September 23, 2018

Using the Bully Pulpit on High Holy Days

Editor’s note: Over Rosh Hashanah, local rabbis spoke on a variety of topics, but three in particular took aim at the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica made national and international headlines when he excoriated his former congregant, Stephen Miller, now Trump’s senior adviser. IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous received a thunderous standing ovation after her 30-minute sermon pointing out how unwell our country is but that it’s not too late to build a new America. And Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple spoke about the “daily cocktail of anxiety” we see in the news and how the Unetane Tokef prayer can help guide us in these troubled times. Below are edited excerpts from their Rosh Hashanah sermons.   

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels: An Open Letter to Stephen Miller
I was once your rabbi. When you were about 9 or 10 years old, your family belonged to Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. You attended our religious school.

The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my/our Jewish message. I understand that you were a major contributor to the zero-tolerance policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions initiated to punish and deter desperate families from coming to the United States by separating children from their parents at the border. That notion is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.

Mr. Miller, the policy that you helped to conceive and put into practice is cruel. What you would have learned from me is that ours is a spiritual path that is focused on one task: bringing the shattered pieces of the vessel in which the universe was born back together in both a literal and spiritual repair — a healing of transcendent influence and impact. Mr. Miller, Judaism is a way of responding to the mundane and the unexpected, always seeking the response that is at once the most just and the most merciful. We Jews have chosen our history to be our mandate. We choose to recall and emphasize our most ancient ancestor, Abraham, as a “wandering Aramean,” i.e., a refugee, an immigrant. We choose to remember and underscore that the quintessential experience of the Jewish people is both the slavery in and the exodus from ancient Egypt. We are all refugees, Mr. Miller.  

Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border. It’s not that we can’t reverse what you’ve done. We can, we are, and we will. 

We’re not going away, Mr. Miller, and whether you identify now as Jew is not really my concern. What is troublesome is that some of my colleagues and others are concerned about what I might have taught you when you were a member of our community. I can assure you, as I can assure them, that what I taught is a Judaism that cherishes wisdom, values honed over four millennia, wide horizons and an even wider embrace. 

Is there still time, is there still a chance that you might change your attitude? That’s up to you, Mr. Miller. I will never give up hope that you can open your heart.

In the meantime, I will act in accordance with the values that our tradition conveys, values that go beyond the superficial and time-limited expediencies of your allegiance to party and a temporal leader, and I will engage against you in a machloket l’shem shamayim, a struggle for the sake of all that is righteous, not merely what you may deem as right.

Know this: Regardless of whether the Trump administration decides to be accountable, we are choosing to be accountable. We believe, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us so precisely, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Because we want this society to remain free, we will continue to act. Someone needs to clean up this mess and, in concert with many others, it will be your long-suffering, uncomfortable Jewish people.

Do you know the Yiddish word mensch, Mr. Miller? In Yiddish, a mensch is a fully-constituted, human and humane being. In Hebrew it parallels to the word ish. Hillel the Elder taught us: “B’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil l’hiyot ish”. (Avot 2:5) In other words, “In a place where no one is acting like a mensch, be one!” That’s what we will be doing, Mr. Miller, because that’s who we are. We can only hope you will decide to join us.

Read more of his sermon’s here. 


Rabbi Sharon Brous: Building A New America
We are not well when racist dog whistles today sound more like bullhorns, when Black athletes are scorned and penalized for engaging in nonviolent protests against police violence. When the Justice Department actively works to roll back civil rights achievements of previous administrations

Yes, it’s a victory that only a dozen pathetic Nazis showed up to march in [Washington,] D.C. on the anniversary of Charlottesville, but friends — they’ve moved from the streets to the ballots! There are now several avowed white nationalists, Holocaust deniers and Nazis on the ballot in state and federal races this fall. Organizations that monitor hate groups say it’s clear that white nationalists feel emboldened when the president himself advances their agenda every time he discharges an insult about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans. No, we are not well.

We are not well when there are one or two shooting incidents in American schools every single week. When middle schoolers report being afraid to return to the classroom because they’re scared they might get shot. And when the Secretary of Education toys with the idea of allowing states to siphon federal funding intended for the arts and music, mental health and technology programs instead to the purchase of guns for teachers. We are not well.

“Oh, keep your politics off the pulpit!” they say. 

As if our Torah is not an inherently political document. As if the story of slaves rising up before the most powerful ruler of the ancient world to demand freedom and dignity is not a political message. 

This I know: Our Torah did not survive thousands of years only to be muted precisely the moment its eternal message matters most. We make a mockery of our tradition when we suggest that the way we live in human society, the way we treat one another, the way we care for — or neglect to care for — the least among us is outside the scope of religion.

What we need is not to return to a time of mythical greatness. We need to build America anew, equipped to hold us in all our diversity and complexity. 

Yes, we are unwell, but we can — and we must — build a new America.

And it’s already happening. This year, we witnessed the beginning of a nonviolent revolution, as a million students walked out of their classrooms and took to the streets. This army is led by 16-year-olds who, while hiding under desks and behind file cabinets, saw their friends shot. Who saw the sickening inaction, the hypocrisy and complacency of our elected officials, and stood up to insist that if the grown-ups wouldn’t do it, they would bend the arc of history themselves.

Our children are in the streets shouting, Pasul! Pasul! It’s not kosher! This is old America, the America of greed, corruption and hatred, of systems built to protect and sustain white supremacy, to entrench power in the hands of the few and keep guns in the hands of the many. It is foul and corrupted. And unlike us, the grown-ups, these kids won’t even consider that change is impossible.

It is their passion that will lead the way to a new America. It’s their moral clarity. Their fidelity to the truth. Their chemical allergy to hypocrisy. They are leading, and we need to stand behind them now, with the full force of our political, spiritual, intellectual and material resources. To do anything less would be a gross abdication of moral responsibility.

There may be a time when it really is too late to redeem America. Thank God, we are not there yet. 

The new America won’t come easily; we’re going to have to fight for it. 

We will rebuild this nation with love. There is a new America being born, and it is fierce, gorgeous and fair. It is built on justice and mercy, and it makes room for everyone. 

To usher this new America into the world, we — every one of us — will need to be brave, brave, brave. 

Read, listen or watch the full sermon here.


Rabbi Steven Z. Leder: Double Down on Your Relationships
I suffer from anxiety. It is very real and sometimes very frightening. It can ruin parts of days, weeks, months and years. As a rabbi, I see so much dysfunction, so much hurtful gossip, so much cancer and death that it is hard not to feel like I’m next.

And, of course, there is the news. That daily toxic cocktail of mind-boggling instability, criminality and drama in Washington, tweeting and testing the very fabric of democracy itself — wildfires, Putin, Assad, Iran, North Korea, global warming, Mueller, racism, corruption, sex scandals, immigration cruelty, floods, homelessness — over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And tonight we’re supposed to wish each other a shanah tovah? Really? Yes. Really.  

Our ancestors put celebrating on Rosh Hashanah ahead of the past remorse we face on Yom Kippur. First comes hope in the future, then the muck of our past. And believe me, the sages knew a lot more about anxiety than we do. Consider the Unetane Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah. The one that asks, “Who by water? Who by fire? Who will be troubled? Who will be needy? Who shall live and who shall die?” That prayer was written at least 13 centuries ago.  

Life 13 centuries ago was nothing but anxiety. Rape, murder, muggings, death by fire or flood or plague or starvation or war were regular, daily occurrences. But our ancestors had a different, more powerful prescription for managing their anxiety and fear. I try to use it every day. Remember how that prayer ends; what comes after that long list of terrible things to worry about in the coming year? It ends with three simple things that can get us all through. “But teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (generosity),” says that wise prayer, “Ma-a-virin et roah ha-gezarah (will make whatever comes next year easier to live with and through).” 

This was the ancient rabbis’ simple, three-part formula for surviving in their time, and it can be ours, too. First, teshuvah — repentance. And what is repentance really, other than trying to make things right with others? Our ancestors lived in small villages, where the key to survival was the quality of relationships with a handful of people who really mattered. Are we any different? Do any of us have more than a small handful of people in our lives who really matter?    

So double down, says the Unetane Tokef. When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid — double down on your relationships. Cherish them. Nurture them. Whoever you came here with tonight or called to wish a shanah tovah, that person by your side right now, he loves you, she loves you, he will shelter you when the rain falls, she will hold you when the darkness is too dark to see. No one endures suffering better alone. Tend to your relationships with teshuvah. Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart.

Double down. Make things right with the people you love. For only love can lift us from our suffering and our fear. Click here to read the entire sermon. 

The Complexity of Israeli Reality

Photo from Wikipedia.

I’ve never met Rabbi Sharon Brous. The spiritual leader of Los Angeles’ IKAR community thinks she knows me, though.

I am the “other side,” Rabbi Brous. Nice to meet you.

In a recent column in the Los Angeles Times, Brous writes about a trip she took with members of her family to the Jewish settlement of Hebron, a tiny, heavily fortified enclave abutting a large Palestinian city. Jewish tradition sees it as a holy city, where our Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried. In 1929, 67 unarmed Jews, including women and children, were butchered by rioting Arabs. Today it is the epicenter of what most Americans associate with the most extreme West Bank settlers.

“Trust me, Ima,” her daughter told her. “I love Israel. I need to see the other side with my own eyes.”

What she saw included the hardships that many Palestinians face there, as well as the frankly extremist views of some Jewish residents. One of them expressed support for the notorious murderer Baruch Goldstein, the physician and Hebron resident who, in February 1994, opened fire on a hall full of Muslim worshipers, killing 29. The resident called Goldstein’s victims “animals.”

Brous then goes on to extrapolate from Hebron to everything that bothers her about the Israeli government—the oversimplifications of pro-Israel messaging, the alienation of American Jews from Israel, and so on. When you see the most extreme counter-reality, she seems to be saying, you know that the government is encouraging a line that no American Jew with a conscience can abide.

It is a moving piece, in part because she prefaces it with the genuine love she shows for Israel—a love that includes not just reading the news, but taking her kids to Israel and making sure they’re in constant touch with family in Tel Aviv.

The visit to Hebron, she writes, was meant to teach them the “complexities” of Israel.

Here’s the thing. I’m a well-read, socially liberal, fairly secular, free-market, geopolitical hawk. I opposed the surrogacy law and support the Nation-State Law. I oppose Occupation, but am realistic about the impediments to a deal right now and the risks of unilateralism, and the need to learn lessons from the Oslo disaster. I’m likely to vote center-right, but I’m in nobody’s pocket.

I’m representative, in other words, of the actual Israeli “other side,” the kind of Israeli that Likud, Yesh Atid, Kulanu, Kadima, Israel Beiteinu and Jewish Home are dying to reach. We are the silent majority of Israel, the answer to liberal American Jews’ endless bafflement at why Bibi keeps winning elections when everybody they know hates him.

Israel’s “other side” has virtually nothing to do with the people in Hebron—or at least, nothing that can be learned from a brief tour of it. If I want to show my kids the “other side” of America, I’m not taking them to a KKK rally.

And I sure wouldn’t have taken them to Hebron with Breaking the Silence—an organization whose credibility has been repeatedly called into question, and whose spokesperson, Dean Issacharoff, was caught fabricating his own purported beating of a Palestinian prisoner.

If you want your kids to understand the complexity of Israeli reality, challenge them for real.

Why do Israelis consistently vote for right-wing parties, when they clearly don’t share the views of the settlers of Hebron? Because the Left, very simply, failed them. Golda Meir failed them in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and in the disastrous economic policies of the 1970s. Rabin and Peres failed them in the calamitous Oslo accords in 1993, which led to none of the peace they promised and a lot of dead Israeli friends. Ehud Barak, Labor’s last Prime Minister, failed them with his flailing impotence to stop the Second Intifada.

Nothing like losing a loved one in a terror attack or a war to focus the mind on the consequences of your vote on election day.

Like it or not, the leadership of the Right has led to a prolonged period of relative economic and physical security. Israelis—both Jews and Arabs alike—feel safer, and have an easier time paying their bills, than ever before. They do not have the luxury of risking that in exchange for leaders who sound nice, who say the things Jews in America want to hear.

Brous is obviously right when she says that “to love a place… does not necessarily mean to love its government.” There’s plenty to love in Israel’s diverse, eclectic and resilient society. But real love is not an abstract thing. It’s about listening to the other—really listening. Hearing uncomfortable opinions, serious opinions, presented as compellingly as possible.

With the new generation of American Jews, it means challenging them to think. It means exposing them to Israel’s many flaws and mistakes, yes, but also to the most reasonable version of opinions and views they disagree with. It means exposing them to the full complexity of Israeli reality.

I don’t know you, Rabbi Brous, and I do not question your love for Israel. But if you want to hear more about the real Israeli “other side,” call me on your next trip.


David Hazony is an author and Executive Director of The Israel Innovation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Israeli culture in the world.

Painting a Fuller Picture on Hebron

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Less than a year ago, I decided it was high time for me to visit Hebron. After all, Hebron is the world’s oldest Jewish city, is frequently at the center of controversy, and I had never been there.

I went to Jewish day school as a child. In my studies I learned that Hebron, which is mentioned 87 times in the Torah, was the place where Abraham bought land to bury his beloved wife Sarah, and where he was also eventually buried. According to Genesis and traditional Jewish understanding, Isaac and Jacob are also buried there, along with Rebecca and Leah. Many believe that Adam and Eve are buried there, as well.

The real estate arrangement between Abraham and the Hittites of Hebron, wherein Abraham paid 400 shekels of silver for the property, is recorded in one of oldest documents available, the Torah (Genesis 23:16). Scholars believe the Old Testament was written more than 2,500 years ago.

Hebron is also important in Islam because it shares a legacy with Judaism going back to Abraham. I was very much looking forward to seeing and experiencing Hebron, while at the same time, my group felt a sense of anxiety from the beginning of our trip until the end.  We rented a bulletproof bus and had two armed guards with us for the day.

On the way to Hebron, I was thinking about all kinds of tragic things. I thought about the massacre of the Hebron Jewish community in 1929 because of the incitement to murder Jews at the time, led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, who later collaborated with Hitler. I thought about how Jordanian and other rulers of the past had denied Jews the right to pray in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. I thought of Baruch Goldstein’s horrific massacre of 29 Muslims who were praying there, amid a series of attacks by extremists from both sides in the 1990s. I remembered Shalhevet Pass, a 10-month-old baby who was murdered in her stroller by a Palestinian sniper in Hebron in 2001.

The murder of Shalhevet was part of the reason a few lay leaders, including my husband, Jerry Rothstein, Esther Renzer and I, were compelled to begin StandWithUs three months after this tragedy. And I recalled the murder of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel, barbarically stabbed while she was sleeping in her bed in June of 2016.

“Bringing peace to Hebron will require wrestling with and unwinding all of this history, religious connection and general complexity.”

Today there are approximately 900 Jews living in Hebron, along with a nearby community of 7,000 Jews in Kiryat Arba. The Palestinian population in the city has grown to more than 200,000.

The Jews who live there have made it their mission to maintain a Jewish presence in Hebron, which houses the tombs of the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Jewish people. They believe they are the living defenders of the tombs and of the city itself. I imagine they feel that they are hated by their Palestinian neighbors and fear them, because of all the murders and attempted attacks they have faced. Fear and hate go together, and are tragically a constant presence in this holy city.

Hebron is one of the most tense places in the world. You can feel it in the air. The Israel Defense Forces is there all the time, tasked with preventing violence between two communities in conflict and with keeping visitors safe.

The military’s presence in the city has been a source of tension and controversy in the region and elsewhere, but continues because no one has found a better way to ensure freedom of worship for Muslims and Jews there. Indeed, a few days after our trip to Hebron, the army prevented a stabbing against tourists who were stepping off a bus just like ours.

Bringing peace to Hebron will require wrestling with and unwinding all of this history, religious connection and general complexity.

It’s common among critics of Israel to show a deeply one-sided portrayal of Hebron; to rail against a Jewish extremist, for example, but ignore that the city is known as a stronghold of support for Hamas; to speak of the hardships Palestinians face because of Israeli restrictions, but ignore the horrific violence (and constant threat of violence) that has led to those restrictions in the first place.

When we teach our children and friends about Hebron, we shouldn’t settle for the one-sided takes of Israel’s critics. We owe them a fuller picture.


Roz Rothstein is the CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs.

David Light’s View of Zombies, Being Married to a Rabbi and the Trump Era

ZOMBIES - David Light, screenwriter. (Disney Channel/Edward Herrera)

David Light, 44, is a Los Angeles-based comedy writer whose first produced feature — Disney Channel’s “Zombies” — premiered last month to an audience of more than 10 million. Co-written with partner Joseph Raso, the song-and-dance musical tells the story of star-crossed high-school freshmen (a zombie and a cheerleader) who learn to love each other despite their differences.

Outside of Hollywood, Light is best known as the “rebbetzin” at IKAR, the politically progressive activist community founded by his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous. “When I was going around for meetings when I first got to town, the idea that I was a comedy writer was not particularly interesting, but the fact that I was married to a rabbi was — and still is,” Light said. We caught up with him last week to discuss the relationship between Jews and Zombies, how Camp Ramah inspired his writing career and why Hollywood could be a vehicle for decency.

Jewish Journal: The last time I interviewed you was in 2007, for a story about what it’s like to be married to a rabbi. Now you’re a big Hollywood writer. Which job is harder?

David Light: (laughs) Don’t you mean which job is more fun?

JJ: “Zombies” is about a zombie and a cheerleader who are both outsiders. How does being Jewish give you insight into the marginalized, especially since American Jews today are so well integrated?

DL: Being Jewish makes you both an insider and an outsider, and we’re constantly balancing between those worlds. I grew up the Jewiest kid in public school, so navigating that taught me a lot and gave me experiences to draw from.

JJ: Can you elaborate on how being Jewish informs your writing?

DL: I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos (in Pennsylvania), [and] there was ‘mail day,’ when you’d send a letter home to prove you were alive and surviving at camp. But I figured out how to game the system, since [the counselors] weren’t checking content; they just wanted an envelope. So I started to address empty envelopes and send them home, week after week. After like, six weeks, I finally got a “package” slip — and [I] opened it up and it was empty. My mom totally one-upped me. When I got home, I was grounded until I could write a letter for each week of camp. Out of that moment, I fell in love with writing.

“What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster.”

JJ: “Zombies” incorporates the timeless appeal of people from different backgrounds being attracted to each other. How do you reconcile that cultural trope with the fact that you’re part of a tradition that discourages intermarriage?

DL: Ugh. [laughs] So you’re asking me to answer why ‘star-crossed lovers’ and make the case for not marrying out of the tribe?

JJ: I’m just curious how you square “loving the other” as a broad cultural value with the fact that Judaism discourages the intermingling of difference when it comes to romance.

DL: Look, I think we’re living in a profoundly indecent time. It just feels like the world is so polarized right now and we wanted to do a movie that values open heartedness and decency. And in the Disney canon, a movie about humanity makes sense; but right now, it feels countercultural. So we thought if our cheerleader could find a way to open her heart to a monster, that there’s real humanity to that.

JJ: Even if the monster is, say, the NRA?

DL: Oh, gosh. That’s the Rorschach you’re putting on this?

Some of us might have different ideas about who the monster is. So are we talking about being open-hearted to all monsters or to a certain kind of monster?

I don’t think being a card-carrying NRA member makes you a monster. But I do think we should hear more voices coming from those members who are more moderate about gun control and sensible reform. I keep wondering, where’s the law enforcement that’s in the NRA? How can they possibly want more assault rifles on the streets?

JJ: Movie monsters have often been a political or cultural metaphor for the prevalent fear of the moment. What do your zombies represent?

DL: Are you asking me, “Are the Israelis or the Palestinians zombies?” (laughs) What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster. They don’t have the sex appeal of a vampire or the cool powers of a witch. They’re just relentless; they keep coming. The [Centers for Disease Control] even did a whole zombie-preparedness campaign because it helped people think about, “What if it all goes wrong? What if the apocalypse really does come?”

JJ: IKAR, the community your wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founded, and which you helped build, has developed a national reputation for political activism. How are things going during the Trump era?

DL: IKAR was founded during the (George W.) Bush years, so we were forged in the fires of resistance. I think there was a lot of core value alignment during the (Barack) Obama years and now we’re back to a moment of resistance and opposition.

From Indignation to Transformation

Community members console one another at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four days after the shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR, senior fellow at Auburn Seminary

I’m indignant for the parents who spent hours Wednesday afternoon waiting on a street corner to see if their kids were among the living or the dead, and for those right now nervously pacing hospital corridors. I’m angry that across the country, students are afraid to go to school because they know that sometimes — just about three times a week in the United States — a guy walks into a classroom with a gun, the school goes into lockdown, and not everyone makes it out alive.

I’m indignant witnessing the soul-decay of our nation. Our nation, the most powerful in the world, which teaches its citizens that we are completely powerless to act against the man-made disasters that are destroying us. Our nation, in which we’re again forced to sit through the predictable parade of politicians with A+ ratings from the NRA offering condolences and laying blame anywhere but on the AR-15 and magazine clips used to murder those kids and their teachers.

How can we not be outraged? Another young man with white supremacist leanings and a history of mental illness who reportedly abused his girlfriend and posted pictures of himself with firearms on social media was able to legally purchase deadly weapons. I’m angry that lawmakers are using this tragedy as another opportunity to stigmatize those who struggle with mental illness, while both cutting funding for their care and making it easier for them to purchase guns. I’m angry that this week we had to add another American town to our national map of shame, piled high with stuffed animals and flowers and broken hearts and homes.

I’m a rabbi, in the hope and love business, and here I am, full of fury. But today I’m not afraid of indignation. Anger can disease the soul, or it can liberate it. Anger that’s driven by hope and love can be a tool of transformation. Let us use our anger now to end this insanity.

Rabbis share insights in Rosh Hashanah sermons

Jared Stein (L) and Daniel Levitch (R) blow the shofar as Gillian Levitch, 4, watches at a Tashlich ceremony, a Rosh Hashanah ritual to symbolically cast away sins, during the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, United States Sept. 21. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS.

In their 2017 Rosh Hashanah sermons, rabbis from across the denominational spectrum called for their communities to act out Jewish values to combat hate and bigotry, citing a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the past year. Others avoided politics and provided guidance for self-improvement, drawing on biblical texts to offer teachings relevant to how people live today. The following are excerpts from some of those sermons.

IKAR
Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous
We are here to cry out against injustice, to fight for human dignity. To give love and to receive it. To pry open hearts and minds, to lift the fallen and strengthen the vulnerable, give voice to the voiceless, to advance the causes of dignity and peace — for our people and for all people. We must not abandon our core commitments when things get tough; we must make justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a mighty stream. Read full sermon here. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Senior Rabbi Steve Leder
Why is Torah so filled with negative examples of human behavior? Why of the 613 commandments in the Torah are 248 positive “Thou shalts” but 365 are negative “Thou shalt nots”? Because the Torah knows we can become better people by choosing how not to behave. Because what we choose not to do, not to say, not to envy, not to hold on to from within any longer, because of what we remove from our hearts and lives, the true light of Torah, of God, of who we really can be, shines upon our innermost soul.  Read full sermon here. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Rabbi Beaumont Shapiro
The well-known sports psychologist Bob Rotella explains that the majority of amateur golfers approach a shot by thinking about where they do not want to hit the ball. Don’t hit it into the water. Don’t hit it into the trees. Don’t hit it into the sand. You get the idea. Instead, Rotella gives some incredibly simple advice — focus on the target, not the hazards — where you want the ball to go, not what you want to avoid. Filling one’s mind with negative thoughts about what not to do makes it exponentially more difficult to accomplish what one sets out to do. In other words, think about the positive, rather than the negative. Rosh Hashanah is the same. Today should be all about the positive.

Sinai Temple
Max Webb Senior Rabbi David Wolpe
There are times in order to have peace you have to take a step back. In other words, you have to make room for other people to make peace. You have to let them in. You have to allow them to have a say. You can’t discount them immediately because they are on the other side of a religious or political or familial divide. You can’t do that. You can’t scream every time somebody disagrees with you or even offends you. There is no discussion anymore once you push them off the bridge. But if you take their hand and step back, you will discover there is a lot to talk about.

Congregation Or Ami
Rabbi Paul Kipnes
Well, if I may be so bold, like [Theodor] Herzl and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream, that any two of you, passionate people both, will sit down and talk about the most difficult issues facing our country, and you will converse with kavod (respect) and chesed (kindness), patiently listening to each other to uncover the nuance and complexity of your opinions. Without destroying each other. Without resorting to the “shock and awe” which characterizes the “ridicule and destroy” sloganeering that tries to pass as debate today on both sides of the aisle, and in the middle, too. Im tirtzu — If we will it, it is no dream. Read full sermon here. 

Temple Isaiah
Senior Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles
Make yourself an ark. We are the ark when we build not borders, but bridges. We are the ark when we build not separations, but support. We are the ark when we build not contention, but confidence. We are the ark when we build not sarcasm, but security. We are the ark when we build not towers, but trust. We are the ark when we build not feuds, but friendships. We are the ark when we build more compassion, more kindness, more generosity, more understanding, more patience, more joy, more thoughtfulness, more equality, more love. We are the ark when we build upon our best values, when we reflect on ourselves, adjust our sails, make room for others, support and celebrate each other, practice equanimity so that when the floods do come, our inner waters remain calm.

We are sailing over some choppy seas. Darkness on the face of the deep. We don’t always know what lurks beneath, but together we can be prepared for any adventure, until that day when the ark comes to rest, arms linked not to save but to sing, God’s spirit hovering over us with all the colors of the rainbow. Read full sermon here. 

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron
There may be some of you here who are unsure how you want to react to the actions of certain people or groups. You’re affected by Charlottesville and racism and sexism and any other “ism,” discrimination, intolerance, hate, genocide, and the subversion of the rights of those who cannot help themselves. But you are unsure as to how or where you can participate. Perhaps these 10 days can be reflections on what really matters to you and where you want to make a difference in the world. That is our opportunity. That is our challenge. (By the way, bringing food for the hungry and diapers for refugees is a great start.) Read full sermon here.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Associate Rabbi Sarah Bassin
We do not calibrate our moral compass by what we see around us. We do not adjust to tolerate a new normal. We do not lower our expectations because the world is backsliding. We strive to hold on to the same purpose we had since the start of creation — to gather light and drive out darkness.

Temple Israel of Hollywood
Rabbi Jocee Hudson
We have to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, to say the wrong thing and apologize, to learn from others, and to do so with real humility. Because when we show up together at the Isla Mosque in South Los Angeles to protest white supremacy, and when we show up on Olvera Square in downtown L.A. together to protest the repeal of DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], we show up way more authentically, having done the real work of community building. We have to work to be in relationship with our neighbors, even when we don’t yet fully understand each other. Actually, we need to show up because we don’t yet fully understand each other.

Valley Beth Shalom
Rabbi Noah Farkas
The first paragraph of the Shema, our holiest prayer begins, v’ahavta et Adonai elohecha bchol levavcha, uvechol nafshecha — “Love Adonai your God with all your heart and might.” The word for heart, lev, is spelled with two bets. The rabbis teach that each bet is meant to teach us something different. The Jewish heart has two chambers that beat as one. Do not let anyone, my children, split your Judaism with your Zionism. The Jewish heart has two chambers that beat as one.

Temple Ner Simcha
Rabbi Michael Barclay
God’s love is so overwhelming, so awesome. If we can just for a moment realize at a deep emotional level that every aspect of life has been choreographed in a holy way specifically for each of our individual needs. Every sound, color and vibration is a gift from God — feeding our souls with exactly what we really need in that very moment! It truly is overwhelming.

And the only response as human beings that we can have to such an infinite love is to surrender and love God back. To teach our children in every moment and to remind ourselves at all times the depth of God’s love. To allow ourselves to truly feel the only response to that awesome love: loving God back with a passion, honesty and openness that allows us to truly have a sacred relationship with the Divine.

Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue 
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
We are here, during these Days of Awe, to FaceTime with God. We can only be connected if we can bring our full selves, flaws, doubts and all, to the conversation. Only then can we truly say, “Hineni” (Here I am).

Pico Shul
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
God wants us looking out for everybody, for those who are in distress, those who are hurting, in need. It’s easy to see when there is a flood how people are in need. So people, their natural instinct, their divine spark inside them, pushes them to help because it is obvious. When we don’t have it so blatantly in front of us, we don’t necessarily realize all the needs.

Temple Beth Hillel
Rabbi Sarah Hronsky
In our Torah portion this morning, Abraham — in the horrendous moment, poised with knife in hand, the most dramatic moment — wakes up when he hears his name called. He lifts his head, opens his eyes and sees in front of him something so important, the ram caught in the thicket. The answer to this dramatic moment was found literally in the resources in front of him, once he opened his eyes. I am hopeful that we, too, in this year will open our eyes each time a dramatic difficult moment happens for us in our country and around the world. Open our eyes to the possibilities of how to offer repair, how to fix, see the resources we have right in front of us, and put it all together to do the hard work.

Rabbi Sharon Brous’ Rosh Hashanah sermon: The bug in the software of the West

Rabbi Sharon Brous

America is turning from a place with an undercurrent of antisemitism, to a place in which antisemitism is condoned by the state. What are we going to do about it?

The synagogue in Charlottesville, bracing itself for the Nazi rally planned in late August, requested a police presence to protect worshippers on Shabbat morning. You may have heard: the police failed to send even a single officer, so the synagogue hired a private armed security guard to stand in front of the building. As Nazis paraded by, waving swastika flags, they shouted, “There’s the synagogue!” and “Seig Heil.” Learning that Nazi websites had specifically posted a call to burn the place, congregants left out the back exit and removed the sifrei torah from the premises. It’s true that law enforcement was busy that weekend, but also confounding that they would fail to understand the particular threat neo-Nazis pose to Jews.

I’ve never given a High Holy Day sermon on antisemitism. It’s not that it wasn’t a problem before Charlottesville: it’s that there were always bigger, graver, more urgent problems. As Jews in an America facing moral crisis, plagued by racism and white supremacy, poverty, inequality and climate denial, I didn’t want us to focus primarily on our own victimization. Instead, I wanted to draw our attention to the ways in which Jews were called to engage as a fairly privileged segment of a broader culture. I still believe all of that, but this year I wanted to start with antisemitism both because it’s taking dangerous new shape in America, and because antisemitism is bound up in the broader challenges facing our country. Very simply: the way that the Jewish community addresses antisemitism today matters.

They say that antisemitism is the world’s oldest hatred—and its most pernicious manifestations, in Europe, left that land drenched in our people’s blood. Massacres, expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms, libels and ultimately gas chambers stand in eternal testimony to the danger of hatred fueled by church and state alike. James Carroll recently described antisemitism as “the bug in the software of the West,” that insidious, ever-present illness that excludes Jews from moral concern and allows for heinous crimes like the Holocaust to happen.

Antisemitism caused holy hell in Europe. In America, it has been ever-present, but it has never brought the same kind of existential risk that we confronted elsewhere. Thank God. For Jewish immigrants from Europe and Arab lands, even the cold embrace of America was a welcome contrast to the storm of bloodthirsty hatred overseas. Yes, Peter Stuyvesant, the Director-General of New Amsterdam called Jews “deceitful… repugnant… enemies and blasphemers.” Yes, we suffered a century of discrimination in employment, housing and education. The lynching of Leo Frank, wrongly convicted in the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, is seared into the Jewish collective conscience, and yes, Henry Ford funded mass distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. We must not downplay the sharp immigration quotas of eastern European nations with large Jewish populations and Jewish exclusion from American social, educational, political and economic life in the first half of the 20th century. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was derisively referred to as the “Jew Deal,” and the SS St. Louis was mercilessly turned away and nearly 1000 Jews seeking asylum from Nazis were sent back, most to their deaths. We must remember to teach our children about the prohibitive housing covenants that restricted where Jews could live, and I will always remember the mix of confusion and shame I experienced as a child learning that two of the three country clubs in the New Jersey suburb I grew up in had strict “No Blacks, No Jews” policies.

Yes, we constantly joke about (and I hope also take seriously) the need to have our passports updated. And many of us still quietly note potential Nazi escape routes when deciding on a new home. But have we not come to feel pretty safe and comfortable here?

In America, Jews have achieved unprecedented prominence in nearly all sectors: political, social and financial. Here we have become Supreme Court Justices, Senators, Professors and Chief Oncologists. A few years ago, the mayors of the three largest U.S. cities were all Jews– one of them is a member of our own shul. Several years ago, when David and I walked into the Hanukkah party in the White House, I cried watching the West Point cadets, wearing kippot, sing “Ma’oz Tsur”—certain that my Grandma Harriet never could have dreamt of such a thing.

Yes, America has been good to us. So good that maybe we’ve forgotten a little bit who we are.

So good that many of our Jewish institutions failed to find the words to condemn the spike in anti- Semitic attacks that coincided with the 2016 presidential campaign. Failed to speak out against White Nationalist sympathizers– men who have trafficked in antisemitism and racism for years—becoming senior White House officials. Failed to protest when—again and again—our deepest Jewish commitments—care for the stranger, the poor and the vulnerable—have been thrashed about in a political tempest that demands outrage and resistance.

So good that somehow, Jewish senior cabinet members silently abided the President of the United States as he delivered one of the most damning equivocations in modern history, revealing a profound and disturbing inability to simply say: “There is no place for Nazism and white supremacy in this country. Take your hatred and get off our streets.”

What has happened to us?

I was recently asked in high-profile interview: “Why isn’t the Jewish community more involved in the struggle for the rights of targeted minorities in this country? Given your history, you’d think Jews would be on the front lines!”

My initial reaction: what are you talking about? We’re fighting with all we’ve got! Of course, I told her about all the Jews deeply involved in multi-faith and racial justice work today, about the electrifying presence of Jewish activists on the street, opposing efforts threatening the rights and dignities of Muslim and Mexican and LGBTQ allies and neighbors. Standing strong in solidarity and friendship. I spoke of how proud I was of our own community, with our inexhaustible Minyan Tzedek leadership inspiring folks to step up in strategic and meaningful ways. I talked about how Jews are on the front lines, fighting for democracy, equality and justice.

But even days later, I couldn’t get her question out of my head. What made her think the Jewish community wasn’t involved? And then I realized: who are the dominant voices in our community shaping the public perception?

There’s Israel’s Prime Minister, who frequently claims to speak for the Jews, who has repeatedly given cover to, indeed warmly embraced, this President, even after his most egregious missteps. There’s the Prime Minister’s son, who, in the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, was the banner photo on the neo- Nazi Daily Stormer website after posting a classically antisemitic cartoon on his Facebook page. There are the President’s own family members, observant Jews, who have their rabbis contorting themselves to permit them to fly on AirForce One on Shabbat… I wonder: did they seek rabbinic dispensation for their silence in the face of the Muslim Ban, the rescinding of DACA, the ban on transgender people in the military? And of course, there are the unelected, self-appointed leaders of the American Jewish Establishment, funders and organizational heads who will, of course, decry Nazism, but fail to call out the clear and present role of the administration in normalizing white supremacy and antisemitism, for fear of falling out of favor.

Do you think I’m overstating the point?

I wonder how many here know the difference between white supremacy and White Nationalism? I didn’t, until I started reading and listening to Eric Ward, an African-American senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who has been sounding the alarm on the difference between the two. White supremacy is an ideology of racial superiority and subjugation of people of color built into this country’s DNA. The much newer White Nationalism is a radical social movement committed to building a white-only nation. And antisemitism, Ward argues, is the beating heart, the fuel that moves the engine of White Nationalism.2 Thus, the conflation of Nazi and White Nationalist symbols and aspirations in Charlottesville: this is a movement modeled after Nazi Germany whose goal is to eradicate Jews and people of color from the country.

In his thirty years of studying and fighting White Nationalism, Ward says he has not seen the movement operating at such a level of sophistication as we’re now seeing. It has been simmering, he says, waiting for an opportunity. And now the perfect storm has occurred.

Derek Black, the now-estranged son of the Grand Wizard of the KKK explains: White Nationalists expect to be condemned by everyone. Every elected official knows it’s political suicide not to condemn Nazis and White Nationalists. Until one Tuesday in August when the President of the United States could bring himself only to say: “You had some very fine people on both sides.” According to Black, that was a huge victory for White Nationalists. “Tuesday was the most important moment in the history of the modern White Nationalist movement.”

Make no mistake: not only was that Tuesday in August the most important moment in the history of the modern White Nationalist movement, it was a critical moment, potentially a turning point moment, for Jews in America. Because suddenly, in one press conference, America turned from a place, like so many, with an undercurrent of antisemitism, to a place in which antisemitism is condoned by the state.

Yes, these people, with their menacing hatred born of fear and ignorance, with their contorted faces and their murderous chants, they who play softball with words and symbols that cut to the heart of our people’s trauma, they who worship the statues—literally idols to an American past that degraded and dehumanized millions of Black Americans—they are the ones with whom the administration found sympathy.

Charlottesville did not happen in a vacuum—it is the inevitable outcome of racism being met with anything short of forceful, explicit condemnation. There’s a reason white supremacists didn’t wear hoods to march in streets this summer. They didn’t feel they had anything to hide… because this time they marched with nods of approval from the highest offices in the land.

There have always been angry white men who have held some kind of erotic fascination with Hitlerian symbols, who get high off of and may even kill for their Jew-hatred. But we know from history that the real danger comes when antisemitism is supported by the state. That’s what makes this moment different.

That’s what’s at stake when well-intentioned leaders ignore the whitewashing of Jews from Holocaust remembrance and remain silent at the suggestion of moral equivalence between Nazis and those protesting Nazis.

Mind you, these are some of the same Jewish leaders who continue to sound the alarm daily on any hint of antisemitism in the racial justice movement, where it does rear its ugly head all too often. Our allies on the left need to know who they’re getting in bed with when they dabble in, enable and give license to antisemitic trope. But it is communal malpractice to focus our collective outrage and resources on the left while excusing, minimizing and even ignoring antisemitism from the one place it’s ever presented an existential threat to our people: the armed and state-supported far right. As if BDS, problematic as it is, poses a greater danger to the Jewish people than Nazis emboldened by the President of the United States.

Is it wealth and power that have caused this misalignment? Is it our dependence on a few mega-donors who essentially control the public agenda of the Jewish community? I wonder: is it our voice, or our will that we’ve lost?

Listen to the terrifyingly prescient words of Hannah Arendt, written in 1942: “…Our people—those who are not yet behind barbed wire– are so demoralized by having been ruled by philanthropists for 150 years that they find it very difficult to begin to relearn the language of freedom and justice.”

Is that how we, too, have forgotten to see the world through prophetic eyes? Forgotten that we’re called “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8)? Is that how, only 70 years after our greatest tragedy, with the words “Never Again!” still emblazoned on our hearts and the walls of our institutions, we somehow find ourselves downplaying the danger of a regime that rose to power stigmatizing vulnerable minority populations and daily manifests disturbingly fascistic tendencies? Is “Never Again” just an empty promise?

Or is it that we now can only see through one lens: “Is it good for Israel?” As if it is in any way conceivable that an America that is profoundly morally compromised is good for Israel. How could we, who measure time in millennia, be so utterly myopic?

For 70 years, our driving force as a community was vigilance to antisemitism. Forgive us, but witnessing the near extermination of your people tends to leave an impression. Yes, much of our communal obsession was rooted in trauma. Some of it also came from the realization that there was no greater adhesion than shared terror; if we kept front and center others’ eternal hatred of us, we’d stick together in a country that offered more open doors, more access and more ability for many Jews to pass than any we’d previously inhabited.

So from trauma and fear, we set off five star alarms every time a swastika appeared on a school desk. For 70 years, we led with the threat of existential crisis—precisely, ironically, as our community grew to be the strongest and most secure we’ve ever been, anywhere in the world.

But now, as the smoke of antisemitic hatred fills the classroom, we’re asking the students to please stay calm and remain seated, because we don’t want to cause a stir. No need to threaten political alliances. Let’s not misconstrue bombast as ideology! And, by the way, why should I be worried if the Prime Minister of Israel is entirely unconcerned?

It’s no wonder the growing alienation of young people from the institutions our grandparents built. We desperately need a new play book.

Rosh Hashanah is a time for soul examination. It’s also a time for us to examine at the soul of our community and our nation. We do this in the hopes that some clear-headed thinking might help us figure out where our bruises and blind spots are, and what we can do to move forward.

In his 1965 commencement address at Oberlin, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the story of Rip Van Winkle. What Dr. King was taken by was not the fact that Rip slept for 20 years, but instead “that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up on the mountain, a great revolution was taking place in the world – indeed, a revolution which would, at points, change the course of history. And Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.”

“There are all too many people,” King said, “who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.”

In a few moments, we’ll hear the sound of the shofar, calling us to awaken from our slumber. This is the central moment of the Rosh Hashanah experience. Think of what it means that our tradition places an alarm clock right at the heart of the new year celebration. It’s as if the spiritual architects of our tradition understood one critical fact about human beings: we will sleep through the revolution. It’s human. But then Rosh Hashanah bursts into our September, shaking us awake, reminding us that sleeping while the world burns is simply not an option.

Last year, the shofar came as a jolt in the night, calling us to grapple with our nation’s moral crisis, to defiantly lift our gaze toward a politics of aspiration. The year before, the shofar was a call to action: to pair our broken hearts over three-year-old Aylan Kurdi in his tiny sneakers with some real effort on behalf of Syrian refugees.

Some years, the blasts of the shofar free us from the folly of presumed powerlessness. Some years, they come to awaken us from our privileged detachment. And some years, it’s about recalibration—a call back to our core values and true purpose.

Chants of “Jews will not replace us!” are our wakeup call this year. It’s our task to walk away from Charlottesville with a renewed sense that we were put here not to be comfortable, but to be prophetic.

Remember Joseph, thrown by his brothers into a viper pit and sold into slavery in Egypt? Abandoned by everyone who should have cared for him, Joseph is disoriented, dislocated, forced to rebuild his life in a land not his own.

But through some mix of grit, luck and divine intervention, this slave quickly rose in the ranks working וַיְ הי י ֵסף יְ ֵפה־ for the powerful Potiphar, giving him respect and authority. Until the Torah tells us that Joseph was well built and handsome (Gen 39:6). That’s a strange comment for the ת ר וי ֵ פה ַמ ְר אה׃ Torah, so sparse with words, to make. (This isn’t a Tinder profile, it’s the Book of Genesis. What’s going on here?) Rashi explains: As soon as Joseph began to gain power and influence in Potiphar’s home, he started to eat and drink and curl his hair. This infuriated the Holy One, who cried out: Your father mourns for you and you’re curling your hair? Has all this power and luxury made you forget who you are? You’re so enamored by Egypt that you’ve forgotten your people, their suffering, your destiny? Do you think this is what you are here for?

Nehama Leibowitz describes that Joseph then found himself on the brink of spiritual disaster. “The plight of the poor and downtrodden exiled from their land is difficult enough,” she writes, “but doubly dangerous is the plight of one who achieves favor in the eyes of his masters so that they advance him for their own needs to the highest of positions.”

And it was in that moment that God plotted Joseph’s fall from grace.

Privilege, comfort, abundance: these are all great blessings. If we’re paying attention, the shofar wakes us up before they become curses.

So what can we do? I’m going to suggest three things.

First, we—the Jewish community—have to be clear and honest about the dangers we’re facing today. We cannot sugarcoat this. Especially in a time of all-out assault on truth, we have to speak openly and clearly about the threat. We need to hold our leaders accountable: this is not a moment for normalizing, justifying or hedging. Timothy Snyder warns that “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” Anticipatory obedience is when regular people voluntarily compromise on small values or principles, signaling to a regime how willing they are to conform to new standards. The problem is that eventually, it’s simply too late to stand up and resist. We cannot be party to this.

Second, we have to get creative and we have to be bold. On one hand, you heard about the 2014 counter-protest to the annual Nazi march in Bavaria, when residents sponsored the marchers in what they called Germany’s “most involuntary walkathon,” festooning the town in pink banners, throwing confetti at the Nazi marchers and encouraging them to keep walking because every meter brought in donations to an organization promoting defection from extremist groups. Inspired by this model, we did something similar last year when the antisemitic and homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protested outside this building, raising thousands of dollars for The Trevor Project, which provides suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth.

And at the same time, we have to be bold in our thinking and organizing, particularly around the advancement of racial healing in this country. We have to commit to helping America make teshuvah— reckon with and reconcile our nation’s past. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have to take the vulnerability that we felt from Charlottesville, in Ruth Messinger’s words, the “body shock” of seeing Nazis on US soil, and renew our commitment to join forces with other marginalized and vulnerable people in the US. Many of these communities have far fewer resources and are more directly and dangerously targeted than the Jewish community. What I’m suggesting is that at precisely the moment that we Jews feel most vulnerable in America, we need to turn to our Muslim, Latino, Black, Sikh and immigrant neighbors and double down on support, solidarity and love.

It is precisely in our moments of greatest danger that we must affirm exactly who we are. Now we need to lead with the Jewish values that are the air we breathe, that give us both life and reason to live. Now we must remember that we were put in this world to bring a message of justice and love, that the memory of degradation, dehumanization, near extermination lives in our bones, calling us to work to transform the societies we live in. Our goal is not to eat, drink and curl our hair. Nor is it simply to survive. We are called to a higher purpose, to be bearers of light and love, sources of hope and strength. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “To be or not to be is not the question. How to be and how not to be is the question.”

We are here to cry out against injustice, to fight for human dignity. To give love and to receive it. To pry open hearts and minds, to lift the fallen and strengthen the vulnerable, give voice to the voiceless, to advance the causes of dignity and peace—for our people and for all people. We must not abandon our core commitments when things get tough; we must make justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a mighty stream.

Mother Teresa once brought food to a family with eight children who had not eaten in days. She entered their home and looked into the faces of children “disfigured by… the deep pain of hunger.” She handed a plate of rice to the mother, who divided the rice in two and left the house. When she returned a few moments later, she served the remaining half plate to her children. “Where did you go?” Mother Teresa asked her. “To my neighbors; they are hungry also.” “I was not surprised that she gave,” Mother Teresa recalled, “—poor people are really very generous. I was surprised she knew they were hungry. As a rule, when we are suffering, we are so focused on ourselves, we have no time for others.”

Antisemitism is a real and present danger in the US today, inextricably woven into the fabric of the racialized hatred that is tearing our country apart. It’s now more than ever that we must stand together. Join us for interfaith actions with our LA Voice partners. Join and support the Poor People’s Campaign. Go to an Iftar at the Islamic Center. Affirm that the best antidote to White Nationalist hatred is multiracial and multifaith alliances.

Luxury and power were a toxic combination for Joseph. He lost himself beneath those fancy dinners and curled eyelashes. It took many years for him to find himself again. At some point, with his estranged brothers standing before him, וְ לא־יָ כל י ֵסף ְלה ְת ַא ֵפק– Joseph could no longer constrain himself. He wept so loudly that all of Egypt heard him as he said, ֲא ני י ֵסף — I am Joseph (Gen 45:1). I look like an Egyptian, I live in the palace, but know that I am yours. #JeSuisJuif. I am a Hebrew. My loyalty is to my people.

His brothers were dumbfounded, but Joseph had never been more clear about anything in his life.

We should not be ashamed of our success or achievements in this country; we should be grateful for the opportunities we’ve found in America. But we also must never forget who we are, and who we are called to be in the world.

Susan Bro, mother of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, murdered by a Nazi on American soil in 2017, spoke at her daughter’s funeral:

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up, but guess what, you just magnified her. I’d rather have my child, but by golly if I got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”

Yes, Susan: we will make it count. May your daughter’s memory be a blessing—for you and for us all. This moment is a clarion call; it is a wakeup call. Let us not sleep through the revolution.


Sharon Brous is the senior and founding rabbi of IKAR.

Top 15 Jewish Los Angeles stories of 5777

The Jewish year 5777 wasn’t eventful only on the national stage. Here in Los Angeles, the Jewish community had its share of notable controversies and causes for celebration.

The following are 15 local stories that had L.A. Jews talking this year.

Danielle Berrin recalls her assault by Ari Shavit (October 2016)

In a courageous cover story, Jewish Journal senior writer Danielle Berrin detailed how a prominent Israeli journalist, later named as Ari Shavit, groped and propositioned her during a professional interview. Berrin related her experience to the universal prevalence of sexual assault, an issue that emerged in the public spotlight when a video surfaced of then-presidential nominee Donald Trump making lewd comments about women to Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood.” Shavit admitted he was the subject of Berrin’s story several days after it was published, apologized and resigned from his positions at Israel’s Haaretz newspaper and Channel 10 TV.

In highlighting the gendered endemic of sexual assault and the stigma of speaking out, Berrin, who later was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club, began the Jewish New Year with a timely call for justice.

Jewish Family Service CEO Paul Castro announces retirement (October 2016)

Paul Castro

Paul Castro, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), announced Oct. 13 that he would leave his post in December 2017 after 35 years at the nonprofit. Castro is not Jewish, but that never interfered with his leadership on JFS projects like the SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, the Israel Levin Senior Adult Center and the Westside Jewish Community Center’s Social Day Care Center for seniors and people with disabilities. During his tenure as CEO, Castro raised $17 million of the $25 million needed to rebuild the JFS Lois and Richard Gunther Center, the future hub of JFS outreach.

On Sep. 12, 2017, another prominent Jewish community leader announced his retirement: American Jewish University President Robert Wexler will step down at the end of the academic term, after 25 years at the school. Under his stewardship, the university opened the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 1996 and merged with Brandeis-Bardin. Wexler is credited with overseeing numerous campus construction projects and growing the university’s endowment from $5 million to more than $100 million.

Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Marvin Hier delivers benediction at Trump inauguration (January 2017)

Rabbi Marvin Hier

 

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, stirred controversy when he offered an original prayer and a blessing to President Donald Trump at his Jan. 20 inauguration. Hier, who performed the invocation alongside various faith leaders, defended his decision by stating a peaceful transition of power is “the trademark of democracy.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous

IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous speaks at D.C. Women’s March (January 2017)

The day after the inauguration, 3.3 million women in 500 American cities marched in protest of Trump’s presidency and in favor of universal human rights. Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR delivered a speech at the Washington, D.C., Women’s March that referenced the Exodus story of Shifrah and Puah, two rebellious Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh’s orders to kill Hebrew firstborns. On the largest single-day protest in American history, Brous appealed to spiritual unity and shared humanity.

Photo by Rob Eshman

Jews join immigration ban protests at LAX (January 2017)

Following Trump’s executive order that shut the United States’ doors on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, Jews joined thousands of Los Angeles natives who gathered at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in protest. A number of signs at the protest highlighted harmony between Muslims and Jews, or drew comparisons between the refugee ban and Hitler’s early strategies.

B’nai David-Judea disobeys OU ban on female clergy (February 2017)

In the face of a Feb. 3 Orthodox Union (OU) policy statement that opposed the inclusion of women in Orthodox clergy, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Orthodox Pico-Robertson synagogue B’nai David-Judea issued a defiant response: Clergy member Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn would be offering the drasha that Shabbat. Kanefsky referred to the ways “women have vastly increased the amount of Torah study, Mitzvah observance and spiritual sensitivity within their respective Orthodox congregations,” and criticized the OU for “imposing one perspective on all of its member synagogues.”

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz

Colorful L.A. rabbi known as ‘Schwartzie’ dies at 71 (February 2017)

The red-bearded rabbi who wore rainbow suspenders and set up Jewish astrology readings on the Venice Boardwalk died on Feb. 8. Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz was the founder and director of Chai Center, a Jewish nonprofit outreach organization in Los Angeles that engages Jews through weekly Shabbat dinners, free High Holy Days services and other events.

Cartoon in UCLA student newspaper denounced as anti-Semitic (February 2017)

UCLA cartoon

Outrage erupted on UCLA’s campus when the Daily Bruin published a cartoon that struck many as anti-Semitic. The cartoon depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing in front of the Ten Commandments, with one caption stating, “Israel passes law seizing any Palestinian land,” and another suggesting Israel would follow its “stealing” with murder. The Daily Bruin issued an apology for the cartoon, which even drew a denunciation from a pro-Palestine group on campus.

Leah Adler, restaurateur and mother of Steven Spielberg, dies at 97 (February 2017)

Leah Adler

Leah Adler might have been best known as film director Steven Spielberg’s mother, but she earned her own renown in the Los Angeles Jewish community as the owner of kosher restaurant The Milky Way on Pico Boulevard Adler, who died Feb. 21, was a former concert pianist from Cincinnati who enjoyed chatting with restaurant patrons about kosher cuisine and providing life advice. Some might recognize her from the 1994 Academy Awards, when Spielberg kissed her and described her as his lucky charm while accepting the best director Oscar for “Schindler’s List.”

JCCs receive bomb threats amid national scare (February 2017)

Westside JCC

 

The Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC) became one of more than 100 JCCs and Jewish day schools across the country to receive bomb threats over the phone in 2017. Among the other targets was the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach, which received a hoax threat Jan. 31 that prompted the evacuation of approximately 300 seniors, parents and children. The Los Angeles Police Department evacuated the Westside JCC and searched the premises, but the threat was a false alarm. Four months later, University Synagogue of Brentwood and both Wilshire Boulevard Temple campuses also were shut down due to online bomb threats, none of which materialized.

Stephen Miller

Exploring Jewish Trump aide Stephen Miller’s L.A. roots (March 2017)

Stephen Miller began his work with the Trump campaign in 2016 as a “warmup act” before the presidential candidate took the stage at rallies. Later, as senior adviser to the president, Miller worked closely with Stephen Bannon to craft the executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Given Miller’s zealously nationalistic political rhetoric, it surprised many to discover he is the great-grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The Jewish Journal profiled Miller’s youth as a congregant of liberal-leaning Los Angeles synagogues and a graduate of Santa Monica High School.

Politicizing the pulpit (June 2017)

When Sinai Temple Senior Rabbi David Wolpe argued in a Jewish Journal article that rabbis should refrain from expressing political opinions in their sermons, he ignited a debate that engaged rabbis and community members from every corner of Los Angeles. Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous all penned responses in the Journal challenging Wolpe’s apolitical position and questioning the possibility of drawing a line between politics and Torah. Wolpe’s article gave rise to a sort of symposium that considered a rabbi’s moral responsibility amid a politically turbulent year.

Marilyn Hall

Marilyn Hall, wife of Monty Hall, dies at 90 (June 2017)

Actress, writer, producer and philanthropist Marilyn Hall died June 5 at the age of 90. Hall, wife of game show host Monty Hall, produced documentaries for Jewish institutions such as Brandeis University, the United Jewish Welfare Fund and Tel Aviv University. Her roster of accomplishments also includes producing  two Emmy-winning TV movies and co-writing “The Celebrity Kosher Cookbook.”

Westwood flyers warn of new Hezbollah-inspired group (July 2017)

Iranian Jews were on edge when they discovered flyers in Westwood’s Persian Square district announcing the inception of a group calling itself the “Army of Hezbollah in America.” The handbill, written in Farsi, vowed to avenge any U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf with terrorist attacks on American soil. It also denounced the influence of the “Zionist media.” The Los Angeles Police Department said it turned over information about the flyer to the FBI for investigation.

Izak Parviz Nazarian

Iranian-Jewish philanthropist Izak Parviz Nazarian dies at 88 (August 2017)

Izak Parviz Nazarian, co-founder of investment firm Omninet and former board member of technology company Qualcomm, died on Aug. 23 at age 88. After a difficult childhood in Iran, Nazarian fought with the Haganah in Italy and joined Israeli troops in the War of Independence. Nazarian immigrated to Los Angeles after the Iranian Revolution, where he built a successful technology empire with his brother, Younes. A passionately pro-Israel philanthropist, Nazarian founded the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming Israel’s electoral system.

White supremacy is our country’s original sin

A white supremacists carries the Confederate flag as he arrives for a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS.

What happened in Charlottesville this past weekend is devastating, but not surprising. Over the past three years, white supremacists have been invited back to the streets, to the airwaves, into the White House.

White supremacy is our country’s original sin. The legacy of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans and the exploitation of immigrants remain unresolved and largely unacknowledged. But in my lifetime, over the past 40 years, while racism festered in the back rooms, behind bars in the prison industrial complex, in discriminatory hiring practices, in segregated schools and neighborhoods and among internet trolls, it was generally sanitized in public discourse.

And then a presidential candidate launched his campaign with an unconscionable attack on Mexican Americans, a verbal assault that should have marked the end of his public career. Instead, it was only the beginning. Attacks against Muslims, Blacks and immigrants followed, along with a refusal to disavow endorsements from known anti-Semites and white nationalists (“I don’t know anything about David Duke. I don’t know what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacist. I don’t know. I don’t know…”). Good people whispered their discomfort and went along for the ride. Cast votes ignoring what was clear as day, willfully ignored, justified and excused. Clergy were scolded when they entered the fray: let’s not get too political! Journalists faced full frontal attack for pointing out what was clear to anyone willing to pay attention. This was a dangerous and deliberate fueling of white supremacist ideology, which-once uncovered, promised to wreak havoc on our already deeply fractured nation.

So how can we be surprised when Nazis now march—armed and angry—through the streets of a college town chanting “Jews will not replace us”? The murder of Heather Heyer is tragic and horrific, but even that ought not surprise us. Charlottesville represents exactly what happens when hatred is met with anything short of explicit and unequivocal condemnation. Domestic terrorism is the logical outcome of an atmosphere of racialized tension that now receives daily ammunition from the highest offices.

.There’s a reason the white supremacists didn’t wear hoods to march in the streets this time; they didn’t feel they had anything to hide.

Thoughts and prayers for the victims—even expressions of outrage and disgust—are grossly insufficient. It takes generations to heal racial wounds and divisions. It takes a few casual dog-whistles to reignite them. It’s long past time for white Americans to stand up and acknowledge that a culture of racism is a culture of violence. It’s long past time forJews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists—people of all faiths and none—for immigrant and Native Americans, men, women and LGBT Americans to come together to manifest a political and social reality that reflects American ideals of freedom, dignity and justice for all.

We must come together today, not only to offer words of condemnation and consolation, but to do the hard work to heal our country before we slide further into the abyss.

Interfaith L.A. vigil decries Charlottesville hate march

Photo courtesy L.A. Mayor's office.

A diverse crowd of several hundred Angelenos filled the pews of Holman United Methodist Church in mid-city to condemn white nationalist violence rocking the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.

A collection of the city’s faith leaders and faith-based organizations banded together Aug. 13 to organize the “Love Transcends Hate” interfaith prayer vigil. Local congregation IKAR, whose Miracle Mile area sanctuary sits just across the 10-freeway from Holman’s, was one of the co-sponsors for the event.

Holman Pastor Kevin Sauls welcomed guests, including dozens of Jews in attendance, explaining that a national conference call with Christian leaders the day prior sparked the idea to hold vigils across the country. He and others reached out to a citywide base of interfaith leaders and organized their own event in under 24 hours.

“The coming together of our faith leaders, elected officials and all of you sends a powerful message,” he said, surveying the packed church. “It says that truly love is more powerful than hate.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson looked on from the front row. IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous sat next to Mayor Garcetti.

After Pastor Saul’s opening remarks, a troupe of Holman women in colorful dresses adorned with ringing chimes danced on stage and through the aisles. A lively drumbeat accompanied the performance as guests clapped along. An organ player and the Holman choir also led the audience in a rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”.

Speeches from elected officials and faith leaders followed. Rabbi Brous delivered a brief speech that referenced Israel’s ancient port city of Jaffa, which neighbors Tel Aviv.

“[Jaffa] is a place where Jews and Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, secular and religious all find a way to live together as equals in harmony, which is very challenging for many people in a region that’s seething with polarization,” she said. “A few years ago a group extremists came to sow division and hatred in this precious town and to break the delicate balance. But the citizens of that town stood together, arm in arm, blocking the arteries and shouting, ‘Hell no. Not in this place. We reject your violent rhetoric. We reject your racist screed.’ They created a sanctuary of love and justice, which is precisely what we are here to do today across this nation.”

Councilmember Dawson, who is African-American, shook his head in disbelief after Brous’ speech.

“Only in Los Angeles does the rabbi come in to a black church and preach like nobody’s business,” he said, eliciting laughs from Jews and many of Holman’s African-American congregants.

In his speech, Mayor Garcetti, who had just returned from a weekend in New Orleans holding meetings with mayors of other major American cities, took digs at the Trump administration for not placing sole blame on white supremacists for the troubling events in Charlottesville. He directly addressed President Trump’s comments made during a recent press conference in which the president doled out blame to “many sides” for the “hatred, bigotry and violence”.

“There is still, I believe, good and bad, right and wrong, truth and lies,” Garcetti said. “There are not always two sides to a story. To my fellow ancestors who died because they were Jewish, there wasn’t another side to the story.”

Yalley Beth Shalom Rabbi Noah Farkas, Temple Beth Hillel Senior Rabbi Sarah Hronsky and Jewish attorney Wendy Heimann, who co-founded “RiseUp LA”, a grassroots sociopolitical movement committed to protecting progressive values, also spoke.

Farkas, who was one of the event’s organizers, delivered  closing remarks. He told the assembly that, “the best way to respond to organized hate is with organized love.”

38-year-old Adam Overton, a young religious leadership fellow at Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) who attended and wore a yarmulke, said Holman was the perfect setting for the vigil.

 

Photo courtesy of L.A. Mayor’s office.

“It was very special to be with everybody in the space and to just really feel the power of Holman United Methodist Church, which is really a ground zero for a lot of social justice in Los Angeles,” he said. “I found myself feeling really connected to the history of social justice throughout this country.”

Leonard Muroff, a community rabbi who mainly specializes in hospice care, wore a blue Dodgers shirt with “Dodgers” spelled out in Hebrew. He will be traveling to Virginia Tech University’s Hillel next month to help out with High Holy Day services. The Blacksburg, Virginia campus is about a two and a half hour drive from Charlottesville.

“I will be there standing with those against hate,” he said. “Hearing the mayor tonight was very instructive. I just want to bring strength and love and peace to Virginia when I’m there.”

More than 200 liberal U.S. rabbis want Israel to lift travel ban on BDS leaders

Ben Gurion Airport courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

More than 200 rabbis from the liberal movements of American Judaism signed a letter opposing Israel’s travel ban on leaders of the boycott movement against Israel.

The rabbis signing Wednesday’s letter were responding to an incident last month in which Rabbi Alissa Wise of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, was prevented from boarding an Israel-bound airplane leaving Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.

Four other people traveling to Israel as part of an interfaith delegation, including two other Jews, a Christian and a Muslim, were also prevented from boarding the flight at the request of the Israeli government.

“We hold diverse opinions on BDS. Even though many of us have substantive differences with Rabbi Wise and other rabbinic colleagues who support the BDS movement in some or all of its forms, we believe that the decision to bar Rabbi Wise from visiting Israel is anti-democratic and desecrates our vision of a diverse Jewish community that holds multiple perspectives,” read the letter, which had been signed by 212 rabbis as of late Wednesday morning.

“Boycotts are a legitimate nonviolent tactic that have been used both in our own country and around the world in order to create justice for marginalized and oppressed communities. Whether we support boycott is a controversy for the sake of heaven. It endures because we struggle together and debate how we can create peace, justice, and equality for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” the letter said.

The signers included Rabbi Sharon Brous, of the independent IKAR congregation in  Los Angeles; Rabbi Amy Eilberg of Los Altos, California, the first women ordained by the Conservative movement; and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

In March, the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, amended the Law of Entry to prevent leaders of the BDS movement from being allowed into Israel. The amendment applies to organizations, as well as the leadership and senior activists of those groups, that take consistent and significant action against Israel through BDS and threaten it with material harm.

JVP said at the time of the incident that it was the first time the amendment had been enforced before passengers boarded their flights to Israel and the first time that Israel has denied entry to Jews, including a rabbi, for their support of BDS.

An anti-BDS bill making its way through Congress would expand existing law that bans boycotts imposed by foreign governments to include those imposed by international organizations like the European Union and the United Nations.

L.A. rabbi arrested in Washington for protesting health care bill

Rabbi Sharon Brous being arrested July 18 in the Russell Senate Office Building. Photo courtesy of Sharon Brous

Rabbi Sharon Brous of the Los Angeles congregation IKAR was arrested July 18 with about a dozen other faith leaders outside the Washington, D.C., office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) while protesting Republican efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Brous and the other clergy members were arrested for refusing police orders to disperse, according to United States Capitol Police. They were singing, praying and giving speeches before they were arrested, Brous said.

“I did find it to be ironic that it is illegal to stand in the hallway of the Senate building and it’s not illegal to plot how to make cancer patients lose their chemotherapy,” Brous told the Journal in a phone interview.

Brous said she traveled to the nation’s capital to protest Republican health care legislation because she felt obligated as a person of faith, but also because both of her parents are cancer survivors and another close relative is fighting cancer, and she believes proposed bills would deny vital services to cancer patients and others facing grave illnesses.

The most recent Congressional Budget Office review of Republican health care legislation estimated that the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act of 2017 would result in 32 million people losing health care. As Senate majority leader, McConnell is responsible for steering Republican efforts to pass the legislation.

“As people of faith, we are called to operate in a way that is just and right and compassionate in all cases, but we’re asked to have special care for the most vulnerable,” Brous said. “And this does exactly the opposite.”

Brous said the protest was organized by members of the interfaith Auburn Senior Fellows program, including the Rev. William Barber II of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.

Among those also arrested was Rabbi Alana Suskin of Americans for Peace Now, a group that opposes Israeli military control of Gaza and the West Bank.

Brous said there will be more demonstrations if Republicans persist with their efforts. The July 18 arrests came as one of several waves of protest. At least 11 faith leaders were arrested five days earlier, also in front of McConnell’s office.

“You call yourself religious people and you put your hands on a Bible when you swear the oath of office,” she said of Republican lawmakers. “And you’re undermining everything that we as people of faith hold to be true.”

She and the other protesters arrested with her were released the same day after paying a $50 fine, according to Capitol Police.

It’s time to reclaim religion

Rabbi Sharon Brous. Photo by Donovan Marks/Washington National Cathedral

This is a transcript of a speech delivered at TEDWomen 2016.

was a new mother and a young rabbi in the spring of 2004 and the world was in shambles. Maybe you remember. Every day, we heard devastating reports from the war in Iraq. There were waves of terror rolling across the globe. It seemed like humanity was spinning out of control.

I remember the night that I read about the series of coordinated bombings in the subway system in Madrid, and I got up and I walked over to the crib where my 6-month-old baby girl lay sleeping sweetly, and I heard the rhythm of her breath, and I felt this sense of urgency coursing through my body. We were living through a time of tectonic shifts in ideologies, in politics, in religion, in populations. Everything felt so precarious. And I remember thinking, My God, what kind of world did we bring this child into? And what was I as a mother and a religious leader willing to do about it?

Of course, I knew it was clear that religion would be a principal battlefield in this rapidly changing landscape, and it was already clear that religion was a significant part of the problem. The question for me was, could religion also be part of the solution? Now, throughout history, people have committed horrible crimes and atrocities in the name of religion. And as we entered the 21st century, it was very clear that religious extremism was once again on the rise. Our studies now show that over the course of the past 15-20 years, hostilities and religion-related violence have been on the increase all over the world. 

But we don’t even need the studies to prove it, because I ask you, how many of us are surprised today when we hear the stories of a bombing or a shooting, when we later find out that the last word that was uttered before the trigger is pulled or the bomb is detonated is the name of God? It barely raises an eyebrow today when we learn that yet another person has decided to show his love of God by taking the lives of God’s children. In America, religious extremism looks like a white, anti-abortion Christian extremist walking into Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and murdering three people. It also looks like a couple inspired by the Islamic State walking into an office party in San Bernardino and killing 14. And even when religion-related extremism does not lead to violence, it is still used as a political wedge issue, cynically leading people to justify the subordination of women, the stigmatization of LGBT people, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This ought to concern deeply those of us who care about the future of religion and the future of faith. We need to call this what it is: a great failure of religion.

But the thing is, this isn’t even the only challenge that religion faces today. At the very same time that we need religion to be a strong force against extremism, it is suffering from a second pernicious trend, what I call religious routine-ism. This is when our institutions and our leaders are stuck in a paradigm that is rote and perfunctory, devoid of life, devoid of vision and devoid of soul.

Let me explain what I mean. One of the great blessings of being a rabbi is standing under the chuppah, under the wedding canopy, with a couple, and helping them proclaim publicly and make holy the love that they found for one another. I want to ask you now, though, to think maybe from your own experience or maybe just imagine it, about the difference between the intensity of the experience under the wedding canopy and maybe the experience of the sixth or seventh anniversary.

And if you’re lucky enough to make it 16 or 17 years, if you’re like most people, you probably wake up in the morning realizing that you forgot to make a reservation at your favorite restaurant and you forgot so much as a card, and then you just hope and pray that your partner also forgot.

Well, religious ritual and rites were essentially designed to serve the function of the anniversary, to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place. The problem is that after a few centuries, the date remains on the calendar, but the love affair is long dead. That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

Religion is waning in the United States.

Across the board, churches and synagogues and mosques are all complaining about how hard it is to maintain relevance for a generation of young people who seem completely uninterested, not only in the institutions that stand at the heart of our traditions but even in religion itself. And what they need to understand is that there is today a generation of people who are as disgusted by the violence of religious extremism as they are turned off by the lifelessness of religious routine-ism.

Of course, there is a bright spot to this story. Given the crisis of these two concurrent trends in religious life, about 12 or 13 years ago I set out to try to determine if there was any way that I could reclaim the heart of my own Jewish tradition, to help make it meaningful and purposeful again in a world on fire. I started to wonder: What if we could harness some of the great minds of our generation and think in a bold and robust and imaginative way again about what the next iteration of religious life would look like? Now, we had no money, no space, no game plan, but we did have email. So my friend Melissa and I sat down and we wrote an email, which we sent out to a few friends and colleagues. It basically said this: “Before you bail on religion, why don’t we come together this Friday night and see what we might make of our own Jewish inheritance?”

We hoped maybe 20 people would show up. It turned out 135 people came. They were cynics and seekers, atheists and rabbis. Many people said that night that it was the first time that they had a meaningful religious experience in their entire lives. And so I set out to do the only rational thing that someone would do in such a circumstance: I quit my job and tried to build this audacious dream, a reinvented, rethought religious life which we called IKAR, which means “the essence” or “the heart of the matter.”

Now, IKAR is not alone out there in the religious landscape today. There are Jewish and Christian and Muslim and Catholic religious leaders — many of them women, by the way — who have set out to reclaim the heart of our traditions, who firmly believe that now is the time for religion to be part of the solution. We are going back into our sacred traditions and recognizing that all of our traditions contain the raw material to justify violence and extremism, and also contain the raw material to justify compassion, coexistence and kindness — that when others choose to read our texts as directives for hate and vengeance, we can choose to read those same texts as directives for love and for forgiveness.

I have found now in communities as varied as Jewish indie startups on the coasts to a women’s mosque, to Black churches in New York and in North Carolina, to a holy bus loaded with nuns that traverses this country with a message of justice and peace, that there is a shared religious ethos that is now emerging in the form of revitalized religion in this country. And while the theologies and the practices vary very much between these independent communities, what we can see are some common, consistent threads between them.

I’m going to share with you four of those commitments now.

The first is wakefulness. We live in a time today in which we have unprecedented access to information about every global tragedy that happens on every corner of this Earth. Within 12 hours, 20 million people saw that image of Aylan Kurdi’s little body washed up on the Turkish shore. We all saw this picture. We saw this picture of a 5-year-old child pulled out of the rubble of his building in Aleppo. And once we see these images, we are called to a certain kind of action.

My tradition tells a story of a traveler who is walking down a road when he sees a beautiful house on fire, and he says, “How can it be that something so beautiful would burn, and nobody seems to even care?” So too we learn that our world is on fire, and it is our job to keep our hearts and our eyes open, and to recognize that it’s our responsibility to help put out the flames.

This is extremely difficult to do. Psychologists tell us that the more we learn about what’s broken in our world, the less likely we are to do anything. It’s called psychic numbing. We just shut down at a certain point. Well, somewhere along the way, our religious leaders forgot that it’s our job to make people uncomfortable. It’s our job to wake people up, to pull them out of their apathy and into the anguish, and to insist that we do what we don’t want to do and see what we do not want to see. Because, we know that social change only happens when we are awake enough to see that the house is on fire.

The second principle is hope, and I want to say this about hope. Hope is not naive, and hope is not an opiate. Hope may be the single greatest act of defiance against a politics of pessimism and against a culture of despair. Because what hope does for us is, it lifts us out of the container that holds us and constrains us from the outside and says you can dream and think expansively again, that they cannot control in you.

I saw hope made manifest in an African-American church on the South Side of Chicago this summer, where I brought my little girl, who is now 13 and a few inches taller than me, to hear my friend Rev. Otis Moss preach. That summer, there had already been 3,000 people shot between January and July in Chicago. We went into that church and heard Rev. Moss preach, and after he did, this choir of gorgeous women, 100 women strong, stood up and began to sing: “I need you. You need me. I love you. I need you to survive.” And I realized in that moment that this is what religion is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about giving people back a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, a sense that they and their dreams fundamentally matter in this world that tells them that they don’t matter at all.

The third principle is the principle of mightiness. There’s a rabbinic tradition that we are to walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets. One says, “I am but dust and ashes.” It’s not all about me. I can’t control everything, and I cannot do this on my own. The other slip of paper says, “For my sake the world was created.” Which is to say, it’s true that I can’t do everything, but I can surely do something. I can forgive. I can love. I can show up. I can protest. I can be a part of this conversation. We even now have a religious ritual, a posture, that holds the paradox between powerlessness and power. In the Jewish community, the only time of year that we prostrate fully to the ground is during the High Holy Days. It’s a sign of total submission. Now, in our community, when we get up off the ground, we stand with our hands raised to the heavens, and we say, “I am strong, I am mighty and I am worthy. I can’t do everything, but I can do something.”

In a world that conspires to make us believe that we are invisible and that we are impotent, religious communities and religious ritual can remind us that for whatever amount of time we have here on this earth, whatever gifts and blessings we were given, whatever resources we have, we can and we must use them to try to make the world a little bit more just and a little bit more loving.

The fourth and final is interconnectedness. A few years ago, there was a man walking on the beach in Alaska, when he came across a soccer ball that had some Japanese letters written on it. He took a picture of it and posted it up on social media, and a Japanese teenager contacted him. He had lost everything in the tsunami that devastated his country, but he was able to retrieve that soccer ball after it had floated all the way across the Pacific. How small our world has become. It’s so hard for us to remember how interconnected we all are as human beings. And yet, we know that it is systems of oppression that benefit the most from the lie of radical individualism.

Let me tell you how this works. I’m not supposed to care when Black youth are harassed by police, because my white-looking Jewish kids probably won’t ever get pulled over for the crime of driving while Black. Well, not so, because this is also my problem. And guess what? Transphobia and Islamophobia and racism of all forms — those are also all of our problems. And so too is anti-Semitism all of our problems. Because Emma Lazarus was right.

Emma Lazarus was right when she said until all of us are free, we are none of us free. We are all in this together. And now somewhere at the intersection of these four trends — of wakefulness and hope and mightiness and interconnectedness — there is a burgeoning, multifaith justice movement in this country that is staking a claim on a countertrend, saying that religion can and must be a force for good in the world.

Our hearts hurt from the failed religion of extremism, and we deserve more than the failed religion of routine-ism. It is time for religious leaders and religious communities to take the lead in the spiritual and cultural shift that this country and the world so desperately need — a shift toward love, toward justice, toward equality and toward dignity for all. I believe that our children deserve no less than that.


SHARON BROUS is founder and senior rabbi at IKAR Los Angeles

Moving and Shaking: L.A. celebrates Purim, IDF soldiers celebrated, Elon Gold reignites Jewish comedy

From left: Michael Robin, Melanie Zoey Weinstein, Marnina Wirtschafter and Jaclyn Beck sing a politically themed song parody of “Seasons of Love” as part of IKAR’s Purim celebration. Photo by Len Muroff.
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Mayim Bialik suited up for the Velcro wall at Valley Beth Shalom’s March 12 Purim carnival. Photo courtesy of Mayim Bialik.

Los Angeles Jews celebrated Purim across the city and around the world on March 11 and 12.

On the Westside, Shtibl Minyan and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills held “Hamilton”-themed shpiels, “Hamalkah: A Purim Musical” and “Esther: A Purim Musical,” respectively. Temple Isaiah hosted “The Late Late Show Purim,” with Rabbi Joel Nickerson playing talk show host James Grogger and featuring characters from the Purim story as his guests. At Temple Beth Am, senior staff and interns dressed as either Little Orphan Annie or her dog, Sandy, to convey the message that “the sun will come out tomorrow.” Aish Los Angeles held a jungle-themed Purim party for young adults ages 21 to 32 at Morry’s Fireplace.

Venturing to Club Fais Do-Do, IKAR held a combination Megillah reading and shpiel, featuring slides with funny images. Between chapters, the shpiel team screened a number of video shorts, including “IKARaoke,” starring “Royal Pains” actor Mark Feuerstein. The spiel ended with a politically themed song parody of “Seasons of Love” (from the musical “Rent”). Costumes, too, skewed political, with Rabbi Sharon Brous dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

Festivities continued Sunday around the region, with carnivals at Temple Judea, Temple Isaiah and Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), among other places. At VBS, actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”) was one of the carnival-goers who suited up for the Velcro wall.

In Israel, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was spotted dancing after a Megillah reading at the Tel Aviv Hilton with his son, Avi Hier, and Andrew Friedman, president of Congregation Bais Naftoli.

— Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer


Soldiers who traveled to Los Angeles as part of Lev Chayal “Trip of a Lifetime” gather around businessman and philanthropist Marvin Markowitz (top row, seventh from left, seated). Photo by Debra Halperin Photography.

Soldiers who traveled to Los Angeles as part of Lev Chayal “Trip of a Lifetime” gather around
businessman and philanthropist Marvin Markowitz (top row, seventh from left, seated). Photo by Debra Halperin Photography.

Lev Chayal held its second annual “Toast to Our Heroes” party on March 4 at The Mark for Events on Pico Boulevard. The party honored 10 Israel Defense Forces soldiers who were wounded during hostilities with Hamas in Gaza in 2014.

Lev Chayal, which translates to “Heart of a Soldier,” is a group dedicaxted to honoring wounded Israeli soldiers by offering them free leisure trips to Los Angeles. Chaya Israily and Brocha Yemini founded the group in 2016 under the auspices of the Chabad Israel Center.

The black-tie evening coincided with the second trip for soldiers sponsored by Lev Chayal. During their 10-day tour of Los Angeles, dubbed “The Trip of a Lifetime,” the soldiers attended a Lakers game, toured the headquarters of dating app Tinder and visited the Getty Villa museum, among other attractions.

Businessman and philanthropist Marvin Markowitz donated the use of the event space and paid for a significant amount of the event’s expenses.

Some 200 people attended the event, which raised nearly $50,000. Lev Chayal is preparing for the next trip for soldiers in December.

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer


Alan Dershowitz and Roz Rothstein at “Combating the Boycott Movement Against Israel” conference. Photo courtesy of StandwithUs.

Alan Dershowitz and Roz Rothstein at “Combating the Boycott Movement Against Israel” conference. Photo courtesy of StandwithUs.

More than 250 people participated in the “Combating the Boycott Movement Against Israel” conference on March 4-6, organized by the group StandWithUs, which focused on countering the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Supported by the Diane Shulman and Roger Richman Israel Education Fund, the conference at the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles International Airport drew students, professionals and activists from the United States, Canada and Israel. Attendees and members of StandWithUs, a nonprofit pro-Israel organization, shared their experiences with the BDS movement and the tactics they have used to challenge it on college campuses and other places.

“Today, you can’t say anything about minorities, about gay people, about Palestinians, about Muslims or about Arabs,” said Harvard University law professor emeritus and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz. “But when you put a shoe on the other foot, you can say analogous things about the nation-state of the Jewish people, about the Jewish lobby, and ultimately about Jews.”

He said college campuses should “demand a single standard” that is fairly applied to both sides.

“Whatever the left says is hate speech against them, we must demand that that be deemed hate speech against us on the other side,” Dershowitz said.

Other guest speakers included Judea Pearl, father of late Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl; Yaki Lopez, consul for political affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles; and Anne Bayefsky, director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust.

Hannah Karpin, 17, StandWithUs High School Intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, said the conference enabled her to learn more about the BDS movement.

“I think it should be acknowledged as an anti-Semitic movement,” said Karpin, who is planning to attend college next year. “It was shocking to hear that some recognizable organizations were behind the BDS movement.”

— Olga Grigoryants, Contributing Writer


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Elon Gold. Photo by Ryan Torok.

Comedian Elon Gold performed at a Purim comedy concert at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on March 9, during which he talked about why Israel is the nipple of the Middle East breast (Gold said Israel is the most sensitive area and he doesn’t get to visit it as much he would like) and acted as Abraham negotiating with God over how much should be cut off during a circumcision (with God sounding like Marlon Brando and Abraham like Woody Allen).

Gold is Modern Orthodox and his material focused almost exclusively on the Jewish experience. He asked at one point if any gentiles were in the crowd. When nobody raised a hand, he insisted there were a couple of goy but they were hiding. He then asked the non-Jews how it felt for them to be the ones hiding.

Alex Edelman, a stand-up comedian who opened the show, gleaned material from his Jewish upbringing and did an eight-minute bit about the year his family celebrated Christmas, much to the chagrin of his yeshiva teacher.

The several hundred attendees included Pico Shul Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and his wife, rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein; Jacob Segal, co-chair of the Southern California Israel Chamber of Commerce; David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media Corp., and his daughter, Tova; and Scott Jacobs of JooTube.

On a more serious note, Gold took the opportunity to denounce the anti-Semitism that has been on the rise over the past couple of months, with Jewish community centers being targeted with bomb threats and several Jewish cemeteries vandalized.

“You mess with the Jews, you lose,” Gold said.


From left: FIDF Chairman Ari Ryan and FIDF board members Francesca Ruzin and Michael Spector. Photo courtesy of S&N Photography.

Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) held its Young Leadership Western Region Spring Mixer on March 9 at the Nightingale Plaza dance club on La Cienega Boulevard.

Some 650 young donors mingled over cocktails under violet lighting as house music blared, celebrating the work FIDF has done to support Israeli troops. Life-size posters of IDF soldiers in uniform beamed at the guests.

For an extra $18 above the $36 ticket price, attendees were able to send a Purim gift package to an IDF soldier.

The event, chaired by Danielle Moses, Mimi Paley, Francesca Ruzin and Miles Soboroff, raised more than $41,000 for FIDF.

In 2016, FIDF supported, by its own count, 66,000 soldiers, veterans and bereaved family members, including 14,500 through educational programming, 2,800 through assistance to so-called lone soldiers who don’t have immediate family in Israel, and 8,000 soldiers needing financial assistance.

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer


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Michael Janofsky

Michael Janofsky, a former correspondent for The New York Times and more recently managing editor of LA School Report, has joined the Jewish Journal as an assistant editor. Janofsky was a sportswriter, national correspondent and Washington, D.C. reporter over 24 years with the paper. After moving to Los Angeles in 2006, he worked as a speechwriter for the dean of UCLA’s business school and a freelance writer and editor before joining the Journal.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com. 

Trump’s immigration order elicits action from Jewish community

President Trump in the Oval Office on Feb. 8. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

Jewish leaders around Los Angeles have begun speaking out —  some more forcefully than others — against President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. And many temple congregants are doing more than merely listening.

“People are stepping forward because they see a direct call to their Jewish values in this moment,” said Senior Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple. “The values in the Torah and rabbinic literature are clear, and they are now being threatened. [Activism] feels like a very organic way to live out our Jewish values.” 

Trump’s effort to restrict entry to immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran and Iraq, has touched off protests around the country and a legal war that is likely headed to the Supreme Court to determine if the ban is constitutional. One protest in New York this week led to the arrests of about 20 rabbis affiliated with the liberal group T’ruah, according to The New York Times.

No arrests have occurred in Los Angeles, but the ban and other Trump actions have sparked outrage among many Jewish groups.

More than 200 Leo Baeck congregants participated in the Women’s March in Los Angeles the day after the inauguration, and large numbers attended a pro-immigrant demonstration at Los Angeles International Airport the following weekend. Chasen said he’s taking calls daily from people who ask what they can do to get involved.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills said 65 congregations participated in the Women’s March, and last week, the synagogue hosted a class on immigration and refugees from a Talmud and Torah perspective. An American Civil Liberties Union representative talked to the group as well.

Bassin said she encourages her members to speak up and participate, even if she personally doesn’t have the same political views.

“I just gave a sermon on how we’ve channeled our civic engagement into yelling on social media and how that’s not civic engagement,” she said. “I don’t care where people are on the political spectrum as long as they responsibly and thoughtfully lend their voice into the public sphere from a place that’s motivated by Jewish values.

“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith,” she added. “It’s very important that people have a safe space to articulate their values.”

“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith.” – Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Rabbis Lisa Edwards and Heather Miller of Beth Chayim Chadashim are infusing their sermons and prayer commentaries with news and have added a weekly prayer for the country.

Edwards attended two meetings for interfaith clergy at the Islamic Center of Southern California, “aimed at what our communities can do in particular to help support Muslims and undocumented immigrants” and at the Holman Methodist Church, organized by Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice-Los Angeles and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She learned that, “People are afraid and anxious. Anxiety is the more operative word than fear. People feel very aware about possible deportations.”

IKAR’s founder and Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous is also collaborating with other faith communities. The weekend of the inauguration, she organized events involving congregants from her synagogue as well as those from the Islamic Center mosque and All Saints Church in Pasadena.

“We have very robust and growing multi-face community relationships we work on and continue to prioritize right now,” Brous said. “We’re much more effective when we join together with mosques and churches.”

Brous, who spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., said the history of Jews as immigrants should prompt action.

“Our sacred texts demand that we stand up and fight for the most vulnerable people in our midst,” she said. “This is not about political preference. This is about moral imperative.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, distributed a letter by email in which he did not take a position for or against the president’s executive order, but detailed Federation’s work with Jewish immigrants and refugees. The letter said that since 1973, Federation has helped more than 27,000 refugees.

Other Jewish leaders made their feelings known through letters to their congregants.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback and his fellow clergy at Stephen Wise Temple indicated that “… because our Torah calls upon our Jewish people to be a moral light unto the nations, we feel it necessary to voice our profound protest to the President’s recent executive order that has the effect of banning people from certain Muslim majority countries, as well as all refugees for a period of 120 days, from entry into this nation.”

They reminded members of the temple’s namesake and his work for compassion and social justice: “We proudly commit ourselves to advocating for a society that embodies the teaching of our Torah: ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

For the past year and a half, Temple Beth Am has had a refugee task force. In a letter to his congregants, Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said Trump’s executive orders “trouble me, to say the least.” But he acknowledged the complexity of the issues: “No country willy-nilly flings its doors open to anyone who wants in. There are reasonable fears regarding how the wrong immigration policy could enable terrorism, as some recent events in Europe have sadly shown. We have to take it seriously. Deal with it in some meaningful way. But we cannot let it paralyze us.”

Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom found inspiration for his letter by imagining his zayde confused, sitting in a detention cell at LAX. He called Trump’s order “destructive” and said we must be inclusive and “welcoming to those seeking the freedoms we cherish.”

Representatives of four religious groups — the Academy for Jewish Religion, California; Claremont School of Theology; University of the West; and Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school — collaborated on a statement, saying, “As interreligious partners, we live the dream of inclusion, understanding, and compassion. We know there is a better way — better than building walls and banning human beings based on religious beliefs or country of origin.”

Without addressing the ban or taking sides in his letter to congregants, Senior Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple encouraged people to volunteer with the Karsh Family Social Service Center and to help build houses for the poor.

“Although I will not assume the role of political pundit, upholding the extremely high value Jewish law places on Shalom Bayit — maintaining a peaceful home and community — is a role I cherish,” he wrote.

The politics of division and diversion

Demonstrators take part in Women's March D.C. on Jan. 21. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

On Saturday, millions of people around the world took to the streets in Women’s Marches, proclaiming fidelity to basic fundamental rights for women, people with disabilities, religious minority groups, immigrants and all vulnerable populations.

In the days following the marches, relentless attacks have been leveled against one of the organizers, a Palestinian-American-Muslim activist from Brooklyn named Linda Sarsour. Character assassinations and attempts at guilt-by-association have been disseminated by white supremacists and fake news outlets.

What’s driving these attacks? Why Linda and why now? This smear campaign comes on the heels of what may be the largest mass mobilization in recent history. Marches took place not only in DC, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago; large groups also gathered in Phoenix, Knoxville and Wichita, and folks braved the 15-degree cold to protest in Anchorage. Across the world, in Paris, Tel Aviv, London, Bangalore, women and men stood together for justice and equality. Look at the photos from Antarctica. There’s something happening here.

Clearly, this march struck a nerve. I spoke at the march in DC, where I said that sometimes it happens—maybe once in a generation—that a spirit of resistance is awakened at the intersection of love, faith and holy outrage. This is one of those moments: voices of moral clarity are echoing from the far reaches of the planet calling for love over hate, progress over regress, and inclusion over exclusion.

That would be enough to make some strident traditionalists shake in their boots. But there’s more. This was not only a mass mobilization, it was organized by women. Young women of color to be exact. The leaders were unapologetically feminist. The participants were women and men, LGBTQ and heterosexual, Black, Brown and white, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Catholics, Sikhs, people of all faiths and none. In a country still propelled by the rule of powerful white men, this was deeply threatening. The language was one of love and moral courage, reflecting a significant shift in both consciousness and power, signaling the emergence of a new kind of leadership and driven by a new set of priorities.

What to do when the ground begins to shake? Distract, disrupt and discredit. Paint a young activist and mother as a fundamentalist Muslim who wants a Sharia takeover of America. No matter that that’s not who Linda Sarsour is, what’s important is that the seed of suspicion is planted in the minds of otherwise thoughtful and discerning people, who quickly begin to worry that this new movement is tinged by violent extremism.

These attacks are clearly an attempt to undermine the legitimacy and importance of what happened on Saturday, to divert attention from the unprecedented grass-roots protests against a dangerous and retrograde agenda that threatens the very democratic core of our nation.

Of course, apart from the fake news and outright lies, many will still disagree with Linda’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a rabbi and progressive Zionist, I, too, disagree with Linda on many of these views, and she and I have had fruitful and respectful conversations where our perspectives diverge. That we disagree does not disqualify her as a serious activist and leader, nor does it tarnish or diminish the outstanding work she is doing as an organizer fighting racial and gender injustice.

The Women’s March organizers achieved something extraordinary last weekend. It was a massive peaceful, positive and hopeful demonstration, and I was honored to be part of it. It was, in fact, Linda who invited me to have a voice at the podium. And when the hour grew late, it was Linda who insisted that we not end the program until I had a chance to speak.

In this time of rising demagoguery and vicious personal attacks, we have to carefully discern between real news and fake, between actual facts and “alternative facts,” between guilt and guilt-by-association.

And we must recognize that in multi-faith and coalitional politics, we won’t agree on all issues all the time. As I said at the march, I believe our nation is suffering from a soul crisis, rooted in a cynical politics that pits vulnerable populations against each other. The antidote to this toxic new reality is spiritual resistance, a reawakening to our shared humanity. One nation, indivisible. It is our job to stop shouting and start listening long enough to find the humanity and shared purpose even in people who hold perspectives that differ from our own.

We are living now in dangerous times, and we’ll see more campaigns of diversion. Remember that resistance is a muscle. We are going to have to get very good at distinguishing between the real story and the obfuscation. In this case, we can start by going back to the real story: the radiant display of faith, hope and solidarity on the streets this past Saturday.


Sharon Brous is rabbi and founder of IKAR Los Angeles.

Inauguration, march test capital rabbis

On Jan. 20, the United States inaugurates a new president and ushers in an era of new policies and rhetoric. But at the Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, D.C., eyes are on the day after, when some 200,000 marchers are expected to gather to reassert support for policies they think will be threatened under President Donald Trump.

The synagogue, named for the intersection where it has stood for more than a century, is hosting a Shabbat of programming surrounding the Women’s March on Washington. The march will set out Saturday morning from downtown Washington and advocate for women and minorities, including support for reproductive and civil rights, environmental regulation, and protections for immigrants and the LGBT community. Among those scheduled to speak is Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles.

“We assumed that most of the Jews would be coming in for the march and not for the inauguration itself, so we wanted to have a space, especially for Shabbat itself, that was open to everybody,” said Sixth & I Rabbi Shira Stutman. (Nationwide, polls show 74 percent of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton; in the District of Columbia, more than 90 percent of residents chose Clinton over Trump.)

The march’s agenda, Stutman said, “felt like values that were important to us.”

Washington synagogues are divided on how to approach a fraught weekend that will move from a moment of triumph for Trump supporters to a show of numerical strength from his opponents. Some, like Sixth & I, are embracing the march and integrating their Sabbath activities with it. Others hope to carry on as usual and remain out of the fray. None of the city’s major synagogues will be celebrating or commemorating Trump’s inauguration itself with special programming.

“It’s going to be a very intense week,” said Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of the Conservative Adas Israel Congregation, which will not be participating in the march. “Just the act of being together, [congregants] knowing they have their Jewish community together taking care of them, that’s all we’re going to do.”

Synagogues and their rabbis have been grappling with the question of how to respond to Trump since the beginning of the presidential campaign. A group of rabbis protested Trump at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March, citing his remarks and policies targeting Muslims, Mexicans and others. Before the High Holy Days in September, rabbis in swing states said they planned to avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.

Trump, for his part, says clergy should have more latitude to express political views. He has proposed repealing a law that prohibits religious institutions from endorsing or opposing candidates.

Stutman said Sixth & I is planning activities around the march not as a stand against Trump but because it supports the marchers’ goals. Along with Jews United for Justice and T’ruah, a rabbis’ human rights group, the nondenominational synagogue will host meals, as well as a program of reflection and song before the march begins Saturday morning. In the afternoon, it will offer meditation, yoga and lectures on women’s rights and social justice.

More than 800 people are slated to attend the morning program.

“That is our opportunity to have a moment of quiet during what is going to be a very emotionally intense weekend,” Stutman said. “I recognize for many, if not most people, this is also a protest march, but what Sixth & I is signing on to is not the protest but instead the possibility of standing with other Americans.”

The area’s Reform synagogues are also organizing around Jewish marchers. Congregations and groups will co-host a morning prayer service before the march near its starting point with worship tailored to its themes. Readings are slated to include quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, while attendees will sing folk songs such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer.”

“It is important to us to give Reform Jews the opportunity to observe Shabbat” at the march, said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Va., who is one of the service’s organizers. “The intersection of Judaism, Shabbat and social justice — that’s where we’re headed.”

Rodef Shalom is not endorsing the march as a synagogue, though its women’s association will be chartering a bus there and Schwartzman’s family will be participating. Schwartzman also intends to address Trump’s inauguration in a sermon Friday night, but she said Reform congregations need to be careful to distinguish between Jewish values and liberal politics.

“I’m very worried about how Jewish values are going to be compromised in the new administration,” she said. “I want him to know about our commitment to social justice, whether it’s refugees, immigrants, hunger, poverty, LGBT, the long history we have with civil rights as a movement.”

Adas Israel also is not endorsing the march, but it is hosting a Friday night dinner for out-of-towners in the city for the weekend’s events. Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue, is having a Shabbat dinner for guests, too, while not commenting on the march or the inauguration. The Orthodox Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue will be holding services as usual. (Its rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, staged a one-man protest of Trump during the AIPAC conference.)

Adas Israel’s Steinlauf was one of 58 Washington-area rabbis to sign a letter last week urging Trump to “revisit your campaign rhetoric and the hate crimes it may have unleashed.” Steinlauf said he may join the women’s march after Saturday morning services. But he also said his congregation must refrain from political statements so it remains welcoming to all comers.

“As a major congregation in Washington, D.C., we understand we will be playing a central role locally and nationally in terms of moral leadership during this administration,” Steinlauf said.

“But we also understand that this is Washington, D.C. We’re not going to be checking people’s political affiliations before they walk in the door.”

WATCH: Panelists parse Donald Trump’s America

How is the Jewish community reacting so far to the election of Donald Trump?

At a recent public forum on the new political reality for American Jews, the panelists and their audience struck alternating notes of fear, anxiety, uncertainty — and a touch of hope.

On Dec. 13, more than 400 people gathered at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles for a Jewish Journal Crucial Conversations event titled “The New Reality: Jews in Trump’s America.”

The evening’s healthy attendance, said IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of the panelists, “reflects a really desperate hunger in the community to connect in what I hope will be a very respectful way about what the future might hold.”

The conversation was, by turns, surprising, hopeful and deeply uneasy, as when Brous declared the country to be in a state of “moral crisis.”

Joining the progressive rabbi onstage were Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Jonathan Greenblatt; Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet head of school; and Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll series and a former John McCain presidential campaign staffer. Jewish Journal senior writer Danielle Berrin moderated the conversation, which was co-sponsored by the ADL and the Shalhevet Institute.

Greenblatt kicked off the panel by sounding a rare hopeful note about Trump, of whom he has been a frequent critic.

“The notion of having Jewish children who are shomer Shabbos in the first family is pretty remarkable,” he said.

Having Jewish kin doesn’t give the president-elect a pass on hateful speech or action, Greenblatt said. However, “Those who say he doesn’t understand [Jews] and has no connection to us are wrong,” he explained later in the evening. “He does. That doesn’t, again, give him a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Brous dismissed the significance of Trump’s Jewish family.

“Forgive me for not being too reassured by the presence of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. … I’m sorry but I don’t think she’s going to be our Queen Esther in this case,” she said, referring to Trump’s Jewish son-in-law and daughter, and the heroine of the Purim story.

Berrin called on the ADL’s Greenblatt to defend himself from accusations that he had taken the century-old civil rights watchdog in a partisan direction.

“I’m an easy target for those types of accusations, because I worked in the Obama administration, full disclosure, 3 1/2 years,” he said. “Full disclosure: I worked for the Clinton administration.”

But, he added, “No one accused me of being partisan when I came out against the Iran deal, much to the umbrage of my former colleagues in the White House.”

Much of the evening was spent grappling with the fact that nearly half of Americans who voted — and as many as a third of Jewish voters — chose a candidate who, to many in the audience, is synonymous with racial hatred and bigotry.

Berrin asked panelists to speculate, for instance, on why Orthodox Jews favored Trump.

“They saw President-elect Trump as the religious liberty candidate — the candidate who was going to say slow down for a second” on questions of progressive America’s moral standards, Segal said.

He added that Trump’s perceived favorability on Israel helped attract Orthodox voters.

But it was Schnur who provided the evening’s most comprehensive psychological profile of Trump voters: “The overwhelming majority of the people who voted for Donald Trump are not haters. They’re frightened.”

Brous agreed that not all Trump voters were bigots or anti-Semites. However, she said, “there was a certain amount of willful blindness toward those dog whistles and those explicit statements that were bigoted, anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic in order to support a candidate whose fiscal policies you might have preferred or whose Israel approach you might have preferred. And I think that is a moral crisis for our country.”

Berrin challenged her, asking, “Are you saying that 30 percent of the Jewish community was exercising willful blindness and lacks decency?”

Brous doubled down. “It’s not only 30 percent of the Jewish community. It’s 47 percent of the country,” she said.

Brous ended on a hopeful note, urging the audience to engage in the political process and not be despondent.  Segal pressed for continued civil dialogue.

“This is a very painful election for a lot of people,” he said, adding, “We need to be careful not to fall into our echo chamber, which is what got us here in the first place.”

Watch the full event here:

Letters to the editor: Black Lives Matter, Rabbi Sharon Brous and Ben Ndugga-Kabuye

Thoughts on What Matters

Rabbi Sharon Brous’ incisive piece evinces the characteristic sense of perspective that has made her such an impressive Jewish leader (“Doubling Down on Black Lives and America’s Teetering Soul,” Aug. 19). She points beyond our disappointments and fears. How refreshing! Thank you!

Rabbi David E. S. Stein via email

So Rabbi Sharon Brous is doubling down on her opposition to the settlements. Does that mean the settlement in Hebron, where the Jewish community existed for at least 600 years until 1929 when Arabs murdered the residents and took their property? Should the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron revert to the status where Jews are forbidden to enter, since their very presence defiles the holy mosque built by the Jewish King Herod? Or does Rabbi Brous mean by occupation, as most Palestinians mean, the occupation of Tel Aviv, Haifa and West Jerusalem?

Bill Azerrad, Los Angeles

Rabbi Sharon Brous, while well intentioned, ignores some key issues in her article. One is the history of Israel’s founding, and the other is confusing the need for social justice with the organizations behind it.

As to Black lives mattering, yes, they do. But so do Latino, Asian, police, white lives and everyone else’s. The problem is not the message but the organization delivering it. It employs intimidation and disruption. Has she forgotten their yelling, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon,” or commandeering the podium from Bernie Sanders, or some of their hostile campus confrontations, for example? Their support of BDS comes about through financing by George Soros, a major proponent of BDS. Yes, let’s stamp out racial inequality, but let’s support organizations more deserving of that support.

Emanuel R. Baker, Los Angeles

Regarding the cover article, “Black Lives Matter: Where Do We Fit In?” yes, Black Lives Matter, but so do Black li[v]es. Accusing Israel of engaging in genocide is inexcusable and disdainful. Lies do matter — whether coming from the Movement for Black Lives platform or from any other source. Let us be truthful and responsible in our public comments.  

Rabbi Mervin B. Tomsky, Reseda

Middle East Myopia

Regarding your article about Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, I wonder what he would say today had Israel lost the war of extermination against it in ’48, ’67 or ’73 (“Black Lives Matter Platform Author Defends Israel ‘Genocide’ Claim,” Aug. 19)?  Would he be speaking for the millions of dead Jews and the few lucky ones who survived and were able to escape to somewhere? Or would he really not give a damn, and would Rachel Gilmer feel the same way even though some of the dead might have been her relatives, even though she doesn’t seem to consider them relatives anymore? Do they not understand that for the past 100 years, even before Israel regained its independence in 1948, all that its Arab enemies wanted — and still want — is to make the Middle East judenrein (i.e., Arab from the river to the sea). If that isn’t racist hegemony, then I don’t know what Ndugga-Kabuye and Gilmer want to consider in their genocide and hegemonous views.

Robert Miller, Sherman Oaks

Jews and the Black Community

Thanks for Rabbi Sharon Brous’ article and the Ben Sales interview of Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, both covering the Black Lives Matter  movement. Rabbi Brous’ statement that the Jewish community in America cannot permit “the criticism of Israel to distance and distract us from the work of tearing down structural racism in America” is a valid imperative for us to follow. Though, to me, in its current usage and political climate, “criticism of Israel” really translates to anti-Semitism. But that shouldn’t deter us from disavowing racism and championing what has traditionally been the Jewish community’s fight against racism and support of Black Americans’ rights.

As the rabbi observed, concerns of Black people in America with regard to the historic and systemic issues of racism are legitimate. Our answer to the apparent growth of enmity toward Jews among young Blacks must be to restore the fervor of our community’s efforts to reach out to the Black community. Back in the day, The Jewish Federation had one of the most active Jewish Community Relations Committees in the country; its work in outreach to the Black community is legendary. The Anti-Defamation League, and other Jewish community organizations and synagogues, scheduled regular dialogues and activities with their counterparts in the Black community.

It’s time for us to wake up and get going and renew our efforts of outreach to the Black community.

Stu Bernstein, Santa Monica

Corrections

A photo spread titled “Some Jewish Olympic Moments” (Aug. 19) included a picture of Brazilian Olympic judo competitor Mariana Silva misidentified as the Israeli bronze medalist Yarden Berbi. 

A story about a performance of James Horner’s music (“Horner’s ‘Pas de Deux’ Gets U.S. Premiere With LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl,” Aug. 19) incorrectly referenced how Paul Chihara referred to the composer. He called Horner, “Jamie.”

Doubling down on Black Lives and America’s teetering soul

Last week, The New York Times reported that Black women, and especially Black trans people, are particularly vulnerable to police bias in cities around the country — their claims of rape and sexual assault are often dismissed, victims are mocked or threatened, and up to 85 percent of rape kits are left untested. While problems with gender-biased policing are not new, the fact that it is now front-page news is significant. Over the past few years, a sea change has occurred in the way we talk and think about race in this country, brought about through a broad-based awakening to the unresolved legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Racial injustice manifests itself not only in persistent, thinly veiled prejudices, but in quantifiable patterns of abuse, discrimination and disenfranchisement of Black Americans. Anyone who cares about America’s future as a democracy is indebted to Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the movement for racial justice for attempting to hold our country accountable to its most foundational commitments to its citizens. 

On Aug. 5, the Movement for Black Lives put out its official platform — a 47,000-word document with 40 robust policy recommendations and demands addressing issues ranging from an overhaul of our broken prison system, an end to the criminalization of Black youth and an end to the death penalty to the transformation of our education system and a national living wage. It is a serious effort to bring not only attention, but actual change to the flashpoints of structural racism. However, in the Jewish community, that has all been overshadowed by the platform’s Invest/Divest section, which accuses Israel of engaging in a “genocide” against the Palestinian people.

I stand with one foot in each of two worlds — or, more accurately, two feet in two increasingly disparate worlds. I am a rabbi with strong ties to Israel and a longstanding commitment to help Israel achieve its great aspirations as a diverse, pluralistic and just society rooted in Jewish and democratic values. And I am an activist with a graduate degree in human rights, deep relationships in the movements for racial and economic justice, and a fierce determination to help our own country realize its vision of equality, dignity and justice for all. My rabbinate has been dedicated to standing thoughtfully and soulfully at the intersection of those commitments. In Jewish environments, I try both to inspire a deep connection to Israel and to awaken our community to the toll of the nearly half-century Occupation on the Palestinian people and on the Jewish soul. I have found in our community a growing defensiveness and denialism around the current reality, to the point that even speaking about the Occupation or the dangers of continued settlement building calls into question a person’s commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. In justice environments, I try to challenge normative assumptions about Israel, build empathy toward a Jewish narrative, and give context for the desperate Jewish need not only for refuge but also for agency. I have found, in the justice space, a diminishing patience for or interest in engaging Israel altogether, with an increasingly aggressive and ahistoric posture toward the Jewish state. 

The chasm between these two worlds perhaps can best be reflected through the language we use and don’t use: The established Jewish community cannot countenance the word “Occupation” and the justice community is increasingly comfortable with the word “genocide.” 

The decision to include such inflammatory language toward Israel in the platform was a particularly bitter pill not only for me, but for many American Jews dedicated both to dismantling structural racism in this country and to fighting for dignity and equality in Israel/Palestine. The accusation of “genocide” is not only inaccurate but feels deliberately incendiary — erasing the experience of many Jews and Zionists of color, shaming white Jewish allies and replacing the timeworn trope of Jew-as-pariah with the more contemporary Jewish-state-as-pariah (to paraphrase Ellen Willis), responsible for human suffering the whole world over.

At the same time, it is clear to me that it would be a serious moral failure if we were to allow our justifiable anger with the nature of the criticism of Israel to distance and distract us from the work of tearing down structural racism in America. Our awareness of a lurking anti-Semitic tendency in parts of the justice community does not justify a retreat from the long overdue efforts to address racialized inequality across the country. The Baltimore police department’s treatment of Black women is still our problem, as is the mysterious failure of the police body-cam footage in the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old Black youth in Chicago last month. This ought not happen in the United States — and I can conceive of no moral calculation in which walking away is acceptable.

It is worth noting that all of this is unfolding in the context of a broader political culture shift in America. We are witnessing the rise of a political climate in which the reward of attention goes to the person who speaks with the greatest bombast and the least nuance. The new American political playbook is shock and awe, demonization and demagoguery, stirring up the crowds and leaving everyone angry, vulnerable and ungenerous. We are teetering at the edge of a political abyss that threatens to shatter alliances, to isolate and entrench us all in narrow, oppositional camps.

Where is there room for humility, where is grace in today’s political climate? It is clear to me that when the norms and language of our political culture fuel hatred and aggression, we have to work even more vigorously to respond to one another with love.

So, yes, I — like many others — was dismayed by the unfair excoriation of Israel in the platform.

But I’m not walking away — I’m doubling down. 

I’m doubling down on our community’s racial justice commitments, our work to end mass incarceration and to reform a deeply flawed prison system. I’m doubling down on my commitment to help bring an end to the Occupation, and I will continue to use whatever resources I have to amplify the voices of Israelis and Palestinians working for human rights, democracy and civil society. I’m doubling down on the fight to protect young Black men on the streets, and the effort to bring to light the struggles and courage and triumphs of Black women. To be clear, I’m not suggesting this work needs to be done specifically through BLM — there are many organizations fighting racial injustice. The point is that the work is essential, and we are not free to disengage. And I am doubling down on my commitment to talk about race — not only in the abstract, but inside our Jewish community and within my own family, even when it’s uncomfortable, painful and potentially alienating. 

I’m doubling down on my multi-faith relationships, and I’m asking all those who care about justice and dignity to double down, as well. I’m doubling down on calling out the insidious infiltration of anti-Semitism into our movements for justice, equality and liberation. Like any other form of racism, it has no place there — and diminishes us all. 

We are stuck in a cycle of action-reaction. Rage prompts fury. Accusation prompts condemnation. In the process, we are losing sight of our shared values and common goals. At some point, something must be done to break the cycle. What I know is that standing angrily on the sidelines, repeating condemnations, nursing our wounds and waiting for an apology will not change this script. I call upon my colleagues and friends to try to understand why the struggle for justice in Israel/Palestine feels so resonant for so many young activists fighting for their lives here in America. And I similarly ask that friends and fellow activists work to understand why it is that so many Jews — empathic and awake, people who strive to see God’s image in human beings and justice on our streets — continue to hold a deep and inviolable connection to Israel. It is only by stepping purposefully into the conversation, stretching beyond our simplest and most contemptuous assumptions, and being willing to hear even what hurts that we will learn anything. 

The bottom line: We are teetering at the edge of the abyss. We must not walk away — from the work or from one another. 

SHARON BROUS is founding rabbi at IKAR (ikar-la.org) and is a senior fellow at Auburn Theological Seminary, working on the front lines for justice with faith leaders from mainline Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Black Church, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish communities. She sits on the faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute-North America and Reboot.

Jewish campus organizations offer students support after UCLA murder-suicide causes campus lockdown

In the wake of an apparent murder-suicide that claimed two lives on Wednesday at UCLA, the UCLA Jewish campus organization Hillel at UCLA is offering counseling to UCLA students in need of assistance.

“[We will] find out where students are at,” Hillel at UCLA Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Lerner said in an interview at his office Wednesday. “I don’t want to put anything on them and say they must be traumatized, but there’s also the possibility this brings out real stuff, real trauma.”

Hillel, which serves approximately 1,500 students on campus, went into lockdown in response to the incident, as did all of the buildings on the sprawling West Los Angeles campus.

“Our job is to be there for them,” Lerner said of the students served by Hillel.

The shooting occurred at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Boelter Hall. The shooter and one victim died in the incident, according to the UCLA newsroom’s webpage.

Chabad of UCLA is also making itself available to students in need of support.

“Just please know that we are here for you and whatever emotional, mental, or spiritual needs you may have, whether it may be counseling, discussing the event, venting, praying or just being together and hearing the words of encouragement,” a statement at chabaducla.com reads.

IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous was participating in a meeting at Hillel at UCLA at the time of the incident. In an interview Wednesday afternoon, she denounced the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

“There’s really no place we’re safe from gun violence in this country,” Brous said.

Life at the UCLA campus appeared to return to normal by around 12:45 p.m. Students were walking on campus, discussing the day’s events and boarding buses at the intersection of Hilgard and Westholme avenues, across the street from the Hillel at UCLA campus and more.

Jen Pierre, graduate student, was among those walking on campus after the conclusion of the lockdown.

“We heard an active shooter was at the engineering building; we went into lockdown,” Pierre said. “I’m thankful I’m still alive,” Damien, a musicology student who asked to go by his first name only, told the Journal outside of the university’s law school building.

Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) was among local elected officials to respond to today’s tragedy.

“My thoughts and prayers – and those of my entire staff – are with those affected by today’s tragic events at UCLA,” Lieu said in a statement. “My office stands ready to assist in any way.”

Thriving indie Jewish communities join forces to create rabbinic fellowship

In the summer of 2011, Lizzi Heydemann returned to her native Chicago to establish a Jewish community loosely modeled on Ikar, the Los Angeles congregation where she had spent two years as a rabbinic intern.

She set about harvesting email addresses and putting out the word on social media. Heydemann called her community Mishkan – the Hebrew word for the mobile sanctuary built by the ancient Israelites from communal donations.

Heydemann’s first Shabbat service, held in someone’s living room, drew 65 people. The numbers snowballed from there – 90, 120, 150 for the monthly service. Mishkan’s first High Holiday service, in 2012, drew 600 people. The following year, it was 900 – among them Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his daughters. Last year, the service had 1,400 worshippers, comparable to what many large and established synagogues draw on the High Holidays.

“Synagogues just haven’t been doing it for the vast majority of Jews in America,” Heydemann said. “And that means there are a lot of really thirsty people out there.”

At a time of communal hand-wringing over declining rates of Jewish identification and synagogue membership — evident most recently in the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews — a handful of independent rabbis like Heydemann have demonstrated a consistent knack for drawing large numbers of mostly younger and mostly unaffiliated Jews to religious services.

Now seven of those rabbis are joining together in an effort to share their methods of connecting with this elusive cohort, which the institutional Jewish community has spent millions trying to reach.

The Jewish Emergent Network — a new partnership of communities widely hailed for their innovative spirit and proven success in attracting the young and unaffiliated — announced last month that it was establishing a fellowship for early-career rabbis. Modeled on the fellowship Heydemann did at Ikar, the program will place the seven rabbis in each of the participating communities for two years, during which they will receive mentorship and other training. Funded by the Jim Josephs Foundation and the Crown family of Chicago, the fellowship will begin in June.

The participating communities — in addition to Ikar and Mishkan, the group includes Lab/Shul and Romemu in New York, The Kitchen in San Francisco, Kavana in Seattle and Sixth & I in Washington, D.C. — are among the most successful young congregations in the United States.

They are led by rabbis routinely named to various annual lists of the most influential Jews and top American rabbis. Two of the seven showed up on the website Jewrotica’s lists of the sexiest rabbis. They use buzzwords like “high-content Judaism” and “DIY Judaism.” They have “spiritual directors” instead of rabbis and “live entertainment managers” in place of cantors. Their services tend to be lively and musically oriented, and they are explicitly committed to welcoming all comers, regardless of level of religious practice or sexual orientation — or even whether the participants are Jewish.

And even though none of these communities are affiliated with the major denominations and most don’t have a regular space, let alone their own building, they are consistently able to draw hundreds to weekly Shabbat services and thousands on the High Holidays. The vast majority of attendees are under 40 and unaffiliated with traditional synagogues.

“People in the network are simply doing R&D in the trenches,” said Amichai Lau-Lavie, the director of Lab/Shul, a 3-year-old “everybody-friendly” and “God-optional” community that drew more than 2,000 people to High Holiday services last year. “I think by the nature of things, the seminaries will catch up. The seminaries will always be behind people in the trenches.”

Though the individual communities differ somewhat in their particulars, they share a conviction that declining synagogue affiliation rates are not evidence that Jews have lost interest in Judaism. Rather, members suggest that traditional synagogues are largely unable to speak to the Jewish masses — either because they are too rigid and dogmatic, or because they have watered things down to the point where Judaism fails to inspire.

“The secret sauce is some kind of combination of being radically accessible and welcoming on the one hand, and raising the bar on engagement [on the other],” said Ikar leader Sharon Brous, who was named America’s top rabbi in 2013 by The Daily Beast.

“At Ikar we strive for an environment that really welcomes and embraces everyone – including folks who are ambivalent, atheist or just cynical about community, ritual, even God,” Brous said. “And at the same time, we don’t lower the bar for them. If we did, they’d walk in and run out.”

Whatever it is, the approach appears to be working. Noa Kushner, the fourth-generation Reform rabbi who leads The Kitchen, drew 1,000 people to High Holiday services last year in the most secular major metropolitan area of the country. A self-described “religious start-up,” The Kitchen is experimenting with a range of Silicon Valley-esque products, from a Pause app to create space daily for awe and gratitude to a deck of Passover cards to help newbies run their first seder.

“We don’t check pedigrees at the door,” Kushner said. “We have radical access. Anyone can stand up and say Kaddish. If you want to roll up your sleeves and do Jewish, we want you there.”

The Jewish Emergent Network came about through informal discussions among the communities over the past two years. So far it has raised $4 million toward a projected budget of $6 million that would fund two fellowship cohorts over four years.

Participants hope the fellowship will help spread their methods and thinking to other communities and, more broadly, that the network will help strengthen communities doing similar work. Beyond the fellowship, they are unsure where their partnership will lead, but they are certain where it won’t: For a group whose independence from the constraints of denominational affiliation has been their calling card, they are careful not to become what they have rebelled against.

“Some people have suggested, you’re building a movement. And I say, God forbid,” Brous said. “I have no interest in creating new institutional spaces with national conferences that people will roll their eyes at going to.

“My interest is in supporting each other, lifting the American Jewish community out of the demographic free fall and inspiring creative work.”

Rabbis across denominations talk tradition

Four area rabbis from different denominations examined the role that tradition plays in contemporary Jewish life during a panel discussion at Shalhevet High School on Jan. 9 as part of a community conversation called “An Evening of Discussion & Dialogue: What Unites Us? What Divides Us?”

B’nai David-Judea Congregation’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky said the whole concept of “tradition” has become problematic.

“It’s become a polemical word. It has no meaning, it has no substance, it has no content, and if we want to have an intelligent conversation, we have to stop using it,” he said.

The Modern Orthodox rabbi, whose congregation hired a female clergy member last year, specifically expressed frustration with community members who oppose such hirings at Orthodox synagogues citing adherence to tradition.

“The debate over whether Orthodox women should serve in clergy positions, the refrain that has come out of the [Rabbinical Council of America] is that it is a violation of our sacred masorah [tradition],” Kanefsky said. “It is code: ‘I cannot think of a single reason why it is not halachically permissible but I know I don’t like it.’ ”

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, of the Conservative congregation Temple Beth Am, agreed that a Jewish life requires more than just tradition.

“I no longer observe mitzvot that fulfill the particulars of halachah to appease an expecting God,” Kligfeld said. “To me, masorah, the tradition, is not a prescription for how to make God not angry at me.”

He said he acts instead in accordance with what makes him a productive member of the Jewish community: “In order to be in the mishpacha [family], the mishpacha of the Jewish people … there are certain family norms, systems, expectations, rights and wrongs.” 

According to IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous, these rabbis are not alone in their feelings, and as a result, alternative approaches to Judaism are sprouting up everywhere. 

“There is a fundamental lack of creativity and lack of moral courage in engaging the tradition, so what we have seen, particularly [recently], are a number of emerging leaders and rabbis, lay leaders, individuals and communities throughout the country who are forming a non-Orthodox approach to Judaism and [who] say, ‘We will not engage in a perfunctory run through of the tradition,’ ” said Brous, rabbi of a progressive Jewish community that meets at Shalhevet.

On the other side of the debate was Rabbi Pini Dunner, of Beverly Hills Synagogue. The Orthodox rabbi said halachic tradition continues to provide essential guidance in modern times, comparing it to traffic laws.

“When I’m at a red light, I want to drive through it because I would like to get my kids to school on time, however, the law informs me when the light is red I must stop my car because otherwise … I am going to be stopped and perhaps my license will be revoked,” he said. “That is, in a sense, the conflict we have.”

He said the value of tradition is that it combats the all-too-natural tendency of the individual to focus too much on him or herself. “As a Jew, it’s not about me,” he said.

The event was presented by the Shalhevet Institute, an initiative of the high school. The 2015-2016 school year marks the third year of the institute, which has focused on expanding the scope of Shalhevet to include adult learning, according to Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, Judaic studies teacher at Shalhevet High School and the director of the institute. 

“Through an array of programming — including a variety of classes, speakers, programs like tonight’s — we are trying to create a learning community that seeks serious Talmud, Torah, [and] serious study of Jewish literature in a manner that balances ideas and conversations and religious meaning,” Schwarzberg said during opening remarks.

He moderated the discussion that drew an audience of 200 — including Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet head of school, and a large number of students — posing questions regarding tradition, the need for Jewish unity and Israel. This was followed by a Q-and-A with the audience. 

Sponsors were husband-and-wife donors Richard and Wendy Kellner.

The evening wrapped with many attendees, including Scott Shulman, a member of IKAR, mingling with one another around the refreshments tables in the school gymnasium, where the event took place.

“Dialogue is essential,” Shulman said regarding why he attended the event. “It adds to the strength of our people.”

IKAR gets $3 million to support national rabbinic fellowships

The Jim Joseph Foundation has granted more than $3 million to IKAR for a rabbinic fellowship program that will involve a national coalition of seven spiritual communities known as the Jewish Emergent Network.

The fellowships will target rabbis early in their careers, mentoring them to be community builders who can bring Jews in underserved populations closer to their heritage. 

“We want to contribute to the reanimation of American-Jewish life and we believe that strengthening leadership is one of the best ways to do that,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of IKAR. 

The network will launch its program in June by sending one rabbinic fellow to each participating community for two years. Then, in 2018, a new group of fellows will be dispatched. Participants, along with IKAR, include Romemu and Lab/Shul in New York, Sixth & I in Washington, D.C., Chicago’s Mishkan, The Kitchen in San Francisco and Seattle’s Kavana.

The total cost of the program over four years — including pay for the rabbinic fellows and a project manager — is expected to be more than $6 million, according to Melissa Balaban, executive director and founding president of IKAR. That means the Jim Joseph Foundation grant of about $3.2 will cover more than half of it; the network has to raise the rest by reaching out to other organizations. (The Chicago-based Crown family has contributed $400,000 to the effort as well.) 

Brous said this program is important because of the dwindling participation in Jewish life among some of the Jewish population. 

“Over the course of the past decade in the American-Jewish community is the trend of diminishing affiliation in non-Orthodox circles,” she said. “There is a lack of engagement and affiliation, particularly among young people.”

Brous referred to the 2013 Pew Research Center study that found that 22 percent of Jews in the United States describe themselves as having no religion. 

“At the same time, there is a burst of innovation and a renewed interest that has emerged in a number of small pockets around the country,” she said. 

The participating synagogues of Jewish Emergent Network each offer unique approaches to community involvement and Jewish life. Romemu is an egalitarian shul in New York City that practices yoga alongside prayer. Kavana in Seattle promotes farming and community-supported agriculture, which supplies customers with organic produce from local farms. 

IKAR itself encourages members to volunteer by feeding the homeless and hosts monthly house parties that highlight spiritual practices such as kashrut and tzedakah. The synagogue, which was established in 2004, serves more than 570 member households and hosts Shabbat services at Shalhevet High School.

Over the new program’s four years, the two sets of rabbinic fellows will work in their congregations, and then meet once every six weeks at one of the institutions.

“After two years, they will not only have the experience of a deep immersion in one of the seven communities, but they will also have real exposure to all seven communities,” Brous said. 

Dawne Bear Novicoff, assistant director at the Jim Joseph Foundation, said it awarded the grant to the network because the program will ultimately help connect young people to Judaism. 

“Our interest is in finding and investing in opportunities that will encourage young Jews to live dynamic Jewish lives,” she said. “Folks in their 30s and young families are finding it hard to identify ways to engage in opportunities around their Judaism. We see this as a way to help cultivate that field and develop further opportunities for engagement.” 

According to Bear Novicoff, the grant will be doled out throughout the four years of the program’s lifespan. “It’ll taper from Year 1 to Year 4,” she said. “There is still funding to be raised in each of the four years by the network and by the individual communities on their own.” 

The idea for the Jewish Emergent Network was originally inspired by Brous’ own time as a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. She said the opportunity transformed her. “I’m not sure I would have started IKAR without that experience,” she said. 

Now she’s excited about the opportunity to help others have the same experience.

“On the basis of my personal fellowship in New York and the IKAR program, we feel really confident that it’s a profound way to have an impact in the Jewish community and that intensive mentoring can change the trajectory of the rabbinate. That’s why we feel so excited about this funding and the opportunity to have that impact.”

Moving and shaking: FIDF Western Region Gala; Mega challah bake and more

The annual Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Western Region Gala on Nov. 5 was a star-studded event that raised more than $34 million. The evening at the Beverly Hilton Hotel drew more than 1,200 attendees, including celebrities Jason Alexander, Gene Simmons, Liev Schreiber, Antonio Banderas, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Segel and Ari Emanuel.

FIDF is an organization supporting Israel Defense Forces soldiers, families of fallen soldiers and wounded veterans. It was founded by a group of Holocaust survivors.

Entertainment included performances by the Beach Boys, David Foster and Friends, and Asanda Jezile. Haim Saban, an FIDF national board member, and his wife, Cheryl, served as co-chairs.

“For the past nine years, I have watched this gala grow into the pre-eminent charity event it is today, and I am truly humbled by the funds raised yesterday, which are a testament to the importance of the FIDF organization and its mission,” Saban said, as quoted in a Nov. 6 press release. “The overwhelming support from the Los Angeles community continues to amaze me.”

Others at the event included FIDF Western Region President Tony Rubin and his wife, Linda; entertainment executive Casey Wasserman and his wife, Laura; retired Maj. Gen. Meir Klifi-Amir, FIDF national director and CEO; former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly; and businessman Steve Tisch. News analyst and author Monica Crowley served as emcee.


Was Superman God? Was Moses a superhero?

From left: Author Jonathan Lethem, Rabbi Sharon Brous and television writer Damon Lindelof discuss “Hero Worship.” Photo by Ryan Torok

Television writer, producer and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “The Leftovers”) and author Jonathan Lethem (“The Fortress of Solitude”) appeared in conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR on Nov. 2 at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica to discuss this and more during a conversation titled “Hero Worship: Are All Superheroes Secretly Jewish?” 

During the talk, which attracted approximately 140 attendees, topics ranged from Jewish values embodied by the actions of Batman, Spider-Man and Superman to the role of the Holocaust in shaping the attitudes of Jewish comic book creators and more. Lethem and Lindelof also mentioned how the work of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (collaborators on the Hulk, X-Men and the Fantastic Four) inspired them. 

“These were guys I could relate to; these were like my uncles making comic books,” explained Lethem, who said in a prior interview that he grew up in a secular Jewish household.

A reception with food and drinks followed the discussion, which included a Q-and-A with the audience. 

The gathering marked the first of three discussions by IKAR last week as part of its inaugural Culture Lab series. It was followed by discussions with writer Peter Beinart on Nov. 4 at Beth Chayim Chadashim and behavioral economist Dan Ariely at UCLA Hillel. Brous pointed out that the discussion with Beinart coincided with the 20th anniversary of the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and said the leader’s death “marks one of the saddest moments in the last 70 years of Jewish history.” 


Jonathan Benartzi, grandson of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, traveled from Israel to appear at a Nov. 3 memorial event at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills marking the 20th anniversary of the leader’s assassination.

Yiddish performer Mike Burstyn emcees the Yitzhak Rabin memorial Nov. 3 in Beverly Hills. Photo by Ryan Torok

Addressing approximately 1,000 people, Benartzi said support of Israel does not need to be blind, that criticism of it is OK. But he also thanked the American-Jewish community for supporting Israel, garnering a standing ovation from many in the crowd.

Additional speakers included Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel, former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Christian pro-Israel performer Pat Boone, Israeli-American Council Regional Director Erez Goldman, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, Rabbi David Baron of Temple of the Arts and actor Josh Malina.

Siegel recalled the time he escorted Rabin on an aircraft runway and said, “[Rabin] left an indelible impression on me … as though the patriarch of my own family had been shot.”

Yiddish performer Mike Burstyn emceed the event, which began around 7:30 p.m. It included live music from Cantors Marcus Feldman of Sinai Temple, Nathan Lam of Stephen Wise Temple and Chayim Frenkel of Kehillat Israel, as well as news footage from the time of Rabin’s death. The late prime minister was killed by an Israeli religious extremist on Nov. 4, 1995, after speaking at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. 

Baron, for his part, remembered Rabin as a man whose legacy of striving toward peace will live on. “People die, but beliefs and ideals don’t,” he said.

Other attendees included Roz Rothstein, CEO of pro-Israel organization StandWithUs. “It was a beautiful night,” she said after the event. “It was the dream — the dream of peace — that everybody hopes for, the theme of the evening and theme of his life, the dream that everybody wishes were true.”


An Oct. 29 Mega Challah Bake held at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza and organized by the Chabad Jewish Centers of the Conejo Valley and surrounding areas attracted more than 500 women and girls for dancing, dessert and — of course — challah-braiding.

From left: Dina Loncar; Bree Marlin; Karen Marlin; Orly Moline; Stefanie Friedman; Matty Bryski; Nanette Sigel; Sophie Sigel and Molly Sigel participate in a Mega Challah Bake. Photo courtesy of Shula Bryski 

Rebbetzins Shula Bryski, co-director of Chabad of Thousand Oaks and Devorah Leah Heidingsfeld, co-director of Chabad of Moorpark, co-organized the event, which attracted participants from various denominations as well as organizations such as Hadassah. 

“The air was palpable with the energy of unity, as 530 women danced and danced until they could no longer!” Bryski told the Journal in an email following the event.

It was one of many gatherings of its kind held last month under the auspices of The Shabbos Project, a community-building initiative. In Los Angeles, activities included a 3,000-person Shabbat dinner along Pico Boulevard.

Others who helped organize the Conejo Valley event included Chabad of the Conejo Rebbetzins Matty Bryski, Tovi Bistritsky, Mushka Friedman, Bassie Gurary, Chana Stery Kahanov, Leah Levine, Brocha Sapochkinsky and Tzippy Schneerson

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

Atheism as my path to High Holy Days enlightenment

Not long ago, I was having lunch with a colleague and we got around to the almost-always-perilous subject of religion. He asked me how I define myself, and I said, “I’m Jewish. And an atheist.” He laughed and said, “No, really, what are you?”  

For my colleague, a non-Jew, one is either religious or an atheist. Even more baffling to him was when he learned that, as a totally nonreligious Jew, I helped found a synagogue (IKAR), am married to IKAR’s founding president and executive director, revel in the study of Talmud, celebrate Shabbat dinner every Friday night, attend services almost every Shabbat morning, and regularly vacation with my rabbi and her family. The fact that atheism hasn’t diminished my deep connection to the Jewish tradition, people or even practice seemed utterly incongruous to him. But hardest of all for my colleague to understand was how my evolution into atheism has actually enhanced my enjoyment of Judaism over the years. 

For most of my life, I comfortably identified as agnostic. God never made much sense to me on either a scientific or ethical level, yet I felt that to be an atheist implied a degree of arrogant certainty that I preferred to reserve for my strident politics. Nevertheless, opening the prayer book as an agnostic was a maddening and fundamentally alienating experience because I believed that, to be a good agnostic, I was compelled to remain open to the possibility of God. I would stand in the midst of earnest, shuckling Jews, searching the words of the Amidah, for example, for meaning: 

Blessed are You, Lord our God … the great, mighty and awesome God, exalted God, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things, who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and who, in love, brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for the sake of His Name.

The only meaning I could discern was that God was an insecure narcissist who doesn’t seem to merit the required exaltation — as evidenced by the dismal state of the world. All that forced love and fawning praise seemed like a theology of rigid obeisance to a needy and ineffectual deity, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to flee. Invariably, I’d put the book down and retreat to the lobby where the scotch (and politics) flowed liberally.  

At some point, however, my agnosticism evolved into full-blown atheism. This was not the result of a single epiphany but was, rather, the consequence of my accumulated experience of the state of the world and my deeper understanding of the science underlying the world. 

The effect of this evolution (or devolution, depending on whom you ask) has been nothing short of miraculous. No longer feeling that it was incumbent upon me, as a Jew, to find a way of embracing God, I am finally able to enjoy Judaism. And beyond that, once I liberated myself from the impenetrable language of the prayer book and its force-feeding of praise for a reckless and imperious deity, I was able to see something pure and, yes, even holy, in the communal engagement characteristic of great and compelling services. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous has often said that religion, at its best, is a call to allow oneself to experience awe. While I have no doubt that belief in God can be a catalyst for the appreciation of awe, awe can be experienced in a myriad of ways. And, for me, experiencing the power of a community rooted in and fueled by the ethical imperative embodied in the Jewish tradition has become one of my greatest sources of awe.     

With that in mind, services became a vehicle through which I could experience community in the purest sense, a space to share sorrow, gratitude and fear; a place to find fortitude, moral clarity and hope. The inevitably huge turnout of the High Holy Days only magnifies the intensity of that experience, especially when combined with the powerful call for self-examination and rededication to personal and communal responsibility that are the hallmarks of the holidays. 

I am galvanized and humbled by the extraordinary passion and possibility of a committed and intellectually serious community — so much so that it doesn’t even bother me anymore that some of my closest people and fellow IKARites are true believers. Indeed, I’m grateful that IKAR is strong enough to allow space for both the God-inspired and the godless.

Now, with God out of the picture, I’m finally able to have a truly religious experience.

Adam F. Wergeles is a Los Angeles technology lawyer and a co-founder of IKAR.

IKAR announces its move to Shalhevet

Egalitarian spiritual community IKAR announced on Aug. 26 that it is relocating to Shalhevet High School’s new building near Olympic Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, following its 11 years operating out of the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC). 

“We are thrilled to announce that as of Sept. 5, 2015, all IKAR Shabbat and holiday services and Limudim will be held at Shalhevet High School’s beautiful brand new building, just down the street from the JCC. The IKAR offices will remain at the JCC for the time being,” said a statement signed by IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous, executive director Melissa Balaban and board chairwoman Karen Hogan.

The final IKAR Shabbat service and bat mitzvah at the JCC was Aug. 29. That’s when Brous told a crowd of about 300 people, “Sometimes space is holy because holy things happen in it.” 

Services wrapped up with the congregation singing and swaying together as the IKAR clergy led them in a rendition of the Beatles’ “In My Life.” 

Afterward, a ceremonial Torah walk to Shalhevet was followed by singing and dancing. As the congregants walked on the busy L.A. streets from one campus to another, IKAR Hazan Hillel Tigay led them in another Beatles song — this time “Hello Goodbye.”

It was a bittersweet chance to say goodbye to one space and be introduced to another, Balaban said in a phone interview.

“The JCC has really been our Jewish home. Our kids grew up in this place; we all grew up in this place [and] IKAR grew up in the JCC. We will have a lot of nostalgia. I think we will miss it,” she said. 

The statement by IKAR clarifies that the synagogue community is still hoping to eventually purchase a building of its own.

“As many of you know, our long-term goal is to build a Jewish center for social innovation — a laboratory for experimentation in all aspects of Jewish expression: spiritual, ritual, political, cultural and social. The move to Shalhevet is an interim step as we lay the groundwork for a capital campaign,” the statement said. 

Balaban told the Journal that IKAR signed a two-year lease with Shalhevet on Aug. 26.

IKAR is a nondenominational community of about 600 member units, while Shalhavet has more than 180 students and identifies as Modern Orthodox. Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal said the new arrangement benefits both communities.

“What makes us a good match is that our schedules are essentially mirror images. Sharing our space with an organization that has different religious viewpoints does not require relinquishing our own opinions; renting to an organization with different religious beliefs does not equate to religious relativism.

“It helps generate income to support the ongoing operations of the school, programmatic and curricular investments, and our increasing financial aid budget — and that is hugely important to us,” Segal added.

IKAR’s announcement coincides with Shalhevet concluding construction of its new $12 million campus at 910 S. Fairfax Ave., less than a half-mile from the JCC. 

Last year, Shalhevet began the ambitious effort of selling off half of its property, demolishing the other half and building a brand-new campus. During construction, Shalhevet moved to the Westside JCC, where it became acquainted with IKAR. The two organizations developed a mutual respect during their time of sharing the tight JCC quarters, according to Balaban. 

“I’ve been incredibly impressed with their administration and their faculty. It was very tight when we were all in the building at the JCC, but I enjoyed them being here,” she said. “They added a life to the building.”

Over the next two years, IKAR will conduct its services in the Shalhevet gymnasium, only holding services on Shabbat and on holidays, which are times when Shalhevet will not be in session. An IKAR weekday morning minyan takes place once a week at its early childhood center, which is run offsite. IKAR’s Hebrew school program, Limudim, is held on Tuesdays and Saturdays and will take place after the Shalhevet school day is over. 

As for parking, Balaban said that the amount of parking spaces available at Shalhevet is comparable to the amount of parking that was available at the JCC.

Aside from the logistics working out well, the IKAR leadership said the beauty of the new Shalhevet campus was part of what convinced IKAR that it would make a great home for the shul. 

“We just feel incredibly fortunate to be able to rent space in such an inspiring, beautiful and light-filled space,” Balaban said.

Brian Greene, executive director of the Westside JCC, had only positive things to say about the time JCC and IKAR spent together.

“It has been a terrific 11 years of growth for both organizations, and we wish IKAR continued success,” he said in an email. “Looking back at where both organizations were a decade ago, I think we can all be very proud of our achievements.”

Moving and shaking: Taste of Summer in Santa Monica, Peter Beinart at IKAR and more

The sun was gradually setting when nearly 600 people dressed in cocktail attire arrived at the fourth annual Taste of Summer event on July 25 in Santa Monica. 

DJ Mark Chill and DJ Matt Urbano supplied the tunes as young professionals sampled palatable offerings from local eateries, sipped colorful libations and, if they so desired, got their hair braided and makeup done by beauty-to-your-door app beGlammed. 

Hosted by the Fulfillment Fund Leadership Council, a nonprofit that helps high schoolers from educationally and economically under-resourced communities attend college, the event drew CEO Kenny Rogers (not the Kenny Rogers), who stood on the patio of The Victorian, a 19th-century mansion, with a rosé champagne in hand. After clinking glasses, Rogers, 50, asked, “College should be the norm, right?” 

The Fund currently serves 2,700 students in Los Angeles, helping pave the path to college by offering scholarships, mentoring and college trips. 

“Our vision,” said Rogers, a congregant of Temple Isaiah, “is that one day all kids in Los Angeles will have the opportunity to go to college.” This particular summer soiree brought the Fund closer to that goal, raising more than $90,000.

Behind Rogers, a red carpet made the perfect photo-op for honorary chairs upon entrance, including former “Top Chef” contestant Nyesha Arrington and confectioner Valerie Gordon — each of whom attracted crowds when they conducted cooking tutorials during the evening — and KABC food reporter Lori Corbin.

Meanwhile, a silent auction lured bidders who sipped cocktails. Fare included drinks from microbreweries, progressive California cuisine fare and Sprinkles cupcakes (not to mention, chicken-and-waffles-flavored saltwater taffy from Dylan’s Candy Bar). As the night progressed, the crowds grew thicker.

As people continued sifting in, former Fund beneficiary Mario Urbano, 35, bumped into his mentor Sherry Banks, director of program partnerships at the Fund, after not being in contact for years. Urbano, who started with the nonprofit 20 years before and went on to graduate from Cal State Long Beach, said that the Fund helped him attend college. The two embraced like long-lost friends.

“They made the whole process of going to college easier, and I hope to give back and mentor,” he told the Journal.

Tess Cutler, Staff Writer


The Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE), which works with more than a dozen Los Angeles-area Jewish schools, has named Yossef “Yossie” Frankel as a technology specialist, a new position for its West Coast school program. 

Yossef “Yossie” Frankel.

Frankel is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) educator who previously served as the director of the Consortium for Information and Academic Technologies, an international group that helps Jewish day schools integrate 21st-century education philosophy. 

“I am so excited to be joining the CIJE team,” Frankel said in a statement. “CIJE offers an outstanding and unique curriculum that is similarly aligned with my longstanding vision and focus of experiential STEM education.”

Frankel also has served as IT director at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles and director of academic technology at Tarbut V’ Torah Community Day School in Irvine, where he taught STEM robotics courses. He was nominated twice for Disney “Teacher of the Year” earlier in his career for his innovative teachings in middle school science.

“Yossie’s passion is helping Jewish schools the world over discover what a ‘21st century education’ really means and how it affects our children — the future of the Jewish people,” CIJE President Jason Cury said in a statement. “We look forward to his involvement in growing the CIJE program in California and ensuring excellence in California CIJE programs.”

CIJE partners with more than 160 American-Jewish day schools to provide them with the tools for a successful education, including an engaging curriculum, teacher training and advanced technology. Since 2001, CIJE has built 100 computer labs and 25 state-of-the-art science labs. 

 

— Amanda Epstein, Contributing Writer


Author and columnist Peter Beinart delivered an impassioned 20-minute lecture about why Israel and the United States don’t see eye to eye on Iran, as well as on the threat Israeli settlements in the West Bank pose to Israel’s democratic character and other topics after IKAR’s Friday night services on July 17. 

Known for his criticism of Israel, Beinart, author of 2012’s “The Crisis of Zionism,” appeared in front of a large crowd of worshipers at the egalitarian synagogue, which congregates every week at the Westside Jewish Community Center. 

He echoed an argument he made in a July 15 column in Haaretz, titled “Face It: U.S. and Israel Don’t Have the Same Interests.” Essentially, he said, the reason the United States and Israel have differing views about the dangers posed by the recent Iran nuclear deal — in which Iran agreed to halt its nuclear development program for at least 10 years in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions — is that American leaders believe terrorist organizations such as ISIS pose a greater threat to the U.S. than Iran does, unlike Israel.

Beinart, a New York-based contributing editor for The Atlantic and National Journal, stressed the need for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians and, while denouncing Palestinian terrorism, said that Israel threatens its own existence by providing subsidies to Israelis who are living in the West Bank. He bemoaned how Israeli laws treats Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank differently, how Israelis in the region are treated as full citizens under the law and how their Palestinian counterparts are not afforded those same rights. 

IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous, who also has expressed criticism of Israel’s settlement policies, had words of praise for the visiting speaker. 

“You don’t have to agree with everything he writes to recognize he is incredibly wise and extremely knowledgeable and has a profound sense of moral clarity in whatever he writes,” she said while introducing Beinart. Attendees at the event included actor Theodore Bikel (who died July 21 at age 91), Bikel’s wife, Aimee Ginsburg; and Steven Windmueller, former dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com. 

Jewish community reacts to the Charleston shooting

Please join in the comments section below to share your thoughts.


Rabbi Sharon Brous / IKAR

It is beyond belief that in the year 2015 we wake up to headlines reading: Nine Dead as Gunman Strikes a Black Church… Police Call Attack a Hate Crime. 2015. Sixty years after Emmett Till was murdered and Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. A lifetime after Little Rock and Woolworths and Freedom Summer, after Bull Connor and Medgar Evers and the dream that awakened the conscience of our nation and reminded us the great promise of this country. Fifty-two years after four girls were murdered at 16th Street Baptist in what King called one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity, nine African Americans were murdered in church, as they came together for their weekly Wednesday night prayer service and Bible study.

There are moments that define each one of us as human beings. And there are moments that define us as a nation. Let this moment, this tragedy – a lifetime after Montgomery and Selma, less than a year after Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, one week after Dajerria Becton – let this moment define us as a nation.

    Are we a people who denies, lies and hides from the reality of the lingering effects of racism in
    this land of the free and home of the brave?

    Or are we a nation that can rise up from tragedy and collectively affirm one another’s humanity, 
    see one another’s struggle as our own? 

   Are we a nation that obfuscates and repudiates and perpetuates the devastation that comes
   from hundreds of millions of weapons of war on our streets, available to every hate-filled or
   broken-hearted person with a credit card and a grudge?

   Or will we finally now – after yet another mass shooting – stand up together and say NO  
   MORE? 

Let this moment be the moment.

Let our collective grief and anguish bring us together as a nation, with our love and our fear, our dreams and aspirations, with a fierce and sacred hunger for change. We need to cry together and sing together. We also need to address the root causes and name the painful manifestations of racism in our society. And we need to change gun policy. It’s time.

L'shalom – with blessings of peace for Charleston, and for us all –
 
Rabbi Sharon Brous
 
PS. Send a message to the people of Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC, to let them know that they are not alone – that the Jewish community and good people everywhere reach out in solidarity with condolences and prayers for healing. Click here to send your note

David Siegel / Consul General of Israel

On behalf of the State of Israel, I wish  to convey our deepest sorrow at the tragic killing of innocent worshipers at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The people of Israel stand in solidarity and prayer with the families and loved ones of the victims, and with the people of Charleston, the State of South Carolina, and the United States at this very painful time of mourning.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley / Ohr HaTorah Synagogue and the Academy for Jewish Religion, California

My broken heart joins the heartbreak of our nation in contemplating the horror that occurred at Emanuel AME in Charleston. A young man filled with an evil and murderous hatred unleashed it on the innocent, again. We have seen this at an elementary school, at a move theater, at the Boston Marathon, and now at a most sacred center of American and African American religious life. I think of the victims and their families, and my sorrow filled heart goes out to them. I pray that the grief, love and resolve that is now filling our nation will be some measure of condolence in the midst of this horror. I pray that the commitment to God and God’s teaching, that the victims were living in their last moments of life, will be a guide for us. They would want us to continue that work, each of us in our own way. May this teaching one day conquer the hearts of hatred, and have those bent hearts bend to law of love.

Pastor “J” Edgar Boyd / First AME (FAME) Church, Los Angeles

and Rabbi Zoë Klein / Temple Isaiah

Please join us TONIGHT at 8 p.m. at First A.M.E. Church (2270 S Harvard Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90018) for a prayer vigil in response to the shameful shooting in Charleston.

Isaiah and FAME have been blessed with a long-standing loving partnership for many decades. Together we are a multi-faith family devoted to serving God through social justice toward humankind. Join us.

Statement:

The First AME Church Family of Los Angeles and The Jewish Faith Family at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, join with other peace-loving individuals across racial and religious lines in sharing words of comfort and solace to the families of Pastor Clementa Pinckney and the other eight women and men who were so senselessly gunned down while attending a Prayer Service at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night.

There is no earthly justification as to why this sinister and heinous act would be carried out, and in, of all places, a church during prayer time.

While the facts and other vital information about the incident are still being gathered and discovered, we encourage peace-loving people within and without institutions of faith, to reach out to God and to each other, offering prayer and consolation in wake of this senseless attack against life and liberty.

Efforts are underway to draw our communities of faith together in Los Angeles for prayer and conversation, seeking to console each other and to secure fragile racial and religious bonds across multiple communities, while we explore ways to minimize the risks of subsequent acts against life and innocent individuals.

A city-wide Prayer Vigil, including invitations to clergy persons from all faiths, will be held at First AME Church on this evening, Thursday, June 18, 2015 at 8:00 p.m. PST.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper / Simon Wiesenthal Center

“The Simon Wiesenthal Center is horrified by the apparent hate crime at a historic Black Church, where nine people attending a Bible class at the Emanuel AME Church were gunned down, reportedly by a young white gunman,” Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein, Associate Dean and Director of Interfaith Affairs respectively of the leading Jewish Human Rights NGO.

“We wish to express our solidarity with and deep sorrow for  the families who lost loved ones, the members of the historic Black Church and the people of Charlestown. We trust that law enforcement will do everything in its power to apprehend the murderer. All Americans are again confronted with the specter of a House of Worship violated and  our religious freedoms violently debased, “ Center officials concluded.

Rabbi David Wolpe / Sinai Temple

Evil in a House of God strikes all of us with particular force. My father's first pulpit was in the gracious city of Charleston; my brother was born there and I have visited often. It is city of beauty and charm. Our prayers are with the souls who were taken and the families and friends who grieve for them. We hope for healing from this terrible crime and we pray for peace.

Rabbi Leonard Matanky & Rabbi Mark Dratch / Rabbinical Council of America

To the Members of the Emanuel AME Church,

As fellow human beings created in the image of God, as fellow Americans, and as members of a people that shares the experiences of discrimination and murder based on faith and ethnicity, we, the largest collection of Orthodox Jewish rabbis in the nation, express to you our outrage at the murders of nine of your brothers and sisters, including your pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

We extend to you, and to their families, our deepest expressions of condolence and pledge to work with you, and other people of faith, to bring an end to violence and discrimination, and to the hatreds that so many of us hoped had waned which have returned with virulent force. We act in the spirit of consolation that came to us in our recent time of need, when Palestinian terrorists entered a place of worship during services and massacred four rabbis, and letters of support came to us from fellow Americans.

May the prophecy of Isaiah be fulfilled for you and your community, “The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted (30:26)” and “Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end (Isaiah 60:20).”

Rabbi Zach Shapiro / Temple Akiba

Daienu. We have had enough.

Enough ignoring the breadth of violence.
Enough ignoring the epidemic of mental illness.
Enough ignoring the depth of racial tensions.
Enough ignoring that we are our brothers' keepers.
Enough ignoring that the bloods of our sisters are crying to us from the earth.
Enough ignoring that God is shedding tears from Heaven.

Daienu. We have had enough

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld / Temple Beth Am

Compassion must be a transcending and transcendent notion, in order for it to have merit.  We in the Jewish community rightly call for others’ prompt, forceful and compassionate response when Jews are targeted for violence and bloodshed, whether in the US, France, Denmark or Israel.  There is something profoundly noxious about hatred itself, and even more so when it explodes into violence directed at individuals who are part of an identified group—whether they are bound by a religious identity, racial identity, national identity or sexual identity. People of conscience must loudly denounce such evil, without unintentionally undercutting our moral support by trying too hard to explain the violence away.  

And so it is with the heavy heart of a person/Jew/Rabbi who identifies with the victims’ families and community, with the ethical clarity with which our prophets—of yesteryear and of today—call for us to seek and pursue both justice and peace, and with the conviction that people of good will can and must overcome and overwhelm the tide of contempt, hatred, bigotry and violence that seems to sweep across our nation and world and inboxes and Facebook feed every day…it is with these parts of who I am that I express my outrage and horror and sadness at the murder of 9 people who were worshipping at the AME Church in Charleston. From what we can gather, they were targeted and killed because they were black. 

The loss of life itself, coupled with their being murdered for the color of their skin, must awaken with us a commitment to build a better world, where race, religion, national identity and sexual identity are ennobling and humanizing categories, and where suspicion and violence towards such groupings of our fellow human beings is labeled for the insidiousness that it is, and is eventually eliminated.  We weep today with our nation, with African Americans who are more scared to enter their church today than they were yesterday, and with all those who are targeted simply for who they are, whom they love, with whom they pray, the color of their skin and the name of their god.  May the source of all that is holy and compassionate bring comfort to the mourners; may God stir within us all the righteous anger that leads to redemptive acts. 

יהי זכרם ברוך.  May their memories be a blessing.

Rabbi Denise Eger / Kol Ami, President of the CCAR 

“I am saddened and heartbroken to learn of yet another mass shooting this time in Charleston. The sanctity of human life has been destroyed in a holy place of prayer and study. A disturbed young man had too easy access to guns and ammunition. When will we learn as a nation? The Central Conference of American Rabbis [CCAR] is shocked and horrified to learn of the tragic murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.   As clergy whose job it is to gather people in the study of sacred scripture, we are appalled that the desecration of nine human lives could occur in such a holy context.  Our sympathies extend to all the victims, and especially to out partner in clergy, Rev. Clementa C. Pickney.

As this hate crime was being perpetrated in America, our leadership gathered in Israel.  There we passed our resolution affirming our commitment to work for Racial Equality.  In the aftermath of the events in Charleston–and on top to the injustices in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Baltimore and beyond–we are even more fully dedicated to the work of that resolution, including “Making Racial Justice a top priority for our Conference in the coming year.”  The CCAR has long recognized that racism and economic injustice perpetuate disparities in American life, and are injustices in themselves, contributing to an unjust criminal justice system.  On topics ranging from economic justice to voting rights, from disparities in educational opportunity to formal and informal residential segregation, we have lifted up the prophetic voice in our resolutions, calling for tikkun olam, for a repair of our too-often broken American society.  In this coming year we doubly dedicate our entire conference to working to solve the massive injustices of race in America.

 

Rabbi Ed Feinstein /  Valley Beth Shalom

There are moments when God cries. This is one of those moments. 
A great church, historic center of a community dreaming of freedom and dignity; a congregation gathered in Bible study; a young man pumped full of hatred and a thirst for violence and heavily armed; and the lives of the gentle and the committed taken down in but a moment. God is crying. And we too cry. How long? How long will it take until we learn?

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater / Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center

My prayers and thoughts are with the people of AME in Charleston, SC, and to the entire community as they mourn their loved ones.  May God provide strength and comfort in this sad and painful time.  My parents have lived in Charleston for the past 15 years, and I know it to be a beautiful, kind and generous place to live.  Yet, the scourge of racism and hatred still runs deep in many places, including the South, where racial tensions are alive and festering.  We will counter hate with love, and together, as a nation, we can and must stand on the side of peace, justice, equality and righteousness. 

“Even though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with Me, Your rod and staff comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) May the souls of those lost be for eternal blessings, may their memories be for a blessing, and may their leader, State Senator Rev. Clementa C. Pickney, and all those killed, rest in peace.  God grant us the strength to stand up again, together.

Rabbi John Rosove / Temple Israel of Hollywood

I share the heart break, confusion and rage with every decent human being in learning that nine innocent people studying sacred scripture together could be murdered in cold blood for any reason at all, let alone their race and faith. My heart and prayers go out to the families of these victims and to the Charleston community as a whole that they may find courage and strength to abide this horrendous loss, and may the love pouring out to them from all over the country be healing.

May their memories be a blessing to all who loved and knew them.

Rabbi Susan Goldberg / Wilshire Boulevard Temple

A Prayer

Horror has ripped open our country.
Nine lives lost.
Nine souls taken by violence and hatred.

Violence is woven into the very fabric of our nation.
Racism is woven into the very fabric of our nation.
Too much loss. Too much.

It is easy to get a gun.
It is easy to learn hatred.

Our hearts must break open.
We must ask why and then act on the answers.

HaMakom yenachem et’chem
May the source of comfort, comfort all of those who mourn

And may the Holy One guide us in our grief to mend the blood soaked tattered threads of our collective history and weave a new tapestry

Rabbi Laura Geller / Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Our prayer book includes the words “Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.”  This hateful killing  calls for both responses: prayers for the victims of the Charleston Emanuel AME Church massacre and their families and loved ones, and action on the part of each one of us to confront the racism that is still so powerful in our country and our world. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us:  “Some are guilty but all are responsible.”  It is time to take responsibility for the racism that has manifested itself so clearly over the past many months and to recommit ourselves to ending the easy accessibility to guns that makes crimes like this possible.

May the memory of these people murdered as they gathered for prayer and study be a blessing and a reminder that we still have so much work to do to end the racism that poisons our country and our world.

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer / Author

Our tradition teaches that to save a single life is to save a world.  And so it is also true that to destroy a life, is to destroy a world. How many worlds, how many dreams, aspirations, heartbeats, how many sweet, innocent people, how many human possibilities, were eradicated in Charleston by a vicious, troubled young man whose parents thought a gun was an appropriate gift and whose own heart was poisoned by hatred? As Jews, as Americans, as believers in justice, as ourselves mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, we are riven with profound sorrow for these tragic losses, agonizingly reminiscent of the innocent black children bombed to death in a Birmingham church in 1963.  I call upon us as Jews to fulfill the  two-fold task before us:  to join together with our black brothers and sisters to erode racism, hatred, and violence  in this country, and to keep up the pressure on a Congress in the pockets of the NRA to radically limit civilian access to weapons.

B'nai B'rith International

B’nai B’rith condemns the shooting at a historic African American church that left nine dead in Charleston, S.C. 

“We believe this is a hate crime; that is how we are investigating it,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said.

The victims were gathered for an evening prayer meeting at the Emanuel AME Church when a lone gunman opened fire after observing the service for about an hour. The congregation has been a fixture in Charleston since 1816.

Attacking people as they pray is the height of depravity.

Our thoughts and prayers go to the victims’ families and those injured in the attack.

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.”