Our Legacy

As I wheeled my shopping cart down the aisle of the local
market on my weekly grocery run, a toddler riding in his mother’s cart
came up the other side. He was one of the students in the
nursery school, and when he recognized me, his mouth dropped open. He pointed
and shouted, “Mom, look, it’s God!”

My young friend’s comment is very instructive. We
imagine God in the image of those who teach us about God. And we perceive the
world of religion in the image of those institutions that introduce us to
spirituality, ritual, and faith. When our rabbis and teachers are distant and
cold, when the rites are forbidding and strange, so, too, the religious life we
acquire — emptied of life, emptied of spirit, remote, removed and alien. But,
when teachers inspire and ritual becomes poetry, then a different sense of the
sacred prevails. The measure of a religious institution is not its magnificent
building, the size of its membership roster or the prestige of its reputation,
but the kind of God it offers its children.

This week’s Torah portion describes the completion of
Israel’s first religious institution, the mishkan (the Tabernacle). The midrashic
rabbis noted the parallels between the Torah’s account of the construction of
the mishkan and the story of the creation of the world. God creates the cosmos.
And God has shared with humanity the power to create. With that power, we
create the human institutions that make the cosmos a livable place. Within
God’s cosmos, there are forces beyond our control. But within the world of
human institutions, the world we create, everything is subject to our control.
And therefore, we are responsible for how our institutions turn out.

What is a Jewish community? It is the world we would create
out of the values of the Jewish tradition. And the quality of our community
life is the ultimate test of our values. Beyond all our preaching and teaching,
it is the institutions of the Jewish community that demonstrate to our children
the meaning of Jewish values and the worth of Jewish commitments. If it is a
community that is gentle, compassionate, inclusive and just, we vindicate all
our claims about Jewish tradition and our concern for its continuity. But, if
the community and its institutions prove to be cold, indifferent, narrow and
callous, no amount of preaching or teaching will persuade our children to live
Jewish lives.

There is much that separates today. We disagree about war in
Iraq; about Israeli policy toward Palestinians; about matters Orthodox,
Conservative and Reform; about how to ensure a Jewish future. These are matters
of deadly seriousness. But more serious still is how we choose to disagree. For
long after these issues have been settled and others arrive to take their
place, we will leave behind a legacy — an example — of how Jews conduct
themselves in controversy. More than what we argue, we teach our children how
to argue. Our children are watching and listening. We can show them that Jews
can disagree over matters of life-and-death importance, but conduct themselves
with civility, respect and control. Or, we can demonstrate the opposite,
namely, the weakness of Jewish values when matters of true importance are at

“When Moses finished the work [of constructing the mishkan],
the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the
Tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:33-4)

It is yet possible, promises the Torah, to build human
institutions that contain the living Presence of God, institutions that bring
light, protection and inspiration to us all.

“For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day,
and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout
their journeys.” (Exodus 40:38)

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Too Big to Ignore

It was the first cool night in the midst of a heat wave and Rosalie Zalis, executive director of Winnick Family Foundation and former liaison to the Jewish community for ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, was preaching to the masses.

“You should get involved with a political action committee,” the longtime activist told the group of mostly women gathered in the chapel at Adat Ari El June 6. “Even if it’s only sending a small amount of money to AIPAC [The American Israel Public Affairs Committee] — they will teach you how to lobby.

“You need to be aware of what everyone who you vote for thinks about Israel. Write letters to your congressperson and to your senators, thanking them when they do something for Israel. Make phone calls, send e-mails. You don’t know how important your voice is.”

Zalis’ speech was part of the kickoff event for a new nonprofit organization called Women in Solidarity. The group comprises a coalition of five of the most prominent women’s organization in Los Angeles: Americans for Israel and Torah, the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles, Hadassah Southern California, NA’AMAT USA and Women’s American ORT.

“The idea is to educate women to advocate, to make women’s voices heard in the state of Israel and to educate unaffiliated women about what each of our groups is doing and involve them in our humanitarian work,” said Miriam Hearn, western area director for NA’AMAT USA.

Hearn said the group’s intention is not to raise money, although donations to any of the organizations are welcome.

“There are many needs throughout Israel where our organizations are involved,” she said. “For instance, NA’AMAT has day-care centers taking care of one-quarter of Israel’s preschool-age children, and these 350 centers need guards and security gates. But to belong to Women in Solidarity or any of our organizations doesn’t mean you have to have a significant amount of money to donate. “

According to Hearn, members of NA’AMAT came up with the idea for the coalition in early April and representatives of each organization met over the next few months to plan the June conference. The group is currently seeking input for its next event.

“There have been a good many rallies and Israel support events held locally, but nothing that talks about what is going on from a woman’s point of view,” said Hearn. “I see Women in Solidarity as a channel through which women’s voices can be heard.”

While Women in Solidarity is just embarking on its mission, the Women’s Alliance for Israel Political Action Committee is well-established in theirs. Founded in 1989, the Women’s Alliance is a single-issue political action committee with one concern: to seek out and provide funds for congressional and senatorial candidates who will or have fostered pro-Israel legislation. These donations differentiate the group from lobbying entities such as the AIPAC and The Jewish Federation, which are prohibited by law from making donations to candidates.

The organization, which lists between 500 and 600 people as members, raises approximately $500,000 each year for candidates, with disbursements ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. Co-President Nancy Klemens said the group has seen an increase in donations in recent months, due in part to the escalating conflict in the Middle East.

Membership in the Women’s Alliance begins at a minimum level of $150 a year and goes up several different levels to Founders, who donate $1,000 or more a year.

“Our members research candidates to find out how much they have raised and who is their opponent and how much they have raised, and then our members bring their reports to our meetings,” Klemens said. “All things being equal, we usually support the incumbent if they have been a friend of Israel.”

She said the group is bipartisan. “Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter. As long as [the candidates] are trying to meet our goal, we are happy to support them.”

The group, along with AIPAC and other Zionist organizations, does accomplish its goals — just ask lawmakers like Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who spoke before Women’s Alliance members June 9.

“I would say the strongest lobbying in Washington, D.C., is the Israel lobby,” Sanchez told The Jewish Journal. “First, because it is a bipartisan lobby, which is good for its credibility. Second, there are many groups that come to lobby that have differences in other ways — JACPAC [the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs] vs. AIPAC — but they all make a concerted effort, even when there are no bills on the floor relating to Israel. They come in consistently to Washington, and that makes the lobby very strong.”

Sanchez said the contributions of female advocates for Israel on Capitol Hill could not be overstated.

“This is one of the few lobbies where the majority of people who come to see me on this issue tend to be women,” she said.

Zalis said, “We [Jews] are such a small community, and we cannot afford to write off half our population.” Zalis said.

The Stealth Politics of Dr. Laura

She’s mean, she’s popular. And she’s more political than her shocked listeners realize. Pat Buchanan has floated her name for running mate. Gay activists have made her a target in the battle for marriage rights. And Christian lobbyists and proselytizers are carrying her flag high.

She promotes herself as a simple, conservative “advice giver” whose “moral health show” sends out common sense to as many as 20 million listeners each week. But take a closer look at “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger, the 53-year-old bulldog of a Jewish woman who is spreading her anti-abortion, anti-feminist and anti-gay message. Schlessinger, it turns out, is no milquetoast Dear Abby, and she’s no shock-jock Howard Stern. She’s part of the national political movement to impose conservative religious values on all Americans.

In recent months, gay activists have been working to scuttle Schlessinger’s planned TV show, which was to be launched by Paramount this September. They have objected to her claims that homosexuality is “deviant” and the result of a “biological error” and have lobbied her to restrain her “hate speech.” But this isn’t just a gay issue: There are reasons why women, Jews and all minorities should be alarmed.Homosexuality is just the most visible issue on Dr. Laura’s agenda. There are also the aggressive campaigns by Schlessinger against abortion, working mothers, and all the gains of the feminist movement. “It seemed to me,” notes one Jewish leader, “that [what] she was preaching would put women back 20 or 30 years.”

This is echoed by Susan Weidman Schneider, LILITH magazine’s editor-in-chief: “It should alarm all women and men who have campaigned for gender equity that Laura Schlessinger is preaching her retrograde message to large audiences daily and that she identifies herself as a Jewish woman while she’s at it. We run the risk of having other Americans imagine that her views are mainstream Jewish views, which they are not.”

What is important to note about Laura Schlessinger is the extraordinary ties between her and the Christian right. Many of these groups, calling themselves “family values” organizations, have thrown their public support behind Schlessinger. She has preached in their churches and on major televangelist programs and has received their awards. Lobbying groups like the influential Family Research Council, founded by presidential candidate Gary Bauer, have paid for advertising trying to defend her against the outrage of gay activists. Evangelical Christian publishers of books and magazines have featured her words, and Pat Buchanan has suggested she would make a good running mate on the Reform Party ticket.

“What our opposition has done,” comments Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal, “is taken over the radio and TV talk shows, preaching this very hard line. They are marketing themselves as psychologists and religious figures and people to counsel people in their time of need, but I think it is a well-orchestrated [political] strategy.”

The burden today is on Jewish groups, women’s groups and others to join gay and lesbian activists in voicing their concern about Schlessinger and the constituencies she represents. Schlessinger, whose “Dr.” title is not in the mental health professions but in physiology, has gone on the warpath against all those who benefited from the liberations of the past four decades. We should watch carefully what Dr. Laura, with her Jewish star dangling so prominently around her neck, is asking for. We all just might get it.

LILITH, the nonprofit Jewish feminist magazine, has been publishing quarterly since 1976. For information, or to order a sample issue, call toll-free 1-888-2-LILITH, go to www.lilith.com