A night for the soul

Have you ever heard words of Torah that made you really uncomfortable? Where you almost started to squirm, not because you were bored, but because you were rattled?

This happened recently when I had a “Torah in the Hood” salon at my place for about 20 Jewish singles.

The class was connected to Purim, and it was billed as “A mystical journey into a mysterious holiday.” The speaker was the Chasidic mystic and philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman, author of “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?” which on its back cover has a raving blurb from a fellow mystic named Bob Dylan.

Little did we know during the polite chatting over Moroccan tea that we were about to be ambushed by the rabbi’s provocative riffs on the human soul.

With the glow of candles reflecting softly on his long white beard, Rabbi Friedman didn’t waste any time. He started by telling us that the struggle in Judaism is not to find the truth — because we already know it. The struggle is to realize we know it, and then make it compatible with our reality.

Argument is part of the noise that makes us forget we already know the truth. When we get drunk on Purim so that we can’t tell the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman,” it is to show us that beyond the state of knowing and reason — when our minds are plastered — our souls are intact and sober, and they know the truth.

The body might be drunk, but the soul is our designated thinker — it never stops knowing the difference between Mordechai and Haman, between right and wrong, between holy and unholy.

Rabbi Friedman was talking about the human soul as if it had a mind of its own, a very confident mind.

The soul doesn’t need argument or reason to make its point. It knows that this is wrong because it is wrong, and this is right because it is right. The soul doesn’t need to explain why you should go to the gym or visit the sick or control your anger or resist gossip or be Jewish. It is our Godly instinct. It just knows. It just is.

It was a little disconcerting to hear something as nebulous and intangible as a soul being talked about like a human asset at our disposal. But the notion that we could mine — even emulate — this asset was exciting.

According to the rabbi, we suffer from inner conflict, in part, because we don’t allow ourselves to enter the state of “soulful knowing.” Our rational minds are taught to process everything — to challenge, to argue, to debate, to struggle, as if those acts themselves had some overarching truth. In the process of all this processing, our egos become the heroes. We become self-conscious instead of soul-conscious.

When we’re not in touch with our souls, we’re also confused about our roles. Our egos make us worship uniqueness. But the Torah values roles above uniqueness. When we praise the Woman of Valor on Friday night, we don’t praise her for being unique; we praise her for being trustworthy, respectful, resourceful and compassionate. We praise her knowing soul.

In this mode of living, there is little room for tortured debate, agonizing dilemmas or self-absorbed obsessions. The struggle becomes to lower the noise level in our minds, nourish our souls with Godliness and then allow our soulfulness to permeate our reality.

In short, the rabbi was telling 20 well-educated Jews to put their minds in the service of their souls. But wait, the real discomfort in our Torah salon was still to come, and it started when someone brought up a perennial hot topic in the singles world: Looking for a soulmate.

Rabbi Friedman explained that the biggest obstacle in romantic relationships is what he calls the “third thing.” This third thing is the all-consuming question one asks of potential soulmates: Are they fulfilling our needs?

We are in love with our needs and, because love is blind, we are blinded by them. We’re in love with love, status, security, sex, laughter, companionship, intellectual stimulation, spiritual inspiration or whatever else we might need at any point in time. When we meet someone, we don’t see a real person; we see a potential need-filler.

But need-filling is not the same thing as soul-filling. Needs are noisy and shifty, while souls are quiet and eternal. When we care about each other’s needs at the expense of each other’s souls, we become needmates, not soulmates.

As the rabbi reminded us, our needs can play tricks on us. They can come and go and change without notice, and then what? Who is left facing us? Who is that person we are having dinner with?

In his soft, almost whispering voice, Rabbi Friedman suggested another way. Perhaps the path to true love is to lower the noise level in our minds and bring only one thing to the table: the desire to learn who the other person is, so we can touch their souls.

Romantic unions that are born in this fashion are not flashy, but they create real soulmates.

By now, after 90 minutes of this spiritual jazz session, Rabbi Friedman had challenged us to look at our minds and souls in a different way, and he turned our views on love and soulmates upside down. Not bad for a night’s work.

What’s more, he didn’t let us off the hook by using obscure language that no one understands. As far as esoteric messages go, his words were remarkably clear. Maybe that’s why they shook us up — and also drained us.

The reaction was not polite enthusiasm. It was more like, “What was that?” People left slowly and silently, as if something deep and quiet inside of them had been touched.

Their souls, perhaps?

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

Why Reform, Chabad Are Necessary

Contemporary Judaism cannot spare any of its competing components. Each one, from Charedi to Reform, has a unique contribution to make.

I recently spent some time with the Helsinki Jewish community and learned something about Judaism I didn’t know. First, I learned that the community of Judaism needs the Reform movement and cannot survive without it.

Second, I learned that the community of Judaism needs the Chabad movement and cannot build a future without its unique contribution.

The Reform movement’s unique contribution is a common-sense approach to halachic disciplines — a willingness to deal with how things really are, and not only to make the best of them but to make them better. In Helsinki, the community is nominally Orthodox but genuinely secular. Here, nearly every Jewish marriage is an intermarriage. The Jewish school has upward of 100 children, most of them children of intermarriages. But nominal Orthodoxy defines matters.

Formalities without heart! I learned this because I met the head of the Jewish community — a serious Jew, himself intermarried — who told me about a current crisis.

The 2004 tsunami killed most of a Jewish family from Helsinki — the Christian wife and three Jewish children died in the catastrophe. The Jewish husband survived and wanted to bury his wife and three sons in the Jewish community’s cemetery. The lay president and Orthodox rabbi said no to the wife; it would offend those already buried there if a Christian body were to be interred.

The Christian woman’s Christian family was horrified by the notion that their daughter’s remains would offend the remains of Jews, since, after all, she had borne and raised three Jewish children.

What halachic solutions to such a problem exist I could not propose; I have no experience in making halakhic decisions. But I could not help thinking that what Finnish Jewry needs is a Reform movement, able and willing to cope with problems that Orthodox readings of halacha treat as cut and dried, and which they botch completely. There is a human dimension to take into account. Reform takes it into account, and the Orthodoxy, represented by the lay leadership of the nominally Orthodox Jewish communities of continental Europe, does not. How much stronger all of the communities of Judaism are because among them is a Judaic religious system that opts for humanity and common sense as principal criteria for halachic decision-making.

The other community of Judaism I met is Chabad Judaism, represented by a fine young rabbi, Benyamin Wulff, and his wife, both young Americans born into Chabad families. They are devoting their lives to building a Chabad community in Helsinki, studying the notoriously difficult Finnish language and planning to make their lives there.

He had come to my lecture for the Jewish community and invited my wife and me for Shabbat lunch at his home. There he had assembled a mixed crew of Israeli, British, American and Finnish Jews. He struck me as the most welcoming, unpretentious, good-natured rabbi I know, drawing out each person in turn, asking questions more than giving answers.

The Helsinki synagogue has a rabbi who comes from Israel from month to month. But the Jews in Helsinki also have a Chabad rabbi, always on the scene, whose outreach knows no outer limits.

He teaches one at a time or several; he has the capacity to add to the Judaic resources of the community by making Jews Jewish. He organizes Judaic events that involve people in Judaic activities and he does everything he can to convert Jews to Judaism — not by words, but by deeds.

The power of Chabad to cherish the sparks of holiness in every Jew sustains him and through that remarkable couple brings light to the assimilated, fast-fading Judaism of Finland.

Reform Judaism and Chabad Judaism prove essential, the one to mediate between the law of Judaism and the real life of the Jewish people, and the other to build and nurture, to make Jews Judaic.

I know it is conventional to dismiss Reform as inauthentic or assimilationist, and to condemn Chabad as divisive and dubious by reason of the messianic claims made in behalf of the late Rebbe. (From Helsinki’s Chabad rabbi I heard that those claims represent only a small minority of the Chabad constituency.)

They say Chabad is nothing more than halachic Christianity, and Christians apprised of the Rebbe’s coming resurrection comment, “Right idea, wrong man.”

But in Helsinki, I missed Reform Judaism and I got a sense of hope from Chabad Judaism. We all benefit from the quarrels that produce Judaisms.

Jacob Neusner teaches Judaic studies at Bard College.


Task Force Reviews Access for Disabled

Childhood polio didn’t slow Jay Kruger. Although he couldn’t run, Kruger led a normal life as a teenager and into adulthood. Now, like other seniors experiencing post-polio syndrome, his strength is receding. To get around, three years ago he began relying on an electric wheelchair that he controls with a joystick.

While federal laws require public buildings to provide access for the handicapped, Kruger still encounters restaurants without ramps, public restrooms with hard-to-open doors that trap him inside and theater seating that is spitting distance from the screen. One quarter of the nation’s population cope with either physical or cognitive disabilities.

“People with two good legs, it doesn’t hit them,” said Kruger, who recently toured the recently opened Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Irvine to critique its accessibility for the handicapped.

Kruger had another motive, too. He is a member of a special Jewish Family Service (JFS) task force, which this fall will survey for the first time the needs and barriers of the physically and mentally disabled at synagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions in Orange County.

It is hoped the Jewish Federation-funded survey will identify synagogues or programs that address needs of the disabled, which can be a model for others. The subject is a sensitive and complex one, as it will put a spotlight on community support for special services and conflicting attitudes over how to provide those services.

Findings initially will be compiled as a local Jewish resource guide, said Mel Roth, JFS executive director.

“When you find yourself with a child with special needs, it’s a maze out there,” said La Rhea Steindler, a JFS case manager and counselor, who is leading the 18-member task force, and is a mother of children with disabilities. “If it takes you three years to identify special needs, you’ve lost three precious years and have the emotional damage that goes with it.”

“If we shorten that process, we may prevent it,” she said.

The task force includes representatives from local Jewish groups, like the Jeremiah Society, as well as county service providers.

“It’s a very difficult job to get the community to recognize there are people among us who can’t benefit from society,” said Rose Lacher, who for 20 years has tried without success to establish a Jewish group home for mentally disabled adults in Orange County. She founded the Jeremiah Society, a social club of 30 members that draws participants from outside the county, reflecting the scarcity of such services.

“There are a lot of barriers,” Lacher said. “Some people just don’t want to hear about people who are different.”

“Using a public restroom has nothing to do with being Jewish,” said Joan Levine, who trains special education teachers at Cal State Fullerton. Levine, the author of a vocational guide for Orange County’s disabled, is dyslexic and has attention deficit disorder. She also is a JFS task force member.

Even so, she pointed out, observant Jews with disabilities face some particular hurdles. As an example, she said, turning off a hearing aid on Shabbat is considered an act of work, which is prohibited. Levine recalls having to seek permission from a religious court to use a sign language interpreter at a bat mitzvah where a deaf relative was to be called to the pulpit.

While day schools and supplemental religious schools willingly enroll special needs students, few are staffed with teachers expert in their needs. Some training is available locally through a little-known group, Special Needs Learning Partnership, formerly known as Jewish Education For All. The group provides highly regarded training in special-needs instruction for religious school teachers, hosts experts for talks with parents and teachers, and supplements teacher salaries.

“It’s the best-kept secret,” said Linda Shoham, the partnership director and also a member of the JFS task force. In the coming year, partnership-trained teachers will offer special-needs religious school classes at Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek and Huntington Beach’s Congregation Adat Israel.

Yet even when such resources are available, many parents with special-needs children prefer mainstream classes rather than a specialized one, which can be stigmatizing.

During the JCC tour, Kruger was pleased to learn the fitness staff includes Angel Luna, a victim of cerebral palsy, who is a rehabilitation specialist. Luna’s expertise with stroke and heart-attack victims would serve the disabled, too, said Sean Eviston, the JCC athletic director.

“He fits a niche perfectly that is lacking in most commercial gyms,” Eviston said.

Kruger was equally impressed with a submersible chair, allowing the wheelchair-bound to be immersed in the swimming pool.

“I’ve never seen another one,” he said.
But entering a JCC restroom or the senior center was a considerable effort for Kruger from his wheelchair.

“There are people with walkers who will have more difficulty than I getting through all those doors,” said Kruger, none of which open automatically. For those reasons, Kruger gave the JCC a “B” grade. “I couldn’t give it an ‘A.'”

For the Kids

Valuable Vacation

Summer’s almost over. I hope you’re having a great time. Did you go to camp? Were you in summer school? Did your parents take you on a fun trip?

In this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, Moses asks the Israelites to remember that, while they are about to enter a rich and fertile land, “flowing with milk and honey,” they must always remember those who need help: the orphan, the widow, the stranger and the poor.

So, while you continue to enjoy your summer, maybe you can also think a little about someone who needs your help. Why not pay a visit to a sick friend? Or bring some food to a homeless shelter? You can brighten up someone else’s summer, too.

Helping Hands

Unscramble the words to discover what you can do to help others. At the SOVA Food Pantry, (818) 789-7633, you can OTRS ODOF, TKOSC EVSLHSE and CPKA RCEIGORSE.

You can help the Family Violence Project, (818) 505-0900. Ask your parents for all AMOPSOH, DINCNEROTOI and OPSA that they collected from hotels on vacation. Then pack them up with some gently used YSOT.

Joke Time

by Nathalie Interiano.

Rabbi Levi was taking a walk down the street when he came upon little Jacob, who was standing on tiptoe, trying to reach the doorbell.

The rabbi said, “Shalom. Here, let me help you.”

The boy waited until the rabbi pushed the doorbell and then said, “Thanks rabbi. Now run as fast as you can!”

The Art of Giving

Call me short-sighted and atavistic, but I believe one of the most encouraging bits of news I heard last week was the decision by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to suspend its renovation.

The bad news is Los Angeles will have to wait indefinitely to have a splashier namesake art museum, a Getty-by-the-Tar Pits. The good news is the major donors, many of whom are Jewish, now might be swayed to move some of that museum money over into other communal needs.

Just over one year ago, the museum unveiled a bold plan to overhaul and expand the Wilshire Boulevard institution, according to an architectural design by Rem Koolhaas of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The renovation, which would have involved a downstairs plaza and redesigned upstairs galleries under a tent-like roof, was expected to cost upwards of $400 million.

This is not to take joy in LACMA’s disappointment. I am all in favor of visionary new buildings — that’s one of the benefits of living in a great city — and I am very much pro-LACMA. I’ve spent many hours there, meandering through the galleries, attending special programs, concerts and screenings.

Not long ago, I wandered off through an upstairs gallery and came face to face with Magritte’s "Le Trahaison des Images," the renowned image of a pipe with, "Ceci n’est pas un pipe," (This is not a pipe) inscribed below. Anywhere else, I would have fought crowds for a glance at the landmark work. At LACMA, there it was, with no hoopla, no line, just great art.

That has always been my experience at the museum, so I was among those who questioned why donors, along with L.A. taxpayers through last November’s ballot Measure A, needed to cough up close to a half-billion dollars to renew buildings that were, at most, 37 years old.

Evidently, I wasn’t alone. As the economy wended its way south, people smarter and far, far wealthier than myself came to the same conclusion. I am speaking of the people in a position to make a lead gift to the museum project of $5 million-$50 million. It wasn’t that their portfolios dipped below the poverty line, just that they came to the assessment that the crowd of donors behind them had shrunk, along with the Dow.

But if LACMA’s big plans have disappeared for now, much of the money that was eager to back it hasn’t. And the fact is, many of LACMA’s potential lead donors are Jewish. That’s hardly surprising. The art world in Los Angeles has been funded by Jewish Angelenos out of all proportion to their numbers in this city.

Jewish artists escaping Nazi persecution invigorated the postwar art scene. Jewish donors, looking to take a place among the non-Jewish elite and committed to creating a cultural center, contributed large sums to everything from the UCLA Hammer Museum to the Norton Simon to MOCA to the Music Center to the new Disney Concert Hall.


But with the Koolhaas expansion on hold, is it right to hope that the millions of Jewish donor dollars ready to fund that project could now flow elsewhere? Are our Jewish leaders scanning the list of LACMA donors and preparing their appeals? I hope so.

I hope so, because I can think of several areas where millions would make a big difference in our part of the L.A. community.

Take health and human services. Facing state and federal budget cuts, agencies that reach out to elderly or indigent Jews and non-Jews will need significant increases in private donations over the coming year. Otherwise, the people who suffer most in a weak economy will suffer even more.

Then there’s Jewish Community Centers. As Marc Ballon reported last week, the system that serves as a gateway for so many into Jewish life is in dire need of fixing. The Westside JCC, which serves a middle-class and immigrant community, could rebuild and flourish with a lot less than $300 million. JCC services in less populated Jewish areas and new campuses in growing areas can ensure a steady flow of new families and new energy into L.A. Jewish life for decades to come.

Jewish camps, religious schools and day schools are other effective ways of promoting meaningful values and traditions for the next generation, but these institutions are becoming unaffordable to an increasing number of families. Other cities have far-reaching scholarship programs for Jewish schools and camps, often started by just one donor. We need it, too.

These are just a few examples of places where the Jewish community could greatly benefit from the kind of largesse slated for LACMA. Smart money goes where it’s most needed. If a half-billion dollar, tent-covered museum were a pressing necessity, it would be under construction this very moment. Now it’s time for advocates to make their pitch that, while a museum’s expansion can be put on indefinite hold, Jewish communal needs can’t be.

All of us, big and small donors alike, speak of the importance of Jewish community. But unless we give — give as much as possible — what we end up with is, like Magritte’s pipe, not real community, but only its unreal image.

Crisis Funds Assist

Since Israel’s current crisis began on Rosh Hashanah 2000, the public and private dislocations in Israeli life have been significant, including severe stresses on the social service and health networks, along with hardships caused to individuals by injuries, fear and the steep downturn in the Israeli economy. Children and the elderly have been particularly at risk.

A special fundraising campaign by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — separate from both the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership and the regular annual campaign — sought to help underwrite Israel’s crisis-related needs. The special Jews in Crisis campaign set a target of $12 million and raised $18 million.

The projects so far funded indicate the kind of unexpected civilian needs that the Palestinian intifada has generated. Among them are:

  • A summer camp offering a safe environment for children from low-income homes.
  • An emergency treatment system for Tel Aviv, including three walk-in trauma units.
  • Mobile trauma units for settlements in the Jordan Valley, along with multidisciplinary training of trauma and health personnel.
  • Training of principals and staff to deal with the crisis in schools, including psychologists to diagnose and treat trauma.
  • Saving the Savers project, to provide counseling and support for those who identify bodies and notify families of deaths.
  • Support funds for community centers and well-baby clinics.
  • Pups for Peace (a project originated in Los Angeles by Glenn Yago) to train dogs and their handlers for Israel’s K-9 Corps in locating explosives, weapons and disaster survivors.
  • Funding for victims of terror through the One Family organization to cover needs not filled by the Israeli government.
  • Training and support of the Zaka volunteers who retrieve body parts after terrorist attacks.
  • Funding for Tzahala, which provides emergency medical services.
  • An emergency trauma operating theater for Tel Aviv’s Icholov Hospital.
  • Funding for trauma hot lines operated by Natal.
  • Training volunteers for counseling — mainly of Russian immigrants — by Sela.
  • Funding to enable the overwhelmed pediatric psychiatric division of Hadassah Hospital to continue and expand treatment and follow-up.

Israeli Surfs New Turf

Windsurfer Gal Friedman became the first Israeli to win the gold medal at the World Mistral Sailboard Championships, held in Pattaya, Thailand, on Sunday, Dec. 15. Out of the 11 races in the regatta, Friedman won four and in two more he placed second, making it the best-ever achievement for an Israeli windsurfer.

Friedman’s achievement wasn’t always so certain. Although he had won a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, his fierce rival, Amit Inbar, represented Israel at the Sydney Games in 2000. Friedman’s disappointment at being overlooked in favor of Inbar led him to rethink his future, and he took off two years, preferring to concentrate on other sports, such as mountain biking.

Once the Sydney Games ended, Friedman started thinking about making a comeback. At the same time, Inbar decided to quit, but Friedman refused to attend the trials set by the Sailing Association for choosing a team for the European championships. While younger Israeli windsurfers such as Tal Machuro, Yoni Ben-Zeev and Alex Hebner competed against each other, Friedman — with the help of the Elite Sports Unit and the agreement of the Sailing Association — received funding to train intensively with Nikos Kaklamanakis, the gold medalist in the last two Olympics.

Friedman credits much of his recent success to his coach, American Mike Gebhardt. "He has helped me with the small things, the things which differentiate between the top places and the rest. Gebhardt is himself a former Olympic medalist, and his experience has helped me — mostly in motivating me to believe that I can win," Friedman said.

"He has proved his great potential. He has the attributes of a champion," an ecstatic Gebhardt said Sunday of Friedman. "He has great technique and a strong character, but he needs some moral support to make him even better," he said.

Friedman’s title places him as a leading contender among Israelis going for an Olympic medal in the 2004 Athens Games, alongside pole vaulter Alex Averbukh and kayaker Mikhail Kalganov.

Despite the fact that he was in 19th place after his first race in Thailand, Friedman got back on course on Sunday, took the lead on the second day of competition and did not look back. "I didn’t try to go for a medal, I went for the gold," he said. "This was a long and tough event, but I stayed close to the title all the way through. I have had a good year. It is very difficult to be second in Europe and world champion in the same year, but I have done it, and I have proved that I am part of the leading group in the world." — Staff Report