Cartoon depicts haredi Orthodox Jews praying to Wall Street


A cartoon depicting three stereotypically haredi Orthodox Jews praying in front of the Western Wall, which is labeled Wall Street, won an Iranian cartoon contest.

The cartoon won the first International Wall Street Downfall Cartoon Festival, which was co-sponsored by the semi-official Iranian FARS news service. The cartoons, which were submitted by Arabs in countries around the world, can be viewed on the FARS website.

The Anti-Defamation League in a statement called the winning cartoon “offensive.”

“Once again, Iran takes the prize for promoting anti-Semitism,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.  “The winning cartoon takes the most sacred site in Judaism and perverts it into a shrine of greed.”

Iran held a Holocaust cartoon contest in 2006. The first prize illustration depicted Israel’s security fence as Auschwitz, according to Radio Free Europe.

VideoJew’s VideoGuide to L.A. #3 — Jewish Los Angeles


Dining, shopping, living, praying—VideoJew Jay Firestone shows you how it’s done Los Angeles-style.

 

Say ‘Hi’ to a College Before You Pick One


Every year, the college tour is a rite of passage for students and parents alike, but for some it becomes an occupation. I wanted to make it simple, that is, wait until after my son was accepted, but before we had to give notification to colleges, a two-week period between April 15 and May 1. Had I known that our three-day, three-state, three-college tour was going to be so hectic I might have planned otherwise. I worried: Was this too much pressure, in too little time, to make such an important decision? What was the best approach?

Although there were no right or wrong answers, this rite of passage was harder than I thought to get right: for every decision, another better one could have been made. Of course, I get to do it all over again in four years when my daughter goes to college.

The Big Question: When to Visit

My son and I visited two UC campuses in the spring of his junior year, but by the time senior year rolled around he had forgotten everything he liked about them. And by senior year, unbeknownst to me, he had his heart set on going east. But for those whose first choice is a UC or Cal State, a couple of campus visits, one in junior and another in senior year, makes sense.

East Coast schools are another problem: to visit before, after or both? One father I know took his daughter to New England to see her college choices before she was admitted, and then again afterward. Some parents use the college tour as a kind of marathon summer vacation between junior and senior year, visiting more than a dozen schools on one trip. One parent I know dragged her daughter to 22 different schools.

Since regular students and teachers aren’t on most college campuses during summer, I don’t see the point, other than saving your child from missing classes during the school year.

The other less costly choice is to visit only after the acceptance letters arrive. My advice: resist pressure from other parents and students to go beforehand. All in all, I’m glad we did.

Use the Internet; Make a Date With Your College Interviewer

I found letters from college interviewers telling my son they would be in town on such and such a date buried under stacks of homework papers. When confronted, he told me he didn’t know what he would say to these strangers anyway. After missing a few of these opportunities, his father told him he had to go. He ended up actually liking the interview process, and determined from talking to a Harvard alumnus that he didn’t want to go to an Ivy League after all.

Take advantage of “walking tours” on the Internet — you can get a fairly accurate feel of what college campuses and their buildings look like. Also find out when representatives from out-of-state colleges will be in your area. My son’s best friend decided on Boston University after admission counselors came to Los Angeles and presented a slide show of the new athletic center.

Eating…

Everyone I talked to said eating at the campus cafeteria was mandatory. They didn’t say that what you get with your meal is sometimes more than food. When my son visited Wesleyan University, he and his host ate dinner at the freshman cafeteria. In the middle of the meal, the campus streaker ran into the room, threw off his cape and made a loud proclamation: I am Wesleyan. After getting a bored response, he ran naked down the stairs and out the door. I imagine a lot of students lost their appetites, but perhaps not; after all, Wesleyan does have a clothing-optional dorm.

Sleeping…

Visiting a dorm room is a must. At BU we viewed the sleeping arrangements of a friend, Yoni, and his roommate, who cleverly arranged their beds perpendicular to each other, to leave more communal space intact, i.e. more room for the TV. While there, we also got a taste of the open-door policy. Yoni’s friends were constantly popping in and out, using the computer, making dinner arrangements. I wondered: how do freshmen get any homework done with the doors wide open? The answer: They don’t; that’s what the college library is for.

…And Praying

There are many opportunities to experience Jewish student life. At Wesleyan, Schmooze With the Jews was in full swing, inviting new recruits to meet Jewish students on campus. Schmooze sponsored a Shabbat service, with free bagels afterward. (The congregation was made up of mostly non-Jews, but then I realized-where there’s free food, there’s freshman!) At BU, Hillel is the largest organization on campus, with 25 student groups organized around cultural, social and religious events. At Bard College, there’s a large Jewish presence, lead by President Leon Botstein, the conductor of the Jerusalem Orchestra. As a matter of fact, the first student we met at Bard was Jewish, Ari from Chicago, who played the trumpet and walked around the campus in 46-degree weather, barefoot.

Don’t Judge a College by the Parents It Keeps

The campus tour is a good place for your son/daughter to check out other students and their academic aspirations, while you can check out the parents. Curiously, there was a majority of Californians visiting at the same time as us, easily identified by their unusual clothing. While touring Bard, I met an American Sikh from San Francisco. He told me that he was unsure if his son would be attending college, given that the boy was a sensitive soul concerned with the condition of the world. But when we met up with him later, the Sikh’s son seemed most enthusiastic about the school’s Division III soccer team. As it turned out, he loved soccer more than saving the world.

True or False: The Last College You Visit Will Be the One You Choose

Somewhere I had heard that the last college you visit will be the one your child will remember the most, thus, the one he or she will choose. Wrong. My son picked the first East Coast college he visited. But, it is true that the last school you visit will be the one your child will know most about, because by that time he/she will have discovered exactly what questions to ask, what professors to see, what classes to attend and anything else he/she has forgotten to do on previous visits. In the end, it doesn’t matter because what determines your son or daughter’s choice is oftentimes so elusive, not even you, the wise parent, have a clue. (See next topic.)

The Mystery Factor

How did my son finally choose his college, and when did he know that this was the school for him? His first inkling came when he was walking on the Bard College campus and saw students who looked like his friends back home. I noticed then that his shoulders relaxed. When we visited a friend’s daughter, Corrie Segal, in her dorm room, I stepped back and let the two of them talk. Soon, a roommate joined the conversation while she fried an egg. Turned out their dorm room was a popular destination: dozens of Polaroids of friends who had spent the night on their couch adorned the walls, while tea bags adorned the ceiling. Corrie explained: one day, while having tea, a friend suggested flinging the tea bags toward the ceiling, where they stuck, with the little strings hanging down. Soon, they found that flinging tea bags was a very satisfying thing to do. By the time we visited, most of the tea bags had already fallen, save one or two, but the remaining tea stains made the ceiling look like a distant constellation. My son was impressed. He was also impressed by Corrie’s photographic portfolio, which showed that the school had an impressive arts curriculum, the very thing my son was looking for. In the end, he chose Bard over four other colleges, just in the nick of time; he mailed his acceptance a few days before May 1. I was relieved. He liked the campus, the food, the history class he sat in on, the professors. But I believe it was the tea bags on the ceiling that clinched the deal.

 

Holiday of Freedom Spent Behind Bars


The high concrete walls of the little-used cafeteria at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles hardly spoke to Passover’s concept of freedom found and bondage ended. But this is where a dozen inmates gathered for their seder, in a setting that cried out Egypt rather than the promised land.
Rabbi Yossi Carron, the jail’s Jewish chaplain, held up a sprig of parsley to redefine the bleak surroundings.
“This is a real great symbol for you,” the Reform rabbi said. “I really want you to believe in the green parts of yourself. This symbol is you.”
The Jewish inmates listened — as they were watched by five sheriff’s deputies. Also on hand were four male and five female volunteers, along with a non-Jewish inmate and a former neo-Nazi skinhead who says he wants to convert. Eight other inmates had signed up for the two-hour ceremony on Thursday, two days before the official holiday, but three had been released and five were unavailable because of pending court proceedings.
A young Filipina was there to help the oldest volunteer, a 95-year-old woman who moved very, very slowly with a walker.
“She came in a wheelchair last year,” Carron said. “She’s been coming for 40 years.”
These aren’t the Jews who get ink for going to prison, better-known cons include Wall Street financial scammers and the like.
The inmates at this seder don’t get much attention, except perhaps from Carron. Jail rules even prohibit journalists from talking to the prisoners or mentioning their names.
No singing of “Dayenu” or hearing a rabbi tell the inmates that “everybody’s in prison somehow” could negate the blinding reality of being in one of the largest brigs in the world — a very violent place. High on one wall were rows of windowpanes, of which 17 were smashed.
Among the celebrants, there were one or two Russian accents plus two more voices bearing Sephardic lilts. All the congregants were color-coded: The three wearing blue jumpsuits were from the jail’s general population; another five wore a combo yellow-and-blue jumpsuit, from the psychiatric ward; four more wore the light aqua of the homosexual unit. The one inmate wearing red — a Dr. Demento look-alike with a gray ponytail — bore the scarlet of a sexual predator. He’s spent the last five Passovers behind bars.
The red-clad inmate arrived in a wheelchair. He gave his chair to the 95-year-old volunteer and then sat at the table.
The deputies stood watchfully at the door. Physical contact such as hugging was kept to a minimum. Trying to keep the mood festive, Carron sang some of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” prompting a deputy to ask his colleagues: “This is Jewish music?”
Later, Carron sang a bit of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.”
When invited to speak during the seder, all but one inmate did so. Like testimonials at a Baptist tent revival, they talked of how long they’d been “down,” or serving time. For one inmate it was “three months shy of three years.”
A Sephardic-accented inmate said he had been down for two months this year, but did a 10-month stint last year. His interlude of freedom was not particularly spiritual.
“I really don’t get a chance to [pray] when I’m on the outside,” he said.
A young psychiatric-warder, with a tattoo covering the back of his neck, said, “Just coming down the hall, I got a little emotional.”
The former neo-Nazi skinhead — and would-be Jewish convert —said he’s discovered “German Jewish blood in me.”
The deputies were skeptical; they’re wise to inmate scamming. This one, they said, lives in the jail’s homosexual unit, not because he considers himself gay, but because “gay time” is less violent. They also speculate that he wanted a good meal.
The meal was Passover worthy: matzah ball soup, pot roast, kugel, chicken, even gefilte fish. Grape juice filled in for wine.
There was no mistaking the sincerity in the voice of a heavyset inmate with a Russian accent who appeared to be in his 20s. He wore a shiny purple kippah, given to him by Carron.
“I’ve been down about a year,” he said. “All I wanted actually was this kippah. I was praying to get this kippah.”
The deputies seemed to believe him.

The Prayer


 

One of the great frustrations of growing up is that in the process of learning how the world works we often lose our sense of curiosity in and surprise at how it works.

Remember the thrill — mixed with surprise and fear of loss, and perhaps even danger — when you released a balloon filled with air and chased it around the room, delighting in its amusing sound? That same thrill might have deepened when you learned about the existence of air pressure, the power of the extended rubber to both contain and power the air inside the balloon. You may have applied this knowledge in creating an air-powered car or some other machine. But, eventually, balloons no longer were thrilling, instead becoming mere decorations. Your curiosity and delight in the moment became dull, hidden.

Mindfulness is a spiritual practice that aims to support us in awakening our awareness to each moment. Just as our understanding of the nature of physics wears away our wonder at the flight of a balloon, so, too, our experiences tend to wear down our sense of the wonder and uniqueness of each moment of our lives. We learn very early the pain that comes with the end of pleasure. We learn very early the pleasure of the end of pain. We turn much of our lives into seeking the pleasurable — and the means to prevent its end — and running from the painful. As a consequence we tend to limit our interest, our desire — and even our capacity — to see the moment clearly for what it is except as it extends pleasure or avoids what is unpleasant.

What would it mean to wake up in the moment? We might come to see clearly how much we shape our lives in pursuing the pleasant and resisting the unpleasant. We might experience how much we suffer in the moment — sometimes mightily, often in small ways, with a twinge, a grimace, a snarling retort, a startled exclamation. This suffering does not rise to the level of conscious awareness, most of the time, but cumulatively it exacts a dramatic toll. It shapes our lives, warps our relationships, limits our vision, closes our hearts.

Prayer was the original mindfulness practice. “I am afraid and I need help.” “There is nothing that would be better in this moment.” “I am embarrassed that I have hurt someone I love.” “My pride in you knows no bounds.” Each of these is a prayer, expressing a deep awareness of the nature of the moment. They are complete, true and need no elaboration. Prayer in its simplest form is the acknowledgment of the truth.

The problem is that each moment is fleeting. However much we are afraid it will never end, it does. However much we are afraid it will end, it does. Whatever it is that we express as true in the moment, we are challenged to pay attention and to sense what is true now and then bring it to expression. This impulse is the origin of liturgy — the formulation of the expression of gratitude, the acknowledgement of the need for help, the desire to make amends, the awareness of a full heart. These verbal expressions are meant to point us to deep awareness of the truth of our lives and to invite us to pay attention to what is true right now.

Many people find liturgy to be difficult, even off-putting. They suspect that it either precludes their own expression of awareness or that it allows for only one sentiment, one response to life. Somehow, their own life experience is wrong. What is wrong, if anything, is the perception that when we come together for worship we are all meant to be “on the same page” and to pray “in unison.” But, when we come together with others to pray, we can only do so with our whole beings, unique and in the moment. Somewhere in the prayerbook, somewhere in the liturgy, our life experience and our personal prayer can find expression. It might be that only one moment, one word will speak to our life story, but it is that one moment or word that we can pray fully, truly, wholeheartedly.

After the eighth plague in Egypt, Pharaoh continued to try to negotiate his way out of his troubles. He acceded to Moses’ previous demand that not only the menfolk but women and children go out to worship God, yet balked at letting the Israelites take their flocks as well. To this Moses replied that they will not leave without their flocks, “for we must select from it for the worship of the Lord our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there” (Exodus 10:26).

All of the words of the liturgy must be there when we join together in worship. We must arrive with an open curiosity to investigate what is true in the moment for us if we are to truly bring our whole selves to pray. Mindfulness practice is a tool to help us to wake up to the fullness of our lives, so that in this very moment we might speak the truth.

Rabbi Jonathan Slater will be appearing Jan. 13, 7 p.m., at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To R.S.V.P., call (323) 761-8644.

Rabbi Jonathan P. Slater is the author of “Mindful Jewish Living: Compassionate Practice” (Aviv Press, 2004).

 

Foreign Siblings Return for Torah Study


 

After spending the summer at Lishma, an intensive yeshiva-style program for young adults at Camp Ramah in Ojai, sisters Olga and Anna Dramchuk expected to be teaching Torah to fellow university students at Hillel in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Instead, they’re back in Los Angeles in search of more Jewish life and learning.

“Lishma was one of the best experiences we ever had as Jews, but it was only the beginning,” said Anna Dramchuk, 18.

Derived from the Hebrew phrase Torah lishma, or Torah studied for its own sake, Lishma was co-founded in 1999 by Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of Camp Ramah, and is co-sponsored by the camp and the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies. Last summer, 13 students took part in the fully funded four-week program.

“People who come to Lishma have a spiritual hunger,” Greyber said.

That includes the Dramchuk sisters, who along with Anna Dramchuk’s friend Irina Kononova, 19, also from Novosibirsk, were the first foreign students to take part in the program. Lisham has graduated a total of 80 students, a quarter of whom are involved in rabbinic studies or other Jewish learning.

“The assumption is that if you’re spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week studying Torah and living in a Jewish environment, it should change you as a person,” Greyber said.

But for the Dramchuks, the change was so dramatic that, after returning to Novosibirsk on July 19, they felt they could no longer stay.

“I was crying every day. When I woke up in the morning, the tears were alive,” said Olga Dramchuk, 20.

“I never had such a feeling before, the feeling that I’m in the wrong place,” Anna Dramchuk added.

They tried to do Shabbat at home, but it wasn’t the same, and they had no place to socialize with other Jews. The Hillel, where for the last two and a half years they had taught twice-weekly programs for the elderly, called Beit Midrash, celebrating holidays and sharing reflections from the Torah, was closed for the summer.

They had planned to start a second Beit Midrash program for university students and to continue their own education. Olga Dramchuk was to start her fourth year at the Siberian Independent University, where she was studying linguistics. Anna Dramchuk was to begin her second year at the Novosibirsk State Academy of Economics and Management, with the goal of pursuing a diplomatic career.

But they felt another destiny calling them. And so, after debating whether to go to Israel or return to the United States, they procured a visa and money for tickets and, with their parents’ blessing, returned to Los Angeles on Aug. 13. “We felt like someone, or some supernatural power, was helping us because we did everything so quickly,” Anna Dramchuk said.

But now they are doing everything themselves. Olga Dramchuk is living on her own and working. She hopes eventually to attend the UJ and especially wants to learn more Hebrew.

And Anna Dramchuk has married a young man she met last summer, Truman Weatherly, whose grandmother is Jewish and who is interested in learning more about Judaism. She plans to work and to return to school, ideally to the UJ. In the meantime, she is looking for a volunteer job that involves Jewish teenagers.

Their friend Irina, meanwhile, also took a detour. In September, following a love of music, she auditioned for “Superstar KZ,”, a Kazakhstan version of “American Idol,” where she was one of 18 contestants selected to participate. She credits her Lishma experience with helping her realize this passion and giving her the courage to pursue it. “Right now I hope my dream of being a singer will come true, but I will always live my Jewish life,” she wrote from Russia.

The Dramchuk sisters grew up in Kazakhstan, where they had some exposure to Jewish traditions through their father and grandmother, who observed Shabbat and holidays. Four years ago, the family moved to Novosibirsk, though their grandmother remained in Kazakhstan.

In Novosibirsk, with its Jewish community of 20,000, the young women discovered what Olga Dramchuk calls “a second family.” Their Jewish life centered on the Hillel organization, which in Russia is communal, attracting students from a variety of universities as well as a contingent of elderly.

But the Lishma program changed their perceptions. Coming from Novosibirsk, where many Jews are not really religious and there’s no place for women to learn Torah, they were immersed for the first time in a vibrant, cohesive, egalitarian and observant Jewish community. They lived, prayed, studied and socialized with other Lishma students — from Texas, Minnesota, Washington, Colorado and California — and staff. They also interacted on a daily basis with the Camp Ramah campers and administrators.

“What happens at camp is so magical and so beautiful. The question is, how do you recreate it?” asked Greyber, who is not actively recruiting foreign students for next summer’s Lishma program. He has, however, been invited to a conference in Lithuania to discuss a possible partnership between Camp Ramah and the Lithuanian Jewish community.

And for these young women, it’s not only the experience at camp but also the experience in America that is both magical and beautiful. And while they search for answers, concentrating on working and seeking to continue their Jewish studies, Novosibirsk remains deep in their hearts.

Anna Dramchuk, after establishing herself and earning enough money, hopes to return with her husband and help build something in the Jewish community, which lacks funds as well as knowledgeable and interested Jews.

“It’s my natural place,” she said.

And Olga Dramchuk dreams of creating a Lishma-like program in Los Angeles for young Jewish adults from the former Soviet Union to study and explore Jewish life. “I want them to be able to feel what I feel,” she said. “You never know what life will bring. Look how drastically our lives changed in this one year.”

For more information about Lishma, visit www.ramah.org/lishma.html or contact lishma@ramah.org.

 

Orthodox Stress Strong Israel Ties


 

North American Modern Orthodox Jews say they can explain their connection to Israel in one word: Torah.

“It’s an organic existence. An Orthodox Jew grows up and believes that Eretz Yisrael and the people of Israel are one. The fulfillment of Torah is Eretz Yisrael,” said David Cohen, director of Orthodox Union (OU) activities in Israel. “It’s not about connection. It’s who we are.”

It’s this Torah-observant lifestyle, Cohen said, that brings the Orthodox on aliyah in disproportionately large numbers and has led them to visit Israel even during the darkest days of intifada violence and to send their children here to study.

It also accounts for the record numbers of participants at the OU convention in Jerusalem last week, organizers said. The Orthodox Union represents mainstream Modern Orthodox Judaism in North America.

More than 800 OU members from 25 states and Canada gathered in Jerusalem for the group’s biannual convention over the Thanksgiving holiday, and hundreds more were turned away for lack of space. This was the first year the convention was held in Jerusalem, and attendance far surpassed the 500 or so people who typically turn out for OU conventions, said convention chairman Stanley Weinstein of Miami Beach.

About 125 synagogues were represented at the conference, including smaller congregations from places like Newfoundland and Texas.

“There are very few Jewish organizations that could bring so many people to Israel at this difficult time, when tourism has been so deeply affected by Palestinian terror,” said Harvey Blitz, the OU’s outgoing president.

Children in the Orthodox community are raised with an Israel focus from a young age, Blitz said. They’re taught about Israel in school and are encouraged to spend time at Israeli yeshivas after they graduate high school.

So, he said, it’s not surprising that a large percentage of immigrants to Israel from North America are from the Orthodox community.

“If Israel is part of your vocabulary and the way you think, then it’s much more natural” to make the decision to move there, Blitz said.

The Orthodox community always has encouraged aliyah, but in recent years efforts have become more organized, he said. He cited the establishment of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group that aims to help North American Jews make aliyah by removing as many logistical and financial hurdles as possible.

The Israeli government doesn’t track what stream of Judaism an immigrant associates with, but Nefesh B’Nefesh estimates that some 70 percent of North American Jews who have made aliyah through the organization are Orthodox.

Rabbi Joshua Fass, an Orthodox Jew who made aliyah from Boca Raton, Fla., and is a co-founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, said aliyah is the natural extension of an Orthodox upbringing.

“The exposure that an individual in the Modern Orthodox movement gets from schooling, camp, involvement in synagogue, is always with involvement in Israel,” he said. “It’s not only a connection to a land but a viable place for one’s future.”

Lorraine Hoffmann of Milwaukee, president of the Lake Park Synagogue, spoke of how prayers make the link stronger.

“It’s a daily reminder of the link between the Jews in the Diaspora and the State of Israel. It is what we are all about,” she said.

Many synagogues around the world say a prayer for the Israel Defense Forces, and cards with the prayer on them were displayed at the convention. The cards are sold for $1 in North America, with proceeds donated to help soldiers.

Yishai Fleisher, who made aliyah from New York last year after graduating law school, passed out pins that said “Aliyah Revolution” at the convention.

A talk-show host for the settler-run Arutz Sheva radio station, which broadcasts on the Internet, Fleisher and his wife live in Beit El in the West Bank.

“As an Orthodox Jew you feel very, very connected to the land,” he said.

Being Orthodox helps smooth over some of the difficulties of living in Israel, Fleisher said.

Fleisher has established Kumah, which he described as a grass-roots organization to encourage North American aliyah. He also encourages those already living in Israel “to keep making aliyah” — that is, to improve the country any way they can, whether it’s helping to clean up the environment or lobbying for road safety.

But the majority of Jews, Orthodox or otherwise, don’t immigrate to Israel. The guilt of not moving to Israel can be acute, OU members said, but the connection to Torah ensures an ongoing relationship with the Jewish state.

“If you read the Torah, you have a hard time staying away from Israel,” said Yitz Strauchler, an orthopedic surgeon representing his West Orange, N.J., synagogue at the convention. His visit also gave him the chance to see a son who is studying here for the year.

Isabelle Novack of Los Angeles, an incoming member of the OU board, also has a son studying in Israel.

“It’s just very important for them to come and immerse themselves in yeshivas,” she said. “It’s very important for their life as a frum Jew. You can live as a Jew here. It’s our country.”

David Landau, an Orthodox Jew who is editor of Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, challenged the politics of those at the conference who believe the Gaza Strip and West Bank should belong to Israel. Landau presented several news stories from the week of the convention that he said reflected the toll Israel’s control of those areas has taken on Israeli morality.

One story ran in Ha’aretz on Nov. 25, the day Landau addressed the conference, about a Palestinian man forced to play his violin by soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint. The photograph accompanying the story was seen as eerily reminiscent of Nazis forcing Jews to play musical instruments.

Another story from Yediot Achronot detailed what the newspaper termed the “open secret” of the mutilation of some Palestinians killed by the Israeli army. It also included photographs, the most jarring of which showed a soldier putting a cigarette in the mouth of a recently killed terrorist suspect’s detached head.

“Many of you, like me, have family and friends living as settlers in the territories,” Landau said. “As long as we let the military occupation go on, there is a grave threat to our survival.”

He thanked Orthodox Jews for their generous support of Israel but criticized what he called religious Zionism’s “return to atavistic zealotry which is demographically and morally impossible to achieve.”

The audience appeared somewhat hostile to Landau, clapping loudly when his comments were rebutted by Dore Gold, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations.

At the close of the convention, the OU passed a resolution expressing reservations about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw troops and settlers from Gaza Strip. The resolution did not come out either for or against the plan, but expressed the organization’s empathy with settlers who may be evacuated.

 

Happy Campers


We are driving to pick up our son from camp. He’s been there three weeks, the longest stretch he’s been away from us since his birth.

In this age of e-mails and BlackBerrys and cell phones, the rule at Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley is no e-mails, BlackBerrys or cell phones. He’s sent us a few postcards home, clearly written by an 11-year-old who has put away childish things, like parents.

“Dear Family: We prayed and prayed and had havdalah end of story. Love, Adi. P.S. I love you. P.P.S. Tomorrow’s our overnight and we’re creating our own fire and no letters on Sunday.”

We follow a dusty procession of cars making its way toward the bunks — the one time of year these SUVs will touch actual dirt. Our son and his friends pour out — and they are different. Taller. Browner. A bit of manly bunk-stench still clinging to their clothes. We ask them how it was and they laugh among themselves and break into secret jokes and chants and hints of midnight sneak-outs, leaving the details to our imaginations. For a decade their lives have been lived out solely on our turf. Now we are strangers on theirs.

On this warm August morning, the endless agonizing over Jewish continuity and how best to ensure a Jewish future seems especially vapid. You want to know what works? Camp.

A fraction of American Jewish children attend Jewish summer camps, despite a small but growing body of evidence that no other institution is as effective in passing Jewish values and community to the next generation.

“The 24/7 experience can’t be replicated,” said Jerry Silverman, the executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping (www.jewishcamping.org). “It’s living communally outdoors, integrating Jewish learning with fun.” A former executive with Levi Strauss and Stride Rite, Silverman’s change-of-life moment came when he picked one of his own children up from her first stay at Camp Ramah New England and found she had been transformed by the immeasurably positive experience. Jewish camping, he said, “evolved into a family passion.”

Silverman joined up with the foundation, which was founded in 1998 by Wexner Fellows Robert and Elisa Bildner to be a national advocate for the Jewish camp movement. There are 120 nonprofit Jewish camps in the United States and Canada, serving between 55,000-60,000 children. That’s just 8 percent of the total Jewish population. The Foundation’s goal is to double the number in five years.

The obstacles are as close as your checkbook. Sleepaway camps range from $475-650 per week, with the average close to $600. An Avi Chai Foundation study found that while 67 percent of Jewish professionals are summer camp alumni, the high tab puts off many families.

Those that aren’t deterred often confront a lack of camps themselves. There is no camp on the West Coast serving the Modern Orthodox. The high price of land and start-up costs in the millions mean few new camps come on line with any frequency. Film producer Doug Mankoff, the Foundation’s only Los Angeles-area board member, put it this way: “There are three fundamental ways to strengthen Jewish identity among young people: day schools, Israel and camping. But nobody seems to be doing much about the last one.”

But the Foundation hopes to chip away at these problems, and money and effort are starting to flow in the right direction. In Western Massachusetts, the Grinspoon Foundation gives every Jewish child a $1,000 scholarship to attend the first year at camp. The Avi Chai Foundation is funding improved Judaic and leadership training for counselors and Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation is funding specialized courses in the dramatic arts for camp leaders. And here in Southern California, home of sticker shock by the square foot, organizers in San Diego have just broken ground on a new, pluralistic camp in the San Bernardino Mountains — with a lake.

Mankoff said such camps offer something unique, “learning about Judaism in a cool way.”

I thought of my son’s postcard — how prayer and Havdalah fused with the thrill of an actual campfire.

“It’s that heartfelt excitement about Judaism kids can feel with their peers,” Mankoff said.

It was that excitement I read on my son’s face and heard in his stories.

That morning we picked Adi up, he and his friends decided to take us on a hike around Brandeis. We ended up climbing a hill claimed by the junior counselors-in-trainings. “This is the J-CIT hill, that one is the CITs,” said one of them, pointing across the landscape like Gen. Tommy Franks on reconnaissance.

They had their own language, had formed their own tribe with its own stories. We scrambled past a garden where the kids learned about the (old) kibbutz life, and up a steep path that a month earlier we couldn’t have begged these boys to climb.

On the way down we heard an ear-jolting thrum. Two feet in front of us, a large rattlesnake shot across our trail and slipped under a toyon bush. Its body was thick as a man’s wrist, but all I noticed were its pointy eyes facing us down, and its furious rattle.

These boys, raised in the wilds of Rancho Park, Carthay Circle, Hancock Park Adjacent and West Los Angeles, slipped sideways around the snake and continued their march down the hill. The we-came-this-close-to-a-rattlesnake story joined the other stories and jokes and experiences they would pass down about Alonim 2004, as their little tribe happily merges into the larger one, the one to which we all belong.

It’s Time to Change


The oldest and most primitive human dates back about 7 million years, according to a skull found by scientists in Central Africa.

"That’s so depressing," I say to my husband, Larry. "I can’t believe that in 7 million years we haven’t evolved any further than this."

"This" being a world in which half the people live on less than $2 a day; in which 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night; in which 115 million children never go to school at all; and in which 27 million people live in some kind of slavery.

"You’re looking at this all wrong," Larry assures me. "Seven million years is an insignificant blip in the history of the cosmos."

And, Jewish tradition tells me, the first 6,994,235 years hardly count.

After all, it’s not the birth of the prehominid that scientists have named "Toumai" that marks the beginning of our moral evolution, but rather the birth of Adam and Eve.

We Jews recognize this milestone as Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, which occurred 5765 years ago and which begins this year at sundown on Sept. 15.

Also known as the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah gives us an opportunity — well, actually, it obligates us — to commit to improving ourselves and our world.

This concept of effecting personal and collective transformation is nothing short of revolutionary. As Thomas Cahill points out in his book, "The Gifts of the Jews" (Anchor, 1999), we were the first ancient people to realize that we could actually make a difference. According to Cahill, ancient Jews recognized, "We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free."

Not free in the sense that my four sons envision — free from parental criticism, curfews and curbs on Internet use — but free in the sense of having the opportunity to partner with God to help eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, slavery and other ills.

But we haven’t always used this freedom wisely. Fewer than 2,000 years after Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden, mankind’s egregious misbehavior led God to destroy everyone but Noah and his family. When we built and worshiped the golden calf while Moses was fetching the badly needed Ten Commandments, we came close to annihilation for a second time; only Moses’ intervention saved us. And there have been other close calls as well.

Yes, our moral progress is slow. We are stiff-necked. We whine and we moan. We look for the easy way out.

And yet, once a year at Rosh Hashanah, we must fearlessly and aggressively assess our mistakes, misdeeds and misbehavior. We must make apologies and amends both to other people and to God, and vow to make positive changes.

"I’m a teenager. You can’t make me change," Jeremy, my 15-year-old son, says, proving that stubbornness is not just an ancient characteristic.

"No, but you can make yourself change," I answer. And the consequences, I remind him, as the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer tells us, are nothing short of determining "who shall live and who shall die."

And so we strive to make "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes," as the David Bowie song goes. Changes that are probing, painful and substantive. Changes that are powerful enough to avert a decree of death.

These changes come about in three ways:

First, through teshuvah. Often translated as "repentance," this Hebrew term actually means "returning," referring to a return to God. It involves the difficult work of introspection, apology and amends that begins in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and ends with the blowing of the shofar signaling the end of Yom Kippur.

Teshuvah, one Midrash tells us, was so important that God created it before creating the world, knowing that our free will would invariably lead us astray, and understanding that we would need a way back.

Second, change can occur through tefilah, or prayer. But, as Rabbi Ed Feinstein explains in his book, "Tough Questions Jews Ask" (Jewish Lights, 2003): "Real prayer, prayer that works, doesn’t change the world; it changes us. We can’t ask God to change the world for us. We have to do that ourselves."

Third, we can change through tzedakah. Though commonly translated as "charity," the Hebrew root of tzedakah means "justice," which is yet another route toward meaningful change. As God commands in Deuteronomy 16:20, "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

Larry and I ask our sons what they will be doing in the coming year to help repair the world.

Zack, 20, will continue to write and edit for the Williams College newspaper, spending long hours every week helping to keep the students and staff informed and involved.

Gabe, 17, will be co-organizing a program for Milken Community High School juniors and seniors to live and work for two days at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles.

Jeremy will do at least 120 hours of volunteer work at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, assisting in the emergency room and in pediatrics.

And Danny, 13, is kicking off his campaign for president of the United States, with the goal of helping to eliminate poverty.

To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, it is not our responsibility to finish the work, yet neither are we free to walk away from it.

Which is maybe what happened 7 million years ago.

This article reprinted courtesy of JTA.

We Must Work to Free Today’s Slaves


Last week, I stood on stage at Milken Community High School
with an escaped Sudanese slave, Francis Bok. We had come out to Los Angeles
from Boston to thank the school’s students for their help in
our abolitionist campaign and their continued commitment to make a difference.

Francis described for the school his life as a slave after
he was abducted in a slave raid — a pogrom — by Sudanese government militia in
1987. “For 10 years, nobody loved me.”

His master was one of the slave raiders, Francis explained,
an Arab man named Giema Abdullah, who told Francis: “You are an animal.”

Francis was able to endure Giema’s daily physical and mental
abuse because he knew deep down that he was not an animal. He was strengthened
because he prayed to God. He prayed to be rejoined with his parents and that
perhaps, people might come to rescue him.

After 10 years, once he turned 17, Francis ran away,
eventually making his way up to Cairo, where the local United Nations office
resettled him as a refugee in North Dakota. Since arriving in America, Francis
has become the leading international spokesperson on modern-day slavery,
meeting with the president and publishing a gripping autobiography, “Escape
from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity and My Journey to
Freedom in America” (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).

As the students sat captivated by Francis, I recalled that
our own ancestors were once enslaved just a bit north up the Nile River.
Indeed, in this time of Passover, we read, “In every generation, we are
commanded to view ourselves as if each one of us was personally brought forth
out of Egypt.” We eat maror to evoke the bitterness of slavery our ancestors
experienced, and we are called upon to rise up against slavery and tyranny in
our own time.

Three years ago, right before Passover, I flew to Sudan on a
mission to help free slaves. On March 30, in northern Bahr el Ghazal in the
heart of the slave-raiding area, I met Abuk Gar. She was sitting under a tree,
along with hundreds of Dinka women and children who were rescued from bondage
by friendly Arabs who want no part of Khartoum’s policy.

When Abuk was 14, she awoke to gunshots, saw her parents cut
down outside her home and was enslaved along with the boys and girls of her
village. Abuk was tied by the wrists, roped in a line and forced-marched north.

Once outside the scene of plunder and murder, the rapes
began. Four girls who resisted were dragged before all to see and, as a
warning, had their throats cut. Abuk did not resist.

Abuk’s story is one of millions of people who are enslaved
today around the world. From Khartoum to Calcutta from Brazil to Bangladesh,
men, women and children live and work as slaves or in slave-like conditions.
There may be more slaves in the world than ever before.

There are the rug-weaving slaves of India — little boys and
girls shackled to their looms from dawn to dusk, from toddlerhood to
adolescence, weaving the rugs that we walk on. There are the debt-bonded slaves
of Pakistan, who were born into bondage through an inherited debt and who will
surely pass that status on to their children.

There are the Bangladeshi camel jockey kids in the Persian
Gulf states, the Trokosi religious slaves of Ghana, the trafficked boys and
girls and women all over the world. Even in the United States, thousands are
trafficked to these shores each year, according to CIA reports.

In Sudan, the trade in black slaves — once extinguished by
the British — has been rekindled by a “holy war.” Southern Sudanese like
Francis and Abuk have been enslaved as part of a jihad waged by an Arab Muslim
Taliban-like regime in the north. The ruling regime’s goal has been to impose
Koranic law throughout all of Sudan and destroy those who resist. As a result,
2 million people have been killed and 4 million made refugees.

After Francis spoke, I had to explain to the Milken students
why Francis’ people had been abandoned by the West, which normally prides
itself on standing up for human rights. I explained “the human rights complex.”
The human rights [HR] community cares about oppressed people … but only under
certain circumstances, and in a certain hierarchy.

The HR community consists mostly of “decent white people”
who are especially animated to act when people “like us” do evil. The best
example is the anti-apartheid movement. The name of this tendency, now a
slogan, is “Not in My Name.”

But when decent white people see non-Westerners do evil,
they become paralyzed. They think they don’t have moral standing. “Who are we,
who stole the land from the Indians and had slaves ourselves to criticize
others?”

I have explained to Francis many times: “What the HR
establishment — and the media — attend to is not determined by who the
oppressed people are or by how bad the oppression is … but by who it believes
is the oppressor.”

Francis’ people have the bad luck of having non-Western
oppressors. If the slavers were Westerners, we’d have had marches in the
streets.

That’s why we had to start our own abolitionist movement.
Most of the world’s slaves are not owned by Western masters. This means a new
sort of human rights movement is needed, one which is guided by universal
justice, not just expiation.

And so, as we celebrate Pesach this year, we must once again
see ourselves as slaves in Egypt — zecher litziat mitzrayim — a remembrance of
our own experience and our command to free others. This year, let each of us
pledge to do something to help free today’s slaves. Join the American
Anti-Slavery Passover Project; be a part of its abolitionist army; learn how to
help bring an end to an ancient scourge thought long ago defeated.

And when you do, then you will be able to say, in the
tradition of Jewish law that is echoed in the words of the great black
abolitionist, Harriet Tubman: “I have heard their cries, and I have seen their
tears, and I would do anything in my power to set them free.” Let us make this
Passover not only zman cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom, but also zman
cheiruteihem, a time of the freedom for all who are enslaved today.

For Passover-related material on modern-day slavery,
visit

A Superhero Dreams


When friendly strangers find out I’m a convert to Judaism, they want to know why.

And I’ve learned to be ready.

I have two stories: One is

respectable, and one involves comic books and video games.

The first is the one I bring out for casual conversations, for puzzled strangers and for grandparents. It fits in a neat little box, and people nod their heads in an understanding way when I’m talking, so it must make sense.

It goes like this: I asked my best friend (not a Jew) about Judaism, and he recommended I read Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin’s “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.”

I did. With a few more books under my belt, I signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class at Temple Beth Sholom; it happened to be the shul closest to my old apartment.

I called the front desk at Temple Beth Sholom and said I wanted to talk to a rabbi about converting. That’s how I met Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell. He said he didn’t turn people away from Judaism, because he knew how wonderful it was for him. He expected me to study, to experience the ritual and to bring Judaism into my life. I said I was game.

Donnell and I looked at the prayer service and talked about what the prayers meant to me. He encouraged me to look at Shabbat and what I could include or exclude to make the day holy. Most important, he helped turn my book learning into emotion and communion with God.

“How do you feel?” he would ask after I described things I’d done. That’s how Judaism traveled from my brain to those places in my stomach and heart that make me cry and laugh.

I explained my interest in Judaism to my parents — an atheist and an agnostic — and they both thought it sounded like a good idea for me.

After more than a year of study, I converted. There was a beit din with Donnell and Rabbis Stephen Einstein and Heidi Cohen to determine my seriousness about conversion. I went to Tarzana for a ritual circumcision (I was already circumcised). Finally, I went to the ritual bath at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Some guy saw me dunk naked (he was a rabbinic student making sure I did it right). And when everyone had left the room I got out of the mikvah and said the “Shehecheyanu” privately. I knew I was a Jew. I hadn’t believed in God, and now I did.

So, that’s the story I’d tell you if I met you on the street. But if we crossed the street to a coffee shop, and the subject stayed on Judaism, well, I might come clean: I converted to Judaism because of superheroes and video games.

When I was a kid, I read comic books (OK, I still do). I wanted fantastic powers to use for good deeds.

Sadly, it was no dice on being Superman, cape flapping in the breeze, rescuing innocents from scowling super villains. Like all of you, I am left with the more mundane abilities of humankind: smiles to make someone feel better, an ear to listen when someone needs to talk, a hand to help others, and a heart and a voice to thank God.

The rabbis knew the power of those little things in life and what a difference they could make. They had rules for putting on a happy face, helping the less fortunate and blessing God for every beautiful thing in the world (and there so many).

Then, about the time I read that Prager and Telushkin book, I was playing a video game called “Morrowind.” In it, I played a freed slave brought to an island kingdom to perform work for the king, but the most amazing thing to me was a bit of a side quest: joining the native religion. I performed pilgrimages to holy sites and brought food to the poor and healing potions to the sick. Doing good for good’s sake triggered that childhood yearning in me that said “Life is for doing good and being good, in big ways and little ways.”

I had always tried to be good and compassionate, but I realized I wanted a path to lead a good life, and Judaism provided the right one for me. There’s where the story ends. Well, really, it doesn’t end at all. I’m a Jew now, trying to be a better Jew and bring more good to the world. I even dream of being a rabbi someday. That’s about as super heroic as I’ll get.

I also know that if you let your tallit blow in the breeze, it makes for a great cape.

Brendan Howard lives in Anaheim and is an editor for a video trade magazine.

Through God’s Eyes


One of my students once asked me what was the greatest gift that my teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach gave me. My reply was immediate: “He gave me a new pair of eyes.”

I had grown up praying from the first day I could speak.

I was raised observing Shabbat from the moment I learned to distinguish between “permitted” and “forbidden.”

I grew up believing that God cares about every detail of my life, even before I had completed the psychological development of separation and individuation.

But how was I to actually see God in my life? How was I to close the gap between what my mind constantly repeated but my heart so deeply questioned? Or rather, how could I wed what my heart knew with what my mind continuously challenged?

This week’s Torah portion is laden with details and hence, God’s presence, in each and every step that we take. It leads us through a legal maze of issues touching upon social justice and the holidays, in addition to laws of property and ownership.

The Torah portion teaches us of four distinct paradigms of damages that one’s possessions can cause (a goring ox; the damage caused by their eating or kicking; fire; a pit) and the nature of responsibility that the owner of the animal or the digger of the pit, or the source of fire is obligated to compensate the offended party with. It is not the immediate damage that an individual causes, but rather his or her possessions that are the cause of the damage. One could presumably claim that the person carries no responsibility to the damage that an object in that person’s possession causes, for it is not really that person; it is that person’s possession.

It is my belief that the Torah is challenging us to respond to that initial reaction and to inquire to what extent do we assume responsibility for our possessions? It is our answer to this pressing question that will illumine the space we are willing to give God in our life, bringing God into realms far beyond what meets the eye.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe (R’ Mordechai Yoseph Lainer of Isbitza, 1800-1854) addresses the parameters of the laws of damage and reflects on the boundaries with which we choose to identify our selves. How do we define who we are? If I were to ask you “Who are you?” how would you answer this question? With your name? With your profession? With your marital status? Would you respond to my query with where you were born, or perhaps where you currently live? Better yet, you might share with me your philosophical truths? To what extent are the titles you hold on to and the possessions that you own an expansion of who you are?

For the Ishbitzer Rebbe there are multiple concentric circles that we inhabit. There are concentric circles of time: the present (ata); forever (l’olam) — our lifetime; and eternally forever (l’olmei ad) – which exists beyond our particular lifetime. Another concentric circle is the one that surrounds our soul and the multiple layers that we garment it with — starting with our body and expanding outward to all those answers that you offered to the question “Who are you?” Our possessions are but one extension of who we are, and reflect one facet of who we are in the world. The nature of an object changes by virtue of its owner.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe’s teaching invites us to expand our sense of self and by doing so, to expand our sense of responsibility to the injustice in the world. It doesn’t allow us to be indifferent to what surrounds us. If we are moral and ethical people, our possessions will reflect this. If my dog eats my neighbor’s roses, the Ishbitzer Rebbe will tell me that I am not the person I claim to be. If someone trips on my doorstep or my guest stubs his or her toe on a chair in my home, I am not the person I claim to be. If my hammer falls off the table and hurts someone, I am not the person I claim to be.

There will not be an immediate and evident correlation between the damage caused and the part of my soul that needs mending. For this we need to be willing to bring God into what appears as a “coincidence” and to observe ourselves through God’s eyes, to scrutinize ourselves from the viewpoint of the divine: Eyes that will not be afraid to see deeper. Eyes that are simultaneously honest and compassionate. Eyes that demand us to embrace our greatness and the role that we are to play in God’s world.

I’m a city girl, born in the Bronx, bred in Yerushalayim, living in Los Angeles. I have no idea what a goring ox looks like or what constitutes the acceptable or nonacceptable way for it to walk the paths of the world. But when I will read this Torah potion on Shabbat morning, I will read it with one eye looking outward, and one eye looking inward.

I believe that a new pair of eyes is the greatest gift a teacher can give.


Reb Mimi Fiegelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

A Berry-Bursting Celebration


When my daughter was born, I walked the floors of our Atlanta home night after night, day after day, holding her while she slept or when she cried, stopping always in front of the wall of backyard windows framing a forest of trees. As I grew into my unexpected role of single motherhood, I watched the bare trees bend, and sometimes break under the weight of silver winter icicles. Then, as if reborn, I saw the same trees stretch tall and proud with tight spring blossoms of white, pink and lavender, before expanding, under the summer rains, into a lush landscape of green. Finally, these magnificent trees transformed, as if to colored music, into passionate reds, singing oranges and dancing yellows of fall, just as we packed our boxes and moved away.

In our cozy Portland apartment, my daughter and I would often sit by a tall living room window and look at the plump, round bushes bouncing under the rain and the rows of healthy trees hovering over the parking lot, filling the surrounding hills in a green mist.

After exhausting, frenetic days of unpacking in our apartment in Los Angeles, I finally sat down at my desk positioned in front of a window to write. But all I could see were white stucco walls, black wires and, only if I leaned forward and looked up, the long, skinny necks of two distant palm trees. Right then I understood how profoundly trees define place. I prayed to find a way to embrace this one.

Tu B’Shevat, the new year for trees, emphasizes the nourishing, even spiritual, relationship between man and trees.

"For a human is like the tree of the field" (Deuteronomy 20:19), the kabbalists believed. So, in addition to donating money to plant much-needed trees in Israel, there is — according to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in "Jewish Literacy" (William Morrow, 1991) — the Tu B’Shevat seder, which kabbalists began in the 16th century. The kabbalists believed eating a variety of tree-born fruits during a seder ritual — such as olives, dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, apples, walnuts, carob, pears and cherries — was a tangible way of improving our spiritual selves. So I decided to honor Tu B’Shevat by making a fruit and nut sauce I could eat every day.

I started by toasting some chopped walnuts and adding three different fruit juices. Then I cut up some plump medjool dates and added fresh cranberries. As I stirred the softening fruits over a flame, I recalled the urban shock I went into after our move to Los Angeles, and how on long walks with my daughter, I recovered my balance through observing the trees.

First, I discovered a tree leaning over our mailbox that grows tiny white peaches perfect for summer pies. And then, I noticed just above head-height branches at the end of our walkway, dangling, sun-glistening lemons close enough to touch. And each fall, as we passed the Japanese-style garden on the way to my daughter’s school, I watched the green leaves of one sculptured tree open up to blossoming persimmons.

As the cranberry walnut date sauce thickened to a velvet red, I remembered the squished berries that used to stick to our shoes, until my daughter and I learned which sidewalks to walk on and which ones to avoid, when the trees in our neighborhood dropped their inedible red fruits.

Unfortunately, I haven’t learned to love the urban view from my Los Angeles apartment. But from my desk over the last five years, I have looked above the city walls at those skinny palms and watched them stand ghost still against a summer cobalt sky, tussle playfully in a spring breeze or lean desperately, without breaking, in fierce winter winds. From those two trees, I have learned how to be in a place that is not yet home — to be still, to play and to bend, when necessary, without breaking.

Cranberry Walnut Date Sauce

This sauce has a wonderful bright taste that I love with my bowl of fruit and yogurt in the morning. Because of its full texture, it is also delicious as a spread on a thick slice of date nut bread. And the majestic red color and sweet aroma of these cooked berries is guaranteed to make you grateful for fruit bearing trees every time you make it.

1¼2 cup walnuts, chopped

1¼2 cup orange juice

1¼4 cup unsweetened pineapple juice (from 20-ounce can)

1¼2 cup unsweetened pineapple chunks, sliced small (from can)

1¼4 teaspoon lemon juice, fresh

1¼3 cup sugar

1¼4 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1¼2 cup fresh medjool dates, chopped

3 cups fresh cranberries, rinsed well

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir walnuts constantly until aromatic and toasted, approximately one to two minutes. Add remaining ingredients to walnuts, stirring well. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low and simmer uncovered until most berries pop open and liquid thickens, approximately 20 to 30 minutes. Make sure to stir every few minutes and if necessary, add 1¼4 cup of water to keep ingredients moist but not watery. Sauce thickens as it cools. Transfer to medium bowl to cool. Refrigerate until use.

Servings: Two and a half cups

Serving Suggestions: As a side to meats, a sauce for yogurts or a spread on breads.


Lisa Solomon’s food articles have been seen in several publications, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Washington Jewish Week and The Canadian Jewish News.

Final Lesson


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral) contained in the Torah.

As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.

It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.

I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, "Well, maybe you’ll do." She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.

I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.

When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, "What’s that in your hand?" I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.

I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath and my bearings returned.

I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, "I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one." He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.

I told him, "I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently." I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.

Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, "This is your final goal — help us live better lives."

He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, "You’ve got some work cut out for you here."

I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.

Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.

I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.

Every life is a like book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role, as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.

And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.


Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

No Response at All


A rabbi’s voice must often give expression to the feelings of those with whom he or she worships on Shabbat.

This was my experience recently following the horrific suicide bombing in Jerusalem when we prayed, as always, "Oseh shalom bim-ro-mav, hu ya-a’seh shalom alei-nu v’al kol Yisrael. Maker of peace in God’s universe, may God make peace for us and for all Israel!"

By way of explanation, these words of prayer and song, "Oseh Shalom," point us toward the cosmos, stars and planets of our universe appearing to the naked eye to be orbiting one another in harmony. They suggest that peace is more than safety and security. It is not only the absence of violence or danger. Rather, peace is an arrangement of accord and stability. The respectful coexistence of different people is a Jewish vision of true peace.

Recent attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere might have temporarily shattered current hopes of achieving such a peace. As a result, we discover beyond the painfully obvious that the most disturbing problem with suicide bombings is this: We have no response. We simply have no response. We read in newspapers that these murderous acts are "condemned in the strongest terms possible." What does that mean? What real response is verbal condemnation?

So now what? Military responses? We may see a lot of these. They can be deterrents. Israel’s (or America’s) military actions are more or less successful depending on circumstances, strategies and each particular moment. I think they are absolutely necessary. I do not shy away from a democratic government’s responsibility to protect and defend its citizens. Although I also wonder if essential defense is ultimately an effective response.

Then there are other responses. Withdrawal and separation are advocated by some. Talking, looking for common interests and shared values, searching for moderates with whom truce or resolution might be discussed must certainly be pursued. But, as far as anyone can tell right now, none of these seem to be working either. We are stymied. We have no response. This is the deepest dilemma of this horrendous terror.

How do we conceive of a response to that which is in the first place inconceivable? The father of two children, a man who represents his faith traditions and sacred writ, puts on a belt and blows up children who were traveling home on a bus with their parents following prayers at the Kotel (the Western Wall). They were not military targets, not political targets, (not even Sport Utility Vehicles on a parking lot). They were people praying, studying their own holy book. What’s our response supposed to be? Should a rabbi hold a Torah and a sword because an imam holds a Koran and a sword?

We have no response! That is our problem.

"When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward" (Deuteronomy 23:10). It is one thing to be forewarned, and quite another to know what to do.

At the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, Moses offers his generation this instruction: "Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt? How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear?" (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).

In the law and lore of Jewish tradition, Amalek stands out as the paradigm of an evil enemy. Spanish Rabbi Isaac Arama comments that when an attack is aimed at innocent civilians, there can be no other motive than "pure hatred." The Hatam Sofer — Hungarian Rabbi Moshe Sofer — suggests that anyone whose attack is accompanied by joy and enthusiasm for what they have wrought suffers from an "inner hatred" that no religious tradition can comprehend nor condone.

According to Talmudic tradition, the Amalekites can no longer be identified. Their nature and their evil, however, is found in every generation and must always be opposed.

Reflecting on this unsettling memory, as well as the disturbing news of current events, we stand with Israel against acts that are truly evil. We support Israel’s reluctant, defensive battle to safeguard her borders and her children riding on buses. No one I’ve met seems to have a better idea. Nevertheless, our understanding of Israel’s fight does not exist without the ongoing struggle to find another way out. There has to be another way out.

Our best instinct, of course, is to live as we always should — fully with purpose and integrity. Yet in caring about our people and all innocent people, in cherishing our heritage and our ethical values, we are stumped by this dilemma at the moment. We have no response.


Ron Shulman is rabbi at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Ready or Not


There is a new High Holiday book on my shelf that I have been avoiding assiduously, if only for the exalted title: "This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared." Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, subtitled, "The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation," reminds me that the summer is ending, and the time has come to prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

"A mindful awareness of our circumstances often makes things worse, not better," Lew writes. "Suddenly aware of problems we never knew we had, we may genuinely feel that we are much worse off than we thought we were; we may feel a sense of urgency, even of desperation, about our plight."

The rabbi says that this is the "emotional basis" of Selichot, "the week of urgent, desperate prayer that commenced approximately three weeks into the process of daily contemplation we began with the blowing of the shofar on the first day of Elul [the last month on the Hebrew calendar]."

For many of us, September — with shorter days, the beginning of the school year and the return to a more regimented schedule — signals a time for inner contemplation, for re-evaluation of our personal goals, accomplishments and the direction our lives are taking.

No matter how you prepare for the High Holidays — whether you recite the traditional Selichot prayers, or whether you simply plan elaborate sweet meals to beckon in a sweet new year — these autumn holidays set us apart from the rest of the world. While they are only busy with back to school, we are also busy with the Days of Reckoning.

More than a personal time of reckoning, the High Holidays bring us together, as a community, as a family and as a nation, to chart our course. With the war in Iraq, a continuing intifada in Israel and anti-Semitism plaguing Europe, this year was a tumultuous one for the Jews; although it was less so than the year prior, when Sept. 11 turned the world upside down. Do you remember how different everything was in 2001?

According to Jewish tradition, now is the time that the events of the upcoming year will be decided. "Who will live and who will die?" we recite in the holiday prayer.

But instead of looking at it with trepidation and avoidance, Lew writes we should look at this time as one of opportunity.

"This moment is before us with its choices, and the consequences of our past choices are before us, as is the possibility of our transformation," he writes.

"On Rosh Hashanah, the gates between heaven and Earth are opened, and things that were beyond us suddenly become possible. The deepest questions of our heart begin to find answers. Our deepest fear, that gaping emptiness up ahead of us and back behind us as well, suddenly becomes our ally. Heaven begins to help us."

Heaven help us all. Shanah Tovah!

Remember the Good


One of the most precious moments parents and children share
with each other is the quiet and routine of bedtime. I hope you sleep
well at night, but, as we all know, sometimes it is
difficult to fall asleep, or to have a restful sleep. There are too many things
on our minds. We’re filled with excitement and anticipation. Or we aren’t
feeling all that good. Things are happening in other places that concern us or
disturb us.

King Ahashuerus had such a night in the Purim story. We read
in Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, that one night following the first
feast that Queen Esther had for King Ahashuerus and Haman, “sleep deserted the
king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals to be brought; and it was
read to the king.”

We’re all familiar with the story: The king discovers that
Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, has not been rewarded for saving Ahashuerus’ life. He
orders that this honor is to be carried out by Haman, and things begin to
change for the Jews of Shushan.

Jewish tradition sees something more taking place in this
scene. Judaism’s moral imagination describes that King Ahashuerus was not able
to sleep because of all that was going on around him: Esther was involved with
planning and preparing her next feast; Haman was busy building gallows;
Mordecai was upset, praying and wearing sackcloth. The midrash even states that
this was the very same night, in an earlier generation, during which the
Children of Israel remained on guard, watching for the angel of death to pass
over their homes as they anticipated their exodus from Egypt.

How can anyone sleep, our tradition seems to wonder, when
people are in peril? How can we find rest while others are weary, nervous or
even awaiting their redemption? For you and me it seems so easy. We crawl into
bed, turn off the news and it’s quiet all around us. Or at least it seems that
way. Do we really turn off our consciences so easily? Do we actually stop being
aware of everything we will awaken to the next morning?

I don’t think so. Even King Ahashuerus seemed to understand
that he needed to find a way to respond or he wouldn’t calm himself nor find
any rest on that fateful night. According to our tradition, the thing that most
disturbed Ahashuerus was whether or not someone had “asah li tovah” ( done
something good for me), which he had not properly acknowledged.

What a beautiful way to end a day! Did I fail to recognize
any goodness today? Is there something I can do about it now or tomorrow? The
difficult, the troubling, all that disturbs does startle us from our sleep.
That’s human nature. But what of goodness, of caring, of all that reflects our
ideals – — how do we remember all of that?

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Zachor” (the Sabbath of
Remembrance). We read about Amalek, Haman’s ancestor whose evil attack against
the Children of Israel is recalled by the Torah to inspire us toward goodness
and resolve.

King Ahashuerus isn’t the only one with a record book.
Earlier in the Torah, Moses is told to write down as a lasting memory all that
Amalek did to Israel. As he does so, the Israelites quarrel among themselves as
they complain for water and sustenance.

“Is the Eternal present among us or not?” they ask.

The next verse then states: “Amalek came forward and fought
with Israel.”

It was the weakness of the people’s own spirit, their
inability to appreciate all that had brought them to this very moment of
redemption and opportunity that presented Amalek with the opportunity to
attack. They were separated from the truths and lessons of their own
experience, of the presence of God in their own story. Whom did Amalek reach?
The “stragglers” — those who were weak of heart and spirit, not physical
strength, the midrash suggests. Those people who knew how to complain but could
not appreciate the miracle and reality of their lives.

Remember King Ahashuerus’ sleepless night? We learned that
he was disturbed because something good might have been done for him to which
he had not properly responded.

As a father, this is what I want for my children. When I say
“good night” at the end of a day, of course I want them to sleep comfortably
and undisturbed. But I also want them to focus on remembering the good, the
decent and the beautiful of their day.

Zachor. We must all remember to tell this to our children
and our grandchildren. It is not enough to recall what Amalek did, as Moses was
commanded. Like Ahashuerus , we must also recognize the good that Mordecai did
and the meaning that every new day promises us all.

Shabbat Shalom! Happy Purim!

This weekend, Rabbi Ron Shulman celebrates his 20th anniversary with Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.

A Miracle Behind Bars


Dark clouds covered the European skies, threatening the children of Israel in the fall of 1939. The Nazis had tightened their grip over Eastern Europe and, as it often happens, nature acted with unfriendliness toward the oppressed. A cold winter came upon us — the refugees — after the traumatic and dreadful fall, when the German occupation began.

Jewish refugees who barely escaped with their lives from the Nazi savage were not met with open arms by the Soviet authorities. The Soviets had recently invaded the eastern part of Poland. They turned every public building into a temporary prison where the refugees from the Nazis were incarcerated under the suspicion that there might be German spies among the wretched.

My older brother, Simcha, and I were lucky to be imprisoned in a real prison, the infamous "Brigidkes," in Lwow. This was a prison where political prisoners were kept during the reign of the Polish fascist regime till the outbreak of the Second World War. Fifty-eight people were deposited in one cell that could hardly hold 25. The majority of the prisoners were Jews who were detained during the crossing of the San River, which became the newly established border between the Soviets and Germany.

We suffered horribly, morally and physically. The Soviets stripped us naked while searching our belongings and confiscated every valuable item, including items that were close to our souls. They confiscated all our prayer books, prayer shawls and tefillin. This painful situation added to our depressive mood when our thoughts were with our beloved ones. The only happy moments that we were blessed with were the times we spent donning the tefillin one man had successfully managed to smuggle into the cell. The pleasure lasted only a minute or two because everyone was eager to partake in the mitzvah of donning tefillin daily. Most of the refugees were religious people, and it was very hard for everyone to digest the non-kosher food that we were served. There were a few holdouts that survived on bread and water only.

There was among us one unique personality. His name was Reb Shmuel Nachum Emmer, a pious, Chasidic person. He was not an ordinary person; he was an angel sent from heaven. He supported us spiritually, and consoled us not to despair, assuring us that our suffering was only temporary. His love for a fellow Jew was immeasurable. He never became angry with people who were not observant. He suffered for all of us, but he did not show it outwardly. On the contrary, whenever he talked someone into reciting a blessing over food, or not to smoke on the Sabbath, it made him the happiest man in the cell.

When Chanukah was upon us, suddenly, Reb Shmuel’s face dropped and became filled with sadness.

"How in the world are we going to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles?" he lamented.

We all felt his pain but could not help him. We found no words to cheer him up. Unless another miracle occurred, people thought to themselves, what chance did we have to observe Chanukah in a Soviet jailhouse?

On the first night of Chanukah we recited the evening prayers in a depressed mood. Everyone was heartbroken, Reb Shmuel more than anyone else. After the sound of the whistle was heard that signaled to us that it was time to lie down on our uncomfortable beds, the lights in our cell were left burning, as it was customary around the world that in every prison the lights never go out.

Around midnight the lights did go out. A power failure occurred in the entire prison compound. Soon after, the guard ran from cell to cell distributing candles so that the prisoners should not be in the dark. When the guard opened our cell door, with a box of candles in his hands, someone sneaked behind his back and pulled the bottom flap of the box open and the candles spilled all over the floor. Needless to say, the guard never collected all the spilled candles. As soon as the guard left, we quietly gathered in a corner, and Reb Shmuel, with a radiant face, lit the first Chanukah candle with great devotion. We quietly sang Chanukah songs, and the stronger believers were convinced that it was a divine act, that a real miracle had occurred.

We managed to light a small candle each night during the eight days of the Festival of Lights. Believe it or not, in a certain way, we had a happy Chanukah.

Sadly, Reb Shmuel did not survive the harshness of the Soviet labor camps. However, he did leave a legacy, namely, a prayer book handwritten on small pieces of paper in the Zhitomir prison, which remains in the hands of my brother, Simcha. Reb Shmuel had a remarkable memory, and remembered all prayers by heart. The prayer book went through many searches and was never discovered. It is a work of art, which my brother cherishes to this day.


Harry Langsam is an 81-year-old writer living in Los Angeles.

Shhhh … I’m Praying


Am I the only one who goes to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services to listen and participate?

Probably not. But why do I feel that way sometimes?

I realize it would be hypocritical to say I sit (and stand and sit and stand) through all those hours of psalms, songs, sermons and speeches totally focused and absorbed in prayer and pious contemplation. I’m human. My mind wanders. I think about a thousand things.

I read a passage in the Machzor and wonder how it relates to my life. A phrase captures my attention, and I try to understand what it really means. A thought enters my head, and I find myself lost in the liturgy.

But the services are skillfully arranged to bring me back. My mental meandering suddenly stops when the Torahs are removed from the Ark and carried around the sanctuary. My daydreaming ceases when the shofar is blown. The noise of the busy street just outside the synagogue doors seems to fade when I’m tuned in to the rabbi’s broadcast frequency.

And when the Kohanim gather on the bimah and the rest of the congregation turns its collective face away, I am entranced by the haunting sound of the davening.

A synagogue is a house of worship. When we gather there on yom tov and Shabbat, it’s for one reason — prayer. We pray for understanding, consolation, guidance and more. And on Yom Kippur, forgiveness heads the list of what we seek.

We should always feel welcome at our synagogues. But we should remember where we are and why we are there. There will be opportunities to talk to friends following services. There will be hundreds of other days during the year to discuss sports, stocks and other secular subjects.

I am easily distracted, I was not blessed with X-ray vision and I have allergies.

I can’t concentrate when the level of chatter among the worshippers turns into a deafening drone. I can’t see the bimah when the tall woman seated in front of me wears a big hat that puts feathers in my face. I sneeze and get a bad headache when I’m near someone soaked in perfume or cologne.

I do enjoy an occasional giggle and other happy sounds of babies and small children in shul. But when the kids cry incessantly, it’s time to take them out for a change of scenery or whatever.

The stress of living in our techno-driven society can be overwhelming. The frenzy of phone calls, e-mails, deadlines and demands can darken the brightest day.

So now, more than ever before, I treasure this time of year. I welcome the breaks from commerce and computers. I appreciate the switch from virtual to virtuous. And I value this chance to recharge my spirit, review my actions and reactions, and reevaluate my goals and the path that leads me to them.

Maybe I’m too sensitive to my surroundings. Or maybe I’m just a chronic complainer who never learned how to pray well with others. But whatever the reason, please humor me. Give me and my legions of co-kvetchers a break this year. Go easy on the fragrance. Turn off the alarm on your watch. Leave your cell phone at home. Shut off the bleeping beeper. Try to keep conversation to a minimum.

It’s all a matter of respect — for these holy days and for your rabbi, cantor and co-congregants.

In return for your cooperation, you’ll get our gratitude and good wishes for a healthy, happy and hassle-free new year.

The Fruit of Peace


What did Moshe want? When it all came down to it, after Moshe accepted that he wouldn’t be leading Israel into the land, what did he request of God? Not surprisingly, he asked nothing for himself, focusing instead on the people who would need to go on without him. As we read this week, "Lord of the spirit of all flesh, appoint, I pray thee, a man to lead the congregation who will go out before them and who will come in before them, who will lead them out and who will bring them in."

While Moshe’s concern for his people is not surprising, it is interesting to note that in his request he is also expressing concern for his successor. The sages of the Midrash recognized that there is something very deliberate in Moshe’s description of the successor he envisions. Moshe wanted his successor to be granted the ability both to "lead them out" and to "bring them in." Contrary to his own frustrating experience, in which he brought the people out of Egypt, but was not permitted by God to see them settle in the Promised Land, he desperately wanted his successor to be able to see the fruits of all his labors. Moshe was hoping to obtain a guarantee from God that the next leader of Israel would not suffer the pain of unfulfilled dreams, or the frustration of devoting a lifetime to the fulfillment of a vision, only to have to leave this earth with the goal still unrealized.

Moshe’s concern for his successor’s fate is well placed and noble. But in the grand scheme of life, it is one that is often unrealistic. The well-known rabbinic story that serves as the counterpoint to Moshe’s story, is that of Honi the Circlemaker. During one of his travels, Honi encounters an old man who is planting a carob tree. Amazed at what he saw, Honi called out to the man and inquired whether he was aware of the fact that carob trees don’t bear any fruit for 70 years. The planter replied with the familiar words, "when I arrived in this world, I found carob trees here. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I will plant for those who will come after me."

It is this realization that allows the world to move forward with hope. It is the willingness of people to invest themselves in projects whose fruit they will never see, that provides the only basis for the faith that tomorrow can be better than today. If we were to simply give up on the dreams whose fulfillment we wouldn’t ourselves see, we would condemn future generations to deprivation and suffering.

We struggle today against an enemy whose ultimate target is hope in the future. With every devastating homicide bombing in Israel, the vision of peaceful coexistence which we hoped our generation would bequeath to our children’s, seems increasingly remote, naïve and foolish. We will not see peace in our lifetimes; today’s children will not inherit an Israel at peace. This hope has been murdered. For our children’s sake though, we must distinguish between the hope for peace, and the hope for peace in our day. We must do all in our power to see to it that the hope for peace burns as an inextinguishable fire in their hearts. This is the reason that our sages insisted that every Jewish prayer — from the silent "Amidah" to the "Kaddish," to the blessing following the meal — conclude with the assertion that God will bless us with peace. It is our way of planting the carob tree. It is our way of ensuring that hope lives. We know that somewhere down the line, the sweet fruit of peace will materialize. But we also know that this depends on our planting and guarding over the tree of hope.

Of course it would be gratifying to see the fruition of every project that we began. But carob trees don’t grow that way. And neither does peace in Israel.

Parshat Balak


Yes, I know that this week is Pinchas, but I must return to the second of last week’s two portions, Balak, for what happens there is too relevant to pass by unmentioned. In this famous portion, King

Balak sends the prophet-magician Balaam to curse Israel, because

he is scared of the people. But, in the end, Balaam ends up blessing

the Israelites as he stands on a cliff overlooking their encampment.

This is what I ask all of you to pray for: that the Palestinians see our tents and realize it is easier to bless than to curse; that the Israelis see the Palestinian dwellings and decide it is easier to include than to exclude. This prayer can only be answered if Palestinians and Israelis can come to

know each other as human beings: mother, father, child — and are no longer scared of each other.

We are all children of the same God. And we are all blessed to be living on this earth.

Soul Care


I recently visited a hospital patient, an elderly gentleman with a name, a gaze and a life story from the old country. His deterioration had advanced to the stage of inhibiting verbal communication, so he spoke to me instead through gestures, nods and stares. But slowly, we drew closer. We shared sorrow, distress and worry. Eventually, exhausted, he told me he wanted to get some rest. I recited the “Shema” for him, and he closed his eyes in fatigue.

When a person is sick, the medical profession cares for the body with medicines, surgeries, therapy and machines. But who cares for the soul? And how? Each one of us has witnessed illness. We’ve been tortured as we’ve watched illness or injury diminish the vitality of loved ones. We’ve sat by helplessly, wanting to help, bereft of miracles.

What tools of the spirit do we have to apply toward healing?

To this question, our tradition offers two types of answers.

First, we learn to take action — to aid the healing by attendance. We go to the sick person and sit at the bedside, offering the best get-well gift we have: presence. Jewish tradition calls this healing art bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. The rabbis of the Talmud discussed the life-giving power of human contact: “He who visits the sick causes him to live. But he who does not visit the sick causes him to die.” We intuitively understand this wisdom: physical life and death are not in our hands. But our decision to be present — or to be absent — might mean the difference between spiritual life and death, between hope and despair, between glimmers of light and shrouds of darkness for the one in the sickbed.

Bikkur cholim is so significant that scholars throughout the ages have written of it as a legal obligation, complete with dos and don’ts. Moses Maimonides, the great medieval codifier of Jewish law, outlined the details: for example, everyone, regardless of status, must visit the ill; visits should only begin after the third day of an illness and only in the middle part of the day; and the visitor should not sit in a place that forces the patient to adjust his or her head to view the visitor.

Why such careful, almost rigid details? Because we know the spiritual power of physical presence. And we want to make it positive, effective, healthy.

But there is another spiritual tool available to us: we learn to ask God for help. We seek healing through prayer. Instead of turning toward the patient, we turn to the Divine. The Psalms are filled with passionate, emotional models of prayer, words we might ourselves have spoken in our own moments of desperation: “My eyes deteriorate from this illness. I call to You, God, every day. I stretch out my hands to You (Psalms 88).” Prayer expresses pain; it voices our pleas for help. Prayer beseeches God for divine intervention, particularly when human intervention appears to be failing. We have all reached that point. We have turned not only outward, but also upward.

There is an afflicted and distressed sick woman in this week’s Torah portion. It is Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. Her illness is terrible; it is debilitating, dangerous and terrifying. And Moses, in his shock and pain, offers us a third Jewish response when witnessing a sickness: he looks toward heaven and simply screams. Moses expresses himself in five simple words: “Please God, please heal her.” No long-term planning, no eloquent speeches, no philosophizing. He gives voice to his own distress. At that moment, Moses is us — the caregiver — in sickroom desperation, searching body and soul for a lifeline.

The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yochanan, who had magical, healing hands. He too was a caregiver. But when the rabbi himself became ill, his hands were of no help. “The prisoner,” the Talmud explains, “cannot free himself from prison.” As I learned in that hospital room and as we learn from Miriam and Moses, healing comes from extending our hands — and spirits — to each other and to God, and from asking for the healing hands of others in our own hours of need.

Levy Missing


Every morning as Rabbi Samuel Graudenz prays, he asks for the safe return of Chandra Ann Levy.

“I can only pray, though the signs are not good, that God will find her alive and well,” said the 85-year-old rabbi emeritus of Modesto’s Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom, where Levy’s parents are members.

Levy, a 24-year-old Jewish woman from Modesto, vanished suspiciously from Washington, D.C., earlier this month. A graduate student in public administration at the University of Southern California, she had just completed an internship with the federal Bureau of Prisons and was expected to return to Modesto May 9, in time for her graduation.

Graudenz, now retired and a resident at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, said he had prepared the dark, curly-haired Levy for her bat mitzvah and was “deeply shocked” by her disappearance. “I knew her as a fantastic student and a beautiful, conscientious girl,” he said.

Meanwhile, congregants at Beth Shalom have been aiding community efforts to find Levy, working with the Carole Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, a Modesto-based group that helps families find loved ones. Soon after the disappearance, Robert and Susan Levy, Chandra’s parents, contacted the foundation.

Levy was last seen publicly on April 30 when she canceled her membership at the Washington Sports Club near her apartment in Dupont Circle. Because there is no evidence of a crime, police are pursuing the disappearance as a missing persons case, said D.C. police officer Tony O’Leary.

Family and friends made contributions to the Carole Sund-Carrington foundation, offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to Levy’s safe return. Contributors include Rep. Gary Condit (D-Modesto), who called Levy a “good friend” in a statement last week; the nature of their relationship is currently under investigation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein added another $5,000 to the fund last week.

Little is known about the missing woman’s religious beliefs and involvement. However, some Beth Shalom congregants, including Doreen Goldman, admit to “disagreeing strongly” with Susan Levy because she is “a Jew with a belief in Christ.” But that has not deterred Goldman and others from aiding the foundation and bringing attention to the family’s plight.

Graudenz also confirmed that Susan Levy had what she called some “strange beliefs,” but both he and Goldman were unsure if Chandra Levy shared those beliefs.

“She’s a very nice girl, but she’s also very hard to get close to,” Goldman said about the missing woman. “She didn’t really open up a lot.”

Susan and Robert Levy did not return phone calls as of press time, but both have appeared extensively on national television and spoken to several media sources.

Paul Gordon, the rabbi at Beth Shalom since August, said he has been in touch with synagogues and rabbis in the D.C. area, requesting that they assist in the distribution of information regarding Levy’s disappearance, “an important aspect in the search.”

A candlelight vigil held Saturday in Levy’s Washington neighborhood featured a D.C.-area rabbi, who said a prayer for the missing woman.

Levy’s friend Jennifer Baker, herself a former intern in Washington, described Levy as a “dynamic, enthusiastic and energetic” person who liked to shop and go to movies. She said Levy had hoped to enter the FBI or work in law enforcement.

“It is out of character for her to just disappear,” said Baker, “but I’m trying to stay positive and focused on bringing Chandra home.”

Pass the Egg


My parents were Elderhostel students this week at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and I shared Friday night services with them in the Conservative tradition of my youth.

It was like coming home. The melodies, the longer version of prayers, the responsive readings in English, and the Borscht Belt- suffused jokes all flooded back to me. It was vanilla pudding for the soul.The rabbi’s sermon, related in nasal Billy Crystal cadences, told the one about the poor woman and the chicken. With her last shekel, she bought a golden egg and brought it home. One and all admired the egg.”We’ll save the egg until it hatches,” the mother said, passing it to her older daughter to admire.

“Yes, then we’ll have many chickens,” the daughter said, passing it on.

“And the chickens will lay many golden eggs,” said her younger brother, passing it on again.

“And the golden eggs will be worth a lot of money, and we’ll buy still more chickens,” said the youngest.

He tried to pass it on but the egg dropped and splattered to the floor. Oh my.

At dinner that night, I sat among the Elderhostelers as we critiqued the rabbi’s performance, just as Conservative Jews have done through the ages. What was the sermon again? We struggled to remember the botched punch line. Everyone had heard the story many times before, with many variations, including one where the children clap their hands and the eggshell breaks over them.

I loved it all, but on the way home I wondered: would future generations get the joke? So many of us live firmly within movements now; a child is raised to be a good Orthodox Jew or a good Conservative Jew. There’s a wonderful program in Israel for bright American high schoolers focused on Reform Jewish philosophy. Reconstructionists have even changed the words of some prayers.

Our children may know who they are, and certainly who they’re not. But they may not know who we are, all of us.

The immigrant experience is long behind us.

The Catskills have gone to Vegas and Comedy Central.

The glue of Jewish history and culture, trade unionism, civil rights and even Israel, which forged a unifying political and social ideology in the last century, has lost its potency. It’s enough to make you wonder if we’ll all speak the same language not far down the road.

Yet it’s not too late. In the new spiritual awakening that is influencing all branches, we find our adhesive.I resist movements. I travel around, and not only because it’s my job. It’s fun. I can, by now, sit behind the mechitzah in an Orthodox shul one Shabbat, then join the tambourines and drums of a Renewal service the next. At both, it’s a blast to hear rabbis from varying denominations reading identical classic commentaries from Chassidic masters, whether to draw the same or opposite conclusions. And it’s satisfying. I can move from the traditional Silverman prayer book to the new Reconstructionist gender-inclusive siddur “Kol Haneshamah” and find something in each to move the heart.

I’ve made sure my daughter travels, too. She went to both Reform and Conservative summer camps and was bat mitzvah in the Reconstructionist movement. When she’s away, any place where the Eternal Light hangs is home.

Maybe I’m a one-woman campaign to fight the growing compartmentalization of the Jewish people, but you can join it too. When you travel to exotic countries, I’ll bet you visit ancient temples, even participating in services that might offend you at home. I’ll bet you think it’s exotic and fascinating, how different we Jews are, and how much the same.

Why should the traveling stop when you reach your own address? There’s a ferment in Judaism today, a glorious artistic and spiritual creativity, that you miss when you hear only your same rabbi and your same study group. Stretch yourself.

Each summer, Jews go shul-shopping, trying out new congregations and rabbis for those that feel most like home. This year, do the opposite: Visit synagogues as unlike your background as you can stand. Don’t go to criticize. Learn. If what you experience is not exactly your grandfather’s Judaism, well, isn’t that good?It’s been clear for some time that what Rabbi Harold Schulweis calls “Jewish apartheid” exists among youth. Social isolation was not diminished by the decision by Camp Ramah to exclude those whose mothers are not Jewish.

But I want to go even further. Jewish apartheid begins with adults. There are too many bad jokes which start, “There were three rabbis, an Orthodox, a Conservative and a Reform …” We American Jews have far more in common even now than you’d believe from each movement’s isolationists. Once you sit down together and hear Conservative Jews using a Reform melody for the prayer over bread, you can’t miss the cross-fertilization that is going on.

You are part of a great cultural transmission. Pass the golden egg.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address iswmnsvoice@aol.com

Mideast


King Hussein’s battle with lymph cancer leaves Israel hoping for the best

 

Israel’s Best(Arab) Friend

 

By Larry Derfner, Tel Aviv Correspondent

When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that not only he, but all of Israel, was praying for Jordanian King Hussein’s recovery from lymph cancer, Netanyahu might have been exaggerating for effect — but not by much.

Hussein is by far the most popular — if not the only popular — Arab leader in the eyes of Israelis. Only the slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat might have eclipsed Hussein’s popularity here. The Jordanian king is well-spoken of by the Israeli right, left and center — even by those who don’t hide their hatred of Yasser Arafat and their mistrust of outspoken anti-Netanyahu leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Now Hussein, 62, who has ruled his country since he was 17 years old, is in danger. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic, where Hussein is being treated, say he will have to continue treatment there for as long as five months. The king’s heir is his 50-year-old brother, Prince Hassan.

Jordan is the most stable Arab country, and the friendliest to Israel. What will it mean if there is a change in power in the kingdom? Oded Granot, a diplomatic correspondent for the Ma’ariv Daily, notes that Hassan is also a moderate political figure, and that an orderly transfer of power would be expected.

“But Prince Hassan is not as popular as Hussein, and he would have to work much harder to pull Jordan out of its economic and governmental crises. Hassan would also have to work especially hard to convince the Jordanian people that they must continue the peace process with Israel, even though Israel is continually at odds with the Palestinians,” Granot says.

Jordan is a poor country. Its people have not tasted the “fruits of peace” — economic prosperity — they were told to expect as a result of the 1994 peace agreement with Israel. The government opposition is dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood, which is intimately connected to Hamas. Most of Jordan’s intellectual class has always been overtly anti-Israeli, even during the Rabin-Peres years, and their sentiments have reached a new pitch during the Netanyahu regime.

If and when he ascends to the throne, Prince Hassan will have his hands full maintaining the stability his brother has managed for nearly a half-century. (Hussein was crowned after an Arab in Jerusalem assassinated his grandfather, King Abdallah, for taking a relatively peaceful approach to the new Jewish state.)

King Hussein wasn’t always an Israeli favorite. Acting on overly optimistic advice from then-Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, he attacked Jerusalem during the Six Day War and lost the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, for his trouble. As a result, the Jordanian monarch was lumped together in the Israeli view as part of a broad Arab front that only wanted to push the Jews into the sea.

But beginning with Golda Meir in the early 1970s, Hussein began meeting clandestinely with Israeli leaders, and became known as the most moderate of Arab heads of state. Despite his public statements, he is considered more of a rival than a supporter of Arafat and the Palestinian leadership. (The PLO tried to overthrow Hussein in “Black September” of 1970, but Hussein won out in a bitter, bloody struggle.) His support for Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War was a matter not of choice but of necessity. Saddam’s million-man army threatened Jordan on its eastern border. The Jordanian masses were intoxicated with Saddam; opposing the Iraqi leader might have led Hussein’s people to revolt. In the end, Saddam was humbled and King Hussein was left standing.

“The secret of his success is his personality — a combination of great charm and tremendous ability to improvise and read the mood of the street,” says Granot.

He won the hearts of Israelis during the signing of the peace accord in Washington, when he and his wife, Queen Noor — the former Lisa Halaby of Philadelphia — cried openly during the moving speech by Yitzhak Rabin. He won their hearts again two years later, when he came to Israel and sat on the floor alongside the families mourning their seven children who had been murdered in Jordan by a soldier.

For the last three decades, Hussein has put Israel’s mind at ease about its eastern border. He has also taught Israelis a few lessons in grace, humility and warmth. It may be going too far to say all Israelis are praying for his recovery. But they’re certainly hoping for it.

 

Pushing Each Other’s Buttons


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Predictably, it happened again. Conservative and Reform Jews choseto demonstrate their right to worship at the Kotel in their way, menand women together. This time, however, the worshipers had officialclearance. But their permit did not help. Sadly, but alsopredictably, Orthodox Jews prevented them from praying in their way.Passions flared. The scene became ugly. Religious extremists,unconcerned about Torah prohibitions against striking another person,became violent. Hurt and humiliated, the non-Orthodox worshipers wereforcibly removed by the police. And, of course, the media had beenprepped. The cameras were ready. They captured the tears of thevanquished and the jeers of the violent. The angry scenes wereflashed across the world.

Effective Demonstration

I do not doubt that the only motive of most of the Reform andConservative worshipers was to experience Tisha B’Av in the precinctsof the Temple, whose destruction they had come to lament.

But I do have a sneaking suspicion that the organizers of theservice had something else in mind also.

I am a veteran of political demonstrations. During the apartheidera in South Africa, I learned how to get the most attention for thestruggle against racism. I simply had to figure out which buttons topush in order to enrage the other side and make it react violently.It was easy to do. It transformed the demonstrators into innocentvictims, and their attackers (usually the police) into vicious thugs.The media was always advised that a good story was in the making.Sympathy for the victims and odium for their powerful attackers wereinstantly seen on television screens around the world. Obviously,these tactics served a holy purpose — the eradication of anauthoritarian, intolerant and evil system.

Which Orthodox buttons did the Conservative and Reform workers atthe Kotel push? What irreconcilable principles were at stake?

Principles in Conflict

The non-Orthodox worshipers asserted two principles by coming tothe Kotel to pray in their way. They wished to demonstrate thatJudaism’s holiest site belongs equally to all Jews, that it is not anopen-air Orthodox synagogue. They also wished to demonstrate thattheir mode of worship is as valid as gender-separated Orthodoxprayer.

Their Orthodox opponents were motivated by equally powerfulprinciples. Worship in the ancient Temple had always beengender-separated. In the 30 years since the liberation of the Kotel,this ancient tradition had been honored. The insistence on mixed,egalitarian worship in the Kotel precincts was regarded as no less anact of chutzpah than would be the forcible intrusion of asimilar group into an Orthodox synagogue for non-Orthodox worship.

These were the buttons. These were the principles. All theingredients for a good television story were present.

Tisha B’Av Tragedy

The violence at the Wall could not have come at a worse time. Thenews of the battle between the Jews in Jerusalem broke while I wasteaching my congregants the Talmudic account of the destruction ofthe Second Temple. The Talmud asserts that the destruction was theresult of causeless hatred between the Jews of that generation. Is itnot tragic that hatred should characterize the contemporaryobservance of Tisha B’Av? Have we learned nothing from our history?

The Talmud also records a dispute between a certain RabbiZechariya and the Sages. Under normal circumstances, both parties inthis dispute would have agreed that the imperatives of the Torah areabsolute and that there is no room for compromise on halachicprinciple. But, on this occasion, the Sages felt that even venerableprinciples should be compromised for the sake of the common good.Rabbi Zechariya refused to allow the Sages to take the initiative inbending the law to save the Jewish people. The Talmud records thathis insistence on placing principle above peace caused the Temple tobe destroyed and the Jewish people to be exiled.

Alternative to Confrontation

We have witnessed the bitter consequences of the refusal tocompromise this Tisha B’Av. Neither side would budge. Like adysfunctional family, each pushed the other’s buttons, and theconflict escalated.

May I suggest a workable compromise. The southern section of theKotel has been newly excavated and is the site of a beautifularchaeological park. There is no tradition of gender-segregatedworship there. It is far from, and out of the line of vision of, thefar more numerous Orthodox worshipers at the other end of the Kotel.Bat mitzvah services are already held there. It could easily bededicated for Conservative and Reform prayer. All Jews could worshipG-d in their own denominational way.

Am I optimistic that this kind of solution will be acceptable?Although it makes sense, I do not believe that it will happen.Demonstrators have more to gain from political conflict than fromspiritual tranquillity. Confrontation alone will keep the strugglefor denominational acceptance alive and in full view of unhappy Jewsaround the world.

Therefore, I predict that there will be more confrontations, morevictims and more violence.

But I am hoping against hope that I am wrong. The Jewish peoplecannot afford to relive the Tisha B’Av experience. The State ofIsrael cannot afford more wrenching conflicts. The Jewish Diasporacannot be made to stand up against the Jewish State. Perhaps saner,gentler counsel will prevail and an intelligent compromise will beoffered and accepted.

Abner Weiss is rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation of BeverlyHills.

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