Chanukah 5775: Rededicating Ourselves to Helping Others

Chanukah is one of the Jewish people’s most beloved holidays.  We light the menorah, sing songs and eat delicious food. It’s a celebration of life and Jewish survival. And, like most holidays that commemorate a struggle against oppression, it is also a time of collective and personal reflection. When I reflect on the story of Chanukah there are two intertwined themes that mean the most to me: shining light in dark places and dedication.

Referred to as the “festival of lights,” Chanukah recounts the tale of the Maccabees freeing themselves from Greek oppression and the miracle that followed the liberation of the desecrated Holy Temple. The Temple was host to an eternal flame, but following its desecration, only enough oil remained to produce light for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days and nights. Of the many things that this has come to symbolize, one is that the miracle of light banished the darkness that had befallen the Temple, the Maccabees and the Jewish people. 

The word Chanukah translates to “dedication,” which is commonly connected to the rededication of the desecrated Temple. But one could also interpret the holiday’s name as referring to the Jews being a people dedicated to freedom and the struggle against injustice.

Chanukah should serve as a reminder that we, as a people, must be dedicated to shining light in places where there is none and helping people overcome the obstacles in front of them. As a Jew and as Ranking Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives, I have been dedicated to, among other things, the pursuit of better global health. I believe that we are all responsible for shining light on public health issues, especially in the developing world.

The current Ebola outbreak is a clear reminder of the significant danger of health-related emergencies and the need to re-prioritize good public health and health care access. To date, this outbreak has cost almost 5,500 people their lives, and that number is expected to dramatically increase before this epidemic is fully contained. Beyond the loss of life, we see ripple effects spreading across the affected areas. The World Bank Group released a report on October 7th that found the annual GDP growth in Guinea may contract from 4.5 to 2.4 percent, in Liberia from 5.9 percent to 2.5 percent, and in Sierra Leone from 11.3 percent to 8 percent – as a direct result of the Ebola epidemic. Even with work underway to rapidly scale up efforts to contain the disease, the total loss in GDP for the West Africa sub-region could be as high as $2.2 billion in 2014 and $1.6 billion in 2015 under the best case scenario, which is far from assured. Ebola isn’t just killing the people it infects; it’s creating an unexpected global financial burden that will hurt all of us.   

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 24.7 million people living with HIV, which represents more than two thirds of all people who are infected. In 2013, there were an estimated 1.5 million new infections in the region, and an estimated 1.1 million adults and children died of AIDS. These are more than startling statistics; they are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. And prior to U.S. intervention, HIV/AIDS threatened to eliminate an entire generation in Africa. Like Ebola, HIV/AIDS has threatened to destroy economies and destabilize nations.

No one has done more than the United States to battle these problems. The U.S. has already contributed more than $600 million to the Ebola response efforts.  Furthermore, President Obama has requested $6.18 billion in supplemental funding from Congress to fight the disease. We’ve put medical professionals on the ground, working around the clock to contain and halt the spread of the outbreak. On the HIV/AIDS front, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program remains the largest commitment by any nation to combat a single disease internationally. Over 6.7 million people are receiving life-sustaining antiretroviral treatment; more than 12.8 million pregnant women received HIV testing and counseling last year; and as a result of treatment, the one-millionth baby was born HIV-free last year. PEPFAR has also provided care and support to nearly 17 million people. But, these developments should not belie the fact that it is not enough. Not even close. 

We also need to remember that governments alone can’t solve these problems. The international community includes NGOs, multilateral organizations, faith communities, the private sector and concerned and dedicated individuals.

American Jewish World Service is a shining example of how regular people can make an enormous difference. The organization has already raised more than one million dollars for the Ebola response. It is working with its partners on the ground in Africa to distribute essential sanitation materials and to inform areas with high illiteracy rates of the most recent developments. It has also been working on HIV/AIDS education programs in Africa for years. Their efforts have proven to be invaluable and their leadership courageous.  

Jewish identity is closely associated with assisting the sick and the poor. It is not only a good deed but a duty, a mitzvah. On this Chanukah, re-dedicate yourself to helping those less fortunate. Get active, get informed, and be there for those who need our help. During the holiday, as the Chanukah menorah shines light on darkness, think of how you can become involved with organizations that understand our responsibilities to shine light on issues that need more attention. The health of our world depends on it. 

Congressman Engel is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Engel has been a leader in global health, promoting an improved reauthorization of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Assistance (PEPFAR). Within the PEPFAR bill Rep. Engel successfully included his bill, the Stop Tuberculosis Now Act. This measure provides increased U.S. support for international TB control activities and promotes research to develop new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. Congressman Engel is also the author of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, andhas written important laws relating to Albania and Kosovo, Cyprus, and Irish affairs, among others. He is the co-author of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which addresses the child slave labor in the cocoa fields of Africa, and is the leader in the House of Representatives on U.S. policy toward Latin American and the Caribbean. A lifelong resident of the Bronx, Congressman Engel is married to Pat Engel. They have three children.

Is beauty a Jewish value?

When we talk about Jewish values, we usually refer to things like justice, compassion, generosity, humility, honesty, faith, wisdom and so on. We rarely talk about beauty.

Beauty is vain and superficial, we’re so often told.

And yet, the word “beautiful” is prominent on this week’s cover of the Jewish Journal, which features an unusually beautiful sukkah, created by designer Jonathan Fong.

Normally, our instinct would be to focus on a deeper meaning of the holiday — the sukkah as a metaphor for humility; as a wake-up call to help the homeless; as a physical, palpable link to our ancestors; as a paradox of frailty and strength; or as an eternal symbol of Jewish endurance.

Those angles are all more profound and meaningful than the notion of beauty. So, why would we feature aesthetics on our cover this year?

One answer is that maybe we simply need a break from all the heaviness. Yes, we can overdose even on things like depth and meaning. Let’s face it, especially at this time of year, we’ve all been marinating in one deep sermon after another. Serious, heavy issues are weighing on us — whether about Israel, society’s ills or the need to transform our lives.

So, it’s quite possible that a light, beautiful sukkah might be just the right antidote to holiday heaviness — an ideal opportunity to lighten up and let all this depth sink in.

Or not.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in Judaism, meaning lurks everywhere — even in something as superficial as beauty.

“Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses,” according to “Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year” (Central Conference of American Rabbis). “Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension.”

In other words, by adding beauty to what we see, hear, taste and feel, we enhance our spiritual experience of the mitzvah, which brings us closer to the mitzvah itself.

Beauty is also defined, in the Jewish tradition, by the virtues of endurance and permanence.

As Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains in the magazine Jewish Action: “The Torah requires: ‘And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day (of Sukkot) a fruit of a beautiful tree — pri etz hadar.’ The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a beautiful tree by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar.

“The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word ‘hadar’ is interpreted to be a fruit which ‘dwells continuously all year on the tree’ (ha-dar, literally, ‘that which dwells’). Thus, they understand the word ‘dar’ to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French ‘duree’ or the English ‘endure’).

“The etrog tree fulfills this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm — it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.”

In addition to its permanence, beauty is also an expression of love. 

As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech said to me over lunch last week, adding beauty to a mitzvah — such as making a sukkah beautiful — is an expression of love because it’s a sign that “we are doing the mitzvah not just because we have to, but because we want to.” We glorify God’s presence by going beyond the minimum requirements, by pouring out our love for Him just as we would for those we deeply love.

As the rabbi spoke so beautifully about love, I reflected on another aspect to beauty that is often overlooked — and that is, the beauty of the words we speak.

I don’t care how beautiful we make our sukkahs or holiday tables, if some well-intentioned guest decides to ambush the conversation with a rant against Obama, or Israeli settlers, or the tragic mess in Syria, or any number of incendiary topics best left for another time — all that aesthetic beauty we’ve spent so much time creating will be immediately colored ugly.

If beautiful sounds contribute to the human enjoyment of religious acts, I can’t think of a more beautiful sound than that of pleasant conversation that stimulates the mind and warms our hearts.

In short, by making our sukkahs beautiful and adding meaningful and beautiful conversation, we can honor the enduring value of Jewish beauty, enhance our spiritual experience and deepen our love for the Almighty.

How’s that for superficial?

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Happy new mitzvah

“Organized Judaism is in trouble.” I’ve been hearing that refrain for years now, from rabbis and Jewish leaders in speeches, sermons, op-eds and conferences. The litany of complaints is familiar: Synagogue membership is down; the new generation doesn’t like organized religion; people want something new; and so on.

There is, however, one culprit that seems to always rise to the top: Too many families abandon synagogue life after the bar/bat mitzvahs of their children.

There’s surely a good reason for this, aside from the obvious one — that families are trying to save on membership dues.

For one thing, I think we’ve made too big a deal of the bar/bat mitzvah “accomplishment” in the lives of our young teens. If anything, that’s the age when they’re more likely to graduate to their wild and rebellious years than to their “responsible Jewish years.”

Also, the whole notion of graduating implies moving on to a new place — whether it’s graduating to a new school, a new job, a new city, married life, etc.

Sure, we always try to impress on our kids that they’re graduating into a more serious and responsible Jewish life — and that should mean continuing to be part of synagogue life — but who are we kidding?

The truth is, as long as families see the bar/bat mitzvah lifecycle event as a major and finite accomplishment, they will feel encouraged to “move on,” no matter how rabbis couch it, and especially if the family is not already committed to synagogue life.

Yes, it certainly helps to improve the general synagogue experience, but to counter the bar/bat mitzvah exodus syndrome, we need something more direct. We need to create a new and more meaningful lifecycle event that would encourage families to stick around for several more years.

Let’s start with reality.

Kids don’t become “men” or “women” at ages 12 or 13. That tender age is the beginning of arguably the most vulnerable years of kids’ lives — when they can experience the most damage, or the most growth.

In other words, from the early teen years until they’re about 18 are when they need the most help from a supportive synagogue community — the years when they really need to develop the tools to enter adulthood. 

So, here’s my idea for a new lifecycle event: the chai mitzvah.

At 12 or 13, you have your bar/bat mitzvah; at 18, you have your chai mitzvah.

The bar/bat mitzvah would prepare you for the more important chai mitzvah, when you mature into adulthood and are ready to go out into the world. To use a Boy Scout analogy, the bar mitzvah is to the chai mitzvah as Tenderfoot is to Eagle Scout.

This would put the bar/bat mitzvah lifecycle in a more realistic place. There would be less pressure on our young teens; the focus would be on preparing them for the next five crucial years of their lives.

Synagogues would then have an opportunity to hit it out of the park with programming for 13- to 18-year-olds: leadership training, learning life skills, dealing with money issues, taking care of your health, dealing with the opposite sex, getting involved with charities, helping out with synagogue projects, getting summer jobs, getting into college, strengthening Jewish learning and connection to Israel, loving Shabbat and so on.

These years are rich with growth and possibility. If the programming is relevant and compelling, there’s no reason why kids and families can’t continue to participate actively in synagogue life.

Think of how much more relevant the classic bar/bat mitzvah cliches of “growth, maturity and transition” would be during a chai mitzvah ceremony.

OK, there is one problem. It’s not as if we need another opportunity to fork out a bundle on a wild party. But who says we need one? Why not create a meaningful chai mitzvah ceremony in synagogue that would include all the important people in the kid’s life over the previous five years?

The key point is this: If we offer Jewish families a compelling and meaningful new lifecycle event after the bar/bat mitzvah, they’ll be a lot more likely to remain active in their synagogue communities. 

And more important, we will help our kids during some of the more difficult years of their lives. 

Since this is the time of year when we are most concerned with renewal, I can’t think of a better way to renew our community than through our teenage kids and our synagogues.

Shana Tovah — and mazel tov.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Cleveland kidnappings: We must be our brother’s keeper

It is not our place to judge the neighbors of Ariel Castro. We don’t know enough about the particular circumstances of those who lived near this man who allegedly held three women hostage for a decade to be able to judge whether things could have been different had they been paying closer attention. But a story like the one that developed in Cleveland over the past 10 years compels every one of us to ask the following questions: “Could such a thing have happened on my block? Do I have a Jewish ethical obligation to familiarize myself with my neighbors and their lives so that I can know if something is awry? Or is this degree of precautionary vigilance beyond the reasonable limits of ethical responsibility? And what of the revered Jewish principles of granting people the benefit of the doubt, and of not being reflexively suspicious of others?”

As I thought about these questions, I realized that it would be disingenuous and inaccurate to assert that Jewish law demands that we proactively sniff out trouble. The numerous mitzvot that require us to remediate or at least diminish the travail of suffering of others are all reactive in nature. We must visit the sick of whom we are aware, but have no specific obligation to seek the sick out. The same holds true for the mitzvah to ransom captives, to feed the indigent, to comfort the bereaved. We mustn’t stand idly by the blood of another. But this mitzvah, too, presumes that we have already become aware of the difficult circumstances that another is facing. 

At the same time, though, in numerous different ways, the Jewish ethical tradition recognizes the stark reality that when we are purely responsive and not proactive, we will invariably drop many vulnerable individuals right between the proverbial cracks. Yes, it is necessary to be responsive to people in trouble, but necessary is not always the same as sufficient. 

Three young women were kidnapped and held hostage in Cleveland for a decade. From left: Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.

The most dramatic expression of this recognition comes in the form of a story told in Avot of Rabbi Nathan, a compilation of wisdom and teachings from the period of the Talmud. The story is that of the young Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who is born into a wealthy, land-owning family but whose heart is captured by the voice of study that is emanating from the beit midrash of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, the great master of that generation. Eliezer’s father, who foresees Eliezer’s future in conducting the affairs of the estate, is displeased by his son’s interest in study. The text relates what happens next:

One day, Eliezer announced, “I am going to learn Torah from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.” Said his father to him, “You will eat not a morsel today until you plow an entire furrow.” Eliezer arose early, plowed the furrow, and set off. It is said that this occurred on a Friday and that he ate that night at the home of his father-in-law, but others say that he did not eat at all. Instead, he placed rocks in his mouth, and some say the excrement of cows. He took up residence in an inn, and came to study before Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. At some point Rabbi Yochanan noticed that a bad odor was emerging from Eliezer’s mouth. “My son, have you eaten at all?” the sage asked. Eliezer was silent. Rabbi Yochanan summoned the innkeeper and asked him, “Did you feed Eliezer?” “I thought that perhaps he had eaten with you,” the innkeeper replied. “And I thought he had eaten with you!” replied the sage. “Between me and you, we lost Eliezer in the middle!”

By the time anyone realized Eliezer was in trouble, it was late, almost too late. What was missing and what was needed was the initiative to inquire, to ask questions, to uncover the circumstances by which this young man had appeared in the beit midrash, and to be in position to help before the trouble began. Simply responding to need is necessary, but not always sufficient. 

The value of being vigilant and proactive is also expressed by one of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s students who, when asked by his master, “What is the most important quality a person can have?” responded by saying, “That of being a good neighbor” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). He did not say “a good friend,” rather specifically a “good neighbor,” because it is the neighbor who is the set of eyes and ears able to detect even small changes in the daily routines of those immediately around him, and who can inquire and intervene at the first hint that something is amiss. And this very same value is almost certainly imbedded in the mitzvah to “love the other as yourself.” As is clear from its context, this mitzvah is intended to transcend the long list of response-type mitzvot that precedes it. It is the mitzvah to see and to feel broadly and expansively, including taking the time to wonder what that scream was that came from the house down the block. 

And, yes, at the same time, we are to give others the benefit of the doubt and to avoid being reflexively suspicious. But halachah strenuously sweeps these — and all Torah laws — aside whenever there is even the possibility that human life is at stake. 

I am the first to admit that I am not the neighbor I should be. And I can offer all the same excuses that so many of us can make. But in light of what has been revealed in Cleveland, it’s clear that our religious tradition would identify this particular moment as one when we are required to ask, “Could this have happened on my block”?

Suspected kidnapper Ariel Castro

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

A mitzvah called shmooze

In a crummy economy, people are always looking for good investments — a promising stock, a real estate opportunity, a star mutual fund. It’s really not that different in the “mitzvah economy”— donors and do-gooders are also looking to squeeze the maximum amount of goodness out of every charity investment.

On that note, I’d like to share with you a mitzvah that has a ridiculously low investment and an incredibly high return.

It’s a mitzvah called shmooze.

I think of this mitzvah every time I’m stuck in freeway traffic and I call my mother in Montreal. Nine times out of 10, especially during the long winter months, the first words out of her mouth will be (in French): “Ah, mon fils, je pensait justement à toi!” (Oh, my son, I was just thinking of you!). 

You see, my mother has this quirk when it comes to phones: When she hears a ring, she always picks up. She’s not big on screening calls. She doesn’t make those quick calculations of whether such and such person is worth talking to. I’ve never asked her this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she shmoozes with telemarketers who pitch her great deals on ink toners.

Ever since my father passed away 10 years ago, the ring of the phone in my mother’s home has come to symbolize the promise of human contact. Whereas for me it might mean an unwanted interruption, for my mother it is a welcomed trumpet that announces the interruption of loneliness. 

I try to interrupt that loneliness as often as I can. It helps that our conversations are light and breezy and require little concentration on my part. It’s as if we have this unwritten agreement that if she’ll go easy on me with the questions, I’ll stay on as long as she likes (or until I get to my “meeting”).

Sometimes I’ll be in a silly mood and make her crack up. I might tell her something funny one of my kids said. Occasionally, we might talk about a serious family matter, and she’ll weigh in with her suggestions (read: orders).

But typically, we’ll just shmooze about family stuff: How are the kids doing? (Baruch Hashem.) Is Noah getting taller? (I think so.) Who’s cooking for Shabbat? (I don’t know yet — probably Mia.) Did you tell the housekeeper you won’t need her next Wednesday? (I will, I promise.) Do you speak to your sister? (All the time.) And how about your brother? (Yes, on e-mail.)

From my end, I will lob back questions about her health (“How’s your knee?”) or I’ll ask about Shabbat plans (“Will you be with Judy, Sandra or Samy?”). Our favorite subject, of course, is travel, and it consists mostly of two questions: “When are you coming to Montreal?” and “When can you come to Los Angeles?” 

After about 15 minutes or so, we’re usually ready to wrap up. We throw in a few words of caution (Me: “Please watch the steps!” Her: “Please be careful!”), some tender sentiments (“Kiss everyone” and “I love you”), and, voilà, it’s, “Goodbye Meme, I’ll speak to you very soon.”

But as I run off to another meeting, Meme hangs up and goes back to an empty house.

The difference, though, is that now, in that empty house, the words of our conversation will echo pleasantly in her consciousness. She’ll be thinking about all the good stuff we talked about. That’s because words that interrupt loneliness have a time-release quality. They keep ringing gently in one’s ears long after the phone has stopped ringing.

I invest 15 minutes in sweet shmoozing, and, in return, I get hours of motherly joy. Wouldn’t you call that a good investment? 

The truth is, you don’t have to be related to someone to offer good conversation — in fact, it could be an advantage not to be related. So, I wonder: How many elderly Jews are there in our sprawling community who spend their days alone and could use a good shmooze?

Why not twin those elderly Jews with younger Jews who could put a spark in their day with some lively conversation? 

It’s a mitzvah that works both ways: The elderly have great wisdom and stories to share, which could enrich anyone’s day.

Los Angeles seems like the perfect city to try this idea out — there are plenty of elderly at home alone, and there’s certainly no shortage of cell phone-addicted shmoozers stuck in traffic.

The beauty is that it’s simple. No event planning, no shlepping — just a phone call. Multiply that by a few thousand calls and that’s a lot of loneliness interruption.

Every community can start their own schmooze project. You need a good organizer, of course, to recruit people and coordinate all the vetting. But the basic idea is not complicated: volunteer “shmoozers” get a short list of willing elderly “friends” to call on a regular basis.

In the meantime, don’t wait for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to call your parents or grandparents, or anyone else you know who can use a good shmooze. Especially for people fighting loneliness, one little call can brighten up a whole day.

Like my mother would say, now that's a bargain.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Big Sunday Weekend goes beyond community service

Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” was leading a game of Bingo in the annex dining room at Canter’s Deli on the morning of May 5 — not a bad way to spend Big Sunday Weekend, the annual festival of community service that featured more than 150 projects this year.

In this case, the players consisted of about 60 mostly middle-aged and elderly ladies, along with a few older men. Some were residents of the Downtown Women’s Shelter, a permanent housing solution for the low-income and homeless of downtown’s Skid Row; others were members of the Hollywood retirement community Bethany Towers. Volunteers of all ages, some of them from local synagogues, were among the players as well.

As Rosenthal called out letters and digits, the players focused intently on the Bingo cards placed in front of each of them, marking numbers. Plates of Danish pastries and cups of coffee sat in front of them at the ready. At stake were jumbo chocolate bars, Burt’s Bees beauty products and, of course, “Everybody Loves Raymond” DVDs.

Before long, a woman in a pink T-shirt, a resident of the women’s shelter, yelled out those magical words: “Bingo!” 

The real magic, though, was the community-building happening at Canter’s, the bridging of the gap between folks who would not normally spend time together, as opposed to traditional community service projects that emphasize who are the haves and who are the have-nots. 

“Everybody wants to help, that’s what social connectedness is,” said David Levinson, founder of Big Sunday Weekend, which ran May 3-5 this year. Levinson also is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Big Sunday, which puts on Big Sunday Weekend as well as smaller-scale opportunities for giving back all year-round.

This year marked the 15th iteration of Big Sunday Weekend, with thousands of volunteers fanning out across the city, state and country. This was the first year that the initiative expanded outside of California, with events taking place in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Denver, Oklahoma and Georgia.

What was conceived in the ’90s as a mitzvah day involving only one synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, now has grown into something of enormous proportions that includes community-wide efforts to paint schools, plant gardens, clean beaches and hiking trails, distribute clothes and books, beautify mental health facilities and animal rescue sites, feed the homeless and more. All events are non-religious and apolitical.

The weekend — it takes place over the course of three days and has the support of the Los Angeles’ mayor’s office — has grown to include all religions, ethnicities and ages. Moreover, a large number of volunteers are made up of corporations that send contingents of employees to pitch in at certain projects. Some even hold their own projects. TriNet, a national corporation that provides human resource consulting services to small to midsize businesses, sent more than 200 of its employees to volunteer.

Some events consisted of traditional community service projects: On Sunday, more than 150 volunteers gathered at The Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County to make 1,000 sandwiches for Long Beach’s homeless community. Similarly, 500 volunteers turned out to the Islamic Institute of Orange County to conduct bake sales, clothing drives and food drives.

“I want to give back to the community in Los Angeles,” said Big Sunday volunteer Joel Miller, a 55-year-old founder of a literary talent agency from Mid-City. “I think it’s important for those of us in a position to help others to be a part of these opportunities.”

Other projects — such as the “Everybody Eats, Everybody Wins” events at Canter’s, Ocean Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown and Guelaguetza Restaurant on Olympic Boulevard — demonstrate a model of “community-building,” important to Levinson. Ditto for the Big Sunday “Adventures,” which brought communities together for activities such as horseback riding, a boat ride and trips to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At each of these projects, volunteers took up half of the spots and the other half were reserved for homeless people, low-income seniors, battered women and others.

People coming together from different socioeconomic backgrounds to nosh, hang out and play games is, perhaps, Levinson’s idea of the perfect Big Sunday.

“These are my favorite events,” he said, watching the Bingo game at Canter’s. “Just bringing people out and showing them a good time.”

Letters to the Editor: Prager on murder, Spiritual care, Christmas Mitzvah, Seeking former students

Prager on Murder

It is quite something to read Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion dean Joshua Holo’s caricature Dennis Prager as reckless, heedless, gratuitously hostile and a provocateur “painting in broad strokes of facile caricature” (Letters, Dec. 21), when that is precisely what he, not Prager, does.

Dennis Prager’s piece “Why Is Murder Wrong?” (Dec. 14) makes two extremely significant points. The first: God is inseparable from morality. If God does not exist, there is no such thing as an objective, or ultimate, source of morality, period. Prager’s assertion is philosophically sound. Without God, all we have left morally is personal opinion, even when it comes to murder.

Prager’s second point: The indispensable association of morality with God — the greatest single contribution of the Torah and the Jews — is rarely mentioned by non-Orthodox rabbis, let alone taught in non-Orthodox seminaries.

I am a Conservative rabbi who has attended annual rabbinic conferences for more than 22 years, along with having served on the board of several rabbinic organizations, and, of course, attending countless synagogue services here and abroad. My many years of experience in the rabbinate have taught me that Prager’s critique is unquestionably right: God as the source of ultimate morality is seldom, if ever, mentioned.

Impugning Dennis Prager doesn’t change this fact.

Rabbi Michael Gotlieb
via e-mail


It is sadly ironic that Dennis Prager’s column on knowing versus believing murder is wrong should appear on the same weekend as the horrific mass murder at an elementary school in Connecticut.

I would assert that more than 99 percent of Americans know/believe those murders in Connecticut were wrong, and that they don’t really much care about whether anyone can make a “provable” argument that those murders were wrong.

Rather than waste time trying to use an unprovable argument about God to convince the less than 1 percent that know/believe murder is right that they are provably wrong, perhaps it would be a better use of time to debate why 50 percent of the country thinks assault weapons should be legal, while 50 percent of the country thinks there is no compelling reason why anybody should be allowed to own an assault weapon.

Michael Asher
Valley Village


Importance of Spiritual Care

Your article “Soothing the Spirit” (Dec. 14) introduced an important aspect of healing not known to many. I commend the Jewish Journal for the in-depth coverage of spiritual care in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as well as the value and importance of hospital chaplaincy services for people of all denominations.

Providence Tarzana Medical Center offers the same spiritual-care services to all of its patients, including those from the Jewish community. It also takes an interfaith approach to spiritual care. The team of professionally trained chaplains and spiritual advisors includes two rabbis, priests, sisters and others. The hospital took a lead as the first Catholic medical center to place a kosher mezuzah on the doorway of each of the patients’ rooms.

Every Friday, the spiritual-care staff delivers candles and kosher challah to its Jewish patients. During Rosh Hashanah, the blowing of the shofar is heard in Jewish patients’ rooms.

As a chaplain/rabbi serving at Providence Tarzana Medical Center, I am honored and proud to be a member of the spiritual-care team to serve our diverse community.

Rabbi Avi Navah
Providence Tarzana Medical Center
Spiritual Care Department


Missed Christmas Mitzvah

I applaud all the Christmas Day mitzvot that are done by many synagogues and Jewish organizations. I just want to add one more that seems to be under your radar (“Volunteering on Christmas,” Dec. 21). For two decades, Beth Shir Shalom has taken over for Meals on Wheels of Santa Monica (MOW) on Christmas. Meals on Wheels being closed on Christmas was brought to my attention by Doris and Norty Smirlock, long-time members and MOW volunteers, who told me that Beth Shir Shalom needed to respond. So, every year on Christmas Day, we take over all the routes of Meal on Wheels and deliver homemade Christmas meals to all of their clients — 110 meals this year. The Beth Shir Shalom community is proud to be able to help give the dedicated workers and volunteers of Meals on Wheels a merry Christmas while making sure their clients have one, too.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels
Beth Shir Shalom


Seeking Former Conversion Students

Over the past 25 years, Adaire Klein has taught hundreds of conversion students in the Pico-Robertson area. As Klein and her husband, Manny, prepare to move to Israel, B’nai David-Judea Congregation is searching for former students to participate in a written tribute. If you are a former student, please contact B’nai David-Judea Executive Director Amram Hassan at (310) 276-9269 or e-mail

Maryam Maleki
via e-mail

Making mitzvahs feel authentic

Jack Kessler, 14, completed his mitzvah project last summer by working at a Friendship Circle camp for teens on the autism spectrum. He says the volunteer effort, which some synagogues require of their b’nai mitzvah students, helped him realize his priorities.

“School is the top priority,” Kessler said. “I actually chose to do my project in summer so it wouldn’t interfere with classes. But if you’re done with schoolwork, and have a choice between working on your mitzvah project and practicing your [Torah] portion or slacking off, you have to work.”

Kessler belongs to IKAR, a progressive, egalitarian Jewish community in West Los Angeles that encourages its members, young and old, to participate actively in social justice programs.

“When you join IKAR, you join because you’re interested in social justice, so it doesn’t occur to any family that their child wouldn’t have to complete a mitzvah project,” said Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, the congregation’s director of education.

“We’re not very strict with the requirements,” Rosenthal added. “The main requirement is that it’s hands-on — not just fundraising. For example, if the kids are going to collect cans, they take them, sort them and then help out at the food bank.”

Rosenthal understands that sometimes it’s overwhelming to be focusing on a mitzvah project right before the actual bar or bat mitzvah. “The kids can do it after their bar mitzvah if they’re super stressed,” she said.

Some synagogues and b’nai mitzvah are doing just that. From implementing group projects, which removes the pressure of coming up with a unique mitzvah project idea, to delaying the project until after the simcha, congregations are looking at ways to make sure that the mitzvah project’s lesson has a receptive audience when it comes to stressed-out students with overscheduled lives.

However, IKAR’s Rosenthal says that the stress that comes with learning to balance priorities isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I think that for kids who are overscheduled, being required to do a mitzvah project is rewarding. It helps them to push pause on their hectic life, carve out time, and say ‘I’m going to do this project because it’s important — even if it means I have to cut something else.’ It’s a lesson about priorities as well as about social justice.”

At Temple B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in the Pico-Robertson district, Rav Yosef Kanefsky decided not to implement a mitzvah project requirement for the bar mitzvah ceremony. Instead, the eventual completion of a mitzvah project is an implicit expectation within the congregation’s culture.

“Almost all of the kids take part in a yearlong course where the main emphasis is relating toward the wider community,” Kanefsky said. “For that reason, the majority of our kids do mitzvah projects. It’s part of the culture, and as a synagogue, we have tons of tikkun olam programs for our congregants to participate in, and most of them are designed for people of all ages.”

Atara Segal, a 36-year-old congregant at B’nai David-Judea, agreed with the more hands-off approach to getting kids to participate in the community.

“I feel that becoming a bat or bar mitzvah is about finding a personally meaningful religious experience which may include learning, leading services and/or a mitzvah project. I think that the most important part is that the child feels she is a contributing member of the Jewish community, and that the experience is authentic — something the child can genuinely relate to and is not ‘artificially imposed’ and is positive.”

At Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, the clergy has tried a different approach to engaging the kids in its community. Earlier this year, the congregation spearheaded a new social action project, Kemach, to help kids get involved with the community, while assisting them in balancing their busy lives.

“As of this year, because of the development of the program, 10 hours of tikkun olam are required of our enrolling sixth-grade students. They can also opt to create their own project if they so desire,” Rabbi Jon Hanish said.

“By starting the kids in sixth grade, they can participate without the pressure to rush through everything in the few months leading up to their bar mitzvah,” he added.

The program features different monthly social action projects in which students can participate.

“Some of the kids come up with great projects on their own, but others need a little more guidance,” Hanish said. “The clergy agreed that many children didn’t have the time or knowledge to create a mitzvah project because they didn’t have a background in tikkun olam or tzedakah.

“We also saw that, often, creating a mitzvah project became stressful because many seventh-graders are too busy with school, after-school curricular activities and bar mitzvah preparation to also create their own original projects. Sometimes, the burden of the project fell on the parent because the child just didn’t have time to do it,” he added.

The Kol Tikvah clergy determined that five two-hour experiences would give the kids a well-rounded idea of the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam and tzedakah. The programs are held on weekends, and the synagogue provides transportation.

Tyler Noble, 14, began participating in Kemach after his bar mitzvah. He chose not to do a mitzvah project before his simcha because the homework demands in seventh grade were too great. “That, mixed with studying for the bar mitzvah, was too much to do on my own along with a mitzvah project,” he said.

He’s also joined Kemach to act as a role model for younger students. “I’m sure the program will help make their lives, and the mitzvah project, a lot easier to handle,” he said.

Noble added that becoming a bar mitzvah doesn’t mean your service needs to end.

“You don’t have to quit, and should keep going to religious school and helping out the younger kids. If you stay active, it teaches the kids to remain active in helping out the community as well.”

The mitzvah of maror

“The most unfortunate thing that happens to a person who fears failure is that he limits himself by becoming afraid to try anything new.”

Last year, while attending a seder on the first night of Passover, three words in the haggadah caught my eye. Now we partake of the “mitzvah of maror.” The mitzvah of maror.

I had been connected to the world of mitzvahs for the past several years, and in fact was just finishing work on my book “1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire, and Change Your Life.”

But the mitzvah of maror didn’t quite fit into my idea of small acts of kindness — holding the door open for a stranger, for example, or dropping a few coins into a tzedakah box.

I started my “1,000 Mitzvahs” project after my father died in December 2006.

My father and I had struggled in our relationship for years and though I knew he loved me, we’d not been able to find a place where we were both happy. When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, we both knew there was never going to be another chance to say what had to be said and move forward. I remember him asking me, “Why did we wait until I was dying to do this?” Neither of us knew why. Nonetheless, that last year of his life was a complete gift for both of us. When he passed away, my busy life as a mother, wife and entrepreneur came to a screeching halt. After his death, I took a “spiritual sabbatical” to work through the unexpected grief I suddenly felt and came out of it resolved to embark upon a project: perform 1,000 acts of kindness — mitzvahs — to honor my father’s memory.

I started a blog called 1,000 Mitzvahs to track the journey. I wrote the stories of my day, the simple everyday actions that I took — like thanking someone for a job well done, folding laundry for a friend on bed rest or giving my tickets to a lecture series away to a stranger — and the discoveries I made during these simple moments. The mitzvah stories became the tapestry of my days and weeks, and the project helped me move through the grief I’d felt. From the beginning, the mitzvahs were simple and duplicable. I didn’t set out to save the world. I don’t even profess that any of my 1,000 small actions stand out as particularly important. But cumulatively they did shift my thoughts and attitudes and did alter the course of my life. I discovered that by getting more conscious about the actions I took every day and noticing these daily opportunities, they began to show up more often in my life.

As the “1,000 Mitzvahs” project wrapped up, a rabbi suggested I write a book to share what I had learned after grief. His suggestion pushed me to step further out of my comfort zone with my personal project and pursue the idea of writing a book to share my story.

And now, on Passover night, I was confronted with this strange mitzvah of eating bitter herbs. I began thinking of the symbolism of maror, the bitterness of the herbs reminding us to think about the slaves in Egypt. As I ate my matzah and maror, I had an interesting realization and found that this mitzvah of maror had another symbolism for me.

When I was a child and we celebrated Passover, I remember getting to the part of the seder where we were supposed to eat the maror and feeling very unhappy. I was a picky eater and as a child didn’t eat anything spicy. I never willingly put the maror in my mouth. I would put the tiniest bit on the matzah, not even enough to actually taste anything bitter and would eat the matzah so quickly no one would notice that it didn’t even have a hint of bitter herbs on it. As children, we are told what to do and what not to do all the time. Oftentimes this creates a fear of trying new things. For many people, this can create lifelong limitations on our ability to step through fear and engage in new opportunities. Eating the maror was like that for me when I was a child. I was afraid of the experience and not able to see that the bitterness was something I could learn to tolerate, perhaps even enjoy someday.

In my 20s and 30s, I attended many seders. Some were held in relatives’ homes, some in the family homes of college friends. Each year, when we got to the part of the seder where we needed to taste the maror, I would reluctantly add a small dab of bitter herbs on my matzah, always ready to swig it down with a giant gulp of water as soon as the sharpness hit my throat. This, of course, defeats the purpose of actually experiencing and tasting that bitterness.

By my 30s, I was swept into unchartered territory in my life. I was newly married and we relocated to a different part of the country. I became a mother and began raising children and learning that parenting is one of the most unknown journeys we’ll take on in life. As I sat pondering the idea of the mitzvah of maror during the Passover seder, I finally realized it is not only a reminder of the bitterness that our ancestors felt but also the evolution that we each make as human beings during our lives.

This year when we make our seder, I look forward to putting a heaping teaspoon of maror on my matzah and thinking about how, in my 40s, I have done things I never dreamed I could do in my life — like writing a book, starting a new business, and sharing a personal story of grief and healing. Forty isn’t a time for fear; it’s a liberating, freeing time that seems to correlate with the idea that anything is possible. Facing our life full on, grappling with its joys and sorrows has become a daily part of my life. Bitterness has to be present in our lives to have joy.

This Passover season, I hope you will think of the mitzvah of maror as an opportunity — a reminder that while we do have bitterness in our lives, allowing ourselves to experience some of that bitterness or fear might actually have unexpected lessons as well.

Enjoy your matzah and maror!

Scott Shay wants you to recharge your mitzvah—every 18 years

Remember that 2009 episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” when as part of a plot to coax Michael “Kramer” Richards to go along with a “Seinfeld” reunion, Larry David’s African-American housemate, Leon Black, pretends to be the Jewish accountant Danny Duberstein?

To sell the cover story, Leon says he was adopted by a nice Jewish couple and has been a bar mitzvah three times, most recently just a few months ago in Atlantic City.

Understandably confused, Richards says he thought the milestone happens just once, at the age of 13.

“No, no, no, no. You misunderstood,” Leon insists. “It’s once every 13 years. You’ve got to recharge the mitzvah.”

“Curb” was playing for laughs, but Scott Shay is serious.

In his book “Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry,” which was published before the “Curb” episode aired (maybe that’s where Larry got the idea?), the Signature Bank chairman called for the creation of a new custom—the cyclical 18-year bar/bat mitzvah.

It was this idea, Shay says, that seemed to capture people’s attention during his book tour.

“I’d get e-mails and questions from people who wanted to do it, from rabbis and educators who asked me for a curriculum,” he says.

Not a professional educator, Shay brought the idea to Audrey Lichter, a veteran in Jewish education, to help develop a curriculum and launch a program. It was Lichter, who has started numerous ventures herself, including a day school, who gave Shay a key piece of advice.

“You have to do this community by community,” she told him. “Otherwise it won’t really catch on.”

Chai Mitzvah, the program that Lichter ended up creating, relies heavily on the support of synagogues, local rabbis and teachers, and JCCs, which help refer participants. With two pilot years under its belt and a website, the program is now being offered in conjunction with communities in Manhattan, Westchester and Long Island in New York, as well as Hartford, Conn., and Israel.

Since its inception, the program has attracted about 200 participants from across the religious spectrum—from Jewish Renewal to Orthodox to the unaffiliated.

Looking ahead to 2012, Lichter hopes to see Chai Mitzvah running in more cities.

The program is comprised of four elements: monthly group study sessions, a new ritual undertaking, social action and celebration. Participants, who are divided into four age cohorts (26-33, 46-52, 64-70 and 80-plus), make an eight-month commitment to complete the four steps. The program typically starts after the conclusion of the High Holidays and ends in the spring with a celebration and public recognition of their accomplishments.

“We pick these ages because they capture certain stages in one’s life,” Lichter says. “Everybody notices their 50th birthday, yet we don’t mark it Jewishly.”

Most significant for many of the participants is the adoption of a new ritual, which can vary widely according to education and observance level. Often it is something they have long intended to take up—perhaps chanting the haftarah, lighting the Sabbath candles or reading the fifth aliyah of every Torah portion—but needed a push and support to accomplish.

“What we’ve heard from people is that it was a spark for them to do something meaningful,” Lichter says.

Donna Lippman had been encouraged to sign up by her rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She first came to KJ a decade ago, attending the shul’s beginners’ service, but had felt like her Jewish learning had plateaued.

“I have always loved Jewish learning, ” Lippman says. “[Chai Mitzvah] was a way to integrate that into my life by taking on some rituals and social actions.”

For her new ritual observance, she decided to adopt the recitation of the morning blessings.

“I had never really looked at them,” explains Lippman, who joined Chai Mitzvah’s middle-aged cohort.

After incorporating them into her daily routine, Lippman says she realized an immediate impact on her life. In particular, she cites the teaching that “these are things for which there is no fixed measure—being charitable, acts of kindness, Torah.”

“It got me oriented to carry out my day the right way,” she says. “I really made an effort to be kinder and more patient.”

Though there is a group study component to the program when all of the cohorts come together, Chai Mitzvah is highly personalized, tailored to the individual. Once a participant decides what he or she wants to study or how to volunteer, the Chai Mitzvah support staff helps find programs and opportunities within the person’s community.

A businessman, Shay has found himself frustrated with the approach to creating Jewish adult education programming within the United States.

“It was all about supply and not about demand,” he says. “We’re creating these programs and trying to chase people into them.”

“There’s a lot going on in communities,” Lichter adds. “The biggest challenge is engagement, not creating another program. Chai Mitzvah provides the reason to engage.”

It also gives Jews at every stage of life an opportunity to learn and celebrate. Perhaps most appreciative of this chance has been the 80-plus crowd, which is particularly underserved when it comes to educational opportunities.

“People are always offering them [the elderly] services, but not a chance to learn and grow,” says Galya Greenberg, an educator who leads monthly text study sessions for Chai Mitzvah. “Someone in her 80s decided to say Modeh Ani every morning. That was the ritual she added to her life.”

Attracting younger participants has been more challenging.

Lichter is finding it difficult to engage the youngest cohort, the 26- to 33-year-olds, especially since the majority of the outreach for Chai Mitzvah is done through synagogues and other institutions having their own troubles reaching young Jewish adults. To reach this group, Lichter acknowledges that Chai Mitzvah may have to change some of the program parameters, such as scaling back the length of the commitment, and will need to partner with other organizations that have greater appeal to the younger set.

The challenges of engagement notwithstanding, Shay is optimistic that the 18-year bar/bat mitzvah cycle can take root in the Jewish community. After all, as he noted in his book, the bat mitzvah was far from widely accepted when it was introduced more than 50 years ago, yet is now a near-universal staple in most corners of the Jewish community.

Maybe 50 years from now, if Shay has his way, we’ll all be doing the electric slide attending our grandparents’ Chai Mitzvah parties.

Can we help?

My desk is coated with letters of request: Adopt an animal at the zoo; come to a gala for the Jewish food bank; plant a tree in Israel; plant a tree in Los Angeles. Feed 50 meals to homeless people. Support public radio. Support the temple building fund. Support the school PTA, the booster club, the play. Need I go on?

These bids for help come in every year at about this time, but this year they feel different. We all are facing the reality that these are really hard times — for everyone, it seems — and there’s a note of desperation in these letters, a fear of becoming destitute. In fact, it’s probably a feeling most of us share to some degree, whether when we look at our 401(k)s (don’t!), or hear from our relatives (do!), or watch friends figure out how to get unemployment checks … or talk to someone who has lost their home to foreclosure.

So this year, all those pleas for funds have to be weighed against our anxieties. And the nagging question inside us must be: Should we hold back on our giving because what we have now might not last? And when we give, whom should we give to? Who are the neediest?

In his recently released “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” (Bell Tower), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes the familiar talmudic teaching: “Charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments combined.” (Bava Bathra 9a). But Telushkin also goes on to quote Maimonides: “It is our duty to be more careful in the performance of charity than in the performance of any other positive commandment.” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1).

In our era, Telushkin points out, we equate charitable giving to cultural causes — museums, orchestras, universities — as much as to helping the poor. But it is the latter that the Bible refers to exclusively in the teachings on tzedakah. For a person in need, the Bible commands, “You shall open, yes, open, your hand to him,” and not “harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). And the need for such generosity is so drilled into the Jewish soul that, as Telushkin paraphrases Maimonides, “Not giving tzedakah constitutes such cruel and un-Jewish behavior that we should question the Jewishness of one who acts in this way.”

The Shulchan Arukh assures us: “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”

So does this mean the art museum is out and the homeless shelter is this year’s beneficiary? That the temple coffers come before the school or after? What do we value most? And should we really decide? Because as we open our checkbooks this year and attempt to give back to the world, shouldn’t we consider sustenance from all angles?

High on our list, of course, should be those whose very lives depend upon our help. But this also is not a time to extinguish the many institutions that have risen up to create a civil society. The arts nourish the soul, schools nurture the potential of our youth, but they also promote the scientific and creative research that will secure our future. And the synagogue is one place where we can turn when we need caring most.

Our relationship with Israel also cannot be lost in the mix — its need for health and security doesn’t disappear while our attention is focused elsewhere.

And those animals in the zoo — should they be left out?

To be fair, aren’t times of hardship when we should be giving the most? And not just to one place?

I have a friend who runs an institute for the deaf — a place that gives the gift of communication to people who might otherwise be cut off from the world. She recently told me of a single day in the life of her institute: A check for $1 million came in from a major donor. Cause for great celebration. Then a look at the endowment showed a $1 million loss — just that same day. What do you do?

As the articles in this special Giving Guide illustrate, everyone is trying to answer all the questions I’m proposing here. And there are no easy answers.

But I would suggest this. This is the time to step up to the plate. And there are ways to do it even as we tighten our belts. We can think hard before we buy that fancy pair of shoes and get something more practical; then take that extra money left over — and give it away. Think again before we allocate fun money and find ways to share the pleasures with those who haven’t got the spare cash. We can take the bus once in a while and spend the gas savings on a person in need. Even small economies can turn into great gifts.

This is a time when, at whatever level we can, we should all continue to respond to the pleas for help from charities of all kinds — and give to our capacity, and maybe a little more. Because, as the Shulchan Arukh assures us, and as Telushkin notes, “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”

Moving beyond charity

One of the biggest misnomers in the Jewish vocabulary is the translation of tzedakah as “charity.” This mistranslation has gone on for so long in the American< Jewish community that it's a hard habit to break. Most Hebrew school kids will give this answer when asked, much as they will say that mitzvah means "good deed" (another misnomer, for another column).

Tzedakah is much more than charity since it comes from the word tzedek, which means “justice.” When looked at in this light, the giving of tzedakah is so much more than charity; charity seems to indicate something we give voluntarily and only to those who are less fortunate than we. Tzedakah, while it might come in the form of monetary giving, is a commandment that calls us to a much more profound level of interaction with the world than just writing a check to a worthy organization.

Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with writing checks. It’s just that this is not the end of — nor the essence of — tzedakah. Rather, as a commentator reminds us in regard to this week’s parshah, Shoftim, tzedakah is intimately connected to creating a meaningful and just legal system.

This parshah is the call to justice par excellence in the Torah, for it includes the famous verse, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice you shall pursue), which, according to Chasidic master Simcha Bunem, reminds us that justice is to be pursued by just means, unlike many of the false, doublespeak pursuits of justice that we have witnessed throughout history (and in our own day, where so-called justice is pursued for selfish ends).

But I am most interested in the opening line, where the Torah calls on us to “appoint judges and magistrates in all our gates, the places that God gives to you, and you shall judge the people with righteous justice (mishpat tzedek)” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

What does “righteous justice” mean?

Commenting on this verse, the great 19th century master, Chatam Sofer, says it relates to a verse from the prophet Hosea, “v’erastich li b’tzedek uv’mishpat, uv’chesed uv’rachamim,” a line about God betrothing us with justice (tzedek), law (mishpat), kindness (chesed) and compassion (rachamim), which we say while putting on tefillin in the morning. According to a midrash, God provides the world with kindness and compassion, and we provide justice and law, thereby creating a balanced and holy alliance. It’s a tangible and beautiful way of conceptualizing the covenant between divinity and humanity. Chatam Sofer goes on to say that “God gives us space to create homes, societies and communities, out of love and compassion, and it is up to us to create them with justice and righteousness, by creating laws that are fair and just for all members.”

This is the true meaning of tzedakah: not charity, but justice.

And in a fascinating connection, another commentator, in the 20th century collection of teachings Likutei Yehudah, says that it is precisely for this reason that Shoftim follows last week’s parshah, Re’eh, which mentions the mitzvah of tzedakah; without justice, there is no tzedakah, and without tzedakah, there is no justice. This is a powerful and profoundly relevant teaching for our time.

In envisioning a world where the interaction between justice and tzedakah is a reality, we are blessed in today’s age to have amazing organizations in our community, like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has helped to redefine what giving means. Not only do they collect money, but they distribute it in a way that helps people achieve sustainable development; they bring people — young people especially — to work in developing nations, offering participants a firsthand look at true poverty and a hands-on way to help alleviate it. They seek to reshape the global landscape with just solutions for systemic problems. AJWS and its volunteers do this because the Torah calls on us to be just in our ways. They are living the words of the Chatam Sofer, leading us in our part of the covenant.

I believe that our nation as a whole can learn a great deal from AJWS, as we seek to recapture a sense of justice and righteousness in our country, for one could argue that we are taking God’s compassion and kindness for granted.

Mishpat tzedek, just laws, must seek ways to be as inclusive as possible, bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Until we work together as a human family to guarantee tzedek — true justice and not just charity — we will not be fully living up to the potential that Parshat Shoftim calls us towards. Americans are a very generous people in regard to charity, and Jewish Americans especially. Let us turn our efforts now with as much vigor toward justice, fashioning an even more holy society based on mishpat tzedek, the great confluence of law and righteousness. True tzedakah can change our world in a way that charity alone cannot.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center ( He also serves as national secretary of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, corresponding secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and on the board of Jewish World Watch. He welcomes your comments at

‘Jewels of Elul’ offers candidates’ wisdom

What is the dream of the future president of the United States?

For the answer, check out your e-mail or a pocket-sized, 36-page booklet called “Jewels of Elul IV,” which is subtitled “29 Dreamers and Their Dreams.”

Others include Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, Muslim artist Salman Ahmad, Mars Phoenix project leader Barry Goldstein and philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.

Craig Taubman, spiritual folk rocker, composer and producer, who has written and played the songs of his people for 30 years, conceived the project four years ago.

It started when Taubman was commissioned to write a song for Elul, the 29-day-long month of the Hebrew calendar, during which Jews are to meditate and look within themselves in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Among the first to respond to Taubman’s requests for submissions this year were Obama and McCain.

The month of Elul runs this year from Sept. 1-29 and Craig ‘n Co., the publisher of “Jewels,” would release only excerpts from the various responses.

Obama’s reads, “We must reclaim that basic American Dream for all Americans—the idea that if you work hard, you can support a family; that if you get sick, there will be health care you can afford; that you can retire with the dignity and security you have earned; and that every American can get a world-class education.”

The McCain excerpt reads, “As we look to the future, it is helpful to remind ourselves that there is no problem or challenge we cannot overcome together.”

In a lighter vein is the Dershowitz excerpt, “I almost never dream. On that rare occasion when I do, it’s the typical dream that Freud would be proud of. I fly through the air.”

An unexpectedly somber thought came from Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks: “Dreams aren’t all fluff and pastels. Dreams can hurt. Dreams can make incredible demands on us. And, unlike in animated movies, dreams don’t always come true.”

Taubman, 50, sent out requests to five to 10 potential contributors at a time and then waited to see how many responded and impressed the judges before sending out the next batch.

The only limitation is that the submission be 250 words or less, and Taubman tries to roughly balance the final picks by gender and age.

Costs of the project are underwritten by different foundations. Last year’s edition featured the theme of “Inspirations of Hope and Healing.” It was sponsored by the American Committee for Shaare Zedek and included such contributors as Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, Kirk Douglas, Deepak Chopra and Rabbi Harold Kushner.

The upcoming edition is sponsored by the Stefan Adelipour for Life Foundation, in memory of Adelipour, a 22-year old Boston University senior who lost his life in a fire.

Keeping up with the Internet times, Taubman will send out one message a day by request via e-mail, starting Sept. 1 and continuing for the next 28 days, without charge.

Taubman said he gets no payment for the considerable time he puts in on the project, though it doesn’t hurt him in spreading his name and drawing attention to his numerous record albums and countrywide concerts.

“I love doing this,” he said. “It’s my favorite mitzvah.”

In lieu of perfection

Two Jews once came before the Talmudic sage Rav Yannai.

“The branches of his tree extend into the public domain,” one claimed. “They’re a public hazard,
interfering with the camel traffic. Master, you must surely rule that he is obligated to remove the tree.”

The tree owner fidgeted silently, hoping against legal hope that somehow the tree could be spared.

Rav Yannai sat silently in thought, and finally, cryptically ruled, “Go home today, and come back tomorrow.”

Puzzled but always respectful, the parties agreed to do so.

When they returned on the next afternoon, Rav Yannai issued a clear and definitive ruling.

“It is obvious that you are obliged to cut the tree,” he said to the tree owner with little doubt as to the accuracy of his ruling.

But the tree owner had one last appeal up his sleeve.

“But my master also owns a tree whose branches extend into the public domain,” he said.

Rav Yannai replied, “Go and see. If my tree is still there, you may keep yours. But if mine is cut down, then you must cut yours, too.”

Apparently, Rav Yannai had been busy with his saw overnight, anticipating the ruling he’d be issuing the next day. (For the record, the Talmud records that up to that point Rav Yannai hadn’t thought about the negative impact of his tree on public traffic, thinking instead that the pubic enjoyed the shade it provided.)

Right there, in the shadow of the ever-popular “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” another mitzvah quietly sits: “Thou shall surely rebuke thy friend.” And while this may seem rude or intrusive, the Torah regards the obligation of mutual rebuke as the engine of communal righteousness.

To be sure, the Torah immediately adds safeguards, prohibiting us from publicly humiliating our wrongdoing friend, and enjoining us from engaging in rebuke that we know will be futile. But carried out appropriately and with good common sense, rebuke is a vitally important activity. Both our sages and our own experiences have taught “a person cannot perceive his own flaws.” There is no way that any of us can achieve continuing moral and religious growth, unless we are willing to point out flaws to one another. (And unless we are willing to accept constructive criticism from others.)

But the story of Rav Yannai points to a nasty Catch-22 in the rebuke mitzvah system. The Talmud wonders why Rav Yannai was so particular about cutting his own tree before he issued his ruling. Couldn’t he have just as well done so immediately afterward? The Talmud then concludes that we learn from Rav Yannai that you must first “adorn yourself. And only then, tell others that they should do the same.”

It is not permissible, and it probably isn’t effective, to rebuke a friend for a flaw that we ourselves also possess. We need the system of mutual rebuke because we cannot perceive our own flaws. But if we cannot perceive our own flaws, then we run the constant risk of urging others to “adorn themselves” when we utterly lack the necessary credentials to so do.

The whole system therefore grinds to a halt. Rabbi Tarfon bemoaned this paralysis, commenting, “I would be surprised if there is anyone in our generation who can deliver rebuke. If one says, ‘Remove the splinter from between your eyes,’ the other will respond, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.'”

How then are we to go about fulfilling this vital mitzvah? How then are we to enable the ones we love to grow and achieve greater moral and spiritual refinement?

Fortunately, there is another way to go about it. The tradition recognizes a way in which one can deliver rebuke without necessarily having to meet the criterion of being completely personally “adorned.” Love can take the place of perfection.

As we read in the parsha a few weeks ago, God specifically chose Aaron to be the one who diagnosed the skin condition tzara’at, which was an external manifestation of the person’s ethical flaws (in particular that of habitually speaking ill of others). God knew that Aaron, although not without blemish himself, overflowed with love for each and every one of the people. Aaron was the one who reconciled friends and spouses, pursued peace and loved all. If Aaron were to say to you, “Dear friend, there is flaw in your character that you need to repair,” you would not question that he was right.

Rebuke that is a function of and which flows from love avoids the Catch-22 altogether. Rebuke is the catalyst for moral and religious growth, and true love is the necessary prerequisite for rebuke.

“Be among the disciples of Aaron,” the legendary sage Hillel taught. There is realistically no other way to fulfill the mitzvah upon which all of our individual growth and development hinges, and, in the end, the mitzvah upon which human progress hinges.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Blood Brothers: How a gift of lifesaving bone marrow united two strangers

Although they live more than 12,000 miles apart, Yosef Eliezrie and Moshe Price have a lot in common. Eliezrie, 21, is a Los Angeles yeshiva student preparing to become rabbi, like his father. Price, 24, studies in a Jerusalem yeshiva. His father is also a rabbi. The two are not related, and until this year, they had never met. Yet the same blood runs through their veins.

In October 2006, Eliezrie received a bone marrow transplant provided by Price. It was his only hope for survival after a recurrence of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This month, Eliezrie got the chance to meet Price in person, thank him for his lifesaving gift and embark on a unique new friendship.

At the time of the transplant, however, neither man knew how much they had in common. Bone marrow registry protocols prevent donors and recipients from learning anything about one another beyond age and gender. After a year, the donor or recipient can request contact information, but the other must agree before any information is released.

After the prescribed period, both Eliezrie and Price independently contacted their registries to initiate contact. The two were united first by phone, then met face-to-face in a private gathering April 7.

“It was amazing,” Eliezrie said. “It was one of the greatest days of my life.”

The following day, the pair visited the physicians and medical staff at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC), where Eliezrie’s transplant had been performed.

“As staff, we get caught up in day-to-day demands,” said Dr. Steven Neudorf, one of Eliezrie’s principal physicians. “Seeing Yosef and his donor together puts things in perspective and reminds us of why we do this work.”

Dr. Leonard Sender, Eliezrie’s doctor and the medical director for both UC Irvine’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Cancer Institute at CHOC, showed Price where his bone marrow cells had been delivered and the small oncology intensive-care unit where Eliezrie spent almost a year.

“He’s someone who did something selfless in a selfish age,” Sender said.

After the hospital event, Price, Eliezrie, physicians, family and friends participated in a seudat hodaa, a meal of thanksgiving, hosted by Eliezrie’s parents, Stella and Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie. The senior Eliezrie is director of the North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda.

“Judaism considers doctors to be agents of God,” Rabbi Eliezrie had said earlier at CHOC. “This hospital was an agent of God. May the bone marrow transplant team see tremendous success and have the fortitude to continue this lifesaving work.”

Yosef Eliezrie’s odyssey began in the summer of 2005. At the time a Yeshiva student in Morristown, N.J., he was anticipating a trip to Lithuania to assist with Chabad’s outreach to the Jewish community of Vilnius. Eliezrie had felt “fluish” for about a month prior to his departure and visited a doctor in New York just before leaving. The doctor said Eliezrie had bronchitis. So despite his fever, Eliezrie went ahead with his trip.

But he grew sicker and weaker with each day and soon went to a clinic, where doctors suspected — but couldn’t confirm — that he had leukemia. Eliezrie flew home and went straight from the airport to the UC Irvine Medical Center to see Sender, the pediatric hematologist/oncologist who had successfully treated his brother for cancer seven years earlier.

Within an hour, Sender had diagnosed Eliezrie with AML. Less then two days later, Eliezrie’s condition severely deteriorated, and he was put on a ventilator to control his breathing.

“He was extremely ill,” Sender said. “We weren’t sure if he would make it.”

Doctors eventually stabilized Eliezrie, and in the following months, he endured five rounds of chemotherapy and countless infections, but by Passover, Eliezrie was considered to be in remission.

During Eliezrie’s chemotherapy, Sender wanted to identify a potential bone marrow donor in the event that the cancer recurred. Family members have a 30 percent chance of being compatible donors, but neither Eliezrie’s parents nor any of his five siblings were a match.

Sender contacted the National Marrow Donor Program, but none of the program’s 7 million potential donors were compatible, either. However, through the program’s partnership with registries around the world, two possible donors were identified by Ezer Mizion, the national bone marrow registry of Israel: Moshe Price and his sister.

The largest Jewish bone marrow registry in the world, Ezer Mizion lists more than 338,000 potential donors. The organization’s registry has grown dramatically in recent years as a result of nationwide donor drives and voluntary testing routinely offered to new Israel Defense Forces recruits. However, only about 60 percent of those who contact the registry find a potential match, according to Ofra Konikoff, chief bone marrow transplant coordinator for Ezer Mizion, who traveled to the United States to facilitate Eliezrie and Price’s meeting.

Sender’s fear came to pass in August, when he discovered that Eliezrie’s cancer had recurred. Bone marrow transplantation was Eliezrie’s only option.

Ezer Mizion contacted Price, who underwent additional tests that confirmed his compatibility as a donor. Eliezrie then began 10 days of conditioning chemotherapy and radiation, a brutal regimen designed to destroy his bone marrow and prepare the body to receive foreign cells.

On Oct. 18, physicians extracted bone marrow from Price’s hip bone during a two-and-a half-hour surgery. The procedure can sometimes be done through the process of aphaeresis, where the donor’s blood is removed through a needle in one arm, passed through a machine that removes certain cells and is returned through the other arm. The donor first undergoes five daily injections of a drug that increases the production of blood-forming cells.

A courier took the package of Price’s cells directly to the airport and flew to California to deliver it to CHOC.

Eliezrie received the transplant on Oct. 19; he then he spent 55 days in isolation, where only a few family members could visit.

New Conservative seminary leader outlines goals

Long before he emerged as a leading scholar of American Jewry, and decades before he would be looked to as the potential savior of the Conservative movement, Arnold Eisen was gunning for a journalism internship at the Washington Post.

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Eisen was in the running for editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian — the position brought with it an automatic summer job at the Post.

Eisen lost the election in what he says was then the greatest disappointment of his life.

That election diverted Eisen’s career path from journalism to academia and initiated a journey that culminated Wednesday when he was inaugurated as the seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism.

But even as he settles into his new post as head of the movement’s chief academic institution, it is the values of the profession he did not pursue more than those of the academy that are figuring prominently in his plans.

In describing his vision for the coming year, Eisen speaks of dialogue rather than direction. He intends to spark conversations within the movement, facilitated by JTS, in place of “canned lectures.” And he believes being a Conservative Jew is largely about what journalists — and Jews — love most: talking.

“To be a Conservative Jew is in large part to want to be part of a certain conversation in word and in deed,” Eisen said recently in a wide-ranging discussion in his JTS office.

As workers made final preparations for the inauguration seminary in the courtyard below, Eisen described Conservative Judaism not as an ironclad ethos or series of principles, but as “a constellation of attitudes and behaviors and commitments that are coherent and that distinguish this movement from others.”

Eisen takes the JTS helm at a time when the Conservative movement is being seen by many as floundering, its numbers in decline and its ideological clarity muddled.

His predecessor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, in his parting message said the movement suffered from a “grievous failure of nerve.”

Once the largest synagogue denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has fallen into second place behind the Reform, and it has become routine to speak of the movement’s lack of direction and coherence.

All those challenges were awaiting Eisen when he arrived at his new office on Broadway and 122nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what concerns the incoming chancellor most is not the supposed apathy within the movement — a notion he says is “nothing less than absurd” — or even the decline in its numbers.

“Numbers don’t keep me up at night; Israel keeps me up at night,” Eisen said. “I’m worried about the security of Israel, and I’m worried about the apparent decline in attachment on the part of American Jews to Israel. This literally, from time to time, keeps me up at night.”

In the coming year, Eisen plans to focus his efforts on building stronger ties between American Jews and the State of Israel. It is part of a commitment by JTS to the Jewish people, one of three constituencies — along with the Conservative movement and the broader North American society — that Eisen wants the seminary to serve.

He also plans to promote dialogue between Jews and Muslims similar to the Jewish-Christian dialogue begun by Louis Finkelstein, the seminary’s legendary leader from 1940 to 1972.

It is the third constituency, the Conservative movement, where expectations for Eisen’s tenure are the greatest. In addition to declining numbers, the movement has been through a bruising year in which a controversial decision to ordain gay clergy polarized the rabbinic leadership and sparked fears that the denomination in the center of the ideological spectrum could not hold.

Eisen has said that the movement’s historic commitment to religious pluralism — the notion that competing views of halacha (Jewish law) can peacefully coexist — is not enough to hold Conservative Judaism together.

Instead, he wants Conservative Jews to think more deeply about the notion of mitzvah — a term normally described as a “good deed” or “commandment,” but which Eisen says is really a much richer idea. He has urged rabbis to talk about the concept in their High Holy Days sermons, and he intends to pilot a mitzvah project in 10 congregations to get Jews talking about what they feel obligates them.

It is a task, Eisen says, that is urgent for a movement that has struggled to straddle the gap between fidelity to traditional Jewish law and principled adaptation to modernity.

“To bring Jews closer to mitzvah, one has to enrich the conception they’re walking around with,” Eisen said. “And that’s part of the task.”

Eisen’s emphasis on the concept of mitzvah could end up further muddying the theological line between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, has been firm in insisting that his movement is best understood as mitzvah-oriented, not halachic-oriented — a distinction aimed at explaining that even as the Reform movement increases its embrace of ancient practices and rituals, it rejects the traditional Orthodox and Conservative notion of Jews being bound by an overarching system of religious law.

Eisen shows no indication of wanting to follow Yoffie’s lead in affirmatively severing the direct relationship between mitzvah and halacha. Yet he clearly sees the Conservative predicament in sociological terms, as a conflict between the traditional sense of commandedness and the modern ideology of the “sovereign self,” the notion that each person is lord and ruler of their own lives and practice.

In other words, Eisen’s opening of a discussion on mitzvah could be understood as an attempt to address the challenge of how to inculcate a sense of obligation among followers without their feeling from the start that they are being told what they must do.

Since being tapped for the chancellorship, Eisen has traveled the country on a “listening tour,” and what he found has made him optimistic. Conservative Jews want greater JTS involvement in their lives, he said. They want a clear message about what their movement stands for. They want improved quality and greater cooperation across the various arms of the movement. And on the eve of his inauguration, Eisen says he is poised to give it all to them.

Dancing to the beat of a different ‘disco’

Readers may recall the article, “

At Party Time: Candy is dandy — charity is sweeter

I was struggling to secure a tiny satin kippah with a granny-sized bobby pin when it hit me like a ton of Pampers: One day (assuming we both survive the main event at the bris), this 8-day-old baby will be standing on the bar mitzvah bimah wearing a really big satin kippah!
Determined not to let this postpartum hormonal surge detract from my newborn’s Judaic debut, I tacked on the teeny beanie with some double-sided tape and reassured myself that 13 was still a jillion years away.

Then one day when my son was in fourth grade, I received a letter from my synagogue assigning him a bar mitzvah date. Surely they jest, I cajoled myself. They didn’t. In fact, by the time I’d made my way back from the mailbox the phone was ringing off the hook.

“We got our date, did you get yours?” panted a breathless voice I scarcely recognized as a friend of mine. “The party planner is booking three years out, so you have to call her right away.”

And just like that, a jillion years came to a screeching halt as I was thrown headfirst into the maelstrom of bar mitzvah planning.

As my son’s bar mitzvah day inched closer, I began to see the world in a whole different light — a disco ball light, to be exact — for as my child grew, so did his friends, officially putting us both on the b’nai mitzvah circuit.

And what an elaborately themed circuit it was. From were casino getups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to dance floors flanked with Harley Davidson motorcycles.

How did this happen? My fellow bar mitzvah circuiteers and I would wonder. How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in an age-old Jewish tradition end up playing blackjack and Texas hold ’em? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a custom-designed ice sculpture of Shawn Green?

The answer is not difficult. We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our child’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a secular theme that somehow took on a life of its own. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life.”

But my daughter really has been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life, you may be thinking. We have it all planned out — “Samantha’s Candy Shoppe.” Every centerpiece will be inspired by a different type of candy; we’ll have an 8-foot chocolate fountain in the middle of the room, and the favors will be Hershey bars with all her vital bat mitzvah stats etched on the label in hot pink.

The trouble is that — despite honest parental intentions — following up a meaningful, religious milestone with a glitzy party focusing exclusively on Kit Kats and Jelly Bellies can undermine the entire point of our child having a bar or bat mitzvah in the first place.

That said, I’m not suggesting we bail on our kids’ secular dream themes altogether. I mean while it’s clearly not what the talmudic rabbis had in mind, I think it’s kind of sweet that the bar/bat mitzvah party has evolved into a celebration of the whole child. The trick is in keeping a fluid connection between the morning service and the evening celebration; between Jewish values and kid-defined rules of party cool.

One way to build this crucial bridge is to integrate tzedakah into our party theme.

We added depth to my son’s fun — but admittedly uninspiring — Super Bowl bar mitzvah theme by incorporating an overnight camp for children with life-threatening diseases that was desperately in need of sporting equipment. All the centerpieces were constructed from donatable sports gear, and there was a collection station set up at the entrance to the party room (Brandon had written his guests in advance explaining his cause and providing them a copy of the camp’s athletic supply wish list). The requisite football theme didn’t suffer a smidgen, and the charity received a U-Haul full of brand new sporting goods as a goody bag.

To help you infuse Jewish soul into your child’s dream party, here are some popular secular bar/bat mitzvah themes and sample tzedakah spin-offs:

Theme: Sports

Tzedakah: Jewish National Fund Project Baseball (‘ target=’_blank’>

Theme: Books (e.g., Harry Potter, Nancy Drew)

Tzedakah: KOREH L.A. (‘ target=’_blank’>; Jewish Braille Institute of America ‘ target=’_blank’>; Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Los Angeles (‘ target=’_blank’>; Tour de Cure for Diabetes (‘ target=’_blank’>

Theme: Safari

Tzedakah: COEJL: Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (‘ target=’_blank’>; Los Angeles Zoo (‘ target=’_blank’>; Wildlife Conservation Society (‘ target=’_blank’>; MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (‘ target=’_blank’>

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids” (Broadway Books) will be published in 2007.

Time warp again? Take a step toward tradition

When I think back to my bat mitzvah 30-plus years ago, here’s what I remember most: following the photographer’s prompts as I posed against the tree in the synagogue courtyard, standing nervously on the bimah chanting my Torah portion, and giving a speech in which I excoriated President Nixon. I don’t recall how I tied that in with the parsha, but I relished having the congregation laugh at my political barbs. I loved dancing with my friends and hoped that the boy I had secretly admired for months would finally realize what a prize I was and begin to like me in return.

My bat mitzvah was exciting and fun. It even gave me a vague notion of the meaning of Jewish adulthood. My grandfather, who trained me for my bat mitzvah, claimed that back in the 1940s he pioneered bat mitzvahs (at least here in Los Angeles) when he trained my aunt for this rite of passage. My grandfather came to the United States from Europe with visions of a more modern religious life. He was proud to have blazed the trail for bat mitzvahs in the Conservative movement.

So what would he think of his great-granddaughter pushing the clock back and having a bat mitzvah, shared mostly with girlfriends, sans Torah reading? Well, styles in fashion and religion come and go, and over time my husband and I became more committed to a Torah-observant lifestyle.

Just as the peasant look that I wore in the ’70s has returned, so has the Orthodoxy that that my grandfather left behind in Bialystock.

I’m the first to admit that I once would have scoffed at the idea that any daughter of mine (I had been a dues-paying member of NOW, after all) would not read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah. It was too regressive to deserve comment. It took several years until I was willing to entertain the Torah’s views about spirituality. It rankled to learn that some of the ideas were totally, unrepentantly politically incorrect, including notions about men’s and women’s differing roles in public ritual life. But the insights they revealed about human psychology rang true.

It’s very clear to most people unburdened with a master’s in sociology that men and women need different types of nurturing for emotional, spiritual and intellectual health. Yet many academics still kick and scream when you state the obvious (just ask former Harvard President Larry Summers). Men’s obligations to attend minyan, lead services and read from the Torah are all part of this care-and-feeding program for men.

Psychologically, it’s brilliant: men, who tend to lack meaningful male bonding, can get regular doses at their neighborhood minyan every day. Women will bond with other women, minyan or no minyan. Just watch us.

That’s why I didn’t lose sleep that my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be a less public affair than her brothers’ bar mitzvahs. Girls are considered to become bat mitzvah at 12, again revealing the Torah’s insight that girls are usually a year ahead of boys in terms of maturity at that age.

Like her brothers, Yael was excited and a little awed at the prospect of becoming responsible for her own actions, for mitzvahs as well as misdeeds, responsible to fast, to pray, to continue to grow spiritually and to contribute her special talents and energy to the community.

We also wanted her bat mitzvah to be more than just an expensive birthday party. Of course we had great food, music, dancing and an art project that the girls made and donated to Chai Lifeline for their Purim baskets. But Yael also prepared by studying a text for several months with a teacher (in her case, me). Together we chose to study the Eishet Chayil, a portion of Proverbs that is traditionally sung in honor of the Jewish woman at the Shabbat table each Friday night.

We plumbed the text and its elucidation, written by a phenomenal rebbetzin in Jerusalem. It was the first time that I had gone beyond a superficial reading of the Eishet Chayil, despite having sung it hundreds of times. Together, Yael and I tried to understand the deeper insights these proverbs reveal about life, about the spiritual potential of the Jewish woman, and about faith. Many of the concepts were beyond the grasp of even the most mature 12-year-old. Still, we soldiered on, and by the end we each shared a sense of accomplishment.

On her big day, Yael spoke with maturity and depth about the concepts of oz and hadar, strength and splendor, for which the Jewish woman is praised in Eishet Chayil. She explained that this is the kind of strength that springs from faith in God and from the courage of one’s convictions.

Listening to her speak with confidence and poise, I was willing to bet that her great-grandfather would have been beaming with pride. True, she may not have stepped up to the bimah with a tallit draped over her shoulder the way her mother had, but she was clearly and purposefully stepping up to Jewish adulthood with joy, pride and faith. And ultimately, that’s what any bat or bar mitzvah should really be about, isn’t it?

Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column @ Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

Chasids in the Hood (or Not)

It’s one of the quirks of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. There’s a movement that owns a huge block on Pico Boulevard right in the middle of the hood, runs a preschool,elementary, middle and high school for girls on that same block, has official or unofficial connections with six shuls in the area, has one of the higher-profile brand names in the Jewish world and yet, strangely, you walk around the hood and you don’t really feel their presence.

I’m talking about Chabad-Lubavitch.

They have two shuls on Robertson Boulevard, both south of Pico. The one closest to Pico — commonly called the Yemini shul, after its founder and leader Rabbi Amitai Yemini — has been in the area the longest. The other shul, farther south, is a small minyan called Chabad of Beverlywood.

On Pico, you’ll find one minyan officially connected to Chabad — a tiny weekly minyan in their Bais Rebbe building — and three independents: a Persian Chabad near Cresta Drive; a shul near Beverwil Drive recently opened by Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy, who used to run a branch of Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, and finally, near Robertson is Bais Bezalel, the biggest Lubavitch synagogue on Pico, also known as the Rabbi Lisbon shul.

So with all this presence, how come Chabad is so, er, quiet around here?

In a way, it’s an easy answer: Chabad doesn’t make a lot of noise in areas where people put on tefillin.

They thrive in nonobservant communities, where their unconditional love for every Jew, and their flair for promoting mitzvahs, make them highly visible. For more than 50 years, Chabad has taken this outreach model throughout the world and has lit up thousands of communities with a tireless, single-minded focus on “giving you” a mitzvah.

The problem is that here in the hood, most of the mitzvahs are already taken. The soul of the hood is clearly Modern Orthodox, with the majority of Jews already observant and affiliated with one or more congregations, which cater mostly to their members. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if there isn’t a market in the hood for Chabad-style outreach.

Of course, I had to meet a rabbi who thinks all this is baloney.

He’s a chabadnik who lives in the hood and who believes that there is, in fact, a market for outreach in this part of town. He doesn’t just believe it, he lives it.

In truth, he does outreach all over Los Angeles — with an emphasis on the Westside — but he has a special place in his heart for the hood, maybe because he lives and hangs out here. He’s like a gold prospector. He loves, for example, those buildings on Bedford and Wooster avenues, where he has discovered plenty of single, unaffiliated Jews who are now on his mailing list and come to his outreach events.

He recognizes that the hood is more of a post-outreach neighborhood, where Jews come to pursue their Judaism after their Jewish spark has been lit, usually elsewhere. But that doesn’t faze him. He thinks there’s a fair amount of unaffiliated Jews in the hood, but they are hidden (I think some of them are hiding). Either way, he says that even if there’s a tiny amount, he wants to reach them all.

His name is Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, and for the past few years he has been running the outreach organization called Chai, started 20 years ago by his father and former Chabad emissary Shlomo Schwartz (I’ve rarely met a Jew in L.A. who hasn’t heard of “Schwartzie”; I go to a lot of events, and he or a look-alike is at all of them). Chai, like the other independents, does not fall under the official Chabad umbrella, and it is neither a shul nor a location.

Rather, it’s a nimble guerrilla outreach operation that uses cool events to bring Jews to Judaism. A Purim party at a comedy club; a haimish Shabbat “dinner for 30 strangers” at Schwartzie and Olivia’s (his wife and partner); High Holiday services at the Writer’s Guild; a Chanukah lighting party in a minimansion. Because they move between venues, they supplement the work of other shuls. Their outreach feeds the shuls for inreach.

But while Chai may be eclectic and independent, their inspiration is classic Lubavitch: using mitzvahs to light Jewish sparks.

This, for me, is the Chabad genius: a knack on the deed, not the talk. They don’t get turned on by grand debates that lead to more grand debates. While the Jewish world agonizes over “profoundly important” issues, Chabad agonizes over getting to Kinko’s on time to get their flyers out for their Chanukah event.

And at Chanukah time, all Chabads make noise. Here in the hood, the Yemini shul had their big outdoor bash at the Wells Fargo parking lot on Saturday night, with the hot band, 8th Day (major sound system). Across the hood, many Lubavitchers have placed large portable menorahs on their cars (they were part of a Chabad citywide parade Monday night) and a giant menorah billboard is on the wall of their Bais Rebbe building, to go along with the actual menorah in front of the building.

There’s no doubt: Hood or no hood, outreach or inreach, Chabad salivates for Chanukah.

It’s the holiday that embodies, through one simple icon, what the Lubavitch movement yearns for all year long: a chance to make observant Judaism shine. With thousands of public menorah lightings around the world, they proudly shine a light on the Jewish faith, on the freedom to practice that faith, and on the value of doing another mitzvah.

They are the Nikes of the Jewish world: They believe that if you just do it, the mystical power of the mitzvah will win you over, and your heart and mind will inevitably follow. And if you live in Los Angeles, where might that lead you?

I’m guessing right back here in the hood, to look for a house.

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

Jewish literacy Is a mitzvah — and not fulfilled with phonetics

For the People of the Book, literacy is a mitzvah, a sanctified behavior that draws us closer to God and the Jewish community.

Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, described a curriculum in the year 200: “A 5-year-old begins Tanach,” or scripture; “a 10-year-old begins Mishnah,” or rabbinic law; “a 13-year-old is obligated to accept mitzvot,” based on his/her ability to comprehend meaning; “a 15-year-old begins Gemarah,” or elucidation of Mishnah. (Avot: 5:28).

The desired outcome of this course of study is the development of a Jewish identity rooted in our connection to and knowledge of Jewish texts.

Fast forward to our day: In the past 30 years, the number of schools and the percentage of Jewish children receiving a day school education has risen to dramatic heights. Most of the schools are under the broad spectrum of Orthodox auspices; a smaller but growing number associate themselves with the Conservative and Reform movements or are in the expanding network of pluralistic “community schools.”

Yeshivot and Jewish day schools are uniquely positioned to deepen and expand Jewish literacy. Immersion in classical texts, the time commitment of students and the financial investment of families come together to give a 21st century meaning to Jewish literacy. As graduates of today’s day schools assume professional and volunteer leadership roles in Jewish communal institutions, renewed Jewish literacy may emerge as a characteristic of Jewish life.

A premiere aspect of Jewish literacy is fluency in Hebrew, whether classical or modern, spoken or textual. In our time, we have seen a huge growth of Jewish publishing of classical texts in English. Nonetheless, it is true that the meaning, nuance and message are lost in the translation and may lead to distortions of the original.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act reduced much of the discussion on literacy in American society to a focus on phonics – $900 million was distributed in 2002-2003 to develop “scientific, research-based” programs on this approach to reading – but the initiative has been stalled at that basic level.

Day schools and yeshivot need to resist the temptation of reducing their Hebrew literacy programs to phonetic decoding. That would miss a special opportunity of these schools.

Most modern day schools subscribe to the belief that they are engaged in fashioning a new kind of Jew: One who sees the world refracted not only by the wisdom of Western civilization but also simultaneously through the insights of Torah.

Jewish literacy promotes such philosophical and psychological integration; the yeshiva and day school that embraces this view can produce a student whose vision of the world and his/her community was described millennia ago by the midrash: “May words of Torah be spoken in the language of Yafet,” i.e. classical philosophy and science, “within the tents of Shem,” i.e. the ideas and ideals of the Jewish people. (Genesis Rabbah 36:8). Many hope that this describes the best of what it means to be a modern Jew.

There is a third dimension to Jewish literacy particular to the day school setting: To be Jewishly literate, immersed in the meanings and messages of 4,000 years of Jewish life and letters, conveys with it a moral imperative. We get “it” – the eternal truths of Judaism – when we look up from the page of text, peopled by the generations of giants that preceded ours, and say to ourselves, “What are the consequences for me of taking this seriously?”

The Mishnah teaches: If we achieve Jewish literacy, then our actions will speak louder than our words so that we treat people with a countenance that reflects God’s own. (After Avot 1:15). Jewish literacy does not permit a retreat from real life. What we read, study and discern ought to have implications for our attitudes and behavior.

In the Jewish schools of today, Jewish literacy can have new and special meaning. It calls for a refocus on the linguistic, textual and ethical dimensions of learning, which will be the legacy we leave our students.

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

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

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

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

For Rosh Hashanah: Make your own joy

The best part about Y2K, in my judgment, was that it signaled the end of the 20th century.

Who among us would want to relive the last 100 years? Tens of millions of
people died during the previous century in the most violent and brutal ways.

World War I, at the start of the century, was supposed to be the war to end all wars; it turned out to be merely the beginning. Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism and many other iterations of -isms, resulted in the bloodiest century in human history. Auschwitz and Hiroshima were two cataclysmic events that demonstrated the unbridled power and willingness of human beings to destroy life.

I, for one, was delighted to see the century end. Because how could the next one be worse?

Now that we are halfway through the first decade of the 21st century we are beginning to see how it could be worse. The penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale as a result of secular orthodoxies apparently has not abated. But now, as we begin this new century, it has been supplemented by a penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale by religious orthodoxies.

The definition of a fanatic used to be someone who believed in something so strongly he was willing to give up your life for it. Today’s religious fanatic is not only willing to give up your life to reach their goals, but also their own lives and the lives of their children, as well. Martyrdom, what you and I call suicide with maximum collateral damage, is a religious ideal. This brand of religious fanaticism seeks to re-establish the glory of the Islamic caliphate.

In effect, these fanatics want to return us to the seventh century, when Islam first conquered the world and spread its message by word and by sword. It is not paranoid to express fear over what could possibly happen if these groups trade the sword for something nuclear. They will then have the power to return much of the world to the seventh century — if, indeed, there would still be a world.

Kind of hard to wish each other Happy New Year after that.

Fear turns to anxiety and then to despair if we allow ourselves to feel helpless in the face of the threat of cataclysmic destruction. But despair is just not the Jewish way. We are simply not allowed, the sages of the Talmud tell us (Shabbat 30b), to allow sadness to dominate our mood: “The Shechina, the Divine Presence, cannot dwell in the midst of sadness.”

To live in sadness is to block the presence of God from entering the world. To despair of a peaceful future is to give a victory to the forces of darkness. That is why Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who himself struggled with depression, is famous among Chasidim for his great teaching: “Mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid” — it is a great mitzvah to be in joy perpetually.

How do we turn despair to joy? By exercising control over our environment. By utilizing the personal and collective power we have yet to tap. By responding to this homicidal religious fanaticism with a religious determination of our own. By endowing certain economic, political and technological policies with the holiness of a religious imperative.

The transition from an economy based on oil to something that doesn’t enrich Muslim theocracies is a mitzvah. We condemn Iran for having funded Hezbollah, but the reality is they did so with our petrodollars. Reducing their income from the exportation of oil removes a powerful tool for Iranian mischief.

Conservation — buying a hybrid, flipping off unused lights and unwatched TVs, recycling and more — is a mitzvah of the highest order. Establishing the greening of Jewish institutions — including synagogues, schools and communal buildings — is not just good for the environment, which should be motivation enough, but it will help save lives. And it goes without saying that actively opposing nuclear proliferation is also a mitzvah.

These are mitzvot that have taken on great urgency and will change the world. If each of us finds the determination and the strength to begin this now, this will indeed be a happy New Year. And a much safer one as well.


Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at

Greeting the Stranger

One of the most daunting and intimidating experiences in life is walking into a new synagogue for the first time. You enter the sanctuary, and it feels like 1,000 eyes
are focused only on you. You’re not sure what prayer book they’re using, what page they’re on, and where you can find a tallit.

What happens next either makes it or breaks it for the visitor. In a good shul, someone comes over to you and says, “Hi, you look new here. Shalom Aleichem. Can I help you find a seat? Would you like a siddur?” In the bad shul, the only time someone comes over to you is to tell you, “Excuse me, you’re in my seat.”

This is not exclusively a Jewish problem. The book, “The Inviting Church, a Study of New Member Assimilation” (Alban Institute, 1997), reports that one congregation handled this situation by putting the following two notices in the Order of Service:

“Notice to Visitors: People who attend St. Mark’s regularly are for the most part kind and friendly people, but they tend to be a bit shy and self-conscious with strangers. They are afraid of greeting people they think are new and discovering that ‘the visitors’ have been attending St. Mark’s for years. So please help. Identify yourself to the people nearest you and ask them to tell you about our church.”

“Notice to St. Mark’s Members: Please do your best to make everyone feel welcome. Always introduce yourself to the people sitting near you if you don’t know their names. To avoid the embarrassment of mistaking a longtime member for a visitor, use the following ploy: ‘Good morning. My name is ____________. I’ve been coming to St. Mark’s for _________(years/weeks). How about you?'”

As a rabbi, I know that my congregants aren’t bad people; some of them are simply a bit shy and unaccustomed to greeting total strangers. I use the argument that we have to put ourselves in the stranger’s shoes. If we were to be the visitor and they the host, wouldn’t we want to be treated with friendliness and a smile instead of silence and a cold shoulder? This week, they came to daven with us; next week, we may be guests in their shul.

Our parsha describes the mitzvah of bringing one’s first fruits (bikurim) as a gift to the Temple. This was a way of showing one’s gratitude to God for a good crop.

The Torah concludes the mitzvah by saying, “And you shall rejoice in all the goodness that God has given to you and your household; you, the Levite, and the stranger that is within your midst.” This commandment to rejoice with the Levite and the stranger, people who aren’t local landowners, teaches us that there’s more to this mitzvah than just mustering proper gratitude. It’s also meant to remind us that no matter how comfortable we’ve become as the ba’al habayit, as the owner of our home and our field, we are still no different from the stranger. He may have just arrived to town a few days ago, but we also arrived from a strange land. We know what it feels like to be treated like the outsider, and remember that feeling of “otherness” we had in Egypt. Hopefully, this will spur us to treat the strangers in our society with the compassion that we never received from the Egyptians.

Right after World War II, refugees were pouring in by the thousands to the United States. Many Jews, recognizing these “greeners” as their cousins, welcomed them with open arms. Other, more Americanized Jews kept their distance. The bitter irony was that many of these Yankees were themselves just first- or second-generation Americans, and their parents or grandparents were the same “greeners” just a few years previously. Many of us are faced with the same challenge when dealing with new immigrants from Israel, Iran, or the former Soviet Union. The “greener” that I see before me today may be the spitting image of my grandfather 70 years ago.

During the recent war in Lebanon, thousands of northern Israelis had to temporarily relocate to cities further south. One of Israel’s proudest moments was when fellow Israelis opened their homes with open arms to their brethren from up north, and shared their shelters and meals with complete strangers for weeks at a time. Similarly, one of America’s proudest moments was when evacuees from last year’s Hurricane Katrina were welcomed with open arms to their new communities and treated like family.

As the High Holidays approach, and we all make our way back to our respective congregations, some of us may feel inadequate as a greeter. You might think: “Who am I, after all, to be the one to go over and say hello? I barely come to shul anyway.” But that may be precisely what a dozen other people are thinking, and in the end, the stranger will remain the stranger, and both you and the shul will have lost out. Let’s remember that we are all equally strangers, but at the same time all equally the ba’al habayit when standing before God. What binds us is that we are God’s children, and that makes us all brothers and sisters — mishpacha, family.

Shana Tova.

Rabbi Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Kehillat Yavneh, and is director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.

Focus on Philanthropy

I opened my mailbox to find several letters, a few bills and a host of requests for donations from various organizations that I have supported over the years. Because I am a stickler for organization (although some would call me Type A obsessive), I sort the letters, place the bills in a folder marked “Look at me soon!” and the appeals for donations in one marked “Save the World.” Between the needs of my local community, the Jewish community, our country and the world at large, I am seriously thinking about renting a storage unit for the hundreds of requests that I receive annually.

I don’t know about how others think about gift giving, but I am honestly confused about it myself. Year after year, questions continue to gnaw at me like: What is the right amount for a gift? Should I support Jewish organizations first and then donate to other charities, like my alma mater or the Red Cross, only after I have made my Jewish gifts?

And while I’m being candid, I sometimes wonder: Why am I giving in the first place? Is it because of peer or professional pressure, social recognition or a genuine commitment to the cause? Does it need to hurt for my gift to be meaningful? Am I willing to give up something — a dinner out, theater tickets, a trip — to make a more substantial contribution this year?

Tzedakah, or the Jewish commandment to give, has been a quintessential Jewish value since the beginning of Jewish time. The Torah teaches: “If there is a needy person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities in the Land that God has given you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against him. Rather, you shall open your hand and lend him whatever he is lacking” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

Tzedakah is the counterpart to tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to repair the world. Both affirm our responsibility to distribute a part of what we have to take care of others who are less fortunate than we. Both are grounded in the idea that individual wealth is neither a right nor a privilege but a form of stewardship for which we are charged, as agents of God, to care for the world in which we live.

These obligations operate in concentric circles — originating within our own home and family and extending out into the Jewish community. Yet Jewish law specifically recognizes that any needy person who lives in peaceful coexistence with us is a worthy charity recipient. The Talmud teaches that we should help support the poor even outside our own community, because of the “ways of peace” (Gittin 59 b).

Jewish law is fairly specific in its answer to the question of what we should give. Ideally, we are expected to give what is needed to help restore a poor person to his former position. If a man has lost all of his clothing in a fire, we should help him purchase suitable clothes. If he has lost his job, we should provide him with employment either directly or indirectly by helping him find work.

But Jewish law is both practical and realistic in its demands, for while it requires us to give the needy what they lack, it does not require us to make them rich or to become poor ourselves as a result of giving.

But how much giving is enough giving? Should I have to forgo something I want in order to make a pledge? While no one can ever really answer that question for us, the Jewish philosopher and sage Maimonides provides us with specific parameters for giving. The ideal gift is 20 percent of our possessions, although the average acceptable gift is 10 percent.

But what about our reasons for giving, the “why” behind the gift. Although no one can dictate the feelings we should have when we give, I am inspired by the words of Moses when he told the Israelites to bring gifts to build the Tabernacle, saying: “Take from among you gifts to the Lord: everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them” (Exodus 35:5).

When we give, Jewish tradition asks us to look into our hearts — where our intuitive, spiritual and emotional voices are most clearly heard. We open, rather than harden our hearts to those in need. In doing so, we are more inclined to give willingly, meaningfully and generously.

Since each of us has different resources, property and income, our gifts will differ. But tzedakah is an “equal opportunity mitzvah” and applies to everyone, no matter how great or small our portion. Our sages assured us that we are all capable of giving, even one who receives tzedakah, with the words: “To the one who is eager to give, God provides the means.”

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at

Panama Solar Project Shows Power of Tikkun Olam

At 7 a.m., after a long, grueling red-eye journey from Los Angeles, our plane landed on a narrow runway carved out of the lush rainforest deep in a remote island area of
the Panamanian outback. As my son, Adam, 13, and I trudged off the plane, 40 smiling Kuna natives eagerly welcomed us to the exotic island of Playón Chico.

With vivid memories of Adam’s bar mitzvah just a fortnight prior replaying in my mind, I couldn’t help but think that this would be the adventure of a lifetime.
Indeed, it was.

We were on a tikkun olam (heal the world) mission to change the lives of Spanish-speaking natives from numerous island villages in the province of Comarca de Kuna Yala by providing training on how to install and maintain solar power systems.

While sleeping in hammocks in a primitive island village, subsisting on a grilled fish diet and using an outhouse is not the typical way a father commemorates his son’s bar mitzvah, that’s exactly what we did over the next five incredible days.

Ironically, Adam’s Torah portion, Noach, speaks about renewing the environment and bringing the natural world back into order after an epic flood. Similarly, Adam saw our mission as a way of renewing nature in a faraway part of the world.

With no electricity in the province (not to mention roads, modern plumbing or reliable communications), having solar power would help ensure a good, renewable energy source and provide some energy self-sufficiency for these people. We worked through the auspices of my company, Permacity Construction, a firm specializing in solar power installation, and Codesta, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Panamanian environment.

We became involved in this because we’ve always been concerned about the environment and reducing society’s dependence on fossil fuels. Adam has been an active supporter of Pennies for the Rainforest and Heal the Bay.

I suppose this philanthropic orientation emanates from my parents, Jerry and Lorraine, who have long been active in tikkun olam projects like the environment and causes in the Jewish community and beyond, including serving in leadership roles in our family synagogue, Temple Emanuel. They’re very hands-on people, so Adam and I were simply following in their footsteps with our mission.

The communities we helped are among Panama’s poorest, and the living conditions were quite primitive: We lived on the top floor of a small cement home — one of the few on this island of many dirt-floor grass huts — and the owners lived below.

The bathroom was a simple outhouse of wood poles and palm leaves over the ocean. We showered with a bucket. Our diet consisted primarily of plentiful fish (served complete with head and tail), lentils, rice and banana soup. Adam and I both endured stomach ailments and much fatigue from a lack of sleep.

The mission involved months of preparation, including research on the villages’ energy needs, their structures and what local resources — if any — were available. Some villages had generators, but the gas needed to power them is very expensive. Some older, inoperable solar panels exist, but nobody knows how to repair them.

I ultimately produced a detailed, 40-page solar power system training manual that was translated into Spanish. Finally, I packed and shipped many tools and parts so that each village would have a complete solar power system kit.

In Playón Chico, with the aid of a skilled translator and some other helpers, including Adam, I spent several days teaching a solar energy crash course to 34 top-notch, handpicked students who commuted by dugout canoes to our classroom.

The mission culminated when we finished installing solar panels, batteries and related equipment to power a lighting system in the community’s large town hall, or congresso. Though consisting of just seven 20-watt fluorescent lights (equivalent to 75-watt bulbs), this marked a major advancement, because the congresso had been previously illuminated by only one kerosene lantern.

That evening, when the new lights were turned on, cheers erupted as hundreds of villagers began a long celebration of dance, song and hand pipe music, along with speeches. The village chief gave Adam and me the royal treatment, seating us on his special bench and treating us like heroes.

It was wonderful to watch as the Kuna Yala people began to control their own destiny. We also were thrilled to see that natives from different islands, who had hardly even met before, were now beginning to work together collaboratively, including successful efforts to expand the use of solar power.
This experience has truly inspired Adam.

“I definitely want to do more as I get older,” he says. “Now I know what I can do. I’ve seen firsthand what things can be improved and how things can be improved. And I definitely want to help out more in the future.”

Quite frankly, that’s the best bar mitzvah gift Adam’s mother, Anne, and I could have ever given him.

Farmar Trades Bruin Blue for Laker Purple

What could be better? Los Angeles’s own Jewish Jordan — Jordan Farmar — is here to stay.

The Los Angeles Lakers has drafted Farmar, who made headlines as a sophomore point guard at UCLA, in the first round and as the No. 26 overall pick. Thus, though the Bruin bear must wave his paw goodbye to Farmar, L.A. fans can rejoice in the up-and-comer’s continued presence here.

The 19-year-old Farmar is a native Angeleno; he grew up in Van Nuys and graduated from Taft High School, where, as a senior, he averaged 27 points per game and became a Valley superstar by leading the school to its first Los Angeles City title. As a freshman at UCLA, he averaged 13.2 points and 5.3 assists and earned the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honor. In his sophomore year Farmar averaged 13.5 points and 5.1 assists, led the Bruins to their NCAA championship game against the Florida Gators and was named a first-team All Pac-10 performer.

A self-described non-religious Jew, Farmar told The Journal’s Carin Davis in a prior interview that he is proud of his Jewish heritage. His mother and stepfather, Melinda and Yehuda Kolani, raised him in a Jewish home, and his upbringing was complemented by both a bar mitzvah at Temple Judea in Tarzana and trips to Israel. Farmar’s biological father, Damon Farmar, a former minor league baseball player, is not Jewish.

Farmar stands a natural leader at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds and has been extensively covered in the Daily Bruin since before his entrance into “>Farmar told The Journal in March. “To always have some people behind you is a great thing. It helps you out defensively, with intensity, and gives you that extra edge.”

Why I Write Jewish

On Jan. 25, 1997, my oldest son, Zachary, became a bar mitzvah, a ceremony that inaugurated him into the Jewish community as a responsible young adult. It also catapulted me into the world of Jewish journalism as a family columnist.

Call it writing therapy. Call it black humor. Dealing with the bar mitzvah preparations — from the trivial to the transcendent — sent me scrambling for books explaining the ritual’s history and meaning. I found myself jotting down notes and thoughts, wondering why we so warmly and lavishly welcomed these hormonally challenged teenagers into our community instead of sending them on extended solo vision quests like our Native American brethren. And why — just because the bar mitzvah fell on Super Bowl weekend — we needed to have two-foot-high glitter-covered plasterboard football players as centerpieces.

On the one hand, I was awed by the knowledge that when Zack read from the Book of Exodus (Parshat Beshalach) about Pharaoh’s soldiers pursuing the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt, every congregation in the Jewish world would be reading that same passage. Zack, standing on the cusp of Jewish adulthood, would become spiritually connected to them, to his grandparents and great-grandparents and to his 5,000-year heritage.

On the other hand, I was overwhelmed by the myriad mundane details — who do I invite, who do I have to invite, where do I seat them, what do I wear and how many maracas and blow-up saxophones must I purchase? And I was almost paralyzed by the major issues: Why are we doing this? Do we have the strength and the finances to repeat this three more times for Zack’s younger brothers?

I began my research. I learned that Moses, who had a speech impediment, never had to embarrass himself in front of his adolescent pals. I also learned — and felt validated by the fact — that the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish law, actually commands the father to host a festive meal in honor of his son. Most important, I learned that I could combine the history of the bar mitzvah with my own angst and amazement, some comments by my sons and husband, description of family activities, humor and — voila –a column was born.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), an international Jewish news service headquartered in New York, accepted the story, launching my career as a personal chronicler of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events. Like some Jewish alchemist, I could magically convert the chaos and confusion of my life as the seemingly deranged mother of four sons into edited copy that captured those few transcendent moments and made our family life look organized, purposeful and, yes, Jewish.

For almost a decade, writing for The Jewish Journal as well as JTA, I have circled and re-circled the Jewish calendar, from Rosh Hashanah to Tisha B’Av, writing about the history, rituals and personal experiences of the Jewish holidays. I have passed through multiple life-cycle events, from birth to bar mitzvah to burial. I have also taken a look at some secular holidays, such as Mother’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving, and some secular issues, such as vegetarianism, gun control and family dinners. Always, I have looked at these subjects through Jewish eyes or, more precisely, through many pairs of Jewish eyes since consensus among Jews is rare — a boon for a journalist since, for even the quirkiest story, there’s invariably a venerated resource to quote.

Writing has always been important to me. It’s given me a means to record and try to comprehend the world around me. I don’t videotape. I don’t scrapbook, but I have boxes of journals stashed away and file cabinets filled with fiction and nonfiction in various stages of completion — and quality.

Writing as a Jewish columnist originally provided me with a “hook” for my articles, and the concomitant research served as a pleasant way to compensate for my less-than- adequate 1950s Reform religious school education. But quickly I realized it wasn’t the article that was hooked; it was I who was hooked as a strongly identified Jew, as someone rooted in and morally guided by Judaism’s multimillennial way of viewing, participating in and repairing the world.

Over the years, I have survived not one but four bar mitzvahs and moved on to high school and even college graduations. I still continue to write occasional columns, despite the protestations of my sons, now 22, 19, 17 and 15, who claim, “I’m too old to be quoted in your articles.” But I have also moved on to more reportorial articles in which I hope to now and again make a difference or affect a discussion. And where I can continue to write about the Jewish issues and Jewish subjects that I deeply value. l

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.


Eco-Friendly Parties Mix Mitzvah, Simcha

Three days after my son, Will, ascended the bimah as a bar mitzvah, I stopped by our shul to drop off some books and thank the principal of the Hebrew school and others who made his big day such a wonderful experience.

When I got back in my car and drove past the piles of huge trash bags outside the shul’s kitchen door, I got a jarring jolt of reality: white plastic fork tines poked through the black bags and the remnant of a Mylar balloon was blowing in the breeze, caught on a nearby treetop.

While I wouldn’t classify myself as a tree hugger, I felt guilty that my hasty decision-making was impacting the environment. Had I invested a little more time and effort beforehand, I would have made more eco-friendly choices.

April 22 is Earth Day, and this year it lands on Shabbat. What better way to demonstrate our commitment to conserving our world’s precious resources than with b’nai mitzvah planning?

Selecting an environmental mitzvah project is a good starting point. But consider adding eco-friendly substitutes for white plastic tableware, Styrofoam centerpieces, Mylar balloons and elaborate banners. Are your invitations printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks?

If you need some tips, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL ) can help. The nonprofit publishes “Caring for the Cycle of Life: Creating Environmentally Sound Life-Cycle Celebrations,” which can be purchased online for $4.50. The booklet addresses brit milah, naming ceremony and weddings, and devotes three pages in the b’nai mitzvah section covering such issues as the ecology of the student’s Torah portion, what it means to fulfill the commandment of “to till and to tend” and environmental aspects of holidays, in case your child’s portion involves one. The booklet also covers Shabbat and “how solving environmental problems is an important part of tikkun olam, and then mitzvah project ideas,” said Barbara Lerman-Golomb, associate executive director of COEJL.

The booklet also offers lots of green mitzvah project possibilities that would appeal to kids.

Since many people have books, CDs and videos that they no longer want, you could keep those things out of the wastestream by organizing a drive and donating the items to a hospital, shelter or senior center.

eBay’s Giving Works program offers a high-tech answer. Your child can gather unneeded merchandise in good condition — sports equipment, toys, musical instruments your child had to have but then decided he hated, etc. — and sell it through this online yard sale, transferring the money raised electronically to the charity of his or her choice.

Since kids wear out or outgrow sneakers fairly quickly, why not consider adopting Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program as a mitzvah project? Nike grinds the rubber, foam and upper fabric of any brand of athletic footwear and recycles those components into new material that is used for running tracks, tennis courts, soccer fields and playground surfacing. The program features drop-off locations throughout the L.A. area.

Selecting the right invitation can set the scene for a green b’nai mitzvah day. Handmade, recycled-material paper invitations are obtainable (but not inexpensive) through Indiana-based Twisted Limb Paperworks. For those with a smaller budget, machine-made recycled paper is now available through most regular invitation purveyors. And soy-based inks are starting to gain ground, too.

Whether your family decides to celebrate the simcha quietly with an intimate gathering after services or loudly on a grand scale, food will be served. Even if it’s just challah, cake, coffee and soda, you’ll need cups, plates and utensils. Tables will have to be covered. A few balloons strategically placed outside the sanctuary will add a festive touch.

With more and more consumers clamoring for earth-friendlier options, companies are now producing products that are strong, serviceable, cost-effective and conservational.

If you’re having a colossal Kiddush, consider covering the tables with white butcher paper and using Chinet plates or platters instead of plastic. Made from recycled material, this tableware will stand up to a most generous serving of chopped herring, cheese, egg salad, gefilte fish and all the horseradish you want.

Plastic can take almost forever to break down at the city dump, so if you’re unable to use metal utensils, consider this alternative: biodegradable cutlery. Made of cornstarch, potato or tapioca starch, these utensils look great and work almost as well as plastic. However, potato-starch-based products will hold up better to heat than cornstarch ones. If you don’t find these items at your favorite party store, check with Palo Alto-based nonprofit World Centric, which sells the items online.

When you’re considering balloons, think latex. While it won’t hold helium as long as Mylar, it is made from rubber, a renewable resource that is biodegradable. Color selection is extensive, and size and shape options are pretty good, too. Specialty balloons are available through party planners and retail outlets, like 1-800-Dreidel.

Centerpieces and banners are often quite flashy and extravagant — lots of glitter, Styrofoam, plastic and all sorts of environmental unmentionables. If you choose to take the eco-track, consider using recycled paper banners and decorating tables with pi?atas or live plants, or creating something out of natural materials, like seashells and bamboo. With a little thought, it’s easy to come up with something attractive that won’t condemn the next generation to energy starvation and toxic terror.

Pearl Salkin is a freelance writer living in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Links related to this article:

Giving Works
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Twisted Limb Paperworks
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Wandering Jew – Upside Down

Here’s a verse that should be written in Psalms: “He who is lenient about Purim is a truly unhappy person.” Or, as one rabbi put it:

“Who doesn’t enjoy a bacchanalian feast where it’s a mitzvah to get drunk?”

Los Angeles Jewry, despite its reputation for disjointedness and spiritual lassitude, manages to be machmir — fastidious — in its observance of the “upside down” holiday, which includes costumes, carnivals, megillah reading, mishloach manot food baskets and the commandment to drink until you “don’t know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai” — the villain and hero of the ancient Persian story of the redemption of the Jews.

Festivities began early on the weekend — consider Beth Chayim Chadashim’s Friday night Purim celebration with its klezmer band, Gay Gezunt — and then Saturday night with a blowout outdoor — brr!! — party in Beverly Hills, as well as children’s carnivals around town on Sunday (not rained out, to the dismay of many parents and glee of many mini-Mordechais and Esthers.)

Ending the Fast of Esther on Monday (not necessarily as fastidiously observed as the revelry) there were a bevy of choices for megillah readings, Purim shpiel skits and parties, depending on one’s religious observance, age, marital/kid status, sexual orientation, location and financial situation (the Kabbalah Centre’s party was $72, a multiple of chai, 18, the Jewish lucky number — lucky for them). Ikar’s party at the Westside Jewish Community Center had a bit of something for everyone: a Purim carnival for kids, an egalitarian megillah reading enhanced by video captions and explanations from Rabbi Sharon Brous, dressed as a pregnant ski bunny (oh, the stomach wasn’t a costume) and an irreverent but sometimes insider Purim shpiel followed by a liquered, DJ’ed dance party, during which the kids’ bouncy was toppled over. (Talk about upside down).

A general maxim for L.A. costume parties is that women wear skimpy, sultry outfits designed to entice and attract, rather than clever cumbersome contraptions expounding on current events or clever ironies. (For example, in Washington, D.C., a friend’s non-Jewish boyfriend dressed up for Purim as a wasp — not WASP, as he’s Catholic.)

On Purim, this custom of sexy dressing still holds: evidence includes a French maid, a bumblebee in fishnets, flappers, ’60s mini-dresses, ’70s mod-squads, butterflies, Pocahontas (yours truly). But some women risked it with clever/incomprehensible costumes: a woman in a ball gown peppered with broken credit cards (Angel of Debt), a red-faced woman dressed in all red (not meant to be an apple, but a red string; strangely she forgot to wear red strings) and someone who was An Eye for An Eye (don’t ask).

The other maxim for L.A. costumery is that it’s uncool for men to put too much effort into their costumes — if they dress up at all. Clever but low-maintenance costumes included a man in dry cleaning (plastic wrap over a hanger with paper reading “Mr. Dry Cleaning”), an Olympics curling outfit, and a multitude of cowboys who were very quick to point out that they were just lazy and not, repeat, not imitating the Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain” — which was spoofed in the Purim Shpiel as “Brokeback Shushan.” (Get it? Shushan, the capital of Persia, the setting for the Megillah?). “Capote,” another Oscar nominee for best picture, was strangely underrepresented. Go figure. Best Costume for a Jewish Man, or most effort: a JDate Profile — random pictures replete with clichéd lines ironed on a T-shirt.

While one is supposed to hear every word of the Story of Esther, it’s difficult between the noise and the costumes and the kids and the tedium of concentrating on 10 chapters in Hebrew. A couple of standout readings around town included Rabbi David Czapnik at the Jewish Learning Center in Hancock Park, who read with voices — not supernatural voices channeled from the other side (although that would be pretty cool), but acting out the main parts of the Megillah while still following the traditional trope tunes; the “edgy” women’s Megillah reading at B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox synagogue that pushes the boundaries of tradition with its feminist takeover of the bimah, and, for those pressed for time, a superspeedy Megillah reading at Loeb & Loeb LLP law firm on Tuesday that took between 10 and 15 minutes (as opposed to the usual hour).

That sort of brevity should give one enough time to deliver Purim baskets — or have the kids traipse around town to trade with their friends’ candy or “loot.” Creativity and cleverness are also a hallmark of shalach manot; some went beyond the usual wine and hamantaschen, using themes: a flowerpot filled with flower-shaped foods, a beach basket with a sand pail and beach mat, a psuedo Italian basket with red wine and a cake that looked like spaghetti and meatballs. (Why? Why? Why?) That’s what many parents asked themselves this year, as people increasingly eschewed the homemade baskets in favor of sending out one basket through their shuls and schools (with proceeds donated to charity, as matanot l’evyonim is one of the main obligations of the holiday). Purim celebrations continued beyond the holiday and into the weekend.

The other one is the seuda, or the Purim meal, where wine, scotch and words of Torah flowed into one another. One particularly memorable note: After the Messiah comes the Talmud says that the only holiday Jews will still celebrate will be Purim. I’ll drink to that!