Israel’s scholars flee for greener academic pastures in America

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Even with some of the best research institutions in the world, Israel’s got a bad case of “brain drain.”  Israeli academics are leaving in droves for American institutions with bigger research budgets and cushy salaries.

According to a new report from the Taub Center for Policy Studies in Israel, Israeli scholars are leaving in droves to walk the halls of academia abroad, and the state of higher education here is dire.

“We need to change our national priorities before it’s too late,” Dan Ben David, who led the study, told The Media Line. “The universities are still among the best in the world. We just need to get our act together.”

The situation is striking. In the first decades of its existence, Israel established research universities that rivaled institutions around the world. This was despite an inundation of refugees, food rationing, repeated wars and budgetary limitations.

Forty years later, higher education has ceased being a national priority, the study says. Even as the population in Israel doubled, there are fewer professors in Israel today than there were then. This mass exodus of educators is seven times larger than biggest case of brain drain in Europe.

“It’s not because we don’t have money. We’re a lot wealthier than we were in the past. We’re just choosing to spend the money elsewhere,” Ben David explained.

Israeli universities responded to the mass flight of tenured and tenure-track professors by bringing in lecturers from outside their research facilities. According to the report, this had two lasting negative effects: Students received lower quality education because teachers were not involved in “cutting-edge” research, and those students previously interested in pursuing careers academic research, faced with an increasing lack of long-term positions at universities, either dropped the dream of doing research or went abroad after graduating.

Israeli researchers most often take their skills and expertise to the United States. In 2007-2008, for every 100 academic faculty members in Israel’s institutions, 29 Israeli scholars were working in America.

The study is part of the Taub Center’s forthcoming State of the Nation Report, to be published in Hebrew in November and in English in December, which looks at Israel’s standing relative to the rest of the world in education, employment, elderly and health care, as well as poverty, particularly among the ultra-Orthodox.

Ben David says while Israel loses its best and brightest academics, it’s also giving one of the advanced world’s worst educations to its youngest students.

“We’re the people of the book. We need to start getting educated again,” he said. “It’s in the government’s hands.”

Israel’s Council for Higher Education is responding to the call.

If 2010, when data for the Taub study stopped, was rock bottom for senior faculty positions in Israel, the story today is different.

“The trend has reversed. We are now increasing numbers,” said Liat Maoz, the Director of the Council’s Unit for Special Projects, in a conversation with The Media Line.

Since 2010, the council has focused on keeping young researchers here and bringing back those who already left. By increasing budgets for universities and colleges, reforming the budget allocation scheme so that institutions hire better and more faculty, and by opening new research facilities highly specialized for Israeli issues, they say progress has been made.

Maoz said close to 700 faculty positions have been opened since their initiative began. By 2016, when the program ends, they hope to have increased university budgets by 30 percent and created a total of 5,000 new spots at universities and colleges around the country.

In the past two years, 16 research facilities, dealing with issues ranging from human disease to sustainable energy, have been started. These Israeli Centers for Research Excellence (I-CORE) are specifically at “fundamentally strengthening the long term positioning of Israel's academic research and its stature among leading researchers in Israel and abroad, ” according to the project website.

Additionally, the higher education initiative is opening “contact centers” to reach out to, and provide resources for, Israeli academics working abroad. These centers alert scholars when faculty positions open in Israel and encourage them to return.

These efforts seem to be making an impact, but it remains unclear how much.

“We are a in trend of improvement,” Maoz said. “But I would think that the slope could be better.”

Vera B. Saeedpour, Scholar and Archivist of the Kurdish Culture, Dies at 80


Vera Beaudin was newly divorced and a recent arrival in Harlem when a stranger knocked on her door one night carrying flowers and coffee cake. She fell in love, married and learned about the plight of his oppressed people.

When he died five years later, Ms. Beaudin, who had taken her new husband’s name, Saeedpour, responded by starting the first library and museum in the United States dedicated to Kurds, an ancient, stateless people straddling three nations in southwest Asia.

She did this in a Brooklyn brownstone where five or six cats and a dog or two prowled and where people rented rooms on the upper floors. Soon, scholars, journalists, government officials, homesick Kurds and the just plain curious were beating a path to her door.

Read the full article at

Dr. David Leo Lieber z”l: To know him was a privilege

A big part of my adult life has involved trying to live up to what Dr. David Leo Lieber expected of me. Trying to emulate his wisdom, his learning, his kindness, knowing all the while that it would be impossible.

It is told in the Book of Kings that the prophet Elijah announced to his disciples that his life would soon be at an end. His principal disciple, Elisha, asked his mentor to bequeath to him a double portion of prophecy. According to Jewish law, a first-born son inherits double the portion of the other sons, so Elisha asked his teacher, Elijah, to grant him double the spiritual portion of the other disciples.

In so many ways, I feel that I was given that double portion by David Lieber. I don’t say this as a matter of hubris but rather as a matter of my good fortune. For 30 years, I worked side by side with him. What a remarkable privilege that was. To be in his presence each day, to listen to him, to learn from him, to love him.

David Lieber was part of a generation of rabbis who were raised in Orthodox homes in which observance was taken for granted but rarely explained. In some ways, his was a religiously rebellious generation. They tended to appreciate Judaism more for its wisdom and values than for its ritual requirements.

Having said this, however, I cannot imagine anyone who was more profoundly spiritual than David Lieber. His spirituality did not have any of the external manifestations that are more common today. Rather, it was apparent in his quiet acceptance of God’s plan for him and for the world.

There are so many things I will remember about David Lieber that I could never hope to recount them all. I quote him often, and I smile whenever I use what I consider to be a “Lieberism.”

One of his favorite sayings was, “You can always tell someone to go to hell later.” Any of us who are prone to occasional flashes of anger can benefit from that bit of wisdom. Lieber used to claim that he borrowed this one from Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Another phrase he used often actually comes from the Talmud: “Sof ha-kavod lavo.” It’s a little difficult to translate into English. It is similar to “All good things come to those who wait.” But it really says that good things come to those who work hard and don’t try to force things before their proper time.

His most insightful saying is pure, original David Lieber. He often observed to me that human beings can “foresee” things but they cannot “fore-feel” them. In other words, we can often use our intellect to figure out what the future will bring, but we really don’t know how we are going to feel about something until it actually happens to us.

Whatever words of wisdom Lieber had for others, he certainly applied them to himself. He accepted whatever life had to offer, and he was one of those rare individuals who followed the rabbinic dictate: “We are required to bless God’s name when bad things happen, just as we so willingly bless His name when we enjoy the good.”

For years, David Lieber struggled with serious illness. It was not easy for him, but he did so without complaint and with true gratitude for the many productive years that were granted to him.

We all admired Dr. Lieber for his achievements, but that’s not why we loved him. We loved him for who he was as a person and the special position he occupied in each of our lives.

Even the most cynical among us yearns to believe that there is real goodness in this world, but often it’s a challenge to accept. We read about such terrible things, and we regularly encounter people who shake our faith in humanity.

But every so often, if we are very fortunate, we find a person who reminds us that human beings are truly formed in the image of God. We find someone of such extraordinary goodness that we say to ourselves, “This must be what God had in mind when He created the world.”

To know David Lieber was to know kindness. To know David Lieber was to know wisdom. To know David Lieber was to experience a quiet, steadfast faith in God and in the divine potential of all human beings.

And so we loved him. We loved him for who he was. And we loved him for seeing the good in us.

Dr. Robert Wexler is president of the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) in Los Angeles.

Dr. David Leo Lieber, rabbi, scholar and president emeritus of the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) died Dec. 15 at 83 after a lengthy battle with a lung ailment.

“Rabbi David Lieber was a dear friend,” said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom. “In every one of his conversations, there was a compassionate and caring soul. He leaves a remarkable legacy, not only in the public arena, in his scholarship and leadership, but in the personal relationship that he had with everyone — colleagues, congregants, students and contributors.”

Born in Poland, Lieber came to the United States at the age of 2. In 1944, he graduated magna cum laude from the College of the City of New York and earned a degree in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS).

In 1948, he was ordained at JTS. He earned his doctorate in Hebrew literature from JTS in 1951. In addition, he completed a master’s and all but dissertation from Columbia University. He pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Washington and at UCLA.

At JTS, Lieber studied under Talmudist Saul Lieberman, Jewish Bible scholar H.L. Ginsberg and philosopher Mordecai Kaplan, whose groundbreaking vision led to the creation of the University of Judaism, which was renamed American Jewish University last year after a merger with Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley.

Following retirement in 1993, after 29 years as AJU president, Lieber continued to teach. He also began focusing on a project he had first proposed in 1969, a new commentary on the Torah. The resulting “Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary” sought to provide laity with a contemporary interpretation of the text and a commentary that embraced both tradition and change, ancient teachings and modern scholarship.

As a young man, Lieber was a leader of Shomer Hadati, the religious Zionist movement that is now B’nai Akiva. An early pioneer in the establishment of the Ramah camps, he was also the founding head counselor in the first of the camps in Wisconsin, a director in Maine and the founding director in California. Furthermore, Lieber was the founding director of Mador, the national training camp for Ramah counselors.

A former spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles (1950-1954), Lieber served as a U.S. Air Force chaplain, and as university chaplain for the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at both the University of Washington (1954-1955) and Harvard University (1955-1956).

In 1956, when Lieber was appointed dean of students of the nine-year-old University of Judaism, the college was a Hebrew teachers institute, which also offered adult education classes, art exhibits and drama programs. The institution, today replete with an undergraduate college, graduate programs, seminary, think tanks and a large library on a 25-acre campus in Bel Air, was developed with Lieber’s help.

In recognition of his work, Lieber was awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters degree, honoris causa, by the Hebrew Union College in 1982 and the Torch of Learning award by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1984. Between 1996 and 1998, he served as the first West Coast president of the International Rabbinical Assembly.

Over the years, Lieber has authored some 50 articles, which appeared in a variety of journals.

Lieber is survived by his wife, Esther; sons, Michael and Danny; daughters, Susie and Debbie; and 11 grandchildren.

A service was held Dec. 18 at American Jewish University. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to the university’s Ostrow Library at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, CA 90077.

L.A. gets ready to be the center of Jewish universe

In just three weeks, more than 3,000 leaders of the international Jewish community, including the prime minister of Israel, are coming to Los Angeles.

What, you hadn’t heard?

This season’s best-kept secret among L.A. Jews seems to be that the 75th annual General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities is being held in Los Angeles — the first time in 26 years this city will host one of the largest annual gatherings of Jews in North America.

“This is a great opportunity for Los Angeles to participate in this national convention, where we don’t always have a critical mass participating,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “More importantly, we have some extraordinarily talented Jewish human resources and some extraordinarily creative programming in L.A., and this will be an opportunity for us to highlight those individuals and programs.”

But while some locals have already signed up, and hundreds have volunteered, a mention of the GA is more likely to elicit a blank stare than an excited nod in most Jewish circles.

“Never heard of it,” said Marlene Kahan, a teacher who lives in Beverlywood. “But it sounds interesting. I’d love to read about it and find out what happens there.”

The GA is one of the largest Jewish events on the North American calendar (the Reform movement’s biennial conference surpasses the GA, with about 5,000 attendees), with thousands of lay and professional leaders from hundreds of communities gathering to explore the state of the Jewish world, and to set a vision for the year to come.

The United Jewish Communities represents 155 Federations and 400 independent communities, and the four-day conference, Nov. 12-15 at the Los Angeles Convention Center downtown, brings together Federation machers as well as other organizations and activists from around the world. Anyone who wants to be a player in the Jewish community is at the GA.

The powerful bloc of participants attracts an impressive roster of leaders, scholars and experts to run daily plenaries and a menu of hundreds of sessions on topics from global anti-Zionism to new trends in Jewish education to savvy solicitation techniques.

Anyone can register as a delegate. Southern Californians are offered a local’s discounted rate of $275 (non-residents pay $525), and people who have volunteered to help out for a few hours can attend the conference on that day (volunteer slots have been filled). All events — including a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday, Nov. 13 — are open to registered delegates and volunteers only.

But word has been slow to trickle out to the far-flung L.A. Jewish community.

While a call for volunteers went out to synagogues and organizations months ago, full-page ads have only shown up in the last few weeks, and the UJC Web site didn’t post program details — such as speakers and session topics — until early October.
There are currently 425 local delegates signed up, along with about 300 to 400 student delegates, some of them at Southern Californian schools, signed up through Hillel. About 750 Angelenos have also volunteered to staff the convention, which is estimated to attract 3,000 delegates and an additional 1,000 exhibitors, organizers and staff, according to Judy Fischer, who is the Los Angeles Federation staff GA director. Fischer is working with lay host community chair Terri Smooke to organize the event.

Organizers admit publicity has been slow because the program was revamped following the war in Israel.

“The focus was transformed in light of what happened over the summer, and particularly in light of the implications of the war for Israel and for the Jewish people in our communities and across the world,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Chicago Federation, and head of programming for the GA. “There is a strong sense of connection with Israel, and recognition that as much as this means as a single war, it wasn’t just that. It has a deeper meaning.”

The theme chosen over the summer was “On the Frontlines Together: One People, One Destiny,” meant to encompass the war’s implications regarding the Israel-Diaspora connection, global Jewish security, Israel’s identity, its military, its leadership and how that reverberates out to Jewish communities across the world.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to deliver the keynote on Tuesday evening (though in the past prime ministers have often ended up canceling or speaking through video feed). A record four Knesset ministers are also scheduled to address the group, including foreign minister Tzipi Livni, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s ministers of education and tourism.

During and following the war, federations from across the country funneled $330 million dollars to Israel through UJC.
“In some ways this was kind of a breakthrough in the recognition of the centrality and significance of the UJC Federation system,” Kotzin said. “The prime minister wants to be able to come and participate to express his appreciation and to advance ties between Israel and the North American Jewish Community. The GA exists at a moment where we can really keep up with what is going on and move things forward.”

Other speakers include Canadian Parliament Member Dr. Irwin Cotler; Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levi.

A plenary on “The Jewish Future” will feature a panel with Norman Cohen, provost of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Insitiute of Religion; Arnie Eisen, chancellor-elect at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University.

But all other conference-wide sessions will focus on Israel, as will more than half of the smaller sessions.
It is a shift that not everyone is thrilled with.

“As someone who lives in Israel and is a Zionist, I think it is unfortunate and actually speaks to the lack of an overarching vision for the future of the Jewish people,” said Yossi Abramowitz, founder of Jewish Family and Life, who now blogs daily at

Abramowitz has attended around 20 GAs, and moved to Israel this summer.

Rabbis Fail to Bridge Denominational Gulf

Nearly a year ago, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and a scholar of demographic trends, put a challenge to a former student.

Jews around the nation are deeply involved in interfaith initiatives, Wertheimer noted. But they avoid involvement with their own religion’s different movements, letting ideological differences get in the way of conversing with each other over issues dear to each. Do something to mend that divide before the gulf is unbridgeable, he urged Stuart Altshuler, a JTS graduate and rabbi of Mission Viejo’s Congregation Eilat.

Last month in a display of professional collegiality that is unusual for most communities, seven Orange County rabbis from across the ideological spectrum jointly collaborated in a pluralistic dialogue. Or as one panelist summarized, "How do we stack the deck differently?"

About 50 people attended "Torah & Israel: A Community Conversation" on a rainy Sunday at Chapman University. The event was sponsored by the college and the American Jewish Committee, of which Altshuler is a board member.

The only denomination without a representative was the Reconstructionist movement. Arnie Rachlis of Irvine’s University Synagogue had a previous commitment.

At the outset Altshuler, who served as moderator, said that his aim was to unite the Jewish community through knowledge about its diversity. What emerged was the nearly galactic theological distance between the Orthodox spiritual leaders and rabbis from the other movements. In all, Israel got little attention, overshadowed by generally cordial but sometimes testy interchanges over topical issues such as conversion, identity and equality.

Elie Spitz, a Conservative rabbi from Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, and Michael Mayersohn, a Reform rabbi, described Torah as a human creation whose interpretation continues to evolve through history.

David Eliezrie, an Orthodox Chabad rabbi, emphatically described Torah as God’s word manifested in the physical world.

"Torah is the goal post. We don’t believe in moving the goal posts," he said.

For some people, such differing interpretations are unacceptable, said Allen Krause of Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. "It’s never been a problem for me to have uncertainty."

"We’re all trying to blend tradition with modernity," said Stephen Einstein of the ReformCongregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley. "Today, the lines are not as clearly drawn."

Yet, the delineation was evident on other topics, such as the rabbis’ explanation for allowing or disallowing mixed seating.

"Prayer is an extremely challenging activity," said Joel Landau of the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Irvine, where women sit behind a glass-and-wood partition, or mechitzah. The opposite sex is a distraction, he said.

Spitz agreed that praying exclusively with men creates an unself-conscious environment. "But separate is not equal," he said, noting that the all-female Radcliffe Institute never achieved the prestige of all-male Harvard University. "What trumps distraction is the greater sense of equality that honors women."

And what is a justifiable change in Jewish law?

"There is no red line; everything in Torah needs interpretation," Spitz said, noting that "an eye for an eye" is not interpreted literally. "Nothing in Torah is obvious."

And while interpretations are bound by precedent, topics on women, music and homosexuality are areas where the law tends to change, he added.

So who is a Jew?

"I would beg the non-Orthodox rabbis to go along with the Orthodox because it’s so divisive," said Lauren Klein, a member of the audience and self-described as "very, very Reconstructionist."

"We ought to have one standard where we can agree who is a Jew," said Einstein, noting that the Reform movement splits with the Conservative in accepting as Jewish a person born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.

"The Orthodox think they are the only authentic Judaism; the rest are something else, an expression of Judaism."

"If we’re going to let those on the right be gatekeepers, hundreds of thousands [of people] will be excluded," Einstein said. "The Orthodox standard isn’t prevalent."

"Where others see dangers," added Mayersohn, referring to converts and others born of non-Jewish mothers, "I see richness."

Eliezrie disagreed. "By setting different standards of identify, you have chaos."

"Today in Israel, this issue has reached the boiling point," Einstein said. "Whatever happens there will happen here."

Noting the strengths of each denomination, Altshuler concluded, saying, "We all have contributions to make."

Lecture Stirs Anger

A public lecture by a visiting scholar on the UCLA campususually doesn’t make much of a ripple, but nearly all of the 1,800 seats inRoyce Hall were taken and the atmosphere was electric when professor Edward W.Said stepped up to the lectern.

The sponsoring Burkle Center for International Studies hadbeen forced to move the Feb. 20 event from a smaller venue, and inside RoyceHall, groups of students worked their cell phones in Hebrew and Arabic. At theentrance, Bruins for Israel, StandWithUs, the Spartacus Youth Club and the BlueTriangle Network passed out competing pamphlets.

Said has impeccable academic credentials as a graduate of Princetonand Harvard universities, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of 20 scholarly books translated into 35 languages.

Although his reputation as an ardent advocate of Palestinianand Arab causes had preceded the Jerusalem-born scholar, some members of theuniversity community and the public had come hoping for a sober and rationalpresentation on the complexities of the Middle East.

Most were quickly disabused of that hope, none more so thana number of the most dedicated Jewish advocates of reconciliation andco-existence with the Palestinians. After a heated shouting match with Said, soardent a peacenik as Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel subsequentlylabeled the Columbia professor as “a fraud.”

Said, who served as a member of the Palestinian NationalCouncil from 1977-1991, set the tone by declaring that Israel’s treatment ofPalestinians is currently the world’s most visible case of human rights abuses.

“The denial of human rights by Israel cannot be accepted onany grounds,” whether based on divine guidance or past Jewish suffering, hedeclared.

While agreeing that Palestinian suicide bombings were”terrible,” Said quickly put the onus on the Israeli bulldozing of homes,helicopter missile attacks and strip searches of civilians.

Warming to his subject and accompanied by enthusiasticapplause by a good part of the audience, Said said that any human rightsviolations charged to Saddam Hussein were also applicable to Israel.

Describing some of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’spronouncements as “thuggish balderdash,” Said said that Israel, which hadenjoyed a reputation as a progressive society in its early years, “now had theimage of an aggressor.”

Said, acknowledging his own partisanship as a Palestinian,said he saw little chance of a modus vivendi between the Palestinian “David”and the Israeli “Goliath,” at least until Israeli leaders expressed theircontrition for the alleged crimes against the Palestinian people.

“Neither side is blessed with a [Nelson] Mandela or a[former South African president F.W.] de Klerk,” Said said.

Toward the end of his 75-minute talk, Said softened hisrhetoric by citing his friendship with Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim,which has led to the creation of an Arab-Israeli youth orchestra.

The mellower mood vanished with the first question, whichwas posed by Seidler-Feller.

Charging that Said had painted a black- and-white picture ofthe world, Seidler-Feller pointed to a number of misstatements by the speaker,and, amidst raucous catcalls from the audience, challenged Said to sign a jointstatement advocating Israel’s return to the pre-1967 boundaries, a jointcapital in Jerusalem and settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem.

Said would have none of it. He denounced Seidler-Feller’s”tirade of falsehoods,” and as a victim of the propaganda, which, Said claimed,is the only thing sustaining Israel, besides the support of the United States.

Seidler-Feller was still in an angry mood the following day.”Said appears as a sophisticated, urbane, reasonable academic, but he is reallya belligerent naysayer,” Seidler-Feller observed. “That is why he is a fraud.”

“He is so encumbered by memory, that he is stuck,” theHillel rabbi added. “He is totally dependent on his sense of victimhood. WeJews have used this approach at times, too, but in order to reach any kind ofagreement, we must both go beyond that.”

Seidler-Feller also expressed his disappointment that, inhis talk, Said had “created an atmosphere which empowered the audience to behostile.”

Dr. David N. Myers, a UCLA history professor and formerdirector of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, who has frequently spoken outagainst the Israeli occupation policies, also expressed his disappointment.

Myers described Said as “a tragic figure, a man ofremarkable intelligence, charisma and oratorical skill, who chose to ignore thecomplex dynamics of the conflict and instead recited the stale platitudes ofPalestinian rejectionism.”

Dr. Sam Aroni, another UCLA professor and a longtimeadvocate of a two-state solution, said he left Royce Hall deeply depressed atthe apparent impossibility of dialogue between the Israeli and Palestiniansides.

“Unfortunately, Said used emotional, rather than rationalarguments,” Aroni said.

One exception to the negative reaction among Jewish doveswas that of philanthropist and political activist Stanley Sheinbaum, one of themost veteran and prominent members of the peace movement.

“Said’s points were generally valid, but Israelis andAmerican Jews don’t have the patience or tolerance to deal with them,” he said.

While there may be some disagreements about certain facts,Sheinbaum said, the main point is that “the Palestinians consider themselves underoccupation, and the question is whether Israelis understand that.”

At the request of the Burkle Center, Sheinbaum hosted areception for Said at his home after the talk. Approximately 60-70 guestscontinued to debate the issues, generating ” a little heat,” Sheinbaum said. Hehas since received four to five pieces of hate mail, Sheinbaum added.

Professor Geoffrey Garrett, director of the Burkle Center,announced that the next forum speaker will be Martin Indyk, former U.S.ambassador to Israel, and that he was finalizing plans for the appearance ofKing Abdullah II of Jordan.

The associate director of the Burkle Center, politicalscientist Steven Spiegel, who was unable to attend the Said lecture, said thatSaid’s appearance was in keeping with the UCLA mission of presenting a varietyof views.

“However, by the end of the forum series, the other sidewill be more than amply represented,” Spiegel said.  

King and Heschel Remembered

There is a famous picture taken in Selma, Ala., in 1965 at
the site of a historic civil rights march for voter registration.

Abraham Joshua Heschel is marching in line with Martin
Luther King Jr. and a number of other key civil rights demonstrators. At the
end of the demonstration, a journalist asked Heschel to describe his feelings
about marching with King. He answered: “My feet were praying.”

Heschel was prominent as a scholar, teacher and theologian,
and widely respected because of his numerous publications. He was also well
known as a result of his participation in Vatican II. Vatican II was the
gathering in the early 1960s during which the Catholic Church introduced many
significant internal changes. One of the changes included a historical
reckoning: a formal process was begun that would eventually lead to the public
announcement by the Church that “the Jews” did not kill Christ. From his
participation in Vatican II, Heschel received the nickname from Catholics
throughout the world of “Father Abraham.”

Heschel descended from a long line of Chasidic rebbes. In
his adolescent years, he left the world of Chasidism and chose to embrace a
more historical approach to Jewish tradition. In his later years, though, when
he became a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (and when
the famous picture of King and himself was taken in Selma), he looked like
someone from his ancestry. He had a long gray beard, long gray hair and always
wore a yarmulke.

The picture of King and Heschel marching together in Selma
has become something of an icon. It represents the pride American Jews feel
having played, as a group, a prominent role in the civil rights movement.

According to Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, who is a
professor of history and religion at Dartmouth College, her father and King
were close friends during the last five years of King’s life. During this
period, they had a profound influence on one another. When King’s funeral
arrangements needed to be made, Heschel was one of the first individuals, among
all the dignitaries and officials who spoke at this historic event, that
Coretta Scott King specifically requested to deliver a eulogy.

In an essay Susannah Heschel wrote in the Journal of
Conservative Judaism in the spring of 1998, she points out something
interesting in King’s speeches. In his early years, particularly before January
of 1963 when Heschel and King formally met, King evoked images in his speeches
of the Christian Bible and of traditional Christian commentators. After King
and Heschel became acquainted, the dominant biblical metaphor in King’s
speeches changed. He now emphasized the Exodus from Egypt.

The second most commonly used biblical metaphor became the
prophet, specifically the call of the biblical prophets for social justice.
Susannah Heschel interprets this fact as no coincidence. When Heschel earned a
doctorate at the University of Berlin in the early 1930s, he wrote his
dissertation on The Prophets.

King did not need Heschel to teach him about biblical
events. He did need Heschel, though, to emphasize the power that these biblical
metaphors contained, that these metaphors were inherently more inclusive and
could be used to gain the broadest segment of support from the American public.

Heschel was one of the first prominent Americans to publicly
fulminate against United States participation in the war in Southeast Asia. It
is documented that he encouraged King in public discussions and in written
correspondence to take a public stand against this war.

Twenty-nine years ago, died on the 18th day of the Hebrew
month of Tevet. Tevet is a month that comes during the winter season. It often
corresponds with January, the month in which Americans pay tribute to King with
a national holiday. It is appropriate that the birthday of King and the
yahrtzeit of Heschel come at this time of year. The example of their leadership
continues to cast light on our dark struggling society.

Elliot Fein teaches high school students Jewish studies at the Tarbut V’Torah Community School in Irvine.

Jerusalem Mayor’s Visit Sparks Snub

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert will appear in San Diego Oct. 15, but there will not be any official representatives from the Jewish community to welcome him at the $1,000-a-plate dinner.

However, Olmert will not find an empty room. The mayor was invited by the Mission Valley Christian Fellowship, an Evangelical Christian church that will present Olmert with a $500,000 check “for the urgent, critical and immediate support of the victims of terrorism.”

Olmert’s appearance at the dinner sponsored by the church — which Jewish groups call a proselytizing organization — has sparked a debate in San Diego. It is the same debate that is taking place around the country, as Jewish groups ask: Should we ally ourselves on the Israel issue with organizations that we’d otherwise oppose?

In San Diego, the answer seems to be no. Jewish groups are boycotting the Oct. 15 event, at which part of the money being raised by the dinner for 400 will go to the Nicodemus Project, a church program aimed at spreading the word of God in Israel.

“There are people in the community who are very concerned about the nature of this group,” said Jane Scher, chair of the Community Relations Committee of the United Jewish Federation of San Diego.

At issue in the Olmert visit is whether the Mission Valley Christian Fellowship is simply a community of Israel-loving Christians, or whether it is a group of Israel-loving Christians who are making concerted efforts to proselytize Jews in Israel.

Leslie Decker, a spokesperson for the Christian Fellowship, denied that the church has an evangelical component. However, she admitted that conversion of Jews is a church dream.

“Our Nicodemus Project is going to be spreading the word of God as coming from the Torah alone,” she said. “Our aim is to spread Judaism.

“Of course, we would love them [the Jews] to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah, but the primary goal is to show them that there are people in the United States who love them, and who are standing beside them no matter what,” Decker said.

“This is subterfuge, and the church is covering it up,” said Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz of Jews for Judaism, a Jewish anti-missionary organization. “Their Web site states that their mission is to ‘seek to point others to Jesus Christ’ and that ‘putting the word of God up throughout Israel will turn the hearts of Israel to the Lord,’ who they say is Jesus Christ. Jews for Judaism did an independent investigation of the church, and we found that they really want to bring Jews to Jesus.”

Olmert would not return calls for comment.

Others in the community said that no matter what the church’s motives are, this may not be the right time for Jewish groups to alienate friends of Israel.

“At a time like this, when the world community is so notoriously anti-Israel, and there are Evangelical Christians supporting Israel, I think Israeli officials have an obligation to accept that support,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Israeli officials should be doing all they can to muster Christians’ support of Israel, but that is not to say they should tolerate any missionary activities,” he added. “And if that is the price of support, then they should withhold their support.”

Yariv Ovadia, consul for communications and public affairs at Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, which covers San Diego, said that the consulate supports Olmert’s visit.

“The church that organized and financed mayor Olmert’s trip has been a vocal advocate for the State of Israel, particularly in this hour of need,” Ovadia said. “While we understand the sensitivity of the issue, we feel that a fundraising event for the victims of terrorism in Jerusalem is a tremendous support for the people of Israel, and Jerusalem in particular.”

Around the country, Jewish groups are divided on the issue, concerned about the evangelical underpinnings of Christian support. Right-wing Christians believe that the second coming of Christ will occur when Jews return to Israel, and at The End of Days, Jews will accept Christ as their savior.

In a recent New York Times piece, Maureen Dowd quoted the Rev. Jerry Falwell as saying, “You and I know that there’s not going to be any real peace in the Middle East until one day the Lord Jesus Christ sits on the throne of David in Jerusalem.”

In the same article, Leon Weiseltier, Jewish scholar and literary editor of The New Republic, called Christian support of Israel “a grim comedy of mutual condescension. The Evangelical Christians condescend to the Jews by offering their support before they convert or kill them. And the Jews condescend to Christians by accepting their support, while believing that their eschatology is nonsense.”

But turning away from Christian support might be too much to ask from a country constantly on the defensive in front of world government bodies, such as the European Union and the United Nations, and facing a devastating tourism decline. For example, approximately 3,500 Christians from 70 countries visited Israel during Succot, and on Friday, Oct. 11, the Christian Coalition will rally in support of Israel in Washington, D.C. Moreoever, Christian groups are as vocal in condemning suicide bombings and endorsing pro-Israel politicians as Jewish leaders.

But some are not swayed.

“Do I believe that Christians should give money to Israel? Yes,” Kravitz said. “Should they help the victims of terror? Yes.

“But something is wrong here,” he continued. “We have to do everything to survive — but is it only survival to not be physically hurt? According to Jewish tradition, the spiritual destruction of a Jew is as serious an issue as the physical destruction.”

Understanding and Responding to Evil

The subject of evil is something that has entered my mind often this past year. Since Sept. 11, and also from the ongoing news

coverage from Israel, I have had many questions and have engaged in frequent discussions about this subject.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis is a theologian and scholar who has thought very profoundly about the subject of evil. He is a spiritual leader whose influence goes well beyond the walls of his synagogue, Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. When he earned a Ph.D. in theology from the Pacific School of Religion, the title of Schulweis’s dissertation, which later became a published book, was “Evil and the Morality of God.”

I recently drove up to his office to see if Schulweis could help me in my struggle. I was not disappointed.

The following is some of what he shared.

Elliot Fein: Encino is located right next to Northridge. You lived through the Northridge Earthquake. Where was God in this event?

Harold Schulweis: We do not give enough attention to a question like this. Unfortunately, theology and philosophy are considered to be extraneous to Judaism and to everyday life, something that is of interest to only intellectuals, rabbis and other clergy. It is important for everyone to develop a theology or philosophy on life that is honest, something that one can actually believe.

If I want to find out what caused the earthquake, I will go to the physicist, not the theologian. In explaining the event, he will not use terms like sin and punishment but rather cause and consequences. His explanation is not a judgment. If a lion and a lamb meet, the lion will eat the lamb. That is just the way lions are. It is not a judgment on the lamb. The lamb has not sinned, nor has the lion transgressed.

There are two complementary conceptions of God in the Hebrew Bible that are reflected in the two most commonly used Hebrew names for God: Elohim and Adonai.

Elohim is the God who creates nature. This is the name for God that is used almost exclusively in the first chapter of Genesis. This is the God that creates everything: lions and lambs, anthrax and Cipro. Nature is metaphysically “good,” as God observes in the first chapter in the book of Genesis, but nature is morally neutral.

In response to nature, when bad things happen, people (often based on religious teachings in which they were raised) ask misleading questions. Where is God? How could God allow this to happen? Why doesn’t God intervene? These questions imply that the lamb, the one who suffers, deserves punishment. If I have a heart attack, if my child gets cancer, there must be a divine reason. This leaves people with guilt and anger. This encourages people’s masochism and God’s sadism.

To accept this reality is necessary but not sufficient. That is why I can not believe only in Elohim. That is why I have to balance the Elohim aspect of God with a complementary concept: Adonai.

Adonai is a response of human beings to nature. Adonai is the God of moral principle. What do you do in an imperfect world? Humans are blessed with capacities of freedom, intellect, and moral sensibilities. A person, by him or herself, will not find a cure for cancer, but one can do something in response to cancer. One can seek to ensure that research is done, that autopsies are permitted, that transplants are encouraged. Our response to the amoral aspect of nature, our attempt to make an imperfect world not perfect but a better more righteous place gives meaning to life. It is what it means to live in the image of God.

When Jews pray, they always use both names of the Divine, Adonai and Elohim. A fully mature religious person must acknowledge the world of facts, the world of reality, the world that is. That is why Elohim is used. At the same time, it is critical for a person to assert what ought to be, what is normative. That is why Adonai is used. The central affirmation of faith in Judaism is the “Shema.” This prayer includes both names for the divine. The line of this prayer ends with the Hebrew word echad. This word means one. Two complementary concepts, Elohim and Adonai, that are part of Divine oneness.

One can ask where was God in the earthquake? A much better question is where am I? What have I done, in response to an act of nature, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to support those who suffer? What am I doing to live a life in the image of Adonai?

EF: Where was God on Sept. 11?

HS: Terrorists are part of the amoral energy and freedom that is given to every human being. That energy and freedom, though, is also given to the defenders of justice and freedom, to people that try to prevent evil. Our response to people who perform evil is the same, in theory, as our response to a natural disaster…. I do not mean to oversimplify the situation, but if we are going to live in this world, it is our responsibility to somehow figure out ways of educating people who hate not to hate.

EF: How do you explain the events of Sept. 11 to children?

HS: I think children understand Sept. 11. Children are more mature and better able to handle an event like Sept. 11 than are parents who want to protect them. It was a big mistake when parents [after] Sept. 11 did not send their children to school. What helped children was being with other kids, being in their community. We had an assembly at our synagogue, we sang together, we prayed together. We had a question-and-answer session on what happened. We gave very direct simple but honest answers to their questions. We talked about people who hate. We talked about envy. We talked about how we need to protect ourselves living in the world. The discussion was not very different from what it would have been like with adults.

When a child loses a loved one, he or she expresses one concern. Who is going to care for me? Grandpa has just died. Are my mom and my dad going to die too? It is important for parents to acknowledge death as death. We do not need to talk about grandpa going on a long trip. This only causes anxiety in the child. We do not need to talk about grandpa going to sleep forever. This causes insomnia. We need to re-assure the child in an honest way that they are secure and will be taken care of. A parent needs to say that I am healthy, I am taking care of myself and I plan on being with you for a long, long time.

When parents ask me what do I say to my child, I always answer their question with a question. What do you yourself believe? It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach what one does not believe.

In the modern world, we have witnessed unprecedented levels of human evil. In addition to striving to live a life in the image of Adonai, how do you maintain a positive outlook on life?

There is a story in the Talmud. After the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem, there was a group of ascetics who said we are no longer going to drink wine because there was a wine libation in the sacrificial cult of the Temple. A rabbi responded to them. If that is the case, then you should not drink water because water was used in Temple ceremonies. You should not eat bread because bread was also used.

Not to mourn is impossible, but to mourn excessively is harmful. Therefore, there must be a sense of balance and proportion on how we mourn, on how we live our lives. I gain a balance and sense of proportion in what I believe and how I live my life from Judaism. I gain this balance and sense of proportion from having a religious outlook on life. Science is wonderful. Its benefits to our lives are tremendous. It answers many questions but I can’t live only in a world of science. Judaism balances my outlook on life. It helps me to maintain a positive outlook.

EF: The subject of evil was the theme topic at a recent weekend retreat for members of your synagogue. What questions did you raise in discussions at this retreat? What points did you emphasize in answering these questions?

HS: My talk on this weekend retreat was more of a confession than a lecture. I shared a problem that I am struggling with. An adolescent child in our congregation died in a car accident. The other driver was drunk. I tried to comfort the father. I put my arm on his shoulder. He knocked it off. He says “God is cruel and you as a rabbi just apologize for a cruel God.” His wife tells me to not take it personally but I do. More than psychology is needed. The father is calling out for a realistic and moral theology.

How do we as a congregation respond to this man? Part of the answer I know is being there for him and his family, making sure that people are at the funeral and visitors are at his home listening and doing what ever is necessary. Part of the answer is getting him in a communal environment where the joys of life are celebrated. But there is more to it. We explored in our discussion what else we, as synagogue, can do in a situation like this to help this man and strive to live in the image of Adonai.

EF: In fighting its war on terrorism, the United States is forming alliances with many countries that are not exactly friends with Israel. What are your concerns, as an American and as a Jew about our country’s foreign policy and about the present political predicament in which the United States finds itself today?

HS: One has to be alert. One also has to have empathy. The strategy right now makes sense. Politics is not logic. The world is not a clean place. Not every ally is going to be a democracy like Britain or Canada. There is definitely concern about our country forming alliances with corrupt and unstable governments but there is a Machiavelian strategy to what is happening.

Israel, in its own war on terrorism, has had to play this game. At one time, it was revealed that Israel actually backed Hezbollah against other Palestinians factions. I am confident that Israel will never be betrayed by the United States.

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

I never expected I’d write a first-hand account of my journey into interfaith marriage. As a child I attended the West Coast Talmudic Seminary (WCTS) and then Rambam Torah Institute for high school. As a teenager, my social life centered around my involvement in B’nai Akiva, an Orthodox Zionist youth organization. My parents, Holocaust survivors, never forced me to attend these yeshivas.

The yeshiva was a wonderful extended home. There was Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, one of the greatest men I’ve ever known. He was a legendary scholar, able to quote from memory any passage from the Talmud and the relevant commentaries. But more significant than his scholarship was the love he showed us. He never uttered a harsh or negative comment about anyone, though he had reason to be bitter. His father, Rebbe Elchonon Wasserman, was put to death in a concentration camp. I remember telling Reb Simcha how uncomfortable my father’s presence at my bar mitzvah made me, because he wasn’t observant and had never worn tefillin. Reb Simcha, with warm and compassionate eyes, sat down so close to me that I could smell the wonderful aroma of his pipe tobacco and said, “Your father is a good man. He works hard so you can come to our yeshiva. Judge him by how much he cares for you — anyone can learn to put on tefillin.”

A danger was lurking outside the yeshiva. It was the real world — a world with intolerance, bigotry and hate. I was 12-years-old in 1963, and couldn’t understand why discrimination and overt acts of prejudice were tolerated in parts of our country. Perhaps being a child of Holocaust survivors made me overly sensitive, but my understanding of being one of the Chosen People was clear: it required being intolerant of blind hate, to any group — the same kind of hatred that led to the extermination of 9 million people, of which 15 would have been my immediate family.

By this time I was becoming aware of opinions, some stronger than others, in the yeshiva: you can never truly trust a gentile; Reform and Conservative Jews are more dangerous to our people than Nazis; and women have no place in religious studies. I wouldn’t understand it completely for years, but the seeds for my separation from the Orthodox community were being sewn.

As I turned 16, I started to drift away from Orthodox life. I didn’t know what to do about them, but I was noticing girls and I wanted to be free to pursue them. Over the next year I gave in to the temptation of a McDonald’s cheeseburger, stopped going to synagogue regularly, and went to college at UC Santa Cruz. My transformation was complete by the time I was a junior — for the only time in my life I forgot to fast during Yom Kippur.

College life was intoxicating. As a psychology major I was able to be part of the human potential movement of the 1960s and ’70s. I was part of a global community that preached love, tolerance and acceptance of all. Most compelling for me was the freedom to interact with anyone, to be able to have close friendships with people of every walk of life. In college I found feelings of love and community again, but this time in a secular environment.

After college I returned to Los Angeles to get my Ph.D. in social-clinical psychology. I settled into my new home in Venice and struggled to find a social life. Two years later I began to date. At that time, whether I dated Jews or non-Jews wasn’t an issue for me. My only involvement in the Jewish community was attending High Holiday services with my father. Other than spending time with childhood friends, I no longer fit into that community.

My new life revolved around graduate school, jogging, backpacking, and hanging out with artist friends.

After graduate school, I dated a lot and had several serious relationships, mostly with non-Jewish women. I got serious enough with one woman to discuss marriage. She said she wanted to be married in the church in which she had grown up. At that moment, my liberal, even radical sociopolitical world collapsed. I hadn’t known my religious background had any punch left. We eventually broke up for various reasons, but I learned a lesson: I couldn’t think about marriage without appreciating how deeply ingrained Judaism was in my soul.

The year 1985 was an important one for me. I went to Israel for the first time, and I met Lori. She had a wonderful laugh, a keen mind, and a very accepting character. I knew I was in trouble after our first date. But I was no longer naïve about what religion meant to me — and Lori was not Jewish. She even played bells at her church, whatever bells were. Within a month, I felt compelled to tell her that I could never have a Christmas tree in my home. We didn’t talk much about religion over the next year, though Lori knew that to marry me would mean having a “Jewish family.”

Eventually we decided to marry — and had to tell friends and family about our engagement. All of our friends rejoiced with us. Two of my best friends, with whom I had grown up, asked me to reconsider, and they asked more than once. My younger brother told Lori, without consulting me, that no matter what I promised her I would never go through with the marriage. When I finally told my parents (I had avoided telling them for as long as possible), my mother broke down in a tearful heap only to rise and scream at me, “What Hitler couldn’t finish you are doing to us.” And they liked Lori!

We agreed to have a Jewish wedding. For me it meant seeking out a Reform rabbi. I had never stepped into a Reform temple, and now I was depending on the Reform movement to start my Jewish family. Luckily, our first contact was with Eli Herscher, a Rabbi who cared enough about us to require that we meet with him privately several times and take a 20-week Introduction to Judaism course. The course gave us a way to structure discussions of religion, get beyond superficial issues, and ensure that we really knew one another in a meaningful way.

Once we were married I took responsibility for creating a Jewish home. I bought the challah for Shabbat, cooked the ethnic dishes I loved as a child, and planned religious holidays. Now that I couldn’t take religion for granted, I was much more conscious of it’s importance to me, and I found it very nurturing. Along with our daughter, Adrianne (from Lori’s previous marriage), we have since been blessed with two more daughters, Delaney Malka and Liza Claire.

After being married for two years, Lori came to me and said she had decided to convert to Judaism. She’d been taking classes and meeting with Rabbi Herscher, and had independently planned this move. I admit, I had reservations — I didn’t want her to convert unless she truly felt inside her soul that it was right. She reassured me that she wanted to do this because of what she had learned, the spirituality she felt, and the welcoming contacts she had made in the Reform community.

I can’t deny that I was very pleased she wanted to be Jewish. And since I already loved her so deeply, I was glad that we were on this spiritual journey together.

Barney Rosen, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with offices in Encino and Pasadena. He is Director of Psychology at Huntington Hospital and a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Intermarriage and Jewish Identity

More than 15 scholars will address the theme of “The Reappearing American Jew: Identity and Continuity” at a two-day conference, Feb. 6-7.

Co-sponsors of the event are the Hebrew Union College and USC’s Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life.

Sunday afternoon and evening sessions on Feb. 6 are “American Jewish Identity: Historical Texture and Context” and “Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.” Both are at the Irmas campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 11662 Wilshire Blvd., West Los Angeles.

On Feb. 7, morning and afternoon sessions will focus on “Jewish Identity in the Context of California and the West” and “Jewish Identity in Multicultural Contexts.” The 10 a.m. session is at the Hebrew Union College and the 1:30 p.m. discussion at USC.

Attendance is free; rese
rvations are recommended by calling (213) 740-3405. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Doctors, Lawyers and Other Jewish Women

When she was 16, KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour was captivated by her studies with the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich. “Yiddish is magic,” he told her. “It will outwit history.”

Seymour took his words to heart. Of late, she has been doing her part to help the mamaloshen survive. In 1995, she and KCRW teamed up with the National Yiddish Book Center to create “Jewish Short Stories,” a National Public Radio series read by actors such as Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum. The program was a peculiar excursion in time-travel: back to the days of golems and rebbes and schlemiels all living together in the shtetl. Yiddish, apparently, worked its magic: At least half the NPR network ran the program, including markets as unlikely as Coos Bay, Ore., and Bozeman, Mont. KCRW sold well more than 1,000 cassette sets of the series.

This year, the program is back by popular demand, and because Seymour wanted to bring the series into the postmodern era.

“This is a darker, edgier series,” says Seymour, adding that a Sholom Aleichem story explores the suicide of one of Tevye’s daughters.

Once again, celebrities agreed to work for the union base rate of around $11 an hour — perhaps because of the Yiddish yearnings latent in Ashkenazi DNA. William Shatner, Richard Dreyfuss and Ed Asner signed on, as did directors Arthur Hiller, Jeremy Kagan and Claudia Weil. “Chicago Hope” star Hector Elizondo, of Puerto Rican heritage, said that he was drawn to the series because he has converso blood.

The 18-part series, dubbed “Jewish Stories from the Old World to the New,” includes stories and novel excerpts by authors such as Bernard Malamud, E.L. Doctorow, Saul Bellow and Max Apple. It also includes a number of works by women writers: Allegra Goodman’s “The Four Questions” humorously explores the conflict between three generations of American Jews; Pearl Abraham’s “The Romance Reader” focuses on a restless Chassidic woman; Leslea Newman’s “A Letter to Harvey Milk” examines the friendship between an elderly Jewish man and his lesbian creative-writing teacher.

Ironically, Seymour, who has created Mexican and Korean short-story programming for KCRW, says the only critics of “Jewish Stories” have been…Jewish. “Some people fear that publicly celebrating our Jewish heritage will excite anti-Semitism, which is ridiculous,” she says.

To buy a CD or audiocassette of the series, or for programming information, call (310) 450-5183 or (800) 292-3855.