Everything is easier than doing good


Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.


Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Iconic Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, 77


The crusading Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci spent the last years of her life issuing fiery warnings against a Muslim world that she saw poised to overrun the West.
 
Critics accused Fallaci of sowing racial and religious hatred, but she became a heroine to many Jews and Israelis for her vocal defense of Israel and denunciations of new forms of anti-Semitism.
 
“She was the most loved and most hated woman in Italy,” said Clemente Mimun, the Jewish director of Italian television’s main news program.
 
Fallaci, who divided her later years between New York and her native Florence, died last Friday in Florence after a long battle with cancer. She was 77.A glamorous woman always seen with long hair and thick eye-liner and a cigarette poised in her fingers, Fallaci was a war correspondent in Vietnam and fought as a child in the anti-fascist resistance during World War II.

She never married but had a passionate affair with the Greek left-wing activist Alekos Panagulis in the mid-1970s. After his death in an automobile accident, she wrote a book based on his life, “A Man,” that sold 3.5 million copies.Fallaci became a celebrity icon in the 1960s and 1970s with incisive, baring interviews of global VIPs including Henry Kissinger, PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. She also wrote a series of novels and other books.
 
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, marked a watershed.
 
Fallaci’s “The Rage and the Pride,” a vehement defense of the United States published soon after the attacks, became a best seller and provoked a storm of controversy with its strong language and uncompromising positions.
 
She followed with further books and articles that lambasted the West for weakness in the face of Islam and minced no words in her criticism of Muslims in general.
 
Islam, she wrote in her last book, “The Force of Reason,” “sows hatred in place of love and slavery in place of freedom.”
 
One of her most famous essays was a blistering attack on anti-Semitism published in April 2002 that read like a manifesto.
 
Repeating over and over the assertion “I find it shameful,” Fallaci unleashed a brutal indictment of Italy, Italians, the Catholic church, the left wing, the media, politically correct pacifists and Europeans in general for abandoning Israel and fomenting a new wave of anti-Semitism linked to the Mideast crisis.In the essay, Fallaci, who long had held pro-Palestinian views, declared herself “disgusted with the anti-Semitism of many Italians, of many Europeans” and “ashamed of this shame that dishonors my country and Europe.”
 
“I find it shameful,” she wrote,” and I see in all this the resurgence of a new fascism, a new Nazism.”
 
She recalled that in the past “I fought often, and bitterly, with the Israelis, and I defended the Palestinians a lot — maybe more than they deserved.
 
“Nonetheless, I stand with Israel, I stand with the Jews,” she wrote. “I defend their right to exist, to defend themselves, and not to allow themselves to be exterminated a second time.”
 

We Must Treat Others With Kindness


I often give young people advice on dating, occasionally without their asking. I tell young women not to judge a man by his car, since you will not end up living with the car but with the man who drives it. I advise men, when they take a woman to a restaurant, to sit facing the wall, so their attention will be fixed upon the woman, not everyone who walks into the room.

But my most common bit of advice to men and women alike is this: Don’t pay attention to how your date treats you alone — see how he treats the waiter, how she acts toward the busboy, the valet who brings you car. That is the test of character: How do you act toward the one who is not connected to you. How do you treat those whom you do not have to treat well?

Rabbi Reuven Kimmelman told me a wonderful story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Apparently, the Rebbe once had a meeting with Sen. [Daniel] Moynihan. After the senator asked him for his support, the Rebbe said, “Now I have something to ask you.”

Moynihan, used to the requests of constituents, smiled and asked the Rebbe what he could do for him.

“Well” he said, “there is a population of people in New York who are good people, law abiding, good families, who do not really understand the system. I think they are not being treated as well as they should be. I want you, senator,” concluded the Rebbe, “to make sure you take care of the Chinese.”

That story illustrates a central part of the Exodus lesson — that when someone is oppressed, there is a Jewish responsibility to care. This is true in society and in our own lives.

The Haggadah tells us “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Here is the interesting thing — because we were strangers, we are supposed to learn not how the Israelites should have acted, but — how the Egyptians should have acted. We are supposed to learn how not to oppress others. Don’t treat others the way we were treated.

The term stranger is mentioned some 36 times in the Torah. It is a central category. The Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen beautifully wrote that in the idea of the stranger, Judaism was born. We are to care for those who are in our power. When you have power over another, you also have responsibility toward them.

Rabbi Israel Salanter saw a serving maid carrying two pails of water on her shoulders to provide water for the ritual washing before dinner. When dinner was ready, he performed ritual washing with a tiny sprinkling of water. When asked why he was so sparse, Rabbi Salanter explained: “One must not be generous with a mitzvah on another person’s shoulders.”

We know what it is to be a stranger: the insecurity, the fear. The stranger is on a tightrope and does not control the wind. So there is a question about Passover that we must, as Jews, ask ourselves:

What if you were an Egyptian? How would you have treated the Israelites? Would you have been cruel because you could be? Or would you have been kind, even though you did not need to?

For at the seder, many of us were the Egyptians.

Of course, we did not enslave someone else. But most of us were served. We had “help.”

Were we kind? How many of us kept housekeepers, maids, others up very late at our seders with no consideration for them, their children, their schedule?

How many of us paid them extra for that work? How many pay less than minimum wage because the person we are employing is an illegal and therefore has no choice? How many of us, in fact, performed the mitzvah on somebody else’s shoulders?

After all, we can do what we like; if we are angry, we can yell. If we are annoyed, we can be snappish, abusive, angry.

When a housekeeper has a sick child, do we encourage her to go take care of her child or is taking care of my child more important than taking care of her own? The Talmud teaches that Israel is “rachamim b’nei rachamim” — merciful people, and the children of merciful people. So at the seder, at our dinner tables, are we Israelites or are we Egyptians?

In the past month, I have asked around, spoken with nannies, housekeepers and people who run placement agencies. I have heard of terrible doings in our community, of Jews — Jews! — who have taken workers’ passports so they cannot leave the country, of those who have hit their employees, screamed at them mercilessly, refused to give them vacations — in other words, acted like Egyptians.

Remember, we have been strangers. We know the fear, the anguish, the impotence. We know what it is to be subject to other people’s emotions, customs, moods. The callous person exploits that fear; the Israelite calms it.

We know that being rich doesn’t make you good. Being rich just makes you rich. In some ways it is harder — because wealth gives one latitude to be unkind. A rich person can speak to employees in ways one would never otherwise speak to another. But to do so stains our souls and dishonors God. And to do so in our home is that much worse.

In 1966, an 11-year-old black boy moved with his family to a white neighborhood in Washington. Sitting with his two brothers and sisters on the front step of his house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not greeted. All the fearful stories this boy had heard about whites hating blacks seemed to be coming true.

He thought, “I knew we would not be welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here.”

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment — the young man wrote later — changed his life. It made him realize that some Americans could be blind to racial and class differences.

The young man was Stephen Carter, now a law professor at Yale, and he recounts this story in his book, “Civility.” The tale is retold in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ new book, “To Heal a Fractured World.” The woman was named Sara Kestenbaum, and she was a religious Jew.

What Sara Kestenbaum did was what our tradition calls a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. The opposite is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

The children of the people who work in our homes and in our streets will be the professors, the doctors, the teachers, the mayors. What will they learn about the Jewish community? What will they remember of how we treated their mothers and fathers at a vulnerable time? Will they remember our conduct as a Kiddush Hashem? Will they understand that the Jewish community remembers what it is to be a stranger?

Kiddush Hashem is when we act in such a way as to reflect credit on the Jewish community among non-Jews. It is a Hillul Hashem to be unkind to someone in your power.

We were strangers in a strange land — not once, not twice, but hundreds, thousands of times. Often we met with cruelty — but sometimes we met with kindness. We remember those who were kind.

Others will remember if we were kind to them. It is not enough to observe the ritual of Passover and not embody the spirit. It is not enough to have a Shabbat table laden with the work of others. When we open the door, we should open the heart to those who are already in our community and in our homes. Let us demonstrate that we indeed are merciful people, the children of merciful people.

The Talmud insists that one who is not merciful does not deserve the name of Israel. In our homes and in our lives, let us deserve the name of Israel and the blessings of God.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. This article is adapted from a sermon delivered on the first day of Passover, April 13, 2006. You may hear this sermon, as well as Rabbi Wolpe’s other sermons, online at sinaitemple.org. For a story on the 100th anniversary of Sinai Temple, please click here.

 

Drawn to Controversy


Early this week I started getting the letters. By midweek there were dozens of them, all strident, some using BIG CAPS to make their point.

“Do you have the GUTS to reprint those cartoons?” many of them started off.

Some substituted another part of the male anatomy for guts — heck, I don’t even have the guts to reprint that word.

“Rob, do you DARE publish this!” said another letter.

And another: “You have a RESPONSIBILITY to publish the controversial cartoons on Islamofascism. PUBLISH THE CARTOONS… we need to resist the Islamofascists on ALL fronts. In solidarity with the people of free Europe and in support of the concept of freedom.”

The letter writers wanted The Journal to reprint cartoons of the prophet Muhammed that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September. The cartoons have sparked international outrage among Muslims, including riots, kidnapping, diplomatic reprisals and death threats.

I composed a standard reply for all these correspondents, some of whom seemed to belong to a concerted campaign or movement.

 


A cartoon in a Palestinian newspaper drew inspiration from blood libel claims.

A caricature of a Jew penning an anti-Muslim cartoon ran in the online Iranian newspaper al-Vefagh.

 

“Dear Writer,” I began, “I have the guts to publish the cartoons if YOU have the TIME to stand guard in front of our offices and my house.”

I didn’t sign on to be on the front lines of the war of civilizations, and I certainly don’t intend to be pushed there on account of some third-rate scribbles — which, by the way, I wouldn’t have published in the first place.

Just about everybody I’ve spoken with thinks the cartoons are appropriate, even funny. But the cartoon of the prophet Muhammed with a bomb for a turban was a crude, racist stereotype of an entire religion. We’ve published plenty of offensive cartoons and images. Our April 19, 2002 full-color cover caricature of Yasser Arafat sucking the bones of the dove of peace as blood dripped from his chin comes to mind. Numerous liberal groups protested that issue. Even last week’s cover on Hamas, showing a hand holding a victory sign, a grenade and the ink-stained finger of a Palestinian voter, drew criticism.

But those images were attacks on specific people or groups, not an entire religion. I understand suicide bombers and terrorists act in the name of their religion. But for a newspaper to publish a cartoon that then indicts that religion crosses a line of logic and sensitivity.

“The bottom line is we live in a world based on freedom of expression,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told me.

“But it’s a double-edged sword. Especially in the times we live in, people should have enough derech eretz not to mock entire religions,” the rabbi said, using the Hebrew expression for “respect.”

There is the teensiest bit of hypocrisy in the reaction of some Jews and Jewish groups. These are the same people who regularly blow gaskets every time the Los Angeles Times runs an op-ed cartoon of, say, an Israeli soldier with a Star of David on his helmet. If the paper published an image defaming all Jews and Judaism, these groups would be livid — and they’d be right.

But of course, that’s where the comparison ends. The hypocrisy on the Muslim side is of staggering, laughable-were-it-not-so-tragic proportions. The state-sponsored Arab media gushes with anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-Buddhist, anti-Hindu caricatures and writings. Groups like the Wiesenthal Center and MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, have been tracking such outrages for years. The bitter irony is that the European press, which itself has trafficked in anti-Israel cartoons that easily cross the line to anti-Semitism, has rarely if ever denounced these transgressions. And now their publishers and governments are shocked, shocked by the reaction from countries whose own press has long escaped their condemnation.

I won’t reprint those Danish cartoons, but I will reprint the above cartoon taken from a recent Palestinian newspaper, showing a Muslim girl crucified by an American and Israeli spear as Jews look on and gloat.

This is but one example. A program on state sponsored Syrian television dramatized the blood libel, and there were TV programs in Iran alleging that Israelis have murdered Palestinian children to use their eyes to give sight to blind Israeli children. The media and mosques mock and defame Jews, Americans and Christians, and the harshest reaction they garner is condemnation from the few organizations smart enough to understand where such extremism inexorably leads.

It leads to the beheading of American journalists, the kidnapping of innocent Christians aid workers — all in the name of Islam. “Muslims of the world, be reasonable,” wrote Jihad Momani, editor-in-chief of the weekly independent newspaper Al-Shihan in an editorial alongside the cartoons. “What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?” Following the publication, Momani was fired.

Hypocrisy of this scope and scale goes beyond the capacity of mere individuals — it must be the work of governments. Indeed, many analysts believe that Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and/or Egypt have a hand in these riots. “It’s hard to believe this is spontaneous combustion,” Rabbi Cooper said.

The cartoons initially appeared in September. Imans of state-funded mosques carried them around, whipping up Muslim youth who, as the riots earlier this year in France proved, are fairly well-alienated in any case.

Why the leaders of this effort pulled the trigger now is a matter of speculation. Rabbi Cooper believes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to defuse pressure on his country’s development of nuclear weapons and test the international community’s resolve in confronting the “Arab street.” The Iranian News Agency actually runs an Arab-language newspaper on the Internet, al-Vefagh, that has stoked the controversy. The latest cartoon from al-Vefagh (pictured above), shows a Jew at work penning anti-Islam cartoons.

“The Iranians are taking notes, seeing how far they can push the West,” Rabbi Cooper said. “God forbid when they have nuclear weapons and can really bully us.”

Writing in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dastour, Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahawy said, “Perhaps the Muslim governments who spearheaded the campaign — led by Egypt — felt this was an easy way to burnish their Islamic credentials at a time when domestic Islamists are stronger than they have been in many years.”

On Tuesday, the Iranians found an even more insidious way to fan the flames: its largest newspaper launched a competition to find the 12 “best” cartoons about the Holocaust.

“The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons,” Farid Mortazavi, graphics editor for Tehran’s Hamshahri newspaper, told the London Times.

My guess is Art Spiegelman isn’t going to be a finalist in this competition.

My other guess is that, crude and stupid as those cartoons will be, no Jews will start burning buildings or kidnapping Iranians.

This cartoon crisis is a battlefront in the war of civilizations. But that war isn’t between Islam and the West. It is between the tolerant and the intolerant, fanatics and moderates.

Those cartoons provided fuel for the fanatics to stoke the flames of the war.

But anybody with a wisp of hope for humanity cannot have a shred of sympathy for the rioters, the religious leaders and governments behind them.

Salaam al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), told me that the cartoons crossed the line from free speech to hate speech. Many European countries have laws against Holocaust denial and Nazi propaganda, he said, and publishers of cartoons like these should face similar punishments. “Everybody has the right to be a racist,” he said, “but society has a responsibility to speak to these issues.”

In a press release, MPAC has condemned the cartoons and the violence. But its condemnation of the violence strikes me as too tame, too couched in criticism of the cartoons themselves.

Here’s some free advice to the leaders of American Muslim groups: Organize a massive, peaceful counterdemonstration against the rioters and their backers within Arab and Islamic regimes. Demonstrate for a peaceful resolution to this issue. Show the passion of moderate Islam. There is no excuse for crossing the line from being provoked and offended, to being violent.

I could publish those cartoons if I wanted to, but I don’t want to. The biggest casualty of this campaign of thuggery and intimidation is not free speech, but moderate Islam.

 

Air Force Flies New Tolerance Guidelines


Just in time for the High Holidays, U.S. Air Force officials are disseminating new guidelines for religious tolerance, in hopes of improving an atmosphere that some airmen say is unwelcoming to religious minorities.

However, while some are calling the new regulations a good first step, others remain concerned that little will change at the Air Force Academy and bases around the country.

The guidelines, issued last month by the Pentagon, say Air Force commanders should try to comply with religious accommodations, and need to be sensitive to the fact that personal expressions of faith might be viewed as official statements.

The new regulations come amid reports from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., that religious minorities felt pressure to prioritize their military duties over religious observance, and that they felt they were obliged to perform their duties in an overtly Christian atmosphere. Chaplains at the school reportedly spoke of evangelizing to the “unchurched,” and the football coach made references to Jesus.

The new regulations are for the entire Air Force, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said recently that they could be replicated throughout the military.

“It’s one piece of a broader initiative that will, I hope, allow for a real clarification of the real vision in the military,” said Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a retired military chaplain who was hired by the Air Force in August to oversee implementation of “values and vision.”

The regulations focus on the need for sensitivity toward people of all faiths or no faith. Chaplains are reminded that they’re obligated to minister to people of other faiths and those without religion.

“They must be as sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith, as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do,” the guidelines say. “In addition, they must remain sensitive to the responsibilities of superior rank, and they should respect professional settings where mandatory participation may make expressions of religious faith inappropriate.”

Resnicoff said the message was clear to chaplains that they have to respect the rights of all in the military.

“A chaplain has to understand that he or she cannot do certain things as a chaplain that a clergy person can,” he said. “We give power to people in uniform to accomplish a mission. We do not give them power to change the religious beliefs of others.”

The guidelines say all requests for religious accommodation should be approved, unless precluded by military necessity, and commanders should try to avoid scheduling conflicts with major religious observances, including presumably the Jewish High Holidays, but also Muslim observances, as well. Public prayers are outlawed outside of volunteer worship services, but nonsectarian prayers are allowed during “nonroutine military ceremonies and events of special importance.”

Resnicoff said the guidelines would be incorporated in all Air Force training, and he expects changes to be seen imminently. Already, he said, time has been set aside on Fridays and Saturdays for religious services. Previously, services were scheduled only on Sundays, and Jews and others had to seek special permission to attend services on other days.

Some members of the armed services are underwhelmed by the new guidelines. Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran who has two children in the service, said he believes they contain “very nice language” but would do little to end religious hostilities at the academy — which his son attends — and elsewhere in the service.

“They’re making this up as they go along,” Weinstein said. “They’re just pretty words that mean nothing.”

He would like to see the Air Force Academy call on one chaplain to recant recent comments suggesting that he still intends to evangelize to the “unchurched.”

Others are encouraged by the changes. Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, called the guidelines a “huge step forward.”

“Given the opposition the Air Force takes to any restrictions, it is even a larger step forward,” Stern said. “But there are some places where they have glossed over some problems.”

The rules also were welcomed by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and by Reps. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who have been critical of the military on this issue.

“Obviously, the real test of these regulations will be their implementation,” Capps said. “It is absolutely critical that the Air Force leadership ensure that these regulations are well understood and strictly enforced, especially at the Air Force Academy.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Immeasurable Faith


Perhaps there was a time when the secular/religious divide — it is of the Jews I write — made sense. In Eastern and Central Europe from 1850 to 1930, it may have been the case that seculars Jews were genuinely secular, as some few remain today.

But here, now?

For all that the survey research on America’s Jews persists in drawing fairly sharp distinctions between the two types, my own sense is that the distinction is increasingly meaningless. It doesn’t tell us very much at all to know whether a Jew observes some or even many of the traditional commandments, nor does it add to our understanding to learn whether he or she asserts a belief in God, whatever such belief may be taken to mean.

Consider: You don’t have to take God literally to take God seriously. One way or the other, God is at the heart of the grand metaphoric system we call Judaism. And wrestling with God is not restricted to believers.

The notion that there is some sort of binary choice here, that you’re a believer — or a what, a heretic? — does not accord with a reality in which growing numbers of people are in search of the transcendent.

By the usual definitions, for example, Yehudah Amichai, the late, great Israeli poet, was a doggedly secular man. But you cannot easily grasp Amichai’s poetry unless, like him, you have an easy, even an intimate familiarity, with classical Jewish sources. Nor can you easily grasp what all those youngish people are doing at synagogues — unless you come to understand the quest, often urgent, to be in touch with something holy.

Ouch. I know that the word “holy” can be off-putting, evoking mediocre paintings of elderly Jews dressed in traditional garb, or those tchotchke statues featured in so many of Jerusalem’s gift stores, the kitchy stuff you’d never think to buy, except that it depicts what passes for authentic Jews.

Once, I was in a synagogue in Cairo in 1978 on the eve of the first peace conference, bringing together Israeli, American and Egyptian diplomats. (The Palestinians chose to boycott.) The synagogue was packed: the remnants of the Egyptian Jewish community, the whole of the diplomatic corps and many hundreds of journalists there to cover the conference and all its attendant functions, such as the Friday night service, where I sat with others as members of an improbable congregation.

The journalists were almost all gathered in the rear of the sanctuary. But within just a few minutes after the services had begun, I witnessed a dozen or two of them — reporters, cameramen — set down their equipment, cover their heads with handkerchiefs and step forward to join the congregation.

I have no doubt that for most, or even perhaps all of these, this was the first time in many years they’d set aside their professional duties in favor of the simple act of belonging. Was that a religiously motivated act? I do not think so. It was a religious moment, an essentially irresistible desire to be part of this mysterious people, the Jews.

Others — mostly historians, anthropologists, journalists — have of course observed similar phenomena. Social scientists, on the other hand, seem hemmed into more easily measurable categories. Do you light Shabbat candles? One point for religious. Do you have mostly Jewish friends? One point for secular. But that is nonsense; Jewish identity cannot so trivially be parsed.

And it has been nonsense for sometime now, since long before the current focus on spirituality. Irving Howe wrote that even though we make “distinctions between religious and secular ideologies … the two had a way of becoming intertwined.” The same point is persuasively made by historian Hasia Diner in her new and quite wonderful history of America’s Jews, “The Jews of the United States, 1645-2000.”

Who knows, or can know, whether the act of contributing to Mazon counts as a religious or as a secular act? And who cares? Contributors to Mazon are presumably moved by the continuing scandal of hunger.

They are likely moved, as well, by the words of Isaiah or by Mazon’s manifestly religious appeal for contributions that will give bite to Mazon’s citation of the words from the haggadah, “Let all who are hungry enter and eat.” Must we really disentwine the multiple strands that together represent the central tendencies of our people? For that matter, is, “Let all who are hungry enter and eat,” a religious or a secular sentiment? (Answer: Neither. Answer: Both.)

For some people, the awareness of God in and of itself provides transcendence. But God is surely not the only answer to the quest for a transcendent moment or even for an ongoing sense of the holy, the sacred. Nor, given the ways in which Jews have chosen to live their lives, is God the only Jewish answer to such quests. There is simply no compelling reason for God to be an impediment to a passionate Jewish life. And if for some strange reason transcendence and sanctity are thought insufficient, there is also, and more simply, the search for and the satisfactions of community.

Pure rationalists may set themselves firmly against such tendencies, dismiss them as romantic, mushy even primitive. Have we not long-since graduated from such ancient categories and drives?

The answer, given what seems to be ailing and, more importantly, inspiring many people appears to be that we have not. The invention of the laboratory does not seal other doors to experiences that matter and truths that compel, any more than the invention of the synagogue is sufficient to contain our irrepressible pursuit of love, trust, compassion and justice.

Religious or secular: Who cares?

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights)

 

Jews Welcome Choice of Pope


As the regal red curtains were pulled aside, clearing the way for the still-unidentified new pope to emerge on the balcony of the Vatican Basilica and offer a blessing to church faithful, many Jews joined the world’s 1 billion Catholics in holding their collective breath.

The Christians were excitedly anticipating their Holy Father’s arrival, eager for someone to fill the gap left when John Paul II, who served as pope for more than a quarter-century, died on April 2 at 84.

Jews, too, were awaiting the new pope’s arrival — and wondering what his ascendancy would mean for them. Would he promote Jewish-Catholic relations as zealously as his predecessor? Would he turn his attention instead to mending fences between Catholics and Muslims? Would he push diplomatic relations with Israel?

In short, would he be good for the Jews?

As it turns out, Jewish observers of the Vatican say, world Jewry can breathe easy knowing that German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as the 265th pope.

“As far as Jewish people are concerned, Cardinal Ratzinger is a friend,” said Gary Krupp, president and founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes religious understanding. “He is going to be as effective, if not more, than John Paul II [in furthering Catholic-Jewish relations]. He’s not going to backtrack. I think he’s going to be advancing these causes even further.”

Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI upon his election Tuesday, has been called a hard-line conservative, a vigilant watchdog and an enforcer of strict church orthodoxy.

Ratzinger was born in Marktl am Inn, Germany, in 1927. He was ordained in 1951 and received his doctorate in theology in 1953, then taught theology and dogma at a series of German universities.

He was appointed bishop of Munich in 1977 and was promoted to cardinal by then-Pope Paul VI after just three months.

Since 1981, he has led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he was responsible for enforcing church doctrine. He became known in this role for his conservative views, upsetting some Catholics with his vocal opposition to religious pluralism and liberation theology.

Ratzinger further maintains conservative views on such issues as homosexuality and the ordination of women as priests.

But he also used his position as the Vatican’s chief theologian under John Paul II to play an instrumental part in his predecessor’s historic rapprochement with the Jews. In 2000, under Ratzinger’s editorial direction, the Vatican released “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past,” a watershed document that acknowledged church errors in its past dealings with Jews, asking “whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts.”

Ratzinger also oversaw the 2002 publication of “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures,” which asserted that “the Jewish messianic wait is not in vain” and expressed regret that certain passages in the Christian Bible condemning individual Jews have been used to justify anti-Semitism.

Israeli officials and Jewish groups issued statements welcoming the selection.

“Israel is hopeful that under this new papacy, we will continue to move forward in Vatican-Israel relations and we are sure that considering the background of this new pope, he, like his predecessor, will be a strong voice against anti-Semitism in all its forms,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said Ratzinger had been instrumental in improving relations between Catholics and Jews under John Paul.

“He is the architect of the policy that John Paul II fulfilled with regard to relations with the Jews. He is the architect of the ideological policy to recognize, to have full relations with Israel,” Singer said.

Not all Jewish leaders welcomed Ratzinger’s selection, however. Some said that it was precisely his role as ideologist under John Paul that made him ill-suited to be the next pope.

Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco, is among the new pope’s critics.

“It was with great distress that we watched as Cardinal Ratzinger led the Vatican in the past 25 years on a path that opposed providing birth control information to the poor of the world, thereby ensuring that AIDS would spread and kill millions in Africa,” Lerner said.

“And we watched with even greater distress as this cardinal supported efforts to involve the church in distancing from political candidates or leaders who did not agree with the church’s teachings on abortion and gay rights, prioritizing these issues over whether that candidate agreed with the church on issues of peace and social justice. As a result, Cardinal Ratzinger has led the church away from its natural alliance with Jews in fighting for peace and social justice and toward a stance which in effect allies the church with the most reactionary politicians whose policies are militaristic and offer a preferential option for the rich.”

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue believes that while Benedict XVI will carry on the pope’s legacy, he may not focus heavily on Jewish issues.

“I don’t think Jewish-Catholic relations is going to be that much of a priority for him because there are other burning issues that he has to confront,” such as the decreasing number of believers in Europe and the decreasing number of priests in the United States, he said. “He has to put the house in order.”

Ratzinger was the odds-on favorite to become pope going into the conclave of cardinals, which began Monday. There was some speculation that the position could go to a prelate from the developing world — Africa or Latin America — where the church is seeing rapid growth.

Others predicted that the papacy could go back to an Italian: John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

In the end, after white smoke poured from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel and bells tolled announcing to the world that a new pope had been chosen, the job went to Ratzinger. Because of his advancing age — the new pope turned 78 on Saturday — he is likely to be a transitional leader, serving for a relatively brief period.

Despite his stern religious bearing, those who know Ratzinger say, his intelligence, patience and personality make him good company.

“He’s very, very sweet, very pleasant, very cordial and friendly,” said Krupp, who met Ratzinger at his Vatican offices in early February.

As a teen, Ratzinger reportedly was a member of the Hitler Youth. At the time, boys his age — Ratzinger was 6 years old when Hitler came to power — were pressured, though not required, to join the group.

Ratzinger served in the German army during World War II, but deserted after a short period. His policeman father reportedly engaged in anti-Nazi activity.

“For the Jewish community, it is extraordinary that the pope has personally experienced the evils of Nazism and the horrors of racism and prejudice,” said David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “There’s no cardinal whose life has been more entwined with that of the Jewish people than that of this cardinal.”

Still, German Jews expressed some concern over Ratzinger’s election.

“A few people who know him say he is not bad. He has good relations with some Jewish persons,” Nathan Kalmanowicz, head of religious affairs for the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a member of the Munich Jewish community, told JTA. “But the vast majority is afraid of what will happen. He is opposed to reform and not as familiar with Jewish issues” as the last pope, “and as far as we know he is not interested in promoting them — issues like the Holocaust.”

Jacob Neusner, a theology professor at Bard College in upstate New York, was thrilled when he learned Ratzinger was the new pope. The two men have been corresponding since 1990, when Ratzinger responded to Neusner’s fan mail.

Neusner was impressed with an article Ratzinger had written about Jesus — in particular, Ratzinger’s remark that there was no such thing as an objective biography.

“I got a lovely letter back, and since then we’ve exchanged about one letter a year,” Neusner said.

In addition, Ratzinger complimented Neusner on his book “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.”

“It was an explanation of why, if I had been there in the first century, I wouldn’t have followed Jesus],” Neusner said.

“He praised the book and said this is how interfaith dialogue should be carried on,” Neusner added. “He doesn’t believe in negotiating theological truths. He thinks disagreement is healthy and normal.”

Speaking to JTA from St. Peter’s Square, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who teaches theology and interreligious studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, said he was witnessing “pope fever.”

Though Ratzinger is “basically against religious pluralism,” Bemporad said, he believes faiths can learn from each other and come together to address social causes.

“He recognizes fully the autonomy and the integrity of each faith,” Bemporad said.

JTA Correspondents Toby Axelrod in Germany, Dan Baron in Jerusalem and Ruth Ellen Gruber in Rome contributed to this report.

A Daf a Day


 

Growing up religious in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I didn’t have much choice when it came to religious studies: it was full time till I was 18. I always felt it was being shoved down my throat.

So I stayed away from religious studies for about a decade — from college, through marriage, a year of service in Vietnam and three children.

During that time I stayed close to religion through observance, community and friends, but I avoided any formal religious study.

After we bought a new house and moved to a new neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I came upon a new, small synagogue — a shtiebl — close to my house where I could attend the (more minor) evening services on weekends. The rabbi of the shul had a soft and pleasing personality. I was drawn to his softness and started to sit in on some of his Talmud classes. I discovered I had a penchant for the back-and-forth, up-and-down method of the talmudic process.

After about a year of these classes, my mother died. Coincidentally (I think), the rabbi decided to start a daily Talmud class half an hour before the 6:45 Shacharit (morning) services. When I finished sitting shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning, I decided to attend, because I felt it would be a good way to commemorate my mother’s name.

I attended these classes for a number of years, studying about 12 to 15 masechtot, or tractates. During that time the classes were moved up to a 6 a.m. start and then, to 5:45 a.m., one hour before prayers. Getting up daily for a 5:45 class was tough — but the advantage was that I did not have to take away evening time from my wife or four children. This was my own time I was giving up.

Our small daily Talmud study was actually one of many around the city — and country and world — that learned a daf or a page, a day (yomi), and over seven and a half years would complete the entire Talmud doing this Daf Yomi process.

Before I had started these Daf Yomi cycles, I had spent a number of years playing at a regular weekly card game, feeling in a rut — somehow feeling guilty about not learning, yet having no motivation whatsoever. But somewhere along the line, when I started the classes, I had learned that there was a question of the permissibility of winning money from other Jews playing cards. I decided to give up my card game and continue the learning.

Now instead of spending a night out with the boys playing cards, I was spending the morning out with the other boys: Ravina and Rav Ashi (the compilers of the Talmud).

The days became weeks, which became months, then years. In some way, it became addictive.

Before the Daf Yomi classes, when I took stock of my life, I had felt that I was not really accomplishing anything — despite my career, fatherhood and marriage — I felt I was failing in my role as a Jew, not fulfilling my role in this world; the role that was required of me.

I remember reading somewhere that you should ask yourself where you would like to be five or 10 years from now — and were you doing anything to make that dream come true? The answer struck a chord: What you are now is where you will be later. I remember feeling like I was just going along in life, having some vague ideas about where I’d like to be in life, what I would eventually like to accomplish, but I never had any plan to get there.

The Daf Yomi classes set its own goal. By simply going there on a daily basis, I was following a plan to reach an eventual worthwhile goal. After I got into the Daf Yomi routine, when I looked over my life, I felt it was a way for me to really accomplish something in my lifetime.

I finished my first full cycle, completing the entire Talmud, 15 years ago.

I remember the first time I went to the Daf Yomi Siyum, the giant celebration where participants and observers come together to acknowledge this great undertaking. I felt part of the collective exhilaration, like thousands of people graduating a seven and a half year advanced degree program.

Daf Yomi has been part of my daily life for the last 22 years (I’ve missed classes due to illness but have made them up). These years of study have made me feel that I have accomplished something great in life. I now walk with a different pride, and my self-esteem is greatly improved.

Last night, Tuesday, March 1, I attended my third Daf Yomi celebration. I was one of more than 20,000 people at New York’s Madison Square Garden, part of a gathering of more than 120,000 Jews throughout the world (some 2,600 gathered at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall). The program of the giant celebration (which was connected around the world through satellite feed) began with the afternoon and evening prayers, followed by a number of moving speeches. But when the actual Siyum (which literally means “end”) took place — when they read the last few lines of the whole Talmud — something happened: The whole Garden spontaneously started dancing in every available aisle. People who could not get to an aisle were dancing side to side in their rows and seats.

Tears began streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t know why. Was it the exuberance of the spontaneous dancing? Or seeing this huge mass of Jews exhibiting uninhibited joy? Or was it some pent-up emotion for all the years and hours I put into the daily study of Talmud? Perhaps it was the combination of all of the above.

Today, the next morning, the new cycle has started. I got up early and went to class — because that’s just what I do.

Dr. Warren Klein (father of Managing Editor Amy Klein) is a practicing dentist and a practicing Jew.

 

December Dilemma: Distorting Chanukah


 

At Temple Beth Hillel, Mark Singer teaches his third-grade Hebrew school class about Chanukah using all the usual props: he lights a menorah, spins a dreidel and throws a doughnut and latke party.

However, considering that anywhere from 25 to 100 percent of his students come from mixed marriages, one thing he does not emphasize too strongly is that the real message of the Maccabean victory is a staunchly anti-assimilationist one. Instead, Singer adamantly informs his class that Chanukah celebrations should not be blended with celebrations of that other holiday of the same season.

“I think that [Chanukah bushes, etc.] demeans both holidays and detracts from both holidays,” said Singer, who has been teaching Hebrew school for 35 years.

Welcome to Chanukah and the December Dilemma. In Hebrew schools all over Los Angeles — and in temple discussion groups for intermarrieds on how to survive the holiday season — Chanukah is taught as a ritually dense Jewish substitute for Christmas that needs to elbow its way into some December shelf space, rather than a holiday that commemorates a group of Jews fighting against the forces of Hellenistic secularism to remain an insular, Torah-committed community.

It is ironic that Chanukah and its accompanying symbols — the menorah, dreidel and latke — are the most recognizable Jewish icons in America today, yet the holiday’s meaning is distorted by nuance to accommodate an audience where secularism is de rigueur.

It is not that Chanukah is denuded of its religious significance — if anything, in these Hebrew schools, Chanukah is taught as a religious holiday where practice and ritual are of paramount importance, but the deeper meaning of the holiday, while not censored, is glossed over.

“We teach how to observe the holiday, and we teach about the stories and the song, and the other issues [of anti-assimilation] are separate from that,” said Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue, who runs a Coffee and Conversation group for interfaith families and families where the partners have different degrees of observance. “Sometimes those issues come up, but they are best dealt with in a one-on-one private moment, because no family situation is exactly like any other.”

“My impression is that the anti-assimilation message has been ‘translated’ into a contemporary American message,” said Dr. David Ackerman, director of educational services for the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. “Certainly, the [non-Orthodox] movements have clearly staked out a position that says you can be Jewish, participate in a full, religious and ritual life and still enjoy the benefits of a modern American identity.”

“I think schools in which there are high percentages of intermarriage focus on the importance of heritage, while acknowledging — even if doing so tacitly — the possibility of dual cultural membership [American and Jewish],” Ackerman continued. “While it sort of sidesteps the issue of a household with two religious faiths, it’s a way to talk about Chanukah that can be ‘heard’ by constituents.”

Unlike other Jewish holidays, such as Sukkot, Pesach or Shavuot for which there is no non-Jewish counterpart, Chanukah now has to acknowledge its splashier Christian contemporary.

“We make a big distinction between Christmas and Chanukah, and we suggest to our families that Chanukah is for Jews and Christmas is for Christians,” said Rabbi Bruce Raff, education director at Temple Judea, which has 1,100 children in its Hebrew school.

Thus, in many of the schools and the discussion groups for intermarried couples, the question becomes how can we celebrate Chanukah in a society where Christmas prevails.

Arlene Chernow, regional director of outreach and synagogue community for the Union of Reform Judaism, runs discussion groups with interfaith families on navigating the December Dilemma. Chernow said she advises people on where they can purchase Chanukah cookie cutters so that they can transfer their Christmas cookie recipe into Chanukah cookies. She also helps them battle their way through the thorny question of whether to wrap presents in Christmas or Chanukah wrapping paper.

“I suggest that the most important thing is that if you want grandparents to give presents in Chanukah paper, then it is really important to explain to the grandparents that this is what you would like,” Chernow said. “They need to talk to their parents and their partner’s parents and work it out so that nobody is offended, and figure it out so that it doesn’t become an issue. I don’t want wrapping presents to become hurtful.”

Chernow said that she counsels people on how to use Chanukah to create “warm, happy, family time.”

“People feel inadequate, because they don’t know what to do, and they don’t know the story themselves,” Chernow said. “I think the way to help parents make it meaningful is to let them know how to celebrate, how to play dreidl, how to light the menorah. I don’t think the idea [of anti-assimilation] really becomes an issue.”

A recently released survey conducted by Interfaithfamily.com shows that the emphasis on ritual could be paying off. In a survey of 199 interfaith families, 99 percent of them lit the menorah in their home, whereas only 53 percent had a decorated Christmas tree. In addition, approximately 65 percent of the respondents said their Chanukah celebrations were more religious than secular, whereas 75 percent said their Christmas celebrations were more secular than religious.

But the point of Chanukah is that Jews should not be living in a society where there is a dilemma — in other words, Chanukah is about being so sure about one’s heritage that the other holiday is just a green blip on the horizon and not a force to be reckoned with.

“There are certain contradictions that aren’t going to pan out,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Project Next Step director. “I don’t think people should stop trying, and anything that leads to positive effect to children in Judaism is going to pay off, but there comes a point where you have so changed the essential message of Chanukah that it no longer resembles the original thing. It does disturb me quite a bit that the price we have paid in America of trying to popularize Chanukah comes at the cost of its original message.”

 

Kosher Condos Take Aim at Orthodox


Driving through Pico-Robertson, real estate developer George Saadin smiles as he points out kosher markets filled with shoppers, Judaica shops, shuls and dozens of kosher restaurants — veritable signs of the Jewish renaissance taking place now in the neighborhood.

The area, he said, had nearly everything that the growing number of observant Jews could want, save for one glaring exception: kosher housing. Saadin hopes to change that.

Saadin, 42, is nearing completion on a 16-unit condominium project on Cashio Street that targets traditional Jews. The kosher condos, believed to be the largest and among the first such developments in the Southland, will each feature two dishwashers, two separate counters and two sinks to allow religious Jews to cook and clean dairy and meat products separately. The units will also have programmable timers to automatically turn lights off and on during Shabbat and a netila station — a sink for ritual handwashing.

"I’m trying to fulfill the needs of our people, who are looking for something like this," said Saadin, a member of the Executive Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The development is open to non-Jews, he said. "I wanted to do something different from what everybody else in the area, because you get [top] dollar for doing something unique."

At starting prices of at least $600,000, the two- to three-bedroom condominiums won’t come cheap. However, Saadin expects them to generate lots of interest because of their inherent appeal to observant Jews and their relatively large size in a neighborhood teeming with older, smaller apartment buildings.

Kosher condos "make living our lifestyle so much easier, so much simpler. There’s definitely a demand," said Rabbi Yitzchok Sommer of Anshe Emes on Robertson Boulevard. "If you’re Orthodox, you want to live within walking distance of a shul, within walking distance of a mikvah [ritual bath], bakeries and a school for your kids that you don’t have to schlep to."

But the Pico-Robertson development may prove a tough sell. That’s because many experts predict the housing market will slow in coming months if interest rates rise as expected. That could force Saadin to roll back prices to fill his building.

To be sure, individual homeowners in Los Angeles and elsewhere have customized their kitchens at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to make them kosher. However, only a handful of developers across the nation have tailored large projects for a Jewish clientele.

Saadin’s $5-million project, slated for completion by early October, is believed to be the second major kosher housing development in Southern California in the past two decades. In 1987, some members of the Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice invested upward of $300,000 a piece for a kosher housing development near Lincoln Boulevard. Elsewhere, kosher housing units have appeared in religious neighborhoods in Israel, New York and Florida.

However, religious Jews have occasionally shown little appetite for kosher housing. For instance, two condominium projects near Boca Raton, Fla., which were to include kosher kitchens and onsite temples, were scrapped due to a lack of interest.

Others’ failures don’t frighten Saadin. Before deciding to go kosher, he said he and his listing agent, Yaron Hassid, canvassed area residents and rabbis to gauge interest in such a project.

The positive response so overwhelmed Saadin that not only did he decide to build the condominiums on Cashio, but he also acquired three nearby properties for 32 future kosher units. He said he expected to break ground on all the projects within the next 12 months and to complete a 16-unit building on Shenandoah Street by the end of 2005.

During his 16 years in real estate, Saadin said he has mostly had success. He has built 10 apartment complexes and renovated 18 others. Still, Saadin has firsthand knowledge about the riskiness of speculative real-estate ventures. In the early 1990s, a bank foreclosed on two of his apartments near USC when the market bottomed out, he said.

Going forward, listing agent Hassid, director of new condominium sales at Coldwell Banker, said he expected word of mouth to largely sell the kosher condos. "Just by going to the rabbis, we’ve already started to get the word out," he said.

Jews began settling in Pico-Robertson en masse in the 1950s with the opening of several Orthodox shuls, demographer Pini Herman said. Many spent just a few years in the area before moving on to more upscale neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, he said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some Pico-Robertson Jews sold their homes during an era of "white flight." Recently, Orthodox Jews have returned to the area, which boasts cheaper housing than the Westside and an increasing number of businesses catering to them. This time, he said, they might stay permanently.

"With relatively plain houses going for a million dollars in Southern California, Pico-Robertson is going to become a final destination for Jews," Herman said.

Your Letters


Schindler vs. Mel

It was extremely gratifying to read the editorials on the movie “Schindler’s List” in this week’s issue (“Schindler’s Impact” and “Celebrating 10 Years of ‘Schindler’s List,'” March 12). I was especially impressed by Tom Teicholz’s experiences in the Ukraine, and the tearful reactions of some who had just seen the movie. Considering the degree of anti-Semitism in that part of Europe, it was especially encouraging.

Now we have Mel Gibson and his “The Passion of the Christ.” I wonder what people will be saying about it 10 years from now. I especially wonder if much of the understanding and positive effects of “Schindler” will be undone by the “Passion.” What will be the effect on young people who saw the latter film?

It was Gibson’s right to make his movie as he saw fit. It was also his responsibility to think to what consequences may have resulted from his work. Steven Spielberg’s message was one of understanding. Gibson’s message could well be interpreted as one of hate. Only time will tell which message is the stronger. If history proves to be the example, we already know the answer.

Elliott M. Brumer, North Hills

‘The Passion’

I am Jewish and I went to see Mel Gibson’s movie that has made some Jews (who have not seen it) nervous, “The Passion of the Christ.” If Gibson were Jewish, some people would be describing this movie as a “pro-Jewish propaganda.” This movie is definitely not anti-Semitic. This movie is good for Jewish-Christian relations. Jews should be its biggest supporters.

The movie shows the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as the person who made the decision as to what should be done with Jesus, and that his decision was made based on his assessment as to which would be most likely to result in a rebellion, antagonizing Jesus’ Jewish supporters or antagonizing Jesus’ Jewish enemies.

The movie shows a great deal of pain and torture inflicted on Jesus, but by a group of sadistic Roman soldiers under the command of Pontius Pilate.

If enough people see this movie, the claim of group responsibility of Jews will be a historic oddity. Jews who stay away will be maximizing the effects of past anti-Semitism and wasting the potential for a new, positive era in Jewish-Christian relations to arise from this film.

Dan Persoff, Reseda

Culture War

Excellent editorial (“My Culture War,” March 12). Although I am not a Howard Stern fan, and I am a Mel Gibson/”The Passion of the Christ” fan, you do make great points about free speech. Let the audience have selective choice.

However, how does society present a way to allow audiences to make choices/selections of what kind of media entertainment they want to hear or watch without exposing children and teens or others to negative, violent or pornographic material? I ask you and your readers to think about this. Think about inventing ways to control free selection of media choice. Whoever invents this will either be labeled as “Big Brother” or will be even richer than 50 Cent or Howard Stern. My patent application is already in the mail.

Bill Hodges, Santa Clara

The Hague

Reading Rabbi Avi Weiss’ account of the demonstrations at The Hague regarding the wall Israel is building should give all of us concern (“Bearing Witness at The Hague,” March 5). Again, as it is often the case these days, we are on the defensive.

We are on the defensive because we are distorting the facts. The Arab complaint against us is not that we are building a wall! The complaint in front of the court is that we are taking about 17 percent (estimates vary) of West Bank territory as we build such a wall.

Why can’t we build the wall along the Green Line? [Benjamin] Netanyahu and others claim that it’s not defensible. But the Green Line was defensible from 1948 until 1967! Are we weaker militarily then we were in 1948?

Irwin Grossman, Los Angeles

John Kerry

I noticed your article several weeks ago that the support for John Kerry was getting soft and your article about Bush with the Jewish Republican Coalition (“Local Kerry Support Shows Softness,” Feb. 27). I have only one question: When will you have an article about the Jewish Democratic Coalition and Jewish people who are supporting Kerry? It is very important that The Journal attempts to be viewed as balanced and fair. I’m looking forward to it. Thanks!

Marcia Albert, Los Angeles

JCC Shutdown

Thank you for the enlightening articles about the impending closures of the Valley Cities and Silverlake JCCs (“Valley Cities JCC Slated to Shut Down,” March 12).

For many years my family participated in activities at the Westside JCC; we felt we were part of the Jewish community. No more.

Two years ago, I was at a meeting at the Westside JCC when The Jewish Federation assured us that it would continue to support the Westside JCC if the members could raise a certain amount of money by a certain date. They did. But, even so, The Jewish Federation abandoned the Westside JCC.

As a result, my grandchildren identify less and less with the Jewish community. And my family and many friends no longer respond to The Jewish Federation when it appeals for our contributions. Instead, we donate to more worthy charities, such as the Irene Epstein Memorial Scholarship fund that helps financially needy, academically deserving seniors at Fairfax High School go to college.

George Epstein, Los Angeles

Interfaith Couples

In her article “Keeping Jews in the Flock,” (March 5), Loolwa Khazzom argues that interfaith relationships bring Jews closer to the Jewish tradition and therefore one should embrace those couples. She supports her argument claiming that her friend Rebecca, a secular Jew, after marrying Jamal, a devoted Muslim man, began celebrating Shabbat, attending Orthodox services and is moving toward keeping kosher.

Many communities in Los Angeles accept interfaith married couples into their midst. Nevertheless, one cannot impose on communities who wish not to do so without what they see as proper conversion, to surrender their principles in favor of certain individuals. Do communities have to shape their ideologies to those who choose to practice Judaism in a way different from theirs? I think not. Societies or religious communities thrive because they adhere to their principles rather than cater to the individual. It is not a matter of Jewish communities not wanting to accept those who have managed to find love, respect and laughter outside Judaism. But just as interfaith couples wish that their feelings and sensitivities should be respected, they, too, must learn to respect those communities who do not agree with their way of life.

Danny Bental , Tarzana

Health Care

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl is to be commended for trying to lead us to the promised land of universal health-care coverage (“Bill Seeks to Cure Health-Care Plague,” March 12). But just as God and Moses found that the Israelites were too accustomed to Egypt (they complained about being set free to starve in the wilderness), we will have to wait for a new generation for a different system to work. As a medical director of a health plan, I’m sure I represent Pharaoh in this story but the enslaving administrative costs that the senator condemns are necessary to prevent unlimited use of the expensive medications, procedures and hospitalizations.

Just as God waited 40 years for a new generation ready to enter the Promised Land, it may take a new generation of providers willing to adhere to practices that have been shown to be effective and of patients willing to improve their health habits. Even if her estimates of 25 percent to 27 percent of administrative costs are true, it is eclipsed by the 50 percent of estimated health-care costs attributable to lifestyle choices of overeating, smoking, excessive drinking and sedentary activity. Even 40 years of wandering in the desert won’t produce the attitude changes required for Kuehl’s proposal to work.

Dr. Gil Solomon, West Hills

Viva Vashti

I am not a writer or a philosopher, I am a Jew who has read Jane Ulman’s article, “Viva Vashti” (March 5). Was this article a Purim shtick? I hope so. Ulman deliberately missed out the central part of Purim and that is of Esther and Mordechai. The Megillah is called Megilat Esther, because it was through her, through her self-sacrifice and her determination that the Jews were saved.

When I celebrate this most joyous of all holidays with my children, I explain to them the difference between the Jews and the other nations, how Mordechai respected Esther, how he cared for her every move, and in contrast, how Ahasheverosh and Haman and their entourage respected their women (Haman was willing to risk his job to advise Ahashevrosh to kill Vashti).

Ulman has left out the most important part of the Megilah: When Esther speaks up, and how she tells Mordechai that she will risk her life to go to the king uninvited, to defend her people. The Megillah then tells us many times how Esther actually goes to the king and speaks up for her nation.

After reading Ulman’s article, I have concluded two scenarios. One, she is a self-hating Jew that cannot tolerate to see other Jews celebrating their victories, their miracles that God sent onto them. The other scenario is that she fulfills one mitzvah of Purim, and that is to drink until she does not know any difference. I am afraid that both are true.

Zalman Solomon, Los Angeles

Cherish and Respect

In reference to “Cherish and Respect” (Feb. 13) Rabbi Haim Ovadia says that Shabbat is a gift to us from God. Humans need lots of attention and companionship, especially young children. After school our children are shlepped to music or karate or whatever. In the evening the older kids lock themselves in their rooms with the phone to call friends and do homework. As for the younger children, either we’re too busy or too tired for them.

Then there is Shabbat. I don’t cook or shop or talk on the phone. I don’t use the computer and I don’t drive anywhere or watch TV. So, what’s left to do? Happily and importantly I give my children and my grandchildren undivided attention. We play games, take walks or just sit and look at each other and talk. Children have a lot to say and they have many questions.

As simple as that may seem, it is the most precious gift you can give your children. The positive repercussions this causes will effect your children and family for the rest of their lives. Not to mention the happy moments you will derive, which will add up to many unforgettable memories.

Miriam Fiber, Director Maohr Hatorah Preschool Santa Monica

Golfing Gran Takes Down Yiddishe Bubbe


Jews, it is said, are the people of the book, which may explain why Jews buy so many books, both to read themselves and to give to others. Book publishers know that the marketplace is full of Jewish customers with a high level of secular education, a reasonable degree of Jewish awareness and strong aesthetic sensibilities. And now they’re having children.

So at BookExpo, the recent gathering of publishers from across the nation, mainstream publishing houses proudly showed off books geared toward today’s American Jewish youngsters. Their fall 2004 children’s lines predictably featured holiday activity sets (“The Hanukkah Candle Kit,” Running Press), jolly shtetl stories (“When the Chickens Went on Strike,” Dutton) and real-life tales of youngsters enduring the Holocaust (“Searching for Anne Frank: Letters from Amsterdam to Iowa,” Abrams).

Meanwhile, those publishing houses that specifically serve a Jewish readership face the challenge of defining their own focus. Stuart Matlins, who heads Jewish Lights Publishing, Judye Groner, editorial director of Kar-Ben Publishing, and Rabbi Hara Person, editorial director of UAHC Press, are all leading figures in the Jewish book world. All three, operating outside of traditional Orthodox publishing norms, are looking to engage young Jewish readers raised on Dr. Seuss and “Sesame Street.”

Their publications downplay shtetl and Lower East Side settings in favor of the here and now. It’s been nearly 30 years since Judye Groner and Madeline Wilder co-founded Kar-Ben to give their own children an alternative to stories like the classic “K’tonton,” in which all characters were observant Jews of the immigrant generation. UAHC’s Person puts it bluntly: “Jewish life still happens today.”

Still, all three publishers get frequent submissions in which grandma is a white-haired bubbe with knitting needles and a Molly Goldberg accent. Matlins counters, “Today’s Jewish grandma has a college degree and plays golf.”

In depicting contemporary Jews, the three publishers try to convey the range of modern Jewish religious practices. In this they part company with the Orthodox Jewish presses, like ArtScroll, which Matlins credits with “doing a superb job of meeting the needs of their audience.” In books by Jewish Lights and Kar-Ben, women wear slacks, rabbis may be female and boys and girls pray together. UAHC Press, the official publishing arm of the Reform movement, conscientiously reflects the Reform tradition of accepting many viewpoints. Person reveals that an upcoming picture book, “Shabbat Shalom,” in which a family welcomes the sabbath, ignited serious debate among UAHC’s staff as to who should be depicted wearing a kippah. The final decision was to put kippot on the heads of the mother and son characters, while leaving father and daughter bareheaded. Person explains that the father’s head was left bare to suggest that he might be a non-Jew or perhaps a classic Reform Jew who eschews the traditional headcovering on philosophical grounds.

Jewish Lights Publishing, based in Woodstock, Vt., mirrors its staff’s commitment to what Matlins calls “vibrant, living, liberal Judaism. We are believers.” Matlins makes clear that “the need we satisfy is for books that inspire and address a child’s spiritual life.” Ten years ago, the company published its first children’s picture book, “God’s Paintbrush,” by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. Since then it has continued publishing works by Sasso, Lawrence Kushner and others that facilitate parent-child conversations about the nature of God. It’s consistent with the values of Jewish Lights that God, in such new books as Sasso’s “Adam and Eve’s First Sunset,” is carefully kept free of gender and denominational bias. In fact, Jewish Lights describes itself as “for people of all faiths, all backgrounds.”

At Kar-Ben, Groner says, “We keep away from God, pretty much.” She feels that Kar-Ben and Jewish Lights serve “different needs of the same audience.” For Kar-Ben, one big goal is to introduce Jewish youngsters to the sights, sounds, and smells of Jewish life. Early on, the assumption was that many parents, as well as their children, had little knowledge of Jewish tradition. Today, however, Groner presumes that families are comfortable with basic Judaism, so Kar-Ben books are intended less to teach rituals than to use them “as a backdrop for looking at problems and issues that children face as children.” Groner cites “The Purim Surprise,” an upcoming book in which the custom of giving shalach manot treats helps resolve the anxieties of the new girl in town. She describes Kar-Ben’s mission as “looking at the issues young children face, but through Jewish lenses, in the context of Jewish time and space.”

The concept of physical diversity is important to all three presses. The illustrations for UAHC Press’ “The Perfect Prayer,” a fable about the origins of the “Shema,” deliberately include characters of various sizes, shapes, and ethnicities. In fact, all three publishers — mindful of intermarriage, conversion and the large number of Jews adopting babies overseas — strive to incorporate Asian, black and Middle Eastern characters into their pages. They also try hard to present stories from a wide range of Jewish traditions, not simply the Ashkenazic. Kar-Ben will soon publish “Apples and Pomegranates,” a Sephardic Rosh Hashanah service complete with prayers, recipes and stories. UAHC’s Person is excited about “A Year of Jewish Stories,” a collection of 52 folktales from all over the Jewish world.

The quality of Jewish children’s books is of serious interest to the Association of Jewish Libraries, which monitors new books and award-winners through its comprehensive new Jewish Values-finder Web site (www.ajljewishvalues.org). Its editor, Linda R. Silver, explains why Jewish children’s books are important: “The dominant, non-Jewish culture offers many attractions and benefits. It is all too easy and all too tempting to cast off one’s Jewish identity — especially if a strong one has never been developed.” She urges American parents to explore Jewish books for their children. So does Lisa Silverman, director of the Sinai Temple Library, which will hold its first Jewish Children’s Literature Conference, open to the public, on Nov. 9.

For more information about the conference, contact lsilverman@sinaitemple.org .


Recommended Reading for Children

Not all books mentioned in the accompanying article are currently on the market. Here are some new Jewish children’s books that are more readily obtainable:

Holidays and Ritual:

"It’s Sukkah Time!" by Latifa Berry Kropf (Kar-Ben).

For preschoolers: bright photographs of children celebrating Sukkot.

"The Perfect Prayer," by Donald Rossoff (UAHC).

A midrashic fable about the creation of the "Shema," complete with politically correct illustrations.

"Lots of Latkes," by Sandy Lanton (Kar-Ben).

A light-hearted shtetl Chanukah story.

Bible and Folk Tales:

"Adam and Eve’s First Sunset," by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Jewish Lights).

A gentle, gorgeously illustrated exploration of faith.

"Jerusalem of Gold: Jewish Stories of the Enchanted City," by Howard Schwartz (Jewish Lights).

Tales from many traditions.

"Tasty Bible Stories: A Menu of Tales & Matching Recipes," by Tami Lehman-Wilzig (Kar-Ben).

One example: the story of Jacob and Esau is followed by recipes for Jacob’s Lentil Stew and Spicy Lentil Dip.

"When the Chickens Went on Strike," by Erica Silverman (Dutton).

A retelling of Sholom Aleichem’s yarn about the Rosh Hashanah custom of kapores.

Holocaust:

"Hana’s Suitcase," by Karen Levine (Albert Whitman).

Award-winning true story of Japanese students’ efforts to track down the owner of an empty suitcase.

"Searching for Anne Frank," by Susan Goldman Rubin (Abrams).

A chronicle of Anne Frank and her Iowa penpal, drawn from the Museum of Tolerance archives.

New Form of Anti-Semitism


British Jews are facing a new form of anti-Semitism so unlike its past incarnations that it should be known by a new name, Judeophobia, according to a new study by a leading Jewish think tank.

Coming after conferences on anti-Semitism in New York, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna, the book, "A New Anti-Semitism? Debating Judeophobia in 21st-Century Britain," is something of a symposium unto itself.

It includes essays by 17 writers, ranging from Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, to journalists, lawyers, novelists, trade unionists, academics and financial professionals. Put together by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the book contains a wide range of views. But a closing essay by editors Barry Kosmin, the institute’s director, and criminologist Paul Iganski teases out themes on which many of the essayists agree.

Despite a few high-profile incidents of synagogue and cemetery vandalism and occasional attacks on Jews, "the new anti-Semitism" does not aim at the physical harm or elimination of Jews, the editors argue. For the most part, the new threat comes not from the far right but from the intellectual left and focuses heavily on criticism of Israel — a distinction the British Jewish community has failed to address, they say.

"This is a different kind of anti-Semitism from Auschwitz, and the Jewish community has to learn that," Kosmin stressed. "Jews are looking for Nazis, when the problem is Stalinists."

The book suggests that academia, the trade union movement and leading media outlets, such as the BBC and the Guardian and Independent newspapers, are guilty of what the institute calls "institutionalized Judeophobia." A concept adapted from U.S. black power activist Stokeley Carmichael, institutionalized Judeophobia results in hostility to Jews — especially as personified by the State of Israel — even if no individual within the organization is necessarily anti-Semitic.

"A New Anti-Semitism?" has an entire section on the media, with a number of authors taking the liberal media to task for its coverage of Israel and for the way many journalists have gone on the counterattack against Jewish criticism of such reporting.

"’Criticize Israel and you are an anti-Semite, just as surely as if you were throwing a pot of paint at a synagogue in Paris,’ the diplomatic editor of the Observer wrote in a particularly offensive article that helped to set the debate going," academic Peter Pulzer writes in one essay.

Pulzer sets out a number of criteria to determine when criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism. These include comparing Israel to the Nazis and attacking anonymous collectives, such as "the Jewish community," "the Jewish lobby" or "the Jewish vote."

Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for the Guardian, considers whether anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic. "Some anti-Zionists are anti-Semites and should be fought like enemies," Freedland concludes. But, he adds, "others are presenting us with a cogent challenge to our core values," and it’s necessary to respond to them with intellectual honesty. "There is no more Zionist project than that," he says.

Not all the essayists paint gloomy pictures. Antony Lerman, editor of the Anti-Semitism World Report, says that "to see anti-Semitism as the determining factor in Jewish life is to ignore the broader context. There is no mass discrimination against Jews, no state-sponsored anti-Semitism, no suppression of Jewish culture in the communist bloc, no anti-Semitism encouraged by the hierarchies of either the Protestant or the Catholic churches," he writes. "Jews are experiencing unprecedented freedom and success."

The rebuilding of Jewish monuments and culture — not the desecration of cemeteries — is the defining feature of Jewish life in Europe today, Lerman says.

Such arguments are a far cry from those of academic Robert Wistrich, who looks at militant Islam and concludes, "This is a grim picture and these are dark days."

Sacks — who initially was reluctant even to discuss anti-Semitism — testified before Parliament that "we are witnessing the second great mutation of anti-Semitism in modern times, from racial anti-Semitism to religious anti-Zionism, with the added premise that all Jews are Zionists."

At least one Jewish campaigner against racism, Edie Friedman, is deeply suspicious of the editors’ thesis. The director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, Friedman did not contribute to the book and has read only excerpts, but those excerpts concerned her, she said.

"The danger of coining phrases like ‘Judeophobia’ is that you could make people more reluctant to participate in society," she said. "I think we have to see the evidence before inventing new terms. And the evidence is based on ‘this dinner party I went to,’ and that’s not good enough."

The center-left intelligentsia is the greatest source of "institutional Judeophobia," the book’s editors say. That presents a challenge for a Jewish community that long has focused on physical security, rather than on what Kosmin calls a "Judeophobia about ideas."

"It is far easier to get heated or engaged with broken tombstones," Kosmin said. "But the problem is much more complex and subtle in our more complex, complicated society."

French Teens in L.A. Share Their Fears


From a distance, the 23 teens hanging out in the Adat Ari El courtyard in Valley Village look like American high school students on a break between classes. A thin, bespectacled boy in a sporty T-shirt sings along with the J.Lo and Ja Rule tune on his headphones, while a pretty girl spoons peanut butter out of a jar to share with her friends. A car pulls up at the front of the building and a petite girl in a floral tank top and low-rise jeans hops out and joins the group. Yet, her telltale greeting, a smooch on both cheeks and a hearty "bonjour!" distinguish these students from their American counterparts.

The teens are visiting Los Angeles on a three-week French Jewish exchange program called CAEJ (Centre Anglo European Jeunesse Juive/British European Center for Jewish Youth). While visiting places, such as Universal Studios, Dodger Stadium, Hurricane Harbor and the Museum of Tolerance, the students stay with Jewish families, practice their English and soak up Jewish American culture. But while searching for celebrities and bonding with new friends, the students can’t help but remember the anti-Semitic experiences they’ve had back in France.

When discussing his life in Rueil Malmaison, a Paris suburb, 16-year-old Oliver Dahan’s usually goofy antics disappear. "In France, you can’t wear a kippah if you don’t want to be hurt," he says. Dahan then recounts the story of some friends who dared to don their yarmulkes on the street. "The [Arab] people came to fight them and they had to run fast." Carole Teboul, 16, from Paris, says that she always hides her Star of David necklace under her shirt when she rides the subway or the bus at home. "Sometimes old men or old women will yell, ‘Kill all Jews!’ when I’m on the bus. They are very narrow-minded," she says.

Laura Schusselblum, 16, hails from the northern city of Strasbourg. "I live in the Jewish quarter of my town. A lot of synagogues have been burned. We have one or two Jewish cemeteries and they put graffiti on the tombstones. It’s like the intifada. It’s very hard to live," she says sadly.

Some of the students admitted they felt safer as Jews on the streets of Los Angeles. The teens link the violence against Jews with angry Arab activists. Most have negative associations with Muslims, although Schusselblum said that the few Muslim students at her school are "very nice." Jean Charles Aouizerate, the 23-year-old chaperone for the group, says, "It disturbs me that we talk about Arabs all the time. We put them all in the same bag and it doesn’t seem right."

Through CAEJ, the students are able to escape the religious hardship at home and experience Judaism in another part of the world. CAEJ was founded in 1966 by Charles Labiod, a Parisian Jew of Tunisian descent, who is an active member of the French Jewish community. Labiod is a member of the Consistoire Central de France, an umbrella organization that unites many synagogues countrywide. Labiod founded CAEJ when he learned that Jewish adolescents on foreign exchange programs were often placed with non-Jewish host families. Since then, he has organized programs for Jewish youth and families from France. Participants can travel to England, Israel, the Alps and Los Angeles.

In a recent visit to Los Angeles, Labiod addressed congregants at Adat Ari El about Judaism, France and Israel. "[President Jacques] Chirac likes the Jews in France," he said. "He is very proud and protective of the Jews. As for Israel, it’s like the crusades of South Africa. He believes Israel will just fade away and disappear." Labiod is clearly baffled that Chirac makes such a huge distinction between Israel and Jews at large.

The students concurred with Labiod’s assessment. While they say that their experiences with anti-Semitism are disturbing, many of them refuse to remain passive. During the government elections a few months back, Dahan remembers seeing graffiti around his town that said things like "Death to the Jews."

"When I see this stuff, I erase it or scratch it off," he says, "I’m not afraid of getting caught."

Investing in Teachers


Jews have long understood the importance of study both as a religious activity and as the passageway to a shared culture. American Jews are waking up to how important it is to give their children a solid Jewish education so that they can choose the part they will play in the future of our people. The problem is that our educational systems are having a hard time keeping up, basically because we don’t have enough good teachers for our day schools or for our congregational schools, where the majority of our children are formally trained in our heritage.

The problem is hardly new. Jewish schools can’t count on ethnicity to attract the best teachers, because Jews have long been able to find jobs in public schools or, in the case of the congregational part-timers, in the general sector. But the problem is getting worse, ironically, because the national commitment to Jewish education is boosting enrollments faster than we can attract quality people to become teachers.

However, the Jewish community is not powerless to address this issue. There are a number of very specific steps that philanthropists, community organizations and individuals can start taking right now.

Nationally, we are failing to draw our best young people into teaching careers. The percentage of young Jews who choose to work in our day schools is pitifully small. To address that problem, we should create a national Jewish Teachers Superfund, with an initial endowment of $50 million. The fund would provide either reimbursement for college tuition or repayment of student loans for any new day school teacher or full-time congregational teacher under the age of 30.

Even more proactively, the fund could provide scholarship assistance or low-cost loans for college students who are committed to entering Jewish education. It should also be used to fund experiments in broadening outreach by congregational schools, so they can tap sources, such as teachers colleges, or provide training for older people who are returning to the job market. The program can draw inspiration from the work of the Wexner Foundation, which has been paying full college tuition

plus healthy stipends for

rabbis as well as Jewish educators and social workers for more than a decade. Until the initial goal of $50 million is met, private foundations should commit $5 million a year immediately.

Working largely through federations across the nation, our community leadership has risen to the challenge of improving both day and congregational schools, investing energy and money in the task. These local initiatives have produced some notable successes that could be more widely emulated.

At the end of the day, however, successful Jewish education will depend on keeping good teachers in the classrooms. That means paying them better and showing them the respect they deserve.

Synagogues, federations and other local agencies must resolve to put more in the paychecks. They can increase per capita payments to the schools and raise both the number and the size of scholarships they give to needy students. And they ought to find creative ways to show teachers that they are admired outside of the classroom. The Cleveland-based Mandel Foundation has done a fine job of training the leaders of Jewish schools and raising the standards for the job. That work now has to be broadened to embrace the classroom leaders.

We will get good teachers if we as individuals start showing that we truly value what they do and who they are. A few simple steps, such as volunteering to help with a congregational class project, for example, or seeking out a classroom teacher for praise might help. Far more important in the long run will be a shift in attitude; we need to encourage our children to pursue careers in education as vigorously as we steer them to becoming doctors, lawyers or businesspeople.

Keeping good people teaching in our Jewish schools requires salary dollars. But it’s also important that we as parents and community members respect the people to whom we entrust our most precious resource — our children.

Faith in Exodus


During Passover and on Good Friday the Los Angeles Times published a front-page article titled “Doubting the Story of Exodus.” The timing was typical of the insensitivity often shown in mainstream media to religious Jews and Christians. It is unimaginable, for example, that any mainstream newspaper would ever print a front-page article on Martin Luther King’s extramarital affairs on Martin Luther King Day.

According to the article, most archaeologists and even some Jewish clergy do not believe the biblical Exodus occurred. That most archaeologists conclude from the alleged lack of archaeological evidence that Jews were never slaves in Egypt and the exodus to Canaan never took place tells us something about these individuals, but nothing about the Bible or the Exodus.

What does it tell us? That most of these archaeologists have the same bias against traditional religious beliefs that most of their academic colleagues have. Ten years ago, Dr. Robert Jastrow, an agnostic and one of America’s leading astrophysicists — founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and now director of the Mount Wilson Observatory — wrote about this in his book “God and the Astronomers.” Jastrow described a disturbing reaction among his colleagues to the big-bang theory — irritation and anger. Why, he asked, would scientists, who are supposed to pursue truth and not have an emotional investment in any evidence, be angered by the big-bang theory? The answer, he concluded, is very disturbing: many scientists do not want to acknowledge anything that may even suggest the existence of God. The big-bang theory, by positing a beginning to the universe, suggests a creator and therefore annoys many astronomers.

This anti-religious bias is hardly confined to astronomers. It pervades academia, home to nearly all archaeologists.

Take one of the archaeologists’ major conclusions: Because they have found no evidence of Israelites in the Sinai desert, no Israelites made the trip from Egypt to Canaan. That conclusion strikes many of us as so unwarranted — even arrogant — as to demand explanation. According to the book of Exodus, the Israelites spent only 40 years in the desert over 3,000 years ago. What could possibly remain from a mere 40 years in a desert 3,000 years later?

And since when does the alleged lack of physical proof mean something never happened or doesn’t exist? I have no doubt that many of the archaeologists who are so certain that the Jews never wandered out of Egypt are quite sure that there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe. But on what basis? Despite decades of highly sophisticated probing, we do not have a shred of evidence to support the belief that intelligent life exists anywhere else. They choose to believe it because logic suggests to them that intelligent life exists out there.

Well, logic suggests to many of us that Jews were slaves in Egypt and that there was an exodus. For thousands of years Jews have been retelling this story. It is possible that it is all a 3,000-year-old fairy tale, but do logic and common sense suggest this? Why would a people make up such an ignoble history? Why would a people fabricate a myth of its origins in which it is depicted so negatively?

There is no parallel in human history to the Hebrew Bible’s negative depiction of the Jews’ national origins. The Torah’s depiction of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt to Canaan portrays the Jews as ingrates, rebels and chronic complainers, undeserving of the freedom God and Moses brought them. Moreover, aside from Moses, the heroes of the story are nearly all non-Jews. It is the daughter of Pharaoh who saves and rears Moses (later Jewish tradition actually holds her to be his mother); it is a Midianite priest, Jethro, who tells Moses how to govern the Jewish people; and the two midwives who refuse the pharaoh’s order to kill all male Jewish babies are almost certainly Egyptians. As for Moses himself, he is depicted as being raised an Egyptian.

That is one of the three reasons I am certain of the Jews’ slavery and exodus. Any people that makes up a history for itself makes sure to depict itself as heroic and other peoples as villains. That the Torah’s story does the very opposite is for me an unassailable argument on behalf of its honesty.

Second, I do not believe that a nation tells a story for 3,000 years that has no experiential basis. Moreover, the text has allusions to Egypt that only contemporaries could know. Even the name Moses is Egyptian (compare the pharaohs’ names Thutmose, Ahmose and Ahmosis).

Third, I choose to believe the story despite the archaeologists’ (subjective) claim of no evidence just as, despite the powerful arguments of history and of archaeologists of the past generation, some archaeologists — and those who trust archaeologists more than the biblical narrative — choose to believe the exodus never happened.

As for the argument of some Jews that they do not depend on the veracity of the Exodus for their faith, from a Jewish standpoint this is destructive nonsense. If the Exodus did not occur, there is no Judaism. Judaism stands on two pillars — creation and exodus. Judaism no more survives the denial of the Exodus than it does the denial of the Creator. Creation and Exodus are coequal Jewish claims. A creator God who never intervened in human affairs is Aristotle’s unmoved mover, not the God the Jews introduced to the world. Moreover, any Jews who believe the Exodus did not occur should have the intellectual honesty to stop observing Passover. They should spend the week studying the truths of archaeology — that is their haggadah — rather than what they regard as the fairy tales of the haggadah and Torah.

Fifty years ago, when anti-religious dogma was less suffocating, archaeologists showed time and again how archaeology confirmed essentials of the biblical narratives. Today, most archaeologists argue the opposite. In a couple of decades, they will probably change their minds again. I didn’t rely on archaeologists for my faith when they confirmed it, and they have no effect on my faith when they deny it. They will continue to find meaning in their lives from excavating ancient ruins and deconstructing the Bible. And I will continue to find meaning in life telling my children, and hopefully one day my grandchildren, what Jews have told their children and grandchildren for 3,000 years. “We were slaves in the land of Egypt and with a mighty hand, God brought us out.”

Your Letters


Free Loan Success

What a wonderful story on the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) (“In Community We Trust,” Feb. 16). Reading it reminds me of my own story. I didn’t come to L.A. from a foreign country, but Boston. I arrived in 1998 with $400 in my pocket and no job. Fortunately, Ethel Taft (from Jewish Vocational Service) introduced me to JFLA’s now long-serving Executive Director Mark Meltzer, who immediately arranged for a loan to help me plant roots in Los Angeles.

When I was starting my business, Meltzer steered me toward the Baran Small Business Loan Fund, which provided critical support to my fledgling business. Two years later, I have a successful business, own a house and a car, and am forever grateful to the role the JFLA has played in my life and the lives of thousands across our community. It is an organization that epitomizes chesed.

David Novak, Los Angeles


Presidential Pardons

My good friend and colleague Dov Fischer wrote an article expressing his outrage at President Clinton’s pardoning of the four Skverer Chassidim (“The Price of Freedom,” Feb. 2). As Fischer and I are religious Jewish attorneys who wear our yarmulkes in our law practice, we are de facto representatives of Orthodoxy, and when things go sour in the community, we usually have to face our critics.

However, Fischer crossed several major lines when he equated religious Jews who choose not to allow aspects of prevalent American culture to infiltrate our homes with scheming Shylocks plotting to rip off the government. I used to think that the anti-Orthodox animus came from outside the observant community. Unfortunately, now it seems to be coming from within.

A gifted, talented, eloquent and sincere writer who champions truth and the straight-and-narrow path, who rallies against falsehood and injustice, must act consistent with that mandate by writing articles within the parameters of halacha, and not exacerbate and already painful chillul Hashem with false and misleading rhetoric about religious Jewry.

Baruch C. Cohen, Los Angeles


Congratulations Rabbi Dov Fischer. You hit the nail on the head. The amazing thing to me is that so many people are surprised by Clinton’s actions with these horrendous, obviously political pardons. Those of us — and we are few in the Jewish community — who never voted for slick Willie are not surprised at all. Same old, same old.

Suzanne Bermant, Tarzana


Faith-Based Initiative

The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles agrees with United Jewish Communities (UJC), ACLU and ADL in their opposition to government funding of faith-based social-service agencies (“The Faith-Based Blitz,” Feb. 2). Such funding will inevitably lead to a breach of spirit and intent of the First Amendment’s dictate that church and state be separate.

Although faith-based institutions often do much-needed community service, as do nonprofit organizations such as NCJW/LA, the introduction of government funding will create a multitude of problems: How will agencies be selected? Isn’t there a distinct potential for discrimination in hiring and service? What accounting procedures will these government funds be subject to lest there be co-mingling of funds for religious purposes?

Even some of the faith-based agencies express concern about these added pressures.

In the words of NCJW National President Jan Schneiderman, “Religious beliefs play no public role in governance and explicitly religious programs are inappropriate vehicles for public policy and service delivery.”

Debra Gendel, Co-President, NCJW/LA

Jill Levin, Co-President, NCJW/LA


Purim in Cuba

Having recently returned from a visit to Cuba with a humanitarian organization, I read with interest the travel section advertisement for a Purim in Cuba holiday. Allow me to give some advice when packing your 44 lbs. of luggage.

Pack medication. Fill those corners of your suitcase with antibiotics, multivitamins, surgery gloves, antiseptic wipes, insulin and aspirin. Pediatric hospitals are filled with children who are not receiving appropriate care for lack of proper medications.

Pack school supplies. Students at classes in Havana’s Bet Shalom Synagogue have few pens and pencils, tape, paper and scissors.

Food is scarce and rationing is severe. Pack clothing that will not return with you. And if you’ve got just a bit more room, pack a toy. A member of the synagogue introduced us to his disabled daughter and informed us that even as a member of the medical profession, he was unable to obtain the appropriate medications for his child. Draconian U.S. legislation has put the fingerprints of U.S. citizens on every death certificate for a child who died because the immoral economic embargo of Cuba.Pack compassion.

Jo-Ann Winnik, Encino


11th Commandment

I enjoyed reading the article by Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin (“Advice From The Trenches,” Feb. 9). They were all very good commandments, many of which I already knew or believed in. For what it’s worth, allow me to add one more commandment to your list:

11. Cherish the time you have together. While you may feel that the two of you will grow old together, you really have no idea how long it will last.

I lost my wife Rebecca to brain cancer after being married to her for only six short but loving years. Even people who do have happy marriages should not take their partner for granted and assume they will always be there.

Abrey Myers, West Hills


Correction

In the Feb. 2 Circuit, judges Howard Matz and Clifford Klein were misidentified. We regret the error.

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