The Creativity of Doubt


A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it has been said.

My entire life is by all counts a visible rejection of this dictum, given that I have spent all of my adult years learning or, until recently, teaching in universities.

I suspect I have even at times become a little intoxicated with knowledge, taking it in until I feel larger than myself and those around me. There’s a certain comfort in believing one knows more about a particular subject than most people.

And, believe me, I will never be one to argue against education or the various processes by which we acquire knowledge. For even if a little knowledge is  dangerous, it is also a source of power. Think, for example, of Black slaves in the American past who were prevented from learning to read, or women in certain countries who are prohibited from getting an education. For those in power, keeping knowledge out of the hands of those who are being controlled is critical to maintaining power.

But like everything worth having, knowledge is not without its complexities. I thought about this last week after reading Nicole Krauss’ spectacular new novel, “Forest Dark.”

What Judaism implicitly makes clear
is that it’s OK for our trust in certainty to waver.

Much like her other works, “Forest Dark” tells concurrently a few different stories that may or may not intersect. One thread, told from a first-person point of view, is the story of a woman who travels to Tel Aviv to find inspiration for her next novel. While there, she contemplates the familial obstacles that make it difficult for her to sink fully into her identity as a writer. Among those is her husband, a man who “prized facts above the impalpable, which he’d begun to collect and assemble around himself like a bulwark.”

Yes, I thought to myself, so many of us do this, don’t we? Perhaps especially in the age of easily accessible information, we use facts to erect fortresses around us, protecting us from what lies outside of the walls we build. We assume that the more we know, the less we will be tricked by lies and falsities. While this is obviously true to a degree, the price we pay for this “certainty” is rarely obvious.

A sense of certainty seals us off from the world outside our personal borders. The frenzied acquisition of what we believe to be knowledge causes us to hold more tightly to our own views and listen less to what others have to say.

These days, we read the news — typically from sources that confirm our views — all day, every day. We have, as Krauss puts it, “become drunk on our powers of knowing — having made a holiness out of knowing, and busying ourselves all day and night in our pursuit of it.” We have converted to “the practice of knowing everything, and believing that knowledge is concrete, and always arrived at through the faculties of the intellect.” And we are left with an illusion of the mastery of all things, rather than the mastery of anything at all.

We fear the possibility of diminishing certainty. But what Judaism implicitly makes clear is that it’s OK for our trust in certainty to waver, even to privilege doubt over certainty. Krauss reminds us that when God created light, he also created the absence of light. The world is, for Jews, “always both hidden and revealed.” And it is doubt, along with the questions that inevitably arise, that urges us to look for the hidden and sustain this beautiful tension.

Great novelists have always known this. E.L. Doctorow once suggested that doubt is the greatest civilizer of humanity. It’s what maintains a balance necessary for a life worth living — one composed of meaningful dialogue and real community.

I don’t generally make New Year’s resolutions, but if I were to make one this year, it would be a pledge to doubt a little more. I want to be a little less certain of what I hold to be true in some cases. I want to make way for more questions, even if they threaten to chip away at what I’ve built.

This uncertainty could be the beginning of a less dangerous world.


Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”

Pixar and the Zohar


If you’ve seen the trailer or any advertisements for “Coco,” you already know that it’s Pixar’s most Mexican film yet. What you don’t see in the trailer is that Coco is also Pixar’s most Jewish film. You probably would not see that by watching the movie, either, but it’s all I saw.

“Coco” tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a Mexican boy who travels on Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) to the Land of the Dead, where he must reconnect with his deceased ancestors to return to the Land of the Living. “Coco” fits neatly in the pantheon of familiar Pixar stories and the film is bursting with wholesome values.

The Jewish idea that aveira goreret aveira — once we step onto a dark path of sin, it can lead to an endless cycle of darkness — is prominent in “Coco.” The filmmakers sprinkle simple truths and lessons throughout: Fame is not correlated with talent or ability; our role models should be the people in our lives who are good, not those who appear to be most successful; we should follow our dreams but not hurt others in the process. Seeing Hollywood teaching good values is worth the price of admission.

On a deeper level, “Coco” is much more. It’s the stuff of primordial storytelling. Many stories dazzle us with mind-bending plot twists and vibrant original characters. “Coco” has neither. The story is not particularly remarkable and the characters are not unique.

“Coco” is a different kind of story — it is a fable. Specifically, it is the kind of fable that has been the bedrock of religious storytelling for thousands of years. “Coco” is a biblical story with new people and modern dilemmas.

Bible stories are not known for their plot twists, but they are brilliant vehicles for life lessons. The purpose of a Bible story is not to entertain — it is to enlighten. “Coco” is certainly entertaining and its agile lesson-teaching impresses. But its true brilliance is the way it enlightens the audience.

Religious stories, loaded with religious meaning and morality, serve a social function, as well. They connect people through ritual and common beliefs. They form a moral fiber that binds religious people to their communities while also answering the “big questions” of life. They connect and enlighten people. This is how religion builds society through storytelling. Without answers to “big questions” and meaning to pull everything together, people don’t build societies.

“Coco” is Hollywood’s most financially successful attempt to tell a universal story with lessons addressing one life’s “biggest” questions: What happens after we die?

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife. Consider this: Pixar spent $200 million to respectfully and faithfully teach the world about Día de los Muertos — authentically. There’s a lot of explaining in the movie as the theology and traditions of Día de los Muertos are doled out in bite-sized pieces.

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife.

The religious moviegoer expects Hollywood to get religion wrong and to subvert whatever it manages to get right. Incredibly, “Coco” does the opposite. It gets Día de los Muertos right. In a nutshell, on Día de los Muertos, the dead visit with the living. Only when we celebrate the dead will their memories live on, enabling them to visit and celebrate along with the living.

This is a powerful teaching. Another movie of biblical proportions, “Interstellar” (2014), also conveyed this idea. Coop, its protagonist, tells his daughter, “We [parents] are the memories of our children.” We find a similar idea in Jewish mysticism. The Zohar says that on days of great celebration, when the living inevitably remember the dead, the souls of the dead leave their heavenly domain and join in the celebration with the living.

This is the kind of “big idea” that traditionally was exclusively religion’s domain. “Coco” is a film doing what religion used to do. It is building culture and meaning. It is building society. Most of all, it is not replacing traditional religious stories with something new, but faithfully retelling the old in a modern way.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Jedi-ism and Judaism


The loudest noise coming out of Hollywood this holiday season is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Even if the last thing you want to do is see another “Star Wars” movie, you might be interested to know about the secret message embedded in this film that the Jewish people have known for 2,000 years.

Everyone knows from the title that it’s a story about “the last Jedi,” but even if you’ve seen the film you may not know that saving Jedi-ism is a lot like saving Judaism. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi was the first thing I thought when the Jedi master made his surprise appearance in an iconic scene.

Luke Skywalker, the Jedi hero who saved the galaxy, is broken by the destruction wrought by rogue Jedi warriors. Menacing torch in hand, Luke approaches the Jedi Temple and its small library of ancient texts. Suddenly, Master Yoda’s ghost appears.

Everyone in the theater expects Yoda to stop Luke. But director Rian Johnson does exactly the opposite of what we would expect in a “Star Wars” film. Yoda incinerates the Jedi Temple with a bolt of lightning. Cackling, Yoda reminds Luke that Jedi wisdom is more than a temple and books. Luke will not be the last Jedi.

For 1,500 years, Judaism was organized around the Temple. Around 2,000 years ago, that Judaism broke. Hanukkah celebrates a brief return to the glory of Temple-centric Jewish life. But within a few generations, the Hasmonean dynasty was more Roman than it was Jewish. The Temple was inaccessible to most Jews, its authority a corruption magnet. Tragically, we were exiled as our Temple burned to the ground. Judaism should have ended in the Temple’s smoldering wreckage.

The rabbis saved Judaism by moving Jewish life from the Temple to the Talmud, reimagining Judaism as a decentralized, wisdom-based, accessible religion — the secret of Diaspora Judaism.

Johnson (and Yoda) did the same to the Jedi religion by burning the Jedi Temple to the ground.

The soul of every conflict in “The Last Jedi” dances around this question: How to reconcile the past, the ancient, calculated and wise with the future, the fresh, impulsive and creative?

To Luke, The Force is broken. Jedi-ism is a failure — it must end forever. Yoda disagrees because The Force and Jedi wisdom are eternal, with or without a building or books. The Jedi will live on through a new Jedi hero — Rey.

Very rabbinic.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was supposed to tell us Rey’s story. The postmodern Jedi warrior who reawakened The Force with her courage and kindness in the previous film was an orphan. But surely her parents were special in some way? Luke Skywalker was an orphan until he discovered his father was Darth Vader, in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Rey is a Luke Skywalker–type hero. Surely, Rey would discover the identity of her parents in “The Last Jedi,” the second of a trilogy.

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi.

Instead, Rey’s nemesis, Kylo Ren, divulges that her degenerate parents sold her for beer money. Rey is literally no one from nowhere. Yet, Rey is a gifted Jedi. “The Last Jedi” tells us that there is no birthright to The Force and Jedi wisdom. They are accessible to all.

Before the final credits, we glimpse the ancient Jedi texts stowed aboard the Millennium Falcon. Apparently, Rey took the books before Luke and Yoda burned down the temple. When I saw those books, a new thought popped into my head.

Yoda was rabbinic, but he was wrong. The Jedi religion would disappear if it relied entirely on an oral transmission from Master to Padawan. Yoda was stuck in the same stagnant vision of the Jedi religion as Luke.

Rey is the Jedi hero we have been looking for. Ancient wisdom must not be discarded nor can it be entrusted to our fickle collective memory. Wisdom must be portable and flexible enough to take on our journey. The great rabbis of post-Temple Judaism knew this and turned us into the People of the Book.

Yoda would have been a great rabbi. But Rey is the visionary rabbi who preserves the past by reimagining a place for ancient wisdom in the future.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

On Politics and Conversation


As we end 2017 and head into 2018, I thought I’d share some personal reflections on our modern political conversation, and how I see the Jewish Journal playing a role.

First, I may love politics and current events, but they do not own me. I like to follow the news, see what’s happening locally and around the world, study the threats to humanity’s future. Politics gets me pumped up. It builds up my outrage, makes me feel alive, as if I’m dealing with stuff that really matters.

So, why does the political conversation so often get on my nerves? Because I see what it does to people. It makes them hysterical. It breaks up relationships. It ignites anger and bitterness. At best, it keeps us in our silos and echo chambers, protected from views we cannot fathom.

My wish for 2018? To manage politics so that it doesn’t fray our communal bonds and bring out the worse in us.

Second, I know that politicians will never make me happy. My friends will make me happy. My family will make me happy. A great film will make me happy. Politicians will make themselves happy — with the perks and privileges that come with power — but they can never make me happy. Usually, they just disappoint me.

It’s true that politics plays a role in Judaism. Our tradition calls on us to make the world a better place. Since politics revolves around power, it follows that if we’re serious about repairing the world, we must engage with power. That’s why you see many rabbis address political issues from the pulpit. They see it as an expression of the Jewish imperative to pursue justice.

But that is not the whole story. We can do plenty of repair work on our own, without asking anything of politicians. This is called community engagement. The Jewish Federation system is an example of Jews taking control and responsibility for their communities. There are thousands of smaller examples of individual initiatives that aim to make the world a better place, politics or no politics.

Much of our community coverage at the Journal honors those efforts.

Third, the news doesn’t help us make sense of the news. Following the news, which comes at us fast and furious through our Twitter feeds, has become an addiction. At a gala dinner the other night, I couldn’t help looking at my phone when I received a piece of breaking news. The item was so juicy I had to share it with the person sitting next to me. This is not healthy.

I’m sure if we injected more news and current events in the Journal, we’d be more “juicy” and look more topical.

I want us to put politics in its proper place, to protect our friendships, to wallow in beauty, to find poetry in life, to have curiosity for the unfamiliar, to repair not just the world but ourselves.

But when you have a publication that comes out once a week, it’s silly to try to compete with the daily news you get every minute. This is not a problem—it’s an opportunity. It means we can focus on deeper stuff, on commentaries and analyses that help you make sense of the news, not to mention the world we live in.

Fourth, there’s so much more to life than current events. It’s a common technique among columnists to quote current events in the opening paragraph to grab your attention. I do it often. It’s a way of showing immediate relevance by dealing with “what’s happening in the world.”

Of course, the Journal will never stop running columns that deal with topical events. But here’s a confession: Very often, my favorite columns are precisely those that do not deal with the latest news. These are the columns that convey timeless ideas that are relevant on any day or week… or century.

Politics today colors so much of our culture we can easily lose sight of how beautiful and pure culture can be. I love art, poetry, literature, music, film and human stories that have nothing to do with the state of the world. Their innate beauty is what makes them relevant.

Fifth, yes, crisis sells, which is one reason Judaism is always in a state of crisis. Everyone knows it’s a lot easier to raise money when you convey a state of crisis. At a time when it’s more and more difficult to get people’s attention, there’s nothing like a good crisis to shake people up.

In media, crises help attract more readers. It’s a known fact that you can boost your online views just by putting up words like “anti-Semitism” in your headlines. This is human nature. We are attracted to conflict. All good entertainment revolves around drama and conflict.

I can’t help being aware of this when I make editorial decisions. If there’s a story, for instance, about a swastika sprayed on a synagogue, it’s deadly serious and there is no hesitation to publish it. But there’s also that little voice inside me that whispers: “The readers will eat this one up.”

One of our biggest challenges at the Journal is to earn your attention without the easy tricks of crises, conflicts and disasters. How do we get you hooked on an idea that elevates the spirit, on a poem that makes you dream, on a biblical story that takes you back 3,000 years?

How does an abstract poem compete with the drama of a terror attack? Or a neighborhood story with the prospect of a presidential impeachment? Or an inspiring view of Hanukkah with the latest sex scandal?

They don’t. They can’t. The drama of conflict will always win out. Yes, it’s human nature.

But at its best and deepest, Judaism helps us transcend human nature. We go beyond our immediate appetites. We read the Hanukkah fable, or the dreamy poem, or the neighborhood story, even though they’re not as sexy as the latest political scandal. This content nourishes our minds, but also our souls: We enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake, story for story’s sake, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, wisdom for wisdom’s sake.

In a sense, I am conveying a militant message. I want us to fight back against the insidious and sensationalistic “breaking news” cycle that corrodes our conversations. I want us to put politics in its proper place, to protect our friendships, to wallow in beauty, to find poetry in life, to have curiosity for the unfamiliar, to repair not just the world but ourselves.

Those are my wishes for our community, but they are also my wishes for the paper you are reading.

See you in 2018.

The Torah and tachlis of violence with firearms: ethics and evidence


WARNING: This is serious stuff. Human life is at stake. If you are looking for confirmation of preconceived narratives, stop. You probably will not find that here. If you are looking for solutions in slogan form or less than 750 words, stop. You surely will not find that here. We will go ten times farther than that. And this is not a discussion about some utopian ideal. It concerns the world in which we actually live, with the government and law we have and human nature as it is. If you will not deal with reality or ambiguity, stop. You will be annoyed here. If you are not interested in facts that define a problem or evidence that may offer a solution, again, please stop. Otherwise you will be disappointed and unhappy. If anyone is left, thanks in advance for considering this essay.     

These days in the United States we see and hear much violence associated with firearms. Sometime it erupts in a mass shooting at a college or an elementary school, a church or a Jewish Community Center, a nightclub or, as it did most recently, an outdoor concert.  Sometimes it comes with the steady staccato of an attack by one gang banger attempting to snuff out another. Sometimes it comes by way of a single bullet, the shooter and the shot being the same person. However it manifests itself, the sadness that follows is palpable.  Our hearts are broken at the loss of life, of what might have been, of possibilities foreclosed permanently. And we are angry, too – angry at the perpetrator and angry about the conditions that permitted if not caused a person to become so hateful or so self-righteous or so desirous of notoriety or so callous or so full of despair that s/he acted to take a human life.

When such violence strikes, to the extent its senses and sensibilities have not been numbed, the Jewish community here has not been shy.  With sermons and articles and resolutions and more, it has spoken — loudly, passionately and repeatedly. But it has not spoken uniformly, much less always wisely.  There is in the Jewish community, as there is in the nation as a whole, a variety of viewpoints. The question before us is whether our tradition can offer both Torah and tachlis, that is both instruction grounded in Jewish values and ideas that are also practical and productive.

To answer that question, we first need to understand the nature and extent of violence involving firearms in America today. That is, before moving forward, we need to take a step back. We need some perspective. We need context. We need to look at the grim statistics and break them down. And in the course of the inquiry, we need to be mindful that there are statistics and then there are statistics. We will try to keep cherry-picking to a minimum. After that, we can consider the spectrum of Jewish ethical values and see how, if at all, they could inform a productive approach to the challenges presented by violence with firearms.

The Nature and Extent of Violence Involving Firearms in the United States

We begin with some basic numbers. In recent years in the United States, the annual number of deaths associated with firearms, whether guns, rifles or other such devices, has approximated 33,000. That averages to more than 90 a day. The human toll more than doubles if one includes the physically wounded. And related adverse psychological effects further exacerbate the problem.

But there is always a danger when one looks at large amounts of data like these numbers. They both reveal and conceal important information. How can we understand these numbers?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 just over 2,700,000 resident individuals died in the United States. By far, the leading causes of death were heart disease and malignant neoplasms (cancerous tumors), followed by chronic lower respiratory diseases. Those three natural causes accounted for just over half of the reported deaths. Of the top ten causes of death, two were not diseases. Unintentional injuries (accidents) and self-inflicted harm (suicide) ranked respectively as the fourth and tenth leading cause of death that year. Almost half of all suicides involved firearms.

Even including suicides, though, death involving firearms would not be ranked in the top ten or even top fifteen causes of death in America.  For instance, in 2015 there were fewer deaths involving firearms than deaths attributed to kidney disease, septicemia and pneumonitis, but deaths by those causes rarely get the headlines that firearm deaths do. Deaths involving motor vehicles, averaging 103 per day in 2015, are about three times more common than firearm related homicides, yet do not generate similar national or even local pressure for additional regulation.

There is a plausible explanation, of course. In the normal course, one expects to die of something, which, if not an accident, most likely will be one of the dozen or so diseases which are the leading causes of death. These diseases, in turn, can and often are diagnosed and managed, so preparations can be made. In the normal course, one does not expect to shot. And we cannot really prepare for such an event. It tends to come suddenly, literally explosively. We are saddened by Alzheimer’s disease, now the sixth leading cause of death. We are shocked by violence coming out of a barrel of a gun or rifle.

When we focus solely on deaths associated with firearms, now looking at final numbers for 2014, we see that more than three out of five such deaths (21,386) were due to suicide, that is, they were intentional and self-inflicted. About one-third of firearm related deaths that year (11,008) were the result of homicides, either murder or manslaughter. As bad as that was, it was also much lower than in 1993 when firearm related homicides peaked at 17,075.

Some types of activities are more likely than others to involve firearm related deaths: gang activity, commission of a felony and domestic disputes, including arguments and romantic triangles.  Aside from these categories, some homicides involving firearms in 2014 were the result of legal intervention (464), others were unintentional (461) and a smaller number were undetermined (275).  (See Deaths: Final Data for 2014 (at 12/122).) For the period 2001-2013, the number of individuals killed or wounded in mass shooting incidents has typically been less than 20 per year, with several notable exceptions, but, of course, that could change. Whether recent events indicate a new trend remains to be seen.

Further, while mass shootings and high-powered rifles garner the attention of the press, the public and the politicians, in those homicides for which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) has received weapons data, the weapon involved two-thirds of all homicides was a handgun.  (See FBI 2015 Expanded Homicide Data Table 15.) Moreover, in the half of cases where the relationship offender and victim was known, about 60% of the time the offender was killed by a friend or acquaintance and 26% of the time the killer was a family member. (See FBI 2015 Expanded Homicide Table 10.)

The nature of the incidents involving firearm deaths and those involved may help us focus on possible approaches to reducing them, but, again, we still we need to be careful about the numbers we have. For instance, restricting the analysis to homicides involving firearms, the numbers translated to about 33 per day, every day, in the United States in 2014. This average daily number of deaths is horrific. It is also quite misleading. The frequency and distribution of such incidents varies widely depending on a few key factors like location, gender, age, and race. Even the time of year or the day of the week can be important.

Where does violence with firearms occur?

No geographic area is immune from the scourge of homicides, but the death rate in 2014 attributable to firearms was highest in the states of Alaska and Louisiana and the lowest in the nation in Hawaii and Rhode Island. It was slightly better than average in Illinois and Maryland, but tell that to the citizens of Chicago and Baltimore.

We can narrow our focus to large urban areas, like Chicago, but the complexity of the problem does not diminish. In the last few years, Chicago has sustained more firearm related deaths than any other community in the country: 415 in 2014, 473 in 2015 and 762 in 2016. The last number was greater than the number of homicides in New York City and Los Angeles combined. On average this means that the evening news in Chicago reported no less than a homicide a day, every day, and sometimes more, but summers are typically worse than winters, and weekends and holidays are generally worse than mid-week. During the July 4, 2017 extended holiday weekend, 102 individuals were shot and 15 died.

These numbers, though, mask the potentially crucial fact that the homicide rate in some neighborhoods in Chicago is drastically different than that in other neighborhoods. Many areas are free of firearm related violent crime, but others approach and may even exceed the homicide rate in third-world countries. (See here.) And Chicago is not unique. Mass shootings aside, homicides with guns tend to be spatially clustered to a limited number of “hot spots.”  (See here.)

Similarly, while the body count is high, Chicago does not have the worst homicide rate in the United States when deaths per 100,000 citizens are calculated. In fact, in 2016, it ranked no higher than eighth on one dishonorable list of community dysfunction.  Taking a slightly longer term view over a five year period, Chicago ranks twelfth, behind Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans and Baltimore and others. The homicide rates in those four named cities are twice that of Chicago over the five year period. (See here.)

By contrast, Newtown, Connecticut is a small, picturesque, financially comfortable New England town. But for one incident, neither its firearm homicide numbers nor its rate or ranking would be noticeable. Yet, on December 14, 2012 in less than five minutes, one individual armed with a Bushmaster .223 caliber model  XM15 semi-automatic rifle loaded with exploding hollow point rounds shot 154 bullets into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing six adults and twenty children and physically wounding and psychologically scarring untold others.

When considering who resorts to homicide with firearms, geography matters, but so does gender, race and age. According to FBI statistics for 2015, where the gender of the offender was known, nine out of ten times the killer was a male. Where race was known, about 53% of the offenders were Black or African American and 44% White.  (See FBI 2015 Expanded Homicide Data Table 3.) Where age was known, the greatest number of offenders was found in the 20-24 year old cohort, followed by the 25-29 year old bracket.  (Ibid.)

Who are the victims of the use of firearms?

Not surprisingly, the composition of the victims of homicidal violence tends to parallel that of the perpetrators. That is, according to the FBI, the victims are overwhelmingly male, they are young, and there are more likely to be Black than White. (See here.) Where the relationship between offender and victim is known, as noted above, the data is clear: offenders are more likely to kill friends, acquaintances and family members than strangers. (See here.) In other words, they tend to kill victims who resemble themselves.

A report in the July, 2017 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (the “Pediatrics Report”) confirms that the pattern observed by the FBI reaches deep down to affect our nation’s children. There is an enormous gap between boys and girls as victims. Whether the issue is death or injury, boys are involved in just over four of five incidents and girls in just under one in five. Similarly, there are significant differences in the rates of mortality between racial or ethnic groups. With respect to homicides involving firearms, the annual mortality rate for African American children was twice that of American Indian children, four times the rate for Hispanic children and about ten times the rate for White and Asian American children. Interestingly enough, the situation is different with respect to suicides. White and American Indian children have the highest rates of suicide involving firearms, rates four times higher than that of African American children and Hispanic children, and five times the rate for Asian American children.  (See generally, Pediatrics Report, at 4/14.)

The economic cost of violence with firearms

Researchers at John Hopkins University have estimated the cost of emergency department care for such violence at $2.8 billion dollars annually. If you think that number sounds high, consider another estimate from an investigator at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation: $8 billion dollars in direct costs and another $221 billion in indirect costs. Putting issues of definitions and methodology aside, needless to say, the economic cost of firearm violence is substantial.

How many guns are there in the United States?

While violence involving firearms has a disparate impact in different neighborhoods and among different groups of people, the fact remains that a common denominator in all of this carnage is a firearm. Given the clear and devastating consequences of violence associated with firearms, some would like to ban or restrict their use, either by regulating the weapons themselves or the ammunition used. The National Rifle Association (NRA”), the largest promoter of firearms in the nation, opposes virtually all such regulation, with the succinct slogan “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Though gun control advocates don’t like to acknowledge it, the NRA’s argument is largely true, but it is also incomplete and somewhat irrelevant (except in a not-to-be-underestimated political context). That is, the argument is accurate to the extent that firearms, by themselves and unloaded, are inert objects which cannot cause any more harm than any other solid object like a hammer. If you want to be serious about addressing violence with firearms, you have to recognize the reality that relatively few firearms are ever used to commit violence.

The point is underscored by looking at the number of firearms and firearm owners in the United States. We don’t have precise figures, but we have what appear to be good estimates of both. The population of the United States is now around 325 million people. According to a 2015 report by NORC, a nonpartisan research organization at the University of Chicago, while household gun ownership has declined in recent decades, almost one-third of all households report owning one or more weapons. This is consistent with numbers provided by the also nonpartisan Pew Research Center (“Pew”) in its 2017 study, America’s Complex Relationship with Guns. If there are individuals who would not self-report possession of a firearm, the fraction of homes with weapons may approach or even exceed two-fifths.

Whatever the actual number of households with firearms, and wherever they are located, on average each such household appears to possess more than one firearm. After all, there are firearms and then there are firearms. Someone may use a small pistol for target practice, a rifle for small game, another weapon for home defense. Unfortunately, there is no precise record of the number of firearms held by civilians in the United States, but data from the number of firearms manufactured, imported and exported suggest that the number of civilian guns in the United States passed the population of the country back in 2008. And the number of firearms manufactured in the United States, including guns, rifles, shotguns and other weapons, has exceeded 8,000,000 in recent years. (See ATF Annual Firearms Manufacturers and Export Report.) Even eliminating the highest estimates, there are probably in excess of 350,000,000 firearms in civilian hands in the United States today.

Who owns and possesses all of these firearms?

As one might expect, there are demographic differences in household firearms ownership. NORC found household firearms ownership was greatest in the East South Central region and smallest in the Pacific region and Northeast regions. Ownership was concentrated in rural areas and highest in counties with no town over 10,000. It was also more than twice as likely among households with income over $90,000 than with income below $25,000. More than twice as many white respondents acknowledged owning firearms than did African-American respondents or Hispanics.

To a degree then, the data we have on firearms possessed by resident of the United States can be read to support a key contention of the NRA. If we compare the number of deaths associated with firearms with the number of available firearms, the result is an exceedingly small percentage, less than two-tenths of one percent. This will be of absolutely no comfort to anyone who has lost a family member or friend due to violence, but it demonstrates the difficulty of dealing with the violence problem as a gun problem because it suggests strongly that 99.98% of all firearms in the United States are not being used irresponsibly.

The NRA’s argument is incomplete and somewhat irrelevant, though, because, when loaded, and when used intentionally for one of the purposes for which they were manufactured and sold, or used recklessly or simply used negligently, firearms can pack not just a powerful punch, but a lethal one. And that punch literally can extend well beyond the natural reach of the individual trying to harm another person. So, a firearm is different qualitatively than a knife or some other kind of weapon. And the difference in the nature of the device is why we don’t see drive-by knife attacks or mass murders committed with a bow and arrows. Even with respect to suicides, where suffocation or poison is often used, the method of choice seems to be a firearm.

Why have a firearm?

The reason people want to have guns and rifles is, according to Pew, multifaceted. Many, especially those who live in comfortable urban and suburban surroundings, do not understand a perceived need for, much less the attraction of, guns and rifles. But others do. The primary reason offered is usually for protection. For example, from 2014 to 2017, the greatest increase in applications for concealed-carry gun permits in Chicago came from Black women, often living in the more dangerous parts of the city. Whether their decision is wise may well be disputed, but none of the studies that contend that guns offer no protection or do not deter crime are, for obvious reasons, classic double blind or repeatable experiments, and the evidence that is presented is more suggestive than definitive. Academicians can correlate all they want, but does anyone not understand what motivates these women? Similarly, rural residents, living in isolated areas, may also look to firearms for protection.

Then there are those who just like to hunt and eat game animals or shoot at targets or just collect firearms or have a keepsake inherited from an ancestor. Still others want to have firearms because they can. That is, they have a legal right and want to exercise it. For them, firearms are a matter of freedom and independence. One man explained his collection of guns by analogizing them to shoes. Apparently he could not have enough of either.  Who knew?

Jewish Ethical Considerations

In response to the carnage associated with firearms, the Jewish community has done what it always has done when faced with a social issue – it has reached back for instruction, primarily to its foundational texts. The concern is clear, but can lessons forged in ancient hills of Judah and refined in living rooms in Babylon and, later, small communities in Europe have any applicability to the vastly different American society of the present? Let’s look at some of approaches that have been advanced.

The sanctity of life argument

Respect for life has many and deep roots in the Jewish tradition. The argument begins with two propositions asserted in the Torah and a third from the Talmud. The first, part of the Eden story found in Genesis, is that each person is made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. (Gen. 1:27.)The second, from the Ten Commandments, is the injunction “You shall not murder.” (Ex. 20:13.) The sages recorded in the Talmud add the third, saying, with a bit of poetic hyperbole: “Anyone who takes a life it is as though he has destroyed the universe and anyone who saves a life it is as though he has saved the universe.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.)

Based largely on these propositions, as far back as 1975, the Reform movement called for the elimination of “the manufacture, importation, advertising, sale, transfer and possession of handguns, except in limited instances.” And, over the intervening years, the movement, through one or more of its arms, including the Religious Action Center (“RAC”), has been a consistent supporter of a wide variety of gun control measures.

As its name suggests, though, RAC is biased in favor of action and somewhat less focused on considered analysis or persuasion. For example, in a gun control statement which (as of  this writing)appears on its website, RAC notes the Jewish tradition favoring life and adds references to the prophet Isaiah’s dream that we should beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks (Is. 2:4) and reflections in the Talmud about a flaming sword held by Cherubim at the east of the Garden of Eden where Gehenna was created.

Unfortunately, these sentiments do not seriously address the problem. In fact, RAC simultaneously fails to present an honest and comprehensive view of the Jewish approach to violence and weapons, thereby leaving its credibility open to challenge, and resorts to language that is tone deaf and quite unlikely to have any effect on people who actually own, possess and utilize firearms.

For instance, RAC fails to address the numerous places in the Torah, and later in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, where life was disrespected and the murder of individuals, groups and nations was either required or rewarded. Cain, having committed the first murder (that of his brother!), was physically marked, but founded a city and begat many descendants. (See Gen. 4:8, 15, 17-22.) Pinchas slew an Israelite man and his Midianite woman, but later was elevated to the position of High Priest. (See Num. 25:8, Judges 2:28.) Though hitting a rock twice was enough to keep Moses himself out of the Promised Land, striking an Egyptian overlord until he died resulted in no punishment at all. (See Ex. 2:11, Num. 20:8-12.)

Moreover, RAC apparently fails to recognize that we are neither in a mythical Garden of Eden nor at the end of days about of which Isaiah was speaking.  Does RAC seriously think that a member of the notorious MS-13, Bloods or Mongols gangs or even a peaceful rural citizen in the Bible Belt, many of whom possess and use firearms, cares one whit about what some rabbi said two thousand years ago about winged beings near a valley where children were sacrificed or even a prophet’s messianic musings?

Another Jewish anti-firearm group takes a similar tack. It calls itself Rabbis Against Gun Violence, as if there are any rabbis for gun violence. This organization begins and essentially ends the Jewish underpinnings of its position with the famous phrase found at the end of Deuteronomy and read on the holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur: “Choose life.” (Deut. 30:19.) The problem here is that the phrase is taken out of context and is an incomplete, simplistic and, therefore, misleading invocation.

The authors of Deuteronomy were not talking about life in its physical sense, that is, the beating of a heart, the inhaling and exhaling of breath or the firing of synapses. They were talking about a large collection of rules and regulations which would if followed, they said, bring the blessing of a worthwhile life to each and all on land deemed promised by their god. (See Deut.  26:16-28:69.) They were making a political plea, not a medical or even an ethical one.

The shame of weapons argument

Orthodox Rabbi Ari Hart has offered a more creative approach. He notes that there is a view in the Talmud that sees weapons carried on Shabbat as shameful. (Shabbat 6:4.) He uses this concept as a basis for building a case for gun control. Rabbi Hart is correct in his reference, but looking at the discussion as a whole, the rabbis involved seem more concerned with the sanctity of the Sabbath than any particular device used in violating that sanctity.

In any event, the noted 13th century Spanish commentator Nachmanides had a sharply different view. He wrote about Lamech, who is mentioned in early in the Torah as a great-great-great grandson of the murderer Cain.  (Gen. 4:18; see here at 6/7.) In Nachmanides’ telling, Lamech taught his son Tubal-Cain the art of metal working. Nachmanides then imagines Lamech’s wives being worried that he, Lamech, would be punished by God for helping produce swords and, thus, facilitating murder. Anticipating a now familiar argument, Nachmanides tells us that Lamech comforted his wives by observing that the sword would not be the agent of death, rather the person who chose to wield the weapon would be. Apparently Nachmanides was a card carrying member of the Local Sword Association, the motto of which was “Swords don’t kill people, people kill people.”

The right of self-defense argument

There is yet one more argument that RAC and others who seek to ban or heavily regulate firearms tend to ignore. The Torah expressly exonerates a person who kills a pursuer who had an intent to kill him. (Ex. 22.1.) In twelfth century Spain, Maimonides, perhaps the greatest pre-modern Jewish philosopher, went further and argued that if a pursuer is warned not to proceed and continues his pursuit there is an obligation to kill the pursuer.  (See Hilkhot Rotze’ah U’shmirat Nefesh, 1:6-7.) That is, he acknowledged a right of self-defense and self-preservation. And, to his credit, so does Rabbi Hart.

There is even a passage in the Talmud that goes further still. Threatened by a whistleblower who was about to disclose that a rabbi had slandered a local official, the rabbi characterized the man as a pursuer and killed him first. (See B’rakhot 58a; see also Sanhedrin 72a-b.)

The danger of disarmament argument

Where might the thinking of Maimonides and Nachmanides lead? You can find out on a website called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (“JPFO”). JPFO was founded almost 30 years ago with the stated purpose of educating Jewish Americans about what it says are the “historical evils that Jews have suffered when they have been disarmed.”

JPFO is not the most coherent website online. But if you can manage to wade through it, you can find at least two rationales for its mission. First, highlighting biblical episodes RAC and others fail to address, JPFO notes incidents, including one set at the time of the Judge and Prophet Deborah and one at the time of King Saul. In both cases, the people of Israel were facing disaster at least in part because they were unarmed.  (See Judges 5:7-8, Sam. 13:19.) In both cases, and with identical language, the Hebrew Bible stresses that there was neither a sword nor a spear among the entire population. And JPFO argues that today, in contrast to biblical times, the Jewish people cannot rely on a miracle to defend themselves.

Second, JPFO offers a list of situations, mostly in the twentieth century, in which a variety of nations have enacted strict gun control laws of various kinds and then targeted for elimination disfavored groups such as political opponents and ethnic minorities. Think Ottoman Turkey and Armenians, Nazi Germany and Jews and gypsies, Uganda and Christians, Rwanda and Tutsis.

Now, you may believe that such consequences could not happen here and that JPFO is paranoid, and you may be right. The narrative that Jews with firearms could have stopped the Third Reich, when better armed people from France to Russia could not, has been debunked by those with at least as strong a sense of history (and armaments) as JPFO, including Jewish defense organizations. The Anti-Defamation League (“ADL”), for instance, even argues that the Holocaust has no place in the domestic gun debate. Still, based on the ADL’s own analysis, anyone who in the last year has not observed an increase in hateful incidents in the United States, including Anti-Semitic ones, and a darker, more brazen tone to them as well, has either not been paying attention or is in denial.

None of this is intended to suggest an equivalency between RAC and JPFO as organizations, much less between a maximalist and minimalist orientation toward the control of firearms. Rather, it is to recognize that with respect to weapons of violence, and over more than 2,500 years, Jewish communities have generated a considerable variety of views and precedents regarding the sanctity of life and the propriety or obligation of self-defense. To deny that truth is neither intellectually honest, nor likely to be productive in resolving the similar tensions in the broader American discussion.

The concern for the safety of persons, places and things argument

And the Jewish ethical tradition has even more to say, especially about safety. Here are just two examples.

First, the Torah contains three closely related commandments. One, found in the Holiness Code, prohibits placing a “stumbling block” in front of the blind. (Lev. 19:14.) Another affirmatively requires building a parapet around the roof of a house lest someone fall and spill blood. (Deut. 22:8.) A third says summarily, “You shall guard and protect your lives.” (Deut. 4:9.) Each maxim seeks to keep a person from harm either because he or she cannot see or anticipate a dangerous condition or because the circumstances are inherently dangerous.

Note, though, how these principles can support both opponents as well as proponents of gun control laws. For instance, some would argue that readily accessible guns constitute a stumbling block, while others would suggest that restricting access to weapons impedes their ability to protect themselves. Some would argue that guarding yourself requires possession of a weapon, while others would contend that it means eliminating or securing them.

Similarly, the Talmud reports an argument about a dangerous dog. The majority view sought to prohibit the ownership of a mean or dangerous dog or at least require that anyone who had such a dog remove the risk of danger. (See Bava Kamma 15b, 46a.) Jewish gun control advocates naturally view this as a precedent for banning possession of a firearm or, minimally, requiring that weapons be securely locked and stored. As you may have guessed by now, the rabbis involved in this discussion also recognized exceptions to the general rule.  For example, they allowed those living in dangerous towns to unchain their dogs at night for protection. In sum, and continuing with a weapons metaphor, general safety principles can be used both as a sword and a shield.

Applying Jewish Ethical Guidelines to Today’s Reality

Applying the Jewish ethical principles honestly and productively to the dilemma of violence associated with firearms in the United States is both difficult and frustrating. First, as we have seen, an authentic Jewish ethical approach to the ownership, possession and use of weapons is neither simple nor uniform. Instead, it is complex and nuanced. As Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe has noted, correctly and wisely, the Torah merely required the placement of parapets around the roof of a house. It did not prohibit flat roofs. Second, the violence that is sought to be quelled manifests itself in so many ways that a plausible solution for one aspect would do nothing to alleviate the harm that arises in another setting. There will have to be many solutions for the varieties of violence we face. For both these reasons, those who insist on applying Biblical bumper stickers instead of urging reason and responsibility are not being as helpful as they could be.  We need fewer references to myths and messianism, and more emphasis on reality based ethics and evidence based solutions.

The discussion is also complicated by two other factors, one legal and the other practical. First, any effort to address violence associated with firearms in America must do so within the context of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the United States Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a right under the Second Amendment to possess guns in their home for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense. Consequently, it held D.C.’s ban on handguns and certain restrictions on the possession of rifles to be unconstitutional. Subsequently, the ruling in Heller was made applicable to state and local governments in McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010).

At the same time, writing for the majority in Heller, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, said that the Second Amendment right, like other constitutional rights, was “not unlimited.” More precisely, he acknowledged that the right historically was limited to those weapons “’in common use at the time,’” and consistent with “prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’”  It was not, therefore, “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” (554 U.S. at 626.)  Justice Scalia then identified, without limitation, individuals such as felons and the mentally ill and “sensitive places” such as schools and government building as being proper subjects of restrictions. Similarly, he recognized that there might be appropriate laws “imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms” and on “the storage of firearms to prevent accidents.”  (See generally, 554 U.S. at 626-32.)

Invoking some of the language discussed above, RAC, among other organizations predictably condemned Heller as misguided,” but taken as a whole, Heller was not (and is not) inconsistent with the traditional Jewish view, also seen in its entirety. The principle of self-defense was affirmed, and reasonable restrictions on one or more points of the trajectory of violence associated with firearms were declared to be presumptively valid. Moreover, recent history suggests that concerns over Heller were misplaced. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, over a thousand cases involving restrictions on firearms have been decided since Heller and the restrictions have been upheld in over 90% of them. The permissibility of placing reasonable parapets is, therefore, established.

The second complicating factor is more daunting. It requires determining what kind of regulation might be effective in reducing the likelihood or incidence of violence involving firearms. From the design and manufacture of the weapon itself, to its sale and distribution, to its ownership, possession and use, what works? And does what works in one setting work in others?

A recent case illustrates the problem, and gives reason for concern. Not long before the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas which generated deserved outrage and, also, predictable cries for gun control, in the case Duncan v. Becerra, U. S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez (S.D. Cal.) considered the constitutionality of a new California law which barred the possession by gun owners of high-capacity ammunition magazines, i.e., those holding more than ten rounds. According to the law’s proponents these magazines were not needed by civilians for defense or hunters for sport, but were used in mass shootings. Nevertheless, Judge Benitez issued an injunction against enforcement of the new law. The standards applied by Judge Benitez, and his legal reasoning, may or may not make sense to higher courts or legal scholars. (Compare, e.g., Kolbe v. Hogan, –F.3d – (4th Cir. 2017) (En banc, 10-4; petition for certiorari pending.) But his findings of fact offer instruction for everyone.

In the course of his 66 page opinion, Judge Benitez reviewed the facts of 92 mass shootings in the United States and the testimony of numerous proffered experts to try to determine if the new law would have made any real difference in the outcomes of those situations. He found that it would not have made any or any substantial difference because magazines with over ten rounds were used in only 6 of the 92 cases considered, and half of those six involved already illegal acquisitions. Moreover, none of the state’s four experts provided persuasive, science based studies that showed the effectiveness of any ban on such magazines. One conceded that “robust supporting data is missing” and that “’available data and statistical models are unable to discern (any) effect.’” (Opinion, at 43/66.)

For those concerned with evidence as well as ethics, the absence of reliable research is a real problem and it extends beyond Judge Benitez’s courtroom. Last month, Leah Libresco, a former statistician and writer for FiveThirtyEight, created a social media stir when she wrote a short opinion piece for the Washington Post to the effect that research persuaded her that gun control was not the answer to the problem of violence with firearms.  More precisely, she said that certain popular proposals, including banning assault weapons, restricting silencers and reducing the size of magazines, are not likely to reduce violence where it frequently appears, with young gang members, abused partners and suicide victims.

The reaction to Libresco’s essay was swift. One headline on Vox blared: “The research is clear: gun control saves lives.” Yet, proving once again that text does not always follow where a headline leads, the author, German Lopez, concludes limply saying that “gun control does, at least to some extent, reduce gun deaths.” (At 8/12.) And that underwhelming conclusion was based on the results following a gun buyback program in Australia, not the United States. He then concedes that gun control cannot stop all violence, that other factors like poverty, urbanization and alcohol consumption play a role and that “we could always use more research into gun policy . . . .” (At 8-9/10.) Indeed.

Consider the individuals who are the source of much of the violence with firearms. Given the enormous gender disparity among homicide offenders who use firearms, “(a)ny account of gun violence in the United States, must,” as the American Psychological Association recognizes, “be able to explain both why males are the perpetrators of the vast majority of gun violence and why the vast majority of males never perpetrate gun violence.” The APA calls for the development of programs and settings “that aim to change gendered expectations for males that emphasize self-sufficiency, toughness, and violence, including gun violence.” That is, it wants more research. And if we are to be serious about addressing violence with firearms used by street gangs or directed toward female partners and friends, such research seems vital.

Similarly, more research concerning the intersection of mental illness and weapons with respect to both homicides and suicides seems necessary. Today, many assume that mental illness, however defined, is causally connected to or at least correlated with violence involving firearms, especially mass shootings. But, according to the APA, “most people suffering from a mental illness are not dangerous.” (Id.) Studies suggest that even people with diagnosable serious psychiatric disorders do not, absent a substance abuse disorder, present a likely risk of violent disorder. (See generally, “Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy.” (At 10/20.) But perhaps more importantly, predicting who might engage in a violent act is “a very inexact science.” (Id. at 9/20.)

At the same time, federal and state laws respecting individuals who have been reported or adjudicated to have a mental illness are not consistent, comprehensive, coordinated or even well enforced. Consequently, more research is necessary to fill the gaps in our knowledge about the effectiveness of regulations which can reduce risks of harm to self and others, but neither reinforce stigmas about mental illness nor deter those who need it from seeking help. (See Id. at 13-14/20.)

Because Jewish tradition is pragmatic, it does not require us to research the best parapet when people are at risk of falling off a roof. Nor does it require us to save every life that is at risk. The oft quoted teaching of Rabbi Tarfon may well be applicable here: While you are not required to complete the task, neither may you desist from it. (Pirke Avot, 2:16.)

So, let’s recognize both the legal, but not absolute, right of citizens to keep and bear certain arms as established in Heller and its progeny and also the inherent and inalienable right of individuals and the public to life and the pursuit of happiness, marked at least by safety in their homes and in their normal movement in an open society, if not a risk free environment. Let’s also accept (1) that guns don’t kill, people do, (2) that when a person has access to a firearm the damage s/he can do with it can be lethal, and (3) when people kill with firearms, they do so sometimes maliciously, sometimes recklessly, sometimes negligently, sometimes under the influence of chemicals and sometimes due to internal disorders we may not fully understand. Let’s focus on human behavior and some potential means for increasing safety and reducing risk in those more common situations where acts of violence cluster. And, finally, let’s draw on the wisdom of a variety of social scientists, including among others, criminologists, behavioral economists, psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists and epidemiologists, that is published in evidenced based studies at respectable institutions like the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Research and Policy, the Joyce Foundation Gun Violence Prevention Program and elsewhere as noted above.

When we do this, we might be able to develop a non-exhaustive list, like the one that follows, of reasonable parapets worth further discussion:

  • Each state should establish a firearms safety program designed to teach individuals how to use and store firearms in a safe and secure manner. The states should license those who successfully pass their safety exam for a limited period of time, subject to renewal.
  • No person should be able to purchase a firearm, or possess or use one, without having passed the established safety standard in his or her state.
  • No person under the age of sixteen should possess or use a firearm, except in the presence of an adult who would be responsible for the conduct of the minor.
  • Police and community intervention initiatives that provide positive and immediate alternatives to violence, and that “strengthen . . . impulse control, personal responsibility, and capacity for conflict resolution” should be instituted and expanded.  (See, e.g.,Combating Gun Violence in Illinois: Evidence-Based Solutions” and Boston TenPoint Coalition.)
  • No person who commits a felony, while in possession of a firearm, should be entitled to own, possess or use any firearm for a limited period of time subsequent to the completion of his/her sentence for such felony, and should be required to turn over temporarily to local authorities any firearm in his/her possession.
  • No person convicted of more than one offense within a five year period of using a controlled substance or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs should, for a limited period of time, be entitled to own, possess or use a firearm, and should be required to turn over temporarily to local authorities any firearm in his/her possession.
  • No person convicted of abuse or stalking, whether with respect to a spouse, dating partner, friend or otherwise, nor any person subject to a restraining order prohibiting harassment, threats or abuse, should, for a limited period of time, be entitled to own, possess or use a firearm, and should be required to turn over temporarily to local authorities any firearm in his/her possession.
  • Family members and intimate partners should be entitled to seek civil relief authorizing the temporary removal of firearms from a household based on a credible risk of harm to any person in that household.
  • Firearm owners should be required to report lost or stolen firearms. If any such person fails to do so and those firearms are used in crime, s/he should be held responsible.
  • Courts, agencies and other governmental bodies that may have information relevant to whether a person may be prohibited under federal law from purchasing a firearm should be provided such funds and personnel as are necessary and appropriate to transmit relevant records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”).
  • Background checks should be required of every potential purchaser of a firearm prior to the sale of any firearm to that person, whether the sale is by a licensed dealer or private seller, and that information should be reported to a database in the state where the sale is contemplated and then transmitted to NICS or such other database as may be established.

A few final words

Language drives a discussion in complex ways. When there is a multi-vehicle incident which results in deaths and injuries, we do not characterize the event as “car violence” and we do not talk about “car control.” So why do we call violence with firearms “gun violence” and instinctively seek “gun control”? And more importantly, do those characterizations cause us to focus attention on an object instead of the behavior that activates the object or, further, the root causes of that behavior? Do they also and unnecessarily antagonize many individuals who might otherwise be willing to work to reduce violence associated with firearms?

The Jewish tradition, developed over an extended period of time in many settings, is fundamentally rooted in the reality of human nature and experience.  It is, consequently, sensitive to core desires for both safety and security. And, so, its insights, including its recognition of the tensions inherent in communal life, can be helpful in our deliberations. Significantly, when addressing relationships between individuals or between one individual and the larger society, Judaism does not call on us to act self-righteously or make a show of utopian virtue. Rather, it seeks practical solutions to often complex problems. Why don’t we all try that? Less preaching, less posturing. More listening, more learning. Less demonizing, more dialog. Who knows, maybe together we can act constructively and productively to make the world a little better tomorrow than we have it today.


A version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

Screenshot from Twitter.

Rabbi Neil Gillman, Theologian and Teacher


Two generations of students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) are mourning the passing on Nov. 24 of a challenging and beloved teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman.

Beginning with his arrival from Montreal in the mid-1950s, Gillman was a commanding presence in the seminary community for over half a century. He was ordained by JTS in 1960 and earned his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University in 1975.

He served as dean of the JTS Rabbinical School in the 1970s, during a period of transition when JTS debated women’s ordination, which it initiated in 1985. He was an early advocate for egalitarianism, and continued to teach and model an inclusive vision of Jewish thought and practice throughout his life.

Gillman also was a historian of JTS and Conservative Judaism, publishing a volume on the topic in 1993 and working with a committee to articulate the philosophy of Conservative Judaism in the 1988 volume “Emet V’Emunah.” He also wrote several volumes on how to define and justify belief in God through radical questions and sound philosophical considerations. His 1997 book, “The Death of Death,” examined Jewish beliefs about life after death.

You did not have to be an academic to understand his books. Gillman was forever the teacher in his writing, explaining difficult concepts in clear, down-to-earth language.

Gillman’s students will remember him most for the way he challenged them to think deeply about Jewish beliefs and practices and to create a Jewish theology of their own. They didn’t mind when he pointed out weaknesses in the way they were thinking because they knew that he cared deeply for them.

They also will remember lovingly the shock that Gillman evinced when a student said something that he found questionable or downright wrong — and how he would then prod the student into defending his or her particular belief rather than abandoning it. Gillman single-handedly transformed the education of future rabbis, educators and lay leaders from a passive study of other people’s thought into an exciting and significant struggle with one’s own. He did so with warmth, humor, wide erudition, analytic precision and genuine concern for his students.

I first met Neil Gillman at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, where he taught me how to chant Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, when I was 13. A year later, his wife, Sarah, taught me the first midrashic texts that I had ever seen.

Gillman later played a critical role in my life, persuading me to accept a fellowship and study for a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia while I was in rabbinical school at JTS.

He challenged them to think deeply about Jewish beliefs.

Subsequently, because we shared a deep love of both Judaism and of the philosophical questions that could either undermine it entirely or strengthen it significantly, we became frequent intellectual sparring partners, and I shall miss that immensely. One example: When I was working on the second edition of my book “Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants,” he and I spent many long-distance phone calls debating Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology of revelation. As a result, I changed the way I categorized Heschel’s approach in the book — although, to this day, I’m not sure that Gillman was right about that!

We both wrote books on religious epistemology — the question of how we can know that our religious beliefs are true. Mine emerged directly from the world of analytic philosophy, while his included the insights of scholars of religious anthropology. It is through him that all of his readers, including me, learned to appreciate the role of religious stories (“myths”) and ritual practices in shaping what one believes and trusts.

We loved critiquing each other’s work, often with playful expressions of surprise that the other person could say or write such a thing.

We all will make Rabbi Gillman’s memory a blessing if we follow his lead in so deeply caring for one another and for our Jewish heritage that we are not afraid to question both, thus making our relationships and our Judaism truly matters of all our heart, all our soul and all our might.


Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy at American Jewish University.

Photo by Sonya Sones

Q&A with Richard Lewis On His Favorite Subject: Richard Lewis


Nowadays, comedian Richard Lewis isn’t the self-loathing comedian he always was. He’s married, sober, owns a rescue dog and he’s in his ninth season starring alongside his friend Larry David on the hit HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

But when the 70-year-old performs his first local stand-up show in five years on Dec. 9, audiences can expect nothing less than the self-centered comedy he is known for. Lewis recently discussed his upcoming performance at the Roxy Theatre, being Jewish and David’s controversial “Saturday Night Live” monologue.

Jewish Journal: What can people expect from your upcoming show?

Richard Lewis: This is not about the news, the 24-7 news cycle. This is all about Richard Lewis and my issues and my dysfunctions. Forget about your problems, the world. This is all about Richard. It will be all about me so they can get out of their heads. I know it sounds grandiose, but that’s what I do, and that’s what they should expect. They should check their problems at the door. No televisions, no news. It’s all about my life, and they can just take a break and say, “Whoa, this poor bastard.”

JJ: How has comedy changed over the years?

RL: The only thing I can say emphatically is that back in the early ’70s, when I started, there were so few of us. Most of us were hell-bent on working on our craft, just for stand-up. We were just so focused. We lived and breathed it 24-7. I know many comedians have done that since then, but back then we weren’t thinking of any careers other than doing this. We wanted to be killer onstage. I think with all the platforms and venues today, people have gone onstage not totally immersed in stand-up, but hoping to be seen for other things — in particular, acting jobs.

JJ: What advice would you give to younger comedians?

RL: I always tell young artists, no matter what they are doing, there is no looking back if you want to make a living in the arts. Just keeping working on your craft and hope for a lucky break. I have a feeling that, now, younger comedians are too anxious to get a big break when they haven’t focused entirely on their craft.

“I’m so Jewish. I’m Jewish from my toes to the remaining hairs on the back of my head.”

JJ: What did you make of the criticism of Larry David’s “Saturday Night Live” monologue when he joked about finding dates in a concentration camp?

RL: I was in a funny mood until you brought up the Holocaust. I’m observing both sides. I know both sides of the issue. He’s a courageous comedian. He can’t be judged over a 20-second riff about dating, using a Holocaust reference. I can’t imagine he didn’t think for a second it might offend people. He’s a provocative, edgy comic — he has been that way since Day One onstage. He will not change his stripes for his freedom to express himself. [But] I’m not giving him the pass. He’s an ethical guy and wonderful man and he’s done so much for so many people, and he’s a Jew and I love him. But I understand what people are saying. People get offended by much less provocative statements.

JJ: What was your reaction to the allegations against Louis CK and other people in show business accused of sexual assault?

RL: I’m heartbroken for the victims, not just because it is a thing to say. I was really disturbed. I had no idea about this. And the people who have recently come out, I was never friends with them, I never hung out with them. I’m tremendously disappointed. That said, it’s the teeny weeniest tip of the iceberg … on TV it’s about high-profile people, but it’s going on in factories, offices. I’m more focused on how those people can be heard.

JJ: What role does Judaism play in your life?

RL: I’m so Jewish. I’m Jewish from my toes to the remaining hairs on the back of my head. I’m not a deeply religious person, but I am spiritual. I feel Jewish when I wake up. I feel Jewish when I go to bed. I’m not an atheist. I love the story. I’m proud to be a Jew. I don’t feel I do enough as a practicing Jew, but as Mel  Brooks once said, and this is his line, “I don’t practice, I’m very good at it.” I reek of Judaism. And I feel blessed about it.

For more about Lewis’ performance at the Roxy visit theroxy.com.  

Photo from Good Free Photos.

Spiritual, Not Religious


On a family trip to Mexico City last week, we decided to spend Shabbat doing one of the most unrestful activities I can think of — we hiked up a pyramid.

There is absolutely nothing Jewish about the Teotihuacan pyramids, although they once functioned as a kind of religious site, built in honor of sun and moon, and were used over the millennia for various unseemly rituals, including human sacrifice. The Aztecs stumbled upon the pyramids built by an unknown ancient civilization and named them Teotihuacan, meaning “birthplace of the gods.”

Between the polytheism and the barbarism, it was an unconventional choice for the Sabbath. Go figure, then, that we bumped into a group of yogis from Los Angeles who turned our secular exercise into a spiritual imperative.

“It’s meant to be that we’re meeting you here today,” a woman with curly hair and an Australian accent exclaimed.

Spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal
satisfaction.

The yogis were in Mexico City for a public meditation “superclass” to be held the following morning, led by their African-born, L.A.-based guru, Joseph Michael Levry, founder of Naam Yoga in Santa Monica. Levry is an internationally known author, speaker and teacher who draws on various wisdom traditions — including kabbalah — to teach a mind-body healing practice. On Sunday, he was scheduled to lead his fifth superclass in Mexico City, in downtown’s Zócalo central square. Thousands were expected to attend.

“You have to come!” a blonde from Belarus said.

As they offered my father chewable hydration pills for the uphill climb, they extolled the virtues of Levry’s practice and how it heals ailments, decreases crime and manifests your dreams. Sensing my innate skepticism, one of them asked, “Are you a journalist?”

“I’m a Jew,” I said.

“So am I!” the Australian said. “I mean, I wasn’t born Jewish, but I am Jewish. I’m in love with Israel. Jerusalem is the most amazing, holy place I’ve ever been.”

Turns out, Levry took his disciples to Israel for a “Divine Spiritual Alchemy Retreat,” where they meditated at sunrise by the Dead Sea and chanted for peace at the Kotel.

Maybe this is bashert, I thought.

So I set my alarm for Sunday morning and rallied the troops for meditation con Los Mexicanos. If Levry’s superclass was really capable of supernal healing power, I had a lifetime of Jewish neuroses to drain from my system.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: 10,000 people gathered in one of the world’s largest and oldest public squares, waving their hands in the air chanting, “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz’vaot M’lo Khol Ha’aretz K’vodo.”

Imagine if the Aztecs had met Joseph Michael Levry.

For the next hour, my family and I stood, sat, sang and laughed; we stretched, we danced, we chanted familiar words in dialects I’d never heard. Levry told a story about Moses, followed by a chant of “I am / I am / I am that I am.”

A few rows in front of me, a young woman wore a headscarf imprinted with shimmering Hebrew letters that glinted in the sunlight. It felt as if the universe had conspired to bring a group of American Jews to spiritual enlightenment via Mexican ruins and an African-born yoga master.

As beautiful as the moment was, though, I couldn’t shed my skepticism. The Jewish aspects only reinforced my worry that this experience might belong in the category of “spiritual, but not religious,” drawing wisdom from religious tradition while draining it of religious obligation.

Because while prayer and meditation can pry open our hearts and bring us into contact with the Divine, we make a mockery of spirituality if we spend our lives soothing our own souls and meditating on mountaintops. Jewish tradition tells us that the test of an enlightened spirit is not found in meditative bliss, but in contact with the world and other human beings.

Devotion to God can be beautiful, meaningful — even fun — but the religious life teaches us that the best way to love God is to demonstrate that love through moral action.

In a busy, crazy, tragic, broken world, it was inspiring and reassuring to see so many people engaged in the spiritual quest — the precursor to a better world. But spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal satisfaction. Self-healing is not enough.

The religious life intentionally pairs spirituality and service, because without obligation, spiritual ecstasy is just an exercise in narcissism.


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

Why Judaism Matters


The following is excerpted from a speech delivered last month at the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), held in Los Angeles.

When I had the privilege of addressing the GA last year, I asked three questions: Why does Judaism matter? Why does Israel matter? And why does treating one another with civility matter?

I was sharing my perspective on what I considered the most important issues affecting our community and affecting the work of our Federations.

I still believe these questions about Judaism, Israel and civility are the right questions that we should all be asking ourselves each and every day. And I believe the answer to these questions is: Yes, it all matters, and it matters more than ever.

And at the heart of that answer — as at the heart of everything we do — are the values of our tradition, reflected in our Torah: what is hateful to you, do not do to another; and use your time and your talents to repair a broken world as we help to finish the work that HaShem began.

Each of our communities has its own characteristics — but our mission really is the same.

And no part of our work is more important than connecting with young people — helping them discover why their tradition should matter to them. We have all seen the statistics on assimilation. But statistics do not tell us what we have learned from Birthright, PJ Library, Moishe House, Masa, Entwine and programs developed by Federations that successfully connect young adults to their Judaism.

These programs prove that assimilation is not the result of young people not caring. It is the result of their not knowing what Judaism is and how it can make their lives more meaningful.

It is our responsibility to reach out to them. If we inform them about their tradition, we actually find that they do care. We first need to meet them where they are, listen to their concerns, understand their interests and embrace them as part of our community. And once they understand that Judaism matters, they will better appreciate why Israel matters.

I, like many of you, am a baby boomer. We grew up knowing that there were neighborhoods where Jews were not welcome, clubs that would not accept Jews as members.

That is rarely the case today. We are far more accepted in the United States than ever before, but we also can never forget that we are a very small and very vulnerable people.

My generation grew up with a very vulnerable Israel whose very existence was constantly threatened. We will never forget the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

And I will never forget my first trip to Israel, in 1964 with my parents. My father, an immigrant from Latvia, got off the plane, touched the ground and, with tears in his eyes, loudly, proudly recited the Shehecheyanu. You see, Israel was the eternal dream of my father and my ancestors. It was the eternal dream of your fathers and your ancestors for over 1,800 years. And now, that dream had come true.

Our children and grandchildren have experienced none of this. We need to teach them about the traditions that they come from.

The State of Israel is only 70 years old, but it is at the center of who we are. It is a remarkable country.

For its entire 70 years, it has been under siege. As strong as it is today, this tiny country has over 100,000 rockets aimed at its cities by Hamas and Hezbollah, courtesy of Iran, all of which have sworn to destroy Israel.

Notwithstanding all of this, Israel remains a vibrant democracy where women, members of the LGBTQ community and minorities have protected rights. Its technological and scientific advances are improving and saving lives throughout the world. And every day its young soldiers in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] are putting their lives on the line to protect you and me.

Because of Israel, the Jewish people, in so many ways, are stronger and more secure than ever before.

Recently, the American Jewish community has found itself in a disagreement with Israel with respect to the Kotel, the Western Wall. In January 2016, after years of negotiations with the government of Israel — led by our dear friend and hero, Natan Sharansky — the government of Israel passed a resolution to create an improved egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel — to be constructed and governed with oversight by a committee that was to include representatives of the Reform and Conservative streams and the Women of the Wall.

Then, last June, as a result of pressure from the religious parties that form part of the government coalition, the government of Israel froze this resolution.

There will still be an improved egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. But the resolution is not being implemented as agreed to.

Of course, we have different views. That has been a source of our strength.

This is an important issue to many in our community, and I commit to you that JFNA, as your representative, will continue to fight for the vision of an Israel where all Jews can feel at home, no matter what synagogue they choose to pray at.

At the same time, our support and love for the State of Israel requires us to never walk away or turn our back on her — or give up on our desire to see Israel truly become the country we want and need it to be. But that will only happen with understanding and respect for the miracle that Israel is.

Let’s not forget that we are all descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; Moses, Maimonides and Hillel; and Herzl, ben Gurion and Golda Meir.

Of course, we have different views. We always have. That has been a source of our strength. But we must respect that diversity and listen carefully to those different views as we unite around our values. Then we can continue to build the Jewish community our tradition demands, and stop delegitimizing and disrespecting those we disagree with, which only divides and destroys.

Kol yisrael arevim zeh-bazeh — all of Israel is responsible for one another.

Let each of us rethink why Judaism matters and why Israel matters as we together make today a new beginning and move our communities from where they are to where they ought to be.


Richard Sandler is chair of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America and past chair of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Photo by Shiloh Kanarti.

The Journey of a ‘Single Mother by Choice’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I’m Not a Rabbi


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agonized over this decision for months.

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

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

So I finally recycled the rabbinical school application.

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

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


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

What Does Jewish Literature Have to Do With Jewish Education?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

18 Ideas for the Jewish Future


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

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


Create a Reverse Birthright
Avraham Infeld, Renowned Israeli Educator

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Give People Meaning
Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Give Tikkun Olam Context
Selwyn Gerber, CPA, Community Leader

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


Make Learning Hebrew Fun
Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles, Temple Isaiah

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


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

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

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

What I Learned From Rebbe Nachman and Mr. Miyagi


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together, those moments aroused a sense of clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with his followers every day at facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Photo from YouTube

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Dusty St. Amand

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Jewish Journal: What does this award mean to you?

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

JJ: Have you attended the festival before?

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

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

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

JJ: Do you go to synagogue? Pray more?

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

JJ: What memories stand out from your Jewish childhood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Movie ‘Titanic’ Taught Me About God


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was full of questions.

I wouldn’t be seeking a miraculous rescue.

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

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

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

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

And I’m still in love.


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

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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


Parsha Noach, Genesis 8:20-22:

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

Rabbi Nicole Guzick, Sinai Temple

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, Jewish Mindfulness Network

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

David Brandes, film producer and screenwriter

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

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

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

Redemption is hope.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director of the Sephardic Educational Center

Dear God,

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

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

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

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

Respectfully,
Humankind

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, senior editor at Chabad.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why aren’t we living in constant wonder?

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

How Judaism Helps Us Regain Our Balance


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

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

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

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

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

We’ve lost our balance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Trump’s ACA Order Creates Health-Care Chaos


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sexual Harassment: Is There a Jewish Answer?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impossible, antithetical to human nature, utopian? Nonsense.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo by REUTERS/David W Cerny

What Is the Real Meaning of Tikkun Olam?


Rabbi Laura Geller:

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn:

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Geller:

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Einhorn:

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

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


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

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

Women of the World Say: Enough


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

And then Sunday happened.

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

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

A movement was unfolding before our eyes.

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

A movement was unfolding before our eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Abramson Teiger Architects.

 

Image courtesy of Abramson Teiger Architects.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, here I am.”

A damaged home in Loiza, Puerto Rico.

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


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

It wasn’t nerves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He was incredibly grateful,” Shocket said.

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

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

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

Lori and Neil Shocket at the JCC of Puerto Rico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To donate to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico, visit projecthope.org or jccpr.org.

A sukkah in Herzliya, Israel. Photo by Ron Almog

Sukkot, the holiday of appropriate balance


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Complex Polarity of ‘The Last Rabbi’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Jewish feminists who are rocking the cannabis world


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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