Why we write

On Monday, I gave a talk to visiting young Israelis on a subject near and dear to my heart: Just what is the Jewish Journal?

These Israelis were next-generation leaders, here in Los Angeles as part of the KOLOT program, which exposes secular Israelis to Jewish tradition, something Jews in the Holy Land can manage to miss learning about in their country’s public schools.  

I met them at the newly refurbished Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Jewish newspapers, I explained, are the least-appreciated, least-understood and often most-despised institution in Jewish life. To be a Jewish journalist — bearer of bad news, muckraker, gadfly, thorn and nudge — is often to be a minority within a minority, a Jew among Jews.

But Jewish papers have been integral to successful Jewish communities. The first modern one, the Gazeta de Amsterdam, launched in 1675, just 70 years after the first newspaper of any kind. There were Jewish papers in all 13 American colonies and a national Jewish paper, called The Jew, beginning in 1823. L.A.’s first Jewish paper, the German-language Süd-Californische Post, was founded in 1874, when there were only 300 Jews among the city’s 5,500 residents.   

Why? Because as Jews disperse, they need an institution that gathers their stories, that keeps them informed and, when necessary, sets a communal agenda.

And in a free country, there’s another important role. As waves of Jewish immigrants came to America at the turn of the century, the great Jewish Daily Forward taught a generation of Jews to be Americans — how to find work and fit in. Today, the role of the Jewish paper has flipped. One of its larger purposes is to teach Americans to be Jews: to connect them to a larger community, to provide a window into Jewish life and learning in a very secular world.

You would think, in a modern world, the demand for Jewish media would decline. The opposite is happening. The Jewish Journal’s print circulation is up, and jewishjournal.com now reaches close to 1.5 million people around the world each month through its Web site and mobile apps. Old Jewish media outlets like The Forward and JTA — formerly the Jewish Telegraphic Agency — have been revitalized; new ones, from The Times of Israel to tabletmag.org to eJewishPhilanthropy.com, are popping up constantly. One reason is that the issues and ideas Jews care about have become the issues and ideas the world cares about: Terrorism. Fundamentalism. The Middle East. The role of religion in politics. How to meld tradition with modernity. 

But even more important, in an uncertain world, people yearn for connection, tradition and community. And the first place they look for it — as with anything these days — is the Web.

But, the young tech-savvy Israelis wondered, if Jews can connect on Facebook or Instagram, isn’t that enough? It’s not, any more than WhatsApp can replace The New York Times. There still has to be somebody out there gathering stories, reporting them to the highest-possible standards, providing the most thoughtful and well-edited opinions, and reaching out to as broad an audience as possible, with no greater motive than to connect, inform and inspire.

What the Web offers is a way for Jewish media to reach — for the first time — not just every Jew, but everyone. This is a remarkable moment in Jewish history, when we have the freedom, power and ability to present Jewish life and learning to an unlimited audience. Nothing, I believe, will have a greater impact on the next phase of Jewish history than how we use that potential.

That’s the challenge I left to the young Israelis, one that the (mostly) young staff at the Jewish Journal has already taken on.

As for me, you will not see my column in this space for the next four months. After 19 years at the Jewish Journal, including 12 years as editor-in-chief and two years as publisher, as well, I am taking a four-month sabbatical. I’ll be working on a writing project that needs a bit more focus than I can squeeze in around the long hours that we all put in to make the Journal what it is. 

If I can be allowed one parting request, it is this: Support the Jewish Journal.  As I told the visiting Israelis, no other Los Angeles Jewish institution reaches as many Jews on a daily and weekly basis. No other institution tells and records our communal story. No other institution reaches as many Jews otherwise uninvolved in community life. For that matter, because we distribute free and on the streets and over the Web, no other L.A. Jewish institution reaches as many non-Jews each and every week.

For all that outreach, the Journal is the rare Jewish nonprofit institution that earns 90 percent of its revenue on its own, through the hard work of our advertising and subscription staff. But that extra 10 percent provides the crucial funds we need to invest in bringing the Jewish world to you, to grow and change along with our community and with the new resources of technology. For that, we very much need you to make a tax-deductible contribution, annually and generously, at jewishjournal.com.

This last part isn’t what I talked about with the Israelis — I’m just asking you. But as I did say to them, shalom v’lhitraot — goodbye, and see you later.

Three Rabbis to Pursue Diverse Sabbaticals

Three of Orange County’s senior rabbis have decided to take a sabbatical. While the three have decided on their own to take a respite from the 24/7 demands of being a rabbi, their congregations are taking a different approach to temporarily replacing an absent spiritual leader.

The most unique arrangement is that at Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek. Taking the pulpit in the place of Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein beginning Oct. 15 will be his daughter, Rabbi Rebecca Yael Schorr, who grew up in the congregation founded for her father in 1976.

Nepotism wasn’t a factor, they say. Schorr, along with other more seasoned candidates, submitted to interviews by a search committee, which made its recommendation to the congregation’s full board. Einstein and Cantor Linda Ecker, who knew the candidate as a teen, excused themselves from the final selection process in April.

In truth, Einstein thinks Schorr did have an edge over the other candidates. She, like her father, possesses a compelling personal trait, which congregants of B’nai Tzedek have come to expect of clergy.

“She is different from me,” said Einstein, 58. “The part that’s the same is being fully present in the moment. Every week people come up to me and say, ‘You really mean it, don’t you?’ It makes me sense that’s not what takes place elsewhere.”

“My dad’s gift is he connects with people,” said Schorr, 33, who served as an assistant rabbi at Long Beach’s Temple Israel for six years, which included an internship. She was ordained in 1999.

“I’m flattered to fill in for one of the great rabbis of his generation,” she said.

Schorr will get a trial run conducting four Shabbat services this summer, a time when her father enjoys sampling the sermons of colleagues.

Like the biblical instruction to leave fields fallow in the seventh year, clergy and academics are among a few professions that routinely grant long-term paid absences after seven years of service.

“It’s for the same reason as in the Bible — to give a rest,” said Einstein, who has a lifetime contract from the Reform congregation, now at 425 families. “We can have a day off, but if there’s a crisis, that’s the end of that.”

Einstein and his wife, Robin, plan to divide their time between the East Coast and Spain. He doesn’t have a specific goal to accomplish during his third sabbatical, other than a possible congregational tour of Israel around Purim.

“Each time when I came back, I was raring to go,” said Einstein, who is also a chaplain for the police department, involved with an interfaith council and teaches three on-going adult education courses and one semester a year at Cal State Fullerton.

Einstein recalled that a rabbinical career appealed to him, because he naively believed rabbis spent their time studying and reading. He knows better now.

“A sabbatical allows me to get back to that idealism,” he said.

In January, Allen Krause, rabbi of Temple Beth El for 20 years, will also begin his third sabbatical. He received a fellowship from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Jewish Studies, which chooses a single recipient annually.

Although the fellow is only required to study, Krause, 64, proposed reworking his master’s thesis into book form. His topic was Southern rabbis who participated in the U.S. civil rights movement. Revisiting their stories will return Krause to an epiphany that powerfully influenced his own career.

Through his research, Krause came to realize that congregational respect for clergy gives rabbis the buoyancy to support unpopular positions and not suffer career harm. One of his subjects, Rabbi Charles Mantindand of Temple B’nai Israel in Hattiesburg, Miss., was a vocal advocate of integration, a position much of his congregation opposed.

“He’s the one I’m most in awe of,” said Krause, who has openly criticized actions by Israel’s government, despite his congregation’s generally pro-Israel views. “I strongly believe a rabbi has to take moral stands.”

Krause’s research, ground-breaking in its time, underpins publications by several other authors who gained access to his initial 400-page work through Cincinnati’s Jewish American Archives.

“This is truly my own contribution,” said Krause, who intends to update his research. His wife, Sherrie, will accompany him.

“If it weren’t for sabbaticals, I’d never get anything done,” said Krause.

Beth El will hire a temporary pulpit replacement, who will work alongside Johanna Hershenson, returning as the congregation’s assistant rabbi beginning July 1 (see story below).

Elie Spitz, in his 17th year as rabbi of Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel will depart after Yom Kippur for the remainder of the academic year.

One option he is considering is traveling the globe with his wife, Linda, and home-schooling their three children. Another is trading housing for teaching in a foreign locale. Returning to Israel is a third option.

“Rabbinic families have a great deal of stress,” said Spitz, describing a high burnout rate among clergy, who often end up working seven days without days off. “The job is to be a teacher and a visionary. To do both, you need a break to engage in intense study to provide a hiatus for perspective.”

Six years ago, Spitz took his family on sabbatical in Israel, where he was able to write a book about reincarnation.

“The first sabbatical was a magical year,” he said. “There is no substitute for a block of uninterrupted time.”

As a substitute for Spitz, the Conservative congregation of 495 families will count on willing lay volunteers, who will help fulfill ritual functions, along with Cantor Marcia Tilchin, hired subsequent to Spitz’s earlier sabbatical break.

God’s Belongings

This week’s Torah portion is called "Behar" because it begins "The Lord spoke to Moses behar (on Mount [Sinai]). Upon reflection, something seems out of order. We left Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus.

Most of the laws in the Book of Leviticus were revealed in the Tent of Meeting. Why does the Torah portion suddenly shift back to Mount Sinai?

Rabbinic tradition explains the anomaly by asserting that the Torah isn’t chronological. But that answer doesn’t satisfy me. Why bring us back to Mount Sinai for this particular parsha?

Behar describes the seventh year as a sabbatical year when the land rests, and the year after the 49th year as the jubilee year when indentured servants can go free and the land returns to its original owner. These laws make it impossible for society to form rigid social classes where rich families will always be rich and poor families will always stay poor. Then, the Torah portion ends with an admonition to keep Shabbat, another cycle of seven. The parsha makes it clear that everything belongs to God: land, people, even time.

We read Behar at a time in the Jewish year when we are counting another cycle of seven: the omer. The omer was a measure of barley that was offered as a sacrifice after Passover at the beginning of the spring harvest. From that offering, our ancestors counted seven weeks until Shavuot, which marked the more important wheat harvest.

We’re not farmers any more. Rabbinic tradition de-emphasized the agricultural basis of Shavuot and focused instead on Shavuot as the day we stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The goal of the counting is to bring us to Shavuot; to stand again at Sinai, behar.

Counting the days between Passover and Shavuot reminds us that the freedom represented by Passover, freedom from oppression, is only the beginning. Freedom is not just freedom from — it is freedom for a purpose. That purpose is Torah. Torah teaches us that to be free is to be responsible, to understand that every choice matters. Torah teaches us that we live in a universe that makes claims on us.

What happened at Mount Sinai? The story isn’t so clear. Our tradition teaches us that we were all there, every Jew who ever was or ever will be, whether we were born as Jews or we chose Judaism. Some commentators believe that we heard God speak the Ten Commandments; others believe that we heard only the first two, because they are the only ones given in the first person. Still others believe that all we heard was the first word of the first commandment: "Anochi — I am." And that word revealed everything.

If we can hear "Anochi," if we really know that "God is," what else do we need? Because God is, everything else follows. When we experience the reality of God’s presence, our response must be to create lives worthy to be lived in the presence of God. If God is, then the universe makes a claim on us to respond in such a way as to create a world that reflects the presence of God in every dimension of our life.

There is another view of what happened at Mount Sinai. It is that all we heard at Mount Sinai was the first letter of the first word: alef — a silent letter. All we heard was Divine silence, or perhaps God’s breath. And as we breathe, we understand that God is in us as well.

What happened at Mount Sinai? Each of us heard God in our own way, and our lives are a response to how we understand what we heard.

That’s why we want to go back to Mount Sinai, year after year. We want to re-experience the divinity that is all around us. But it isn’t easy. We have to count, we have to work on ourselves, we have to move through the narrow places of slavery to be expansive enough to hear God’s call. And so we count the omer, seven weeks of seven days.

The mystical tradition imagines God unfolding in 10 emanations, seven of which flow into the world. Each of the weeks of the omer represents one of those dimensions of divinity, as does each day. The first day is the day of chesed (lovingkindness), in the week of chesed. The second day is the day of gevurah (discipline) within the week of chesed. As we count, we are challenged to refine ourselves by reflecting on those dimensions within ourselves, examining our own qualities of lovingkindness, discipline, balance, strength, humility, bonding and nobility. It is this spiritual work of preparation that enables us to go back to the mountain, to experience again the presence of God.

And if we do the work, after seven weeks of seven days, we are again on the mountain, behar. From this high place, we see the world from a different perspective and understand that everything is part of God, including land, people and time. Behar, we again hear God challenging us to create lives worthy to be lived in God’s presence, and to create a society that reflects that presence.

Laura Geller is rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Exodus … Cont’d

Right after Pesach last year, Ziony Zevit got a string of phone calls in Jerusalem, where he was on sabbatical from his position as a professor of biblical literature and Semitic languages at the University of Judaism (UJ).

"Have you heard?"

The callers’ questions were in reference to the front-page Los Angles Times article covering a Passover sermon delivered by Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, in which he challenged his congregants to retain the basis for their faith, in light of the fact that archaeological evidence allegedly refutes the narrative of the Exodus as relayed in the Bible.

"What started off in L.A. began to spread across the county, and what was more interesting is it was picked up not only by Jewish groups, but by Christian groups," said Zevit, now back at his post at UJ.

He saw in the controversy a prime opportunity to use a venue he has been nurturing over the past 12 years: The UJ’s Simmons Family Charitable Foundation Program in Biblical Archaeology, one of only two major annual public programs nationwide on the subject.

A series of eight Monday night lectures this fall will address the question of "What is true in the Bible?" Archaeologists and biblical scholars — some of the top ones in their fields — will try to answer how they discover, reconstruct and explain the past.

While the series, now in its 12th year, has always held a highly respected place on the calendar of archaeology aficionados, this year’s series will probably have wider appeal because of the debate opended by Wolpe.

James Hoffmeier, one of the world’s leading Egyptologists, will address the Exodus topic specifically through a look at the Bible’s account of the Israelites’ stay in Egypt, discussing the current scholarship and his finds at a dig he recently directed in the Sinai Desert.

Zevit says he chose Hoffmeier, professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern Archaeology at Trinity International University, because he is one of the few people in the field who is an expert on both Egypt and ancient Israel, is involved with key scholars and sites, and knows both Arabic and Hebrew.

"I thought that a sane voice would introduce a useful mode of intelligent calm into the discussion," Zevit said of Hoffmeier, author of the 1994 book "Israel in Egypt? The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition." "It’s not a matter of being pro or against, but of nuancing words and presenting the data, and Hoffmeier is highly respected."

Hoffmeier, who is not Jewish, will also be coming from a traditional vantage point, one that accepts the essential validity of the major biblical traditions — a break with many presenters in the past, who raised questions about the historicity of the biblical narrative.

"There is a sense among many people that if what you say about the past of Israel conforms to the presentation of history as it is in the Bible, you are old-fashioned, fundamentalist or buying into myths," said Zevit, who decries that kind of "post-modern intellectual posturing."

Rather than presenting the lack of hard evidence to disprove the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt and in Sinai, Zevit suggests that archaeologists can ask other questions — such as whether the desert route outlined in the Bible makes sense, and why a group would choose such a route. "If a different series of very pointed questions are asked, the conclusions begin to look different, and Hoffmeier argues within that framework," Zevit said.

Zevit has asked all the lecturers to present their topics in a way that will help listeners understand the process scholars undergo to reach their conclusion — thus placing the whole Exodus debate in a more comprehensive context.

"An archaeologist has a job — that job is to excavate and report," Zevit said. "But now the archaeologist puts on the hat of the historian and tries to make statements that are supposed to create knowledge. The idea is, ‘show me every step in your thinking that led you to this conclusion. I don’t want you to talk like a historian when the only authority you have is as an archaeologist.’"

Zevit hopes the approach will open up the presentation to being more like a lopsided dialogue than a lecture.

"It makes the conclusions a little more vulnerable to analysis," but, he said, it involves every person who listens intelligently in the search for truth.

However, Zevit does recognizes the limitations of the series. When asked if the speakers will address the theological implications of their topics, he responded, "As little as possible."

The speakers in the eight-part series from Oct. 22 to Dec. 10 include:

Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, Bible Review, Archaeological Odyssey and Moment Magazine and an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls, will speak on "The Dead Sea Scrolls: What Do They Really Say?" Monday, Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. He will address the concept of the Messiah developed by the sect at Qumran, the authors of the 2,000-year-old scrolls, and how that messianic concept influenced early Christianity.

Zevit himself will take the lectern for the first time in the 12 years he has been running the series. On Monday, Oct. 29, at 8 p.m., Zevit will discuss "Who Were the Gods of Ancient Israel and How Do We Know About Them?"

Hoffmeier’s discussion of the Exodus, "From Joseph to Moses — How Does an Egyptian Archaeologist Look at the Bible and Read the Text?" will take place Monday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m.

All lectures are at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, 15600 Mullholland Drive. Lectures are $25 each or $150 for the series for the general public, and $15 each or $75 for the series for students. To register and for more information, call (310) 440-1246.