Meet the Orthodox ‘American Ninja Warrior’ training to be a rabbi


Like his fellow competitors on “American Ninja Warrior,” 25-year-old Akiva Neuman pushed himself to his physical limits — climbing, jumping and running through an intense obstacle course — in the hopes of making it to the national finals in Las Vegas.

But unlike the dozens of athletes who competed with him at the Philadelphia qualifiers, which will air June 27 on NBC, Neuman prepared by saying the Shema. He also wore tzitzit and a kippah throughout the competition.

Dubbed #ninjarabbi for the occasion, Neuman is an Orthodox Jew and rabbinical student at Yeshiva University. He will finish his smicha while he starts a full-time job at Deloitte in the fall —  yes, in addition to “Ninja” training and studying to be a rabbi, Neuman is also pursuing a master’s degree in taxation at St. John’s University.

 

Tune in to watch the sure-to-be compelling profile of Neuman — after all, the show’s emotional, behind-the scenes stories have been parodied by Drake on “Saturday Night Live” — and to witness his supporters cheering “rabbi, rabbi,” while he shows off his strength, speed and agility.

As of press time, we don’t know whether or not Neumanwho lives in New York, makes it to Vegas. In the meantime, read on for six interesting facts about the “ninja rabbi.”

He found out about the show while at the gym.

Neuman was working out at the gym with a friend when he saw “American Ninja Warrior” for the first time. (The show, which was based on a Japanese competition, is now in its eighth season in the U.S. and has something of a cult following. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently asked “Is ‘American Ninja Warrior’ the Future of Sports?”)

“It had my name written all over it — it’s competitive and athletic, but it’s not cutthroat, and there’s a certain level of camaraderie required,” Neuman tells JTA. (The coaches, contestants and viewers cheer each other on.)

“I thought, what’s the worst that happens? I get rejected? So what?”

Neuman also figured that being an Orthodox Jew could be his hook. He submitted a video that showed him sitting with an open Talmud surrounded by religious books; it also shows him rock climbing and running.

“I love ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” he says in his video. “But I also do this stuff because if I didn’t I’d be onshpilkes!”

But most of his working out is done at home.

Neuman says he’s always been athletic and competitive; he was the captain of the soccer and hockey teams at his yeshiva high school, where he also played basketball. But considering that he’s studying for his master’s and rabbinical ordination — and he has a young child at home — his workouts usually have to be done early in the morning or at night.

“I’m probably only working out four or five hours a week, but to build muscle it’s all about consistency, even if you’re just doing a little at a time,” he says.

In Neuman’s must-watch submission video, he’s seen at home making impressive use of a pull-up bar and doing pushups while his 6-month-old son, Yaakov Shmuel (aka Koby), reclines on an activity mat.

And he really does that stuff, he tells us.

“Just 10 minutes a day of physical activity can change your attitude, your health, and it gives you more energy,” he says.

He’s also a synagogue youth director — with an athletic streak.

“I have my days, nights and weekends covered,” says Neuman, who in addition to studying works as the youth director at the Young Israel of Holliswood in a suburban Queens neighborhood.

He’s known for getting the kids active.

“We usually start with a game, so the kids can connect, and then we go from there,” moving on to prayer or studying texts, Neuman says.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut he organized an Israeli army-style boot camp for the kids.

“He is always combining physical activity with Torah in ways that motivate and inspire the kids,” says Ronit Farber, a member of the synagogue.

“The first time we met Akiva, we had him and his wife for dinner,” says Rachel Klein, another Young Israel congregant who was one of several community members who traveled to Philadelphia to cheer on Neuman with posters that said “Team Akiva,” as well as “American Ninja Warrior” in Hebrew letters. “After dinner, his wife had to drag him home because he was busy playing soccer with our kids all over our house.”

Neuman is also a star performer in the annual Purim shpiel, adds Klein, “dazzling the audience every year with his dance moves, flips, tricks and splits.”

Akiva Neuman, center, with his wife, Chani, and son, Yaakov Shmuel. Photo by Emuni Z.

He takes the fact that he’s representing Jews seriously.

“I know that the general feeling is that Orthodox Jews aren’t fit — especially not rabbis. And I wanted to show that that’s not always the case,” Neuman says.

But he knows that by wearing religious garb while filming — it was his idea, and the show was fine with it — he instantly becomes a national symbol of observant Jews.

“I bear it with great responsibility, and I’m also really nervous about it,” he says.

That’s part of the reason Neuman said the Shema right before he started the course.

“I wanted one more experience to be closer to God, and was thinking, ‘You have to help me through this, because I’m not just doing it myself,’” he says.

He sees physical fitness as a matter of Jewish principle.

“We’re the people of the book, and that’s our focus. My intellectual growth — both in terms of my Torah learning and secular learning — is the focus for me, too. But we also need to take care of ourselves physically,” Neuman says.

“There’s a commandment that says we have to guard our souls, and the Rambam [Maimonides] elaborates that we’re also commanded to take care of our bodies. We’re scoring points by exercising, and fulfilling what God wants of us.”

Athleticism runs in the family — hopefully.

Neuman and his wife, Chani, grew up near each other in Highland Park, New Jersey. She’s sporty, too.

“When we were dating, we used to go to Dave and Buster’s a lot,” he says. “She always beat me in basketball.

“We keep joking that next year it’ll be the rebbetzin’s turn,” he adds.

And the two are banking on the fact that their athleticism will carry on to the next generation.

“We’re waiting for him to crawl first, but as soon as that happens, we’ll have a soccer ball at his feet,” he says of Koby. “We’re actually hoping he runs before he walks.”

US Orthodox rabbis slam wedding video calling for revenge against Palestinians


The main modern Orthodox rabbinical group in the United States expressed its “outrage” over a video that shows Jewish revelers at a wedding celebrating the murder of three Palestinians in a West Bank firebombing.

“The vigilante and lawless calls for revenge and dancing with machine guns and knives are anathema to Jewish morality and religious standards,” Rabbi Shalom Baum, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said in a statement issued Thursday.

The video, released Dec. 23 on Israel’s Channel 10 and filmed at the Jerusalem wedding of a right-wing couple earlier in the month, features friends of the suspected assailants in the July firebombing of a home in the Palestinian village of Duma that killed three members of the Dawabshe family — a toddler and his parents.

In the video, party-goers stab a photo of the Palestinian family and wave knives, rifles, pistols and Molotov cocktails. The crowd chants the words to a song that includes a verse from Judges 16:28, in which Samson says, “Let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” The crowd substitutes “Palestinians” for Philistines.

The youths in the video have been condemned from across Israel’s political and religious spectrum.

The RCA, which represents over 1,000 rabbis, “applauds the quick and decisive statements of Israeli religious and political leaders” against the guests at the wedding, the statement said.

The statement called on the Israeli government to “take whatever measures necessary to protect the safety of all of its innocent citizens, and calls upon Israeli religious and educational leaders to nurture values in Israeli society that hold these despicable acts to be unacceptable and intolerable.”

The International Rabbinic Fellowship, a group of rabbis from around the world, issued a statement on Dec. 24 expressing its “shock and sorrow” over the contents of the wedding video.

“That even a few Jews identified with the observant community can act in this way is frightening and an admonition to us all. Such behavior is halachically and morally repulsive and an ethical stain on the good name of Judaism and the State of Israel,” the fellowship said in its statement. “We trust the authorities in Israel not only to condemn this behavior but diligently work to prevent the awful acts it encourages.”

The statement continued: “As a small educational step, we call on all members of the observant community both in Israel and in the Diaspora to desist from playing songs of vengeance such as the one taken from the Book of Judges, at any wedding or other celebration that is held. We call on all people invited as guests to exit the circles of dancing when such songs are playing and express their disapproval.”

Outmoded divorce law leading to back-alley beatings a real shandah


The FBI arrested two prominent Orthodox Jewish rabbis and two of their associates overnight Oct. 9 in New York. Allegedly, these rabbis arranged back-alley beatings for men who refuse to divorce their wives. Understanding their alleged crimes requires a short background in Jewish law.

Jewish law recognizes that some marriages may end in divorce, and includes provisions for how it should be done. In order to divorce in Jewish law, the husband, who accepted the responsibilities of marriage and the financial obligations of divorce at the wedding ceremony, must formally end the marriage with a divorce document, a “get.” This document must be given by the husband to the wife.

Most divorces go smoothly, with the parties in full cooperation. The husband gives the get and all ties are severed. However, there are a significant number of cases in which a recalcitrant husband refuses to give the get. It can be for financial reasons, it can be for vindictive reasons and it can be simply because the husband is holding out hope for reconciliation. Whatever the reason, when a husband does not give his wife a get, she is chained to him and cannot remarry under Jewish law. We call this woman an agunah.

Few things play at the heartstrings in a more profound way than the agunah. The woman is a double victim. She is a victim of an arcane, one-sided system of dissolving a marriage, and she is a victim of a husband who is taking advantage of that system.

A woman can become desperate for her get. It can begin to consume her life. Protests and social pressure might help, but sometimes the recalcitrant husband digs in his heels.

In extreme cases, the woman in these dire straits would call the two rabbis who were arrested on Wednesday evening. For a fee, the FBI describes, these rabbis would make the husband “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” Allegedly, the rabbis’ thugs would physically coerce deadbeat husbands to give their desperate wives a get. Using props more familiar to mob films and torture scenes, the FBI complaint describes, the thugs would beat husbands until they actually handed over a signed get. Perhaps most shocking of all is that their actions, according to the complaint, were sanctioned by a rabbinical court.

It’s a clumsy solution, but it has precedent in Jewish law. It has its roots in the Talmud and is explicitly codified by Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Divorce 2:20).

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains the precedent well in his book “Jewish Wisdom”:

“Because the Rabbis were conscious of the inherent unfairness in divorce laws, over the centuries they established new laws to protect women. The tenth-century Rabbi Gershom, who also issued a decree against polygamy, legislated that it was illegal to divorce a woman against her will, a law that has remained in effect since. During the twelfth century, Maimonides ruled that if a man refused to grant a divorce to a woman who was entitled to it, he was to be whipped without mercy until he did so (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Divorce,” 2:20). The legal precedent for his ruling was the talmudic law, “If a man refused to give a woman a divorce, he is forced until he declares ‘I am willing’ (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 50a). That Maimonides was willing to accept as voluntary a statement elicited by whipping indicates how anxious he was to assist a woman who was being mistreated.”

However, in the United States this kind of activity is illegal, and the public is painting these rabbis as villains.

It’s not so simple. In the ugly mess of the agunah crisis, these rabbis could be a woman’s only hope. While I can’t condone violence, and while I can’t support thuggery, we must see these rabbis for what they are. They are knights in shining armor for these chained women. Like our favorite fictional vigilante, they may not be the hero that we want or deserve, but sometimes they are the hero that we need.

Disgusted might not adequately describe our feeling over the allegations of violence and Mafia-like tactics toward recalcitrant husbands, but these rabbis were heroes to women left with no options.

There is no doubt that these arrests will serve as another wake-up call to the Orthodox Jewish community. The agunah crisis must be solved.

One solution for preventing an agunah crisis is the Halachic Prenup. This is available and comes recommended by foremost rabbinic authorities. The prenuptial agreement triggers a daily fine of $150 if a husband withholds a get. It’s not a very elegant solution, but it works. The Halachic Prenup is gaining traction and hopefully our discomfort with violent solutions will push more rabbis to insist on it at every wedding they officiate.

Perhaps there is also an alternative solution: a conditional get that triggers after an agreed-upon event. There are halachic nuances that would be required to make it work, but I believe there is a way. Perhaps all Orthodox Jewish marriages should include a conditional get that triggers with a specific future event. If the husband refuses to give a new get during subsequent divorce proceedings, the conditional get takes effect. I think it’s at least an option worth exploring.

Until such time that all Orthodox Jewish marriages are subject to the Halachic Prenup or some other preemptive solution we will have an agunah issue. That it came to violence in the most recently reported case is a very sad commentary on what it feels like to be an agunah.

That rabbis were inflicting violence is a terrible consequence. But the real villains are the recalcitrant husbands. Let’s not forget that these rabbis were heroes to the chained women. But at the same time, we should not need such complicated heroes. There are preemptive solutions, and they must become universally instituted.

A version of this column originally appeared in Haaretz.


Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at Pacific Jewish Center/The Shul on the Beach in Venice. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, Twitter or e-mail. He blogs at finkorswim.com

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

Obama campaign launches rabbis list


More than 600 rabbis joined a campaign initiative called Rabbis for Obama.

Obama for America announced Tuesday that Rabbis for Obama is designed to “engage and mobilize grassroots supporters.”

The rabbis represent themselves and not individual synagogues or organizations, according to the news release. The names of all the rabbis can be found on the website barackobama.com/rabbis. Most of the rabbis are Reform or Conservative, although a handful are Orthodox.

“This list of rabbis represents a broad group of respected Jewish leaders from all parts of the country. These rabbis mirror the diversity of American Jewry,” Ira Forman, the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach director, said in a news release.

“Their ringing endorsement of President Obama speaks volumes about the president’s deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel and his dedication to a policy agenda that represents the values of the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community,” Forman said.

The number of rabbis signing on is more than double the number who added their names to President Obama’s 2008 campaign at the launch of a similar effort then.

Rabbis Sam Gordon and Steven Bob, both of Illinois, and Burt Visotzky of New York are co-chairs for this initiative. The first two started Rabbis for Obama in 2008.

Rubashkin Revenge: Ethical Certificates at Center of Dispute


About eight months ago, when Katsuji Tanabe agreed to display the Tav HaYosher certificate in the window of his one-year-old restaurant on Pico Boulevard, the head chef and owner of Mexikosher knew that the “ethical seal,” issued by the Modern Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, would inform customers that he treats his workers with respect and in accordance with California labor laws.

Tanabe didn’t know that in displaying the certificate he was also, in effect, choosing a side in a mostly covert battle between two segments of the Orthodox Jewish community.

On one side is Uri L’Tzedek, a four-year old nonprofit promoting social justice causes that has been supported by a handful of prominent Jewish foundations, including the Joshua Venture Group, Bikkurim, and the Jewish Federations of North America. On the other are an unknown number of individuals who are acting independently and largely anonymously.

At Mexikosher, the certificate hung in the window for between four and six weeks; during that time, Tanabe said he received phone calls from individuals identifying themselves as being from “different Chabads,” and threatening to boycott his restaurant if he didn’t take the certificate down.

Tanabe, who said he hadn’t changed any of his policies to earn the Tav, decided to remove it.

“I don’t talk about politics or religion in the restaurant,” said Tanabe, 31, who describes himself as “Mexican-Japanese-Catholic.” “We only talk about food.”

Although the pushback against the Tav appears to be coming primarily, if not exclusively, from individuals affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement, there is no evidence that any official encouragement came from Chabad, according to the organization’s leaders and those involved in the anti-Tav efforts.

The headquarters of Chabad of California is located on Pico Boulevard, within blocks of a dozen Kosher-certified restaurants, including at least one that displays the Tav. In a recent interview, the group’s CEO, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, said he hadn’t heard of the Tav or Uri L’Tzedek until very recently, and that he knew of no coordinated effort to oppose the program.

“If there’s any such conspiracy it’s deep underground,” Cunin said.

The battle between Uri L’Tzedek and the mostly nameless Orthodox Jews threatening to boycott the 100 restaurants nationwide that participate in its signature program may be taking place in the shadows, but it illuminates a rift within American Orthodoxy stemming from the 2008 raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.

Uri L’Tzedek established the Tav Hayosher in 2009 as a free certification. To qualify, employers must demonstrate that they calculate worker’s hours accurately, pay wages—including overtime – promptly and in full and grant breaks to their employees, as required by law. Studies have shown that many food-service businesses – both kosher and non—fall short of these basic legal requirements.

Over the last few months, multiple owners of kosher-certified businesses who display the Tav have been urged to take it down.

“People are threatening the 100 Tav owners around the country, saying they are going to hurt their business and boycott them,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, wrote in an email to The Journal on July 9.

The hardest-hit are in Los Angeles, Yanklowitz said, where Tav-certified businesses have received more complaints than in any other city. Yanklowitz said three local restaurants chose to drop the certification in the face of this controversy. As of July 20, nine Los Angeles-based businesses were listed among the certified restaurants on the Tav’s website.

The issue appears not to be the Tav certification, per se, but rather that in 2008, Uri L’Tzedek was the instigator of a boycott of products from the Agriprocessors meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in the wake of the massive immigration raid that closed down the plant.

Aron Markowitz, 31, a self-described “Chabadnik” who has a book of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings on his desk in his Wilshire Boulevard office, is among those who’ve objected to the certificates. He said in an interview that he first heard about the Tav less than a month ago, and, initially, the principle behind the Tav certification sounded to him like a good idea.

Prosecutors drop charges in Brooklyn sex abuse case


Prosecutors dropped all charges against a group of men who were accused of sexually abusing a young Brooklyn haredi Orthodox woman for eight years.

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges on Tuesday against four Crown Heights men accused of raping and forcing the woman to serve as a prostitute in their neighborhood since she was 13, according to reports.

A Brooklyn judge dismissed the case after questions arose about prosecutors withholding evidence that suggested the men were not guilty.

In addition, the accuser, who has a history of mental illness, apparently retracted her story in April, which caused the case to crumble.

Following the dismissal of the charges, the father of the victim released a statement criticizing the district attorney’s decision.

“Our family has the misfortune of living under the jurisdiction of the Brooklyn District Attorney, who regards the psychological confusion and fear my daughter experienced during her enslavement as proof that she sought out, enjoyed and deserved her victimization,” the father said in a statement, according to the New York television station WPIX.

Israel to pay salaries of non-Orthodox community rabbis


Israel’s attorney general has agreed to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis who lead their communities.

The agreement announced Tuesday comes three weeks after a panel of Supreme Court judges called on the attorney general to intervene during a hearing on a petition filed more than seven years ago calling for the state to recognize and pay the salaries of rabbis of all streams of Judaism.

The Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Reform movement in Israel, had filed the petition.

The attorney general’s office had opposed the request; the settlement was negotiated out of court.

Some 4,000 Orthodox rabbis serve as rabbis of their communities and draw a salary from the government.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said the rabbis would have the moniker “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community.” Financing for the positions will come from the Culture and Sports Ministry as opposed to the Religious Services Ministry. The decision is limited to regional councils and farming communities, according to Haaretz, and is not intended for large cities.

Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer, who was named in the original petition to the court, on Tuesday became the first non-Orthodox rabbi to receive the designation.
Israeli Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi, a member of the haredi Orthodox Shas party, told JTA earlier this month that he objects to Gold’s designation as a rabbi.

“The decision today paves the way for dozens of other Reform and Conservative Rabbis in Israel to receive a salary from the government for their holy work, in the same way that 4,000 Orthodox rabbis do,” Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, said in a letter to supporters. “This historic victory is another step in leveling the playing field.”

She urged supporters to write to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express their gratitude.

Female Reform rabbi seated on Jerusalem suburb’s religious council


A female Reform rabbi took her place on the religious council of Mevasseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Alona Lisitsa said she did not feel hostility from the rest of the representatives—all Orthodox—of the local religious council, according to reports.

The Reform Mevasseret Zion Congregation put forth Lisitsa’s name to join the council nearly a year ago. The appointment was delayed in the Ministry of Religious Affairs until the courts became involved and ordered the ministry to approve the appointment.

The community’s population is mixed secular-religious.

“I came with much optimism and hope, and indeed I found a different Mevasseret community,” Lisitsa said in an interview with Israel Army Radio. “We talked about the need for cooperation and the need to ignore internal differences for the residents. This is a triumph for Israeli democracy. “

Lisitsa told Army Radio that the members all introduced themselves to her, and that she had a “long conversation” with one of the representatives of the haredi Orthodox Shas party.

Lisitsa works at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, according to her Facebook page.

Religious councils supervise kashrut, and are the central address in their communities for marriage registration, synagogues, mikvehs and burials. Israel has more than 170 religious councils.

Israeli rabbi charged with sexual assault


Modern Orthodox leader Rabbi Mordechai “Motti” Elon was indicted for the sexual assault of a minor.

The Jerusalem prosecutors’ office filed the indictment Wednesday with the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.

The alleged assault took place in 2005 against a student who had come to Elon for advice, according to the indictment. Another offense reportedly took place in 2003.

Elon has denied the charges, saying that his actions were misunderstood. He reportedly turned down a plea bargain offered by prosecutors.

Accusations of sexual misconduct against Elon were first investigated by a Modern Orthodox forum that deals with complaints of sexual harassment in the religious school system. The forum in 2006 ordered that Elon no longer have contact with students. Shortly after, Elon left his teaching positions and moved from Jerusalem to the northern moshav Migdal, citing health reasons.

The rabbi is the brother of former Knesset member Benny Elon and the son of former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon. The former rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, Elon is the founder of the MiBereshit educational program, which is distributed throughout the world in Hebrew and English.

Rabbinic group rejects proposal to admit women


A liberal Orthodox rabbinic group in the United States voted down a proposal to admit women members.

The International Rabbinic Fellowship, founded by Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel of New York, voted down by what is being called “a close vote” a proposal to admit women as full or limited members, The New York Jewish Week reported.

The Dec. 20 vote came after what the president of the organization, Rabbi Barry Gelman of Houston, told The Jewish Week was a “wonderfully healthy and passionate discussion.”

The 3-year-old IRF, which has 140 member rabbis, is considered the most liberal Orthodox Jewish rabbinic organization in the United States.

Weiss has been pushing for increased synagogue roles for women, trained a woman as a rabbi—Rabba Sara Hurwitz—and gave her a rabbinic role in his Hebrew Institute of Riverdale amid great controversy in January 2010.

Orthodox rabbis weigh in on professional roles for women


The leading Modern Orthodox rabbinic association has adopted an official position against the ordination of women, while also encouraging the creation of “halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities” for female scholars.

Members of the Rabbinical Council of America adopted the resolution during their three-day conference that began Sunday in Scarsdale, N.Y. The resolution comes just months after the near ordination of a female rabbi by one of the RCA’s highest-profile members drew a sharp rebuke from the haredi Orthodox leadership of Agudath Israel of America.

The resolution cites “commitment to sacred continuity” in stating that the organization “cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.” But it stops short of sanctioning or expelling members who violate the policy—a move being urged by some rabbis who were upset over the recent actions of one of the RCA’s own members, Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Weiss sparked outrage in January when he conferred the title of “rabba”—a feminized version of rabbi—on Sara Hurwitz, a member of the clerical staff of his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Following the Agudah condemnation and discussions with RCA officials, Weiss stated that he did not intend to confer the rabba title on anyone else, saying Orthodox unity was of more pressing importance.

The RCA resolution notes that “young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education.” And embraces the idea of such scholars assuming communal roles.

“As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature,” the resolution states, “we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring” of Torah study, religious commitment and observance of mitzvot.

RCA officials say the resolution was adopted without opposition. They declined to outline the specific duties that fall under the rubric of rabbi, saying the resolution sought to set out broad parameters while leaving a degree of latitude to RCA members.

The Bloods, the Crips and the rabbi


In 1970, Abraham David Cooper was arrested by Washington police during a sit-in across from the Soviet embassy and put behind bars in a jammed holding cell. The then-20-year old Yeshiva College student came away from the experience with two important observations that may have changed his life:

  • First, that he didn’t like being in jail.
  • Second, that the established Jewish organizations had been missing in action in what Cooper considered the defining Jewish struggle of the time.

In the intervening 37 years, Cooper has made a point of being present in many of the world’s hot spots, and, at the same time, managed to stay out of prison. And during roughly the same time span, he has played a key role in creating one of the most activist Jewish organizations in the world, working outside the boundaries of the traditional organized community structure.

Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Cooper’s formal title today is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). That curious academic rank is a holdover from his initial work with the SWC-affiliated Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but it hardly defines his role and influence on this Jewish institution whose mission is to promote understanding among the world’s people.

Cooper, 57, is, in most respects, the alter ego of Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and the 33-year-long relationship in which their interaction and division of labor are defined by a kind of shorthand telepathy, requiring no organizational chart or chain of command.

But if today the SWC is a worldwide presence — with seven offices at home and abroad, a landmark Museum of Tolerance, a reported 400,000 member families, high-profile donors and entr�(c)e to presidents and kings — a considerable share of the credit goes to Cooper.

While Hier is the ultimate decision maker and both men respond interchangeably, and instantly, to the endless real or perceived crises facing Israel and the Jewish people around the globe, Cooper does have specific areas of responsibility and expertise.

One is interfaith relations; another is the burgeoning area of cyberspace. Cooper testified before Congress as long as six years ago that the increasing sophistication of Internet propaganda by hate groups, white supremacists and Islamic extremists was exerting growing influence among younger people.

From his Pacific-oriented vantage point in Los Angeles, Cooper is the point man for relations with Japan, China and other Far Eastern nations, introducing Holocaust exhibits, exposing anti-Semitic literature, and establishing ties with political and religious leaders.

“Abe is the Wiesenthal Center’s ambassador to most of the world,” Hier said.

This “ambassador” also shows up in some unexpected places and situations.

Last year, for instance, Cooper was drafted as witness to a peace treaty signed by the so-called O.G.s (original gangster), the founding elders of the Bloods and the Crips, two of the most fearful rival gangs in South Los Angeles.

He was recruited for the assignment by Katy Haber, a London-born film producer, who has been working for many years with at-risk youth and the homeless in the African American community.

Haber had met Cooper while working as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance and had no doubt that he was the right man to win the confidence of the gang members.

“Who would be more appropriate than a man who works on conflict resolution with world leaders?” Haber asked rhetorically. “Besides, he is a man of deep intellect, extraordinary sensitivity, and one of the major humanitarians in our community.”

In the introductory meeting and after guiding the O.G.s through the Museum of Tolerance, Cooper complemented the broad lesson of mutual understanding with concrete specifics on community activism, finding jobs and how to deal with authorities.

Cooper said he has no particular formula or technique for bringing opposing sides to the table or bridging differences.

“Part of it is my background as a New Yorker, an American and a Jew, which has given me a certain quiet self-assurance,” he said. “Another part is the example set early on by my father.”

By way of contrast, Cooper was on the other side of the world last summer, on the Indonesian island of Bali. He was there as the organizer of the “Tolerance between Religions” conference, which brought together such unlikely participants as leading Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, victims of the three faiths targeted by suicide bombers, and a Holocaust survivor.

In one speech, carried by Arab networks and worldwide, former president Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, upbraided Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his denial of the Holocaust.

Cooper’s organizing partner was C. Holland Taylor, CEO of the Libforall Foundation, which works with Muslim religious, educational, business and entertainment leaders to stem the spread of Islamic extremism.

After the Bali conference, Taylor and Cooper led a high-profile peace delegation from Indonesia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, on a weeklong mission to the Jewish state.

The experience impressed Taylor, who in a phone call from Indonesia described Cooper as “a brilliant strategist, who grasps immediately what can be done and who can juggle a dozen issues simultaneously.”

In the relationship between the Wiesenthal Center’s two top men, Cooper’s loyalty and admiration for Hier is unquestioned, but there is one easily noticed distinction between the two Orthodox rabbis.

As the Center’s clout has increased over the years, so has criticism of the institution within the general, and Orthodox, communities.

Complaints, mostly sotto voce, are aimed at the center’s alleged intrusions on the turfs of older community organizations, its political influence, the high salaries paid its top executives, violations of standards for nonprofit organizations, alarmist tactics and, in Israel, plans to build a $200 million Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.

In practically all these criticisms, the target is Hier, who is sometimes described, in awe, fear or derision, as a “New York street fighter.” By contrast, Cooper gets off unscathed.

Briefs: More Ethiopians allowed to make aliyah, Jerusalem stage for Anglican ‘schism’


Court Will Allow More Falash Mura

Israel may allow 1,400 additional Ethiopian Falash Mura to immigrate to Israel. In a court hearing Sunday, a panel of three Israeli High Court judges recommended that Israel bring 1,400 or so more Ethiopians to comply with a 2004 government decision to bring some 17,188 Ethiopian immigrants. But the court stopped short of explicitly issuing an order, and it also refused to hear a petition that sought to force Israel’s Interior Ministry to screen an additional 8,500 Falash Mura for their eligibility to make aliyah.

Israel’s government decided in February 2003 to enable the aliyah of thousands more Falash Mura, Ethiopians who claims links to Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity more than a century ago due to social and economic pressures. The government clarified that decision in 2004, specifying 17,188 immigrants.

At Sunday’s hearing, the state told the court it had finished processing the potential immigrants from 2003, including children born since then. State attorney Yochi Gnessin told the court that 15,775 Falash Mura from the original list either already were in Israel or would be coming soon. Justice Ayala Procaccia asked Gnessin to have the state allow another 1,413 not on the original list to immigrate, if they meet the state’s requirements, to “improve the morale” of the Ethiopian community. That addition would bring the total number of Falash Mura immigrants up to the number specified in 2004.

Olmert Courts Lieberman Over Walkout Threat

Ehud Olmert tried to talk a key partner in Israel’s coalition government out of quitting over negotiations with the Palestinians. The Israeli prime minister met Tuesday with Avigdor Lieberman, who has threatened to take his right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party out of the government since Jerusalem began talks with the Palestinian Authority on “core” peacemaking issues such as the future status of the capital. Should Lieberman bolt, as many political analysts expect, it would not immediately topple the government since Olmert’s coalition would still command 67 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

But a walkout by Yisrael Beiteinu might precipitate similar action by Shas, another right-wing party. That would potentially force Olmert to look to left-wing replacements at a time when he needs to persuade Israeli hawks that he is tough enough to deal with Palestinian security threats.

Jerusalem Stage for Anglican ‘Schism’

Conservative clerics from the Anglican Church plan to hold a breakaway summit in Jerusalem. Traditionalist clergy said this week they would use the Global Anglican Future Conference, which is scheduled to take place in Israel’s capital in June, to highlight their opposition to a lenient stand on homosexuality professed by some of their coreligionists.

The apparent schism runs roughly along cultural and geographical lines, with more hard-line Anglicans hailing from Africa, Latin America and Asia while more liberal church members tend to be in North America and Britain. Nominally linked to the Church of England, Anglicanism has 77 million followers worldwide.

The future conference will likely set the tone for July’s Lambeth Conference in Britain, a gathering every 10 years of Anglican leaders.

JDate Parent for Sale

The parent company of the Jewish online dating Web site JDate.com is up for sale. JDate owner Sparks Networks, which owns online personal Web sites aimed at religious and other special interest groups, is in talks with several major media companies, The New York Times reported last week.

Sparks Networks could sell for as much as $185 million, analysts speculated for the Times. The company has a market value of $131.4 million. Reuters reported that about half of the Sparks Networks revenue for the first nine months of 2007 came from its Jewish Networks division, which rose 5 percent during that period.

JDate is considered the model for online dating sites.

Orthodox Institute to Ordain Women

The Shalom Hartman Institute will begin ordaining Orthodox women as rabbis. It is the first Orthodox institution to do so. The Jerusalem-based institute, which runs Orthodox middle and high schools for boys, will begin accepting women and men of all denominations this fall for a four-year course leading to ordination, according to the Jerusalem Post. The candidates will receive ordination, or smicha, from the streams to which they belong.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the institute and son of founder Rabbi David Hartman, downplayed the significance of this revolutionary step. He told the Post that the institute was not trying to make a political statement, but was responding to a need for “master educators” in North American Jewish high schools.

Unlike other rabbinic programs, which focus on text study and halacha, or Jewish law, the Hartman program will focus on teaching skills and theory.

The title “rabbi” naturally falls to one who is a learned teacher, institute officials say. Hartman told the Post that the institute has accepted men and women of all denominations since its inception.

“Hartman has been multi-denominational for the last 12 years,” David Hartman said. “We make no distinctions between men and women here. Our latest decision is a natural evolution of our existing policy.” The first Reform woman rabbi was ordained in 1972, the first Reconstructionist in 1977 and the Conservative movement ordained its first woman in 1983.

Wiesenthal Center: Lebanese Blocking Our Ad

The Simon Wiesenthal Center says the Lebanese government is blocking newspapers from running one of its advertisements. According to the Los Angeles-based Jewish organization, the Lebanese government has apparently blocked the Beirut-based Daily Star from running the ad, which calls for the United Nations General Assembly to convene a special session on suicide terror.

Several other Arab newspapers did not respond to requests to run the ad, which was timed to coincide with President Bush’s visit to Israel. It did appear in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Ha’aretz and Jerusalem Post.

“We are deeply disappointed that these important newspapers would block our solidarity campaign to put suicide bombing on top of the international community’s agenda, particularly when the ad highlights the tragic murder of a prominent Muslim woman,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “Such censorship certainly calls into question the Arab World’s claim that it is a strategic partner in the fight against terror.”

The ad featured a photo of the late slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, along with the headline: “What More Will it Take for the World to Act.”

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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.

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

Live in the ‘hood: words of awe


I love a good sermon. There’s nothing like the uplift you get from hearing words that go right to your soul.
 
Words on a page can’t do thatfor me. In a live sermon, you can almost taste the breath of the rabbi. You can feel the occasional struggle for the perfect word. If the speaker has sparkling insights, with just the right pitch and cadence, the words ebb and flow like a river taking you to new discoveries. All along, you feed off the energy of the crowd. Your adrenaline keeps pumping until the rabbi finally wraps up the sermon to a sigh of quasi-relief from an audience that was clinging to every word.You can bet that the Jewish world will be clinging to every word during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. These are the much-anticipated Words of Awe: the Rose Bowl and Super Bowl of Jewish sermons.
 
Personally, I think we make too big a deal of these annual sermons. Judaism is not about annual resolutions; it’s more about daily renewal. But daily renewal doesn’t sell tickets, so like it or not, the Super Sermons are upon us, and rabbis all over town are getting ready to elevate our souls. What can we expect?
 
The truth is, all sermons, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, are there to promote something “good.” But how do they get there?
 
In the Reform sermon, the dominant punctuation is the exclamation point! Many Reform congregants go to synagogue only during the High Holidays, so the rabbis better grab them while they can. Here you can expect a lot of dramatic stuff like the Jewish obligation to assist the genocide victims of Darfur, and other very worthy and worldly causes. It’s empowering, and it sounds a lot juicier than the commandment to put on tefillin every morning.
 
In the Conservative sermon, the punctuation of choice is the comma. Their debates never end, and they love it that way. They get turned on by tension, especially the noble, Jewish kind of tension, like having to balance our love for humanity with our love for our fellow Jew, or reconciling our obligations to Israel with our obligations to America, or struggling with our desire to go to synagogue against our inclination to visit Neiman Marcus.
 
In my new Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you can enjoy the Orthodox sermon, and here the punctuation that rules is the period. You don’t walk out of an Orthodox sermon all perplexed, wondering what to do next. Hard-core Torah is what you do next. Lots of it. But before you reach this state of closure bliss, you will wallow in delicious detail, some of which might appear trivial at first, but if you can suspend your ADD instincts long enough, you will witness how the Torah can transform the tiny into the big and meaningful.
 
At an Orthodox sermon, for example, you might hear an explanation of why you shouldn’t eat nuts at Rosh HaShanah (in Hebrew, the word for “nut” has the same numerical value as the word for “sin”); why the shofar can’t come from a bull’s horns (it would remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf); or, like I once heard from a Chassidic rabbi, how the word atonement can be read as at-ONE-ment, the idea being to be at one with all of our roles in life — parent, worker, sibling, friend, citizen, neighbor, student, teacher, Jew, etc. — and remember on Yom Kippur to atone for each one to create a higher and holier ONE in each of us.

If you want to experience the most intense Orthodox sermon of the year, come back on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur, for the ancient tradition known as “Shabbat Tshuvah” (repentance). Rabbis can spend months preparing for this Talmudic discourse that will punctuate the Days of Awe. (A little scoop: the title of the discourse by Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City will be “Like a Good Neighbor…”).
 
Of course, things are never as neat as they seem. There are rabbis of all denominations who often go beyond the expectations of their “label.” Still, it’s clear that there are major differences among the denominations — both of style and substance — which shouldn’t surprise anyone: since the Maschiach hasn’t arrived yet, not every Jew wants to be part of the same movement or listen to the same sermon.
 
Sometimes, though, I wonder what would happen if everything got switched around. What if, for example, an Orthodox sermon got smuggled into a Reform congregation, or vice versa? What would happen then?
 
Actually, it looks like something is already buzzing in my neighborhood. If you visit B’nai David-Judea Synagogue on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will announce a major initiative to get his members involved with environmental protection. Although this is an area that is usually associated with the Reform branch of Judaism, not the rabbi’s Orthodox branch, Rabbi Kanefsky believes this should be an Orthodox concern, and he’s got the Torah sources to back it up.
 
It makes you wonder what’s next. A Reform synagogue promoting no driving and no TV on Shabbat? A Chassidic shul fighting for universal health care? The possibilities are endless. Go ahead, think big.
 
It’s that time of year.
 
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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.

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.”

 

Letters


Bigamist vs. Agunah

It is with horror that I read the article, “The ‘Bigamist’ Versus the ‘Agunah’ (March 24), by Amy Klein. Given Rabbi [Avrohom] Union’s devastating error, which he claims was unintentional, it is clear that this head of the beit din should resign immediately. Imagine if he committed the same error regarding kashrut. There is not a person, rabbi or otherwise, who would tolerate his remaining in so powerful a position. If his creating yet another agunah happened “by accident,” as Rabbi Union claims, what is to prevent it from happening again in the future? A rabbi unable to foresee and take responsibility for his actions should not be the head of a beit din.

Clara F. Zilberstein
Toronto, Ontario

Jewish women deserve fair and equal treatment when a couple seeks divorce and settlement. No woman should be left an “agunah” — chained to her husband against her will. A modern beit din does not have to be rigid and sexist. The Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California includes conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, both men and women. It rules on matters of conversion to Judaism, and it models compassionate pluralism.

Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein
Secretary
Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California

I truly believe that the man was required to give a bill of Jewish divorce — the get — as a way of making him conscious of the seriousness of divorcing his wife. He could not just send her out, but had to legally release her. Now this lovely protective get has turned into an ugly misogynistic chain.

This halachic demand needs rethinking. When interest payments were forbidden and debts were to be canceled on the sabbatical year stopped the flow of commerce, laws were changed so that business could move forward. Again, not charging interest, and debt release were wonderful laws that no longer benefited society.

We, the people, need to demand that the get laws be changed. When laws — yes even Jewish laws — no longer work, change is mandatory.

Sarah Austerlitz
Los Angeles

Let me get this straight, Orthodox law mandates that a man, who is remarried to another, can emotionally torture his first wife and forbid her to remarry until she consents to be financially raped by the rabbinical court. What God would have decreed such a law — certainly not the one I pray to. It makes me ashamed to be a Member of the Tribe.

Bunny Rosenbloom
Los Angeles

AIPAC’s Message

I was very impressed with Alice Ollstein’s thoughtful reaction to her attendance at an [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] AIPAC conference (“Propaganda for the Insipid,” March 31). It is very inspiring to see that young people can reject the preachy one-sidedness of organizations like AIPAC and still remain committed Jews. AIPAC does not do Israel any good by constantly whipping up false anxiety that the state is about to be destroyed, in order to promote its narrow, right-wing views.

Fortunately, Ollstein saw through the organization’s orchestrated charade and realized that there are plenty of ways to support Israel and the Jewish community, such as the religious school teaching she is doing. We are a diverse people, whose loyalty cannot be captured by fear-based cheerleading or buying Israel Bonds after the end of a Yom Kippur sermon.

Peter L. Reich
Professor of Law
Whittier Law School

AIPAC’s near-obsession with an equally balanced lineup of speakers and plenary sessions at Policy Conference reflects that bipartisan support that the U.S.-Israel relationship (and AIPAC) enjoys. Alice Ollstein’s labeling of the conference as the “belly of the conservative beast” says less about AIPAC and more about her own preconceived notions. With so many challenges facing Israel, especially Iranian nuclear weapons proliferation, our community can hardly afford such luxuries.

The U.S.-Israel relationship can thrive only when it is seen as a bipartisan issue. My hope is that friends of Israel such as Ollstein, whose own political views lean left, will join Rep. [Nancy] Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. [Harry] Reid (D-Nev.) and other decidedly nonconservative thinkers in their support of AIPAC and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Randy Barnes
Los Angeles

Alice Ollstein states she was “manipulated, disturbed and disgusted” with the AIPAC Policy Conference. Ollstein was offended by a “conservative slant of the conference” based on her hearing John Podhoretz speak. I read her remarks with a smile as I often hear the opposite criticism. Last year Hillary Clinton addressed the conference and many were offended by the liberal slant of the conference.

Today, Israel can rely on the U.S. in the face of dangerous and dire times, thanks to AIPAC. Regarding Ollstein’s comments how AIPAC made everything “black and white.” “That you are either for Israel or against it.” You are right. With the threat of annihilation by Iran, Hamas in Palestine, anti-Semitism and war mongering by many Arab and Muslim nations — you are either with Israel or against it. Where else could you be?

Joel A. Bertet
Bertet Investment Group, LLC
Los Angeles

Having just returned from my first AIPAC Conference, it was interesting to read a high school student’s perspective.

As one of this year’s 5,000 participants, the highlight, for me, was the number of high school and college students who attended. I was seated with two of them. They listened with interest as speakers like John Edwards, John Bolton and Dick Cheney addressed us. They clapped with excitement and stood up with conviction. Our faces lit up as over 100 college student body Presidents walked across the stage.

Those were not the only inspirational young people. In one incredible session, I heard a wonderful speaker, a student in Florida from a historically black college. She created “I Fest,” a campus celebration of Israeli culture. It was planned for 200 — and 600 people showed up.

From the motivating speeches to the thought provoking panels, the AIPAC Policy Conference gave me a sense of confidence that there are many people standing up for Israel. I am proud to be one of them.

Kim Cavallo
Hidden Hills

Spike Lee

Robert Jaffee writes: “Unsophisticated Jews may have once viewed [filmmaker Spike] Lee as anti-Semitic based on some of his statements about Ed Koch and the film industry….” (“Crime Scribes Do First ‘Inside’ Job,” March 24).

Criticizing Koch does not make a person anti-Semitic, something that Koch himself is the first to acknowledge. (I know that, because I called him up and asked him, before writing this letter.) But Lee’s statements about Jews in the film industry are certainly troubling.

In 1990, for example, Lee told ABC-TV that “a large part of the people that run Hollywood are Jewish. I mean, that’s a basic fact.”

In 1998, he strongly intimated that the number of Jews in the top echelons of the film industry was the reason that a Holocaust film, rather than his latest film, won that year’s Oscar for best documentary: “When the film is about the Holocaust and one of the producers is a rabbi and it comes from the Simon Wiesenthal Center … that was a sure thing when you consider the makeup of the voting body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” (Washington Post, May 1, 1998).

In a 2001 conversation with “Ain’t It Cool News,” Lee complained about Hollywood’s portrayal of African Americans, and then “began to discuss how Jews are the only minority that seems to be protected from slurs,” as the interviewer put it.

Nor can one ignore the fact that Jewish characters in Lee’s films have been portrayed in extremely negative and offensive ways. With good reason, the author and critic Nat Hentoff has compared some of Lee’s Jewish characters to “the coldly vicious caricatures of Jews in the works of Father Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith.”

Rafael Medoff
Director
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

Hineni

“Hineni” (March 24) by Anne Brener zeroed right in on it so clearly, so heartfelt and terrifically moving. I wish her all the best in the world.

Hineni v’kadimah (in the old sense of the word!).

Hank Rosenfeld
Santa Monica

Jews for Jesus

I am compelled to respond to David Klinghoffer’s article (March 31, “A Tenuous Claim as a Jew for Jesus”) not because he takes issue with the Jewishness of the leader of Jews for Jesus — in my opinion a Jew for Jesus is a Christian regardless of his birth — but rather to challenge some of the basic assumptions that are presented in his essay.

First: Genetic Judaism. The Reform movement’s position is not that a person is Jewish merely if either his mother or his father is Jewish. It is that if that child is born of one Jewish parent and raised as a Jew with positive, affirming Jewish life experiences, such as religious education leading to bar/bat mitzvah and a life dedicated to Jewish living, then we consider that person Jewish. It is not about genetics, it is about commitment. To be a Jew one must have connections to the Jewish community through a parent and live as a Jew. We live in a world of shrinking Jewish populations, what good does it do our community to circle the wagons and challenge the Jewishness of people who live within our community and declare their commitment daily through life choices? How will one more committed Jew threaten the integrity of the Jewish community? Far from it, that person will bring his or her commitment to our synagogues and enrich Jewish life, regardless of which parent is Jewish. It seems to me that we need to bring them in, not figure out ways to keep them out.

Second: The “Jewishness” of our biblical ancestors and their marriage choices. For the record, King David married many non-“Jewish” women, as did Moses and Abraham for that matter. There simply is no mention of conversion as we know it today anywhere in the Bible; any assumptions to the contrary are ahistorical projections. Yet their children were certainly members of the Israelite community and carried on their fathers’ traditions. King Solomon, the son of Batsheva and David who was a non-“Jew” previously married to the non-“Jewish” Uriah the Hittite comes to mind as one example.

Finally, we dignify Jews for Jesus when we challenge their claims with Jewish texts and traditions. There is simply no Jesus in Judaism. Though Jews for Jesus may assume the outward appearance of Jews and quaintly use Yiddishims while referring to their Jewish ancestry it is all irrelevant in the face of one reality: Christians believe in Jesus, Jews don’t. End of story.

Rabbi Ron Stern
Stephen S. Wise Temple
Los Angeles

Correction

An advertisement for Classique Raphy kosher catering contained an unfortunate, obvious typo. Raphy offers Cornish Hen in a Wine Sauce for Passover, not Cornish Ham.

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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.

 

Rabbi Ending Long Hitch in Military


Losing Rabbi David Lapp to retirement is “like losing someone on the battlefield, someone who suffered the mud and the pain and the loneliness with you,” said Maj. Rabbi Carlos Huerta, the Jewish community chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy.

Lapp is retiring as head of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council after 24 years. The father of three and grandfather of 10 will remain at his post until a replacement is found.

Lapp’s proudest service achievement, he said, is his transdenominational prayer book, first produced for the U.S. Army in 1982. Before then, “there was a siddur that the armed forces produced, but it had sections for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox,” he said. Lapp collaborated with rabbis from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, on it.

That’s part of Lapp’s modus operandi of supporting all Jewish chaplains in the military, and through them, Jewish soldiers — no matter their denomination. There are 28 chaplains on active duty in the Army, Air Force and Navy and 43 reservists — a number that has held steady for the past decade.

During his stint at the Chaplains Council, Lapp helped the Army provide ready-to-eat kosher meals for soldiers in the field. Before 1990, kashrut-observant soldiers had to make do with regular military rations, Lapp said, eating what they could, swapping the rest with other soldiers when possible.

Fellow chaplain Huerta, who performed the first Passover service in Baghdad in 2003 after Saddam Hussein was ousted, recalled that “Lapp got me my wine, matzah and gefilte fish for the seder.”

Born in Austria in 1931, Lapp recalled that after the 1938 anschluss restrictive laws were quickly placed upon Austria’s Jews. Lapp was first transferred to a Jewish school, then taken out of school altogether when it became too dangerous. His father was forced to work in a labor camp.

After the November 1938 Kristallnacht — the rioting against Jews and especially Jewish merchants — his American relatives, including his father’s sister in Brooklyn, sponsored the family’s visa.

Lapp was 9 when his family arrived in the United States. He went on to study political science and religious education at Yeshiva University and was ordained at the Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1957. He studied chaplaincy at the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

After receiving a commission in the Army Chaplain Corps in 1958, one of his early assignments was as an assistant chaplain in Munich. There, along with providing programs for Jewish personnel in Munich, Augsburg and northern Italy, he served as stockade chaplain at Dachau.

Lapp said it was strange to return to the region: “On the one hand, I wanted to be there to show that the Nazis didn’t get rid of me as they wanted. On the other hand, I wanted nothing to do with them. But after a while, you realize they aren’t the same people, they’re the children.”

During Lapp’s chaplaincy, he said, “we had conferences with just kosher food just because we could — to show we’re here.”

Another coup during Lapp’s stint in Germany was a Jewish conference held in Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain retreat. The Army converted one of the buildings into the Gen. Walker Hotel, where Lapp held a gathering for Torah study, attended by about 500 Jewish men and women.

Ten years later, he returned to Germany as 1st Armored Division chaplain at Nuremberg. There he supervised 33 chaplains, managed religious programs of all faiths for eight communities and served as budget administrator for religious activities of the division.

Lapp served in Vietnam in 1966-67 as deputy field force chaplain, ministering to troops assigned to two divisions in II Corps Highlands Area. He retired from active duty in 1982 with the rank of colonel and was awarded the Legion of Merit by the Army.

Huerta described the chaplains’ need for Lapp: “As a chaplain, I talk to soldiers, but who do I talk to? Without Rabbi Lapp, we would have gone by the wayside.”

 

Temple Israel Honors Its ‘Conscience’


Dozens of congregants at Temple Israel of Hollywood gathered in the synagogue’s aging all-purpose room not long ago to talk about a major expansion of their 79-year-old institution. One by one, members spoke excitedly of overhauling the shul to make room for the future — a new chapel, a new teen rec room, a bigger school.

Then Ruth Nussbaum, 94, raised her hand. “Remember,” she said, “that there are many memories in what we have now.” She spoke of the simchas celebrated and yarzheit prayers said in the current small chapel, which could soon be demolished. “These memories are important,” she said.

As clear-minded and direct today as she was in her youth, Nussbaum these days embodies the history of an era that is quickly slipping away. She is the widow of Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who led this same congregation from 1942 until his death in 1974.

Immigrants from Berlin, they brought to Los Angeles a connection to the European tragedy still in progress. They shared with their congregation a Zionist passion from the first, and they fought tirelessly for the civil rights of all, reaching out to political leaders — from Golda Meier to Lyndon Johnson — and Hollywood’s shining lights.

Nussbaum was a full participant with her husband, and Shabbat dinners at their house regularly featured the likes of Leo Baeck, Mordecai Kaplan and Martin Buber. The temple’s sanctuary, dedicated in 1948, is named for her as well as her husband, a rarity for a rabbi’s wife. She continues to serve the cause she most believes in — sitting at a folding table signing up registrants last month to vote in the upcoming World Zionist Congress elections; speaking at a Reform Zionist think tank in Malibu last January.

On Dec. 16, Nussbaum will stand up at Shabbat services at Temple Israel to receive the Roland Gittelsohn Award for Achievement in Zionism, created this year by the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). In addition, Temple Israel received a Congregational ARZA Roland Gittelsohn Award at the recent Union for Reform Judaism Biennial.

Her earliest Zionist activities began in earnest after her first trip to Palestine in 1935 to visit her sister, who’d made aliyah, and she has traveled to Israel almost annually until recently, when age began to slow her down just a little. She was in San Francisco when ARZA was created at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ convention in 1977, and she spoke before the 1,000 members present, helping to convince the many doubters that active Zionism remained crucial for Reform Jews.

“Ruth played a pivotal role in helping to reshape the Reform view of Zionism,” said Rabbi Stanley Davids, national president of ARZA, who will present the award. “She sees the need for pluralism and democracy in Israel; to her these are Reform Jewish values. To her, Jewish nationalism is a seamless and natural aspect of Reform Jewish identity.”

“She was an extraordinary leader by virtue of her deep commitment to Israel,” said Rabbi Lennard R. Thal, senior vice president for the Union of Reform Judaism.

Nussbaum, though, claims to think of herself only in terms of practical commitment. She wants American Jews to recognize the need to support progressive Judaism in Israel, and she wants to bring a spiritual life to secular Jews there who feel disenfranchised by the Orthodox.

“We want to convince those who are at the fringes to join us.” she said in her distinctive German-tinged English, which carries vestiges of her early years in Berlin. “We want the Israeli Jews to have the same opportunities that we have.”

Nussbaum remains the old-world, intellectual she was raised to become, and she is also a proud matriarch with two children; a daughter-in-law; four grandchildren; two grandchildren-in-law; and two great-grandchildren.

In Berlin, Rabbi Nussbaum was a colleague of Baeck, and both Nussbaums stayed in Germany until 1940 to serve the Jewish population there for as long as they could. When it came time to flee, they came to America, sponsored by Stephen S. Wise, transported as refugees on a crowded boat to New York.

First stop for the Nussbaums was Muskogee, Okla., serving a congregation that had helped sponsor their escape from the Nazis. Two years later, the family moved to Hollywood, where Rabbi Nussbaum made it a condition of his hiring that he could preach Zionism from the pulpit.

“They said, ‘OK,'” Nussbaum said with a tone of irony in her voice. The temple’s commitment to a Jewish state would strengthen later, in the wake of the Nussbaums’ passion.

The pair helped Temple Israel grow from about 300 families to 1,000 and oversaw the building of the congregation’s current home on Hollywood Boulevard. Today, Ruth Nussbaum lives in a garden apartment in the San Fernando Valley, close to her family and surrounded by friends of every generation.

She remains close to John Rosove, who has just begun his 18th year as senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood; she recently edited a new machzor for the temple, which Rosove compiled.

“She is a conscience for us all,” Rosove said.

Orthodoxy Has Chance to Reshape Role


A window has opened to the Orthodox community. We are being invited to help reshape the social dynamics of the American

Jewish community. With courage and vision, we need to act on this opportunity by understanding the important changes that have occurred over the last decades and rethinking the way we engage the broader Jewish community.

Never before in the history of U.S. Judaism has there been openness to Orthodoxy as sincere and real as that which we see today. I am not referring to openness in terms of individual Jews embracing Orthodoxy. For many practical and philosophical reasons, such individuals will always be relatively few. Rather, I am referring to the openness of non-Orthodox and interdenominational institutions to learning from the experiences and insights of their Orthodox brethren.

To wit, numerous hallmarks of Orthodox life have been adopted by other movements. Conservative and Reform day schools are growing in number and size. We are seeing broad adoption of the more participatory and Chasidic worship style. Non-Orthodox women’s groups have discovered the mikvah’a (ritual bath) use as a form of spirituality, and the new hip name for adult education institutes outside of Orthodoxy is kollel.

This phenomenon presents the Orthodox community with an unprecedented chance to engage with and contribute to the wider community in far-reaching and significant ways. But it is one that we can seize only by moving beyond our traditional parameters regulating interdenominational contacts, which have long since outlived their purpose and usefulness.

Today, Orthodox rabbis have practically disappeared from interdenominational boards of rabbis. In some communities, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council actually forbids its members from joining interdenominational boards.

Interdenominational study groups or even social action groups are practically unheard of. The vast majority of Orthodox synagogues would never consider having a joint Simchat Torah celebration, Shavuot night learning program or a Tisha b’Av ceremony with a non-Orthodox congregation.

Historically, there is strong precedence for such reticence about interdenominational involvements. In 1954, even Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik strongly discouraged Orthodox rabbis from pursuing matters of “spiritual religious interest” with non-Orthodox rabbis, while in 1956, an influential declaration signed by a dozen outstanding Orthodox luminaries, including Rabbi Moses Feinstein, prohibited membership in interdenominational groups.

But it is at the peril of American Judaism that we ignore the vital and fundamental differences between the 1950s and today. The concern that drove the rulings of 50 years ago is no longer relevant. The 1950s and ’60s were years of enormous struggle for American Orthodoxy, as children of Orthodox parents continued to leave Orthodox life in great numbers, and the culture militated hard against Orthodox Jews retaining their traditional observance.

The attraction of Conservative and Reform Judaism was very great in these circumstances. What Soloveitchik called an ideological battle, with the future of Orthodoxy at stake, was being waged against non-Orthodox movements. In this context, we can readily understand how any activity or association that implied Orthodoxy’s recognition of Conservative or Reform rabbis as peers would have signaled to the Orthodox community that all denominational options were equally acceptable.

In Soloveitchik’s words, “Too much harmony and peace can cause confusion of the minds and will erase outwardly the boundaries between Orthodoxy and other movements.”

Today, however, the Orthodox community has become a stable — indeed growing — presence successfully retaining its youth. The ideological battle is, for all intents and purposes, over.

Additionally, even as denominational lines continue to exist within the Jewish community, the only line that is thick and red divides those who ignore rising Jewish apathy and those ready to combat it. In the 1950s and indeed into the 1970s, intermarriage was statistically negligible. Today, standing as it does at nearly 50 percent, intermarriage is the greatest threat to the entire Jewish community.

Indifference toward one’s Jewish identity, the frequent precursor of intermarriage, is widespread among America’s Jews, as is evidenced by the paltry rates of synagogue affiliation that turn up in study after study. Anyone willing to fight for Jewish survival is a de facto ally.

Several years ago, I joined with non-Orthodox colleagues in creating a retreat program for our synagogue’s teenagers. One retreat was dedicated to the theme of interdating and intermarriage. The discussions were passionate and serious, and the openness to sharing and listening was breathtaking. The Orthodox teens made a palpable impact on their peers, and all it took was the courage to engage.

The window is open, and it may represent our last, best chance to effectively counter the trends that have been eroding both the quality and quantity of Jewish religious life in the United States.

The only question facing us is whether we help each other through by sharing resources, ideas and comradeship or hobble through by withholding spiritual capital in the name of an ideological battle that effectively ended a generation ago.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of the B’nai David-Judea Congregation and the president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. This column appears courtesy of www.edah.org.

 

Project Shabbat a ‘Go’ in Cannes


Every year in May, a phenomenon occurs in the South of France — the Cannes Film Festival. Like showy, migrating birds, “Zee American Show Beez people” make their annual flight to the Riviera convention of Hollywood deal-makers. Clinging to their cell phones, they stuff themselves with French food, ogle the topless Euro-hotties on the beach and swarm the narrow streets with fistfuls of business cards.

At the grand hotels along the Croisette (the promenade along the beach), desperate show biz climbers dart from one hospitality suite to the next, making frantic attempts to get on guest lists for parties where there might be celebrities or “money people” who might fund their movie project. Very few people go to Cannes for love of the art of filmmaking. They go to make money and connections. Most of the conventioneers are so busy trying to cut deals that they never even see the films competing for the Palme D’Or.

Months before the Cannes Film Festival, Scott Einbinder, producer of “The Velvet Side of Hell” and Steven Kaplan of Rainstorm Entertainment (an L.A. production company), decided to host a Shabbat dinner and invite people of all religions to enjoy an evening of Jewish spirituality in Cannes. In America, religion and business are like peanut butter and jelly, but “Jewish spirituality” on the Riviera? It seemed out of place at a film market in France, a country so proud of being secular.

At first I thought the Cannes Shabbat dinner was another clever networking angle. Religion is big at the box office these days. And what better way for a couple of young producers to rub shoulders with some of Hollywood’s big movers and shakers than to invite them to a Shabbat dinner?

But I was wrong about the angle. As soon as I got to the Rococo Villa on Boulevard Montfleury and met Scott and Steve, I knew they were just a couple of nice Jewish boys. They had a tiny budget, but because of their good will and good luck, their Shabbat dinner fell into place.

Miraculously, they secured a sumptuous Belle Époque villa in the hills above the Croisette and some colorful local rabbis to lead the service. Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, executive director of the Chai Center in Los Angeles, flew in to help out with the Maariv service. A generous kosher caterer came through with saumon fumé and a cassoulet de poulet aux herbes, more elegantly served than at a restaurant along the Croisette.

My friend Frédéric, a handsome Corsican who had given me a ride to the party from Nice, panicked when a rabbi offered him a kippah.

“I’m not Jewish! I can’t wear this hat,” he said. “I’m starving, there’s all this food but no one’s eating! Can I eat, or is that bad form for a Jewish party? And where are the stars? Aren’t there any Jewish stars coming?”

It’s difficult to explain to a French party-boy who is “doing Cannes” why he can’t eat or drink until the sun has completely gone down over the Mediterranean and that even Christian stars might not show up.

I introduced myself to the rabbi and automatically reached to shake his hand. He scooted backward.

“I cannot give you my hand but I can give you my heart,” he said.

A guest in a low-cut dress overheard.

“He didn’t shake your hand? How rude,” she said. “We have another party on the Croisette if you want to go. We’re leaving right after we eat.”

I explained to her that the rabbi hadn’t been rude, that he was actually being polite. (Orthodox men don’t touch women who are not related to them.) She quickly lost interest and walked to the other side of the pool where the people looked more important.

At 7 p.m., a group of serious-looking men wearing long beards climbed up to the balcony overlooking the Grecian-style swimming pool and began maariv, the evening prayers. It was all very cinematic, the men in black holding their prayer books, singing and rocking back and forth toward the Bay of Cannes. We stood below them, a group of around 50 Festivaliers surrounded by faux, naked, marble statues of Michaelangelo’s David (uncircumcised).

During the prayer, someone’s cell phone rang — loudly. The ring tone was more Compton than Cannes. Just above the rabbis’ heads, a large banner belonging to yet another company renting the villa read, “FILMLINELA.COM.” Above the banner, on the balcony, several scantily clad starlets leaned out of a window. They were drinking.

“We need female energy,” Schwartz yelled from the men-only prayer balcony. He hadn’t seen the girls giggling in the window above him and wanted us (female Shabbat guests) to chime in from pool area below. Many blank faces turned to each other. Few guests knew the prayer.

An Israeli woman next to me whispered, “It’s so divisive, this kind of Orthodox thing. In Israel, these people scare us. All the dividing of women and men — it’s terrible.”

After the Kiddush, people, about 40 in all, rushed to their tables to eat. I saw some hesitation on French faces about the single glass of wine being passed around.

“I feel completely dépaysé [out of one’s country],” Frédéric said.

At our table, there were American bankers, lawyers and publicists as well as a French economist, a French rabbi and an attractive Asian woman who worked for an American production company. She was continually pulling up the spaghetti straps of her skimpy dress and blabbing on her cell.

“I’m hanging with the Jews tonight,” she slurred into her Nokia. “Tomorrow, we’re having a big party at our villa. I’m a little drunk right now.”

She was having a hard time sitting in her chair.

A banker at the table told me about the “Velvet Side of Hell,” which was produced by our host. “It’s about a three-way with an American ambassador. It’s got extortion and Hungarian porn stars.”

“Are the Hungarian porn stars real actresses playing porn stars?” I asked.

“No,” said the banker, “the Hungarian porn stars are playing themselves.”

(Scott, the producer, later explained that his film, set in Hungary, was a thriller, not a three-way, and that the banker’s description was all wrong: “None of the lead actors or even smaller role actors are porn actors.” The banker apparently had been carried away by Cannes’ decadent atmosphere, while also figuring that porn stars could be a selling point for “The Velvet Side of Hell.”)

Then the French economist asked me very directly about where I invest.

“Have you heard of Israel Bonds,” he asked. “I can get you 5 and a half-percent interest.”

I’m always interested in a financial tip and everybody at the table seemed to be breaking Sabbath rules, so I asked him how long I had to keep the money in to get the 5 and a half percent.

“Can you remember a number?” the kippah-wearing economist asked.

“No,” I said, “I’ll write it down. I’ve got a pen right here.”

“No,” he yelled. “It’s the Shabbat! You have to remember the number! I can’t give you a card. I’m not working!”

Across the table, the Israeli woman was arguing with a pro-Palestinian banker.

“Have you ever been to Israel?” she demanded.

He hadn’t.

“Well then you don’t really know what you’re talking about,” she said. “Come to Israel and see how tiny it is and see who is right!” Like he had touched a live wire, the banker swiveled in his chair toward me and away from her. “Have you seen ‘Hellboy,'” he asked me.

“I loved ‘Hellboy.’ He’s so shy and sweet.”

I know our hosts meant well by trying to bring a little spirituality to the Cannes Film Festival, but mixing morality with show biz is no easy task. It’s like trying to inject water into oil. Still, I enjoyed the party. The food was good, the view was great, the religious ceremony was uplifting and the business chatter was predictably ridiculous. When I left, I couldn’t help thinking that I had just experienced the real velvet side of Hell.

Carole Raphaelle Davis lives in Nice and Los Angeles. She can be contacted at cdavis6029@aol.com.

A Cannes-Do Triumph for Israeli Actor


Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor


When Hanna Laslo won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” May 21, she made Israeli cinematic history. It was the first time an Israeli actor has received the prize — perhaps second in prestige only to the Oscar — since Oded Kotler won for Uri Zohar’s “Three Days and a Child” in 1967.

Laslo, 51, plays a brassy cab driver who sets out to conduct business in Jordan’s “Free Zone,” a customs-free region where nationalities mingle in a giant auto bazaar. Along for the ride is an American Jew (“Star Wars'” Natalie Portman, who was born in Jerusalem) and a Palestinian woman (Hiam Abbass) who joins the Middle East road trip.

During her Cannes acceptance speech, the moon-faced Laslo — known in Israel for her edgy one-woman shows — proved as feisty as her character when she demanded that presenter Ralph Fiennes kiss her on the cheek. She then said she wanted to share the award with her mother, an Auschwitz survivor and with “victims in general, notably Arabs and Palestinians.” She also suggested the film’s true subject is Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

“It’s high time we come together and try to work out solutions to this problem,” she said, prompting thunderous applause from the star-studded audience.

In a press conference, Laslo said she identified with her character because she, too, loves her country and wishes for peace, while acknowledging that political strife makes life economically and emotionally rough for Israelis.

Her character is a metaphor of Israeli existence and the struggle to survive, she told the Jerusalem Post.

“It’s not for nothing that I mentioned Auschwitz in my [acceptance] speech,” she said.

Israel Should Accept All Jews as Jews


 

On March 31, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that 17 foreigners converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbinic courts must be considered as Jews under the Law of Return. The Law of Return has long extended legal recognition as Jews to Reform and Conservative converts who have moved to Israel from the Diaspora.

What is novel about this recent ruling is that while the ritual requirements necessary for conversion were completed outside the state under non-Orthodox rabbinical auspices, these particular proselytes were already living in Israel, and they were prepared for conversion by Reform and Conservative teachers in yearlong courses within the state.

While the court did not address the issue of non-Orthodox conversions completed within Israel, the logic put forth in the holding could well be extended to define non-Orthodox conversions finalized in Israel as legally sanctioned as well.

Reform and Conservative religious leaders — and I include myself among them — have predictably applauded this decision for its affirmation of Jewish religious pluralism, and many secular Israelis have expressed the hope that this holding may open the door to Judaism to the 250,000 persons already residing in Israel whose entry into the Jewish people and religion has been delayed or denied in recent years by the state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbinical courts.

Orthodox leaders have just as predictably labeled this development as “tragic” and Shas leaders have gathered the requisite signatures required to call a special session of the Knesset, where their hope is that they might weaken the impact of this legal ruling. An Orthodox rabbi ridiculed the decision by caricaturing such conversions as being akin to “conversion by fax.”

Such negative responses to Reform and Conservative conversions by Orthodox rabbis are hardly novel, and these statements echo a position that has been adopted by numerous Orthodox rabbis during the last 200 years.

I regret the stance these Orthodox authorities have adopted. As the late Conservative authority Rabbi Isaac Klein pointed out in “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” (Ktav, 1979), the members of a Jewish court convened for purposes of supervising a conversion need not be ordained rabbis.

He therefore argued that it would be wise to affirm the authority of all rabbis — whether liberal or Orthodox — to conduct conversions and to regard them as valid in all instances where the traditional rites of conversion are observed. As Klein put it, such a policy would embody the rabbinic principle of mipnei darkhei shalom — following the ways of peace.”

His advice in this instance strikes me as prudent in a diverse Jewish world, where most Jews do not identify as Orthodox, and especially so in Israel, where a vast majority of Jewish citizens do not regard themselves as Orthodox, and where all are yet tied to Jewish fate.

As the late Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik maintained, in a contemporary setting of competing Jewish religious and secular expressions, most Jews will not affirm a brit ha-yi’ud — a covenant of common religious purpose. Yet, even if such “common religious purpose” cannot be attained, he recognized that all Jews are nevertheless bound together by a brit ha-goral — a covenant of common destiny and fate.”

While I acknowledge that Soloveitchik himself would not have applied this typology to the issues of Jewish personal status, the logic inherent in his notion, that there is “a covenant of common destiny” that unites all Jews, allows for a definition of membership in the Jewish people that extends far beyond the confines of the traditional religious definition. Such definition better addresses the vast reality that is Jewish life today.

The Reform and Conservative batei dinim that brought these petitioners “under the wings of the Divine Presence” correctly recognized that these persons who have come to live in Israel have attached themselves to the drama and joy of Jewish history and destiny in the most concrete ways possible.

These men and women pay taxes and choose service in the Israel Defense Forces for themselves and their children. They live their lives as Jews according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and displayed their commitment to Judaism by undergoing lengthy periods of study. In confirming the legal validity of their conversions, the Supreme Court has acknowledged their tangible signs of Jewish devotion.

The Israeli Supreme Court has wisely chosen not to punish these converts by denying them recognition as Jews. In so doing, the court has performed an act of tikkun olam (healing the world). Let us hope the Knesset does no less by not revoking the full rights of Israeli citizenship that has now been granted these people as the Jews they are.

David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

 

Rabbi Expelled Over Sex Abuse Claims


 

The decision of a leading association of centrist Orthodox rabbis to expel one of its members has highlighted for some in the community the difficulties of addressing sexual abuse in the Orthodox world.

Following an investigation into allegations from several women of sexual harassment, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced last week that it had expelled Rabbi Mordecai Tendler.

Tendler had “engaged in conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi” and refused to cooperate with the committee investigating the claims, the RCA said in a statement.

Tendler referred JTA to his spokesman for comment on the case, though he did say that members of his synagogue, Kehillat New Hempstead, located near Monsey, N.Y., have been “very supportive.”

Asked if he plans to remain in his pulpit, he replied, “Of course.”

Hank Sheinkopf, Tendler’s spokesman, said the RCA procedure leading to Tendler’s expulsion was “reminiscent of the Salem witch trials,” referring to fraudulent trials in colonial America.

“A decent man has been smeared, his family damaged irreparably and a community injured after a prolonged witch hunt,” Sheinkopf told JTA.

He complained that Tendler was not permitted to confront his accusers and that information on the case was leaked to the media.

The charges against Tendler include claims that over the last few years, he engaged in sexual affairs with several women, among them women who had come to him for rabbinic counseling.

Brian Leggiere, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan whose clientele is comprised largely of Orthodox abuse victims and offenders, said the case highlights the fact that the Orthodox community is beginning to “wake up” to issues of abuse among its leaders, but still has “a ways to go.”

“We imbue our leaders with a great sense of kavod, respect, and usually it’s deserved,” he said. “It’s a wonderful value, but when you have a community that over-idealizes [its leaders at times,] that’s a recipe that allows abuse to occur.”

In the Orthodox world, where marital matches, or shidduchs, are highly valued commodities, even the victims of abuse often remain silent for fear they will damage their chances to find a husband or wife.

Tendler’s expulsion reportedly went into effect immediately, though expulsion from the RCA does not necessarily entail removal from the pulpit. Some 1,000 ordained rabbis in 128 countries have membership in the RCA.

“Synagogues and institutions are entirely independent entities,” Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive vice president, told JTA. “Therefore, it’s up to every synagogue to decide how it will wish to deal with its rabbi or its clergy or employees.”

Herring declined to comment directly on the case, as did several other RCA members complying with official RCA policy.

One Orthodox rabbi who requested anonymity said it was the first time the RCA had expelled a member following sexual abuse allegations.

The expulsion was based on protocols, instituted in April 2004 for addressing accusations of sexual impropriety against RCA members. The new protocols followed the highly publicized conviction of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, an Orthodox Union official who is serving seven years in prison for sexually abusing a student when he was principal of Hillel Yeshiva High School in New Jersey.

The Lanner case, in which allegations emerged that victims’ complaints had gone unheeded, has been seen as a watershed in the way the Orthodox community addresses sexual abuse.

Tendler’s expulsion is a particularly sensitive issue for the RCA, Orthodox insiders said, because he comes from an important family of respected rabbis. His father is the well-known bioethicist and Yeshiva University teacher Rabbi Moses Tendler. His grandfather, the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was among the Orthodox world’s leading experts in Jewish religious law.

Orthodox movement insiders said Tendler gained respect for his work on women’s issues within Judaism, particularly his approach to helping agunot, women unable to secure divorces from their husbands.

“As painful as it has been” for the community to start coming to terms with abuse issues, “I think it’s helpful when it comes to the fore because it helps people respond,” Leggiere said. “Generally, people aren’t going to respond to a situation until you get past a level of denial.”

 

Letters to the Editor


Causing Harm

Rabbi David Rue, the head of an Orthodox beit din, admits that of the 1,500 people who contacted the beit din last year because they were interested in becoming Jewish, he or the beit din managed to discourage more than 95 percent. This is a shondah and should be condemned (“A Retreat to Comfort Converts,” Oct. 8).

The Talmud tells us (Sanhedrin 99b) that the Jewish people were attacked by Amalek, a descendant of a woman who was turned away when she desired to become Jewish. If she had been welcomed, her descendants would have been pro-Jewish rather than anti-Semites.

This is not an isolated opinion. Rabbi Johanan (Talmud Nedarim 32a) even criticized Abraham for not acting strongly enough to encourage non-Jews to become Jewish. Indeed, the rabbi taught that Abraham’s descendants were enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn’t make a stronger attempt to encourage conversion to Judaism.

I taught Introduction to Judaism classes for more than 30 years, and I know hundreds of potential and actual converts. While some potential converts have mixed motives, there is no doubt that the majority is sincere and will make a wonderful contribution to the Jewish community.

Any beit din that rejects a majority of those interested in becoming Jews is harming the Jewish people and sinning against God.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Temple Akiba
Culver City

Evangelical Help

In response to James D. Besser’s article on the evangelicals and Israel, after all these years, I find it odd that Jews still live in the past as victims (“Should Jews Oppose Evangelical Help?” Oct. 8).

The bigotry is so strong among Jews that they are blinded by the fact that it shouldn’t matter why Christians support Jews or Israel, as long as you have their respect and support. The assumption is Christians only support Israel for the return of Jesus. So what?

If your house was on fire and a neighbor saved your house by putting out the fire only because he was concerned the fire would travel to his house, would you not still be thankful?

The Christians are taught “those who bring harm to the Jews will have to answer to God later.”

You don’t have to believe in their beliefs to appreciate their help. Get over your bigotry and start thinking rationally.

Oh, by the way, they aren’t out to convert every Jew, since they believe it is already written that the Jews must first return to Israel before Jesus returns, at that time he is to reveal himself to the Jews and let them have a second chance to decide on his deity classification.

Steven Feiles
via e-mail

Looking Beyond

In response to Bill Boyarsky’s column urging readers to “look beyond Israel” when voting and assuring them that [George] Bush and [John] Kerry are “not only in the same ballpark on Israel, they are in the same seat” (“Look Beyond Israel,” Oct. 1).

Boyarsky gives no evidence (even if only verbal) to back this statement. Then he urges Jews not to be one-issue voters.

Unfortunately, not making Israel a priority is not easy for those of us old enough to remember when Europe was a gigantic graveyard and seeing it erupt into a hotbed of anti-Semitism right now. We hope nothing like that can happen again here, but we can’t rest easy.

Bush, because he is a born-again Christian, is a staunch supporter of Israel. It’s the right posture for the wrong reason, but, as an Israel friend has said to us, “We’ll deal with the second coming and the conversion of the Jews when it happens. In the meantime, we are not in a position to choose our friends.”

I have yet to hear Kerry make any strong positive statements about Israel (but then, the only strong statements I have heard him make are how Bush has botched everything).

Looking beyond Israel is a luxury no Jew (American or otherwise) can afford. A lifelong Democrat, I am now one of the many “undecideds” on this presidential race, mostly because I just don’t trust Kerry on Israel and Boyarsky has not made me change my mind.

Dina Adler
Westlake Village

Not Alone

Dahlia Scheindlin (“Kerry Offers Hope for Israel,” Oct. 8) should not feel alone in expressing her support for John Kerry.

On Oct. 5, the Arab American Political Action Committee overwhelmingly endorsed the Kerry-Edwards ticket. Thus Jewish voters who support Kerry can feel comfortable when they step into the voting booth, knowing that most Arabs in America will be joining them in voting for the Kerry-Edwards ticket.

Myrna Strapp
Los Angeles

Dahlia Scheindlin wrote, “During the worst four years in Israel’s history, George W. Bush has done a resounding nothing.”

Let me remind Dahlia that Israelis no longer have to worry about Saddam firing Scud missiles with chemical weapon warheads at Israel, nor do they have to worry about Saddam paying large sums of money to the families of homicide bombers, because President Bush removed him from power.

And the U.S. military is now sitting on Iran’s doorstep, which just might make the Iranians think twice about launching any attacks on Israel.

Steve Stillman
Redondo Beach

Not a Friend

I’ve got news for Dan Cohen (“Why George W. Bush?” Sept. 14). Bush is not a friend of the Jews.

He is supported by the Christian right and the evangelicals who are big on converting nonbelievers. They are also anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-stem-cell research.

Bush has breached the wall that separates church and state, the very foundation of our democracy and principal protection for minorities. Public money is now being used to fund religious schools, and it is acceptable to refuse to hire Jews for publicly funded positions.

Regarding that old canard that Bush is good for Israel, he is only doing what every president has done – and maybe less. Clinton acted personally as a mediator; Bush stands on the sidelines. The “road map” to peace was a political ploy that led to nowhere and has since been forgotten.

His unprovoked invasion of Iraq has created turbulence in the Arab world and increased the threat of terrorism everywhere – including Israel.

Bush has made this election a referendum on religion, and Jews have never fared well in a religious-dominated state.

Edward Koblitz,
Los Angeles

Pet Peeve

Your article, “The Shabbos After” (Sept. 17), regarding getting synagogue members back for regular Shabbat services after they have crowded into the High Holiday services, goes directly to one of my pet peeves.

The twice-a-year Jews come to services for the High Holidays, find them long and heavy and think, “I’m glad that’s over for another year.” Thus, they never sample the typically uplifting, inspiring and warm weekly service.

My solution would be to require members to attend at least four regular Shabbat services a year to qualify for High Holiday attendance.

Martin Brower
Corona del Mar

Jamie Court

It is hard to imagine a better example of puff-piece journalism intended to advance the anti-business, pro-Kerry agenda than the simplistic article by Marc Ballon relating his interview with Jamie Court.

How about some questions that actually challenge the assumptions of Court, such as the role of personal responsibility in the supposed takeover of popular culture? Isn’t the role of free choice something that Court learned in Hebrew school?

Cola companies don’t become official soft drink companies of school districts by adopting districts by force. They offer compensation, and the districts accept it. It is the role of the school boards to “just say no.”

To compound the problem, the interviewer proceeds to accept without question the argument that an election of John Kerry will solve all the problems of corporate accountability, while a George Bush election will lead to more excess.

Your interviewer doesn’t feel it necessary to mention that all the actions of the corporate scandals that came to light during the last few years actually took place during the eight years of the Clinton administration, or that it was President Bush who signed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which actually does hold corporate executives accountable in a way that never existed before.

Roy Glickman
Sherman Oaks

Seder With Brando

It might interest your readers that the shul where “My Seder With Brando” (Oct. 8) event took place was Temple Israel of Hollywood, and Louie Kemp’s description matches very much one that I gave in a letter to a friend of mine.

The rabbi conducting the seder was Rabbi Haskell Bernat, successor to my husband, Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who had passed away the year before in 1974.

Ruth Nussbaum
Sherman Oaks

Bergen-Belsen Survivors

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance library and archives has been asked by the director of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp Museum and Memorial to assist in compiling a database of the more than 100,000 Jews who were deported to Bergen-Belsen. This database includes both those who perished and those who survived.

On Sunday, Oct. 31, we will pay tribute to the victims and survivors of Bergen-Belsen.

If you are a Bergen-Belsen survivor or know someone who is a survivor from there, please contact Adaire Klein of the center’s library and archives at (310) 772-7605.

Adaire J. Klein
Director of Library & Archival Services
Simon Wiesenthal Center-
Museum of Tolerance

Israelis Call for Choices in Marriage


When Galit Weidman Sassoon got engaged last year, her thoughts turned to the kind of wedding ceremony she and her fiancé wanted — meaningful, egalitarian and Jewish.

As secular Jews, Weidman Sassoon said the couple felt alienated from Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment and wanted a ceremony in which they both could participate fully — from drafting the ketubah to blessing each other while exchanging rings.

In Israel, however, the only Jewish weddings recognized by the state are Orthodox. There is no civil marriage in Israel, and Jews who choose to marry in Conservative and Reform ceremonies are not considered officially married.

In recent years, however, there has been a groundswell of couples seeking alternatives to Orthodox marriage. About one-fifth of Israeli couples now are marrying outside of the rabbinate, according to Freedom of Choice in Marriage, a Jerusalem-based umbrella organization of civil rights groups.

"I was not prepared to even think of having someone from the rabbinate marry us, because it binds me to a ceremony that discriminates against women," said Weidman Sassoon, 33, a doctoral student in linguistics at Tel Aviv University. "It’s hard to comprehend in a democratic country that one of the most basic rights people have — that of marrying according to their beliefs — is denied."

Israel’s main wedding season begins this week following Lag B’Omer.

The debate over marriage is especially urgent given that an estimated half-million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish according to religious law, cannot marry in Israel.

Also affected are male kohanim, or descendants of the priestly caste, who are forbidden under halacha to marry divorced women. The halacha also places marriage restrictions on the children of adulterous unions.

Largely because of the conundrum posed by the immigrants, pressure is building on politicians and a Knesset committee that may pave the way toward civil marriage.

Many Israeli couples fly to Cyprus and marry in civil ceremonies now so common that they have become a booming business for the Cypriot economy. But such travel often is too expensive for young couples, and new immigrants in particular.

Civil ceremonies performed abroad are recognized in Israel, as are marriages performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis overseas.

Though marriages by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel aren’t legally recognized, courts often give the couples common-law status. Still, many Israelis, like Weidman Sassoon and her husband, choose to have two marriages: One in Israel with a non-Orthodox rabbi that is personally meaningful, and a civil ceremony abroad that is legally binding.

"It’s absurd that a person married by a Reform rabbi has to then be married by a non-Jewish clerk abroad," said Rabbi Meier Azri, the senior rabbi at Beit Daniel, a large Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv.

But figures in the country’s Orthodox establishment argue that because Israel is the Jewish state and sets the standard for Jewish observance around the world, only Orthodox Jewish ceremonies can be legally sanctioned here.

If other marriages are recognized by the state the way Orthodox marriages are, the state would be "conveying a distorted message in regard to Jewish law," said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Am Echad, an Orthodox media resource organization.

He said Conservative and Reform movements "may be movements made of Jews, but they are not Judaism as traditionally understood because of a lack of allegiance to Jewish law."

Some matters in Jewish law are not up for debate or interpretation, he said, citing marriage and prohibitions on driving on the Sabbath.

Azri, however, said he has seen a "revolution" in the demand for Reform marriages. His synagogue marries some 600 to 700 couples a year, and the numbers keep rising, he said.

The law doesn’t affect only Jews. Only people of the same religion can marry each other in Israel, a legal practice that dates to the time of Turkish rule and then the British Mandate. Under both regimes, religious authorities — whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim — had sole jurisdiction over marriage.

To date it has been impossible to pass legislation endorsing freedom in marriage ceremonies, in part because of the clout of Israel’s religious parties.

In March, another such bill was solidly defeated on the Knesset floor, but one of its initiators said advocates would not be deterred.

"We will keep pushing for our legislation, even if it has a slim chance of passing, because it gets the issue on the public agenda," said Zamira Segev, Freedom of Choice in Marriage’s coordinator.

The issue was prominent on Shinui’s platform last year when the party won a whopping 15 Knesset seats.

Ronny Brison, Shinui’s coordinator for issues of religion and state, now is on the Knesset committee seeking a solution for the marriage issues of some 300,000 to 400,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halacha, or do not have documentation to prove their Jewishness.

"It’s hard to change the Orthodox monopoly because it’s enshrouded in much psychology and mysticism. Those who are against it are those who say it will end the Jewish nation, that it’s breaking up the country," Brison said. "These are not arguments that stand the test of logic or law and a pluralistic democratic outlook, [but they carry weight] in a country that struggles with how to define itself."

As alternatives to Orthodox weddings become more socially acceptable, so, too, do their place in popular culture. The women’s magazine "L’Isha" featured information on ceremony options in its most recent issue, and information booths by civil rights organizations now are a standard feature of wedding fairs where couples shop for caterers and DJs.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel, said couples are looking to inject meaning into ceremonies that in some cases have become afterthoughts.

"For most Israelis, the chuppah takes place in a corner where some pay attention but most people are chatting, drinking and smoking," Bandel said. "We are trying to bring the ceremony into the center of the evening and have the couple be active partners in shaping the character of the ceremony."

The Circuit


Commending the Caring

Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) has, for the past 150 years, been helping more families than you can count. On March 19, 5th District City Councilman Jack Weiss presented a JFS delegation that included Paul S. Castro, executive director of JFS, and Marcia Volpert, president of the JFS board, with a city commendation honoring the anniversary during a meeting of the City Council.

The commendation reads “Congratulations on the celebration of your 150th Anniversary! As the largest and oldest social service agency in the city of Los Angeles, it is an honor to commend you for your extraordinary commitment and unwavering service to the Jewish community and to the people of our great city.” In return, Volpert presented Weiss with a desk-sized replica of a bus bench featuring one of JFS’ anniversary advertisements that reads “Healing families in L.A. since before the Civil War.”

“Our organization has grown alongside the city since 1854, helping its citizens to meet the small and large challenges of life,” Volpert said. “We are proud of our great partnership, which provides vital services to all the people of Los Angeles, and look forward to another 150 years of successful service.”

Iranian Schindler

At the Yom HaShoah commemoration at Nessah Synagogue on April 18 and again at the Wiesenthal Center on April 19, the man who was known as the “Iranian Schindler” received commendation for his work — six decades after World War II.

During the war, Abdol Hossein Sardari was the Iranian Charge d’Affairs in Paris, under the Nazi occupation. Sardari took it upon himself to issue Iranian passports to non-Iranian Jews who were facing deportation, and saved the lives of thousand of Jews. Sardari died in London in 1981.

At the Nessah ceremony, Sardari’s nephew and the former Iranian regime’s ambassador to the United Nations, Fereydoun Hovedya, received a Plaque of Appreciation from the leaders of the Jewish community.

Let the Music Play

Pamela and Dennis Beck and Carolynne and Ze’ev Drori of Beverly Hills; Joan and Allan Burns and Leslie Vermut and Tom Weinberger of Brentwood; and Denise and Tom Decker of Bel Air were the co-chairs of the Music Center of Los Angeles County’s 16th annual Spotlight Awards gala performance and dinner on April 17 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. They watched 12 performing arts finalists compete for a $6,000 prize in categories of classical voice, nonclassical voice, classical instrumental, jazz instrumental, ballet and nonclassical dance in front of celebrity judges like Kevin Eubanks, Suzanna Guzman and Paul Salamunovich.

Read Up

It was a big night for the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) on April 7, when 270 people came to the Central Library downtown to watch writer Susan Sontag, philanthropist Caroline W. Singelton and The Boeing Company represented by Vice President William R. Collopy Jr. be honored at the library’s ninth annual awards dinner.

Sontag, an award-winning essayist, playwright and director, and the author of “Illness as Metaphor” and “Against Interpretation,” among others, accepted the LAPL’s Literary Award for her impressive contribution to literature. Singelton was presented with the Light of Learning Award for her significant contribution to the LAPL’s adult literacy services. Singleton’s gifts established a state-of-the-art literacy center in the central library and expanded the program into 12 branch libraries throughout Los Angeles. The Boeing Company received the LAPL’s Corporate Philanthropy Award for supporting a variety of programs for children and youth.

Great Big Gift

The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles announced in March that it received the largest permanent gift in the organization’s history — a $12 million bequest from the estate of Werner and Ellen Lange. The gift serves as the cornerstone of the newly created Werner and Ellen Lange Endowment Fund, which is anticipated to generate $500,000 annually to support initiatives and new projects that will have a lasting impact on Israel and the local Jewish community.

Werner Lange came to America from Germany in the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution. He married Ellen in 1941 and the couple moved to Los Angeles after World War II where Werner established a substantial optical instruments business. The Langes never had children, and were described as “modest” by those who knew them, giving anonymously to a range of causes that supported the Jewish community here and in Israel. Ellen Lange died in 2000; Werner died in 2003.

“The Langes are true exemplars: for the humility they demonstrated during their lifetimes and for their commitment in leaving a legacy that stands to make a difference — a profound difference — in the lives of others who come after them,” said Marvin Schotland, president and CEO of the Foundation.

To Your Health

The Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) sponsored an evening of cancer awareness on April 15 at Loews Beverly Hills Hotel. Dr. David Herber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, professor of medicine and public health and the founding chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition in the Department of Medicine at UCLA, spoke about “Obesity and Cancer.” The evening was moderated by UCLA professor Benjamin Bonavida, president of ICRF.

In other cancer news, Dr. James Berenson, the former director of the Multiple Myeloma and Bone Metastasis Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and professor of medicine at UCLA, announced the founding of the Institute for Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research (IMBCR) in March. The IMBCR is an independent research institute aimed at learning the causes and developing new treatments for common forms of cancer.

And on April 14, the The Wellness Community-West L.A, which offers support, education and hope to cancer patients and their families free of charge, honored Billy Baldwin on behalf of the Baldwin family, community leaders Stacy and Alberto Valner, culinary expert/cookbook author and philanthropist Judy Zeidler and Grammy Award-winning recording artist/producer Steve Tyrell with their Human Spirit Award. More than 400 people attended the gala dinner, held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where Hollywood heavyweights Diane Keaton, Steve Guttenberg, Courteney Cox Arquette and David Arquette were honorary co-chairs.

Smart Teacher

The better teachers are educated, the better they will teach. In April, Lisa Ansell the world languages chair at the New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) was awarded a Fullbright Fellowship for a six-week study program in Russian language and literature at Moscow State University. Ansell, who is fluent in nine languages, and currently teaches Spanish, French, Arabic and Hebrew at NCJHS, hopes to use her fellowship to enhance all of the language courses at the school.

Heart of the Matter

UCLA heart surgeon Dr. Hillel Laks of Beverly Hills, professor and chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of UCLA Medical Center’s Heart, Lung and Heart-Lung Transplant Programs, was presented with the 2004 Medical Honoree Award at the Camp del Corazon’s Gala del Sol event April 3 at Universal Studio’s Globe Theater.

The award, presented this year by Larry King, recognizes an individual who focuses their work on pediatric cardiology and/or congenital heart disease. This year’s inaugural award was given to Laks for his ongoing support of the camp as well as his role in the medical care provided to many patients who have attended the camp.

Camp del Corazon is a medically supervised residential summer camp on Catalina Island for children age 7-17 who have congenital heart disease. In was founded 10 years ago by UCLA’s Dr. Kevin Shannon, a pediatric cardiologist, and Lisa Knight, a UCLA cardiology nurse.

The camp presented its 2004 Corazon Media Award to actor Noah Wyle, who accepted the award on behalf of the NBC drama “ER.”