White House reassures Jews as it readies Baghdad offer to Iran


The differences between the U.S. and Israeli positions on Iran’s nuclear program are about to become very clear, and the Obama administration is reassuring the Jewish community that the divide is not so vast.

Administration officials in a meeting Monday with Jewish communal leaders emphasized that they will be steadfast in upholding one key Israeli demand: That sanctions not be sacrificed to the negotiating process. Iran won’t get relief just for showing up for talks, the officials said.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government may not be happy with the concessions that the major powers are likely to offer as talks with Iran continue in Baghdad on Wednesday. Under the expected proposal, the Iranians would be allowed to continue low-level uranium enrichment.

Longtime watchers of the Iran-U.S.-Israel nexus say the major powers, led by the United States, plan to offer Iran a deal under which the Islamic Republic would give up enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is just two or three steps shy of enriching it to the weapons grade of more than 90 percent. Iran also would be required to ship out uranium that it has already enriched to 20 percent.

Under the proposal, Iran must allow full inspections, particularly at Parchin, a military facility where nuclear experts believe that Iran has tested a trigger device for a bomb.

In exchange, Iran would continue to enrich uranium for civilian use to 3.5 percent, and it would get U.S. assistance in upgrading and fueling a research reactor it uses for cancer treatment. Also, no new sanctions would be introduced.

Washington-based experts Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, independently reviewed the deal with diplomatic sources and said that sanctions already in place or set to kick in on July 1 would remain untouched.

“Iran is going to have to accept that costly European sanctions on the Central Bank and on oil will still be on target to take full effect in July,” Adler said.

It’s not clear whether the Iranians are on board with the proposal, he added.

“These are the opening bids in what is meant to be a negotiating process,” Adler said.

In addition to the new EU sanctions, the U.S. Senate approved sanctions on Monday reducing the threshold for sanctions on business dealings with Iran’s energy sector from $20 million to $5 million a year.

Keeping such sanctions in place addresses a key Israeli worry that Iran might use the talks to buy time and win concessions simply by showing up.

Ensuring this would not be allowed to happen was a key message from top administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, in the Monday meeting with 70 Jewish leaders assembled by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The U.S. officials emphasized during the meeting that the U.S. would insist on tough verification measures and would not remove sanctions in exchange for pledges.

“The administration was trying to send a message they were not going to be fooled or naive when it comes to Iran,” one participant from a Jewish group said, speaking on background because the meeting was off the record.

In its statement describing the meeting, the Presidents Conference said that “senior officials reiterated the administration’s ‘ironclad’ commitment to Israel’s security and their determination to ‘keep all options on the table’ to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Such pledges, however welcome they may be in Jerusalem, did not address the Israeli bottom line outlined by Netanyahu in a visit last week to the Czech Republic: No further enrichment by Iran whatsoever, the export of all uranium enriched until now and the dismantling of a reactor uncovered by Western intelligence in 2009 near the Shiite holy city of Qom.

Slavin said such Israeli requests were useful as pressure but were never likely to be put forward by the United States.

“You have to have a bad cop to a U.S. good cop,” she said. “The Israelis serve a useful purpose to that degree.”

The threat of Israeli military action has not been removed. The Obama administration has stressed that Israel has the sovereign right to defend itself against a perceived threat from Iran. At the same time, the U.S. has asked Israel to stand back while it exhausts non-military means of pressuring Iran to comply with the international community’s demands.

Sanctions legislation passed Monday by the Senate introduces into actionable legislation for the first time the notion of capability to build a nuclear weapon as constituting a threat to the U.S. “Capability,” as opposed to “acquisition” of a nuclear weapon, is an Israel red line, and in recent months has been introduced into non-binding legislation. The new Senate legislation also explicitly cites “military planning” as an option to compel Iran not to achieve nuclear capability.

On the other hand, the legislation also includes an amendment at the behest of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that explicitly says the legislation does not authorize war.

A similar amendment was included in the National Defense Authorization Act passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives. The amendments—proposed by war skeptics in both parties—reflect unease with the perception that Congress did not do enough to question the Bush administration’s move toward war with Iraq in 2003.

Jewish leaders are likely to seek clarification on the dual messages when they meet Wednesday morning with the Senate’s Democratic leadership.

The message from the Obama administration is that it respects Israel’s sovereign right to take action.

According to notes provided by a participant in the Monday meeting, Biden recounted an hourlong meeting he had in February with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The vice president said he has known Barak for decades and that they had never misled one another. The participant quoted Biden as saying he told Barak, “Israel is responsible for assessing Israel’s security needs, and the United States will not stand in the way.”

Barak: Iran unlikely to give in to pressure


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said chances that Iran will give in to pressure to stop its suspected nuclear program are low, and that the dangers of a nuclear Iran outweigh the dangers of action to stop it.

Barak told an audience at Air Force House in Herzliya on Thursday, Israel’s Independence Day, that a nuclear Iran would launch a regional nuclear arms race and would embolden Iranian proxies that attack Israel, Israel Radio reported.

The Obama administration wants Israel to hold back while it leads the international community in isolating Iran and negotiating with it to make its nuclear program more transparent.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the delays caused by such negotiations allow Iran to enrich uranium unhindered. Iran says it is enriching uranium strictly for civilian purposes.

Barak in his speech said the likelihood of Iran giving into such pressure was low.

Confronting Iran militarily would pose dangers, he said, according to the radio report, and the chances of success were not “marvelous,” but a nuclear Iran posed even greater dangers.

The U.S. government understands that Israel has different considerations when it comes to contemplating how to deal with Iran, he said, adding that Israel’s clock is “ticking faster” than that of the United States.

Barak said Israel and the United States were in open communication, but that “Israel must make its own decisions and take responsibility for them.”

Obama calls for keeping pressure on Iran


President Obama called for keeping up international pressure on Iran amid news reports that Israel may be preparing for war with the Islamic Republic.

The president’s comments, made Thursday at a joint news conference in France with President Nicolas Sarkozy, were delivered several days before the scheduled release of a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program.

“We had the opportunity also to talk about a range of security issues,” Obama said of his conversation with Sarkozy. “One in particular that I want to mention is the continuing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

Obama added that “President Sarkozy and I agreed on the need to maintain the unprecedented international pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.”

The comments came as the Israel Defense Forces held a drill in central Israel simulating missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Israeli defense officials said the drills were scheduled months ago.

The Home Front Command drill Thursday was a simulation of a rocket attack on a civilian area. The drill included opening evacuation centers and handing out gas masks.

The drill was held following several days of reports in the Israeli media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are pushing the Israeli Cabinet to approve an attack on Iran. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman strenuously denied the reports in an interview Wednesday on Israel Radio.

Also Wednesday, the Israeli military successfully test fired a ballistic missile from the Palmachim Airbase in central Israel, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry. It is widely believed that Israel has missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Genocide 2.0


People who take their Holocaust seriously have to take other people’s holocausts seriously.

You can run tacky, self-aggrandizing advertisements in the Los Angeles Times for your Holocaust memorial ceremonies — ads that feature the faces of donors and dignitaries, as if we’re honoring them — but you honor the victims more by engaging in the day-to-day grunt work of preventing the next slaughter of innocents.

Of course you know by now that, since 2003, the Islamist government of Sudan and the Arab supremacist movement known as the Janjaweed have carried out a program of ethnic cleansing against African tribes in the Darfur region of Sudan. More than 250,000 Sudanese have died and another 2 million to 3 million have fled as a result of violence, starvation and disease. Jewish groups have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to confronting this genocide.

Organizations like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) helped mobilize thousands of protesters, and out of Encino, Jewish World Watch (JWW) sprang up in 2004 to help address the situation. Longstanding Jewish organizations added their voices in Washington and abroad.

But guess what: It’s not enough.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with two Sudanese activists, one of whom had just returned from southern Sudan, and with leaders of JWW. The Sudanese’s message was fairly chilling: If you think it’s bad now, just wait.

“There is a war coming,” Francis Bok, of the American Anti-Slavery Group, told me.

In 2011, the Interim Settlement Agreement between the Muslim government in Khartoum and the largely Christian and animist southern Sudan will end. That deal, signed in 2005, has so far kept the war-torn nation together. The end of the agreement will bring with it the very real possibility of wholesale chaos and slaughter.

In this month’s Foreign Policy magazine, former U.S. Envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios corroborates Bok’s prediction. He outlines a scenario in which Sudan’s Islamic government in Khartoum could obstruct further peace negotiations and hardliners in the south could provoke a confrontation in hopes of securing battlefield gains, leading to a full-scale war raging throughout the country. That would destabilize Sudan’s neighbors, including Egypt, Chad and Libya; provide refuge and opportunity (again) for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda; and lead to far greater suffering in the Darfur region itself.

“Peace cannot be achieved in Darfur if it is not secured between the north and the south,” Natsios wrote. “The year ahead may be the most important in Sudan’s post-colonial history.”

Natsios quoted one African diplomat: “If the north and south return to war, it will unlock the gates of hell.”

I met Bok, along with Kola Boof, of the Sudan Sensitization Peace Project, and JWW’s founding president Janice Kamenir-Reznik at Milken Community Jewish High School, where the three were participating in a day to raise student awareness of the situation in Darfur. Bok had recently returned from Sudan, where he visited his native village of Gurian.

When he was 7, Arab Islamic raiders kidnapped him in the marketplace. He spent the next 10 years as a slave to an Arab farmer, enduring frequent beatings. When he was 17, Bok escaped. Within two years, he was testifying about Sudanese slavery before Congress and meeting with President Bush. Now Bok, who lives with his wife and two children in Kansas, lectures widely on Sudan and slavery.

“Francis is our Martin Luther King,” Boof said.

When he returned to southern Sudan for the first time since 1986, Bok found his village almost empty.

“Most people were killed,” he said. The survivors must have thought they were seeing a ghost.

“They had no idea who I was,” he said. “They thought I had been killed.”

But now such violence looks like the beginning, not the end. And activists like Bok hold out little hope for a settlement.

“We hope it will be peaceful becoming our own country,” Bok said of southern Sudan. “But nothing has been peaceful dealing with Khartoum.”

What, then, can we do?

China pumps the most cash into Sudan through oil purchases, and provides it with the most weaponry.

But Reznik knows a boycott on Chinese goods would be a hard sell. Her organization, which doesn’t buy Chinese, has to pay 40 cents wholesale for each of those green rubber SAVE DARFUR wristbands that it could get from China for just nine cents.

So Jewish World Watch and other organizations see the 2008 Olympics Games in China as a touch point for awakening the world to the current hardship and the coming catastrophe. They are planning a series of protests and educational opportunities throughout the Olympics to convince China to pressure Khartoum.

“We believe this is more effective than a boycott,” Reznik said.

Getting Hollywood on board has been helpful — director Steven Spielberg’s withdrawal from the Games was a high-profile move that helped push the Darfur issue to the front pages. But mass slaughter demands mass protest.

Tough as the situation is, taking action now can help prevent genocide in the future. After you attend a Holocaust memorial service, visit www.jewishworldwatch.org for a list of suggested actions — not a bad way to mark Yom HaShoah.

The (almost) hardest-working man in classical music


With such legendary workaholic conductors as James Levine and Valery Gergiev going strong, Jeffrey Kahane can’t quite be termed the hardest-working man in classical music. But as he begins his 11th season as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) and his third as music director of the Colorado Symphony, Kahane is giving his colleagues a run for their money. So much so that this past spring he had to cancel several weeks of concerts for health reasons.

“I was severely overworked,” a rested and recovered Kahane, 51, says now. “I had some high blood pressure, and I kind of ignored it, which I shouldn’t have done. And in the middle of last season, it got worse, and my doctor told me to cut back my workload immediately. I canceled six weeks of concerts, which was very difficult for me. I had never done anything like that before. I’d always taken pride in not canceling dates.”

Kahane, who is also an accomplished concert pianist, attributes his exhaustion less to myriad commitments than to the taxing programs he had scheduled last season, especially several LACO dates dedicated to Mozart — the tail end of a project in which he was to play and conduct over two seasons nearly all of the composer’s piano concertos.

“Just doing the Mozart would have been plenty,” said the pianist-conductor, “so doing it all was overly ambitious.” The series was to have concluded this past spring, when Kahane was convalescing. It will now end in February, with a special performance of four concertos added to this season’s LACO schedule.

Not that LACO’s new season, which begins Sept. 29 and runs through May 18, is exactly relaxed for Kahane. In late February, the orchestra is scheduled to embark on its first European tour in more than 20 years, performing in such music capitals as Paris, Berlin and Vienna during two weeks of concerts that also take it to Italy and Spain.

The tour also unites the orchestra with two compelling, and very different, soloists: noted Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova, who will sing Mozart and Rossini arias, and composer Uri Caine, who will perform “Mosaics,” a piano concerto he wrote for LACO that had its debut at the Jazz Bakery this past May.

Caine’s music incorporates both jazz and classical elements, and he will serve as LACO’s composer-in-residence through the end of this season. The season before last, he wrote a double-piano concerto inspired by Mozart for LACO, Kahane and himself.

And the premieres keep coming at LACO. There will be another before this season concludes, a piano concerto written by the rising young composer Kevin Puts. What makes the work novel, according to Kahane, is that it marks the first time he’ll be directing a new work from the keyboard — an approach he takes regularly when performing piano concertos by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

“Originally, Kevin was writing the concerto for himself,” Kahane recalled. “But he came to one of LACO’s Mozart concerts and said, ‘Jeff, I’ve changed my mind. I want to write a concerto for you.'”

Kahane first met Puts while teaching at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., as the budding composer was earning a doctorate there. He has previously conducted Puts’ Marimba Concerto as well as his Third Symphony, a piece inspired by the pop singer Bjork’s album “Verpertine.” Beyond the piano concerto, Kahane has commissioned a clarinet concerto from Puts, this time for the Colorado Symphony.

LACO’s season also includes a bit of cross-cultural music making, with the West Coast premiere of a Reza Vali’s “Toward That Endless Plain” on Nov. 3 and 4. The piece is a concerto for nay, a Middle Eastern flute, and conventional Western orchestra. Khosrow Soltani, a native of Tehran who trained as a bassoonist in Vienna, will perform the solo part.

Though this season features more familiar names — pianist André Watts, guitarist Christopher Parkening — LACO concerts often bring future stars to the attention of audiences. Thus the orchestra’s subscribers heard violinist Hilary Hahn, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianists Jonathan Biss and Lang Lang before their fame.

“I have the great good fortune to have an ear to the ground and a great many wonderful colleagues,” Kahane said of his network of music-world sources, mostly fellow musicians with whom the conductor has formed strong bonds. “Even my management sends me CDs of young artists. And though it doesn’t happen often, it does happen that I hear something extraordinary from a young artist. I have a track record I’m proud of in that regard, in finding artists who are just about to make it big. But there’s also a certain amount of good luck.”

Luck alone, though, seems to have had little to do with Kahane’s success. His conducting career followed his making a name for himself as a soloist and chamber musician, activities he continues to this day. He is enormously well liked by the musicians he works with, unusual in a field where respect is far more common than affection.

His personal life also seems firmly grounded. He and his wife, Martha, a clinical psychologist, keep houses in Denver and Santa Rosa and have raised two children, Gabriel, 26, and Annie, 19.

Annie attends Northwestern University, where she’s a sophomore majoring in performance studies, a multidisciplinary subject that combines elements of dance and theater into something Kahane calls “truly cutting edge.”

Gabe inherited the music gene and is a gifted pianist and composer living in Brooklyn, where his most recent project is a musical about the life of Mohammad. “When I first heard about it,” Kahane said, “I thought, you’ve got to be kidding! But it’s actually an incredibly beautiful and powerful piece.”

Naturally, Kahane kvells over his promising kids, but that doesn’t preclude him from leavening paternal pride with humor.

Choose Grrl Power over beauty pageants, grrlz


As children we loved to put on my mother’s old nightgowns, makeup and heels and pretend we were Queen Esther. Somewhere around adolescence this became a little more
uncomfortable.

Why was Vashti banished for refusing to dance — according to some, wearing only her crown — for the drunken King Achashverosh and his buddies? Wasn’t that the right thing to do? And what was a nice Jewish girl like Esther doing in a beauty contest for the Persian king?

Today, in a world saturated by images of beauty and still uncomfortable with a woman asserting her power, these remain relevant questions. How are Jewish girls faring amid this sea of contradiction?

By many measures, Jewish girls are thriving. They are leading extracurricular activities, bettering the world around them, excelling in sports and studying at elite universities. At the same time such success often comes at a cost for girls.

Research and anecdotal evidence point to girls’ perception of intense pressure to accrue academic and extracurricular distinctions. Simultaneously, girls feel bound by the constraints of feminine “niceness,” through which individual ambition becomes untenable, aggressive and selfish.

For some girls, the impact of these contradictions causes suffering.

For others it can lead to the development of eating disorders, cutting, relational bullying, precocious sexuality, abusive relationships and low self-esteem.

Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project is founded on the belief that it is critical to help girls, and those who work with girls, address these contradictions.

Take for example, the case of the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), the Reform youth group. Recent reports have sounded the “boy” alarm: 60 percent to 80 percent of participants in Reform youth groups, leadership training, camp and Israel programs are girls. The Union for Reform Judaism has inaugurated a Young Men’s Project to address the dearth of male participants.

What is heard less often is that this year — and it appears not to be atypical — all of the national NFTY officers are boys. An organization in which the overwhelming majority of participants are girls is still led by boys. Leaders involved with the program report that the girls are content with this arrangement, do not seek leadership and are happy to do the behind-the-scenes work.

In other words boys, though few in number, are eager to lead and are apparently groomed to be leaders.

Girls, like women in Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, do not seek leadership, presumably out of fear of being seen as “bossy” or “presumptuous,” or unwilling to set themselves apart from their female peers. Despite their strength in numbers, the girls say they prefer a more collaborative model of leadership.

What future is predicated here? Do we want girls to grow to be women who collaborate nicely and plan events while the men are given center stage? Do we want girls to grow to be women who comprise the backbone of the workforce while the male CEO occupies the corner office? What does it mean if boys, so few in number, still rise to the top?

It is these questions we wish to explore. The Jewish community of late appears to be more interested in questions that concern boys’ absence rather than girls’ lack of leadership. Picking up on national news trends, the Jewish community has sounded its version of the “boy crisis” alarm. Boys are the new girls and are depicted as failing academically, suffering emotionally and dropping out of all things Jewish. Implicit in these arguments is the assumption that attention to girls has served its purpose and should now return where it was always due — to boys.

Although pundits typically lump all boys’ issues into one puddle and declare it a “crisis,” the reality is that Jewish boys are not, and never have been, failing academically. If we are really concerned about boys in crisis, we should turn our attention to poor boys and boys of color, who are truly suffering.

Boys and boys’ issues are worthy of attention, and the Jewish community is surely not serving its sons as well as it could — just as there are gaps in our attention to girls’ needs. Indeed, if it is the case that young men’s participation falls off precipitously after the age of bar mitzvah, it is definitely worth looking at what it takes to engage young men and their interests.

I am agnostic on the question of inherent difference between boys and girls. It is clear, however, that boys and girls from the earliest age are subject to vastly different experiences, which in turn shape them. To truly meet the needs of both boys and girls, we will have to pay specific attention to gender socialization.

Boys and girls must be given the opportunity to explore the social construction of gender, challenge gender norms, examine gender privilege and create a balance of power between boys and girls. We must prepare our daughters to be strong leaders well armed against the sexism they will face in the media and employment at the same time that we raise young men who share an interest in their sisters’ achievements, who have full access to their feelings and who are engaged by Jewish life.

Toward this end, Ma’yan recently launched Koach Banot, Girl Power!

Through training, advocacy and education, we aim to raise the profile of Jewish girls in the community, make excellent resources including curricula and programs more widely available, and to train those who work with girls to better understand issues that confront girls and learn how they can utilize resources to best serve their population.

By exploring these issues and questions together, we can steer clear of the zero-sum game of boys vs. girls and enter into a rich exploration of gender and its implications for our community.

Rabbi Rona Shapiro serves as a senior associate at Undressed up

Teens can learn from Shoah survivors


Kids these days all have tsuris; everyone has stress. A computer breaking down, not having cell phone service, getting grounded, and not getting a new car for a 16th birthday are all things that upset teenagers and stress them out. Yet, these are probably the worst of their problems.

When a teenager gets a bad grade on a test or a parking ticket, he or she may think it’s the end of the world. For some of us, a “problem” is getting seven presents for Chanukah, not eight. However, 70 years ago, these so-called “problems” would have been luxuries for the millions of Jews and other minorities living, and dying, during the Holocaust.

I met one of those Jews, Dana Schwartz, through the Holocaust Memorial Project, a program sponsored by the California State Assembly. The goal of the project is to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive by having local high school students interview Holocaust survivors living in California.

At first, the project seemed like a good idea for community service. It was not until I sat down on a chair next to Schwartz in her Beverly Hills home and listened to her speak that I realized how much more I was getting out of this experience than just a few hours of community service.

In 1939, at the age of 4, Schwartz and her family were taken from their Polish home and sent to a ghetto. By the time the war ended, less than 1 percent of the Jews of the Lvov ghetto had survived. Each day there, when she wasn’t hiding from the Nazis, she watched Jew after Jew get tortured and killed. Soon, the Nazis started rounding up the Jews and took them to the railway.

Their destination was unknown to Schwartz at the time, and she did not want to find out. We now know these trains were, of course, taking the doomed Jews to concentration camps where almost all would die.

Schwartz and her parents hid in all kinds of places to stay away from the Nazis, most of the time under an apartment building. The days and weeks passed, but soon Schwartz and her mother were lucky enough to get false IDs, which allowed them to pass as Catholics. The two escaped and hid in another town, watching its Jewish population go from roughly 50 percent to zero. They ate mainly bread and water in that town until the war was over.

A few years later, they went back to their hometown and heard horrific stories about what happened to their friends and family, including Schwartz’s father, who was killed while she was in hiding. Schwartz couldn’t even go to school until years after that, due to her fears of Germans and her mental state from the horrors she had witnessed.

Soon thereafter, Schwartz and her mother were again fortunate enough to receive affidavits to come to Los Angeles, and she’s been living here ever since.
After interviewing Schwartz, I realized how fortunate I am to have freedom.

We’re fortunate to not go to bed each night unsure whether we will ever wake up. We’re lucky we don’t get scared each time a man walks in our direction, and we’re lucky we don’t live in fear that someone will find out we are Jewish and kill us.

What amazes me the most about Schwartz is how optimistic she is after going through the atrocities of the Holocaust. She still has pride in her Jewish heritage and won’t let anyone take that away.

“I want to survive in spite of Hitler and others who wanted to destroy us,” Schwartz said. She often speaks at schools. “I speak for those who can’t speak.”

The lessons that Schwartz, and the war itself, have taught me are to treasure each day and never take anything for granted. I feel as if I have much more of a Jewish identity now. Although we can never undo the Holocaust, we can still keep its story alive and keep the stories of the survivors alive too. It is especially important for my generation to know this history, for to most of us it is just history, not real people like Dana Schwartz.

Jonathan Kuperberg is a sophomore at Agoura High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

At Party Time: Candy is dandy — charity is sweeter


I was struggling to secure a tiny satin kippah with a granny-sized bobby pin when it hit me like a ton of Pampers: One day (assuming we both survive the main event at the bris), this 8-day-old baby will be standing on the bar mitzvah bimah wearing a really big satin kippah!
Determined not to let this postpartum hormonal surge detract from my newborn’s Judaic debut, I tacked on the teeny beanie with some double-sided tape and reassured myself that 13 was still a jillion years away.

Then one day when my son was in fourth grade, I received a letter from my synagogue assigning him a bar mitzvah date. Surely they jest, I cajoled myself. They didn’t. In fact, by the time I’d made my way back from the mailbox the phone was ringing off the hook.

“We got our date, did you get yours?” panted a breathless voice I scarcely recognized as a friend of mine. “The party planner is booking three years out, so you have to call her right away.”

And just like that, a jillion years came to a screeching halt as I was thrown headfirst into the maelstrom of bar mitzvah planning.

As my son’s bar mitzvah day inched closer, I began to see the world in a whole different light — a disco ball light, to be exact — for as my child grew, so did his friends, officially putting us both on the b’nai mitzvah circuit.

And what an elaborately themed circuit it was. From were casino getups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to dance floors flanked with Harley Davidson motorcycles.

How did this happen? My fellow bar mitzvah circuiteers and I would wonder. How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in an age-old Jewish tradition end up playing blackjack and Texas hold ’em? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a custom-designed ice sculpture of Shawn Green?

The answer is not difficult. We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our child’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a secular theme that somehow took on a life of its own. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life.”

But my daughter really has been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life, you may be thinking. We have it all planned out — “Samantha’s Candy Shoppe.” Every centerpiece will be inspired by a different type of candy; we’ll have an 8-foot chocolate fountain in the middle of the room, and the favors will be Hershey bars with all her vital bat mitzvah stats etched on the label in hot pink.

The trouble is that — despite honest parental intentions — following up a meaningful, religious milestone with a glitzy party focusing exclusively on Kit Kats and Jelly Bellies can undermine the entire point of our child having a bar or bat mitzvah in the first place.

That said, I’m not suggesting we bail on our kids’ secular dream themes altogether. I mean while it’s clearly not what the talmudic rabbis had in mind, I think it’s kind of sweet that the bar/bat mitzvah party has evolved into a celebration of the whole child. The trick is in keeping a fluid connection between the morning service and the evening celebration; between Jewish values and kid-defined rules of party cool.

One way to build this crucial bridge is to integrate tzedakah into our party theme.

We added depth to my son’s fun — but admittedly uninspiring — Super Bowl bar mitzvah theme by incorporating an overnight camp for children with life-threatening diseases that was desperately in need of sporting equipment. All the centerpieces were constructed from donatable sports gear, and there was a collection station set up at the entrance to the party room (Brandon had written his guests in advance explaining his cause and providing them a copy of the camp’s athletic supply wish list). The requisite football theme didn’t suffer a smidgen, and the charity received a U-Haul full of brand new sporting goods as a goody bag.

To help you infuse Jewish soul into your child’s dream party, here are some popular secular bar/bat mitzvah themes and sample tzedakah spin-offs:

Theme: Sports

Tzedakah: Jewish National Fund Project Baseball (‘ target=’_blank’>www.specialolympics.org)

Theme: Books (e.g., Harry Potter, Nancy Drew)

Tzedakah: KOREH L.A. (‘ target=’_blank’>www.njcl.net); Jewish Braille Institute of America ‘ target=’_blank’>www.jfsla.org); Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Los Angeles (‘ target=’_blank’>www.hazon.org); Tour de Cure for Diabetes (‘ target=’_blank’>www.livestrong.org).

Theme: Safari

Tzedakah: COEJL: Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (‘ target=’_blank’>www.treepeople.org); Los Angeles Zoo (‘ target=’_blank’>www.ecostation.org); Wildlife Conservation Society (‘ target=’_blank’>jfsla.org); MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (‘ target=’_blank’>www.projectchickensoup.org).

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids” (Broadway Books) will be published in 2007.

New approaches in Iraq could <I>help</I> Israel


For Israel and its American supporters, the Iraq War has scrambled the Middle East in ways that are difficult to navigate.

Once people hoped that the Iraq
War would make Israel safer. The neocons, who cooked up the invasion and sold it to a president desperate for historic glory that would surpass his father’s, considered Israel’s security to be an excellent side benefit of their splendid little war.

For those who missed the first part of this seemingly endless movie, the immensely popular invasion of Iraq would spark a democratic and moderate upsurge in the Middle East. Regimes would be toppled by popular revolts, whose leaders would have Bush’s name on their lips as they called simultaneously for democracy and accommodation with Israel.

Soon the rulers of Iran and Syria would fall and would be replaced by pliant, pro-Israel regimes. Even moderate Arab governments would be rejuvenated by democratic reform from within. Peace would surely follow, for which American military intervention would receive history’s credit.

We can put aside for now the question of how people who believed this nonsense ever came to lead the greatest nation on earth — and, in fact, still run it — are apparently going to blow off both their recent electoral defeat and the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and “double down” their bet by increasing U.S. military forces in Iraq.

But because of their strong rhetorical support for Israel, the damage done to Israel’s regional interests by the Iraq War was masked. Israel is still America’s most ardent admirer and loyalist. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently extolled Bush’s leadership, and Israel may be one of the few places left on earth where Bush is popular. But has the war made Israel safer?

Several outcomes have emerged from the Iraq War. One is that as long as Bush is president, the United States is politically radioactive in the Middle East. The other is that Iran, Israel’s most formidable foe in the region, has been strengthened. No longer facing a hostile Iraq and profiting from America’s unpopularity, Iran has greater freedom of action than before.

America’s allies in the region are confused and alarmed. Saudi Arabia fears that Americans may withdraw quickly from Iraq, leaving their fellow Sunnis to annihilation by the Shiites allied with Iran. The Saudis recently summoned Vice President Dick Cheney to Riyadh to hear their concerns and have suggested that they would use military means if necessary to protect the Sunnis in Iraq.

Meanwhile, someone in the Bush administration implied that the United States is considering picking the Shiites in the civil war in Iraq in order to crush the Sunni insurgency. That plan could place the United States on a collision course with all of its Arab allies in the Mideast, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

One casualty of even speculating about picking sides is the loss of trust in the steadiness of American foreign policy. Of course, that very steadiness is what the Bush inner circle has long detested, seeing themselves as visionaries eliminating a “false stability” in the Middle East. As George Will acidly noted, at least that goal has now been achieved.

The antics of the Bush administration have motivated all sorts of experts and advisers with plans to help him gracefully exit from his Iraq fiasco. James Baker, an unpopular figure among many friends of Israel from his days as the first President Bush’s secretary of state, took charge of the salvage effort called, the Iraq Study Group. Among its recommendations were that the United States talk with Iran and Syria.

But the report also suggested that a deal on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria could help build a better framework for peace. Pressure on Israel to make deals with Syria in order to help the United States exit Iraq may be asking a little too much.

Israel is now stuck between Iraq and a hard place; those in the administration who most uncritically support Israel don’t know what they’re doing, and those who have better ideas are more critical of Israel.

And so, we are left with what to do about Iran. The Bushies long felt that they could defeat Iran in the same rosy scenario they used with regard to Iraq. In their heady early days, they saw the Iraq War as a precursor to regime change in Iran and Syria (along with their other nemesis, North Korea).

They are dealing with Iranian exiles who tell them that we would be greeted as liberators. At the least, they are certain that an air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be a great and easy success.

Given the failure of this group to execute even the most basic elements of any of their policies, it is hard to have a lot of faith in that confidence. Finally, they presumably believe that Israel will deal with Iran if America can’t.

Every one of these scenarios with Iran is based on the absolute certainty of military success. No political or diplomatic concerns are raised or respected.

Yet Carl von Clausewitz provides several useful cautions. He once wrote, “No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” And, “War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.”

The argument for engaging our toughest enemies in the Middle East is plain to just about everybody except the Bush inner circle. They have long seen diplomacy with opponents in parent-child terms, a carrot given for good behavior and a stick for being bad. Why get dessert if you haven’t eaten your vegetables?

Political engagement and diplomacy, however, do not preclude military action as a last resort. They do assure that war will indeed be a last resort. And they offer possibilities for long-term change, such as strengthening the hand of domestic reformers.

A way to peace: carrot-and-stick approach might break impasse


We seem to be at an impasse.

Israel is in dire need of a new political architecture regarding the Palestinians. While it remains of existential importance to end Israel’s control over the Palestinian population, there now seems to be no viable way to do so. It looks as if there is no Palestinian partner that can take decisions and implement them.

At the same time, in the wake of the summer’s attacks from Lebanon and Gaza, unilateral withdrawals have fallen out of favor. The Israeli government has lost its political way.

Several dynamics hinder Israel’s ability to conclude agreements with the Palestinians or to implement unilateral political moves. Terrorism, the weakness of the political systems, and the perception among Palestinians that time is working on their side compromise Israel’s ability to reach agreements and push Israel toward unilateralism. But, at the same time, strengthened radical factions, international delegitimacy and principled objection undermine unilateralism and push Israel back to negotiations.

There is no silver bullet here, unfortunately. However, although contradictory on face value, unilateralism and negotiations can actually be complementary.

Political impasses are unstable. So is ours. Sooner or later, the volatile situation will erupt, and a new reality will be created. It may be a popular uprising across the West Bank, the collapse or dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, a bold international initiative imposed on Israel or a wave of violence that will bring Israel back to the Gaza-Egypt border or to the entire Gaza Strip. The common denominator of these scenarios is a significantly higher economic and political burden.

The perception on both sides is that Israel has a stronger interest in a withdrawal from the West Bank than the Palestinians do. PA President Mahmoud Abbas understands this and uses an all-or-nothing strategy to increase the pressure on Israel. The radical factions understand this, too, and work to undermine any Israeli withdrawal, whether through negotiations or unilaterally.

Hence, the Palestinians may be unable or unwilling to play their part in ending the “occupation” of their own people. Just as a critical mass of political support for withdrawal from the West Bank took hold in Israel, a critical mass of forces coalesced on the Palestinian side to prevent such withdrawal. This is a turning point, the significance of which cannot be overstated.

It means that Israel may be forced to control the Palestinian population against its own existential interest and will. For the forces that permanently resist the existence of Israel, the two-state solution can and should be rendered irrelevant. Their violent factions want Israel “occupying” to be able to fight Israel without compromising internal support and legitimacy. Their nonviolent factions are going for a political elimination of Israel through the one-person-one-vote agenda. Following recent events and with a combination of politics and violence, they may be in the position to do so.

Israel is in a strategic disadvantage during negotiations, despite its military and economic superiority. Counterintuitive as it may seem to some, Israel is the underdog here.

So what can Israel do? It must complement negotiations by cultivating a viable and credible unilateral option in order to reduce such Palestinian leverage. Israel has to be able and willing to end “occupation” unilaterally. The hybrid strategy of negotiation and unilateralism is essential for success.

Against this background, I argue that Israel’s organizing logic should be to seek an end of “occupation” — either de jure, by agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state in provisional borders, or de facto, by ending the control over the Palestinians in the West Bank, implementing the Ehud Olmert government’s Convergence Plan to withdraw from the West Bank unilaterally and upgrading the political status of the Palestinian Authority to statehood.

Five Possible Strategic Ideas; Only One Viable

Israel has five possible strategic options vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

  • The first is to seek to end the conflict and reach finality of claims via a permanent status agreement.
  • The second is to end “occupation” de jure by an agreement with the PLO on a Palestinian state in provisional borders in most of the West Bank, as provided for in the roadmap peace plan.
  • The third option is to end “occupation” de facto by implementing Prime Minister Olmert’s Convergence Plan, based on the model of the Gaza Disengagement and the Rafah Agreement and to recognize the Palestinian Authority as a state.
  • A fourth option may be to effectively separate from the Palestinians in the West Bank by withdrawing from most of the areas east of the fence, without changing their political status. This can be achieved by adjusting the Interim Agreement of September 1995 or by expanding the model that was created in the northern West Bank, following the disengagement from Gaza.
  • Finally, as a fifth option, Israel may seek to stabilize the status quo.

Of the five, only one is viable.

Palestinian Address as a Precondition

The precondition for all these options is for the Palestinian Authority to be an “address” that can make decisions and implement them, particularly regarding the basic needs of the population and the restraint of terrorist activity.

At present, due to constitutional and political reasons, the establishment of a national unity government of Fatah and Hamas is an essential, albeit not necessarily sufficient, condition for stability.

Faced with the risk of rapid deterioration in the PA, Israel, and the United States may have to swallow the bitter pill and change their current policy, allowing such a unity government to govern, despite Hamas participation.

Furthermore, on the Palestinian side, only prospects for significant political progress may legitimize a clamp down on militants or a self-imposed cease fire by some of them.

What, Then, Is the Viable Option?

Any course of action should be politically viable and provide for strategic benefits to both sides. The relevant criteria for evaluating the options are: the potential for Israeli-Palestinian collaboration, prospects for international endorsement, the prevention of future military attacks by Palestinian militants and the prospects for promoting the end of control over the Palestinians and diminishing the threat of the one-state solution.

In that light, Option 1 — ending the conflict by concluding a permanent status agreement — is doomed to failure. Israel and the PLO are not ready to accept the Clinton parameters of December 2000 as the framework and point of departure for their future relations. Any negotiations now would lay bare the most sensitive issues on both sides. Hence, the weakness of both political systems would render prospects of success slim to null.

Option 4 — establishing sustainable physical separation — may seem attractive. However, this option will not mobilize Palestinian moderates and will certainly galvanize Palestinian radicals. On the Israeli side, this logic would require dismantling settlements with no political achievement.

The logic of consolidating the status quo unilaterally or through tacit or explicit understandings with the PA — Option 5 — is not viable for Israel or the Palestinians in the long run. It can only serve as means to a greater strategy.

Ending “occupation” de jure or de facto remains the most promising option. For both sides, it represents a significant improvement, albeit with a great compromise. Israel would end “occupation,” which is an existential long-term threat, without achieving finality of claims or end of conflict.

For the Palestinians, this option would bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state in provisional borders, but would compromise Palestinian leverage over Israel on the outstanding issues, such as refugees or the holy sites in Jerusalem.

The political viability of seeking an end to “occupation” exists, despite opposition. In Israel, the potential benefits of ending “occupation” may engender political support, even in the aftermath of Lebanon and in the shadow of the Kassams. On the Palestinian side, significant forces in the Arab world and among Palestinians are in favor of establishing a Palestinian state in provisional borders as an interim arrangement.

Where does the international community fit in? In the aftermath of the Lebanon episode, the idea of introducing international forces into the conflict seems to have become the magic cure. It is not.

On the one hand, there is an international component to each of these options, either in the design, planning or implementation phase. On the other hand, a precondition for the introduction of international forces is clarity on the Israeli side, with regard to our national security objective and strategy. Until we have such clarity and a political outline that is agreed upon by the Palestinians, there is no prospect to fielding international troops as they would be doomed to failure.

Negotiate Ending ‘Occupation’ But Prepare to Go Unilateral

There is a way forward in the form of a hybrid. In the case of ending “occupation,” it is relatively easy to outline such a strategy. On the one hand, Israel should negotiate an interim agreement on a Palestinian state in provisional borders, as provided for in the roadmap in the areas east of the security fence. At the same time, it must prepare to implement the Convergence Plan in the form of a unilateral withdrawal and upgrade the political status of the PA into statehood. By offering the carrot of a state through good faith negotiations, as well as waving the stick of unilateral withdrawal, Israel may be able to break the current impasse.

This hybrid would require close coordination with the United States, particularly regarding what would constitute good-faith negotiation, benchmarks for the failure of negotiation and, in the event of failure, guidelines for the unilateral strategy.

This strategy requires Israel and the United States to make some tough choices. First, Israel would have to change its current policy toward the prospects of a Palestinian national unity government and allow it to govern by granting access to budgets and some freedom of movement to its elected officials. Second, Israel has to determine the above mentioned benchmarks, which may mean that at some point, Israel’s actions may compromise the position of Abbas and other Palestinian moderates, as Israel ceases to negotiate and begins to take unilateral action.

Despite its many weaknesses, at present a hybrid approach to end “occupation” seems the most viable option. The challenge is to transform this concept into policy.

Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Re’ut Institute, dedicated to providing real-time decision support to the Israeli government (

Converts’ Hardships Expose Truth


“My father didn’t survive the Holocaust to have his grandson marry a shiksa.”

Alison, my classmate from the University of Pennsylvania who is currently in the process of converting to Judaism, gasped at the harshness of the words delivered stoically by her boyfriend’s mother.

He succumbed to intense pressure from his parents to end the relationship, while she was subjected to a cascade of accusations:

“Converts are not welcome in my family.” “No Jewish boy will ever want to marry you.” “You are inadequate to raise Jewish children.”

“I felt like someone was putting a knife through my heart,” she told me. “When you’re so passionate about something, and you know you will never be accepted…. I’ll always feel inadequate.”

As I had recently discovered, Alison’s case was not an isolated incident in Penn’s Jewish community. I vividly remember my first Friday night at Penn. It was a huge event organized by Hillel, and swarms of Jewish students were packed in.

Noticing that I was a freshman overwhelmed by the bombardment of new faces, a junior whom I had never met before took my hand and said, “Are you Laura? I’m Julie. I’ve heard so much about you! If you want, I saved you a seat on that table over there.”

We soon became friends and particularly bonded during our weekly swim in Penn’s pool. One day, as we sat chatting casually in the sauna, she confided to me that although she observes the law according to Orthodox traditions, she technically isn’t Jewish yet.

Julie hails from a small, white Christian town, and spurred by her own spiritual quest, she had found Judaism. We had been close for two months by this point, and I was shocked that she had kept this from me. She explained that she has learned to keep her conversion secret from her Jewish acquaintances, because the reactions have been so discouraging and unwelcoming: “The overwhelming sentiment was that converts are not wanted, and they are a burden. And that’s what I was.”

Intrigued and appalled, I tried to probe the issue. A torrent of emotions and stories poured out, reflecting her relief in expressing her feelings to a sympathetic ear.

“I was taunted, like the fat kid in third grade” Julie recalled. “It was always, ‘Well, you’re not Jewish, so you shouldn’t come to davening.’ Students wouldn’t hand me a bentscher, or they would tell me to step out of the line to wash [ritually], because I was just wasting everyone’s time. Just lots of constant, intentional reminders that I was not chosen to be part of this people as they were.”

Julie’s list of painful interactions went on and on, as I sat in numbed silence, hugging my knees to my chest and absorbing the oppressive heat of the room.

“I have been told not to touch the Torah and to go back to my own religion” she relayed to me matter-of-factly.

“Wasn’t there anyone you could confide in?” I asked.

“I could confide in some more than others, but when it came down to it, no one really cared whether I converted or not.”

“So … how did you cope?”

“I cried and wondered what I did wrong to merit not being born Jewish.”

Just then, someone entered the sauna, bringing in a chilling draft and an abrupt end to our conversation.

I was introduced to Alison several weeks after I met Julie. Again, I discovered she wasn’t born Jewish only after knowing her a couple of months. When I finally mustered the courage to approach her about her experiences converting, I found her surprisingly open as well.

“When I went to shul, people asked me why I was there,” she revealed. “People would ask me to press the elevator button for them on Saturday … to be their Shabbos goy. Why didn’t I just abide by the seven Noahide laws, they asked. There’s no reason for you to convert. They called me a shiksa…. That was very hurtful.”

In addition to justifying their change of faith to their families, friends and local communities, Julie and Alison absorb the added hardships inflicted by the intolerance of the Jewish world they seek to enter. As converts, they feel that they undergo constant scrutiny and consequently abide by the strictest interpretations of Jewish laws and customs.

“I feel like I have to prove myself” Alison told me. “Because I wasn’t born Jewish, I have to do more to make up for it.”

She noted the paradox that it is usually the people less comfortable with their religiosity that give her the hardest time; they feel “threatened” by a convert who is more religiously inclined.

My friendship with these girls has exposed me to what it feels like on the outside of the Jewish community, and it disturbs me how callous and cold we can be to those who sincerely find meaning in the Jewish faith.

“I am not going to fight for [my boyfriend] anymore,” she replied. “I don’t want to be a burden on him…. I love Judaism and have sacrificed so much for it. I really wish people could be more accepting.”

Laura Birnbaum is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance journalist.

 

Gay Marriage Ban Could Alienate Jews


It’s a familiar calculus in the relationship between the Jewish community and the Bush administration: a social issue that divides the country 50-50 has the Jewish community split 75-25 against where President Bush stands.

On Monday, Bush strongly endorsed the federal marriage amendment to the U.S. constitution, which would effectively ban gay marriage.

“Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges,” Bush said after meeting with supporters of the constitutional amendment. He was referring to the 2004 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages.

The bill, which was likely to be considered by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, has virtually no chance of passing. Constitutional amendments need 67 of the 100 Senate votes to pass, and no one anticipates the vote breaking 55.

That makes it a win-win for Bush in his effort to keep evangelical conservatives on board ahead of the November midterm congressional elections. The reasoning is that the amendment will still resonate with the GOP’s conservative base five months from now, but will likely have disappeared from the memories of Republican-leaning social moderates.

However, Jewish Republicans, who have been trying to lure Jews away from their solid 3-to-1 support for Democrats, might have been dealt a blow, at least according to the amendment’s opponents.

“It’s unclear to me how the Republican Party will gain ground in the Jewish community by bringing forth a centerpiece of the religious right’s agenda,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “For a large section of the Jewish community, this is an issue of fundamental rights and they will be watching closely to see how their senators vote.”

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements oppose the amendment. On Tuesday, the Conservative movement’s leadership joined in the opposition, in a statement that referred to a 2003 United Synagogue resolution opposing any such discrimination. Also in opposition are major Jewish civil liberties groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

The National Council of Jewish Women has taken a lead in opposing the legislation, organizing clerical lobbying against it and leading an alliance of liberal Jewish groups in urging senators to vote it down. Orthodox groups, led by the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, support the amendment.

The most recent polling on the issue, by Gallup, found 50 percent of Americans in favor of the amendment and 47 percent opposed. A 2004 American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews found 24 percent in favor and 74 percent opposed.

Jewish supporters of the amendment suggested they would sell the amendment to the Jewish community as one that would guarantee religious freedoms.

Proponents of gay marriage were “pursuing a deliberate plan of litigation and political pressure which will not only redefine marriage, but will follow from that to threaten the first freedom enshrined in the First Amendment — religious liberty,” said Nathan Diament, the director of the Washington office of the Orthodox Union.

Diament, the only Jewish participant at the meeting with Bush on Monday, said the Massachusetts ruling already had a negative impact on religious freedom. He cited as example the state’s Roman Catholic Church decision to drop out of the adoption business because it would be required to consider gay couples as parents.

“They’re trying to impose their position on society at large,” he said of proponents of gay marriage. “How a society defines marriage affects everybody.”

That view had some backing from at least one Jewish civil rights group, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

Marc Stern, the AJCongress’ general counsel, cited the example of an Orthodox kosher caterer who could face a lawsuit for refusing to cater a same-sex wedding.

A successful compromise would “recognize the marriages in the context of a secular economy, for instance by not discriminating on domestic partner benefits, but it would not force people to act in areas they find morally reprehensible,” Stern said.

Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor and an activist for gay rights, said such arguments had no place in the public arena.

“There are lots of ways in which a religious organization can run its business as it wishes,” Feldblum said. “Rabbis don’t have to perform a marriage that they don’t agree with, a religious organization does not have to allow lesbians as rabbis. The problem is when religious organizations are operating in the public arena, with lunch banks, day camps, shelters. Then it’s very difficult to allow a religious organization to go against the public policy of the state.”

Republican Jewish spokesmen turned down requests for comment, but the amendment was not likely to help their efforts to appeal to Jews on domestic issues.

The emphasis before the 2004 election on Bush’s friendship with Israel and his tough reputation on security issues failed to make much of a dent on the Jewish Republican vote, which crept up to between 23 percent and 25 percent from about 19 percent in 2000.

Since then, Jewish Republicans have learned the lesson of emphasizing foreign policy too much and have carefully calibrated a social message designed to appeal to younger Jews. In Jewish newspaper advertisements and in stump speeches, Bush’s pro-business record is pitched to Jewish voters who may be more fiscally conservative than their parents.

And spokesmen like party chairman Ken Mehlman, who is Jewish, bluntly acknowledge to Jews that the Democrats were on the right side of history when they backed civil rights in the 1960s; but they say that Bush has inherited that mantle with his efforts to promote democracy abroad and force education reforms at home.

The most prominent Jewish Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would vote against the amendment. He cited classic Republican small government philosophy: government “ought to be kept off our backs, out of our pocketbooks and out of our bedrooms,” Specter said, according to The New York Times.

Democrats said the marriage amendment would help cripple such efforts.

“The Republicans are saddled with an agenda that’s horrific to the vast majority of American Jews,” said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Supporters of the amendment said they believed momentum was on their side. A similar effort in 2004 garnered just 48 Senate votes; this effort will top 50, they believe.

Abba Cohen, the Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, said he believed all Americans would eventually internalize the amendment’s moral arguments.

“This battle will be won in stages,” he said. “It takes time for the nation to fully absorb the implications of allowing same-sex marriage and the effect it will have on traditional families.”

The Reform movement’s Pelavin said his impression was that time was on the side of opponents of the amendment.

“This isn’t a fight that we picked, this is a fight that the president and the Republican leadership have picked,” he said. “This is an issue of fairness.”

 

Rabbi’s Focus on Family a Little Fuzzy


The first episode of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Shalom in the House,” which aired April 10 on the TLC network, was a fast-paced account of five days the rabbi spent with a family in Philadelphia. Beatrice Romero, a single mother raising three teenage daughters and a 7-year-old son, sent the rabbi a tape asking for his help in bringing some peace to her home.

We see segments of the family’s prior life, with the children beating each other up and the mother absent from the picture or ineffective in making them stop. We are told that Luis, the father, had an 18-month affair, and the couple’s 17-year marriage ended about two years ago. Luis admitted to the affair when confronted by his 16-year-old daughter.

To complicate matters, one of the other daughters has begun a secret sexual relationship with her boyfriend, despite being forbidden by her mother to date until she is 18.

Boteach enters the picture on a mission, although we are not sure from the outset what it is. He introduces himself as having counseled thousands of families and being the author of a best-selling book on family life. As he drives to Philadelphia, he tells us that his own parents divorced when he was 8. “I was devastated, and at that early age, vowed I will make a difference.”

He might have chosen to become a family therapist or a child-focused therapist. Instead, he is a rabbi with a deep desire to fix problems. He reminds us that he practices what he preaches, since he has eight children of his own.

If he were a therapist, he would begin his work with this family by taking a thorough account of their history. He would want to know about the mother’s own experiences as a child, her parenting style, the kind of discipline she uses, how effective it is, what kind of relationship she has with each of the children, what is special and unique about each child and what kind of marriage she had prior to her divorce, as well as the current custody arrangements and the current relationships between the children and their father.

Boteach does not ask these questions. He makes his diagnosis immediately. He decides that the main reason the children are assaulting each other is because of their parents’ divorce.

“Without dad, Luis, the Romero family is losing its way,” he says. His solution is equally straightforward: “Divorce is a tragedy, and if we can save them from going through this torture, we must,” he tells the parents.

His mission is now clear: Boteach is going to get the parents back together and help them work as a team to parent their children. No, not as in the traditional help a therapist might offer divorced parents, such as assistance in understanding that they need to find a way to communicate with each other, because their children still need them to be effective parents. Instead, he focuses on actually getting the two back together as husband and wife, so that they can both be there to parent their children.

How does Boteach try to achieve his goal?

He does not rely on the therapeutic process, in which the person in therapy comes to understand his or her own feelings, obstacles and baggage, thereby finding renewed energy and motivation to change behavior. Boteach’s approach consists of using persuasion, gentle pressure, guilt, rabbinic wisdom and his ability to coach a basketball game.

Rabbinic wisdom is dispensed freely. When Beatrice expresses her frustration at not knowing how to stop the children from arguing and fighting, Boteach tells her that her daughters, who should be giving off softness and nurturing energy, are instead behaving like boys in the locker room — something he claims they learned from her, because she has been distant and withdrawn from Luis.

When Luis expresses disappointment that his daughter is having sex with her boyfriend, Boteach comes down hard on him: “A girl at 16 needs a man to tell her she is special. Your daughter needs a father now, not a boyfriend. You need to be a father to her and a husband and protect your daughter. You need to tell her she is special.”

Apparently, Luis also needs to know that it’s not Beatrice’s job to lay down the law in the home.

“Luis,” he says, “it is your job to lay down the law. Don’t be weak. Do the right thing.”

Later, Boteach addresses the audience, telling us that most men who have affairs are not thinking.

“If Luis can be a man, a dedicated, monogamous, loving husband, maybe I can bring this family back together.” he says.

To bring everyone together, Boteach says he needs to do something really different. He does this by bringing the family onto a basketball court, and as a “good coach” — as he refers to himself — he makes the mother and father play on one team and the children on the other. His goal, he says in an aside to viewers, is to make the parents work together in hopes that they will stop bickering and begin enjoying each other’s company.

He tries the same tactic again later, upping the ante. The family is going to engage in another activity — cleaning out the basement. This time, the rabbi informs us, “divorce is only a necessity if you can’t fix the situation.”

Before the family meets, he has a t?te-?-t?te with Beatrice. In the conversation, he uses guilt to make her give him another chance, telling her Luis still loves her. He has a similar conversation with Luis, in which he tells him, “The secret to life is that you can do whatever you want. If you want her back, and are sincere, you can make it happen.”

Then, as the family cleans out the basement, with Luis intentionally made the leader of the project, “even though he does not live there,” Boteach pipes in suggestions through a remote walkie-talkie, suggesting to Luis to get a drink for his wife and telling Beatrice to thank him for it. The family activity is topped off with Boteach telling everyone how much they need to respect Luis for doing something so selfless.

Based on the shots of the family taken two months after the episode, everyone seems to be doing better.

So, what exactly happened?

I am not sure, but it seems that the rabbi’s conservative, traditional values were well received and echoed by the values of the family. We are not told what the family’s religious affiliation is, but the girls appeared to be dressed in parochial school uniforms. Capitalizing on their religious values, Boteach was able to sermonize to them about right and wrong, to hold up traditional roles for men and women as an ideal and to make the family members believe that they had made a mistake that could be corrected.

In the second episode, airing Monday, April 17, Boteach relies on the same rabbinical wisdom, pop psychology and common sense to fix the problem of the Maxwell family, who requested help disciplining their 3-year-old only son, Zackary. We see Zack running down the street toward the curb, throwing temper tantrums. We see the child refusing to listen to his mother, brush his teeth or sleep in his own bed.

The parents, Greg and LynnSue have not slept alone together for most of the year, and Greg has a hobby of videotaping Zack’s every move and then posting the clips on a Web page, which gets hundreds of hits a day.

Boteach summarizes Zack’s problems as “a simple problem of discipline. Zack simply has too much control, and the parents need to sleep together in the same bed, without Zack there.”

So far, Boteach’s thoughts, though simplistic, and formed without much more information than what viewers have been given, seem to be on the right track.

To remedy the situation, he tells the parents that it is their job to set the rules, that 3-year-olds do not understand the concept of boundaries in an intelligent way and that children need their parents to set down the law. Having witnessed the parents struggling with Zack during bedtime, we can accept the notion that Zack feels he is the boss and needs some clear guidelines, with consistency and follow-through, all of which seems to be missing at the Maxwell home.

What becomes excruciatingly painful to watch are the couple’s attempt to keep Zack sleeping in his bed, having been told that it will only take two or three attempts over a couple of nights before Zack will comply.

I became furious watching Greg and LynnSue change Zack’s routines cold turkey, leaving him feeling helpless, lost and angry.

Boteach focuses only on fixing the problem, without regard to the complicated issues that come up for parents in setting limits, withstanding their children’s cries and being firm but gentle. He ignores the important process of helping parents set realistic expectations. When their new routine fails, he is taken aback by their displeasure with him.

The last telling and painful segment revolves around a video Greg shot of Zack having a temper tantrum. Zack was throwing around his trains and was given a warning to stop or lose the privilege of playing with them. Zack continues to throw the trains, and the parents gather up the whole set and put it away.

Greg takes out the camera to record Zack’s reaction. Zack becomes enraged, partly about losing his trains but also about being filmed, and he tells his father to stop. Greg ignores him.

When Boteach discusses this clip, he focuses on the problem of letting Zack express this much rage, which he believes needs to be “reigned in.” As a good Chasidic rabbi, he is following the dictum of “having anger is likened to serving idols.” By telling the parents that they simply need to find a way to control the temper tantrum, he not only loses their attention, but he also offers nothing to help the next time.

The rabbi shrugs off their disconnect, blaming the father for being insecure, fearful of being ordinary and resistant to his message. His parting words to the father are to forget about the camera and Web site, to focus on the family and the precious moments one has with them and not go after big bucks and fame. The father’s look has a mixture of frustration and thoughtfulness. Boteach is happy.

I was not.

As a religious Jew, Boteach’s sermons have a somewhat familiar, comfortable tinge. But, as a therapist, his mission and his methods grate on my professional ethics, my psyche and my nerves.

It is almost excruciatingly painful to see him in the first episode impose his own agenda on a family and through guilt, coerce them into making promises to him; telling them that he has the cure for all their ills, and finally committing one of the cardinal sins of working with children of divorce: asking the children in a suggestive way if they would like to have their parents back together.

It is equally enraging in the second episode to see Boteach “play therapist,” assuring the family he knows what he is doing and then watching them feel inadequate, let down and humiliated at their failure.

But, the most insightful piece for me, as a therapist, was to see how Boteach’s deep-seated painful feelings surrounding his own parents’ divorce remain with him — unprocessed and unconscious — and his deep-seated wish to have had someone walk into his home and do what every child of divorce dreams of: bring the parents back together, continue to live on in the present and be the driving force for one’s life work.

I also now can sleep better, knowing that therapists really do offer people something very different than clergy, co-workers, relatives, friends and colleagues.

Irine Schweitzer, a licensed clinical social worker, has a private practice in Sherman Oaks.

Throw a Party With a Purpose


“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

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Another Tendler Steps Down


The longtime principal of one of Los Angeles’ largest Jewish high schools is leaving to start a new school. Rabbi Sholom Tendler resigned last week as Hebrew principal of Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA) and as rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. He said he plans to open a new yeshiva boys’ high school elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Tendler’s resignation comes shortly after his nephew, Rabbi Aron Tendler, resigned under pressure as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Meanwhile, Tendler’s other nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Tendler was suspended this year by the board of his New York City-area synagogue as a result of longstanding allegations about alleged sexual misconduct.

Sholom Tendler, 61, says his departure is a matter only of his desire to start a new high school.

Sholom Tendler has been YULA’s rosh yeshiva, Hebrew for principal, for the last 26 years, including in 1987, when the school hired attorneys secretly to investigate allegations of inappropriate behavior against Aron Tendler. The internal probe yielded inconclusive results, but Aron Tendler was moved from the girls school to the separate boys school.

“I was aware of that investigation,” Sholom Tendler told The Journal, adding that he recused himself from the situation because his relative was involved.

After news of the investigation came to light in recent months, YULA alums and parents expressed outrage that the school dealt with the matter privately. Some clamored for “accountability.” Sholom Tendler’s resignation, so soon after the disclosures, has inevitably invited speculation that his departure is, in effect, the school’s response to community pressure.

Not so, Sholom Tendler said.

“There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between [what happened with his nephews] and my decision to build this new school,” he said. “It’s unfortunate how unfounded rumors can blacken even the most beautiful of endeavors.”

Sholom Tendler also expressed sympathy for his nephews’ ordeals: “It’s very painful, and I’m supportive of them and their families in this terrible time of agony that they’re going through.”

Aron Tendler has declined interview requests; Mordechai Tendler has been more vocal, denying any wrongdoing.

YULA officials also emphasized that Sholom Tendler’s exit is voluntary.

“He helped create YULA,” said Rabbi Meyer May, the executive director of YULA’s boys division. “He could have stayed at YULA for his entire career.”

So why is Sholom Tendler leaving?

He replied that there is a shortage of yeshiva high schools in Los Angeles.

“Anybody will tell you there are not enough high school desks in Los Angeles. It’s a healthy sign, but a serious problem,” Sholom Tendler said.

His added that his new school will fill a niche for the more “ultra” side of the Orthodox community, while also stressing a serious academic curriculum.

Sholom Tendler is calling his new high school Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok — named for his father, Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, a rebbe who inspired “a joy of learning,” as Tendler put it. He plans to open in September for about 10 to 15 ninth-graders. He said he is currently scouting for a location in the Pico-Robertson or La Brea area.

The school will provide both serious Torah study and strong secular academics.

“People who are observing the demographics in the Jewish community see that there are a growing number of people who are very serious about religious observance and at the same time want to live in the professional or business world, rather than the rabbinate. We want parents to have the opportunity to prepare their sons for either way of life,” he said.

Because of the labor involved in starting a school, Sholom Tendler also is stepping down from heading Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, where he has served as rabbi almost since its inception 13 years ago. He will stay on until the search committee finds a new rabbi. He said he expects to remain involved in the community, possibly as rabbi emeritus.

 

Hamas Rises as Kadima Declines


After a visit to Moscow, Hamas leaders claim “the wall” of diplomatic isolation Israel is trying to build around the newly empowered organization is collapsing.

But Israeli government officials say they are still confident that the international community will cut off funds to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and back Israeli moves for a second unilateral pullback from Palestinian territory.

In its essence, the Moscow trip perfectly served Hamas’ strategy: to gain as much international recognition as possible without making concessions to Israel.

Following talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal declared that the organization did not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and that the internationally accepted “road map” peace plan was no longer relevant.

If the Russians had hoped to score diplomatic points by persuading Hamas to accept the West’s conditions for dialogue — recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and repudiation of violence — they failed utterly.

Hamas, however, succeeded in getting a Russian promise to urge the West not to withhold funds earmarked for the Palestinians.

Hamas has had other diplomatic successes. Its leaders have held talks in Turkey, and have been invited to South Africa and Venezuela. They also claim some European countries are maintaining contact with them.

More importantly, European funding for the Palestinians has not yet dried up. The European Union is releasing $143 million in emergency aid to the Palestinians, on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of economic collapse, and that Hamas has not yet formally taken the reins of power.

With an eye to retaining Western aid, without which it couldn’t function, Hamas has been putting out mixed messages. On the one hand it says it won’t recognize Israel; on the other, that it’s ready for a long truce.

In a rare interview with Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Alistair Crooke, a former EU adviser on security who knows the Palestinian scene well, put a positive gloss on Hamas’ position. Crooke argued that a real process of change is under way in the organization, and that it would be ready to end the conflict if Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 boundaries, known as the Green Line.

He says Hamas wants a mutually agreed, long-term cease-fire so that it can concentrate on Palestinian institution-building in preparation for full statehood alongside Israel.

Crooke, who now runs the London-based Forum for Conflict Resolution, recently met with top Hamas people and clearly was getting a message across for them. But it’s not clear whether Hamas is genuinely ready for some sort of accommodation with Israel, or whether Crooke is merely being used as a pawn by Hamas in a game aimed at impressing European and other Western donors.

For now, the Israeli government does not believe in the sincerity of what’s behind these indirect overtures. While the Hamas leaders were in Moscow, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in Europe trying to preempt an erosion in the European Union’s hard line on Hamas.

In talks in Vienna, Paris and London, Livni argued that it’s essential that Europe keep up its diplomatic and economic pressure on Hamas. She also maintained that it would be a mistake to try to circumvent Hamas and negotiate with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, from the somewhat more moderate Fatah Party, because he’s in no position to deliver.

Indeed, Israeli policy is based on pressuring Hamas to moderate its positions and, if that fails, convincing the international community that there is no peace partner on the Palestinian side and that, therefore, Israel has no option but to set its borders unilaterally.

Thus, the main goal of Livni’s European trip seemed to be to set the stage for a second unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian territory, if her party, Kadima, wins the March 28 general election.

In line with that strategy, on Sunday, Kadima announced its plans for a second disengagement. Avi Dichter, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, outlined the details: Israel will dismantle isolated West Bank settlements, relocating the settlers in large settlement blocs close to the Green Line, or in Israel proper.

The Israel Defense Forces, however, will remain inside the evacuated territory, just as was done in the northern West Bank following the evacuation of four settlements there last summer. Dichter calls it “a civilian, but not a military disengagement.”

Dichter explained that since there is no Palestinian peace partner, Israel, too, sees the road map as a dead letter, and that it would negotiate the new boundary lines with the international community, especially the United States, rather than with the Hamas-led Palestinians.

Hanan Krystal, a political analyst for Israel Radio, commented that by officially announcing its disengagement plan, Kadima has set the March 28 election agenda.

“The election will now be a referendum on a second disengagement,” he declared.

The timing of Kadima’s announcement may have been intended to boost the party’s electoral prospects. Over the past few weeks, polls have shown Kadima’s share of the vote steadily declining.

Pollsters, who initially paid little heed to the loss of a seat or two, now are talking about a trend. Weekend polls show Kadima getting some 37 seats, well below the 43 it had three weeks ago. Most of the gains have been made by the right — which may not be surprising, given Hamas’ accession to power, which has allowed the right- wing parties to paint a picture of an Iranian-backed, Al Qaeda-supported radical state on Israel’s doorstep.

The Kadima plan is intended to show that the centrist party has a realistic answer to the threat, and one more likely to bring about stability and calm than anything the right or left can offer.

Still, for the first time, there is talk of Kadima not forming the next government. Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of the Likud is openly pressing for a Labor-Likud coalition with a rotating premiership: first Labor’s Amir Peretz, then the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peretz dismisses the idea out of hand, but Shalom argues that if the swing away from Kadima continues, things could change dramatically. With an election looming later this month, the public response to Kadima’s disengagement plan could be crucial.

 

A Bitter Pill for Europe to Swallow


A Danish employee of the European Union in Brussels confides that she is so fearful of Muslim anger over the now-infamous cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper that she is afraid to go home.

Unnerved Danish members of the European Parliament refuse to comment on the violent protests in the Arab world and even normally chatty European analysts said in interviews that they are withholding speculation for fear of fanning the flames.

“This is the first time there is a profound argument between modern Europe and the Islamic world,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and at the Middle East Centre of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University. “Now Europe is getting a taste of what Israel and the U.S. have long had to contend with.”

The furor has prompted all sorts of speculation. Many Europeans are wondering what Europe’s grappling with Islamic anger might mean to the delicate balance of E.U.-Middle East relations. Meanwhile, some analysts hypothesized that the protests were part of a wider Islamic effort to pressure the European Union into a softer approach on Islam, and in particular Iran.

Whatever the case, shock and sometimes even fear gripped the 25-member European bloc following days of anti-Danish and anti-European demonstrations during which Muslims vented their rage — in several cases setting fire to embassies — over 12 cartoons that appeared in Jyllands-Posten last fall.

The cartoons satirized the relationship between Islam and terrorism, in one case showing the prophet telling terrorists that there were no more virgins left to reward them for their acts. Numerous other newspapers across Europe have reprinted the cartoons in recent days to show solidarity with the Danes and to support freedom of speech.

As the protests grew more severe, with angry mobs in London and the Middle East calling for the beheading of the Danish newspaper’s editor and the cartoonist, Danish leaders and the newspaper apologized.

But their words have not quelled the anger in some quarters. In Iran, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini claimed that a Zionist conspiracy was behind the cartoons while stones and petrol bombs were tossed at the Danish and Austrian embassies. Austria holds the E.U. presidency.

Elsewhere, Norwegian peacekeeping troops were fired on in Afghanistan, gunmen threatened to attack a French learning center in Nablus and, for the Danes, the most shocking incident was the police failure to halt the burning of their embassy in Damascus.

These developments come at a precarious time for European-Middle East relations, with Europeans grappling how to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat and future funding of the Palestinians, now that Hamas has come to power.

Ottolenghi noted that the Muslim demonstrations were occurring nearly five months after the cartoons appeared.

“So why now? There is nothing spontaneous about what is happening,” he said. “Denmark is going to be the chair of the U.N. Security Council when the decision about Iran’s nuclear activities is made and these protests are intended to make the Danes feel the heat.”

Ottolenghi said he suspects the riots are also intended as a message to those E.U. leaders hoping to maintain a hard line with Hamas.

“This violence is clearly intended to intimidate Denmark in particular and Europe in general and to push them to have a more accommodating attitude toward Hamas,” he said.

Such forecasts do not sit well with Jans Peter Bonde, a Danish member of the European Parliament.

“The Danish apology should be accepted and we can all have normal relations again. I think these violent elements are not the view of the majority in the Arab world. There is only one way forward: dialogue and peace. It will all be settled and then things will be back to normal,” he said.

Ottolenghi scorned the Dane’s “wishful thinking” that he said typified the European “whitewashing” of political Islam.

“They want to see it as kosher because they have no idea how to respond to the threat of Islamic violence,” he said.

If the European elite appeases the masses of angry protesters with continued apologies and promises of greater press respect for Islam, Ottolenghi said, some Muslims will feel that violence pays off.

The question of how to handle political Islam looms large within E.U. borders following the Al Qaeda attack on a Madrid train in 2004, the London train and bus bombings last summer attributed to Islamists and the 2004 murder of a Dutch filmmaker who criticized Islam’s treatment of women.

“It is clear now the European governments do not have a common position on what to do when they are haunted by political Islam,” said Richard Whitman, head of the European program for Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

The French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy decried the firing of a French newspaper editor who ran the Mohammed cartoon. Britain’s foreign secretary, Jack Straw, took a different tack, calling the reprinting of the cartoons in various newspapers “disrespectful.”

There are approximately 14 million Muslims in Europe and the number is growing rapidly as they have a much higher birthrate than non-Muslim Europeans.

France has the largest Muslim and Jewish population in the European Union, with 5 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews. Germany, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands also have sizeable Muslim populations.

Most analysts agreed that leaders in E.U. countries were more concerned about the impact of the cartoon row on relations with Muslims within their borders than with relations with the Palestinians. But some said that an awareness of Islamic violence might create greater sympathies for Jewish issues.

“When Europeans see E.U. flags being burned in Palestine, people are asking themselves if this is the reward for spending all that money there,” said Marc Hecker of the French Institute of International Relations.

Ottolenghi was harsher on what he perceived as European hypocrisy.

“The Europeans have for years been deriding Israel for the way it behaves, saying how much more sensitive they are to the Muslims, but now that it’s Norwegian soldiers being stoned in Afghanistan, not Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, they might view things a bit differently.”

 

Fit L.A. – The Birthday Party Crasher: Dr. Atkins


Over the past few months, I have relished the apparent collapse of the low-carb industry. Low-carb specialty stores and magazines arrived with much fanfare but soon crumbled like a tired soufflé.

Good riddance to them, I thought — especially the magazine that tried to bilk me after I wrote an article for them. Low-carbism was just another sorry scheme to part consumers from their hard-earned bucks and their bagels.

And who could afford the stuff? I tried an insanely expensive low-carb pasta once. It was heavy, gummy and tasteless — and those were its finer qualities.

But I realized my satisfaction was premature, when I was confronted with the ghost of Dr. Atkins. She was draped in a Size 2 dress and toting a sorry slice of flourless bread between scrawny fingers.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. I was happily toting a batch of homemade bread and a broccoli quiche to a pot-luck birthday party, eager for some good fun and good eats. But I had barely crossed the threshold, when Sandy, the hostess and erstwhile birthday girl, announced that she had lost another 10 pounds on the Atkins plan.

Sandy had always been as slim as an asparagus spear. Why she felt compelled to whittle down to as thin as a blade of wheat grass was beyond me. And telling me bordered on the cruel. I forced a smile at her “achievement” as I placed my culinary contributions on the table.

“Mmmm, smells good,” Sandy said, leaning over to inhale the bread.

If she were still Atkinizing herself, could I blame her for wanting a little inhalation therapy of a wheat product?

“This is home baked, isn’t it?” I detected a plaintive quality to her question.

“Yes, and I made the broccoli quiche, too.”

Hope returned to her voice: “Is it crustless?”

“Uh, no, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were still no-carbing it.”

“I’m not no-carbing it; I’m low-carbing it,” she clarified.

“But Sandy, it’s your birthday, for crying out loud. Can’t you allow yourself a measly 50 or 60 carbs today? I mean, look at you. When you turn sideways you disappear.”

Sandy was saved from answering by a knock at the door. Linda and Rachel had arrived, the heavenly aroma of something Italian wafting in after them.

Soon, all the guests had settled around the table. I sliced my bread and passed the basket around. Sandy immediately passed the basket to Linda. Meanwhile, I saw her stealthily uncover a very dark, very thin slice of bread filled with sprouty-looking things from under her napkin.

“What is that?” Linda asked.

It appeared to have been made from at least 40 percent recycled paper products.

“It’s flourless protein bread,” Sandy explained. It was called Ezekiel 4.9, “as described in the Holy Bible,” according to the package, made from lentils, barley and spelt, whatever that was.

Just what we all needed: a “friend” seemingly bent on becoming skinnier than Lindsay Lohan and a loaf of bread that quoted scripture. Sandy offered us all a piece, and we each took polite little bites.

“Who says there’s no truth in advertising?” I asked. “This actually tastes biblical.”

“I thought the Atkins thing was over,” Linda chimed in helpfully, washing down her Ezekiel 4.9 with an eight-ounce cup of H2O.

“Not for me,” Sandy said. “I’m almost at my high school cheerleading weight, which is my goal. You may think it’s silly,” she admitted, ejecting a carrot curl from her salad as if it carried the avian flu.

Rachel was busily serving up a nice portion of the broccoli quiche and some low-fat manicotti: “My sister-in-law is going one better than you, Sandy. She’s only eating raw foods.”

“That sounds exhausting,” I said. “Who has that much time to chew?”

“She says it makes her feel light,” Rachel answered.

“If I want to feel that light, I’ll float in the Dead Sea,” I said.

Was I sounding a tad snarky? I couldn’t help it. I had been looking forward to this birthday party, and the guest of honor was ruining it for me. If only Sandy had warned us all in advance, we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and prepared a meal that she could have eaten without picking out half the ingredients, such as a plate of cheese slices and broiled zucchini. Rachel had made her famous Big Fat Greek Salad, but I was distracted by the sight of Sandy making a little hill of the croutons and shunting aside all the tomatoes, as well. What a waste of all that Vitamin C.

I didn’t say so at the time, but it didn’t seem to me that Dr. Atkins’ dietary brainstorm helped him very much, either. After all, he died after taking a fall. Seems to me that if he had had a little more padding on him, he probably could have just gotten up, dusted himself off and went on his merry way.

Of course, the Atkins people like to keep this quiet, but I also heard his cholesterol was higher than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Despite all his efforts, you still never hear anybody say, “That’s the greatest thing since sliced celery.”

Inevitably, dessert time arrived. We all sang “Happy Birthday” to Sandy, but I wasn’t feeling so happy anymore. The unspoken pressure during lunch had made me peel off the pasta from the manicotti, and even I was reduced to foregoing the croutons on the Greek salad. It’s amazing how fast mass hysteria can spread.

Rachel served her luscious carrot cake, and Sandy blew out the candles before eating a piece. But no matter how long she sat there, no way could Sandy pick out all the microscopic pieces of carrot from a slab of carrot cake.

However, it all worked out in the end. While the rest of us ate the actual cake, we scraped off the cream cheese frosting and gave it to Sandy.

Judy Gruen (www.judygruen.com) is the author of two award-winning humor books, including “Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout” (Champion, 2002).

 

Sharon Feels Heat From Home, Abroad


The diplomatic reprieve that followed Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip appears to be over, with Ariel Sharon feeling political pressure both at home and from abroad.

The surprise ouster last week of the prime minister’s coalition partner, Labor Party chief, Shimon Peres, has thrown Israeli politics into disarray. Peres’ successor, trade union leader Amir Peretz, has made clear that he’ll take Labor out of the government — either by agreement or by backing a Knesset no-confidence motion on Sharon.

“The question is not if but when the coalition will fall apart,” a Sharon confidant said Sunday. “Peretz is most definitely not Peres.”

Sharon long had hinted that his Likud Party’s alliance with Labor was a marriage of convenience to facilitate the summer pullout from Gaza, but a split this early is more than inconvenient when it comes to peacemaking with the Palestinians. According to the confidant, Sharon had intended to wait for the outcome of January parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority to assess the prospects of new negotiations.

The question is whether Hamas will take part in the Palestinian vote, and whether its electoral gains will be so great as to rule out any long-term Israeli-Palestinian accord.

A senior U.S. State Department official, speaking before a visit to Israel this week by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said there was concern that diplomacy would be hamstrung if Sharon’s government is toppled and Israel goes to early elections.

“What we don’t want here is to be kept in a holding pattern,” the official told reporters.

Impatience was showing in Gaza, where James Wolfensohn, special envoy for the “Quartet” of foreign peace mediators, was quoted as saying he could end his mission in protest this week, unless there is progress in talks on Palestinian border crossings from Gaza to the outside world.

“I do believe that Secretary Rice is very keen to make sure that the deal is done,” he said.

For her part, Rice praised Sharon’s steadfastness and endorsed his demand that the Palestinian Authority meet its obligations under the “road map” peace plan to crack down on terrorism.

But she added, “The Israelis have very important road map obligations, and we will talk about that, too.”

“Israel should do nothing to prejudge final status or the outlines of a final settlement,” Rice said, an apparent allusion to Israel’s expansion of West Bank settlements and, perhaps, its construction of a security fence that dips into West Bank land that the Palestinians claim.

The security fence won praise from a different corner of U.S. politics. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who was visiting Israel with her husband, ex-President Bill Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea. They were there to attend memorial events marking the 10th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.

“I have to support the Israeli government decision to use this as a means to try and prevent terrorists from coming across,” she said. “The Palestinian people have to help prevent terrorism. They have to change attitudes. It has to start with the Palestinian Authority and go throughout the entire society.”

Former President Clinton also had words of support for Sharon and his “astonishingly courageous withdrawal from Gaza.”

He warned Israel not to continue with unilateral measures such as the Gaza withdrawal, saying, “As a strategy for the long term, the idea that Israel can proceed unilaterally forever, without a cooperative relationship with a successful Palestinian state, it seems to me highly premature to make that concession.”

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Tax Cuts Bring Shameful Silence


“Listen, we’re broke. Let’s face it,” said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last week, according to the Washington Post. Boehner, the chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, spoke as congressional Republicans haggled over big spending cuts for critical health and social service programs.

But the conservative lawmaker spoke only half of the story; the nation is broke, at least in part, because of huge tax cuts demanded by the Republican Congress and administration. And even as they say we can no longer afford programs that benefit the poor and middle class, they are talking about more tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy.

Before you criticize Boehner’s blindness to some basic economic realities, take a hard look at the Jewish communal world, where organizations still claim the mantle of social justice activism but refuse to take a stand on the issue that is reshaping America.

That reality will be in full view in the coming months as many Jewish groups lobby against big cuts in critical programs but duck for cover when lawmakers talk about the causes of the budget crisis, starting with tax cuts.

It’s not that Jews don’t care about those less fortunate — including many in our own community. But their organizations are too frightened of their own big donors, too timid about picking a fight with a vengeful administration to wade into the tax fray.

This month House Republicans will try to wrap up work on proposals aimed at slowing the hemorrhage of red ink from federal budget ledgers while finding a way to pay for hundreds of billions of dollars of hurricane relief and for two wars that don’t seem about to end anytime soon.

Proposals include slashing key entitlement programs by $50 billion and reducing overall spending by 2 percent — and cutting taxes another $70 billion.

You don’t need to be a CPA to understand the math flaw here; the results, according to most estimates, will be drastic cuts in critical programs like Medicaid and Medicare and a bigger debt load to pass along to our children.

In the past, emergencies requiring big increases in government spending produced a shared willingness to shoulder the burden. Now, it’s those least able to take care of themselves during trying times who are being forced to sacrifice the most, while the rich just get richer and anti-government ideologues use the explosive combination of tax cuts and high deficits to start dismantling the entire structure of government services.

Jewish groups will fight like crazy to avert cuts to important programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps and subsidized housing for the elderly, all of which benefit many Jews. They will talk piously about their commitment to social justice for all.

But only the Reform Movement has stated the obvious: that big tax cuts under current circumstances can only eviscerate the nation’s ability to respond to new emergencies and undermine what’s left of the nation’s social safety net.

Jewish groups have lost their voices for two very obvious reasons: the fact that many of their top, big-money donors are benefiting handsomely from the tax-cut fever in Washington, and a reluctance to lock horns with an administration and Congress that have made tax cuts an article of faith in their conservative revolution.

There’s a big gap between what Jewish leaders say privately — most believe a policy of big tax cuts at a time of war and growing social needs can only produce economic disaster — and what they say for public consumption, which is essentially nothing.

As the budget fight intensifies, Jewish groups may be able to limit the damage to a few key programs they care about.

But ultimately, their silence on taxes means they are not talking about the policies that are creating unbearable pressure on the budget, guaranteeing that today’s cuts are just the beginning of a trend that will ultimately undo most of what’s left of the nation’s social safety net.

What makes their silence even more destructive is the fact that tax cuts are part of a deliberate strategy by those who have a very different view of the role of the government in helping the needy than do most Jewish groups.

Other religious groups understand the connection. Recently the National Council of Churches wrote to members of Congress criticizing “excessive tax cuts that help only the wealthy,” and calling the combination of cuts in programs and continuing tax cuts “a moral disaster of monumental proportion.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed strong concerns about continuing tax cuts at a time of national emergency.

But Jewish groups continue to tiptoe around the issue, and in doing so they are losing any chance of influencing a debate that will shape life in America for generations to come. Their silence on taxes means Jewish leaders will be forsaking their claim to be champions of social justice, and it will expose all their talk about tikkun olam as just that — talk.

 

78 and 79: A Matter of Life and Death


Like many California voters this week, Rabbi Hershy Ten, president of the Bikur Cholim Jewish Healthcare Foundation, is grappling with how to vote on the Nov. 8 ballot. Either Proposition 78 or Proposition 79 could directly affect his L.A.-based foundation’s efforts to provide health-related services and referrals to needy and uninsured. Either proposition could help by lowering prescription drug prices. But even for Ten, it’s hard to peer through the electioneering and rhetoric.

One thing’s certain: Ten realizes a lot is at stake.

“I know of a man within the last three months who suffered irreversible liver disease because he could not afford his medication,” Ten said. “We were called after he went into liver failure to assist him in receiving a transplant.”

The question before voters is whether the drug companies should regulate themselves, as laid out in Proposition 78, or whether the state should be granted authority to pressure drug companies into providing discounts, as specified in Proposition 79. If both initiatives pass, whichever receives the most votes becomes law.

In the contest of marketing, at least, the outcome isn’t a close call. The pharmaceutical industry has spent more than $80 million backing Proposition 78 (compared to $1.8 million from Proposition 79’s backers, most of it from consumer, senior and health groups).

Putting the hype aside, here’s what Proposition 78 would offer: Most Californians earning up to 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level would be eligible for discounted drugs, including individuals earning up to $29,000 a year and families of four living on as much as $58,000.

But the salient feature of Proposition 78 is that it includes no state enforcement mechanism. In the case of Ten’s liver patient, it would be solely up to the pharmaceutical industry to select the relevant drug for a discount, determine the discount price (if any), and choose the length of time to maintain it.

There are no state-imposed consequences if a company chooses to keep prices high.

So if the process is voluntary, what’s to stop drug companies from lowering prices right now? Conversely, if drug companies aren’t lowering prices now, why would they under a voluntary plan?

The industry’s response is that Proposition 78 is needed if corporations are to lower prices as a group while also avoiding anti-trust violations.

“We feel we have an obligation to make our drugs affordable,” said Jan Faiks, vice president for governmental affairs and law with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the powerful industry trade group. Faiks added that voluntary (and legislatively sanctioned) drug-discount programs in 26 states demonstrate the good faith of drug manufacturers.

These voluntary programs in other states typically have stricter eligibility requirements, and critics say few meaningful discounts are being offered. California’s version, Proposition 78, is identical to the defunct Senate Bill 19, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-backed bill that was defeated by Democrats in the state Senate in early 2005. At the time, the governor estimated that SB-19 would provide prescription drug savings of up to 40 percent off retail, close to the price that HMOs pay for drugs. Proposition 78 proponents have adopted those figures as their own.

This isn’t the first time that this Republican governor’s public health policy has mirrored PhRMA’s interests. In October 2004, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed four bills that would have provided information for Californians on obtaining cheaper drugs through Canadian pharmacies. A few weeks later, PhRMA donated several-hundred-thousand dollars to Californian Republican legislative candidates.

Consumer advocates don’t like much about Proposition 78, including the anti-trust justification for why the industry argues that it is necessary. After all, there would never be a legal prohibition barring an individual drug company from lowering its prices. Nor is there any reason why drug companies would have to engage in illegal collusion to lower prices, said Doug Mirell, board member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which is supporting Proposition 79.

Added Anthony Wright, executive director of the Pro-79 group Health Access: “No attorney general or judge would rule against them if they came together to lower prices. There’s no [anti-trust] precedent for it.”

Proposition 79 supporters contend that PhRMA’s real aim is simply to block Proposition 79 from taking effect.

Faiks of PhRMA’s doesn’t deny her group’s desire to thwart Proposition 79, but she insists that Proposition 78 is worthy in its own right.

Proposition 79, backed by consumer groups, unions and the American Association of Retired Persons, sets the discount rate for drugs lower than Proposition 78 (approaching the price Medi-Cal pays for drugs). It also includes patients earning 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level rather than 300 percent. And it forbids drug companies from charging “unconscionable” prices for medication.

“There are 8 million to 10 million more people who will be benefited by Proposition 79 than Proposition 78,” Mirell said.

Perhaps most worrisome to PhRMA, however, Proposition 79 punishes companies who refuse to cooperate.

If negotiations with the state over discounts break down, the state could curtail that company’s business with Medi-Cal, California’s $4 billion drug discount program for the poor. Medi-Cal patients would have to receive so-called “prior authorization” by the state to use any drug manufactured by that uncooperative corporation. Under this system, the state would first try to find a substitute drug from a cooperative company.

In other words, under Proposition 79 the poorest segment of the population (on whose behalf the state bargains) would be used as leverage to lower drug prices for the next-poorest segment (who today have no bargaining clout).

Even under Proposition 79, Rabbi Ten’s liver patient would not have been guaranteed a different fate. There’s no mechanism, for example, forcing the state to drive a hard bargain for any particular medication. But if it did, the drug’s manufacturer would not easily be able to say no.

Each camp has its own collection of horror stories and feel-good episodes supporting its proposition. Proposition 78 is modeled closely on a voluntary program in Ohio. Consumer advocates modeled Proposition 79 on a program in Maine, one that PhRMA claims is not working well.

Faiks provided The Journal with a report, written by an independent Maine legislative committee, detailing patient frustration with various other systems of prior authorization. PhRMA also points to legal and administrative barriers, most prominently the likely opposition from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services.

“[The Proposition 79] program will never be approved,” said Faiks, who is well positioned to understand the leanings of the Bush administration, which has regularly sided with drug companies.

PhRMA provided The Journal with several letters from federal health officials to various state Medicaid administrators who, over the past several years, have attempted to expand Medicaid coverage to new groups (such as people with specific diseases or those who earn slightly-above-poverty wages). The letters suggest that President Bush’s administration is loathe to extend Medicaid funds or leverage Medicaid patients to benefit new groups unless a state has hard evidence that the expansion prevents these new clients from entering poverty and becoming eligible for Medicaid regardless.

Mirell, of PJA, asserts that technicalities will not cripple Proposition 79, at least not permanently.

“The Bush Administration will not be in power forever,” Mirell said. “Policies do change from administration to administration.”

Mirell also pointed to the “severability” provision of Proposition 79, which allows other provisions to survive even if some can’t be enacted.

“The fact that it may take some months of litigation to implement Proposition 79 shouldn’t scare people away from voting for it, when the benefits that could accrue are so much greater than Proposition 78,” Mirell said.

And the presence and influence of the industry Goliath shouldn’t dissuade the Davids of reform. “It doesn’t mean we should give up, saying they’re too powerful,” said Wright of Heath Access.

A late August Field Poll indicated that Californians largely support both measures: 49 percent voting yes and 31 percent no on Proposition 78; 42 percent yes and 34 percent no on Proposition 79. When the participants learned, however, that the drug industry is backing Proposition 78, opposition to that measure rose sharply.

“People need to ask themselves, ‘Do you trust the drug companies to voluntarily discount their own prescription drug rates?'” Mirell said.

That’s a question that voters are less likely to hear posed exactly that way, given the imbalance in campaign spending.

When he spoke with The Journal, Rabbi Ten was still trying to sort out the pluses and minuses.

“This requires further analysis,” he said. “It requires more information than is readily available through typical media outlets.”

Tribe


Cheating: The dreaded problem that faces every school across America — and not just the obvious sneak-a-peak-at-your-neighbor’s-quiz cheating. With thousands of essays, articles and book summaries at their fingertips, American students have discovered the Internet, expanding the opportunities both to cheat and plagiarize.

According to a survey by the National Educational Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey, 75 percent of 45,000 students surveyed partake in “serious cheating.” Many rationalize cheating by considering it something that competition forces them to do, and don’t even give their actions a second thought.

But cheating can quickly progress from bad choice to bad habit to addiction. If students become accustomed to dishonesty at a young age, what’s to prevent them from becoming dishonest adults? Although you may intend to only “semi-cheat” one time, each time you cheat it becomes a little easier, and the boundaries you once would not cross become a little more blurred.

Yet high school students today feel so much pressure to succeed that they aren’t even uniformly convinced that cheating is wrong.

“I know that a lot of people at my school copy other people’s homework when they don’t have time to do it — people now think that’s OK,” said Olivia Coffey, a senior at Marlborough School, a private girls school in Hancock Park.

Students “have so much stress and work that they are constantly overwhelmed, and feel that if they don’t do well on everything — which is most of the time impossible — then they’ll die,” Coffey said, echoing thoughts expressed by students at both private and public schools.

“It’s quite common around here, because it is common for all teenagers,” said Beverly Hills High School Senior Lisa Gross.

When students look around them and see other students doing well by plagiarizing off the Internet, or using work of students from previous years, they are encouraged to do the same — especially when that is the message they are getting from the wider society.

“I think students cheat because they learn from their mentors that cheating works and gets you ahead in life,” asserted Roni Cohen, a senior at Shalhevet School, a centrist Orthodox high school in Los Angeles. “Take sports for example. Steroids are being used by top athletes, and some of them are getting away with it.”

There also is not agreement as to what constitutes cheating.

Most people would agree that using an essay found on the Internet is a form of plagiarism, whether it is purchased from a Web site or lifted from, say, an encyclopedia site.

But what about using study guides?

Shalhevet sophomore Gaby Grossman thinks that using an Internet service like Sparknotes as “an outlet to review” is not cheating.

“If an author has a difficult-to-understand writing style, Sparknotes is almost necessary,” Grossman said. It does become a problem when students read Sparknotes in lieu of actual books, she added.

The Torah does not suffer from this confusion, said Rabbi Avi Greene, director of Judaic studies at Shalhevet. Cheating is “taking credit for any work that is not your own, knowingly or unknowingly. There is a concept in the Gemara of genevas da’as, which can be either keeping people from actually learning, or misrepresenting work. I think that’s what applies here, and it’s obviously unacceptable.”

Dr. Jerry Friedman, Shalhevet headmaster, adds that “cheating contradicts everything we stand for as a school, as a community and as Jews.”

James Nikrafter, a senior at the Orthodox high school YULA and an editor of the YULA Panther, believes that the root of the problem is competition, especially in Jewish schools.

“You’re doubling up on curriculum, work and time in school, and you still want to participate in extra-curriculars,” Nikrafter said. “What ends up happening is that students don’t have the time, patience or energy, but at the same time they are so scared to fail that they’ll go for the easy way out.”

Shalhevet senior Tamar Rohatiner suggests that schools should incorporate more things like tutoring or a place like her school’s Writing Center, where students help each other, so people don’t feel the urge to cheat.

“Let’s support the people who need help,” she said. “Kids need to learn how to deal with these struggles now, so they’ll be ready for the real world.”

Molly Keene, a senior at Shalhevet, is life editor of The Boiling Point, where a version of this article first appeared.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15.

To participate in the Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee, submit up to 200 words on why you should be considered.

Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Israel Foresees Pullout Headaches


 

On the face of it, nothing illustrates Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s political odyssey from settlement builder to settlement dismantler better than a recently published report on West Bank outposts.

The report details how government ministers and officials broke the law and circumvented regulations in building and funding dozens of unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank.

Sharon, once one of the greatest culprits, was the man who, in his new incarnation, commissioned what he knew would be a scathing indictment.

But it’s not that simple. Sharon commissioned the report under intense American pressure to take down the outposts. And so far, despite the report’s findings and recommendations, the Americans are not convinced he intends to act.

The response to the report highlighted another key issue. It shows just how difficult it will be to implement Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank.

Israeli officials are expecting such massive resistance to the disengagement that they have developed a detailed plan of operation to carry it out.

After adopting the report’s findings, the government deferred dismantling the 24 outposts it had long promised the Americans to remove. That led some politicians and pundits to ask how, if it backs away from taking down tiny outposts, the government will dismantle 25 full-fledged settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank when the time comes this summer?

Sharon commissioned the report to demonstrate good faith and carry out commitments he made to the Bush administration last April. After promising the Americans to dismantle unauthorized outposts built since March 2001, he found he did not know the genesis and precise legal status of each one. Similarly, under pressure not to expand full-fledged, authorized settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he found he lacked accurate information on their precise borders.

So he set up two teams: One, under lawyer Talia Sasson, was to clarify the legal status and history of the unauthorized outposts. The other, under reserve Brig. Gen. Baruch Spiegel, was to demarcate the physical boundaries of all existing settlements.

But the Americans remain unimpressed.

American officials note that although Sharon had shown good faith, they still do not have a list of unauthorized settlements or a timetable for their evacuation. Nor has Spiegel yet produced the required border documentation.

The report by former chief prosecutor Sasson, released last week, charged that ministers and senior aides, some of them settlers, had systematically turned a blind eye to the law.

It also charged that budgets were funneled clandestinely through the Housing Ministry, that building permission was covertly granted by the Defense Ministry. There was a system of saying one thing in public and doing the opposite behind the scenes and Likud and Labor administrations were equally at fault.

“The picture that is revealed is one of crass violation of the law by state institutions, public authorities, regional councils in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and settlers, all by creating the false impression of an organized system operating according to law,” Sasson wrote.

The most important thing now, she said, was to regulate the procedures and stop the double talk.

In response, the government set up a committee under Justice Minister Tzippi Livni to root out the covert practices by laying down clear regulations for authorizing and financing outposts and initiating new legislation if necessary.

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon was adamant about the need to dismantle the 24 outposts established since March 2001. That was an Israeli commitment in the internationally approved Israeli-Palestinian peace “road map,” he explained. But he did not propose any timetable.

That brought deep differences between Likud and Labor ministers to the fore. The Labor ministers wanted to see immediate action; the Likud ministers favored waiting.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of the Likud argued that disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was Israel’s top policy priority, and the government could not afford to be sidetracked by other issues.

But Labor’s Haim Ramon countered that to do nothing now would be to show weakness and send a message to the extremists that they could stop the disengagement by using threats and force.

Rejecting the Labor argument, the government decided to concentrate only on implementing disengagement.

To that end, 18,000 police officers — three-quarters of the entire Israeli police force — and two army divisions have been assigned to the job, and already they are gearing up to meet a wide range of settler and extremist threats.

Only when this huge operation is complete, Sharon and Mofaz say, will they focus on the outposts that the Sasson report, American pressure and Israel’s road map commitments demand they take down.

Whether the United States and the rest of the international community have the patience to go along with this policy remains to be seen.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report

 

Kosher Slaughtering Proves Humane


 

Many people expressed concern about the standards for humane treatment of animals at a kosher slaughterhouse after viewing a well-publicized video of kosher slaughter at the AgriProcessors plant in Iowa, which was released by the animal rights organization PETA.

Any slaughterhouse, whether kosher or nonkosher, is by definition a disconcerting, blood-filled and gruesome place. Torah law, however, is most insistent about not inflicting needless pain on animals and in emphasizing humane treatment of all living creatures.

Kosher slaughter, shechitah, involves cutting the trachea and esophagus with a sharp, flawless knife. At the same time, the carotid arteries, which are the primary supplier of blood to the brain, are severed.

The profound loss of blood and the massive drop in blood pressure render the animal insensate almost immediately. Studies done by Dr. H.H. Dukes at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine indicate that the animal is unconscious within seconds of the incision.

After the shechitah at AgriProcessors, an additional cut is made in the carotid arteries to further accelerate the bleeding. This is not done for kashrut reasons, for after the trachea and esophagus have been severed, the shechitah is complete, but rather for commercial reasons to avoid blood splash, which turns the meat a darker color. The carotid arteries are attached to the trachea, and at AgriProcessors, the trachea was excised to facilitate the bleeding.

In the overwhelming number of cases, the animal is insensate at that time. However and inevitably, particularly when it is considered that 18,000 cattle were slaughtered during the seven-week period when the video was shot, there was a tiny percentage of animals whose carotid arteries were not completely severed, so they were not completely unconscious. Although this is very infrequent, the removal of the trachea immediately after the shechitah has now been discontinued.

It should be kept in mind that in a nonkosher plant, when the animal is killed by a shot with a captive bolt to the brain, it often has to be re-shot, sometimes up to six times, before the animal collapses. The USDA permits up to a 5 percent initial failure rate.

At AgriProcessors and at other plants it supervises, the Orthodox Union (OU) is committed to maintaining the highest ritual standards of shechitah without compromising the halacha (Jewish law) one bit. The OU continues to vouch for the kashrut, which was never compromised, of all the meat prepared by AgriProcessors.

As I indicated previously, images of slaughter — especially selected images in an abbatoir — are jarring, particularly to the layman. Statements by PETA that animals were bellowing in pain after the shechitah are an anatomical impossibility. After the animal’s throat and larynx have been cut, it cannot vocalize.

PETA is well known for the passion it brings to the issue of animal rights, but it is an organization devoid of objectivity. PETA’s comparison of the killing of chickens to the Holocaust is, at a minimum, morally obtuse. So to whom should we turn for an objective view about the situation at AgriProcessors and about kosher slaughter in general? Here are the opinions of some experts:

1. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge inspected the plant. She found the handling of the animals to be humane and commendable.

She said after viewing the shechitah that the animals were unconscious within two to three seconds. She also said that chickens were handled more carefully by the rabbis than by her own “grandmother on the farm.”

2. AgriProcessors is under constant USDA inspection. Dr. Henry Lawson, the USDA veterinarian at the plant, told me that he considers the treatment of the cattle at AgriProcessors to be humane, and that the shechitah renders them unconscious within a matter of seconds. He determines this by certain physiological criteria related to the eyes, tongue and tail of the animal.

3. Earlier, Rabbi Dr. I.M. Levinger, a veterinarian and one of the world’s foremost experts on animal welfare and kosher slaughter, called the shechitah practices at AgriProcessors “professional and efficient,” emphasizing the humane manner in which the shechitah was handled.

Levinger was also highly impressed with the caliber of the ritual slaughterers. He issued his evaluation following a thorough two-day on-site review of shechitah practices and animal treatment at the plant. He viewed the kosher slaughter of nearly 150 animals.

4. AgriProcessors has hired an animal welfare and handling specialist to evaluate the plant processes. The specialist was recommended by both Dr. Temple Grandin, a foremost expert in animal welfare, and also by the National Meat Association. In reviewing the shechitah process last week, the specialist made the following observations:

\n

• The shechitah process was performed swiftly and correctly;

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• The shechitah cut resulted in a rapid bleed.

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• All animals that exited the box were clearly unconscious.

The OU and AgriProcessors are committed to the Torah principles of humane treatment of animals. At the OU, we constantly review our procedures, evaluate them and if necessary, improve or correct them. We don’t want ever to be wedded to a mistaken procedure.

AgriProcessors has been completely cooperative in working with the OU and shares our philosophy.

As Torah Jews, we are imbued with the teachings which require animals to be rested, along with people, on the Sabbath and fed before the people who own them, and that the mother bird must be sent away before her young are taken to save her grief. These and similar statutes make it clear that inhumane treatment of animals is not the Jewish way.

Kosher slaughter, by principle, and as performed today in the United States, is humane. Indeed, as PETA itself has acknowledged, shechitah is more humane than the common nonkosher form of shooting the animal in the head with a captive bolt, for reasons noted above.

The Humane Slaughter Act, passed into law after objective research by the U.S. government, declares shechitah to be humane. For Torah observant Jews, it cannot be any other way.

Rabbi Menachem Genack is the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division.

 

A Numbers Game


 

A few months ago, I scribbled out a Web site, bought a camera, hired a director, raised $42,000 and embarked on a journey across

the United States.

“I’m looking for true love,” I told my father, “even if she’s husking corn in Iowa.”

In three weeks on the road, I dated a radio station DJ in New Hampshire, a beauty queen in Maine, seven feminists in Rhode Island, a yeshiva attendee in New York, a 42-year-old mother in Washington, D.C., and some eccentric others. I was often asked by the critics and by the media (who were never that critical) to justify the camera’s intrusion on dates.

“Won’t it get in the way of true love?” they’d ask.

“Well maybe,” I’d reply. “But” — like all great artists who excuse their art by calling it a social critique — “this is a social critique.”

“But how?” they’d ask.

“Well, everyone knows reality shows are a misnomer. They don’t accurately portray reality. In the real world, I think, most women aren’t as superficial or slutty as the ones on television. They actually care about stuff like honesty, sense of humor, and sensitivity in a man. To show this, I’m asking any and all of them to give me a try.”

The idea was that I am not a typical bachelor type or anything close. I am short, silly, sensitive, love-struck, yada yada yada. And, if a nice, sensitive, albeit not-so-all-American guy like me can find true love and be a figurehead for not-so-perfect men around the world, then I’d be doing a service to myself and millions of others.

Of course, things didn’t exactly go as planned. I was producing a mainstream film without film experience, without enough money, without trustworthy contacts and without much of a brain. As a result, I returned home penniless and humbled after just 12 dates.

“You’ve got to deal with the facts,” my father said. “You’re $35,000 in debt, you don’t have a job, you have a huge inventory of ‘Sensitive Guy’ T-shirts that nobody wants and you can’t seem to get serious about anything.”

I swallowed hard.

“But I was on the front cover of the Style Section in The Washington Post,” I said. “They called me a Beau on the Go.”

“You were wearing a propeller hat,” he said. “That’s nothing to be proud of.”

“Well,” I said. “There are still 5,274 women who asked me out on dates.”

His jaw dropped: “5,274?”

“There’s more every day,” I said. “They’ve seen me in the newspapers or on television, or they’ve heard about me from their grandmothers, and they just ask for dates.”

He repeated the number as if it held some sort of significance: “5,274. That’s a lot.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It gets better — 263 mothers asked me out for their daughters. All but three of the mothers were Jewish.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “I mean, I’m not surprised the mothers were Jewish.” He scratched his head. “Have you dated any of them, you know, since you failed with this whole endeavor?”

“I haven’t been able to,” I said. “There are too many. I wouldn’t know where to start. Sixty-two called me a ‘soul mate’ and 14 called me their ‘partner in crime.’ That’s a lot of pressure. They don’t even know me!”

“That might be a good thing,” my father said. “No offense, but you weren’t doing too hot with girls that actually did know you.”

“You’re missing it,” I said. “If I date any of these women, it’ll be under false pretenses. They asked a different guy out, an imaginary one. They saw me on a 90-second telecast, or read about me in an 850-word article, or browsed a few silly childhood stories on my Web site, and they think they know me well enough to assert that I was the missing piece of their puzzle.”

“So?” my father said.

“It’s scary,” I said.

“I think you should start with a Jewish one,” he said.

“Which?” I asked, showing him the thousands of e-mails. “That’s my biggest demographic. I’ve got 2,768 Jewish women to choose from.”

“Get a short one,” he said. “And make her smart and funny, too.”

“But I’d have nowhere to take her,” I said. “I don’t have money or a future.”

“That’s true,” he said. “But this is the new millennium. Ask her to pay. She’ll probably like you better for it. And that reminds me; make sure she’s rich, too.”

“That’s a lot to ask,” I said.

“Well, 5,274 is a big number,” he said. “Use it!”

 

A Student’s Plea


 

Often I find myself staring at walls or lying on my bed staring at the ceiling, blank-minded. But I am not one who has the luxury to

be blank-minded. There is too much to do — not by will, but by force. There is work to be done — two lessons of math homework, 26 pages of AP English reading, eight terms a day to study for the AP test, probably some science homework that I don’t remember and the indefinitely intimidating SATs, looming in everyone’s mind. I/we, all students, are collapsing under the weight of our responsibilities, high school beasts of academic burden.

So I will explain to those who ask, such as parents, teachers or siblings, “Why are you not working?” Why I am not working? It seems nothing we students can do is enough. One day there is a chemistry test, the next an essay due, the next an English test, the next a much-needed break, which is not really a break because we still have everyday homework and SAT studying, followed by another test, another essay — and eventually the lines begin to blur. Eventually, all worries and all concerns about school, grades and college just don’t seem worth it.

“Of course they’re worth it,” say parents and educators, and we know they’re worth it. We know we need to study, we know we need to do well in school, well on the SATs, well on the APs, we know it’s all important. So maybe we could find some system of working, making a schedule that encompasses both work and rest that would suit our needs and keep us sane. Not so, friends, not so.

There comes a point where we students are no longer inspired to learn. (Were we ever?) Yes, we enjoy learning what we find interesting, whether it be history, chemistry, philosophy, etc. for each individual. But as the requirements build up, and the pressure rises, our only motivation to work is to avoid being scolded for not working. We no longer care about our grades; it isn’t worth it. We don’t connect the drudgery of studying for tests or the SATs with their necessity. What I mean is that when separating ourselves from work, we understand that we need to do it in order to get into college, to have a stable life and just to learn things we didn’t know before. But when we have to get our hands dirty, get right into it with those pencils, books and calculators, and put C-clamps on our brains, the amount of work we realize we’re facing dismisses all of those long-term accomplishments for the immediacy of stress. So we shut down our brains like blocks of concrete, and stare at the walls.

In my experience, education is no longer about learning; it’s about how a student looks on paper. Letters and numbers that represent our intellect, and how many extracurriculars represent our involvement. They mean little to me. But they mean plenty to parents, schools and colleges, though, so we have to put up with them. But when they become so important that our lives need to revolve around them, it is much easier to ignore them to the extent that we can, so that parental or academic authorities won’t bother us. Not to say this is right, but it’s honest. And not to say we don’t enjoy intellect; I spend much of my free time reading, writing, talking religion or politics, enjoying or creating art, etc. These things are valuable, but, sadly, they don’t appear on our transcripts — the mindless drone of SAT, AP and GPA percentiles do. Sad how five letters and their numbers are likely to define our lives, even if we’re artists and writers and scientists and philosophers and politicians without the papers to prove it.

I do not expect to change any of these things with my words. If I did, I would also ask for a unicorn pony and to be a teenage ninja. I only hope to help parents and educators understand why we students at times are so disheartened and disconnected from our education.

I don’t speak for all students. Of course there are students who don’t feel this way, but they’re sparse. And in a way, I feel real compassion for those who don’t have the ability to disconnect themselves from their responsibilities, their worries of the SATs, the right college, the right jobs, the right mate, the whole right life, and run wild and untethered on the beaches of their own minds. But plenty of us students with our stress-roasted minds understand and relate. Someday when we inherit the world, we’ll change the system so that our children’s children will enjoy their preadulthood wholeheartedly. Someday, my brothers, someday.

Seth Lutske is a senior at YULA Boys School and editor of the school newspaper.

 

Class Notes


I’m always surprised at how many of my dreams are set on the rooftop yard of my elementary school. You’d think that after 20-

something years I’d have worked out the lingering issues, but the peeling green floor and the colossally high fence that crowned my school still remain the backdrop to whatever niggling ideas enter my subconscious at night.

My own need for psychoanalysis aside, I think this points to a truth every adult will acknowledge: Our childhood years, particularly the hours spent behind a school desk, in the lunchroom or on the yard, stay with us forever.

The formative impact of both negative and positive childhood experiences can’t be overstated, in terms of the values we hold true, the way we relate to ourselves and to other people and where Judaism fits into our lives.

That puts a tremendous amount of pressure on parents, educators and community leaders who hold not only individual minds and souls in their hands, but the future of the Jewish community, as well.

At its best, that pressure is parlayed into passion. At its worst, it ratchets up competition and angst to unprecedented levels for kids.

Parents and educators need help in their monumental tasks, and we at The Jewish Journal see it as our community role to be here as a resource. For that reason, we have rededicated ourselves to giving more space on our pages to stories on education and parenting. As The Journal’s new education editor, I will make it my business to understand and address what parents are thinking about.

I’ve spent the last few weeks talking to people whose lives are focused on this issue.

At Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) headquarters and in talking to other journalists who cover education in Los Angeles, I’ve learned what our public school students and parents are thinking about: How will No Child Left Behind affect our children’s schools? Will our neighborhoods benefit from the LAUSD building boom? Are magnet and charter schools fulfilling their potential? Are our kids safe in school?

For our children in public schools or in secular private schools, what is the best way to provide meaningful Jewish content and inspiration? I’ve talked to rabbis and educators about innovative and effective new approaches to reversing the post-bar/bat mitzvah Hebrew school dropout rate, and talked to others who see informal Jewish education — camps, youth groups, social action — as the key to keeping this generation Jewish.

I spoke with child psychologists about the anxiety over resume-building and getting into college, and how instant messaging is affecting teenage social and academic lives. We talked about how parents pick through issues such as gender identity, social skills and kids who don’t fit the mold. How do parents decide when to let kids go out unsupervised? When to seek professional help? When to push religion?

And I attended a Bureau of Jewish Education conference for day school lay leaders, where volunteers and professionals spent a day exploring how to make the city’s 36 day schools operate more efficiently so that they can provide an always-improving Jewish and secular education for the 10,000 students in L.A. day schools.

With great knowledge and passion, presenters and volunteers discussed everything from board structure to financial aid best practices, from tapping in to government resources for private schools to funding endowments to make Jewish education more affordable to more people.

I am a parent myself, and these and issues like it are at the center of my life. They are what drive me, and I want to know more about the concerns that drive you and the programs and experiences that inspire you.

We’d love your input into the education section, for listings in our monthly Family Calendar, helpful how-to corners and activity ideas that you can engage in as a family and our “Kvell of the Week,” where parents, teachers, aunts and uncles share the amazing things kids have said or done during the week. Look for book reviews and children’s writing, and watch next week for more Class Notes, a column dedicated to news in parenting and education.

I’ve come a long way from rollerskating on the school’s roof to sitting behind a computer and worrying about what to make for dinner (or both at the same time). But it’s not such a long way. The kid in all of us lives forever as the foundation of the adult we become. And that itself is reason enough to use every resource we can to be the best parents, educators and community we can be.

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at julief@jewishjournal.com or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.

Bar Mitzvah Cheer — Without Cheerleaders


We were halfway through my older son’s bar mitzvah year, and I’d been stumbling through an emotional landscape littered with caterers’ proposals, reception hall bills and unanswered e-mails from my wife demanding that I "please, please call the band and ask them if they are available on the 12th."

I’d also been picking my son up at his classmates’ bar or bat mitzvah celebrations, including some that combine the quiet good taste of a Fox reality series and the aesthetic subtlety of a Super Bowl half-time show.

Most of all, I’d been tormented by the feeling that, after years of smugly criticizing those who still insist on these "Goodbye, Columbus"-style extravaganzas, pride and peer pressure were going to drive me to arrange a simcha on a similar scale.

"Did you book the Lakers cheerleaders?" asked Rabbi Steven Leder, referring to a notorious bar mitzvah party in Los Angeles, where he is rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I had been talking to Leder about his recent book on Jews and money, "More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul" (Bonus Books, 2004).

When I told him no, he said there was still hope.

Here’s his approach to prospective b’nai mitzvah parents: "I sit them down and say, ‘If you were an anthropologist studying the Jews and you were in attendance watching the Saturday morning ceremony, what are the values you would determine as belonging to the tribe of the Jews?’"

The typical family lists Torah, spirituality, prayer, family tradition.

"Then I draw a line on the blackboard, and write ‘Saturday evening.’ Same anthropologist, same tribe — now tell me what the anthropologist would say."

At first the families say all the acceptable things: family, celebration, joy. "And then it starts pouring out: materialism, sexuality, alcohol, conspicuous consumption."

"Listen, I’m not Amish, not a Puritan and I enjoy a nice meal and a glass of wine," Leder said. "The question is: How do we take the values in the morning and make sure they exist in the evening?"

Yes, rabbi. How? How?

Leder says you start by infusing the celebration with ritual. Havdalah on a Saturday night, perhaps a d’var Torah by a child or elder. And then he tells congregants about MAZON, the nonprofit that urges families to donate a percentage of the catering bill to their fight against hunger.

That I can do, I realize. But don’t I have to send the kids home with monogrammed pajama pants, holographic snow globes and glow-in-the-dark necklaces?

"Why not have a station where the kids make something that goes to the sick, poor or needy?"

Leder has another piece of advice for parents, this one more controversial. "In front of their children, I say, ‘You should never put children in an adult environment, a sexually charged environment.’ You’ve seen the spaghetti-strap dresses on 12-year-old girls. There are 100 kids at the party: Do you know what’s going on in the bathrooms?"

"I don’t care what your children want. You are the parent, you are in charge, you are paying for this. Talk about what you believe money is for and not for,’" he said.

I told Leder that my son had his heart in the right place and neither wants nor expects a bacchanal. Even still, won’t his relatives and friends be expecting more than Kiddush and a d’var Torah?

"Here’s the ironic thing," the rabbi said. "Everyone tries to be more unique and over-the-top than anyone else. And you know what, for the kids on the ‘circuit,’ this week feels the same as last week. The kids have become immune to it. If you want to be unique, do something down-to-earth and value-centered."

Leder has his own theories as to why, after years of rabbis’ exhortations, the super-sized bar and bat mitzvah is back in style. People are having kids later, he said, and have more money when their children come of age. Grandparents are older as well, and, with less chance that bubbe and zayde may make it to the grandchildren’s nuptials, b’nai mitzvah celebrations are starting to look and feel like weddings.

But with all these sociological pressures, what does Leder really think he’s achieving with his lists and sermons?

"I think I’m doing two things. I’m giving people with good values permission to hold out against the tide of pop culture," he said. Second, Leder is helping people be more thoughtful about the role money plays in their lives. "This is a subject most rabbis are afraid to talk about. They fear that big donors will be offended and funding sources will dry up."

But won’t they?

"I have a different view. The most generous supporters of the temple are people who have a very healthy and mentschy attitude toward money. I still feel we have an obligation to speak out."

So what did Leder do for his own son’s bar mitzvah? A barbecue at a camp run by his synagogue, a sleepover for the boy’s closest friends and a family brunch the next day.

"One of the proudest days of my life," Leder said, "is the day after, when he looked at me and said. ‘I really think we did this right.’"

Six months later, after my own son’s bar mitzvah, I think we could say the same thing. Noah read Torah like a pro, davened like an angel, and the Kiddush luncheon that followed was tasteful and tasty. And there was barely a spaghetti-strap in sight.

Kerry Must Walk Mideast Tightrope


Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass), who claimed the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s convention in Boston last week, is almost certain to win a substantial majority of Jewish votes on Nov. 2. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have Jewish problems.

Paramount among them: how to convince a narrow segment of Jewish swing voters — many of them "security hawks" when it comes to Israel — that he can be a positive factor in the Middle East, without blundering into any of the myriad traps that await candidates who speak out on the issue.

President Bush enjoys a measure of inoculation from that problem by virtue of his incumbency; questions about his second-term Mideast policies can be brushed aside by pointing to the policies of his first.

The result: Kerry must traverse the minefield between saying too much and saying too little on explosive Middle East questions. The Bush-Cheney campaign will do its level best to make sure things blow up in his face.

At last week’s Democratic Convention, the Kerry strategy was obvious: provide basic reassurance to top Jewish leaders that the 19-year Senate veteran will be fine on Israel — so fine, in fact, that Jewish voters can turn their attention to domestic issues, where the Democrats enjoy a sizable advantage.

The campaign has opted for the minimalist approach to Mideast questions. Nothing will change in U.S. policy, they assure Jewish leaders, so let’s move on.

It’s a recognition that almost any details Kerry offers are certain to arouse the wrath of some segments of the Jewish community and play into Republican attempts to portray him as the spiritual heir to former President Jimmy Carter. It’s based on the reality that when it comes to the pro-Israel vote, it is increasingly the right-wing minority that seems to set the political benchmarks.

A solid majority of American Jews may favor a more energetic U.S. effort to bring peace to the region, but any candidate who dares spell out such policies is quickly branded hostile by pro-Israel hardliners — charges that have a surprising broad impact even with centrist Jewish voters.

But there are risks in Kerry’s effort to avoid details. It makes it easier for the Bush-Cheney campaign to define Kerry in the minds of pro-Israel voters. It allows them to effectively interpolate from Kerry’s other foreign policy goals — to say, for example, that his desire to work more effectively in international coalitions in places like Iraq will extend to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where he might give the Europeans — and even the unhelpful United Nations — a role. Too many details will inevitably generate noisy conflict; too few will lead some Jewish swing voters to ask this question: What is he hiding?

Bush is just as vague about his goals for a second administration, but he has a record as president. His entire pitch is this: If you want to know what I’ll do if reelected, just look at the past three and a half years.

Almost nobody believes that the current U.S. policy toward Israel will remain unchanged if Bush wins. There are too many international pressures on Washington to become more actively involved in Mideast peacemaking, and the administration cast of characters is certain to change.

But Bush’s strong record allows him to dodge uncomfortable questions like how he will seek to revive his stalled Mideast "road map." Bush has made the plan the centerpiece of his Mideast policy; by all accounts, it’s just on hold until after the election and until the Palestinian leadership crisis is resolved.

That doesn’t seem to bother hardline Jewish leaders who would react angrily if Kerry openly talked about the same goals — the quick creation of a Palestinian state and a quick evacuation of most Israeli settlements.

For Bush, vagueness about his Mideast plans is a win-win situation as he vies for a narrow segment of Jewish swing voters who like his past support for Ariel Sharon. For Kerry, vagueness makes sense — but there are risks if he is too vague, allowing the Republicans to claim he’s just another Democrat eager to pressure Israel.

This isn’t to say Kerry is an underdog with Jewish voters. Far from it. His advantages on the domestic front maybe be growing as the Bush-Cheney campaign tries to mollify evangelical voters who complain he hasn’t done enough on issues like school prayer, gay rights and abortion. The more Bush plays to shore up that critical bloc, the more Jews will turn away from his candidacy, no matter how much they like his Israel policies.

But to hold on to a substantial portion of the small slice of the Jewish vote that’s actually in play this year — many experts estimate it at between 5 percent and 10 percent — Kerry has to find new ways to lay out specific Mideast goals without falling off the tightrope.

Is Tomato Sauce a Vegetable?


"I hate this healthy food. It’s tasteless and disgusting," says Gabe, my 17-year-old son.

He’s protesting the culinary revolution taking place in our kitchen. The white rice that is now brown, the white bread that is now whole wheat and the Cheetos that have morphed into Lite Cheddar Puffs.

But the most egregious of the new foods, in Gabe’s view, are the soy meatballs, which, breaking every rule for developing a trustworthy parent-child relationship, I try to pass off as turkey, hiding them under a pile of spaghetti.

He takes a bite and runs to the sink, where he spits out the offending mouthful.

"What is this?" he demands. "Why can’t we have normal foods?"

Yes, normal foods. To Gabe, who has never eaten a fruit or vegetable in his life, unless you count tomato sauce and onions, these are french fries, bagels, sodas and pizzas. Foods that have contributed, the surgeon general says, to tripling the number of overweight adolescents over the last two decades to 14 percent of all 13- to 19-year-olds.

My husband Larry and I don’t want to add to these statistics. Nor do we want to contribute to the $238 billion already spent annually, according to the American Obesity Association, for weight-related conditions.

It’s a tough "re-education" process. But one not unfamiliar to Judaism, which gives us the concept of shmirat haguf, the obligation to guard one’s physical health. As Maimonides says, "One must avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger." Or, as we used to say in the ’60s: "You are what you eat."

The laws of kashrut assist in fulfilling this obligation, not, as some people assume, by ensuring that the foods we consume are hygienically safe but rather by elevating the act of eating to a spiritual realm. And even those of us who don’t keep strictly kosher (though we vegetarians are practically there), as Jews, ideally, we have a reverence for life and an awareness of pure and impure foods.

"You shall not eat anything abhorrent," the Torah (Deuteronomy 14:3) tells us. And while the Torah is referring to camels, rabbits, badgers and pigs, I would today include foods that that are high in fat and sugar and low in nutritional value. Foods that have been injected with hormones and antibiotics or treated with pesticides. Foods with a shelf life longer than the average life span.

"The more you can eat foods in their original state and the less they are messed with, the better," my friend Debby says. "But try telling that to any red-blooded American adolescent."

We get mixed messages in the United States, the land of overabundance and overindulgence, where, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 100 million Americans are overweight. Yet another 32.9 million Americans, including 11.7 million children, live below the poverty line, often facing barren cupboards at the end of the month when paychecks and Food Stamps run dry.

But this is the United States, where the abhorrent has become the obscene; where food is grabbed, gobbled and guzzled on the run; where single servings are super-sized; and where advertisers hawk green and purple ketchup, neon blue "funky" fries and pizza that magically (read chemically) changes colors.

Judaism gives us no mixed messages, however. Judaism teaches us, unequivocally, that the act of eating is holy: that we must be thankful for our food, that we must be reverent toward life, and that we must feed the hungry.

But to complicate matters, Judaism also gives us, save for the fast days, no occasion in which we don’t eat. In fact, Judaism practically mandates specific holiday foods. What is Shabbat, for example, without noodle kugel? Or Chanukah without latkes, Purim without hamentashen or Shavuot without blintzes? And try making a low-fat, healthier version of these favorites, as I did with noodle kugel.

"No offense, Mom," says Danny, 13, "but this isn’t very good."

Nevertheless, Larry and I continue to battle our kids’ propensity for junk food, reinforced by peer pressure and scores of food-related advertisements, all with unhealthy messages, that bombard them on a daily basis. And we receive no shortage of well-intentioned advice.

"Eat more protein," my pediatrician recommends.

"Eat five or six mini meals a day," a nutritionist advises.

"Eat carrots," my grandmother used to say.

But there are no easy answers — only temptations, good intentions, bad eating days and difficult choices. And those days when drive-though fast food is the best we parents can manage.

And, of course, there is the issue of balance.

"Why does everything have to be healthy, healthy, healthy?" asks Jeremy, 15. "Why don’t you ever have a double scoop of ice cream and a caramel Frappuccino? Live it up and be happy."

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.