How do you talk to kids about God?


Talking openly with children about sensitive subjects is hard. It always has been. In my parents’ generation, the three-letter taboo was S-E-X. My older sister was 13 when my dad gave a kid “The Talk” for the first time. It was the ’80s, and my dad dodged it like any educated man of his time. He tossed her a sex-education book and said, “Read this, but don’t do it.” 

Discussing sex isn’t quite so scary today. Many modern fathers don’t flinch when their daughters ask about anatomy or start inquiring about how babies are made. But progressive thinking has a way of replacing certain taboos with others. And today, for a great many parents, there is a new three-letter word: G-O-D.

With two of Western religion’s most important holidays—Easter and Passover—in the air, I find myself thinking back to the first time I had the “God Talk” with my own daughter. Maxine was barely five years old when she piped up from the backseat on the way home from her Los Alamitos preschool one day. 

“Mommy,” she said, “you know what? God made us!”

I felt like a cartoon character being hit in the back of the head with a frying pan. My heart raced. I’m quite sure I began to sputter. Visions of Darwin and the evolving ape-man raced through my mind, followed closely by my childhood image of the big guy upstairs in his flowing white robes. I couldn’t speak. 

And, in the awkward silence that followed, I was forced to confront the truth: The idea of talking to my kid about God—and, more specifically, about religion—scared the bejesus out of me.

I swallowed hard and forced myself to speak. “Well,” I said, “Who is God?”

Now, I don’t remember if Maxine actually said “duh,” or whether she simply bounced a “duh” look off the rearview mirror. But I can tell you that the “duh” message came across loud and clear. 

“He’s the one who made us,” she said, her eyebrows knitted. “Okay… well, what is God doing now?” I tried for casual.

Again with the nonverbal “duh.”

“God is busy making people and babies,” she answered. 

This information could not have been delivered with more certainty. My little girl, who had never heard an utterance of the word “God” in our house, aside from decidedly ungodly uses of the word, now had it all figured out thanks to a Jewish classmate who also happened to be her very first boyfriend. I was beaten to the punch by a cute preschool boy. 

I let the subject drop, but my chest constricted all the way home. It stayed that way for hours. Why hadn’t I been prepared for this? What was I supposed to say now that she was getting her information from this boy at school? 

As a science-minded non-believer with a generally non-confrontational personality, I was stumped by how to handle the situation. I wanted to be truthful about what I believed to be truth, but I didn’t want to indoctrinate her into my worldview either. And I certainly didn’t want others indoctrinating her into theirs, either. So where did that leave me? Was I to sit Maxine down and tell her that evolution, not God, was responsible for her existence? Was I to impose my own beliefs on her, the way other parents seemed to be doing? Or should I leave her alone to explore on her own timetable? What was the difference between guidance and pressure anyway? What was I willing to “let” her believe, and what wasn’t I?

Luckily for me, I have a husband who is cool under pressure. Later that day, after I’d rather breathlessly presented him with all the facts of the disastrous car ride, I asked him, “What if she believes in God?” His answer, my wakeup call, has become a mantra I repeat often. He said, “It’s not what Maxine believes, but what she does in life that matters.”

What I took from this was: Relax . . . it’s just God.

So I set aside my own irrational concerns and began to talk with my kid about God—lots of gods, actually. We talked about Brahman and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. My husband bought her a Children’s Bible, and I brought home lots of picture books highlighting aspects of various religious cultures.

To my delight, Maxine became genuinely interested in religion—as long as it came in bite-size pieces, rather than overly long oratories. She became engaged in the stories we told, and good at deciphering the various “moral” aspects of various tales for herself. In her hands, the Bible wasn’t a tool of indoctrination, but a tool of religious literacy—even critical thinking. Once when she was reading the 10 Commandments, for example, she got to the 10th and read (aloud): “Never want what belongs to others.” Then she stopped and corrected Moses. “Well, you can WANT what belongs to others,” she said. “You just can’t HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself.”

In the four years that have passed since Maxine first told me about God, we have discussed the subject countless times. I have learned that compassion and an open mind are more important than being right. I’ve also learned that the best way to combat intolerance is with knowledge, and that the best way to combat indoctrination is with critical thinking. No longer is there awkwardness around the subject. We talk about lots of different beliefs, encourage her to learn about what motivates the faith of others, and make clear that there is no shame in choosing an unpopular path. After all, her own parents are happy, well-adjusted, and (I like to think) good-hearted people. 

Today, Maxine is 9 and believes in God “two days a week — on Sundays and Wednesday.” Is that logical or rational? No. But who cares? It works for her, and that’s what’s important. 

I haven’t always done everything right. I have stumbled sloppily through more than a few conversations along my own journey and regretted my word choices now and again. (Our unique biases have a way of filtering through from time to time, despite our best efforts.) But, because the conversations keep coming, I’ve almost always had a chance to right my wrongs, to clarify my position, to bring a new perspective to each situation. The point here is not to be perfect—as my daughter says, “That would be boring”—but to give us something to aim for. 

Exposing kids to various brands of spirituality and religion (not to mention non-religious philosophies) is not only fascinating and surprisingly fun; it also has the potential to improve our children’s— and our own—awareness about and compassion for the multiplicity of kinds of people in the world. Like the “sex talk,” discussions about God may come up sooner (and differently) than you had pictured. But it’s our obligation to embrace it. After all, if we’re not prepared to explore ideas of God, religion, and faith with our curious children, someone else will do it for us.  

Someone cute.

Wendy Thomas Russell is an award-winning journalist and author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. Russell hosts a blog called Natural Wonderers at Patheos.com and writes an online column for the PBS NewsHour. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

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Secular Beit Shemesh school to become all haredi


A secular school in Beit Shemesh that was divided to allow a haredi Orthodox girls school to have classes there will become completely haredi.

The Safot V’Tarbuyot School, or School for Languages and Culture, located in a haredi neighborhood, will be moved next year to facilities elsewhere in the mixed community and the haredi elementary school for girls, called Mishkenot Daat, will take over the whole building beginning in the 2015-16 school year.

Last September, parents and teachers of the secular school protested when a floor for the building was separated for use by the haredi school, and city construction workers erected an 8-foot-high wall down the middle of the schoolyard.

The following month, under an agreement struck with the Jerusalem District Court, the Mishkenot Daat School moved out of the second floor and operated out of mobile classrooms placed in the schoolyard.

In recent years Beit Shemesh, a city of 80,000 located just north of Jerusalem, has become a flashpoint for conflicts between Israel’s haredi community and its secular and modern Orthodox populations.

Leaving religious life: The ‘un-Orthodox’ path


The path between the secular world and highly observant Judaism is a two-way street. The baal t’shuvah travels in one direction, but he or she may be taking the place of someone who has abandoned Orthodoxy.  It is these so-called “defectors” whose lives are explored with color and compassion in Lynn Davidman’s “Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews” (Oxford University Press).

Davidman knows whereof she speaks. “By the time I was 13, I knew in my gut I had left Orthodox Judaism,” she writes by way of introduction. The fact that her mother died of cancer despite the Rebbe’s “special blessing” was the event that “created a tear in the sacred canopy that had sheltered and protected me,” Davidman explains. “From then on, I no longer believed in God, or in the religion in which I was raised.”

Now a professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of Kansas, Davidman has studied the phenomenon of which she is a part with academic rigor, but her scholarship is charged with empathy toward the “defector,” as she calls those who leave highly observant (or, as she puts it, Haredi) Judaism. She reveals, for example, that women raised in highly observant Jewish communities were given neither language nor knowledge about their own bodies with the result that they “suddenly found themselves bleeding ‘down there’ and thought something horrible was happening to them.” A married man is a patriarch according to the biblical example, and a married woman “is expected to be a dutiful wife and mother, caring for as many children as God blesses them with.”

Yet the human mind refuses to be constrained by law or tradition. “Haredi families, like all others, raise children who may question or even go against the families’ values and behavioral rules.”  Because they live in a community that does not tolerate, much less encourage, such questioning, “even the slightest deviations in Orthodox practice can deepen into a desire to leave.”  According to Davidman, the passage out of Orthodoxy can be likened to the experience of LGBT men and women: “I was always out,” recalls one young woman, “and my brothers were always closeted about it.”

Leave-taking, as we learn, is shattering and even revelatory event in their lives.  A young man named Sam was sent from Lakewood, N.J., to a yeshiva in Baltimore at the age of 17, a fateful decision of his parents. “If I had stayed in the seminary in Lakewood…, I would have had to take the business to the center of town,” he recalls. “In Baltimore, I walked everywhere.” What he saw was shattering: Newspapers, for example, television – I had never seen television before, never in my life.” Most corrosive of all, however, was Sam’s discovery of the public library, a repository of forbidden books.

Just as often, however, the disenchantment begins in the intimate family circle. A woman named Leah attributes her loss of faith to the secular cousins whom she encountered on family get-togethers. “They seem to have more interesting toys and more interesting candy than we did,” she explains. “And so everything about them made us doubt our brainwashing.”

And sometimes the insularity of an observant community worked to conceal outright abuse.  “No one in the community wants to hear whether you were neglected or beaten,” says Abby, a former Satmar woman. “And therapy is a stigma which will automatically scar you for life.”

Once on the path out of Orthodoxy, the first tentative steps might be too subtle for secular Jews to recognize. “My rebellious thing [was] talking to boys,” says Abby, who thereby violated the rule of strict modesty known as tzniyus. Adina went even further: “And one of my games was to touch the boys,” she explains. “I’d be like, ha-ha, I touched you, I awoke your urges!” For Binyamin, the first act of defiance was to read a Yiddish translation of a philosophical tract by Spinoza, which was regarded as “taboo and forbidden.”  For some, including the author, the biggest step was the first taste of something treyf. For Rachel, it was a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich: “As I was eating it, I was waiting to be…you know, the lightning to strike or something, and of course, the lightning didn’t strike.

Yet, in a way, lightning did strike. Suddenly, these men and women found themselves in a brave new world: “I just felt this void and this emptiness,” says Aliza. Then, too, they were mourning their former selves: “I did feel a great and very deep sense of loss,” Ehud says about the emotions occasioned by his first sampling of shellfish and pork.” But they were rewarded for their courage with new opportunities: “I longed to write, to study, and to be an intellectual,” says Rutie. Ultimately, as Davidman allows us to see, “Becoming Un-Orthodox” is a book about self-liberation and the sheer courage that one must have to achieve it.

Secular Yeshiva holds Socratic-style seminars


For the second year in row, local Yiddish learning organization Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) will offer Secular Yeshiva, a bimonthly course with Socratic-style seminars, focused on “history and basic ideas of secular Jewishness,” “critical examination of Tanakh and post-biblical literature,” “Jewish calendar and holidays” and more.

The course begins in February and is open to the public. Instructors will include local scholar Hershl Hartman, a member of the Workmen’s Circle District Committee.

Secular Yeshiva demands a two-year commitment; each class will last two-and-a-half hours. Classes take place two Sunday evenings per month.

Participants may take an additional third year of study to earn certification as a “vegvayzer,” which means they can conduct secular life cycle and holiday ceremonies.

Registration for Secular Yeshiva is due no later than Jan. 21. To apply, e-mail hershl@sholem.org with a brief description of past education and/or activities in Jewish and general cultural/educational/social movements. Visit circlesocal.org for more details. Prices to be announced.

A long time ago, in a kibbutz far away . . .


Yoav was my kibbutz brother, secular and an ardent Zionist. He had an encyclopedic mind that could recite in detail kibbutz history, lore and socialist ideology. Today, Yoav is an equally intense, knowledgeable and ideological Charedi guy living in the Midwest. He recently offered to pay me money for introducing him to the woman he married more than 25 years ago.

I refused to accept it.

Our friendship dates back to the summer of 1970, when I was 19 years old. He was 17. It was my first trip to Israel.

I was standing in the chaotic Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, with no idea where I was going. While deciphering the schedules, I met some other American students, who told me they were spending the summer on a kibbutz where there were plenty of extra beds, a beautiful pool, free food and lots of beautiful German volunteers. I remembered my mother’s last admonishment before I got on the plane in Los Angeles: “Don’t end up on one of those communist kibbutzes and become a socialist having nonstop sex with all the other communists who want to live communally.”

There was no way I was going to resist this kibbutz invitation.

A few hours later when we arrived at our destination, I asked my American hosts many questions about the place. They said, “Let’s introduce you to Yoav. He loves to tell the Americans about the kibbutz.”

As Yoav led me through the grounds, we bonded instantly. He was a brilliant, deep, complicated thinker. That afternoon he invited me to his parents’ house for the 4 p.m. tea, where I met his entire family.

They became my Israeli family. I returned to the kibbutz for several summers. His parents were like my own parents, quenching and stimulating the thirst I had for understanding Israel and the Jewish people. They embraced me and scolded me. Yoav and I spent hours, late into the night, in ideological discussions, challenging one another’s views. When I returned to Los Angeles, we wrote long letters continuing on the summer’s debates.

Two years after he went into the army, he evaporated. He stopped writing. My last summer at the kibbutz, he never appeared. His parents did not know what to tell me.

I married. I began a profession. Five, maybe six years later, I received a phone call one day in Los Angeles. “This is Yoav.”

During our first meeting, he was icy cold. We met again, and he warmed up a bit. We met a third time, and the ice melted and the river began to rush with explanations and admissions. His army years were terrible. He was now questioning the legitimacy of kibbutz life and the entire Zionist enterprise. He was angry and cynical. He hated anything having to do with Judaism.

He knew two people in Los Angeles — me and a young lady named Suzie, who had lived on the kibbutz for several years. Suzie and I were both in advertising and sometimes did business together. She had an employee, a young Jewish woman who had moved to Los Angeles from a small town in the Midwest. We determined to fix her up with Yoav.

They eventually married. I was the best man at their wedding.

They began their married life in Los Angeles. Yoav left his cynicism behind and in Torah and Jewish learning found a path to funnel his questioning and his depth. The couple moved to a big city in the Midwest, near the town where they got married. I went once to visit, and then he again disappeared — into a world of yeshiva life, with little time to see me.

My wife and I had three children. We began to take regular trips to Israel. On each trip, we made certain to go to the kibbutz. Yoav’s family embraced me, my wife and our children as part of their family. We have remained very close until this day. Yoav’s ultra-orthodoxy has not been easy for them.

Over the last 16 years, since my visit to see Yoav, he and I have spoken about three times, mainly in my phone calls when his father died.

I’ve waited to tell this story, because I didn’t know what its ending would be.

Two years ago, my assistant announced, “There’s a guy named Yoav on the phone. He said he must speak with you.”

I picked up.

“Gary, can you tell me the story of how you introduced me to Cheryl?” No small talk. No exchange of pleasantries.

I decided to go with the flow. “Yoav, is it your 25th anniversary, or something?”

“Yes,” he answered tentatively.

I began to jog my memory, jumping into the conversation as if it was natural. I didn’t want to do anything to make it difficult.

“Were you the actual person who introduced us, or was it Suzie? I need to know the exact details.”

As I began to think back, something about the question did not feel right. I asked, “Yoav, what is this really about?”

He hesitated. “It is not really about our anniversary. It’s time for us to find a shiddach for our son, and my rabbi asked if I had paid the shadchan who set up my marriage to Cheryl. When I told him that I didn’t, he said I must, otherwise our son’s shiddach may be visited with some unfortunate circumstances. And I am pretty sure that you, Gary, not Suzie, were the actual shadchan.”

I was taken aback, understanding he wanted to pay me for an act of friendship that happened 25 years ago. But, I thought quickly. “Yoav, is the payment only to be in the form of money?”

“What?” he asked, equally taken aback by my question.

I repeated the question.

“My rabbi said I have to pay the shadchan. I am sure it must be in the form of money.”

“Did he actually mention money, or did he just mention ‘payment’?”

He fumbled his words. We went back and forth. We were once again into the ideological discussion rhythm that we had established for ourselves 30 years before. It was familiar, and it was frustrating. Yet, there was none of the warmth that used to lace every volley.

As men in our 50s, we were getting nowhere with the discussion. Finally, I stopped the bouncing ball.

“Yoav, why am I asking you this question?”

“I know, Gary, why you are asking me this question.”

“Why, Yoav? Why did I introduce you to Cheryl?” I wasn’t going to let it slide.

He hesitated for a long time. I could feel his angst. But I didn’t intervene to create any comfort. “Because you were my very good friend. You saw I was lonely. You loved me like a brother.”

I could tell he hated to have to admit it. But I know this man. He had no choice, when it came to his soul, but to tell the truth.

“And 25 years later, you’re now going to offer to pay me money for that act?”

“I did not mean to offend you. I am not trying to insult you. That is not my intention. It is what we do in my community.”

“I don’t believe you are trying to insult me at all. But if you must pay because of your community’s belief system, I suggest that money is the wrong payment in exchange for being a good friend and loving you like a brother. There is something wrong with this equation, Yoav. If this is now a business conversation, what if the ‘seller of the service’ is saying that money is the wrong payment?”

I heard him take a deep breath. “Gary, our lives are very different from one another.”

“How would you know anything about my life and that it may be different from yours? How do you know what I believe and think, what my experiences have been and what my Jewish involvements are?”

He again hesitated. “You are right. I don’t know.”

I waited. There was a very long silence. “Gary, I think there needs to be some more conversation between us at another point.”

Two months later, I received a kiddush cup in the mail. It’s now been two years. I’ve never heard from him.

Gary Wexler is founder and president of Los Angeles-based Passion Marketing, consulting with Jewish and general nonprofit organizations throughout the world.

Diverse trio running for mayor in troubled Jerusalem


It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A rabbi, a Russian oligarch and a high-tech millionaire are running for mayor of Jerusalem. Except there’s no punch line, just each of them offering up himself as salvation for the hallowed capital’s many troubles.

Many Jerusalemites view this year’s municipal elections, scheduled for Nov. 11, as a historic turning point for a city that is Israel’s poorest, still vulnerable to terrorist attacks and wracked by economic, political and religious divisions. At stake, many say, is Jerusalem’s very character and future viability.

Among the foremost concerns for Jewish Israelis is the hemorrhaging of Jerusalem’s Jewish population, particularly its middle class. These Israelis are being driven out of the city by high housing costs and scarce employment opportunities.

For secular residents, the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population is further cause for concern that the Orthodox will dominate the personality and priorities of the city.

In the predominately Arab eastern half, where most residents long have refused to vote in municipal elections in protest of Israel’s sovereignty over the city, basic social services have been neglected for years by local government. Many families live in cramped quarters because building permits are difficult to acquire, classroom shortages are so bad that at some schools different grades take turns using the same room and road repair and garbage collection are routinely ignored.

Some observers argue that the neglect of eastern Jerusalem ensures that the capital may again be divided by an international border. Within the city’s Arab community, many warn that the gap in services leads to resentment that can be seen in the growing political and religious radicalization of Arab youth. Several times this year, relatively young Palestinians from eastern Jerusalem perpetrated terrorist attacks against Jews in Jerusalem, sometimes with deadly results.

Elias Khoury, a lawyer who represents Arab residents of Jerusalem on issues of property, building and residency rights, said the boycott of municipal elections by Jerusalem Arabs only hurts the community.

“Today the situation in East Jerusalem is ‘tohu va’vohu,'” he said, using the biblical term for chaos. “If we don’t participate in elections, we need an alternative to managing our lives.”

The youngest of the three mayoral candidates is Nir Barkat, 49, a City Council member who made his fortune developing pioneering anti-virus software in the 1990s. A secular Jerusalemite, Barkat advocates reviving the city and its economy by focusing on tourism and making Jerusalem a world-class center for medicine and life sciences.

The Orthodox candidate is Rabbi Meir Porush, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite and longtime fixture on Israel’s Orthodox political scene who officially joined the race at the last minute.

The current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, who is ultra-Orthodox, had agreed to step aside for another Orthodox candidate, but it took the Orthodox political establishment until the 11th hour to settle on a final candidate. Several names were floated, but Porush became the man of choice only after Aryeh Deri, disgraced ex-Shas Party chairman and Knesset member who spent time in prison for taking bribes, was disqualified from running because his crimes constituted acts of moral turpitude.

Porush, who advocates holding the federal government accountable on unfulfilled pledges to invest millions of dollars in Jerusalem, hopes to win the mayoralty by galvanizing the city’s powerful, Orthodox voting bloc. Orthodox residents make up 30 percent of the city’s Jewish population but comprised the majority of voters in the city’s last municipal election, helping usher in Lupoliansky, the city’s first Orthodox mayor, in 2003.

Porush cites Jerusalem’s Arab-Jewish demography as the city’s greatest challenge. He said the first thing he would do as mayor would be to declare “an emergency situation” to boost the city’s Jewish population, which stands at about 66 percent.

Rounding out the field is Arcady Gaydamak, Israel’s flashiest political enigma, a billionaire who says he speaks for the people. Gaydamak’s past includes an international arrest warrant for allegedly illicit arms dealing in Angola and paying out of his own pocket to house Israelis fleeing the rocket fire in the north during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Zuhir Hamdan, who briefly ran as Jerusalem’s first Arab mayoral candidate, recently joined Gaydamak’s campaign in the hope of becoming his adviser on Arab affairs if Gaydamak is elected.

On a recent campaign foray to Jerusalem’s open-air Mahane Yehudah market, Barkat shook hands and smiled for the cameras. His plans include tapping international philanthropists and private-sector funds for support of Jerusalem.

Addressing the poverty issue, he noted that the average annual Jewish income in Jerusalem is $16,000, compared with $24,000 in the Tel Aviv area and $4,000 among Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem.

All of the candidates are trying to woo voters on the issue of affordable housing. Foreign demand for property in Jerusalem has contributed to skyrocketing housing prices and a dearth of new middle-class housing. Most of the city’s current building projects are luxury housing for Diaspora Jewish buyers, with prices per meter ranging from $7,000 to $10,000.

The high cost of living in Jerusalem has driven many residents to the suburbs.

Two new parties comprised of young Jerusalemites have made the issue their focus in the race for City Council seats. Aimed at trying to stem the tide of young people fleeing the city, one party is made up predominately of university students and other 20-somethings and is called Hit’orerut, Hebrew for “wake up.” Earlier this month, it merged with the other like-minded party, Yerushalmim, Hebrew for “Jerusalemites.”

“We need a change, and we understood it had to come from within,” said Ofir Berkovitz, 25, head of Hit’orerut.

No healing the world here — Humanistic Jews are ‘building’ the world


Rabbi Greg Epstein, the young Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, maintains that the question “Do you believe in God?” is totally meaningless and that “tikkun olam,” to repair the world, is the wrong concept.

But he also affirms that religion will never disappear and that the “New Atheists” don’t have the answers to meeting human needs.

In his 31 years, Epstein seems to have done most everything, from being a singer and composer in a professional rock band to studying ancient Aramaic literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

During a lengthy phone conversation, he previewed some of the points he will raise when he speaks at Rosh Hashanah services at Adat Chaverim, the local Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, points that he analyzes more deeply in his forthcoming book, “Good Without God.”

Humanistic Jews do not believe in an omnipotent supernatural power, “but in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to be,” he said.

“If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if your god stands for nature, or the universe, or love, that’s fine,” he added.

“The real point is that this is the only world we can ever know and that this life is the only chance we get to make a difference.”

Epstein also thinks that the oft-repeated injunction to repair the world misses the mark, because it assumes there once was a perfect world, which degenerated and must now be fixed.

“I prefer the phrase ‘bniyat olam,’ to build the world,” Epstein said. “Humanistic Judaism teaches that there never was a utopia, but this lack of perfection is no excuse for intellectual or spiritual laziness.

“We must build our relationship to our fellow humans and the world brick by brick, for we are responsible for one another and no one else will do the work.” He added facetiously, “The most pernicious rhyme in our language is ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ the idea that there was once a perfect white egg which shattered into a million pieces, and no one could put it together again.”

Many, but not all, Humanists are atheists or agnostics, but Epstein is no fan of such popular proponents of the “New Atheism” as writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

In an early story about these writers in Wired Magazine, the cover proclaimed “No heaven, no hell — just science.”

That distillation oversimplified a “painfully complex” question, Epstein said. “Science is the best tool for determining the truth about us, but that is not the same as doing something about it. It is not enough to just observe, we must engage in our community and do something.”

Epstein also distinguishes his philosophy from that of Jewish, mostly Yiddish-speaking, secularists of previous generations, who maintained that religion would ultimately disappear as mankind became increasingly rational.

“Religion is not primarily about faith in God; it is about community, identity, heritage and being of service to others,” he said. “We Humanists must also do more to meet these needs, rather than complain about what others believe.

“As a friend pointed out to me, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, he did not say, ‘I have a list of complaints,’ but ‘I have a dream.'”

Questioned about the role of religion in the current presidential race, Epstein recalled that slamming the other candidate’s religion or piety has a long, dishonorable tradition in American politics.

In the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, an Adams partisan, swiftboated Jefferson in the following advertisement.

“The Grand Question Stated: At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD _ AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for Jefferson – and no god!!!”

Epstein was born in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., then a widely diverse, multiracial community, and he had his bar mitzvah in a local Reform synagogue.

“It seemed to me then that no one took the message of religion seriously, and everyone recited prayers just by rote,” he said. “So I soon started exploring everything except Judaism and visiting every place except Israel.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Epstein studied Buddhism in Taiwan and China, then joined the rock band Sugar Pill and recorded two albums. Like many of his contemporaries, Epstein said, “I wanted to express myself through art and music, rather than religion.”

At this point, Epstein discovered the pioneer Humanistic Judaism congregation established by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in suburban Detroit, and “I finally connected to my heritage, but also realized that I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me.”

The process began with five years of study in suburban Detroit and Jerusalem at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, followed by a master’s degree in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, and another master’s degree in theology and comparative religion from the Harvard Divinity School.

Four years ago, he became a chaplain at Harvard, where he advises students in the Secular Society, Interfaith Council and the Harvard Humanist Graduate Community.

Epstein’s thoughts are frequently expressed in national publications and on radio networks, and he is one of a select group of invited panelists for the On Faith blog, started jointly by Newsweek and the Washington Post.

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, there are 1.6 million American adults and children who define themselves as “just Jewish,” and who are either secular or without any denominational affiliation.

Epstein said that one out of five young American Jews between ages 18 and 25 fall into that category, and that globally 1.1 billion human souls do without formal religion.

If all secular and unaffiliated American Jews joined together, they would form the country’s second largest Jewish denomination, barely trailing Reform membership.

The problem for Epstein and other Humanist leaders is that the 1.6 million are not organized and are not joining the existing congregations/communities of the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

After more than 40 years on the North American scene, the movement claims only some 10,000 adherents and 30 congregations, according to national executive director M. Bonnie Cousens.

Only six of the congregations are led by ordained rabbis, the others by lay leaders or “madrichim.”

What accounts for the low figures, given the large pool of potential members?

There are no clear-cut answers, but Cousens and other national leaders speculate that secular Jews, having arrived at this state through personal doubts and mental wrestling, are just not prone to join any organization.

Another cause may be that there is still, at times, an onus attached to “coming out” as a secular or atheistic Jews, though reactions by more traditional Jews seem less shocked and outraged than in the past.

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, bemoaned the society’s lack of popular visibility, saying, “There are so many Jews out there just waiting to discover us.”

Epstein is more upbeat. Drawing on his four-year experience at Harvard, he said that in the beginning only four students regularly attended his meetings.

Now his meeting rooms are crowded and last year, when he organized an international conference on “The New Humanism,” some 1,100 people attended.

“We may be a small minority, but minority groups can have a profound impact on mass movements,” he said. “Even now, I believe, liberal mainstream congregations are speaking more to human needs than divine needs.”

To have a growing impact, Humanistic Jews “must sing and must build, and I mean that literally and metaphorically,” he said.

So Epstein is hopeful, but within reason. Quoting playwright Tony Kushner, Epstein said, “We are optimists, but we are not stupid optimists.”

Friendship and freedom at Adat Chaverim


“What does it mean to be free and why is freedom so important?” was Karlo Silbiger’s first question to some 20 kids ranging from 3 years to early teens.

The youth and their parents were meeting on a recent Sunday morning to check out the offerings of Adat Chaverim (Community of Friends), especially its school and bar/bat mitzvah programs.

Adat Chaverim is a small congregation of secular, Humanistic Jews, whose brochure proposes that “reason rather than faith is the source of truth, and human intelligence and experience are capable of guiding our lives.”

Eight years after its was founded in the San Fernando Valley, Adat Chaverim is spreading its wings in concerted effort to attract like-minded Westsiders and broaden its services and educational programs.

The key to the congregation’s expansion from some 40 current families is its move to the American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, on the exact border between the Valley and the Los Angeles basin.

The group attending the school orientation session consisted of young professional couples, averaging three kids apiece, just the kind of demographic for which any synagogue would give away half its building fund.

Mitchell and Susan Saltzman of Century City brought their three boys, ages 3, 7 and 10. The older kids had previously attended a Reform synagogue’s preschool and liked it.

But, said Mitchell Saltzman, “A friend told us that his children were getting a great education at Adat Chaverim, so we thought we’d check it out.”

John and Mara Glassner of Encino came with their three young daughters and said they hoped to find a Sunday school in line with their “skeptical” outlook.

Also working in Adat Chaverim’s favor are the much lower membership and school fees, as compared to almost all other synagogues.

To keep the youngest kids happy, education director Silbiger passed out crayons and coloring sheets, recounting the story of Moses and the Exodus, though the dialogue deviated somewhat from the biblical version. Moses tells the pre-liberated Israelites, “God said if you don’t like something, you can change it through collective action.”

Also innovative is the congregation’s bar/bat mitzvah program, which requires 13 preparatory projects.

These include writing reports on the work of two Jewish community organizations; attending services of the four main Jewish denominations; 15 hours of community work; planning and preparing a Jewish holiday meal; reading a Torah portion and explaining its cultural background; and writing a story using some Yiddish and Ladino words.

By the way, what does it mean to be free?

According to the bright and alert youngsters, it means that “Nobody can boss you around,” “You can go where you want to go.” “You have a sense of responsibility,” and “You can believe in what you want to believe.”

This year’s High Holy Day services at AJU’s Berman Chapel will be led on Rosh Hashanah by Harvard University Chaplain Greg Epstein. There will also be services on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. A Tashlich ceremony is set for 11 a.m. on Oct. 5 at Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino. For more information, call (818) 346-5152.

Solar panels, radio station keep Jewish camps current


It was a given that Benjy Rabin, 9, would spend part of his summers at Camp Ramah as soon as he was old enough. His father is a Ramah alum, and so are his older brother and sister.

“That was the plan we made when we decided that Jewish day school was not an affordable or appropriate option for our kids,” said Benjy’s mother, Ellen. “All the research says that going to summer camp is just as significant as day school in promoting Jewish identity.”

But Jewish overnight camps can’t rely on families like the Rabins to fill their cabins. A study done in 2006 for the Foundation for Jewish Camping shows that Jewish kids in Southern California attend secular camps at about double the rate at which they attend Jewish camps.

“Parents don’t feel they’re getting bang for the buck by sending their children to Jewish camps,” Gerrald B. Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, said of the study. “Part of that has to with facilities not being competitive.”

The study, by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, calls the “limitations in facilities and in quality of recreational activities” one of three areas needing attention, and Los Angeles area Jewish camps seem to be taking note.

Climbing wall at Alonim
Climbing wall at Alonim

Camp Alonim in Simi Valley is constructing a new, 15,000-square-foot dining hall scheduled for completion in fall 2008, as well as rebuilding an adjacent dance pavilion that will be ready for this summer’s camp sessions. The new facilities will replace structures erected in the 1960s.

“In order for Jewish camps to do what they do — which is help preserve the Jewish future — we need to help convince parents, families and kids themselves to choose their camp,” said Gary Brennglass, executive director of American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin campus, home to Alonim. “Part of Alonim’s efforts to continue to make it an attractive alternative relate to the physical plant. And the Campus Center and Dining Hall really are key elements in terms of any camp’s physical plant.”

Alonim also added a batting cage and started a mountain biking program last year. This year, the camp is introducing its own radio station and has added Krav Maga (an Israeli martial art form) and water polo to the menu of activities. The camp also redesigned and upgraded its Web site, adding blogs and an extensive photo gallery to attract visitors.

At Camp Ramah in Ojai, campers will be greeted this summer with a new pool featuring two corkscrew-shaped water slides. This complements the existing 25-meter pool, which has been renovated with a new deck, bathrooms and two diving boards. Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Greyber said the new pool will allow Ramah to offer more extensive aquatics programs, such as water polo, advanced swim training and possibly scuba diving.

Several years ago, Ramah purchased 22 additional acres of adjacent land that includes an orange grove. A residence located on that property is being converted into a retreat center, which during summers will be used to host guest coaches, artists, scholars and other specialists. Gifts to Ramah have also enabled the camp to expand the hiking trails on its property and build remote overnight campsites.

“The larger picture is that we’ve done a master plan and are in the middle of a capital campaign and looking forward to a whole host of other projects to reinvent and reenergize our program facilities,” said Greyber.

Camp JCA Shalom’s physical changes reflect its environmental bent and are part of its “True to Nature” campaign. Three of the facility’s buildings are now powered by rooftop solar panels, and about half of the camps’ bunks are made from recycled plastic.

“We know that greening is one of the trends people are looking for nationally,” said Camp Director Bill Kaplan. “It fits into our values system in terms of what we’ve been doing with the kids at camp and in connecting to our Jewish tradition.”

The campus also features the Marla Bennett Israel Discovery Center and Garden, a year-round interactive learning center that teaches organic gardening and farming through the lens of the relationship between Judaism and the environment. And last summer, Camp JCA Shalom introduced its Pioneer Living Center, an area dedicated to teaching historical skills such as how to build a log cabin, make candles and throw a tomahawk.

This summer will initiate the third season for Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, which just received accreditation from the American Camp Association. To address the need for greater capacity (enrollment increased 60 percent from the first year to the second), the camp is in the final stages of constructing a 10,000-square-foot building that will serve as dining and meeting hall. The structure includes dairy and meat kitchens and two large bathrooms.

Camp director Gershon Sandler said that although the camp is run by Chabad and is therefore a comfortable option for Orthodox children, the majority of campers come from non-observant homes. Sandler, who was at one time a fellow for the Federation for Jewish Camping, is well aware of the recent study on Jewish campership.

“We are giving parents what they want — helping their child to move ahead in life, not just providing a warm and fuzzy experience.” At the same time, he said, “there’s something about our spirit that the parents and kids love.”

Most camp directors stress that the emphasis on a camp’s physical features or its ability to offer bells and whistles are of only part of the picture.

“We’re a different summer camp to begin with,” said Rachael Sevilla, executive director of Camp Gilboa. “We’re more tailored to Israel education, which is itself a specialty. We’re not about to become a sports or drama camp any time soon.”

Although Sevilla says that Gilboa’s facilities could use some upgrading (the camp rents a YMCA facility in the San Bernardino National Forest), enrollment has nevertheless grown 30 percent in the last two years.

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

Trading in happy meals for real happiness


Living a life of dual identity is no simple task. On one hand, my peers and I are told to live up to the expectations of being Modern Orthodox teens, but on the other side of the spectrum we are tempted by the culture of the secular world on an everyday basis.

How then is it remotely possible to balance the blaring secular world with the scholarly teachings of our forefathers that have existed for thousands of generations? Easy.

Through the eyes of a child, the secular world clearly clashes with the classically Jewish one. From birth, I was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, and I attended a school that was comprised of non-Jewish children. I was exposed to the numerous differences between my sheltered Jewish world and the secular world around me.

In school, I was filled with envy knowing that my favorite battery-operated FisherPrice toys were put away during the Sabbath when all my secular friends used their electric-operated toys with abandon. I asked my mother with bewilderment why the other children were so “lucky”? They could eat McDonald’s Happy Meals while I was strictly forbidden to enjoy such delights.

What did not occur to me was that I was the lucky child.

To the norm of society, Judaism is looked upon as a religion that in essence deprives you of things associated with the secular world. For instance, observant Jews do not dine at certain restaurants, wear clothes that might be the latest trend or do even something as basic as eat bread during Passover.

However in reality, one must look at Judaism and realize what our spectacular religion has to offer. Our culture is enriched with crucial morals and ethics that, when integrated into a person’s life, have the capacity to elevate us to an entirely different level of consciousness. Numerous biblical characters that appear in our text serve as exemplary role models with angelic qualities.

One of the most crucial gifts I’ve received is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. This moral concept appears throughout our daily routines, and without our Judaic teachings one can be horrifically mislead. In a way, these practices end up being like a GPS guiding us and protecting us.

In the book of Leviticus, we are called a “treasured nation,” proving how special we really are. Judaism has a full heritage of the most intellectual people known to mankind. We are so fortunate to be associated with such a religion.

To stress this point even further, we must look at all the prayers in our siddur. Every day we are given the opportunity to converse with God, the Master of the World. This is an opportunity that should not be taken lightly, for in essence we can open our heart to God and let our lips overflow with any prayer or desire we might posses.

Now that I understand what Judaism really has to offer, I can step back and appreciate all the special aspects of the secular world and see that there aren’t any contradictions — that the hand of God is in everything. For example, the advances of medicine are essentially God giving us a cure, not merely great ideas from some doctor. The first man to walk on the moon also came directly from our Creator — as did the moon itself!

Nine years later I still look back at my 6-year-old self and smile.

Maybe playing with electric toys on Shabbos and eating Happy Meals is great, but once I figured out what Judaism was about, I think I had it better.

Rocky Salomon is a 10th grader at YULA.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

‘Secular Yeshiva’ answers young Israelis’ questions


Ofri Bar-Am, 19, folds her legs underneath her on a library couch and peers closely at a photocopy of the biblical passage describing the oldest recorded case of sibling rivalry in history, Cain and Abel.

A student at the first secular yeshiva in Israel, Bar-Am underlines phrases, scribbles notations and promptly dives into a psychological and theological discussion with her study partners about the story’s layered meanings and relevance.

“Cain’s whole purpose seems to be trying to please God, and when that doesn’t happen he breaks down and kills his brother,” she said. Pointing out a puzzling phrase she asks, “What does it mean? How did this happen?”

Bar-Am is part of an incoming class of 30 young, nonreligious Israelis who, like her, are combining study at the secular yeshiva with army service. A total of 150 students are attending classes here.

The Secular Yeshiva of Tel Aviv, which receives funding from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has students divide their time between studying Jewish texts and volunteering in economically disadvantaged areas of south Tel Aviv, where the yeshiva is located. There they do informal education projects with local elementary school students and after-school programming for them.

The goal is to give young, secular Israelis an education that will show them that they too have a rich culture to tap into and explore. Like many Israelis, young and old, those that come to the yeshiva know little about Judaism and feel alienated from religion, which they view as the domain of the ultra-Orthodox.

There’s no expectation or even intention for religious observance to follow.

Instead, the yeshiva’s founders hope students will gain an appreciation for religious pluralism and a desire to fuse their newfound knowledge of Judaism with work for social justice and human rights.

The yeshiva is a project of BINA, the Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, sponsored by the United Kibbutz Movement. The organization hopes to strengthen pluralism and democracy in Israel by focusing on the humanistic aspects of Judaism.

“One of the reasons for the secular yeshiva is to counter the mindset of the opposition to Judaism as only a religious concept. We are here to give a different answer,” said Tal Shaked, 33, a former lawyer who serves as yeshiva head.

“I want to see people who are more socially minded, so the study is based not just on analyzing texts but seeing how these ideas can be applied as individuals and as members of Israeli society,” she said.

About half of the 30 students currently studying ahead of their army service pay tuition and follow the yeshiva model of studying from early morning until late at night, studying in pairs known as chevrutas.

The other half combine their yeshiva studying and volunteering with odd jobs to support themselves.

Organizers hope to win official recognition from the government as a combined yeshiva-army program, a type that exists in the Modern Orthodox community and receives state funding.
Another group of post-army students also combines study with work and, like the others, lives in communal apartments in the Shapira and Kiryat Shalom neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

Eventually the plan is to be able to accommodate some 500 students. There are teachers from the three main streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

The yeshiva receives funding from the New Israel Fund, the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, as well as from federations in Los Angeles and New York. It reflects a trend in recent years of secular Jewish Israelis seeking a stronger connection to a heritage muted by the founders of the state, who preferred to detach Judaism from Zionism.

Several centers have opened in Israel that have begun to introduce Jewish text study to a secular audience. This yeshiva, however, is the first seminary of its kind in Israel.

“I think Israeli society has paid a price for Zionism’s attempts to cut out religion. It has created an identity crisis,” said Ariel Nitzan, 18, from Kibbutz Lotan, who will be doing a half-year of work-study at the yeshiva before joining a combat unit in the army, then returning for a period to the yeshiva.

“I feel like I’m also doing something for national security, but from a different point of view,” Nitzan said. “I’m dealing with the question of Jewish identity and contributing to social justice on some level.”

Dana Ben-Asher, 19, said she was always interested in Jewish topics but on Kibbutz Dorot, where she grew up, the focus was on socialist Zionism, as it is at most secular kibbutzim.

“We would build a sukkah and would ask why, and all the answers would be about pioneers and the importance of being Israeli,” she said.

The yeshiva students complain that in high school they were taught the Bible as a dry, impersonal subject.

Avigail Graetz, 30, a playwright and teacher who gives a course at the yeshiva on sibling relationships in the Bible, grew up in Israel’s small Conservative movement.

“They don’t even notice how they peel the layers back,” she said of her students’ astute analyses in her course.

If you start discussing the Bible per se, you can turn them off, she said “but when you talk about siblings in general they bring themselves into the text, and it’s beautiful. Their interpretations, their broad conceptions are so enriching.”

Graetz said the approach to study is not about “right or wrong. We aren’t doing it for halachah, and we don’t come from a place of ‘God knows better.'”

Over Yom Kippur, dozens of yeshiva students and their friends gathered at the community center in Tel Aviv that is the yeshiva’s temporary home. There they listened to commentaries and did group study and personal reflection.

Ben-Asher said it was the first time she had marked Yom Kippur in any kind of meaningful way.

Faith and Season


In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Somali Muslim immigrants, who make up the majority of airport cab drivers, are refusing to take passengers carrying alcohol.In the gripping, must-see documentary “Jesus Camp,” 9-year-old children are whipped into a glassy-eyed religious fervor against abortion and secular society.
 
In the run-up to the November elections, evangelical Christian pastors are using their pulpits to exhort believers to turn out in force against Democrats, in the name of Jesus.
 
Meanwhile, the pope — who himself is not exactly at the vanguard of critical thinking — has been furiously apologizing for comments he made during a speech on religious understanding that many Muslims took to be blasphemous.
 
For people who think that religion is not the cure but the cause of human misery, this month has provided plenty of proof.
 
It is easy to read the headlines and conclude that if religion would just go away, all would be well. But humans are hard-wired for belief. If it is suppressed, as in communist China, faith comes roaring back once the lid is off. If religion falls out of favor, as it did in the secular, God-Is-Dead 1960s, the pendulum eventually swings back until we end up with a president discussing, rather hopefully, the possibility of a Third Great Awakening of Christian fervor, as George W. Bush did with a group of journalists last month.
 
And say you really could sweep away religion. What then? The secular dogmas that have replaced it — Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism, among the more recent examples — have wreaked even worse havoc on humanity.
 
The problem, it seems to me, isn’t religion, but belief itself. There are, after all, two types of people: those who think about everything they believe, and those who believe everything they think. If there is a human curse to be broken, it is the curse of dogma.
 
How to wrest people from the grip of their dogmatic beliefs is the problem of our century. It is religious dogma that seems to drive the president of Iran toward a nuclear confrontation with the West. He will sacrifice his nation’s economy, and maybe Iran itself, to the idea of bringing about the incarnation of the Mahdi.
 
Scary as hell, yes. But just as scary is the huge swath of Americans, the kind who have made best-sellers of the apocalyptic “Left Behind” novels, who believe we are overdue for a confrontation between civilizations that will hasten the Second Coming. Those of us who find some comfort and some answers in religion can only wonder: How can you make moderate belief? How can you inject dogma with reason? There is no single answer, but I do have one small proposal: Sukkot.The holiday of Sukkot is coming up this week, and if you’ve never celebrated it, make this the first year you do.
 
To my mind, Sukkot comes each year to rescue us from the severity of faith. The High Holidays are so … high. They are meant to be demanding and claustrophobic, as we fast and self-assess and go back and forth in our heads over where we’ve erred and how we can repair our souls.
 
Then comes Sukkot.
 
On Sukkot, we construct temporary booths — the Hebrew word for huts is sukkot — and sit and eat and drink and pass as much time as possible in them. The huts must have impermanent walls and roofs of leaves and branches that allow the rain to enter. The idea is to remind us of the time the Children of Israel wandered homeless in the desert, protected only by God.
 
The effect is to get us out of our heads and into our bodies, into nature. That is why, bar none, it’s my favorite Jewish holiday, the one I would take with me on a desert isle (where I’d probably have to construct a bamboo hut, anyway).On Sukkot we read from the book of Ecclesiastes, the most existential of prophets. He looks at the darkness of the world and the brevity of our small lives, and comes up with this conclusion: “It is good, yea, it is beautiful, to eat and drink and to experience goodness with all his toil that he toils under the sun.”
 
In short, you might as well enjoy it while you’re here. It’s true that Sukkot, like any other religious ritual, can be hijacked by extremism or the baser instincts. There’s usually a scandal in Borough Park around unscrupulous sale of holiday items. To this day I’m still unclear why the etrog, a simple citrus fruit used as part of the Sukkot ritual, should cost several hundred times more than a lemon from Gelson’s. But if you build a sukkah, or sit in a friend’s, you will find that such concerns ultimately provoke laughter, not anger.
 
Sitting under the stars, it is hard to feel outraged, or even pessimistic. It is easier to realize that life — including our beliefs and our dogmas — is shaky, like the sukkah itself. It is easy to see our most deeply held beliefs as temporary shelters, something we erect to keep the darkness at bay, but hardly as lasting as the darkness that surrounds it, and the mysteries therein.
 
Author Sam Harris has been making the rounds lately promoting his newest screed against religion, “Letter to a Christian Nation.” In this book and his first, “The End of Faith,” Harris argues for people to abandon faith-based belief systems. Harris is a smart man, but how stupid is that? Thousands of years of evidence suggest it just won’t happen. A better idea is to encourage beliefs, rituals, practices and leaders that lessen the harsh decree of dogma. Harris doesn’t spend much time attacking Judaism, because Judaism, though it has its share of mindless extremists, has struggled to combine faith with critical thinking to together serve our souls, lift up our lives.
 
Perhaps Jews should take it upon themselves to find an empty piece of property and erect a huge, community sukkah, a place where people of all faiths, and the faithless, can sit, eat, enjoy, play music, hold classes, and talk about these issues, a shelter of moderation in a world gone extreme.
 
It’s too late to do it this year, but maybe next? The City Sukkah could be a gift of the Jews, a small attempt to show how faith can be both grand and humble.
 
Or in the words of poet Philip Appleman:
 
“…before our world goes over the brink,
Teach the believers how to think.”
 
Happy Sukkot.

A Jew, a Catholic and a film crew walk into a born-again summer camp


What are a secular Jew and a lapsed Catholic doing making a film about born-again Christians?



“We were interested in exploring children and faith,” explained Rachel Grady, co-director of “Jesus Camp,” a documentary about a summer program at which evangelical children are taught to “take back America for Christ.” Grady and co-director Heidi Ewing, her partner at New York-based Loki Films, became intrigued with the subject while making their last documentary, “The Boys of Baraka,” which featured a 12-year-old boy who had already found his “calling” in preaching.



Public Reactions Are Strong to A Personal Journey


Los Angeles photographer Naomi Solomon capped off her informal summer presentation series “Settlers: A Photographic Journey of the Life and Disengagement of the Jews Living in Gaza” at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills last week, drawing more than 150 people.

Her evocative slide-show was a culmination of her personal explorations of life in Judea, Samaria and Gaza that began with her initial visit in 2002 to the mixed secular-religious Judean outpost, Ma’aleh Rechavam, and continued through the Gaza disengagement of August 2005.

After months of post-production since her return to Los Angeles, Solomon created a show of 100 select photos, which she has presented largely to Orthodox synagogues in the L.A. area. However, she says her mission to portray the diversity, humanity and culture of settlers and settlement life through her photographs is far from complete.

“My focus now is to branch out of local synagogues,” Solomon told the Jewish Journal in a telephone interview.

Predicting a particularly strong anti-Zionist sentiment on campuses this year, she plans to secure speaking engagements at universities, as well as at Reform and Conservative synagogues. Synagogues of all streams, however, have sometimes been reluctant to host her, as they fear that her presentation is too “political,” a fear that Solomon attributes, in part, to her provocative title.

While in her presentation Solomon makes clear her stance against unilateral withdrawals, she asserts that her aim is to “share her experience” rather than her political opinions.

“My goal is to unravel a human story within a political tornado,” she said.
Her photographs range from romantic scenes of settlers building homes, tilling land, playing guitar and surfing on the Gaza coast, to the more emotion-packed scenes of settlers protesting and soldiers evacuating settlers and demolishing their homes.

Solomon cannot say with any certainty that the recent war in Lebanon has drawn more interest in her work, although she believes her presentation is already changing perceptions. At the end of the recent show at Nessah, which climaxed with the image of the gates of Gaza closing, many congregants were tearful and the hall was silent. She related that on several occasions audience members came up to her afterward and retracted their support for the disengagement.

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.”

Modern Orthodoxy’s Marriage Crisis


Hard-to-marry-off children have been worrying parents since Genesis, when Leah, her eyes tender from the sadness of being unwanted, took part in a hoax to trick Jacob — her younger, prettier sister’s suitor — into marrying her. There’s no indication of how old Leah was at betrothal, but the tone of the text prompts a mortifying thought: Had she lived in our time, the future matriarch of the Jewish people would likely be another tough case for the matchmakers.

Or so I surmised a few months ago after a crowded panel in Manhattan on what has come to be known as the “shidduch crisis” in Modern Orthodoxy. Over the past decade, rabbis, activists and parents have been wringing their hands over the “ever-burgeoning number of religious singles and rising percentage of failed marriages” in the community. This event was only the most recent of many discussions devoted to the topic.

Having once been both single and Modern Orthodox, I recognized many of the audience members — not exact faces, of course, but types: The knitted-browed parents, bantering anxiously among themselves; the fresh-faced Stern and Yeshiva University students who seemed too young to take the bus themselves, let alone join in holy matrimony; a handful of older singles brave enough to show their faces at such a gathering.

The evening’s discussion traversed a lot of ground, but it was clear that among its primary goals was the prevention of those too-often-seen tragic situations — “marriages that end, God forbid, in divorce” and “people who are in their late 20s, even 30, and not married.”

The timing could not have been better — or worse: Three days earlier, I had signed divorce papers; six days later, I turned 30.

Of course, the world is filled with singles wishing to be part of doubles. Since the fate of every society turns on the success or failure of its particular set of mating rituals, each one develops its own specialized system of coupling. But what happens when those rituals erode?

This is the bind in which Modern Orthodoxy has lately found itself. Over the past decade, the movement has drifted to the right — adopting, along the way, the belief that greater stringency in Jewish law and ritual equals greater religiosity. Distinctions that might seem infinitesimal to an outsider — “she’s a Bais Yaakov girl,” “he wears a kippah sruga” — have become fundamental differences, and competitions have sprouted up over who follows which obligations more strictly.

Along with new perspectives on the legality of singing in the shower and smoking cigarettes on Passover, there also has emerged a more exacting code of modesty and celibacy for singles. In response, ever younger people have begun racing to the chuppah, with many of us discussing potential mates as early as high school.

This is the system used successfully by the ultra-Orthodox, who place more emphasis on God, family and community than on individual choices: Each person has confidence in her mate not only because he is right for her, but because he is right for everyone and everything in her life. On the other end of the spectrum, the secular world offers a method based on individualism: Release yourself from everyone else’s expectations, and date as many people as it takes to find the one.

The problem is that both of these opposing philosophies are now circulating in the Modern Orthodox community, and their coexistence is causing static — mixed signals, false expectations, miscommunications. The confusion might be surmountable, but muddling through it requires two things that Orthodox Jews who’d like to remain marriageable don’t have: experience and time.

The first inkling that I did not have nearly enough time to find a mate was in my junior year of yeshiva high school. We were learning about Amuka, an area in northern Israel where the prayers of people looking for their besherts (destined partners) allegedly are answered, when I was seized with confusion.

“Can each person only have one beshert?” I asked.

“I think so,” said the rabbi.

“But what about a woman who remarries after her husband dies? Which one was her beshert?”

“Only God knows,” came the reply.

“What if my beshert lives in, like, Pakistan?”

“You have to just believe, Alana.”

I can’t, I thought suddenly. I don’t know enough about the world.

And with that, Amuka became my Archimedean point, the place where I stood when I inadvertently lifted my entire religious world off its axis. After that, the questions came quickly — even leading, briefly, to a period of greater observance.

By the time I started my second year at Barnard, I was taking classes on other religions, had an Episcopalian best friend and regularly attended non-Jewish campus events on Friday night, as long as I could walk to them.

But as my curiosity about the larger world expanded, the atmosphere of Modern Orthodoxy contracted. I wanted to engage with the secular world — to learn about it as well as to experience it — but the same adventures that might have once been par for the Modern Orthodox course now threatened to make me an outcast.

I was too attached to religious life and thought to abandon it entirely. Instead, I made the kind of unspoken compromises with my parents (and, by extension, the community) that some people make with God: I will not go to services often, but when I do, I’ll attend Orthodox synagogues; I will eat nonkosher in restaurants but at home will abide by rules strict enough that the rebbe could snack in my kitchen; I will avoid premarital sex, but won’t follow the laws of negiah.

This last item was, in fact, the only one for which I had an intellectual defense. I was shy and insecure about sex and knew enough to fear its power as an obfuscating force in relationships. The more I knew, I thought, the better my chances that I wouldn’t mistake lust for love.

Fooling around before marriage has, historically, not been an uncommon practice among Modern Orthodox Jews. After all, they gave the world the “tefillin date,” so named for the men who brought along their phylacteries in hopes they wouldn’t be home in time for morning prayers.

By my early 20s, the community had moved significantly to the right. People found themselves caught between rules of the old world and the kind of curiosity about sex and dating fostered in the new one.

“It is bad enough to be alone, but to be not sexual is almost as bad, and the two together is terrible,” writes an anonymous Orthodox blogger. “I have had fantasies of killing myself. I have considered hiring a male prostitute and getting it over with. No, I have not tried either of those last two things, chas vishalom…. To all the married people out there telling older singles that they should deny themselves, I wish I could respond, ‘Let he who is 34 and never been kissed cast the first stone.'”

I was 25 when I married — a bit old compared to my yeshiva classmates but still within respectable limits. To a casual observer, Daniel might have seemed like a rebellious choice: He did not grow up Orthodox; his father is not Jewish; his last name is Scotch-Irish. But he was almost as connected to the community as I was, having just gotten out of a relationship with another Orthodox woman.

He had started learning Hebrew, loved Shabbat and had relatives in Israel. And, unlike me, he had yichus, a distinguished lineage: His grandfather was a famed civil rights lawyer and Zionist activist. He was different enough, and yet similar.

After a year of dating, we wanted to move in together, but I knew this was unheard of in our circles. So I made another silent compromise: I’d marry the person of my choosing, but at an age and in a way that would be acceptable within the community.

Daniel and I married before we should have, a step that put undue pressure on a young relationship and two people still struggling to define themselves. When the marriage ruptured, so did the thin thread holding me to Orthodoxy. I became angry at the community for depriving me of my adolescence or, rather, for being too rigid to encourage it.

As psychologist Naomi Mark said at the panel on the shidduch crisis that I attended, the community expects young adults to have marriage, education and careers settled, or at least on track, by their early 20s, leaving no time to make the kind of mistakes that teach us who we are. My effort to avoid these mistakes — to experience the world but not so much that I’d be forced from the community’s safe corral — threatened to split the baby. And the baby was me.

In the end, I chose self-definition over religion. As Plato promised, the examined life is indeed fulfilling — firsthand experience of oneself trumps guesswork any day — but it’s not nearly as pretty as the brochure implies. For me, the ugliness lies not in the fact that by opening the door to all experience I’ve ushered in pain as well as joy, or because in the course of learning about myself, I’ve unearthed a few things I’d rather never have known — though both have certainly happened.

What most disquiets me is the limbo. Unlike my Orthodox peers, who can be sure of the basic contours of their lives, I writhe with uncertainty: Where will I be living 10 years from now? What school will my kids attend? How kosher will my kitchen be?

Sometimes, the fog gets so intimidating that I start to wonder if there’s still time to go back, to abandon all this liberty and just get comfortable again. Alas, I fear all this experience has ruined me; I’ve lost too many virginities — intellectual, emotional, psychological and, well, otherwise — to mesh again with that life. Plus, as the panel proved, the community hardly needs another 30-year-old woman in need of marrying off, especially one without a younger, prettier sister to use as bait.

Alana Newhouse is the arts and letters editor at The Forward.

Reprinted from

Latin American Jews Create L.A. Oasis


Imagine that you live in Latin America and you’re Jewish. Typically, you and your family would belong to a full-service Jewish club with cultural, recreational, educational and athletic activities for all ages. The club is reasonably priced, promotes Jewish identity in a secular manner and is the backbone of your social life.

You spend a lot of time in club-sponsored activities with your nuclear and extended family, and with friends from the club: Friday night dinners, Sunday afternoon barbecues, weekends in the country, vacations at the seashore — a full and active communal life.

Now imagine that — mainly for economic reasons — you emigrate from such a country and come to Los Angeles. You have your nuclear family, but you’re separated from your extended family and friends. You may know enough English to earn a living, but you’re not at ease with the language. As a result, it remains difficult for you to have a social life with English-speaking friends, or participate fully in an American cultural life — whether you’re a new arrival or have been in the country for a number of years.

And even though you have a strong Jewish identity — you may speak Hebrew and/or Yiddish — you’re not really interested in a communal life that revolves around a shul: first, you’re not observant and you don’t want to make a shul the center of your life; second, it would be in English, not Spanish; and third, it would mean spending more than you feel you can afford. The Jewish Community Center (JCC) might be a possibility, but in the last few years there has been a cutback in JCCs in Los Angeles, and what they offer is not exactly you’re looking for.

So what do you do?

What you could do is start your own Jewish organization, using the Latin American model. That’s what happened in early 2005 when the Latin American Jewish Association (LAJA) was founded by several people with exactly that idea.

Omar Zayat, director of LAJA and one of its founders, said the “drive to create this organization came from the fact that after 2001, with the economic crash in Argentina, many Jews left there, and a lot of them came to L.A. Once here, they wanted to recreate the kind of community they’d left behind, and creating their own club seemed a good way to go about it.”

In Argentina, Zayat had worked for Jewish groups, organizing children’s summer camps and programs for seniors and other age groups, so it was logical that he would continue doing that kind of work here. He’s not a hands-off administrator: LAJA presents evening dance workshops that are both energetic and sweat-inducing and where about 20 to 30 people get a good workout in Israeli and other kinds of dance. Zayat himself leads these groups.

“For now,” he said, “we have 85 families signed up and many more come when we have special events. We have the names of 400 families that we contact for these events, like movies that someone has brought from Argentina or casino night or a tango show.”

One of the challenges for LAJA has been to adapt to Los Angeles’ sprawling area, which has meager public transport. Here, a parent needs to drop off and pick up a child, which takes getting used to by Latin American parents whose children were accustomed to using good public transport or cheap taxis to navigate their own way around a city like Buenos Aires. It also means scheduling activities to fit working parents who double as chauffeurs.

LAJA divides its activities into youth, Jewish education, university student programs, adults, sports, arts and drama and marketing. Youth activities are handled by teenage madrichim, Hebrew for guides. Zayat said that “using the Latin American model, older kids are trained to guide the younger ones, encouraging Jewish identity and having fun while doing it.”

LAJA is co-sponsored by The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, which has provided office space and other facilities. Since many of the new immigrants arrived with limited resources, the JCC has permitted them to become members at a discounted price.

If you go to The New JCC at Milken nowadays, you’re as likely to hear Spanish as English. There’s an unmistakable spark of creative, communal energy in the air, whether one attends a workshop that helps new arrivals get oriented to life in Los Angeles or a Latin American-style barbecue or a musical recital.

Michael Jeser, director of development and community affairs at The New JCC at Milken, noted that “one of the most exciting pieces in working with the Latin American Jewish Association is that the JCC, historically, has been a home for new immigrants and a venue for the absorption of new immigrants into American society. And here we are in 2006, and it’s really no different. When the Latin American group came to us and said, ‘We’re looking for a home,’ it was a really natural partnership, and we’ve sort of adopted them, made them into one of our own programs, and have watched them flourish.”

Jeser said that “seeing how the members are interacting with our other JCC members, it’s the extension of a real family, and the feeling of a real international ethnic Jewish community, even beyond Los Angeles’ typical ethnic diversity. The JCC has been home to a large Russian community, a large Persian community, a large Israeli community, and now with the growing Latin American group, it’s just getting larger. And we are very proud to have this community [because] they have a strong history with Jewish community centers in Argentina, which lent itself to this partnership.”

“Having them here is like having a piece that we were missing,” Jeser said. “Now we’ve filled that void in the community and are looking to expand it.”

?LAJA is located at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. They can be contacted at (818) 464-3274. Their Web site (in Spanish) is

A Step Into Secular


Chaim breezes into a diner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan clutching two huge shopping bags.

“I got some clothes, this plaid shirt, two for $5, this leather jacket just $20,” says Chaim, 19, in the clipped, Yiddish-accented English of the Chasidic world he comes from. “I didn’t know what to buy, my roommate went with me, he told me what’s nice,” he says, fingering a sweater gingerly.

Chaim is — or was — a Skver Chasid, born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of New Square, N.Y. His world until recently was Torah, family and a close-knit community.

But now he’s entering the secular world.

In September, he shaved his beard, left his parent’s home and took a bus to Brooklyn, where he now goes to college and shares an apartment.

“I found it on craigslist,” he says with pride, referring to the online classified site.

His new life comes with help from Footsteps, a 2-year-old Manhattan-based nonprofit group that helps dropouts from the Charedi world transition into secular society.

No one knows how many American Jews have left the ultra-Orthodox fold, although most are believed to have come from the New York area. There are no statistics, and, until Footsteps was created, no organization to help them learn how to make it on the outside.

While the organized Jewish world doesn’t usually think of Chasidic dropouts as “Jews in need,” outsiders can’t begin to imagine how frightening and complicated the everyday world can seem to a person who only knows the carefully controlled cocoon of Satmar, Skver or Bobov.

Particularly for a young person, whose departure can be hasty and unplanned, the road out of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg or Crown Heights is fraught with confusion and loneliness — and sometimes drug abuse.

“People who have decided to make this transition don’t have a place to go,” says Hella Winston, the author of “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Press, 2005).

Chaim isn’t using his real name out of respect for his family still in the community. His journey from ultra-Orthodoxy to young, secular Jewish New Yorker didn’t happen overnight.

A year and a half ago, he says, “I heard there was such a place as a public library,” where he could find a computer and Internet access.

“I didn’t know how to use the mouse. I started tapping on the screen,” he says, smiling in embarrassment.

He began reading about the world outside New Square, and soon realized “it’s not all drug dealers and crazy, like they say in our community.”

Slowly, he felt more and more alienated from his Chasidic world.

Although he lived at home until this fall, last year he was already sneaking into Manhattan after work to walk the streets and look at people. He let his hair grow longer under his yarmulke, and bought black jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap to wear on his urban forays.

“I’d changed in my mind a long time ago,” he says. “Something pushed me away, I don’t know what.”

He planned his departure carefully. His first step was to get his GED, or high school equivalency, so he could apply for a loan to go to college. But Chasidic boys receive very little secular education, and he didn’t know how to begin studying for the test.

In late February he met the founding director of Footsteps, 24-year-old Malkie Schwartz, an ex-Lubavitcher.

She introduced him to the few dozen other ex-Chasidim in her organization, and he enrolled in the GED class.

This summer, Chaim passed his exam. He’s in a liberal arts program, but hopes to major in math or science. He hasn’t gone on a date yet — “Socially, I’m very awkward,” he admits — but says he’s looking forward to that, too.

The transition can be difficult.

Winston recently heard from a young man who spent six months sleeping in New York City parks and subways after he left his Chasidic community.

“He had nowhere to go,” Winston says. “America is a very individualistic society, and for people leaving a community it’s important to have one to move into. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming lost.”

Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, agrees.

“Missing their families [is a major problem],” says Heilman, the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” (University of California Press, 1999). “For most people in the Charedi world, the single biggest part of their lives, and the part that outsiders are often envious of, is connection to family and community.”

And when they leave, those connections are radically broken. Even if the one who left remains in contact with family members, those contacts often have to be surreptitious, Heilman says.

A support system like Footsteps didn’t exist when Schwartz left Crown Heights five years ago.

She was 19, and knew she would be expected to marry soon. That’s often the point at which young Chasidim who are unsure about their faith or their lifestyle make the move to leave, Winston writes, before their decision will impact their future families.

“I felt I couldn’t make this decision for myself and for the large number of kids that would follow,” Schwartz says. “I wanted an education.”

She moved out, enrolled in Hunter College with financial aid and got a bachelor’s degree.

But it was tough to go it alone. In December 2003, she organized a meeting for what she hoped would become a support group for former Chasidim. Twenty people showed up, and Footsteps was born.

Schwartz runs everything out of her apartment. GED classes, support groups, art and writing therapy groups and discussions on health, sex and relationships are held at ad-hoc spaces around the city. Once a month there are sessions on life skills.

Footsteps has received grants from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Alan B. Slivka Foundation, the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women and an anonymous donor, and in early December was accepted into Bikkurim, a program that provides office space and technical support for Jewish start-ups in New York City.

More than 200 former Chasidim have passed through Footsteps; about 40 are currently active, mostly young Jews in their 20s. One thing Schwartz would like to offer is a halfway house, a temporary safe space for those just leaving their communities.

Many of the former Chasidim in Footsteps are not observant anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have strong Jewish identities.

Zelda Deutsch, 28, left her Satmar community in early 2003, along with her husband and their son. Leaving was, she says “a very complicated and lonely process,” and she wishes Footsteps had been around.

The Deutsches no longer go to synagogue, but they speak Yiddish at home and celebrate all the holidays.

“My son is very aware he is Jewish, the environment in our home is filled with the way we were raised,” she says.

In November they began hosting Friday-night dinners for fellow Footsteppers.

“The people who come don’t go to synagogue, they’re not religious,” Deutsch says. “We serve kugel, stuffed chicken, the traditional foods, and we sing all the zemiros,” or Shabbat songs they grew up with.

“For some people the singing brings up bad memories,” she admits. “But the Jewish life filled such a large part of our daily lives, now that it’s gone, there’s a huge void. As a rule, everybody wants some connection to a spiritual life.”

 

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 Ode to Parents and Other Strangers


When Paul Reiser co-created and starred in the 1990s hit sitcom, “Mad About You,” — about a secular Jew married to a Christian — he helped spur a new trend in TV comedy: the cute but neurotic Jewish leading man. Along with Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis (“Anything But Love”), he elevated male Jewish characters from whiny sidekicks to leads that remained appealing, despite their anxieties and preoccupation with exasperating parents.

Reiser’s new film, “The Thing About My Folks,” also revolves around a secular Jew, Ben Kleinman (Reiser), who is preoccupied with exasperating parents. In the comedy-drama, Ben bonds with his father, Sam (Peter Falk) on an impromptu road trip after mom (Olympia Dukakis) unceremoniously leaves dad. During assorted misadventures, Ben learns more about his father — indeed his parents — than he ever knew before.

The Jewish Reiser began writing the script around the time he starred in the 1980s coming-of-age film, “Diner,” in part because he was curious about his own parents.

“[I’d] look at pictures and go, OK, you were a young, handsome, beautiful couple,” the 48-year-old said. “How do you go from 24-year-olds who kiss for the first time in a car to 70-year-olds falling asleep watching Mike Wallace?”

The film explores their journey in fictional form; it’s also an ode to Reiser’s late father, a crusty, scrappy businessman who apparently did not reveal much about himself. Then, one day in 1983, the actor heard his father laugh hard while watching Falk — who excels at playing crusty, scrappy characters — in Neil Simon’s “The Cheap Detective.” It was a rare, much treasured glimpse into the inner life of the elder Reiser, who seldom belly-laughed, the actor said recently at the Four Seasons Hotel.

“I said, ‘Huh, Peter Falk is the only guy that always makes my dad laugh,'” Reiser recalled. “The next morning, I woke up and thought, OK, I’ve got to make up a movie … with Peter Falk as my father.”

Perhaps because of his father’s affection for Falk, Reiser, too was a big fan: “I fell in love with him … from the first time I saw him in ‘Robin and the Seven Hoods.'” he said. He later noticed similarities between the two older men, who both seemed unpretentious and down to earth.

Yet over the years, Reiser did not complete his Falk project, in part because he was intimidated by the personal nature of the material, he told the Bradenton Herald. It was only after Sept. 11 reminded him that life was short that he sat down and wrote the script in just two weeks He promptly sent it to Falk, the son of Eastern European Jews, who accepted the role the next day. Apparently the fictional Sam fits into his long acting portfolio of cops, G.I.’s, husbands and other men who “don’t have a pretentious bone in their bodies,” Falk (“Columbo”) told The Journal. “This man can be wrong, but he’s never fake.”

Unlike Reiser, the older actor became a television star in an era when it was seldom acceptable for a show to revolve around a Jewish character. Hence his famed 1970s TV detective was the Italian Catholic Columbo, although he just as easily could have been named Goldberg. Conversely, the fictional Sam exhibits distinctly Jewish values.

“He works hard and he believes in this: You provide for your family. You provide for your children. You provide for your wife and you don’t cheat,” Falk said.

Reiser, for his part, is more Jewishly active than the fictional Ben, participating in Jewish charities and at his synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, The Forward said in 2003. Yet he does not regard the feature as a Jewish movie. It’s a universal film about parents and children.

“We have been taking ‘Folks’ from city to city, and finding out this is so resonating with people in every market, in every demographic,” he said.

The film opens Friday in Los Angeles.

 

Pullout Seen Really as West Bank Issue


The Gaza withdrawal in itself plays only a small part in the current face-off between settlers and the Israeli government. Three other and more basic issues are at stake, and they go to the core of what the Jewish state will become, according to Arie Nadler.

Nadler, a professor of social psychology at Tel Aviv University, is a noted authority on conflict resolution, as well as on the impact of massive social trauma on individuals and groups. He meets frequently with both Palestinian and settler leaders, and will lead a weekend seminar in Irvine Aug. 19-21. he will discuss the Gaza disengagament from the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives and its likely aftermath.

The crux of the present confrontation is not Gaza, but whether Israel will eventually abandon the West Bank and, in essence, return to the pre-1967 borders, Nadler said in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv.

“The settlers are trying to make the Gaza withdrawal so traumatic that no future Israeli government will even consider evacuating [the settlement of] Ariel on the West Bank,” he said.

On a second, deeper level, the confrontation is about “the meaning of democracy in Israeli society,” whether its members are willing to accept majority decisions and play by the same political rules.

The most fundamental and important aspect of the Gaza disengagement goes to the seemingly intractable secular vs. religious divide in Israel.

“We face the question as to the ultimate source of authority in the state,” Nadler said. “Is it democratic rule or Torah?”

From his discussions with settler leaders, Nadler is cautiously optimistic that the evacuation of Gaza will proceed without large-scale violence.

“The political leadership of the religious Zionist settlers has an intuitive sense of the fragility of the ties that bind us as a people,” Nadler observed. “Just as in the Sinai Peninsula withdrawal in 1982, the majority of settlers will approach the red line, but they will not cross it.”

This relatively hopeful scenario could change instantly if Palestinians decide to use the changeover to launch large-scale terrorist attacks, he warned.

Nadler, who describes himself as a political centrist, showed considerable sympathy for the emotional pain of the Gaza settlers.

“In a way, the settlers were the pampered children of both the Likud [right-wing] and Labor [left-wing] parties,” he said. “They were told that they were the true Zionist pioneers. They saw themselves on a higher moral plane, and suddenly they are told to go away.”

To help heal the settlers’ trauma, it is vital for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to assign some deeper meaning, such as the welfare and survival of Israel, to the painful disengagement, Nadler believes.

In the aftermath of the withdrawal, the relocated Gaza settlers will go in two different directions, Nadler thinks.

“A minority will disengage itself from Israeli society and secular democracy,” he said. “The majority, after overcoming a psychological crisis, will perhaps re-examine its assumptions and tactics, and ultimately move closer to the political center.”

Nadler will be the scholar-in-residence at the seminar sponsored by Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Irvine. Also on the program will be political scientist Raphael Sonnenshein, will who speak on “California in Ferment.”

For seminar reservations until Aug. 16 call (323) 655-2842, or e-mail LZinLA@aol.com.

 

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.

Works of Renewal and Celebration


The Chasidic masters had a custom of creating short lists of practical spiritual advice for their followers, and some of the devotees would write these on small pieces of paper and carry them in their pockets as frequent reminders. These spiritual practices, or hanhagot, is a genre of Chasidic literature that hasn’t received much attention from scholars or seekers, as Or Rose explains in the introduction to his new book, "God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters," edited and translated by Rose with Ebn D. Leader (Jewish Lights).

"These brief teachings are designed to aid the devotee in applying the Hasidic ideals to daily life," he writes, noting that Chasidic rebbes emphasized the possibility of encountering the Divine everywhere, whether in traveling, the marketplace or in conversation.

Often, these hanhagot — dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries — are found appended to other texts. Rose, a doctoral candidate in Jewish thought at Brandeis University, culled, selected and translated them from Hebrew, and organized them thematically, from "Awakening and Renewal" to "In Speech and In Silence." Translations appear on one page, and a facing page includes commentary. Rose says — using contemporary language — that the hanhagot would be used for spiritual centering. Included is guidance on dealing with conflicts, fear, arrogance, sexual relations and prayer; the reader sees that even the most righteous people sometimes have problems with concentration in prayer.

At present, the tradition or writing hanhagot continues. At the back are two neo-Chasidic hanhagot, by Hillel Zeitlin, a writer and martyr of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Arthur Green, a contemporary scholar and theologian, who is the author’s mentor.

Rose speaks of the power of these texts, particularly helpful at a time of introspection, like this period of preparing for the holidays. This might be a good book to tuck away and bring to synagogue as supplementary reading.

While there have been many books on the subject of forgiveness, there are few focused on apology. Aaron Lazare, chancellor, dean and professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, has written "On Apology" (Oxford), a wise analysis of the vital, powerful interaction that is transformative, a process at once simple and entangled. For Lazare, apology is the acknowledgement of an offense followed by an expression of remorse and, often, expressions of shame and acts of reparations.

Lazare quotes the talmudic teaching that says that God created repentance even before creating humankind: "I take this statement to mean that the sages who authored this sentiment were acutely aware of the fallibility of humankind and the need for religion’s prescriptions to heal offenses. Repentance (or its secular approximation of apology), therefore, would be so important for sustaining a just and livable society that an infinite and all-powerful God would put it in place before creating mankind."

His own interest in the subject grew out of an unpleasant personal experience. He looks at the relationship between apology and forgiveness, and focuses on both the individual level of apologizing and also at groups and nations, citing Abraham Lincoln’s apology for slavery, and the German government’s apology to the victims of World War II.

In China, as he notes, there are several apology companies and radio talk shows centered on apology on state radio. It’s possible to hire a paid surrogate to write letters, deliver gifts and offer explanations.

"Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah" by Rahel Musleah, illustrations by Judy Jarrett (Kar-Ben) is a book for the holiday table. Musleah, who grew up in Calcutta (her family traces their ancestry to 17th-century Baghdad), presents the seder that her family would conduct on the eve of Rosh HaShanah: saying blessings and eating traditional foods in a prescribed order. The tradition dates back 2,000 years to a custom suggested in the Talmud, that at the beginning of the new year people eat certain foods that grow in abundance and symbolize prosperity. The Rosh Hashanah seder is practiced in communities around the world, particularly in Sephardic communities from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.

The book includes blessings, folk tales, activities, crafts and recipes for pumpkin bread, beets in ginger and honey, fruit salad with pomegranate, roasted leeks and other dishes featuring traditional foods. In her introduction, Musleah explains that the blessings may be based on a particular characteristic of the food to be emulated (i.e. the sweetness of the apple) or wordplay. She includes the traditional Hebrew blessings, although in the translations, she adds "positive wishes for peace, friendship and freedom."

She writes: "You might have to wait a few extra minutes before you eat dinner, but in that time you can literally ‘count your blessings.’"

Musleah, a Jewish educator, singer, writer and storyteller who lives in Great Neck, suggests these wishes for friendship in connection with leeks: "May it be Your Will, God, that our enemies be cut off. (She points out that karti, the word for leek, sounds like yikartu, the word for "cut off.") Without enemies, we hope for the blessing of friendship. Like we eat this leek, may our luck never lack in the year to come."

Secular Connection


I fell in love with a brilliant, attractive and witty Filipina woman last year. She was a fallen Catholic, didn’t accept Jesus as her savior and was totally cool with raising kids Jewish. When I went to her uncle’s place for a birthday party and everyone was singing "Sunrise, Sunset" on the karaoke machine, you’d be hard-pressed to find a closer, warmer, more Jewish family than theirs.

Apart from the fact that our cuisine is superior, I was amazed at how similar the dynamic was: Abundant food, loud overlapping conversations, juicy gossip and more food. I felt like I was at home, except for the fact that I was only white guy in the room.

I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island. I went to a public high school that had roughly the same percentage Jewish population as a yeshiva. My local synagogue was so Reform I think they closed down on High Holidays. And yet, of the women I’ve dated post-college, I’ve had exactly two Jewish girlfriends. What, in the name of my concerned Jewish mother, is going on here?

Well, it’s certainly not due to my love of the other major religions out there. Once you’ve had one drunken girlfriend speak in tongues, and had another say that, despite how much she loves you, you’re still going to hell, it’s hard to be sympathetic to non-Jewish zealots. My guess is that it’s just a numbers thing. There are 2 percent of us and there’s 98 percent of them. The odds are stacked in favor of intermarriage. Four out of my five cousins went that route and are all very happy. This poses an obvious dilemma: How important is it to marry within our religion?

On Passover 2002, I e-mailed my very close, very bright, very agnostic friend a simple "Happy Pesach" to greet her in the morning.

She innocently replied later, "Happy Peaches?" Ugh. You gotta be kidding.

In other relationships, I’ve had women suggest that we could raise our kids in both religions and let them decide what they are when they’re older. Yeah, right. Those kids won’t be Jewish — supporters of Israel, consumers of gefilte fish, complainers about drafty rooms — they’ll just be two more white kids in search of racial, ethnic or religious identity. That’s not a crime, per se, but it’s certainly not what I want for my children.

The Filipina and I ultimately didn’t make it as a couple, but not because of religion. Still, I decided to get serious and start dating Jewish women.

A lot of people don’t understand — or can’t accept — the strangely powerful hold Judaism holds for secular Jews like me. What makes me Jewish? My bloodline? My last name? My prominent nose, mop of hair and acute sense of sarcasm? It’s pointless to isolate individual qualities, especially ones that play to stereotypes, but as far as I can determine I’m Jewish because I was raised that way. I identify with others who were raised that way.

When I attended college in North Carolina, where only 20 percent of the student body was Jewish, all of my best friends were Jews — even though I wasn’t hanging around the Hillel. I didn’t seek them: I found them. We were like-minds sticking together in a foreign environment. And while many bristle at this comparison, my Jewish experience, far more cultural than religious, is more akin to being black than it is to being Christian.

Jewish neighborhoods in New York aren’t homogeneous ghettos because we’re forced to live there. They result from the desires of people who are looking for quality public schools, short commutes to the city and access to good bagels.

By any definition, I’m a bad Jew. I don’t keep kosher. I haven’t been to Jerusalem. I don’t belong to a synagogue. In fact, there are years that I don’t go at all because tickets are scarce and davening with Chabad isn’t my idea of a good time. So what difference does it make to me who I marry? I’m not sure, but it does. Not because of parental pressure, because I have my mother’s blessing no matter what I do. Not because Jews are better, as the best relationship I’ve yet to have was with a non-Jew. Rather, I see myself marrying a Jewish woman because of internal pride, shared values and cultural identity. Because of the commonality of knowing that our people have been persecuted for millennia and are still thriving. Because regardless of how often I demonstrate it publicly, there’s one important and undeniable fact: I am Jewish.

And whomever I end up with had better know off the bat that the satin thing I grab from the box in temple once a year isn’t called a beanie.

Evan Marc Katz is the author of the “I Can’t Believe I’m Buying This Book: A
Commonsense Guide to Successful Internet Dating” (Ten Speed, 2004) and is the
founder of e-Cyrano (

A Day on the Bimah Changes Everything


My bar mitzvah took place in Queens, New York, in 1970. It was an unexpected and odd occasion, and I hadn’t thought about it in years. But now, 34 years later, I was once again in New York, and the subject of my bar mitzvah came up, as the ceremony itself first had, unexpectedly.

My new bride and I sat in a booth across from Charlotte, one of my oldest friends, in the Moonstruck Diner in Chelsea. We’d driven to town to introduce my wife to those who couldn’t make it our traditional Jewish wedding in Louisville, Ky.

Abruptly, Charlotte asked point-blank, as New Yorkers tend to do, what had prompted me to become observant. Throughout high school, college and our early careers, we two friends had been secular Jews, intellectually but not spiritually interested to our heritage. During the intervening years, our paths diverged. Eventually I began attending synagogue, and Charlotte remained secular.

She wanted to know, "Was it because you moved from New York, where you’re surrounded by Jewishness, to someplace you felt more isolated?"

Though there is some truth to her point — isolation in Nashville, and in Louisville later on, had definitely been part of the impulse to connect to my "roots" — I had to smile at the thought that one had to leave New York in order to discover Judaism.

As my wife and I toured the city, we passed synagogues, yeshivas and seminaries. Visiting my aunt and uncle in Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway, we were in the midst of a large Chasidic neighborhood. It was the eve of Tisha B’Av. Cafe signs proclaimed: "Have a good fast. We open 9 p.m. tomorrow." Even Murray’s Bagels, my favorite Chelsea breakfast spot, was certified kosher.

Seeing these many signs of Jewish observance made me recall the storefront synagogues in my own Rego Park neighborhood, and how, while I ran to class at Queens College one day during Sukkot, the Mitzvah Mobile had pulled up, music blaring like some bizarre Orthodox ice cream truck. A black-hatted Lubavitcher emerged, pressed a Lulav into my startled hands and walked me through the Sukkot mitzvah.

No, you didn’t have to leave New York to discover Jewish observance, but something had to plant the desire. In my case, it was my bar mitzvah.

"That’s the big secret that none of my family or my old friends knows, or would understand," I told her.

In 1969, as I approached bar mitzvah age, the ceremony wasn’t even a blip on my parents’ radar. Not only were they recently divorced and not getting along, but they were both uninterested in Jewish observance; perhaps they were even somewhat antagonistic toward it. Therefore, I knew next to nothing about Judaism. The eldest among my cousins, I had never been to a bar mitzvah, so I hadn’t even acquired "reception-envy," with which to pressure my folks into complying with tradition.

Upon hearing that my parents did not intend to make any Jewish coming-of-age plans for me, my maternal grandparents decreed that despite all my family’s mishegas, I was having a bar mitzvah. And that was that.

But the path from decree to Torah wasn’t that simple. What followed was an embarrassing time for a preteen, as I was taken first to the local Reform, then to the Conservative synagogue, only to be rejected by their rabbis because it was "too late" to train me.

If it was hard for my secular parents to swallow the idea of a bar mitzvah, I’m sure it was even harder for them to make an appointment at their last option — the Orthodox Rego Park Jewish Center. But they did, and Rabbi Gewirtz told them, "He’s a Jew, of course we’ll take him."

Thus began a strange period in my family’s history. Each Wednesday, the day designated by the New York City public school system for RI, or religious instruction, the secular Jackmans’ kid left school an hour early (Yes!), put on his tzitzit under his street clothes, and headed to an Orthodox shul to learn Hebrew writing and stumble through the Rashi reader.

On Sundays, I attended morning minyan and more classes, including accelerated haftarah chanting lessons held with a group of other late-starters.

I must confess I remember very little of this learning. However, what stuck with me all these years is the passion for Judaism that the men and women of the shul communicated to me. During Sunday prayers, the bearded men davened in what seemed to be holy rapture. One morning, a mortified congregant scolded me for trying to pronounce the ineffable name of God. I may not have known better at the time, but I didn’t have to be told twice.

And that passion is why, the day the Jackmans’ kid stood at the bimah to recite haftarah Bo in a beautiful piping soprano full of errors, with his female relatives separated from the men, and heartily congratulated anyway by the somewhat forbidding but tolerant men of the synagogue, he was heading inevitably toward Jewish observance.

The inevitable decision would not be made for many years, until I overcame ambivalences, inhibitions and other mental obstacles. But the impulse was created during that short half-year when I prepped for and achieved my bar mitzvah.

Reprinted courtesy of in the Jewish Federation of Louisville.

Your Letters


Jewish Cool

The torrents of ink on “Jewish hip,” “Jewish cool” and “Jewish pop culture” obscures a simple truth: Only Jews who take seriously Judaism — the religion — can count on having Jewish grandchildren (“From Jew to Jewcy,” July 23). This is because in an open society only Judaism provides a compelling answer to the question, “Why be Jewish?”

Other “Jewish” paths are dead ends, and literally sterile — they can’t reproduce. They have Jewish value insofar as they may be a person’s door into Judaism, and thereafter enrich one’s practice of Judaism.

The remaining question is whether the organized, “secular” Jewish community will include this insight into its outreach efforts before it’s too late.

Paul Kujawsky, Valley Village

Tisha B’Av Today

Dr. Aryeh Cohen (“Tisha B’Av Today,” July 23) has got one thing right — we do need Tisha B’Av today. Unfortunately, he has the reasons all wrong. His assertion that on this Tisha B’Av we must consider “how all our cherished hopes for ourselves as a community based on ethics and a commitment to social and economic justice can — and at times have — slipped through our hands” is misguided. Indeed, Tisha B’Av has nothing to do with confronting our inability to “create an ethical polity” or with being “allied with the forces of injustice.” Despite Cohen’s evident discomfort with the idea of Jewish victimhood, Tisha B’Av is, in fact, a day dedicated to the great tragedies which have befallen our people, including the ongoing calamity of the confusion of Jewish values with the politically correct agenda of the day. On Tisha B’Av, our thoughts should be directed toward bridging the huge gulf between God and the Jewish people, which is symbolized by the continuing absence of the Temples in Jerusalem whose destruction is the main focus of the day. That is what Tisha B’Av is about today, as it has always been.

Ben Taylor, Los Angeles

Test-a-Jew

I hate to burst Mark Miller’s stereotype-laden bubble, but my granddaughter has blond hair, blue-green eyes and a straight nose (both her parents are Jewish) (“Test-a-Jew,” July 30). Continuing to analyze my granddaughter’s family tree vis-a-vis Miller’s standards: My granddaughter has two Jewish parents. Her maternal grandmother (that would be me) has blond hair (natural, but now gray) and blue eyes; her three first cousins (on my side) all have blue eyes; and her paternal grandfather has blue-green eyes. Two of her first cousins on her father’s side have blue or green eyes.

Both of my parents (both Jews of Russian heritage) had blue eyes.

I think a higher percentage of Jews have blue or green eyes than people of any other faith.That study would be a ridiculous waste of time, but since Miller brought it up.

Name withheld by request, Los Angeles

Faith and Pork

I believe that Micah Halpern (“Balancing Acts of Faith and Pork,” July 23) is blind to the possibility that the State of Israel’s secular founding fathers are turning over in their graves by the monster they created by subsidizing Orthodox Jewish “students,” who now number in the scores of thousands (along with their enormous families). They are a burden on the economy, and have politically disenfranchised all non-Orthodox Jews. What kind of “democracy” is it that insists that all marriage and divorce for Jews be in the Orthodox traditions in order to be legal? In comparison, Ireland is a true democracy. Although about 88 percent of the citizens are Roman Catholic, civil marriage and divorce is quite legal. A Jewish state does not have to be a fundamentalist Jewish state.

Martin J. Weisman , Westlake Village

Reverse in Israel

Gideon Levy writes about a disabled Palestinian man killed during an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) house demolition and a Palestinian professor and son shot in their home and asks for our reactions if the situation were reversed (“If the Situation Were Reversed,” July 30). However, Levy admits that the IDF considered the death of the disabled man “a death that shouldn’t have happened.” In both cases, the aim of the IDF was not to indiscriminately kill Palestinians and that both cases are being thoroughly investigated to determine the cause of these tragedies and methods to prevent them in the future. One can quibble about how thorough and how serious the IDF are in these matters, but the fact is that they aren’t pinning medals on the soldiers responsible.

If the situation were reversed, for instance, after the bus bombing in Tel Aviv on July 10 that killed Maayan Naim, groups like Yasser Arafat’s Al-Aqsa Brigades proudly take credit for intentional murder. The perpetrators’ goal is to murder as many Jews as possible, and their communities hail them as heroes. These incidents will be studied by these Palestinian groups not to prevent them in the future, but to learn how to repeat them and to learn how to murder more Jews.

Dr. Steven Ohsie, Los Angeles

Correction

In “Presbyterians Ignite Divestment Uproar” (July 30), Rabbi Mark Diamond is the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

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