College and your child


The following are some of the basic postulates about America, religion, society, morality, the arts and Israel that are taught at almost every American university.

America:

• The United States is no better than any other country, and in some important ways it is worse than many. 

• On the world stage, America is an imperialist country, and domestically it mistreats its minorities and largely neglects its poor.

•  “American exceptionalism” and overt displays of patriotism are examples of American chauvinism. 

• America is a racist country. You white students are racist — and you either acknowledge this or you are in denial.

• Non-whites, however, cannot be racist — because whites have power and the powerless cannot be racist.

• The South votes Republican because it remains racist, and the Republican Party caters to that racism.

• Women are victims — of men. Blacks are victims — of whites. Latinos are victims — of Anglos. Muslims are victims — of Christians. Gays are victims — of straights. 

• The American Founders were sexist, racist slaveholders whose primary concern was preserving their power and wealth.

• The original meaning and intent of the Constitution are either unknowable or irrelevant to today. 

• The Electoral College should be abolished in order to transform America from a republic to a democracy.

• America’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was racist and a war crime.

Religion:

• God is at best a nonissue, and at worst a foolish and dangerous belief. 

• Only people who reject science believe that the universe was designed.

• Religion has killed more people than any other idea, group or movement in human history.

• Christianity, in particular, has been a malevolent force, its history consisting largely of inquisitions, crusades, oppression and anti-intellectualism. Islam, on the other hand, is a religion of peace. 

• Criticism of Christianity is therefore enlightened. Criticism of Islam, however, is a form of bigotry known on campus as Islamophobia.

• The good done by Christians in forming the Western world is not attributable to Christianity. 

• Evil committed by Christians is due to Christianity. Evil committed by Muslims is not due to Islam. 

Society and Morality:

• The reason for Third World poverty is that Western nations exploited Third World nations through colonialism and imperialism.

• The great moral conflicts are between the rich and the poor and between the powerful and the powerless, not between the good and the evil (that is dismissed as Manichaeism).

• The state is the most effective vehicle to creating a humane society. Therefore the larger the state, the more good it will do.

• Big corporations are bad. Big unions are good.

• Capitalism is rooted in selfishness and is structured to benefit the wealthy.

• Health care for profit is morally wrong.

• War is ignoble. Pacifism is noble.

• Human beings are animals, differing from “other animals” only in having more developed brains. 

• Sexual orientation is biologically determined. Gender is not. 

• Therefore, men and women, including mothers and fathers, are essentially interchangeable. The notions that married mothers and fathers are the parental ideal and that mothers and fathers bring unique things to a child are heterosexist and homophobic.

• The greatest vehicle for women’s happiness is career satisfaction, not marrying and making a family.

• The primary causes of criminal violence are poverty and racism.

• Man-made carbon emissions are dramatically heating up the planet, and this will lead to global catastrophe.

Arts and Literature:

• There is no actual meaning to a text. Texts mean what the reader perceives them to mean.

• There is no better and worse in literature and the arts. The reason universities traditionally taught Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Bach — rather than, let us say, Guatemalan poets, Sri Lankan musicians and Native American storytellers — was not that they were the best but because of Western “Eurocentrism.”

Israel:

• Israel’s settlements on the West Bank are the primary cause of the Middle East conflict. 

• Israel is an apartheid state, morally little different from apartheid South Africa.

Many readers agree and many will disagree with all or virtually all of these propositions. But these are the propositions that almost every university teaches students (outside the departments of business, math and the natural sciences). 

Reporting on one study of college faculty, the Washington Post’s media reporter Howard Kurtz (himself a liberal), wrote: “At the most elite schools. … 87 percent of faculty are liberal and 13 percent are conservative.” Kurtz went on to note that 84 percent of instructors were pro-choice, 88 percent of professors want more environmental protection “even if it raises prices or costs jobs” and “65 percent want the government to ensure full employment, a stance to the left of the Democratic Party.”

“The most left-leaning departments are English literature, philosophy, political science and religious studies, where at least 80 percent of the faculty say they are liberal and no more than 5 percent call themselves conservative.” 

As Chris Mooney, a left-wing writer, wrote in the HuffingtonPost: “Higher education is a liberal and secular force in our society.”

If you are a parent who agrees with these postulates, you are likely to deem college worth $100,000 or more. You feel good knowing that the university is reinforcing your values and convictions in your child during the course of the four most impressionable years of his or her life. 

On the other hand, if you are a parent who does not hold these positions, you are not merely wasting an enormous sum of money; you are paying an enormous sum of money to have a college inculcate views and values that are counter to your most precious values and ideals. What you can do about it will be the subject of a future column.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Shimon Peres’ top 10 life lessons [VIDEO]


Shimon Peres celebrated his 90th birthday last week (his actual birthday is in August). Here he is on Israeli television sharing ten lessons he’s learned over the last nine decades.

Analysis: Israel seeks to change rules of the game with Gaza assault


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s retaliation against persistent Hamas mortar and rocket attacks on civilians in southern Israel was far more ferocious than anyone, including Hamas, expected.

The first three days of intensive Israel Air Force bombing in Gaza reduced hundreds of Hamas government buildings, military compounds, laboratories, metal workshops and supply tunnels to rubble and left more than 350 Palestinians, most of them militants, dead. But, as the airstrikes continued and Israeli tanks massed on the Israel-Gaza border, it was not clear how much longer the operation would last or how its goals would be achieved.

The security situation in southern Israel deteriorated quickly after Dec. 19, when Hamas declared that a six-month truce with Israel would not be renewed, and it stepped up its Kassam rocket and Iranian-supplied 120 mm mortar attacks on Sderot and other nearby Israeli towns.

Public pressure on the Israeli government to retaliate intensified, and it was clear the countdown to war had begun. On Dec. 24, after some 70 Kassams and mortars slammed into southern Israel in a single day, the government approved a detailed war plan, leaving the timing and precise scope of each phase to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the IDF.

” alt=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ title=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ vspace = 8 hspace = 8 border = 0 align = left>The initial airstrike on Saturday caught Hamas completely by surprise.

In the first wave, which lasted three minutes and 40 seconds, 64 Israeli jets reduced nearly all of Hamas’ military compounds, command-and-control centers and symbols of government to rubble. In the first two attacks, more than 200 people were killed, most of them Hamas militiamen.

The military problem facing Barak and the country’s military planners is twofold: how to stop the Kassam rockets and how to restore Israeli deterrence in the region after eight years of relative inactivity in the face of rocket attacks.

The devastating opening salvo Israel chose was based on what many military analysts see as Israel’s most effective operation in the 2006 Lebanon War: the bombing of the Hezbollah command-and-control center in Beirut’s Dahya district in the first few days of the fighting. Reducing the Dahya to rubble had a profound shock effect on Hezbollah and other leaders across the Middle East, and is seen as one of the main reasons for the current quiet on the Israel-Lebanon border. Now Israeli military planners hope what they call the “Dahya effect” will take effect in Gaza too and eventually deter Hamas from rocketing Israeli civilians.

In a news conference on the first night of the fighting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spelled out the war’s aims: to create a new security reality in the south in which Israeli civilians can live without fear of rocket or terror attacks. According to Israeli government spokesmen, this will be achieved by drastically changing “the rules of the game.” Through the devastating air force attack and an anticipated follow-up ground incursion, Israel’s leaders hope to:

  • send a clear message to Hamas that the price tag for any future rocket attacks on Israel will be intolerably high;
  • severely weaken Hamas’s current military capacity;
  • limit any future Hamas military build-up; and
  • achieve a new cease-fire regime under which Hamas would have to commit to no more rocket fire, no terrorist attacks, no explosive charges near the border and no more weapons’ smuggling.

The understandings would be reached through a third party, probably Egyptian mediation, and kept in place through Israel’s waving of a big deterrent stick. In other words, the aim of the large-scale Israeli operation is to achieve peace and quiet in southern Israel by establishing a new and very different deterrent model.

Many Israelis, however, are skeptical about the efficacy of the proposed deterrent policy. Some argue that the only way the rockets can be stopped would be to reoccupy Gaza. The Likud’s Yuval Steinitz, former chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, urges creating an Israel buffer between Gaza and Egypt to prevent future arms smuggling. Otherwise, Steinitz warns, Hamas will bring rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv, anti-aircraft batteries that could threaten IAF flights in the Negev, and equipment to monitor all Israeli military movements there. “Maybe we would get peace for a year or two, but the price would be a devastating blow to Israel’s national security,” Steinitz told JTA.

Others reject the idea of any reoccupation of Gaza as counterproductive and hope the government will be able to parlay its success on the battlefield into a long-term political agreement with Hamas.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has spoken of a more ambitious aim: toppling the Hamas government. Olmert and Barak, however, consider this unrealistic, and it is not part of the stated war aims. Nor is the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped and taken to Gaza 900 days ago. Clearly the current operation could put Shalit’s life at risk, but it also could create conditions for a prisoner exchange to secure his release. Indeed, some Israeli leaders, including Livni, say Shalit’s release should be an Israeli condition for any future cease-fire.

The devastating Israeli attacks sparked fierce protests and demonstrations across the Arab and Muslim world, in European capitals and among Israeli Arabs.

But, while Israel was widely criticized in the international media, governments across the world did little to stop the fighting. And despite their public posture criticizing Israel’s “barbarity,” some moderate Arab leaders were not sorry to see Hamas taking a beating — much as, two years ago, they were not sorry to see Hezbollah take a beating in the early days of the 2006 Lebanon War.

The Israel-Hamas clash reflected in microcosm the regional struggle between the pro-Western moderates led by Egypt and the radicals led by Iran. Both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, while strongly condemning the Israeli operation, highlighted the fact that they had urged Hamas leaders to renew the cease-fire and warned them what would happen if they didn’t.

In the first three days of fighting, Hamas fired more than 100 rockets and mortars into Israel, killing at least four civilians. Still, the mood in the country remains strongly supportive of the war, especially in the south, where people see in it the best hope of a more peaceful tomorrow. With elections just over a month away, political support for the war has been wall-to-wall in the Knesset, with the exception of the Israeli Arab parties, who are vehemently opposed. There also has been a degree of reservation on the left wing at the extent of the devastation in Gaza, with calls on the government to start working immediately on an exit strategy to the end the fighting.

Indeed, after three days of fighting, Olmert, Barak and Livni, the three leaders running the war, were moving in two contrary directions, preparing both a ground invasion and an early exit strategy that would translate the IDF’s overwhelming military success into a stable political solution on the ground.

Day at the beach – Omaha Beach


June 6, 1944, may have been the most important day of the 20th century. The Allied invasion of France breached Hitler's Atlantic Wall and decisively turned the war against the Nazi regime.

The invasion itself was a combination of great leadership, detailed planning and a brilliant campaign of deception to convince the Germans that the attack would come at Calais instead of the Normandy beaches. But the final ingredient was the courage of the invasion forces, of which 75 percent were American soldiers. To the Americans fell the nightmare beach to attack: Omaha. It was the most heavily defended and dangerous beach, and it cost by far the most lives.

Had D-Day failed, what would have happened? Would the war effort in the West have become exhausted? Would the concentration camps have been liberated by 1945? Fortunately, these questions will never have to be answered.

Last month, my wife, my daughter and I went to Omaha Beach. We have been in France since September, and this is a trip that I had longed to take. Each semester I spend a full class session on D-Day, because I think it reveals so much — not only about world history but also about the American character.

The Omaha Beach memorial has three important pieces: a creatively designed museum with audiovisual displays, the American cemetery and a path that winds down to the beach itself. The whole D-Day story unfolded at beaches to the north and south, as well, because the attacks took place for miles up and down the coast at other beaches named Juno, Utah, Gold, Sword.

British and Canadian troops joined Americans on those beaches. Attacks on German installations inland were already under way in coordination with the invasion by the French resistance, alerted by coded radio messages from the Allied command.

The museum traces all the intricacies of the invasion planning and execution. The intense secrecy of the invasion plan was dictated by the need to divert the strongest German forces away from the landing site.

Massive deception fooled the German high command right up until the attack and even in the first few days after. The planning was not perfect; in a training exercise for the full invasion force on the English coast, German submarines sneaked in and attacked, costing the lives of more than 700 Allied soldiers.

Even with these snafus, the depth of the planning and training process comes through. This was a well-led project. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's recorded talk to the troops before the invasion is simple and moving, as are accounts of his visit to paratroopers on the way to Normandy.

The decision to attack (moved from June 5) during a break in the stormy weather on June 6 was critical and was, after all, based on something as tricky as a weather forecast. Bad weather would have doomed the invasion.

From the museum you go down to the beach on a winding path. There you can see some remnants of abandoned equipment left as a visual display.

But the real shock is to see how open the beach is, with no real cover or protection for the incoming soldiers. Looming behind you are the hills where the Germans had their guns, with months to set up their lines of fire.

Despite horrific losses in the first wave, the soldiers just kept on coming and somehow made it up the hills and cliffs to silence the German positions. Bold parachute drops behind enemy lines helped turn the tide, but ultimately young American soldiers led by junior officers (taking over for higher-ranking officers who had been killed) had to get their men off the beaches and up the hills.

The cemetery is extremely simple and quiet, as it should be. In neat rows are crosses and Jewish stars with very simple descriptions, all of Americans buried far from home on the soil they had died to liberate. Some are dated June 6, but others are as late as July, a reminder that it took well more than a month to break out of the region and begin in August the push toward Berlin.

Still to come after D-Day were the awful battles of the French hedgerows and the German counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge. Paris was only liberated in late August.

The French have carefully maintained a network of museums and displays all up and down the Normandy coast. Memories of the American GIs who fought and died to liberate Europe and who marched through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris are still strong.

I thought of all those still with us or who have passed on who served in uniform in that war — including my father, my father-in-law, my uncles (two of whom fought in France and helped liberate concentration camps) — and of my mother, my aunts and the many women who served overseas but mostly on the home front.

Much has happened in the U.S.A. and in the world since that day in June 1944. Our relations with Europe have gone up and down, although our alliance remains strong.

Things may never be quite as crystal clear as they were then, when the fate of the world hung in the balance. I listened again this week to the sober address that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered to announce the invasion — in the form of a prayer:

“Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.”

No one knew what the outcome would be.

In facing tough times, Americans have historical resources to fall back upon. Those soldiers who fought their way onto French soil had already lived through the worst of the Great Depression. With great leadership, careful planning and a worthy goal to aim for, Americans have a way of getting there.

It is worth remembering.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the Institut Français de Geopolitique at the University of Paris VIII.

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Part of the memorial at Omaha Beach

Beauty can arise from tragedy


In mid-July, our 26-year-old son, Micah, lost a lifelong friend, whom he had gone all through school with at Adat Ari El and Milken. On that day, Micah went to a birthday party for his friends Arash Khorsandi and Daniel Levian, two Persian Jews in his intimate circle of about 20 friends from his high school class. The bonds among these kids have only grown stronger since they all returned from college.

Micah left the party early because there was a reunion at Camp Alonim that evening that he did not want to miss. We spoke to him and asked about the party, “Lots of drinking, but I got to spend some good time with Daniel Levian, who kept kidding me, ‘Micah, I knew you’d be one of the white boys to show up.'”

Since the seventh grade, the Milken friends have always joked with one another about their Persian and Ashkenazic backgrounds. My son and all his Ashkenazic friends used to refer to the Persians as the Persian Posse. No one could have predicted the lifelong friendship that would flourish among all of them.

Late the next afternoon, Micah called sobbing: “Daniel Levian was killed in a car accident leaving the party last night. His brother is in critical condition.”

As the events unfolded, it was a story that could only be measured against the biblical account of Job. It was everyone’s worst nightmare. Daniel and his brother were passengers. They had taken a taxi to the party and intended to take one home. But as they were leaving, they accepted a ride home with another friend, who survived the accident with minor injuries. Daniel’s brother initially was given a 2 percent chance of survival; he has since come home and is expected to make a full recovery.

Arash and Daniel had been inseparable best friends since the seventh grade. I remember Daniel as an outgoing, engaging roly-poly kid and Arash as a talkative little guy with big, expressive eyes. They grew up to be two swarthy, handsome, successful young professionals with slick black hair raised to stylish points above their scalps — Daniel a real estate investor and Arash a lawyer.

Following Daniel’s death, Arash immediately began working through his sorrow. Just days after the accident, he gathered his friends to meet as a group with a psychotherapist. He followed up with a Friday night Shabbat dinner attended by those who had been at the party, because they all recognized that they needed to be together.

The conversations that ensued began with memories of Daniel, but then transitioned into why Daniel had died; what vulnerabilities they all could encounter; and for which actions could they take responsibility. Faced with Daniel’s death, they were forced to admit that the out-of-control consumption of alcohol among their generation was the fatal mistake. As they spoke further, they realized that many of their generation of young Jewish professionals, including themselves, were living in excess, not only with alcohol, but also through materialism. They spoke about their value system, which ultimately returned them to their Jewish roots.

Since July, about 30 young people, Persians and Ashkenazim, have begun to meet regularly to create the LEV Foundation, inspired by their love and their loss of Daniel Levian. Lev, which means “heart” in Hebrew, is what they often called Daniel.

Recently I sat in as Arash and another close friend, David Chasin, came to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to present the LEV Foundation to Federation President John Fishel and ask for guidance and infrastructure support. David is a participant in The Federation’s Geller Leadership Project. The two described Daniel’s personality and values, and through pictures and stories, they brought him right into the room with them. They proudly told Fishel they were not looking for money; the group, their friends and families would be the funders.

The LEV Foundation envisions itself as built upon multiple pillars. One of them would be social service projects designed to protect young Jews from driving drunk by offering free taxi service to pick them up and take them home. The group even worked out ways that kids’ cars could be driven home so no one would feel they had to drive in order to hide their behavior from their parents.

Another pillar would be advocacy, tackling the issues of excess so apparent in this generation.

Another would be about values, offering Shabbat dinners alternating between Ashkenazic and Persian traditions, Torah study, Israel travel and funding. During this phase of The Federation presentation, Arash and David commented that every one of the 40 young people involved in the creation of this foundation are either day school graduates or Birthright Israel alumni.

I thought about the millions of dollars the Jewish world has invested in day schools and Birthright. If there has ever been a return on the community’s dollars, this effort is the best demonstration. When the critical need arose to face this tragedy, these kids had the knowledge, the values, the tools and the path on which to place their sorrow, so that from it they could work to create a better world. These are our community’s children, of whom we can be very proud.

I thought about all the comments I had heard over the years in the kids’ day schools about the Persian, Israeli and Russian populations.

“Oh, the school is becoming so Persian! The school is becoming so Israeli!” Together, these kids prove that their parents were wrong. As they are showing us, the schools have turned out Jewish kids who can bridge the gaps between them themselves by celebrating one another’s cultures, knowing they are all deeply connected as Jews and friends who share many common experiences.

As Arash and David walked out, I could see Daniel Levian being carried on their shoulders: He wasn’t the tall, thin young man with slick black hair. He was the roly-poly, engaging kid I remembered, and I realized he belongs to all of us.

Gary Wexler, a former advertising agency creative director, owns Passion Marketing, a consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including major Jewish organizations in the United States, Canada and Israel.

Turning 60


Whenever Israel has a watershed anniversary, I’m a sucker for commemorative albums and coins. Like Israel, I was born in 1948. Our lives are intertwined.

Israel is my Rorschach. I see myself refracted in our shared growth and maturity. I believe that the existence of Israel makes possible the incredible blossoming of American Jewish culture. The existence of a tiny, faraway country with a Jewish name blooming in the desert upon ancient stones gives us the confidence to create the vibrant American Jewish world in which we are blessed to live. Israel gives us the courage to labor for justice — for ourselves and for others. Without Israel we would be afraid to find our voice and would not feel secure enough to raise it to advocate for others.

How many remember what it was like to be a Jew before there was an Israel? How many remember the sea change in self-image that Jews everywhere experienced after the Six-Day War?

I experienced that change firsthand. My first trip to Israel, as a college junior, landed me at Lod Airport on July 4, 1967. A soldier ran to greet us on the tarmac. Giddy with pride, he asked, “Did you see what we did?” “What are they saying about us in America?” Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, the prophetic song about the yearning for Jerusalem, played on the radio every 15 minutes.

I remember the first Tisha B’Av at the Western Wall in an independent Jewish state in 2,000 years (a Western Wall with no mechitzah) and combing the newly annexed territories with guides as awestruck as we, one of whom was Yoni Netanyahu — the hero of Entebbe.

I remember afternoons in the Old City, drinking coffee with Arab residents, sensing no one could ever own Jerusalem, but that Jerusalem surely owned me.

I remember feeling blessed to be part of Jewish history.

History. It is easy to forget history in the United States, where we assume it stands still. I’ve just come back from Europe where history is not so easily forgotten. I visited Venice’s original ghetto, where people were crammed into such a small place that buildings with six rather than the usual four stories had 6-foot ceilings. Not many Jews live in Venice today.

In Claude Monet’s Giverny, there is the medieval Rue de Juifs — Jews Street, but no Jews. I visited Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House as well as Berlin’s Jewish Museum. These emblems of Jewish history’s ebb and flow recalled Israel’s Beit Hatfutzoth (Diaspora Museum), which traces the Jewish journey from burning Jerusalem in 70 C.E. to today, underscoring that we pass through time and space and should not make assumptions.

At a time when the permanence of pax Americana can no longer be taken for granted, what are the consequences of our assumption of the permanence of the United States as a haven for Jewish safety? The sense of Israel as the homeland for stateless Jews has vanished with the image of the hairy sabra with the rounded hat — carrying a hoe — now replaced by the sabra with a shaved head — carrying a cellphone. But Israel provides us an anchor in history that we didn’t have 60 years ago. Every Jewish psyche, consciously or not, is steadier because of that anchor.

We are 60. What have we learned in progressing from that exuberance on the tarmac at 19, to the more nuanced issues faced at 60?

I have learned the proximity of joy and loss and the ability to embrace paradox holding two seemingly contradictory facts or narratives as one — such as the back-to-back observances of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut.

I have learned to fight the corrosive effect of multiple losses on my character and to struggle not to have my vision sullied by assaults to my safe place in the world.

I have learned that finding peace is more important than being right, but that I can’t make peace with someone who doesn’t see me, nor they with me if I don’t see them.

So even when we list our accomplishments at age 60: mother, author, rabbi, psychotherapist … number of Intel chips produced, per-capita books published, patents held, technological and medical super-achievements — these are the questions I ask:

Have we loved enough?

Have we forgiven enough?

Have we learned the lessons of our losses enough?

Have we walked in the shoes of those we have judged?

Do the boundaries that we create keep us safe?

When I was ordained as a rabbi in May, “haRav” was added to my Hebrew name. Rav means “great,” referring to the amount of knowledge a rabbi is supposed to have. But all who study Judaism know that the body of Jewish knowledge is infinite, and Jewish learning is an unending process. So perhaps the most important thing one can learn is humility.

Humility is an opportunity not for despair but for hope. When we admit that there is much we don’t know, we remain open to the unknown. It is the anniversary of the miracle from the unknown that we celebrate when we celebrate a birthday.

Like birth, peace comes from a place we don’t yet know. Humility keeps us open, searching the unknown with curiosity and hope. HaTikvah.

Rabbi Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001. She teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is on the board of the L.A. Community Mikveh and Education Center. She can be reached at mekamot@aol.com.

Lessons of gratitude


In the course of a lifetime, we encounter any number of friends.

Some are friends by happenstance — friends who happen to attend school with us, happen to work where we do or reside near us. When we graduate from school, change careers or relocate, most such friends slowly disappear from our lives — and we from theirs.

But there are others, fewer, whose friendship lasts a lifetime. They are the friends we invite to our child’s bar mitzvah or wedding, even though we have not seen each other, or perhaps even spoken, for years.

In the soul of the permanent friendships that account for such deeper love, we very often find rooted some unspoken aspect of gratitude — a friendship built within the trenches and foxholes when we faced unremitting attack, the friend who opened a door and welcomed us when we were alone, the person who was “there” when others were not.

In this week’s Torah portion, we see glimpses of the phenomena that lie beneath the love and gratitude. As so often happens, gratitude is not always consciously expressed. But in deeds and life behavior, the importance of gratitude — hakarat hatov — is a Jewish value that is at the core of our societal being.

Moshe is born into a world that has condemned him to death. In desperation, his mother instructs Miriam, Moshe’s sister, to place him in the river and to stand watch. Miriam stands guard faithfully. When Moshe is received and effectively adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam rapidly reports to her mother, and Yocheved appears at the palace to nurse and rear Moshe in the ways and values of the Hebrews (Exodus 2:2-8).

In time, Moshe becomes a young man at the palace — some midrashic sources say he is 20, some say 40 — when he sees a horrible persecution. As discussed in Midrash Tanchuma, an Egyptian taskmaster has raped a Hebrew woman in her home and now is torturing the life out of her enslaved husband, who has learned the secret.

Moshe looks both ways — some say that he simply is assuring that there are no witnesses; some say he is desperately looking for someone else to stand up and do what must be done, but “he saw there is no man. And he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). Soon after, at the first of many unpleasant encounters he will endure with Datan and Aviram, he is compelled to flee Egypt for his life.

He reaches the wilderness of Midian, where he will remain in relative solitude for the next 40 or 60 years. In that wilderness, as Rav Avigdor Miller has observed, he will have time to contemplate his life’s purpose and to weigh the meaning of his extended isolation from his persecuted people, continuing to withhold the unique life gifts and skills he gained while he was reared amid nobility and power.

At a well in that wilderness, he meets a shepherdess, Tzipporah, whom he first protects from attackers, then marries at the behest of a grateful father-in-law, Yitro, the high priest of Midian (Exodus 2:15-21). In so doing, he perhaps unknowingly continues the nascent Hebrew tradition that saw two of our patriarchs marry women found at the wells — Rivkah and Rachel. All’s well that ends well.

Soon, Hashem will reveal to his brother, Aharon, that Moshe will lead the nation to freedom, and Aharon — rejoicing in his heart (Exodus 4:14) — will come to draw Moshe back to Egypt.

And thus the background. Here is how the Torah value of gratitude will play out over the next 40 years. Moshe will never forget that Miriam stood by his basket floating in the water.

When she later will speak adversely about him and his relationship with his wife, eliciting on her Hashem’s punishment of biblical leprosy, Moshe patiently and lovingly will pray for her recovery and then will do as she did, waiting patiently with the nation he is leading until her status is restored (Numbers 12:11-16).

Aharon, who responded with joy to news of Moshe’s elevation over him, will be rewarded with the crown of the kehunah (priesthood) for all his generations. Unlike the contretemps that so gravely prevailed amid the jealousies of older Yishmael toward younger Yitzchak, older Esav toward younger Yaakov, and the older brothers toward Yosef, Aharon’s unilateral love and joy for Moshe’s elevation will seal the bond for a lifetime’s fraternity, transcending genetic brotherhood.

Hashem will repay Yitro for hosting and feeding Moshe, just as He did Lavan, who hosted and fed Yaakov — notwithstanding that each conferred hospitality for their own particular reasons — with sons who will continue their dynasties (Genesis 30:35, 31:1; Judges 1:16). Moshe will honor Yitro repeatedly, first demonstratively asking his permission to return to Egypt, even though Hashem has commanded Moshe to depart from Midian (Exodus 4:18). And later Moshe will welcome Yitro into the Hebrew nation’s midst, even adopting counsel Yitro offers.

Moshe, too, will demonstrate a fascinating gratitude toward the water that saved his life in infancy and the sand that hid the Egyptian tormentor whom he slew. Years later, when the first plagues hit Egypt in its water and earth, Moshe will not use his staff to strike those inanimate resources but instead will delegate that task to Aharon (Exodus 7:19, 8:2, 8:12).

These are the lessons of gratitude — and the wonderful impact with which this Torah value enriches the lives of those who perform great acts of friendship — and those who know how to carry hakarat hatov within their souls.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.

Political Journal


Israel School Teaches Peace Lesson

Racially motivated brawls at Jefferson High School this spring made the school appear, at times, like a miniwar zone. Which makes it especially interesting that L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) officials are learning lessons from Israeli and West Bank schools, where violence, even terrorism, is an ever-present undercurrent.

The person bringing those lessons to Los Angeles is USC professor Ron Avi Astor, who has spent his career studying school violence in Israel and the United States. His newest book, co-written with Israeli professor Rami Benbenishty of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, is titled, “School Violence in Contest: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender.” The two scholars conducted studies encompassing 30,000 Israeli students at a time.

A fundamental finding is that a school’s response to violence should relate to the type of violence: One size does not fit all. One of the first steps is to ask students, teachers and local authorities to describe the problem in detail, be it sexual harassment, weapons, gangs, bullying or something else.

Then, Astor said, officials should map the results. This process immediately reveals where students fear to go, allowing the school to target its response.

In Israel, national attention focused on the problem of school violence during the late 1990s. The government turned to Astor for advice. Acting on his input, schools put in place teacher training based on his methods, and a national dialogue on school violence in Israel began, Astor says. Since then, school violence has dropped by about 25 percent by his estimate.

Some of the schools facing the most hardships have fared best. Shevach Mofet in Herzeliya, for example, saw seven of its students killed in a Tel Aviv nightclub bombing.

The school managed not only to avoid fracturing into conflicting groups, but “created such a strong sense of community that a number of kids were propelled to colleges and good jobs, because they felt they were part of a greater cause,” Astor said.

He said that schools are not doomed to replicate patterns of violent behavior present in the communities around them.

“If you’re in a horrible neighborhood that has drugs and violence and political issues, and we have some of those in the West Bank, a school could shelter you,” Astor said.

The more actively the school assumes a positive, perceptive role in the community, he added, the more violent messages from the outside are mitigated. Schools that are more passive regarding a neighborhood’s ills — which focus, say, only on academics — tend to let in more of the violent messages coming from outside, Astor said.

The polling and mapping Astor and his colleagues developed in Israel and the West Bank are now at work in the LAUSD, where Astor sits on the Working Group for Safer School Communities. Students at Fremont High School in South Los Angeles and Gardena High School have already participated in mapping the dangerous areas around them, and eight more schools may soon follow. Infusing schools with a sense of purpose and community involvement is no quick fix, but the benefits over time can be transforming.

“Some of the schools we looked at were in the West Bank, where [students] go in with armored buses,” Astor recalled. “It’s amazing when you go into some of those schools. They are the most peaceful environments inside.”

Abortion Amendment on the Ballot

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for this November’s special election, he opened a Pandora’s Box. Schwarzenegger’s own initiatives (limiting teacher tenure, granting himself extra fiscal powers and changing the way legislative districts are drawn) are only three of eight now on the ballot.

One of the other ballot measures is a state constitutional amendment called Proposition 73, which would require doctors to notify the parents of minors who want an abortion.

In 1997, the California Supreme Court struck down a state law that would have required parental consent, calling it an invasion of privacy.

However, a constitutional amendment, such as Proposition 73, could preclude state judicial review.

The pro-73 campaign says that notifying parents of their child’s wish to have an abortion would help protect the pregnant minor by introducing mature decision making. It claims anecdotally that most people agree that parents have a right to be involved in this aspect of their children’s lives.

Proposition 73 opponents counter that teens who don’t tell their parents frequently have a good reason not to.

“We know that most teens talk to their parents,” said Hillary Selvin, executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women L.A. “Teens who don’t usually [have] a reason — like abuse or incest caused by somebody close to the parent or by the parents themselves.”

Selvin said that the teens who are most alienated from their parents are the ones most vulnerable.

“They will either go out of state or try and get an abortion illegally,” she said. “And I think most of us thought we were past that point in this country.”

She added that pursuing a judicial waiver to parental notification, which Proposition 73 would allow, is an unrealistic option for a pregnant teenager to pursue.

Yes on 73 campaign staff did not return calls seeking a response.

Whatever else it does, Proposition 73 makes the abortion process more difficult and complicated; it would therefore be likely to reduce the number of abortions. That in itself would please anti-abortion activists.

By far the biggest financial backer of Proposition 73 is James Holman, a publisher of several Catholic newspapers, as well as the secular San Diego Reader. Holman has donated about $1.3 million to the campaign, and has in the past opposed abortion in general, with or without parental notification.

 

Writer, Cast Find Faith in ‘Lessons’


Wendy Graf sat in a synagogue several years ago listening to a rabbi’s sermon.

“She was talking about experiencing a traumatic event and how her faith had been sorely tested,” Graf recalled. “That really got me thinking.”

Graf went on to write “Lessons,” her latest play that mines the depths of a rabbi’s religious crisis and also draws upon her own spiritual awakening and subsequent adult bat mitzvah.

“I’m not the type of writer who can just sit down and bang out ‘Star Wars,'” she conceded. “Whatever I write has to be compelling to me in a personal way.”

Opening tonight at the Lee Strasberg Theater, “Lessons” kicks off an auspicious season for the West Coast Jewish Theater and points to an increasingly vibrant Jewish theater scene in Los Angeles. With an unprecedented lineup of three full-fledged productions this year, the West Coast Jewish Theater will be presenting “American Klezmer” in the fall and a premiere about Jewish cabaret star Sophie Tucker this winter. Other upcoming theatrical events include Sandy Wolshin’s play “The Rabbi and The Cheerleader,” opening in August at the Odyssey Theater while director Alexandra More will resume her Celebrity Staged-Play Readings at the Westside JCC in September.

“Lessons” revolves around Ben, a 60-something man who seeks the bar mitzvah he never had and Ruth, a disillusioned 40-something rabbi who has been roped into tutoring him. As the down-and-out Ruth reluctantly provides her seemingly indefatigable student with a Jewish education, Ben does his best to charm his way through his teacher’s formidable barriers. He nags her to stop smoking, brings her bagels and gets personal about his life and reasons for no longer wanting to be “a watered-down Jew.” Gradually, Ruth reveals the secret behind her depression and, essentially, one revelation leads to another. Ultimately, Ben successfully learns what he needs from Ruth but he, too, has important lessons to teach.

“There are aspects of myself in both of these characters,” observed Graf, who has written three other plays and led a varied career as an actress, screenwriter and private investigator. “Like Ben, I was secular and felt like I was missing something. And like Ruth, I, too, experienced a crisis of faith.”

Directed by Adam Davidson, “Lessons” stars Hal Linden as Ben, Mare Winningham as Ruth and has been co-produced by The Group, the Strasberg Theater’s production company.

“This play is about how we find faith in the world and this really spoke to me,” said Davidson during a rehearsal break at the Strasberg Theater. “Wendy found a way to dramatize what’s specific to Judaism in a way that’s universal to anyone dealing with issues of faith.”

An accomplished TV and film director whose credits include “Six Feet Under” and an Oscar for his short film, “The Lunch Date,” Davidson adds that while the play delves into the details of religion, “you’re not going to see a sermon. This is a story for an audience to get involved in and feel hopefully moved by the experience,” he says.

Like Davidson, who alluded to the play having “personal resonance,” both Linden and Winningham say their reasons for performing in this production are not just professional.

“Ben represents what happened to me and a lot of other people,” Linden said. “Sure, I had a bar mitzvah but I’ve been a Jew who goes to synagogue twice a year. Like Ben, sometimes I wonder whether I’m missing something in my life.”

Linden, who’s best known for his role as Barney Miller on the hit 1970s-early ’80s TV show, grew up in the Bronx and had a father “for whom Judaism was more about Zionism. Spirituality took a back seat in my family,” he said. “And now that I have children of my own, I think, ‘What have I not passed onto them?’ That’s why this play tears my heart out. Ben says he’s a watered-down Jew but really, we’re a generation of watered-down Jews.”

Unlike Linden, Winningham has less in common with her character but more in common with the playwright. Having converted to Judaism two years ago, the Emmy Award-winning actress has recently undergone her own intensive spiritual search and feels “it’s fate” that she’s playing the role of Ruth.

“She isn’t like me at all, but I feel I’ve had a few years of preparation for this,” she said. “Ruth is stuck in her grief but she’s a rabbi and someone who’s supposed to inspire people. I am someone who’s been inspired by Judaism and so I get that which is buried in her.”

“I would have been drawn to this play anyway because I love the idea of two characters traveling a great distance and turning each other’s lives around,” Winningham added. “But it’s really exciting that I found a play that crosses over into my own life.”

Encouraged by her collaborators’ response to “Lessons,” Graf has been working on a new Holocaust-related script that explores “hope, renewal and Jewish identity.

“A friend of mine said that I’m becoming the Chaim Potok of Brentwood,” she said. “But I see how people have become so involved with ‘Lessons.’ And I know that I have something to pass onto to my children.”

“Lessons” runs through Aug. 27 at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center’s Marilyn Monroe Theater, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Showtimes are Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. $25. For more information, call (323) 650-7777.

 

Dive Into Home Swim Lessons


One of the biggest dangers for children during summer is drowning. Some people think enclosing a pool with a fence or covering it with a pool cover will render the area safe, but fences are accidentally left open and covers can be left off.

The only real solution is to teach children water safety and swimming, and the time before summer hits is the best to teach kids to swim. But you don’t necessarily need a school or private teacher.

4 months to 24 months

The age we recommend introducing children to swimming is 4 months old. At this age, babies are not really swimming, but they can move underwater and learn not to be afraid of the water.

Until the age of 2, it’s hard for a child to pick up his/her head and breath while swimming. What you should teach an infant to do is — after falling in the water — how to turn around and swim to the side of the pool. Even though, it is hard for them to climb up at this age, they can get to the side of the pool and cry for help.

The way we work with babies is by counting one, two, three, blowing air on their face — so they will close their eyes and mouth by reflex action — and then we take them underwater. After the baby is comfortable in the water and under the water, we start working on kicking. Hold their legs and move them up and down to get the baby used to the motion.

Next we let a baby sit on the side of the pool, hold them, count to three and put the child under the water for two seconds. By that point the baby should be kicking. If not, repeat the above steps over again. It is important to stay very calm with your baby and do everything slowly so the baby will feel comfortable and secure.

Ages 2 and Up

Older than 2, there are a few different ways to teach swimming.

1) Throw the kid into the water.

While this is the old way and could be very traumatic, it actually works 70 percent of the time. The other 30 percent, the child becomes very traumatized, and typically it is then very hard to acclimate them to the water after that experience. I don’t recommend this method. Even though it is fast, the dangers are greater than the rewards.

2) Learning with floaties.

This is an easy technique to teach, but could be very dangerous. Since the child learns to rely on the floaties, if your child ends up in the water alone he/she won’t be able to swim. This method is fast, but the transition to swimming without them could take very long. The way to do it with Floaties is to teach the kids to kick with straight legs over the water and to make long strokes with outstretched arms while their face is in the water.

3) Teach kids to swim without floaties from the beginning.

(Please note: children need to be held and supervised closely at all times in the water until they know how to swim. It is OK to use floaties when the kids are just playing in the water.)

First stage: Teach the child to put his/her face in the water. Then teach the child to kick while holding the edge of the pool or steps. From there, teach your child how to do long strokes with hands while sitting on the steps. After mastering these skills, move to the second stage.

Second stage: Stand two feet away from the steps and tell your child to put his/her face in the water, push and swim to you. Slowly, take another (and another) step back so your child can swim to you. Be aware that this takes time. You have to go through the basic steps over and over again before you let your child try on his/her own. In practice, we hold the child by the hips, letting him or her practice arm strokes and kicking.

Usually, if the child is not afraid to put their face in the water, we can teach him or her to swim in six to 12 lessons of 30 minutes each. It could take you a little longer.

Gal and Galia Yardeni are sports teachers with bachelor’s degrees in sports education from Wingate University in Israel. They own and operate a swim school in Los Angeles and specialize in early childhood development. Galia Yardeni was an Israeli swim champion. She teaches kids through fun and games. For more information, call (310) 739-7257.

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Yeladim


 

I Have a Lesson For You

Happy New Year!

It is back to school and back to lessons. In this week’s parshah, Pharaoh learns a few lessons, too – seven, to be exact.

But, Pharaoh is a slow learner – and it will take three more lessons (in next week’s portion) to make him finally realize that the God of the Israelites is stronger than he is. Let’s hope you don’t need any plagues to teach you what you need to know!

Anawhat?

An anagram is a word or phrase whose letters can be rearranged

to form a different word or phrase. Try this one on for size:

THE “IN” BEAR

Take the letters in this phrase and turn it into one word that

describes a bear’s “winter activity.”

Predictions 2005

This will happen in January:

RESPENLIADTI TIONAUGINRUA

This will happen in May:

DAYRIF HET THTEEIRNTH

These two holidays will occur on the same day

ANUCHKAH SRTMCHISA

 

On Jewish Mothers


I was raised on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx by a woman who could have taken Olympic gold in Jewish mothering. Sonia, Abie-the-tailor’s

wife, never stopped fearing for my life. She made me wear galoshes on sunny days (“It might rain, you never know!”), and warned that if I left the house with wet hair Iwould die one hour later of pneumonia.The worst thing is when my mother does her worrying in front of other people — like boys! When I’m 13, I have my first solo piano recital. I’m wearing a sleeveless, scooped-neck dress that Abie copied from Seventeen. The whole building is there, including Stanley Eichenholtz from 5B. I think Stanley likes me. Whenever we pass on the staircase, he always punches my arm.

I finish the last piece, and I stand up to do the curtsy that Mrs. Blitzer taught me. This is my favorite part. Suddenly, in the middle of my moment of glory, my lunatic mother runs up on the stage, throws a schmattadickeh old cardigan over my bare shoulders, and screams in a heavy Yiddish accent, “Cover up! You’re perspiring! You’re gonna catch a bug!”

The humiliation is not over, because the next time Stanley passes me on the staircase, he says, “Cover up! You’re gonna catch a bug, ha, ha!” And then he punches me on the arm. I am so ashamed. Why must my parents be such immigrants?

I have to acknowledge that, in her better moments, my mother also paid for piano lessons, took me to movie musicals and saved nickels and dimes for years so that I could go to Europe after college. Also, my mother never left the house without a pocket full of crumbs for the sparrows and a pocket full of change “for the poor people” — totally innocent of the fact that she was the poor people. And as little as she had, she would share it.

Mama rented a room to a recent immigrant from Poland. The man had been a professor, but now was scraping by as a janitor. My mother felt very sorry for him, but she knew he’d be too proud to take charity. So when he came home at night she would make up a story: “Oy, Mr. Rabinovitz, I made this all this food and now my daughter’s not coming over for dinner. Do me a favor, have some or I’ll have to throw it out.”

So Mr. Rabinovitz would “do her a favor” and have some.

Ashamed? I should have been proud. But she was still a constant source of embarrassment to me, and after the Stanley Eichenholtz incident I swore that when I grew up and had a child of my own, I would never be an overprotective, interfering, super-doting Jewish mother.

Then I became a parent and — you guessed it — history repeated itself. My son treated hip, worldly, sophisticated me with the same scornful superiority I dished out to my simple, old-country mother.

Back in his college years, he announces he’s going to Vegas for the weekend with some friends. I ask how he’s getting there, and he rolls his eyes and heaves one of those “parents-are-such-a-pain” sighs. He patiently informs me that they’re going in Dave’s car.

I look at Dave’s car, and I see Death. Dave’s car is an open jeep: no roof and no sides. We are a family that drives Volvos. I point out that if they take that car through the desert, not only will they be burned to a crisp, but they won’t have any protection in a collision. I suggest that they rent a nice four-door sedan. More eye-rolling, more sighing and then the killer accusation: “Would you please stop being such a Jewish mother!”

Why fight it? I decide to plead guilty: “Listen, I am a Jewish Mother! And maybe one day you’ll thank me for it! Here’s some money. Rent a real car!”

The boys are driving back from Vegas. There’s a van in front of them with a heavy glass door strapped to the roof. Suddenly this glass door comes loose, flies through the air, and crashes right onto the top of the rented car. But the heavy steel roof protects the kids and nobody gets hurt! So I do the best I can to protect my child. Just like my poor mother did the best she could.

Then I read “The Joy Luck Club,” and I think, “Those Chinese mothers are very familiar.”

And I see this movie, “My Left Foot,” and I think, “That Irish mother is very familiar.”

Then a black girlfriend calls about her teenage son. She’s concerned because he can’t find a summer job, so she asks me to find him a little computer work.

“I will pay his salary,” she says. “Just don’t tell him where the money’s coming from.”

This sounds very familiar.

Then I get my nails done and the Vietnamese manicurist, Kim, tells me she has six children and they all live in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in a very bad neighborhood.

“All children full scholarship: Berkeley, UCLA, M.I.T., Harvard, Amherst, Yale,” she says. “You want to cut cuticles?”

Well, I may have turned into my mother, but I am not alone. Everyone has turned into my mother!

Annie Korzen (“Seinfeld’s” Doris Klompus) tours and lectures worldwide with her solo show, “Yenta Unplugged.” Her humorous essays have aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and will appear in freshyarn.com and theknish.com. Her web site is

All the Children


On the eve of Simchat Torah, many synagogues auction the three major honors of the day, with proceeds benefiting the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. Two honors, hatan Torah (for the one called to the final reading in Deuteronomy) and hatan Bereshit (for the one called to the first reading in Genesis), usually receive the highest bids. The third, kol hanearim — supervising the blessing of all minor children as a tallit is held over their heads, while the honoree receives the next-to-last aliyah in Vezot Haberakha — can be a close second.

One year, however, the auction for kol hanearim in my synagogue was unusually competitive. When finally over, I asked the man who fiercely bid the highest why he vied for this honor.

Surprised by my question, he replied as if it were self-evident: “The one who supervises scores of little children crowded under the tallit, reciting the same blessing Jacob uttered over his grandchildren, is himself guaranteed Jewish grandchildren. Could I want less for myself?”

These words come to me again and again, whenever I contemplate the unique Torah portion, Vezot Haberakha, the only parsha not identified with a specific Shabbat. Rather, it is reserved for the joyous Simchat Torah holiday, with its unique kol hanearim ceremony, and as such deserves close analysis.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 42a, referring to Vezot Haberakha, provides a provocative comment: “Our rabbis taught: A minor who is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah…. What could be meant by Torah? Rav Hamnuna replied, the Scriptural verse [Deuteronomy 33:4], ‘Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.'”

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, an early 20th century commentator, questions why the Talmud chose this particular passage as the first Torah verse that a parent must teach a child. Epstein suggests that by referring to Torah as a morasha, an inheritance of all Jews — young and old alike — it rejects the notion that only mature adults are obligated to observe Torah. An inheritance is age blind, and so too is the Torah.

The word morasha, however, may contain another dimension. An early 19th century German scholar, the Ktav V’Kabblah, notes that the usual word for inheritance is yerusha, not morasha. In fact, morasha is best translated as “a possession” rather than “an inheritance.” The difference is crucial. One receives an inheritance without individual effort, but one attains a possession through personal exertion. Torah, in other words, requires personal exertion rather than effortless lineage. The only way to become fluent in Torah is to work at studying Torah.

Ketav Sofer, a 19th century scholar, remarks that “morasha kehillat Yaakov,” “a possession of the congregation of Jacob,” meaning that no Jew is an island. No Jew can observe all of the mitzvot of the Torah, for the 613 commandments don’t all apply to any one person. Some only apply to Kohanim, others to Leviim, some to women, while others only to those who live in Israel. Only as a part of the congregation of Israel can we become complete Jews.

Certainly, these lessons are themes that the beautiful kol hanearim ceremony emphasizes.

First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.

Second, kol hanearim suggests that Torah requires effort. Neither children nor adults will acquire knowledge unless they work at studying Torah. If they put in the effort, they will be rewarded with the greatest gift: the Torah itself.

And, finally, we must appreciate that a Jewish life must include the community of fellow Jews. The children are blessed as part of an entire group — part of a future community — because Torah can’t be lived in isolation. Instead, our blessing emphasizes the need for everyone to be involved with the Jewish community, for only together do we comprise the congregation that both Vezot Haberakha and Simchat Torah celebrate.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 9, 1998.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.

All the ChildrenAll the ChildrenAll the ChildrenAll the Children


On the eve of Simchat Torah, many synagogues auction the three major honors of the day, with proceeds benefiting the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. Two honors, hatan Torah (for the one called to the final reading in Deuteronomy) and hatan Bereshit (for the one called to the first reading in Genesis), usually receive the highest bids. The third, kol hanearim — supervising the blessing of all minor children as a tallit is held over their heads, while the honoree receives the next-to-last aliyah in Vezot Haberakha — can be a close second.

One year, however, the auction for kol hanearim in my synagogue was unusually competitive. When finally over, I asked the man who fiercely bid the highest why he vied for this honor.

Surprised by my question, he replied as if it were self-evident: “The one who supervises scores of little children crowded under the tallit, reciting the same blessing Jacob uttered over his grandchildren, is himself guaranteed Jewish grandchildren. Could I want less for myself?”

These words come to me again and again, whenever I contemplate the unique Torah portion, Vezot Haberakha, the only parsha not identified with a specific Shabbat. Rather, it is reserved for the joyous Simchat Torah holiday, with its unique kol hanearim ceremony, and as such deserves close analysis.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 42a, referring to Vezot Haberakha, provides a provocative comment: “Our rabbis taught: A minor who is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah…. What could be meant by Torah? Rav Hamnuna replied, the Scriptural verse [Deuteronomy 33:4], ‘Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.'”

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, an early 20th century commentator, questions why the Talmud chose this particular passage as the first Torah verse that a parent must teach a child. Epstein suggests that by referring to Torah as a morasha, an inheritance of all Jews — young and old alike — it rejects the notion that only mature adults are obligated to observe Torah. An inheritance is age blind, and so too is the Torah.

The word morasha, however, may contain another dimension. An early 19th century German scholar, the Ktav V’Kabblah, notes that the usual word for inheritance is yerusha, not morasha. In fact, morasha is best translated as “a possession” rather than “an inheritance.” The difference is crucial. One receives an inheritance without individual effort, but one attains a possession through personal exertion. Torah, in other words, requires personal exertion rather than effortless lineage. The only way to become fluent in Torah is to work at studying Torah.

Ketav Sofer, a 19th century scholar, remarks that “morasha kehillat Yaakov,” “a possession of the congregation of Jacob,” meaning that no Jew is an island. No Jew can observe all of the mitzvot of the Torah, for the 613 commandments don’t all apply to any one person. Some only apply to Kohanim, others to Leviim, some to women, while others only to those who live in Israel. Only as a part of the congregation of Israel can we become complete Jews.

Certainly, these lessons are themes that the beautiful kol hanearim ceremony emphasizes.

First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.

Second, kol hanearim suggests that Torah requires effort. Neither children nor adults will acquire knowledge unless they work at studying Torah. If they put in the effort, they will be rewarded with the greatest gift: the Torah itself.

And, finally, we must appreciate that a Jewish life must include the community of fellow Jews. The children are blessed as part of an entire group — part of a future community — because Torah can’t be lived in isolation. Instead, our blessing emphasizes the need for everyone to be involved with the Jewish community, for only together do we comprise the congregation that both Vezot Haberakha and Simchat Torah celebrate.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 9, 1998.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.

A Parent’s Mercy


It was about this time last year that my 2 1¼2-year-old son decided to begin his terrible twos. At first we hoped that we’d been given a reprieve, but we soon discovered otherwise. He was apparently intent on making up for lost time.

I never knew what he would do next, or what the next casualty might be. If I ever took an afternoon nap, I had to mentally brace myself before re-entering the war zone — I mean living room.

But whatever he did — and he did plenty — he always had the same line when he got caught. It came with big brown eyes opened wide, and the sweetest smile: "I not gonna do it a-n-y-more."

At first, we actually believed him. But we learned quickly. It became a joke at times, a source of frustration at others. But he continued to say it with the same childish innocence, and we continued to not buy it with the same parental cynicism — until our perspective changed.

It was the end of the second day of Rosh Hashanah. My neighbor and I were sitting on a bench, watching our children play as the darkening sky brought the holiday to a close. The kids were playing tag in the street (this is Israel, after all), when we saw a truck coming down the road. The kids dashed for the sidewalk.

Suddenly I realized that Meir wasn’t among them.

"Did you see Meir?" I asked my neighbor.

"No."

My heart pounding, I looked around. No Meir.

Calm down, I told myself. Maybe he just went into the house.

My daughter went to check. She came right back out again and reported that the door was locked.

Locked? I hadn’t locked the door. How could it be locked?

I looked up at our apartment. To my relief, the gate to the yard was open. I asked one of the boys to climb up and jump the fence while I waited outside the front door. The boy opened it with a big smile and pointed to the kitchen.

I walked in to find Meir seated at the kitchen table, licking a purloined popsicle with sheer delight.

As I stared at him, I knew what was coming. Sure enough, he stopped licking, gave me those eyes and said, "Mommy, I not gonna do it a-n-y-more."

I was all set to tell him that he had better not say that anymore, when suddenly, like that morning’s first shofar blasts, it hit me.

I do this all the time.

Especially around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Throughout the year, I make mistakes. I say things I shouldn’t. I listen to them, too. I don’t pray with proper concentration. I raise my voice. The list is much longer.

But as the High Holidays approach, I wake up and hear the shofar, and I know that I have to clean up my act, fast.

So what do I say to God?

I’ll tell you what I say.

"Hashem, please forgive me. I’m not gonna do any of it a-n-y-more."

Instead of letting little Meir have it, I let little me have it.

Do I mean what I say? Do I really think that I’m never going to do these things again? Who am I kidding?

But I’m not kidding, I answered myself. I want to be better. I really do.

And my children? Don’t they deserve the same chance that I am oh so willing to extend to myself? Might Meir, when he’s caught, be just as sincere as I believe myself to be?

I sat down next to him, took his sticky hands in mine, and held him on my lap. "If we are like children," we say after each set of shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, "have mercy upon us as a father has on his children."

Our sages teach us that God deals with us as we deal with others. Beseeching Him to have mercy upon us as a father means that we parents have a special opportunity to "tip the scales." If we view our children’s behavior as a metaphor for our relationship with our own Father in Heaven, we might not be so quick to pass judgment on them.

After all, if God can continue to believe His children’s promises of "I’m not gonna do it a-n-y-more," year after year, shouldn’t we be able to do the same?

Of course there are lessons that we must teach our children. But if we deliver those lessons with love and understanding, we may merit the same from above.

May that merit be ours, now, as the New Year approaches.


Dafna Breines, an editor and translator, lives with her husband and children in Beitar Eilit, Israel.

Two Educators Earn Honors


Barry Koff, who integrates technology and art into his religious school lesson plans, is a recipient of this year’s Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Joanne Mercer, retiring director of education at Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm, suggested Koff be considered for national recognition by the Jewish Education Service of North America and the local Bureau of Jewish Education.

Another winner from Orange County this year is Limor Barkol, a Hebrew teacher at Morasha Jewish Day School in Rancho Santa Margarita and Westminster’s Temple Beth David.

"I have had the fortune of studying with many of Orange County’s wealth of rabbis and educators, including my mentor, Rabbi Bernie King," Koff said, referring to the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’a lot. "King says that ‘everyone we meet is our teacher,’ so I suppose I come by my Jewish knowledge through my family, friends and strangers."

Koff earned a state teaching credential and completed a master’s degree in Jewish education through Chicago’s Spertus College. Yet his first career as an on-air radio broadcaster comes through in his classroom. During three years at Bat Yaym, Koff encouraged use of student-made video documentaries about Jewish genealogy and music videos about historic Jewish personalities.

"I try to bring whatever creativity I can to allow students to express themselves and their Jewish identity," Koff said.

His assignment is seventh-grade Judaic studies and middle-schoolers preparing to become confirmands.

He previously served as education director at Shir Ha-Ma’a lot, where he started, wrote and produced full-length Jewish-themed musicals for the Not Ready for Orthodox Players children’s theater.

Koff, 46, and his wife, Ann, live in Dana Point with 10-year-old twins, Jonathan and Shoshana. Koff currently is a full-time home-school teacher for his children.

The award recognizes 50 outstanding Jewish educators annually. They each receive $2,500 toward funding professional development.

Koff intends to use the prize money for a summer study program in Israel.

Lost in Translation


Imagine a foreigner hearing some American idioms for the first time, and the ensuing confusion. For example, when an English speaker wants to say that your point is irrelevant, he says, "What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?"

Most of us don’t even know where that phrase comes from (according to one dictionary, it is simply a variant of "What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?" and has been around since the 1940s — perhaps influenced by the expression, "I wouldn’t do that, not for all the tea in China."), but we use it all the time nonetheless. If you’re a Spanish speaker, you would say to the same irrelevant speaker, "Yo tengo una tía que toca la guitarra," which literally translates to, "I have an aunt that plays the guitar," the Spanish way of dismissing another’s comments as not being to the point (the Spanish are much more colorful and vivid in their nonsensical idioms than us Americans). We won’t even touch Yiddish idioms — we’d need a whole bookshelf to analyze those.

The beautiful thing about living in Israel is that even if you have no knowledge of Judaism whatsoever, you will invariably speak "Jewish," as the modern Hebrew language is generously peppered with idioms and clichés from biblical and talmudic sources. To the same irrelevant comment, an Israeli would say, "Mah inyan Shemittah etzel Har Sinai?" which literally translates to, "What does Shemittah [the biblical command of letting fields in Israel lay fallow every seven years] have to do with Mount Sinai?"

While the average Israeli may not even be aware of the origin of this question, it was posed by the Talmud about 2,000 years ago. It refers to, when introducing the laws of Shemittah in this week’s parshah, the Torah’s prefatory words are, "God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai." Why, out of all the topics discussed by the Torah, was Shemittah singled out as being taught specifically at Mount Sinai?

The Talmud’s answer is not so simple: Just as all the details of the sabbatical year were taught painstakingly to the Jews at Sinai, so were all the details of all the commandments taught at Sinai.

But this "answer" only strengthens the question. If the Torah wants to teach that all the biblical details for every commandment were taught at Sinai, why was Shemittah chosen as the paradigmatic example? Indeed, what does Shemittah have to do with Mount Sinai?

Quite a lot, actually. The reason why Shemittah is observed in Israel is the same reason why all Jews observe the Sabbath — we are meant to have meaningful reminders in our lives of how God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Just as we desist from labor on a weekly basis, so must the land itself testify that God is its Maker through its desisting from productivity.

But why is it necessary to commemorate creation through such drastic observance? After all, we already have the Sabbath. Plus, if we ever want to reaffirm where we come from, why can’t we just pick up the Torah and read the Book of Genesis? Rashi says that this is precisely why the Torah began its narrative at the very beginning — to act as testimony to the other nations of the world that God created everything; consequently, He has jurisdiction to do with the land of Israel whatever He pleases, including giving it for free to the Jewish nation. If it’s good enough of a reminder for the other nations, why isn’t it good enough for us?

This is why the Torah creates a link between Shemittah and Mount Sinai. Other nations can and should accept that God is the ultimate Creator; they can do so by simply reading Genesis and making intellectual affirmations. But at Mount Sinai we were taught a new way to relate to God. It is not sufficient to internalize theological concepts through reading and contemplation; we have to actually do something in order to show our religious commitment. If we really wish to have the higher, covenantal relationship, we must commit our bodies together with our minds to Divine service.

This, then, is the connection between Shemittah and Mount Sinai. The tremendous sacrifice involved in not working one’s field for an entire year is the appropriate example of what it means to serve God as a Jew: not by our intellects alone, but by using every physical faculty at our disposal to affirm our belief and commitment to our Creator.

If the Bible is the basis for the world accepting that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, then maybe more people need to read the Bible and learn the true meaning of the "Sinai" idiom. In the meantime, we can do our share in raising awareness of the Jewish people’s special connection to the land by returning to the lessons of Mount Sinai — our relationship to God is predicated on our behavior more than our beliefs. We are a people of deed first, of creed second. Hopefully, our efforts in behaving as Jews will make an impression on the rest of the world. At the very least, they will strengthen our connection to our God and our Land.


Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla at Kehillat Yavneh.

Trial of King David Sabotages Lessons


I chose not to attend Tarbut’s trial of King David. Billed as “the people against King David,” it promised to be a trial that was “3,000 years in the making.”

I considered going when I read of the legal minds involved in the trial. Justice Sheila Sonenshine is an outstanding jurist; professors Laurie Levenson and Erwin Cherminsky are two first rate lawyers who I would want in my side of the courtroom in a case.

I passed when I read that the organizer, Fountain Valley attorney Alan Thaler, told The Jewish Journal that “it was a remarkable historical parallel between Clinton and Lewinsky.”

There is no need for a trial. It might be good theater, but Jewish tradition has already rendered judgment.

There is no question that King David made a terrible blunder in his involvement with Batsheva thousands of years ago. Jewish tradition records David’s admission of sin, explores in detail if he was guilty of adultery or not.

The Talmud analyzes the case in depth, giving a clear disposition of the case. Technically, he was not legally culpable, since Batsheva received a get — a bill of divorce — before her husband left for war. Still, the Torah chastises King David for his action, which should have been beyond reproach.

We are told of David’s broken heart and profound remorse. His repentance is accepted by God. David asks God to make it known that his repentance is accepted.

The Talmud relates, “During your lifetime I will not make it known that your repentance is accepted, but I will do so in your son Solomon’s lifetime.”

The Divine sign came at the dedication of the Temple that Solomon built in the Jerusalem. All the Jewish people had gathered for this momentous occasion.

Solomon is unable to place the Ark into the Holy of Holies, whose gates remain shut. He prays to God, and there is no response. Finally, he beseeches God that the gates should open in the merit of his father, David.

The gates open, a sign that David is viewed with Divine favor. At that moment, the Talmud recalls “the faces of David’s enemies turn black with humiliation like the bottom of a pot.”

To come some three millennia later and second guess Jewish tradition throws the sanctity and validity of that tradition into doubt. This effort sabotages the important lessons of David: the message of repentance, his piety and scholarship, his gift of prophecy that radiates in the Psalms, a holy and noble Jewish king, whose descendant is promised to be Moshaich.

There is a second pitfall. The frame of reference being used to judge David. Jewish tradition is being replaced by contemporary values of Western culture. Instead of Torah teaching us direction and morality, we are using modern culture to judge Torah. In the process, we are telling the next generation, the ones that Tarbut is mandated to teach, that secular contemporary values trump ancient Jewish ones.

Finally, the Jewish courts are structured fundamentally different than modern American ones. Jewish courts are not adversarial in nature.

While both sides of a case are represented, the most crucial element is to discover the truth and render true justice. Juries are not part of the Jewish system. Cases are judged by qualified judges, as practiced in Israel today.

To be a member of the Sanhedrin, the ancient supreme Jewish court, you had to be immersed in Jewish scholarship, beyond reproach and have knowledge of languages. Judging by the vote of an audience is not Jewish tradition. The tradition is for qualified pious judges to deliberate, seek the truth and use as a guidepost the 3,000 years of Torah, the codes of Jewish law and the millennia of Jewish case law. OJ would never have bamboozled a Jewish court.

King David was one of the greatest Jewish leaders. He established the Jewish monarchy. He was a spiritual giant whose prophetic teachings, such as the Psalms, are a legacy of devoutness that has uplifted the hearts of minds of untold numbers.

Even thousands of years later, one of the most popular Jewish songs is “Dovid Melech Yisroel” (David, King of Israel). Still he was flawed; he sinned, suffered greatly and repented. It is not our task to put him on trial but to learn from his example of piety, repentance and scholarship.


Rabbi David Eliezrie is rabbi of Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen-Chabad and can be reached at rabbi@ncchabad.com.

Lessons of the Season


Imagine the Jewish calendar as three concentric circles: the Torah reading cycle, the holiday cycle and your personal life cycle.

The circles line up in various combinations, like one of those "work wheels" from camp. If your bat mitzvah falls on Shabbat Chanukah, you may always view the message of the festival and your own coming of age in light of the famous words from the Haftarah: "’Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit,’ says Adonai of Hosts" (Zechariah 4:6).

This time of year is rich with synchronicity and commentary among Torah, Haftarah and holiday. The Song of the Sea in the Torah reading is complemented by Deborah’s Song in the Haftarah. This Shabbat is therefore known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. In honor of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for trees that falls at this time of year, we celebrate trees and nature, along with music and poetry.

Each Jew interprets the richness of this season through the prism of his or her own experience. The holiday of trees that augurs spring means one thing for a Jew emerging from shivah, and something equally but differently meaningful for a couple who just found out they are pregnant.

Still, many lessons are inherent, and shared, in the correspondence and mutual commentary between the holiday and Torah cycles. For example, both Tu B’Shevat and Beshalach offer lessons about governance, gratitude and faith.

In Genesis 2, God forms Adam out of the dust of the earth, and then plants a garden, "causing every tree to grow that is pleasant to see and good for food." If that is not enough to establish a special relationship between human beings and nature, especially trees, we learn that God put Adam in the garden to "cultivate it and to watch over it." Tu B’Sehvat reminds us of our role in governance. God provided trees for food, and granted humanity "dominion … over every living thing" (Genesis 1:28).

If the holiday promotes environmental governance, then the Torah reading urges responsible political governance. Pharaoh is the negative example; he uses people the way some individuals and corporations use and abuse environmental resources. Ultimately, Beshalach teaches us, human beings have governance, dominion and responsibility, but we do not really own or control anything — not the environment, and certainly not other human beings.

Tu B’Shevat also reminds us to be grateful, and not to take nature’s miracles for granted. The Talmud goes so far as to say that people will be judged in the next world for any permissible delight, including fine fruit, that they saw in this world, but did not consume. Similarly, Shabbat Shirah promotes celebration and praise. Moses and the Children of Israel sang. Miriam and the women danced. Later, they would complain and forget, but in the wake of the miracle, no one took God’s goodness for granted.

Tu B’Shevat is not just the rough equivalent of Arbor Day and Earth Day. It also functioned as tax day. One of several ways that Jews gave to the Temple was by offering their first fruits. The tithing of fruits was calculated on an annual calendar, beginning with the 15th day of the month of Shevat (i.e., Tu B’Shevat).

We designate the first fruits for God even before we know how the harvest will come out. In a remarkable show of faith and commitment, Jews pay God and community first. Thus, Tu B’Shevat is associated with giving — and with trust.

Beshalach reports God’s impatience with Moses’ prayer, as Pharoah’s army approached, seemingly trapping the Children of Israel at the shore of the Red Sea: "Why do you cry to me? Speak to the children of Israel, that they move" (Exodus 14:15). The rabbis imagine that none of the tribes was willing to move first (Sotah 37a). One man, Nahshon ben Aminadav, (literally) took the plunge. The waters parted only once he stepped out in faith and dared to go into the sea.

Thus, Tu B’Shevat and Shabbat Shira teach us to be daring in faith and to give of ourselves; to cultivate gratitude and to be effective stewards of nature and one another.

Along with these thematic links, the custom of feeding bread to the birds also connects Shabbat Shirah with nature and Tu B’Shevat. This custom has a place on my family’s life-cycle wheel, because it is based on my grandfather’s favorite midrash. My grandfather was no lover of animals. He never got over the "meshugas" that our family owned a dog. But once a year, he took joy in feeding the birds, and he never tired of telling us why:

David, who is said to have written the psalms, understood that the Temple would be destroyed, and feared that the psalms recited there would be forgotten. So he taught the psalms to the birds. (In Hebrew numerology, the word "nest" equals 150, the exact number of psalms.) On Shabbat Shirah, while it is still winter, Jews feed bread to the birds to hear them chirp and "sing" psalms. We sustain them with gratitude, knowing that nature also sustains us. No matter what, Jews, like birds, must continue to sing.


Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana and editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.”

Final Lesson


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral) contained in the Torah.

As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.

It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.

I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, "Well, maybe you’ll do." She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.

I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.

When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, "What’s that in your hand?" I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.

I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath and my bearings returned.

I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, "I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one." He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.

I told him, "I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently." I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.

Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, "This is your final goal — help us live better lives."

He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, "You’ve got some work cut out for you here."

I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.

Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.

I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.

Every life is a like book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role, as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.

And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.


Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

Permission to Grieve


Years ago, one of my colleagues had the awesome task of officiating at the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed by a car while riding her bicycle. My friend gathered the children from that small Jewish community and gently invited them to speak their true feelings.

"I’m mad at my mom because she won’t let me ride my bike." "I’m mad at my friend for dying." "I’m scared that I’m going to get hit by a car." She turned to the youngest one: "I’m still sad," he said.

That 4-year-old’s earnest and innocent remark has stayed with me ever since. We live in a society not so tolerant of grief, and I sometimes worry that even those of us who allow ourselves to feel our sadness at the funerals, try too hard to dry the tears as soon as we leave the cemetery.

Jewish tradition certainly acknowledges the reality of grief, offering wise step-by-step instructions to help the mourners heal and the comforters give solace. Yet, even our tradition — sensitive though it is to the human need to grieve loss — expects us to stick to a grief schedule. Although our yearly Yizkor cycle encourages us to remember our lost loved ones, the grieving is supposed to stop and we are expected to get on with our lives.

This week’s Torah portion — Chaye Sarah ("the life of Sarah") ironically begins with Sarah’s death and ends with the deaths of Abraham and his son, Ishmael. From this portion come many of our burial and mourning traditions: that we mourn for a set time and then stop, as Abraham did for Sarah; that we have a community cemetery, something Abraham arranged for after Sarah died; that we offer a hesped (eulogy) over our dead, a tradition that grew out of one interpretation of Abraham’s response to Sarah’s death; that the immediate survivors bury their dead, as Abraham buries Sarah, and Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, Abraham.

But this story of the death of our first matriarch reveals yet more about grief and mourning.

After Sarah dies the Hebrew text gives two words to describe what Abraham does — "lispod … v’livkotah." Many English translations make the text sound quite matter-of-fact: "Sarah died … and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites." At this point Abraham begins to negotiate the purchase of a burial site for Sarah (Genesis 23:2-4). But a more literal translation of the third verse might be: "Abraham got up from above the face of his dead one." Picture Abraham, kneeling or sitting up against Sarah’s body, wailing and crying, his face right over her face, his tears falling on her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth. Abraham wails for Sarah and he weeps for her (lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah).

How often do we give ourselves permission to let out such true feelings? We tend to turn to the business matters quickly. We appreciate (or are relieved by) stoicism in ourselves and in others. We tend to forget, or fail to acknowledge, that we are "still sad." Abraham did not immediately begin his negotiations to buy a burial site for her body. When Sarah died, Abraham hung his face over her face and he wailed.

Nor is Abraham the only one to experience grief over Sarah’s death. Sarah’s son, Isaac, is 37 when his mother dies. We hear nothing of his immediate response to her death, but three years later, in the beautiful scene of Isaac and Rebekah’s first meeting, we glimpse Isaac’s grief over his mother: "Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother" (Genesis 24:63-67).

It’s the first time love between a man and a woman is mentioned in the Torah. It took three years after Sarah’s death for Isaac to find comfort, to find love, to feel love.

Life will go on, grief will lessen; joy, even love, will return to most of us at some point after we lose dear ones. Yet that abstract knowledge about some time in the future can be cold comfort to those of us in grief now. While we wait for joy to return, for pain to ease, we would do well to remember and to take some lessons from the ways Abraham mourned, and from the length of Isaac’s grief. And, when needed, we would do well to recite — and to be there for others when they recite — the words of our little friend:

"I’m still sad."


Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

The Protocols Come to L.A. — in Russian


The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" have come to Los Angeles. On its 100th anniversary, the vicious, primitive forgery has struck again, this time in a Russian-language tabloid circulated in the heavily Russian Jewish neighborhoods around West Hollywood.

First published on August 28, 1903, the "Protocols" have been translated and published all over the world — including the United States — in dozens of languages. They have been exposed again and again as forgeries by courts, by investigative reporters of respectable publications and by scholarly analyses conducted by reputable scholars. The original sources from which this abomination was copied are known. They have nothing to do with Jews but still they keep rising from the dead like vampires in Hollywood movies.

This time the "Protocols" were presented as historical fact in the most unlikely venue: Kontakt, a Russian-language Los Angeles weekly serving a predominantly Jewish readership. Kontakt is owned by Vladimir Parenago, who bought the publication a few years ago. Generally clad in black and sporting a large crucifix on a necklace, he bills himself as a "healer" and "mystic."

His wife, Lyubov Parenago, is the editor of Kontakt. It was her signed editorial that discussed the "Protocols" and listed the important lessons Kontakt’s readers could learn from studying them.

She presented the "Protocols" as historical fact and as a true exposé of "the special secret [Jewish] plan to control all the world’s finances." She explained that the plan was adopted at a meeting that took place at the home of Meier Rothschild in 1773, to where he had invited 12 of the world’s most influential bankers — including six members of the Rothschild family — to take part in the conspiracy. The result was "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Reaction to the publication among Russian Jews has been angry and intense, but has largely been kept within the community. For many immigrants, dissent and criticism are still frightening and uncomfortable, so the reaction of most of the Russian Jews has consisted of complaining to one another, contacting people who are seen as a bridge between "Americans" and "Russians," and writing letters, mostly unsigned, to Washington, Sacramento, the LAPD, City Hall and Russian-language radio, TV and newspapers.

In addition, the two largest immigrant groups — World War II Veterans and Holocaust Survivors — sent letters to Kontakt.

The letters were never published. But in the most recent issue of Kontakt, Lyubov Parenago admitted that she has received many letters, some of them complimentary, others viciously hostile.

"Obviously those who were offended suffer from a lack of a sense of humor," she wrote.

Reader e-mails obtained by The Journal ranged from "What on earth were they thinking of?" to "These anti-Semites should go back to Russia where they will feel right at home." The most extensive and literate e-mail was from a local immigrant, Viktor K., who sent a copy of a letter he wrote to Kontakt. Here are some excerpts translated from the Russian:

"You must be aware that this year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Protocols’ — the major historical forgery of the 20th century that was the ideological justification for pre-revolutionary pogroms, as well as the anti-Jewish atrocities of the White forces and the suffering of thousands. This forgery was exposed more than 80 years ago but it is still being used today by Hitlerite nazis, Islamic fundamentalists and assorted anti-Semites. This is why your publication of an additional ‘Protocol’ that is connected with the Rothschild family and predates the other by 130 years is a very personal contribution on your part… Later you informed your readers that it was all a joke and bemoaned the absence of a sense of humor among your readers. Well, your sense of humor is impressive."

Reached by phone, Lyubov Parenago said she was genuinely puzzled at what she saw as a lack of appreciation by the Jewish community. "I print stories about Israel," she said. "I support Jewish causes, I publicize Russian Jewish artists touring the United States. This was a fantasy that shouldn’t have been taken seriously, it was just advice on how to become rich, the Rothschild plan was never seen or read by anyone, it was a service to the community."

Lyubov Parenago then went on to deny that the "Protocols" she published were the actual ones. "This story wasn’t about the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’" she said, "it was about a different ‘Protocol,’ a different plot, a different idea, a Rothschild idea. How could anyone think that I would publish those ‘Protocols?’

"I can express my opinion," she went on. "I can say what I think in this free country. Why this hostile reaction? I don’t understand."


Si Frumkin is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

Where You Stand


We are standing before God and God is standing before us — especially during this particular time, when certain fundamental liberties are being denied individuals and when justice is being withheld from specific groups — all in the name of "homeland security." This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, comes to teach us — all of us without exception — that we are obligated to build a just society not only for ourselves but for all people.

Thus, our reading, studying and thinking about the essential lessons found in Shoftim are of great importance right now.

Meanwhile, this parsha reminds me of a very strange personal experience that occurred many years ago. It’s one that I’ll never forget.

While I was away from University Synagogue one afternoon, visiting a hospitalized congregant, a very well-known Catholic priest called me. When he realized that I wasn’t there, he left a message on my voice mail asking that I contact him as soon as possible, because a situation required an immediate collaborative interfaith response.

For reasons that I can’t technologically explain — but it may have been God’s handiwork — something extraordinary happened: Although my caller terminated his call, my message device recorded what happened next.

Once he hung up, he telephoned a prominent rabbinic colleague of mine. During their ensuing conversation, the non-Jewish leader indicated that he had tried to reach me, found that I was away from my desk, left a message asking that I contact him without delay and he said that he was certain that he’d hear from me as soon as I learned that he had reached out to me.

In turn, the rabbi expressed his doubts about my dependability and without hesitation he conveyed his feelings of disdain toward me by using that occasion to utter some very derogatory comments.

These unflattering remarks were instantly rebuffed by the priest, but they lingered in the air nevertheless.

Naturally, when I listened to their recorded discussion, I was deeply hurt and terribly confused because I couldn’t recall any incident that would have inflamed the rabbi’s emotions and cemented his negative opinions about me. And throughout the years we have worked together in the community, he had never led me to believe that we were anything but the best of friends.

A few days later, he and I happened to see one another at a public gathering where he greeted me with a bright smile, open arms and some affectionate remark.

"Oh," I thought to myself, "if he only knew that I was aware of his genuine feelings about me, which make this display of supposed fondness reek of hypocrisy."

As a result of a mechanical error — or did God provide me with an opportunity to hear words that would never have been uttered in my presence by someone who posed as a friend? — I had a chance to encounter the authentic nature of a relationship instead depending on some false pretense.

Now, what has all of this to do with our reading five particular chapters found in the Book of Deuteronomy this Shabbat?

Within Shoftim, we are instructed: "Zedek, zedek tirdof" ("justice, justice shall you pursue").

When we dig deeply into the parsha, we come to realize that not only are sacred and secular laws to be faultlessly carried out by government officials and interpreted by appointed and elected judges — all of them are expected to be unrelentingly fair and impartial — but you and I are instructed to treat everyone we encounter in our own lives in a similar fashion.

You see, it is not only justice that keeps chaos away and society afloat, but it is steadfast righteousness that should be ever-present in every interpersonal relationship we have — be it a casual contact or one which is intimate and enduring .

This is why Rashi taught: "Consider what you do and conduct yourself in every judgment as if the Holy One, Blessed be He, were standing before you."

Had the rabbi known that I would hear his candid opinion of me, or had he imagined that God was standing in front of him when he spoke in such a hateful way about me in one instance, and then so lovingly in my presence very soon thereafter, to what extent would he had been anxious to render harsh judgment?

And, that prompts me to ask: Do any of us have the right to be judgmental? Maimonides didn’t think so, because he observed that all of us are obligated (actually, he wrote: "commanded") to give each person the benefit of the doubt.

So, as we demand that ours must always be a "just society," and when we attempt to individually "pursue justice," it is necessary that we also rely upon that same concept to temper our own words and actions.

Much will be accomplished individually and collectively when we remember this lesson at all times, because we do stand before God and God stands before us. Under these circumstances, there simply is no room for injustice in any of its many forms — be it in our society at large or in the way we relate to one another.


Allen I. Freehling served as University Synagogue’s senior rabbi for 30 years before becoming that congregation’s first rabbi emeritus a year ago. He is now serving as the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the City of Los Angeles.

Rebels and Leaders


One of my favorite Torah portions is the one that we will read this Shabbat. It reveals to us myriad recognizable human traits while transmitting to us some vital lessons.

From this story, we see that some characteristics are bad while others are good; and, along the way, we observe the consequences of indifference.

Taking center stage — but for a brief while — is Korah, who along with his wrongheaded cohorts Dathan, Abiram and On, challenges God’s authority and attempts to remove Moses from his preeminent leadership role by means of a massive rebellion. In the process, they almost cause the Israelites to be totally destroyed.

Korah forces us to examine the motives of those who are either appointed or elected officials. Furthermore, we’re encouraged to probe the reasons why some people attempt to become self-appointed leaders.

With very clear-cut precision, the Torah posits Moses as the epitome of responsible leadership. He is — above all else — a visionary who is selfless, unconditionally dedicated to his task, and by now unquestionably accepting of the mandate thrust upon him by God.

Moses is even willing to tolerate the enduring foibles of those whom he is leading away from servitude and toward freedom, away from ignorance and toward knowledge and away from empty secularism and toward a fulfilling life rooted in sacredness.

In contrast, along comes Korah, who is full of self-importance and guile and who depends upon an alluring charisma to persuade his henchmen and every Israelite to follow his lead. Taking and then spinning the very words of God and Moses, who declare that the Israelites are a holy and priestly people, Korah proclaims that there is no reason why the Israelites ought to depend on Moses, who has established a theocratic rule over them.

Rather, he preaches that everyone should function within the context of a democracy in which he will voluntarily assume the mantle of leadership and take them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.

While Korah is quick to condemn Moses as someone who has lifted himself above the community — he makes no reference to God’s part in this epoch adventure — it is actually Korah who does the lifting so as to capture the people’s favor in order to satisfy his own ego-driven need for absolute power over them.

And he almost gets away with it, because the Israelites are too gullible and so quick to rebel against Moses, who has been — by necessity — very demanding in his messages and relentless in his actions.

Meanwhile, what does Moses do in the midst of this life-and-death struggle? Instead of drawing a line in the sand and fighting off Korah’s challenge, Moses removes himself from the scene and opts for an overnight respite. Sleeplessly meditating on what has occurred, and praying to God for strength and guidance, Moses emotionally girds himself so he may effectively deal with Korah and those who support his rebellious cause at the dawn of a new day.

Soon thereafter, Moses and the Israelites witness the obliteration of this misguided, defiant competitor of God’s will.

So, what are some of the lessons that emerge out of this text?

  • Reading about Korah’s attempt to shove Moses aside, we see how a demagogue attempts to grasp the truth and then to twist it in an effort to promote his own cause. Therefore, it’s essential that we always examine the motives of anyone who tells us that he possesses all of the answers to life’s riddles, who urges us to stop wrestling with life’s challenges and to put all of our trust in him and who suggests that it’s not necessary that we safeguard our own integrity, since absolute reliance on him will get us to where we want (or need) to be.

  • Every demagogue’s lust for power is so all-consuming that only bad things will occur if they have their own way. In contrast, Moses reveals to us the benefits that we may all derive when we place our confidence in authentic leaders who are dreamers and visionaries, and who are genuine public servants whose motives are ceaselessly selfless. It is these men and women who are constantly aware of God’s lofty but accessible ethical standards, who are imbued with values that have been etched upon their hearts and minds beginning early in childhood and are taught by loved ones and mentors the dimensions and demands of responsible leadership, to whom we ought to turn for direction — even when their demands on us seem to be so very burdensome.

  • This episode in the Torah is a dramatic reminder that we can ill afford to be indifferent. The Israelites stood idly by while Moses was forced to defend a harsh reality and Korah proffered a far more pleasing fantasy. The Israelites were willing to go along with Korah’s plot just because he seemed to know an easy way out of their ordeal no matter what disasters might occur in the long run.

  • Following Moses’ example, it’s important that — when facing hard choices — we gain some perspective by stepping back from a perplexing problem, acquire some objectivity and seek spiritual and intellectual guidance from someone whom we can trust. Also, like Moses, we ought to meditate and pray as we concentrate on finding solutions and use time itself to be a balancing element.


Allen I. Freehling, rabbi emeritus of University Synagogue, is the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the city of Los Angeles.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Linda Richman types be warned. The American Cinematheque’s “Can’t Stop the Musicals!! A Celebration of Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s” presents the plotz-inducing Barbra Streisand Double Feature tonight. From Glamour Babs to Cross-dresser Babs, the back-to-back bonanza showcases two very different Streisands in screenings of “Funny Lady” and “Yentl.”

Sunday

The Conejo Jewish community continues to sound its presence today with a special cantors concert at Temple Etz Chaim titled “Shema Koleinu: Hear Our Voices.” Cantors Pablo Duek of Temple Etz Chaim, Peter Halpern of Temple Adat Elohim, Kenny Ellis of Temple Beth Haverim, Mike Stein of Temple Aliyah and Marcelo Gindlin (pictured) of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue join cantorial soloists Sandy Bernstein and Kim Moskowitz in performing an eclectic selection of spiritually uplifting songs.8 p.m. $18-$25 (general), $50-$1,000 (patrons and sponsors). 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-6891.

Monday

All around Los Angeles on practically every day of the week, Israeli dancing sessions are offered for a fee that’s cheaper than a movie ticket and a payoff that’s way better than “The Matrix: Reloaded.” Today, head to the 310 for lessons by Tikvah Mason or Michel and Israel Yakove. (Tikvah also teaches in West Hollywood on Wednesdays.) David Dassa brings his expertise to West Los Angeles and Valley Village on Sundays and Wednesdays, respectively; and James Zimmer offers swing-salsa-tango before segueing into Israeli on Tuesdays at the West Valley JCC. Those who don’t know their Yemenite step from their grapevine should show up early, as lessons generally precede open dance.Mason: (310) 278-5383 (Mondays), (323) 876-1717 (Wednesdays). Yakove: (310) 839-2550. Dassa: www.rikud.com. Zimmer: (310) 284-3638.

Tuesday

Old-schoolers seeking Jewish gangsta flava need look no further than the American Cinematheque tonight. In conjunction with the film’s special edition DVD release on June 10, “Once Upon a Time in America” screens tonight in all its digitally restored, uncut, 229-minute gory glory. For some added bling-bling, the big night also includes in-person appearances by actor James Woods, producer Arnon Milchan, film historian Richard Schickel and production executive Fred Caruso.7 p.m. $6-$9. The Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-3456.

Wednesday

Zócalo. It’s a cultural forum. It’s a public think tank. It’s a chance to mingle with some of the biggest American thinkers. And it’s happening again tonight. Essayist and author Debra Dickerson discusses “The End of Blackness and the Future of African America” at the downtown Central Library. Educate your mind. Free your soul.7 p.m. Free. Mark Taper Auditorium, Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown. (213) 228-7025.

Thursday

Three female Middle Eastern artists bring their individual perspectives to the subject of displacement in three movies now on view at UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Mona Hatoum, originally from Beirut; Shirin Neshat, born in Qazvin, Iran; and Michal Rovner, born in Tel Aviv, each contribute film or video to the exhibition titled “Elsewhere: Negotiating Difference and Distance in Time-Based Art.”Noon-8 p.m. (Thursdays); noon-5 p.m. (Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays). Runs through July 27. Free. Westwood. (310) 825-4361.

Friday

Another faux-weathered, mass-produced Pottery Barn piece? Think outside the mall this weekend. The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium welcomes back the Contemporary Crafts Market this year. On display and for sale will be decorative, functional and wearable artwork by over 250 artists.10 a.m.-6 p.m. June 6-8. $6. 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 285-3655.

Light From Sorrow


As an aerospace writer, I have watched 87 crews slip the
bonds of Earth’s gravity and rocket away into space.

The tension is tangible each time the laws of physics are
put to the test. On Saturday, out of the blue, we all learned a cruel lesson
about the speed, heat and friction that can prove fatal upon return to the
planet, as well. Being Jewish and having parents in Israel brought this crew
closer to me.

Jews have flown in space before, of course. David Wolf lived
on the Russian Mir space station; Jeff Hoffman took a menorah to space during
one of his shuttle missions; Judy Resnik died aboard the Challenger. But none
of these people flew with the Star of David on their arm patch. None spoke
Hebrew, asked for kosher food or chatted with the prime minister of Israel from
orbit.

Ilan Ramon’s inclusion on the Columbia crew electrified
Jews, secular and religious alike. His death, mercifully not at the hands of
terrorists, snatched a hero away before he could be welcomed home.

During his blissful 16 days in space, Ramon commented about
how beautiful, how thin and how fragile the atmosphere appears from orbit. How
it needs to be cared for.

How ironic that what he spent his time in space studying was
ultimately responsible for his death.

I feel sadness for all the crew members, but thinking of
Ramon brings tears to my eyes.

I can relate to that star on his patch; I know why NASA
managers broke their self-imposed pledge not to discuss crew remains when an
Israeli journalist, intent and focused, pointedly asked about how Ramon’s
remains would be handled.

Jews have different laws, traditions and customs for
handling the deceased. NASA said these would be honored and they were working
with the Israeli government to ensure that.

Saturday was a day without hours, just one continuum that
ended with my 11-year-old son in my arms in my bed.

I forced myself not to think about Rona Ramon and her
fatherless children, ages 14, 12, 9 and 5. I tell my son that the astronauts
died doing what they wanted to do, what made them feel most alive.

“You mean they wanted to die?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “They wanted to live and they knew that what
they were doing was more dangerous than some jobs. More people die every day in
car crashes than flying in space,” I added.

We cannot control how and when we die. We can try to
postpone the inevitable with healthy diet, exercise, cancer screenings, seat
belts and motorcycle helmets, but largely our time on Earth is beyond our
control.

What we can choose is how we live.

When I first started covering space in 1987, I had no idea
it would become a passion. The ideals, people and practices of space flight are
valuable lessons and examples for any endeavor and it speaks volumes of Ramon
that he found a home at NASA.

His being Jewish didn’t matter. His being Israeli didn’t
matter. What mattered was his ability to work as a member of a team. In return,
he was given the opportunity to look physically at the world as a global being.
The fact that he did not make it home does nothing to diminish what he
accomplished personally and on behalf of Israel.

My son said his “Shema” that night, then we pulled out a
prayer book and read the “Mourner’s Kaddish.” It didn’t feel complete, so I
read the translation in English. That, too, fell short. Then I found this by
Morris Adler:

“Out of love may come sorrow; but out of sorrow can come
light for others who dwell in darkness. And out of the light we bring to others
will come light for ourselves — the light of solace, of strength, of transfiguring.”

Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Â


Irene Brown is a Florida-based freelance writer, specializing in space, science and technology.

A Thanksgiving to Fill the Spiritby


On the evening before Thanksgiving, my synagogue, Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo, always gets together with a neighboring church, Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist, for an interfaith service. What is remarkable about this joint venture, and other pre-Thanksgiving services like it throughout the United States, is the fact that Jews and Christians can pray together under one roof.

My parents entered a church only for a neighbor’s wedding, funeral or other life-cycle event. On those rare occasions, they were invited guests, not participants.

My grandparents probably never entered a church. When they needed to pass by one, they would usually spit on the ground, and make sure to walk on the opposite side of the street.

My grandparents believed that entering a Christian house of worship contaminated them with bad luck. In addition to their superstition, they feared for their physical well-being. My grandparents knew that they could easily be harmed by church members, who erroneously learned in weekly sermons and in Sunday school lessons that "the Jews killed Christ."

Now, every year, on the evening before the national harvest festival, I take part in an event that my ancestors could never imagine happening: an interfaith service where prayers of friendship and thanksgiving are offered by both Jews and Christians, together as equal participants.

The event joyfully begins when Jewish congregants welcome their Christian neighbors, and sing, in Hebrew, Psalm 133: Hinay mah tov u’mah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad ("How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in harmony"). Church members respond, singing words from their hymn, "We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing…."

The service then proceeds with worshippers reading in unison a number of passages taken from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Talmud (the sacred literature of each faith’s tradition).

A clergy member brings the service to a close with a sermon. This year, when the service takes place at the church, the rabbi will deliver a message. Next year, when the service returns to the synagogue, the pastor will speak.

Many synagogue and church members feel this annual experience is esthetically the most beautiful worship service of the year. On no other occasion, including all of the other national holidays, are the values of democracy, freedom and pluralism more clearly expressed and represented. The service brings spiritual meaning to these values and the holiday, in general, that parades, football games, turkey dinners and even family gatherings do not capture.

The transcendence of history, though, particularly after Sept. 11, is the most impressive feature of the evening. What was a utopian or Messianic idea for my ancestors to contemplate has now become a yearly common occurrence. That transcendence, and the consequent hope it instills for the future, is perhaps the true blessing of Thanksgiving that we should appreciate.

Elliot Fein teaches high school students Jewish studies at Tarbut V’Torah Community School in Irvine.

Washington’s “What, Me Worry?” War


Finally, it’s over: the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in Washington and New York was a media extravaganza that provided a blend of remembrance, healing and strong TV ratings.

But there was a glaring gap. Despite the somber patriotism of the day, there were few hints that the American people understand the very real difficulties ahead, or the huge sacrifices it will take if the Bush administration is serious about an all-out war against terrorism.

Those lessons are ones that Israel’s citizens learned long ago, but they have yet to penetrate the American consciousness, despite last week’s self-congratulatory ceremonies. And the nation’s leaders are doing nothing to correct that misunderstanding. On the contrary, their politics-as-usual focus is sending exactly the opposite message.

A year ago, as the World Trade Center lay in ruins and the Pentagon still smoldered, President Bush rallied the nation with a promise to fight terrorist groups around the world and the nations that support them. And he warned that this new kind of war will require real sacrifices from the American people — noble words, but ones that have not been backed up with action.

The Bush administration and Congress have been loathe to face the real costs of this war, and in doing so, they are making it much harder to fight and win it. Energy dependence is one glaring example. Some of the key financiers and shelterers of the terrorists who have declared war on America are among our biggest oil suppliers, starting with Saudi Arabia.

But the Bush administration, with deep ties to the oil industry, has steadfastly avoided telling the American people the obvious truth: our addiction to oil-guzzling vehicles and an energy-profligate way of life means that we’re starting the fight against terrorism badly hobbled. There isn’t a hint that the administration wants consumers to turn down their thermostats or give up their monster SUVs. Will there be gas rationing, like during World War ll? Perish the thought.

Instead, the administration’s only answer is to demand the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to oil exploration and drilling, an action that even optimists concede would cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil only a little. But never mind, demanding sacrifice is politically risky.

The war on terrorism is also going to be extraordinarily expensive. But again, the message from the administration and Congress is: What, me worry?

Defense spending is soaring to pay for the current war in Afghanistan and the possible strike against Iraq. Spending on homeland security is putting another huge dent in the budget.

So are Americans being asked to support this war with higher taxes? Not on your life. In fact, Bush wants even deeper tax cuts, his all-purpose panacea for every economic problem.

The administration and Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — are engaged in massive economic denial reminiscent of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s claim during the 1960s that the nation could have both guns and butter, and that the Vietnam War needn’t produce any new economic strains.

All of this sends a crystal clear message to the American people: sacrifice is for speeches, not everyday life. When politicians are unwilling to take the slightest political risk to meet the realities of this new kind of war, they shouldn’t expect the American people to rise to the occasion when they are asked to bite the bullet.

The administration’s growing emphasis on Iraq amplifies the problem. What was once viewed as a years-long, multifront battle against an elusive enemy has been redefined as a much more conventional war against an easily identifiable bogeyman.

How much harder can it be to defeat Saddam Hussein in 2002 than it was in 1991, when the Gulf War was about as cost-free a war as can be, at least from the American perspective? The result: Americans may be even less inclined to expect personal sacrifice as one cost of victory.

After Sept. 11, it was common to hear Americans express a new sympathy for Israel, because “we’ve experienced it now, too.” Hardly.

Virtually every Israeli knows someone personally touched by terror. Ordinary Israelis serve in the military reserves, and know that they will likely have to put their lives on the line to fight terror. They feel the pinch of a budget skewed to meet the demands of perpetual warfare.

Those are the realities of their fight against terror. In theory, America has launched an even more ambitious one. But the nation’s leaders, still consumed by politics as usual, are pretending otherwise. That refusal to be honest with the American people could seriously impede our war against terrorism, if, indeed, a serious war was ever their intent.

Israel’s Homeland Security: Lessons Learned, Lessons Shared


Over Labor Day weekend, I stared across the Israeli-Lebanese border at yellow Hezbollah flags and a large billboard with the horrifying image of a beheaded Israeli. A Hezbollah militant stood on the other side of the ugly electrified fence, snapping photos of me, senior officers of Israel’s Northern Command and others joining my visit to discuss advances in homeland security. Having a terrorist 20 yards away brings into vivid focus how close the threat really is.

During my trip, I had lengthy private meetings with top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau and Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh. Israel’s counterterrorism program of over half a century provides lessons for the United States as we work to secure our own homeland.

First is organization. Israel has one integrated national strategy for security, and those responsible for protecting the Israeli people have the authority they need to get the job done. The high level of organization makes Israel able to act swiftly in the event of an attack, and, in many cases, allows her to successfully preempt and disrupt terrorists before they attack.

America needs this level of organization to implement a homeland security strategy. Currently, responsibility for securing our homeland is scattered across more than 100 federal government agencies. This patchwork makes it difficult to connect the disparate clues that together identify terrorist threats, let alone to organize an effective and coordinated response.

In July, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed bipartisan legislation to create a Homeland Security Department, consolidating 22 agencies with jurisdiction over border and transportation security, intelligence and infrastructure protection, emergency preparedness and response and the use of science and technology.

The bill, which is now being debated in the Senate, provided those charged with the responsibility of protecting Americans from terrorism with the authority they need. The sooner legislation is passed, the sooner we will be organized to fight terrorism.

The second Israeli lesson is the value of intelligence. Knowing about terrorists and their plans is the best way to prevent an attack. The Israelis are able to infiltrate and recruit from their terrorist enemies, and as a result, they can act quickly and with precision to prevent attacks.

While the United States is working to improve counterterrorism intelligence, we have a long way to go. A report released in July by the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, of which I am ranking member, detailed gaps in our nation’s intelligence capabilities.

To infiltrate sophisticated terrorist cells capable of evading intelligence and listening devices, we need a massive investment in human spies. These human spies need language capabilities and the capability to successfully penetrate terrorist cells. At the same time, we must improve the flow of information so that intelligence is shared across the federal government and vertically with first responders.

The third Israeli lesson is about people. Technology alone cannot eliminate terrorism. Citizen awareness is essential. Californians know what to do in an earthquake; Israelis have that level of preparedness for terrorist attacks. Gas masks, bomb shelters and emergency supplies are found in nearly every home and business. While U.S. citizens may not need this level of preparedness, we all need to know what to do in the event of an attack.

The fourth Israeli lesson is that we must also address the root causes of terrorism. No matter how much Israel does to prevent, respond to and retaliate for acts of terrorism, new suicide bombers are recruited each week.

Nothing underscored this point more than a story told to me by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who recently bought a challah at a store in the Jerusalem Market, the site of major terrorist attacks. While he was in the store, his security detail scanned the market for potential threats. He left the store only to see it explode behind him seconds later. One of the most highly skilled security details in the world had failed to detect the bomb or bomber.

Terrorism in the Middle East will only end when Palestinian youth see opportunity in the future. However difficult it is to shape that future, we must not be deterred in our efforts.

A year after the worst terrorist attack in history, Americans are learning to live with the threat of terrorism. Our nation is safer than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, but we still have a long way to go. While there are clear differences between the situation we face at home and the situation Israel endures, we have much to learn from our only democratic ally in the Middle East. From the tragedies both our nations have faced, we can build a stronger, more secure future for our families and neighbors.

What We’ve Learned


On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Larry Eisenberg, president of the West Coast Region of the Orthodox Union, was in Toronto for a cousin’s wedding. He had just dropped off his daughter, a Fordham University law student, at the airport about an hour before for her 8 a.m. flight home to New York and was listening to the radio on his way back to the hotel.

Suddenly, a reporter broke in with news that an airplane had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, followed by reports of problems with other planes. Eisenberg calculated the departure and arrival times for his daughter’s flight and realized she could very well be on one of those planes. He began to pray, both for her safety and that his wife was still asleep.

"I got back to the hotel and my wife had the television on and was hardly breathing. We couldn’t find out anything, we couldn’t get through," he recalled. It would be several hours before his daughter finally reached him to tell him she was safe.

While there were many similar stories of near misses — too many — more than 3,000 ended tragically. For the families and friends of those lost, time stopped that day. But even for those not personally connected to the victims, one thing is certain: we all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on Sept. 11, 2001. The lessons we learned in the ensuing year continue to color our actions and our thoughts, and probably will continue to do so for the rest of our lives.

On a national level, the main lessons learned concerned security. In a recent interview, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer noted that all internal security organizations, particularly the FBI, have since shifted their focus to fighting terrorism and that, while the removal of the Taliban from power and the blows against Al Qaida’s infrastructure have diminished their threat, improving America’s security remains a major concern.

"The risk that our country faces, a country that has [before Sept. 11] enjoyed virtual immunity from attacks on our own shores, is that time and technology are not on America’s side," Fleischer said. "Time and technology are on the side of the terrorists. Terrorists, over time, could get access to technology, principally chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and they have shown a desire to use the weapons they obtain to inflict maximum harm. Sept. 11 showed that, and that’s why President Bush has taken the steps he’s taken to protect our country from terrorists who obtain these weapons."

Hand in hand with Bush’s continued military actions (including a possible attack on Iraq) has been a growing interest in issues of faith. In this vein, Fleischer announced Bush will hold a meeting this Friday with a group of interfaith leaders at the White House during which he will designate Sept. 6-8 as national days of prayer and remembrance, "to honor those who were lost, to pray for those who grieve and to give thanks for God’s blessings."

For some, the lessons of Sept. 11 have been spiritual and emotional. In the days following the tragedies, we were reminded by our leaders in the Jewish community to hug our children and our partners, pray for the families of the victims and feel grateful for the blessings in our lives. Other lessons have been more concrete: to be aware of our surroundings, to plan on spending an extra hour waiting in line at the airport. But in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks, it was hard to foresee that the world would ever return to normal.

Transplanted New Yorkers took some of the hardest blows on the day of — and days following — Sept. 11.

"The terror attacks were personal for every American, but for New Yorkers who lived there and worked there, it was even more shocking," said Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles. "There was a sense of disbelief that permeated the day. Even looking at images on television, it all seemed kind of surreal. I think it took a long time for people to accept it really happened."

Orenstein grew up in New York; her sister, a law professor at The Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Yeshiva University, works just 2.5 miles from the World Trade Center. Their grandfather once had an office in the Twin Towers and both women knew many people who worked in and around the buildings.

"My first cousin worked at Cantor Fitzgerald," Orenstein said. "She had just decided to start working flex-time, and the day she picked as her day off was Tuesday. It was only by chance she wasn’t there. I had another friend who worked in the building next to the Twin Towers, and after he helped evacuate the building he was able to get out."

For Orenstein, the near-misses underscored her belief in the miraculous.

"The thing I was struck by was the sense of grace. There was this tremendous tragedy, but also tremendous chesed [lovingkindness]. The idea that the planes were relatively empty, that on one of the planes the passengers managed to divert [it] so as not to cause even more tragedy, that so many people were evacuated and that even with people who did not make it some got to say goodbye on their cell phones … that was God’s grace. And there were so many people reaching out to help. There was a human response of real giving that happened that day," she said.

Rabbi David Woznica, executive vice president of Jewish affairs for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, had just returned to Southern California in August of 2001 after living for 13 years in New York City, where he had been director of the 92nd Street Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life. Five days after the tragedies, he flew back to conduct High Holiday services there and to be with the people of his adopted city.

"The most vivid memory I had was walking on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and getting to the fire station on East 85th Street," he said. "Normally the gates were closed, but the gates were open, even though it was late at night, and there were pictures there of five men, five firefighters who had died. The pictures were surrounded by literally thousands of letters from schoolchildren and hundreds of burning candles, and there were firefighters milling about along with local residents. Everyone was in this ashen state and there was almost no talking.

"That was the strange thing; the city was so silent. And everywhere you went, there were photocopied pictures of people with something like, ‘WTC, 92nd floor, please call, I love her very much.’ In those first few days, there was the assumption that there would be survivors. You couldn’t walk by without reading them and then you would just get chills."

Woznica said he feared it might be too early to know the real lessons of Sept. 11.

"I guess one lesson is the reminder that evil exists," he said. "It was also a lesson in how unbelievably generous Americans are, and not just with money. There are people who are willing to risk their lives for others and we see them every day. Sometimes they wear a uniform and sometimes they don’t."

For other L.A. residents, Sept. 11 is a reminder of our vulnerability, a word which was rarely used in concert with the word "American" before the terror attacks.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was at Heathrow Airport in London on his way to Israel when he noticed people gathered around a television monitor and shouting.

"It was right after the first attack," he said. "Then we saw the second attack on the south tower, and it immediately occurred to me that this had never happened in American history. It was, in a way, much worse than Pearl Harbor, because it was an attack on a major city plus an attempt on Washington, D.C., I thought, this will change America forever. American history will be known as before Sept. 11 and after Sept. 11."

Despite the attacks, Hier said he is confident that Americans and American Jews are safer now than before Sept. 11 because of heightened sensitivity to security issues. But he voiced his disappointment that world religious leaders, particularly Muslim clerics, have avoided addressing the key issue: Islamic fundamentalism.

"Not enough time has been devoted by the media and politicians, and not enough resources have been devoted to involving all the world’s religious leaders in defeating the scourge of this terrorism at its roots, which is the teaching of this [suicide attacks] as a legitimate form of martyrdom and a way to heaven," Hier said. "Here we are, a year later, and the Muslim clerics and the United Nations have not come out in force against this. Why does the United Nations think that nudging only works over territories?"

LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish, commanding officer of operations for the West Bureau, was busy in the hours after the incidents in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania making sure that if Los Angeles was indeed a target, the city was as prepared as possible to survive (and if possible prevent) another attack.

"Historically, we know with these terrorists that if at first they don’t succeed, they try, try again," Kalish said. "We saw that with the World Trade Center. Like New York, Los Angeles is a target-rich environment and the airport is obviously a top priority, so we added additional deployment that remains to this day."

Like Hier, Kalish feels that the city has become safer.

"The world has changed. I think we have learned we are vulnerable, but I think because of this, officers are much more cognizant of security issues than in the past," Kalish said.

Kalish said he feels the most important lesson to be learned from the events of Sept. 11 is the need to balance vigilance with the hallmarks of American democracy, including liberty and tolerance.

"Almost half the population [of Los Angeles] is foreign-born, and so it is important that we respect one another and are tolerant of one another. We have to be very careful that in our war on terrorism, we do not confuse the terrorists with other populations. Despite the fact that there is certainly the potential for terrorism to strike anywhere, we must never let it compromise our way of life and our freedoms," he said.

The need within the Los Angeles Jewish community to respond to the tragedies resulted in one of the strongest years for The Federation. According to Federation President John Fishel, the Federation has raised $54 million in pledges so far this year, with over $500,000 in unsolicited giving from last fiscal year and this fiscal year being set aside for victims of Sept. 11.

"From a fundraising standpoint, the last year has been extraordinary, especially given the malaise in our economy," Fishel said. "People responded extremely generously and enabled us to help the victims."

A year after the tragedies, the media is full of stories of healing and recovery. Among Jewish community leaders, some insist that while healing is necessary, it is equally essential that we do not lessen the impact of Sept. 11. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple notes that "too often, Americans forget the past, and Jews despair of the future, especially in Israel. That is a terrible mistake. The memorial, a serious memorial, of Sept. 11 is important, and the ability for Jews to get together and acknowledge we have a future is also very important.

"Sept. 11 has enlarged the community of people who care passionately about politics, especially foreign policy, and has reawakened us to the reality that America is not an isolated place in the world," Wolpe said. "We may be bounded by oceans, but we are not above the tides of time. What happens to the world happens to us. We need to care about the rest of the world and continue to pay close attention to it."

Overall, the mood in Los Angeles seems to be one of optimism for the future. Perhaps because we were not directly affected, it is easier to distance ourselves from the horrors and hold onto the hope.

Orenstein said she, like many other rabbis this year, will be addressing the shadow of Sept. 11 in her High Holiday sermons (see related story, page 39).

"I’m planning to say something about how to say goodbye to the past year. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov has a High Holiday prayer in which he says to ‘let the curses of the old year end and the blessings of the new year begin’ and that really resonates strongly for people right now," said Orenstein. "Sept. 11 is very hard for people to close the book on, but part of the High Holidays is to turn to a new page on which you can start fresh."