Retooling Hebrew school


Hebrew schools today incorporate a lot of hands-on learning, and several innovative models for Hebrew school have been launched in recent years, including the project-based learning Hebrew school model, the learning through the arts Hebrew school model, the aftercare “camp like” Hebrew school model, and the online Hebrew school model.

I applaud the pedagogical improvements as well as the funding and creative innovations to the Hebrew school model.  However, I feel that Hebrew schools today still lack a particular “mindset” about Judaism, approach to learning, and purpose of Jewish education which is essential to their success.

What I propose and will explain in this article is the retooling of Hebrew schools with the proper mindset about Judaism and Jewish education.

For starters, the term Hebrew school is factually inaccurate and outdated, plus, we all know this term conjures up negative connotations.  I say this, in part, because Hebrew schools do not teach Hebrew as a language, and originally the word Hebrew was used to downplay the Jewishness of where Jewish children went after public school.  Therefore, a new name is long overdue.

So what would be a better name to replace the name Hebrew school? I propose the name Mitzvah Center.

Changing the name of Hebrew School to Mitzvah Center, however, is not for semantics, but for the purpose of creating a change in the “mindset” and modus operandi of Jewish education.     

  • A Mitzvah Center is a more accurate description of one of the main purposes of Jewish education, which is to learn how to do Mitzvot.
  • By using the term Mitzvah Center this would be a constant reminder about one of the main functions in being a Jewish, which is doing Mitzvot. 
  • The term Mitzvah Center more actually reflects what should be a significant focus of a Hebrew school’s curriculum content.
  • The term Mitzvah Center relays that Jewish education and Judaism are not just for children but for adults as well.

A Mitzvah Center will still look 80% like a Hebrew school (even if employing an innovative model), however, there are four essential practical differences.

  1.  A Mitzvah Center facilitates the performance of Mitzvot.

Whereas a Hebrew school in teaching about lighting Shabbat candles includes the hands-on activity of the students making Shabbat candlestick holders, a Mitzvah Center would send home candles every week for all the women in the home to light.  This is an entirely different perspective on the role of a school, and from a “Center” Jewish education spreads out.

In keeping with the Shabbat candles example, there are numerous examples where a little girl was given Shabbat candles to light and this sparked a family to grow Jewishly. First the mother also lit Shabbat candles with her daughter, then a few weeks later the mother decided not to have the TV on in the living room while she lit Shabbat candles. Then a few weeks later…

Ditto for giving out little grape juice bottles after teaching the students about the Mitzvah of making Kiddush, as well as giving out Shmura Matzah before Passover, etc.

As one can see, a Mitzvah Center does not just teach about Mitzvot, but takes on the responsibility to do everything it can to help its students concretize the learning into action and with their families.

  1.  The ambiance and climate of a Mitzvah Center is Mitzvot.  

When a parent comes into the Mitzvah Center to drop off or pick up his/her child(ren) s/he would see various Mitzvah stations in the foyer with Mitzvot that can easily be done on the spot.  For example, putting on Tefillin (with the rabbi there to encourage and to help facilitate), saying the Shema, giving Tzedakah, watching a one minute video with a Torah lesson for the week, as well as the opportunity to drop off a can of food for the foodbank, to pick up Shabbat candles, etc.

These have been called “Touch and Go” Mitzvot because they only take a short moment of time to do, and they do not necessitate a lifestyle change.  Never-the-less they are an important aspect of “doing Jewish,” and a Mitzvah Center serves to remind everyone of this by creating a culture of doing Mitzvot.

  1. A Mitzvah Center would have a different Mitzvah Campaign every year.

This is exactly what it sounds like. One year the Mitzvah Center (and synagogue) would promote, for example, the Mitzvah of Mezuzah, the next year perhaps various Mitzvah projects for the poor, then in future years the promotion of the Mitzvah of keeping Kosher, the Mitzvah of helping the environment, the creating of a Jewish library in one’s home, a No Adult Left Behind when it comes to adults being able to read Hebrew, families hosting each other and/or just being hosted for a Shabbat dinner experience in a round-robin format once a month for a year, etc.   There are a lot of Mitzvot to promote!

Part of being Jewish is about spiritually growing, and many of these type of Mitzvot require a significant time commitment, financial commitment, and/or an adjustment to one’s lifestyle. Therefore, one Mitzvah Campaign per year is a practical and steady pace.

Not every Mitzvah Center family is going to participate in every Mitzvah Campaign.  One’s expectations need to be tamed.  But right now no one is participating.  No one just wakes up and says s/he is going to start keeping putting on Tefillin or keeping Kosher, etc. without a significant amount of encouragement and support.  A Mitzvah Center’s yearly Mitzvah Campaign provides a much-needed opportunity and encouragement for people to grow Jewishly.

  1.  A Mitzvah Center instills “Mitzvah Activism” into its students.

Part of being a Jew, which has been lost in the Hebrew school system, is sharing one’s Jewish knowledge with other Jews and helping Jews do Mitzvot.  This teaching would be instilled into the students by them actually teaching and helping others do Mitzvot.  For example, the older kids in the Mitzvah Center would help the younger students with Hebrew reading and they would serve as a “Tephillah Buddy” for younger students at school-wide Tephillah services.

Another example of many possible ones: On the Sunday of Sukkot the students in the B’nai Mitzvah class would go to the houses of the synagogue’s members, former members, the Jewish old-age home, etc. with a Lulav and Etrog to help as many Jews as possible fulfill this Mitzvah.  Parent volunteers would drive and there could even be a contest to see who can get the most people to shake a Luluv and Etrog.  Additionally, when a family decides to start keeping kosher at home, members of the synagogue’s teenage Youth Group would help Kasher the family’s kitchen and dishes. (These later two examples are also one way #1 above is accomplished.)

Of course a Hebrew school can implement any of the above aspects of a Mitzvah Center without a name change, however, changing the name from Hebrew school to Mitzvah Center creates a powerful psychological and philosophical message (see the four bullet points above), and also by implementing all four aspects of a Mitzvah Center, this creates a synergy that results in an effectiveness that is more than the sum of its parts.


Joel E. Hoffman is an ordained rabbi, but he works as a special education teacher at a public high school in Massachusetts.  He also teaches 7th grade Hebrew school and writes on Jewish themes. 

Letters to the editor: ACA, mitzvot, fair trade chocolate and Noble Prizes


First, Practice Mitzvot

In “No Faith, No Jewish Future” (Nov. 6), Dennis Prager has it backward. The assiduous practice of mitzvot results in recognition of their foundation, not visa versa. Halachic adherence remains the key to growth in Orthodox Judaism. A 3-year-old child learns what we do, i.e., wear tzitzit, when he puts them on and recites a bracha. A yeshiva student gains an understanding as to why we wear them, while studying talmudic tractate, Brachot. Contrary to Dennis’ suggestion, few, if any, outside Orthodoxy who “scrupulously follow halachah” reject the divinity of the Torah. The problem is not a failure to accept the divinity of the Torah; Rather, it is a failure to practice its dictates. Practice of halachah is a precursor to growth and understanding. We cannot be expected to comprehend that which is beyond our own practice and experience.

Mark Herskovitz, Los Angeles

Dennis Prager responds: 

Mr. Herskowitz and I differ. No problem. But his statement, “Contrary to Dennis’ suggestion, few, if any, outside Orthodoxy who ‘scrupulously follow halacha’ reject the divinity of the Torah,” is rarely, if ever, the case. The belief of non-Orthodox Jews who keep halacha was perfectly summarized by the past chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary: “The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism … not because it is divine, but because it is sacred.”


More on the Affordable Care Act

David Suissa’s article “Lies and Consequences” (Nov. 15) is long on rhetoric and short on facts. Lying requires at least some degree of intent.

When President Barack Obama assured citizens they could keep their policies, he was referring to the grandfather clause included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). That clause allowed policyholders to keep plans that were in effect as of the date the ACA was enacted in 2010.

The major reason the grandfather clause did not work is that the insurance companies kept creating plans after 2010 that they knew would not be valid after the launch of the ACA, something of which their customers were not cognizant. The insurance companies made use of that lack of sophistication among their customers. As a result, the vast majority of canceled policies were those written or amended between 2010 and 2013. For people who bought insurance plans prior to 2010 when ACA was enacted, President Obama’s statement that you can keep your plan was true and remains true. 

Is President Obama guilty of underestimating the insurance companies? Absolutely. But that does not rise to the level of a lie. It would be appropriate for the author of this column to research and write a follow-up article, this time with facts, on the real culprit, the billion-dollar, for-profit medical insurance industry.

Aaron Rubin, Los Angeles 

David Suissa responds: 

Merriam-Webster defines a lie as “to create a false or misleading impression.” In February 2010, at the health care summit with Republicans, President Obama acknowledged that 8 million to 9 million people “might have to change their coverage.” Knowing that, for three-plus years thereafter, and especially during his re-election campaign, the president promised Americans that “if you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan. Period.” That’s why The Washington Post’s The Fact Checker site gave that statement its worse possible ranking — four Pinocchios.


Buy Fair Trade First

I read with great interest Deborah Prinz’s fascinating account of the role of chocolate in Jewish history (“Chocolate Freedoms of Chanukah and Thanksgiving,” Nov. 29). To really reinforce the notion that chocolate eaten at Chanukah symbolizes the freedoms won by the Maccabees, one should go one step further. Since most of the world’s chocolate is made from cocoa beans picked by children in the Ivory Coast, buying Fair Trade chocolate (certified to not involve children in the production) would really show how much we value freedom for all.

Mark Elinson, Los Angeles


A Wonderful Abundance of Nobel Laureates

The use of the term obnoxious to describe recognition of Jewish accomplishments in Nobel Prize history (“This Week in Jewish History,” Nov. 22) is regrettable. This phenomenon, a proportionally large representation of Nobel laureates attributed to the Jewish population, is a wonderful achievement that should be proudly and frequently referenced, in part to encourage our children to pursue careers in the sciences, liberal arts and engineering. It would have been preferable to have had the Jewish Journal staff edit the offending paragraph accordingly before recirculating it.

Jeff Gold, Rancho Palos Verdes

Becoming Jewish: Tales from the Mikveh


Late on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Judith Golden and Suzanne Rosenthal perched at their desks in a small room in the depths of American Jewish University (AJU). It was a quiet day on campus; only a trickle of students occupied the new community library, the classrooms were mostly empty, and no one was paying attention to the comings and goings in the small office where the two women sat.

But just beyond, behind a closed door, a momentous occasion was unfolding, made real by the sounds of prayerful singing ringing out. The room quieted, then a jumble of people, including three rabbis, spilled into the office, all talking fast, bustling to complete some paperwork. The door opened again and a woman appeared, her short blond hair damp and dripping a bit. She appeared flushed but was smiling from ear to ear. 

“Welcome to the Jewish people,” one rabbi said, embracing the woman. She laughed, then looked like she might cry, then laughed again. A small group of family and friends gathered around as Rosenthal rushed over and gave the woman a bear hug. “How was the water?” 

“It … was … awesome.”

Newly minted as a Jew, the woman had just come from the Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh, the only community mikveh throughout the Pacific Southwest serving Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike. They come here for monthly rituals of cleansing, as well as for personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important rites of passage. But the largest numbers of people who immerse here are those converting to Judaism — as many as 300 to 500 annually.

Aged eight days to more than eight decades old, the lithe and the infirm alike come to this mikveh, in family groups and solo, always with a serious intention that leads to great joy.

In actuality, the facilities are quite plain, yet they feel, even to the uninitiated, imbued with the history of transformative magic that has taken place here. There’s a changing room for careful cleansing as preparation, and the mikveh itself occupies a small, mostly unadorned room. On the surface, it could almost be mistaken for a high-end spa, its blue-tiled tub built into the floor and lined with a railing. The mikveh, however, is divided into two pools, one filled 4 1/2 feet deep, enough for an adult to sink down and become fully engulfed by the wet. The second receptacle, connected to the first by a plugged hole but otherwise separate, contains the mayim hayim — holy water — water that must never, according to Jewish law, have touched metal. Many other mikvehs use rainwater, drained directly into a pool through non-metal pipes from a rooftop; here, because there’s no direct access to the outside, the mayim hayim is derived from ice melted inside the tub — 3,600 pounds are delivered every three months in 100 pound blocks — permissible because the transformation of ice into water means the liquid has been born anew and is as holy and fresh as the rain. Just before going under, the prospective convert pulls the plug to allow some of the mayim hayim to seep and infuse the water in the larger tank, lending its sacred power. The plug is closed again after the immersions are complete. 


Suzanne Rosenthal, left, and Judith Golden, the “mikveh chicks,” staff the mikveh office, aid with immersions and provide enthusiastic support. Photo by Susan Freudenheim

For each person who dunks — for a conversion, it must be done three times, each time followed by a prayer — the experience is, quite literally, life changing, the final step in becoming Jewish.

It’s a ritual as ancient as the Torah, but one that never gets old. And here, recognizing the emotional impact of the day, each new convert is treated as a very special guest, complete with an embrace from one or the other of the two “mikveh chicks,” as Rosenthal and Golden jokingly call themselves. They serve as guides and direct witness to a woman’s immersion, helping with the prayers and staying sensitive to the required nudity. (Men are witnessed either by a male rabbi, if one is present, or a friend or relative, or sometimes students on campus also make themselves available to help, when needed.) Two Jews must be present, but only one needs to physically view the process; the other can remain behind a curtain, along with family and guests. After each conversion, Golden and Rosenthal assume the role of greeters outside the dressing room. 

“We hug everybody,” Rosenthal said. “Men and women. And they love it.” 

“Part of our job is to be the first faces,” Golden added — each woman’s words spilling over the other’s, evidence of their amicable eight-year partnership in this small space. “The most important thing is the feeling of being welcomed and cared for,” Golden said.

The immersion is a graduation of sorts, only the final step after months or years of study and commitment to the Jewish People, its mitzvot (laws) and practices. For converts 13 or older, the immersion follows testimony before a beit din (Jewish court of law), three rabbis who confirm the applicant’s knowledge of Judaism and devotion to living a Jewish life. Going into the mikveh marks the final transition to a fully new identity, and the water is a metaphor both for a birthing and for the cleansing of a former life as a new one begins.

Each convert has a unique story, and these women are so open to conversation, they say, that they hear them all. 

“Our youngest were 8-day-old twin boys born of a surrogate in Northern California, who had two Israeli dads,” Golden said. “We did the conversion before the bris on the eighth day, and we had to have special permission from Rabbi Bergman,” she said, referring to Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, the rabbinic scholar who oversaw the halachic aspects of the AJU mikveh’s design in 1981. 

“Usually people don’t come to the mikveh before they are circumcised, but they had to get back to Israel and wanted to do the conversion here, because in Israel everything is Orthodox,” Golden said. 

While babies so young might seem fragile, the timing is, in actuality, very good, Golden said. But it takes some courage for the new parent: “You can’t hold onto the baby under the armpits, you have to just let go. I used to tell parents: ‘Drop the baby.’ And that’s terrifying for a new parent. So now I make sure I just say, ‘Release.’”

Golden and Rosenthal have many, many stories about children, reflecting the frequency of Jewish adoptions, use of surrogates or the circumstances of interfaith parents. Anyone 12 or younger can convert without going before a beit din, and the parent usually enters the water alongside the child. 

Golden recalled one non-Jewish parent who, after accompanying her children, decided suddenly to convert on her own, as well. She’d just addressed the beit din on behalf of her children, telling the rabbis of her own studies and her commitment to raising her kids as Jews. As a result, the rabbis readily agreed to her conversion without further requirements, so she, too, now became a Jew.

There have been some elderly converts, too; the oldest, Golden said, was a 91-year-old man, who’d met a Jewish woman while living at Leisure World, the seniors community. “It was important to her that she have a Jewish husband,” Golden said. 

So, what was he like?

“Old,” Rosenthal and Golden said in unison. 

“His wife was darling; they were in love,” Golden added. 

There is no special training for mikveh staff; rituals are learned and passed on just like at any other job. Both women say, however, that this is the best job they’ve ever experienced — every day is full of laughter and tears of joy. They’re not highly paid, they say, and they have to do everything, from tidying up the dressing room to finding new prayerful readings on the Internet. 

“What we get is emotional and spiritual currency,” Golden said; she has been here eight years, while Rosenthal has marked her ninth. Their primary role is to guide the prayers, witness the authenticity of the full dunk and provide whatever support is needed. Whenever possible, they ask people to come for a tour before their ritual so that they know what to expect and don’t lose time. 

Although regular hours are indicated on the outside door, Golden and Rosenthal, who job-share to extend the day and the resources, easily make accommodations to be available in the evenings and on Sundays, when possible. Each convert gets a minimum of one hour, and they allow somewhat less for other immersion rituals. Cost is $360 for an adult conversion; $250 to convert a child. For a personal reaffirmation, it’s $90, and for monthly visits, it’s $25. Cost of the rabbis for the Rabbinical Assembly beit din is included (other beit din may charge separately).

The stories Golden and Rosenthal tell easily could fill a book: “One of the most touching ones was a lady with cancer, at the end of her life,” Rosenthal said. “She was 58 years old and had always celebrated Shabbat with her daughters and her husband, who had died four years before. She was very ill, but she had gone through the beit din, and her two daughters were with her to go into the mikveh. 

“She went in, and she immersed,” Rosenthal said, “and one wonderful thing about the water is it’s very buoyant,” because of salt that’s added for maintenance purposes. “So she wasn’t sore in the mikveh, though she was otherwise in a great deal of pain. But when they went to lift her out, she passed out.

“I was holding my breath,” Rosenthal continued, “because we didn’t know if she was going to make it. Her nurse was here, and we all managed to get her back into her wheelchair, where she woke up.” They applied cold packs and did what they could to make the woman comfortable.

“She died four days later,” Golden said. “But she was Jewish, and that’s what she wanted,” Rosenthal said.

Among the stories the mikveh duo love best — and there are many of those — is one of a 17-year-old with autism whose parents weren’t Jewish, but, Golden said, “This was her path.”

The girl couldn’t speak, but she had pre-programmed an iPad with the three required blessings, one to be said after each immersion. The first is the blessing over the commandment to perform an immersion. The second is the Shehecheyanu, the prayer used for new and unusual experiences. The culmination, and always the most powerful, is the saying of the Shema, as the new Jew declares oneness with God. The young woman with autism pressed a button each time for the prayer.

“She was drop-dead gorgeous,” Rosenthal remembered, “and so excited; she walked around the campus screaming — that was the only sound she could make, and it was her way of expressing herself. 

“I asked her mother, ‘Can I put my arm around her?’ And her mother said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I hugged her, even before she went in to the mikveh. She turned around and grabbed my arm and squeezed it.”

It was one of those defining moments, a realization of the absolute reciprocity of spiritual gain that these two women share with each new visitor. As an entryway to becoming Jewish, they have become the embodiment of good things to come. And that young woman, impeded from so much, could appreciate the goodness that Golden and Rosenthal exude — just like everyone else.

After it was all done, the new Jewish girl turned to her mother, who interpreted her words that day: “There’s a whole lot of love here,” she told her mom. “And,” Rosenthal said, reliving the pleasure, “the mother repeated that to us.”

Mikvah

Finding balance at the intersection of yoga and Judaism


Yoga means “union” or “union with the divine.” It doesn’t mean “contortionism,” “hippie commune” or “Lululemon.”

“Judaism” means “monotheistic religion [of the Jews]” or “belief characterized by one transcendent God.” It doesn’t mean “bagels and lox,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “big beard and black hat.”

And “Jewish yoga” certainly doesn’t mean “contorting my body to the shrill soundtrack of a Larry David monologue.” Nor does it mean giving up my Judaism.

Not even close.

My practice weaves yogic teachings and philosophies with Jewish teachings and philosophies. And while I don’t think such a practice is all that rare nowadays, it is sometimes dismissed by people on both sides without much understanding. Disapproving Jews say, “Feh! It’s a Hindu practice and it’s avodah zarah [idolatry].” Disapproving yogis say, “But how can you practice Jewish yoga? Yoga is for everyone!”

Here’s what I can tell anyone who holds either of those disapproving opinions: It works for me. I am part of a growing body of people who recognize deep, logical and undeniable links between yoga and Judaism.

By examining the basic tenets of yoga and Judaism separately, we can better see why so many people are drawn to “yoga with a Jewish twist.”

At its core, yoga is a practice that unifies practitioner with source, human with divine. While we are all human, yogis believe and revel in the notion that the common thread among all things — living and nonliving, animate and inanimate — is the divine. The asanas, or the actual poses, are just a tiny part of the much larger picture of the union that yoga explores.

In “The Yoga Sutras,” Patanjali illustrates the eight limbs of yoga; limb by limb, he spells out exactly what it means to practice — and it’s much more than downward dog and plank pose. In fact, the only real guidance on the actual poses that Patanjali gives is an admonition that they must be “steady, firm and comfortable.” Most of the text is devoted to extolling the proper virtues of a yogi (compassion, peace, honesty), and outlining specific ways to solidify the union with the divine (breathing, focusing energy on a single point, turning inward, following rules to live a pure, proper, balanced, non-disturbed life), with a huge emphasis on the importance of acknowledging, praising and ultimately melding with the divine.

At its core, Judaism is a religion based on the belief, eloquently stated by Maimonides, that “all existence depends on God and is derived from God.” It follows that in Judaism, while inhabiting this temporary body, we are obliged to perform tikkun olam (repairing the world) through the fulfillment of 613 mitzvot, or commandments. The mitzvot spell out exactly what it means to be an upstanding Jew: Recite prayers of thanksgiving for food, do not engage in hurtful speech, give charity, honor your parents, keep your word, don’t covet, etc. By following the commandments, performing acts of reparation and engaging in acts of loving kindness, we indeed become closer with God. And while “poses” are not at the crux of any Jewish practice, there certainly are specific movements that a Jew in prayer performs: bowing, standing, swaying — all in the name of creating oneness with Hashem.

Unfortunately, mainstream “Jewish practice” in the modern world is often understood to take place only in cavernous rooms with stained glass windows, filled with people clad in designer suits and dresses.

Similarly, the phrase “yoga practice” has become largely synonymous in the modern Western world with “asana movement practice.” It evokes images of ripped, toned 20-somethings sweating it out on rectangular rubber mats laid over pristine hardwood floors. In reality, one can practice yoga anywhere: on the bus, in the home, in the middle of that important meeting, during a conflict with a family member … especially during a conflict with a family member. That’s where kshama (patience) and daya (compassion) — two “non-asana” aspects of yoga — are truly needed. Yoga and Judaism, two ancient practices that seemingly share so much, have been narrowly interpreted to a fault. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

To be clear, yoga is not a faith. Yoga is a physical and spiritual practice, and not a religion. Practicing yoga does not mean it must be to the exclusion of practicing Judaism, or vice versa. 

While classes that talk about Ganesh and chant “Om Namah Shivaya” are nice, these themes are just not mine. They don’t tap into my deeply held beliefs as a Jew. What has made my practice more emotionally connecting, meaningful, comforting and enriching has been the introduction and exploration of text, Torah and Jewish prayer into my yoga practice. 

Practicing unity with the divine and fulfilling God’s commandments can (and should) be done simultaneously; if you’ve never done it, try it before you knock it. You might find that both experiences become more profound. Perhaps you’ll see that you can repair the world with a stronger intention and effect greater change. Plus, it just plain feels good.

So practice your vinyasa. Pray. Move. Meditate. Sweat. Study Torah. Keep Shabbat. Live the yamas. Clear your mind. Read “The Yoga Sutras.” Be healthy and prosperous, inside and out.

Namaste and Shalom.

A lesson in listening


It was a cold summer day in Northern California when I had the opportunity to participate in Project Homeless Connect, a one-day program that occurs three to six times a year to assist veterans and others. While this project has been implemented in many places across the United States, I attended an event in the Veteran Center of San Francisco.

Project Homeless Connect provides important services, including medical treatments, haircuts, hearing checks, dentistry, massage and podiatry. Lunch was provided, and not only were groceries in ample supply, but recipients were provided with large bags to carry them. Volunteers worked at stands where these services were provided.

My day at Project Homeless Connect was a field trip during a three-week course on civic leadership, a program of the Center for Talented Youth run by Johns Hopkins University. Along with 75 other high school students, I stayed at San Francisco State University, learning about the root causes of social issues such as poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

Having been in Jewish day school for my entire elementary education, the emphasis of mitzvot (which can be defined both as good deeds to serve others and obligations) has stuck with me throughout middle and high school. Exploring efforts to reduce homelessness was in keeping with the Jewish values I strive to apply to my everyday life in ways that will benefit the world as a whole.

What I most liked about Project Homeless Connect was that it doesn’t just provide a place to stay for the night, but much more. Volunteers treated their “clients” as equals, a service that many of them seldom had experienced. My job was seemingly simple — to accompany clients from the entrance of the Veterans Building to various aid areas upstairs, depending upon their needs. In doing so, not only was I directing them and physically taking them upstairs (as some of them were in wheelchairs), but I got a chance to converse with them and hear their personal stories.

I was partnered with a woman who, before she even really met me, thanked me for just showing up as a volunteer. She was homeless in San Francisco and felt that she had nowhere to turn before she found Project Homeless Connect. As I walked her to the housing information stand, she displayed thorough delight that somebody was beside her to hear all that she had to say. It seemed as if very few people, or none, had bothered to listen to her full story.

She told me she had spent many years serving our country in the Navy. She left the military and eventually became poor and dismayed by what she had seen in war, and married a man who physically and mentally abused her. She did not have a job at the time, and when she finally gathered the strength and courage to leave him, she found herself homeless. She is currently looking for a job, and the services she received on the day of Project Homeless Veterans Connect gave her the basic resources she needs to get on her feet so that she can be in a better position to seek employment.

As this woman told me her enthralling story, she paused periodically to mention her appreciation for all God has given her. As we looked around us, we saw other veterans who had served their country proudly and now found themselves homeless and, in many cases, severely emotionally or physically disabled. The woman told me of how she felt their pain but was thankful that her situation was not as dire as those surrounding us. She reminded me that “every day that we live is a blessing by God” and even said that she wants to volunteer at Project Homeless Connect when she one day has a house, a job and some free time.

She inspired me to remember God in my everyday life and although she was not Jewish (I believe she was Catholic), her humble nature made me think of the 10th commandment given directly by God at Mount Sinai: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Instead of having envy for the people at the top of the social or economic ladder, she simply focused on God’s gifts given to her every day — things as uncomplicated as a smile from a stranger on the street, a hot meal from Project Homeless Connect or an attentive person to hear her story.

Ariel Cohen is a junior at the Archer School for Girls in Brentwood.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Students translate charity lessons into action


For most kids, time off from school means hitting the beaches or other fun-filled attraction. For 17-year-old Neta Batscha, spring break sent her to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast to assist with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Under the auspices of Milken Community High School’s YOZMA social action leadership initiative, the 11th-grader and more than 100 of her classmates spent four days clearing away debris in parts of Natchez, Miss., and in New Orleans, which was still reeling from the hurricane’s destruction. She also built homes with Habitat for Humanity, and, with money raised by her Milken peers, replenished provisions at food shelters unable to meet the ongoing need for assistance.

“It made everyone feel good about themselves, that we can make a difference,” Batscha said. “In my school, we’re taught to give back, even when we’re younger. We’re taught not to be selfish. In Judaism, it’s important for everyone.”

More and more, Jewish kids are taking the lessons they’ve learned about tikkun olam, Judaism’s spin on community service, and translating it into action. Through school-based programs like YOZMA, b’nai mitzvah service projects or simply their own initiative, children are finding creative ways to channel their interests and desire to help others into unique, personal contributions to those less fortunate. In so doing, they are building a reservoir of critical skills and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of compassion and civic responsibility in the Jewish tradition.

“Doing mitzvot and tikkun olam are in everything we do in Judaism, in every book we read,” said Daniel Gold, director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education’s (BJE) Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning. When children perform charitable acts, Gold added, they connect teachings from God with the work they do on earth, and to their own identities.

Josh Lappen’s work on behalf of Jews in Ethiopia has played a formulative role in the development of his Jewish awareness. Since the age of 5, Josh, now 12, has been fundraising under the auspices of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), a nonprofit group that helps Jews survive in Ethiopia and reach Israel.

He accompanies his grandparents, active NACOEJ members, to local festivals where they sell Ethiopian handcrafts, and he recently began his own initiative selling cookies at his Hebrew school.

“My work gets me involved in the community. I almost feel like I’m getting to know them,” said Josh, who has studied the history of Ethiopian Jews and occasionally speaks with groups to raise awareness of the challenges they face. While he has never seen the fruits of his labor firsthand, Josh feels a deep connection with Ethiopian Jews and is planning to participate in NACOEJ’s bar mitzvah twinning program with an Ethiopian boy in Israel next year.

Realizing tikkun olam as a central pillar of Jewish practice, synagogues throughout the country require children to perform service projects before becoming b’nai mitzvah, sensitizing them to their growing responsibilities toward others as they approach adulthood. In many cases, these projects have been the inspiration for ongoing philanthropic endeavors.

Clara Clymer had intended to donate books to a neighborhood school for her bat mitzvah project. Instead, on the advice of Hebrew school staff at Leo Baeck Temple, she decided to become a tutor for KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ youth literacy program. The 12-year-old from Brentwood now meets once a week with a first-grade student, helping to strengthen her reading and comprehension skills. And while Clara was only required to fulfill five hours of service, her satisfaction knowing that she is making a difference in someone’s life has been all the encouragement she needs to continue as a KOREH L.A. volunteer for the foreseeable future.

“If everybody helps somebody who needs help, it makes it a nicer place to live,” she said.

In addition to the religious benefits, studies show that children who volunteer have higher self-esteem than those who do not, are happier and feel empowered by the knowledge that they are bringing about positive change, BJE’s Gold said. On the academic side, they consistently demonstrate higher test scores and rates of school attendance. Community service also helps children develop good work habits and job skills, such as leadership, planning and organization.

“Kids who participate in community service must determine what they want to achieve and figure out creative ways of meeting their goals,” said Sande Hart, who facilitates youth volunteer workshops for the Orange County BJE.

Hart saw proof of this when her son, Matt, organized “Shoot Away Cancer,” a basketball tournament to raise funds for pediatric cancer research at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, as his bar mitzvah project three years ago. Matt secured support from a local basketball league and brought together 180 elementary- to high school-age students for a day of three-on-three play in Santa Ana. While teams paid a $30 registration fee, most of the $7,200 Matt raised came from raffled gift certificates and donations he solicited from local businesses and attractions.

Now 15, Matt continues to volunteer to help those in need. For the past five years, he has been traveling to Mexico where he spends time with orphaned children and helps build houses for homeless families on behalf of the Irvine-based Corazon de Vida Foundation.

“Volunteering gives you a warm feeling that you’re dong something right,” the Rancho Santa Margarita High School sophomore said. “It has changed me as a person. If more kids would go out and do this, I think the world would be a lot better.”

Core Values Too Often Ignored


This piece is excerpted from remarks Rep. Henry Waxman gave at Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture delivered at USC April 23.

What drew me to politics was the esteem I had always felt for public service and the commitment of our religious values to justice, human and civil rights, peace and the importance of helping all people be able to realize their full potential. And, of course, the essential task for our nation to be engaged in the world as a force for good.

As a Jewish congressman, I have been mindful that even in America, there have only been 157 Jews who have ever served in the House of Representatives; that I was the first Jew ever to have been elected from Southern California and the first in California in 40 years when I was elected in 1974. Today, we have 24 Jewish members, many from districts with very few Jewish constituents and seven from Southern California.

I am proud to have played a role as a congressman in events that impacted the Jewish people. My wife, Janet and I were in Egypt and Israel when, after meeting with both President [Anwar] Sadat and Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin, Sadat came to Jerusalem. We sat is amazement as we heard his speech in the Knesset. We fought for the freedom of Soviet Jews, visited Refuseniks, pressured Soviet leaders, and saw the doors open to allow them to leave. Janet was an instrumental player in the efforts to help Syrian Jews leave. We were in Israel as the airlift of Ethiopians arrived in Israel. I was able to attend the White House ceremonies for the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, the signings of the ill-fated Oslo agreement between Arafat and Rabin; the dinner in honor of diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan. Last August, we were in Israel as it undertook the difficult disengagement from the Gaza.

While I have always had a strong Jewish identity, only as an adult have I explored more deeply the Jewish religion. The Jewish way is to have us elevate ourselves and refine our character through the observance of mitzvot. Judaism is much more about acting and doing the right thing, rather than believing the right things. Ethics is at Judaism’s core. God’s primary concern is not that we mindlessly follow ritual, but act decently. Ritual is to help us do that.

Actions and how we live our lives and treat others is at the heart of the matter. To aid us along these lines, we have specific obligations. Tzedakah, which means righteousness, not charity, helps bring justice to others and sanctity to ourselves. The discipline of kashrut raises the most mundane of routine acts into a religious reminder that we are distinctive and the mere physical satisfaction of our appetite can be a spiritual act. Shabbat gives sanctity to time to refresh our body and our soul. It has great meaning for me primarily to remind me, no matter how important I may or am supposed to be, the world can get along without me quite well for one day. It puts a lot of things into perspective.

Jewish observance is a check on our arrogance, self-importance, rationalizations to do what we want. We are required to fulfill the ethical commands and to choose to overcome our natural inclinations that are not worthy.

I have looked at the issue of governmental power in a similar way. Our U.S. Constitution tries to put in place a mechanism for checks and balances because our founders did not trust the concentration of power and the arrogance and corruption that can come with it. By the way, Jewish sources also resist an absolute power structure. Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik referred to a well-known axiom that power tends to corrupt the one who wields it. The noblest, best-intentioned ruler is affected by the glory, tribute, and power of his office. This may cause him to step over the boundary of legitimate authority. The human ego is likely to be distorted and intoxicated by a status, which has no external limits.

For the last six years, we’ve essentially had one-party rule in Washington. And for the last decade, the Republican congressional leadership has governed with the idea that the most important job for them was to keep the Republicans together instead of trying to seek bipartisanship.

Next week, the Republicans will put forth a bill in the House for lobbying reform, in response to the convictions of Duke Cunningham, and the indictments and convictions of a number of staff people around Tom Delay, who also has been indicted. The problem runs far deeper than can be cured by superficial reform. The problem starts not with lobbyists, but with Congress itself.

Look at the Medicare prescription drug bill. Negotiations were behind closed doors; Democrats excluded. Key estimates about the bill’s costs were withheld by a government official who was told he would be fired if he disclosed the information. Two key negotiators ended up working for the drug companies after the bill passed. And when the bill was short of votes on the House floor, the 15-minute roll call was extended to three hours. A Republican member was offered a bribe to vote for it. Now, seniors are trying to make sense of the law and how it affects them, while the drug and insurance companies are coming out the big winners, as the legislation is projected to cost billions more than originally thought.

What about our checks and balances? What about self restraint and ethical guidelines? It is as if recklessness is invited because some leaders do not think they will be held accountable.

Oversight is important, and if done right it can find the truth and bring real change.

At the same time the Congress is refusing to do oversight, the Bush administration acted, even before Sept. 11, 200l, with greater secrecy than any other in history, exceeding even Richard Nixon’s.

Last year, Congressional Quarterly, the nonpartisan magazine reported that:

“Administration secrecy has become the rule rather than the exception, a phenomenon that lawmakers, journalists, public interest groups and even ordinary Americans say has interfered with their ability to participate in government and to hold it accountable for its actions.”

Congressional Quarterly went on to note that some of the documents the administration has withheld seem to have little to do with the war on terrorism and a lot to do with keeping embarrassing information from the public.

There’s no doubt that some things must be kept secret. Our national security demands some information must be kept secret for the good of all. But what we have here is an obsession for secrecy.

Think about the secrets that we now know about: the wiretapping of Americans; a network of foreign prisons; information about detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, Sept. 11 documents proving that the White House had been warned abut the use of hijacked airplanes as weapons

I do not intend to be partisan. But I do believe that the leadership of our government in both Congress and the Executive Branch has turned away from core values we have as Americans and as Jews.

Rep. Henry Waxman is a Democrat representing the 30th Congressional District in Los Angeles.

 

Q & A With Rabbi Richard Levy


In his new book, “A Vision of Holiness: The Future of American Judaism” (URJ Press, 2005), Rabbi Richard N. Levy explains The Pittsburgh Principles — the position paper, if you will, of the Reform Movement that was published in 1999. In many ways, these principles advocate a return to traditional Judaism — from practicing mitzvot and praying in Hebrew to making God and Torah a central belief. Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, helped write the principles. He sat down with The Journal to talk about how Reform Jews can integrate them into their modern American lives.

Jewish Journal: The Reform movement has issued three other comprehensive statements in its history: The Pittsburgh Formation in 1885, The Columbus Platform in 1937 and Centenary Perspective in 1976. Why another set of principles now?

Richard Levy: There was a sense that a great deal had happened in the Reform movement since the Centenary Perspective was issued in 1976. The movement has changed demographically — there were three or four women rabbis then, but by 1999 there were 300. Other major things had changed also: Mixed marriage had increased, as well as conversion, and there was a great explosion of desire for more serious learning. And the view of Israel had changed, too, since 1976. The movement had clearly become so much more observant — much more than the previous statement had indicated.

JJ: So now Reform Judaism allows — or encourages — observing mitzvot such as Shabbat, kashrut, even the going to the mikvah, the ritual bath, when at one point it was only the ethical commandments between human beings that were important. Why is that?

RL: Mitzvot are sacred obligations and the means by which we make our lives holy. It’s both spiritual responding to what God has asked us to do, and practice-oriented — doing things that are in the Torah. This document no longer privileges ethical commands over ritual commands. It’s not second-guessing God; it’s saying that God gave all the mitzvot — one is not above the other.

JJ: I’m not sure I understand. Do Reform Jews have to do mitzvot now?

RL: My wife, Carol, says a mitzvah is something that God has told us it is very important for us to do. Why don’t I say it’s a commandment? Because that’s not the language of dialogue. A mitzvah is the stuff of a relationship between God and the Jewish people. The Reform way is always an individual one. I don’t see it as a choice — a mitzvah jumps out at me, and I have to deal with that. I feel drawn to the idea or action. This is the Jewish experience. It’s not in the language of autonomy [as written in past statements] to sit here in a room and make decisions only on my own. It’s a dialogue with God, the Torah and the Jewish people.

JJ: The principles now recognize the Jews as a nation. It says, “We are committed to the mitzvah ahavat yisrael, love for the Jewish people and to k’lal Yisrael, the entirety of the community of Israel.” Does this mean Jews should be helping only other Jews?

RL: We’ve seen that the distinctions are more and more meaningless as we live in a more integrated world. A lot of Jews are sobered by all the work done for Soviet Jews that in the end liberated not only Soviet Jews but the Soviet Union, because they became a force that inspired other people as well. I think the Reform Movement is much less concerned about which comes first [Jews or non-Jews]. Part of dialogue is where do you feel called to go? Katrina called people.

When our students have gone out to support worker justice in various ways, most of the grocery workers or the hotel workers or security workers weren’t Jews, but we’ve come as Jews.

JJ: The principles say, “We affirm the reality of God.” I’ll bet God is very pleased to hear that. No, seriously, this seems radical for Reform Jews to talk about belief in God — and that the Torah is divine, or has divine sparks in it. How should atheistic and rationalist Jews — who don’t believe the Torah is from God, or that God even exists — deal with this new stage of Reform Judaism?

RL: Nineteenth century Reform Jews were horrified at the more mystical strain of Judaism. Today, many more Reform Jews do accept the reality of God or want to struggle with finding God in their lives, feeling that God is in their lives. I don’t think anybody really rejects a belief in God. I think that anybody who sees connection in the world and is willing to say there’s a source for those connections believes in God…. So I think people who say I don’t believe in God haven’t had the opportunity for sufficient conversation — dialogue, if you will.

JJ: Speaking of dialogue with God, in the new Reform prayer book, “Mishkan T’filah,” due out in spring, the major prayers will be transliterated so that “everyone may pray to God in the Hebrew tongue.” The principles advocate a return to reading and understanding Hebrew. Why?

RL: There has been always a sense that Hebrew was an important part of prayer. Hebrew is the way back to the original dialogues between God and the Jewish people. By reading the Torah in Hebrew and other Jewish texts in Hebrew, one gets at one’s own roots, and what’s understood to be the original language in which God spoke to the Jewish people.

JJ: Are you worried people won’t understand what they are saying?

RL: There’s a way of understanding, even if you can’t read it but you are uttering the sounds. That’s important, too. Not that “baruch” equals “blessed,” but baruch equals the sound of the cantor when I went with my grandparents, baruch are two blessings that I painstakingly learned in Hebrew school — so the meaning isn’t just a literal translation.

JJ: The principles state: “We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life … to all individuals and families, including the intermarried, who strive to create a Jewish home.” Do the principles fight intermarriage at all?

RL: The 1973 statement by the Central Conference of American Rabbis calling on Reform rabbis not to conduct mixed marriages — although we understand that many of them will — is still on the books. It’s not mentioned in the principles out of our desire to make mixed families feel at home, to make synagogues welcoming places for the Jewish and non-Jewish partner and for the children.

There are more synagogues today that have a large number of mixed married couples and offer all kinds of outreach programs to mixed families. Which is better — a synagogue that is open to them, to which they can come and bring their children, or a synagogue that only says we don’t want people to intermarry, and we don’t want to encourage people who have?

There are a number of rabbinic students who are children of mixed marriages (some aren’t mixed anymore, because the non-Jewish partner converted), and they’re wonderful students, and we think, “What would the Jewish people have lost had they felt the Reform movement was not open to them?”

JJ: You write in your book, “We need not fear if we are called to do mitzvot similar to Jews in other movements that we are betraying the Reform.” How are Reform observances different from other observances?

RL: If we can come out with some guidelines of dietary practices, it will go beyond the halacha of kashrut. A Reform Jew who refuses to eat veal and who monitors the various products being boycotted by United Farm Workers — that Reform Jew is also observing dietary practice. So we in some ways are extending the halacha. Another example is the mezuzah. Most Reform Jews have one in their house. I think it would be wonderful if we had them in every room, with text that wasn’t only the Shema, but indicated the holiness of that room: mitzvot dealing with food in the dining room; with the welcoming of guests in the living room. Paradoxically, greater observance by Reform Jews in some areas might separate us from Orthodox or Conservative Jews.

JJ: Do you think the movement’s more traditional approaches will result in more acceptance from Orthodox Jews?

RL: Not so much acceptance as understanding. When this was promulgated, some Orthodox Jews were pleased to discover that Reform Jews believed in mitzvot. Other Orthodox Jews saw the new direction as an indication that Reform was useful, because it could start Jews on a path that the Orthodox could complete for them, rather than be antithetical.

JJ: Does that bother you?

RL: It’s no surprise that they feel their observance is stronger and deeper than mine. But to see that my observance is related to theirs, on the same path to theirs, is a good thing. In the end, each of us stands on our own beliefs and principles.

JJ: What happens in 20 years, 30, 50 years, if people don’t like these proclamations? Do they make another one?

RL: Prophecy has been dead since Malachai, so it’s hard to know. I think the principles indicate where the Reform Movement is, and the book explains more where it should go. Should it move in other directions, it may well be time for another statement. And that would be wonderful. It would only show the continued vitality of Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy will discuss and signs his book Nov. 13 from 3-5 p.m. at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 3077 University Ave., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (213) 749-4225.

 

Power of Words


Each night before retiring, the great Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would make a list. At the end of a long day, he would write down all the wrongs he had committed — against other people, against God, against himself. Nachman would read the list over and over again, with increasing levels of agitation and remorse, until he welled up with sorrow.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are encouraged — commanded really — to write something down. Upon crossing the Jordan River and entering the land of Israel, the people are to “set up great stones, and coat them with plaster. You shall write on them all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3). The commandment seems clear enough: to convey a message in writing. Yet generations of debates have ensued over what words, exactly, were to be inscribed on those stones. Was it the entire text of the Torah — what we call the five books of Moses? Or, was it just a list of mitzvot (commandments), which encompass the legal aspects of the Bible? Or perhaps these stones simply reiterated the Ten Commandments, and that was the “Torah” spoken of in the verse. What was on these stones?

The answer to this question remains a mystery. We don’t know for certain what words were inscribed. But we know something was written. In the end, what is meaningful was not what they wrote, but that they wrote. Immediately upon arriving in the land — after 40 years of desert wandering — the Israelites took the time to record something. They created a monument with words — words perhaps recounting their history, their trials, their legal system, their beliefs, their collective wisdom.

For us, this is a season of building monuments with our words. Throughout this month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our tradition invites us to think, in detail and with brutal honesty, about ourselves. We are encouraged to devote these days to a cheshbon ha’nefesh (inventory of the soul) in which we evaluate our behavior over the last year and humbly seek to make improvements.

During these days before the New Year, we — like the Israelites who were at a dramatic, transitional moment — also stand at the edge of a precipice. The work of looking deeply within can be terribly dangerous. The liturgy of the High Holidays suggests three possible ways to best approach the challenges of this season: through tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (righteous works) and teshuvah (repentance). In other words, the liturgy teaches us to do a cheshbon ha’nefesh by turning in three different directions: turning upward (to God, in prayer), outward (to others, in acts of righteousness), and inward (to ourselves, in contemplation and improvement).

Each of these turnings — containing the power to make radical change — is done with words. The Israelites at the Jordan River also understood this. As they literally walked out of their old existence and into a new one, they marked their transition with words. And God commanded that their enormous change be accompanied by words not just spoken, but written. Once the wisdom was inscribed, it somehow seemed that much more real.

When Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav sat considering his own behavior, he, too, opted to go even further than the spoken word. He, too wrote down the inventory of what he might alter in himself. Why? Why not just stop at speaking the words? It is said that after repeatedly reading the list, he felt such great sorrow that he started to weep. The teardrops would fall upon the written words, and actually blur them beyond distinction. By reading the words he had written, he moved himself to the depths of emotion that might affect real change in the days to come. Perhaps this is the truest meaning of the phrase of greeting we use on Rosh Hashanah: Shanah tovah tikatevu: May you be inscribed — and may you inscribe yourself — for a good and sweet new year.

This column originally appeared Sept. 15, 2000.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is founder and facilitator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for parents of special-needs children. She can be reached by e-mail at ozreinu@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

 

Twenty-Nine Days to Make Mitzvot


Aryeh Green and Yosef Abramowitz were sipping tea in a Bedouin tent last year in Sde Boker, a kibbutz in Israel’s Negev desert, when they had an idea.

Participants at a conference of Kol Dor, an organization that seeks to revitalize Jewish activism and unity across the globe, the two were discussing how the group could promote Jewish identity and peoplehood.

“Most Jewish institutions and endeavors are out of touch with the next generation of Jews because of a lack of relevance,” Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family and Life (JFL), which publishes several Jewish Web sites and magazines, told JTA. “But we do know that the idealism and the desire to contribute to the world” are predominant.

It occurred to them that a month in the Jewish calendar formally dedicated to social action would be an ideal means of mobilizing and inspiring the Jewish community.

Their initiative received a major boost this week when the Knesset’s Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs proclaimed the Jewish month of Cheshvan, which falls in November this year, as Social Action Month.

According to Green, who serves as an adviser to former Israeli Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, “We agreed that if we wanted Kol Dor to succeed, we would have to focus on practical, tangible contributions.”

“What makes this initiative interesting and unique is that it harnesses the power of different social action and Jewish organizations to get involved,” Green said.

The goal is not to spearhead specific projects, but to “pull together the existing frameworks of social action.”

The effort has garnered the support of various Jewish groups, including the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the Israel Defense Forces’ education branch and the World Union of Jewish Students.

Abramowitz said Labor Party legislator Colette Avital, who chairs the Knesset’s Immigration Committee, has sent a letter to various Jewish organizations expressing support.

Jewish schools in Israel and the Diaspora will be a particular focus of the initiative. According to Abramowitz, Social Action Month will receive special attention in the BabagaNewz, a monthly magazine on Jewish values that JFL publishes for elementary school students. The magazine serves 1,400 Jewish schools and has a circulation of more than 40,000.

The JFL journal, Sh’ma, and magazine, JVibe, also intend to publish features on the subject, he said.

Abramowitz said Cheshvan was selected for the project because it immediately follows the High Holidays, which usually spur higher levels of Jewish observance.

The Knesset decision also represents a victory for Kol Dor, whose philosophy formed the ideological foundation for Social Action Month.

“The paradigm that we are advocating in Jewish life is that peoplehood is a central mobilizing force,” Abramowitz said, citing the success of the movement to rescue Soviet Jewry as one example.

The group seeks to use the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, as a unifying theme.

Fly the Mitzvah Skies


 

El Al, Israel’s national airline, is the only airline that keeps kosher, observes Shabbat and even gives out doughnuts on Chanukah, but recently it has been doing other mitzvot as well.

On Nov. 3 Edith Krygier boarded an El Al flight to Los Angeles in Tel Aviv because she wanted to visit her children and grandchildren who live here. The plane stopped in Toronto, and as Krygier was standing on the jetway waiting to board again, she suffered a stroke and collapsed just a few feet from the aircraft door.

El Al immediately called an ambulance and got Krygier to the hospital, and in the meantime it also called David, Irit and Karen Krygier — Edith’s children in Los Angeles, and helped them get on a plane to Toronto. In Toronto, the El Al staff sat by Edith’s bed until her children got there, while other staff helped shuttle the children to the hospital. Stanley Morais, El Al’s general manager in Toronto, even visited Edith in hospital just to see how she was doing.

“Even the doctor and the medical staff commented that they had never seen anything like it,” David Krygier said.

Thanks to El Al’s quick action, Edith was able to recover from her stroke quickly and without side effects.

But that’s not all. In early December, some rabbis from the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) boarded an El Al plane in New York carrying some bulky but holy hand luggage — Sefer Torahs. They were six torahs in all, the final installment of 100 torahs that NCYI brought to Israel over the past three years to donate to IDF soldiers. Not only did El Al not charge freight costs for the Torahs, but they allowed those carrying the Torahs to board first so that they could put them into closets, or on free seats if there were any available.

“From the beginning, El Al was unlike any other airline,” said Sheryl Stein, El Al’s U.S. manager of advertising and public relations. “It’s an extension of the spirit of Israel.”

 

For the Kids


Good for you

In Ki Tetze, we are given many mitzvot to do — 613, actually. What’s a mitzvah? A commandment to do a good deed, or to follow directions to perform a certain ritual. As a Jew, it isimportant to do both. We become role models for the world in our acts of charity, and we remember who we are and where we came from through our ritual.

Munich Memorial

As the 2004 Olympics draw to a close, it is ourhope that the whole world will rememberthe 11 Israeli athletes who died during the1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany.They were kidnapped and killedby a Palestinian group calledBlack September.

Home Run


Shawn Green sits quietly in the Dodgers dugout waiting for pregame batting practice to begin. His unassuming nature seems at odds with his 6-foot-4 figure; his quiet presence inconsistent with his celebrity.

But then Green seems to live in contrast. He is not observant but is proud of his Jewish roots. He is not religious but understands his actions reflect upon the Jewish community, and he acts accordingly. He’s an icon to religious children, but is intermarried. He shuns the spotlight but steps up to his Jewish role model post.

Green never set out to become a public Jewish figure. He grew up in a nonpracticing family in Tustin. He didn’t attend Hebrew school; he never had a bar mitzvah.

“I’m still not really religious,” the Dodgers’ first baseman said. “But when I started playing in Toronto and traveling around, people from the Jewish community reached out to me. So I learned a lot more about my heritage.”

Since then, Green has become a household Jewish name. When leaving Toronto five years ago, Green asked to be placed in a city with a significant Jewish population. He skipped a crucial 2001 game against the San Francisco Giants, because it landed on Yom Kippur. He’s been honored by Jewish groups and spoken at Jewish events.

Still, Green is clear about the extent of his personal observance; he does not inflate the role Judaism plays in personal life, in his family life.

Green met his wife, Lindsay — who is not Jewish — in line at a Wahoo’s Fish Taco restaurant. After talking for a few minutes they realized that they were set to go on a blind date just a few days later. Last year, the happily married couple had a daughter, Presley.

“Fatherhood is the best thing I’ve experienced in my life so far,” Green said.

Green said he plans to give his daughter an understanding of both her religious heritages. “We’re going to expose her to everything. She’s lucky, because she gets to celebrate all the holidays,” said Green, straightening his long legs away from the bench.

With the birth of his daughter, Green gained a greater appreciation for his young fans.

“It changed the way I interact with kids around the stadium,” said Green, who admits to spending most of his free time messing around on his Apple computer, tinkering with digital pictures and videos he’s taken of his daughter. “I understand when parents are a little pushy to get their kids to the front of the line for autographs. I understand a little bit more now, because I have a daughter of my own.”

It’s the Jewish kids who have claimed Green as their own. Before every home game, a crowd of children gather near the field, hoping for autographs or just a hello from the left-handed power hitter. The stands are filled with children clad in No. 15 jerseys, children who keep Shawn Green bobbleheads on their nightstands and marked Shawn Green free T-shirt day in their calendars (May 14).

“The best feeling is when someone comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, how you doing? I enjoy watching you play.’ Or when a kid asks me for an autograph and has that appreciative look in his eyes. That means a lot to me,” Green said.

Green is not the first Jewish baseball player, nor the only one to currently play in the league, but he is today’s most celebrated. Mention “Jewish sports” in a conversation, and his is the first name to be dropped. Google Jewish baseball players, he’ll have the most links — well over a million. Survey young Jewish baseball fans, and he’s their favorite.

“It’s amazing that one of the best players in Los Angeles is Jewish,” said 11-year-old Eli Mordecai, a student at Torah Emes. “I play baseball all the time. When I pick up the bat, I try to swing like Green, then I run the bases like Green. I even wear my hat like him,” said Eli, who was celebrating his birthday at Dodger Stadium.

As a child, Green dreamed of being a baseball star, not a Jewish star. But slowly, he came to see himself as his community sees him; he began to understand why his success means so much to them.

“There are not a ton of Jewish athletes; there are several really good Jewish baseball players and a few in some other sports,” said Green, his eyes focusing on the field. “So I understand that Jewish kids who follow baseball are going to follow me, because I’m Jewish. I would have done the same thing as a kid; that’s just how it is.”

The kids seem to do more than follow Green, they adore him. They admire him.

“Shawn Green is my favorite player,” said Janice Spiegel, 10, a student at Sinai Akiba. “He’s my favorite, because he’s good, but also because he’s Jewish.”

The children like knowing there’s a Jewish uniform on the field. They brag about Green; they identify with him.

“Usually, we’re looking up to Michael Jordan or Shaq, but with Shawn Green, it’s different,” said Noah Miller, 14. “You think that could be me.”

Green understands that Jewish children look up to him; he knows his high-profile position comes with responsibility. Setting an example for his young fans, Green fills his life with mitzvot, or good deeds.

Every year, he donates $250,000 of his salary to the Dodgers Dream Foundation, an organization that builds baseball fields in impoverished neighborhoods and neglected parks. He is active in The Johnny Fund, a pediatric leukemia organization, and was at one point the spokesman for KOREH L.A., which sends out Jewish volunteers to increase literary rates among children.

Even during his recent hitting slump, Green said his performance, or lack of it, can teach something to the kids who watch his every play.

“People who really pay attention to baseball will see that even their favorite players struggle,” said Green, who’s batting average fell to .249 this year. “We always talk about how baseball is so much like life, but it really is. There are a lot of ups and downs; you just try to ride the wave, get through the tough times and not dwell on them. There’s a lesson in that.”

Green leads by example. He’s not known for his wild partying or outlandish behavior. His life is not the stuff of tabloid headlines and water cooler gossip.

He’s private, slightly superstitious and noticeably normal. He listens to Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Metallica — even a little bit of country. He tries to eat healthy but admits to sneaking his share of hamburgers. He prefers not to travel in the off-season and tries to put his family first.

“I like to stay low and out of the spotlight, stay home and be pretty mellow. Now that I have a family, I just really enjoy spending time with them,” Green said.

Green may avoid the limelight, but his Judaism will always draw attention. Members of the media, the Jewish community and baseball fans everywhere qualify Green as the Jewish hitter.

But would it not be saying more if a Jewish athlete could play alongside non-Jewish athletes without marking him a phenomenon? Major League Baseball draws players from all ethnicities and backgrounds and seldom makes note of these issues.

So why dwell on Green’s religion? Labeling Green as unique may inspire Jewish children, or it may dishearten them, reminding them how few Jews succeed in professional sports.

“I see both sides of it. You’re always going to feel a closer connection to someone with the same background as yourself,” Green said. “That doesn’t mean a Jewish kid’s favorite player is always going to be Jewish. It means he can relate to the customs that a Jewish person was raised with.”

“I think in that sense, it’s nice to see those people in your favorite endeavors, whether it’s baseball or movies or whatever,” he said. “I’m glad these kids feel they can relate to me.”

Green, the accidental celebrity, has found balance between his private life and his public persona. He’s grown into his role in the Jewish community with grace.

“I’m comfortable with it,” said Green, smiling.

A Mitzvah Is Its Own Reward


"Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; instead be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward. And let the awe of Heaven be upon you." — Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers)

The rabbi and the cantor are strumming their guitars and jumping up and down in unison on the bimah like rock stars. The cantor is wearing a

Hawaiian shirt and a cap; the rabbi a T-shirt. The pews are full — more than 300 people, standing-room only.

The seats are packed with squirming, giggly children. Adults mouth the words or shyly sing, but the kids know the choreography, flexing their muscles, wiggling their bottoms and clutching at their hearts at the right moments.

They clutch something else close to their hearts, too: the true meaning of mitzvot.

This is the morning introduction to Mitzvah Day at Temple Beth Sholom, and these kids have it right.

One girl with pigtails will beautify the Santa Ana Zoo, pressing gritty dirt down to nestle new flowers within shouting distance of exotic animals. A teenage boy finds a place amid lonely kids younger than he; they want to chat and play basketball and shoot pool, and he obliges. Another boy wants to paint; he know he’s a good painter, his mom says so.

There are a lot of projects from which to choose for the Sunday morning crowd, and each one is a mitzvah.

Many people give charity and do good deeds. These are things that people feel go above and beyond the call of life’s duty: extra credit in the karma bucket, merits on the teacher’s chalkboard. These are things that are not required, but they’re awfully nice of you to do.

Jews do mitzvot. A mitzvah is not only a charitable deed (or even most importantly a charitable deed). A mitzvah is a commandment, a commandment to create holy time and places in the world through ritual and compassionate deeds. Their reward is in the doing of them: for God, for humanity, for a better world.

This Mitzvah Day there are pancake breakfasts and sandwiches for the hungry, placemats and baseball hats for the bored and disillusioned and clothes and encouragement for those down on their luck.

The attendants are mostly parents of kids from religious school — the ones who learn about their biblical ancestral mothers and fathers, the trials of Jewish history and the incredible feat that is the Jews’ millennia-long survival.

And how do they fit into this great story?

By doing their part.

Kids sometimes are too young to know how much they can help and we adults — well, we forget.

The hope is that mitzvot on Mitzvah Day create a spark, the same way the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles at the end of the week slows us down and gets us thinking about the important things in life.

Yes, doing mitzvot takes practice and commitment, but one Mitzvah Day project is a good start. Mitzvot can fan that inner spark in all of us into a flame of giving that offers no reward save the reward of a mitzvah done.

What did I do on Mitzvah Day? I painted rooms in a senior center. Well, actually, other people painted. I scrubbed paint spots off the tile with wet rags so the janitors had less to scrape off the floor with razor blades the next morning. Don’t we all deserve nice, clean walls and floors?

Sure, it doesn’t sound like much, but somebody had to do it. When someone needs something and I can help, I am a blessing to others, and I am in turn blessed with the chance to do mitzvot and to change the world a little bit at a time: One paint-splashed boy, one girl with grass stains and dirt under her fingernails — one scrubbed-off paint spot at a time.

"Make your Torah study a fixed practice; say little and do much; and receive everyone with a cheerful face." — Pirkei Avot

Kids Page


Moms and Mitzvot

There is a lot of teaching going on in Parshat Emor. God teaches us many mitzvot. For instance, we learn that farmers must leave some of their harvest for poor people. God teaches Moses laws about the priests. Then he tells Moses to teach them. Then he tells the priests to teach their children the laws of purity. God is like a really big parent!

This Mother’s Day, which will fall on May 11, you will have a chance to appreciate the person who has taught you most in life: how to share, how to eat well, how to take care of yourself. Give her a chance to show her how much you’ve learned: make her breakfast, clean up your dirty socks and give her a big kiss!

Skittish With Yiddish?

Here is a hilarious Mother’s Day poem sent in by Jake Mogul, 11, of Moorpark.

Here are the Yiddish words you need to know: punim = face; shmutz = dirt; shayna = sweet.

Mom, my toys away you puts,

Mom, you clear my punim of the shmutz.

Mom, you are such a shayna,

You put my lunch

in a containa!

Palindrome This One, Pal

Palin what?

OK — a palindrome

is a word that is spelled the same forward and backward. So, here’s the question: Which two words in English are palindromes whose Hebrew translations are also palindromes? (Hint: One of those words has a lot to do with the subject of today’s page, and the other has a lot to do with the first answer.)

Married to Israel


Call it a shopping trip. Lou and Trudy Kestenbaum came to Israel last month on a Jewish National Fund (JNF) mission to spend money, as well as to follow up on how the money they’ve already spent in the Jewish state is doing.

Lou Kestenbaum made his fortune in construction and then plastics, and now that he’s retired, he spends a lot of his time giving it away. "Now I work for mitzvot," he says.

The Kestenbaums give sizable gifts through an organization called Shelters for Israel, a Los Angeles-based group founded in 1948 by Hungarian Holocaust survivors like themselves. The Shelters organization, with nearly 500 members, may be the most streamlined charitable organization on the planet: It has no office, no overhead and gets all its work done on a volunteer basis while, in the last 15 years alone, earmarking some $10 million for Israel projects.

"We’re one of the biggest secrets in L.A.," says Lou Kestenbaum, naming a few of Shelters for Israel’s undertakings: a Jordan Valley day-care center for handicapped elderly that the Kestenbaums helped to dedicate on this trip; an elder- care center in Haifa, due to be completed in three months; a community center in the Arava on which construction has just begun, plus kindergartens, libraries, day-care centers — 35 projects in all.

"We start with seeing what Israel’s needs are," Lou Kestenbaum explains. "We’re married to Israel."

"And also to each other," his wife adds.

Trudy Kestenbaum is especially active in the JNF Sapphire Women’s group, through which the Kestenbaums have also made major gifts, including a recent donation to underwrite the infrastructure for a new town, called Zukkim, in the Arava. They have also made sizable private gifts, donating an ambulance to Magen David Adom and a playground near the Haifa zoo.

Their current trip partly centered on the dedication of a new Jewish National Fund reservoir at Kibbutz Affikim, south of Lake Kinneret, for which the Kestenbaums donated $300,000. The water shortage in Israel has reached critical proportions, Lou points out, and, he adds, it’s a problem that is not going to solve itself. "If you give a man a fish, you feed him once," he quotes. "But if you teach him to fish, you feed him forever. A reservoir is not just a hole in the ground with a lot of water in it," he says. "It changes people’s lives."

He points out what the nearly 1 million cubic meter reservoir at Affikim will contribute: a commercial fish farm (carp, trout and whitefish) that will produce income for the kibbutz and food for Israelis, water for agriculture and a general "greening" that will improve the quality of life for all the area’s inhabitants. Reservoirs can also catch and hold rainwater or usable waste water for recycling, making a double impact by protecting the environment while adding to the water supply.

Israel now has about 100 reservoirs around the country, with JNF aiming at creating 100 more in the next five years. With Israel’s need for water obvious and even desperate — the country, whose annual water deficit equals 25 percent of its total water use, is currently suffering the worst drought in its recorded history, according to JNF — the couple, "went shopping for another reservoir to raise funds for," Lou Kestenbaum says.

As part of the JNF mission, which included a handful of other Angelenos, the Kestenbaums toured sites in Israel and heard talks by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel. Lou Kestenbaum, whose comprehensive collection of Israeli stamps is both widely known and extremely valuable, also took time to visit the Israel Philatelic Museum in Tel Aviv, of which he is a founder.

Nothing if not energetic, he is eager to see another brainchild of his come to birth in Los Angeles. Starting with this year’s JNF annual banquet, scheduled for Oct. 27, two community figures, not the usual single individual, will be honored each year — an Ashkenazi and a Persian. "It’s a way of bringing the communities together," explains Lou Kestenbaum, whose business connections with Iranian Jews were a steppingstone to conceiving and implementing the idea. He is this year’s Ashkenazi honoree; the Persian is Dr. Jamshed Maddahi.

The Kestenbaums, who have two grown children and two grandchildren, have been married for 57 years. "And I’d buy another 57 with this guy," says Trudy Kestenbaum fondly, jerking her thumb at her husband. Apparently, she thinks that her husband, like the state of Israel, is a good investment.

A Mitzvah Resolution


We all have favorite mitzvot: slowing down the pace on Shabbat, building a sukkah, frolicking at Purim, studying Jewish texts, praying to God. With Rosh Hashana at hand, my New Year’s resolution is to share the amazing experience we call hachnasat orchim. It means opening one’s home to visitors, sometimes even to utter strangers. It frequently is marked by inviting friends and guests for Shabbat meals.

During the early years of my marriage, we hosted friends for Shabbat meals in our itsy-bitsy 11th-floor apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and we were similarly hosted. Many of the friends slept over, and we slept at their homes, too.

In later years, with several children growing up in our Valley home, we extended invitations to families with children. Invitations would be reciprocated, and over the course of many hours and many such meals, we made friends, learned more about ourselves, and shared an expanded world of different viewpoints and experiences with our children. As the adults’ conversations would linger through the afternoon, the kids would slink away from the table, pull out toys and games, and play with their guests.

When we moved to the East Valley in September 1995, we were newcomers. With certain notable and special exceptions, Shabbat meal invitations were not forthcoming. Although we were six mouths to feed, something seemed wrong with the community into which we had moved. So we just took the initiative, started inviting strangers to our home, people we did not know, to break the ice. The invitations were reciprocated, multiplied, and we had found a niche.

In October 1999, I went through the personal tragedy of a divorce. I felt personally lost, very much alone. A lady in my congregational community, Lilly Kahn-Rose, approached me one Shabbat soon after, offering to help me in some way. I responded: "Please invite me and my children for some Shabbat meals, and please help me get some Shabbat meal invitations from others in the community. I can buy cold cuts, side dishes, and challah, can recite kiddush and lead z’mirot melodies, but it is going to be so lonely and feel so minimalist in our apartment. Please help me get me some Shabbat invitations."

A week later, Lilly called me and asked me for my fax number. The fax arrived soon after — with a list of confirmed Shabbat invitations for my children and me for every Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch for the next seven months.

Throughout those next seven months, I met a community of wonderful, warm, loving people who are rearing their own families, burdened by their own struggles and concerns, yet who rushed to open their homes to my children and me. During those seven months, I never once felt like a beggar from Jerusalem. Instead, we talked throughout the meals, about mitzvot and ideas, about Israel, about the movies, about the busway, about broccoli in Guatemala, about the stuff that goes on in families.

It made a potentially devastating period in my life not only bearable but extraordinary. I learned much Torah, even though I have some learning. I continued evolving as a person. In fact, Linda Charlin, the hostess in one family that hosted us most frequently, along with the Kahn-Roses, asked me after one Shabbat lunch whether I would be interested in meeting a friend of hers. Ellen and I married a year later, but not before three other hosts initiated suggestions to set me up with acquaintances.

So, for this Rosh Hashana, I bare a personal side of myself because, in sharing, I believe it can do some good. There are single people in your community, and Shabbat can be very lonely for singles. There are divorced and widowed people and orphans and strangers in your community. There are neighbors, some sitting next to you at temple, some dwelling down the block. Many have their own Shabbat table. Invite them anyway. Many others do not even observe the Shabbat — invite them for the Friday night dinner and ritual.

During my 10 years as an active congregational rav, and through 30 years as a grown-up, I cannot think of a more satisfying and meaningful way in which I have shared Judaism with others, and in which others have shared Judaism with me, than through hachnasat orchim and Shabbat meals.

And to this day I still can remember those exquisite moments when I was invited as an utter stranger to share Shabbat with a family while I was on the road. Like when I got stuck in Cleveland at a Jones Day law firm conference, and an associate there invited me, an utter stranger, to share Shabbat with his wife and kids. That invitation led to a friendship that, eight years later, saw him fly in from Boston to attend my remarriage and that now has me shopping for a bar mitzvah gift for his son.

Now that I am remarried, it is time to open my doors to others once again, something Ellen never has stopped doing. I hope you will share, too, in our "favorite mitzvah."

Fair Weight


Honesty, morality and ethical behavior — these are the calling cards of Leviticus, and they are the centerpieces of Jewish behavior and identity. Amongst the mitzvot enumerated in Leviticus 19 (known by some scholars as the "Holiness Code") are respect for parents, charity for the poor, prohibitions against stealing and lying, a reminder to pay an employee’s wages on time, the moral obligation not to take advantage of the deaf or blind, honesty and fairness in justice, prohibitions against holding grudges or exacting revenge, and the famous mitzvah to "love your neighbor as yourself."

This impressive list of ethical mitzvot concludes with an injunction to treat the stranger in our midst with fairness, and that when we conduct our business, our "weights and measures shall be accurate."

Throughout this "Holiness Code" — so-called because the section begins with "Kedoshim Tiheyu" ("You shall be holy") — the Torah reminds us that it is every Jewish person’s obligation and responsibility to behave according to these ethical norms and standards because God has asked this of us.

Every few verses, one finds the conclusion "I am the Lord Your God" (seven times) or the abbreviated "I am the Lord" (seven times). A total of 14 different reminders that these mitzvot are not simply ethical norms of human behavior, but they are the basis of a religious code of conduct originating from God.

For the last mitzvah in this section, the obligation to maintain fair weights and measures in business (a technical term for "honesty in business"), the Torah also reminds us that the reason why we must observe this mitzvah is because it is God’s will. But instead of using the same formulations it did the previous 14 times, the Torah chooses a specific reasoning: "I am the Lord your God who brought you forth from the land of Egypt."

The commentaries notice this peculiarity, wondering what specific connection exists between honesty in business and the Exodus from Egypt. Rashi, the most famous of Biblical commentators, comments that God took us out of Egypt on the condition that we would behave fairly and honestly in our business dealings.

The modern Israeli "Da’at Mikra" commentary expands on Rashi’s teaching by saying that the commandment to be fair in business comes to protect the most vulnerable members of society — the elderly, the proselyte and the foreigner. Because of their weak status in society, all of these individuals are vulnerable to being cheated in business. The Jewish people, who were slaves in Egypt and whose status in society as slaves was similar to that of elderly, proselytes and foreigners, should have the highest sensitivity towards these individuals, because we know what it was like to be mistreated by society. It is the specific experience of slavery in Egypt that strengthens our understanding of the importance of justice, righteous and ethical behavior and having mercy on others. Therefore, the Torah commands us to behave honestly in business and reminds us that the reason we as Jews must especially behave honestly in our business dealings is because we experienced the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, and God then took us out from slavery to freedom so that we might live ethically.

I wonder what modern archaeologists have to say about that?

Dear Rabbi


Dear Rabbi,

I have been taking on new mitzvot throughout the past years. I have begun wearing tzitzit regularly and have been working at becoming stricter concerning Shabbat. These activities have come from my understanding of the commandments in the Torah and how Jewish tradition has interpreted said commandments.

I am at a loss, however, for the tradition of wearing a kipah. It seems an entirely human invention. I feel that I have a drive to want to wear the kipah more regularly and even when I leave the house. Unfortunately, I find that the drive to wear it is only to be like others, not to be more in touch with my Jewish tradition and God’s law. I feel awkward when I wear a kipah because I feel that I am observing a custom simply to fit in. That said, I also feel awkward about praying without one because I wonder if there is something to the tradition that I might be missing. I am looking for a historical perspective. Is there anything originating from Torah in this tradition, or is it something simply cultural, like the wearing of ties at formal occasions?

Sincerely,

Benjie

Dear Benjie,

You are correct that none of the 613 biblical commandments state that a Jew must wear a kipah. But the logic that flows from your premise requires some fine-tuning.

According to biblical and rabbinic thought, the Torah has been given to humanity. It calls for human interpretation to apply it properly. Were a Jew to fulfill the words of the Bible literally, ignoring subsequent rabbinic interpretation, he or she would be misapplying the Bible, since the Bible itself authorizes the leaders of each generation to interpret it for the use of each new age. We no longer sacrifice goats, we no longer own slaves. By the Torah’s own mandate, the sages of each generation are charged with mediating the Torah and life.

From antiquity, Jews covered their heads as a sign of piety and humility. Headcovering reminds us that we are always in God’s presence. It marks us as distinct, reminding us that the repair of the world is God’s business, our business.

Already by the time of the Talmud, Jewish law required a Jew to wear a headcovering during meals, study, and prayer. Please note that rabbinic law is not mere custom, it is how God speaks to Jews through Judaism. Rabbinic law has the force of divine commandment (like lighting the Chanukah lights and praising God for giving us that commandment even though it is not in the Torah).

By the way, it isn’t necessarily bad to want to be like others. The Mishnah commands us not to separate ourselves from the community, and a healthy respect for the opinions of our fellow human beings is a positive virtue to cultivate. That religious Jews wear headcoverings is a pretty good reason to do the same.

So, to summarize: it is a mitzvah to wear a kipah while studying, praying and eating. Wearing it all the time is more than Jewish law requires but is a laudable custom, since it serves to remind the wearer and those around that there is a God who rules the world and that we are commanded to serve God by repairing that world and by loving each other.

B’virkat Shalom,

Rabbi Artson

All letters to Dear Rabbi require a name, address and telephone number for purposes of verification. The names in letters used are fictitious. Dear Rabbi welcomes your letters. Responses can be given only in The Jewish Journal. Mail letters to Dear Rabbi, c/o Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, 15600 Mulholland Dr., Bel Air, Calif. 90077-1599; or e-mail to artson@ni.net

Doing the Dirty Work


Rabbi Safra roasted the meat. Raba salted the fish.

According to the Talmud, this is what these two great sages did every Friday afternoon, in preparation for Shabbat. The Talmud regards this information as noteworthy because, although both sages certainly had others in their households who could have done this work, they insisted on doing it themselves. “It is greater to do the mitzvah with one’s own hands than to delegate it to others” was the motto by which Rabbi Safra and Raba lived. And they apparently applied this motto without discrimination. It pertained to messy or smelly mitzvot just as it did to mitzvot that did not get one’s hands and clothing dirty. A mitzvah is a mitzvah.

I remember reading journalist Ari Goldman’s book, “Finding God at Harvard.” He recounts, at one point, an oft-repeated request that his mother would make during the years of his childhood: “Do a mitzvah Ari, and take out the garbage.” Goldman notes with joy and wonder the way that we elevate the most mundane, physically dirty activity to the level of sacred act.

This important perspective on the irrelevance of esthetic pleasantness to the performance of mitzvah is critical to our religious vision. It is the premise that inspires the wonderful “Mitzvah Days,” sponsored by synagogues and federations everywhere, which include cleaning up polluted beaches and scraping graffiti off the walls of playgrounds. It is the understanding that animated some of my all-time favorite people to go out every single Saturday night on the “midnight run” — a tour of several New York City subway terminals, at which they distributed sandwiches, blankets and conversation to the city’s homeless.

I suspect that the source of this idea is to be found in the portion we read this Shabbat. It begins with the command to clear the ashes off the altar at the beginning of each Temple workday. “And the kohen shall don his linen garments and remove the ashes which the fire had produced, and he shall place them next to the altar.” After he’s done that, he is to remove them from the Temple altogether. This must have been a messy job. Yet the Torah ordains that it must specifically be done by a kohen, and by a kohen who must specifically wear white clothing, to boot. It seems an unavoidable conclusion that the Torah was here going out of it way to establish this point — that mitzvah and esthetic pleasantness having little to do with each other.

It is interesting to note that the daily clearing of the ashes became a highly prized assignment within the world of the Temple. The Mishna attests to the competition that attended the privilege of performing this task. The Torah succeeded in implanting its ethic. We should not be surprised about how strongly the Torah and Talmud make this point. After all, the world is not such a clean, sweet-smelling place. If we’re going to succeed at all in “fixing” it, we have to get dirty and understand that getting dirty is a mitzvah.

Like most counter-intuitive religious insights, this one, too, requires daily reinforcement. Let me suggest something that I intend to try, and perhaps you’d like to try, too. With a little reflection, I bet I could compose a kavannah (statement of religious purpose) that I could recite before doing the family’s laundry, or before washing the dinner dishes. Are these not tasks through which I express love for my family, and gratitude to God for having blessed me with them? Couldn’t a similar kavannah be composed for the act of changing a diaper? Surely, one could be recited before kashering the oven for Passover.

If our tradition has it right, these daily reinforcements could change the way we see the world. They could help us to see mitzvot everywhere we look. They could help us to look out each day, and to not see a world that’s a big mess, but to see a world that is waiting for a few more people to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.


Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.

A Day of Mitzvot and Meaning


Young Mitzvah Day volunteers clean-up Taft High School inWoodland Hills.

A Day of Mitzvot and Meaning

The annual Valley event provides social-action projects andopportunity for community involvement

Mitzvot, acts of loving kindness or just plain charity:Whatever you call them, Jews are commanded to do more than simplypray for good things — they have to do good themselves in order tohelp repair what is wrong in the world.

For the third year, this idea of tikkun olam (repairing the world)has become a rallying cry for Mitzvah Day, a community-wide day ofvolunteerism that this year is expected to bring together a smallarmy of more than 3,000 do-gooders from across the five-valley areaserved by the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance. Members of 37synagogues and other organizations from the San Fernando, Conejo,Simi, Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys will participate in morethan 100 projects during the event, which takes place on Nov. 16 andis coordinated by the Valley Alliance’s Jewish Community RelationsCommittee (JCRC).

JCRC Director Barbara Creme views Mitzvah Day as acommunity-building tool. “It’s an incredible way of bringing thesynagogue and organizational community together,” she said. “It’s awonderful way for people to get together and do something meaningful,lasting and that feels good.” The goal of the day is not simply to dogood for a single day but to kick off ongoing projects.

One of the most ambitious projects this year, a tree-planting atLake Balboa, will take only a few hours, but the fruits (well,foliage anyway) of the effort will last a lifetime and beyond. TempleJudea, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Ahavat Shalom and Heschel Day Schoolwill join together with the TreePeople to plant 100 24-gallon-sizetrees as part of a major beautification project. The resulting smallforest will be aptly named the Mitzvah Grove.

Stephen S. Wise itself has 40 projects, ranging from volunteersmaking sandwiches for homeless-shelter residents, to youngstersdecorating 200 photo albums to give to foster children, who will fillthem with their own pictures (a disposable camera will be included).

Diane Kabat, the temple’s social-action chair, said that thesynagogue is also engaged in ongoing mitzvot, such as donatingvegetables from its community garden to the Valley Shelter in NorthHollywood, and conducting monthly bingo games at the Jewish Home forthe Aging.

She expects about 1,000 people from the congregation to donateabout 3,000 mitzvah hours on Nov. 16.

Other highlights of the day include:

* A swim-a-thon for teens at the West Valley Jewish CommunityCenter to benefit Jewish AIDS Services, the American Cancer Societyand the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

* A knit-a-thon at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center toaid nursing homes and a blood drive.

* Wheels for Humanity has teens repairing wheelchairs, also at theWest Valley JCC.

* A sports day and barbecue for less privileged children at theGuadeloupe Community Center in Canoga Park is sponsored by the B’naiB’rith Reunion Chapter.

Conejo Valley, which has one of the fastest-growing Jewishpopulations, is getting into Mitzvah Day in a big way this year, withthe efforts of four synagogues (Temples Beth Haverim, Adat Elohim,Etz Chaim and Or Ami), the Conejo Valley JCC, B’nai B’rith, HeschelWest Day School and Chabad of the Conejo. Among the projects: a blooddrive, bubbes and zaydes reading to children, a sing-along at aseniors home, a trail cleanup in the Santa Monica Mountains and akosher tour of Bristol Farms.

For the first time, Mitzvah Day has a logo, the result of acontest among religious- and day-school students. Vanessa Le Winter,a Milken Community High School student and Temple Beth Hillel member,created the design, which shows a Band-Aid affixed to a blue andgreen world that is encircled by children linking hands and hearts.

Many of the mitzvah projects benefit non-Jews, and that is not byaccident, said Candice Stein, who is chairing Mitzvah Day for thesecond year. “It’s important for the community to know that Jews careabout it and do give back to it,” she said. This is particularly truein some areas of the Antelope, Santa Clarita and San Fernandovalleys, where there have been recent anti-Semitic incidents, Steinsaid. “We need to do outreach and create some relationships that willcontinue.”

For information about taking part in Mitzvah Day, call the ValleyAlliance JCRC at (818) 587-3219. — Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

No Accidental Tourists

Nearly 400 Angelenos travel to Israel as part of the Federation’sGolden Anniversary Mission

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

Three hundred ninety-eight Angelenos took off for Israel lastSaturday evening with an itinerary planned by the Jewish FederationCouncil of Greater Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, some departed withgreat hopes and memories, few with fears, and everyone with a senseof excitement.

“I’m really interested to see what it’s like since we were therelast,” said Arthur Mishler, who last visited Israel, with his wife,Susan, 18 years ago. “I know there have been lots of changes, andIsrael has become a very modern society.”

The Mishlers are riding on the Temple Beth Am bus, one of 11 thatare ferrying the large contingent on a tour of the Holy Land. Amongthe other travelers are top Federation officials, including PresidentHerb Gelfand, Executive Vice President John Fishel and newlyappointed 1998 United Jewish Fund General Campaign Chair SanfordGage, as well as representatives from major Federation departments,agencies, the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, and the Westside andSouth Bay regions.

Also making the trip are several California legislators,representatives from Mayor Richard Riordan’s office, seven rabbis(Ronald Shulman of Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes;Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am; Rabbi Ed Feinstein of ValleyBeth Shalom and wife, Rabbi Nina Feinstein; Rabbi Donald Goor ofTemple Judea; Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz of Sinai Temple; and Rabbi JudithHaLevy of the Malibu Center and Synagogue) and a cantor (Stephen S.Wise’s Nathan Lamm).

The largest group — close to 50 — was recruited by the IranianAmerican Jewish Federation (IAJF), an umbrella organization for about16 nonprofit Iranian interests. Unlike more than half of thetravelers — who are first-time visitors to Israel — most of theIranian-American Jews have been there before, said IAJF PresidentSolomon Rastegar, who has led previous missions but will be aspectator on this one. Many Iranian-American Jews have relatives inIsrael. “We want to go there to see what was created out of nothingin the short time of 50 years,” Rastegar said.

The Federation’s 10-day Golden Anniversary Mission, in the worksfor more than a year, was scheduled to coincide with celebrationskicking off the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel. It was onNov. 29, 1947, that the United Nations endorsed the partition ofPalestine, which led to the final withdrawal of the British and thecreation of an independent Israeli nation on May 15,1948.

Participants of this mission began their trip by joining in acelebration of Israel’s 50th on the steps of Tel Aviv’s IndependenceHall. Splitting up into separate traveling groups with tailoreditineraries, most of the visitors will trek to the Galilee and GolanHeights. Many will meet Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and membersof the Knesset. There will be visits to Yad Vashem, Yitzhak Rabin’sgrave on Mount Herzl, the Western Wall and possibly Masada. Abouthalf of the contingent is continuing on to Jordan to visit MountNebo, the Roman city of Jerash, Amman and Petra, a city carved out ofa red-stone canyon.

At the last of three pre-mission educational meetings, held atStephen S. Wise Temple two weeks before departure, most people seemedinterested in discovering what the weather was like, how much luggagethey should bring, and how to extend their tr
ip after the mission.Few seemed worried about security despite recent bombings, dissensionover the faltering peace process and the “Who Is a Jew?” issue inIsrael, and new tensions between Israel and Jordan.

“I think it’s critical that people go to Israel, especially now,when there are issues concerning pluralism, the terrorists and thepolitical situation,” said Michael Scott, who is co-captain of theFederation’s Access (young leadership) traveling group. “Many peoplewho disagree with Netanyahu, including myself, want to go and showour support to Israel.”

The trip is not primarily a political trip, said Gelfand, althougha small group of participants will meet with Knesset members todiscuss the pending conversion bill, which would grant the Orthodoxrabbinate the exclusive right to perform conversions within Israel –a status quo situation that has angered many non-Orthodox outside theJewish state.

“The fact is that we take every opportunity we can to let themknow how we feel,” Gelfand said. “But the main purpose of the missionis to begin the celebration of the 50th anniversary.”

Evy Lutin, who is co-chairing the mission along with her husband,Marty, and is also Michael Scott’s mother-in-law, noted that ifIsrael were celebrating its 60th anniversary instead of its 50th,”there would not have been a Holocaust,” because the Jewish homelandwould have welcomed refugees from the Nazis who were spurnedelsewhere. Her father, who emigrated from Russia to the United Statesat the turn of the century, lost all nine brothers and a sisterduring the 1930s. “They couldn’t get out,” she said. “If there hadbeen an Israel then, they would have.”

Ruth Stroud is traveling with the Federation mission to Israeland Jordan and will report about the trip.

Headline News

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

The Jewish Federation Council’s mission to Israel was greeted byThe Jerusalem Post with a Tuesday front-page story under the headline”L.A. Jews here to fight conversion bill.”

The Post quoted Federation President Herb Gelfand as saying:”Although there is more unhappiness with Israel among American Jewsthan I’ve seen in my lifetime, there is still wholehearted supportfor Israel.

“But, today, one thing is certain: We feel Israel is our countrytoo. It belongs to all Jews; therefore, all Jews everywhere have aright to speak up on what happens there.”

During their meetings with government and spiritual leaders,mission members “plan to express their worry and frustration over theconversion bill,” The Post reported.

The English-language daily further quoted Gelfand as saying: “Whatwe’re hoping to do is attempt to make them understand what theconversion [bill] means to us. We know it’s not on top of the agendaof most Israelis, but we have to tell them that in the U.S., where 90percent of Jews are Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, manyof us feel that we, our children and grandchildren, have beendelegitimized.”

He added that “a small minority” of American Jews are withholdingtheir contributions to the Federation in protest, “but only becausethey feel that is the only way they can communicate the way theyfeel.”

The delegation also intends to strengthen its “twin cities” tieswith Tel Aviv during the visit.

John Fishel, the Federation’s executive vice president, told ThePost: “We plan to work for a deeper, more intensive relationshipbetween various social programs, schools and individuals in LosAngeles and Tel Aviv. I think both sides understand there has to bemore to Israel-Diaspora relationships than just philanthropy.” 

Do we need a permanent international tribunal, like theNuremberg body in 1946 (below)? Above, Jews, like everyone else, areburied in Sarajevo city parks. Lower photo from the NationalArchives. Sarajevo photo from “Survival in Sarajevo” by EdwardSerotta.

War Crimes and Punishment

“War Crimes: Individual or Collective Responsibility?”

That was the topic explored at a symposium held at Sinai Templelast week. Sponsored by Bet Tzedek Legal Services and moderated byNational Public Radio talk-show host Kitty Felde, the questionresonated with the three panelists as well as the sizable audience inattendance.

The speakers brought impressive credentials. There was theHonorable Richard J. Goldstone, justice of the Constitutional Courtof South Africa and former chief prosecutor for the United NationsBosnian War Crimes Tribunal; Professor William Eckhardt, chiefprosecutor for the Vietnam War-related My Lai cases; and Dr. MichaelBerenbaum, the president and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah VisualHistory Foundation.

Perhaps the most ardent advocate for a permanent internationaltribunal was Goldstone. Quoting a statistic that claimed that 175million people have been murdered by their own governments in thiscentury, Goldstone stressed the dire need for such a judicial systemto enforce what he called “good policing” on a worldwide level. Headded that as the world enters the 21st century, human rightsviolations may proliferate as technology further refines theefficiency of mass murder. “What happens in every country is thebusiness of the rest of the world,” he said. “The closing of the 20thcentury will see the beginning of international justice.”

Eckhardt provided a U.S. perspective, evoking My Lai, in whichAmerican soldiers were indicted after the fact for a wartime incidentinvolving the looting, raping and pillaging of a Vietnamese village.Since 90 percent of the participating soldiers were already undercivilian status by the time of the trial, they could not be tried,due to a technicality that allowed only uniformed soldiers to beprosecuted. Eckhardt singled out the United States’ failure to pursuejustice and accept accountability in this case as shameful. “If wecannot do that, taking the next step may be impossible,” he said.

Meanwhile, Berenbaum discounted any notions of granting amnesty tothose coerced into committing atrocities. When the topic turned tothe celebrated case of a Bosnian soldier tried in the Hague forreluctantly executing 70 war prisoners after his superiors hadthreatened to kill his family, Berenbaum turned to Jewish law andtenaciously embraced the Talmudic concept of martyrdom. He cited anobligation to God that precedes familial obligations, pointing outthat the Torah is absolutely clear on the three violations warrantingmartyrdom (the shedding of blood, unsanctioned intercourse and theworship of false gods); included within this realm are crimescommitted under duress.

“If there are things in life worth living for, there must bethings in life worth dying for. Taking a life is such a case,”Berenbaum said.

As for the Nuremberg Trials, Berenbaum considered the landmarkrulings more important as legal “theater” than as jurisprudenceprecedent, for they failed to effectively and responsibly administerfull culpability to the Nazis. To illustrate his point, Berenbaumcriticized their failure to try the creators of the gas chambers aswell as the operators.

By the conclusion of the program, the panel addressed thesemantics of terrorism, drawing a clear distinction between theJewish resistance fighters of World War II and present-day Arabextremists. Summarizing the need for a world court, Berenbaum said,”[During the Holocaust], the law itself was the instrumentation ofdestruction. [The Nazis] were technically correct when they said theydid not break the law. That’s why we must go to a higher law.” –Michael Aushenker, Community Editor

VBS’ ‘Crossroads to Equality’

Valley Beth Shalom is known for its groundbreaking “VBS Response,”a 5-year-old support group for Jewish gays, lesbians, bisexuals,their families and friends.

And, on Nov. 16, the Encino temple will host a conference, “At theCrossroads to Equality,” which will explore a variety of gay andlesbian issues.

More than 300 p
articipants are expected to attend seminars ontopics such as gay/lesbian parenting; homophobia in the workplace;making synagogues inclusive; and parents of gays “coming out of thecloset.”

Among the speakers will be Nancy McDonald, the national presidentof Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG); entertainmentconsultant Chastity Bono; The Advocate editor-in-chief Judy Wieder;and Steve Sass, senior vice president/business affairs for NBCStudios (and the president of the Jewish Historical Society ofSouthern California).

LAPD officer Lisa Phillips will receive an award for her effortsin promoting tolerance, and the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus willperform.

The goal is ambitious, says VBS Rabbi Jerry Danzig, the Responsehead. “We view this conference as a first step in creating a bridgebetween gays, lesbians, their families and friends, and the communityat large.”

For registration information, call VBS at (818) 788-6000. — NaomiPfefferman, Senior Writer

Community Brief

Honoring

Our

Educators

For Jewish educators, the annual Milken Family Foundation EducatorAwards are a double blessing. The five winners receive $10,000 each.And all Jewish educators benefit from the increased public awarenessand acknowledgment of their contribution to the community.

This year’s recipients are Marianne Siegel of Kadima HebrewAcademy in Woodland Hills; Dr. Joseph Hakimi of Sinai Akiba Academy;Tova Baichman Kass of Pressman Academy; Lynn Karz of Ohr Eliyahu inCulver City; and Chaya Shamie of Bais Yaakov.

Now in their seventh year, the Milken Awards honor educators whoexhibit innovative methods and curricula, “an outstanding ability toinstill students with self-confidence and sound values,” and personalinvolvement in the Jewish and secular communities. “Theresponsibility of keeping alive both the Jewish faith and the Jewishculture in our young people often lies with our educators,” saidfoundation Executive Vice President Julius Lesner. “These awards aresimply to thank the finest of those educators for the wonderful workthey do.” — Staff Report

Top, from left, Dr. Joseph Hakimi of Sinai Akiba Academy; LynnKarz of Ohr Eliyahu in Culver City; and Chaya Shamie of Bais Yaakov;above, Dr. Julius Lesner with Marianne Siegel of Kadima HebrewAcademy in Woodland Hills; and below, Lesner presents an award toTova Baichman Kass.