Half a Century on Reform’s Frontlines

When the Reform movement published its new “Mishkan T’filah” last November, the prayer book looked comfortably familiar to Reform rabbinic students in Los Angeles. It was clear to them that a homemade siddur they had created for their own use had influenced the first official prayer book published by the Union for Reform Judaism since 1975.

Once again, the L.A. branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) had made its mark on the Reform movement. The new, official prayer book, like the homemade siddur, includes traditional prayers in Hebrew, as well as new alternative readings and meditations — changes in keeping with Reform’s adoption of more traditional practices.

The Los Angeles campus was created 50 years ago in classrooms at Wilshire Boulevard Temple by founders who understood that the intellectual center of Judaism would be pulled inevitably westward.

“The leaders who founded the Los Angeles campus began to realize there would be a tremendous growth spurt of the Jewish population in Southern California and the entire Western states,” said Lewis Barth, dean of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, who was among the first students at the new campus in 1954. “The majority of our graduates come back to serve congregations and Jewish communal institutions in the Western states, and have been leaders of transforming Jewish life here.”

Barth’s early classmates included Stephen S. Wise Temple’s Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin; Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Harvey Fields and Rabbi Alfred Wolf; Leo Baeck Temple’s Rabbi Sanford Ragins; and other pioneers of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

While those rabbis had to go to the New York or Cincinnati campuses to be ordained, four years ago the Los Angeles campus began ordaining rabbis, and the move has meant tremendous growth for the school. Course offerings have doubled, as has enrollment, with graduating classes in the rabbinic school growing from about eight to 10 students per year to 15 or 20.

Today, HUC-JIR Los Angeles sits at the edge of the USC campus, south of downtown. The schools enjoy a symbiotic relationship, with some 650 USC undergraduates taking Judaic studies classes at HUC-JIR and graduate students able to take part in a joint program in communal service. HUC-JIR has highly regarded graduate schools of Jewish education, Jewish communal service and Jewish studies.

The school is also home to innovative programs, including institutes on Judaism and health, Sephardic studies and sexual orientation. Hebrew and day school teachers can receive special training at HUC, and the school pioneered a program to train liberal mohels to perform brises.

Among Jewish colleges, the Los Angeles HUC-JIR campus has a reputation for creativity and innovation, said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies. The student body and faculty have been integral in Reform’s evolution toward traditional observance, Levy added.

See insets for graduating students’ thoughts on the future of the Reform movement.


Book Details Hitler’s Knowledge of Shoah


Hitler knew in detail about the attempted extermination of the Jews. That’s according to “Das Buch Hitler” — “The Hitler Book” — a newly published German translation of a work written in Russian for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1949.

Though few have really doubted that Hitler knew about the genocide of European Jewry, the book seeks to make clear that SS chief Heinrich Himmler conferred with Hitler about the details of the mass murder, according to historian Matthias Uhl of the Institute for Contemporary History in Berlin. An English-language edition of “The Hitler Book” is due out in November.

“The most remarkable thing about the book is the direct connection between Hitler and the Holocaust,” Uhl said. “This is the first information showing that Hitler got real information from Himmler on the gas chambers, and that Himmler showed him the sketches of the project of the gas chambers. This is the first time that we have this information that Hitler was so involved in the Holocaust.”

Not all historians agree that the book offers an important contribution.

“I think it’s completely insignificant how much Hitler knew of the details of the genocide,” said Wolfgang Benz, director of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University in Berlin. “It’s clear that Hitler knew. And whether he knew about the methods in detail, or if he just told Himmler to get rid of the Jews, it’s all the same.”

“I consider such books dumb, even if I haven’t yet read them,” Benz added, because “they keep on adding importance to this figure of Hitler.”

“If you take the international scene, I would agree that most historians do know that, of course, Hitler knew,” said rabbi and historian Andreas Nachama, director of the Topography of Terror archive and documentation on the history of the Gestapo.

Nachama said he would read the new book with interest.

“But the interrogations were probably done by KGB intelligence personnel, and you have to be in a way cautious with these kinds of sources,” he said.

The book, which had been stashed in a Soviet archive for decades, was based on interviews with two of Hitler’s aides: his butler, Heinz Linge, and SS adjutant Otto Guensche, who worked as Hitler’s assistant for 10 years.

Soviet authorities arrested Linge and Guensche in Berlin on May 2, 1945. The two had been present when Hitler’s body was burned in his bunker.

The interviews were conducted while the two men were in Soviet prisons. Interviewers got them to talk by beating them, Uhl said.

The resulting text, which Uhl described as “entertainment for Stalin,” was completed in December 1949.

Now that it has been made available to the public, the text can help disprove the arguments of some Holocaust revisionists who say Hitler was unaware of the attempted genocide or did not approve of it, Uhl said.

According to the text, Hitler was personally interested in the development of gas chambers in extermination camps, and Himmler showed him the plans. Hitler even ordered support for engineers building the gas chambers.

In a segment of the book’s text cited by Reuters, “Hitler told Himmler to use more trucks with mobile gas chambers so that munitions needed for the troops wouldn’t be wasted on shooting Russian” prisoners.

“Himmler reported that the mobile gas chambers were working. He laughed cynically when he said that this method of murder is ‘more considerate’ and ‘quieter’ than shooting them,” the excerpt continues.

According to the Reuters report, Linge and Guensche said Hitler was not worried when the United States declared war in December 1941, and made jokes about it. Hitler is quoted as saying that American “cars never win races, American planes look sharp but their engines are worthless….”

Uhl uncovered the book by chance in 2003 while researching Soviet military security policy in the 1960s, when the Berlin Wall was built.

“I found it in a file of the Soviet Central Committee of the Communist Party,” he said. He recognized it as a text that had been cited decades ago.

It was known that the document existed, Uhl said, adding that Guensche and Linge had talked about it when they were released from prison and sent back to Germany. But the text apparently had been seen by few people until now.

“There is one copy of this book in the archive of the president of the Russian Republic, where only Russian historians can work,” Uhl said. “The other copy was in a file that was not interesting for historians who deal with the Third Reich and the Holocaust. It was in an area dealing with the 1960s.”

Uhl received permission to publish the text from the Russian Archive of Contemporary History and worked with University of Halle historian Henrik Eberle, who specializes in National Socialist history. The two historians acknowledge that the information in the report was extracted through torture.

“We have information from the document, and from Linge and Guensche, that their Soviet interrogators beat them, and if they talked, they got more food and medical help,” Uhl said. “So it was like the carrot and the stick.”

Linge and Guensche were sent back to Germany in 1955. Linge died in 1980, and Guensche died in 2003, shortly before Uhl rediscovered the text.


‘A Day Apart’ — Together


Keeping its commitment to promoting “homemade Judaism,” The Shalom Hartmann Institute has published “A Day Apart, Shabbat at Home” ($24.95), a step-by-step guidebook containing everything from helpful hints to spiritual reflections on how to make Shabbat meaningful.

Noam Sachs Zion, who authored the institute’s much-hailed “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah” (1997) and a similar guide to Chanukah in 2000, called “A Different Light,” collaborated for this one with Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, who teaches Bible and liturgy at the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and the Fingerhut School of Education.

“A Day Apart” is a colorful patchwork of art and photos, and the accompanying text is just as vibrant. The book is organized by Shabbat’s rituals and activities — from baking challah and preparing for Shabbat, to blessing the children, singing and enjoying the three meals, all the way through to Havdalah at the day’s end.

Each section contains both the basics — the words of the blessing for instance, and a how-to guide — and the more sublime, such as reflections from sources as diverse as the Talmud to a modern astronomer on the unifying power of taking a deep breath.

Thoughts and prayers from great Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers traverse the pages, as well as “Parent-Child Corners” with practical ideas for making Shabbat peaceful for the entire family — a pre-Shabbat repast, for instance, to stave of hunger-driven irritation during the dinner rituals.

The book, though chaotic in its bright colors and dozens of little chunks of text, is actually well-organized and easy to navigate, once you get to know it.

With its step-by-step guides to rituals, “A Day Apart” is suitable for beginners. At the same time, the insider’s insights into routines that might go wrong or grow stale can be a useful tool for shaking even veteran Shabbat observers into a more pleasant, meaningful and restful day of rest.


No ‘Place’ Like Israel

"If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches From an Anxious State" by Daniel Gordis (Crown Publishing, $24).

In the summer of 1998, Daniel Gordis and his family moved from Los Angeles to Israel. It was supposed to be just for a sabbatical. But after being there for a while, the family decided to become permanent residents. It was a time of euphoria in Israel. The economy was booming and peace seemed just around the corner. The Gordises felt confident that their children would be part of the first generation of Israelis to grow up in a land at peace.

From the beginning, Gordis kept in touch with his family and friends back in the States by e-mail. His letters were so well-written and so insightful that the people who received them passed them on to others who asked to be included on the list, and soon he had a bigger readership for his reports than he could have ever imagined when he started.The Jewish Journal published some of his letters as did The New York Times Magazine.

And then came the matsav (situation). The dream of right-wing Israelis — that it was possible to occupy the West Bank indefinitely and control the Arabs who lived there — came crashing down. And the dream of left-wing Israelis — that they could adjust the borders here and there and that it would be enough to achieve a lasting peace — came crashing down, too.

The assumptions with which the Gordis family had come — that the Arabs want peace as much as we do, that they could have peace on the northern border just by getting out of Lebanon, that the world understands what we are trying to do — all have been blown to pieces. And a new stage, a nerve-wracking stage that has been going on for more than two years, began.

The Gordis family has had to wonder whether they served their children well by bringing them from the safety of Los Angeles to the tense land of Israel. The tone of these e-mails changed as the family began to struggle with what Gordis and many Israelis are now going through. The e-mails became a kind of self-therapy, in which he examined relentlessly why they had come, why they were staying and what it means to live in Israel during this difficult time.

Gordis, like most American armchair Zionists, came with a clear idea of what should be done to resolve the hostilities that had gone on for so long. But the longer he stayed, the less his preconceived notions made sense. And now, like most Israelis, he simply does not know what, if anything, will work. The country is simply exhausted, worn out by day after day of devastating news. No one has the energy to dream of peace anymore. A little bit of quiet is enough of a goal for most people now.

The matsav forces him and every Israeli to examine their commitment and to ask themselves why they say in this land. But Gordis, and many of the people he works and lives with, find an answer, an answer deep enough to enable them to explain to themselves why they stay. Gordis comes to the conclusion that if he were to leave, he would be betraying all the generations that yearned for this moment in history and he would be giving up the claim that he has always affirmed: that Judaism is a way of life that seeks to sanctify the street, the economy, the culture and the world — and not just the synagogue. He and his family are not going to walk away from the millennial Jewish dream, even if it becomes unpleasant — or even dangerous — to live it. Because life, this matsav has taught him, is not about pleasure or comfort or even safety. Life is about purpose, choice and meaning.

Normalcy is not the goal, writes Gordis near the end of his book when he is trying to explain why his family is staying. Sure, he writes, we will pay a lot to achieve normalcy with our neighbors if we have to, no doubt about that. The goal is long lines at the car wash before Pesach, alarm guys dressed up in costume for Purim, hundreds of people packed into synagogues in every neighborhood on the Shabbat before Pesach to hear the annual pre-Pesach sermon and secular magazines that quote the prophets when they want to criticize the mayor or the army. The goal, quite simply, is Jewish life, like it can’t exist anywhere else.

I don’t know many books that describe the neverending strain of the matsav as well as this book does. And yet, surprisingly enough, in the end this is not a depressing book, but an uplifting one, because it explains not only what the people of Israel are going through, but why.

I remember some official in Arafat’s coterie was interviewed by the media sometime ago and said: "We Arabs are going to win because we value life less than the Israelis do." You read this book and you see that the man had it wrong. The Jews are ultimately going to win, and they will win precisely because they value life more than others do. This is what gives them a reason to stay, and a reason to fight, if fight they must.

Physician, Heal The Soul

Physicians played a significant role in the Holocaust, and today’s doctors can learn from the ethical failures of that period, according to an article recently published by Dr. Joel Geiderman, co-chair of the emergency department (ED) of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

"I’ve always taken an interest in the Holocaust and its lasting effects, because my mother was a survivor," Geiderman said. With 23 years of emergency medicine at Cedars-Sinai under his belt, he has always taken an interest in the philosophies of bioethics but became "passionately" involved five or six years ago. Now, he serves on the ethics committees of Cedars-Sinai and the Academy of Emergency Medicine. "Most of us know about the medical experiments, the doctors in the camps," he said, "but as I started reading about this, about the history, I was blown away."

In "Physician Complicity in the Holocaust: Historical Review and Reflections on Emergency Medicine in the 21st Century," Geiderman sets out a series of moral failures he attributes to German physicians before, during and after WWII. Published in the March issue of Academic Emergency Medicine journal, the two-part article enumerates ethical challenges requiring greater vigilance from today’s physicians.

"So much of the Holocaust is unexplainable. But when you start to break it down, step by step, it starts to make sense in a perverse way," Geiderman said. "So much of what doctors contributed to the horror came out of economic opportunism, greed and convenience."

The first part of the article traces the German medical establishment’s slippery slope, from being healers toward full participants in genocide. Starting long before Hitler came to power, Geiderman shows how German doctors embraced the false science of eugenics, or "racial hygiene." This made it easier to accept, with the rise of National Socialism, the exclusion of Jewish physicians from the practice of medicine (which also advanced many non-Jewish doctors’ careers).

When the Nazis passed the Sterilization Act, doctors not only participated in designing the program to forcibly sterilize the "genetically diseased," they exceeded the government’s goals for implementation. Throughout the regime, ordinary physicians acted as instruments of racist Nazi policies; doctors became murderers, and later made efforts to hide the truth about their activities.

In Part Two of his "Physician Complicity" article, Geiderman examines the ethical challenges faced by his colleagues in emergency medicine today. He worries about doctors being asked to serve as agents of the state, as with mandatory reporting laws for patients whose injuries might be caused by foul play or infectious disease. He considers the denial of modesty to patients when "reality television" films in an emergency room. He considers the various ways in which patients are dehumanized by their doctors, who may refer to them by room number, by their ailment or even by nasty nicknames. Economic pressures affecting the practice of medicine and technology that allows for genetic screening, testing and even genetic engineering also pass through Geiderman’s bioethical radar.

"These are not Holocaust analogies," he says of Part Two, adding that in the article, "I took a neutral stance on physician-assisted suicide. Personally, I’m against it. But I don’t think it’s useful to play the so-called Holocaust card in these debates."

The doctor compares his research and writings to reflection on the Holocaust in other fields. "In ‘Au Revoir les Enfants,’ the French director Louis Malle described the Holocaust through his childhood eyes in a French monastery … while others responded by building new lives or even a new nation. For me, as an emergency physician who has spent 25 years in an ED, dedicated my most recent years to the study of bioethics, and who is the son of a survivor, Part Two is the natural expression of my feelings or philosophy."

It is a decidedly practical sort of philosophy for a doctor of emergency medicine to study. "What’s become really clear to a lot of us who advocate bioethics is that you have to have considered these issues in advance," Geiderman says. "In emergency medicine, there’s not always a lot of time to call in an ethical consult." He views the product of his historical and ethical research as timeless. "Unlike hard science, where the science will change, this will never change."

Though his research relies on previously published materials, and his description of physician complicity in the Holocaust is carefully documented, Geiderman says some peer reviews of his work came back with incredulous comments — doctors who could not believe such events could have happened. He writes: "The keys to preventing such a recurrence lie in understanding and teaching the lessons of the past; in speaking, teaching and writing about ethics; in incorporating ethical principles and professionalism into our medical practices, and in being willing to stand up and make personal sacrifices for the ethical principles in which we believe."

And, as he says, "Certain things need to be learned over and over again."