September 21, 2018

Pew, Pew, Pew

Jews have trouble with good news. That’s why Jewish grandmothers taught us the spitting sounds “poo, poo, poo” to ward off the evil eye anytime something good happens.

So much good stuff has happened to Jews in America that we might as well say poo, poo, poo all day long. This is the modern Jewish paradox: We suffered for centuries with really bad news, but now that we have really good news, we’re afraid to embrace it too tightly, lest we lose it.

The poo-poo-poo mindset expresses itself in different ways, sometimes by minimizing good news (“Joey got into Harvard — poo, poo, poo”), other times by maximizing bad news (“Is it true a neo-Nazi was stalking our shul?”).

There’s something endearing about a people who are always watching their backs. Jews can never trust too much, get too comfortable or too happy. That’s what 2,000 years of persecution buys you: We never know when some evil force will come and take all this good stuff away.

This mindset also keeps us sharp. Let’s face it, when you see threats around every corner, you’re less likely to get ambushed by reality.

The Jewish community is especially good at seeing threats around every corner. Surveys from the Pew Center have become the evidence par excellence. If you want bad news about “the new generation,” Pew will deliver. No doubt this is helpful for fundraising: If Pew says young Jews are assimilating at an alarming rate, what better set-up for philanthropists worried about the future of their people?

In short, bad news is good for the Jews. It keeps away the evil eye, keeps nonprofits in business and enlivens conversations. Poo, poo, poo.

So much good stuff has happened to Jews in America that we might as well say poo, poo, poo all day long.

This is even more true in journalism. Bad news is our lifeblood. I will confess: I was electrified when I heard last week that a man with neo-Nazi connections was suspected in the Orange County slaying of a gay Jew, Blaze Bernstein. I thought of finding an enterprising reporter to infiltrate and expose the neo-Nazi group and create a national story. I had no time for sadness. I was just thinking of the story.

I go out of my way to include some bad news in every issue of the Journal. Last week, we were able to provide two good pieces of bad news: a mezuzah that was removed from the doorpost of an office at UCLA, and a binational, Jewish same-sex couple who were suing the U.S. over parental rights. This week, all we have is the neo-Nazi story.

I imagine that the simplest way to provide bad news every week would be to have regular columns quoting Pew studies. One of the more fascinating Pew findings is the growing divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews. In surveying Jewish adults in both places, Pew found sharp differences. For example, while 39 percent of Israeli Jews quoted “economic problems” as the most important long-term problem facing Israel, only 1 percent of American Jews did. This may help explain the greater obsession with the peace process among American Jews — it’s the luxury of not living in Israel and facing everyday problems.

In terms of Jewish identity, there’s more bad news: 53 percent of American Jews identify as Reform or Conservative, compared with only 5 percent of Israeli Jews. No wonder so many divisive religious issues have flared up in recent years, among them the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The two camps are living in different realities.

The Jewish community is especially good at seeing threats around every corner. Surveys from the Pew Center have become the evidence par excellence.

If you bring a bad-news mentality to such findings, you will use them to nourish the crisis narrative of Jewish communal life. We’re all familiar with this narrative. It’s a lot more energizing to talk about a crisis than to do a calm analysis that will help us better understand the issues.

This, then, is the dilemma: How do we handle bad news without letting it drown us and define us? If bad news is the surest way to raise funds or get media attention, how do we keep it in its proper place?

It’s clear that bad news gives us a sense of purpose, a direction to improve the world. But if we focus so much on the bad that we lose our sense of joy, what good is living? If we become so good at complaining that we lose the ability to create and imagine, what kind of future is that?

This past Saturday night, I bumped into a group of French Sephardic Jews at Shiloh’s restaurant. I knew many of them. They all spoke French. I could tell they were having a really good time. They had come out of a Torah class given by a rabbi from Paris. It seemed as if all they talked about was good news, as if they were looking for good news, or at least things to laugh about.

I should have said poo, poo, poo.

Partisan Divide over Israel

Pew Research Center reported on Jan. 23 the disturbing results of a poll on Israel. According to the poll, 46 percent of Americans support Israel over the Palestinians; just 16 percent support the Palestinians over the Israelis. Those results have been relatively consistent for years.

The disturbing part arises in the context of party identification. While 79 percent of Republicans say they sympathize with Israel, as do 42 percent of independents, just 27 percent of Democrats say they identify with Israel. Since 2001, Republican support for Israel has skyrocketed from 50 percent to 79 percent; in that same period, support from Democrats has declined from 38 percent to 27 percent.

Why the increasing divide?

The easiest answer would be President Donald Trump. A plurality of Americans — 42 percent — say that Trump is “striking the right balance” on the Middle East, while 30 percent say he unfairly favors Israel; 47 percent of Americans said President Barack Obama had struck a good balance, with 21 percent saying he favored the Palestinians too much. This obviously means that a solid number of Democrats were comfortable with Obama’s anti-Israel policies. Trump has reversed that polarity, driving down Israel’s numbers with Democrats.

The second easy answer would be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had an icy relationship with Obama and has a warm relationship with Trump  This has consequences for public relations: 52 percent of Republicans have a favorable impression of Netanyahu, compared with 18 percent of Democrats.

Republicans live in a post-9/11 world; Democrats live in a pre-9/11 world.

But both these answers are too easy. The divide between Republicans and Democrats on Israel predated both Trump and Netanyahu — the gap began to grow with Sept. 11 and yawned wider with the Obama administration. I attended the 2012 Democratic National Convention at which the attendees loudly booed the reinstatement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the party platform. Some deeper element is driving this newfound division over Israel.

That deeper element is worldview, exposed by 9/11 and exacerbated over time by increasing partisan bickering over Islamic terrorism. From 1978 through the Oslo Accord, support for Israelis declined while support for the Palestinians stayed approximately even. About as many Americans said they supported “neither party” or “both” as said they supported the Israelis. That’s because the United States faced virtually no threat from Islamic radicalism. After Oslo, support for Israel jumped, particularly as Israel was hit by wave after wave of Palestinian terrorism.

Then, after 9/11, support for Israelis jumped among Republicans and never stopped growing. Conservative Americans, who had been more likely to draw a moral equation between Israel and her enemies, identified with the Israelis — they saw Israel as an outpost of Western civilization in a region rife with Islamic terrorism. They saw Palestinians handing out candies as the World Trade Center towers fell, and they knew that Israelis had been facing down the same threat. The real, meaningful conflict between Islamist barbarism and Western liberalism was thrown into sharp relief.

Democrats, too, initially responded to 9/11 with more support for Israel. But as the war on terror progressed, Democrats began to see Western civilization as the provocative agent. Too many on the left saw Islamic terrorism as a response to Western cruelty — cruelty to which Israel was supposedly a party. Nowhere was this clearer than in the media coverage of the Gaza War, which glorified Hamas at the expense of Israel, even as Israel tried to avoid civilian casualties and Hamas tried to inflict them. The Obama administration reflected that viewpoint, which is why it pursued Iranian regional growth with alacrity. The West, Obama and the Democrats thought, had to withdraw from the Middle East in order to empower dispossessed Islamists (hence State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf’s asinine suggestion that ISIS be given jobs to help them avoid terrorism).

Unfortunately, the gap yawns ever greater. Republicans live in a post-9/11 world; Democrats live in a pre-9/11 world. That has dramatic, unfortunate implications for Israel: In a polarized political environment, the historic bipartisan support for the Jewish state is quickly eroding. That’s not a bipartisan problem. That’s a specifically Democratic problem, and one that should encourage Jews to examine whether the Democratic Party ought to re-evaluate its moral worldview in the Middle East.


Ben Shapiro is a best-selling author and editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire.

Israel and Russia only countries to view Trump more favorably than Obama, poll shows

President Donald Trump in Iowa on June 21. Photo by Scott Morgan/Reuters

Israel and Russia were the only two countries to have a more favorable view of President Donald Trump than his predecessor, Barack Obama, at the end of his time in office, a survey found.

The annual survey by the Pew Research Center on America’s image abroad also found that some 81 percent of Israelis have a positive view of the United States under Trump, compared with a median of 58 percent, according to the results released Tuesday.

Some 40,447 respondents in 37 countries outside the United States answered the survey from Feb. 16 to May 8.

Israel’s favorability rating of the United States has held steady over the past several surveys, including 81 percent in 2015, 84 percent in 2014, and 83 percent in 2013. In 2009, the rating was at 71 percent, the lowest since the survey was started 15 years ago.

In Russia, 41 percent have a favorable view of the United States under Trump, compared with 15 percent under Obama.

Israelis’ confidence in Trump was measured at 56 percent, compared to 49 percent for Obama at the end of his second four-year term. But the median showed 22 percent confidence in Trump and 64 percent in Obama.

The survey also found that 69 percent of Israelis surveyed said they considered Trump to be a strong leader, compared to a median of 55 percent. Some 54 percent of Israelis said Trump is well qualified to serve as president; the median was 26 percent.

Considering the border wall with Mexico, 42 percent of Israelis supported Trump’s idea, compared with 24 percent from all countries surveyed. On Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, 69 percent of Israelis were opposed, comparing to the 71 percent of the other countries surveyed.

“The sharp decline in how much global publics trust the U.S. president on the world stage is especially pronounced among some of America’s closest allies in Europe and Asia, as well as neighboring Mexico and Canada,” according to the survey.

Among close U.S. allies, in Germany, the favorability ranking for the U.S. has dropped to 11 percent under Trump from 86 under Obama; in France, 14 percent from 84 percent, and in Canada, 22 percent from 83 percent. Sweden saw a drop to 10 percent from 93 percent.

Among Middle East countries, the U.S. did not fare particularly well under either president, but again there was more confidence in Obama. Some numbers: Turkey 11 percent for Trump, 45 for Obama; Jordan, 5 percent and 14 percent, and Lebanon, 11 percent and 36 percent.

Many countries that have had poor relations with the U.S. over many years were not among those questioned, such as Syria and Iraq.

Jewish, homeless and alone: One tale of grief on L.A.’s streets

On a Sunday last December, Joe Wedner leaves a church service carrying fruit from a free food pantry. Photos by Eitan Arom

For Joe Wedner, theology is well-worn territory. God and His workings are among the trains of thought that keep Joe’s mind chugging, often in a broad and frenzied circle. At the center of that theology is a paradox that causes Joe a fair amount of strife.

Joe is 77, stooped and bearded. He’s a Jew by birth, but in practice, at least since 2013, he honors every faith — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. — without discrimination or distinction. His face betrays the weatherworn quality of someone who has spent years living on the streets, and he carries an air of all-consuming tragedy.

“I cry a lot — so I’m sorry — but I’ve never been locked up for crying,” he told me the first time we sat down together, in January 2016 at Native Foods Café, a vegan restaurant in Westwood.

He sat in front of a heaping pile of beans, grains and vegetables, his pushcart parked next to our table. Overflowing with pieces of cardboard and extra jackets, the cart held the sum of his worldly possessions.

Vegan cuisine was Joe’s idea. He avoids processed foods and animal products, not for ethical or health reasons, but religious ones. When a waiter stopped by our table, Joe pointed to his food and asked, “Is this the most natural, unchanged-from-God whole food that we got?”

God pervades Joe’s existence.

“There is no place that God is not,” he told me. “God is everyplace. God is in every belief. God is in every emotion.”

His relationship with the Almighty is perhaps Joe’s one remaining comfort in this world, although even that relationship is not without strain. According to Joe, two activities offer him any sort of solace from the unrelenting fear and anxiety that rule his day-to-day existence: religion and sex. Since Joe is homeless and elderly, it’s not easy for him to find sexual partners, so religion is all that remains in any practical sense. Every week, when he has the time, he attends as many religious and spiritual services as he can.

But his God, he insists, is not a particularly benevolent one. The paradox at the heart of Joe’s theology is that although God is everywhere, He is a maniac.

“God can do the impossible,” he explained to me. “He can give absolute, total freedom and still prevent man from sinning and leaving Him, and therefore He can prevent suffering. Why doesn’t He prevent suffering? Because He’s mentally ill. He’s seriously mentally ill, and we are His image and likeness, and we are mentally ill.”

When it comes to his own mental illness, Joe makes no secret. In his second email to me, shortly after we first met, he wrote, “I thought you might be interested in the attached information.” It was a psychiatric report diagnosing him with bipolar disorder, for which he refuses medication. He also admits to being delusional and cripplingly paranoid.

[To give or not to give? Experts weigh in]

For Joe, delusion bleeds freely into reality and vice versa. Consider his present life plan: Joe is taking UCLA Extension courses on the entertainment industry, hoping to land a high-paying job and strike it rich. The basis for his plan is his conviction that education is the key to income. Although that makes enough sense, his plan to strike it rich stretches credulity.

Yet Joe sticks to his plan doggedly, even if it means forgoing a roof over his head.

Joe has been homeless for four years, a condition that puts him in the category of “chronically homeless” — those homeless for a year or more due to debility. He is less an anomaly than a poster boy for the definition: By the latest count, 61 percent of the roughly 13,000 people who are chronically homeless in Los Angeles County are mentally ill, about 8,000 people total, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

If there is an anomaly to Joe, it’s his religious background.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center ranked Jews as the most financially successful religious group in America. Only 16 percent claimed a family income of less than $30,000 a year.

Tanya Tull, a homelessness policy pioneer and CEO of Partnering for Change, said in addition to Jews living on the street, many others eke out an existence in deplorable conditions in cramped apartments in poor neighborhoods like MacArthur Park and Mid-City. She cited as one example a 71-year-old retired Jewish man who spends more than 80 percent of his Social Security payments on rent in a studio apartment in Pico Union, where he experiences regular power outages and struggles to treat a chronic pulmonary condition.

Some local impoverished Jews are clients of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and its partner organizations. Federation estimates that together, the groups help about 20,000 Jews living in poverty, providing them with free kosher meals and grant assistance for housing, paired with case management.

But that number reflects only those whom they help.

“There are more people out there — Joe is a perfect example — who are not accessing these services,” Lori Klein, Federation’s senior vice president for its Caring for Jews in Need program, told the Journal.

Federation estimated that 50,000 Jews lived in poverty in Los Angeles in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. More than 600,000 Jews live in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Klein suggested that Joe call a central access hotline of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which directs people experiencing financial instability to appropriate resources.

Joe said he called in April, but found that the services it offered were more or less the same as those he already was getting from a Kaiser Permanente social worker. As for housing, Joe, it turns out, has other priorities.

I first met Joe when I showed up for an assignment at jumu’ah, the Muslim prayer service offered Friday evenings at UCLA. I was early and found Joe sitting on a metal folding chair in the hallway outside the prayer room with the demeanor of someone who didn’t have anywhere else to be.

After services, I took down his email address. Joe checks his email frequently — somewhere among the loose cardboard and plastic bags in his cart was a laptop that he’d had since 2013. (It’s since been stolen; he now returns emails via public computers at UCLA.)

It turns out that Joe has little to hide and, by his estimation, much to gain from an interview.

“The more you tell the better,” he told me at Native Foods. “My psychiatrist does not disagree that my whole problem is a girlfriend deficiency, and I’m trying to get that out there.”

It was only much later in the interview that I learned he has a wife and daughter — but that hasn’t interrupted his other plans. Joe is interested in obeying all of God’s commandments, including to “be fruitful and multiply.”

“I need a lot of girlfriends,” he said, without a hint of irony or jest. “So I want to put that out there, just in case there might be somebody like me, that also wants a lot of children, a female. Because … I’m a panhandler, and a panhandler knows if you say the same thing to enough people, no matter what it is you’re saying, if you say it to enough people, you find a few, one or a few, that’ll agree with you.”

With Joe, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between delusion and what could be described merely as misplaced priorities. His desire to have children is motivated not just by the joy of sex but also by the conviction that children represent “eternal life and salvation from death.” But whether Joe should father a child at 77, with no means to support one, is a consideration he ignores. He remains enthusiastic in pursuing his goal.

In the middle of the conversation, a young woman approached our table to express interest in the interview. Joe’s demeanor changed instantly. His eyes lit up, and he began talking more quickly, almost frantically. It occurred to me that he was putting on a show.

“You could sit down,” he told the young woman. “You could sit down and listen to me. If you’ve gotta go — want my email address? I’m an extremely interesting person. You’ll never find anybody running around loose more mentally ill than me.”

Joseph Leo Wedner was born on Feb. 2, 1940, in Detroit.

His father was born to an Orthodox family near Sanok, Poland. His mother, an American, was what Joe called a “three-day Jew,” someone who attended synagogue approximately three days a year. They had one other son, John, since deceased.

At 13, Joe became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, a Conservative synagogue near Detroit. He recalls his trips to his father’s shul with fondness if also with a bit of detachment, saying, “That was very nice, people talking with their creator, praying and asking to not get sick with colds or anything else.”

But even at a young age, Judaism didn’t quite do it for him. He remembers, as a 5-year-old, being beset with a paralyzing fear that his faith couldn’t extinguish. He recalled his envy when he saw a glow-in-the-dark crucifix hanging over the bed of a grade-school friend.

“I thought, ‘Man, oh, man, everybody’s lucky except me. I gotta have horrible, terrible nightmares ’cause I’m scared of school. Why can’t I go to Catholic school and have that crucifix hanging by my bed?’ ” he said.

His family life was dysfunctional, he said: “That’s what our family does, is yell at one another. Big ones yell at the little ones.”

But Joe managed to hold things together and graduate from a local college, enrolling in medical school at the University of Michigan. Soon, though, his mental health began to slip, as it would at crucial moments in his future. He described struggling with paranoia so severe that he didn’t think he could make it in medical school. When things got bad, he went to see the dean.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to flunk out anyway, I’ll never get through this, it’s too hard, and I’m afraid of the American Nazi party. I’m going to Israel,’ ” he recalled.

His experience in Habonim Labor Zionist Youth as a teen in Detroit had convinced him that a Jew could live happily only in a socially just environment in Israel. So in January 1964, he left for Israel, landing at Kibbutz Sarid in Israel’s north.

It didn’t quite play out the way he had hoped. Instead of working, he “slept and ate all day and chased the tourist girls,” he said. He was kicked out, and he fell in with some hippies — or maybe they were secret police. Joe can’t be sure.

His new friends taught him to play guitar and beg on the street. After a stint in Abu Kabir Prison in Tel Aviv on narcotics charges — “all the hippies were doing narcotics,” he said — he felt disillusioned and left the country the year after he arrived.

From there, Joe tramped through Europe and the Middle East, his first experience with vagrancy. But, in 1968, he was back in the United States, and over much of the next four decades earned a living wage subsisting on odd jobs and help from his mother as he moved from place to place, with stints in New York, California, Washington state and Hawaii. Things weren’t always great, but there was a roof over his head. And then came Josie.

It was 2004. Joe had been living in the Philippines for about a year, living off the interest from an inheritance from his mother, when his psychiatrist suggested he hire a live-in maid because he hadn’t cleaned his Manila apartment in more than a year.

Josie showed up at his door. “Right from the beginning, we fell in love,” he said.

They were married a short while later. Their daughter was born in 2006, and a year later, they moved to Loma Linda in San Bernardino County, where they lived in a “very small, but very comfortable apartment.” The marriage was a rocky one, which he blames on his own upbringing.

“My family is dysfunctional, extremely, is as dysfunctional as a family can be without actually flying apart,” he said. “It was always screaming, weeping, crying, insulting, criticizing etc., so I did that to my wife, whose family never did that.”

In 2011, they traveled to Josie’s hometown, Zamboanga City, in the Philippines, moving from apartment to apartment. Josie started a few businesses, but they all failed. By 2013, he recalls, she told him, “Get me back in the USA, I don’t like it here.” He flew to Los Angeles, with plans for her to follow later — but no plan of where to stay once he left the airport.

Even living on the street, Joe was sending money back to Josie from his Supplemental Security Income, a federal program for the elderly, blind and disabled. After a while, he couldn’t afford to continue. “I heard from her when she needed money and then, when I stopped sending her money, I haven’t heard from her,” Joe said. She last contacted him in December. I reached out to Josie through email and Facebook, but she did not respond.

Nonetheless, Joe is keen to bring his wife to the U.S. While his strategy may be a doubtful one, he persists: To earn a visa for Josie, he needs to demonstrate to Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he can support her. Thus, his coursework at UCLA.

Sevgi Cacina, a film student at UCLA Extension who is making a documentary about Joe, first approached him after she saw him pitch his skills as an actor and producer at networking events. The crowd typically doesn’t know what to make of Joe, but one thing is certain, she said: “He’s not joking.”

He’s even enlisted some help. Screenwriter Brooks Elms said Joe enrolled in an online course that Elms taught through UCLA Extension in 2015, during which Joe diligently completed each assignment. After the course concluded, the students invited Elms to lunch in Westwood.

“Joe came to that lunch, rolled his cart right there from the street, and asked how he could get a movie made,” Elms wrote in an email. “I asked why he was even spending money on a film class when he could be spending it on basic survival needs, and he was determined to learn about the film business and make something happen that way.”

Elms said he’s now helping Joe make a film about Joe’s life on the streets.

“We plan [to] post it online with hopes it will bring him some much-needed income,” Elms wrote.

Until that happens, Joe remains on the street and sleeps in a sleeping bag in Westwood. Mostly, he’s tenacious about his plan, but sometimes his resolve lapses.

“This is as close to work as I got, giving an interview for a lunch,” he said at the vegan joint, “which is extremely disconcerting to me, because now I’m afraid I’ll never get my wife and daughter back.”

Joe’s separation from his wife and daughter is “an overwhelming tragedy that pervades my being every moment. … It causes anxiety, depression and every bad feeling.” Any kind of spiritual activity, from Mass to a 12-step meeting, relieves the pain of those feelings.

One day, on a visit to the Seventh-day Adventist church in Santa Monica — which he calls “Simcha Monica” — he ran into a Chabad missionary near the church.

As a lapsed Jew with a spotty relationship to the tribe, he was nervous about allowing the rabbi to lay tefillin on him. So he thought about it, and prayed about it, and decided he’d better drop by a Chabad.

“If I’m striving for God to help me, in everything, then I got no better or worse chance at the Chabad Lubavitch synagogue than I got anyplace else, so I’ll go,” he said. “So I started going. The more I went, the more I started feeling that … if I know what’s good for me, I better add Roman Catholic and Muslim to the places I pray.”

Basileia Community church elder Bill Horst bows his head and prays for Joe Wedner after a service in Hollywood.

Joe’s schedule for religious services is noncommittal and wide-ranging, though it leans Christian. Perhaps his favorite place to pray is a Christian congregation called the Basileia Community, which meets in a Baptist church in Hollywood. At one point, he was going twice a week, on Tuesdays and Sundays, while attending Roman Catholic services on Mondays and Thursdays and Chabad or Seventh-day Adventist services on Saturdays.

Lately, school has interfered with his attendance, and he’s often forced to stay around UCLA for services. One Sunday in December, I agreed to drive him to Basileia. We met on the corner of Westwood Boulevard and Le Conte Avenue with boisterous crowds of students surging by. He looked even smaller than I remembered, dressed in two coats and too-long pants that he’d rolled up at the cuff over a scuffed pair of brown loafers.

I loaded his pushcart, with its one broken wheel, into my car, and we set off for church.

On the way, I decided to raise the issue of permanent supportive housing — apartments made available by the city and county expressly for chronically homeless and mentally ill individuals like Joe. Los Angeles voters recently passed Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond that earmarks most of the funds precisely for building this type of housing. Joe conceded that it would be nice to have a toilet of his own, and the privacy to have company.

But “it might not be around here,” he speculated as we turned onto Wilshire Boulevard. “Then I’d have to wait for a bus and ride the bus and wait for a bus back … then it would slow down my saving up that $60,000 I need to show to get my wife over here.”

By now his foot was tapping violently enough to shake the car. The topic clearly made him anxious.

His thoughts are scattered, with a tendency to trail off or pivot wildly. On occasion, an unrelated question will reveal a heretofore-unexplored saga in Joe’s life.

By the time we reached Basileia, a question about his wife inadvertently had revealed details of the money he had inherited from his mother: Between 1984 and 2007, he said, he played the stock market, growing $250,000 into more than $800,000 at one point and living off the interest. When the market crashed 10 years ago, Joe said his bank account flat-lined.

As we walked into the church, people were schmoozing around a light buffet. Joe wasted no time in loading up a plate with fruit and breakfast rolls. It had been some time since he had been here, and several people approached him to say hello. A massive man with a kind face and a blond bun, the drummer in the congregation’s music ensemble, greeted Joe with a fist-bump.

Explaining my presence there as a Jewish Journal reporter, I mentioned that Joe was Jewish.

“I didn’t know you were Jewish, Joe!” a fellow churchgoer interjected.

I was mortified for outing him, but Joe was unfazed.

“I’m all things,” he explained.

For Joe, God is in every religion, all beliefs, indiscriminately and without exception. He likes Basileia for its inclusiveness and the kindness of his members. But it has no monopoly on his faith.

The band started to play and the hymns began to flow. “Holy Spirit, come fill this place!” the congregants sang, sitting in a semicircle under the exposed rafters of the tall, gabled roof.

The gathering was a dressed-down affair, community-oriented and progressive. The room flickered softly with the glow of candles and Christmas lights, and a plain, wooden cross overlooked the scene.

While the music played, Joe crossed his legs and tilted his head downward, staring just past his interlaced fingers, his white beard fanning out over his UCLA Extension T-shirt. The pastor, Suz Born, a bespectacled woman with a soft voice and the measured demeanor of a kindergarten teacher, kneeled next to him with her hands raised in the air.

Joe Wedner shows off a T-shirt reflecting his enrollment in UCLA Extension while standing on a corner in Westwood in December.

Soon, the music slowed to three or four chords repeated on an acoustic guitar. The frenzied foot tapping that had shaken my car had slowed to a soft, irregular beat.

When the service broke up, he stuck around to chat with friends and acquaintances, indulging them in detailed explanations of his theology. “The only reasonable conclusion is that God is mentally ill,” I overheard him saying.

He shares his theory widely, even if to awkward laughs or kind dismissals. It doesn’t earn him many friends. The Roman Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists say he’s blaspheming God. He says they’re blaspheming God by calling his truth blasphemy, since truth is God.

After services ended, church elder Bill Horst sat beside Joe to pray with him, resting his head on his hand and concentrating intensely. Later, Horst told me he prays for Joe to experience the mental soundness that often eludes him and to find a way off the streets.

Horst said that despite “packaging that’s a little tricky to get past,” Joe gets along OK at Basileia. At one point, he was making sexual overtures to single women there in a way that made them uncomfortable, Horst said — but church leaders sat him down and asked him to respect certain boundaries, and to his credit, he did.

“Someone can have a meaningful relationship with someone like Joe even if they find that difficult to imagine,” Horst told me on the phone later. “There is something real and coherent and worthwhile there if you’re willing to look for it.”

As people began to file out of the church, Joe headed to a basement room to pick up some donated food. He made a beeline for the fruits and vegetables. “There’s salad over here, boyfriend,” a homeless woman called out to him. But the salads were of the prepacked grocery store variety, and some had meat in them, so he passed over them. Even with his dietary restrictions, food is the least of his worries. Between panhandling and food banks, he has plenty. If he lacks for something, it’s not provisions but companionship.

“I need friends,” he said at Basileia. “My family is gone, so I need friends. Inshallah” — if God wills it.

Joe’s first serious brush with Christianity came during a lockup in Washington State Penitentiary in January 1978, when he was 37. He’d enrolled in a university-level accounting course in Tacoma, Wash., hoping it would set him on a path to quick riches. But he was failing and frustrated. One day, he decided somebody was driving too fast down his street, so he took out a loaded .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and brandished it, yelling, on his porch. He was imprisoned for 25 months before his mother, an attorney, managed to get his sentence vacated on a technicality.

Prison was not a welcoming place. “The guards were unfriendly and the prisoners were even more unfriendly,” he said.

The only people who would speak with him were the missionaries.

“The Christian missionaries were there every day. I saw Jewish missionaries there once the whole 25 months I was there,” he said. “So naturally, I read the Christian Bible — a few times.”

He acquainted himself well with the text and continues to read and reread it. He keeps one in his pushcart. These days, one of Joe’s favorite verses to quote is the Man of Sorrows in Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

It’s not hard to puzzle out why he’s so fond of the verse. On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine Joe as Isaiah’s outcast, “pierced for our transgressions … crushed for our iniquities.”

On the other hand, it’s a potent illustration of a capricious and unsparing God, doling out suffering: Why would any but a mentally ill God cause one man to suffer for all the rest?

And so, my question for Joe was, why go to such great lengths to worship a God he believes — fervently — to be insane? Joe’s theology and his delusions often are baroque, but they’re pieced together from pieces of simple, direct logic. To my spiritual question came a pragmatic answer.

On weeks he goes to prayer services and reads from the Bible, he said, “things coincidentally or not coincidentally go better. And so I just keep doing it.”

Tips and tales from a seasoned seder leader

What kind of leadership style works best for a seder? During a period when we are experiencing a shake-up in national leadership, you may want to re-examine the relationship that exists between leader and participants at the Passover meal.

Though seder leaders and participants are not elected, there is still a seder mandate that governs your relationship: Everyone present — the wise, the wicked, the simple, and even the one who does not know how to ask a question — are all involved in the evening’s proceedings.

Attending a Passover seder remains an “extremely common practice” of American Jews, according to Pew Research Center, with approximately 70 percent participating. Despite its broad mandate, however, meaningful seders rarely function as true democracies. The seder is a complicated undertaking with symbolic foods, actions and storytelling, and on this night that is different from all others, the call is for an assertive leader who can guide a tableful of guests through a sea of ritual needs.

Since Passover is an eight-day holiday of freedom, and the seder a celebration of the going out from Egypt, you may think the people are clamoring for a democratic free-form kind of dinner — from chanting the kiddush to singing “Chad Gadya.” But after leading a family seder for more than 30 years, my experience has been that if I give everyone a free hand to comment and question, and the seder runs long, revolution erupts, with the guests vigorously chanting “When do we eat?” And if I try to rule the table with an iron Kiddush Cup, my poll numbers plummet, especially among the restless, 20-something contingent that starts texting madly under the table, presumably plotting a resistance.

Defying typical political alignment, I have found that on the nights when the seder works — when most every question has been asked, and tradition and innovation have been shared — my style of leadership has fallen somewhere between being a benevolent dictator and a liberal talk-show host.

I say “benevolent dictator” because it is part of the leader’s job to find a way for everyone to retell the Passover story and ultimately exit the slavery of Egypt — even though they may not necessarily feel the need. Going around the table urging guests to share the reading is one way, and calling up guests beforehand to discuss and assign a specific section of the seder is another. Especially for whomever is going to lead the Four Questions — at our table, usually the youngest who can read Hebrew — it helps to ask them personally beforehand rather than springing the task on them on the night of the seder. Such quiet lobbying helps reorient one from being an audience member into one, as the haggadah says, who can see themselves as if they had left Egypt.

As “liberal talk-show host,” I get that the haggadah is filled with questions that must be questioned as well. I once opened a seder by asking, “What does it mean when the haggadah says: ‘Let all those who are hungry come and eat with us?’ ” Especially in a year such as this one, when even benign conversation is abuzz with politics, there are going to be varying responses, from the bitter, like maror, to the sweet, like charoset.

At the time, you may not think that these opposing points of view are what binds together a seder, but recall that in the haggadah, when the five rabbis are sitting in Bnei Brak telling and interpreting the story of the Exodus, each has something different to add, and it is the whole of their interpretations taken together that heightens our understanding of the text.

Those not leading but participating in the seder, don’t think that you are off the hook in setting its tone. In his book “Keeping Passover,” Ira Steingroot points out that being a seder guest “doesn’t mean that you have to be the life of the party or a maven (authority), and you certainly do not want to monopolize the conversation, but you have a role to play in the drama of the seder.” In fact, it is your responses and feelings that determine whether everyone at the table makes it past the plague of ennui. To aid in that quest, be sure you are following along, asking questions and responding to the leader’s prompts.

I have also learned that regardless of leadership style — some of us are like Moses pointing the way, others are more like Miriam, leading through interpretation and song — you will still need to do your homework. Steingroot’s book is a great source, as well as “Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration” by Ron Wolfson with Joel Lurie Grishaver, and “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah,” by David Dishon and Noam Zion.

Taking my own advice, a few nights before our first encounter with all things matzo each year, I go through the haggadah and annotate, searching for my afikomen: a way to connect the story of traveling from slavery to freedom to the lives of my guests. One year, I held up a Passover chocolate bar and referred to it as “the bean of our affliction,” calling attention to the children who are sometimes exploited to harvest cacao beans and as a way to discuss if we, too, were participating in slavery.

This year to provoke discussion, before we open the door to Elijah, I plan to ask guests to imagine what would happen if the prophet, as we imagine him — a robed and perhaps turbaned man from the Middle East — was detained at airport customs. n

The paradox of today’s anti-Semitism

A children’s playground in Brooklyn Heights, New York was vandalized with a swastika in November 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Jewish community centers and synagogues have received threatening calls. Headstones at Jewish cemeteries have been overturned in suburban St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y., and perhaps even in Brooklyn. Jewish writers have found their Facebook pages filled with vitriolic anti-Semitic hatred. Faculty offices have been painted with swastikas and defecations outside the door. Clearly, anti-Semitism is on the rise, and the American Jewish community is rightfully uneasy.

And yet, a recent Pew Research Center survey found yet again that Judaism is the most popular religion in America.

Consider the paradox: How can both be true at once, that anti-Semitism is on the rise yet Judaism is the most popular of America’s religions?

Let’s begin with the Pew survey. What Judaism is the most popular religion in America really means is that Judaism is the least unpopular religion.

Eastern religions are not understood. Muslims are feared and commonly identified with terrorism. Roman Catholicism is in the midst of a deep credibility crisis. Protestantism is divided between evangelicals and liberals, and evangelicals are divided generationally, with younger evangelicals having different views on homosexuality, for example.

Judaism is thus respected and admired — or less disrespected and less disliked than other religions. Little do outsiders know how deeply divided we are.

Why, then, the seeming explosion of anti-Semitism? This, too, must be seen in context.

I doubt there has been an increase in anti-Semitism as much as there has been an increase in the permissibility of the expressions of anti-Semitism and its amplification by the tools of social media.

A bit of history: American anti-Semitism was at its height in the 1930s during the crucial years just before World War II and the Holocaust. Those with anti-Semitic views did not disappear or alter their views in the immediate postwar years. What changed was that they did not feel comfortable expressing anti-Semitism without feeling some social stigma and rebuke both in public and even in social situations. Therefore, many in my generation grew up without hearing many anti-Semitic comments. That changed in the late 1960s with the tensions between Blacks and Jews; it changed again later with some hostility toward Israel and American Jews during the oil crisis of 1973 and 1979. And it has changed more rapidly since the turn of the century with the distance that has developed with the Holocaust. The tools of social networks and the internet magnify anti-Semitism and reinforce those who spew hatred.

No one can deny that the expressions of hatred have intensified the more polarized our society has become, and the explosion of anti-Semitism must be seen as but one dramatic, though not necessarily central, expansion of the expression of all hatreds — toward Muslims, toward immigrants, toward African-Americans, toward gays, toward the poor, toward any minority group, including white Americans without a college education who were at the core of President Donald Trump’s support in the November election.

Although I am deeply hesitant to put this in writing because events even in an hour from now can prove me wrong, it must be noted that in recent days, threats of violence against living Jews — not actual violence — have been sufficient to unnerve the Jewish community. Bombs threats have been called in, but there have been no actual bombs. Cemeteries, however sacred, have been vandalized, tombstones overturned — these are attacks on dead Jews and on the loving memory of living Jews, but not direct assaults on the living. How long this shall continue we do not know, but the costs to the Jewish community in terms of security and even in terms of the enrollment of Jewish children in preschool and day schools and camps are significant.

We also must note that the interests of Israel and the interests of the Diaspora Jewish community are not identical and can diverge easily. When Trump averted directly condemning anti-Semism — he has done so subsequently — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s answer was instructive. “There is no greater supporter of Israel or the Jewish state than President Donald Trump. I think we can put that [the question of condemning anti-Semitism] to rest.”

Trump may be a huge friend of Israel and a stupendous supporter of its prime minister, but while that may be terrific for the Israeli right, it does not necessarily translate into safety and security for American Jews.

It is not the first time Netanyahu misjudged the needs of a Diaspora community. His support of the Mexican border wall was an obvious gesture to Trump, but a slap in the face of Latino Americans whose views of Jews and Judaism are less well developed than other groups and who don’t know that Netanyahu doesn’t necessarily speak for the Jewish people or represent their views.

In the aftermath of the Hyper Cacher killings, the French prime minister and president made bold statements: “France without Jews is not France,” claiming these Jews as Frenchmen and committing themselves to defend the place of Jews and the safety of Jews in French society and culture. Netanyahu went to the main synagogue in Paris and then invited French Jews to come “home” to Israel where “we will protect you,” seemingly forgetting for a moment that Iran was an existential threat to Israel with the potential of nuclear annihilation. Just as France was claiming these Jews as they own, Israel pushed for burial in Israel, seemingly underscoring a perception that they were not Frenchmen, which was a blow to all French Jews.

Similarly throughout Eastern Europe, Israel is enjoying political support from ultra-nationalist, right-wing governments that are rewriting the history of World War II to cleanse their nations of the stigma of collaboration. Local Jewish communities speak out, scholars and public officials speak out while Israel remains silent.

I believe that Jews cannot fight the battle against the explosion of anti-Semitism without combatting all expressions of hatred, reaching out to others and even dialing down the vitriol that has characterized all political discourse. If the expression of hatred is unabated, Jews will be its victims — certainly not its only victims, and in all likelihood, not its primary victims. If we combat this promiscuous hatred together, new alliances may be struck and new possibilities emerge.


MICHAEL BERENBAUM is a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University.

Pew: Jews are best-liked religious group in America

Members of USY celebrating at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s 2015 convention. Photo by Andrew Langdal.

Jews are the most warmly regarded religious group in America, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

The survey, which was released Wednesday, found that Americans generally express more positive feelings toward various religious groups than they did three years ago.

As they did the first time the survey was taken in 2014, Jews topped the survey, in which respondents rank various religious groups on a “feeling thermometer.” On the scale of 1 to 100, 1 is the coldest and 100 the warmest; 50 means they have neither positive nor negative feelings.

Jews were ranked at 67 degrees, up from 63 in the 2014 survey, followed by Catholics at 66, up from 62, and Mainline Protestants at 65. Evangelical Christians stayed at 61 degrees.

Buddhists rose to 60 from 53, and Hindus increased to 58 from 50. Mormons moved to 54 from 48.

Atheists and Muslims again had the lowest ratings, but both still rose on the warmth scale. Atheists ranked at 50 degrees, up from 41, and Muslims were at 48, up from 40.

The authors noted that warm feelings toward religious groups rose despite a contentious election year that deeply divided Americans. “The increase in mean ratings is broad based,” according to the authors. “Warmer feelings are expressed by people in all the major religious groups analyzed, as well as by both Democrats and Republicans, men and women, and younger and older adults.”

The random-digit-dial survey of 4,248 respondents was conducted Jan. 9-23. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Americans tend to rate their own faith groups highest, the survey found. Jews rated themselves at 91 and rated Muslims at 51, up from 35 three years ago. Jews rated themselves the highest compared to other groups; the next highest was Catholics at 83.

The survey showed a divide between older and younger Americans. While Jews received a 74 from respondents aged 65 and up, the age group’s second-highest ranking behind Mainline Protestants, respondents aged 18-29 ranked Jews at 62 and gave their highest ranking to Buddhists at 66.

Religious groups also were rated higher by respondents who knew someone from that religion. Those who knew Jews gave them a 72, and those who do not know any Jews gave them a 58.

Jews are world’s most educated religious group, study finds

Jews are the world’s most-educated religious group, with an average of more than 13 years of formal schooling, according to a new study.

The Pew Research Center study published Tuesday found that Jews worldwide have four years more of schooling on average than the next-most educated group, Christians, who average about nine years of schooling. Muslims and Hindus are the least-educated religious groups, each with about 5 1/2 years of formal schooling. The global average is less than eight years.

Jews led the groups in several other categories. Jewish men and women have the smallest average gap in years of formal schooling at zero (Hindu women, on the other extreme, trail men by 2.7 years). Jews were the most educated in the 55-to-74 category. Sixty-one percent of Jews have at least some post-high school education; the global average is 14 percent. Ninety-nine percent of Jews have had some formal schooling.

Among Jews worldwide aged 25 to 34, women are more educated than men. Jewish women in that age group have more than 14 years of formal schooling on average, and nearly 70 percent have attended some form of higher education. Jewish men in that cohort, by contrast, have an average of 13.4 years of formal schooling, and 57 percent have had higher education.

While 81 percent of American Jewish men aged 55 to 74 has had higher education, the number drops to 65 percent among those aged 25 to 34. Pew attributes the decline to the growth of America’s Orthodox Jewish population, which attains formal secular education at lower rates than non-Orthodox Jews.

American Jews have the highest rate of higher education, at 75 percent (compared to 40 percent of Americans generally), and have an average of 14.7 years of schooling. Jewish Israelis have an average of 12 years of schooling, and 46 percent have had higher education.

The least educated Jewish population is in South Africa, where Jews have an average of 12 years of schooling, and only 29 percent have higher education. In the country as a whole, only 3 percent of the population has higher education.

Jews in Israel have far more education, on average, than Muslim Israelis, though the gap is narrowing. Among the oldest Jews and Muslims, there is a nearly six-year gap in formal schooling. Among Jews and Muslims aged 25 to 34, however, the gap shrinks to 3.7 years.

Is campaign news necessary?

Last week, Gallup asked Americans if they were watching news about the presidential campaign “very closely.” Four out of 10 said yes. I’m one of them.  That’s crazy. Are you one of them? That’s crazy, too.

There are plenty of high-minded reasons to follow campaign news. It informs us about the issues. It educates us about the candidates. It makes our choices meaningful. It makes us a polity, not puppets. It honors the blood spilled to secure the freedom of the candidates to speak, of the press to cover them and of the people to vote for them.

But does that describe the campaign news you’re consuming? Ninety-one percent of U.S. adults told the Pew Research Center they learned something about the presidential election in the past week. Just 2 percent of them – 2 percent! – said a national newspaper was their most helpful source of campaign information. Maybe they got issues and analysis. But the 24 percent who said cable news was their most helpful source of information? The 14 percent who said local TV news? The 14 percent who said social media? I’m not saying they got nothing civically nutritious. But judging from the hours I waste on campaign news, the word I’d use for what I get from it isn’t information – it’s entertainment.

Great entertainment, actually. Half the adults in the presidential debate audience, and six out of 10 under 30, told Pew the debates were “fun to watch.” You couldn’t want more entertaining characters than Trump, Cruz, Clinton, Sanders, Carson, Christie et al. The story has been riveting, full of shock and suspense, and the stakes just keep on rising. What fresh hell is next? What vile version of “Little Marco” or “Lyin’ Ted” will Trump unleash on Clinton, as he told Maureen Dowd he will? Will party maneuvers to prevent Trump’s nomination cause riots at the Cleveland convention, as he predicted on CNN? Will Trump leverage the chaos and violence he provokes and condones in order to present himself as the law-and-order strongman that Americans will be clamoring for? No wonder we can’t look away – we might get to see someone killed.

With that much drama, it’s understandable that campaign news is as good a binge-watch as “Breaking Bad.” But if I’m glued to Netflix, I don’t try to tell myself that what I’m hooked on is necessary, important, that it makes me a better citizen. It’s just fun. But cable news, the Sunday morning shows, the rabbit hole of blogs I keep falling down: they’re meant to inform me, to make my opinions more sound, my views more valuable, my predictions more credible. It pains me to say it, because I’ve blown so much time doing it, but a lot of that is wishful thinking.  At best, all that intake makes me a classier gossip.  At worst, it gives me night terrors.

From the media I take in, I know a dozen scenarios for Trump, Cruz or Ryan to win or lose the nomination or the election. I know the difference between the Sanders and the Clinton college affordability plans. I can handicap the veepstakes for both tickets. Who cares? A year from now, what possible difference will knowing any of that make? What difference does it even make today?

I’ll never get back the hours I spent paying attention to Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, not to mention Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. What I know about Eric Cantor and John Edwards is a waste of good neurons. I didn’t miss a single minute of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, or Bill Clinton’s impeachment. They got my blood boiling; they were lurid beyond belief, and I was convinced I had an intellectual responsibility and patriotic obligation to witness every moment of that history. But if instead I’d spent that time doing yoga, perfecting my ratatouille or cleaning my gutters, I wouldn’t have been a lesser citizen. I watched every one of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses, each promoted as once-in-a-lifetime TV, but unless I cheat, I can’t now recall a phrase from any of them, and I’d be hard pressed to name a single consequential thing in his presidency, let alone in American history, that would have been different if he’d spent those eight nights helping Sasha and Malia with their homework. That’s not a knock on Obama’s eloquence or his agenda; it’s about how ephemeral spectacle is and how often “breaking news” deserves the amnesia that befalls it.

Of course we need news. Ignorance is worse than infotainment. Lies require refutation. Investigative reporting is expensive and essential. Though the New York Times has sometimes been unfair to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, its political coverage remains competitive with the best political journalism in the world. Sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight; writers like Elizabeth Drew and Jim Fallows; bloggers like Matt Taibi and Charlie Pierce; satirists like John Oliver and Samantha Bee; explainers like Rachel Maddow and Amy Goodman: they do make me smarter, and they show how Donald Trump gamed journalistic dysfunction to bring us to the brink of fascism.

But knowing that won’t stop Trump or elect anyone else.  The impact of the $2 billion of free media that TV executives gave Trump swamps all the news and all the ads of all the other candidates. Worse, it swamps the rest of the news. The U.S. is at serious risk of another financial meltdown, but when a president of the Federal Reserve Bank sounds that alarm, it’s a one-day story. Sixty million refugees are on the march – more than at any other time in history – but it’s Trump’s feud with Megyn Kelly that gets the tweets and clicks.  The size of the polar ice caps is getting less airtime than the size of Trump’s junk.

I have a professional excuse to follow campaign coverage closely: I write about it. But even if what I wrote about were horticulture or basketball, I’d still be obsessed by political news.  I can forgive myself for being hooked on 2016’s slimy top reality show. But to confuse having fun with having a democracy – that’s crazy.


Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

New Pew report highlights Modern Orthodox Jewry straddling two worlds

Just as Charedi Jews in the United States are likely to enroll their kids in a yeshiva, attend synagogue every week and vote Republican, so too are Modern Orthodox Jews.

But also, just as non-Orthodox Jews in the United States tend not to marry before the age of 25, earn at least a bachelor’s degree and have a significant number of non-Jewish friends, so, too, do the Modern Orthodox.

And unique among Jewish Americans, the majority of Modern Orthodox households earn at least $150,000 per year, and a large majority believe caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish (79 percent), and that the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel (64 percent).

In a ” target=”_blank”>groundbreaking 2013 study of U.S. Jews. The new data reveal what was already widely, yet anecdotally, known — that while Charedi Jews differ greatly from non-Orthodox Jews in virtually every demographic, political, economic and religious category (and, in fact, align more closely with Evangelical Christians by most religious, social and political measures), Modern Orthodox Jews, by contrast, straddle two worlds.

For example, in their views on Israel, American politics and religious observance, the Modern Orthodox and Charedi communities are closely aligned. But when it comes to levels of household income or education or immersion in the non-Jewish world, the Charedim are on one side, and the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities are on the other.

Pew’s 2013 report raised alarm among Jewish professionals in the U.S., particularly non-Orthodox ones, about the high rate of intermarriage among Conservative, Reform and nonaffiliated Jews, and about the percentage of Jews raised in Conservative and Reform households who became unaffiliated later in life. And although this report is simply looking deeper at data collected two years ago, Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religious research, predicted the Jewish-American community could look very different in the future if the demographic trends among Orthodox Jews of comparably high birthrates and young marriages continue.

“There’s a possibility over time that Orthodox Jews, as they grow as a share of all American Jews, we’ll have an American-Jewish community that may actually be more cohesive [close-knit] than it is today, more observant than it is today, more socially and politically conservative than it is today,” Cooperman said, adding, though, that “one man’s cohesion is another man’s insularity.”

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at , University, said “Anyone interested in the future of Jewish life has to pay attention to the Orthodox,” a point made in the wake of the Pew report two years ago. Sarna added that this new report highlights “where Modern Orthodox Jews are indeed more similar to American Jews generally, or to Conservative Jews, and where they are not.”

Although the information about the dividing lines between Charedi and Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews is not groundbreaking, this report is revealing in that it shows how split the Modern Orthodox are between following Charedi trends versus non-Orthodox trends — not a surprise, given that Modern Orthodox Judaism emphasizes strict religious observance while remaining actively engaged with the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish world.

For example, while the Modern Orthodox, like the Charedim, overwhelmingly keep kosher, observe Shabbat and believe in God, they, like non-Orthodox Jews, are highly educated and have more liberal views toward homosexuality. Further, while 75 percent of currently married Charedi Jews married before their 25th birthday, only 48 percent of married Modern Orthodox Jews can say the same, putting them closer to non-Orthodox Jews. And while 32 percent of Charedi adults are ages 18 to 29, and only 6 percent are 65 or older, only 9 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews are 18 to 29, and 25 percent are 65 are older, making the Modern Orthodox more like the non-Orthodox than Charedim in terms of average age.

But although Modern Orthodox Jews differ in significant ways from non-Orthodox Jews, the real driver behind Orthodox Jewry’s competitive demographic advantage are Charedi Jews, who, Pew says, comprise 62 percent of America’s Orthodox Jewish population.

“When it comes to demographic things like family sizes and age of marriage, the Charedim really stand out. And, in fact, the Modern Orthodox, in terms of family sizes, don’t look that different from Conservative and Reform Jews,” Cooperman said. “The data suggests it’s really the Charedim, through natural growth, who are growing particularly fast.”

He also pointed out that it’s natural growth — not conversion or movement among denominations — that sets apart the Orthodox. For although 30 percent of Orthodox Jews weren’t raised Orthodox, 43 percent of Conservative Jews, 45 percent of Reform Jews and 69 percent of nondenominational Jews moved into those religious streams later in life.

“This is not the group that has the most converts or Jews by Choice,” Cooperman said of Orthodox Jewry. “This is not the group that’s growing because people are coming from other streams of Judaism. This is the group that has the most organic, the most natural growth through large families.”

Sarna said he wishes Pew would look deeper into the Charedi community and at the impact that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has had on American Jewry. In terms of demographic growth and religious observance, Chabad-Lubavitch Jews are very similar to non-Chabad Charedim, but in terms of outreach to the non-Orthodox world and engagement with the non-Jewish world, the Chabad movement is more similar to the Modern Orthodox. “It would be interesting to get more of a sense of the spectrum,” Sarna said.

Cooperman said he’d love to be able to more deeply analyze the Charedi community, which he would further divide among Chasidic Jews and “yeshivish” Jews, but added that the difficulty of studying such a small group of the U.S. population would be very expensive and difficult. “We’re looking into subdivisions that are two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population,” Cooperman said.

The next major Pew survey of American Jewry likely won’t be for several years, Cooperman said, explaining that the cost and complexity of the survey makes doing it annually impractical. And while this report certainly indicates where American Jewry may be headed, Cooperman cautioned against conflating a glimpse at the present with a forecasted trajectory.

“A snapshot in time cannot predict the future,” he said.

If these trends do hold, though, they could indicate a monumental shift in American Jewry in terms of Modern Orthodoxy’s role within it. “Nobody will be surprised if a generation from now, instead of being 10 percent, they’re 20 percent,” Sarna said.

Pew study: Muslims to overtake American Jews by 2050

In 20 years, there will be more Muslims in North America than Jews, according to a new Pew Research Center report.

The report, which was released Thursday, also found that more American Jews are leaving Judaism than non-Jews are joining the Jewish people.

According to “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” Muslims will overtake Christians in the last quarter of the 21st century as the globe’s largest religious group. In the United States, Muslims will comprise 2.1 percent of the population in 2050, up from 0.9 percent in 2010. Jews, meanwhile, will fall to 1.4 percent of the U.S. population from 1.8 percent in 2010.

The Pew study also offered a detailed look at the sizes of national Jewish communities around the world, how fast the communities are expected to shrink or grow, and Jewish fertility rates.

There were nearly 14 million Jews around the globe in 2010, with expected growth to 16 million by 2050, according to the study – a lower growth rate than the general world population. Overall, Jews comprise roughly 0.2 percent of the world’s population, with about 44 percent of Jews in North America; 41 percent in Israel, the Middle East and North Africa; 10 percent in Europe; and 3 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

By 2050, 51 percent of Jews are expected to live in the Middle East — almost all in Israel — and 37 percent in North America. The number of Jews in Europe is expected to decline more precipitously and outpace general European population shrinkage, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the study showed that globally there were 1.6 billion Muslims in 2010 and a predicted growth to nearly 2.8 billion in 2050 — from 23 percent of the population to 30 percent. In 2050, nearly three of every 10 people will be Muslims.

Today, the United States and Israel have about the same number of Jews, though there is some debate among Jewish demographers over which country is ahead. The Pew study counted 5.7 million Jews in the U.S. and 5.6 million in Israel, but other studies have shown more than 6 million Jews in each country, and Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics said Israel had 6.2 million Jews in 2014. In any case, Israel is expected to pull unambiguously ahead in the coming years.

The study counted as Jews those who self-identify as Jewish when asked their religion. It does not include so-called Jews of no religion — those who have Jewish ancestry or consider themselves partially Jewish but say they are not Jewish by religion.

Nearly 95 percent of all Jews live in just 10 countries, according to the study. Except for Israel, none of those countries is more than 2 percent Jewish. The 10 countries with the most Jews are, in descending order, according to Pew, the United States, Israel, Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, Argentina, Australia and Brazil.

Jewish fertility rates are highest in Israel (2.8 children per woman), whereas Jewish fertility rates in North America (2.0) and Europe (1.8) are below replacement level (2.3). In the United States, the Jewish fertility rate is 1.9 children per woman.

In every region examined by Pew, the Jewish median age was older than that of the general population. In the world overall, the median age was 28, compared with the Jewish median age of 37. In North America the median age is 37, with the Jews at 41.

While the study showed that the spread of secularism is expected to continue and the number of atheists projected to rise, religious people are expected to grow as a proportion of the global population because they tend to have more children.

In Europe, Muslims are expected to grow to 10 percent of the population in 2050, from 6 percent in 2010.

In the United States, Americans of no religion are expected to grow from 16 percent in 2010 to 25 percent by 2050, and Christians are expected to shrink from 78 percent in five years to 66 percent by 2050.

Netanyahu: Call off the Congress play

Liberal Democrats are the soft underbelly of American support for Israel, and John Boehner and Benjamin Netanyahu just gave them a swift kick.

When the Republican speaker of the house went around President Barack Obama to issue an invitation to the prime minister of Israel to address Congress, which Netanyahu accepted, you could practically hear the chorus of WTFs from the silent majority of the American-Jewish community.

Despite explanations to the contrary, this is not about the Iranian nuclear program or sanctions. We all want the former to fail and the latter to succeed; that’s a given.  

But when in our madness we are reckless in our means, that slow sucking sound you hear is bipartisan American support for Israel going down the drain. If Netanyahu thinks American support for Israel can survive solely on Evangelicals’ votes and Sheldon Adelson’s wallet, he’s been away too long from Cambridge.

I spoke with AIPAC supporters from both sides of the aisle this week, and while they disagreed on the severity of Bibi’s move, they agreed that bipartisan support is the bedrock of the American-Israeli alliance.

“It’s not helpful for a foreign leader to come right before election,” Larry Hochberg, a longtime pro-Israel activist who leans Republican, told me by phone. “We still love this country. We belong here. Americans don’t like any affront to our leader. I don’t think it’s a diplomatic coup for Israel; I really don’t.”

Hochberg was quick to give the benefit of the doubt to Bibi. Perhaps his message is so important, Hochberg said, he just had to take it directly to Congress, and U.S.-Israel relations have survived worse crises. But, still, the “how” is of concern.

“It falls a little down party lines,” Hochberg said. “Those in the middle don’t like to see their president embarrassed, and the president has a right to conduct foreign policy.”

Bipartisan support, including “those in the middle,” bloomed in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, but it has long been wilting. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey taken during the last war with Hamas found that “the share of Republicans who sympathize more with Israel has risen from 68 percent to 73 percent; 44 percent of Democrats express more sympathy for Israel than [for] the Palestinians, which is largely unchanged from April (46 percent).”

But the gaps widened when pollsters plugged in political preferences. Among Republicans, 77 percent of conservative Republicans favor Israel. Among Democrats, only 39 percent of liberal Democrats do.

As I’ve written before, among the next generations, the ones that didn’t experience the Six-Day War, the Holocaust, Osirak and Entebbe — these gaps are even wider. A generation of American college students is being subjected to the one-two punch of a cynical, well-funded Arab propaganda campaign against Israel, coupled with Bibi’s disdain of the president they helped elect.

There are no polls out yet on Americans’ opinion of Bibi’s plans for a March 3 speech to Congress. But you know it’s playing badly among Israel’s shakier supporters here when even the country’s stalwart fans are upset.

 “If you talk to AIPAC, they will tell you they were not consulted and not involved,” Greg Rosenbaum told me. “They were blindsided as much as anybody else was.”

Rosenbaum is an uber-successful investor (and former CEO of Empire Kosher) who chairs the National Jewish Democratic Council. So you can write him off as a Boehner-hater, or pine for the old days when the pro-Israel tent gathered him and his Republican counterparts together.

“AIPAC is firmly committed to the proposition that support for U.S.-Israel relations must be bi-partisan,” Rosenbaum told me. “This would be considered an affront. It is perceived as a way to get at Obama.”

The irony here is that AIPAC is widely being blamed for dissing Democrats when, in reality, according to Rosenbaum and Hochberg, AIPAC was out of this decision loop.

Some reports have placed blame on American-born Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who is generally perceived as leaning Republican. Several people have told me they saw him at the White House Chanukah party last December, waiting in line with every Joe Rabbi and Jane Fundraiser — civilians! — to get in. Perhaps he engineered this diplomatic reach around as a way of cutting the line.

Or maybe it was just a bad call — like, say, a pass in the last few seconds of a Super Bowl game when you’re less than 1 yard from the goal. It seemed like a good idea beforehand. But almost immediately, you realize what a terrible mistake you’ve made.

Let’s assume that’s the case. (The alternative is too awful to ponder — that Republicans have some scheme to “win” on Israel, and thus capture pro-Israel dollars at the expense of broader American support.)

“Even smart people and smart politicians occasionally make miscalculations,” Rosenbaum told me. “The best figure out how to get away from them as soon as the negative impact is seen.”

Calling back this play will be hard now that partisan forces have lined up on both sides to defend and attack it. But that ugly thrum of partisanship, which will only grow louder as March 3 approaches, is exactly why Bibi, Boehner and Dermer need to figure out a way to keep most Americans on Israel’s side — in this conflict and the next.

Read David Suissa's counter-point here:
Why Bibi should give his speech


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

Tough love for Islam

We’re conditioned to respect all religions. But what happens when we’re confronted with a religion that looks more like a political ideology? When I criticize Islam, I don’t criticize its spiritual beauty; I criticize the fact that in too many places around the world, the religion has morphed into a violent and totalitarian movement.

It’s not a coincidence that, since 9/11, more than 24,000 terrorists acts have been committed under the name of Islam. After the latest murderous attacks in Paris, even a staunch liberal like Bill Maher had the politically incorrect nerve to say what so many of us are afraid to say: “When there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with this orchard.”

What’s wrong with this orchard? Well, for starters, it harbors an extremist and literalist interpretation of Islam that has morally contaminated large segments of the Muslim world.

While practices and beliefs in Islam are hardly monolithic, it’s disheartening to see such widespread support among Muslims for strict religious law (Sharia) as the official law of their countries. According to polling from the Pew Research Center, this support is most prevalent in places like Afghanistan (99%), Iraq (91%), the Palestinian territories (89%), Pakistan (84%), Morocco (83%), Egypt (74%) and Indonesia (72%).

When you consider that a strict interpretation of Sharia law can often mean cutting off the hands of thieves, lynching gays, stoning adulterous women and the death penalty for apostates, it’s not a pretty picture.

And yet, in much of the West, we act as if Islamic terrorism is simply the result of some “bad apples,” and, well, every religion has its fanatics. This cozy and convenient narrative has run its course. Islamic terrorism is not an isolated phenomenon — it’s a violent outgrowth of a global, triumphalist and totalitarian ideology that is on the march and hiding behind the nobility of religion.

When French President Francois Hollande says, “These terrorists and fanatics have nothing to do with the Islamic religion,” he’s being politically correct, but not accurate. Islamic terrorism has very much to do with the extremist interpretation of classic Islamic texts. Until we acknowledge that inconvenient truth, we have no chance of combating this disease.

Moderate Muslims who “condemn terrorism” and then defend Islam as a “religion of peace” are not taking responsibility for a malignant ideology that must be confronted and rooted out, and not simply denounced.

But how do we do that?

For my money, there’s no better approach than that of Ahmed Vanya, a fellow at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an American-Muslim organization that openly confronts the ideologies of political Islam.

Vanya loves Islam, but his is a tough love. He doesn’t get defensive about the religion’s failings. He’s not out to defend Islam as much as to modernize it. In his must-read article “Beautifying Islam,” published on the website of the Gatestone Institute, Vanya confronts the monster head-on:

“A religion that prescribes killing or criminalizing apostates; condones institutionalized slavery, stoning, beheading, flogging, and amputations; which restricts and criminalizes freedom of speech and freedom of religion; commands the stoning of adulterers; develops a theory of constant state of war with non-believers; discriminates and demeans women and people of other religions is not only The Religion of the Bigots but The Religion of the Bullies.” 

He is clear-eyed about his own tradition: “Classical Islamic law, developed over the history of Islam, is definitely not peaceful or benign, and therefore not suited for this age; neither are its violent and grotesque progeny, such as Islamism and jihadism.”

But like any good lover, Vanya gives his beloved the benefit of the doubt: “If Islam is a religion that stands for justice and peaceful coexistence, then this policy of jihad cannot be justified as sanctioned by a just and merciful creator.”

To live up to these noble ideals, Vanya calls for a humanistic “reinterpretation” of classic Islamic texts: “If we Muslims want to stand up and challenge the literalism of the text-bound scholars and the militants who are beheading, enslaving and persecuting people around the world alike, we need to develop an interpretative methodology that balances revelation with reason as in other rational, religious traditions.”

In other words, it’s not enough to marginalize violence; we must also marginalize violent teachings. 

“Religious traditions have changed and evolved over time,” Vanya writes. “Therefore it is the duty of us Muslims, using reason and common sense, to reinterpret the scriptures to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values. It is our duty to cleanse the traditional, literalist, classical Islam and purify it to make it an Islam that is worthy to be called a beautiful religion.”

When Muslim leaders and preachers start to spread that tough love message throughout the Muslim world, the modernization of Islam will have begun.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Climate change will be the number one issue in the 2034 midterm elections

On the day after the Sept. 23 “>Unetanneh Tokef, the troubling prayer at the heart of the Days of Awe, will resonate with news from the summit and the march preceding it about global efforts to rescue our planet.     

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.


How many will pass and how many will be created?


Who will live and who will die?


Who in their time, and who not their time?


Who by fire and who by water?


Who by sword and who by beast?


Who by hunger and who by thirst?


Who by earthquake and who by drowning?

Who by strangling and who by stoning?


Who will rest and who will wander?


Who will be safe and who will be torn?


Who will be calm and who will be tormented?


Who will become poor and who will get rich?


Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?

For my fellow congregants, in the wake of a week of speechmaking about fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, when they come to “drowning,” will it mean floods and rising sea levels in their minds?  Will “thirst” mean drought?  Will “wander” mean climate refugees?  Will “not in their time” mean the extinction we risk inflicting on posterity?  Is that the sentence now being written and sealed?

As I look around my congregation, as we speak the prayer in unison, I know that other thoughts, not about the planet, will also come to mind – that “strangling” will call up images of unspeakable barbarity that have assaulted us; that “stoning” will put many in mind of the sanctioned evil being visited on women around the world; that “poor” and “rich” will remind us of rampant inequality; that “earthquake,” in at least some parts of the country, will pierce if only for a moment the veil of denial; that “tormented,” for some, will bring thoughts of Robin Williams.  

I also know that the “but” – the hairpin turn this prayer makes after its inventory of life’s unbearable, inevitable jeopardies – will put many people off balance:

But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah avert the severe decree.

Every word of the Jewish liturgy is the tip of an iceberg of commentary.  Teshuvah has inspired volumes about returning, repentance, reconciliation; tefillah, about prayer, gratitude, awe; tzedahkah, about generosity, righteousness, justice.  No matter how those words are translated and interpreted, what they have in common in this prayer is that they trigger the “but.”  If we embrace them, they promise a stay of execution, a turn of fate, a better path than the one we’re on.  Will that work for climate change?

“If the world keeps burning fossil fuels at the current rate,” scientist Michael E. Mann “>defeat Senate Republican candidates Scott Brown in New Hampshire, Joni Ernst in Iowa, Cory Gardner in Colorado and Terry Lynn Land in Michigan – and potentially save the Senate majority from falling into the hands of science-deniers.  I hope the money that NextGen puts into ads, field operations and get-out-the-vote efforts to beat Republican gubernatorial candidates Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Paul LePage in Maine and Rick Scott in Florida will rally citizens of those states to rescue them from environmental ruin.

But the national polls I’ve seen tell a different story.  In January, the Pew Research Center “>April, when Pew looked for the top issues in the midterms, they didn’t even include it in the survey.)  When “>“2036,” the short video that the Norman Lear Center has made for climate week, and not images of planetary devastation. 

Is the prospect of solving problems and giving kids a better future a more powerful motivator than fear?  ISIS is banking that terror will hold onto the world’s attention like nothing else.  It will be righteous of us to degrade and ultimately destroy their capacity for doing evil.  When it comes to climate change, much better than repenting because the end is nigh is rejoicing because hope is at hand.