Woody Allen’s son refutes Dylan Farrow’s claims of molestation
by Jana Banin, JTA | PUBLISHED Feb 5, 2014 | Hollywood
The latest on the Woody Allen saga: His son Moses Farrow has spoken out in his defense in the latest issue of People. Moses says he doesn’t believe Allen molested his sister Dylan Farrow, or that their mom Mia Farrow turned her brood of children against their father.
“Of course Woody did not molest my sister,” says Moses, who is estranged from Farrow and many of his siblings and is close to Allen and Soon-Yi. “She loved him and looked forward to seeing him when he would visit. She never hid from him until our mother succeeded in creating the atmosphere of fear and hate towards him. The day in question, there were six or seven of us in the house. We were all in public rooms and no one, not my father or sister, was off in any private spaces. My mother was conveniently out shopping. I don’t know if my sister really believes she was molested or is trying to please her mother. Pleasing my mother was very powerful motivation because to be on her wrong side was horrible.”
Moses, a family therapist, goes on to accuse Farrow of going into “unbridled rages” when angered, and of frequently hitting him.
Dylan responded by sticking to her story, and denying that her mother ever poisoned her against her father or resorted to corporal punishment.
“I will not see my family dragged down like this,” she adds. “I can’t stay silent when my family needs me and I will not abandon them like Soon-Yi and Moses. My brother is dead to me. My mother is so brave and so courageous and taught me what it means to be strong and brave and tell the truth even in the face of these monstrous lies.”
Natalie Portman joins Israeli initiative to help Syrian refugees
Navigating the dating world: Women in the meet market
Women over 50 who are determined to settle down without settling can think of Marcy Miller’s memoir, “Rebooting in Beverly Hills: A Wise and Wild Path for Navigating the Dating World” (Bancroft Press, $22.95) as a sort of boot camp.
The willowy attorney and jewelry designer, whose book came out in June, uses her personal journey as a starting point for offering strategic advice about surviving the minefields of traditional and online dating in Los Angeles.
Miller should know. After two marriages and a bout with breast cancer, she believed her third marriage was the proverbial charm — until she accidentally stumbled upon a correspondence revealing that her husband had a mistress.
So she ended up single again in midlife — she declines to give her age — and jumped back into the dating jungle. Once there, she was ambushed by gossip, online dating Web sites and a series of hilariously horrific dates.
The result? Plenty of advice about what to do — and not do — for other boomers who may follow in her footsteps.
School Is in Session
Miller, who is in a relationship now, says women re-entering the dating pool must first make sure that they are in good emotional shape, especially those who are recently widowed or divorced. Starting too soon is not a “proper way to heal,” the Beverly Hills resident says.
After a woman is ready, the best way to integrate into the dating world is to do it slowly and choose one specific method of meeting prospective dates.
“I have divided the search in my book into four parts — pickups, fix-ups, Internet dating and matchmaking,” Miller explains. “Before you start, figure out which method [of introduction] you are most comfortable with. Though you can meet people through a combination of these methods down the road, doing too much too soon can be overwhelming. If you are proficient with Internet dating, go for it, but if you prefer personal contact and introductions, the fix-up may be more your style.”
Whether you are filling out an Internet profile, trying speed dating or asking friends to fix you up, Miller issues a stern commandment: Thou shalt not lie. Being truthful will weed out a lot of weaker candidates, she says.
“Who wants to start a dating relationship based on a lie?” she asks. “In a good relationship, everything is based on trust and integrity. Also, omission is just as bad as lying. If something key is missing from the other person’s profile, you should see this [as] a red flag. If your date lies in the first encounter, the universe is telling you that you need to move on to the next person.”
Another key step is getting a precise grasp on the qualities you are looking for in a prospective partner. Are you looking for a casual companion or a long-term relationship? Somebody to go to the movies with or something deeper?
Dating can be a detail-oriented business, but it’s important to know when to get specific and when to broaden your expectations. When creating an online profile or talking about your interests, for example, it’s best to carve out a niche, says Miller, who is a member of Temple of the Arts.
“You need to establish pastimes that are not obvious or typical, such as ‘food’ and ‘travel,’ ” she says. “Establishing less-familiar interests, like visiting very specific kinds of museums, following politics and doing certain kinds of volunteer work will weed out some candidates who don’t share your interests.”
However, Miller also believes many women make age specifications too limited when chronological age does not always tell the whole story. There are youthful, active men in their 60s and geriatric 45-year-olds. She also suggests being open-minded about how far away a potential date can live — instead of five or 10 miles away, consider those who live as many as 25 or 50 miles away.
To make a good impression on a first date, steer clear of flashy jewelry and provocative clothing, Miller says. Think neutral, pretty and well-groomed, especially as most women would hope to see the same thing in the men they are meeting for the first time.
As details in dress are important, so are the subtle aspects of where you go and what you do on the first date. Creative locations — as in, not Starbucks — and the content of the conversations will provide valuable clues about your date’s tastes, intentions and interests.
Think of dating as a second job, Miller suggests.
“Dating involves business strategy,” she says. “Put yourself in a networking situation where, when you go shopping, you talk to every woman you meet and make it known you are looking to meet new guys. Pick the longest line at the post office. Do [your] deskwork at the neighborhood Starbucks. Go to the movies by yourself. Do a vision board, cutting out pictures and words that depict the positive things you want to bring into your life.”
Miller also believes you are the company you keep. If you associate with friends who encourage you to settle for any guy you meet because of your age or imperfections, real or imagined, trust your gut — not them — and take the time to cultivate new friends who will support you emotionally.
Miller hopes readers of her book embrace the single life as she did, recognizing that even as they seek a companion, there are benefits to being independent and free to make choices without inhibitions.
“Single women today seem so much healthier than [some married women],” she says. “The friendships with each other are stronger, and they can live life as they please. Furthermore, many smart single women today looking for committed relationships want to establish with their partners up front that they need alone time as well as opportunities to enjoy activities with their friends.”
All of her other advice aside, Miller says there are two main tools that will prove invaluable for anyone re-entering the dating world: humor and patience.
“You have to see dating as a marathon and not a sprint,” she insists. “There are funny episodes that are all part of the fabric of your life. You can’t take everything so seriously, or your journey will be miserable.”
Israel's population is nearing 8 million, up almost 100,000 from the end of 2011, according to data released on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
The Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the population of Israel stands at approximately 7,933,200; at the end of 2011 it was at 7.837 million.
The new figure includes approximately 5,978,600 Jews, or 75.4 percent of the population, and about 1,636,600 Arabs, or 20.6 percent. The 318,000 people categorized as “others” include 203,000 foreign workers, of whom some 60,000 are African migrants.
The Israeli population is considered relatively younger than that of Western countries, according to the statistics' bureau. In 2011, children from newborns to age 14 in Israel comprised 28.2 percent of the population and those aged 65 and over were 10.3 percent, compared to 18.5 percent and 15 percent on average in member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Last year, 166,296 babies were born in Israel — nearly identical to the previous year. There were 2.98 children per each Jewish woman, also nearly identical to the most recent figures, and 3.51 children per Muslim woman, down from 3.75.
The population density rose to 347 people per square kilometer, excluding West Bank communities, from 288 in 2000. The Tel Aviv District is the most densely populated; the most densely populated city is Bnei Brak at 22,145 people per square kilometer.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made Time magazine’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world for the second year in a row.
Netanyahu is called an “iconic, strong and determined leader who has excelled during a lifetime of service to the state of Israel” in a profile written by U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader in the House of Representatives.
“At this perilous moment, Prime Minister Netanyahu is the right leader for Israel—and the right partner for America,” Cantor wrote.
Time’s list of those who “inspire us, entertain us, challenge us and change our world” features “breakouts, pioneers, moguls, leaders and icons.” It includes Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s most successful producers, who recently contributed to the documentary “Bully.” Anonymous, a hacker group that threatened a reign of terror against Israel and to systematically wipe the country off of the internet, also appears on the list.
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are on the list, as are Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (the former Kate Middleton, who is married to Prince William), and her sister, Pippa Middleton, and athletes Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin.
Syrian President Bashar Assad appears on the list as a “rogue.”
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Could the 7 billionth person on the planet be Jewish?
According to the United Nations Population Fund, the Earth welcomed its 7 billionth resident on Oct. 31. Statistically, the newborn was most likely a boy in India or China. The symbolic title was given to Danica May Camacho, born two minutes before midnight in Manila in the Philippines.
There is no reason, however, it couldn’t have been Ava Sarah Keyrallah, who was born later that evening in Paris.
“Every single second, four to five new babies are born in the world,” Sergio DellaPergola, a professor of population studies at Hebrew University, told JTA by e-mail. “It is difficult to say exactly which baby was the 7 billionth inhabitant of Earth. But why not dream that it might have been a Jew?”
The daughter of a French Jewish mother and a Lebanese Christian father, the 7-pound Ava Sarah joined a world in which one in 510 people is Jewish, but where the Jewish world as a whole, according to demographers, grows gradually and unevenly.
That Jewish world is one increasingly defined by a small number of population centers, according to a study by DellaPergola titled “World Jewish Population, 2010.” Approximately 80 percent of Jews live in Israel and the United States, and the nine countries with more than 100,000 Jews constitute 91.1 percent of the total worldwide Jewish population.
Further, Jews remain exceptionally urbanized, with half living in just five cities and two-thirds living in 11 cities.
“Jewish population stands at somewhat above 13.5 million and very slowly grows—only thanks to Israel’s component, now approaching 43 percent of the total world Jewry,” DellaPergola said.
Israel, the world’s most fertile developed nation, is the engine of Jewish population growth. Like the rest of the world, Israel saw a massive decline in fertility rates during the 1970s and 1980s due to increases in public health and education for women. Unlike the rest of the world, however, Israel stabilized in the early ‘90s and since then has maintained a fertility rate of 2.9 children per woman.
“Israel has an unprecedented birth rate,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University whose current research involves demographic studies of American Jewry. “Women, even highly educated women, have high birth rates.”
By 1995, according to the World Bank, Israeli women for the first time began having more children than the rest of the world. And last year, Israel surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the most fertile developed nation in the world.
At the beginning of 2010, Israel had a Jewish population of 5.7 million.
Counting Jews outside of Israel is no simple task. Where Israel has a government census, Jewish communities in the Diaspora must rely on less rigorous and consistent methods, which leads to disagreements over numbers.
Just two weeks ago, an otherwise productive conference at Brandeis temporarily turned to finger pointing during a debate over the decision of the Jewish Federations of North America not to fund a census of the Jewish community.
In general, demographers agree that the Diaspora population is in decline due to low fertility rates. Other factors changing the Jewish population include migration, “opting out” of Jewish life, intermarriage and choosing not to raise children as Jews.
According to both DellaPergola and demographer Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, the apparent exception is the United States, where the American Jewish population has been stable.
“In the long term it should be decreasing, yet it’s relatively constant,” Sheskin said, noting fertility rates that are below replacement levels but citing immigration from the former Soviet Union as one possible reason for the population’s stability.
The two disagree, however, on the overall number of American Jews. DellaPergola says it’s 5.2 million, which is the number found in the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey. Sheskin’s study found 6.5 million, but he doubts his own numbers, estimating a total of 6.2 million.
Saxe, on the other hand, has confidence in the 6.5 million figure, which he arrived at in an independent study. But unlike Sheskin, Saxe says the population trend is increasing due to intense outreach and improved Jewish education.
“We believe that what is happening is that families and households that include Jews are more and more making the decision to raise their kids Jewishly and Jews are more likely to acknowledge their Jewish heritage and Jewish identity,” he said.
Even if the population is shrinking, Sheskin says, there is still a bright side for young Ava.
“Jews are a tiny percentage of the world,” he said. “They’re going to continue to decrease—and win Nobel Prizes.”
The latest buzzword in the Jewish world is “peoplehood.” In a recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward titled “Funding Peoplehood,” Misha Galperin, a top official with the Jewish Agency, writes that for the past few years “the organized Jewish community worldwide has recognized that the next major task facing us is strengthening Jewish identity, which we’ve come to call ‘the price of peoplehood.’ ”
As he writes: “Prominent Jewish sociologists have identified the declining bonds of peoplehood as one of the most significant challenges posed by modernity and by a culture of universalism. Having been raised in a world of pluralism and tolerance, Jews younger than 45 do not necessarily privilege their Jewish brothers and sisters above others when it comes to friendship, marriage, volunteerism and charitable giving.”
This new “peoplehood” buzzword is just the latest iteration of a broader issue that’s been around for decades, using terms like “Jewish continuity,” “assimilation,” “intermarriage” and so on. “Peoplehood” is the latest reminder of a familiar problem for the organized Jewish community: American Jews in general don’t feel compelled to connect to their Jewish tradition.
What I find fascinating about this latest emphasis on “peoplehood,” however, is its tribal connotation. It’s like an admission of failure. We couldn’t get you to connect to Judaism so let’s try something more primal: Connect to your tribe! To your people! It’s the outreach of last resort.
No wonder Galperin’s piece got some heated responses. Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, which focuses on Jews helping the world (and not just other Jews), wrote: “What’s missing from this piece is a more expansive, values-based understanding of how Jewish peoplehood is expressed.”
Another critique came from Daniel Septimus, of myjewishlearning.com, who wrote: “What is the content of Galperin’s ‘bond of peoplehood’? What is this bonded people supposed to do? What values do they cherish and share? What mission do they work to achieve? The Jewish community’s inability to articulate answers to these questions, while at the same time fetishizing ‘peoplehood’ to the brink of idolatry, is exactly the reason the younger generation has drifted away.”
Personally, I’m torn between two lovers. I have a deep sense of Judaism as a way of life and as a source of meaning and mission, but I also have a deep sense of Judaism as belonging to a miraculous people. If I moved to the desert and did absolutely nothing Jewish for three years, I would still feel nourished by my Jewish identity. The mere fact of “belonging” to my people is enough. It is the very transcendent nature of this feeling that moves me.
In the same way that faith and belief in God transcend reason, my connection to the Jewish people does the same. If I had to constantly justify this connection through reason — if I made it conditional on common actions or values — it wouldn’t have the same power or emotion.
In fact, it’s a mistake to assume that a deeper connection to Judaism and Jewish values will naturally lead to a deeper connection between Jews. Not necessarily. If I see “Jewish values,” for example, as being synonymous with humanistic values like compassion, social justice and freedom, how does that connect me with Jews in yeshivas? Similarly, if I pray and learn Talmud all day, how does that connect me with Jews who express their Judaism by helping Muslims in Darfur?
Given all that, how might we promote a sense of peoplehood with Jews who feel no special connection with their Jewish brethren?
If you ask me, the most natural way to promote Jewish peoplehood is to teach the extraordinary history of the Jewish people.
And I don’t just mean biblical stories with all their grand moral lessons. I mean history, pure and simple. I mean the history of the migration of Sephardi Jews throughout the centuries; the history of the Jews of Europe and the Jews of Persia; the beginning of the Chasidic movement; the golden age of the medieval philosophers; the Jewish contributions to humanity; the beginning of the Zionist movement and so on.
I mean teaching Jews (yes, even in day schools and yeshivas) not just our master story, but also our cultural and ancestral stories — warts and all — and how those myriad journeys have improbably converged in our generation.
Our sense of solidarity can only be enhanced by a greater familiarity with our incredible journey.
Unfortunately, history is the ugly stepchild of Jewish outreach. It doesn’t have the romance of spirituality, the imperative of Torah study, the headiness of repairing the world or the practical relevance of daily rituals. What it does have, however, is narrative. Hundreds and thousands of narratives that have the power to bond us with the collective Jewish experience.
A few weeks ago, I reconnected with my cousin Sydney Suissa, who I grew up with in Casablanca and Montreal. Sydney was always a history buff. He ran programming at the History Channel and is now doing the same thing at National Geographic. My cousin is not Torah observant, but he has a deep connection to his people.
Why? Because he’s been learning Jewish history for most of his life. His connection to his people didn’t come from studying Torah, or from doing tikkun olam, which are important acts in their own right. It came because he embraced a remarkable story and heritage he feels he belongs to and would like to continue.
Galperin and the Jewish Agency are onto something. But maybe Galperin’s next piece should be titled “Finding Peoplehood.” He should invite and help Jews everywhere to discover the amazing story — and stories — of their people.
Values, rituals and study are important, but to build real human connections, you also need great stories. Just ask any Jewish screenwriter.
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An unexpected family in Netanya
By Lauren Weintraub, Tribe Contributor | PUBLISHED Oct 10, 2008 | Kids & Teens
During the summer before my senior year in high school, I wanted to get involved in a meaningful program that would change my life and the lives of others. After researching my options, I decided to volunteer at Bet Elazraki, an extraordinary foster home for children in Netanya, Israel that needed additional counselors during the summer.
Upon my arrival I met Yehuda Kohen, the home’s director. I could immediately see the special qualities that motivated Kohen to dedicate the past 20 years of his life to giving children who come from broken homes the opportunity to overcome their disadvantages and live successful lives.
Despite the rumors and warnings, I strongly believed I could not only handle but also enjoy the opportunity to contribute to the lives of younger girls. However, when I received my first assignment as a counselor for the 10- to 12-year- olds, I felt less like a counselor and more like an outsider drowning in a sea of more than 200 children, all in desperate need of attention.
I admit, at first I did not exactly know how I would win their trust, especially since they seemed more inclined to seek out their Hebrew-speaking, year-round counselors than their American summer counselors. At the same time, I desperately wanted them to feel comfortable and safe with me and accept me into their “family.” I realized it would take time, just as it does for any relationship.
For the first time in my life, I embraced the responsibility for people other than myself. I catered to my girls’ needs from the time they woke up until they went to sleep. I focused on finding a way to reach them and prove my trustworthiness. When I introduced myself, my mind focused on one question: “How am I going to bond with these adorable girls?” They came from broken homes and had experienced horrors I could not even begin to fathom. To complicate matters further, they only spoke Hebrew, and my academics had not prepared me for the stress of recalling a second language while also relating in the ways these girls needed.
As days passed, I slowly found ways to break down some of the barriers. I listened (which improved my Hebrew) and studied their individual situations in order to determine the best way to show them, by listening and then offering feedback, that I could empathize with them. I ensured that they knew they could depend on me at all times. We connected as they told me stories about their past and why they live at Bet Elazraki rather than with their own families.
One day, as I waited for the bus to take me to Jerusalem on a Friday morning, I watched all the children board buses to visit family members for the weekend. I asked a head counselor named Shira what happens to the children who can’t go to their parents’ home. Shira told me about a 9-year-old girl named Sara who did not want to go home. She told Shira that when she went home two weeks ago to visit her family, her mother told her that she didn’t want to see her again and didn’t want to take care of her.
It was so difficult for me to imagine that this sweet loveable child was unwanted. How could Sara’s parents be so cruel?
From that moment on, I decided to give Sara as much love and comfort as I could while I was there. I knew I could never replace her mother, but I wanted her to realize that she was special, she was wanted and she was loved. During the time I was there, we went on a number of different outings. I made sure that I paid special attention to her in an effort to make feel wanted and important.
When I left Bet Elazraki, I left behind Sara and some very special girls, along with a significant piece of myself. On the last day, Yehuda Kohen arranged a goodbye party for all the American counselors; there was not a dry eye in the room. The party crystallized my entire summer experience. Throughout the summer, I considered how I learned so much from this experience, but I had no idea how I impacted these young lives. Watching the children cry, clinging to us and begging us not to leave, I realized the power of selfless giving, an experience I had not discovered before this volunteer opportunity.
On my plane ride home I pondered how, in such a short period of time, I evolved from being a total stranger to 200 children to becoming part of a family I didn’t even know existed. While my family back home differs in so many ways from the one I joined in Israel, I recognized that in the end, we’re all family because we depend on each other for emotional support.
Lauren Weintraub is a senior at YULA Girls School.
Speak Up!Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUNDAY, NOV. 12 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Tour of the Skirball Cultural Center Note: Tour leaves from Westin Bonaventure and returns to the L.A. Convention Center.
2:30 p.m. Opening Plenary: “One People, One Destiny, One Great Day in November” Greetings: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Keynote Speaker: Israel Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni
4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m. Breakout Session: “We Are Not Alone: Allies in Making the Case for Israel” Speakers: Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, Inc., and former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission; Randy Neal, California regional director, Christians United for Israel; and Nancy Coonis, superintendent of Secondary Schools for the L.A. Archdiocese
4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m. Breakout Session: “Jewish Learning: Activism and Social Justice” Speaker: Rabbi Miriyam Glazer of the University of Judaism
MONDAY, NOV. 13 8:30 a.m.-9:45 a.m. Plenary: “The Jewish Future: Where We Are as a People” Moderator: Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president of policy development, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los AngelesSpeakers: Rabbi Norman Cohen, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University in New York
10:15 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Plenary: “Emerging Global Realities and the Challenge of Radical Islam” Speakers: Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” and “American Vertigo: Traveling in the Footsteps of Tocqueville”
2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Breakout Session: “Media Lessons Learned From the War”
Speakers: Aviv Shir-On, deputy director general for media and public affairs, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Jeffrey Goldberg, New Yorker staff writer and author, “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide;” and Irit Atsmon, former Deputy IDF spokesman
2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Breakout Session: “Anti-Zionism as the New Anti-Semitism” Moderator: Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Speakers: Steven Emerson, executive director of The Investigative Project; Aviva Raz-Shechter, director, Department of Anti-Semitism & Holocaust Issues, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Charles Small, director, Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, Yale University
3:45 p.m.-5 p.m. Plenary: “Challenges of the Jewish People at the Beginning of the 21st Century” Speaker: Likud Chairman and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Dr. Irwin Cotler, Canadian MP
8:15 p.m.- 10 p.m. Event: “A Once in a Lifetime Evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall”
Background: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music will co-host a concert of Jewish music at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program will include selections by Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill. Performers include Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, an 85-member chorus and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Gerard Schwarz.
TUESDAY, NOV. 14 8:30 a.m.-10 a.m. Plenary: “Challenges and Opportunities: Israel 2006” Moderator: Judge Ellen M. Heller, president, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Speakers: Israel Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and Israel Education Minister Yuli Tamir Special Guest: Moshe Oofnik, Sesame Street Workshop
2:30 p.m.-4 p.m. Breakout Session: “Understanding Islam: Current Trends” Speakers: Menahem Milson, professor of Arabic studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and chairman of The Middle East Media Research Institute; Norman Stillman, professor and chair of Judaic history, University of Oklahoma; Irshad Manji, author, “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith”
2:30 p.m.-4 p.m. Breakout Session: “Working to Save Darfur” Speakers: John Fishel, president, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, co-founder, Jewish World Watch; and Ruth Messinger, president/executive director, American Jewish World Service
4:15 p.m.-5:45 p.m. Plenary: “The New Frontlines: Facing the Future Together” Keynote Speaker: Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
WEDNESDAY, NOV. 15 8:30 a.m.-Noon Meeting: “Translating the GA Into Action: Open Board of Trustees & Delegate Assembly Forum” Goal: Coming up with an action plan based on issues addressed at GA.
Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.
The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.
Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.
In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.
Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.
Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.
I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.
It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.
Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.
But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.
Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.
The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).
I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.
Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.
For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.
Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).
The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is myjewishlearning.com, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.
Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.
Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.
Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).
When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The centerpiece of the third section of the Tanach, the section known as Ketuvim (the Writings), is the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms contains some of the most majestic poetic images in the history of the Hebrew language. They express awe at the artistic power of the Creator and express wonder at the reality of all Being. They reflect on the redemptive design of the God of history who took us out of Egypt and anticipate the ultimate redemption at the end of days. They cry out in the pain of human suffering and appeal to a God of healing. They protest the injustice that surrounds us and the domination of the powerful over the weak. They sing of the yearning for communion with God. And more.
Nowhere is the relationship between God and the Jewish people articulated with more poetic power or artistic beauty than in the 150 chapters of the Psalms. The Psalms have withstood the test of time with their undiminished power to inspire, to move, to touch and elevate the human soul.
The original purpose of the Psalms was liturgical, written to be sung by a choir of Levites during the sacrificial service in the Temples in Jerusalem. Still, in our own day, many of the Psalms are used liturgically and comprise entire sections of the prayer book, the most obvious examples being Psukei d’Zimrah (the preliminary service recited daily before the Shachrit prayers) and Hallel, (the thanksgiving liturgy recited on holidays and Rosh Chodesh), the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century used Psalms when creating the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which introduces the Shabbat evening prayers with great beauty.
Although the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) ascribes authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David, even the Talmud ascribes composite authorship, insisting that David incorporated earlier collections of Psalms into his own. Among those the Talmud identifies are two collections, Psalms 42-49 and Psalms 84-88, 13 in all, that were written by the sons of Korah.
It is a stunning statistic that almost 10 percent of the Book of Psalms was written by the sons of Korah. The very name, Korah, symbolizes all that can go wrong in communal life. Korah was the cousin of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, who protested the undemocratic centralization and personalization of power in the other side of the family. Korah led a rebellion in the wilderness against the authority of Moshe and Aharon. In the guise of egalitarianism and inclusiveness, with the claim that all of the Levites are equally holy, Korah incited 250 followers to join him in his rebellion. The rebellion was immediately recognized as a thinly veiled exercise of political opportunism and a shameful power grab. The rebellion ended badly, as it should have, as it was destined to. In the final scene, Korah was swallowed up by the earth, his minions and his ideas disappearing with him into the depths.
But his sons were not with him.
One might think that because his end was so dramatic, so violent, and so final, that Korah was wiped out once and for all. Remarkably, even though Korahism was dealt a fatal blow in the wilderness, the line of Korah did not die. The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms.
That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Psalm 49 was selected to be read in a house of mourning. Beyond the ideas contained in the words themselves lies the power of the Psalm’s authorship. The heading of the Psalm reads: “To the leader: A Psalm of the sons of Korah.” The message of Psalm 49, a lesson the sons apparently learned from the bad example of their father, is that death comes to everyone, rich and poor alike. The importance of wealth and status in life is exaggerated because neither can protect us from death; nor are they of any use to us after we die. What is important in life, and in death, are the relationships we have formed with loved ones, with friends, and with God. Love transcends death. Love is eternal, and lives on after us.
Korach is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world; his sons comfort the bereaved. Through the words of the sons of Korah, and by their example, we are inspired to embrace life with gratitude, with optimism and with passion, as long as our souls remain in our bodies.
Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at email@example.com.
My love of journalism started in high school, when I confronted the cafeteria manager at my public — predominantly Jewish — high school about why there was no matzah available during Passover. I’ve always loved keeping people informed, so journalism seemed like a natural career path. When I came to The Journal as a copy editor and had the opportunity to write and edit stories and interview celebrities (both real and pseudo), I couldn’t have imagined a better job.
Then came the curveball: In addition to writing and editing, I was asked to coordinate the obituaries. Ouch. The girl with the Mickey Mouse doll perched atop her computer was faced with handling grief on a daily basis.
It’s strange to be the “Perky Obit Girl,” as I’ve been dubbed by my colleagues. That part of my job mostly involves processing the listings from L.A. Jewish mortuaries.
Sometimes I’ll get a heartwarming listing for someone who lived into their early 100s, did tons for the community and had great-great-grandchildren. And because we’re in Tinseltown, I occasionally have a brush with fame. When the former husband of “Gilligan’s Island” actress Dawn Wells died, she faxed in the notice on her own palm tree-adorned stationery.
On the flip side, there are the ones about the family of three who was killed in a car accident; the 20-something who was lost at sea.
And then there are the odd requests that take me by surprise. One mortuary notice listed the sibling as: Puppy Brewster. Thinking that “Puppy” was a nickname, I ran it as: sister, Puppy Brewster. The family was incensed, and called to complain. Brewster was the name of the deceased man’s dog.
When I tell people what I do, I always take pride in ending with: “….and I coordinate the obituary page.” Sometimes I get a smile, sometimes a wince, but more often than not I get every journalist’s dream answer: “I faithfully read it every week.”
Special Delivery – When Baby Brings More Than Expected
That’s the subject of a one-minute Internet film from Aish.com, the Web site of Aish Hatorah, the religious outreach organization based in Israel with branch offices around the world, including Los Angeles.
The one minute “film” — it’s basically pictures with captions — was written for Purim, but is more in tune with Mother’s Day. It presents historical characters and conjectures what their mothers might have said to them — if they had been Jewish mothers.
Take the message from the “Jewish mom” of Christopher Columbus: “I don’t care what you have discovered, you still should have written.”
Mrs. Michaelangelo would whine about the Sistine Chapel: “Why can’t you draw on walls like other children — do you know how hard it is to get schmutz off the ceiling?”
The Beatles’ proud mother reminded the Fab 4 that she’d promised cousin Harold that he could play cello in their band. And Tiger Woods’ mom complained that golf “just isn’t our sport.” How about bingo?
Aish’s “Jewish Mothers” video is among a dozen or so mostly serious videos available at Aish.com. Most of the offerings provoke questions about life, spirituality and religion. The films are sent out to a mailing list of 170,000, according to the Web site.
Actually some of the chosen subjects did have Jewish mothers. So it’s actually possible that Einstein’s real Jewish mother was not amused by that wild-haired genius look: “But it’s your senior photograph, couldn’t you have done something with your hair?” — Amy Klein, Religion Editor
Real Estate Magnate Ready to Play Ball
A group of investors led by real estate magnate Ted Lerner and his family has purchased the Washington Nationals baseball team. Lerner and Major League Baseball wrapped up details of the $450 million purchase Tuesday night following a yearlong competition over ownership. Lerner, 80, was raised in an observant Orthodox Jewish family. One of the largest beneficiaries of his philanthropic work is his Conservative congregation, Ohr Kodesh in Chevy Chase, Md., to which he contributed $505,000 in 2003. The Lerners are partnered with former Atlanta Braves President Stan Kasten, the son of Holocaust survivors. The bid beat one by Fred Malek, a Nixon administration official who carried out an order from the president to purge the Department of Labor of Jewish statisticians.
Revved Up for Paper Clips
It’s not always a cause for concern when a platoon of bikers pulls up in front of your school. Some 400 Jewish motorcyclists turned up recently at the Tennessee school where students collected millions of paper clips to commemorate the Holocaust (the Academy Award-nominated documentary titled “Paper Clips” was made about the project). Members of the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance visited the Whitwell Middle School to see the display of paper clips, which is housed inside a German railroad car once used to transport Jews to concentration camps during World War II.
It’s OK to be in a rut, just sit down, crack open a beer and kick your feet up on the ottoman, but don’t get too comfortable there. When you notice yourself stagnating this week, remember this: as an Aries, you need variety. Your life is best when it looks like the all-you-can-eat salad bar at the Sizzler. Sure, you have your regular salad stuff, but you’ve also got some odd pseudo-Mexican snack foods, frozen yogurt, clam chowder and eight kinds of medically contraindicated salad dressings. Right now, you are eyeballing the salad bar of life without a clue what you want, all of which is making you edgy. This one is so easy. Just pick an activity and dig in. You can always go back for seconds.
Taurus (April 21-May 20)
Notable Jewish Taurus: Joey Ramone
Single Taurus: Get ready. Love is in the stars for you this week. I’m not talking about some blah dinner with a guy from JDate. I’m talking about that magical, dynamic, magnetic connection that only happens once in awhile (and often ends in disaster, but let’s take things one week at a time). For now, get waxed, clean your apartment, wash the car, have your hair blown-out and enjoy the romantic ride. The weekend will be especially potent in the “sensual” arena. On a family note, beware that the value of a possession may cause some strife. Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in material things, after all, you’re going to be starring in your own romantic comedy and with any luck it won’t be as cloying and predictable as “Must Love Dogs.”
Gemini (May 21 — June 20)
Notable Jewish Gemini: Yasmine Bleeth
I could give you a lot of mumbo jumbo about your solar eighth house of finances being affected this week by planets visiting Capricorn, but Gemini bores easily so just take this in: if you have been needing a bank loan, home refinance or student loan, this is your week. I know, Smarty Pants Twins don’t fancy comparing boring loan rates and such, but why not use your quick mind for something other than shouting out the answers to “Jeopardy” questions? As for work, this is the week that crazy co-worker seems to go off her medication. Just ignore her, because once you react, the mishegoss can be traced right back to you.
Cancer (June 21-July 20)
Notable Jewish Cancer: Neil Simon
When it comes to horoscopes and Cancers, there’s one major catch: you don’t like advice and you bristle at being told what to do. Fortunately, all I have to say this week is DO NOTHING. That’s right — avoid impetuous decisions, last minute trips and dicey business schemes. Don’t even go to the mall to return that tin of popcorn the size of Bill Maher’s head or digital travel clock you can’t figure out how to use. Stay home. Do laundry. Stick to a safe routine after running around socializing so much. Toward the end of the week, remember that if you control the cash in the family, you control the family, and very few people enjoy this if Oprah is to be believed. Trust and love is what Cancer has all around right now. So that’s your mantra. Say it: trust and love.
Leo (July 21 — August 21)
Notable Jewish Leo: Debra Messing
Driving Leos, start your engines. Oh, what’s that? They won’t start. I don’t get it. You took your vehicle to the Jiffy Lube three years ago, what could be the problem? You know all that stuff they tell you to do — besides the oil change you asked for — that you ignored? Well, this is the week to take care of it. No more riding around with warning lights on, or pretending not to notice the fluid dripping under your tires. This is a time for preventive maintenance. As for your own health, if you want to drop a bad habit, this is the perfect time. Maybe you don’t need six packets of Splenda in your coffee or that fourth glass of wine or that sixth macaroon. Drop a bad habit like you used to drop those oil change reminders — right in the trash.
Virgo (August 22-September 22)
Notable Jewish Virgo: Amy Irving
Some group environments are peaceful, say, yoga class. Others are stressful, say, a distant cousin’s bar mitzvah that’s in some horrible far away suburb and features stale rolls and even stiffer conversation. Here’s the thing, this week means any group activity is likely to bring you chaos. You may feel overly sensitive, or the unswerving need to throw a chair, Bobby Knight-style, into a crowd of people. Find your inner Phil Jackson and be diplomatic. What’s the pay-off for all that restraint? You may witness something extraordinary this week, something only an attentive Virgo would appreciate. Keep your eyes open, and your throwing hand closed.
Libra (September 23-October 22)
Notable Jewish Libra: Barbara Walters
Occasionally, your family has so many feuds Richard Dawson would plotz. These are just minor skirmishes, a political discussion that went sour, a call unreturned, an invitation “lost in the mail.” For Libra, this is the week to reconcile with family members. Coincidentally, the stars also say it’s a perfect time to entertain in your home. So there you go, get out your Swiffer, pop some pre-made crab cakes in the oven, light a nice holiday candle someone gave you at the office and make the place comfortable. Once your home looks nice, it’s time to make nice and invite over any relatives you’ve alienated. On the work front, more responsibility may come your way this week. Don’t get all, “That’s not my job.” Just do what you do best, find a solution that suits everyone
Scorpio (October 23-November 22)
Notable Jewish Scorpio: Winona Ryder
You want your partner or spouse to be happy, but does it have to reach perkiness proportions the likes of which are generally reserved for beauty pageants and morning news shows? This week, the enthusiasm level of someone close to you is downright exhausting, especially in your worn-down state. Here’s the thing, recalibrating someone else’s perk-o-meter is impossible and rude, so let it be. Speaking of rude, this is a time for Scorpio to embrace all forms of etiquette. I’m talking about thank-you notes, turning off your cell phone at the movies and speaking to everyone with respect. Friday the 13 happens to be a magical day for you. Dream big. Ask everyone you know their favorite travel destinations and stories and await inspiration.
Sagittarius (November 23-December 20)
Notable Jewish Sagittarius: Mandy Patinkin
There are times when your mind seems to function faster, like you’ve just upgraded your cerebral PC and the graphics are so sharp you can’t believe it. This week — there’s just no other way to say it — your thoughts are going to be intense, dude. You will have no trouble influencing people with your ideas and impressing them with your projects. Though your brain is both tenacious and focused right now, beware of one thing: Sagittarius is a great conversationalist, but don’t let it slip into gossip. Oh, and that domineering person in your life … could it be a mother figure? Anyway, you will have to stand up to her midweek. Luckily, your mind is so clear now, it will be no trouble “setting a boundary” rather than being a brat.
Capricorn (December 21-January 19)
Notable Jewish Capricorn: Howard Stern
You seem to embrace control more than Janet Jackson. Okay, that was a really old song lyric reference, but you know what I mean. On Tuesday, you will have to relinquish control with the service people in your life, be it the dry cleaner, maid, waitress or even doctor. Let people do their jobs and understand that chaos will creep it from time to time. Know that next week will run more smoothly. On a positive note, this week will bring a one-on-one interaction you won’t forget. Competition or cooperation will arise this week in a big way, but which one depends on you and the situation. After all, there’s a time to sing “Kumbaya” and a time to throw an elbow when the ref isn’t looking.
Aquarius (January 20-February 18)
Notable Jewish Aquarius: Judy Blume
It’s usually annoying when folks throw around phrases like “Go big or go home,” but what can I say? You are going big this week. Big energy. Big changes. You know those times when you just want to stick to your routine, wear your favorite old jeans, watch your usual TV shows, drive the same routes and call the same friends? This isn’t one of those weeks. You are open to any and all new experiences. Oh, and single Aquarians should be happy with that new “something something” you’ve got going. Even if it’s just a mild flirtation, attraction and desire are strong this week. If an ex comes into the picture, crop him or her right out.
Pisces (February 19-March 20)
Notable Jewish Pisces: Philip Roth
Don’t dole out warmth and affection like they give out slices of frozen pizza samples at Costco. I’m saying, don’t just create convenient bite-sized pieces of genuine humanity and place them on a platter for any passer-by to taste. This week, save your goodwill for the inner circle, the people in your daily life who have earned your trust. Speaking of those people, do you ever notice you interrupt a lot? Hear me out. Sure, it’s a cultural thing, talking, debating, leaping into furious discussion, but I encourage you to listen closely this week. You don’t even have to agree, just nod and smile. People love that.
I got a new outfit for yontif. The clothes add to the newness of this time of year, just like the first day of school. I sometimes wonder if the synagogues crank up the air conditioning on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so we have an excuse to wear our new fall clothes.
The shul I grew up in had assigned seats — the bigger the macher, the closer to the bimah — so we got to know the people who sat around us. I came to rely on them being in their seats as part of the holiday: the woman a few rows in front with the beautiful silver hair; the board member who sat with his son in the section to our right, who was recently carrying his grandson up and down the aisle; the May-December couple who now look more like the a November-December couple, and the “lady doctor” who sat next to us. We knew she was a doctor because Dr. preceded her name on the pledge form we dutifully handed her each year. However, we’ve never learned her name because we didn’t have time to read the entire card as we were passing them on. I wish we had asked her name. Instead, we settled for a smile and a “Good yontif.” I still ask my parents how she is when I call home after services.
I remember the women who wore hats (my mother said women should wear hats on yontif). And I remember hanging out as a teenager, laughing and flirting. Since all the adults were in services and the teachers were busy with the younger children, the shul and its hallways were ours.
Funnily, I can’t remember the beautiful sermons my rabbi gave, but I remember these people. We marked the passing of our years by observing them — the graying of hair, the addition of grandchildren.
I’ve watched as the people having aliyahs have gone from being my parents’ friends to my friends. The children in the hallways are my children. When did this happen? The feeling of being itchy in my new tights and wool jumper, and eating apples and honey with my Hebrew school class is still so fresh in my mind.
The High Holidays make your mind wander — wander around the people around you and no longer around you. I remember sitting in the back of the sanctuary during Yizkor. I wasn’t supposed to be there. None of my friends were allowed to sit with me. But my sister did. We wanted to be there to remember our grandparents. And it was important to be in the sanctuary as if by being there we were lending our strength to our parents who were reciting “Kaddish.”
The first Rosh Hashanah away from my childhood synagogue was lonely. I was a stranger. My husband stayed home with our infant daughter so I could attend services. I sat in the front, not because I was a macher, but because I got there early. I looked around. No one had beautiful gray hair, I had no idea who the board members were and no one was sitting next to me. I saw some men drifting off, but they were not my father. I missed him as I missed my mother and my sister. I missed the familiarity of the hallways. I missed my congregation. I was wearing new clothes, but it didn’t feel like yontif. Suddenly, in walked a boy who I had grown up with, who I was in Hebrew school carpool with. He sat next to me and introduced me to his wife who was expecting their first child. He pointed out people he knew.
We reminisced about home. And with that, it wasn’t just some synagogue anymore — it was my shul.
Meredith Jacobs, author of the soon-to-be released “Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat” (HarperPerennial), runs
When Mark Firestone was searching for a shul to join, he didn’t look for a shul that had a nursery school or Hebrew school attached. Nor did he fret about the services he’d be getting for his membership fee. Instead, he wanted a shul that was quiet.
“I wanted it to be very quiet, so you can hear yourself daven, and hopefully Hashem can hear it,” said Firestone, a Pico-Robertson life insurance salesman who belongs to Aish HaTorah. “I have been to other shuls where you can barely hear the Torah reading, because people are talking so much. Aish has zero tolerance for people talking in shul.”
For many Jews, the High Holidays is a time when they consider joining or renewing their synagogue memberships. However, what attracts them to synagogues, and what rabbis feel is important when choosing a synagogue, is not always the vast array of services that synagogues and temples provide.
Many members and rabbis feel that it is the intangibles — the atmosphere in the shul or the feeling of community that really attracts people, not the Hebrew school, youth program or adult education that is offered.
“I ride a motorcycle to shul on Shabbos, but they don’t tell me what to do,” said Malibu lawyer Ron Stackler of his synagogue, Chabad of Malibu, which prides itself on its informality. “One of my dear friends reads the Wall Street Journal during services, and nobody tells him not to do that.
“But the shul is authentically Jewish in its observance,” he said. “It doesn’t compromise — but it also doesn’t browbeat anybody or nudge anybody to be all those things.”
Rabbi Levi Cunin, Stackler’s rabbi at Chabad of Malibu, said that what people should look for is a warm and friendly environment when choosing a shul.
“I don’t run the shul in a very formal way for that reason,” he said. “Before the Torah reading, we have discussions about the parsha that allows people to ask questions. Some of the questions may come across as offensive to people from religious backgrounds, but I think they are important questions.”
Other rabbis concurred with Cunin that atmosphere is the key thing, but that people should choose synagogues that are most conducive to their spiritual growth. While many rabbis advise people to join congregations whose members have a level of observance similar to their own, they also admit that the rabbi leading the congregation can be a strong draw.
“It blows my mind when people say, ‘I am comfortable where I’m at,'” said Rabbi Aryeh Markman, executive director of Aish L.A. “You don’t go to a shul to say ‘I am comfortable.’
“You go to a place that challenges you to grow,” he continued. “And you have to relate to the rabbi. A rabbi should be getting the people to keep growing in their spiritual pursuits.”
“People are looking for clergy on the bimah who they can relate to and trust,” said Rabbi Dennis Eisner of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who also counsels people on the importance of joining a synagogue in the introduction to Judaism classes he teaches at the University of Judaism.
“They are looking for a rabbi that they like to hear from,” he said. “But they also want a group of people who have shared values, shared traditions and share the language of being Jewish — people to celebrate life and lifecycles with. The place we do that is the temple.”
More controversially, some rabbis feel that what should attract people to temples is not the temple’s attitude to Jews, but rather, its attitude to non-Jews.
“It is important to consider whether the synagogue is welcoming of non-Jews into the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Allen Maller of Temple Akiba in Culver City. “It’s a very important issue.
“Some synagogues are indifferent to welcoming non-Jews,” he noted. “There are many people in mixed marriages, and it is important to welcome them in and try to make them feel more Jewish, and, hopefully, they can become more Jewish.”
According to Maller, his aggressive outreach to non-Jews has inspired many converts, including one who became a cantor.
But most agree that people should have a higher purpose in mind when joining a synagogue.
“People will often join a synagogue because of the rabbi, but will only stay if they find a place in the community,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. “You want a synagogue that puts a priority on the things you care about, and whose leadership speaks about things that resonate in your soul, and that gives you the opportunity to grow as a Jew in the directions that you wish to grow.
“It’s more than just a social group — that you can find in a country club,” he continued. “You come to a synagogue to find a sacred community.”
I’ve always had a difficult time assimilating tragedy, and although it hit much closer to home for me, Sept. 11 was not much different.
Even though it touched people all around me, and I was definitely affected, it still did not seem as intense or painful as it should have been.
I sought the solace of my friends, and gave it as much as possible, just like everyone else in New York City. And although I knew people who died in the Trade Center, and others who lost close relatives and friends, I still only understood the calamity in my mind. It didn’t really hit my heart the way it hit others’.
Then I found a uniquely Jewish way to relate, and was able to come to personal terms with this tragedy.
Many who died in the Trade Center were never found intact. Outside a hospital in the East 20s, a number of refrigerated containers were set up to hold the various body parts that had been recovered while they awaited DNA testing and proper burial.
Of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a large number had to have been Jewish. Thus, it was assumed that many of the human pieces in those containers had come from Jewish bodies.
When a Jewish person dies, there is a tradition that someone stay up with the body all night before it is buried, watching over it and saying Tehilim — Psalms. Called shmirah (which literally means guarding), it is a sign of respect for the person who has died. As the days rolled on after Sept. 11, and body parts were recovered, a 24-hour rotation of people began to do shmirah in a tent (or trailer once it got colder) next to those refrigerated containers.
One benefit to freelancing is that I have a flexible schedule, so I often volunteered for a middle-of-the-night shift, from 2-6 a.m. For the bulk of that time, I was alone, saying Tehilim or silently meditating about the tragedy and the real people who had been lost.
Until then, I had mostly focused on the narrow escapes of the living. I had friends who should have been at work in the Trade Center, but weren’t that morning for some strangely miraculous reason or another. Others I know were chased through the streets of downtown by a cloud of smoke and debris as the buildings came tumbling down. Some had even been inside the second tower, or lower down in the first, but thankfully were able to get away safely.
I also knew a young woman, though not a close friend, who was among the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who never made it out. And after Sept. 11, I became friends with a woman who lost her brother that morning. The stories I heard about these people put a personal face on Sept. 11.
Still, despite these personal connections, I still felt less deeply affected by Sept. 11 than I should have, until I engaged in this Jewish ritual.
Jewish mourning practices are designed more for the living survivors than for those who have passed on. The process of moving from the intense seven days of shiva, to the less stringent 30 of shloshim, to the even more relaxed year of mourning following the loss of a parent, allow the survivor to accept the pain of loss and ease back into regular life.
The three weeks that lead up to Tisha B’Av, however, play out differently. As observant Jews approach this day of mourning for the loss of the two temples in Jerusalem, there’s an increase in the intensity of mourning. This allows us to acquire and assimilate a feeling of this loss, even though we never experienced it.
In much the same way, the shmirah I did after Sept. 11 allowed me to feel more compellingly the tragedy of that day. This year, on Sept. 11, I will again be saying Tehilim for the memory of those we lost. I invite you all to do the same.
May all of their neshomot (souls) have an aliyah (uplifting).
In New Orleans, the Jews are the only ones buried in the ground. Others, if their mourners have any means at all, are laid with the expectation of eternal rest in stone crypts to protect them from rising waters. My mother used to say, “Someday, we Jews’ll all be floatin’ down the river.”
Just as in California, where we know that one day “the big one” will come, in New Orleans, we knew that someday the water would overtake us. But the denial overtakes the wisdom, and we stay and build lives. I think of Pompeii. New Orleans was so beautiful.
Last week, I accompanied my daughter, Jen, to New York University for her freshman year. I returned home from New York on Monday, Aug. 29, with the expectation that I would be tending an empty nest. However, on the flight home, the CNN images on my private television screen, showed me that the nest that needs tending is the city itself, the one that nurtured me and held my memories — the place that gave me such delight throughout my youth and so much heartbreak as a young adult, when my mother and sister died in 1971.
I hope to be able to join the Red Cross relief effort, starting in Houston and from there, perhaps, deployed to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where we vacationed when I was a girl. I will then connect with the recovery efforts of the New Orleans Jewish Federation, which has moved to Houston and Baton Rouge, along with much of my New Orleans Jewish community.
I would like to be a Jewish face in the rescue efforts with the larger community — a student rabbi working in a non-Jewish setting. And then I want the solace of comforting my own.
My hope is to try to provide consolation to the people who surrounded me as I said Kaddish for my father during the flood of 1995. That was said to be the greatest flood in 500 years, and people who came to comfort me came through mud and water, but that experience doesn’t come close to the water and heartbreak that now must be drained from the streets of New Orleans.
My family came to New Orleans at the turn of the last century, and they took part in building many of the Jewish institutions. At one time, we belonged to two Orthodox synagogues, one Reform and one Conservative. I grew up in the classically Reform Touro Synagogue, one of the oldest congregations in the United States.
My grandfather sold furniture from the back of his horse cart, and around 1925, he and five other peddlers pooled their meager resources and opened a store, Universal Furniture House.
As one of seven children, my father inherited one-seventh of his family’s one-sixth share in Universal. He became its manager and built it into one of the largest furniture businesses in the South. Though he only owned a small part of it, as head of it he was able to play a prominent role in the New Orleans business and philanthropic community, particularly the New Orleans Jewish Federation and the Louisiana Red Cross.
My father loved New Orleans almost as much as he loved me. I am so glad he is not alive to see this. Or my Aunt Rosalie, who was the executive secretary to the mayors of New Orleans over a period of 20 years, which means that she had more influence than just about anyone in the city.
As a child, it seemed natural to me to go in and out of the mayor’s office whenever I wanted. We were seated in the mayor’s box at City Hall for all of the Mardi Gras parades, while Aunt Rosalie embarrassed us as she pranced around in her Mardi Gras costumes that were more fabulous each year. My Aunt Ida had an antique jewelry shop on Royal Street in the French Quarter.
Every Shabbat, when I sing “Shalom Aleichem,” I hear their voices, see their faces and smell the chicken being prepared by their cook, who was the sister-in-law of Louis Armstrong.
Until Thursday, Sept. 1, when they were rescued, driven to Baton Rouge and flown to New York, my elderly cousins, 95-year-old Rosalie Cohen (three brothers married three sisters, and they all named their children Rosalie, Ida, Mose and Lazard), and Mildred Brown, 87, were stuck in Mildred’s condo in the Garden District, a part of New Orleans where the water did not get too terribly high — only a few feet. They had a caregiver with them. I actually got through to them on the phone three times.
Rosalie Cohen was one of the grand dames of the Jewish world — think Miss Melanie of “Gone with the Wind” meets “Driving Miss Daisy.” A celebrated beauty and intellect. Warm and charming, with a lyrical voice and, of course, perfect manners.
She was the first woman vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, a Hebraic scholar who stayed at the Beit HaNasi (the president’s house) when she visited Israel.
She and Teddy Kollek were the last survivors of one of the major Zionist gatherings, a witness to the Arab riots of 1929 at the Wall and, I believe, one of the last Jews at the Wall before it became inaccessible to Jews for so many years. I have a picture of her with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Rosalie does not understand why she is not in her beautiful home in a lower part of the city, with her ancient and rambling oak tree, which is registered as a “protected tree.” Her younger sister, Mimmie, says she has to explain what is going on to Rosalie 20 times a day.
On Wednesday, I spoke to Rosalie who greeted me in her melodic upbeat voice, “Oh darling, how nice of you to call. We’re just riding it out and waiting for things to get back to normal.” The caregiver told me that they were waiting, hoping to be rescued by the National Guard.
When I told Rosalie that I might be coming in with the Red Cross, she said, “Well, do give us a call when you are in town.” I imagine that when the rescuers came, she put on white gloves and stockings.
How they were able to drive out of New Orleans without the car being hijacked and what they must have seen from that car is beyond me. The survivors whose harrowing stories I know are the ones with means and, therefore, the lucky ones.
When I last spoke to them before their rescue, there was only about a foot of water in their street, but they were probably the only ones remaining in their building. Of course, there was no electricity or air conditioning. The caregiver said they had adequate food and water, although Mimmie said otherwise. When I asked why she didn’t leave, she said she was “too old to travel.”
Today, Sunday, Sept. 4, I spoke to a dear family friend, age 90. She is in Houston with her grandson, having come with only the clothes she was wearing.
She said, “We were given a directive by the mayor to get out in one hour. I left everything, but we, at least, have our lives.
“I’ve just cried constantly since this happened. Such a feeling of loss. Not for the material things … but all the people….
“I wonder who I’ll ever see again. I tell myself, ‘Stop crying, at least you are alive.’ The people in the Holocaust didn’t even have their lives.”
When I told her of Rosalie and Mildred’s whereabouts, she said, “I saw Rosalie at a meeting about a week ago. She was as elegant and beautiful as ever. I told her that she had been my inspiration, all those years ago, for getting involved in Jewish community life and how grateful I was to have her as a role model. Now I will probably never see her again.”
She began to cry.
Was it Ellie Weisel who said, “There are things that are real that could not possibly be true?”
When I speak, I give this picture as a definition of healing:
In 1971, after my mother and sister died, I left New Orleans. When people asked, “How can you leave?” I said, “I have to go. Every tree, every street corner has a memory. It is unbearable.”
Years later, when I returned to New Orleans and people asked how it felt to be home, I would say, “Every tree, every street corner has a memory. It is exquisite.”
Now every tree and every street corner needs healing.
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, forwarded, these words:
“Perhaps we cannot expect to know why the world is broken; it may be enough to be blessed with the capacity to see the brokenness and to respond with love.”
Please all of you, do what you can.
Love to all of you. For those of you who pray — send prayers to my beautiful city. For those of you who know New Orleans, you know what a treasure we have lost. n
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.
“We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Jossey-Bass, $24.95).
Is modern Judaism facing an identity crisis? One would think so from reading “We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do?” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. This provocative work, which Steinsaltz calls “a private, intimate conversation within the Jewish family,” looks to bring out into the open “the issues and subjects that are rarely raised in a straightforward [manner].” Included are controversial topics such as “Are We a Nation or a Religion?”; “Do We Have Our Own Set of Character Traits?”; “Is Money Our God?”; and “Are We Excessively Warm or Excessively Cold?”
Although Steinsaltz could have written a scholarly treatise, he chose instead to compose “a conversation-like study and a clarification of thoughts that should provoke the reader to further thinking and to drawing his own conclusions.”
He acknowledges the many objections that readers could have to his work. But his easy-to-read prose allows for a wider readership than a scholarly work. The book should elicit conversation. I found myself arguing with the text and then expanding on the ideas Steinsaltz introduces. Even when I don’t agree with him, I admire his well-thought-out arguments.
Perhaps the most controversial chapter deals with the nature of the Jewish people. The question of whether we are a nation or a religion has never been successfully answered. What Steinsaltz believes is that neither of these determinations adequately describes the connection that exists between Jews. Instead, he feels we are a family, “not a family in the biological sense of the word… [but] rather a human-spiritual structure.”
So a “gentile who converts to Judaism does not only belong to the Jewish religion; he is considered a son of the Jewish people and even a son of the family.”
Steinsaltz does believe that the Jewish people have their own character traits, but he also says “that sometimes we use them and sometimes we abuse them.” While he feels it’s impossible to outline all Jewish characteristics, he mentions “our flexibility is a critical survival skill,” that “we are quintessentially a stiff-necked people” and that “we are buoyed by faith.”
These traits have their good and bad sides. For example, being flexible has helped the Jewish people adapt to the different countries they have lived in during the Diaspora. On the other hand, this same trait “leads to a sense of dissociation, in the sense that a person can go from one place to another without striking roots too deeply in any particular place.” By being able to belong everywhere, Jews may never truly feel that they belong anywhere.
The chapter about Jews and money takes on the myth that Jews are obsessed with money and that all Jews are rich. Steinsaltz looks at the historical origins of this idea, explaining how this “error of perception” came into being. He also looks at the reasons why Jewish poverty is “not visible to outsiders,” emphasizing the fact that Jews have always looked to each other to support the needy members of their community.
In the section that examines “are we too cold- or warm-hearted,” Steinsaltz uses a cultural perspective, showing how these generalizations tell more about the people who make them then they do about Jews.
Jews are often criticized as being too intellectual on the one hand or too emotional on the other, but Steinsaltz finds the combination of these traits “praiseworthy” since they “can be understood as two expressions of the same power.” Using our brains and our emotions gives a depth to the Jewish experience and leads to “a clearer and sharper way of thinking.”
Steinsaltz also explains how Torah study, prayer and mysticism have benefited from our ability to express both sides of our nature.
In other chapters, Steinsaltz looks at the Jewish messianic complex, the role of Jews in the world, whether or not Judaism influences our thinking processes, how anti-Semitism affects other nations and the nature of Jewish leadership.
Many times I found myself debating the ideas he sets forward. For example, is Jewish identity only based on the “religious stuff” as he claims? Secular Jews might well disagree. As I thought more, I found myself acknowledging that without the “religious stuff,” the cultural aspects of Jewish identity might soon disappear, especially since Jews have so easily adapted to the civilizations they’ve lived in.
What “We Jews” doesn’t deal with is the many practical problems currently facing the Jewish world. It avoids the “Who is a Jew” question faced by Israel. The more politically inclined will wonder how his work can help them deal with the crises currently facing Israel. It is one thing to say that we need to return to our religious values; it’s another to define what those values are.
But the main concern of this work is not politics; it seeks to help readers work out their religious ideas and place them in the context of modern life. In that context, the book worked for me personally: It made me analyze my feelings about Jews and Jewish identity.
“Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop” by Joseph Lelyveld (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22).
As a child, Joseph Lelyveld’s parents called him “memory boy.” He was the family’s institutional memory, paying attention and recalling with ease events and people — a useful skill for someone who would reach the top of his profession as a journalist.
Lelyveld, the former executive editor of The New York Times who spent almost 40 years at the newspaper, has written an unconventional and compelling book about his family, “Omaha Blues” (Farrar, Straus Giroux). He describes the work as a memory loop rather than a memoir, as he traces a particular circuit of connections, using his reporting skills to research family mysteries and events he seeks to better understand.
“History may be linear but memory, at least mine, isn’t; it runs in loops,” he writes.
The loop circles his heart. The book delves into personal history, which might seem surprising for someone who has a public reputation as a private man. As he told The Jewish Week in an interview in his Upper West Side home, he began this as a personal exploration, unsure whether he would show it to anyone.
In 1996, when his father was dying, a family friend led him to a trunk filled with family memorabilia stored in the basement of the Cleveland synagogue, where his father served as rabbi. He had the contents shipped to his country home, and it took years before he began sifting through it, but he finally found the seeds of this book. He began writing after he retired from The Times in 2001, some months later showed it to an agent and had a contract by the time he completed what he calls his little encore, his return to The Times in 2003.
Lelyveld is the son of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a prominent Reform leader, and Toby Lelyveld, who was less interested in the role of rabbi’s wife than in her own literary studies. His father was kind but largely absent, showing the same warmth to his family as he did to his congregants. His mother preferred independence to family life, and struggled. Their marriage ultimately dissolved. For the memory boy, childhood was neither easy nor happy, as he was often left with grandparents, and once with Seventh-Day Adventists on a Nebraska farm. Early on, he developed a sense of self-sufficiency.
The family lived in Omaha, Neb., where Rabbi Lelyveld led a congregation, before moving to New York, where he took on organizational rabbinic roles, including heading up the national Hillel organization. Although Omaha faded quickly from the author’s memory as a real place, it had symbolic meaning as somewhere he was from, rather than Manhattan. He would go on to have a career as a foreign correspondent, living and working in places that were briefly home, but where he didn’t altogether belong.
He doesn’t have many memories of carefree father/son moments, but this one stands out: The summer he was 16, he and his father were driving on the highway in a new, powder-blue convertible, wearing only sunglasses above their waists, taking in the sun. When they were stopped by a state trooper for speeding, the officer noticed his father’s clerical title on his driver’s license and let them go, saying something about his being “a man of the cloth,” without commenting on how little cloth was visible.
Lelyveld also focuses on a family friend and rabbi named Ben, who gave him the devoted attention he didn’t get from his parents. Before working with Rabbi Lelyveld in New York, Ben was driven from his Montgomery, Ala., congregation for his outspoken support of the Scottsboro Boys, and he was eventually fired by Rabbi Lelyveld for his communist affiliations. Through tracking down family members, combing FBI files and other archives, Lelyveld frames Ben’s biography, weaving his friend’s story into his own.
In an endnote, he tells of how his father, as a Zionist official, would call on the publisher of The Times to advocate for the Zionist cause. He notes the irony that a half-century later “representatives of Jewish groups who wanted to talk about the paper’s coverage were usually steered to his son.”
In conversation, he mentions a visit by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein: The rabbi asked if he was Arthur Lelyveld’s son, and the editor asked the rabbi if he was Joseph Lookstein’s son. Lelyveld recalls that the senior Rabbi Lookstein, who served on his father’s Hillel Board, was at his bar mitzvah at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
But readers won’t hear about that bar mitzvah in this book. It’s not amnesia but a disinterest in certain coming-of-age details — usually found in memoirs — that makes the author selective in reporting.
Lelyveld, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, “Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White” (Viking, 1986), recognizes that memory is neither truth nor history, but a kind of storyteller. He carefully shapes the narrative, in language that’s precise and poetic, powerful, too. When he might sound whining, he catches himself, grateful for his gifts: He moved from a downcast family life into a strong and joyful marriage and to an illustrious career.
In person, he’s articulate, manages to be both confident and modest, sometimes funny, like the voice of the book. Like his father, he has a firmness of purpose.
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.
Recently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued an apology for its Holocaust on Your Plate campaign and exhibit, which showed concentration camp images next to photos of animal abuse on factory farms. The comparison was extraordinarily tasteless, and widely condemned. PETA expressed surprise at the negative reaction, and while they should have known better, their campaign has thankfully ended.
However, we should not go as far as some who disavow any consideration of the Holocaust in reacting to cruelty to farm animals. PETA’s display was vulgar and offensive, but it taps into a deep call for justice that should speak to anyone who still feels the utter horror of the Final Solution, which continues to cast its dark shadow over the Jewish collective memory.
I remember as a child listening to survivors’ stories of utter inhumanity, trying to imagine the incomprehensible magnitude of suffering. I once started counting to 6 million, calculating that it would take months to do so even without stopping to eat or sleep.
Long after the war, my grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor, would cover his mouth in panic attacks, believing he smelled the gas. On Holocaust Memorial Day, I always confronted the unfathomable question of how so many people could act with a complete lack of compassion or basic moral decency. While such monstrous evil flourished, people went about their lives averting their eyes.
For me, these stories were defining elements of my moral character. The ethnic cleansings in Bosnia, the genocide in Rwanda — these were different from the Holocaust in important ways. And yet, the specter of concentration camps and gas chambers hangs over my head when I read about these atrocities, while the world does nothing.
I still remember when I first learned about factory farms. Animals crammed in crates and cages so tightly they could not turn around, lie down or stretch a limb; living in their own filth, beaten with iron bars and electric prods. Body parts torn off with pliers or mutilated with hot knives. Animals’ bodies hormonally and genetically manipulated to grow so fast that their legs deform and break under their own weight. Animals never allowed to breathe fresh air, feel sunlight, experience any mental stimulation or feel any affection. And then meeting their final fate, often skinned alive or drowned in tanks of scalding water.
Raised with storybook pictures of pigs rolling in the mud and chickens pecking in the barnyard, the reality of modern agriculture shocked me. The enormity of it — literally billions of animals each year suffering this miserable fate in our country alone — was incomprehensible. I’d never heard about it before — why was nobody talking about it? Could I justify these horrific abuses just for the momentary pleasure of flesh on my tongue? After all, these cruelties were not driven by ideology, but by economics: they were doing it because I was paying them to.
Had I not been raised under the shadow of the Holocaust, I might very well have chosen simply not to think about it. How easy it would have been to avert my eyes and enjoy my chicken wings. But the memory of 6 million murdered Jews spoke to me. Not because of some offensive equating of concentration camp victims with animals, or of the Holocaust with farming, but because I could not let myself be like the Germans who allowed themselves to be complicit in a massive crime. One does not have to offensively compare Jews with cows, or an ideology of hate with profit-driven cruelty, to see the application of what for me was a central lesson of the Holocaust: When the strong abuse the weak, we should not remain silent.
This was how the Holocaust inspired me to stop eating animal products. And I am hardly alone. Just as Holocaust memories have inspired so many Jews to fight for civil rights, religious freedom and other forms of social justice, they have also inspired many of us to fight against the horrors of factory farming. Doubtlessly, PETA was hoping for this kind of thinking with their wildly inappropriate exhibit, expecting that the injustice of the Holocaust would wake our consciences about another, albeit completely different, injustice. Unfortunately, in spite of their repeated assertions that they were not equating humans and animals, their exhibit appeared to do just that. People were rightly outraged.
Nevertheless, I worry that many Jews will remember the Holocaust but forget its lessons. We should never avert our eyes to cruelty, and say, “I don’t want to think about it.” Critics of the PETA exhibit universally concede that the factory farm cruelties are wrong, but have let PETA’s exhibit distract them from speaking out against these cruelties. With the exhibit over, we no longer have any excuse.
Right now animals are being squeezed into trucks so tightly that their innards prolapse. Animals with broken legs are being dragged to the slaughterhouse by chains behind trucks. Animals are being branded with hot irons and castrated without painkillers. Sick or injured animals are left without medical care to die slow, painful deaths. The abuses go on and on. While we shouldn’t need to remember the Holocaust to know this cannot be justified merely to please our palates, that memory serves for me as a stark reminder that I want no part in mercilessness.
Noam Mohr is coordinator of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. The views
expressed here, however, are his own.
Cigarette butts, old candy wrappers, dirty napkins on the ground. Above, Jews, Jews, Jews, lots of Jews, walking, smoking, laughing. First day of Chol Hamoed, there’s a breezy, late afternoon glow. I’m sipping Turkish coffee at a café on Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv and I’m surrounded by a sea of Jewish humanity. There are Jews in caftans, Jews in bleached jeans, Jews with Michael Jackson T-shirts, Jews with big jewelry, with strollers, with spiked heels, with sandals, blonde Jews, one black Jew with a kippah, Jews with fanny packs, one with payos, little Jews with pacifiers, bald teenage Jews. Sounds of Betach! Nachon! Young Jews with diamonds on their cheeks, female Jews arm in arm, a Jew on a moped riding the sidewalk, another handing out Rabbi Na Na Na Nachman leaflets, Oriental music competing with Green Day and with a lone guitarist playing a modern version of “Shalom Aleichem.” Jews with pink skirts and Jews with jeans out of fashion, a Jew with a price tag still on her turquoise dress, a Mizrahi Jew with a disco hairdo, constant cries of “b’emet?” two 8-year-old girls walking together, not a single Jew in a suit and tie, the distant sound of an ambulance siren, cellphones hanging around necks, a red poster with the words “Coke sucker,” 1,000 conversations that aren’t about Gaza or Sharon, no one handing out parking tickets, café chairs and tables out of order — protruding out on the sidewalk like a jagged border on a map, Jews with crutches, one in a wheelchair, Jews with glitter on their shirts, a Jew on a bicycle holding a surfboard, 1,000 sunglasses (most of them placed above the forehead), a petite redhead in an army uniform, a Jew with a Yankee cap, a four-seater Renault with seven people in it and a Moshiach bumper sticker on the back (honking), a Jew with a buff torso and black T-shirt with one English word on it: “Open,” a little girl in a stroller who looks just like my little Eva, a tough-looking Jew with long sideburns who needs four fender bumps to park his Rover hatchback, a girl with pink hair, a little storefront with a huge sign that says The Krenko Records Shop, a little black dog without a leash, a Peruvian-looking man with long, black hair holding a baby, a beggar saying “Chag Sameach,” a frum mother with her daughter, no one taking pictures, a bathroom stall with a narrow, vertical window (presumably so a security guard could see inside) and a small poster of the new Sean Penn/Nicole Kidman movie. Pretty much everyone talking, either live or on a cellphone, sun setting and not many people leaving, no CNN news crew in sight, litter on the ground, live Jews everywhere.
David Suissa is founder and editor of OLAM Magazine and founder of Jews for Truth Now.
One day, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar was riding his donkey along the coastal road. He was enjoying the beautiful scenery and reviewing in his mind the wonderful study session he had with his rabbi at Migdal Eder, when he encountered a man who was extremely ugly.
“How ugly you are,” said the startled rabbi. “Are all the people in your city as ugly as you are?”
The man responded calmly, “What can I say? Go to the artisan who crafted me and tell him that his handiwork is ugly.”
Upon hearing that, Ben Elazar realized that he had gravely sinned and begged the man to forgive him. But the man refused to forgive him until Ben Elazar spoke to the Creator. The rabbi ran after the man a long way until they came to a town. The town’s people called out: “Welcome, rabbi.”
The man asked the people, “Whom are you calling rabbi?”
The people pointed to Ben Elazar.
“If this is a rabbi,” said the man, “let there be no more rabbis among the Jews.”
Eventually the man forgave the rabbi after a public apology, and Ben Elazar had learned a humbling lesson.
I have always understood the reply of the man as one of acceptance: “This is who I am, this is how God created me, I am not as lucky as you, but you have to accept me.”
But today I read his words from a totally different point of view.
He is not talking with self-pity but with pride, and he does not regard the rabbi as better, wiser or luckier. The man Ben Elazar encountered drew upon the wisdom of Job who said, in reference to the weak and the poor: “Did not He who made me in my mother’s belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?”
What the man was telling Ben Elazar was that they were equals, that they were peers and that the same Creator who created the rabbi in his image also created also the “ugly” man. So who is a truer image of God?
The message is a universal one and it is directed to all mankind. How much better would the world be if we looked at people and thought first of what we have in common with us instead of analyzing how they differ from and are therefore inferior to us?
We are human beings, created in the image of God; we talk and communicate, smile and cry, laugh and get depressed. We feel pity at the sight of a helpless animal and frustration when we can do nothing to help. When we realize how similar we are, the road is open for understanding and for appreciating the unique gifts and talents of every human being.
In this week’s parsha, we read about the purification process of the leper. According to the rabbis, the sin of the leper is the sin of judging the fallacies of others and making them known to all, and most of us, like Ben Elazar, are guilty of engaging in this kind of judgment. The leper is rejected and alienated in order for him to experience, even for a short while, the pain he afflicted upon others by judging and rejecting them. When his process of purification is completed, the Torah commands that “the priest shall order two live clean birds … to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered … and he shall take the live bird … and dip … in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered … and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.”
This ceremony is shocking and powerful. The bird is an analogy to the neshama, the soul. The slaughtered bird is the person who was offended by the leper, as our sages have taught us that insulting someone in public is tantamount to murder, and the same follows for gossip and calumny.
The live bird, representing the leper, is dipped in the blood to signify that he is stained by that sin. It is sent free in the open country to tell the leper that on one hand he is now cleansed and free to join the community, but that on the other hand he should always remember his past actions and avoid such behavior in the future. He is also told that once he spread the word, it is very difficult to retrieve it and undo the damage, since it is like a bird that can fly freely everywhere.
Let, then, the clean bird of our soul fly free and unstained in the open country, and let it see, from a bird’s-eye view, only the good and positive in our fellow human beings.
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.
The history of any people consists of more than the study of the events that have influenced the course of its development. Even more important is the record of the people’s inner life, its values and aspirations, its views of the good life, its speculation about man and his place in the scheme of things. This is especially true of the Jewish people, whose long and turbulent career has spanned three and a half millennia, as well as six continents.
The life of the Jewish people was shaped primarily by the play of inner spiritual forces, and its survival to this day is inexplicable without taking it into account. An understanding of the Jewish character depends on a sensitive appreciation of its literature, which not only reflected the life of the people, but also helped fashion it. Jewish literature is, of course, long and varied. It exists in a number of languages, reflects many climes, and gives expression to a variety of moods and interests.
Yet, there is one book that stands out above all others in the expression of the Jewish soul, one that is second to the Torah alone in its influence on the Jewish mind and spirit — the Book of Psalms. More than 50 psalms are included in the Jewish prayer book and a number of pious Jews recite the entire book weekly.
Aesthetically, Psalms is one of the most pleasing books in the Bible, consisting of a wide variety of lyrical poetry, the most beautiful spiritual poetry ever assembled. It has won a permanent place in the religious literature of the world, speaking to the men and women who read and reread it because it reflects the yearning of their own hearts.
It is neither a unitary book nor the product of any one pen or age. Tradition ascribes it to David, the “sweet singer of Israel,” and the great king may indeed have contributed to it. But it is not the voice of a king alone that resounds in its pages. A number of its 150 chapters may have been composed by Levites who are referred to in their headings, others like the 20th psalm by priests or like the first or 49th by teachers of “wisdom.” Many reflect the cries of simple souls reaching out from the depths for the God of their salvation, as well as the joyful tones of thanksgiving expressing gratitude for experiencing God’s saving power.
What impresses the reader most is the amazing reality of the psalmist’s sense of his closeness to God. What emerges from virtually each chapter is the communion of the individual soul with God, not alone in solitary moments, but most often in fellowship with others. Indeed, it is only as a member of the worshipping community that the pious person experiences communion with God in full measure, a view that has remained constant in the synagogue to this day.
For the psalmist, as for the Torah, genuine religiosity is expressed both in one’s conduct and in one’s life orientation. The zeal for righteousness is the sine qua non of the religious life: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not long after what is false, and does not swear deceitfully” (24:3f.).
Psalms, like the other books of the Bible, is not a philosophical tract but its pervasive theme leaps out at any one who immerses him or herself in its pages. It reflects a deep and abiding trust in God that brings with it a feeling of serene confidence and joy.
On occasion, the joy is muted by a sense of resignation and even despair, but crying to God “out of the depths,” the psalmist discovers the saving presence of God. Humbled, he is ready to accept all that God chooses to send him. He is consumed by one desire alone, to be worthy of the divine love, to prove worthy of experiencing the divine presence: “Who have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee I have no desire on earth. My flesh and heart waste away, but God is my portion forever” (73:25f.).
There are many types of psalms such as petitions, laments, songs of thanksgiving and a variety of liturgies, including a number of pilgrims’ songs. But hymns, calling on the congregation to praise God, are dominant. That is why the book is called Sefer Tehillim, the “Book of Hymns.”
The hymn is very simple in its essential form, though occasionally complex in content. It generally consists of two basic elements: the call to praise God and the objective reason for doing so.
It is not surprising, then, that the shortest chapter in the book, and indeed in the entire Bible, is a hymn consisting of only two verses: “Praise the Lord, all ye nations; laud him, all ye peoples. For His loving-kindness is great toward us; and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.” Note the combination here of the two elements that are held in tension throughout biblical religion: the assertion that God is concerned about all peoples and, at the same time, that he has a special relationship to a particular people, a theme which recurs through many of the psalms.
Some hymns trace God’s revelation in nature, such as the majestic 104th psalm; others in the history of the world, and especially in the history of Israel, as in the oft-recited 114th. Most of all, God is seen as revealed in the Torah, Israel’s most precious gift. Not surprisingly, then, the lengthiest psalm and the longest chapter in the Bible, the 119th, is an alphabetical acrostic in praise of Torah and of its divine author.
If Tolstoy is correct in judging a work of art by the universality of its appeal, then the book of Psalms is second to none in its greatness. It won the hearts of all through the ages and became their constant companion. It helped sustain countless men and women in their darkest hours and was a source of comfort and faith to those who regularly turned to its pages. It remains one of ancient Israel’s greatest contributions to humanity, an inexhaustible source of solace and inspiration to the world.
David Lieber is president emeritus of the University of Judaism.
This week’s portion is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. Moses is exhausted because he spends the whole day talking to anyone who needs counseling or judgment. Yitro, who is visiting him, says: “You’ll kill yourself if you keep up at this pace. Get some people to help you.” And that’s exactly what Moses does.
Do your parents ever seem too exhausted to pay any attention to you? The best way you can help your parents out is by telling them you understand, that you know how much they love you and you know that they will give you the attention you need as soon as they are able.
Moses took care of 600,000 Jews. Today, there are 13.2 million of us in the whole world. That’s still not very many.
Here is a list of a few Jewish populations around the world.
Can you match the city or country to the amount of Jews who live there?
Send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Jewish Memory
Here is a story written by a sixth-grader.
A few years ago, my dad took me to visit my grandma, Helen, at the nursing home. She was 92, and had had a stroke four years earlier. No one could talk to her much because she was always sleeping. Through the years, she just got worse and worse until she couldn’t even open an eyelid.
When we got there, it was kind of a shock to me, since I hadn’t been there for so long. We finally found Grandma in a wheelchair in the patio. As usual, she was fast asleep. With her pale face and thinning hair, she did not look like the beloved grandmother I used to know. My father told me to talk to her. I tried but she didn’t move. I told jokes, laughed, whistled; I even acted out something funny that I had recently seen on TV, but my grandmother stayed still as a rock.
My dad saw my impatience, and said sympathetically: “Come on, honey, we can leave now,” he said.
But I didn’t budge. I felt I had a goal to attain, so I wouldn’t just let go.
“Let me try one last time,” I answered. I thought and thought, and just when I couldn’t think anymore, I remembered I knew a little Yiddish.
A few months ago had been Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. I, together with the rest of my class had sang many Holocaust songs including, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol.” I knew Grandma grew up speaking Yiddish with her five sisters in New York, so I gave it one more shot. I sang the song. Surprisingly, it worked. Grandma opened her eyes and smiled. And even though it was only for a brief second, I knew I would treasure that moment forever. I did.
Grandma died on Oct. 26, 2003.
Andrea Hodos cuts a sprightly figure directing 14-year-old Sophie Porter-Zasada, dancing the biblical story of Sarah laughing as she hears of her pregnancy with Isaac.
A dancer by training, Hodos guides Sophie through movements that cause Sophie to curl into herself at Sarah’s shame or joyfully bend her body with Sarah’s happiness, as she recites a story she has written of Sarah’s experience.
“I call it ‘Moving Torah,'” Hodos said. “Its goal is to help you think with your body and move with your mind by using dance and writing together to interpret Jewish stories.”
It may be easy to think of Jews as the People of the Book, but the People of the Dance? For some skeptics, images might spring to mind a Chasidic kickline with tzitzit flying as they read tracts of Talmud. What Hodos is actually doing, however, is using choreography and body movement to unpack layers of meaning in Jewish texts and stories.
It’s an unusual art and one in which Hodos is among the pioneers.
“There’s a bit of a paradox, perhaps, with Jews and movement,” she said. “Words are certainly central to Jews, but Jewish culture is inherently rife with movement. It’s just that a lot of it is unconscious, like hand gestures, davening and dancing at celebrations.”
In her work with textual interpretation, Hodos is trying to use movement in a more conscious way.
“I’m doing very unconventional things with my body, but I have a deep engagement with Jewish text and the culture. I feel that I can say more with words if I move also,” Hodos said. “Gesture gives stereoscopic effect to my words. It magnifies the meaning, and allows me to convey multiple ideas at the same time. It creates richer, more layered meaning, and there’s more space inside of it for the audience to interpret.”
In addition to leading workshops, Hodos is currently performing her own movement/storytelling piece, “Cutting My Hair in Jerusalem,” which will appear at Temple Beth Am on Jan. 9. It chronicles the transformation of how Hodos saw herself as a woman and as a Jew during a pivotal year in Jerusalem. The piece tells the story of her voyage from being the granddaughter of a first-generation American who was swept into the cultural melting pot to an adult immersed in Judaism and struggling with a feminist identity in the religious world. By offering witty and thoughtful choreography to punctuate and play with the situations Hodos finds herself in, it also offers a vivid example of the use of dance in storytelling to offer multiple levels of meaning.
A dancer throughout her childhood, Hodos went to Yale to study English literature. There she found, “the dancers weren’t willing to expand themselves into a more intellectual discourse, and the literary people weren’t willing to use movement as an interpretive tool for understanding text. I felt both were incomplete, but had no idea how to link them.”
Her confusion found a solution in the work of choreographer Liz Lerman, a pioneer in the field of community-based performance. Lerman works with a wide variety of people to help them tell their stories through movement. After taking several workshops with Lerman, it occurred to Hodos there was a way to link her two loves — Jewish text and dance.
Drawing on Lerman’s work, Hodos begins her own workshops by preparing students with a “toolbox” of movements. She will ask the students to find a shape that intrigues them — anything from the rectangle of a book’s spine to the curve of a window arch. She’ll have the student trace the shape with their finger, allowing them to abstract the shape into a physical movement. Hodos then instructs the students to use various parts of the body to retrace that same movement’s arc. They move from basing movements on details they can see to details in the text.
“My ideal workshop is a range of ages, sizes and experiences,” said Hodos, who has led classes for more than 12 years.
For the last eight years Hodos has worked principally with the students at Milken Community High School, where she teaches. This year she’s returned to working with other groups throughout the city. Hodos recognizes that it can be difficult for her non-dancer students to move their bodies in public performance. “The ‘toolbox’ allows the participant to anchor him or herself in the story in interesting and surprising ways.”
It’s certainly worked for student Porter-Zasada’s understanding of Sarah’s story. “When you act the Torah out and feel it with your body, you can really understand things differently,” she said. “Now I see how you can express a whole other story with the movements.”
“Cutting My Hair in Jerusalem,” will be performed on Jan. 9 at 7 p.m at Temple Beth Am, 1039 La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 652-7354, ext. 219.
Nancy and Kim Goldov wanted to personalize everything about their wedding. She sewed her own gown. He composed music for the ceremony. They both created a new last name to share: combining Stolov and Goldschmidt into Goldov. So it probably didn’t surprise anyone that the couple spent months crafting a one-of-a-kind chuppah to say their vows under.
“The rabbi used the image of weaving our lives together,” when he commented about the way Nancy and Kim carefully planned their creative wedding, with the help of friends and family. Nancy says they decided to make their own chuppah out of hand-dyed silk and handcrafted wood in part because they wanted to create a lasting memory.
“The wedding became a focus for all of our creative energy,” she explained.
They also were able to take such a creative approach to the chuppah because they had lots of time and friends who were craftspeople and willing to help with the woodworking and dying of the silk.
“It wasn’t a sudden wedding. It was a very planned wedding,” Nancy said. “It’s not something every couple could do or want to…. We kind of went overboard.”
But now, thanks to their hard work, Nancy and Kim also have a beautiful canopy over their bed. They can look up and see the magical “tree of life” with pomegranates, apples and figs. The tree surrounds a Star of David made from a piece of spallted maple wood found in a park. The four posts of the canopy are a delicate combination of several different kinds of wood.
Nancy says the chuppah cost a few hundred dollars to make, but is now considered a priceless family heirloom. She is having a quilt made for their bed that mimics the design of the tree. Someday she may change the chuppah in some way to signify their children.
One of the questions Nancy asked concerning her creative chuppah was whether it adhered to Jewish law concerning wedding ceremonies. According to The Jewish Catalog and Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s book, “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage” (Jonathan David, 1991) the chuppah is affected more by tradition than law.
Traditionally, the wedding ceremony took place under the stars as an omen that the marriage should be blessed with as many children as stars in heaven. To create a more intimate space for the ceremony, rabbis in the Middle Ages allowed the use of a chuppah, which symbolizes the groom’s home into which he invites the bride. It is required only for the seven blessings and only the bride and groom need to stand under it.
“It teaches that this simple, fragile room which is now common to both partners launches the marriage,” Lamm explained.
As with any wedding ceremony decision, it is best to discuss chuppah ideas with your rabbi before you start collecting materials and assembling the structure. Depending on whether the rabbi is Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox, he or she may have different ideas about what is required.
Some of the more common kinds of chuppahs involve a tapestry or tallit fastened to the top of four poles. The poles can be held by four friends or put in some kind of stand. Keep in mind the length of your ceremony before making a decision about whether to have people hold the poles. Some brides prefer to decorate the tapestry with flowers.
How elaborate a chuppah you choose also depends on how much time and energy you want to put into the project. A combination of creative energy and a little chutzpah helped Jenifer Thornton and her mother create a special chuppah for her wedding.
“I’m in a creative field and I knew that I didn’t want to just do the standard,” Jenifer said, adding that they researched whether they could rent a creative chuppah but found nothing to their liking.
“We just kind of thought, if it works out, great.” The only problem was — and this would be a big problem for many brides — they didn’t know what the chuppah was going to look like until an hour before the wedding. They couldn’t put it together in advance and then move to the location of the ceremony.
Jenifer and Philip Thornton’s chuppah consisted of plaster columns; adorned with lace netting, green plants, ivy and copper ribbon.
“It was beautiful and everyone loved it. The only thing I would change would be the lighting,” she said, indicating she would recommend backlighting the chuppah for a greater impact.
She says it wasn’t expensive, but warns that finding proper columns can be a challenge. Most replicas that can be rented are too light and easily toppled by sudden movement.
“It’s difficult to rent them,” she said. “They have to be heavy. You definitely don’t want them to fall over.”
She rented the columns from a friend who doesn’t usually loan them out.
Another approach to creating your own chuppah is to consult with an architect or a landscape designer. When Julie Israel got married about five years ago she was lucky enough to have an architectural designer right in the family, her mother, Linda Haugen.
The chuppah for Julie’s wedding to David Israel consisted of “marbleized” wooden columns and a trellis covered in ivy and flowers. The structurally dramatic chuppah fit in well with the architecture at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.
“It was a very dramatic and important structure and it added considerably to the whole ceremony,” she said.
Fitting the chuppah to the setting and the personalities of the bride and groom is very important, but perhaps the most critical aspect of the project is getting prepared to build it the night or morning before the wedding in just a few hours.
Her experience in architecture and the theater prepared Linda for the project.
“If someone wanted to have a chuppah like ours, they should turn to someone with our level of experience,” she said. “It would be difficult for the average person to do it. It really involves a lot of thought and coordination.”
When asked if such a structural chuppah could have a second life after the wedding, Linda said one could consider reconstructing it in their garden: “It’s your first house and that’s what’s so lovely about it.”
When Lori Marx-Rubiner underwent a bilateral mastectomy two years ago, she lost the use of her arms for a few weeks. She couldn’t brush her teeth, let alone tackle cooking dinner or driving her son to school.
The Adat Ari El community came to her rescue, bringing approximately 60 meals and even transporting her son home from school. She said the help made what could have been a depressing experience into a “transformative” one.
“My passion became to help others through their illnesses,” Marx-Rubiner explained.
That passion culminated Oct. 24 at a conference she helped organize to train people on how to help the ill and disadvantaged. Hope Abandoned, Hope Redeemed: Training Volunteers for the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim at UCLA Hillel taught 180 volunteers about bikur cholim, or visiting the sick.
Many local synagogues and Jewish organizations focus on one positive commandment, usually something that involves tikkun olam, healing the world in Hebrew. So why healing the sick and why now?
“There is a significant shortage of trained volunteers, chaplains and others to meet the needs of those in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices,” according to a 2002 survey of all the hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and prisons in Southern California.
At least 20 percent of the Jewish community is over the age of 65, 10 percent live in residential care facilities and 4 percent have permanent disabilities, according to the study, “Services to Jews in Institutions.” The 108-page report, written by The Jewish Federation’s planning and allocations department and the Southern California Board of Rabbis, spurred the organizations to create the conference.
Bikur cholim is first alluded to in the Bible when Abraham has a circumcision and three men visit him. Commentators say that the men are actually angels to help him through his convalescence.
While there are other communal organizations that assist sick people — like conference co-sponsors Chai Lifeline, which provides services to families with children who have chronic illnesses, and the already existing Bikur Cholim, which helps provide health services to sick people — this is the first interdenominational, communitywide effort to recruit volunteers for the Bikur Cholim. The conference aimed to show that the mitzvah is a grass-roots affair, which involves all members of the community, young and old alike.
Sponsored by 14 community organizations, the conference expanded the traditional definition of visiting the sick in hospitals to include caring for people with disabilities, chronic or mental illnesses, the elderly and those living alone, as well as drug addicts and prison inmates. The “Institutions” study found that there are approximately 800 Los Angeles Jews in prisons throughout California.
“A lot of people think that the mitzvah of visiting the sick is a mitzvah that is incumbent on rabbis and chaplains,” said Michelle Wolf, assistant director of planning and allocations for The Federation, who organized the conference with Marx-Rubiner. “But it’s a mitzvah that is incumbent on all Jews, the same as giving tzedakah [charitable giving], but it is one that a lot of people don’t usually do and don’t feel comfortable with.”
The conference also kicked off Circles of Support, an initiative to create synagogue committees to coordinate with the sick and help them with their needs, ranging from meals to child care to helping out in the house.
“Some patients are embarrassed to come forth and seek help — some chaplains told us that some people don’t want their congregational rabbi contacted,” Wolf said. “Part of what we are trying to do is create a climate where it is OK to say you are sick and to have a healing process. There is a Jewish tradition that says that every visitor takes a away 1/60 of a person’s illness, and there all kinds of studies that have shown the more community and spiritual support you have, the easier the healing process.”
So far, five synagogues have started Circles of Support. They are Adat Ari El, Beth Chayim Chadashim, Beth Shir Sholom, Leo Baeck and the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.
The 20 sessions at Sunday’s conference focused on aiding volunteers to be strong enough to help the sick.
“To be able to very warmly and graciously open ourselves up to patients takes time and practice,” said Susan Corwin, Mitzvah Corps chair at University Synagogue. She attended the conference to find how to inspire and reinvigorate the volunteers of University’s bikur cholim committee, which was started this summer.
“One of the first congregants I went to visit said, ‘Who are you?’ and I said, ‘I am here representing University Synagogue, and I am here because we care about you,'” Corwin said.
“Where’s the rabbi?” the patient responded.
When Corwin explained she was a member of the congregation and had brought a gift bag, the patient softened.
At the conference, Corwin learned that a volunteer should be sensitive to the patient. She said she was particularly moved by a “creating rituals” activity in the workshop, in which leader Harriet Rosen held a ball of yarn, then asked participants to think of a thought or blessing for bikur cholim. Rosen then threw the ball to them while keeping hold of a strand of yarn. Eventually the yarn formed a web across the room of all the thoughts and blessings.
“I learned that when you walk into a room doing bikur cholim, you are not just walking into the hospital room of the patient, but to the web of relationships that the patient has and that you have,” Corwin said. “The impact is so different on each one of us, and the blueprint to help the patients is inside of all of us.”
For more information on bikur cholim or how a synagogue can form a Circle of Support, call (323) 761-8348.