Hebrew word of the week: Kavod


The term meaning honor and respect is very important in any society, but even more so in Middle Eastern societies. The English word “respect” means “look back (again), regard”; honor means “regard with great respect, dignity.” The Hebrew kavod is related to kaved, meaning “heavy.”* Indeed, until not long ago, the heavier a person was, the more respectable he or she was, for rich people could afford to eat whatever they wished, whereas poor people were undernourished, eating very little and looking light, unimportant. A related word is kibbud, meaning “honoring (parents, teachers)”; as well as “(serving the guests) refreshment” (thus showing them respect).

*Also related to kaved “liver,” the bodily organ assumed to be the source of dignity, just as the heart is the source of emotions and intellect.

Commanding respect vs. demanding respect


“For not as a human sees [does the Lord see]; humans see only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.” — I Samuel 16:7

It is not hard to mistake the outside for the inside. We do it all the time. Shine and sparkle often distract us from inner shallowness.

This distinction is particularly important in the arena of leadership, where a sleek head of hair sometimes covers for the fact that there’s not much underneath. The Hebrew Bible communicates this very message in the book of Samuel. The people agitated for a king, but Samuel warned them that the king would tax them and make their lives difficult. No matter. They insisted. God gave them a weak but good-looking king: Saul. He had the advantage of height, creating the image of a towering personality. In actual fact, Saul was not a person of great courage. He was riddled with insecurities and melancholy.

Saul’s successor came in the guise of an unlikely fellow. He was the “runt” of his family’s litter. When Samuel traveled to David’s father’s house, God said to him: “Pay not attention to his appearance or stature.” God knew that even a prophet could fall for external appearances. That is when God interjected the quote above. At the end of the day, human beings can only see that which is visible. That which is concealed, however, can be far more potent.

When David went out to his brothers at war to deliver food, he heard Goliath, a man of superhuman proportions, would challenge the Israelite army. Only little David had the courage of conviction to fight him. Saul dressed David in his war gear, but it was far too big, so David marched into an encounter with an enemy many times his size in civilian clothing, armed only with a few rocks.

David commanded respect because he was an unlikely candidate for leadership who earned the high regard of others. No one expected greatness. He delivered beyond any expectations. Saul, on the other hand, betrayed God’s expectations even though he looked the part. When Saul rose to a position of power, he lorded it over others only to lose any shred of respect that he otherwise might have merited

The restaurateur Danny Meyer wrote “Setting the Table,” a book about hospitality, service and leadership. Kitchens can be brutal places to work, and I’m only talking about mine. Restaurant kitchens are often embattled places, torn by hierarchies and egos. Meyer challenges that culture: “When certain people gain more authority and power, they tend to demand respect from those who work for them. But what got them their promotion in the first place was their natural ability to command respect. Demanding respect creates tension that can make it very tough to lead, and very uncomfortable to follow.”

Meyer claims that the higher you climb the ladder of power, the less technical skills matter and the more emotional skills are a key to success. In the words of a great book title, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Respect is a currency in human interactions that you earn. You can demand it, but the more you demand it, the further it runs from you. Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) asks: “Who deserves honor?” and answers, “The one who honors others.”

In this time of political vitriol, commanding respect rather than demanding it is particularly challenging. Honor is not skin deep; it surfaces from the goodness of untrumpeted deeds.

Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish nonprofits. She is the author of “In the Narrow Places” (OU Press/Maggid); “Inspired Jewish Leadership” (Jewish Lights), a National Jewish Book Award finalist; “Spiritual Boredom” (Jewish Lights); and “Confronting Scandal” (Jewish Lights).

Madoff’s Redemption


If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Report: Respect for Religious Freedom Downl in Israel; Grandfather, Mother Charged in Girl’s Murd


Report: Respect for Religious Freedom Fell in Israel

Respect for religious freedom in Israel has declined, according to a new U.S. State Department report.

An increase in “societal abuses and discrimination” against “some evangelical Christian groups as well as Messianic Jews” has contributed to a “slight decline in respect for religious freedom” in Israel, according to the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

The report also stated that “relations among religious and ethnic groups” were “often strained during the reporting period, which was “due primarily to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Government’s unequal treatment of non-Orthodox Jews, including the Government’s recognition of only Orthodox Jewish religious authorities in personal and some civil status matters concerning Jews.”

The report covered the period from July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2008.

The report also states that Iran has seen “a rise in officially sanctioned anti-Semitic propaganda involving official statements, media outlets, publications, and books.” In addition, “the Government’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, along with a perception among radical Muslims that all Jewish citizens of the country support Zionism and the state of Israel, continued to create a hostile atmosphere for Jews. The rhetorical attacks also further blurred the line between Zionism, Judaism, and Israel, and contributed to increased concerns about the future security of the Jewish community.”

Venezuela also was named as a state sponsor of anti-Semitism in the document “because of statements by the president, other government officials, and government-affiliated media outlets.” It added that “the local Jewish community expressed strong concerns that such statements and publications fostered a climate permissive of anti-Semitic actions, creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust of the community.”

Grandfather, Mother Charged in Girl’s Murder

The grandfather and mother of a 4-year-old girl whose remains were found in a Tel Aviv river were charged with murder.

Ronny Ron and Marie Pizem were charged Monday with killing Rose Pizem and dumping her body in a red suitcase into the Yarkon River.

Rose was buried Monday in the town of Montesson, west of Paris.

An autopsy performed last week at The Institute of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv could not determine the cause of death.

Ron confessed to police during his arrest more than a month ago that he accidentally killed Rose by hitting her when she bothered him while he was driving. He told police to search the Yarkon River for a red suitcase carrying her remains.

Ron later recanted his confession.

Jewish community leaders, and a representative from Israel’s police force attended Rose’s funeral, which was conducted in “religious Christian” tradition, according to the CRIF Jewish umbrella organization vice president, Meier Habib, who participated, reported the French Press Agency.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Have We Lost Respect for Each Other?


From my own experience and from the reports in The Jewish Journal, it is evident that it has become more and more difficult to plan for a dialogue between fellow Jews on the subject of Israel — much easier to organize a discussion between Christian and Jewish leadership or even between Islamic and Jewish representatives.

On the matter of Israel, the Jewish dialogue is transformed into acrimonious diatribe, denigrating motivations ascribed to the “other.” Even when opened to the floor for questions and answers, the questions must be written down and sorted by the moderator, because they are filled with shouted, acrid accusations.

The “other” turns into an adversary, worse, an enemy — the rhetoric is raised to shouting decibels and elicits hissing and shouting.

Should we cancel the dialogue in order to avoid ugly confrontation? Still, to mute the dialogue is to admit that Jews can no longer talk with each other civilly.

When dialogue ends, the alternative is either angry silence or open hostility. If we cancel Israel forums, the character of community breaks into smaller and smaller ideological cults.

Have we then lost our Jewish sensibilities? Have we abandoned our civility? Have we lost our sense of respect for each other?

“Respect” is derived from the Latin rescire, which means to look back, to look a second time. Respect is indispensable for a mature and wise people. In Hebrew the word for respect is kavod, which connotes the seriousness and weight of gravity.

The breakdown of genuine dialogue among us is deeply worrisome. Our rabbinic sages have taught us that the Temple in Jerusalem was not destroyed because of the superiority of external foes but from the internal, causeless hatred among us. They judged that the sin of causeless hatred is more serious than major transgressions of murder, idolatry and harlotry (Talmud Yevamoth 62b).

The acrimonious debate and ad hominum vilification affects our youth. They learn from us. They are victims of our de facto intellectual apartheid.

Our youth groups — United Synagogue Youth, National Council of Synagogue Youth, North American Federation of Temple Youth — do not play, pray or debate together. Have they learned this insulation from the parent generation?

We are together in the Diaspora and not on the front lines of the wars of the intifada terrorists, but our bombast against each other can be as threatening as suicide bombers. With our anger we inflict painful wounds upon our people — we bring causeless shame upon us.

The Midrash says: “The Divine Presence does not dwell among a people with a divided heart” (Numbers Rabbah 15:14). The verse does not speak of divided minds. We need not agree on strategy or military policy, but the heart must be whole and must not be divided.

This calls upon each and every one of us to exhibit in our gatherings the civility and sensitivity of our heritage. We need not imitate the paid partisans of television sensationalists who entertain us at crossfire and relish insult and assassination of the “other's” character.

We are Jews who love Zion, our people and our oneness. That is the consequential meaning of the great “Echad,” the oneness of God about which we pray at morning, noon and night.

In the pew and on the dais, in our preachment and dialogues, we must manifest respect for each other, which is respect for ourselves. This respect is not to inhibit question, is not to stifle the blessedness of our inquiry, but it is an appeal to inhibit our anger and our deprecation of the person who is as dedicated and as concerned as we are.  

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.

Restoration’s Silver Lining


Silversmith David Friedman has the unique ability to trace the origin of almost every antique that comes across his desk. “People ask me all the time, ‘How did you know that? How did you know that goblet was actually made in India?'” Friedman said. “We just know from experience. We see a lot of pieces and a lot of metal.”

The founder of Friedman & Co., an antique repair and restoration service, Friedman has been working with metal since he was 17. Trained in the apprentice style in southeastern Wisconsin, he began making his living repairing musical instruments. But when his clients urged him to expand his business further, Friedman discovered the world of antiques.

“I found this work much more interesting and stimulating,” said Friedman, who runs a store in Beverly Hills and a plating facility in North Hollywood. “Musical instrument work, although it’s very rewarding, can be somewhat repetitive, because once you’ve overhauled a clarinet and you’ve overhauled 1,000 clarinets, a clarinet is still a clarinet.”

Friedman prefers antiques because each one tells a story. He often sees pieces that have been passed down through generations or have sentimental or historical significance.

“I remember repairing a tray once that was buried before or during World War II,” Friedman said. “Jews often buried their possessions so that they would not be confiscated. When the owners dug up the tray after the war there was a pick ax hole through the middle of the tray, which they brought to me all these years later to repair.”

While Friedman often hears such stories because much of his clientele is Jewish, he insists that those who use his services are as diverse as the art itself.

“Silversmithing is an ancient art and there were Jews that were silversmiths. It’s part of Jewish life and Jewish history, but silversmithing covers the entire spectrum of humanity and it’s associated with all religions … our door is open and welcome to anybody to come here. Whoever comes to our counter we treat them with respect and try and help them.”

Jew in a Gentile World


I found a job! After spending three years in Jerusalem, I am now gainfully employed in Orange County. I’m also in deep culture shock.

Before moving to Israel I had lived in Los Angeles, where Jews abounded at each of my jobs. I rarely interacted with non-Jews in Israel, much less worked with them.

Now I’m working for a stock brokerage firm in Irvine and find myself the only Jew in my department, maybe even the company.

I’ve lived most of my life in a gentile world, so why is this such a shock to my system? Maybe it’s because I underwent a major transformation in Israel. Or perhaps it’s the crucifixes that adorn my co-workers’ desks.

After three glorious years in the land of our forefathers, I feel a little out of kilter each time I confront one of these symbols of Christianity.

While getting to know my co-workers, it’s almost impossible not to reveal I’m Jewish. Among the questions they ask: What did I do before landing in their midst?

"I spent the last three years living in Israel," I tell them. My nonchalance dissolves in the midst of their awe and wonder. And then the questions begin to bounce off each other.

What did I do there? How was the security situation? Was I ever in a terrorist attack, or did I see or hear one? What is the lifestyle like? How does it compare to America?

It’s hard to avoid discussing the political situation when answering these questions. This is a very personal, potentially touchy subject. I never know when I’m going to run into someone who believes Israel should be handed over on a silver platter.

Lucky for me, my co-workers all seem to be very open-minded and receptive to my views. I simply tell it like I see it and let them draw their own conclusions.

But the questions become more challenging when the subject turns to religion. Do you follow the Old or New Testament? Do you believe Jesus Christ is the savior? What are your beliefs regarding the Messiah? And that most important question of all: What in the world is a matzah ball?

I can discuss the Torah and Judaism, but I know next to nothing about Christianity. I’m very upfront about this. I readily admit my ignorance and then proceed to explain what I do know in the least offensive way.

As I find myself answering questions about Judaism, and deflecting subjects I know nothing about, I realize I am representing the Jewish people. In this time of conflict, of increasing anti-Semitism, being a Jew in a gentile world takes on extraordinary significance. I always considered being Jewish a privilege. And over the past few years, as I’ve delved into the Torah, I’ve come to learn it’s also a responsibility.

I wonder how many Jews out there could do a better job answering the questions, explaining the differences, conjuring awe and reverence rather than hatred or ignorance. Then my thoughts take an even scarier turn: How many Jews out there know even less than me? People who are not able to answer the questions, and worse, people who don’t care enough to even engage in the conversation.

If the nations of the world are ever to show the Jewish people respect and admiration, we have to rid ourselves of our ignorance about our religion and answer the questions put to us honestly and openly. We have to stand up and say, being Jewish is not my religion — it’s who I am, and I’m proud of that.

Now, if we want to talk about traditional Jewish foods, on that I have no trouble. I even do a pretty good job explaining how to make a mean matzah ball.


Marisa N. Pickar is a freelance journalist living in Laguna Woods.

Taking the First Step


Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core .”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom , or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha , or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am , the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”

Taking the First Step


Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core.”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom, or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha, or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am, the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”