Rabbi Wolpe: Why I went to church last Sunday

Rabbis don't make it a practice to attend church. When I read that Rick and Kay Warren would be returning to Saddleback after their son Matthew's tragic suicide however, I resolved to go.

Rick had attended services at my synagogue several times and was even kind enough to contribute a forward to one of my books. As I came to know him, he was a large man in every sense: in physical presence, in embrace, in ambition to do good, in faith and in spiritual stature. Eliphaz reminds the suffering Job in the Bible how often he has helped others and now is himself in need of help. Thousands upon thousands showed up at services to honor a couple that had helped them as well as helping countless others across the world through the network of purpose driven churches.

There was an almost eerie contrast between the sparkling sky, the immaculate Saddleback campus dotted with cheerful greeters, and the drama of grief and faith that had gripped the church. I met up with colleagues, Rabbi Elie Spitz and Dr. Ron Wolfson, who had also come to show their friendship and support. The music kicked up, as young men and women in jeans led the congregation and large screens supplied the lyrics. People sang enthusiastically but with an acute consciousness that on this morning praise was a prelude.

Two songs later the Warrens were introduced and the 5,000 person hall along with all the annexes and auditoriums erupted in applause that seemingly would not end. When finally calmed at Rick's insistence, everyone sat and listened as he thanked all those who had helped him through. Then drawing a deep breath, he spoke.

He did not hide. The pulpit can be as effective a mask as the stage but neither he nor Kay hid the hell they had endured. Rick spoke of having cried every day since Matthew's death. He recounted how he and Kay stood in the driveway on that awful day, fearing the worst, waiting for the police to come to break down their son's door, only too sure of what they might — and in fact did — find. He spoke about the inexpressible torment of mental illness that made Matthew's life so painful that at 17, ten years before he took his life, Matthew asked his father why he had to go on living.

Kay was, if anything, even more raw in her honesty. She talked about songs she listened to in the car the past few years that helped her hope Matthew might be cured and how she could not listen to them anymore. She showed us her 'hope box' that had been full of biblical verses that had braced her as they shuttled their son from dr. to dr. and clinic to clinic. Now those passages had to be changed and new inspirations found. The power of the moment was that neither spoke to solicit sympathy. Each spoke to tell the truth. It called to mind Whitman's etched lines: “I am the man. I suffered. I was there.”

As a Rabbi I could not help but measure the theology of my own tradition against the explanations that Rick gave for Matthew's having been born with a mental illness. He spoke alternately of the scourge of mental illness itself, of the machinations of Satan and of a deep mystery that we cannot know. There was no sadness for Matthew now, for he was in a better place, in heaven. The pain was for those left behind who feel his loss. Both Rick and Kay were certain that this morning Matthew was cheering his parents on. Their task was to mine hope from the hopelessness of such devastation.

The distinguishing feature of Warren's contribution is not the theology of loss. It is enacted love. Author of the world's bestselling book apart from the Bible, he distills experiences into actions, clarifies them and makes them compelling. Carefully the process the Warren family had undergone in the past three months was outlined in six stages: shock, sorrow, struggle, surrender, sanctification and service. All of these Rick said he would elaborate, one by one, in the weeks to come to explain “how to get through what you're going through.”

In that last stage, service, was the secret and the kernel of inspiration. When asked later about why he had more stages than Kubler-Ross in her work on grief, Rick kiddingly responded, “She didn't know about the alliteration!” But Kubler Ross focused on the mourner and not on the world. The stage of service was the real and characteristic theme of his presentation. When God, for whatever reason, has wounded you, you learn how to minister to others with the same wound. Saddleback, which has long had support groups for an array of human ailments, is working hard to destigmatize mental illness. The sermons and classes themselves are essential to 'service,' for they will help others. Part of the process of grief is learning to use your loss to reach out. Even the keenest anguish can be, as the poet put it, a “gauntlet with a gift in it” — a challenge to use the wisdom to help others in the same pain. In the words of my own tradition, turn your mourning into mitzvah.

Rick spoke about the cruel things that had sometimes been written about him after the tragedy and how the opinions of others, if they ever could hurt him, could not touch him now. But of course it was not his or Kay's imperviousness but their openness, their brokenness, that left us who attended a little more whole, a little more healed. No matter one's faith, every worshipper walked away that day knowing they had seen God's work being done.

This story originally appear at HuffingtonPost.com.

Awakening schmawakening, Darfur’s hope is grass-roots action

The Great Awakening


Am I the only reader who finds your celebration of the Rev. Rick Warren’s interviews with our presumptive presidential candidates very chilling (“The Great Awakening,” Aug. 15)?

The first nationally televised meeting of these candidates in a religious setting is frightening. It indicates again the growing erosion of our valued separation of church and state.

Is no one outraged by Rev. Leah Daughtry’s Faith Based Convocation before the Democrat’s Convention in Denver? Since when are Democrats the party of the religious? I thought Republicans had that franchise.

This is such pandering to religious voters right, left and center, it makes me wonder, where are our civil libertarians?

Please, wake up. Warren is not bringing the “Great Awakening.” He is dismantling our Constitution while too many of us sleep.

June Sattler
via e-mail

I almost always enjoy your column, and I did this one too. But to the best of my knowledge, including Internet research, Billy Graham is not “the late.” He is reported to be alive at age 89 and retired.

Michael Leviton
via e-mail

Dear Condi:

As your readers well know, Jewish World Watch has been at the forefront of Darfur activism in Los Angeles for the past four years. During those four years, our coalition of almost 60 synagogues has demanded from President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Hu Jintao and many others, immediate and significant action to stop the ongoing slaughter of innocents in Darfur, Sudan. We have done it through letters, phone calls, rallies, marches, and vigils. Those actions have led to incremental successes.

We are pleased to now have David Suissa participating in our calls for action, through his “Live in the Hood” column. (“Dear Condoleezza Rice,” Aug. 15)

We all know the frustration of continuing to watch this genocide enter its sixth year. In fact, last year we witnessed first-hand the suffering of the survivors by visiting the Darfuri refugee camps in Chad. The Darfur activist community knows that Sudan will not be stopped without significant international pressure, not only from the United States, but from China, Russia and, significantly, other African and Arab nations.

The only way to get this kind of international pressure is through persistent grass-roots movements, like ours, that make action in the face of genocide a domestic issue, with political consequences. It is the grassroots work that will, more likely than not, serve as the impetus for and foundation of whatever action our government takes in response to genocides like the one in Darfur.

We welcome Suissa’s letter and hope that it contributes to re-energizing our community in what may well continue to be a long road ahead.

Janice Kamenir Reznik
Co-Founder and President
Tzivia Schwartz Getzug
Executive Director
Jewish World Watch

In his column, David Suissa wrote movingly about his recent experience learning about the horrors of the Darfur genocide from a Darfuri refugee speaking at Beth Jacob Congregation. Suissa was so moved he felt compelled to write an open letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her to intervene.

I couldn’t agree more with his passionate plea, but I was taken aback by his cavalier dismissal of the community-wide efforts that are so crucial to persuading policymakers here and at the United Nations. Suissa writes that when people asked what can be done, “The answers, of course, were weak. How could they not be? … typical activist ideas like ‘write a letter to your congressman’ (sic) ‘get on the Web and make a donation’ and ‘tell everyone you know’ are simply no match for this level of crisis.” I beg to differ.

While it’s possible that all it will take to move Rice to act is to hear from Suissa, those of us who have been working to end the genocide for years are in our turn skeptical of this strategy. I have the privilege of representing Temple Israel of Hollywood on the Jewish World Watch Synagogue Council, and we are among those thousands of activists who have been writing letters to our members of Congress, making donations and organizing community events and activities to tell everyone we know.

As someone who has been an advocate for civil rights for more than 25 years I know that success is not only difficult but a long-term proposition. Ending the genocide in Darfur is only possible if we are working on all fronts because this is what keeps the pressure on policymakers and leaders like Rice. It is our thousands of voices, letters and postcards that create an atmosphere in which it is impossible for Rice to turn away. Without them, it’s just Suissa’s voice crying in the wilderness, and while he’s both persuasive and important it’s hard to believe his column alone can do what all these other voices have yet to be able to accomplish!

Abby J. Leibman
Los Angeles

David Suissa’s open letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strikes a personal chord. As a member of the board for Jewish World Watch, I have struggled with similar frustrations throughout these long years of combating genocide in Darfur. The work to end the genocide is daunting to say the least — it is difficult to continue work when successes are small, infrequent and feel only slightly incremental.

Within the already daunting task of ending genocide, it is easy to discount a donation to refugee relief as a Band-Aid solution. But Band-Aids serve their purpose — they staunch bleeding while we wait for a doctor. Refugee relief work in Darfur is having a very real — and very essential — impact. Solar cookers are protecting women and girls from rape by reducing their reliance on firewood.

Water reclamation projects are teaching long-term skills of conservation and helping to irrigate much-needed vegetable patches. Backpacks filled with school supplies and hygiene items are giving children an opportunity to see a future as doctors, teachers and translators, not soldiers in rebel armies.

Relief work won’t end the genocide. We must certainly continue our education and advocacy work worldwide in an effort to bring long-term solutions to Sudan. We must continue pressure on our government and international players to implement these long-term solutions. And in the meantime, we must work to ensure that the people of Darfur stay alive, safe, and are able to live with dignity while the work to end genocide continues.

Joy Picus
Board Member
Jewish World Watch

David Suissa adds his voice to the chorus demanding that something be done to stop the genocide in Darfur. He advises Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “go to Darfur” and “make a stink. Knock a few heads. Expose the criminals…. Create an urgent global coalition to save the Darfurians.”

The criminals have already been exposed. A global coalition to do what? I am still waiting for a prominent Darfur activist to call for what would actually stop the killings: A U.S./NATO-enforced no-fly zone, and U.S./NATO peacekeepers who would shoot back if the janjawid attacked them or attacked the refugees.

Without these, the genocide will go on until the killers decide to stop. Let’s not pretend; let’s not fool ourselves.

Paul Kujawsky
Valley Village

Conspiracy Theory

Did the Mossad kill JFK? Serious researchers hardly think so.Following a day of public protests, organizers canceled the college seminar in which a speaker would “prove” that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency masterminded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

However, the apparent victory for sanity may be illusory.

The incident casts a sharp light on the fevered subculture of conspiracy theorists, which is growing luxuriantly on the Internet and now is apparently seeking a foothold in academia.

On Aug. 18, the trustees of the South Orange County Community College District approved $5,000 to fly in four guest panelists to participate in a Sept. 26-28 seminar on who was behind the murder of Kennedy in November 1963. Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo was to be the host.

Casting a tiebreaking vote to hold the seminar was Steven T. Frogue, president of the board of trustees. His vote was not entirely disinterested, since he was to teach the seminar.

Frogue is a high school history teacher who was allegedly transferred from one classroom to another, according to the Los Angelees Times, presumably for remarks that offended Jewish students and parents. He has been a persistent foe of the Anti-Defamation League and its regional director, Joyce Greenspan.

In a newspaper interview last fall, Frogue labeled the ADL “a group of spies,” and he declared that “Lee Harvey Oswald [Kennedy’s assassin] worked for the ADL…I believe the ADL was behind it.”

For the seminar, which the college advertised as a “high-quality community education” offering, Frogue invited an eclectic mix of “experts.” The one who received the most attention was Michael Collins Piper of Washington, D.C., author of “Final Judgment: The Missing Link in the JFK Assassination Conspiracy.”

Piper posits that the Mossad plotted the assassination. The reason, he asserts in his book, is that then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Kennedy “were involved in a heated dispute over Kennedy’s refusal to support Israel in its drive to build a nuclear weapon. Other authors have documented that this dispute, as much as anything, caused Ben-Gurion to resign.”

The ADL’s Greenspan, speaking at the college district board meeting, described Piper as a regular contributor to Spotlight, a notoriously anti-Semitic weekly, and as a Holocaust denier.

Both Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, and Uri Palti, Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles, had a one-word evaluation of Piper’s theory: “nonsense.”

Other slated panelists were:

* Sherman Skolnick, a self-described “traditional Jew” from Chicago who has been propounding a link between “rogue Mossad agents,” the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the apparent suicide of White House counsel Vincent Foster.

Skolnick, also an occasional Spotlight contributor, denied later that he had agreed to speak at the seminar.

* Talk-show host Dave Emory, who contends that top Nazis, who had fled Germany after its defeat, played a leading role in Kennedy’s assassination. Emory and Piper frequently tangle at JFK conspiracy seminars around the country.

* John Judge, who adheres to the views of the late New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (hero of the Oliver Stone film “JFK”) that the Kennedy assassination was the work of a cabal of homosexuals and the military-industrial complex.

Serious researchers of the Kennedy era reacted with incredulity and amusement when told of the “panel of experts.” One such analyst, Chip Berlet, said: “You couldn’t find…more embarrassing conspiracists in America. Even among conspiracy theorists, these people represent the outer limit.”

Various faculty members at Saddleback College immediately protested the planned seminar. The general public took notice after the Los Angeles Times published a front-page report three days after the board meeting.

Within hours, the story was picked up by wire services and radio talk-show hosts, and phone calls from some 200 angry protesters deluged the college district offices. A considerable number of supportive messages were also logged by the ADL.

In the midst of the furor, Frogue announced that he was canceling the seminar, but that he would hold it at some future date away from the college and without its financial support.

Robert Lombardi, chancellor of the college district, described the public reaction as “pretty intense and somewhat surprising.”

He had earlier defended holding the seminar on the basis of First Amendment free-speech rights and the college district’s prerogative to offer courses appealing to “special interests.” For instance, Lombardi said, “we also offer a course on California wines.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which frequently intervenes in perceived free-speech violations, did not receive any calls regarding the seminar and does not plan any action, a spokeswoman said.

Despite the seminar’s cancellation, Jewish defense agencies reacted more with concern than satisfaction.

The ADL’s Greenspan, who was the point person in opposing the seminar, said that while she appreciated the general community’s reaction, she was bothered that the college board “still doesn’t see this racist seminar as their problem.”

She also warned that if and when the seminar is given under private auspices, it will lack public scrutiny and “bring the crazies out of the woodwork.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and an expert on racist and hate propaganda in cyberspace, added another perspective.

“The Mossad conspiracy theory may be laughable to us, but I can guarantee that, in a short time, it will become part of the folklore of hundreds of web sites on the Internet,” he said.

“For the Frogues and Pipers, the seminar cancellation is only a temporary setback. They got what they wanted by getting into the mainstream press. They don’t need to prove that Israelis had a hand in assassinating JFK; they just have to plant the seed of suspicion that it might have been that way.”

In assessing the role of the college district in authorizing the seminar, Cooper said: “The situation somewhat parallels the growing practice of the mainstream press to descend into tabloid journalism. What we’re getting here is a form of tabloid academia.”