senior year. In their current lives, in a Jewish high school, their Judaism makes them part of the majority. But one day, that will not be the case. Later, whether in Jewish or non-Jewish environments, they will need to think about what their Judaism means to them.

As I prepare to teach the class this coming year at Shalhevet, I think about what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book, “Radical Then, Radical Now”: “If Jewish survival is problematic, it is because Jewish identity itself is problematic.”

The way to reconnect my students to the material will be to have them face what is problematic about their own Jewish identities and use the texts to face those problems head on.

My students might not connect to every text, but they will at least be reading and asking these questions. If I can teach them how to build confusion stamina, hold on to these eternal questions and keep asking, that could be the most important lesson I can give them.

Na’amit Sturm Nagel is a writer who teaches English at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. 

18 Ideas for the Jewish Future

As the nation’s premier Jewish leadership summit — the 2018 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly — hits Los Angeles, we asked innovators, educators and community leaders to weigh in with their ideas for the Jewish future.

These are just the beginning. Over the next few months, we will be reaching out to more people for more ideas, and will publish many of them in print and online. If you’d like to contribute, send your great idea (in 100 words or less) to

Create a Reverse Birthright
Avraham Infeld, Renowned Israeli Educator

The “wow” experience of thousands of Taglit-Birthright participants is the sudden realization that what they thought being Jewish is, is not necessarily so. Israeli-Jewish youth are desperately in need of a similar experience that can be achieved only by educationally well-structured visits of thousands of Israeli youth to Diaspora Jewish communities. Ensuring our remaining one Jewish People is essential, achievable and well worth the investment. The time for a reverse Birthright is now!

Recruit Future Rabbis the Way Sports Teams Scout Talent
Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder, Jewish World Watch

We are in dire need of more dynamic and innovative rabbis from diverse backgrounds and fields. To attract them, we need to proactively cull high school youth groups and university student bodies, recruiting the best and the brightest the way sports teams search for talented athletes. I propose a diverse team of excellent, highly specialized and trained recruiters, jointly funded by all of the seminaries and the national Federation system. This squad would devise a strategy and, with purposeful intention, set out to find tomorrow’s rabbis and synagogue leaders. By increasing the number of dynamic and exceptional leaders, we can reach new heights.

Introduce a New Kind of Conversion
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea Congregation

In a time and place in our history when Jewish identity often is amorphous and tenuous, all of us together should adopt the practice of universal Jewish conversion. Upon reaching the age of 20, all Jews would undergo a conversion to Judaism, a ceremony that involves an articulation of faith, an affirmation of commitment and immersion in a mikveh. Naturally, the precise requirements and content of the ceremony would vary from one movement to another, from one synagogue to another, and from one Jewish organization to another; for instance, as organizations such as Jewish World Watch, StandWithUs and Bend the Arc would all have their own programs.

Promote Israel-Diaspora Connections
Zev Yaroslavsky, Former Los Angeles County Supervisor

American Jewry always has found common ground with Israel. However, there is a growing sense that the younger generation is finding less with which to identify on issues such as civil liberties and religious and political tolerance. I propose that Israel and the U.S. establish a nonpartisan Israel-Diaspora Initiative consisting of top leaders from both sides whose exclusive mission will be to nurture and strengthen the relationship. The objective would be to bring our communities closer together in shared values, understanding and mutual respect. United, Israel and Diaspora Jewry are stronger. Divided, we will sow the seeds for a growing divide.

Actively Include Everyone
Michelle K. Wolf, executive director, Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust

We need full disability inclusion of every member of our community, from the smiling kindergartner with Down syndrome to the towering, young adult with nonverbal autism who doesn’t speak but has a whole universe spinning in his head. We need large-print and Braille siddurim at every synagogue, and American Sign Language interpreters at every communal function. We need to replace the stigma of mental illness with empathy. This communal embrace requires more than just nice words — it requires proactive efforts. We need inclusion to be an everyday, year-round activity that is as deeply embedded as the parchment scroll in every mezuzah.

Give People Meaning
Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

Addressing the General Assembly in 1965, Abraham Joshua Heschel implored us to remove two words from our vocabulary: “surveys” and “survival.” “Our community is in spiritual distress,” he said, “Our disease is loss of character and commitment, and the cure cannot be derived from charts and diagrams. … The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, and source of meaning. …” There is yet more jargon we need to excise: “marketing,” “engagement,” “millennials.” Heschel was right: Our community is waiting impatiently for an assertion of collective purpose and a narrative of transcendent meaning. That’s the only “big idea” that matters now.

Mentor One Another
Rhoda Weisman, dean, Graduate School of Nonprofit Management, American Jewish University

In this age of disruption and innovation, millennials and boomers have knowledge, skills, experiences, values and wisdom unique to each of them. The InBetween Fellowship would pair boomers and millennials for a year to better one another through reciprocal mentoring. From creating satisfying career paths to personal lives informed by Jewish celebration, to understanding the latest social-media technologies, both generations will help each other to find deeper meaning and relevance in their lives.

Take Judaism Seriously
Rabbi Marc D. Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, New York City

The Talmud (Yoma 86a) quotes the sage Abayei, who interpreted the verse “And you shall love the Lord your God,” to mean that “the Name of Heaven should be beloved because of you.” Our words and deeds should inspire people to come closer to God and Torah, not repel them from God and Torah. Here is my paraphrase of the ensuing talmudic discussion: If someone studies Torah, is honest in business, speaks pleasantly to others, people will say, “How fine Judaism is! How righteous are the Jewish people!” The one essential point is: take Judaism seriously, proudly, naturally. Do your best and do not judge others. If we live a beautiful and righteous Jewish way of life, we can indeed be a “light unto the nations” — and a light unto our own selves and our families.

Meet Jews Where They Are
Jay Sanderson, president and CEO, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

The single best idea for the Jewish future is not one idea. It’s a change in mindset. We need to reimagine Jewish life to be more dynamic, more accessible, more engaging and more inclusive. We have to understand that we need to meet people where they are in their lives and in their Jewish journey and not expect them to come to our institutions. We have to be open to redefining Jewish engagement and transforming our Jewish community.

Learn and Practice Dignity
Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, founder, The Jewish Mindfulness Network

The Dignity Project would be a collaborative, international dialogue process in which people and leaders from all streams of Judaism would learn together and create shared agreements for how to treat one another with dignity, and guidelines for respectful conversation. We would explore existing Jewish texts about dignity and bravely tackle the multilayered dimensions of understanding the “Other.” We would examine the underlying thought processes and behavior that has led to the debasement of women and men, as revealed in recent, widespread sexual impropriety allegations. We’d address the rampant divisiveness among opposing political conversations. We would meet cross-denominationally, online and in person.

Build Wisdom and Virtue Academies
Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr HaTorah Synagogue

In addition to the other things that synagogues do, make them into wisdom and virtue academies, machon chochma umiddot. Wisdom includes insight into yourself, into others, and understanding where people are in the process of things. Virtue includes not acting in ways that are hurtful to others or your own well-being (osher in Hebrew), and reaches all the way into the transformation of character. Most people suffer because they don’t think well and because they cannot restrain their behavior (anger, for example) in a moment of stress, when the yetzer harah (the evil inclination) is trying to hijack our behavior. Help people become wise and strong!

Embrace Newcomers
Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director, Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, American Jewish University

Despite the fact that nearly 1 in 6 American Jews are converts, Jews by Choice are often forgotten in our communal conversation. Last year’s Slingshot Guide to Jewish Innovation contained not a single organization with conversion as a part of its mission. This is a tremendous blind spot in our institutional ecosystem. America’s spiritual landscape is increasingly characterized by dynamic movement between religions, and Judaism’s unique blend of intellectual openness, devotion to community, and passion for ethics has the potential to be tremendously attractive to people of all backgrounds seeking meaning and identity. Our commitment to not just accepting, but deploying our resources to actively embrace newcomers to our Jewish family is essential to our future vitality.

Invest in Boomers
Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emerita, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Invest in baby boomers, a huge population alienated from Jewish institutions that are focused on families with young children. Boomers have time and talent and want to give back to the community. Most want to age in place. Their major fears are invisibility, isolation and dependence. In L.A., two synagogues teamed to create ChaiVillageLA, a multigenerational community that enables congregants to stay in their own homes by providing assistance to one another, enriching one another’s lives and giving back to society as part of a self-governing “virtual” village supported by Jewish values. Village members no longer feel invisible, are no longer isolated and now think not of dependence but interdependence. Temples that once were competitors now are partners. People are joining these temples in order to become part of the Village.

Expand the Boundaries
Tova Hartman, Dean of Humanities, Ono Academic College, Israel

Recently, we read that Abraham, upon seeing three approaching strangers, “ran toward them” (Genesis 18:2). Just as the mitzvah of tzedakah requires us to actively seek out those in need and then offer help, we must actively pursue welcoming. Learning from feminism about making those invisible visible, we must always ask: Whom have we ignored? Who is here, but unnoticed? The Jewish community has overdosed on who does not belong, on creating boundaries that exclude. It is time to open our communities and institutions to those who did not know they could claim them.

Engage High School Grads in a Year of Service
Avram Mandell, executive director, Tzedek America

I suggest a strongly encouraged and financially backed Jewish service year for high school graduates. Generation Z and millennials care deeply about social-justice issues and feel disconnected from Judaism. A Jewish year of service — supported culturally and with dollars — would benefit our country and the Jewish people. In addition to volunteering, these young people would experience supervised communal living, experiential Jewish education and communal Shabbat involvement. Let’s get them hooked on their Judaism and the idea of making the world a better place before their identities solidify and they head off to college.

Give Tikkun Olam Context
Selwyn Gerber, CPA, Community Leader

Tikkun olam isn’t a Jewish idea, per se. It’s a wonderful universalist ideal. The sentence from which it is taken has a second half — b’malchut
Shadai (in the kingdom of God) — that largely has been silenced. Without an authentically Jewish component, it fades into the contemporary culture. Building a life and a home where the Shabbat table is a sanctuary, where the Jewish calendar becomes circuit-training for the soul, where each festival becomes an authentic self-improvement opportunity and then giving broad expression to being part of the Jewish people would give tikkun olam context and authenticity.

Make Learning Hebrew Fun
Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles, Temple Isaiah

Mystics spend their lives delving into the mysteries of Hebrew, believing it is the DNA of creation itself. But who has time for that? Many Jews have trouble engaging with Judaism because they cannot follow the prayer book, and they don’t believe they have the time or mental real estate to learn. Hebrew becomes an obstacle to participation rather than a vehicle for it. Let’s make learning Hebrew an event and fill theaters and stadiums with Jews and non-Jews, teaching the Alef Bet in an exciting, trend-worthy, memorable way, with music, comedy and graphics that are as simple as possible.

Birthright Beit Midrash
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director, Sephardic Education Center

“Birthright Beit Midrash” —Jewish philanthropists would fund scholarships for adult Jews to attend ten-day intensive Jewish study seminars of their choice. In these seminars, Jews would strengthen their identity through exploring Jewish texts. The texts of Talmud, Maimonides, Kook, Uziel and Agnon would become the common language of every Jew, and in the words of the great writer Herman Wouk, the new Jewish greeting will become, “What are you learning?”

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrim blows a shofar, near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

What I Learned From Rebbe Nachman and Mr. Miyagi

I thought I understood the power of prayer, until I went to Uman.

Long before I reconnected with Judaism, I felt connected to God. It made no sense to me that a whole universe popped into existence out of nothing for no reason. I wanted to know our Creator. I tried many paths: philosophy, meditation, endurance sports, trance music, martial arts.

Here and there I’d catch hints of the Divine, but prayer was rarely part of the picture.

Twenty years ago, I returned to observant Judaism. My connection to prayer grew more solid as I put on tefillin and prayed every morning. But the moments that most moved me came when I was part of a rowdy congregation, especially with groups that danced and sang in the style of Reb Shlomo Carlebach.

Then, this fall, I traveled to Uman, Ukraine, to pray at the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. And I experienced another level.

Many people pray fervently, but the Breslovers, Rebbe Nachman’s Chasidic followers, add a personal component: hisbodedus. In short, they pour out their hearts as if they’re talking with a best friend. They do it out loud, every day, often with tears. Watching this, some people think they’re nuts. I don’t.

The gathering in Uman has been likened to a Jewish Burning Man festival. There’s certainly creativity, but the decadence and mind-altering substances are mostly limited to single-malt scotch. The Uman experience is intermittently loud, holy and contemplative.

Two moments stood out. Around the kever, the grave, of Rebbe Nachman, there’s a large synagogue where people pray around the clock, individually and in small groups. You hear cries of wrenching sincerity. I’ve visited the tombs of many holy figures in Israel. Each has its own energy. Rebbe Nachman’s was electric. At the tomb itself, I felt a rush of light coursing through me, and when I asked for guidance in knowing what to pray for, the answer came immediately.

As the Accidental Talmudist, I share what I love about Judaism with a large audience on a daily basis. So I prayed fervently that I should be a clean conduit for God’s light, neither obscuring it nor limiting it from a place of ego. This prayer now gives me strength before every live webcast.

The second moment was in a huge tent, singing a nigun (wordless prayer) with 2,500 guys in a tribal roar that must have pierced the firmament. It was ecstatic, rejuvenating, and I wanted it to go on forever. Every guy around me was my brother, and we were hugging strangers all day long.

Together, those moments aroused a sense of clarity.

In Uman, I didn’t just pray for life, health, love and success at work. Those blessings are crucial to everyone, and it’s good to ask for them, but all too often they are out of our control.

What I prayed for was clarity of purpose, strength to achieve it and open-minded humility in place of arrogant certainty. And as soon as I asked for help with those qualities, I felt the physical sensation of having my prayer answered.

In the 1984 film “The Karate Kid,” a bullied teenager asks a maintenance man and karate master, Mr. Miyagi, for a karate lesson, only to receive a can of car polish and a sponge.

“Wax on, wax off. Left hand, right hand,” Mr. Miyagi tells him.

The kid thinks he’s being bullied again, until those circular motions deflect an incoming punch. Then he realizes he’s been training all along, and that he can now protect himself with force and grace.

Prayer is like that. Our words and motions can easily become rote. We fulfill the commandment, but it’s only in moments of intensity that we feel its power. I experienced that intensity in Uman.

Alas, such heights are short-lived, and I have to pray regularly to keep developing those much-needed qualities. Yet, a trace of the Uman energy returned with me. I feel it now as I write these words. I feel it more when I pray.

That kind of prayer is action. It heals. It repairs. And it increases peace in the world.

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with his followers every day at

Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Photo from YouTube

Hartman Examines How the Six-Day War Forever Changed Jews and Judaism

Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War planted the seeds for profound dissension among the Jewish people that exists to this day.

These were just some of the sobering words that Rabbi Donniel Hartman told close to 100 attendees at a recent salon at the home of Debbie and Naty Saidoff in Bel Air.

Hartman is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a pluralistic research and education center focused on deepening the quality of Jewish life both in Israel and the Diaspora.

His 2016 book, “Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself,” examines why Judaism, Christianity and Islam fall short of their professed goals of creating people of high moral standards.

At the Saidoffs’ salon, though, Hartman focused on how to navigate the dissension that exists as a result of the victory in the Six-Day War. That division, he said, influences Israeli policies and attitudes toward Palestinians, Zionism and secular-vs.-religious Judaism. That year, Hartman argued, was when a new trinity of Jewish life was born: power, land and God.

“1967 was the first time you could associate the words Jews and power,” Hartman said. “Throughout most of history, we had never been a people of power.”

In suddenly being able to defend Israel, the Jewish people attained a new sense of pride. “With power, you could be proud to be Jewish. David defeating Goliath is a great story,” he said. “It restructured Jewish self-understanding.”

It is pride, Hartman said, that makes possible secular Judaism, with its view that “I don’t have to love Torah in order to be a Jew; [I] just want to belong to the Jewish people.”

But the line between pride and arrogance is thin, he said. “Power can make you put your civility on hold and it begins to undermine the civility of the State of Israel itself. One of the great challenges we face — more Jews are divided between Democrats and Republicans, pro-Trump, no-Trump, Likud, Labor — is to what extent you believe power is a blessing or a curse.”

Because of the victory in 1967, the Jewish people became for the first time not just the people of the book but also the people of the land, Hartman argued. “In 1947, we accepted borders where not one of our holy sites was under Jewish control — borders which were basically disconnected from the Israel of our past.”

“Power can make you put your civility on hold.” – Rabbi Donniel Hartman

But with the capture of Jerusalem, Schem, Hebron, Bethlehem, Shilo and Bet El (among others), Jews became the people of the land. “For secular people, it became, ‘Now I want to be Jewish, not because I want to be part of Torah. I don’t need a synagogue or Torah. The land creates a connection to my identity.’ ”

The people who took the idea of land most seriously, though, Hartman said, were religious Zionists. “They always believed that when am Yisra’el (the people of Israel) lived in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), that would bring about the Moshiach (messiah).”

Just like power, Hartman argued, land is a great gift. “But is it a means or an end?” Nobody, he said, wants to go back to pre-1967 borders. “We don’t want to live in a world where our existence is precarious, but when means and end get switched, you have a dilemma.”
1967 started the discourse on land — a conversation Hartman called one of the most central in Jewish life. “A whole generation of Jews says, ‘I want to talk to you about Israel, but what about the occupation?’ And you can say, ‘How can I occupy my own land?’ ”

For Hartman, what matters is precisely how much land, what Jews should do with that land, and what happens when other people are living on that land.

“There were 1 million Palestinians living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River in 1967,” he said. “Today, there are between 4 and 6 million [depending on your political point of view]. How do you deal with that? Is compromise possible? So, has land become an end or a means? And how do we talk about that?”
God always has been a problem for Jews, Hartman said, because in the Bible Jews were the chosen people God freed from Egypt. But the God of the Bible created an expectation that reality never fulfilled, he said. “For Jews, God is phenomenal in the past and in the future, but it’s in the present that we’re having some difficulties.”

In the face of so much tragedy, the Jewish tradition embraced the notion of a world to come, since that faith helped maintain the belief that God still loves the Jewish people, Hartman said.

“But it’s in 1967 that God returns fully,” he said. “We can now say that God loves us, that he created a miracle. It was the victory after three weeks of terror when we thought a second Holocaust would happen.”

“Feeling loved by God is a nice thing, but post-’67 there begins to enter Israeli politics a sense of ‘I don’t have to worry about the seat of power; I live by different concerns.’ Today, Israel’s Givati Brigade goes to war with a badge that says ‘God is with you.’ Is that a gift or a challenge? Is it good that our soldiers believe God is fighting with them?”

Addressing the challenges posed by power, land and God is “crucial to moving forward and learning how to talk to each other,” Hartman said. He spoke of how Jews are constantly “shushing” one another, challenging others’ right to speak unless they share the same views.

While most in the audience praised the presentation, one attendee pushed back, saying that, while after 1967 Israel held Jews together, Jews who oppose Israeli policies today are “the best transmitters of anti-Semitism.”

Hartman responded, “The Jewish people don’t get to tell people you have to be connected to Israel because without that we’re facing a new black hole of global anti-Semitism. We don’t get to make Israel important through convincing everybody that the end is coming. We have to do it by having an Israel that inspires everyone.”

Photo by Dusty St. Amand

Latter Day Jew Wants Jews to Hear His Story of Love and Conversion

“I was raised Mormon, poor, in the Midwest; turned out kind of gay, got a little cancer, then converted to Judaism. Try putting all of that in a Tinder profile,” writer-comedian H. Alan Scott quips in the trailer for “Latter Day Jew,” a documentary-in-progress about his life’s journey.

The film will follow Scott, 35, as he prepares for his bar mitzvah at the Reform Temple Akiba in Culver City on Nov. 9.

In the trailer, Scott stumps a prospective party planner when he jokes, “How do you feel about a public bris?”

In his Silver Lake apartment, the comedian turned serious when asked why he was drawn to Judaism.

“I love the questioning, that I have freedom of thought, that I can question God, that I’m belonging to a community,” he said. “And I find Shabbat to be a very beautiful, spiritual sort of ‘timeout.’ Of course, I just also love challah bread.”

Scott was sitting in his living room, which sported an Israeli flag, books on Judaism and the Jewish icons he has loved since childhood (Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Nora Ephron and Lenny Bruce). One of his arms was adorned with a tattoo of TV’s “The Golden Girls,” including Bea Arthur, another of Scott’s Jewish celebrity fetishes. (He has a podcast devoted to “Golden Girls.”) His black-and-white cat, Frasier — named for another of his favorite shows — wore a magenta collar affixed with a gold-sequined bow tie.

Scott grew up in not-very-Mormon Kirkwood, Mo., a St. Louis suburb where, he said, “people would ask me if I had three moms.”

In a telephone interview, his one and only mother, Kathleen Giamanco, said she was abandoned by her parents at the age of 8, sent to an orphanage, and then adopted by a devout Mormon family. She said the Mormon upbringing she gave her son was much less strict than how she was raised.

Yet, Scott chafed at the beliefs of the Mormon church, especially its emphasis on the afterlife. “That’s a waste of time, because we’re here right now,” he said. “I’d rather focus on what I’m having for dinner.”

Scott’s baptism, at age 12, was hardly a religious experience. Decked out in a white robe too tight for his chubby adolescent physique, he was lowered into a hot tub by a hunky young missionary. “I wasn’t thinking about anything except that my head was just a couple of inches away from this attractive man’s member,” he said.

Scott’s baptism, at age 12, was hardly a religious experience.

Later, while studying at DePaul University in Chicago, Scott confided to his Jewish academic counselor that he was drawn to Judaism. She promptly forwarded him to local rabbis and Scott began reading about the religion in earnest. He continued his studies into his 20s, while working as a stand-up comedian in New York.

He thought he had plenty of time to convert — until he began feeling a persistent pain in his groin. Just after he moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2012, Scott was diagnosed with testicular cancer and endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy.

It was at that time he decided to convert to Judaism, he said, not because the cancer made him face his mortality but “because I had the time. There was nothing grounding me and I felt lost.” He also thought the time was right to convert because he aspired to become a father one day and wanted to raise his child in a religiously grounded home.

His Jewish psychiatrist suggested he reach out to Rabbi Zach Shapiro at Temple Akiba, who happens to be gay.

“H. Alan asked me if it was common for a young, single male to convert to Judaism, and I said, ‘No, it’s not,’ ” Shapiro recalled. “He’s an incredible young soul with lots of questions.”

Temple Akiba Cantor Lonee Frailich agreed: “To see this particular person on such a unique and different journey — and do it with such grace and humor — is a beautiful thing.”

While there are no statistics on the number of former Mormons who have converted to Judaism, Rabbi Emeritus Fred Wenger of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City — that city’s largest synagogue — said he has presided over the conversions of about 60 former Mormons over the past few decades.

Devout Mormons feel an affinity for Jews, in part, because of their own exodus, due to religious discrimination, from upstate New York to the Midwest to Salt Lake City, Wenger said.

Andrew Reed, a Mormon and a professor of Jewish studies at Brigham Young University, noted that the Mormon church — formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — donated land for two Jewish cemeteries in Salt Lake City in the 1860s, as well as space for local Jews to hold High Holy Days services. The church’s love for the land of Israel also led its leaders to send an emissary to then-Palestine in the 1940s.

But, Reed said, there have been some rifts between the Jewish and Mormon communities, one of which resulted from Mormon church members’ pursuit in years past of their belief that they could posthumously baptize Holocaust victims such as Anne Frank.

Wenger said he has spoken to church officials about discontinuing Mormons’ proselytizing efforts aimed at Jewish youths.

Scott said he also took issue with the posthumous baptisms, as well as the church’s support of California’s Proposition 8, approved by voters in 2008, which would have banned same-sex marriage. A federal court in 2010 ruled the proposition unconstitutional.

About two years ago in Los Angeles, Scott professed his commitment to Judaism before a beit din, or rabbinical court, and then immersed in the mikveh at American Jewish University to complete his conversion.

“I love the questioning, that I have freedom of thought, that I can question God.” – H. Alan Scott

After he emerged from the water, Scott recalled, he started to shake and cry. Initially, he thought he was having a panic attack. “I kept thinking, ‘What have I done? Have I gone too far?’ ” he said. “But then I realized that it was this complete embracing of the history of Judaism and Jews. It felt so right.”

Thereafter, Scott struggled to understand how he could be “a good Jew and give back to the community.” He attended retreats of the Jewish organization Asylum Arts and, among other efforts, twice visited Israel, where he met with gay activists.

Then he met with director Aliza Rosen, who had created a CBS series on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey that Scott wanted to feature on his “Talking Crime” podcast.

Rosen recalled that during their first dinner together, she was “completely distracted because he was wearing this very prominent Magen David necklace. I asked, ‘What’s the deal with the Jewish star?’ He went on to tell me his whole story. I put down my fork and said, ‘We’re making a documentary.’ ”

Scott, who writes about gay issues and other topics for publications such as Newsweek, said he is saving jokes about becoming Jewish for his upcoming one-man show, which will be filmed as part of the documentary. He quips that his conversion means he’s finally gone Hollywood.

“In doing this documentary, I want to create a story for the Jewish community,” he said. “I want it to be an affirming story about what’s great about being a Jew.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 12: Actor Jeffrey Tambor is photographed at the summer Television Critics Association for Portrait Session on July 12, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Maarten de Boer/Contour by Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Jeffrey Tambor

Festival Honoree Jeffrey Tambor Reveals How ‘Transparent’ Brought Him Back to His Jewish Roots

Jeffrey Tambor has won two Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for playing transgender matriarch Maura Pfefferman in the Amazon Prime series “Transparent.” On Nov. 5, he will receive another honor: the Israel Film Festival’s Achievement in Television Award at the festival’s opening-night gala at the Steve Tisch Cinema Center at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.

In a telephone interview with the Journal, Tambor, 73, discussed the tribute, the ways playing Maura has changed him, and how a fictional trip to Israel in “Transparent” reconnected him with his real-life Jewish roots.

Jewish Journal: What does this award mean to you?

Jeffrey Tambor: When I first got the news, I was shocked. I was really stunned by it. I went, “Aw, shucks, do I deserve this?” But I will take it! It’s such a huge honor. I thought of my mom and dad — they’d be so pleased. I saw the [clip] reel they put together and it’s astounding. But what stood out was the number of weight changes I’ve had. And you can see the hairline recede.

JJ: Have you attended the festival before?

JT: No. And I’ve never been to Israel.

JJ: Didn’t you go there to shoot “Transparent” this season?

JT: We weren’t able to go because of scheduling and shooting reasons. Only a second unit went to shoot some external scenes. The [Western] Wall was built on the backlot at Paramount. No one would have known. As a Jew, I wanted to go [to Israel] so very much — it’s a life goal. But I felt as if we did go. And I felt changed by it. That moment at the Wall was one of the most astonishing days of my acting life. I completely burst into tears because they made it look so authentic, with the background artists praying against the Wall. It was very transformative, like an awakening. This whole year [of “Transparent”] got me more in touch with my Jewish roots, shocked me awake. It’s ironic that Maura led the way, but I’m much more connected than I’ve ever been.

JJ: Do you go to synagogue? Pray more?

JT: No, I have my own way of expressing my Judaism. I’m just more in touch, more interested, more spiritual. My connection is much more strong.

JJ: What memories stand out from your Jewish childhood?

JT: I went to cheder [Hebrew school] in San Francisco at Temple Beth Shalom in the early 1950s. We put a quarter in for planting trees [in Israel] every week. My bar mitzvah ceremony was beautiful but a little stressful. It was a long haftarah. I could read Hebrew well, but I opened the Torah for the first time and there were no diphthongs or vowels, like we studied in cheder. And nobody told me that the congregation would say “amen” at the end of each phrase. That threw me off track. So I went off book at my first performance.

JJ: What does it mean to you to star in the most Jewish show on TV?

JT: People come up to me and say it’s spot-on. I love it. Sometimes we’re allowed to ad lib a little bit and these Yiddishisms that I didn’t know that I knew come out. In one scene, I was signaling to Judith Light and I said, “Farmach da pisk.” It means be quiet, shut your mouth. I’m channeling my parents, who spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to know what was going on.

JJ: Where would you like to see “Transparent” go from here?

JT: I don’t know — I ask them not to tell me because I want to be surprised. What I can say is what Maura finds out this season about her family will change her and connect her more to her Jewish roots. The whole family is transformed. It’s a journey, a road. We all start out in ignorance, thinking we know where we’re going, but we don’t. We all think Judaism is this or that, but it’s older and wiser than I or my character ever knew.

JJ: “Arrested Development” is coming back to Netflix. Any details?

JT: No, but I can say that it’s [creator Mitch Hurwitz’s] best season yet. It’s hilarious. He’s pulled out all the stops. I think playing Maura has given my acting strokes a little more color, and I think Oscar and George [twins played by Tambor on “Arrested Development”] are better as a result. We’ll finish in a few weeks, and around Jan. 29, we start the fifth season of “Transparent.” So this is a very interesting time for me, a very lucky time.

JJ: You have some movies coming up. Tell me about “Magic Camp.”

JT: I play the owner and head magician. I’ve never done magic, and it was not done with special effects. I had trouble. I remember the rabbit in the hat looking at me like, “Just pull me out, schmuck!” There was a certain trick with a cane that drove me crazy. But they trained me and I got pretty good at it. A magician came to the house to work with me and he performed for my family. It was one of the most wonderful afternoons we’ve ever had.

JJ: You’re also the voice of God in the animated film “Adventures of Drunky.”

JT: It’s the story of Job. My God is a little ironic. He’s Old Testament with a malevolent, satiric bent. I did a play called “J.B.” in college, by Archibald MacLeish, and I played Job. I went from Job to God.

JJ: Did you ever think you’d have so much success later in life?

JT: When I was in repertory theater in Detroit, Mich., another actor read my palm and said, “It’s going to happen for you, but very, very late.” Boy, was he right. Now I get the pleasure of playing Maura. What an honor. I thought it was going to be Lear, but it’s Maura Pfefferman. I’m very lucky. This is what I wanted to do all my life. I think we all come into this life for a purpose, and sometimes it gets revealed and sometimes it doesn’t, but I’m glad I answered the call. I have a wife and four kids — 12, 10 and twins, 8 — and just watching them evolve is one of the deepest pleasures of my life. They’re my teachers and my inspirers. I couldn’t be happier.

What the Movie ‘Titanic’ Taught Me About God

As Tolstoy might have observed, every secular Jewish family is secular in its own way.

When I was a baby, my parents chose to settle far from the neighborhood where the synagogues were. “Why,” my father asked, “would we choose to live in the Jewish ghetto?”

On the other hand, each spring my father led a brief seder from the Maxwell House haggadah. Each fall I asked for a Christmas tree and was refused. And, I had a bat mitzvah.

I always will be grateful for my loving, supportive, open-minded, secular Jewish parents. They didn’t flinch when I announced my career choice: poet, with a backup plan of musician. And they had no issue with my dating non-Jews, or women for that matter.

But it was a different story when, in my early 20s, I found myself falling in love with the most unlikely partner of all: God.

How did this happen? I blame it on a combination of two things — a semester-abroad program and the movie “Titanic.”

It happened in my senior year of college in New York City. I recently had returned from a semester “abroad” on a schooner in the middle of the ocean. This was a surprising turn of events. I had never been on a sailboat before and, in fact, I was frightened by deep water. But I had always been drawn to what frightened me, so when a friend casually mentioned a semester-abroad program on a tall ship, I signed up.

Those six weeks at sea were full of wonder. We learned celestial navigation — aiming sextants at the moon — and took turns cooking dinner for our shipmates in the tiny galley. Some nights, dolphins trailed the boat, braiding their green bioluminescent streams through the water. Recorded music was not allowed, and when I played my violin on the deck beneath the stars, my shipmates gathered around me in silence.

I returned to New York for my senior year with arms like Popeye’s and a new perspective on the miracle that is our planet. It was from this place that I took the subway to 72nd Street and bought a ticket to the newly released “Titanic” movie. With sea air still clinging to my clothes, the story may have felt more real to me than to some of my fellow New Yorkers.

So when the Titanic hit the iceberg, splitting her hull like a banana, and when half of the ship began to sink rapidly, pulling the other half after it, I was beyond terrified. It was all too easy to imagine myself on that deck, knowing the freezing water awaited.

I watched, unable to move. On the part of the deck that had not yet sunk, a string quartet played. Beside them, a preacher cried out: “Save us, God!” Shaking, shivering, screaming, holding his arms to the sky: “Dear God, save us!”

I knew with utter clarity that in the moment of my greatest fear I would have put down my violin and gone to that preacher and prayed with him.

When I left the theater, I walked back uptown on Broadway, that river of taxis trailing red lights behind them. A light, cold rain fell.

I was full of questions.

I wouldn’t be seeking a miraculous rescue.

Who was this God I would be calling out to? I wouldn’t be seeking a miraculous rescue. It was about something larger than myself. My impulse to call out had to do with accepting the power of the sea, the vast sky we had sailed beneath, night after night. And it had something to do with relinquishing my own sense of self, joining something beyond me.

But if my instinct was to orient myself to this mystery in the most heightened circumstances, I thought, why wait for a disaster? Why not call out to God in joy? And for that matter, why not think about God in even the most casual moments, like walking home from a movie?

And so it was that I began to fall in love with God. I did not know what that meant. All I knew was that I was at the beginning of a new voyage.

Twenty years after that rainy night on Broadway, I’m still on that voyage.

And I’m still in love.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on a verse from the weekly parsha

Parsha Noach, Genesis 8:20-22:

“And Noah built an altar to the Lord, and he took of all the clean animals and of all the clean fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself, “I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done. So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”

Rabbi Nicole Guzick, Sinai Temple

I can only begin to imagine the destruction Noah witnesses while living in the ark. The world weeps. Outside, humanity drowns in chaos, and inside the ark, Noah and his family have one choice to make: succumb to the fear of a now unknown world or re-enter the world and rebuild anew. And with the building of an altar, Noah’s choice is clear. Time and time again, in the face of desolation and despair, it is within the human spirit to rebuild and repair. As difficult as it sounds, even as death knocks on the door of the ark, Noah chooses to thank God for the gift of today. 

It is God’s reaction that is most astounding. It seems in response to Noah’s courage and resilience, God whispers, “If you’re not running away, I guess I won’t, either.”

Life continuously presents challenges and frustrations. Noah’s choice is the one we make daily: drown or rebuild. Look out at the world and determine that we are no match for the uncertainty and unpredictability of our life’s course, or wholeheartedly remember that our souls have the capacity for constant growth and resurgence. We are meant to get out of the ark and live.

Perhaps the most comforting message is that in life’s tumultuous journey, we are not alone. God is reassured by our willingness to survive. It is a partnership of faith — humanity’s faith that God will guide us through the murky waters and God’s faith that humanity will continue to swim.

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, Jewish Mindfulness Network

We are taught that God is all-knowing and constant. Yet, in our verse, we experience a God that changes. The reason God gives for sending the devastating flood in the first place, wiping out humans, is because humans “act in corrupt ways and incline toward evil.” Yet, after the flood, God’s response is different. God recognizes that humans still have evil tendencies but proclaims acceptance and vows to never wipe out humans again! The people are the same. God changes. God’s severe judgment gives way to compassion and commitment. Perhaps God accepts the reality of human nature and decides to love the people, anyway. To cement this new relationship, God confirms the stability of the seasons, and the sure cycle of day and night. Humans participate in this order by planting and harvesting. In these three verses, we can learn two profound lessons. First, if God’s heart can change from harsh damnation and give way to compassion, perhaps so can ours. Second, we can be conscious and grateful each day for the constancy of the natural order that we so often take for granted. In the midst of darkness, it is of great comfort that the sun comes up in the morning. In times of evil, the seasons continue to turn. Where (or against whom) in your life do you harbor judgment that your heart might turn toward compassion? Today, how might you appreciate being held by the rhythm of life itself?

David Brandes, film producer and screenwriter

On the sixth day of creation, God creates man and is pleased. But in the next few chapters of Genesis, it’s all downhill for man. Adam and Eve disobey God and are expelled from the “Garden.” Cain slays Abel.  The rebellious generation of the Tower of Babel descends into perversity and evil. God’s cataclysmic response: the flood, in which man, animals and nature are decimated. As the story progresses, Noah leaves the ark and offers sacrifices to God. God accepts the sacrifices but reveals a damning observation: “Man is possessed of an evil nature from youth.”

This bleak story raises troubling questions. If God knew that man was flawed, why save him? Why not destroy everyone and start again? And for us mortals: If we are evil by nature, doesn’t that leave us in a state of hopelessness and despair?

If we look at the Bible as drama, and man as the ultimate flawed hero, a resolve emerges. The first part of the story, man’s ugly history, is the setup presented to explain and justify the Torah given by God to Moses later in the narrative. At its core, the law is about dealing with our fellow man, to make life pleasant for all, to overcome the evil inclination within.  For it is in the laws of the Torah that the redemption of man rests. Elegantly put by Hillel, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your friend. …  This is the whole Torah.”

Redemption is hope.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director of the Sephardic Educational Center

Dear God,

In the beginning, you created heaven, earth and everything else, and you “saw that it was good.” You created me, and you “saw that it was very good.” But just a few chapters later, I went from being “very good” to becoming the source of your deepest regret. I was continuously thinking evil thoughts, so you decided to blot out my existence. Save for one “righteous” person, I wouldn’t be here.

After your destructive deluge, the sole survivor expressed his gratitude by offering a sacrifice. Your reaction was perplexing: You’ll never bring on another destructive flood, because “man’s imagination is evil from his youth.” But is it not you, dear God, who created me this way? Why the sudden epiphany? It took creating and nearly wiping me out to realize that I’m doomed to live with this built-in factory defect?

No wonder the “human condition” is so harsh. It’s not surprising that in the great 2 1/2- year talmudic debate on human existence, Shamai’s pessimistic conclusion — “It would have been better for man not to have been created” — ultimately won the day.

Be that as it may, I’m alive and here, leaving me no choice but to follow Hillel’s optimistic position: “Examine my deeds carefully.” In other words, I’ll try to make morals, ethics and love, as per your commandments, my sole mission on this earth. Despite the defect, dear God, I’ll try to be the best I could be.    


Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, senior editor at

This is amazing. Everyone expects a miracle to be unexpected. It’s gotta break the patterns of nature. The stuff cinematic eye candy is made of.

But here is a divine promise for the greatest of miracles: The innumerable atoms, cells, organisms and celestial bodies that make up this world will harmonize into cyclical seasons so that we can plant and harvest, plan and build, raise our children and tell them to take care of this place.

That is wondrous. The more we understand, the more wondrous it becomes. Why should anything be constant in a world defined by change?

When the sun rises just a little south of where it rose yesterday, when the trees shed their suntime wear and squirrels obsess over hoarding seeds, nobody sees a miracle. Winter comes and goes, life erupts again in green, yellow, purple and red — still, nobody is surprised.

But a Jew makes a blessing in the morning to “He who spreads the earth over the waters.”

Get that? You went to sleep, there was a floor beneath your feet. You wake up, it’s still there. So you say, “Gevalt! What a miracle! God, I love how You do this!”

A Jew grabs a sandwich and makes a blessing for the miracle of “bringing bread out of the earth.” Amazing. Earth to bread! You’re eating a miracle!

So why aren’t we living in constant wonder?

That is the days of Moshiach — when we will be amazed each morning by the rising of the sun.

How Judaism Helps Us Regain Our Balance

Each period of history has a title bestowed by historians, one meant to reveal some key characteristic of that age. Thus, the medieval period is the Age of Faith; the Enlightenment is the Age of Reason; and the 19th century is the Age of Progress. The name for our age, I would venture to guess, is the Age of Busyness.

Everybody is busy. Americans routinely complain that they work too many hours — and they do. They complain that they have too little time to spend with their children — and they’re right. They complain that they have little time left for quiet reflection, for learning and for celebrating.

Well, actually, they don’t complain about that — because they don’t have enough time to notice its absence, or because they’re so busy that they no longer miss it.

But part of being human, part of living our lives fully, is the inner need to grow and to explore and to play. Contemporary psychology tells us that people continue to grow throughout every phase of their lives, and that the playfulness of children continues into adulthood, as well. To be human is to play, to change and to grow.

Where, in our serious culture of business, work and productivity — or in its flip side of infantile recreation and foolish escapism — do we make room for adult play, adult study and adult growth? America’s Achilles’ heel is its excessive busyness, which spawns equally excessive foolishness to blow off steam.

We’ve lost our balance.

The place to recapture what we have lost is to be found in Judaism’s unparalleled ability to sanctify time. Through the observance of Shabbat, of holy days and festivals, our tradition provides a timeout for adults — not to lose ourselves in fantasies or escape, but to rediscover ourselves and the depths of our own creativity and love. We immerse ourselves in sacred time in order to live better and more fully during the rest of our days.

Now that the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are behind us and we emerge out of our sukkah booths back into our busy, contemporary lives, our immersion in rest, renewal and community is our passport back into a better way of living our lives. Instead of “spending time,” Judaism gives us the gift of learning to savor it.

The Talmud teaches that “rejoicing on a festival is a religious duty.” What a remarkable idea! A day devoted to a special kind of joy. The rejoicing of the festival has little in common with sitting in a dark room staring passively at an on-screen fantasy, or risking life and limb to thrill ourselves into forgetting what drones we’ve become. The rejoicing of the festival is not one of escaping, but one of returning to our own centers — our own families, friends, community and God.

As it says in the Talmud: “Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘One has nothing else to do on a festival except to eat, drink, sit and study.’ Rabbi Joshua said, ‘Divide it — devote half the day to eating and drinking, and half of it to the house of prayer and study.’”

Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships.

What a fascinating way to rejoice. Recall that the word “recreation” involves creating something anew — in this case, our own souls. By spending part of the day together in prayer, song and Torah study, we rebuild our identities as messengers of God and as bearers of God’s covenant. We restore our sense of belonging in a specific synagogue community and in the Jewish people worldwide. Having restored that essential base, the rabbis of the Talmud then tell us to take the rest of the day for feasting and spending time with those we love.

What a marvelous blend of devotion and relaxation, of heightened identity and then simply being.

What this regimen of holy days and festivals makes clear is that mastery of our work — rather than allowing our work to master us — requires setting clear boundaries and limits to our chores and our work. Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships. By rejoicing with one another on these holy days, festivals and on Shabbat, we declare ourselves to be free in the service of holiness and goodness, of Torah and togetherness.

After the end of the fall holy days, take the lessons of the shofar, the fast and the sukkah with you into our busy world. Remember that we each are children of royalty, and we thrive best when we thrive together. 

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.

US President Donald Trump (L) and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner take part in a bilateral meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (not seen) in Villa Taverna, the US ambassador's residence, in Rome on May 24, 2017. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Trump’s ACA Order Creates Health-Care Chaos

So now we face yet another assault on the health and safety of our nation due to the barrage of efforts by the current administration to dismantle certain provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This creates great risk and chaos within a system that is aimed at providing both proactive and reactive care to individuals in our country.

As a Jewish community, we should be outraged at the callous attempt to shirk society’s obligation to care for one another, both in terms of last week’s decision to cut subsidy payments to insurers (“cost-sharing reduction payments”) and the ruling to withhold the ACA’s promise of no-cost contraceptive coverage. As conversations and negotiations change by the hour, we are both encouraged to learn of bipartisan cooperation to save the cost-sharing reduction payments while at the same time disappointed with the administration’s insensitive statements and recommendations to eliminate someone’s health care.

This supersedes all other commandments, as it is inferred from one of the most well-known rabbinic teachings, the concept of pikuach nefesh, saving a soul, found in Mishnah Yoma. The text suggests that saving the life of yourself or another is so great that one is permitted to break the laws of Shabbat for the safety of human life. We must interpret this to modern day and protect the lives of millions who will be affected by attempts to cripple the Affordable Care Act. To dismantle a life-saving system is antithetical to the concept of pikuach nefesh.

Furthermore, the book of Leviticus (19:16) teaches that one should not stand idly by the blood of their neighbor. Many among us acknowledge the ACA is not a perfect system and does not go far enough to provide adequate health care to our entire society. Yet, to make provisions that seek to strip health care from any individual is to create a situation in which we as a society will be standing by the blood of our neighbor.

Although negotiations are ongoing, last week’s initial decision by the Trump administration to sign an executive order sends a signal to the insurance companies that their participation in the ACA is not cost-effective for their company. As insurance companies cease their participation in the ACA, it places many people in our society at great risk of losing their health care, putting their lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk.   

The Jewish community must look at the current health care debate and ask ourselves: Is the Trump administration seeking to save lives, or, by suggesting that we eliminate the cost-sharing reduction payments, are its actions creating a risky environment that will harm lives?

The answer is clear. We as Jews have a responsibility to care for one another. If the future health care of an individual is unknown, then we are ignoring our commandment of pikuach nefesh, to save lives.

It is the responsibility of us all to ensure the health and safety of one another.

The administration is taking a further step by issuing rules that would allow employers and insurers to withhold the ACA’s promise of no-cost contraceptive coverage. This is a direct attack on women, who should be the only decision makers for their bodies. Many have celebrated this recent ruling as a win for religious freedom but many organizations have a contrary view.

Any government-backed initiative that allows for discrimination based on religious belief is an affront to our religious freedoms. A provision in Trump’s order puts women’s reproductive health decisions in the hands of their employers and insurers. Our country has a long legacy of religious freedom, and recent attempts to incorporate discrimination into the legislative process based on religious freedom are antithetical to the core beliefs of our religion and the core beliefs of this nation.

We have a strong and healthy tradition of debate and dissent within the Jewish framework, but it seems clear that the dismantling of the ACA creates a dangerous situation in which the health care of many in our society will be in the balance. We must go beyond offering a misheberach for those in need of healing. The ACA and other initiatives that seek to provide sustainable and reliable health care to all link our prayers to our actions as we seek to truly heal those in need. 

Rabbi Joel Simonds is the founding executive director of the Jewish Center for Justice.

People play instruments during a Tashlich ceremony, a Rosh Hashanah ritual to symbolically cast away sins, during the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration on Venice Beach. Sept. 21. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS.

Sexual Harassment: Is There a Jewish Answer?

When Harvey Weinstein’s long and horrible history was made public, women spanning several continents were disgusted and outraged — but not surprised. We’ve known for eons that this pattern of male brutality repeats itself in any professional setting, no matter the political or social context. But will it ever change?

It’s easy to despair. Tablet’s notorious article — calling Weinstein “a deeply Jewish kind of pervert” — is laughable: Men do it everywhere, to everyone. (The author of the Tablet piece has since apologized.)

In Israel, the scandals have spanned so many social and institutional arenas, that I have questioned whether there might be an Israeli angle. Israel comes to sexual harassment through its specific blend of military-machoism, high social aggression, and history of cover-ups among the tight male military cadres, Indeed, 1 in 6 female soldiers say they have been sexually harassed during their military service, according to a survey by the Israel Defense Forces.

But for those on the receiving end, it’s all the same sleaze. The reaction of women everywhere is similar: With each new revelation, a fresh geyser of awful stories erupts, experiences that many couldn’t summon the strength to reveal at the time. We are in a phase of releasing pressure that has festered inside us for decades.

But there must be a different phase ahead. It will be a stage of evolution in which workplace norms foster positive and healthy relationships, normal human tension notwithstanding.

No one should buy the whining about a dystopian, sterilized work environment. In fact, the foundations of the future already exist.

Dozens of countries have a legal basis for preventing and apprehending sexual harassment at work. Laws can be preventive and punitive. Just as important, they provide symbolic social legitimization of women’s experiences.

In Israel, robust laws against sexual harassment in 1998 led to a stream of accusations and due process that have toppled men from a range of powerful positions, including a president. With all the emotional pain the women endure in the telling, that’s progress.

But sexual-power dynamics are so complex, the risks, shame, rage and trauma so fearsome, that it will take more than laws to make a real change. Many women never even complain, and manipulative men just keep going, feigning shock when exposed. Those men need to change the deep foundations of their interaction with women.

Impossible, antithetical to human nature, utopian? Nonsense.

Great models of constructive, vibrant and supportive male-female relations at work already exist. Let’s talk about those, too.

My first professional mentor hired me when I was too young to believe in my own skills. In addition to working together in an intense environment where I had a huge learning curve, we also went for dinner and drank wine — as adults who appreciated and respected each other. The experience helped me build a professional confidence that, in those early years, I never imagined I could muster.

Over the years, in addition to the jerks I’ll never forgive, there have been excellent relations with creative, collaborative men that I’ll never forget. We can work, joke and drink coffee — or even beer — together without me feeling threatened, without them fearing accusations. 

Why? I believe genuinely supportive, honest men (and women) think differently from manipulative predators. Upright men view women — and hopefully everyone — as individuals, professionals, and most of all as people to be heard. They are in a dialogue, not a monologue.

People in dialogue listen to one another when building a platonic professional relationship, no matter how powerful one of them is. If an attraction happens — and it’s natural — they are much less likely to have “misunderstandings” of the kind that drove Israeli journalist Ari Shavit to maul a reporter from this paper during a professional meeting — which she exposed and which led to his downfall. They look at a woman and believe she desires them, because they see only their own lie. She doesn’t exist.

While the problem certainly isn’t a Jewish one, there is a Jewish voice that can help. Martin Buber taught the value of seeing the other clear through to the soul, as the basis for the art of dialogue. That’s a big, spiritual change from rapacious egotism. We can do it. 

Dahlia Scheindlin is a writer at +972 magazine and a policy fellow at Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. She lives in Israel.

Photo by REUTERS/David W Cerny

What Is the Real Meaning of Tikkun Olam?

Rabbi Laura Geller:

My earliest Jewish memory was of our temple’s social action committee meeting at our home. I snuck downstairs and overheard the grown-ups talking about straws. The next morning, I asked my dad why. He explained that a straw was a white person who bought a home from another white person in order to sell it to a Black person, and that this was one strategy to desegregate neighborhoods. I remember asking, “But I thought it was a Jewish meeting. What does this have to do with being Jewish?” His response was quick and clear: “This is what it means to be Jewish.”

This was many years before I ever heard the phrase tikkun olam, which has come to mean social justice. But that isn’t how the term was understood throughout Jewish tradition. Among its traditional meanings: a legal process to correct an unfairness; the establishment of a world that is sustainable; the kabbalistic notion that what an individual can do not only has an impact on the world but also on God; and the vision of the Aleinu prayer that evil will be someday be eliminated and the world will be perfected under the Divine order.

But none of those concepts is what Reform Jews mean when they use the phrase. Nor are those meanings what more than half of American Jews mean when they report that “working for social justice and equality” is an essential part of “being Jewish,” while only 19 percent say ritual observance is essential.

For me, meaningful ritual observance — like Shabbat, kashrut, Torah study — and social justice go hand-in-hand.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn:

Thank you so much for sharing that early experience. It does reflect a social care, empathy and concern that is at the core of the Jewish faith. Rav Kook once wrote, “Love needs to fill up the heart — for ALL.” Do we disagree on the essential role of tikkun olam? I don’t think so. My community, a vibrant Orthodox one, does understand that being Jewish entails a heavy responsibility toward making this world better. However, two points must be clarified.

First, we very much adhere to the complete refrain: L’taken olam bamalchut Shaddai — “to repair the world under the kingdom of G-d.” Meaning, our definition of tikkun olam must emanate from the religious sphere. Social justice is considered social justice only so much as it adheres to principles in Torah and as understood by our tradition and sages. This means that what we fight for is not dictated by liberal or conservative values or whatever is the “hot” social justice issue of the time. Rather, we ought to fight for the pressing social issues of the generation that are congruent to the Torah’s understanding of morality.

Second, yes, we too appreciate the importance of social justice. Nevertheless, our work in the realm of social justice does not override our emphasis on religious practice development of the community and the individual. There is a tension here. On one hand the Talmud says, “adorn yourself and then adorn others” — I think the airplane-oxygen-mask analogy is appropriate here. And on the other hand, we could potentially wait our entire lifetime “perfecting” ourselves before concluding that “now we’re ready to help.”

How does your community view social justice issues that run against Torah values?

Rabbi Geller:

Reform Judaism discovers Torah values through the lens of essential principles, not through the halachic process (“principles in Torah as understood by our tradition and sages.”) We probably agree on the principles; where we disagree is the process by which decisions should be made.

For me, the essential principle of Torah is the one Ben Azzai articulates in his famous debate with Rabbi Akiva: that every human being — Jewish or not, like me or not, neighbor or not — is created in the image of God.

Tikkun olam means working to create a world where every human being can live as if he/she were created in God’s image. When I confront questions of social justice, I ask: What does it mean to respond in a way that acknowledges all human beings are created in the image of God? What other fundamental Jewish principles/values ought to illuminate a response?

An example: same-sex marriage. Halachah wrestles with the biblical prohibition against a man lying with a man as with a woman. Reform Judaism takes a different approach: If every person is created in the image of God, and if (here’s another principle) “it is not good for a person to be alone,” then our community ought to welcome committed partners of any gender to marry. So, I am delighted to officiate in an LGBTQ wedding.

Other issues? Immigration: Principles emerge from the many Torah verses reminding us that, because we were strangers in Egypt, we should not oppress a stranger, and the strangers residing with us should be like citizens. Principles also come from our history, like our families’ immigration stories.

Rabbi Einhorn:

Ideals, values and philosophy are truly understood when they are forced to enter the realm of the real. So that the reader can understand, our back-and-forth was interrupted by the horrific tragedy of the Las Vegas massacre. The religious and human sense of urgency to help in any way possible was, I suspect, no different between our communities. Lo saamod al dam re’echa (“do not stand by the blood of your friend”) compels us religiously to dedicate our mind, time and effort to helping in some way. But what if, G-d forbid, I feel nothing toward a certain cause? The religious mandate essentially says, “I could care less about your feeling, the world is on fire — go help!”

I know you look at Ben Azzai as the paradigm for our discussion. But I would actually look at Shamai. When the convert came to Shamai asking him to teach him the entire Torah on one foot, yes, Shamai was strict and asked him to leave. However, let us also acknowledge that Shamai is the one who taught “receive every person with a friendly countenance.” Even his embrace of the other is part of his understanding of din (law). In the same way, tikkun olam in the Orthodox community is as compelling as it is in your community. However, it is guided, defined and applied as per the historic rabbinic tradition and interpretation of the Torah. I will, perhaps, say it sharper: In my view, it is NOT a tikkun (rectification) for the olam (world) if we are involved in matters that run contrary to the Torah’s internal system, regardless of how sweet it may appear.

Rabbi Laura Geller is rabbi emerita at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is the dean of Yeshivat Yavneh in Los Angeles.

Women of the World Say: Enough

One of the quirks of publishing a weekly paper is that the news moves so fast that by the time you’re on the newsstand, everything can shift.  For this issue, we were preparing a cover story on “the complicity of silence” around the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal.

And then Sunday happened.

Actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter the words “Me too” and suggested that women who have faced sexual assault and harassment post “Me too” as a status. Well, within 24 hours, the words were repeated millions of times. Her tweet had more than 40,000 comments. On Facebook, more than 8.7 million users were posting or “talking” about it.

By the time we arrived at the office on Monday, the floodgates had opened. Instead of a complicity of silence, we were seeing the reverse — millions of women rising up and saying, Enough. No more silence. No more abuse. No more complicity.

A movement was unfolding before our eyes.

Our coverage shifted to reflect this fast-moving development. The story became larger than Harvey Weinstein and even larger than Hollywood. And it’s not new. Women are sharing incidents from their high school years, from college, from jobs. Women rabbis wrote about being harassed by colleagues and by congregants.

A movement was unfolding before our eyes.

First, we had to cover the event that precipitated these floodgates and explain how we got here. Senior writer Danielle Berrin does just that in her cover story on the Weinstein sex scandal and its many repercussions. We also asked Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman to share her thoughts on the #MeToo movement that has exploded across social media.

“The ocean of tears needs to evoke a sea change,” Zimmerman writes.

Will a sea change happen? Or will this movement evaporate until the next scandal or hurricane or terrorist attack comes along? In the coming weeks and months, the Journal will continue to keep an eye on this story and examine the role of our own community.

From Israel, one of our new contributors, Dahlia Scheindlin, asks if there’s a “Jewish answer” to the disease of sexual harassment. Her answer may surprise you.

While the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement were reverberating last week, the news kept churning.

Senior writer Eitan Arom reports on the devastating wildfires in Northern California and how the Jewish community is responding to the destruction at URJ Camp Newman. On our debate page, two experts argue the merits of President Donald Trump’s changes to the Affordable Care Act.

On a more uplifting note, Kelly Hartog covers a synagogue in Pico-Robertson that invites homeless people to engage with one another over a meal. They’ve been doing it every month for the past 13 years.

From Portland, Ore., Alicia Jo Rabins writes about how teaching the Hebrew alphabet connects her to her ancestors, while from Washington, D.C., Joshua Horwitz tells us why he’s not letting cynicism get in the way of his gun control activism.

Can Judaism help us regain our balance in a crazy world that is moving too fast? Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes about the special energy that greets us after a long month of Jewish holidays, and how that energy can help us attain that balance. Arianna Huffington shares her own ideas on the subject in our back-page Q-and-A.

And speaking of balance, this week we are trying something new — an exchange between denominations. Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn and Reform Rabbi Laura Geller engage in an email discussion around the “true meaning of tikkun olam.” The idea for this page came when someone said, “Instead of preaching civility, why don’t we give an example?”

Can Judaism help us regain our balance in a crazy world that is moving too fast?

Of course, we can’t forget food. In addition to a full serving of the arts, we have Yamit’s Table. Just as she was passionate last week about egg salad, this week Yamit Behar Wood devotes her culinary passion to the miracle of the phyllo dough. It seems as if every culinary tradition in the world has its own version of phyllo dough stuffed with unique flavors and ingredients. In this issue, Yamit shares a Bulgarian recipe from her childhood, the Spinach Banitsa.

In her own words: “Nothing beats a fresh, hot, crisp banitsa right out of the oven. NOTHING!”

Yes, even in a world where darkness strikes, there’s still room to emote over a good banitsa.

Shabbat shalom.

Renderings of the Howard and Levine Community Center at Valley Beth Shalom show the 18,000-square-foot building, which will feature a gymnasium.

If you build it, they will come: Valley Beth Shalom confident its new community center will serve its synagogue, students and beyond

Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) broke ground Sept. 7 on a new addition to its Ventura Boulevard campus, a community center that will include meeting rooms, a gym, a music room and a library — all to be used by the synagogue and its adjacent day school.

The Howard and Irene Levine Community Center, set to open in fall 2018, “gives VBS a chance to be a true community center for this part of the San Fernando Valley,” said Bart Pachino, executive director of VBS.

“We expect it to be a 16-hour-a-day building that we use after school hours for adult recreation, community events and adult education,” he said.

The 18,000-square-foot building will feature meeting spaces on the basement level, along with a ground-level gym with ample court space. It will replace an outdoor play area abutting Ventura Boulevard.

Pachino said the Conservative synagogue and the attached K-6 Harold M. Schulweis Day School have not seen major upgrades to their Encino location since the early 1990s.

Plans to expand and renovate the campus began to take shape some 15 years ago. By 2011, a master plan had been approved by the city of Los Angeles, Pachino said, but construction was put on hold because of the Great Recession. In 2015, with positive trends in the synagogue’s size and demographics, its leadership decided the time had come to modernize, Pachino said.

“Despite some of the larger negative demographic trends in Conservative Judaism, our community is getting younger and our membership is even up a bit over the last several years,” he said.

The synagogue’s membership now stands at more than 1,500 families, and 750 children attend the day school, preschool and Hebrew school operated by VBS.

“We believe in the Encino community as a key location for young Jewish families to continue to live in,” said Nancy Sher Cohen, a VBS past president and co-chair of the synagogue’s building committee. “And because of our location and our size, we think we can serve as a Jewish community center for the larger Valley.”

When VBS leaders began to approach potential donors in late 2015, community members “responded overwhelmingly,” she said.

Image courtesy of Abramson Teiger Architects.


Image courtesy of Abramson Teiger Architects.


“Our community understood the idea that we are planting the future of our Jewish community here in Encino in particular and Los Angeles in general,” she said.

By the time it broke ground, VBS had raised $26 million, with further fundraising planned for a slew of future building projects. After finishing the community center, the synagogue plans to renovate its entry pavilion, as well as its chapel and main library, according to Pachino.

Many of the leading donations came from young members, Cohen said, a sign of the synagogue’s continued health.

“Our view is if you provide what families want, they will be there for you — they will be there for each other,” she said.

VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein was optimistic about the synagogue’s future.

“We’re growing younger,” he said. “And we’re seeking to build facilities that will accommodate this new gen of young members and their families.”

Feinstein attributed the synagogue’s demographic trends to the welcoming environment it provides as well as the increasing isolation amid Southern California’s urban sprawl. The new community center at VBS aims to double down on that growth.

“Life in suburbia can be kind of lonely,” Feinstein said, “And there’s something to be said for a lifetime of community affiliation, and people have a sense, they have an intuition for that.”

Students Tzvi (left) and Iva comprise the inaugural two-student class at what will be known as Learning Circle of Los Angeles.

A need filled: Two determined moms take action to give students with special needs a Jewish education

On a recent overcast morning, Chaya Chazanow arrived with her 5-year-old son, Tzvi, at a sleepy Pico-Robertson storefront that has barred windows. Once inside, he sat quietly on the floor of a cozy classroom, playing with colorful blocks and Hebrew alphabet cards. A smiling behavioral therapist looked on.

“I toured a bunch of Jewish day schools, public schools, other nonpublic schools, and I just couldn’t find the right setting for him,” Chazanow said.

But now she has — the city’s first Jewish day school for children with special needs.

Tzvi was born with a rare genetic disorder that Chazanow declined to identify, but it resulted in physical disabilities, like trouble walking, as well as cognitive processing and executive functioning issues. Tzvi also is mostly nonverbal.

The nonprofit Friendship Circle Los Angeles (FCLA) operates out of the storefront, providing weekend and after-school Jewish and secular programming for children with special needs. Behind the unassuming facade, there’s a sprawling 17,000-square-foot facility with five classrooms, a shul and a wheelchair-accessible playground. Thanks to a Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles grant awarded last year, a sensory room for therapy is under construction. It will have matted floors and swingsets. Most of that space currently is rented out by a preschool.

At the moment, Tzvi and one other child are the only students in the new day school, which will be known as Learning Circle of Los Angeles. It occupies only one classroom, but there are plans to expand once the school attracts more kids. The staff is made up of a full-time behavioral therapist, a secular studies teacher, a Judaic studies teacher and other part-time therapists who pay weekly visits to the school.

FCLA’s educational director, Doonie Mishulovin, who puts together curriculum and teaches Judaic studies, has sympathy for parents like Chazanow who have trouble finding a day school for their children. 

“The pain of Jewish parents who don’t have a day school is so deep and so raw,” she said. “They’ve been kind of swept under the rug a bit by the community for a long time.”

Los Angeles has 37 accredited day schools recognized by the nonprofit Builders of Jewish Education (BJE). Not one of them specifically caters to students like Tzvi with moderate to severe disabilities. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Los Angeles Unified School District schools have to provide resources that day schools don’t. But after visits and research, Chazanow concluded that those resources constitute more of a “one-size-fits-all approach.”

Besides, she wanted her son to have a Jewish education. “It’s part of our family, rooted in our belief system,” she said.

Other major cities, including New York, Miami and Boston, offer heavily funded options, such as Boston’s Gateways: Access to Jewish Education program.

“Most parents have a choice where they send their kids to school,” Chazanow said. “For us, we weren’t really given a choice.”

Sarah R’bibo, a corporate lawyer living in North Hollywood, also was left without much of a choice. She said that after sending her first three kids to Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks, she was told by Emek administrators that they couldn’t meet the special needs of her fourth and youngest, Iva, who was born with cerebral palsy.

“I just thought my daughter deserves a Jewish education. There’s no reason why my other kids can go to a Jewish day school and she can’t,” R’bibo said. “It’s astonishing something doesn’t exist here. So, we decided to try to start something.”

Now, Iva shares a classroom with Tzvi, filling out the inaugural two-student class.

Their moms share a mission — to make sure the school succeeds. 

“We’ve wanted to do this for a long time, start a full-time school like this,” Mishulovin said. “We gave up for a while, until [Chazanow] came in here in April and said, ‘You have to do this for my son.’ Now, we’re doing it.”

R’bibo volunteers, handling legal matters and the lion’s share of fundraising. Chazanow, who also volunteers, runs the administrative side of things, while Mishulovin does a bit of everything, including teaching. 

Betty Winn, BJE’s director of its Center for Excellence in Day School Education, said she and others recognize the “tremendous need for something like this.” However, this isn’t the first attempt at having such a school, and Winn made it clear what the main obstacle will be.

“It’s challenging, mainly because it’s extremely expensive,” she said. “Facilities have to be developed. It needs a very organized initiative with heavy funding.”

So far, Chazanow, Mishulovin and R’bibo have raised $100,000 through donations. They estimate they’ll need $200,000 to cover all the costs of running the school for the first year. Beyond that, they’ve set goals to make the school unique and financially sustainable in its capacity to accommodate different special needs. They are working to compile a staff with more volunteers, teachers and therapists to form at least a 2-to-1 student-to-staff ratio; getting L.A. Unified home-school charter funding; and getting nonprofit status (currently, they are accepting tax-deductible donations at

They estimate tuition will be close to $18,000 per year.

By comparison, Emek, where R’bibo’s other children go to school, charges more than $12,000 in annual tuition. The tuition at some other day schools in the area is well over $20,000.

Chazanow said there are about 10 prospective families monitoring the school’s progress. The target is mainly elementary school-age children. 

“Many parents are apprehensive about sending their kids to a new school, a new program. So it looks good to show people the program as it’s running,” she said. “It’s going fantastically well, and we’re confident we’ll have a good group next fall.”

According to the U.S. Census, roughly 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. Some, like Jennifer Mizrahi, president of the national advocacy group RespectAbility, believe the Jewish community might be hit particularly hard by disabilities. In a 2014 article published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, she wrote, “It is likely that the percentage of Jews with disabilities is higher than the national average,” basing her observation on genetic risks Jews carry and the fact that Jews have children later than many other demographic groups.

Still, in many of her meetings with potential donors, R’bibo has been met with responses like, “Do we need this?”

“A huge part of our mission, beyond offering these kids a Jewish education, which is fundamental, is educating these people who think there isn’t a need,” she said. “It isn’t good enough to say public schools can do this. If you want to send your kids to public school, that’s fine, but there should be an option.”

R’bibo also said the issue leads to alienating Jewish special needs children from religious engagement. Before this year, Iva was in state-subsidized preschool and wasn’t getting much Jewish education. Now, after just a few weeks at her new school, R’bibo already is noticing a huge difference.

“She came home from school for High Holy Days and knew more about the shofar, knew an apple-and-honey song. She participated in Rosh Hashanah in a most meaningful way, more than she ever has before,” R’bibo said. “It was in incredible experience for our family.”

Winn noted that the geography of Los Angeles might be a hurdle. There are day school options in every part of the city, but having only one option for special needs kids could make for some long commutes. Chazanow lives in the Fairfax neighborhood — not very far — but R’bibo commutes from North Hollywood. However, R’bibo said, it’s still preferable to the alternative, and she’s confident other parents will agree. 

“Having everything in one central location where they get a secular education, a Jewish education and therapies, that’s ideal for me and other parents,” she said. “It eliminates so much chaos and travel time. It’s an integrative approach and a really great model.”

Chazanow took several trips to the East Coast to visit special needs schools in the New York-New Jersey area. She looks to those experiences and what she found there for motivation.

“At so many of the places I visited, people told me it all started with a storefront,” she said. “They told me all it takes is one parent to get it started.”

Seated next to Mishulovin inside the otherwise empty Friends Circle shul, she looked around and shrugged.

“Well, here I am.”

A damaged home in Loiza, Puerto Rico.

Physician Brings Relief, Finds Religion on a Mission to Puerto Rico

A few days before heading to Puerto Rico last month to pitch in with relief efforts following Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island on Sept. 20, Lori Shocket was running on the treadmill in her Thousand Oaks home, sweating, her mind racing.

It wasn’t nerves.

She and her husband, Neil, both licensed physicians, have more than 15 years of volunteer experience, responding to natural disasters in places like Haiti, Guatemala and even Houston, where Hurricane Harvey hit in August.

But mid-workout, a thought struck her: Something about this time was different.

“I realized we would be in Puerto Rico on Yom Kippur,” she said from San Juan via spotty cellphone coverage.

Even though Shocket calls herself “mostly not religious” and the couple isn’t affiliated with a synagogue, Shocket had scoured the internet for a place to attend services on the island while still on the treadmill.

“It was important to me to seek out a service on Yom Kippur,” she said. “I felt it was important to connect to a Jewish community when you’re putting yourself in an uncompromising, uncertain situation.”

After several attempts, she finally spoke to Diego Mendelbaum, the religious leader and community director of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Puerto Rico in San Juan.

“He instantly told me, yes, you’re welcome to come to services,” she said.

Then she mentioned that her group of 10 also needed a place to say. With the island ravaged and accommodations hard to come by, Mendelbaum offered up the JCC ballroom, its event space, as a place to stay.

Founded in 1958 by American Jews, the JCC of Puerto Rico serves 130 families in and around San Juan, the capital. It has a sanctuary, a ballroom for events like b’nai mitzvahs and weddings, a cemetery, a Holocaust memorial monument, a garden, a religious school and an active youth group associated with Young Judea. Puerto Rico as a whole is home to approximately 1,500 Jews.

The Shockets arrived on Sept. 29, erev Yom Kippur, in one of the first waves of volunteers flown in by Project Hope, a global health education and humanitarian assistance nonprofit organization they had worked with previously. Their impact was almost immediate.

Just an hour before taking off for Puerto Rico, they secured a leukemia medication they had been asked to procure for a 59-year-old man who was in desperate need of the life-saving drug. When they stepped off the plane in San Juan, they were met by the patient’s nephew, eager to get the medication to his ailing uncle.

“He was incredibly grateful,” Shocket said.

Shocket’s group rented cars at the airport and drove straight to the JCC. Upon arrival, they were greeted by warm smiles and a chorus of nearly 100 chanting voices in the middle of Kol Nidre services.

“We just dropped our bags and followed the music. It was a very cool way to begin this whole process and this mission,” she said. “People knew who we were and they were very warm when they met us. Everyone was dressed beautifully, and we were filthy and gross with our big backpacks on.”

Mendelbaum, although not ordained, functions as the JCC’s de facto rabbi in leading services. He also runs a small law practice in San Juan. He was there to welcome Shocket and her colleagues. In a phone call with the Journal, he praised them for interrupting their busy lives.

Lori and Neil Shocket at the JCC of Puerto Rico.

“I think that it’s a mitzvah, and it’s unbelievable,” he said. “They stop their lives, they stop earning money for their own sustenance to help people in need and volunteer. There’s not much to add to that. It’s the ultimate in tzedakah.” 

Mendelbaum said this year’s services made for an inspiring showing, perhaps “more meaningful” than past years, given the circumstances.

He told the Journal that almost everyone in his congregation has at least some damage to their homes in the form of fallen trees, downed power lines and flooding. Most, including his family, he said, are “living uphill” without electricity, and some don’t have running water.

The JCC itself incurred some flooding and damage to its garden and outer gates. Many congregants, about half by his estimation, fled to Florida or other parts of the United States to stay with family.

After settling in, Shocket and her fellow volunteers got to work, setting up a base in the ballroom, laying out medical supplies they brought and their own drinking water and food. They slept there and showered in a basement bathroom normally reserved for the center’s security guard. With the building’s electricity running on diesel generators and a finite amount of fuel, there was no air conditioning.

“It’s freaking hot and miserable,” Shocket said, adding that it was difficult to sleep there. “And I’ve been to a lot of developing countries and dealt with heat and humidity.”

For the next week, Shocket and company woke up early each day, sneaking out before 7 a.m. when services began in the adjacent sanctuary. The days all started with a stop at the local Walmart, stocking up on as many supplies as possible. Wearing scrubs and flashing medical-volunteer paperwork, they were allowed to bypass snaking lines that kept people waiting for hours. Their main relief target was Loiza, a small coastal municipality just over 20 miles east of San Juan that was gutted by the storm. Mendelbaum and JCC volunteers have donated more than 1,200 tarps to Loiza residents so far to serve as makeshift roofs for damaged homes.

“It was important to me to seek out a service on Yom Kippur. I felt it was important to connect to a Jewish community when you’re putting yourself in an uncompromising, uncertain situation.” – Lori Shocket

“The farther away from San Juan [you go], the worse it is and the harder it is to communicate with cellphones,” Shocket said.

In Loiza, Shocket and her group used walkie-talkies. They spent most of their days going back and forth between the two cities, making Walmart runs and delivering prescription medicines, water, food and other supplies to people in schools made up as shelters.

Shocket said people in San Juan were waiting in line for more than two hours for a cold Coke at a Burger King, one of the few restaurants still open.

Most of the medical conditions Shocket has encountered in Loiza are chronic. People need their prescriptions filled. Stress and the struggle to fulfill basic human needs like hygiene also are evident, she said. One of her patients, a diabetic amputee woman, told her she hadn’t showered in over a week.

“She gave me detailed instructions on where to find her favorite perfume at her house and I got it for her,” Shocket said.

Shocket told the Journal that she draws inspiration from the strength of San Juan’s Jewish community in the midst of such trying times.

“To see that community getting together in the middle of all this desperation — because, remember, the people in the sanctuary are victims, too, and have lost homes, businesses — to see them still in shul listening to music and davening, it was pretty incredible,” she said. “Despite everything, they’re still there. That was special to me.”

To donate to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico, visit or

A sukkah in Herzliya, Israel. Photo by Ron Almog

Sukkot, the holiday of appropriate balance

It was raining in Tel Aviv this morning. Raining over my Sukkah. It was the first rain of the year — in Israel, as you may know, there is no rain during the very long summer (it only rains during the very short winter). The rain was a sign that this year will be just like every other year: Rain that ruins the Sukkah is a tradition, much like snow that ruins Purim in Jerusalem.

Sukkot is my favorite holiday of the year, making me an exception. For most other Jews, Sukkot is, well, not as important. A few years ago, I mentioned an academic paper that examined the relative significance of Jewish holidays and showed how Israeli Jews and American Jews differ in their priorities. But, as you can see in the table below, in Israel, considering Sukkot one of the “most important” holidays of the year is not that rare, while in the U.S. it is:

Conspicuously, the authors of this paper did not include Yom Kippur in their survey and thus prevented us from getting the full picture. But there are other surveys with which we can see the full picture. In 2012, PRRI asked Jews in the U.S. “What is the most important Jewish holiday to you personally?” It did not include Sukkot in the survey, but it did include Yom Kippur. The results were as follows:

So, in this survey, Yom Kippur is more important than Passover and Hanukkah. In the previous survey, Passover and Hanukah are more important than Sukkot. Best case scenario: For most Jews, Sukkot is the fourth-ranking holiday, after Yom Kippur, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukah.

Of course, there is a big difference between declaring a holiday to be one of the “three most important” holidays, and the “most important Jewish holiday to you personally.” The first question is one of assessment, of understanding the priorities of the Jewish people and their traditions. The second question is one of personal preference. For a child, the personal favorite can be Purim — because it’s a fun holiday for kids — even though he understands that Purim is not the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar.

Personal preferences change with time: As a child, I also liked Purim, but today I much prefer other holidays. Assessments of the general importance of a holiday also change with time, maybe not for a specific Jew, but surely for a new generation of Jews. One of the most striking findings of the PRRI survey concerned the generational differences regarding Hanukah and Yom Kippur. The survey found that “younger Jews are more than three times as likely as older Jews to say that Hanukkah is the most important Jewish holiday to them personally (20% vs. 6% respectively). They are also less likely to cite Yom Kippur (37% vs. 53% respectively).”

What about Sukkot? The argument I’d make to promote the status of this holiday is simple: Sukkot is the holiday of appropriate balance. It is the holiday that offers the most enticing combination of general importance and opportunity for personal affinity. It is, no doubt, an important holiday in our tradition, but it is also a fun holiday, if you care to celebrate it. Maybe it’s not as important as Yom Kippur. Maybe it’s not as fun (for kids) as Purim. But it’s just important enough and fun enough to both feel its significance and remain relaxed. Even when it’s raining.

The Complex Polarity of ‘The Last Rabbi’

It’s complicated. How many times have we heard someone say this? Whether with regard to relationships, politics, culture or (perhaps, especially) Jewish identity, it’s a common response when someone is reluctant to discuss something or simply doesn’t have the language with which to articulate it. We sometimes intuit that there are nuances to a subject, but often lack the capacity to confront them directly and flesh them out in a meaningful way.

In “The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition,” author William Kolbrener is not satisfied with Soloveitchik — one of the most important 20th-century American Orthodox rabbis, talmudists and philosophers — as simply the notorious “lonely man of faith” and the complexities of such a persona. Rather, he explores the ways in which Soloveitchik was consistently pulled between his radical and sometimes pluralist philosophy and the more traditional demands of his European predecessors.

Kolbrener calls on literary, philosophical and psychoanalytical means as he explores Soloveitchik’s seemingly divergent tendencies — an impulse that is somewhat uncommon in studies of the great thinker, but refreshing. Especially compelling is Kolbrener’s early disclaimer that his book begins “in disillusionment.” This very first line drew me in, for it acknowledges the degree to which some of the most insightful studies must come from personal, rather than intellectual, engagements with the subject matter.

Soloveitchik died in 1993 at the age of 90. He was born in Poland, into a family of multiple rabbis, including his  father, with whom Soloveitchik studied until he was 23. He later studied in Berlin, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad-Lubavitch fame.

In 1932, ahead of what would soon become one of the darkest moments in the history of European Jewry, Soloveitchik emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Boston, where he established one of the city’s first Hebrew day schools.

For many, Soloveitchik, the author of numerous books, is the most influential person associated with the spread of Torah in the United States. However, one of his most popular books, “Halakhic Man” (1983), still read widely in the Orthodox world but in many ways rejected as a model for Jewish law by most non-Orthodox communities, reflects the way he was consistently at the crossroads of Orthodox and non-Orthodox worlds. Even Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, while admitting Soloveitchik’s brilliance, criticized the book as depicting a Judaism that is a “cold, logical affair, with no room for piety.”

For the religious right, Soloveitchik was viewed as someone wanting to modernize Judaism, to Americanize it. For those on the religious left, he was seen as someone who was too much in the Old World.

For Kolbrener, he is more than a rabbinic figure to be studied and revered. This book was written over the years spanning critical changes in Kolbrener’s life, including his “turn to Jewish observance and study in yeshiva.” For Kolbrener, this book is about providing Soloveitchik with the status he has rightfully earned as a “figure within the intellectual history of the past century, a religious philosopher of consequence, independent of his rabbinic title” and institutional affiliations.

But such an agenda is not without its provocation, for Kolbrener’s disillusionment comes partly from the realization that Soloveitchik is not the idealized image perpetuated by his most loyal followers. It is this fact, or rupture, that opens up the possibility to see Soloveitchik as more than the “halakhic man” who thinks only of reciting the Shema when he bears witness to a gorgeous morning sunrise.

The idea of rupture is particularly important to Kolbrener’s understanding of both Soloveitchik’s work and the talmudic tradition. Indeed, it has been suggested by various scholars that tensions present in biblical and talmudic texts are necessary ruptures. Such breaks in textual or ideological continuity are, in fact, critical to ensuring an evolving dialogue about the subject or text in question.

The midrashim, for example, exist only because of such ruptures within the Hebrew bible. One might even say that these ruptures in the text — places where ellipses are privileged over densely detailed storytelling and absences are pushed to the forefront — are wounds of a kind. And certainly Soloveitchik was a man of wounds both buried and revealed.

In the introduction, Kolbrener reminds us that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once noted that the impact of the Holocaust on Soloveitchik was so enormous that he was consistently “terrified by death and destruction” and that all of his endeavors were focused on “bringing a dead world back to life.” Yet despite this constant terror, this focus on reviving the past in the form of halachah, Soloveitchik was also an “undeniable figure of transition.”

Like many survivors of the Holocaust and other collective tragedies, Soloveitchik stood in the worlds of both the living and the dead, giving him both the luxury and the curse of inhabiting the margins, residing both inside and outside. Kolbrener recounts the young Soloveitchik’s experience of sitting on his bed in the living room where his father, defender of the Rambam, gave daily Torah lectures. Soloveitchik was excluded from the group, but was at the same time part of it since his proximity enabled him to hear voices dissenting from the teaching of Maimonides, with the exception of his father.

As Kolbrener says, Soloveitchik would “remain in that liminal space for the rest of his life, cultivating his ambivalent identity as both insider and outsider to the group that he calls ‘halakhic men.’ ” Moreover, Soloveitchik would later suggest that he felt the presence of the Rambam, sitting there on his bed with him and listening to his father’s words.

Kolbrener calls this story a “contemporary midrash, an updated parallel to the talmudic midrash in which Moses sits in the back of a classroom” while he listens to Rabbi Akiva. Midrashic stories exist further to remind us of an inherent failure in the biblical text, the failure to tell the whole story. And with every failure — every disillusionment — comes also the responsibility to respond and to engage. Ellipses, ever present in the Hebrew bible, become opportunities for ethical response and openings for ongoing dialogue.

Kolbrener, it seems, takes this one step further, engaging the work of Freud and using it as a lens through which to read this “contemporary midrash” that becomes ultimately Soloveitchik’s “rehearsal of … his Talmudic primal scene” in which there is an “identification between his father and Maimonides.” In such a reading, Kolbrener finds that the identities of Soloveitchik, his father and Maimonides are blurred, consequently bringing together past, present and future in the figures of these three men.

Kolbrener’s midrashic reading of this “contemporary midrash” is a perfect example of the importance of midrashic thought to Jewish continuity. And he understands well the value of looking at every text from every angle through multiple lenses to reveal the life it conceals.

Even the structure of “The Last Rabbi” quietly reflects Soloveitchik’s own inner hybridity. Epigraphs from literary, philosophical and psychoanalytical greats such as Shakespeare, Adorno, Wilde, Cavell, Freud, Nietzsche and Kristeva lead chapters. And by the end of the first page of the first chapter, Kolbrener has woven in the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.,” and what he calls its own “unlikely midrash of the ‘face to face’ from Exodus, expressing an anxious response to lost presence and an impatience with language as compensation for that loss.”

One recalls the line: “Don’t wanna talk about Jesus, just wanna see his face.” It’s a surprising reference to discover in a book about Soloveitchik, but Kolbrener is right to include it given that it does, as he says, express the “desire to dispense with the trappings of language, the excrescence of the material that detract from — and veil — the unmediated truth.” Indeed, it’s complicated. And so was Soloveitchik. I’m glad for that. 

MONICA OSBORNE is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book, “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma,” will be published later this year.

From left: Cannabis Feminist co-founders Jackie Mostny, Galia Benarzi and Jessica Assaf. Photo courtesy Cannabis Feminist

The Jewish feminists who are rocking the cannabis world

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Venice, yoga-toned locals sipped cucumber lemon water and perused an assortment of cannabis wellness products arranged on silver platters in a private backyard. Freshly cut sunflowers decorated the display tables, where female representatives from organic brands like The Budhive, which makes THC-infused honey drops, talked to potential customers about the calming effects of their microdosed hard candies.

If this sounds radically different from the experience of stepping into an L.A. medical marijuana dispensary — where products can be locked behind glass display cases, and male budtenders might not know what to recommend for, say, menstrual cramps — that’s because Jessica Assaf, the half-Israeli co-founder and CEO of Cannabis Feminist, has made it her mission to bring an ethos of health, wellness and, most of all, femininity to her year-old collective.

At community events like the one in Venice, called “bake sales,” Assaf, 27, and her co-founder, Jackie Mostny, a veteran of the Tel Aviv startup scene, serve as informal cannabis ambassadors, educating new users — women, in particular — about the physical and mental health benefits of the plant. Bake sale goers can trade in pink tickets for products, all selected and tested by Cannabis Feminist. They range from a Medicine Box dark chocolate truffle designed as a sleep aid, which sells for $20, to Assaf’s $40 private label facial oil made with rosehip extracts and cannabis oil sourced from Humboldt County.

“We’re not promoting psychoactivity,” said Assaf, who began her career as an activist for toxin-free beauty products. “We’re promoting cannabis as a powerful plant compound for the skin.”

What sets Assaf apart from other “ganjapreneurs,” thousands of whom have flocked to Los Angeles in recent years to get in on the so-called “Green Rush,” is her sales model. Taking a page from Tupperware parties, Assaf, a Harvard Business School graduate who credits cannabis use with improving her self-esteem, is pairing cannabis products with the peer-to-peer, in-home sales approach that enabled American housewives to earn their own money.

In 2016, legal sales of cannabis products in North America reached $6.7 billion, with California accounting for 27 percent, according to a report by Arcview Market Research, a leading publisher of cannabis industry data. By 2021, sales are expected to top $22 billion.

The budding industry also claims the highest number of female bosses of any U.S. business sector. A recent survey by Marijuana Business Daily found that 27 percent of executive-level jobs in cannabis businesses are occupied by women, down from the previous two years, but still higher than the 23 percent in American businesses as a whole. That gives Assaf, and many others of her ilk, reason to believe that by getting in on the ground floor and helping to shape their industry — never mind the local government policies that guide its development — they are building what could become the first multibillion-dollar industry run by women.

What’s also possible? Cannabis could become the first multibillion-dollar industry run by Jewish women.

It’s no secret that Jews have long played an outsized role in the cannabis sector, starting with the fact that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s psychoactive compound, was first identified in 1964 by Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam who, along with his team at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, went on to discover the human endocannabinoid system.

In recent years, Israel has emerged as a global leader in medical cannabis research, filling a void created by U.S. law that classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug — the same category assigned to heroin and LSD — that makes research exceedingly difficult to conduct.

While no data is available to indicate how much of the cannabis industry is made up of Jews, it’s clear that, as with the garment business of the early 20th century, Jews comprise such a significant proportion of the industry that it has become closely identified with the tribe.

“The cannabis industry as a whole is so welcoming, and it’s been phenomenal to find all these badass Jewish women who are so cool, smart and driven. It’s all about collaboration.” — Molly peckler

Given the prevalence of Jews and women in weed, it’s no surprise that, in Los Angeles, poised to become the largest legal cannabis market in the world, Jewish women are staking their claim — and in the process, forming a kind of sisterhood of mutual support and cooperation.

Like Assaf, Catherine Goldberg, 28, a cannabis events producer and social media marketer based in West Hollywood, moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast in the last year to work in cannabis, as did Molly Peckler, a professional matchmaker who came here with her husband from Chicago to grow her cannabis matchmaking service, Highly Devoted. “The cannabis industry as a whole is so welcoming, and it’s been phenomenal to find all these badass Jewish women who are so cool, smart and driven,” Peckler said. “It’s all about collaboration.”

Indeed, collaboration is Assaf’s guiding principle with Cannabis Feminist, which grew out of a Women’s Circle she hosted at her home last fall. New to L.A., the Bay Area native put out a call on Instagram for women to gather in her Venice Beach living room to discuss their relationship to cannabis. Forty people showed up.

Assaf recently trained her first two Cannabis Feminist consultants, both culled from her monthly Women’s Circle, to sell the collective’s selection of products to their friends in exchange for a percentage of sales. Down the line, Assaf envisions an all-female team of cannabis wellness consultants who not only will recommend medicinal products, but also deliver them on demand.

To enact her vision for a women-run cannabis empire, Assaf has been pursuing outside investment. Cannabis Feminist’s first angel investor was co-founder Galia Benarzi, a Tel Aviv-based tech entrepreneur who recently orchestrated the largest crowd-sale of a virtual currency to date.

“One of the coolest things about Cannabis Feminist is that it actually has a feminine work culture,” said Benarzi, who mentors Assaf and Mostny from Tel Aviv. “This can mean the way we talk about conflicts when they arise, how we hold space for each other’s ideas, or the way we think about revenue shares.

“For me, coming from such a male-oriented work life, it’s really been a breath of fresh air.”

Interview with Kosha Dillz

Name: Rami Even-Esh

Best-known for: His alter-ego, Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz

Little-known fact: “The first time I was in the newspaper was for a wrestling tournament when I was eight. I was a little obsessed with getting in the paper.”

Rami Even-Esh, better known by his stage moniker, “Kosha Dillz” is the son of Israeli immigrant parents and now a Koreatown resident by way of Perth Amboy, N.J. A professional hustler from childhood, Even-Esh has sold everything from t-shirts to CDs to vintage embroidered hats.

After a stint in prison, Even-Esh, 36, found success in the music industry. This year, he reached his sobriety bar mitzvah (13 years clean) and can now count multiple tours with Vans Warped Tour and collaborations with artists like Matisyahu, among his successes. He also recently recorded and released his newest album, “What I Do All Day and Pickle.”

Jewish Journal: Such an odd stage name. What’s up with your fascination with pickles?

Kosha Dillz: There’s not really a fascination. They’ve become popular, so I guess I was ahead of my time with the name.  Pickles are right behind cats and pizza.

JJ: You moved to Los Angeles in 2011, so what brought you here?

KD: Music. I was already a professional musician when I came out to L.A. I just thought there was more of an opportunity and already had some friends out here, as well. I also really liked the recovery community in L.A., because there are a lot of people in the entertainment industry in the recovery community. Where I was from, it was surreal. No one was in the recovery community. I was like a unicorn.

JJ: How do your life experiences color your music?

KD: My music is just me being me. It’s what I’ve been doing since day one — rapping about selling drugs, doing drugs,  not doing drugs, Jewish stuff, Israel stuff, and that’s it. People will always ask, “Why are you so pro-Israel?” Well, it’s because I’m pro-myself. I’m an Israeli citizen. I didn’t choose that, it’s just who I am. And I think everyone should rep who they are.

JJ: What do you hope listeners get from your music?

KD: I want them to feel connected to my struggles.

JJ: Is your Jewish identity ever at odds with your rapping identity?

KD: Not at all. I’ve been rapping about Jewish stuff since day one. When I was 19, my identity was more about being a white rapper, but now it’s more about being a Jewish rapper. I’ll rap in Hebrew and make it overtly known that I’m Jewish. My stage name is “Kosha Dillz.” It’s basically “I’m a Jew” in rapper-ease.

JJ: Before you were rapping, you were a wrestler. What happened?

KD: I was wrestling from the time I was 8 until I was 20.  I stopped because of drugs — solely and only that. Otherwise, I would have kept wrestling. The real core of who I am is tied up with all the drugs and drug dealing. And then I got arrested multiple times. Then I got clean. And somewhere along the way, my music took center stage.

JJ: What marked the beginning of your career as a musician?

KD: I started rapping, and recorded my first song when I was 17. It was awesome. And then I recorded another and another, and slowly but surely, by the time I was 21, I had started burning CDs on my computer, and then tried to sell them at shows — demos, not even finished versions. I was honestly just really into selling things because I loved the hustle, and that started my rap career.

JJ: What’s the best part about being on tour?

KD: It’s very freeing. I look at touring like you’re mentally going into the wilderness. When you’re not on a tour bus, you’re driving through Kansas or Colorado and you see these amazing mountains, and you pull the car over, get out and scream at the top of your lungs because you know no one can hear you, and then you laugh to yourself because you’re crazy, and drive another seven hours through the middle of nowhere to a tiny show somewhere. It’s great. And I truly believe that touring is an experience and a way to reach out to fans.

JJ: How do you connect with fans?

KD: It’s interesting. When you’re touring these days, you’re not just selling the music, but you’re selling yourself — like a brand. With the internet and social media, the connection is way more instant. They might look at me and think, “Oh, he’s Jewish, let me go see him,” or “He’s in recovery — that’s interesting” or “Oh, he’s been to all 50 states, and I’m from Rhode Island and he’s been there, too.” You never know exactly what part of your identity will connect with someone.

JJ: Do you prefer performing or studio work?

KD: I love performing in front of people, but if you want to grow as an artist, you need to do studio work. You need to be creating new stuff that’s captivating, that will grow you a bigger audience. What you create in the studio is a tangible thing that people can share while you’re sleeping.

JJ: Do you enjoy the studio process?

KD: I do enjoy it, but it’s very terrifying, because I don’t want to go in, and I don’t want to do the work. I’m inherently lazy and very resistant, but then, when I’m in there, I’m suddenly like, “I need an album for the tour! Well, I guess I better come up with some rap songs, like, right now.” I give myself a deadline by paying for the studio time for two weeks. Essentially, I better come up with something, or I’ve wasted all my money. Honestly, most of my career has been showing up. I’m only in competition with myself. If I don’t reach out, or get to the studio, I’m the only one that hurts.

JJ: Switching gears. What are some of your favorite places in LA?

KD: One place I really, really love to go is Bibi’s Bakery. I always take people there. I also love this hike that I do every week called Cobra Fitness Club. It was my first commitment to regular social exercise. We get coffee and weird shakes.

JJ: One final question. Do you have a pre-show ritual?

KD: Oh man. I run around frantically! First I’ll run to the bar and get some water, and then I’m like “Guys! I’m going on now! Make sure you watch!” And then I worry that someone’s in the bathroom or outside having a cigarette and will forget I’m performing. It’s a pre-show ritual I’d rather not have. It would be nice to just chill. But until I’m massively famous, and the entire world is waiting for me to perform, I’ll feel like that. I guess that’s the Jewish end to this story: I’m worried!

Find out where Kosha Dillz is performing at

Mark Zuckerberg delivering a commencement speech at Harvard University in which he quoted the Mi Shebeirach prayer on May 25. Photo Paul Marotta/Getty Images

How Mark Zuckerberg embraced his Judaism

Mark Zuckerberg wrote last December on Facebook that for him, “religion is very important.” Looks like he meant it.

The Facebook co-founder has been invoking Judaism a lot lately. In May, he quoted a Jewish prayer at Harvard’s commencement. Two weeks ago he posted a picture of his daughter with a family kiddush cup. And on Saturday night, he posted a public apology at the end of Yom Kippur.

It’s quite a transformation for a public figure who once defined himself as an atheist.

Although he was a member of the Jewish fraternity AEPi before he dropped out of Harvard, Zuckerberg didn’t discuss his Judaism much before 2015. Replying to a comment last year, Zuckerberg wrote that he “went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”

Zuckerberg’s recent string of Jewish affirmations began nearly two years ago following then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Being raised as a Jew, Zuckerberg wrote, made him sensitive to attacks on all minorities.

“After the Paris attacks and hate this week, I can only imagine the fear Muslims feel that they will be persecuted for the actions of others,” Zuckerberg wrote, referring to that year’s terror attack in the French capital. “As a Jew, my parents taught me that we must stand up against attacks on all communities. Even if an attack isn’t against you today, in time attacks on freedom for anyone will hurt everyone.”

Zuckerberg invoked his Judaism again after the August white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

“It’s a disgrace that we still need to say that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are wrong — as if this is somehow not obvious,” he wrote.

But judging from his Facebook profile (and in his case, shouldn’t we?), Zuckerberg has reconnected with his Judaism not just as a national figure but as a person and a father. His post featuring a collage of a kiddush cup, Shabbat candlesticks and homemade challah waxed about passing the cup from generation to generation.

“For shabbat tonight, we gave Max a kiddush cup that has been in our family for almost 100 years,” he wrote, referring to his eldest daughter. “Her great-great-grandfather Max got it after our family immigrated here and it has been passed down through our family ever since.”

For shabbat tonight, we gave Max a kiddush cup that has been in our family for almost 100 years. Her…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Friday, September 15, 2017

At the Harvard commencement, Zuckerberg told graduates that he sings an adaptation of the Mi Shebeirach — the traditional Jewish prayer for the sick — when he tucks her in at night.

“And it goes, ‘May the source of strength, who’s blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing,” he told the graduates in May, quoting a version of the prayer by the late Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman and lyricist Rabbi Drorah Setel. “I hope you find the courage to make your life a blessing.”

While the mogul’s newfound piety may be attracting attention, he is doing what any young Jewish parent might, said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, director of CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Plenty of Jews lose interest in their religion, then reconnect to it after having kids.

“There are a million people in his age cohort who are deeply proud of being Jewish and are trying to figure out what it means,” Hirschfield said. “You marry and partner and have a family, and it’s not surprising that the questions of ‘How do I have a more meaningful life and build a better future’ become more important and powerful and imminent.” was especially pleased that Zuckerberg, whose wife, Priscilla Chan, is not Jewish, has posted about his family’s Jewish rituals.

“The fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year,” wrote Ed Case, founder of “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.”

Zuckerberg got Jewishly personal again when he asked for forgiveness at the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of repentance. His critics might say he has a lot to atone for.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook was accused of allowing Russian hackers to post thousands of ads influencing the election. And users also were allowed to target ads based on phrases like “Jew hater” and “how to burn Jews.” (Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who also is Jewish, said the company would address the problem.)

“For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better,” he wrote Saturday night. “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.”

Tonight concludes Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews when we reflect on the past year and ask forgiveness…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Saturday, September 30, 2017

It isn’t the first time that Zuckerberg has encountered trouble because of the content published on his site. In 2015, some 20,000 Israelis filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook for ignoring incitement to terrorism on the network and enabling terrorists to find sympathizers. The case was dismissed this year.

While Zuckerberg may not have always talked publicly about his Judaism, he has surrounded himself with people who do. His college roommate moved to Israel and became a Conservative rabbi. Sandberg has spoken frequently about how Jewish rituals helped her cope following her husband’s untimely death in 2015. And his sister, Randi, is open about her Jewish observances. She says her family unplugs for a “digital Shabbat” each weekend, and sang “Jerusalem of Gold,” a classic Israeli song, at the Davos World Economic Forum.

Davos also occasioned the first JTA clip about Zuckerberg, published in 2008. While he attended the forum that year, Israel’s delegation invited him to visit the country.

He has yet to accept. But after giving his daughter a kiddush cup and atoning on Yom Kippur, maybe this is the year.

Las Vegas Metro Police and medical workers stage in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 1. Photo by Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

Jewish groups in aftermath of Las Vegas attack call for tougher gun control laws

Jewish groups responded to the mass shooting in Las Vegas by condemning the violence and calling for gun control legislation.

At least 58 people are dead and more than 500 wounded in the attack at a country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the Strip late Sunday night. It is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Reform movement were among the groups that called for tougher gun control laws in the attack’s aftermath.

“While we are still learning details and do not know the impetus for the killings, one thing is clear: the threat of mass violence against innocent civilians in America has not abated. This threat must be taken seriously,” Anti-Defamation League National Director Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. He called for the enactment of “tough, effective gun violence prevention measures.”

Greenblatt said its Center on Extremism is investigating the background and activity of shooter Stephen Paddock and whether he may have ties to extremists or was motivated by any extremist ideology.

B’nai B’rith International said it is “well past time for meaningful, bipartisan gun violence legislation in this country.” It also said: “Though information about the shooter and his arsenal is still being uncovered, we have long held there is no acceptable, reasonable need for civilians to have access to large rounds of ammunition.”

“B’nai B’rith stands in solidarity with the Las Vegas community and with all those impacted by gun violence around the nation,” the statement also said.

National Council of Jewish Women CEO Nancy Kaufman in a statement called for Congress to act to “stem the tide of this senseless violence before yesterday’s tragedy becomes just another record to be broken.”

“Federal lawmakers must act now to restrict access to automatic weapons, reject the current bill before Congress that would make it easier to buy silencers, and instead focus on how to make our communities and our country safer. NCJW expects nothing less from our elected officials,” the statement also said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the mass shooting cannot be termed a random act of violence.

“Even before all the facts are known we know this: rather than revere gun rights our country must finally revere human life,” he said.

“We mourn those callously slaughtered in Las Vegas and pray for the wounded. But our prayers must be followed by action, long overdue limits to the easy access to fire arms.”

The Jewish Federations of North America in its statement called on people wherever they are to donate blood.

“These attacks are just the latest instances of senseless violence that terrorizes innocent people everywhere and must come to an end,” the group said.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, also called the attack “senseless.”

“On behalf of world Jewry, I condemn this horrific criminal act,” he said in a statement.

David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that while authorities have not determined whether the shooting was an act of terror, “there is no question that it has terrorized and traumatized hundreds of innocent people.”

Cheryl Fishbein, the JCPA’s chair, added: “It is imperative that we come together to address the underlying causes in the days ahead.”

There are over 70,000 Jews and at least 19 synagogues in Las Vegas, according to the website.

Monty Hall. Photo from Wikipedia

Monty Hall, philanthropist and host of ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ dies at 96

Television icon and philanthropist Monty Hall died on Sept. 30 at the age of 96.

For decades, Hall lived a double life: ebullient game show host and celebrity to millions by day, and, when not on camera, indefatigable fundraiser and philanthropist for Jewish and other causes.

Renowned for co-creating and hosting “Let’s Make a Deal,” Hall was equally if not more proud of raising, by some estimates, more than $1 billion for charity.

[FROM OUR ARCHIVE: Monty Hall’s best deal]

Monte Halparin was born Aug. 25, 1921 in Winnipeg, Canada, the son of Rose and Maurice. His Orthodox Jewish family was in the kosher meat business, and Hall grew up delivering orders on his bicycle. His mother, Rose, was a schoolteacher, performer and Hadassah regional president who Hall once called a “combination of Golda Meir and [Yiddish actress] Molly Picon.”

The family struggled and lived in close quarters. Hall couldn’t afford to stay in college, so he dropped out. Fortunately, a Jewish businessman and friend of the family, Max Freed, altered the trajectory of Hall’s life. When Hall was 19, Freed, 10 years Hall’s senior, offered to pay for Hall’s college education, but with three conditions: His grades had to be B-plus or higher, he had to report regularly to Freed on his progress, and, most importantly, he had to promise that one day he would do the same to a kid who needed help.

Hall seized the opportunity. He re-enrolled at the University of Manitoba, frequently checking in with Freed to inform him of his grades. In 1945, he earned his degree.

While in college, Hall performed in musical theater productions and worked an evening job as a radio disc jockey. After graduating, he moved to Toronto, where he worked at a radio station. There, his boss told him to shorten his name from Halparin to Hall. Restless and looking for bigger opportunities, Hall moved to New York in 1955 and transitioned to television. Five years later, he moved to Hollywood.

While in Hollywood, his big break was co-creating with Stefan Hatos “Let’s Make a Deal,” a game show inspired by the Frank Stockton short story “The Lady, or The Tiger?” in which a man’s choices result either in love or death. “Let’s Make a Deal” debuted on NBC in late-1963 on NBC’s daytime lineup. It aired until 1968 before moving to ABC, where it ran until 1976.

The show became one of the most successful in television history. Hall, for his part, hosted 4,700 episodes of the show.

Part of the appeal of “Let’s Make a Deal” was having audience members who dressed up in costumes in hopes of being picked by Hall to appear on the show.

Additionally, the show’s legacy was its inclusiveness, Hall said.

“ ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ was the first television show that used Black people, brown people, yellow people, old people, fat people, skinny people, because we felt this was a cross section of America,” Hall told the Archive of American Television in a 2002 interview.

Among Hall’s other claims to fame, “Let’s Make a Deal” gave rise to a classic probability puzzle. After a contestant has chosen one door, and then the host offers him the opportunity to change his mind and choose another, should he? Would changing his mind put the odds of a better prize in his favor? Hall himself once said that in “The Monty Hall Problem,” as it came to be called, the contestant’s choice matters less than the way the host manipulates the player.

Hall and his late wife, Marilyn, who died in June, raised three children: Richard, a television producer; actress Joanna Gleason; and Sharon, also a television producer. The couple were married for nearly 70 years. The Halls met in Canada, wed in 1947 and moved to New York together, before finally settling in Beverly Hills. Marilyn Hall was as an actress, writer, producer and philanthropist.

“My parents kept show business as far away from our house as possible,” Gleason once told the magazine Playbill. “It was a very normal upbringing. It just happened to be that at certain times of the day, you’d turn on the TV and there’d be my father.”

In 2013, Hall was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 40th Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1973.

Hall had a lifelong commitment to Judaism. He was a longtime friend of the late Rabbi Jacob Pressman of Temple Beth Am, where the family belonged. In 2005, Hall had his second bar mitzvah at Temple Shalom for the Arts — today known as Temple of the Arts. In later years, he attended IKAR.   

Hall credited his commitment to Judaism and his mother, Rose, for his devotion to charitable giving. In fact, he spent much of his life raising money for charity. Causes he supported included the children’s charity Variety International, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Israel Tennis Centers. Additionally, he was a regular presence on the gala circuit, emceeing events benefiting Hadassah, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Jewish Home for the Aging (now the Los Angeles Jewish Home), among countless others. 

In a 2014 Jewish Journal video series titled “Mondays With Monty,” Hall recounted an exchange with his father, who’d stopped going to synagogue. His father told him he expressed his religion through his devotion to his family. Hall said he couldn’t argue with that. In fact, in the 2002 interview with the Archive of American Television, he said he wanted to be remembered for being someone who did his best for his family.

Hall more than lived up to his promise to Max Freed to help others in need, becoming a major fundraiser for countless charities.

“I’d like to be remembered as somebody who cared, who cared for other people, who did his best, who did his best for his family, for his friends, for the community, for the country and continued to do it,” he said. “I think what you do with your life is your epitaph.”

Hall is survived by his children, Joanna Gleason (Chris Sarandon), Richard Hall and Sharon Hall (Todd Ellis Kessler); and grandchildren Aaron David Gleason, Mikka Tokuda-Hall, Maggie Tokuda-Hall, Jack Kessler and Levi Kessler.

The funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 3 at Hillside Memorial Park. Shivah will be cut short because of Sukkot, so please send your condolences to the family at

The family has asked that contributions in Hall’s memory be made to IKAR, AJWS and LAJH.

Monty Hall spoke to the Jewish Journal about his bar mitzvah:

This skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale hangs at the Whaling Museum in Nantucket, a resort island that was once a hub of the whaling industry. Photo courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

This Yom Kippur, a synagogue will read the book of Jonah under a whale skeleton

One of the more colorful portions of the daylong Yom Kippur liturgy is the reading of the book of Jonah, an enigmatic narrative of a reluctant prophet, an indignant God and a giant fish.

But because of the service’s timing, relatively few people are around to hear it. So one rabbi is spicing up the reading by holding it under a 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale.

The reading Saturday afternoon will take place at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, located on the Massachusetts resort island. A hub of the whaling industry in the 1800s, Nantucket was immortalized in Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby-Dick” as the starting point for Ishmael’s journey.

“I read it [Jonah] as allegory, but the idea that it could happen captures the imagination more when you see maybe [the whale] is big enough that it could happen,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor of Congregation Shirat HaYam (Hebrew for “Song of the Sea”) in Nantucket. “We feel very comfortable going into the sea, but our biblical antecedents had a great fear. They would see great large fish and that would spark the imagination. I felt this would be the ideal place to talk about it.”

The short book is read in its entirety during the day’s afternoon service, coming after the exhausting Musaf service and before the climactic, closing Neilah service. The story is gripping: A man runs away from God, gets thrown off a ship and finds himself living in the belly of an enormous fish for three days. Jonah eventually (spoiler alert!) makes it to the sinful city of Nineveh, where he attempts to save the residents from the wrath of God.

Nantucket has remained connected to its maritime heritage even after the whaling industry faded. Many of the island’s large houses belonged to sea captains and ship owners. The island has hosted dramatic readings of “Moby-Dick,” and some of Nantucket’s wealthy vacationers moor yachts at the dock. The museum chronicles the island’s history and its whaling past. The giant skeleton, taken from a beached whale, is its crown jewel.

Shirat HaYam also hopes to pay homage to Nantucket’s heritage. Following a traditional Hebrew chanting at synagogue, an English reading will take place under the whale, and Bretton-Granatoor will give a lecture about how Jewish sages have viewed sea creatures throughout history.

As the Days of Awe draw to a close, Bretton-Granatoor hopes the reading will instill a biblical sense of awe into his congregants.

“The idea that I can take a biblical book and make it feel real, make it feel tangible, is very exciting,” he said. “The idea that something we read about now is tangible — here’s a whale above us — imagine what the writers of the Bible thought about if they ever saw something this size.”

Keeping the Faith

I am a regular temple goer throughout the year, but there is something about the high holidays that brings me peace I don’t know how to properly articulate. I love my faith and could listen to my Rabbi give a sermon all day, every day, but there is nothing better than Kol Nidre with Rabbi Naomi Levy.  It is a moving service and I feel like I am in the presence of God on this particular day. Perhaps it is because I am surrounded by such a large group and we are all in prayer together, or maybe it is just because my heart is completely open on this day. Open to joy and sorrow, happiness and heartache. It is a day that matters to me.

I am going into Kol Nidre this year with both relief and fear. Relief to unload the weight of so many things on my soul, and fear about what my life will look like without so many burdens pent up inside me. After a year with so many unanswered questions and trials and tribulations, I have no expectations, but real hope when I go to Kol Nidre services. I simply want to be free. Free of my demons, of which there are many, and free of the busyness in my mind that prevents me from sleeping. I want my choices to be unaffected by cancer, and I want my future to become clear. No guarantees, just clarity after foggy days.

I am not the type of person who looks for guarantees in life. Things happen, both good and bad, and I am a roll with the punches kind of girl. I will think about the last year, thank God for holding my hand through all of it, and pray for the strength to be always be brave, even when I don’t think I can. I shall search for forgiveness, knowing it will come. I shall search for clarity, knowing it will come. I shall ask for sleep, knowing it will find me. I shall envision all of our names being inscribed in the book of life, and I will focus on keeping the faith.



Photos by Jonathan Fong

DIY: Dried fruit garlands for the sukkah

With the holiday of Sukkot just around the corner, it’s not too early to start thinking of creative ways to decorate the sukkah.

Here’s a festive idea that celebrates the harvest with garlands of dried citrus fruits. The mix of oranges, lemons and limes creates a colorful medley, and the fruit slices filter sunlight like stained glass. You even can use the dried fruit after Sukkot for home décor throughout the autumn season.

What you’ll need:

Paper towels
Baking sheet
Parchment paper

1. Thinly slice the oranges, lemons and limes. (If you prefer, you can use only one type of fruit.) The slices should be no more than a quarter-inch thick. The thinner the slices, the faster they will dry.

Step 1


2. Pat the fruit slices dry with paper towels. Soaking up as much juice as possible with the paper towels will reduce drying time in the oven.

Step 2


3. Heat the oven to 200 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the fruit slices in a single layer on the baking sheet.

Step 3


4. After an hour, flip over the fruit slices so they can dehydrate evenly. Return to the oven and dry for another hour. Check the fruit every hour and flip the slices each time. It will take two to four hours to dry the fruit, depending on the thickness.

Step 4


5. Poke two holes with a nail near the top of every fruit slice, about a half-inch apart. The fruit still will be flexible, so you can move the nail around to expand the holes to fit your string.

Step 5


6. Slide string through the holes to make your garland. If you have a problem with insects in your yard, you can spray the garland with a clear varnish before hanging.

Step 6


Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Elly Rubin (left) and Lya Frank. Photo by David Miller

Survivors Lya Frank and Elly Rubin: Former hidden children ‘have a story to tell’

On the evening of April 18, 1943, as Lya and Elly Meijers were being bundled up by their parents, they were told, “You’re going away for a few days.”

The day before, the girls had celebrated their shared birthday — Lya had turned 7 and Elly 4 — and now, with only a valise each and no further explanation, they were placed on the backs of bicycles belonging to non-Jewish friends, Wilhelmina and Jan van Hilten, whom the girls called Tante (Aunt) Wil and Oom (Uncle) Jan. As they rode away from their home in Utrecht, the Netherlands, Lya and Elly had no idea they soon would be separated from each other for more than two years.

They also never would see their parents again, and their only indirect communication would come 50 years later, when someone unexpectedly forwarded a postcard their father had thrown from a train on his way to a transit camp in the Netherlands, after he and their mother had been captured. It was written in pencil, dated May 1944 and addressed to a neighbor in Utrecht.

After the war, Lya and Elly were encouraged not to speak about their past. Later, as former hidden children who hadn’t experienced the horrors of roundups, ghettos or camps, they thought their stories weren’t consequential.

But faced with some personal crises in 1993, Lya began to acknowledge her long-buried anguish of having been separated from her sister and of emerging from World War II to discover that her parents and extended family — except for an uncle, aunt and cousin — had been annihilated by the Nazis. Soon after, she began sharing her story publicly. For the past five years, Elly tentatively has followed suit.

“We do have something to say. We do have a story,” Lya said. “It may not be Auschwitz,” (“Thank God,” Elly interjected) “but we have different issues.”

Lya and Elly were born in Utrecht, a city in the central Netherlands, to Lion Mauritz, known as Leo, and Renee Meijers.

Leo worked for the Hamburger Lead and Zinc manufacturing company as the equivalent of a chief financial officer. The family lived comfortably, often surrounded by friends and family. “I have memories of a happy childhood,” Lya said.

After Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, anti-Jewish measures were implemented, though Lya and Elly’s parents mostly sheltered them from details of the increasingly perilous situation. By April 1943, they were living in permanent hiding places.

Lya, who kept her name, which, like her appearance, was not identifiably Jewish, was placed with the Broers family in Amersfoort, about 15 miles northeast of Utrecht. She was instructed to tell people, if asked, she was from Rotterdam, which had been heavily bombed, and didn’t know her parents’ fate.

Hugo Broers was an ophthalmologist with an office on the first floor of their spacious house. His wife, Kathy, worked with him. They had two daughters, Pauline, then 6, and Francine, 4. “I was treated as one of the girls,” Lya said.

The first night, when Hugo and Kathy entered Lya’s large bedroom to say goodnight, Lya burst into tears. “I don’t want to sleep alone,” she told them. The parents moved her into their girls’ bedroom the following night.

Sometime later, a new housekeeper cornered Lya, interrogating her. “What kind of parents do you have? They don’t write. They don’t see you,” she said. Lya remained outwardly calm. “I don’t know. I’m from Rotterdam,” she answered.

That night, Lya recounted the incident to her foster parents. “We’re really proud that you stuck to your story,” they told her, rewarding her with a scarce piece of candy and firing the housekeeper.

Elly doesn’t recall being taken to her foster families in 1943. “But I remember the families,” she said.

She first was placed on a farm in Baambrugge, about 18 miles north of Utrecht, with Wijntje and Jacobus Griffioen and their six children. But after six months, because the house was close to the road and because Elly’s darker hair and complexion made her conspicuous, she was moved to the farm of Wijntje’s sister and brother-in-law, Cornelia and Jan van der Lee.

At the time, the van der Lees had six children. They were not well-to-do, but, Elly said. “They were rich in religion and family life.” Elly attended their Dutch Reform church and was part of the family. “I was loved until [they] died,” she said. Jan van der Lee died in 1968; his wife, who was known as Cor, died in 2006.

On May 5, 1945, the area was liberated. “The [Dutch] flags went out and people were celebrating,” Lya said. Allied tanks and jeeps rolled in, and the children were allowed on the street, where soldiers distributed chocolate and white bread.

A couple of months later, Lya was visited by her Uncle Lex, their birth father’s brother, who had been in hiding himself and who had learned the girls’ locations, most likely through the van Hiltens. He reunited Lya with Elly, whom she didn’t recognize but by day’s end didn’t want to leave, in fear of being separated again. The foster parents agreed that Lya should stay with Elly while Lex and his wife, who had two daughters of their own, searched for housing.

One day, Cor van der Lee called Lya and Elly into the front room, which was used only on Sundays and holidays. “I have to tell you, Mommy and Daddy have gone to heaven,” she told the girls. Lya immediately burst into tears. “That couldn’t be,” she said. “They loved us.”

In November 1945, the girls moved to Amsterdam with their Uncle Lex and his family. They lived in a large house and attended the Rosh Pina Jewish school. “We had a good family life,” Lya said.

But when the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956, Lex announced, “We’re not staying here to go through this again.” They arrived in the United States as immigrants a year later.

The family first lived in Glendale, where Lya and Elly worked in banking. Eighteen months later, they moved to Los Angeles.

Lya married Henk Frank in December 1959. Their daughter, Terry, was born in August 1962. Elly and Coleman Rubin married in December 1962. Their two children are Mark, born in August 1964, and Sharon, born in April 1966. Coleman died in 2004 and Henk in 2014. Lya has two grandchildren and Elly has nine.

Over the years, Lya and Elly learned that their parents — along with two uncles, an aunt, their grandmother and a cousin — had been hidden by two brothers in Brummen, a village in central Netherlands, which was their father’s birthplace. There, one brother’s step-daughter, who was having a relationship with a German officer, divulged their hiding places and got paid for the information. “For a small amount of money, they annihilated our whole family,” Lya said.

Lya and Elly also learned that as the bus carrying the captured family members pulled away from Brummen, their mother was shouting, “I want my children. I want my children.”

The family was taken to the Westerbork transit camp and then to Auschwitz, where only a cousin survived.

The van Hiltens, Broers, Griffioens and van der Lees all have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Lya and Elly have remained close to the families, visiting through the years. “I loved these families. I still do,” Elly said.

Lya and Elly said they feel fortunate to have each other, each other’s families and their hiding families.

“You know what?” Lya repeated. “We do have a story to tell.”

Conan O’Brien speaking with Israeli soldiers. Screenshot from YouTube

Conan and ‘Transparent’ give Israel the normalcy it craves

“It looks just like L.A.”

A character in the Amazon series “Transparent” says this as she gets her first glimpse of Tel Aviv, and if you work for the Israeli government, or any of a number of pro-Israel groups, you probably couldn’t be happier.

Even if the show will go on to acknowledge the political and human rights mess of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and don’t worry, it will), such glimpses of an extremely appealing and otherwise normal Israel have the feel of “mission accomplished.”

The start of the fall TV season has been very good to Israel. Anxious about the BDS movement and other efforts to delegitimize Israel, its boosters were treated to a season-long arc on “Transparent” largely set in Israel, as well as an hourlong “Conan In Israel” special on TBS. “Transparent” used Israel as background and counterpoint to its usual explorations of identity, sexuality and family dysfunction, while Conan O’Brien used his charming “idiot abroad” shtick to poke gentle fun at Jews, Palestinians and mostly himself.

Yet both shows appeared to have emerged from an earlier, less complicated era when Israel was largely seen as a regional good guy and the Palestinians as an uncomfortable but ultimately solvable nuisance if only haters on both sides would let go of their broyges.

I say that realizing that “Transparent” acknowledged  the complexities and contradictions of the conflict in ways likely to anger the right. As Season 4 begins, Maura Pfefferman, the transgender matriarch of the show’s distinctly Jewish and proudly secular central family, is invited to Israel to deliver a lecture on gender and the Cold War. (All 10 episodes of “Transparent” are available on Amazon.) Pfefferman’s youngest daughter, Ali (short for Alexandra), asks to go along, having been humiliated by a former lover in a poem published in The New Yorker. She wants to go for “the history and the suffering and the bloodshed — all that real stuff.”

A scene from the fourth season of  “Transparent” featuring Jeffrey Tambor, left, and Gabi Hoffmann in Israel. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Ali, a grad student, is the most “woke” of the three grown Pfefferman children, and unsurprisingly it is through her perspective that the show relates the Palestinian experience. A feminist activist scoops her up in front of the Tel Aviv Hilton (having declined to spend money in Israel in deference to the boycott), and brings her to meet a Palestinian friend at a hip cafe in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Ali is amazed by the normalcy of life in the “Ramallah bubble,” although her companions remind her about the checkpoints and promise to “catch [her] up” on life under occupation.

Next stop is a nearby farm, where attractive young Palestinians (and at least one pro-Palestinian Jew) share their experiences. A gay man explains that he was jailed in Israel (he doesn’t say why) and that his jailers threatened to out him to his family. A Canadian-Palestinian says that Jews in the Diaspora have more claims to citizenship in the land than the Arabs who actually live there. Another says, “We can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t go to the next city.”

The episode, tellingly, is titled “Pinkwashing Machine,” an allusion to the charge that Israel asserts its positive gay rights agenda to distract from its oppression of the Palestinians.

You can almost hear the clacking of the keyboards as Jewish organizations work on their news releases refuting the Palestinians’ claims, but the scene is oddly nonconfrontational for a show that is so, well, transparent in its left-wing politics. Set outdoors around a table groaning with Palestinian food (maqluba, yum), the scene is right out of a commercial for a California wine or Olive Garden. The viewer is left wondering how bad their lives can be if they live like this. Although a wide-eyed Ali seems converted to the Palestinian cause by all she sees and hears, loyal “Transparent” watchers are by now used to her various intellectual enthusiasms, which she tends to pick up and discard as easily as her ever-changing hairstyles.

In a later episode, the Pfeffermans will debate the conflict during a bus ride to Jerusalem, but the dialogue again seems carefully, and blandly, balanced. Ali scoffs when an Israeli says there never was a Palestinian people; her mom, Shelly, counters that the Holocaust made the Jewish state a necessity. Ali reminds her family of the displaced Palestinians. Maura says there were Jews in the Holy Land well before there was an Israel.

In the end, you are left with the message that “it’s complicated,” and the family goes on to enjoy a raucous morning in the Old City. On a visit to the Western Wall — “Jesus Christ, it’s like an Orthodox Jewish Disneyland!” says one of the Pfefferman kids, not inaccurately — an androgynous-looking Ali sneaks into the men’s section. Shocking? Iconoclastic? Maybe. But considering the broad American Jewish consensus in support of pluralistic prayer at the Wall, hardly transgressive. Ultimately, “Transparent” plays it safe, assuaging Israel’s critics with a nod toward the Palestinian reality and soothing the pro-Israel crowd with a portrait of a cool, bourgeois Israel that feels like home even to Diaspora Jews as disaffected as the Pfeffermans.

Conan O’Brien filming a scene for his Israel special with Rabbi Dov Halbertal at the Tel Baruch Central synagogue in Tel Aviv. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Conan also acknowledged the Palestinians in his special, although here, too, the balance was with the Israel as the most ardent Israel booster would like it to be seen. He visits the Aida refugee camp for a sober although hardly enlightening conversation with a few of its residents. But this is Conan, and he’d rather amuse than enlighten. The brief segment includes a number of complaints about the security wall and Israel’s military, after which Conan is careful to remind viewers, “To be fair, we did not have a conversation with people who dispute these views.”

Instead, the unmistakably Irish-Catholic talk-show host jokes with handsome young men and woman on a Tel Aviv boulevard, jams with an Elvis impersonator at the beach, visits the Waze headquarters for a view of “startup nation” and trains with the IDF. He even gets face time with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an indicator, perhaps, of how seriously Israel takes the notion of hasbara — public diplomacy, as it were — and how grateful it was that Conan turned over an hour of prime time and a pervasive social media campaign to presenting Israel at its best.

It’s impossible not to enjoy Conan’s man-on-the-street bits, and he does the important work of humanizing both Jews and Palestinians, itself an accomplishment and a contribution in a region too often portrayed as a war zone. Pro-Palestinian social media, however, didn’t seem pleased with his visit, mocking him as naive and ensorcelled by the Israeli side.

But at least he went to Aida and Bethlehem, just as “Transparent” took its cast beyond the Green Line. Maybe it is impossible to capture Israelis and Palestinians in all their complexity — activists on both sides certainly don’t make it easy.

The problem in fully understanding the conflict is that the people who seem to care the most about the issue have almost no interest in hearing the other side or having them heard. That goes for Jews as well as Arabs. So both sides attack the media and other observers for trying to get a complete, nuanced picture. And the gun-shy media, when they are not taking sides, either over-correct or play it safe.

Still, given the choice between a portrait of the region that displays its antagonists as “normal” versus one that demonizes either side, I’ll take normal any day.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is JTA’s editor in chief.