David Hartman remembered: A voice that was freed – and now is silence


Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before he made a monumental contribution to Jewish life and a significant contribution to Jewish thought.

Best known for his pioneering work as founder of  the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is a innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for  teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both Rabbinic and lay. It all its program, and especially within teacher training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition and its many texts to students often alienated  from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone David Hartman must be revered.

Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted to most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.

For most of his career he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the preeminent of Jewish 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history; Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until… until he could no longer defend it.

As he approached 80 and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice that accepted some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of no-Jews whom he encountered and knew well and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious world view. Unlike Haredi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world, unlike Modern Orthodoxy that seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith,  and unlike Conservative Judaism did not make history paramount and push the halakhic world view to the side.  A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.

He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements yet deeply regret his untimely passing for there was much that he left unsaid, one he was free to speak out.

Hartman’s personal journey is significant, a product of Brownsville, Brooklyn when it was the second largest Jewish community in New York and also in the United States, he began his studies in the Haredi world, learning in Lakewood, New Jersey, which was then a small but growing Yeshiva. He then moved to Yeshiva University when he encountered the Rav and his marvelous example of religious studies and secular thought. The Rav was immersed in the world of Jewish texts, at home in the spiritual struggle with the religious experience that gave rise to these texts and their understanding of God, religious law and humanity and he was masterfully knowledgeable of the major philosophical traditions – classical and modern – that underscored religious thought.

It was he who advised Hartman to study philosophy with the Jesuits at Fordham University and thus to encounter classical philosophy, Roman Catholic theology – and secular thought – through the eyes of believing Catholics who engaged these text and their own faith. He went to Israel in the euphoria of the post 1967 excitement and could not quite fit in to Israeli institution. Religious institutions were narrow, the secular university was often equally parochial in a rather different way. A believing Zionist, he founded his own institution that gave voice to the issues on the top of his agenda and became a meeting place for secular Jews wanting to encounter Jewish texts and for religious scholars willing and able to engage secular thought.

In his last two books, Hartman has come clean. As he approached 80 and in failing health, with his achievements there is little reason to hold back. He spoke in his own voice and in his own name, struggling to make sense of the world in which he lived.  He was emotionally bound to the world of his youth, the Orthodoxy that reared him to a love of Torah and a passion for halakhah and yet he was a denizen of two worlds not one. He has engaged and accepted the categories of modernity, its engagement with ideas of equality, empowerment and engagement and its moral understanding of freedom. Unlike contemporary his master, the Rav, who was fortified and insulated in his encounter with modernity by an unchanging halakhah that was a historical and who could thus encounter modernity and its value system believing in the unchanging categories that established the framework of the world he encountered and unlike some in contemporary Orthodoxy who reject the modern world in its entirely and build a religious tradition that is oppositional and unlike some in contemporary so called modern Orthodoxy who want to live in a bifurcated world, a modernity untouched by their religious faith and a religious tradition untainted by modernity, Hartman was seeking a synthetic religious life; not a patchwork of dissident notions but an integrated religious tradition, embracing halakah and also engaging and being influenced by modernitry.

He knew and readily admits in the introduction to his work that others might then call him a Conservative Jew, but that was not who he was or where he wanted to go even though he wrestles with the poetic neo-Orthodoxy of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the religious sociology of Mordecai Kaplan, Yet the more he wrestles with these contemporary issues, the more he takes seriously the need to change in response, the more his situation resembles the religious circumstances of those who gave rise to Conservative Judaism passionately loving the tradition,   yet finding that the more they engaged the modern ethos the greater the tension with their faith of origin and their own sense that halakhah could actually accommodate modernity without an openness to change and a willingness to change.

Others will have to carry out that task. They could not do better than to use Hartman as their guide.

Rabbi David Hartman’s learned students remember their rebbe


An Advocate for Divine Honesty

David Hartman was sui generis; he was a unique individual who was very excited about ideas and at the same time pragmatic. Who believed that believing is best expressed in behavior. To believe is to behave.

This is very clear in his latest book, “The God Who Hates Lies.” It was his opportunity to express the great hope that he had for a renaissance of Jewish life in the State of Israel, and his frustrations at the people who were returning to an ideological, self-centered kind of life that was very disillusioning to him.

His great teacher was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and he told me as he was working on this book, “I have to break with Soloveitchik.” In his treatment of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Soloveitchik said this was the glory of a divine absurdity; the act of being about to do something that is against logic itself. 

Hartman chastised Soloveitchik for this. He said that this is not what we need; we need divine truthfulness and honesty.

He literally gathered hundreds of rabbis, gathered them together and enabled them to speak together without any of their insularity — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist were able to speak, to present, without hostility and without denigration.

He had a remarkable, charismatic approach to the teaching of Judaism. When he was on, it was sheer idealism and enthusiasm. From my point of view, it’s a monumental loss in the Jewish community. He was able to see within Orthodoxy a liberation. 

— Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Valley Beth Shalom, as told to Susan Freudenheim


‘The crown has fallen from our head’ — Lamentations 5:16

There was a man and he is no more.

A thinker, a teacher and a lover of humanity. My teacher and friend, Rabbi David Hartman.

He was larger than life: a dynamic force; a public figure with an international following. But when you became his student, he attached himself to you; he became your rebbe. I was privileged to be one of his students for almost 35 years. He was my rebbe. He was my mentor. He shaped my thinking, and he touched my soul.

My mother passed away just over a month ago. Losing David Hartman feels like I’ve lost my intellectual and spiritual father. 

What made David Hartman so special was that he was a yeshiva bocher who gained enlightenment but never stopped being a yeshiva bocher. And so he was at the same time both critical and loyal. He encouraged us to boldly challenge the tradition but never stop loving it. He gave us the greatest gift that a teacher can bequeath: the freedom to inquire, to ask, to probe and to speculate. He accompanied us on the journey — he wrestled with us — all the while reminding us that our personal growth was bound up in a collective responsibility. He so loved the Jewish people. And he loved humanity.

When I first met R’ Duvid, as I fondly called him, he asserted that the most serious religious question that the Jewish people had to confront was how to rule over a minority as Jews. It was the critical question back in 1978, and it continues to be the most vexing moral issue that we face. 

That’s why I became David Hartman’s student, and that’s why he will always be my rebbe. 

— Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director, UCLA Hillel


The Holiness of Now: A Memory of David Hartman

Torah commands: “You shall follow after the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 13:5) So the Talmud asks: “God is a consuming fire! How is it possible to follow after God?” It answers: Follow the ways of God. My teacher David Hartman offered a different answer: Become the fire! Reflect God’s passion, God’s rage, God’s vision into the world. He was a blazing fire, and learning with Hartman was always an adventure. He thundered. He raged. He wept. Torah meant that much to him.

Hartman’s passion rose from his belief in the singular spiritual significance of this moment in Jewish history. For Hartman, our emergence from the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel initiated a new stage in the unfolding covenantal drama of the Jewish people. There was Sinai, the revelation of the Written Torah, expressed in the language of Mitzvah. There was Yavneh, the revelation of the Oral Torah, expressed in the language of Midrash. And now there is Israel, the revelation of a Living Torah, expressed in the textures and rhythms of Jewish life reborn in its land. Our return to sovereignty in Israel redefines the collective Jewish project. It reshapes our relationship to God. Israel redefines what it means to be a Jew. The holiness of this moment was his Torah. And his fire was our blessing, bringing new life to the soul of the Jewish people. 

— Rabbi Ed Feinstein


A Mensch

Rabbi David Hartman told it like it is. He didn’t mince words. He argued with Maimonides, as if he were living and shouting back.

When he spoke of his love for Israel and the challenges it faces, his words were strong and backed up through action — by educating the Israeli community and military. He didn’t hesitate to share his ambivalences with Orthodox Jewry as we know it; he welcomed women into the Bet Midrash at the Shalom Hartman Institute over 25 years ago. I’m so grateful to have studied with him every other year for those 25.  

A Man, a Mensch, a Visionary.

— Rabbi Karen L. Fox, Wilshire Boulevard Temple


Hartman and the Orthodox Discourse

Figures of great influence and authority within contemporary Orthodoxy, (such as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on religious pluralism and Rabbi Yehuda Amital z’l on non-messianic Zionism) have shared ideas that Rabbi David Hartman had developed years earlier. His intellectual legacy is broad within Orthodoxy and his ideas are easy to find. But it is harder to find the voice of Rabbi Hartman himself. There is much to celebrate in his legacy after such a productive and rich life, but for the Orthodox community, the absence of Rabbi David Hartman from our communal discourse is a warning for the future.

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, Center for Jewish Life, Hillel at Princeton University. Excerpted from “Reflections on Rabbi David Hartman z’l.” The full text can be read on the Morethodoxy blog.


A Voice That Was Freed — and Now Is Silent

Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before making a monumental contribution to Jewish life and Jewish thought.

Best known for his pioneering work as founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute,  an innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for  teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both rabbinic and lay. In all its programs, and especially within teacher-training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition, and its many texts [speak] to students often alienated from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone, David Hartman must be revered.

Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.

For most of his career, he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the pre-eminent 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history: Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until … until he could no longer defend it.

As he approached 80, and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice, accepting some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of non-Jews and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious worldview. Unlike the Charedi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, which seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith. And unlike Conservative Judaism, he did not make history paramount and push the halachic worldview to the side. A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.

He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements, yet deeply regret his untimely passing, for there was much that he left unsaid, once he was free to speak out.

Read the full text of this reflection.

— Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering  Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics, American Jewish University


Remembering David Hartman

As I enter the courtyard of the Hartman Institute, I am always moved first by the warmth and beauty of its welcoming presence and then by the excitement and challenge of its covenantal drama.   

Rabbi Dr. David Hartman was a master of haknassat orchim — welcoming and gathering countless Jewish — and non-Jewish — guests into his pluralistic beit midrash.

He was also a master of intellectual haknassat orchim.  With passion and drama and humor, he knew how to bring learners to the table so that they would “feel intellectually empowered to participate in Judaism’s ongoing interpretive tradition.”  

On the one hand, he championed the modern virtues of creativity, interpretive freedom and self-assertion, proclaiming: “A discussion concerning Jewish tradition is open-ended.”

On the other hand, in his beit midrash, you felt claimed by the voices and concerns of significant others, who engaged your own limited perspectives and challenged you to deepen your dignity and expand your covenantal responsibility.  

— Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Rabbinic Director, Milken Community High School

Iconic Jewish educator Rabbi David Hartman mourned by all faiths


The revered Jewish teacher David Hartman, who died in Jerusalem at the age of 81 this week, is being celebrated for his success in bringing together diverse thinkers from among rarely-interacting Jewish denominations; Christian and Muslim clerics and secular philosophers. Although a frequent target of derision by co-religionists who defined his work as anything from improper to heretical, those who studied with Hartman credit him with opening minds as well as institutions during the four decades since his life-changing epiphany while serving as spiritual leader of the Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem synagogue in Montreal from 1960 to 1971.

Charles Taylor and David Hartman met when Taylor was Professor of Philosophy at McGill University and the young rabbi came to teach there [he would subsequently receive his Doctorate in Philosophy from the university]. Taylor told The Media Line that, “What impressed me the most was his ability to bring secular Jewish intellectuals with people with deep study of Talmud. He brought these conversations together and was able to break down the wall between secularists and religionists.”

Having immigrated to Israel from Canada in 1972, within four years he had founded the Shalom Hartman Institute, named for his father. Serving as the epicenter of all things Hartman, the institution opened boys’ and girls’ high schools; a center for religious research; and a seminar series that has attracted thousands of clergy from numerous denominations and many religions.

“He was able to delve deeply into medieval philosophy and demonstrate the relevance of an argument for contemporary life,” explained Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation, who first became acquainted with Hartman through his writings on Moses Maimonides, the 12th Century rabbi, physician and philosopher. He told The Media Line that, “The bridging of the classical and contemporary became characteristic of the type of academic atmosphere he created at the Shalom Hartman Institute.”

Muhammad Hourani is a Muslim who taught at the Institute for 16 years. He remembered Hartman for “his attempt to bring the moderate voice of Islam by creating a forum for Jews and Muslims to come together once a week.” Hourani told The Media Line that he is saddened that the seminar no longer meets, but cited the series as an example of Hartman’s ability to “teach people respect for each other.”

The style of learning forged by Rabbi Hartman impacted not only on those who came to Jerusalem to study with him or participate in the programs offered by the institute, but according to leading academics, he is credited with elevating the study of Jewish philosophy from the isolation of Jewish Studies departments to the mainstream departments of philosophy. “That belief,” according to Elizabeth Wolfe, immediate past chair of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and executive of the board of Shalom Hartman Institute, “has impact in Harvard, Princeton and the University of Toronto. He made Jewish philosophy universal.”

Contrary to the classic admonition against discussing religion or politics to maintain harmony, Hartman offered both. Many eulogizing him cited as legacy his ability to bring together those whose organizational and institutional affiliations are normally seen as barriers to such interaction. Longtime Hartman associate Haim Solomon partnered with the late rabbi (and their wives) to build a Jewish school in Montreal and now serves as an official of the Institute in Jerusalem. He told The Media Line that, “the mark he left is that he didn’t go for labels; he was always anxious to break down barriers between sectors of the community.” Solomon noted that the Institute’s annual conference on theology “brings together Christians, Muslims and Jews. It began more than fifteen years ago and is even attended by Muslims from abroad.” For the past five years, Christian academics, clerics, theologians and lay leaders have come to spend a year studying Jewish theology in Jerusalem as part of the Institute’s Christian Leadership Initiative, a program created in partnership with the American Jewish Committee.  

Solomon summed up the essence of David Hartman as revealed to him decades ago in Montreal. “He said, ‘University is fine for intellectual pursuits, but it can’t make Jews. You need an institute to help make Jews.’”

Remembering Ed Koch: A pugnacious New Yorker and passionate Jew till his dying day


One of the proudest moments of Ed Koch’s life came during a trip to Israel in 1990, in the midst of the first Palestinian intifada.

Koch had recently left City Hall after 12 years as mayor of New York City and was touring Jerusalem when a Palestinian threw a rock at his group, striking Koch in the head. The ex-mayor was bleeding a bit but wasn’t really hurt, and he mopped up the wound with his handkerchief.

The incident would become one of Koch’s favorite stories, the moment, he would say, when “I shed a little blood for the people of Israel.”

It was reflective of the pugnacity of the man who served three terms as mayor of New York, spent nine years in Congress, earned two battle stars as an infantryman in Europe during World War II, wrote 17 books, and spent the last two decades of his life as a lawyer, talk show host, professor and even restaurant critic — working almost to his last day.

Koch, 88, died of congestive heart failure early Friday morning at New York-Presbyterian Columbia Hospital. He had been hospitalized twice in recent weeks to drain fluid from his lungs. His death came on the same day as “Koch,” a documentary about his life, opens in theaters nationwide.

Tributes to Koch immediately poured in from all corners of the Jewish world, including the Israeli ambassador to the United States, and both sides of the political aisle.

“Mayor Koch was a passionate and principled leader and an outspoken defender of Israel and the Jewish community,” said Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He chose principle over politics and didn’t engage in partisan bitterness.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council hailed Koch as a “consummate and proud Jewish Democrat who advocated fiercely for the U.S.-Israel relationship and the progressive domestic policies in which he truly believed.”

Famous for greeting constituents with “How'm I doin?,” the Jewish mayor presided over some of the city's most difficult years, from 1978 to 1989, and helped spur the recovery that would flourish under one of his successors, Rudy Giuliani.

Edward Irving Koch was born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1924 to Jewish immigrants from Poland. The family moved to Newark, N.J., when Koch was 9, after his father’s fur shop closed during the Depression, but returned to New York in 1941 when business picked up again. After high school, Koch enrolled at City College and worked as a shoe salesman, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army in 1943.

He served in the infantry and after the war spent time in Bavaria helping replace Nazis who occupied public posts with non-Nazis, according to The New York Times. He was discharged in 1946 and went to law school at New York University.

Koch got his start in politics as a Democratic district leader in Greenwich Village, then worked his way up to City Council, and in 1968 beat incumbent Whitney North Seymour Jr., a Republican, in a race for Congress. Though he served for nine years in Washington, Koch remained a creature of New York, saying he got the “bends” whenever he stayed away from the city for too long, according to the Times.

In 1977, Koch ran for mayor, upsetting Abraham Beame, another Jewish mayor who oversaw a fiscal crisis that brought New York to the edge of bankruptcy. Upon taking office, Koch immediately set to cutting the municipal budget, trimming the city’s workforce, reaching a settlement with unions and securing federal aid that had been denied to Beame. In his second term, he turned the $400 million deficit he had inherited into a $500 million surplus.

He won a third term with 78 percent of the vote, but then things went sour. His administration was beset by a series of corruption scandals, rising drug-related violence and burgeoning racial tensions. Koch became the target of black ire for closing a hospital in Harlem — a move he later conceded had been a mistake — and for saying that Jews would be “crazy” to vote for the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential primary, given Jackson’s support for Palestinians and his 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown.”

After losing his bid for election to a fourth term in 1989 when David Dinkins bested him in the Democratic primary, Koch retired into a happy existence as a Jewish Yoda, blessing or cursing political figures as he saw fit and not always hewing to the prescripts of the Democratic Party.

In his later years, Koch seemed to swing like a pendulum between Democrats and Republicans, and his political imprimatur was eagerly sought by both sides.

He endorsed Giuliani, a Republican, in his successful mayoral bid in 1993 against Dinkins. He often shared — and sometimes took over — the stage at endorsements for other Republicans, including New York Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Al D'Amato and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Koch stumped hard for George W. Bush's presidential reelection in 2004, and was not afraid to tell baffled Jewish Democrats why: Bush had Israel's back, Koch said.

Four years later, Republicans hoped to win a repeat endorsement for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but Koch, alarmed at what he saw as Republican plans to degrade the social safety net he had championed as a congressman in the 1970s, instead threw in with Barack Obama.

Almost as soon as Obama became president, however, Koch became one of his biggest Jewish detractors, lacerating the president with criticism for his perceived coolness to Israel.

“I believe we are seeing a dramatic change in the relationship between the United States and the State of Israel that adversely affects the State of Israel and it is being orchestrated by President Barack Obama,” Koch said in early 2010, after a cool meeting between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The president, when he invited the prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu, to the White House, was extremely rude to him, treated him as though he were a Third World tyrant.”

In 2011, Koch endorsed Republican Bob Turner for a special election to fill a vacant congressional seat in New York in what was seen as a safe Democratic district, even though the Democratic contender, David Weprin, was both Jewish and stridently pro-Israel. Turner won and many credited Koch’s endorsement with tipping the scales during the campaign. When Obama subsequently retreated from criticism of Israel's settlement policies, Koch claimed credit.

“I believe the recent vote in the 9th Congressional District in New York affected in a positive way the policy of the U.S. on the Mideast,” Koch wrote supporters in an email.

Last year, Koch enthusiastically endorsed Obama in a long video released just before the election — an appearance Jewish Democrats credit with helping boost Obama's Jewish numbers in Florida, a critical swing state.

Yet in recent weeks Koch turned on Obama again, making no secret of his disappointment in Obama's choice of Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator with a fraught relationship with the pro-Israel community, for secretary of defense.

“Frankly, I thought that there would come a time when he would renege on what he conveyed on his support of Israel,” Koch said of Obama in a Jan. 7 interview with the Algemeiner, a Jewish publication. “It comes a little earlier than I thought it would.”

Rabbi Joe Potasnik, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said Koch told him his hero was Harry Truman, another Democratic Party leader unafraid of defying his base. “He admired independence,” Potasnik recalled in an interview Friday.

Koch, who never married, held twin passions he guarded ferociously: the Jewish people and New York.

After the stone-throwing incident in 1990, Koch took the stone and blood-stained handkerchief to a frame shop, but the shop lost the stone and substituted a fake — which Koch immediately spotted. He was placated only by a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who praised him as “the first eminent American to be stoned in the Old City.” Instead of the stone, Koch framed Shamir’s letter along with a photo of his wound.

Koch’s tombstone is engraved with his name, his years as mayor, the Shema prayer, and the final words of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Pakistan on Feb. 1, 2002, the same date Koch died: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”

His chosen burial place is a non-denominational churchyard at the corner of 155th Street and Amsterdam — selected because he could not imagine spending eternity outside Manhattan.

Remembering Carmen Warschaw


Carmen [Related: 

A Celebration of Dad


I called my 94-year-old father in Ohio on July 9. I told him how much I loved him, that he was the most wonderful father ever, that I would miss him, and that it was OK for him to let go.

All I could hear was his heavy breathing as the hospice nurse held the phone to his ear.

He died a few hours later.

During our last visit a few months ago, my father had said he wanted to get on with his death. He was feeling useless. He could no longer help people, which was his life’s purpose. And he was tired. I think Dad’s basic optimism and stubbornness combined to make him hang onto life a little longer. But he finally got his wish to move on.

I’m glad for him, and sad for me.

Losing a parent, even at my mature middle age, is a huge loss. My Daddy, my hero, my cheerleader, my advisor, my first love … is gone.

Even if it was anticipated, it’s a shock. How did this happen? Wait! I am not ready!

Since Dad died, I sometimes wake up crying, realizing that he’s really gone. I cry myself out, and then I remember a camping trip in the rain with Dad, and I have to smile. Then I remember I can’t call him about a new idea I have for a project, and I start to cry. Then I feel grateful, recalling how he encouraged me to be adventurous.

This transition is exhausting.

Yesterday, my friend Jeanie Cohen, a marriage and family therapist, said, “Grief is such an individual journey. One can feel fine one minute, and the next minute you’re sobbing and aching from the loss. Grieving involves acknowledging and feeling the loss, and also remembering the things you love and appreciate about your dad.”

To help me do both, I’ve been listening to my father.

When I became an oral historian 25 years ago, Dad was my first practice interview. Then, after his stroke at 83, I started recording him every time I visited. I have hours of conversations with him: about his parents and the values they taught him, about my love life, about his love life, about his pranks in high school, about his incredible experiences in India during World War II, about adopting my sister when she was a newborn, about why he divorced my mother, about the time his own mother’s car rolled into the produce section of the A & P, about his belief that people should love each other more, about how he hated being so dependent on others, and about how my sister and I are his best friends and how much he loves us.

My father was someone I could always talk with about anything. Sometimes his unsolicited advice was irritating, but his wisdom was intact right up to the last few months of his life. I wish I could talk with him now, about the other major transition in my life: My son is going 2,985 miles away, to study at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.

My father dies, and my son is leaving home. Oy.

I’m flying to Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up, on Sept. 4. I’m meeting my sister Sue there. I’ll cry a bit about saying goodbye to my son and Sue will hug me. We’ll both cry about losing our father and we’ll hug some more.

Then we’ll have three days to visit all the places we associate with Dad.

We’ll hike in the park where he taught us to catch crayfish and climb cliffs; we’ll wander by Grandma’s apartment, where we had lunch every Sunday; we’ll go to the golf course where we learned to ski and the tennis court where Dad kept shouting at us, “Bend your knees!” And, we’ll drive by Hampshire Road, where I dropped the birthday cake that Sue and I had so lovingly baked for Dad.

Undoubtedly, we will no longer find the penny candy store we enthusiastically patronized, or Mawby’s, where they made the best unhealthy hamburgers, or the Cedar Lee Movie Theatre, where we spent every Saturday afternoon, sometimes sitting through the same movie twice if we liked it.

Our simple plan is to enjoy each other’s company while recalling and celebrating Dad’s life and our times with him. We’ll probably cry and laugh a lot.

And we’ll congratulate each other for having had such a loving, fun, devoted and fabulous father.

Dad and I lived an airplane trip apart for 40 years, so besides occasional visits, our primary contact was through Ma Bell. Dad always said to me, “No matter how far away you are, we’re always in each other’s hearts and we can feel the love. Do you feel it? Can you feel me hugging you right now?” And I did.

I still do.


Ellie Kahn is a licensed psychotherapist and oral historian. For information about her family and organizational history work, visit livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

Longer life, programs, care make Jewish Home’s wait list daunting


As bombs dropped over Germany, aerial photographer Arthur Oxenberg would lean out of a B-17 Flying Fortress with his camera to snap a photograph. His photos were a way the U.S. Army Air Forces could tell whether bombs hit their targets.

Based in Italy, Oxenberg flew 62 combat missions with the 301st Bombardment Group, 419th Squadron, bombing factories and military installations in Germany, Hungary and Austria. Seventy years later, he still has the log that recorded those missions.

On Nov. 4, 1944, Oxenberg wrote, “I hope that today’s mission was the ‘rough’ one. I don’t like to think of having another one like it. It was one of those days. Everything happened. … Twice I passed out for short periods because of lack of oxygen.”

“His big fear was that he would die over some country where no one would know him,” said Jan Oxenberg, his daughter. “When he came back to the United States after his final mission, he literally bent down and kissed the ground.”

After the war, he made a name for himself starting several of his own businesses. But today, Oxenberg, who turns 90 on Sept. 2, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and requires 24-hour care.

Like many people his age, Oxenberg is seeking admittance to the only dedicated Jewish elderly assistance facility in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Jewish Home, in Reseda, is the largest multilevel senior living facility in the Western United States. But it is also the smallest Jewish senior living facility, based on Los Angeles’ per capita Jewish population, according to Jewish Home CEO and President Molly Forrest. The Jewish Home caters to the needs of more than 1,900 in-residence seniors each year, providing services that include independent living accommodations, residential care, skilled nursing care, short-term rehabilitative care, acute psychiatric care, and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia care.

Arthur Oxenberg as a photographer during World War II. Photo courtesy of Jan Oxenberg

Consequently, the Jewish Home has a wait list of up to two years. On any given day, there are about 400 people on the list, and only 100 to 200 of those are actually admitted each year, according to Forrest.

“Our promise to provide for the comprehensive needs of our residents means that current residents who require a change in the level of their care are the first in line for any newly available space at the Home—before new applicants,” she said. “While the Home does have a wait list, each person is considered on a case-by-case basis. We make accommodations when we can, but we can’t simply have one person move ahead of others on the wait list.”

Jan Oxenberg, a television writer, contacted the Jewish Home in February when she moved her father from Florida to Los Angeles, where two of his four children reside. Since then, Arthur Oxenberg has lived in private assisted living facilities and a VA-contracted nursing home.

“It is so painful to see him like this. He grabs his head and says, ‘Make me real again!’ ” Jan said. “The amazing thing is that he knows who we are. He is still very talkative, friendly and social.”

Because of his condition, Jan sought to admit her father to the Jewish Home’s Auerbach Geriatric Psychiatry Unit program. Like all other applicants, Oxenberg was faced with the daunting wait list.

“We try to be responsive, but it’s hard when we are 98 percent filled at all times,” Forrest said.

The first priority for new admissions is those in unsafe living conditions.

“Preference may also be given to those who can benefit from the Home’s unique programs and services, including survivors of traumatic life events such as the Holocaust, violent crime or elder abuse,” she said.

“In reviewing applications, we do take hardships into consideration. However, each person is an individual who is considered on his or her particular and unique basis. We do give preference to those who have served the Jewish Home and Jewish community, including employees, volunteers, rabbis and Jewish communal workers,” Forrest said. “Making a donation is never a condition of admission to the Jewish Home. In fact, the vast majority of our residents are financially needy.”

For dementia care with skilled nursing, someone can be on the wait list for six months to two years.

This lengthy wait list is partially because the average age of Jewish Home residents is more than seven years above the national average and the average length of stay is more than eight years, compared with two to three years in similar settings, according to Forrest.

“Because of the quality of our home, we like to say that we add life to years and years to life,” she said. “Our statistics are unlike any other programs. We ask people why they want to come here. Half of the applicants on the wait list say because of the quality of our medical services, and the other half say that they are lonely and want to make friends.”

Reasons like this are why the Oxenbergs and other families are drawn to the Jewish Home.

Jan Oxenberg said that it’s important for her father to be able to socialize, something she knows the Jewish Home will provide. And so, Jan, and hundreds of other families, endure the wait in hopes of securing a spot in one of the Jewish Home’s facilities.

“One of the great things about the Jewish Home is that they honor our people,” Jan said. “It is very important for him to be in a place where he can be around people and socialize.”

Remembering Marvin Hamlisch: One singular sensation… and what he did for love


It was early 1989, and TV producer Terre Blair called her mother with the exciting news.  “I’m engaged”, she announced.  “I’m getting married to Marvin Hamlisch!”  “Marvin Hamlisch?” the prospective mother-in-law replied.  “You mean the boxer from Las Vegas?”  “No, Mom.  That’s Marvin Hagler,” Terre laughed.  “Marvin Hamlisch is a composer;  he writes songs, and he tours.”  “Just what this family needs,” said Mom.  “An out-of-work songwriter.”

Actually, by the time Hamlisch was 31, he had accomplished as much and certainly won more awards than most composers do in an entire lifetime.  But the Pulitzer Prize and Tony award, as well as three Oscars and four Grammys, are part of his past.  “I don’t know whether it’s my Type A personality, or the way I was raised, or what it is,” mused Hamlisch, “but there’s something in me that tends to only look forward, and not back.”

A clear example of that occurred after his wedding to Terre, which was attended by Liza Minelli, Carly Simon, Ann-Margret, and Roberta Flack, who serenaded the couple with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” “I have a house on Long Island, and when I was single, my office there had most of my memorabilia in it.  When I got married,” recalled Hamlisch, “I decided to take down all the awards, all the photos, and just have a picture of my wife there and a nice little reproduction from the Museum of Art.  So when I’m sitting there, looking at the piano, I’m not thinking about what I should have done, what I could have done, what I had done… I’m just thinking in terms of, now what can I do?” 

The composer also believes all the acclaim can put a crimp in the creative process.  “You never start out focused on trying to win an award or have something become famous.  You just start out wanting to write something good, and I think what happens, unfortunately, is that the trappings of celebrity get in the way.”  Hamlisch also has a new-found perspective on fame and fortune.  “You know, when you’re a bachelor for 45 years, as I was, the things that make you happy tend to be entwined with the things that you do.  If you do a good movie or have a hit song, you go, ‘Ooh, I’m happy!’  Any kind of happiness on its own, like walking along the ocean, or looking at a good piece of art, is never as good as the three Oscars.”

“But when I got married,” he continued, “all that stuff went into another category, so the three Oscars are real fine, but that’s a professional happiness.  That doesn’t beat the happiness of waking up to your wife or sitting in the office with her or walking and talking with her or just thinking about her.  Separating the music world from the ‘world world’ allowed me to get back to how I was when I started all this.  And that’s what you have to do, I think, in order to do well.  You have to always go back to how it was.”

How it was, for the writer of “The Way We Were,” was a Manhattan childhood that included being the youngest student ever admitted to the Juilliard School of Music.  While still in college, he began working on Broadway shows, and composed the Lesley Gore hit “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.”  Hamlisch’s burgeoning career truly soared when he scored a series of films, including “Take The Money And Run,” “The Way We Were,” and “The Sting.”

In 1974, Hamlisch began a year-long tour as accompanist and straight man to the legendary and, at the time, elderly Groucho Marx.  “He was the grandfather I never had, a nice old Jewish man, not at all grouchy.  A real sweetheart of a guy.  But he was getting a little senile, and he used to tell the same joke over and over.  He would say, ‘I bought an anklet for this girl, and I had it inscribed.’  I would ask, ‘What did it say?’  He would answer, ‘Heaven’s above.’ “  Was this joke told onstage or off?  “Anywhere.  Always.  Constantly.”

During that tour, Hamlisch composed the score for “A Chorus Line”.  The day before the play received its first New York press reviews in 1975, he approached its director/choreographer, Michael Bennett.  “I asked him, what happens if we were wrong about the show, if it’s not as good as we think it is?  Michael looked at me and said, ‘Have you done your best?’  I said yes.  He said, ‘Do you think you’ve wasted any time?’  I said no.  He asked, ‘Is there anything up there you’re ashamed of?’  I said no.  He said, ‘That’s all you can do.’”  The Pulitzer, Tony, and a record run on the Great White Way confirmed the duo’s belief that they had a winner.

Hamlisch is busy these days with commercial projects, but he seems more enthused with a symphonic work called “The Anatomy of Peace,” inspired by a book of that name.  “I’m grappling with some big issues right now,” he says.

Fame and fortune has granted Marvin Hamlisch that opportunity, but to him, that aspect of his career is secondary.  “You’re going to think this is really hokey,” he confided, “but I really don’t care if people remember I wrote ‘The Way We Were.’  I mean, hopefully, they’ll play it at a Bar Mitzvah here or there;  that’s fine with me.  But I just hope people connect me somehow with music that had a kind of integrity, and that was melodic.  That’s all I care about.  Forget awards, forget accolades.  I started all this to write good music, and I just want to keep doing that.”


Steve North is a broadcast journalist with CBS News.

Lee Baca: Talk to people — Then arrest the right ones


For many, the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. For Lee Baca, who had been elected Los Angeles County Sheriff three years earlier, his job changed, too.

“It had to change radically,” Baca said.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was Baca’s job to tamp down tensions between Jews and Muslims locally. What he gained from that experience led him to establish an Interfaith Advisory Council of clerical leaders to foster better communication between faith communities and his department.

Baca also has focused particular attention on engaging with Los Angeles’ Muslim community. In response to the London bombings in 2005, he established the Muslim American Homeland Security Congress in an effort to uncover “homegrown violent extremism.” His department also has a Muslim Community Affairs Unit, staffed by Arabic-speaking Muslim deputies, in support of this effort.

Baca also established a Sheriff’s Department office of Homeland Security — and as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the department is increasing its presence across the Los Angeles public transit system.

“Transit systems are the highest targets,” Baca told The Jewish Journal, “even more than airports.”

But Baca’s job is hardly limited to counterterrorism. The sheriff’s department staffs the county’s jails and has 24 sheriff’s stations across the sprawling county. In July, to the surprise of many, Baca made an unsuccessful bid for his department to take charge of the county’s parolees, which would have added a new area of responsibility for the department.

But it is Baca’s counterterrorism strategy — particularly in establishing meaningful ties with local Muslim leaders and communities — that has brought Los Angeles County’s top cop both national and international renown.

Baca plans to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a speech to the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. In an interview at sheriff’s headquarters last month, he offered a preview of what he plans to say in Israel.

“You have to engage Muslim support as best as possible,” the 69-year-old sheriff said. The goal, Baca said, is “to have common-sense relations that are based on mutual interests of national security.”

Baca has spoken at the Herzliya conference once before and has been to Israel on multiple occasions. He was in Sderot during the Gaza war in January 2009, where he had to take cover in a bunker during a Qassam rocket attack. The sheriff acknowledged that Israeli law enforcement officials probably understand as well as anyone the importance of engaging local Muslims.

“I knew the prior police chief in Tel Aviv,” Baca said. “All the police chiefs in Tel Aviv have a great rapport with the [mostly Muslim] citizens of Jaffa.” Baca travels widely, and he receives at least as many international visitors as he visits. Among the items in his fourth-floor office at the department’s headquarters in Monterey Park are law enforcement officers’ hats from around the world. One came from a Beijing police chief who visited Los Angeles in 2007 to see how the city handled the Olympics in 1984.

The hats fill up about half of the sheriff’s bookshelf. The other half is filled with the books given to Baca over the years. Baca, who calls himself “a weak Catholic” and “a God-fearing man,” has collected a handful of scriptural books, including two copies of the Torah and four different translations of the Quran.

“The Quran — and this is a big part that needs to be said constantly — the Quran refers to Moses and the Bible and Judaism, and refers to Mary the mother of Jesus,” Baca said. “And to be a true, practicing Muslim, you must honor Judaism and Christianity as well as the prophet Muhammad. All three are part of the teachings of the prophet. Not many people know that.”

In just the last few years, Baca has become a vocal defender of Islam against attacks on the religion and its practitioners — and for this, he has drawn intense criticism from a cadre of anti-Islamic activists and writers.

Baca doesn’t use a computer — “a public official that is a computer junkie is determined to get toppled,” he said — so he presumably hasn’t read the posts by blogger Pamela Geller referring to him as “Hamas-Linked CAIR ‘International’ Sheriff Lee Baca.”

But Baca has heard the criticisms of his engagement with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) directly. Twice in the last two years, Baca has vociferously defended his attendance at CAIR fundraisers on Capitol Hill.

“CAIR is not a terrorist-supporting organization,” Baca said to Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) in his feisty testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security in March 2010. “That is my experience. That is my interaction. And if you want to promote that, you’re on your own.”

When Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) announced his hearings into “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response,” the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, was entitled to call one witness for every three called by King. He invited Baca to the first hearing in March, which was widely covered.

At that hearing, Baca was again asked about his connections with CAIR. “We don’t play around with criminals in my world,” the sheriff said. “If CAIR is an organization that is a criminal organization, bring them to court, charge them.”

The sheriff knows who the anti-Islamic writers are — there are two copies of Robert Spencer’s “Stealth Jihad” on the sheriff’s bookshelf alongside copies of “They Must Be Stopped” by ACT! for America founder Brigitte Gabriel and “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The books were gifts, Baca said, and he hasn’t read them.

“They perpetrate fear by what their messages are,” Baca said. “They’re on the shelf because you should know what people are doing.”

And Baca said he pretty much knows what’s in those books.

Baca paraphrased: “You cannot trust Muslims, no matter who they are. That you must stamp them out because they are determined to take over the world, and they have extreme views.

“And so,” Baca continued, “a vulnerable person will believe those things as though they’re truth — and then they’ll go over the edge, over the top, and they’ll plan a violent, extreme act.”

The sheriff was referring specifically to Anders Behring Breivik, the self-described “anti-jihadist” who admitted to killing 77 people in Norway in July. In his lengthy manifesto, Breivik quoted Geller, Spencer and others who see Islam as an irredeemably malevolent force that must be defeated.

Those writers, Baca said, are offering interpretations of Islam — while simultaneously walling themselves off from Muslims. What Baca does, instead, is to talk to people — all people.

“You have to be with people to know who they are,” Baca said. “You can’t be distancing yourself and using interpreters. And I see those books as interpretation books, as opposed to books based on relational knowledge.”

In his pursuit of that kind of knowledge, Baca has traveled to mosques around the county as well as to Muslim countries around the world.

“I know what the Muslim society is essentially challenged by — and it’s not by their religion,” Baca said. “It’s by the common political realities that all governments are challenged by: feeding their people, jobs, health, education — that’s what most of the focus is in all societies.”

Which isn’t to say that Baca has all the answers when it comes to the challenging law enforcement situation facing those societies — especially now that the events of the Arab spring have upended a number of longstanding, powerful leaders.

In October 2010, just a few months before Egyptian protesters filled Tahrir Square, Baca visited the country’s chief of police,who is now being tried for ordering attacks on anti-government protesters, but before the 2011 protests, he was, Baca said, “very instrumental in calming the violence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sinai region in the early 1990s.”

Baca said he understood the need for “accountability for police activities that are violent,” but at the same time he believes that the methods employed in fighting the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sinai might be worth emulating.

“They did not do random sweeps of suspects,” Baca said. “They took the patient approach and were building the trust of the public in order to acquire a rapport that would be valuable for the future.”

“The people got fed up with the murderous ways of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Baca said — which is when the police acted.

“The police were arresting suspects that were precisely the right suspects,” Baca said. “And that’s what you have to do. If you arrest the wrong people and charge them with crimes they didn’t commit, it’s not a good counterterrorism strategy. You have to get the right suspects.”

Afghanistan’s turning point


It was a decade ago that a number of terrorists conducted the most horrifying attack on the United States. They hit two big planes into the World Trade Center, targeted the Pentagon with a third, and, in a failed attempt, crashed a fourth in Pennsylvania, all together killing thousands of innocent people.

Although the tragedy shocked Americans in the United States in the extreme, it also proved to be a historical turning point thousands of miles away for another nation — the people of Afghanistan — in the heart of Asia.

Afghans who had long ago been taken hostage, choked like a rabbit fed to a snake, crippled, frozen and unable to react, needed a miracle.

And the miracle had happened.

The news of attacks on America spread all over our country through a few international radio stations, such as the BBC, and Voice of America, the morning after Sept. 11, 2001.

I remember how reactions to the terrifying attacks in New York were mixed among Afghans, ranging from congratulations and happiness to pity for the U.S. people and fear of retaliation.

The fear of reprisal heightened when the news came out that America would bomb Afghanistan into the stone age. People were horrified.

And when the bombing started, the people, already worn to shreds by wars and miseries, were shocked.

“Not again, not another invasion, not another war that will bring more deaths and destruction,” almost every man said to another on the streets of Kabul.

The ruling Taliban regime repeatedly called on people through their only radio station, telling them to be ready for a holy war. People were ordered to turn off all their lights at night. 

It seemed that the U.S. military knew very little about the kind of enemy they were facing on the ground, when they started with B-52 bombers and would drop bombs on some Taliban targets on the outskirt of Kabul from an altitude of thousands of miles.

Even most Afghans knew very little about the inner circle of the Taliban leadership, which rose out of religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1994,  seized the capital of Kabul two years later, and then ruled the country until they were ousted by a U.S. invasion in 2001.

No one had seen the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, or his guest Osama bin Laden. 

As the bombing continued for days, many people watched anxiously from their rooftops as the U.S. planes attacked Taliban targets on the outskirts of Kabul. They knew the Taliban were tough, too.

Anti-aircraft gunshots would light the dark skies of Kabul at night and looked like fireworks. People had no idea what would happen next; were those who were bombing their towns and villages doing so to free Afghans from Taliban? Or were they invaders who needed to be fought off again?

One nice, sunny morning, I woke up early as usual and went outside, wanting to see the columns of smoke around Kabul airport as a result of overnight U.S. bombing. On this day, though, the city looked strange; it looked unusually quiet to me.

I was ready to head off to work when I saw a friend riding on a bicycle. He was in a hurry. I stopped him and asked where he was going. He said the Taliban were gone, and he was going to Shahre-Naw Park,  in the center of Kabul, to see the last few Arabs and Pakistanis who were still resisting.

“Really? Are you sure?”  I was shocked. I told him it could be dangerous for us if the news was not true and they were still there. After he insisted, I hopped onto his bike, and we together rode to the center of Kabul.

I was amazed:  My friend was right — the Taliban were gone. Along our way, the Taliban checkpoints were abandoned; the Taliban had disappeared overnight. Only a couple of them remained, surrounded by people in the central park. After a while, one was killed by a guard, and the other blew himself up before anybody could reach him. That was the first time I’d seen a suicide bomber; later, I got to see hundreds.

On the streets of Kabul people were both happy and cautious.  For almost a week, people could not believe the news that the Taliban were gone and that they were free. Many didn’t really remember what the word “freedom” means.

It was a new beginning. Life after the Taliban was moving fast; millions of refugees returned home. People would call the international community’s involvement a “golden opportunity” for Afghanistan.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission, elections for president and parliament, a new currency, a sudden boom in the economy, cell phones and Internet. Everything seemed to be moving on the right track.

Girls started going to school; it looked like flowers slowly blooming in spring.

Every good thing must come to an end.

It was unfortunate that Afghanistan was introduced to the world through 9/11, but now, after almost 10 years, during which the country has dominated the news headlines,  whenever media mentions this country, it is either about Taliban and terrorism or burqas and beards. To the world, Afghanistan looks like an “untamable” nation.

On the other hand, Afghans don’t know a lot about America and the world beyond the news headlines and the foreign military they see on the streets every day, either. 

It’s been a decade now, and yet the two nations never tried to truly understand each other better. And this ignorance gave the Taliban a chance to come back.

Despite the presence of more than 100,000 foreign troops, Afghanistan is still besieged by terrorism in the form of suicide attacks, roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, home invasions, kidnappings and outright attacks on public establishments. This is causing a lot of jittery nerves and sleepless nights for our people.

While successful measures have been put in place against terrorists within the United States and other countries, thus preventing another 9/11, the fire is still kept burning in Afghanistan.

And why still in Afghanistan? It is a question that every Afghan asks. Al-Qaeda lost its base in Afghanistan when the Taliban regime that gave them sanctuary was ousted from power. Al-Qaeda’s leader was found and killed in Pakistan. Many other smaller terrorist attacks in the world have been linked to terrorist groups that emerge from the ruins of older ones in other countries.

What we need in Afghanistan is not constant military campaigns that result in tremendous mayhem and loss of life. We need campaigns to win the hearts and the minds of the people. The campaign that talks to the would-be suicide bomber and tries to dissuade him.

Instead of bombing the towns and villages, the real war must aim at capturing the hearts and the minds of people and the combatants’ supply and support network. When properly delivered, words can be more lethal than bullets.

No one has successfully addressed the would-be suicide bomber or the terrorist. No one has told him that though he might have good intentions, this isn’t the way to salvation. No one has even mentioned to him suicide isn’t sacrifice, it is haram (forbidden) and that the killing of innocent people takes the murderer to places he doesn’t want to be in. We haven’t pointed out to him that those who love God show their love by serving his creation, mankind, not by killing.

Mass media and advertisement can be the most powerful tools of persuasion invented by man, to reach out the people.  Money is the other one.

Unfortunately, much of the billions of dollars that gets poured into Afghanistan simply ends up in the wrong hands. It doesn’t reach the people. And that is why people who make up the Taliban army are those who never get an education, they have no job, no house,  nothing to lose.

A decade after 9/11, as many countries continue to find ways to make themselves less vulnerable to terrorism, it only makes them more vulnerable if the grievances are not addressed properly.

The Afghan writer of this essay is using a pseudonym for security reasons.

One woman’s political awakening


Sept. 11 is partly responsible for my choice of career. In 2001, I was an architecture student, even if a disillusioned one, completely uninterested in politics and affairs of the world.

9/11 changed that.

Sept. 11, 2001, was just another lazy evening for me in Lahore. I had my cup of tea and was chatting about something totally mundane with a family friend. That is when my aunt — who got a call from her daughter in New York — told us, “Turn on CNN. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”

That “crash” turned out to be much more than an accidental collision. I think I realized that along with the rest of the world — when the second plane hit the South Tower.

I did not move from in front of the TV all night.

Back then, Pakistan did not have the voracious private media that it does now. I was among the lucky ones who had satellite TV at home, and so we relied on CNN, with the occasional flip to the BBC, for information.

I refused to believe CNN when they said the towers would collapse. But they did. For some bizarre reason, I remember the shade of lipstick worn by a woman who had just run to safety. Maybe it is not that strange: In all the ugliness, that lipstick shade was the only beautiful thing.

From what I remember, the first reaction among my circle of friends and family was very similar to that of the rest of the world. I remember we were stunned by what happened. We cried when we heard the phone calls people had placed to their families when they knew they were about to die. We gasped with horror when we saw people choosing to jump to their deaths.

Why would they choose to do that? Maybe it was a less painful death. Perhaps it was that in those minutes of absolute chaos and helplessness, making that decision gave them a sense of still being in control of their life. Or maybe for some it was a way of defying the terrorists:  “You don’t decide how we go. We do.” Someone might have jumped believing, or hoping, for a miracle.

I think the whole world stood together in experiencing the initial shock and disbelief. Wanting to make sense of what had happened, how and why was also a shared experience. It was when we got to the actual “making sense” that the narratives became different. And from that moment on, it was, “Either you are with us or against us.”

I don’t remember anyone in Pakistan celebrating the attacks. There was the occasional, “It was bound to happen sometime because of the U.S. policies.” There were conspiracy theories, like, “The United States carried out the attacks itself,” or, “All the Jews who worked in the towers had taken the day off,” but that came a few days later. Then we heard that President Bush was ready to invade Iraq. That fueled the theory that 9/11 had been staged, that not only was the invasion of Iraq personal, but also it was driven by America’s wish to secure control over oil.

When Gen. Pervez Musharraf decided to take a U-turn on our years-old policy toward the Taliban, we became involved in America’s war. But 10 years later, with the highest number of civilian and military casualties and daily terrorist attacks, it has become our war. To me, anyone who doesn’t see that lives in denial.

During the time that I have been in the United States, I have been asked who’s wrong and who’s right. I wish there were a simple answer, but there isn’t. Neither country bears the entire blame. Both of us have been guilty of playing hide-and-seek.

“Do you think we are so naïve as to believe that you did not know where Osama bin Laden was?” I didn’t say that. My government did. I don’t expect you to believe that, because I don’t either. Someone had to know. I’ve also been asked, “What can we do to improve the perception of Americans?” Better P.R. Own up to the good that you do. And avoid any more episodes like that of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, I suppose.

But the Pakistani government also needs to share that burden. It needs to be upfront with its people and stop denying that the United States does not have its blessings for carrying out drone strikes. We also need to give the U.S. credit where it’s due for various civilian projects.

Any solution that is reached for the region — whether it’s a deal with the Taliban or something else — needs to take into consideration both Afghanistan and Pakistan, too, and not just America’s self-interest. Pakistan, for its part, needs to realize that if and when America leaves the region, it needs to work together with Afghanistan.

Ignoring the intricacies and reducing the complexities to a black-and-white approach is the worst mistake that either of us can make, and yet it is the most common one that both of us do make.

I was in the United States when Osama bin Laden was killed. I saw the people celebrating outside the White House and in Times Square, but I also met and spoke with people who thought that there was nothing to “celebrate.” I know that many who were celebrating were not rejoicing in his death, but in the sense of justice and closure. There were others who believed that he should have been captured and tried, not killed. Which images and opinion do you think made it into the Pakistani media?

But then again, after bin Laden was killed, people in Pakistan weren’t exactly heartbroken. Yes, they were upset about the violation of their airspace and, hence, sovereignty. But what did the U.S. media decide to focus on? One crazy group, the leader of which broke down while offering bin Laden’s funeral prayers in absentia. I have heard as many Americans as Pakistanis question whether bin Laden was really killed this summer, and as many Pakistanis as Americans wanting to see photos as proof.

Regardless of what we might have been led to believe, we aren’t that different, you and I. Because of what happened 10 years ago, your country will never be the same. Neither will mine. Your life changed. So did mine.

We have a choice now: We can take the easy way out. Believe that we are right and the other is wrong. “We” being defined by ourselves as good, and the other personifying evil. Or we can refuse to believe that and challenge it, through dialogue and trying to reach out. If you do not know any other Pakistanis, reach out to me. E-mail me and I will try to answer your questions.

One of my favorite quotes is from Michelle Obama, who said that all of us have a responsibility to strive for a world the way it should be. I think I owe it to myself, my country, you and the memory of Daniel Pearl — the man because of whom I was given this opportunity. Do you?

Aatekah A. Mir-Khan is a Daniel Pearl Fellow from Pakistan who worked with The Wall Street Journal in New York for five months. Back home she works for an English-language newspaper and can be contacted at {encode=”aatekahm@gmail.com” title=”aatekahm@gmail.com”}.

10 years after 9/11, what has changed?


Even before the 110-story cloud of smoke cleared 10 years ago, America, and American Jews, grappled with a new desire to seek out the enemy — on the one hand to thwart him, and on the other to find out who he is, why he hates us so much and what we can do about it.

That desire has shaped a dichotomous response over the last decade — one of war, pumped-up security and more limited freedoms on the one hand, and of dialogue and a desire to open oneself up to help repair the world on the other.

Both the American government and watchdog institutions, particularly Jewish ones, increased their vigilance of Muslim extremism, and at the same time Jews challenged themselves to reach out to Muslims and to build personal and political relationships.

Often, the divergent goals of vigilance and building bridges played out within the same organization.

“Engaging people with hearts wide open, but also with eyes and ears wide open, was one of the main lessons for us and a key component for moving forward from 9/11,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

After 9/11, the Wiesenthal Center continued its vigilance of

anti-Semitism both among white supremacist and Muslim radicals, but it also created a new position, director of interfaith affairs, and founded a Web site called “Ask Musa,” which teaches basic Judaism to Muslims. The center forged relationships with Pakistani diplomats, and after the al-Qaeda bombing in Bali in 2002, it hosted a multifaith conference against terrorism there, with the Indonesian president as a featured speaker. It also held a multifaith solidarity remembrance in Mumbai to commemorate the 2008 attacks there.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has a similar two-pronged approach.

After 9/11, ADL created a center on extremism that monitors Muslim radicals. At the same time, it puts out curricula and runs programs on tolerance, including a special curriculum in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. ADL has also worked closely with Muslim leadership to combat anti-Muslim bigotry and to monitor instances where local communities object to mosques being built.

Amanda Susskind, director of the Pacific Southwest Region, said this dual approach is what attracted her to the ADL, after 9/11 prompted her to leave practicing law and enter public service. She believes monitoring hatred while building bridges and tolerance is not contradictory.

“The Muslim community groups and leaders that we work with and that we support in their fight against bigotry also speak out against Muslim extremism. These are not overlapping groups,” Susskind said.

The ADL also works closely with law enforcement, offering training and serving as a resource for information on hate crime trends. Locally, the ADL created a regular meeting between national, state and local law enforcement so they can share information with each other and get information from ADL on hate crimes.

While ADL held occasional security briefings for Jewish organizations before 9/11, in the last decade the annual pre-High Holy Days security briefing has become a must-attend event among synagogue leadership.

Certainly, security is one of the most visible changes 9/11 brought to the Jewish community.

Jewish institutions had some security before 9/11 — and most reassessed after the North Valley JCC shooting in 1999 — but the new, very real threat of al-Qaeda pushed all institutions to new levels.

After 9/11, Sinai Temple in Westwood revamped its security on the 377,000-square-foot facility that serves 1,950 member families and nearly 1,000 kids in its day school, religious school and preschool.

The temple has armed guards and 90 security cameras, and only one entrance to the building, according to executive director Howard Lesner. People entering the facility during the week have to have an appointment or someone to vouch for them. On Shabbat, everyone is wanded, and all bags are examined.

Security accounts for 5 percent of the budget, and each member and student is assessed to help cover it.

Often, security concerns run counter to the Jewish impulse of creating a welcoming atmosphere. Lesner said security has been woven into the general operations — most of the guards have been in the building for years and are familiar faces, who wish guests Shabbat Shalom or Shanah Tovah.

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about 9/11 persist


Osama bin Laden is dead. A new skyscraper is rising at the site of the old World Trade Center. U.S. troops are withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ten years later, the physical legacies of 9/11 attacks are fading into history. Yet the conspiracy theories about who “really” was behind the attacks seem to be growing.

Like a drug-resistant virus, these fantasies have persisted — despite efforts to combat them — by mutating over time, taking new forms and finding new modes of transmission. Jews and Israel often are their targets, and they evoke centuries-old myths about Jewish power, allegiances and manipulation of social institutions.

The conspiracy theories began almost as soon as the towers fell. Four days after the attack, the Syrian newspaper Al-Thawra reported that 4,000 Jews failed to show up for work at the World Trade Center on 9/11 after being warned by Israeli intelligence, according to a 2007 U.S. State Department document debunking the myth. Another held that five Israeli students were secret Mossad agents who knew about the attacks and allowed them to happen. That myth eventually morphed into the conspiracy theory that the Israelis directed the attacks remotely.

Other myths have followed, spreading around the world and taking root even in the United States. Of 36,000 conspiracy videos recently found on the Internet, 16,000 implicated Jews or Israelis, according to a new report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) titled “Decade of Deceit: Anti-Semitic 9/11 Conspiracy Theories 10 Years Later.”

“What we’ve seen in the last 10 years is the proliferation of a real propaganda industry surrounding Sept. 11,” said Deborah Lauter, director of the ADL’s civil rights division. “Prominent among those theories are those making anti-Semitism front and center.”

The theories have amounted to more than just pernicious talk.

On June 10, 2009, one alleged 9/11 conspiracy theorist opened fire at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, killing a security guard. The perpetrator, James von Brunn, then 88, died before the case could come to trial.

Experts say 9/11 myths that blame the Jews are spreading freely from neo-Nazis and other white supremacists into new areas whose acolytes are not necessarily anti-Semitic but are unknowingly adopting the tropes of classical anti-Semitic conspiracy theories: anti-government radicals, young anti-war activists, New Age ideologues, and propagandists and journalists in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

“What’s changed is the proliferation of coded rhetoric to refer to Jews internationally and in the U.S,” said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a liberal think tank based in Somerville, Mass. “They’re unprepared to recognize it even when they see it.”

Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University who has studied extremists and their ideologies, said, “They aren’t people who are terribly different from the population at large,” except that “they are more likely to be attracted to conspiracy theories.”

Alan Sabrosky, a columnist for Veterans Today, an anti-Semitic Web site, is one of the most widely cited sources for anti-Semitic 9/11 myths, according to the ADL. Sabrosky has declared his mission to “contain” Israel’s ambition by exposing Israel’s alleged role in 9/11 and maintains that Washington and New York are the centers of “Zionist power.”

Citations of Sabrosky’s work pop up not just on extreme-right Web sites but also on pro-Palestinian Web sites such as Mondoweiss, Arab media sites and the Internet newsletter Dissent Voice, which describes itself as “a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice.”

“This is a strange world where the right and the left mix, with anti-Semitism shot through,” said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report. “On the left, it is shot through with anti-Zionism; on the right, the fear of the international Jew.”

A 2008 poll of 17 representative nations by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland found that only nine of the countries surveyed had majorities who believed al-Qaeda orchestrated the attacks. Most of those who believed otherwise did not implicate Israel, however. Instead, they said they did not know who was behind the attacks or blamed the United States. In Russia, Israel-related conspiracy theories were at 2 percent of those polled. In

Kenya, 3 percent believed in Israel-related myths. In Indonesia, the number was 5 percent.

In the Middle East, however, the numbers were much different. In Egypt, 43 percent of respondents blamed Israel for 9/11. In Jordan, 31 percent blamed Israel. In the West Bank and Gaza, the numbers were slightly lower. In Turkey, however, only 3 percent believed Israel was behind the attacks.

Conservative columnist Daniel Pipes, who has written two books on conspiracy theories, says such theories about Jews are a fringe element in the West, but are par for the course in the Middle East, where he said “they are spread by the mainstream media, leading intellectuals and politicians.” Pipes considers 9/11 conspiracy theories a relatively benign false belief akin to theories about the Kennedy assassination — widespread, but not leading to damaging consequences.

The impact of the many 9/11 conspiracy theories is still not entirely clear.

“We’re in a period where the boundaries between the mainstream and the fringe have become quite blurred,” Barkun said. “Once they were more distinct. Once most people were not exposed to them, or if they were, it was to have them debunked. Now they move quite readily into the mainstream.”

Barkun added, “This shift in which these ideas have entered the mainstream is so recent that I don’t think we are in a position to know what the social effects are.”

Berlet said he worries that 9/11 conspiracy theories are fueling the rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric in major public forums.

“It is horrifying. It creates a hunt for an enemy and undermines the very concept of democratic society,” he said. “You would think that decent people would stand up and say enough. It’s spreading, and our leaders lack the backbone to confront it.”

Dept. of Remembrance: Watching over the 9/11 dead with shmira


It was an ominous hum.

A dozen refrigerated trucks loaded with the body parts of victims of the 9/11 attacks filled a cavernous tent across the street from the Office of the City Medical Examiner, their low-pitched buzz an eerie soundtrack to the solemn work being carried out at the morgue about 3 miles north of Ground Zero.

While rescue workers downtown searched through the wreckage of the World Trade Center for human remains, forensic experts at the medical examiner’s office carefully analyzed and catalogued their finds, preserving every piece of flesh and bone in an effort to identify them and eventually return them to victims’ families.

Occasionally an ambulance would pull up to the cordoned-off street and the bustle would come to a halt while rescue workers unloaded a flag-draped box filled with newly discovered remains.

For more than seven months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, this somber place in downtown New York filled with firefighters, police officers, construction workers and clergymen had another fixture: Jewish volunteers who came one by one to take part in a round-the-clock prayer vigil at the morgue, where they spent four-hour shifts reciting Psalms.

The vigil was part of the Jewish ritual of shmira, escorting the dead from the time of passing until burial—a period that normally lasts no longer than 24 to 48 hours. In the case of the victims of the Trade Center attacks, a quick burial clearly was not possible, so the prolonged shmira watch was born. It ran without pause 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from Sept. 20, 2001 until April 30, 2002.

The body parts in the trucks weren’t exclusively those of Jews, but because Jewish remains were assumed to be among them, shmira was necessary.

Volunteers mostly spent their time sitting in a trailer filled with a few stray prayerbooks, lukewarm coffee and folding chairs for relief workers who cycled in and out during brief breaks from 12- and 16-hour shifts at Ground Zero. Some recited Psalms for the dead inside the tent with the refrigerated remains, taking the admonition to escort the dead to the grave as literally as possible.

The tent was filled with the smell of antiseptic and death. Each of the plain white trucks was draped with an American flag. Bouquets of plastic red, white and blue flowers would be added later to the foot of each truck, alongside photographs of some of the victims and a few votive candles. A huge American flag hung from the tent’s roof.

Outside, two expansive plywood walls had been turned into a makeshift memorial. They were covered with appreciative messages and weather-stained photographs of victims and their families sent in from all over America.

One rain-soaked night in the relief trailer where the Psalters were kept, a man wearing scrubs struggled to choke back tears.

“Look at what they’ve done to our people,” he said, his voice shaking. “I know you’re men of faith, but I want vengeance.”

Even in the pouring rain at 4 in the morning, the site where the dead where kept bustled with activity. Police officers and state troopers stood guard while police, firefighters, FBI agents and other officials made their way in and out of the cordoned-off area. Volunteers coming for the shmira watch would pick up clergy tags from the previous volunteer before entering.

Armin Osgood, a soft-spoken, portly, bearded man from an Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ohab Zedek, coordinated the shmira watch, and many of the volunteers came from his congregation.

But on Shabbat, when the volunteers—who came from as far as New Jersey and Pennsylvania—couldn’t take trains or taxis to reach the site, students from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, which was within walking distance of the morgue at 30th Street and First Avenue, managed the vigil. Their effort was written up in The New York Times.

The Rev. Betsee Parker, an Episcopalian chaplain who was a constant presence at the morgue site, later wrote about the shmira watch in a chapter in the book “Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination.” The chapter was titled “‘Send Thou Me’: God’s Weeping and the Sanctification of Ground Zero.”

A year to the day after the Hebrew anniversary of the attacks—on the victims’ first yahrzeit—many of the people who had participated in the shmira gathered again at the morgue. This time they came together for the first night of recitation of Selichot, the annual Jewish ritual of reciting special late-night penitential prayers in the days leading up to the High Holidays. The night had happened to fall on 9/11’s first Hebrew anniversary.

“It was one of the most meaningful Selichot services I’ve ever attended,” Osgood said after the service. “I was never so moved by just being there. I had been in that tented area before, where the trucks were parked. Even with the refrigeration and whatever attempts they’ve made to preserve the bodies, there’s an aroma there. I felt the presence of the neshamas there”—the departed souls. “I felt everything.”

After the service, the participants lingered to recite the entire Book of Psalms, divvying up the chapters so the entire book could be read in just a few minutes.

Parker, who is known as Rev. Betsee, had come for the Orthodox service, and she too read some of the Tehillim, or Psalms.

“If God could accept the recitations in poor Hebrew of a goy, we managed to get through the whole book of Tehillim with one rusty goy,” she said. “It was a very elegant mitzvah for God. I knew that Adonai was delighted with what we had done there. I could feel that in my soul.”

Another shmira veteran who had come for the Selichot service, Ely Razin, spoke in a hushed tone after the service was over.

“It’s funny,” Razin said. “People forget about what happened, and then you come down here and it’s like a different world. It’s like it just happened yesterday.”

Eradicating torture should be the legacy of Sept. 12


What is the legacy of 9/11? As we approach the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we have a chance as a nation to reflect on more than just our own stories of what happened that day.

One theme that has emerged is “Remember Sept. 12” because it was the day after the terrorist attacks that our nation came together as one—people reaching across divides of class, religion and race to mourn the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives and remember the heroic first responders who raced to the scene of chaos and destruction. Unity and lovingkindess are part of the narrative we tell this year and the legacy for which we hope.

But it was also immediately after the 2001 attacks that a darker story emerged. Under the guise of safety from future terrorist threats, America abandoned its longstanding repudiation of using torture as a method of interrogation. Torture was used at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and was authorized at the highest levels of government.

The gloves may have come off, but in reality we lost our way.

Ten years later this is a story we are still unraveling. The U.S. government’s use of torture is yet to be fully investigated, and with every passing day such an investigation seems less likely. On June 30, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced an end to a two-year preliminary investigation by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham into the CIA’s use of torture on detainees. Holder concluded that further investigation was not warranted and that the deaths of only two detainees would be investigated further.

Having the administration’s only probe into the use of torture stopped with such a minimalist outcome demonstrates the need for an independent investigation—one free from political bias and the limits of a criminal investigation—to provide a complete accounting of our nation’s use of torture.

At no point in our nation’s history has the use of torture presented a greater danger of becoming widely accepted than now. In 2009, two days after President Obama was sworn in, he issued an executive order halting torture and calling for the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. But more than two years later, Guantanamo Bay remains open and the U.S. government refuses to confront its history and fully investigate its use of torture. Meanwhile, proponents of torture still advocate for it, claiming the necessity of its use for American survival.

But survival at what cost? The Jewish tradition teaches that every person is created in the image of God, endowing each of us with sacredness and dignity. That sacredness is marred by the use of torture, which by its very nature denies the image of God found in the victim. We do not have the right to engage in abominations in order to ensure our safety. Survival at any cost is not the goal. We have an obligation to hold ourselves to a higher moral and ethical standard, which is that torture is always wrong.

Being created in God’s image is not a trivial sentiment. If one takes God seriously, as Americans of faith do, then one has to take the image of God seriously to recognize every person, even one’s enemy, as sacred. If we desecrate the image of God in order to survive, then we have survived only as monsters.

I was in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 and saw the second plane hit the Twin Towers. I have long considered my work directing Rabbis for Human Rights-North America’s campaign to end American use of torture permanently to be part of my personal ongoing narrative of that day, part of my commitment to a legacy of lovingkindness. We are part of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a group of more than 300 religious organizations committed to the moral imperative that torture is always wrong and runs counter to the teachings that all religions hold dear. We believe that torture degrades everyone involved—policymakers, perpetrators and victims—and fails to honor the God-given dignity of all people.

Even as the urgency of the photos of Abu Ghraib fades from public memory, we continue to call for a thorough investigation of America’s use of torture and the legislative will to permanently eliminate the possibility of its future use. This year, the legacy of Sept. 12 is to make that commitment a permanent reality.

(Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, of Teaneck, N.J., is director of North American programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She is a member of the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.)

Solving a grim Jewish quandary after the attacks: Avoiding agunah problems for 9/11 widows


When unthinkable disaster struck a decade ago and close to 3,000 people were murdered at the World Trade Center, the scale of destruction created a unique challenge for victims’ families: identification of the dead.

With only fragmented human remains and degraded DNA left in the wake of 9/11, that task became, in the words of the National Institute of Justice, “the greatest forensic challenge ever undertaken in this country.”

For the families of Jewish victims, this problem was particularly thorny. According to Jewish law, a woman cannot remarry unless she has definitive proof of her husband’s death, lest she inadvertently enter into an adulterous relationship. Jewish law dictates that death can be proven in three ways: physical evidence, eyewitness testimony of the death and certain confirmation that the person had been in a situation in which survival was essentially impossible.

Absent such proof, this would leave Jewish wives of those killed at the World Trade Center in the position of classic agunot – “chained” women, left in a legal marriage with one who most likely was dead.

For decades, such cases had been few and far between.  In centuries past, however, this Jewish law was a reference point for the wives of sailors who had disappeared, soldiers who had failed to return home from battle and traveling merchants who had vanished along the way.

The consequences of being unable to identify the dead do not represent a uniquely Jewish problem.  Declaring individuals dead simply because they are likely to be dead can cause terrible complications.  For example, during World War II, President Jimmy Carter’s uncle, Tom Gordy, was declared dead by U.S. officials after being taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and his wife remarried during the war. But when the war ended, Gordy returned home as a liberated POW to discover, tragically, that his wife was married to another. Under Jewish law, Gordy would most likely not have been declared dead, and his wife would not have remarried.  The disappearance of a person and the passage of time alone are not generally deemed enough, under Jewish law, to declare the person dead.

However, the circumstances of someone’s disappearance, in some situations, can support a presumption of death. Two illustrations commonly discussed in Jewish literature are the man who falls into a deep furnace and the man who drowns in a body of water that has visible boundaries, such as a lake or a pond. Of the first scenario, Jewish sages wrote that a man who is seen falling into a deep furnace may be presumed dead because he had no means of escape and is sure to have perished. Of the second, they wrote that a man who is seen drowning in a body of water with visible boundaries may be presumed to be dead because he surely would have been seen or found on shore had he survived.

It was this line of reasoning that allowed the Beth Din of America, a rabbinical court involved in many aspects of commercial and family law in the United States, to pronounce many 9/11 victims dead in the absence of conclusive physical evidence.

When the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York concluded its investigation, more than 1,100 victims of 9/11 remained unidentified. Even with respect to the nearly 1,600 victims who were identified, the identifications could not automatically be presumed to meet the standards set by Jewish law.

In its quest to confirm the fate of the victims, the Beth Din had to determine whether and which modern methods of identification would comply with Jewish evidentiary standards. What would satisfy the physical evidence requirement—DNA evidence? What about dental records?  What about the recognition of clothes or limbs?  The Beth Din also posed an additional question: In the event a determination required reliance upon eyewitness testimony, what person could provide such testimony?

In searching for answers, we studied the literature of prior tragedies, finding Jewish legal discussions of husbands who disappeared in the sinking of the Titanic, in the collapse of bridges in Rome, in avalanches in the Alps, in artillery bombardments in World War I, and in the sinking of the Israeli submarine Dakar. We also looked at the cases of Israeli soldiers who had disappeared during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and, of course, at agunah cases related to the Holocaust.

After 9/11, in some cases, the only evidence for placing someone in the World Trade Center at the time of the attack was circumstantial—phone calls made or emails sent from within an office, swipe cards indicating entry but no exit, and so on.  In certain cases, investigators identified remains through the modern technology of DNA analysis.

After a rigorous analysis of Jewish legal precedents, the Beth Din determined that DNA evidence could be marshaled for identification purposes, certainly when coupled with other circumstantial evidence of an individual’s death. In the few cases where investigators had found no direct physical evidence, the Beth Din relied on the third standard of proof: placing a husband, with certainty, in a situation in which no one could realistically be expected to survive.

More than 90 percent of the casualties of 9/11 were located at or above the point where the planes hit the towers, particularly in the North Tower. With no escape and facing almost certain death, those people were akin to the man who falls into a furnace.  Often, phone calls or emails were enough to place the missing person in his office at a certain time, after which escape would have been impossible. Together with other evidence, the Beth Din could rely on time stamps and statistics in order to pronounce the missing person dead.

For such a pronouncement to be made, it was not automatically sufficient to know that a person worked at the World Trade Center or attended a meeting there if no additional evidence proved he was there on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Why withhold judgment under circumstances in which an individual’s disappearance so clearly indicates death?  One unfortunate reason is because some people use tragedy as an opportunity for fraud and manipulation, or perhaps as a way to make a fresh start. The chaos of 9/11 opened the floodgates to a number of fraudulent insurance claims and other crimes.  Another sad reality is that sometimes, in the throes of despair, mistakes are made.  In the decades after the Holocaust, people long thought to be dead were discovered to be alive and well and raising new families in other parts of the world, in cases similar to the story of President Carter’s uncle.

With time, the Beth Din of America found sufficient evidence to make a declaration of death in each of the cases before it. In making those determinations, the Beth Din released each agunah according to the principles of Jewish law and enabled the victims’ loved ones to mourn for those lost and to begin to rebuild their shattered lives.  Ultimately, the halachic process provided a time-honored framework for honoring the dignity of those who had died, while creating a sense of direction for the spouses who had loved them.

(Michael J. Broyde is a professor of law at Emory University. Yona Reiss is the dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. Both are members of the Beth Din of America. This piece was adapted from their contributions to “Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th,” released in August by the Beth Din of America Press and K’hal Publishing.)

For Daniel Agami, 9/11 attack was a call to service—and to tragic destiny


Daniel Agami was working as a disc jockey in South Florida when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed the trajectory of his life.

Suddenly it didn’t feel like performing at events and parties for well-known entertainers was all Agami, then 22, could be doing with his talents. For nearly a year, Agami wrestled with his emotions over the attacks, often talking to his parents and siblings about his anger.

After about a year he enlisted in the U.S. Army, knowing full well he’d be sent to Iraq. It would not be Agami’s first time in the Middle East: As the son of an Israeli army veteran and part of a strongly identified Jewish family, Agami grew up going to Israel every year. But this would be his first time putting on a uniform.

The fateful decision to enlist eventually would earn Agami a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and an Army commendation medal. It also would also exact the ultimate price: On June 21, 2007, an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Baghdad, killing Agami and four other soldiers.

Service ran in Agami’s blood. His grandfather, Leonard Becker, had served in the Korean War. His father, Itzhak, had fought in the Israeli army. So when he told his family that he had signed up to serve, they weren’t surprised.

“I believe had a calling,” said his mother, Beth Agami.

Even as a teenager, Agami’s brother said, Daniel would sport dog tags and wear military-style gear.

“He chose to join the Army to become more accomplished,” Ilan Agami told JTA. “He wanted to prove himself.”

Agami wasn’t known for taking things lightly. Growing up in Broward County, Fla., Judaism played “an extreme role in Daniel’s life,” his mother said. Agami attended a Jewish day school, kept kosher and as an adult regularly went to Shabbat services with his family at the local Chabad.

After 9/11, Agami said the Army would give him a chance to do something good for his country, and he was excited about the challenges ahead, his family members said. It was all he would talk about in the months leading up to his deployment.

Agami’s first stop was Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training. Maintaining his religious identity in the Army wasn’t easy, particularly in boot camp. The meals were not kosher, and Agami was confronted once by his sergeant for not eating. When he explained his dietary restrictions, the commander went to prepare a plate of fruit and vegetables for him to eat, his mother recalled.

Agami encountered his first derogatory remark about Judaism in Schweinfurt, Germany, where he stopped en route to Iraq. Agami didn’t take it sitting down, in the process earning the respect of fellow soldiers, his mother said. They often came to him with questions about his kosher diet; for many, Agami was the only Jew they knew.

“Daniel stood up to people for our religion,” his brother told JTA.

In Iraq, Agami’s infantry unit saw frequent combat.

“I go on daily or nightly missions raiding Iraqi homes to find weapons and bombs,” Agami told a Newsweek interviewer in 2007. “I lost six of my closest friends.”

When an insurgent threatened to blow up his tank, Agami jumped off the turret, cornered the insurgent and, armed with just a pistol and wearing night vision goggles, killed him. The action would earn Agami a Bronze Star, the army’s fourth-highest combat award, given for bravery, acts of merit or meritorious service.

Some time after Agami was killed, his mother received a phone call from a non-Jewish chaplain who said that her son had expressed an interest in becoming a religious leader in the military. He had wanted to dedicate himself to America by combining his patriotism and faith, she said.

“This was something he would be amazing at had he had the opportunity,” Beth Agami said. “He re-enlisted for four more years and planned on making the military his career.”

Mourning Amy Winehouse: A biblical vixen goes back to black


Late last year, I spent the better part of a month working on a lengthy profile on Amy Winehouse, the British Jewish retro soul singer who tragically died over the weekend at 27. It was in the doldrums of this process, which included reading a book about Jewish immigrants who perform in blackface in the early 20th century and researching the bizarre music producer Phil Spector, one of her primary musical influences—that I was forced to ask myself: Why do I like Amy Winehouse so much?

I had become an instant fan of the singer almost from my first listen to “Back to Black” in 2007, Winehouse’s second and now final album. At first, like many others, I was very taken by the ballsy track “Rehab,” where she famously rejected the help she so clearly needed. Yet at the time of the track’s release, she hadn’t yet spiraled out of control. Her refusal seemed as much a denial of her alcohol and substance abuse problems as an aversion to the type of image rehab that many actors, singers and politicians are forced to undergo in order to make them more palatable to the general public.

Winehouse seemed immune to this kind of image meddling. As a Jewish woman raised in a strictly Orthodox community, I identified with her refusal to be controlled if not her choice of transgressive behavior. (My habit of wearing pants can hardly be considered self-destructive.)

It was this unrepentant behavior that signaled Winehouse’s place in a very different line of Jewish women—not the “nice” ones who make you chicken soup when you’re sick or assure their sons that they’re the smartest boys in the world and any woman would be lucky to marry them. Winehouse’s ancestors are the biblical vixens: Dina, who slept with Shechem; Deborah, the biblical heroine; or, more recently, Monica Lewinsky, the “portly pepperpot” (as The New York Post dubbed her) who nearly ended Bill Clinton’s presidency. These women possessed sexuality so powerful and intoxicating that it influenced national and political outcomes.

Her devil-may-care attitude extended to her live performances. Even at her best, Winehouse shimmied awkwardly and endearingly as she sang onstage. Her doo wop-styled back-up singers were far more at ease, nimbly dancing behind her. Winehouse herself was never quite ready for primetime, and yet she was embraced by the music industry and mainstream, recognized for her adenoidal voice and towering songwriting talent (and beehive) with the Mercury Prize and several Grammy Awards.

Yet Winehouse wasn’t always a “bad girl.” She once was a freshly scrubbed Jewish teen from northeast London. Back when she recorded her first album, “Frank,” at 19, she was curvier and wore her long dark hair in loose waves. There was nary a tattoo in sight. True, she had been kicked out of a prestigious stage school (the same one that Adele attended) for getting her nose pierced, but that’s hardly scaling the mountain of teenage rebellion.

This younger Winehouse had been nurtured both artistically and religiously by her family. Her parents and paternal grandmother, Cynthia, who once dated the legendary musician Ronnie Scott, raised her on a steady diet of jazz greats and soul singers from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald to Dinah Washington. It was also Cynthia who hosted weekly Friday night dinners. Her death in 2006 is said to have precipitated her granddaughter’s downward spiral.

It was at this time that Winehouse entered the studio to record “Back to Black.” She changed musical course on this album, veering away from the adult contemporary jazz sounds that had dominated “Frank” into darker lyrical terrain set, almost paradoxically, to the sunny sound of the ’60s American girl groups that had been helmed by Spector.

Under the poppy cloak of the Ronettes’ sound from 40 years ago, Winehouse brought a thoroughly modern—and Jewish—sensibility to her lyrics and performances. She spoke not of love and romance, as her predecessors did, but of addictions, sex and every Jewish girl’s favorite emotion, guilt. Her songs and tone dripped with regret, but also the inevitability of her bad behavior. Any astute listener knew that she probably wasn’t going to change.

Yet her fans held out hope, as did her family and probably even the troubled artist herself. Ultimately, however, like an Old Testament prophet, she foretold her own fate. On the titular track of her master work, she sang, “I tread a troubled track/My odds are stacked/I go back to black.”

(This article was adapted from a piece that first appeared in the online magazine Tablet.)

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor [SLIDESHOW]


“>Find more photos like this on EveryJew.com

Photos courtesy of Temple Israel of Hollywood and Lynn Pelkey.

A Blessing for the Father


A few months ago I flew from Long Beach to Brooklyn. It was a long, sad and lonely trip. A few days earlier, my mother had turned 82 years old and was looking forward to a special birthday, when tragedy struck. A fire broke out in her home. Quickly, her life was taken by fire and smoke. No goodbyes or time to prepare for closure, just a cruel death.

My father survived the fire but lives daily with his memories. He now spends his time living a day or a week with different children and grandchildren. He recently came to California to join our family for the holidays. Even though the children and grandchildren were here something big was missing. Yes, our dear mother, the grandmother, was missed.

One way Jewish people deal with the grieving process is to name children after their dead parents, grandparents and teachers. Somehow, having a child carrying the name of a departed loved one brings a closure and tranquility.

In large families the happiest times are the holidays. That’s the time for family reunions, when adults visit with their children and grandchildren, and the mood is festive and merry. It’s a time for cousins to meet for the first time. Children find out that they are special and connected to a big family. It’s like a large tree with so many branches and leaves, each growing in their own direction, forgetting that they all come from the same root.

My American grandfather Shea had six sons. When he died, each son gave their newborn baby boys the name of their father, Shea. So at their gatherings there were five or six children called Shea Hecht. When their holy Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok died, they named their next newborn son Yosef Yitzchok. Now there were six Yosef Yitzchok Hechts. You can imagine how the third generation of boys felt when asked who they were. They had to explain that they were the sons of the sons, causing lots of confusion.

During the holiday this year, my father was sad, but he would not speak of the tragic loss. Then suddenly the phone rang: a grandchild had given birth to a baby girl. Now mom had a name.

On the following Sunday, my son called and said, “Mazel tov — congratulations, my wife gave birth to a baby boy.”

My father jumped and said, “Today is mother’s 82nd birthday, what a gift.”

Now, once again I am on the same flight to Brooklyn, but this time to celebrate the circumcision of my grandson, who was to be named Mordechai after his grandfather. My son Boruch is named after my grandfather Boruch and now his son is named after his grandfather.

It may be that our parents and grandparents don’t die; they just pass on, adopting new bodies, continuing the blessings of having wonderful families that continue their family heritage and lifestyle. Sometimes it certainly seems to be so.

I asked my father if he was happy with his life.

He answered, “A father doesn’t ask himself if he is happy. Instead, he asks himself if he is doing the right thing. When the answer is yes, then he is happy.”

Unfortunately, for so many fathers the opposite is true. If they are happy, they reason that whatever they are doing must be the right thing, regardless of the cost to the family.

My job as a father has been made simple by being blessed with a father who expects you to live like him.

There is a “Father’s Prayer” created by the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslow (1772-1810):

“Dear God, teach me to embody those ideals I would want my children to learn from me. Let me communicate with my children wisely — in ways that will draw their hearts to kindness, to decency and to true wisdom. Dear God, let me pass on to my children only the good; let them find in me the values and the behavior I hope to see in them.”

A happy Father’s Day to you all.


Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice-president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and past-president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita.

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