Schools caution on alcohol during Simchat Torah

Dozens of men sit around a few tables, humming a soft Chasidic niggun (tune), swaying slowly back and forth, noshing on cold cuts, salads and light snacks. Some are sipping on small cups of vodka. Most wear white dress shirts, black dress pants and a long black coat. 

This is a Chabad-Lubavitch farbrengen, and save for the brand-name foods and Styrofoam plates, it’s a scene that has been re-created countless times for centuries around the world. Yiddish for “joyous gathering,” this particular farbrengen took place after Shabbat morning services earlier this summer at Congregation Levi Yitzchok in Hancock Park.

“Think of it as a Kiddush, a sit-down Kiddush,” albeit one with its own unique Chasidic twist, said Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, a regular at Levi Yitzchok.

Farbrengens, conducted thousands of times per year at Chabad houses across the world, are one of the movement’s favorite methods for transmitting wisdom — through Chasidic stories, personal experiences and teachings from previous leaders (rebbes) of the Chabad movement. Every element of the celebration is meant to encourage one thing, according to Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, a Levi Yitzchok attendee: “to inspire one in the service of HaShem.”

Alcohol appears in moderation, he said, to assist attendees find inspiration that may help them improve their connection to God and Judaism.

“Alcohol is not the driving factor of the farbrengen. You can have a wonderful farbrengen without any alcohol,” Greenbaum said. “At times the function of a little bit of alcohol will help them rise past their certain inhibitions or challenges or be able to help them in the process.” 

In Shusterman’s words, alcohol can help people be more “receptive” to the ideas being discussed.

A normal farbrengen, part of holidays and lifecycle celebrations, is low-key, with drinking ranging from none to at most a few l’chaims and quiet tunes sung with everyone seated. Come Simchat Torah, though, that all changes. 

At Levi Yitzchok and dozens of other congregations across Los Angeles, the alcohol will be flowing, food will be piled high, feet will be sore from dancing, and most, if not all, the tunes will be sung loudly. In fact, the partying at Levi Yitzchok will begin the night before Simchat Torah, on the evening of the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, when the congregation will perform hakafot (reading prayers while carrying a Torah around the bimah) and eat a festive meal under the sukkah

Save for sleeping, eating and some occasional traditional praying, the beginning of Shemini Atzeret until the end of Simchat Torah is, according to Greenbaum, an “ongoing farbrengen for 48 hours.”

As a preemptive caution for parents heading into the holiday, heads of school from four local Orthodox high schools (YULA Boys, YULA Girls, Shalhevet and Valley Torah) wrote an e-mail to parents to look after their children on Simchat Torah. 

In a phone conversation with the Journal, the head of school of Shalhevet, Rabbi Ari Segal, said that while its nice “when a shul can have alcoholic beverages served in a responsible way,” he hopes that parents and community members model “normal alcoholic consumption” for area youths.

“We are not waiting until someone ends up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning,” Segal said. “They [minors] are kind of trying to imitate the adult behavior I see, but without the level of responsibility and care.”

Rabbi Dov Emerson, the head of school of YULA Boys, wrote to the Journal in an e-mail that the high school plans to host about 150 students, parents, rabbis and relatives for hakafot and a holiday meal on Simchat Torah evening that he said would be safe and uplifting.

At Levi Yitzchok, Greenbaum said that a few hundred men will gather on Sept. 27 at the close of Simchat Torah to sing melodies that have passed down through Chabad over hundreds of years. With a packed house and an intensely celebratory holiday winding down, it won’t resemble in style Levi Yitzchok’s typical, laid back Shabbat farbrengen. But its purpose — to help people overcome their spiritual and religious challenges by bringing together Jews to eat and sing — will be exactly the same.

“It’s easier to battle the yetzer hara [evil inclination] when you have a few yetzer tovs [good inclinations] working together,” Greenbaum said.

LimmudLA Fest: Less is more

There are very few places where one could learn about the Jewish prison population, sing Kiddush with a Broadway legend and do tai chi — all in one weekend. 

All of these topics were among those explored at the first-ever LimmudLA Fest, a retreat full of learning that took place Aug. 16-18 at the Brandeis-Bardin campus of American Jewish University in Simi Valley.

The Limmud concept was the same as always: bringing a diverse group of Jews together for Jewish learning opportunities that are equally varied. This year, however, the location was also part of the attraction for the 180 attendees. 

Guests slept in cabins situated near rows of corn and surrounded by summer flowers in all shades of red and orange. The campground atmosphere, complete with ample sun and a pool, was well suited to participants looking for an environment that was as physically relaxing as it was spiritually engaging. (For a working journalist, however, the prohibition against writing during Shabbat made things a little challenging.) 

The event replaced the annual LimmudLA conference, normally held in February. Past conferences were held at an Orange County hotel and had to attract around 600 people to pay for the expenses of the venue, according to Aki Yonekawa, event co-chair. This smaller Limmud took place without a paid executive director, relying entirely on volunteers.

Having a Limmud event at Brandeis-Bardin just felt right, Yonekawa said. At previous conferences, participants lounged on the floors of hotel hallways playing the guitar, giving the impression that a group of camp people had been brought into a hotel. Yonekawa said people used to approach her and ask, “Why wasn’t [Limmud] at Brandeis?”

The result was a smaller event that allowed more spontaneity, she said. 

“We were a little bit more organic. We could be a little bit more flexible.”

Good thing, because some of her most memorable moments were not scheduled at all. Like when gospel singing teacher Sharon Alexander spontaneously led a song and everyone got to their feet and joined in. Or like when Theodore Bikel, the actor known for his numerous portrayals of Tevye in productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” performed in the fest’s concert and led Kiddush. (He happened to be at the retreat as a participant.)

Limmud volunteers also took advantage of the change in scenery to suggest that presenters make their sessions more “experiential,” Yonekawa said. One session devoted to the study of the heavens in Judaism ended with stargazing, something that would have been impossible with the light pollution of an urban hotel. Arrangements of flowers that guests picked from the garden decorated the tables on Shabbat, and the kale and tomatoes they gathered were served as a salad with lunch on Saturday. 

Other elements of LimmudLA Fest strongly adhered to the values of the previous Limmud conferences, including the effort to welcome Jews from all backgrounds. Saturday morning saw people gradually emerge from their cabins in everything from summer dresses and khaki shorts to kippot and button-down shirts — all to attend an offering of services as diverse as their dress. 

There was a mechitza service and a “traditional egalitarian minyan.” In a small building with the doors thrown open to welcome latecomers and warm breezes alike, Jewish musician and songwriter Naomi Less and Storahtelling Inc.’s founding director Amichai Lau-Lavie encouraged participants to stretch, compliment their neighbors and sing along with drums and guitar in an alternative to traditional prayer called “Shabbat Morning With Storahtelling’s Lab/Shul.”

For those preferring textual analysis to prayer, Karen Radkowsky a founder and past president of Limmud NY, led a discussion about consumerism and Judaism. The discussion included a family with multiple generations in attendance, who shared perspectives on collecting possessions. A mother of a young teenager shared a story of back-to-school shopping in which the line between “wants” and “needs” was clearly subjective, while an older woman induced tears from the group by sharing her story of collecting photo albums throughout her life and passing them down through her family. 

The relaxed setting of LimmudLA Fest did not prevent it from tackling tough, timely subjects in its study sessions. Gregory Metzger, who has worked with prisoners as the director of Jewish Committee for Personal Service, shared his experiences with helping release Jewish prisoners and helping them make a meaningful life for themselves while incarcerated. 

He provided a bit of history as well, like how the cause of the first major crime wave among Jews in the United States was bigamy. Married Jewish men immigrated to America and then found wives while waiting for their original spouses to immigrate after them, he said. He also talked about how Jewish gangsters were involved in organized crime. 

With plenty of sessions taking place each day — some simultaneously — there was plenty from which to choose. Or, well, there was always the pool.

An interview with Ayelet Shaked

With the run-up to the first-ever internal primaries for the Jewish Home Party (Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi) in full steam, one of the most hotly discussed issues is the candidacy of 36-year old Ayelet Shaked.

The co-founder and former chairman of the MyIsrael (Yisrael Sheli) national movement, the recipient of the 2012 Abramowitz Israeli Prize for Media Criticism and a close associate of Naftali Bennett – the two worked together in the office of Benjamin Netanyahu prior to the 2009 elections – Shaked is raising some eyebrows due to the fact that she, unlike Bennett, is a self-declared secularist.

Thus while Naftali Bennett is seen as taking on the old guard in his bid to become the new chairman of the Jewish Home Party, Ayelet Shaked is facing an equally difficult task in attempting to become the first secular member of Knesset for a party that was formerly known as the National Religious Party (Mafdal).  While no one doubts her strong pro-Israel credentials, not surprisingly the voices are divided within the national religious world regarding a secular candidate for a traditionally religious party.

After reading much about her in the Hebrew press, I decided to meet with her in a Tel Aviv café in order to get an up close impression of this up and coming star.

Yoel Meltzer (YM): You grew up in Northern Tel Aviv, not exactly the breeding ground for future right-wing stars.  This being the case, from where did you acquire your strong connection to many of the ideals of the religious Zionist world?

Ayelet Shaked (AS): I think originally a bit came from my home.  My mother was a teacher of Bible in Tel Aviv and my father was masoriti (traditional).  Every Saturday we went to synagogue and we made kiddush.  However, since the discussions at home tended to stay away from politics most of my political views I eventually developed myself.

Later on when I was in the army I served in the Golani and I became close friends with many religious Zionist soldiers.  This in turn strengthened my ideology.  I also spent part of my army time in Hebron and became friends with many people there, which also had an influence.  But overall most of my political views I just developed on my own.

YM: Was there any one person or a particular event that had a profound influence in shaping your world outlook and political views?

AS: Yes.  I remember when I was very young, perhaps 8-years old, I saw a debate between Shimon Peres and Yitzchak Shamir and I really liked Shamir.  So I think since then, even though I was just a child, I’ve considered myself right-wing.

YM: Before you announced your intention to run in the primaries of the Jewish Home party, did you expect the reaction your candidacy has triggered?

AS: I must admit most of the people are very warm and happy with my candidacy.  I receive many emails and messages in Facebook, people saying we support you and we’re very glad you’re with us.  They’re in favor of opening the divides and having real cooperation between different people in Israel.  I’ve also met many yeshiva students who have told me that their rabbis are very excited that I’m getting involved since they’ve been waiting for years for the party to stop being a closed one-sector party.  So overall I really believe that those who are opposed to my entering the party are a minority.

Having said that, I definitely expected there would be some opposition and I understand it.  I realize that my presence within the party makes some people uncomfortable.

YM: Have you been contacted by any of the rabbis or public leaders who are opposed to your candidacy on the grounds that you’re secular?

AS: No, none of them have contacted me directly.

YM: If one of them were to contact you, what would you say to him?

AS: First of all it’s his right and I respect that. Even though we may have different views we need to respect each other.  Nevertheless I would tell him that if we want to have a large party to the right of Netanyahu, one that is based on the Bible and Jewish values, then the party needs to be opened to secular and traditional Jews that identify with the values of the religious Zionist community.

I truly believe that if they open their heart and open their mind to cooperate with other people that share the same values, then we can have a big party.  Otherwise the party will continue with three mandates.

YM: Do you feel offended by their opposition or take it personal?

AS: No, this is politics.  I don’t take it personal.  As I told you I respect their view and it’s also a legitimate view.

YM: Given all of the above, why on earth are you getting involved davka in the Jewish Home Party?  Do you really need the headache?!

AS: I’m doing this because I believe in it.  I have many close friends who are religious Zionists and I think if we can be good friends, work together and serve in the army together, then there is no reason we should not be part of the same party.  Moreover, since we believe in the same values and hold similar opinions then I think we should go fight for them in the Knesset.

YM: It’s better to do this via the Jewish Home Party than via the Likud?

AS: It’s a dilemma.  I was a Likud member for many years.  The problem in the Likud is that every leader takes the Likud to the left.  It wasn’t easy for me to take this step.

YM: Okay, now that you’ve decided to go full steam ahead, what are the burning issues you’d like to address if and when you become a member of Knesset?

AS: The first item is to develop a strong Jewish identity in all of the Jews in Israel.  This needs to be part of the education system, not just in the religious schools but in the school of my son as well.  When Zevulun Hammer was the Minister of Education there was a specific department responsible for the Jewish identity in the schools. This needs to be reestablished.

I’m also already very involved, personally and via MyIsrael, in all the issues regarding the post-Zionist organizations and their attempt to change Israel from a Jewish democratic state to a “nation of all its citizens”.  So if I become a member of Knesset I want to be involved in hasbara (public diplomacy) in Israel and around the world in order to expose the intentions of some of the extreme left-wing organizations and stop their penetration into the country.  These organizations are involved in a wide range of anti-Israel activities such as the delegitimization of IDF soldiers, divestment of Israel around the world and aid for what they call African refugees even though most are in fact infiltrators.

Finally I’d like to encourage women to go out and work, to become involved in the business world, in public life or whatever they want.  Of course I’m only talking about women that want to do this.  I have friends who prefer to stay at home and raise their kids and I respect this.  But regarding those who want to work and have a career we need to find ways to enable this.

YM: Even if you should succeed in addressing these issues, what other areas of Israeli society need to be changed in order for Israel to become more in line with the type of country you’d like it to be?

AS: First of all I want to say that I believe Israel is a miracle and I think we’re a very healthy country.  We have a strong economy, a high level of mutual concern compared to other countries and overall there is a lot of good here.

The most important thing we need to do to make it even better is to reduce the socioeconomic gaps in the society.  This needs to be done through the education system so that a child in the periphery will have the same opportunities like a child in my Tel Aviv neighborhood.

YM: Let’s change the subject to Naftali Bennett.  After meeting a few years ago while working together in Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, when did the two of you decide to join forces in trying to make an impact in Israel?

AS: After both of us left Netanyahu’s office we tried to decide what is the best thing to do; to go back to the private sector or to remain in public life?  Personally I strongly admire the private sector and I told Naftali many times that if you can establish a big company that can create thousands of jobs, do it.  It’s one of the most important things in life to provide someone with a job.

For many months we continued debating this subject until Naftali decided that he wanted to devote his life to the people of Israel and that the best way to do this is through the public sector.  So he went to work with the Yesha Council and I returned to the private sector.

It was at this time, on the side from our new jobs, that we jointly created together the MyIsrael national movement. 

YM: What exactly is the MyIsrael movement?

AS: It’s a national movement of about 100,000 people that are mainly right-wing and share the same values and ideas.  There are so many people that want to be involved and give of themselves for various causes yet they don’t want to stop their lives.  So MyIsrael is a way, via the internet and Facebook, to activate these people for certain issues.  In many ways we’re like a large lobby group.  For instance we’ve pressured Knesset members to pass certain laws, we fought a campaign against Galei Tzahal (Israel Army Radio) and their predominately left-leaning agenda in order to have more balance in their programs and we stopped some boycotts of Israel.  Believe me, when 20,000 emails are sent to someone overseas who wants to boycott Israel he’s going to think twice.

YM: In addition to you and Naftali, who are the other members of your group that are trying to get in to the Jewish Home Party?

AS: First of all there is Rabbi Ronsky, the former chief rabbi of the IDF.  He actually hasn’t made up his mind if he wants to be a candidate but he’s very involved with us.  He shares the same views as us and believes it’s very important that religious and non-religious work together.  Naftali introduced him to me a few months ago and he’s actually the one who pushed me into this.  We’ve become very close and the three of us, Naftali, Rabbi Ronsky and myself, speak every day.

In addition there is Moti Yogev, the former Secretary General of Bnei Akiva, and Dr Yehuda David, the Israeli physician who fought for the truth in the Mohammed al-Dura story.

Of course there is also current MK Uri Orbach who was very instrumental in convincing Naftali to get involved and run for the chairman of the party.

YM: Regarding Rabbi Ronsky, is he a sort of spiritual advisor providing guidance to you and Naftali?

AS: He’s much more than just spiritual.  He’s working very hard, going to chugei bayit (parlor meetings), giving interviews and basically doing everything that I do.  Personally I really admire him.

YM: What does he have to say about all the controversy regarding your candidacy? Has he spoken to you about it?

AS: Sure, he’s spoken to me many times about the issue and he encouraged me to run in the primaries.  He’s so against the splitting up into separate sectors.

YM: What would happen if you receive a top spot in the primaries but Naftali loses in his bid to become the chairman of the party?  Do you think the party has a chance of making a real impact without Naftali as the leader?

AS: No, I don’t think so.  Without Naftali we’ll probably just get a few mandates.  Although personally I’ll still run it would be very sad if Naftali is not with us.

YM: On a technical note, what happens to the two candidates (out of a total of three – Naftali Bennett, Zevulun Orlev, Daniel Hershkowitz) who lose in the election for the party chairman?  Are they guaranteed a spot in the party or are they out of for good?

AS: They’re not guaranteed a spot but they can run in the list since the election for the head of the party is one week before the election for the rest of the list.  Therefore if someone wins by a big margin and there is no need for a second round, then the two that lose can run in the list with everyone else.  By the way, Orlev and Hershkowitz said that if they lose the election for the head of the party they’re not going to run in the list.

YM: I recently read that an internal committee of the Jewish Home Party decided to lower the amount of candidates that voters can choose in the primaries from five to three.  In comparison to the Likud primaries of 2008 where members were allowed to choose 12 candidates for a general list as well as a few more for regional spots and new immigrants, these numbers are ridiculously low.  They’re also lower than the 2008 Labor primaries where members chose between 5-8 candidates for a national list.

Why then, following the warmly received decision to finally open up the party to primaries, are they going in the opposite direction?  Do you think there are certain people that are trying to prevent your group from getting in?

AS: First of all I respect the tremendous effort of Rabbi Tropper to bring primaries to the party and I also respect the work of the committee.  However in this issue I think they made a mistake.  Although people were definitely pushing them, in the end it was their decision.  They said that it’s for the good of the party in that it will prevent the formation of internal groups.

Nevertheless, we asked for a revote of this decision since many voters are not happy with it.  Obviously most voters want to choose more than just three candidates.

YM: Let’s assume that everything goes as planned and one day Naftali becomes the Prime Minister of Israel.  If this were to happen, what would be your dream role?  Would you like to serve as his Foreign Minister?  Or perhaps Defense Minister or Finance Minister would suit you better?

AS: I think I’d like to be either Education Minister or Foreign Minister since both education and hasbara are close to my heart.  Then again, if Naftali becomes Prime Minister I think I can retire and enjoy life!

Yoel Meltzer is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem.  He can be contacted via

Opinion: The embrace

At the end of Shabbat services last Saturday, I watched a 7-year-old boy recite the blessing over the wine, the Kiddush. His voice was pure, the Hebrew, a learned language for him, flowed fast and flawlessly from his mouth. His face shone.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the boy, because I was in Mexico and had learned that just a year ago, he wasn’t Jewish. His parents had approached the expatriate Jewish community in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, and asked if they could learn about Judaism.

Yes, at a time when our community is almost 100 percent focused on the people who opt out, these people wanted in.

Last June, The Journal reported the story of six native Mexicans’ conversion to Judaism in San Miguel. When I found myself in the small, perfectly beautiful colonial town for a friend’s birthday celebration, I jumped at the opportunity to attend Shabbat services at the congregation San Miguel Shalom and see the community there for myself.

They meet for services at the Hotel Quinta Loreto,  located just off the Mercado de Artesanias, a large covered market where you can buy crucifixes fashioned from polished pewter,  papier-mache crèches, wood-carved Jesus figurines and terra cotta saints. A sloping driveway leads into the hotel, where a lush garden — and the jungle call of some tropical bird — reminds you you’re not exactly at Temple Beth Am.

When we entered, a middle-age man launched a big smile in our direction, indicated a woven basket of prayer shawls, and beckoned us to sit down. There were 40 people seated around tables formed into a long rectangle.  The Torah ark on the east wall was made from hammered tin, decorated in a familiar local style.

Most of the congregants are Americans. The prayer leader, Dr. Daniel Lessner, retired early from his practice in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and conducts the services in English, Hebrew and Spanish. The community’s president, Carole Stone, adds her cantorial voice. For decades now, San Miguel, a town of simple but unrelenting beauty, has attracted retirees, artists and snowbirds from the United States. About 20 years ago, some of the Jewish ones formed this congregation, in what they say is the largest Jewish community in Mexico outside of Mexico City.

In the past few years, at least 16 non-Jewish native Mexicans have gravitated to the congregation. Many believe they are descendants of Jews who migrated to the Americas after being expelled from Spain 500 years ago, coerced by the Catholic Church to abandon their original faith. They are called B’nai Anusim — the Children of the Forced Ones. Others have been drawn to the Jewish faith for spiritual, social or intellectual reasons.  In their experience, the more established synagogues in Mexico City do not encourage or welcome potential converts.  

But Shalom San Miguel, as you should be able to deduce by now, is very welcoming. The leaders have translated the prayer books, including the High Holy Days’ siddurim, into Spanish. Lessner, who conducts a truncated Conservative-style service, lapses easily into Spanish and invites native speakers to read passages of liturgy in translation.

“Everyone should feel at home here,” longtime congregant Charles Soberman told me during Kiddush. “It’s nice to have young families.”

That is one striking difference between the converts and the congregants:  The ex-pats are older, the generation of Judaism that was. The converts have kids. A mother swaddled her newborn baby in a colorful blanket throughout the service.  The baby was born just after the three Spanish-speaking rabbis from Los Angeles, Oklahoma City and Las Vegas flew down at the invitation of the congregation to conduct a formal conversion ceremony. For this, the new members had spent a year studying and practicing Judaism. Lessner explained that the rabbis had invested him with the power to convert the newborn upon arrival.

San Miguel is an intensely Catholic town:  “You argue with an upbringing like that; you don’t escape it,” Tony Cohan wrote in his book “On Mexico Time: A New Life in San Miguel.”

In that atmosphere, cut off from Jewish friends and family — not to mention good deli — I couldn’t imagine the kind of courage and perseverance it must have taken for the men and women who walked into Shalom San Miguel to make the choice to become Jewish.

But I did see what happens when congregations actively welcome potential converts:  At one point in the service, a young man stood to thank the congregation for helping him through the untimely death of his brother. Afterward, a newlywed lawyer who had commuted two hours from Leon, Mexico, for a year for conversion lessons, invited the whole congregation to his house to celebrate his and his wife’s one-year wedding anniversary.

And I marveled. What we so often push away, these Children of the Coerced drew close:  Judaism’s way of making sense of the world, of offering meaning, of asking hard questions and providing no easy answers, of emphasizing godly behavior over even belief in God. They need Judaism. And it needs them.

We Jews are just now emerging from what Rabbi Harold Kushner calls “a period of illiteracy and assimilation … a time of embarrassment at being Jewish.” That embarrassment only amplified our reluctance to seek, welcome and encourage converts — a custom brought on by anti-Semitic edicts, but completely at odds with a Judaism that for centuries sought out and venerated new Jews.

The opposite of embarrassment, the opposite of coercion, is embrace. Embracing new Jews was once the Jewish past. And my visit to San Miguel only confirmed what I’ve long believed: It is also the Jewish future.

Late to shul, on time for kiddush

My friend and I go to the same synagogue but almost never run into each other. “How come?” I was musing the other day.

“Well,” she said. “I only go there to pray.”

Aha! That explains it! When she’s walking out, I’m walking in.

Yes, I’m one of those synagogue goers who arrive pretty much just in time for the “Amen!” as we raise our mini plastic cups of wine before elbowing our way — er, gently sauntering over — to the food. My timing is never quite exact, of course, so there are days when I get there and my fellow congregants are still singing “Adon Olam,” the last song of the service. I’m happy to sing along — in fact, I like it if I’m in time for Kaddish and the announcements; makes me feel very much a part of things. But for shallow, antsy and kind-of-cheap me, going to synagogue means going to lunch with friends, there, in the social hall.

And how important is the quality of that lunch? Let’s just say that a tray of hummus and carrot sticks makes my spiritual aura shrink to the size of a store-bought gefilte fish ball. You could pierce my soul with a toothpick. But a glistening mound of bar mitzvah lox — the Holy Grail, as it were, of Kiddushes — maketh me skip through the Valley of Death and cartwheel over to the scallion cream cheese. It restoreth my soul and maketh my kids a lot happier about my bringing them along, too. In fact, it getteth them psyched to come again, the way a random shower of slot machine nickels getteth bubbe back to Atlantic City. And I know that I am not the only congregant who peruses the synagogue calendar to see who has a great big spread — er, great big simcha — coming up, and precisely which Saturday we are talking about.

My worry, of course, is that the Divine One is probably not thrilled with the attendee who arrives when the audience is filing out of the theater. Come to think of it, the rabbi probably isn’t, either. But I do believe there is something more than just lip service (and Tam Tams) being offered when a congregant arrives in time only to eat and shmooze. And, I am glad to say, some folks agree with me.

“Kiddush is not just a snack. The word ‘kiddush’ is from ‘kodesh,’ meaning ‘holy,’” says Elliott Katz, author of “Being the Strong Man a Woman Wants” (Award Press, 2005). (It’s also a good idea to be the rationalizing man a woman wants.) “Going just for kiddush is a lot better than not going at all.”

Hear, hear! Maybe it’s not quite as holy as actually participating in the service, but a couple of transcendent things are indeed going on, says Alan M. Singer, author of the recently published “Creating Your Perfect Family Size” (Wiley). First, he says, “It’s the central opportunity in a normal week to socialize with other Jews on a large scale, and I think that’s holy.” Then, too, consider the fact that many Kiddushes are sponsored in honor of an event, or a person.

If the event is a happy occasion, you’re joining in a celebration. It’s a mitzvah, like dancing at a wedding. But if it’s in memory of a person, just being there could be even more significant, because when you say the blessing over the wine or the bread or even the Costco celery sticks, you are adding that prayer to all the prayers being said sort of on behalf of the departed. Which somehow — I was never quite clear on this or on any part of the hereafter where our peeps are concerned — can help the dearly departed only in the afterworld. (Which we don’t believe in. Or do we?) Anyhow, it’s like the dead man given an enema in the classic Jewish joke: Even if it can’t help, it couldn’t hoit.

Then, too, adds Gigi Cohen, a Chicagoland mom of three, quoting her cousin the rabbi, who gets things going Saturdays at 9 a.m.: “If you want a one-hour service, come at 11.”

Vermont rabbi (and stand-up comic) Bob Alper agrees: Shorter services make folks more punctual. But he also reminds us of the quote from writer/publisher/convict/satirist Harry Golden, whose atheist father attended synagogue religiously: “One day he asked his dad why, if he didn’t believe in God, he went to shul. The reply: ‘Everyone goes to synagogue for a different reason. Garfinkle goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle.’”

Exactly! And if I am one of the last to arrive at synagogue, I should add that I am also one of the last to leave, because my synagogue is full of Garfinkles. I love talking to them, hearing all the news, being part of an ongoing community. If I also happen to be surrounded by bagels and lox, well, my heart opens wide.

And sometimes, so does my tote bag.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and author of the book Free-Range Kids (Wiley, 2010) and of the blog of the same name.

Stumbling through my bat mitzvah

My bat mitzvah was an unmitigated disaster.

I’d hoped the guests would be as taken as I was with my dress, first high heels and the orange and yellow petit fours at the Kiddush.

But instead, they were left with an altogether different image when I fell while parading the Torah scroll around the sanctuary. As I began ascending the modern sanctuary’s shallow steps to the bimah I tripped, badly skinning my knees and ruining that first pair of pantyhose, though I managed not to drop the Sefer Torah. What sounded to me like a huge gasp of collective horror still echoes in my head.

But that wasn’t even the day’s low point; that was more private, and yet to come.

Everything I was supposed to say in Hebrew — and it wasn’t much, three decades ago in our Reform temple — had to be transliterated into English; despite years of Hebrew school, I could not understand enough to actually read it.

I hated that day, and it wasn’t because I appeared to be the world’s klutziest bat mitzvah girl.

It took years of distance and reflection to realize that it was because the day was about making things look appropriate, not having a meaningful experience. So rather than mastering part of our central text and feeling accomplished, I felt like a fake, fraudulent and inauthentic.

I don’t often think back to that day, but when I recently heard stories from women who had the first bat mitzvah ceremonies in their communities, it made me realize just how different things should have been.

They shared stories in December at a Moving Traditions event at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. It was there, 85 years ago, that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan officiated at the first bat mitzvah ceremony in America for his daughter, Judith.

Moving Traditions is an organization focused on gender and Judaism. It runs the “Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!” program for some 4,000 “tween” and teen girls around the country, and is currently developing ways to engage boys. (The Rosh Chodesh ritual marks the beginning of a new month.)

Now the group is turning its attention to bat mitzvah “firsts,” those who were the first in their communities to mark the occasion.

“We want to understand how religion changes, and bat mitzvah is a great case study of how it does,” said Sally Gottesman, chair of Moving Traditions. “In our century it went from being a radical thing to do to de rigeur. We want to make Rosh Chodesh just as commonly accepted as bat mitzvah.”

In 1956, Carol Anshien was the first girl to celebrate becoming bat mitzvah at her Bronx Conservative synagogue.

It “gave me a sense of being someone who could challenge barriers and break through old ways,” she recalled for Moving Traditions.

In an interview, she said that her bat mitzvah “gave me a strong sense of my Jewish identity. It was definitely a doorway into having a sense of myself as a leader.”

Since bat mitzvah ceremonies are now regular rites of passage, perhaps our challenge today is to make each and every 12- and 13-year-old girl feel that celebrating hers is as meaningful as Anshien’s was for her.

Maybe my own daughters will be my family’s bat mitzvah “firsts” — the first girls to enjoy Torah-centered, spiritually engaged and empowering bat mitzvahs.

We celebrated our oldest child’s bar mitzvah earlier this year, and our son did a gorgeous job leading an uplifting Shabbat morning service. As someone who connects with prayer in a way I envy, he knows to his very core that he has the ability to be a religious leader.

I want my daughters to have that same sense as they grow. I, on the other hand, still feel too insecure to play almost any ritual role in our synagogue.

My girls’ bat mitzvahs are several years off, since they are just 8 and 6 years old. Our older daughter sometimes helps lead Aleinu toward the conclusion of Shabbat morning services at our Conservative shul, which is a sweet first step toward becoming comfortable on the bimah.

I value her budding leadership even more now that, since hearing the stories of bat mitzvah “firsts,” I understand how deeply meaningful celebrating a bat mitzvah can be.

I hope my daughters feel as connected to their bat mitzvah as Anshien did to hers. And I hope that my own experience becomes a “bat mitzvah last.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls Into the Covenant.”

Pico-Robertson Live in the ‘hood: Little sukkahs, on the hillside, little huts made of …

You rise from your 300-thread cotton sheets and walk along your Carrera marble floors through the hand-crafted French doors that give out to a spectacular patiooverlooking the city. Off to the side is a small, frail- looking structure that looks like an old hut, with palm leaves on top.

You make your way into this little hut, and you say a blessing. There is art from your children on the vinyl walls, as well as a picture of the kabbalist Rav Kadoori. Over a Persian rug is a 2-by-8-foot table with 10 folding chairs, and on a beige tablecloth sits two covered challahs, a jar of honey, a Kiddush cup, and a Chumash. In the corner there is a wooden stand with an oriental lamp, and hanging from the thatched roof are fake fruit and other decorations that your kids made.
You have entered one of the great rituals of Jewish life: The sukkah.It may also be the least comfortable.
I have eaten in sukkots in Crown Heights where rain fell on my soup. I’ve slept in sukkot and my lower back was mad at me for a week. The sitting can be tight, there is rarely enough space to move around, and if you’re in my hometown of Montreal, you better bring your scarf and gloves.
So what is it about this odd ritual that has such a hold on the people who experience it?
The first, most obvious thing is that it’s really a lot of fun. This is not a very noble thing to say about a holy ritual, but it’s true. You get to feel like a kid again, like when you used to assemble play kits, or get silly with your siblings under a makeshift tent in the living room.
Once you enter the sukkah, you feel blessed. Don’t ask me to explain this. It’s just a vibe. A glow. An energy field — you walk into a sukkah and you’re happy to be alive.
The coffee tastes better. The kugel and the spicy Moroccan fish are incredible. You sing like Bocelli. Your kids don’t get on your nerves as much. Even your shmoozing is happier; you’re more likely to bring up the new Cirque du Soleil Beatles show than the enraging U.N. representative they had on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Am I exaggerating? Of course, I am. (I’m Sephardic). But a sukkah will do that to you. It makes your heart overflow; you feel more generous, more grateful.Maybe that’s because the sukkah itself overflows. A rabbi once said that the sukkah is “the only mitzvah that you can walk into with your muddy boots.” It envelops all of you. Other mitzvahs connect to one part of the body — you eat matzah with the mouth, you put on tefilin with the hands, you read Torah with the eyes — but the sukkah wants every part of you!
The sukkah loves your beautiful voice and wonderful humor, but it also embraces your warts and wrinkles and “muddy boots.” It understands human nature: You can’t separate the good from the bad. This little hut does not discriminate.In fact, the sukkah might be the most egalitarian, unifying mitzvah of all. The origin of this holiday is agricultural — a way of thanking God for the blessings of the land. Every “species” of the land that we commemorate — the lulav (palm), the etrog (citron), the willow and the myrtle — represent, according to our Midrash, a different part of the Jewish people. Our little sukkah embraces them all.
Which makes you wonder: If something is so much fun and so magical, so overflowing with unconditional love and embracing of every part of every Jew, why are there not more Jews putting up their own sukkah? I can’t speak for all Jews, but in my new neighborhood, they embrace the sukkah like a Chassid embraces another l’chaim.
Pico-Robertson is where the sukkah rocks. You can feel it in the air. From the frantic rush to purchase sukkah kits at the local mitzvah store, to the last-minute scramble to get schach (palm leaves to cover the sukkah), to kids everywhere bringing home sukkah decorations from school, to seeing so many sukkot being put up on the front lawns, you are reminded that in this part of the world, you simply do not hide your Judaism.
And in a few days, all the sukkot of the Hood will have sprouted. If you want to see how cool this looks, you should really rent a helicopter.
But for now, just use your imagination and picture , as you fly above, hundreds and hundreds of cozy little huts speckling the landscape. Inside each of these little huts there will be thousands of songs that will be sung, thousands of blessings and l’chaims that will be made, and thousands of stories that will be told.
After you land, feel free to pop into one of these little huts — and don’t forget your muddy boots.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Sukkot: the beauty of fragility

Nine years ago, my wife and I returned home from lunch in a friend’s sukkah on the first day of Sukkot. The phone was ringing as we walked in, and since we’d only
just arrived in Los Angeles we didn’t have an answering machine set up yet. Since we don’t use the phone on Shabbat or holidays, I did nothing as it rang four, five, six times.

I had gone to lie down for a nap when the phone started to ring again. Figuring it was a persistent telemarketer, I rolled over and tried to ignore it. The phone stopped again after another five or six rings. But a few minutes later, the phone rang again. This time I was worried.

I answered the phone and on the other end of the line was my sister, an internist in San Jose.

“Grandma is in the hospital; she is really sick. You should come,” she said.
Since my sister deals in matters of life and death, I knew it was serious.
I don’t travel on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, so after I hung up the phone I walked a few short blocks to Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s home to discuss my options.

If I waited until the end of the first two days of the festival, and then Shabbat, which followed immediately thereafter, I would likely be too late. We decided that, although we observe the second day of Jewish festivals, since the second day of Sukkot has a different status according to Jewish law than the first day and Shabbat, when the first day of the festival ended that night I would take the last flight out of LAX.

When I arrived that night in San Jose, I went immediately to the hospital to visit my grandma Lillian (z”l), who was in a coma. I made arrangements to spend Shabbat in the hospital, in her room at her side, an intimacy that the stringencies of Jewish law gifted to me.

Friday night, I prayed Kabbalat Shabbat at her side and made Kiddush with her. The next morning I donned my tallit, prayed the morning prayers and studied the weekly portion to the rhythm of a ventilator and heart monitor.

That afternoon, after one of many visits to my grandma’s side, my mother, sister and I, along with other close relatives, walked away from her door toward the waiting room for a few minutes of relief. As we headed past the nurse’s station, a nurse called out, “She is fading — you should come quickly.”

We hustled back to the room. I knelt down, took out my siddur, and began to recite the Vidui — the Jewish deathbed confessional — and concluded with the Shema. Before I finished those words, she had died.

I am grateful for many things from that weekend. I am grateful for the guidance and compassion of a wise teacher and friend in Rabbi Dorff. I am grateful for the gift — as Rabbi Ed Feinstein, a teacher of mine, would describe it a few weeks later — of holding my grandmother’s hand as she slipped from this world into the next. And, as the years have gone by, I am even grateful that she died during this season, on the third day of Sukkot, for through her death she taught me the true essence of what it means to dwell in a sukkah.

Martha Nussbaum, author of a book titled, “The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy,” once wrote, “Part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability.”

Part of what gives this world its beauty, its goodness, is its vulnerability. Beauty in this world cannot be made invulnerable. We cannot be invulnerable, even though we try. We try so hard to protect ourselves, to protect our children. We build walls. We build strong, comfortable houses with roofs and heat for shelter and quiet. But we cannot be made invulnerable; we cannot keep ourselves safe and truly celebrate the beauty of this world.

On Sukkot, the time tradition tells us is zman simchateinu, the season of our joy, we dwell in a fragile hut, open to the winds and rain and cold of the world, to remind ourselves that our joy is enriched, is deepened, when we glimpse, if only for a moment, how weak and fragile we are.

Rabbi Israel Mayer HaCohen asked why it is that we celebrate Sukkot in autumn. Leviticus 23:42-3 teaches: “You shall live in booths seven days, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am Adonai your God.”

If Sukkot commemorates what God did after the Exodus from Egypt, let us celebrate Sukkot in the spring. Alternatively, if Sukkot commemorates the clouds of glory with which God sheltered us in the wilderness (as Rabbi Akiba argued in the Talmud), let us celebrate Sukkot in the summer when the clouds protected us most from the searing midday summer sun.

Why autumn?

The Chafetz Chaim answers that we were not commanded to make Sukkot during the spring or summer because that was when most people would make sukkot for shade.

Instead, we make them specifically when the rainy season begins and the weather grows colder during the fall to remind others and ourselves that what we are doing is a mitzvah, a commandment from God. This mitzvah asks us to see and feel the world in all our weakness and vulnerability. The sukkah invites us to make our home amid the elements, to experience the chill of autumn, to get damp and wet and cold. After that we can feel the true joy of having lived another year in God’s beautiful world.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

The New Year’s Sephardic Seder

It may not be as long and involved as the Passover seder, but for Raquel Bensimon, the ritualized dinner of Rosh Hashana is just as sweet and just as replete with memories.

With her husband, son and daughter-in-law, three grandchildren and the extended family of Ashkenazi in-laws and Sephardic friends, Bensimon puts on a traditional dinner that takes guests back to her native Tangier, Morocco, which she left in 1961.

The festivities start with kiddush on white wine, not red.

“Everything is light and happy and sweet,” says Bensimon, a longtime active member of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. “We don’t put salt on the table, just sugar. On the first day of Rosh Hashana we don’t even drink coffee, because it is dark.”

After Hamotzi, the blessing on the challah (in some customs before Hamotzi) comes the parade of “Yehi Ratzons,” blessings of “May it be God’s will,” said on foods that are symbolic sometimes because of what the food represents, and often because of a play on words.

The one most familiar to American Jews is the apple dipped in honey, for a sweet new year. Among Moroccan Jews, a candied quince usually plays the part.

But while Ashkenazi customs begin and end with the apple — and perhaps a fish head — the Sephardim have kept up a much longer list.

That list makes its first appearance in the Talmud, with pumpkin, fenugreek, leek, beet and dates, which commentators assumed were included for their abundance and thus a symbol of prosperity. Other commentators took the concept further, playing on the double meanings the names of the vegetable could have.

The list was codified in many later halachic texts, but fell out of popular use among Ashkenazim, while Sephardim expanded those lists.

Today, many Ashkenazi households are once again adding the colorful customs, probably due in part to the fact that the widely used Machzor published by Artscroll includes the full list of simanim, symbolic foods.

While the order and customs of the simanim vary among Sephardic communities of different origins, many are similar.

A pomegranate symbolizes plenitude, with the hope that the mitzvot performed over the coming year should be plentiful. Bensimon says her family mixes the pomegranate seeds with sesame seeds and anise seeds.

A date, which in Hebrew is a tamar, is eaten with a benediction asking God that Israel’s enemies be consumed and that sinners vanish from the earth, both using the Hebrew word “tamu,” similar in root to tamar.

The “ruviah,” which could be fenugreek, black-eyed peas or string beans, tie into the word “yirbu,” multiply, with the prayer that merits should increase over the new year.

The leek is known in Hebrew as “karti, ” which is similar to the word for cut off, “karet,” imploring that God cut off enemies of the Jews.

Similarly, “silka,” which means either beet or spinach, is similar to the Hebrew word for disappear — symbolizing the prayer that our enemies disappear.

Using words from the Rosh Hashana prayers, “Kera roah gezar dineinu,” may the evil decree be torn up, pumpkin or gourd are eaten, playing on the Hebrew “kra.”

Based on the same phrase, Ashkenazim also have the custom of eating carrots, “gezer,” similar to the word “gezar,” decree.

Another custom that has been maintained among both Ashkenazim and Sephardim is that of eating part of an animal head, so that we may be the head and not the tail. Among Ashkenazim the head of choice is usually that of a fish, which also represents plenitude. Among many Sephardic communities, a sheep’s head is used, also symbolizing the ram that took the place of Isaac in the story of the binding of Isaac, which is read on Rosh Hashana.

Bensimon says in Morocco her family also used a lung, symbolizing the breath and spirit of a New Year, although she has not seen that practiced in America.

Bensimon and other Moroccans usually make a vegetable soup out of all the vegetables mentioned in the simanim, along with other winter vegetables, just as on Passover they have a vegetable soup with all the spring vegetables.

Along with the soup, Bensimon prepares a sweet dish of cous cous, vegetables, pumpkin and raisins with a cinnamony, candied onion sauce.

In Morocco, cous cous was the meal of celebration, much as turkey has become a traditional holiday food among Americans, Bensimon says.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple is also trying to keep the Rosh Hashana seder alive. He circulated among his congregants a list of the simanim, along with explanations of why these foods are relevant and how they vary among the different Sephardic communities.

“We hang on to our traditions,” Bensimon says. “As Americanized as we’ve become, when it comes to the holidays, we go back years for traditions.”

Jewish Art Makeover

A women’s tefillin set with a beaded velvet box and blue satin straps.

A silver "Kiddush" cup in which ceremonial wine passes through a delicately crafted silver net formed from the Hebrew word for "blessed."

A sukkah with brightly painted walls made of the long, plastic

strips found in industrial-sized refrigerators — and furnished with stools and a mirrored table symbolizing the self-reflection expected during the High Holy Days.

This is not your parents’ Judaica.

For years, Jewish ritual objects and Jewish fine arts have occupied very different domains.

Ceremonial objects, mostly produced by artisans, often mimicked traditional styles and — while beautiful and useful — were not necessarily cutting-edge artistically.

Jewish fine arts pieces, in contrast, have generally been more about aesthetics and ideas than ritual function.

But partly due to the encouragement of several Jewish institutions, numerous Jewish and non-Jewish artists are using their skills and creativity to reinterpret items used in Jewish worship.

"There’s more blurring of the lines between art and functional Judaica," said Susan Braunstein, curator of archaeology and Judaica for the Jewish Museum in New York.

The Jewish Museum recently created a staff position focusing on "contemporary ceremonial art," and is seeking artists who are "working within tradition but pushing the boundaries," Braunstein said.

The Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion recently marked the seminary’s 125th anniversary by inviting 153 artists to create "contemporary and innovative works of Jewish ceremonial art," according to the catalog for the resulting exhibition.

Since 1994, the Spertus Museum of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago has sponsored biennial competitions focusing on specific ceremonial objects. The Jewish Museum San Francisco also sponsors competitions for Jewish ritual objects.

A new national project — called "Avoda: Objects of the Spirit" — reaches out to young Jewish artists with workshops in which they create avant-garde ceremonial objects.

Spertus — which gets 150 to 180 entrants for each competition — has offered prizes for Torah scroll covers, Chanukah menorahs, seder plates and Havdalah spice boxes, and has created exhibits of the top pieces. The next competition will be for mezuzot.

"The people who designed them are not just artisans; they’re architects, they’re designers and, as a result, the pieces we receive are extremely unusual and avant-garde, even ones where they’re basing the designs on traditional ideas," said Olga Weiss, Spertus’ curator for special exhibitions.

In the HUC exhibit — which will become a permanent feature with rotating artwork — pieces included Torah scrolls, tzedakah boxes, spice boxes for Havdalah, mezuzot, seder plates, matzah covers and chuppot, or wedding canopies.

The new pieces experiment with a variety of materials, ranging from fabric, gems, wood and silver to old Jewish National Fund tins and — in the case of a Miriam’s cup, for a new feminist Passover ritual — a pomegranate skin.

Many also offer a modern spin on Jewish rituals.

For example, an embroidered and painted matzah cover created by Judy Chicago of New Mexico — who is nationally known for her feminist art — has images of three women in the hagaddah, personalities who generally don’t get a lot of attention in the retelling of the "Exodus" story. A sukkah has wooden chairs painted and decorated with objects that symbolize biblical heroines such as Esther and Sarah.

A feather and candle for use in checking the home for foods that cannot be eaten during Passover sits in a silver tractor reminiscent of those used on kibbutzim.

While most artists created new versions of existing ritual objects, some developed pieces for new rituals.

Ayana Friedman of Jerusalem created "Deborah’s Throne," a chair covered with crimson velvet, for baby girls to sit on during the simchat bat, or girls’ naming ceremony, a relatively new ritual. Friedman, who also created the blue velvet women’s tefillin, describes the piece as "the feminist response to the ‘Elijah’s Throne’ on which baby boys are circumcised."

Michael Berkowitz of New York made a large purple and black paper cut amulet to protect those around it from "madness" and depression.

"The artists are not trying to replicate and simply reiterate the forms of the past, which is what you basically find for the most part in a lot of high-priced Jewish shops," said Jean Bloch Rosensaft, exhibitions director for HUC.

"They’re trying to make Judaica that speaks to the consciousness of our own time."

Berkowitz, 48, whose work has appeared in a variety of Jewish and secular venues, sees his interest in Jewish art as part of a larger trend of artists "going back to their roots as inspiration." He grew up attending yeshiva and, as a child, wanted to be a rabbi until he became more interested in art.

"For me, the impulse has always been the same," he said. "I’ve seen being an artist as something of a spiritual guide between the divine and the mundane."

It has not always been so easy finding a niche for his work.

While the symbols of other faiths often make their way into fine arts pieces, Berkowitz said, "there’s a big resistance to people looking at anything with Jewish calligraphy or Jewish symbolism as being anything other than Judaica. And the Judaica audience is very traditional and resists anything that looks too different."

However, he said, that is starting to change.

Alyssa Dee Krauss, 38, of Leeds, Mass., who created the "Kiddush" cup with the silver netting, welcomed the HUC exhibit for its "contemporary and more updated questioning of traditional practices."

"There’s a little pushing of that edge, of contemporary accepted standard ways of doing things," Krauss said. "Whenever I see that, I’m always excited."

Both HUC and Spertus distributed reference materials on Judaism and rituals in order to help guide the artists — who range from those working primarily in Jewish themes to those who have little Jewish education to those who are not even Jewish — in reimagining the objects.

The Jewish Museum, which is approaching some Jewish and non- Jewish artists, is developing a guide that will explain Jewish ritual objects to artists, craftspeople and industrial designers not familiar with the requirements of the rituals.

The new HUC pieces range in price from $75 to $75,000 — many of which are being purchased by synagogues and individuals.

"Apparently there’s a demand for something that’s a little different," Weiss said.

Finding Their Way

Her husband, Christopher, a pianist and composer, agrees.

“Sometimes, when I play at Jewish weddings, I have to explain to them that the kiddush should come before the motzi, the blessing of the bread.”

Like most converts, the Hardins take the precepts of their adopted faith more seriously than many born to it, and they display an intense hunger for knowledge, as if to make up for what they missed during their childhoods.

The Hardins were among eight Jews-by-choice who spoke at recent services at Valley Beth Shalom; they brought along their infant son, Benjamin, to receive his Hebrew name.

Jennifer, a professional singer and actress, was raised in a largely secular home in Bakersfield but was baptized as a Lutheran at age 12. By her late teens, she started to question various dogmas of Christianity and defined herself as an agnostic.

In her mid-20s, she moved to Los Angeles and befriended a Jewish family, who invited her to a seder.

“I had never experienced a holiday so deeply, with such profound symbolism and emotions,” she says. Turned on, Jennifer started visiting different synagogues, enrolled in University of Judaism classes and read books on Judaism.

She hadn’t known one Jew in Bakersfield, but, in Los Angeles, “I started hanging around Jewish people, though I felt somewhat self-conscious about it,” Jennifer says.

She met Christopher on a “Love Boat” cruise to Alaska, where she was performing as a singer and he as a member of the band. When their relationship became serious, Jennifer told her husband-to-be that she was considering becoming a Jew.

Christopher, who had grown up in a Lutheran home, told her, “I would be supportive, but I had no wish to convert.”

His attitude changed when their daughter, Calah (Hebrew for bride), was born. “I felt that she would need some spiritual guidance and that I wouldn’t be able to give it to her,” he says.

Christopher attended his first Rosh Hashanah service, conducted by Temple Judea, and, while listening, experienced an “eerie feeling of connection,” he says.

Encouraged by Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea, the couple enrolled in the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism. The six-month course, taught by Rabbi Neal Weinberg, has served as a beginning to advanced training program for thousands of born and aspiring Jews for more than 30 years.

“The course was very intense,” says Jennifer. “In six months, we had to absorb 4,000 years of history, Jewish rituals and holidays, and Hebrew prayers.”

Classes ended with an extensive examination, which students had to repeat until they got all the answers right.

(Sample question: List in order, starting from the fall, the Jewish holidays on the Jewish calendar. Explain the meaning of each holiday. List some of the symbols or objects associated with the holiday.)

Jennifer passed the test on her second go. Christopher says proudly, “I nailed it on the first try.”

Next came the hearing before the beit din, a three-person rabbinical court; immersion in a mikvah; and, for Christopher, a symbolic bris (he had already been circumcised).

After some shul searching, the Hardins settled on Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Jennifer sings in the temple choir, and Christopher serves on the Jewish Music Commission.

“We feel very comfortable and have encountered some of the kindest people we’ve ever met and who share our values,” Christopher says.

They fondly remember their initial contact. “When we first came in, we asked Rabbi Jerry Danzig, the executive director, if there were any programs for converts,” Christopher said. “He said there weren’t any, adding, ‘You’re as much Jews as I am.'”

There are some collective sorrows, such as personal ties to Holocaust victims or the sting of anti-Semitism, that lie outside the Hardins’ own experience, Jennifer acknowledges.

“We just feel an incredible sadness,” says Jennifer, who adds, “We would rather be with the persecuted than the persecutors.” — Tom Tugend