World Jewry should have no veto on Jerusalem’s fate


While every Jew in the world (along with every other person) certainly has the right to express an opinion about how the Jerusalem issue should be resolved, the State of Israel alone should make that important decision, since it involves the security of the state and its people.

Israel is a democracy. Its Arab and Christian citizens should have a greater voice in security decisions, even those involving religious sensibilities, than Jews who are not Israeli citizens. Every Jew has the right to become an Israeli citizen. Those of us who have chosen not to exercise that right must defer to the outcome of Israel’s democratic process.

It is the citizens of Israel who risk their lives by serving in the army, by traveling on buses, by living in Sderot, by enduring rocket attacks from Hezbollah and by subjecting themselves to the possibility of nuclear attack from Iran. It is these citizens who must weigh the costs and benefits of particular options for peace.

Jerusalem is not an issue entirely separate from the total package that will inevitably be involved in any resolution of the Israel-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Israeli citizens believe that peace has a better chance of prevailing with a divided Jerusalem, then noncitizens should not be able to veto that decision.

Consider the implications of any other conclusion. In 1967, the Israeli government told Jordan that if it did not attack Israel, Israel would not begin a war with Jordan. In other words, Israel essentially told Jordan that if it remained out of the war, it could keep Jerusalem divided and, indeed, maintain control even over the Jewish Quarter and the Kotel. Should Jews around the world been able to second guess that decision, as well? No!

Israel is a secular, Jewish democracy. It does not have an established religion, though it does have a Jewish character. For the majority of Israelis, this character is not exclusively religious in nature.

Theodor Herzl’s concept of Israel as a Jewish state contemplated a “normalized” secular democracy, as did David Ben Gurion’s and Chaim Weitzman’s. Decisions about war and peace are quintessentially the province of a nation’s democratically elected leaders — or people, in the event of a referendum.

Once these decisions are made, there is room for input on purely domestic religious issues, such as the status of the Kotel as a place of prayer. Jews from around the world should have some input into purely religious decisions, because Judaism as a religion is international in scope. But it would violate all principles of democracy and sovereignty for the Israeli government to surrender its exclusive authority over national security issues to any group of noncitizens, regardless of their support for or commitment to Israel and its capital Jerusalem.

Just as there should be “no taxation without representation,” there should be no representation without the burdens of citizenship. World Jewry has important roles to play in supporting Israel and even critiquing its policies when warranted, but this role does not include either a vote or a veto on issues of national security.

Alan Dershowitz’s latest book is “What Israel Means to Me” (Wiley).

‘Non-Jewish’ Jews endure challenges living in Israel


In Israel, the “non-Jewish Jews,” as some Israelis call them, are everywhere. They drive buses, teach university classes, patrol in army jeeps and follow the latest Israeli reality TV shows as avidly as their Jewish counterparts.

For these people — mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Israeli law — the question of where they fit into the Jewish state remains unanswered nearly two decades after they began coming to Israel.

At an estimated 320,000 people and with their ranks growing due to childbirth, the question is growing ever more acute.

“They are not going to be religious but want to be part of what is called the Jewish secular population,” said Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, who has written a book on the subject.

“Thousands are being born here, and they are no longer immigrants,” he said. “They are raised just like their secular neighbors, and these children want to know why they are not Jewish because their mother is not Jewish. The problem is just getting worse.”

In almost every respect, these Israelis live as do their secular fellow countrymen, even marking the Jewish holidays, lighting candles on Chanukah and conducting seders on Passover. But, because they do not qualify as Jews according to halacha, or Jewish law, they are treated differently when it comes to matters that are the purview of the Orthodox-controlled religious establishment, such as lifecycle events like marriage, divorce and burial.

For some, the real question is about identity and fitting in.

Unlike non-Jews residing in Israel illegally, these are people who qualified to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of Israeli citizenship to all descendants of a Jewish grandparent or those married to such persons. But the Israeli government does not consider them Jews, because their mothers are not Jewish. Non-Jewish Israelis constitute almost a third of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Some of these people say they’ve always considered themselves Jewish and were thought as such by others — until they came to Israel.

Lilia Itskov, 36, grew up in Siberia with a paternal grandmother who preserved the traditions of her observant Jewish home. She said she is heartbroken when her daughter questions whether they are Jewish because Itskov’s mother was not Jewish.

“She studies the Bible in school; it’s all she knows,” Itskov said of her daughter. “She cannot understand why she is not considered a Jew.”

Itskov observed Jewish holidays even back in Siberia, and she said she never tried to hide her Jewishness.

“I want people to understand we are part of this country, and where we lived before we were always considered Jews,” she said. “And now, after so many years, I am told that I am a goy (non-Jew).”

Others are believing Christians who struggle to maintain their religious identity while living in Jewish communities in Israel. Keeping a low profile, many of them attend religious services on Sundays in community members’ apartments or go to Arab-run Christian churches in Jerusalem and Jaffa on major holidays. In the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, there are church services held in Hebrew.

“Little is known about them; there is no research about them, and they try to hide their faith,” Cohen said of the active Christians among the Russian-speaking immigrants. “It’s hard for them to be Christians in any overt way here.”

For Vera Gorman, 21, whose family immigrated to Israel from Russia seven years ago and whose mother’s grandfather was Jewish, the sting of exclusion hit for the first time when it came time to marry.

In Israel, where there is no civil marriage, all citizens must be married by clergymen, and Jewish clergy are not allowed to perform intermarriages. Gorman is Jewish, but the man she planned on marrying, Maxim Gorman, was not, so there was no way for the couple to get married in Israel. Instead, they had to go to Prague. Marriages abroad are recognized in Israel. They were angry and bewildered by the rules.

Maxim Gorman, 25, who served in an Israel Defense Forces combat unit and twice was injured in fighting in Gaza, said he does not understand why, if he spilled blood for his country, he had to go abroad on the most important day of his life.

“It was especially hard, because although I am not Jewish according to halacha, I do feel Jewish in my heart,” he said. “In my opinion, state and religion simply do not go together. Israel needs to be democratic and Jewish, and we need to protect our traditions, because this is what unites us. But we live in the 21st century, and we need to be going forward.”

Some Israelis, especially religious ones, take issue with the large number of non-Jews able to become Israeli, saying they threaten the Jewish character of the state. They complain about the rising number of butchers that sell pork and condemn the proliferation of Christmas trees, tinsel and plastic Santa Claus dolls that go on sale at shops around the country around Christmastime to cater to the growing population in Israel that celebrates the holiday.

Russian immigrants — Jews among them — say they’re not so much celebrating Christmas as participating in festivities honoring the new year.

A few rabbis and members of Orthodox parties in the Knesset have suggested changing the Law of Return to exclude non-Jews from becoming Israeli. But many secular Israelis argue against such changes and say immigration is vital to the country’s future.

Despite the challenges they face in Israel as non-Jews, only a minority of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel choose to convert to Judaism.

Because Orthodox conversions are the only kind accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which controls religious law in Israel, prospective converts must master Jewish knowledge and pledge to become strictly observant Jews. Most immigrants from the former Soviet Union — both Jewish and not — are secular and uninterested in enduring a lengthy, restrictive conversion process.

Laughing for Unity


It was one of the stranger events I’ve attended since I moved to the hood.

A friend sent me an e-mail telling me I “can’t miss” this Jerusalem rabbi’s one-man show Sunday night at Beth Jacob Congregation. I opened the e-mail a few minutes before show time, so, on a whim, I ran over to catch “The Four Faces of Israel,” starring Rabbi Benji Levene. After two hours of Benji, my head was spinning.

The show was a mock interview of four Jewish characters — a Charedi rabbi from Mea Shearim, a secular bus driver from Zichon Yaacov, a French artist living in Safed married to a non-Jew, and an American Zionist philanthropist living in Los Angeles — all played by Rabbi Levene. On this night, the interviewer was played by the evening’s master of ceremonies, one of the leaders of the Beth Jacob Congregation.

The characters were more like caricatures, and sometimes they were buffoons. The Charedi rabbi gave a little slurp and a burp, and proceeded to reinforce every possible Yiddish stereotype one might have about the insular Charedi world, with one caveat: Occasionally, out of the blue, he’d get up and give an impassioned defense of Charedim. We don’t do the army? Hey, Ben Gurion himself understood that “the Torah kept the Jews alive.” That’s why he gave us an exemption.

We don’t stand for a minute of silence to commemorate those who have died fighting for Israel? Why can’t we mourn the way the halacha (Jewish law) tells us to mourn?

After the interview, when the rabbi went backstage to change into his next character, the interviewer read a list of prepared questions for the audience: Who’s more likely to be living in Israel 100 years from now, a secular Jew or the rabbi? Who better represents authentic Judaism? Who’s more of a Zionist, the Charedi rabbi who lives in Israel, or the secular Jew who lives in the Diaspora?

It was clear that the questions had a pro-religion agenda — which was an omen of things to come.

The next three characters were also buffoons, but they were secular. The bus driver was an ultra-Zionist who fought in all the wars, and who wouldn’t mind “doing Kippur,” as long as nobody tells him when to do it. The French artist who had a non-Jewish wife and a non-Jewish son was a “cosmopolitan” who celebrates art, beauty and morality, and who thinks there can’t be another Holocaust because “all the artists of the world would get together and write a song.”

And the American philanthropist, who wore 100 pins and medals and said he visited Israel 226 times — this year — kept reminding us that he “doesn’t need the world to know that [he] gave $4.5 million to Israel this year, not to mention what [he] gave last year.”

It’s with these three secular characters that the show lost some credibility. After their interviews, instead of asking the audience questions that would encourage them to look at “the other side of the stereotype” — like they did with the Charedi character — the show continued to ask leading questions with a pro-religion agenda: Who’s more committed to living in Israel, the Charedi or the secular Jew? Who’s more committed to Judaism? Who will be more Jewish in the future?

This had a jarring effect.

Ostensibly, the idea of the show was to confront us with the exaggerations and unfairness of stereotypes, so that we could get beyond them and build mutual respect and unity among Jews. But the pro-religion bias kept interfering. It’s like the show was saying: “We respect every Jew, but we’d respect you so much more if you were more Torah-observant like us, and the Jewish nation would be so much better off.”

That may be true, but that kind of patronizing usually works only when you preach to the choir. If the show’s creators have designs on the wider Jewish world, they might consider taking a more even-handed and respectful approach to the secular characters.

Imagine, for example, if the show played up the idea that secular Jews already have a certain level of “Torah observance,” like when they visit sick people in the hospital, help the needy, protect the environment, resist gossip, fight for their country, donate money to charity, take care of their health, respect their parents and so on. In other words, instead of telling secular Jews that their lives are devoid of Jewish content, the show would invite them into a much bigger “Torah Tent,” one where they feel they already belong, and where they’d be more open to learn more about their Judaism. In this bigger tent, the charedis might even learn a thing or two.

In any event, when Rabbi Levene showed up as himself at the end of the show and poured out his soul in favor of loving every Jew, it was hard not to fall for him. This rabbi — grandson of the renowned Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as the “Tzadik of Jerusalem” — is so passionate in his desire to bring Jews together, all you can do is root for him to succeed.

Maybe the reason my head was spinning after the show is that while I didn’t connect with the rabbi’s comedy, or even his strategy for unity, I fell for him anyway. I felt the love he had for everyone in the room, and I wanted to love him back.

The face that will stay with me in “The Four Faces of Judaism” was the fifth one, the one of the rabbi without make-up or costume.

On that face, one could see a simpler message: Sometimes it’s more important just to love, than to be funny or smart.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

B’nai Brith’s new chief visits L.A.; ‘Messenger’ unites local readers


New B’nai B’rith Head Launches Term in Southland

The new president of B’nai B’rith International will make Los Angeles his first official stop of his presidency when he speaks at Sinai Temple on the evening of Dec. 7.Moishe Smith, a B’nai B’rith veteran with more than 30 years experience at the organization, said he is coming to the Southland to show his respect for and introduce himself to the community. At Sinai, Smith will discuss Israel and the Middle East, reflecting his interest in international relations. During his three decades with B’nai B’rith, Smith has held a variety of positions, including chair of the International Council, senior international vice president, and, most recently, chair of the executive.

Smith, a Canadian and the first non-American to lead 163-year-old B’nai B’rith, replaces Joel Kaplan. He will serve a three-year term.

Smith told The Journal that “making sure Israel is supported from every corner of the world” is a top priority. With the Jewish state under siege from Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and other enemies, Smith said B’nai B’rith and other Jewish organizations have an obligation to “speak out for Israel.”

Under his leadership, Smith said the organization will continue pressuring the United Nations to reform itself and shed its anti-Israel bias. Toward that end, Smith said organization leaders will “dialogue” with the democratic U.N. members and others.

B’nai B’rith has 100,000 members and donors in the United States and 150,000 worldwide. The organization calls itself a national and global leader in the area of U.N. reform, international affairs and Jewish identity, among other issues.

The event begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. For more information, contact Lyndia Lowy of B’nai B’rith at (310) 871-0847, or visit www.sinaitemple.org.

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

‘Messenger’ Unites L.A. Readers

“One People One Book” usually refers to the Jews and the Torah, but the in Board of Rabbis of Southern California’s communitywide program it refers to a piece of literature participating synagogue members will read for the next six months.

On Dec. 13, “One People One Book: A Citywide Year of Learning,” will launch its second annual program, this time studying Eli Wiesel’s 1976 “The Messenger of God,” where Wiesel reinterprets biblical figures. Some 21 synagogues will participate.

Last year’s “One People One Book” program, which had 300 people attend the opening, which focused on “As a Driven Leaf” by Milton Steinberg, the novelization of the Talmud’s only heretic, Elisha Ben Abuya.

Why one book for six months?

“The notion is that we pick a book that lends itself to a year of learning,” says Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis. He said that last year’s book dealt with powerful themes such as secular vs. sacred, messianism, faith and practice.

For each book, the Board of Rabbis prepares a curriculum for readers to discuss, but there is no particular format to the “One People One Book,” program. Some people will meet in groups like a book club, others will discuss it with their rabbi in synagogue and some will learn with a partner. There will be an opening event on Dec. 13 and closing event on May 9.At the opening session, professor Menhaz M. Afridi and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will discuss Moses in “The Passion of Prophet: Moses in the Torah and the Qu’ran.”

The opening session will take place at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, Dec. 13, 7-9 p.m. 15600 Mulholland Drive. For more information, call (323) 761-8600.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Students Weigh in on Education Improvements

Students shared ideas for improving education with a panel of public officials at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 30. Jasmin Ramirez, 17, took the stage first to present a proposal on behalf of about 100 students involved in the California Association of Student Councils, a student-led organization dedicated to cultivating leaders.

“There’s poor quality of food in our schools and a lack of variety,” said Ramirez, who recommended conducting a widespread survey asking students about the quality of food at school and testing their knowledge of nutritional health.

Listening and taking notes were state Senate majority leader Gloria Romero; Democratic state Assemblymembers Mike Feuer, Paul Krekorian and Kevin de Leon; local district Superintendent James Morris; and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Education Ramon C. Cortines.

The officials advised students to think about the costs associated with the proposed survey and consider what would be done with the results. They also commended Ramirez and her peers for thinking creatively about how to solve a real problem.

“What you and the students have done today is absolutely brilliant,” de Leon said.Next, Chris Delgado, 16, suggested that teacher quality could be improved if students were involved in the teacher evaluation process.

“Be careful that your approach is not taken as an attack on teachers,” de Leon cautioned.Cortines added: “I don’t think you realize how powerful you are. I think it’s time that you mobilize yourself and visit with teachers unions.”

After the two proposals were presented and discussed, legislators and students mingled. Feuer congratulated his son, Aaron, who orchestrated the event.

“It was a success,” said Aaron Feuer, 15.

— Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer

Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me a Donation Match


Call him a personal shopper, a matchmaker or a boutique investment adviser. However he is described, Joseph Hyman is trying to chart a new course in the world of Jewish philanthropy. A longtime Jewish organizational professional and fundraiser, Hyman last year launched the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy (CEJP) to support and advise philanthropists who are considering major gifts to Jewish and Israel-related causes.

Hyman acts as the middle man between donors and organizations, working with philanthropists to understand their particular interests, then he hits the pavement to locate worthwhile organizations that meet their philanthropic requirements.

The center’s goal is simple: to attract dollars to Jewish groups that might otherwise have gone elsewhere.

“If successful, we believe that CEJP will help to create a new paradigm in Jewish giving,” said Hyman, who is going public about his organization for the first time. “One that empowers and inspires a new generation of philanthropists to participate because they want to, not because they have to.”

His endeavor comes at a time when wealthy American Jews make a disproportionately high number of large gifts in United States but overwhelmingly make them to non-Jewish institutions. It also comes as philanthropists are increasingly looking to have a say in exactly where their dollars go.

The approach seems to be working.

Since its launch 19 months ago, the center already has facilitated more than $10 million in philanthropic donations to Jewish and Israel-related causes. Recipients include some well-known projects, such as Birthright Israel, which provides free, 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults. They also include some lesser-known ones, including Meshi, a center in Israel offering the parents of special-needs children a break from child care, and Project Kesher, a group devoted to Jewish education and advocacy for women in the former Soviet Union.
“CEJP is revolutionary,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president and founder of The Israel Project, which has received two six-figure, multiyear commitments from donors working with the center.

“What it is doing,” she said, “is taking the desires of the philanthropists to heart and saying, ‘What is the outcome that you want? What is the investment that you want to make so that you can make positive change? And what’s the most cost-effective, reliable way to achieve those goals?'”

“There are people out there who are not giving to the level that they’re capable of giving,” said Adam Frieman, a longtime investment banker on Wall Street and a financial sponsor of the new center, said, Some portion of that group would give meaningfully more if somebody were able to connect with them on a personal level and make the giving personal.”

Hyman hopes that his efforts to eliminate much of the work involved in finding worthy causes will attract new dollars to Jewish groups.

“Beginning with the creation of Birthright about 10 years ago, it has been a core group of committed Jewish philanthropists who have challenged the community to move forward,” said Hyman, who stresses that his work is meant to complement that of the federations and other more traditional fundraising arms, not replace them.

“We are now beginning to see a new generation of megadonors emerge whose support is crucial to our future.”

The center today is working with nine North American philanthropists, including real estate developers, senior management of Fortune 500 companies and hedge fund managers, according to Hyman. And while all have donated to Jewish causes before, some now are giving at a much higher level.

Hyman likens the philanthropists “to world-class athletes who, with the proper support and coaching, can become Olympic gold medalists.”

Donor-advised funds are not new, say philanthropy insiders, and in fact have become increasingly popular over the last number of years in Jewish philanthropic circles.

However, said Sue Dickman, executive vice president of The Jewish Communal Fund, which facilitates and promotes charitable giving through donor-advised funds, the center is doing something different.

“What we do and what other donor-advised funds do is simply facilitate people’s philanthropy,” she said. “We don’t provide advice and input into the direction of their philanthropy. What Joe does is help people think strategically about their philanthropy and maximize the input that they can have.”

Other Jewish groups, notably the Jewish Funders Network, offer some donor advice. And several organizations are doing similar work in the general philanthropic world – among them the Wealth and Giving Forum, Rockefeller Advisory Services and the Philanthropic Initiative in Boston.

The center is also seen as attractive because it is supported by investors and does not charge for its work. Donors say that for this reason, they feel the group’s advice is objective.

“We felt that he could offer us something that we needed” because Hyman is “not connected to any particular organization but very well connected in the greater Jewish community both here in the U.S. and in Israel,” said the administrator of a private family foundation in the Chicago area, who requested anonymity for reasons of privacy.

Nearly two years ago, shortly before the center was launched, Hyman sat down with a Chicago-based private investor Robert Sklare to chat about philanthropy. They spent about 10 hours talking, Sklare said, discussing the Jewish philanthropic interests he and his wife, Yadelle, shared, the areas that got them excited and the problems they hoped to help solve. Then Hyman got to work tracking down a series of organizations that fit their bill.

Several did. In fact, Sklare said, since then, he’s donated a “substantial” amount of money to Israel-related organizations – certainly more than he’d have given had he never met Hyman.

He has since funded, among other groups, Birthright Israel; Karev, an after-school enrichment program for inner-city youngsters in Ashkelon, and Meitarim, a group of pluralistic schools that attempt to bridge the gap between religious and secular students.

According to Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, general philanthropy has nearly doubled in the last decade, and the growth of Hyman’s center reflects that trend.

“I think we’re going to see more and more different kinds of approaches to specialize it, make it more strategic, capture it,” he said. “This is the first one that is specifically aimed at Jewish philanthropy.”

Still, asked if this sort of philanthropy is the wave of the future, Solomon demurred.

“It’s hard to know what would have happened had CEJP not been there,” he said. “Would that money have gone to different Jewish organizations? To general charities? Would it have been given at all? While helping to direct millions of dollars is very impressive, it’s hard to know what would have happened had it not been there.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, said that Michael Steinhardt, a megadonor to Jewish causes, was not initially convinced about Hyman’s efforts, but after he demonstrated that “he had a little bit of a track record, Michael became a funder.”

“I think it’s very significant,” Greenberg said of Hyman’s approach. “My guess is that this has not only got legs, but that this is the wave of the future.”

The Married Charedi and Me


I met Oren after watching “Kol Nidrei,” a new play by Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol. The play is about Charedi (ultra-Orthodox)

Jews who lead double lives — as Bnei Brak yeshiva bochers by day and Tel Aviv bar-hoppers by Friday night. “Kol Nidrei” is inspired by real life, and the main characters are played by former Charedi Jews who had left their communities for the “free life” of Tel Aviv and who now study acting.

My friend Tovy and I got in the elevator with Oren, who was wearing a black kippah and a blue collared shirt. Curious, we asked him what he thought of “Kol Nidrei.”

“I’m shaking,” he said. “It really spoke to me.”

He revealed to us that he lives in an ultra-Orthodox community with his wife and child, who didn’t know where he was. By going to see the play, Oren, too, was leading a double life.

Tovy and I sat down with him, and he continued to tell us his story.

“I was always a very appeasing child, I always did what people expected of me, and I’ve always suffered,” he explained.

Now 27, he was set up with his wife when he was 18. He doesn’t love her, and they both know it. His work as a computer salesperson brought him into contact with secular Israelis, who seemed so much freer to him.

“You have a choice,” he said to us. “I want that choice.”

Internally, Oren is completely secular. He no longer believes in God. He doesn’t pray or don tefillin. Externally, however, he looks like a good yeshiva boy.

“I can’t just shave my beard and go to my family and say, ‘That’s me.’ I don’t have the courage.”

I felt sorry for him, but also happy for him that he was courageously questioning his confines. And I couldn’t help but be tempted to encourage him.

“Are you into nightclubs and bars, like the characters in the play?” I asked.

“I’m intrigued,” he admitted. Once, an 18-year-old gas station attendant took him to a pub, but he felt “out of place.”

Then I told him I was well connected with the Tel Aviv nightlife scene, but I debated whether or not to exchange phone numbers. On the one hand, he seemed like an interesting project. On the other hand, he was married.

“He’s definitely into one of us,” said Tovy, as he left.

That was obvious enough.

A few days later he called me with an “idea.” “Maybe I can join you when you go to bars or nightclubs?”

He wasn’t really experienced in asking a woman out on a date.

I deferred the date for a week; I was still hesitant. Would I be evil by escorting him to the Tel Aviv underworld, while his wife and child are at home? Am I aiding and abetting a probable adulterer?

But when he called me again, I decided to go out with the poor soul — with caution.

We sat for beer at a pub on Ben Yehuda Street on a Thursday night, Tel Aviv’s party night.

There was no small talk to bypass to get to the nitty gritty. We immediately began talking real life, and the dialogue was intense.

“Doesn’t your wife mind you’re out late?” I probed.

He looked at me with a concentrated glance I hardly receive from secular men I date.

“We both know that it’s going to end sooner or later,” he said. “We talk about it.”

His admission relieved some guilt I felt in luring this married Charedi. His marriage was a lost cause anyway. As long as I didn’t kiss him, I reasoned, we were kosher.

And I wouldn’t want to kiss him anyway. He really looked nerdy in his beard, white collared shirt, black kippah and black slacks. He totally didn’t fit in, and I could tell people were looking at us. I fantasized about shaving his beard and taking him to the mall for a makeover. He had potential — if only one could see his face.

We continued to talk Torah, philosophy, relationships, and I shared with him the process I underwent as I began to question the Modern Orthodox way of life. I realized what I really liked about him: He was a thinking creature. He thought about life, its meaning and his personal happiness.

“How does it feel to be in a Tel Aviv pub?” I asked.

“I’m on a high,” he said.

As he dropped me off at my car, we shook hands and he kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t like the feel of his beard.

“I really enjoyed myself,” he said.

But then I wondered if he was acting. Maybe he dramatized his frustrations to attract a female savior? Maybe I was insecure and liked the feeling of being appreciated and needed by a man who saw me as a tempting, exotic fruit.

Then I remembered that this was not a play. “Kol Nidrei” was over. Art imitates life, but life rarely imitates art. His drama was real. Neither of us were actors.

For now I think it best I remain a minor, friendly character in Oren’s story. Once the major conflicts are resolved — and he goes through a wardrobe change — then we’ll see if I’ll take on a bigger role.

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

 

An Oleh Love Story


During my first visit to Israel when I was 24, fantasies of aliyah and Israeli women captured my imagination.

I pictured myself waking up every day to the tangerine Jerusalem sun in a narrow Nachla’ot apartment that overlooked the city.

Then I imagined falling in love with one of those loud, rosy-cheeked, Teva-sandal-and-flowing-skirt-wearing Israeli girls with wild curly hair and big dusty backpacks.

I knew I would find myself back in Jerusalem. But marrying a native Israeli, speaking only Hebrew together and building a home removed from the Western Anglo community and culture where I lived my whole life somehow seemed unrealistic.

Inherently, I knew I would end up marrying a woman with a similar worldview. But only recently, after becoming engaged to an idealistic high school English teacher named Dena Stein, do I realize how our similarities, the big ones as well as the seemingly minute ones, make all the difference.

Coincidentally, we both grew up in Pittsburgh. I lived there until I was 12, and Dena lived there until she left for college in Michigan. We both enjoyed a middle-class American suburban-type lifestyle: a four-bedroom house, two cars, a backyard lawn and cable television.

We both are the oldest of two kids, and each of us has a younger sister. Our parents are connected but secular Jews, who consider Israel important but not a potential home.

During our young adulthoods, we both pursued a more serious relationship with Judaism and, through our travels, discovered a deep love for Israel.

Last summer, Dena returned to Israel and, subsequently, met me, after finishing her first year teaching English in a Philadelphia high school. After a four-year hiatus from Israel, she had to return to ask herself a question that she could not avoid: Despite all the challenges, can I really imagine myself not living in Israel?

As we walked along the boardwalk in Jaffa, it seemed that our shared vision of building a home in the Judean Hills charged the salty air between us. It was those two points, religion and Israel, that I assumed were the magnets that drew our futures together.

But looking back on our magical summer, our complaints about the small struggles in Israeli culture — like having to push people in the bakery line to place an order — allowed us to forge an even deeper connection.

Just as important as the fact that we were looking ahead in the same direction, the fact that we stood on a common cultural foundation was an integral factor in our bonding.

One of my rabbis used to tell American guys in Israel that they should date within the Anglo community.

“There are going to be enough differences between the two of you just simply because you are a man and she is a woman. Therefore it’s best to have as much in common from the start as possible,” the rabbi would say.

Among my Anglo friends in Israel, all but one married other Anglos. Even my friend Nati, who made aliyah from South Africa with his parents when he was 12 and went through Israeli schools and the army, married Michelle from Ohio, who came to study for a year at Hebrew University and never left.

Even Nati, who identifies as Israeli and not South African, admitted that he still needed that comfortable cultural viewpoint that only another Anglo could provide.

“Coming from South Africa, there’s just a general outlook that is very different than Israel. It has to do with being more open-minded, the way you treat other people and cultural norms. You have to have that sense of familiarity in order to feel at home,” he said.

“Plus, Israelis don’t like Burger Barn as much,” Nati added, noting the affection that Anglos have for this Israeli hamburger chain.

I, too, am finding that the connection Dena and I share lies in the small details. Yes, we love to ponder the poetry of Milton as well as Israeli politics and the Torah portion of the week. But we also can console one another when we receive bad customer service at a supermarket, because we grew up expecting a certain standard.

These small similarities and cultural values ingrained in our personalities are as important as the big dreams.

Those big dreams are important, too, because they’re the visions we’ll be following after our wedding and Dena’s aliyah this summer. We also share the dream of a beautiful young woman in a flowing skirt and wild curls — but that vision is of the daughter we hope to have — one day.

Jews’ Long History in Turkey


The Jewish presence in Turkey usually is dated to 1492, when the Ottoman emperor Beyazit II welcomed Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition to his territory.

In fact, though, Jewish life in the area has been traced back to at least the fourth century B.C.E. During the Byzantine period, a community of Greek-speaking Jews lived in Istanbul, then called Constantinople.

But the Jewish community in what is now Turkey started truly to develop only after the arrival of the Spanish Jews in 1492, who created important centers of Jewish life in Istanbul, Izmir and Salonika, which is now part of Greece.

The Ottomans provided a sort of limited autonomy to the religious communities under their rule, which allowed Jewish life in the empire to flourish. For example, many of the Ottoman court physicians were Jewish.

At the beginning of the 20th century, just before the dissolution of the empire, the Jewish population in the area that is now Turkey numbered more than 100,000, mostly Sephardim, with sizable Jewish communities ranging from the country’s Anatolian heartland to its Aegean coast and its border with Syria.

Turkey’s Jewish population today is estimated at 25,000. Driven away by political and economic turbulence and lured by the possibility of living in nearby Israel, Turkish Jews left the country in great waves starting in the late 1940s. They left behind Jewish communities that — with the exception of Istanbul, and to a lesser extent Izmir, which has a Jewish population of around 2,000 — are either struggling to survive or have ceased to exist.

In Istanbul, the community maintains several institutions, including synagogues, a high school, old age homes and a hospital. As in Ottoman times, the community is headed by a chief rabbi known as the haham bashi.

Jews and Muslims traditionally have gotten along well in Turkey, which is officially secular and which — as a non-Arab country — has pursued policies starkly different from its Arab neighbors.

Military and economic ties with Israel are strong, and despite having earned Turkey harsh criticism in the Arab world, those ties have persevered under governments of varying ideologies.

A Costly Win


Since the start of Israel’s election campaign last October,
the flamboyant leader of the secular-rights Shinui Party had been promising a
secular revolution in Israel.

This week Yosef “Tommy” Lapid seemed to have a golden
opportunity to fulfill his promises when Shinui — which became Israel’s third
largest party after the Jan. 28 elections — agreed to join Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon’s new Likud-led government.

But the initial signs for a radical shift in
secular-religious relations were not auspicious: Shinui, which has 15 Knesset
seats, backed off much of its agenda when it compromised with the National
Religious Party (NRP) on the guidelines of the prospective government.
Moreover, political analysts are questioning just how much a government based
on Likud, Shinui, the NRP and the hawkish National Union bloc — but without the
Labor Party — will be able to move toward peace with the Palestinians.

The National Union, which is staunchly opposed to the
Palestinian state Sharon says he supports under certain conditions, tentatively
agreed Tuesday to join the government. The inclusion of the seven-member bloc
would give Sharon a 68-seat coalition and a bit of breathing room in the
120-member Knesset. Sharon was expected to present his government to the Knesset
on Thursday.

The form of that government took some shape Wednesday, when
Sharon offered the Foreign Ministry in the new Israeli government to Finance
Minister Silvan Shalom, ousting Benjamin Netanyahu from his current position.
Earlier Wednesday, Sharon had offered the Finance Ministry to Netanyahu, who
turned it down. But following consultations with close advisers, and a proposal
from Sharon that sweetened the deal, Netanyahu was still considering the
finance portfolio late Wednesday.

According to Israel Radio, in addition to the Cabinet
appointment, Netanyahu would be a member of the Security Cabinet. He also wants
to serve as acting prime minister in Sharon’s absence.

Before Shinui and the NRP signed initial coalition
agreements with the Likud on Monday, they worked out a bilateral deal on
secular-religious affairs that was mediated by Ehud Olmert, the outgoing mayor
of Jerusalem.

First they agreed to annul the “Tal Law,” which allows for
blanket exemptions from military service for yeshiva students and enables
fervently Orthodox men to join the Israeli work force without having to serve
first in the army. On the face of it, canceling the Tal Law seems like a major
step forward in the campaign for equality between secular and fervently
Orthodox Israelis. But the Shinui-NRP agreement gives no indication of what
will replace the Tal Law, stipulating only that a committee will propose new
legislation within a year.

It is therefore not at all clear that Shinui made any gains
at all on one of its main election promises: equal army or national service for
all. Nor did Shinui achieve dramatic breakthroughs on two other key election
promises: civil marriage and public transport on the Sabbath. The Shinui-NRP
deal does provide a civil marriage option for an estimated 250,000 people
barred from marrying by the Chief Rabbinate — for example, when one of the
partners is not halachically Jewish or when a descendant of a priestly caste
seeks to marry a divorcee.

But the key principle — offering a civil marriage option for
all Israelis — is not part of the deal. Nor is there any advance on public
transport on the Sabbath: Where such services exist, they will continue; where
they don’t, nothing will be done to introduce them.

Perhaps most importantly, the Shinui-NRP deal leaves the
Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious affairs in Israel intact. There is no
recognition of the Conservative or Reform streams nor any upgrading of their
secondary status in Israel. Indeed, except on civil marriage and Sabbath
transport, Shinui agrees to back the status quo on religious affairs.

So binding is this commitment that even on civil marriage,
Shinui’s Knesset members are no longer free to back bills presented by
individual members without the backing of their parties; the most they can do
is abstain if such proposals come to a vote. Acknowledging that Shinui
legislators no longer could support a private member’s bill on civil marriage
that they had proposed jointly with a Labor legislator, Shinui’s Yehudit Naot
declared Monday, “There are things you just can’t do when you’re in
government.”

A few days before he signed the coalition deal, Lapid
insisted that “whether we end up in the government or not, I see in our
agreement with the NRP a new chapter in the relations between secular and
moderate religious people in Israel.”

However, few political analysts would agree.

“Where’s the change?” the left-leaning secular daily
Ha’aretz asked in a scathing editorial Monday, playing on the Hebrew meaning of
Shinui’s name.

The Shinui-NRP deal “raises concern that in their eagerness
to join the government, Shinui’s leaders have given up some of the most
significant of their principles: freedom of religion and freedom from
religion,” Ha’aretz argued.

The paper also pointed out that Shinui is not pushing for
the enactment of more basic laws enshrining individual and social rights or the
completion of a full-fledged constitution.

“If Shinui turns into another ruling party with no agenda,”
the paper warned, “its fate will be the same as the centrist parties that
preceded it” — all of which quickly disintegrated.

Lapid blames Labor for staying outside the coalition,
missing the chance to establish an all-secular government that would have been
able to make far more radical changes to the status quo.

Labor’s secretary-general, Ophir Pines-Paz, retorts that
Shinui torpedoed any chance for a secular government by rushing to cut a deal
with the NRP — the patron of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip — that made Labor’s participation in the government nearly impossible.

The presence of the NRP and National Union in the coalition
raises a second question: Will the new government, with its right-wing bias, be
able to move toward peace with the Palestinians?

NRP leaders insist they will not accept Palestinian
statehood in any shape or form, even though that is the declared aim of the
“road map” toward peace being prepared by the diplomatic “Quartet” of the
United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. Sharon has publicly
accepted the gist of the road map, though Israel is suggesting certain changes
that will make the Palestinians’ responsibilities more explicit.

To appease the NRP, Sharon promised that government
guidelines would include not a commitment to a Palestinian state but a
reference to a speech Sharon delivered last December, when he outlined his
vision of phased, performance-based progress to Palestinian statehood.

“Only once a specific phase has been implemented,” Sharon
said then, “will progress to the next phase be possible.”

But what happens if there is genuine progress? Would the NRP
stay in the coalition or pull out, forcing Sharon to form a new government,
possibly with Labor?

The same uncertainty surrounds the durability of Sharon’s
pact with National Union, which is considered far more hawkish than the NRP.
National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman had refused to accept any mention of a
Palestinian state in the government guidelines. But he agreed with Likud
negotiators Tuesday that the issue of Palestinian statehood would be brought
before the Cabinet “if and when it becomes relevant.”

In his coalition talks with Labor, Sharon said he was convinced
that after an anticipated U.S.-led war against Iraq the international community
would turn its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When that
happened, he told Labor leaders, he would be ready to make far-reaching
compromises. That statement kept Labor interested, but the talks broke down
when Sharon refused to commit himself in writing.

The big question pundits are asking is whether the phased
style Sharon favors in peacemaking applies to his coalition building as well.
First, he strikes deals with Shinui, NRP and National Union, dealing mainly
with economic and social issues; then, pundits say, when Sharon wants to move
on the Palestinian track, Labor will again be invited to join the government on
the basis of an agreed peace program.

Then again, this narrow coalition, with all its limitations,
could be all Sharon really wants. Even with Labor consigned to the opposition,
Sharon knows it would support any peace efforts he chooses to make — just the
way Labor supported former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s peacemaking with
Egypt from the opposition.

JTA’s Naomi Segal contributed to this report. Â

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

The Shinui Stance


Tommy Lapid, who has made a second career hammering the
ultra-Orthodox, says he didn’t go into Israeli politics in order to become a
government minister. But the outspoken, 71-year-old veteran journalist is
suddenly warming to the prospect.

With elections less than one week away, his militantly
secularist Shinui looks set to be the third largest party in the Knesset, more
than doubling the six seats it won at the first time of asking in 1999. With
the economy shrinking and army service expanding, Shinui (Hebrew for change)
has become a conduit for the pent-up anger of the Ashkenazi middle class,
sickened by sleaze and resenting the religious parties’ exploitation of their
political leverage.

And secular Israelis are starting to savor the possibility —
no more than that yet — of a ruling coalition without religious parties.

Interviewed in his Knesset office, the squat, pugnacious
Lapid stressed that he would join no other. He would not join a rightist
government and he would not join a leftist government.

“I will only strive for a national government which includes
Likud and Labor, and I will be in the middle between the two,” he said. “I will
not sit with the Charedi parties. I have my program, which could not be
included in the program of a government that includes Charedim.”

What is Lapid’s program?

“I want to abolish the law which exempts Charedim from
military service,” he said. “I want to introduce civil marriage. I want to
introduce public transport on the Sabbath. I want to repeal the law that pays a
bigger social security allowance to the fifth child than the other four put
together. That was promoted by the religious because they are the ones who have
five and more children. Every child from the first to the last should get the
same.

“Then I want to close the Ministry of Religious Affairs,” he
added. “There is no need for that ministry, which gets 1.5 billion shekels
[about $300 million] a year and nobody knows where the money goes.”

Orthodox leaders have accused Lapid of sowing hatred, even
of being an anti-Semite. Where does he stand on the Jewish religion?

“I am one of the most active fighters for the full right of
Reform and Conservative rabbis in this country. The Orthodox have expropriated
Judaism in Israel, which is totally unacceptable to me. One of my aims is to
save Judaism from the hands of the Orthodox.

“I want young people to understand that Judaism is a great
humanistic tradition, which we should respect as a fundamental of our existence
here. I don’t want them to despise it because it became a means of imposing
your will on the majority of the country and exploiting it for material
purposes in the most blatant way.

“I have no quarrel with the Orthodox community, as long as
they serve in the army, work and pay taxes,” he said. “My quarrel is with the
ultra-Orthodox, who don’t serve in the army, with the 80 percent of them who
don’t work, don’t pay taxes and live off the secular middle-class taxpayer.”

Lapid was born into a prosperous Jewish family in the
Serbian city of Novi Sad. His father, a lawyer and newspaper editor, was killed
in the Holocaust, along with 11 other family members. He and his mother
survived after fleeing to Budapest, where Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg
sheltered them.

“We were a very Jewish family, but we were very unreligious.
Religion for us, like most assimilated families in Central Europe, meant having
a seder night. We went on the High Holidays to the synagogue.”

And now in Tel Aviv?

“We don’t light Friday night candles. We don’t do anything
except we keep seder and we light candles on Chanukah. I don’t fast on Yom
Kippur, but like practically all Israelis, I don’t travel on Yom Kippur. My
claim is that Yom Kippur is a proof that if religion hadn’t been imposed on
Israelis, they would be prepared to be much more observant than they are. The
fact that people don’t travel on Yom Kippur is not written in the law. It’s
something people do naturally.”

Shinui has been criticized for being an ethnic Ashkenazi
party and a one-issue party. Lapid pleads guilty to the first, but disputes the
second.

“It does worry me that most of our voters and all but one of
our Knesset candidates are Ashkenazim. I’m very hopeful that in the future
we’ll have more Sephardi Jews in our ranks. I’d like a more balanced list.”

Now that Shinui is moving into the big time, it has to take
a stand on the war and peace issues that are at the heart of the national
agenda. Lapid, an instinctive rightist, has shifted to the left. But on his own
terms.

“Demography is more important than geography,” he argued.
“The danger that we will be overwhelmed by millions of Palestinians is much
greater than the danger of withdrawal from the majority of the territories.

Labor leader Amram Mitzna is committed to pulling back
unilaterally if he can’t reach an agreement with the Palestinians within a
year. Would Lapid do likewise? The answer is an emphatic “no.”

“We should not withdraw from any territory as long as terror
lasts, because this will be understood by the Palestinians as a proof that
terror works.”  

Preaching Tolerance


Can religious leaders be devout but not fanatic? Can fervent belief and tolerance coexist? Such questions are hardly academic these days: the results of religious fanaticism now consume headlines, and lives. One set of reassuring answers can be found in the life of Rabbi Benzion Uziel. Uziel served as the Sephardic chief rabbi of Palestine and then the State of Israel from 1939 until his death in 1953.

In “Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel” (Jason Aronson, Inc., $30) author and rabbi Marc Angel tells the story of this remarkable man.

The book is not straight biography. Rather, it discusses the rabbi’s writing and teachings on a variety of topics. Most topically, it examines Uziel’s desire to strike for a nonextremist balance between the secular and the religious.

Uziel was a traditional and religious man. Yet he was also a centrist and nonextremist in the classical Sephardic mode. (Indeed, unlike our Ashkenazi brothers, the Sephardim have never split into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.) Uziel deplored fanaticism and intolerance by both the right wing and the left. While loyal to the traditional halachic system, Rabbi Uziel was unafraid to make controversial and innovative decisions.

In the early 1930s, for example, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, and Rabbi Uziel needed to consider whether it was permissible to perform autopsies as part of the training of doctors in medical school in then-Palestine. The concern was over the laws of nivul ha’met, the disgracing of a dead body. While both realized the need for Jewish medical students to perform autopsies, the two rabbis came up with different solutions. Kook ruled that nivul ha-met only applied to Jewish bodies and that the laws governing the treatment of dead bodies did not apply to non-Jews. Uziel concluded, however, that the prohibition only applied when the dead body is treated disrespectfully. Autopsies performed in a respectful manner for a valid medical training purpose, did not constitute a desecration of the body. “In a situation of great benefit to everyone, where there is an issue of saving lives, we have not found any reason to prohibit [autopsies], and on the contrary, there are proofs to permit them.” Uziel also saw no difference between Jews and non-Jews in this area since all human beings were created equally in God’s image.

In contradiction to the images we are seeing of fundamentalist Muslim madrassas, or religious schools, Uziel believed that it was important for Jewish schools to teach both secular and religious subjects. He pointed to the intellectual tradition in medieval Spain where Moses Maimonides and the other great sages were conversant in science and philosophy as well as Torah. Maimonides and the others studied Torah and all other wisdom that contributed to the understanding of truth. Knowledge was not classified as religious or secular, but rather as true or false. Uziel believed that the apparent conflict between religious and general studies vanished when they were both viewed as part of a unified search for truth. Uziel’s guiding principle in Torah interpretation was that its ways are “ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace.”

Such a centrist, unifying approach in the last century is a reproach to the fanatics of our current one.

“Loving Truth and Peace” is available on the Jason
Aronson Web site at www.aronson.com .

Hollywood Mitzvahs


When one person helps another person, it’s a mitzvah. When 1,500 people from 30 different organizations join together to help out in over 50 volunteering projects, it’s Temple Israel of Hollywood’s (TIOH) Mitzvah Day.

The April 29 event attracted volunteers of all ages from both religious and secular organizations. Other Reform synagogues included Congregation Kol Ami and Beth Shir Shalom, and Conservative Knesseth Israel of Hollywood and Orthodox Congregation Shaarei Tefila joined in. St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, Hollywood United Methodist, St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal, Hope Lutheran, Fifth Christian Science, New Life Four-Square Gospel, Oriental Mission Church and the Orange Grove Friends Meeting were among the diversity of churches that sent volunteers to join in the mitzvah-making. Secular groups helping out ranged from the Daughters of the American Revolution to the Mothers of East L.A.

Together, members of all these groups collected food, books and furniture for distribution and delivered flowers to nursing homes. They joined with the Achilles Club, a group of disabled runners who need assistance to keep running and collected clothes for A Place Called Home.

Event chair David Levinson remembered the temple’s first Mitzvah Day two years ago, a solely TIOH affair. "That was all great, but I thought, let’s do this alongside the rest of the city, let’s make this a community-building day as well."

Also changed from previous years were a few of the groups that volunteered — groups that previously had received help. Both Covenant House, which provides shelter and outreach services for homeless youth, and Beyond Shelter, which assists families in breaking the cycles of poverty and homelessness, sent volunteers to Mitzvah Day projects after last year’s projects helped them. "It’s so much more dignified this way," noted Levinson. "It’s not just rich people helping poor people."

Buoyed by sponsors including Toyota and Strouds, and fed by Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and In ‘N Out Burger, the volunteers worked throughout the day. Many will return often to help before next year’s Mitzvah Day, and that, says Levinson, is the point. "We’d like to see this be a catalyst for activities throughout the year," he said.