Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis: Why Ferguson matters to Jews, and what makes a rabbi’s life well-lived

From a poem by Rabbi Schulweis:

For Those Beloved Who Survive Me

Mourning by Harold M. Schulweis

Mourn me not with tears, ashes or sackcloth.
Nor dwell in darkness, sadness or remorse.
Remember that I love you, and wish for you a life of song.
My immortality, if there be such for me, is not in tears, blame or
But in the joy you give to others, in raising the fallen
and loosening the fetters of the bound.
In your loyalty to God's special children — the widow, the orphan,
the poor, the stranger in your gates, the weak — I take pride.

The fringes of the tallit placed on my body are torn, for the dead
cannot praise You, O Lord.
The dead have no mitzvot.
But your tallit is whole and you are alive and alive you are called to
You can choose, you can act, you can transform the world.

My immortality is bound up with God's eternity, with God's
justice, truth and righteousness.
And that eternity is strengthened by your loyalty and your love.
Honor me with laughter and with goodness.
With these, the better part of me lives on beyond the grave.

Over the last many decades—and particularly the last 10 years, I have had the privilege of spending a considerable amount of time with Rabbi Schulweis.  It has undoubtedly changed the course of my life.

Like everyone in this room, I always loved, admired, and appreciated Rabbi Schulweis.  His intellect, his oratory, his bold conscience, his prophetic way of insisting that we dig deeper in our own souls and consciences—that we stop the argument about whether God exists and start finding the godliness and the goodliness in ourselves and those with whom we share our homes, our communities, and our planet.  There were always so many reasons to admire Rabbi Schulweis.   You know how it is—sometimes you admire someone from afar and when you get more familiar what you see is less admirable.  

Quite the opposite happened to me with Rabbi Schulweis.  The closer we got the more I admired him.    

Rabbi Schulweis was not just our rabbi and teacher and not just a social philosopher and idea generator; and, he was not just the man who called on our community to start an organization to fight genocide; For Jewish World Watch he has been so much more. He has been was an active leader in realizing the organization’s vision, day-in day-out for the past decade. He attended every monthly board meeting, until very recently when he became too weak to do so. For years, he traveled all over southern California with me, speaking to groups of all sizes, ages and faiths.  His humility was so evident in all of this community work. Several years ago we took a long drive to address what was supposed to be a sizeable audience. When we arrived, the crowd was embarrassingly small. I was horrified.  Rabbi Schulweis did not skip a beat.

He was fully engaged with the audience. He was so uplifted on our long drive back home–—never giving a second thought to the disappointing showing.      

He especially enjoyed our outings to meet with JWW’s partners in other faith communities. He loved speaking with the priests, headmasters and students in Catholic and Christian schools; he forged our relationship with the Armenian community, making sure that JWW would become the first Jewish organization to support long overdue legislation (which sadly, still has not been enacted), recognizing the Armenian genocide.  

He marched with us in front of the Chinese Embassy to protest the government’s horrific human rights violations. A few years ago, he was ready to go to Washington DC to be arrested with George Clooney as a means of drawing attention to the genocide in Darfur—we had to stop him from that one, as we knew it would not be good for his health.  In the ultimate display of support and commitment, at one of our rallies he actually put a JWW t-shirt on—so he’d be a visible member of the JWW contingent.  Of course, he wore the t-shirt over shirt and tie!


Over the past decade, I saw Rabbi Schulweis’ characteristic humility, warmth and charm fully evident in his one-on-one meetings with the many young teens who sought to interview him.  He treated each of these sit-downs with the same seriousness that he’d give to an LA Times reporter.  

During our Board meetings, if someone forgot a name or the disposition of a certain debate from a prior discussion—he was right there, following every word, filling in the blanks that no one else in the room remembered, even in recent months, when his health proved challenging and his energy was down. Right to the end, he would still, whenever possible, attend our meetings.  When he couldn’t make it, he always wanted a summary the next day—what was discussed? What was decided? Who attended?

And, we had a familiar ritual with each trip to Africa. He insisted on seeing us before we departed. He wanted to know our full itinerary and be reassured that we would be safe. And he would bless us.

He’d read every one of our blog entries, following every aspect of the trip. When we returned, he’d want a full debrief. How were our projects progressing? Who did we meet? He’d want stories about the people we encountered, the individuals, the children, the new connections. That is what mattered most to him. He hung on to every word, at times saddened by the reality of the situation and at times beaming with pride about our successes. It seems that through his desire for details and stories he was able to vicariously experience these difficult journeys.

My immortality, if there be such for me, is not in tears, blame of self recrimination, but in the joy you give to others, in raising the fallen and loosening the fetters of the bound.”

Of all of the visits and conversations I have had with Rabbi Schulweis, it is our very last conversation less than two weeks ago that was perhaps the most profound. It will stay with me forever. Already in quite a weakened state, Rabbi Schulweis was notably agitated about the events that lead to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, and the chokehold that killed Eric Garner in New York.  He said that these police practices are intolerable and racially biased. He asked why he was not hearing a louder voice of protest from the American Jewish community.  

Rabbi Schulweis was a man who simply could not tolerate injustice…even as his heart was fading — even as he knew his end was near…he would not give up his pursuit of and for justice.  And his expectation of us was clear as well— to continue this sacred work: 

“The fringes of the tallit placed on my body are torn, for the dead
cannot praise You, O Lord.
The dead have no mitzvot.
But your tallit is whole and you are alive and alive you are called to
You can choose, you can act, you can transform the world.”

A while later that afternoon, Stan Zicklin, Malkah, Rabbi and I were visiting, and Rabbi Schulweis posed a question. He asked, “How do you know if you have lived a good life? A worthwhile life?”.  After 40 years of being his student, I did a very Schulweisian thing.  I turned it back on him. I asked him, “How would YOU evaluate whether you’ve lived a good life—?”   Without hesitation he said “A rabbi who has brought people together – people who were divergent in their views and practices, people who ordinarily would not have connected, people who were estranged, or even simply irrelevant to one another….I would say, that such a rabbi has lived a good life.”  

What a remarkable moment to experience…a man, near death, evaluating the essence of his life’s purpose as a rabbi.

About 10 months ago when Rabbi Schulweis was ill, almost every board member of JWW sent me notes to deliver to him. I want to share with you the words of one such Jewish World Watch board member…words which demonstrate, so beautifully, that Rabbi Schulweis accomplished his dream.

Dear Rabbi Schulweis:   I don't think that I have ever told you what you and  JWW have meant in my life. By allowing me to be part of your extraordinary vision, you have altered my view, not only of the world, but of my place in it. By starting this organization, you have challenged me and many others to leave our comfort zones and recognize that we can in fact DO something in places that seem so far away and remote. I see the world and our interconnectivity differently because of you.

But most of all, I have been so touched by your inclusiveness. I love that JWW embraces anyone who needs us and that while steeped in Jewish tradition, we welcome and embrace all faiths. It is a powerful message that the world so desperately needs. Diana

Yes, Rabbi Schulweis was an intellectual giant; a profound philosopher; an eloquent and prolific writer; an original thinker and a masterful speaker.  Those attributes made Rabbi Schulweis a great rabbi.  But Rabbi Schulweis was more than just a great Rabbi. He was also one of the Greatest Human Beings that any of us will ever know…and that was the quality that made him so magnetic.  

At this year’s Walk to End Genocide, it took a very long time to bring Rabbi and Malkah in a golf cart from the parking lot at Pan Pacific Park down to the area of the Walk.  People of all ages thronged around the golf cart wanting him to stop for a photo—hundreds of people, from young kids to politicos and religious leaders, were taking selfies with Rabbi Schulweis and posting them on their Facebook pages. In an era full of superficial fame, Rabbi Schulweis provides the true model of celebrity.  Indeed, not only in Los Angeles, but across the US and far beyond, Rabbi Schulweis is a superhero of a movement—a movement he started in the last decade of his life!  How remarkable.    

Between the ages of 80 and 90 when most people would be slowing down, or stopping altogether, Rabbi Schulweis conceived of and helped to grow a new global human rights organization and he found room in his heart to make a whole new group of friends—…friends whose lives became intertwined with his.  Listen to this from one of our JWW board members—also from last March:

Dear Rabbi Schulweis.

Thank you.  Thank you for standing up.  Thank you for speaking on behalf of those who cannot speak.  For being a witness.  For calling on others to do so, when your eyes, and arms, could reach only so far.  Thank you for opening your mouth and for opening my eyes.  Thank you for helping teach me to recognize a different facet of myself than I knew before, for teaching me to better understand how much one person can do and, in reaching that realization, understanding that capacity can also mean responsibility.  Thank you for having such a strong gravitational force, and for allowing me to be pulled into your orbit. Please know that if it is you now having difficulty speaking, there is a chorus of voices here ready, willing and able to continue to sing your songs and continue to speak for those on behalf of whom you have been speaking. .. Peter

On one of our trips to Congo, a group of survivors asked us to pray with them for their safety and then asked us why we came to Congo.  

I told them about how Rabbi Schulweis for 50 years had asked “where were the people of conscience when our 6 million were murdered?” I told them about Rabbi Schulweis’ sense of despair at the end of the Rwandan genocide when we knew that 1 million people had been murdered in 100 days and about the shame he felt for not having mobilized and spoken out.  I told them about the vow Rabbi Schulweis made that he would never again be silent in the face of genocide and how that led him to propose Jewish World Watch when the tragedy emerging in Darfur became clear to the world. And then I told them that in our synagogues we also pray, but that Rabbi Schulweis has taught us to pray not only with our hearts, but also to pray with our feet.  One of the people in the room stood up and shook her head in approval and said “This Rabbi is a very wise man; I want to meet this wise man and learn from him.”  

We have met this wise man, and we have learned from him, and none of us will ever be the same.  

“My immortality, if there be such for me,… is in your loyalty to God's special children

— the widow, the orphan,

the poor, the stranger in your gates, the weak – [in this] I take pride.”

It has been the greatest privilege to stand in the bright light of Rabbi Harold Schulweis and to be part of a team to help amplify that light for the good of the world.  It has been the greatest privilege to learn from him, to partner in the repair of the world with him, and, above all, to share a deep friendship with him. I will hold in the highest esteem his exceptional relationship with his perfect match, Malkah and the grace with which Malkah and her children shared their patriarch with me, with you, and with the world.  

How perfectly apt that he left us during Chanukah—during the darkest time of the year, Chanukah’s flames create light—that is exactly what Rabbi Schulweis has done  in so many profound ways for all of the years of his life.

My immortality is bound up with God's eternity, with God's
justice, truth and righteousness.
And that eternity is strengthened by your loyalty and your love.”

A friend wrote: It is said that in the end, people are judged not only by what they did but also for what they caused. Rabbi Schulweis caused so much peace, caused the lives of so many to be so much better, in some cases, caused them to be at all. He caused the world to better understand the sacred power of conscience. 

“Mourn me not with tears, ashes or sackcloth…” Says Rabbi Schulweis,

Honor me with laughter and with goodness.
With these, the better part of me lives on beyond the grave”

Judaism is the particular language through which Jews address humanity

RABBI HAROLD M. SCHULWEIS was the spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, and author of many books, including For Those Who Cant Believe, In Gods Mirror, Evil and the Morality of God, and Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion. He was the founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that identifies and offers grants to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews threatened by the agents of Nazi savagery.

Reprinted with permission from “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” edited by Ruth and Judea Pearl (Jewish Lights).

Some of my best Jewish friends share my humanistic concerns for the submerged communities, the lot of the poor, the weak, and the pariahs of society. But oddly enough, they see no connection between that universal interest and its Jewish roots. While never denying their Jewish ancestry, they find it difficult to articulate their Jewish identity. For them to declare, “I am Jewish” is a confession that, like Woody Allen’s, is appended with the coda, “guilty, with an explanation.” What is the explanation for their guilt and this inability to speak their Jewish identity with a full-throated voice? Declaring their Jewish identity appears as a compromise of their moral largesse, a betrayal of their universalistic vision. It is as if they hear the question of their Jewishness framed as a hard disjunctive: “Are you a Jew or a human being?” “Is your loyalty to your people or to humanity?”

My teacher, the philosopher Sydney Hook, confessed, in his book Out of Step, that during the Holocaust years he and many Jews like him were so enthralled by the promise of universalism that they came to regard the suffering of the Jewish people as mere parochial sentiment. “We did not for a moment deny our Jewish origin but disapproved of what we thought an excess of chauvinism.” It echoed the sentiment of Rosa Luxemberg, the internationalist socialist of Jewish descent. She turned on her fellow Jews in anger, declaring, “Why do you persist in pestering me with your peculiar Judenschmerz [Jewish pain]? I feel more deeply the wretchedness on the rubber plantations of Puto Maya …”

Doubtless, my friends are reacting to the kind of insularly Jewish particularism that confuses loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people with chauvinistic provincialism. That type of paranoiac particularism suspects any cosmopolitan outlook as a threat to the fidelity of Jewish survival and to Jewish uniqueness. My friends are caught in the vise of either/or thinking that divides the world into “them” and “us” and forces choices of false options. The consequence of this split thinking leads to the twin fallacies of pseudo-particularism and pseudo-universalism, which tear apart the wholeness of Judaism and the unity of Jewish identity.

My universalistic Jewish friends are deaf to the uniqueness of Jewish particularism and Jewish universalism and consequently mute in expressing their Jewish identity. To paraphrase George Santayana, the effort to embrace humanity in general is as foolhardy as the attempt “to speak in general without using any language in particular.” Judaism is the particular language through which Jews address humanity. Although the Bible originates out of the needs, intuitions, and revelations of a particular people, its wisdom and ethics burst into the public domain of humanity.

Martin Buber, criticized by those who urged him to liberate Hasidic tradition from its “confessional limitations” and to transcend it, offered an authentic Jewish response. He was not bound to step into the street in order to speak what he had heard to the world. He could remain in the door of his ancestral home and still share it with the world.

An authentic Jewish particularism is not contrary to the idea of universalism. It grasps both polarities in one hand. Jewish particularism does not segregate—its unitive embrace is expressed in this rabbinic statement from Tanna De-Ve-Eliyahu: “I call heaven and earth to witness that whether it be man or woman, slave or handmaiden, the Holy Spirit rests on each according to his deeds.” So the Russian Jewish refusenik Natan Sharansky understood the moral interdependence between Jewish particularism and universalism. While active on behalf of Jewish immigration, Sharansky struggled as well for the rights of Pentecostals, Catholics, Ukrainians, Crimeans, and Tartars. In the prison of the Soviet Union, he came to realize that “Only he who understands his own identity and already has become a free person can work effectively for the rights of others.” In retrospect he observed that helping other persecuted people became part of his own freedom only after he had returned to his Jewish roots. Sharansky cited Cynthia Ozick’s telling of the Jewish folk tale in which a naif asks the rabbi why one blows the shofar through the narrow side of the ram’s horn rather than through the wide side. The rabbi answered, “If you blow it into the wide end, no sound will be emitted. But if you blow through the narrow side, it will reach into the outer limits.” Like charity, compassion begins at home, but it does not end there.

Elie Wiesel, whose concern for Soviet Jewry similarly led him to a concern for peoples’ races and religions not his own, counseled, “If you try to start everywhere all at once, you get nowhere, but if you start with a single person, someone near to you, a friend or a neighbor, you can come nearer to the other.” In the celebrated biblical verse Leviticus 19:18, love of the other is linked to love of oneself. Egoism and altruism are not contradictions. The tradition cautions against that form of self-abnegation, which some declare to be the entry to selfless altruism. No more than love of one’s wife leads to misogyny does love of family lead to misanthropy.

I recall for my friends the masterful Hasidic tale in which a wealthy disciple of the rabbi boasts that he lives an abstemious life, eating dry bread and water. The rabbi chastises his parsimony and urges the wealthy man to drink of the finest of wines and eat of the tenderest of meats. When his other disciples wondered why he was upset with the rich man’s modest style of life, the rabbi answered, “I fear that if he is content with consuming bread and water, he will argue that the poor who come to him should be content with rocks and sand.”

To be Jewish is to live in a dynamic and dialectical relationship between the private and the public, the individual and the social, the unique and the universal. It is to seek the integration and harmony, articulated in Rabbi Hillel’s celebrated aphorism, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I live only for myself, of what good am I?”

In these parlous days, when great religions denigrate each other, it is important to remember the wisdom of our sages, who selected two separate readings for the first and the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. On the first day, we read of how Hagar and Ishmael, the heirs of Islam, were exiled but protected through the divine intervention of the Angel of God, who rescued the Egyptian wife of Abraham and their son Ishmael and promised that Ishmael would be made into a great nation (Gen. 21:14–21). And on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the congregation reads the story of Abraham and Isaac, the heir of Judaism, whom the Angel of the Lord saves from the sacrificial knife (Gen. 22:1–19). Both Ishmael and Isaac are God’s children and their genealogies are recorded in the Scriptures (Gen. 25:12–18). The particular-universal connection is exemplified in these twin readings on the Jewish New Year and, I have argued, also in all the major celebrations of the Jewish calendar. What else is the significance of the Rabbis’ selecting for public reading the Prophet Jonah on the Day of Atonement, and emphasizing the sacrifice of seventy animals on behalf of the seventy nations of the world in the liturgy of Sukkot? It is Jonah who initially refuses to prophesy against Nineveh because he is apprehensive lest God repent of His judgment. For this, Jonah is chastised, the pagan citizens do indeed repent, and God Himself repents of His judgment to punish Nineveh. The compassion of God is not restricted to one people. The Jewish tradition, properly understood, will not allow God to be segregated.

To declare one’s Jewish identity is to know how to sing the song that rises to holiness. The rabbinic philosopher and poet Abraham Isaac Kook caught the growing melody of the Jewish song: “There is one who sings the songs of his own self, and in himself finds everything. Then there is the one who sings the song of his people and cleaves with a tender love to Israel. And there is one whose spirit is in all worlds, and with all of them does he join in his song. The song of the self, the song of one’s people, the song of man, the song of the world—they all merge within him continually. And this song, in its completeness and its fullness, is to become the song of holiness” (Oroth Ha-Kodesh II, p. 458).

A rabbi’s rabbi: Harold M. Schulweis, an appreciation

It was the summer of 1974 when I arrived in Los Angeles. A friend told me about a rabbi in the San Fernando Valley who was transforming his synagogue into one of the most dynamic congregations in the city, if not the country. “There are a thousand people every Friday night,” he said. When a thousand people were showing up for a worship service, I wanted to know what was happening.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis was happening. On that Friday night at Valley Beth Shalom, I witnessed the future of synagogue life in America, shaped by a rabbi who had a clear vision of what a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, could and should be. The sanctuary was packed to overflowing. The music was sensational. The Kabbalat Shabbat service was shaped with kavannot, short intentional comments that framed the meaning of the prayers. The sermon was spectacular, engaging, relevant, moving. After the service, there was a beautiful Kiddush and Israeli dancing. It was a happening. 

A disciple of Mordecai Kaplan, Martin Buber, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Schulweis combined their teachings with his own deep knowledge of classical Jewish texts and philosophy to inspire and challenge his flock in Encino. For nearly 40 years, I have been his congregant and his disciple, watching in awe – a Jew in the pew – as this rabbi’s rabbi built one of the most dynamic synagogue communities in the world. At the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University, I have the privilege of teaching a course on creating sacred communities to a group of aspiring rabbis. Here, then, is my lesson plan for sharing with them the top ten God-given middot (characteristics) – that made Rabbi Schulweis the greatest pulpit rabbi I have ever known:

1) An extraordinary teacher. Whether in a formal Friday night or holiday sermon, an adult education class, or in his groundbreaking transformation of the typical d’var Torah into a freewheeling dialogue with his congregants on Shabbat morning, Rabbi Schulweis shared his knowledge and his thinking in a way that was totally accessible, revelatory, and stimulating. You always walked away from a Schulweisian study session…thinking.

2) A humorist. You also walked away…laughing. Rabbi Schulweis punctuated his sermons with funny stories, Yiddish aphorisms (which he always translated), and self-deprecating humor. An intellectual giant who could confound his congregants with unpronounceable and obscure words, he never failed to poke fun at himself and share a hearty laugh.

3) A pastor. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, teaches other pastors: “Say something on Sunday that your people can use on Monday.” Rabbi Schulweis knew this. He spoke directly to the hearts of his people, often telling true stories he heard from congregants (without attribution, of course) in his study: the challenges of parenting, the effects of depression, the costs of holding a grudge. The message was: “you come to Valley Beth Shalom, your life will be different, deeper, more meaningful and purposeful.”

4) A social activist. His eagerly anticipated High Holy Day sermons always ended with a “l’fichach” – a “therefore.” Therefore, we will create a counseling center at the synagogue, with its own separate entrance so no client will feel ashamed. Therefore, we will establish chavurot, so no one will feel alone. Judaism is a world religion, therefore we will not stand idly by while genocide occurs in Africa. Every such sermon ended with an invitation to a meeting: “Come next week on Tuesday night and join me in taking the next steps.”

5) A partner. Rabbi Schulweis understood that a rabbi alone cannot build a congregation of relationships. So, he empowered his board to become para-rabbinics, actually teaching them how to perform the functions of a rabbi – visiting the sick, leading a shiva minyan, counseling bar/bat mitzvah families during home visits. He took his leadership on annual retreats at camp, knowing there is no more effective educational setting than a total immersive experience of Shabbat. “I want shutafim – partners,” he would say, and hundreds of congregants responded to his call.

6) A musician. Rabbi Schulweis never led a prayer service by calling page numbers; he led by example. Above the choir, above the cantor, you heard his booming baritone davening. He loved to raise his voice in prayer. He wanted his congregation to sing, to clap hands, to dance, to embrace each other as we sang “Shalom Aleichem” or Shabbat morning Kiddush. He loved his long-serving cantor, Herschel Fox, encouraging him to engage the community in prayer. He commissioned the great Ami Aloni to compose original music for the service, melodies that were instantly singable, melodies that raised the spirit.

7) A poet. Read the remarkable poetry of Rabbi Schulweis that graced the worship and your heart will be moved. http://www.schulweisinstitute.org

8) A builder. When Heschel Day School moved to Northridge from the campus of Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Schulweis established his own Jewish day school. When the synagogue grew in numbers, he expanded the facilities. When it was clear he needed additional staff, he invited young rabbis to join him, rabbis such as Ed Feinstein who cherished the opportunity to sit at his feet, to learn his Torah, to emulate his rabbinate.

9) A visionary. Rabbi Schulweis could see the future and he knew what needed to be done to create it. He had an idea a minute. He could not sleep at night, restless with the long list of things that had to be done, the causes that merited support, the wrongs that needed righting. He understood the importance of interfaith relations. He championed the righteous Gentiles. He welcomed the Jew-by-Choice, the LGBT, the Jews in recovery. He invited bereavement groups to meet in the synagogue. He pushed the Conservative Movement and his rabbinic colleagues to embrace the future. When he spoke at their conventions, everyone sat on the edge of their seats, knowing they were hearing a prophetic voice, a voice of conscience, a voice of challenge, a voice steeped in tradition, but unafraid of change.

10) A friend. Rabbi Schulweis enjoyed nothing more than walking through his congregation during the Torah processionals, greeting his people and guests. This was no perfunctory task for him; he stopped to shake hands, to hear a comment, to embrace children. Inevitably, as the Torah scrolls were placed in the ark, he was still working the sanctuary. At the end of each service, he stood at the door, anchoring a “receiving line” so he once again could connect with his congregants and the many visitors who came to see what was happening at VBS. When there was a simcha or a loss, invariably there was a personal letter, a phone call, a visit. Rabbi Schulweis taught that God resides “in the between,” in the relationships among human beings shaped to be “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. This he modeled in his relationships with each and every one of us. Pirke Avot 1:6 teaches: “Aseh l’kha rav, uk’nei l’kha chaver” – “find yourself a rabbi, and you will find a friend.” Rabbi Schulweis also knew: “Aseh l’kha chaver, uk’nei l’kha rav” – “make yourself a friend to your people and they will make you their rabbi.”

One more thing rabbis can learn from this extraordinary man: his love, admiration, and pride for his wife Malkah and their children and grandchildren. It was clear to all of us that they were the foundational grounding for his work. A rabbi is a very public figure. Without the support of family, it is impossible to truly be present to the thousands of people clamoring for your time and attention. The twinkle in his eye when he spoke of Malkah, the smile on his face when they embraced after a service or on the dance floor at a simcha – this was a life lesson to be savored and cherished.

I, like so many others, was blessed for having had the honor of calling Harold M. Schulweis “my rabbi.” Your teachings, your legacy and your example will always be a blessing to rabbis, teachers, and synagogue leaders for generations to come.

Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Jewish Lights Publishing).

The Conservative gay marriage debate

On Rosh Hashanah in 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis stood before his Conservative congregation at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and declared that despite the words of Leviticus, homosexuality is not an abomination. He argued that the same understanding and compassion Jews afford all human beings should be extended to those attracted to others of their own sex, and he told his congregation: 

“More than compassion is involved. Jewish wisdom and the morality of Jewish law are at stake. … Jews have the right, and the tradition, to interpret the text so that it sanctifies God’s name, our lives and that of our children. This is no heresy.” 

Schulweis spoke long before the arguments over gay marriage became prevalent in public discourse. He spoke well after gay pride had been established, but six years before the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager. It was also a year before the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which would bar harassment of closeted soldiers serving in the military, while preventing gays and lesbians from being open about their lives. The rabbi had heard many tragic stories from gays in his congregation, but he did not know how his congregants might react to his words. 

They gave him a standing ovation.

Not all congregations, even ones in the same denomination, work according to the same clock. More than two decades later, just one month ago, Rabbi David Wolpe wrote a letter to his Conservative congregation at Sinai Temple, a prominent Westside synagogue less than 10 miles south of VBS, and told them that the rabbis at Sinai had “unanimously decided that it is in accordance with the great halachic [Jewish legal] principle of kavod habriot, honor due all of God’s creation, to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, once this possibility is afforded by California law.”

[Related:  [Related: editor@jewishjournal.com.  You can follow her on Twitter at 

Shul counseling center costs little, does much for many

Even a rabbi needs a little help sometimes, which is why Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) was inspired decades ago to promote the creation of a counseling center run by temple volunteers.

“When I first came to this community, I realized that many of the problems that came to me were disguised. That is to say, the presenting problem appeared to be religious, but in fact it was emotional,” Schulweis said. “I recognized that I was one rabbi, that I could not possibly sustain that kind of a therapeutic relationship.

So he asked himself: If there are paralegals and paramedics, why not highly trained paraprofessional counselors who could offer confidential help? The answer took form as the VBS Counseling Center, established in 1973. It will be honored by the synagogue this weekend with the inaugural Harold M. Schulweis Humanitarian Award.

Also receiving the commendation on Sunday for their lifetime individual commitment to conscience and compassion will be congregants Elaine Berke, Faith Cookler and Janice Kamenir-Reznik.

The counseling center — secluded on the lower level of the Encino congregation with a separate entrance — currently has about 20 volunteers who meet with at least 40 Jewish and non-Jewish people from around the community every week, according to Charlotte Samuels, its clinical director.

Issues dealt with include depression, anger, grief, divorce, marriage counseling, unemployment, aging parents and more.  It operates on a “low fee/sliding scale” structure where people pay what they can, often between $15 and $50 per session.

For those lay volunteers who devote their time, this is no mere hobby. Samuels has been a counselor since the program’s inception, and she remembers the rigorous training that she and others had to go through over a period of two years.

“We had a reading list of required books. We had a supplementary reading list of recommended books. We went to class every week, Sunday morning, for three hours. We made visits to a great many of the mental health auxiliary facilities in the city and the Valley at that time,” she said. “For a six-month period, we paid for our own group therapy under the auspices of another psychiatrist,” learning how the process worked by participating in it.

Fourteen people completed the training as part of that initial cohort, and four continue to work for the center, Samuels said. The intensive curriculum was created by the late Dr. Arthur Sorosky, a VBS member and child psychiatrist who enlisted the help of many of his colleagues.

“He was a man who was really touched by the idea of training lay people from within the congregation,” Schulweis said.

For some, this training wasn’t the end.

“We were encouraged to go back to school if that’s what we wanted to do, and a number of us did and continued to volunteer going forward,” Samuels said.

She was one of them. Not a college graduate previously, Samuels was inspired to pursue higher education as a result of her involvement in the center. She studied her way through a master’s degree in counseling psychology before becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist. She volunteered at the center for her training hours.

Now retired, Samuels said there is a special pleasure in helping the underserved who are attracted to the center — sometimes taking several bus lines to get there.

“They don’t come to us without having a great deal of pain. My empathy in helping them work through the pain and come out better able to deal with life, it’s humbling,” she said. “Private practice offers financial rewards. This offers a different kind of satisfaction even though you do the work in a similar kind of way.”

Schulweis, 87, said it always was his vision that the center cater to the entire community and people of all faiths, not just VBS congregants or Jews.

“This is my general understanding of Judaism: that it is called upon to serve the community,” he said. “My small role in this was to introduce from time to time some Jewish aspects of therapy. The idea behind it is that the synagogue has to become … a therapeutic, helping institution.”

As such, it might serve multiple roles for a multitude of peoples.

“The synagogue [isn’t] simply a place to pray for health but also a place in which people could have a shoulder to lean on and an intelligence to relate to,” Schulweis said. “It’s been remarkably successful.”

VBS Rabbi Ed Feinstein said that the synagogue of 1,600 families was one of the first — if not the first — Jewish congregations to offer such services, although there were pre-existing church models.

“We’re very proud of this, and we’re very grateful to the counselors who have given of themselves to do this,” he said. “The counseling center is an example of Rabbi Schulweis’ idea of a synagogue that must be bigger than its walls. … It’s about being a center of Judaism that reaches into the community and to the world to bring healing, to bring help.”

The center, which has served as a model for other organizations, has found its target audience, according to Sylvia Bernstein-Tregub, co-chair with Linda Volpert Gross of several celebratory events this weekend in conjunction with the awards.

It has served hundreds of people since its founding and offers something extra that people can’t easily find elsewhere, Bernstein-Tregub said.

“The fact that people reach out to a religious institution means that they are also looking for some spiritual component,” she said.

Gloria Siegel, who began volunteering at the center within the last year, said her experience dealing with others has improved her, too.

“In my helping other people, I’m growing at the same time,” she said.

She remembers one woman in particular whose improvement had a profound effect on her.

“She said to me at the end of one session: ‘You have given me the courage to believe in myself.’ And to hear that from anybody is such a tremendous gift,” Siegel said. “It doesn’t get more gratifying than that.”

Let Wagner Be Heard?

Why is it I simply cannot condone the presentation and celebration of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” in Los Angeles, arriving with much fanfare this coming spring?

Because Richard Wagner was an extraordinary musician, and an even more extraordinary anti-Semite. Open his own writings: “Religion and Art” (1881) and his essay, “Judaism in Music” (1850). Wagner warns his readers of the “be-Jewing” of modern art and the “Judaic-infected corruption of the cosmopolitan idea.” Jewish music, Wagner argues, is a racial matter that threatens the “purity of German folk culture.” As an artist, Wagner insists that the Jew has never had an art of his own, and to the cultured, the music Jews create is “outlandish, odd, indifferent, cold, unnatural and awry.” The Jewish pathetic attempts at making art are “trivial and absurd,” because of the Jewish “incapacity for life.” 

Such so-called musical “geniuses” as Giacomo Meyerbeer and the Jewish converts to Christianity Felix Mendelssohn and Heinrich Heine are not, and cannot be, truly creative, wrote Wagner. Whether the Jew is converted or not, nothing can overcome his artistic inferiority. Baptism cannot wash away the traces of his origin. “The Jew is innately incapable of announcing himself to us artistically.” 

Richard Wagner concluded his essay on “Judaism in Music” with these ominous words: “But bethink ye, that one only thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahaseurus — destruction.” Wagner advocated the Untergang, the destruction, extinction and downfall of all Jews.

We are dealing with no drawing-room anti-Semite. Here’s a mentality that confesses the “rooted dislike of the Jewish nature.” More than dislike. Wagner declared openly and repetitively, “I regard the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and all that is noble in man…. I may well be the last remaining German who, as an artist, has known how to hold his ground in the face of a Judaism which is now all powerful.” He was not the “last.” The dirge cast its deathly shadow over the face of Europe. 

Wagner was no coincidental anti-Semite. He personally and actively orchestrated a circle of racist colleagues, among whom was his son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the most influential exponent of racial anti-Semitism in the 19th century. It was Chamberlain who became a venomous disciple of Wagner’s Aryanism.  It was Wagner’s passionate hatred of Jews that provoked the German philosopher Eugene Dühring to declare that the answer to the Jewish question should be solved by “killing and extirpation.” 

Wagner deplored granting civil rights in 1871 to Jews and applauded political anti-Semitism. Wagner’s writings had great ideological influence on Adolph Hitler, who had Wagner’s operas performed at Bayreuth in connection with Nazi party conventions. 

In his own words, Wagner opened the eyes of people to their “involuntary feeling and instinctive repugnance against the Jewish primal essence.” It is noteworthy that the title Wagner chose for his essay is “Judaism in Music,” not “Jews in Music.” His diatribe cuts deep.

Still, biography is not musicology. Can an ugly anti-Semite not create a song of beauty? After all, opera is opera and philosophy is philosophy. What has one to do with the other?

I am anguished. I would hear, but my mind and heart cannot segregate the lyric from the song. We are being asked to disassociate, to listen to the art and pretend deafness to the artist’s demonizing of Jews and his evisceration of Jewish culture and talent. 

I admit my bias, my inability to engage in such schismatic play. The issue is not a matter of aesthetics or of culture. It is a matter of self-respect and respect for this great city that justly prides itself on its unity and diversity. To celebrate or commemorate anyone who relentlessly sought the downfall (untergang) of my people or any other people breaks the limits of tolerance. To detach emotionally and morally the life of the composition from the life of the composer tears apart the wholeness of memory. To offer earthly immortality to the designer of destruction of a people’s race, religion or dreams mocks the integrity and the pride of community. To attend or not, in either case, attention must be paid.

In this era of racial and ethnic tension, we need now, more than ever, gestures, projects and programs that bind us together. By all means, let him be heard. And by all means, let him be read. The artist is no disembodied spirit. See him whole. 

And let us discern.

Harold Schulweis is rabbi at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Jewish World Watch. He is the author of many books, including “For Those Who Can’t Believe” (Harper Perennial, 1995), “Finding Each Other in Judaism” (UAHC Press, 2001) and “Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey” (Jewish Lights, 2008).

Scene & Heard: Global Festival Honors Schulweis, JVS Recognizes Four

Mad About Miley

Dr. Michael Kamiel, a Culver City endocrinologist, is making every pre-teen girl in town jealous: the good doctor ran into Miley Cyrus during her “Miles to Go” book signing on Mar. 7 at the Grove and snagged this lucky snapshot with the tween superstar.

Sabans Donate $5 Million to Theater

The Beverly Hills Performing Arts Center is getting a brand new name. Cheryl and Haim Saban have promised a $5 million donation that will benefit the theater’s restoration. To honor their gift, a snazzy new marquis that reads “The Saban Theatre” is scheduled to be unveiled in the fall.

“Cheryl and I are thrilled to support the restoration and continued life of such an important Los Angeles landmark,” said Haim Saban, chairman and CEO of Saban Capital Group.

The historic landmark belongs to the League of Historic American Theatres and the Los Angeles Conservancy. Located on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, it is home to an array of community programs — Broadway shows, films, stand-up comedy and Hollywood’s favorite house of worship, Temple of the Arts.

Cheryl Saban added: “Our gift underscores our belief in the richness and beauty the arts bring to all of our lives, as well as the important role the Temple of the Arts plays in the Jewish community.”

Global Festival Honors Rabbi Schulweis,Founder of Jewish World Watch

“You are the great chain of Jewish being,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis told the teeming crowd of 600 guests — 125 of whom were children — gathered for Jewish World Watch’s (JWW) Global Soul festival at the Skirball Cultural Center on Feb. 26.

Africa met Los Angeles during JWW’s fifth anniversary celebration, which featured cultural displays from countries that have suffered through genocide, including raucous drumming, storytelling, music and a decadent African buffet.

The sold-out event celebrated the spirit of global activism and the moral vision inspired by its founder, Schulweis — who, when not saving the world, can be found at Valley Beth Shalom. He delivered a stirring address that was both a call to action and a celebration of Jewish altruism.

“There are no Jews in Chad, no Jews in Darfur. They are people of different skin color, of different liturgy, of different language. But with Jewish ancient eyes we see no race or creed or religion,” he said.

“Your children will not have to ask, ‘Where were you in all this human catastrophe?’ For your children hear and know we Jews are in this world, here and now. We are morally mandated, ‘Be relevant to the world. Bind its wounds. Make whole its shattered lives.’”

Schulweis also recognized the Armenian and Cambodian communities of Los Angeles, many of whom were in attendance and have partnered with JWW to crusade against genocides around the world.

More than 60 Los Angeles synagogues of every denomination support JWW, and Schulweis paid homage to them all. He also thanked the JWW staff, especially co-founder and president, Janice Kaminer-Reznik, whom he praised as the “hidden compass” and “conscience” of Jewish World Watch.

To the crowd, he concluded: “You link our spiritual past and our aspiration of the future with the powerful clasp of the present. You bring the Bible to life.”

Broidy Joins Wiesenthal Center Trustees

Elliott Broidy, chairman of Markstone Capital Partners, a private equity fund, was recently appointed to the Simon Wiesenthal Center Board of Trustees. Broidy brings impressive financial acumen and international affairs experience to the board.

At Markstone Capital Partners, he oversees the fund’s investments, which are heavily distributed to companies in Israel. He also runs his own private equity firm, Broidy Capital Management. His much respected financial prowess (he serves on the board of advisers for the USC Marshall School’s Center for Investment Studies) is equaled only by his civic service. Broidy was appointed by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to serve on the department’s advisory council, Future Terrorism Task Force and New Technology Task Force.

For a little color, he includes culture among his many civic and philanthropic interests. President George W. Bush appointed him to the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Jewish Vocational Services Recognizes Four

Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) honored Adrienne and Elliott Horwitch and Linda and Jim Hausberg for their continued support during its annual Art of Giving Gala in January.

When she joined JVS 25 years ago, Adrienne Horwitch became the second woman to serve on its board of directors and later the organization’s first female president, serving from 1998-2000. Her husband, a real estate broker, serves on the homeowners associations at both their Beverly Hills and Malibu Colony residences.

Jim Hausberg is managing director of Presidio Wealth Management and is involved in a number of charities, including, The Friends of Disabled Veterans of Israel. Linda Hausberg, a business entrepreneur, was famously lauded by The New York Times for her frozen food business, Linda’s Gourmet Latkes, called the best frozen latkes around.


Schulweis gets ADL Daniel Pearl award; Super supper with SOVA

Schulweis Receives ADL Daniel Pearl Award


(From left) ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, Richard Moss, Ruth Pearl, Judea Pearl, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Ruth Moss, George Moss and ADL National Director Glen Lewy. Photo by David Karp

When Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abe Foxman introduced Rabbi Harold Schulweis to a crowd of admirers during a recent award luncheon, he painted Schulweis as a brave and visionary leader — someone who advocated for the inclusion of women and gay couples in Jewish life long before those were commonplace notions. Yet such is the legacy of Schulweis, who at 83 continues to work toward tikkun olam (healing the world).

The rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Schulweis is also a distinguished author and the founder of Jewish World Watch, a Jewish social justice response to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur that aims to provide education, advocacy and refugee relief to victims of the ongoing genocide, many of whom are devout Muslims.

Schulweis was presented with the Daniel Pearl Award at the ADL's annual conference on Nov. 13. Endowed by ADL supporters Ruth and George Moss, the award recognizes those who improve the image of Jews and Judaism in the Muslim world.

“Rabbi Schulweis is a champion of borderless humanity,” said Judea Pearl, whose son, slain journalist Daniel Pearl, is the inspiration for the award.

“It is to his credit,” Pearl continued, “that we no longer ask God to apologize for sleeping late that day; we ask him instead to show us another Jewish child who can be empowered by Daniel's legacy … to show us a community of Muslims who can be enlightened.”

When Schulweis accepted his award — which in previous years has gone to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Atlantic Monthly writer Jeffrey Goldberg, among others — he paid tribute to the heroism of the Pearl family.

“You have taught us how to confront the difficult tragedies of living in a maddening world,” Schulweis said, referring to the Pearls as heroes. “The hero is not one who can lift heavy weights over shoulders, but one who can lift the stone of despair from the hearts of sufferers.”

Not once did he mention his own significant accomplishments; instead, Schulweis used his time to talk about others.

“[The Pearls] taught us how to resist the temptation of vengeance and vindictiveness, how to refuse to submit to rage and how to mourn with meaning — you do not find goodness in the causes of tragedy but in the response to tragedy,” Schulweis said. He praised them for having the courage “to begin again, to dream again, to pray again.”


Super Supper With SOVA

Barbara Weiser (second from left) and Rick Powell (far right), co-chairs of JFSLA's SOVA Advisory Committee, presented plaques of gratitude to chef Suzanne Tracht and Stephen Friddle, Jar general manager

Sometimes it takes the lure of extraordinary food to help get ordinary food on the table.

That certainly did the trick on a recent Sunday evening, when more than 50 people ponied up $500 each for a place at chef Suzanne Tracht's “Premier Suzpree Benefit for SOVA,” held at her elegant restaurant, Jar.

The five-course dinner, which raised money for SOVA's food pantries, featured delicate pumpkin-filled dumplings, Shanghai noodles with salmon caviar, braised oxtail and other delectable dishes Tracht plans to offer at Suzpree, the “modern oyster bar and noodle house” she'll be opening with Jar's chef de cuisine, Preech Narkthong, in late summer 2009.

Tracht, who opened Jar in 2001 and added a spin-off, Tracht's, in downtown Long Beach in summer 2007, had long been looking for a way to give back to the community. Her rabbi, John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, put her in touch with Abby Leibman, a longtime community activist and Jewish Family Service board member.

“Abby and I talked about a few organizations, but as soon as she mentioned SOVA, I knew it would be perfect. It's local, it's about food, and it will be ongoing, always needing our support,” recalled Tracht, who is planning further fundraisers for the organization. For starters, Suzpree's summer opening will also be a benefit for SOVA.

SOVA, the community food and resource program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFSLA), operates three L.A. food pantries: one in the Valley, one in Pico-Robertson and one not far from Jar, on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue. Each pantry provides free groceries to those in need, as well as supportive services that include legal, job and nutrition counseling and food stamp enrollment.

Requests for SOVA's services have dramatically increased as troubles with the U.S. economy continue to grow. In October, SOVA pantries served more than 6,200 clients, up 30 percent from the previous April, according to Susie Forer-Dehrey, associate executive director of JFSLA.

“SOVA has traditionally been seen as a place to drop off food, which is wonderful. But we're also trying to educate the community that running the pantries takes money, too,” Forer-Dehrey said.

Among the attendees were Paul Castro, JFSLA executive director and CEO; Joan Mithers, JFSLA's director of food, hunger and community support programs, and Bernie Briskin, CEO of Arden Group. A longtime Jar and SOVA supporter, Briskin pronounced the evening a “fabulous success.”

— Anita K. Kantrowitz, Contributing Writer

‘Prayer isn’t boring — you are’

Jews often complain that prayer is boring. Young people resist going to synagogue — and older people drift away from prayer altogether — because they find it to be a chore.

In response to these oft-repeated criticisms, Rabbi Harold Schulweis once offered from the pulpit an admittedly cutting but nonetheless brilliant retort: “Prayer isn’t boring … you are.”

Of course, this aphorism by Rabbi Schulweis, who has served the Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in Encino since 1970, was not meant to insult people, nor to turn them away from Jewish prayer. Quite the opposite. He posed a challenge for every Jew to find himself or herself inside the siddur, which is filled with beautiful poetry, meaningful philosophy and provocative theology. At its best, Jewish prayer is an ongoing three-way conversation among the siddur, the person using it and God.

In Schulweis’ words, “Instead of looking outside and criticizing the relevance of a prayer — or perhaps even the process of prayer — look inside yourself to see where you may be lacking.”

Interestingly, many of the Jews who complain that the siddur bores them can listen to a rock song like “American Pie” or “Hey Jude,” or sing the national anthem at the stadium dozens or even hundreds of times without ever complaining once that they’re bored. Great musical compositions perpetually renew their meaningfulness as a person’s life and even his or her day develops. The siddur works the same way. Many of us who pray on a regular basis cannot say, “Baruch she’amar v’haya haolam” (“Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being”) or “L’cha dodi likrat kalah (“Go, my beloved, to greet the Sabbath bride”) without being a little moved each time.

I know some people in 12-step programs, and they tell me the meetings often start with the same readings week after week. But the readings are rarely boring to alcoholics and other addicts, because everyone in the room is working on his or her own recovery. The guidelines and steps that are recited remind people of their own addictions and compulsions, or at least those of their loved ones.

In a way, Jewish prayer is like another pillar of observant Jewish life: Shabbat. Just as tefilah involves letting one’s creativity conquer one’s boredom, Shabbat is about finding creative enjoyment on a day when cell-phones, iPods and DVD players are treated as hardly more useful than paperweights.

Some people think the real problem with prayer is Hebrew, which alienates English-speaking Jews. I disagree completely. Many, if not most, Israelis find prayer to be boring, and Hebrew is their first language. In addition, services at Reform temples in the United States and elsewhere involve a lot of English, and many Reform teens and adults still find prayer boring. Yet, Hebrew prayers can be moving to English speakers even if they only know the barest details of the meaning. Often, but not always, the key is the tune. Even so, don’t let anyone tell you that you must pray in Hebrew. The siddur isn’t even all in Hebrew. Important prayers like the Mourner’s Kaddish are in Aramaic, and in Eastern Europe, Jewish women used to recite Yiddish prayers called tkhines. So vernacular prayers have a long history.

The answer to Rabbi Schulweis’ challenge is education. The more Jews learn about the pronunciation, order and meaning of services the more likely they are to find significance in them. But Rabbi Schulweis’ point still stands — a Jew who is boring is likely to find prayer boring. Luckily, most Jews, deep down, are not boring — they just need to find a path to access the siddur.

David Benkof is a doctoral student at New York University in American Jewish history. He can be reached at davidbenkof@aol.com.

This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

Words of Solace

Rabbis in the L.A. area responded to the tragedies in New York and Washington D.C., by making common cause with Israel and finding lessons from Jewish history.

No retreat
by Harold M. Schulweis

From the American Jewish community perspective, this week’s terrorism creates at least two challenges.

First, we cannot think that the tragic bombing on American soil is a response to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for in that case, Israel becomes the scapegoat to the bombing.

We heard this too often in the media on the day of the bombing. On ABC, Peter Jennings explained that this happened because the United States is a strong ally of Israel. If you accept that, then the culprit is Israel, since without Israel there would be peace.

But we know this is not true. What’s being challenged by terrorism is Western civilization, with its ideals of democracy, individualism and freedom.

The targets of those who bombed the USS Cole and the Pentagon are not Israel. The mass media likes to localize and personalize, which is why the conflict is always explained as being part of the Middle East. We must resist this idea. The forces at work today are truly anti-democratic, and we must say so.

Second, we, of all people, cannot scapegoat the entire Muslim community, nor make an enemy of a million Muslims. The basic question is: What can faith do to transcend the divisiveness of the political partisanship of our day?

Judaism is one religion among the world’s great religions, and we Jews have an obligation to know the other great religions, most of which we’ve spawned. In October, my synagogue is inviting Dr. Nazir Khaja, who will speak on the Koran and other basic tenets of the Muslim faith. Frankly, it’s brave of him to come, to discuss his religion in a synagogue.

Jews and Muslims have had a wonderful golden period. Our leaders wrote in Arabic, notably Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed.” The main point here is that there is a way out of even the most intractable struggle, if you do your part. There is no alternative but a constant effort to win people over. If you don’t believe in the possibility of dialogue, you are condemned to one end: war.

Harold M. Schulweis is spiritual leader of ValleyBeth Shalom in Encino.

America Joins Israel’s Nightmare
by Steven Z. Leder

Welcome to our nightmare, America! Welcome to terror that strikes the most sacred symbols of all that you believe in. Welcome to impotence — your planes grounded, markets shut down, the enemy dancing in the streets of Palestine as the call goes out from hospitals for blood. Welcome to not knowing if people you love are alive. Welcome to shock, anger, sadness, helplessness, orphaned children and scattered body parts. We Jews have been there a long time — thousands of years, really. Our nightmare’s most recent name is Intifada II. There have been others. Kishnev. Munich. Entebbe. Kristallnacht. Now, sadly, you have joined us with your own Day of Broken Glass and shattered lives.

This morning, Americans were stripped bare and brutalized. This morning, we grew up in ways both heartbreaking and inevitable. Will this cruelty reveal our capacity for reaching out? Will Americans who thought so little of Israel and her pain find greater sympathy in their hearts as on CNN they watch the next Palestinian suicide bomber’s carnage? Will the hundreds of ethnic minorities who live in Manhattan, like so many ants in a hill, see Israel’s plight as their own plight? Will the good people of the world, of which there are many, finally watch out for each other, care about each other, and protect each other? I hope so. Because then the terrorists will have failed. In tearing us apart, they will merely have brought us closer together.

Steven Z. Leder is associate rabbi of WilshireBoulevard Temple.

What the Past Teaches
by Yosef Kanefsky

So many of us are struggling to obtain some kind of perspective on the surreal events of Tuesday morning. How can we get our minds around a literally unbelievable event — one that we never imagined possible, and which represents the most dramatic triumph of evil that we have seen in a long time?

In this search, Jewish history is an important ally. I officiated at a bris at 8 that morning. In searching for words with which to place this celebration in the context of the still unfolding events on the East Coast, I found myself reaching into Jewish history. We Jews are not strangers to the unbelievable and the calamitous. We have looked on with disbelief at destruction of our holy places and, repeatedly, at the destruction of entire, innocent Jewish populations. The book of “Psalms” is filled with poems of sheer disbelief. Yet, never have we given up our commitment to bris. In the very midst of the events that we simply could not understand or explain, we intuitively knew that this was no time to suspend our commitment to the God of Abraham.

God had placed upon Abraham’s shoulders the responsibility to be a source of blessing for the world, and if anything, the hellish events around us only demanded an even more tenacious commitment to our covenant with God.

The perspective that we can obtain, then, is not one that can explain or justify the slaughter of innocents. It is rather one which provides us guidance as to what we are called upon to do now.

Kanefsky is spiritual leader of B’nai David-Judea inLos Angeles.

The Fragility of Life
by Steven Carr Reuben

I was startled out of my sleep at 6:15 a.m. Tuesday with a phone call from my daughter, who is living half a mile from the World Trade Center in New York.

“Oh my God!” she cried into the phone, “I’ve just witnessed the most horrible scene of my life!” With those few words, she seems to have captured the dread and horror that we all have felt ever since.

All Americans are in shock and numb, feeling more vulnerable to the blind hatred and fanaticism of terrorist than ever before in our history. We gasp in disbelief at the human carnage of thousands of innocent lives that can vanish in an instant of unleashed evil. The world, as we know it, has changed forever, and our souls lie burdened with doubt and grief.

Once again we know to the core how fragile life is, how unpredictable life is, how we are all linked by the common bonds of human frailty, fear, and longing for a better, safer world.

“The entire world is a very narrow bridge,” wrote Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, “and the essential thing above all is not to fear.”

Now is the time we need each other’s strength, each other’s courage, each other’s love.

We pray for the victims and their families, for the strength and resolve of our nation, and for the wisdom of our country’s leaders. These High Holy Days, every synagogue and every Jew will be looking for messages of hope amid fear, comfort amid grief, faith amid pain.

Steven Carr Reuben is rabbi of Kehillat IsraelReconstructionist Congregation in the Pacific Palisades, and president of theBoard of Rabbis of Southern California.

With Broken Hearts
by David Wolpe

Tuesday was a day of stunning calamity. Our tradition teaches us both how to deeply mourn, and how not to despair.

There is a part of us that wants the world to understand that this is the war that has been fought against the Jewish State. We always understood that underneath it was a war against not simply the state, but the freedom and faith that our tradition represents. The most important thing to say is that our hearts are broken, and we pray to God to give rest to the souls of those who have died, and comfort to those who are grieving. But we must also say that the taking of innocent human life for political ends will destroy this fragile garden we have been given. In the name of faith we must save, not kill. Those who do otherwise do not honor God, but rather imperil creation. May God bring justice upon those who have plotted murder and abetted slaughter. May God grant wisdom to those who hate, and turn their bitterness to love. And may God bless America.

David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple inWestwood.

Finding Comfort and Faith
by Laura Geller

One of my congregants called today to say how grateful she was that the High Holy Days are so close. At a time like this, she told me, when the world seems so out of control, it is a blessing to be part of a large and supportive community. And it is an even more powerful blessing to be part of a tradition that has walked in the valley of the shadow of death before, and has never lost its faith.

The magnitude of the terrorist attacks and the enormous tragedy of the human lives that have been lost does challenge our faith — in the security and intelligence systems of our government, in the belief that civilized people don’t attack innocent civilians, and in the notion that we are safe from terrorism in America. This act of evil must be condemned by all people of faith in the most unequivocal of terms.

As Jews who care about Israel, we now know firsthand what our Israeli friends have endured for a long time: the randomness of terror and the awareness of how difficult it is to find the appropriate response. We hope that Americans and the American government will understand more fully the pressures that Israel has faced and be more helpful in responding to Israel’s need for peace.

As Jews who have suffered discrimination, we hope that all Americans will be careful not to judge an entire group of people by the actions of some. And as human beings who have suffered the deaths of people we love, our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the victims. We pray they find comfort and faith.

Laura Geller is spiritual leader of Temple Emanuelof Beverly Hills.