JQ helpline responds to Orlando

“When the first responders arrived at Pulse, they called out: ‘If you’re alive, raise your hand.’ ”

Such was the scene described by Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or of JQ International, when she took to a podium at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) in West L.A. during a candlelight vigil June 13, one night after a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., was the scene of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

It was a brutal rampage that lasted hours and continued until early morning. At the crack of dawn, the street was littered with broken glass, ambulances and stretchers.

As the director of a helpline run by the nonprofit that serves the Jewish LGBTQ community, a national tragedy like this immediately propelled Bat-Or to action. 

“I went into high-work mode,” she told the Journal. “I was so focused on doing something.”

At BCC, Bat-Or spoke with candor, urging the audience to be more proactive within their communities: to write letters — not only to politicians, but to friends and family; to volunteer; to help organize inclusion trainings.

On average, JQ International’s Helpline receives eight to 10 calls a week — each of which is forwarded to Bat-Or’s cellphone, where she’s on call six days a week — but just days after Orlando, the number of calls tripled, she said. 

“Most wanted to talk about their fears and have someone listen and understand,” Bat-Or said.

One ominous issue about the Orlando shooting is that it took place in a nightclub, she told the Journal.

“The fact that it happened at a bar made it that much worse,” Bat-Or later said. “We have come to see bars as safe zones for us, and they clearly aren’t.” 

JQ International’s own offices are located above a bar, and the organization’s security concerns currently are being addressed by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Safety Initiative.

In the wake of recent events, Bat-Or said the Helpline is focusing on how to better serve the community. “Two things that are very important to us right now are gathering resources for callers and, just in general, getting the word out,” she explained over the phone. 

“Getting the word out” for Bat-Or means focusing attention on LGBTQ inclusion training sessions for places of education, business and worship. Soon, she’ll host a workshop about LGBTQ awareness at the Southern California Board of Rabbis’ annual pre-High Holy Day conference. She hopes that this workshop will inspire rabbis to discuss LGBTQ issues in their sermons when they take to the bimah this upcoming holiday season. 

The idea for the Helpline was conceived in 2012, when JQ’s founder Asher Gellis and JQ board member Janelle Eagle realized there was a need within the community for people searching for resource referrals and LGBTQ information. It was officially launched two years later thanks to seed funding from Federation’s Caring for Jews in Need Initiative and a $250,000 Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

JQ’s Helpline is still in the early stages of development. Since March of last year, about eight volunteers have been attending training sessions each week during which they do role-playing, resource research, and team-building exercises. The backgrounds of these volunteers are diverse — they hail from Orthodox to Reform upbringings, LGBTQ and ally, ages 28 to 67. And yet they are unified by a singular purpose.

Although JQ Helpline is a Jewish-funded program, its scope goes beyond religious affiliation. The type of call JQ typically gets ranges from parents looking for gender-fluid Jewish day schools to individuals searching for LGBTQ-friendly recovery centers. 

One recent caller, a 46-year-old lesbian mother of three originally from Tehran, Iran, now living in Orange County, called the Helpline to receive legal counsel after her ex-husband threatened her custody of their children. 

“We are Muslim,” she said about herself and her newfound life partner, also a Muslim woman. “JQ is there to help everybody. We are proud to be part of the JQ community.”

As JQ Helpline continues to expand, Bat-Or mentioned it continues to search for extra funding, expanding staff and volunteers. After all, it’s the only resource and social service referral line specifically designed to serve LGBTQ Jews, their families and allies in the United States. By summer 2017, the Helpline hopes to have 20 trained volunteers answering calls in shifts.

The Helpline is accessible by email at helpline@jqinternational.org and by phone at (855) JQI-HLPS. 

Letters to the editor: Orlando, Dennis Prager and atheism, Muhammad Ali and more

An Astute Reaction to Orlando

I’d like to thank Rob Eshman for his insightful response to the Orlando tragedy (“Pulse and Pride,” June 17). It had the merit of being the smartest and most comprehensive reaction I read this week, while remaining succinct and clear. He legitimately referred to the violent attack as an example of Islamic terrorism, but criticized the Donald Trump supporters’ unfair rhetoric against the general U.S. Muslim population. Eshman’s prescriptions for gun control were moderate and respectful to Second Amendment rights. His comparison to last week’s terror attack in Tel Aviv, and Israel’s response to it, was justified.

Guy Handelman, Sherman Oaks

Words That Were Left Out 

I am surprised that the quote you reported by Rabbi Michael Lerner speaking at the memorial for Muhammad Ali did not include his shameful comment that he stands shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians against the unjust rule by Israel (“Best of Our Blogs,” June 17). 

Jerry Freedman, Los Angeles

Atheists Are Unhappy — With Prager

Here is Dennis Prager’s statement of faith and ironically the reason that so many of us have become atheists: “For to know how awful the consequences of atheism are and still be convinced that there is no God is an unhappy fate indeed” (“Two Questions for Atheists,” June 10). 

To assume that atheists cannot possibly be happy and are deluded is a form of moral supremacism. Atheists have moved past that.

Larry Shapiro, Rancho Mirage

Why does Dennis Prager persist in peddling his discredited myth that because they don’t believe in God, heaven or hell, for atheists “there is no ultimate meaning in life,” no “objective morality” and “no ultimate justice in the universe”? Far more profound thinkers than Prager have long rejected the idea that there is no morality without religion.

The Dalai Lama has pointed out that “the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.” According to Albert Einstein, “Man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.” 

According to Greg Epstein, a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, to “suggest that one can’t be good without belief in God is not just an opinion … it is a prejudice. It may even be discrimination.”

Prager needs to practice what he preaches by extending as much tolerance and mutual respect to nonbelievers as he does to believers. It’s called the Golden Rule.  

Stephen F. Rohde, Chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, Los Angeles

Prager responds: To Mr. Shapiro: Regarding atheists and happiness, I stand by the common sense position that to care about human suffering yet be convinced that there is no beneficent God and no ultimate justice — so that, for example, the Six Million and their murderers have identical fates — must make any sensitive human being unhappy. If it doesn’t, there is something wrong with the person’s heart.

To Mr. Rohde: When I debated the subject of God and ethics at Oxford University, the first thing the Oxford professor of morals, Jonathan Glover, an atheist, acknowledged was that if there is no God, ethics is subjective. I know of no serious philosopher who denies that. Thus, one of the greatest liberal philosophers of the 20th century, Princeton’s Richard Rorty, a nonbeliever, wrote that for nonbelieving liberals such as himself, “There is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’”

Finally, I have never written, implied or said that an atheist cannot be a good person. 


An article about a local Shavuot celebration (“A Shavuot All-Nighter at Temple Beth Am,” June 17) misidentified the congregation at which Charlie Carnow is a member. He belongs to Congregation B’nai David-Judea.

Due to a production error, an article by Scott Edelman and Jesse Gabriel (“Dependable Steps to Defeat BDS,” June 17) did not appear in its complete form. The full story is now online.

After Orlando, LGBTQ Jews seek more than ‘solidarity’

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, statements of solidarity with the LGBTQ community quickly tumbled forth. Some expressions of support came from unlikely sources such as the Orthodox Union and the Catholic Church. But what does a statement of solidarity mean in response to a crisis when it is not expressed in ordinary times?

Surely there were LGBTQ Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and Muslims who were moved to hear their faith community leaders condemn the attack. For many of these faith leaders, it may have felt momentous and bold, risky even, to express empathy with the LGBTQ community.

I appreciate the progress represented by these expressions of support, but as a lesbian, I do not actually feel supported by them. The Orthodox Union issued a statement saying “it is clear that those people who were murdered … were targeted because of their identification with the LGBT community. … No American should be assailed due to his or her personal identity.” Yet this same group lobbied against marriage equality and supports religious exemption laws that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

An assurance of solidarity must move beyond compassion for loss of life to affirming the dignity of those who are alive. Without the resolve to support cultural change and policy reform, expressions of solidarity may provide immediate solace but, ultimately, they leave LGBTQ people standing alone.

In the aftermath of Orlando, this is especially true for LGBTQ Jews of color, particularly Latin queer Jews. I’ve noticed that most of the Jewish media’s coverage about the Orlando shooting has not acknowledged the experience of Latin LGBTQ Jews who may see themselves in the victims more acutely than Jews of other backgrounds. This erasure adds to their pain and sense of isolation in the wake of this tragedy. True solidarity means honoring the diversity of our community both in the media and in our communal discourse.

Solidarity also means reflective accountability. It means asking questions: What enables such hatred to flourish? How have I been a bystander in a culture of bigotry? How have I been complicit in a legal system that perpetuates second-class status for LGBTQ people? Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The challenge of Heschel’s observation is that words alone are not enough to right the wrongs all around us. Responsibility requires both words and action — not only in the aftermath of a crisis but all the time.

Idit Klein. Photo via Keshet

Unfortunately, after horrific acts motivated by ideology or committed in the name of religion, religious communities are often quick to disassociate from the perpetrator. When Yishai Schlissel, a haredi Orthodox ex-convict, stabbed six marchers at the Jerusalem Pride Parade last summer­ — murdering 16-year-old Shira Banki — Jewish community leaders, including many Orthodox voices, did not hesitate to condemn the attack. Yet many of these leaders asserted that Schlissel’s views do not represent Judaism or Torah. I disagree. As a committed Jew, I acknowledge with sadness that Schlissel’s views do represent certain aspects of our religious tradition. We have critical work to do to challenge these currents of bigotry rather than disregard them.

As a queer Jew, the solidarity I seek from other Jews is not simply ignoring the passages of Torah that are used to discriminate against LGBTQ people. I seek recognition that homophobia and transphobia actively exist in our modern Jewish community and are perversions within our interpretive tradition. I seek the acknowledgment that religion is too often used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. By acknowledging this painful reality, we have the opportunity to condemn the ugliness in our tradition and still hold up all that is beautiful.

As part of my work at Keshet, a national organization working for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, my colleagues and I host a series of Shabbatonim for LGBTQ and ally teens. Each time we host a Shabbaton, I am struck by how many of the teens share that they’ve never before felt so validated, seen and free.

“At the Shabbaton, I finally felt like there was no part of myself I needed to hide, and I was able to embrace myself in its entirety,” a gay teen recently wrote to me.

Nearly all the teens who participate in our Shabbatonim are part of Jewish communities that would describe themselves as inclusive. Most of them have very supportive parents. They attend high schools with gay-straight alliances. So how is it that kids who have so much support in their lives still feel so alone in the world as queer Jewish teens? Our leaders are clearly falling short. The sign posts for inclusion must be more visible. The language of support must be audible all year round, not only during Pride month or after a tragedy.

It shouldn’t take a crisis like the Orlando shooting to catalyze religious leaders’ support for LGBTQ people. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to see people in faith communities — and political leaders of many religious backgrounds — take a bold step toward equality for LGBTQ people beyond attending a vigil or producing a statement.

Just as we are hearing a growing chorus of voices reject the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and demand action for gun reform, I call on all who offer solidarity with the LGBTQ community to continue to stand with us as we move forward. Solidarity must outlast our mourning.

My experience in an active shooter incident

The Jewish Journal columnist Shmuel Rosner wrote the following in his blog (Rosner’s Domain, June 13, “5 Comments on How to Stop a Lone Wolf Terrorist”):

“Stopping a person who kills with a knife or a gun is a scary thing to do. The natural instinct of all people when such a thing happens is to flee. But reality is simple: The more people flee, the longer the attack continues. Citizens who have the courage to try to do something — throw something, hit the attacker with something — can make an attack much less deadly.”

I would like to share an experience I had that perhaps underscores his point. My military training may have saved my life and the lives of others when I found myself in the midst of a shooting. I still find the experience oddly vivid in some ways, but cloudy in others.

Sometime in 1979 (I forget exactly when), my then-wife and I were at LAX picking up her sister and brother-in-law from a flight from Israel. I seem to recall that what is now the international terminal was under construction, so we met them at the baggage claim around where Terminal 3 is today.

While we were standing at baggage claim, I — we all — heard shots. I looked through a large plate-glass window, and on the other side, I saw a woman holding what seemed to be an enormous handgun, shooting at people.

We — everyone — ran and hid. I pushed my now ex-wife under a bench, and then I slid in beside her. Within a few seconds, though, my military training kicked in. I was just three years out of the Marines, and I distinctly remember thinking, “I am not going to get shot and killed here, hiding, lying down.” I decided to fight. I got up and went toward the sound of the gunfire.

I remember thinking the moment I got up that the sandals I was wearing were noisy. They flapped. I kicked them off and sneaked toward the plate-glass window. (I have rarely worn sandals since).

I saw the woman stop shooting. I saw one wounded person through the glass; the rest had fled the hall. I then saw the woman walking out from the terminal to the sidewalk with the gun in hand, make a right and head our way. I yelled at everyone who was hiding in the baggage claim area to get out quick. People seemed frozen in place. I yelled again for everyone to get out.

I hid on the side of the entrance to the baggage claim with my back to the narrow wall holding the plate glass, next to the sidewalk, determined to attack her when she turned the corner. A young Marine in uniform was tentatively approaching me from the side. I looked at the insignia on his upper sleeve, and said “Lance corporal, when she turns this corner, you and I are going to take her down.”

Maybe seeing me go toward the window inspired him to join me. Not enough. I am sad to say that he thought for a brief second, then ran. I remember feeling alone.

She indeed came down the sidewalk and turned the corner. She was about my height (5 feet 9) or even taller. A big, heavy woman. She turned and faced me and still had the handgun in her hand right hand, but it was not (yet) pointed at me. I found myself staring into her eyes for what was probably a fraction of a second but seemed much longer. The white of her eyes (the sclera, to use the right word) were yellow. I saw what I could describe only as craziness. I felt mesmerized, swallowed up. Again, I think my military training kicked in, and I forced myself to into action.

I lunged at her before she could raise her gun. A man nearby, short but stocky, sprang up from his hiding place under some luggage right after I engaged her, bashing her with a suitcase. He and I got her down and pinned her. I seem to recall that I had her torso and he had her hands. When she slammed into the sidewalk, the gun spun out of her hand.

Very soon, a few of the people who had not fled the baggage claim area came over and began trying to kick her. The other guy and I yelled at them to stop, that we had her. I don’t think they were trying to subdue her; we had her under control, with my knee on her belly, and the other guy on her hands, as I remember it. It was a strange moment, holding her down while we both were trying to fight off a small mob that seemed to be trying to kick her to death.

That is when a police van pulled up and several SWAT team members burst out. I did not want them to think I was the shooter attacking a woman. With my knee on her belly, I put up my hands and yelled to them that she was the shooter. The luggage guy also put up his hands. The police could see the handgun on the sidewalk and that neither of us was armed.

People have asked why I didn’t run, why I went to fight. Wasn’t I afraid? Here is the truth: One result of Marine Corps boot camp was that I feared not doing my duty far more than I feared for my life. Honestly, I had no fear. I did not feel courageous. I just did what I had been taught to do.

One officer quickly pulled me aside to take a statement. I could see that other officers had hustled the woman off into the van, and still others were also taking statements.

I told him everything that I am writing here, and he wrote it in a notebook. He asked me to stay for a more thorough interrogation. We hung around for a while, but it seemed the police had forgotten about me. They had my address and phone number, so I figured they would call if they wanted more info. I never heard from the police, or anyone. Maybe the officer lost his notebook.

Of course, I told people about it. A few days later, someone brought me a Sentinel newspaper, which covered the African-American community (the shooter was African American). It contained a brief article on the incident. My name was not mentioned, but the article said that an ex-Marine had taken her down, but “slipped away before he could be identified.” It did not mention the luggage guy.

Here is what I want to say, affirming what Rosner wrote. When I saw footage of the attack in the restaurant in Tel Aviv, I saw people who were right next to the terrorists running away. They might have body slammed the shooters, or picked up a chair and beaten them senseless. Of course, most people don’t do that, because they are rightly terrified of getting shot. Civilians are not trained to attack.

I don’t know yet exactly what happened inside the Florida nightclub, but I find myself thinking of one shooter killing 49 and wounding more than 50. Had those hundred people charged the shooter with fists, chairs and bottles, the number of casualties would likely have been far less. I certainly don’t blame the victims. The human instinct is to run and hide. Had I not been a former Marine trained to run toward the sound of gunfire and not be led by the overwhelming instinct to run and hide, I am sure that I would have stayed under that bench. I have to believe that the Marine next me who took off was an anomaly.

After the shooting in 2015 at the African-American church in Charleston, S.C., I decided to offer instruction to my congregation for the event of an active shooter. About once a month at Shabbat morning services, I first remind the assembled group that the Department of Homeland Security directive is “run, hide, fight.” I tell people at the far end of the sanctuary, next to the emergency door to the parking lot, that they should open the doors, exit quickly and that others should follow them. Stay low. Don’t trample.

Then I address the people by the entrance. I want them to conquer their instinct to run, as the Marines taught me. I rather bluntly tell those sitting next to the entry doors of the sanctuary that they are likely to get shot if an active shooter were to come through that door. They have a choice to make: Get shot in the chest attacking, or in the back running. I tell the 20 or so people in that corner that in the case of an active shooter, to pick up chairs and rush the attacker and beat and disarm that person. Some will get shot, but far fewer than if they all turned and ran.

No one from the congregation avoids that corner of the room. Many people even opt to sit or stand there. No one whose regular seat is in the corner has moved away. A few people have stationed themselves right by that door. I look at them all when I talk about this, and they look right back at me.

Our security plan is more extensive than these instructions. For example, we also have an excellent lay security team in force every Shabbat morning.  We have a person who is working with incredible selflessness on expanding our security capability. My wife, Meirav, (who is an Israel Defense Forces veteran as well as executive director of our congregation, Ohr HaTorah) and I and others have specific roles, as well.

The main thing I want to say here is that if you are ever in a place where there is an active shooter, and if you are too close to the shooter to effectively run or hide, and you have to fight, then fight. Body-slam them. Use your fists or feet; grab a chair, a bottle, a book — anything — and attack. If you have time, train yourself in some martial art to get into the mindset of physical self-defense.

If you are going to get shot, get shot in the chest, not in the back.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah synagogue in Mar Vista, as well as professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus. Relative to this article: He is a former Marine Corps sergeant, and holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Maroon 5’s Adam Levine offers to pay funeral expenses for slain singer Christina Grimmie

 Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine has offered to pay for the funeral for slain singer Christina Grimmie.

Grimmie’s brother, Marcus, announced Monday in a post on his Facebook page that Levine — Grimmie’s coach on the sixth season of “The Voice” — had offered to pay for the cost of the funeral and flying her body home from Orlando, Florida, where she was killed Friday by a deranged fan while she was signing autographs following a concert.

He also said a GoFundMe page set up to help defray the costs of the burial had reached $100,000.

“I found out this morning, that Adam Levine personally called my mother and said he will pay for the funeral and her plane flight, and I was blown away,” Marcus Grimmie wrote. “Now a friend just told me to look at the gofundme page and I see it is at 100k. Words cannot express…literally I have no words.”

In a Twitter post Saturday, Levine, who is Jewish, said he and his wife were “absolutely devastated and heartbroken” at the news of Grimmie’s death.

Grimmie, who lived in the southern New Jersey town of Marlton, finished in third place on “The Voice,” the NBC reality singing competition. She had released two albums and remained popular with fans.

Pulse and Pride

OK, I’ll start with the good news. 

While the extent of the Orlando tragedy was being revealed back East, in Los Angeles, tragedy was averted.

Acting on a tip from a suspicious resident, Santa Monica police stopped a man, James Wesley Howell, who said he was on his way to the gay pride parade in West Hollywood on the morning of Sunday, June 12.  When police searched Howell’s trunk, they found three assault rifles, high-capacity magazines and chemicals to make explosives.  Howell, who is from Indiana, is in custody.

If the resident, the FBI and the Santa Monica Police had not acted with such vigilance and professionalism, Sunday would have been even worse than it was.  Just as at the Pulse nightclub, where the Orlando shooting took place, West Hollywood could have the site of multiple innocent victims, pools of blood, chaos and unimaginable grief.  Pride could easily have been as bad as Pulse.  

So there are some blessings to count, but also lessons to learn:

We are winning. One of the lessons is that America is not losing its war on terror.   We are not weak, or under siege or being overrun by hoards of Islamic terrorists.  Self-proclaimed Islamic terrorists have perpetrated eight attacks on American soil since 2009. Including the Orlando tragedy, and the total number of their victims is 95.  These are shocking incidents, with horrific consequences.  But the numbers do not warrant anything close to panic.  

If anything, the arrest that happened Sunday morning in Santa Monica is the norm, not the exception.  It’s not that America isn’t full of freedom and soft targets – it is.  But law enforcement and intelligence services have gotten much better at thwarting planned attacks.  President Barack Obama’s decision to take the fight overseas to target those inspiring or, in same cases, abetting our homegrown  jihadis has also crippled their ability to plan and execute attacks here.

Victims are victims. It’s deceptive and unhelpful to make our reaction to these attacks all about Islamic terror.  Since 2009, there have been 17 far-right-wing terror attacks inside the United States, more than double the number of Islamists’ attacks.  These include the murder of three people outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and the shooting of a security guard outside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2009.  All told, these far-right extremist attacks, which have disproportionately targeted gays, Jews, blacks and Muslims, have claimed 45 lives.  

Tough talk is for losers.  Literally, if all our leaders, or our wannabe leader, can offer is tough talk untethered to experience and sound policies, we will eventually lose.  In the wake of Orlando, Donald Trump tweeted that he was being congratulated for pointing out Islamic terror and calling for a ban on Muslims.  I kept thinking:  Hillary Clinton urged President Obama to smoke Osama Bin Laden, then watched it happen.   This while Trump, I’m guessing, was wrapping another episode of “The Apprentice.”

From left: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Photos by Reuters

Better gun laws would help.  Where in the Second Amendment does it say people investigated twice for terrorism have the right to bear arms? Where does it say a person on the Federal “No Fly List” should still be able to buy a gun?  In the immediate aftermath of every massacre, the pro- and anti-gun forces immediately take to Twitter, finding plenty of fuel for the next round of debate.  And the result: A lot of yelling, no change.

The truth is, banning assault rifles in the wake of a massacre committed with an assault rifle may sound good, but the evidence shows such bans do very little to reduce gun violence.  Assault weapons account for 4 percent of the 32,000 (yes, 32,000, including suicides) gun deaths in the U.S. each year. 

Public health officials might keep guns out of the hands of potential terrorists through much tougher background checks, and it would help for the government to go after gray-market gun dealers; it would also reduce accidents and suicides to require fingerprint-controlled triggers.  Where there is a will, there are solutions. Consider this: 10 years after Connecticut passed a law requiring gun buyers to pass a background check and a safety course with a certified instructor, gun homicides in the state fell 40 percent.

These steps might not have kept a gun out of the hands of the Orlando shooter. But it will be a shame if we spend all our time arguing about assault rifles when there are other, likely more effective, common-sense laws that could reduce the obscene number of gun deaths in this country

Vigilance, not panic. The day after the June 8 terror attack at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv, patrons made a point of flooding back and ordering coffee and cake at the restaurant where two Palestinian cousins had gunned down four Israelis in cold blood.  That Friday night, Israelis of all backgrounds came for Shabbat services at the market.  We can learn a lot from a country that has been dealing with wanton, nihilistic terror for decades.  Vigilance works. Too many of us assume it takes a Carrie Mathison to penetrate terrorist sleeper cells. But we all need to be aware of the warning signs of a super-empowered fanatic, willing and able to act on his or her own.  After Orlando, our job remains the same:  to keep our guard up — and our values too.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

It’s Madhim – It’s Incredible

I'm on my way to hear the vice president speak, last Saturday night in Orlando. He's about to address the 5,000 attendees at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, a gathering of Reform Jewish leaders from all over the world. We’re almost to security when my sister asks if we can jump into the Exhibition Hall for some last minute shopping. I try to be a good little brother so when the choice is Joe Biden or my big sister, the answer is easy.

Inside, I bump into fellow Omaha native and friend, Dr. Ron Wolfson, near the booth where his new memoir, The Best Boy in the United States of America, is for sale. We start talking, reminiscing about our grandparents who knew each other, of course (Omaha’s Jewish community is rather intimate, roughly the same size as the membership of Stephen Wise Temple!). My sister comes over and asks me what I think of the earrings she’s picked out. They’re gorgeous, I tell her. She wants to buy them but in order to make it through security to see the Vice President more quickly, she’s left her purse back in the hotel room. I’m no help – all I have is my room key. Dr. Wolfson comes to the rescue – if not the very best boy in America, he’s certainly one of the sweetest I know – and loans my sister money for the earrings. We start talking to the jeweler, Jackie Cohen.

Yoshi Zweiback, Jackie Cohen and Rosie Zweiback. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback

I can tell from his accent that he’s Israeli. I ask him in Hebrew how he’s enjoying the Biennial. There’s a long pause and I worry that maybe it hasn’t been a good experience for him. I lived in Israel for five years and so often I found myself defending Reform Judaism to all sorts of Israelis – religious, secular, and even those who’d grown up in America. For a moment I worry that Jackie will say something that might make me regret the question. Maybe in characteristic Israeli bluntness, he’ll criticize or denigrate an approach to Judaism that fills my life with meaning.

It turns out that my defensiveness is unwarranted.

“Madhim” – he says, “incredible.” The Exhibition Hall is closed for Shabbat and ordinarily, Jackie explains, he’d take the morning off, sleep in or do some sight-seeing. But today, he went to services. “Ani hiloni l’gamrei,” he says, “I’m completely secular.” But, for some reason, he'd decided to go. And then he explains that in his entire life, he’s never experienced anything like it. Five thousand people – men and women, teens, kids, Jews of all colors and backgrounds – with amazing music (a full band and 50-person choir) and energy. One aliyah was for people who hadn’t grown up in the Reform movement – those who’d grown up in other movements, secular, or in other religious traditions. It was the biggest aliyah of all: ours is an incredibly diverse movement. The final verse of Torah in the morning service was chanted communally, the organizers had sent out a recording of the verse along with the text with trope to all participants in advance. Jackie was blown away.

“I called my wife in Givatayim,” he says, “and I told her that I’d just gone to services. She screamed! ‘Mah kara l’cha – what’s happened to you?’ I think she worried that I was becoming religious!” Then Jackie tells us that his brother-in-law was very ill and that during the Mi She’berach, he prayed for his health. “I never pray,” he says, “but today I prayed. It felt so good.”

When you are inside of something, experiencing it every day, it’s sometimes hard to see it, to appreciate it fully. When you live inside a vibrant Reform Jewish community, as I am privileged to at Stephen Wise, it seems normal to see over 500 committed Jewish students gather on your campus each day to learn. It seems ordinary to see women and men in tallit and t’fillin on Thursday mornings davening together. It seems natural for Jews-by-choice and those who are opening themselves to Judaism for the first time to pray side-by-side with others who grew up Orthodox or traditional here in America or from around the Jewish world. It’s expected to hear a traditional Torah chant, a Carlebach niggun, and then a contemporary setting of Oseh Shalom with a full-band and choir in the very same service. It’s how we roll. But for Jackie Cohen of Givatayim, it was a revelation.

We go through security and listen to our colleague, Rabbi David Saperstein, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, talk about his passion for justice and then we hear Vice President Biden talk about his lifelong friendship and partnership with American Jewry and with Israel. For so many of us, thank God, it seems perfectly natural for a Rabbi to be appointed Ambassador by the U.S. President or for a Vice President of the United States to address a Jewish group so warmly and intimately, concluding his remarks by thanking our community “for answering the Jewish injunction to heal the world – Tikkun Olam.” But as I write this on the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, I know that such a thing is extraordinary in the context of Jewish history.

I wish that somehow every Jew, every seeker in our community, could have the opportunity to experience the joy, the warmth, and the meaning that we offer. I wish that everyone, no matter his background, no matter her preconceptions, might be open at just the right time to what heartfelt, exuberant, soulful prayer can feel like. I wish that everyone could experience the power of community and the sense of purpose that a congregation, a movement, and a People can provide.

It’s simply madhim – it’s incredible.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple

Joe Biden, Michael Douglas headlining Reform biennial

Vice President Joe Biden and Academy Award-winning actor Michael Douglas are scheduled to speak at the Reform movement’s biennial in Orlando, Florida.

Biden will address the gathering of Reform Jewish leaders on Saturday, the Union for Reform Judaism announced in a news release Monday. Douglas, the winner of the 2015 Genesis Prize, known as the “Jewish Nobel,” will speak on Wednesday at the conference’s opening plenary.

Douglas is the son of Jewish actor Kirk Douglas and in the past year has become an advocate for greater inclusion of intermarried families within the Jewish community. In August, the Jewish Funders Network and Genesis Prize Foundation announced a $3.3 million matching grant program in Douglas’ honor to fund an intermarried outreach initiative, and on Yom Kippur Douglas was a surprise speaker at a Reform synagogue in Bedford, New York.

The biennial, which takes place Wednesday through Sunday, is expected to draw 5,000 people from the United States and abroad, including more than 450 rabbis and 250 synagogue presidents. According to the URJ, it is the “largest religious Jewish gathering on the continent.”

Other speakers include New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, restaurateur Danny Meyer, Knesset member Stav Shaffir, and authors Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Anita Diamant.

Fla. candidate accused of being atheist (and nudist): ‘I am Jewish’

A candidate in an Orlando-area primary is disputing claims in a flier mailed to voters that he is a nudist and an atheist.

Jeffrey Goldmacher, who is running in Tuesday’s Republican primary for the Osceola County Commission, said he lives on a “clothing optional resort” at the Cypress Cove Resort and Spa in Poinciana, not a “nudist colony.”

“Only lepers and ants live in colonies,” Goldmacher, 56, told the Orlando Sentinel.

The retiree disputed the claims that he is an atheist by saying he is Jewish and that he won’t promote nudism as a commissioner.

“I am Jewish,” he told the Sentinel. “I just don’t belong to a temple or a synagogue. I practice my religion in my own way.”

The mailer, sent by the Florida-based group With Women We Will Win, asks voters to “say yes to decency and no to nudism and atheism on our county commission.” The organization’s Facebook page says it supports women candidates for office, according to the Sentinel. Goldmacher is running against two men.

Goldmacher, a first-time candidate, says he’s not sure if the mailer will cost him votes.

“At least there’s one candidate who believes in transparency,” he told an audience during a recent forum, the Miami New Times reported. “I have nothing to hide and no place to hide it.”