The seminar of a lifetime


As we stepped off the bus into McPherson Park in the middle of Washington, D.C., many emotions flooded through our minds. We were scared, we were nervous, but mostly, we were excited. McPherson Park was only a couple of blocks away from the White House. There was much irony in this situation. The park is often filled with many homeless people, and the fact that the White House is down the street shows the class gap that unfortunately exists in our nation.

Our mission that day was to bring the homeless some toiletries and food. Since we had leftovers from lunch, this was a perfect way to put that food to good use. Our only instructions were to approach the homeless in groups of no less than three, and no more than five, and, most importantly, we weren’t there just to give them the items, but to strike up a conversation.

In March, along with 18 other Milken Community High School 10th grade students and three faculty members, as well as teens from schools across the country, we participated in the Panim-el-Panim (Face-to-Face) program. Panim-el-Panim is a program of Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values, a Washington, D.C., organization that helps teens experience political activism and civic engagement in the context of Jewish values and principles.

From the moment we stepped off the plane at Dulles Airport, we knew that this trip would not be another eighth grade sightseeing tour. We were there to make a difference, and we were ready for an adventure. Neither of us had ever been involved in any sort of political advocacy program, yet we were both very passionate about different issues presently happening in the world that needed attention.

The Panim-el-Panim program introduced us to a number of different ways to voice our opinions and raise important issues. We became more educated about the political system, seeing firsthand how laws are enacted and how issues are presented to our elected officials. Who knew that 20 teenagers from Los Angeles could help make a difference in the world?

When we first arrived at the program, our director emphasized that we are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders of today. Even though we were only high-school students, these simple words gave us the motivation we needed to start brainstorming our ideas into concrete proposals that we would soon be able to deliver to our area Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles].

The whole program was geared toward the congressional meetings that we were to participate in on the last day of our four-day trip. The overall topic for the program was civil liberty. We first spent hours gaining knowledge through seminars about this subject so that we could incorporate our learning into arguments that we would present to Rep. Waxman.

Milken was joined by about seven other Jewish groups from around the country, making our trip a social event, as well as a political and educational one. We were able to interact with other Jewish teenagers, some of who shared many common ideas, but some of who had very different opinions, which only enhanced our learning experience.

Every day, multiple speakers taught us the importance of civil liberties and discussed with us the many injustices occurring around the globe. The reality of injustice was brought home to us in the “street Torah” program. That afternoon in McPherson Park, we connected by sharing stories and our sandwiches. The life stories that the homeless told us were extremely moving, and the joy that they received from one turkey sandwich and a toothbrush was immeasurable.

The night before our “street Torah,” we met with two members of an organization that helps get homeless people back on their feet again. This experience with the homeless, as well as other social justice issues, culminated with our lobbying activities with Waxman and Michael Hermann, his staff assistant. They both were very pleased to hear the opinions of our group and were impressed that at our young ages we were well aware of the global issues. They both mentioned that they would certainly take into account the issues we addressed.

The group chose issues such as the rocket attacks in Sderot, Israel, homelessness and bringing peacekeeping troops to Darfur. The terrible suffering and, indeed, the genocide in Darfur is an issue we were very familiar with, having studied it in school and raised money long before we traveled to Washington. On our program, we lobbied for United Nations peacekeeping troops that would hopefully be able to contain the violence and bring about peace in Darfur and the surrounding areas.

Before this trip to Washington, we were never very interested in politics, primarily because we thought that we would not be able to voice our opinions. The Panim-el-Panim program taught us that it is important to keep our elected representatives aware of what issues are important to teenagers, the next generation of voters. We now know that we can make a difference.

Chelsea and Hayley Golub are in the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.

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

A different taste


Last Saturday night, my husband and I were invited, along with many others — most of whom didn’t know each other — to the home of Lorin and Linda Fife. The occasion was not a party, but rather a “Taste of Limmud,” a precursor to something called LimmudLA. The Presidents’ Day weekend conference will be volunteer-led, and organizers expect it to bring together hundreds of local Jews of all denominations for three days of conversation and learning.

The Limmud model of cross-fertilization has become wildly popular in various countries around the world — including England, Australia, France and, in the United States, New York — but is new to Los Angeles, and getting the word out for the upcoming event began months ago. This evening was not the first “Taste” — designed to build excitement — and it may not be the last: It takes some nudging to get Angelenos out of their homes, out of their neighborhoods and out of their habits to try something that’s somewhat hard to describe.

Inside the Fife home was a world set up for willing learners. The house had been transformed into a conference hall, with folding chairs for the dozens of guests. Everywhere there were elegant platters of kosher treats (sufganiyot included).

After some mingling — during which strangers and friends alike admitted to one another that we didn’t really know what we were in for — Shep Rosenman, who along with Linda Fife is co-chairing LimmudLA, introduced the program. Strict rules: two 20-minute sessions, timed with no give. Four choices for each session, which all would be led by volunteers. Different rooms for each. Choose what interests you and go learn. It is the model for the weekend-long format in February, but then the days’ sessions, we were told, would extend from the crack of dawn until 2 a.m.

I was reminded of Yom Kippur afternoon at my synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, when we’re given choices of learning opportunities, all of them led by fellow members. Hearing people’s personal journeys is always my preference, so I decided to check out comedian/TV actor Elan Gold, who spoke under the title “Not-So Orthodox in Hollywood.” My husband took a more serious track in choosing to listen to Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a human rights group that monitors — guess what. His topic was “Israel at the UN: A Nation that Dwells Alone.”

While I’d like to say that our lives and visions of the world were changed by these talks, they weren’t. Both men were generously informative — particularly as they were talking here for free, and each can command considerable speakers’ fees. (Gold was off to play the Laugh Factory later that evening). But their topics were engaging, weighty, and very familiar — the struggle to be an observant Jew in a secular society, the fight for Israel to get its fair share.

Only when the second session started did I begin to get what is so extraordinary and delightful about Limmud.

I found myself in a room full of people, about half of whom were quite evidently Orthodox, the other half indefinable (most likely a mix of denominations), listening to a man named Yehuda Frischman, a Chasid and licensed acupuncturist. Frischman spoke about his philosophy of intermingling Chinese medicine, Jewish belief and his own brand of metaphysical healing.

Three men in this room, including Frischman, were wearing shtreimels, and I realized as I chatted with two of them, that this was the first time I’d ever had a chance to speak so comfortably to members of the ultra-Orthodox community. We cross paths regularly on the street and, professionally, through the pages of our publications, but we rarely personally interact. Yet, here, I was with them and with others more like me (including my husband) learning from Frischman — who opened his heart to us about the lives he’s had the opportunity to heal and the way that his beliefs have allowed him to take alternative medicine to a different realm.

I realized that there was a little bit of magic happening — not just in this room, but throughout the evening — as we moved outside the familiar to get a closer view of one another. And the surprise was not so much in the substance of what anyone said, but the feeling of approaching one another with open hearts and, hopefully, open minds. As Jews we are such a divided group — and even for those of us who spend our days in the Jewish world, as I do, it’s hard to move beyond our friends, our denominations, our own congregations and our comfort level.

It was a simple idea, really — just the hospitable Fifes, a set-up of chairs and those generous volunteers willing to lead us in conversation. The Limmud program on Presidents’ Day weekend (Feb. 15-18) will be designed for all ages, for families and individuals, because the goal is to link us up as one large community, to get us to move outside the pockets of our separate neighborhoods.

So, I’m going to LimmudLA. Are you?

Rob Eshman will return next week.

For more information, visit

Jews and Palestinians talk peace under NorCal pines


When Suleiman al-Khatib told his story at Tawonga’s Peacemakers Camp two years ago, the fact that he had spent 10 years in prison for stabbing an Israeli soldier made him stand out among the participants. He pledged at that time to stay involved with Tawonga, and bring back many more like him.

He didn’t disappoint. Al-Khatib has been Tawonga’s Palestinian representative for the past two years now, and thanks to his efforts, the camp this year hosted many others like him.

The fifth annual Oseh Shalom-Sanea al-Salam Peacemakers Camp is an outgrowth of the Bay Area’s many Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups founded by Len and Libby Traubman of San Mateo. It was held Oct. 5-8, this year with an emphasis on youth and those already working in numerous peace and coexistence organizations. Groups like Combatants for Peace sent representatives, as did the village Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, which consists of equal numbers of Arabs and Jews.

The 140 participants also included some Arabs and Jews from the Bay Area, though Jalal Ghazi, a San Franciscan of Palestinian origin, tried unsuccessfully to recruit Arab students from local universities.

“It’s easier bringing Palestinians from over there than from here,” he said.

As in previous years, participants gathered in San Francisco the night after camp ended, this year at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, to tell their stories to the public and each other. And while sharing their stories came fairly easily to those on the podium, it was emphasized that the weekend was not without its difficult moments.

For Israeli Deddy Paz, it served as a reminder that much work needs to be done when he returns home.

For a while, he said, he had abandoned his efforts of working toward peace because more pressing matters were on his mind, mainly paying his mortgage and supporting his family.

But the weekend near Yosemite National Park reminded him “there isn’t another side,” he said.

“The consequences of what’s happening will affect my children just as much as they will affect Raya’s children,” he said, referring to Raya Ziada, a Palestinian woman sitting next to him. “If we keep having Israelis and Palestinians meeting each other for the first time at a checkpoint, we’ll never have a solution. They need to meet each other when they are 4 years old.”

Ziada said her first meeting with Israelis was when soldiers barged into her house in the middle of the night to arrest her father. Her brother is dying in an Israeli jail, she said, and she meets with the other side because “that may be the only chance I have to help save his life.”

Leah Lublin moved to Israel from Toronto 12 years ago. She described herself as a member of a very right-wing organization when she got there, but she had an awakening when friends of her children were killed in a terrorist attack. The mother of five heard about an interfaith dialogue group and mustered up the courage to go.

“The first time I sat with 25 Palestinians, all the misconceptions I had about them flew out the window,” she said. “I became a peace addict.”

Mohammed Atwa, the son of a high-ranking official under Yasser Arafat in the Palestine Liberation Organization, somehow found his way to the Arava Institute in Israel, where he worked on environmental issues with his fellow Arabs and Jews. When he first arrived, he was astonished to learn that his roommate was Jewish. They didn’t speak for the whole first week, and even in that first month, they could only muster up a “good morning.”

“I couldn’t get used to a Jew sleeping next to my bed,” he said.

Now studying for his doctorate in Kansas, Atwa said he believes his mission is to convince anyone who will listen that dialogue and peace is the answer.

“Israel is a fact, you can’t fight it,” he said. “Palestine is a fact, you can’t fight it.”

For more information, visit Peacemaker’s Weekend:
http://www.tawonga.org/weekend-programs/peacemaker.php

Alexandra J. Wall is a correspondent for j., The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California.

A shul grows in Dixie — Insha’Allah


With Wal-Mart attracting a huge number of minority religious groups to Arkansas, it is not surprising that Fayetteville is becoming increasingly diverse.

And while this ongoing change is felt in many ways, the most distinct may be the recent push by Temple Shalom to build the first synagogue in the history of the city, and the fact that the pro bono builder is a Muslim.

Fadil Bayyari, a Palestinian and a general contractor in Springdale, Ark., has already built two churches and the first mosque in Fayetteville. Now he’s donating his time to help Temple Shalom complete its first building, waiving the contractor fees customarily associated with most building projects. He heard about the synagogue plan through his participation with the Rotary Club.

“I was born and raised in the West Bank,” said Bayyari. “I’ve been in the U.S. for 36 years and northwest Arkansas for 27…. I respect other peoples’ ways of life, other peoples’ religion.”

“We’re children of God, every one of us,” he added. “I’ve been brought up that way and … I raise my kids that way — to respect other peoples’ cultures and religion. And in my heart I decided I’m going to help them.”

Up until now, Temple Shalom rented space for its meetings. However, Jacob Adler felt that wasn’t good enough, citing myriad benefits to having a dedicated structure.

“We hope that [a building] will spur further growth,” said Adler, who is a philosophy professor at the University of Arkansas and works part-time as Temple Shalom’s only rabbi.

Although the fundraising isn’t complete, the congregation is hoping to begin construction soon, Adler said, adding that Bayyari’s offer makes things easier.

“It makes a big difference,” he said. “I’m sure we’d build the building eventually anyway. This probably means we can do it a little bit sooner. It’s certainly a big difference, a big contribution, and we’re really grateful to him.”

Temple Shalom already strives to integrate with other faiths in the area, for instance, by trading child-care duties.

“We share child care with one of the local churches, so on Easter we provide child care for them and on our High Holidays they provide child care for us,” Adler said.

“Some events we’re able to do with other religions and some are distinctively Jewish, but in a place where we’re such a small group [we] don’t want to isolate ourselves.”

Temple President Bill Feldman hopes that a dedicated space will allow for even more interaction.

“We’ll have a bigger arena to be able to have activities. Right now, we’re kind of cramped,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that with a bigger facility we’ll be able to … accommodate larger numbers of people for activities that might [include] many faiths. Presently, we have such a small facility we’re only able to host activities for our own group.”

The construction of the first Jewish temple in Fayetteville is certainly a sign of increasing religious diversity, while Bayyari’s involvement indicates the prospering interfaith relationship in the area. And while Jews and some other minorities still make up an even smaller percentage of the people in Arkansas that the national average, throughout the rest of the United States, such developments lead one to question whether this will always be the case.

“I’m hoping that what we’re doing here will be an example for others to follow around the U.S., and maybe this will be taken back to … Palestine and Israel,” Bayyari said. “If we get along with each other here, respect each other, and have wonderful relationships, then maybe they want to do the same. They’ve had wars for centuries. Maybe it’s about time to build up some good will and respect for each other’s way of life.”


This article first appeared in the Fayetteville Free Weekly.

Let’s get personal


People say they don’t really know me.

That’s what the last guy I dated said.

It seems that in the process of revealing myself on the page to total strangers, I’ve lost the ability to communicate myself in person to those who want to get to know me. Read all about it, is maybe what I should say. The last guy — well, I don’t really want to talk about him because that would be too personal — never read up on me until after his father, a big fan, told him about me. But by then it was too late. I hadn’t shared myself with him, we didn’t really connect, and it was over six weeks after it began so promisingly.

Look, I’m not taking all the blame for this one. My experience in the dating world — and if I have anything, it’s experience — tells me that the coming together of two people, or the failure of their coming together, is two-sided. He, being a never-married man of advanced age, probably has issues up the wazoo — commitment, attachment, abandonment — who knows? I wasn’t there long enough to figure them out. So it can’t be all me. It probably wasn’t even mostly me.

But still, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had been more communicative.
“You’re pretty much a mystery girl,” he said to me a number of times while we were dating.
I couldn’t understand this at the time, because I feel like an open book.

“Ask me anything, and I’ll tell you the answer,” I said, but that wasn’t his point.
He felt like he shouldn’t have to ask, that I should have volunteered the information as it came up.

Not everyone’s a busybody journalist like myself, who peppers people with questions, questions, questions.

“Sometimes I feel like you’re interviewing me,” he said, also more than once.

I wasn’t interviewing him. I don’t think I was interviewing him. OK, I was interviewing him for the position of my boyfriend (he didn’t get the job), but have I really so confused my job with my personality that I don’t know how to get to know someone without putting on the reporter’s mask?

I am starting to worry about myself. Now that the smoke has cleared from the sadness of the end — yes, I always get sad in the end, no matter how brief, how inappropriate, how missed the connection was — I can see what transpired. And I’m worried I have become my persona, a facsimile of myself.

“You talk a lot but you don’t reveal much,” a new-ish friend of mine recently said while we were having a girls’ lunch. True, she’s not my best friend and probably never will be, but it was interesting to hear this point of view.

“Do you mean I’m full of it?” I wanted to know.

“No, not at all,” she said, “but I don’t really know what’s going on with you — which is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s better than a person who tells everything to everyone.”

It’s funny, because I thought I was that person. I thought I was the person who wears her heart on her sleeve — her heart on the page, in my case. But the other woman at lunch, whom I consider a good friend, said the same thing.

“You keep things pretty close to the chest,” she said.

Doesn’t everyone do this? Doesn’t everyone have a very, very select group of people to whom they will cry, worry, rant, rave? Is it just that I have a wider circle of people, professional and personal, who are not in this select circle? Or, in my quest for privacy in a public world, have I become inscrutable?

What really plagues me in the early morning hours — reveal: I have sporadic insomnia — is what would have happened with this guy if I’d shared more of myself? Would we still be together? I’m guessing not. I’m guessing there was something in me that sensed he wasn’t the one for me, so I didn’t open up.

But now I wonder if I’ve got it all backward. Maybe I don’t need to see if someone is right for me to be myself.

Because in the end, after six weeks of a relationship that didn’t work out, maybe I saved myself a tear or two — after all, I console myself, we didn’t really connect, he didn’t really know me — but … he didn’t really know me. And this, this guy, these dates, is less about him than about me.

What it’s about — not only the endgame of finding a life partner, but the entire process of dating, meeting, connecting — is to be yourself.

No.

Matter.

What.

Koreatown residents visit the synagogue next door


When Charles Kim called Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple last year, it didn’t take long for the Korean American leader to get to the point.

“He was wondering if the temple was for sale,” said Stein, head of the synagogue’s Center for Religious Inquiry. “I can’t sell you the temple, I replied, but I hope I can sell you on a relationship.”

A series of discussions about how to bring the Korean and Jewish communities together followed. After Stein accepted an invitation to address a Koreatown Rotary Club meeting in December, he invited the Korean American community to the Byzantine-style synagogue on Feb. 27.

During an evening open house reception at Wilshire Boulevard Temple that featured desserts such as sticky sweet rice cakes and hamantaschen, Korean Americans and Jews gathered to dialogue about mutual understanding and to discuss conditions in the formerly Jewish Wilshire Center district, which is now home to the largest Korean population outside of Seoul.

While the Jewish and predominantly Korean communities have had dialogues before, this intercultural initiative marks the first time the Wilshire Center synagogue has opened its doors to the surrounding Korean community, which is predominantly Christian. About 80 people attended the event, which included Korean business and educational leaders as well as synagogue clergy, staff and congregants.

“It took us 34 years to get here,” said Kim, national president of the Korean American Coalition. “Thank you for making us feel at home. Shalom.”

A major topic of discussion between the Jewish and Korean communities was the shared use of the building’s facilities, which already house a predominantly Hispanic charter school during the day. Proposed joint ventures include introductory Judaism courses taught in Korean, a brown-bag lunch lecture series, and educational trips to Israel and Korea.

But a more daunting, shared problem facing the area is gang activity, Stein said. Among the 11 most dangerous L.A. gangs recently identified by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one is active in Koreatown.

“That’s our neighborhood,” said Stein, gesturing to the entire room. “We all have to work on that.”

Kim echoed Stein’s enthusiasm for cooperation between the ethnically, religiously and culturally distinct communities.

“Up until now, we have been like many islands, instead of one community,” said Kim, who traveled to Israel in 1987 as part of an Asian goodwill delegation.

This is not the first attempt at Korean-Jewish togetherness. A decade ago the American Jewish Committee launched a project to bring local Korean and Jewish business and political leaders together, and in 2005 the Simon Wiesenthal Center and The Jewish Federation held a “Talking Tolerance” discussion with Koreans and Jews. In the heart of Koreatown, the Rev. Yong-Soo Hyun runs the Shema Educational Institute, which promotes the study of Hebrew and Jewish culture.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple hopes to become an ongoing and significant partner in the life of the neighborhood.

The corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Hobart Street was once known as “the Jewish address” in Los Angeles, according to the synagogue’s literature. Originally dedicated in 1929, the building is actually the third inhabited by Los Angeles’ oldest synagogue community, founded as Congregation B’nai B’rith in 1862. After much of the Jewish population shifted West, Wilshire Boulevard Temple built the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in the mid-1990s.

The synagogue recently commissioned a demographic survey to determine how many Jewish families live in the surrounding mid-Wilshire area, and officials were surprised to discover a near 30 percent increase in Jewish residents within a 20-minute drive of the Koreatown campus.

“We are deeply committed to this neighborhood and plan to be here for hundreds of years to come,” Senior Rabbi Steven Z. Leder said.

Following the reception, guests were led on an hour-long tour of the synagogue, which features biblical murals by artist Hugo Ballin and a 100-foot dome in the Edgar F. Magnin Sanctuary.

“It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Kim said of the sanctuary.

When Stein told the story of a synagogue’s Torah scroll being rescued from a barn in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, the Korean guests were awed.

“Wow,” said Jun Su, executive director of the Korean Institute of Southern California, an educational organization. “A miracle.”

Stein nodded and smiled.

A spirit of hope and optimism surrounding a new friendship dominated the event, but there was one point of dispute between the Jews and Koreans. During the press conference, Kim strode up to the podium after Stein and said in a very solemn tone, “I have one correction to make.”

Kim looked to Stein and joked, “I never asked Stephen to sell me the temple. I asked him to give it to me.”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, ‘ target=’_blank’>www.kacla.org

Shema Educational Institute, Briefs: Survey to catalog landmark Boyle Heights buildings to prevent destruction; Chabad expands on

So many singles, so few tables


This is not a sob story. There is no hunger or homelessness, there are no kids with cancer.

Rather, it’s the story of single Jews in Los Angeles who, once ina while, would love to gather around a family Shabbat table. They’re not desperate for company. Many don’t have family here, and they just like the idea of staying connected to their Judaism and their people through the joy of a Shabbat table.

The problem is, there aren’t that many tables available, and the community could surely use a few more.

Remember the movie “Crash” that won the Oscar for Best Picture last year? On the surface, all you could see were the sharp differences among the many peoples of L.A., and how those differences divided us. But dig a little and you could see a more unifying message: When it comes to the pain of feeling isolated, we are all the same. Chinese, Persian, Latino, Black or Caucasian, deep down, what unites us all is our human need to stay connected — to not be alone.

Jews are no different. Whether male or female, young or old, Ashkenazic or Sephardic, rich or poor, left-wing or right-wing, religious or secular, SUV-driving or Prius-driving, loud or quiet, screenwriter or grant writer, somehow, no matter how good you feel in our own skin, and how much you enjoy your own company, none of us wants to be alone.

This need to stay connected seems only to deepen if you’re a single Jew living in the City of Angels … and it’s Friday night.

You don’t have your own family, you live in a city not known for itscommunal hugs, and you’re part of a people that has been kicked around for3,000 years — all of which makes you naturally open to some communalhugging.

And then there’s Friday night. After a week of doing whatever it is we all do, it’s not unusual to ask ourselves: What am I doing all this for? At that tender moment — when we seek to savor the fruits of our labors — there’s nothing quite like schmoozing with other Jews around the cozy warmth of a Shabbat table, especially if there’s a good bottle of red.

In his 2005 book “Around the Family Table,” Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains how the Shabbat meal “links the generations, making everyone feel part of the eternal people participating in an eternal conversation with the Divine.”

He goes on to say that “over the last 40 years, thousands of individuals have shared these meals with our family, and have likewise discovered meaning and inspiration through their participation. Indeed I am convinced that this family ritual is a far more authentic and significant expression of Judaism than is any synagogue service.”

Imagine, then, if sharing this ritual became part of the Jewish consciousness. Imagine, for example, if every Friday night millions of single Jews across America would gather and connect with other Jewish families over a beautiful Shabbat meal.

It’d be like a weekly invitation to stay Jewish.

In fact, if the Jewish federations were smart, and if they were really serious about “Jewish continuity,” they would get together and create a national “Shabbat Birthright” movement and work with local communities everywhere to encourage Jewish families to connect with Jewish singles on Shabbat. Unlike one-day programs like “Shabbat Across America” that happen in outside locations, this would promote an ongoing ritual that is celebrated in Jewish homes.

They might start by coming down here to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where an enterprising single Jew has started what you might call her own little Shabbat birthright movement.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a buttoned-up organization with a catchy name and a cool Web site. It doesn’t even have a name. It’s simply the brainchild of a 30-something woman named Lori Pietruszka, who’s got this mini-obsession with tracking down Jewish singles and matching them up with Shabbat tables in the neighborhood.

Since she started this in January with the help of friends, Lori has arranged Shabbat tables for about 90 single Jews in 11 different homes. The list of singles with references now tops 200, and she says she’s getting calls and e-mails every day from singles looking to join up (lorica10@aol.com). She already has Shabbat bookings through June.

Lori is one of those “Mary Poppins” kind of people, who doesn’t know from sarcasm and who uses phrases like “incredibly awesome.” There is one thing, however, that she doesn’t find incredibly awesome: how hard it is to find tables.

She’s doesn’t like to complain, but it pains her that married people with kids can forget how great it felt to be invited to a beautiful Shabbat meal when they themselves were single. That makes her exceedingly grateful to the families that have opened their hearts and their homes to her.

She knows that there have always been tables around the hood that regularly host singles, but she’d love to see more families embrace this mitzvah that dates from the time of Abraham. She believes that opening your door to guests is not just a way to connect with new and interesting people of your own faith, it’s also a blessing.

Eventually, she hopes that the many synagogues of the area will take over this blessing and encourage their members to participate. Since a lot of singles don’t go to synagogue, the synagogues will have to find them. That’s where people like Lori will help.

When I ask if her hidden agenda is to help singles meet their soulmates, she replies that it’s all part of the same picture. She thinks a Shabbat table is a holier, more elegant place to meet a possible shidduch than, say, a “singles event” or a pressure-filled first date.

Maybe she’s right. If you don’t meet that special someone at a Shabbat meal, you can always say you felt part of the eternal people participating in an eternal conversation with the Divine.

Or better yet, that you met a few good Jews and had some really good laughs.

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

The Key Is Rejoicing


A story is told about a Chasidic rabbi visited by an enthusiastic follower. The man eagerly wanted to update the rabbi on his latest religious undertaking.

“I have decided to inflict my body and deprive myself from mundane pleasures,” the man said. “Every day I roll in the snow after receiving 39 lashes; I sleep standing, put nails in my shoes, drink only water and eat only raw vegetables. I feel that I am taking off my bodily garb and dress up in a spiritual, heavenly cloth.”

Instead of responding, the rabbi started walking with his follower around the village until they arrived at a stable. There the rabbi paused and, gazing admiringly at one of the horses, asked the man: “Isn’t this a magnificent animal?”

The man could not control his frustration.

“Rabbi, this is truly beyond me,” he complained. “I am talking spirituality here and you are thinking about horses?”

The rabbi remained unmoved by the man’s outburst and answered calmly, “This horse drinks only water and eats straw, sleeps standing and has nails in its shoes; its master uses the whip ruthlessly and rolling in the snow is its daily ritual, but after all it is still a horse.”

The rabbi might have been inspired by this week’s portion. At first glance, admittedly, it seems like an eclectic collection of laws and instructions, dealing with such disparate issues as dietary laws, agrarian laws anti-paganism campaign and more. A close look at the Re’eh, though, will reveal a key word that illuminates the working thesis of this collection of laws.

The root “shin, mem, chet” — be happy, rejoice — appears in the parsha seven times, and it is always in the context of the family and the community. You should rejoice in the place your God has chosen, with your sons and daughters, and servants, with the sojourners and with the Levites who have no permanent residence in the land of Israel.

This key phrase is an insight into what Judaism considers to be the true way of serving God. It is a way of life that is imbued with happiness and gratitude. It is sharing your blessings with family, friends and the less fortunate. It is one of the main reasons for the agrarian laws, which guarantee social justice and equality, as well as a partial reason for the rejection of paganism.

A bitter, angry man can only wreak havoc, even more so if he thinks he represents God. Jacques Barzun, the famous historian tacitly described the motive for religious wars: “Be my brother or I will kill you.”

This is exactly the pagan attitude shunned in Re’eh. The Torah warns against the pagan practice of wounding one’s flesh as a sign of mourning or spiritual fervor (Deuteronomy 14:1) and against the horrifying practice of offering one’s offspring as a burnt sacrifice to the gods (Deuteronomy 12:31).

These two practices not only are linked but they are the breeders of religious fanaticism.

If you are willing to inflict physical pain upon yourself as a service to your god, why not treat others to the same spiritual experience? Paradoxically, they will be killed or harmed because of your love for them.

What other atrocities can be committed by those who murder their own children in the name of God? We would like to think that such practices are extinct, but unfortunately this is not the case. There are still religious sects around the world who herald asceticism and acts that border with masochism. In some cases it leads to religious or ethnic terrorism, and in others to a complete apathy and indifference to the fate of the less fortunate (India, abundant with Yogi, Brahmins and fakirs, is a good example as home to spirituality seekers from around the world but also to millions of untouchable who live in subhuman conditions just because they were born into a certain caste).

The practice of human sacrifices did not disappear with the demise of the Phoenicians or the annihilation of South American cultures by the conquistadores as we would like to think. Since the dawn of humanity fathers and mothers have been marching their children off to unnecessary wars in the name of bloodthirsty gods.

The message of this week’s parsha reverberates with that of Isaiah: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the chords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home … then shall your light burst through like the dawn” (Deuteronomy 58:5-8).

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

Bonding Over Torah


On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.

“Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed,” educator Marcie Meier tells the group.

These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.

Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for “pathways.” And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.

“The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful,” said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.

Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.

Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.

“We learn from Shmuel’s mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn’t know that,” says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.

Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.

During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.

“Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength,” Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.

In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.

And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model — usually a teacher, mother or another relative — and present the findings to the class.

“You’re supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that’s happening,” says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.

These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d’var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women’s monthly prayer group at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

“While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that’s become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it,” says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.

Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot’s Seminar, are beginning to appear.

At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.

The girls in Netivot’s Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d’var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.

Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b’not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.

But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.

“This was not around in my time,” Marcie Meier says. “The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today.”

And it’s not only the mothers who appreciate it.

“It’s really cool learning with my mom,” says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. “Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more.”

For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit www.netivot.org or call (310) 226-6141.

 

Family History at the Holiday Table


Reconnecting long-lost family often begins with a relative’s random comment during a holiday gathering as generations gather around a dinner table. The holiday season is an ideal time to share roots and traditions, and to begin a family history project, adding lasting links to the chain of Jewish identity and continuity.

At a family gathering in Israel, Ingrid Rockberger heard a relative say that an American cousin had visited family in Sweden. Something clicked, as she vaguely recalled meeting some Swedish cousins in London, as a young child, some 50 years ago. This was the catalyst for a family reunion reuniting the Israeli, British and Swedish branches.

Decades ago, my aunt in Florida said, quite offhandedly, that her grandfather repeatedly claimed that “Talalay was our name when we left Spain.” She added that no one believed it, and most laughed at the idea of our Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking family having such origins.

Decades went by before I began to search, but I never forgot her comment.

Mogilev, Belarus, has been the focus of my search — from there we immigrated to America and elsewhere. I’ve located far-flung branches in several countries.

However, my quest for a Sephardi connection continued, and I discovered a number of Sephardi-named families in the city, adding to the possibility.

In 2004, a Spanish researcher discovered a 1353 archival document, signed by a kosher winemaker with our rare name. In October, I’ll return to Barcelona to continue the search in several archives.

While memories fade and older generations pass, writings and images survive, preserving family lore. Make sure to share these with extended family, and include copies as gifts for new babies, bar/bat mitzvah and weddings.

In June 2005, genealogy sites received 11 million hits, and that marketing survey didn’t even include JewishGen.

According to www.ancestry.com, the world’s largest genealogy Web site, a recent poll indicated that 73 percent of Americans are interested in their roots. Susan King, head of www.jewishgen.org, the largest Jewish genealogical Web site, recently announced the Web site, which receives millions of hits, counts some 160,000 subscribers from around the world, and is joined by some 5,000 new people monthly.

A proliferation of specialized books, online Jewish genealogy classes and special projects have inspired and assisted researchers in preserving family history.

Even without spending a lot of time on the Web, there’s a lot you can do during the holiday season to pique interest in genealogy during the High Holidays:

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Add Inclusiveness to Your Seder Table


 

Imagine going to celebrate a hypothetical holiday with Martian relatives on their planet. You don’t know the language, you don’t know the customs, you don’t know the purpose of the holiday. You might cope by seeing yourself as an anthropologist, witnessing the strange rites of the other. Still, even if you care deeply about your Martian family, the experience isn’t going to feel familiar or personally meaningful. Yet if this is your own family, you might want to become more involved.

For non-Jewish partners, even with the best good will, the seder experience can be strange and unfamiliar. Jewish family members prioritize coming together at this time of year. Festive preparations have been made: There’s a feast that includes ritual foods such as matzah and special items on a seder plate. There may be lots of Hebrew reading accompanying the meal. Or perhaps the family gathers but with no apparent religious themes. Each family’s Passover is unique, yet there are some ways to orient and integrate non-Jewish guests and family members.

For one thing, some universal themes are celebrated at the seder. The greens and hard-boiled egg on the seder plate celebrate the renewal and rebirth of spring. The story of the exodus of the Hebrew slaves can be seen as a celebration of freedom and has become a paradigm of liberation for many peoples, including African American slaves and Tibetan Buddhists. Bringing alive these elements of the story can be an invitation to all people to be part of the celebration.

At some seders, people move beyond the traditional Passover text to have conversations applying the seder themes to their own lives. They see themselves as moving through bondage, liberation, wandering in the desert, and seeking the “promised land” in very personal ways and discuss how each guest feels enslaved or stuck in his or her life. They may say, metaphorically, as you cross the Red Sea, what do you want to leave behind? What do you want to take with you? In what ways can you identify with the Jewish people who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years — where are you confused or questioning? What is the “promised land” for you? A new job? More time for yourself? Less clutter in the house?

If we make the Passover story our own we receive the gift of living within a myth that is larger than our individual selves. All people throughout history have experienced the tight, stuck places of Mitzrayim (Egypt). All people want liberation either from addictions, financial stress, health problems or some other issue. The bigger story that we are part of helps normalize our own trials and tribulations. It gives meaning to the grand journey of life. And the big story is much more accessible to non-Jewish beloveds than the very specific rituals of the seder.

If you don’t think all the members of your Passover gathering would want to focus on spiritual insights and sharing, maybe you and your spouse would want to prepare for Passover together by having these conversations. As the years go by, non-Jewish family members may learn to chant the four questions in Hebrew, spill drops of wine for each of the 10 Plagues and hide the middle matzah for the kids. But nothing will supersede the value of being invited to step into the mythic story of Passover as an insider and full participant.

This article is reprinted with permission of juliegberg@yahoo.com.

 

Tour Puts Kosher Boy Scout in Limelight


 

As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, Edward Schwarzschild did a stint as a Kosher Boy Scout and hated it.

“Carrying two sets of dishes into the wilderness was a real turn-off for me,” he said.

Now 40, Schwarzschild hails from a venerable tradition of writers who have mined their formative Jewish experiences for literary purposes. This makes sense, considering that his first novel, “Responsible Men” (Algonquin) due out April 8, revolves around a Jewish family in Philadelphia faced with the challenge of understanding their past and improving their present.

“I never intended to write a book about my father,” Schwarzschild said. “But it’s clear to me that I wrote this book as a way to understand him.”

Schwarzschild will read from his book at the Café Club Fais Do Do in Mid-City on April 12, along with three other debut novelists selected for the 2005 spring First Fiction Tour. Founded last year by Cindy Dach, a manager of Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., the tour promotes like rock stars first-time authors by arranging a cross-country itinerary of readings in bars and clubs.

In addition, Schwarzschild has received his fair share of advance praise from a number of writers. Ha Jin, the award-winning author of “Waiting,” calls it a “marvelous novel and moving, impressive debut.”

“Responsible Men” revolves around Max Wolinsky, a salesman turned con man, who returns from his escapist life in Florida to attend his son’s bar mitzvah in Philadelphia. Back in his hometown, he must face his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, reconnect with his son and attend to the needs of his aging father and ailing uncle.

Although the novel begins with Max performing one of his real estate scams on a nice elderly couple, Schwarzschild has made him likeable, along with a supporting cast of flawed-yet-endearing characters. And yes, while the main characters in the novel grow into more evolved individuals (Max gives up conning and meets a good woman. Nathan, his son, forgives his parents and winds up loving the Kosher Boy Scouts), Schwarzschild does not tie up every loose end and consequently creates a story that resonates as truer to life.

Antonia Fusco, Schwarzschild’s editor at Alongquin, says she “was drawn to Ed’s work because of the honest and gentle way in which he writes about the lives of men. It’s unusual to come across a domestic story written from the male point of view,” she said. “Ed’s wry sense of humor and the joy he brings to his writing made me care for his characters, even when they’re not responsible.”

Schwarzschild, an assistant professor of American literature and creative writing at University at Albany, SUNY, describes his upbringing as classic Jewish American. While his grandmother grew up in a kosher home, he didn’t. Raised Reform, he said his “transformative” Jewish experiences of his youth included his bar mitzvah and Boy Scout troop. Not until college did he discover that he could passionately engage his heritage through literature.

“It was such an awakening to read writers like Phillip Roth and Grace Paley,” he said. “These writers spoke to me in a voice that was true to my world, my experiences and hinted at what I had yet to experience.”

As the eldest son and the child of a salesman, Schwarzschild grew up with the deeply ingrained notion that he would become a doctor, majoring in pre-med and cramming for classes at Cornell University.

“I was convinced I could be a writer on the side, that I could just fax over my stories to The New Yorker,” he said.

Schwarzschild eventually struck a compromise with the familial expectations. He would become a writer but earn a doctorate in the process.

“I took the responsible track,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder what if I was that person who just went to live in New York City and write a novel. But in the end, I can see that I chose the right path.”

After receiving his doctorate from Washington University, Schwarzschild continued on to Boston University’s MFA creative writing program, a fellowship at Stanford and the pursuit of publishing short stories in literary journals. One of these stories won a prize in the journal StoryQuarterly, and agents began to call. Schwarzschild said that “was the one time in the publishing process when being the son of a salesman helped. I chose the agent who struck me as the best salesman.”

After traveling with the First Fiction Tour, Schwarzschild hopes to finish up a collection of short stories and start work on a new novel. “That’s the healthiest thing for me to do, as opposed to becoming obsessed over what reviews I might get,” he said.

Above all, Schwarzschild hopes that readers of his book “will come away with a sense of recognition about their relationships with their parents or children. Whatever I’ve learned about writing a book, I know that it’s not about instruction but about sharing experiences.”

Schwarzschild reads with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Matthew Carnahan and Marya Hornbacher on April 12, 7:30 p.m. at Café Club Fais Do Do, 5257 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles. The event is sponsored by Book Soup in conjunction with the First Fiction Tour. For more information, call (310) 659-3110 or visit www.faisdodo.com.

 

Principal for a Day, Lesson for a Lifetime


 

This Wednesday dawns as another tough, typical grind for the principal of the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES). There’s the 7:15 a.m. arrival and the 10 p.m. departure. Then there’s the picket line set up by half the teaching staff. And later, the little problem of not having eye washes in science classrooms in case experiments go dangerously wrong.

It’s a lot more than Kenn Phillips could have bargained for when he accepted this gig as principal. Lucky for him, he doesn’t have to come back tomorrow.

That’s because Phillips isn’t the real principal, but merely principal for a day. Phillips is among more than 200 professionals who arranged to shadow principals as part of a Los Angeles Unified School District effort to create alliances between businesses and schools. Phillips is getting an early start with his mid-March stint. Nearly all of the other short-timers are serving on Tuesday, March 29.

At the Center for Enriched Studies, the Principal-for-a-Day ritual has a distinctly Jewish cast. Phillips, a 46-year-old businessman, is Jewish, and so is the actual principal, 56-year-old Robert Weinberg. SOCES, as the school is called, has a sizable contingent of Jewish students, an estimated 20 percent. He considers character education, often expressed through religious traditions, to be at the core of developing responsible young adults. His sign-off after announcements wishes students a good day and reminds them “character counts.”

SOCES, in Tarzana, is not a district trouble spot by any measure. Its test scores are among Los Angeles’ best; its students almost universally attend college. But that doesn’t make the principal’s job easy, as Phillips learns.

Not that Weinberg is complaining. He’s entirely immersed in his role.

“Most people, when they come to this school,” Weinberg says, “find it’s a magical kind of place.”

OK, it’s not so magical to find 35 teachers picketing, but they’re not mad at the principal, only upset over several years without pay raises. And the cause of the 10 p.m. departure is a concert, a special event that Weinberg is pleased lose sleep for. As for the eye washes — Weinberg can handle that, too. By day’s end, he decides to spend grant money to buy them. He’s got plenty of other potential uses for those funds, but safety, he concludes, has to come first.

Phillips’ visit quickly becomes an exchange of ideas, a sharing of experiences. Phillips has shadowed a principal seven times: “It’s important that I understand what Bob, the teachers and students are thinking, because when I meet with people at a very high level, they don’t know the pulse of what’s going on,” said Phillips, a director at the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.

So, at 10:15 a.m., when Weinberg grabs his walkie-talkie and heads outside, Phillips, mobile phone strapped to his belt, follows. Phillips is dressed smartly, sleekly, in a business suit and gleaming blue tie. Weinberg, by contrast, is large — 6-foot-8 — and more rumpled. He’s known for occasionally dressing up as “Bob the Builder.”

Weinberg leans against a railing at the center of campus, while teachers and many of the school’s 1,750 students stream by. SOCES is known for a student body that ranges in age from 10 to 18. Little girls, dressed in pink, snack on bagels, while a high school couple walks past with arms draped around one another. A teenage boy sitting on a bench plays guitar.

“What are we doing?” Phillips asks.

“We’re doing supervision,” Weinberg answers. “If kids want to talk to me, they have access.”

“Hey, Mr. Weinberg,” says a redheaded sprout. “Have a peanut M&M. I bought them, so you could have one.”

Weinberg obliges.

The bell sounds and students dart in every direction. Weinberg stays in place, issuing tardy slips.

But he’s not just giving a demonstration in school administration. He wants to hear Phillips’ ideas on education. Businesses need students with better communication and teamwork skills, Phillips says, and with a stronger commitment to ethics. During part of the day, he will share these beliefs with a class of high schoolers.

Weinberg leads Phillips down a hallway, explaining that advanced students can take classes at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

“Have you thought about adding a bungalow here, so that instead of kids going to Pierce, you’d have [the instructors] come here?” Phillips asks.

“No, but that’d be great,” Weinberg says.

As they walk through an outdoor cafeteria, Phillips asks, “Do you have an active PTA?”

Weinberg, in his fifth year here, says the school has no PTA at all, but he’d like to establish one.

“If you need help, I’ll see if we can make that work for you,” Phillips says.

He explains that a president of the association sits on his company’s board.

The two step into an auditorium blaring with music, where orchestra students rehearse for the evening’s concert. Weinberg points out how he renovated the place with contributions from corporate sponsors.

When it’s time for the two to part, Weinberg lumbers through one door to “do supervision,” while Phillips glides through a different one to return to his world of business.

Before he leaves, Phillips asked: “If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?”

Weinberg says he would reduce class sizes, add more time to the school year and get every teacher to believe that any student can learn.

If Phillips and his corporate associates could help accomplish those things, he’d be welcome to stand in as principal any day.

 

Yeladim


Let’s Work

In this week’s portion, Lech Lecha, we learn about a fight between the shepherds of Abraham and his nephew, Lot. There was plenty of space for everyone, but they weren’t getting along so it seemed too crowded. Our rabbis teach us that when two people get along, they can be happy together sharing even the smallest of spaces, but when they don’t, the whole world can seem too small.

By working at getting along with the people around us, we can make our whole world seem bigger and brighter.

Don’t forget to send in your essay of where you would go in time and space if you could climb into a time machine? Write an essay, story or poem telling us about your adventure. Send entries by Nov. 4. to abbygilad@yahoo.com. Remember to include your full name, age, address, school and grade.

Twinning Makes for Double Mitzvah


A surplus of 13-year-olds and a shortage of Shabbat mornings often means sharing the bar or bat mitzvah experience with a partner. While “sharing” customs vary from synagogue to synagogue, the b’nai mitzvah typically co-lead many of the prayers, divide the Torah and haftarah readings and each deliver a d’var Torah.

When Hannah Marek shared her Shabbat Sukkot bat mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge, Conn., with “partner,” Marion Pritchard, it was Hannah alone who lead the entire service, including Shacharit, Hallel, the Torah service, Torah and haftarah readings, d’var Torah, Musaf and the Hoshanot. Pritchard said only a few words. But these words lead to unprecedented clapping, tears and even a standing ovation — for both 13-year-old Hannah of New Haven, and for 82-year-old Pritchard.

“When Marion came up to the bimah and gave her little talk, I was biting my lip not to cry,” Hannah admitted.

Who is Marion Pritchard and why would a Jewish girl choose to share her special day with a non-Jew more than six times her age?

Pritchard is a soft-spoken psychotherapist living in Vermont. She is also a “Righteous Gentile.” For her bat mitzvah, Hannah wished to recognize and honor the work of such people as Pritchard, who helped save and rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Pritchard grew up in the Netherlands. When the Nazis occupied her country, she witnessed such horrifying acts as children being tossed on to trucks. These events affected her deeply. In 1944, when a friend (a member of the resistance) asked her to find a hiding place for a Jewish man and his three children (including a baby), she agreed. She hid them in a space underneath the living room floor in a house in the Dutch countryside, about 20 miles from Amsterdam. On one occasion, two Nazi officers came to her home, searched, but found nothing. On a second visit, this time by only one officer, he heard a baby crying and discovered the hidden family. Pritchard immediately took a gun, which was hidden behind a bookcase, and killed the officer. She even arranged for the body to be taken away and buried.

Hannah learned of Pritchard’s work in several ways: First, her older sister, Miriam, had shared her bat mitzvah with Pritchard two years ago. And even then, Pritchard was no stranger to the Marek household. Mother Deborah Dwork, a professor at Clark University and founding director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, had met Pritchard at an academic conference. And she invited Pritchard eight years ago to co-teach a course at Clark. The two now co-teach four separate courses on a rotating basis.

“I am an analyst historian; she is a participant historian/rescuer,” Dwork noted. “When [Pritchard] sits at the top of the seminar table each fall and speaks, the 18 students in the class are totally silent.”

Dwork speaks with great admiration about colleague and friend Pritchard. And she describes the accomplishments and qualities of her daughters in the most glowing terms. Dwork was pleased when daughter, Miriam, naturally stood up and went up to the bimah at Hannah’s bat mitzvah to help the somewhat frail Pritchard down the stairs (“The entire congregation stood up and applauded while Miriam escorted Marion,” Dwork said). And Miriam has kept in touch with the director of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous since her bat mitzvah and will serve as an intern there this summer.

Dwork is proud of the extensive role Hannah chose to have in the Shabbat Sukkot service. But she is especially pleased with Hannah’s motivation — and with Hannah’s ability to articulate the meaning of the bat mitzvah to B’nai Jacob’s Rabbi Richard Eisenberg, in a private pre-bat mitzvah meeting in his study. He was so moved that he felt compelled to share with the congregation some of Hannah’s profound observations and insights.

“Being able to recite the entire service — that’s what religion is to me,” she said. “It’s important to me to know all of it. If I was the last Jew alive, I’d be honoring my people and culture to be able to lead the service and to teach others. I loved learning at the Ezra Academy [Solomon Schechter Day School in Woodbridge] for six years and I plan to send my children there in the future.”

Eisenberg noted, “For Hannah and her family, the service was not only about Hannah, but about the legacy and heritage of Israel and the Jewish people, and about honoring the memory of the victims and the heroism of the Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews. The twinning is a testament to this theme. Marion’s presence in shul was a most powerful complement to Hannah’s coming of age, because this is all about memory, history and, God-willing, a bright future.”

For more information about the Jewish Foundation for the
Righteous, including their Twinning Program and the Rescuer Support Program,
visit

The Sedermakers


It’s not that Jeanne Weiner wanted Aunt Leonie’s Indian Tree
dishes for herself. She hadn’t used the hand-painted china in five years —
since just before her husband died — and last Passover she was on the verge of
giving the entire service for 31 to her daughter Joelle Keene, who had taken
charge of the family seder.

But when it came to actually giving up the china, she
balked. And even though this year she is making the transfer, these dishes —
more than the Thanksgiving dishes or all the furniture she gave to her
daughters — call up a wave of emotion and tears.

“I wanted to give them to her, but I couldn’t. I just had to
be ready, because I was making a statement. And that statement was that my
husband was gone and I wasn’t going to do any real entertaining of my family
anymore and it’s moved on to my children’s homes,” said Weiner, a 76-year-old
psychologist, sitting at her daughter’s dining room table, the pink and
turquoise peonies blossoming on a setting of the dishes in front of them. “It
is part of my new life, which is not as satisfying as my old life was.”

The emotions heaped on a set of seder dishes shouldn’t be
surprising.

The microcosm of the seder, perhaps like no other ritual of
the year, brings into focus all the nostalgia, Jewish identity issues and
family dynamics that stay in the fuzzy background the rest of the year.

At no point are those dynamics more in focus than when it
comes time for the seder to transition from one generation to the next.

“It is a sign that things are changing, that the power of
the older generation is fading, that the end of that generation is coming and
that a new generation has to take over,” said Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein,
associate rabbi at Beit T’Shuva.

The question of who is making seder and how becomes symbolic
of whatever is going on in a family. Whether the transition occurs because of
death, illness, new geographic realities or simply a readiness to retire, it
means changing a ritual whose very focus is the continuity of generations.

“We in America have gotten used to handing our children over
to institutions to get their education, but this is one instance where the
family has to take a role in presenting something that is so deep and so
educational,” Feinstein said.

She suggests making the transition in stages, if
circumstances allow, and making sure that not only is the recipient ready to
take on the enormous task, but that the one giving up sedermaking
responsibilities is really ready to do so.

When Don Goor’s mother, Stephanie Goor, finally stopped
shlepping her box of seder paraphernalia — charoset bowls, kiddush cups,
candlesticks — back and forth between his home and hers, he knew she had fully
let go of making seder.

The transition started about 10 years ago, when Goor and his
partner, Evan Kent, first moved seder into their home. Goor’s mother and
grandmother still prepared much of the food and led the seder as they had for
years, with Stephanie sticking strictly to her never-changing marks in her
leader’s haggadah. And each year Stephanie brought over the box of stuff, and
for years took it back to her home.

“For a long time it was still their seder but it was in our
house,” said Kent, the cantor at Temple Isaiah in West L.A., who has been with
Goor, the rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, for 18 years. “We used the same
haggadah and had the same food, but slowly what happened was we realized that
our own friends would join us and it sort of grew and changed.”

Discussion became more spontaneous and informal, with the
hosts (both clergy, after all) taking the lead. Eventually the menu evolved,
since Kent is vegetarian, though many of the foods — mom’s knaidlach and
grandma’s farfel muffins — stayed the same.

Finally, they switched to a different haggadah, and the
transition seemed to be complete.

With change coming slowly and organically, Goor said his
mother and grandmother never felt pushed aside or left out, and always
participated.

“My mother’s way of resisting was to make these little
editorial comments along the way about how good seder used to be, or what an
unusual way of doing things,” Goor said. “My grandmother was more outspoken.
She would come out and say, ‘I don’t like this haggadah. I liked it better the
other way.'”

This year there will be another transition. Goor’s
grandmother died at 91 a few years ago, and his mother died just a few months
ago at the age of 71. Seder will be a low-key affair this year.

“I’m avoiding it totally. I keep pretending it will happen
on its own,” Goor said.

For many, who is not at the seder is as important as who is.
Beyond the rawness of missing loved ones, the cycling of the generations can
have a strong psychological impact on those who take over — even when it is not
because someone has died.

“Before, there was this buffer between you and your own
mortality, but then when you take ownership, you are the matriarch, you are the
patriarch and there is no buffer between you and the end of your cycle,”
Feinstein said.

It was a slow transition for Jeanne Weiner’s family after
Beryl, her husband of 27 years, died four years ago.

Beryl had been central to the family seder since they moved
to California from New York more than 30 years ago, after Weiner’s first
marriage ended.

“Beryl had a real gift for drawing people out and making
them comfortable so they wanted to talk,” said Keene, the music teacher and
newspaper adviser at Shalhevet High School, who lives in Beverlywood with her
husband and three teenagers.

After Beryl died, the family seder sputtered a bit, not only
because of Beryl’s death, but because Keene and her family had become much more
observant, scaring away her two sisters and her mother from a seder that they
imagined would start late and take forever.

But eventually they gave it a try.

“Last year was the first time everyone came and we had a
really big seder here. I remember feeling that this was like the first real
one, because everyone was here,” Keene said.

Weiner still does some of the cooking — she’s used the same
matzah ball recipe for decades, and the chopped liver stays on the menu.

Keene has tried to replace the haggadah she and Beryl
composed when she was 18, but nothing has seemed quite right yet. With cousins
ranging in age from a baby to teenagers, and religious observance covering the
spectrum, coming up with the right balance, timing and tone is challenging.

But Keene is determined to make it work.

“I feel pressure to make seder really wonderful — it should
be terrific, fun, uplifting, interesting, relaxed, memorable — the list of
adjectives is so long,” Keene said. In other words, to make seder just like
mom.

But Weiner encourages her daughter to create a seder that is
all her own.

“I think what you are trying to — and have — emulated is the
feeling rather than the fact of our seders — the lasting impression of it,
which was that you loved it and it was good, and that is what you are
recapturing. But you are creating your own, and frankly that is as it should
be. It’s nice to pass on dishes, but do things in your home the way you want
them to be done in your home,” Weiner said.

Keene is happy to make it her own, but like any daughter of
any age, still wants mom’s approval.

“Is there anything good about the seders here?” Keene asks
her mom. “You said the food was good.”

“No, I didn’t even say the food was good,” Weiner answers,
deadpan. “I said what was good about the seder was that the family is here.
That is the most important thing.”

“Well, you said I do a good job on the table,” Keene
submits.

“You said it and I agreed. Don’t misquote me,” her mother
fires back.

They go at it for a few more minutes, until finally Weiner
caves in with the smile and love that was there all along.

“The seder is warm and friendly and welcoming and the food
is delicious. The family is here and the table is beautiful. What more could
anyone ask?” Weiner says.

“Thanks,” says Keene, with a relieved laugh. “Thank you. I
needed that.”  

Who I Really Am


Here’s the scenario: I travel for work almost 20 days a month. It’s lonely out there on the road, one long Bob Seger song. Dating is almost impossible, but I’ve met a guy who seems to fit the suit.

By that, I mean he’s employed, smart, sweet, even Jewish. We’ve had two dates so far, both stellar. We held a competition about who could dredge up the most Jewish name from our family vault. A bartender declared me the winner with "Fraindle Vishnotzky."

I was sure this would be an adorable story down the road. We were already calling each other Vishnotzky, and everyone knows nicknames are the first step on the road to togetherness.

Since I’m only home a week at a time, I’m in an intimacy hurry. I’ve got to get this going before the next stint in a suburban Holiday Inn in Irving, Texas. I need someone to call at night, a touchstone.

Vishnotzky has been a little flaky, but I have to overlook that for obvious reasons. He’s supposed to call later, and I’m sure he’ll ask me out for one last date before I dash off. There’s nothing to do but wait, so I take a long walk through Koreatown.

This question popped into my head: What is the one story I could tell about myself that would expose who I really am? That one anecdote that would encapsulate my whole self, that story I’d tell to hasten the bonding process. This is the story that I recalled as I strode down Beverly Boulevard. You probably have one, too, if you think about it. Here’s mine.:

I’m snuggled in my sleeping bag, the one I take out every summer, which has that musty, mountain smell. The only light in the cabin is coming from my mother’s flashlight, a dim pool pointed at a hardback book. She’s reading aloud, one chapter a night, like she does every summer.

I’m 8 and my brother’s 10. We’re city kids, other than once a year in Yosemite, when we scoot around in flip-flops covered in bug spray. We ride old, slow horses and swim in a mossy lake. We play Ping-Pong for hours on a table circled by big trees.

This year, the book is John Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men." When the chapter is over, I hear the flashlight switch off. It’s dark and it’s a fact that there are bears around, but I’m more scared about what’s going to happen to Lenny. I just hope he gets to tend to those rabbits and alfalfa. It doesn’t seem like much to ask.

The summer before, the book was Kurt Vonnegut’s "Breakfast of Champions," which may have been age inappropriate, but my mother’s the type of person who talks to children using words like "ominous." She’s never uttered "coochee coo" in her life. Anyway, we liked the book. We liked hearing my mom say, "Zihuatanejo."

But Steinbeck is devastating us. He has that magical way of concocting the most painful possible human scenario and then shaking some salt on the open wound. That’s how I happened to walk in on my brother, breaking the unspoken contract, reading ahead.

I came in to grab a towel, and he was sitting on his cot, finishing the last page of "Of Mice and Men," red-eyed and red-handed. He said, "Don’t tell mom I cried." I didn’t. It was the only time I ever saw my brother cry, save the unforgettable Ricky Schroder "Don’t die, champ" scene in "The Champ."

I never forgot the power of those stories, my mom’s voice in the dark, wishing she’d turn pages and read all night.

As an adult, there’s nothing I love more than listening to books on tape — fiction, true crime, anything — especially while on a road trip. It’s the most soothing mixture: the freedom of the open road with the comfort of a story carrying you forward, whispering in your ear as you fly down the highway. It’s the best kind of freedom, the kind where someone is holding your hand part way.

Mom read with her Yosemite voice, measured, smooth and calm. Sometimes, she answers the phone with that voice, out of nowhere, and it brings me back. I want to be 8 again, dirty feet rubbing together under my sleeping bag for warmth.

We didn’t have much time for each other back then. My brother lived with my dad. My mom worked two jobs.

Maybe that’s what I’m straining to hear when I listen to books on tape or even NPR. I’m trying to hear something as distant and muted as a creature rustling around in the night. It’s those short chapters in a now-closed book, that time when our heads were on our pillows, our minds on the same page, our story the same.

Anyway, that’s the memory I fantasized about sharing. The one, if I had to pick one. He never called that night, but he did call that memory to mind. For that, I’m thankful.

Teresa Strasser can be seen Saturdays at noon and 10
p.m. on TLC’s “While You Were Out” and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com .

Speaking One Language


What kind of Jew are you? Reform? Conservative? Orthodox? Secular? Cultural? Reconstructionist? With whom do you identify? With whom do you disagree? What kind of Jew is so different that you would have nothing to share?

Somehow, we can’t resist the urge to put labels on ourselves, to define ourselves by our differences.

This week’s Torah portion provides some insight into our innate instinct — as humans and as Jews — to divide ourselves into factions. The familiar story of the Tower of Babel begins with an intriguing statement: “All the earth had one language and one speech.” This seems simple enough. On the surface, the text is telling us that everyone on earth knew the same words. In the most literal sense, it suggests that all the people had the same lexicon — the same set of words from which they were able to communicate. Perhaps they all spoke with a similar accent and intonation and even gestures.

To us, “language” means much more than words. “Everyone was of one language” could imply that people shared cultural and social reference points. They had a shared history and a common political backdrop and a social system.

In fact, many classical Torah commentators suggest that the verse means that the people shared everything, from culture to theology to even possessions. One traditional source even promotes the idea that “they had one language” implies “they were one family.”

And what happens to this (perhaps) extraordinarily single-minded group of human beings? As the Torah tells it, they decide to build a tower toward heaven, a project God halts by scattering the people in countless directions. In addition, the Torah says, God “confounds their language,” thus turning it into a tower of babbling. No longer are the people of a single language. No longer do they communicate with ease. Everything is different.

At first glance, this appears to be a punishment. It would seem that this language dispersion might be tremendously damaging. But is it? Would the ideal be for the whole world to have just one language?

Perhaps not. We find a midrash, a rabbinic teaching, that leads us to a different perspective. It tells us that when God gave the Torah, the Ten Commandments, it was in 70 different languages. In other words, the divine decree came with the understanding that different people would interpret it from their own unique perspectives.

That beautiful idea comes with a challenge. Since we live in a world of many languages, our task is to become multilingual. Each of us needs to listen, to strive to understand, to translate words, ideas, beliefs.

In the Jewish world of 1999, that’s a tall order. At Mount Sinai, the Torah could be heard in every language, but in our community today — and in Israel, where the religious divisions are increasingly painful and pronounced — we have such trouble hearing one another that our unique expressions sometimes amount to little more than babble.

The next time someone asks you what religious category you fit into, consider answering, “I’m part of the Jewish people.”

Our myriad ways of speaking and living and observing are far from being a punishment. Rather, they are cause for celebration. And perhaps, when we learn how to embrace them and appreciate them, then we will come full circle, back to the beginning of the text, and once again be “of one language.” Each of us can express our unique perspective and at the same time celebrate that we are, after all, part of one people.


Shawn Fields-Meyer is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is also instrutor in Literature and advisor to students at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

Jewish Covenant


As we approach the new millennium, we often discuss the unity of the Jewish people, seeking those aspects of Jewish life that will hold our diverse communal elements together after the year 2000. Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchek has referred to our Jewish covenant as including our shared history, shared suffering, shared responsibility and shared action.

These components take an added significance and even urgency when we consider Jewish unity in the area of Israel-Diaspora relations. Can Soleveitchek’s model of a shared covenant hold us together as a Jewish people in a period of increasing fragmentation? And how do we build lasting bridges that encourage us to explore our common goals and concerns?

In a small way, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has been at the forefront, asking these questions and pursuing answers. We should never take for granted that what has held us together in the past will do so in the future. Our societies and cultures are different, so we need to create the means to talk together, share together and act together.

It was in the context of shared concern and action that a group of Jewish Angelenos, representing our Jewish communal services, higher education and the public sector, came together this past summer with their counterparts and colleagues in Israel to establish another aspect of our partnership as a concerned Jewish community.

We tend to ignore or deny that we, as Jews, suffer from the woes of the broader society. Yet we are not immune to the stresses of modern society, either here or in Israel. That is why, more than a year ago, this community, through its Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation, began to explore some of the less attractive elements of Israeli society, specifically domestic violence. Let’s face it, the problem of domestic violence has been with us for years. But not until recent years has it been addressed at home or abroad. Yet we all recognize that a battered Jewish spouse or abused Jewish child are part of our shared responsibility wherever the domestic violence might occur. For this reason, we have participated in an analysis of domestic violence in Tel Aviv, our sister city, through the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

Drawn from the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the USC School of Social Work, the County of Los Angeles, the corporate sector and the Jewish community at large, seven representatives from Los Angeles spent a week in Tel Aviv to understand what we might learn from each other and what we have in common in response to domestic violence. The visit was a reflection of an amazing process now under way — the development of a volunteer committee in Tel Aviv that parallels our efforts at home.

The trip exposed the visitors to the problem of domestic violence and the creative efforts Israel is making to address it. Vivian Sauer of the Jewish Family Service, who was part of the Los Angeles group, said that looking at the faces of women and children who have been victims of domestic violence made it clear that human suffering is the same all over.

The visitors found that Israel has addressed the challenge head on through the creation of state-of-the-art shelters for abused and battered women and children. They were interested to note that the Israeli shelters are often integrated into the community. In Los Angeles, shelters are often far away from our Jewish communities, and, for confidentiality or security reasons, those being assisted are cloistered from ongoing communal life.

The Los Angeles group observed a highly integrated approach to addressing domestic violence. The mutually reinforcing concepts of community and societal pressure have a major impact in Israel on treating domestic violence. In Israel, police officers are being trained as specialists in recognizing the necessary sensitivity to the needs of women who are being abused, a concept now also being used here.

During two days of intensive workshops, the Americans and Israelis exchanged opinions and techniques. They realized that we have something to learn from each other and something to share: things such as creation of a sophisticated public awareness campaign; the creation of a domestic violence council, like we have here; or the need to increase early intervention where child abuse exists.

This small link between our community and Israel is a wonderful example of the future opportunity to share our responsibilities and to solve problems together. We are truly establishing a covenant , Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, with shared action as part of our relationship in a diverse Jewish world.

John R. Fishel is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.