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Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?

In the great new movie “The Big Sick,” Kumail Nanjiani plays a Pakistani-American stand-up comic whose traditional immigrant parents pressure him to marry a nice Pakistani girl.

Instead, he falls in love with funny blonde Emily, which sends his family into a crisis.

“Can I ask you something?” he says to his heartbroken father. “Why did you bring me to America if you don’t want me to live like an American?” 

This drama has taken place over the centuries in many American immigrant family homes — Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Greek, Arab — and hundreds of years after the first Jew touched these shores, we still are playing it out.

Last month, it was Conservative Jewry’s turn. Two prominent rabbis, trained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and members of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, announced they would begin to perform intermarriages.

Rabbi Roly Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York and Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of New York’s Lab/Shul both decided to break with the movement’s long-held prohibition on intermarriage.

A handful of other Conservative rabbis, such as Adina Lewittes, former assistant dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary, had done the same several years before them, but the high profile of these rabbis made their decision immediate news.

“The fight over intermarriage might seem like a rabbinical squabble confined to one small corner of American Judaism,” Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic. “But what’s at stake is actually the future of Jewish identity and pluralism.”

Since only about one-fifth of American Jews identify as Conservative, that may be overstating the impact. But what’s interesting about the current debate is the rabbis who are leading it can make the argument that they are the ones doing more to strengthen Jewish life and community.

For years, Jews saw intermarriage as one of the main factors chipping away at the American Jewish community, and research tended to support that view. Surveys found that as the intermarriage rate has grown, there has been an almost 30 percent drop in the number of Jews who identify as “Jews by religion.” 

But recently, something has shifted. As Green reported, a 2017 study at Brandeis University found that “millennials born to intermarried parents were much more likely to have been raised Jewish than the children of intermarriages in previous generations.”

In other words, intermarriage does not necessarily mean a loss of Jewish identity. Indeed, these rabbis believe, it could lead to a net gain in the number of people bringing Jewish practice and values into the world.

“On the whole, I feel like the motivations I and other colleagues have been talking about, in my limited data set, they’re being borne out for me,” Lewittes told me.

I called Lewittes because even though those big-name rabbis have grabbed most of the attention, she actually has been performing intermarriages since 2015, after resigning from the Conservative movement. She has officiated at six so far, with more in the works.

Lewittes, who is now rabbi at Sha’ar Communities in New Jersey, said she is choosy about which couples she will intermarry.

“I work with people who indeed genuinely both want to have a relationship with Judaism,” she said. “Both of them want to establish a Jewish home, raise a Jewish family. I say no to more people than I say yes to.”

She engages in several premarriage counseling and learning sessions with the couple and follows up with meetings and learning.

The ceremony itself is untraditional. There is no kiddushin, or ritual betrothal, and she doesn’t recite the seven blessings. Instead of a ketubah, some couples have composed a “mission statement.” There is a chuppah, or wedding canopy, and the breaking of the glass.   

Lewittes will not co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy. The ceremony, after all, also is about drawing the couple more deeply into the Jewish community.

Has it worked?

Lewittes said her admittedly small sample has been encouraging. Couples have continued to be active in her congregation. She has officiated at Jewish naming ceremonies for their children, and she has continued to teach some of them.

“The couples with whom I have worked have shown a real sense of connection to the Jewish community,” she said. “They look for ways to cultivate the seeds I was able to plant.”

Where all of this leads will be fascinating to watch. I certainly get the traditionalist argument: Marrying within your tribe is a powerful way of preserving your tribe.

But I know — we all know — too many wonderful intermarried couples. They continue to serve the community as volunteers, funders, activists. They raise children who go on to practice Judaism, embody its values and contribute to the Jewish community and the world. They succeed at being Jewish far, far better than any number of “in-married” Jewish couples who stay uncurious and uninvolved, whose biggest contribution to Jewish life was paying the rabbi who married them.

This truth puts rabbis and movements who resist intermarriage in the same bind as many were before acknowledging same-sex marriage. How do you exclude a committed, loving constituency, willing to belong and contribute to Jewish life, from meaningful Jewish rituals? Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?

The ground has shifted on this issue, and something tells me we’re about to find the answer.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

A man holds a sign reading "NYC hearts Muslims" as two other people hold signs reading "Back the Ban" and "Keep Syrians Out" at protests against and for President Donald Trump's limited travel ban. Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters

Wisdom vs. compassion

Why is there no “Good Son” in the Passover haggadah?

As most Jews know, there are “Four Sons” in the Passover liturgy: the Wise Son, the Bad Son, the Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask, and the Simple Son.

But there is no Good Son. Why not?

There would appear to be one likely answer: The rabbis considered the opposite of “bad” to be “wise.”

And they were brilliant in doing so.

Why? Because without wisdom, goodness is impossible.

This may be the great unappreciated lesson of our time. Beginning with the baby boomers, America’s most arrogant and foolish generation — the children, ironically, of what became known as the “Greatest Generation” — wisdom, which is first and foremost the idea that you learn from those who came before you, has been utterly discredited. It started in the 1960s, when the boomers entered their college years and coined their infamous slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” which perfectly encapsulates the rejection of wisdom.

Contempt for wisdom is one of the reasons religion has played less and less of a role in American life, especially American-Jewish life. After all, the Torah, for example, is well over 30 years old. Why take it seriously?

But what shall substitute for religion, the wisdom it has conveyed through millennia of generations? The answer is: compassion.

Compassion has taken over for wisdom. Is there anything more beautiful than compassion? And the beauty of being compassionate rather than wise, is that, not only is it effortless, it feels good.

The wisdom/compassion divide is at the center of the left/right divide.

No one can deny that the left uses the word “compassion” far more than the right. In fact, just the word alone silences opposition. How could it not? To oppose the left is to oppose compassion — and who wants to be accused of that?

On almost any issue, you can identify the compassion-wisdom divide, and thereby identify the left-right divide.

Should Europe take in a million refugees from the Muslim Middle East? Compassion says, of course. Wisdom says, of course not. Europe is already in a potential death spiral in large measure due to its millions of Muslim immigrants, many of whom, and many of whose children, do not share European values.

The same compassion-wisdom divide holds true regarding whether the United States should accept tens of millions more immigrants from South and Central America or hundreds of thousands from the Middle East.

Compassion demands open borders. Erecting any form of barrier, physical or legal, to the poor of the world lacks compassion. On the other hand, wisdom says that a country with open borders ceases to be a sovereign country, and loses its cultural identity.

Minimum wage is another example. Compassion demands ever and ever higher minimum wages. Wisdom asks how many young people will never be hired as a result of small businesses — such as restaurants — being unable to afford to hire new workers at such wages. 

The transgender issue provides yet another example of compassion versus wisdom.

Compassion demands that people who have gender dysphoria — a conflict between their gender identity and their biological sex/gender — always have their self-perceived identity honored. Wisdom asks what price society will pay for always honoring gender identity rather than gender:

Is it good for children that teachers in elementary schools across America are now told not to address their students as “boys and girls”? Is it fair that women’s track teams lose to other female track teams that have biological male competitors on their team? And, most important, should compassion or wisdom dictate how parents treat a child who says he or she isn’t a he or she? Compassion would seem to say that parents should do whatever possible in order to accommodate their child’s transgender identity. But wisdom notes that the overwhelming majority of young people who identify with their non-biological sex eventually fully identify with their biological sex.

Indeed, Dr. Michelle Cretella, the president of the American College of Pediatricians, says parents who place children on puberty blockers around age 11 or 12, and the doctors who support this, are engaging in “child abuse.” 

And perhaps the most obvious area of the compassion-wisdom divide is government benefits. Compassion demands that society give more and more benefits to more and more people. Wisdom asserts that those people who cannot take care of themselves be taken care of, but those who can take care of themselves should not receive unearned benefits. Benefits can hook people just like heroin does, undermine the individual’s character, and ultimately drive a government to bankruptcy. The $22 trillion our government has spent fighting the War on Poverty since the 1960s is nearly equal to the $20 trillion national debt, while the poverty rate over the same period has remained fixed at about 15 percent.

Society needs compassionate people. But compassion without wisdom leads to societal suicide. That’s why the Good Son is called the Wise Son. There is no good without wisdom.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard weekdays in
Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the internet-based Prager University (

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán appear at a news conference in Budapest on July 18. Photo by Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

In Hungary, rising anti-Semitism, growing fascism – and a Jewish renewal

On Shabbat morning in Budapest last week, Hungarian Jews did the same thing they’ve done every Shabbat for centuries: They went to shul.

But since theirs is among the world’s older and more established Jewish communities — Hungary’s first Jewish settlers arrived in Buda, west of the Danube River, as early as the 12th century — the Jews of Budapest do not daven in any ordinary shul. They pray in the historic Dohány Street Synagogue, known as “The Great Synagogue,” distinct for being the largest in Europe and the second-largest in the world.

When I arrived around 10:30 a.m. on Shabbat, I had to convince the guard I was not a tourist but a Jew who wished to pray. I passed through a metal detector and checked my phone into a lockbox, before I was ushered down a corridor to the synagogue doors.

Built in the mid-19th century in the Moorish Revival style, Dohány is one of Budapest’s most popular tourist destinations. Countless tour buses pass here daily, offloading visitors to take selfies in front of its grand, red-brick façade. Tourists visit even on Shabbat, when the synagogue and its adjacent museum, built on the site where Theodor Herzl was born, are closed to the public.

Passing through the synagogue doors feels like entering a secret world. The interior is opulent and stately: With three gallery levels, stained glass, glimmering chandeliers and a ceiling so high you must tilt your head to see the frescoes hovering above, the synagogue rivals the great cathedrals of Europe. There are enough pews to seat 3,000 people. And it is easy to imagine a time when it did.

But this Shabbat, just 30 are davening Musaf.

Most of the congregants appeared older and male. Wrapped in tallitot, they scattered themselves among the pews as if they were leaving room for latecomers. Toward the front, a young couple flirted over an imaginary mechitzah, since the vast upper galleries that once served as the women’s section have long been abandoned. Still, the presence of youth felt promising, until I discovered the couple was not Hungarian, but Israeli. And they were only visiting.

In front of me, an elderly, petite woman dressed in black turned around and tried to make conversation in Hungarian. Seeing my perplexed expression, she switched to English.

“I’m a survivor,” she whispered. 

At the end of the service, an eerie silence swept in, replacing the cantor’s chanting. The congregation departed in unison and gathered around a small memorial to say Kaddish with a feeling that suggested this is what they were here for — after all, this community was decimated during the Holocaust, when it is estimated as many as 600,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and killed inside of eight weeks. If there is any one thing that defines the Jews of Budapest, it is loss.

I turned to the survivor and asked if there is still anti-Semitism here.

“There are anti-Semites everywhere!” she said with a thick accent. Then she leaned in, as if to tell me a secret. “People don’t love us. I don’t know why.”

A defaced, government-sponsored billboard in Hungary, part of a campaign targeting Jewish financier George Soros. It reads, “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Many say it comes with anti-Semitic overtones.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why Hungarian Jews feel unloved. Their community was nearly annihilated during World War II, and even that catastrophe is but one example in a long history of anti-Semitic deeds and policies carried out both by the general population and successive Hungarian governments. The Communist rule that followed World War II sustained many of the Nazi-era, anti-Jewish hostilities that devastated the community.

Today, Hungarian Jews continue to live on edge. Although they carry on with normal lives and daily routines, they cannot shake a feeling of dread. Most of them move about their days trailed by an uneasy feeling that danger lurks just around the corner, and that no matter how “good” life might get, it all could disappear in an instant.

So it isn’t a stretch to connect the pestilence of anti-Semitism that has plagued this community for centuries with the fact that only 30 people are praying in a synagogue built for 3,000. But to offer only a grim portrayal of another lost community of Europe would belie a more complicated reality for Hungarian Jews.

Jewish life in Hungary has suffered primal and perhaps permanent wounds, but the country’s remaining Jews are dogged and determined. There is plenty of evidence that they are striving to pursue avenues to Jewish identity despite rising anti-Semitism and deep distrust in a right-wing, authoritarian government many say is duplicitous.

“The prime minister has said and written that our government will defend the Jewish community and the Jews here in Hungary,” Chief Rabbi Robert Frölich told me. “That’s what he says.”

“Do you believe him?” I ask.

“I believe in God and that the Mashiach will come,” he replied.

In recent weeks, tensions with the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have escalated. Although the government professes official support for the Jewish community in public statements and gatherings, it also encourages a Hungarian ethnic nationalism that undermines it. Words like Lebensraum (“living space”) have crept into national discourse in recent years, used to describe Hungarian geopolitical goals the same way Hitler used the term. To gin up national pride, Orbán has praised former Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy, the World War II regent who oversaw the deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews to death camps. Although some believe Horthy conspired in private to defy Hitler, his rise to power in 1920 was accompanied by the “White Terror,” a two-year campaign of violence and repression that targeted Jews, and his government is credited with passing the first anti-Semitic law of the 20th century.

Chief Rabbi Robert Frölich

Even if, as some say, he saved Jews, he wasn’t exactly Oskar Schindler. Orbán described Horthy as an “exceptional statesman.”

Earlier this month, the government displayed its indifference to Jewish sensitivities when it sponsored a multimillion-dollar anti-immigration campaign, targeting Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros, whose face is plastered on thousands of bus stops and billboards around the country. “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh,” the poster reads in Hungarian, referring to the Holocaust survivor’s support for policies that would allow immigrants to enter the country.

“He is public enemy No. 1,” said Judy K., a 64-year-old teacher and private tutor who asked that her full name not be printed, referring to Orbán. “There is an atmosphere of intimidation here and they can easily retaliate.” She said the Soros campaign is a perfect example. “It reminds me of the [George] Orwell novel ‘1984’ because it seems as if the government is following the same script: Pinpoint the scapegoat who can be blamed for everything,” she said. “And it has rather severe anti-Semitic connotations.”

Many in the Jewish community agree that the campaign panders to anti-Semitic tropes, depicting Soros as a wealthy internationalist Jew with outsized power who poses a threat to the Hungarian nation. Soros has compared the campaign against him to “Europe’s darkest hours,” a reference to the Nazi years, adding in a statement last week, “I am distressed by the current Hungarian regime’s use of anti-Semitic imagery as part of its deliberate disinformation campaign.”

Jewish concern with the campaign is reflected in the Anti-Defamation League’s definition of anti-Semitism, which it defines as “a form of hatred, mistrust, and contempt for Jews based on a variety of stereotypes and myths, [which] often invoke the belief that Jews have extraordinary influence with which they conspire to harm or control society. It can target Jews as individuals, as a group or as a people.” 

The Soros campaign made international headlines in recent weeks after leaders in the Hungarian community denounced its sinister undertones. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, wrote a carefully worded letter to Orbán asking him to remove the posters. Although “not openly anti-Semitic, [the campaign] is capable of inducing anti-Semitic sentiments,” Heisler wrote.

In a rather tetchy response, Orbán replied that his campaign against immigration was in fact protecting the Jewish community. “I don’t expect thanks or recognition for our struggle against illegal migration, but a little help from your community would be nice.” 

It is amid this fraught atmosphere that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an official visit to the country this week, the first by a sitting Israeli prime minister since 1989, when Yitzhak Shamir made an unofficial visit to Budapest for one day. But locals had low expectations and mixed feelings about Netanyahu’s historic visit.

“We don’t really care; it doesn’t really help us,” Kata Nadas, a 33-year-old Jewish tour guide told me.

If there was any hope that the Israeli prime minister might provide moral support to the local community and denounce the Soros campaign, it was dashed when instead of criticizing the government, he criticized Soros.

Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest in Europe. Photo from Wikipedia

“If Netanyahu is a person who doesn’t think this [campaign] is anti-Semitism, then for me, if he’s here or not here, it doesn’t make a difference,” Nadas said.

By the afternoon of July 18, news had spread that Orbán struck all the right rhetorical notes with the Israeli leader. “I made it clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the government will secure the Jewish minority and that we have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism,” he said.

In a stunning about-face, he also appeared to accept responsibility for Hungarian collaboration in the Holocaust. “We decided in World War II, instead of protecting the Jewish community, to cooperate with the Nazis. This will never happen again. Former Hungarian governments made a sin not protecting Jews.”

Despite Orbán’s overtures to Netanyahu, Hungarian Jews question his sincerity. In 2014, Orbán came under fire for hastily erecting a Holocaust monument that many felt whitewashed Hungary’s crimes. Although the monument is a memorial to victims of World War II and includes an inscription in Hebrew, it depicts Hungary as the archangel Gabriel as he’s about to be mauled by a German imperial eagle, a clear implication that Hungary was an innocent victim of Germany, and not a willing accomplice. It raised the ire of locals who erected their own counter-monument in protest.

Orbán’s latest concession to the Israeli prime minister looked to some like a quid pro quo for Netanyahu’s refusal to denounce the anti-Soros campaign.

Last week, Israel’s ambassador to Budapest, Yossi Amrani, published a statement on the Israeli embassy’s Facebook page, calling for “those involved in the current billboard campaign … to reconsider.”

“The campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” he said. “It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle.”

But soon after his message was posted, Israel’s foreign ministry stepped in and backpedaled. “Israel deplores any expression of anti-Semitism in any country and stands with Jewish communities everywhere in confronting this hatred,” the statement read. But, “in no way was the [ambassador’s] statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected government by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

Hungarian Jews felt betrayed. Even if Netanyahu has a legitimate beef with Soros, who has supported organizations in the Jewish state that have criticized his government, to allow the Hungarian government to depict him as a singular source of menace and evil — in a country that associates him with Judaism — it was a step too far.

“Whether the intention behind the campaign was consciously anti-Semitic or not, the posters both verbally and visually resemble political discourse in the interwar years, and even worse,” Rabbi Radnóti Zoltán wrote to me via email. “By now it is clear that it evokes dormant anti-Semitism: several of the posters have been inscribed with Stars of David or slogans such as ‘dirty Jew.’ It is pure hate-speech directed against one individual — who happens to be a millionaire and a Jew, which [several forums], including state media, are eager to point out.”

The back and forth over this campaign has been intense. Paul Nussbaum, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, told me, “I broke my long-standing rule, which is: I never publicly criticize the Israeli government in writing because I consider it to be ‘inside baseball,’ but this is not inside baseball.”

Nussbaum is the son of two Hungarian Holocaust survivors and has relatives who live here. Last week, he traveled to Budapest to protest the Soros campaign in a meeting with Orbán’s top ministers. “It is very disappointing to see the Israeli leader pandering to the right-wing, totalitarian, revisionist government in Hungary,” Nussbaum said. “Orbán has been ostracized by the European Union and the European community because of his turn to the right and his dismantling of democratic institutions.”

The majority of local Jews I spoke to expressed dismay at what they see as an unholy alliance between Orbán and Netanyahu. Many say it is symptomatic of a worldwide trend in which populist leaders are using their mandate to dismantle or diminish democratic institutions and weaken opposition to their power. It is not uncommon to hear comparisons of Orbán with Netanyahu, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — and President Donald Trump.

“These illiberal governments get legitimacy from each other,” Nussbaum said. “Their club is a very small club.”

Some describe Orbán’s governing style as “state capture.”

“His policy is divide and rule,” Judy K., the teacher said. “We have a completely incapacitated opposition, and there are no checks and balances to check those in power — for example, there are no opposition members in any of the major institutions, including the constitutional court, law enforcement and legislation.”

The economy also is stagnant. “The middle class is shrinking very rapidly,” Judy K. added, “and Orbán has waged a war against the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians have left to work in Germany, Austria and London. The young professionals have left. People cannot make plans for the future because it is so unpredictable. This is not a pretty picture.”

But it does provide a perfect opportunity for a scapegoat.

“What you do when the domestic situation is awful is you try to get everyone to focus on something beyond the domestic,” Nussbaum said. “So you focus on borders and followers of Islam coming through and destroying Hungarian culture. That’s why you could successfully wage the Soros campaign, which is like a cartoon out of Der Stürmer, [the Nazi-era tabloid], or ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ It works: You blame your problems on a Jewish extra-rich capitalist who is trying to control events inside the country.

Chief Rabbi Frölich also said the economic downturn is partly to blame for the rise in anti-Semitism. “When people become poorer and poorer, they have to find someone to blame. This is the experience of the last couple hundred years; the Jews are always there to be blamed.”

Despite general indifference to Netanyahu’s visit, some say it is a powerful signal to Orbán that Hungarian Jews are a force to be reckoned with, and Jewish leaders welcomed a show of solidarity with Netanyahu’s office.   

“When the prime minister of Israel visits us, it’s an honor for us,” Frölich said. “It shows that we cannot be put down, that we are a significant part of Hungarian society.”

Although he stopped short of describing Hungarian Jewry as flourishing, Frölich said Jewish life in Budapest is strong. Population estimates hover around 100,000. The city has synagogues, schools and kosher restaurants. There are Jewish newspapers, Jewish theater and Jewish cultural events. Earlier this month, the Jewish street fair, “Judafest,” celebrated its 10th anniversary, convening 28 Jewish organizations and attracting an estimated 10,000 Jews for a weekend of cultural, educational and religious programs.

“Jewish life is pretty good here because you have everything you need to keep your religious life — you can go to services every morning, you have kosher food, you have a Jewish educational system — anything you need, you have,” said Frölich, who ministers at Dohany Street Synagogue.

A Jewish summer festival in Budapest is a sign of a reawakened community.

Chabad Rabbi Slomó Köves, who leads the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH), also offered an optimistic portrait.

“When I look at Jewish life in Hungary, I see that religious life and communal life is thriving,” he said by phone from Berlin.

The 38-year-old Köves was born in Hungary to secular parents but now leads an Orthodox congregation. “To be Jewish today in Hungary, you don’t need a survival strategy,” he said. “But if I go to France and walk down the street in a kippah, I need a survival strategy.

“I’m speaking to you now from Berlin,” he added, “and when I entered the synagogue, I had to go through three gates of security. In Hungary, if you go to the synagogue, you can go freely.”

When I point out that I had to pass through security myself on Shabbat, he challenged me. “Where?” he asked. “You should go to different synagogues. If you go to any synagogue in Europe, you have to call ahead and give your passport. But forget about this. Just look at the figures.”

Köves cited statistics from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which tracks hate crimes throughout the continent. According to the OSCE, in 2015 there were 786 anti-Semitic incidents in the United Kingdom, 715 in France and 79 in Hungary in 2014, the latest year statistics are available. The U.K. and French governments report their own statistics, while Hungary depends upon “civil society” reporting.

“I’m not saying there’s no work to do; anti-Semitism in Hungary is definitely an issue,” Köves said. “But it’s very different from anti-Semitism in Western European countries. Since there is no Muslim community here in Hungary, there’s practically no anti-Semitic assault.”

Ah, there’s the rub.

Muslims, of course, are the real target of the government’s anti-Soros campaign. The feared “illegal immigration” and “migrant” problem that has obsessed Orbán’s government for the past several years is a direct reference to the wave of Syrian and other refugees fleeing war and famine in the Middle East.

“In their [Hungarian government’s] proxy war against the immigrant, Soros has become a symbolic figure of somebody who is for bringing in immigrants,” Köves said. But that should not, he insisted, be confused with anti-Semitism.

“I wouldn’t call [the Soros campaign] anti-Semitism; I would call it something which touches on sensitive nerves of the general public and the Jewish community,” he said. “This political campaign is definitely, in my view, not a very elegant one, but I believe it’s a mistake if we turn the criticism into a Jewish criticism. It could end up a self-fulfilling prophecy. … Even if some people think it could be understood [as] anti-Semitism, why should I come and confirm them? Why should I say to the general public, ‘Well, whoever criticizes Soros is an anti-Semite.’ ”

Judy K. said Köves and his community provide cover for the Hungarian government. “Orbán uses his closeness [to the EMIH community] to demonstrate that he wants to protect Jews against the migrants.”

But the majority of Hungarian Jews I spoke to weren’t mincing words. “Anti-Semitism runs deep, deep in the Hungarian DNA,” said Hungarian-born film producer Robert Lantos, who is a friend of mine.

Even for Soros haters, the anti-immigration campaign reeks of something rotten. And yet, like Netanyahu, Lantos feels no love lost for Soros, who has contributed millions of dollars to left-leaning organizations in Israel, some of which define themselves as human rights groups, most of them ferociously critical of Netanyahu’s government. “Soros is an enemy of Israel and there’s no reason for Israel to defend him,” Lantos said.

As far as I can tell, Hungarian Jews are like most Jews: proud, opinionated, diverse, defensive, politically differentiated and devoted to Jewish continuity. The difference for those who live here is that they live with a persistent, gnawing anxiety, “an intangible kind of threat,” as Judy K. put it, that exists just beneath the surface of civility but which could explode into physical danger or violence at any moment.

How thin is the veil that could eclipse the good life they’ve worked so hard to rebuild? After all, Hungary is a place in which the memory of the Holocaust is not a distant story but an ever-present reality. It transpired on its neighborhood street corners and along the beautiful banks of the Danube River, the now merged cities of Buda on one side, Pest on the other. For Hungarian Jews, this country will always exist as part living graveyard.

How much longer will things remain tolerable?

The threat of anti-Semitism “is growing stronger and stronger,” Frölich said. “The dangerous level is when anti-Semitism shows itself in deeds. Now, here in Hungary, we have ‘only’ the verbal anti-Semitism. But we’re not so far from the dangerous level.”

Rabbi Avi Weiss leading a vigil and march in New York City in remembrance of the three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank days earlier on June 30, 2014. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Here is the Chief Rabbinate’s ‘blacklist’ of American rabbis

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has a list of some 160 rabbis it does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants.

To get married in Israel, immigrants must prove they are Jewish to the Chief Rabbinate, often via a letter by a congregational rabbi attesting to the immigrant’s Jewish identity. This list comprises rabbis whose letters were rejected during 2016. Rabbis from 24 different countries appear on the list, which includes several prominent American Orthodox leaders.


Rabbi Seth Farber: The Chief Rabbinate’s blacklist isn’t defending Judaism. It’s undermining it.

David Benkof: There’s no ‘blacklist’ of rabbis

JTA has transcribed the list of 66 United States rabbis into English, and has listed the 60 verifiable names below in alphabetical order, along with denomination.

JTA obtained the list from Itim, an organization that guides Israelis through the country’s religious bureaucracy, which has called the list a “blacklist.” JTA’s publication of this list should not be viewed as an endorsement.

Below is the list of United States rabbis, in  alphabetical order by first name. Several of the rabbis have died, but may have written letters attesting to congregants’ Jewish identity while still alive.

Alberto Zeilicovich, Conservative
Alexander Davis, Conservative
Alfredo Winter , Conservative
Amos Miller, Conservative
Arthur Rulnick, Conservative
Arthur Weiner , Conservative
Arthur Zuckerman, Conservative
Avi Weiss, Orthodox
Barry Dolinger, Orthodox
Baruch Goodman, Orthodox
Bernard Gerson, Conservative
Dan Ornstein, Conservative
Daniel Kraus, Orthodox
David Rosen, Orthodox
David Wortman, Reform
David Zaslow, Renewal
Eli Kogan, Orthodox
Eliezer Hirsch, Orthodox
George Nudell, Conservative
Gerald Serotta, Reform
Gil Steinlauf, Conservative
Harold Berman, Conservative
Irwin Groner, Conservative
Isaac Lehrer, Conservative
Jacob Max , Orthodox
Jason Herman, Orthodox
Jay Rosenbaum, Reform
Joseph Potasnik, Orthodox
Joseph Radinsky, Orthodox
Josh Blass, Orthodox
Joshua Skoff, Conservative
Ken Carr, Reform
Kenneth Roseman, Reform
Leonard Gordon, Conservative
Leonid Feldman, Conservative
Marcelo Bronstein, Conservative
Mario Karpuj, Conservative
Melvin Sirner, Conservative
Michael Pont, Conservative
Michael Siegel, Conservative
Morris Allen, Conservative
Paul Plotkin, Conservative
Paul Schneider, Conservative
Paul Yedwab, Reform
Peter Grumbacher, Reform
Pinchas Chatzinoff, Orthodox
Sam Fraint, Conservative
Seth Adelson, Conservative
Seymour Siegel, Conservative
Shay Mintz, Orthodox
Shimon Paskow, Conservative
Shimon Russel, Orthodox
Stephen Goodman, Reform
Stephen Mason, Reform
Stephen Steindel, Conservative
Steve Schwartz, Conservative
Steven Denker, Reform
Yaakov Kalmanofsky, Conservative
Yaier Lerer, Conservative
Yehoshua Fass, Orthodox

Offerings at “Chai Havdalah” on July 8 in Sherman Oaks included a cannabis-infused challah. Photo by Brian Feinzimer

Jews get ‘Chai’ at cannabis Havdalah

Sporting a black hat and a long, black beard in a Sherman Oaks backyard, Alex Klein raised the Havdalah spices to his nose to consecrate the passage from Shabbat into a new week. Taking a whiff, he let out a whoop: The small silver container held a pungent helping of cannabis.

Klein led the blessings for “Chai Havdalah,” a cannabis soiree signaling an increasing openness toward the plant in the Jewish community and beyond. For the cost of a $36 ticket, guests sampled catered courses of cannabis-infused cuisine and tested the wares of weed entrepreneurs, all the while passing around as much pot as they could smoke.

When Klein and his wife, Shifra, arrived at about 9:30 p.m. July 8, the party was in full swing, enveloped in a pungent cloud. Unlike the mostly nonobservant Jewish attendees, the pair, Chabad devotees, were late because they needed to wait to turn on their phone and get in a car — and, of course, to use a lighter.

“You know what I’ve been doing on the way over here,” Klein joked over the PA system as he worked the crowd during the Havdalah service.

As soon as the Kleins extinguished the ritual candle in a saucer of wine to conclude the rites, a softcore reggae band picked up where it had left off, moving harmoniously from a Jewish hymn, “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” to the stoner classic “Pass the Dutchie.” Meanwhile, guests picked at platters of pastries provided by the Kleins, who together run Mitzva Herbal Co., which touts Orthodox Union certification. A party subcontractor, Venice, Calif.-based WeedBar LA, used electronic bongs to serve up concentrated marijuana.

The event exists in a legal gray area, according to Catherine Goldberg, the marijuana marketer and entrepreneur who organized the event. All cannabis products used were donated by growers and producers, so guests only paid for the music, snacks and atmosphere.

“People are welcome to come and consume whatever they want, but there’s no financial transaction,” Goldberg said.

She decided to host the event after moving to Los Angeles about a year ago and attending a number of weed gatherings. Simultaneously, she started to notice a profusion of Jews in the weed industry.

“Jewish people are anxious and weed helps with anxiety,” she said. “I knew it just went together perfectly.”

Goldberg, who grew up attending a Reform synagogue in Miami, said she’d attended only one Havdalah service before, but felt the event would be a good chance to bring together Jewish cannabis enthusiasts and showcase local entrepreneurs like the Kleins. She said she plans to host Chai Havdalah on a seasonal basis, and also to launch smaller, more intimate “Chai Shabbat” events for Friday evenings.

With tickets available on, many of the 50 or so guests who attended Chai Havadalah found it online, or otherwise through the local cannabis community, and came to network or to let loose.

Maddy Le Mel, a 75-year-old Jewish mixed-media artist whose work appears in galleries around Los Angeles, came with two Jewish friends, also 75.

Le Mel said that when she started smoking cannabis 40 years ago she couldn’t have imagined one day attending a publicly advertised event where consenting adults came together to get legally stoned. “Never thought it was going to happen,” she said.

She found the party to be a welcome reprieve from her home life, where she deals with her husband’s dementia and other family struggles.

“These girls were like, ‘Let’s just bust out!’ ” Le Mel said. “I just want a really light, fun time, because my life is heavy.”

One of her friends, who also has a husband with dementia, chimed in solemnly: “My husband does not know I’m here.”

“This a very odd experience,” added the third woman.

Both of Le Mel’s friends declined to give their names, worried it could impact their licenses to practice as psychotherapists. Each started smoking within the past year to relieve chronic pain.

The evening’s chef, Holden Jagger, said the party was the first legal Jewish cannabis event he was aware of. He prepared two weed-infused loaves of challah and spiked chocolate baba ghanoush, along with non-psychoactive brisket, latkes and double-fried kugel.

Jagger, 33, a graduate of a local Jewish day school, the Wise School, co-founded a cannabis catering service, Altered Plates, with his sister Rachel after leaving a more conventional culinary career that included a stint as the pastry chef of Soho House in West Hollywood. Before the switch, he worked under the name Holden Burkons; he now uses his middle name as his last.

During his journey into the world of cooking with cannabis, Jagger has come across a good number of Jews — although never before gathered to partake in a Jewish ritual. He hoped to cater other such events in the future.

“I’m excited to do more,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s a lot of Jews in the cannabis industry. We tend to like cannabis quite a bit.”

Activist Linda Sarsour in New York City on June 29. Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters

How the Dems can lose 2018

Last week, the Democrats released a new bumper sticker for their 2018 Congressional campaign: “I mean, have you seen the other guys?”

It’s not a bad political notion so far as it goes — opposition in politics is an effective tool, as Democrats learned from Republicans, who campaigned against Obamacare and Democratic spending policies to the tune of 1,000 state legislature seats, 12 governorships (including in states such as Michigan and Massachusetts), 10 Senate seats and 63 House seats. Now Democrats hope to reverse the math.

But there’s something else going on here, too. Democrats hope that campaigning as #TheResistance will suffice to prevent voters from looking too hard at their own moral and political shortcomings. That’s because for all the talk by Democrats about Republican extremism, Republicans actually have moved closer to the center on policy, while Democrats have embraced an ugly combination of Bernie Sanders-style socialism and college campus-style intersectionality.

Leave aside the boorish antics of President Donald Trump and the incompetence of Congressional Republicans. Here is the fact: Trump is the most moderate Republican president since Richard Nixon. He has successfully passed almost no major policy in seven months. His foreign policy on North Korea and Syria is barely distinguishable from former President Barack Obama’s. His approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been praised by Palestinians and former Obama officials. He’s the most pro-LGBT Republican in presidential history; his stance on abortion has been vague; his White House chief strategist has openly embraced higher taxes on upper-income earners, as well as a massive infrastructure spending program; he has embraced the central premises of Obamacare. Trump may act in ridiculous ways that defy rationality — his Twitter feed is littered with stupidity and aggression, of course — but on policy, Trump is closer to Bill Clinton of 1997 than President Obama was.

Democrats, meanwhile, are moving hard to the left. When former Clinton adviser Mark Penn wrote an op-ed for The New York Times calling for Democrats to move back to the center, he was roundly excoriated by the leading thinkers in the Democratic Party. He was an emissary of the past; he had to embrace the new vision of the leftist future. That leftist future involved radical tax increases, fully nationalized health care, and — most of all — the divisive politics of intersectionality. Sens. Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) may own the policy side of the Democratic coalition, but the heart of the Democratic coalition lies in polarization by race, sex and sexual orientation. Forget a cohesive national message that appeals to Americans regardless of tribal identity: The new Democratic Party cares only about uniting disparate identity factions under the banner of opposing Republicanism.

The clearest evidence for that alliance of convenience came earlier this month, when Democratic darling and Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour was caught on tape promoting “jihad” against Trump. Sarsour said that the sort of “jihad” she liked was “a word of truth in front of a tyrant or leader.” But she deliberately used the word “jihad” because of its ambiguity, not in spite of it: Sarsour has stated that pro-Israel women cannot be feminists; she supports the imposition of “Shariah law” in Muslim countries; she has stated of dissident and female genital mutilation victim Ayaan Hirsi Ali that she wishes she could take her “vagina away”; she has long associated with the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood; she opened her “jihad” speech by thanking Siraj Wajjah, an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who has repeatedly advocated for a violent form of “jihad.”

Democrats hope that campaigning as #TheResistance will suffice to prevent voters from looking too hard at their own moral and political shortcomings.

Democrats rushed to her defense nonetheless, hoping to preserve the intersectional concerns that animate their base. Never mind that Sarsour is no ally to LGBT rights, or that she blames “Zionists” for her problems. She represents an important constituency for Democrats, and so she must be protected. More than that, she speaks anti-Trumpese fluently, and thus is an important figure for Democrats.

This isn’t rare on the left anymore. Much of the Democratic establishment supported Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a longtime Nation of Islam acolyte who spent years defending that group’s most extreme anti-Semitic rhetoric — a man so radical that he openly associated with the Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which recently labeled Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) an “Israel Firster.”

Even as the Democratic Party embraced Sarsour and defended her ambiguous use of the word “jihad” — after all, she was opposing Trump the Impaler — leftist spokespeople rushed to microphones to denounce President Trump’s speech in Poland, in which he called for a defense of “the West” and “our civilization.” Leftist columnist Peter Beinart labeled the speech racist. As Jonah Goldberg of National Review points out, we now have a Democratic Party that spends its time defending the use of the word “jihad” against the president but labeling the phrase “the West” a problem.

Bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see how it works out.

And so Democrats must focus on President Trump. They must hope that he smacks himself in the face with a frying pan. They must bank on some sort of Trump-Russia collusion revelation. They must pray that the focus stays on Republicans rather than turning back to Democrats. After all, Sanders-Sarsour doesn’t sound like a winning combination.

BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

Photo: Reuters/Ina Fassbender

The Origins of the Jews exchange, part 3: Between roots and politics

Steven Weitzman is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and the Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center of Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Weitzman received his Ph.D. from Harvard University after completing his B.A. at UC Berkeley and spent several years teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, where he served as director of its Jewish Studies program for six years. Before moving to Penn, he was the Daniel E. Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and the director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University. Professor Weitzman is the author of several books, including Surviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2005); Religion and the Self in Antiquity (Indiana University Press, 2005); The Jews: A History (Prentice Hall, 2009); and a biography of King Solomon (Yale University Press, 2011). 

The following exchange will focus on Professor Weitzman’s new book, The Origins of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (Princeton University Press, 2017). You can find parts 1 here and here.


Dear Professor Weitzman,

In your last response, you mentioned your book’s treatment of the controversial idea of the “invention of the Jewish people.” Now, the careful, nuanced reading you present in the book about the scholarly debate between constructivists (who see nations as artificial constructs created by cultural elites and historians) and primordialsts (who see them as an organic continuation of deep premodern social relationships and self-identity) could be, I believe, of interest to anyone who is interested in the current state of Zionism and Jewish peoplehood.

In your second-round response, you stated that your book “is not an attempt to convince the public to accept the scholarship.” But it seems difficult to imagine anyone not being affected by seeing that the idea that “nations are ‘invented’ out of scratch” is actually “the dominant model for how to understand the rise of nations” among scholars.

For my third question, I’d like to ask you to elaborate on the effects of the general public (and the Jewish public in particular) taking this debate seriously. My question: what, if any, political positions and attitudes, or political uses of formative myths, are harder to accept after exposure to this debate and the research that informs it? And is there really a way to engage in this subject in a completely non-political way?

I’d like to thank you once again for the book and for doing this exchange,




Dear Shmuel,

For those who take the scholarship seriously, there is (possibly) bad news and there is good news.

First the bad news, or at least the confusing news. Scholarship cannot resolve the debate over the origin of the Jews, and what it has learned, in my view, is helpful to neither the right or the left of the political or religious spectrum. It challenges the classic Zionist narrative of continuity between the biblical age and the present, but it also challenges the anti-Zionist views of people like Shlomo Sand who believe that Jewish nationhood is a modern (and destructive) invention. If approached in an honest and clear-eyed way, the scholarship in this case just doesn’t cooperate with people’s political agendas.

This isn’t to suggest that scholarship can never address political questions. I am speaking only about the scholarship of Jewish origin. From a scholarly perspective, the beginning of the Jewish story is a kind of blank slate. We just don’t know for certain how the Jews originated–we can only speculate–and that gap has been filled in by people’s biases and political agenda. Since people’s efforts to answer the question have done a lot of damage along the way, fuelling antisemitism and political conflict, it is in my view better to simply acknowledge that the question is one that scholarship can never resolve. Especially for a scholar, it is really hard to admit that there are questions beyond one’s reach, but this is one of those cases.

In case you are curious about my own politics and how it shaped this book, I can offer the following. I’d like to think that I did not allow politics to color my own view of the scholarship. I tried to be as open minded and even handed as I could in the treatment of others’ research, taking seriously views I disagreed with myself and always trying to look at both sides of the various debates that the issue has provoked. But I can’t kid myself; the scholarship of Jewish origin has always been colored by politics, and I’d be foolish to think my own account was exempt from that.

For me, what the scholarship suggests politically is the need to be humble and self-reflective in one’s treatment of others and their origin stories. I am proudly Jewish myself and strongly identify with the people of Israel. What I learn from the history of scholarship is that I do not understand as much about my origins as I thought I did, and that has implications for how I think about others and how they understand their origins. I suppose that conclusion supports a politics of modesty, empathy and reconciliation.

But the fact that scholars bring political views to their scholarship does not negate the value of scholarship as a collective enterprise. The scholar is one who undertakes the struggle to apprehend the truth of things from within the limits of human perception and judgement. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if scholarship mirrors the political commitments of the scholars who produce it. But human beings haven’t found a better way to step outside their own parochial political views, or a better way to see beyond the limits of their own self interest, and so, even as I admit that the scholarship of Jewish origin has been led astray by the politics, I still fully embrace scholarship itself as the best way for human beings to apprehend the truth of things.

I’ve enjoyed our exchange very much, Shmuel, and wish you the best in your own quest for understanding.

Steve Weitzman


Women of the Wall members bringing Torahs to the Western Wall on Nov. 2, 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Undermining unity at the Kotel won’t make Reform great again

Chabad lore tells a story of one of the rebbes playing with his brother as a child. Though the brother was older, he was also shorter.  Wanting to look his age, the older boy told  the younger one to dig a hole in the ground and step inside. The boys’ father saw this from the window and reprimanded his son. “If you want to be taller,” he said, “make yourself a mound and get up on it. But don’t drive your brother into a hole.”

In the past days, as the sanctity of the Kotel is being torn apart I am reminded of this story.

In the same breath that Netanyahu scrapped the Kotel deal, he also revealed plans to expand and enhance the Southern section, which is the deal’s centerpiece. In fact, this section of the Kotel has been available for  prayer by any denomination for over twenty years.

So if anybody can continue to pray at this part of the Kotel any way they like, what’s all the fuss over the dead compromise? Why are American Jewish leaders talking about “rethinking” their connection with Israel and stopping to fly El Al? What’s the battlecry all about?

Anyone thinking it’s all about prayer and freedom of religion should think again. As Lesley Sachs, the CEO of Women of the Wall, has so aptly put it, it’s all about power. Here’s why.

Since the alternative prayer area has been around for years, the Kotel compromise introduced two changes, creating equal joint entry and establishing an official governing body for is plaza, made up of Reform and Conservative representatives.

The deal is crucial for the liberal movements as the last chance to save themselves. With membership in the US in free fall, both Reform and Conservative leaders are looking for new “markets”. Both movements combined represent only 25% of American Jewry. The situation is so dire, that the Reform movement was forced to sell half of its offices in NY to fund programming, and liberal synagogues across the US are downsizing or closing down for lack of worshippers, making premises available for nearby booming Orthodox communities.

Enter the Kotel deal. The new section would have signaled official recognition of the liberal movements by the State of Israel and paved the way for attracting new recruits.

Creating an official non-Orthodox prayer plaza at the Kotel would have enable the liberal movements to re-educate both Israeli and Diaspora Jewry about what Judaism looks like.

Outside of North America, in Israel, Europe, Russia, and Australia, when Jews want to pray they go to an Orthodox synagogue, even if they are not observant in their private life. Reform and Conservative movements are negligible there.

This is the main reason the Kotel is run like an Orthodox synagogue. For the overwhelming majority of Jews worldwide, this is the face of Jewish holy places.

By creating an alternative at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest place, the liberal movements had hoped to create legitimacy  in the eyes of Israeli and visiting Jews. For if you can pray this way at the Kotel, why not look up (or establish) a liberal community back home.

While I disagree with the Reform and Conservative rejection of the Torah, attracting new membership is certainly their prerogative. But tearing the holiest Jewish site apart is not the way to do it. Questioning the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry only hurts all of us. Bashing the Israeli Orthodox community isn’t what’s going to make the liberal movements great again.

If Reform and Conservative leaders want to swell their ranks, perhaps they should rethink what can and should be done to inspire more Jews to experience and commitment to Judaism. Maybe they should consider what makes traditional Jewish practice attractive to young Jews and do more of that.

Instead they have set to drum up membership by turning the Orthodox and Israel into an enemy and inciting divisiveness.

Two hundred years ago, the Rebbe  had a better idea. Find higher ground. Become a beacon. And maybe they will come.

Don’t drive us all into the ground.

Leah Aharoni is the co-founder of Women For the Wall, a grassroots organization devoted to preserving the sanctity of the Kotel in the spirit of Jewish unity.

Charedi Orthodox men praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

American Orthodox rabbis are ambivalent about Western Wall controversy

American Orthodox leaders have a message for their non-Orthodox friends: Take a deep breath.

When Israel’s cabinet voted twice to further empower the country’s Charedi Orthodox religious establishment last month, Reform, Conservative and non-Orthodox Zionist leaders were outraged. They cancelled meetings with Israel’s prime minister. They gave an on-camera statement with an Israeli opposition figure. They launched lobbying efforts in Jerusalem. They accused Israel’s government of “betrayal.” They threatened legal action. One lay-leader said she’d stop flying El Al, Israel’s national airline.

These leaders have decried the June 25 votes to suspend the agreement to expand the Western Wall’s non-Orthodox prayer area and to advance a bill that gave Israel’s Chief Rabbinate more power over Jewish conversions. This week, leaders have also criticized the rabbinate’s so-called “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis it does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants to Israel.

But when it comes to the supposed crisis swirling between Israel and U.S. Jewry, America’s most prominent Orthodox organizations have remained mostly quiet. The Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America, two umbrella American Orthodox bodies, both told JTA they are not commenting on the matter. The RCA will be meeting with the rabbinate next week regarding the list of rabbis, having received assurances that the “blacklist” may have been misconstrued.

And while some modern Orthodox rabbis have criticized Israel’s actions, they have not called for retaliatory action against the Israeli government. Others sympathize with what they see as the Chief Rabbinate’s defense of traditional Jewish law.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent modern Orthodox leader, was sympathetic with his non-Orthodox colleagues — up to a point.  “I’m disappointed in the modern Orthodox for not responding strongly, because of the divisive effect that this has on the Jewish people,” said Lookstein, the rabbi emeritus of Kehilath Jeshurun, a modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “And I am concerned about some of the overreactions of liberal groups who are calling for all kinds of boycotts and actions on the part of American Jewry to punish Israel for these decisions. That kind of response will be more dangerous than the actions of the Israeli government itself.”

Haredi Orthodox Americans, meanwhile, insist that the Jewish communal organizations criticizing the rabbinate do not speak for them. Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, told JTA that the Chief Rabbinate is a “bulwark” against eroding and multiplying standards for Jewish observance and identity. Shafran views the rabbinate as a regulatory agency for Jewish matters along the lines of the Food and Drug Administration.

“If Israel is to retain a Jewish identity, it is essential for her to have a single set of standards determining who is a Jew and what is a Jewish marriage or divorce,” Shafran wrote to JTA in an email. “Were a constitution to impose multiple standards for such things, it would lead to plethora of ‘Jewish peoples’ – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and others. That would spell disaster for both Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.”

Shafran feels warnings of an Israel-Diaspora crisis are overblown. Non-Orthodox Jews, he wrote, are largely disengaged from Israel, while Orthodox Jews — who frequently visit, agitate for and study in Israel — are generally not bothered by the recent decisions on the Western Wall and conversion.

“The Rabbinate’s policies have alienated some non-Orthodox Jewish leaders and some of their followers, to be sure, but the American Jewish community, if seen in aggregate is not greatly concerned about Israel,” Shafran wrote. “The vast majority of American Jews who care deeply about Israel (and visit and send their children there) are the Orthodox, who are not alienated at all by things like the recent controversial decisions.”

All three elements of the controversy — the Western Wall, conversion and the rabbis’ list — do affect Orthodox Jews. The conversion bill — which has been shelved for six months — sought to strip legitimacy from private Orthodox conversions in Israel. The list of rabbis included a range of Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox leaders. And under the Western Wall deal, the Women of the Wall prayer group agreed to move its services from its current meeting place in the Orthodox women’s section of the site — a frequent flash point between feminists and haredi Orthodox — to the expanded non-Orthodox prayer space.

Even so, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida criticized Jewish federations for opposing the Israeli government’s actions so vocally. By weighing in on the debates, he said, the federations are supporting Reform and Conservative Jews at the expense of the Orthodox.

His local federation, in South Palm Beach County, shared on its website a statement from its national umbrella group criticizing Israel’s actions on conversion and the Western Wall.

“I’ve been very disappointed by the federations’ reaction,” he said. “I understand why Reform and Conservative would be using their organizations for advocacy on this issue, but federation is supposed to speak for all of the community. They’ve become an advocacy arm for the Reform and Conservative by taking up this issue of conversion.”

Goldberg added that non-Orthodox leaders should be cautious in criticizing the Israeli government, especially when some admonish J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, for criticizing Israel’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians.

“It’s a dangerous precedent for Jewish organizations in America to be protesting the decisions of the democratically elected government of Israel,” he said. “Many of the same people who have no tolerance for J Street trying to interfere in the government of Israel are trying to do so themselves.”

Some Orthodox clergy do sympathize with non-Orthodox leaders. Maharat Ruth Friedman, who serves as vice president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox rabbis’ organization, said she felt the Chief Rabbinate’s actions were exclusionary and harmful to the Jewish people. She said, however, that her organization was not planning any protest beyond a statement of disapproval.

“I do not see the Rabbinate as a partner in furthering the spiritual growth of the Jewish people,” said Friedman, who emphasized that she was speaking for herself and not in an official capacity. “This sends the message that religious authority is about control and exclusion. That’s the opposite [of the] message we want to send to the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Chaim N. Cunin

A call for Jewish unity

This week began the three-week period of Jewish national mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, the first in the year 428 BCE and the second in the year 70 CE. These three weeks are observed traditionally by abstaining from expressions of joy and celebration, and culminate with the ninth day of Av (Tish’ah beAv, which falls this year on August 1), the day on which the Temples were destroyed, which is observed by fasting, prayer, and abstaining from any physical pleasures.

The Talmud teaches (Yoma 9b) us that it was due to groundless hatred between Jewish people that the Second Temple was destroyed. It follows that through “groundless” love among Jewish people and Jewish unity that the Temple will be rebuilt.

This week, in communities throughout the world, we will read parashat Pinchas, which has a fitting and appropriate connection to these three weeks and to the theme of Jewish unity.

The people of Midian and their battle against the Jewish people, whom they senselessly attacked and sought to physically and spiritually destroy, are described in this Torah portion. The people of Midian are singled out above all other nations who attacked the Israelites due to their groundless hatred of the Jewish people. We posed no threat to them, yet they attacked us nonetheless. They therefore have become the arch-symbol of pointless hatred. G-d consequently instructed the Israelites to avenge them prior to entering the Holy Land.

The word “Midian” in Hebrew is derived from the word madon, which means “strife” or “argument.”

This evil of baseless hatred had to be eliminated before we entered the Land of Israel, since baseless hatred is obviously at odds with the harmonious functioning of society that is the prerequisite for attaining any national goals, let alone that of promulgating Divinity in the world.

The root of baseless hatred is ego. An egocentric person feels threatened by anyone who opposes his inflated sense of self. Any positive quality evinced by the other person diminishes his own importance, so the egocentric person will desperately seek to delegitimize the other person. Although he may not seek to actively harm him, he will be secretly pleased when the other person suffers, or at least not be troubled by his suffering. Furthermore, the egocentric person is blind to other people’s good qualities; since he is not sincere in his relationship with God and the world, he cannot believe that others are, either.

In contrast, someone who is not plagued with egocentricity will focus only on other people’s good qualities. Their suffering will genuinely trouble him, since he will judge them favorably and find no justification for their suffering. If he does find some fault with someone else, he will enlighten him in accordance with the Torah’s guidelines for doing so, but he will not hate him.

Similarly, rather than viewing differences of opinion as an affront to his selfhood, the selfless person will view them as opportunities to arrive at higher, more comprehensive perceptions of truth. He will be able to expose his shortcomings to others and seek their guidance, thereby allowing him to solve his problems and progress in his self-refinement.

We live in turbulent times, when the Jewish people are once again the subject of hate and antisemitism throughout the world. Yet this powerful lesson teaches us that the need for Jewish unity and the result of Jewish unity is more important now than ever, and through it shall we merit the unity and redemption of the Jewish people and the restoration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta said: The Holy One, blessed be He, found no vessel fit to hold blessing for Israel other than peace, as it is written (Psalms 29:11), ‘G-d will grant His people strength; G-d will bless His people with peace’” (Devarim Rabbah 5:14).


Rabbi Chaim N. Cunin is Director and General Editor of Chabad House Publications and Associate Rabbi at the Beverly Hills Jewish Community, which meets weekly at the Beverly Hills Hotel. For more information, visit

Adapted from the newly-released Kehot Chumash, published by Chabad House Publications and based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.

Worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Jan. 17. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

L.A. clergy respond to the Kotel controversy

We have seen the selling out of the Jewish people for crass political power.  However, it isn’t usually done by a prime minister of Israel to Jews around the world. Benjamin Netanyahu’s crass political move to renege on the compromise reached with the Reform and Conservative Movements and Women of the Wall on appropriate egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel is alarming and shameful.

The plan to build egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall was negotiated by the prime minister’s own representatives. His representatives Natan Sharansky and now-attorney general Avichai Mendelbilt were the ones who spoke for the Israeli government. It was hailed as an historic agreement by the prime minister’s own office. Netanyahu came to the U.S. and himself addressed American Jewry about the importance of this.

I sat across from the prime minister a year ago February in his office when he assured me and rabbinic leaders of the Reform Movement, “It will happen.”  Following the meeting at the annual convention of the Reform rabbinate in 2016, we held the first services in what was to eventually become the new space. It was a spiritually uplifting and moving experience to pray with my fellow rabbis next to the ancient and historical symbol of our people’s continuity, men and women together as is our authentic Jewish experience.

The prime minister, who claims to speak for all Jews, has betrayed a significant portion of the Jewish people by giving in to Charedi demands.  He is not a man of his word or a man of honor and he is leading the government of Israel to act immorally.

The sacrifices of the ancient Temple were designed to restore wholeness and holiness to individuals who have sinned and to the Jewish people. Prime Minister Netanyahu instead has sacrificed the majority of American Jews on the altar of his political expediency, reinforcing the very sin that destroyed the ancient Temple: sinat chinam, the hatred of Jew against Jew. This is the sin our Talmudic Sages teach destroyed the Temple. Netanyahu’s actions further alienate American Jews from finding a place and connection to the Jewish homeland. As a Reform rabbi I try to build up that connection and help Jews find their way home. The prime minister has increased the distance and removed the welcome mat from the doorway.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami

I am saddened, of course, that things had to come to this point, and that no effective compromise was brokered that could avoid the considerable pain experienced on both sides of the divide. I cannot say that I understand what happened.

I am saddened by the hype and the untruths that are being spread. While I can understand some of the feelings of let-down in the non-Orthodox world, I cannot understand charges that this move is a repudiation of their Jewishness. It is rather, for better or worse, nothing but the affirmation and continuation of a long-standing policy recognizing the holiness of the Wall as defined by halachah. No one — no one — is barred from participating in prayer there. The leaders of the movement to carve up the Kotel were not motivated by lack of a place where they could pray according to their fashion. Robinson’s Arch would have been more than adequate. The word that they have used has been “visibility,” i.e. they wished to make a statement about the legitimacy of their beliefs in high profile. Let’s at least be honest that this is not about equal access. It is about marketing.

Mostly I am saddened that the rift between Jewish brothers and sisters has become so cavernous that people speak of “rethinking” their commitment to the State of Israel. Do we support it because of what it can do for us, or because of its centrality in Jewish thought? Could it be that lots of non-Orthodox folks in Israel sense this wavering commitment, and are therefore prepared to listen to the Orthodox position, recognizing that only a halachic tradition will be a guarantor for the Jewish future?  I suspect that the heterodox movements have lost far more through this than a place at the Southern Wall.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Co-founder of Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought

This is a triumph of expediency and fear over principle and unity. We all understand the political calculation involved, and the need for the prime minister to keep his coalition happy. But as Harry Truman memorably said, sometimes you have to put your principles aside and do what’s right. This betrayal tastes bitter in the mouths of those who love our people and our land.

Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple

This move by the government of Israel reneging on the Kotel agreement and promoting the conversion bill that would disenfranchise 500,000 people in Israel and around the world is a violation of the trust of the Jewish people. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has allowed a small group of religious extremist fanatics to separate the Jewish people from the State of Israel so that he can remain Prime Minister regardless of the importance of maintaining the unity of the Jewish people.

Jews everywhere should insist that the Prime Minister withdraw the conversion bill from consideration in the Knesset and reverse his government’s decision to ignore the Kotel agreement. The Prime Minister should also apologize to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who at the Prime Minister’s request five years to find a compromise agreement on the Kotel that unifies the Jewish people, did so and then Netanyahu dismissed the compromise agreement without even informing Sharansky in advance. Netanyahu’s decision humiliated one of the great heroes of the Jewish people.

Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood

In December 1988, I was a first-year rabbinic student living in Jerusalem when the first group of women naively took a Torah scroll to the women’s side of the Kotel and held a prayer service. Their heartfelt offering did not sit well with many who witnessed it. I was not among that original group, though several of them came to our living room later that afternoon to debrief and cry.

That year brought new meaning for me to the terms “hard rock” and “heavy metal,” for in the months afterwards I served the newly forming women’s group as a shomeret (a guard). The guards formed a ring around those praying, and faced the angry ones so the others could turn inward, trying to worship.

We tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to protect those praying from the vitriol, spittle, tear gas canister (thrown at us by one of the Orthodox men who picked it up after the police threw it at them), and one heavy metal chair that suddenly came flying through the air in our direction, injuring one of the women as she prayed.  It was the first year of the first Intifada, but the rocks coming over the Kotel from above made more sense to me, and were in some ways less frightening, than the weapons and words thrown by Jews at Jews.

The soldiers who protect the Jews at the Kotel were as taken aback as we were.  On a later visit a woman carried a Torah scroll on loan from the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in a baby blanket through the ever-tightening security: “Oh,” laughed the guard as he peeled back the blanket, and waved us through, “beautiful baby.”

No one is laughing now.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

We Jews must surely be the laughing stock of the world! Even as the United Nations actively delegitimizes our connection to the Temple Mount and ancient holy sites in Jerusalem and Israel, we are busy fighting with each other as to who can pray where and how, as if any of this really matters.

Both sides in this dispute ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Do any of the protagonists really think that they are making God happy by fighting with each other? The Talmud tells us that the Temple was destroyed and the exile was decreed by God as a result of the endless pointless squabbling between Jews. And yet, almost 2,000 years later, we are still squabbling! How pathetic.

Instead of fighting each other, we need to be joining forces and together fighting our real enemies — those who wish to deny the Jewish connection to our holiest site — not the Kotel, but the Temple Mount, where our Temple once stood, and will stand again, but only if we can focus our energy on making it happen, instead of wasting energy point-scoring against each other, pointing fingers, and creating ill-feeling.

In this fight, no matter who prevails there are no winners. Instead of this nonsense, our goal must be to protect Israel from its enemies, and to create a thriving center for Jewish revival and triumph in our ancestral homeland.

Rabbi Pini Dunner, Beverly Hills Synagogue

That the Israeli governing coalition reneged on its own agreement to provide a separate, cordoned off area, discretely to the side and far from the postcard courtyard that we all think of as the Kotel can’t really be a complete surprise. Politics is politics, and all politics is local. Most Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and nondenominational voices will decry this short-sighted and discriminatory decision (as do I); most Orthodox, Charedi, and Chasidic voices will support and celebrate the power to impose their monopoly. Obviously, this has a lot to do with pluralism (which some see as a threat), and with women acting with authority in public (which even more people see as threatening).

Personally, I feel the need remind us of three simple truths: First, an Israel that circles the wagons and enacts religious policies that sound like they could have been proposed in Teheran or by the Westboro Baptist Church reveals itself to be motivated by fear and considerations of power, more than by faith and wisdom. That’s not good for Israel in the long run.

Second, if we are going to make the Wall into a locus of Jewish faith, then there has to be room for us all, each in our own way, or the imposed exclusion will itself become a justification for those marginalized and slighted to walk away from Judaism and from Israel, and that’s not good for Israel in the long run.

Third, nowhere in the Torah does it suggest that God is accessible at that Wall more than anywhere else. The portability of Torah, the insight that holiness is to be found in acts of tzedek (justice), shalom (peace) and chesed (lovingkindness) remains Judaism’s greatest insight and core conviction. So, by all means, let’s fight for our space at the Wall, but let’s remember that we show real love for God and Torah, and real solidarity with Israel, when we work for a Jewish community — here and there — that observes mitzvot, loves the stranger, learns Torah, and pursues peace.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University

I can pray at the Kotel, but my wife cannot. I can hear the Torah read at the Kotel, but she cannot. If she dons a tallit for private prayer at the Kotel, she will be arrested. If she prays aloud, she will be shouted down or escorted away.  Her spirituality, her voice, is deemed an affront to the Kotel. The great symbol of our collective destiny has become a political token, a tool of division. And sinat hinam, unbounded rivalry, our inability to embrace one another, the very reason we lost the city twice before, burns once more.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

I have been spat and yelled at (and worse) while davening at the Kotel.  I stand behind the efforts to bring egalitarian services there.  I am a supporter of Women of the Wall.  And I am pained (but somehow not surprised) by the recent reversal by the government, which does feel like a betrayal, and which stymies admirable efforts to open the Kotel to the full array of Jewish religious expression.  And at the same time, I choose not to wring my hands or wallow today.  I choose to celebrate, and thus identify with Rabbi Akiva in the famous story from the Talmud in which his rabbinic peers tore their garments upon seeing the ruins of Jerusalem.  They see the moment frozen in time, a destruction prophesied by a particular Biblical verse. Rabbi Akiva smiles, however, reminding them that the end of that very verse also prophesies redemption.  Now that the nadir envisioned by the verse has come to pass, the eventual ascension/aliyah is also inevitable. 
So why do I celebrate today?  Because even though the Charedi hold on Israeli politics is at times painful and corrupt, as the Kotel fiasco attests to, for me redemption is not tied to a particular wall. I am sometimes bemused by the fact that so much focus is put on prayer at the ruin of the Temple by the very Jews who least ache for that spot to re-emerge as the center of Jewish spirituality.  For the progressive-traditional Jew, who sees rebirth of meaningful and resonant Judaism within Israel as one of Zionism’s greatest contributions and challenges, what transpires at the Kotel may be symbolically important, but pales in comparison to the evolutions transpiring throughout the land—the mash-up of secular seekers and traditional liturgy at various Kabbalat Shabbat phenomena that are growing; the strength and vitality of Masorti and Progressive synagogues and communities despite the infrastructural challenges which inhibit them; the will exhibited by myriad Israelis to reject the authority and monopoly of the rabbanut by making decisions (which, yes, they ought not have to make) to marry creatively rather than under near-theocratic conditions.  Last summer I attended a cousin’s wedding on an Orthodox kibbutz, where the officiant was female, and at which the hordes of sweaty, tzitzit-flying, tichel-wearing celebrants saw no conflict between traditional Jewish rituals and practice on the one hand, and female religious leadership and party-style mixed-dancing on the other.  This same cousin, who helped found yet another Orthodox/egalitarian minyan in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, recently posted on Facebook wishing a mazal tov on the recent wedding…of Moshe and Eran, two of his closest male friends and fellow B’nai Akiva alumni. 
I’d tear a tiny thread in my clothes, as I really do wish that on my next visit to the Kotel I, and my daughters, can pray in the manner we find sacred.  But this symbolic setback is dwarfed by the extraordinary successes we see playing out in spots that are, indeed, more important to the Jewish future even than those venerable stones.  I honor the leaders of WOW and wish them strength.  And yet I know we will not win every engagement.  And the perfect is the enemy of the good.  And Robinson’s Arch is a beautiful place to hold egalitarian prayer (and a bit shadier, too!).  And if we scope out beyond those square meters, and if we are witness to (and financially contribute to) the efforts to egalitarian-ize and modernize and evolution-ize the many Judaisms of modern Israel, then we can stand with Rabbi Akiva, and celebrate the burgeoning redemptions.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am

I stood at the Wall in 1967, having returned “home” on Aliyah with my husband, an Israeli officer. My eyes filled with tears as I approached the Wall which I could only see from the top of the Mt. Zion hotel when I was a young student in Jerusalem in 1960. I prayed and cried tears of gratitude at the open Wall.

I returned to the Wall for the Bar Mitzvah of my son in 1986. There was a mechitzah, but it was low, and no one seemed to mind when I held on to his tallit and prayed out loud, as I draped myself over the barrier from the woman’s side.

A decade later, things had changed. The mechitzah was now a wall itself and the woman’s section became smaller each year. The “Fashion Police” at the entrance to the woman’s section were more insistant, and I was chastized when I gathered my congregants near me in prayer as we visited the holy site.

By the year 2000, the Kotel area had become a war zone, not only for the intifada, but the epicenter of Jew against Jew. Rocks were thrown directly at me. On Rosh Chodesh, the catcalls and whistles grew louder and louder until the level became deafening. The Schechinah decamped elsewhere.

Robinson’s Arch was to be a worthy compromise that honored the unity of the Jewish people. I was lucky enough to lead a Shabbat servce for my congregation in the proposed Plaza area, and it was one of the holiest moments of all of our lives. Swallows flitted in and out of the crevases, the sound of the Arab call to prayer intertwined with our “mixed” daavening as the holy silence of Shabbat decended on Jerusalem.

Today, there is no holy silence. There are only tears for the pain of the Jewish people, and the opportunities we have lost.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy, Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue

Israeli media is full of news, debates and analysis regarding the recent religion/state battles. While many of you may think that what Israelis are focusing on are the security threats from the outside and terror with Israel, you would be wrong. The war over religious freedom and equality is clearly a key component in shaping Israel’s path.

One cannot over exaggerate the serious nature of the current conflict, by just noting the fact that the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors, convening in Jerusalem, decided to cancel a festive dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset and to replace its normal schedule with deliberations regarding the recent government decisions. It never happened before!

Understandably, the non-Orthodox movements (along with the Women of the Wall) put the emphasis on the collapse of the Kotel compromise and its underlying reason: the triumphalist threats by the Charedi parties and the Chief Rabbinate, delegitimizing Diaspora’s major Jewish streams. However, this would be both a narrow focus and a misunderstanding of the larger picture that Israel is facing as it is attempting to forge its Jewish and democratic identity. The three current battles, regarding the Kotel, conversion and Shabbat, are interrelated.

The first of these targets non-Orthodox Jews, the second widens its scope to include Modern Orthodox Judaism, and the third hits the broadest swath of Israeli society — in Tel Aviv and beyond, aimed at blocking municipal ordinances that allow for opening of convenience stores, and preventing public transportation on Shabbat. It should behoove Diaspora Jewish leadership and the streams to focus solely on the affront done to them and lose sight of the larger battle over Israel’s character.

All three initiatives are in direct opposition to the will of the overwhelming majority of Israelis, as repeatedly demonstrated in public opinion polls, such as Hiddush’s own systematic polling.

The recent actions of the government cause severe damage to Jewish unity and the fundamental values of Judaism and democracy. It is time to move beyond niceties, resolutions and verbal expressions of dismay. The time has come for American Jewish leadership to state publicly, loudly and clearly, that all Israeli politicians who vote for these reprehensible laws and policy decisions, are not welcome to your communities so long as they undermine the Jewish People and erode Jewish unity.

Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel

Ed Elhaderi (middle) with high school classmates in Libya in 1967. Photos courtesy of Ed Elhaderi

From a culture of anti-Semitism to becoming a Jew

A Libyan’s nomadic journey of self-discovery and understanding

That hot afternoon seems like yesterday, but it was 50 years ago this month. I was 15 and living in Sabha, a small city in the Sahara Desert of southern Libya. An older cousin told me about the reports on Cairo Radio about the dire situation facing the Egyptian army.

“We’ve got to do something,” he said.

I didn’t fully understand the politics of what would come to be known as the Six-Day War, but I knew that what was happening was bad for us as Arabs and Muslims. All around me were other teenagers absorbing the tense mood and looking to vent their rage at the Jews.

I followed the crowd to the only Western-style establishment nearby, a bar. It was early afternoon and the place hadn’t opened yet. A few older boys broke down the door, and a crowd stormed in, breaking bottles and dumping alcohol onto the street outside.

Standing in a crowd, I joined the chants: “Death to the Jews!” “Drive the Jews into the sea!”

The truth is that I had never actually met a Jew. I grew up in a small nomadic village of 20 families, a collection of mud huts with palm-frond roofs that wouldn’t have looked much different 2,000 years earlier. Health care was so primitive that by the time I was a young boy, my parents had lost three children to illness.

Sunni Islam was the only way of life I knew. My preschool was in a mosque, where an imam taught us to read and write by drilling us with verses from the Quran. After that, our education was more secular — I went to mosque, going through the motions, but I was hardly devout. I never was exposed to any alternatives or avenues to question the life we had.

Our textbooks didn’t mention Israel, and people used the word Yahudi, Jew, only as an insult. The Jews had rejected the Prophet Muhammad, so they were considered to be condemned. The only Jews I saw were in Egyptian movies, in which they were portrayed as menacing, monstrous characters — hunched over and speaking with high-pitched nasal accents.

I did know Palestinian Arabs. My elementary school had once hired a young Palestinian as a teacher. Because he was Palestinian, the community welcomed him warmly and supported him generously.


Elhaderi receives the prestigious First Honor National Academic Award from Libyan Prime Minister Abdessalam Jalloud in 1974.

After high school, I went to the University of Tripoli, where I was neither politically active nor religiously observant. During my first year there, my father arrived to deliver tragic news: My mother had died. I channeled my grief into focusing on my studies, earning a place in the prestigious chemical engineering program.

Hoping for a career in the country’s burgeoning oil industry, I won a scholarship to study abroad in one of the top-ranked programs in my field, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Leaving behind my father and one younger brother, I set out for my first journey beyond Libya.

In Madison, I discovered a campus teeming with international students — Iranians, Nigerians, Europeans, Asians. Amid the activist ferment of the mid-1970s, each group freely and openly expressed its political and cultural identity.

I did that, too: When I moved into an office I shared with two other graduate students, I tacked up a large poster of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, wearing his iconic kaffiyeh and brandishing a semiautomatic rifle.

It was 1974, just two years after the murder of Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympic Games and the same year as the terrorist massacre in the Israeli town of Ma’alot. Half of the department’s faculty and perhaps a quarter of its students were Jewish, yet it didn’t strike me that my choice of décor might offend anyone. Many colleagues undoubtedly reacted by steering clear of me.

And then, for the first time, I began getting to know Jewish people. The encounters happened organically, in classrooms and the student union. Two Jewish professors in my department were kind and understanding. Over one leisurely summer, I spent time with a Jewish philosophy professor who engaged a group of us over beers in leisurely discussions about politics and life. I was struck by how they were just people — wonderful, decent, normal people. They defied every stereotype I had been fed while growing up in Libya.

The contrast was so striking that not only did I begin to reconsider my assumptions about Jews, but I also came to re-examine every aspect of my life. Gradually, I came to see how the black-and-white worldview I had grown up with didn’t jibe with reality.

The more experiences I had with Jews, the more I felt drawn to them. I even began thinking that I wanted to marry a Jewish person (although I didn’t have a particular one in mind). Perhaps that would help me to cleanse myself of the hateful mindset of my upbringing.


Elhaderi and his wife, Barbara, after he received his doctorate in chemical engineering from USC in 1982.

After three years in Madison, I transferred to USC. A few months after arriving in Los Angeles, I was practicing tennis at the Ambassador Hotel when I struck up a conversation with an attractive young woman named Barbara and suggested we volley. When I told her my background, she said, unprompted, “I just want you to know, I’m Jewish.”

We exchanged phone numbers, and a week later, I called her. It took a couple of weeks before we connected again, meeting to play tennis and dine on Mexican food. We got along well. Not long after that, I went out of town to take a break from my studies and returned to find a note from Barbara telling me she missed me.

Before long, she invited me to meet her parents. Barbara’s father had lived in Israel, serving as an officer in its War of Independence. And one of her sisters’ boyfriends was an Israeli who had served in the Israel Defense Forces.

I’m sure that when they learned that she was dating a Libyan named Abdulhafied (the name I had grown up with and still used), they thought Barbara had lost her mind.

Still, we grew closer. After a couple of months, we moved together into an apartment her parents owned in Koreatown. At first, the arrangement was one of convenience, but soon our lives became intertwined. Barbara lovingly helped me through my doctoral thesis and cared for me in ways no one had since my childhood.

She also welcomed me into her family’s life, and, despite our contrasting backgrounds, her parents accepted me with love. Barbara’s family wasn’t particularly observant — they celebrated only Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover.

In 1980, we married at their Fairfax District home. At that point, I didn’t consider myself a Muslim, but rather a spiritual searcher. Together, Barbara and I had explored a nondenominational church called Science of Mind. Our wedding ceremony blended elements of Judaism with some of our own personal touches.

By then, my relationship with my aging father, still back in Libya, was distant. I spoke to him only occasionally, and his question was always: “When are you coming back?” I chose not to share the news of my marriage.

As we settled into our life together, Barbara and I had only limited Jewish observances: Rosh Hashanah dinners, Chanukah gift exchanges, seders hosted by her parents. Together, we continued our spiritual search, occasionally joining a colleague of Barbara’s at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.


Elhaderi’s father, Elsaidi, in front of his home in the Libyan village of Hatiet Bergen in 1979.

Eager to start a family, we struggled with infertility for many years. We were just days from adopting a baby when the birth mother had a last-minute change of heart. Then, just a week later, Barbara learned she was pregnant. Our daughter, Jessica, was born in 1991 and, two years later, we had a son, Jason.

Not long after that, my father died. We had spoken only occasionally since my last visit to Libya, in 1979. I had shared little about my new life with him, knowing it would have been nearly impossible for him to grasp the pluralism and openness I had come to cherish.

Surely he couldn’t have imagined the next step in my spiritual journey. When Jason turned 12, he announced that he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. We were living in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood and a neighbor, the Israeli-born wife of a rabbi, offered to teach him to read Hebrew and start some initial religious study.

He also began studying Judaism and his Torah portion with a Chabad rabbi at a shul not far from Barbara’s parents. I sat in on every class, slowly learning about Jewish prayer and customs, as Jason studied his haftarah and maftir. The more I absorbed, the more I felt drawn to Judaism.

On the day he became bar mitzvah, I stood on the bimah, filled with pride in my son and awe for the beauty of the service I could barely understand — and overflowing with emotions I could not fully explain.

The power of that day also made me start to ponder my own mortality. It pained me to realize that since I wasn’t Jewish, I could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery beside my beloved wife.

Not long after the bar mitzvah, I told Barbara that I wanted to convert to Judaism. A rabbi we knew directed us to American Jewish University’s Introduction to Judaism Program, and Barbara and I enrolled.

Our 18 months in the class felt like a second honeymoon: While I learned about Jewish history, Torah and Jewish rituals, I felt closer than ever to Barbara, and I fell in love with Judaism.


Ed Elhaderi and his wife, Barbara, celebrate his becoming a U.S. citizen in 1985.

When I met with my sponsoring rabbi, Perry Netter, then at Temple Beth Am, he asked only one question: “Why do you want to be Jewish?” Choked up with emotion, I couldn’t speak. I simply cried.

“OK,” he said, smiling. “You pass.”

Something else happened: The more I learned about Judaism, the more I saw parallels in my own upbringing in Libya. When I learned about the mezuzah, I remembered how in my childhood village, families posted palm fronds wrapped around verses from the Quran in their doorways. Words I learned from biblical Hebrew seemed to echo colloquial terms unique to the region of my youth.

Investigating, I learned that Jews had lived for thousands of years in Libya, including in my native region of Fezzan — although most left in 1948, and nearly all of those remaining fled just after the Six-Day War. My strong feeling was that I wasn’t so much discovering a new faith as uncovering a long-hidden part of myself, that perhaps some of my ancestors were Jews.

On the morning when I went before the beit din — the rabbinical court — to finalize my conversion, and plunged into the waters of the mikveh, I felt joy combined with a serenity that had eluded me for decades. I felt that I was returning to where I belonged.

Our family joined Temple Beth Am, where I felt increasingly at home, regularly attending on Shabbat and weekdays. At home, we shared weekly Shabbat dinners, at which I started offering each of my children a blessing.

I also engaged in regular Torah study and found particular resonance in Rabbi Akiva’s wisdom from Pirkei Avot: “Everything is foreseen, yet free choice is given.”

That essential tenet — that we can embrace God but decide our own fates — encapsulates much of what I hold dear about America and Judaism. I grew up like so many people in closed societies, knowing one way of life, having one set of beliefs, and taught to despise anything beyond that realm.


Ed Elhaderi (far right) at his son’s bar mitzvah in 2006 with (from left) daughter Jessica, in-laws Ellen and Bob Levin, son Jason and wife Barbara.

The best guidance for overcoming that kind of internal and external strife is another piece of advice from Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.”

My own learning came full circle in November 2012, when Barbara and I traveled to Israel. We landed in the late afternoon, and by the time we arrived at our Tel Aviv hotel, Barbara wanted to rest, but I felt energized, so I took a walk. Traversing the streets of Tel Aviv and Jaffa until midnight, I marveled at the variety of people I saw — young and old, from so many ethnic backgrounds. I was amazed by the sights and smells and how alive the city was.

Scanning the faces I passed on the street, I could not help but think back to my youth, to the hatred for Israel and Jews that had been fed to me.  As we traveled the country — Jerusalem, Safed, the Golan, Rehovot — Israel entered my bloodstream. I felt at home.

The trip deepened my connection to Israel and to being Jewish. In synagogue on Shabbat mornings, I began to take notice of a part of the service that I hadn’t thought much about: the prayer for the State of Israel.

Now I say it each week with full intention: “Bless the land with peace, and its inhabitants with lasting joy.”

Occasionally, as I say those words, I think back to my 15-year-old self, on that hot June afternoon on the streets of Sabha. And I say an extra prayer of gratitude to God for carrying me on this remarkable journey to myself.

ED ELHADERI is a real estate investor and developer who lives in West Los Angeles with his wife, daughter and son. He is writing a memoir about his journey from his Libyan childhood to his life as an active and committed American Jew. Tom Fields-Meyer is a Los Angeles author and editor who helps people tell their life stories in writing.

Rabbis should aim higher than politics

We’ve all become obsessed with politics. Politics now colors every aspect of culture, including our personal lives. It colors how we see friendships, how we judge each other, how we judge ourselves.

So, naturally, it’s tempting for rabbis to follow suit and inject politics into their Shabbat sermons. The problem is that politics also has become ugly and divisive. That ugliness and divisiveness consumes us all week, assaulting our email inboxes and Twitter and Facebook feeds.

When I come to synagogue on Shabbat, do I really need to be reminded of all that ugly and divisive stuff? Or do I need spiritual nourishment to help me rise above it and get to a deeper place?

As much as we can try to make politics holy, the reality is that politics is inherently divisive. That’s because we always will disagree about how best to use the power to govern.

If a rabbi, for example, speaks against illegal immigration because it violates the “Jewish value” of honoring the law of the land, what will he or she have accomplished except trigger a congregational food fight? Liberal congregants are sure to scream about other Jewish values such as “caring for the stranger,” and then the gloves are off.

It’s my Jewish value against your Jewish value.

Keeping politics off the pulpit doesn’t mean shutting off the synagogue from the outside world. Rather, it means filtering that world through a spiritual and unifying lens. When my rabbi spoke after the Bernie Madoff scandal, he unified us with his electrifying talk on Jewish ethics. When Jews were murdered brutally in suicide bombings in Israel, he helped us grieve and talked about defending ourselves with strength but without hatred.

He wasn’t picking sides on political choices.

A rabbi can light up our compassion and our humanity without introducing politics. If the issue is the homeless, for instance, the rabbi can inspire us to open our hearts and not ignore their plight.

As soon as the rabbi starts endorsing a certain proposition against homelessness, however, that’s when it becomes divisive. Why? Because well-meaning people will disagree about how best to address the problem, and some congregants may even be upset that the rabbi did not present “the other side.”

But here’s the good news: A synagogue is not just a place for sermons, it’s also a place for debate. So, during the week, any synagogue can host a lively discussion on any number of controversial issues, including how best to fight homelessness. People can bring their own ideas and argue it out.

That debate is perfectly appropriate for a Tuesday night. But for Shabbat? I don’t think so.

Shabbat is about the sanctity of separation. It’s about tasting eternity. It’s an opportunity to experience our unity with God, with one  another and with humanity. From their pulpits, rabbis ought to help us taste that unity and that eternity. That’s hard to do when the topic is the latest political controversy in Congress.

As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote recently in the Journal, “All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper?” That something deeper also means something more uplifting and unifying.

For the past few years, political controversies have torn our community apart. Families have been divided, friendships have been strained, Shabbat table conversations have been poisoned. If anything, rabbis ought to use their pulpits to help us heal from those wounds.

Rather than remind us of our political divisions, which we experience all week, spiritual leaders ought to challenge us to look for the validity and the humanity in those with whom we sharply disagree. Of course, that can be difficult, but isn’t that when rabbis earn their keep — when they help us do the difficult?

It’s easy to talk about changing the world; it’s a lot harder to talk about changing ourselves. It’s easy to rail against a politician to a congregation that already despises him; it’s a lot harder to inspire that congregation to transcend their contempt for a higher ideal.

Politics will never make us more humble. It can consume us, but it will never unite us. Politics is not there to inspire us to become better parents, better children and better friends. But when I come to hear my rabbi speak on Shabbat, that is precisely what I’m looking for.

Adam and Eve depicted on a 19th-century ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract, from the Norsa-Torrazzo Synagogue in Mantua, Italy. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

‘Jewish spouses matter,’ says a new demographic study. Let the battle begin.

One of the wisest things ever said about intermarriage came from former Atlantic sports columnist Jake Simpson: “No stat could have predicted … the wonder that was David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII.”

Granted, Simpson wasn’t writing about the high rates of Jews marrying non-Jews. He was complaining that the growing emphasis on statistical analysis in sports — sabermetrics — was undermining the human element of the game. A statistician will tell you who is likely to catch a touchdown pass. But only ecstatic Giants fans (and heartbroken Patriots fans) could appreciate the glories of Tyree’s improbable reception.

Another sportswriter, Joe Posnanski, described it as “the human record versus the human heart.”

It’s not a stretch to recognize a similar argument among those who care about Jewish “continuity” and what it means to live a meaningful Jewish life. On one side, the think tanks and sociologists are churning out statistics (Hebrewmetrics?) suggesting the dire toll intermarriage is taking on the strength and vitality of Jewish life.

On the other side, rabbis and others in the grassroots are demanding that Jewish leaders take into account the deeply personal stories of individual Jews and those who love them, lest they feed the alienation from Jewish institutions that the numbers crunchers complain about.

According to a new analysis by the Jewish People Policy Institute, or JPPI, analyzing stats on “non-haredi” American Jews aged 25 to 54, “just 21 percent are married to Jews, while well over twice as many [50 percent] are non-married and 29 percent are intermarried.” Only 15 percent of this cohort are in Jewish-Jewish marriages with Jewish children at home.

The implication, once you exclude the haredi Orthodox — as well as the modern Orthodox, who often marry before age 25 — is that the non-Orthodox Jewish population is in a steep demographic decline, perhaps perilously so.

As authors Steven M. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman point out in an essay for JTA, this decline is not only a function of intermarriage. It’s also the result of late marriage, no marriage and low birth rates.

Yet the Jewish engagement gap between the inmarried and the intermarried is “truly enormous,” according to JPPI. The inmarried are more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important, to have Jewish friends, to belong to a synagogue and to raising their children “in the Jewish religion.” By contrast, “non-Jewish spouses and children in the home each seem to diminish the likelihood of Jewish engagement.”

These kinds of analyses alarm Jewish institutions; they seek answers in institutional ways. Should more money be invested in a highly engaged “core,” or spread among outreach to the “periphery”? Does the smart money go to the hip startups that are trying to attract less-engaged Jews, or to the legacy institutions that still have large (if shrinking) membership bases?

Just days after the JPPI study came out on June 5, there was a much different kind of reaction to the intermarriage “challenge” coming from rabbis of at least three distinct stripes.

Clergy at B’nai Jeshurun, a big and influential synagogue on New York’s Upper West side, announced that they would begin officiating at the weddings of interfaith couples who commit to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. Downtown, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who runs the innovative Lab/Shul, said he, too, would officiate at intermarriages despite his training in the Conservative movement, which bans its rabbis from doing so.

And in an essay for The New York Jewish Week, Rabbi Avram Mlotek, who was ordained at the liberal Orthodox Chovevei Torah yeshiva, suggested that “it’s time we revisit our tribalistic approach toward intermarriage and our highly divisive conversion practices.” Mlotek was coy about what that would mean in practice, although he did suggest that the Orthodox and Conservative movements should take a cue from the Reform’s “welcoming posture towards families with non-Jewish partners.”

B’nai Jeshurun is not affiliated with a movement and its decision is internal; Lau-Lavie and Mlotek will have to deal with the consequences within their affiliated institutions. (Chovevei Torah already issued a statement reiterating that it forbids its rabbis from performing intermarriages.)

The denominational and halachic issues are intriguing for insiders, although the casual reader might be more taken with the personal stories each of the rabbis tells. In a nearly 60-page explanation of his decision, Lau-Lavie wrote of the the interfaith marriages he performed before his ordination as a Conservative rabbi, as well as the requests he continues to receive from “Jews and people of other heritages or faiths seeking a Jewish wedding, life, and community.

“Each story was unique,” he wrote. “I couldn’t bear saying no. The firsthand encounter with the pain of rejection and its consequences to the couple, to me, and to our community convinced me of the need for an urgent solution. It has become not just a practical issue but also one of deeply personal, ethical, and theological dimensions.”

Mlotek wrote of the young Jewish woman he met as a staffer on Honeymoon Israel, which takes interfaith couples on heritage trips to Israel. “Rachel” told Mlotek that her parents cut her off after she became engaged to an Arab man. 

“My guilt is tremendous and I understand my parents’ disappointment,” she explained through tears. “Still, is there any way there might still be a space for me within Judaism? I feel as if God has brought my partner and me together.” 

Mlotek wrote: “A posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.”

For the B’nai Jeshurun rabbis, the personal is theological, to borrow a phrase. Their decision came with the launch of what they are calling the Jewish Home Project, which will feature support programs, “resources for daily Jewish living, a more robust conversion program and rich Jewish education courses.” If rabbis a generation ago performed intermarriages to smooth the feelings of the Jewish partner’s parents, now they want to embrace the couple and do all they can to make them a part of the Jewish community.

Critics of the “stat heads,” as a baseball fan might put it, say that, unlike folks on the ground, they don’t see the people behind the numbers. These critics say the major studies and their authors treat the intermarried as a statistical burden rather than living and breathing individuals making sometimes hard, sometimes welcome choices. That interfaith couples feel judged by the “tribalistic” mainstream, and that Jewish institutions should accept people as they are, not as they wish them to be. Besides, critics say, the statisticians are working against forces they can’t resist and longing for a past that cannot be recaptured.

Meanwhile, the sociologists and pollsters insist that they are deeply concerned about Jewish individuals, not just faceless Jewish “communities.” They study Jewish belonging not because they are scolds, but because they believe that a vibrant Jewish community — with strong institutions, crowded events, knowledgeable members, and complex friendship and family ties — creates a deeply meaningful life. That the Jewish thing is not worth preserving for its own sake, but because of the difference it has made in the lives of individuals and the world.

And their research, as opposed to their gut, leads them to recommendations — and yes, judgments at a time when judging is out of favor.

The authors of the JPPI study take aim at their critics when they conclude, “Many regard all Jewish journeys and family configurations not only as equally valid, but as equally valuable for Jewish engagement and continuity. In contrast with such avowedly non-discriminatory and non-discriminating thinking, our study demonstrates that Jewish spouses matter, Jewish children matter, and, more generally, the configuration of Jewish families matters a great deal for current Jewish engagement and future Jewish continuity.”

The battle line has been drawn, and it runs right between the human record and the human heart.

Photo: REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

The rabbis’ intermarriage debate: How to decide who is right and who is wrong

Interfaith marriage between Jews and non-Jews is back in the news.

Bnai Jeshurun, an influential synagogue in New York, will officiate such marriages, when the couple in question commits “to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children.” Also in intermarriage news: Rabbi Amichai Lau Lavie decided to break with Conservative Judaism because of its prohibition against interfaith weddings. He will now perform such ceremonies.

The argument in favour of rabbis officiating intermarriage ceremonies is well rehearsed – as is the argument against such ceremonies. On the one hand, there is the hope, based on some, evidence, that when a rabbi is involved in the ceremony of an interfaith couple, there is a better chance that the couple will have a Jewish home (what is a Jewish home? That’s a question for another time). On the other hand, there is the fear, based on more evidence, that interfaith marriage leads to eventual assimilation, and that there’s no substitute to encouraging marriages between Jews (a message much harder to communicate when rabbis officiate interfaith weddings).

There are questions of principles involved, and there are questions of practicality. On the one hand, is it acceptable, Jewishly speaking, to give a blessing to an interfaith couple? On the other hand, is it useful (from the Jewish People perspective) to give a blessing to an interfaith couple? We have heard all of these arguments time and again, and the world keeps spinning. That is, Jews keep finding non-Jewish spouses, disregarding the internal Jewish debate.

Regardless of right and wrong, it is easy to say what’s the answer to the question of interfaith marriage.

Jews who have a strong belief that marrying outside the tribe is purely wrong – will make no practical calculations. They will say it is wrong and refuse to accept it, no matter how many other Jews disagree with them. Thus, in the Orthodox world there is not much debate, at least for now. The Orthodox world is struggling with many other contentious topics, and it has its own share of internal wars over important issues (chief among them the role of women in religious life). But the interfaith debate has not yet infiltrated the guarded walls of this world. Not in a major way.

Jews who have a strong believe that telling other Jews whom they should marry is wrong and unacceptable will also have an easy time with this issue of intermarriage. If a Jew wants to have a ceremony officiated by his rabbi, that is a sign of connection to his Jewishness and reason enough for him to be embraced and assisted by the rabbi.

The issue becomes more complicated only when practical considerations enter the discussion– when studies are quoted by the opponents and the proponents of intermarriage; when demography and continuity, rather than ideology and theology, become the key words; and when interfaith marriages are considered from the perspective of Jewish policy.

It becomes more complicated because the signs are mixed and a definitive answer cannot be found. As a pragmatic people, the Jews should know by now that “stopping” intermarriage is a hollow quest. It is not going to happen – at least not as long as the social atmosphere in America doesn’t radically change (and there is no reason to want that). As a pragmatic people, they also know that intermarriage is a challenge for Jewish continuity. Some of them hope that the challenge is manageable. Some even see an interesting opportunity (more people joining in by marrying Jews). Some of them are less optimistic. They see a trend that will eventually reduce the number of Jews and/or dwindle the meaning and intensity of Jewishness.

Thus, the only way forward is to let this trial and error process run its course. Not because this is what the Jews need, but rather because this is what the Jews are going to do. If studies cannot give a definitive answer regarding what we ought to do, and if the Jews themselves are not willing to agree on what we ought to do, then life will be our field of experimentation. Some Jews will marry non-Jews, and some will not. Some rabbis will officiate in interfaith ceremonies, and others will not. Some scholars will argue that intermarriage is about to weaken us – and some will argue that intermarriage can strengthen us. Give it two or three or four generations, and this debate will be decided by reality.


Judaism, neuroscience and the free will hypothesis (Part 2)

The Jewish assumption of free will is ancient and enduring. But what does modern neuroscience have to say?

The history of neuroscientists’ efforts to explore the free will phenomenon was reviewed in 2016 by philosopher and neuroethicist Andrea Lavazza in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The setting for our current understanding was drawn a half century ago with the discovery by Hans Kornhuber and Luder Deecke of the Readiness Potential (“RP”), a measurement of increased bio-electric activity in the brain. The RP was measured by an electroencephalogram (“EEG”), a procedure in which electrodes were placed on a subject’s scalp to allow for the recording of bio-electric activity. This activity was seen as an indication of preparation for a volitional act.

One question raised by the discovery of RP was whether an individual was conscious of an intention to act before RP appeared. In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who became a neuroscientist at the University of California-Davis, sought to answer that question. Libet and his team designed a relatively simple test. First, subjects were wired for an EEG. To record muscle contraction, electrodes were also placed on subjects’ fingers. Then the subjects were asked to do two things, spontaneously move their right finger or wrist, and, with the aid of a clock in front of them, report to researchers the time they thought they decided to do so.

What Libet found (Libet et al. 1983) was that conscious awareness of the decision to move a finger preceded the actual movement of the finger by 200 milliseconds (ms), but also that RP was evident 350 ms before such consciousness. While Libet recognized that his observations had “profound implications for the nature of free will, for individual responsibility and guilt,” his report appropriately contained several caveats. First, it noted (at 640) that the “present evidence for the unconscious initiation of a voluntary act of course applies to one very limited form of such acts.” Second (at 641), it allowed for the possibility that there could be a “conscious ‘veto’ that aborts the performance . . . (of) the self-initiated act under study here.” Finally (at 641), it acknowledged that “the possibilities for conscious initiation and control” in situations that were not spontaneous or quickly performed.

Not surprisingly, and despite the caveats, some interpreted Libet’s experimental results as proof that one’s actions are not freely made, but, rather, predetermined by unconscious neural activity. In the years following the publication of Libet’s report, other experimenters have not only replicated his work, with more sophisticated measuring devices, they have extended it.

For instance, experiments reported in 1999 by Patrick Haggard and Martin Eimer involved index fingers on both hands, and they calculated both RP and lateralized RP. Subsequently, scientists at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences also utilized right and left index fingers, this time to press a button, and his subjects reported awareness of action not by observing a clock, but by identifying one of many letters streaming by. Brain activity was detected by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (“fMRI”) signals. In a 2008 publication in Nature authored by Chun Siong Soon and others, Soon et al. claimed that brain activity encoding a decision could be detected in the prefrontal and parietal cortex for up to ten seconds before the subject became aware.

Also not surprisingly, the assumptions in and the interpretations of results from these experiments drew criticism, beyond the obvious concern about mistaking correlation (of recorded brain activity) with causation (of a decision to act). And they continue to do so. After all, the average human brain contains billions and billions of nerve cells called neurons. We have recently learned the number of neurons is approximately 86 billion. Each neuron is connected to other neurons by perhaps thousands of synapses, junctions through which neuroactive molecules or electrical impulses travel. The total number of these synaptic connections exceeds 100 trillion. Moreover, while we once believed the brain to be fixed, now we know that is more plastic, and changes constantly.

Even if we were thoroughly familiar with all of these connections, and all of the electrical and chemical processes which operate (or not), and when and why they do (or do not), and also had a complete grasp of neuroplasticity, which understandings we do not currently possess, we clearly do not understand what has been called the Hard Problem, the nature of consciousness. If we do not understand that, then obviously we also do not understand the nature of sub-consciousness. So, what exactly, if anything, Libet and Soon were observing other than some sort of recordable activity is not apparent.

More narrow objections could be and were raised, as well, to the early tests. Florida State philosophy professor Alfred Mele suggested that because subjects might have different understandings of the “awareness of the intention to move” they were to report, the term was too ambiguous to measure to any degree of scientific value. Moreover, even if some readiness potential could be measured, isn’t it possible that RP itself is indicative of nothing more than the result of various stimuli, including being placed in a control room, hearing instructions, and focusing on a specific task? In this view, it would be akin to heightened anxiety that a patient might feel prior or during a conventional physical examination.

In addition, the tests performed were narrow in scope and duration. They generally involved very simple motor functions to be undertaken, or not, within seconds of some signal. But Princeton psychologist and Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman teaches that we think fast and slow. His core observation is that humans operate with two different thought modes. In the first, known as System 1, the brain “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” In the other, known as System 2, the brain “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” Kahneman associates the operation of System 2 with what we feel as agency and choice.

Is it possible that a person’s brain activity, as recorded by an EEG, an fMRI or some other mode of neuroimaging, would display different results in circumstances where more complex actions are involved, especially over an extended period? Is it conceivable that brain activity would be different if the subjects were in a kitchen and asked to choose how many, if any, eggs they wanted for breakfast, and how they preferred them cooked, and with what bread, what spread and what fruit and drink? And might that kind of brain activity be different still than the kind involved in deciding over the course of a presidential campaign which candidate to support or during courtship deciding whether to select a certain someone for a life partner?

We have no EEGs or other scans that address breakfast or political or marital choices, but some recent experiments suggest that the death of free will, as announced by Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, may have been not just premature, but unwarranted. In 2012, French neuroscientists published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concerning a study about RP which included a variation on Libet’s experiments, specifically an audible cue to the participants to make a movement in response to an unpredictable noise. Rather than reflecting the final causal stages of planning and preparation for movement, Aaron Schurger et al. found that neural activity in the brain fluctuated normally and that decisions about self-initiated movement were “at least partially determined by spontaneous fluctuations” in such activity. In other words, movement might not be determined subconsciously, but may simply occur when the brain is in a sufficient state of arousal.

Similarly, a study undertaken by graduate student Prescott Alexander and his team attempted to isolate motor and non-motor contributions to RP. As reported in 2016 in Consciousness and Cognition, they found that “robust RPs occurred in the absence of movement and that motor-related processes did not significantly modulate the RP.” This suggested to Alexander et al. that the RP measured was “unlikely to reflect preconscious motor planning or preparation of an ensuing movement, and instead may reflect decision-related or anticipatory processes that are non-motoric in nature.” They concluded, in part that “RP does not primarily reflect processes unique to motor execution or preparation, and may not even be primarily generated by the neural activity involved in making a free choice.”

What does this mean? At a minimum, Schurger and Alexander, and their teams, have interrupted what seemed to be developing scientific support for hard determinism and against free will. They have provided scientific grounding for an alternative understanding of previously accumulative data. In the words of cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth (speaking of Schuger et al.), they have opened “the door towards a richer understanding of the neural basis of the conscious experience of volition.”

Consequently, when Alfred Mele argues that science has not disproved free will, he is correct. Science has not falsified the free will hypothesis even once, let alone in the kind of replicable experiment that is the hallmark of the scientific method. At the same time, science has not confirmed the free will hypothesis either. The unsettled state of affairs is not necessarily bad, though, for at least two reasons.

First, the reality is that we are at the early stages of our understanding of both the human brain and levels of consciousness, and we undoubtedly do not even know what we don’t know. For instance, in 2015, neuroscientists were acknowledging that no one knew how the human brain was wired and bemoaning the fact that they could not even map a mouse’s brain, let alone a human one. About a year later, scientists were able to produce a map of the brain’s cerebral cortex with a “new mapping paradigm,” but even so, a participating researcher conceded the limitations of the new map. (See map below.)

Similarly, in early March, 2017, researchers led by neurobiologist and physicist Mayank Mehta at UCLA published a report in the journal Science in which they claim that the brain is much more active than previously believed and that neurons are not purely digital devices, as scientists have held for 60 years, but also “show large analog fluctuations . . . .” If so, according to Mehta, this changes the way we understand how the brain computes information.

The idea of a more powerful, dynamic brain may trigger yet more revisionism concerning free will, as well. Indeed, it is at least conceivable that the reductionists are looking at the picture in the wrong way, zooming in to try to locate and record each signal the brain emits, rather than stepping back for a broader perspective. That is, for all its amazing discoveries and insights, perhaps neuroscience, as commonly practiced today, is too narrow a science. Perhaps there must be some consideration for the possibility that the vast number of neurons and synapses, and their intricate interconnectedness, in conjunction with neural plasticity, yields something greater than the individual cells themselves, even as water is more than its component molecules made of hydrogen and oxygen. Perhaps consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. (See Nelson, The Emergence of God (University Press 2015) at 32-35.) In this view, at a certain level of collective complexity, consciousness emerges. And with it, free will.

From the history of science and technology, we can assume that the pace of our progress will be uneven and the results surprising. Perhaps we will move faster than did our ancestors on the centuries long path from Ptolemy to Copernicus to Hubble (both the man and the telescope). But how much time we will need is not clear. Consider the journey from Wilbur Wright’s first step onto a biplane at Kitty Hawk to Neil Armstrong’s first step off the lunar module Eagle on the Moon, and whether neuroscience is arguably more complex than rocket science.

Second, another reality is that the stakes in the multi-disciplinary debate between free will advocates and determinists go far beyond the musings of philosophers and the reputations of neuroscientists seeking grants and fame. Should science somehow disprove free will, should it show that we are not just influenced by our genes and our physical and social environment, but that our response to each option available to us is truly compelled rather than chosen, it is not too hard to imagine at least two dystopian results.

In the first case, should it be generally known that humans have no free will, and that conduct is in fact predetermined, significant numbers of individuals might well feel released from whatever tenuous social bonds now attach to them and engage in disruptive behavior. We already have some experimental evidence from psychologists Kathleen Vos and Roy Baumeister that supports the idea that weakening a belief in free will leads to “cheating, stealing, aggression, and reduced helping.”

A second worrisome situation that might arise concerns potential screening of individuals for genetic or environmental or other predispositions to anti-social behavior. Might individuals found to possess an anti-social gene be incarcerated or subjected to gene therapy to alter or remove the problematic genetic material? If so, it is not too difficult a leap to rounding up groups of people who, by virtue of their color, ethnicity, geographic origin, socio-economic status or other trait likely share having the offending gene. The infamous Nazi medical experiments on Jews, Roma and others provide a chilling example of the depraved capacity of some humans to mistreat the Other, and to do so ostensibly in the “interest of science” or some asserted “greater good.” Social historian Yuval Harari has warned recently about the merger of Big Data with Big Brother. It is a warning worth heeding.

In many ways, then, the free will hypothesis is more important than the understanding laid out in Genesis with respect to creation and evolution. We have learned a great deal about how our universe came into existence and how life forms have evolved. And we have learned that we can survive quite well with such knowledge. But if the free will hypothesis is incorrect, if we are only products of our genes and our environment and of the purely mechanical interplay of chemistry and physics, if we do not have any meaningful capacity to make choices, then we could still proceed as if we were free and our decisions mattered (a path advocated by some determinists like Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky), but there would be a cloud hanging over us, and, worse, we could not dissipate it. We could not overcome.

Yet, even in the most dire circumstances, some do overcome. Recounting the horrors of the concentration camps, psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl noted that despite the conditions, the actions of some showed that “everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms –to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Why some react one way under pressure (or without it) and others do not remains a mystery, as even Sam Harris has acknowledged. Maybe science will solve that mystery some day, but maybe not. So, perhaps Descartes (1596-1650) was not quite right when he declaredCogito, ergo sum,” that is, “I think, therefore I am.” Perhaps thinking is a necessary but not sufficient element of being. Perhaps we need to be able to choose to be fully alive and vital. Consequently, until, if ever, the scientists prove otherwise: Eligo, ergo sum – I choose, therefore I am. Or at least I think I do. And at least once every year I am grateful to the Deuteronomist for reminding me of the extensive menu of blessings and curses that is set out before me, and for his emphatic call to choose life.

Before and after: Shulem Deen as a Skverer Hasid, left, and a modern secular Jew. Photo at left courtesy of Shulem Deen; at right, by Pearl Gabel

A Chasid becomes a heretic

In 2005, at the age of 31, Shulem Deen was excommunicated from the Skverer Chasidic community of New Square, N.Y., where he lived with his wife and five children.

His crime? “Heresy.” Like in the Middle Ages.

In the early pages of his award-winning 2015 memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” he gives an accounting of his alleged medieval sins:

“I was speaking ill of the rebbe.

“I was no longer praying.

“I disparaged the Torah and the teachings of our sages.

“I was corrupting other people. Young people. Innocent people.

“In fact,” Deen wrote of the accusations of the beit din, “people were saying I had corrupted a yeshiva boy … so badly that the boy left his parents’ home, and … went to live with goyim in Brooklyn. It was rumored that the boy planned to attend college.”

To secular eyes, Deen’s tale of woe has elements of the ridiculous: Who wouldn’t want a child to get an education? But it is also tortuous, terrible and tragic. To leave religious life, Deen had to forsake everything and everyone he ever knew.

“It was a very difficult year, a very isolating year,” he said of his transition into the outside world. His nonconformity was so destabilizing that friends and family — including his five children — stopped wanting to see him. “I didn’t have anybody,” he told me.

When he recounts this traumatic chapter, Deen says he “left” the Chasidic community even though he was exiled, because, heretic or not, leaving is what he wanted; leaving was his choice.

“I wanted no more than a world in which I was not lying and hiding,” he writes in his memoir. “I wanted the freedom to simply be who I was, without fear or shame. When caught in a world where your very essence feels shameful, life turns into a feverish obsession with suppressing your true identity in favor of a socially accepted one.”

Who among us shares this same “heresy”? It is the experience of all those whose gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or skin color has deprived them of the right to live with dignity and truth. It is the heresy of individualism. Deen’s crime was that he placed his need for “the mystique of freedom” above family, above community and above tribe.

In a way, we’re all heretics, choosing our communities based on beliefs, politics and values considered anathema elsewhere.

During the Middle Ages, when rabbis were vested with full judicial authority in their communities, so-called heretics were at the mercy of rabbinic courts. Living in 21st-century America, Deen was free to leave totalitarian New Square for democratic Brooklyn without transgressing the law. But there were other consequences.

Outside of a system in which every aspect of existence pivots around community, Deen was plunged into a “soul-crushing solitude.” The modern world and its attendant freedoms —  newspapers, books, television, internet — presented strange, new choices, such as what to do for the first Shabbat on the outside, as if he had breached a prison wall.

“I had nothing to do Friday night and it was really, really depressing,” he said. “I reached out to a guy, not Jewish, who was a reader of my blog and sent him an email, ‘Hey, want to hang out?’ There was something uncomfortable in that for me because it came from a place of desperation, a place of need. I was desperate for contact.”

In New Square, Deen was lonely among the faithful. In Brooklyn, he was lonely with no faith at all.

In the decade since, he has reinvented his life. The support of Footsteps, an organization for frum Jews who leave their communities, was vital. Deen’s fluency in English helped him land a job as a computer programmer, though he gave that up to pursue writing. Still, his children refuse contact.   

Deen’s story is a subject of fascination among secular and religious Jews alike, many of whom are alien to the ways of the ultra-Orthodox. Although we glimpse them in Hancock Park and Borough Park, tell their tales and sing their songs, we don’t know them. And mostly, they don’t want to know us.

“The worst part about the isolation wasn’t that I didn’t know anyone,” Deen said. “It was that I wasn’t quite sure I was a normal person who could get to know someone. I had a feeling that I was different, almost literally an alien. So the idea that I could make friends was a question I had. It was about whether the possibility existed.”

His was the heresy of curiosity, of seeking difference. Questioning. Arguing. Not believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible. The things many of us consider definitional to our Judaism — intellectual life, civic engagement, biblical metaphor, encountering The Other — are apostasy for the Skverers.

In a way, we’re all heretics, choosing our communities based on beliefs, politics and values considered anathema elsewhere. We hide parts of ourselves we don’t want seen. We struggle in shame and in silence with secret heresies that we know others might not understand or accept. 

Yet most of us think, whether we’re believers or not, that by engaging with Jewish tradition we are doing God’s will. That by adhering to the wisdom of our tradition we are attaining, if not holiness, something close to wholeness. Even if our theological understanding demands a more expansive view of the God personified in the Bible, the ideals that God represents — goodness, kindness, mercy, wonder — are qualities we seek.

What would Jewish life look like without Judaism?

“Occasionally, I miss a rebbe’s tisch,” Deen said. “So I’ll put on a white shirt, a jacket and a yarmulke, and go to Borough Park on a Friday night. For nostalgic reasons. Sometimes I feel a little bit moved by it. There are certain experiences I want to connect to again.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Why my friend David Wolpe is wrong: A ‘politics free’ pulpit is an empty pulpit

There are few colleagues for whom I have more respect than Rabbi David Wolpe. His books, sermons, articles and his personal character and warmth show all of us what being a rabbi means. I count him as both a teacher and a friend.

Which is why I was struck by Rabbi Wolpe’s recent op-ed in the Jewish Journal (“Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” June 7). How could someone who is usually so right be so wrong on something so important?

Rabbi Wolpe is, of course, correct when he writes “You can love Torah and vote for Trump. You can love Torah and think Trump is a blot on the American system. What you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say that the Torah points in only one political direction.” But I want to suggest that although one can certainly love Torah and follow different political paths, one cannot claim to be a lover of Torah and not care about how our society treats those in need, the weak, the vulnerable, the stranger and the oppressed.

Let me be clear: Our synagogues should never be places of partisanship. People of all political stripes should feel welcome within our walls. For that reason, I have argued against repealing the Johnson Amendment that bars clergy and houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates or parties. Repeal would turn synagogues into just another partisan tool, when in fact we should be moral goads, always free to speak truth to power and lift our voices to affirm our 3,000-year-old mandate to “Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy” (Proverbs 31:9) as an expression of our care and concern for the world around us.

Sermons that “speak up” on the great moral issues of our world and our lives may address politics and policy as a means of addressing such moral issues but they are not about politics. On the contrary, they are about our Jewish values; the values we teach and the values we pass on to our children; the values that have kept us together as a people for centuries.

The role of the rabbi is not to eschew such issues in their sermons but rather to lift up the insights of our tradition that can illuminate these debates and model civil discussion in a manner that shows respect for differing views and avoids divisive language or ad hominem attacks on those who disagree.

The Judaism that I believe in does not limit Torah lessons to the parchment of our sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), nor to the tables around which we convene for communal Torah study. The Judaism that I live compels me to use those lessons to understand the most urgent challenges we face. And since the beginning of the enlightenment, rabbis of all streams have felt compelled to use the evolving institution of the sermon to bear prophetic witness to pressing societal and communal challenges their congregants faced.

As Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of America’s most influential rabbis of the first half of the 20th century, responded to criticism by those who made the argument Rabbi Wolpe made, that he should not address political issues from the pulpit, such as the power of monopolistic corporations and the abusive treatment of their workers:

“If, however, there is a larger and a higher duty, it is the duty of the Synagogue pulpit. … [T]he pulpit of the synagogue is charged with the responsibility of the prophetic memories and prophetic aspirations. If the Jewish pulpit ought to speak out at this time concerning the industrial situation, then upon the pulpit in which I stand, pledged to the truth-speaking under freedom, there lies a most solemn and inescapable duty. I could not with self-respect remain silent. … ”

Now, more than ever, with millions of refugees suffering the crushing burden of wars and dislocation, the planet on the verge of confronting the irreversible, devastating consequences of climate change, Muslim and Jewish Americans fearful in the face of escalating hate crimes, and millions at risk of losing lifesaving health care access, rabbis cannot — nor should not — abdicate the call of the prophets and the teachings of the rabbis by “standing idly by the blood of our neighbor.”

Rabbi Wolpe refers to our “tradition of argument, debate and compromise.” Those are indeed core values of our tradition. While our sages welcomed the debate, ensuring that majority and minority opinion were respected, in the end, despite differing viewpoints, the decisions were made on what the law would be; guidance was given to the Jewish community, even when compromise and common ground were elusive. Our rabbis should do no less nor offer any less guidance regarding the urgent issues our communities, our nation, Israel and the world face today.

I am moved by Rabbi Wolpe’s referencing that the mezuzot at the very doors of our homes are hung not horizontally nor vertically but rather at “an angled compromise.” He is right about the importance of compromise, but we must not miss the key lesson here: the mezuzot are, in fact, hung!

RABBI RICK JACOBS is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Rabbis must navigate politics and morality

Like many others, I read Rabbi David Wolpe’s op-ed on politics and the pulpit with a sense of profound ambivalence (“Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” June 9). I found myself caught between ovation and objection.

The ancient rabbis begin in a similar place. Religion has no place in the public square because the town center is full of sin, it is depraved and consumed with self-interested politicians. “Be wary of the government, for they befriend no one unless it is out of self interest.” (Pirkei Avot 2:3).

The English word for holy spaces, “sanctuary,” comes from the Latin “sanctus,” meaning separate. Religion is a refuge against all that’s dirty and repugnant in the world. We come to the sanctuary to find comfort in one another’s embrace, protection from the harshness of the political world.

There is a something comforting about hunkering down against the weekly tweetstorm. Something heartwarming and freeing to not be bothered by CNN for a few hours. It feels good to rest.

However, our tradition forbids us to pray in a room without windows. We must be able to look outside and see the hour, including the pressing hour, the sha’a dakhaq, upon which our world is squeezed ever more presently.

The rabbis tell us, “Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” (Shabbat 55a). There is no sanctus in Judaism, nothing takes us out of the world. There is only kedushah a sense of holiness that pushes us back into it.

Hence my ambivalence toward the good rabbi. Every leader must make a decision for his or her community, and I believe ultimately that the false distinction between religion and politics makes both worse. It makes religion a reverential Polaroid of ancient times. It makes faith static, metaphysics frozen, and theology moribund. If religion has nothing to say about the world we live in, if it addresses no reality outside our door, especially when that reality causes anguish and pain, what then do we need religion for? We risk slipping into the great void where all our windows become mirrors.

A state without a transcendent moral ethic of religion can become imperiled. George Washington, in his farewell address, understood that, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” One of Washington’s great fears was that a society that is based in freedom would eventually free itself from morality and succumb to the bare clash of naked self-interest. As my teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l writes, “Religion … acts as a check on the State’s politics affirming that that which is harmful to the general good is impious and must be altered immediately.”

Religion is a durable good for society; it can hold the conscience and aspiration that make democracy work. Religion gives a tailwind to those who want to see that the injustices of yesterday cannot dictate the freedoms of tomorrow. The rabbi’s role is not to pick winners and losers in both party and personality, but to be the navigator, making sure that both congregant and congressman do not run aground on shoals of selfishness.

I fear, however, that Washington is proving to be right. In an article in the Atlantic Magazine, Peter Beinart shows convincingly that as Americans participate less in religious activities, the more polarized our politics become. “For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict,” Beinart concludes. “It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.”

It is because religious spaces like synagogues are some of the only platforms of mediation today between those who look and act enough like us so that we can listen to differing points of view. When we hear a rabbi teach an ethic of selflessness, transcending the ego in service to ideals higher than our own narrow desires, we can build havens of communication and solidarity in the chaos of the political world.

With the loss of these religious spaces we easily lose our affection for one another. Without sacred humility we lose the capacity to hear one another. If we leave all politics at the door when we enter the synagogue, then we lose a crucial nurturing structure that knits together our society.

Church and state can and should remain separate. But religion and politics are joint authors of our book of life.

Rabbi Noah Farkas is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; founder of Netiya, a Los Angeles Jewish nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners; and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

On the moral imperative of politics: A response to Rabbi David Wolpe

I write in response to Rabbi Wolpe’s editorial from June 7, “Why I keep politics off the pulpit.” Rabbi Wolpe’s erudite defense of an apolitical pulpit captures wonderfully the rhetoric of the Right and Left – on Israel or America – that insists on the Jewishness of their particular position. He argues that Jewish tradition does not speak definitively to either side, that neither support for Trump nor opposition to him necessarily contradicts the Torah.

I applaud his call for rabbis to focus their public teaching on texts and Jewish traditions – on Jacob and Rachel, not Pence and Pelosi, as he put it. Too often rabbis focus their sermons exclusively on contemporary politics – whether American or Israeli – and squander their weekly opportunity to teach Jewish texts to a semi-captive audience that does not regularly study our traditions. However, Rabbi Wolpe’s argument that rabbis should avoid politics almost entirely – whether on or off the pulpit – contains at least two fundamental flaws that I hope he, and others, consider.

First, there is no neutrality in politics any more than there is neutrality in Sabbath observance. Sabbath comes, and one observes it or not in whatever way they choose. So-called political neutrality is itself a form of political expression. It is support for those in power, or for those destined to be victorious without the voice of the rabbis. Moreover, countless times rabbis have indicated to me that they do not take stands on political issues – even compelling ones – but then happily supported various political causes that they understood to benefit Israel or the Jewish community. Well, that is a circular argument that labels certain actions as non-political because they seemed so self-evidently beneficial. Those were, in fact, political actions that reflected the Jewish values of the rabbis in question, and their refusal to advocate for other issues was equally a political act.

Second, there is no single Judaism today. Judaism is split between competing denominations with different core values. For most Reform congregations, for example, the prophetic teachings about social justice and common humanity are far more important than familiarity with how the Talmud derives that a man can “acquire” a wife via a written contract, to cite Rabbi Wolpe’s example. (To be sure, many Conservative and Orthodox congregations – who are more committed to Talmudic texts and law – likewise believe the Torah’s key message is to defend the defenseless.)

In contrast, other congregations are bound together primarily by a shared sense of ethno-nationalist identity, and certainly there are texts and traditions to support this. Their Judaism is focused on rituals and texts that express this identity, while downplaying or reinterpreting other texts. Whereas public flaunting of religious law might lead to various levels of exclusion in other observant congregations, here it is instead public opposition to the West Bank settlements – not to speak of support for a bi-national democratic state – that might lead to ostracization.

In short, insisting that neither support for Trump nor opposition to him necessarily opposes the Torah is itself setting the Jewish values of one’s community in a specific way. Rabbi Wolpe’s brilliant caricature of the Jewish claims of the Right and Left does not prove that a rabbi must avoid these positions. Rather, each rabbi and community must decide if the Torah in fact does support one position.

It is perfectly legitimate, for example, to argue that a rabbi must rally Jews against Trump and his agenda, and it is also valid to argue that the rabbi must rally Jews behind him. Equally, it is valid for a rabbi to preach the immorality of the occupation, or instead to advocate for greater oppression of the Palestinians. The choice reflects the “denomination” of Judaism represented, and the texts and traditions they choose to emphasize and ignore. Rabbis and their flocks must decide which “denomination” seems most authentic. Rabbi Wolpe’s call to ignore the issue is itself a political act, separate from either camp to be sure, but no less a political – and thus moral – choice for it.

Finally, in a rejoinder on facebook (cited here with his permission), Rabbi Wolpe added that there are exceptions to his argument, but that they are “very rare – slavery, civil rights,” adding that a rabbi should “invest his or her political views with Jewish sanction [only] once in 100 years.” I appreciate the concession, and it is true that Judaism does not speak to every political debate, but it merely begs the question of whether we now live in such a moment. Remember, those views in their time were extremely controversial, and as a result many rabbis in both the North and South refused to address them based precisely on Rabbi Wolpe’s logic. Only with hindsight do we applaud those rabbis who took up the mantle and – perhaps – bemoan the failure of others to join them. It is up to each Jewish leader – indeed, each and every Jew – to decide for themselves whether the current crisis in America warrants a religious response. Personally, I cannot imagine a more obvious Jewish cause in my lifetime.

Joshua Shanes

College of Charleston

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS

Shavuot session uses biblical holiday to teach about refugees

The star of the Shavuot liturgy is Ruth, celebrated as the first convert to Judaism. But a late-night study session held by seven synagogues and two Jewish advocacy organizations recast the holiday’s main character as a prototype for today’s refugees, fleeing conflict across Africa and the Middle East.  

The groups met at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) on May 30, the first night of Shavuot, for an evening of learning about Torah — and asylum and immigration policy.

“The American-Jewish community is a refugee community,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement organization, told the crowd of some 350. “And now that we’re in, we owe it to [today’s] refugees to ensure they’re treated the way our ancestors were treated, or the way our ancestors should have been treated.”

A program called “Refugees, Immigration and Jewish Responsibility” drew together members of VBS, Temple Beth Hillel, Temple Isaiah, Adat Ari El, Congregation Kol Ami, Stephen Wise Temple and University Synagogue.

Later on in the evening, the crowd broke up into individual study sessions led by the rabbis of the various synagogues present. Sitting in a circle of some two dozen guests during one of them, VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein connected the theme of refugee relief with the biblical plight of Ruth, whom Feinstein called “the quintessential stranger.”

In the text, the widowed and wandering Ruth, having followed her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem, is redeemed by a Jewish man, who marries her and gives her a son.

Feinstein argued that only through accepting the stranger can the Jewish people bring about their own redemption: Ruth’s great-grandson is King David, from whose lineage the Messiah is prophesied to come.

Hetfield likewise turned to Torah to encourage the crowd to welcome the stranger — a commandment repeated 36 times in the text, he said.

HIAS opened its doors in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to assist Jewish immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe. But in the late 20th century, the stream of Jewish refugees began to recede.

Although the group was “founded to welcome refugees because they were Jewish,” Hetfield said, “today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”

He noted that in 1939, around this time of year, the passengers on the German ocean liner MS St. Louis celebrated Shavuot before it was turned away from North America and sent back to Europe. Many of the Jewish refugees onboard eventually were murdered by the Nazis.

The incident had a lasting impact on Jews in the United States, as well as its immigration policy.

Hetfield recalled that when he was an official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a branch of the State Department, one of his superiors used to say, “Every policy that the United States has should follow one rule when it comes to refugees, and that is, ‘Would this policy have saved the passengers on the St. Louis, or would it turn them back?’ ”

After Hetfield, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, a VBS member and co-founder of the anti-genocide organization Jewish World Watch, urged those present to take action.

“There’s so much noise and chaos in Washington that this issue will get lost if we’re not constantly reminding them that it matters,” she said, calling on those in the audience to write to their members of Congress to take action on the global refugee crisis.

After her remarks, the crowd met in five groups for text study.

“Tonight, you get an opportunity you don’t normally get,” Feinstein said, “which is to learn with a rabbi who’s not your rabbi.”

The Shavuot holiday, which commemorates the handing down of the Torah, was a fitting occasion to bring together different synagogues, said Rabbi Sarah Hronsky of Temple Beth Hillel, noting that the synagogues gathered “shoulder to shoulder, as if we were at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. What could be more beautiful than that?”

Jill Sperling (second from left) with her family.

Jill Sperling: ‘I’m meant to be Jewish’

When Jill Sperling met her husband, Skip, in 1985, he was the first Jew she’d ever met. On a recent business trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the tables turned. Sperling — who converted to Judaism in 1989 — became the first Jew someone else had ever met: her business partner, who was Indian and a practicing Hindu living in a Muslim-majority country.

Until then, Sperling told the Journal, she had kept her faith secret from her colleague.

“I wanted to have tiny conversations with her without telling her I was Jewish; I didn’t want the fact that I was Jewish to bias her opinion,” Sperling said. But she did ask her colleague questions about why Israelis weren’t allowed in the country. The answer Sperling received: It’s because they treat the Palestinians terribly. “This is what she’s been taught her whole life,” Sperling said.

Throughout the trip, Sperling, who had been to Israel several times, took various chances to talk with her partner about Israel, Gaza and Hamas. When the partner posted something on Facebook that was anti-Jewish, Sperling sought a dialogue. That’s when her colleague revealed that she had never met anyone who was Jewish.

“It really opened her eyes and changed her opinion,” Sperling said. “Now she’ll send me an article and ask what I think about it.” The learning has been a two-way street: Sperling has learned a lot about Islam from her partner, as well.

Sperling met Skip while studying in France — and going to Chamonix on winter break at the same time Skip was on a skiing trip from New York. “We met in an apres-ski pub, we kind of liked each other, and 32 years later we are still together,” she said.​ ​

Sperling’s mother had grown up Catholic​, but the family never really went to church. Jill went to catechism class ​and explored other religions as a child​, but her father was not​ religiously​ observant, she said.​ Her parents were very supportive of her decision to convert; her mom has subsequently learned to make brisket and ​“has Passover dessert nailed!”​ Sperling said she connects to Judaism on “more of a spiritual level … in more of a ‘traditions-based’ way” — for instance, through weekly Shabbat dinners with families from her mid-Wilshire neighborhood, numbering as many as 20 adults and kids.

She recalled one rite of passage that made a special spiritual impact: her adult bat mitzvah, held as part of a group adult celebration at Temple Beth Am a year or two before her son’s bar mitzvah.

“I remember there was a moment when we all turned and faced the ark and I heard the whole congregation singing behind me, and it was just beautiful,” she said. “We were all being lifted up.”

After finishing her conversion through the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University (AJU, then University of Judaism) in 1989, Sperling has been active in the Jewish community, with the majority of her communal work centering around Temple Beth Am, Pressman Academy and an organization called Judaism by Choice (JBC), founded by Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who taught her conversion class at AJU.

“The [Intro to Judaism] community was our first community; people in the class became our friends and are still our friends,” she said. “AJU led us to Temple Beth Am, and that became our community. Our kids grew up in a Jewish community, going to a Jewish day school. They grew up with Rabbi Weinberg, because of my involvement with JBC,” for which she served as president for several years. A lot of her friends are Jews by Choice, many of whom she has met through programs designed to bring together JBC’s current students and alumni for Jewish events like Havdalah.

Another poignant moment she recalled came on a trip to Israel with the Wexner Heritage Program leadership group. “We went on a hike in the desert, in the Negev. We were supposed to meditate or sit by ourselves, find a place where we couldn’t see anyone else. I think about it now and it was very emotional. In that moment, [I thought] I’m meant to be here and I’m meant to be Jewish.”

For Sperling, much of Jewish culture is about community, whether at her synagogue or Friday night dinners, which are at a different house each week. She and her neighbors have formed an urban kibbutz of sorts, a community of their own.

“Everyone shows up, the door is open,” Sperling said. “The kids, now young adults, still come,” she said, referring to her own children, a son, 24, and a daughter, 20, as well as the kids from the other four families, ages 17 to 25, “and if there’s a friend in town, they’re automatically invited.” Sperling’s eyes took on an extra sparkle as she described the weekly ritual, which sometimes features different themes.

For Cinco de Mayo, she said, they had a Mexican theme, and other weeks have featured Moroccan, Italian and Cuban. “We have wine, sing ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and put our arms around each other, and the guys have their scotch-tasting,” she said.

Sperling runs a medical device company, focusing mostly on sales that often take her to distant countries. It was this work that had brought her to Kuala Lumpur.

“I love it,” she said. “I’m a people person. I love the challenge. I love the hunt. I love teaching the younger generation. The secret to sales is organization and follow through.”

Many Jews by Choice feel a connection to Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which in addition to commemorating the receipt of the Torah, is when synagogues read the story of Ruth. This year it begins on May 30. Ruth, a convert to Judaism, was an ancestor of King David. “In the story of Ruth, she’s accepted into the community, and that’s very important to someone who’s a Jew by Choice,” Sperling said.

Twenty-eight years after her conversion, Sperling feels settled in her community and accepted as a Jew. “We feel really lucky that we landed here in this community and on this block. It’s really amazing.”

Seeking Torah in the City of Angels

In a city that seeks to capture the perfect image, I recently found myself wondering how to picture Shavuot, which begins on the evening of May 30. For the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, I wanted to find a location that would bring this revelatory event into my daily focus.

Though Shavuot often is associated with an image of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, I was looking for something that was more expansive. I wanted something that showed how the Torah was everywhere — especially in the City of Angels. I wanted to see if the angels, who according to the Talmud initially objected to God giving the law to the Jewish people, would now lend me a hand or a wing — or whatever it is they have.

My idea was inspired by a custom many celebrate on Shavuot: staying in to study all night, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot (repairing the eve of Shavuot). The practice relates to a midrash that teaches that on the morning the Children of Israel were to receive the Torah they overslept and needed to be awakened by Moses. To make repairs for our somnolence, we now show we are awake by studying, especially the beginnings and endings of the 24 books that comprise the Tanach — an acronym for Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).

But instead of sitting down to pages of textual study, I wanted to turn to the streets to demonstrate my awakening, my readiness to receive, by finding visual counterparts or representations of the scriptural passages — a photographic tikkun. The world of Torah was all around me, waiting to be studied. All I needed to do was open my eyes and focus my lens.

Setting out to find my “text,” I began driving around my familiar Sinai — the urban landscape west of downtown Los Angeles and east of the 405. At first, amid the visual clutter, I was overwhelmed. The “words of the prophets” might be “written on the subway walls” in the music of Simon & Garfunkel, but on the streets of Mid-City L.A. you are more likely to find looming billboards for TV shows.

Then I had my moment of revelation: If I could find Moses the Lawgiver — and not just Charlton Heston’s handprints and footprints in the courtyard of the TCL Chinese Theatre — it would be a good start. After all, it worked for the Israelites. Remembering a recent visit to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, I found him in the form of a stone statue seated incongruously in the hospital parking lot, at the corner of George Burns Road and Gracie Allen Drive.

Seeing Moses with the law under his arm, I could not help but think of Torah and Sinai and, yes, the giant sculpture of the Torah affixed to Sinai Temple on Wilshire Bouelvard in Westwood. Having made that connection, more Bible imagery began to pop up from the streets around me: the words of the prophet Jeremiah; a reference to the Book of Kings; a reminder to pursue justice, from Deuteronomy.

As for the angels, they were everywhere, too, turning my head, lifting my search, leading me on my way.

A bit of Torah on the streets of L.A.

1. Moses climbing Sinai
“Angel Wall” (detail) by Barbara Mendes
2709 Robertson Blvd.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain.’ ” Exodus 24:12

2. ‘American Gods’ billboard and angel wings
7769 Melrose Ave.
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Leviticus 19:2

3. Mezuzah with inscription
Fleishik’s, 7563 Beverly Blvd.
Inscription: “A cry is heard in Ramah.” Jeremiah 31:15

4. Angel
640 S. San Vicente parking structure
“For He will order His angels to guard you wherever you go.” Psalms 91:11

5. Torah — L’dor vador
Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd.
“Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children.”
Deuteronomy 6:6-7

6.  “Fear of God is the Start of Wisdom”
Baba Sale Congregation
404 N. Fairfax Ave.
Proverbs 1:7

7.  Moses
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center parking lot, Gracie Allen Drive and George Burns Road
“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.”
Deuteronomy 34:10

8. “Justice, Justice, shall You pursue”
Workmen’s Circle Cultural Center
1525 Robertson Blvd.
Deuteronomy 16:20

9. Ethiopian Jew
“Not Somewhere Else, But Here” (detail) by Daryl Wells National Council of Jewish Women, 360 N. Fairfax Ave.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8

10. King Solomon
Marciano Art Foundation (former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple)
4357 Wilshire Blvd.
“… Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.” I Kings 6:1

Saree Makdisi

UCLA Professor: What’s wrong with Jews being a minority in Israel?

Finally, after about an hour of partisan arguments from both sides, I heard something that got my attention.

I was attending an event sponsored by the UCLA Debate Union, billed as “A Spirited Debate on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).” It featured, on one side, professor Judea Pearl, who was born in Tel Aviv, and students Philippe Assouline and Joseph Kahn, and, on the other, professor Saree Makdisi, who is of Palestinian descent, and students Ahmad Azzawi and Wali Kamal.

In front of a diverse audience of about 100 people, Pearl’s side argued the motion that “BDS is not moral.”

Nothing surprised me too much in the back and forth. The Pearl side reiterated the well-known arguments against BDS — namely, that it is out to undermine the Jewish state rather than search for peace — while the Makdisi side framed BDS as fighting the Israeli occupation with the best nonviolent tool available.

While we’ve heard many of the arguments before, it was helpful to hear them all in one place and in a polite manner, with no yelling or insults. You could feel some underlying tension throughout the debate, but the panelists made a genuine effort to conduct themselves with civility.

Makdisi based many of his arguments on universal values such as fairness, equality, justice and so on. Focusing on those values helped him finesse the Achilles’ heel of the BDS movement — the fact that it doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Promoting the “right of return” of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel, for example, means the effective end of the Jewish state, what a panelist on the Pearl side called “national suicide.”

Makdisi took that word — suicide — and ran with it, almost ridiculing it as an example of needless hysterics from the Zionist side. You could see where he was going. What kind of just society would treat the arrival of Palestinians as a national suicide? Sure, there may be a huge number of Palestinians who would enter the Jewish state, but what’s wrong with Arabs and Jews living side by side, in full equality, in the same state and under the same government?

My grandparents in Morocco never got to fight for their rights, as Arabs do in Israel. They weren’t allowed.

Then, he really got the audience’s attention when he blurted out these words: “What’s wrong with Jews being a minority?”

There was a gasp among pro-Israel supporters. Pearl made a grimace, commenting that minorities are not treated very well in the Middle East.

I have a feeling Makdisi himself regretted his words as soon as he said them.

Why? Because he’s no fool. He’s a knowledgeable professor, and he surely knows what’s wrong with Jews being a minority in a country in the Middle East.

He knows that, for centuries, Jews in Arab and Muslim countries were treated as second-class citizens, or dhimmis. He knows that many of those Jews were persecuted and expelled after the birth of Israel in 1948.

He knows that there are 50 Muslim countries in the world, but only one Jewish state.

He knows that in many of those 50 countries, minorities are routinely persecuted and oppressed.

And he knows that in the Jewish-majority country of Israel, the Arab minority has more civil rights, freedom, legal protections and economic opportunities than Arabs have virtually anywhere else in the Middle East.

He knows all of that.

So, when he said, so innocently, “What’s wrong with Jews being a minority?” he probably forgot who was in the audience. Maybe he thought he was talking to a Students for Justice in Palestine crowd, for whom a Jewish minority in the Jewish state would be like manna from heaven.

But he wasn’t. There were some proud Zionists in the audience, and I was one of them.

I’m a Jew who was born in an Arab country, where my ancestors were a minority for centuries. The stories I heard were not of human rights and equality. They were stories about surviving by behaving — by keeping our heads down and never forgetting our second-class status. My grandparents in Morocco never got to fight for their rights, as Arabs do in Israel. They weren’t allowed.

That’s why, for 1,900 years, Jews from all over the world yearned to return home to Zion and Jerusalem. That’s why the Zionist movement fought so hard for the rebirth of the Jewish state — because the Jewish experience of being a vulnerable minority in a hostile land is not one we want to relive.

When Makdisi suggested that Jews should become dhimmis again in their own country, he confessed what the BDS movement is really about — and it isn’t very moral.

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

Israeli Light #3 – Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem of Holon, Israel

I received two urgent emails on Friday morning, May 5, asking me to contact Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, the Rabbi of Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol in Holon, Israel with whom my congregation was in a sister synagogue relationship. Both asked me to extend Galit my emotional support.

One came from Rabbi Nir Barkin, the Director of Domim, a program funded jointly by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) that links Israeli synagogues with Diaspora congregations. The other was from my ARZA President, Rabbi Joshua Weinberg.

Earlier that day in Jerusalem, Rabbi Noa Sattat, the Executive Director of Israel’s Religious Action Center, asked me to give Galit a hug for her that night when my leadership tour would be spending Shabbat with her congregation.

None of the three explained what had occurred that provoked them to reach out to me. I am well aware of how challenging Galit’s work is and I assumed they were just encouraging me to be as supportive as I could be.

Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem began this Holon Reform community located southeast of Tel Aviv five years ago. A thriving city of 250,000 mostly secular middle-class Jews, it is fertile ground for the growth of non-Orthodox liberal Judaism. Given Galit’s keen intellect, open heart, liberalism, and her infectious enthusiasm, if anyone can build a community there, she can.

Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol does not yet have its own building. It rents space for services and classes and has enormous potential to be a center of Reform Jewish life in Holon. Its congregants include people of every walk of life and many highly educated and professionally productive members. For example, the community’s chair is Heidi Pries, a researcher, and lecturer at Tel Aviv University School of Social Work. Her husband Ori is a lead web developer in a Tel Aviv-based web company. Another member, Anat Dotan-Azene, is the Executive Director of the Fresco Dance Company and her husband Uri is the tech director of a leading post production sound studio for Israeli television and film. Another member, Michal Tzuk-Shafir, is a leading litigator in the Israeli Supreme Court and was President Shimon Peres’ (z’’l) legal advisor. Her husband Nir is an industrial engineer working as an information systems manager. Galit’s husband Adar is the former chief inspector of civic studies and political education of the Israeli Ministry of Education and is the soon-to-be manager of teachers’ training at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In association with her congregation, Galit created a Reform Jewish elementary school that is a part of Israel’s national secular school system. More than 100 children are enrolled in kindergarten, first and second grades and a grade is being added every year.

Despite all the activity, Kodesh v’Chol faces substantial financial and space challenges because unlike Israel’s orthodox synagogues and yeshivot, the Reform and Conservative movements receive no government funds due to the political hegemony of the Orthodox political parties.

In the secular city of Holon, Galit did not anticipate what was to take place the night before my leadership group joined her for Shabbat services, which turned out to be the reason for the two emails and Noa Sattat’s concern.

Galit’s elementary school had been offered classroom space in a Holon public school for this coming year by the Holon municipality, and a meeting was planned on the night before our arrival with all the parents. However, four uninvited parents from the public school that was hosting Galit’s congregation’s school crashed the meeting and began screaming obscenities against Reform Judaism, Rabbi Cohen-Kedem and the planned-for presence of the students in the local public school building.

They viciously threatened Galit and warned that the children themselves would be in danger should the congregation’s school be on the premises. They said that they would spit on the children.

Galit confessed to me that she lost her cool, but when I asked what that meant, it was clear (recalling Michelle Obama) that though Galit was deeply offended and upset by the behavior of these parents, ‘when they went low she went high.’

Galit called the principal of the school and though apologetic and embarrassed, she would not take action against the offending parents.

Galit called the municipal authorities who had given the Kodesh V’Chol School its space and demanded that they find new classroom space. At this time, we are waiting to learn where the school will be housed.

I and our group were stunned, but in hindsight, we should not have been surprised. The Reform movement in Israel still has a long way to go in establishing itself as broadly as possible.

At the moment the Israeli Reform movement attracts 8% of all Israelis. According to surveys, however, when Israelis are asked about their attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Judaism, between 30% and 40% say that if there were a Reform or Conservative synagogue in their neighborhood, they would attend.

I told Galit how proud I am of her for the dignity and resolve with which she stood her ground and responded with moral indignation to those offending parents. I was moved as well that she placed the welfare of the children first. She refuses now to use this public school out of concern for the well-being of the children.

I also expressed my own conviction that this ugly incident could be a watershed moment for her community.

When word spread of the Thursday night encounter, many more families showed up for services. There were more than a hundred men, women and children singing and praying together. The children came under a tallit for a special blessing. Modern Hebrew poetry and music was sung along with music from the American Reform movement. The service was warm-hearted, upbeat and joyful.

Galit delivered a passionate and moving sermon based on two verses from the weekly Torah portion Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) – “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart” and “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

She did not mention the incident from the night before, but everyone understood the context of her remarks.

Galit represented the very best of Judaism generally and the Israeli Reform movement specifically.

That was a Shabbat service I will never forget and Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem has shown herself to be one of the bright lights in the firmament of Israeli leaders.

Can gay and lesbian teens find a home in Orthodoxy?

By eighth grade, Micha Thau knew he was gay. But he also knew that being gay was not acceptable in many of the Orthodox spaces he inhabited. So he buried that part of himself.

But it didn’t stay buried. He began to suffer headaches, vertigo and other physical symptoms he attributes to his feelings of intense isolation. He relished days when the symptoms would send him to the doctor, just because “I got to leave the hellhole that was my life.”

“There were times when it was just crushing,” said Thau, 18, who graduates from Shalhevet High School next month. “I thought it was over, like I really could see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Youth in Thau’s position face few options, none particularly rosy. They can quit Orthodoxy and live out gay lives, either as secular Jews or within another branch of Judaism. They can stay in Orthodoxy and renounce a part of themselves, living in celibacy or difficult relationships. Or they can do as Thau did and fight for openness and inclusion, and risk becoming poster children.

Still, as the secular world increasingly has embraced same-sex couples, the Orthodox has not been left totally behind. A number of congregations and communities, pulled by the conscience of some of their members, are taking a hard, wrenching look at their laws and traditions, and how they impact Orthodox youth.

When Thau came out during his sophomore year to Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, and Principal Rabbi Noam Weissman, he was literally shaking. The administrators were surprised by the toll it had taken just to talk to them.

“We thought we had done an amazing job” promoting inclusion, Segal told the Journal. “And it turned out he had waited to come out to us because he was scared — he didn’t know what the school’s position was.”

Shalhevet student Micha Thau last summer at the Jerusalem gay pride parade. Photo courtesy of Micha Thau

Segal has since emerged as an advocate for teens like Thau. In an opinion column in the Shalhevet school newspaper, he called the dilemma they face “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.”

Thau’s coming out has turned into something like a coming out for the entire Modern Orthodox community in Los Angeles: a highly visible test case for a virtually invisible issue. Thau has joined with Shalhevet’s administration to reshape perceptions of lesbians, gays and bisexuals in a religious community pulled in opposing directions — toward acceptance by its modernity and toward silence by its Orthodoxy.

The letter of the law

For the young people caught up in that struggle, the root of the problem lies in Leviticus, which labels gay sex a toevah, most often translated as an abomination, and, a couple of chapters later, prescribes the death penalty as punishment.

Strains of Judaism differ in how this law, like most laws, is applied. Reform Judaism suspends the prohibition, allowing clergy to officiate same-sex marriages. The two greater Los Angeles synagogues with outreach programs for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Beth Chayim Chadashim in Mid-City Los Angeles, are aligned with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Conservative Judaism openly grapples with the law. As of a 2006 Rabbinical Assembly decision, gays and lesbians have been welcomed into Conservative congregations and rabbinical posts, but sex between men remains prohibited — the 2006 ruling did not address sex between women — and deliberations continue on same-sex marriage.

Orthodoxy generally adheres to the letter of the law, and homosexuality is no exception. Though outright hostility toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals is less common in the United States than it was before legalized same-sex marriage, so too is unconditional acceptance. Orthodox teens struggling with their sexual orientation in this environment can’t be sure how their communities will react if they come out, or whether they will risk losing friends and family.

Photo by Fabio Sexio/Agencia O Globo

It’s impossible to know how many teens are caught between their Jewish faith and their sexual orientation. Within the general population, multiple studies have found that around 3.5 percent of respondents self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. But even those studies may not reflect an accurate count because not all respondents provide truthful answers, and many surveys, including the U.S. Census Bureau, do not ask about sexual orientation.

At Shalhevet alone, a school with an enrollment of slightly more than 200, general population estimates suggest there are something like eight lesbian, gay or bisexual students. Thau said he currently is the only out gay student at the school.

“For every Micha Thau at Shalhevet, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of gay, lesbian, transgender students at Orthodox institutions struggling, fearful, worried, self-destructive,” said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. and an activist for LGBT Jews.

Walking a fine line

For Modern Orthodox communities, the word of biblical law translates practically into a stance that neither embraces same-sex partnerships nor outright condemns those who choose to undertake them.

“On the one hand, we’re not going to support it,” Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, one of the major national Orthodox institutions in the United States, told the Journal. “But on the other hand, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that gay and lesbian members feel as much a part of the community as anyone else.”

Nonetheless, the model of an Orthodox marriage, without a doubt, is a husband and wife. Weil said, “Where there’s a little bit of pushback is where a couple wants to be discussed as ‘Mr. and Mr.’ or ‘Mrs. and Mrs.’ ”

For teens contemplating their romantic and religious futures, the range of answers they might receive from rabbis and school administrators is wide. For now, Shalhevet seems to represent the most progressive response they might receive in Los Angeles.

Valley Torah High School in Valley Village occupies a more conservative place on the spectrum. Reached by phone, Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, the head of school, was quick to note that intolerance against gays, lesbians and bisexuals is not welcome.

“With my students, I feel it’s important that they understand that this is not something that we look down upon,” he said. “This is not a choice that people make.”

However, he wouldn’t budge on the issue of Jewish law: The rules are clear, and a student who wanted to live an out gay or lesbian life at the Orthodox high school would run into trouble.

“This would be inconsistent with the atmosphere — for a kid to say, ‘I’m gay, I’m acting out on it and I want to be a member of Valley Torah in good standing,’ ” he said. “It’s inconsistent from a halachic viewpoint.”

Asked whether such a student could, for instance, lead prayer services or school activities, he answered, “In 31 years, it hasn’t happened. But honestly, let’s just sort of change the question. I’d have the same dilemma if a kid came to me and said, ‘Rabbi, I love Valley Torah but I’m just eating at McDonald’s every night. That’s who I am.’ ”

At YULA Girls High School, the policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual students is in flux.

“We’ve had internal discussions, but we haven’t yet formulated a policy,” said Head of School Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who plans to leave YULA Girls this summer after leading it since 2008. “It would obviously include the greatest amount of respect for the students and understanding of whatever they’re going through.”

He said the heads of the area’s Orthodox schools — including YULA Girls, YULA Boys, Valley Torah and Shalhevet — meet periodically to discuss important issues, including this one. As of now, they haven’t formulated a conclusion. But Lieberman expects that soon most local Orthodox schools will provide statements or policies on the matter.

As attitudes about homosexuality have shifted, with gay rights and narratives becoming more mainstream, hard-line positions have become more difficult to maintain.

Thau recalled telling his grandfather that he was gay and getting a surprising answer.

“He said, ‘So?’ ” Thau recalled. “And he said, ‘If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have had a very different reaction.’ ”

Thau went on, “As much as the Orthodox community tries to isolate itself from the secular world, there are always cracks in the wall — no matter how high the wall is. Culture will always bleed through.”

Caught in the middle

But ensconced behind the walls of a Torah-observant lifestyle, many teens still face an awful choice between God and love.

“When you’re living in the Orthodox community, being gay and being religious — they’re not cohesive,” said Jeremy Borison, 25, who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in Los Angeles. “So me, if I had to choose one, I was gonna stay with the religious side of it.”

He said he’s now able to balance his faith and sexual orientation — but only because he found a welcoming community in B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, where Senior Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky has been outspoken in favor of greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Others, like David, a gay man in his 20s who grew up in an Orthodox family in Los Angeles, no longer feel like they have a place in the Orthodox community.

Some of the gay and lesbian individuals interviewed for this story, including David, asked not to be identified by their real names or even the schools they attended, fearing they and their families would face sigma and untoward gossip. David still is wary about sharing his story publicly, for that reason.

At the Orthodox high school he attended in L.A., he knew he was attracted boys, but thought it was a phase, something all teenagers go through. There were no Orthodox Jews who were gay, as far as he knew; it simply wasn’t conceivable.

He had a good time during his high school years, though, enjoying his religious education and even getting close to some of the rabbis. But by the time he found himself in yeshiva in Israel, in a completely different environment, he realized his feelings weren’t going to go away. His first reaction was to treat them as something wrong with him that needed to be fixed.

A good deal of therapy later, David is leading an out gay life, but he finds that he’s uncomfortable in Orthodox spaces. His experience didn’t make him hate Judaism; he’s still finding his place in the religion. But he no longer considers himself Orthodox. How could he feel welcome in a community that considers who he is to be a great sin?

Every problem begs a solution

From time to time, students approach Stulberger, the head of school at Valley Torah, struggling with feelings of attraction to members of the same gender. Stulberger said he has “helped many students over the years in their struggle — but in a private way.”

His first reaction when students come to him with this issue is to assure them, “We are here to talk to; we are here to help you.” But after that he draws a line: “What I won’t do is give the indication that giving into your same-sex attraction is something that’s acceptable.”

To these students, he presents two options. One is celibacy. The other is to “get help, find the right professional who can help you to reorient.”

Stulberger alleges there are thousands of young men who have changed their sexual orientation with professional help. While the scientific and LGBT communities dispute its effectiveness, the internet is filled with testimonies from people who claim to lead happy, heterosexual lives as a result of “reparative therapy.” Stulberger even knows a handful of them, he said.

One of those is Naim, an Orthodox man in his early 30s who attended Valley Torah and who asked to be identified only by his middle name. For years, he struggled with his attraction to men but rejected the idea of living an out gay life.

“I didn’t want that lifestyle,” he said. “I wanted to get married. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to do what men do — period.”

Photo by Eitan Arom

By the time he was 28, he said, he’d been in and out of rehab for drug addiction and was addicted to gay porn. Then, he made an electrifying discovery on the internet.

“There’s a whole community out there — Jews and non-Jews alike — that don’t want to live that lifestyle and have struggled with it and gotten help, and now they’re married,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible, God is talking to me right now. Why did it take 28 years to tell me this?’ ”

He enrolled in reparative therapy designed around what he called a “gender wholeness model.” He identified factors such as a troubled relationship with his father and an unhealthy identification with traits he admired in other men as the cause of his same-sex attraction, which he referred to as SSA. He treated it like a condition that needed to be fixed, he said, and he began to heal.

“My attraction for men has diminished significantly,” he said. “Usually, my SSA, on a scale of 1 to 10, is at a 0.”

Now, he’s looking for a wife.

“There are still days when I struggle every once in a while,” he said. “Thank God it doesn’t happen very often.”

Taking a pledge

Told that a Los Angeles high school recommends reparative therapy, Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or of JQ International, a West Hollywood-based Jewish LGBT support and education organization, was horrified.

“What it does is, it encourages people to kill themselves,” she said. California law bans the practice for mental health providers.

David moved away from his Orthodox community after high school and hasn’t returned, but some of its stigmas and taboos lingered with him. He sought out reparative therapy while in college, and while he didn’t find it particularly traumatizing, he said it made him hate himself. Since then, he’s blocked much of it out in his mind.

Now, Segal and Thau at Shalhevet are asking other Jewish schools to affirm in a pledge, written jointly by Thau and the administration, that they “will not recommend, refer, or pressure students toward ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion therapy.’ ”

“We believe that’s damaging,” Segal said of the practice.

The pledge includes five other points — which Segal insisted schools can adopt altogether or individually — including an assurance that gay, lesbian and transgender students won’t be excluded from school activities and will be provided with support services. The full statement is available online at As of now, Shalhevet is the only school to have signed it.

Asked about the pledge, Lieberman, the head of YULA Girls, said, “It’s very powerful,” adding that if YULA Girls were to issue a policy about LGBT students, “it would definitely gravitate toward that.”

The idea of the pledge has its origins in Thau’s coming out to Segal and Weissman.

“What could we do?” Segal said he asked the teen. “What could we have communicated to you, Micha, that would have helped?”

Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

The administrators realized that communicating anything at all would have been a good start. Even though both men assumed a gay student would be welcomed, Thau struggled through years of uncertainty because they had never said as much publicly.

“Schools and communities and shuls should have this conversation and decide what they believe, and then publish it,” Segal said — even if it is less progressive than what Shalhevet came up with.

Bat-Or said she hopes other schools will follow Shalhevet’s lead and take steps toward inclusiveness, for instance by circulating JQ’s helpline for LGBT Jews and advertising their counselor’s offices as safes spaces for students questioning their sexual orientation.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 150,” she said of Shalhevet’s efforts. “I really mean that. It took huge courage for [Segal] and for Micha to get together and to do this.”

A movement in the making

Cases like Micha’s make it increasingly difficult for Orthodox communities to ignore issues faced by their lesbian, gay and bisexual members.

“Centrist Orthodoxy is conflicted and not admitting the conflict,” said Greenberg, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi who came out years later and co-founded Eshel, a Boston-based organization that promotes inclusiveness in Orthodox communities. “They are pulled by much more traditional frames, and they are pulled by the human realities they’re facing.”

At least in some communities, that conflict has meant a long, slow drift toward acceptance.

Elissa Kaplan, a clinical psychologist who came out as lesbian 15 years ago while living in an Orthodox community in suburban New Jersey, has watched attitudes change before her eyes.

“The world has changed since then,” Kaplan, 55, said. “Gay marriage is legal now in the civil world. That’s enormous, and it has an impact. It matters. Even people who say they are not influenced in their attitudes by what happens in the secular world — it’s just not true.”

She’s felt the impact of those changes herself, she said.

“My wife and I would go into one of the kosher restaurants in the area and might get dirty looks from people,” she said. “That really doesn’t happen anymore.”

In Los Angeles, that change has played out in parlor meetings where community members get together to grapple with the issue of inclusiveness. In March, some two dozen Jewish teens and parents gathered in the dining room of a Beverlywood home, sitting on folding chairs and nibbling on cookies and cut fruit as they listened to Greenberg speak.

The parlor meeting was the work of Eshel L.A., a local group allied with the Boston-based organization. It first convened in June 2015, when Harry Nelson, a local health care attorney, invited community members to his home to meet Greenberg and Eshel’s other co-founder, Miryam Kabakov, the group’s executive director.

From there, they formed a steering committee. That December, they had the first of many parlor meetings on topics like how to curb homophobic comments at the Shabbat table and how to talk to their children about same-sex couples.

“The thing that struck me most with this issue is that the Orthodox tradition that I so value and the Orthodox lifestyle I so love were creating pain, intolerable pain, for people who are gay,” said Julie Gruenbaum Fax, one of Eshel L.A.’s principal organizers and a former Jewish Journal staff writer.

Fax and her peers are looking to create Orthodox spaces where lesbians, gays and bisexuals can exist openly and comfortably. Sometimes, that entails actually grappling with Jewish law. At the parlor meeting in March, Greenberg, 60, who has salt-and-pepper stubble and a professorial air, moved fluently through the halachah and commentary on the topic of homosexuality.

On the face of it, the law as it is appears in the Torah seems clear enough. Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.”

But Greenberg pointed out to his Beverlywood audience that the rabbinate has created work-arounds for all kinds of mandates and prohibitions, such as those against carrying objects outside the home on Shabbat or farming during a jubilee year. The laws governing these exceptions are complex, but the point is, they are negotiable — unlike homosexuality, for most Orthodox rabbis.

During his presentations, Greenberg is careful to allow room for dissent and questions, and community members frequently take him up. One woman at the meeting, who wore a long black skirt and said she’d adopted Orthodoxy later in life, admitted that the concept of full acceptance for gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community makes her uncomfortable.

“I did this to bring boundaries to my life, to my kids,” she said of her decision to begin strictly observing Jewish law. “So when we start to open things up,  it scares me.”

She continued on the topic of boundaries: If you’re going to toss out the prohibition on gays and lesbians, she suggested, why not let women wear jeans instead of skirts?

Thau was sitting in the front row. As the woman went on, he turned around and began to cut her off, looking upset, but Greenberg gently put a hand on his shoulder, and Thau sat back in his chair. During an interview a week later, Thau said he was grateful to Greenberg for stopping him from saying something he might regret.

“I’m always in the hot seat as the poster boy for gay people, answering all the questions,” he said. “And it’s not a role I’m unwilling to take, but it is very difficult to be perfect all the time.”

Inching forward

Becoming a poster child is exactly what Nechama wants to avoid if she decides to come out.

A student at Shalhevet who asked that her real name not to be used, Nechama said she’s only questioning her sexual identity. But if she were to come out, she would be hesitant to speak about it with too many people at her school.

“I just feel very uncomfortable with the idea of being gay in a Modern Orthodox school,” she said.

While the school itself is progressive enough, some students come from more conservative backgrounds, she said.

She said she hopes to remain Orthodox, even though she struggles with some of the Jewish laws she’d be obligated to observe. To the community at large, her only plea was for empathy.

“We’re teenagers and we’re going through confusing times,” she said. She urged peers and parents “just to hear everything out, because it’s kind of hard to be alone in something like this.”

For his part, Greenberg is clear-eyed about the work in front of him: Creating a fully accepting Orthodox community will be neither quick nor easy. But he holds it as the responsibility of Orthodox leaders to sympathize with members of their communities who struggle with their identities.

“If you’re not willing to suffer with that kid who is caught in the crosshairs of this cultural and religious conflict,” he said, “if you’re not willing to be with that kid, then you don’t deserve the role of leadership.”

On a Sunday last December, Joe Wedner leaves a church service carrying fruit from a free food pantry. Photos by Eitan Arom

Jewish, homeless and alone: One tale of grief on L.A.’s streets

For Joe Wedner, theology is well-worn territory. God and His workings are among the trains of thought that keep Joe’s mind chugging, often in a broad and frenzied circle. At the center of that theology is a paradox that causes Joe a fair amount of strife.

Joe is 77, stooped and bearded. He’s a Jew by birth, but in practice, at least since 2013, he honors every faith — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. — without discrimination or distinction. His face betrays the weatherworn quality of someone who has spent years living on the streets, and he carries an air of all-consuming tragedy.

“I cry a lot — so I’m sorry — but I’ve never been locked up for crying,” he told me the first time we sat down together, in January 2016 at Native Foods Café, a vegan restaurant in Westwood.

He sat in front of a heaping pile of beans, grains and vegetables, his pushcart parked next to our table. Overflowing with pieces of cardboard and extra jackets, the cart held the sum of his worldly possessions.

Vegan cuisine was Joe’s idea. He avoids processed foods and animal products, not for ethical or health reasons, but religious ones. When a waiter stopped by our table, Joe pointed to his food and asked, “Is this the most natural, unchanged-from-God whole food that we got?”

God pervades Joe’s existence.

“There is no place that God is not,” he told me. “God is everyplace. God is in every belief. God is in every emotion.”

His relationship with the Almighty is perhaps Joe’s one remaining comfort in this world, although even that relationship is not without strain. According to Joe, two activities offer him any sort of solace from the unrelenting fear and anxiety that rule his day-to-day existence: religion and sex. Since Joe is homeless and elderly, it’s not easy for him to find sexual partners, so religion is all that remains in any practical sense. Every week, when he has the time, he attends as many religious and spiritual services as he can.

But his God, he insists, is not a particularly benevolent one. The paradox at the heart of Joe’s theology is that although God is everywhere, He is a maniac.

“God can do the impossible,” he explained to me. “He can give absolute, total freedom and still prevent man from sinning and leaving Him, and therefore He can prevent suffering. Why doesn’t He prevent suffering? Because He’s mentally ill. He’s seriously mentally ill, and we are His image and likeness, and we are mentally ill.”

When it comes to his own mental illness, Joe makes no secret. In his second email to me, shortly after we first met, he wrote, “I thought you might be interested in the attached information.” It was a psychiatric report diagnosing him with bipolar disorder, for which he refuses medication. He also admits to being delusional and cripplingly paranoid.

[To give or not to give? Experts weigh in]

For Joe, delusion bleeds freely into reality and vice versa. Consider his present life plan: Joe is taking UCLA Extension courses on the entertainment industry, hoping to land a high-paying job and strike it rich. The basis for his plan is his conviction that education is the key to income. Although that makes enough sense, his plan to strike it rich stretches credulity.

Yet Joe sticks to his plan doggedly, even if it means forgoing a roof over his head.

Joe has been homeless for four years, a condition that puts him in the category of “chronically homeless” — those homeless for a year or more due to debility. He is less an anomaly than a poster boy for the definition: By the latest count, 61 percent of the roughly 13,000 people who are chronically homeless in Los Angeles County are mentally ill, about 8,000 people total, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

If there is an anomaly to Joe, it’s his religious background.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center ranked Jews as the most financially successful religious group in America. Only 16 percent claimed a family income of less than $30,000 a year.

Tanya Tull, a homelessness policy pioneer and CEO of Partnering for Change, said in addition to Jews living on the street, many others eke out an existence in deplorable conditions in cramped apartments in poor neighborhoods like MacArthur Park and Mid-City. She cited as one example a 71-year-old retired Jewish man who spends more than 80 percent of his Social Security payments on rent in a studio apartment in Pico Union, where he experiences regular power outages and struggles to treat a chronic pulmonary condition.

Some local impoverished Jews are clients of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and its partner organizations. Federation estimates that together, the groups help about 20,000 Jews living in poverty, providing them with free kosher meals and grant assistance for housing, paired with case management.

But that number reflects only those whom they help.

“There are more people out there — Joe is a perfect example — who are not accessing these services,” Lori Klein, Federation’s senior vice president for its Caring for Jews in Need program, told the Journal.

Federation estimated that 50,000 Jews lived in poverty in Los Angeles in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. More than 600,000 Jews live in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Klein suggested that Joe call a central access hotline of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which directs people experiencing financial instability to appropriate resources.

Joe said he called in April, but found that the services it offered were more or less the same as those he already was getting from a Kaiser Permanente social worker. As for housing, Joe, it turns out, has other priorities.

I first met Joe when I showed up for an assignment at jumu’ah, the Muslim prayer service offered Friday evenings at UCLA. I was early and found Joe sitting on a metal folding chair in the hallway outside the prayer room with the demeanor of someone who didn’t have anywhere else to be.

After services, I took down his email address. Joe checks his email frequently — somewhere among the loose cardboard and plastic bags in his cart was a laptop that he’d had since 2013. (It’s since been stolen; he now returns emails via public computers at UCLA.)

It turns out that Joe has little to hide and, by his estimation, much to gain from an interview.

“The more you tell the better,” he told me at Native Foods. “My psychiatrist does not disagree that my whole problem is a girlfriend deficiency, and I’m trying to get that out there.”

It was only much later in the interview that I learned he has a wife and daughter — but that hasn’t interrupted his other plans. Joe is interested in obeying all of God’s commandments, including to “be fruitful and multiply.”

“I need a lot of girlfriends,” he said, without a hint of irony or jest. “So I want to put that out there, just in case there might be somebody like me, that also wants a lot of children, a female. Because … I’m a panhandler, and a panhandler knows if you say the same thing to enough people, no matter what it is you’re saying, if you say it to enough people, you find a few, one or a few, that’ll agree with you.”

With Joe, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between delusion and what could be described merely as misplaced priorities. His desire to have children is motivated not just by the joy of sex but also by the conviction that children represent “eternal life and salvation from death.” But whether Joe should father a child at 77, with no means to support one, is a consideration he ignores. He remains enthusiastic in pursuing his goal.

In the middle of the conversation, a young woman approached our table to express interest in the interview. Joe’s demeanor changed instantly. His eyes lit up, and he began talking more quickly, almost frantically. It occurred to me that he was putting on a show.

“You could sit down,” he told the young woman. “You could sit down and listen to me. If you’ve gotta go — want my email address? I’m an extremely interesting person. You’ll never find anybody running around loose more mentally ill than me.”

Joseph Leo Wedner was born on Feb. 2, 1940, in Detroit.

His father was born to an Orthodox family near Sanok, Poland. His mother, an American, was what Joe called a “three-day Jew,” someone who attended synagogue approximately three days a year. They had one other son, John, since deceased.

At 13, Joe became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, a Conservative synagogue near Detroit. He recalls his trips to his father’s shul with fondness if also with a bit of detachment, saying, “That was very nice, people talking with their creator, praying and asking to not get sick with colds or anything else.”

But even at a young age, Judaism didn’t quite do it for him. He remembers, as a 5-year-old, being beset with a paralyzing fear that his faith couldn’t extinguish. He recalled his envy when he saw a glow-in-the-dark crucifix hanging over the bed of a grade-school friend.

“I thought, ‘Man, oh, man, everybody’s lucky except me. I gotta have horrible, terrible nightmares ’cause I’m scared of school. Why can’t I go to Catholic school and have that crucifix hanging by my bed?’ ” he said.

His family life was dysfunctional, he said: “That’s what our family does, is yell at one another. Big ones yell at the little ones.”

But Joe managed to hold things together and graduate from a local college, enrolling in medical school at the University of Michigan. Soon, though, his mental health began to slip, as it would at crucial moments in his future. He described struggling with paranoia so severe that he didn’t think he could make it in medical school. When things got bad, he went to see the dean.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to flunk out anyway, I’ll never get through this, it’s too hard, and I’m afraid of the American Nazi party. I’m going to Israel,’ ” he recalled.

His experience in Habonim Labor Zionist Youth as a teen in Detroit had convinced him that a Jew could live happily only in a socially just environment in Israel. So in January 1964, he left for Israel, landing at Kibbutz Sarid in Israel’s north.

It didn’t quite play out the way he had hoped. Instead of working, he “slept and ate all day and chased the tourist girls,” he said. He was kicked out, and he fell in with some hippies — or maybe they were secret police. Joe can’t be sure.

His new friends taught him to play guitar and beg on the street. After a stint in Abu Kabir Prison in Tel Aviv on narcotics charges — “all the hippies were doing narcotics,” he said — he felt disillusioned and left the country the year after he arrived.

From there, Joe tramped through Europe and the Middle East, his first experience with vagrancy. But, in 1968, he was back in the United States, and over much of the next four decades earned a living wage subsisting on odd jobs and help from his mother as he moved from place to place, with stints in New York, California, Washington state and Hawaii. Things weren’t always great, but there was a roof over his head. And then came Josie.

It was 2004. Joe had been living in the Philippines for about a year, living off the interest from an inheritance from his mother, when his psychiatrist suggested he hire a live-in maid because he hadn’t cleaned his Manila apartment in more than a year.

Josie showed up at his door. “Right from the beginning, we fell in love,” he said.

They were married a short while later. Their daughter was born in 2006, and a year later, they moved to Loma Linda in San Bernardino County, where they lived in a “very small, but very comfortable apartment.” The marriage was a rocky one, which he blames on his own upbringing.

“My family is dysfunctional, extremely, is as dysfunctional as a family can be without actually flying apart,” he said. “It was always screaming, weeping, crying, insulting, criticizing etc., so I did that to my wife, whose family never did that.”

In 2011, they traveled to Josie’s hometown, Zamboanga City, in the Philippines, moving from apartment to apartment. Josie started a few businesses, but they all failed. By 2013, he recalls, she told him, “Get me back in the USA, I don’t like it here.” He flew to Los Angeles, with plans for her to follow later — but no plan of where to stay once he left the airport.

Even living on the street, Joe was sending money back to Josie from his Supplemental Security Income, a federal program for the elderly, blind and disabled. After a while, he couldn’t afford to continue. “I heard from her when she needed money and then, when I stopped sending her money, I haven’t heard from her,” Joe said. She last contacted him in December. I reached out to Josie through email and Facebook, but she did not respond.

Nonetheless, Joe is keen to bring his wife to the U.S. While his strategy may be a doubtful one, he persists: To earn a visa for Josie, he needs to demonstrate to Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he can support her. Thus, his coursework at UCLA.

Sevgi Cacina, a film student at UCLA Extension who is making a documentary about Joe, first approached him after she saw him pitch his skills as an actor and producer at networking events. The crowd typically doesn’t know what to make of Joe, but one thing is certain, she said: “He’s not joking.”

He’s even enlisted some help. Screenwriter Brooks Elms said Joe enrolled in an online course that Elms taught through UCLA Extension in 2015, during which Joe diligently completed each assignment. After the course concluded, the students invited Elms to lunch in Westwood.

“Joe came to that lunch, rolled his cart right there from the street, and asked how he could get a movie made,” Elms wrote in an email. “I asked why he was even spending money on a film class when he could be spending it on basic survival needs, and he was determined to learn about the film business and make something happen that way.”

Elms said he’s now helping Joe make a film about Joe’s life on the streets.

“We plan [to] post it online with hopes it will bring him some much-needed income,” Elms wrote.

Until that happens, Joe remains on the street and sleeps in a sleeping bag in Westwood. Mostly, he’s tenacious about his plan, but sometimes his resolve lapses.

“This is as close to work as I got, giving an interview for a lunch,” he said at the vegan joint, “which is extremely disconcerting to me, because now I’m afraid I’ll never get my wife and daughter back.”

Joe’s separation from his wife and daughter is “an overwhelming tragedy that pervades my being every moment. … It causes anxiety, depression and every bad feeling.” Any kind of spiritual activity, from Mass to a 12-step meeting, relieves the pain of those feelings.

One day, on a visit to the Seventh-day Adventist church in Santa Monica — which he calls “Simcha Monica” — he ran into a Chabad missionary near the church.

As a lapsed Jew with a spotty relationship to the tribe, he was nervous about allowing the rabbi to lay tefillin on him. So he thought about it, and prayed about it, and decided he’d better drop by a Chabad.

“If I’m striving for God to help me, in everything, then I got no better or worse chance at the Chabad Lubavitch synagogue than I got anyplace else, so I’ll go,” he said. “So I started going. The more I went, the more I started feeling that … if I know what’s good for me, I better add Roman Catholic and Muslim to the places I pray.”

Basileia Community church elder Bill Horst bows his head and prays for Joe Wedner after a service in Hollywood.

Joe’s schedule for religious services is noncommittal and wide-ranging, though it leans Christian. Perhaps his favorite place to pray is a Christian congregation called the Basileia Community, which meets in a Baptist church in Hollywood. At one point, he was going twice a week, on Tuesdays and Sundays, while attending Roman Catholic services on Mondays and Thursdays and Chabad or Seventh-day Adventist services on Saturdays.

Lately, school has interfered with his attendance, and he’s often forced to stay around UCLA for services. One Sunday in December, I agreed to drive him to Basileia. We met on the corner of Westwood Boulevard and Le Conte Avenue with boisterous crowds of students surging by. He looked even smaller than I remembered, dressed in two coats and too-long pants that he’d rolled up at the cuff over a scuffed pair of brown loafers.

I loaded his pushcart, with its one broken wheel, into my car, and we set off for church.

On the way, I decided to raise the issue of permanent supportive housing — apartments made available by the city and county expressly for chronically homeless and mentally ill individuals like Joe. Los Angeles voters recently passed Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond that earmarks most of the funds precisely for building this type of housing. Joe conceded that it would be nice to have a toilet of his own, and the privacy to have company.

But “it might not be around here,” he speculated as we turned onto Wilshire Boulevard. “Then I’d have to wait for a bus and ride the bus and wait for a bus back … then it would slow down my saving up that $60,000 I need to show to get my wife over here.”

By now his foot was tapping violently enough to shake the car. The topic clearly made him anxious.

His thoughts are scattered, with a tendency to trail off or pivot wildly. On occasion, an unrelated question will reveal a heretofore-unexplored saga in Joe’s life.

By the time we reached Basileia, a question about his wife inadvertently had revealed details of the money he had inherited from his mother: Between 1984 and 2007, he said, he played the stock market, growing $250,000 into more than $800,000 at one point and living off the interest. When the market crashed 10 years ago, Joe said his bank account flat-lined.

As we walked into the church, people were schmoozing around a light buffet. Joe wasted no time in loading up a plate with fruit and breakfast rolls. It had been some time since he had been here, and several people approached him to say hello. A massive man with a kind face and a blond bun, the drummer in the congregation’s music ensemble, greeted Joe with a fist-bump.

Explaining my presence there as a Jewish Journal reporter, I mentioned that Joe was Jewish.

“I didn’t know you were Jewish, Joe!” a fellow churchgoer interjected.

I was mortified for outing him, but Joe was unfazed.

“I’m all things,” he explained.

For Joe, God is in every religion, all beliefs, indiscriminately and without exception. He likes Basileia for its inclusiveness and the kindness of his members. But it has no monopoly on his faith.

The band started to play and the hymns began to flow. “Holy Spirit, come fill this place!” the congregants sang, sitting in a semicircle under the exposed rafters of the tall, gabled roof.

The gathering was a dressed-down affair, community-oriented and progressive. The room flickered softly with the glow of candles and Christmas lights, and a plain, wooden cross overlooked the scene.

While the music played, Joe crossed his legs and tilted his head downward, staring just past his interlaced fingers, his white beard fanning out over his UCLA Extension T-shirt. The pastor, Suz Born, a bespectacled woman with a soft voice and the measured demeanor of a kindergarten teacher, kneeled next to him with her hands raised in the air.

Joe Wedner shows off a T-shirt reflecting his enrollment in UCLA Extension while standing on a corner in Westwood in December.

Soon, the music slowed to three or four chords repeated on an acoustic guitar. The frenzied foot tapping that had shaken my car had slowed to a soft, irregular beat.

When the service broke up, he stuck around to chat with friends and acquaintances, indulging them in detailed explanations of his theology. “The only reasonable conclusion is that God is mentally ill,” I overheard him saying.

He shares his theory widely, even if to awkward laughs or kind dismissals. It doesn’t earn him many friends. The Roman Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists say he’s blaspheming God. He says they’re blaspheming God by calling his truth blasphemy, since truth is God.

After services ended, church elder Bill Horst sat beside Joe to pray with him, resting his head on his hand and concentrating intensely. Later, Horst told me he prays for Joe to experience the mental soundness that often eludes him and to find a way off the streets.

Horst said that despite “packaging that’s a little tricky to get past,” Joe gets along OK at Basileia. At one point, he was making sexual overtures to single women there in a way that made them uncomfortable, Horst said — but church leaders sat him down and asked him to respect certain boundaries, and to his credit, he did.

“Someone can have a meaningful relationship with someone like Joe even if they find that difficult to imagine,” Horst told me on the phone later. “There is something real and coherent and worthwhile there if you’re willing to look for it.”

As people began to file out of the church, Joe headed to a basement room to pick up some donated food. He made a beeline for the fruits and vegetables. “There’s salad over here, boyfriend,” a homeless woman called out to him. But the salads were of the prepacked grocery store variety, and some had meat in them, so he passed over them. Even with his dietary restrictions, food is the least of his worries. Between panhandling and food banks, he has plenty. If he lacks for something, it’s not provisions but companionship.

“I need friends,” he said at Basileia. “My family is gone, so I need friends. Inshallah” — if God wills it.

Joe’s first serious brush with Christianity came during a lockup in Washington State Penitentiary in January 1978, when he was 37. He’d enrolled in a university-level accounting course in Tacoma, Wash., hoping it would set him on a path to quick riches. But he was failing and frustrated. One day, he decided somebody was driving too fast down his street, so he took out a loaded .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and brandished it, yelling, on his porch. He was imprisoned for 25 months before his mother, an attorney, managed to get his sentence vacated on a technicality.

Prison was not a welcoming place. “The guards were unfriendly and the prisoners were even more unfriendly,” he said.

The only people who would speak with him were the missionaries.

“The Christian missionaries were there every day. I saw Jewish missionaries there once the whole 25 months I was there,” he said. “So naturally, I read the Christian Bible — a few times.”

He acquainted himself well with the text and continues to read and reread it. He keeps one in his pushcart. These days, one of Joe’s favorite verses to quote is the Man of Sorrows in Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

It’s not hard to puzzle out why he’s so fond of the verse. On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine Joe as Isaiah’s outcast, “pierced for our transgressions … crushed for our iniquities.”

On the other hand, it’s a potent illustration of a capricious and unsparing God, doling out suffering: Why would any but a mentally ill God cause one man to suffer for all the rest?

And so, my question for Joe was, why go to such great lengths to worship a God he believes — fervently — to be insane? Joe’s theology and his delusions often are baroque, but they’re pieced together from pieces of simple, direct logic. To my spiritual question came a pragmatic answer.

On weeks he goes to prayer services and reads from the Bible, he said, “things coincidentally or not coincidentally go better. And so I just keep doing it.”

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Tazria-Metzora with Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

Our guest this week is Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Rabbi Aaron received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater from Emerson College in 1983. He later attended Hebrew Union College, where he received a Master’s Degree in Jewish Education in 1993, and a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Letters in 1994, and was ordained as a Rabbi in 1996. Since ordination, Rabbi Aaron has served Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in several roles; first as an Assistant, then Associate Rabbi, and now as Co-Senior Rabbi. He has also been Director of Education, and served as the Head of Temple Emanuel Academy Day School for almost a decade. Rabbi Aaron serves as a sworn-in Police Chaplain in the Beverly Hills Police Department, and is on the Board of Directors at The Maple Counseling Center in Beverly Hills. He also has been a visiting professor at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, where he has taught speech to second-year rabbinical students for more than 10 years.

This week’s double parashah – Parashat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) – features rules concerning the purity and impurity of women and the horrible disease of leprosy. Our discussion focuses on the priests’ curious attitude toward people inflicted with skin disease.

President Donald Trump watching the lighting of memorial candles during the annual Days of Remembrance Holocaust ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on April 25. Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

On Jews and the Holocaust, Trump signals that he finally gets it

President Donald Trump got the memo on the Holocaust and the Jews.

In a barrage of statements this week from the president and his aides, the Trump administration wants you to know, he gets it, he really gets it: The Holocaust describes a genocide committed only against one people, the Jews.

It’s a radical departure from the first days of the Trump administration, when a statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day omitted any mention of Jews. That was made worse, in the eyes of most of the Jewish establishment, when Trump staffers further blurred the distinction between the Jewish genocide and the sufferings of other groups during World War II.

Trump made the distinction clear in his speech Tuesday at the annual Days of Remembrance commemoration in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“The Nazis massacred 6 million Jews,” he said. “Two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide. Millions more innocent people were imprisoned and executed by the Nazis without mercy, without even a sign of mercy.”

Trump made the same distinction a day earlier in his proclamation declaring the Days of Remembrance and also on Sunday in a video address to the World Jewish Congress. The State Department last week held a ceremony honoring Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania who provided transit visas to Japan for 6,000 Jews, saving their lives.

Trump taking out time to keynote the museum event Tuesday was in itself significant. Presidents have appeared at the event, but their presence is not routine, and this week isn’t exactly a down week for the administration with a government shutdown looming.

And his embrace of Jewish sensibilities about the Holocaust was robust, extending to an excoriation of Holocaust denial, a rejection of anti-Semitism overall and a defense of Israel.

“This is my pledge to you: We will confront anti-Semitism,” Trump said. “We will stamp out prejudice. We will condemn hatred. We will bear witness. And we will act. As president of the United States, I will always stand with the Jewish people — and I will always stand with our great friend and partner, the State of Israel.”

A number of Jewish groups, among them groups that had been harshly critical of Trump’s past fumbling of the issue, welcomed the turnaround. In some cases, the compliments seemed almost backhanded, giving Trump credit for simply getting his facts right.

Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s associate director for policy, praised Trump for his “forthright message of fidelity to historical accuracy, empathy with the Jewish people, and commitment to combat all forms of hatred and violence towards Jews.”

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who has had a contentious relationship with the administration, said he looked “forward to working with the president and his administration to put his pledge into action.”

So what moved Trump? A variety of factors might have been in play:

It’s personal.

Much has been made of the fact that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner – both unpaid White House staffers – are Jewish, as are some of his top aides.

Ivanka Trump, in her own Holocaust remembrance message, made clear how personal the week was to her and her husband.

“I want my children to live in a world where every country and its leaders pledge to ensure a genocide like the Holocaust will never happen again,” she said. “I want them to grow up in a world where people are tolerant, inclusive and loving toward one another.”

The next day, on a visit to Berlin for the G20 women’s summit, Ivanka Trump visited the city’s Holocaust memorial.

It’s loyalty.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been outspoken in his praise of Trump, and rarely misses an opportunity to compare him favorably to his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The same goes for Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers. In his own address in the Capitol on Tuesday, Dermer flattered Trump explicitly and derided the Obama administration implicitly by comparing their approaches to Syria.

“History shows that indifference has been the rule, not the exception,” Dermer said. “The exceptions have been decisions like the one President Trump made this month to respond to a chemical attack by the Assad regime against innocent men, women and children. That decision was a defiance of indifference.”

Obama, notably, did not strike Syria after a 2013  attack much worse than the one earlier this month that killed 89 civilians in rebel-held territory. Instead, his threats to strike led to negotiations that culminated in a deal in which Syria promised to divest itself of its poisonous gases.

Dermer, however, took aim at Obama’s stated preference for “soft power” and seemed to allude to a campaign by Obama’s wife, Michelle, to raise awareness of victims of the Islamist Boko Haram group in Nigeria, who kidnapped 276 schoolgirls.

“Those contemplating evil should know that they will face more than the soft power of self-righteous condemnations and feel-good hashtags,” he said.

Trump was impressed and extemporized a thank you to Dermer in his speech that immediately followed.

“We are privileged to be joined by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, friend of mine — he’s done a great job and said some wonderful words — Ron Dermer,” he said.

Trump in his video address to the World Jewish Congress was similarly effusive in praising the group’s president, Ronald Lauder.

“I want to thank Ronald Lauder not only for his many years of friendship — and he truly has been my good friend, he even predicted early that I was going to win the presidency — but also for his leadership of this organization,” the president said.

Lauder, notably, was the only Jewish leader to give Trump a pass for his botching of the Holocaust remembrance message in January. An old acquaintance of Trump’s, the cosmetics executive has for decades been deeply involved in Holocaust remembrance. The message: Flattery may work better with Trump than confrontation.

Stephen Bannon in the shadows

The adviser to Trump most in sync with the “alt-right,” the loose-knit assemblage of anti-establishment conservatives where soft denial of the Holocaust has found a home, is Stephen Bannon, who is believed to have been behind the January statement.

Trump recently demoted Bannon, pulling him off the National Security Council, and is said to be frustrated by Bannon’s hard-line ideological fixations, believing they are obstructing his efforts to pass legislation through an ideologically diverse Congress. Moreover, Bannon has clashed with Kushner, and Trump always sides with family first.

Who needs the headache?

Fairly or not, another Trump adviser, Sebastian Gorka, has been driven to distraction by allegations of his associations with the Hungarian far right. He stormed off a Georgetown University panel after students at the university confronted him with questions about those allegations.

As Trump scrambles to name accomplishments in his first 100 days in office, distractions about what the Holocaust means is exactly what he does not need.

Tensions between Trump and the wider Jewish community will not likely disappear anytime soon. A key lesson of the Holocaust for many Jews – one Dermer mentioned – is that they should keep their eyes wide open for any likelihood of genocide against any people. Other presidents marking Holocaust remembrance have noted contemporary threats; Trump spoke only vaguely of “stamping out prejudice.”

“This spirit should not be restricted to Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Greenblatt said in his statement. “We very much hope the president will continue to use his bully pulpit to speak out against anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hatred in all forms. We urge the president and his administration to act to protect targeted communities against hate crime and discrimination.”

An undated portrait of Asher Arom, taken in Lizhensk, Poland. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My ancestor vanished in the Holocaust; 80 years later, I went looking for him

“I need to speak with you.”

Meylakh Sheykhet was a vision from the past. I had no idea who he was when he tapped me on the shoulder in the lobby of the Hotel Dnister in Lviv, Ukraine.

Tall and bearded, with sunken eyes, he cut a jarring figure in his ultra-Orthodox garb. Around us, a conference on Jewish life was in full swing. Meylakh had overheard me saying I was an intern with The Jerusalem Post. He wanted to tell me about the deteriorating state of Jewish sites in the city — and his fight to preserve them.

Meylakh’s work is motivated by an enduring respect, a fascination even, with the dead; they are never far from his mind. Meylakh fights long odds to save Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, to uncover and preserve the burial sites of sages and to stave off destruction when developers encroach on houses of prayer or their ruins. He sleeps little and makes plenty of enemies. We sat down together in the hotel lobby, and he began to talk, quickly and frantically.

To this day, I don’t know whether to thank Meylakh or to curse him. His tap on the shoulder launched an investigation into my roots that spanned two years, three continents and five generations.

As it turned out, my trip to Lviv had brought me within 100 miles of where many of my ancestors had lived and died, just across the border in Poland. Soon after, I found myself awake at odd hours, clicking frantically from link to link as I fell deeper and deeper down digital rabbit holes on websites dedicated to Jewish genealogy.

Names and dates began to harbor an outsized significance. I found myself assaulted by a confounding rush of details, illuminating and otherwise. One figure kept emerging out of that chaos, over and over again, capturing my imagination and curiosity. It was my great-grandfather, a holy man from a rabbinical lineage who made Torah his day and night’s labor. Before long, he was the centerpiece of my frenetic journey of discovery.

I knew then I had to take my search offline. I reached out to relatives whose identities I’d learned on the internet. I pestered my dad with questions. I devoured books on life in the shtetl and on the great Chasidic dynasties of Europe.

Months into my search, I came across my first authentic relic: the calligraphic handwriting of my great-grandfather, poetic Hebrew sentences intertwined with Torah verses in letters he’d written to family in Palestine. My eyes widened. The letters were an unbearably human fragment of a vanished and tragic past. He signed with the same Hebrew spelling as my father, Asher Arom, only adding a shin, vuv, bet afterward for shochet u’bodek, ritual slaughterer. Looking at those letters, I knew I had to go back to Eastern Europe.

As Jews, we’re told that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God writes and seals the fate of each living soul. So it stands to reason that in September 1939, He was busy plotting against my forebears in Europe.

At the dawn of the Jewish year 5700, one small town in Poland became the crime scene where the Creator carried out His conspiracy against my great-grandfather’s family, with the Nazis as instruments. I suppose you could say I went there to collect evidence to put Him on trial.


Asher Arom in Lizhensk, Poland, in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My trip came less then two years after I first visited Eastern Europe. After two weeks of traveling with my father in Israel, I took a flight from Ben Gurion Airport to Lviv. From there, a bus took me through a foggy February morning and across the Polish border. Every once in a while, the bus swerved into an improbable clearing in the dark woods to pick up someone. My fellow passengers looked to be straight from central casting. The fat matron in the checkered frock, the cadaverous woman with suspicious eyes, the tall man reeking of cigarettes, with a pockmarked face and a jagged scar from the corner of his lip to his ear — these people all looked like they belonged here. The 22-year-old Jewish boy from Beverly Hills did not.

The bus dropped me off in Przemysl (pronounced PSHEH-meh-sheel), an old Polish city of about 65,000 on the San River, where unimaginative Soviet-era buildings fill spaces left by long-gone synagogues and study halls. The bus pulled up just outside the perimeter of the former ghetto where Asher likely was murdered.

When my guide, Maciej, met me in front of my hotel, he admitted he had been expecting a man twice my age. And indeed, the people I’ve met since who tend to take these forays into pre-Holocaust nostalgia are a generation or two my senior. But to see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

My great-grandfather’s legacy is no exception to the corrosive effect of the years. He was born in Przemysl, across the river from the Jewish quarter in a neighborhood called Zasanie, where his father, Gedalia, had been the head of a yeshiva.

Today, the synagogue in Zasanie stands abandoned and deteriorating behind barbed wire. The inn where Gedalia raised a large flock of children was long ago replaced by a blocky apartment complex, painted in primary colors. The Jewish cemetery, just down the highway from the city, has been covered for eight decades with fallen leaves and broken branches, leaving an overgrown warren of blank monuments, the inscriptions worn away by time. The only trace of my ancestors here is some cursive script in a yellowing Austrian record book in the florescent-lit reading room of the Przemysl National Archive.

Shortly after Maciej and I met, we drove 76 kilometers north through heath and woods to Lizhensk, the shtetl where my great-grandfather lived most of his life, now a drab industrial town of 15,000. A relative of mine had marked Asher’s home in red pen on a hand-drawn map of the pre-war town. We parked nearby, in an open-air lot the map indicated had once been the heart of the Jewish quarter.

A drizzle was falling as we plodded down a muddy slope toward the spot indicated on the map. There, on an unpaved path beneath a slate-gray sky was the low shack Asher had built, abandoned and ill-treated by time, its wood planks bent by years, wintery vines bursting through the eaves.

Lizhensk is best known within Poland for the brewery that took its name. To Chasidic Jews, though, Lizhensk is synonymous with Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, a founding father of Chasidism and the town’s most famous resident, Jewish or otherwise.

Chasidim maintain an active relationship with the dead. At midnight on the death anniversary of a great rabbi — and few are greater than Elimelech — it’s said that the souls of the departed descend to their gravesites and carry the prayers of the living up to heaven. Before World War II, Elimelech’s yarzheit drew crowds from across Europe to worship in the cave-like mausoleum where his remains lie.

The Nazis redrew the geography of Lizhensk’s onetime Jewish quarter, erasing the Street of Synagogues from the map. Now, a large, open-air parking lot stands in its place, ringed by a dreary neighborhood with a proliferation of seedy casinos and 24-hour bars. The cemetery is equally unrecognizable. Bulldozed by the Germans, the monuments dragged away as paving stones, it sat empty and ignored for decades. When Jews began to return in the 1980s — survivors and their families as well as Chasidic pilgrims — they dragged what tombstones they could find back to the graveyard, lining them up in arbitrary rows. Year after year, the crowds worshiping at the sage’s gravesite grew.

These days, in late February or early March, according to the fluctuations of the Jewish calendar, the streets fill with Jews in black hats and headscarves, from Brooklyn, Israel and beyond, in anticipation of the 21st of Adar. By the time I learned about the yarzheit, my picture of Eastern European Jewry was colored by its disappearance: magnificent synagogues reduced to rubble and cemeteries knocked over and built upon. Eastern Europe, to me, meant dead Jews. Somehow, I thought seeing some live ones there would be a comfort.

For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final.

When I arrived, on the last day of February 2016, the city was awash with pilgrims, their tour buses parked up the street from the cemetery. A series of white pavilions had been set up at the cemetery to accommodate thousands, from those hauling cauldrons for kosher stews to opportunistic salesmen hawking Jewish books from folding tables. A public address system had been set up in one of the tents to blast klezmer music. A pair of Chasidim with a microphone manned the PA system through the night, calling passersby to come “have a l’chaim!” with a swallow of schnapps or whiskey. Gaggles of local reporters had come to observe the oddity; one of the more savvy taxi drivers had posted the word monit, Hebrew for taxi, on his driver’s side windows.

On the site where Rabbi Elimelech is presumed to rest in the rebuilt cemetery, a white concrete structure, a mausoleum, of sorts. was built to accommodate prayers. Inside, a monument enclosed in a metal trellis was piled high with scribbled notes of supplication. Even some non-Jews see the site as holy: While I watched the room fill with Chasidim swaying in prayer, a Polish man with graying hair and far-off eyes entered and bared his head — an odd custom under the circumstances — then fell to his knees, clasping his hands together in silent benediction.

Over time, the town has developed an infrastructure to accommodate the annual influx. The building that had housed the mikveh, or ritual bath, somehow withstood World War II; afterward, a group of Chasidim acquired it and added a second story to form the Hachnasat Orachim of Lizhensk, a guesthouse for pilgrims. Worshipers now could find accommodations and a prayer hall — even a functioning mikveh. Soon, the pilgrimage outgrew that long, low barrack of a building, and just up the hill, a planned extension, a massive A-frame structure covered in Hebrew banners, was nearly complete. Between the two buildings was Asher’s home.

As I walked up, rabid barking erupted behind me. I wheeled around to face the largest German shepherd I’ve ever seen, howling at me murderously from behind a chain-link fence. I resisted a momentary urge to run: German shepherds always have conjured images of Nazi attack dogs for me. Instead, I scowled at the beast and turned back to the house, trying to ignore its bloodthirsty snarls.

In pictures I’d seen of the house, it was far from luxurious, but it was the type of place where you’d expect a penurious rabbi in a Polish backwater to live. At least, it looked habitable. On Google Maps street view, in a picture taken in 2012, a sedan is parked expectantly in the driveway. Seeing the place as it now was came as a gut punch.

The blemish on the doorpost where the mezuzah had once been was the only sign of its onetime inhabitants. The windows had been spray-painted white from the inside — for what reason, I can’t fathom, other than to rob descendants of the satisfaction of peering in. The place looked as if a strong gust of wind might take it down.

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

I wanted to see inside but quickly ruled out the idea of climbing through the loft window, which was missing its frame and panes. Instead, I took to the square below to see if I could learn who had the key. One by one, I sidled up to strangers who were milling about in the drizzle. My reluctant informants didn’t seem to know what to make of me. With a camera around my neck and a yarmulke pinned uneasily to my head as a form of self-identification, I fit in with neither the Chasidim nor the Poles. I managed to win some goodwill by pointing to the tumbledown shack up the hill and saying it once belonged to my great-grandfather. Soon enough, I learned the shack was now owned by the same Chasidim who operated the guesthouse. A less welcome revelation: Before long, they planned to tear it down to build more lodgings for travelers. Pilgrim after pilgrim told me to look for someone named Simha.

Simha Krakovski is a wiry man with a scraggly white beard who directs the guesthouse. I cornered him outside an upstairs prayer hall. As we spoke, sweaty yeshiva students with sparse beards and red faces crowded around to see why Krakovski — clearly a busy man at this time of year — was talking to the only non-Chasidic person in the building. As we spoke, some scholar of great importance swept by with a crowd of hangers-on, pressing us against a wall.

To see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

Krakovski indulged me briefly with the story of his early days in Lizhensk, some 25 years ago. “I first came to pray, and when I wanted to use the bathroom, there was no bathroom,” he told me in Hebrew. “I had to pay a gentile woman a dollar to use hers, and it stank.”

I told him who I was and about my ancestor. He told me, yes, they’d acquired the house and were planning to knock it down to expand the accommodations — a dining room, lodgings, he couldn’t be sure, exactly. I asked if the new complex had a name, and why not name it after this pious man, this ghost of mine? He made it clear naming rights could be had — for a price. Come find him tomorrow, he said, and we could talk.

After he left, the young men closed ranks around me, questioning me in English and Hebrew. Did I have money? What did my father do? Is he rich? Suddenly, I felt the flush that was reddening their faces. I was too hot in my wool coat. I stepped outside and back into the drizzle.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t. It made me feel more alone, more abandoned, orphaned by history.

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

I never found Simha Krakovski again. But the next day, I was back inside the guest house, in the office of Krakovski’s colleague, Menashe Lifshitz, a Chasid from B’nai Brak, in Israel. He told me how they’d bought the shack some years back from a Polish woman who lived there, paying her what he assured me was three times the fair price.

When the guesthouse was established, he said, many of the surrounding houses still bore outlines on the doorposts where their onetime inhabitants had fixed mezuzahs. As people got the money to fix up their homes, most were painted over. The blemish where Asher had nailed his mezuzah into the threshold was the last one that remained.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t.

Lifshitz worked out of a small, cluttered office with a twin bed and a small desk on the second story of the former mikveh building. The entirety of the window in the office faces the southeastern wall of my great-grandfather’s home. Before the second story was added, Asher would have had an unobstructed view of the cemetery. He would have been able to watch as the candles burned in Rabbi Elimelech’s tomb through the night.

I asked if I could see the inside of the house. Any other time of year, Lifshitz assured me, it could be arranged. With the pilgrimage in full swing, it would be difficult. He couldn’t be too sure where the key was.

The mikveh building where Menashe Lifshitz kept his office plays a significant part in the story I’ve learned about my great-grandfather.

As it goes, when the Cossacks came during World War I, most of Asher’s family fled. Asher stayed behind so nobody with a chicken or livestock would go hungry for lack of a slaughterer to prepare it. One day, as he was walking outside, a group of Cossacks spotted him and followed. He led them to the mikveh and jumped into the depths, hiding beneath the sacred waters, where he was spared.

But his luck would run out before long. When murderers again came to his town, their fury would be greater and more destructive than the town had ever seen.

The Nazis entered Lizhensk during Rosh Hashanah 1939. On Sukkot, they rounded up the Jews in the market square. A persistent downpour soaked the crowd. The frightened townsfolk were uncertain what fate awaited them — death or deportation, bullets or banishment. Panic ruled.

And Asher was missing.

My understanding of these events is informed entirely by the adolescent memories of his granddaughter, Leah Braude. Leah’s, father, Chaskel Nissenbaum, was a slaughterer and Asher’s student. Later, when Nissenbaum traveled to Germany to ply his trade, returning only for holidays, Asher became something of a father figure to his young granddaughter.

After the war, Leah set down some of her memories from that time in what became the Lizhensk Yizkor Book, a collection of remembrances published in Israel and dedicated to the town’s martyrs. In one of the passages, she described her grandfather, who had “a smile that imparted pleasantness whenever I desired a smile.” This is the last living account of my great-grandfather — but the rest of the Yizkor Book provides a colorful recollection of a vanished world.

The last time Shabbat candles glowed in the windows of Asher’s home, it was earlier in 1939 and the forests surrounding the town were alive with the spirits of the Chasidic imagination.

The cave of Elimelech was just beyond where the town met the woods. The sage’s tomb commanded a view of the Jewish quarter, a slope of wooden homes leading up to Ulica Boznica, the Street of Synagogues.

Lizhensk was a town of a typical European mold: Sledding and ice skating in winter, and sweltering summers. Leading off the market square, where Jewish tradesmen and businessmen mixed with their Polish and Ukrainian counterparts, the synagogue street formed the heart of the Jewish quarter.

Here, Jewish homes abutted schoolrooms and yeshivas, synagogues and study halls. On Shabbat eve, the sexton would knock with his wooden hammer and call, “Jews, Jews, to the synagogue!” as the smell of fried onions and kugels filled the air.

Before the war, Jews and gentiles mixed for good and ill. The Lizhensker Jews were not spared their share of anti-Semitism; Jewish schoolchildren were regularly beaten to cries of “dirty Jew!” Sometimes, one of the nastier teachers would even join in. In spite of all that, here and there friendships grew. Gentiles dropped in on Jewish households for the lighting of Shabbat candles.

What made Lizhensk different from other shtetls, though, was the great rabbi who took its name, and who, more than a century after his death, drew mourners from across the continent to his grave. The custodians of his earthly remains, the Jews of Lizhensk, tended to be an industrious and religious lot, if poor; Asher Arom no doubt fit that mold.

Leah, barely a teenager when war separated her from her beloved Chasid, with his snowy sidecurls and white beard down to his chest, recalled in the Yizkor Book his deep devotion and fervent prayer: “My grandfather made his nights like his days, and studied Torah. His tune in the nights is woven in the depths of my dreams and adds to their sweetness.”

Shortly before death came to the rest of Lizhensk, it visited the home of the ritual slaughterer.

“May the One who consoles Zion and builds Jerusalem offer us a double portion of consolation,” Asher wrote to his son Shmuel in Palestine on the Tuesday after the reading of Parashat Bamidbar in May 1938  — he made a practice of marking the date by the Torah reading. His letters are nearly eight decades years old, but the grief they convey seems fresh, even raw.

Leah’s account had led me to her daughter, Sima Braude Marberg, a kindly woman and a distant cousin of mine who teaches tai chi in the courtyard of her apartment building on a tree-lined street in of Haifa. When I visited, she produced a binder full of old letters in plastic protectors, some of them written in Asher’s practiced, looping script.

The tales from the deathbeds of great Chasidic sages often recount a transformation as their souls hover between this world and the next. These were the terms in which Asher described the death of his wife, born Chaia Rachel Brand, my great-grandmother: “On the seventh day of the month of Iyar” — April 26, 1939 — “early in the morning at 2 a.m., her soul began slipping away from her body until she passed away at 9:30 in the morning,” he wrote to his son in Palestine. “The house was full of men and women.”

The death left her husband disconsolate.

“Rachel, the mainstay of the house, how were you taken to be buried in the ground — where finally your bones could find a resting place — but leave us to our moaning and sorrow?” he wrote. “Who will mend our broken hearts that have been torn asunder and broken into pieces?”

He delivered a eulogy. “By dint of her wisdom she was the principal force, the one who always could advise the proper path, for me and for all those who turned to her for direction,” he told those assembled. “I continued, as is my wont, to expound midrashim and Biblical verses in my eulogy, and the entire congregation broke out in tears, sobbing.”

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The community took Chaia Rachel to be buried, and then Asher led evening prayers. Afterward, he wrote, “I was overcome by a terrible burning sensation. The doctor was called, and I was carried to my bed, where I lay without feeling.”

It must have seemed the world was ending. Two of his sons had earlier abandoned Poland for Mandatory Palestine. Now their mother was gone. Bedridden, Asher was found to have a high fever. Death must have seemed near for him, too. But a week later, after the shiva had ended, he recovered, physically if not emotionally: “I now feel well and have returned to work,” he wrote.

“I ask of you to recite Kaddish throughout the entire year, every day without fail,” he bid his son. “And if there is someone with you in your kibbutz who can study mishnayot [talmudic tractates] with you — even just a few mishnayot — then you can say Kaddish afterward in memory of, and for the benefit of the soul of the righteous woman, Chaia Rachel bas Luria Simcha, of blessed memory. And in this merit you and your offspring be successful. May you find material success and enjoy long lives, and raise your son to every good end. Your father, signing with tears.”

The end for the Lizhensk Jews came quickly, before the townsfolk knew it.

In the martyrs’ book and in video interviews with the USC Shoah Foundation, survivors recount with bitter embarrassment a period of obliviousness, of false security, as the forces of destruction massed just beyond the town’s border. Few had radios in their homes, so a doctor who lived in the market square would place his receiver by a window and raise the volume so people could listen in the street below. One survivor, then a girl of 10, remembered standing in the square and hearing Edward Rydz-Smigły, the marshal of Poland’s armed forces, declaring, “We won’t give away even a button — nothing!” Soon, he had given away everything.

The invasion of Poland began on Sept. 1, 1939. By Sept. 3, German bombs had destroyed the railroad tracks in Lizhensk, the only link between the town and the outside world. When crews came to repair their tracks, aerial machine gun fire chased them off.

Jews left the city in droves, only to return hours or days later after finding the surrounding country in a similar state of pandemonium. Those who returned on Rosh Hashanah eve found German troops in town. The Nazis turned the holiday into a carnival of mockery, cutting beards off of men and forcing them to march in circles around a tree.

The Germans were in the mood for arson when they came to Asher Arom’s house on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. Earlier that night, soldiers had barged into the synagogues, demanding volunteers for work. In a surprising act of mercy, they allowed the congregants to evacuate the synagogues, but their intentions were clear. They brought kerosene and kindling. Then they set the buildings ablaze.

The main concern for many of these Jews, it turned out, was not preserving their property or protecting their families, but finding a place to finish praying. With the ashes of the holy places still choking the air, “it was told to them that grandfather had made his house open for the needs of prayer,” Leah recalled in the Yizkor Book.

Some two dozen Jews gathered at the ritual slaughterer’s home. The Nazis quickly learned what was going on. They chased away the prayer quorum but locked my great-grandfather inside. Soon, they returned with bundles of straw and rags soaked in kerosene. Leah’s sister Sarah, then a girl of 16, begged for her grandfather’s life, weeping. The Germans ignored her, intent on burning the 72-year-old alive. Only when a gentile woman who lived next door joined in Sarah’s protest did the Nazis relent.

“She was afraid her home would catch fire, as well,” Leah wrote. “The Germans returned the key to my sister and removed the flammable material from around the house, and grandfather was again saved from certain death.”

On Yom Kippur, we are taught, the ink is still wet in the Book of Life. Even the hosts of heaven shrink in terror as the Creator ponders fates: “The Angels of heaven are dismayed and seized by fear,” the prayer goes. “The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard.” Was anyone fool enough, or fervent enough, to blow the shofar in Lizhensk that year? Did anybody hear the still, small voice?

By the Day of Atonement in 1939, the Jews of Lizhensk were afraid to walk in the streets for the harassment it undoubtedly would bring. Those still inclined to pray mostly stayed home and found a quiet corner to do so.

For the Chasidim of Lizhensk, the world to come must have seemed nearer than ever. Yet they were not ill-prepared to meet their end. For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final. When sickness or disasters struck, the Lizhenskers would climb the hill of the cemetery to ask the dead to intercede on their behalf. Orphaned brides and grooms would go there to invite their deceased parents to celebrate their wedding. The place abounded with legend.

It was to those old stones that Asher Arom would retire when he could wrest a moment from the demands of work, family and study.

“He would spend hour after hour there cleaning the gravestones and making the inscriptions clearer,” his granddaughter Leah wrote. “When the Messiah comes, each minute will be precious and holy, and it would be a shame if time would be wasted on clarifying the blurred inscriptions.”

Sometimes, he brought Leah to weed the grass around the graves. Once, he explained to her why he did it: “Death is nothing but the natural continuation of life,” he said. “And if we love a life of cleanliness and being cared for, we must give this also to the dead. We must look after the gravestones, just as we look after our home.”

The bitter irony is that his body most likely went up in smoke or was tossed in a mass, unmarked grave.

The circumstances of 1939 gave new meaning to the Yamin Noraim, the Days of Awe — more literally, the days of terror between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “We sat with closed doors and shut windows,” survivor Shaul Spatz recalled in the Yizkor Book. “The silence outside was only interrupted by the occasional thumps of the boots of the German soldiers.”

Soon it was time to erect their sukkot, but the familiar sounds of hammers hitting nails were absent. “That year, all Jewish homes remained exposed without sukkot attached to their walls,” he wrote. “In the Jewish street, fear walks. Apprehension replaced the joy of the holiday.”

You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

Then, the rumors of a roundup came true: The next morning, the Jews were to report to the market square.

“I don’t remember which one of our neighbors told us that we had to leave the house,” Spatz wrote. “We fearfully gathered a few of our belongings.”

Hundreds of Jews already had assembled when Spatz arrived. “It was raining,” he recalled. “Our bundles were wet and their weight increased by the moment.”

Death was the punishment for absence, and yet there was no trace of Asher.

Leah had arrived at the square with her parents and sister. Her mother, Gittel, must have been frantic: Simcha, Gittel’s only son, was away at yeshiva in Lublin. Later, Leah’s daughter Sima told me, Gittel had risked a summary execution and snuck back across the San River to see if her boy had come home to find his family, but there was no trace of him, either.

Tension mounted. Anxiety and anguish boiled like puddles in a hard rain. And still Asher was missing.

“We were unable to search for him without being shot,” his granddaughter wrote. “At the last moment, as we organized into rows for the gloomy march, he appeared next to us, calm and filled with family warmth. He was wearing his clean Sabbath clothing, and had his tallis and tefillin bag with him.”

His family scolded him, but, “He smiled and mocked us: What is all the confusion? For it is impossible to believe these murderers. However, perhaps they indeed intend to kill us. Therefore, I went to the mikveh to purify myself, and now I am ready and prepared if it is the will of our Creator, the Creator of the world who determines the fate of man.”

The march began, 2 1/2 miles to the banks of the San River. “The Jews traveled with their heads down, their eyes toward the ground, as if they were guilty of some terrible deed,” another survivor wrote in the Yizkor Book.

When they got there, the Germans unrolled a sheet and commanded the Jews to drop any valuables onto it, on penalty of death. To show they were serious, they shot one of the Jews on the spot. But when the Jews then were ordered across a makeshift bridge, suddenly they were alone; the opposite bank was Soviet territory. Two years before the Wannsee Conference and the decision to implement the Final Solution, the Nazis seemed content with banishment. “So ceased to be one Jewish community in the first days of the war,” Spatz wrote.

Leah and her family headed east, surviving deportation to Siberia and eventually making their way to Israel. But Asher seemed to resign himself to his doom.

The conclusion of his granddaughter’s recollection is as terse as the rest of it is reverent: “When we crossed the San, we continued to wander in the direction of Przemysl. Grandfather was a native of Przemysl, and he decided to remain there until the storm would pass. After we took leave of him, we never met again. He succumbed to the murderous Nazis.”

Was he murdered when the Germans rounded up and killed the entire Jewish population of Zasanie in June 1942? Was he sent to Belzec some two months later along with 12,500 Jewish residents of Przemysl? Or would he have lived to the very end and been one of the 1,000 murdered behind the Judenrat building, during the final liquidation of Przemysl’s Jews, when the shooting went on for six hours?

What became of Asher Arom remains an intractable and deeply frustrating mystery to me. The only evidence of his death is a small, yellowing scrap of paper on which his son Shmuel, my grandfather, scribbled a contradictory series of Hebrew and Gregorian dates, recorded, probably, from phone calls from family and former neighbors after the war.

But how he died doesn’t interest me quite so much as how he lived. I’m still waiting to stumble on the single detail that will bring events from Lizhensk back to life for me, even just momentarily, in a brilliant flash of transplanted memory. I didn’t find it in Poland. Most of my time in Lizhensk was spent ambling from spot to spot, possessed by a sense of detachment, the drizzle dampening my mood. Even the beards and shawls and the prayerful wailing through the night failed to conjure anything profound.

There’s a disconnect I can’t get past. The removal is too great, the violence too jarring, the years too many. Sitting in the main square in Lizhensk, brooding over a notebook and trying to figure out how to feel, it didn’t really land that this was the same square where the Jews had gathered on Sukkot, where Leah had fretted over her grandfather. Would that it had, I might have decided to hike from Lizhensk to the river, following in the path of my ancestor, letting March showers stand in for fall rain. I didn’t. I’m not sure what I would have gained from it.

My ghosts have become better defined since I went looking for them, but they remain no less puzzling, no less tiresome and my relationship with them no less one-sided. They remain ghosts, dead things, dust and forgotten secrets. You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

To those planning a foray into their family history  by buying a plane ticket to Poland, my advice is: You might want to reconsider. You will find no answers there. Seeing will bring you no more comfort than knowing. Only emptiness and grief remain for the likes of me, and faint traces of a bitter past. Soon, those too will be gone.