How Occupy will end


No one knows what difference Occupy Wall Street will turn out to make. 

This could the start of something big.  Maybe the burgeoning sense that something is not right in America will reach a critical mass.  It’s already showing up in the polls.  Maybe more and more ordinary Americans will wake up and smell the plutocracy.  The consensus will grow that the only way that income distribution could have become so out-of-whack is that the power in Washington isn’t in the hands of the people we elect; it belongs to the big corporations and Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers who have the country by the short hairs.  We’re at the beginning of a tectonic shift in our politics, our culture, maybe even in our governance. 

Or the movement fizzles.  The demographics of the demonstrators don’t keep expanding.  Unemployment and foreclosure turn out not to be the contemporary equivalent of the draft’s role in mobilizing broad opposition to the war in Vietnam. Winter, and shrewder policing with less blowback, take a toll on the encampments.  Occupy becomes just another tale of the fall 2011 media scrum, alongside the Conrad Murray trial.  In retrospect we realize that our political elites have grown so dependent on our predators that the whole corrupt system is immune to challenge.  Occupy goes nowhere – there’s no wave election, no campaign finance reform, no reregulation or rule of law for the financial sector, no increase of progressivity in the tax code, no infrastructure rebuilt by no jobs program, no course correction for the American dream. 
 

Since no one really knows what Occupy’s impact will be tomorrow, there’s a contest going on today, a battle for control over how the story is being told right now.  And the way it’s framed could actually determine the way it will play out in real life.

The right’s strategy is: If we don’t build it, they won’t come. So its narrative is: These people are lazy, losers, hippies, stooges, drug-takers, a mob.  They don’t know what they want.  They want to destroy capitalism.  This is no Tea Party. Move along, there’s nothing to see here. 

It’s a bit incoherent, but they’re sticking to it, and their intention is to prevent any more of their pigeons – the 99 percenters – from figuring out how deeply they’ve been shafted by Koch-era robber barons and their political puppets.

The left, on the other hand, hears the strains of “Something’s Coming” in the air. Its aspirational narrative sees the pendulum swinging the other way.  A moral confidence is stirring. Yes, the political system is dysfunctional, but the urgency of protest will not be paralyzed by pragmatic cynicism.  We really can do it.  We can reclaim our country from the oligarchs.  We can recapture what America used to be about.  These Occupy encampments spreading from city to city?  That’s what it looks like when hope shucks off the victim script.

The arena where these warring narratives are slugging it out is in the media.  Fox, which has been the publicist, cheerleader, speakers bureau and enabler of the Tea Party, is of course relentlessly dismissive of Occupy.  Over on MSNBC, police bungling fuels support, and the messages on the demonstrators’ hand-made signs provide a counter-narrative to the corporate triumphalism that has dominated public discourse for decades.  CNN’s account of Occupy is whiplashed between the false equivalence its brand requires – kabuki pundit combat, always ending the same way: “We’ll have to leave it there” – and the need to hold eyeballs during commercials, which mandates you-won’t-want-to-miss-this alarmism.  The prestige press needs to play it both ways, in an only-time-will-tell frame, though it’s always safe to go meta: “Every Movement Needs a Logo” was the title of a New York Times gallery of graphic identities proposed by designers, while New York magazine asked an ad exec and a PR pro to give letter grades to the occupiers’ protest signs.

Social media, whose importance to the Arab Spring has become a benchmark of subsequent protests, is atwitter with people talking directly to themselves; it’s an organizing tool, and a gauge of popular sentiment, that doesn’t require the dots of the story to be connected in prefab patterns.  But no matter how immersed we may be in virtual and mediated reality, Occupy is an essentially offline phenomenon.  It has required real people in real places – not viral videos or Facebook pages—to give it credibility.  It is as local, grassroots, bottom-up and non-hierarchical a movement as they come – the antithesis of billionaire-funded astroturfing by the likes of FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.  No one sleeping in those parks and plazas has a clue how this will all turn out.  But their sheer physical presence gives them a narrative authority that the media and the chattering class lack. 

Every day brings a fresh blizzard of data about the world.  But which information gets our attention, and how it acquires meaning, depends on the story-in-progress at the time.  A Congressional Budget Office study of income distribution can be the usual one-day story, like other CBO studies, or it can get massive coverage because Occupy put the topic on the nation’s front burner. Record-breaking oil company profits can be framed as just another business story, or it can be reported in the context of the industry’s climate change denial campaign, and the hold its lobbyist have over Congress, and our political system’s imbecilic failure to address our direst global problem.  Wall Street’s escape from accountability, its capacity to thwart even the most modest attempts to rein in future recklessness, can be a story about the regulatory process, or it can be a warning that there are dangers to democracy that our Founders’ checks and balances were unable to anticipate. 

“We are the 99%” could turn out to be a popgun, or it could be the shot heard round the world.  Just don’t let anyone tell you that the answer is already a foregone conclusion. 

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Video shows anti-Semitism at Occupy Wall Street protests


Anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks during Occupy Wall Street protests in New York are shown in a video put out by a neo-Conservative political group.

The one-minute video, in which Jews are blamed for the trouble in American financial markets and told to “go back to Israel,” was created by the Emergency Committee for Israel. It has had more than 20,000 views since it appeared Oct. 13 on YouTube. The video also shows signs raised against Israel’s occupation of Gaza; Israel ceded Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005.

The video will air on television in New York and Washington, Politico reported.

The Emergency Committee for Israel is focused on criticizing President Obama’s Israel policy and is urging Jews to vote Republican in the 2012 presidential election. Its video calls on Obama and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House of Representatives’ minority leader, to “stand up to the mob” of Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Among the signs showed by the video are “Gaza supports the occupation of Wall Street” and “Hitler’s Bankers.”

Many participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests are Jewish.

Rabbi Richard Jacobs tapped to lead Reform movement


Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the spiritual leader of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., is the choice to become the new leader of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The selection of Jacobs to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who announced last year that he would be retiring in 2012 after 16 years at the helm of American Jewry’s largest religious movement, still requires formal approval by the union’s board of directors, which meets in June.

“We are poised for a great new chapter for the unfolding of our movement,” Jacobs told JTA in an interview Tuesday shortly before the union’s formal announcement. The Reform movement, he said, is about “finding new ways to grow and respond to Jewish life.”

One of his main areas of focus, Jacobs said, would be to revitalize synagogues and engage with young professional Jews who are not involved in Jewish communal life.

“Synagogues cannot wait for people to walk into their buildings,” he said. “The synagogue has to walk into the public square and engage people, particularly Jews in their 20s and 30s. People still crave and need a deep sense of community.”

Jacobs, who has been at the Westchester Reform Temple in suburban New York since 1991, also is a board member of the New Israel Fund, the American Jewish World Service and UJA-Federation of New York.

He is working on a doctorate in ritual dance at New York University. Jacobs used to be a dancer and choreographer with the Avodah Dance Ensemble.

For new Reform leader Richard Jacobs, big tent movement is the idea


For the man tapped to lead American Jewry’s largest religious denomination, keeping the movement’s 900-plus synagogues welcoming to the unaffiliated, inspiring for members and a home for disaffected traditional Jews may require a high-wire balancing act.

As a former dancer and choreographer, Rabbi Richard Jacobs may be just the guy.

On Tuesday, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that Jacobs, the senior congregational rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., is the choice of the synagogue group’s presidential search committee to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is stepping down in 2012. Jacobs’ nomination requires confirmation by the URJ’s board of directors, which meets in June.

In an exclusive interview with JTA a few hours before the announcement was made, the 55-year-old Jacobs said his mission is to make sure the Reform movement is a big tent with its flaps wide open and its Jewish stakes planted deeply in the ground.

“There’s no anti. It’s all pro,” he said. “Nothing Jewish is alien to us. Reform Judaism is an evolving and profound expression of the Jewish tradition. Its essence is to respond to the call of God and to the imperatives of the day.”

For Jacobs, that means embracing environmentalism, helping in places like Darfur and Haiti, and speaking out in support of the Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. He speaks with pride of his synagogue’s green initiatives, noting that its Ner Tamid, or Eternal Flame, is solar powered. He is chairman of the New Israel Fund’s pluralism grants committee, which promotes religious and social pluralism in Israel. He is a board member of the American Jewish World Service, with which he visited Darfur refugees in Chad in 2005. He wears a green Darfur bracelet on his wrist.

In the synagogue, Jacobs wants to create dynamic and inspiring places for people to encounter Judaism—including non-Jewish seekers.

“The key thing is to have the doorways open,” Jacobs told JTA. “Anyone who wants to be a part, they are welcome.”

Under Yoffie, the Reform movement embraced tradition as never before, marking a stark departure from classical Reform and alienating some old-guard Reformers. Yoffie encouraged Shabbat observance, promoted wider use of Hebrew in Reform liturgy and supported greater ritual observance.

Jacobs says he supports that direction for the movement.

“I embrace the Jewish tradition; it’s what nurtures the Jewish life,” he said.

“What Rabbi Yoffie affirmed is the core affirmation of the Reform movement. I will continue to deepen our connections. We shouldn’t take off the table things that are not relevant to us today but may become relevant tomorrow.”

But Jacobs was one of 17 rabbis who issued a position paper several weeks ago criticizing the direction taken by the URJ during the Yoffie years.

“Our movement has not responded effectively to the dramatic changes in the wider landscape of Jewish life,” said the position paper, whose 17 signatories called themselves the Rabbinic Vision Initiative.

The group said the URJ’s governance structure is “large and unwieldy,” the URJ underperforms when it comes to fundraising, and “is not productively engaged in the real-life needs and challenges of its member congregations.”

Though the URJ underwent severe restructuring during the recession, shedding departments and staff, the rabbis’ paper called the reorganization “peremptory and ineffectively executed.”

Now set to lead the Reform synagogue association, Jacobs will bear the burden of putting some of the changes he and his colleagues suggested for the URJ into practice.

Trim and tan, the smooth-talking Jacobs still looks the part of the dancer he was as part of the Avodah Dance Ensemble. Now, however, his focus is on the mind rather than the body, though his synagogue does weave yoga and meditation together with text study at some Shabbat services.

Jacobs cites as his mentor David Hartman, the iconoclastic, New York-born Orthodox rabbi who moved to Israel and founded Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, an educational and research institution aimed at promoting new and diverse voices in the Jewish tradition. Jacobs is a senior rabbinic fellow at the institute and visits often. He has studied there in the summertime for some two decades, and he and his family have an apartment in Jerusalem.

The connection to Israel is a vital part of Jewish life, he says.

Jacobs will be a new face for the Reform movement at a time when financial difficulties, demographic changes, and the new ways that young Jews use social media and relate to communal life present new challenges and opportunities for the movement. Tackling these issues and making Jewish communal life relevant for Jews in their 20s and 30s will be one of his main areas of focus, Jacobs says.

As the head of the Reform synagogue organization, Jacobs naturally sees synagogues as the linchpin.

“We want to make exciting synagogues the norm,” he said. “Synagogues cannot wait for people to walk into their buildings. The synagogue has to walk into the public square and engage people, particularly Jews in their 20s and 30s. People still crave and need a deep sense of community.”

Jacobs spent most of his career as a congregational leader, first as a rabbi at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in the 1980s and then at the Scarsdale temple in suburban New York. He says his synagogue has been at the forefront of a transformation in worship that he hopes will spread to all of the movement’s synagogues and reinvigorate them.

“I couldn’t imagine I’d become a rabbi of a large, suburban Reform congregation because I grew up in one and it didn’t speak to me,” said Jacobs, a native of New Rochelle, a Westchester County suburb that borders Scarsdale. But, he said, “I’ve led transformation without disenfranchising those who are resistant to change.”

The plan is to start with a listening tour of Reform congregations throughout North America.

“We are poised,” Jacobs told JTA, “for a great new chapter for the unfolding of our movement.”

Reform looking at ways to reinvent the movement


After the Reform movement broadcast online its first session devoted to reassessing itself, in mid-November, the comments poured in.

One viewer suggested that the movement create a network of schools, camps, shuls and seminaries focused on “tikkun olam,” the Jewish injunction to repair the world. Another said the movement should train five times as many rabbis and cantors to provide more entryways into Judaism through music, social action and prayer.

Another wrote to express concern about the lack of civility in Jewish discourse, particularly concerning Israel. One asked how Jews could use media and technology to create community.

It is exactly the sort of grass-roots input that members of the reassessment team, called the Reform Think Tank, want as they take a hard look at where American Jewry’s largest religious denomination is today and where it ought to go in the future.

“Five years from now, congregations won’t look like they do today,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the longtime president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA in an interview.

Yoffie, who plans to retire in mid-2012, is one of the major players in the movement’s reassessment project.

The project is online and offline, top down and bottom up. Each of the three major Reform institutions—the synagogue movement, rabbinical association and seminary—nominated 10 members to lead the 18-month discussion, which will be punctuated by four live streaming forums devoted to specific topics. Each is being archived online at urj.org/thinktank.

The first, held Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, dealt with the impact of social media on religious life. About 300 individual viewers watched in addition to about 50 watching parties at Reform congregations. They could follow a blog and Twitter feed along with the broadcast, and sent in comments and questions to help direct the conversation. The team received more than 200 comments and questions even before the first forum, an organizer said.

The second forum is scheduled for April in Cincinnati, a third for December 2011, and the final for March 2012.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Yoffie said.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor at the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and one of the co-organizers of the project. “Everything’s on the table. If we reinvent this whole thing, what will it look like? We’re not moving from one place to another in linear fashion—we’re experimenting.”

Demographic changes, financial challenges, new family structures and the changing nature of social media and how people connect to each other are just some of the pressures forcing change upon a movement founded 200 years ago in Germany but that developed its institutions in North America following World War II, Yoffie said.

Back then, the world and American Jewry had different needs and interests, he said.

“We are primarily a suburban, family-oriented movement,” Yoffie told JTA.

That’s one thing that must change if Reform Judaism is to appeal to the next generation, according to Yoffie.

“We need more synagogues in the major metropolitan centers,” he said.

The recent economic downturn already has forced changes, including the dismantling of much of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, where consultants have replaced many staff departments. That was in the works already, Reform leaders insist; the recession just advanced the move quicker and gives a greater urgency to the reassessment project.

“This is not an ivory tower think tank,” said Rachel Tasch, president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and one of the 33 leaders selected for the Reform Think Tank. “We’re trying to make it a grass-roots thing, so people have a voice, a way to have real input.”

Those who want to participate in the project can send in their comments anytime over the next year and a half. Pulpit rabbis involved with the project will take the conversation to their congregations and “take the pulse of the community” before the next forum, Windmueller said. The team also will consult with youth groups, synagogue presidents and other Reform activists.

“Most of the questions we received were in line with the questions we ourselves have,” Tasch said after the first forum. “The nature of community in a world where everything is online; the tension between face-to-face communication and technology; the nature of membership; what does it mean to belong in a world where everything is out there and available?”

Yoffie believes that synagogues will continue to be the foundation of Jewish life in North America but must evolve radically to adjust to how people communicate and relate via technology.

“Social media can be contentious,” he told JTA, “and congregations are not contentious places. It’s where you go for comfort and support. So how do we deal with the contention of modern media while preserving the congregation as a place of menschlikeit and mutual respect?

“The truth is, we have to take risks if we’re not going to be irrelevant.”

Is Reform movement going kosher?


Kosher—it’s the first word in the book. And tackling the “k” word head-on is part of what makes the first Reform guide to Jewish dietary practice so significant.

“The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic,” to be published next month by the Reform rabbinical association, uses an array of essays by Reform rabbis and activists to challenge Reform Jews to develop a conscious dietary practice grounded in Jewish values.

And it’s not shy about suggesting kashrut, both traditional and re-imagined.

“No longer an oxymoron, ‘Reform kashrut’ has entered the Jewish lexicon, although there is no consensus on what this means exactly,” Rabbi Carole Balin, a Jewish history professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, writes in the book, which is being published by Central Conference of American Rabbis Press.

For a movement whose founding Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 rejected kosher laws along with other traditional Jewish rituals of dress and body as “entirely foreign” to modern sensibilities, the book represents a significant milestone in the development of Reform spirituality and practice.

It also illustrates the increased attention focused on kashrut across the denominational spectrum since the 2008 Agriprocessors scandal, which shuttered the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and spurred a rash of “ethical kosher” initiatives—from small, humane kosher meat operations to the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek project, which certifies kosher food products that meet certain ethical standards.

In Reform circles over the past two years, conversation about kashrut and Jewish values has come from the grass roots, youth groups and the pulpit. It’s part of the movement’s new readiness to examine once-discarded Jewish rituals for their spiritual potential, and the focus on kashrut comes within the context of heightened interest among Americans generally in the politics and morality of food production and distribution.

Some Reform leaders, including the book’s editor, Rabbi Mary Zamore of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, N.J., want to play down the trendiness aspect.

“This is part of a continuum within Reform Judaism,” said Zamore, who pushed the project along for 13 years. “It’s not liberal Judaism becoming something different; it’s that we continue to evolve. Here is a topic which for many Reform Jews was taboo or a non-starter. Now everywhere I go, people are talking about these topics as Reform Jews.”

“The Sacred Table” opens with a discussion of the historical Reform approach to kashrut and includes an overview of traditional kosher laws—a first for an official Reform publication, according to Zamore.

It also includes chapters on each of the Jewish values that proponents of ethical kashrut embrace as they seek to broaden the traditional definition of the Jewish diet, from the ban on “tzaar baalei chayim,” or cruelty to animals, to preventing “oshek,” or oppression of workers. It includes the results of a 2005 survey that showed increasing numbers of Reform synagogues, clergy and lay leaders are keeping kosher, partially or entirely. And it ends with a guide that Reform congregations can use to develop their own communal dietary practice, which may or may not include kashrut.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a longtime advocate of bringing more Jewish ritual into Reform practice, says he was pleasantly surprised to see the book’s forthright approach.

In the summer of 2009, while putting together his keynote speech for the movement’s biennial conference, Yoffie said he planned to suggest kashrut as a model for Reform dietary practice. But after running his speech by key Reform lay leaders, the rabbi told JTA, he heard so much pushback that he dropped the “k” word from the final initiative.

Called “Just Table, Green Table,” the Reform platform for developing consciously Jewish food choices “is not about kashrut,” Yoffie told biennial delegates as he unveiled the project last December.

Yoffie later told JTA that he “wanted people to be open to the idea of Jewish sacred eating, and didn’t want to touch an emotional chord that would prevent them from hearing that message.”

Now, a year later, he says he finds it “fascinating” that the Reform rabbinical leadership has seized the reins.

“Our rabbinical body is coming out and unabashedly embracing the word kashrut, saying this is how we’re framing the discussion and we want people to struggle with it,” Yoffie said.

The thrust of the book clearly favors broadening the definition of kashrut to include related Jewish ethical values, in keeping with longstanding Reform history.

“That is essential,” Yoffie said. “There are those in our movement who will accept kashrut in the traditional sense, but the great majority will take elements of kashrut in a broader sense. They want to relate it to issues of ethics, community and identity.”

Still, kashrut itself is offered as a recommended practice, however adapted. That does not sit well with some Reform leaders, whose voices also appear in the book, however briefly.

One is Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, N.J., who writes that he does not keep kosher, opposing its power to separate Jews from non-Jews. He explains his position as a “moral choice based on my definition of Reform Judaism,” and says he feels marginalized at Reform events that serve only kosher food. They may think they’re being inclusive, Abraham writes, but in fact such meals exclude him and his beliefs.

Jewish ethical values about treating workers and animals well, and respecting the environment and one’s own body, are all important to Reform as well as other Jews, he says.

“But we don’t need to graft them onto kashrut,” he said, acknowledging however that he is in a shrinking minority among Reform rabbis.

Balin, who teaches a course on food for rabbinic and cantorial students, says she doesn’t know any who adhere to the tenets of Classical Reform.

Jewish dietary practice and the politics and morality of food choices, she said, “are very much on the minds of these future Reform leaders.”

Leftist government’s moves worry Nicaraguan Jews


It has taken Nicaragua’s new leftist President Daniel Ortega less than two months in office to alienate the country’s tiny Jewish community.

They are distrustful of Ortega and his Sandinista movement, after his first term in office from 1979 to 1990 sent the community into exile.

Local Jews have found government moves to rekindle cozy relations with Iran a distasteful and bitter pill to swallow. The moves come after 16 years of pro-United States and pro-Israeli foreign policy by the right-wing governments that ruled in Ortega’s interval as opposition leader.

“We hoped that he would follow the policies that we had in recent years, but that is not what we have seen,” Nicaraguan Jewish Community President Rafael Lipshitz said. “There is a great deal of uncertainty.”

Ortega returned to power in November elections, in which he captured a plurality of 38 percent, enough to win the presidential race by a slim margin.

After taking office in early January, Ortega’s first official state visitor was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spent a day touring the countryside with Ortega during his first weekend in office. The two agreed to exchange embassies, and Ortega reportedly made an open-ended promise to support Iran internationally.

The visit irked the U.S. government, as did Ortega’s action of firmly aligning himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who also has supported Ahmadinejad and condemned President Bush in a U.N. speech.

Ortega delayed his swearing-in ceremony by a few hours so Chavez could attend.

“In general terms, our foreign policy is based on international law; we maintain our relations with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking,” insisted Sandinista legislator Pedro Haslam, a leading member of the National Assembly’s International Affairs Committee. “We want relations with all the countries of the world predicated on both justice and respect.”

Not all in Nicaragua are happy with the changes, particularly in the right-wing opposition, which would rather see the country firmly alongside the United States.

“I think that small countries like ours should not enter into conflicts,” Eduardo Enriquez, editor of a right-leaning daily newspaper, told JTA. “What we have seen in the first 40 days of the government is not encouraging.”

With most of its members successful business entrepreneurs, Nicaragua’s 50-member Jewish community is a natural source of opposition to the Sandinistas, whose socialist policies and leanings made Nicaragua the Cold War’s final front, as the Soviet-backed government battled U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

In the 1990 elections, the Sandinistas were routed from office by a coalition but remained the country’s premier political party.

But local Jews hold the Sandinistas in special contempt. During their regime, the country’s synagogue, damaged in a 1978 fire, was converted into a secular school. It is being used now as a funeral home. The country’s Torah remains in exile in Costa Rica.

The lack of trust in Ortega has local Jews on edge. Reacting to the country’s delay in supporting a Holocaust memorial resolution in the United Nations, the community has taken to the airwaves of right-wing television Channel 2 to call out the government.

The appearance led the Foreign Ministry to issue a statement recognizing the Holocaust as historical fact, a relief to the community that feared Ortega’s dealings with Ahmadinejad would put the country in his controversial Holocaust denial camp.

However, future relations with Israel, which were resumed in the 1990s but are tepid — Israel’s embassy in neighboring Costa Rica is the closest to Managua — remain clouded. Shortly after the triumph of their revolution in 1979, the Sandinistas cut ties with Israel.

Ortega surprised many by maintaining relations with Taiwan instead of China, and Israel’s ambassador in Costa Rica has made at least two trips to Managua so far this year.

Seemingly contradictory, the clouded foreign policy is in keeping with what one coffee industry executive complained is the administration’s “mixed signals,” given its lack of a clear plan.

While the early posturing has some local Jews nervous, few expect a repeat of the ’80s, when the Sandinistas forged close ties with the PLO, and the Ministry of the Interior, headed by the only surviving founder of the Sandinistas, Tomas Borge, issued passports to an unknown number of PLO combatants, as well as notorious members of Italy’s Red Brigade.

Borge, who of late has distanced himself politically from Ortega but remains an influential party leader — he is expected to become the country’s ambassador to Peru — keeps a picture in his office of himself sharing a laugh with Yasser Arafat.

“This is not the same mentality that there was in the 1980s,” Lipshitz said. “Borge is very low profile; I have not seen much of him.”

Despite the murky climate, the Jewish community is forging ahead with plans to build a new synagogue. Some members are even planning new investments.

As one member who asked not to be identified said, “This time we are going to confront them here instead of from exile.”

In Search of a Leader


It is only the second Rosh Hashanah for Ikar, a new congregation in Los Angeles, and some 600 people will be attending its services at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Six-hundred people.

Not bad for this synagogue-less community that was started in April 2004 by Rabbi Sharon Brous, a 2001 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the flagship institution of the Conservative movement.

While the congregants will be praying from the Conservative prayerbook, and following the Conservative halacha, such as mixed seating and having prayers led by women and men, don’t call them Conservative. Brous has not affiliated with the Conservative movement.

The same goes for Nashuva, which meets in a Westwood Blvd. church, and Kehillat Hadar on the Upper West Side in New York. Both boast mailing lists of 2,000 people, many of whom are in the coveted 20s and 30s demographic. Both define themselves as independent, egalitarian communities committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action. That sounds like the very definition of Conservative. But instead of calling themselves Conservative, Nashuva and Kehillat Hadar go by the term “non-denominational.”

Call it the Conservative Crisis.

The Conservative movement has been losing members in droves over the last two decades: It went from claiming 40 percent of American Jewish households in 1990 to 33 percent by 2000, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

This from what was the largest Jewish denomination in America, one that served as the middle ground between the stringency of the Orthodox movement and the modernity of the Reform movement. In the 1990s both movements grew — and the Reform movement became the largest denomination in America, surpassing the Conservative movement for the first time in 100 years.

The crisis came to a head this summer, when the de facto head of the momement, Ismar Schorsch, announced his retirement, setting off a search for a new leader — one who must confront the challenge of dwindling membership, decide the movement’s position on homosexuality, stop the flow of breakaway synagogues, and make people understand what it means to be a Conservative Jew. In other words, the movement is seeking a leader to save Conservative Judaism .

A Crisis of Leadership

So why didn’t Rabbi Brous affiliate with the Conservative movement?

“We have a lot of people of very different backgrounds,” she explained. “We wanted to celebrate the breadth and diversity of the community and not feel restricted by certain movement parameters.”

Brous has nothing against the Conservative movement per se — she’s grateful for the in-depth education JTS provided — but she wanted a community “that was creative, vibrant and spiritually awake, where Jews would have a sense of responsibility to the world and a real sense of the Jewish community.” That she and others seek these goals outside the movement has to be disturbing for Conservative leaders. Reversing this trend, however, will fall to a new generation of leaders.

Early this summer, JTS chancellor Schorsch announced that he will be retiring in June 2006. The seminary in New York is the flagship institution of the Conservative movement. As head of the JTS for two decades, most observers agree that Schorsch has been impressively successful: He transformed JTS from just being a rabbinical school to a full academic institution of renown, whose five schools include a graduate program in Jewish education, which Schorsch sees as the future of Conservative Judaism. During his tenure, enrollment at the schools increased from 500 in 1994 to 700 today, as did the number of faculty from 90 in 1994 to 120 today. He oversaw the integration of women into the movement as cantors and rabbis in the 1980s, and, philosophically, he also defined what he saw as the seven principles of Conservative Judaism in his 1995 book, “Seven Clusters.”

His JTS-trained Jewish rabbis and cantors have entered the Jewish world and done positive work for the movement. The number of Conservative day school students and campers has risen: 25,000 students attend Conservative Schechter Schools, and 25,000 more are enrolled in nondenominational Jewish academies. Conservative students now make up 25 percent of the national day school population, according to the seminary.

But with the modesty of a thoughtful, retiring academic, Schorsch has been reluctant to tell people what to do or — some would say — to lead.

“I think Schorsch’s vision for the seminary was seminary-centered, more than movement-centered,” said Rabbi Elliott Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism. “He saw it as his job primarily to foster the seminary, and that is what he did. He didn’t see it as his job — not his primary job –to be the leader of the movement.”

There also are financial concerns for the movement, including conflicting accounts of the seminary’s financial health. A story in New York’s The Jewish Week cited unnamed faculty members as the source of a story about an alleged $50 million debt that had to be retired by selling property. School officials denied budget problems without specifically addressing the story’s claims. Administrators insist the seminary’s financial health is solid, with philanthropic contributions rising every year. There’s no debate over the financial stuggles of the Masorti movement — the Israeli branch of the Conservative movement. In June, Masorti eliminated the position of president, effectively laying off Ehud Bandel, its top professional staffer as well as the organization’s professional spokesperson.

Within the movement, Dorff said, people are hoping the next head of the seminary will be a lot of things besides a fundraiser — “a scholar, a warm person, a rabbi who is also a good administrator, someone who doesn’t sleep…. The person you really want for this job is the messiah.”

Schorsch’s retirement next year, when he is 70, is likely to augur a generational shift. The heads of the three major arms of the denomination — JTS, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents congregants — all started their jobs in the mid-1980s and are set to retire in the next five years.

“What does the movement look like, five years from now, three years from now?” said Rabbi Joel Myers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, in an interview with The Journal. “What should be the driving vision of the movement? Who will articulate that? How it will be articulated?”

“How will the arms of the movement be brought together to plan collectively and collaboratively to reinforce the strength of the movement?” Myers continued. “That is the essential question.”

Uniting the movement won’t be easy, especially when different factions have determined that unity means seeing things their way.

Too Gay or Not Too Gay

For many, “vision” and “leadership” means resolving one looming and seemingly unresolvable issue: homosexuality, which is, in many ways, pulling the movement apart. Right now, the Conservative movement will not ordain a gay rabbi, and it will expel students who come out while they are in seminary. But it won’t excommunicate ordained rabbis who subsequently say they are homosexual.

The last time the Conservative movement ruled on the issue was 1992, when the Law and Ethics Committee, the halachic arm of the Rabbinical Assembly that decides issues of law, issued a “Consensus Statement.” It welcomed homosexuals into the community, but denied them admission into the seminaries and cantorial schools. The ruling left it up to individual rabbis and synagogues to decide whether homosexuals could function as educators or youth leaders or receive honors in worship and in the community.

In June, a group of Conservative rabbis set up a Keshet-Rabbis to influence the Rabbinical Assembly on changing its policy toward gays. Keshet-Rabbis, which uses the Hebrew word for rainbow, believes the next chancellor will play a part in what the Assembly decides when it takes up the matter next March.

In the tradition of Conservative Judaism, which believes in working within an evolving halacha to adapt to modern times, the committee must decide how to come to terms with the verse in Leviticus, which many take as a blanket prohibition of homosexulaity: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.”

Traditionalists in the movement, such as Schorsch — and Jack Wertheimer, the JTS provost who is a front-runner to succeed Schorsch — support the status quo. Although both men declined to be interviewed for this article, Schorsch wrote a letter to the Law Committee in 1992 warning that ordaining and including gays would be a major break from Jewish law, and would detrimentally ally Conservative Judaism with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the two liberal branches of Judaism from which the Conservative branch has always tried to distance itself.

But liberals in the movement line up with Gordon Tucker, the rabbi of the White Plains Jewish Center in New York, who is also considered a front-runner to follow Schorsch. Tucker asserts that if gays don’t receive equal rights in the movement, they will leave. And so will other Jews.

That’s also the view of Rabbi Benay Lappe, head of Chicago-based “Svara: The Yeshiva for Queers,” who pretended she wasn’t gay in order to qualify for ordination. She came out again after receiving her rabbinate certificate.

“Very few liberal Jews are going to align themselves with a movement that doesn’t accept gays,” Lappe said. “So the movement is losing respect, loyalty, affiliation. A lot of people are thinking, ‘Why should I affiliate myself with this movement that I can’t respect or give my allegiance to?'”

But others, like Dorff and Myers call the issue a red herring. They don’t want to focus excessively on any particular issue, including the status of women in the movement, which also has come to the fore in recent years. While the Law Committee allowed the ordination of women in 1983, a recent study found that women rabbis earn less, lead smaller congregations, leave their first jobs earlier and apparently have much more trouble finding a mate than their male counterparts.

“When people talk to me about the gay issues or the women’s issues, I don’t think they’re the crucial issues,” Myers told The Journal. “Whatever the current internal debates are on certain social issues, that’s going to be worked out no matter who the chancellor is. It’s going to be worked out in terms of time, culture and society.”

A Movement Divided

Whether one issue ought to be decisive is debatable — think Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court nominee — but factions have broken off from the movement exactly because of the movement’s direction on a handful of key issues. For example, after the Conservative movement admitted women rabbis in the movement in 1983, the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ) formed from a group of splinter congregations.

UTJ is a modest entry in a long line of dissenters, the primary one being the Reconstructionist movement. It originally developed as a school of philosophy under the Conservative movement in the 1920-1940s. Reconstructionist Judaism holds that a person’s autonomy overrides halacha. (But unlike Reform Judaism, Reconstructionists believe that a default position should be an adherence to halacha and tradition.) The Reconstructionist movement broke from the Conservative movement in the 1960s, forming its own seminary in 1968.

“You can date the decline of the Conservative movement to the Reconstructionist beginning,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University. Sarna spoke at the Rabbinical Assembly last year, and read to its members a list of organizations that have seceded from the movement. This included the popular Bnei Jeshrun synagogue in New York, which judged the movement was too traditional, and Shar Hashamayim in Montreal, which felt it was too liberal.

The more serious problem, Sarna said, is the numerous Jewish startup communities, including Ikar and Nashuva in Los Angeles and Kehillat Hadar in New York, that don’t even take the Conservative label, despite their similarities to the movement, namely, a focus on egalitarianism, an evolving halacha and an adherence to tradition.

Kehillat Hadar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is perhaps the best example. Hadar, which means glory, claims a mailing list of more than 2,000, most of whom are in the coveted demographic of the 20s and 30s. It defines itself as an independent, egalitarian community committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action — a description that obviously evokes principles of the Conservative movement. And yet, while a majority of the people who attend grew up Conservative — 60 percent, as opposed to the 20 percent who grew up Orthodox and 12 percent Reform — the group insists on calling itself nondenominational.

Ikar and Nashuva in Los Angeles also follow traditional Hebrew prayers, have mixed seating and call themselves post-denominational, i.e., unaffiliated with any movement, even though Ikar’s Brous and Nashuva’s Rabbi Naomi Levy, like the leaders of Hadar, trained at JTS.

“The tragedy of the Conservative movement is that those who innovate want to cast off the Conservative label,” Sarna said. “Whereas in Orthodoxy, the innovators are deeply concerned to hold fast to Orthodox label.”

The evidence supporting his analysis is plain enough. Shuls on the cutting edge of Orthodoxy, like Bnei David-Judea in Los Angeles or Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Riverdale Jewish Center in New York, which allow women’s prayer groups, try not to cross any line that would exclude them from the Orthodox movement.

Sarna said that the Conservative movement — and JTS in particular — has spawned great innovations in Judaism, but “many of those who have been innovators want to chuck the label. It’s a huge problem.”

This modern-day reluctance to identify as Conservative may be reflected in the movement’s apparent fundraising difficulties. Some people don’t want to give money to Conservative Judaism, because they either don’t know what it means to be Conservative or they do not like what it means.

A Crisis of Being

“I grew up between my local Reform and Conservative shuls. I went to Sunday school at the Conservative one,” wrote a person who goes by the screen name Laya L. on the Web site, Jewlicious.com, which is discussing the future of the Conservative movement.

“No one in my class returned to that place after our bar or bat mitzvahs if we were given the choice. They failed to instill in us any sense of passion or joy about being Jewish. They failed to instill a sense of community between the members, or relevance to the real world in the stuff we were learning. In fact, I barely remember what they taught us,” she wrote. “If Conservative Judaism worked, I really might not have much of a problem with it. But I know my experience isn’t unique, and the Conservative movement keeps losing numbers for a reason.”

Laya’s experience isn’t unique.

The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population study found that nearly half of all adult Jews who were raised Conservative no longer consider themselves to be Conservative.

And Conservative Judaism also has failed to attract committed members. Only 10 to 15 percent keep kosher and observe Shabbat, most rabbis said, according to Rabbi Neil Gillman’s book, “Conservative Judaism: The New Century” (Behrman House Publishing, 1993). That disconnect between the leadership and its constituents is causing dwindling numbers.

Gillman wrote that the Conservative movement’s failure to attract passionate adherents — and the fragmentation that resulted from constant tension between modernity and tradition — can be traced to movement’s origins. The movement, after all, was founded only as a traditionalist response to Reform Judaism’s abnegation of halacha, which was embodied in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885.

Conservative Judaism saw itself then as a stalwart against the recklessness of the Reform movement, while also being an innovator compared to what the founders believed to be backward Orthodoxy.

But this middle-ground movement never defined a coherent set of principles. By comparison, “the American Reform movement published a platform that articulated its ideological position clearly and coherently. Indeed, the Pittsburgh Platform was but the first in a series of platforms to be published during the next century. In contrast, it took Conservative Judaism over 100 years to prepare its very first platform: Emet Ve-Emunah was not published until 1987,” Gillman wrote.

Of course, it was never the intention of the founders to have a declaration of principles. To be a Conservative Jew meant to appeal to “history and to the will of the community as sources of authority,” said Rabbi Zechariah Frenkel, the ideological father of Conservative Judaism.

Gillman noted: “That complex and subtle message … shares the ambiguity of all middle-of-the-road positions, it eludes clear definition, and it is inherently more complex than the polar positions.”

In concert with the movement’s tradition, the Law Committee does not typically issue binding rulings, as do Orthodox rabbis. The Law Committee can present both a majority and a minority opinion, either of which is enforceable by the synagogue rabbi. That is why there are some synagogues today that are not egalitarian — they won’t allow women to lead prayers. These rabbis haven’t chosen to accept the minority opinion. As a matter of fact, there are only three standards of rabbinic practice that are binding in the movement: matrilineal descent — if your mother is a Jew that makes you Jewish, a prohibition on a rabbi officiating at an intermarriage and a prohibition on a rabbi performing a re-marriage of a Jew whose first marriage has not been terminated according to accepted religious tradition (Even though the movement will not ordain openly gay rabbis that policy does not implicitly carry the inviolability of the three “fixed” standards.) .

This pluralism, this lack of a constitution, has today wrought a movement of Judaism that is often seen as anarchic, disorganized and lacking a clear vision. In other words, it has fueled the movement’s identity crisis.

And yet, the disappearance of Conservative Judaism is not inevitable. Rabbi Brous, of Ikar, is considering an affiliation with the Conservative movement, now that her spiritual community has defined its own parameters.

“We had to make it clear to our community first who we are and what we are,” said Brous, who can envision her congregants as trailbrazers for a re-invigorated Conservative movement. “I want other communities in the Conservative world to see that it’s possible to be innovative, creative, dynamic — to ask new kinds of questions of Jewish life, to not do things the way they always have been done and work within the Conservative movement.”

Her evolution of thought is a hopeful one: “Ultimately what I care about is God, Torah, humanity and the Jewish people. The Conservative movement is not an end in its own right. I think the movement is a mechanism to get us there. And I think Ikar has more of a chance of impacting the movement by being in the movement.”

In a way, though, the Conservative movement’s crisis applies to all Jewish denominations; they are all forced to confront adapting the traditions of Judaism to modernity. The Orthodox, too, must deal with women’s issues and homosexuality, just as Reform Jews must deal with the yearning for tradition. All of Judaism is seeking to increase membership, combat assimilation and evolve the next generation of leaders.

The right leader for the Conservative movement could become a leading voice of the faith, while also saving a movement that could otherwise subsist in persistent decline.

Its extinction would be a blow for for the thousands of unaffiliated Jews searching to re-connect to their tradition, to the hundreds of thousands of Conservative Jews today who are at various stages of affiliation and to the movement’s 100-year legacy as a bridge between the Reform and Orthodox movements.

“The Conservative rabbi was traditionally the one who could talk to both the Orthodox rabbi and the Reform rabbi,” Sarna said.

In today’s increasingly polarized world — of Democrats and Republicans, doves and hawks, screaming talk shows and extremists groups in all religions — it is crucial for Judaism to consist of more than the extremes.

“I think that the center is very important for Judaism,” Sarna said. “Otherwise, the left and right will split apart.”

 

Lay Leaders Keep Synagogues Going


During the week, Dr. David Kolinsky practices family medicine in Pacific Grove, a sleepy Northern California coastal town. But on Saturday mornings he dons his tallit and leads Shabbat services for Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative congregation in neighboring Monterey.

Kolinksy serves as spiritual leader and president of B’nai Torah, which has been lay led since it broke off from a nearby Reform temple 13 years ago.

Visiting rabbis have passed through, but with just 24 dues-paying members, there’s no budget to hire even a student rabbi. The congregation also lacks a building — it rents a small room in a local church, where it stores its two Torah scrolls and where, every Saturday morning, the stalwarts wait to see whether a minyan will show up.

“Probably half our members are happy without a rabbi, and the rest would like one if we could afford it,” Kolinsky says. “Many synagogues have gone through a process of professionalization, where unless you do something of professional grade, you have no right to represent your community before God. Here, everyone does their best. If someone wants to try, the answer is always, come up and do it.”

Among U.S. congregations, B’nai Torah is still in a tiny minority: Most congregations from all streams have rabbis, unless they’re too small or isolated to attract one. Those that can’t afford full-time clergy usually hire visiting or student rabbis.

But the number of lay-led congregations is on the rise nationwide, movement leaders say. Much of that is due to economics — it’s expensive to hire rabbis and cantors, and many older congregations in economically depressed regions have dwindling memberships.

“It’s costing more and more each year to hire a rabbi, so congregations of 100 to 150 families are finding it harder,” says Jay Weiner, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s director for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Demographic change also creates congregations in new parts of the country, as young Jews move west and north, and their parents retire south. And some congregations consciously choose to forgo clergy; they just want to run their own show.

“By and large, the congregations that don’t have rabbis do it because they don’t have a choice,” said Rabbi Victor Appell, a small-congregation specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). “Because of their size or location, it’s a challenge to find a rabbi to serve them. But that puts them in the position of becoming self-reliant. If you asked many of them now whether they’d want a rabbi, I’m not sure they’d say yes.”

According to Jewish law, congregations don’t need rabbis. U.S. law requires clergy (or other state-sanctioned representatives) to officiate at a marriage, but other than that, any Jew — male in Orthodox circles, male or female in other congregations — can lead services, proclaim a bar or bat mitzvah, name a baby or run a funeral.

Still, most congregations choose to hire a professional.

“It’s the preferred course of action,” said Steven Huberman, director of regional and extension activities for the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ). “Congregations do prefer professionally trained clergy. They look to them as pastor, spiritual stimulant, lifestyle catalyst — it’s difficult for lay leaders to do all that on a regular basis.”

Congregations also turn to rabbis to decide points of halachah, or Jewish law. Clergy can mediate between warring factions in a congregation, or decide delicate questions such as the role of interfaith families, or whether it’s time to take down or put up a mechitzah, which divides men and women at Orthodox services.

The number of lay-led congregations varies from movement to movement. Roughly speaking, the Reconstructionist movement has the highest percentage, the Orthodox Union has the least and the Reform and Conservative movements fall in the middle.

Rabbi Moshe Krupka, executive director of programming for the Orthodox Union, says “very few” of his 900-plus congregations operate without rabbis. They are mostly newly formed congregations that hire rabbis as soon as they can afford it.

“In the Orthodox world that puts a high premium on Torah, mitzvot and spiritual growth to have someone who will infuse the community with a sense of mission and scholarship; it willy-nilly becomes a necessity [to have a rabbi],” he said.

The highest percentage of lay-led congregations is in the Reconstructionist movement. Since its inception, the movement has emphasized the importance of empowering lay leadership and looks at rabbis more as educators and consultants than as pulpit heads.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit, director of outreach and external affiliations for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, says 30 to 40 of its 107 congregations operate without rabbis. Even so, he believes many of those congregations would hire rabbis if they could afford it. The Reconstructionist movement has also inherited some havurahs, or lay-led minyans, from the 1960s and ’70s, Zevit said, though most havurahs don’t affiliate with a movement.

Very few Conservative congregations function without rabbinic support, according to Huberman. He says the USCJ is unable to place rabbis in only about 5 percent of its 750 affiliated congregations.

The percentage is slightly higher in the Reform movement. Between 75 to 100 of the 900-plus congregations in the URJ don’t have full-time rabbis, according to Appell.

Size matters: Most lay-led congregations are very small, which in the Reform and Conservative movement generally means less than 150 members.

Place matters, too: Lay-led congregations are more numerous in regions with smaller Jewish populations, “more often in the South, sometimes in the Midwest,” Appell said.

Many of these congregations used to be larger and more prosperous. They were built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries by Jewish merchants and professionals who followed the general population shift westward. When the industries supporting these towns dried up, so did their Jewish communities. The children and grandchildren of the original settlers moved to cities with greater job opportunities, leaving behind tiny congregations maintained by a handful of elderly Jews.

“You have congregations dying out, entire towns that have disappeared,” said Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, director of the URJ’s Southwest Council. About one-quarter of the 82 congregations in his region are lay led, though most of them used to have rabbis. Jackofsky said some of his congregations can afford rabbis, but can’t find candidates willing to move to their isolated towns.

Reform and Conservative leaders say the much-publicized shortage of non-Orthodox rabbis doesn’t really factor into the equation.

“It’s mainly larger congregations looking for second rabbis who are affected” by the shortage, said Emily Grotta, marketing director for the URJ.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of USCJ, says there are actually enough Conservative rabbis being ordained to serve all the movement’s congregations, it’s simply that fewer are taking up pulpits.

The 90-year-old Conservative Congregation B’nai Isaac in Aberdeen, S.D., lost its last rabbi 30 years ago. With just three couples and a few single members left, they still manage to hold Friday night services — when Bea and Herschel Premack are in town.

Herschel Premack, who had his bar mitzvah in the synagogue in 1940, leads services for the congregation. When he and Bea go to California every winter, the shul shuts down.

The congregation, which held its last bat mitzvah 15 years ago, often thinks about closing down, but Bea Premack said B’nai Isaac serves an important educational role in the small Midwestern city.

“We’ve always had the synagogue open for Christian groups, so they can come and learn about Judaism,” she said.

Another kind of demographic change is creating new lay-led congregations, particularly in the fast-growing regions of the West and Pacific Northwest. As younger Jews pour into these areas looking for work and personal fulfillment, congregations are popping up.

Some of these are university towns that attract Jewish students and professors. Others are resort communities, or towns near computer jobs, research facilities or military bases.

“Sometimes enough people in these outlying areas get to know each other and realize there are enough Jews to organize a synagogue,” says Rabbi Alan Henkin, URJ’s Pacific Southwest director. Henkin estimates that one-third of his 85 congregations operate without full-time rabbis.

Then there’s the phenomenon of members splitting off from existing congregations to practice Judaism their own way. Weiner describes a lay-led Conservative congregation in Olympia, Wash., that broke away from its Reform parent congregation because some members wanted a kosher kitchen.

B’nai Torah, the congregation in Monterey, also split off from a local Reform temple to lead its own, Conservative services. Seven members who showed up one recent Shabbat say they prefer the nonhierarchical structure and personal involvement.

“We had a visitor who said he’d never been asked to come up to the Torah before because he doesn’t read Hebrew,” said Devorah Harris, who grew up Reform in Minnesota and led a women’s havurah in the San Francisco Bay Area before joining B’nai Torah four years ago. “We encourage everyone to come up. We help them.”

Change also occurs in the opposite direction: After four decades as a lay-led Reconstructionist congregation, Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh has just hired its first ordained rabbi, who will visit once a month.

Some lay-led congregations consciously decide not to hire clergy.

“I’m not sure I miss having a rabbi,” said Jackie Gish of Reform Congregation Hugat Haverim in Glendale, a lay-led group of 30 to 35 people that split off from its parent Reform temple five years ago. Most Hugat Haverim members are in their 50s or 60s with grown children, so there’s no religious school, just monthly Shabbat services.

Congregations like hers serve a purpose, Gish said. Some Jews don’t want to meet every Friday night. They don’t want to shell out a lot of money for religious school or feel the pressure of capital campaigns, but they still want the warmth and closeness of being part of a Jewish community.

Tolerance and a respect for diversity are required to keep lay-led congregations going, particularly in smaller towns where they often have to serve Jews with very different backgrounds and observance levels.

Weiner points to Conservative Congregation Emanuel in Reno. The congregation is egalitarian, but a mechitzah goes up for Shacharit services because the lay leader in charge comes from a more Orthodox background. The other members tolerate it.

“You have to admire lay leaders who keep these congregations going,” he said.

 

Saving Zionism


Where Jewish terrorist Eden Natan-Zada lived — first in Rishon L’Tzion, then evidently in Tapuach — there is ostensibly an ideology that encourages the murders he committed last week in Shfaram. This so-called ideology is no more than a translucent patina that does not conceal the hate it overlays.

Natan-Zada, dressed as an Israeli soldier, fired indiscriminately inside a public bus, killing four Israeli Arabs. An enraged crowd then apparently boarded the bus, overpowered officers who’d taken Natan-Zada into custody and beat Natan-Zada to death.

There will be official inquiries and investigations; there will be protest marches — the day will live, for a time, in infamy. But we learn very little from what this 19-year-old deserter from the Israel Defense Forces did, save that the Jews in general, and Israeli Jews in particular, in this instance, are not immune from the disease of terrorism.

But we knew that already, didn’t we? Did we not learn it in 1994 (if not much earlier) when Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Muslims at prayer in the Cave of Abraham? Or, more recently, from Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, whose action arguably changed the course of history.

These terrible and tragic outbursts preoccupy us, but can also divert us from matters of greater moment. For it is not the actions of crazed murderers that most immediately threaten Israel. It is, instead, the sober arguments of people who seem perfectly rational, arguments that have brought Israel to its gravest domestic crisis in the 57 years of its young life as an independent nation.

It turns out that there is a gathering and dangerous intellectual consensus among the opponents of Israel’s impending disengagement from Gaza. Its substance is, quite simply, that the withdrawal from Gaza is not about Gaza at all. It is about destroying the religious Zionist movement.

That sounds absurd, I know. But hear the argument out; internally, it is entirely coherent, as well-honed ideological arguments so often are.

According to dozens of essays that have run in major Israeli newspapers and been posted on Web sites, Israel’s left (usually termed “the secular elite”) is basically decrepit. It is played out, tired, rudderless. Its desire now, according to Rabbi Yigal Kaminetzky, is “to disengage … from the entire past of the Jewish people, from its history, from its values, from its beliefs, from the belief in the God of Israel, from the destiny of the people.”

At the same time, the elite witnesses the very substantial enthusiasm of the religious Zionist movement, recognizing that unless it does something to quash that contagious excitement, its own days in power (and privilege) are numbered.

What to do?

The alleged “solution,” the plot of the elites, is to dispossess the religious-Zionist movement.

But little did the elite imagine that the religious-Zionist movement, uprooted from the settlements for which it had won so much praise over the decades, would regard its “expulsion” from Gaza as equivalent to exile. And still less did it imagine the that the movement would consolidate to reject the “secular” state, while biding its time (the crazies excepted) until the public at large sees the corruption, the fatigue, the emptiness that afflicts the left. The State of the Faithful, no matter how long delayed, is not merely the goal of the movement; it is the destiny of the nation.

The pioneering role once played by the declining kibbutz movement has been revived and adopted by the religious Zionists, according to a common reading. Thus, the settlements in Gaza and in the West Bank have been quite widely seen as a renewal of the Zionist enterprise. And the religious Zionists who peopled them represented the vanguard for the transformation of Israel into a halachic state, a state governed by Jewish religious law, as their mandate.

Is the “secular elite” in fact played out? Has its day passed?

Crime rates are up, corruption is up, the exploitation of foreign workers is up, drug use is up, educational attainment is down, and on and on. One does not have to look far to prepare a telling indictment against the “secular elite,” for all this has happened on its watch. People may criticize Ariel Sharon or admire him, but scarcely anyone regards him as a man seriously committed to democracy. If this be democracy, then plainly halacha is to be preferred.

So goes the argument, and there are some hundreds of thousands of Israelis who subscribe to it. Never mind that there are even more hundreds of thousands who think it, on balance, preposterous. Here and there it hits close enough to home to dent the liberal resolve. And the casualty, for now, is the Judaism of the middle, the religious ethos that accepts pluralism as the oil that lubricates the wheels of a wildly heterogeneous society. In effect, the religious Zionist movement has hijacked Judaism even as the behavior of the crazies has discredited it.

The resolute close-mindedness of the religious Zionists is, indeed, noxious — but the open mindedness of the “secular elite” too often resembles nothing so much as a sieve. And no one, or so it seems, is listening to the sturdy advocates of “a third way.” These include Knesset member Yossi Beilin, leader of the Yachad party, a principal author of the Geneva Program for a permanent peace. His efforts and those of like-minded rational voices have, sadly, had trouble recently being heard over the din.

Leonard Fein’s latest book, “Against the Dying of the Light,” was published by Jewish Lights in 2001.

 

Rare Ailment Occurs More in Ashkenazis


After David Rudolph sprained his ankle during a basketball game, his father noticed that the second-grader couldn’t seem to keep his left heel flat on the ground. The problem persisted, sidelining David from his position as catcher on his Little League team, and preventing him from progressing beyond his blue belt in karate.

An orthopedist suspected a contracted Achilles tendon, and sent David for physical therapy. When that failed, David underwent a series of neurological tests, none of which indicated a problem. One physician even suggested a psychological phenomenon called “conversion hysteria,” implying that David had created the problem to get attention.

“We knew that wasn’t the case, because it was keeping him from the activities he loved,” said Mark Rudolph, David’s father.

The Rudolphs continued searching. Finally, a pediatric neurologist diagnosed the problem as dystonia, a condition she had seen only four times in her career. A second specialist confirmed the finding. It had taken almost six months for David to receive a proper diagnosis.

A neurological movement disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions and spasms, dystonia forces the body into abnormal positions and twisting movements. It can affect a specific body part, such as the neck, hands or torso, or many parts simultaneously, and can vary in severity from mild to extreme.

Although few people have heard of the disease, dystonia affects approximately 300,000 people in North America — more than better-known conditions such as muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.

There are 16 types of dystonia, and it affects all races and ethnic groups, as well as both genders. However, Ashkenazi Jews have a higher than normal incidence of one type, called early onset (generalized) dystonia. This type of dystonia is associated with a mutation in a gene called DYT1.

Ashkenazi Jews carry the mutation at a rate about 10 times higher than that of the general population. DYT1, identified in 1997, somehow disrupts communication between the brain and muscles. Only one parent needs to have the mutation to pass it on to the next generation, yet most people are unaware that they are carriers.

“Two-thirds of individuals with the mutation are asymtomatic [have no symptoms] or have minor problems,” said Dr. John Menkes, the pediatric neurologist who confirmed David’s diagnosis and a co-founder of the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. “Many people who have dystonia don’t realize it.”

Early onset dystonia tends to show up between the ages of 5 and 16, usually with symptoms in the foot or hand. The involuntary movements may progress quickly to involve all limbs and the torso, although the rate of progression usually slows noticeably after adolescence.

The disease is not fatal, but there is no cure. Physicians use a variety of therapies to reduce muscle spasms, pain and impaired function and posture.

For David, dytstonia means taking 12 pills daily and wearing a brace to stabilize his right foot and ankle. It also involves physical therapy twice weekly, chiropractor visits and Botox injections for the muscle spasms.

Dystonia does not affect mental functioning. A precocious, bright fourth-grader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Brawerman Elementary School, David speaks in rapid-fire sentences, using such words as “curious” and “concerned” to describe classmates’ reactions to his condition. This summer, he will attend his third local session of the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth.

For David’s parents, dystonia is “the uninvited guest that hasn’t left,” said his mother, Diane. Each day, she and her husband wonder whether the cocktail of medications they administer to their son is really making a difference, and whether it may, in fact, be causing harm.

They try to find a balance between letting David pursue the activities he loves and shielding him from injury. Since being diagnosed two years ago, he has fractured his wrist, elbow and knee because of falls due to balance problems. Should he break a leg, David’s muscle contractions could prevent proper casting of the bone.

The Rudolphs have watched the condition progress from David’s left foot to his right foot and leg. Having read the literature and seen videos of patients who are bent at the waist or in wheelchairs, they wonder how bad it will get and which of David’s body parts will be affected. Most of all, they grapple with how much to tell their son about his condition.

“We’ve tried to shield him from what the worst could be,” said his father. “But he’s 10 years old. At some point, we won’t be able to protect him.”

Karen Ross understands the emotions experienced by the Rudolphs.

“Dystonia is damaging to individuals and to families,” said Ross, a clinical psychologist. “You never go back to the kind of family you once were.”

Ross became interested in psychology after her son, Michael, was diagnosed with dystonia in 1975. The family had spent three years trying to find out what was wrong. At that time, there were no organizations dedicated to the disease, no support system for families and no awareness of dystonia within the Jewish community.

Ross now serves on the board of the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation — as do the Rudolphs — to try to change that.

“We want to make this the last generation of Jews who have this disease,” Ross said. The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation has provided more than $19 million in grants to scientists since its inception in 1976.

Research is encouraging, although it remains to be seen whether the psychologist’s goal will be met. On the positive side, pediatric neurologist Menkes noted that in dystonia, unlike many other diseases, nothing is missing or defective. Since the gene implicated in dystonia “seems to prevent normal movement of certain cellular components, the idea would be to prevent the action of this bad gene,” he explained.

One disadvantage, however, is that dystonia “doesn’t get any attention in the research community,” said Dr. Marie-Francoise Chesselet, UCLA Medical School’s neurobiology department chair. Chesselet, who has served on the scientific advisory committee of the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, said that researchers are more interested in working on conditions with greater visibility or prevalence.

Until the DYT1 gene mutation was identified, “dystonia was like a black box,” she said. “People had no idea even how to even approach it…. Now there are some extremely good researchers who, while not primarily interested in dystonia, are interested in those particular biological mechanisms, and are now applying their knowledge and experimental skills to dystonia.”

In fact, researchers have discovered how to silence the mutated DYT1 gene in cultured cells. They are currently trying to do so with worms, flies and mice.

The 1997 discovery of the DYT1 gene also allowed for the development of a genetic test for patients and family members who are possible carriers, as well as prenatal testing to determine if a fetus has the mutated gene.

Two years ago, a man with dystonia and his wife used a technology called premiplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to insure that their child would not be born with the disease. PGD involves fertilizing eggs outside the body and screening for genetic disease before returning them to the womb for gestation. The child, born in September 2003, was the first to be born using this technology to check for dystonia.

The condition has also received recent public recognition because of concert pianist Leon Fleisher. Focal dystonia in his right hand forced Fleisher to limit his playing to one-handed pieces. After he received Botox injections, the tension in his hands relaxed sufficiently for him to make his first two-handed recording in 40 years.

Fleischer has donated a portion of the profits from the CD, appropriately titled, “Two Hands,” to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation and has worked with the foundation’s Musicians With Dystonia group to address the needs of musicians with the condition.

All of these developments are giving hope where there once was none. “Ten years ago, I never thought I’d see effective treatment or a cure. I can now say that’s possible,” said Ross’ son, Michael, now 45 years old and a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania.

The Rosses and Rudolphs want members of the Jewish community to know about dystonia so that should they encounter it in their own families, they won’t have to wait months or years for a proper diagnosis. They believe that lack of awareness is the only thing preventing the community from taking action.

In terms of awareness and education, “the community has successfully dealt with other Jewish disorders, such as Tay Sachs and Familial Dysautonomia,” said Karen Ross. “The Jewish community cares when it knows what to care about.”

For more information, contact the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, www.dystonia-foundation.org, (800) 377-3978; Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia & Parkinson Foundation, www.dystonia-parkinsons.org, (212) 241-5614; WE MOVE www.wemove.org, (212) 875-8312; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, www.ninds.nih.gov.

Surgery Offers Hope to Dystonia Victims


Twelve-year-old Josh Gaskin walks to the front door and shakes a visitor’s hand. While this gesture would seem routine for most adolescents, two years ago it would have been impossible for Josh.

By the time he had reached the fourth grade, Josh’s dystonia caused his right hand to involuntarily clench into a fist so tight that he could only open it by force. His feet turned inward, requiring him to wear braces. The symptoms had forced Josh to quit his baseball and basketball teams after six years of playing, leaving him depressed and angry.

Josh’s mother, Andrea, had read about an unusual procedure that might hold hope for her son. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves placing tiny electrodes deep in the brain. The electrodes are connected by wires running internally down each side of the neck to small pulse generators implanted under the skin of the chest.

The electrical pulses disrupt the brain signals that cause involuntary movement. The procedure had been used extensively to relieve Parkinson’s disease symptoms, and had recently been found to help some dystonia patients.

Andrea was intrigued. Still, DBS involves multiple surgical procedures. At the time, few procedures had been done for dystonia patients, and only a handful of them had involved children.

“Deep inside, I knew that this was going to be for us,” she said. “My husband was more hesitant…. You’re dealing with the brain and things can happen.”

But Andrea felt strongly. “The way I looked at it, why let it get worse before I make him better. The more your body starts twisting, the harder you have to work to put it back to what it was,” she said. “I didn’t want him go through any more suffering.”

In April 2004, Josh underwent DBS surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. During the procedure, a metal halo was screwed into his skull to assure no movement. The doctor drilled a small hole in Josh’s skull and inserted the electrodes.

Josh was a awake for much of the six-hour surgery, because his doctors needed to ask him questions in order to place the electrodes most effectively. Two days after his surgery, Josh’s doctors inserted batteries into the device.

By the following day, Josh was able to play video games with his father at Times Square’s ESPN Zone. Within a month, he could walk without the foot braces. He began shooting hoops and hitting baseballs.

“I had forgotten how it felt to open my arms,” Josh said. “It felt good to go back to normal.”

Josh suffered a setback last June, when one of the leads caused a leakage of brain fluid, and the apparatus on one side of his body had to be removed. Within six months, his walking was worse than it had been before the surgery.

Last March, he returned to New York to have the device re-implanted, and has been slowly improving ever since. He can write again. He plays basketball and runs track at school. He hopes to re-join a sports league, and is practicing his skills. His speech remains slurred as it was prior to the surgery, but he hopes that it, too, will slowly improve.

Each month, Josh must visit the doctor to have his electrical settings fine tuned. He will need surgery to have his batteries replaced every three to four years.

Nevertheless, neither Josh nor his mother have any regrets. “It’s not for everybody, but for us, this surgery has been a blessing,” Andrea said. “We’ve seen a big improvement.”

Before the procedure, “I was angry, mad and sad. I didn’t know why I had [dystonia],” Josh said. “Now, I have a better outlook.”

As he recounted his story, Josh was asked about scabs on both his knees. They weren’t from surgery. He had been fooling around on his parent’s treadmill, put it on maximum and fell. Just like any other normal 12-year-old kid. — NSS

 

Suicide bomb in Jerusalem kills 10


JERUSALEM, Jan. 29 (JTA) — “How will I find anyone alive?” the 21-year-old
security guard asked as he broke down the door and climbed onto the charred
ruins of bus no. 19, stepping over body parts and choking on the smell of
burned flesh.

Then Nir Azouly spotted a young woman with dark curly hair slumped in her
seat, her face and eyes drenched in blood. She was breathing, and he moved
aside the body at her feet to pick her up and carry her off the bus.

Azouly kept going in after that, pulling out five people — including a teenage
boy stuck between seats — from the tangled carnage of the bus that had been
full of morning commuters.

At least 10 people were killed and dozens were wounded in Thursday
morning’s suicide bombing in Rehavia, a quaint residential neighborhood of
the capital. The bomber left a note calling the attack revenge for Israel’s killing
of five terrorists and three bystanders in a Gaza Strip raid the day before.

“There was a huge fireball and the bus went up in flames,” eyewitness
Meshulam Perlman, a florist, told reporters. The blast scattered debris and
body parts as far as the prime minister’s official residence, though Ariel
Sharon was at his Negev Desert ranch at the time.

The Al-Aksa Brigade, part of the PLO’s mainstream Fatah movement, claimed
responsibility for the attack. The United States, United Nations and European
Union all condemned the attack.

Terrorists “have once again stuck a blow against the aspirations of the
Palestinian people,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said.

The attack came a day after Israel killed eight Palestinians — five members of
Islamic Jihad and three bystanders — in gun battles in the Gaza Strip.

Thursday’s attack also clouded a landmark prisoner exchange between Israel
and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, brokered by Germany.

Azouly and another security guard were the first ones on the bus moments
after it exploded on a street lined with cafes and flower shops.

“I saw a lot in the army, but what I saw today there are no words for,” said
Azouly, who was released from a paratrooper unit just over two months ago.

He is a security guard on Jerusalem’s city buses and had been traveling on a
no. 19 bus in the opposite direction when he heard the thunderous rip of the
other bus exploding.

Azouly jumped off and ran the 10 yards to the bombed-out bus.

Identifying the bodies has been a slow process, said Tal Malovec,
spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, because the bodies are in such
bad condition. She said the blast was especially powerful.

“I mostly saw bodies in pieces. It was hard to identify what I was seeing,”
Azouly said. “The bus was full of smoke. There was a stench of bodies and
death.”

Among the passengers was Victor Chaim. He had just stepped onto the bus at
the previous stop and was looking for a seat when the explosion occurred.
Chaim was hurled backward and injured both his legs lightly. Someone pulled
him out of the bus, dragging him by his jacket.

“It was chaos. The people in front of me were not moving,” he said, “and the
silence after the explosion was incredible.”

Chaim, 41, who immigrated from France a year ago, said the bombing would
not shake his determination to stay.

“I want to stay in Israel. This is my life here, in this land,” Chaim said, speaking
from his bed at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital.

As if timed to ratchet up regional tensions, the bombing came just as Israeli
forensic scientists were in Cologne confirming that three bodies recovered
from Lebanon were soldiers killed in a border ambush in October 2000. Also
repatriated was an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was
abducted by Hezbollah shortly afterward.

The forensic team’s findings gave the green light for Israel to free some 435
Arab security prisoners. Many Palestinians who gathered to meet their
liberated kinsmen in the West Bank carried yellow Hezbollah flags, a mark of
the prestige the swap bestowed on the Lebanese group.

Freed Lebanese prisoners received a hero’s welcome in a ceremony in Beirut.

Tannenbaum and the bodies of the dead soldiers arrived back in Israel on
Thursday evening. The coffins of the soldiers, draped in Israeli flags, were on
display in a hangar at the base, where several hundred people gathered for a
state ceremony.

Tannenbaum will be questioned by intelligence officials about how he ended
up in Hezbollah hands, Ha’aretz reported. After his arrival, he spent time with
his family and then was taken for a medical examination.

Many Israelis worried that the swap would encourage terrorist groups to
kidnap more Israelis and hold them for ransom.

“We will grind our teeth at the almost unbearably heavy price we are paying for
captives both alive and dead, and we will also wilt with worry that the
wholesale release of terrorists will brings waves of attacks in its wake,” the
editor in chief of Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Amnon Dankner, wrote in a
front-page opinion piece.

In fact, Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned that Israel would
regret its refusal to release Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who murdered an Israeli
family in a particularly gruesome attack in 1979.

In future kidnappings, Nasrallah said, every effort would be made to keep the
Israelis alive — making them more valuable as ransom.

Sharon, speaking at the state military ceremony for the dead soldiers, said
Israel would resort to more extreme measures if terrorists made a practice of
kidnapping Israelis.

Sharon called the decision to go through with the exchange “a Jewish
decision,” adding that Israel would make every effort to bring home other
missing Israelis — an apparent reference to Ron Arad, an Israel Air Force
navigator who has been missing since he bailed out of his fighter jet over
Lebanon in 1986.

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Thursday that any
retaliation for the morning’s bus bombing would be muted — possibly in a nod
to two U.S. envoys, John Wolf and David Satterfield, who were in the region to
try to shore up the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan.

Instead, Jerusalem mounted a media offensive, running graphic bombing
photographs on the Foreign Ministry Web site and citing the attack as proof of
the need for a West Bank security fence.

“This hideous attack is another indication that Palestinian terrorists have not
missed a beat in their complete dedication for striking at Israelis in the heart of
their own cities,” David Baker, of the Prime Minister’s Office, told JTA. “If anyone
has not been convinced of the necessity of the security fence, they need only
look at the pictures.”

In another grim twist of fate, the bombing interrupted an international
Jerusalem symposium on the resurgence of international hostility toward
Zionism and Jews, drawing an usually heated condemnation from the U.S.
ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, who was in attendance.

“It is a cruel irony that during the midst of a conference focused on ways of
dealing with the problems of anti-Semitism, we are reminded of it in such a
horrific manner,” Kurtzer said in his address.

At Hadassah hospital, the intensive-care unit was full, and it was one of those
busy mornings where staff had been wondering how they would cope with all
their patients. Then news of the bombing arrived, and then the victims.

The emergency staff — veterans of the many bombings that have plagued the
city — went into full action, treating injured who arrived in blood-soaked
stretchers.

The staffs at Hadassah and Shaarei Zedek, the other main hospital where the
injured were sent, dealt mostly with blast and other internal injuries, broken
limbs and cuts from metal pieces.

Reporters waited for photographs outside the emergency room and guards
manned the hospital entrance as hospital workers tried to make order amid
the chaos.

“We’ve seen too much,” said Irit Yagen, chief nurse, who was worried about
recruiting extra staff for Sabbath shifts.

Patients piled in — one with broken limbs, another with a blasted lung.

In one bed, Shalom Zaken, 54, the bus driver, said his head hurt and he
couldn’t hear. He had seen nothing unusual, he said.

Next to him, security guard Azouly was injured from lifting the wounded. His
mother already was waiting in the hospital when he arrived.

Azouly said he wanted to know the status of the woman he pulled from the bus.

“I don’t know where she is. I want to know how she is doing and I hope to see
her,” he said. “I hope she is alive.”

Settlers Struggle to Hold Biblical Israel


A battered shipping container was Itai Harel’s first home on this steep, windswept hilltop.

Now he lives in a trailer with running water and electricity, and land has been leveled for more permanent housing in this illegal settlement outpost. He and his fellow young settlers are gearing up to fight for their new hilltop home.

Migron, the largest and most established of the 100 or so illegal Jewish outposts set up across the West Bank, is on the front lines of a looming showdown between the settler movement and the Israeli government. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently pledged to dismantle such settlements in accordance with the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan.

On Dec. 28, Israel ordered the removal of four of the outposts. The settlers can now petition against the action through the courts.

But settler rabbis called upon supporters to physically prevent the settlements’ dismantlement, and called upon army officers not to order their soldiers to dismantle the settlements.

Harel expressed similar sentiments.

“We are staying here. It’s our home,” said Harel, 29, vowing to return if the government somehow manages to remove them.

“It is our right to be here; this is our national home,” he said, sweeping his hand toward the view of Arab villages and Jewish settlements on nearby hillsides.

However, the settlers’ position may have been undercut by the National Religious Party (NRP), the main settler political body.

The NRP’s chairman, Housing and Construction Minister Effi Eitam, said Dec. 29 that the NRP would support the removal of four unauthorized outposts if no way could be found to authorize them.

The NRP “is part of the government, part of the rule of law in the State of Israel. If, in the end, after every avenue has been pursued, these outposts cannot be authorized, then we will not be able to support anything that is not legal,” Eitam told Israel’s Army Radio.

Over the past two years, 42 families have moved to Migron. They are young, defiant and fiercely ideological. Casting themselves as part of a continuum of ancient and modern Jewish history, they view their unauthorized building of an outpost about 20 minutes drive north of Jerusalem as key to strengthening the Jewish claim to biblical Israel. They also see it as similar to efforts by early Zionists to create “facts on the ground” in what became Israel proper.

Critics and the U.S. government see the outposts, built hastily and without government approval, as yet another obstacle to peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Harel and his friends at Migron, which is named after a biblical-era settlement in the region, are hesitant to say exactly how they would resist soldiers should they attempt an evacuation.

Pinchas Wallerstein, who heads the local settlement region of the West Bank, called Binyamin, said he hopes the Israeli courts will help prevent an evacuation order.

If that fails, he said he foresees thousands of supporters coming to Migron to help thwart police and army forces.

“If we have 7,000 to 10,000 people here it will not be possible to evacuate us,” Wallerstein said, addressing a wedding party from Houston that had come to see Migron as part of a tour of West Bank Jewish settlements. “Why is it legitimate to evacuate Jewish settlements but we cannot withdraw [Arab villages?]” he asked, calling any evacuation a reward for terrorism.

Before climbing back on their bus, the visiting Americans posed for pictures with Wallerstein, who has temporarily moved the Binyamina headquarters to Migron to head the campaign against its possible removal.

In a show of solidarity, Israel’s well-organized settler movement has helped facilitate visits by thousands of people to Migron in recent weeks.

Jerry Silverman, one of the wedding party members, said he hoped the issue would be resolved through negotiations.

“The American government is not in charge of Israel,” he said.

Sharon, long a patron of the settler movement, is under intense pressure from the U.S. administration to fulfill Israel’s obligations under the road map, beginning with the dismantling of illegal outposts that have cropped up over the last several years. Many were established in the immediate aftermath of Arab terrorist attacks on local settlers.

In a speech earlier this month, Sharon said some settlements would have to be evacuated if Israel disengages physically from the Palestinians.

The first Israeli presence on the hill where Migron stands today were cell phone towers built by local phone companies four years ago. Young settlers followed about two years later.

The Israeli government said it expects to begin evacuating settlement outposts in the next few weeks. Officials hope settlers will leave without a fight.

“If the outposts are illegal, then they will be dealt with — hopefully with persuasion, but otherwise with force,” said Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to Sharon.

“Hopefully that won’t be necessary,” he added quickly.

The four outposts slated for quick removal reportedly are Ginot Aryeh, near Ofra; Hazon David, near Kiryat Arba; Bat Ayin Ma’arav, in Gush Etzion; and Havat Shaked, near Yitzhar.

Only one of the outposts — Ginot Aryeh — is inhabited, with about 10 families living there as well as a few single people.

Unlike most other outposts, Migron is more than a small collection of tents and trailers. There is a paved circular road and two buildings with stone facades, one that serves as a synagogue, the other a nursery school.

Still, amenities are basic.

Next to the community’s row of portable toilets is a large white plastic tent for meetings and celebrations. Trailers are clustered in muddy patches of land. A private security guard in a fleece jacket and armed with an Uzi machine gun mans the entrance. A fence topped with rings of barbed wire surrounds the outpost.

“It’s clear it is worth the price. We are here to live a quality life, to live an ideal,” Harel said.

Peace activists say that ideal is misguided and dangerous. It also does not represent the views of most Israelis, who according to polls, are willing to withdraw from most West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements in the event of an eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.

As long as settlement building continues, “we will be doomed to more and more international condemnation, economic recession and violence,” said Dror Etkes, who coordinates Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Project. “Another settlement is another rock in the occupation and oppression [of the Palestinians].”

Etkes said he saw Sharon’s recent policy speech as a potential turning point since the Israeli government has yet to dismantle any settlements of significant size.

“If the settlements are uprooted then the first inroads will be made,” he said. “Migron could be the first uprooted and this will be a historic event.”

Shlomo and Hagit Ha’Cohen, both 25, see Migron’s place in history differently.

They say they are living Jewish history in their decision to live and establish a family in Migron. Hagit, who teaches history and civics at a Jerusalem high school, is expecting the couple’s first child in January.

“We see this as our home forever, even if there are problems along the way,” said her husband, a yeshiva student who plans to study civil engineering. “With all due respect to the Americans, at the end of the day we are the ones who decide.”

Sitting in their bookshelf-lined three-room trailer, for which they pay $70 a month rent, Shlomo cites the story of Chanukah and the conflict between the ancient Greeks and the Israelites.

“Many imperial powers have told us what to do throughout history. They no longer exist. Israel is still here,” he said. “Our path is clear, we know where we want to go.”

Yoffie Emphasizes Need to Forge Links


Reform Jews cannot go it alone.

That was the message at the Reform movement’s 67th biennial in Minneapolis last week.

Despite numerically dominating the North American Jewish landscape, Reform Jews must reach out to other Reform Jews in Israel and Eastern Europe and fight anti-Semitism by forging closer ties to Christians, said the movement’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

"There is no such thing as Lone Ranger Judaism," Yoffie said at the convention of the newly named Union for Reform Judaism, delivering the keynote address to a Shabbat morning service of 4,500 delegates.

The address marked less of a philosophical sea change for Reform Judaism than Yoffie solidifying an agenda he has promoted since ascending to the top of the largest American stream of Judaism in 1996. Since that time, Yoffie has spearheaded calls both to infuse the movement with more tradition and to invigorate ritual through participation.

On Shabbat, he underscored his points with a distinctively progressive twist. Since God made the covenant at Mount Sinai with the Jewish people, he said, "every religious Jew has understood that she cannot fully observe Torah and reclaim the holy moment at Sinai unless she does so as part of klal Yisrael," the people of Israel.

First, Yoffie said, the movement would invigorate its support for Reform congregations in Israel, in addition to Reform Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Yoffie urged members specifically to raise money to help build two new Reform synagogues in Modi’in and in Mevasseret Zion, both led by women rabbis, while also helping train Reform Jews in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to launch new communities.

He also urged the movement to support Israeli students at the Jerusalem branch of the movement’s seminary, the New York-based Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, with two-year scholarships and two years of post-ordination salary. To raise such funding, Yoffie asked each of the movement’s 920 congregations to ask each member to donate $18 annually — "about the cost of two movie tickets."

Seeking inspiration for this work, Yoffie looked no further than the ultra Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement, which has built outposts throughout the world.

"It is hard for me to say this, but I will say it nonetheless: We must follow the example of Chabad," Yoffie said. "I disagree with Chabad about practically everything, and I am appalled by the messianic fervor that has flared up in their midst. But I envy the selflessness of their young men and women who fan out across the world to serve Jewish communities in distress."

A Chabad spokesman, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, declined to comment on Yoffie’s remarks.

Yoffie also called on Reform Jews to rebuild the bridges they have forged with non-Jews as a path to fighting anti-Semitism and promoting Middle East peace.

While Reform Jews led interfaith efforts for decades, those ties have declined recently, and in "many communities, little survives beyond Thanksgiving services and model seders," he said.

Yoffie urged synagogue leaders to invite neighboring churches to join in studying a seven-session course on biblical texts and the religious and political issues surrounding Israel.

Whether synagogues can forge those ties remains to be seen, but his call came with joint endorsements by the major Protestant group, the National Council of Churches of Christ; the Presbyterian Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church; the United Methodist Church, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Reform Jews know that our community is ill served by the embrace of narrow tribalism," Yoffie said.

Yoffie also urged Reform Jews to look inward. He called on members to study Torah for 10 minutes daily, saying those who complete 100 hours of study using a "Ten Minutes of Torah" Web site will be honored at the group’s 2005 biennial in Houston.

Aiming for the youth market, Yoffie also unveiled a "Packing for College" kit for 11th and 12th graders, a nine-session, two-year course about choosing a college and drafting a "personal Jewish action plan."

In the political realm, Yoffie underscored the movement’s longtime support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, urged a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and called for dismantling new settlement outposts. Yoffie said he is raising the issue because of what he called "the threat that the settlements pose to Israel’s sovereign survival."

With the number of Jewish settlers doubling from 115,000 to 230,000 in one decade, the Jewish and Palestinian populations are becoming so "intertwined" that separation will soon prove "impossible," he said.

After three years’ of intensified violence, "there is a sense of desperation" about how the right-wing Likud government of Ariel Sharon is handling the situation, he added.

"I don’t understand, where are they moving?" he said. "The settlers are turning Israel over to the Arabs. — JB

Just a Peace Rally? Read the Fine Print


This Sunday’s "End Occupation" rally in Hollywood has led Jewish watchdog groups to be concerned about the increasing anti-Semitism of the antiwar movement.

"How did the antiwar movement become anti-Semitic?" asked Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). "I don’t think all anti-Israel statements are anti-Semitic, but I do believe anti-Zionism statements are anti-Semitic."

Antiwar rally organizers have struggled this year between anti-American and anti-Israel platforms and outreach to key leftist Jewish peace activists such as Tikkun magazine founder Rabbi Michael Lerner. Anti-war rallies have been by hosted virulent, at times profanity-driven, anti-Israel speakers, while an open split in the antiwar left began last January after San Francisco activists tried to ban pro-Israel Lerner from a rally speaking slot.

"Even someone as far left as Michael Lerner finds himself not kosher enough for the antiwar movement," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The "End Occupation" march on Sunday, Sept. 28, starts at noon at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, with a rally at 2 p.m. at Hollywood and Highland, as protesters denounce Israel plus U.S. policy on Iraq, Cuba, Syria and elsewhere. It is being organized by the Los Angeles chapter of International Answer, a far-left group closely tied to the U.S.-based, pro-North Korea Workers World Party; the chapter’s listed coalition or steering committee members include the National Lawyers Guild, the Palestinian-American Women’s Association, the Free Palestine Alliance and the local chapter of the American-Arab Discrimination Committee.

Rally endorsers do not include the Progressive Jewish Alliance but do include college student groups and a typical grab-bag of obscure, leftist or Israel-hostile peace groups such as the Coalition for World Peace and cultish Fidel Castro socialists. Also listed as rally endorsers are the Palestine Solidarity Committee, Al-Bireh Palestine Society and the Palestine Aid Society.

Some peace groups feel the anti-war movement has gone too far.

"We are uncomfortable with the strident, and I guess, over-the-top method of the ANSWER coalition," said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a progressive Jewish Alliance board member. Beliak said that at a local ANSWER-Run Rally last spring, "Part of what they were doing was they were egging people on to get arrested."

He also said that PJA and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace — another group in which Beliak is involved — did not endorse the rally out of respect for the Jewish Holiday.

The Palestinian activist agenda at such U.S. events seems to be, "to sort of push the antiwar movement [into thinking], ‘If people hate Bush, they should hate Israel,’" said Cooper. "It seems to have worked very well in Europe, it hasn’t gotten traction here."

Of growing concern to British Jews is the rally’s build-up event in London — a Sept. 27 demonstration marking the third anniversary of the Palestinian intifada. Alongside the British antiwar movement’s anti-Israel wing, a key event organizer is the Muslim Association of Britain; the group’s Web site recently promoted the Sept. 9 London lecture, "The Roots and Nature of the Zionist Project," by Abdelwahab El-Messiri, an Egyptian professor whose Arabic language books include, "Secrets of the Zionist Mind" and "The Invisible Hand: A Study in Secret and Subversive Jewish Movements."

Anti-war celebrities, notably Martin Sheen, spoke at U.S. peace rallies earlier this year, but generally did not distance themselves from the event’s harsher anti-Zionist speakers. Susskind said the ADL has not approached activist actors about what’s being said at the rallies.

"We could do more outreach to the celebrities in our own backyard," she said.

Coinciding with this year’s Sept. 11 memorial services, the ADL issued a separate report, "Unraveling Anti-Semitic 9/11 Conspiracy Theories" about Israeli and Jewish involvement being central to fringe thinking on the attacks.

The ADL believes that various conspiracy theories, "are essentially updated versions of classical anti-Semitic canards," focusing in part on supposed Jewish influence at the World Trade Center, on Wall Street and in geopolitics.

"The Big Lie has been repeated by imams, the press and government officials in the Arab world,"ADL national director Abraham Foxman stated in the report, "and is contributing to disturbing and dangerous mutations in global anti-Semitism."

For Love of the Dance


Or Nili Azulay often gazes at the faded photograph of her late grandmother, who was widowed in her 20s. “Her huge, expressive eyes are filled with strength and struggle,” the Israeli dancer-actress said. “She looks like Bizet’s ‘Carmen,’ although she is wearing nothing fancy, only a simple white dress and a white flower in her hand.”

Azulay, renown for her flamenco work, excels at portraying characters who are equally strong and passionate. In her spin on Edvard Greig’s “Peer Gynt Suite,” she plays a feisty Bedouin princess and other heroines from the plays of Henrik Ibsen. In her version of the Bizet opera, “Carmen,” she depicts the defiant gypsy as a feminist, not a prostitute.

Azulay will bring a similar range of emotions to Noam Sheriff’s “Israel Suite” and the world premiere of Yuval Ron’s “Canciones Sephardi” when she performs with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) on Sunday.

“The kind of happiness I recall in my grandmother’s way of being is the same as in flamenco,” she said. “It’s never 100 percent happiness; it’s always tinged with melancholy.”

If it seems unlikely that a nice Jewish girl would become a flamenco dancer, consider her early role models. Azulay’s Syrian-born grandmother, Nona, defied her parents to wed the man she loved, then refused to remarry after he died several years later. Azulay’s mother, Chaya, became one of Israel’s first female barristers; her father died when she was a small child. “The sadness of not having a father was tempered by growing up with these strong, independent women,” she said.

No wonder Azulay was riveted by Bizet’s fiercely independent gypsy — and the art of flamenco — when she saw Carlos Saura’s film “Carmen” at age 14. The ballet student was so “stunned” by the dance numbers that she returned to see the movie a dozen times. “In ballet, the body is an instrument in service of the overall piece, while in flamenco, the protagonist is the dancer’s personality,” she said.

As Azulay began intense studies with famed teacher Sylvia Duran, she learned that “People who become huge in flamenco have huge personalities. They don’t have to do much to burn up the stage.”

The poised, five-foot-nine Azulay — who is also an award-winning poet — displayed similar charisma when she studied in Spain in 1995-96. She went on to establish a career emphasizing flamenco and classical Spanish dance performed with orchestras around the world. Azulay — who also appears in films such as 2003’s “The Brothel” — considers herself part of the flamenco revival spurred by Saura’s “Carmen.”

But her grandmother remains an important artistic inspiration. Azulay was drawn to the “Canciones Sephardi,” in part, because it reminds her of the tunes Nona used to sing in Ladino and Arabic. “That really struck a chord in Or Nili, and she brings that passion to the stage,” said Noreen Green, founder and artistic director of the LAJS.

The complex emotions of the “Israel Suite” also remind Azulay of her grandmother. In the dreamy first movement, she flies onstage with a white lace mantilla, reminiscent of a bridal veil. In a section based on a 15th century Ladino song, she uses constricted movements to suggest the pain of exile.

“The piece conveys the pathos of being an Israeli, of living in a state of half-dream, half-war,” she said.

The concert Sept. 14, 7 p.m. at the International Cultural Center (formerly Scottish Rite Auditorium), 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, also features internationally renown musicians such as flamenco guitarist Adam Del Monte and music by David Eaton. For information, call (310) 478-9311, where you can buy tickets through 1 p.m. Friday; or purchase them at the door.

Mojdeh Sionit contributed to this story.

IDF at Odds With Militant Activists


The bad blood between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a group of international pro-Palestinian activists continues to grow as more members of the group are injured in Israeli anti-terror operations.

A British activist was shot in the head last Friday as a group of foreign and Palestinian protesters approached a unit of Israeli tanks posted near the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The incident ignited a crossfire of words and accusations between the IDF and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).

Thomas Hurndall, 21, from England, suffered a head injury that left him brain dead. He was the third casualty from the ISM in a month.

The ISM is a movement of international activists working for "Palestinian freedom and an end to Israeli occupation," according to its mission statement, sometimes through illegal protests and rallies.

Though members of the group call themselves peace activists, they work only to protect Palestinians from Israeli anti-terror actions, making no attempt to protect Israelis from Palestinian violence.

Hurndall was shot when a sniper on an IDF tank allegedly fired on a group of protesters marching toward them in an effort to thwart an IDF incursion into Rafah. This Palestinian city, which straddles the Gaza-Egyptian border, is one of the main zones for arms smuggling into Palestinian areas. The IDF said a tank fired only one round in the area that day. It had targeted and killed a Palestinian sniper who was hiding in the upper stories of a nearby apartment building, firing at a column of armored vehicles, military sources said.

Still, Hurndall’s shooting is a disturbing addition to a string of recent bloody confrontations between the IDF and the ISM.

Only a few hundred yards from where Friday’s incident took place, American activist Rachel Corrie, 23, was killed several weeks ago when she tried to prevent a bulldozer from demolishing a terrorist’s home. Witnesses said the bulldozer crushed Corrie, a student from Olympia, Wash., and immediately backed up. The army, which characterized the death as an accident, said the driver didn’t see Corrie.

Last week, Bryan Avery, 24, of Albuquerque, was shot in the face while walking with a fellow activist in the West Bank city of Jenin. The IDF said it was not aware that Israeli soldiers had shot Avery, but said soldiers had been targeting Palestinian gunmen in the area.

"This goes beyond the pale," ISM leader Tom Wallace said. "It was a sniper [that shot Hurndall], and we know from experience they don’t miss. The photograph clearly shows that he was wearing a bright orange vest, that he was clearly not a combatant. This man was going to pick up a child."

Wallace said he considers the shooting a criminal act.

According to ISM activists and an Associated Press photographer, Hurndall ran to scoop up a child out of harm’s way when he was shot in the back of the head.

While the IDF has expressed sorrow at the chain of injuries, it says ISM activists increasingly cross the line of neutrality. One example occurred on March 27, when IDF forces launched a manhunt for a top Islamic Jihad terrorist in Jenin.

Intelligence information led the IDF to believe that Shadi Sukia was being hidden in a Jenin compound that holds a bank, a Red Cross office and the ISM office. After combing the entire building and finding nothing, the soldiers asked two ISM activists if they could search their offices. ISM coordinator Susan Barcley refused. The soldiers insisted, forcing their way in. The intelligence information proved correct: Sukia had taken shelter with the ISM. Both he and Barcley were arrested.

"Many of the ISM activists are nothing short of provocateurs," an IDF source said. "They try to incite the Palestinians. They’re almost spoiling for a fight."

An infamous photograph of Corrie, for example, shows her with her head covered like a religious Muslim woman, burning a mock American flag in the Gaza Strip. The IDF source intimated that Corrie’s death, though regrettable, was preventable.

"That day they were running amok around the soldiers, not letting them do anything. Even when the armored units pulled back, they chased them," the source said.

Some of ISM’s tactics are daring, Wallace admitted. Others might call them downright foolish.

"ISM’ers often break curfew, just to show how ridiculous it is and because curfews are illegal according to international law," Wallace told JTA.

The IDF source said the army maintains close relations with many humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, but has yet to find a modus vivendi with the ISM.

"If the ISM’ers in Jenin had nothing to hide, why prevent the soldiers from coming in [when they were looking for Sukia]?" the IDF source asked.

Wonderful


This is what happens in this week’s parsha. In Parshat Pekuday,
Moses gives the Israelites an accounting of how much gold, silver and copper
was contributed to build the mishkan (the Tabernacle that held the Ten
Commandments). This helps the Israelites to truly own the mishkan — it is their
own creation that they can now offer to God. Moses knew that doing the math
helped the Israelites feel good about their generosity.

March 8 is International Women’s Day!

The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United
States in 1909. It became International Women’s Day in 1911, when European
women joined the movement to promote and protect the equal rights of women.
Only a few days later, the famous and tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire
occurred in New York. More than 140 working girls, mostly Italian and Jewish
immigrants, were killed. This spurred women around the world to join the
movement to improve women’s working conditions, salaries and participation in
politics. Women have come a long way since those days.

Collaborating on Education


“It may be on the smaller side, and we do have a long way to
go, but we definitely have a day school movement,” said Rabbi Josh Elkin,
executive director of Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

The audience of 600-plus day school advocates responded with
thunderous applause during the joint luncheon, which brought together attendees
from both the PEJE’s Donor Assembly and the Leadership Assembly at the Park
Hyatt Hotel in Century City on Feb. 3.

Elkin touched on some of the problematic issues facing day
schools: affordability, teacher retention, donor and student recruitment. The
way to overcome these difficulties, he said, is through collaboration.

Like college graduates looking to make career contacts, many
of the professional and lay day school leaders, major philanthropists, Jewish
Federation leaders and Jewish endowment fund representatives attending the PEJE
Leadership Assembly portion, the first of its kind in the United States, took
time out to network.

The cross-denominational Leadership Assembly brought
together people from various aspects of the national day school community to
promote cooperation between religious movements and address universal
challenges. While much of the conference consisted of lectures and workshops,
many participants admitted that networking was a key reason for their
attendance.

“For the most part, the conference has confirmed things I
know,” admitted Carl Mandell, head of school for Solomon Schechter Day School
in West Hartford, Conn., who attended the leadership portion. “The most
valuable components came after the workshops because I had opportunities to
meet people from other schools.”

Dana Gibson, president of the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy
board of trustees in Overland Park, Kan., said he often feels alone in his
quest to improve and maintain day school education.

“Kansas is isolating,” he said. “We need this contact with
other [advocates] because we’re facing the same issues.”

Like those who share his passion in big and small cities
alike, Gibson said that the Reform movement’s lack of interest in developing
day schools is a key challenge. Conference workshops offered suggestions on how
to make a case for day schools, techniques the educator hopes use in his
hometown. Meeting experts like Richard Lewis from the Schusterman Foundation’s
Small Communities Program from Vestal, N.Y., also provided him with a sense of
support.

Marcy Goldberg, the development chair of a new day school
opening in Chicago next fall, came to the conference to learn about the
fundraising her school will need to embrace during its first year and beyond.
Goldberg says that the sessions gave her the opportunity to learn about some
innovative fundraising techniques — and meet others who have found them
successful.

Ilene Reinfeld, principal of Adat Ari El Day School in Valley
Village, sat in the hotel lobby, relaxing after a day of intense workshops
amid the hustle and bustle of cross-country attendees rushing to the airport.

“It’s been a long time coming for an event like this,” said
the educator, commenting that the encouragement for collaboration is greatly
needed.

In addition to hopefully coming up with viable solutions,
Elkin feels the conference sends out a message.

“The way that this meeting is cross-denominational makes a
statement that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.
“Working together with their federations and endowment funds, day schools can
have a deep interaction and confront the greater challenges on the day school
agenda.”

The Arafat Factor


According to a poll released last week by Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Arab American Institute (AAI), U.S. Jews continue to support an active Mideast peace process and a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, despite two years of horrific terrorism and the bitter disappointment of a peace process turned sour.

The poll showed that a majority of Arab-Americans hold similar views, leading to suggestions by the two groups that U.S. attitudes about peace can be "exported" to a region that has known nothing but war.

But it’s what the poll didn’t ask that represents the wild card for pro-peace process groups: what about Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who still seems to think suicide bombers and rampaging gunmen are legitimate instruments of negotiation?

That dichotomy — strong ongoing support for the idea of a negotiated settlement resulting in Palestinian statehood but overwhelming distrust of the current Palestinian leadership — also defines the problem facing Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister in the Jan. 28 Israeli election.

Amazingly, terror-battered Israelis still tell pollsters they want a negotiated settlement. However, Mitzna will have a hard time explaining how to reach a settlement while a treacherous Arafat still calls the shots in Ramallah.

Last week’s numbers, compiled by pollster John Zogby, were striking, if incomplete. Of the U.S. Jews polled, 85 percent agreed that "Palestinians have a right to live in a secure and independent state of their own"; 95 percent of the Arab Americans said Israelis have the same right.

Add some details and the margins shrink, although the numbers still show a surprisingly durable belief in political negotiations.

A slim majority of Jews — 52 percent — said they would support "a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that included the establishment of an independent, secure Palestinian state alongside an independent, secure Israeli state; the evacuation of most settlements from the West Bank and Gaza; the establishment of a border roughly along the June 4, 1967, border; a Palestinian right of return only to a new Palestinian state, and establishing Jerusalem as the shared capital of both countries."

Thirty percent of the Jews opposed that proposition; 18 percent said they were "not sure." The poll also found 41 percent of the Jews blamed "mostly the Palestinians" for the breakdown in peace negotiations, but even more — 42 percent — blamed "both sides."

The poll revealed something else: An overwhelming proportion of U.S. Jews are pessimistic about Middle East peace — about 75 percent — and that pessimism points right back to the missing presence in the survey — Arafat.

Zogby, AAI’s president, said the pollsters wanted to avoid questions that would provoke hot-button responses. Presumably that also explains why Ariel Sharon, a reviled symbol to many Palestinians and their supporters, was omitted from survey questions.

However, Arafat’s negative impact on Jewish public opinion cannot be overestimated. Many of the same U.S. Jews, who strongly support the idea of resumed negotiations and even back creation of a Palestinian state, no longer have any hope that Arafat is willing or able to cut a deal that would guarantee Israel’s security.

APN hopes that its poll will help pro-peace groups gain traction with a Jewish public soured by the collapse of the Oslo process and the new, deadlier surge of Palestinian terrorism. However, the Arafat factor could be a major impediment. Peace groups that are perceived as advocating a return to Oslo-style negotiations with Arafat will not rally centrist U.S. Jews to their cause, despite strong underlying support for the idea of resumed negotiations.

The same dynamic will probably hold in the Israeli election. There is continuing support among voters for a return to negotiations and even for Palestinian statehood. However, throw Arafat into the mix and that support plummets. If Mitzna is seen as seeking a renewed embrace of Arafat, Israeli voters are likely to reject him in overwhelming numbers. And he won’t do any better if he moves to the right and offers voters a "Likud-light" platform.

To a considerable degree, Mitzna’s candidacy is hostage to Arafat; so is a struggling peace movement in this country that has strongly condemned the wave of Palestinian terror, but which has been unable to jettison its attachment to the embattled Palestinian leader as a legitimate peace partner.

Palestinian Supporters Gift-Wrap Message


In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States is considered Israel’s last remaining key ally. Aiming to change that, the anti-Israel movement on college campuses has adopted a message rooted in bedrock American ideals.

The second National Student Conference on the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, held at the University of Michigan last weekend, framed its anti-Israel arguments in the language of civil liberties and human rights. The new, slicker message showed the challenge Jewish groups will face after a conference that both sides considered a pivotal moment for anti-Israel activism on U.S. campuses.

It’s still unclear whether the Oct. 12-14 pro-Palestinian conference, sponsored by a Michigan group called, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, will give the anti-Israel movement a lasting boost or, instead, show that the tide has turned against it.

The movement has come under increasing scrutiny in the past month, after Harvard’s president said the anti-Israel activism bordered on anti-Semitism. Approximately 300 university presidents then signed an American Jewish Committee (AJC) ad criticizing the anti-Israel movement for allegedly intimidating its opponents. The developments drew publicity to a movement that, until then, primarily had attracted campus radicals, but they also put the anti-Israel forces on the defensive.

The weekend conference showed that the pro-Palestinian groups are reacting to the spotlight by crafting an increasingly sophisticated message. Jewish activists are split on the proper strategy to confront it.

Mainstream groups, such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, sought to avoid direct confrontation so as not to give the conference more publicity. Hillel planned pro-Israel programming to highlight Israel’s democratic values, placing ads in campus newspapers, bringing pro-Israel lecturers to campus and sponsoring a pro-Israel rally on Oct. 10 with speakers from mainstream organizations.

A new group, Michigan Student Zionists, worked with Aish HaTorah, the Zionist Organization of America and Coalition for Jewish Concerns-AMCHA, in crafting a more confrontational approach. The student activists flanked the doors of the conference building, chanting that the pro-Palestinian movement was "justifying suicide bombing" and was anti-Semitic.

The Student Zionists group also staged a prayer service, counterconference, rally and a "street theater" demonstration in which students scattered on the ground to simulate the aftermath of a suicide bombing. Leaders of the student group also filed a lawsuit trying to force the university to cancel the conference.

The basis of the suit was that guest speakers — including Sami Al-Arian, a University of South Florida professor under federal investigation for alleged links to terrorist groups — would incite violence. A judge denied a hearing on the lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs didn’t have legal standing.

Many of the 400 people at the pro-Palestinian conference represented extreme elements from 70 universities across the country. Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a coordinating body for Israel advocacy, said he wasn’t impressed by the Palestinian supporters’ new message.

"I believe they’re very much on the defensive, and they’re essentially failing," he said. "They had almost no buy-in from the local Michigan population. And most of the participants were fly-ins. To the extent that the advance publicity succeeded in bringing this to the public’s attention, it galvanized the administration’s opposition."

The university’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, on Sept. 26 denounced one of the conference’s key planks, that universities should divest their holdings in companies that deal with Israel.

However, the anti-Israel message could find fertile ground among impressionable and often-uninformed college students. Participants at the pro-Palestinian conference argued that university divestment would pressure Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which they say is the first step toward making peace. Those who oppose divestment really want to squelch pro-Arab organizations’ free speech, the pro-Palestinian group claims.

In response to charges that the anti-Israel movement is anti-Semitic, conference organizers made sure to feature Jewish participants prominently.

"We categorically reject" the accusations of "anti-Semitism being tossed around," said Ora Wise, an Israeli-born junior at Ohio State University, who is on leave to work for the New York-based Jews Against the Occupation. "We need to go to the origins of the conflict" — in Wise’s view, Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — to remove the barrier to peace. She said ending the occupation will also bring "Jewish emancipation."

At a news conference, pro-Palestinian conference leaders responded to the charge that they endorse terrorism by condemning suicide bombings — along with "state-sponsored terrorism" against civilians. Palestinian supporters use such formulas to equate Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli counterterror operations, both of which may result in civilian deaths.

In trying to undermine a key Israeli argument — that Israel is a democracy like America — Palestinian supporters say America’s historic subjugation of blacks and allegedly of women shows that democracies can be oppressive, too.

The Israel on Campus Coalition released a resource guide last week that offers tools to counter pro-Palestinian arguments, and describes different approaches favored by various organizations. Other groups also have produced materials countering pro-Palestinian arguments, including divestment.

But if attitudes at Michigan are representative, the pro-Israel forces are having a difficult time courting some of the 6,000 Jews on campus on such a highly polarized issue. Israel and American Jewish groups have "failed to contextualize how remarkable the Zionist enterprise is for this generation of Jews," said Michael Brooks, executive director of the University of Michigan’s Hillel.

While many Jewish students are instinctively pro-Israel, even some of the most ardent defenders of Israel are at a loss as to how to refute the pro-Palestinian arguments. Others doubt their pro-Israel education, assuming it was biased.

The competing approaches among pro-Israel activists — confrontation or low visibility — complicates things for many Jews on campus, who feel misrepresented by both. "Most Jewish students are very confused," Brooks said. "They don’t really understand the stuff they hear well enough" to respond to it, and — unlike the Palestinian supporters — they’re "very suspicious of absolutist positions."

Stacie Ain, for example, was turned off by T-shirts at the Oct. 10 Hillel rally that read, "Wherever We Stand, We Stand With Israel." Many of the 1,000 people in attendance wore the shirts.

It’s "almost passively-aggressively attacking another side," said Ain, a junior studying psychology. Ain said a lack of impartial information has made it hard for her to assess the conflict.

Ain said the information she received in her youth, when she attended a Jewish day school in Rockville, Md, was biased toward Israel. "If I had to choose, I would support Israel," she said, adding, "I still have to be somewhat skeptical about what I hear."

The fear of wholeheartedly embracing either side has given rise to a new Jewish group on campus, the Progressive Israel Alliance.

"You can’t just pick one side," said sophomore Becky Eisen, an activist with the group. "You need to look at the whole picture" and recognize that "both sides have valid points."

But most Jewish students remain reflexively pro-Israel, even if they don’t understand the conflict. Freshman Shelby Kaufman from West Bloomfield, Mich., said she supports Israel because Jews are a minority, and "we gotta stick together in the world."

Jonathan Dick, a 23-year-old law student, said he attended the Palestinian conference to hear the other side’s position. Yet he complained to one speaker about how one-sided the conference was. Discussion was "too much about what the atrocities have been" and "not enough about the context they’ve existed in," Dick explained.

Conference speakers focused exclusively on the Palestinians’ suffering, without mentioning their aggression. A key tactic to rouse the audience was to discredit their opponents.

In a lecture at the conference, Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee, jeered at pro-Israel efforts: the "beshawled jokers" protesting outside, the "crackpot" lawyer who tried to sue the university, the AJC ad against intimidation on campus and the controversial new Campus Watch Web site that lists professors deemed anti-Israel.

Jewish opponents of the conference are a "desperate, desperate group of people," Ibish said. "It’s like being showered in tissue paper," he said of the opposition from pro-Israel forces. "If you treat it as rubbish, it will blow in the breeze and disintegrate."

‘My Judaism Is the Civilization’


Amos Oz, Hebrew novelist, secular prophet and self-proclaimed “non-synagogue” Jew, has joined his local Reform congregation in Arad, the Negev desert town where he has lived since leaving Kibbutz Hulda a decade ago.

In reaction to last month’s massive haredi demonstration in Jerusalem against the Supreme Court, he joined other leading writers and intellectuals in urging fellow liberals to support Israel’s fledgling Reform and Conservative movements. So far, about 700 callers have registered their solidarity, and the Reform movement is launching a new recruitment drive.

In a wide-ranging interview, Amos Oz explains why he was one of the first to sign up — and why the Arad congregation should not expect to see much of him.

ERIC SILVER: If you are not a believer, why have you and your wife, Nily, joined a synagogue?

AMOS OZ: It is a measure of solidarity with the Conservative and Reform movements, which are now being discriminated against in Israel. They are the focus of a fierce attack from the ultra-Orthodox.

ES: Have you been affiliated with any kind of synagogue before?

AO: No, never. I am not a synagogue Jew, and I have not become a synagogue Jew. I shall participate only very occasionally. My affiliation is an act of solidarity, not an act of a born-again Reform Jew.

ES: You have been accused of hypocrisy for joining a religious community when you don’t believe in the religion.

AO:As I said, it’s an act of support; it’s an act of endorsement. I find the Conservative and Reform version of Judaism closer to my own than the Orthodox.

ES: What does being a Jew mean to you? What place does the religious tradition have in your Judaism?

AO: My Judaism is the civilization, of which the religion is only one of many components. There is not even a proper Hebrew word for religion. Dat does not mean religion; it means a body of law and customs. The entire concept of associating a Jewish civilization, a Jewish culture, exclusively with the synagogue is one of the manifestations of a stagnation dating back to the 17th century.

ES: Many Jews who share your lack of religious belief still maintain certain traditions, like lighting candles on Friday night, circumcision, bar and bat mitzvah. What part have such things played in your life?

AO: I maintain those traditions which I like and find meaningful. I maintain them because they are part of my beloved heritage.

ES: So why join a Reform congregation now?

AO: We are witnessing a crusade on the state of Israel, which is primarily over the exclusivity which the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox claim. I don’t think anybody deserves exclusivity over Judaism.

ES: But if you are not religious, what does it matter to you?

AO: This is my heritage. I am a Jew, and Judaism is not a religion. It’s a culture; it’s a civilization. Here are some people claiming exclusivity, and they intend to exclude anyone who does not treat Judaism their way. By the way, they intend to exclude not only the Conservatives and Reform. They intend to exclude my kind of Jew as well. And they intend this exclusion, using my taxpayer’s money, and I don’t like it.

ES: Their demonstration was a peaceful protest against the Supreme Court. Why shouldn’t they have the right to demonstrate just like anyone else?

AO: You mentioned the word hypocrisy earlier. That demonstration was a manifestation of hypocrisy because it was not at all about the Supreme Court. It was about the law of the state; it was about who runs the state. Does the state belong to its citizens, or should it be controlled by the rabbis?

ES: Those citizens are going to the polls in May. Jewish control of the whole of the ancient Land of Israel is receding as the central issue dividing right and left. A right-wing government has handed land to the Palestinians. Do you see a new opportunity for the secular politicians, of both camps, to curb the bargaining power of the religious parties?

AO: This is highly likely. The Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox are among the first to realize that they no longer hold the balance between hawks and doves, because there is no longer an abyss between hawks and doves. This is one of the reasons why their leaders are trying to establish hasty faits accomplis in order to change the Israeli reality.

ES: Do you agree with some commentators, who argue that, despite all the appearances, the religious are actually losing the battle?

AO: I am not sure that they are losing, but I’m quite confident that they are not gaining it. The entire Orthodox Jewish electorate was represented in the first Knesset in 1949 by 19 members. Fifty years later, they are represented by 23. That means that once every 14 years, they gained one more seat. At this rate, in 800 years, they will become a majority. After the elections, it will be time for the major secular parties to get together and conclude the conflict with the Arabs and start setting rules of the game for the state of Israel.

ES: What kind of state do you want to see?

AO: A place of thriving Judaism in all its forms, a place of thriving culture, a place of thriving creativity, in all its forms and all its manifestations.