Rabbi David Hartman’s learned students remember their rebbe


An Advocate for Divine Honesty

David Hartman was sui generis; he was a unique individual who was very excited about ideas and at the same time pragmatic. Who believed that believing is best expressed in behavior. To believe is to behave.

This is very clear in his latest book, “The God Who Hates Lies.” It was his opportunity to express the great hope that he had for a renaissance of Jewish life in the State of Israel, and his frustrations at the people who were returning to an ideological, self-centered kind of life that was very disillusioning to him.

His great teacher was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and he told me as he was working on this book, “I have to break with Soloveitchik.” In his treatment of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Soloveitchik said this was the glory of a divine absurdity; the act of being about to do something that is against logic itself. 

Hartman chastised Soloveitchik for this. He said that this is not what we need; we need divine truthfulness and honesty.

He literally gathered hundreds of rabbis, gathered them together and enabled them to speak together without any of their insularity — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist were able to speak, to present, without hostility and without denigration.

He had a remarkable, charismatic approach to the teaching of Judaism. When he was on, it was sheer idealism and enthusiasm. From my point of view, it’s a monumental loss in the Jewish community. He was able to see within Orthodoxy a liberation. 

— Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Valley Beth Shalom, as told to Susan Freudenheim


‘The crown has fallen from our head’ — Lamentations 5:16

There was a man and he is no more.

A thinker, a teacher and a lover of humanity. My teacher and friend, Rabbi David Hartman.

He was larger than life: a dynamic force; a public figure with an international following. But when you became his student, he attached himself to you; he became your rebbe. I was privileged to be one of his students for almost 35 years. He was my rebbe. He was my mentor. He shaped my thinking, and he touched my soul.

My mother passed away just over a month ago. Losing David Hartman feels like I’ve lost my intellectual and spiritual father. 

What made David Hartman so special was that he was a yeshiva bocher who gained enlightenment but never stopped being a yeshiva bocher. And so he was at the same time both critical and loyal. He encouraged us to boldly challenge the tradition but never stop loving it. He gave us the greatest gift that a teacher can bequeath: the freedom to inquire, to ask, to probe and to speculate. He accompanied us on the journey — he wrestled with us — all the while reminding us that our personal growth was bound up in a collective responsibility. He so loved the Jewish people. And he loved humanity.

When I first met R’ Duvid, as I fondly called him, he asserted that the most serious religious question that the Jewish people had to confront was how to rule over a minority as Jews. It was the critical question back in 1978, and it continues to be the most vexing moral issue that we face. 

That’s why I became David Hartman’s student, and that’s why he will always be my rebbe. 

— Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director, UCLA Hillel


The Holiness of Now: A Memory of David Hartman

Torah commands: “You shall follow after the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 13:5) So the Talmud asks: “God is a consuming fire! How is it possible to follow after God?” It answers: Follow the ways of God. My teacher David Hartman offered a different answer: Become the fire! Reflect God’s passion, God’s rage, God’s vision into the world. He was a blazing fire, and learning with Hartman was always an adventure. He thundered. He raged. He wept. Torah meant that much to him.

Hartman’s passion rose from his belief in the singular spiritual significance of this moment in Jewish history. For Hartman, our emergence from the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel initiated a new stage in the unfolding covenantal drama of the Jewish people. There was Sinai, the revelation of the Written Torah, expressed in the language of Mitzvah. There was Yavneh, the revelation of the Oral Torah, expressed in the language of Midrash. And now there is Israel, the revelation of a Living Torah, expressed in the textures and rhythms of Jewish life reborn in its land. Our return to sovereignty in Israel redefines the collective Jewish project. It reshapes our relationship to God. Israel redefines what it means to be a Jew. The holiness of this moment was his Torah. And his fire was our blessing, bringing new life to the soul of the Jewish people. 

— Rabbi Ed Feinstein


A Mensch

Rabbi David Hartman told it like it is. He didn’t mince words. He argued with Maimonides, as if he were living and shouting back.

When he spoke of his love for Israel and the challenges it faces, his words were strong and backed up through action — by educating the Israeli community and military. He didn’t hesitate to share his ambivalences with Orthodox Jewry as we know it; he welcomed women into the Bet Midrash at the Shalom Hartman Institute over 25 years ago. I’m so grateful to have studied with him every other year for those 25.  

A Man, a Mensch, a Visionary.

— Rabbi Karen L. Fox, Wilshire Boulevard Temple


Hartman and the Orthodox Discourse

Figures of great influence and authority within contemporary Orthodoxy, (such as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on religious pluralism and Rabbi Yehuda Amital z’l on non-messianic Zionism) have shared ideas that Rabbi David Hartman had developed years earlier. His intellectual legacy is broad within Orthodoxy and his ideas are easy to find. But it is harder to find the voice of Rabbi Hartman himself. There is much to celebrate in his legacy after such a productive and rich life, but for the Orthodox community, the absence of Rabbi David Hartman from our communal discourse is a warning for the future.

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, Center for Jewish Life, Hillel at Princeton University. Excerpted from “Reflections on Rabbi David Hartman z’l.” The full text can be read on the Morethodoxy blog.


A Voice That Was Freed — and Now Is Silent

Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before making a monumental contribution to Jewish life and Jewish thought.

Best known for his pioneering work as founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute,  an innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for  teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both rabbinic and lay. In all its programs, and especially within teacher-training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition, and its many texts [speak] to students often alienated from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone, David Hartman must be revered.

Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.

For most of his career, he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the pre-eminent 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history: Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until … until he could no longer defend it.

As he approached 80, and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice, accepting some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of non-Jews and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious worldview. Unlike the Charedi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, which seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith. And unlike Conservative Judaism, he did not make history paramount and push the halachic worldview to the side. A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.

He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements, yet deeply regret his untimely passing, for there was much that he left unsaid, once he was free to speak out.

Read the full text of this reflection.

— Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering  Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics, American Jewish University


Remembering David Hartman

As I enter the courtyard of the Hartman Institute, I am always moved first by the warmth and beauty of its welcoming presence and then by the excitement and challenge of its covenantal drama.   

Rabbi Dr. David Hartman was a master of haknassat orchim — welcoming and gathering countless Jewish — and non-Jewish — guests into his pluralistic beit midrash.

He was also a master of intellectual haknassat orchim.  With passion and drama and humor, he knew how to bring learners to the table so that they would “feel intellectually empowered to participate in Judaism’s ongoing interpretive tradition.”  

On the one hand, he championed the modern virtues of creativity, interpretive freedom and self-assertion, proclaiming: “A discussion concerning Jewish tradition is open-ended.”

On the other hand, in his beit midrash, you felt claimed by the voices and concerns of significant others, who engaged your own limited perspectives and challenged you to deepen your dignity and expand your covenantal responsibility.  

— Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Rabbinic Director, Milken Community High School

Swastikas marked on three Sherman Oaks homes


At 11: 30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14, Jennifer Niman pulled out of her driveway on Leghorn Avenue in Sherman Oaks. Talking on her cell phone, the longtime San Fernando Valley resident was heading to her job as a real estate agent at Prudential California Realty.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” Niman’s next-door neighbor, an Israeli, called out, running up to Niman, saying she’d just found a swastika drawn on the fencepost adjacent to her gate. Niman got out of the car, went to check her own home and discovered a swastika had been drawn onto her own mailbox, as well. About four houses down the street, another house also had been vandalized, a swastika painted onto the column of a light fixture in front of the house.

The residents of all three homes are Jewish – Niman’s family is Orthodox, and the neighborhood is heavily Jewish. “There are 12 Orthodox Jewish families on the block,” Niman said. “Why pick these three?”

Niman said she has other neighbors who are Orthodox whose homes weren’t vandalized. “My neighbor to the north is an Orthodox Jew, my neighbor across the street is an Orthodox Jew…you have to ask yourself, why these three houses?”

Niman said her grandparents died during the Holocaust, and she fears she was targeted because she’s Jewish, although Los Angeles Police Department-Van Nuys and Anti-Defamation League representatives could not confirm that Niman and the others were specifically targeted because of their religion. Niman said the swastikas were drawn only on “things that were easy and smooth,” including “stucco surfaces” on her and the other vandalized homes, which are easier to deface than what she described as the “rough brickwork or flagstone” of neighbors’ homes.

In addition, long lines were drawn on three cars in the neighborhood, one of which belongs to an elderly woman who is not Jewish, and the others to a neighbor two-doors-down from Niman who is Jewish and a third person whom Niman couldn’t identify.

Niman’s mailbox, her Israeli neighbor’s fencepost and the exterior column at the home of the Orthodox family down the street from Niman– along with the vandalized cars – all were marked in the same green marker, or crayon – police have not yet determined the material used. Niman said her neighbors whose homes were vandalized have been too distraught to speak to the media and that she and her neighbor down the street have not wiped off the swastikas on their properties yet, while her Israeli neighbor has.

A Sherman Oaks resident’s fencepost was defaced with a swastika on Wed., March 14. Photo by Jennifer Niman

“I haven’t had time; I have things to do,” Niman said. “This took up to three to four hours of the middle of my workday yesterday that I have allotted to this.”

Detective Richard Yep of the Los Angeles Police Department-Van Nuys said Thursday morning that police had no leads yet as to who was responsible for this latest incident. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime, Yep said. “The people are Jewish, and there’s swastikas, we need to label it as a hate crime,” he said. The LAPD also does not know how many people are responsible.

Niman believes the acts were committed sometime overnight or early in the morning on Wednesday. A nearby home had outdoor security cameras running at the time of the incident. The cameras were positioned in a way that might have captured one of the cars being vandalized, however, the Niman said footage was “too dark or grainy to get any clues.” Yep said the LAPD is still reviewing all evidence in the case. Yep added that the swastikas varied in size, “from six inches to 12 inches.”

On Wednesday night, a relative of one of the victims notified the ADL through the organization’s website.  “We feel for the people,” Alison Mayersohn ADL senior associate director Alison Mayersohn said. “How would that feel for any of us to have a swastika put on our homes, whether [you’re] Jewish or not?”

Niman and her husband, a general contractor, have lived on Leghorn Avenue for 20 years. She said that in the summer of 2001 the inside of her home was targeted with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel markings after she rented the house to a film crew. Based on the markings, the perpetrator, who was never identified, was reacting to pieces of Israeli art in the home.

The markings read, “‘this house is cursed by blood of Palestinians,’” Niman said. “That is kind of emblazoned on my memory, and it was under a towel in my children’s bathroom, so when you pulled the towel off the towel bar you saw the statements in big capital letters.”

 

Jewlicious offers pluralistic fun aboard the Queen Mary


“The Reform service is going crazy, the Conservative service is going crazy. Orthodox [service] is huge,” Josh Kaplan, a Jewlicious board member, said as he walked past the concierge to the Jewlicious merchandise booth.

Surrounded by black-and-white photographs of Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, Loretta Young and other historical and cultural figures, attendees of the eighth annual youth-oriented festival Jewlicious arrived onboard the Queen Mary on Feb. 24.

A carefree attitude defined the weekend festival. For the first time, it was a held on the retired ocean liner docked in Long Beach. In previous years, the festival, attended by college students and young adults, had been held at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach.

A blend of music, arts, lectures and Shabbat celebrations attracted approximately 700 people this year, with 350 people staying overnight.

On Friday night, “Blossom” and “Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik discussed her Jewish journey during “Inside the Rabbi’s Studio,” with festival director Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. Raised secular, Bialik’s transition to Modern Orthodoxy began with her involvement at UCLA Hillel. “What I understood about [Judaism] became more intriguing than what was going on in the secular world,” Bialik said of her time as a UCLA undergraduate.

Short TED-style talks dominated on Friday, featuring Jewlicious blog creator David Abitbol (speaking on “Young American Jews and Israel”); Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Esther Kustanowitz (“Comedy, Connections and Today’s Jewish Community”); Tea Party member Michael Prell (“My Jew-ish Journey”); young adult and former Israel Defense Forces soldier Jay Schreiber (“Stories of a ‘Lone Solider’ ”) and Torah scribe Julie Seltzer (“Birthing the Torah”). Tahlia Miller, Matisyahu’s wife, examined “how personality affects relationships,” and Rav Shmuel Skaist led “Torah and Chulent,” the sole all-night event.

“The overall goal of Jewlicious is to create the best experiential weekend for young Jews in the country,” Bookstein said in an interview. “That’s always been our goal, and that’s what we constantly strive to achieve. As the years have progressed, we’ve had a lot of involvement with our participants, with feedback and their involvement in planning it.”

Hurrying around an 11 p.m. ice cream party in the ship’s Britannia Salon, a 7,500-square-foot room that once served as the Queen Mary’s second-class lounge, Bookstein described this year’s festival as “next level.” For the first time, festival-goers slept on site, bunking in the cruise ship’s cabins, as opposed to previous years, when they slept at hotels adjacent to the Jewish community center.

The venue also allowed for more freedom. In previous years, attendees were confined to the JCC. This year, they could walk anywhere on the boat. After a massive Shabbat dinner that had four long tables seating 50 to 80 people each, a bunch of students from California State University, Long Beach, ventured off to the Observation Bar, an art deco lounge with live music and cocktails.

After the TED-style talks, 20-year-old Becky Rudin, a member of Claremont Students for Israel at Claremont College, along with six female friends from Claremont who were at Jewlicious for the weekend, walked the ship’s deck, enjoying the evening’s cool air.

“I just wanted to get more involved in the community … and have an enlightening Jewish experience,” Rudin said.

Friday was filled with lectures, Shabbat and attendees getting to know each other — and their way around the ship — but the rest of the weekend featured live music and comedy. On Saturday night, ska and reggae band The Aggrolites and stand-up comedians Todd Barry and Moshe Kasher performed. The Los Angeles band Fool’s Gold filled in for Moshav, which had to cancel for personal reasons.

On Sunday, an acoustic concert with The Wellspring took place on the Captain’s Deck overlooking the Long Beach harbor and skyline. Later, a panel discussion examined “Jews and Cannabis,” workshops explored the Jewish art of paper cutting, and mimosas complemented an outdoor brunch.

“It was just so scenic and gorgeous,” Bookstein said of the weekend’s weather, but he could as well have been describing the event.

“The new venue really brought a whole new atmosphere to the festival; everybody was just raving about having it on the Queen Mary,” he said. “I think that with the success with 8.0 on the Queen Mary, we’re already looking forward to doing the ninth one there.”

UCLA Orthodox program raises funds, but need continues


More than 100 students, alumni and parents raised $23,000 for UCLA’s JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) during a Nov. 18 fundraiser, contributing roughly a quarter of the $100,000 that the program now needs to raise annually to ensure its continuing presence on the Westwood campus.

The JLIC program, which provides Jewish learning, prayer and holiday experiences for Orthodox students at UCLA, was funded entirely by the Orthodox Union (OU) until earlier this year, when the OU asked JLIC and the L.A. Jewish community to step up and help shoulder half the cost of running the program. 

Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan, two East Coast natives who founded and have directed the program at UCLA for the past eight years, are now charged with raising 50 percent of the program’s operating cost, according to Joshua Ross, associate director of the JLIC program for the OU.

Rabbi Kaplan said he and his wife, Sharona, are now spending time on fundraising that otherwise would be spent preparing for classes or connecting with students. 

“There’s definitely a time management issue when you add these things to the schedule,” he said.

To jumpstart the campaign for the 2012-13 school year, the Kaplans organized the Nov. 18 fundraiser, Take Us to the Top(pings), at Toppings Yogurt in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Costs for the event, including free frozen yogurt and an iPad 2 raffle, were covered by the OU, according to Rabbi Kaplan.

Rabbi Kaplan said he’s grateful to the many alumni who stepped up to raise awareness and solicit donations.

One alumnus, Nick Faguet, created the Web site keepourkaplans.org, through which 70 to 80 percent of the program’s donations have been processed, Rabbi Kaplan said. 

Faguet, who graduated last year and is currently attending UCLA School of Law, said he was surprised at how everyone he approached was willing to do their share to donate.

Faguet said he credits the JLIC program with “creating a Jewish community within the larger campus community” and being a place where “people who are observant can be observant without alienating the rest of the student body.”

Debby Segura, a parent of two former UCLA alumni and a member of JLIC’s board of governors, said the JLIC program was a “lifeline” for her kids, offering Shabbat experiences and learning opportunities. 

“Without [JLIC], it would not have been a rich experience; it would have been just a commuter experience,” she said. 

A number of things led to the shift in the OU’s support of JLIC, Ross said. “Dollars are down, in general, for the OU, and all branches are looking to do more fundraising.”

But while the economy played a part, Ross said the OU was moving to make JLIC more of a partnership anyway.

If the Kaplans can’t meet their fundraising goals, “it’s not a do or die situation,” Ross said. “If we get to 70 or 80 percent, we’ll find a way. If we only get to 20 percent — which we’ve already surpassed — it’s a more challenging situation.”

Among all of the 15 JLIC programs on campuses in North America, the OU is looking to create more partnerships with Hillel, parent advisory boards and other initiatives, he said.  But while the Hillel at UCLA provides use of its building and contributes programming money to JLIC, it isn’t able to help subsidize overall operating costs, Ross said. 

“But we have partners,” he said. “We’re not in panic mode.”

Synagogue dispute heads to court


The trouble at Shaarei Tefila, one of Los Angeles’ oldest Modern Orthodox synagogues, began in 2008 with a disagreement over whether one member’s brother should be allowed to be called up to the Torah. Over the last three years, however, that dispute led to a competition between two groups of members for control over the struggling 77-year-old Beverly Boulevard congregation.

The conflict is now heading to court.

Each of the two factions claims to represent the synagogue’s best interests. One group, called the Committee of Concerned Members and Stakeholders of Congregation Shaarei Tefila, is led by Allan Lowy, a former president of the synagogue and its only officially “expelled member.”

The other group, which currently controls the synagogue’s board and leadership positions, is composed of mostly, though not exclusively, younger synagogue members who are relative newcomers to the congregation.

Lowy, 62, became a bar mitzvah at Shaarei Tefila and continues to pray regularly at the synagogue. He sends regular updates to about 250 recipients from the e-mail address {encode=”TakeBackOurShul@gmail.com” title=”TakeBackOurShul@gmail.com”}, and said the core of his committee is 25 people, most of them middle-age or older, only some of whom are still formally affiliated with Shaarei Tefila.

After months of back and forth with a Los Angeles-based beit din, or rabbinical court, the two sides failed to agree even on which three rabbis should hear the case. With no clear way forward, the Beit Din of Congregation Agudas Yisroel, led by Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, granted Lowy permission on Sept. 19 to sue the officers of the synagogue in a secular court.

Citing official beit din policy, Teichman would not elaborate as to why Lowy was given this written permit, known halachically, by Jewish law, as a heter arkaot.

Lowy is an attorney and said he intends to file suit after the Sukkot holiday. He will request that the synagogue’s books and records be opened to him and other members and a restraining order placed on the synagogue’s leaders, preventing them from taking actions that would significantly affect the future of Shaarei Tefila. Such an order would prohibit the selling of synagogue assets, merging with another organization or entering into an employment agreement.

Lowy said he also intends to ask the court to invalidate the two most recent Shaarei Tefila board elections and to appoint a monitor for all future elections.

Here, as in many intra-synagogue spats, what might seem to be picayune questions of organizational governance are being hotly contested. And while Lowy claims that the most recent board election, in May 2011, was conducted in defiance of a separate rabbinic injunction, also issued by Teichman’s beit din, members of the synagogue’s leadership counter that Lowy himself is not a “member in good standing” of Shaarei Tefila, and therefore had no right to vote in the last election, nor does he have standing to bring the suit against them.

According to Shaarei Tefila President Alan Goldstein, Lowy still has a “significant” unpaid balance left on his membership account.

“The people who are screaming are not even members,” said Goldstein, a 77-year-old semi-retired businessman who was acting as Shaarei Tefila’s president before being elected to the position in May. “The membership seems to be very happy with what’s going on.”

Lowy, for his part, said that he had attempted to settle his membership account with the synagogue, but that he had been dealt with unfairly by Shaarei Tefila’s immediate past president, Aaron Kin.

Indeed, Lowy traces the beginning of his dissatisfaction with the synagogue’s leadership back to the service in 2008, when Aaron Kin’s brother, Meir Kin, was called up to the Torah in defiance of yet another rabbinic court order. That rare order, known as a seiruv, prohibited any Orthodox synagogue from offering religious honors to Meir Kin until he gave his wife a formal Jewish writ of divorce, known as a get.

Behind the flurry of rabbinic court correspondence, the allegations and counter-allegations of fraudulent elections and fights over unpaid membership dues, what is roiling at Shaarei Tefila is a fight for power.

At stake, first and foremost, is the future direction of a synagogue that was once a proud pillar of Los Angeles’ Modern Orthodox community. Current members of the synagogue’s board, both young and old, have said they are working to ensure Shaarei Tefila will always remain “a community shul.” Lowy and his committee, however, fear that it could soon become a strikingly different institution. And the fact that this synagogue — which, according to Goldstein, filled fewer than one-quarter of the seats in its main sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah this year — is housed in a building worth an estimated $8 million to $10 million cannot be far from anyone’s mind.

Initially known as the Western Jewish Institute, Shaarei Tefila began as a “traditional” synagogue. Men and women sat together in the sanctuary during services, and microphones were used to amplify sound until the late 1960s, when the synagogue began to align itself more with the standard practices of the Orthodox Union.

Over the last two or three decades, however, Shaarei Tefila’s attendance and membership declined, as many Modern Orthodox Jews left the area and moved to Pico-Robertson, Hancock Park or elsewhere. Meanwhile, the neighborhood around the synagogue, which sits on Beverly Boulevard just west of La Brea Avenue, became home to increasingly traditional Jews, many of them affiliated with Chasidic sects.

The newcomers to Shaarei Tefila, the younger men and families who now make up the majority of the synagogue’s membership and board, embody this trend. On Saturdays, about half of the newer members wear the traditional Sabbath-day garb of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect: a black coat, known as a kapote (pronounced kuh-PUH-tuh), cinched with a string belt called a gartel, also black.

“We’re not Chabad,” said Sholom Feigelstock, a Shaarei Tefila board member and the de facto leader of the group of young members. “We’re a group of young guys interested in building this community.”

To Feigelstock’s chagrin, many of the old-timers — including long-time members like Goldstein who have aligned with the new members — regularly refer to the new group of young families as Chabadniks.

With more than 4,000 shluchim, or emissaries, located in the farthest corners of the globe, the visibly expansionist character of Chabad-Lubavitch has occasionally stirred up fears in neighborhoods, communities and college campuses where shluchim establish a presence — a fear that Chabad-affiliated groups are “taking over.”

That’s not the case at Shaarei Tefila, Feigelstock said. In 2008, he and approximately 30 other families who had been praying together at the nearby Chabad of Hancock Park, were invited by Shaarei Tefila’s then-president Aaron Kin to join the synagogue. Feigelstock, who is in his 30s, said that the membership of Shaarei Tefila today includes about 90 young member families who had been drawn to the synagogue to be part of Chabad-oriented services.

The total membership of Shaarei Tefila, Feigelstock said, is hard to determine, but the synagogue sends its mailings out to a list of about 200 individuals and families.

In an interview in May, Feigelstock said that he could understand why the old guard might be concerned by the rapid influx of young families into the community who prayed differently from the Ashkenazi style that had been used in the synagogue for decades. But he dismissed any talk of his group engaging in a takeover.

“We are focused on building Shaarei Tefila to be a nice community for everyone to come to,” Feigelstock said.

Even Goldstein said the synagogue might need an extra layer of protection to prevent its assets from being mishandled, by anyone. “I’m working to create a trust for the shul, in order to make sure that it will always remain a community shul,” he said.

As Lowy prepares his lawsuit aimed at stopping or slowing the changes being made to Shaarei Tefila, the character of the synagogue continues to shift. On Rosh Hashanah, Goldstein said, the main service in the 900-seat sanctuary attracted about 180 people — fewer than the 250 who came to the Chabad-style service in the building’s social hall.

That many people haven’t been seen at Shaarei Tefila in decades. According to Joseph Schames, a past president and 30-year member of the congregation who is now serving as secretary of its board, the synagogue has “turned around in the past year and a half from a shul that was dying to a revitalized shul.”

The main service, which followed an Ashkenazi style, was led by Rabbi Moshe Kesselman, grandson of an influential Chabad rabbi. Kesselman was, until recently, on the staff at Chabad of Beverly Hills and, according to Goldstein, has been retained by Shaarei Tefila to act as the synagogue’s rabbi on a month-to-month basis until a synagogue membership meeting can be called to vote on whether to officially hire him more permanently.

Lowy said he is not opposed to seeing changes at Shaarei Tefila, but rather that he only wants them to be made in a more transparent manner.

“If in an open, fair and transparent election, Kesselman is elected” to be the next rabbi, Lowy said, “it would be my honor to daven [pray] with him. It would be my privilege to work for his success.”

Orthodox students fighting to keep presence at UCLA


A program that is credited with creating a vibrant Orthodox community at UCLA needs to prove by the end of March that it can raise $80,000 annually to ensure its future on the Westwood campus.

The Orthodox Union (OU) has paid the salaries for two professionals who founded and have been running Shabbat programming, Torah study and daily services at UCLA for ten years, and now OU (” title=”http://www.jliconline.org/index.php”>http://www.jliconline.org/index.php) with $80,000 year, roughly half the direct cost of the UCLA program, if the local community can commit to the other half – a determination OU will make at the end of March.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel (” title=”www.keepourkaplans.org”>www.keepourkaplans.org, and by soliciting parents, friends and community members.

All parties – the students, Hillel and OU – agree that the Kaplans have built a presence at UCLA that did not exist before.

The Kaplans have established a regular weekday morning and afternoon prayer services for the first time at UCLA Hillel, launched multiple opportunities for Torah study for Orthodox and non-Orthodox students, and created a Shabbat community that has Friday night and Shabbat morning services and meals every week, as well as holiday programs and services. Shabbat morning usually attracts around 30 to 40 students, and 150 students attend JLIC programs.

The Kaplan’s arrival coincided with the opening of the new Yitzchak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, which also brought a reliable kosher meal program to campus for the first time – a necessity for attracting Orthodox students from inside and outside LA.

JLIC has benefited all students, not just the Orthodox, said Seidler-Feller, with its concrete programming, consistent presence and mostly with the spirit it brings.

“JLIC represents the possibility of a thriving Modern Orthodox community in a university setting, which is the primary lesson that Hillel is trying to transmit: You can be intensely Jewish and engage the world.”

Seidler-Feller said past efforts to get Orthodox support have not been successful, possibly because the community fears the pluralistic setting. But Seidler-Feller said he has seen Orthodox students maintain their values and identity while influencing the wider community. And, he points out, several Orthodox couples have met and married through JLIC.

He notes that the investment can pay off in the long run—not only can parents save tens of thousands of dollars on a local, high caliber public education, but 80 percent of UCLA graduates end up living within 20 miles of the school, a fact that could speak to parents eager to keep their college graduates on the West Coast.

“If these graduates stay, they can enrich the entire Los Angeles Jewish community,” Seidler-Feller said.

Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas and secular universities


The Wall Street Journal recently published a column about ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) Jews in Israel who do not work for a living. Sixty-five percent of ultra-Orthodox men ages 35-54 do not go to work. Instead, they study Torah while demanding increasing amounts of money from the taxes paid by Israelis who work for a living.

The author of the column, Evan R. Goldstein, wrote: “Voluntary unemployment has become the dominant lifestyle choice for [Charedi] men. And even if there was a desire to work, [Charedi] schools leave students unprepared to function in a modern economy.”

If these data are correct, this is not only a problem for Israel, it is a problem for Judaism.

It is a problem for Israel for the same reason that able-bodied citizens receiving welfare has been a problem for America. It is economically unfeasible to support large numbers of nonworking citizens, and it is morally wrong for citizens who work and pay taxes to have their money forcibly taken from them (i.e., taxes) to pay to people who could work but who choose not to.

The reason for this problem in Israel is that in 1948 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion excused 400 yeshiva students from serving in the army, arguing that after the Holocaust it was critical for the Jewish state to support some of its citizens to concentrate on Torah study.

Few Jews, inside or outside of Israel, would oppose continuing this policy for a handful of scholars. But for hundreds of thousands of able-bodied Jews to demand to be supported — and protected — by other Jews (and, for that matter, the non-Jewish citizens of Israel as well) is entirely different.

It is also a problem for Judaism. It presents religious Jews, Torah and Judaism in a terrible light. Of course, most Orthodox Jews in Israel work as hard for a living as other Israeli citizens. But the largest group of Israelis that chooses not to work while demanding public funds to sustain them is the ultra-Orthodox, who also constitute an increasingly large percentage of the Israeli population.

As Goldstein notes in his article, the Shulchan Aruch, the Orthodox compendium of Jewish law, declares that “a respected and impoverished scholar should have a trade, even a lowly trade, rather than being in need of his fellow man.”

Goldstein quotes Israeli Orthodox scholars who claim that there is no precedent in pre-1948 Jewish history for an entire community devoting itself to Torah scholarship, let alone getting paid to do so:

“ ‘Torah study has always been for spiritual, not material, sustenance,’ Zvi Zohar, a professor of law at [the Orthodox] Bar-Ilan University, tells me. Moreover, the notion that a man’s primary obligation is studying, and not providing for his family, is ‘diametrically opposed’ to Jewish tradition, Mr. Zohar says.”

Goldstein cites an additional problem for Judaism in state-supported Torah study for vast numbers of men: He quotes professor Shlomo Naeh of the Jewish Studies Department of the Hebrew University, who says that it has harmed the quality of Jewish thought. Writes Goldstein: “Ultra-Orthodox self-segregation has cut ‘learning off from life,’ he wrote in a recent essay. As a result, the current generation of Torah scholars ‘is far from being one of the greatest … despite the existence of tens of thousands of learners.’ ”

This “self-segregation” — these ultra-Orthodox men rarely interact with non-Orthodox Jews, let alone with non-Jews — has another negative consequence: These men gain and therefore impart little wisdom. One might say that insularity and wisdom are mutually exclusive.

The irony here is that a similar problem exists at Western universities. There, too, many individuals who teach in the liberal arts or “social sciences” live off public funds (they get paid to teach a few hours a week, but otherwise the parallel is apt), and spend nearly their whole life in a cocoon (a secular left one), interacting almost only with people who live and think as they do, just as the Charedim do.

Most secular left professors and most ultra-Orthodox yeshiva scholars are mirror images of one another: A life devoted to the study of increasingly irrelevant matters, with the result that both groups usually lack wisdom and therefore too often produce nonsense, sometimes harmful nonsense.

Both groups venerate brainpower and knowledge over wisdom and common sense. The fact that Jews are drawn to each of these lifestyles — that of the yeshiva scholar and secular professor — reflects a real problem in Jewish life, whether ultra-Orthodox or ultra-secular, namely, worship of the intellect.

I saw this at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva I attended and at the Ivy League university I attended. Men with fine brains and immense knowledge about narrow areas of life taught me little about real life.

The intellect cut off from the real world, whether in a Charedi yeshiva in Israel or at almost any modern Western university, is not good for society. The issue is not Charedim or professors per se. The issue is Charedim and professors who leave the world to live in yeshivas or academia their whole lives. Thus, ultra-Orthodox like Chabad and others who do not want their followers to spend their lives only studying, and professors in junior colleges, who often come from outside of academia or who combine outside work with teaching, are not the problem.

The lesson is that far more important in life than intellect are common sense, goodness and the wisdom produced by a life that comes into regular contact with the Other. The Other in the Charedi yeshiva world is the non-Orthodox Jew and the non-Jew; the Other at the university is a conservative Christian or a conservative, period.

There is, however, one important difference between ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and universities. Yeshivas are honest about their primary goal: to produce an Orthodox Jew. Universities never acknowledge their primary goal: to produce a secular leftist.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.

Neighbors oppose Chabad expansion on Pico


Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, head of Chabad of California, has a dream — a block-long, five-story “village” on Pico Boulevard that would provide a girls day school and boarding school along with affordable, safe housing for Holocaust survivors and other elderly people and for teachers with large families.

On the ground floor, retail stores — such as “milchig” and “fleishig” commissaries, a pharmacy and a clothing store selling inexpensive, modest but fashionable clothing — would serve the residents as well as the community. Beneath the proposed almost 108,000 square-foot building, 80 feet in height, would be two levels of subterranean parking.

“It will make lives easier for people, including the people down the block,” Cunin said.

But for neighbors living in the vicinity of this one-block area on the north side of Pico Boulevard, bordered by Wetherly and Crest drives as well as a back alley, the project represents anything but a dream. They envision a nightmare — a structure too massive for the 28,000-square-foot parcel of land that they believe is certain to bring more noise, traffic and trash into an already congested area.

“I don’t want a monster built right behind my back yard. It destroys my privacy. It’s outrageous,” said Mike Rafi, who lives on Wetherly Drive, one house away from the alley behind the Chabad property.

The Master Use Permit Application that Chabad of California filed on Aug. 7, 2007, for property located from 9001 to 9041 W. Pico Blvd. calls for the four buildings currently occupying that block, which is owned by Chabad, to be demolished. The proposed mixed-use development complex would include seven retail stores on the ground level; a junior high school accommodating 225 girls and high school for 200 girls on the second floor; 25 dormitory rooms housing 100 girls on the third floor; and 31 residential condominiums, one to three bedrooms, on the third, fourth and fifth floors.



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Neighbors and community advocates brought their objections before the Land Use and Economic Development Committee of the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council at meetings held on Aug. 5 and Sept. 2. The neighborhood councils, created in 1999 by the new Los Angeles City Charter, serve as advisory bodies to city council members and the mayor but have no regulatory power.

Opponents focused on the scope of the project, claiming their point was illustrated by the number of variances that Chabad is seeking, including exemptions to zoning and building requirements stipulated by the Los Angeles Municipal Code and the West Los Angeles Community Plan.

These include Chabad’s request to build to a height of 80 feet instead of the mandated height of 45 feet. The organization is also asking for a floor-to-area ratio of 3.84 to 1 in lieu of the established 1.5 to 1, which pertains to the building’s total floor area in relation to lot size.

Additionally, Chabad wants approval to provide 71 parking spaces instead of the required 168 and also wants the mandated loading space to be waived.

Chabad attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, maintained that the variances are necessary because of the limitations the commercial zones impose on a building’s square footage.

“L.A. was designed and built as a commuter city where all the major boulevards — Pico, Olympic — have shallow lots that don’t lend themselves to the ability to create a mixed-use village,” he said.

He added that the limitations concern traffic and that the impact, with students who are not allowed cars and with many elderly residents who don’t drive, will be controlled.

South Robertson Neighborhoods Council’s Land Use Committee members proposed that both sides appoint representatives to meet and attempt to work out some compromises regarding size. Meanwhile, because the project is currently undergoing review by the Los Angeles City Department of Planning, with the environmental impact report expected to be released in the next week or two, the committee also proposed sending a letter to City Planning stating its opposition to the requested variances.

The motion passed unanimously at the Sept. 10 South Robertson Neighborhoods Council board meeting, held at Hamilton High School’s cafeteria.

Four community members have been selected to participate in talks with Chabad, according to community advocate Lorrie Stone, and are waiting for the next step. Cunin also confirmed that Chabad staff members will take part.

Meanwhile, Stone expressed concern by many residents dating back to 2001, when Chabad’s variance requests were approved to build the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Bais Chaya Mushka School in the block immediately west of the proposed project.

“The zoning code exists to give us livable neighborhoods,” Stone said, adding that Chabad is not enforcing conditions that were imposed on Bais Chaya Mushka.

“All drop off and pick up is supposed to be on school grounds, but parents are totally parking on neighborhood streets,” Stone said. “They bring snacks for their children and change diapers, leaving the trash and diapers on the sidewalks.”

Cunin has recently hired a full-time professional security guard to prevent any violations. At the same time, he suggested that the diapers could also be from a neighborhood daycare facility.

Attorney Joubin Nasseri, who has volunteered to serve on the mediation committee as a community member, hopes that the two visions — that of Chabad and that of the neighbors — can be resolved.

“The bottom line is that Chabad is going to build. The question is to what degree,” Nasseri said.

Mayor: Building inspectors need better training, sensitivity to block another Yom Kippur showdown


One year after an emotional incident in which city building inspectors sought to halt Kol Nidrei services for Orthodox worshippers at a Hancock Park service, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has followed up with a report with recommendations designed to increase sensitivity and prevent future problems.

The confrontation at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy in the Hancock Park area outraged the Orthodox community and its political supporters.

Triggering the incident was a series of anonymous phone calls from a neighbor of Yavneh, alerting the city Department of Building and Safety (DBS) to a probable violation, on Yom Kippur, of restriction governing the hours that Yavneh could use the facilities.

At 8 p.m., while Rabbi Daniel Korobkin was conducting Kol Nidrei services for some 200 worshippers, two inspectors walked into the lobby and told startled congregants that they had to vacate the premises immediately.

When told that worshippers would leave only if carried out by force, the inspectors left and the services continued.

The roots of the incident lay in a contentious nine-year feud between some residents of the upscale Hancock Park neighborhood and an influx of strict Orthodox families.

Villaraigosa, together with city councilmen, felt the heat from both sides and the mayor asked the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom “to independently review, pro bono, the events that occurred on Sept. 21, 2007…and to make recommendations.”

In a letter yesterday (Sept. 23) to DBS general manager Andrew A. Adelman, obtained exclusively by The Journal, Villaraigosa cited 12 findings and recommendations by the law firm and asked for a response by Nov. 7.

In general, the report found that DBS had not singled out the Orthodox community as such, but called for an improved inspection process within DBS, and better communications with the city planning department and with institutions, such as Yavneh, operating with certain restrictions under a conditional use permit.

Specifically, the report recommended continued “awareness seminars” for inspectors at the Museum of Tolerance, supplemented by a “cultural diversity” program, in addition to the following points.

Training to avoid conflicts while conducting building inspections.

Review of the policy under which DBS accepts anonymous complaints.

Avoid interrupting cultural or religious events.

Institutions operating under conditional use permits to appoint community liaisons, who would be notified of complaints before city officials take action.

Korobkin, the Yavneh spiritual leader, said he was very pleased with the mayor’s recommendations and that the fault for last year’s incident lay mainly in the way DBS was structured, as well as a certain lack ofsensitivity.

There is no chance that last year’s incident will be repeated, he said. For one, Kol Nidrei falls on a weekday this year, which allows for extended operating hours.

Korobkin also asserted that relations between Yavneh and its neighbors had improved over the last 12 months and that complaints came mainly from a hard core of seven to eight residents.

But future relations between Yavneh and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, which includes a fair number of Jewish families, will bear watching.

No spokesperson for the homeowners was immediately available, but in the past they have persistently accused Yavneh of violating the terms of its conditional use permit and have initiated a number of court actions.

Although Yavneh is not located within his district, City Councilman Jack Weiss has been a vocal champion of the religious school.

He said that in the dispute, “justice is on the side of Yavneh – it’s not even close.”



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Street smarts safety program helps Orthodox kids combat abuse


Thirteen first-graders sit on the rug in their classroom at Shalhevet School, several with their hands raised. A guest speaker has just asked, “What would happen if you got lost at Toys ‘R’ Us? Who would be someone you could ask for help?”

“Someone who works there,” one of the children calls out.

“Good. And how would you know who works there?” the speaker responds, holding up a picture of a cashier wearing a blue vest.

The speaker, Marlene Kahan, is a volunteer who has come to present Safety Kid. The program — its full name is the Aleinu Julis Child Safety Program — was developed by the Aleinu Family Resource Center, the arm of Jewish Family Service that reaches out to the Orthodox community. Safety Kid’s goal is to teach day school children about safety issues — including sexual abuse — in a culturally sensitive manner.

Visual aides show boys and men wearing yarmulkes, as well as women in skirts and children walking to synagogue. Discussions about strangers who might come to the front door mention not only the UPS man, but “the man who comes to collect funds for Eretz Yisrael.” The instructional cards are currently being adapted for use in non-Orthodox Jewish day schools as well, and will likely be introduced this school year.

The Safety Kid program is the latest in a series of proactive programs Aleinu has developed over the past few years to protect children from abusive situations and to help parents and institutions know how to handle such crises when they come up.

While in the past abuse was not openly discussed in the Orthodox community, Aleinu has made it a priority to bring the problem to the forefront so that children, parents, teachers and rabbis can deal with it in an informed and intelligent manner. The Los Angeles agency has become a national leader in the Orthodox world in creating these programs and policies.

The urgency for such programs became apparent over the last several years, when incidents of sexual or emotional abuse in Orthodox schools, shuls and youth groups were described in articles in the Jewish press.

The number of incidents in the Orthodox community doesn’t exceed the national average, but within the past two years, there have been high-profile incidents in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Aleinu Director Debbie Fox, who developed Safety Kid with colleague Wendy Finn, says that the program was produced in response to such episodes.

“We wanted to do something to help by providing tools which could help prevent future occurrences,” Fox said.

More than five years ago, Fox began working with Aleinu’s Halachic Advisory Board to develop a conduct policy for school administrators and teachers. The policy stipulates appropriate and inappropriate behavior, both verbal and physical.

School personnel also receive training on how to spot and report signs of abuse. Since its introduction in 2002, the policy has been adopted by 28 Los Angeles-area schools. Torah U’mesorah, a national umbrella organization for Orthodox schools, adapted and adopted the policy for its 700 constituent schools.

But Fox wanted something specifically geared for the children — a way to give them tools to help prevent incidents. She first tried adapting material produced by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but found it didn’t resonate with Orthodox audiences.

When she shared her concerns, Aleinu board member Mitch Julis and his wife Joleen came forward with a grant to adapt the materials, and Safety Kid was born. The couple has since pledged funding for the next four years.

The program involves a 45-minute classroom presentation, given by a trained volunteer; a 10-minute video; and a take-home kit containing a coloring book, DVD, mouse pad and magnet. Prior to the student presentations, the school principal is introduced to the materials and a parent workshop is held.

Nettie Lerner was hired by Aleinu a year ago to bring the program to local schools.

“This is revolutionary in the Orthodox community,” she said. “Historically no one talked about abuse. Now we have a way to prevent [problems] and empower children.”

Safety Kid, named for a character on the DVD, teaches “The ABCs of Safety,” which include such strategies as asking for help in troubling or dangerous situations; bringing a friend when going places; checking with parents before changing agreed-upon plans; telling parents or other trusted adults when someone has done something to make them feel uncomfortable; and safely exploring the Internet.

Children are taught the difference between a surprise (something good that will eventually be revealed) and a secret (something that feels bad, that is not supposed to be shared). They are encouraged to yell “no,” run and tell a trusted adult if someone asks them to do something they shouldn’t. They learn the difference between “OK” touches and “not OK” touches.

Kahan, who addressed the Shalhevet first-graders, is one of 16 parent volunteers who travel to different schools to present Safety Kid. “I hope they learn to think before they act — to not be so impulsive,” says the mother of three. “Maybe you can save them from some situation.”

Organizers acknowledge the fine line between empowering and frightening. “We make sure not to scare the kids,” Lerner said. “We give them tips for safety and things to think about.”

Lerner said that every Orthodox school in Los Angeles received the presentation during the 2006-2007 school year. This school year, Safety Kid will be presented at Conservative and community day schools, using materials with modified graphics. Future plans include developing a pre-school program and one for older children.

The program has already attracted interest outside of Los Angeles. Fox has received inquiries from counterparts in Chicago, New York, Montreal, London, Phoenix, San Diego and Seattle.

“The community has acknowledged the issues,” she said, “and we have provided a way that works to prevent problems and empower children.”

Family Safety Day will be held at Shalom Institute, September 8, 34342 Mullholland Highway, Malibu. For more information, call (818) 206-2222 or visit http://www.grodanlaw.com and click on seminars.

Stop ostracizing the intermarried


This column would not have been written had its subject not first described himself and his predicament in this week’s New York Times magazine.

Noah Feldman was a brilliant Orthodox Jewish Rhodes scholar who arrived in Oxford in my fourth year as rabbi there in 1992. We quickly hit it off. For one thing, there was scarcely a subject — Jewish or secular — upon which Noah did not have some profound knowledge. We studied Talmud together several times a week, and I made Noah a kind of secondary rabbi at our L’Chaim Society, such was the range of his Jewish erudition and his phenomenal capacity for teaching.

Noah was one of the most accomplished young students I had ever met. He was valedictorian of Harvard, a Rhodes and Truman scholar, and completed his Oxford doctorate in about 18 months, which may or may not be a university record. It was a source of great pride for me that Noah was observant and wore a kippah. We all marveled every Shabbat at Noah’s incredible ability to read any section of the Torah at our student synagogue.

After graduating from Oxford, Noah went to Yale, where his observance began to wane. I heard from some of his classmates that he was dating a non-Jewish girl. Hearing that he was quite serious about her, when his girlfriend in turn came to Oxford as a Marshall scholar, I made a point of reaching out to her and inviting her to our Shabbat dinner.

My thinking was that Noah was far too precious to me and to the Jewish people to lose. If he was dating a woman whom he wished to marry, then it was our duty to try and expose her to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her.

Sadly, others took a far different view. A mutual friend of ours, who was a rabbi in Noah’s life, essentially told him that if he married outside the faith he would have to sever his relationship with him. Apparently, many of Noah’s Orthodox friends made the same decision. The net result was that one of the brightest young Jews in the entire world was made to feel that the Jewish community was his family only if he made choices with which we agreed.

Of course I had wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance during his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make. Before his wedding I wrote him a note that said, in essence, that we were friends and my affection for him would never change.

I told him that he was a prince of the Jewish nation, that his obligations to his people were eternal and unchanging, that whether or not his wife, or indeed his children, were Jewish, he would never change his own personal status as a Jew. I added that I knew he would do great things with his life as a scholar of world standing, and that he would always put the needs of the Jewish people first.

We remain good friends today. I admire and respect Noah, and my wish is that perhaps, some day, his brilliant wife might see, of her own volition, the beauties of our tradition and how family life is enhanced by husband and wife being of the same faith and practicing the same religious rituals.

True to my prediction, Noah went on, in his 30s, to become one of the youngest-ever tenured law professors, first at NYU and then at Harvard, and was chosen by the American government to serve as the consultant to the Iraqi provisional government in drawing up their constitution. Today he ranks, arguably, as one of the youngest academic superstars in the United States.

How tragic, therefore, that Noah’s article in The New York Times magazine is a lengthy detailing of the alienation he has experienced from his former Orthodox Jewish day school and friends, who even cut him out of a class reunion photograph in which he participated.

For more than two centuries now, since the Emancipation, Jews have been debating how to deal with those who marry outside the community. The conventional response has been to treat them as traitors to the Jewish cause. We are all familiar with the old practice of sitting shiva for a child who marries out, as if he or she were dead, made famous in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The extreme practice of ostracization was justified by the belief that only by completely cutting off those who married out would we be making a sufficiently strong statement as to the extent of their betrayal, thereby dissuading those who might follow suit.

There is one problem with this practice. Aside from the ethical and humanitarian considerations, it does not work. We have been practicing this alienation for decades, and yet intermarriage has grown to approximately 50 percent of the Jewish population! Worse, the practice is a lie insofar as it propagates the false notion that our Jewishness is measured only in terms of our being a link in a higher chain of existence, and that our Jewish identities have meaning only through our children. This absurd notion would deny the idea of Jewish individualism and how we are Jews in our own right.

I am well aware of the fact that intermarriage is a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people. But that does not change the fact that those who have chosen to marry out are still Jewish, should still be encouraged to go to synagogue, should still be encouraged to put on tefillin and keep Shabbat, should still have mezuzot on their doors, and should still be encouraged to devote their lives and resources to the welfare of the Jewish people and the security of the State of Israel.

And as far as their non-Jewish spouses are concerned, do we really believe that by showing the most unfriendly behavior we are living up to our biblically mandated role of serving as a light unto the nations? Is there any possibility that a non-Jew married to a Jew will look favorably at the possibility of becoming halachically Jewish if he or she witnesses Orthodox Jews treating their husbands or wives as pariahs?

News from the hood, eruv in the air


Neighborhood Angels

David Suissa gets it right when he praises the incredible work of selfless individuals (“Neighborhood Angels,” Feb. 2). Through their tireless efforts to feed struggling Jewish families, Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen bring honor not only to themselves but also to their entire community.

In the face of a problem as deeply entrenched as hunger, people like the Cohens are an important part of the answer. But they cannot do it alone.

Alleviating the suffering brought on by economic insecurity will take broad civic participation. In other words, it will take all of us, working together in concert with able community and government leaders, to make the critical difference that will finally end hunger once and for all.

Jeremy Deutchman
Director
Communications and Development
MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

Celebrating Holiday

I was quite perturbed by your article, “The Missing Holiday” (Feb. 9). In it, David Suissa seems to imply that the Orthodox community just picks and chooses its holidays. When Orthodox people celebrate a holiday, they do it with true meaning and observe the holiday’s laws.

It has been this way since the beginning of time. We do not make up laws and rituals, such as sitting under a tree eating fruit.

Suissa seems to be a big fan of Tu B’Shevat and what it represents, but I wonder if he feels the same way about other holidays that are a little more strenuous than eating fruit. To compare a Tu B’Shevat seder to the Passover seder is like comparing apples to oranges (pun intended).

David, you are better than that.

Yonatan Dahari
Valley Village

Eruv Controversy

In a letter published in The Journal, a Mr. Eli Ziv of Woodland Hills accused Jane Ulman’s article about the Conejo eruv of tiptoeing around the real issue, which he claims to be a real hatred of traditional Jewish observance, much of it coming from secular Jews (“Questions Remain After Agoura Eruv Dismantled,” Feb. 2).

The problem is that Ziv has never been in our Conejo Valley community, did not see the eruv that we commissioned and was not present at the Oak Park Municipal Advisory Council meeting, where I, as the spokesperson for the eruv committee, gave a very sincere apology to the homeowners who had complained.

I don’t know what has driven eruv controversies in other communities, but here in Oak Park and Agoura Hills, it was simply a matter of our contractor doing a lousy job and creating an eyesore. The eruv was ugly, and it trespassed on private property.

Nobody made us take it down. That decision was ours, and the bottom line is this: The neighbors had every right to be upset, and we took our eruv down because we agreed with them.

If Ziv and others (i.e., reporters from the Daily News and Ventura County Star and KFI-AM’s John and Ken, none of whom were present at the Oak Park meeting) wish to convolute the facts to feed their own agendas, well I suppose I can’t stop them.

But I wish they’d all leave us in the Conejo Valley alone to work out our problems amongst ourselves, which we seem to be able to do quite well, thank you.

Your article, in my opinion, was fair and balanced.

Eli Eisenberg
Agoura Hills

False Statements

In “Time for Leaders to End Their Silence on Iraq” (Feb. 9), Aryeh Cohen’s and Adam Rubin’s compelling arguments are undermined by unsupported allegations and false statements. They write, “The Bush/Cheney war, launched on the basis of … outright lies against a country that posed no threat to the United States….”

“Lies” is a strong allegation, yet they do not say who, when, what and how the lies were the basis of launching the war. Iraq fired anti-aircraft missiles at U.S. no-fly-zone forces, plotted to assassinate President George H.W. Bush and supported terrorists (via $25,000 sent to the families of successful suicide bombers) striking against U.S. ally, Israel — that’s hardly “posing no threat”.

Kenny Laitin
Los Angeles

Premarital Counseling

In 1994, my daughter announced her engagement to her beshert. My engagement gift to the couple was the “Making Marriage Work” course at the University of Judaism (“Premarital Counseling Gets Short Shrift in Jewish L.A.,” Feb. 9). It was inestimably meaningful for them both and for their very successful and enduring relationship.

I encourage all of you prospective parents of the bride or groom to invest in maximizing your kids’ chances for a happy and successful marriage.

Barbara H. Bergen
Los Angeles

Counters Misinformation

The StandWithUs community is a big umbrella that includes people with a wide range of opinions about Israeli policy (“Divided We Fall,” Feb. 9). When The Journal uses labels like “conservative,” and “left” or “right” wing, it misrepresents all groups’ positions, leaves too much to personal interpretation and ignores the significant variations within each label. StandWithUs regularly takes heat from those who consider themselves more conservative or more liberal than our organization.

We did not identify Combatants for Peace as anti-Israel because we are “left” or “right” or because we want to silence criticism of Israel. Simply put, Combatants for Peace presentations are one-sided (blaming only Israel for the ongoing conflict), ignore context (like Palestinian terrorism and extremism) and make unsubstantiated charges against the Israel Defense Forces and Israel.

The StandWithUs mission is to counter, not to silence, such misinformation and unfounded accusations through education, precisely so there can be informed, open debate. Combatants for Peace does not meet this litmus test.

Roz Rothstein
National Director
Roberta P. Seid
Education/Research Director StandWithUs

Ireland’s Example

I was a college student when the Jewish State of Israel was born. We Jews were so proud of the founding fathers who issued a declaration of independence, stating that all the citizens of their democracy would be equal and [expressing] a desire that their country would be a “light unto the nations.”

Reading ‘Jewish’


I heard recently that some people have complained that this column is too “Orthodox” — that there’s too much focus on the frum and kosher side of Judaism. Since thiscolumn is about an Orthodox neighborhood, that’s like complaining that a hockey writer spends too much time writing about hockey, but nevertheless it got me thinking about how Jews read about other Jews.

This was on my mind when I walked into Delice bakery the other day and saw a copy of Jewish Life magazine. Jewish Life is a monthly published by The Jewish Journal to appeal to religiously observant Jews. I’m not here to critique it or promote it, but it struck me that the magazine is like a microscopic view of the world that I write about every week.

If you think this column is too religious, wait until you see Jewish Life. If I snorkel into observant Judaism, then it goes deep-sea diving. If this column is “the hood,” then Jewish Life is the hood on steroids.

Take the latest issue. At first glance, it looks like another general-interest magazine with a self-help cover story: “Why Aren’t We Happier?” But open it up and you’ll see the kind of things that matter most to observant Jews.

On Page 4 of the first column (Ask Dr. T, a parenting advice column), a reader worries about the “chronic” problem of what her children should do with their Chanukah gelt. (Dr. Sara Teichman gives a six-paragraph answer to this “complex” problem).

In the next column, Marriage Matters, a “lovely single girl in her 20s” laments her single status:”The wait is killing me. It feels never ending and hopeless. Isn’t there something I can do? I mean, I know I have to daven hard, network with people and hope for the best, but isn’t there any more?”

Below the article is a little section on a new book titled, “Shidduch Secrets,” which includes practical advice on using one’s time productively while waiting for one’s beshert.

On the next page is a column called Shirmas Halashon with the headline, “Beware: Words Can Hurt” and this announcement right below: “With this column, Jewish Life begins our regular column on Hilchos Lashon Hara.” Below the announcement are these untranslated words: “Lilui Nichmas Masha Ruchama bas Shmuel.” The author of the column — across from an ad for Frumster.com that has a picture of a happy-looking newlywed couple (“Idith and Eli, match No. 93”) — is the dean of Valley Torah High School.

As you continue flipping through Jewish Life, you see these kinds of headlines: “What Exactly Is Mussar?” (Hint: it’s a system of ethics, not a new kosher hair gel), “The Advent of Chasidism” under the column History L.A. and in the society gossip column is the headline “A Tzadik Pays a Visit,” about Rav Yitzchak Grossman’s visit to Los Angeles.

In the food section, there’s a “Grateful Letter From a Duncan Hines Fan,” thanking my former employer (Procter and Gamble) for bringing back Duncan Hines pareve cake mixes (“They are a great resource for us here in the Orthodox Jewish community”), and a recipe called “Nat’s Brownies/My Frosting.”

In the Kashrus Concerns column, you’ll find a series of announcements from the Kosher Information Bureau, such as: “Salad Mate Salad Dressing is no longer under CRC certification,” “Flora Foods Italian Breadcrumbs bears an unauthorized OU,” and “Sandy Candy Co. now produces cotton candy sugars certified by the Star-K.”

The last section, Kosher Road Trip, is on travel, and here you’ll see a column by a homemaker and mom named Cinnamon Shenker on winter trips, with the headline: “Grab Your Sled and Head for the Hills.” She even quotes Tehillim to help make her point that it’s “a glorious thing that we can experience snow and ice first hand, rather than just look at pictures.”

So you can see I’m not kidding when I tell you that Jewish Life is the Jacques Cousteau of Orthodox Jewish reporting in Los Angeles. But there’s another side to this story.

If you read Jewish Life without any preconceptions about Orthodox Judaism — out of simple curiosity, for example, or even a desire to learn something helpful and interesting — it will probably surprise you.

For example, once you get past the annoying absence of translation in the beginning of “Beware: Words can Hurt,” you can’t help but be moved by the life-changing possibilities of the message, whether you are ultra-Orthodox, Reform or even a Zen Buddhist.

The same can be said for several articles in Jewish Life, like the idea of “living in the moment without acting on impulse” in the cover story on happiness, or the universal system of ethics developed by our very Orthodox sages, called Mussar.

Even the reader’s question on the “chronic” problem of what kids should do with Chanukah gelt — which I poked fun at — actually led to an incisive take on the complicated relationship between people and money.

That’s why I’m ambivalent about this whole notion of having different publications for different Jews. There is so much we can learn from each other, why can’t we all read the same paper?

The marketing side of me — the one that learned at places like Procter and Gamble the importance of “market niches” — understands why having different publications makes good business sense. People like to read about themselves.

But the “Jewish unity” part of me would love to see Jews of all denominations show more curiosity towards one another, whether it’s nonobservant Jews reading about Orthodox ideas, or Orthodox Jews reading things that have nothing to do with Orthodoxy, but that are still very much part of the Jewish experience. It’s like the interest you would show toward a beloved family member who has a completely different lifestyle from your own.

And of course, the self-absorbed part of me would love to see every Jew read this column, even if it’s a little too, you know, Orthodox.

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

Two neighborhoods reveal Orthodox community’s fault lines


When Tali Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, she landed in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the Westside. It was near her office, and besides, it was where many of Los Angeles’ Orthodox singles live.

But after five years there, Rosenthal, decided to move to Hancock Park, commonly known as “The Other Side of Town.”

“I was more comfortable in the more serious religious atmosphere,” she said of Hancock Park, where she’s now lived for three years. “I feel like it’s a more dedicated day-to-day Torah life, in the general atmosphere. It’s just a general hashkafa, outlook.”

Ayala Naor, on the other hand, lived in the Hancock Park area for about 25 years. But when she and her husband relocated the family jewelry business from downtown to Pico-Robertson 10 years ago, they, too, decided to move to what they call “The Other Side of Town” — Pico-Roberston. “We felt like the people [in Pico-Robertson] were more along our hashkafa. The other side of town [Hancock Park] seemed to get more and more Charedi, more black hat, and we felt like we wanted to be amongst our own people, with the more Modern Orthodox Zionist outlook,” she said. “I feel more comfortable here.”

The Other Side of Town. It’s a term that implies that there are only two options, and for most Orthodox Jews that’s the case. Despite numerous additional religious communities in other neighborhoods — near the beach or in the Valley — for most Orthodox there really are only two sides of town: the one you live in and the one you don’t.

Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson are only about four miles apart — a 15-minute drive, an hour walk on Shabbat — and yet, increasingly, they are coming to seem worlds apart.

Pico-Robertson is not an official neighborhood; it got its name from the two main boulevards that crisscrosses it. It is a low-key commercial district replete with kosher restaurants, bakeries, synagogues and schools. Bordered by residential neighborhoods like Beverly Hills to the north and Beverlywood to the south, Pico Boulevard has blossomed over the last two decades, becoming the center for Modern Orthodoxy.

Hancock Park, on the other hand, is an officially designated historic neighborhood replete with Spanish-style mansions and leafy, shaded streets. But when religious Jews talk about Hancock Park, they’re actually referring to a somewhat broader geographic area — one that stretches to the west beyond La Brea Avenue and north to Beverly Drive. But no matter what one calls it — “Fairfax, Beverly, La Brea, mid-Wilshire” — this “eastern” side of the town sports full-time kollels (post high-school yeshivas) and dozens of shteibels (small, intense shuls), where men in black hats and women in wigs roam with more children than the norm of the modern American family. This is the more “yeshiva-ish” side of town.

Over the last two to three decades, each neighborhood has become increasingly homogeneous — some would say isolated — according to its own outlook or philosophy. Each one’s distinct character encompasses all walks of life, from how people dress to what and where they will eat to where they daven (pray), work, study, educate their children and how they choose to live their lives.

“The Charedi, or the fervently Orthodox, argue that the best way to preserve Judaism is to reject as many aspects of modernity as possible and to cut oneself off as much as possible from those that are not one’s persuasion,” said professor Jonathan Sarna, American Jewish history professor at Brandeis University and author of “American Judaism: A History” (Yale University Press, 2005). By contrast, he says, “the Modern Orthodox have argued that the religion is largely compatible with modernity and one does not need to cut oneself off from contemporary culture in order to be a thoroughly Orthodox Jew.”

Pico people watch television, go to the movies, use the Internet, attend secular colleges, and interact with other denominations of Judaism.

The Hancock Park community shies away from much of that, and in the cases of th
ings like the Internet, will limit usage to protect its Torah culture.

This separation between the ultra-Orthodox and the Modern Orthodox communities is reflective of a kind of self-imposed segregation taking place in communities all over the United States, as two factions of Orthodox Jewry discover they cannot exactly co-exist, and are often in conflict with one another on major issues.

But what is the price of this separation?

Many leaders in the two communities will say publicly that the two are separate but equal — different but not in a bad way.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s become more distinct in its philosophical approaches,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, which, on Pico Boulevard, is one of the main Modern Orthodox shuls. “It’s a fact of life. It’s not to be judged.”

Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob Congregation, also in the Pico-Robertson area, agrees. “There’s no friction, not from where I sit.”

Beth Jacob is the largest Modern Orthodox synagogue in the West, and one of the oldest here in Los Angeles.

But the people who live in the neighborhoods tell a different story. Not one of friction, but of intolerance or discomfort.

Michelle Harlow moved to Hancock Park with her family in 1964. She describes herself as Modern Orthodox, and says that over the years, she watched “more and more black hatters” moving in from the East Coast.

“You go down Beverly and La Brea, and you don’t know what country you’re in — there’s every kind of streimel and peyos,” she said referring to Chasidic dress and garb. “It’s hard for me to go out on Saturday in normal clothes. I feel that I’m being disrespectful to who knows whom. I feel out of place.”

Even though her children and some of her friends have gone to Pico-Robertson, Harlow’s not going to move. Her mother is there, and she wouldn’t be able to get as nice a house in Pico, a neighborhood with a high real estate cost but smaller houses.

Synaplex’s membership tip: put spirit back in Shabbat


The shades were drawn in the classroom at the Skirball Cultural Center. Lights dimmed. A white cloth anchored by softly glowing candles covered the center of the room. Sitting cross-legged on the floor or on straight-backed chairs, a group of men and women kicked off their shoes and closed their eyes as Rafael Harrington guided them in meditation.

At the same time in adjoining rooms, Mike Mason was leading a circle of fervent drummers, while Naomi Ackerman conducted a series of theater games focusing on Jewish identity.

These workshops, presented as possibilities for enhancing Shabbat offerings, were part of an afternoon organized by Synaplex, an initiative of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Family Foundation.

About 150 people, including rabbis, cantors, lay leaders and staff from 40 congregations representing all denominations — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Renewal — attended the Oct. 25 event, which was also sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
The capacity turnout — some congregations got no farther than the waiting list — was a clear indication that Synaplex, with its promise to help build membership participation through innovative Shabbat programming, is addressing a need.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, STAR’s executive director, emphasized that most people are not currently happy with their Shabbat observance.

“We don’t want to lose the minority who are satisfied, but we have to add to what we’re offering, so more people have rewarding experiences,” he said. “We know there is no magic bullet.

“People have all kinds of yearnings,” Herring continued. “Some are looking for God, some for prayer and meditation, some for community. I don’t want to impose my definition of spirituality on anyone else. We all go through different stages; what fits us today might not fit us tomorrow. If you think of Shabbat as the destination, Synaplex provides many paths to get there. Synagogues take what we have to offer and imbue it with their own creativity and energy.”

Ready to expand beyond the 120 congregations it now works with throughout the country, Synaplex offered the afternoon as an opportunity for interested congregations to sample a variety of activities, as well as to hear from veteran participants in the program.

“Synaplex gave us the scaffolding to create an expanded Shabbat community,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills, which has been involved in the program for three years. “We were interested in bringing in groups that weren’t participating in Shabbat. During our monthly Shabbats, we now have a Saturday luncheon for seniors that draws 50 people and a Shabbat romp for 30-45 families with small children.

“We’ve created a fusion service on Friday nights. We’ve gone from an average of 75-100 participants to well over 200. During a Synaplex Shabbat, there’s always something going on. We initially had simultaneous offerings, but the congregation didn’t like missing any of the activities, so our events are now sequential.

“Synaplex provided us an opportunity to experiment and explore and suggested new ways to create a sacred community,” Moskovitz reported. “In a sense, it’s completely transformed our service. Our Synaplex Shabbat was like a stone dropping on a calm pool of water. The ripple effect continues to reverberate in a positive and profound way across our temple community.”

Rabbi Laura Geller, describing the four years of evolution of Synaplex at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, said, “There are many different doors to Judaism. For some it’s spiritual, for some it’s cultural, for some it’s community, for some it’s learning, for some it’s social justice,” and the genius of Synaplex is that all those doors open onto Shabbat.

“Our Shabbat Unplugged Services were our most successful, but we wanted to add to that,” she said. “We wanted to bring in the most underserved segments of our population — families with young children, singles and older people. From the beginning, the project had a playful quality as we began to imagine new kinds of programs.”

Geller described a typical Synaplex Friday, which might have 300 people in attendance (the regular Friday night services draw 70-100.) There is a Tot Shabbat and a healing service, as well as dinners for families and empty nesters and a wine-tasting for young adults, followed by the Shabbat Unplugged Service. The evening concludes with a festive oneg, complete with cappuccino cart, and a program that might include a guest speaker, film or music.

“There’s tremendous energy,” she said. “That energy makes people proud to be connected to Temple Emanuel. It’s still a work in progress. Shabbat was created to let people take a deep breath. Our Synaplex Shabbat reminds us how important a connection to a synagogue can be. It can be a connection of joy.”

Elana Centor, STAR’s marketing consultant, had the task of convincing the audience that the language of marketing and branding is not just appropriate but necessary for the revitalization of synagogues. Acknowledging that many in the group might not have the most positive feelings about “marketing,” she urged them to think of it as a “process of exchanging something of value for something you need.”

Her confidence in the efficacy of her approach and the importance of emotional connections appeared to melt most resistance, even for those who weren’t quite ready to think of their congregation as a “brand.”

When a congregation signs on to Synaplex, she assured them, they’d have access to the experience and resources of those who have been working successfully with the program for several years.

As the afternoon wound down, many lingered for a summing up. Sandy Calin, president Temple Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills, reflected the enthusiastic consensus, saying, “We have a small congregation, about 250 families. We need both to grow and to revitalize ourselves. Synaplex provides an enormous variety of ways to participate.”

Nessah president blazing trail for Iranian women


Dr. Morgan Hakimi has a variety of roles — psychologist, Jewish activist, wife and full-time mother. But it’s her position as president of the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Beverly Hills that has captured the attention of the L.A. Persian Jewish community.

In this Persian Orthodox culture, where leadership is traditionally dominated by men, opposition followed Hakimi after she was first elected president in 2004. However, Hakimi’s recent reelection has inspired her to step up her challenge to other women to get involved.

“I have always felt that Nessah could be an incredible bridge for more women to participate in our community, for younger American Jews of Iranian descent to connect with her heritage and for American Jews to become more familiar with us,” she said.

Skepticism from critics has died down since her initiatives have led to a substantial increase in membership within the last two years. People are packing Nessah’s two sanctuaries during Shabbat services, and crowds of previously disenfranchised women — both younger Persian Jews and non-Persian Jews — are participating in greater numbers in center programming Hakimi developed.

She credits outreach to and inclusion of the larger Jewish community for the synagogue’s growth. Hakimi has turned to a more American model of running a synagogue — setting up a membership system, establishing support groups for single parents and adding more events for its younger congregants.

“My greatest asset is having a diverse staff of Iranians, Americans, Hispanics and African Americans that are not afraid to work together,” Hakimi said. “We purposefully chose a new executive director in Michael Sklarewitz and new program director in Robin Federman, who are American, in order to better serve our community and bring us closer to the greater American Jewish community.”

Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet praised Hakimi’s outreach efforts to younger Iranian Jews and said he has noticed more women at the center since she took office.

“In my eyes, women are more important because they are the mothers of the next generation,” he said. “If they are committed to Judaism and are affiliated, they can hand it on to the next generation. Otherwise there will not be a continuity of Judaism.”

After Hakimi’s election two years ago, participation of women in religious services became a lightning-rod issue on both sides of the mechitza in the Orthodox congregation. Traditionalists sought to keep women out, and more liberated women demanded greater involvement. Hakimi has approached such situations with diplomacy in mind, talking with both sides to find acceptable common ground.

“I am not here to create a revolution. I’m here to bring awareness and understanding about a lot of issues in our community, including those involving women,” Hakimi said. “I was raised in an egalitarian family, so I’m not bitter toward men, and I don’t have an attitude of fighting when I approach the rabbis or men. That’s why they are welcoming of my suggestions to include everyone in our programs.”

Hakimi’s election as president set a precedent at Nessah, which she continues to build on slowly. Eight women now sit on the center’s board of directors, with more women serving in committee and staff positions. At the congregational level, young women are now welcome to celebrate a bat mitzvah by giving a d’var Torah during the daytime Shabbat service.

Nahid Pirnazar, a member of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, said that Nessah could stand to have greater inclusion of women in religious services.

“But Dr. Hakimi has certainly helped [us] take a lot of positive steps toward greater participation of women,” she said.

Pirnazar, a UCLA professor of Judeo-Persian history, said Hakimi is the first from her generation to achieve a leadership role in the local Iranian Jewish community, and that she shares good company with Jewish women in Iran who took leadership positions in the early 20th century.

Hakimi is also encouraging young women to develop their own programs at Nessah and to make their voices heard.”Dr. Hakimi has been an incredible mentor in my life in demonstrating to me the unique qualities women in leadership can bring,” said Rona Ram, a 22-year-old Nessah volunteer. “What we, as young females, have noticed is the overriding respect and appreciation the entire congregation gives her as she speaks.”

Hakimi said that when issues of change come up, she anticipates resistance. But she says her aim is to slowly press for greater involvement of women in community activities.

“The Iranian Jewish woman has a quiet strength that is only now coming to the surface. I’m here to say they can have it all, but it will take time _ it will not happen overnight, and they must show a desire and commitment to taking part in leadership roles,” Hakimi said.

For more information about the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center, visit www.nessah.org or call (310) 273-2400.

Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar to visit Los Angeles


The Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel will visit Los Angeles next week for the first time, a move that signifies the growing importance of the religious community here around the world. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who has been serving as chief rabbi since 2003, along with Ashkenazi counterpart Rabbi Yona Metzger, comes to Los Angeles Oct 22-28 to meet with leaders of Los Angeles Jewish community — both Ashkenazic and Sephardic — to offer religious and spiritual support.


“This is the first time he’s coming to the West Coast, and he will learn about the vast Jewish activity here, from the schools and the shuls to the institutions and the mikveh and the eruv,” said Rabbi David Toledano of Magen David, the Sephardic Syrian community of Beverly Hills, who is coordinating and hosting the trip.

Amar, also respectfully referred to as Rishon L’Tzion, will meet with community leaders from the Wiesenthal Center, the Rabbinical Council of California and various Sephardic rabbis. He will also visit several Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox schools (including Hillel Hebrew Academy, Torath Emet, Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, Yeshiva Gedola, Chabad, Ohr Eliyahu, Bais Yakov and Yavneh), as well as staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Israel Consul General Ehud Danoch, who is also helping plan the trip, has set up an interfaith meeting between Amar and 100 Christian clergy.

“This will help open dialogue with different religions,” Toledano said.

He is also set to meet with government officials such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and hold “kabbalat panim” reception hours in Toledano’s home by appointment. In addition to his lectures and shiurim Torah studies, Amar will be honored on Thursday, Oct. 26, by Em Habanim in North Hollywood. Amar will spend Shabbat in the city at Mogen David in Pico-Robertson and will appear on a panel open to the public on Saturday afternoon.

Amar is the first Sephardi chief rabbi not of Iraqi descent (he is Moroccan). He is known in Israel for his changes to the conversion and divorce laws, which are administered by the Israeli government. According to an announcement from the Rabbinate last December, Jews converted in the Diaspora by rabbis not recognized by the religious courts will have to undergo another conversion in Israel in order to be recognized by Rabbinate courts as Jews.

Women granted a get, or Jewish divorce, by rabbis not recognized by the courts, will also have to go through the process again.

Toledano stressed that by setting down standards and a list of accepted rabbis, the chief rabbi has streamlined the process and eliminated corruption from the system.

“The most important thing is the proper approach,” he said. “It’s not random anymore, not anyone can [do a conversion or divorce] so it’s more kosher.”

Ask A (Different) Rabbi

Can a religious businessperson keep his Internet site open on Shabbat? What about a Web site uploaded on Shabbat — can a religious person look at it? Are you allowed to watch television on Shabbat if the set has been on since before sundown?

These types of modern-day halachic questions aren’t addressed in the Talmud or the ancient rabbis’ books of wisdom, but they are at Jerusalem’s Eretz Hemdah Institute, The Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies.

Rabbi Yosef Carmel, dean of the institute, which trains rabbis for advanced, post-ordination study (equivalent of a Ph.D), will be visiting Los Angeles this week.

The Institute, which opened in 1987 to train future Zionist rabbinical leaders of the State of Israel, has graduated some 100 rabbis from its seven-year course. The institute also grapples with modern-day questions of Jewish law. Its Web site, “Ask A Rabbi,” which is affiliated with the Orthodox Union, has answered more than 1

1,000 questions pertaining to Jewish law.
Last summer, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah, Eretz Hemdah (“beautiful land”) opened a special hotline for soldiers. Some questions: What should a soldier do with his car if he has to drive to base on Shabbat? How can a man in combat celebrate his son’s pidyon ha-ben (redemption of the oldest son).

Carmel will lecturing at Rabbi Daniel Korobkin’s school, Kehillat Yavneh (5353 W. Third St.) on Friday Oct 27 and Shabbat Oct. 28, on topics such as “Dilemmas in the World of Halacha” and “Indirect Business Transactions on Shabbat.”

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Ignorance is not really bliss, as current events have proved. Rather, knowledge brings about understanding and peace, especially when it comes to faith and religion. That’s why Wilshire Boulevard Temple has opened up The Center for Religious Inquiry, an adult education institution hoping to build bridges between all faiths.

Partnering with the Center for Religious Inquiry at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York and St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, Wilshire Boulevard’s new center will feature religious leaders, scholars, ethicists and scientists from different religious backgrounds and is open to Angelenos of all faiths. Its motto is “Mipnei d’archei shalom” (Because it leads to paths of peace).

“After 144 years, we are recommitting our historic temple campus not just as the center of Jewish life and practice, but, now, as a home to all religious exploration,” said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein, director of the Center for Religious Inquiry.

Programs include the tried and true, such as “Intro to Judaism,” and special lectures such as “The Jewish Bible in Christmas Art,” and a lecture series titled, “America: The Moral Nation,” whose last panel discussion, “What Is a Just War?” is scheduled for Nov. 14. Next semester’s programs will include a deeper look into different faiths, as well as classes on Jewish topics, such as “Not Madonna’s Kabbalah,” an introduction to Jewish mystical literature.

The center is one of a number of Los Angeles Jewish organizations featuring lectures and classes for adults, but hopes to be different because “rather than presenting a speaker on a topic or himself, we’re hoping to thread these into a larger socio-cultural context,” Stein said.

“It’s necessary because the world is an increasingly complicated place,” he said. “It’s becoming ever more focused on religious ideas. And in our small, humble way, we hope to be a center where people can come and encounter learning and explore religion in a safe environment.”

Orthodox youth not immune to high-risk lifestyles


A few weeks ago, Joel Bess gathered his group of 15 teenage boys and took them to the funeral of a 21-year-old who had died of an overdose. Like the teenagers, the youth who died was Orthodox and didn’t fit the yeshiva mold and wound up on a path of high-risk behavior.
After the funeral, Bess — the son of a prominent rabbi who spent his teenage years and beyond in a whirl of self-destruction — asked the boys to write their own epitaphs on pictures of blank tombstones.
 
“I wanted them to think about how people would remember them and what they would say about their lives,” said Bess, who is now 29, a father of three and has a strong relationship with his own father.
 
Bess knows how hard it is not to fit in, to fall and then to muster the strength to move toward health of body and soul.
 
“Almost all my friends ended up dead or in jail, and I’m trying to prevent that with these kids,” he said.
 
He has been meeting weekly with the boys for about nine months through Issues Anonymous, a group he helped found.
 

My son, the plumber. Amen.

 
On a hot abandoned Granada Hills playground surrounded by waves of wheat-colored brush, Rabbi Mayer Schmukler looks around and sees the future. Rather than the overgrown jungle gym and dusty rows of red Little Tikes cars at the site that once was the North Valley JCC, he sees a soccer field, a refurbished pool, maybe tennis courts behind the new dorm buildings.
 
Last year, Schmukler, a Chabad-trained rabbi, brought 15 boys to this eight-acre site to pilot JETS — Jewish Education Trade School. This year he’s got 35 boys praying, studying Torah and training to be carpenters, plumbers, chefs and elevator repairmen.
 
Schmukler is keenly aware that a Jewish vocational school faces some deeply ingrained prejudices.
 
“Everyone feels that if a Jewish kid has to become a plumber it’s a sad situation, that really he should be a lawyer or an accountant, or a rabbi,” Schmukler says.
 
But some kids aren’t cut out for academic rigor. Leaving them in a mismatched environment often leads them toward self-destructive paths to failure.
 
“We take kids that maybe have low self- esteem and show them they are good at something — or we make them good at something — and show them they can make it in this society,” said Schmukler with a smile that never leaves his eyes or his mouth, hidden though it is in his untamed beard.
 
JETS doesn’t take the most hard-core cases. Boys have to be drug-free for 12 months to get into the program, and there is mandatory drug testing every two weeks.
 
But some of his kids come from broken homes, or have emotional, learning or behavioral challenges. Most of them live on campus in classrooms converted into dorms.
 
JETS, an independent nonprofit, employs teachers, social workers, dorm counselors and a psychologist. Students get personal counseling, and classes in ethics and time management and organization as well as high-school equivalency preparatory classes.
 
It was the combination of industry and ethics that won Schmukler a California Regional Consortium for Engineering Advances in Technological Education grant and award from the National Science Foundation in May 2006.
 
Most of the trade classes are offered at College of the Canyons, an accredited community college in Santa Clarita that provides work force training.
 
Last year, the boys built a skateboarding ramp. This year, they’re building a house, from computer modeling to reading the blueprints to carpentry, plumbing, electricity and the finishings.
 
Some of the classes, such as cooking, take place at JETS. The school is building a state-of-the-art kosher kitchen, and hopes to open a kosher culinary school to the public.
On Shabbats when they stay in, boys prepare meals for each other. They have also taken trips to the Grand Canyon and Northern California.
 
Schmukler’s approach to discipline is to help the boys self-motivate. Smoking, for instance, is not prohibited. But boys can only smoke alone, and only in designated spots that might be a half-acre from the action. There is no wake up call in the morning — boys need alarm clocks to rouse themselves. Free time is scheduled up with classes in kickboxing or karate, and a whole set of bikes and the old JCC gym facilities are available to the guys.
 
Schmukler has bigger plans for the campus, and he is a strong fundraiser. He worked for years as the development director for Chabad’s Russian program, where he first set up teen centers in West Hollywood. JETS has an annual budget of about $1 million, and Schmukler works his connections well. He’s already raised $5 million for the purchase of the campus and got an adjacent parcel donated.
 
Schmukler is also giving space to the JCC for offices and some programming, and is working out further arrangements with them. He says he wants JETS to be a center for Jewish unity, especially because no one can forget the 1999 rampage by Buford O. Furrow, who wounded five people at this JCC and then killed postal worker Joseph Ileto.
 
“Because of that I really believe something positive has to come from here,” Schmukler says. “Judaism is positive, and if you open up with something positive, we’ve won.”
 
For more information, visit www.jetsschool.org or call (323) 228-5905.

 
— JGF

Issue Anonymous is one of several new programs that have emerged in the last few years to serve the Orthodox community, giving kids, their parents and local high schools more resources and options than have ever been available in Los Angeles.
 
At Issues Anonymous, the boys can express themselves freely — which they did on the blank tombstones.
 
“To our beloved son, we loved you and we wish we could have been there for you,” one of them wrote.
 
“He died on the road to recovery. He meant well and he tried hard. Had he lived longer he would have made some big differences. He will be missed by the select few that he touched.”
“We loved you, and we will miss you. You were a good friend, son and brother. You really were nice and smart.”
 
And then simply, “I hope I rest in peace.”
 
For these youths, the introspection and repentance of Yom Kippur is a full time, ongoing pursuit.
 
For nearly two decades, it has been an open secret in the Los Angeles Orthodox community that some kids are turned off by religious observance and high academic standards, and they end up turning to truancy, alcohol, unsafe sex or drugs.
 
Once on that path, many of the boys feel let down or pushed out by their schools, families or both. They feel hated by the community, and especially lost because they don’t feel they belong anywhere else. They call themselves screw-ups, and worse.
 
Some of them take a high school equivalency exam — or not — and get sent off to Israel or to yeshivas outside of Los Angeles. Some land in rehab, in jail, on the streets — or dead.
They are Sephardic, Ashekenazic and Persian. Their families are Chasidic and Modern Orthodox.
And to those who know them well, they are loveable boys who just need someone to believe in them.
 
“I think the community needs to embrace these kids with love,” says Debbie Fox, director of Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, who brought Bess in to start Issues Anonymous when four mothers approached her looking for help.
 
“I know that people are afraid that the kids will influence others. But that doesn’t mean we don’t create a place for them,” she said. “It means we need to look at how to balance things and how to do things safely and acknowledge that they are part of our community. We cannot sacrifice these kids — and they’re really beautiful kids.”
 
Los Angeles’ Orthodox community now offers some organized solutions for these boys — though none have been put forth for girls, even while most observers agree that, too, is needed.
 
The Jewish Educational Trade School (JETS), a vocational boarding school for boys who weren’t cut out for the academic rigor of yeshiva, started meeting last year at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. This year 35 boys spend part of each school day studying Torah and high school equivalency, and part of their day learning trades, such as elevator or air conditioning repair, or construction.
 
But JETS doesn’t take in the hard-core boys. Students have to have been drug-free for at least a year, and they are tested regularly.
 
Boys who are currently using drugs are welcome at Issues Anon and Aish Tamid, an organization Rabbi Avi Leibovic founded six years ago to provide a welcoming environment and support services.
 
Leibovic’s latest venture is Pardes/Plan B, a program that combines Torah study, outdoor adventure, counseling and high-school equivalency preparation. The program started in mid-September and, so far, the reports are positive.
 

Pardes: School, But Not
 
Pardes meets at Congregation Shaarei Tefila on Beverly Boulevard, where the boys pray every morning. Then they go out on a trip — hiking, bowling, boating — all the while imbibing bits of wisdom from their teacher, Rabbi Ari Guidry, and a social worker who has had years of experience with this population in New York.
 

“The rabbi is awesome,” says Aharon (boys names have been changed to protect their privacy). “He’s not like a typical rabbi. He knows how to treat us — like the humans that we are.”
Aharon has always been a good student and hopes to go to college; he is excited about the academic subjects being taught by End Result, an organization with great success in running classes in juvenile detention centers.
 

Aharon’s mother is glad he chose Pardes.
 

“Pardes is not going to be top-notch academic experience, but for me it is much more important that his soul is intact,” she said. “I believe that this year he can work on himself; he can set his own spiritual compass to know in which direction he needs to go to find true happiness in life.”
 

She is one of the mothers who approached Fox last year to start Issues Anon, after she realized that Aharon was doing drugs, taking the car out in the middle of the night when he was 14 or 15, and messing up in school.
 

“Anything I tried to do in terms of controlling him and where he was going and what he was doing didn’t work,” said Aharon’s mother, who also attends a parent support group offered by Aish Tamid.
 

Leibovic, a 33-year-old YULA graduate who can personally relate to what these kids are going through, was one of the first in Los Angeles to try to organize programs for this population. He started with post-high school young men and then expanded to the younger set.
 

Aish Tamid has Shabbat programs, career fairs, study groups and the popular Teen at the Bean, a weekly discussion and study session at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Beverly Boulevard.

 
Mostly, Leibovic, a father of six and a full-time attorney, has made himself and a growing staff of social workers and counselors available to the boys and their parents at all hours, giving individualized guidance about everything from rehab centers to family therapy to finding employment.
 

Leibovic is still trying to find funding for Pardes. Young men who have been through Aish Tamid programs donated a van worth $22,000. Pardes only has enrolled a half-dozen students.
Leibovic is hoping eventually to fill the van with 13 kids. He said he knows of about 10 kids in need who aren’t in any program, but are still holding out to get into one of the local yeshivas, which historically haven’t dealt well with these kids.
 

“There is no way that any one school can cater to all of the students we have in our community,” said Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, dean of Valley Torah High School. “A school’s job is to be as broad as possible and needs to see themselves as embracing and accommodating as they can be. But as good as a school can be, there is no way we can do it all.”
 

While high school principals are grateful for programs like Pardes and JETS, they know there is work to do in making such programs acceptable to the boys and their families.
 

“I think there is still a stigma in the eyes of the children about going to these schools,” said Rabbi Dovid Landesman, principal of YULA. “We have to work on the psychology to make kids accept that these schools are more suited to their needs, because I really think both of these schools [Pardes and JETS] are a bracha to the community.”
 

Issues Anon: Steak and Free Expression
 

Yossi has managed to stay at YULA through his senior year, with an inclusion aid to help him through Attention Deficit Disorder. He started smoking marijuana at summer camp after 10th grade, and then he started popping his dad’s Atavan and Valium.
 

“I really messed up my whole 11th grade year, but I was on drugs so I didn’t care,” he says.
He fights with his father, but has a close relationship with his mother. She got him into rehab, which allowed him to stay in school. Yossi’s been clean 90 days.
 

He attributes much of his success to Issues Anon, the Jewish Family Service Wednesday night group that Joel Bess runs with social worker Howie Shapiro.
 

“This is the one thing I look forward to every week, and it’s really helped me a lot,” says Yossi, at a recent dinner at La Gondola.
 

The boys were there to celebrate milestones — some had just started school, some were chalking up months of sobriety, some were just happy to still be getting up in the morning. (All of them were grateful for the glistening heaps of ribs and giant sized steaks on their plates.)
 

Some of the boys wear kippahs and some don’t, some have spiky coifs or buzz cuts, and several of them sport large Jewish stars around their necks and pants sagging well below their hips.
Regular meetings start with the boys jotting down an issue, all of which are then read aloud, without revealing the source, and discussed. The guys give each other advice about how to get through their issues.

 
Tonight, many of them note their sobriety counts — a year and half, 90 days, two months — “and I better start feeling some of those changes promised,” one of them quips to Bess.
“I threw out all of my stuff two weeks ago,” another announces, to the applause of the group.
“Damn, you should have given it to me,” another jokes.

 
“My mom kicked me out again,” a boy says quietly.

“Cool! Are you sleeping at my house tonight?” his friend asks hopefully.

 
Behind the jokes, the cursing and goofing off, the kids are there for each other.
“If you see these kids sitting in the back of the classroom goofing off, you get one impression,” says Shapiro, the social worker. “But when you hear them talking about what they don’t get from their parents or how they fell through the cracks, it’s really amazing the depth with which they can describe what they are feeling and what they need. But the school administration and the parents don’t see that depth. They just see the GPA and the drug use.”

 
The kids in the group have become close friends and relate easily to Bess, who runs a division of an infomercial company and has a hip style the kids are comfortable with. They call him or knock on his door at all hours, and he welcomes them.

 
“I feel like I can do things now. Before I wasn’t able to do anything,” says Zev, who has been clean for a year and half and is being schooled at a private home in the valley.
Zev is one of many siblings from a Chasidic home. He has an abusive father and a supportive mother. When he was only 9 or 10 years old, he got his first taste of weed in shul on Simchat Torah.
 

He’s 15 now but looks a lot older, with a scraggly beard, big eyes that hold your gaze, and a quiet voice.
 
He is a leader — several boys say it was Zev who got them started on drugs. Now, at Issues Anon meetings, they turn to him for support in staying sober. And it was Zev who instituted the idea of starting each meeting with gratitude — going around and saying something positive about your week, or your life.
 
Tonight, Yossi is proud of 90 days sober. And like the other boys around the table, his goals are basic.

 
“I just don’t want to f*** up anymore,” Yossi says. “I want to get my life together and to be able to go through stuff without relapsing. I just want to be able to function like a normal person.”
 

www.aishtamid.org (323) 634-0505
www.jfsla.org/aleinu (323) 761-8816

Don’t Hide From Outreach — It Will Find You!


I don’t know where I got the idea or who put it in my head originally, but during my whole childhood the idea was clear: Orthodox Jews were “weird.” Really weird. Of course as a kid my definition of “weird” ran closer to anyone who was the slightest bit different from me rather than someone you would actually see in a circus freak show. Still, while most things as a kid were not clear, save for baseball, one thing was: stay away from the Orthodox Jews. Which made sense.

I mean since Orthodox Jews were not of this earth, I should steer clear of them.

Which I did. In fact I took this idea so to heart that I managed to stay away — far away — from Orthodox Jews for the first 30 years of my life. Until the Orthodox Jews came after me.

It started innocently enough. My then-girlfriend, now wife of 12 years, and I were dating, and during one dinner we were discussing whether we were really compatible. Everything checked out. We had similar views on most things. As a throwaway we checked in on religion. We both knew the other was Jewish, but we discovered that although we were both born Jewish, we both knew “zip-a-dee doo-dah” about Judaism. All that Reform Jewish Sunday school didn’t teach us anything about our heritage. So, we decided to try and find a class in Los Angeles on Judaism and learn something together.

We really did not know if such a class existed in Los Angeles (so disconnected from all things Jewish were we back in the day). Our only lead was an article I had read in the L.A. Times about a program called 20something at some place called Aish HaTorah. We decided that we’d go there and see if they could steer us in the direction of a class. We had no idea it was an Orthodox organization. We had no idea the organization focused on kiruv (outreach). Boy, were we in for a surprise.

The rabbi we met there was amazing, but still Orthodox, so that gave him two and a half strikes against him. Sure he was intellectual, kind, happy and smart, but come on — he was Orthodox. Soon, his true colors came out: He started doing something really weird. He started inviting people from the class over to his house for dinner. I mean who in Los Angeles invites strangers to their house for dinner? At first, we were glad he didn’t choose us, but then we started to resent him for not choosing us. You know — it was like a bad party. You didn’t want to go, but at least you wanted to be invited!

Finally, he did invite us. We were insulted it took so long, so we accepted. He told us to meet him at the shul around 5:30 p.m. on Friday evening. Like fools we thought this was just a neutral meeting point. When we got there we saw his real reason for telling us that time and place: There were Friday night services going on. That’s right — he had tricked us into going to synagogue! I felt betrayed. Even my father had never stooped to such levels to get me to go to services. At least he was always straight forward.

“Shut up and get in the car. We’re going to synagogue!” he’d say.
At the rabbi’s home, we met his family. His wife and kids were nice, but again — they were Orthodox. During dinner, however, they seemed very normal (for weird people) and Debbie and I really enjoyed ourselves. In fact we thought these Friday night “dinner parties” were great ideas. It was also amazing not to have any music playing while we ate because it encouraged conversation. And what conversation we had. Talking about the Almighty and His role in the world and the Torah. By the end of the evening we felt, well, elevated. This was so different than the feeling we got when we had dinner with our non-Jewish or Jewish, but secular, friends. There, the conversation usually went to new lows of gossip or worse. It was quite a contrast.

But then, on cue, the rabbi and his wife did something really weird. I guess they just couldn’t help themselves. It was their nature. They actually suggested that we stay at their house for the night.

It doesn’t get much weirder.

I mean why in a gazillion years would we want to spend the night at their house?

Did they think we were homeless street people who needed shelter for the night?

Hello! We have apartments! You know, like normal, nonweird people?

Of course when we got back to my apartment, we realized that we had locked both sets of our keys to our apartments inside and could not get them until the morning when the manager arrived. In short, we were stuck. We sheepishly went back to the rabbi’s house with our tails between our legs and told him our lament.

He smiled and said, “You should have just accepted the invitation when we made it instead of going through all that!”

Pretty funny for a weird guy.

We quickly realized that these dinner parties on Friday nights were actually religious in nature. That was OK. We were there for the conversation and the food (his wife is an amazing cook). But soon it got to be a little much. I mean how could these people do this every single week? Why would you? So after a while of “doing Shabbat” we decided to take a break for a couple of weeks. One day I came home from work and there was a message on my machine from the rabbi. He said, “Where are you and Debbie? I haven’t seen you for a while? Please call me.”

I was furious. What, was he taking attendance? Was he tracking our coming and going? Who was this guy? I immediately called Debbie and told her of the intrusive call. I told her I’m going to call him and give him a piece of my mind. I’ll teach that weirdo.

I called him.

“Rabbi? This is Ross,” I said very curtly.

He didn’t notice my rude tone.

“Ross!” he said. “It’s so nice to hear from you.”

“Yeah,” I continued. “Look, I’m really upset about your message. I mean what, are your tracking us? Do you take attendance? This is really intrusive.”

“Oh,” he said sounding saddened. “I’m so sorry. It’s not that at all. It’s just that I really like you and Debbie and I miss you when you’re not around.”

I was shocked by his caring. I was also ashamed at my behavior.

“Hold on,” I said. “I’ll get Ross.”

I hung up the phone after our conversation (which included yet another invitation to a Friday night dinner party) and just sat there stunned.
“This guy really cares about us,” I thought to myself.

I mean no one cares about anyone in Los Angeles, but this guy really cared about us. The thought was overwhelming. Suddenly this man and his wife were no longer “weird.” They were actually something special to us. They were our friends.

Slowly, our view of Orthodox Jews started to change. Oh, sure, there were still some “weird” things that they did, like the seders that never ended and wherein you don’t eat until 11:30 p.m. — if you’re lucky — but we were more open to seeing what these strange practices were all about. And even though they ran contrary to our own childhood experiences where the seder at my house, for example, ran about an hour and we all watched TV after the festive meal, we were more willing to overlook the differences and started focusing on finding truth.

And we found truth. Among those weird Orthodox Jews that we are now proudly a part of. It wasn’t easy and it took a lot of love, devotion and patience from our newfound friends — the rabbi (who eventually officiated at our Orthodox wedding) and his wife. And it took a lot of time. But they never gave up on us.

Ross Hirschmann is a former civil litigator. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.

Letters 06-30-2006


South Central Farm
Ralph Horowitz’s claim of anti-Semitism simply serves to inject ethnic conflict into a debate it does not belong (“A Harvest of Conflict,” June 23).

As part of our senior project, I and my friend, Deepak Seeni, interviewed some of the people involved in the farm. I suffered no anti-Semitism. On the contrary, some of the people seemed interested when I explained why I could not eat the food that was being sold there.

To portray Horowitz negatively at a time of negotiations was foolish, but to judge on the basis of what a hate group the leadership condemned said is ridiculous. If Horowitz was interested in negotiating in good faith but found current leadership distasteful, I don’t understand why he didn’t accept the deal negotiated by the city and nonprofit groups on the basis that the city or another neutral agency be in charge of running the urban garden.

Throwing out misleading accusations doesn’t show good faith, and the fact this piece of land was not saved, in the end hurts only the kids whose closest alternative for play is an empty parking lot, while the parties unproductively blame each other.

Horowitz now has the chance to be a true mensch by simply reentering negotiations and finding a way to save that space for the community.

Charlie Carnow
Northridge

Assemblymember Monta?ez
In a column providing all sound bites and no substance, Jill Stewart offers comments disparaging Assemblymember Cindy Monta?ez (“These Dems Could Help Unlock Gridlock,” June 16). These comments are both mean-spirited and baseless.

Stewart’s first barb that Monta?ez (D-Mission Hills) is “an emotional hyperpartisan” is both sexist and false. Exactly how does one measure emotional hyperpartisanship? First, Monta?ez is a policymaker; [L.A. City Councilman Alex] Padilla is a power broker with little interest in real policy.

Next, Stewart makes claims like “[Monta?ez] proved incapable of working with both sides of the aisle in Sacramento.” Stewart, unsurprisingly, provides no support for this claim. Indeed, were Stewart an informed journalist, she would know that Assemblymember Monta?ez has co-authored 12 bipartisan pieces of legislation this session alone (AB547, AB568, etc). And readers should know that her legislation, signed by the governor, was, by definition, acknowledged by Republican leadership as necessary and important work.

Stewart is also off base in her ludicrous assertions that Monta?ez’s pro-labor position hurts her Latino constituents. In fact, being pro-labor and a being a friend to small business are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the reason that major labor organizations support Monta?ez is that she takes on, not kowtows to, big business. Stewart needs to do her homework.

Roy Kaufmann
Field Representative
Office of Assemblymember
Cindy Monta?ez

Jews and China
You’ve got it partially right — the next revolution in Jewish life is already taking place relative to China, but in a very different way than you describe and for a very different reason. (“This Week,” June 16).

Let me explain. Both traditional Judaism and the predominant Chinese philosophies are unbroken traditions addressing the whole person — intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Traditional Chinese medicine, based upon that premise, is truly holistic and integrative in both theory and clinical practice.

For this reason, an ever-increasing number of Jews seeking to bring balance to their lives and wellness to their health are attracted to Chinese medicine. Also, an ever-increasing number of Chinese medical practitioners and students are Jewish.

Yehuda Frischman
Los Angeles

You are not alone in your envisioning of Jews in China. In 1970, plus or minus a few years, Max Dimont, the author of “Jews, God and History,” was the speaker at a Temple Soleal retreat in Santa Barbara. He ended his talks with the prediction that the next great revival of Jews would be in China. Needless to say, most of us were dumbfounded. But the thought remained with me ever since.

Stan Burney
Via e-mail

Campus Activism
In his op-ed, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller mischaracterizes pro-Israel campus activism and ignores its importance and effectiveness (“Different Tack on Campus Challenge,” June 23). UCLA, in the heart of Jewish Los Angeles, does not always reflect what is happening nationally and internationally.

The rabbi’s approach certainly can enhance these efforts, but contrary to his charge, activist groups like StandWithUs promote coalition and bridge-building as a necessary part of activism. If the pro-Israel/pro-peace community abandons activism, it will do so at great risk.

Roz Rothstein, National Director
Dr. Roberta Seid, Educational Consultant
Esther Renzer, President StandWithUs

Kosher Entity
I am perplexed as to where the millions –if not billions — of dollars in profits that the “strongest and wealthiest entity in the Jewish world, ” except for Israel, as described by Rabbi Jacob Pressman, reside. Is there a secret bank account in Switzerland for the Orthodox Union (OU), the largest kosher certification entity?

The OU is a registered not for profit, so Pressman could easily check its financial documents (Letters, June 23).

While a few purveyors of kosher food –many of them non-Orthodox Jews or non-Jews — may make a handsome profit, the idea of a massive, megawealthy Orthodox “kosher entity” is as mythical as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

As an admirer of Pressman’s many contributions to L.A. Jewry and a member of a Conservative congregation, I am sorely disappointed that the rabbi has chosen to engage in what can only be called Orthodox bashing. And his words reinforce the negative canard that kashrut is “all about the money.”

Jodie Davidson
Woodland Hills

John Fishel
While the article titled, “A Private Man,” about John Fishel that ran May 26 was informative, it did not highlight one of Fishel’s key strengths.

Expert after expert has declared that a vital dynamic causing growth and change in 21st century Jewish life is directly proportional to the successful rise of entrepreneurial, Jewish, social venture startups. Jewish Los Angeles has spawned more of these new and creative organizations that address the myriad interests and needs such a diverse population requires than any other area outside of New York.

A great deal of these initiatives are being adapted and re-created in cities across the country, such as new spiritual communities, organizations that decry global genocide and serve the special needs of Jewish children among many others. Fishel has consistently taken the position that new organizations can and should arise and that their existence alone adds immeasurable value.

This is not true in most places. I believe the prolific number of creative ventures attest to the success of this position and must be noted.

Rhoda Uziel
Executive Director
Professional Leaders Project

Correction
In “Young Lawyer Has a Ball With Bet Tzedek” (June 23), The Journal incorrectly reported that Jeffrey A. Sklar is an attorney at Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan LLP. Although he once worked at that firm, he is now an associate in the corporate practice of Loeb & Loeb LLP in Los Angeles.

In “Jesus’ Man Has a Plan” (June 23) the Rev. Rick Warren received his kippah from Jimmy Kolker, former U.S. ambassador in Uganda, not from the country’s president, as reported. Additionally, the invitation to Warren came from Rabbi David Wolpe, Craig Taubman and the ATID program at Sinai Temple, not from Synagogue 3000.

 

Evangelicals Slate Pro-Israel Lobbying


Some 2,000 extremely pro-Israel community and religious leaders will meet in Washington on July 19, fan out across Capitol Hill and, in effect, tell their legislators: If you want our political backing, you must support the Jewish state — no ifs or buts.

There won’t be a single Jew among the citizen lobbyists. They will all be evangelical Christians, mainly ordained and lay pastors, embarking on the first major public action of the newly formed Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

The founder and leader of the group is the Rev. John C. Hagee of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church of San Antonio, Texas, and a televangelist whose broadcasts reach millions in the United States and 120 other countries.

In 1978, in the first of his 21 trips to Israel, “I went as a tourist and returned as a Zionist,” Hagee said.

Last week, Hagee visited Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego to enlist support for his 4-month-old organization –both among fellow evangelicals and in front of generally enthusiastic, but occasionally skeptical, Jewish audiences.

Addressing the Board of Rabbis of Southern California at the L.A. Jewish Community Building, Hagee outlined two major projects, in addition to the July summit in Washington:

  • Expand the existing “rapid response network” of 12,000 pastors, who can mobilize their congregations instantly to flood the White House and Congress with e-mails on any legislation affecting Israel’s security and well-being.
  • Institute an annual “Night to Honor Israel” in every major American city to assure Israel and Jews everywhere that “you do not stand alone.” The emotional event is already a fixture in large Texas cities and in other Southern states.

Hagee and his followers have given a total of $8.5 million to Israeli causes, including an orphanage and for absorption of Russian immigrants, he said, but the major impact of CUFI is likely to be on the political scene.

The pastor didn’t spell it out, but his associates made clear that they view CUFI as a kind of super American Israel Public Affairs Committee, representing some 50 million evangelical Christians. This constituency, in sharp contrast to the Jewish community, shares the conservative social outlook of the present administration and represents its hardcore political base.

This kind of influence cannot be ignored by U.S. Jews, said Shimon Erem, founding president of the Israel-Christian Nexus, who introduced Hagee.

“We don’t have too many friends; we cannot prevail without them,” said Erem.

CUFI’s purpose, according to its official brochure, is “to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, parachurch organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to biblical issues.”

The last six words may sound vague, but they are key to the evangelicals’ deeply rooted advocacy for Israel. As unquestioning believers in the inerrant truth of Scripture, Hagee and his followers are convinced that every inch of the God-given land belongs to the Jews alone and forever.

Hagee insists that he never interferes in the decisions of the Israeli government, but his opposition to the withdrawals in Gaza and the West Bank, for instance, gives concern to liberal Jewish organizations.

However, it is mainly Orthodox spokesmen, who otherwise agree with Hagee’s social and biblical views, who have publicly questioned whether the pastor’s underlying motive is the conversion of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

The Rabbinical Council of America, representing Orthodox rabbis and congregations, has officially protested the Israeli government’s license to Daystar, the second largest Christian network in the United States, to broadcast 24/7 over an Israeli satellite network.

Hagee, a major Daystar supporter and on-air personality, has consistently affirmed that he will not proselytize Jews, although the network’s lineup also includes “messianic” Jews with long pro-conversion records.

When Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, head of the anti-cult Jews for Judaism, raised this issue with Hagee at the Los Angeles meeting, the pastor did not respond directly, but his genial Southern folksiness took on a harder edge.

“If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians,” Hagee said.

 

Unraveling the Red String


It’s just before midnight, and the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is bustling. Teenagers are hanging out on corners near the pharmacy and suited men and high-heeled women are walking from synagogue to synagogue to attend the lecture of their choice.

It’s the first night of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates when the Jews received the Torah, and it’s customary to stay up all night studying Jewish topics in what’s called a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, which literally means a repair (as in tikkun olam). It’s a repair for the fact that the Israelites fell asleep the night before the Torah was given; they were not excited enough, so now Jews, throughout the centuries, have studied, sometimes in a private chevruta but often by listening to scholars speak.

Around this neighborhood — and the city — the standard lectures were being given on topics ranging from the Book of Ruth to Israel, but something off the beaten path was taking place on Robertson Boulevard in a lecture at Anshei Emet Synagogue. The subject was “Kabbalah and the Red String.”

Kabbalah is not often a topic studied by the Orthodox (who believe, according to tradition, that the mystical studies should only be done by scholars older than 40), and this was not necessarily a lecture one would expect to be delivered by Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, who is the head of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary and anti-cult center.

Jews for Judaism was founded 21 years ago “to keep Jews Jewish and defend the community from threats and missionaries.” Its primary purpose has been to train Jews to ward off traditional missionaries, such as Jews for Jesus (which its name seems to parody), messianic Jews, Mormons and Evangelical Christians.

But kabbalists?

At the late-night lecture addressed to some 40 men and women — seated separately on wood benches on the men’s side of the synagogue — Kravitz never mentioned any kabbalah institution by name. Well, not exactly. But add up the references to red string, Madonna, Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, expensive holy water and you can put it all together. The rabbi was alluding to the controversial practices of The Kabbalah Centre, whose L.A. base is on Robertson Boulevard.

“If Madonna can wear a T-shirt saying she’s a cult member, who am I to argue with her?” Kravitz said.

Kabbalah is a library of Jewish mystical writing initiated in the 12th and 13th centuries of the common era in the books of the Zohar. The Zohar tells you the mystical reasons of the commandments, and that when you follow these commandments, you hasten the bringing of the Messiah.

During the hourlong midnight lecture Kravitz discussed why the kabbalah being promulgated by celebrities at the Kabbalah Centre is not the real kabbalah of ancient Jewish mystics. He talked of what true mystical study really is and how religious Jews can benefit from it in their own spiritual practices.

He spoke of what it means to have spiritual kavanah, or intention, when you do something. Spiritual intention is good, he said, but intention without action is meaningless. Take charity for example. One can be meditating kabbalistically on charity, “but if there’s a person sitting opposite you starving to death, you’re commanded to actually feed them.”

Mystical thoughts can enhance spiritual practice, “but the action is always the main thing,” he said. “And without mentioning names, when people take the action out of it, they’re missing the purpose of why we do mitzvot and connecting to God.”

At the center, a common practice is to read letters and words repeatedly, including the Zohar, the original kabbalistic mystical text.

Kravitz earlier told The Journal in a phone interview that he didn’t want to focus on The Kabbalah Centre by name because “I’m not interested in giving them more publicity. It’s giving them credibility — they don’t belong in the paper — every time some star decides to do something with them, they deserve space in a Jewish paper?” he asked, referring to The Jewish Journal. “To me, they’re no different than Mormonism or Jews for Jesus or Scientology. They’re using the terminology to make themselves look Jewish, but they’re not part of it.”

This was not the first time Kravitz has delivered his lecture “Kabbalah and the Red String,” whose advance flyer included questions: “Why are people seeking answers to modern-day issues in an ancient Jewish wisdom? Why has kabbalah left so many disillusioned, angry and confused?”

In the last couple of years, he’s delivered the same talk at synagogues and institutions like the University of Judaism. But Kravitz’s open questioning of the center represents a shift in the notion of what constitutes today’s missionaries and today’s threats to Judaism.

“I don’t think cults have become less of a threat today; there are just different kinds of cults,” he said. “There are psychotherapy cults, freedom of mind cults…. People being pressured to volunteer and get their friends to join — if you’re told that you can’t benefit from the program, that may be a form of manipulation,” he said.

“I don’t need to call [The Kabbalah Centre] a cult. They don’t understand what a cult is. A cult is a group that uses deception and manipulation to keep members in its group.”

Rabbi Michael Berg, co-director of The Kabbalah Centre, was not available for comment as of press time. He has denied in the media that The Kabbalah Centre is a cult and rejects the idea that anyone is being brainwashed. In 2000, he told New Times, “One of the basic teachings of the center is, ‘Don’t accept a word that anyone tells you; you have to come to your own understanding and live with it.’ Unlike many other religious organizations, there’s no coercion. It’s the opposite of that. We’re very open that we need financial support to continue publishing books and running the organization, but there’s no push. It’s more like, ‘If you have a chance, please help us out.'”

Kravitz, of course, is far from being the first Jewish rabbi or academic scholar to denounce the center.

For example, in February, the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies hosted Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mystical thought, and chair of Hebrew University’s department of Jewish studies, to discuss “The History of Jewish Mysticism and West Coast Kabbalah.” Elior was much more direct than Kravitz. She said that The Kabbalah Centre is “part of the new age phenomenon, when ideas are for sale. The center would not be spending one day on this if they couldn’t sell it. Kabbalah was once a matter of defiance and freedom of creativity; nowadays it is www.kabbalah.com — not ‘dot-edu’ and not ‘dot-org’ — but commerce. The center is part of the new age, part of globalization. They are trying to couple spiritual grace with material success.”

“The Kabbalah Centres today have nothing to do with the Divine Plan for hidden meaning of the text or with any of that,” Elior said. “They are basically about selling books for people who don’t read them … or for people who believe that by having a red string or drinking holy water they are connecting to the mysteries of the world.”

But not all rabbis and scholars in the Jewish mainstream agree with Kravitz’s dire assessment.

Jody Myers, professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, is writing a book about the popularization of kabbalah in America. She doesn’t believe that there is any such thing as authentic kabbalah, and she points out that The Kabbalah Centre doesn’t claim to be part of the Jewish community. Myers says she neither condemns nor condones The Kabbalah Centre.

In terms of its fundraising, Myers says that The Kabbalah Centre needs to raise funds, as do all Jewish organizations; it’s just doing it differently.

“I think that the American Jewish community puts a lot of pressure on people to raise money. It costs an awful lot of money to be Jewish today,” she said. At The Kabbalah Centre, “there are no membership fees, there is no annual membership, they get money from selling stuff and charging for lectures and classes. And they get money asking people to donate to a good cause, which is them.”

The participants, she said “give their money freely; they feel very grateful for [the center] and they are getting something from them that they are not getting from somewhere else.”

In the past, The Kabbalah Centre has shrugged off its critics.

At one Shabbat service in 1997, which The Jewish Journal attended, center founder Philip Berg sermonized that rabbis who oppose the center “don’t want you to know the truth. They want you to live in chaos. They are the enemies of enlightenment.”

During the last two decades, Kravitz said that Jews for Judaism has worked with thousands of people — people targeted by missionaries and cults and their concerned family members — and in recent years, these have included people from the center. “The people that I’ve come into contact with clearly accuse The Kabbalah Centre of being very manipulative and being very deceptive with their promises,” he said.

What advice does Kravitz offer to those at risk of an unhealthy involvement?

“Always use critical thinking,” the rabbi said. “Always question. Don’t accept what people say because it sounds good at first.”

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz will be teaching a countermissionary survival seminar Tuesday evenings through June 27 at 7:30 p.m. To register, call (310) 556-3344.

 

Modern Orthodoxy’s Marriage Crisis


Hard-to-marry-off children have been worrying parents since Genesis, when Leah, her eyes tender from the sadness of being unwanted, took part in a hoax to trick Jacob — her younger, prettier sister’s suitor — into marrying her. There’s no indication of how old Leah was at betrothal, but the tone of the text prompts a mortifying thought: Had she lived in our time, the future matriarch of the Jewish people would likely be another tough case for the matchmakers.

Or so I surmised a few months ago after a crowded panel in Manhattan on what has come to be known as the “shidduch crisis” in Modern Orthodoxy. Over the past decade, rabbis, activists and parents have been wringing their hands over the “ever-burgeoning number of religious singles and rising percentage of failed marriages” in the community. This event was only the most recent of many discussions devoted to the topic.

Having once been both single and Modern Orthodox, I recognized many of the audience members — not exact faces, of course, but types: The knitted-browed parents, bantering anxiously among themselves; the fresh-faced Stern and Yeshiva University students who seemed too young to take the bus themselves, let alone join in holy matrimony; a handful of older singles brave enough to show their faces at such a gathering.

The evening’s discussion traversed a lot of ground, but it was clear that among its primary goals was the prevention of those too-often-seen tragic situations — “marriages that end, God forbid, in divorce” and “people who are in their late 20s, even 30, and not married.”

The timing could not have been better — or worse: Three days earlier, I had signed divorce papers; six days later, I turned 30.

Of course, the world is filled with singles wishing to be part of doubles. Since the fate of every society turns on the success or failure of its particular set of mating rituals, each one develops its own specialized system of coupling. But what happens when those rituals erode?

This is the bind in which Modern Orthodoxy has lately found itself. Over the past decade, the movement has drifted to the right — adopting, along the way, the belief that greater stringency in Jewish law and ritual equals greater religiosity. Distinctions that might seem infinitesimal to an outsider — “she’s a Bais Yaakov girl,” “he wears a kippah sruga” — have become fundamental differences, and competitions have sprouted up over who follows which obligations more strictly.

Along with new perspectives on the legality of singing in the shower and smoking cigarettes on Passover, there also has emerged a more exacting code of modesty and celibacy for singles. In response, ever younger people have begun racing to the chuppah, with many of us discussing potential mates as early as high school.

This is the system used successfully by the ultra-Orthodox, who place more emphasis on God, family and community than on individual choices: Each person has confidence in her mate not only because he is right for her, but because he is right for everyone and everything in her life. On the other end of the spectrum, the secular world offers a method based on individualism: Release yourself from everyone else’s expectations, and date as many people as it takes to find the one.

The problem is that both of these opposing philosophies are now circulating in the Modern Orthodox community, and their coexistence is causing static — mixed signals, false expectations, miscommunications. The confusion might be surmountable, but muddling through it requires two things that Orthodox Jews who’d like to remain marriageable don’t have: experience and time.

The first inkling that I did not have nearly enough time to find a mate was in my junior year of yeshiva high school. We were learning about Amuka, an area in northern Israel where the prayers of people looking for their besherts (destined partners) allegedly are answered, when I was seized with confusion.

“Can each person only have one beshert?” I asked.

“I think so,” said the rabbi.

“But what about a woman who remarries after her husband dies? Which one was her beshert?”

“Only God knows,” came the reply.

“What if my beshert lives in, like, Pakistan?”

“You have to just believe, Alana.”

I can’t, I thought suddenly. I don’t know enough about the world.

And with that, Amuka became my Archimedean point, the place where I stood when I inadvertently lifted my entire religious world off its axis. After that, the questions came quickly — even leading, briefly, to a period of greater observance.

By the time I started my second year at Barnard, I was taking classes on other religions, had an Episcopalian best friend and regularly attended non-Jewish campus events on Friday night, as long as I could walk to them.

But as my curiosity about the larger world expanded, the atmosphere of Modern Orthodoxy contracted. I wanted to engage with the secular world — to learn about it as well as to experience it — but the same adventures that might have once been par for the Modern Orthodox course now threatened to make me an outcast.

I was too attached to religious life and thought to abandon it entirely. Instead, I made the kind of unspoken compromises with my parents (and, by extension, the community) that some people make with God: I will not go to services often, but when I do, I’ll attend Orthodox synagogues; I will eat nonkosher in restaurants but at home will abide by rules strict enough that the rebbe could snack in my kitchen; I will avoid premarital sex, but won’t follow the laws of negiah.

This last item was, in fact, the only one for which I had an intellectual defense. I was shy and insecure about sex and knew enough to fear its power as an obfuscating force in relationships. The more I knew, I thought, the better my chances that I wouldn’t mistake lust for love.

Fooling around before marriage has, historically, not been an uncommon practice among Modern Orthodox Jews. After all, they gave the world the “tefillin date,” so named for the men who brought along their phylacteries in hopes they wouldn’t be home in time for morning prayers.

By my early 20s, the community had moved significantly to the right. People found themselves caught between rules of the old world and the kind of curiosity about sex and dating fostered in the new one.

“It is bad enough to be alone, but to be not sexual is almost as bad, and the two together is terrible,” writes an anonymous Orthodox blogger. “I have had fantasies of killing myself. I have considered hiring a male prostitute and getting it over with. No, I have not tried either of those last two things, chas vishalom…. To all the married people out there telling older singles that they should deny themselves, I wish I could respond, ‘Let he who is 34 and never been kissed cast the first stone.'”

I was 25 when I married — a bit old compared to my yeshiva classmates but still within respectable limits. To a casual observer, Daniel might have seemed like a rebellious choice: He did not grow up Orthodox; his father is not Jewish; his last name is Scotch-Irish. But he was almost as connected to the community as I was, having just gotten out of a relationship with another Orthodox woman.

He had started learning Hebrew, loved Shabbat and had relatives in Israel. And, unlike me, he had yichus, a distinguished lineage: His grandfather was a famed civil rights lawyer and Zionist activist. He was different enough, and yet similar.

After a year of dating, we wanted to move in together, but I knew this was unheard of in our circles. So I made another silent compromise: I’d marry the person of my choosing, but at an age and in a way that would be acceptable within the community.

Daniel and I married before we should have, a step that put undue pressure on a young relationship and two people still struggling to define themselves. When the marriage ruptured, so did the thin thread holding me to Orthodoxy. I became angry at the community for depriving me of my adolescence or, rather, for being too rigid to encourage it.

As psychologist Naomi Mark said at the panel on the shidduch crisis that I attended, the community expects young adults to have marriage, education and careers settled, or at least on track, by their early 20s, leaving no time to make the kind of mistakes that teach us who we are. My effort to avoid these mistakes — to experience the world but not so much that I’d be forced from the community’s safe corral — threatened to split the baby. And the baby was me.

In the end, I chose self-definition over religion. As Plato promised, the examined life is indeed fulfilling — firsthand experience of oneself trumps guesswork any day — but it’s not nearly as pretty as the brochure implies. For me, the ugliness lies not in the fact that by opening the door to all experience I’ve ushered in pain as well as joy, or because in the course of learning about myself, I’ve unearthed a few things I’d rather never have known — though both have certainly happened.

What most disquiets me is the limbo. Unlike my Orthodox peers, who can be sure of the basic contours of their lives, I writhe with uncertainty: Where will I be living 10 years from now? What school will my kids attend? How kosher will my kitchen be?

Sometimes, the fog gets so intimidating that I start to wonder if there’s still time to go back, to abandon all this liberty and just get comfortable again. Alas, I fear all this experience has ruined me; I’ve lost too many virginities — intellectual, emotional, psychological and, well, otherwise — to mesh again with that life. Plus, as the panel proved, the community hardly needs another 30-year-old woman in need of marrying off, especially one without a younger, prettier sister to use as bait.

Alana Newhouse is the arts and letters editor at The Forward.

Reprinted from

This Week – In and Out


Last Friday, when the sun went down in Los Angeles, the Jewish community came alive.

At Sinai Temple in Westwood, 2,000 people packed the sanctuary — standing-room only — to hear Elie Wiesel speak during Friday Night Live services as part of the temple’s centennial celebration (see story on page 13). Afterward, hundreds of 20-somethings stayed for a special Q-and-A session with Oprah’s favorite Holocaust author.

Not three blocks away, Israeli novelist Amos Oz held an overflow Shabbat evening crowd of 800 in his thrall as Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel’s guest speaker.

I stopped in at two other synagogues that night: at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform shul in Bel Air, a capacity crowd attended the usual, uplifting service, and on La Cienega Boulevard, at Conservative Temple Beth Am, 100 United Synagogue Youth from around California greeted Shabbat on the rooftop, a foretaste of raucous summer camp nights to camp.

On the way home — you may have gathered that, yes, I drive on Shabbat — I took Pico Boulevard, quiet but for the dozens of Orthodox Jews walking home from services.

That’s just a few square miles of L.A. Jewry — I never made it over the hill, or even to the hill, where hundreds flocked to services at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

There’s only so much herring one Jew can eat, my grandfather used to say; it’s hard to be two places at once.

You’d think by now the fact that Jewish life is lived so intensely in Los Angeles would cease to amaze me — after all, this is the second largest Jewish population in the United States. But there remains such a constant wailing over the state of Jewish life that I occasionally have to wonder whether the worriers actually know any, um, Jews.

The latest round of “Oy Veying” was transatlantic. Two weeks ago, the profoundly talented Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told an audience of American Jews in Washington, D.C., that Jewish life is experienced more completely in Israel than anywhere else.

There is, he said, “a fundamental boundary between Jewish identity in Israel and Jewish identity in the Diaspora.”

The former, he argued, was richer, more meaningful and authentic, rooted in the land and language of the Jewish people. The latter, he said, led to an attenuated sense of Jewishness.

“I cannot keep my identity outside Israel,” he said.

Outside Israel, Yehoshua argued, one wears one’s Judaism like a coat that can be taken on or off. Inside Israel, one wears it like skin.

The remarks before the American Jewish Committee touched off a war of words among Israeli and American Jews. The Israeli daily Haaretz ran essays with supporting and competing views. Yehoshua apologized for the bluntness of his remarks in subsequent interviews, but held to them in a more refined way. It’s an argument Yehoshua and a certain stream of Zionists has been making for years. And while I logically rebel against it, there’s a part of me that understands Yehoshua.

Many years ago, I met him while he was on a speaking tour in Los Angeles. We stepped outside his Marina del Rey hotel so he could smoke his pipe. We spoke, in Hebrew, about how the feeling of one’s Jewishness is of a different quality and intensity in Israel, where I had just been living, than in, say, Marina del Rey.

There was a bit of silence. He knocked the dottle from his bowl and turned to me.

“You have to come back,” he said, then walked inside.

If there weren’t a grain of truth in what he’s still saying, people wouldn’t be so upset. But there are other truths as well about Jewish identity: competing, confusing, contradicting ones that I have come to appreciate in the years since. Having lived in Israel, I can tell you the Jews there don’t all walk about aglow with the flame of their Jewishness. Yehoshua’s novels are populated with characters as spiritually bereft in Tel Aviv as Philip Roth’s are in Newark.

As it happens, I do meet Israelis all the time who are leading rich Jewish lives — they’re in Los Angeles.

Diaspora just may be as important to the Jewish existence, and the Jewish psyche, as Zion. There is a practical aspect — money and political support from outside Israel helped create and helps sustain the state — as well as a more ethereal one. The power of being the landless outsider, some might argue, roots us in ideals.

“In the name of nationalism,” wrote Douglas Rushkoff in “Nothing Sacred,” “Jews abandon iconoclasm, the long-standing insight into the false idols of land-based peoples…. Zionism has become a mantra for Jews fighting against assimilation. But Judaism itself was formulated as a way of transcending the obsession with physical territory and focusing instead on the supremacy of time and the realm of ideas. What’s more assimilated than rallying around a flag and fighting for a plot of land, just like everybody else?”

Yehoshua isn’t saying that our existence depends on in-gathering — he knows that argument falls flat in the face of 2,000 years of Jewish existence in exile. But he fails to appreciate the fact that so many of us live in the tension between his truth and Rushkoff’s, belonging everywhere and nowhere, forever trying to be in two places at once.

 

Wandering Jew – Spiritual Headliners


Dozens of young giggling girls dressed in their finest skirts and blouses crowded the front of the Universal Hilton ballroom, which was hot and stuffy and filled to standing-room only capacity with women in anticipation of the big event.

When the music started all the girls and women jumped to their feet and started clapping, beatific, expectant smiles on their faces.

It could have been a rock concert — perhaps the debut of famous boy band — but it was not that kind of music and these were not that kind of girls. For most of the 3,000 men and women — seated in separate rooms, with a video screen for the women — the happening was one of the most important ever in Los Angeles and in the lives of these ultra-Orthodox Jews.

These members of Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox community had come together for an asefa, a spiritual gathering, to see and hear two of Israel’s greatest rabbis speak words of Torah and offer spiritual reinforcement to this far-flung Diaspora community.

These were gedolei hador, luminaries, leaders of the generation and the heads of the two separate — and often divided — factions of the ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Yakov Aryeh Alter, known the Gerrer Rebbe, represents the Chasidic faction, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman leads the Litvak, or Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) faction.

To the outsider, the sea of black hats might look monolithic, but these were worlds among worlds gathered in the room. The Chasidim, with their long curly peyos (sidelocks), furry streimel hats and shiny black kaputa coats, came from a long tradition that began in the 17th century, one that emphasizes spiritual joy in addition to academic Torah study.

More austere in trim beards and black suits were the Lithuanians, or Mitnagdim, literally meaning opponents to Chasidism. But today the word usually refers to black-hat non-Chasidic Jews who have a more analytic approach to learning, as practiced in their yeshivas.

It was like the Jets and the Sharks coming together. In the men’s section, a three-level podium contained a veritable who’s who of the Los Angeles rabbinical world: Rabbi Avrohom Union of the Rabbinical Council of California, Rabbi Meyer May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Sholom Ginsberg of Toras Emes, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, Rabbi David Toledano of Adat Yeshurun Sephardic Congregation, Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik (an actual Gerrer Chasid). There, too, standing out in a black hat and startlingly royal blue tie, was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

To start things off, a number of rabbis spoke leading up to the two luminaries. They explained the significance of the evening.

“How could we be zocheh [meriting] for two gedolei hador to come here?” Rabbi Baruch Yehuda Gradon, from the Los Angeles Kollel, asked in that English-Hebrew-Yiddish mixture so prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community.

“It’s hard to believe we’re on the West Coast of the United States,” he said.

Rabbi Ginsberg took pride in the growth of the community in this nonheavenly city.

“We in Los Angeles, we are not Eretz Yisroel [Israel], we are not New York, we are not even Lakewood,” he said, referring to the New Jersey community where the men learn full-time in Kollel yeshivas.

But, he said, this city has its own network of Kollels, yeshivas and outreach institutions.

In recent years Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest Jewish community, has become a stop for visiting Jewish dignitaries — especially politicians, hoping to tap into the fundraising network here. The visit of these two luminaries — together for the first time — also put Los Angeles on the map as an up-and-coming spiritual center. And perhaps, this appearance also was a testing ground for such an unusual pairing, an event that might get out of hand in a community as big as New York or New Jersey or Israel.

The occasion was also an effort to show unity between the two factions.

“There is no division between a Chasid and a Mitnaged, between Ashkenaz and Sephard, and between a businessman and yeshiva man,” Rabbi Ginsberg said.

There were some divisions, of course, with the men and women in separate rooms. According to the Israeli press, the two rabbis chartered a special El Al flight with no women stewardesses and no women in first class — and without movies. But this is de rigueur for a community accustomed to segregation (especially the Chasidic community).

The main purpose of the evening was to offer a lifeline of spiritual support to the Los Angeles community — a soulful community in a city of soul-seekers and religious innovators.

Rabbi Steinman, 93, clutched the podium, his face pale as paper, flanked on each side by rabbis for support. He spoke for 20 minutes in Yiddish. The Gerer rebbe, Yakov Alter, a more robust man with white hair and peyos and heavy lidded eyes, delivered a short, one-minute speech from his chair.

Both men’s words were translated by Rabbi Usher Weiss in a crisp, booming European-accented English.

“If all we would do here tonight is look and listen, then this effort would be in vain and this trip would not have achieved its goal,” he said to the rapt audience, some of whom were taping the remarks on their PalmPilots and other electronic devices.

Weiss was mostly translating the words of Rabbi Steinman, but he seemed to intersperse his own comments, as well: “A person must feel every day that our worship of yesterday is not enough. Every day is a new responsibility. The angels are great but they have no tests. For us it’s all about [personal] growth.”

“What matters is not how big you are but how much you grow,” said Weiss in his translation/commentary.

It was no accident that this gathering fell on the holiday of Lag B’Omer, a celebration in the middle of a mourning period, the 49 days of counting the omer. Jewish groups around the city made traditional bonfires to mark the holiday, which, by some accounts, marks the end of an ancient plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

At the Universal Hilton, Weiss spoke of Rabbi Akiva, whose most famous teaching was love thy neighbor as thyself.

“Mutual respect, this is the lesson we have to learn on this day,” he said.

He blessed the rabbis and the audience, his voice ringing out loud and clear: “I am confident that each of the participants will remember this day to the last of his days.”

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, April 15

The bread don’t rise, but spirits may. Two events tonight focus on Passover through music and comedy. Celebrate Chol Hamoed Pesach at Stephen S. Wise Temple with this evening’s “Let My People Sing” series event, “Tears, Laughter and Spirit.” Comedian Joel Chasnoff performs with The Lost Boys of Sudan Choir and Dream Freedom Performers of Milken Community High School. Or visit the Workmen’s Circle for “Music, Mayses … and Matse?!” a concert of Yiddish and klezmer tunes performed by renown musicians Yale Strom on violin, Mark Dresser on contrabass and singer Elizabeth Schwartz.

Stephen S. Wise: 7:30 p.m. Dessert and coffee follow. Donation. 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 476-8561. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Sunday, April 16

Ladies only, you are cordially invited to a special screening of “Together as One,” a multicamera video produced by Kol Neshama, an L.A. arts program for Orthodox girls and women. The film about positive attitude and watching what you say has a “Wizard of Oz”-ian spin, when the snide-mouthed protagonist, Bracha, ends up in The Land of Emes (Truth). There are elaborately choreographed musical numbers featuring now-Orthodox professional performers, along with local school girls. The video may only be viewed in today’s and tomorrow’s screenings.

April 16 and 17, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., Upstairs@ Kehilas Yaakov, 7211 Beverly Blvd. (877) 637-4262.

Monday, April 17

Director Nicole Holofcener’s film about the midlife struggles of four female friends — and their uneasy relationships with money and each other-comes to theaters this week. Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand star in the comedy/drama “Friends With Money,” which was the opening night film at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Tuesday, April 18

Head to LACMA West for art that makes you go, “hmmmm….” Their new LACMALab installation, “Consider this…” features the work of six varied artists that all invite viewers to “examine the cultural and social landscape: who are we and what do we want to be?”

Through Jan. 15, 2007. Free (children 17 and under), $5-$9 (general). 6067 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. www.lacma.org

Wednesday, April 19

Pay homage to legends of different sorts at tonight’s American Cinematheque screening of “The Night of the Hunter.” This is the kickoff event for their new screening series of devoted film critic “Kevin Thomas’ Favorite Films.” The monthly event will feature 10 of Thomas’ favorites, including “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Star is Born.” Tonight also serves as a tribute to Thomas’ friend, actress Shelley Winters, who starred in “Hunter.”

7:30 p.m. $6-$9. 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. www.americancinematheque.com.

 

Thursday, April 20

The circle of life takes an unconventional turn or two in Michelle Kholos’ new play “Two Parents, Two Weddings, Two Years.” The story follows Sidney, a grown woman with a boyfriend and a career, who must reconcile herself with the fact that her divorced parents are both, separately, getting remarried, while she struggles to hang on to her significant other, and her brother tries to romance his soon-to-be sister-in-law. Wacky Jewish family drama ensues….

8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.), through May 14. $25. The Hollywood Court Theatre, Hollywood United Methodist Church, 6817 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. (323) 692-8200.

 

Friday, April 21

A woman dressed in a white gown and veil stands at a border crossing between the Golan Heights and Syria. She is “The Syrian Bride,” the titular character in a new film by Eran Riklis, and her story is based on a real incident Riklis witnessed and filmed for his 1999 documentary, “Borders.” The bride’s story is a complicated one, of people’s lives caught between the politics and bureaucracies of border countries. The film played at this year’s Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles, and is released theatrically today.

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Hancock Park Infighting Escalates


Update September 25, 2007: City Building & Safety inspectors briefly interrupt Kol Nidrei services at Hancock Park shul.

Smoldering tensions between the Orthodox community and other Hancock Park residents, many of them also Jewish, are heating up anew, as a battle over neighborhood architecture has divided along lines of religious affiliation.

Residents of the upscale neighborhood are weighing whether it should become a designated Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which would establish a process of scrutiny for any changes to the outside of homes. Opponents of the measure are mostly Orthodox Jews, who own an estimated 20 percent of Hancock Park’s 1,250 homes. A decision on this issue will be made by the City Council with neighborhood input, perhaps as early as this summer.

The latest battle comes nearly a year after Orthodox Jews and other residents faced off in an ugly election for control of the neighborhood council, when competing accusations of corruption and religious bias tore apart the community.

But even as halting peace efforts are under way to heal those wounds, the HPOZ fight is once again pitting Jew against Jew and neighbor against neighbor.

Proponents say the neighborhood needs to become an HPOZ to protect the 1920s and ’30s Spanish, Tudor and Mediterranean revival mansions from aesthetically dubious remodels that tamper with the historic look of the neighborhood. They also say it would improve property values. Opponents say the measure would infringe on homeowners’ rights, make improvements too costly and cumbersome and thereby hurt property values.

The fight is playing out on the wide, winding streets of this urban oasis, where orange anti-HPOZ signs and green pro-HPOZ signs have sprouted on impeccably landscaped lawns.

In the middle of the night on April 2 and 3, about 200 pro-HPOZ signs were uprooted and carted off, according to Jolene Snett, who is heading up the preservationist effort. Opponents say many anti-HPOZ signs have also been stolen.

At a March public hearing before Los Angeles’s Department of Planning, about 300 people came to voice their support or opposition to the ordinance. Nearly all of the measure’s opponents, including all of the speakers for the opposition, were Orthodox.

On May 11, the city’s Planning Commission will meet to hear a report on the public hearing, take recommendations from staff and hear more public comments. The Planning Commission will then send a recommendation to a subcommittee of the City Council, and the full council will have the final vote on whether to adopt an HPOZ ordinance for Hancock Park. That vote is expected over the summer.

The Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, The Los Angeles Conservancy and Councilman Tom LaBonge all have gone on record supporting a HPOZ for Hancock Park. The opposition is headed by the Hancock Park Residents Association, founded several years ago by Orthodox activists Michael Rosenberg and Stanley Treitel to fight against the HPOZ.

Preservationist Snett estimates that about 80 percent of Hancock Park residents support the HPOZ, while Treitel calls it a toss-up.

If established, control of the HPOZ board, which reviews proposed changes to property, would fall directly into the hands of local residents. The board would be made up of five members, three of whom live in the area, and some would have expertise in architecture or construction. Board members are appointed by the mayor, the area’s City Council member and the Cultural Heritage Commission, with the input of the local neighborhood council.

The grass-roots nature of the issue has made it tinder for the ongoing religious flare-ups in the neighborhood.

Some vocal Orthodox Jews say HPOZ is one in a long list of issues — from opposing synagogues to giving Jewish schools a hard time — whereas established neighbors have worked to keep the burgeoning Orthodox community at bay.

“The Orthodox typically have large families and want to be able to make these homes useful with expansion to accommodate the families, and they are concerned that that they will be stopped from doing this,” said Fred Gaines, an Encino lawyer who is representing a group of Orthodox residents opposed to HPOZ.

To David Rubin, chairman of Yeshivat Yavneh, a 450-child day school in Hancock Park, the issue is trust.

“Although I support the concept of preservation, I don’t support the process of local empowerment on this issue in our community,” Rubin said. “We can’t have an HPOZ controlled by a small group that has developed a double standard.”

Rubin says neighbors are much tougher on Yavneh than they are on Marlborough School, a private girls’ school in the area.

Neighbors say Marlborough is a 120-year-old school that was grandfathered in, and that Yavneh is simply expected to adhere to conditions it accepted on moving to the neighborhood in 1999.

Those conditions were brought to a Zoning Board hearing in City Hall on April 6, at which Yavneh requested permission to erect an 8-foot perimeter fence for security, and to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Saturdays from only students and their families to include alumni, board members and others associated with the school.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association opposed both requests, which would change the school’s original conditional use permit. The zoning board is expected to hand down a decision by late April.

The us-versus-them atmosphere in Hancock Park has been festering over the past decade. Residents have been locked in a 10-year legal battle over a synagogue built on a residential lot at the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, which neighbors say violates local zoning laws. Congregants argue religious freedom allows them to pray in the new building, which they constructed after tearing down a home.

Snett, the preservationist, hopes that the city’s decision on the HPOZ can be separated from the religious disputes and seen for what it is: an effort to preserve the architecture of a beautiful and historically significant neighborhood. She is banking on the preservation plan, to be put together by the city, which allows residents to individualize the terms of an HPOZ.

But the preservation plan won’t be presented until after the city council approves the HPOZ, and opponents are skeptical.

“It is unfortunate that rather than sit down and compromise, there is an insistence to keep pushing forward and having a situation where neighbor is pitted against neighbor, and the city will end up in litigation,” said Gaines, the attorney for the opponents.

Another Tendler Steps Down


The longtime principal of one of Los Angeles’ largest Jewish high schools is leaving to start a new school. Rabbi Sholom Tendler resigned last week as Hebrew principal of Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA) and as rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. He said he plans to open a new yeshiva boys’ high school elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Tendler’s resignation comes shortly after his nephew, Rabbi Aron Tendler, resigned under pressure as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Meanwhile, Tendler’s other nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Tendler was suspended this year by the board of his New York City-area synagogue as a result of longstanding allegations about alleged sexual misconduct.

Sholom Tendler, 61, says his departure is a matter only of his desire to start a new high school.

Sholom Tendler has been YULA’s rosh yeshiva, Hebrew for principal, for the last 26 years, including in 1987, when the school hired attorneys secretly to investigate allegations of inappropriate behavior against Aron Tendler. The internal probe yielded inconclusive results, but Aron Tendler was moved from the girls school to the separate boys school.

“I was aware of that investigation,” Sholom Tendler told The Journal, adding that he recused himself from the situation because his relative was involved.

After news of the investigation came to light in recent months, YULA alums and parents expressed outrage that the school dealt with the matter privately. Some clamored for “accountability.” Sholom Tendler’s resignation, so soon after the disclosures, has inevitably invited speculation that his departure is, in effect, the school’s response to community pressure.

Not so, Sholom Tendler said.

“There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between [what happened with his nephews] and my decision to build this new school,” he said. “It’s unfortunate how unfounded rumors can blacken even the most beautiful of endeavors.”

Sholom Tendler also expressed sympathy for his nephews’ ordeals: “It’s very painful, and I’m supportive of them and their families in this terrible time of agony that they’re going through.”

Aron Tendler has declined interview requests; Mordechai Tendler has been more vocal, denying any wrongdoing.

YULA officials also emphasized that Sholom Tendler’s exit is voluntary.

“He helped create YULA,” said Rabbi Meyer May, the executive director of YULA’s boys division. “He could have stayed at YULA for his entire career.”

So why is Sholom Tendler leaving?

He replied that there is a shortage of yeshiva high schools in Los Angeles.

“Anybody will tell you there are not enough high school desks in Los Angeles. It’s a healthy sign, but a serious problem,” Sholom Tendler said.

His added that his new school will fill a niche for the more “ultra” side of the Orthodox community, while also stressing a serious academic curriculum.

Sholom Tendler is calling his new high school Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok — named for his father, Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, a rebbe who inspired “a joy of learning,” as Tendler put it. He plans to open in September for about 10 to 15 ninth-graders. He said he is currently scouting for a location in the Pico-Robertson or La Brea area.

The school will provide both serious Torah study and strong secular academics.

“People who are observing the demographics in the Jewish community see that there are a growing number of people who are very serious about religious observance and at the same time want to live in the professional or business world, rather than the rabbinate. We want parents to have the opportunity to prepare their sons for either way of life,” he said.

Because of the labor involved in starting a school, Sholom Tendler also is stepping down from heading Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, where he has served as rabbi almost since its inception 13 years ago. He will stay on until the search committee finds a new rabbi. He said he expects to remain involved in the community, possibly as rabbi emeritus.

 

Campus Outreach Connects Orthodox


At the Enormous Activities Fair during UCLA’s Welcome Week last September, Sharona Kaplan stepped away from her own brochure-laden table to help out at the busier Hillel table.

A first-year student perusing Hillel’s sign-up sheet seemed stuck on one question.

“So what kind of services are you looking for? Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox?” Kaplan asked her.

“The least religious,” the girl said, and Kaplan helped her mark the box for “Reform.”

That doesn’t bother Kaplan at all — each student should find what’s appropriate for him or her, she believes.

But her particular mission is to serve Orthodox Jews and to encourage observant Judaism.

Sharona Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, both 26, arrived in September 2004 through the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus(JLIC), a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel and the Torah Mitzion organization to serve the needs of Orthodox students.

Since the program began five years ago, it has anchored couples on 12 U.S. campuses — three of them newly placed this past September — as well as at Oxford University in England. Each couple is a young rabbi and his wife, charged with teaching classes, running Shabbat programs, ensuring that religious services and kosher food are available and providing a frum-friendly atmosphere for students coming out of the Orthodox day school world.

Over the past year the Kaplans have instituted weekly Shabbat lunches and holiday meals at Hillel, and they invite students to their home for Shabbat meals when the university is closed.

They also strengthened the daily minyans, Sharona Kaplan says, noting that her husband “wakes the boys up and drives around picking them up” to make sure they get to shacharit services on time.

In many ways, the JLIC program is similar to campus programs run by the Chabad organization. The JLIC couples, however, are sent mainly to serve students who already are Orthodox, whereas Chabad couples actively reach out to the entire Jewish spectrum.

Though JLIC couples welcome every Jew to their programs — and would be happy to shepherd nonobservant young people down the frum path — that’s not their mandate.

“The primary purpose is to serve the needs of the Orthodox population,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, the program’s national director, who works out of Hillel headquarters in Washington. “It’s not an outreach program, it’s an in-reach to Orthodox students.”

Haber says an important aspect of the program is sending a couple to each college: “We feel there’s a need for both male and female role models for the students.”

This point is driven home on a September afternoon at Brooklyn College in New York where Nalini Ibragimov is teaching Torah to nine young women. It’s the students’ two-hour free period, which the college gives twice a week to encourage clubs and sports.

Instead of eating a longer lunch or going swimming, these nine modestly dressed students are discussing with Ibragimov, their rebbetzin on campus, the finer points of the 39 malachot, or acts of labor forbidden on Shabbat.

Nalini Ibragimov, 28, and her husband, 30-year-old Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, were sent to Brooklyn College three years ago.

Four of the nine women in Nalini Ibragimov’s class spent last year studying in Jerusalem at all-girls seminaries. All say they’re thrilled to have the Ibragimovs on campus.

Meira Sanders, 19, says she likes “just having a rabbi you can ask questions.”

Sarah Roller, 18, says, “It’s really important to have an Orthodox woman to look up to.”

Several of the young women say the JLIC presence eases their transition from high school, where at least half their classes were on religious subjects. One-third of Brooklyn College’s 10,000 students are Jewish, but this is a first experience in a primarily secular world for these nine students, and they’re anxious for regular doses of Yiddishkeit.

“If there weren’t religious studies here, I don’t think I would have come,” Roller says.

Haber, the national program director, says that as more and more Modern Orthodox began attending universities other than Yeshiva University and its affiliate for women, Stern College, the traditional choices for this community, Orthodox leaders and parents saw the need to provide ongoing religious counseling and services to them during their campus years.

Some Reform and Conservative students look at the JLIC program and wish their movements would fund professionals on campus, too. Both the Reform and Conservative movements depend on student volunteers to do campus outreach.

“Between JLIC, Chabad and JAM,” a Southern California-based Orthodox outreach program, “the Orthodox are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Reform and Conservative are giving zero,” says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director.

“If a kid wants to study Talmud,” he can benefit from the Orthodox rabbi, Seidler-Feller says. “But what if he wants to study Buber?”

The answer, for now, is that such students will have to rely on secular coursework.

Still, the goal of funding campus professionals is “important” to the Conservative leadership, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. “We are trying to find the financial wherewithal to do it.”

A Reform movement leader considers such aspirations a “fantasy” for his movement, given that there are Reform students on several hundred campuses.

“I even question the efficacy of it,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, adding that a Reform rabbinic presence on campus wouldn’t solve the challenge of keeping Reform students Jewishly involved through their college years.

“The involved students are wonderful, and they crave as much rabbinic input as we can give them, but they’re a tiny minority” of the overall student population, he says. “If we put a rabbi on every campus, would [involved students] increase from 5 percent to 10 percent or 20 percent? I doubt it.”

For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.

 

Letters


Jack Abramoff

We stand guilty as charged — and we are proud of it.

David Klinghoffer correctly notes (“In Defense of Jack Abramoff,” Jan. 27) that Orthodox writers — left, right, and center — expressed their embarrassment about Jack Abramoff’s behavior. Jews are meant to be exemplars of God’s teaching. When they get it wrong, the Divine Name itself is desecrated. If the rest of the community fails to speak out — with a communal “Not in Our Name” — they are seen, with some justice, as being complicit.

Klinghoffer is right that Abramoff — the person — should not be abandoned or distanced. It is the behavior that needs the public criticism, not the person. We should feel for his tragedy, and wish him well.

He is wrong about other issues. Unanimous court verdicts are perfectly acceptable in a Jewish court, except in capital cases. Abramoff’s repentance does not change the need to distance ourselves from the original misdeeds for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that repentance before God is ineffective in sins between Man and Man. Mitigating Abramoff’s behavior with a Robin Hood defense is a worse error. It is precisely because so many people feel that they can take ethical shortcuts for a “higher” purpose that we need to remind ourselves and the world that this is unacceptable.

While I didn’t claim to know what Abramoff was actually thinking when he wore the hat (I was trying to put a more positive spin on his behavior, something I recall that Klinghoffer elsewhere in his piece suggest we all do), I do have a pretty good idea of what I wrote and thought. I did not suggest that returnees are more likely to have character flaws than those born into observance. My life’s work with returnees to Jewish tradition and my regard for them are a matter of record [at www.cross-currents.com], including my belief that many show up at the gates of observance with better character traits than those who preceded them since childhood.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Sydney M Irmas Chair, Jewish Law and Ethics
Loyola Law School

David Klinghoffer’s article on Jack Abramoff was so full of lies, distortions, half truths and illogic that it should win the first annual James Frey award for deception in Jewish journalism.

According to The New York Times (Jan. 10), Abramoff has expressed contritions to some, while “in conversations with people he considers sympathetic, he has insisted that his practices were Washington business as usual.”

Klinghoffer said Abramoff’s confession was “not a stark and true representation of crimes committed” but a confession squeezed by a plea bargain. But The New York Times also reported that Abramoff “recounted in detail” his crimes to prosecutors. Is Klinghoffer implying that Abramoff is now compounding his crimes by committing perjury during the testimony required in his plea agreement?

Finally, the Klinghoffer/Abramoff team can’t even get its spin straight on the “fedora issue.” Abramoff told Klinghoffer it was just a “a crushable rain hat.” But The Forward (Jan. 6) reported that Abramoff purchased the fedora from Bencraft Hatters, a Brooklyn-based haberdasher, for $200. A quick look at The Jewish Journal cover or many of the other photos of that day show clearly that was no “crushable rain hat”

Hmmm, doesn’t inspire confidence as to the rest of the article does it? It would take an hour of Oprahlike dissection of Klinghoffer’s piece to do it justice.

Perhaps The Jewish Journal should publish future articles by Mr. Klinghoffer in its fiction section.

Lawrence Weinman
Los Angeles

I am ashamed that The Jewish Journal not only carries [David] Klinghoffer, but that you allow such anti-Jewish hogwash when he spouts about the crook, [Jack]Abramoff. There is no question that Klinghoffer is spouting his Republican right-wing apology for Abramoff and does it in the name of Judaism. That is too much.

Abramoff stole money from Indian tribes, used the money to support his own style of life and has created a crisis in government in Washington through his using such money to buy Tom DeLay and Bob Ney. He created false organizations, including Jewish ones, hired wives and daughters of congressmen who did nothing but rake in money from him. Then has the chutzpah to want sympathy as a poor Jew in a black hat, and Klinghoffer supports him.

It is not bad enough that he has pleaded guilty to multiple crimes, but he has demeaned the good works of Jews in this country. Abramoff deserves nothing less than a prison term, a loss of citizenship and for my part, the use of RICO [Act] to take all of his possessions that he acquired. He is and has been an evil man, who has helped to destroy democracy.

How Klinghoffer can have the guts to absolve him and accuse other Jews of turning against Abramoff is totally beyond me. I would say the same whether Abramoff was a Democrat or a Christian. The fact that he was Jewish only offends me more. It means that he learned nothing from his religion.

Al Mellman
Los Angeles

The less said about your whitewashing this man due to his “good deeds” the better.

I. Grossman
Los Angeles

There is good reason to be critical of [Jack] Abramoff.

Anti-Semites throughout the United States will point to him as an example of the corrupting influence of Jews in the United States. What happens in the United States is reported throughout the world; so this will effect the greater Diaspora.

This is just something else that militant Islamic extremists will point out to their children as to why Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth.

Michael L. Stempel
Chatsworth

We thank David Klinghoffer for his thoughtful article regarding the dreadful way many in the Jewish community have behaved toward Jack Abramoff.

Elaine and Robert Leichter
Westwood

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684