A pioneering minyan celebrates double chai birthday


Back in 1971, a group of young married rabbinical school graduates with small children requested a meeting with Rabbi Jacob Pressman of Temple Beth Am. Many of them had just moved back to Los Angeles after graduating the Jewish Theological Seminary, and they were looking for a meaningful prayer experience. Not only that, their children were being shushed for being disruptive in the main sanctuary.

Pressman proposed creating a separate, “parallel” service for the young Jewish professionals and took the concept back to his board, who did not like the idea at all. One man pointed his finger at Pressman and warned, “Rabbi you are going to create another shul that’s going to grow up and leave.”

Temple Beth Am library
In fact, the board member was half right. Pressman and the group did create another entity, what has become known as “The Library Minyan,” named for the downstairs library where the 15 families began to meet weekly to pray. Members organized and participated in all parts of the service (especially the weekly sermon), discussed all aspects of Judaism and debated the increasingly complex issues of the changing times. But even as the group grew — eventually eclipsing the main sanctuary in attendance — it stayed at Beth Am. In fact, it became a draw for new members, some of whom went on to serve on the synagogue’s board and who are now among the top Jewish professional leaders in and beyond Los Angeles.

Thirty-six years later, the Library Minyan, with its opportunities for engagement and intellectual rigor is seen as having helped to start a revolution — empowering lay leaders in the essential structure of spiritual leadership. It has become a model for many Conservative and Reform congregations seeking to create alternatives both within and outside the fold of conventional synagogue structure, and has allowed individual congregations to morph it into new and ever-changing incarnations.

This weekend, the Library Minyan will celebrate its double-chai anniversary (two times “life”) with a Shabbaton Nov. 2-4 that will remember the past but also look toward the future.

So, what does the future hold for the Library Minyan and its members? Will they continue to be a creative influence on Judaism? Or is it time for them to step aside and let other younger people establishing new and innovative communities of their own take over? Has the revolution ended?


Not that the Library Minyan set out to be revolutionary. “We were looking for a place where we could daven,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, who worked at United Synagogue Youth, Camp Ramah and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before leaving town in 1984 to work in Jewish education in Northern California.

“Since most of us were knowledgeable, we could create a service that was more informal, more intimate, more participatory. I think this minyan was an evolution and not a revolution,” Kelman said.

Pressman, for example, helped found Camp Ramah and American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and got the hotels in town to have kosher kitchens. Under his stewardship, Beth Am grew from 218 families in the 1950s to 1,300 by the 1970s. He recognized the need for something new: “It was unreasonable we could serve all these people,” he said, so he gave the green light to the group, which was soon to include Rabbi Eliott Dorff (now rector of American Jewish University), professor Steven L. Spiegel (now UCLA’s director of the Middle East Regional Security Program) and Rabbi Joel Rembaum.

“I wish I could call it an immediate success, but it was not,” Pressman said. “There was scarcely a minyan” in the early years. Not that that mattered to its attendees, who were happy to have a mixed-seating, lay-led, traditional prayer group where members read from the Torah, delivered parsha sermons and held weekly potluck lunches. They also debated issues: first, whether women could read Torah (they could by the mid-1970s) and then whether women could lead prayers and be counted as a minyan (they could by the early ’80s).

“In the late ’70s all these people started coming,” recalled Dorff, who joined two months after the start, in April 1971, and is now considered one of the driving forces behind its egalitarian spirit. The minyan is filled with rabbis — more than a dozen — but has no one rabbi. “There were more and more people who wanted this kind of service.”

There was another attraction: “Word came out that the Library Minyan was a good place to meet the opposite sex,” Pressman said.

The group relocated a few times, first into the youth building adjacent to the shul, and then to the old chapel (today it’s in a newly renovated chapel).

“The minyan also acquired a certain star appeal, with members such as the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, the scholar of mysticism Jonathan Omer-Man, and the historian of ideas David Ellenson, a Reform rabbi who grappled with Modern Orthodox theology in his doctoral dissertation,” as described in a chapter devoted to the history of the Library Minyan by Samuel Freedman in his seminal book, “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” published in 2000).

Freedman pointed out that the participants were “products of the Jewish counterculture, committed to applying the New Left’s ideal of participatory democracy to religious practice. Yet they did not throw out all convention: Ninety percent of services were in Hebrew, and most members were Sabbath observant.”

Other forces were also at work: In 1985, Pressman retired and handed Beth Am’s senior rabbi mantle over to Rembaum, one of the original members of the Library Minyan, which was now considerably larger, with about 130 individuals on a Shabbat morning, Rembaum said.

The complaints continued: “Why don’t you bring those people in?” some of the same Beth Am members now complained to the new rabbi.

“I’m one of them,” Rembaum replied.

Rebuilding New Orleans — With A Little Help From Each Other


One year after “the storm,” as New Orleanians refer to Hurricane Katrina, Jewish communal leaders describe the health of the community with certain expected terms — loss, trauma, devastation and challenge.

Unexpected is the word “blessed,” used repeatedly in reference to the outpouring from the American Jewish community of financial support, volunteerism and donations of everything from teddy bears to challah covers.

Funds from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella of the North American federation system, and the national religious movements have kept New Orleans’ Jewish agencies and synagogues afloat this past year and are expected to do so through 2007.

To date, the UJC has contributed more than $17 million to the rebuilding efforts; the Reform movement has contributed some $800,000 to local Reform congregations, with another $800,000 available for recovery efforts not covered by insurance. Other movements have sent funds as well, although exact figures were not available.

What will happen in 2008 and beyond is the worry that both drives many planning meetings during the day and keeps communal leaders up at night.

“Fortunately, the Jewish community has not had to depend on the help of government, given its failure at all levels,” said Allan Bissinger, president of the New Orleans federation. “UJC has taken the place of what the government should normally have done.”

Roselle Ungar, interim executive director of the federation, said, “What UJC and the many generous contributions from individuals across the country have given us is the opportunity to take a deep breath, step back and take the time to make the hard decisions that will be necessary, so that in 2008 we can stand on our own two feet again.”

A community-wide task force is in the beginning stages of implementing a recovery plan. The plan focuses on such issues as how to retain current residents while encouraging new ones to resettle in New Orleans. It also is determining how the organized Jewish community can work smarter to make the best use of limited dollars.

One of the positive outgrowths of the storm has been the burgeoning spirit of cooperation among all the New Orleans Jewish institutions. Beth Israel Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue that took on 10 feet of water, is now holding a Shabbat minyan at the Reform Gates of Prayer Congregation.

The Anti-Defamation League is sharing federation office space. Interagency programs are on the upswing, and a Hebrew free-loan program is in the works. The JCC is getting needed revenue by renting out its facilities to community groups.

Tackling the population issue will not be as easy. Current estimates are that the Jewish community will stabilize at about 65 percent its pre-storm strength of about 10,000 individuals.

Although there are no hard and fast data about the population exodus, the increasing number of “For sale” signs attests to residents’ continued impatience with the slow pace of recovery, frustration with the government and concern about the rising crime rate. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact another hurricane would have on people’s decisions to move.

Although all age groups have joined this exodus, one particular cohort — those in their 60s and 70s with grown children in other communities — has been leaving in large numbers.

Communal officials count the loss of these individuals particularly troublesome because these are the big machers — those with the money and the time to make significant contributions. Every institution has lost some of its biggest donors and officers.

At the same time, each of the five synagogues surveyed has reported new members, mostly young people drawn by the pioneer spirit of rebuilding and the opportunity to make a difference.

Indeed, despite the loss of members, synagogue attendance seems to have remained stable. As Rabbi Andrew Busch of the Reform congregation, Touro Synagogue, put it, “In their new lives after the storm, people have a greater need to come together in the synagogue.”

Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation agreed.
“Though I have not had people battering down my door for pastoral counseling, in a sense, the storm underlines everything,” he said. “Fortunately, very few of my congregants lost family members to the storm, but most are rebuilding their homes and almost everyone’s job was affected in one way or the other. That is taking up so much of their energy. They come to synagogue to be in community.”

Undaunted by the storm, Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana has committed to build a new student center at Tulane University; the cornerstone ceremony is scheduled to be held Aug. 27, two days before the storm’s anniversary.

The New Orleans Jewish Day School, a community school supported by the federation, has been hit hard by the population exodus. From a pre-storm enrollment of nearly 90 children in kindergarten through eighth grade, it will begin the coming school year with 23 children in just two classes: a combined kindergarten-first grade and a second-third grade class. This precipitous decrease comes despite a halving of tuition, made possible by outside contributions.

Because the local Jewish Family Service (JFS) helps individuals cope with the challenges in their lives by providing counseling and financial support, it has been a lead agency in the post-storm year.

And it has transformed its way of doing business.

Although it had always provided small grants of $500 to $1,000 to individuals in need, that activity increased exponentially over the past year, when it distributed $900,000 in UJC funds directly to individuals affected by the storm, according to agency officials.

By requiring individuals to come to the JFS office to pick up their checks, JFS staff had the opportunity to see how recipients were doing, to hear their concerns and to offer help that went beyond the financial.

Anne Freedman, associate director of JFS, said of its clients: “All that some people needed was the chance to cry and tell their story to the staff, people who really understood them because they had gone through the same thing.”

“Many people were so used to giving to others that they were embarrassed about accepting aid,” she said. “I would tell them that the sooner they were made whole, the sooner they could be back to their traditional role of helping others.”

The traditional counseling role of JFS has changed as well. With many families now living with several generations while their homes are being repaired, more clients are coming in for family counseling. In Baton Rouge, which received many older evacuees, JFS plans social events that bring isolated older adults together; the JCC in New Orleans puts on similar activities.

The agency’s suicide prevention and education program, Teen Life Counts, is needed more than ever. One volunteer reported that pre-Katrina, when she would ask high-schoolers what they thought of teens who committed suicide, they would characterize them as selfish and foolish. This past year, the responses were much more sympathetic. She heard students say, for example, that peers who committed suicide “must be real sad because their parents were crying all the time.”

Yet, even against the backdrop of government incompetence and uncertain levees, many residents are buoyed by optimism.

On a recent Sunday, community members gathered in the afternoon for a chanukat habayit, a home dedication ceremony in which a mezuzah is hung, for Georgette Somjen, a physician moving to town. Later, a brit milah was celebrated for the son of Gary and Susan Lazarus, who are committed to remaining in New Orleans.

Dan Alexander, a fourth-generation New Orleanian, and his wife, Lazelle, also a native, attended both celebrations.

Katrina destroyed their home and surrounding neighborhood, where they had lived for 43 years. The house was bulldozed a few weeks ago.

An 81-year-old retired public schoolteacher, Dan Alexander, said, “When you lose your home, it is like losing a relative.”

Buying and moving into a new house was “the farthest thing from my mind,” he said. “But what’s the alternative? You have to move on and establish a whole new type of existence.”

Declaring that he and his wife are satisfied in their new home, he added: “I couldn’t have made these changes without the support of Lazelle and my family and the community. We just have to be strong and work together as a team.”

Cantor Carries on Tennis Tradition


Steven Walfish’s life is ruled by the three Ts: tallit, tefillin and tennis.To illustrate this point, when his son Sam was in first grade, he asked his dad to drop by the school and join other fathers in talking about their professions.

So the elder Walfish appeared in full regalia and talked about what it means to be a cantor in a synagogue.

Then he stripped off his robe, displaying the tennis shorts and shirt underneath, and discussed the job of managing three municipal tennis centers.

Walfish credits one of his professions to his father, the other to his mother.

His Polish-born father and Holocaust survivor, Heshel Walfish, has been the legendary cantor at Beth Israel for 50 years, and at 85 he shows no sign of slowing down.

Located at Beverly and Crescent Heights boulevards, Beth Israel was founded in 1899 as the first Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, and was also known as the Olive Street Shul.

When Steven was 5 years old, Cantor Walfish put his son next to him on the bimah on Shabbat, and the boy starting belting out prayers at the Orthodox service.

By the time of his bar mitzvah, Steven had learned his dad’s craft and would pinchhit for him when he was out of town.

At the same time, the boy’s American-born mother, Betty, took over the physical education of the only male heir among her four children.

She took Steven bowling, fishing, and, most importantly, instilled in him a lifelong love of tennis.

Now, at 74, Betty Walfish still plays against her 48-year old son, who describes her as “a really sharp player.”

By stages, Steven Walfish became a full-service cantor the old-fashioned way, by learning from his father rather than through ordination.

For the past nine years, he has conducted one of the High Holiday services at Stephen S. Wise Temple, a Reform congregation, and tutors bar and bat mitzvah students.

(Full disclosure: Walfish tutored and officiated recently at one of my granddaughters’ bat mitzvah, so this report may be biased.)

When The Journal interviewed Walfish last week outside Starbucks on Beverly Glen Circle, a parade of trim-looking women stopped by for cheery hellos.

“All mothers of my b’nai mitzvah kids,” he explained.

On a parallel track, Walfish’s tennis fervor kept growing. “I am an ardent fan,” he said. “If Tom Cruise came by now and sat down at our table, it wouldn’t mean a thing to me. But if it was Pete Sampras or John McEnroe, I’d die.”

In 1994, Walfish got a chance to combine pleasure and business. With partner Lee Ziff, he formed the Beverly Hills Tennis management company, and soon entered into a contract with the City of Beverly Hills to manage its 26 courts at Roxbury Park, La Cienega Park and Beverly Hills High School.

“We supervise all the lessons, leagues, competitions, facilities and special events,” he said. “We have 30 pros, so I can always find somebody to play with.”

Recently, Walfish had the opportunity to fuse his two favorite occupations by conducting a bar mitzvah on a private Beverly Hills tennis court.

In preparing Jewish youngsters for the rite of passage, Walfish takes a special interest in the sons and daughters of Russian immigrants and in children with learning disabilities.

“The Russian kids have practically no Jewish background but they have an intense thirst for Jewish identity,” he said.

Walfish, a divorced father of a girl and two boys, has developed a personal understanding for children with special needs through his 14-year old daughter Emily.

Emily was born with Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that prevents her from walking or communicating in any way.

“She is a beautiful girl, she laughs and cries, and living with her — we would never put her in an institution — has made her two younger brothers much more sensitive and empathetic boys,” Walfish said.

A big man, who erupts frequently into hearty laughter, Walfish puts in pretty long days as cantor, manager of tennis facilities, and “full-time dad.” In addition, he “dabbles” in real estate, and hopes to rejuvenate his father’s Beth Israel congregation, which now consists largely of Holocaust survivors.

As a religious person, Walfish says he is somewhat conflicted. “My father is from a Chasidic background and I was educated in Orthodox schools, but I have worked mainly at Conservative and Reform synagogues,” he mused. “I guess theologically I look at life from a Reform perspective, but my heart and soul are still Orthodox.”

 

Q & A With Rabbi Robert Gan


Rabbi Robert Gan, 63, has been senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, an 850-family member Reform congregation on Pico Boulevard, for more than 30 years. At Temple Isaiah, Gan demonstrated his commitment to social justice, inviting such speakers as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to address his congregation. This year, Gan begins his newest role, as president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that brings together 250 rabbis from all denominations. Gan spoke to The Journal about his plans for his new position, and the problems facing the Jewish world today.

Jewish Journal: What is the role of the Board of Rabbis in the community?

Rabbi Gan: The Board of Rabbis represents all the different groups in the community. We provide chaplains for hospitals and prisons; we have a leadership-training program. We are, hopefully, a voice of conscience, a voice that gives some sense of priority to Jewish issues in our community.

JJ: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure at the Board of Rabbis?

RG: Well, first of all, I think that the Board of Rabbis suffers from one of problems of the larger Jewish community, which is its general geography. The community is so large and so spread out, that it is difficult to create a sense of collegiality and inclusiveness among members of the Board of Rabbis, which is something I hope to do in the coming years. We are trying to meet every other month, and to also have programs that will bring everyone together.

The other hope that I have is to attempt to be the voice of the Jewish community when issues arise that need some kind of a rabbinic response. We represent the vast variety of Jews in Southern California, and hopefully we can have some kind of moral persuasion.

JJ: Can you give an example of the kind of issues that you will respond to?

RG: Right now we are submitting something for people look at regarding Proposition 54, which has to do with banning the gathering of data in ethnic and minority communities. We think that data-gathering is necessary to get a picture of the community, and it is important for education and health needs, and stopping the State’s ability to help the various ethnic and racial groups through collecting important and useful information and implementing programs to assist them is wrong.

JJ: Are you concerned that because the rabbis in the Board of Rabbis come from so many different denominations, that it will be difficult to create a consensus?

RG: I think we all have different positions on issues of religious expression, which is important and wonderful, but I think there are issues that are larger than individual denominations that we should be able to speak to.

JJ: What do you see as the main strengths of the Los Angeles Jewish community?

RG: Well, it has a lot of Jews. It’s the second-largest Jewish community in the country, so it has enormous potential for involvement and affiliation and giving support. There is a lot of untapped potential. We live in an area that is open to creativity and experimentation to Jewish life.

JJ: As a rabbi, what are you most passionate about, and why?

RG: When I first came here as a young rabbi, I was very much involved in Jewish family life, and created all kinds of programs for adults and children together. We still do that in our congregation — adults and children get together to learn and study.

I am also part of a congregation that has a long history of activity in the area of social action and social justice, which is a passion of mine as well. And I love to be involved with interfaith relations, I think that contact with one another and being able to learn from one another is very important.

JJ: What was your Rosh Hashanah sermon about?

RG: I am struggling with my sense that people seeing the world as being less secure, and perhaps less hopeful than they thought, even a sense of malaise on some level. I talked about the fact that we are part of a faith that affirms life, and in spite of all that we have endured as a people, we will continue to live and thrive. We have resources in Jewish life and the community that are life-affirming and important.

JJ: What do you think that the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox can all agree on, religiously speaking?

RG: I think that we all agree that we are committed to sustaining Jewish life and the Jewish people, and we all do so in our own particular ways.

JJ: And its weaknesses?

RG: I think the strengths become the weaknesses of the Jewish community, because we haven’t been able to mobilize and involve people in the way that we should.

JJ: What do you think the Jewish community should be most concerned about?

RG: I think we are always concerned about continuity and the continued vibrancy of Jewish life. All of us are concerned with bringing people to understand the beauty of the tradition that we are a part of, and how it speaks to issues of the larger world, in terms of tikkun olam.

Part-Time Work, Full-Time Families


Around the time Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Conservative women began to press the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to ordain women. In contrast to the matter-of-factness with which Priesand’s ordination took place, the ordination of women in the Conservative movement was accomplished only with a certain amount of kicking and screaming on the part of some JTS faculty and members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA). It took more than a dozen years from the first manifesto of Conservative women demanding equal status in the synagogue in the early 1970s to Amy Eilberg’s ordination in 1985.

Women form slightly more than 11 percent of the RA’s membership today, with both JTS and the University of Judaism (UJ) ordaining them as rabbis. They’ve had some of the same effect on the Conservative rabbinate that Reform women have had on theirs, though in some ways, Conservative Judaism has some serious catching up to do.

"The decision to work part time is not encouraged and not understood in the Jewish community," said Nina Bieber Feinstein, who in 1986 became the second woman to be ordained at JTS. She noted that the RA did not list part-time jobs in its newsletter until recently, and then only for the East Coast.

"I’ve been paying dues to the Rabbinical Assembly every month, and I’ve never received an iota of help," Feinstein said. "Every time I find a job, it’s on my own or through networking."

Feinstein, a mother of three whose eldest child was born before she was ordained, has never worked full time or held a pulpit at a mainstream synagogue; she’s currently associate rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah, the Westside congregation for Jews in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, working three days a week.

She and her husband, Ed, associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, decided early on that his would be the dominant career. The decision to stay with part-time work "has been one of the banes of my career, though it’s been good for my children," Feinstein said. "At least for myself, I know I made the right decision."

As in Reform circles, female rabbinical students and rabbis are seen as civilizing forces.

"I think women rabbis have had a profound effect on the demystification and democratization of the congregational perception of the rabbinate," said Tracee Rosen, a former rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and current rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, who was ordained at UJ three years ago. "My own experience was that we also had an effect of reducing the testosterone-laden competitiveness of classes in the seminaries."

Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi ordained in 1998 who serves Sinai Temple in Westwood, remembered a prayer vigil held at JTS after an accident injured students at the school. During the event, she recalled, a male rabbi told her, "If there weren’t women here, this would never have happened."

Issues of balance between work and family life are present in the Conservative movement as well and are carrying over to men, with large Conservative synagogues having trouble filling pulpits.

"Traditionally, male rabbis gained status based on synagogue size: the bigger your shul, the more important rabbi you were," Rosen said.

"Now, I think there’s more of a realization … that for many of us, there are some positions that aren’t worth the personal sacrifices, no matter how much money they are willing to pay."

Mark Diamond, who administers the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, notes that the Conservative movement has yet to see a woman at the helm of a major congregation, though the first women were eligible for such jobs 10 years ago. Conservative Judaism eventually will view women rabbis as leaders, he said, "but it’s a very slow process."

Hirsch, the mother of a infant son who said she’s frequently called about positions that would represent steps up the career ladder, is more upbeat, saying that women will break through the glass ceiling and eventually lead large congregations. Male Conservative rabbis "want women to ascend; they know it’s deeply important to the Conservative future," she said. Conservative congregations are "not exactly where I want them to be," Hirsch said, "but they’re a long way from where they were."

Unsolved Mysteries


Over the High Holidays, somebody scrawled Nazi swastikas and the epithets “Cursed evildoers” and “Evildoers, you will die” on the front door of the Reform movement’s Har-El Congregation synagogue in midtown Jerusalem.

This was only the latest act of vandalism against Har-El, Israel’s oldest Reform synagogue, in recent months. Over the summer, someone smeared human excrement on the synagogue door. On two other occasions, somebody poured acid on the synagogue garden, turning the grass yellow. All these incidents took place when the building was closed.

The police haven’t arrested anybody, and local Reform Jews don’t think the police — or Israel as a whole, for that matter — are terribly interested in the problem.

“After the swastikas and the graffiti, the policeman who came to investigate asked us, ‘Are you connected with the Jews for Jesus?’ From his tone, you could infer that he thought we should expect that things like this would happen to us,” said Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, leader of the Har-El Congregation.

“In Europe, when swastikas are written on a synagogue, the police usually catch the criminal and put him in jail. Israel is the only country in the world where anti-Semitic acts can be carried out — swastikas can be printed on a synagogue, [non-Orthodox] rabbis can be vilified — and it doesn’t seem to move anyone.”

There was no outcry, to say the least, after any of the acts of vandalism against the synagogue. After the swastika incident, the only Israeli public figure who spoke out was Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg, who said that anyone who commits such a sin should forget about being forgiven on Yom Kippur.

The vandalism at Har-El was not the only attack on non-Orthodox synagogues over the holidays. On the morning of Yom Kippur, members of the Conservative Hod V’Hadar synagogue in Kfar Saba discovered that the glass front door had been smashed and the mezuzah yanked from the doorway. On Rosh Hashanah night, a side window of the synagogue had been broken, and, last month, the mailbox had been pulled off the wall.

Emily Levy-Shochat, president of the congregation, said that she had written down the two earlier incidents as simple hooliganism, but the Yom Kippur vandalism of the mezuzah made it obvious that these were religiously motivated crimes.

If recent history is a teacher, the vandals who attacked Har-El and Hod V’Hadar will not be caught. No one has been apprehended in the recent torching of a Reform nursery school in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion. Neither has anyone been arrested for the hundreds of threatening telephone calls and faxes received by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.

“I’ve basically given up hope with the police,” said Action Center spokeswoman Anat Galili. “Whenever something happens, I call to remind them, but I don’t expect anything. One policeman actually told me that if we make a noise in the media, we encourage the hoodlums to attack us. In other words, we should keep silent.”

A Jerusalem police spokesman claims that the threats against the Action Center have subsided since the summer of 1996, thanks to police phone taps that traced the calls to five or six yeshivot in the capital. At the urging of police officials, rabbis of these yeshivot warned their students against harassing the Reform, and the harassment ended, according to the spokesman.

Galili has evidence to the contrary — the Action Center’s answering machine. “Almost every morning, there is at least one hostile, threatening message on it. We’re not getting the flood of threats we had before, but they’re still coming in.”

She notes that the immediate neighborhood around Har-El, located on Shmuel HaNagid Street, is a model of religious tolerance. Right nearby are a strictly Orthodox synagogue, a Baptist church and a Jews for Jesus congregation. The wider surroundings, however, are a source of fiercely anti-Reform elements — small pockets of fervently Orthodox residents lie about a five-minute walk away, and the area, not far from Mahane Yehuda, is known for its concentration of Kach members and sympathizers.

But because the graffiti featured well-worn haredi curses such as “cursed evildoers,” Galili suspects that the hand of a haredi, not a Kachnik, drew the swastika and wrote down the curses. It could have been worse. Two years ago, a cafe on Har-El’s grounds that had been opening on Shabbat was torched. Some 15 years ago, the Baptist church was torched. No one has been arrested for those crimes either. n

Nazi swastikas, not unlike the one above, were scrawled on the front door of a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem during the High Holidays , but there was no outcry nor any arrests. Photo by David Margolis.

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