American Jews must speak out for Haitians in Dominican Republic


Fewer than 800 miles from our shores, a deeply disturbing crisis is unfolding as tens of thousands of citizens of the Dominican Republic face deportation from their country simply because of their heritage.

Tragically, people of Haitian descent who were born in the Dominican Republic have been stripped of their rights and their citizenship, and are living in a state of legal limbo. These people are not all recent immigrants, as the Dominican government would have you believe, but come from families that have been living in the Dominican Republic for up to a century.

I cannot help but see this crisis through Jewish eyes, and I call on the United States government to do all it can to stop it.

People with lifelong roots in the Dominican Republic as well as more recent arrivals are facing possible exile in Haiti. But for many born in the Dominican Republic, Haiti is a country in which they have never lived, whose language they don’t speak and which does not recognize them as legal citizens.

For some, exile is already a reality. In fact, a recent Human Rights Watch report documented more than 25 detentions in which Dominicans of Haitian descent were forcibly taken to deportation points along the border, despite having valid documentation of being born in the Dominican Republic.

Without any recognized citizenship, these people would be without a home, have no guaranteed civil rights, no right to due process in any court in the world.

Taking this all in, I cannot help but feel a sense of deja vu. We have seen this tragic movie before.

In 1939, in waters not far from the island that Haiti and the Dominican Republic share, Jewish refugees aboard the Saint Louis — people whose rights had been stripped from them in Europe — were denied access to Cuba and the United States. Throughout the 1930s, Jews found their rights being whittled away across Europe and most dramatically in Germany. When the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws, they stripped Jews of all of their rights as the terrible first step of their genocidal campaign.

Further back in history during the Middle Ages, Jews were frequently expelled from countries such as England, France and Spain for spurious reasons, including causing illness and pestilence.

In the Dominican Republic, where there is a prevalent culture of racism and discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian descent, the situation is sadly reminiscent of very difficult chapters in Jewish history. For generations, politicians have used Haitians as scapegoats, blaming them for problems such as poverty and disease. Now the situation is getting worse, including a sharp increase in attacks. A February lynching of a Haitian immigrant and other recent assaults reflect a culture of violence against people of Haitian descent, and it is common to see racist depictions of Haitians in Dominican newspapers.

As we have seen in the past, institutionalized hate and mass violence unfortunately feed off one another. This fear of violence is forcing thousands of Dominicans from their homes — a practice that the Dominican government has given the Orwellian name of “successful self-deportation,” but which in truth is forced migration.

One more complex layer of history must be acknowledged. In the 1930s, when very few countries would accept Jewish refugees from Europe, the Dominican Republic offered to open its doors, but for tragic reasons. At the time, the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo, did this both to divert attention from a recent massacre of 25,000 Haitians and, perversely, to increase the number of Europeans on the Island.

Given this history, Jewish-Americans must join the outcry and speak out about the horrific treatment of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. We have a unique understanding of the horrible consequences when people remain silent in the face of government actions to strip communities and individuals of their rights. We therefore cannot stand by while governments do to others what has been done to us.

We must insist that the United States do all it can to ensure that the Dominican government immediately restores citizenship for all Dominican-born individuals who have been denied their nationality and upholds international human rights for Haitian immigrants, including not splitting up their families. Moreover, the Dominican government must vigorously respond to popular violence against people of Haitian descent, including the mistreatment and abuse of Haitian immigrants.

As Jews, the details of the persecution are intolerably familiar. We must not and cannot let history repeat itself.


Ruth W. Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service, which works to end poverty and protect human rights in the developing world.

Responsibility without fault in Gaza: A challenge for American Jews


Consider this scenario: a wanted international terrorist is fleeing law enforcement and seizes your house. (You are away at the time, fortunately.) The Army surrounds the house but the terrorist is well armed, as terrorists are wont to be: sending in troops would mean severe casualties and many deaths. So the Army decides to shoot a missile into the house. It kills the terrorist, but it also destroys the house. Problem solved – sort of.

You return home and say to the Army, “Uh, great, but what about my house?” The commander replies, “Sorry buddy – not our fault. Blame the terrorist.” The Army then washes its hands of the matter. You and your family are now homeless.

What do you think that the Army’s responsibility is here? Perhaps some would say “none.” It decided to save its own personnel’s lives instead of saving the house, and that was proper. But that doesn’t help you at all.

More importantly, most of us would recoil at such an outcome. The Army did the right thing, but in doing so caused a real and severe loss to an innocent person, namely: you. And it does no good to say that the terrorist “should” pay for the damage. The terrorist is dead, and his fellow murderers don’t care about innocents: that’s what makes them terrorists, after all.

Here, then, the Army can have responsibility without fault. It caused damage for legitimate reasons, but that does not excuse it from compensating victims, at least partially, for the damage it caused. It is innocent, but so are the victims. The Army made choices concerning the means it used, and chose to save itself. That was legitimate, but it has a special responsibility in making the innocent victims whole.

This is the situation the Jewish community confronts, at least to the extent that we identify with Israel. The IDF has used airstrikes in its campaign against Hamas for a very good reason: they pose massively smaller risks for IDF personnel than a pure ground campaign. Completely fair, but it hardly implies that we can wash our hands of the damage and destruction that we have caused.

And make no mistake; that damage is devastating. Tens of thousands are homeless. More go without medical case, an effect of Hamas using hospitals as weapons platforms. The water and sewer system, on the brink before the war, has been largely destroyed, threatening a public health emergency.

As a community with pretenses to moral action, we have at least some moral responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to those who have suffered and are still suffering. We do not have full responsibility, but we have a special one.

In Leviticus 19:33-34, we are told, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Why would God specifically point to foreigners residing “among you” and “in your land”? The Gaza war points to it: different peoples living cheek-by-jowl, as Jews and Palestinians do, will fight, often viciously and brutally. Horrible violence will occur, and innocents will suffer. The Tanach tells us that even if we are justified, we must assume responsibility for the stranger in our midst. It also points to special obligations we have for those living next door: humanitarian disasters circle the globe, but we must take care of our neighbors.

Let us reconsider our original scenario. Note how it gets worse if your children are still in the house, the Army sends in the missile to save its soldiers and your children get killed in the process. Then the Army has decided to save soldiers while knowing that civilians would get killed instead. Justified? I believe so. We all know who is real bad guy here: the terrorist. But that hardly means that the Army has no responsibility: it just means that it isn’t at fault.

My argument differs from Heschel’s aphorism that “few are guilty but all are responsible.” That is true, but it is not what I contend here. Heschel averred that all human beings have a responsibility for each other. This is a responsibility-without-fault that simply comes from being created in the image of God. Jews of course have this as well, but here, the responsibility comes from causing damage and being neighbors, not from existing.

So far, the response of the American Jewish community – the safest and most prosperous in Jewish history has been disappointing. No one in the community – even those figures calling for “compassion” for Gazan civilians – has suggested that we actually do anything about it. Unless something is done soon, at best it will be compassion on the cheap, an empty gesture unworthy of a great people.

It will not do to protest that Hamas will steal the aid money. Hamas will attempt to do so, but organizations exist that carry excellent records of getting aid money where it is needed. One that has recently come to my attention is American Near East Refugee Aid, or ANERA, which has a superb record of transparency and high quality of services. Even its critics concede as much, and object only that ANERA has not explicitly blamed Hamas for all of the destruction in Gaza. That may be true but it is beside the point: as a Jewish community we have a responsibility to alleviate suffering that we have caused, even under justifiable circumstances. ANERA is a way to do that.

Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote, “left wing Jews should not allow themselves to be guilty of the crime of ingratitude with regards to the idea of Jewish power…ugly though it is to see people being killed by our soldiers, that is just the way it works in the grown up world.” He is correct, although one also cannot shy away from the possibility that Jewish power has been misused. 

But assuming that it has not, all Jews need to accept that with power comes responsibility, and many times responsibility comes without fault. That is also the way it works in the grown up world.

Books: Yehoshua’s latest explores boundaries of responsibility


The U.S publishers hated the title of A.B. Yehoshua’s latest book “The Mission of the Human Resources Manager.” It was, they argued, better suited to a personnel manual than the work of one of Israel’s most venerated authors. Ignoring Yehoshua’s pleas, they christened the novel’s English translation “A Woman in Jerusalem,” and the book became a nominee for this year’s prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize, to be announced at the Times’ Festival of Books this weekend (see story page 36).

Rummaging through the shelves of his apartment in Ramat Gan, Yehoshua located a copy of the book and studied its cover, with its stylized picture of a woman’s glittery eyelid, another attempt by the publishers to inject sex appeal into his latest creation.

“I have to admit,” he said cheerfully, “they did a good job.”

Yehoshua’s political views have ruffled more than a few feathers, though he seems to take criticism in stride.

In May 2006, Yehoshua caused an uproar at a prestigious gathering of American Jewry in Washington when he declared that Diaspora Jewry cannot live genuinely Jewish lives unless they move to Israel, and that “Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel … your Jewish identity has no meaning at all.”

While he eventually softened his remarks, his views have not changed significantly.

“In Israel,” he says, “you can be a full Jew with all the responsibilities and the obligations that come along with it.”

Israel’s ethical character, he believes, is a direct reflection of its people’s collective Jewish responsibility. “A Woman in Jerusalem” is Yehoshua’s attempt to explore the boundaries of that responsibility.

Following a suicide bombing at a crowded market, the corpse of Yulia Ragayev, a Russian-Orthodox temporary worker, lies unclaimed and unidentified in a Jerusalem morgue. A “weasel” of a journalist discovers a bloodied pay slip linking Ragayev to a well-established bakery and writes an expose condemning the bakery for its failure to claim her body. Shamed by the journalist’s accusations of heartless indifference, the bakery’s owner decides to atone for his company’s neglect. He assigns his human resources manager — a man whose family life has slowly disintegrated — to take any measures necessary to restore the bakery’s good name. While at first resentful, the human resources manager comes to share his boss’s desire for atonement.

Together with the journalist, he escorts Ragayev’s corpse home for burial only to discover that the dead woman’s mother wants her daughter buried in Jerusalem.

The novel has a palpable darkness to it and is almost bluntly allegorical.

Aside from Yulia Ragayev, whose name becomes almost a mantra for the human resources manager, the characters in the book remain nameless, defined only by their job titles. This is just one of the ways that Yehoshua distances himself from “A Liberated Bride,” his optimistic 2004 novel about a Haifa professor who breaks through personal, familial, ethnic and national boundaries.

The difference, Yehoshua said, was all in the timing. Whereas he began writing “Bride” before the outbreak of the second intifada, “A Woman in Jerusalem” was conceived during Israel’s gloomiest days.

“In one terrorist attack in Tel Aviv,” he says, “[many] people were killed — among them a whole family.”

Yehoshua began to be bothered by what he saw as Israel’s inability to cope with civilian death: “For soldiers there is a whole system of mourning. We are used to it, and it’s very important to Israeli society to commemorate the soldiers who were sent by us for us and were killed.

“But what about the lady who was drinking coffee in a cafe when she was killed or a foreign worker who was sitting on a bus? How do we make sense of that? They were not killed for defending their country or conquering territory — if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. It was disturbing.”

Also disturbing, Yehoshua said, was the way “that Israeli society tried to repress the deaths. In the beginning there was news, but after a certain time the bus was cleaned up and society returned to ‘normal life.’ It’s very dangerous for a society to repress things.”

As a non-Jew, an immigrant temporary worker, and a woman without a family, Ragayev represents death at its most marginal.

“I wanted to take my pen,” Yehoshua said, “and put it inside the black plastic shroud. I wanted to take this anonymous victim and try to make love to her.”

Like many of Yehoshua’s protagonists, the human resources manager has an almost neurotic obsessiveness about him, along with a desire to push past interpersonal boundaries and peek into the secret corners of peoples’ lives. Yehoshua says that while he no doubt brings this obsessiveness from “a personal quest, a turbulence, an unrest,” his characters’ missions are aimed at “accomplishing something, repairing reality and taking responsibility.”

Whether In “The Lover,” “Open Heart,” “A Liberated Bride” or “A Woman in Jerusalem,” those missions have involved crossing borders of some kind — an issue that continues to preoccupy Yehoshua, with no signs of abatement. It is the same issue, he says, that propelled his hotly contested remarks in Washington.

“The question of the borders is the most important one for the Jews,” he says. “If I had to define Zionism in one word, I would say ‘borders.’ For centuries the Jews crossed borders, moving from one country to another, exchanging national identities. Israel has been a tremendous change in the Jewish DNA. Today we must have borders and we must have sovereignty and responsibility on those borders.”

Tellingly, in “A Woman in Jerusalem,” the journalist tells the human resources manager that “true love requires separation.” Politically, Yehoshua has been a forceful voice in the call for separation. In 2002, at the height of the bloody second intifada, he joined other left-wing intellectuals and political figures in calling for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. In addition to withdrawing from the territories, Yehoshua suggested a security fence with openings for passage between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

When the Israeli army evacuated Jews from Gaza, he said, he was “very proud of Israel — proud of the way in which it was done, proud of how the settlers behaved. Not one drop of blood was spilled.

Closing the curtain


In March, I had the privilege of co-starring in the Jerusalem premiere of Neil LaBute’s play “Some Girl(s)” at the Center Stage Theater at Merkaz Hamagshimim
Hadassah. The play follows Guy, an about-to-be-married 33-year-old American writer, as he tracks down his ex-flames to “right some wrongs” so he can begin his new life with a clean slate … or so it seems.

I was cast as Reggie, a character LaBute added between the London and New York performances but who had her debut in Israel. Reggie is the sister of Guy’s childhood best friend. She and Guy meet 15 years after Guy kissed Reggie in a not-so-appropriate way at her 12th birthday party. Understandably, the incident profoundly affected Reggie into adulthood. My scene captured her quest for closure.

To get into character, I decided to draw from my own life. The question was: Could a relationship I’d had with an Israeli serve as a model for a play that dissects the relationship habits of a “jerky” American? I asked LaBute by e-mail if Guy’s behavior is categorically American, to which he replied: “I don’t think American men corner the market on being jerks, but we certainly know how to make the market work for us. American men are usually better at ‘smoothing over’ their jerky side ….”

Indeed, looking back at my relationship with one Israeli man, there had been no “smoothing over” of anything. The closure was raw and real, just like the life-altering experience that had troubled me for so long.

Reggie “never spoke to anybody about it,” and I, too, had kept silent. While our encounters were very different, both had aroused hurt, shame and confusion. By writing now about the experience, I’m acting out one of Reggie’s fantasies. Also a journalist, Reggie comments: “This would make a hell of an article.”

I met Israel, not his real name, at a karaoke bar in Tel Aviv. At the time, I was questioning my modern Orthodox lifestyle — and I was vulnerable, curious, and, yes, hormonal. Israel was handsome, charming, muscular — the picture-perfect, macho Israeli. He even worked as a manual laborer — how sexy.

I invited him to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv for our second date, and I kept telling him I couldn’t understand why I liked him — he wasn’t this great intellect I had imagined I’d fall for. Needless to say, he was offended, and he began to toy with me, to tease me about being a virgin, to tell me about the wonders of sex. Talk about torture.

After a long, demented courtship, we did it. The act wasn’t so tender or loving. He didn’t stay the night. I didn’t really care — I was too physically relieved. I called him a few days later to see “what was up,” and he just made crude jokes. Immediately, my self-assured satisfaction turned into upset and confusion — and I balled him out for being so insensitive. I didn’t see him again after that, and I decided to process this loss of innocence on my own, just like Reggie.

She held onto the memory of her first adolescent kiss and let it influence who she became. I can sympathize with her description of how she turned out: “smart, cute, hardworking … sexually appropriate at a pretty early age, just making it some days, and other times off-the-charts and laser sharp.”

As a reaction to sexual encounters we experience before we are truly ripe we often become more self-aware and more sexually active as a means to take back control of our identity and sexuality.

Back in Israel, four years later, I called Israel to, as Reggie put it, “clear the slate … see if we could, I dunno, sort it out somehow.”

We met at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv. I wore black slacks and an elegant, burgundy angora V-neck (a top I tried on as a costume) to assert my new, sophisticated, wiser self. Israel was still handsome, but shorter than I remembered, less muscular.

He told me he’d become a Scientologist. No matter what people say of Scientology, his new religion had definitely made him a better person. Sitting across from me was an emotionally intelligent, highly communicative and honest man.

The pace of our conversation perfectly mimicked that of the Reggie scene. I didn’t bring up the looming “subject” right away, getting through small talk and memories before the conversation turned intense and tearful. Israel listened deeply and admitted to taking advantage of me, to avenging my snobbery and to fulfilling his thrill of “popping a cherry.”

He eventually said “I’m sorry,” which are also among Guy’s last words to Reggie. Yet Israel was more forthright than Guy, and since I had been an adult at the time of our earlier encounter, he was able to press me to recognize my own failings in my dealings with him — and with myself.

I left feeling exhilarated and gratified, almost as if I’d gotten my virginity back. Two-sided closure is wonderful.

Our reunion took place about six years ago, and while I am now completely at peace with what happened, and Israel and I are friends, I didn’t stop making some bad relationship choices. There are still some men with whom I wouldn’t mind having a long chat, but I doubt they could achieve Israel’s level of sincerity. There are times when that notorious Israeli bluntness is a blessing. Ultimately, however, as Reggie suggests toward the end of the play, closure begins with taking responsibility for our own choices.

For now, I’ll take my performance and the reflection it triggered as my vicarious, catch-all closure, and I’ll be satisfied with that.

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at arfa@netvision.net.il.

For German Teens, Shame Stirred Action


When six German teenagers entered the beit midrash at YULA boys high school, there was an indescribable sense of tension in the air. The four girls and two boys seemed hesitant and slightly anxious as they faced 60 Jewish boys eager for discussion. As a natural skeptic, my personal attitude toward conversing with people of possible Nazi ancestry was not very optimistic.

But within a few moments, the Germans’ anxiety visibly disappeared due to our welcoming disposition. And I must admit that by the end of the program I learned a beneficial lesson, which applies to every single Jew alive today.

Along with other German students, these visitors had participated in translating a German book, “Never Tell Anybody your Name is Rachmiel,” by Rosine De Dijn. The book tells the story of a Polish Jewish single mother who managed to hide her son with a family in Belgium before she was deported to Auschwitz and killed.

Inspired by a visit from De Dijn, the teens began a project to translate the book into English so that the descendants of the rescuers and of the Holocaust survivor, two of whom live in California, could learn of their ancestors’ story.

When the school contacted the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the museum extended an invitation to the students, a teacher and the author. The trip was funded by a German foundation called Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future.

As I learned of their story, my admiration for the noble actions of these students grew, and my pessimism began to slowly decline. However, the images of the atrocities of the Holocaust — and the voices of my Holocaust-survivor grandparents — constantly reverberated in my mind.

Following a brief description of the book, a question-and-answer session opened. With many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in the audience, myself included, an array of hands propelled into the air. One of the many interesting questions posed to the German teens was, “Do you feel guilty?”

German student Hagen Verleger answered: “I do not feel guilty, however I feel greatly ashamed.”

I was fascinated with that answer, because I realized that shame and guilt are directly connected, but they are far from synonymous.

While the Nazi story ends with shame, it began with an excess of pride. Hitler and the Nazi party exemplified the utmost arrogance in their stride to conquer the world and “ethnically cleanse” society. But after their defeat, surviving members of the Nazi party and the generation of Germans to follow them were internationally blacklisted.

The students explained to us that for a very long period of time not many people would openly admit to being “German” due to the stigma attached to the nationality. Germany went from being the superior race and nation to bearing a universal mark of Cain.

But things have changed for this generation. The students pointed out that the 2006 World Cup competition in Germany saw the German flag flown with pride at this international event, with black, red, gold and the eagle emblem appearing on shirts, signs and venues all over the country. Clearly, this generation of Germans has found a way to deal with their infamous past and appropriately display national pride once again.

Exemplifying this revolution in Germany’s national attitude, the six visitors from Germany commendably presented a translated book — a product of their stirring shame. Although Germany’s actions cannot and will never be atoned for, the German students of my generation took ownership of this inherent guilt and utilized shame to spark a contribution to society.

By willingly encountering Jews, these German teens have exposed the wrongdoings of their fathers with the intent of setting the ethical standards for the generations to follow. It is their version of our “Never Again” slogan.

Hearing all of this, I started to think about what we, direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, can learn from the grandchildren of pre-1945 Germany. After recapping the issues discussed, I realized that what my generation and the German teens have in common is that we are the youth of our nations.

Obviously, nothing previous generations of Jews have done can be equated to the crimes of Nazi Germany on any level whatsoever. But every generation does have its faults. Moreover, it is every generation’s responsibility to recognize and remedy the faults of their predecessors.

As a teen, I find it essential to look at our past and scrutinize Jewish history in order to improve or even attempt to improve my generation and set the tracks for future generations.

One issue that has always vexed me and continues to haunt the Jewish people is that of our lack of unity. Whether the issues are political, religious or moral, they cause serious divisions within our nation, which have devastating effects on our chances for success. Political differences, which resulted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a fellow Jew, and religious differences between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel not only split us internally but destroy our reputation in the eyes of the outside world.

Will we look back on our ancestors’ mistakes with futile guilt, unproductively blaming ourselves? Or will we be stimulated by our shame and become motivated to possibly rectify those faults? Will we unify or continue to be fragmented and suffer our demise?

Adam Deustsch is a junior at YULA High School for boys.

Wanna drink? Think again!


This Purim will be the first test of a new teen anti-drinking campaign adopted by Los Angeles’ Orthodox rabbis after a Simchat Torah debacle in which more than 100 teens were seen drinking publicly or intoxicated.

The plan was adopted Nov. 14 at a meeting convened by Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, which was attended by, among others, heads of school of Shalhevet, YULA and Valley Torah — all Orthodox high schools — and rabbis of synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area, Hancock Park and the Valley.

“There were around 100 to 150 teens drinking [on Simchat Torah], so we were concerned about the fact of adults giving that kind of alcohol to kids,” said Debbie Fox, director of Aleinu, which provides counseling and educational services to the Orthodox community.

Rabbis at the November meeting agreed to ask the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), an Orthodox umbrella organization, to ask its members to designate shuls as “dry” — meaning alcohol-free — or “monitored,” meaning the shul would assign someone to make sure that no minors were served. They also reached a consensus to promote more knowledge about the dangers of teen drinking and addiction.

Recognizing alcohol’s long-standing presence in Jewish custom, tradition and culture — especially on Purim, when drinking is a mitzvah — and hearing from some rabbis that it would be impossible to have shuls go completely dry, Aleinu has tried to work directly with the shuls and parents to take responsibility for their teens.

While Aleinu and the RCC did not publish a list of dry and monitored shuls in time for Purim, last month Fox, with RCC cooperation, sent a letter and informational brochure to 85 rabbis, asking each shul to decide what its status would be on Purim, and to speak to their congregations about staying sober.

The Orthodox Union also sent out a letter urging rabbis to ask parents to carefully monitor their children, since drinks in shul are often cited as starting points for kids who later become addicts.

Many rabbis spoke to their congregations on Aleinu’s Feb. 3 “Shabbat of Awareness.” Two days before that event, about 45 rabbis came to The Jewish Federation to listen to an addiction specialist and watch a video in which recovering Orthodox teens explained factors that influenced their drinking and drug habits.

The same video was shown to the 130 parents who attended similar presentations Feb. 18 at Shaare Tefila and Beth Jacob. Also, in recent weeks flyers, posters and e-mails have circulated pleading: “This Purim, Don’t Get Carried Away.”

“These programs should help parents communicate with kids about the impact of drinking,” Fox said. “Our previous experience shows there are hardly ever conversations between parents and children about drinking.”

Shalhevet students who were out last erev Simchat Torah said that students from many different schools — including some from out of the area — were seen in the Pico area under the influence of alcohol. Two had to be taken to the hospital by paramedics, one of whom had her stomach pumped, witnesses said.

“This has been a problem every year,” said Rabbi Avi Greene, Shalhevet’s head of Judaic studies. “This year, certain events just made it impossible to keep the problem quiet.”

According to several witnesses, including students and rabbis from various schools interviewed by The Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s newspaper, teens were able to obtain drinks at several shuls in the Pico-Robertson area. They said alcohol might also have come from the teenagers’ homes.

“Walking down Pico Boulevard, I could barely take a few steps without hearing someone say or do something stupid because they were under the influence of alcohol,” Shalhevet junior Gaby Grossman said.

Perhaps the annual Purim party of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) will be able to distract teenagers from their alcoholic inclination. This year’s party, at Congregation Mogen David on Pico Boulevard, advertises itself as “alcohol-free” and includes all-night security, responsible staff and a packed schedule of activities. NCSY will also keep the Rubin Teen Drop-in Center on Pico near Roxbury Drive open all night as an alcohol-free safe zone.

“We definitely emphasized the absence of alcohol from this year’s event more than usual,” NCSY Vice President of Outreach Stephanie Aziz, a Shalhevet junior, said. “We recognized the goal to keep incidents like this from happening, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure teens have a fun, safe event on these holidays.”

Some students thought Aleinu’s outreach effort represented a stepping-stone toward overall progress.

“I’m in favor of educational programs because they help develop a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong,” Shalhevet junior Jennifer Reiz said. “At the same time, teenagers tend to learn more from their own mistakes and experiences.”

Others questioned whether the plans would succeed.

Educational programs “probably won’t help,” junior Meir Chodakiewitz said, “because when we see adults drink, it seems more OK for us. We drink to feel older.”

Sophomore Jonathan Cohen, who said he saw alcohol being served at as many as five synagogues Simchat Torah night, said designating shuls dry or monitored might slow kids’ drinking a little, “but most kids will still find a way around it.”

Still, most realized that something must be changed, because the current problem is, as one student put it, “intolerable.”

“It’s about time for change,” Shalhevet senior Jonah Braun said. “The debacle of Simchat Torah was a shame to the Jewish community as a whole.”

Louis Keene is a junior at Shalhevet and Torah editor of The Boiling Point, where a version of this article first appeared.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Eve Marcus: Soul of the Food Pantry


Eve Marcus

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Eve Marcus asks that people not call her on Saturday. Mostly they comply.

Otherwise, as volunteer director of the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, she is on call and in command of a staff of 150 volunteers and an operation that currently provides emergency food for more than 30,000 people a year.

Marcus, 70, first became involved in the fall of 1984, when she read a newspaper advertisement seeking volunteers for the Food Pantry, which had been founded more than a year earlier as a result of the Valley Interfaith Council’s Task Force on Community Emergency Needs and in response to the 1982-83 recession.

“I could do that,” thought Marcus, a Studio City homemaker and mother of three girls. She began working Mondays at the First Christian Church of North Hollywood, packing bags, interviewing clients and pitching in wherever needed.
And she has been doing that ever since.

Early on, Marcus was asked to serve as Monday captain. She has continued in that capacity while also taking on the responsibility of volunteer director four years ago.

As director, she runs the monthly board meetings; oversees staffing, donations and grants, and fields myriad phone calls. She also coordinates volunteers for the yearly National Association of Letter Carriers Food Drive and organizes the Food Pantry’s annual Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving.

But to the other volunteers, she encompasses much more.

“Eve is the soul of the Food Pantry. She just knows that people cannot be hungry and we need to do whatever is necessary,” said Joy Grau, a member of St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City and a 15-year volunteer.

The North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry was founded in 1983 by five women from two synagogues (Temple Beth Hillel and Adat Ari El) and three churches. It is now a coalition of 10 congregations in the East San Fernando Valley.

“We ask people to come once a month but we never turn anyone away,” Marcus said. These days the largest segments of their clientele, mostly from the East San Fernando Valley, are the homeless and the elderly. There are also some “rare but heartbreaking” instances of those who fit both categories.

For Marcus, the benefits of her work are the lasting friendships she has made over the years and the discovery of hidden abilities, like public speaking. She credits her cardiologist husband with handling the computer work.

The worst problem is the aging of the volunteers, who now range from late 50s to early 90s and who often can’t do the heavy lifting that’s required. Recruiting new volunteers, with so many people working in full-time jobs, is difficult.

Marcus attributes her upbringing with drawing her to volunteer work. She was raised in a modest household in Brooklyn where, although imprinted by the tragedies of World War II, she somehow always felt fortunate.

“I had good parents, food and love,” she said. “I want other people to enjoy some of the comforts I do.”

Mayor implores people of faith to fight homelessness


“Local communities have to provide services and supportive housing. We can’t be a city that grows in one part and leaves people destitute in another,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told a crowd of more than 300 at Leo Baeck Temple on Sunday.

Teachings from the Torah, as well as triumphs on the football field, set the tone for a conference on homelessness, which also included County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Ed Edelman, retired county supervisor and special representative for homeless initiatives for the City of Santa Monica; L.A. City Council Member Bill Rosendahl; and a panel of agency leaders, ready to enlist the conference participants in a wide range of activities.

“Homelessness is curable and we must cure it,” Leo Baeck Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen said in his welcoming remarks. “Jews know too well the experience of being strangers and outsiders. We have lived in countless places where there were no homes for us.”

More than 90,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, about 15,000 of them in downtown’s skid row.

“Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being America’s homeless capital,” the mayor said, adding that the city is also home to 262,500 millionaires.

The mayor emphasized that homelessness is pervasive throughout the county.

“We have 15 council districts and 87 neighborhood councils, and at the end of the day we have to articulate a common vision…. Every neighborhood has the responsibility to bear the challenge of homelessness,” Villaraigosa said, citing studies showing that contrary to residents’ fears, property values do not fall, nor does crime increase when supportive housing is provided for the previously homeless.

Rosendahl cited a recent survey that had found scores of homeless people in West Los Angeles as well as Venice. Yaroslavky, emphasized that religious communities, which share a vision and passion for social justice can play a key role.

“The county has allocated $100 million for homelessness,” he said. “At one point that was as unlikely as UCLA beating USC in football. For the first time in my career, the political landscape is right for tackling this issue.”

A panel of directors of programs that provide services for the homeless provided the audience with specific programs that could use their services.

Adlai Wertman, the CEO of Chrysalis, which finds jobs for as many as 2,000 homeless people each year, left a career on Wall Street to work with the homeless.

“Why?” he asks. “First and foremost because I’m a Jew. I’m a wannabe rabbi. I spend four or five hours a week studying Torah; it was hard for me to read about the duty of taking care of the poor and the hungry without taking action.”

The New Direction Choir, composed of previously homeless veterans who’ve worked with the New Directions orgainzaton, had earlier provided concrete evidence through song and testimonies to the successes of their programs.

“I am a member of this congregation,” said Toni Reinis, executive director of the New Directions. “So I have to cite something. Our tradition teaches us that the recognition of injustice is not sufficient. Awareness must be followed by action. Real tzedakah is only committed through our acts of righteousness.”

Reinis urged members of the audience to stop by the Veteran’s Village Diner on the grounds of the Veteran’s Administration in West Los Angeles, which serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.

Joel Roberts, the CEO of PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, introduced Mary Erickson of Imagine LA, a group whose goal is to help every faith-based community in Los Angeles to “adopt” one of the city’s 8,000 homeless families for a two year period.

The conference was spearheaded by Ralph Fertig, a professor at the USC School of Social Work. Fertig, who has long been active in the struggle for human and civil rights, joined Leo Baeck two years ago because of its tradition of social justice programming. The ex-Freedom Rider and civil rights lawyer approached the temple’s rabbis in the hope of engaging the congregation in issues of homelessness.

“We decided a conference would be the perfect opportunity to get our members’ sleeves rolled up,” said Rabbi Leah Lewis, who was also a key organizer.

“We though this could be a launching pad for more involvement.”

After the presentations, Edelman and Fertig urged everyone to sign up as volunteers. Their exhortations were echoed by Lewis in her concluding remarks.

“The Chanukah season is our time to re-dedicate ourselves to stand up for what is right,” she said. “The Macabees were not deterred by the enormity of their task. Like the Macabees, we move forward one step at a time. For us at Leo Baeck, partnering with all these agencies is our congregational first step.”

“There is no community or city or region in the country that has dealt successfully with homelessness without the full participation from religious communities of all faiths standing up for community responsibility,” said Torie Osborn, Villaraigosa’s senior adviser on homelessness.

“I’m especially delighted about the religious community coming together with the city and county,” Chasen said as the congregants moved to an adjoining room where tables were covered with snacks, literature and sign-up sheets.

“The remarkable thing is that both Mayor Villaraigosa and Supervisor Yaroslavsky came,” he said. “The city and the county have not always worked together on homelessness. It’s a great sign of successes to come.”

Pick a cause


When I was in eighth grade, I went on a school field trip to the Museum of Tolerance. My grandmother being a holocaust survivor, I had learned much about the Holocaust and took an interest in it. At the Museum of Tolerance, however, I learned about other things as well.

At an exhibit called the Millennium Machine, the last stop, I was in shock at all the horrible things that are still happening to children today. I couldn’t believe that in the world I lived in, kids were being enslaved and starved. I had always been involved with community service, but at the sight of this exhibit I knew I had to do something to help these children.

It was only a couple of weeks later that I was shopping at a jewelry and clothing boutique, when the owner noticed my necklace — which I had made. She offered to sell it at the store. That very day I brought in a tray of my work, and my guitar-pick jewelry was an instant success at the store.

This was right before summer started, and before I knew it I would be spending my summer days making jewelry. When I realized how much money I could make, I remembered that exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance and how much those children needed the money — much more than I did.

So I decided to give all of my proceeds to these unfortunate kids, and I began looking up charities that benefit kids. The first charity I donated to was UNICEF, because I knew that the money I gave would directly help youths in other countries that I had seen in the video at the museum. Ever since, I have given all of my proceeds to various charities, amounting to about $10,000.

In addition to my business, I always take on the opportunity to help in my own community. I believe that it is important to help out whenever you can, whether it’s picking up trash at the beach or working at a charity benefit, as well as taking on new challenges.

I love art and jewelry making, but giving to charity is the heart of my business. I might not be making jewelry forever, but I know I will always be charitable, because I have a love for helping those less fortunate than I am. Since I am a creative person, I’m glad to know I can use my talents to help others.

I also realize how fortunate I am to live in a nice house and to have food to eat, something that is easily taken for granted. I have also learned that we fortunate kids hold the responsibility to help children who are in desperate need for simple things that we have an abundance of. I believe that one person can make a difference, and with my charitable business I would like other young people to see that they, too, can use their talents for a good cause.

Amanda Martin is a junior at Viewpoint School in Calabasas. Her jewelry can be purchased at www.pickmejewelry.com.


The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (julief@jewishjournal.com.

The IDF and Civilians: A Personal Account


To all those who feel that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers have no regard for civilians, and that they “do what they need to do” without regard for potential
civilian casualties, I offer no opinions on this matter.

Instead, I offer this personal experience for your consideration.

It was July 12, 1984, my first day on the Ketziot basic training base, my new “home” as an IDF soldier in the Givati Infantry Brigade. One by one, we were issued what was then the standard IDF infantry weapon, the Israeli-made Galil rifle. Here we were, 18-year-old kids who barely knew anything about life, suddenly holding in our hands a weapon that had the potential to save lives or to take lives.

Upon receiving these weapons, we were gathered into a large mess hall, where an officer was waiting to address us. We expected a lesson on the mechanics of the Galil rifle. Instead, the officer had come to speak to us about Tohar Ha-Neshek — the “Purity of the Weapon.”

He spoke at length about the moral use of the weapon vs. the immoral use of the weapon, and of the responsibility we had to uphold the value of Tohar Ha-Neshek no matter what the circumstances. He concluded his remarks by saying, “I am not a particularly religious person, but remember that to uphold the purity of your weapon is a Kiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of God’s name), and to violate it is a Chilul ha-Shem (desecration of God’s name).”

Six months later, my unit found itself in Southern Lebanon, fighting the same Hezbollah that the IDF fights today. The Galil that we were issued six months earlier had unfortunately gotten its fair share of real-life wear and tear, but it was not until Feb. 5, 1985, that we learned a real-life lesson in “Purity of the Weapon.”

Late in the afternoon that day, as our convoy was leaving our post in Borj el Jimali (two miles east of Tyre), a Hezbollah suicide bomber drove his car straight into our convoy, triggering a massive explosion in our faces. We responded like we were taught — jump out of the vehicle, take cover and return fire. In typical Hezbollah fashion, they carried out this attack in an area filled with civilians, which means that we were faced with the awful prospect of firing into the homes of civilian men, women and children caught in the crossfire.

After our initial barrage of fire, our officer instructed us to regroup into small teams that would enter buildings to search for any terrorists cooperating with the suicide bomber. His instructions still ring clearly in my ear, and took me back to the lecture I heard about “Purity of Weapons” just six months earlier: “This area is filled with civilians, and there is no need to injure or kill them. In our search for terrorists, please try to minimize any civilian casualties.”

These instructions came from an officer who, just a few minutes earlier, had 100 kilos of dynamite explode into his face and that of his troops, yet he was still able to keep a clear mind and remember that the IDF was in Lebanon to fight Hezbollah terrorists, not Lebanese civilians.

It was true then, and it is still true today.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

(Rob Eshman’s column will return next week.)

A ‘Nice’ Idea Blossoms Into a Group of ‘Niceaholics’


Debbie Tenzer was having lunch with several girlfriends when the conversation got heated. “We all had such different views on where the country was headed. There was so much anger and so much scary news in the post-Sept. 11 world,” she says, recalling the devastation from hurricanes and the tsunami, terrorism threats, difficulties facing Israel and escalating deaths in Iraq. “I wished I could pull my head in and hide like a turtle.”

But that’s hardly what Tenzer, a mother of three and marketing consultant, decided to do.

She thought to herself: “I can’t single-handedly end world hunger, but I can donate some cans to a food bank. I can’t fix the entire school system, but I can donate my kids’ old books to the library.”

So she did, and her kindness was empowering.

“I realized that if you have the ability to help other people, you’re in a pretty good place,” says Tenzer, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 29 years. “It’s not always easy, because basically, we’re selfish creatures, many of us struggling every day. We have to make a choice, and it starts by doing just one nice thing.”

Tenzer decided that every Monday, she’d do something nice for others.

“It’s the hardest day of the week,” she explains, “so I wanted to start off with something I could feel good about, a personal victory,” even if it was only a five-minute gesture like making a card for senior citizens in nursing homes.
Her friends were inspired by her idea, so she sent an e-mail to 60 of them with her suggestions for kind acts they could easily do, too.

One year later, her idea has evolved into a Web site, DoOneNiceThing.com, with thousands of visitors and a weekly e-mail that reaches people in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Israel, Japan and Slovakia. Her self-funded site reinforces the idea that small acts of kindness can create lasting results and suggests simple deeds that appeal to both adults and children without usually asking for money.

She credits them with cheering up hundreds of hospitalized children, donating countless books to schools, libraries and hospitals, as well as backpacks to foster children who were literally carrying their belongings from home to home in a garbage bag.

“What kind of message does that send to them?” Tenzer asks rhetorically.
The ideas are often sent to Tenzer in the more than 200 weekly e-mails she receives from the site’s members, whom she calls “Niceaholics” because, Tenzer cautions, “you get hooked.”

Operation Feel Better, for example, encourages people to make or buy cards that she then sends to hospitalized children. “So far I’ve gotten 1,000 cards from all over the United States and as far away as China, and they’re still trickling in,” she says. The figure includes about 20 from her 14-year-old daughter.
“I brought some to UCLA Children’s Hospital and sent others to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis.”

Pulling out a big batch in a manila envelope, she adds, “These are on their way to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where sick children of all faiths lie side by side.”

Pointing to a wall in her home office that’s covered with pictures, Tenzer says, “These are some of the heroes who are making life better.”

She begins to cry as she talks about Mallory Lewis, with whom she spent the day at Fort Irwin near Barstow, the last stop before many of the soldiers are deployed to Iraq. “Some of the people we met were killed in the war. Maybe the last smile they had or their last taste of childhood was because of Mallory,” she sobs, noting that Lewis, the daughter of puppeteer Shari Lewis, performed with Lamp Chop for no fee.

“I’m not usually so emotional, but these people remind me of a higher purpose in life,” she adds. Getting teary-eyed again, she points to a picture of a young man who quit his job at a law firm to teach at an inner-city school, where he spent his free time helping students fill out college applications.

“Every one of them went to college because of him,” she said.

While some of the “nice people” Tenzer has recognized are spearheading grass-roots efforts or starting nonprofits to help the homeless, disadvantaged children, AIDS patients, abused animals or drug addicts, others are honored for simply making people smile. Bob Mortenson, for example, a retired man in his 70s, takes a walk every morning carrying a bag of cookies so that he can share something sweet with workers in his neighborhood. And on her way home from work as a gynecologist, Karen Gross has a daily ritual of dropping off treats at her local LAPD and Fire Department stations.

The one thing all the honorees have in common, Tenzer says, is their reaction to being praised.

“Every single one of them says something like, ‘Oh no, not me. Other people do so much more than I do,'” Tenzer says. “This is the sign of a truly kind person.”

When the kindness hits close to home, she’s especially grateful and pleasantly surprised.

“You won’t believe this,” she says, explaining that her younger son, Ben, a college junior who’s spending the semester in Barcelona, was recently pickpocketed. But within days, a taxi driver had found what remained of Ben’s wallet, including his credit cards and ID, and called his university in the United States so that he could arrange to return it.

“There really are a lot of nice people out there,” Tenzer says with a smile.
She attributes her sense of tikkun olam, healing the world, to her Conservative Jewish and Zionist upbringing in the Bay Area, values that she and her husband, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, have instilled in their children.
“I was always taught that we have a responsibility to other Jews and to the whole community,” she says, praising her parents for being role models. “Tikkun olam is in my soul. It’s just a reflex. It’s what’s expected of us.”
But she’s careful to point out that her site embraces people of all denominations and backgrounds.

“My goal is to unite people, not point out our differences,” she says. “I never ask people their faith, but it often comes out.”

Still, she admits that about half of all the people featured on the site are Jewish: “And I’m proud of that.”

Like her honorees, she’s also proud of her accomplishments, but won’t take all the credit. “It’s not all me by any means,” says Tenzer, who’s now working on a related book. “I just lit a match to get some light going out there. It’s the people all over the world who are keeping it going.”

A Different War


I went to bed on June 25 believing that Islamo-facism was our country’s most immediate threat. I woke up on June 26 to find out that no, it was The New York Times. That’s the day President Bush publicly criticized newspapers that exposed a secret U.S. government program that monitors international banking transactions. He called the disclosures a “disgraceful” act that could only help terrorists.

But it is his comments that strike me as not just a shame, but somewhat of a sham.

The president singled out The New York Times, though the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal published similar reports. Bush’s comments amplified attacks on The Times from Vice President Dick Cheney and administration supporters in the media.

Republicans in Congress joined the charge last Thursday, when the House voted along party lines to condemn news organizations for revealing the tracking program.

The Internet devoured the controversy. One blogger said it was time to take seriously the idea that the Sept. 11 attackers should have aimed for The Times headquarters in New York.

A cynic would say the administration picked a fight with The Times because, well, there’s a war it knew it could win, a diversion from the fact that we’re losing a bigger war.

The administration could charge The Times with endangering lives and America’s security, without ever having to prove that, as a result of The Times’ report, lives are in danger or America is at greater risk.

Prior to publication, The Times weighed this speculative risk against the public interest in government transparency and oversight. It can’t have been an easy choice. Newspapers are perfectly capable of being overzealous in their rush to reveal. “The difference between a stripper and a newspaper is that the former never pretends to be performing a public service by exposure,” the jouralist I.F. Stone once said.

But in this case the burden of proof was on the administration. Engaging in warrantless wire-tapping and establishing military tribunals that a conservative Supreme Court found unconstitutional last month does not engender trust.

The Times’ editors no doubt also took into account the fact that reports on financial tracking had appeared numerous times before, beginning with the president’s 2001 announcement that his administration would do everything in its power to disrupt the source of terrorist funding.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind details these steps in his recent book on the war on terror, “The One Percent Doctrine.”

In fact, Suskind writes, the initial success of the money-tracking led terrorist networks to abandon international money transfer by late 2003. “The al-Qaeda playbook,” he writes, “employed by what was left of the network, started to stress the necessity of using couriers to carry cash.” The Bush administration’s use of financial intelligence was “the most successful, coordinated area in the entire government in the ‘war on terror,'” in the words of a former CIA official Suskind quotes. But Al Qaeda — and Suskind — had it figured out long before The New York Times.

It seems a debate on press freedom and responsibility would, at the very least, be a welcome break from the weeks of speechifying over gay marriage and flag burning. But my fear is that this debate too is not part of the real war, but of the culture wars. Call me paranoid, but when the conservative base goes after The New York Times, I sense the attack is wrapped up with notions of “Jewish” and “liberalism.”

And some of my best friends are Jewish and liberal. (First they came for Howard Stern, then The New York Times, then –quick, call Jon Stewart).

I’m not alone in this thinking. “Many members of the president’s base consider ‘New York’ to be a nifty code word for ‘Jewish,'” Jon Carroll wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle.

George Bush has demonstrated over and over his concern for and appreciation of the Jewish community, but — when it’s time to rally the base — he knows which buttons to push.

And that’s too bad. Because even if we American Jews put aside our self-interest as a minority in protecting the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, we have an existential interest in the war on terrorists who have pledged to target us, in particular. And I’m afraid this brouhaha shows that the White House’s eye is drifting from the ball.

How badly?

Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress convened a panel of 100 of America’s top foreign policy experts. They were Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative and neoconservative. Nearly 80 percent worked in the U.S. government, a third in the military and 17 percent in the intelligence services. The magazine polled them on where America stood in its war on terror, and 86 percent said the world is becoming more dangerous for Americans.

Asked whether they agreed with the president that the United States is winning the war on terror, 84 percent said no, and 13 said yes. Of conservative respondents, 71 percent said no. (The results of the entire poll are in the magazine’s July/August issue and at www.foreignpolicy.com.)

The experts were also asked what America’s priorities should be in the war on terror.

They listed seven top items.

Guess what No. 1 was? Guess what 82 percent of conservative and liberal foreign policy experts agreed was the best way to win the war on terror? That’s right: “Reduce America’s use of foreign oil.”

Funny, shutting down The New York Times didn’t even make the list.

 

We Must Treat Others With Kindness


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I’m Going to Jail Over Darfur Genocide


(Editor’s note: This article was written and published prior to Rabbi Steve Gutow’s planned arrest.)

I’m going to jail.

Along with interfaith religious leaders, members of Congress and others, I am being arrested in Washington,

D.C., Friday, April 28, outside the Embassy of Sudan in a public protest of the continuing genocide in Darfur.

The aim is to focus attention on Darfur and to add stronger voices to help the Bush administration force the international community to take action to halt the tragedy. Our act is a prelude to the “Save Darfur” mass rally scheduled for Sunday on the National Mall.

Darfur is a remote region of western Sudan bordering Chad. The Arab-dominated Sudanese government has engaged in a genocidal policy in Darfur designed to ethnically cleanse the region of the mainly black African tribal people from whose ranks come rebel groups fighting the central government.

The situation is extraordinarily complicated. Human rights groups say the rebels are also responsible for abuses, including looting humanitarian aid convoys. Chadian bandits encouraged by Sudan’s actions also prey on the tribal population. Still, if the Sudanese government could be taken to task and forced to stop the abuses, most would stop.

It is not the combatants on either side but the unarmed civilians, the dirt-poor families who struggle for survival in the best of times, that suffer most. They are the victims of government-backed Arab militias known as the Janajweed, a group of poor, nomadic tribesman who are guns-for-hire in the conflict. Some 200,000 civilians have died and another 2 million have been forced from their villages and are refugees living their lives in sparely equipped camps beset by starvation and disease.

The situation could get worse in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s purported call for Islamic militants to head to Sudan to confront those involved in African Union and U.N. peace efforts. How ironic, given that both the Sudanese government and Darfur’s tribes are Muslim.

Given the difficulties of the situation, what good can come from my arrest?

In truth, the arrest is a little political theater designed to garner media attention in advance of Sunday’s mass demonstration. Such actions are commonplace in Washington. Law enforcement officials sanction in advance where and when they will take place. Protesters in violation of trespass laws are peaceably arrested and after a few hours in custody pay a small fine and are released.

There is no real sacrifice on my part. So again, what’s the point?

In a moment of exquisite — some would say divine timing, Haftarah Shemini, read in synagogue just last Shabbat, helps make my point.

The reading from II Samuel refers to the death of Uzzah. Uzzah is slain by God after he tries to keep the Ark of the Covenant from toppling from a cart pulled by oxen that lose their balance. The traditional explanation for Uzzah’s death is that despite his good intention, his touching the Ark was an act of irreverence for which he had to pay dearly.

As extreme, even outrageous, as this repercussion seems, I much prefer a more a contemporary explanation — one that sheds a moral light on Darfur: Uzzah’s offense was not that he dared touch the Ark, but that he allowed others, including no less a revered figure than King David, to arrange inappropriate transportation for the Ark, when Uzzah knew, or should have known, that the arrangement was lacking.

In short, Uzzah’s greater offense was his failure to act before it was too late, before disaster struck.

As Jews, we are directed to be proactive rather than merely reactive. Our responsibility is to question the actions of those in power and, when necessary, to draw public attention to their failings. We cannot simply sit back and blame outcomes on others. Uzzah’s death can show us that we bear the consequences of our inaction as well as our action.

The West’s reaction to Darfur until now is yet another example of how easy it is to wash our hands of a situation we believe does not affect us directly. We tell ourselves that we have issues closer to home and closer to our heart that must take priority, and we divert our gaze.

This week, we also commemorate Yom HaShoah, our own genocide of the Holocaust, and we say, “Never Again.” Well, it’s happening again.

As 21st century Jews, as citizens of a world made smaller by globalization, we do not have the luxury to look the other way. We are called to speak up and to do what we can. Too little, too late no longer cuts it. In this light, to be arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy is the very least one can do to bring attention to Darfur.

We must demand action on Darfur — from our government and from the world. And we must do all we can to ensure that this demand is heard.

Article provided courtesy of Washington Jewish Week.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a member of the executive committee of the Save Darfur Coalition.

 

Oops…Our 20th


The news these days is gruesome, so it’s difficult to feel celebratory. The brutal slaying of Ilan Halimi, a young Jew, by a gang of mostly Muslim anti-Semitic thugs in Paris; the fatal riots over a Danish cartoon; the death toll in Iraq — no wonder I overlooked a sort of milestone last week: The Jewish Journal turned 20.

Yes, honey, I forgot our anniversary — call it a guy thing.

Jewish Publications of Los Angeles, Inc. put out the first Journal on Feb. 28, 1986. We’ve produced a weekly paper for the Jewish community every week since. Many L.A. Jewish papers have come and gone; we’re by no means the longest-lived.

A Santa Ana printer named Lionel Edwards founded Los Angeles’ first English-language Jewish paper in 1897, the B’nai B’rith Messenger. It continued publishing in various forms for just over a century. Publisher Herb Brin founded the Heritage in 1954, and that paper lasted until 2002.

A group of men with ties to The Jewish Federation created The Jewish Journal to serve as an independent source of news and analysis for the community. Founding editor Gene Lichtenstein set a high standard for the paper’s coverage. At a time when it was economically dependent on its then-largest subscriber, The Jewish Federation, he fought for the paper’s editorial independence. (The Journal and Federation ended their subscription relationship last year.) Gene also sought out polished writers and thinkers, such as Yehuda Lev and the much-missed columnist Marlene Marks, and focused on stories that resonated beyond purely parochial concerns.

The first issue of The Journal featured a cover photograph of local anti-bussing activist Bobbi Fielder, and an accompanying story about the growing strength of the Jewish right, a story that, like a Hollywood action flick, we’ve been rewriting with different actors in the lead ever since.

The fact of our anniversary struck me as I was preparing remarks for a talk Saturday night at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge. Frankly, it wasn’t an appearance I was looking forward to.

I had agreed to speak to congregants almost a year ago, at the invitation of the synagogue’s rabbi. Steve Tucker was an easy person to say yes to: witty and kind, and an unceasing fan of the paper.

Then, on Nov. 10, Rabbi Tucker’s car veered off a road near Yosemite National Park. Police ruled the fatal crash a suicide. Rabbi Tucker left behind a wife and three children, and a congregation in deep shock and mourning.

The Journal reported on this tragedy in two stories that recounted what happened, outlined the circumstances that preceded the suicide and summarized the life and contributions of a much-beloved man.

We received a lot of criticism for how we reported the story. Many of the rabbi’s admirers felt we stained the reputation of a good man by reporting the police department’s conclusion that Rabbi Tucker took his own life. They said we added to his family’s already unbearable burden. Influential people within the Jewish community tried to quash the story. The Los Angeles Times, after all, wrote nothing about what happened. When our reporters made calls, some hung up on them.

“The day after it happened,” a congregant told me last weekend, “I came here and everybody was really angry — they were angry at The Journal.”

In many ways, what happened during this sad time reflects the challenges of Jewish journalism.

“We see ourselves as professionals struggling to balance a commitment to both journalistic integrity and communal sensitivity,” Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt once wrote. “But we know that others see us either as troublemakers trying to stir and spread controversy, or shills for the Jewish establishment, papering over communal discord — or both.”

We are part of the community we report on, for good or for ill. And there is a natural tension between a community’s desire to spread good news and be seen in the best possible light, and journalism’s role as a watchdog and truth-teller. As journalists, we believe the community is best served by having access to accurate information. But tell that to a synagogue or organization in the midst of scandal, or tragedy.

A passage in the Torah goes to the heart of this tension. “Thou shalt not go about as a talebearer among thy people,” reads Leviticus. The proscription against slander and gossip, lashon hara, would seem to circumscribe a Jewish paper’s content to births, marriage and death announcements — what we call hatches, matches and dispatches.

But the same sentence continues: “Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor: I am the Lord.”

In other words, this biblical admonition strongly suggests that sometimes we must reveal what we can when doing so will help those in trouble.

It is a delicate balance. It’s more pleasant to be the bearer of good news than bad, but we realize that to do our job well, we must print both.

When my invitation to speak at Temple Ramat Zion wasn’t rescinded, I expected congregants to excoriate The Journal for adding to their pain. Indeed, early on, a congregant expressed exactly that view in no uncertain terms.

I explained that, in the end, despite our own qualms, we chose to report on the circumstances surrounding Rabbi Tucker’s death in order to set the record straight, and to quell the ongoing spread of false rumors.

Imagine my relief when several people in the audience stood to praise us.

“You came through for us,” one man said. “You helped us understand.”

People in the audience applauded. Several more said that by reporting the truth, we shed light on an otherwise inexplicable act.

Twenty years ago, Jewish newspapers were often seen as an adjunct of communal boosterism, or as relics of a time when religion and ethnicity mattered more. Now the stories we cover — the Halimi tragedy, the riots in Denmark, the struggle against terror, democracy (or lack of it) in the Middle East, the rise of Hamas, a nuclear Iran — are crucial to Jews, and also vital to the wider community.

In other words, our work matters. Which means that more than ever, we have a responsibility to engage our task with seriousness and diligence.

We’ve begun our year of anniversary celebration with a cute stamp on the masthead — and we’ll continue it with a special issue in June and, we hope, some community-wide events as well. Most importantly, we’ll honor this year and this tradition by doing our jobs week by week.

I am grateful to those who had the vision to create and support this paper, the people who work so hard to produce it, and you, our readers, for sticking with us, in good times … and controversial ones.

 

Pupils Vote Yes on Democratic School


Under a classroom’s fluorescent lights, students and teachers scramble to find seats. An important “Parliament session” is under way as together, they hammer out a plan for allocating the school’s activities budget.

The scene is the Hadera Democratic School in Israel, where students take an equal role in deciding not only how and what to study but how the school is run.

As they debate how to spend the $27,000 activities budget, one student writes in neat letters at the top of the blackboard, “order of speakers.” A debate soon breaks out over how much money to spend on the school’s music department, and whether it’s worth purchasing additional acoustic equipment.

Next, the drama teacher asks for additional funds to allow students to see professional theater productions.

One by one, everyone in the room is heard. After much wrangling, a budget is produced for the school year.

The Hadera Democratic School, which receives funding from both public and private sources, was the first of its kind in Israel. Since its founding in 1987 in this city about 60 kilometers north of Tel Aviv, 23 other schools have opened around the country based on its model of democratic education, in which student participation and choice is emphasized.

With its relatively large number of democratic schools, Israel is considered a groundbreaker and leader in the field internationally.

There is growing interest in alternative schools in Israel, where the public school system is mired in a crisis born of poor teaching and disciplinary problems. The Hadera Democratic School has 350 students, with hundreds more on a waiting list.

Most of the students are secular and come from a variety of economic backgrounds. Scholarships help students from poorer families pay the annual tuition of approximately $1,200.

Among the school’s most famous alumni is Gal Fridman, the windsurfer who won Israel’s first Olympic gold medal in 2004.

Based on the idea that children are naturally curious and want to learn, the democratic schools focus on respecting the individual. There is close teacher-student interaction, and teachers — called “educators” by the students — mentor 15 students, in addition to their classroom duties.

With their elders’ help, students guide their own education. The goal is to instill in children the notion that they’re responsible for their choices.

There are no required classes, no grades or required tests. Staff and students are treated as equals and share in school decisions, sitting on a variety of committees that range from the school parliament to a teacher selection committee and a field trip committee.

Teachers say the committees are a key part of the education, teaching students how to analyze situations and make choices: “All these things they normally never have a chance to do,” said Aviva Golan, one of the teachers.

On the field trip committee, for example, it’s the students who hire the bus, organize the food and choose where to go.

Golan, who taught in a traditional school before coming to the Hadera Democratic School, no longer believes in conventional education.

“It’s bankrupt, and I believe children only learn from choice, not when they’re forced,” she said.

At traditional schools, she said, “I saw how I fought with kids instead of teaching them — the whole time telling them to be quiet. I believe kids need to move and play. It’s where the real things happen for them.”

The school itself hums with activity. Everywhere, students — from preschoolers to high school seniors — seem to be on the move. One girl reads a novel on a wooden bench. There are children juggling in the courtyard, while others bounce on pogo sticks.

On break, a group of boys plays soccer in the long sandy field in the center of the campus’ brightly painted buildings. Other students work in the computer lab, housed underground in a concrete bomb shelter.

Mike Moss, 17, came to the school as a disgruntled 11-year-old who was bored and restless in his regular school. He soon felt stimulated in the Hadera school and became active in the music and drama departments.

“I feel I would not be doing half the things I am doing here — preparing for matriculation, the music, the friendships — if I had stayed at regular school,” he said.

However, the Hadera school isn’t for everyone, Moss explained. He said students at the school need self-discipline and open minds.

Chen Shoham, 17, said the school has taught her to take responsibility for her education and her life.

“It’s about freedom as an individual and freedom of choice,” she said. “I do what I want and what I need to do. I’m responsible for my life.”

Shoham sits on the budget committee and helps oversee the budget requests each class submits.

“I’ve learned about priorities,” she said.

Traditional subjects such as math, English and history are taught, but it’s up to the students to decide if they’ll take them. Those who want to can study for the high school matriculation exam, which they need to pass with the highest possible marks to get into college.

The school’s principal, Rami Abramovich, said the students do well on the matriculation exam, but the school doesn’t keep data on how many students pass, because it doesn’t consider the matriculation exam a proper measure of whether a student has been educated well.

Students at the school speak of the value of learning outside of class — from philosophical conversations about the meaning of life to playing in a jazz band.

In contrast to the mainstream Israeli school system, there’s hardly any violence at the Hadera Democratic School.

“It’s because kids don’t feel the need to rebel against anything,” Shoham said.

Parents say they’re relieved to have found a setting where their children can thrive academically and socially.

“We think that regular public schools limit children,” said Hadass Gertman, a performance artist whose 8-year-old daughter attends the Hadera Democratic School. “We heard of children going through very bad experiences in public school, and we wanted her to enjoy learning, to enjoy school.”

Sitting outside the small, detached concrete building where he teaches 4- to 6-year-olds, Ron Vangrick spoke of being drawn to the job after growing disappointed with the mainstream educational framework.

“Education is going through a deep crisis because of a lack of relevance of what were once traditional goals,” such as treating others with respect, he said.

He believes that the unique atmosphere at the Hadera Democratic School contributes to the learning process.

“There’s a feeling of home here,” he explained. “It’s a relatively small place. There’s an atmosphere of living within a tribe. Kids of different ages are together and interact with respect and warmth. There is a feeling of childhood that is very powerful here.”

Abramovich, the principal, said the school works because it allows children to discover their own strengths. There’s learning in everything, he said — from the geometry of passing the ball on the soccer field to the negotiations behind staging a school play.

“Every child has his path and rhythm,” he stressed. “It’s a matter of finding it.”

 

Remember Sinai?


Immediately following the Ten Commandments, we read a series of instructions that seem a little out of place: You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make yourselves gods of gold. You need make for me only an earthen altar and bring your sacrifices there, and I shall come and bless you wherever my name is mentioned. If you build an altar of stone do not build it of hewn stones because you have desecrated them with your sword, and do not ascend my altar by steps lest your nakedness will be exposed upon it” (Exodus 20:23-26).

Before we delve into these verses let us eavesdrop on a tent in the Israelites’ encampment:

“Let me tell you son, what happened to me when I was about your age, shortly after leaving Egypt. It was the greatest moment of my life. I was standing with all the other Israelites, gathered around a mountain in the Sinai Desert when all of a sudden I felt that my soul is connected to the soul of every single person around me and to a higher, much more powerful source of spiritual energy. The whole world became quiet then and I heard the voice of God talking to me. Imagine, I, who was but a worthless slave yesterday, was now hearing the voice of God. I was overwhelmed, my legs were trembling and my whole body was weakened, I had a tremendous sense of fear but it was one of reverence and awe, not of terror, and it was accompanied with a great sense of joy. I felt that I didn’t want to let go, I wanted to drink that energy in and let it flood my whole being. Yes, sir! That was definitely the experience of a lifetime.”

“But grandpa, what did God tell you?”

“Honest to God, kid, I don’t remember.”

As strange as this conversation might sound, I have heard in many cases similar statements from people who have attended classes and lectures they thoroughly enjoyed but could not recall a word of what was said. As a matter of fact, God himself was concerned about the possibility of selective amnesia following the Mount Sinai experience, as we can learn from God’s words to Moses shortly after the event: “May [the Israelites] always be of such mind to revere me” (in the recap of the story in Deuteronomy 5:26).

The most sublime spiritual experience and the greatest motivational speech are rendered worthless if the listeners don’t come out with a practical application, something that they can take home and practice on a regular basis to enhance their own spiritual growth. One possible solution is to create a guide that will recapture the most important points of the lecture and will offer a program to be followed in order to maintain the initial spark and enthusiasm, and in the verses and chapters that follow the Ten Commandments, God does just that.

The following chapter in the Torah deals with financial laws, laws of damages, loans and properties. The message is that in order to keep the flame of Sinai alive, one should not indulge in nostalgia and live in the past but rather translate the spiritual experience to daily actions, actions that are carried out throughout our regular work day. Our personality is crafted and our spirituality is enhanced not only by offering prayers and attending services but by paying attention to the small details of our mundane life. How we deal with our employers, employees and clients, how ethically and honestly we run our business and practice and to what extent are we willing to take responsibility if we caused damage to anyone or infringed upon their rights. The Torah leads us up the road of spiritual growth and we can see that it is paved with myriad small acts of mutual consideration and constant self-education.

If we now analyze the verses that immediately succeed the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:19-23) we may read them as follows: You shall not bow down to gold and silver, rather conduct your business and financial life ethically. Wherever I mention my name I will come to you and bless you, because you can bring holiness everywhere you go and with everything you do. The reverence of God and the Torah-directed life are not limited to the precincts of a temple, a tabernacle or a synagogue. An altar cannot be built of hewn stones, desecrated by the sword, an instrument of war, because if holiness is everywhere there is no place for religious fanaticism and for spreading God’s word by means of war and bloodshed. Finally, the Torah warns not to ascend the altar by steps, an allusion to people who use religion’s power as a means to aggrandize themselves and control others. The Torah places the authority and responsibility of leading a balanced religious life in the hands of every individual, and while in a sense it decentralizes religion, it empowers us to create a better world.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

 

Parent Wins School Pesticide Battle


A new law that bans that use of experimental pesticides in schools is the latest achievement of Robina Suwol, a Jewish anti-pesticide activist.

The law, which took effect last month, grew out of a presentation two years ago before an L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) advisory committee of which Suwol was a part.

As Suwol recalled it, a researcher asked to use LAUSD school sites to test an experimental pesticide.

“The woman said, ‘We use less [pesticides] and they’re stronger [so] therefore they’re safer,'” Suwol said. “We all kind of laughed and politely declined.”

But in the back and forth, the researcher mentioned that a school site had already been secured in Ventura County for the experimental product.

“That haunted me, and I began to research it,” she said.

What Suwol said she found was an arena of murky practices and documentation. It wasn’t clear that experimental pesticides were being used at any schools, she said, but it also wasn’t clear that they weren’t or that they never had been — or that they wouldn’t be tried at school sites in the future. So she decided to do something about it.

Suwol soon met with various environmental and public health organizations to marshal opposition to experimental pesticides in schools: “Everyone was on board that this was a curious loophole.”

Assembly member Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando) agreed to author the legislation, which became Assembly Bill 405. Assemblymember Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) backed it, as did organizations including the California Medical Association, the state PTA, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and many others.

An early critic of the effort was the state’s own Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), which has responsibility over these matters. At the time, officials there characterized the proposed restrictions as potentially redundant, confusing and over-reaching.

While permission to test can, in fact, be granted to experimental pesticides whose safety has not been determined, these permits “are time-limited, relatively few, and are closely controlled under very specific and restrictive conditions,” said Glenn Brank, director of communications for the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

He added that the department “has never allowed an experimental pesticide project at an active school facility, and we never would.”

Suwol said she had trouble obtaining data from the department about experimental test sites. Brank insisted, however, that such data is publicly available on request.

As it happens, even the researcher whose comment prompted Suwol’s quest contends there was a misunderstanding. This different version of events was reported by a pesticide industry news e-journal on Pesticide.net called Insider, which identified the researcher in question as UC Berkeley entomologist Gail Getty.

Getty told Insider that she did indeed give L.A. Unified a presentation on an anti-termite poison that she was researching called Noviflumuron. But as for the Ventura County school test site, Getty told Insider that it was an abandoned school building fenced off from the public due to extreme termite damage — though she acknowledged that she did not mention this fact during her Los Angeles presentation. She added that her aim was simply to make LAUSD aware that a potentially helpful product was in the works. In the end, Getty told Insider, her test in Ventura never happened anyway. Noviflumuron received EPA approval in 2004.

Whatever the case, as far as Suwol and the legislation’s backers are concerned, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Lawmakers passed AB405 in 2005 and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law. The Department of Pesticide Regulation says it fully supports the new regulations in their present form. The bill was eventually amended to avoid the problem of creating potential legal hurdles if a school used a widely accepted product, such as bleach, in ways not specifically mentioned in regulations.

Suwol’s interest in the subject of pesticides dates to 1998, when a worker accidentally sprayed her 6-year-old son, Nicholas, with a weed killer as he walked up the steps of Sherman Oaks Elementary.

“I saw someone in white near the steps,” said Suwol, then “Nicholas yelled back at me, ‘Mommy, it tastes terrible!'”

Nicholas suffered a severe asthma attack afterward. Suwol started meeting with doctors and scientists, and she began raising concerns with L.A. Unified officials. At first she was treated like one more crazy mom, but she persisted, eventually getting the attention of the school board, where she got backing from board members Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky.

In some cases, she made officials consider the obvious: Why should pesticides be sprayed when children are present?

Today, Suwol heads California Safe Schools, an L.A.-based nonprofit that advocates lower-risk pest control in schools, including barriers and natural predators, and keeping parents and school staff informed when poisons must be used. Its advisory board includes directors of various environmental organizations, including Dr. Joseph K. Lyou of the California Environmental Rights Alliance and William E. Currie of the International Pest Management Institute.

At L.A. Unified, her efforts bore fruit in the 1999 creation of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, which recommends a more holistic approach to eliminating pests and weeds than simply dousing them with poisons. It was before the district’s IPM oversight committee, on which Suwol sits, that she first heard from the pesticide researcher and became convinced there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

The governor’s office and others, Suwol said, “recognized that this was a situation that, even if it happened in just a few instances, should be stopped.”

 

Austria Makes Reparations for Nazi Past


The expulsion and extermination of 182,000 Austrian Jews during the Nazi era is a wound that will never heal completely, but two important decisions during recent weeks at least point to a symbolic closure for the dwindling number of survivors and the Austrian government.

In a high-profile case, Maria Altmann won her seven-year battle to recover from Austria five famous paintings looted by the Nazis and now valued at $200 million. The art works were seized in Vienna in 1938 from Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish sugar magnate and Altmann’s uncle.

After an even longer period of legal and diplomatic wrangling, a court decision has cleared the final hurdle for payment of restitution money to survivors or the heirs of victims.

The drawn-out Altmann case finally reached its end when the Austrian government accepted the decision of an arbitration court in Vienna that the five paintings by Gustav Klimt rightfully belonged to Altmann and four relatives.

The decisive ruling in favor of Altmann and her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, is “the most important victory in the entire history of litigation on Holocaust restitution,” said professor Michael J. Bazyler of Whittier Law School, whose latest book, “Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy,” has just been published by New York University Press.

Altmann, a tall and animated Cheviot Hills resident, who will celebrate her 90th birthday next month, greeted the decision as “Fabulous…. It is wonderful that justice has finally been done, that was my whole goal.”

Born Maria Victoria in Vienna in 1916, she was raised the pampered daughter of the fabulously wealthy Bloch-Bauer family. Her uncle Ferdinand owned Austria’s largest sugar-refining factory, numerous mansions and a major art collection.

The Bloch-Bauers were Jewish, but in the selective manner typical of central Europe’s Jewish upper class.

“We went to a temple once a year on Yom Kippur, where I remember seeing the Rothschilds, the men in top hats and cutaway coats,” Altmann recalled. “But otherwise, we celebrated Christmas and Easter. That’s sometimes hard to explain to American Jews.”

In December 1937, in the last grand Jewish wedding in Vienna, Maria Block-Bauer married Fritz Altmann, an aspiring opera singer. The newlyweds left for an extended honeymoon. Shortly after their return, Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna, amid the unrestrained jubilation of the Austrian people, Maria Altmann remembers well. In one of their first acts, the Nazis seized the art collection of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, including the Klimt paintings.

The most famous of the paintings is a gold-flecked portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, currently a centerpiece of the Austrian National Gallery and one of the most reproduced pictures of all time.

Following the ruling, there remain some loose ends to be tied up, especially whether Austria will try to buy the Adele portrait, considered a national treasure, from Altmann.

The portrait itself is valued at about $100 million, and the government has said it cannot afford the sum, which is equal to the annual budget for all Austrian museums.

It is Austria’s hope that a generous private donor might step up and pick up the tab.

The other Klimt works are a second portrait of Bloch-Bauer and three landscapes.

Schoenberg predicts that his client’s victory will encourage other governments and museums, especially in France and Spain, to arrive at settlements on other cases of Nazi looted art taken from Jews during the Hitler era.

A bizarre touch was added last week, when Schoenberg received an anonymous e-mail, whose sender threatened to destroy the Klimt paintings in order for “hungry people to get bread.” Austrian authorities temporarily removed the paintings from the National Gallery, and then arrested a 50-year-old man, tracked down through his Internet provider.

The unidentified man claimed that he was drunk when he sent the e-mail.

Until two years ago, Altmann, mother of four and grandmother of six, supported herself by running a fashionable dress shop for women over 40.

Her fortunes have changed in recent months. In addition to the money she is expected to receive under the settlement with Austria or the sale of some of the Klimt paintings, Altman and 13 co-heirs got $21.8 million last year in recompense for the sugar factory and other properties seized by the Nazis.

Although the Bloch-Bauers had the foresight to set up a trust account for the factory’s stock in a Swiss bank to shield it from seizure, the bank turned around and sold everything to a well-connected German businessman at a fraction of its value.

Altmann said she plans no changes in her lifestyle.

“I’ll stay in the same home where I’ve lived for 30 years and keep driving my ’92 Ford,” she said. “And I don’t need any new clothing.”

However, she plans “to do something” for the Jewish communities in Austria and the United States and for Israel.

Once the money is in hand, she also hopes to realize her long-held dream of sponsoring a performance by the Los Angeles Opera, starring her idol, tenor Placido Domingo. The event would be dedicated to her late husband, whose operatic career was cut short when he had to flee Austria.

Altmann said she had urged Austria seven years ago to arbitrate the dispute, “but I never got a response back.”

Schoenberg savored the end of the lengthy confrontation, noting that “at the beginning, we didn’t think we had any chance at all.”

A decisive break in the legal proceedings came in June 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Austria could be sued in a U.S. court, despite the opposition of the Austrian and American governments.

The Supreme Court decision helped Austria “to finally see the light” and agree to arbitration, Schoenberg said.

Austria Accepts Responsibility

While the Altmann case has made headlines, it is only part of the larger question of Austria’s responsibility toward Nazi victims in the postwar decades. Austria, whose native son Adolf Hitler incorporated it into the Third Reich during the 1938 Anschluss, played the role of “first victim” of the Nazis, guiltless of the Holocaust and other atrocities.

This attitude changed in the mid-1990s, when the Austrian president admitted for the first time that his country bore its share of blame for Nazi crimes against Jews, as well as against the Roma and Sinti (gypsies), homosexuals and the disabled.

In 1995, the Austrian parliament established the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, which over the past 10 years has appropriated some $770 million under various programs compensating for loss of property, education, pensions, tenancy rights, and for slave labor and hardship cases.

But Austria has held back a good chunk of the allotted money, some $210 million, until the government was guaranteed that no subsequent class-action suits against Austrian businesses would be filed by survivors.

Last month, a U.S. District court in New York dismissed all such class-action suits, a decision welcomed by the Claims Conference, which negotiated with Austria on behalf of survivors.

The first payments to some 19,000 claimants in 69 countries are to start next December and should be completed one year later, said Hannah M. Lessing, secretary general of the Austrian National Fund. Lessing was in Los Angeles last week to meet with survivors and, accompanied by Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, met with The Journal over cappuccino at a Brentwood restaurant.

Lessing was born in Vienna in 1963, the daughter of a Jewish photographer who had fled from Vienna to Palestine in 1939, but returned to his native city after the war. He had left behind his mother and grandmother, who both perished in Auschwitz.

Lessing’s non-Jewish mother, with Hannah and her siblings, formally converted to Judaism in 1973. Her later resumé includes a stay in Israel, where she worked as a hotel receptionist and businesswoman.

The raven-haired Lessing wore a prominent Star of David around her neck, which led to a question about the widely reported wave of anti-Semitism again rising in Europe.

She said that the reports were greatly exaggerated, although remnants of classical anti-Semitism remain and in France, especially, threats from young Muslim immigrants.

“I wear my Star of David in Vienna without any comments or incidents,” Lessing said. “But when I’m in Paris, my friends think I’m crazy to do so, and in New York I am often advised that I might be better off leaving it at home.”

On a subtler level, she acknowledged that most non-Jewish Austrians would categorize her first as a Jew and secondly as an Austrian, just as in past decades most non-Jewish Americans considered Jewish citizens as not “real Americans.”

Her answer drew a pained rebuttal from Consul General Weiss.

“I am a Catholic, and I consider Hannah as much an Austrian as I am,” he protested.

When Lessing switched from her career as a banker five years ago to accept her present position, she insisted on a pro-active policy of seeking out survivors, open access by claimants to her offices and a minimum of red tape. Nevertheless, she acknowledged criticism that the whole process is still too slow and complex, especially given the advanced age of the remaining survivors.

“There are only some 12,500 Austrian survivors still alive, and every time one dies, we lose,” she said.

Lessing also wishes that she could raise the payment rate for Jewish property lost during the Nazi era, which now stands at only 10 to 15 percent of current valuation.

“No amount of money can ever make up for the suffering of the Holocaust,” she said. “Whatever we do is meant as a gesture of reconciliation toward our former citizens.”

 

Juvenile Offenders Taste Teshuvah


The slightly built, 13-year-old Latino boy sitting in the Starbucks near downtown Los Angeles didn’t know much about teshuvah, the Jewish notion of repentance.

But it lies at the heart of L.A.’s Jewish Community Justice Project, and it kept this scared kid with the tremulous smile from a likely stint in juvenile boot camp for throwing rocks at a police car.

Instead of going before a judge, the boy was brought face-to-face with the policeman whose car he’d damaged, and in a two-hour meeting facilitated by two trained mediators, he had to tell the cop he was sorry.

Then he had to pledge to make restitution by working a set number of hours for his parents and a local gardening firm to pay $200 for a new car window.

“I felt nervous in that room,” the boy admitted. “I told him I was stupid, and not thinking about what I was doing at that moment. He was kind, he was a good person. He told me to thank my parents for raising me.”

It was the first time the boy had worked for money, and his mother said he was tempted to keep the first $50 he made.

“But I told him, ‘You have to take care of your responsibilities first,'” she said.

The Jewish Community Justice Project is a partner of the Centinela Valley Juvenile Diversion Project, which has been running a victim-offender restitution program in Los Angeles since 1992.

Four years ago, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles funded the joint project between Centinela and two L.A.-based Jewish groups, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery program.

According to the agreement, the PJA trains volunteers to mediate in cases forwarded by local law enforcement and juvenile courts. There currently are almost 60 Jewish volunteer mediators.

“The alliance with PJA has been so exciting because they’ve recruited motivated, dedicated volunteers,” said Steve Goldsmith, Centinela’s executive director. “The religious component, the education of teshuvah, really keeps the people motivated.”

The mediation project is based on the legal concept of restorative justice, according to which offenders must take personal responsibility for their crimes and make restitution directly to those they have offended.

Participants say it dovetails neatly with the Talmudic notion of teshuvah, which specifies that one must seek forgiveness from those one has wronged before asking God’s forgiveness, something Jews are meant to do every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Part of teshuvah is attending to what one did, and turning to the person who was hurt or offended to see whether you can come back to an open relationship with that person and their family,” said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Levy helped create the Jewish part of the curriculum — eight hours of Jewish text study on justice and forgiveness — for the volunteer training program.

Daniel Sokatch, director of the PJA, said he brought his organization into the program in 2002, when Los Angeles became the nation’s murder capital.

“We realized that most of the murders were in the 310 area code, home to most of the Jews who don’t live in the Valley,” Sokatch said.

The most affected neighborhoods weren’t those where many Jews live, Sokatch said, but “it’s still our city, and in the words of Jeremiah, you must work for the welfare of the city where you live and there find your own well-being.”

Cases involving murder aren’t eligible for mediation. Most of the what comes to Centinela involves petty theft, vandalism, bullying and similar crimes.

One of the hardest parts of the program is making sure that appropriate cases are referred to them. There were 45,000 youths arrested last year in Los Angeles, Goldsmith said, yet Centinela received only 600 to 700 referrals.

To address that problem, Sokatch said, the next volunteer training program in early 2006 will include a separate, less-intensive track for volunteers, who will learn how to schmooze intake cops, “visit them every week, bring doughnuts and coffee and review the docket with them” to ensure that fewer juvenile offenders slip through the cracks.

Jordan Susman, a former television writer and filmmaker, was in Sokatch’s first group of volunteer mediators.

“I felt that’s what a Jewish organization should do,” said Susman, who is now a third-year law student. “It appeals to my Jewish point of view. The juvenile justice system is beyond broken — once you’re in the system, you learn how to be a better criminal. This is about breaking that cycle.”

Keren Markuze, a documentary television writer, has mediated about a dozen cases since her training last year.

“Jewish law is very big on giving people chances,” she said. “Let’s do everything we can to make sure the punishment is appropriate, especially when we talk about children.”

Jewish law also takes intention into consideration when looking at crime, Markuze noted. She described one case she mediated in which a boy stole pants, a shirt and shoes from a department store.

During the mediation, the boy confessed in tears that his mother was laid off and couldn’t afford to buy him a new school uniform, and he was tired of being humiliated by the other kids at school for his clothes.

“That’s an issue of economic justice,” Markuze proclaimed. “Of course, he had to learn that stealing is not a solution, but for him to end up in the conventional justice system would have been tragic.”

Restorative justice programs exist in many cities around the world, according to several Web sites devoted to the topic. And it’s not about feeling sorry for kids — statistics show that such programs work.

According to the Center for Restorative Justice and Mediation at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, recidivism rates are lower following mediation than following traditional punishment. Approximately 80 percent of young offenders who participated in mediation complete their restitution to their victims, compared to just 58 percent of offenders who were ordered to do restitution by the courts, but who did not sit face-to-face with those they had wronged.

“When you go to court, you’re not sitting across from your victim, forced to look them in the eye and hear what they have to say to you,” Markuze said. “It’s very powerful.”

Susman said he has his young offenders “do the math” to figure out the number of jobs lost because of crimes like theirs every year in Los Angeles. When they realize it’s their parents and friends who are losing those jobs, it “really affects them,” he said.

In the L.A. mediation project, Goldsmith said, about 70 percent of juvenile offenders complete their restitution pledges. He pointed to a study done by California’s Supreme Court that found the re-arrest rate was half that of young criminals who did not go through mediation.

“It helps divert kids from the court system, and it actually shows a pretty good success rate of keeping kids out,” said Michael Nash, presiding judge of L.A. County Juvenile Court. “Not every kid needs to be brought into the court system if there’s another way they can be

held accountable, make restitution to the victim and develop a sense of responsibility.”

The mediators take away something from it as well. For Susman, who said he and his wife are “always looking for ways to incorporate more Judaism” into their lives, acting as a court mediator “is where my Judaism is expressed existentially through the actions I do.”

Markuze said she often “feels ambivalent” after a mediation, “because there’s so much more we as a society could be doing.”

Sometimes she feels the juveniles “aren’t really contrite.” But overall, she said, “I feel good I’ve given someone a chance to make amends.”

The next volunteer mediator training session will be held in the spring. For information, contact www.pjalliance.org.

 

Articles of Faith


 

I keep wondering how the editors of Newsweek will frame their upcoming editorial note correcting their misreported story on the Quran desecration.

At least 17 people were killed in riots that broke out after the May 1 Newsweek story asserting that American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, tried to humiliate prisoners by flushing a Quran down the toilet.

The report infuriated Muslims throughout the world. In Afghanistan, an anti-American riot broke out that left some 17 people dead and more than 100 wounded.

By Monday, Newsweek retracted the story. But somehow the lexicon of terse editorial apology falls short. “Newsweek regrets the error” just doesn’t begin to cover it.

No, this isn’t like getting the domestic supplier numbers on a Wal-Mart story wrong by a factor of 10, which the magazine also did last week. This was a matter of faith and belief, which, to the apparent surprise of Newsweek editors, also is a matter of life and death.

“The big point that leaps out is the cultural one,” Michael Isikoff, who reported the story for Newsweek, told The New York Times. “Neither Newsweek nor the Pentagon foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Quran was going to create the kind of response that it did.”

What? How is that possible?

Isikoff, the other reporter John Barry and Newsweek’s editors should have been more savvy.

“It does seem incredible to me that a reporter wouldn’t understand that desecrating someone’s holy book would be an outrageous offense,” said professor Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “It would help if Isikoff and other reporters knew when they wrote these things that they would have an effect.”

At the same time, Newsweek had every right and responsibility to report the story correctly. After all, if my government is using the profanation of religion as a torture tactic, I’d like to know about it. The documented abuses at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers have tarnished the positive results of the Iraq War, and there is every reason for a democracy to monitor its military. Shifting the focus to the messenger for a moment, however justified, shouldn’t distract journalists from pursuing important stories with hard-to-anticipate consequences.

The lesson in this tragedy is not just the obvious one about relying on shaky anonymous sources. It is this: Journalists need to learn to take religion seriously.

“Religion, spirituality and moral values are the heart of each of us,” said former Los Angeles Times editor Michael Parks, “and they’re not covered by the news media, not nearly enough, not well enough.”

Parks, who also belongs to The Journal’s board, directs the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School For Communication. He spoke at the installation ceremony for Winston held April 8 at USC. Winston holds the only J-school chair in the country dedicated to religion and media (Columbia’s Ari Goldman also specializes in religion and media).

The chair’s creation couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

Think about it: Sept. 11, Terri Schiavo, the Kansas City Board of Education debate on creationism, “The Da Vinci Code,” the “Left Behind” series, the former and current popes, Orthodox protesters in Jerusalem — faith has leapt from the ghetto of the sleepy, weekly “Religion Section” to the bloody, daily front page.

The problem, as Winston told me, is that reporters are by and large ill-equipped to handle the move.

“Most of us don’t have a background in world religion,” Winston said of journalists. “How do we make sense of it? How do we feel about it? We know these are important issues, but we don’t know what to think about them.”

The result is coverage that often portrays religion in a black-and-white, kooks-versus-rational-beings way, which fails to draw out and explain the more mysterious, faith-based aspects of belief. And then there’s the example of Newsweek, which should have at least delved into the potential consequences of the Quran-flushing accusations before reporting them.

There are exceptions. Winston said the Los Angeles Times’ Teresa Watanabe, Don Lattin at the San Francisco Chronicle and writers Jeff Sharlet, Jeffrey Goldberg and Yossi Klein Halevi do excellent jobs translating complex religious issues to the public.

Winston’s own background straddles religion, journalism and academia. She has a doctorate in religion from Princeton University, a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, a master’s in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a bachelor’s from Brandeis University.

She worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times Herald and The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and directed religion and media projects at New York University and Northwestern University.

Now settled in Los Angeles, she is a member of the IKAR congregation, where her 5-year-old daughter attends Hebrew school. Her two stepdaughters are Presbyterian.

Los Angeles, Winston said, is an ideal place for journalists to learn how to bridge the worlds of faith and facts.

“People have this idea of L.A. being godless and irreligious, but that stereotype is not representative of the larger culture here,” she said. “This city is a living laboratory of religious diversity, and people here take it seriously.”

Now Winston needs to train a new generation of journalists to do the same.

 

How Funny Is Passover?


Passover is not primarily known for being a funny holiday, but don’t tell that to Terry and Patty LaBan. The creators of “Edge City,” who have brought contemporary Jewish American suburban life to the funny pages since 2000, are giving the Ardin family the ultimate seder storyline — four panels at a time.

From April 11-30, the Ardins will confront a situation loosely based on something that happened one Passover to Terry and Patty LaBan, cartoonist and plot/character developer, respectively, when Patty’s mother decided to take a break on hosting a seder.

When responsibility for Passover shifts in the comic strip from Abby’s mother to Abby herself, she frantically copes with the numerous preparation tasks — such as paying her kids, Colin and Carly, $5 each to rid the house of chametz. Meanwhile, husband Len — a technophile — madly researches the Internet for how to lead a seder.

While Jewish comic characters have been around for decades, Terry LaBan said there’s a reason why there aren’t enough in today’s papers for a minyan.

“Syndicates have always wanted strips with characters that the maximum number of people will identify with, so there hasn’t been a lot of incentive to do a strip with characters who are Jewish,” he said. “We didn’t intend at the beginning they’d be explicitly Jewish, but having them celebrate Christmas just because it was the standard thing to do just didn’t seem right…. When we decided that our characters would be Jewish, we realized we had an opportunity to show how Judaism can be a normal — and positive — part of people’s lives.”

And if the feedback from their Jewish readers is any indication, the Ardin family might just start a two-dimensional trend.

“Many people have spoken or written, thanking us for portraying characters … in a way where their Jewishness isn’t always the main point, but just another aspect of their lives,” LaBan said.

To see what happens to the Ardins, visit www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/edgecity/about.htm.

Women Still Struggle to ‘Have It All’


 

More than 30 years after Gloria Steinem founded Ms. Magazine and Sally Priesand was ordained a rabbi, more than 25 years after Judith Resnick became an astronaut and more than 10 years after Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Jewish women, along with their non-Jewish counterparts, have discovered that they can have it all — at a steep price.

Many women must work to support their families, but it turns out that many others just aren’t willing to. They are opting out of lucrative, high-powered positions to stay home, while others are settling for part-time, non-career-track jobs. They are claiming that the all-consuming demands of the workplace are incompatible with the all-consuming demands of childrearing.

They choose to underutilize expensive advanced-degree educations, believing they are rightly making their family’s best interests a top priority.

On the one hand, ostensibly in pursuit of professional lives, American women are earning more than half of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees and constituting almost half of all law school and medical school classes. They are delaying marriage and childbirth and having fewer children, Jewish women even more so, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01. And slightly less than one-fifth of all American women, and slightly more than one-quarter of all Jewish American women, are actually remaining childless.

On the other hand, women with children, at whatever age they give birth, are choosing to stay home in greater numbers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, stay-at-home mothers numbered 5.4 million in 2003, about 850,000 more than a decade earlier.

“We got it all, but we didn’t get to lose any of our responsibilities along the way,” said Candice Koral, the mother of two daughters, now 22 and 16, and head of her own nonprofit strategic development company. “It’s really hard. I always feel my life is put together with spit and a prayer.”

So can women realistically have it all? Or do career trajectories irreconcilably collide with biological clocks and children’s needs? And is the American workplace failing to adjust to this reality?

Linda Hirshman, attorney, author and former Brandeis professor, believes that most women are failing themselves.

“They are not bargaining with their partners in family creation to distribute responsibility between them,” she said. “They don’t expect to lead dignified, independent and interesting lives. They expect to take on the whole burden of the family,” she said.

In her research on working women, Hirshman interviewed professional women who’d announced their weddings in The New York Times in 1996. She discovered, unexpectedly, that within eight years, 85 percent had jettisoned their successful careers to stay home full or part time.

She claims that most women are not genuinely engaged in their careers from the get-go and are not willing to work as hard as men.

“The handful who stick it out are passionate about their work and relentless about negotiating with their husbands,” she said.

Hirshman believes this is a hidden social problem in America, a problem that no one is willing to talk about. She says that jobs wouldn’t be all-consuming and all-demanding if men were not freed up by their wives to take them. She also believes that women are not more naturally fitted to be nurturing parents or that it’s a more noble life to be taking care of children than to be president of General Electric.

“If it’s so noble, why aren’t men doing it?” she asked.

There’s no conclusive scientific data on whether women are superior, innate caregivers, clinical psychologist Dr. Jody Kussin said. What is clear, she added, is that in dual-parent families, whether heterosexual or homosexual, one parent tends to be more involved in the day-to-day nurturing of children.

Kussin contended, however, that people are asking the wrong question.

“The question isn’t whether a woman should work or not work,” she said, “but rather what does a woman do with her adulthood?”

For some women, the answer is to forgo having children in favor of a career. Others need to be engaged full time in childrearing. The rest need to carve out their own individual and often intricate niches along the work/family continuum, invariably necessitating compromise and sacrifice.

“What amazes me are the lengths to which women go to figure out what works for them,” said Kimberly Krug, who has worked a flexible but mostly full-time schedule as a travel agent while raising her son, now 15. “There’s no glory in this.”

“There are no role models,” added Leslie Cohen, a partner at Liner, Yankelevitz in Westwood and the mother of 9-year-old twins and a 13-year-old. Cohen, who wanted to be a lawyer since she was 14, has made it her mission to prove that a woman can have a great career as well as great kids that she enjoys.

“I squeeze and I compromise and I accommodate every day,” she said. She is also incredibly judicious about priorities.

“I take my kids to school every single solitary day,” she said, even occasionally asking judges to reschedule hearings.

But she also delegates other tasks to nannies and family members. Her mother, for example, arrives on weekday mornings “to make oatmeal and ponytails.” And she devotes nights and weekends after the kids are asleep to doing work.

But for Siobhan Rudnick, mother of two children, ages 12 and 7, relying on nannies would never happen. Last June, when her husband’s job required more traveling, she voluntarily quit her 30-hour-a-week job as a hair stylist.

“For me, my priority has always been to raise my kids myself,” she said.

And while she misses the adult interaction of work, she found a way to do hair in her home, on her terms, as well as to volunteer more frequently in her children’s schools. She also finds time for hobbies. She still feels always busy, though not as exhausted, and still feels she spends too much time in her car.

“I wish there was a way to do both,” she mused. “But my life isn’t really about me right now. It’s about my kids. I’m happy to be home.”

For public-interest lawyer Audrey Kraus, however, the mother of a 6-year-old, 3-year-old and an infant, work is nondiscretionary. After having her first child, she managed a four-day-a-week litigation job, but as the other kids came along she had to compromise further.

For last four years, Kraus has worked a contained 20-hour-a-week job at the Western Law Center for Disability Rights in Los Angeles, coordinating pro bono cases with other law firms. She sacrificed a career growth path, but she’s working with a population she cares about in a supportive office. And she feels the gains for her family have been immeasurable.

Yet her life still seems divided, with a lot not getting done.

“It feels like we live a chaotic existence between work, Sabbath observance, the children’s care and our community activities,” she said. “That’s pretty much all there is. But it’s a good life, a very rich life.”

Of course, there’s another issue besides adult fulfillment: the well-being of children.

“What’s best for children, and science backs this up, is to have healthy, happy parents who, whether they work or stay home, can put their children’s needs at the forefront,” said Kussin, who teaches and directs a doctoral program at Phillips Graduate Institute in Encino and is the mother of three children, ages 17, 15 and 13.

“Here’s what we know about kids,” she added. “They’re very resilient and they need only two things to have a strong sense of self — a sense of mastery that comes from such activities as doing their own homework or learning to ride a bike and the knowledge that they’re loved and valued.”

Kussin maintained that women don’t have to stay home full time for kids to get those two things, although many policy-makers as well as lay and religious leaders still cling to the “June Cleaver” model of mothering.

“I think society is behind in creating the kinds of opportunities that allow women to take their training and ambitions and reconcile them with their personal lives,” said Kraus, the public-interest lawyer.

And so, 30 years after the second wave of the Feminist Revolution, the challenge of accommodating career and family remains unresolved.

Author Hirshman calls it a “harsh picture.”

Koral, the head of the non-profit, views the matter pragmatically: “This is just a huge issue that everybody has to work through somehow. There is no perfect answer.”

Additional Resources

“The Third Shift: Managing Hard Choices in Our Careers, Homes and Lives as Women” by Michele Bolton (Jossey-Bass 2000).

“Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives” by Anna Fels (Pantheon, 2004).

“Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett (Miramax Books, 2002).

“The Second Shift” by Arlie Russell Hochschild and Anne Machung (Penguin Books, 2003).

“Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” by Judith Warner (Riverhead Books, 2005).

“Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It” by Joan Williams (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Israel Criticism Must Be Well-Founded


 

What are the limits for criticizing Israel? Many condemn the Jewish community’s refusal to listen to harsh criticism, while others object to the aggressiveness of the attacks against the Jewish state. Both sides claim to express themselves only on grounds of their “love” and concern for Israel.

It is essential to distinguish between constructive and destructive criticism. In order to do so, it may be useful to take an example from everyday life. Once in a while, in every community — be it a family, be it friends or colleagues — someone may make a mistake. Should we confront that person or not, and if so, in which way? In Jewish tradition, it isn’t merely permissible, but imperative to reprimand one’s fellow Jew if he or she has committed a wrongdoing: “Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).

This stems from the sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility that binds the Jewish community.

In order for criticism to have a positive impact, three preconditions are essential:

\n

• It must be based on verifiable evidence.

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• The critic must take into consideration the context under which the offensive act took place and try to understand the total picture.

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• The critic must understand that nobody can be held responsible for an action for which there was no reasonable alternative.

These conditions apply within the Jewish community as well as in our relationship to the State of Israel. We resemble an extended family feeling responsible for one another. Any deliberation about our faults must be conducted within the community. Only well-founded, balanced, and sympathetic criticism can have a positive effect.

Criticism that does not comply with these conditions may turn dangerously destructive.

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• When censure is based on distorted or false information, it is malicious and defamatory. The Jenin “massacre” is an example. Newspapers the world over reported on Jenin as an “atrocious war crime,” a refugee camp that became a slaughterhouse. They reported thousands of killed. In reality, as confirmed by the United Nations, a total of 52 Palestinians were killed, a majority of whom were armed terrorists. On the other hand, what generally went unreported was that 23 Israelis were sacrificed in ground combat — a tactic chosen to minimize civilian casualties among the Palestinians.

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• To ignore the circumstances surrounding a complex situation and to rip it out of context are both immoral and reckless. It is outrageous to fault Israel for not allowing Palestinian ambulances unrestricted access at checkpoints — while failing to note that these Red Cross vehicles are often used to smuggle terrorists and weapons into Israel.

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• Criticism that is blatantly biased and based on a double standard in assessing political and military situations must be rejected. For instance, the United Nations Plenary passed 322 resolutions against Israel — and not a single one against any Arab state.

Far from constructive criticism, the above examples constitute a destructive campaign of slander and defamation against Israel. It is totally irrational that irresponsible “critics” are often invited to publicize their opinions through articles in Jewish publications and by speaking about Israel in Jewish communities. Any efficient effort to create awareness of what truly occurs is rendered ineffective from the start.

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• In the context of legitimate criticism, any fair-minded person must remember that despite the many decades of Arab aggression and intransigence, starting before the birth of the state and continuing until the intifada, Israel has always sought peace and coexistence with its neighbors. She has demonstrated abundant readiness to make sacrifices for peace — dating back to the League of Nations declaration endorsing a Jewish settlement in all of Palestine and the 1947 Partition Plan, and up to Ehud Barak’s and Ariel Sharon’s proposals. The futility of such efforts is patently reflected in remarks by Yasser Arafat, so highly praised after his death, who declared some time after the signing of the Oslo agreement in Stockholm in 1996: “We plan to erase the State of Israel and to establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make the lives of the Jews intolerable through psychological warfare and a population explosion…. The Palestinians will take over all of Palestine including Jerusalem.”

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• Surrounded by a sea of 22 Arab states, all governed by dictatorial potentates, Israel maintains, under difficult circumstances, democratic institutions, including freedom of the press. Thanks to this freedom, critics of Israel are allowed to freely and unrestrictedly disseminate their often-outrageous views — something that would be unthinkable in any Arab state.

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• In the midst of the anarchy of the Middle East, where human rights are routinely violated by the governments themselves, Israel has developed a universally recognized justice system, to which all Arabs can bring their cases at any time and which deals without prejudice with all their humanitarian issues.

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• Tiny Israel (600,000 Jewish inhabitants in 1948!) absorbed, under the most difficult circumstances, millions of refugees and integrated them, economically, culturally and socially. Within the past years alone, it has absorbed more than 1 million immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. Yet, most of the Palestinian refuges of 1948 are still stuck in abominable conditions, because politicians use them as pawns while billions of dollars in aid money for them is diverted for other purposes.

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• Holding constructive peace talks with the Palestinians is extremely difficult — inasmuch as they deny that Israel has any rights in the Holy Land. They ignore the thousands-years-old intimate bond between the Jewish people and its homeland, they deny the Holocaust and they reject even Israel’s historical ties to Jerusalem. In contrast, the majority of Israelis accept the demands of the Palestinian Arabs and are ready to help them establish an independent state — despite the fact that a “Palestinian” state basically exists already in Jordan, which was formed on 77 percent of what was defined as Palestine under the British Mandate and whose population is mainly Palestinian.

The above facts must not be overlooked in any discussion about Israel if one is to obtain an accurate (and not distorted) picture of the Middle East situation. The mere idea that the facts mentioned are taken for granted speaks volumes about the value system of the State of Israel, values which the Jewish state struggles to maintain even under the most difficult circumstances.

Arthur Cohn is the Academy Award-winning producer of numerous films, including “The Garden of Finzi-Continis” and “One Day in September.” He lives Basel, Switzerland.

 

Yeladim


 

The Fight for Freedom

In last week’s Torah Portion, the Israelites sat back and watched as God brought seven plagues upon the Egyptians. This week, in Parshat Bo, we read of the last three plagues. All of a sudden, the Israelites are told that they must help God in the last plague by smearing the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their houses. This was so that God will know not to strike those houses with the plague of the first-born and would “pass over” those houses. But didn’t God know which homes were Jewish?

God decides it is now time for the Israelites to become a nation, and to do that they must take action and learn about right and wrong. So God says: you must participate in your release from slavery. You will become free – and with freedom comes responsibility.

All About Egypt

This is the last week the Israelites will spend in Egypt. Have you ever been to Egypt? Do you know where it is? Unscramble the words to discover what continent it is on and which countries border

FIACRA

UDIAS BAIRAA

NADUS

BIYAL

SELAIR

 

Racist Repeats Election Stratagem


The Republican primary victory on Aug. 5 of white supremacist James Hart in Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District is eerily familiar to Southern Californians.

It seems like a page out of the 1980 playbook of Tom Metzger, the Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who won the Democratic nomination for Congress in San Diego County against the then-entrenched Republican incumbent, Rep. Clair W. Burgener.

Because the popular Burgener, a soft-spoken conservative, was considered such a shoo-in for a fifth term, no well-known Democrat wanted to oppose him. Why be a sacrificial lamb? So the campaign for the Democratic nomination started as a contest for the party privileges that go with becoming an official, albeit losing, Democratic nominee.

Insider party privileges, such as winning an automatic seat on the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee and having the right to appoint members to the Democratic State Central Committee, drew party worker Edward Skagen into the race. Bud Higgins, another political unknown, similarly was eligible for these low-profile prizes.

Metzger, better known and not yet well understood, changed the dynamics of the primary election. He received 33,071 votes, or 37.1 percent of those cast in northern San Diego County, southern Riverside County and all of Imperial County. That was enough to come in ahead of Skagen by 392 votes and to win the Democratic nomination in what was then California’s 43rd Congressional District.

Well-known Republicans in Tennessee similarly believed it pointless to challenge Democrat John Tanner in this election cycle. He is in his eighth term, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and is a leader of the so-called "blue dog" Democrats — moderates who joke that they’ve been squeezed so hard by the left and right wings of the party, they fear turning blue.

Although write-in candidate Dennis Bertrand sought to stop Hart in the primary election, Hart triumphed with more than 80 percent of the vote in a district that covers 19 counties in northwest Tennessee.

The political parties were reversed in the California and Tennessee scenarios, but the cynicism is the same.

What motivated Metzger and what now drives Hart were opportunities to get media for their message of white supremacy. The fact that we read in newspapers across the nation about the Tennessee candidate proves the publicity value of the congressional nomination.

Metzger probably didn’t expect to beat Burgener, any more than Hart really anticipates unseating Tanner. For Hart, the reward will be all the attention he can stir up for the discredited Nazi theory of eugenics — that some racial groups are genetically superior to others.

I became press secretary to Burgener’s campaign in 1980, after Metzger won the Democratic nomination. It quickly became apparent that there were two major problems with which we had to contend. The first was that news reporters thought that it was unusual, offbeat, even a matter of human interest, that a real live Ku Klux Klansman was running for office in California. It was sort of a "man bites dog" story, interesting because it was different, without much thought given to what that difference was all about.

The second problem was that Burgener didn’t want to say anything about Metzger. The congressman’s first instinct was to ignore Metzger, so as not to build a tent for his opponent.

That strategy might have worked against an unknown, but Metzger already knew how to command media attention. The task for Burgener was to define Metzger and white supremacy for San Diegans. Tanner will have a similar responsibility in Tennessee’s general election campaign.

Ultimately, Burgener came to understand that Metzger was a symbol who needed to be confronted and not simply a political opponent. The campaign got hold of a documentary film about the faces of hate, in which Metzger’s group was pictured, and in which Metzger said some intolerant things. Burgener’s campaign held a screening for the media, and Metzger and some followers thought they could make light of it by showing up uninvited in Nixon masks.

After the media heard on film the kind of hatred that Metzger and his followers spewed about African Americans, Mexican Americans and Jews, suddenly having a Ku Klux Klansman as an official Democratic nominee from San Diego didn’t seem like a human interest story anymore. Reporters demanded of Metzger whether he really believed in the hard-core hate he had been filmed spouting in the documentary, or did he believe the softer line he had been taking in the campaign?

Metzger was unmasked, and from that day until Election Day, stories focused not on how unusual Metzger’s philosophy was but on how un-American it was.

To illustrate that Metzger was outside the mainstream of American politics, the Burgener campaign adopted what it called the "Hatfield and McCoy" strategy. It found rival Democratic and Republican candidates, some of whom were long-time political enemies, and had them stand together at the same lectern to endorse Burgener.

A typical formulation was, "We never agree on anything else, but when it comes to this election, we can agree — enthusiastically. We urge everyone to reject the hatred of the Ku Klux Klan and vote for Clair."

To their credit, Democrats were willing to put aside partisan differences and urge the reelection of the Republican incumbent. In Tennessee, the test will be whether Republicans will be willing to return the compliment.

Burgener won the contest with more than 86 percent of the vote — the outcome no surprise. The Ku Klux Klan and the racist doctrine of white supremacy were dealt a resounding rejection at the polls.

After the election, Metzger went on to become the leader of the White Aryan Resistance, eventually losing millions of dollars in a court suit brought against him for instigating the beating death of an Ethiopian student in Oregon.

The leadership of our mainstream political parties meanwhile vowed that in the future, they would prevent the hijacking of their congressional nominations by extremists. For a quarter of a century, they were mostly able to keep that vow — up until now.


Donald H. Harrison is editor of the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage.

We Have an Obligation to Speak Out


The major reason many American supporters of Israel line up behind the policies of the Israeli government is that they do not want to be in the position of second guessing the Israelis. The feeling is that they live there and have to bear the consequences of whatever policy Israel adopts, while Americans — living thousands of miles way — are not affected, at least directly.

That is why some in the pro-Israel community — people who do understand how destructive the status quo is for Israel — shrink from doing or saying anything that might be construed as critical of those Israeli policies that perpetuate the status quo.

There are, however, two things that are wrong with this logic.

The concept of "we are one" is a two-way street. Israelis have the right to call upon Diaspora Jews to lend a hand when their assistance is needed. And Jews outside of Israel have the obligation to speak up when they are worried that Israeli actions are, essentially, detrimental to Israel.

The second thing wrong with this logic is that the Israeli government — like our own government — is far from infallible. It makes mistakes, including mistakes that have jeopardized the state’s survival.

Helping Israel avert those mistakes or change direction after mistakes have been made is a critical responsibility we owe to Israel. Sitting idly by when disaster looms is no act of friendship, let alone kinship.

These thoughts come to mind following my reading of a new book about the Yom Kippur War by Abraham Rabinovich. ("The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East.")

It’s not a new story. Anyone involved with Israel — and who was born before 1963 — is bound to vividly remember the worst moments in the Jewish state’s history. A combined surprise attack by Egypt and Syria succeeded in bringing Israel to the brink of annihilation.

Israel was utterly unprepared for the war. Along the Suez Canal (then Israel’s border with Egypt), 500 Israeli soldiers faced 80,000 Egyptians. On the Golan Heights, 180 Israeli tanks faced 1,400 Syrian tanks.

Not surprisingly, Israel’s first defenders were, for the most part, wiped out. It took well over a week for Israel to regain the initiative. In the meantime, Prime Minister Golda Meir contemplated suicide, while Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said that there was a strong chance that the state could be lost. By war’s end, 3,000 Israelis were dead.

And, according to Rabinovich, it all could have been avoided. According to the official Agranat Commission report on the investigation of the Yom Kippur failure, Israeli officials simply ignored almost unmistakable signs that the Egyptians were preparing for war.

Soldiers on the front reported massive increases in Egyptian activity. Spies told the Israelis that Egypt and Syria were about to strike. And King Hussein actually flew to Tel Aviv to tell the prime minister that war was about to break out.

All the evidence was ignored. Why? Because Israel’s political leaders adhered to a strategic view called the "concept." According to that view, Egypt would not attack until it joined in an alliance with Syria and until it had certain Soviet-built weapons in hand.

As far as Israel knew, neither of those conditions was met. Therefore, there would be no war and military calls to mobilize against the imminent threat were ignored. The concept mattered; reality didn’t.

The same concept prevented the Israeli government from accepting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1971 call on Israel to pull back from the Suez Canal. Sadat said that in exchange for a pullback of just a few miles — which would enable Egypt to re-open the canal and reap significant economic benefit — he would begin negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.

The United States thought Israel should seriously consider the offer and dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco to Israel to convince Meir that Sadat was serious. But Meir rebuffed him. The status quo was just fine.

It was at that point that Sadat decided that his best option was to go to war; if Israel would not reopen the canal, he would. And that is what happened.

Sadat ordered his men to cross the canal, and, following five years of postwar negotiations, the canal — along with the entire Sinai was returned to Egypt. The concept had cost some 3,000 Israeli lives.

Today, Israel operates under a new "concept." It is that the Palestinians are weak and always will be weak. It is that negotiations are a concession to the Palestinians, a favor one pulls back whenever there is an act of terror. It is that the only effective response to terror is to keep hitting back, avoiding negotiations, despite the fact that for three years, counterterror has not succeeded in eliminating terror.

It is that negotiating prisoner releases with Hezbollah murderers is permissible, while Mahmoud Abbas’ request for the same releases is met with foot-dragging. It is, above all, the belief that Israel can secure its future not in collaboration with the Palestinians but in their face.

No one argues with Israel’s right to fight terrorists. Without the effective actions of Israel’s security forces, who knows how many might have died in the nine major terror attacks that have been blocked since February (including several megaterror attacks). Nor can one argue with Israel’s demand that the Palestinian Authority join Israel (as during Oslo) in effectively fighting the terrorists and rooting them out.

But refusing to negotiate is not part of any anti-terror policy, nor is weakening those Palestinian forces most anxious to negotiate a peace agreement. As for clinging to a status quo that is deadly, that is simply indefensible.

The good news is that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza initiative has the potential to break the status quo, although only if Israel’s actions are coordinated with the Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians. In any case, it’s a good start and represents a far more imaginative approach than the Israeli government had in the 1970s under a Labor government.

The lesson of the Yom Kippur war is that foreign supporters of Israel who sit still in the face of policies they consider to be self-destructive are performing no act of friendship. Who were the real friends of Israel in 1971 — the ones who told Israel that President Richard Nixon and Assistant Secretary of State Sisco were right when they urged Israel to cut a deal with Sadat? Or were they the ones — mostly here in the United States — telling Israel not to yield to U.S. pressure.

The answer is obvious. Friends do not allow friends to behave self-destructively. Israel has the right as a sovereign state to make its own strategic decisions. But we have the right — no, the obligation — to speak up when we think that those decisions could lead to disaster for a nation we cherish.


M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum, is a longtime Washington staffer and former editor of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Near East Report.

The Giving Ladder


"Rambams Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give" by Julie Salamon (Workman Publishing, $18.95).

Even a wizard at niche marketing would tremble before the title of Julie Salamon’s most recent book. "Rambam’s Ladder," based on an ancient text by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, sounds like it’s bound for the remainder bins even before it hits the Judaica sections. Don’t be fooled; this slender volume is a (mistitled) must-read for every individual, Jew and non-Jew alike, who recognizes his or her greater responsibility as part of a family, community and member of society.

Ben Maimon, a 12th-century physician, philosopher and scholar, is best known as Maimonidies or Rambam. Salamon uses his text, the Ladder of Charity, as the inspiration for her title and the basis for her eight-step ladder explaining different levels of charitable giving: the reluctant giver is at the bottom of the ladder and the individual whose charity enables someone to become self-reliant at the top. In between fall all vagaries and levels of giving — unsolicited charity, giving with a smile or giving with a scowl, anonymous donations — with a separate chapter dedicated to each rung of the ladder.

The ground beneath the ladder of charity is always shifting, Salamon says. By the time you have finished her text you fully grasp that there is no such thing as a simple act of charity. Do we give out of self-interest, to atone for past sins, to alleviate guilt, to impress, to ingratiate favor? At the end of the day, who is giving to whom?

Billed as a road map to charitable giving, "Rambam’s Ladder" begins as one woman’s journey, subtle and stirring, to make sense of her world following the horror of Sept. 11. An inveterate volunteer and do-gooder, Salamon’s reaction to the tragedy of Sept. 11 was to gather her children near and to protect her own. Her husband bolted into action, running to donate blood, to dispense sandwiches, to search for the missing. Sept. 11 is the crucible for inhumanity and terror on the one hand, and profound acts of kindness and charity on the other.

"The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people," said the late Steven Jay Gould in response to Sept. 11. "Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ‘ordinary efforts’ of a vast majority."

Paolo Alvanian is an ordinary man responsible for one such act of kindness. He watched from his downtown restaurant as the Twin Towers crumbled. The events of that day transformed him from a man who did not believe in charity — an immigrant who believed that everyone should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps — into a giving man. He dedicated a day for charity where all proceeds from his restaurant were donated to the Red Cross. He did away with his set prices and asked his patrons to pay what they could afford. One woman ate a small salad and wrote a check for $400. The lesson of the reluctant giver: "Giving may begin as a way to make order out of chaos, and turn out to be a transformation."

Alvanian’s simple act changed his perception of himself, his place in the world and his feeling of responsibility to others. "I’m not Mother Teresa. I’m not equal to her liver for generosity. But I believe that if you give from you heart you will have it returned back."

Each and every one of us is not only capable of, but obligated to be charitable. Reading this book forces us to examine how we stack up — or which rung of the ladder we are on. The book is thoughtful, poetic and a gripping read.

Salamon interviews the homeless man on the street and the CEOs of major corporations. She references Enron, Sotheby’s and Scarlett O’Hara all in the same breath. She is brutally honest about her own conflicts, preferring to give money to a presentable homeless man rather than the crazy one muttering under his breath. And her reporting is thorough and relevant. We learn that the United States has more billionaires than any other country in the world: 216 out of 497 in 2001: "Yet the U.S. Bureau of the Census reported in September 2002 that 32.9 million Americans, 9.2 percent of the total population, were officially considered poor."

Too many Americans, it would seem, have yet to reach even the first rung of the ladder.

It is not natural to want to give away one’s money; in fact, one could argue that being philanthropic is counterintuitive. Ramban’s goal — and Salamon’s mission — is to press the importance of our hardwiring a charitable instinct into the soul. No easy task, but one she takes on with courage and zeal. Every parent will immediately recognize the importance of this book not only for themselves, but also for their children. No child is too young to understand the importance and the impact of a charitable life. The sooner the indoctrination begins the better.

Googling Anti-Semitism


Online searchers punching the word "Jew" into the Google search engine may be surprised at the results they get.

In fact, the No. 1 result for the search entry "Jew" turns out to be www.jewwatch.com. The fanatically anti-Semitic hate site is ranked first in relevance of more than 1.72 million Web pages.

Google, like other online search engines, is utilized by Web users to locate information on the Internet. Typing "Barry Bonds" into the engine, for example, returns 332,000 Web pages to choose from, and "George W. Bush" yields more than 4 million.

The No. 1 ranking of Jew Watch came as a surprise to David Krane, the director of corporate communications for the San Mateo-based Web giant.

Such a page might not pop up for Google searchers in European countries, where Holocaust denial is illegal. But Krane adamantly stated that Google has no plans to manually alter the results of their ranking system to knock Jew Watch from its top spot.

"No, we don’t do that. Google merely reflects what is on the Web and does its best to algorithmically rank pages. Unless [a Web page] violates a country or local law, we don’t make any tweaks," he said.

So how did a hate site grab Google’s top spot? Krane explained that Google’s search engine discerns a site’s "relevance" by the number of pages with a forwarding link to it in addition to the prominence of those sites.

While Google will not alter the results of its search engine, Krane promised to alert the firm’s engineers to further refine the search algorithm, which might alter the findings for the term "Jew."

He invited users concerned about search results to contact help@google.com. User feedback is fed directly to engineers, he said.

Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific Region, noted that one can find plenty of Holocaust denial Web sites by simply typing "Holocaust" into Google.

"Some responsibility for this needs to rest on our own shoulders and not just a company like Google. We have to prepare our kids for things they come across [on the Internet]," he said.

"This is part of the nature of an Internet world. The disadvantage is we see more of it and our kids see more of it. The advantage is, we see more of it, so we’re able to respond to it. I’m not sure what people would want to see happen. You couldn’t really ask Google not to list it.”

Bill Seeks to Cure Health-Care Plague


“Whoever enlarges on the telling of the deliverance from Egypt, that person is praiseworthy.” These words, included in the Passover seder, which will soon be read by Jews all over the world, remind us that the story of Exodus is meant to be applied to our lives today.

The Bible tells us that Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh again and again, telling him that God said to let the people go. But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. He refused to free the Israelites, and God afflicted Egypt with plagues.

After each plague, every one worse than the one before, Pharaoh’s counselors begged him to change his mind. But Pharaoh’s hardened heart interfered with his reason. Even though he brought nothing but calamity on his country, he would not accept the changes that were needed to make the suffering stop.

Today we are beset with a series of health-care plagues, each seeming worse than the one before. The number of Californians without health-care insurance coverage hovers between 6 million and 7 million people — that’s about one in five of us. About 85 percent of those people are working in jobs where health care is not provided. Nationwide, health-care costs are the second largest cause of personal bankruptcy.

For those people who do have health-care coverage, premiums, co-pays and out-pocket-expenses due to lack of adequate coverage are out of control. There is an over-reliance on emergency-room care by the uninsured, as well as the underinsured, who often wait so long to seek care, their once-treatable chronic condition has worsened.

Treatable high blood pressure leads to strokes; diabetics discover their condition only after a coma. This results in pain for the patients and their families, and, since emergency-room treatment is much more expensive than preventive care, there is an increased burden on California’s health-care budget.

Hospitals, doctors and clinics are passing on the costs of treating patients who cannot pay their bills to those patients who are insured. Insurance companies drive up the costs of premiums for hospitals and cut back on reimbursements. In some cases, hospitals are seriously considering shutting down.

Jewish tradition is clear about the importance of health care as a shared social concern. Maimonides put health care first on his list of the 10 most important communal services that a city had to offer to its residents.

As Conservative Rabbi Elliot Dorff reminds us in his teachings, Jewish tradition says that it is a positive commandment to save the life of a person in danger from illness, as it falls under the general obligation of saving life: “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your fellow,” (Leviticus 19:16).

So great is the mitzvah of saving life that Jews are directed to violate the Sabbath to fulfill it. The Shulchan Arucha calls for communities to take financial responsibility for those unable to pay for health care themselves.

In 1976, the Reform movement’s Central Congress of American Rabbis adopted a resolution, affirmed in 1991, in favor of “universal access to health care benefits, including access to primary and acute health care, immunization services, early diagnostic and treatment programs, provider and consumer education, programs of extended care and rehabilitation, mental health and health and wellness promotion. Such a program should provide for education, training and retraining of health-care workers, as well as just compensation and affirmative action in hiring. An effective plan will provide for cost containment, equitable financing and assure quality of services.”

That resolution could have served as a model for Senate Bill 921, a comprehensive health-care reform bill that I introduced last year, and which, after having passed the state Senate, is now up for consideration by the Assembly.

Senate Bill 921 will put no new burden on the state’s General Fund. In fact, it will save billions of dollars in health-care costs by reducing the 25-27 percent of every California health-care dollar that is now spent on administration to between 3-5 percent.

Senate Bill 921 will save that money by creating a single, streamlined claims and reimbursement system in place of the fractured, hodgepodge of public and private systems we have now. It will replace all of our current inflated premiums, deductibles and co-pays with a single means-based premium that each of us can afford, while covering everyone under the same generous and flexible plan, which includes medical, dental, vision, mental health service and prescription drug coverage. Senate Bill 921 will also provide every Californian with the freedom to choose his or her own health-care providers.

Senate Bill 921 also relieves employers of the exclusive responsibility for their employees’ health coverage. Like individuals, businesses will be assessed a means-based premium as their only contribution to this plan. Like individuals, businesses will pay what they can afford, and they will find themselves on a level playing field with regard to health-coverage expenses.

They will also find their expenses for workers’ compensation dropping dramatically, because this bill folds the medical portion of workers’ comp into the state insurance plan. This deep reform will save money for employers, while improving actual care for people who are injured.

Senate Bill 921 will provide every Californian with prescription drug coverage, because it mandates the state to buy pharmaceutical drugs and durable medical equipment directly from the companies, in bulk.

In this season, as we approach our time to celebrate the Exodus of the people of Israel from their confinement in Mitzrayim, we have an opportunity to reflect on the tight spots we find ourselves in today and how we can free ourselves. One of the saddest things about Pharaoh’s hardened heart is that it would not let him see that the compassionate option really was the most sensible option as well.


State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles) represents the 23rd Senate District. She and other experts will take part in Zey Gezunt, a panel on health care, SB 921, on March 18 at 7 p.m. at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd. Los Angeles. The forum is free. For more information, call (310) 441 9084.

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