September 24, 2018

A Prayer for the March

People take part in a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

We will march
For our children’s sake
We will march
Because standing still is not an option
We will march
Because a new day is coming
We will march
Young and old, hand in hand
We will march
Like the Children of Israel at the foot of
the sea
We will march
Until the raging waters part before us
We will march
Until our leaders act
We will march
In honor of the innocent souls we have lost
We will march
Turning the prayers of our hearts
into action
We will march
“Praying with our feet”
We will march
To the beat of a mournful lament
We will march
With our heads held high
We will march
To finally end the madness
We will march
And we will win, by God,
We will win.

Amen.


Rabbi Naomi Levy is the founder and spiritual leader of Nashuva, a Los Angeles-based Jewish community.

From Terrified to Blessed: Skydiving for my Birthday

As the Winter Olympics begin, I think about the athletes and their great feats of physical strength and commitment to daily preparation to achieve their goals.  For my 50th birthday, I overcame 50 challenges that were new or adventurous and I was scared the whole time. The most amazing thing to me is that I kept saying yes. I never gave up. If I could call myself one year ago and explain everything that was going to happen, I would never have believed it. I was much more courageous than I imagined was possible.

Watch Lisa Niver on KTLA TVFor my birthday, I did something I have always said I would never attempt. I went sky diving. While I was very nervous and excited, I was also prepared for the challenge by my choices all year.

The day before my jump, I read Rabbi Naomi Levy’s book, “Einstein and the Rabbi,” while sitting on the balcony of my perfect room at The Pantai Inn in La Jolla. I strolled on the beach, watched the seals and sea lions playing in the water and then would return and read more.

Video: Sky Diving with GoJump Oceanside

Once in Oceanside at GoJump, it was necessary to patiently wait for  two hours until the clouds cleared. I nearly had too much time to contemplate Levy’s book, my life and if I really wanted to take part in this birthday gift to myself.

When Levy wrote, “Your soul wants to teach you about your strength. It wants you to believe in your abilities and your gifts. It wants you to lift up your head with pride and claim your birthright: the life that is yours to experience. Your soul wants you to follow it through times of darkness, through the fog and confusion.

I was not sure she meant jumping out of a plane but that was where my path had brought me and it was what was going to happen next.

In the plane, I sang to myself: Kol Haolam Kulo

The song means: “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the thing is not to be afraid.” I knew in my heart that this is the life I want to live. I do not want to be fearful of so many things. I want to risk and make my dreams come true.

Levy writes:

Your soul will lead you to heights and to loves and to kindness.”

and “Everything has led you to where you are right at this very moment.”

I chose to believe I would live through this scary experience and I imagined I might even love it. If I let fear win and I never try, my life will be smaller. I want to grow and learn to approach new experiences with excitement instead of terror.

Levy says that “The soul wants you to be uncomfortable enough to strive for more, to grow and to learn and to see what needs fixing in this beautiful and broken world. Living with soul can keep you up at night. You suddenly start seeing the humanity in the eyes of strangers you were ignoring.”

Happy Birthday Sky Diving! I DID IT

I wonder where my journey will lead. Sometimes I am not sure that it is the right path but I feel better after reading about following the path of my soul.

The soul’s journey is never linear. It requires patience and perseverance. Just when you’re ready to give up, a door opens and you are granted the opportunity to step inside if you wish. You are invited to explore new realms that were previously locked to you. Were those turns you took back there wrong turns? Were those dead ends you reached worthless? Or were they all part of the “whole”?

I said the Shehecheyanu in the plane. It is a Jewish blessing for the first time we encounter something new or arrive in a new place or for me a new state of being. I was strapped to another human being with five points of connection and I am trusting him to guide us with his parachute safely back to earth.

Levy says we must learn to take soulfie’s instead of selfies! 

If we can learn to take a soulfie, it may very well transform our lives. By making a decision to access and follow our souls, we begin a journey. It is a winding journey full of bumps and pits, stops and starts. Sometimes the road becomes flat and we can cover great distances. Sometimes we will get stuck in one place for what may seem like an eternity before we are ready to continue forward. Yes, there are times when we will get lost, when we won’t know what to do or which way to turn and it’s frightening and frustrating and we wish it could all just be easier. With soul it can get easier.

For a year, I have been following this path of fear and with each challenge I accomplish, my ability to handle fear is better. The hardest thing I did was take a mountain biking lesson at Northstar California Resort. I went down the mountain on a blue intermediate run on my first day and while at one point, I did cry, I never gave up and it was a great feeling of accomplishment. I thought about mountain biking a lot while waiting for my turn in the plane. I kept telling myself I can do it. I did that and I can do this. I want to do it.

Levy continues: “Life’s paths are anything but straight. And yet those winding paths, as frustrating as they may be, can lead us to a life of meaning and blessings. I pray you will choose to follow your soul on its journey.

I am following this path and I wonder what will happen next. I worry about parachutes not opening, bad landings and other horror stories but mainly I sing to myself and say the Sh’ma. “Hear O’Israel the Lord is our God, Our God is One.”

Sky Diving is amazing!I believe that I am being lead. I have made it here and my job for this day for sky diving is to remain as calm as possible and enjoy this incredible opportunity.

As Levy says: “It isn’t easy to make the journey from narrowness to a vast expanse. But we all want to wake up from our sleepwalking. We all want to topple the barriers that are standing in the way of a full life.” I do know I want a full life and by testing my limits and not letting fear win that is what I am getting. I am sure there will be more tests, challenges and scary ideas to conquer. I did jump out of a plane and fly like a bird and I will be able to overcome what comes next.

Within you are powers that you haven’t even begun to tap into. There’s a purpose to your life. A high purpose…You can lift yourself up. And as you lift yourself up, you will lift others up too. May you live to turn your curses into blessings, your fear into strength, your greatest block into your greatest opening. Amen

VideoDo you Love Strolling by the Sea With Seals?

Lisa Niver thanks GoJump Oceanside and the Pantai Inn for hosting her for her 50th birthday.

What will you do to celebrate for your next birthday?

Einstein and the Rabbi is a Must Read

I am a woman of faith and one of my favorite things about the religion I practice, is that my opinion is always okay. I am allowed to be Jewish at whatever level of observance I want. I do not feel judged by God or my faith, and can embrace Judaism in a way that makes me comfortable. I am Jewish, and that is enough. I don’t think about being more Jewish, or less Jewish, I am simply happy to be Jewish. It is good to be a Jew and I have found my true Jewish self, the part of me I love most, through the teachings of Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva Temple in Los Angeles.

When I went through a traumatic time a few years ago, I reached out to Rabbi Levy for help. I didn’t know her well, and had only been going to her temple for a short time, but I was seeking help and turned to her with a desperate need to manage fear so I could sleep. Rabbi Levy taught me how to breathe and I found my soul through her teachings. I pray with her, meditate with her, am quiet with her, am happy with her, am sad with her, and most importantly I am never frightened with her. She is my safe place, teacher, and hero.

Rabbi Levy’s latest book, Einstein and the Rabbi, is a must read for anyone who is searching. Regardless of what you are searching for, you will find a path of understanding through this book. It is about finding your soul, which I don’t think we are even aware we are out of touch with. You don’t need to be Jewish to understand or appreciate this book. What you need is to be is open and searching for clarity. Listen to your heart, trust your gut, be quiet, speak up, know everything is going to be okay, and see that life is grand.

I have purchased 6 copies and given it to friends and family. I will also give it out for Hanukkah because it is a profound gift to anyone who reads it. You will learn something through reading everything Rabbi Levy is bravely sharing. You will laugh, cry, think, and feel her words. Read this book. I have read it twice and am excited to share it with you. It is a book I will turn to for the rest of my life to lift me up and light my way. I learn something new each and every time I pick it up. I love this Rabbi and cannot wait to hear from you when you read it. Let me know what touched you.

We all have things going on in our lives, and everyone has their own relationships with faith and God, but I cannot imagine there is anyone, of any faith, that will not benefit from the wisdom and stories Rabbi Levy has shared in this book. Be kind to yourself and read this book. It will change your life. I am certain of it. Thank you to the inspiring and remarkable Rabbi Naomi Levy for teaching me to see my soul and giving me the strength and desire to always keep the faith.

The last column

Rob Eshman stands in front of his favorite Jewish Journal cover, which never ran. Photo by Lynn Pelkey

So this is goodbye.

I walked into the offices of the Jewish Journal 23 years ago, and it’s time for me to walk out.

As I announced a month ago, I’ll be stepping down as editor-in-chief and publisher as of Sept. 29 and moving on to the next chapter of my life, focusing full time on writing and teaching, and being open to new possibilities as well. If the urge to return to a regular column proves irresistible, you’ll have to find me elsewhere. So this is my last column as editor. I’m truly touched by the numerous kind letters and Facebook posts from people who say they will miss me. For those of you who won’t miss me, I’m glad I could finally make you happy.

A while ago, I realized I had better move on before it was too late. The Journal has been my home since 1994, and it was time to leave home. Twenty-three years. The voice in my head kept nagging, “If not now, when?”

When I told my therapist maybe this was all just a midlife crisis, he raised an eyebrow. “Rob, you’re 57. Midlife?”

As my friends and family (and therapist) can attest, I’ve struggled with this decision. It didn’t come as an epiphany but as a gnawing sense that I had given this place my all, and it was time to stretch myself in new ways.

Each Yom Kippur, we come face to face with our mortality. The liturgy urges us to make good our vows and repair our wrongs before the closing of the gates. And each Yom Kippur for many years, I sat in services and struggled with the reality that the gates are closing, and I had to decide. I would recite the Al Chet prayer, which asks God to forgive us a litany a sins. I would get to the last one — “For the mistakes we committed before You through confusion of the heart” — and beat my breast extra hard. The rabbis understood how indecision could paralyze us, stifling our potential.

In her new book, Rabbi Naomi Levy (who also happens to be my wife) tells how the rabbis believed that an angel hovers over every living thing, every blade of grass, whispering, “Grow! Grow!” Since I first read that passage, the angel’s voice has only grown louder. By last year, that still small voice — kol d’mama daka — was screaming.

Still, I wavered. Letting go of this job turns out to be really hard. It has given me a public platform, a voice. It has taken me around the world: Poland, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Morocco, Germany, France, England, Mexico and, of course, Israel. It has brought me into the vice president’s mansion and the White House — twice — and enabled me to meet and speak with intellectuals, diplomats, artists, writers, actors, activists, rabbis, educators, politicians and world leaders. It has put me on stages from Encino to Oxford, to speak with people like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Tony Kushner, Ehud Barak, Amos Oz and the brave Muslim journalists whom the Journal has hosted as Daniel Pearl Fellows.

It has paid me to do what I would do for free: keep up with current events, learn all that I can about Judaism, Los Angeles, politics, food and Israel. It has put me into the heart of the Los Angeles Jewish community at a remarkable time, when we Jews are freer, more secure and more powerful than at any other time in our history. It also put me into journalism during a thrilling moment, when the future of media changes weekly, and when what began as a small community paper can now, with the click of a button, have an impact on people around the world.

Maybe I should stop with this litany before I change my mind, but ultimately, those are just the perks of a fascinating job. I am under no illusions about what really made my role so rewarding.

First, you.

When I say the Journal has been my home, I mean you readers have been like family. You are smart, caring, engaged and opinionated. Not for a second did I ever feel I was writing into a void — and, on occasion, I wished I were. “Eshman is a total moron when it comes to Israel,” a letter writer wrote last week. I’ve been doing this so long and have developed such a thick skin, I actually took it as a compliment. Hey, he didn’t say about everything, just Israel.

I’ve always been keenly aware the Journal serves one of the world’s largest and most diverse Jewish communities. As our online presence has grown, so has our community of readers, from L.A. to Tel Aviv to New York to Tehran. My goal has been to make the Journal the easiest and most interesting place for all these disparate voices to meet, to argue factually and honestly, to understand one another if not to agree. I’ve met or spoken with thousands of you over the years and I take comfort in knowing the Journal, 30 years after its founding, remains the one place where all of our many voices can gather and be heard, day after day, week after week. Even as online media catered more and more to ideological ghettos, the Journal remained committed to reflecting the broadest array of views.

My other deep sense of fulfillment comes from having been part of the Jewish Journal board and staff. I was fortunate to work under three chairs of TRIBE Media, the nonprofit that publishes the Journal: Stanley Hirsh, Irwin Field and Peter Lowy. All three fiercely respected the Journal’s editorial independence. Stanley tapped me to be editor and Irwin devoted himself selflessly to the Journal for years. Peter came in at a dire moment and has stuck by the Journal’s side ever since — he continues to be a selfless supporter and loyal defender. If anything, I often felt that if we weren’t raising a ruckus, we were letting Peter down. To me personally, he is a role model for fearlessness and generosity. If you have received any benefit from this enterprise, Peter Lowy deserves more credit than he will ever take.

I’ve appreciated all of our board members over the years, but I owe four of them special thanks. Uri Herscher believed in this paper when the recession had all but finished it off. His commitment to local, independent Jewish press, his moral authority and his wisdom helped bring it back to life. Uri continues to be a mentor and inspiration to me, as he is to so many. Art Bilger was part of the original rescue squad and saw us through very hard times with insight and creativity. Michael Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, has always been an unflappable editorial sounding board for me. Jonathan Kirsch has acted as the Journal’s pro bono counsel for 30 years. His expertise has been an important part of the Journal’s success, and occasionally its salvation. Tough stories often make for tough enemies. Jonathan Kirsch is our shield.

As for the staff, what can I say? There’s a word for an editor without a staff — it’s called a blogger. An enormous amount of work goes into putting out a weekly paper and a constantly updated website. That work is unceasing, always under deadline with never enough time or money. Whether it’s Tom Tugend, who fled Nazi Berlin and fought in three wars — and still reports for us — or our newest interns, the people who do this work on the advertising, production, administrative and editorial sides are the paper. They are an extraordinary group of people, from all different faiths and backgrounds. I’ll take full blame for any criticism you may have of this paper, but any compliments must be shared with them.

Six years ago, when I asked David Suissa to join the paper, I knew that there were few people in L.A. who share his passion for Jewish life combined with his commitment to fine journalism and an intense creativity. Three years ago, when I first told David I was thinking of leaving, he said, “No!” David can be very persuasive, so no it was, and I’m grateful I stayed. These past few years have been the most exciting.

I know there are Suissa people out there and Eshman people, but as David takes the reins, I want you to know that I am a Suissa person. I am sure under David this enterprise will go from strength to strength.

There is a second “staff” that also has been a blessing: my family. Raising a family in the Jewish community while reporting on the Jewish community has been tricky at times, and often personally hard for them. To protect their privacy, I chose to write about my son, Adi, and daughter, Noa, very sparingly in this space, but know that is in inverse proportion to the amount of room they take up in my heart and soul. Adi and Noa have been my constant joy and inspiration.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in those decades, it’s that nothing is as important to individual success as community. Yes, the community can offer connections and a leg up. But it also will be there when you fall.

My wife Naomi approaches Jewish learning and practice with utter commitment and total joy. She doesn’t just inspire me, she revives my faith when the politics of communal life can sometimes sour it. Being married to a brilliant rabbi and writer has also helped me fool you into thinking I know far more than I do.   

My parents, Aaron and Sari Eshman, are my role models for community and caring. My dad was born in 1927 in Los Angeles, where his father, Louis, was on the original medical staff of what was then Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. I have vivid childhood memories of Mom and Dad heading off to charity events and volunteering for Cedars, Vista Del Mar and other organizations. Like so many of their contemporaries, they have left this city and its Jewish community far better than they found it. I hope I have been a worthy link in the chain.

That chain includes my predecessors at the paper. Founding editor Gene Lichtenstein set an example of journalistic excellence I have tried to emulate. The cover of the first issue on Feb. 28, 1986,  featured a story on Jews and the school busing controversy. Clearly this was never going to be a paper content to run puff pieces.

Gene accepted men-seeking-men ads long before mainstream papers did. After he left, we were the first Jewish paper to run cover stories on gay marriage and transgender Jews. Religion that doesn’t wrestle with contemporary issues belongs in a museum, not a newspaper.

In the pantheon of columnists I most admire — William Safire, Peggy Noonan, Tom Friedman, Steve Lopez, Bret Stephens, Nick Kristof, Jeffrey Goldberg — I put the late Marlene Adler Marks on the highest pedestal. She was a dear colleague who died too young, and could never be replaced.

When I started at the Journal, almost all Jewish papers were exactly what the late Rabbi Stephen S. Wise called them: “weaklies.” They were parochial community organs. The lead  story of one such paper that arrived in our offices back then was, “Jewish Community Center Gets New Deck.” And yes, the entire cover photo was of a wooden deck. This is some business I’m in, I thought.

Today, Jewish journalism is in a golden age: The Jewish Journal, The Forward, The New York Jewish Week, Moment, Tablet, JTA, not to mention The Times of Israel and Haaretz (let’s face it, they’re pretty Jewish) are attracting great talent, breaking stories, providing deep insights and playing a leading role in shaping communal and international conversation. I am indebted to and often in awe of my colleagues in this corner of the journalism world. Of course, Jewish journalism still is, compared with the big guys, a small endeavor. But Jews also are small in number — and that hasn’t stopped us from making a difference. So can our media. Please support it.

I can’t tell you I’m not a little scared. I will miss being in regular contact with the remarkable people who make up this community, many of whom have become dear friends. I have this recurring, chilling thought that nothing will work out and I’ll be the guy at home in my pajamas writing those cranky letters to the editor, instead of the guy at the office who selects which ones to print.

But there’s some comfort, excitement and strength in being open to the uncertainty. That’s the lesson of Yom Kippur:  We know our days are numbered, that life is a passing shadow, and so we resolve to make changes today — haYom! the liturgy repeats — because the future is beyond our control. 

Last week, I was talking all this over with an older and far wiser attorney friend over lunch. I said I’d heard a life transition can be like a trapeze — sometimes you have to let go of one bar before the next appears. “Well,” he said, “as long as there’s a net.”

At first, I gulped. Oh, damn, I thought, he’s right. What was I thinking?

But then I remembered, I have a net, and so do you. It’s called community. It’s the reason this paper exists and thrives, it’s the reason I’ve been doing this job for 23 years.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in those decades, it’s that nothing is as important to individual success as community. Yes, the community can offer connections and a leg up. But it also will be there when you fall. It’s there for you when you get sick or a loved one dies, and it’s there for you to celebrate your successes and your joys. They say journalism is the first draft of history. But journalism’s true purpose isn’t to record history; it’s to strengthen community. No matter what comes next — trapeze bar or net — I am proud to have helped the Journal fulfill that role.

Over the years, many letter writers have accused me of being overly optimistic. Guilty. This was never the column to turn to if you wanted to read the same old dire warnings about how the Jews are disappearing, anti-Semites are everywhere, the younger generation is lost, Israel and the Palestinians are doomed, and every other gloomy prediction that passes as realism.

But it is impossible to do what I’ve done for the past two decades and not be optimistic. I leave this job with a deep sense of the abiding power of community and tradition and the ability of Judaism to meet the challenges of an unpredictable and often cruel world. To be a Jewish journalist is to see an ancient faith renewed in real time in the real world, in all its variety, abundance — and endurance.

Just this week, I was planning an upcoming trip to Berlin for a conference. When I told my wife I was thinking of finally visiting Auschwitz, a place neither of us has ever been, she became  upset.

“Please don’t go to Auschwitz without me,” she said.

The instant she said it, we had to laugh. Seventy-five years ago, who would have thought?

To this day, that somewhat over-the-top 2003 video of Israeli jets flying over Auschwitz still moves me. The weak can become powerful. Refugees can find a home. In a matter of years, enemies can become allies. Things change, often for the good.

But among all that change, the need for spirituality and tradition abides. Just last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of him and his wife celebrating Shabbat with their baby daughter, Max. They gave Max a 100-year-old Kiddush Cup that belonged to her great-great-grandfather.

No amount of money or power, no new technology and no social upheaval can erase our deeply human need for meaning, connection and purpose. Judaism has helped people meet those needs for millennia. After 5,778 years, the burden of proof is on the pessimists. Judaism will evolve, of course, but as long as it changes to meet these eternal human needs, it will endure.

So, now comes the time for my personal evolution. I do hope we can keep in touch. After all, I plan on staying in L.A. and, more than likely, remaining Jewish.  This Yom Kippur, you definitely will find me in shul, thankful for having made my decision, grateful for the past 23 years, and eager to open new gates as the old ones close.

In the meantime, I wish you a sweet and healthy New Year. Serving you has been my deepest honor. May you come to know all the blessings that being part of your life has brought me.


If you’d like to keep in touch with Rob Eshman, send an email to robeshman@gmail.com. You also can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism, and on his public Facebook page. Rob will still blog at foodaism.com — without a staff.

Death, Einstein and hints of eternity

It was the anguish of a father who lost his young son to polio in 1950 that triggered the soulful journey that lies at the heart of Rabbi Naomi Levy’s new book, “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul.”

“His death has shattered the very structure of my existence,” the father wrote in a letter. “My very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings.”

The grieving father, Rabbi Robert Marcus, was desperate for some form of consolation and meaning from his loss. He surely knew that any rabbi could console him with thoughts of the afterlife and of living memories. But he wasn’t writing to a man of God.

He was writing to Albert Einstein.

He wanted to hear how the world’s greatest scientist would respond to his despondent cries: “Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child — a blooming bud that turned its face to the sun and was cut down by an unrelenting storm — has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death?”

Marcus was challenging the genius scientist about something Einstein had written that seemed to dismiss religious transcendence: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension … such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.”

Einstein, then, was in a tight spot: How would he console the grieving rabbi without compromising his scientific integrity?

His enigmatic answer, which Levy discovered while doing research for a class, is what compelled her to write the book.

“Einstein’s exquisite words stopped me in my tracks,” she writes. “He was expressing everything I believed about our limited vision and about the oneness we have trouble seeing, but that we are all part of.”

The letter resonated so deeply that it triggered a three-year journey that involved, among many things, tracking down the heroic and tragic story of Rabbi Marcus’ life, the eventual discovery of his letter to Einstein and a few other surprises.

The book evolves as a sort of spiritual adventure to ferret out the meaning of Einstein’s message and connect it to how our souls can elevate and enrich our everyday lives.

But it is Einstein’s response that especially illuminates the book. The book evolves as a sort of spiritual adventure to ferret out the meaning of Einstein’s message and connect it to how our souls can elevate and enrich our everyday lives.

The letter itself is brief — 78 words. Levy writes that she meditated on it “every day for three years.” (I meditated on it myself a few months ago when I had a chance to review the manuscript.)

So, what did Time magazine’s Person of the Century have to say to a rabbi devastated by the loss of his son? I won’t give it all away, but I can say that his answer is a kind of midrash on the gaps in our consciousness.

It is an “optical delusion,” Einstein writes, to experience ourselves as something separate from the universe, as “separate from the rest.” Freeing ourselves from this delusion is “the one issue of true religion,” and trying to overcome the delusion is the way to reach the “attainable measure of peace of mind.”

An attainable measure? An optical delusion? The one issue of true religion? Those are not the words one usually hears at a shivah, but they are the words that planted themselves in Levy’s consciousness.

Einstein used rational words to express a soulful message about our cosmic interconnection. In doing so, he made science caress religion. He validated Levy’s tapestry of human connectivity which unfolds throughout her book.

Of the many stories that comprise this tapestry, the most personal is how Levy deals with the death of her father. As she chronicles this painful chapter, she sets up the spiritual thrust of the book —  “sensing the pulsating rhythm in all things … being attuned to mystery … embracing life’s magic instead of needing to control it all the time.”

This mysterious magic lies in our souls.

Throughout the book, Levy displays a gift for challenging us and empowering us at the same time. She challenges us to access the divine power of our souls to improve our lives, and she empowers us through the simple magic of human stories.

More than anything, Levy wants us to remember that, through our souls, we all are connected for eternity in God’s universe.

“I can see hints of eternity now that I had no access to then,” she writes near the end.

The little boy whose tragic death in 1950 led to a soul-stirring book in 2017 is a poignant hint of this eternity.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Rabbi Naomi Levy’s ‘Einstein’ charts a path to the soul

A pulpit rabbi is called upon to be all things to all people — spiritual leader, teacher, counselor, comforter, administrator and much else besides. Naomi Levy, as the founder and rabbi of the Los Angeles-based Jewish spiritual community called Nashuva, is all that and more. What we discover in her latest book, “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul” (Flatiron Books), is that she also is (perhaps above all) a gifted storyteller — courageous, daring, witty and wise.

“The Hebrew word Nashuva means We Will Return,” she explains in the book. “We all have a need to return — to passion, to our dreams, to love, to our own souls, to God.”

Among the many examples of loss and redemption to be found in “Einstein and the Rabbi” is the heartbreaking loss she suffered at the age of 15 when her father was gunned down in a robbery. She had dared to dream of becoming a rabbi — something unheard of in the Conservative movement at the time — but the loss erased her dreams: “I was numb,” she writes. “Prayer died too. All those powerful discussions my dad and I had about God and faith and prayer seemed hollow now. What good was God? I stopped longing to be a rabbi.”

By her senior year of college, however, a door opened — literally. The Jewish Theological Seminary voted to accept women into its rabbinical program, and Levy was a member of the first entering class to include women. She reconnected with both her childhood dream and her father, too. “When I heard the news, I was laughing and crying at the same time,” she recalls. “I knew my father was laughing, too, laughing from pure joy.”

The title of the book refers to a kind of mystery story that runs throughout the work. Levy found her way to an obscure letter whose author turned out to be Albert Einstein: “A human being … experiences himself … as something separate from the rest,” the great scientist wrote. “The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.”

The letter inspired her to play the role of a detective: “Little did I know that this powerful teaching by Einstein about the universe would lead me to the soul of a stranger, and that I would feel compelled to follow the sacred thread of his story.”

I won’t give away the ending — or the fascinating and sometimes sorrowful twists and turns — of the story that she tells about Einstein’s letter except to say that it carries a profound irony. For Levy, the words of a famous man of science reveal a path to something every bit as elusive as the theory of relativity — the human soul.

“What you see with your eyes is only a piece of the truth,” she explains. “But the soul wants to offer us its expansive vision, a consciousness of the whole we have trouble seeing. Soon we may begin to see a bigger picture, how random threads are all actually woven together in a single majestic tapestry.”

Rabbi Naomi Levy

For Levy, the words of a famous man of science reveal a path to something every bit as elusive as the theory of relativity — the human soul.

The crown jewel of “Einstein and the Rabbi,” however, is Levy’s account of a dire medical ordeal she was forced to endure. Again, I do not want to take the edge off her remarkable and ultimately triumphant story except to say that it begins with a triviality and quickly escalates into something truly nightmarish. And yet, as Levy tells it, the final moments before a crucial surgery presented her with an experience of the divine.

“And all of a sudden I crossed a river,” she explains. “From drowning in waves that were engulfing me to the purest stillest water I have ever seen. It wasn’t something I did, it just happened. Grace.

“Whoa!” said a nurse who happened to enter the pre-op room at that moment. “ ‘Something really powerful is happening here,’ and she backed away and closed the door.”

My ethical obligation as a book reviewer requires me to disclose that Levy is married to Rob Eshman, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Journal, but that’s not the only reason to mention him here. Eshman figures importantly in the book and often is in its most poignant and endearing passages, as when Levy describes how he “wooed me with food.”

“Our kids grew up knowing that both their parents would be sitting with them every night eating amazing food together,” she writes. “Love, sensuality, soul, friendship, community, family, food. Eden. Thank You, God. I am full.”

“Einstein and the Rabbi” is Levy’s fourth book, and the readers of her previous work (“Hope Will Find You,” “Talking to God” and “To Begin Again”) already will know that she brings not only eloquence and wisdom but also a wry sense of humor and the deepest compassion to her writing. Yet her new book achieves something even more exalted, an intimate revelation that rings with courage and authenticity. The reader surely will come away from Levy’s latest book with that sense of spiritual fullness she seeks to impart in everything she does, whether from the pulpit or on the printed page.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Interview with Rabbi Naomi Levy: On hope and holy moments

Rabbi Naomi Levy. Photo by Jay Lawrence Goldman

Rabbi Naomi Levy spoke with Jonathan Kirsch, the book editor of the Journal, about her book “Einstein and the Rabbi.”

Jewish Journal: The title of your book reminds us that Albert Einstein — perhaps the most famous Jewish figure in the modern era — was a scientist who also had a lot to say about God. You share with your readers a letter in which Einstein says that achieving a sense of oneness with the universe is “the one issue of true religion.” What do you understand Einstein to mean by “true religion”?

Naomi Levy: My take — or my midrash, if you will — is that I am reading his words as a reference to a spirituality that encompass all faiths, and all traditions, and all people. “Religion” is our sense of common purpose and common humanity, our ability to rise above all of the differences that we see, a recognition that, really, oneness is all there is. My prayer is that it would be a universal faith that we can all sign on to while keeping our individual traditions and faiths. And I would love to be a rabbi in that faith.

JJ: You write about what you describe as your “homemade” bat mitzvah, which was also your first encounter with the limited role that traditional Judaism affords to women, young and old. You’ve come a long way since then, and yet the Jewish world — and especially the rabbinate in Israel —  can still be an unwelcoming place for a woman rabbi. Do you sometimes feel that Judaism itself is moving in the wrong direction?

NL: Obviously, since my bat mitzvah, many aspects of Judaism are moving in very hopeful directions. In extreme Orthodoxy, they are not. I find it very saddening that American Jewry has more freedom of expression and more freedom to experience different voices of Jewish insight than Jews in Israel do.

JJ: One of the most heartbreaking and yet formative experiences that you describe in your book is the murder of your father by an armed robber when you were a teenager. It seems like America is descending ever deeper into gun violence. Yet you also write: “Yes, I do believe great things are coming, sweet blessings.” What brings you to that belief?

I realized that there may be a lot going wrong in our nation and our world, but there are wonderful people everywhere with good hearts and open arms.

NL: On the day of the solar eclipse, I hopped on my bicycle and rode to the beach. We’d gone to a store to get the special glasses you need, but we didn’t find them, and I thought I wouldn’t see the eclipse after all. But I came upon this lovely group of people who could not have been more welcoming or more loving. We shared stories and emails and cellphones. When I walked away from that experience, I realized that there may be a lot going wrong in our nation and our world, but there are wonderful people everywhere with good hearts and open arms. I really do believe in humanity, I do. We can’t afford to give into despair. We have to be warriors for love, and warriors for hope, and warriors for peace.

JJ: You write with both wit and courage about a dire health crisis of your own and a moment of exaltation that came in answer to prayer. That scene in the hospital is so remarkable that you hasten to explain to your readers: “I am not psychotic … at least I don’t think I am.” Do you find it ironic that we live at a time when a rabbi who personally experiences divine intervention needs to assure her readers that she is not crazy?

NL: You know what? I think if I were Christian, I wouldn’t have to explain it as much, but Jews are more skeptical of things like a calling. Even though the whole concept of a calling is a Jewish concept, and our Christian brothers and sisters got it from us, when would you hear a rabbi saying, “I got the call”? But I did.

JJ: You write, “It’s not uncommon for me to spend the morning offering a blessing at the bedside of someone who is dying, and to then rejoice at a wedding or a baby naming that same afternoon.” But I wonder if it takes a toll on you, physically and spiritually, to be the one we go to at moments of the greatest joy as well as the greatest pain and sorrow.

NL: The toll would be so much greater if I didn’t have love at home. I feel very blessed and loved.  And there is a way in which making the shift from death to life or from life to death gives me a perspective that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Are there times when I feel like I just can’t do this? Yes, there are. Then I rise to the occasion and do it, and those are some of the most precious, powerful and holy moments in my whole life.

Beholding threads of connection: An excerpt from ‘Einstein and the Rabbi’

It was three years ago that I stumbled accidentally on a quote by Albert Einstein that stopped me in my tracks because it so captured everything I believe and everything I know to be true about the way we are all intimately connected to one another.

And then Rabbi Robert Marcus, who had helped so many children but was unable to save the life of his own eleven-year-old son Jay, became part of my journey. In his heartbreak, he’d reached out and written to Einstein seeking words of comfort, words to help him make sense of his own tragic loss. In return, he received Einstein’s powerful description of a world that is all one.

Over the past three years, I’ve been searching the world for Buchenwald boys who could offer me any piece of information about Rabbi Marcus, who died in 1951.

But the one Buchenwald boy I most wanted to speak to, the one who I believed could really put Rabbi Marcus’s story into context for me, was Elie Wiesel.

I so longed to interview Elie. I’d write, I’d call, I’d e-mail. His assistant always told me that his calendar was completely booked.

One friend of mine who knew Elie told me he was in poor health and that his mind might not be as clear as it once was. Perhaps Elie didn’t remember Rabbi Marcus. Perhaps that was why I couldn’t reach him.

Still, every few weeks I’d e-mail again requesting an interview.

I waited and reached out for three years and then, one day, I got a response! Elie wanted to speak with me. On the afternoon of our interview I was so excited my heart was pounding in my chest.

I still worried that Elie might not have much to tell me about Rabbi Marcus, but I was so grateful and honored to be able to speak with him. Then I asked my first question: “Do you remember Rabbi Robert Marcus?”

Elie said, “Do I remember?”

He said, “I saw a soldier appear with a Star of David sewn onto his military uniform.”

Elie explained, “This meant a lot. Up to that moment, for us, a Star of David was a mark of death. And here suddenly it was a mark of freedom!”

That’s not something you forget.

Then Elie told me about the power of that moment when Rabbi Marcus led the very first prayer service in the Buchenwald concentration camp. “We prayed all the time in Buchenwald,” Elie said, “but this was different. It was a great happiness, surprising. It meant a great deal that we could pray with him.”

Elie told me that he was in awe of Rabbi Marcus. He said, “Naomi, the distance from us boys to Rabbi Marcus was like the distance from the earth to the sun.” Seventy years had passed, but his memories of that time had not faded.

And then I spoke with Elie about Judith, the young woman who took charge of his  orphanage after liberation.

I asked Elie, “What stood out for you about Judith?”

He said, “Her smile.”
I asked him, “Could you feel her confidence?”

“Oh yes,” he said, “absolutely, we all felt it. She came from a place of security and happiness. She created a safe place for us. Judith knew what we needed.”

With kindness, Elie allowed me to probe into those days with Judith. I asked him, “Did you know when you first arrived at Ecouis that you and all the boys had been diagnosed as damaged beyond repair?”

Elie replied in a voice filled with pain and understanding, “Yes, I was aware of that.”

Elie told me about the day when Judith reorganized rooms by village. “It was a powerful moment,” he said.

I asked Elie if he remembered Niny. It turned out that Elie, too, had a mad crush on the beautiful Niny.

Then I spoke with Elie about the day the boys argued over whether they should say the mourner’s Kaddish for their families. Elie was one of the boys who stayed to recite the prayer for the departed. He told me that even from a distance of seventy years, it was too difficult for him to speak about that day.

I said to Elie, “Judith told me she saw hope return to the boys. Did Judith give you hope?”

Elie said, “It’s a very strong word, ‘hope,’ I’m not sure I’d use that word.”

“What word would you use?”
“Hopefully, I’ll find it. One day I’ll find it.”

Toward the end of our conversation I asked Elie the question I’d been longing to ask him: if he knew about a letter Rabbi Marcus had written to Einstein after the death of his son Jay. Elie told me he did not. I read Elie Einstein’s letter to Rabbi Marcus and then I asked him, “What was the most important thing that got you through your worst times?”

Without missing a beat Elie replied, “Friendship … without a doubt, friendship.”

Yes, friendship, of course! As Elie spoke I was beginning to see threads of connection. The way you can even be a friend to a total stranger. How Rabbi Marcus was there for Elie Wiesel and how Einstein was there for Rabbi Marcus. Strangers who reached beyond themselves to lift up and save another — people who rose above that “optical delusion of separateness.”

We are all part of a whole.

You never know how a stranger is going to enter your life and save you and lift you and liberate you from the delusion that you are alone.

At that moment, I was about to say thank you and hang up, but then I realized that I owed Elie Wiesel my gratitude, not for agreeing to do this interview, but for an act of kindness he bestowed upon me many years ago without even knowing it. I needed to thank him, and I might never have another chance.

So before I hung up with Elie I hesitated, but then I gathered up my courage because I just knew I had to tell him how he had saved my life. I told Elie, “I need to tell you something. I assume you must hear this from so many people, how you’ve helped them, but I need to tell you what you did for me in my life.”

“You cannot imagine how moved I am right now,” Elie said. “Tell me what happened.”

We are all part of a whole. You never know how a stranger is going to enter your life and save you and lift you and liberate you from the delusion that you are alone.

And so I began: “I grew up in Brooklyn. My father taught me, from the time I was a small child, he began teaching me Torah and commentaries and how to pray, too. He’d take me with him to synagogue every Sabbath and I would sit beside him and play with the strands of his prayer shawl.”

I told Elie about my father’s murder when I was fifteen years old and that I was an angry kid, so angry and lost and sad. I said I didn’t have a plan for ending my life, but I didn’t have any plan for living either.

I was only fifteen years old and I felt like I had come to the end of things. My father was gone. My mother wasn’t the same woman anymore. The Sabbath wasn’t the same. I wasn’t the same. Prayer? How could prayer be the same? And what good was God anyway?

I said, “At that lowest point of my life, my mother saw that you were giving a lecture and she asked me to go with her. I didn’t want to go, but she encouraged me and I went. It was a freezing-cold December night and we took the subway from Boro Park all the way up to the 92nd Street Y.” I said, “I walked into this massive auditorium full of old people and I so didn’t want to be there. We were sitting in the second-to-last row and I so regretted that I’d agreed to come to this thing. But then all of a sudden, the lights went down and you walked onstage and sat down at a desk with just a spotlight on you, and began speaking. At first, I was daydreaming as you spoke, but then your words began to seep into my well-defended heart. Yes, your words were sinking in, the kindness of your voice. And your hands were performing some sort of ballet in the dark. It was as if your hands were doing a performance to the words you spoke all on their own. I remember being transfixed by your hands, and realizing it was the first time I experienced beauty since the day my father died. I was mesmerized. Watching and listening to you, a man who had been to hell and back, and seeing you offer beauty to the world gave me some sort of spark of hope. And somehow, that night, you opened a door for me to step through. That night was the beginning, a first step in many steps that would lead me back, bit by bit, out of the depths that had threatened to overtake me. Many years have passed and I have had many causes for joy. And I want to thank you for teaching me that there was hope in my future and that I would have cause to celebrate and to give thanks.”

I said to Elie, “A man stands in front of an auditorium of two thousand people and he has no idea that he’s opened a new door for some lost fifteen-year-old kid who is listening and taking it all in.”

Elie said to me, “You cannot imagine how touched I am.”

Sadly, Elie Wiesel died not long after our intimate conversation. I will treasure the precious wisdom he shared with me always and the final words we spoke to each other:

He said, “Naomi, you found your way.”

“You are a blessing,” I replied.

“So are you,” he said. “Don’t forget that. Believe in that. More and more blessings.”


From: “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul” by Naomi Levy (Macmillan, 2017). Reprinted with permission.

I Love You Rob Eshman

It was announced today that Rob Eshman is stepping down from his post as editor-in-chief and publisher of the Jewish Journal. When I read the news my heart paused, then I sighed, then I was sad for me, then I was happy for him, then I stared at the picture accompanying the announcement and thought about how much I love this wonderful man, and will miss him as my boss.

Important to note that my remarkable Rabbi, Naomi Levy, is married to Rob and I love her just as much, so there is no shame in professing my love for this great man. As I begin my ninth year as a writer at the Jewish Journal, I owe everything to Rob. He not only heard my voice through my writing, but fought for others to hear it, even when some wanted me to be quiet. I have built a wonderful life as a writer and I will forever be grateful to the man who started it all for me.

Rob Eshman is my hero for a lot of reasons. He loves his family in a way that makes me believe in love. He comments on my writing in a way that makes me want to do better. He inspires me to be a more informed Jew. He makes me laugh, and think, and hope, and pray. I am a better writer for having worked alongside him and will forever been honored to have been taken under his wing.

To the divine Rob Eshman, you are amazing and I am happy for you. I wish you nothing but good things on your new adventure. I look forward to buying your cookbook and seeing you in temple. You are a wonderful journalist, an exceptional human being, and I love you. Always have, and always will. Mazel Tov Mr. Eshman. Be happy, be safe, and always keep the faith.

 

 

Here are 5 places you can pray outdoors this summer

IKAR holds Kabbalat Shabbat at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills on the first Friday of each summer month. Photo by Scott Shulman

What better place to find the Tree of Life than in nature? And what better spiritual guidebook than a siddur?

A number of congregations in the Greater Los Angeles area take Friday night services outside during the summer — singing nigunim on the sand in Malibu, shul-hopping on bicycles in Venice and picnicking before prayers at public parks. And if you’ve ever wanted to bring your dog to shul, this is probably your best opportunity.

Holding services outdoors has become a popular way for local synagogues to reinvigorate the prayer experience. With services stripped of the formality and physical constraints of a sanctuary, congregants can more vividly experience the wonders of God’s creation — or simply enjoy the Southern California weather in a Jewish context.

“Experiencing God in all the manifestations of nature, we find we are connected with the Creator,” said Cantor Marcelo Gindlin of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, which will meet at Westward Beach every Friday night from July 14 through Sept. 8.

The Friday night services with Gindlin include a live band, and usually more than 100 people attend, bringing picnics, blankets and beach chairs. The cantor begins at around 7, though many arrive earlier to set up and eat. “The dolphins show up when I sing ‘Shalom Aleichem,’ ” Gindlin said.

The Malibu congregation is not alone in taking advantage of the beach. Open Temple practices hitbodedut, a meditative form of prayer, at Venice Beach in August. The proceedings include traditional prayers, contemplative moments, and what Rabbi Lori Shapiro called “sound baths on the beach.” There’s also a gong.

Leonard Atlas, 54, said Open Temple’s outdoor programming is its most authentic.

“Being in nature is the purest form of prayer,” Atlas said. “With the sand under our feet, it feels like we’re in Sinai — but not quite in the desert.”

Open Temple also does a communal bike ride that makes stops at several area synagogues for different parts of the Friday night service. The riders sing nigunim on the road. This year’s Bike Shabbat Shul Crawl will be on July 21.

Other synagogues venture into the wilderness — or at least to the park.

On June 9 and July 14, Valley Outreach Synagogue will hold “Shabbat in the Park” at Oak Canyon Community Park in Agoura Hills. A crowd of 400 to 600 people, along with their pets, create a Hollywood Bowl-style amphitheater effect, says Rabbi Ron Li-Paz.

No beautiful sanctuary is as beautiful as the sky and the mountains and the trees,” he said.

Li-Paz also heralded the informality of the natural setting for its appeal to interfaith families. “A synagogue might be challenging for some families to walk through the doors, just as a church might be,” he said. The casual, kibbutz-like atmosphere of Shabbat in the Park can be more inviting to non-Jewish family members.

But the appeal of praying outdoors is universal, says Loren Witkin, 50. He and his family have come to Shabbat in the Park for several years. Witkin noticed that his sons, who had had difficulty connecting to Judaism in their early adolescence, enjoyed a more laid-back presentation of the religion.

“The kids — they’re building memories and an experience that will draw them back in,” he said. “It gives you optimism for the future because we know how disengaged [young] people are becoming from their congregations. Seeing all these young people having a good time together reinforces some sense that this is going to continue.”

The spiritual appeal of praying in nature goes beyond the pleasure of a good view. There are actual references to nature in the liturgy, explained Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, a prayer community that meets once a month in Brentwood.

“We sing so many songs about nature [in regular prayers], but you say them inside a building,” Levy said. “The re-creation of each day, and seeing God in the heavens and the sky — to take all those prayers and put them where they were probably written, by someone who was in nature, experiencing the majesty of God in nature … [one can] really feel the power of the words.”

Nashuva holds services at the beach on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and in a Temescal Canyon meadow on the second day. There’s a band, and members are encouraged to bring their own instruments.

“It just feels like nature is waking us up from all the enclosures of our lives,” Levy added.

IKAR holds an outdoor service at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills on the first Friday of each summer month. An abridged Kabbalat Shabbat starting at 6:15 p.m. is preceded by a communal picnic (bring your own), followed by a group discussion led by Rabbi Nate DeGroot that is targeted for a young professional audience.

Convening outdoors eases a lot of the social pressures of praying that are inherent to more conventional settings, said Matthew Weintraub, assistant executive director at IKAR.

“When you walk into a room, it’s easy to look around and see who’s sitting where and who are the people who you know,” Weintraub said. “But when you go outside and people are socializing informally, laughing and connecting, and then going right into a service from [that place of] comfort, it prevents barriers to entry from forming. It doesn’t feel so closed off.”

The bottom line, as it often is in California, is the weather.

“People want to get out and enjoy the summer months and it being light outside for longer,” Weintraub said. “Being able to come in shorts and flip-flops and have a meal and a prayer experience — it just feels different.”

Moving and Shaking: VBS students dance, ADL honors law enforcement, new leadership at LAMOTH

Orly Star Setareh (far right), a dance specialist, leads VBS students in dance at The Music Center. Photo courtesy of the Music Center.

About 40 Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School fifth-graders were among the 18,000 elementary school students who participated in the 47th annual Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival, a free arts education initiative held Feb. 28 at The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Nancy Herbst, director of general studies at the day school, was among the adults accompanying the VBS students, who attended a performance by the Ailey II dance company in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before they performed a synchronized dance inspired by Ailey II in The Music Center plaza.

Blue Ribbon is the self-described “premier women’s support organization of The Music Center.”


The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Helene & Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate luncheon and awards ceremony was held March 14 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The event honored law enforcement officials who have played a role in fighting hate in Southern California.

Among the honorees were Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Yadira Perez, who helped apprehend an arsonist responsible for setting a mosque ablaze in Coachella in December 2015, and Cindy Cipriani, senior management counsel and director of community outreach in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, who “has dedicated her life’s work to advancing the values of unity and understanding with humility and compassion,” the ADL statement said.

Perez recalled her decision to pursue the arsonist after spotting him while off-duty: “At that point,” she said, “I felt the risk to public safety outweighed the risk of me catching him.”

LAPD and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators and L.A. city attorneys, who were honored for their takedown of a white supremacist gang in the San Fernando Valley, come together with Joseph Sherwood (seated, front row) and his son, Howard (crouching, far right) at the Anti-Defamation League’s Helene & Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate luncheon and awards event.

LAPD and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators and L.A. city attorneys, who were honored for their takedown of a white supremacist gang in the San Fernando Valley, come together with Joseph Sherwood (seated, front row) and his son, Howard (crouching, far right) at the Anti-Defamation League’s Helene & Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate luncheon and awards event.

The fire at the mosque was seen as a vengeful reaction to the killing of 14 people and wounding of 22 earlier that month at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino by perpetrators who claimed terrorist allegiances.

In addition, the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Division, its Orange County Resident Agency, the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California were honored as a group for thwarting “two Anaheim individuals planning to travel to Syria and fight for ISIS,” the ADL said. One of the individuals had planned to fly from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv to join terrorist fighters in the Middle East.

The event’s additional group honoree was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ L.A. field division, the L.A. City Attorney’s Office and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes Division, which were honored for removing a “stronghold of San Fernando Valley Peckerwoods, a white supremacist gang,” the ADL said.

The more than 250 attendees included Ayelet Feiman, an L.A. city attorney prosecutor who was honored with the Sherwood Prize in 2013 for her efforts on a case involving swastikas drawn in maple syrup outside the home of a Jewish family in Northridge; Joseph Sherwood and his son, Howard; ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind; L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and others.

The event also celebrated Joseph Sherwood’s 100th birthday, on March 12.

The Sherwood family launched the prize in 1996 as a way to bring attention to the positive contributions of law enforcement.


From left: Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Michael Tuchin, Richard Pachulski and Patricia Glaser attend the American Friends of Hebrew University Torch of Learning Award Dinner, which honored Tuchin and Pachulski. Photo courtesy of AFHU.

From left: Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Michael Tuchin, Richard Pachulski and Patricia Glaser attend the American Friends of Hebrew University Torch of Learning Award Dinner, which honored Tuchin and Pachulski. Photo courtesy of AFHU.

The March 1 American Friends of Hebrew University (AFHU) Harvey L. Silbert Torch of Learning Award Dinner at the Beverly Hilton honored Richard Pachulski, a corporate restructuring attorney, and Michael L. Tuchin, a founding member and co-manager of Klee, Tuchin, Bogdanoff & Stern.

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, who often writes about events pertaining to Israel and has spoken out against President Donald Trump despite being a conservative, was the guest speaker. He discussed what makes America great, noting the disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners who are Americans, many of whom are immigrants. Additionally, he said HU, with its diverse student population of Arab, secular and religious students, embodies what is best about Israel.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is described by an AFHU press release as “the honorees’ longtime friend,” presented Pachulski and Tuchin with their awards.

The event raised $1.2 million for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law.

Attendees included Patricia Glaser, event chair and the AFHU western region vice chair; Michael Karayanni, dean of the Hebrew University Faculty of Law; Richard Ziman, vice chairman of the AFHU board of directors; and Brindell Gottlieb, president of AFHU’s western region.

AFHU raises awareness of and support for Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


From left: Cedars-Sinai Dr. Shlomo Melmed, Isabelle Szneer and Cedars-Sinai Dr. Charles Simmons commemorate Szneer’s donation to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

From left: Cedars-Sinai Dr. Shlomo Melmed, Isabelle Szneer and Cedars-Sinai Dr. Charles Simmons commemorate Szneer’s donation to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The family of the late Leopold Szneer, a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor and former Congregation Mogen David cantor, has provided a $250,000 gift to the Cedars-Sinai Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease program.

A dedication and luncheon to celebrate the donation, given in Szneer’s memory and in the memory of the 1.5 million children who perished during the Holocaust, was held Jan. 17 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Szneer, who died in 2016, was imprisoned in Dachau during the Shoah, fled on the Kindertransport to Belgium in 1938 and experienced numerous challenges before immigrating to Los Angeles in the 1950s.

He went on to serve as a cantor, his longtime dream, at Congregation Mogen David in Pico-Robertson, for more than 20 years.

Isabelle Szneer, his wife since 1947 and also a Holocaust survivor, provided the gift in her husband’s memory. “He was a much loved man in the city,” she said.

Attendees at the event included Congregation Mogen David Rabbi Gabriel Elias; Dr. Shlomo Melmed, executive vice president of academic affairs at Cedars-Sinai; and Dr. Charles Simmons, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai.


Beth Kean

Beth Kean

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), which describes itself as the oldest survivor-founded Holocaust museum in the country, has named Beth Kean its executive director and Paul Nussbaum its president, according to a March 14 announcement.

Kean, who became the museum’s president in January 2016, had also been serving as interim executive director since November, following the departure of the museum’s previous executive director, Samara Hutman. Nussbaum previously served as the museum’s treasurer. Jamie Rosenblood, a current board member at LAMOTH and museum docent who has a background in finance, is succeeding Nussbaum in that role. 

Paul Nussbaum

Paul Nussbaum

The leadership transition is part of “an unprecedented five-year plan to expand [the museum’s] mission of teaching the dangers of genocide and promoting empathy, tolerance and understanding through history, shared knowledge, and personal experience,” the announcement says.

Kean, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, has been involved in various leadership roles on the museum’s board for more than a decade. Her husband, Jon, is a filmmaker whose work includes the documentary films “Swimming in Auschwitz” and “After Auschwitz.”

“The relevance and urgency of our mission has never been more critical than it is in today’s environment,” Kean said in the announcement. “We are creating a strategic plan that will ensure that we continue to provide free educational programming, opportunities for dialogue with Holocaust survivors, and substantially grow our audience while teaching them the relevance of becoming stewards of this important history.”

The museum expects to draw more than 60,000 visitors in 2017, an increase from the 48,000 visitors it had in 2016, according to the announcement.

In the announcement, Nussbaum, the son of Holocaust survivors, expressed optimism about the museum’s continued success.

“We’re aware that we’ve become one of the most cherished cultural assets not only in Los Angeles but in the country,” Nussbaum said. “Our intent now is to establish a roadmap to guide LAMOTH on its journey toward continued growth and awareness.”


From left: Rabbis Elie Spitz, Naomi Levy, Stewart Vogel and Reuven Taff — all of California — received honorary doctorates from Jewish Theological Seminary. Photo by Jewish Journal Staff.

From left: Rabbis Elie Spitz, Naomi Levy, Stewart Vogel and Reuven Taff — all of California — received honorary doctorates from Jewish Theological Seminary. Photo by Jewish Journal Staff.

During a March 2 ceremony at Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) awarded honorary doctorates of divinity degrees to 55 rabbis, including five California rabbis, all of whom are members of the Rabbinic Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

The honorees have served the Jewish community for 25 years or more, on the pulpit, in the classroom and elsewhere.

The local rabbis were Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, who was ordained at JTS in 1988; Naomi Levy of Nashuva in Los Angeles, who was a member of the first class of women to attend JTS’s rabbinical school, in 1984; Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, who was ordained in 1988; Neal Scheindlin of Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles, who was ordained in 1986; and Reuven Taff of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, who studied at JTS and was ordained in 1988 at a seminary in Israel.

Levy gave remarks on behalf of those being honored.

— Jewish Journal Staff


CORRECTION – 3/28/17: The original version of this story misidentified Orly Star Setareh.

Letters to the editor: Responses to immigrants and Trump, Journal’s 30th anniversary, Stephen Miller on Stephen Miller

Iranian Jews and Trump

I enjoyed reading Gina Nahai’s column (“Trump’s in the Torah,” Feb. 3). I am an immigrant of the post-World War II era. I, as well as most of my fellow immigrants, was grateful for the opportunity to live in a civil society. Most of us felt that liberal democracy gave us, as well as the rest of the nation, the opportunity for a better life and to thrive.

This has not been true of most of the later immigrants from despotic regimes. Nahai describes the situation among the Iranian-Jewish community. I also notice similar attitudes among the immigrants from the former USSR.

What is it about those who escaped despotism but admire autocracy? The general feeling that I get is they believe that allowing freedom of action and tolerance of opposing opinions are signs of weakness. They feel that leaders who allow dissent are foolish and taken advantage of.

What is so good about intolerance and autocracy that it prompted them to escape? How well has it worked out for the countries that adopted these ideologies?

Michael Telerant, Los Angeles

30 Years and Counting

Thank you Jewish Journal for 30 years of diverse thought and opinion! I’m saddened by the nasty comments against Rob Eshman’s columns, particularly letters in response to “Thank You, Obama” (Jan. 20). It’s important for differing opinions to be expressed — through civility.

May your/our Jewish Journal continue in strength and diversity! 

Robin Siegal via email

Congratulations on the Journal’s 30th anniversary. I am thrilled you continue to make it a great paper providing a real service to the Jewish community.

Gordon Gelfond, Beverly Hills

Rob Eshman: Agree or Disagree?

The omission of Jews from the Trump administration’s Holocaust statement cannot be defended as Rob Eshman makes clear (“A Holocaust Without Jews,” Feb. 3). But we would be well advised to watch what he does, because saying the right thing is no indication that actually doing the right or smart thing is likely to follow.

Let us hope, for example, that Trump’s Middle East policies and his handling of Iran will help control the fires lit in the Middle East during the Obama administration and that are still raging. 

Stupidity abounds in politics. Let us hope Trump learns more quickly than the previous administration.

Julia Lutch via email

I read Rob Eshman’s workout of Stephen Miller’s ancestry (“Stephen Miller, Meet Your Immigrant Great-Grandfather,” Aug. 12). My name is Stephen Miller and my ancestry is similar to my namesake’s.

My Jewish grandparents came to the U.S. from Romania and Poland and Austria to escape persecution. I disagree with my namesake on the question of immigration. In my book “Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole,” I talk about how New York has been revitalized by immigration. The immigration policies espoused by my namesake are deplorable. I usually vote Republican, but not in this past election. Trump is a disaster — and so is my namesake.

Stephen Miller via email

Douglas Mirell rightly believes that repeal of the Johnson Amendment would be an attack on the wall separating church and state, and that we need to cover our ears and ignore President Trump’s call for doing away with it (“Preserving the Barrier Between Church and State,” Feb. 10). 

On the other hand, Rob Eshman’s column in the same issue (“The Rabbi Speaks Out”), which described Rabbi Naomi Levy’s rebuke of Trump from the pulpit over the Muslim travel ban, demonstrates how criticism of the president by the clergy could mount were Trump to succeed in his efforts. I am pretty sure this is not the result he has in mind. 

Joan Watson via email

Trump and Nazism

Generally, I read [Dennis] Prager’s column when I haven’t had my cup of coffee and I need a jolt to wake me up.  His column about progressives trivializing Hitler, Nazism and Auschwitz got my juices flowing (“Progressives Now Trivializing Hitler, Nazism, Auschwitz,” Feb. 10). The purported examples he cites as support pale in comparison to a glaring omission on his part. President Donald Trump’s Holocaust Remembrance Day Proclamation fails to mention its impact on the Jewish people. If Prager is incapable of criticizing Trump and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer for their insensitivity to the Holocaust’s impact on the Jewish people, then he lacks any moral authority to berate those who fail to see the world through his eyes.

Andrew C. Sigal, Valley Village

Jews against the Muslim Ban

Rabbi Naomi Levy

Last Friday night, my rabbi got all political on me.

It came as something of a shock. I know Rabbi Naomi Levy really well — we’ve been married 25 years. During that time, I’ve heard Naomi give at least 1,000 sermons. Not one took an overt stand on a hot political issue or candidate. She would call for understanding between Israel and her neighbors, for instance, but the words “two-state solution” never escaped her lips.

It’s not that she hasn’t always had passionate and astute political opinions. I know. We talk.

But inside the sanctuary, her focus always has been on helping people grow spiritually, to find their life path through faith, tradition, learning and community. When she calls for social action, it is of the nonpartisan sort: feed the homeless, plant trees, engage with other faith communities. Her sermons move people to tears, laughter and introspection, not to petitions.

“That’s what people come to shul for,” she always told me. “That’s who I am.”

She also understood that politics could easily divide a congregation, or alienate some members. Both when she was the senior rabbi at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, and after she founded Nashuva, an outreach congregation based in Brentwood, she wanted everyone to feel welcome and accepted. If people wanted a pundit, they could watch cable.

So imagine my surprise this past Friday night:  The usual standing-room-only crowd, some 400 people, packed inside Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where Nashuva holds its services. Naomi began her sermon as she often does, with something true, funny and personal.

“I’m a neurotic Jew from Brooklyn,” she said. “I’m scared of so many things. I’m scared of heights. I’m scared of snakes. After my bout with skin cancer, I’m scared of the sun.” Then she asked, “But you know what I’m not scared of?”

Voices from the congregation responded, “No, what?”

Muslims,” she said. “I’m not scared of Muslims.”

There was a momentary pause.  We didn’t see it coming.  It took a split second to clock the punch. The rabbi was speaking out, loud and proud.

And all at once, applause. A loud, long spontaneous ovation.


Listen to Rabbi Naomi Levy’s sermon:


Naomi went on to hammer away at President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, and all refugees from Syria. She spoke of her own mother, Ruth, who arrived from Poland at age 6. The rest of Ruth’s large extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins — all were murdered in the Holocaust.

Naomi urged her congregation to fight the ban and to oppose the administration’s efforts to demonize Muslims. When she finished, the applause went on for a while. One couple did get up and walk out — maybe they had to use the restroom?

Why now? I asked Naomi. Why is this issue the first one you chose for making a strong political stance?

“I had no choice,” she said. “Welcoming the stranger is at the core of what it is to be Jewish.”

Of course, I agree. As an American, I know our country’s success is tied directly to immigration. As a Jew, I know how our country’s open doors literally saved our lives. And I know how many more Jews would be alive today — helping make America even greater — if the voices of fear and hate hadn’t all but closed the door to Jewish immigration after 1924. Those same forces tried to shut out Iranian Jews in 1979, and Soviet Jews in 1989, but thankfully they failed.

There is something in this immigration ban that is particularly noxious and motivating. It’s why Jewish organizations ranging from Yeshiva University to the Reform movement have taken stands. Why leaders who don’t ordinarily bring politics to the pulpit, like Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein and Stephen Wise Temple’s Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, have spoken out.  Why many disparate parts of a very diverse, fractured community are fighting it together.

That unity makes the silence of some leaders and institutions even more apparent.

Without naming names, it’s all too clear that many rabbis and leaders who deeply oppose the cruel, hateful and self-defeating order cannot publicly say so, for fear of alienating some supporters. Some worry it will tear congregations or boards apart along partisan lines. Or, they worry about upsetting large donors.

I don’t envy any rabbi or community leader this choice. There are costs to speaking out, and those of us who don’t have to pay shouldn’t be so quick to expect others to foot the bill. Their silence in any case should not be an excuse for our inaction.

At the same time, there is a cost to not taking a public stand. How dare we do any less than we would want others to do for us? History will record who stood by and let the doors slam shut, and who, even if they failed, tried to jam them back open.

I’m proud of my rabbi, my wife. I hope to be proud of us all.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Tashlich in Los Angeles

At tashlich, I always find a place on the edge of the circle in whose center stands my wife.     

My wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, is the one leading the event, and she stands surrounded by concentric circles of congregants who have come to Venice Beach on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to observe one of Judaism’s most ingenious ancient rituals.

I call them congregants, but many actually aren’t. They see a crowd dressed mostly in white, or hear the beat of drums, or the sound of the shofar, or maybe Naomi’s voice, and like passersby drawn to a restaurant by the smell of barbecue, these people who didn’t even know they were spiritually hungry leave the Venice Boardwalk behind and tread across the sand toward us. Soon, there are 1,000 souls, and more keep coming.

At the edge of the circle, I can hear them as they approach.

“Oh, that’s that horn thing,” a young woman in a Speedo bikini points to the shofar.

An Israeli turns to his friends as they walk their rented bikes across the sand. “Ma zeh, Yehudim?”  “What’s that, Jews?”

I called tashlich ancient, but it really just feels that way.  There’s no mention of it in Jewish literature until the 13th century, which by Jewish standards makes it cutting edge. At some point, Jews took the words of the prophet Micah from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy to heart: “And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” Tashlich is Hebrew for “You will cast.” They decided to find the nearest body of free-flowing water in which to throw breadcrumbs.

Rabbinic authorities resisted the ritual. They worried Jews would assume the act itself had magical powers and so refuse to do the more important work of repentance and change. But standing on the fringe of this massive group, breathing the sea air, watching gulls bank and soar overhead — I can see why the rabbis’ objections didn’t stand a chance. Add a drum circle — hundreds of people beating, rattling and shaking to a rhythm that seems to rise from the sea itself — and I can also understand the rabbis’ fear: It is magical.  

The irony of the High Holy Days is that too many of us spend hours we don’t have praying in a language we don’t understand to a God we don’t believe in. Tashlich is the better way in: It just asks us to go outside, find some water, let go.

Still, I stay on the edge, a spiritual diffident. Partly because, as much as I love the music, I’m not that guy who gets lost in the vibe. On a good day, I can stay on beat about a third of the time. If there’s any actual harmonizing involved, trust me, you want me outside your circle.

But from the edge I can take in the scene. I watch my wife in her element, singing, leading prayer, lifting souls. So much of what we pray for on the Days of Awe is to return to whom we truly are, to what we are meant to be. I watch her and see exactly what that means.  

The drumming stops. The shofar blows. We head down to the water.  

People who brought bread pass their extras to the newcomers. The tide is always out. It’s Venice, so it’s always beautiful. The first group of seagulls has now attracted a hungry swarm. 

The waves crash, thin down, and rush over bare ankles.  Kids screech in delight. I recite blessings from a Xeroxed sheet, then, with my best heave, I arc a stale slice of bread toward the foam. Sometimes a seagull will wheel down and snatch it in midair. If that happens, I wonder, does it count?

Doesn’t matter, I decide.  The rabbis didn’t like tashlich, leaving the rulebook to the folk. I’ve read that the Chasidim of Galicia made little rafts of straw, set them on fire, and pushed them into the water, so their sins would burn and sink. The Kurdish Jews leapt fully clothed into the sea, so their sins would wash away. Every year I think I’ll just jump in the water myself. Every year I decide rather than swim publicly at dusk, I’ll swim the next day, alone, at dawn.

A thousand people fan out along the shore. Some are alone, some are hand-in-hand. Some hold their small children, letting them toss crumb after crumb to invisible fish. Whatever noises the waves make, the shofar blowers lined up at the water’s edge send them back out.

By now, the sun is setting low. I find a bit of solitude closer to the break. The ocean stretches to the horizon. Soggy heels of rye and shreds of goopy challah graze my calves.  

I think of the prophet Jonah, whom God cast into the sea like so much bread. Jonah was not drowned, but returned to shore, transformed.  

One big breath — inhale, exhale — and I am exactly where I need to be. Right in the center. Amen.

Shanah tovah.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

On the 100th anniversary of the theory of relativity, a rabbi talks with an Einstein expert

This month marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. To understand its implications and the role of Einstein’s Jewishness in developing the theory, Rabbi Naomi Levy interviewed professor Hanoch Gutfreund, the director of the Einstein Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the university’s appointee responsible for Einstein’s intellectual property.

Rabbi Naomi Levy: Can you please explain the theory of relativity in a nutshell?

Professor Hanoch Gutfreund: We are talking about the general theory. I think it may be the most sophisticated, intellectual factor that has been produced in a single human brain. Einstein himself tried to explain it, very often. When he came to the United States for the first time in 1921, journalists asked him to explain. He told them, “This is very simple. Matter tells space how to curve — and this is all it is about.” Of course, the journalists were stunned. They turned to Mrs. Einstein and asked her, “Do you understand the theory of relativity?”

And she said, “He tries to explain it to me all the time, but I do not think that understanding the general theory of relativity is essential to my happiness.”

But I do think that understanding it brings happiness.

In Newton’s theory, the universal law of gravitation, the mass is attracted by the gravitational pull. That’s why an apple falls from a tree, that’s why the moon revolves around our planet Earth.

In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, gravitation is not a force. Gravitation is a property, a geometry of space, and what this theory tells us is that space itself is a dynamic entity. It is affected by mass. Space is curved.  And other masses then move in curved space. So this geometry of space is a new, innovative idea. Things are much more complicated because we have also time, and time and space are not independent of each other. They are combined into a full dimensional space-time. This is very difficult to imagine.

Now, how do we know that it is true? We know because there are a number of empirical tests. This theory predicts the bending of light from a distance, which was actually confirmed. Most people do not know that if we did not know general relativity, we would not have GPS technology, because general relativity tells us that the pace of clocks — time — moves slower in a strong gravitational field than in a weak gravitation field. That means that the clock on Earth is slower, is delayed with respect to a clock in a satellite because the gravitational field is weaker.

The GPS system depends on recent signals from our GPS device in the car, or wherever, to satellites. Then they are reflected back. We measure the time it took for the signal to go back and forth. We would not calculate the time correctly if we didn’t know that on the way the time moves slower.

We have a very good reason to celebrate.

NL: Are there other very common things in our lives today besides GPS that we need to celebrate Einstein for?

HG: Every electronic device today depends on something that Einstein did already in 1905.

You know, this photoelectric effect, for which he got a Nobel Prize, because he understood the mechanism by which light may generate electricity. That is the photoelectric effect. All the photovoltaic devices that use solar energy are based on that. If you stand in the doorway of the elevator and the door doesn’t close, do you know why? It’s because you block a ray of light from one side to the other. If you would not block, that ray of light would activate a photoelectric device there. It generates some electric current to close the door.

NL: Do you think that there is something specific about being a Jew or being an outsider that contributed to Einstein’s thinking that helped him to think outside the box?

HG: For him, according to his own testimony, his Jewish identity was a choice based on his observation. He came back to Germany and faced anti-Semitism. And then, slowly, he developed this Jewish identity. His biographers tell us that outside of physics, this became his strongest commitment that grew, evolved and intensified with time.

According to Einstein, there are three stages in the evolution of a religious concept. The first is based on fear. The second is what you call the Judeo-Christian tradition, based on moral values. He identified with the values, but did not identify with the anthropomorphic aspect of God in religion. His concept then is the third one: cosmic religion. And cosmic religion is the one where he identified with Spinoza. God is nature, and God is reflected in the harmony of nature and does not care about what we do or do not do. This is our own responsibility.

NL: I know you wanted to talk about the university and the importance of the Einstein Archive.

HG: It is important that the Hebrew University is in possession of this immense asset, this treasure, this cultural, scientific treasure. It’s about 80,000 documents that shed light on everything that he did — his science, his political activity. And it’s here because he wanted it to be here, because he was one of the founders of the Hebrew University. That puts us in this unique position that when the whole world celebrates, nobody can do anything without us.

NL: Will Einstein’s unified field theory ever turn out to be true?

HG: Yes. It is, maybe, Einstein’s greatest intellectual legacy. He persevered to the end of his life. He obsessively pursued this goal. His greatest legacy is that today this problem is at the frontier of physics, and thousands of young people, the brightest minds of mankind, are pursuing this goal.

There is hope … but it’s not there yet. 

Naomi Levy is founder and rabbi of Nashuva, a spiritual community. This interview was edited and condensed. 

At a Jewish food conference, dead lambs and pot lox help reach a new generation

The night before the slaughter, the goat appeared in my dreams, crying. I awoke, startled, at 3 a.m., then tried to go back to sleep. But when I closed my eyes, I saw the damn goat. This time it was curled up, asleep in its barn, unaware that in just a few hours, a rabbi would slit its throat.  

I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night — the thought of dinner was giving me nightmares. 

Meanwhile, my wife, Naomi, slept soundly beside me. We were at a Jewish food conference called the Harvest Gathering. The invitation to attend had been too good to pass up. I often write and teach about food, and Naomi — Rabbi Naomi Levy — deals in the realm of the soul. In a Venn diagram of our interests, a Jewish food conference is smack center.

My problem was that along with tastings of cannabis-infused matzah balls, marijuana-cured lox and a dinner in a sukkah, the day’s activities would include a demonstration of kosher slaughter, or shechitah.

Rabbi Moshe Fayzakov explains kosher inspection of the freshly killed and skinned lamb to participants. Photo by Rob Eshman

We had talked about the goat slaughter just before going to bed. I was resolved to watch, even though for seven years, until not long ago, we kept two pygmy goats as pets in our backyard. Goldie Horn and Ollie now live in Simi Valley at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, where the campers renamed them Shlomo and Yaffa. The goat in my nightmare looked a lot like Shlomo.

Naomi told me she had no intention of watching. But, I said, the whole point of the experience was to connect us to the reality of the food we eat.  We both eat meat, yet, like most people, neither of us had witnessed the process of turning a living, breathing mammal into food.

“You eat it,” I’d said to Naomi that night. “You should see how it’s done.”

“I’ve had surgery too,” Naomi shot back, “but I don’t need to see an operation.”

This is what happens when you challenge someone trained in talmudic disputation. You tend to lose.

Naomi was right.  We are at the end of the line of so many unpleasant processes we don’t feel compelled to see.   How awful is a gold mine in Africa, or an underwear factory in China? Even the most vegan of rabbis still reads a Torah written on the skin of goats — who presumably didn’t volunteer for the honor.  It is good to see the world as it is and fix its broken parts.  But we choose what veils to peel back, and which to leave, well, veiled. Must we watch our food die?

But confronting dilemmas such as these is what we had traveled to Colorado to do. We had been invited to Devil’s Thumb Ranch, a high-end resort nestled among pine-crusted mountains north of Denver, along with 70 mostly young food professionals — chefs, entrepreneurs, writers and activists — all foodies who also happened to be Jewish, but with varying degrees of connection to their heritage. The late September conference — which was organized by Hazon, the Jewish food renewal movement, and funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation — had as its goal, in the words of organizer Sarah Kornhauser, “to combine food identity with Jewish identity.” 

“It’s all about translating values to the plate and out into the world.” — Denver chef Daniel Asher

It was a simple, brilliant approach to two very different problems. The first is the weakening of Jewish identity among 20- and 30-somethings who are fully assimilated into the larger culture, a particular focus of the Schusterman Family Foundation. The second problem is our nation’s industrial food system, which serves up massive quantities of cheap food at the expense of our environment and our health. Hazon has long sought to rally the Jewish community to create, in founder Nigel Savage’s words, “a healthy and more sustainable world.” 

Food is a particularly good way to reach younger Jews, because Jews, it turns out, are just like other people. What rock ’n’  roll was to the boomers, food is to GenXers and the tweens. It’s their cultural touchstone, their way in to the world.

Last spring I taught a course at USC Annenberg School of Journalism called “Food, Media and Culture.” It struck me how much time and money my young students spent eating out (and posting their meals on Instagram).  Then I realized: For a generation that spends more and more of its time virtually, food is tangible, immediate and gratifying. Young people may not have to pay for music or TV, but you can’t pirate food. Entertainment, even sex, comes to this generation via a screen, but no tech guru has been able to figure out a way to digitize dinner.  In an increasingly virtual world, food is their last real, authentic experience. 

By exposing young food professionals who happen to be Jewish to the ethical and ritual traditions of food in Judaism, you strengthen their connection to their tradition. At the same time, you spread the best Jewish ethical values about food to the larger world of consumers and suppliers. 

“This is the vanguard of Jewish leaders who have the power to shape the world,” the Schusterman Family Foundation’s Lisa Eisen said at the conference. “The world needs the intentionality and the compassion that our tradition literally brings to the table.”

The conference program aimed to present both Jewish food traditions and ethics, and to examine how those translate into the real world. So, for instance, on the first day, Woody Tasch, the leader of a social movement called Slow Money, spoke about how local investment can create a sustainable, healthier food supply. Then author Joan Nathan, who was treating Jewish food seriously a generation before the rest of the world caught on, called upon the chefs and professionals to become Jewish home cooks.

“Jewish food goes through the lifecycle of the year,” Nathan said. “Memories are made from traditions. The importance of home cooking is that it is what our kids remember.”

The meal that first night, like a Passover seder, symbolized everything we had been talking about during the day. The theme was, “a whole boat dinner.” A company called Whole Boat Harvest in Denver, which specializes in selling species the industry ignores or throws away, provided a different sustainable kosher fish for each course.

“It’s all about translating values to the plate and out into the world,” said Denver chef Daniel Asher, who oversaw a team of five participant-chefs, each one responsible for one course.

Asher is Denver’s own “rock star chef,” a burly young man with a ponytail and a wide-open face. He described each course the way a boomer might have described a new Stones song: from a first course of halibut with harissa butter, lightly pickled celery, fresh radish and salsify from chef Lior Hillel of Los Angeles’ Bacaro L.A. restaurant, to a dessert made by L.A. chef Deborah Benaim — panna cotta topped with sustainable caviar. 

As a survivor of innumerable Jewish banquets featuring factory-raised chicken or endangered Chilean sea bass served with indifferent vegetables, I couldn’t help but notice how serving great food, thoughtfully sourced, infused our evening with what Asher called “sacredness.” 

The next day, chef Ann Cooper led a workshop on improving school lunches, something her Chef Ann Foundation, based in Boulder, Colo., is doing in districts throughout the country. Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., spoke to the group about the importance of extending the ethic of good food to all aspects of one’s business.

“Here’s a big problem in the restaurant world,” the gangly, bearded Weinzweig said. “Everybody wants sustainability, but they treat employees like sh–.” 

If the night before was about embracing what Asher called “the sacredness of joining around the table,” this day was about the Jewish value of repairing the world, and the many ways food enables us to do that.

This was when I realized I was at a Jewish conference in fall 2015 with no panels on continuity or intermarriage, no hand-wringing over Iranian nukes or Palestinian knives. Too many Jewish conferences dwell on what’s wrong with the Jewish world. This one brought together a room full of people who are doing their best daily, meal by meal, to make things right. It made me wonder whether the Jews with the most radical agenda and greatest opportunity to fix the world are the ones working in the food industry. 

Then came evening. Naomi and I had hashed over whether to watch or not to watch the slaughter, and now the moment had arrived.

At dusk, a bus dropped us on the shores of Lake Granby. A large white tent, the conference version of a sukkah, was set with long tables for the feast. Outside the tent, a whole lamb was splayed above a pile of burning embers. It had been roasting for hours; its gums shriveled to reveal its massive white teeth. This would be our dinner, as there would not be enough time to prepare and cook the goat we were about to slaughter.

And where was it?

Kornhauser pointed us to the other side of a tent, where a large dog crate sat on a wide, blue tarp. 

“We were going to do a goat,” she said, “but the goat fell through.”

I looked inside the crate, and a lamb stared back at me. It was creamy white, the size of our spaniel. 

At least I wouldn’t have to watch a goat die. Phew. But a line from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals” popped into my head. To eat meat, he wrote, is to suppress “a gnawing dread that we are participating in something deeply wrong.” 

Two rabbis asked us to circle around the tarp. A long explanation of the laws of kosher slaughter followed. 

The process does not permit any pain to be inflicted on the animals, the rabbi said. Kornhauser asked us to keep quiet,  but there was nervous chatter.  A man stood up and asked people to honor the request for silence. It was funeral solemn.

The rabbis had to tip the crate to urge out the lamb, which they quickly put onto its back. It didn’t bleat or protest in any way. The older rabbi, Moshe Fayzakov, ran his fingernail 12 times over a razor-sharp blade to make sure it was smooth. A chef beside me winced.

The younger rabbi, Yisroel Engel, quickly bound together three of the animal’s legs with a string that looked disconcertingly like the fringes of a prayer shawl. Rabbi Fayzakov recited a blessing, then Rabbi Engel dipped his hand into a bucket of water and washed the lamb’s lengthened neck to make sure no pebbles or dirt would nick the blade.

I was sitting three feet away and watching as Rabbi Fayzakov bent down and made a quick slice across the lamb’s throat. My eyes closed involuntarily. When I opened them, blood was everywhere. 

Quickly, the older rabbi pulled the blue tarp completely over the animal. Someone asked if that is part of the ritual. 

“No,” Rabbi Fayzakov said, “but it’s not pleasant to see what comes next.”

“Unfold it,” several of us said. 

He did, and we sat in silence, staring at this once-beautiful animal, its head at an unnatural angle from its neck, bright red blood pumping onto the sky blue tarp.

And then the lamb kicked. I grabbed the leg of the man sitting next to me. 

The rabbi explained that while he cuts the jugular, he leaves the spine intact in order to keep the blood moving. Jewish law prohibits the eating of blood, and the process drains as much of it as possible. The unbound leg serves as a kind of pump. “The nerves kick in,” said the rabbi, “but the animal is dead.” 

A whole roasting lamb prepared by “Top Chef” winner Hosea Rosenberg at the Harvest Gathering, sponsored by Hazon and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Photo by Chelsea Beck

The worst was over. I moved in close for a photo — and failed to notice that a thin stream of blood was running onto my pants and shoes. 

I knew what we had witnessed was kosher done right, in the best of circumstances, with an animal that had had a short but happy life. The preparation, the prayers, the sheer intentionality of the moment did as much as may be possible to ennoble what is an undeniably gruesome act. If the organizers had been searching for the best way to dramatize what Jewish food ethics bring to the table, they’d found it.

The cannabis tasting that followed right after? I’m still trying to figure out what was so Jewish about that — but no one seemed to complain.

We moved to a table laid out with cured salmon filets and rows of matzah balls on sheet pans. 

As Colorado’s legalized marijuana industry booms, trained chefs are now looking for ways to expand the offering of what are called “edibles.” Josh Rosenberg, the young owner of Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen in Denver, turned, of course, to his tradition.

“Food and cannabis are two things very dear to my heart,” Rosenberg explained.

He’d cured the lox in alcohol infused with cannabis. He made the matzah balls by sautéing marijuana in chicken fat and incorporating that into the dumplings.  

“Pot shmaltz?” chef Asher called out. “Josh, you are a visionary.”

No one got wasted. But I can say a little lox took the edge off the kosher slaughter.

After a while, we gathered and talked about the rituals of Sukkot, the harvest festival, then filtered into the sukkah for a dinner. Naomi, the resident rabbi — who, by the way, stayed edible-free — was asked to offer a brief teaching.  She stood up. After the lox and matzah balls, she joked, would anyone remember anything she said?

I did. She spoke about time — as Ecclesiastes does on Sukkot — about time spinning out of control and the need to slow it down. She talked about how Sukkot, during which we are asked to dwell in huts outside our homes, forces us to think “outside the box.” If we are to thrive, she said, we need to do the same — rethink the structures that no longer serve us well, whether in Jewish community or in the food industry. Blessing our food, she concluded, teaches us to be open to all the blessings in our life. 

Maybe it was the beer, the matzah balls, the PTSD of the lamb slaughter — but I looked around and saw quite a few tears around the table. The lamb had entered our bodies, and words of Torah our souls.

“The road to the sacred,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “leads through the secular.”

The whole conference had been a keen reminder of that: how the everyday act of getting and making food presents us with constant moral and ethical choices that either can elevate us and our society or drag us down. Over 3,000 years, Judaism has had a lot to say about those choices. 

“Synagogue is not a place I connect with being Jewish,” food entrepreneur Tal Nimrodi said at a closing circle, “but this is the kind of place I can connect. I am surprised how many of my food values are Jewish values.”

Food entrepreneur Tal Nimrodi displays a piece of cannabis-infused lox. Photo by Chelsea Beck

The conference organizers understood this and saw food as one of the best ways — maybe the best way — to bring Jewish learning to a new generation.

For so many of us, and especially the chefs, that was the revelation at Devil’s Thumb Ranch: that Jewish teaching and practice can inform and enrich their professional lives. Great food and Jewish life and learning are not separate. They are, like me and the rabbi, married.


To see photos and video of the conference (including the slaughter), follow Rob on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and go to jewishjournal.com/foodaism.

Live webcast of Kol Nidre expected to attract 40,000 viewers

A California-based live webcast of Kol Nidre services is expected to garner more than 40,000 viewers.

The service led by Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, including preaching, traditional prayer, meditation and music by a five-piece, multicultural band, will be livestreamed at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (Pacific time) on the website of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal.

Last year, 40,000 viewers tuned in to the online Kol Nidre service, according to the organization. The viewers included guests at a resort in the Costa Rican rainforest, a hospital patient in Brooklyn, residents of a vacation home in southern France and a resident of Moravia, Iowa, who called himself “the only Jew in at least 100 miles.”

“I’m humbled by the thousands of people who write to me from all around the world,” Levy told JTA. “People in hospital beds, people looking for a way back to Judaism, college students searching for a meaningful service that resonates.”

Nashuva, founded by Levy, who was ordained in the first class of women at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, calls itself a “post-denominational, non-membership community that meshes spirituality with social action.”

Prisons of our own making

Rosh Hashanah, 5776 

We think of Passover as our time of release, but these ten days are even more crucial to your freedom.  Passover is about our people’s emancipation.  These days are about you and me, each one of us one by one by one having our day with God.  It’s personal and everything is being weighed right now. 

The zodiac sign for Tishrei is Libra, the scales of judgment.  One rabbinic commentary teaches us that your greatest accusers during these days of judgment are the soul sparks that have fallen away from you because you failed to make use of your awesome potential.  Your soul sparks become your prosecutors today!  You’re in shock, you didn’t see it coming–And you say, “But I’m innocent?  What did I do?”  And your soul sparks reply in one voice: “It’s not what you did, it’s what you didn’t do…”  Your unlived goodness, your unlived generosity, your unlived forgiveness, your unlived potential is crying out to you today.  Can you hear it?  How do you clear your good name when it’s not a false witness, it’s your own soul that’s testifying against you?

We’ve come here today to hear out our souls accusations, we’re here to heal the very path of our lives.  Because our tradition tells us that it’s possible to be sleepwalking through life and to not even know it.  Yes you can repent for a sin but what can you do if you can’t even see what you’re missing.

It’s possible to be in a prison and to not even know it, to be locked up and to not know the confines you’ve grown to accept.  And the shofar is blowing today to wake us up and help us break out of whatever trap we’ve fallen into.  Like a chick making holes in its shell this is our time, your time, we’re here to be reborn and to shed the shell of whatever is restraining our souls from fulfilling their true mission on earth.  That’s what Teshuva is, it’s getting out of our entrapments, the deadening patterns, the story lines, that seem impossible to break free of, and to come home to our true selves.

The tragedy is, most of us are living inside prisons of our own making, we’ve locked ourselves in.  Some of us are trapped in the prison of ambition,some in the prison of envy.  We are prisoners of fear, prisoners of desire.  Living with cruel jailors, unforgiving, unrelenting jailors.  And all the imagery of this season is about unlocking and opening.  We are here for ten days to learn how to unlock the gates.  We keep praying to God to open the gates, but God is whispering the same words to you and to me, “Pitchu Li” open the gates for Me.  God holds the keys to many gates, but there’s one set of keys that God doesn’t have.  Those are the keys to your heart and to your mind.  God has already unlocked the gates of the upper world, the question is: are we ready to open our gates?  Heaven’s gates are spread open, it’s our gates that are closed!

So count these gates with me, the ones we are here to open:

1. Widen your vision

2. Let go of resentment 

3. Soften your heart 

4. Face down your fears 

5. Turn your intentions into action 

6. Let go of self-defeating patterns

7. Open up 

8. Say I’m sorry 

9. Say I forgive you 

9 days, 9 gates, we are here to unlock them one by one.  The last gate, the 10th gate, is perhaps the most difficult of all.  Every day God keeps knocking on your door “Listen Israel, return my children, open up.”  Our ears can’t hear it, but our souls are taking it all in.  And that’s the final gate, the 10th gate, we are here to unlock, we are here to let God back into our lives and into our world.  Welcoming God back isn’t a scary proposition.  God is saying, “It will be ok, everything will be ok.  You are not alone.  I am with you.” 

It’s a new year, Nashuva!  Are you ready to unlock the gates and step into a new time of blessings?  Sweet days.  Close the door to last year’scurses and the pains of your past.  We are here to get out of prison, to step into a lived life, lived potential, lived goodness

Let’s step into a new reality together with God in our lives… Shana Tova!

Letters to the editor: BDS, Independence for special needs adults, Holocaust survivors and more

Emotion Not Enough in Age of Information

Any anti-BDS movement that does not address the occupation and settlement expansion in some way is doomed to failure (“Hillary Clinton Has the Answer to BDS,” July 10). We cannot assume students are stupid or anti-Semitic when they look for a way to put weight behind their criticism of Israel.

Give them a reason to accept Israeli policies in the West Bank or say goodbye to the next generation.

If you want to convince American college students that the occupation is just, both in its geographical scope and its policies, venting anger at Palestinians will not be enough. Americans are already ashamed of how we treated Native Americans and African-Americans. What fuels the BDS movement is that Israelis are not ashamed of how they treat Palestinians.

Marshall Fuss via jewishjournal.com

Our Pain Is Not God’s Plan

No, Rabbi Naomi Levy is not the only one who had a problem with the eulogy (“Obama’s Eulogy: Stirring Words, Disturbing Theology,” July 10). Thank you for her comforting words that elucidate a theology that makes sense to all of us who believe in a caring and compassionate God, one who expects us to be partners in preventing evil and in perfecting the world.  

Joshua Karlin via email

For completeness, Levy could have noted that not only Jewish religious people but also agnostics, atheists and other religious people can easily disagree with President Barack Obama’s expressed theology, which is based on what he believed were God’s intentions.

Marc Jacobson via email

Invest in Independence

I am an autistic man who disagrees with Michelle Wolf about extra funding for the regional center (“Will the Special Session Help People With Special Needs?” July 10). In her article, Wolf mentions how difficult it is for parents to even get a caseworker to call them back. I have found it virtually impossible. I have had three caseworkers who refused to provide help and/or treat me with dignity. They do not advocate or protect my rights. Instead, they make money for themselves. Seventy-five percent of my vendor providers did not provide the help that I needed because they knew they would still get paid for doing nothing.

Several months ago, Wolf wrote an article about how the Department of Developmental Services is beginning a self-determination program for clients of the regional center. I tried to get into the test program but failed. This program will allow the client to bypass all the red tape that goes on with caseworkers. This is what we need. It will save taxpayers money, and clients will get the services they need. Once the regional centers stop wasting money, our Legislature could provide extra money.

By the way, my current caseworker believes I am mentally retarded!

Mark Girard via email

Never Again, Never Forget

Thank you so much for writing and publishing the two recent World War II stories (“Survivor: Sidonia Lax,” “The Goodness Effect,” July 10). I burst into tears reading about the inhuman treatment of Sidonia Lax and her loved ones in Poland, and for how their happy lives became a living hell:  forced out of their homes, forced to hide, deportations, starvation, their cramped living conditions, parents and friends murdered, no clothes, freezing in winter and transferred to many prison camps. 

And for Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved almost 700 children in Czechoslovakia, evacuating them by train, their brutal living conditions in ghettos, parents desperate to get their children out, and parents left behind and murdered.

These stories (as do the other survivor stories) so moved me. We should never forget the horrific sufferings of those persecuted by Nazis.

May all their stories continue to be told. In this way, we honor them and keep their memories alive. 

Sharon Swan, Redondo Beach

Women rabbis at forefront of pioneering prayer communities

A decade ago in Los Angeles, two organizations opened their doors with a call to prayer — or they would have if they had any doors to open.

Ikar, led by Rabbi Sharon Brous, and Nashuva, led by Rabbi Naomi Levy, were conceived separately. But when they launched in 2004, both offered a novel, and in many ways similar, approach to Jewish spirituality and community — regularly scheduled, rabbi-led services that were not affiliated with any movement or institution, that met in rented space, and that were avowedly not synagogues.

“We were trying to walk into the conversation about Jewish identity and community and ritual without preconceived ideas about where we would land,” Brous told JTA, describing the beginnings of Ikar. “What we were trying to do didn’t follow any model that already existed.”

Since then, however, the format pioneered by Nashuva and Ikar has become its own recognizable model, and similar spiritual communities with a noticeably common style have sprung up in a number of other cities across the country. Prayer is designed to be heartfelt and arouse the spirit. Often there is clapping, dancing and singing without words. Worshipers tend to skew young, informal and hip. The groups don’t own buildings; typically they meet in up-and-coming or already desirable neighborhoods. The communities are led by charismatic rabbis who stress innovation and outreach to Jews who feel alienated from existing Jewish institutions. They are nondenominational. They often don’t know exactly how to describe themselves.

And most, but not all, have one more common element: They were founded, and are still being led by, women rabbis.

In 2006, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum launched The Kavana Cooperative in Seattle. In 2011, Rabbi Noa Kushner opened The Kitchen in San Francisco and Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann initiated Mishkan Chicago in the Windy City. In 2012, Rabbi Lori Shapiro started Open Temple in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice.


The celebratory mood at Mishkan Chicago services. Photo courtesy of Mishkan)

This new paradigm represented a sharp break with the past and has found a receptive audience among a younger cohort.

As noted by David Myers, the chair of the history department at the University of California Los Angeles, 20th-century American Judaism was defined in large part by building brick-and-mortar institutions. But the new rabbi-led communities are part of a 21st century spate of innovation outside the the established boundaries of Jewish institutional life.

“[Younger] people feel that it’s much more important to find their spiritual voice than to build up an institution for the institution’s sake,” Myers told JTA.

Thus, these communities founded by women are part of a much broader landscape.

A number of male rabbis also have formed and led innovative spiritual communities. Two are in New York: Rabbi Andy Bachmann founded Brooklyn Jews in 2003 and later folded it into the borough’s Temple Beth Elohim, and Rabbi David Ingber started Manhattan’s Romemu, a Jewish Renewal shul, in 2006.

Other models have proliferated, too.

Manhattan’s Kehillat Hadar, founded in 2001, helped launch a movement of independent, lay-led minyanim that formed in cities throughout the country to pray without clergy or professional staff. The 6th & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, restored and relaunched in 2004, is now among several organizations housed in former synagogue buildings that host a combination of prayer services and community events.

Well-established synagogues also have experimented with prayer services featuring nontraditional music, looser structures and an emphasis on a warmer, more communal feel. In Denver, for example, Rabbi Bruce Dollin of the Hebrew Educational Alliance synagogue instituted a second service — with drumming and a “davening team” to help lead worship — that took a page from independent spiritual communities.

But rabbi-led spiritual communities, unaffiliated with a movement and untethered to a single home building, have become one part of the Jewish world where female rabbis have not only found a foothold but have taken the lead as pioneers and innovators.


Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva band drum playing on the beach. Photo by Phyllis Osman

It hasn’t been easy. The women who founded these communities have struggled to build organizational structures from scratch, to scrape together funds to rent space and pay salaries, and to connect with a target audience that often is disconnected from the normal channels of the Jewish communities.

Some have even had to bypass roadblocks set up by existing Jewish institutions and colleagues who have seen them as rivals.

“It’s a double-edged sword because on the one hand, the excitement of creating something from nothing is that you don’t have to deal with, ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way,’ ” Levy told JTA.  “The frightening part is not having any structure. When we started Nashuva, we had no money, we had no staff, we had no people. There was no community.”

Yet the enormous challenges also provide the opportunity for women to revolutionize spiritual and institutional life.

“Many women aspire to leadership, but they also aspire to change how leadership is offered,” said Shifra Bronznik, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting female professionals in the Jewish world. “That’s actually easier to do if you’re building from the ground up.”

As noted by a number of the rabbis, as well as a number of Jewish communal professionals, traditional Jewish institutions — and the lead roles in them — have been shaped largely by men. Thus, the increasing prevalence of female rabbis opens up the space to rethink certain patterns.

“By definition, having a woman rabbi in your community means you’re not going to do things the way they’ve been done for the last 2,000 years,” Ikar’s Brous, 41, told JTA. “That creates a space for fluidity in organizational life.”


The Kitchen celebrating Sukkot at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. Photo by Elizabeth Waller

Some of those changes involve aspects of organizational life with a gendered component to them — for example, the role of a rabbi as the traditional male “breadwinner,” with a wife to take care of the family.

“There’s an old-school model where the rabbi is married to the congregation,” said Nussbaum, 38, of Kavana. “That’s the rabbi’s first priority, and the role is sort of boundless around that.”

In other ways, that sense of reimagining can also penetrate approaches to the religious texts as well.

“Women need to reinvent Judaism in order to see themselves reflected in the Jewish narrative,” said Bronznick, who has worked with several of these rabbis on issues related to women’s organizational leadership.

“They’re creating something that never was, which is a Jewish narrative authored in the voice of woman,” she said.

Strikingly, many of the innovative female rabbis come from the Conservative movement, the most recent of the denominations to ordain female rabbis, in 1985. Levy, Brous and Nussbaum all were ordained by Conservative Judaism’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary, while Heydemann, 33, attended the movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Kushner, 44, ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is a Reform rabbi like her father, Lawrence Kushner, who is also an author, while Shapiro, 43, was ordained at the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.

Not all of the female-led communities have broken the mold in the same way. Thus, for example, Ikar and Nashuva, the two early innovators in the field, have taken somewhat different paths.

Levy, 52, describes Nashuva as “a spiritual outreach community” aimed squarely at Jews who feel disconnected from Jewish life. Nashuva operates on a shoestring budget, with a payroll consisting only of Levy and the members of its eight-piece band, and most of the year meets just twice a month — for Friday-night services at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church and on a Sunday for a community service event.

This is precisely as Levy wants it — she says she has no desire to open a religious school, expand her staff or institute any kind of membership model. Instead, Nashuva raises money only through voluntary contributions, including a suggested donation of $350 for the High Holidays.


A Kavana Cooperative neighborhood meet-up. Photo courtesy of Kavana

Although Nashuva remains nondenominational, Levy has retained close ties to the Conservative movement. A member of the first class of women admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinic program, she served on the executive council of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and she travels regularly to speak at synagogues about how they incorporate some of Nashuva’s innovations into congregational life.

Ikar, by contrast, has expanded rapidly. Brous is now one of two full-time congregational rabbis, along with a permanent staff of 14, plus seasonal and teaching staff, and Ikar operates a preschool and religious school. It offers tiered membership plans and charges non-members for High Holidays tickets. (This reporter has been a member of Ikar since 2009.)

In certain ways, Ikar also has served as the mother ship of the rabbi-led spiritual community movement and helped create a mentoring network among several of the congregations.

When Nussbaum left her suburban Seattle congregation to start Kavanah, she sought out Brous for advice. And when Kushner decided to start The Kitchen, she spoke to Nussbaum and Brous. Heydemann, in turn, served as a rabbinic fellow under Brous at Ikar, and already had known Kushner at Stanford University while she was an undergraduate and Kushner was the Hillel rabbi.

Each of these communities, in turn, has developed its own distinctive shape and culture.

Kavana is based on a cooperative model in which members are expected to take an active volunteer role in helping to put together and run events, and are encouraged to attend at least one community event per month.

The Kitchen has embraced an experimental, start-up ethos. The founders partnered with a design firm, IDEO, to help think through not only a design aesthetic for the community’s materials (modern typefaces, no Judaica motifs), but also the service itself from the ground up. As befits its name (chosen to suggest an open, familiar place to experiment and try things out), The Kitchen has also made a point of partnering with trendy local restaurants for Shabbat meals.

Mishkan Chicago has established itself as a younger-skewing congregation particularly focused on singing and prayer.

Open Temple, founded to reach out to Jews with very little Jewish background, has focused on education, and on community-building through events celebrating major holidays and b’nai mitzvot. The community already has a Hebrew school and b’nai mitzvah program, and is preparing to introduce regular Shabbat services in the coming year.

Open Temple holding its family Rosh Hashanah service. Photo by Jordan Teller

Several of the communities are moving toward affiliating with one another in a more formal way.

In May, Brous, Kushner, Nussbaum and Heydemann — along with Romemu’s Ingber, Amichai Lau-Levie of Lab/Shul in Manhattan and Rabbi Scott Perlo (a former rabbinic intern at Ikar) from Sixth & I Historic Synagogue — met at the Leichtag Ranch north of San Diego to discuss ways to work together more closely and potentially articulate a common vision. The group’s participants, who jokingly call themselves the G7, said the discussions had not yet turned into anything concrete, but suggested that something more definite would be forthcoming in the coming weeks and months.

They all stressed that they were not looking to form any sort of movement.

The innovative communities and their rabbis are increasingly being cited as models for the Jewish future. Several were honored in the Slingshot Fund’s newly issued directory of innovative Jewish organizations, and Levy says she travels on a monthly basis to speak to synagogues about spiritual outreach and creativity.

How precisely these communities will evolve remains an open question. And in certain ways, they already have — adding new services as the congregations grow and as members’ needs and desires change. Kavana has created a Hebrew immersion preschool and religious school, and has added adult education programs as its cohort of older congregants grows. The Kitchen’s “Shabbatify” program organizes Shabbat dinners of 12 to 20 people in participants’ homes, and the community is in the process of opening a store to sell its self-designed prayer books and a Passover game.

But Myers, an Ikar member from its early days, says that as the communities grow and evolve, those that wish to survive in the long term will inevitably need to develop their institutional forms and find new ways to generate and harness energy.


Ikar celebrating Havdalah to close out Yom Kippur. Photo courtesy of Ikar

“Ironically, the way to marshal and galvanize that new energy is probably to get a building,” he said.

Indeed, Ikar for the past several years has been looking into buying or constructing its own building. That would represent a profound symbolic move from its early days.

“Ikar,” Myers says, “was the anti-building form of spiritual community.”

But ultimately, the rabbis argue, the measure of their success or failure has nothing to do with buildings, denominations or labels. Rather, staying true to their mission involves not differentiating themselves but staying relevant.

“I don’t think I’m re-creating Jewish world,” Kushner told JTA. “I’m doing my part for my generation. These ideas of trying to bring immediacy, relevancy, meaning — these are not brand new ideas. They’re ideas that every good rabbi struggles with.”

Peace Peace: A Prayer During War

Rachel is crying for her children


She refuses to be comforted


From beyond the grave she cries


Through the centuries


Her tears flow


Hagar cries too


From beyond the grave
  

Their tears intermingle


The tears of the mothers


Grieving over dead sons and daughters


Weeping over war


They try to shake us


Wake us


They see our promise


They prophesy our hope


From the place of eternity


Our mothers whisper 


Peace Peace

Shalom Salaam

Can you hear it?


Rabbi Naomi Levy is the founder and spiritual leader of the outreach congregation Nashuva and the author of To Begin Again (Knopf), Talking to God (Knopf) and Hope Will Find You (Harmony). 

Webinar podcast of Rabbi Naomi Levy’s book ‘Hope Will Find You’

On Thursday, February 20th, Rabbi Naomi Levy gave a webinar presentation discussing her most recent book, “Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living.”

The book was one of the official reading choices of JDAM Reads, in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month 2014.

Below, you can listen to the podcast of the webinar.

Stuffed: Thanksgiving on Hope Street

Last Sunday, my job was to make stuffing for 400 people. I said I’d do it because there’s a part of me that prefers to forget that it’s been 25 years since I was a caterer, and I assumed it would be as easy now as it was then.

Every year for the past nine years, Nashuva, the spiritual community led by my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, hosts a Thanksgiving meal at Hope Street Family Center downtown. Hope Street provides childcare, counseling and other social services to thousands of at-risk families. About 100 Nashuva volunteers from the Westside, the Valley and Silver Lake provide a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, along with arts-and-crafts projects for the children and care packages to take home. 

So, on the prior Thursday evening, I went to Costco and bought 20 pounds of onions and 15 pounds each of carrots and celery. I filled my car with enough croutons to stuff a twin-sized mattress. At home, I reached far into our storage closet to find the industrial-sized pot I last used to photograph our infant son in, with his head poking over the rim. He’s 20 now.

Things started simply enough. I chopped the vegetables, sautéed them over two burners in two quarts of canola oil, added seasoning and broth. The kitchen smelled good, like Thanksgiving.

I tossed the croutons with some chopped chestnuts, then portioned it all out in large foil banquet pans. I ladled the hot broth over the croutons and began to mix. I used a big spatula, and the boiling-hot stuffing lifted up and — onto my hands. I screamed. The glutinous mass attached the heat to my skin like culinary napalm. I jumped away — and the whole tray tumbled onto the floor, splattered my ankles. I screamed again. I lurched for the sink, my feet slid in a mound of stuffing, and down I went.

I lay on the floor, burned, bruised. My dogs wandered in to lick the turkey dressing off my wrists, like jackals on the battlefield.

Eventually, I cleaned up, cut my losses and assembled the remaining pans. On Sunday morning, I cooked them, and by lunch they were beside the turkeys in the buffet line, just like I’d planned it.

Hundreds of moms, dads and kids came to the center at Hope Street, just south of Pico, that day. People sat down with their food and began to eat. Tania Benacerraf, director of the family preservation program at Hope Street, spoke about all the things the organization does, day in and day out, to help people raise their children in health and safety. 

Over the years, as Nashuva and Hope Street collaborated on many projects, I’ve listened to the stories — of women escaping abuse; of fathers overcoming addiction; of people working two, or even three jobs to make a life for their children. I’m a very lucky person to be able to complain about my mishaps making stuffing. 

We ate together at long tables in a large function room. On a patio outside, the children created spin-art and decorated picture frames. 

Around this time of year, countless Americans stand where I stood that day: helping to serve Thanksgiving dinners in a homeless shelter, a halfway house or a soup kitchen, doing something small, even symbolic, to share this country’s enormous bounty with those less fortunate.

Nashuva’s Thanksgiving meals with Hope Street have spawned deeper ties between the two organizations. But there can be no pretending that by serving turkey and gravy we are somehow righting deep systemic wrongs. The morning after we volunteered, Congress is still debating a Farm Bill that plans to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — a program so many of the hard-working moms and dads at Hope Street depend upon to feed their kids and help lift their families out of poverty. The morning after, Washington, D.C., is still treating the right to decent health care as a political game, rather than a national priority. The morning after, these people are still struggling, and I have a funny anecdote about stuffing.

But while the debates in D.C. all seem to diminish us as a nation, shared moments can still lift us up. We reach out to help some others, and they are kind enough to accept our need to help. 

Perhaps we need to help because we know from experience that ours is a nation of enormous, almost unbelievable wealth. We have seen with our own eyes that we waste more food than those we serve can ever eat. We have been in private homes larger than all of Hope Street. We need to serve because something needs to change.

Just as the families of Hope Street were settling into the meal, my wife stood and offered a blessing in English, as Julie Drucker, a Nashuva member and organizer of the event together with Carol Taubman, translated Naomi’s prayer into Spanish.

“Sometimes life can be very difficult,” Naomi said. “And we struggle to make a living and take care of our families. Thanksgiving is a time to take hope in the future and to know that together we can help each other to make a better life. And we take a moment to give thanks to God for our lives, for our friends, for the gift of community and for being together here today.”

Amen — and Happy Thanksgiving.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

LIVE BROADCAST: Nashuva Shabbat Services – Aug. 3, 2012

On Friday night, Aug. 3 JewishJournal.com will live stream Nashuva’s Shabbat services from The Brentwood Presbyterian Church.  Join Rabbi Naomi Levy for a high-energy service combining charismatic preaching, traditional prayer and meditation, along with a heavy infusion of musical styles, from reggae to klezmer, performed by the Nashuva band.

This is a recording of a live broadcast from Friday, Aug. 3.

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LIVE BROADCAST: Nashuva Shabbat Services – July 6, 2012

If you stream Kol Nidre, they will watch

ALTTEXT

When Rabbi Naomi Levy conducted Kol Nidre services this year, her congregation numbered 200,000, stretching from Canada to Colombia and from Japan to Norway.

Watching online on their computers were a student group at a Dartmouth College dormitory, Jews and non-Jews in small isolated communities across the United States, the bedridden and terminally ill, disaffected young Jews who never go to shul and single mothers who couldn’t afford the cost of High Holy Days tickets.

The Kol Nidre service was transmitted from the Brentwood Presbyterian Church via the broadband channel of the Jewish Television Network , and the response stunned Jay Sanderson, CEO and executive producer of JTN Productions.

“This must have been the single-largest Jewish religious service ever,” Sanderson said, and he is still sorting through the more than 400 enthusiastic, at times ecstatic, e-mails he has received from all over the world.

Among the most involved viewers was Ruth Levy, the rabbi’s mother, who was bed-bound in a Boston hospital.

The service itself was as unusual as the global online outreach, and as Nashuva, the live congregation that overflowed the seats and courtyard of the Brentwood church.

Levy founded Nashuva, which translates as “We Will Return,” four years ago after a successful career as a Conservative congregational rabbi and author, not to mention wife of Jewish Journal editor-in-chief and mother of two.

“While I was on my book tours, I kept meeting these incredible people, deeply spiritual Jews, who had turned away from communal Judaism,” she said. “They weren’t atheists, as I had expected, but they just couldn’t fit in. They would come to a bookstore to hear me, but not to a synagogue.”

With eight people sitting around her kitchen table, Levy founded the “post-denominational” Nashuva as a community that would mesh spirituality with social action.

“Every Shabbat service is followed by an action day, for adults and kids, be it working with at-risk people in the inner city, planting trees, participating in an AIDS walk, visiting a home for the aging or holding a candlelight vigil for Darfur,” Levy said.

The services themselves are characterized by the same energy as the social action, with a heavy infusion of musical styles, from reggae to klezmer, performed by a four-piece band.

Prayers are traditional, but with new translations by Levy, who also delivers all the sermons with lots of soul and a leavening of humor.

Nashuva has grown, purely by word of mouth, to some 300 at Shabbat services and 500 at holiday services, with a database of more than 1,000 names. The demographics are predominantly on the young side, with a fair number of intermarried couples, complemented by baby boomers and seniors.

Nashuva has no membership dues or charges for holiday tickets and carries on through voluntary donations and some foundation grants.

Sanderson was an early member of Nashuva and, combining prayer with business, started recording and transmitting an occasional Shabbat service.

The response by viewers across the country and the continents was encouraging, and this year he broached the idea of transmitting the Kol Nidre service.

“We’ve created a virtual congregation of 200,000 people who weren’t attending synagogues,” he said. “In my 20 years on the job, this has been my greatest contribution.”

That’s quite a statement for Sanderson, who was a key producer of the three-part PBS miniseries “The Jewish Americans” and is completing a two-hour film on global genocides for PBS, based on Daniel Goldhagen’s forthcoming book “Worse Than War.”

Also on his agenda for next year is a global online Passover service.

Levy is now getting calls from various parts of the United States, asking for advice on replicating Nashuva-type congregations in other cities.

Her general answer is that basically you need 10 dedicated people to get started, and she is ready to share her prayer book, music and business model with interested persons.

Levy also advises would-be founders to follow her example and talk extensively with rabbis in their area before going public.

“I called the rabbis in the Los Angeles area and assured them that I was seeking out the unaffiliated and would not try to poach members from their congregations,” she said. “All the rabbis I talked to gave me their blessings.”

With enough dedication and energy by volunteers, the Nashuva prototype can be emulated in any other city, Levy said, adding, “If you build it, they will come.”

A Prayer for Victims of Hurricane Katrina

Are You watching, God?

Have You seen the innocent swept away?

Are You listening, God?

Have You heard their cries?

Be with them, God.

Be their strength and their comfort.

Let them know You are near.

Work through us, God.

Teach us to be Your messengers on earth.

Wake us up, God,

Show us how to help.

Use us, God, shine through us,

Inspire us to rebuild the ruins.

Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning.

Open our arms so we can extend our hands to those in need.

Shake us out of our complacency, God.

Be our guide,

Transform our helplessness into action,

Our generous intentions into charity,

Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Amen.

Rabbi Naomi Levy is spiritual leader of Nashuva (www.nashuva.com). She is the author of “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration” (Doubleday, 2002)

 

New Year Rings in New Role for Rabbi

Rabbi Toba August likes to accentuate the positive, and the new year is no exception.

“Too often for the High Holidays, we’re told about our shortcomings,” August said. “I want to concentrate on what we’re doing right…. We don’t recognize the things we do that matter. I want us to walk out of services feeling elevated and validated and renewed.”

August has reason to focus on the positive, because this summer she was made the principal spiritual leader of Adat Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Los Angeles. Currently, August is one of only two women to head a longstanding Conservative congregation in Los Angeles. (The other is Rabbi Sally Olins of Temple Bnai Hayim in Sherman Oaks.) Her appointment comes just as the Conservative movement is grappling with the disparity of women rabbis in the movement.

A study last year found that Conservative women rabbis make less money, marry less and are less likely to be the head of a congregation than their male counterparts.

August is a good choice to break that mold. She was one of six women in Jewish Theological Seminary’s graduating class in 1988, the first class with more than one female student (the first female to graduate the school had done so just three years earlier). But August still had some personal challenges.

Soon after taking leadership of a 150-family synagogue in Fort Meyers, Fla., August gave birth to her daughter, Lena.

“I remember having contractions while we were practicing for a bat mitzvah,” she said.

She took only two weeks off before returning to work.

When her daughter turned 4, August wanted to send Lena to a Jewish day school. Her marriage had broken up, and she moved on to stints as religious school director in Boca Raton and day school principal in St. Petersburg before being offered a position at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

“Being a pulpit rabbi was a great experience,” August said. “But it was hard being a single mom. I’d promise Lena that we would spend Mother’s Day together and then I’d have to officiate at a funeral. Funerals trump Mother’s Day.”

August believes that the demanding schedule of a pulpit rabbi causes many women rabbis to chose education or chaplaincy instead.

In 1998, August left Stephen S. Wise and took an associate rabbi position at Adat Shalom, which gave her more time with her daughter. She also served as the synagogue’s associate rabbi and religious school leader. There, she and musician Cindy Paley helped establish Lev Eisha, a community of women who meet for a popular monthly Shabbat service incorporating song and dance with prayer and study. She is also on the faculty of the Academy of Jewish Religion, California, a multidenominational seminary that trains rabbis and cantors.

When Adat Shalom’s head rabbi, Michael Resnick, left in July to take a pulpit in Florida, August was tapped to fill the opening.

But August is ready this time to be a full-time rabbi. Her daughter is 16, and she has remarried.

“We know that there are challenges in terms of pay and job satisfaction and that there is a disparity of longevity [between male and female rabbis],” Nashuva’s Rabbi Naomi Levy said. “But given that information, it’s also very exciting to see a colleague take on the mantle of a synagogue. I have a world of faith in Toba and her ability to lead a community.”

Now August hopes to generate the kind of enthusiasm found at Lev Eisha into all synagogue services.

“We’re adding more songs and niggunim [melodies] to make things more frailech,” she said, using the yiddish word for joyful.

She wants services to be interactive and inviting.

“Adat Shalom is a very haimish — warm and embracing community, and it’s an honor to build it to the next level,” she continued. “I want us to be a presence here on the Westside, where people can celebrate their Judaism and their lives.”

For more information on Adat Shalom, call (310) 475-4985 or visit www.adatshalomla.org.

 

A Great Personality

In our Torah portion this Shabbat, Moses, who is closer to God than any other human being, pleads with God, "Show me Your presence."

Why does Moses want this? He got to talk to God. He got to witness God’s miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea. When all the Israelites were assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses stood at the mountaintop when God spoke the words of the Ten Commandments.

Still, Moses wants more. Like the Children of Israel who fashioned the golden calf, Moses longs for a visual image of God. He wants to behold God’s glory with his own eyes. But God denies his request. All Moses is allowed to see is God’s back.

God longs for human intimacy, but God refuses to play by our rules. God doesn’t want to be known by a visual image. Instead, God offers something far more revealing. That’s what God says to Moses this Shabbat. If you really want be in a relationship with Me, get to know My personality. These are my outstanding qualities: "The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness."

That’s who I am, God says. If you take the time to know Me, to listen to Me, to trust Me, you will come to love Me.

Imagine what would happen if people suddenly stopped caring about appearances and began focusing solely on the qualities of the sacred person before them. Imagine the love that would ensue. We all know the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah.

Jacob fell in love with the beautiful Rachel the first moment he laid eyes upon her. He worked for seven years to earn her hand in marriage, but under the wedding canopy the brides were switched and Jacob unknowingly married Leah, Rachel’s homely older sister hidden behind a thick bridal veil.

I’ve always imagined that Jacob took Leah to bed with him that night without knowing it was Leah and had a night of passionate romance with her — their bodies intermingled, their souls intertwined, they became one, they spoke words of love, they pledged devotion. But in the morning Jacob opened his eyes, and behold it was the homely Leah beside him in bed. Jacob went into a depression. In a flash he forgot his feelings from the night before and became filled with despair over his unattractive new bride.

All too often we rely upon our eyes for seeing. But the heart within us has a deeper understanding — it feels, intuits; it knows love, it knows God. Perhaps we have rejected someone because of some physical flaw when that person is uniquely suited for us. Perhaps we have focused too much on a person’s degree, profession or wealth, without even taking the time to experience his or her qualities. As we sing in the "Hallel" this Passover, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." Perhaps, like Moses, we have been searching for God’s presence when God’s miracles have been with us all along.

If we stopped focusing on what our eyes can see, imagine the awesome peace that would envelop this earth. Why do we fear people who look different from us? Why do we hate people we don’t even know?

When God looks at us, God experiences us in our totality. As it says in the Book of Samuel, "Humans see with their eyes, but God sees into the heart." God cherishes our differences just as a parent cherishes each child’s uniqueness. This one has brown hair and this one is blonde, and I love them both.

How much blood has been spilled over differences in hair color, skin color and faith? In God’s eyes we are one, all of us — all people, nationalities, races and religions. Will we ever find a way to see each other through God’s eyes? Will we ever embrace our differences? Will we ever look beyond our differences to uncover the sameness that unites us all? In God’s eyes we are one.

May this Pesach be for us — and for the whole world — a time of freedom, a time of renewal, a time of rebirth, a time of rebuilding, a time of comfort, a time of healing, a time of faith and a time of peace. Amen.


Rabbi Naomi Levy is the author of “Talking to God” (Knopf, 2002), a book of prayers and blessings.