Taking Note of 2004

Last week, I pulled out a big, unsorted folder from my desk filled with material I had used for my Jewish Journal columns. Early in my

career, I was taught to take notes on folded sheets of paper, my employer being too cheap to buy notebooks. After finishing the story, we reporters usually threw away the notes, believing that nothing we wrote was of lasting value.

When I started writing books, I realized the value of saving things — but not in an organized way. Still, I had the material for my columns, and I thought that wading through it would be a good way to review the year — and it was.

I spent much of my time in 2004 on the Jewish vote in the presidential election. I interviewed party activists and ordinary voters, many of them in the San Fernando Valley. Because of its middle-class demographics, the Valley is an excellent laboratory for politics of all kinds.

I looked at the election through the prism of Israel, speculating on whether President Bush would improve his standing in the Jewish community because of his ironclad support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In the end, the president got 24 percent of the Jewish vote, according to an analysis of exit polls. This was 5 percent more than he received in 2000, a fact hailed by Jewish Republicans as a victory and by Jewish Democrats as a repudiation.

Actually, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, his total was far below his father’s 35 percent in 1988, Ronald Reagan’s 39 percent in 1980, Richard M. Nixon’s 35 percent in 1972 and Dwight Eisenhower’s 40 percent in 1956.

Looking back on the election, it’s clear there was more to the Jewish vote than Israel. The 76 percent Kerry vote included huge numbers of people who are intensely fervent in their support for Israel. The 24 percent who voted for Bush don’t have a monopoly on the issue.

There were many other factors driving the Kerry vote. His voters didn’t like Bush, disapproved of his war policy and felt he was taking the country down the wrong road domestically with proposals such as privatizing Social Security.

Other factors were also important. Although I didn’t explore it much, I’ll bet the religious and cultural divide in the Jewish community was as important in shaping the Jewish vote as was Israel.

As the Israel Insider noted in its post-election analysis, a higher proportion of Orthodox Jews were Republican than less-observant or secular Jews.

How did religion and culture play into this? Are Orthodox Jews like fundamentalist Christians, bringing to the political process a whole basket of convictions that ran counter to what was proposed by the Democratic candidate and the party platform?

Did the Orthodox resent the way liberal Hollywood campaigned for Kerry? How did they react to newly wed same- sex couples hugging after marriage ceremonies in the San Francisco City Hall presided over by Democratic Mayor Gavin Newsom?

And what about abortion? Feelings on this subject will come out in the debate over new Supreme Court justices, which basically will revolve around how the nominees feel about choice. Without getting into a discussion about the range of rabbinical thought on abortion, it’s safe to say many Orthodox thinkers take a position that choice advocates would say is distinctly anti-choice.

In the last presidential election, the Republicans demonstrated a great ability to pick out ideological sympathizers from masses of voters. Undoubtedly, they will do this with Orthodox Jews as they seek support for a Bush Supreme Court nominee.

They know there’s a culture war in the Jewish community, as there is elsewhere in America. Tracking it will be a challenging job in the months ahead.

In my brief expeditions to college campuses during the past year, I saw a wide variety of thought and activism that was reflective of the community as a whole. I’ve made a resolution to explore them more.

Looking through my folder, I found other ideas to be checked out. One is Jewish life in the far suburbs that stretch beyond the West Valley into Ventura County. What are the ties that bind this community?

Another subject is the Jewish poor, particularly the elderly. I dipped into this early in my Jewish Journal writing career but never followed up. How will this impact the Social Security debate? What will be the attitude in the Jewish community to the medical and social service cuts being considered in Sacramento and Washington?

Any other ideas will be appreciated. When I started this column, I thought of it as my personal voyage of discovery through the Jewish community, in all its richness and diversity. I still have a lot of territory to cover.

Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at

Lev Eisha Women Pray Their Own Way

On the first Saturday of each month, while weekly, traditional Shabbat morning services are taking place at Adat Shalom synagogue, another service transpires behind the main sanctuary that is anything but traditional. Women of all ages dance between davening, beat tambourines and sing loudly, and instead of praying silently they share with one another.

They are the women of Adat Shalom’s Lev Eisha (A Woman’s Heart), “a joyous community of Jewish women engaged in prayer, study, spiritual growth and friendship.” Founded by a handful of women in 1999 as an outgrowth of the Wagner Women’s Retreat — an annual retreat at Camp Ramah in Ojai organized through the University of Judaism’s Wagner paraprofessional program — Lev Eisha has grown to average more than 100 women at each service and more than 400 people on its mailing list.

Lev Eisha attracts a diversity of women that ranges from young to old, unaffiliated to observant, and while most are not members of Adat Shalom, they travel from Orange County and the San Fernando Valley to attend the monthly service. While the women of Lev Eisha pride themselves on their diversity, it is a hunger for a spiritual connection that unites them.

“The women that come have a very strong spiritual need and are seeking something in a Jewish context,” said Elaine Craig Segal, Lev Eisha’s president. “You can get meditation and other things, but people looking to find a spiritual connection within their own religion can look to Lev Eisha.”

Lev Eisha offers women an opportunity to express themselves through music.

“In a regular service I don’t find a spiritual connection. The words, to me, don’t go as deep,” said Debbie Juster, a West Los Angeles resident. “Here, the music goes deep inside and I feel a comfort and a spirituality that is connected with music.”

Led by cantor Cindy Paley, the music in the Lev Eisha prayer booklet is a collaborative effort of Paley and Lev Eisha’s Rabbi Toba August, which combines “California style,” a contemporary mode characterized by such musicians as Craig Taubman and Debbie Freidman, and “Jewish Renewal” music, such as musicians Hanna Tiferet and Linda Hirschhorn, which comes out of the Renewal stream of Judaism. Joy Krauthammer, a member of Sarah’s Tent, also volunteers each month to accompany the women with such instruments as bongo drums, xylophones and rainmakers.

“The music cracks open your heart,” said August, who directs Adat Shalom’s religious school in addition to leading Lev Eisha. “It’s the only time I can really pray. The music lets you go in and find God — to find your divine within. It helps you cry and it helps you laugh. It allows people to enter into prayer.”

In addition to the music, the camaraderie and the opportunity to pray with other women keeps women coming back to Lev Eisha.

“When women get together to pray the energy is different. We are not competitive. Our voices can be heard,” said Mollie Wine, a cantorial soloist that helps lead the service. “I often daven with Chabad — with a mechitzah — but once a month I just want to be with the girls.”

The women of Lev Eisha, however, realize that their approach to Judaism does not appeal to everyone.

“There are some women who wouldn’t want to pray this way,” Segal said. “This is not a traditional service, so if you feel you are very traditional in your observance you probably wouldn’t want to do something like this. It doesn’t speak to everyone.”

But for women who it does speak to, it speaks loudly.

Barbara Axelrod, a two-time survivor of breast cancer told The Journal that she discovered Lev Eisha at the time when she needed spirituality the most.

“It really has had a lot to do with my inner healing,” Axelrod said. “When I was laying in bed at the hospital it would give me peace when I would close my eyes and envision being here. It gives me such inner peace and joy.”

Like it has done for Axelrod, August wishes that the Lev Eisha service can offer women hope.

“I want the women to walk out with a faith in God and the understanding that they’re not alone in their lives and that they will be able to cope with whatever their life experience offers them,” August said. “I also hope they gain a deeper appreciation of the joyful moments and a more profound ability to cope with painful illnesses and losses. I pray that they walk out feeling renewed.”

For more information about Lev Eisha, contact leveisha@earthlink.net .