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 adaireklein@bnaidavid.com.

Maryam Maleki
via e-mail

Death in the Hood

Laura Gitlin-Petlak was 48 when she died on Feb. 12 at her home in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

The next day, a few blocks from her house, a couple hundredpeople jammed the premises of Aish L.A., an Orthodox synagogue and outreach center, for her memorial service.

A neighbor suggested that I attend the service. I had never met Laura or any member of her family, but they were well-known in the community. The first time I heard her name was on Simchat Torah, when someone mentioned that a group of women from the community brought a sefer Torah to her bedside at her home, where she was recuperating from cancer surgery. In her presence, they sang songs and danced.

When Laura was in the hospital, she had insisted on long, personal visits. Her husband, Shmuel, made sure to schedule the visits so that there would be plenty of time for the kind of engaging talk his wife loved. Laura once noticed that a visitor was sniffling, and she asked if her friend had a cold. When she saw that they were sniffles of sadness, Laura blurted out: “Oh no, I’ll have none of that. Now tell me what’s going on in your life.”

Being a divorce attorney, Laura knew a lot about other people’s lives. In a profession where nasty confrontation is the norm, she fought for collaboration. Sometimes she even fought for peace.

At her memorial service, her husband told the story of a man who had “had it up to here” and wanted a divorce. After listening to his story, Laura calmly explained to the man that he should try to save his marriage by getting household help. It took some coaxing and convincing, but in the end, Laura helped save her client’s marriage.She nurtured her own marriage by working from home, which allowed her to be very involved with raising her two daughters, Alisa, 17, and Miriam, 9.

This is how Alisa describes her mother’s parenting style: “She never told us what to do, but she never allowed us to do the wrong thing.”It has been several days now since Laura’s memorial service, and I’m sharing my thoughts with you because, frankly, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The service was heartfelt, but it was also unsettling. There was a kind of emotional chaos in the air — almost a reluctance to accept that a beautiful life could be taken away from someone so God-fearing and life-giving.

Ever since I moved to this neighborhood, I’ve gotten used to seeing order and structure in the Orthodox community — a sense that life, with all its challenges and with God’s help, is unfolding as it should.

At Laura’s memorial service, you got a strange sense that life had stopped unfolding as it should.

To his credit, the head rabbi of Aish L.A., Rabbi Moshe Cohen, did not try to anaesthetize the pain. He spoke in a quivering, tear-choked voice. He talked about the only three instances in the code of Jewish law where the laws are considered “mitzvot gedolim” (great mitzvahs): To help someone who is destitute, to free a captive and to praise the departed.

He explained that what tied the three mitzvahs together was that they all covered people who couldn’t help themselves.

But it was clear that the rabbi couldn’t help himself either. Even though he ended on a brave note that touched on Laura’s legacy to the community, his body language was saying something else: “How could this be?”

Tragedy has a way of dulling the senses. Lost in a fog of grief, how can anyone see or understand anything? I wasn’t exactly lost, but all I could see was how wrong it was that Laura had died. That made me feel a little helpless, too.

Ironically, on a day when people felt somewhat helpless, they were honoring someone who was all about reaching out to those who needed help, or sometimes just a meal and company. As an example, Rabbi Cohen admitted how “most of us would prefer to choose our guests for Shabbat.” Then he recounted how, over the years, Laura and her family had welcomed hundreds of guests and strangers who didn’t have a place to eat on Shabbat.

Who would feel these strangers’ pain now and welcome them? How could a unique soul like Laura ever be replaced? How could a family’s pain ever heal?

As the rabbi spoke about Laura, I was thinking about how even a strong religious community has moments when it needs to be vulnerable and embrace its limitations. In our zeal to accept all challenges, perhaps the ultimate challenge is to accept that there are holes we can never fill and pains we can never heal.

We are grateful for our religious and communal rituals — the prayers, the sermons, the honoring of the departed, the community support — but deep down, the unspoken truth is that we’re still helpless. The pain of human loss is too deep (as I learned after losing my father).

Rituals can add comfort and legacies can be continued, but they won’t fill the hole or eliminate the pain.

This pain of loss belongs to no religion and no neighborhood.

It is a private, universal pain that speaks to the highest part of our Judaism, the one that cares about every soul in every hood.

Laura Gitlin-Petlak spent a lifetime caring about other people’s pain, and in her own way, she showed us that people can never be replaced, and that there is value in that.

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

Mixed Message

The “report card” for non-Orthodox American Jewish teens should feature either an A or a D, depending on which of two new studies you read.

With teen outreach a growing concern in the American Jewish community, a number of communities and agencies, including the Reform movement, have launched special teen initiatives and task forces in recent years. The Conservative movement has set itself a goal of doubling youth group membership.

But results of the two new studies are mixed enough that translating them into policy recommendations will not be easy.

The two research projects on affiliated Jewish teens — a national study of Conservative teens commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and a survey of Boston-area teens conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies — are the most comprehensive surveys yet of Jewish teen involvement.

Both studies consisted of interviews with approximately 1,300 teens who have celebrated bar or bat mitzvahs.

The Conservative study interviewed its participants twice, shortly after their bar or bat mitzvahs and then again four years later.

The Brandeis study surveyed teens aged 13 to 17 once in 1998-99.

Like most American Jewish youth, the majority of respondents in both studies had attended congregational Hebrew schools, rather than day schools.

The Conservative study was the more upbeat. The two studies’ findings differ in several key areas:

  • Feelings About Pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah Jewish Education

    In the Conservative study, 97 percent of respondents described their bar/bat mitzvah training as positive, with 44 percent of them describing it as “very positive.” In contrast, more than half of the Brandeis respondents said they seldom or never enjoyed Hebrew school, with two-thirds reporting they always or often felt bored there.

  • Gender Differences

    The Conservative study concluded that gender explains “very little about individual variations among the sample population.” In contrast, the Brandeis study reported that girls are more likely to participate in formal Jewish education as teens, feel positively about their Jewish education and find Israel experiences personally meaningful.

  • Attitudes Toward Intermarriage

    Fifty-five percent of the Conservative study teens said they think it is very important to marry someone Jewish, while only 32 percent of the Brandeis respondents agreed.

    Some of the differences may stem from the fact that the JTS study focused on Conservative teens, while the Brandeis study included teens in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and independent congregations.

    For example, the Conservative teens differed from Reform and Reconstructionist peers in their strong opposition to intermarriage, the Brandeis researchers said.

    That’s not surprising, since the Conservative movement forbids rabbis from officiating at intermarriages and does not allow non-Jewish spouses to become congregation members.

But on other issues, the Brandeis researchers said, the Conservative teens — approximately one-third of the total — had attitudes similar to those of other respondents.

It’s also possible that no single metropolitan area, like Boston, is representative of the national scene.

Some commentators said the phrasing of the questions could explain the divergent findings.

Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has authored a number of key studies on American Jewish identity, pointed out that Hebrew school and bar or bat mitzvah training are “not at all the same.”

For example, bar or bat mitzvah training might include tutoring and experiences at day school, and a small percentage of the respondents in the Conservative study went to day school.

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center, agreed.

“The personal attention kids get in direct preparation for the bar/bat mitzvah is seen more positively” than Hebrew school, Saxe said.

Other differences may be due to spin.

Saxe described the divergences between the two studies as the difference between seeing the cup as “half empty” or “half full.”

“Do we celebrate the involvement and the knowledge of a substantial group of our B’nai Mitzvah,” Saxe asked, “or do we worry about the people who didn’t get to the bimah in the first place and who didn’t end up continuing to be involved?”

Neither study found particularly high rates of post bar/bat mitzvah Jewish education, such as part-time Hebrew high school.

Twenty-seven percent of the Conservative teens graduated from a Hebrew high school program. Only 22 percent of the 11th -graders in the Brandeis study were enrolled in formal Jewish education.

Other key findings of the Brandeis study include:

  • Parents have a strong influence on teens’ attitudes and behavior when it comes to issues such as continuing Jewish education, intermarriage and the importance of raising children as Jews. For example, teens whose parents strongly oppose intermarriage are more likely to oppose intermarriage than peers whose parents are less concerned about the issue.

  • Secular schools exert a “powerful, even dominating influence” on teens. More than a lack of interest in things Jewish, academic demands help explain the decline in Jewish involvement.

Key findings of the Conservative study include:

  • The overwhelming majority of teens said they want to maintain or increase their level of Jewish observance.

  • Ninety percent of teens attend synagogue on the high holidays, 75 percent have “some connection with organized Jewish activities” after their bar or bat mitzvahs and half have been to Israel.

The intensity of the teens’ Jewish involvement dropped significantly between their bar or bat mitzvahs and senior year of high school. The exception is opposition to intermarriage, which increased as the teens matured.

The decline in intensity was most marked in the teens’ feeling that Jewish education is “very important to their sense of Jewishness.” Two-thirds of respondents felt this after their bar or bat mitzvahs, but only half did four years later.

Synagogue attendance also fell, from 65 percent who attended services at least once a month at age 13 to just 40 percent four years later.

Yet the authors of the Conservative study take heart that patterns of Jewish identity set in the early teen years persist through high school. The feeling that being Jewish is very or somewhat important, for example, decreased little in the four years after their bar or bat mitzvahs — from 98 percent to 90 percent.

The Conservative study shows that “early educational experiences play a crucial role in shaping the Jewish identity of the younger generation,” said Barry Kosmin, executive director of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research and one of the study’s authors.

In the study’s conclusion, Kosmin writes that “the myth of the bar/bat mitzvah as an exit from Jewish life, at least in today’s Conservative synagogues” has been “debunked.”

The conclusions of the Brandeis study are more nuanced. Judaism is “important” to today’s teens, the authors write, but “only as it fits into their lives and their goals in a secular, pluralistic society.”

To Go or Not to Go?

The controversy over the issue of visiting Israel this summer has come to affect four American Jews to whom I am particularly close: my wife and two children, and myself.

My wife’s brother lives on a kibbutz in the Negev, where he moved some 20 years ago. His middle daughter is celebrating her bat mitzvah, and the whole Levy clan, from Boston to New York to Los Angeles, has long been planning to celebrate with her.

Then Intifada II broke out, and so did the debate within our family: Should we go or should we stay?

A few members of the extended family opted to stay home. Others haven’t wavered in their decision to go. But a good portion have offered a qualified yes. Their tickets are exchangeable, and they’re waiting to see if things calm down before boarding the flight to Lod.

Our phone calls and e-mails and dinner-table conversations echo the larger debate taking place between America and Israel. Is it safe? Does canceling demonstrate a lack of support to family and friends? Do we have the right to take our children to potentially dangerous areas to demonstrate that support?

Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s minister of transportation, blasted away at American Jews whose only demonstration of support comes over "bagel breakfasts" from the safety of their conference rooms. The organizers of the Maccabiah Games only this week decided to go ahead with this year’s international games (see page 12), but other youth groups have canceled scheduled trips or seen the numbers of participants drop. The groups that are going — Birthright Israel, the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, Chabad — become instantly noteworthy.

But a nation cannot live on depleted solidarity missions alone. Israel is suffering from a 50 percent drop in tourist traffic during what was expected to be a Millennial Year boom, and thousands of Israelis in tourism and its affiliated industries face layoffs. "The tour groups have basically vanished from Israel," a Netanya hotelier told our correspondent Larry Derfner — and she said it before the Tel Aviv disco bombing.

Beyond the economic impact, there’s the sense among Israelis that we American Jews are fair-weather patriots. We’ll happily pose for snapshots atop those rusted tanks on the Golan Heights, but don’t ask us to get within 10,000 miles of live fire. "In a summer when Americans flock to see ‘Pearl Harbor,’" wrote Glenn Yago, Milken Institute director of capital studies, on his return from Israel last week, "FDR’s lesson about what we should fear is worth remembering. Canceling trips to Israel couldn’t send a worse message."

Against such powerful arguments — and good old Jewish guilt — is the fact that Israelis themselves have curtailed their travel within their own country. There are parents in Tel Aviv who won’t send their children on school trips to Jerusalem, and others who refuse to visit friends in Netanya or Efrat. If Israelis won’t let their kids walk the streets of Jerusalem, goes one good dinner-table argument, why should I?

The answer to these questions is necessarily more personal than political, and entwined with all the other complications of travel abroad: time, money, work, health. Those who ultimately decide not to make the trip now shouldn’t be derided, guilt-tripped or second-guessed. The bottom line is support, and there have always been other ways to express it besides being there.

One suggestion, offered by Jonathan Friendly of Jewish Renaissance Media, is for parents who have opted not to send their children this summer to contribute a portion of what they would have spent on the trip toward a "Promise Postponed" endowment that could help subsidize trips by less-affluent kids next year.

Another is to participate in Israel activities offered by synagogues, local federations and organizations in the coming months. Yet another is to take some time this summer to further educate yourself and your children about Israel. True, being there makes a more powerful statement, but our actions here can still speak volumes.