After Orlando, LGBTQ Jews seek more than ‘solidarity’


In the wake of the Orlando shooting, statements of solidarity with the LGBTQ community quickly tumbled forth. Some expressions of support came from unlikely sources such as the Orthodox Union and the Catholic Church. But what does a statement of solidarity mean in response to a crisis when it is not expressed in ordinary times?

Surely there were LGBTQ Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and Muslims who were moved to hear their faith community leaders condemn the attack. For many of these faith leaders, it may have felt momentous and bold, risky even, to express empathy with the LGBTQ community.

I appreciate the progress represented by these expressions of support, but as a lesbian, I do not actually feel supported by them. The Orthodox Union issued a statement saying “it is clear that those people who were murdered … were targeted because of their identification with the LGBT community. … No American should be assailed due to his or her personal identity.” Yet this same group lobbied against marriage equality and supports religious exemption laws that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

An assurance of solidarity must move beyond compassion for loss of life to affirming the dignity of those who are alive. Without the resolve to support cultural change and policy reform, expressions of solidarity may provide immediate solace but, ultimately, they leave LGBTQ people standing alone.

In the aftermath of Orlando, this is especially true for LGBTQ Jews of color, particularly Latin queer Jews. I’ve noticed that most of the Jewish media’s coverage about the Orlando shooting has not acknowledged the experience of Latin LGBTQ Jews who may see themselves in the victims more acutely than Jews of other backgrounds. This erasure adds to their pain and sense of isolation in the wake of this tragedy. True solidarity means honoring the diversity of our community both in the media and in our communal discourse.

Solidarity also means reflective accountability. It means asking questions: What enables such hatred to flourish? How have I been a bystander in a culture of bigotry? How have I been complicit in a legal system that perpetuates second-class status for LGBTQ people? Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The challenge of Heschel’s observation is that words alone are not enough to right the wrongs all around us. Responsibility requires both words and action — not only in the aftermath of a crisis but all the time.

Idit Klein. Photo via Keshet

Unfortunately, after horrific acts motivated by ideology or committed in the name of religion, religious communities are often quick to disassociate from the perpetrator. When Yishai Schlissel, a haredi Orthodox ex-convict, stabbed six marchers at the Jerusalem Pride Parade last summer­ — murdering 16-year-old Shira Banki — Jewish community leaders, including many Orthodox voices, did not hesitate to condemn the attack. Yet many of these leaders asserted that Schlissel’s views do not represent Judaism or Torah. I disagree. As a committed Jew, I acknowledge with sadness that Schlissel’s views do represent certain aspects of our religious tradition. We have critical work to do to challenge these currents of bigotry rather than disregard them.

As a queer Jew, the solidarity I seek from other Jews is not simply ignoring the passages of Torah that are used to discriminate against LGBTQ people. I seek recognition that homophobia and transphobia actively exist in our modern Jewish community and are perversions within our interpretive tradition. I seek the acknowledgment that religion is too often used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. By acknowledging this painful reality, we have the opportunity to condemn the ugliness in our tradition and still hold up all that is beautiful.

As part of my work at Keshet, a national organization working for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, my colleagues and I host a series of Shabbatonim for LGBTQ and ally teens. Each time we host a Shabbaton, I am struck by how many of the teens share that they’ve never before felt so validated, seen and free.

“At the Shabbaton, I finally felt like there was no part of myself I needed to hide, and I was able to embrace myself in its entirety,” a gay teen recently wrote to me.

Nearly all the teens who participate in our Shabbatonim are part of Jewish communities that would describe themselves as inclusive. Most of them have very supportive parents. They attend high schools with gay-straight alliances. So how is it that kids who have so much support in their lives still feel so alone in the world as queer Jewish teens? Our leaders are clearly falling short. The sign posts for inclusion must be more visible. The language of support must be audible all year round, not only during Pride month or after a tragedy.

It shouldn’t take a crisis like the Orlando shooting to catalyze religious leaders’ support for LGBTQ people. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to see people in faith communities — and political leaders of many religious backgrounds — take a bold step toward equality for LGBTQ people beyond attending a vigil or producing a statement.

Just as we are hearing a growing chorus of voices reject the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and demand action for gun reform, I call on all who offer solidarity with the LGBTQ community to continue to stand with us as we move forward. Solidarity must outlast our mourning.

Young Jews need to have more pride


I’m a stand up comedian. The best part about my job, besides making people laugh, is the other comics. I love hanging out with other comedians because we’re all so different, but also very much the same. A few weeks ago I dropped in at a show in the basement of a bar. It was a Tuesday night and this is what’s known as a great “workout room.” It’s a place I could go to and get some stage time to work on refining my act. A lot of friends of mine were at this show. I was friends with basically every person on the line up and the show was solid. These random bar patrons probably didn’t realize how great of a show they got for free.

When the show ended one of the comedians offered to give me a ride home because I had been dropped off at the gig. I hopped in his car, which had another comedian as well riding shotgun, and we started to joke around as friends do. My buddy driving is Asian, our other friend is Black, and I’m Jewish. One of them made a comment about being minorities and I said, “I’m the biggest minority here (there are way more Asians and Black people in the world than there are Jews).” My Black friend, not joking, responded, “Yeah, but what’s your stake?” I said, “My stake? My stake in what?” Then he said something to the effect of “(paraphrasing) There may not be many Jews, but you guys own 70% of (expletive).” Not wanting to even deal with this comment on a serious level I just playfully responded with, “I think that your number is slightly inflated.” A few weeks later I was in Minneapolis talking to a Black, female comedian from Chicago and when she found out I was Jewish she made the comment, “You guys have all the money.” That’s as ignorant as me telling her, “You guys are all pro athletes.”

The point of these stories is not that these comics are horrible people, but there seems to be an overwhelming theme in my life where people want to tell me how Jews “run things” or “own everything” or, especially in my field, entertainment, it’s going to be “so easy” for me because I’m “a Jew.” Right, so let’s discount the hard work and sacrifice I put in right off the bat because of my ethnicity. People love to say that Jews “run TV.” It is very true that there are a lot of Jews working in television and movies, but these people say it as though it’s unfair. Why are there so many Jews working in television? Well, the three major television stations were started by Jews; NBC, David Sarnoff, CBS, William Paley, and ABC, Leonard Goldenson. So Jews founded television and hired people they knew who were talented, many of which were Jews and this trickles down like most businesses. Today TV has something for everyone, but I don’t hear anyone thanking the Jews.

I’ve found that the only reason people say these things about Jews are because they heard it somewhere. They heard it somewhere growing up, other people also heard it, they say it out loud, and therefore it must be true. “Jews are cheap.” Why? How many Jews do you know? Oh, one? Is he cheap? He isn’t? Then why do you say it? Oh, you heard it. What about you? Oh, you don’t know one Jew, but this is something you choose to say? Interesting. Most the Jews I know were poor growing up in America. Their parents were poor in Europe and worked hard to get to America. My family, for example, were all extremely poor immigrants who were treated like garbage once they got to America. Nothing was “given” to them. Nothing. This is why it bothers me to hear non-Jews so casually throw around the notion that Jews are given everything. My grandfather on my dad’s side passed away after working hard as a painter his entire life while living in a condo my dad helped him buy. My dad grew up on the south side of Chicago before moving to southern California after high school, working hard at non prestigious jobs, then got his real estate license and eventually started his own business which he built from the ground up. Now my dad is a millionaire. He must be a millionaire because he’s Jewish, right? I mean, he wasn’t born a millionaire, his father was poor, his mother was poor, and he worked hard, but forget all that, he’s a JEW! It must’ve been so easy for him, because you know how much everyone just loves Jews, right? We are all aware that throughout history people all over the world have made it a point to help out the Jews. My best friend’s father is Jewish. His family was murdered in the Holocaust (lucky Jews, right?), he grew up in New York City, served in the United States military, eventually started his own business and now he’s a millionaire. Wow, two millionaire Jews in a row who got all the breaks!

Today it’s not considered “cool” to be Jewish. Personally, I don’t think any race or religion should be considered cooler than another, but that’s just how it is. Some races are, for whatever reason, envied while others are not. Young Jews need to be more proud of their heritage and stand up for themselves as Jews. I noticed growing up how a lot of the other Jewish kids allowed the kids around them to make anti-Semitic comments without speaking up. Anti-Semitic comments just aren’t challenged the way other racist comments are and are thrown around too casually. If you’re in a group and someone says something ignorant about black people, usually at least one person in the group (if I’m there, it’s me) will speak up and check the person’s asinine comment. The same generally goes for Latinos, Gays, Muslims, etc. Most people don’t have a built in tolerance for public displays of racism against any group except for Jews. I’m not trying to say that people don’t make comments about other races and religions, they most certainly do, but those are contained to private conversations with friends who are like-minded and it is therefore “safe” to speak freely. My assumption is that this is a result of the types of Jews I grew up around who did not want to speak up in fear of being alienated so people think what they’re saying isn’t offensive.

When I was a freshman in college I did not like what my professor was teaching the class in regards to Israel, or Palestine as he saw it. I was eighteen years old and this particular professor was best friends with my basketball coach, but that didn’t stop me from asking him to meet in his office and discuss what he was “teaching.” We spoke for over an hour during which he made comments like, “I didn’t know that,” “I have never thought of it that way,” and “that’s a good point.” This man had a Master’s degree in Middle East Studies! During our conversation he made it a point to randomly tell me the statistics of how many Jewish students went to the university (a very small number) and followed that up with the question, “Do you know how many are open about it?” He was clearly trying to intimidate me into silence by telling me only about 25% were. I responded with, “That’s very sad that this school doesn’t make it a point to have a climate where Jews can feel comfortable like everyone else” and then got us back on topic. It irked me that he seemed to take pride in the fact Jews weren’t open about their heritage on his campus. The result was that he continued to teach exactly the same way (assigning Yasser Arafat’s books as historical fact, equivocating horrible civil wars i.e. Rwanda with the systematic annihilation of groups of people for years that was the Holocaust, etc) and he gave me a B+ on everything I did, never once an A, which I took as an obvious message he didn’t appreciate me challenging him. This man, like so many others I’ve met, like their Jews one way, silent. My basketball coach never gave me a chance to play even though all the assistant coaches thought I should be in the rotation.

 

At the time basketball was the most important thing in the world to me, but I would have done everything the exact same way. I think some younger Jews take for granted what our ancestors went through to give us a great life. My people did not get persecuted throughout time so I can let some idiot say, “Jews are cheap” or “Jews run everything” just because they heard it somewhere. Jews do run a lot of stuff and that’s not an accident, it’s a direct result of the work ethic and stress on education and family that has been passed down through generations. I was very fortunate to grow up never having to want for anything. I was able to follow my dream of being a professional comedian because of everything my grandparents and parents sacrificed. My life would have been much harder and it would have been a much harder decision to make to “go for it” had they not. I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit back and listen to people tell me my people were handed anything.  

Geoff Keith is a stand up comedian from Los Angeles, California. Keith is currently one of the stars of MTV’s “Jerks With Cameras” and recurs as various characters on ABC Family’s “Freak Out!” 

Listen, will you?


You are driving, looking for an address, when your wife tells you to ask someone. You refuse, but you finally make it to your destination — two hours late. Are you familiar with this scenario?

When it happened to me, we were going to our first Shabbaton in Pennsylvania, got lost somewhere in Cherry Hill, N.J., and barely made it to the hotel before Shabbat.

It seems like an international rule. Men don’t ask for directions. Now we have been saved by the all-knowing GPS. The only problem is, when it starts giving you directions, for God’s sake, you realize it’s a woman’s voice.

In “You Just Don’t Understand” (William Morrow, 1990), Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen’s essential guide to the different ways men and women communicate, she analyzes the case of a woman who was recovering from surgery at a hospital. She kept complaining and asked to be moved to her home. But after a while she told her husband that she was not comfortable there either and was still suffering. Her husband suggested she should return to the hospital, and to his great shock, she burst into tears, accusing him of not loving her and wanting her out of the house.

What happened here?

The ailing woman wanted her husband to empathize with her, not offer solutions. Tannen explains that when women are faced with a problem, they first seek understanding and compassion, to know that the other side commiserates with them and listens to them. But men equate the inability to solve a problem with weakness, so when men are in the same situation they feel that they must solve the problem.

This communication gap is demonstrated very sharply in this week’s parsha. When Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, sees that her adversary Leah keeps delivering one child after another, she turns to him with an impossible request: “Grant me children or I will die.” The enraged and perplexed Jacob answers: “Can I replace God? He is the one who prevented you from having children.”

Rachel then goes on to offer him her maidservant as a surrogate mother and the issue seems to have been settled, but the sages of the Midrash don’t let Jacob off the hook that easily. They read into that conversation much more than meets the eye. Jacob, they say, was punished for his behavior by the sibling rivalry that tore his family apart and eventually humbled his children from Leah, as they had to bow down to Rachel’s own son, Joseph.

Let us reconstruct the full exchange.

Before Rachel comes to speak to her husband, she is engulfed in feelings of sadness and frustration. She has no children, whereas Leah, the once rejected wife, now has a seat of honor as the mother of Jacob’s growing family. She feels estranged and alienated. She doesn’t see in her husband’s eyes the same sparkle that was there before. She then tries to convey her emotional turmoil to him. If I have no children, she says, I am dead. She either threatens to commit suicide or she is saying that she is as good as dead, without her husband’s love and outdone by Leah.

What Jacob should have said was something like, “I know how you feel.” Sure, she would retaliate with: “No you don’t. You have your children, and you’re not a woman so you will never know what it means to be barren.” But to that he could have answered: “You are right, but I remember how my mother’s eyes would fill with tears when she spoke about her sterility.”

Then he could have segued into her thoughts on what should be done, and she would probably say that he should pray for her, spend more time with her, or (as she eventually did) consider adoption or a surrogacy.

Instead, Jacob got angry.

Angry? With your beloved wife? A woman in distress?

Yes, because he felt threatened.

Here is a problem he cannot solve; a baby he cannot deliver. And he answers accordingly: “This is not my role; it is God’s role.” And as if this was not enough, he adds: “He has not granted you children.”

Now, Jacob might have emphasized the word He to indicate that it is God’s responsibility and not his. But Rachel hears the emphasis on you, and understands that he is not concerned because he has his own kids, it is you — Rachel — who has a problem.

What a terrible misunderstanding and miscommunication. And what an important lesson to all of us, especially men, to be better listeners and to try first to understand our conversational partner and only then offer, if applicable, a solution.

Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills (magendavid.org), a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue. You can reach him via e-mail at hovadia@gmail.com.

Flag Day


What a weird week.

The presidential race, instead of focusing on the best energy policy, the best Mideast policy, the best health care policy, wasall about moose and pigs and pitbulls. The financial companies that once defined stability have teetered or collapsed. The stock market is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a hurricane ate our Gulf Coast refineries and, by the way, is anybody noticing that Pakistan is imploding?

Meanwhile, over at the Israeli Consulate, they’re planning a massive, pull-out-the-stops effort to … raise the Israeli flag?

That’s right. On Sunday, Sept. 28, thousands of people are expected to rally outside the Israeli Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard to watch as the blue and white national flag is raised permanently in front of the building.

You would think there are more important things to focus on right now. To be honest, when Consul General Jacob Dayan first told me his idea, that was my gut reaction — which I kept to myself. The world is going nuts, and that’s what you want us to do — raise a flag?

But I’ve let the idea percolate; I’ve turned it over in my head, and sure enough, I’ve changed my mind. It’s the perfect thing to do. It’s brilliant.

Neither Dayan nor the building’s owner, Jamison Services, will discuss why until now no Israeli flag has been allowed to stand in front of the otherwise nondescript office tower at 6380 Wilshire Blvd.

But let’s hazard a wild guess: security.

Building owners and Israeli ambassadors themselves regularly cite concerns over protests and terrorism as the primary reasons so few Israeli diplomatic stations display their country’s flag.

It’s not an unreasonable concern. From 1969 to the present there have been at least 30 attacks on Israeli embassies, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (The ministry actually lists and details the attacks on its Web sites, which could not have made Dayan’s job convincing his landlord any easier). The most recent one occurred this past February, when a group calling itself “al Qaeda in the Magreb” fired shots at the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania, wounding three local residents.

It’s a fact of life: Israel’s blue and white is a red flag for the fanatics. Wave it, and they are likely to charge.

Sometimes, the reaction is horrific, as at the El Al ticket counter several years ago, when a man opened fire by the flag. Sometimes, it is boringly predictable, as at those Hezbollah rallies in Lebanon, where they actually have to make their own Israeli flag just to destroy it. Sometimes, it is pathetic: In the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem last spring, a 50-year-old Orthodox Israeli man waving his flag on Israel’s Independence Day was set upon and beaten by members of the anti-Zionist Naturei Karta Jewish sect.

Given these reactions, it’s only wise and natural to be cautious, to fear the fanatics and abide by their rule: Don’t you dare display your flag.

And now, Dayan is offering his response: tough.

In his book, “A Case for Democracy,” Natan Sharansky offers up a test to determine whether a society is truly free and democratic. He calls it his Town Square test:

“If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a ‘fear society’ has finally won their freedom.”

I suspect the default reflex of Jews is to rest inside a fear society. Centuries of persecution have conditioned us to cut our losses and accept a base level of fear and intimidation, so long as our families and livelihoods are not immediately threatened. Our mental public square has always been inhabited by thugs: We have grown comfortable with them.

The establishment of the State of Israel was supposed to have freed us from the physical ghettos in which Jews found themselves and from these psychic ones, as well. A free people in a free land could not be bullied, need not live in fear.

The physical and psychic shackles cracked in 1948, when the Israeli flag was first raised over the independent, sovereign Jewish state, and they broke in 1967, when the country swept to victory in the Six-Day War and the flag flew over a united Jerusalem.

But that was then. Now, with terror at our doorsteps and Israel still in peril, most of us are content to lay low. It turns out we are less butterfly than hermit crab. Survival teaches us that rather than float free, better to run from shell to shell.

But if we let our city fail the Town Square test, we delude ourselves in thinking we can forever be safe off the square, in our synagogues, at our schools. Whether we fly the flag or not, those who would do us harm will find us anyway.

In the Age of Google, there is no way to hide. We can be better or worse targets, but we are still targets.

The vast majority of us want to live in a world where disagreements don’t demand violence. We don’t want the crazy few determining how we live our lives, demonstrate our loyalties, express our identity. We want a thousand flags to fly (including, yes, the Palestinian one). We want to be free.

That’s why I love Dayan’s vision. He saw reality and raised it — hell, he went all in. Once he received approval to fly the flag, he could have just quietly run it up one morning and left it at that. But no: He has arranged to close off Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. He has invited schools, synagogues and churches to come out and show their support. There will be a stage, speeches (short, he promises), dignitaries and performance by a recording artist Macy Gray.

The Israeli flag is going up on Wilshire Boulevard; attention will be paid, and I, for one, will be there.

One more time with nachas — gift that keeps on giving


Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives.

Anyone who has planned a bar mitzvah can easily recall the stress of preparing for that milestone, not only for the boy who is constantly reminded to practice his parsha, but also for the mom who is usually behind the scenes, negotiating with the caterer, revising guest lists and hoping the balloons don’t drop too early in the evening. As a mom who has gone through her own case of pre- and post-bar mitzvah stress disorder three times, I hope to offer some comfort and reassurance that after all these efforts and antacids, the bar mitzvah anniversaries are a piece of cake.

That’s right, I said anniversaries. Don’t panic: These do not involve any ostentatious table centerpieces, party favors or the cha-cha slide. They only require an annual reprisal of the role of Torah reader, while the parents sit back and kvell. It only took a small bit of encouragement by my husband to convince each of our sons to agree to do this. Why not get our money’s worth out of all those lessons, after all? For us, this practice has made the original bar mitzvah an unexpected gift that keeps on giving.

Our sons are now 16, 18 and 20, and watching them step up to the bimah for their annual readings has given us major infusions of good old-fashioned Yiddishe nachas. Each year, we watch them stand a little taller, more confident in who they are, more firmly rooted as young men in the Jewish community. We are awed by their continued growth physically, spiritually and emotionally. And frankly, some years we are simply relieved that we have survived another year of their adolescence.

In our experience, the minute a boy becomes a bar mitzvah, he grows faster than bamboo. The growth seems unstoppable, even frightening. This makes the first anniversary, at 14, the most physically striking. Each boy required a much larger suit and impossibly larger shoes. Their faces were also losing any residual boyish plumpness. And none of us worried about a potentially embarrassing high note cracking through the baritone that had in one year settled in for the long run.

More than that, these anniversaries allow us to sit back and mark our sons’ personal achievements, as we quietly reflect on their singular paths to adulthood. While we have sent them to Orthodox Jewish schools for their entire lives, they have each made it clear that they are individuals and will make their own choices about the way in which they will manifest Jewish values in their own lives. Like all kids, they’re a little bit like Frank Sinatra, insisting they do it “my way.”

And like nearly all parents, we’ve endured the confusion, commotion and occasional turbulence of the teen years. We’ve worried about them, argued with them, lost sleep over them. We easily remember our own teen years and the aggravation we caused our parents, although our kids don’t seem to believe us when we tell them that we were once teenagers, too. (How could anyone remember such ancient history, like before the Internet was invented?) Despite their skepticism, we really do understand that they need to carve their own paths in life. Our job is to keep loving them, encouraging them and even disciplining them, while praying that they will find a comfortable and purposeful place in the world. We pray that they will hold our values dear, even if their adolescent psyches are wired to fight us from time to time.

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives. We do not alone take credit for this. Each has benefited from caring, committed and wise teachers who have helped them see the enduring truth of Judaism in a way that kids sometimes need to get from someone not named “Mom” or “Dad.”

Too often, the bar or bat mitzvah seems an end point or culmination of Jewish education. This is a profound loss, because teens absolutely must find ways to feel independent and distinct from their parents. Too often, they can get in trouble during that search, and this is exactly the time when they need to have their essential Jewish values anchored in place through ongoing involvement with Jewish education, values and community life.

We know we’ve been blessed with kids who have chosen to make Jewish values their own. In fact, because my husband and I came to Jewish observance only as young adults, our kids are light years ahead of us in Jewish knowledge. (Sometimes, I need to ask for translations during dinner discussions. Alas, my public high school didn’t offer Aramaic as a foreign language.) And I know our special anniversary “celebrations” won’t last forever, since kids have this maddening habit of growing up and moving away. So I have to savor these opportunities while I can, watching my young men stand up and lead the congregation, while I sit back and smile in gratitude and wonder.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.” Read more of her work at www.judygruen.com.

When ‘pride’ doesn’t cut it


Growing up an observant Jew in the small city of Palm Springs with a Jewish minority was sometimes difficult, but I have always been proud of my Jewish heritage, of who I was and of what I believe. I have never thought once of questioning my Jewish identity — it is merely a part of me.

Five years ago when I was 11, my family and I moved to Los Angeles, and I was put in a private Jewish school. I had been in a Jewish school in Palm Springs, where my father was the school principal and shul rabbi, but when I started school in Los Angeles, I discovered that my definition of being Jewish was significantly different from theirs.

Their emphasis on Judaism was based on the applications of learning the nooks and crannies of halacha (Jewish law), and it was difficult for me to identify. Rather than assisting me with my Jewish identity, it took me further away from it by focusing on the minutia and not the big picture.

Because I didn’t fit into that environment, my parents decided to put me in independent study or, as we all know it, home schooling. At the time, it was the only option, since my parents feared that a public school environment would threaten my Judaism.

However, home schooling was not all it was cracked up to be. Yes, I was home in PJs every day; yes, I could watch television 24-7, and yes, I could work at my own pace. But what they don’t tell you is how painfully boring it can get, how insanely lonely you become and how detached you feel from society. I wouldn’t recommend it.

As our last resort, after a year of home schooling, I enrolled in a public high school, by far the best decision of my life. I flourished in the diversity, the openness and the acceptance. I didn’t know anyone else who kept kosher, kept Shabbat and went to shul every week, but all the more, I maintained the utmost pride in my beliefs.

However, seeing a world outside what was once my bubble of the Jewish private school, I understood that not everyone shared the same enthusiasm that I did. As I sat in my classes, one boy in particular noticed that I wore skirts much more than all the other girls, which bothered him. He doubted the validity of my religious beliefs, and he wanted me to doubt them, too.

An atheist, he didn’t want to convert me to another religion. He just wanted to prove all religion was false. He was incredibly knowledgeable, and he would challenge me with quotes from both the Jewish and Christian bibles, asking me for the Jewish take on numerous issues.

Now, just because my father is a rabbi doesn’t mean I know all the answers. I told him all I knew, but he was persistent in trying to find contradictions between my personal beliefs and what is in the Torah.

This is not meant to be a story about how public school is a bad influence — it’s been wonderful for me. However, it happened to be my first real encounter with the outside world. It made me realize that one can only be protected for so long and without the right tools of awareness, can quickly become enveloped in deception and lost.

Deception can almost always be avoided through understanding. While the boy in my class was putting down religion as a whole, proselytizers who want to convert Jews to Christianity often use similar tactics. They manipulate Jewish texts, know the great vulnerability unfamiliarity brings and use it to convince Jews that they are incomplete and are missing a link in their faith.

The way to combat both of these forces is by becoming more knowledgeable.

Earlier this year, I was given some information about Jews for Judaism, a nonprofit organization, whose mission is: “To strengthen and preserve Jewish identity through education and counseling that counteracts deceptive proselytizing targeting Jews for conversion.”

After receiving grants from the Jewish Community Foundation and Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, Jews for Judaism created Be-True, geared toward high school and college students. On April 6, I attended Be-True’s first annual conference, which stressed the urgent need “to preserve Jewish identity — now.”

Even as involved as I had been in the organization before, the conference was still eye-opening. I was fully aware of deception’s capabilities and had been in several situations myself. Yet reading about deception or even experiencing it is nothing compared to facing the fact of just how many people are affected by it. I was able to hear the stories, which brought information on a page to reality in person.

Recently, Jews for Judaism also launched Be-True.org, jam-packed with information, even providing an opportunity to “Ask the rabbi” any type of question.

Jews for Judaism is a significant aspect in my life because I know that while pride is incredibly important, it’s not always enough. Pride can only be perpetuated through education and understanding of that which you love.

Sarah Schefres is a senior at Hamilton High School.

NCJF: A treasury of Jewish cinema


Sharon Pucker Rivo recently dropped by my home to talk about the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF) and left behind a catalog of the center’s holdings.

It’s rare that a catalog makes for spellbinding reading, but I discovered in it a new and fascinating picture of pulsating Jewish history, as viewed by filmmakers over more than 100 years.

The oldest film listed is the silent “Levy and Cohen: The Irish Comedians,” which was made in 1903 and runs for all of one minute. By the time the great American director D.W. Griffith (“Birth of a Nation”) made “Romance of a Jewess” in 1908, the 16 mm film ran an astonishing 10 minutes.

Rivo dropped off a DVD of one of the latest catalog listings, Paul Mazursky’s “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy.”

I hate to admit it, but after decades of writing about Jewish-themed movies, I had only the vaguest notion of the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF), but executive director Rivo filled me in.

Located on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., as an independent entity, NCJF holds the world’s largest, most comprehensive collection of Jewish-themed films and videos.

Included are some 10,000 cans of film, holding features, documentaries, shorts, newsreels, home movies and institutional films from 1903 to the present, augmented by thousands of master videotapes.

Many of the older holdings have been restored by the center, which also serves as a research resource, organizer of film festivals and distributor to institutions and individuals.

Almost every Diaspora community in the world is represented, with particularly rich holdings from Poland, the Soviet Union and the United States. Holocaust films record the Final Solution at work in obscure places, and there is even a selection of Nazi propaganda films.

Rivo takes special pride in her Yiddish-language collection of 35 features, including restored productions of Poland’s “Yidl Mitn Fidl” (Yiddle Wth His Fiddle), the Soviet Union’s 1919 “Tovarish Abraham” (Comrade Abraham) and America’s “Der Yidisher Kenig Lir” (The Yiddish King Lear), in which the Shakespearean tragedy time-travels to the Jewish Vilna of the early 1900s.

Time warp again? Take a step toward tradition


When I think back to my bat mitzvah 30-plus years ago, here’s what I remember most: following the photographer’s prompts as I posed against the tree in the synagogue courtyard, standing nervously on the bimah chanting my Torah portion, and giving a speech in which I excoriated President Nixon. I don’t recall how I tied that in with the parsha, but I relished having the congregation laugh at my political barbs. I loved dancing with my friends and hoped that the boy I had secretly admired for months would finally realize what a prize I was and begin to like me in return.

My bat mitzvah was exciting and fun. It even gave me a vague notion of the meaning of Jewish adulthood. My grandfather, who trained me for my bat mitzvah, claimed that back in the 1940s he pioneered bat mitzvahs (at least here in Los Angeles) when he trained my aunt for this rite of passage. My grandfather came to the United States from Europe with visions of a more modern religious life. He was proud to have blazed the trail for bat mitzvahs in the Conservative movement.

So what would he think of his great-granddaughter pushing the clock back and having a bat mitzvah, shared mostly with girlfriends, sans Torah reading? Well, styles in fashion and religion come and go, and over time my husband and I became more committed to a Torah-observant lifestyle.

Just as the peasant look that I wore in the ’70s has returned, so has the Orthodoxy that that my grandfather left behind in Bialystock.

I’m the first to admit that I once would have scoffed at the idea that any daughter of mine (I had been a dues-paying member of NOW, after all) would not read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah. It was too regressive to deserve comment. It took several years until I was willing to entertain the Torah’s views about spirituality. It rankled to learn that some of the ideas were totally, unrepentantly politically incorrect, including notions about men’s and women’s differing roles in public ritual life. But the insights they revealed about human psychology rang true.

It’s very clear to most people unburdened with a master’s in sociology that men and women need different types of nurturing for emotional, spiritual and intellectual health. Yet many academics still kick and scream when you state the obvious (just ask former Harvard President Larry Summers). Men’s obligations to attend minyan, lead services and read from the Torah are all part of this care-and-feeding program for men.

Psychologically, it’s brilliant: men, who tend to lack meaningful male bonding, can get regular doses at their neighborhood minyan every day. Women will bond with other women, minyan or no minyan. Just watch us.

That’s why I didn’t lose sleep that my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be a less public affair than her brothers’ bar mitzvahs. Girls are considered to become bat mitzvah at 12, again revealing the Torah’s insight that girls are usually a year ahead of boys in terms of maturity at that age.

Like her brothers, Yael was excited and a little awed at the prospect of becoming responsible for her own actions, for mitzvahs as well as misdeeds, responsible to fast, to pray, to continue to grow spiritually and to contribute her special talents and energy to the community.

We also wanted her bat mitzvah to be more than just an expensive birthday party. Of course we had great food, music, dancing and an art project that the girls made and donated to Chai Lifeline for their Purim baskets. But Yael also prepared by studying a text for several months with a teacher (in her case, me). Together we chose to study the Eishet Chayil, a portion of Proverbs that is traditionally sung in honor of the Jewish woman at the Shabbat table each Friday night.

We plumbed the text and its elucidation, written by a phenomenal rebbetzin in Jerusalem. It was the first time that I had gone beyond a superficial reading of the Eishet Chayil, despite having sung it hundreds of times. Together, Yael and I tried to understand the deeper insights these proverbs reveal about life, about the spiritual potential of the Jewish woman, and about faith. Many of the concepts were beyond the grasp of even the most mature 12-year-old. Still, we soldiered on, and by the end we each shared a sense of accomplishment.

On her big day, Yael spoke with maturity and depth about the concepts of oz and hadar, strength and splendor, for which the Jewish woman is praised in Eishet Chayil. She explained that this is the kind of strength that springs from faith in God and from the courage of one’s convictions.

Listening to her speak with confidence and poise, I was willing to bet that her great-grandfather would have been beaming with pride. True, she may not have stepped up to the bimah with a tallit draped over her shoulder the way her mother had, but she was clearly and purposefully stepping up to Jewish adulthood with joy, pride and faith. And ultimately, that’s what any bat or bar mitzvah should really be about, isn’t it?


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column @ judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

A Mother’s Pride


A few weeks ago as the school year ended, my daughter stood on the bimah in the chapel of our synagogue and, with four of her fellow fifth-graders, led her Jewish day school’s Monday Tefillah services. Four girls and a boy shared the honor, and their radically varying sizes bespoke the varying growth spurts that characterize this awkward age. Likewise, their maturity and ability to address their classmates ebbed and flowed during their short moments in the spotlight. But what brought that poignant mix of mother’s pride and prejudice home, watching her among her friends in this holy setting, was just how different and alike my Rachel is from the rest. For, even as she blends in beautifully, she cannot help but stand out — my daughter was born Chinese.

Rachel is a Jewish American girl from China. My husband Richard Core and I enrolled her, starting at age 4, in Temple Israel of Hollywood schools full time. Like every other kid there, she has become somewhat fluent in conversational Hebrew, knows the prayers by heart and has learned her Judaica lessons well. She is not the only Asian girl in her school — there are three, all adopted (two from China, one from Vietnam) — and she says she feels no different from anyone else. But among the mix of mostly Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that make up our community, she adds a special spice. And in her own discreet style, I believe she has helped teach her friends to be colorblind in ways that could last a lifetime.

Rachel will become bat mitzvah in slightly more than two years, and she has been preparing for that moment since pre-school. As a fourth-grader, she read from the Torah at a day school service, and earlier this year, she gave a d’var Torah before the upper grades. I attended both events, of course, and each time I cried.

To see my child leading prayers is a rite of passage that evokes the deepest emotions. I know I would probably cry to see any child of mine connect with the ancient rituals, taking on the mantel of our ancestors, and I am pleased that Rachel embarked upon this path in the safe, exploratory confines of her school. But when I look at Rachel in this context, I think, also, of her divergent origins, of her birth parents whom we likely will never meet, of her own genetic ancestors and their traditions that she carries, within her as well, in ways that are both conscious and not.

It is a gift to share our lives with a child of mixed culture, because nothing is obvious. As we think ahead to her bat mitzvah ceremony, we are thinking of ways of acknowledging Rachel’s special heritage, whether in the food we serve — how bad could a kosher Chinese buffet be? – or the flowers, or maybe a special prayer. We will give thanks for the good fortune that made her part of our family, for the coincidence of adoption possibilities that led us to a foreign land to meet our daughter.

We will remember, too, as we see her accept the responsibilities of becoming a Jewish adult, that she is also becoming a woman of Asian and American heritage, and that whether she wants to or not, throughout her life she will be opening the eyes of those who look upon her. Rachel does not see herself as anything but one of her group, and she’s mostly right in that. But the other day, when I watched her from afar, on the bimah, saying the Shema, I could not help but be reminded of how far we have come from the state-run orphanage filled with loving caregivers in Southern China, where Richard and I met her more than a decade ago.

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai


 

“Our rabbis speak of yetzer hara and yetzer hatov, man’s dual inclination toward evil and toward good, and what you make of your life depends on which you follow,” Saul Kroll observes.

Kroll is a firm believer in yetzer hatov, and the 87-year-old Westside resident translates it into practice six days a week as an emergency room volunteer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Although “retired” for almost 20 years, Kroll puts in a full workweek doing whatever needs to be done.

“People come into the treatment area and I greet them, help them fill out forms, check what rooms are available and help them undress,” he said in a phone interview.

“I always try to encourage them, to tell them that they are in the best of hands, to lift their spirits,” he said. “That’s the greatest mitzvah.”

Sometimes the work is physically difficult for an octogenarian, as when “you push a 250-pound woman going into labor up a ramp in a wheelchair,” he said.

But Kroll believes in putting his aches and pains, including spinal injuries, aside.

“Either you let your medical problems control you, or you control them,” he philosophizes.

To Dr. Joel Geiderman, co-chair of the hospital’s emergency department, Kroll’s dedication “is unbelievable. He never asks anything for himself. He is selfless, truly one of the righteous.”

While the typical Cedars-Sinai volunteer puts in four to eight hours per week, Kroll’s norm is between 35 to 40 hours. Barbara Colner, director of the medical center’s almost 2,000 volunteers, has calculated that Kroll has worked 24,400 hours since starting his stint in 1987. She isn’t sure whether or not this represents an all-time record.

When Kroll does miss work, it’s often to drive a 90-year-old neighbor with breast cancer to her medical appointments.

He is just as conscientious in his religious observances. “I’ve gone to shul three times a day since my bar mitzvah,” he said, and during High Holiday services at the hospital he is the unofficial greeter, kippot and tallit dispenser, and also chants the memorial prayer.

“Saul is amazing, he conducts his life with the energy of a 20-year old,” noted Rabbi Levi Meir, the hospital’s chaplain.

Kroll also unfailingly shows up at the daily morning minyan at nearby Temple Beth Am.

“He is one of our stalwarts and we take great pride in him,” commented the temple’s Rabbi Joel Rembaum.

The one period during which Kroll missed his minyans was World War II, when he served with a B-29 bomber squadron in the Pacific. But even there, he organized High Holiday and Passover services for Jewish servicemen on Guam.

Kroll was born on the day following the World War I armistice, Nov. 12, 1918, grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh, and started managing a sporting goods store at age 17.

After the war, Kroll went to work rebuilding auto engines and, in the 1950s, he and a partner opened an automotive and body shop.

His wife, Selma, died in 1994. Kroll proudly cites the professional careers of his two children and four grandchildren.

His parting advice: “Don’t tell someone, ‘OK, call me if you need any help.’ Just go on over and help.”

Saul Kroll

MORE MENSCHES

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Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

Jack and Judaism


Jack Stein taught me about being Jewish.

First, he told me that Jewish husbands are the best husbands because

they “only cheat a little.” Jack grinned up at me and I smiled back. At 5-feet-8 inches tall, I am used to being taller than many men, but when I put my arm around my diminutive father-in-law, the top of his bald head barely reached my shoulder. Still, he stood as tall as any man I ever knew.

When Jack congratulated me on converting to Judaism, he said, “Don’t be ashamed.” That time he wasn’t kidding — he really meant it. His admonition made me sad, but also taught me more than any book or museum could teach about persecution, cruelty and hatred. I knew intellectually what I was in for, but Jack’s words hit me in my new Jewish gut: “Don’t be ashamed.”

When I met my husband-to-be more than 25 years ago, I had no idea that I would gain not only a wonderful mate, but an entire culture and religion that was more than 5,000 years old. What I learned in my conversion class was thimble sized compared to what I soaked up by spending time with Jack and his friends. His survivor havurah had been together since they arrived in Dallas after the war and raised their families together. I learned from them that being Jewish leaves one open to irrational hatred that no one can understand, much less explain. What Jews do, I learned, is survive.

One night I sat on the couch with Mrs. “Red” Goldberg and Mrs. “Black” Goldberg (so designated by the hair color of their respective husbands) and listened as they described the Nazi horrors inflicted on them and their families. They described their hardship without self-pity or bitterness, but with a will to survive that didn’t have to be expressed specifically because it was infused in their words. They talked with gratitude about the life they had been able to build in this country.

Mrs. “Black” Goldberg told me the Nazis liked to watch her husband, Herschel, run up hill while carrying two soldiers, one under each arm. It amused them, and probably saved his life. Herschel was still a bulldog of a man who, well past retirement age, worked part time at a deli and was the source of day-old bagels for the group.

When Jack told me not to be ashamed of being Jewish, he spoke volumes about what it is like to belong to this tribe. An unbreakable thread runs through it that has never been severed, in spite of the most evil attempts. By telling me not to be ashamed, Jack was telling me to be proud of my decision to become a Jew.

Jack taught by example to survive terror and pain and go on to live a good, long life surrounded by family and friends. Jack didn’t just survive, he chose to love life again. He teased the ladies and cheered for the Cowboys and hummed in the shower. I saw a gleam of triumph in his eyes, filled with tears, as he watched his granddaughter ordained as a rabbi.

We lost Jack five years ago this month, just before Thanksgiving. Last week, as we rose for the Kaddish, I gave thanks to God that Jack was part of my life and that he taught me to be a proud Jew.

I could not have asked for a better teacher.

Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia and has been a proud Jew-by-choice for 20 years. She can be reached at

Maccabiah Games Bring Golden Times


When amateur soccer player Michael Erush went to Israel in July to play for Team USA in the 17th World Maccabiah Games, he was hoping to come home with gold. But following the Israeli team’s victory, Erush was content with the American silver-medal win.

“I always want to do the best,” the 22-year-old said. “We had one of the best Maccabiah men’s soccer teams, and we lost to a very good Israel team.”

However, his Maccabiah experience didn’t end with the medal ceremony. Erush extended his stay after an Israeli soccer franchise was so impressed with his level of play, that he was offered a 10-month contract for the following season.

He is currently shopping around for other offers, but his dream of turning pro could eventually become a reality in Israel — due to the Maccabiah Games.

“I’m still looking to different career paths,” said Erush, a research assistant for an private firm. “I might go back to school and get my MBA, or I might go play soccer…. I just want to keep my options open.”

Erush was one of more than 7,000 Jewish athletes from 55 countries, stretching from Brazil to India and Australia to Finland, who gathered this past summer in Israel to compete in the Maccabiah Games. In the first games in 1932, 390 athletes from 14 nations participated. Now, the games are the third-largest sporting event in the world, outside of the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. Held every four years, this summer’s Maccabiah Games, which took place July 10-21, were the largest since its founding.

Competitions took place in approximately 30 categories, including track, tennis, swimming, baseball and even chess. The most dominant countries were Team USA and Israel. The American medal count was 222, with 71 gold, while Israel won 593 medals, 227 gold.

The hope of the organizers is that the games foster a sense of Jewish unity, awareness and pride among the athletes from around the world. In that spirit, this year’s games were the first to feature delegations from China, Macedonia and Grenada.

More than 90 athletes from Southern California were represented in such sports as track and field, basketball, volleyball, soccer, rugby and water polo. Among 20 medalists from the Southland, six won gold; nine, silver; and four, bronze. Some athletes took home multiple medals.

It was “an unforgettable experience, absolutely breathtaking,” said Danielle Arad, 17, of Yorba Linda who won four silver medals in the open swimming competition. “The hospitality and open arms that we received from the common citizens and Israeli athletes competing in the games allowed me to feel at home.”

For Shirin Lisa Golshani, 17, a Beverly Hills resident, walking into the packed stadium with Team USA during the opening ceremonies in Ramat Gan and being surrounded by Jews who had come from all corners of the world “was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

Golshani, who brought home silver and bronze from the girl’s youth karate competition, said that it “made it all the more greater of an experience because I was able to share it with my second family from karate.”

For USC graduate and businessman Ari Monosson, this year marked his second trip to the Maccabiah Games. During his first games in 2001, the 27-year-old runner won both a silver and a bronze medal. And while his dreams for gold this year were did not come true, his silver-medal win with the U.S. 4×400 relay team in no way diminished the experience. Monosson said there is nothing quite like the Maccabiah Games, and he recommended that Jewish athletes try out for the next games.

“Participating in them will be a life-changing experience,” he said. “There are moments and memories that you will cherish for the rest of your life.”

For rugby player Kevin Armstrong, 26, the long journey began with a discouraging setback. He broke his arm in the first 20 minutes of the first game. However, he still enjoyed both watching his team take a silver and being surrounded by Jews from around the world.

“On the field, it was business as usual, but off the field, it made the world seem very small, [especially] when you realize how people from across the world are very similar to you,” said the Angeleno.

Injuries and illness nearly kept Santa Monica residents Melody Khadavi and Fran Seegull from the games. The volleyball players each missed a month of practice in the United States due to different maladies, and when they landed in Israel, the combination of jet lag, hot temperatures and long days spent touring before the games caught up with them. But perseverance and antibiotics pulled the pair through the competitions to beat Canada for the bronze.

In the junior competitions, the gold-winning junior baseball team included Los Angeles resident Noah Michel. Alexander Hoffman-Ellis of Santa Monica High School helped the boys junior basketball team cruise to a gold. The girls junior soccer team brought home the gold with the help of coach Wendi Whitman of Long Beach.

For Erush, the next move is still up in the air. The soccer player said that may include the next games.

“Who knows,” Erush said. “I would love to win the gold and have silver, too.”

 

The Good, the Bad and the Confusing


 

I am a senior citizen. I’m 82, look 65 and feel like 40. It is a very confusing time of life. People assume that you are over the hill. You know that you are still vital and have the ability to contribute to society.

At the age of 50, I classified myself as lower-middle age. As the years rushed by, I accepted middle, middle-age and then upper-middle age.

At 82, I can no longer fool myself with artificial classifications. I am old. I am a senior citizen. So what?

Senior citizenship is not necessarily bad. Nice people rise to give you their seats on buses and in public places. I always refuse the seat but will accept it for my more fragile wife.

Theaters offer me a discount on tickets. Financially, I don’t need a discount, but I gladly accept it. There are some small feelings of guilt as I observe younger, and perhaps poorer, couples paying full price.

Guilt also appears for me in restaurants as I timidly display my two-for-one coupon. The guilt is not deeply seated.

My family loves to chide me about my preference for restaurants that offer these coupons. I just can’t escape my memories of childhood poverty. Who ate at restaurants in Chicago’s West Side ghetto?

Joining other seniors at a restaurant can be a harrowing experience. There are always a few seniors who lag way behind the cute gal leading us to our seats. Some seniors reject seats that face a wall. Others in the same party demand a window seat. Of course, the restaurant temperature is too cold or too hot.

Some seniors have as much difficulty deciding what to eat as Eisenhower had deciding when to land at Normandy. We always have food left over to take home. We mark the cartons to be sure we take home our own leftovers.

You do not want to be present when the owner comes around at the end of the meal to declare our coupons invalid. We seniors are confident. We have seen too much of life to give up without a fight. Meek and mild we are not.

There is a sad aspect to dining with a senior who has lost a spouse. You want to pay their bill as a gesture of love. They insist on paying their fair share. You have to accept that pride demands that they pay for what they ate. Sometimes you adjust their share so they pay less than normal. They rarely know what you have done.

Dining brings up cruising. On a recent cruise, they asked what couple had been married the longest. The winning couple was to get a bottle of champagne.

The wife and I won with our 58 years. The champagne we gave away. But winning brought up many wistful memories.

I am very happily married. Yet I can’t explain where the years went. What happened to the skinny kid who was discharged from the Army on March 1 of 1946 and married two days later on March 3? Was it 58 years since we had that fabulous wedding attended by 10 people? How could it be that we have a daughter who is 55 years old?

You cannot spend time and energy wondering where the years went. They are finished.

Seniors must concentrate on now. Enjoy life now. Do what you can within your abilities. Life is precious and good. Tomorrow will come at its own speed.

 

Summertime and the Livin’ Is Costly


Day schools are fine for school days. Synagogue is great for Shabbat and High Holidays. But for those weeks when children are in cabins, singing and laughing with friends, Jewish camp is a singular experience of 24/7, full-tilt boogie Judaism.

“Although I attended religious school, summer camp is where I first became connected with being Jewish,” said Fred Reisz, a Brentwood attorney and father of two toddlers who was a Camp Hess Kramer camper from 1975 to 1979, then a camp staffer from 1980 to 1985. “I think it’s important to realize that these summer camps are ‘Jewish summer camps’ as opposed to summer camps for Jews; you get a sense of your heritage and it instills a pride and joy in being Jewish.”

Howard Kaplan, director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp, said Jewish summer camps are, “probably the most powerful engine for Jewish continuity that the community has. They’re living in a Jewish environment. Even if they play basketball, it’s in a Jewish environment. What I tell parents is, ‘It’s where it gets in their bones.'”

“For a certain number of kids, especially post-bar mitzvah, this is their Jewish life,” he said. “Here’s the reality; it’s not inexpensive, but you know going in that it’s value.”

But all the costs of Jewish community life, including camp fees, can be burdensome. Jewish summer camp fees in Southern California now average almost $3,000 for four weeks at places such as Malibu’s Camp Hess Kramer or Camp Ramah in Ojai, similar to weekly fees at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu and at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute’s Camp Alonim in Simi Valley.

“Even an upper-middle-class family with two kids struggles to put kids through the system,” said Ron Wolfson, a University of Judaism (UJ) vice president and director of the UJ’s Whizin Center for the Jewish Future. “I think people would have more children if they can afford more of these things.”

“Trying to send my kids to a Jewish summer camp will be an expensive proposition but I think it has so many rewards with it,” Reisz said. “Choosing to send my kid to camp is something that is always contemplated and that is saved for.”

According to the Foundation for Jewish Camping in New York, there are about 110 “not-for-profit sleep-away” camps near Jewish urban populations in the United States and Canada. While Jewish camp can be a character-building chapter in many lives, the foundation’s Web site states that a total of 50,000 kids attend Jewish camps each summer — “less than 8 percent of the 650,000 Jewish children believed to be of camp age.” Most of these camps nationwide are at full capacity this summer, with long waiting lists

Gina Gross, a licensing consultant in Beverlywood, will have her two young daughters in summer activities such as day camp and art school for the older one, and swimming and ballet classes for her younger one. It’s affordable and within the budget she and husband have set, but Gross knows that many Jewish parents fret over being able to give their children meaningful summer memories.

“There are tons of people who have struggles with it,” Gross said. “What do you do with your kids for the summer? I think the struggle is for those parents who are not as well off. What can you do that doesn’t break the bank?”

More parents, slogging through California’s slow pull out of the nation’s economic slump, are applying for camp financial aid.

“It’s getting to be a stretch for more families. Our scholarship requests, like everybody else’s, have grown,” said Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of the UJ’s Camp Ramah. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, summer camp had a certain Wild West feeling, it was fairly unregulated. And summer camps have been forced to conform, but there are costs associated with that.”

Like many synagogues, Wilshire Boulevard Temple has a camp fund that distributes need-based scholarships selected by a committee, of which Reisz was a member.

Consider also an increased camp cost; while many businesses saw post-Sept. 11 insurance spikes, the cost of running summer camps jumped further in 2002 when insurance for all summer camps rose as a ripple effect of the Roman Catholic Church’s clergy sex scandal.

“It did not help us with our liability,” Kaplan said.

But if kids really want to go to Jewish summer camp, there is assistance.

“Parents are usually doing something with their kids [during summer], and it usually costs money,” Kaplan said. “It’s very rare that a kid doesn’t get to camp because of our not being able to meet the needs and scholarships.”

Vanity Body Plates


A few weeks ago, I was shopping at the Beverly Center when a girl who was maybe 12 years old held up a garment and yelled across the store, “Hey, Mom, what about this?”

“This” was a skimpy red T-shirt with the words “porn star” emblazoned across the chest. I was shocked by the shirt, but even more shocked when her mother breezily brought it up to the register. That’s when I noticed that this mom was wearing her own micro-mini T-shirt with the word “bouncy” written in big, bold letters across her chest.

Walking around Los Angeles, I realized I was practically the only woman who didn’t have a slogan on her boobs. There were suggestive ones like “Tasty” and disturbing ones like “Fight Hunger: Anorexia Chic.” Then I started seeing them on women’s sweatpants — across their behinds, to be exact — things like: “Princess,” “Slut,” “Whore,” “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “Eat Me,” “Lick Me,” “Bite Me,” “Boy-Beater” and “Airhead.” While my breasts had no signage and my butt sported the low-key “Levi’s,” everyone from preteens to the premenopausal set seemed to personalize their body parts with tag lines like “Juicy,” “Curvy” and “Slippery When Wet.” It used to be that women worried about panty lines — now they worry about what line to post on the back of their pants.

I didn’t get the point. Were these sexual invitations? Were they crib sheets for illiterate gawkers? My friend, Kevin, said they’re more like “vanity body plates.”

Maybe, but where’s the vanity?

I asked a young woman in a T-shirt that read, “Psycho Bitch” why she’d want to wear that.

“It’s empowering!” she replied, in a tone that left the “I mean, like, duh” hanging in the air.

I guess the others I’ve seen recently are also “empowering” — things like “Easy” “Pop My Cherry,” “Schwing,” “Hormonal” and “Buy Me a Diamond Ring.” Recently, Time magazine reported on Jewish pride T-shirts and panties with pithy power-grams like “Jew Lo,” “Jewcy,” “JAP,” “Meshuggenah,” “Yenta,” and “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”

In a show of sisterhood, I tried to give these slogans the benefit of the doubt — to find some sort of, I don’t know, “ironic hipsterness” to them like, “My Other Butt Is a Porsche” or “If You Can Read This, You’re Too Gross.”

A friend suggested that this phenomenon might be a Richard Pryor-esque political statement — you know, taking back the words of the oppressor. Another mentioned the fact that I’d posted a naked picture of myself on the Web for a magazine assignment, and that, while I ultimately found the whole thing silly, I did experience a sense of, well, empowerment. So why was I so outraged that other generally sensible young women would plaster these messages on their own bodies and feel proud? Why did I care that I couldn’t go five blocks without seeing a woman who advertised herself as promiscuous, spoiled, abusive, ditzy, gossipy, or emotionally unstable — all in the name of “empowerment”?

Maybe because it hit too close to home. These were women like me: mothers and daughters who rail against degrading ads, then plaster them instead on their own bodies. I knew I hit rock bottom when a friend wore a glittery “anal” logo over her butt and for a split-second I thought it was funny, a clever reference to her uptight personality. Would a man ever stoop so low? Not a chance. They know how to advertise their gender: “Buff,” “Brawny,” “Six-Million-Dollar Man.” But can anyone imagine a guy walking around town with the word “anal” plastered across his behind?

Recently, while I was jogging in my plain, baggy sweats, I saw a teenager up ahead whose behind boasted, “Messed Up!” Another girl jogged toward me in a T-shirt with bright purple lettering: “Confused!”

Finally, I thought, truth in advertising.


Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is author of the
memoir “Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self” (Simon and Schuster, 2000) and
“Inside the Cult of Kibu: And Other Tales of the Millennial Gold Rush” (Perseus
Books, 2002). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.

The Soul of Maui


There’s a Hawaiian legend about a pregnant woman who developed a craving for the eyeballs of royalty. Advisers to the king took this to mean that the woman’s child would one day grow up to defeat the king and rule all the islands. The king decreed that the baby be killed as soon as it was born. So the woman had her newborn boy spirited away and hidden from the king.

The boy became King Kamehameha, who indeed conquered the islands of Hawaii.

I read this Moses-like story one night, sitting on the balcony of our room at the Maui Prince Hotel.

It was Aug. 20, 2003. The planet Mars was orbiting closer to earth than it had in almost 80 years. The red planet would have appeared as a fireball in a star-addled sky. The waves crashed close by, and the sounds of a Hawaiian guitar drifted up from a small wedding reception below. Beside me, The New York Times front page offered tragic news from Israel — more suicide bombings — but at that moment Mars felt closer than the Middle East.

It was strange to be in a place of such magnificent tranquillity at a time of such unease, but that’s the point of vacations. And what we found in Maui and Molokai during our 10 days there last summer were places that not only helped us relax, but also replenished our souls.

We were in south Maui, staying at the Maui Prince Hotel — which hosted our visit — in Makena. The row of luxury hotels that begins in Kaanapali and continues through Wailea is a familiar litany to the Maui-bound. The Westin, Alii, Marriot, Hyatt, Grand Wailea, Four Seasons and Kea Lani: plenty of Angelenos can reel their names off with greater ease than the seven Hawaiian islands themselves.

But those developments, with their theme park-worthy pools, happening boardwalks and busy beaches, come to an abrupt end in Makena. The Maui Prince is the last development before the undeveloped coast that includes Big Beach, Little Beach and the black sands of Oneuli Beach. It is all strikingly beautiful, and even more so because comparatively few tourists make it this far south.

The Prince is part of a chain of Japanese-owned luxury hotels and in both its beauty and quirkiness it echoes its roots. A huge koi pond — the largest on the island — winds its way through the hotel property surrounded by lush native plants and Zen-like raked pebble gardens. Part of the massive garden forms the center of the 310-room hotel. The hotel hallways remain open to the atrium on one side, while the rooms face the sea or the mountains on the other.

Best of all is the wide crescent beach that even in high season is relatively deserted. Here, sea life doesn’t mean your neighbors from Tarzana fighting for cabana space, but a pair of sea turtles that loll around a nest of rocks, wading distance from shore. The Prince’s own bit of cove has a gently sloping sandy bottom edged by lava rock and rimmed further by beautiful coral outcroppings. Tourists from other hotels pay good money to take "adventure snorkeling trips" that moor about 100 yards off the Prince’s beach.

There is cable TV — the suites have two of them — but it wasn’t on my diet. There is The New York Times, but it arrives a day late. There is Internet service and probably talk radio, but no Larry Mantle or Warren Olney, so why bother? I did marvel at The Maui News, whose cover photo on Aug. 21 — this is the day after a bomb in Iraq killed 17 and a suicide bomber in Jerusalem killed 20 — featured a photo of a Los Gatos man who, while visiting Wailea, constructed an especially large sand castle.

Strange, yes, but that’s the point of Maui. You go there to replenish what the mainland and the media suck out of you. If you’re Jewish, you can even do so in a minyan. We had been to Maui once before and knew that it was no problem to suss out the island’s 2,500 or so Jews. You could raise a minyan at the hotels in Wailea in minutes. The nondenominational Jewish Congregation of Maui, headed by Los Angeles-born Rabbi David Glickman, now has a religious school. Both the Safeway and the Star Market in Kihei carry a shelf of kosher food and a selection of frozen kosher meat.

The island’s Jews turn up in some unexpected places. On a visit upcountry to what is probably Maui’s best restaurant, The Hali’imaile General Store, I discovered that founder/chef Beverly Gannon is from a large Jewish family in Dallas. Which explains the warmth and vitality of her restaurant.

"That’s the way I was raised," she said. "In the Jewish tradition of ‘eat, eat, eat.’"

But spiritual uplift is not just a Jewish thing on Maui: it’s an island thing. Following the road up from Hali’imaile, we explored Haleakala National Park, site of an active volcano of the same name. The road ascends through heavy clouds. Along the way we spotted the rare nene, placid descendants of Canadian geese that got waylaid, then evolved and adapted to life at 11,000 feet. The tropical weather turns cold and windy near the top, but the terrain of barren, wind-swept lava is overpowering, inspiring.

The next day, more of the same sense of wonder struck us at the Hawaii Nature Center in the Iao Valley. Where Kamehameha’s soldiers fought the forces of the king of Maui until a river of blood roared through the peaceful valley (more biblical Hawaiian legends), we wandered down a trail lined with guava, banana, wild ginger, Indian almonds, mango. A river of pure water did roar beside us, and thick greenery blanketing the skyward spirals rising from the valley floor. It was an escape to Eden.

After Maui, we followed Eden to Molokai. If Maui is relaxing, then Molokai, the island northwest of it, is another order of tranquillity. There are no traffic lights on the entire 38-mile island. The downside is an island with some serious development issues.

"Why are we rebuilding Iraq?" my son asked as we drove down the slightly dilapidated main street of Molokai’s main town, Kaunakakai, "We should be rebuilding Molokai."

But a strong local pride infuses the island, whose roadside is dotted with handmade signs — "No Cruise Ships" — proclaiming the population’s intention to prevent the Waikiki-ization of Molokai.

The result is a population of 7,000 people who are struggling economically (many are on government assistance and hunt and fish for their sustenance) but who are stewards to an environment that recalls Hawaii of a century ago.

Back then, and for much of antiquity, Molokai was considered an island possessed of spiritual power. Only 4,000 residents inhabit the island, including the largest percentage of native Hawaiians in the state. There are dense rain forests, the tallest cliffs in the world (the opening scenes of Jurassic Park were shot here), deep pine forests, miles of ranch and farm land and a remarkable lack of tourism and industry. The island is famous for its colony devoted to people afflicted with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, but the area made famous by the Rev. Damien is open only by arranged tours. Medication has all but eradicated the disease, and the remaining elderly residents prefer to guard their privacy.

There are tours to be had on Molokai — a coffee plantation, rain forests that are mostly on private land, snorkeling — but the island is also a wonderful place to contemplate natural Hawaii. The Sheraton Lodge has private canvas-sided luxury bungalows right on the beach, which we shared with a pair of monk seals for the duration of our stay (the beach, not the bungalow). The lodge has sweeping views of ranchland, a pool a dude-ranch-with-mai-tais atmosphere and activities like hiking, horseback riding and skeet shooting. The air is pure, the stars dense and bright, the waters blue and warm and filled with colorful fish.

When it was time to leave Maui and Molokai for the all-too-real world, the beauty had worked its magic. We were relaxed and replenished. That was in August. It’s November now, and I’m ready to go back.


FYI: Maui/Molokai

Jewish Congregation of Maui Beit Shalom Synagogue
634 Alulike St.
Kihei, HI 96753
(808) 874-5397
www.mauijews.org

The Suzi and Mitch Katz Jewish Library of Maui, Inc.
1325 Lower Main St.
Suite 103
Wailuku, HI 96793
(808) 244-3700

Haleakala National Park
Makawao, HI
(808) 572-4400
www.nps.gov/hale

Hali’imaile General Store
900 Hali’imaile Road
Makawao, HI 96768
(808) 572-2666
www.haliimailegeneralstore.com

Iao Valley Hawaii Nature Center
875 Iao Valley Road
Wailuku, HI 96793
(808) 244-6500

Maui Visitors Bureau
1727 Wili Pa Loop
Wailuku, HI 96793
(808) 244-3530
www.visitmaui.com

Maui Prince Hotel
5400 Makena Alanui
Makena, HI 96753
(866) 774-6236
www.princeresortshawaii.com

Sheraton Molokai Lodge & Beach Village
100 Maunaloa Highway
Maunaloa, Molokai, HI 96770
(866) 500-8313
www.sheraton-molokai.com

Why Not Lieberman?


What a difference two and a half years make. When Democratic
presidential candidate Al Gore selected Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman as his
running mate in 2000, there was a surge of Jewish pride and
support. Now that Lieberman has announced his own candidacy in the 2004
presidential race, there’s a surge of Jewish doubt and ambivalence. Why?

The objections to the Lieberman candidacy reveal a nice mix
of Jewish fears and neuroses. However, they don’t withstand serious scrutiny.

A Jewish president would provoke anti-Semitism. Actually, one
of the most heartening aspects of the 2000 election was precisely that having a
Jew on a major party ticket for the first time was a big yawn among non-Jews.
We braced ourselves for the backlash — and nothing.

Lieberman’s seeking the presidency itself shouldn’t change
matters. Besides, the risk is exaggerated: If Lieberman weren’t president, then
the anti-Semites wouldn’t accuse the Jews of controlling the government? Since
anti-Semitism is irrational, there’s no use trying to placate it.

A related claim is that if a Lieberman presidency messes up
any time, any place, “the Jews” will be blamed. I suppose that’s possible; but,
carried to its logical conclusion, it’s an argument against Jewish excellence
and leadership generally. Ultimately, it’s wrong for Jews to let our enemies
determine how high we can climb and how far we can go in America.

Because Lieberman is Jewish, he would (a) favor Israel; (b)
bend over backward not to favor Israel. Take your pick — each scenario has its
fans, and they make equal sense. The fact that one is as likely as the other is
the clue that neither is likely at all.

Lieberman has a public record of saying what he thinks and
pursuing policies that he believes in. He has strongly supported Israel in its
quest for peace and security. For a decade, he has urged the overthrow of
Saddam Hussein. He has also recognized that the Palestinians have interests,
and refused to demonize Islam. You might or might not find this moderate
approach appealing, but there’s little reason to fear that Lieberman will
change his tune in the Oval Office.Â

Lieberman is too religious. This is another way of saying
that he’s too Jewish. It’s a bit of a puzzle, this Jewish discomfort with PDJ
(Public Displays of Judaism). Jews who value the separation of church (or shul)
and state more than the Torah squirm when Lieberman speaks of his faith. But
the left has not always been so nervous around religion — think of Martin
Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson.

Lieberman is too conservative. This is the odd converse of
the previous complaint, and means that he isn’t Jewish enough, for those who
equate being Jewish with left-wing politics.

Now, look. If you voted in 2000 for Ralph Nader (and thanks
a lot), I understand that you are not likely to be too crazy about Lieberman.
But Voltaire’s aphorism remains apt: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Yearning for ideological liberal purity is a big part of the reason George W.
Bush is president today. Most of the electorate is politically in the middle. Lieberman’s
centrist posture, particularly on national security, is exactly why he’s been
voted the Democrat Most Likely to Give Bush Nightmares.Â

Privately, even Jews who like Lieberman whisper to each
other, “But he can’t win.”

Why? Granted, he probably can’t get the Muslim extremist
vote, the neo-Nazi vote or the anti-Zionist, left-wing lunatic vote. But on the
whole, gentiles are ready for America’s first Jewish president. It would be a
shame if American Jews, for truly flimsy reasons, were not. Â


Paul Kujawsky is the president of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles. The opinions expressed are his, and do not represent those of the organization.

Koufax Benches Dodgers


Jewish pride across the baseball world swelled back in 1965,when the legendary Sandy Koufax decided to observe Yom Kippur rather than pitchfor the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series against the MinnesotaTwins.

But the Hall of Fame pitcher proved unforgiving recently,when a gossip item in the New York Post intimated that he was gay. The Post isowned by the News Corp., controlled by multimedia magnate Rupert Murdoch, whoalso happens to own the Dodgers.

Through a friend, the always very private Koufax, now 67,declared that he would no longer assist any Murdoch-owned enterprise and wastherefore severing his 48-year-long relationship with the Dodgers.

After 12 seasons with the Dodgers, in New York and Los Angeles, from 1955-1966, Koufax has held a variety of minor league pitchingpositions with the club. He also announced that he would no longer attend theDodgers spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., where he has been a regularfor decades.

Among the many friends and admirers expressing their sorrowat the break was the Dodgers All-Star right fielder Shawn Green, who emulated Koufaxin 2001, when he skipped the last game of a series against the San FranciscoGiants to spend the holiest day of the year in a local shul.

“This is really a shame,” Green told the Los Angeles Times.”Sandy is a great man, and he did so much for the organization, but he meantmuch more than just wearing the uniform.

“I’ve always paid close attention to [Koufax] because he’s aman of principle and he’s lived his life the right way,” Green added. “He feelsvery strongly about his beliefs, which is only one of the many reasons I admirehim.”

In a rare victory for the good guys in a publicity-obsessedworld, the Post has retracted the story and apologized for “getting it wrong.”

The Mideast Comes to L.A.


I suppose there has always been a division between Jews who are affiliated and those who are not. Two separate worlds. The first wears the definition with pride: The Jewish Community. The second by default or distrust or indifference, or maybe choice, seems to be cast adrift, at least from fellow Jews who make up the “community.” Now, with the crisis in the Middle East heating up, with American foreign policy suddenly thrust into the very center of the action, with Europe turning against Israel and European crowds singling out Jews, the question arises: Will the two groups come together, accept a common Jewish identity? On the basis of partial evidence, I would say, not in Los Angeles. Or, at least, not yet.

A group of us gathered to celebrate a friend’s 51st birthday last weekend. It was a warm mix of people in the arts and in television, Jewish, but largely unaffiliated. In the midst of birthday laughter, one of the women turned to me and asked hesitantly what I thought of Ariel Sharon. Suddenly, all conversation at the table stopped.

I don’t like what he’s doing, I replied. There was a visible sigh of relief, a relaxing of tension as men and women, almost released, began to talk about the conflict in the Mideast. They were troubled. They didn’t like what Sharon was doing, hated the military incursions and the destruction that followed in their wake.

But they didn’t like or trust Arafat either. They were pro-Israel, but not in favor of its present policies — and felt at a loss because they saw absolutely no solution in sight. That evening, a more focused and diverse crowd turned out for a discussion sponsored by PEN (the national writer’s organization). The room was packed, with an overflow crowd spilling outside. The guest speaker at this somewhat hurriedly planned gathering was Robert Fiske, a journalist who has reported on the Middle East for the London Independent for more than 20 years. He had just flown in from Bethlehem. Over the years, Fiske has covered the fighting between the Russians and Afghanistan, reported from Iraq and Iran, been on the scene in Lebanon in 1982. He had also interviewed Osama bin Laden on three different occasions, the last time in 1997.

Given his experience and the fact that he had just arrived from the war zone, I was surprised that relatively few affiliated Jews were present. No one from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; no rabbis; nor any organizational or community leaders. Perhaps they knew Fiske would be critical of Israel. He loathes Sharon, dating back to the 1982 debacle. But he has only scorn for Arafat and the members of the PLO around him. Still, his point of view — that Israel’s military policy could not succeed; that a political solution was needed; that that solution could only be brokered by the U.S.; and that George Bush’s approach was simplistic and Colin Powell’s was hypocritical (why did he fly over the rubble and destruction wrought by the latest suicide bomber in Jerusalem and not visit the stench and shattered ruins of Jenin?) — was not what Jewish leaders wanted to hear. However, the audience — Jews (unaffiliated), Muslims and Latinos, but mostly white Americans — applauded him enthusiastically.

Of course it is the affiliated Jews in Los Angeles who organize and come out loyally for demonstrations in support of Israel and who respond vocally with anger and alarm at each day’s events. More than a half-dozen rallies have already marked the month of April, and this coming Sunday, linked to the annual Israeli Festival, the city’s largest celebratory demonstration is scheduled to take place. The Federation says 35,000 are expected.

Not surprisingly, the synagogues have united behind Israel. One particular service at Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue in the city, seemed to capture the feeling of connectedness that America’s affiliated Jews feel for Israel. The temple’s rabbi, David Wolpe, spoke to his congregants about those Israelis who were in need because of the suicide bombings. What can we do? he asked, for help them we must. Within 25 minutes, he had received pledges of $700,000 from the entire congregation, including children. That sum was matched by Magbit, a Persian Jewish philanthropic group (about half of Sinai Temple’s congregation consists of Iranian Jews).

Some of this is misleading. As Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal pointed out in an editorial, the numbers at the rallies are small, given Los Angeles’ 520,000-plus Jews. Hollywood’s Jews, for example, have largely been silent. And not everyone in Los Angeles’ affiliated community agrees that uncritical support is best.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), along with Peace Now and UCLA’s Hillel, held a town meeting several weeks ago to question Israel’s policies. Two observant Jews, Professor David Myers, a historian and the former director of UCLA’s Jewish studies program, and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, an Traditional rabbi and head of UCLA’s Hillel, were leaders at the meeting and helped set its tone. Myers characterized his position as one of being deeply torn, almost paralyzed, and desperately looking for a way to find a voice: A voice that would be loyal to Israel, but at the same time, deeply unhappy at the path it was taking. And deeply critical as well, of the Jewish leaders in America, who once again, he said, were appealing to the primal fears of Jewish Americans. A follow-up town hall meeting is set for April 26.

According to PJA Staff Director Daniel Sokatch, there are many Jews in Los Angeles, affiliated and unaffiliated, who are committed to Israel, who feel they are part of the Jewish community, but without a voice, and without leaders who reflect their doubts and views. Endorsing a bankrupt policy does not necessarily demonstrate loyalty to Israel and/or its interests, explained one Jewish critic. When I asked about his identity, he smiled. Unaffiliated, of course.

Kids Page


Jacob sends his family over the Yabbok river to meet up with his brother Esau. He remains alone for the night, and is confronted by an angel. He wrestles with the angel all night long. At dawn, the angel congratulates Jacob for his strength and persistence, and changes Jacob’s name to Israel.

Jacob (akev means heel) started out his life “on the heels of” his brother. He had many troubles throughout his life, as if someone were stepping on him. But he became stronger for those struggles and, eventually, earned the name Israel (“wrestles with God”). He was not beaten down anymore.

What’s in a name?

Do you like the name your parents gave you? Do you ever think about it? Maybe some of you may not like your name because it’s different, too foreign sounding or not American enough. Perhaps some of you wish you had a more original name. Stop a minute and think about your name. What does the name Jonathan mean? It’s Hebrew for “God gave.” What does the name Megan mean? It means “strong” in Old English. Are you named after someone? Who are you named for? Does your name suit you? You may decide to change your name one day. But for now, ask your parents why they gave you your name. Wear it with pride, for your name is you.

A Time for Unity, a Time for Leadership


When my grandson stands at the Kotel…I will remind him that whatever divides us…it will be my generation’s responsibility to guarantee that he gets the tools for Jewish survival, and it will be his generation’s responsibility to determine how those tools are used

We are rapidly approaching a momentous occasion — the 50th anniversary of Israel. It should be a time for unquestioned Jewish pride and Jewish unity. Yet this may not be the case.

My grandson, a recent bar mitzvah, is the child of a mother who was converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbi. When I take him to Israel this summer, he will, hopefully, begin to understand more about our Jewish state. Perhaps he will ask about the Law of Return, under which he is eligible to make aliyah someday, if he so chooses. Maybe he will ask why, under Israeli law, he could not marry a Jewish woman in Israel or be buried in consecrated ground in Israel. Or how do I explain to him why, as a Jew born of a mother who was converted by a Conservative rabbi, he would have to undergo a conversion — an Orthodox conversion — to enjoy these benefits.

When the state was formed in 1948, there was great controversy as to how it could bring together Jews from diverse backgrounds and ideologies. It was decided by Israel’s founding fathers that it would be a democracy, but civil matters having to do with marriage, divorce, burial and conversion would be entrusted to the chief rabbinate of Israel. This has been the law in Israel for almost 50 years, but it is little understood in the United States.

Until recently, with the tremendous influx of Russian olim — many of whom are of mixed parentage — these concerns impacted only a handful of Israelis. Although some in Israel do not feel comfortable with the “status quo” and have worked around it, they aren’t necessarily negatively affected by it.

But here in the United States, the situation is radically different and has far-reaching ramifications. A vast majority of American Jews, if they are affiliated at all, are not Orthodox. Nonetheless, they identify positively as Jews, strongly support Israel and feel part of our community. Judaism is an important part of who they are. They reflect Judaic values, and many proudly maintain our traditions and pass them on to their children.

In 70 A.D., with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, aided and abetted by incredible hatred and divisiveness among Jews, we were dispersed throughout the world. Historians disagree on how we survived, but some think that we were held together by our deep desire to