October 20, 2018

Israel’s ‘Shabbat war’ heats up, with Jerusalem feeling the squeeze

On the first Friday evening that Jerusalem restaurant Azza 40 opened without a kosher license, allowing it to serve customers on the Jewish sabbath, crowds of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested outside, threatening to smash windows and burn the place down.

“It was crazy,” said Reut Cohen, 29, the restaurant's owner and head chef, recalling the events of September 2014. “The police came, the street was blocked, there were religious people yelling, swearing, even spitting at us.”

It was just one of many protests, most of them peaceful, that ultra-Orthodox groups have mounted against cafes, restaurants and cinemas that open on Shabbat, the Jewish holy day. Several have been led by Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor, Yitzhak Pindrus.

Azza 40 is still going strong, with Friday nights and Saturdays the busiest days of the week, despite occasional disruptions. But the pressure on businesses not to open between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday has increased, fuelling tension between the growing Orthodox community and those who feel religious strictures are impinging on their freedom.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the potential fallout of what's been dubbed by local media the “Shabbat war” came this month in Tel Aviv, a city normally known for its secularism.

Work on a new railway station and track maintenance had to be suspended on a Saturday after complaints from religious parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.

It was a desecration of the holy day, said the chief rabbinate, which had largely ignored such work in the past but had been facing pressure in ultra-Orthodox newspapers and on social media to demand it stop.

“Shabbat is not open to negotiation and haggling, and there's no place to compromise its sanctity,” said the chief rabbis in a statement explaining their position.

As a result, work was moved that weekend to Sunday, the start of Israel's week, causing traffic meltdown as the main Tel Aviv highway was partially shut down. Special buses – ironically organised on a Saturday – were laid on. 

The dispute caused turmoil in Netanyahu's cabinet, with the transport minister, who supported Saturday work, on the firing line. He kept his job, and construction was quietly resumed a week later, including on Saturdays, a sign neither Netanyahu nor his ultra-Orthodox partners wanted the coalition derailed.

But while Tel Aviv was briefly shaken by the debacle, the sharp end of Shabbat tension remains Jerusalem, where the ultra-Orthodox make up a third of the population, an increase of five percentage points over the last decade, and religion is never far from any issue.



This week, Jerusalem's municipality charged eight grocery store owners with violating bylaws that prevent businesses in the city center from opening on Shabbat. The increasing sway of the ultra-Orthodox in the city, in numbers and politically, means the municipality is under constant pressure to clamp down.

The results are uneven: One cinema chain closes on Shabbat, another stays open, despite protests. In some cases, businesses have found convoluted solutions to allow restaurants in the centre to operate on the holy day, when tourists are often at a loss to find anywhere to eat. 

Last year, Cafe Landwer, a chain of around 60 coffee shops, opened a site in Independence Park, an attractive green space close to the Old City, across from the U.S. Consulate.

It wanted to operate on Friday evenings and Saturdays to cater to tourists and secular customers. But an ultra-Orthodox group opposed the move and threatened to withdraw the kosher certification granted to Landwer Coffee, a separate company owned by the same family, if it didn't change policy.

Cafe Landwer franchised the restaurant and its name has changed to Alma Cafe, although the menus still say Cafe Landwer. There are occasional protests by the ultra-Orthodox, but it stays open on Shabbat, its busiest day of the week.

“It's one of the few places in the centre of Jerusalem that is open on Saturdays, so everyone comes here,” said manager Karina Topaz, 23. “When we first opened, a few people came and yelled at us, but now it's okay.”

In nearby German Colony, a wealthy neighbourhood of old stone houses, there is no such permissiveness. Whereas ten years ago there were two or three cafes on its tree-lined main street that operated on Shabbat, now there are none.

“At the weekend, it's like a desert. It's dead,” said Orly Turgeman, 35, who manages a small hotel in the neighbourhood.

“You have the feeling there's nothing left in Jerusalem. There's not the environment of an open, pluralistic city.”

The ultra-Orthodox population, with its dress code of black hats and coats, has a birthrate more than twice the national average, making it Israel's fastest growing group.

German Colony has become more religious over the years, with its many elderly, Orthodox residents keen to maintain the traditional calm of Shabbat. The same is true of Kiryat Shmuel, the neighbourhood where Azza 40 is located.

“I am very much not in favour of restaurants opening on Shabbat,” said Rabbi Meir Schlesinger, whose home and synagogue are around the corner from Azza 40. “It disturbs the Shabbat atmosphere of the place, besides being against Jewish law.”

Reut Cohen, the owner, is unfazed. She now offers pork and shellfish on the menu – both distinctly non-kosher – and is determined to stand up for secular principles.

“It's critical for our business, the neighbourhood, the city and the country,” she said. “If the religious don't want to come, that's fine, but they have to live and let live.”

‘Demon’ arises from Poland’s past

So much of Jewish life is about remembering, keeping Shabbat, yahrzeit dates and who in the family slighted whom, that when it comes to a movie about forgetting, such as the Polish and Israeli film “Demon,” we may be at a loss. But as we peer through the edgy gloom of this production, which takes place in an isolated farmhouse in Poland, and see that what some of the film’s characters want to bury is crucial to our collective memory, we have eerie reckoning to the theme, as if taken possession by its message.

This is not a typical horror picture — there are no slashings, screams or chainsaws — yet “Demon,” directed by Marcin Wrona, frightens with a more modern form of horror: that of forgetting the lasting impact the Holocaust has had in Poland.

Stalking this film with a gaunt presence, a groom-to-be, Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran), arrives from England into the Polish countryside on the eve of his wedding to inspect a deserted farmhouse and barn that he and his fiancée, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), have been given as a gift by her parents. Mysteriously drawn to a spot on the surrounding property, he discovers a pile of human bones, which in the rain seem to swallow him into the ground. We are not sure what effect this accident might have (though the film’s title provides a heavy hint) until after the couple’s very Polish church wedding. The first clue comes after the ceremony, when Piotr, by custom, is supposed to dash a shot glass against the wall but instead places it on the floor and prepares to step on it. Is that he is becoming a Jew the horror?

“It is the first sign he is in a different culture. He doesn’t know who is,” the film’s producer, Olga Szymanska, said.

The screenplay, written by Pawel Maslona and Wrona, is loosely based on the play “Adherence” by Piotr Rowicki, a story of a dybbuk: in Jewish folklore, a wandering, often malevolent spirit that takes possession of a living person. In film, “the dybbuk theme has not been touched in Polish culture for 80 years,” Szymanska said, referring to S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk,” later made into a movie, in which a bride is possessed.

The word “dybbuk” is derived from the Hebrew verb dabak, meaning to adhere or to cling, but it is not until late in the film that we discover what — or who — is doing the clinging.

As Piotr’s behavior grows progressively more erratic, and the wedding party, sometimes humorously, devolves into the reception from hell, the father-in-law tries to cover up things by plying his guests with more and more alcohol. After Piotr collapses to the floor in what looks like an epileptic seizure, a doctor and priest (both are guests) are summoned to consult on his condition.

“There are no special effects in the film,” Szymanska said. Yet a special chill, unfortunately known to many Jewish viewers and based on the fog of history, creeps in. When the dybbuk is questioned by a local elder, a teacher who is Jewish, she reveals (speaking through Piotr) that her name is Hanna. She is a local, young Jewish woman who mysteriously disappeared in the pre-World War II era, explains the teacher, who even remembers her.

Speaking in Yiddish, Hanna talks about a promised husband and returning to carry out what “death interrupted.”

As rumor quickly spreads through the party that the groom is possessed, the father-in-law’s fear that the reception will be ruined spins out of control. For him, this is the real horror story. Standing, play-like on a stage, he regales his inebriated guests, saying, “We must forget what we didn’t see here.” When he tries to explain away the groom’s possession as a “collective hallucination,” the film itself is taken over by the dybbuk of history.

“The whole movie is not about the Holocaust,” said Szymanska, who feels it is more about “the past” in which, for centuries, “both Poles and Jews lived together.” Yet, it is the forgetting and remembering of that side-by-side neighbor relationship between Polish Christians and Jews that currently has Poland possessed.

Since the publication of “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” by Jan T. Gross in 2001, a book that details a July 1941 massacre in which, Gross says, 1,600 Polish Jews were murdered (later estimates give a lower number) by a group of non-Jewish Poles, the issue of whether Poles collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust has erupted into a painful national debate. Even though the country has a National Institute of Remembrance to investigate such charges, just this year, the country’s right-leaning government has proposed a new law, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “that would authorize a three-year prison sentence to anyone who claims that Poland collaborated with Nazi Germany.”

“Demon,” released in 2015 in Poland into this atmosphere, got caught up in this national debate. “There were some right-wing people who didn’t like it, and said it was this kind of wave of movie that’s anti-Polish and accuses Poles of killing Jews during the second world war,” Szymanska said.

Sadly, Wrona, who was married to Szymanska, will not be able to participate in the discussion his film might spark here, as on Sept. 19, 2015, at the time of the Gdynia Polish Film Festival, where “Demon” was being shown in competition, he took his own life in his hotel room.

Explaining what she thought drew her husband to the film, Szymanska recalled that “Marcin was very attracted to mysticism.” In the film, he “found an intersection to recall our two nations’ pasts,” she explained. He was interested “in what a modern dybbuk would tell us.”

“Demon” opens Sept. 9 at Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.

What I wish synagogues knew about single parents

I’m not sure where to begin. I first want to say that my synagogue — and I think synagogues in general — have done a really great job of welcoming congregants who have converted, are intermarried, and are in gay and lesbian marriages. My synagogue also welcomes adopted children and Jews of color. It is still mainly an Ashkenazi population, but it quickly is becoming more diverse. The rabbi, cantor and board of trustees have worked hard and continue to work to make the synagogue inclusive.

But there is one population that seems to be left out: single parents. I think I speak for most single parents when I say we didn't marry with the intention of divorcing. Unfortunately, divorce happens for all sorts of reasons, which oftentimes are private and painful. And as welcoming as synagogues have become of non-traditional families, the one thing they have in common is they remain two-parent households. Shira may have two imas, but there are TWO parents in Shira’s house.

Many single parents have fewer financial and emotional resources than married parents and less time to volunteer. And while the divorce papers may have been signed, single parents are often dealing many years later with uncooperative ex-spouses and the shifting landscape of children’s custody.

When I was married, I was a super-volunteer at my synagogue and loved being involved. I knew well the rabbi, cantor and religious school director. When they asked me to take leadership roles in various areas of synagogue life, I was happy to contribute.

Then I divorced. My ex-husband met with the cantor to discuss his feelings about the split, so it clearly wasn’t a secret. Yet for all the time and energy I had generously devoted to the synagogue, no one called or reached out to me. The group that arranges meals and transportation for sick congregants never called to see if I wanted a few meals delivered. I had to apply for reduced dues since my ex-husband was the main breadwinner.

I was already feeling ashamed and embarrassed due to my divorce, and I felt the synagogue, my second home, was ashamed of me and my failed marriage. Instead of lifting me up when I needed the most help, the congregation let me down.

I still feel committed to Judaism and living Jewishly, but I am conflicted about Jewish institutions. I don’t feel like my synagogue has a place for people like me, and I also feel that there is little compassion or understanding for single parents. I don’t need a support group; I need support.

There is an unspoken stigma regarding divorce in the Jewish community. The failure of a marriage implies that something is “wrong”— abuse, addiction, affairs, mental illness. In addition, success in the Jewish world is almost always defined as highly educated, capable of self-support and able to maintain a functioning family. So when my marriage fell apart, it was logical that I felt like a failure.

A phone call from the rabbi or cantor acknowledging the challenges my family and I were facing would have gone a long way in easing my frustration and disillusionment. As it stands now, since I am outside the normative two-parent family, I’m not sure what or where my next steps will be.

Eliana Salzman is the pen name of a single mom of two teenagers.

Israelis would get 6 Sundays off under bill to create ‘Western’ weekend

A Knesset committee has approved legislation that will mandate six long weekends each year — a step toward a possible Monday-to-Friday work week.

Providing the six Sundays off each year beginning in 2017 will start to transition the Israeli work week to that of most of the Western world, supporters argue. Kulanu lawmaker Eli Cohen, who proposed the legislation, argued that it would also increase work productivity in Israel, which lags other developed countries.

Israel has a Friday-and-Saturday weekend, though children in elementary school also attend school on Fridays. Many Israelis do not work on Friday, and Sunday is considered the start of the work week. The current weekend fits in with the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday, and the Muslim day of prayer on Friday.

According to a 2016 report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, Israeli productivity is low and getting lower compared to most of the relatively wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even though Israelis also work about 4 hours more per week than residents of other OECD countries.

“The transition to a long weekend will dramatically change the character of work and offers many benefits by reducing the burden on workers, improve the balance between work and family life, improve individuals’ lives and contribute to business sectors like retail and tourism, and better synchronize work and school vacations,” Cohen said, according to Haaretz.

The bill, which was approved Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, must still be approved by the full Knesset. The legislation is aimed at leading to all Sundays off in the future.

Two of the six proposed long weekends would take place during the summer, and the other four would come during the Passover and Hanukkah vacations.

The first full Knesset vote is scheduled for Wednesday, where it is expected to pass.

Forced to pick between observance and graduation, Jewish Bruins choose both

Aaron Ebriani was 11 when his father, Eli, died, and the event inspired him to honor his memory by fulfilling as many mitzvot as possible — and by helping others do the same.

So when he realized a few months ago that all of UCLA’s departmental graduations fell on Shabbat or the holiday of Shavuot, he saw a chance to commemorate his father by helping some fellow students keep the faith.  

“I jumped on it,” he said onstage June 9, standing in front of about 80 other Jewish undergraduates during a ceremony he instituted. “This entire graduation was done in [my father’s] name.” 

Ebriani’s realization was followed by a flurry of emails and hours of meetings to organize a Thursday afternoon graduation that Jewish students could attend without violating proscriptions against driving or carrying objects on a holiday.

To demonstrate the need for such an event, he circulated a petition to present to UCLA’s administration that gathered more than 300 signatures. Later, Rebecca Zaghi, a graduating senior who directed the event, went through each of the names on the petition to send an invitation via text message.

Although Shabbat-observant Jews could attend a class-wide graduation before dusk on June 10, they would have had to break Shabbat or Shavuot to attend the smaller ceremony in the following days associated with their individual majors.

“The whole idea was that departmental [graduations] are more small and intimate,” Zaghi told the Journal. “They’re the people that you’ve taken classes with and grown with.”

Statistics from UCLA and the Jewish student organization Hillel International suggest that most of the approximately 450 Jewish UCLA seniors did not attend the ceremony. But, using Hillel at UCLA’s status as a registered campus organization, along with $1,000 in Hillel funding, the June 9 graduation nearly filled each of the 505 seats in the auditorium of UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall with friends and families.

“You have 80 Jewish students who for the first time ever self-organized a graduation so that they could observe our traditions,” said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA. “It’s amazing. It’s really amazing.”

Zaghi said that at her and Ebriani’s urging, UCLA administrators have made note of the next year when Shavuot would interfere with graduation — 2024 — and are taking steps to avoid the conflict. But she said now that the tradition has started, moving forward, “Why shouldn’t the Jewish community have their own graduation?”

“If it wasn’t for Shavuot and the whole conflict with graduation, none of us would be here today,” Ebriani said at the event. “So let’s take a moment to appreciate that.”

The ceremony began after the graduates filed in to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Then Heather Rosen, the UCLA student president, who is Jewish, called for a moment of silence for William Klug, the professor slain on campus the previous week in a murder-suicide, along with the four victims of a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv the day before. The sound of raucous cheers and air horns blown with abandon quickly died out as audience members bowed their heads.

Toward the end of the ceremony, when UCLA Dean of Students Maria Blandizzi asked the crowd to hold its applause until she finished conferring degrees, her request predictably fell on deaf ears, as celebratory cries and air horns sounded nearly throughout, despite a visibly irate usher who confiscated the noisemakers.

When Ebriani marched across the stage, it was a culmination not just of a UCLA degree, but also months spent to put the event together. “It really wasn’t the easiest thing,” he said in an interview the next day. “But I’m glad we did it.” 

Sam Weiss: No more pain: A senior’s struggle for normalcy

HIGH SCHOOL: Granada Hills Charter High School
GOING TO: Ohio State

Sam Weiss, 17, was a medical mystery for most of his life.

He suffered from wrenching chest and stomach pains no doctor could properly diagnose. By last December, his condition had worsened to the point where he was physically shaking and frequently losing consciousness.

“I didn’t understand that that wasn’t the norm — that I wasn’t supposed to feel that,” he said in an interview.

Then, about two months ago, he underwent a surgery for a twist in his esophagus and eight ulcers.

As a graduating high school senior, the San Fernando Valley resident is preparing to reinvent himself as a college student living a new reality: a life without pain.

“For the first time ever, I feel good, and it’s amazing,” he said.

He added, “This is my reset button.”

Sam boasts a list of achievements that would be impressive even for a person who didn’t live his first 17 years in chronic pain.

For three years, he dedicated himself to independent study after his illness precluded him from regular enrollment at Granada Hills Charter High School.

As president of United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) for the Far West region, he leads the organization’s activities and conventions in Arizona and California.

He also tutors bar mitzvah students, including special needs students, and plays guitar, ukulele and piano. He also sings.

“Music is like the equivalent of my intermittent Shabbat. … I just sit back and relax and enjoy the sound, and my mind goes blank,” he said, adding that before his surgery, playing music was one of the things that enabled him to mute the pain.

But his career interests lie elsewhere: When he enrolls at the Ohio State University in the fall, he will be studying as a pre-medical student.

“The fact that he wants to be a doctor blows my mind,” Merrill Alpert, USY’s Far West youth director, told the Jewish Journal. “I was sure the kid was going to be a rabbi.”

His passion for the Jewish world notwithstanding (Sam called himself “extremely Jewish”), his decision to seek a medical education stemmed from the figures in his life who have brought him the most relief, as well as the most frustration.

“That was the worst day of my life, when a doctor said, ‘Yeah, this whole pain thing — it’s not going away. This is something that will be there forever,’” he said.

For years, doctors told him his pain was psychosomatic, that it was all in his head. He wasn’t satisfied with that answer. Finally he found a doctor who wasn’t satisfied, either.

After researching his condition on the internet, Sam came across a surgeon named Miguel Burch at Cedars-Sinai, who he thought could help, and convinced his parents that he should have surgery. Sam underwent a 5 1/2-hour operation that involved temporarily removing his stomach from his chest cavity.

Since the operation, he’s lost 30 pounds, works out nearly every day and now runs a 7-minute mile.

Explaining his decision to pursue pre-med in college, he said, “I can be that surgeon that helped me.”

With a pain-free life stretching out in front of him, Sam said his deliverance is “both bothering me and inspiring me,” as he wonders what could have been had he lived his whole life without pain.

“It’s not really fun to think about,” he said. “And yes, I struggled and it made me the person that I am, but who could I have been?”

Luckily, he has the rest of his life to answer that question.

WATCH: Prince tribute during shabbat – Nashuva sings “Purple Rain”

Challah-Chella: Shabbat tent at Coachella 2016

The 4th annual Coachella Shabbat Tent brought wine, challah, delicious Shabbat meals, Havdallah and other great programming to Coachella 2016.

College students across US join #SolidarityHavdalah with European Jews

Hundreds of college students gathered across North America and Israel Saturday to conclude Shabbat with #SolidarityHavdalah, a campaign to show unity with their European peers facing anti-Semitism.

The students came together at Brandeis University in suburban Boston, as well at more than a dozen other locations in North America, from Harvard to Emory, along with two in Israel and one in Canada. Participants read a statement dedicating their Havdalah ceremonies “to the countless Jews that fear publicly contributing to the spirit (ruach) of the people of Israel.”

Some then posted photos and videos on social media under the event’s hashtag. 

On a cold evening on the Brandeis campus, dozens of students, some at a Reform-Conservative event and others at an Orthodox one, recited the blessings to Debbie Friedman tunes and lit Havdalah candles over wine. Freshman Max Silverstone, who read the statement at the Reform-Conservative event, said a recent trip to Poland opened his eyes about the difficulties facing European Jewish students in expressing their identity. 

After hearing the statement, many Orthodox students were unable to make social media posts, since they weren’t carrying their smartphones, said Misha Vilenchuk, who helped organize #SolidarityHavdalah. That was one disappointment in an otherwise successful campaign for Vilenchuk, a 22-year-old Brandeis senior.

“We succeeded because Jews were not only celebrating Judaism but also their Jewish identity … with freedom of expression and declaring their unity through this simple yet significant statement,” he told JTA. 

A Moscow-born Russian-American Jew, Vilenchuk said he aims to draw attention to threats to Jewish freedom of action and conscience anywhere in the world. Of anti-Semitism in Europe, he said, “It’s vocal, visible and vicious.” 

Vilenchuk founded the student group Coalition Against Anti-Semitism in Europe, or CAASE, a year ago following the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper’s office and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris. CAASE joined the World Union of Jewish Students and the American Union of Jewish Students in putting together the Havdalah and promoting it on social media.

Yaela Halper, a Brandeis freshman who is CAASE’s vice president — Vilenchuk is president — played a major role in the social media campaign, much of which involved reaching out through friends and Jewish networks on Facebook.

“We want it to be a community-building event,” she said.

Vilenchuk said 20 student groups confirmed participation, including from Yale, Yeshiva University, McGill and Hebrew University. He estimated 1,100 students showed up at those events. There were likely others. As Vilenchuk noted, “Students don’t like to RSVP to anything,” and the statement was posted online. 

“We declare our distinct Jewish identity and our Jewish pride — together with Jewish students and our allies across the globe, the statement concludes. “Tonight we make our voices heard and join our ahim and ahiot (brothers and sisters) from Paris to Jerusalem, from Caracas to New York, and say, ‘no more.’”

L.A. eruv repaired just before Shabbat, dedicated to LAPD

Less than hour before Shabbat began in Los Angeles, the team that runs the L.A. eruv announced that it was repaired after a car accident near the Hollywood Bowl knocked over a traffic light that the eruv uses.

And Howard Witkin, who coordinates all eruv operations, said it was thanks to a rapid response by his emergency crew and the kindness of the Los Angeles Police Department, which preserved the integrity of the eruv by not cutting the string that it constitutes, out of respect for the eruv's integral role in the Jewish Sabbath. As a sign of gratitude, Witkin dedicated this week's eruv (which relies entirely on donations) to “the officers of the LAPD.”

“We are grateful for the assistance of the dedicated officers who handled the accident in Hollywood today that took out a street light pole and took down the eruv,” Witkin wrote in an email blast. “The officers worked to preserve our lines and guide traffic around and beneath them because they know that the lines were important to our community. Then they made it easy for our eruv team to restore the eruv. It is wonderful to live in a country of emes [truth], din [justice] and shalom [peace].”

An eruv makes carrying items within its boundaries on Shabbat permissible for Jews, according to Jewish law. This includes synagogue-goers carrying books and prayer shawls to parents wheeling strollers.

According to Jewish law, carrying on Shabbat in a public domain is prohibited. But a kosher eruv — an enclosure often comprised of connected fencing, walls or string — turns an otherwise public domain into a private domain for halachic purposes.

Retooling Hebrew school

Hebrew schools today incorporate a lot of hands-on learning, and several innovative models for Hebrew school have been launched in recent years, including the project-based learning Hebrew school model, the learning through the arts Hebrew school model, the aftercare “camp like” Hebrew school model, and the online Hebrew school model.

I applaud the pedagogical improvements as well as the funding and creative innovations to the Hebrew school model.  However, I feel that Hebrew schools today still lack a particular “mindset” about Judaism, approach to learning, and purpose of Jewish education which is essential to their success.

What I propose and will explain in this article is the retooling of Hebrew schools with the proper mindset about Judaism and Jewish education.

For starters, the term Hebrew school is factually inaccurate and outdated, plus, we all know this term conjures up negative connotations.  I say this, in part, because Hebrew schools do not teach Hebrew as a language, and originally the word Hebrew was used to downplay the Jewishness of where Jewish children went after public school.  Therefore, a new name is long overdue.

So what would be a better name to replace the name Hebrew school? I propose the name Mitzvah Center.

Changing the name of Hebrew School to Mitzvah Center, however, is not for semantics, but for the purpose of creating a change in the “mindset” and modus operandi of Jewish education.     

  • A Mitzvah Center is a more accurate description of one of the main purposes of Jewish education, which is to learn how to do Mitzvot.
  • By using the term Mitzvah Center this would be a constant reminder about one of the main functions in being a Jewish, which is doing Mitzvot. 
  • The term Mitzvah Center more actually reflects what should be a significant focus of a Hebrew school’s curriculum content.
  • The term Mitzvah Center relays that Jewish education and Judaism are not just for children but for adults as well.

A Mitzvah Center will still look 80% like a Hebrew school (even if employing an innovative model), however, there are four essential practical differences.

  1.  A Mitzvah Center facilitates the performance of Mitzvot.

Whereas a Hebrew school in teaching about lighting Shabbat candles includes the hands-on activity of the students making Shabbat candlestick holders, a Mitzvah Center would send home candles every week for all the women in the home to light.  This is an entirely different perspective on the role of a school, and from a “Center” Jewish education spreads out.

In keeping with the Shabbat candles example, there are numerous examples where a little girl was given Shabbat candles to light and this sparked a family to grow Jewishly. First the mother also lit Shabbat candles with her daughter, then a few weeks later the mother decided not to have the TV on in the living room while she lit Shabbat candles. Then a few weeks later…

Ditto for giving out little grape juice bottles after teaching the students about the Mitzvah of making Kiddush, as well as giving out Shmura Matzah before Passover, etc.

As one can see, a Mitzvah Center does not just teach about Mitzvot, but takes on the responsibility to do everything it can to help its students concretize the learning into action and with their families.

  1.  The ambiance and climate of a Mitzvah Center is Mitzvot.  

When a parent comes into the Mitzvah Center to drop off or pick up his/her child(ren) s/he would see various Mitzvah stations in the foyer with Mitzvot that can easily be done on the spot.  For example, putting on Tefillin (with the rabbi there to encourage and to help facilitate), saying the Shema, giving Tzedakah, watching a one minute video with a Torah lesson for the week, as well as the opportunity to drop off a can of food for the foodbank, to pick up Shabbat candles, etc.

These have been called “Touch and Go” Mitzvot because they only take a short moment of time to do, and they do not necessitate a lifestyle change.  Never-the-less they are an important aspect of “doing Jewish,” and a Mitzvah Center serves to remind everyone of this by creating a culture of doing Mitzvot.

  1. A Mitzvah Center would have a different Mitzvah Campaign every year.

This is exactly what it sounds like. One year the Mitzvah Center (and synagogue) would promote, for example, the Mitzvah of Mezuzah, the next year perhaps various Mitzvah projects for the poor, then in future years the promotion of the Mitzvah of keeping Kosher, the Mitzvah of helping the environment, the creating of a Jewish library in one’s home, a No Adult Left Behind when it comes to adults being able to read Hebrew, families hosting each other and/or just being hosted for a Shabbat dinner experience in a round-robin format once a month for a year, etc.   There are a lot of Mitzvot to promote!

Part of being Jewish is about spiritually growing, and many of these type of Mitzvot require a significant time commitment, financial commitment, and/or an adjustment to one’s lifestyle. Therefore, one Mitzvah Campaign per year is a practical and steady pace.

Not every Mitzvah Center family is going to participate in every Mitzvah Campaign.  One’s expectations need to be tamed.  But right now no one is participating.  No one just wakes up and says s/he is going to start keeping putting on Tefillin or keeping Kosher, etc. without a significant amount of encouragement and support.  A Mitzvah Center’s yearly Mitzvah Campaign provides a much-needed opportunity and encouragement for people to grow Jewishly.

  1.  A Mitzvah Center instills “Mitzvah Activism” into its students.

Part of being a Jew, which has been lost in the Hebrew school system, is sharing one’s Jewish knowledge with other Jews and helping Jews do Mitzvot.  This teaching would be instilled into the students by them actually teaching and helping others do Mitzvot.  For example, the older kids in the Mitzvah Center would help the younger students with Hebrew reading and they would serve as a “Tephillah Buddy” for younger students at school-wide Tephillah services.

Another example of many possible ones: On the Sunday of Sukkot the students in the B’nai Mitzvah class would go to the houses of the synagogue’s members, former members, the Jewish old-age home, etc. with a Lulav and Etrog to help as many Jews as possible fulfill this Mitzvah.  Parent volunteers would drive and there could even be a contest to see who can get the most people to shake a Luluv and Etrog.  Additionally, when a family decides to start keeping kosher at home, members of the synagogue’s teenage Youth Group would help Kasher the family’s kitchen and dishes. (These later two examples are also one way #1 above is accomplished.)

Of course a Hebrew school can implement any of the above aspects of a Mitzvah Center without a name change, however, changing the name from Hebrew school to Mitzvah Center creates a powerful psychological and philosophical message (see the four bullet points above), and also by implementing all four aspects of a Mitzvah Center, this creates a synergy that results in an effectiveness that is more than the sum of its parts.

Joel E. Hoffman is an ordained rabbi, but he works as a special education teacher at a public high school in Massachusetts.  He also teaches 7th grade Hebrew school and writes on Jewish themes. 

Challah, wine, Torah … and Trump?

For the past few months, whenever we’ve hosted guests at our Shabbat table, I’ve repeated different versions of the same joke: “I’d like to thank everyone at our table for not saying the name Donald Trump once during the last hour. What a miracle.”

When I mentioned this last Sunday to Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills (where I moderated a Shalom Hartman Institute event with Yossi Klein Halevi), he immediately replied, “You should write a column about that! I never like to bring up politics on Shabbat. It’s not in the spirit of Shabbat vayinafash.”

So, to get a better understanding of what the rabbi meant, I did a little research on “Shabbat vayinafash,” which is included in the Shabbat lunch blessing over the wine (in the Sephardic tradition, we repeat “vayinafash”).

“The language that the Torah uses to describe the rest or cessation that is commanded on Shabbat is ‘Shabbat vayinafash,’ literally translated as your nefesh, your bodily soul, will cease,” Jerusalem author and teacher Elana Mizrahi writes on Chabad.org. “On Shabbat, we gain a neshema yetera, an additional soul. While so much of Shabbat is about physical pleasures such as eating, wearing fine clothing, and sleeping, the pleasure and ‘rest’ that one derives from Shabbat is deeper than these things, for you could take part in them during the weekday and yet you wouldn’t be observing Shabbat.”

Reading Mizrahi’s words made me realize that a Shabbat meal can easily suck us into a weekday energy. After all, what do we usually do when we sit around a table over a meal? We talk about stuff that’s on our minds. And, more often than not, what’s on our minds is current events. So, if the world is abuzz about a presidential candidate who spews vulgarities during a televised debate, it’s not surprising that we would bring it up during a meal’s conversation.

The problem is that it’s hard for us to see conversation itself as a Shabbat ritual.

We have no problem observing rituals such as lighting the candles, blessing the wine, washing our hands and blessing the challah, but after that, when conversation starts, freedom of speech takes over. We may observe basic rules of courtesy, but as far as content goes, often all bets are off. A presidential candidate acting like a vulgar buffoon? Why not talk about it?

In fact, this topic may lead to interesting discussions about the unraveling of American political culture, the dumbing down of the media and the electorate, or the undue influence of big money on politics. But is this in the spirit of “Shabbat vayinafash”? I don’t think so, especially if it leads to unpleasant arguments when people just want to prove that they’re right.

I have no doubt that everyone has meaningful stories waiting to be shared. At its best, a Shabbat table should elicit these kinds of moments.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good argument; it’s simply that I can have those arguments during the week (as I often do). When Shabbat comes along, however, I’m looking for something more — something elevating, something spiritually nourishing.

The usual custom of discussing the weekly Torah portion is fine, but it’s not enough. Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking people around the table to share meaningful stories.

Last Friday night, I asked my friend Edna Weiss to share a story about her late husband, Mickey Weiss. She recounted how he came up with the idea of collecting and distributing perishable food to the needy. It started one day in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse about 30 years ago, when Mickey saw a batch of fresh, unsold strawberries about to be thrown out. He had just seen homeless people not far away and figured they could use this free food. Within a few months, Mickey had set up an operation to feed the needy that eventually became a national movement.

Weiss took her time telling the story. It was a deeply personal story that brought joy to the storyteller as well as to those hearing it. 

I have no doubt that everyone has meaningful stories waiting to be shared. At its best, a Shabbat table should elicit these kinds of moments.

Torah rituals are not an end in themselves — they have spiritual components. The ritual of blessing the wine, for example, is useless if the wine makes us drunk and obnoxious. The whole purpose of blessing the wine is to make it holy, to remind us that it should bring us deep joy rather than just pleasure.

The Shabbat meal is itself a ritual with a spiritual component. We don’t simply gather to eat and schmooze as we do during the week. This weekly meal — one of the gems of the Jewish tradition — is our opportunity to elevate our conversation in a way that elevates our neshema yetera, our additional Shabbat soul.

The Donald can always wait until Monday.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

HotMat, new Shabbat hotplate, offers design and safety appeal

First there was KosherLamp, the bedside light that could be turned on and off on the Sabbath.

Then came KosherSwitch, the controversial toggle that allows users to control lights and other electronic appliances on Shabbat.

Now there’s HotMat, a new foldable hotplate designed to give observant Jewish consumers a safe, portable and rabbinically sanctioned method of heating up food on the Sabbath.

HotMat is hardly the first Sabbath hotplate on the market. But after a malfunctioning hotplate was blamed for a tragic Brooklyn fire a year ago that killed seven children from a Jewish family, HotMat provides fresh safety features and functionality.

For one thing, it’s the first foldable hotplate on the market, making it ideal for travelers – religious Jews or otherwise. It also offers four separate surfaces for heating food – two that get hot, and two that get warm. (“So you don’t burn your rice,” says creator Rafi Gabbay.)

Jewish law forbids cooking food or using fire on the Sabbath. However, food may be heated or kept warm on Shabbat under certain conditions: The heat must be indirect and non-adjustable, and cold liquids may not be heated at all.

HotMat has been certified for Shabbat use by the Zomet Institute, Israel’s leading designer of electronic devices for use on the Jewish Sabbath, and has been safety-certified by TUV labs, a German safety certification company.

Gabbay, the 37-year-old entrepreneur from Jerusalem who invented HotMat, says creating the product was a way to combine his training in industrial design with his interest in Jewish philosophy.

“I’ve been tinkering with this concept for years,” Gabbay told JTA in a telephone interview from his home in Israel.

“The standard Shabbat hotplate is a product a lot of people don’t like,” he said. “It’s heavy, bulky, often burns the food, and then there’s the issue of safety. It’s a very dangerous product.”

HotMat aims to address those deficiencies. The patented product went through two years of lab testing and refinement to achieve its high safety ratings. The multiple surfaces with varying heat levels are designed to let you keep your soup hot without burning your kugel soufflés (in accordance with Sabbath restrictions, the temperatures are not adjustable). The Teflon-coated aluminum heat surfaces are designed to be easy to store and clean. HotMat weighs about 5 pounds, far less than standard Shabbat hotplates.

HotMat retails for $129 and is newly available in the United States at hotmathotplate.com. After the HotMat went on sale in Israel and Europe last year, the product quickly sold out.

On Martin Luther King Day, Jews must acknowledge their privilege

The events of the last few weeks have shaken me to the core. Beyond the devastation I felt over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, I was heartbroken to learn that the police officers involved would not stand trial. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe” have become harrowing reverberations of a broken justice system.

In the past, my privilege has shielded me. I have not (and likely will never) personally experience this level of violence and injustice. But as these events have played out on the national stage, I have been truly rattled by the brokenness of the society I once trusted. And my shock is a result of my privilege; too many of these outrageous injustices were painfully normal. I feel a mixture of horror, sadness and betrayal that I am struggling to reconcile.

The new year marks a transition, a moment to start fresh. Like many of us, I’m sure, I would like 2015 to wipe the slate clean. But it will take much more than a new year to bring about progress. During the Jewish New Year, we are taught that before praying for a new beginning, we must request forgiveness from those whom we have hurt. Our sins cannot be absolved, and we cannot begin anew, until we make amends.

So as 2015 begins and I confront my role within an institutionally racist society, the call of the Jewish New Year echoes. Have I acknowledged my own privilege? Am I complicit in a system of inequality? Have I been ignorant or held unfair biases? From whom can I request forgiveness?

I shop at a grocery store near my house that carries an abundance of fresh produce. My children live in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood and will receive an education that will prepare them for college and lifelong success. I have never been stopped by police nor suspected of a crime based on the color of my skin. The name on my resume has not disqualified me from a job.

Have I sinned knowing that I have not helped extend these privileges to others the means that I have?

It’s uncomfortable, but I must own my privilege like I must own my transgressions. And yet there isn’t one particular person to whom I can apologize for my sins of complicity in racial oppression. Instead, my words, my thoughts and in particular my actions will offer a form of repentance. Perhaps I can earn my forgiveness by helping to bring about change.

If this year is going to be different, it will require collective reflection and action. Our world is broken and we cannot stand idly by and wait for things to fix themselves. Solutions require people, and the Jewish people need to be part of the solution.

Jews historically have been strong advocates for social action, as we ourselves have been persecuted throughout history. We now need to draw on that tradition of helping repair the world. We have to be deeply aware of racial inequality and of the daily privileges we enjoy that others cannot. We need to stop blaming the victims of racial injustice and start thinking of constructive ways to deal with institutionalized racism. We need to join the national dialogue about race and inspire others to do so as well.

Ultimately, we must act, and this coming Shabbat of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend offers the ideal moment to do so. As we honor King’s legacy, Shabbat dinner — that time of traditional communal and family discussion — provides an ideal setting to open a real dialogue about race.

On Jan. 16, our organization, Repair the World, is launching a nationwide campaign called Turn the Tables that encourages people of all religions and races to host a Shabbat dinner and begin a dialogue about racial injustice. We are providing materials on our website to facilitate the discussions and help inspire potential solutions. Through Turn the Tables, we are also urging thousands to volunteer as part of an MLK Day of Service, to act on the dialogue we begin this coming weekend.

Let us make amends for past injustices by leading the Jewish community in the ongoing search for true racial justice in America.

What’s a dollar a month worth?

People love the Jewish Journal. They love picking it up, at a shul or deli or cafe or market, and flipping through the stories of the Jewish world. There’s nothing quite like it in Los Angeles — a gathering place where all the voices of our community can be heard.

I can’t tell you how often I hear: “I love the paper. I’m hooked. It’s my weekly read.”

That kind of response gratifies me to no end, because I think good journalism is essential to the Jewish future. Where else would Jews regularly connect to their world and their community if not in a community paper? What other Jewish institution can claim to build as much Jewish connection, every week in print, and every day online — at no cost, and with access to all?

Some of you already know that in addition to my obsession with the Los Angeles Lakers, I’m obsessed with Jewish unity. Not Jewish uniformity, but unity within diversity — the idea of Jews of all colors and denominations coming together and uniting in a spirit of exchange, where we can learn and receive from one another.

I love being at the Shabbat table of a Persian friend and tasting a new cuisine, or seeing Sephardic Jews singing Chasidic nigguns at the Happy Minyan. This is a privilege my ancestors didn’t have. During the centuries that they lived in Morocco, how often did they get to meet Jews of different traditions?

I can walk down Pico Boulevard on a Shabbat afternoon and, in one block, encounter more Jewish diversity than my grandparents experienced in a lifetime. It’s true that sometimes that diversity can get on our nerves. Human beings prefer the familiar. I get that.

But it’s worth appreciating this grand family reunion that is now happening in the Jewish world.

After so many centuries of being mostly in our own bubbles, here we are in this great, amorphous city called Los Angeles, where we can discover each other. Persian Jews learning about Russian Jews, South African Jews learning about Tunisian Jews, Israeli Jews dancing with Latino Jews.

Our wish is that by Thanksgiving 2016, we will have tens of thousands of readers becoming patrons of the community paper they own and love, in whatever amount they’re comfortable with, even a dollar.

This is unity within diversity, and I think it’s a major reason why people so love the Journal. We cover it all. We inspire curiosity. We inspire connection.

Of course, none of this comes cheap. It costs a lot of money to hire reporters, to print and distribute thousands of papers each week, and to stay current on the Web. So, to use our CFO Adam Levine’s favorite question: “Are you sure we can afford all this?

Well, that depends on you — which is why I’m writing this Thanksgiving column.

As many of you know, the Journal is a nonprofit. It is distributed free because we don’t believe in charging for Jewish connection. We’re fortunate that we can cover a lot of our expenses through advertising —  but because advertising hardly covers it all, we’ve always depended on donations to help us continue to serve you.

This year, because we are a community paper that belongs to the community, we want to give everyone a chance to chip in. So, we are asking 100,000 readers and fans to join the Jewish Journal family and help keep us strong with a monthly donation of $1 or more. 

We have about 150,000 readers a week in print in Los Angeles, and another 3 million worldwide each month at jewishjournal.com. If 100,000 of our readers each chip in $1 a month, that will cover our printing costs for the whole year — all 52 issues — and will enable us to continue growing and serving you. If 50,000 readers chip in $2 a month, or 10,000 readers chip in $10 a month, we also reach our goal, and so on.

We call it our “One dollar or more” campaign. Our wish is that by Thanksgiving 2016, we will have tens of thousands of readers giving back to the community paper they own and love, in whatever amount they’re comfortable with, even a dollar.  

To make your tax-deductible donation now, choose the amount below and then click on the “Donate” button below. Or, if you're old school, call Adam Levine at (213) 368-1661, ext. 131.

What will you get in return? The satisfaction of contributing to the Jewish institution  that keeps us all connected — week after week.

I think that’s worth being grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving.

*Your tax-deductible donation to the Jewish Journal provides high-quality, independent journalism that connects, informs and inspires the community. We can't do it without you!

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

In Paris, a Shabbat marred by terror

My son and I met in Paris on Friday morning, walked the charming streets of the City of Light, visited the Picasso and Pompidou museums, then went to synagogue at the MJLF (Mouvement Juif Libéral de France), one of the most vibrant Reform synagogues in Paris.

Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, a respected French journalist and graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, who had been my student about a decade ago, presided over a full house of committed French Jews who sang with spirit and prayed with intensity. We enjoyed the familiar liturgy set to unfamiliar tunes, the two young people getting ready for their b’nai mitzvah in the morning, the aufruf for a young soon-to-be-married couple and the very warm welcome of the entire congregation. Aside from the heavily armed soldiers out front, a staple in European synagogues for a long time already, and the mental workout of comprehending a sermon given in French, it felt very much like home.

From there we went to Rabbi Horvilleur’s apartment in the Marais, the historic Jewish district, for Shabbat dinner with her beautiful family and some friends. We made blessings, ate delicious food, sang songs, chatted about the Jewish community, her professors and colleagues, and caught up in the manner one does with cherished friends one does not see often. As usual, our phones were left untended out of respect for the peace of the Sabbath.

Alas, such an idyllic Sabbath peace was not to be. First my son’s phone began vibrating wildly, and after this went on worryingly for some time, in his concern he checked it. It was then that we learned of one attack, then another, and still more. Friends of his at the Stade de France stadium watching the France-Germany soccer match wrote of hearing explosions, attempting to evacuate, being held in place. One young female friend was trampled as the crowd surged and exited.

Soon the awful details of a night of unspeakable atrocity began to become clear. Restaurants just blocks away became scenes of carnage, a well-known concert hall the site of a hostage crisis and, later, a heinous massacre. French President Francois Hollande asked everyone to shelter in place as police and security forces tried to respond to multiple incidents. The streets were eerily empty, and heavily armed police and military were deployed everywhere. Friends and family were looking for loved ones they might not see again. There were endless texts and emails, most of them answered — some tragically not.

The next day when that same congregation gathered, they celebrated those two b’nai mitzvah with all their might because terrorism simply cannot be permitted to win. The strength of such an action speaks volumes about the Jewish community of France. But when they recited the prayer for the French nation, their eyes were not dry, their sadness was profound and their sobbing was audible. Terror had, once again, turned singing into mourning, but it could not overcome the essential power of sacred community.

When we walked the streets on Shabbat afternoon, we came across many reminders of the tragedy of the prior evening. Closed were Paris’ stores, museums, educational institutions and government buildings. Signs everywhere proclaimed three days of national mourning and cancellations of concerts, lectures, gatherings and cultural events. Even with the streets less populated, people eyed each other warily, faces lined with creases of concern, moving swiftly to the other side of the street upon even the slightest provocation. Outside hospitals, donors lined up in great numbers to give blood. Small memorial gatherings arose contrary to police instructions, with participants lighting candles and singing “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem. The names of victims started to trickle out. And the names of the perpetrators, too. Hope and fear walked hand in hand with us on those streets.

Over the past two decades, I have watched with my own eyes as a plane hit the World Trade Center. I have listened from a few blocks away as bombs detonated in cafes in Jerusalem. And now, I have lived through a night of deep evil in the streets of Paris. I know that the depths of our mourning over yet more senseless and heartbreaking loss of life will eventually be lifted once again at some point. Peace loving as I am and always try to be, it is at times like this that I yearn for a powerful, just and decisive response. I am aware that this is not simple, but given the awful circumstances and the dangerous potential for future violent acts like these, it now seems vital.

I hope the Western world will have the strength needed to take difficult but necessary action in the days and months ahead. At some point, when the time is right, I also hope that God, of whom Psalm 30:11 speaks, will “turn our mourning into dancing and remove the sackcloth and clothe us,” once again, “with joy.” In the meantime, though, may the memory of those innocent individuals whose lives were brutally taken this past Shabbat be a blessing to humanity and our community. May their families find comfort, and may they rest in peace.

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The Shabbat heard ’round the world

A 3,000-person Shabbat dinner along Pico Boulevard and challah-baking events around the city were among the local events organized for the month of October under the auspices of The Shabbos Project. As part of a collaborative initiative between hundreds of synagogues and Jewish organizations, the Project curates Shabbat mega-events around the world throughout October, including Shabbat dinners and lunches, Havdalah concerts, Kabbalat Shabbats, communal challah-bakes and women’s shiurim —Torah-study sessions.

The Shabbos Project 3000, a community Shabbat meal and celebration, was held in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on Oct. 23. Josh Golcheh, founder of the United Nation of Hashem, partnered with Dara Abaei, the founder and executive director of the Jewish Unity Network, and volunteers Josh Banaf and Daniel Braum to organize the event, which included 21 co-sponsors such as My Aish and Pico Shul. 

Golcheh said he began planning the Shabbos Project 3000 dinner in mid-August. He realized that no local venues could accommodate an anticipated guest list of 3,000, so he decided to create one large venue by closing down Pico Boulevard between South Beverly Drive and Doheny Drive. The event organizers and volunteers set to work, setting up tables and chairs for five city blocks. 

Ticket prices ranged from $18 to $52, and all proceeds were applied to the costs of the massive meal. Many individuals and community organizations stepped up to cover the rest of the costs, Golcheh said. 

The group sold all 3,000 tickets, and 500 additional people arrived after the dinner to shmooze and attend Rabbi Shlomo Yisraeli of Westwood Bet Knesset’s class, “How to Be Sane in an Insane World.” Sharon Catering and Diamond Catering created a full array of salads, dips, chicken, vegetables and rice, all of which were served hot and fresh to each table. 

“There was no waiting in line for any buffets,” Golcheh said. 

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul was impressed. 

“It was so inspiring to see so many people come together for Shabbat dinner, especially with all the difficulties of our brothers and sisters in Israel. It was a real show of Jewish unity,” Bookstein said.

Golcheh said he hopes to throw an even “bigger and better” event next year.  

“This event showed how the entire community comes together,” he said. “We put aside our differences in tradition and background and shared one meal.” 

On the previous evening, also under the umbrella of The Shabbos Project, thousands of women and girls gathered at various Southern California venues to participate in The Great Big Challah Bake.

The event brought women from all over Los Angeles to the Ace Gallery on La Brea Boulevard to share in the ritual of challah baking. 

“Judaism is about taking what is mundane and elevating it. We turn something simple into something sublime,” event speaker Jackie Engel, an Australian psychologist, told the more than 1,100 Jewish women and girls assembled at the Ace. 

“We are about to change something as ordinary as dough into the mitzvah of challah, something holy,” she said.

Each participant had her own bowl and dry ingredients such as flour and yeast; they shared water and oil, helping each other measure and create the dough. Helpers circulated around the tables to demonstrate kneading the dough, showing how much “punching” goes into making it smooth and malleable. 

Leanne Praw, a West L.A resident originally from Zimbabwe and one of the organizers of the event, said it exceeded her expectations. 

“I don’t think we could have anticipated the special moments that came out of the evening. It was amazing to see the [local Jewish schools] coming together beforehand to help us measure ingredients. There were a lot of families who had three or four generations of women at one table,” Praw said.

Some of the tables were sponsored by local synagogues and organizations. Joanne Feldman of Marina del Rey came with her synagogue, The Pacific Jewish Center, in Venice. 

“Of course we wanted to come bake challah with everyone. We got a table and 10 people came out. We are making a dinner tomorrow night for 65 people,” Feldman said.

The night was especially meaningful for Rose “Grandma Rosie” Kamin of Pico-Robertson, who turned 100 years old on the night of the event and was given the honor of saying a blessing over the challah dough. Her daughter, Devorah Marcy, beamed with pride. 

“She gives blessings to everyone. She sees the good in everything and everyone. Her motto is, ‘Never say never.’ ” 

“I bless you all with good health, and an extra special for our brothers and sisters in Israel,” Grandma Rosie said, addressing the auditorium. 

The night ended with an energetic round of singing and dancing. 

Each person got to take home her freshly braided challah dough to bake on Friday morning. 

Great Big Challah Bakes occurred at other venues across Los Angeles, including at the Calabasas Shul. Louisa Frahm of downtown L.A. went to the Calabasas event to learn more about her boyfriend’s Jewish identity. 

“I loved learning more about Jewish culture and spending time with women who are so dedicated to their faith. It was inspiring. The free food was just a bonus!”

Still to come: the Mega Challah Bake at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza on Oct. 29, sponsored by the Chabad Jewish Centers of the Conejo Valley and surrounding areas. Rebbetzin Shula Bryski, co-director of Chabad of Thousand Oaks, said the event is expected to attract 500 women and girls from nonaffiliated and local Jewish organizations, including Hadassah, Reform and Conservative temples, and Chabad.

Rabbi David Wolpe’s kavannah for Shabbat of unity with the people of Israel

We invite people around the world to recite this kavannah in unity with the State of Israel this Shabbat, October 17, 2015

El Maleh Rachamim — Compassionate God,
We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.
Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.
Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one
Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks
Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.
Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.
Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers
And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.
Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.
We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,
Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,
And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.

The unexpected power of vacation Shabbat

Shabbat – the 7th day, a day of rest, a chance to refrain from all the usual business of the week. No work, no cell phone, no computer, no spending money. You know the deal. After a busy week, it feels great to give yourself permission to slow down. But what if it wasn’t a busy week? Or furthermore, what if the week itself was filled with relaxation and pleasure? Is a break from a break really all that necessary? And what if all the limitations spoil the fun you’re having? This is a question I pondered a few months ago as I prepared to embark on a two-month journey traveling through Europe. As I consulted a calendar and tried to figure out where I wanted to be on which days, one column of dates kept glaring back at me. I’m talking about the Saturdays. As someone who observes Shabbat and who was going to be traveling alone, I feared the worst. What will I do for food? What will I do for entertainment? What kind of city would be best suited for 25 hours of doing “nothing”? When I’m at home with my family in Los Angeles on Shabbat, it’s my easiest day of the week. I have a comfy bed to sleep late in, plenty of books and things to read during the day, and a Jewish mother stuffing me with food. But as a single, lone visitor in a foreign country, I knew Shabbat would be different. What I didn’t expect was that my Shabbats in Europe would turn out to be the best of all my days. It was incredible to experience how Shabbat always provided me with exactly what I needed at the time and place I found myself in at that moment.

My first Shabbat was in Berlin, a spectacular city packed with young artistic people from all around the world. They move there to pursue their dreams and collaborate with others who share their passions. Sort of like Los Angeles, but without all the Botox. The city is vast, with many different neighborhoods that each offer a totally different atmosphere. If you love good culture, good food, and good coffee, the city is a giant playground. But all this variety can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. With so many options and such convenient public transportation, it can be easy to find yourself paralyzed with choice. Drifting in a sea of possibility, the arrival of Shabbat was a much needed life-jacket for me. Suddenly, I had structure and a plan. When sundown approached and I put my cell phone and computer away, I was overcome with a feeling of peace. I had signed up to attend a student Shabbat dinner at the home of a lovely and welcoming Rabbi and his wife. With about 15 other young Jewish people in attendance, I deeply appreciated the intimacy, after spending my previous few days constantly surrounded by crowds. The following day, I had lunch at the local Chabad, where I met plenty of friendly locals as well as fellow travelers passing through. And for the rest of the day until dark, I simply hung out by the river with a book and a beer I had bought the day before. It felt great. For one day I didn’t have to worry about which museum to check out or read reviews to choose which restaurant to eat at. Shabbat showed me the pleasure of enjoying the simple things, even when you’re in a foreign country, because you get to experience how locals live rather than be consumed with a checklist of must-see tourist spots. When Shabbat ended, I was refreshed and ready to hit the town again, with a newfound perspective and peace of mind.

A week later I found myself in Prague. In this city, Shabbat provided another essential ingredient: comfort in the familiar. Prague is a city that makes you feel very foreign. For one, since the Czech language is not Latin-based, you can’t get by with recognizing a few words here and there or phonetically reading signs. They also use their own currency (not the Euro), so it’s not as easy to quickly figure out how much you’re spending. On top of that, it’s an extremely touristy place. You can’t take more than a few steps without walking into a selfie stick. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t come to Prague to experience the familiar. It was a pleasure to take in a totally new environment. But it requires a lot of energy and awareness to make your way around. So after a couple days of exploring, Shabbat once again came to the rescue. Prague is home to the Altneushul, Europe’s oldest active synagogue (completed in 1270) and home to the mythical Golem. I showed up for Kabbalat Shabbat services there and with its stone walls and gothic architecture, I suddenly felt transported to another era. As we went through the familiar songs and prayers, I couldn’t help but feel at home, not only with the people who shared the room with me at that moment, but the generations of Jews who have also prayed the same prayers in that same room for the past eight centuries. In Prague, Shabbat showed me the comfort of tradition when in a place that’s far from familiar. 

A couple weeks later I found myself in Paris. The physical beauty of Paris is unmatched. Every building, every bridge, every baguette is a moment out of a post card. Even if you avoid the tourist trap spots, there’s no way to escape the fact that you might be in the most picturesque city in the world. And yet I couldn’t help but think about how beneath this veneer of beauty rested a darkness that only a few months earlier had claimed the lives of innocent cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and a group of Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket. How could such ugliness occur amidst so much beauty? I’d also seen the viral YouTube video of a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke walking through the streets of Paris while a hidden camera captured passersby yelling hateful comments and spitting at him. It was hard for me to fathom this seeming contradiction. But on Shabbat it suddenly felt very real. I had signed up to attend dinner at the Chabad located on the famous Champs Elysees. I walked back and forth past the address listed on the website, but I saw no marking or label for Chabad. Finally, a woman dressed in plain clothes came up to me and quietly escorted me into what looked like some sort of office building. She signaled to a nearby French soldier armed with a huge rifle, who then led me to the courtyard where I found the entrance to the Chabad house. Two other armed soldiers manned the area for the duration of the evening. I was shaken by this experience. It’s 2015 in Paris and a group of Jews gathering to eat food together requires the protection of three heavily armed soldiers? Even in Israel I never experienced such security. In that moment I truly had the feeling that there’s a war on the Jewish people. The experience of Shabbat forced me to confront and reflect on this truth. I’m grateful for that.

These are just a sampling of my experiences with Shabbat on vacation. Each in its own unique way had an impact on my traveling experience and undoubtedly enriched my journey. And that’s the power of Shabbat. It’s not just one thing. It’s a special space in time that stands apart from the rest of the week and gives us what we need at that exact moment. It’s an opportunity to look at the world through a different lens, to slow down and reflect, and to connect with others wherever we are. Sometimes a vacation from a vacation can be a very good thing. 

Jenna Jameson on her new spiritual journey to Judaism

In a cozy apartment near The Grove, in the heart of Los Angeles, lives an unlikely couple. He is Lior Bitton, 41, an immigrant from Israel and a diamond broker. She is perhaps the world’s most famous porn star, Jenna Jameson.

Since her June announcement that she is converting to Judaism, Jameson has embraced the religion with gusto, reading all the material about it she can find and shopping at kosher markets. The proof is all over Twitter and Instagram (of course):

“Finished with my grocery list for my latest menu for Shabbat,” one tweet says.

“Made Challah again last night (love trying new recipes), turned out fantastic,” says another. An Instagram post from mid-June shows a photo of a Shabbat table with homemade challah and candles with the caption, “Here is a little image from last Shabbat!!! I made homemade Chilean sea bass chraimeh, potato pancakes, Israeli salad and yummy challah!” She has even tweeted a couple of times in Hebrew.

Bitton and Jameson, also 41, moved in together a few months ago. On a recent Thursday evening, the dining table in their apartment was already set for Shabbat dinner. The scent of challah baking in the oven filled the air as a barefoot Jameson opened the door, dressed in a long, sleeveless dress revealing her fully tattooed arms. Her long, blond hair was tied back in a ponytail; numerous earrings adorned her earlobes. 

“I love cooking,” Jameson said as she opened the oven to introduce two perfect challahs. “I’m Italian, and we love to cook and feed others.”

Since she got engaged to her Israeli fiancé, she has learned to cook many Israeli dishes, including cholent — which Bitton is proud to say is exactly how his grandma used to make it — and Moroccan dishes such as chraimeh (spicy Moroccan fish). 

Bitton said he never asked Jameson to convert. 

“It was her decision completely,” he said.

“I was raised Catholic by my father, who was always on a religious journey. He was a very devout Catholic and he instilled that in me — not necessarily being Catholic, but the faith.” Jameson said. “However, from a very young age, I doubted this religion and had many questions [for] my father. He told me, ‘What you need to do is study all religions and see what talks to you and your heart.’ … I loved the spiritual aspect of Judaism. Therefore, I started studying and researching Judaism by myself and decided to convert. I didn’t even tell Lior about it until I made up my mind a few months ago.

“I love every aspect of Judaism,” she continued. “It goes hand in hand with bettering myself and my spiritual growth. I had a very rough four years, and I finally found my path. This is the light at the end of the tunnel for me.” 

Those rough times would refer to her breakup with the father of her twin boys, MMA fighter Tito Ortiz, and the resulting custody battle and financial hardship.

“Here is a little image from last Shabbat!!! I made homemade Chilean sea bass chraimeh, potato pancakes, Israeli salad and yummy challah!” Jenna Jameson posted on Instagram. Photo from Instagram

Jameson met Bitton about a year ago in an apartment complex in Huntington Beach. It was a year after her split from Ortiz, and Bitton also was in the process of a divorce from the mother of his three young children. They lived across from each other, her balcony overlooking his from across the yard. 

“I was finding myself again, trying to find happiness, being a bit solitary,” Jameson said. “I noticed this cute guy in the balcony across from me. He was also by himself, always with his computer, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, we are living parallel lives.’ ” 

Jameson introduced herself, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

“For the first month, we talked for hours every single day,” Bitton said. “We were like shrinks to one another. We told each other everything, we spoke of our problems, cried on each other’s shoulder and got to know one another well.”

What Jameson said she found most endearing is the fact that Bitton was not judgmental and seemed a little clueless about her fame as “The Queen of Porn.” 

“He said, ‘I don’t think they know about you in Israel,’ and I said, ‘Oh, no, I think they just might,’ ” Jameson recalled, laughing. “Everyone is very judgmental and has misconceptions about who I am and always has something to say, and Lior only goes by what he knows and learns about me, and that’s a beautiful characteristic. I really like it about him.”

Bitton’s three children, who are all under 7, were born in the United States but now reside in Israel with their mother. Jameson’s twins are 6. Together, they hope to have more children.

Jameson’s father died a few years ago, but she believes that he wouldn’t have frowned on her decision to convert. 

“My father served in Vietnam, and he loved the way Israel had always protected herself from her enemies with lots of courage and dignity,” she said. “When I was growing up, I remember that I always had a great appreciation for the State of Israel, thanks to my dad. 

“What I didn’t know,” she continued, “was that the Israeli men are such hunks and that the Israeli women are so beautiful.” 

Her memoir, “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale,” hit the top of The New York Times best-seller list and rocketed Jameson into the mainstream spotlight. Now she is working on the sequel, which will include fewer sexual anecdotes and talk more about her spiritual journey, finding Judaism and the new love in her life.

Her new persona as a Yiddishe mama has been accepted well by her fans. “I’ve been interacting with so many Israelis, and they are all so welcoming and supportive,” she said.

Jameson’s — well, unorthodox — life might seem great material for a blockbuster movie and, indeed, she confirmed that numerous producers have approached her with offers to turn her memoir into a movie. Who would she like to see playing her on the big screen? 

“Scarlett Johansson,” she said without hesitating. “She is a great actress. And she is Jewish.”

Testing the waters

I took my 7-year-old, Micha-el, swimming at a neighbor’s last Shabbat. After an unseasonably cool June, July began with the full brunt of summer, and he was thrilled with the invitation. A growing number of Israelis have blow-up pools, thanks to the country’s enormous desalination plants that have enabled us to ignore the perennial water crisis (water and environmental experts say the jury is very much out on the ultimate viability of large-scale desalination, and they insist that Israel still needs to conserve water, but that is a topic for another column).

The afternoon was terrific — our adult hosts had gone upstairs for an afternoon rest so I sat inside with the weekend newspaper and a cool drink while the kids splashed and squealed. Pretty hard to think of a more relaxing way to spend a Shabbat afternoon.

But as I listened to the kids play, I couldn’t get my mind off the afternoon I’d spent in Hebron earlier in the week, getting to know a Palestinian family I’d been introduced to some months ago. We’d agreed to meet at 3 p.m., so I took the opportunity beforehand to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs to study a little and to pray the Mincha service, and then made my way to their home, adjacent to the Tel Rumeida neighborhood and archaeological dig. It being Ramadan, there was no food or drink on offer, but that hardly put a dent in the afternoon. Sitting under a lush canopy of grapevines and olive trees, we talked about my host’s teaching career and her adult daughter’s life growing up in 1980s and ’90s Hebron (I’m leaving the family anonymous because its members do not know I’m a settler, and I fear for their safety if it got out that they’d hosted one). Of course, the conversation also focused on Israeli violations real and imagined, and eventually the topic turned briefly to water.

The topic is one I’ve known about tangentially for years: According to the Btselem human rights organization, there is no limit to water consumption for Israeli citizens, whereas average water consumption for Palestinians in Judea and Samaria for domestic, urban and industrial purposes is approximately 73 liters per person per day, far below the World Health Organization recommendation of 100 liters per person per day.

But although I knew about the discrepancy, I had never paid any attention to it, certainly not in any real terms. Now I heard about the impact of the shortage.

“We usually have water to drink, but in every other area of life we have to take extreme caution not to waste,” my host said. “Everyone relies on water tanks on their roof. They get filled up about every 10 days by the baladiya (Hebron municipality). In the summer when there is a water shortage, we have to wait longer for them to get filled, so people run out and have to fill bottles at their neighbors’. I lived in one apartment that did not have enough water tanks, so we ran out every two weeks and we had to develop creative ways to save water. We kept a big tub under the shower so we could save the water and wash our clothes in it while it was still warm. Then it stayed in the bath to flush the toilet. We only flushed after solids, not for every pee.”

The conversation left me with an unfamiliar feeling of guilt — I routinely have to force my teenagers to cut their showers “down” to five minutes or so. But while driving home, I remembered an article I’d translated a year ago by Haim Gvirtzman, a professor of hydrology at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University and a member of the Israel Water Authority Council. Gvirtzman asserts that rather than a result of Israeli discrimination, the Palestinian water shortage stems mainly from a calculated Palestinian Authority policy not to develop PA water resources, despite the fact that the Oslo Accords provide for it.

“The Palestinians refuse to develop their own significant underground water resources, build a seawater desalination plant, fix massive leakage from their municipal water pipes, build sewage treatment plants, irrigate land with treated sewage effluents or modern water-saving devices, or bill their own citizens for consumer water usage, leading to enormous waste. At the same time, they drill illegally into Israel’s water resources, and send their sewage flowing into the valleys and streams of central Israel. … (The Palestinian Authority is) not interested in practical solutions to solve the Palestinian people’s water shortages, but rather perpetuation of the shortages and the besmirching of Israel,” Gvirtzman wrote.

All of which is probably correct, and would have been wholly relevant had we been onstage for a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate. But my visit was about caring and identifying with a family that cannot take for granted the privileges that I live with, not about pointing fingers or assigning blame. In Efrat, our kids don’t hesitate to fill a blow-up pool. In Hebron, they think twice about flushing the toilet.

For me, that’s a lot to think about.

Andrew Friedman is a member of Shorashim/Judur, a grass-roots movement of local Israelis and Palestinians creating relationships and friendships in Judea and Samaria, as well as of the Interfaith Encounter Forum.

Torah portion: How to make teens excited about Judaism

Recently, a mother invited 30 teens, all Jewish day school graduates, to spend Shabbat services and eat lunch at our Chabad center in Bel Air. The goal was to give them a look at “traditional” Judaism. 

In typical teen fashion, they gathered outside during services and lunch, and were texting and enjoying each other’s company. I decided that if they were not going to sit with me, I would sit with them. I approached a few teens at a time and asked, “May I speak with you for three minutes?” They rolled their eyes, but agreed.

We all sat in a semicircle and I asked, “Do you love food?” They all laughed and said, “Of course!” I asked, “Did you eat food during the past three days?” Again they said, “Of course.” 

I said, “I have two-and-a-half minutes left. Next question: Do you LOVE being Jewish?” They all said, “Of course.” I requested, “Please tell me something you did that was uniquely Jewish in the past three days; but you can’t say you were a good person, because being a good person isn’t uniquely Jewish!”

They stared at me like deer in the headlights. 

I said, “I have two minutes left. 

“I will offer you three options of Jewish mitzvot to do daily, or to contemplate doing. You can choose to do one, two or all three of them. Are you game?” Their eyes opened wide; they were willing to listen.

Mitzvah No. 1, I told them, is to say six words every day — in the morning when you arise and at night before you go to sleep: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. When you say it, please think, “I am proud to be a Jew, and I believe in God.” They smiled. It was easy.

Ready for choice No. 2? They were excited. Why not?

Mitzvah No. 2: “Do you give tzedakah every day?” I asked. They said, “No.” 

“Choose a jar,” I told them, “and at the end of the day, place your extra change in the jar. Simple! When it is full, donate it to a needy cause. How simple is that? A Jew is commanded to give tzedakah daily. It can happen in many ways, but this is a simple way of doing the mitzvah.”

They smiled and saw the simplicity of it.

I said, “Now, I have 45 seconds left.” 

Mitzvah No. 3: Marriage.

I told them, “You all love looking at guys and gals; and you all get gaga over them. ‘OMG, I want to marry you!’ ‘He is so cute!!!! OMG OMG!!!’ or ‘She is gorgeous. I must marry her.’ Soon you’ll go to college, and you will meet even more cute people. 

“Well, think about it: Do you want a cute person whose looks will change with time, or do you want a Jewish mother or father for your children?” Each teen actually responded that they want a Jewish spouse! So I asked them, “Why don’t you make that a priority now in your life — make it a goal to only marry a Jew?” They all smiled, shaking their heads in agreement.

I told them that my three minutes were up, and I asked if I could have one more minute. Each group agreed.

I asked them to please choose mitzvah No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. Or two of the three, or all three. Keep doing them forever as the foundation of doing something Jewish every day. 

“Please do not tell me what you choose,” I said. “It is between you and God.” 

I then made a suggestion: “Why not go up to the ark, and let God know of your choice of the mitzvah(s) you wish to offer Him? Ask God for His blessings so that you can fulfill them.”

Every teen — the boys and the girls — walked up to the ark and spent a few minutes whispering to their Creator. My congregants had no clue what was happening; they just saw Jewish teens walking up to the ark and then walking away with a glowing smile. 

The great Jewish-American novelist Herman Wouk asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the 1950s, “Do you really believe that you can tell young American Jews what to do?” The Rebbe responded that you can’t tell American youth what to do, but you can explain why to do everything.

I took the opportunity to explain to these amazing Jewish teens the whys and the importance of doing these three Jewish miztvot daily. They loved it! It wasn’t heavy Judaism; they were baby steps toward loving Judaism.

This week we read in the Torah the holy She-ma. It says: You shall love God your Lord. … You shall teach your children. … You shall wear tefillin … and have mezuzot.

God tells us, if you really love God, you will teach Judaism to your children. This education must come by living it. Judaism isn’t a subject; it is a way of life.

Is it difficult to inspire the next generations to live Jewishly? 

The good news: The future looks bright. All over the United States, many Jews are going to their local Chabad centers. The spark of Judaism is growing in Jews of all ages. Today, many Jews are craving their Jewish connection to God. They want authentic reasoning with real excitement. They want living examples of what is being taught to them. 

How about you? Are you happy with where you are standing within your Judaism? If so, that’s fantastic. But if you need a jumpstart, then contact me — I’d be happy to help you fire up your Jewish soul! Your children are watching you for their direction on how to live a Jewish life. 

Rabbi Chaim Mentz is director of Chabad of Bel Air.

Ben Shapiro’s culture of fear mongering

I had never heard of Ben Shapiro until that Shabbat evening.  My best friend, Yitzy, just got married, and I was headed to a sheva brachos, one of the parties religious Jews have after they get married.  Yitzy and his wife were having his party at an Orthodox synagogue in my neighborhood that was filled mostly with the above-60 Orthodox set, and Yitzy’s Lubavitcher family.  Yitzy said the shul had sponsored a speaker, Ben Shapiro, so Yitzy had paid for a couple of tables to support the event.  Someone pointed out Shapiro to me — “He’s a great speaker.  I saw a video of him debating guns with Piers Morgan and he was so good.”  I hate guns.  I can’t understand how we live in a country where even after the horrors of tragedies like what took place at Sandy Hook Elementary school—where 156 shots were fired in under five minutes, killing 6 adults and 20 children — people in this country still fight for their right to carry not only guns, but assault-weapons.  Needless to say, I had a feeling I was not going to be a fan.  But I assumed he would probably be talking about the need to support Israel, and outside of some jabs at Obama it would be more of the same — but it was so much crazier.

The opener — and forgive me for not quoting verbatim, as it was Shabbat and I wasn’t allowed to record any of this — went something like this: “Today is a very dark day in history.”  He’s got to be talking about the horrible terrorist attacks that just took place on three continents, I told myself.  But he was not.  He was talking about marriage equality and the Supreme Court decision announced that morning.  I looked around the room for any face that mirrored my horror — but it was a tough room.  They were buying into this homophobe.  Shapiro’s a Harvard law graduate who justifies his homophobia and religious intolerance with legal arguments that are over the top.

I couldn’t begin to recap all of his speech. It covered a lot.  It meandered, it didn’t connect, and it intellectualized in order to justify sexism and racism, with arguments proving how the women’s wage gap is a lie, and how almost half of African-Americans are anti-Semites.  He loves statistics so much that if he didn’t stand for “traditional marriage” I imagine he’d marry them.  One topic pitted ISIS vs. the Liberals in America to see who was more dangerous.  Hint: It’s the latter.  He talked about how we need to indoctrinate kids into the Republican Party when they’re young, because once they’re 18, they don’t change parties.  I found an interesting parallel between the way he suggested we appeal to the youth with the Republican message — for him it seemed to consist mainly of fear tactics against minorities who are destroying the country—and ISIS, who appealed to the young with a sense of purpose and blood and strength.

When it came time for the Q&A, I kept quiet for a while.  He was asked who would win the presidency — he said it was likely going to be Hillary Clinton, and the crowd gave a collective groan.  He gave them advice on how to fight off liberals, and how to teach all children self defense.  He listed off the problems with the growing Hispanic community, which overwhelmingly votes democratic.  He railed off statistics again — and played a fun racist game, where they guessed how many Asians voted for Obama.  He said it was 78 percent.  A woman, her face displaying disbelief, said, “Why are the Asians voting Democrat?”  Another woman — in her late 30s and wearing a sheitel — said that she has daily debates with her housekeeper.  She wondered aloud where her housekeeper was learning this liberal information, and then it came to her — “She’s learning it on the bus.”  My jaw dropped as she proposed an idea to take Republicans and have them ride city buses to teach people.  This led to a discussion on the importance of speaking Spanish.  I thought my brain would explode.

I raised my hand, and then interrupted as he launched into another racist diatribe.  I shouted out, “You sound racist!  Every argument is a subtly racist way to scare the white Jews into thinking minorities are after them.”  I imitated him and the questions people were asking.  I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth.  Someone shouted, “Ask a question!” but I didn’t have one to ask.  I had something to say.  I told him both ISIS and Shapiro’s Republicans seem to share the same need to constantly wage war against an invisible good vs. evil and use race-baiting and scare tactics to sell their message.  No one in the crowd understood what I was saying — or else they didn’t buy what I was saying.  I felt like I was shouting in the wind.  Ironically, I think Shapiro might have caught the parallel.  He is smart.  And then this smart man stood there in front of the entire orthodox synagogue and called me a “dumb ass.”  I had him, I thought.  This guy debates for a living, and his response was to call me a name.  He lost.

A man started to sing, another man jumped in, and Shapiro sat down at his table.  It was over.  I didn’t get to accomplish what I wanted.  One Iranian man came over to thank me.  Most people yelled at me.  A woman came over to tell me that she has a story for me.  As expected it was about a black woman who she was nice to who’d turned against her.  This was her proof that blacks are racist.  It was hard to believe how disconnected this group was from reality.  A few of my friends pushed me to debate with Shapiro, so I walked over to him and directly asked him why he used scare tactics to work up the crowd.  We got into a debate about racism and white privilege, which he confused with white racism.  Shapiro thought if he was nice to black people, then he can’t be accused of having white privilege.  I told him that every day he benefits from white privilege, just by being white.  When he catches a cab easier than a black person, that’s white privilege.  He said I was racist for assuming all black people have the same experience.  Then he rattled off statistics that proved how black people murder more than white people.  I said if blacks and whites use drugs to the same degree, but blacks are disproportionately arrested (more than three times more likely to be arrested), is that racist?  He said it wasn’t.  I said, “Is it possible to see how that could trickle down to more problems in the black community?”  He didn’t buy the connection.  In fact, it turned into the most racist argument of them all — Is it possible that black people are more inherently defective than white people?  Shapiro’s father slipped in front of me and blocked me out while we spoke.  He tried to answer for his son.  In fact, many people tried to answer for him — and I had more than one person screaming at me at the same time.  One man got so worked up, and yelled things so racist, I told him I refused to talk to him.  “How many black people do you see in museums?!” he kept shouting in my face.

And the next thing you knew, the shul was empty, save for Yitzy and his family.  Some of them patted me on the back.  Some were embarrassed.  I felt disappointed in myself — like I could have done better.  But no matter what I would have done, it would have devolved to old conservatives shouting at me.  I was surprised by the mob mentality.  One of my Lubavitcher friends — also a conservative Republican — said the same thing.  It was more mob mentality than deep discussion.  I grew up in an intellectual — albeit liberal — Jewish world.  And I’ve never seen such slavish devotion to ideas.  No one even wanted to hear another possibility other than Shapiro’s view of the world.  And it was that group-think that scared me the most.  It’s what caused me to confront Shapiro, and to write this article.  And my only hope is that this time I’m not shouting into the wind.

Follow Seth on Instagram. To read more of Seth's articles for The Jewish Journal, visit his dating column: My Single Peeps

Let’s leave Obama out of our seders

Jews have big mouths. Put those big mouths in a society that reveres freedom of speech and it’s a sight to behold. On the whole, it’s a wonderful attribute. We analyze everything, we criticize endlessly, we kvetch, we yell, we do everything but shut up. It’s as if we’re taking revenge on all those centuries when we often had to watch what we said. Here, in the land of the First Amendment, keeping quiet is no longer a Jewish ailment.

I’m always amused when I hear an American Jew complain, “They’re trying to shut me up!” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to shut a Jew up.

But in this column, I will try.

You see, there is one time when our big mouths don’t serve us so well. It’s when we sit down for a holy meal. Take Shabbat, for example, a time for reflection and joy. You know how to spoil the joyfulness of a Shabbat meal? Just complain about Obama. Or Bibi, or Abbas, or Iran, or BDS or just about anything else we complain about during the week.

It’s not that these issues are not important. They are. The real question is: Do they belong at a Shabbat table? Do they uplift us?

With the Passover seders coming up, my own challenge will be to shut myself up. I’m so upset these days with the way President Obama has been treating Bibi and Israel that it will be hard for me to contain myself. I, too, have a big mouth, and I love living in a country where I’m free to criticize everything, including my president. 

But am I obligated to use that freedom at a seder table?

Let’s play things out. I’m sitting at a big and noisy seder with my family. Someone brings up the subject of a nuclear Iran. My brother, a renowned scientist who always has brilliant insights, is sitting next to me. I am tempted to get his take on the situation, especially on how Obama seems to be appeasing the Persian mullahs. But I know that if I do that, we’ll be in for a good 30 minutes of talking about politics.

Meanwhile, what would happen to the Exodus story? Where would the mood and the energy of the seder go?

It’s true that if you adhere closely to the haggadah — especially the haggadot that drive the conversation with questions and suggestions — you’re a lot less likely to go off on detours. But we’re human. We’re used to saying what’s on our minds.

If I have to choose between a metaphorical discussion of the Four Sons and a political discussion of the four terror states encroaching on Israel, the latter feels way more urgent.

So, we’re trapped between two time frames: the urgent versus the timeless. Passover clearly deals with the timeless. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “The Jewish festival of freedom is the oldest continuously observed religious ritual in the world. Across the centuries, Passover has never lost its power to inspire the imagination of successive generations of Jews with its annually re-enacted drama of slavery and liberation.”

If we let our mouths wander into the urgent and the political, how will it inspire our imaginations? How will it help us re-enact the drama of our liberation? Should the starting point be what’s on our minds or what’s in our story?

No matter how urgent or important, politics and current events are simply not very inspiring.

Too often, we do mental gymnastics and convince ourselves that a discussion of politics is appropriate to a spiritual setting. I can imagine that many Jews this year will look at the passage that says, “In every generation, enemies rise up to destroy us,” and connect it to the Iranian nuclear threat. I will probably do the same. But how will that make the evening different from any other?

How will it uplift us?

It’s not just that politics can lead to unpleasant conversations. It’s more than that. No matter how urgent or important, politics and current events are simply not very inspiring. For inspiration, you can’t compete with the timeless lessons and stories of our tradition. And Passover is the mother lode of timeless lessons.

Now, if an ancient and epic story of liberation doesn’t speak to you, and you feel you must talk about something more current, here’s an alternative: Talk about your own stories of liberation. You can start with a discussion of what negative habits have enslaved you over the past year and how you plan to free yourself. Personally, I might talk about freeing myself from always complaining about the news, and especially about Obama.

After all, if Obama has been ruining my mood lately, why should he also ruin my seder?

Happy and meaningful Passover.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

For Harvard’s Zach Yoshor, March Madness mixes with Shabbat-playing unease

Should Harvard upset North Carolina in the opening round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Zach Yoshor will stay with the Crimson for their next game two days later – but the freshman guard acknowledges it won’t be easy.

The Ivy League champs would be playing the Arkansas-Wofford winner on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

Raised in an observant home in Houston, Yoshor attended a Jewish school, the Robert Beren Academy, that doesn’t schedule games on Shabbat. Three years ago, during Yoshor’s junior year, Beren attracted national headlines when it nearly had to forfeit a state tournament semifinal originally set for a Saturday.

As a member of a non-Jewish travel team in those years, Yoshor walked to Saturday games. At Harvard, though, he had to choose; basketball won out.

“It was a really rough decision. I just decided it was something I wanted to do,” Yoshor explained by telephone on Monday. “I knew if I wanted to play, I’d have to travel on Shabbat.”

It’s a decision with which he remains uncomfortable, Yoshor admitted. For Harvard basketball games occurring on Shabbat, he keeps religious violations to the bare minimum by refraining from using his cellphone or writing. On team bus rides he reads books to pass the time.

“It does bother me,” he said.

Harvard punched its ticket to the NCAAs in dramatic fashion on Saturday: Steve Moundou-Missi drained a jump shot in the closing seconds to defeat rival Yale for the Ivy League title and the automatic bid.

Yoshor, sitting on the bench, leapt with joy.

“When Steve hit that shot, we all went crazy,” he said. “It was a very emotional experience.”

Harvard extended its streak to four consecutive years of reaching the NCAA tournament known as March Madness.

The Crimson, seeded 13th in the West Region, will play fourth-seeded North Carolina, a perennial power out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It’s remarkable, like a dream come true growing up and watching March Madness,” Yoshor said. “I always had this dream of playing in the Ivy League. I understood, as I grew up, that I’d have this opportunity.”

Yoshor is unlikely to see court time against the Tar Heels. He played in only nine games this season and scored 11 points, all in an easy victory over St. Rose.

Studying last year at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Yoshor stayed in game shape by working out and practicing with the Israeli professional team Ironi Ramat Gan, an arrangement first cleared with Harvard to assure that his eligibility for college basketball would remain intact.

As a standout at the Beren Academy, Yoshor first attracted the attention of Adam Cohen, an assistant coach at Rice University, also in Houston. The summer after graduation, the now 6-foot-6 Yoshor attended a basketball camp at Harvard, where Cohen had moved on to work.

“I saw Zach at his high school at practice and was impressed: He had good size and could shoot the ball,” said Cohen, who’s also heading to postseason play, in the National Invitation Tournament this week, with his new employer, Vanderbilt University.

Cohen said Yoshor “had the ability, as well as the grades” to play at Harvard, adding that Yoshor could crack the Crimson’s rotation as a sophomore if he continues to develop.

“He’s got a big summer ahead of him,” Cohen said.

Yoshor said his coaches and teammates were understanding about his missing practices for the High Holidays. A kosher observer, he makes do on road trips with tuna sandwiches and salads.

“It’s a point of curiosity,” he said. “They’ve been very respectful, very accommodating. If I ever ask for anything, they’re very quick to oblige.”

Harvard’s other demands took some adjustment for him.

“It was rough for me at first,” Yosher said. “Getting in Division I basketball shape and handling the rigors of academics has been a real challenge, but I felt good when I was able to balance my time at both ends.”

For his NCAA Tournament debut, one of Yoshor’s parents will be in Jacksonville. The other will head to New York to see Zach’s brother Ben, a Beren junior, play in Yeshiva University’s Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament.

The family’s hardcourt prowess is hardly limited to the males. Their sister, Rebecca, graduated from Yeshiva University last year after leading the NCAA – all divisions – in rebounds per game as a senior.

Yoshor’s Beren classmates will be following the Harvard game in Jacksonville, too. No sooner did the Crimson qualify for the NCAAs than his cellphone lit up.

“There were lots of texts from friends about how cool it is,” he said.

Freundel pleads guilty to 52 voyeurism charges

Rabbi Barry Freundel, the former spiritual leader at a prominent Washington synagogue, pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism.

The plea Thursday means that Freundel could be sentenced to a maximum penalty of 52 years in prison and ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Sentencing was postponed until May 15.

The afternoon hearing was moved to a larger courtroom that could accommodate the number of victims.

During the hearing, Freundel appeared red-faced, kept his head bowed low and made no eye contact with the more than a dozen victims who packed the second-floor courtroom. He wore a black fur hat, a black rumpled and dirty suit, a black-and-gray tie and a black-and-gray kippah.

Freundel, 63, was arrested last October on six charges of voyeurism after investigators discovered secret cameras installed in the mikvah shower room and additional recording devices in his home. His Orthodox synagogue, Kesher Israel, immediately suspended him and later fired him, ordering the rabbi to vacate the shul’s rabbinic residence.

The government requested that Freundel wear an electronic ankle bracelet.

Judge Geoffrey Alprin asked Freundel, “Are you going to make me look stupid and flee the jurisdiction prior to sentencing?” In a loud voice, Freundel responded, “Absolutely not, your honor.”

The judge took him at his word, addressing him as Rabbi Freundel, and released him on his own recognizance until his May sentencing.

Lawyers and court officials considered when Shabbat begins on May 15. The court was satisfied that the 1 p.m. hearing would be concluded prior to sundown.

The plea deal was announced in a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia to Freundel’s victims that was obtained by the Washington Jewish Week.

An oral agreement was reached on a plea offer, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The plea offer included one count for every victim recorded during the statute of limitations and identified by a photograph submitted to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“We also did not restrict our ability to seek incarceration or restitution for those victims identified during the statute of limitations in any way,” the letter said.

Prosecutors have told alleged victims that Freundel secretly recorded more than 150 women undressing at the mikvah.

Women who were videotaped as they used The National Capital Mikvah in the Georgetown section may submit a victim impact statement “expressing how this crime has impacted you,” the letter said. They also can give an oral impact hearing during sentencing.

“I didn’t expect it to be over. I am glad it is,” said Jeffrey Shulevitz, the husband of Emma Shulevitz, one of Freundel’s victims. “The rabbi was a brilliant man, and he used it to harm people instead of making the world a better place.”

Civil suits have been filed against Freundel, the synagogue, the mikvah and the Rabbinical Council of America.

“Rabbi Freundel’s plea today in Superior Court is the first step in achieving justice for his victims,” said David Haynes, the managing attorney at the Cochran Firm in Washington, one of the firms handling civil litigation.

The plea “will also be an important element in establishing liability in the related civil cases, which will focus on why the synagogue and the other defendants did not prevent or stop Freundel from using their facilities for his illicit purposes for such an extended period of time despite his strange conduct and the many prior complaints about him,” Haynes said in a statement.

Freundel, who reportedly separated from his wife after his arrest, had refused to leave his synagogue-owned residence, and the congregation has taken the case to the Beth Din of America. WTOP, a local news radio station, reported that he is now planning to vacate the house within two weeks.

The synagogue and the mikvah issued statements following the plea hearing.

“Despite this great betrayal by Rabbi Freundel and our communal pain, we have seen a community that has come together and whose members have leaned on one another for support,” Kesher Israel said. “As we move forward, we will continue to grow stronger and are committed to ensuring that our community remains a warm, welcoming, and safe place to gather, worship, and learn.”

The National Capital Mikvah noted in its statement that its staff was the first to alert police to Freundel’s crimes.

“We are grateful that we were able to detect and stop such despicable illegal activity,” it said. “We are saddened to see a Torah scholar cause his own downfall.”

Paris Grand Synagogue closed on Shabbat for first time since WWII

The Grand Synagogue of Paris was closed during Friday’s terror attacks and did not reopen for Shabbat services, marking the first time the synagogue has not held services since World War II.

The synagogue was closed by French police during the hostage standoff at the Hyper Cache kosher supermarket, according to USA Today, despite being far from the site of the siege, which took place in eastern Paris. Even after the siege ended, the synagogue did not reopen for prayers.

The police also closed the Rue des Rosiers shopping street in the historically Jewish neighborhood of the Marais.

The Orthodox Union told the Jerusalem Post that the synagogue had not been closed for Shabbat since World War II.

Shabbat on Halloween: Horror of horrors or wonder of wonders?

With a borscht-curdling geshrei, Halloween this year falls on Shabbat. On a Friday night, trick-or-treaters, even Jewish ones, will be knocking.

Should we open the door? Or should we be spooked about joining the celebration?

After reading that on Oct. 31, Urban Adamah, a Jewish-oriented educational farm and community center in Berkeley, Calif., would be holding a “Challahween Kabbalat Shabbat” — chanting and meditation plus a potluck dinner and Halloween dessert candy bar — I wondered: Should I have a Halloween Shabbat dinner as well?

Yes, I know that when it comes to costumes and treats, Purim is our holiday, and that Halloween has murky pagan and Christian origins. But the multibillion-dollar Halloween costume, decoration and candy industry has morphed so far beyond that I wondered what I could pull from that bubbling commercial cauldron and adopt to season my Shabbat.

Not that I would want to serve brisket with candy corn, but what about trying pumpkin spice challah? I didn’t have to cast a spell to find a recipe online.

But what to wear, especially since I would be greeting the neighborhood children as they came calling. Could I use the opportunity to dress up as someone more shul-ish than ghoulish?

For ideas, I hit a neighborhood costume warehouse, Halloween City, not expecting much in the way of Jewish population. Was I wrong.

Though a Halloween warehouse will never be confused with a Judaica store, I was surprised by the number of items that with a little imagination suggested ways to remember (zachor) Shabbat on Halloween, and even to keep it (shamor).

Searching for something overtly Jewish, I was disappointed at first, only finding costumes more suited to Catholic tastes. One could dress up as a Blessed Mother, priest and friar, but not a rabbi.

On a nearby rack, though, when I found a Doctor Who costume — a red fez and bow tie — I knew I was in the right place to make a fanciful connection to Shabbat. How on earth? Since according to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “the meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space,” who would be better to have at my Halloween Shabbat dinner than a Time Lord?

Searching further in the area with costumes representing ethnic stereotypes,  I found that one could dress up as a “Big Shot Scott,” a “Mystifying Gypsy” and a “Luscious Leprechaun” complete with a “Want to get lucky?” pot of gold.

The “Tequila Poppin Dude” costume  came with two shoulder bandoliers with shot glass holding loops. Improvising, I figured on Shabbat I could put on the bandoliers and a kippah and be a poppin’ dude, too, only with Manischewitz.

On an end rack I saw some Shabbat potential, at least thematically in costumes based on the short, yellow, one- and two-eyed characters in the movie “Despicable Me.” There in clear packages were a “Minion Dave” costume complete with blue coveralls and goggles, as well as a “Female Minion” costume.

Ahhh, I could have a “minyan” at my Shabbat Halloween dinner — it would even be egalitarian.

Walking past the display of plug-in, animated skeleton fiddlers (from a Sholem Aleichem nightmare?), I found myself in the aisle of ancient get-ups. If I wanted to turn my Shabbat dinner into a toga party or night of Roman-themed excess I was all set. But didn’t we fight a few wars to get away from all that?

On the top of the rack, however, I found a blue and gold Egyptian pharaoh’s headdress.

“That will work,” I thought, trying it on, remembering that in the Shabbat Kiddush are the words “zecher litzeat mitzrayim,” “recall the Exodus from Egypt.”

Walking by an entire area of black and gray fake headstones (there were no Styrofoam pebbles to leave on them), I came to an area that seemed more heavenly.

In recent years, angel wings have become a Halloween costume staple, and the warehouse had an entire display in every shape and color. To begin every Shabbat, my family always sings “Shalom Aleichem,” wishing peace to the “attending angels.” Would they be offended, if in their honor, I wore a pair of wings to dinner?

In the next aisle over I found myself amid costumes for girls and women. Was there something here that would invoke the image of Shabbat Hamalka, the Sabbath Queen, who we greet with song on Shabbat evening?

There were costumes for a woodland fairy, a gothic temptress and a “divine goddess” that included a blonde wig and hair jewelry, but nothing close to what I imagined to be the Sabbath Queen.

Then I realized: With a Sabbath Queen, angels who visit on our day of rest and celebrations of time rather than space, we didn’t really need any help from Halloween to conceptualize the fantastic.

On Halloween, I could set the table with orange plates on a black tablecloth and wear a pharaoh’s headdress. But on that Shabbat evening, as we rise before dinner to face the door and sing the last verse of Lecha Dodi, “Come my beloved,” even if the doorbell rings, do we really need all that stuff to imagine who might appear at our threshold?

The true value of Birthright Israel

Sitting in a circle in coastal northern Israel, listening to a group of 46 American and Israeli Jews share their coming-out stories — stories of anxiety and relief, shame and pride, heartbreak and celebration — I realized that this trip was going to be different. 

It was my seventh time staffing a Birthright Israel trip, and this was a group of lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, queer and ally (LGBTQA) young adults, supported and organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ L.A. Way Birthright Israel Experience initiative and in partnership with JQ International, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities and visibility for LGBTQA Jews in Los Angeles.

I had agreed to staff this particular trip because I view myself as an ally to the LGBTQ community. I believed I would learn something new by seeing Israel through an LGBTQ lens, and I wanted to support a group of people who, I imagined, hadn’t always felt they’d had a seat at the proverbial Jewish table.

We started the trip like any other, with the craziness of reviewing Birthright Israel rules and jamming in dozens of site visits per day. Save for the fact that we didn’t divide rooms by gender, and we allowed more flexible and sensitive rooming guidelines, I didn’t initially think there was anything different about this trip. I assumed that just like other trips, at the end of 10 days, the participants would say their tearful goodbyes; some of their lives would be changed and many would resume as normal; and most of them would save a warm place for Israel in their hearts.

But when we visited Yad Vashem, I began to understand how special this group was. As we toured the facility, we became acutely aware that the majority of our group members would have been doubly persecuted during the Holocaust. In fact, as members of the LGBTQ community they would have been marginalized, vilified, brutalized and murdered even before the Jews. In Hitler’s world, and that of the Nazi fascists, they would have been the first to go. Also, this group was all too aware of what murder, suicide and violence look like today. More than any other group I’ve staffed, this group could relate to being hated simply because of who they are.

That evening, we decided to welcome Shabbat at the Western Wall. As we headed to the main pavilion, I began to worry that maybe they wouldn’t like this place. That regardless of the energy around the Western Wall, perhaps the politics surrounding it, the severe gender divides — women right, men left — would be too much of a shock and would jar them out of the utopia of egalitarianism we had created on our trip. I wanted to protect my participants, possibly to help them maintain the generous and inclusive image of the Israel they had experienced thus far. I didn’t want them to think that they might not have a place at every table in the global Jewish community; I wanted this trip to show them something beautiful that they never could have imagined. We had strived to create a haven of inclusion — would it all go to waste once we stood before one of the most significant sites for the Jewish people?

As we approached, I saw a huge group of soldiers singing Shabbat songs together on the plaza — men and women, all in uniform. I wish we could do that, too, I thought to myself. 

At that moment, the ring of soldiers opened up to welcome us. We flooded into the circle, joining hands with dozens of young Israelis, weaving into their group. In an instant, we formed a circle of more than a hundred young people, holding hands, singing songs, dancing and jumping, and shouting for joy in front of the Western Wall. From all corners of the world, all religious backgrounds, all sexual orientations and gender identities, we were living the dream of the Jewish people. It was truly a holy Shabbat experience.

More than any other trip I have staffed, this group understood the dichotomies of victimhood and victory, persecution and celebration, sorrow and joy, shame and pride that have so long shaped and defined the Jewish people. The collective Jewish narrative mirrored so many of their personal narratives, and to experience that realization with them has become one of the great privileges of my life.

Returning from our miraculous 10 days together, I have realized that the true value of Birthright Israel is to help young Jews from around the world and from all different backgrounds connect their stories to the Jewish story. It is an opportunity for them to sit at a Shabbat dinner table and be welcomed for exactly who they are — often for the first time in their lives. It is a moment of discovery — of the self and of community — of joining hands with their brothers and sisters from around the world, and of connecting to the shared pain and joy of our people.

Annie Lascoe is West Coast regional director for Masa Israel Journey, an organization that connects young adults with study, internship and volunteer opportunities in Israel.

Eyes open and eyes shut: A pre-High Holy Days meditation

Paul Gaugin, the famous 19th-century French artist, commented: “When I want to see clearly, I shut my eyes.”

He was referring to two different ways of perceiving reality. With our eyes open, we see surface reality — size, shape, color, etc. But with our eyes shut, we contemplate the context of things, our relationship to them, the hidden meanings.

With our eyes open, a dozen roses are 12 beautiful flowers. With our eyes shut, they may be full of memories and associations — roses given or received on our first date; roses at our wedding; roses growing in our childhood home’s backyard; roses on our grandmother’s Shabbat table.

How we see fellow human beings is also very different with open or closed eyes. With our eyes open, we see their physical features. With our eyes shut, we remember shared experiences, friendships, happy and sad moments. When we want to see clearly — comprehensively — we shut our eyes.

Mircea Eliade, a specialist in world religions, wrote in his book “The Sacred and The Profane” about the pagan view of New Year. For them, human life is a series of recurring cycles, always on the verge of chaos. On New Year, people descend into this primordial chaos: drunkenness, debauchery, chaotic noise. 

The Jewish view is radically different. For Jews, reality isn’t a hopeless cycle of returns to chaos, but a progression, however slow, of humanity. Rosh Hashanah is not a return to primeval chaos, but a return to God, a return to our basic selves. Our New Year is observed with prayer, repentance, solemnity and a faith that we — and the world — can be better. 

The pagan New Year is an example of seeing reality with open eyes. Things really do seem to be chaotic when viewed on the surface. Humanity does not seem to improve over the generations. We always seem to be on the verge of self-destruction.

The Jewish New Year is an example of viewing reality with our eyes shut, of seeing things more deeply, more carefully. While being fully aware of the surface failings of humanity, we look for the hidden signs of progress and redemption. We attempt to maintain a grand, long-range vision. This is the key to the secret of Jewish optimism. While not denying the negatives around us, we stay faithful to a vision of a world that is not governed by chaos, but by a deeper, hidden, mysterious unity.

The problem of faith today is not how to have faith in God. We can come to terms with God if we are philosophers or mystics. The problem is, how can we have faith in humanity? How can we believe in the goodness and truthfulness of human beings?

With our eyes open, we must view current events with despair and trepidation. We see leaders who are liars and hypocrites. We see wars and hatred and violence and vicious anti-Semitism. We are tempted to think that chaos reigns.

But with our eyes shut, we know that redemption will come. We know that there are good, heroic people struggling for change. We know that just as we have overcome sorrows in the past, we will overcome oppressions and oppressors of today.

Eyes open and eyes shut not only relate to our perception of external realities, but also to our self-understanding. During the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we focus on penitential prayers. We confess our sins and shortcomings. But as we think more deeply about our deficiencies, we also close our eyes and look for our real selves, our deeper selves, our dreams and aspirations.

Rabbi Haim David Halevy, the late Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, noted that the High Holy Days period is symbolized by the shofar. The shofar must be bent, as a reminder that we, too, must bow ourselves in contrition and humility. 

During the month of Elul, which began Aug. 27, it is customary to sound the shofar either as part of Selichot/penitential prayers, or at the conclusion of prayer services. Indeed, the shofar is a vital symbol of Rosh Hashanah services, and also is sounded at the conclusion of Yom Kippur services.

But shortly after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, with the lulav as a central symbol. The lulav must be straight, not bent over. The lulav teaches us to stand strong and tall, to focus on our strengths and virtues. The holiday season, then, encourages us to first experience humility and contrition; but then to move on to self-confidence and optimism. Our eyes are open to our shortcomings; but when we shut our eyes, we also can envision our strengths and potentialities.

Rosh Hashanah reminds us to view our lives and our world with our eyes open — but also with our eyes shut. We are challenged to dream great dreams, to seek that which is hidden, to see beyond the moment.

Rosh Hashanah is a call to each individual to move to a higher level of understanding, behavior and activism. Teshuvah — repentance — means that we can improve ourselves, and that others can improve, and that the world can improve.

This is the key to Jewish optimism, the key to the Jewish revolutionary vision for humanity, the key to personal happiness.

Rabbi Marc Angel is director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org), and rabbi emeritus of the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City. His most recent book is a collection of short stories, “The Crown of Solomon and Other Stories” (Albion-Andalus Books, 2014).