Should robots count in a minyan? Rabbi talks Turing test

Robots can hold a conversation, but should they count in a minyan?

A chatbot at Britain’s University of Reading was heralded this week as passing the Turing test, showing a conversational ability that managed to fool people into thinking it was human.

Using the fictional identity of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy with the name Eugene Goostman, the robot convinced a third of a panel’s members that they were interacting with a fellow human being.

While some have expressed skepticism about the achievement’s significance, the advance of artificial intelligence raises profound questions.

“From the practical legal perspective, robots could and should be people,” Rabbi Mark Goldfeder wrote in an article published on CNN’s website in response to the robot’s feat. “As it turns out, they can already officially fool us into thinking that they are, which should only strengthen their case.”

Goldfeder, a fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, is working on a book on robots in the law tentatively titled “Almost Human.” An Orthodox rabbi, Goldfeder spoke via online chat with JTA about whether robots could some day be welcomed as members of the Jewish community and what the Jewish tradition has to say about this issue.

JTA: What got you so interested in the topic of robots in Jewish law?

Goldfeder: It was a natural evolution from apes actually. I started off looking at the line between humans and non-humans in Jewish law, and realized that the demarcation was not as clear cut in ancient times as appears to be now.

Throughout the discussions in rabbinic literature we find creatures like Bigfoot, mermaids, centaurs, etc., and yes the golem, who in many ways resembles a robot.

Once you assume it may not be a strictly speciesist argument, the move from great apes to robots is quite understandable — given, of course, the caveat the robots may not be technically alive in the classical sense.

What are the basic criteria that would make a robot/monkey/mermaid Jewish?

Well, we start with the Talmud in Sanhedrin, which tells us the story of Rava sending a golem to Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira ends up figuring out that the golem was not human — it couldn’t communicate effectively and couldn’t pass the Turing test, apparently — and so he destroys it.

The halachic literature asks why this was not considered “ba’al tashchis,” wasteful, since maybe the golem could have counted in a minyan.

While they conclude that this golem at least was not able to be counted — they leave open the possibility of a better golem counting — it seems then that creation by a Jewish person would give the golem/robot presumptive Jewish status. For living things there is always parentage and conversion.

I should of course clarify that this entire discussion is “l’halacha v’lo l’maaseh,” a theoretical outlaying of views.

Good clarification, though being a robot seems like a convenient excuse to opt out of a bris.

In halachic terminology we would consider him “nolad mahul” (i.e., it is like he comes from the factory pre-circumcized).

Theoretically speaking, say a robot walked into your office and said, “Rabbi, I want to count in the minyan.” Would that be enough evidence for you to count him?

Not necessarily. For the purposes of this discussion, I would accept the position of the Jerusalem Talmud in the third chapter of Tractate Niddah that when you are dealing with a creature that does not conform to the simple definition of “humanness” — i.e. born from a human mother or at least possessing human DNA, but it appears to have human characteristics and is doing human things — one examines the context to determine if it is human. When something looks human and acts human, to the point that I think it might be human, then halachah might consider the threshold to have been crossed.

This makes sense from a Jewish ethical perspective as well. Oftentimes Jewish ethics are about the actor, not the one being acted upon. If I see something that for all intents and purposes looks human, I cannot start poking it to see if it bleeds. I have a responsibility to treat all that seem human as humans, and it is better to err on the side of caution from an ethical perspective.

In your opinion — more sociological than halachic — what’s your read on how seriously should Jewish institutions be preparing for the eventuality of artificially intelligent congregants or constituents?

I think the difference between science fiction and science is often time. If you were to ask me now, I don’t think Jewish institutions need to start worrying about it quite yet. Even with the Turing test officially passed, we are quite far from the situation of having a robot capable of walking among us unsuspected. But I do think that Jewish thinkers should start tossing around the questions because we’re probably 30, not 100, years away.

A divine call to action: Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

Once, on a mission to Israel, we needed a minyan for a prayer service during the airplane flight. We were a total of six men in our group, so we began to scan the plane for the remaining four for the requisite 10 men.

As I went up and down the aisles, one fellow turned to me and said, “Rabbi, make sure you get Jews for the minyan.” I looked at him in astonishment and assured him that I didn’t have any other plans. But why was he worried?  He replied that many years ago on a flight to Israel, they also needed four men to complete a minyan. They went around calling out, “We need four for a minyan—four for a minyan.” Before they knew it, four guys got up and joined them. They handed the men kippot and started the service. Suddenly the newcomers stopped the proceedings and asked what was happening. The others explained that they needed four more men to make the minyan. The newcomers, astounded, said, “We thought you were asking for four Armenians, so we joined you. We are not even Jewish.”

These fellows responded to the call but misinterpreted the message. This week’s Torah portion teaches the same lesson about the importance of hearing the call correctly. The portion begins with the words, “And the Eternal called unto Moses,” (Leviticus 1:1). Our sages point out that this wording is unusual. Generally, in Scripture, we encounter the expression that “God said to Moses,” or “God spoke to Moses.” As one rabbi noted, you don’t have to be a Biblical scholar or even barely familiar with Hebrew grammar to appreciate that the phrase “and He called” suggests that the mind of the person addressed is not attuned to or in communion with the mind of the speaker. One doesn’t call a person with whom one is in intimate conversation or rapport. One calls a man to attract his attention.

The midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni uses this insight to provide a beautiful homily. The midrash points out that the one, who flees from positions of honor and authority, achieves honor and authority. The Yalkut provides many examples of great Jewish leaders who illustrate this principle and comments that Moses represented the best example of all.

The Yalkut tells us how Moses tried to reject the appointment to be the savior of the Jewish people and lead them out of Egypt. God, however, was adamant, and Moses performed admirably. At this point the midrash comments:

“In the end he brought them out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, brought down Manna from heaven, provided water from the well and quail from heaven, and caused them to be surrounded with the clouds of glory, and erected for them the sanctuary. Having reached this stage, Moses said, ‘What more is there for me to do?’ And he sat in retirement. Thereupon the Holy One, Blessed be He, reproved him saying, ‘By your life! There is still a task for you to perform that is even greater than that which you have done until now; to teach my children my laws and to instruct them how to worship Me.’ ”

If “Vayikra,” the call to continue his task, applied to the greatest leader we ever had, how much more does it apply today?

Why, for example, is philanthropy for Jewish causes suffering among the most affluent and generous of Jewish generations?

Why is higher education in Jewish studies absent among the most educated and cultured in Jewish history?

Why is commitment to a Jewish homeland missing after only one generation past the Holocaust?

At a similar juncture in Jewish history, the great sage Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That question challenges us today to go back to work, “Vayikra,” to achieve a positive response to God’s call.

This column originally appeared in 2004. 

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

A Torah falls, a shul bonds

There was a crack and a gasp and then a murmur that traveled in a wave back through the rows of seats at Temple Beth Am’s Library Minyan on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

The Torah scroll that had just been placed back in the ark had toppled headfirst to the ground, landing on and cracking one of its top spindles before someone could snatch the scroll and stand it upright again. 

The Torah scroll is the most revered physical object in Jewish life, and it is never supposed to touch the ground.

“It is considered a communal trauma when a Torah scroll falls to the ground,” Rabbi Adam Kligfeld wrote in an e-mail to the entire congregation after the holiday. “To see the object to which we ascribe the most holiness, and the symbol that is so central to Jewish life and tradition, fall to the ground is not a small thing.”

Kligfeld, senior rabbi at the 1,000-member Conservative synagogue on the Westside, was himself at an overflow service across the street at the time of the mishap, but frazzled worshippers brought him the news after services, looking for guidance on how to respond.

Traditionally, anyone who sees a Torah scroll fall engages in 40 days of sunrise-to-sunset fasting, corresponding to the days Moses was on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. 

Even though most of the 250 people in the room didn’t actually see the scroll fall, and though the parchment itself reportedly did not hit the floor, and even though the fasting is a custom, but not a law, and giving tzedakah (charity) is also considered a tikkun (remedy), Kligfeld wrote that he wanted his congregation to engage in a meaningful, communal sacrifice. 

“It is a recognition that, even in an accidental situation, there is a tear in the fabric of the community that must be fixed,” he wrote.  

Kligfeld asked congregants each to sign up for one day of fasting on 40 designated days between Sukkot and Chanukah.

Within less than an hour of the e-mail going out, Temple Beth Am members — both those who were in the Library Minyan at the time and those who were not even in the building — filled all 40 days, and not long after, most days, including Thanksgiving, had multiple fasters.

“Rabbi Kligfeld tapped into not so much a sense of shock, but an urge and a need on the part of the kahal [community] to commit ourselves body and soul into a project in a deeper way than one would merely by donating money,” said Scott Taryle, the lay head of the Library Minyan, which does not have a rabbi. 

The scroll already has been repaired and was safely in the ark for Yom Kippur services.

Why all the fuss about something that is, after all, simply a physical object?

“The Torah is who we are and everything we are as a people. Without the Torah, we aren’t anything,” said Judith Weinstock, a minyan member who had a clear view of the mishap from her front-row seat. 

The Torah is the closest we come to tangible holiness, said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of Temple Israel of Hollywood. Missaghieh said she is still traumatized by her memory of an incident some years ago, when a Torah scroll fell to the ground as she was handing it off to a parent during services for third- to sixth-graders.

“Jews don’t make objects holy because God doesn’t have a body or a face, and God is beyond physical description. The only thing that can compare to the holiness of God is the Torah. And when it is dropped, it’s like the breath comes out of you. I’m not saying the Torah is God, but it our closest representation of holiness that is physical on earth,” Missaghieh said.

Kligfeld said he considered the question of whether revering a physical object so strongly bordered on idol worship, but he recognized that the power of certain symbols is undeniable — as much in the visceral reaction to a flag raised in pride, or a flag trampled or burned, as for the Torah, he said.

The handling of a Torah is prescripted by Jewish law and custom. The Torah is cloaked in fine cloth, and adorned in silver. When the ark housing it is opened, or when the Torah is carried through the congregation, all stand and reach out a hand or a clothing fringe to place a kiss on the mantle. The parchment may not be touched by hands, and of course, extra care is taken when the Torah is lifted.

In fact, the overhead lift during services — hagbah — is when those up on the bimah are most vigilant about preventing a fall.

But at the Library Minyan, the Torah fell at an unexpected moment. 

Rabbi Mitch Malkus, head of school for Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy, had just handed the Torah to the gabbai, who helps run services, to place it back in the ark alongside another Torah. But as the second Torah was being placed in, the first one toppled out, and the gabbai reached out to break the fall. Malkus said the back panel of the ark had been replaced with a white panel for the High Holy Days — the Torahs, too, were cloaked in all white — and it is possible that the diagonal on which the scroll rests was a bit different than usual. 

The accident was over in a split second, and with everyone standing and the bimah raised only a few steps, only a few people saw it happen. But Malkus said services were not the same afterward.

“It happened, and then the energy went out of the room. It just deflated,” he said. 

Malkus, who was coordinating services that day, explained to the congregants what had happened and that Kligfeld would address the situation after the holiday. 

Kligfeld said that after consulting texts and teachers, he crafted a response he hoped would be a powerful bonding opportunity for the community, and would offer a prolonged time during which to contemplate the significance of the Torah. After the 40 days of fasting, he plans to convene a congregational gathering to study the laws of Sefer Torah. 

“A time in the congregation where the Torah became vulnerable will end up being a time when the Torah becomes central,” Kligfeld said.

The Santa Maria Minyan

Located in the northern part of Santa Barbara County, but as distant from chic Santa Barbara as one can imagine, Santa Maria is a blue-collar town dotted with fast-food and barbecue joints. In recent years, its population, at least half of which is Latino, has mushroomed to 100,000, fueled by agribusiness — including vineyards and wineries — and the city’s other growing industries.

On a Friday afternoon, the local radio stations play mostly Christian music or gospel chants in both English and Spanish. The city’s main drags are lined with churches of all denominations.

But one church in particular stands out. Out front there’s a large banner that reads, in all capital letters: Congregacion Beth Shalom. The spelling of Congregacion isn’t a mistake; it’s Spanish. Edgar de la Peña, a 36-year-old Mexican-born graphic artist who grew up in Santa Maria, is the founder and leader of Beth Shalom, a devout community with a dozen families — approximately 60 people — including many children.

Every Shabbat and every Jewish holiday, and on other occasions as well, they gather in the sanctuary and meeting hall they rent from the church, or at people’s homes. Though fairly new to the religion, they worship, study and live their Judaism wholeheartedly, and they do it communally.

Like many Latinos who were raised Christian and later became Jews by Choice, de la Peña has family memories that connect him to Judaism. He said that when he was 7 years old and still living in Michoacan, Mexico, he traveled to Jalisco to see relatives. He and his family arrived on a Friday. Before sundown, his grandmother told him to put on good clothes and turn off the TV. The table for Friday night dinner was set elegantly, and the family didn’t go out in the public square until after sundown on Saturday evening.

When de la Peña was 11, his family moved to the United States, settling in Santa Maria, and he attended a Pentecostal church. While still a teen, he married his high school sweetheart, Irene — of Filipino background — and they had children soon thereafter. In his early 20s, already a father of two young daughters, de la Peña became a lay minister in his church.

“But as I began to search the Bible for its essential meaning,” de la Peña said, “I felt more and more that I wasn’t getting what I needed from the church, what I needed spiritually. I felt I was being told what to think, and not to question things.”

De la Peña heard some in the church speak badly of Judaism. “So, on my own, I started to study Torah,” he said. He visited a synagogue and heard a sound that struck him at his core: the blowing of a shofar. The bleating of the ram’s horn not only moved him deeply, it also brought back other memories of his grandmother — and of certain behaviors he suddenly realized were based on family traditions that indicated possible Jewish roots.

If he did, indeed, have Jewish ancestors, de la Peña was determined to learn what the religion meant, so he became more and more involved with Judaism. “I put Jewish holy objects in my house — a menorah, holiday decorations,” he said. “I stopped eating pork. I started to light candles on Friday night. I was still in the Pentecostal church at the time, so there were those in the church that made my life miserable.”

Finally, de la Peña wrote a letter to the elders, telling them he wanted to leave the church for good. In response, some threw eggs at his home, secretly fed his kids sandwiches with pork, and prohibited their children from playing with his children. De la Peña apologized to his family for what they went through, but he felt he had to stop hiding who he was.

Once he was away from the Pentecostal church, de la Peña got involved with Messianic Judaism, a growing movement whose adherents observe elements of Judaism: They pray in Hebrew, observe Shabbat, maintain kashrut, adore Israel and celebrate Jewish holidays. But, they also venerate Yeshua — Jesus Christ. Messianic Judaism, especially when practiced by Latinos, seems to grow out of a desire to live the life that Yeshua and his disciples lived, which was that of observant Jews.

De la Peña is very much aware that others might suspect his group of being Messianic Jews. He said emphatically that they are not. “We passed through a period with Messianic Judaism and realized it was not what we were looking for,” he said. “Once I began studying Judaism seriously, I realized that it’s very different — and a lot more — than the Judaism presented by the Messianic Jewish groups.”

The next step for de la Peña was to attend what at the time was the one shul in Santa Maria, a Reform congregation.

“These people are also Children of Israel,” the rabbi told the congregants. Nevertheless, de la Peña and those with him felt uncomfortable, largely because the service was in English.

Eventually, with the support of his family and friends, de la Peña founded the Beth Shalom minyan. The congregation is far from wealthy, but all the families contribute.

Occasionally, Spanish-speaking Rabbi Daniel Mehlman, who officiates at Studio City’s Congregation Beth Meier, visits Santa Maria and offers guidance to those in the community who have embarked on the conversion process. Mehlman said that this group’s members “come from an observant [Christian] tradition,” which may account for — in Mehlman’s words — their “genuine spiritual yearnings.”

Mehlman pointed out that the process they went through is the opposite of what early Christians experienced. What he means is that Jesus and his disciples were Jews. In time, as the figure of Jesus became imbued with divine properties, his followers became known as Jewish Christians. Eventually, as the religion spread among those who had never been Jewish, its followers were simply called Christians.

The Santa Maria Jews have gone in the other direction. They started out as Christians, after which they pursued Messianic Judaism — at that stage, one could have called them Jewish Christians. Then, shedding any attachment to Yeshua, they became simply Jews.

On Friday nights, the Beth Shalom community gathers for Shabbat services. De la Peña’s oldest daughter, 17-year-old Erandy, chants the biblical portions — in Hebrew — with skill and beauty. It’s hard to listen to Erandy, to experience the community’s earnestness, and not be touched.

Mehlman is also moved by the group. “They’re thoroughly committed to their Judaism,” Mehlman said. “The amount they invest in their religious institution, proportionally, is astounding. They do everything possible to create a comfortable home for themselves as Jews, which is hard to do in a place like Santa Maria.”

Mehlman listened as Erandy chanted. “Amazing, isn’t she? Her father’s Mexican, her mother’s Filipina … and she’s 100 percent Jewish. It brings up the question: What do Jews look like?”

Mehlman opened his arms, palms up, indicating the entire Beth Shalom community. “The answer is: They look like this.”


My heart is in the West; my turkey is in the East.

To be more precise, as I write these words, a man named Simon Feil is standing at the corner of 110th and Broadway in Manhattan with a flatbed full of freshly killed broad-breasted white turkeys, waiting for my brother-in-law to come pick one up for our Thanksgiving table.

This year I followed my conscience to Kosher Conscience, an upstart organization Feil, a 32-year-old yeshiva graduate and former mashgiach, founded to provide kosher consumers with a more humane source of dead protein.

Feil’s free-range turkeys live out their lives on a farm in upstate New York. Instead of being killed on an assembly line, they are slaughtered according to kosher law one-by-one, unaware of their quickening fate. If you had to end up on a dining table with wild mushroom and leek stuffing where your guts used to be, that’s the way you’d want to go.

Feil’s list of customers pay dearly for this extra care — about $7.50 per pound vs. just over $2 per pound for a corporate kosher bird.

The list of start-ups like this is growing: There is Mitzvah Meat, a Hudson Valley co-op raising grass-fed lamb and beef, and Maryland-based KOL Foods (for Kosher Organic Local). There’s also talk of a California-based kosher humane venture.

But the news here isn’t just about a new kosher food movement. It’s about a much larger change than that. Everywhere you look in Jewish life, people are taking it upon themselves to re-think traditional ways of doing things. The kosher humane movement is just one example of how, in our time, the structures of organized Jewish life are being reorganized.

And the powerful force behind all this: Just your everyday, garden-variety Jew — Joe the Jew, if you will.

It’s happening in synagogue life, where so many small, unaffiliated minyans are starting up that a national conference was held last month in New York to analyze and support them. Organizers counted dozens of these nascent not-quite-shuls — not just in New York and Los Angeles but also in the Midwest and Northwest.

Mainstream synagogues are still home to the majority of affiliated Jews, but those who don’t feel at home in a larger synagogue, now don’t feel they have to opt out of spiritual life — they are creating their own smaller structures.

In Jewish philanthropy, too, the one-size-fits-many federation model has veered to smaller, do-it-yourself groups that either raise and distribute funds according to more specific needs or follow a venture capital model.

Sometimes the money originates with a single, idiosyncratic wealthy donor, sometimes with a small group with a specific agenda.

Many of these new entities have decades-old roots in the Jewish identity and renewal movement of the 1970s, which started calling into question the way things were. But the process of change has accelerated and is now widespread.

Technology has helped. The Internet is an effective and relatively inexpensive organizing tool. Many of the new minyans forgo mailings altogether and rely solely on the Web to knit together their congregations. Blogs and online video collapse the distance between Jews, spread new ideas faster and even enable more cost-effective fundraising.

Where all this will lead, no one knows. A new generation of Jews, weaned on what’s new and cutting edge, is unlikely to settle comfortably into the boards and pews their parents once occupied.

Some of the changes are faddish and no doubt will be fleeting. Others, like Kosher Conscience, I would go long on. With the ongoing crumbling of Agriprocessors, it’s easy to imagine that a larger portion of the kosher-observant Jewish world will stop subcontracting their ethics out to the lowest bidders.

But the success of such small and independent innovations begs three questions.

The first is whether, amidst all this change and diversity, there is a way to keep a sense of connection to the larger Jewish community, even to a larger communal agenda. This isn’t just important in times of crisis, as when Israel is in danger, or the economy goes into freefall. There are good things we can only achieve together — if we can first come together. It’s not clear how we do this when 10 friends, some cash and a Web site are enough to create a Jewish world unto themselves.

The second is: How do we institutionalize radical change? Some of these upstart groups and ideas are too good to stay at the margins. It’s critical that larger institutions and synagogues pay attention to what’s new and incorporate or adapt what seems to be working. Some already have: Federations now have venture capital funds and directed giving, and many synagogues long ago jumped into the smaller minyan model.

But all this newness also begs this third crucial question: What will we leave behind?

The mission was clear for previous generations: They built the brick and mortar of the community. They funded all the parking lots, the classrooms, the social service organizations; they invested their time and labor in the boards and Roberts Rules and banquets — all that unsexy stuff that is the scaffolding of community. They bequeathed us not just some cool blogs or a minyan to bliss out in, but a community to physically inhabit, to rebel against, to improve.

That’s our job, too, not just to change and innovate, but to leave behind something better, something substantial.

It likely won’t be actual buildings, but it should be something the next generation can build upon.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Dining, shopping, living, praying—VideoJew Jay Firestone shows you how it’s done Los Angeles-style.


Davening for Dollars

Talmud teaches that a righteous act is its own reward. But if that’s not inducement enough, a rabbi in Woodland Hills is offering $10 cash plus a Krispy Kreme doughnut to teens who attend his 7 a.m. minyan.

It started like this: In 1998 Rabbi Netanel Louie founded the Hebrew Discovery Center to promote Judaism in the West Valley. His center, next to a sushi restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, began by offering after-school Hebrew courses that fulfill the public schools’ foreign language requirement.

Eighty Jewish teens, some of whom didn’t know an alef from a bet, soon signed up to study modern Hebrew (in addition to the classes, the center schedules teen events, including kosher pizza parties and snow trips).

The first weekday teen minyan began in December 2005. How to get sleepy kids out of bed at dawn? Louie, ever pragmatic, had an idea: “Why don’t we offer them something they can’t refuse?”

Thus the $10 payments — which continue for the first two months of each teen’s attendance. Currently 110 teens are registered for the short Orthodox service, with about 35 showing up each day. Eleventh-grader Joni Fakheri, who had fallen away from observance, says the minyan has changed his life. After three years of not putting on tefillin and straying from kashrut, “it all came back.”

Tenth-grader Elizabeth Benam, who sports a trendy diamond nose-stud and nails painted metallic turquoise, admits that “I used to never hang out with Jews.” But now she’s sold on the minyan, because “it gives you a good feeling inside.”

Her cousin, Mor Pinto, agrees: “We don’t do it for the money anymore.”

Hebrew Discovery Center is located at 19819 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills. For more information, call(818) 348-4432 or e-mail HDC also offers after school Hebrew classes at 11540 Santa Monica Blvd., No. 201, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 696-4432.


Barbed Wire Fails to Separate Hearts

Almost every war has one photographic image that emerges and that remains ingrained in the public’s mind — and the media — as the defining picture of that war.

Out of the Holocaust came the image of the little boy in a cap with his hands raised over his head. Out of Vietnam, it is the village child running naked, terror on her face. In Israel, the Six-Day War gave us the young paratroopers looking up at the Kotel after its liberation; and the Yom Kippur War’s image was Hillel Unsdorfer carrying the sefer Torah across the Suez Canal.

The war that Ariel Sharon has waged against the people of Gush Katif and the northern Shomron has also given us an image — the minyan of young men in Kfar Maimon praying, separated by barbed wire.

On the left side are demonstrators; on the right, soldiers. As I pointed out to one of the many friends who forwarded the photograph to me, there were more than 10 demonstrators but less than 10 soldiers, which means that the soldiers needed the demonstrators to have a minyan, not vice versa.

So there is a subtext here, and it is this: The demonstrators must have been asked by the soldiers to move their minyan far away from the center of the Kfar Maimon event, over to the barbed wire, in order to enable them to pray in a minyan. And the demonstrators, obviously, agreed. Because their horror at what the soldiers had been commanded to do was not as great as their desire to help another Jew do a mitzvah.

What is the difference between all these photographs?

The little boy in the Holocaust photo was holding up his arms at the command of German soldiers. The Vietnamese child was fleeing in terror from napalm. The paratroopers had captured the Kotel from the Jordanian army. Hillel, carrying the sefer Torah, was going into Egyptian captivity. All of these photographs express people reacting to a situation created by a foreign enemy.

But the barbed wire separating the young men at prayer was erected at the command of their own Prime Minister Sharon.

The State of Israel has survived 58 years of a fragile relationship between the religious and secular, the right and the left (and they are not necessarily parallel), a relationship that has been sometimes stronger, sometimes splintered, but never totally shattered. And there has always been one type of situation that pulled the country together, differences set aside, even if only momentarily.

These have been times of war.

There are stories from the Six-Day War about how haredim, who avoided the draft, volunteered at first-aid centers. During the Yom Kippur War, soldiers arrived at their units in tennis shoes, straight from the synagogue. At every military funeral there are people from every segment of Israeli society represented — friends or family of the fallen, united in grief.

My own memories include being in a supermarket during the first Gulf War in January 1991, when a siren went off. Everyone was sent down to the bomb shelter, our gas masks in tow.

It was a Thursday night, and people had been doing their Shabbat shopping. During the 20-minute wait, I looked around at the crowd. Down there in the bomb shelter there were no frictions. We just wanted to hear the all-clear sound and get home.

More than 30 years ago, I had a rude awakening to the human rifts in Israel. I had become involved in Gesher, an organization created by Danny Tropper, a new immigrant from New York. Gesher, bridge in Hebrew, tried to work on weaving together the burnt threads of Israeli society.

As a college student, I was stunned at the time by the level of ignorance of young secular Israelis to basic Jewish practices and values, and by the ignorance of young religious Israelis to the workings and values of the secular world.

But I was also enchanted by their openness, their willingness to reach out to each other, to try to heal the rifts. It is perhaps no coincidence that out of those early years came some of today’s intellectual and religious luminaries in Israeli life, people like Rabbi Moti Eilon and professor Benny Ish-Shalom. Because, in addition to discussions about religion, we talked about human rights, social goals and issues like justice and democracy.

Regretfully, in retrospect, no great politicians came out of those or other similar initiatives. This is where our “bridging” efforts failed. We were snobs; politics was something dirty in our eyes.

Hence, we live today in a society in which politicians feel no qualms about supporting a prime minister who was voted into office by an unprecedented percentage of Israeli citizens on the basis of one election platform, and who is today implementing, instead, the platform of his badly trounced opponent. But Sharon has performed a sin far greater than reneging on his pre-election promises.

One of the great unifying factors of Israeli society has always been the army. Contrary to a common media canard, there have always been haredim in the army, and more so now that there is a special Nahal Haredi division.

In fact, if there is one legislative error that has kept Israeli Arab citizens from being more fully integrated into society, it is that the Knesset has never passed a law obligating Arab citizens to do some form of national service, which could be volunteering in hospitals or youth programs, not just military service.

Every soldier and former soldier (and in Israel, due to reserve duty, one is older than 40 by the time he is really a “former soldier”) has memories of his army comrades who came from different spectrums of society than he.

My husband did army duty with men who today are high-level Israel TV employees, who used to catch and grill rabbits (which are treif), which their religious comrades didn’t partake of, though they joined them around the campfire singing old Israeli ballads. And he once spent reserve duty with Avigdor Lieberman, head of today’s National Union Party, who back then organized an entire Likud convention from his cellphone at an outpost in the Jordan Valley.

Some form of acknowledgment of Shabbat and the army — these are among the threads of the collective Israeli consciousness that have woven the delicate tapestry that has kept us warm, shielded us from a sometimes cruel world and preserved us as a viable people.

Even some on the political left who support the disengagement have begun to say — unfortunately, too little and too late — that they are appalled by the crushing of human rights that Sharon has adopted in order to carry out his decree. For even worse than the destruction of vibrant, productive communities, the expulsion and demonization of “salt-of-the-earth” citizens and the rewarding and empowering of terrorists is what Sharon has done to our fragile national fabric.

The photograph of the barbed wire separating young men at prayer is so symbolic, because Sharon has done what no war, no haredi Shabbat demonstration and no opening of treif butcher shops or paving of roads over ancient Jewish graves has succeeded in doing: He has erected a barbed-wire fence between the Jewish people.

The ultimate poetic justice, of course, is that Sharon, who, according to the well-researched expose book, “Boomerang,” may have been convinced by his Svengali-like adviser, Dov Weisglass, to put his personal and family welfare before that of the country, will not go down in history, after all, as a prime minister who advanced the cause of peace.

There is not a single military expert in Israel today who claims that the disengagement will bring a decline in terror. On the contrary, Sharon’s legacy in real — not European — history is assured, and it won’t be rosy.

There is, however, hope. Because even Sharon’s barbed wire did not break up the minyan.

Twenty years ago, an American TV film, “The Day After,” depicted the day after a nuclear attack. Several years ago, another horror flick, “The Day After Tomorrow,” depicted the consequences of giant glaciers destroying part of America and other countries. It is no coincidence that Israelis have adopted the expression, “the day after,” for what will follow disengagement. For, like a nuclear attack, like a melting glacier, like a tsunami, the disengagement will bring disaster in its wake.

That is a hard statement to read and even harder to write, but we are not the people who created Mary Poppins. We are the people who brought forth Jeremiah.

If there is a time to pray, it is now. And the prayer should not be only that we somehow miraculously be spared the ugly sword of terror. The prayer should also be that the barbed wire erected by Sharon should not separate our hearts.

New Prayer Communities Seek Spiritual High

Don’t call them synagogues.

They are minyanim, or spiritual communities. They have evolved from shared and individual dreams and from serendipitous, profound and beshert connections. They are new, egalitarian, independent, warm, collaborative and vibrant.

And they are all led by female rabbis.

Ahavat Torah, with Rabbi Miriam Lefkovits-Hamrell, meets Saturday mornings in rented space at Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles.

Ikar, with Rabbi Sharon Brous, holds biweekly Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills.

And Nashuva, with Rabbi Naomi Levy, hosts a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Westwood.

Technically, a minyan is a quorum of 10 people, traditionally men, which is necessary for reciting certain prayers and performing certain rituals, according to the Mishnah.

In the United States, however, the minyan emerged as an independent prayer group created and led by lay leaders in the late ’60s and ’70s, an outgrowth of the havurah movement. An example is the Library Minyan, formed in 1971 and originally housed in Temple Beth Am’s library. A more recent example is Shtibl Minyan, founded in 2000, which meets in The Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles.

“A minyan is a natural answer to what many refer to as Judaism’s ‘edifice complex.’ It attracts Jews interested in praying, who can do that anywhere,” said Isa Aron, professor at Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and founding director of the Experiment in Congregational Education.

These new minyanim, however, attract not only practicing Jews but also what Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president of University of Judaism and co-founder of Synagogue 2000, calls “spiritual seekers.”

“I think a lot of people are looking for that spiritual high and, guess what, these independent minyanim are actually offering it,” Wolfson said.

They’re also offering fellowship, a commitment to social action and a rabbi at the helm.

Ahavat Torah

“Right now I really consider myself living my dream,” said Lefkovits-Hamrell, who was ordained in May 2003 through the Academy of Jewish Religion and who became the spiritual leader of Ahavat Torah, meaning love of Torah, shortly thereafter.

As a child in Israel, the goal of becoming a congregational rabbi was unreachable. She would sit in shul, a mechitzah between her and her father, and ask why they had to be separated.

“On Simchat Torah I yearned to hold and dance with the Torah,” she said.

Finally, when Lefkovits-Hamrell and her family moved to Los Angeles in 1969, she was able to hold a Torah and later become a bat mitzvah. And while she married and raised three now-grown sons, she continued to pursue her dream, always studying and working as a Jewish educator. Along the way she even acquired her own Torah, which sits in a case in her living room.

Her dream became a reality when a friend introduced her to a group who had formed Ahavat Torah as a lay minyan a few months prior.

“We had been roaming around to different congregations to see if we fit,” founding member Blanche Moss said. “Finally we decided we fit together.”

And they decided Lefkovits-Hamrell fit with them.

She described her minyan, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, as “Conservative/Reform/Chasidic,” with lots of singing, clapping and even spontaneous dancing in the aisles. She and lay cantor Gary Levine, an executive at Showtime, lead it. Adhering to their motto “One Torah, Many Teachers, One Community,” it is participatory, with congregants reading Torah, presenting d’vrai Torah and leading discussions.

Following services, members share a potluck dairy lunch.

Learning continues during the week, with many taking part in one of three study groups that Lefkovits-Hamrell facilitates. They also observe holidays and socialize together. Ahavat Torah also boasts a strong program of gemilut chasadim — acts of lovingkindness.

“We give each other a lot of help, being there as family,” member Lois Miller-Nave said.

And Lefkovits-Hamrell remains in close and constant contact with her congregants.

Membership numbers about 70, with a goal of 120. Visitors are effusively welcomed, and dues are reasonable “so as not to exclude anyone,” said member Rick Nave. Most congregants are in their 50s and 60s, though the minyan has celebrated its first bar mitzvah, with a second one coming up.

And this year, Ahavat Torah will hold its first High Holiday services, at Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

But the Saturday morning minyan, which attracts between 40 and 70 people, remains the group’s focus.

“These people deeply care about Judaism and search for meaning and spirituality. That’s what unites us,” Lefkovits-Hamrell said.

For more information, call (310) 362-1111.


“For the last couple of years, I’ve been dreaming about what kind of spiritual community I could help build,” said Sharon Brous, rabbi of Ikar, which means root or essence.

One force fueling this dream was her two-year stint as a rabbinic fellow at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — which she describes as “the country’s most vibrant, compelling Jewish community — following ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The other force is her continuing work as rabbi for Reboot, a network of 25- to 35-year-old Jews who are creative and intellectual trendsetters but don’t always resonate to traditional Jewish ways.

Additionally, she met parents and others who were “hungry for Jewish learning and real spiritual encounter.”

Brous’ dream began to materialize when a friend connected her with three couples desperately seeking to make Shabbat central in their lives.

“We sat on the verge of tears, feeling something of great importance was happening. It felt beshert,” Brous explained.

They held an experimental service in April, expecting 40; 135 showed up. The group then raised enough money to hire Brous full time.

Since June, services have been held biweekly, a family picnic followed by Kabbalat Shabbat. The service, led by Brous and second-year rabbinic student Andy Shugerman, is primarily in Hebrew, a combination of the Conservative siddur and Shlomo Carlebach melodies. Text study is incorporated into the service, and Brous’ d’var Torah weaves together congregants’ reflections.

More than 200 adults and children attend each service, clapping, swaying, dancing and holding babies. A few bring drums. The crowd is diverse, ranging from observant Jews to people like Reboot member Josh Kun, who admitted, “I don’t understand 80 percent of the service, but the intense mixture of connection and spiritual enthusiasm is incredibly appealing.”

Ikar is planning to hold High Holiday services at the Westside Jewish Community Center, and afterward will add a monthly Saturday minyan to the schedule.

Brous and the Ikar board work closely to create a community that reflects the group’s values in all areas, from the arrangement of chairs to the structuring of dues. In addition to money, members are asked to contribute toward community building, tikkun olam and learning.

Tikkun olam is especially critical to Brous. She wants people’s spiritual development to lead to transforming the world.

And the learning piece, which will include studies for children in kindergarten through bar and bat mitzvah, is important to many parents.

“We want the intellectual, spiritual and social justice values transmitted to our children,” founding parent Melissa Balaban said. “We want them to fall in love with Judaism.”

But the core values remain important to everyone.

“We want to do away with what’s orderly, precise and dignified and build a place where people have a spiritual encounter that’s profound and joyous and creative and transformative,” Brous said.

For more information, call (310) 450-9679 or visit .


“Naomi, it’s time.”

“Time for what?” Rabbi Naomi Levy asked two friends who had invited her to breakfast last April.

“Time to start a service.”

Levy knew from age 4 that she wanted to be a rabbi. She entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in the first class of women and spent seven years as rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. She has spent the last seven years writing the best-seller, “To Begin Again” (Ballantine, 1999) and “Talking to God” (Knopf, 2002).

Levy decided to act. Looking for an available location, she cold-called a church whose facade she often admired.

“Did you call me because you know my husband is Jewish?” the reverend asked.

“No,” Levy answered.

“Well, my husband is Jewish and there is nothing I would like more. It would be such an honor.”

Levy and the Rev. Kirsten Linford-Steinfeld met that afternoon.

“We both felt like we were led to each other, like we’d known each other our entire lives,” Levy said.

Things promptly fell into place. Levy knew the name would be Nashuva, meaning “we will return,” from the last line in Lamentations. She also knew prayer would be meaningless if not linked to social action, and immediately she and Linford-Steinfeld committed to joint monthly projects.

Levy also knew she would offer new translations of the Hebrew prayer book that would be “accessible, personal and soulful.” And she knew she wanted to work with musicians who could, “get congregants out of their seats and on their feet.”

Levy, who is married to Jewish Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman, met with 11 founding members around her dining room table to make this happen. She created a prayerbook with every Hebrew word transliterated and with accompanying English prayers in simple, poetic language. She also assembled a group of eight musicians and gathered music from Jewish Eastern European, Sephardic, African and other traditions.

Founding member Wanda Peretz handpainted and appliquéd a wall hanging for the bima, a Tree of Life with the words of Lamentations, “Turn us to you, O God, and we will return.”

Levy committed to one service each month, beginning last June. And each so far has overfilled the church, which seats 250. Nashuva is also planning a Tashlich service for Rosh Hashanah, with a drumming circle, shofar blowing and dancing on Venice Beach. Other High Holiday services will be announced on Nashuva’s Web site.

Last month, the standing-room-only crowd showed that Levy’s joyful and intimate approach has touched a chord among all types of Jews: young parents (Nashuva provides free child care and a children’s service), singles, seniors, interfaith couples, traditional affiliated Jews and adults whose last visit to shul was on their bar mitzvah.

They swing and sway to upbeat and moving melodies. They listen raptly to Levy’s engaging and insightful d’var Torah. “There’s a wonderful sense of community in the room, even if you don’t know anyone,” said Carol Taubman.

At this point, Nashuva is privately funded. Levy said she believes people who value the experience will make free-will offerings.

“When people come to Nashuva and feel elevated and [have] an honest communication with God, I feel blessed. When people come to Nashuva and then go and serve in the community, I feel overwhelmed,” Levy said.

For more information, visit .

Are these new minyanim a threat to established synagogues?

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., when Jewish life became cooperative rather than hierarchical, Jews have been forming, disbanding, merging and splitting prayer communities.

“This is an old tradition in the Jewish world,” Wolfson said.

To be fair, synagogues themselves are offering minyanim and alternative services, from Beth Jacob Congregation’s Happy Minyan to Adat Ari El’s One Shabbat Morning to University Synagogue’s Great Shabbos.

And, as Levy herself said, “Shuls in Los Angeles are doing incredible work.”

But in the meantime, as Aron points out, “The new minyanim are making more Jews more intensely Jewish, and that’s basically a good thing.”

A Minyan of Our Own

Sitting behind a crocheted curtain, I desperately tried to peer through the tiny holes to get a glimpse of the action on the men’s side.

Finally, I gave up, and pushed the curtain aside, and saw our chazan auctioning off portions of the services.

"$101 — going once. $101 — going twice. $101 — going three times. Sold to the man in the black suit!"

And so the High Holiday services began, with our beloved cantor speaking "Heb-lish" in a very thick Middle Eastern accent.

Every year since I can remember, my father formed a minyan with friends — and anybody else who wasn’t satisfied with the High Holiday services in their regular synagogue. The minyan was held in a little room with a makeshift mechitzah (partition) that we had to hold up from time to time because it had this tendency to fall over.

We faced the ark with the men on one side and women on the other — traditional Orthodox style. There was no president, no treasurer, no politics; just a gathering of Sephardic Jews from different parts of the eastern world getting together to pray to God at the holiest time of the year.

The synagogues in the Hancock Park area lent us their Torahs and places of worship. Like other synagogues, we held an auction, but all of the money we raised was sent to needy families in Israel instead of to the shul.

Our minyan hosted a gathering of Egyptians, Iraqis, Afghans, Israelis, Bucharians, Turks and Yemenites, each offering their families’ traditions and tunes, making them feel that much closer to home. It was a place of older men and women, most of them from the old country who remember how their fathers recited the prayers from their corner of the world. Here in America with their American children, they would sing their age-old tunes with joy, instilling their children with their culture and heritage.

When I was a child, when I didn’t have the patience to sit through the services, I would hang around with the other kids and make trouble in the background. But as I grew older, the songs beckoned me, and I wanted to participate in the prayers.

If I close my eyes, I can still recall the sound of my father’s voice as he sang the "Anenu": The whole room became silent to the lilt of the Sephardic tune as he held it for long beats, his words touching the souls of the people who came from all over the world to our little minyan. This is how we shared our holidays — not from a pew in the back, straining to hear the chazan’s voice; not as bystanders humming the tune under our breaths, but loudly, each of us participating.

Every year I looked forward to hearing our chazan lead us in prayers. But two years ago, he moved to New York. He was the glue that kept us together, and when he left, I think he took the heart of our minyan with him.

As we approach the High Holidays, my family and I are nostalgic about the minyan — we know that our annual tradition will never be the same without our chazan.

But we are eager to forge new bonds and make new holiday memories. We have since relocated and many new people have joined with us.

And perhaps, as we pray for redemption, our collective spirit will return to us as it once was. And maybe, as we say in the last prayer, next year we shall all rejoice in Jerusalem.

All Jews Count

It is a familiar sight. On each flight to Israel, in the back of the plane, a minyan gathers for services.

It was no different on my flight to Israel last year. Although I was participating in an Israel Bonds rabbinic mission, our delegation from Los Angeles was small, and we didn’t have enough rabbis for a minyan. As we searched the plane for the requisite number of men, everyone we asked, whether observant or not, agreed to help make the minyan.

After our first service, one of the men who joined us commented how wonderful it was that so many Jews were willing to pray together, although it was obvious our observance levels differed. No one rejected the other, he noted, uttering the belief that this must be a sign that the Messiah is imminently approaching.

I told him that although no one could guarantee a messianic moment, we could be certain that, dating back to the Bible, Jews always included each other in the minyan. I reminded him that this was at the heart of the Purim story, as recounted in Megillat Esther. The Megillah records that Haman wanted to destroy all Jews, young and old, infants and women together. In order to achieve his goal, Haman told King Ahasuerus that the opportune time had arrived because, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom” (Esther 3:8).

The Midrash comments that Haman recognized that this was the perfect time to attack the Jews because we weren’t simply “scattered and separate.” Rather, we were divided and contentious. We were fighting with each other, and disunity reigned. Haman knew that when Jews don’t get along with each other, their enemy has the ability to defeat them.

Our rabbis comment that, for this reason, Esther instructed Mordechai, “Go assemble all the Jews who are present in Shushan” (4:16). Esther didn’t say to Mordechai, “Go assemble the observant individuals.” Rather, she clearly instructed that “all Jews,” no matter what their observance level might be, must pray together. If we wish to survive, Esther knew, we must be united.

Although my new acquaintance found my observation encouraging, he wondered if it was realistic. I told him that I didn’t know if it was realistic or not, but I knew that it is imperative for Jewish survival.

During our convention in Israel, this very theme arose in an address delivered by Natan Sharansky, the great hero of Soviet Jewish resistance and now Israeli Minister of Industry and Trade. He pleaded for Jewish unity by describing the feelings he had when he sat in prison for his refusenik activities.

“When you feel that all Jews around the world are struggling with you, it gives you a sense of power. You feel strong when all Jews around the world are one. Alone in prison, in the punishment cell, it is dark, without food and drink, but there is a powerful feeling of connection. And if a Jew were to come to you then and ask to whom do you feel connected, the Orthodox or the Reform, Labor or Likud, Ashkenazi or Sephardi … please, that is crazy! We would have never been able to survive with such thoughts. Unity is such a powerful feeling. It gives you the power to be free and say no the KGB.”

That is the story of Purim, a lesson we may never forget.

Elazar Muskin is the rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

‘A Lot of Life Left’

At first glance, Temple Beth Zion, on a busy stretch of OlympicBoulevard in the mid-city, looks stark and abandoned.

The front door is locked, the religious school has been closed foralmost four decades, and the daily minyan and Friday-night serviceare gone (many of the some 135 members, most of whom are aged 75 to80, can no longer drive at night).

In the last six months alone, the acting president and the rabbi’swife died; one board member suffered a stroke; another had a legamputation; another sustained a fall and is temporarily in aconvalescent home; and the executive vice president had open-heartsurgery.

Yet the congregation struggles along, despite the difficulties andlosses. Each Saturday morning, there is at least a minyan in thespotless sanctuary, which is decorated with 10 lovely stained-glasswindows depicting Jewish life. The building is paid for in full;there is a well-attended Passover seder; and, on the High Holidays,the shul is filled with members’ children and grandchildren.Friendships of five decades continue in the Sisterhood, which is ledby Sylvia Greenberg, 83; members who drive pick up those who can’tfor the bimonthly meetings.

Photos from Temple Beth Zion, above, circa 1940s.

Above, Rabbi Edward Tennenbaum today.Settling behind his scuffed desk in a tiny, windowless office,Rabbi Edward Tenenbaum, a vigorous man of 79, says that the templehas been beating the odds since he first arrived in 1966.

“At that time, our members were mostly senior citizens, and theyfelt we had only one, maybe two, years left before we closed up,” hesays, peering from behind horn-rimmed glasses. “Today, it’s been 32years, and we’re still managing, though, of course, not withoutdifficulty. Really, it’s a kind of miracle that we’ve been able tosurvive with so many setbacks.”

The congregants at Temple Beth Zion are half American-born andhalf European-born. They speak Yiddish but do not follow theYiddishist-socialist philosophy of their contemporaries at theWorkmen’s Circle. Rather, the flavor of shul life is reminiscent ofsuburban American Judaism of the 1950s. The emphasis is on family, ontogetherness, on Zionism and raising money for Israel. There areMother’s Day, Father’s Day luncheons and sisterhood fund-raisers andlectures on topics such as medical ethics, Jewish living andpractice.

Temple Beth Zion was founded in a storefront in 1943, as LosAngeles’ Jewish population was moving west from Boyle Heights.Several years later, the synagogue moved to its current location in aformer house at Olympic Boulevard and Dunsmuir Avenue. The founderswere mostly small-business owners, and, by the 1950s, the temple hadmore than 400 members and 300 children in a Talmud Torah. Filmdirector Rob Reiner was bar mitzvahed here, and TBZ was the firstWest Coast Conservative shul to hire a woman cantor, the rabbi says.

May Bierman recalls how, in the temple’s heyday, the El Rey movietheater was rented to handle the High Holiday overflow crowd. Inthose days, she served with her Sisterhood friends in the PTA ofWilshire Crest Elementary School.

But the younger generation grew up and followed the next Jewishmigration to West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Theneighborhood became less and less Jewish (now it’s 37 percent AfricanAmerican, 20 percent Asian and 11 percent Latino, the Los AngelesTimes said of a census report), and temple membership dwindled.Funerals and 50-year wedding anniversaries began to replace brisesand bar mitzvahs as the predominant life-cycle events. Members diedor moved away to convalescent homes or to be closer to grownchildren.

Today, those who remain are determined to persevere despiteincreasing physical infirmity. Henry Gross put in long hours revisingthe yahrtzeit list because “we say ‘Kaddish’ even if there are nofamily members left to remember.”

Bierman continues to sell entertainment books and insists “we dothings a little slower now, but we do them.” Her husband, Morris, whois the recent amputee, showed up to the last board meeting in awheelchair. When he arrived, his colleagues greeted him with astanding ovation. “There is so much love here,” May says, withemotion.

Several years ago, the synagogue suffered a series of break-ins,in which thieves stole all the silver Torah ornaments, the kiddishcups, the typewriters, a copying machine and even the silver liningof Tenenbaum’s robe. The rabbi then trudged to every pawnshop in thearea until he found much of the filched silver.

The congregants, in turn, rallied around him, “taking overcompletely,” when his 11-year-old granddaughter died in a roadaccident years ago and when his wife passed away in February. “We arelike a big family here,” he says, with tears in his eyes. “This is asecond home for all of us.”

On a recent afternoon, in fact, the rabbi introduced the staff andvolunteers to a visitor as if they were members of his own family.There was a Latino maintenance man, a young Iranian secretary who atlast is putting all the temple files on computer, and an Iraqi-borngeneral contractor who is helping repair a vandalized fence at anominal cost. When asked why, the contractor shrugged and said heused to blow the shofar for 20 years at a synagogue in Jerusalem.

Now, the hope of the shul is its two new co-presidents, LynneSturt Weintraub and Judy Sturt Hollander, who are atypical in thatthey are members of a younger generation (they decline to give theirages). The sisters grew up in the synagogue, and their father servedas president, for eight years, until he died in 1993.

They have retained strong ties to the temple, in part, because ofthe family Torah, which sits in the ark. It was commissioned by theirgreat-grandfather and their grandfather, who survived pogroms andlost several children while waiting for the scribe to finish. Thepatriarchs literally carried the scroll out of Russia. “The Torah isa survivor, just like the shul,” says Lynn, who, with Judy, isseeking donations for an auction and envisions singles events to drawa younger crowd. The sisters are even hoping that the synagogue willagain hold Friday-night services.

But don’t suggest to anyone that Temple Beth Zion’s days arenumbered. “Please, God forbid,” says Nettie Berkson, 81. “Where elsewould I go to find the camaraderie I’ve had all these years?”

“A few groups have approached us to either merge or buy thebuilding,” Tenenbaum says, “but the board feels we’ve still got a lotof life left. No one wants to give up. There’s a determination tocarry on, and every year, it seems, there is another miracle.”