30 years and 30 big changes


In the Jewish Journal’s inaugural issue on Feb. 28, 1986, readers already could see it was not going to be their parents’ kind of Jewish newspaper. The Journal was different from its predecessor owned by the Jewish Federation, as well as the Orthodox-leaning B’nai B’rith Messenger and the crusading Jewish Heritage.

The new weekly, edited by Gene Lichtenstein, sent a message with its first cover story dedicated to anti-school busing and conservative Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, a former Los Angeles Unified School District board member. It was going to step outside the well-worn path of covering the status quo of Westside and Beverly Hills liberal politics, and broaden coverage to include a Jewish grassroots, right-leaning firebrand.

In the three decades since that edition, this broader approach — including news, features, opinions and eventually blogs from all points of L.A.’s Jewish communal compass — has been the newspaper’s guiding rule. Turning through old, bound volumes, with pages browned and edges foxed, the paper’s coverage presents a portrait of 30 years of change, growth and evolution within the local Jewish community. Here are 30 noteworthy topics and events that touched L.A. over the past 30 years, as reflected in the Journal’s pages.

1. Embracing LGBT Jews

Although a cover in 1986 announced the continuing conflict within Judaism over gay Jews, by 1998 a news feature detailed increased acceptance — and plans for the celebration of more than 25 years of the world’s first LGBT synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim. Getting over the shandah, the embarrassment, denominational Judaism began a serious conversation over transgender acceptance and rights, as reflected in another stirring cover story, this time in 2015.

2. King Juan Carlos Comes to L.A.

Almost half a millennium after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Spanish King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia visited Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel on Wilshire Boulevard to make peace on Oct. 1, 1987. “For the Sephardic Jews of Los Angeles, the gesture is one of historical dimension,” Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell wrote. The Journal went on to chart the growth of a large and vital Sephardic community in L.A.

3. Intermarriage: To Worry or Not to Worry?

Concerns about intermarriage go back all the way to the Torah. But when the 1997 L.A. Jewish Community Survey found the intermarriage rate among couples who were married in the five years ending in 1997 was 41 percent, well, it didn’t seem so bad to some people. That changed for many when the Pew Research Center reported in 2013 a rate of 58 percent nationwide — and 71 percent among non-Orthodox Jews.

4. The Rise of Iranian and Russian Jewish Immigrants

With the Iranian Jewish immigrant community at close to 17,000 by the late ’90s, we learned to love lavash, Persian cucumbers and late night simchas, while recognizing (if not understanding) Farsi in Pico Boulevard shop windows. As for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, more than 24,000 flocked to the area by the late ’80s. Apartment buildings in West Hollywood began to fill with Russian immigrant families, and Santa Monica Boulevard became dotted with Russian bakeries and storefront markets. Were they here to stay? Da.

5. A Growing Orthodoxy 

With all the new kosher restaurants on Pico and Ventura boulevards, it seemed clear by 2000 that the Orthodox community was booming. For the kosherly conscious, there was a clear increase in the availability of heckshered foods, as well as public displays of Yiddishkayt, such as Tu b’Shevat street fairs and car-mounted menorahs, and a massive influx of Orthodox families into previously WASP-y Hancock Park.

6. The New Israelis

Around town, we grew accustomed to hearing Ivrit spoken in restaurants, movie theater lines, folkdance spots like Café Danssa, and the Fairfax record store Hataklit (both now closed). By 2007, especially in the Valley, Israelis had “their own cafes, markets, dances and social and business networks,” according to a feature by Tom Tugend. Drawing that community together was the Israeli American Council, begun in 2006. The IAC fires up the largest L.A. Jewish gatherings of the year with the annual Celebrate Israel festival in Rancho Park.

7. Logging On for Love

The inaugural issue of the Journal chronicled the angst of making a Jewish match in a city expansive enough to be its own diaspora with “The Single Life” column. But that was old school. Jewish computer dating began here in the mid-1970s, and rebooted in 1997 with the founding of JDate by Joe and Nickie Shapira of Beverly Hills. Swiping right, in 2014, were Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, two of the Jewish founders of the dating app Tinder. But face-to-face love connections thrived at “Friday Night Live,” an innovative singles-oriented Sabbath service started in 1998 at Sinai Temple that drew up to 1,500 souls.

8. Oy, Did We Have Mail!

The first message on ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet, was sent by a UCLA team led by a Jewish professor, Leonard Kleinrock, in 1969, altering forever the way we give and gain news about our lives. Joining that widening stream, the Journal first went online in 1996, allowing it to cover breaking news, and eventually providing a means for readers to instantly comment, kvetch and post blogs. Now L.A. is home to numerous virtual Jewish sites, and every congregation and organization is a click away.

9. Women of valor and power

With the newly appointed director of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Deborah Lipstadt, on the paper’s cover during its first year, the Journal set the tone for covering local Jewish women leaders making waves on a national scale. These have included rabbis such as Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the first woman to lead a major metropolitan congregation; Naomi Levy, author and founder of Nashuva, and Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR.

10. Higher Ratings for Jewish Identity in Hollywood

30 Something

30 Something

gellersTV shows with clearly drawn Jewish characters such as “Thirtysomething,” “Seinfeld” and “Northern Exposure” reflected a growing hipness and ease of being Jewish. Los Angeles, with a large contingent of Jewish writers, producers, and showrunners, filled the culture with characters such as Monica and Ross Geller (“Friends”), Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Ari Gold (“Entourage”) and Howard Wolowitz (“The Big Bang Theory”), as well as cartoon characters Kyle Broflovski (“South Park”) and Krusty the Clown (“The Simpsons”). More recently, Maura Pfefferman (born “Morton”) of Amazon Prime’s “Transparent” gave us a transgender take on Jewish life.

11. The New Jewish Side of Town

In 2004, famed New York-based streetwear brand Supreme opened a large shop on Fairfax Avenue, just up the block from Canter’s deli, signaling a change to a traditionally Jewish neighborhood that was filling up with trendy skate clothing shops and galleries. As Fairfax turned full-hipster, younger observant Jews, especially those with families, were moving to Pico-Robertson, which was transforming into the Jewish side of town complete with new kosher restaurants, shuls and markets.

12. New museums to look forward — and back

The Torah commands Jews to “zachor,” to remember, and with the opening of the Museum of Tolerance in 1993, and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park in 2010, we had two new places to look deeply into our painful past as a way to navigate the present. Looking to the future, the Zimmer Children’s Museum opened, helping to transmit and create Jewish memories for children and families. And in 1996, the Skirball Cultural Center opened in the Sepulveda Pass, connecting art and culture with Jewish vision and values.

13. Mazel Tov, It’s Mitzvah Day!

First held in 1999 as a project of Temple Israel of Hollywood, Mitzvah Day was an expression of tikkun olam as volunteers painted, repaired and renewed their city. Begun by TV, theater and movie writer David Levinson, the idea flowered into a community-wide event that drew thousands of participants, changing its name in 2003 to Big Sunday, eventually evolving into a weekend, and then in 2016, into a month of events, attracting up to 50,000 volunteers of all faiths.

14. The Day Rabin Died

Shot by a right-wing extremist while leaving a peace rally on Nov. 5, 1995, the assassination of the Israeli prime minister who negotiated the Oslo Accords — for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize — reverberated throughout the community, sounding an ominous warning to leaders who wish not to learn war anymore. Some 10,000 people attended a massive memorial rally on a cordoned-off Wilshire Boulevard to mark the end of a man, and a dream.

15. ‘Fighting On’ at USC; Making UCLA Cool to Jews

usc-uclaIn the 1870s, Isaias W. Hellman, a German-Jewish businessman, banker and philanthropist was one of three men to donate the land for USC, which 100 years later was viewed as a home for WASP elitism. In 2002, a decade of increased inclusiveness at the school was reflected when Stanley Gold was appointed the university’s first Jewish chairman of the board of trustees. In 1972, UCLA was the first major American university to fund a Jewish newspaper, Ha’am, but by 2015 the school was getting headlines for a judicial board nominee being questioned over her Jewish background. In 2016, a student body president left the school alleging harassment by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. More hopefully, that same year, the school’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and the Mapping Jewish L.A. project celebrated the history of Boyle Heights with an exhibition.

16. American Jewish University Goes Big

In 2007, the University of Judaism merged with the 1,500-acre Brandeis-Bardin Institute, marrying two 60-year-old L.A. Jewish institutions into the American Jewish University. And when big names came through town, from Bill Clinton to Bill Maher, a likely stop was a speaking engagement through the American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, which drew thousands.

17. Got Kosher? Yup.

challah-gotkosherBeyond the opening of kosher Mexican and Thai restaurants, Los Angeles saw the rollout of multiple trucks selling kosher tacos and another truck selling kosher Montreal egg rolls. Add in Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory — now offering concessions at home Dodgers games — and the pretzel challah of Got Kosher? There was bad news in 2013, though, when the Journal reported a  scandal at Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat market after a private investigator videotaped the owner allegedly bringing unsupervised animal products into his store.

18. The Dodgers Go Blue and White

Long after Sandy Koufax and fellow Jewish Dodgers brothers Larry and Norm Sherry, who both attended Fairfax High, put on Dodger blue, fellow members of the tribe Stan Kasten (president and part-owner) and Andrew Friedman (president of baseball operations) joined the team. And in 2000, the year they got Jewish slugger Shawn Green, the team began heavily promoting Jewish Community Day.

19. Harold Schulweis z’l

The issue of Dec. 18, 2014, marked the passing of Valley Beth Shalom Senior Rabbi Harold Schulweis at age 89, calling him “the rabbi of rabbis.” Arriving at his Valley pulpit in 1970, Rabbi Schulweis went on to pioneer synagogue-based chavurah, counseling centers, and outreach to interfaith, gay and lesbian Jews and converts. A superb thinker and orator, he insisted upon connecting the Jewish world with the larger community worldwide through foundations and outreach organizations like Jewish World Watch.

“Harold Schulweis is a rabbi,” said Rabbi Uri Herscher, founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center. “This is a little like saying a Rembrandt is a painting. Or a Stradivarius is a violin. … He has, as much as any rabbi in our time, given Judaism meaning, relevance and renewed purpose.”

20. The Rise of Mega-Synagogues AND Upstart Congregations

Large congregations such as Stephen Wise Temple, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Leo Baeck Temple and Sinai Temple all thrived by doubling down on the full-service synagogue model.

At the same time, a 1982 guide to Jewish Los Angeles listed a few independent congregations, mostly Orthodox. In comparison, the 2016 Jewish Journal “City Guide” showed 16 independent, mostly nontraditional congregations, including Metivta, Open Temple, IKAR, Nashuva, Valley Outreach and Movable Minyan, taken together serving thousands of families. L.A.’s plethora of rabbinical seminaries — the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordained its first class in 1999, and the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (founded in 2000) — helped fuel their growth.

21. A Jewish Approach to…

As social awareness of issues like disabilities and addiction grew, so too did unique Jewish communal responses.  Beit T’Shuva, an innovative addiction treatment center, started 30 years ago and has grown to treat thousands.  And services for special needs greatly expanded to dozens of programs and organzations.

22. The First Intifada, 1987-1991

intifadaBesides the fact that no one knew it would be the first, the Journal did not know what to call it. It settled on, in 1987, the “hostility between the Palestinian youth and Israelis.” By 1989, a piece about the fear and hopelessness many were feeling in Israel, titled “Feeling helpless in the Intifada,” captured the anxiety of many Jewish Angelenos. The continuing conflict has led to the L.A. birth of Israel advocacy organizations like  StandWithUs and many, many rallies, op-eds and arguments.

23.  The Winning Campaigns of Jewish Candidates

For more than 50 years at the beginning of the 20th century, there was nary a Jewish city councilmember. That changed in 1953 with the election of 22-year-old Rosalind Wyman to the Fifth District seat, which includes the Westside and the Fairfax district. Now held by Paul Koretz, the seat has been Jewish ever since, with several who held the seat rising to higher office: Zev Yaroslavsky and Edmund D. Edelman to L.A. County Supervisor, and Michael Feuer to the State Assembly and position of L.A. City Attorney. Among numerous Jewish electeds, the highest profile is current Mayor Eric Garcetti.

24. The Fall and Revival of Jewish Centers

Disclosures of financial troubles and fiscal mismanagement within the former Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles in 2001 led to the closure of numerous centers, including Santa Monica’s Bay Cities JCC in 2002 and the Conejo Valley JCC in 2004. With pickets, posters and T-shirts, members of the Westside JCC rallied and eventually won independence, and the center in Silver Lake came back to booming life as well. A JCC continued in Long Beach and even though the JCC at Milken in West Hills closed in 2012 after Federation sold the property, the North Valley JCC was reborn as the Valley JCC in Woodland Hills.

25. Moving Westward and Beyond

The 1997 L.A. Jewish Community Survey was our statistical proof that we were moving westward, but the signs had long been there to read. New synagogues had opened in Simi Valley and the Conejo Valley, kosher markets and day schools too, and in 1997, Mount Sinai Memorial Park expanded to Simi Valley. By the new millennium, Jews were moving east as well — to Koreatown, Echo Park and downtown.

26. From Delis to Mainstream Dining

When Al Levy in 1886 first operated an Oyster Bar Pushcart, and later an Oyster House restaurant in downtown L.A., he was prying open the way for Jewish chefs and entrepreneurs to move into mainstream cuisine. Following in Levy’s footsteps, L.A. became home to the nation’s best family-owned delis, including Langer’s, Canter’s, Izzy’s, and Nate ’n Al.  Now, the city is home to chefs including Alma’s Ari Taymor, Mozza’s Nancy Silverton, Micah Wexler of Wexler’s Deli, and Jessica Koslow, owner of the always-hopping Sqirl, who made the cover of last year’s Passover issue.

27. A Local Legacy of “Schindler’s List”

A chance meeting in 1980 in a Beverly Hills leather shop between Australian author Thomas Keneally and the store’s owner, Leopold Page (Leopold Pfefferberg), who had survived the Holocaust due to Oskar Schindler, set in motion this movie, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1994. Steven Spielberg directed the film, and at the Academy Award ceremony, he credited Page as the “catalyst for the film.” In 1994, Spielberg founded the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, dedicated to recording the video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Shoah.

28. Federation: From Umbrella to Innovation

The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles worked to transform itself from an umbrella group funding and coordinating Jewish social services and aid here and abroad to a social innovator in its own right. In 2010, the Journal covered the appointment of then-52-year-old Jay Sanderson as president, determined, he said, to “throw the doors open.” Since then, Federation has launched numerous projects aimed at drawing younger Jews, new leaders, the entertainment industry and unaffiliated Jews into communal life.

29. Saving Jewish Buildings

In a city that usually bulldozes and paves over its history, three acts serve as towering achievements in historical preservation. One was the rescue of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights by Stephen Sass and the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California in 2000. Another was the purchase of the original home of Sinai Temple in the Pico Union neighborhood by singer-songwriter Craig Taubman in 2013. And a third was the $100 million restoration of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown. All serve not only the Jewish community, but local neighborhoods as well.

30. School Choice

In the early 1980s, if you wanted to attend a Los Angeles Jewish high school, there was only one choice: YULA, known as Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. By 1987, enrollment at the seven Jewish high schools in Los Angeles covered just 720 kids, about 100 of them in one non-Orthodox school, a predecessor to Milken Community High School. Today, more than 9,700 children attend 42 Jewish schools, with another 10,000 in supplementary Jewish schools, about 7,500 in early childhood programs, and thousands more in camps. Cost is still a concern, but online learning and other innovative programs offer opportunities to reach even more of the young generation — and keep Los Angeles Jewish life thriving for many, many years to come.

Women’s March D.C.: Here for one another


Sunday I boarded a plane back to LA after walking with my daughter Rebecca, 22, at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. 

We started Saturday morning among a bimah full of inspirational women leaders in the salmon pink walled sanctuary at the historic synagogue, Sixth & I. We walked on Shabbat, in a sea of marching Jewish home-made sign- and banner-carrying pilgrims, and prayed, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “ with our feet.”

And this is what I learned I pray to live in a world where we are here for each other.

I arrived on a plane to D.C. after a broken overhead bin resulted in a checked bag, which turned into a lost bag. Good-bye pink knitted pussy gear, good-bye warm coat and sundry staples. I spent most of the weekend feeling a bit un-equipped, and it put me at the mercy of those who were in a position to throw me a line.

I was grateful to find people who were kind and helpful, from strangers who shared phone chargers to friends who schlepped warm clothes on crowded metros across the city to make it possible for me to march.  I was reminded what a privilege, and indeed a critical feature of dignity and safety, it is to be warm and be surrounded by people sympathetic to my needs.

Over the course of the march weekend, I was privileged to meet, to witness and to hear from many people who converged on the city to share a vision for the world that is both bold protest and compassionate intervention. A vision that seeks to protect our planet for future generations, and that spins outward from a center that is rooted in care for the vulnerable. 

On this march that meant the people and institutions that have been the focus of attack —  people of color, Jews and Muslims, refugees and immigrants, LGBTQ, Americans who are poor, children seeking education in our public schools, disabled Americans and Veterans , those who rely on affordable health care and women who refuse to relinquish control-legally, morally or physically-over their own bodies.

I met a group of marchers who were the lionesses and change-makers of the women’s movement in the 1970’s, including civil rights lawyer Judith Lonnquist, and her daughter Victory Lonnquist who just completed a 6 month activist residency at Standing Rock , where she, a trained firefighter herself, was blasted with ice cold water in sub zero conditions by local firefighters. She said there was no way for her to really understand what was happening there without showing up, digging in and living there and hearing from members of the tribe, in intimate and meaningful ways that only standing side by side makes possible.

I met Mushe Tgaw, a taxi driver and an Ethiopian immigrant.

“You mean like Moshe?” I asked him.

“Yeah, like Moses,” he said.  “My mother named me after Moshe Dayan because my people are great admirers of Israe.”

He didn’t think much of the march until his daughters, Abegael 16, Egla 14, Sara 10, asked to go.

“They told  me, ‘Daddy we want to be a part of history.’”

He smiled. The proud immigrant father of two daughters born in Ethiopia and his youngest, born into the promise of America. He was able to become a citizen but he wonders if those who come after will be , “as lucky as me.”

I met Jerry and Wally, a gay couple who travelled from Massachusetts to D.C. to march for men and women walking the path toward marriage equality after them.  Wally is a Hispanic immigrant, and they were able to obtain good legal counsel and had the good luck of finding love during the Obama years in a state with progressive legislation. But they worry that a young gay immigrant who falls in love during the Trump administration will have not one but two obstacles against them in the fulfillment of their civil rights and dignity. They marched for all those young couples who may fall in love and wish to build a life together in this “new era.”

And I met Jane Plitt, the very first staffer ever for the National Organization of Women in Chicago in the 1970’s and an early championess of womens’ birthright to equal wages, equal rights and the dignity to preside over their own bodies. For her, the walk was magnificent because it represented the next wave of feminist leadership to finish the work that she and her sisters started. She said with a tear in her eye, that it was important to her, a relief, and something she was not sure she would see before she died. But here she was, seeing it, and I saw it, with deep appreciation for my daughter Rebecca and her generation, too.

And I witnessed our magnificent Rabbi, Rabbi Sharon Brous modeling humanity from the march stage in our nation’s capitol. Where she reminded us all that our hearts are capacious, and we can build a better world if we join hands with the compassion in one another, with each step, with each prayer, with each person, millions and millions of women and girls, and the men who love them, strong.


Samara Hutman is  the Director of Remember Us I The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah and Righteous Conversations Projects.

Inauguration, march test capital rabbis


On Jan. 20, the United States inaugurates a new president and ushers in an era of new policies and rhetoric. But at the Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, D.C., eyes are on the day after, when some 200,000 marchers are expected to gather to reassert support for policies they think will be threatened under President Donald Trump.

The synagogue, named for the intersection where it has stood for more than a century, is hosting a Shabbat of programming surrounding the Women’s March on Washington. The march will set out Saturday morning from downtown Washington and advocate for women and minorities, including support for reproductive and civil rights, environmental regulation, and protections for immigrants and the LGBT community. Among those scheduled to speak is Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles.

“We assumed that most of the Jews would be coming in for the march and not for the inauguration itself, so we wanted to have a space, especially for Shabbat itself, that was open to everybody,” said Sixth & I Rabbi Shira Stutman. (Nationwide, polls show 74 percent of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton; in the District of Columbia, more than 90 percent of residents chose Clinton over Trump.)

The march’s agenda, Stutman said, “felt like values that were important to us.”

Washington synagogues are divided on how to approach a fraught weekend that will move from a moment of triumph for Trump supporters to a show of numerical strength from his opponents. Some, like Sixth & I, are embracing the march and integrating their Sabbath activities with it. Others hope to carry on as usual and remain out of the fray. None of the city’s major synagogues will be celebrating or commemorating Trump’s inauguration itself with special programming.

“It’s going to be a very intense week,” said Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of the Conservative Adas Israel Congregation, which will not be participating in the march. “Just the act of being together, [congregants] knowing they have their Jewish community together taking care of them, that’s all we’re going to do.”

Synagogues and their rabbis have been grappling with the question of how to respond to Trump since the beginning of the presidential campaign. A group of rabbis protested Trump at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March, citing his remarks and policies targeting Muslims, Mexicans and others. Before the High Holy Days in September, rabbis in swing states said they planned to avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.

Trump, for his part, says clergy should have more latitude to express political views. He has proposed repealing a law that prohibits religious institutions from endorsing or opposing candidates.

Stutman said Sixth & I is planning activities around the march not as a stand against Trump but because it supports the marchers’ goals. Along with Jews United for Justice and T’ruah, a rabbis’ human rights group, the nondenominational synagogue will host meals, as well as a program of reflection and song before the march begins Saturday morning. In the afternoon, it will offer meditation, yoga and lectures on women’s rights and social justice.

More than 800 people are slated to attend the morning program.

“That is our opportunity to have a moment of quiet during what is going to be a very emotionally intense weekend,” Stutman said. “I recognize for many, if not most people, this is also a protest march, but what Sixth & I is signing on to is not the protest but instead the possibility of standing with other Americans.”

The area’s Reform synagogues are also organizing around Jewish marchers. Congregations and groups will co-host a morning prayer service before the march near its starting point with worship tailored to its themes. Readings are slated to include quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, while attendees will sing folk songs such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer.”

“It is important to us to give Reform Jews the opportunity to observe Shabbat” at the march, said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Va., who is one of the service’s organizers. “The intersection of Judaism, Shabbat and social justice — that’s where we’re headed.”

Rodef Shalom is not endorsing the march as a synagogue, though its women’s association will be chartering a bus there and Schwartzman’s family will be participating. Schwartzman also intends to address Trump’s inauguration in a sermon Friday night, but she said Reform congregations need to be careful to distinguish between Jewish values and liberal politics.

“I’m very worried about how Jewish values are going to be compromised in the new administration,” she said. “I want him to know about our commitment to social justice, whether it’s refugees, immigrants, hunger, poverty, LGBT, the long history we have with civil rights as a movement.”

Adas Israel also is not endorsing the march, but it is hosting a Friday night dinner for out-of-towners in the city for the weekend’s events. Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue, is having a Shabbat dinner for guests, too, while not commenting on the march or the inauguration. The Orthodox Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue will be holding services as usual. (Its rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, staged a one-man protest of Trump during the AIPAC conference.)

Adas Israel’s Steinlauf was one of 58 Washington-area rabbis to sign a letter last week urging Trump to “revisit your campaign rhetoric and the hate crimes it may have unleashed.” Steinlauf said he may join the women’s march after Saturday morning services. But he also said his congregation must refrain from political statements so it remains welcoming to all comers.

“As a major congregation in Washington, D.C., we understand we will be playing a central role locally and nationally in terms of moral leadership during this administration,” Steinlauf said.

“But we also understand that this is Washington, D.C. We’re not going to be checking people’s political affiliations before they walk in the door.”

100 anti-Semitic incidents reported in US post-election, watchdog finds


One hundred anti-Semitic incidents occurred in the 10 days following the presidential election, representing about 12 percent of hate incidents in the U.S. recorded by a civil rights watchdog.

The report released Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center looked at 867 hate incidents that occurred in the 10 days following the election of Donald Trump. The incidents targeted various minority groups, including Jews, immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims and the LGBT community. Incidents counted had been submitted through the watchdog’s website or reported in the media.

Of the 100 incidents classified as anti-Semitic, 80 were “vandalism and graffiti incidents of swastikas, without specific references to Jews,” while others targeted Jews more overtly, such as the harassment of  individuals or vandalism of a synagogue, the report said. Many of the vandalism incidents included references to Trump, the nonprofit said.

The report referred to an attack prior to the election on a historically black church in Mississippi as “a harbinger of what has become a national outbreak of hate, as white supremacists celebrate Donald Trump’s victory.”

JTA has reported on anti-Semitic incidents following the election, including acts of vandalism featuring swastikas and Trump-related themes left in public areas as well as on the homes of Jewish individuals.

Earlier this month, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, said anti-Jewish public and political discourse in America is worse than at any point since the 1930s.

The election season saw the rise of the “alt-right,” a loose far-right movement whose followers traffic variously in white nationalism, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-Semitism and a disdain for “political correctness.”

Many alt-right members, including prominent white nationalists, have been vocal in their support for Trump, who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. and likened Mexican immigrants to rapists.

The president-elect said last week that he did not want to “energize” white supremacists and denounced an alt-right conference in Washington, D.C., where speakers railed against Jews and several audience members did Hitler salutes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center report said that the 867 incidents “almost certainly represent a small fraction of the actual number of election-related hate incidents,” citing a Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that two-thirds of hate crimes are not reported to the police.

The document also noted that 23 of the incidents reported were anti-Trump, including harassment of supporters of the president-elect.

Jewish women’s group on Trump: ‘We will fight this with everything we have’


Donald Trump’s election to the presidency poses special challenges to many members of the Jewish community. How will they react to his proposed immigration raids and medical insurance cuts? What about Trump’s appointing to a top White House post Stephen Bannon, who heads the right-wing website Breitbart News, who has been accused of giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites?

Those subjects are being intensely discussed in the Jewish media and throughout the community, with many predicting the worst. Others, more optimistic, hope Trump’s campaign was just a stunt, staged to get him elected, and he’ll soon affect the solemn demeanor and sensible Republican politics expected of such a rich man. Jewish Trump supporters cite his relationship with his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his friendship with Likud Party-loving Jews such as Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson.

As I looked for Jewish reaction to the Trump victory, I came across a thoughtful, critical commentary posted on the website of the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles by council board president Helen Davidov and executive director Hillary Selvin. The council, with up to 3,000 members in the Los Angeles area, has been on the cutting edge of social change since it began helping Jewish immigrant women in the early 20th century. It rescued Jewish children from Hitler, fought McCarthyism in the 1950s and today is a leading fighter for reproductive rights and for the LGBT community. In the recent election, it was part of the coalition that won voter approval for the Los Angeles bond issue to finance housing for the homeless.

The piece by Davidov and Selvin was in line with that tradition.

“This election brought up levels of emotions for all Americans that we have not seen in years,” they wrote. “We must channel these feelings and ‘rise up’ to continue our fight for the rights guaranteed in our Constitution. The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles is a leader in the fight for women, children and families. … [We] will continue to advocate the rights of all women to make our own health care decisions, and for access to the health care we need, for the sustainability of our planet, for an end to gun violence, for the protection of our individual rights, for gender and racial equality … for immigrant rights and for health care for all. We will stand up against gender-related violence and all forms of hate and intolerance. We will stand up for inclusiveness, cooperation and collaboration.”

One morning, I drove to the Council of Jewish Women/LA office on North Fairfax Avenue to talk to Selvin.  She’s been executive director of the council for 12 years and before that had worked in other Los Angeles Jewish community organizations. Older women and men were arriving for a program. Listening to them talk, I could see the facility filled a valuable place in their lives. Selvin talked to me about harnessing this energy.

“There are opportunities before us to create positive things,” she said. “When people feel frightened, threatened, they end up coming together to achieve greatness. And I think that’s what’s going to happen in this country. Our communities will get stronger. We don’t have a choice. Whether it is the Jewish community, the interfaith communities, the LGBT community, the divisiveness, the hatred this campaign brought out, we need to stop.”

I asked her about immigration, a subject with special resonance to Jews, a community of immigrants and those descended from them.

Trump’s demagogic anti-immigrant rhetoric, directed against Latinos and Muslims, helped get him elected. Now he will have power to unleash immigration officers against those suspected of being here without documentation, invading their workplaces or stopping them on the street. What should Jews do?

“We have to protest,” Selvin said. “We have to be out there vocally. We must have peaceful protests. But we have to protest. We have to say this is not OK.  We have to be out there fighting for these rights and if that means we know a raid is going to happen, we put ourselves out in front. … We have to support the laws of this country but we also have to support the people who give to this country.”

I asked her about the increasingly controversial Bannon, whose appointment as Trump’s chief White House strategist has split the Jewish community. The Anti-Defamation League called the Breitbart News Network “the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” But the Zionist Organization of America has defended Breitbart as a strongly pro-Israel media outlet.

“The National Council of Jewish Women is appalled,” she said. “We will fight this with everything we have. This country will rise up against people like Bannon.”

As we wrapped up the interview, I asked Selvin if this election result presents a different kind of responsibility for the Jewish community.

“I think it wakes us all up and tells us we can’t be complacent anymore,” Selvin said. “It wakes us up to the work we need to do to help each other. It’s not just the Jewish community, but the whole community in which we live. If we see something wrong, we must stop it. If we see bigotry, if we see hate, if we see anti-Semitism, we have an obligation to stop it.”

As I left, the parking lot was filling up. From these women and men will come the activists in the National Council of Jewish Women/LA, ready for what promises to be a most challenging time.


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

On Transgender Day of Remembrance, Jews join in to show support


For most, the experience of growing up as the Jewish child of a transgender father is recognizable only as the plot of the television series “Transparent.” But for Jackie Malie Mason, that was her childhood.

“Before my father rose from her ashes [as an out transgender woman], my relationship with Judaism wasn’t very passionate,” she said. But watching her mother’s Jewish family accept her father “with open arms,” even when her father’s own non-Jewish family didn’t, showed her that Judaism is a faith of “love and acceptance — and horseradish on Passover.”

Mason spoke on a panel to a group of some 70 people gathered on Nov. 20, Transgender Day of Remembrance, at the West Hollywood headquarters of JQ International.

Love and acceptance were the day’s watchwords at JQ’s Trans Equality Brunch, the largest gathering ever focused on transgender issues for the organization, an alliance of the Jewish and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.

Guests were given nametags and asked to write their names and preferred gender pronouns, and then gathered on a small, open-air patio at JQ’s office on Santa Monica Boulevard for a brunch of lox and bagels. Inside, the men and women’s restrooms were papered with signs reading “whichever.”

“What an amazing moment this is in our history — and herstory, and theirstory,” Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, the director of JQ’s call-in helpline, said as she introduced the panel that followed the brunch.

During the panel, Mason, along with two transgender women and one transgender man, took questions from moderator Laurie Tragen-Boykoff, a social worker who works in the transgender community.

Transgender Day of Remembrance is a nationally recognized event calling for empowerment of transgender individuals and their allies as well as reflection on lives lost to suicide and assault, both endemic in that community. 

The transgender panelists were invited to share their experiences with the crowd, many of whom came from sponsoring congregations Temple Beth Am, Temple Kol Tikvah, Beth Chayim Chadashim (an LGBT congregation), and the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.

“How many of you have tried to keep an inflatable beach ball underwater?” said Mike/Michelle Dennis. “It’s really hard, right? Well that’s what I did for 50 years.”

Dennis, who is 74, said she uses both names to foster questions that lead to understanding.

Jake Hofheimer is a more recent initiate to the transgender family. The 17-year-old is a senior at the New Roads School in Santa Monica and a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood. He said at the event that both communities have proved very supportive of his transition.

But support from the Jewish community has not been monolithic. On a trip he went on with the Religious Action Center, the social justice arm of the Reform movement, a teen from Oklahoma began making demeaning comments toward transgender people, calling them disgusting and mentally ill. When Hofheimer said that he was transgender, the teen was surprised.

“He said, ‘Oh, I kind of thought you were a normal dude,’ ” Hofheimer recalled. “‘I was like, ‘Well, what is normal?’ ”

After the panel, many participants headed around the corner to a vigil at the West Hollywood Library. Despite televisions that flanked the stage showing flickering candles, the atmosphere was festive: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” played over the sound system as a couple danced in the back, and behind the stage members of a mariachi band tuned their instruments. 

Rain fell steadily; in the covered plaza of the library, though, spirits were high. Hosted by West Hollywood’s Transgender Advisory Board, a first-of-its-kind government panel, the event drew some 300 attendees, who sat in folding chairs and cheered raucously for statements of solidarity and calls for transgender empowerment.

But when the day’s speakers addressed the crowd, their message was somber, recalling the memory of the transgender individuals who died this past year. 

Taking the stage, Hofheimer told the crowd how he was continuously humiliated at his all-girls middle school, even facing physical harassment for being a “tomboy.”

Many speakers referenced the presidential election earlier this month as cause for concern. Mention of Vice President-elect Mike Pence drew loud boos.

“Especially now — what’s happening in national politics — it’s more important than ever to come together, because we really are stronger together,” West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister told the Journal as she prepared to go onstage.

Meister said she’s motivated by her personal identity as a Jewish woman to ally herself with the transgender community.

“Knowing our history, we have to stand with minorities who are trying to get to equality,” she said.

The Pledge


I am a gay Orthodox Jewish teen. That in and of itself may be one of the most controversial sentences in modern Jewish history, but it’s also simply my life. I daven, or pray in com-munity, and I am part of the honors Judaic program at my school. I keep kosher, observe Shabbat, keep all the fasts, and I celebrate the holidays. However, I also spent my summer in Israel interning for the LGBT wing of the political party Yesh Atid, attended the gay pride parade and am an intern for an organization called Eshel, a group that specializes in Orthodox inclusion for LGBT Jews.

This spring, as an intern for Eshel, which is funded by the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation, I was privileged to take part in an informative course on community organizing through a Jewish lens titled Join for Justice (www.joinforjustice.org). When the course ended, each participant was encouraged to take on a summer project and, using the information gained in the course, make a difference in whatever way we could in the world.

Although I knew my project would have an LGBT focus, I couldn’t seem to figure out in what direction I would take my project until I was inspired by Gandhi’s famous adage, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is when it became clear to me that I was that change I wished to see in the world, not in a self-righteous sense, but in that I am far luckier than other LGBT members of Orthodox communities. I have been blessed with loving and supportive family, friends, teachers, rabbis, and a community that has allowed me to find myself Jewishly as a gay man in a healthy manner. 

Unfortunately, I am the exception.

Homosexual Jewish teenagers across America remain fearful that they will be shunned by their community and expelled from their homes or schools. In extreme situations, some have taken their own lives in a state of perpetual hopelessness.

Being a closeted gay person proved to be the most difficult challenge I have faced in my life. High school workload, SATs, peer pressure and the many other issues high schoolers are subject to, all paled in comparison to being in the closet. I kept a part of myself under lock and key, hidden in the darkest and deepest depths of my psyche, because I believed that opening that Pandora’s box would rob me of everything I cared for and loved. My religion, my family, my friends, my presence at my school, would, in my mind, all be in serious jeopardy if I dared to reveal the truth to anyone.

However, it came at a terrible price. My frustration with keeping my sexuality a secret eventually spread into other areas of my life like an infectious disease. It poisoned my relationship with my parents and friends and forced me into a constant state of fear, sensi-tive to anything that could in theory “give me away.” I was mentally unstable. I finally reached my breaking point at the end of my 10th-grade year. I realized that nothing could be any worse than staying in the closet, and I took a leap of faith. One by one I told my friends, community leaders, rabbis, teachers, the principal, the head of school, and, of course, my family. Surprisingly, each and every one of them was supportive and loving. At that moment, when I was finally “out,” I instantly felt free, as if a weight I had been carrying for so long that it had become part of my everyday life, had been lifted off my shoulders.

However, at the realization that those who mattered to me did not at all care about my sexual orientation, and in fact, were there every step of the way on my coming out journey, I felt I had wasted years of my life suffering the burden of carrying this secret when I could very well have been what I am now: happy. I loved my school, I loved my friends and my family, and I sacrificed my own sanity in a bid to protect those pillars of my existence. Had I known from the beginning that my friends, school and everyone I loved would support my coming out, I would not have had to endure the unbearable struggle of staying in the closet.

Gay students exist in the Orthodox Jewish School system, and I guarantee you that your local school is no exception. They stay hidden, like I did, out of fear. It was a fear that proved inaccurate, but it feels valid and very well may be for others like me. I am not alone. We are among you.

Will my school be OK with my sexuality? This was a question that haunted me for years, and yet there is a very simple solution that would have addressed this burning question. If students were to know that their school supported them, it would ease many of their anxieties and bring them one step closer to being freed from the life-sucking prison known as the closet.

This is why, when Eshel asked that its interns create a project, I sat with the leadership of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where I am currently a senior, to create a Pledge. The Pledge is an à la carte series of promises that Jewish schools can sign in order to protect their students. With the support of my parents, I worked together with the leadership of Shalhevet High School and authored the Pledge, available online (www.jewishschoolpledge.com), which will be shared with the entire Shalhevet family, to let every student who is like me know that he or she is not alone. Some examples of our Pledge include a promise that no student will be expelled for his or her sexual orientation, that harassment or bullying of any student by another student, teacher, or administrative member will not be tolerated, and that no one will be pushed toward “conversion” therapy. Additionally, the Pledge warrants that the school will strive to connect gay and lesbian students with a support network that is either on- or off-campus, and will provide religious guidance to students throughout the coming out process with trained staff.

As the Pledge was adopted, Rabbi Ari Segal, the Head of School at Shalhevet High School, published an article in our student newspaper where he shared his perspective on how he, as an Orthodox rabbi and the Head of School at Shalhevet, finds a way to support LGBT students at Shalhevet. Rabbi Segal’s beautiful words truly hit home for me, and I pray that every school looks to him as an example of what it means to be a halachically committed and sensitive rabbi.

Every child and teen (and adult) deserves to know that his or her school is a safe environment. Shalhevet turned out to be an incredibly welcoming and supportive place but, for a long time, I did not know that would be the case.

The Pledge takes a necessary and mean-ingful step in bettering the lives of all Jewish students. Furthermore, we wrote the Pledge with the express purpose of creating the perfect balance of protecting gay Jewish teens while not threatening Jewish law, and I firmly believe we have accomplished that. This is not about being politically correct, progressive, or even “LGBT friendly” — the Pledge is about the health and safety of our students.

I am gay. I am Orthodox. I am not seeking to change the halacha and I am not seeking to subvert Jewish values. Quite the contrary: I am seeking to make it possible to be an observant Jew in the Orthodox community regardless of one’s sexual orientation. I invite you to join me on this quest. I invite you to make sure gay students feel as cared for and appreciated as their heterosexual counter-parts. The longer we sweep this issue under the rug, we as a community become com-plicit in the sufferings of our LGBT members. The Torah tells us we are all created, b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we therefore all deserve a fair chance to be a contributing part of God’s nation. So, won’t you join me in making this happen? Won’t you join me in protecting Orthodox observance among all our students? Won’t you join me in making Judaism accessible to everyone? I urge you to reach out to me via this newspaper at editor@jewishjournal.com if you would like your school to sign this Pledge or to find out more about the project. Together we can make a difference, stand hand in hand and show what it truly means to be a light unto the nations.


Micha Thau is a senior at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, and student author of The Pledge.

The challenge of our time


In the wake of last summer’s horrific massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, I wrote to the Shalhevet community about our responsibility to take active steps to create safer spaces for the LGBT community. Well, the moment has arrived. We can no longer sit on the sidelines. As individuals and as a community, we must tackle this issue head-on.

Haven’t we come far enough? Between tolerance and acceptance

I have heard many people assert that we already have turned the tide on this issue insofar as the observant community demonstrates more tolerance and less explicit homophobia than ever before. Although I agree, I fear that we may be slipping into a state of complacency on this issue. To put it plainly, “being nice” cannot serve as the end-goal. Basic kindness is but the starting point of human decency.

I certainly do not want to belittle the importance of our community’s increased sense of tolerance. But what’s next? Of course, halachic Jews will always be limited in the degree to which they accept homosexuality as normative. But we must find a place that goes beyond mere tolerance even as it may stop short of full-fledged acceptance. Our commitment to Torah and mitzvot not only allows, but requires, that effort. 

The challenge to emunah 

This may surprise many adults, but the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today. More young people are “coming out” than ever before, and that repeatedly puts a face to this theological challenge.

These weighty issues do not live in the abstract; they powerfully and emotionally impact genuine individuals living in our Orthodox community, with families and friends. What may seem like an interesting sociological debate in truth is creating crushing pain, anxiety and general turmoil for people about whom we care deeply.

[RELATED: The Pledge]

As they go off to college, students invariably face the painful moral dilemma created by the seemingly intractable conflict: believing in the primacy and validity of the Torah on the one hand, and following their hearts’ sense of morality with regard to loving and accepting their gay friends — or perhaps “coming out” themselves — on the other. All too often, this earnest challenge results in our children quietly losing faith in the Torah as a moral way of life.

In my experience, many, if not most, 20- to 40-year-olds in the modern Orthodox world struggle with the issue of homosexuality and the divinity of the Torah. They believe in a kind and just God and they want to believe in the divinity of the Torah. But at the same time, they feel fairly certain that being gay is not a matter of choice. In the apparent conflict of these ideas, the first two premises seem to be losing ground. Students today do not find solace in the argument that the issue mirrors other questions of theodicy — children born with severe disabilities, tsunamis or other natural disasters, or the proliferation of cancer, for example. This generation by-and-large views this particular challenge to faith as irreconcilable.

Steering away from the issue might feel safe, but that avoidance is detrimental and dangerous. Rather than avoid, we must actively and thoughtfully engage. Even just taking those initial steps, I believe, will alleviate the burden of this theological struggle, and will help prevent those tempted to throw in the theological towel to circumvent the tension altogether. In other words, I believe that putting this issue front and center will, in the long run, bring our young people closer to Torah and halachah — not further away. 

I’m just an educator

I imagine that many of you also struggle with the question of why God would seemingly create (or allow for a situation in which there exist) people who are gay but then forbid them from acting on it. But that is up to G-d and I think we should stop discussing the “why” of it and leave that to God. The more we try to understand this, the more harm we do. Simply stated, my shoulders are not broad enough to reconcile the totality of this issue.I will leave the discussion of this massive theological question to the Gedolim of our generation. But I beg the Yeshiva University Roshei Yeshiva and the Gedolim of our community to take up the discussion now. Please do not wait for other groups to address this issue and then lambast them. Our Gedolim rightly claim the mantle of Torah leadership for our community but they must assert themselves. They must fill the vacuum that exists right now. If not, the difficult and vital issue will be addressed by those to their right and left.

I also will leave the specifics about what side of the mechitzah someone occupies and the structure of shul membership to the poskim and rabbis of shuls. But again, I beg our community leaders to address the matter in a timely and forthright manner. If the specific conflict has not yet arrived in your community (which I believe it certainly has), it will be there shortly.

Finally, I will leave discussion about nature and nurture to psychologists and sociologists. Although I have read many articles on the topic, and feel strongly that there exists a genetic component to this issue, I know that others disagree and cite social and cultural factors as a cause or at least predictor. I think that this discussion only distracts from the more significant point: Many, many gay, lesbian and transgender people today have no control over their sexual orientation.

Whatever your stance on “causation,” I believe we would have a hard time denying that many gay people do not choose to be gay. And to address another common refrain, while in the past most people have suffered silently while attempting to sublimate their inclina-tions … our teens generally view that approach as, at best, an exercise in avoidance (and, at worst, a recipe for torment and self-hatred). People today do not feel the need to sublimate those urges and desires to live meaningful and fulfilled lives. In fact, they see it as inhumane and offensive to suggest such self-denial or self-abnegation. But again, this is for the Gedolim and Poskim and mental health professionals to discuss. 

The children are suffering — an educator’s view

The Shalhevet High School student body, like every other Orthodox school, includes gay students, and we have worked hard to create a loving and supportive environment for them. Still, we must do more. Young people in the LGBT community have told me that they feel invisible when we counsel them in private; they feel somewhat loved, but only unofficially, “tolerated,” but not embraced. This state of limbo cannot persist. We will lose our children — emotionally, religiously, and even physically — if we continue, even with the best of intentions, to make them feel ostracized and invisible. If we persist in these mistakes, we will only water down the ideal that each and every one of us is created “b’tselem Elokim” (in God’s image). 

So what can we do? Talking some tachlis

So what concrete steps might we take? Here are some initial thoughts:

Allow, or even sponsor, a support group for our LGBT students.

Find ways to celebrate those individuals choosing to live an Orthodox life while struggling with their sexuality. These brave students are responding to this powerful test of their emunah. Let us not relegate them to second-class status.

Encourage — and indeed expect — that our straight students support their gay peers in our school. Gay students deserve the same friendship and solidarity as anyone else, especially as Jews trying under the most challenging of circumstances to navigate the Torah and observe its commandments.

Implement anti-discrimination human resources policies and create a safe working environment for all employees.

Modify our educational plans and curricula to focus on discrimination against LGBT communities.

Provide our teachers with professional development in this area through organizations such as Eshel.

Find a way to assure our LGBT students that they belong and have a place at school and in our community. We’ve already set this process in motion at Shalhevet.

Ultimately, we will not succeed in satisfying the full range of expectations of every LGBT advocate. Even as we move the ball forward, some will claim that we’ve still fallen short. We can push and tinker around the edges, but as an Orthodox community, we cannot simply change Orthodoxy. Our attempts in the margins will invariably paint us “not Orthodox enough” on the one hand and “not pro-gay enough” on the other. As so often is the case, we find ourselves stuck in the middle. But we cannot allow that purgatory-like status to stop us from making the changes that we feel are appropriate. 

Why now?

Read the news. People are being shot and killed because they are gay. As Jews, we have always stood up against hate. People — our children — are in pain. They feel invisible. They are crying themselves to sleep after someone uses the word “homo.” Many of them hurt themselves when someone calls them a slur on social media. Jews have always stood up to protect the weak. We know better than anyone what it is to be hated and persecuted for something that is essentially beyond one’s control. We have a moral imperative to stand up and do what we can on this issue.

To those who want change — a challenge

For those who want faster pace for acceptance on this issue, here is another challenge. We dilute the efficacy of the argument when we choose to circumvent or dispose of the halachic process. When we do so, we diminish our credibility and enable naysayers to sidestep our arguments. When we fail to daven three times day or learn Torah regularly, when we aren’t makpid about kashrut, how can we expect to engage in this halachic discussion? To paraphrase the great Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the credibility of this message can emanate only from a halachichally committed messenger.

For those who disagree with me and believe we should tell our young people, however painful, to sublimate their homosexual feelings and live a life of celibacy, I ask you the following question: What would you say if your child came out to you? Would you tell him or her to sublimate those feelings? Would you suggest he or she live a celibate and lonely life?


Rabbi Ari Segal is head of school at Shalhevet High School. This op-ed first appeared in The Boiling Point, the school’s student news source, at shalhevetboilingpoint.com, and is reprinted with its permission.

Workshop aims to change Orthodox LGBTQ conversation


If you type “Orthodox Judaism” into the Google search engine, the first suggestion that comes up is “Orthodox Judaism food” (nothing like Mom’s matzo ball soup!), the second is “Orthodox Judaism rules” (we certainly have a lot of them) and the third is “Orthodox Judaism homosexuality.”

What is the place within the Orthodox community for people who identify as LGBTQ? If Google doesn’t clarify the issue, Jewish law, or halachah, provides more questions than answers, as well. The topic was uncomfortably brushed aside by rabbinic authorities until the gay rights movement gained traction across the United States. Now, the Modern Orthodox community is beginning to openly discuss how to reckon with its LGBTQ members. Indeed, Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, in an op-ed on his school’s student news website, called the issue “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.” 

In Los Angeles, following last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Eshel, a national support and advocacy organization for Orthodox LGBTQ Jews that offers programming in Los Angeles, convened a group of Orthodox community members in the Pico-Robertson living room of Harry and Dorit Nelson to address the changing landscape, and an official LGBTQ Allies steering committee emerged from a subsequent meeting. The committee then teamed up with JQ International, a non-denominational, West Hollywood-based organization, to organize an Allies workshop event that took place on Sept. 18 at the law offices of Nelson Hardiman.

Some 45 people participated in the program, including mental health professionals, Jewish educators and members from multiple Los Angeles congregations, as well as Rabbi Steven Greenberg, a co-director of Eshel and the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. Steering committee member Julie Gruenbaum Fax (a former staff writer for the Journal) said she was pleased but not surprised by the turnout. 

“What was so clear to me from putting this event together is that people are thinking about this,” she said. “We tapped into something that already existed.” 

Even as LGBTQ rights have expanded within the secular community, the Orthodox community has relied on biblical and rabbinic ordinances that appeared to leave little room for interpretation within the framework of traditional halachah. As a result, many Orthodox LGBTQ Jews have felt there is no place for them within their communities.

For Fax, this was a major motivating factor for getting involved. “It hurts me that the community that I love, the Orthodox community, would be causing such despair,” she said.

At the workshop, Greenberg painted the broad strokes of the halachich issues plaguing Modern Orthodox poschim (legal scholars), then shifted the conversation in another direction.

“OK, that’s the halachah,” he acknowledged, recounting a conversation with a fellow rabbi. “But have you heard the stories?”

Greenberg offered his own story about coming out publicly in 1999 after struggling with his conflicting identities for 15 years. Other personal stories cropped up over the course of the workshop. One man told of his sister coming out to their parents an hour before Shabbat, and how their Charedi brother refused to accept her until his own son came out many years later. Joseph Harounian, a gay Persian Jew from West Hollywood, said how difficult it was for him to come out to his community 17 years ago and spoke of his hopes that his visibility will make it easier for the youth of today.

Micha Thau, an out senior at Shalhevet and an intern at Eshel, said he hopes more LGBTQ Orthodox people will begin to open up about their experiences. “Everyone has a different story,” he said. “My story is different than everyone else’s, and everyone has their own points of tension. My story doesn’t connect to everybody, but someone else’s story may.”

After Greenberg’s presentation, the group divided up to role-play three potentially difficult scenarios: engaging rabbis and other community leaders over coffee, talking with kids during a car ride home from school and navigating a dinner conversation that turns homophobic. The goal was to learn to assert oneself as an ally, to open lines of communication and promote a culture that is welcoming to LGBTQ congregants. 

In addition to promoting personal stories, the steering committee also emphasized the importance of initiating change at the grass-roots level as a means of spurring rabbinic authorities into action. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai David-Judea recently hosted a panel at the synagogue titled “Coming Out and Opening Up,” but his work in this area has been at the forefront among Orthodox religious leaders.

“We all know that a grass-roots, lay-led movement is much more effective than waiting for the rabbis to change their perspective,” said Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, a Conservative rabbi and JQ International’s helpline director. “And I say this as a rabbi,” she said, smiling.

Eshel founder and co-director Miryam Kabakov singled out parents of LGBTQ youth as “catalysts for change.” While alienated kids coming out often seek out more accepting communities, their parents often will want to remain in their own communities, and this can stimulate change from within.

“The kids go away and don’t come back, and the parents are deeply disturbed by that,” Kabakov explained. “So they’re the ones who are pushing the rabbis.”

According to Kabakov, seeds have already been planted for future action. Eshel, which is in the midst of a multi-year cutting-edge grant from the Jewish Commmunity Foundation, Los Angeles, has held one-on-one meetings with many Orthodox rabbis around the Los Angeles community and led training sessions with educators at Shalhevet, a co-ed Modern Orthodox high school, and Pressman Academy, a Conservative kindergarten through eighth-grade day school that employs several Orthodox teachers. Also, a committee was recently formed to organize social gatherings for LGBTQ members in the Pico-Robertson area. 

For resources online, go to eshelonline.org or jqinternational.org.

Shalhevet head urges Orthodox community to take on LGBT acceptance


Something’s eating Rabbi Ari Segal.

That’s why the head of school at Shalhevet High School, an Orthodox Jewish day school on Fairfax Avenue, penned a nearly 2,000-word editorial for the school’s student newspaper, The Boiling Point, on LGBT acceptance within the Orthodox community.

“The moment has arrived,” he wrote in the Over the last few years, I have worked to create a loving, supportive, and safe environment for LGBT students in our school. More recently, however, I’ve realized we have not done enough to clearly demonstrate our full acceptance of these young men and women in our community. They’re still scared, and in pain.  And it’s not just gay students themselves, but so many young adults in our community who have lost faith in the divinity of the Torah on account of this particular issue. 

And while halakha is explicit in regards to homosexual activity, I felt I could not sit on the sidelines as we lose so many of our young people — physically and spiritually.  I started searching for that space between tolerance (the current status quo of “hate the sin, not the sinner”) and full-fledged acceptance/celebration. I felt the first step in achieving that is having this conversation, finding the words and the wherewithal to express the challenge, to release ourselves from the theological paralysis that we may feel around the issue. 

In short, what motivated me to write this piece is my deep love of these students and my deep belief in the divinity of the Torah. 

 Read the full editorial

At Jerusalem Pride March, Orthodox welcome


It had been a rough week or so for Israel’s LGBT community.

The mayor of Jerusalem opted not to attend the capital’s pride march so as not to offend haredi Orthodox and religious Zionist residents.

His decision came on the heels of 300 leading religious Zionist rabbis backed a prominent colleague, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who called LGBT people “deviant.”

Beersheba police banned a planned pride march from the southern city’s main street over security concerns, after the city’s chief rabbi criticized the event.

And the jailed haredi Orthodox man who murdered 16-year-old Shira Banki during a stabbing rampage at last year’s pride march in Jerusalem and his brother were charged with planning another attack this year.

Still, the vibe at the Jerusalem Pride March Thursday, attended by an estimated record-breaking 25,000 people, was cautiously optimistic. There was widespread agreement among participants that, despite setbacks, Israel is getting more LGBT-friendly.

Yuval Regev, a 22-year old who works in digital media in Tel Aviv, posed for photographs with friends in a homemade mask of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s face.

“We want Bibi to be here with us, and he’s not. So we brought him over,” he explained, as he waited to be screened by police before the march.

“But from right to left on the political spectrum, it’s positive that we’re hearing support,” he said. “It’s better to be gay in Israel in 2016 than it was in 2006. And it’s still getting better. It would just be false to say that because we’re going down the nationalistic path, we’re going down the homophobic path.”

Regev cited the election of Amir Ohana, the first openly gay Knesset member from the right-wing Likud party, as evidence of the emerging pro-LGBT consensus in Israeli politics.

Netanyahu was among the ministers who condemned anti-LGBT remarks by Rabbi Levinstein. The prime minister posted a Hebrew-language video to Facebook Thursday calling the Jerusalem event a “march of unity” for all those who believe in equality. After facing criticism, Barkat on Wednesday defended his decision to skip the march, telling Channel 2: “I am a partner to the aim of achieving more tolerance, but not every means brings you to that target.”

Like Regev, Tom Canning, the associate director of the Jerusalem Open House — the LGBT group behind the Jerusalem Pride March — saw marked progress in Israel, along with room for improvement.

“I’m happy that at least at the highest levels of government, they’re not letting what’s happening go quietly, and Nir Barkat has been widely condemned. He’s one of the fewer leaders in Israel who doesn’t support Jerusalem Pride,” he said.

“It’s clear that most of the homophobia is within Orthodox communities. But ultra-Orthodox communities have never been our enemy and we will be continuing to work in our ways, quietly and behind the scenes, to create tolerance wherever homophobia remains.”

Noa Eshel, a 24-year-old student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was marching with a group of dozens of LGBT activists from Beersheba. Organizers there called off the Beersheba march in favor of a protest at the city council after the High Court of Justice allowed police to reroute it. A former student in a mixed religious-secular preparatory course for the Israel Defense Forces, she said she and her friends agreed on the need for more dialogue, and less condemnation.

“I know a lot of rabbis who are going to be here,” she said.

Emanuel Miller, a 29-year-old British Orthodox Jew who works at an NGO in Jerusalem and prays three time a day, stood in the middle of the march wearing signs on his front and back.

The front sign read: “Hatred is my enemy. Religious, straight, and I love all of you.” The back sign: “Love and let love. Religious, straight, and I love all of you.”

“I think it’s essential when people are scared and feel vilified, for the people who are vilifying them to come out and show them that yes, we recognize that you’re human beings,” he said. “Religion can be used as a tool for good or bad. … There are rabbis who have come out and said wonderful things.”

While most of the march was relatively subdued, lacking the hundreds of thousands of revelers, floats and half-naked men Tel Aviv Pride is famous for, a rowdy wedding party made its way down the street, with the grooms, Jerusalemites Yochai Werman and Yotam Hacohen, dancing under a mobile huppah.

Gabi Gabai, 45, an Orthodox educator from the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim, stopped at a memorial to Banki along the march’s route. He was with his wife and six children.

“This is my first time [at a pride event], just because of the murder and because of all the bad voices. I wanted to tell my kids that you can think differently,” he said. “There are a lot of people here with a kippah, without a kippah. I don’t think this is a big issue now. This is a matter for all the country. It’s not just for the gay community.”

Despite the positivity among marchers, the 2,000 police deployed along the fenced-off route were a reminder that not everyone in the city felt the same way. Police arrested 48 people suspected of trying to disrupt the march.

Banki’s parents had urged the public to attend the march this year, and her father addressed marchers at the end of the route Thursday evening, saying: “The lesson we have to learn from Shira’s murder is that moderation is a virtue for all of us, and that radicalization of any kind is a sure path to destruction.”

Liron Shimonie, a 31-year-old stylist with two gay sisters, said she and many of her friends were at the march to honor Shira Banki.

“I came just because of Shira. It was very important to me. I saw it on TV. I felt the injustice, and I wanted to do something,” she said. “There’s not a lot I do. But I’m doing this.”

IDF reevaluating relationship with rabbi who called homosexuals ‘perverts’


The Israeli army reportedly said it will reevaluate its collaboration with the head of a pre-military yeshiva in the West Bank following controversial comments he made, including calling homosexuals “perverts.”

Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who runs the Bnei David academy in the Eli settlement, has been the subject of public condemnation since a video speech surfaced on Sunday with the perverts comment. He also claimed the Israeli army is promoting a socially liberal agenda and said the Reform movement isn’t Jewish and in fact is an offshoot of Christianity.

According to the Israel Defense Forces’ announcement Tuesday, the reevaluation will include Levinstein visiting military bases and lecturing students, Ynet reported. The IDF said it will make a decision after Levinstein provides a clarification on his comments, according to Ynet.

However, the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Hagi Topolanski, canceled a visit to the academy on Tuesday in the wake of Levinstein’s controversial remarks.

The Ministry of Defense has called on Bnei David for clarification as well, Ynet reported. The yeshiva receives half of its funding from the ministry, according to Ynet.

A video of Levinstein’s speech at a conference that reportedly gathered 700 rabbis and educators from the National Religious sector appeared on the haredi Orthodox Hebrew-language website Kipa.

“There’s an insane movement here whose members have lost the normalcy of life,” he said. “This group makes the country mad and has now penetrated the IDF in full force – and no one dares open their mouth and speak out against it.

“At Bahad 1, there are lectures by perverts,” he said, referring to the main training base for Israeli army officers, with perverts meaning homosexuals.

Levinstein also said: “Under the framework of pluralism, soldiers and officers are taught to refer to [LGBT people] as ‘proud,’ but I don’t dare call them that… ‘perverts’ is what I call them.”

Lady Gaga joins mourners at L.A. City Hall to vent anger, grieve


Singer-songwriter Lady Gaga was visibly and audibly shaken as she took the microphone in front of Los Angeles City Hall on June 13 to speak words of consolation and anger to a heartbroken crowd of more than 2,000 mourners.