LimmudLA honors founders


LimmudLA honored its founders, Linda Fife and Shep Rosenman, in an evening of dinner, music and study on Sunday, Sept. 9, at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens.

LimmudLA is the local outlet of an international model of interdisciplinary, interdenominational, no-boundaries Jewish conferences and events. Founded in the United Kingdom more than 30 years ago, Limmud now conducts 60 conferences in 30 countries, all of them almost entirely run by volunteers.

Fife and Rosenman conceived of bringing Limmud to Los Angeles about seven years ago, after they participated in a Limmud conference in New York. They rallied volunteers and funders and five years ago held the first conference in Southern California over Presidents’ Day weekend, with close to 700 participants converging at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa. The conferences have continued there each February since then.

In 2013, however, LimmudLA plans to forgo its annual marquis conference, instead holding smaller, local events ranging from cultural to academic to family-oriented.

“We’re trying to be localized and organic to the communities where we’re doing different events,” said Yechiel Hoffman, executive director of LimmudLA, the only paid staff member. “Rather than taking people out to Orange County for an event, this gives us a way of being able to provide different options and different access points where people are.”

More than 400 volunteers have stepped up for LimmudLA since its inception. Hoffman said about 120 people are currently active volunteers. LimmudLA plans to hold a multi-day event next summer and is aiming to put on the full conference again in the winter of 2014. 

About 175 people came to honor Fife and Rosenman at what was LimmudLA’s first gala fundraiser. The organization met its goal of raising $75,000. 

The event featured music, text study and an examination of Jewish narrative. Rather than a plaque, Rosenman and Fife each received the newly published Koren Talmud, Tractate Brachot, and rather than a traditional acceptance speech, they staged a musical collaboration that had the audience responding to Rosenman’s “oom-pa-pas” and “ba-da-das.” Fife said it was, like LimmudLA, an example of volunteers stepping out of their comfort zones to produce something meaningful.

Breaking down classroom walls with resilience theory


Why is the summer’s poetry slam on the loss of the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple) seared into our educational memories, while the details of yesterday’s Jewish history class can hardly be recalled? Why do the ultimate messages of pride and unity felt at the end of a massive color war ring deeper than silently reading what Rambam has to say about the topic? Schools have the tremendous opportunity and privilege of accessing and serving students for a longer duration and often in more depth than camps, Shabbatons, youth groups etc. … and yet informal learning venues are overwhelmingly cited as fun, remarkable places while school is something students may begrudgingly attend.

In a different world, frilly coral colonies, like swirls of tulle, run down the east coast of Australia. Considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is the mother ecosystem, the marine equivalent of the world’s largest city. By all accounts, due to the increase of greenhouse gases, the acidification of the ocean and bleaching of coral, the coral should be gone. Wiped off the face of this earth. Yet it is still here, largely still glimmering its majestic colors. How? Ecological resilience. An organism or ecosystem is deemed resilient when it meets three criteria: it undergoes a tremendous change or shock but retains the same essential structure and function; it is capable of self-organization; and it can build and increase its capacity for adaptation and learning. The coral has recovered from major disturbance and, further, has largely continued to develop and reproduce.

Resilience theory is a perfect paradigm for producing students who are engaged with the subject matter and strengthened in their Jewish identities. Camps, Shabbatons, service learning, youth groups and other forms of education offer a dynamism and urgency that’s often missing from classrooms. Current parochial schools risk system collapse (read: apathetic, unengaged students) by not offering dynamic programming. Yet we can harness the best elements of these programs to create powerful experiences at the day school level, inside the classrooms.

How we do so is a fundamental question of building resilience, and it starts with creating a hybrid between what is traditionally referred to as “informal” and “formal” education through experiential education. (Let us also dispel the myth that experiential education is learning under a tree, or something of that nature. We are not discussing peppering every few lesson plans with an activity. Rather we are in the practice of making the topic come alive, of the students discovering their role within the topic.)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wisely said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Our education systems should not be solely focused on memorizing the information to sufficiently pass the test. Rather, it is to create that longing of which Saint-Exupéry speaks, to discover one’s self inside the information, to make that information part of the fabric of one’s identity. Information is not only retained this way, it is tangibly felt.

What would a classroom look like through the lens of resilience? For one thing, it would be multisensory. I ran a program for a synagogue in Montreal on Jacob robbing his brother Esau (a hunter who is characteristically rough and hairy) of his birthright blessing from their blind father Isaac. As the portion goes, Rebecca gives her preferred son Jacob advice on how to obtain the blessing. We blindfolded a few students who were “Isaacs” so that they could experience “blindness.” A few of the girls in the room were “Rebeccas” who gave half of the students, the “Jacobs,” twine (representing hair) to wrap around their arms and candy (representing the meat). The “Esaus” were given a dash of strong cologne and a different candy, and were told to speak gruffly. The “Isaacs” had to guess which group received the brachah. By utilizing the powerful elements of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell, the participants were fully engaged and had significantly more to contribute to our discussion afterward. By enlivening the senses that frequently lie dormant in educational activities, we are involving the whole student, and creating a deeper connection to the material.

A resilient classroom includes multiple methodologies. With the economic recession continuing to rage on, many schools have had to grapple with difficult decisions of hiring and firing. Again, ecology can provide a model for maximizing efficiency. One of the most innovative ideas in resource sustainability today is rice paddies in India that are used both for growing rice and breeding fish. Same resources being used, double the output. No waste.

Working off this model, knowledge generated in one classroom could be used in another, and experiences and sharing best practices should be openly encouraged. Let’s creatively look at the diversity of educators we have in schools to double the educational gain. Let’s encourage cross-pollination. Are the English teachers consulting the art teachers? Is the drama teacher asked to help run an exercise on enacting the receiving of the Torah from Sinai?

Perhaps more importantly, are the students themselves—the ruach (spirit) or student government committees, that master doodler in the back row, that chronic texter on the right—co-opted into the curriculum planning stages? Are students encouraged to dream up shiurs, lesson plans, exercises for their class? Want to really get students to master material? Put the onus of facilitating the class’ learning on the students themselves. Make them the teachers. Guiding this process is important. Proper attention to framing the learning and clear objectives should be shared. Such an approach would herald a watershed moment for Jewish education.

The backbone of experiential learning is a student-influenced inquiry process. Project-based learning and peer-to-peer learning in day schools serve as powerful tools for making this happen. These approaches are at the core of experiential education and, by their very design, promote collaborative classrooms and self-agency—hallmarks of educational resilience. The most successful classroom activities provide students with a clear context and mirror real-life tasks, encouraging students to build expertise. The tasks are collaborative, complex and require examining from multiple perspectives and disciplines. Inherent in the project or learning activity is the opportunity for students to reflect on their beliefs and values. Most importantly, the result is not predetermined; the door is left open to multiple possible outcomes.

Resilient classrooms consider changing the physical settings and routines of the class by adding or rearranging things. They are dynamic by moving away from rote memorization and toward textual experiences that place the learner in the text. Underlying an activity I ran in which students build a community out of cookies were the questions: What elements and characteristics are essential to a community? What makes a community successful? What do I want my community to look like? Students had more thoughtful comments to contribute toward our conversation on community once they had to physically construct their own communities.

Sara Smith incorporated these ideas in a lesson on gleaning, based on the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, which she taught to eighth graders at Pressman Academy. She had students glean, using pennies to represent crops, tapping into the emotions and realities of an impoverished person’s lifestyle. Students were told they were so poor that their only option for feeding themselves and their families is to go to someone’s field and pick up crops that workers had dropped. Three students were selected as workers in the field and given hundreds of pennies to scatter across the room. The remaining students picked up the pennies, but could do so only one at a time. The motivations of the collectors and workers were discussed during the debriefing of the activity. Jewish laws pertaining to these concepts were explained. Smith said, “They were able to understand the complex dynamic between the owner of the field and his workers, as well as their relationship with the poor who came to glean on their field.”

An ecosystem’s dependence on a single type of support, and similarly a classroom’s usage of one type of source, creates vulnerability. The experiential classroom’s lifeblood is drawn from multiple disciplines. Diversity in content presented provides multiple venues for students to connect with the topic. Educators should make and encourage the making of wild connections. Showcase the Maasai tribe in Africa, graffiti art, ancient philosophy, current events, popular video games and comics. Bringing in diverse ideas, cultures, etc. can further be strengthened by presenting students with rich choices that enable them to cultivate their own strategic and narrative immersion. Smith’s gleaning activity discussion could have brought in texts from agricultural revolutions, other points in Jewish history or law that address the hungry, or included how other religions give to their poor.

Resilience thinking is as much about withstanding disturbances as it is about using those events to ignite renewal and build a deeper sense of self. Building resilient Jewish identities and values is achieved when students are presented with meaty conflicts. The best way to enact this is by making classrooms challenging for each student via project-based learning, peer-to-peer learning, stimulating activities, probing questions and dynamic texts. Resilience in day schools emphasizes flexibility, a wide variety of disciplines, methodologies and content. It encourages us to anticipate, adapt and transform in light of unforeseen disturbances and champions adaptability and persistence. By implementing these strategies we can build resilience in our school cultures, our classrooms and, most importantly, on an individual level, with the students we serve.


Amanda Gelb works in the fields of experience design, Jewish education, museum consulting and spatial design. She is the creator of the Million Museum Project. Gelb is a proud member of the first cohort of Experiential Jewish Educators who received certification from Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

Opinion: Save the Academic Decathlon


In a city where some of the very rich are willing to pay $1 billion-plus for the bankrupt Dodgers baseball team, why can’t anyone spare $500,000 to support an Academic Decathlon program that brings luster to the often criticized Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)?

Unbelievably, funding for the annual Academic Decathlon, which pits high school students against their peers in a test of wits and knowledge, would be eliminated in the cuts proposed in the worst-case budget approved by the LAUSD board. 

These cuts are planned unless teachers agree to four-day unpaid furloughs or voters support a parcel tax, an additional tax on property. Among the other cuts contemplated are the closing of all adult schools and abandonment of afterschool programs and English-as-a-second-language classes. Thousands of teachers would be dismissed.

News of the contemplated death of the Academic Decathlon program came out just as the Granada Hills Charter High School team won the 2012 California Academic Decathlon on March 19, its second consecutive win, completing a grueling period of preparation — with some sessions lasting eight hours a day — studying history, music, physics and math, learning to answer questions orally as well as on paper. LAUSD schools have won the state title 18 times since 1987, and 12 national titles.

I find it a bit suspicious that Superintendent John Deasy and the Board of Education would pick on the Academic Decathlon program in the midst of the budget crisis. Its cost is a relative pittance; its pluses are huge. Threatening to eliminate something so valuable sounds like a familiar LAUSD budget scare tactic.

“Every year, they go to the same filing cabinet and bring out the same old cuts,” said former school board member and teacher David Tokofsky. He’s the father of L.A.’s Academic Decathlon competition, starting the string of national and state victories with his Marshall High School team in 1987.

But let’s assume Deasy and the school board are not bluffing, that they’d really be willing to sacrifice this adornment to the school district to save a few dollars. Is there an alternative?

I talked to Tokofsky about raising money from private sources. He agreed with me about the availability of rich potential donors. He noted that some of them, and their foundations, are already putting money into the district to promote their own ideas of school reform, including paying salaries of some administrators they like.

There are others he figures would be willing to help. “There are really famous rock stars from Garfield and Banning and other schools,” he said. “There are athletes. We are so busy beating up the system that we don’t celebrate the people who could help us. We should hunt down the alumni who have the most romantic views of their schools. They’re out there, yet nobody is harvesting them.”

Tokofsky gave me a rundown on the approximately half a million dollars a year needed to finance the competition. The money goes for coaches, supplies, travel and food for the competitors, and salary for the official who administers it, Cliff Ker. Coaches, who are teachers, saw their extra pay cut this year from $5,000 a year to $2,800. Coaches work with the teams two or so hours daily at first, then five, six and even eight hours a day as competition nears.

“It’s very hard to find coaches,” Ker said. “It’s a lot of work, there is a lot of turnover — we have between 20 and 25 coaches leave each year, about a third. They are dealing with very bright kids, some more motivated than others, requiring many hours of study with very few tangible results until it is over. It has to be a very special individual who is dedicated, can put in the time, [is] disciplined, kind of a whole bunch of John Wooden clones,” said Bruins fan Ker, invoking the name of the famed late UCLA basketball coach.

“Part of my job is to get donations,” Ker said. “David [Tokofsky] has helped me. But the most we have raised in a year is $100,000. Recently, we have raised [only] $50,000 a year. I have gotten leads, but I don’t know whether it is my [lack of] fundraising skills, or I’m not connected, but I have only been able to raise that $50,000.”

The district could help more. The Academic Decathlon makes headlines during competition time, but Deasy and his media staff could turn themselves into John Wooden clones and do much more.

The high school students and their coaches bring something positive to a district flooded with gloomy news about test scores, labor management disputes and investigations into a few perverted teachers. And now, with the stroke of a pen in their bureaucratic hands, Deasy and the school board are threatening to kill something so good.

Los Angeles can’t leave it up to them. We’re loaded with rich people — film executives and stars, athletes, Midas-touch financiers, developers, etc. They give to museums, universities, charities, foundations and political campaigns. Synagogues, churches and many other causes. A small portion of this wealth should go for LAUSD’s amazingly successful Academic Decathlon teams.


Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Technology leading the way to lower-cost day school education


The nondenominational Pre-Collegiate Learning Center of New Jersey doesn’t have a math teacher. The East Brunswick school instead relies on experienced math tutors who help students work through an online math curriculum relying on outside sources.

At Baltimore’s Ohr Chadash, a Modern Orthodox primary school in its first year, students receive iPads beginning in the fourth grade to do more online and group work.

“The things the teachers ask us to do for work are fun,” said 9-year-old Nili Hefetz, a fourth-grader at the school. For example, using Adobe Ideas, Nili and other students draw pictures on the iPads inspired by the Chumash (Bible) lessons.

“The idea was to incorporate technology into the school in a seamless way,” said the school’s president, Saul Weinreb. “It became a way of doing things both in education and administration.”

It’s also a way to save money.

With tuition that can reach $30,000 or more per student, the day school tuition crisis has spurred a search for new options and given rise to a new breed of day schools where technology and blended learning—mixing traditional classroom learning with online education—are reducing costs.

“In the general world, online and blended learning is becoming a wave of the future,” said Rachel Mohl Abrahams, a program officer at the Avi Chai Foundation in New York.

PCLC opened in the fall with 20 students in grades 8 to 11. Its director, Lauren Ariev Gellman, predicts that in 10 to 15 years, all schools—public and private—will have an online component.

“Everybody is going to move in this direction,” Gellman said. “It would serve Jewish schools well to get ahead of the curve. And bring the costs way down.”

Tuition is just $5,000 at the PCLC. The blended learning style has allowed the school to save in a big area: faculty. It employs only two full-time administrators and only part-time teachers. Teachers assign lessons from online curricula, such as math and science lessons from Khan Academy or language lessons from Rosetta Stone, and then provide individual help while students work at their own pace.

The Judaic studies curriculum is more traditional—simply because the resources are not there yet. Two of the classes, however, are run over Skype with a teacher in Israel and students participating from four or five other yeshivas.

Volunteering is also helping to keep down costs at the new schools. At Ohr Chadash, where tuition is $8,400 this year, each family is required to volunteer 25 hours per year. Nili’s mother, Shayna, is co-president of the school’s PTA and volunteers as an art teacher. Other parents have volunteered with office work, on field trips and as lunchtime supervisors.

“We try to utilize parent volunteers as much as possible,” Shayna Hefetz said.

Going paperless also has meant major cost savings, which Weinreb estimates at a few hundred dollars per student. And a budget oversight committee comprised of people otherwise unaffiliated with the school first approves every expense and ensures that budgets are planned around only existing money, not future fundraising. The methods can frustrate administrators, Weinreb acknowledged, but keep the budget in check.

Volunteerism is the main model for keeping down costs at The Jewish Cooperative School in Hollywood, Fla., where 2011-12 tuition ran $7,500. Technology does not play as central a role in the Modern Orthodox school, but as at Ohr Chadash, the administration requires the parents of its 23 students in kindergarten through second grade to volunteer several hours a month.

“I’ve found parents really enjoy being involved in the education of their kids,” said Janessa Wasserman, one of the school’s founders and a parent of two students there. “And the kids really love it.”

Hannah Shapiro, whose 7-year-old daughter, Aliyah, attends second grade at the school, volunteers by putting out a weekly newsletter for each grade, as well as helping once a week in the classroom.

“I love to be involved with my kids’ education, so I try in any way possible to get involved,” she said.

Shapiro says that since Hannah started at The Jewish Cooperative School this year, she jumps out of bed in the morning excited about school.

“It’s like a home for them,” Shapiro said. “It’s something special.”

Avi Chai has provided grants to three of the blended learning schools, including PCLC and Ohr Chadash. The other school is Yeshivat He’Atid in Bergenfield, N.J. Overall, Avi Chai is aware of eight blended learning schools that either opened this year or plan to open next year, from California and Texas to Maryland and Massachusetts.

The concept has started drawing attention from other funders, too.

Determined to figure out new, sustainable ways to ensure that all Jewish parents have the ability to send their children to affordable, high-quality day schools, a group of philanthropists in the New York area formed the Affordable Jewish Education Project, or AJE, earlier this year. The group began with an open mind but honed in on the concept of low-cost day schools, said its executive director, Jeff Kiderman.

“There’s more to them than just their low cost,” he told JTA. “We saw this as a tremendous opportunity to innovate in the world of Jewish education by promoting educational improvements and affordability improvements at a time when our community really needs both.”

AJE discovered several low-cost schools throughout the United States that either recently opened or are in development, but Kiderman noted that there was little connecting them to each other. That’s the role AJE hopes to fill, he said, by creating a network for the schools to share best practices and resources.

Tuition savings at the lower-cost schools can range from 30 percent to 40 percent on the elementary level and 50 percent or more in high school, according to Kiderman. The schools focus on a mix of technology and volunteerism to keep costs down.

Kiderman calls PCLC a “classic example of a school trying to find available, innovative educational models that they can share with the rest of the country.”

The school is “constantly re-examining what they are doing and constantly trying to improve it. That’s what everybody should be doing,” he said.

“This is absolutely the future of education,” said Rebecca Coen, founder and head of Yeshiva High Tech, a Modern Orthodox Los Angeles high school scheduled to open in August with 40 students in ninth through 11th grade and tuition set at $8,500.

Distance learning has been around for years and Jewish schools are actually playing catch-up in online education, Coen said, noting that advances in non-Jewish education often take several years to filter down to the Jewish educational world.

While the students work on online lessons, teachers will rotate from group to group to provide support when needed.

“It’s possible in the same classroom to have ninth-grade students working on ninth-grade English, 10th-grade students working on 10th-grade English,” Coen said. “You can have AP in the classroom, and they can all be working simultaneously with the same teacher because the teacher is no longer the primary source for curriculum delivery.”

This may result in larger class sizes, Coen said, but teachers will “actually spend more time with each student than if they’re standing in front of the classroom.”

Halacha is just a click away at online yeshiva


You can buy tickets online, get a college degree online, so why not attend yeshiva online?

Enter Web Yeshiva, the first real-time Torah center whose second semester begins May 6 with signups at www.webyeshiva.org. Sure, there are thousands of Web sites devoted to Jewish subjects, and plenty of podcasts that offer lectures on Judaism -the “ShasPod” even offers the entire daf yomi of daily Talmud learning loaded on an iPod – but “The Jewish People’s First Online Yeshiva,” as the Israel-based online program calls itself, offers real classes through web conferencing for people around the world.

“There are many people who would like to study Torah but aren’t doing so on a regular basis – either because no relevant classes are given in their communities, work schedules, or whatever,” said founder Rabbi Chaim Brovender. “Then there are people who attend shiurim in a passive way without internalizing the message. But Internet learning provides an option that enables more and more people to involve themselves in committed Torah study.”

This semester, 46 weekly classes are being offered, including Talmud, Bible, Halacha, Jewish business ethics, and a Hebrew Ulpan for beginners. Access to one class is $75 per semester or $250 for unlimited access to all classes. Students are offered access to archives of all classes, 24-hour a day technical support and access to all WebYeshiva blogs and podcasts as well as a daily video on Halacha.

Like other virtual learning and videoconferencing, Web Yeshiva students see and hear each other and the instructor in the virtual classroom. Students must log on at a set time (as opposed to some virtual learning, where lectures are posted for students to read anytime), and they can see the texts being studied on the left side of the screen, and watch the videos and chats on the right.

The only question for yeshiva students is — how do you cut class?

The seminar of a lifetime


As we stepped off the bus into McPherson Park in the middle of Washington, D.C., many emotions flooded through our minds. We were scared, we were nervous, but mostly, we were excited. McPherson Park was only a couple of blocks away from the White House. There was much irony in this situation. The park is often filled with many homeless people, and the fact that the White House is down the street shows the class gap that unfortunately exists in our nation.

Our mission that day was to bring the homeless some toiletries and food. Since we had leftovers from lunch, this was a perfect way to put that food to good use. Our only instructions were to approach the homeless in groups of no less than three, and no more than five, and, most importantly, we weren’t there just to give them the items, but to strike up a conversation.

In March, along with 18 other Milken Community High School 10th grade students and three faculty members, as well as teens from schools across the country, we participated in the Panim-el-Panim (Face-to-Face) program. Panim-el-Panim is a program of Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values, a Washington, D.C., organization that helps teens experience political activism and civic engagement in the context of Jewish values and principles.

From the moment we stepped off the plane at Dulles Airport, we knew that this trip would not be another eighth grade sightseeing tour. We were there to make a difference, and we were ready for an adventure. Neither of us had ever been involved in any sort of political advocacy program, yet we were both very passionate about different issues presently happening in the world that needed attention.

The Panim-el-Panim program introduced us to a number of different ways to voice our opinions and raise important issues. We became more educated about the political system, seeing firsthand how laws are enacted and how issues are presented to our elected officials. Who knew that 20 teenagers from Los Angeles could help make a difference in the world?

When we first arrived at the program, our director emphasized that we are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders of today. Even though we were only high-school students, these simple words gave us the motivation we needed to start brainstorming our ideas into concrete proposals that we would soon be able to deliver to our area Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles].

The whole program was geared toward the congressional meetings that we were to participate in on the last day of our four-day trip. The overall topic for the program was civil liberty. We first spent hours gaining knowledge through seminars about this subject so that we could incorporate our learning into arguments that we would present to Rep. Waxman.

Milken was joined by about seven other Jewish groups from around the country, making our trip a social event, as well as a political and educational one. We were able to interact with other Jewish teenagers, some of who shared many common ideas, but some of who had very different opinions, which only enhanced our learning experience.

Every day, multiple speakers taught us the importance of civil liberties and discussed with us the many injustices occurring around the globe. The reality of injustice was brought home to us in the “street Torah” program. That afternoon in McPherson Park, we connected by sharing stories and our sandwiches. The life stories that the homeless told us were extremely moving, and the joy that they received from one turkey sandwich and a toothbrush was immeasurable.

The night before our “street Torah,” we met with two members of an organization that helps get homeless people back on their feet again. This experience with the homeless, as well as other social justice issues, culminated with our lobbying activities with Waxman and Michael Hermann, his staff assistant. They both were very pleased to hear the opinions of our group and were impressed that at our young ages we were well aware of the global issues. They both mentioned that they would certainly take into account the issues we addressed.

The group chose issues such as the rocket attacks in Sderot, Israel, homelessness and bringing peacekeeping troops to Darfur. The terrible suffering and, indeed, the genocide in Darfur is an issue we were very familiar with, having studied it in school and raised money long before we traveled to Washington. On our program, we lobbied for United Nations peacekeeping troops that would hopefully be able to contain the violence and bring about peace in Darfur and the surrounding areas.

Before this trip to Washington, we were never very interested in politics, primarily because we thought that we would not be able to voice our opinions. The Panim-el-Panim program taught us that it is important to keep our elected representatives aware of what issues are important to teenagers, the next generation of voters. We now know that we can make a difference.

Chelsea and Hayley Golub are in the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.

Speak Up!
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Variety of books pave way for understanding kabbalah


Historically, rabbis have proclaimed that in order to study kabbalah, one has to be a learned Jewish man older than of 40. So imagine how surprised those rabbis would be today if they could peruse a modern bookstore: There are now a plethora of tomes on the subject, making kabbalah available to the layperson — male, female, Jew and non-Jew — the dummy and idiot alike (which is it better to be?).

The orange “Complete Idiot’s Guide,” the yellow “For Dummies” and the white “Everything” series all have come out with guides to Kabbalah, contributing to the pop phenomenon of making the topic as ubiquitous as the Ten Commandments.

Four new books (certainly more are on the way) all promote the idea that Kabbalah is now ready for mass consumption, and the old prohibition against the layman’s studying is past its prime. The books, each with their own graphic elements — illustrations, pull quotes, diagrams, glossaries, cartoons, etc. — attempt to explain kabbalah to the novice:

  • “More and more people are reaching out in search of something on the spiritual and emotional level that will make real and permanent difference in their lives,” writes Gabriella Samuel in “The Kabbalah Handbook: A Concise Encyclopedia of Terms and Concepts in Jewish Mysticism” (Penguin, 2007). The handbook, a more than 400-page tome, defines kabbalistic terms to serve as a reference book for those studying and practicing kabbalah.

    The alphabetized encyclopedia provides English, Hebrew and transliterated terms, from “Aaronic priesthood” (one priestly family line) through “The Zohar,” (a holy radiance and the title of the principle text of Kabbalah, circulated in the 13th century by Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who claimed it was an ancient manuscript. Author Samuel is a teacher, artist, musician, clinical psychologist and the founder of the Asheville School of Kabbalah in South Carolina; she has studied kabbalah for more than four decades with her Chabad rabbi.

    While it is intended as a supplemental text, maybe, like the new “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” this encyclopedia can serve as crib notes for those hot kabbalah parties you’ve never attended. Or, conversely, it can help you with actual study of kabbalah.

  • “All of this concern about who should study Kabbalah and who should not arose because people feared that mystical studies could pose a danger to a person, emotionally, psychologically and even physically,” says Mark Elber’s “The Everything Kabbalah Book: Explore This Mystical Tradition — From Ancient Rituals to Modern-Day Practices,” which also includes a technical review by Rabbi Max Weiman. “Since the study of Talmud is a rigorous mental activity, the restrictions mentioned here were essentially ways of ensuring that those engaged in kabbalah studies came to them with a lot of stability in their lives (and being married and 40 years of age might ensure a certain emotional groundedness in the student).”
    This book has 20 chapters, covering topics including the history of early Jewish mysticism, as well as reincarnation (“[Rabbi Issac] Luria [a famous kabbalist from the 16th century known as the “Ari”] believed … a soul would keep reincarnating until it has fulfilled this mission for which it had been brought into the physical realm in the first place”) to (“the sublime holiness doesn’t rest on a person if he’s too attached to the physical”) to Kabbalah in the 21st century. And has graphic elements such as facts (important sound bytes of information), essentials (quick handy tips), alerts (urgent warnings) and questions (solutions to common problems).

    One of the best parts is at the beginning, the “Top Ten Kabbalistic Insights,” such as, “There is no place where God is not. God fills and transcends all universes (No. 1)” to “Where your consciousness is, there you are. Your consciousness (kavana) makes all the difference (No. 5).” These are kabbalah’s equivalent of the Ten Commandments, though we probably won’t find them posted on the wall of any courtroom any time soon — no matter how popular kabbalah becomes.

  • It’s not often you hear someone defending Madonna, especially not for her front-and-center Kabbalah Centre advocacy (and there are many who would link her career’s downfall to her religious transformation as Esther), but Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil includes a boxed-off paragraph near the end of “Kabbalah for Dummies,” one of the best of the introductory books. “She certainly isn’t one of the greatest kabbalists in history, but Madonna, the enormously gifted singer, actress and show business personality, has probably done more than anyone in the world in recent times to make the word ‘Kabbalah’ a familiar one,” he writes. “Madonna doesn’t represent herself as a master of Kabbalah — she’s never claimed that. What she has claimed, however, and what I respect her for, is that she’s interested in Kabbalah.”
    Kurzweil, a kabbalah teacher and author, is a descendant of three revered kabbalah teachers: Rabbi Chaim Yoseft Gottlieb (1790-1867), Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630) and Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572).The “Dummies” book is divided into five basic parts: kabbalah basics, the core of kabbalah (the world is in need of repair and the human soul is eternal), the practice of kabbalah, essential skills (study and prayer) and important figures, historical moments and myths in kabbalah. (It’s quite smart to put these factoids at the end, instead of weighing down the opening of the book with all the factual information.) This book has a sense of humor: Each section is prefaced with a humorous cartoon (“Who barbeques in a succah?” a woman yells at her husband near the charred remains).

  • The goal of kabbalah is “to help you make, and sustain, direct contact with the Creator,” writes Rabbi Michael Laitman in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Kabbalah,” co-authored with Collin Canright, (Alpha, 2007). “Kabbalah states very simply that when you know how to connect to the Creator directly, without any go-betweens, you will find the inner compass, a guiding light that shines no matter where you are,” he writes. When you do master it, “you will need no further guidance.”
    The “Idiot’s Guide” is divided into four parts: the history, the principles, your personal life and Kabbalah in today’s world. It highlights factoids using “definitions,” “words of heart” and quotes: “You have not a blade of grass below that has not a sign above, which strikes it and tells it, ‘grow,’ Midrash Raba.” “On Track” provides practical tips: “Don’t bother with your next spiritual degree, the Creator has prepared it for you. Work on completing your work at your present degree and the Creator will take you to the next level.”
    There’s also fun “Kab-trivia”: One of the most famous groups of kabbalists, the Kotz group of Poland, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel, once tried switching the days to see how it feels. They “moved” the Sabbath (Saturday) to Tuesday and behaved accordingly. They decided that it made no difference, as long as they all did it together.
    “Red Alert” cautions: “The teacher’s role in kabbalah is very subtle. The teacher must direct the student away from him and toward the Creator. There is no way a person can avoid the attention and admiration students shower on a teacher, unless the teacher has already transcended the ego and entered the Upper World.”

Most of the intro books take pains to debunk many of the myths about kabbalah, such as the use of “holy water,” buying an expensive Zohar set for good luck, the need to wear a red string — practices popularized by the Kabbalah Centre, the Los Angeles institute that is largely responsible for taking kabbalah mainstream.

But here’s the thing about kabbalah for the layman. Even if Kabbalah is packaged for “Dummies,” “Idiots” or “Everyone,” even if these books use cute comics and graphics and sidebars and subheads and catchy chapter heads, they all are trying to explain a very difficult subject. What kabbalists call senior — the 10 essential essences, the soul, the world to come, our relationship to the Creator, the Creator’s relationship to the world — all are heady subjects, challenging to comprehend, no matter how pretty the package.

Hebrew course piques Iranian Jews’ interest


“You teach me Persian, and I’ll teach you Hebrew,” quipped Rabbi Hillel Benchimol to the crowd.Nearly 150 Iranian Jews of various ages had gathered at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills on Oct. 29 for the third session of a free five-week crash course in Hebrew.

Also known as “Read Hebrew America,” the course has been picked up by nearly 700 synagogues in North America during last 10 years through the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), a nonprofit organization based in New York. The objective is to promote Hebrew learning among American and Canadian Jews who have lost touch with their Jewish identities.

While this is the first year Nessah has participated in the program, its leaders said the free Hebrew course has attracted more than 600 local Iranian Jews to its first three sessions.

“I was really amazed that so many people from this community really want to learn Hebrew and reconnect with their heritage,” said Benchimol, who has been teaching the 90-minute classes on Monday nights since Oct. 15. “You don’t typically see this large of a turnout for Hebrew classes from the Ashkenazim.”

Ilya Welfeld, a spokesperson for the NJOP said her organization was “extremely pleased with the large response” they have received at Nessah. On average, roughly 20 to 80 people attend the “Read Hebrew America” courses in the United States.

Surprisingly, the majority of individuals in attendance for the classes at Nessah were between the ages of 50 and 70. They said they wanted to learn Hebrew because they had been unable to do so previously, due to the difficulties of trying to re-establish themselves in America during the last 25 years.

“I like how people of all ages from our community are here and wanting to learn Hebrew,” said Eliza Ghanooni, a 20-something resident of Beverly Hills. “I think Persian Jews are generally more traditional and have a stronger connection to Judaism.”

A small contingency of younger Iranian Jews were also in attendance and said they had come because they want to speak Hebrew fluently.

While the Nessah class was often sidetracked by individual questions and comments, Benchimol kept the group’s interest by making the group laugh at his witty comments and his efforts to pronounce odd Persian-language words.

“When you’re learning Hebrew, you’ve got to have fun with it, and we’re trying to keep it a light-hearted environment so people will want to come back,” Benchimol said.

A number of non-Iranian Jews visiting Nessah said they were impressed with the excitement Iranian Jews had exhibited in the Hebrew class, and as a result would continue to take the classes at Nessah.

“I’m here to improve my Hebrew because my bar mitzvah is coming up soon, and I want to be able to read from the Torah better,” said Yuji Hasegawa, of West Hollywood, who recently converted to Judaism. “Iranians are loud, but it’s good to see so many of them interested in learning Hebrew.”

Benchimol said after the remaining two sessions of the Hebrew classes are completed, Nessah plans to offer more advanced Hebrew language classes to adults in the coming months.

For more information on the “Read Hebrew America” courses offered at Nessah, call (310) 273-2400 or visit visit http://www.nessah.org

People of the Book Essay Contest


As part of the American Jewish University’s Celebration of Jewish Books Festival, students in first through 12th grade submitted essays answering the question: “Jews are the people of the book. What does that mean to you today?” The editorial staff of The Jewish Journal selected four winners — one from each age group — to receive a $250 Borders gift card, as well as a $1,000 donation to their school. We received hundreds of submissions in the form of stories, poems and artwork. It was a difficult decision, and the four winning essays below represent just a small sampling of the great work submitted.

Grades 1-2

Jews Are The People of the Book

by Flora Handler, Second Grade, Temple Israel of Hollywood

I think “Jews Are the People of the Book” means that we are not violent or mean. We are peaceful and loving. God had a book many years ago called the Torah. God was visiting all sorts of religions, asking them if they wanted the book. Every time God asked if they wanted the Torah, the religion asked what was in it and God said, “not to kill.” The religion said, “We kill all the time.” So God asked the next religion. They asked him, “What’s in the Torah?” “No Wars” said God. “Oh, we have wars all the time.” God went to the Jews next and asked them if they wanted it. They did not ask what was in it, but they answered “yes!” We are now under God and will always have a piece of God in our hearts!

Grades 3-5

People of the Book

by Ryan Croutch, Third Grade, Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School

When I go to the synagogue, and they take out the Torah, it makes me feel like I was alive thousands of years ago. It feels like I’m in the desert wandering for 40 years, singing the “Mi Ca Mocha” with Moses. I am grateful for Moses. I think he was the best leader the Jewish people ever had. He freed the slaves from Egypt, and gave the Jewish people the Ten Commandments, The Book. I am one of the “People of the Book,” because it came from my ancestors, and I know our stories, I do mitzvot, and I follow the Torah’s laws.

The Torah has the Five Books of Moses. The words of Torah are powerful. I would give up anything, for example, a baseball game, to chant the words of the Torah. I would be grateful if I had the chance to go up on the bimah, and read from the Torah. When I read the Book, I feel special. If it wasn’t for Moses, and for my ancestors we wouldn’t have the Torah, the Book of the Jewish people, today. Moses, like the many Jewish Leaders who followed, was a risk-taker. I hope to be one too, one day. I would love to be God’s messenger. I am related to all of the Jewish leaders and all of the people of the Torah. I am proud to be a Jew and a person of the Book.

Grades 6-8

Jews Are Known as “The People of the Book”

by Maya Ben-Shushan, Sixth Grade, Hillel Academy

Jews have always been known as the People of the Book. This is right in many ways — the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, and that Torah has been passed down from generation to generation. The commandment to study the Torah has always been a foundation of the Jewish people, and has been upheld for thousands of years. Continued study has taught us that we can never learn it all, and the fact that we are still trying to understand the Torah can explain the love of the written word, which every Jew feels.

The Book is not only the Torah, however, but every source of wisdom you can imagine. Over the generations, Jews have been prevented from working at many different trades and professions, and were forced to develop certain skills in order to survive in a world, which did not like them. These skills had to be skills of the brain and the mind, because the Jews could not be farmers or blacksmiths and so on. As the Jews had always been studying the Torah and the Scriptures in depth, they were well-equipped to develop professions, which required mental strength. They became doctors, scientist, musicians, authors and philosophers. It is a fact that many of the major prizewinners over the years — and even until this very day — are people who regularly study Gemarah and Torah, and these studies help to sharpen their brain all the time.

It is interesting to be in Israel and to see the amount of bookstores that are always full of people. They even have book fairs and most people buy many books regularly during the year. In America, most Jewish schools have their own book fair, and this also helps to keep the love of books awake and living in all Jewish kids.

“People of the Book” — not only is it about The Book, but it is about the love of learning, the search for knowledge, and the quest for creating a better world for future generations. In other words, tikkun olam. This will only come about through using wisdom, our soul, our spirit, and our brain, and these are certainly helped by permanent study.

Grades 9-12

L’dor va Dor: From Generation to Generation
by Tess Neumann,
12th Grade, New Community Jewish High School

Riga, Lithuania
1897

Raising pint-sized ‘People of the Book’


To harried modern parents, few things sound more luxurious than a quiet weekend away — no cell phones, no televisions — with a pile of unread books. To the vast majority of their children, few things sound more torturous. It’s not that modern-day kids don’t enjoy reading. Most do. It’s just that an abyss of high-tech alternatives and jam-packed daily schedules have left them unlikely to discover that reading offers a world of excitement that could put their Xbox 360 to shame.

Nevertheless, as academic demands become increasingly grueling and college admission requirements increasingly stringent, strong reading skills might be more important to kids today than ever before. Studies consistently show better readers get better grades. Reading is, after all, the very heart of education. Reading enriches the imagination, builds vocabulary, teaches grammar and makes students better spellers and writers. If our kids are going to thrive and succeed in our fast-paced, achievement-oriented society, they need to be proficient readers.

So what’s a 21st-century parent to do? Pile on the after-school tutoring? Threaten that the kids will lose their instant messaging privileges if they don’t finish their reading assignments?

Perhaps the philosopher Epictetus put it best: “If you wish to be a good reader, read.”

There never was and never will be any other way.

In celebration of Jewish Book Month, here are some suggestions for fostering critical literacy skills and igniting a lifelong love of reading in your child:

Give Reading a Prime-time Slot

Regardless of how much kids like to read, they won’t read if they haven’t any time to do so. By setting aside twenty minutes or so every day (right before bedtime usually works well), we provide our kids ample reading opportunity while sending the message that it’s an activity worthy of their precious time.

Check the Reading Level

When children take on books beyond their proficiency level, they can become rapidly disheartened. To determine whether a book is too hard for your child, have her read the first page aloud to you.0 If she stumbles over more than five words, put it back on the shelf and help her make another selection.

Enlist Hollywood

Seeing a story on the big screen (or a small one) can provide just the spark kids need to pick up the book version. Flicks like “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “Harry Potter,” “Harriet the Spy” and “Stuart Little” are sure to have your little stars hitting the library in no time.

Entice Them With Glossy Pages

Kids needn’t peruse classics to reap the benefits of reading. Magazines that zero -in on children’s passions — from skateboarding to fashion- – can inspire even the most reluctant readers to start flipping pages. Techno-savvy kids can pull up favorite magazines online at sites like Sports Illustrated Kids and Time for Kids.

Create a Library on Wheels

Propensity toward carsickness aside, keeping a supply of books in the car will turn all those idle hours in traffic into valuable reading time.

Turn Them on to Books on Tape

Listening to a book on tape while following along in the real thing gives struggling readers (or those who simply want to tackle a book that’s beyond their reading level) an opportunity to enjoy the story without getting bogged down by difficult words.

Money Talks

In addition to your child’s regular allowance, provide a small allotment exclusively for reading material. Even if all your kid can afford is a paperback book or magazine, you’ve helped your cause.

Start a Parent/Child Book Club

This hot new trend in book clubs offers benefits galore, ranging from heightened reading skills to multigenerational bonding.

It’s in the Bag

Stash some books in a tote bag and pull them out whenever you and your kids get caught in a holding pattern. Whether waiting at the doctor’s office or a restaurant, your children will be thankful to have books to bust their boredom.

Add ‘Book Night’ to Your Chanukah Traditions

Reserve one night of your Festival of Lights this year for family members to exchange hot reads. Spend the rest of the evening enjoying your new books together. Make your gift last all year long by tapping Family Reading Night as a weekly tradition.

Read to Your Kids

For kids who are learning to read — and even those who are old pros! — it’s always a treat to listen to a book. Use expression and intonation as you read to encourage your kids to do so on their own.

For more information, visit
Sports Illustrated Kids: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.timeforkids.com.
Find out everything you need to know about organizing your own parent/child book group at:

Are school trips worth the cost?


  • Sixth-Grade Trip to Catalina: $400
  • Senior Trip to Poland and Israel: $4,000
  • Educational Value: Priceless

Milken Community High School 11th-grader Rebecca Suchov considers her elementary and middle school trips to Colorado, Arizona and Washington, D.C., — and any number of local weekend retreats — as some of her most formative experiences, so she expected a lot from her four months in Israel with Milken last spring. But she never anticipated just how lasting the impact would be.

“Before I left, my mom told me I’d come back changed, more mature, and I thought ‘OK, whatever.’ But I never felt so much more grown up, or so much more alive, like I know what is going on with the world. I feel like a completely different person,” said Suchov, who was one of 40 10th-graders to participate in Milken’s Tiferet Israel Fellowship in the program’s inaugural year last spring.

That response is just what educators are looking for when they offer students out-of-classroom experiences to augment what they learn from lectures, projects and textbooks. Those trips — ranging from a few nights of local camping to pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., to overseas travel — have become part of the curriculum at most Jewish schools and at other independent schools.

“Families are going to Jewish day schools because they can get these kinds of experiences,” said Larry Kligman, middle school director of Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. “There is no question that the kids are more confident, that they have a stronger Jewish identity and that the classroom experience is more beneficial for them because they have these trips, these journeys and adventures.”

But the trips also pose challenges to schools and families. Schools often subsidize the trips and offer assistance to families who can’t pay, but for parents already struggling to pay day school tuition — ironically, cutting their own travel budgets, among other areas — trips bring added pressure, especially with everyone-else-is-going guilt from kids. And administrators concede that some families opt out of the trips because of cost — anywhere from $100 for a Shabbaton to thousands for an Israel trip — widening the economic divide already present in schools.

Other trips are selective, bringing only a small group, leaving others behind and perhaps resentful. Some parents also complain that the educational content on some of these trips is minimal.

“The bottom line that we have to be asking ourselves is: Does it fit into our curriculum? Is it something the family could do on their own or something the school can uniquely provide? And is it something we can offer at a reasonable cost? And that — the reasonable cost — that has become an issue, as far as I’m concerned,” said Barbara Gereboff, head of school at Kadima Academy in West Hills. “I want to make sure we are not falling into this trap of taking trips because everyone else is doing it.”

Gereboff said she and her staff are opening up a conversation about exploring less costly, more local alternatives to the Washington, D.C., or New York trips her middle schoolers take.

Kadima and the newly merged Kadima-Heschel West Middle School won’t be doing away with the trips, she emphasized. Like most educators, Gereboff sees great value in kids learning in a hands-on, natural context, and in building bonds with each other and with staff in a way that doesn’t happen in the school building.

“Is it a luxury? Absolutely. But given the range of luxuries these kids are exposed to, I think it’s a good one,” said Madeline Levine, a Marin County psychologist and author of “The Price of Privilege” (HarperCollins, 2006). “Even though it does require financial scraping for most of us parents, I think it is a better place to spend our money than on more hors d’oeuvres at the bar mitzvah. Most parents and kids spend resources on stuff — material goods — and I like the notion of spending money on an experience that is enriching in some way.”

In fact, taking kids out of a homogeneous middle-class environment can be good for suburban kids, says psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (Scribner, 2001).

“I think our students in L.A. are a little bit bubble-wrapped, and so these trips give them an opportunity to wet their feet in life a little more,” Mogel said. “My experience in talking to kids is that they love these things, and one of the reasons they do is because they are kind of nature- and culture-deprived.”

Lina Suchov, Rebecca’s mom, says she jumped at the chance to have Rebecca go on Tiferet, which included intensive classroom study, interaction with Israeli teens and their families, and trips all over Israel. Having seen her three children — now 16, 17 and 20 — go on school trips through Milken and Heschel, Suchov is sold on their value.

“All the trips were a culmination of their studies, so it made a lot of sense to put into practice the concepts they had learned,” Suchov said. “I really believe in experiential learning — they come away with a good sense of purpose of the trip and how it applies to their studies, they make new friends, they see their teachers in a casual environment, and they get used to the idea of separating from their parents,” she said.

Most schools start trips in fifth or sixth grade, with local adventures that involve camping or a science component and usually cost in the range of $200-$500.

Kadima sends its fifth-graders on a science-oriented trip, such as Astrocamp. Seventh-graders in the newly merged middle school will take a social studies trip to New York — a change from Kadima’s usual Catalina camping trip. Students will get that outdoor experience, including challenging hikes and a few days in tents, on a sixth-grade science adventure in Washington state.

“We want them to try things they never thought they could do and come out of it feeling empowered,” Gereboff said.

A group of Kadima-Heschel West middle schoolers visit a sister school in Israel every year. Eighth-graders go to Washington, D.C., and spend months before the trip researching the sites they visit so they can serve as tour guides for their peers.

Gereboff said that trip will be on the table as the school explores whether kids might get the same benefit from a trip in the American Southwest, for example.

That would be a tough trend to buck, since eighth-grade trips to Washington or Israel have became standard in most Jewish day schools.

Heschel, in Northridge, used to offer eighth-graders the opportunity to go to both Washington and Israel, on an exchange program with a sister school in Tel Aviv. For kids who opted for both, that meant missing three or four weeks of school and paying $5,000.

So in the last few years the school has beefed up the East Coast trip with stops in New York and Philadelphia, and asked eighth-graders to choose between Israel and East Coast — an approach that so far has been successful, according to middle school principal Kligman.

At Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park, eighth-graders traditionally go to Israel at the end of the year. Last year, parents had to pay only $600 for the trip, because of a fundraising concert and other efforts.

At some schools, the kids do much of the fundraising on their own.

“It teaches the kids honesty and responsibility,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, head of school at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, where eighth-graders raise money for their Washington, D.C., trip by selling challah and flowers at carpool line every Friday, running a snack bar after school, and countless other small fundraisers. A percentage of the money they raise goes to charitable causes.

Even with the fundraising, eighth-grade parents are usually left with a bill of more than $1,000 at Hillel, and up to $2,500 at other schools. Some kids contribute their own babysitting money or savings, and schools often offer payment plans and scholarships where necessary. Others roll the price of the trip into tuition. Occasionally, a few administrators admit, kids end up not going because it costs too much.

The stakes are even greater in high school.

Shalhevet’s senior trip to Poland and Israel costs $4,000, with aid available. New Community Jewish High School takes kids to Israel.

YULA tries to achieve the bonding and memory building at a lower cost. Last year, the senior boys went river rafting on the American River and visited San Francisco. The boys earned money for the trip by building sukkahs and running the student store. To cover the rest, the kids contributed $100 for the trip — a sum administrators felt the boys could earn themselves without having to tap into already taxed parental funds.

Milken Community High School holds trips for every grade, and often specific language, science or social studies classes take other trips. In addition to weekend Shabbatons, freshman go to Yuma, Ariz., and other grades go on rafting trips, exchange programs with schools in Tel Aviv or Mexico City, or social justice trips, such as to post-Katrina Mississippi. For the past few years in April, a growing number of seniors have been traveling to Israel and Poland with thousands of other teens from around the world to take part in the annual March of the Living.

“We see this as an exciting, engaging and educationally fruitful way to get our students into their Jewish identity and Jewish learning, and to bring the outside world into relationship with their Jewish identity,” said David Lewis, dean of student life at Milken. “This gets the kids off the hill in Bel Air and gets them into the real world.”

For kids who don’t like to or can’t travel, local options are usually available.

Mogel, who next year will publish her book about teenagers, “The Blessing of a B-” (Scribner), says that a graceful way out is important for kids who are not developmentally ready to take on a big camping trip or the commotion of an Israel trip.

“Our new philosophy of education is ‘the more, the earlier, the better,'” she said. “Better to think about readiness. For many students, these school trips provide a vista broader than their usual haunts, exciting opportunities and lifelong memories — but so can less-glittering adventures.”

Can we can the homework, please?


The unlikely candidate


I’ve always admired investment banker/doctor/accountant/lawyer/teacher/artist-types those who’d set their paths out early on and pursued their objectives outright
I, on the other hand, have had a seemingly somewhat … unexpected career path.

Since graduating college (with an English degree) I’ve changed jobs on average every two years. I’ve worked in media, nonprofit, consulting and even finance. I’ve considered an MBA, an MSW, the LSATs; I’ve been a junior this, a senior that, a teammate, a leader, a student, a freelancer, a mentor, a consultant and a peon. I’ve bookmarked mediabistro.com and hotjobs.com, and my resume is typically updated.

And at each point that I’ve begun a new job — and new job search — I grieve, I deny, I regret, I celebrate, I cling and, eventually, I let go. Then, I chalk it up to life experience.

The process is at once thrilling as it is exhausting. It’s also strangely familiar.

See, my love life has followed a somewhat parallel track.

By the time I started dating, most of my peers were also already well into their relationships. So while they were eventually settling down, I was first learning how to be a girlfriend.

I’ve been exploring my opportunities ever since.

Problem is: Unlike prepping for eventual retirement, at some point, we stop being too green.

Sometimes — like when I’m juggling too many half-committed plans, and I really just want to go home — I’ll reflect on some peers, and I’ll envy their peace of mind and seeming satisfaction.

It’s never been intentional, but I’ve dated assorted beaus for weeks, months even years. I’ve had heartbreaks and have broken hearts. I could go months alone or date constantly; I’d stay focused for periods, but experience life’s inevitable blips, followed by the required recovery period.

To me, mere satisfaction — in job or life — has always meant stagnancy. But, as we all know, the interview process is exhausting. Besides being on your best behavior, you’re subject to constant judgment. Confidence is imperative, and things are often not as they seem.

Plus, while what’s up-front might rock your world, it may be only part of what you’re seeking; a person may seem ideal, but the timing isn’t right; you might be willing to “compromise” (or sacrifice) some characteristics but not others. You may, simply, not be in love.
And so on.

“Mere” satisfaction seems increasingly appealing.

But I wonder if and when the interviews will really end?

True, most candidates eventually land some kind of job. They’re typically imperfect, but some just enjoy the steady income/benefits until something better comes along; others will be satisfied — awaiting vesting and plaques and anniversaries. Many do it for their family. For some candidates, the search concluded years ago. For others, it lasts years.

And the more baby announcements I get, the more I’m reminded that I’m still in the early rounds. For now, my family still consists of … myself.

I’ll admit that as I get older, spending weekends in Home Depot and on play-dates seems less appealing. But that’s not to say that spending my time arranging my own play-dates (and writing these articles) are my end-goals.

I still go home not to change diapers, but rather to obsess about my too many plans for the week. I can be lazy or hyper. I can date or be single. I can grab last minute drinks or hit the gym. It’s my choice.
With this admirable freedom, however, come shackles of the unknown — from which I may never break free.

Yes, each of my breakups has engendered more self-sufficiency and direction. It’s also made me increasingly both selective and open-minded. I can more easily identify what I do and don’t want and remain willing to explore.

A few years ago — after over-working as an underling, I took a position with more reasonable hours. I soon outgrew my position, but the job market bubble had burst. I started stressing about wasting my time, wanting to know exactly where I’d be in five years.

At some point I, too, would like to know the joys of marital spats and family vacations. I’d like to experience why people get wedding-obsessed. I want to use my vacation days for a vacation with someone special.

More than ever, I envied my directed peers.

I wanted a life-plan.

Ultimately, I followed my heart, using my spare time to pursue my hobbies, volunteer and write. I also had my longest relationship to-date.

And when we broke up, I found a job I finally adored, but not before considering moving abroad, joining four sports leagues and tearing a ligament.

Alas, seems to me, my life plan is not having one.

From a romantic standpoint, I have opportune experiences that inspire and educate.

But the blips all too often throw off even my unplanned plan. (Luckily, details like this don’t typically show up on resumes.)

So years after my first peon job, and at the wings of an overwhelming yet rewarding new one, I am finally perfectly more-than-merely satisfied.

Sure, I wake up earlier than I’d like, but I get to travel and love what I do. Plus, I finally have my very own office.

The notion of a long-term stint is both thrilling and unnerving, and it’s hard to say whether this will be the last place I’ll ever work.
But while I’m fairly certain I’ll always go for the brass ring; it’s the platinum one I’m really waiting to be sure about.

D. Lehon is a freelance writer living in New York City. She can be reached at dlehon@yahoo.com.

Wanted: 20-something year-old JJ seeks SJF or SJM (20s-120s) for romantic, funny or poignant columns about finding -- and losing -- love in L.A. and environs. Open to all ages and interests. If you can wow me with your story, insight and writing, send your column (850 words), name and contact info to singles@jewishjournal.com; put SINGLES in subject line. No Phone Calls Please.

Everybody’s kosher surfin’, surfin’ USA


Joe Veroba had a vision of starting a kosher surf camp for Orthodox teens, to teach them the beauty of surfing and of Judaism.

A native of Long Island, he lived for surfing and for Judaism, and he traveled the world — Hawaii, Costa Rica, France — surfing the amateur circuit, but he didn’t attempt to become a professional because he was observant.

A few months after he made aliyah, in 2000, he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and, four years later, died at age 35.

Veroba had a close friend and fellow surfer, Ari Shoshtain, with whom he had dreamt up the kosher surf camp idea, and after Veroba died, Shoshtain decided it was finally time to realize that goal in his friend’s memory.

Last summer, Shoshtain, 34, started JoeV Surf Camp, a five-week sleep-away camp that includes both Torah study and a spiritual approach to surfing. In the first summer, 11 high school boys attended, surfing in Santa Monica and living and studying Torah daily in Pico Robertson.

This summer, JoeV Surf Camp will expand to include a girls’ program, though their activities will remain separate from the boys activities. Shostain hopes to enroll between 10 and 15 ninth through twelfth grade boys and the same number of girls.

A typical day at JoeV Surf Camp begins with morning prayers, then campers move to the morning surf session, which includes a land and water lesson provided by a Santa Monica-certified instructor (one instructor per four campers). Then it’s afternoon prayers with rabbis, kosher lunch and an afternoon sports activity and study session.

After dinner and evening prayers, the kids have a chance to go out for evening activities. During the nine days — the period of mourning for the Temple’s Destruction, when swimming is prohibited — the kids will go hiking in Yosemite.

“When you’re out in the water, when you see the sunrise or sunset, and when you see how small you are in comparison to the massive water, and the current and waves, it humbles you,” Shoshtain said. “Everything in nature connects you to spirituality, if it’s done properly.”

“The Torah talks about how a person has to keep himself fit and healthy; a person who exercises will feel better,” he said.

JoeV Surf Camp is not the only nature/adventure summer camp aimed at Orthodox teens; there’s also Teva Adventure, which offers outdoor hiking and travel adventures every summer (“Explore what nature has to teach us about Judaism and what Judaism has to teach us about nature,” the Web site reads.) And Camp Kanfei Nesharim has two programs for Orthodox teens; one to New Zealand, Hawaii, Australia and California; the other to Chile, Argentina and Costa Rica.

These summer adventure programs are not the first to offer sports activities to Orthodox kids — most summer sleep-away camps do. But they are new in that they are aimed at the Modern Orthodox teenager who wants something more than the standard two-month away-from-home experience in the mountains, with a little more adventure than that offered by traditional teen tours of the United States and Israel.

Observance and Torah study is at the root of all these programs.

“There’s no reason you can’t mix tradition with extreme sports,” Shoshtain said. “Kids need to be occupied. Torah is a great way, but a lot of kids are not into the standard way of learning and teaching. If you use those activities to show them the spiritual end of it, I definitely think it will bring balance to everything they’re doing.”

Torah adventure camps are a way to provide secular activities to children who often come from sheltered environments, closed off from the rest of the world.

“In this day and age, a lot of the outside world has crept into the Orthodox community, and there’s a higher demand to counter it.”

The way to counter it is through learning Torah, he said, but you have to pique kids’ interest, not just explore Ancient Babylon.

“When you mix Judaism with other activities, with things that are fun and cool, and you are able to do that in a kosher way, it shows them you can be frum, learn, surf, have a good time,” Shoshtain said.

That’s what Joe Veroba believed: “Be confident with your heritage and be strong with Judaism.”

For more information, visit joevsurfcamp.com/home.html

www.kanfei.com/

http://www.tevaadventure.org/ta_main.shtml

Islam in the Hood


Is Islam a religion of war or of peace? Is it both? How did it start? What are its connections to Judaism?

These and other questions lit upmy house the other night as part of an unusual Torah salon that has been gracing the Pico-Robertson neighborhood for the past 10 years.

It was started by writer and film producer David Brandes and has been informally called the Avi Chai group, after the Avi Chai Foundation (which until recently supplied the funding).

What’s unusual is that this is a group of 20-25 mostly unobservant Jews, many of them writers and filmmakers, who like to go very deeply into Jewish texts. For many years, the class was led by a scholarly Orthodox rabbi and author, Rabbi Levi Meir, whose approach was to dissect the many layers of an original Torah text by delving into Rashi and other classic commentators.

In other words, it was your basic hard-core yeshiva class for Hollywood hipsters.

I participated in several of these salons over the years, and I can tell you it is a sight to behold bright, hip Jews who haven’t spent a minute in a yeshiva take on a Torah scholar on the microscopic difference between two interpretations of a text. Put a black hat on the men and make the whole thing in Yiddish and you wouldn’t be too far from Mea Shearim.

What I also find remarkable is that many of the same people have been coming back, month after month, year after year. I find this remarkable because their deep attachment to Judaism has little to do with their level of observance. They have not chosen a religious lifestyle, which would obligate them to learn regularly. They are learning about their religion, rather than learning how to become more religious.

And as you’ll see, they are very adventurous in their learning.

Lately, under the tutelage of Rabbi Abner Weiss, the class has expressed a greater interest in history and theology, including how Judaism compares to other religions. The class the other night was the first in a three-part series on Islam.

After it was over, there was a strange silence among many of the participants. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to wake up my kids, or that my mother’s desserts had sucked up their attention.

There was a sense that we’ve all been cheated. Not by the class — which was electrifying — but by the lack of serious reporting in the general news media about history and theology.

People were wondering: Why do we rarely hear about the history of Islam, about the role that wars and coercion played in its conception, about how the prophet Muhammad felt slighted by the Jews of Arabia, and about the many similarities between Islam and Judaism?

In an hour and a half, we gained more knowledge on Islam than in 1,000 reports of any major newspaper or news broadcast.

Did you know that according to the late professor Louis Ginzberg, the eminent authority on Talmud, Arabian Jews at one point actually prayed five times a day, and that the five daily prayers of Islam “were undoubtedly ordained by Muhammad as a result of this early Jewish practice”?

We also learned through the scholarship of professor Abraham Katsh (“Judaism and the Koran”) that the Islamic concepts of “ethical monotheism, the unity of God; prayer; consideration for the underprivileged; reverence for parents; fasting; penitence; the belief in angels; the stories about Abraham, the Patriarchs, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon; the injunction of a pilgrimage to Mecca; waging war against the enemy; the status of women; and the position of prophets, all have their antecedents in Jewish tradition.”

Of course, we also learned that Islam refashioned many of the original teachings and stories of the Jewish Bible, that military conquest and coercion played a huge role in the birth of Islam and that many Arabs and pagans in pre-Islam Arabia (particularly in what is now Yemen) had a real admiration for Jews and even converted to Judaism.

In short, our minds were provoked and our curiosity aroused. Many of us have tracked down the books quoted by Rabbi Weiss to learn more, and there is a great sense of anticipation for the next class.

Why is all this historical and theological learning so important?Because it gives us a context by which to understand current events. The information we routinely get from the media on a complicated and delicate subject like the religion of Islam seems so limited to the newsy, the violent and the politically correct that it is limiting a much needed debate.

One reason attempts at Jewish and Muslim dialogue fail is they’re too schmaltzy, like some innocuous therapy session that is overly focused on process, at the expense of knowledge.

What we need is less bridge-building and more knowledge-building; fewer dialogue sessions and more learning salons.

I’d love to see Jewish and Muslim groups engage in civilized debate on some of the hard, divisive questions of theology and history that are too often suppressed, or left to be debated in the obscure halls of academia. It may be unpleasant for both sides, but in the long run, the relationship stands a better chance.

Maybe the bridge builders can come to our next Torah salon on Islam, right here in the hood. If the subject becomes too painful, at least there’ll be my mother’s Moroccan cookies.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Composer Martin Bresnick’s classically unique style turns 60


Please don’t think that Martin Bresnick is having a “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” moment.
Sure the acclaimed composer and teacher celebrated his 60th birthday last month with a series of concerts and the release of a new CD of his music, “The Essential Martin Bresnick,” performed by a gang of his former students, centered on the Bang on a Can All-Stars and his longtime academic home, the Yale School of Music.

But he’s not the “grand old man” nearing retirement taking a retrospective look back at a parade of his students through a Vaseline-coated lens of memories.

“Well, there is a little bit of that,” Bresnick says, leaning back in the booth in a midtown diner where he has been sampling the apple pie. “But I don’t think of myself in that role. For most of my teaching career I haven’t been that much older than my students. It’s only recently that students stopped calling me Martin. I’m not an authority figure, and our work revolves around a sense of communal discovery.”

Bresnick likes to cite a famous Zen koan about teaching: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

But he is also highly attuned to the teacher-student interplay. He cites as an example his own studies with the great composer Gyorgy Ligeti (coincidentally, also a Jew).

“He was one of the greatest composers of our era,” Bresnick says. “You learn from what he said about things, but also from what he did. I had that as an example. It’s a way of saying, ‘I am a real composer and people who study with me know that.'”

And it is as a composer that Bresnick wants to be known. He doesn’t downplay the importance of teaching. On the contrary, it is an integral part of the ethos in which he was raised by his Yiddishist, socialist family.

“Teaching for me has always had a strong social component,” he says. “It’s part of giving back. I came out of a working-class family in the Bronx and was given a tremendous opportunity by others. I had it ingrained in me that you serve and have to share.”

That’s a lesson he was taught growing up in the Amalgamated Co-ops.

“I had a very devoted secular Jewish upbringing,” Bresnick says. “My family were dedicated Yiddishists, I was sent to the Arbeiter Ring [Workmen’s Circle] elementary school. My family ran the gamut politically from anarchist to liberal Democrats. I can still read Yiddish, and my aunt, Phylis Berk, is a well-known Yiddish singer. My mother, at 85, is still a professional storyteller who travels around the country talking about life in the shtetl.”

It was a wonderful milieu in which to grow up, but not so hot for learning classical music, he admits.

“When I was little, my parents had very few classical records,” Bresnick recalls. “I could memorize very quickly. Somewhere out there is a disk with me singing snippets of ‘Barber of Seville’ and ‘The Nutcracker,’ which were the two classical records they had at first. But they recognized that I had a talent, and they got me a couple of records when they could. The first time I ever heard a woodwind quintet was when I saw one live at the age of 9 on a school trip. I was completely dumbfounded by the bouquet of timbres.”

It was the beginning of a career and a calling.

“I would listen to a Beethoven symphony when I was 7 and feel that I understood what was intended,” he says. “I had some comprehension of the point of [writing] a symphony. And I felt, ‘I can do it too.’ I think I understood that it had something to do with what it means to be a human being.

“Music for many people at that age is a wonderful refuge. It offers them an ordered world. As a composer, you are making a world.”

On the other hand, Bresnick was also participating in the world around him. As a teenager, he played rock guitar, graduated from the High School of Music and Art at 16 “as the youngest beatnik ever,” he adds with a laugh, and was in grad school on the West Coast by 20. He saw Jimi Hendrix live, still admires Cream as “a great chamber-music group” and gigged as a working musician.

Even today, Bresnick “listens to everything,” and his own compositions have a uniquely American eclecticism.

“It’s Ivesian,” he says, citing the great American maverick, Charles Ives, “It’s totally democratic; everybody’s got a right to belly up to the table and contribute.”

Bresnick is a composer who can juxtapose the repetitive structures of minimalism with Stravinskian harmonies, who can use a Willie Dixon blues riff as the jumping-off point for a Brahmsian chamber piece, who can write movingly for marimba and orchestra.

If you ask him if there is any musical style that he would reject out of hand, he smiles and says, “I’m ready to accept almost any influence into my domain. My ‘border guards’ may ask them to show their passport first, though.”

He admits to excluding only one major late-20th-century movement.

“I’m not that interested in conceptual art,” he says. “Most of it has revealed itself to be poorer conceptually than any physically based art. I believe in the line from William Carlos Williams, ‘No ideas but in things.’ I like the pleasures of the physical world, and if I can embody something in the world of music, that’s good enough.”

Above all, he wants to be known as a composer first and foremost.

“No question about it,” he says emphatically. “I’ve never thought of myself any other way. I love teaching and I’m glad to be well-regarded as a teacher, but I have no doubt of my own self-identity.”

Anyone who hears Bresnick’s music, live or on disk, will agree.

“The Essential Martin Bresnick” featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars, is available on the Cantaloupe Records label.

Jewish and Muslim students at USC share dorm and friendships


The fact that the Taj Mahal was built by a Muslim Mughal is news to one Jewish student, who asked not to be named. The student and Asad Hasnat, a sophomore from Pakistan, have been talking about architecture in India during one of the weekly Monday Munchies socials put together for the Shalom-Muslim floor in USC's Parkside Apartments, where both live.

Theirs is a fairly typical exchange between students on a campus as large and diverse as USC's. But at a time when Jews and Muslims in other parts of the world aren't having much luck learning from one another, the conversation and the setting for it are both quietly revolutionary. Here Jewish and Muslim students live together in harmony.

Levran and Hasnat are parked on the sofa in Alnatour's apartment. Nobody's watching the television, which flickers and hums in the background, and some of the guys are clumped around a counter loaded with ice cream and cookies like a pack of young lions taking their time with a fresh kill.

“Back then the Mughals ruled everything,” Hasnat said. “They were civilization in India.”

Levran nods, taking in the new information.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of Religious Life at USC, says the name “Shalom Housing” came to her about a decade ago, when she was head of USC Hillel. Several students had sought her advice about finding a way to keep kosher while living on campus.

“None of the dining halls served kosher food,” Laemmle said, “and finding dorms with individual kitchens seemed like a good way to help observant students who still wanted to be part of campus life.”

Soon after Laemmle moved from her role at Hillel to become dean, a group of Muslim students enlisted her help with a similar project. Laemmle worked with Ken Taylor in USC's Office of Residential and Greek Life to find space to create a Muslim floor. As it happened, a wing of the residential hall where Shalom Housing had been established was available.

“The original concept was not a Jewish-Muslim floor,” Taylor said. “That was the creature of the [Resident Advisors] and the students themselves.”

Alana Bubis and Sahar Alnatour, the floor's RAs, are the unassuming but earnest current stewards of this legacy. Bubis, a junior majoring in business and film studies, is a California native, like most of the residents on the Jewish wing of the floor.

“The Muslim wing is more international,” she said, “and it has more guys. There are more girls on the Jewish wing.”

There are 50 students on the coed floor. Two men or two women share each room. A handful of students who are neither Jewish nor Muslim also choose to live on the floor.

“A lot of people keep coming back,” said Bubis, who's marking her second year as a resident.

It's year three for Alnatour, whose family moved to the United States from Kuwait after the end of the first Gulf War.

“As a freshman, you have something in common with the people who live around you,” Alnatour said, explaining why she was attracted to the floor. Although she laughs when she recalls her surprise at learning she would have Jewish neighbors, too.

“It's not very clear in the housing brochure that the Muslim and Jewish wings are together,” Bubis said.

The fact that USC's Shalom-Muslim floor has evolved both organically and unofficially means that, like Alnatour, many of the students who arrive on move-in day are surprised when they meet some of their neighbors.

Traditions like Monday Munchies and the floor's open-door policy — if your door's open, company's welcome — are designed to help newcomers quickly adapt to the novel environment.

And both the temperament of the current generation of students and the culture of the floor tend to discourage the kind of fiery debates over politics that would disrupt the mellow culture of the floor.

“Politics never comes up,” said Amir Yassai, a junior from Orange County. “I think it has to do with the fact that people my age are more open-minded.”

When he returned to school soon after last summer's conflict between Israel and Hezbollah had subsided, Yassai's Iranian-born parents asked him whether there was any tension on the floor.

“It was hard for them to believe it just isn't an issue,” Yassai said.

Still, some residents perceive an underlying tension on the floor — not between Jews and Muslims, but between the ardor that attracts students to the community and the tacit détente that helps to sustain it.

“It's true that people stay away from political conversation,” said Hasan Qazi, a biology major whose parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. “But that doesn't mean that people don't hold deep political convictions. Everyone chooses to live here because they're passionate about their identity as Muslims or Jews.”

Laemmle describes this situation as “the elephant on the Shalom-Muslim floor.”

“Eventually I think students will find a way to engage each other at that level,” she said. “If you build a tradition of trust, political discussion can be safer.”

Bubis and Alnatour have already laid the foundation for what could become the next stage in the growth of USC's Shalom-Muslim Floor. Together they've successfully lobbied for a greater selection of kosher and halal food at a nearby dining hall. The precedent of that small collaboration could help other residents of this quietly revolutionary community find common ground in a passionate, ice cream fueled conversation on some future Monday.

If Laemmle's elephant analogy is apt, it's likely just a matter of time.

The ‘Yearning’ for Torah learning goes to TV


Do you want to be happier?

Do you want to have greater love and intimacy in life?

Do you want greater self-awareness?

And did you know that you could find all these things in the wisdom of Judaism?

That’s the premise of “The Hidden Wisdom of Our Yearnings with Irwin Kula,” a two-hour PBS show airing Dec. 10 on KCET. Based on Rabbi Kula’s new book, “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” (Hyperion, 2006, with Linda Lowenthal), the program is one of the first that PBS has given to a rabbi or Jewish leader teaching to the masses.

Kula, who is the president of CLAL: The National Center for Jewish Leadership, also hosted public television’s 13-part series, “Simple Wisdom With Irwin Kula.” He is one of a number of Jewish leaders trying to bring Jewish teaching to the mainstream, including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, Rabbi Harold Kushner and conservative talk show host Dennis Prager.

“Can we take Jewish wisdom public?” Kula said in a telephone interview with The Journal.

In the past, the Torah has been used to make Jews become better Jews, but “this is really seeing Torah as a technology to become more human.”

In the program, Kula, wears a knitted kippah on his longish silver hair and an open blue sports jacket; he walks on a stage in front of a live studio audience and discusses the “messiness” in life: life’s disappointments, conflicts, dissatisfactions — what he calls yearning.

“If we don’t have something to yearn for, some dents in our life to fix, some messiness, some crucial quality of our life is missing,” Kula tells the audience. “Yearning can be a path to blessing.”

Like other mass-market purveyors of “wisdom,” Kula has a number of catchphrases, such as “The more we allow ourselves to unfold, the less we will unravel,” and “We can want it all and always be finding enough,” but his message is one that particularly fits these new uncertain times — in which he believes much wisdom does not address.

“There’s a lot of bad messages being given,” he said, such as the conventional religious message that your behavior can improve your life, or the New Age wisdom that problems are illusions and life is actually perfect.

But Judaism knows life shouldn’t be perfect, he says, using the story of Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.

“I love Eve, because she understood that Paradise is not all it’s cracked up to be!” Eve teaches us, he continued, “never to fear the messiness. The messy spaces in our lives are our greatest teachers.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula will appear on KCET on Dec. 10 5-7 p.m. He will also appear on the “Today” show on Dec. 12 and Dec. 25.

B’nai Brith’s new chief visits L.A.; ‘Messenger’ unites local readers


New B’nai B’rith Head Launches Term in Southland

The new president of B’nai B’rith International will make Los Angeles his first official stop of his presidency when he speaks at Sinai Temple on the evening of Dec. 7.Moishe Smith, a B’nai B’rith veteran with more than 30 years experience at the organization, said he is coming to the Southland to show his respect for and introduce himself to the community. At Sinai, Smith will discuss Israel and the Middle East, reflecting his interest in international relations. During his three decades with B’nai B’rith, Smith has held a variety of positions, including chair of the International Council, senior international vice president, and, most recently, chair of the executive.

Smith, a Canadian and the first non-American to lead 163-year-old B’nai B’rith, replaces Joel Kaplan. He will serve a three-year term.

Smith told The Journal that “making sure Israel is supported from every corner of the world” is a top priority. With the Jewish state under siege from Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and other enemies, Smith said B’nai B’rith and other Jewish organizations have an obligation to “speak out for Israel.”

Under his leadership, Smith said the organization will continue pressuring the United Nations to reform itself and shed its anti-Israel bias. Toward that end, Smith said organization leaders will “dialogue” with the democratic U.N. members and others.

B’nai B’rith has 100,000 members and donors in the United States and 150,000 worldwide. The organization calls itself a national and global leader in the area of U.N. reform, international affairs and Jewish identity, among other issues.

The event begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. For more information, contact Lyndia Lowy of B’nai B’rith at (310) 871-0847, or visit www.sinaitemple.org.

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

‘Messenger’ Unites L.A. Readers

“One People One Book” usually refers to the Jews and the Torah, but the in Board of Rabbis of Southern California’s communitywide program it refers to a piece of literature participating synagogue members will read for the next six months.

On Dec. 13, “One People One Book: A Citywide Year of Learning,” will launch its second annual program, this time studying Eli Wiesel’s 1976 “The Messenger of God,” where Wiesel reinterprets biblical figures. Some 21 synagogues will participate.

Last year’s “One People One Book” program, which had 300 people attend the opening, which focused on “As a Driven Leaf” by Milton Steinberg, the novelization of the Talmud’s only heretic, Elisha Ben Abuya.

Why one book for six months?

“The notion is that we pick a book that lends itself to a year of learning,” says Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis. He said that last year’s book dealt with powerful themes such as secular vs. sacred, messianism, faith and practice.

For each book, the Board of Rabbis prepares a curriculum for readers to discuss, but there is no particular format to the “One People One Book,” program. Some people will meet in groups like a book club, others will discuss it with their rabbi in synagogue and some will learn with a partner. There will be an opening event on Dec. 13 and closing event on May 9.At the opening session, professor Menhaz M. Afridi and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will discuss Moses in “The Passion of Prophet: Moses in the Torah and the Qu’ran.”

The opening session will take place at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, Dec. 13, 7-9 p.m. 15600 Mulholland Drive. For more information, call (323) 761-8600.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Students Weigh in on Education Improvements

Students shared ideas for improving education with a panel of public officials at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 30. Jasmin Ramirez, 17, took the stage first to present a proposal on behalf of about 100 students involved in the California Association of Student Councils, a student-led organization dedicated to cultivating leaders.

“There’s poor quality of food in our schools and a lack of variety,” said Ramirez, who recommended conducting a widespread survey asking students about the quality of food at school and testing their knowledge of nutritional health.

Listening and taking notes were state Senate majority leader Gloria Romero; Democratic state Assemblymembers Mike Feuer, Paul Krekorian and Kevin de Leon; local district Superintendent James Morris; and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Education Ramon C. Cortines.

The officials advised students to think about the costs associated with the proposed survey and consider what would be done with the results. They also commended Ramirez and her peers for thinking creatively about how to solve a real problem.

“What you and the students have done today is absolutely brilliant,” de Leon said.Next, Chris Delgado, 16, suggested that teacher quality could be improved if students were involved in the teacher evaluation process.

“Be careful that your approach is not taken as an attack on teachers,” de Leon cautioned.Cortines added: “I don’t think you realize how powerful you are. I think it’s time that you mobilize yourself and visit with teachers unions.”

After the two proposals were presented and discussed, legislators and students mingled. Feuer congratulated his son, Aaron, who orchestrated the event.

“It was a success,” said Aaron Feuer, 15.

— Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer

The great (non) depression


I overdid it yesterday. Perhaps I misjudged the line between exhaustion and sloth.

Or perhaps my recuperation from the cancer treatment requires a slower return
to fitness than yesterday’s exertion.

But this morning’s desire to stay in bed needs to be honored, unlike yesterday’s, which called forth a kick in the pants.

Some might suspect depression, but I disagree. I am finding, in my confinement, too many sources of pleasure, despite the situation. I am delighting in friends, home, books, writing, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, NPR, PBS….

Besides I am pharmacologically covered for depression.

Depression is a word that has been cheapened. We forget that it is a diagnosis for a bona fide disease. It becomes a catch phrase for the weighty feelings we experience as we come to terms with life’s challenges and honor the process of change. Those who cannot tolerate taking the time and effort that normal healing requires are quick to label depression and try to prescribe it away.

Shortly after receiving a cancer diagnosis, Janet came to my office. She sat down on the couch opposite me and sank into the pillows, settling shapelessly and breathing shallowly. Finally she let out a sigh.

“I feel depressed,” she said. “I feel heavy. I can’t move. I’m paralyzed. I cry all the time. I have no desire to go on with my treatment.”

As she spoke, a trickle of tears ran down her cheek. Janet was mourning her health.

Grief is not depression. It is not a disease. The sense of heaviness and weight that we feel when we face challenges is our organism’s insistence that it is time to stop, give honor to what is lost, and surrender to the healing process. One of the symptoms is often an overwhelming fatigue triggering the fear that we don’t have the energy to face what is demanded.

This feeling sets in when there has been a death and the fires of grief have been banked and the mourner begins to sift through the ashes. In other losses, it descends when the fact of the illness, divorce or other change begins to sink in. Each labored breath exposes what has been left behind and reveals a glimpse of the obstacles ahead. While at times, we may still feel wrapped in gauze and unable to move, this so-called depression indicates that the time of numbness is over. Feeling begins to return. Sadness is palpable. We begin to comprehend the changes that have taken place and their consequences in our lives. Difficult feelings lie in the wake of this understanding. But have heart, this heaviness is a sign of life.

In this state we have no vitality. The pulse of our life force is barely detectable. So we wait. And we can’t move. The time of the broken heart is necessary to heal. There are genuine tragedies, sadnesses and injustices that cannot be denied or rationalized away when we take the measure of our lives and the changes that they have wrought. We must dwell in this valley of tears as if we are seeds, lying fallow in the earth, absorbing the moisture necessary to bring forth the sprouts of spring and the harvests that follow.

Taking time to feel, we honor the need for change. We learn about patience, surrender, acceptance and, ultimately, letting go. It can be a quiet and inarticulate time in which until we are able, literally, to come to terms with our loss.

I take issue with the word “depression.” Depression is a clinical state. It is a psychological diagnosis of something with an organic base. Although elements of the symptoms of depression and of grief have much in common, the two are not the same. Depression describes an illness. Grief is a healthy, appropriate, though often excruciating, response to loss. Loss is not just letting go, which would be difficult enough. It requires us to reconstruct our entire world. We must come to see the universe in a completely different way.

Rather than “depression,” I prefer the Hebrew word “kavod.” “Kavod” means “honor” as in the biblical commandment to “honor thy father and mother.” It also is translated as “weight” or “heaviness.” These latter translations are what people who suffer often experience.

This paralytic feeling is their organism asserting the opposite of what the culture demands. While they are urged to get over their loss quickly and get on with their lives, their bodies and souls are saying, “Stop. Feel the gravity…the weight, of this situation. Honor what is past and what is being born within you. Honor your need to broaden your understanding and come to terms with your new status and new world. Stop.”

By labeling this experience with a holy Hebrew word, perhaps we can be kinder to ourselves and less afraid. Perhaps this will encourage us to take the time we need for healing, learning its lessons and allowing it to transform our lives.
We contemplate our situation and thus give it kavod — honor. We feel the weight; the heaviness of what loss itself is about. In the process, we transform it. As we wait, contemplating our lives and the nature of life itself, we begin to heal.

I’m staying in bed this morning.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

A night at the homeless shelter


545 San Pedro Street is an address I will never forget.

It is the Union Rescue Mission downtown, inhabited by homeless individuals that reside in their designated corners on Skid Row. My school, Milken Community High School, offered a community service experience for 21 students, and I found myself at the Union Rescue Mission.

During my three-day trip, I had the occasion to sleep in the mission, take a tour, speak with the residents, and serve and prepare food.
The Mission is a recovery center for drug and alcohol addicts, battered women and children. The facility utilizes the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which encourages people to develop a relationship with God. It teaches individuals to change their beliefs, attitudes and choices. My own beliefs and attitudes were also changed as a result of this experience.

As I searched the dining room holding my tray, I spotted an older African American woman and joined her. I was struck by how focused she was on eating every bite of her meal.

“Hi, I’m Jackie, how are you doing today?”

She told me about her day but was more interested in finding out about me. I told her about my school, my favorite classes and my hobbies. I realized how many opportunities I take for granted. As soon as I mentioned sports, her eyes lit up and she was filled with enthusiasm. She told me about her family, her life and how she had always enjoyed school. She told her stories about sports and how she had received a volleyball scholarship.

Sadly, she chose the wrong path and as a result, her life became unmanageable. She became consumed with drug addiction and self-destructive behaviors. She abandoned her 5-year-old daughter for fear that she would have the same horrible life. I was speechless. The silence grew uncomfortable as I nervously began rambling on about my computer classes to fill the void. I knew at the end of our visit that this woman would remain in my memory bank forever. I realized that each choice we make impacts our future and our relationships with others.

During mealtime we had the opportunity to connect with someone outside of ourselves, sharing our stories and listening to others. I never fully understood how important the concept of a meal was. I realized that mealtime offered much needed support to those who suffered. It had the power to create a connection between people who were polar opposites. It gave me the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone I never would have met.

The next morning, I spotted my new friend as I got ready to return to my usual lifestyle. Little did she know what a lasting impression she had made. My views on those less fortunate had been changed forever.

My life-changing experience at the mission taught me that everyone is a diamond in the rough.

Jackie Greenspan graduated from Milken Community High School last year.


The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (julief@jewishjournal.com.

Jewish day schools short-change kids with special needs


Adam is pushing the strings of his tzitzit through a small hole on the side of his desk.

“If you don’t want to finish your work now, that’s OK,” his teacher, Chau Ly tells him. “You can do it later.”
“It’s easy. I just don’t feel like it,” answers Adam (not his real name).

He looks at the language arts workbook open in front of him, then flips it to examine the bar code. He wants to tell Ms. Ly about the cat next door. Ms. Ly, sitting right across from him, tells him he can do that when he finishes his assignment.
She begins to read him the next question.

He pulls at some rubber on his sneaker and says, “I don’t need help, it’s easy.”

Ms. Ly sits back. Adam, an 11-year-old with learning and emotional disorders, begins to work quietly.

Finally, he finishes his assignment. Ms. Ly adds up the points he’s earned for doing things like getting his head into the assignment and working independently, and sets the timer for his break.

He chooses to spend his time exchanging cat stories with Ms. Ly.

Adam is one of 12 students in Kol Hanearim, an organization that sponsors small classes in three local day schools for children with learning disabilities and emotional disorders such as attention deficit, oppositional behavior, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. The kids spend part of the time in their own classroom and part of the time mainstreamed in regular classes. They also join their grade level for lunch, recess, art, PE and other activities.

The classes were founded last year by mothers of kids who had been either asked to leave a Jewish day school, or who chose to leave on their own. Their decision to stay and make something new is part of a slowly emerging trend toward integrating diverse learners into the Jewish day school milieu — a move that everyone agrees has been too slow in coming, and has hardly begun to reach the students who need it.

For years, resources for kids with special needs have been scarce in Los Angeles’ day schools.

While supplemental Jewish education programs — camps, Hebrew schools, Shabbatons and parties — have provided wonderful Jewish experiences to the region’s special needs kids during the last 10 to 20 years, other cities seem to be making greater strides with their day school populations.

Parents who want their special needs children immersed in a Jewish environment on a daily basis often have to fend for themselves with minimal school support. Those able to afford it have hired tutors and shadows, which has not always been a successful solution. More often, parents have had to make the difficult choice to take the kids out of Jewish schools.

For parents in the Orthodox community, the decision to pull a kid out of day school means not only forfeiting a vital environment and education, but has social consequences, as well. Since the majority of Orthodox children attend day school, the child will be excluded from social circles, further marginalizing him or her.

With the explosion of day school attendance in the non-Orthodox sectors over the last 15 years, that decision is equally painful for Conservative and Reform parents who hoped to solidify a child’s identity with an intense Jewish experience.
About 10 percent of the general population has a disability, and the Bureau of Jewish Education estimates that between 700 and 800 children with disabilities are in Los Angeles’ 37 day schools, which serve 10,000 kids.

Over the past several years, schools and programs have opened up to teaching a more diverse array of learners in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and community schools.

“There is a growing awareness that day schools need to be accessible to the widest range of students possible, and schools are working hard to refine their mission statements and to make sure that whatever their aspirations are to work in this area, that they find the financial and human resources to make it successful,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. The Boston-based group recently published a best practices report from day schools across the country.

Adam’s mother says her son, who previously attended Vista Del Mar’s Julia Ann Singer Center, a school near Culver City for children with severe emotional, learning and developmental disorders, has worked his way from a first-grade reading level to a fourth-grade reading level at Kol Hanearim. Whereas before he was surrounded by other kids with behavioral challenges, now he has nonchallenged children to model behaviors for him.

He is no longer embarrassed to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and can participate in class cooking projects without worrying about kashrut. He now asks to go to shul every Shabbat, and he even sings Hebrew songs in the shower.

While singing in the shower may seem like a silly benchmark, a positive or negative day school experience can have lifelong impact on a child’s Jewish identity.

One woman who contacted Kol Hanearim told the story of her son, now grown, who had been thrown out of yeshiva and told he would never amount to anything. Today, he is working toward a master’s degree in physics and is engaged to a non-Jewish woman.

Slammed Doors, New Opportunities

Kol Hanearim started its classes last academic year, soon after, Sharon Gindi was told that day school was no place for her son. She found that there were no good options for him within the Jewish community.

She got in touch with Kol Hanearim, a group of parents who had coalesced a few years before to offer Jewish programming to their children, who had left day schools. They had already met with principals in hopes of figuring out how to start classes for special-needs kids in day schools. But after two years, those meetings had gotten nowhere.

“I looked at my husband, and I said, ‘ All we need is a classroom and a teacher? How hard can this be?'” said Gindi, who will be speaking on this topic at a session at the United Jewish Community’s General Assembly here this week. So she skipped over the organizational meandering and immediately got down to details.

Synaplex’s membership tip: put spirit back in Shabbat


The shades were drawn in the classroom at the Skirball Cultural Center. Lights dimmed. A white cloth anchored by softly glowing candles covered the center of the room. Sitting cross-legged on the floor or on straight-backed chairs, a group of men and women kicked off their shoes and closed their eyes as Rafael Harrington guided them in meditation.

At the same time in adjoining rooms, Mike Mason was leading a circle of fervent drummers, while Naomi Ackerman conducted a series of theater games focusing on Jewish identity.

These workshops, presented as possibilities for enhancing Shabbat offerings, were part of an afternoon organized by Synaplex, an initiative of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Family Foundation.

About 150 people, including rabbis, cantors, lay leaders and staff from 40 congregations representing all denominations — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Renewal — attended the Oct. 25 event, which was also sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
The capacity turnout — some congregations got no farther than the waiting list — was a clear indication that Synaplex, with its promise to help build membership participation through innovative Shabbat programming, is addressing a need.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, STAR’s executive director, emphasized that most people are not currently happy with their Shabbat observance.

“We don’t want to lose the minority who are satisfied, but we have to add to what we’re offering, so more people have rewarding experiences,” he said. “We know there is no magic bullet.

“People have all kinds of yearnings,” Herring continued. “Some are looking for God, some for prayer and meditation, some for community. I don’t want to impose my definition of spirituality on anyone else. We all go through different stages; what fits us today might not fit us tomorrow. If you think of Shabbat as the destination, Synaplex provides many paths to get there. Synagogues take what we have to offer and imbue it with their own creativity and energy.”

Ready to expand beyond the 120 congregations it now works with throughout the country, Synaplex offered the afternoon as an opportunity for interested congregations to sample a variety of activities, as well as to hear from veteran participants in the program.

“Synaplex gave us the scaffolding to create an expanded Shabbat community,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills, which has been involved in the program for three years. “We were interested in bringing in groups that weren’t participating in Shabbat. During our monthly Shabbats, we now have a Saturday luncheon for seniors that draws 50 people and a Shabbat romp for 30-45 families with small children.

“We’ve created a fusion service on Friday nights. We’ve gone from an average of 75-100 participants to well over 200. During a Synaplex Shabbat, there’s always something going on. We initially had simultaneous offerings, but the congregation didn’t like missing any of the activities, so our events are now sequential.

“Synaplex provided us an opportunity to experiment and explore and suggested new ways to create a sacred community,” Moskovitz reported. “In a sense, it’s completely transformed our service. Our Synaplex Shabbat was like a stone dropping on a calm pool of water. The ripple effect continues to reverberate in a positive and profound way across our temple community.”

Rabbi Laura Geller, describing the four years of evolution of Synaplex at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, said, “There are many different doors to Judaism. For some it’s spiritual, for some it’s cultural, for some it’s community, for some it’s learning, for some it’s social justice,” and the genius of Synaplex is that all those doors open onto Shabbat.

“Our Shabbat Unplugged Services were our most successful, but we wanted to add to that,” she said. “We wanted to bring in the most underserved segments of our population — families with young children, singles and older people. From the beginning, the project had a playful quality as we began to imagine new kinds of programs.”

Geller described a typical Synaplex Friday, which might have 300 people in attendance (the regular Friday night services draw 70-100.) There is a Tot Shabbat and a healing service, as well as dinners for families and empty nesters and a wine-tasting for young adults, followed by the Shabbat Unplugged Service. The evening concludes with a festive oneg, complete with cappuccino cart, and a program that might include a guest speaker, film or music.

“There’s tremendous energy,” she said. “That energy makes people proud to be connected to Temple Emanuel. It’s still a work in progress. Shabbat was created to let people take a deep breath. Our Synaplex Shabbat reminds us how important a connection to a synagogue can be. It can be a connection of joy.”

Elana Centor, STAR’s marketing consultant, had the task of convincing the audience that the language of marketing and branding is not just appropriate but necessary for the revitalization of synagogues. Acknowledging that many in the group might not have the most positive feelings about “marketing,” she urged them to think of it as a “process of exchanging something of value for something you need.”

Her confidence in the efficacy of her approach and the importance of emotional connections appeared to melt most resistance, even for those who weren’t quite ready to think of their congregation as a “brand.”

When a congregation signs on to Synaplex, she assured them, they’d have access to the experience and resources of those who have been working successfully with the program for several years.

As the afternoon wound down, many lingered for a summing up. Sandy Calin, president Temple Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills, reflected the enthusiastic consensus, saying, “We have a small congregation, about 250 families. We need both to grow and to revitalize ourselves. Synaplex provides an enormous variety of ways to participate.”

Secrets of cosmos draw eyes heavenward


The Ultra Deep Field Image from the Hubble Space Telescope is rapturous.

Over the course of four months in late 2003 and early 2004, the orbiting observatory trained its eye hundreds of times on a speck of the heavens just south of the constellation Orion.

Why this minuscule spot? With relatively few stars intervening between Hubble and the edge of the Milky Way, it gave the telescope an almost completely unobstructed view of infinity.

“Like many of the images we get from Hubble, this one inspires awe,” said Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. “In this tiny patch of sky, we can see over 10,000 galaxies. Some of the light reaching us is 13 billion years old. That’s basically a snapshot of the beginning of time.”

” border=0 hspace = ’12’ vspace = ’12’ width = ‘200’ align = right alt=”Michael Hecht”>Hecht studied theoretical physics as an undergraduate at Princeton and as a master’s degree candidate at MIT. Like Livio, the revelations of the first generation of X-ray satellites inspired him to pursue a career in space science.

“But it wasn’t until my teenage son got interested in astronomy that I actually looked at the stars through a telescope,” Hecht said.

Soon after he finished his doctorate at Stanford, Hecht became a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He’s currently managing a team of scientists and engineers that will send a suite of instruments to Mars to assess the potential hazards Martian dust and soil might pose to human explorers.

With a universe of possibilities, what attracted him to the Red Planet?

“Even through a fairly small telescope,” Hecht said, “Mars looks tantalizingly close. And it’s similar enough to earth so that the physical processes are familiar but not quite the same. An apple wouldn’t fall from a tree in quite the same way.”

Hecht’s next Mars project, which will be launched in 2011, will land near the planet’s north pole and deploy a hot-nose drill to extract samples of the Martian ice cap. With any luck, these samples will turn out to be frozen time capsules that reveal the history of climate change on Mars and help us understand changes in the climate on Earth.

This imperative to make a connection between his work on a distant planet and everyday human experience isn’t a sideshow for Hecht; in fact, it’s the main event.

“Scientists are storytellers,” he said. “But often their storytelling lacks imagination. If we can’t get people excited about what we’re learning, what’s the point?”

As the science editor for Parade magazine and the author of over a dozen books on popular astronomy, David Levy is doing his best to make space science exciting for those without advanced degrees in theoretical physics.

Levy’s love affair with space began when he was at summer camp in 1956. On the night of July 4, the homesick 8-year-old was dazzled when he saw a meteor streak across the sky. The sighting was auspicious: Meteor storms occur when Earth passes through the trail of debris left by passing comets, and Levy has made name for himself as a master comet hunter.

“This past Kol Nidre, I discovered my 22nd comet,” he said. “There it was, near Saturn in the early morning sky.”

His most famous discovery was comet Shoemaker-Levy, which spectacularly crashed into Jupiter in July 1994.

Like Hecht, Levy sees an intimate connection between his passion for astronomy and his religious experience. “When I was 11, I was walking home from synagogue on Yom Kippur and noticed the gibbous moon,” he said. “I realized people have been looking up at the same 10-day-old moon on Yom Kippur for thousands of years.”

Levy pointed out that the relationship between Judaism and sky-watching is as old as recorded human history. In a tradition that has been lost in our era of light-polluted skies, a man used to stand outside each synagogue to wait for the darkness at day’s end to reveal three stars — the sign that marked the end of the Sabbath. And the rhythms of the Jewish year take their cue from the moon as it arcs in its orbit around Earth. Thus the lives of ancient Jews were intimately connected to the night sky in ways that are difficult for us perpetually distracted moderns to imagine.

Whether they’re secular or religious, Jewish astronomers are part of a venerable tradition of inquiry and teaching. And the light transmitted by this tradition shines just as brightly in the upcoming generation of space scientists.

American Jews are learned in everything — except Jewish texts


The American Jewish community is one of the most learned and sophisticated communities in Jewish history – in everything except Jewish texts. As Jews, we are illiterate.

This phenomenon has its roots in our history over the last 150 years. During that time, the Jewish people underwent five events, each one of which can be counted as a major upheaval. These are the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto into the modern world, the mass movement of Jews from Europe to the United States, the systematic suppression of religion in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

These events went far in determining the nature of the Jewish world today and led to the fact that in the United States, we remain comfortable and sophisticated in the Western world and immature in our Jewish knowledge.
The Jewish educational establishment has tried to remedy this problem and, to some extent, has succeeded. The number of day schools certainly has grown. Still, as a community, we remain undertaught and illiterate.

Consequently, when youngsters go off to a university armed with the Jewish education they received in religious schools, or even many of our day schools, they are unable, by and large, to integrate their Jewish knowledge into their much more sophisticated secular knowledge. Even more so, they are unable to have them in equal dialogue with one another.

The basis of good education does not rest on supplying you with facts but on teaching you how to read. In a university, you do not learn science as much as how to function within science or how to read literature or how to write poetry or solve a mathematical problem.

In Jewish texts, by those criteria, we are illiterate. We do not learn how to read Bible but only learn the stories in the Bible. Rabbinic texts that are central in classical Jewish literature remain foreign to most of us. We celebrate holidays, but know nothing of the theology behind them. We pray, sometimes, but know nothing about the theology of the prayer book. Jewish survival relies on loyalty and nostalgia and not on meaning and value.

How can we proceed? I think the first step is an acknowledged awareness of the problem. The American Jewish community does not have literacy as a central focal point. It is spoken about, but the hard truth is not really expressed. I will give a number of examples.

Many years ago, I spoke at an Orthodox congregation on the West Coast. Most of the 200 people there were elderly, and many of them were European-born. I asked them how many of them read Hebrew fluently, and almost all of them raised their hands. I then asked how many understand what they are reading, and almost none raised their hands.
No other group of people would say that they read a language fluently without understanding a word of what they read. Yet this phenomenon continues. We train people to “read the Torah” but not always to understand what they are reading. We train people to “lead” the services but not really to understand the services.

We have Jewish leaders who speak about the importance of Jewish education, but who themselves are not educated or on the path to being educated. We have teachers who are underqualified.

Our expectations are low. If children enjoy going to religious school, that is enough, even though they are learning nothing. We would never tolerate those same criteria for our secular education. Imagine a high school student who loves going to school but cannot read basic texts.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) is one of the educational organizations that is trying to change this. Their recent conference at Duke University was dedicated to the theme of “Jewish Literacy.” This is the necessary beginning.

CAJE must define the question and press the individual schools and teachers to address the problem. At the same time, it must provide them with programs that will bring literacy to their teaching staff.

How can this be done? First, we have to set our goals higher. Teachers must know how to read the text. For example, the Bible has its own style, as do rabbinic and medieval texts. These styles must be taught and mastered. We should be cautious about separating between biblical story and midrash or rabbinical explanation.

We must also understand that the rabbis wrote in a very particular nonlinear style. Information was not given from beginning to end; their style was coded. The prayer book, which they composed, is a master composition, but in order to understand it, you have to know how biblical sections are chosen and put in different contexts and how the rabbis established specific forms of prayer.

The Jewish calendar is a complex theological statement and should be taught as such. Unlike the secular American calendar, all of the holidays are connected one to another.

All of this must be taught in connection to the other, secular education that these students are receiving. They should know the tremendous impact of the Bible on Western civilization and how the concept of history comes from it. They should understand Jewish theology in its many facets.

The impact of science and technology should be taught, along with their limitations. Jewish concepts of death, soul, responsibility and government should be studied.

Most important, by the time they finish high school, they should be able to examine concepts of knowledge and truth, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden and working through modern theories of logical positivism, existentialism, chaos and theories of complexity. Why not?

I was once speaking to a principal of a community Jewish high school. He said that attracting students was very competitive. He had to assure the parents that their child would get a secular education that would enable them to get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton and, at the same time, would get a Jewish education. I said to him, “Why not tell them that here your child will master two alternative systems of truth, Jewish and Greek, upon which Western civilization was built. They will master both Aristotelian linear knowledge and rabbinic nonlinear knowledge and be all the wiser for it.”

It is not only possible to do both, but for Jews living in the modern world, it is necessary to do both. They will become literate Jews.

Yosef Leibowitz, director and founder of the Yad Yaakov Fund, received ordination from Yeshiva University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He served as a rabbi in Berkeley before moving to Israel. Leibowitz was the keynote speaker on the subject of Jewish texts at the recent CAJE conference focusing on Jewish literacy.

The Trailblazer’s Toolbox: Programs That Grab


Here’s a brief rundown of the national synagogue revitalization programs that have arisen since the early 1990s.

  • Billed as the first such initiative, the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) was created in 1992. It strives to popularize Jewish learning among congregants while encouraging synagogues to embrace fundamental and long-lasting change.

    Fifty-five synagogues have participated in ECE, which has a yearly budget that generally ranges from $500,000 to $750,000. Chief funders have included The Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Mandel Associated Foundations, the Covenant Foundation and the UJA-Federation of New York. Contact Rob Weinberg at (847) 328-0032 or rweinberg@huc.edu.

  • Synagogue 2000, which began in 1995, developed a wide-ranging curriculum that more than 100 synagogues have used to rethink their overall approach and to deepen their congregants’ spiritual engagement.

    This influential program recently morphed into Synagogue 3000, whose mission is to train synagogue and academic leaders in order to better implement the goals of Synagogue 2000. Among those goals: Demonstrate that synagogues do not exist just to serve the needs of congregants, according to program co-founder Ron Wolfson at the University of Judaism, but rather to motivate them to “do tikkun olam, God’s work on earth.”

    Synagogue 2000, whose annual budget topped out at roughly $2 million, was funded by several major donors, including the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Whizin Foundation, the Rose Family Foundation and the UJA-Federation. Contact Ron Wolfson or Joshua Avedon at (310) 553-7930 or info411@synagogue3000.org.

  • Three years ago, in 2003, a Minneapolis-based initiative known as Star, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, created Synaplex, which helps synagogues supplement regular Shabbat services with diverse programming, including films, music, meditation, lectures and arts and crafts.

    Synagogue
    One of three Star programs, Synaplex is based on the principle that some of today’s Jews need a variety of entry points into Jewish involvement, and that those portals — artistic, academic, activist and ritual — are equally valid vehicles for engaging Jewishly. More than 100 congregations have signed on.
    Synaplex has an annual budget of around $1 million, and its main funders include the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jewish Life

    Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. In addition, the UJA-Federation of New York helps underwrite Synaplex at three participating synagogues.

    Contact Rabbi Hayim Herring at (952) 746-8181 or hherring@starsynagogue.org.

College Students Find High Holidays’ Place in Higher Learning


The High Holidays are here. With them comes a new school year, whereupon many recent graduates of Jewish high schools will face the challenges for the first time that can accompany being an observant Jew in an academic environment that runs on the Christian calendar.

Gone are the days when observant Jewish students suffered for their absences from class or exams on the High Holidays or Passover. The California Education Code fully protects students’ rights to observe religious holidays free of academic penalty.

But the fact remains that academic life at nonsectarian universities may not have become much easier for young Jews who want to observe, because there are still indirect effects of such absences.

At top schools, such as USC and UCLA, observant Jewish students are finding that the penalty to be paid is all in the details.

Some students say that although professors are understanding about Yom Kippur, and despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah falls on the weekend this year, time they spend in shul could set them back because of assignments that are due the day after the holidays or even on Yom Kippur itself.

“I am worried because I am an architecture major, and there are deadlines, and it’s fast paced so I just have to be ahead of game constantly,” said Yoav Weiss, who just entered his freshman year at USC.

Although most universities have support staff available to aid students dealing with religious issues — at Hillel, the Office of Religious Life or University Chaplain’s office — most can only help deal with the major scheduling conflicts, like those that involve rescheduling an exam that falls on a holiday.
Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC, admitted that she couldn’t come to the aid of students over the myriad little conflicts that affect them.

For example, some professors offer four midterms and throw out each student’s lowest exam score in the calculation of the students’ final grades — but if they inadvertently choose to give an exam on a Jewish holiday, thereby making that exam the student’s lowest, the student likely has no recourse. In circumstances like this, the Office of Religious Life can do little to help, according to Laemmle.

“Sometimes Jews have to work a little harder, and that’s OK,” said Laemmle, who said she tries not to show Jewish students any favor in her role at the school.
Observing Shabbat weekly may be the greatest challenge of all, however, at universities where honors programs or intensive, fast-track programs demand extra time on Fridays and weekends. Some students said they have encountered professors who cannot comprehend why they cannot stay late on a Friday night, or e-mail them on Saturday.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director at UCLA Hillel, was skeptical of the notion that there is a “problem” for young Jews who want to observe Shabbat or holidays at universities. He thinks students should look at the positive aspects of the modern university, which allows them to miss class so that they can affirm their Judaism.

“You’re dealing with a system that attempts to create the best possible climate for someone who wants to be Jewish and who wants to observe,” he said. “So, I’m trying to understand why someone would want to make out of that an issue. On the contrary, one would want to enterprise. Look at the opportunity you have.”
Seidler-Feller emphasized that the university is the place where students learn to prioritize their commitments with confidence.

“You go out into the world, and you know that you’re in a law job, and it’s tough … and then they say they want you to work on such and such a day, and you have to have the inner strength and self-confidence and integrity,” he added. “So when do you start learning this? At a university, where the downside is minimal.”

Not surprisingly, observant Jewish students who have already experienced the fork in the road that a nonsectarian education can present tend to be more relaxed about dealing with it in college.

David Goldenberg, a recent graduate of La Jolla High School, just began school at UCLA. He’s already made up his mind about when he’ll miss class and when he won’t and put on a relaxed front.

“It’s only a few days a year,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning


Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.

The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.

Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.

Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.

Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.

I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.

It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.

Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.

But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.

Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.

The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).

I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.

Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.

For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.

Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).

The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is myjewishlearning.com, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.

Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.

Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.

Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

How YOU Can Help Israel; Electronic Devices


How YOU Can Help Israel

Kids in Los Angeles can send letters to kids in Israel by e-mailing elka1@jdc.org.il. The letters will be printed out and inserted into “care packages” that are beng sent out to families in shelters in Northern Israel. When you send an e-mail, include your name, age and address.

  • In addition to expressing support, you can write about whatever it is that you, as kids, like to talk about.
  • Ask that the children e-mail or mail you back.
  • It is important that spelling and grammar are correct (have an adult or older sibling read it first), otherwise it can be difficult for the Israeli children to understand.

Remember: Tikkun olam comes in all shapes and sizes.

Kein v’ Lo: Electronic Devices

This section of the page is a way for you as kids to sound off about an issue. This month’s Kein v’ Lo (yes and no) is about personal electronic devices. Are kids spending too much time on iPods, PSPs and cellphones?

The Kein Side:

  • The obesity rate among children is growing because many are sitting down (or standing still), playing games on their PSPs and texting their friends via their phones and not getting enough exercise.
  • A lot of kids listen to their iPods all the time — even in public — and are not learning to how to interact with people. The headphone volume could also cause many of them to have hearing problems.

The Lo Side:

  • Kids are learning to be technologically savvy — skills that are very important for doing homework and will later be used to get good jobs.
  • By texting their friends and talking on cellphones, kids are socializing all the time. Playing games on PSPs keeps minds sharp because players have to constantly think. Some teachers even use iPod podcasts (streaming video or audio) as learning tools for class.

Discuss your opinions in your classroom or around your dining table with your family. We aren’t saying which is right and which is wrong. We want to know what you think. Send your thoughts to Kids@jewishjournal.com with Kein v’Lo in the subject line.

Pages & Picks

Shabbat candles you don’t have to light? A shofar you can drop and it won’t break? A pyramid that you can build without breaking a sweat? Impossible you say! Not so with Joel Stern’s “Jewish Holidays Origami” (Dover Publications, $5.95). In addition to the step-by-step craftmaking, the book includes background on eight holidays — as well as on the objects for that holiday. And because the crafts come in beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, younger kids can make a siddur, while the older ones create a Torah scroll. And the best part? No messy glue — although parents might want to check to see that kids’ report cards don’t turn into a paper hamantaschen.

Summer Tours to Israel Rerouted, But Not By Much


Most summers, the trip to the Naot Sandal factory on a kibbutz close to Israel’s northern border is a highlight of the teen tours run by United Synagogue Youth (USY). But this summer, with the north under constant threat of rocket attacks, the 400 USYers stayed in the central and southern part of the country, and Naot came to them, with a special sale near USY’s base in Jerusalem.

That was one of the easier adjustments to a constantly changing itinerary for USY kids and the other estimated 6,000 American teens on tours in Israel this summer.

“All of us that have kids in Israel are trying to make the best of the situation,” said Jules Gutin, international director for USY, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, which has about 50 California teens in Israel this summer. “We want the experience to be worthwhile and positive, as well as safe.”

So while kids may be missing out on trips to the Golan Heights, to the kabbalistic city of Tsfat, the Banias natural pools or Maimonides’ grave in Tiveria, tours are making up for it with extra time in Jerusalem and challenging hikes through the Negev.

Few Kids Have Returned Home

Most tours departed the United States before the violence escalated in Israel, and most of the teens have stayed. USY reports that as of early this week, three kids went home, and Young Judaea has a similar count, with six kids out of 470 being summoned home. Three of the 390 students on NCSY’s Europe and Israel trip did not continue on from Europe to Israel.

The Orthodox Union canceled a trip scheduled to leave this week with its Yad b’Yad program, where 15 developmentally and physically disabled adults were to be accompanied by 35 teenage counselors on a four-week tour of Israel.

Administrators worried about heightening participants’ anxiety, and about difficulties rerouting the group, or moving it quickly in case of emergency. The day before the trip, it was recast as a West Coast tour.

Israel Experience, the educational tourism arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, coordinates programming and security for most of the trips that leave from North America.

“Trips are being rerouted based on the current situation, and it’s an hour-by-hour reevaluation,” said Rachel Russo, director of marketing for Israel Experience.

IDF, Police, Jewish Agency Monitor Tourist Itineraries

Israel Experience adjusts the groups’ schedules according to recommendations it gets from a situation room staffed by representatives from the Israeli army, the Israeli police, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jewish Agency. Each teen tour group that signs up with Israel Experience — and most do — is tracked by GPS.

“They are really fluid in moving the groups when they need to move,” said Russo, whose daughter is in Israel with Ramah Seminar this summer.

Program operators have also been working overtime to keep in constant communication with parents. Young Judaea is sending out three email updates daily, in addition to photos and journals on its Web site. USY increased updates from the usual weekly to daily, and someone is available to answer parents concerns at all times.

Most teens also have cell phones with them, so parents are kept in the loop. So far, while parents have expressed concern, few are panicking. And by all reports, the kids themselves seem to be having a great time.

Bonnie Sharfman, whose 16-year-old, Zach, is on a trip with Nesiya, says she hopes the visit will have a lasting impact.

“We are choosing to look at this situation as an amazing learning experience for Zach and hope that he will return home in a month with much to say regarding the social, political and economic realities of Israel and the region,” she said.

— JGF