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.” 

IKAR’s progressive Shavuot learning experience


IKAR, a politically liberal Jewish community with a focus on social justice, went progressive in another sense during a June 11 Shavuot Torah study program. That’s when about 130 participants started at one member’s home and, over the course of the night, walked to the backyards of two other IKAR members to continue studying. 

At each stop of the IKAR Shavuot Street Crawl, attendees basked in the warmth of heat lamps, consumed vegetarian chili and mini-desserts of the brownie and cheesecake variety, and got down to studying source sheets with some of the community’s leading teachers. 

Upon arrival at each location, guests were asked to wear a sticker that answered a question; these were then used as icebreakers. For instance, at the first stop — the home of Steven Rubenstein and Laura Spitzer — people were asked whom their dream dinner date would be: Barbra Streisand, Moses, Larry David or Ruth Bader Ginsberg (whose stickers disappeared quickly).

To launch the evening, IKAR Cantor Hillel Tigay and his trusty guitar led the assembled in a rousing Havdalah marking the separation between the holiness of Shabbat and the holiness of Shavuot, the day which commemorates the Jewish people’s receipt of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Under slightly cloudy skies, participants took seats in dozens of folding chairs all over the backyard, some of them adjacent to rosemary plants that filled the air with their distinctive fragrance.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at American Jewish University, launched the learning with an exploration of the kabbalistic sefirot, the 10 attributes or emanations of God, charging participants to consider which sefira — crown, wisdom, understanding, power, love, beauty, splendor, eternity, foundation or presence — best described the manner in which they received their own personal Torah. Artson also guided participants through texts that explored the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Tigay provided musical transitions between elements of the evening, playing diverse tunes like “Norwegian Wood” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” as people took their seats or availed themselves of refreshments.

Stop No. 2 was the home of Amy Slomovits and Jeremy Goldscheider, where the arrival stickers featured favorite inventions — like telephones, the internet and ice cream makers — and the presenting rabbis stood in front of a wooden swingset as they spoke. 

IKAR Associate Rabbi Ronit Tsadok charged attendees to think about a time when they were absolutely convinced that they had all the right information, only to discover that they were absolutely wrong, and discuss it with a partner who had the same sticker; some conversations focused on information that comes over social media and is widely distributed, only to be proven to be false later. 

Then Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University, led the group in identifying anxieties about participation in prayer, including not knowing the prayers, the tunes, the language, the expectations of the community. Greenwald suggested, based on an idea by writer Anne Lamott, that there are three ways that everyone can pray: “help,” asking for something that’s needed; “thanks,” acknowledging the things for which we are grateful; and “wow,” an expression for something amazing in the world. 

For the 50 or so people with the stamina to last beyond midnight, the final stop of the night — with stickers asking guests to designate a “spirit animal,” an animal with which they felt a particular affinity, like a mouse, a unicorn or a giraffe — was at the home of IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous and David Light. 

As chocolate-covered strawberries made the rounds, guests paired up (designated by finding another person with the same sticker) to study some formative texts about Moses: his birth and extraction from the Nile; his encounter with the Egyptian beating a Hebrew; and his involvement in defending the daughters of the priest of Midian.

After Brous concluded, the group dispersed, and while a few stalwart students (and a few of the teachers) made their way to Temple Beth Am for all-night study, most returned to their homes for some well-deserved rest, having brought in the holiday with both study and sweets.

A Shavuot all-nighter at Temple Beth Am


Charlie Carnow showed up at Temple Beth Am on June 11 with big plans. A paper in his pocket listed all the synagogues he wanted to visit on Shavuot: Beth Am, B’nai David-Judea and LINK Kollel & Shul.

But, midway through the evening, he gave up on his temple-hopping ambitions and decided to stay put at Beth Am, which, like numerous area congregations, held an all-night learning session in celebration of the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The importance of attending the program, “The Torah of Me: How Do You Receive Torah,” was simple, said Carnow, a member of IKAR.

“It’s escaping the world of work, and devoting yourself to Torah,” he said.

The Shavuot experience at Beth Am began with afternoon prayer, followed by a light dinner. It continued with an opening session at 9 p.m., “Torah Through Our Multiple Intelligences,” featuring songwriter Craig Taubman, sans guitar, leading attendees in song.

Taubman also discussed current events, specifically the broadcast of the Muhammad Ali memorial that had aired the previous day. He read aloud some of the criticism that had been lobbed at Rabbi Michael Lerner, a progressive rabbi who protested the Vietnam War with Ali and whose remarks at the memorial denounced the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

“I was more critical of the criticism of him, than his actual remarks,” Taubman said in an interview after the holiday. “I don’t have to agree with his remarks, but I do have to agree with the right for him to speak his Torah, and that’s what Shavuot is about, that if everybody receives Torah, then everybody should have the right to speak their Torah and not be edited or chastised for having a point of view that’s not yours.”

Other speakers at the kickoff session included Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of the American Jewish University Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and his wife, Andrea Hodos, part-time program director at NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, along with Dan Messinger, owner of Bibi’s Bakery & Cafe in Pico-Robertson, who spoke about operating the cafe and how it affords him the opportunity to interact with Jews of all backgrounds.

Breakout sessions followed, and around midnight, about 25 people gathered in the Temple Beth Am Pressman Academy Lainer Library to discuss how to make God more prevalent at Jewish summer camp. Camp Ramah in California staff members Dani Kohanzadeh and Ami Fields-Meyer led the session, during which attendees grappled with quotes about God from the likes of Martin Buber and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Outside the library, attendees munched on brownies, fruit and vegetables and filled their cups with caffeinated drinks. They also indulged in cheesecake — like learning, it is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot.

While adults enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that was occurring on the upper floors of the congregation’s campus, students of Pressman Academy, the synagogue’s elementary and middle school, had a different kind of experience on the lower floors: a sleepover party.

Supervised by Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, director of youth learning and engagement at Beth Am, pajama-clad kids wandered around the hallways or played table tennis and foosball in the campus recreational room. (Hoffman managed to find some time to dedicate himself to pursue learning, sitting in the back of the room during one session with his head buried in a book.)

Without question, some of the students could have used the caffeine available upstairs. “I’m so tired right now,” one Pressman student told a friend while walking like a zombie down a hallway.

The helpful reply: “Go to sleep.”

The Hottest Summer in Baghdad: 75th anniversary of the Farhud


The festival of Shavuot, which this year took place June 12-13, commemorates a time when Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It also marks the beginning of a new agricultural season, Chag Hakatsir (The Harvest Holiday). It comes seven weeks after Passover.

Shavuot in Baghdad marks the beginning of the brutal summer heat and dry weather. The temperature during the day reaches up to 110 degrees, and at times even 120 degrees. Air conditioning and refrigerators were unheard of when I was growing up in the 1930s. At night, it cooled off a bit. Everyone slept on the roofs of their houses. Poor people slept outdoors.

After a joyful celebration of Passover with family and friends, I remember we children anxiously waiting for the new and different celebration of Shavuot.

On the eve of Shavuot, my uncles and distant relatives would come to our house. They prayed and chanted throughout the night, reading the book of Ruth and studying Torah. Grownups and children would stay up late all night, enjoying delicious festive foods and sweets, and light candles for the departed.  One of my fondest memories is gathering around the kindled lights with my cousins collecting the wax and making different figurine and animals.

On the actual day of Shavuot, many families went on a Ziara (Pilgrimage) to visit the grave of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel, on the Euphrates River, some 50 miles away from Baghdad. This was a great time for us children to play with others in the community and picnic with many of my Mom’s treats such as chicken rice with almonds and raisins, along with other snacks, such as mango and cucumber pickles.

The Shavuot of 1941 fell on June 1 and 2. On April 13, 1941, a pro-Nazi Coup was headed by Rashid Ali Algailkani and plotted successfully by the German attaché Dr. Fritz Grova and the grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husani. This inextricably lead King Faisal, the Regent Abdyl Illah and the Prime Minister Taha Al Hashimi to flee Baghdad.

Radio Baghdad, the government’s mouthpiece, along with other media outlets, began a steady stream of anti-Jewish propaganda. On the Daily, public hatred increased as the summer heat and shook up every Iraqi Jew to the core. Many stayed home fearing for their lives. I distinctly remember my father and my older brothers not being able to hide their sadness and worries of what was to come. They tried to put on a happy face, thinking that would protect me, 11 years old, and my 8-year-old brother, Nory. We were restricted from leaving the house, which made things worse for us. I began to have nightmares and sleepless nights. I found myself crying for no reason at all.

The Iraqi coup leaders in Baghdad, decided to do the next best thing — exterminate the Jewish population in a single blow. Jews were ordered to stay in their homes. The “proto-Nazi youth movement,” Al Futuwwa, marked the doors of the Jewish home with a red Hamsa (shape of a palm, a symbol that allowed the rioters to identify Jewish homes.

On May 31, the British forces arrived with fresh troops from Nepal and India on the outskirts of Baghdad. The extermination plot fell apart. The coup leaders fled, which created a power vacuum.

Bands of soldiers in concert with police in civilian clothing, and common criminals along with nondescript mobs, rampaged through Baghdad hunting for Jews. They were easy to fine. Hundreds of Jews were cut down by sword and rifle, some even decapitated. Babies were sliced in half and thrown into the Tigris River. Girls were raped in front of their parents. Parents were mercilessly killed in front of their children.

Hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were looted and then burnt. The official government count shows that 180 were killed and 240 wounded; private estimates indicate as many as 400 were killed and 2,100 injured. There were no arrests, convictions or sentencing. Jews were afraid to report or file a complaint against any Muslim, for fear of retaliation and threats to their lives.

For almost two days, June 1-2, the carnage continued unabated. If it weren’t for some righteous Muslim men standing in front of Jewish homes with knives, daggers, and swords preventing the rioters from breaking into Jewish homes, the carnage would have been much more devastating. Those were the decent and honorable Muslims, the Righteous among the Nations.

We began fortifying our house. We reinforced the front door by stacking heavy furniture against it. My brother Eliyahoo electrified the chicken wire fence atop the stone wall on our side of the garden. I helped carry buckets of boiling water to the roof, ready to toss on marauders if needed. From the second-floor window, I saw looters on the street carrying away clothes and boxes. We stayed awake all night. Two of my brothers maintained contact with the neighbors via the roof, bringing any news downstairs. By afternoon the next day, June 2, the British soldiers had entered Baghdad and quelled the riots. We were safe.

My family was fortunate; we had moved a year earlier from the old city to Bab el Shargy close to the Tigris River. My Uncle Moshi and Uncle Meir’s houses in the old city were totally emptied. They escaped by jumping from their roof to the neighbor’s and then to another. They were lucky; they sustained minor injuries —twisted ankle and scratches.

This Holocaust-era pogrom became known as the Farhud. In Arabic, it means “violent dispossession.” The Farhud left bitterness and hopelessness in the hearts of the Iraq Jewish community. Many wanted to leave after the Farhud, but there was no place to go to or a country that would take us in.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948, most of the Iraqi community, including my family and I, fled to Israel. We became refugees. We stood in line for free meals, slept on a steel bed anchored in the sand during scorching hot summers.  We had left behind our homes, our stores and other businesses, our land, buildings, schools and other property.

The memory of a few, decent and honorable Muslims’ and their deep friendship was overshadowed by the long history of fear, pain, suffering and humiliation. I doubt if there is one Jew from an Arab land or Islamic country who would ever entertain the idea of going back to live there again permanently. We are lucky to be out and lucky to be where we are.

In 1948, there were some 135,000 Jews in Iraq. Baghdad’s population was nearly 25 percent Jewish. By 1953, some 80 percent had left for Israel. The rest stayed, deluding themselves that they would be seen as loyal Iraqis. Over the years, they have faced systemic pauperization — their bank accounts were frozen, and they have faced trumped-up charges and forced confessions through torture.  In 1969, seven Jews were hanged in Baghdad’s public square, accused of spying.  At present, this 26-century-old Jewish community has now totally vanished. Only 8 Jews are reported to remain.

This Shavuot marks the 75th anniversary of the Farhud. It was commemorated in four cities — London, New York, Washington and Jerusalem — by lighting 27 candles, one for each century the Jews inhabited the land. It is also commemorated annually by the survivors, their descendants and every decent freedom loving person, I know.


Joe Samuels is a native of Baghdad who served in the Israeli navy from 1950 to 1953. He has been living in Santa Monica for the past 36 years with his wife, Ruby, and his family. He is a retired real estate developer and currently serves on the board of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, Los Angeles.

Shavuot and Pride Week: A double holiday turns to grief


Jewish mysticism holds that every year at around midnight on Shavuot, the skies open up, as they did in the Torah story over Mount Sinai, for prayers to ascend to God.

Not long after the skies were supposed to have opened this year, 49 people were murdered by a terrorist in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and 50 more were wounded — the deadliest mass shooting in American history. 

On the opposite side of the country in Los Angeles, news of the massacre instantly transformed what would have been a festive, double-holiday weekend — Shavuot and pride week — into a community-wide exercise in grief, courage and solidarity.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood learned about the massacre in a text from the shul’s rabbinic student as she was preparing for the Sunday morning holiday service. The devastating news came after a long night at a Shavuot teach-in with seven other Reform synagogues at Stephen Wise Temple.

The news quickly put a damper on a weekend that began at Kol Ami with a Friday evening gay pride service.

“We prayed for the welfare of lesbian, gay and transgender people; we prayed for our straight allies and friends,” Eger said in a phone call with the Journal. “And then you wake up the day after Shabbos in the midst of supposedly a holiday where we’re wishing each other ‘chag sameach’ [happy holiday].”

She added, “I said to my congregation this morning, ‘I don’t really feel like I can do the joy part this morning.’ I can’t wish them a happy holiday.”

By the time the pride parade was starting in West Hollywood on June 12, the news was beginning to percolate through concerned calls, texts and social media posts.

Neil Spears, a board member at JQ International, a Jewish LGBTQ support and educational organization, read about the massacre before he even got out of bed. But the news suddenly became personal when he got a call on his way to the parade from a friend who had been at the nightclub that evening.

The friend was calling to tell Spears about a man who’d been heading to the L.A. pride parade when he was arrested in Santa Monica with weapons and supplies for explosives. 

He also mentioned that a friend of his had been killed in Orlando, and another was unaccounted for.

“I just had to sit down on the sidewalk,” Spears said. “I just had to stop and pause, because it hits really close to home.”

When he arrived at the JQ International office, which is on the parade route, he found that security had been stepped up because of the Santa Monica incident. He was supposed to lead a meeting of the Jewish Queer Straight Alliance (JQSA), a group for teens, but entry to the office was restricted to minors. So they met on the sidewalk with the parade in full swing.

At one point, Ron Galperin, L.A.’s city controller and the first openly gay person elected to citywide office, came by on a float while Spears was meeting with the teens.

“I said to them, ‘That guy up there is gay and Jewish,’ and then they cheered,” he said. “They were happy to know that.”

In advance of the parade, Galperin released a statement saying, “The parade is a chance for the LGBT community to come together in the name of love — love for one another and for ourselves. Today we extend that love to our brothers and sisters in Orlando and march in solidarity with them.”

Tami Miller, JQ International’s development director, who marched in the parade with people from her organization and other Jewish groups, said that the number of marchers was lower than in years past because of the holiday.

She said she hadn’t heard about the massacre until after she arrived at the pride parade — by which time, fortunately, she had a group of friendly faces to help her cope.

“Today was our vigil,” she said. “And the way we did our vigil is to be proud and be strong.”

Miller added that the organization will be looking to expand its program, offering inclusion training for Jewish organizations on how to interact with LGBT issues and vice versa.

At the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards, Beth Chayim Chadashim Cantor Juval Porat and Rabbi Heather Miller stood alongside a banner reading “World Congress of GLBT Jews.”

Speaking from the parade by phone with the Journal later that day, Porat said events such as the shooting in Orlando should galvanize the community around LGBT issues.

“Today, LGBT people and their allies should march prouder and louder and more colorful, and just shout out the values upon which I believe society can be healthy — and that is love and acceptance and inclusion and, most of all, less focused on fear and less focused on bashing others and judging others. … It might sound banal and trite, but this is what it’s about. It’s not easy; we’re trying to model that,” he said.

Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a national organization that works toward LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community, said in a statement that she had been contacted with messages of solidarity from Christian and Muslim leaders. 

“When the shooter opened fire, many Jews were observing the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when the Jewish people stood together at Mt. Sinai,” the statement read.

It continued, “So, too, we stand together in solidarity with the people of Orlando and with LGBTQ people and allies everywhere.”

Rabbi Zach Shapiro, who leads Temple Akiba in Culver City and is married to Galperin, offered his thoughts in an email to the Journal.

“Ecclesiastes teaches, ‘There is a time to be silent and a time to speak,’ ” he wrote. “While a moment of silence may feel appropriate in memory of the precious souls that were murdered — silence won’t make the very real issues we face disappear.” 

He added, “It is a time to speak to each other. We can only face these issues when we engage in earnest, and often difficult, conversations.”

After Orlando: Heartbroken, but with resolve


My heart is broken. I woke up Shavuot morning inspired by a night of study with my Reform colleagues and our communities. I was ready to receive the Torah at our morning service as we stood at Sinai again and then celebrate the continuation of gay pride weekend the same day. 

Yet, I awoke to horror and tragedy. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., was targeted by a madman, a terrorist who murdered young people dancing the night away. He murdered LGBTQ young people because of their gender identity and sexual orientation. He murdered people because he was taught to hate. He terrorized our nation and me because of his radicalization that has gone unchecked.

And then the texts came in from community activists that a man had been detained in Santa Monica on his way to West Hollywood’s LA Pride parade armed with weapons and materials for an improvised explosive device. 

I am still shaking. Young people ought to be out on a Saturday night dancing. Celebrating the gift of their youth, with the pulsing beat of the bass line all that they should hear. Not the sound of rapid, automatic gunfire and bullets tearing through flesh.  

Shavuot morning services should have lifted us up as we received the Torah again. I could not wish my congregation a chag sameach on this blood-stained morning. I couldn’t help but focus on the sixth commandment, “Lo Tirzach,” “Thou shalt not murder.” Has our world gone so mad that it enables murder to be committed in such wholesale ways? 

This is not the first time that the LGBTQ community has been attacked. The gay pride movement got its start as a response to a police raid on a gay bar in New York City in 1969.  And the LGBTQ community remembers only too well the fire in 1973 at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, and the murder and torture of Matthew Shepard in Fort Collins, Colo., in 1998, or the hundreds of violent deaths of transgender people, gay men and lesbians each year. Even this year, in March in Los Angeles, a young man was shot by his father because he was gay. This kind of hatred and violence is not isolated to some remote small town or a particular region of our country.

This heinous crime committed in Orlando rings across our nation. For me, it must be a wake-up call. Gun violence is an epidemic. Those who oppose background checks for gun buyers or removing assault weapons from the streets are sorely misguided. How many more have to die? We said it after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and the murders at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. We said it after Virginia Tech and just two weeks ago at UCLA.

Our Jewish community knows only too well the consequences of terror and guns in Israel and here. We have experienced firsthand the horrific moments at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and the murders at the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle and the cafes in Tel Aviv. We as a community must work hard to change the national conversation about gun violence.

The hate-filled rhetoric that surrounds us must be silenced. There are too many political leaders and religious leaders who teach that the LGBTQ community is less than human. 

The backlash against the LGBTQ community since last year’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality is vicious. With the introduction and passage of so many legislative bills across the United States that take away basic human rights, even to use a bathroom, the environment against LGBTQ people has become even more toxic than before. Many of those bills give businesses and individuals the right to discriminate in the public square. This coordinated attack on the LGBTQ community gives permission to continue to dehumanize gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people. Why are they so afraid of us? Of me? 

We must not give in to our fears, but must live our strengths and act as our God teaches us to act in the belief that all people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. I believe we must insist on better from ourselves and those who want to lead — be they clerics, politicians, teachers, celebrities or journalists.  

The LGBTQ revolution began as an effort to be left alone. It began as a way to say “Stop harassing us. Let us be ourselves, and we will speak up and march for and with our dignity and for our rights.” That is really the idea behind pride.

When we talk about this past weekend — and the pride celebrations of the LGBTQ community — this, my friends, is what we are striving for. The freedom to be ourselves. To stand strong in our abilities. To assert our equality and speak our truths. And even when they try to strip us of our civil rights, to fight not with anger, but with dignity, love and strength.

We, the Jewish people, have always been an “or lagoyim,” a “light to the nations.” We have just received our Torah once again at Sinai in the wilderness. The great Babylonian rabbi, Rava, taught that when people open themselves to everyone like a wilderness, God gives them the Torah. 

It is time to teach and lead that openness to all. Our Torah teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This must be our commitment to changing the rhetoric and hate focused at the LGBTQ community. It must be our commitment in thought and deed and, yes, in the House and Senate, and state legislatures and everywhere. 

Today I am still mourning the deaths of these young people in Orlando. Young people whose lives were cut short. I send my consolation and condolences to the families and friends who have lost someone in this violent tragedy. I pray for healing for all those injured and give thanks for the responders, the doctors, nurses, police and fire departments, ambulance drivers and people who helped rescue and treat the victims.  

But when the time of our mourning has ended, I will redouble my efforts to eradicate discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community. I will work for safe and sane gun regulations and reach out to those that are perceived as “other” in friendship and love.


Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and the current president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The Torah of female power


Men had their chance. 

I’m even willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say maybe they didn’t rule the world as badly as it seems they did. Because the truth is, we do not yet know what an equal world looks like, let alone one in which the world’s women might hold a disproportionate balance of power. So the notion that a better world than the one we have now might exist remains strictly speculative. 

But if the wildly unpredictable U.S. election has taught us anything about the direction of our future, it’s that change is not only necessary, it’s imminent. 

Like her or loathe her, this week Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to clinch the Democratic nomination for president. And you know what? That’s f—–g cool. 

In the same week, Forbes released its annual list of the world’s most powerful women, with Clinton coming in second behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last year, Merkel stunned the international community when she dared to invite hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Germany’s borders, demonstrating the courage to do something many believed unimaginable and dangerously unpredictable. Perhaps it takes a leader who comes from outside the conventions of power to make choices that defy convention. 

But even with modern, wind-tunnel forces like Sheryl Sandberg and Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour, Christine Lagarde and Michelle Obama, “Statistics on women in positions of power remain bleak,” Forbes noted. Citing the nonprofit tracker Catalyst, a survey found that women occupy only “a measly 4% of corner offices at S&P 500 companies. And they hold only 25% of executive or senior-level jobs in those same firms.”

The fact that this list exists at all is a triumph; it is a public nod to women’s impact on the engines of our world, and it is evidence of a spreading, worldwide contagion.

In the Jewish community, the Jewish Women’s Archive in partnership with Jewish Women’s Theatre recently launched an online database of women rabbis that explores how female leaders are transforming Judaism. Since 2009, the organizers surveyed women rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and their testimonies describe risky, experimental and innovative choices that are revitalizing Jewish life to the point of “renaissance.” 

And yet, we live in a world of contradictions. For every bit of progress — in every sphere — inequality remains. We see it in Jewish liturgy and communal life, and in the wider world. Ordaining women rabbis was a good first step in expanding the unharnessed potential of Jewish possibility; but how many women run our community’s most important institutions? And how much are they paid in comparison with their male counterparts? 

Liberation is a process still unfurling. We know that for every Forbes woman of power, there are tens of millions of women around the world who suffer the daily indignities of utter powerlessness. What does female power even mean if those with newly realized strength do not uplift those who are weak? 

As Shavuot teaches us, liberation alone is not enough. You can leave Egypt and become free, but freedom is meaningless without a system for living that ensures freedom for all. The only thing that could stop newly freed slaves from repeating the mistakes of their oppressors was to give them Torah — a system of laws that could shape a just and fair society. 

Isaiah Berlin famously taught that there are two kinds of freedoms: freedom from and freedom to. What good is freedom from oppression without the will to make a better world? 

So I say to the world’s powerful women: Liberation is only the first step. It is now up to you to use your newfound power to enact the values that feminism has always promised. Electing a woman to the highest office in the land is meaningless unless that woman ensures that all the things she’s talked about become real — including women’s reproductive rights, paid maternity leave for families, equal pay for equal work and rebuilding the middle class. To be able simply to call someone “Madam President” is a mark of liberation, not transformation. Without the will to change, it would be like leaving Egypt without ever getting to Sinai. 

I want to believe that shifting the balance of power could mean new ways of exercising it. Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee once told a story about her father, who was a respected community leader, but was demoted when he refused to subject his daughters to female genital mutilation. His defiance of tribal custom cost him, and he lost the respect of many in the community. But his courage to act preserved his daughters’ dignity. Real power, Gbowee learned, was not about keeping it all for yourself, but having the strength to give some power away. 

The power structure of every lasting system, from religion to government, can become antiquated. But survival depends on an ability to adapt to the needs of an evolving populace. What will women bring that will improve upon institutional foundations? How will the memory of oppression shape the experience of female power? 

In Judaism, ultimate power resides in partnership with God, a shared responsibility for the well-being of the world. Female leadership should reinforce the idea that greatness comes from empowering others. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

The holiday of diaspora Jewry — a suggestion


Shavuot — the Feast of the Weeks — is a modest holiday. It is one of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals, though not as central and celebrated as the two others — Passover and Sukkot. Content-wise, it is a classic Jewish combination of agriculture and theology. It marks the all-important wheat harvest in the Land of Israel (Exodus 34:22), and it commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah — or, more accurately, the Ten Commandments — to the entire nation of Israel assembled at the bottom of Mount Sinai. Its timing stems directly from that of Passover; the holiday’s name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” and it marks the completion of seven weeks of counting in the wake of Passover. According to Jewish mythology, the people of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh on Passover. Seven weeks later, on Shavuot, God gave them the Torah, making them a nation committed to serving God.

Shavuot also tends to be less celebrated than other major Jewish holy days, except by more observant Jews. Nonetheless, it has potential for more, and I would suggest it’s time to rebrand it as the holiday for Diaspora Jewry. In an era when our society is no longer bound by the cycles of agriculture, and the Bikkurim ceremony (the offering of first fruits to God) has become mostly obsolete, it is Shavuot’s spiritual and theological components that remain compelling. And the Ten Commandments given on this very day, according to our tradition, remain relevant in modern times. The holiday and the commandments together offer a profound alternative to the current Diaspora identity.  

There is no doubt that the State of Israel was, for decades, the center of gravity for many of the Jewish people. But now, almost seven decades after the establishment of the Jewish state, Israel’s attraction — its magnetism —  has dimmed somewhat. Many studies show that fewer Jews in the Diaspora are committed to the well-being of Israel than was the case just a few decades ago. And younger Jews are even less bound to it. There are many explanations for this phenomenon — differences in value systems, cultural divergences and, perhaps, disparate political priorities. 

But there is something that connects us: The Ten Commandments are the only body of text in the Torah explicitly given by God. We love quoting the values named therein: Observe the Sabbath; respect our parents and the sanctity of life (“Thou shalt not kill”). In these commandments, we feel an intimacy between God and us, particularly through the directly personal and unique language of “thou” and “thy.” But the most interesting content of the commandments is not named. This God-given constitutional covenant, the nucleus of Judaism, never names the Holy Land or the temple; there is no shrine or Kohanim (priests), not even a kingdom or sovereignty or government. The Ten Commandments are an abstract set of rules, with no grounding in institutions. 

Why is that? 

If we travel back in time, we are reminded that the revelation at Sinai occurred just seven weeks after the miracle of the Exodus. From the top of the mountain, God, via Moses, proposed to the people a far-reaching, comprehensive alternative to the “Egyptianism” they had just escaped. The Egypt of the Bible is the embodiment of top-down tyranny. At Sinai, God offers an alternative, a bottom-up political philosophy of everything that is not Egyptian: No central government. No single ruler. No state-enforcing institutions. No privileged classes, not even sacred social strata. The new nation is a liberated one, based on the individual (thou). It consists of many individuals inspired by the eternal call of freedom: “Let my people go.” 

Every member of the new nation is equal to the others, and the heck with any human despotism. And as such, this ancient text is a timeless stand against any manifestation of Egyptianism, by any people, us included. 

The current, third Jewish commonwealth, the Israel of today, is fully defined by land and government, religious institutions and privileged classes. And that is one of the main reasons it no longer is the defining connector of the Jewish Diaspora. Diaspora Judaism today is a totally different Jewish corpus of ideas and content than in Israel. It is almost a different Judaism, much closer to the original version of Sinai. 

Diaspora Judaism celebrates the individual, and in that, Shavuot is its most representative holiday. 

Chag sameach.

Avraham Burg is an Israeli author and social activist, a former speaker of the Knesset and former chairman of The Jewish Agency.

The rabbi and the yogi


My husband, Jeremy, and I first met Rabbi Moshe Greenwald and his wife, Rivky, at a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony in Pershing Square in 2010, when we were just dating. Two years later, when we talked about getting married, I decided to convert to Judaism. Jeremy was born Jewish and I was eager to join the tribe. So, I looked up Rabbi Moshe (the only rabbi I had ever met at the time). I was prepared for a very traditional experience — like Charlotte from “Sex in the City” — with the three refusals and all. But that’s not what I got. 

The rabbi and I met, and he heard me out, and then he suggested I set aside the idea of conversion for the moment and start by learning as much as I could about Judaism. 

But then I mentioned I was a yoga teacher. He said he was trying yoga for the first time in hopes of getting in shape. He’d chosen Bikram yoga — a practice completely void of any religious teachings with an emphasis on physical stamina. For those who aren’t familiar, Bikram yoga is intense. And he was struggling with it.

He proposed a trade. He would make himself available to answer all of my many, many questions if, in return, I would act as a kind of yoga consultant, offering him explanations, tips and context to help make the practice more accessible. This sounded like a really good deal to me. He would offer me guidance in whatever I wanted to learn — prayers, Hebrew, Jewish culture, whatever. And I would help him deepen his yoga practice.

But here’s the thing: I’m me. And he is an Orthodox Chabad rabbi. 

So there would be rules. I would just have to figure out what they were. 

I had no way of knowing this agreement would evolve into a limitless exchange of emails, texts and sidebar conversations during Shabbat dinners. And in those exchanges a friendship was born. We shared experiences as a way of cracking open the wisdom and traditions in which we were each versed. 

He taught me about the importance of drawing spirituality into the physical world.

And I taught him to be patient and compassionate with himself. 

This wasn’t like any friendship I had ever known. Usually, when you become friends with someone, you are drawn together by a common experience — like school or work. We seemed to come from two polar-opposite worlds. And yet, when we shared yoga and Judaism, our very different worlds didn’t highlight the ways in which we were different. They did the opposite — they showed us how much we were alike. I was a daydreaming, soon-to-be-engaged, L.A. yogi. He was family man leading a congregation in one of the most diverse communities in Los Angeles. 

But, at the end of the day, we were just two people trying to figure out life in the best way we knew how — two people trying to balance obligations and forgive ourselves for being imperfect. 

Despite connecting on a very human level, there were these rules that seemed to draw boundaries around our relationship. Like, touch. In case you aren’t familiar with the rules of Orthodox Judaism, an Orthodox man will not touch a woman unless he’s married to her. To Rabbi Moshe, touch was reserved for his wife only. 

But I’m a really affectionate person. I hug my friends. A lot. Shoot, I’ll hug a complete stranger. In the time we spent together, I felt the impulse to hug him as I would any of my friends, male or female. Because touch wasn’t allowed, and my primary concern was always acting out of respect, I became clumsy and stupid around him, literally leaping out of the way when he passed by, or dropping books because I couldn’t figure out what to do with my fingers when handing one to him. Over time, I was able to relax because I realized it wasn’t all that hard to live within this boundary. 

There’s this other rule. As an Orthodox Jew, not only was Rabbi Moshe prohibited from officiating at my wedding, he couldn’t even attend the ceremony because I ended up converting to Judaism under the tutelage of a Conservative rabbi, not an Orthodox rabbi. I learned this long before my husband and I were engaged, so I never even asked. Though when we finally announced our engagement, he called to congratulate us and wish us a lifetime of blessings. He expressed a desire to be there. But he couldn’t be. 

Though I wasn’t surprised at all by this, I was disappointed. People asked if I was offended. I wasn’t. 

I don’t need to be an Orthodox Jew to relate to one. I don’t need to live in that world or follow those rules. 

To take this one step further — I don’t need to be gay, or Asian American, or transgender, or living below the poverty level to connect to those experiences. I only need to be human. 

I may not agree with all the rules of Orthodox Judaism. But I can respect them. And that’s enough.

The truth is, we all have rules we live by. We may not be wearing outward signs of them everywhere we go, but they’re there. And sometimes we hate the rules. Ask any teenager, and she’ll tell you rules suck. But without them, we wouldn’t know what’s important, what’s sacred, what’s worth drawing a boundary around. Whether we’re standing on the edge of a cliff, or speeding down a highway or exploring a relationship, without rules, we might not know when we’ve gone too far until it’s too late.

This year, on the first night of Passover, my family gathered in the ballroom of the Alexandria hotel to celebrate with the entire downtown Jewish community, with Rabbi Moshe at the helm. I witnessed one of the sweetest sights I’ve ever seen — Rabbi Moshe swooped up my toddler son in his arms and began to sing “Oseh Shalom.” My husband joined, and very soon a small group of men were circling in the center of the room. 

But then a young woman approached the circle of men to join in. So, right — women cannot dance with Orthodox men. Without missing a beat in the song, my rabbi kindly told her the circle was only for men. It was an easy mistake to make. She was moved by the spirit of the moment and wanted to join. Her only mistake was in not knowing the rules. 

An embarrassing moment for sure, but a human one. Looking back, I wish I had jumped up to dance with her. Women can start their own circles and dance separately.

But it was OK. She’s learning the rules. We’re all learning the rules. And in doing so, we often come right up against the edge of our comfort zones. Sometimes we even step out of them. 

Shoot, I practically live in that space, teetering on the edge of my comfort zone. And I’m happy for it. Because as a result, I have a lifelong friendship with, yes, an Orthodox Chabad rabbi that both thrives within the boundaries and transcends them. 

Jazmine Aluma is a Los Angeles-based writer, yogi and mother. Her blog, WritingInBold.com, is where she explores and shares all the ways in which she gets life wrong and the truths she discovers along the way. Her work has been seen in The Huffington Post, Bust.com, LA Weekly and LA Yoga magazine, among others.

The defense of (converting for) marriage act


Last July, I converted to Judaism after five years of studying and undergoing major lifestyle changes: I moved to a Jewish neighborhood, started keeping kosher, took off for Shabbat and the holidays, joined an Orthodox synagogue and learned with a chavrusa

Today, my observance has grown, and I keep taking on more and more mitzvot. I feel closer to Hashem than ever. 

None of that has stopped the outside world, however, from questioning just how legitimate my conversion actually was. At times throughout the process, and even after, I’ve been asked, “Did you convert for your husband?” and then was told — yes, told — that I only converted because I was in love. 

As if that’s a bad thing. 

As a writer, I’ve covered conversion a lot, profiling the spiritual journeys of others and offering my own personal essays. I know how tough it can be to go through the process, and I want to show support to my fellow gerim. When I’ve told my own story, though, I’ve gotten my fair share of negative feedback, which ranged from passive-aggressive to downright venomous. 

On a recent piece I published, one of the comments posted online read, “So you fell in love with some guy and decided to start living your life by his club’s rules and regs. Not exactly a shocker. Lots of women do this.” Another lovely commenter stated, “I would’ve appreciated this more if she had just admitted that she was doing it pretty much entirely for her husband.”

Internet trolling aside, there is a huge stigma in Jewish culture and society at large surrounding the concept of converting for love. But, given the right circumstances and right person, I think it’s entirely OK.

With Shavuot approaching, I found myself thinking about the story of Ruth, perhaps the Torah’s most famous Jew by choice. She converted to Judaism after following her widowed, impoverished mother-in-law, Naomi, to a strange new land — Bethlehem. 

According to Dina Coopersmith, a writer for

The everyday deity


I was not a Jew; now I am. 

I did not believe in God; now I do.

In 2009, I was an atheist. By 2013, I was a theist and a Jew. Today, my beliefs live among the other things that, while miraculous, are routine. When I need to breathe, there is air. When it’s time to walk or lie down, I have gravity. Food grows from the earth. There’s God. I’m a Jew.

We read about the Israelites at Mount Sinai seeing God as smoke and hearing God as thunder. I relate to that mountain vision. While looking at the ocean makes me wonder about planet Earth and tremble at its power, when I look out from my car at the 405, God shines at me from the broad hillsides of the Sepulveda Pass. Maybe what I see there is something like God’s immanence at Sinai. 

I never used to see that. 

Telling this story is tricky. Talking about belief in God can be difficult even among co-religionists. There’s an awkward feeling that the person giving such testimony may be a nitwit, or an evangelist, or a demagogue. It’s also easy to get into trouble. Many of us carry wounds that were inflicted by someone who invoked God. 

My story is not one of white lights, or miraculous coincidences, or disaster averted. 

I’ve told parts of the story, but never the whole thing.

In 2009, I stopped drinking and found recovery from alcoholism in Alcoholics Anonymous. I hit no obvious bottom — I emailed a sober friend, he told me to try not drinking and to start going to meetings, and I did.

A few months later, someone asked me what had gotten me to stop drinking. My reflexive answer was that it was random. Very shortly thereafter, I realized that this answer was not intellectually satisfying to me. I am an alcoholic, more than a habitual drinker. I’m an addict. I don’t just randomly stop.

It was something beyond me that lent me the ability to stop drinking. 

It was God.

This realization did not come from some extreme moment. Rather, God’s existence presented itself to me as the only satisfying answer to the question, “Why and how did I stop drinking?” In this way, at the age of 40, God became a part of my understanding of the world.

Two years later. I arrived early to Yom Kippur services. Not a Jew. I went because my wife is Jewish, and we are raising our son as a Jew. Yom Kippur was the one day a year I went to shul. This had been the arrangement for 10 years. I sat close to some observant Jews wrapped in tallit and davening. As in previous years, I stayed at services all day and had a terrible time.

Over the next few days, I thought about those daveners. Two years of not drinking had, predictably, given me a sober mind. While I am an introvert and a misanthrope, I also knew I wanted community. I wanted a life that, even if I did not pray, included space for prayer. Then I thought about my family. My wife, a Jew. My son, a Jew. Me, wanting community and prayer. I can also be a Jew.

I started attending Shabbat morning services almost every week. A year later, I decided to pursue a formal conversion process. This time, I knew that randomness was not at play. 

God helped me find my place among the Jews.

I mentioned earlier that describing my new belief in God would be tricky, and here’s the trick. Getting sober and finding my way to Judaism are amazing experiences I had, and I just credited God with providing them. And that is how I understood it at the time. It’s difficult to explain finding God without describing some substantial experience that can be credited to God. But I honestly don’t think that God is much concerned with whether I drink, or whether I’m a Jew. I don’t think God truly intervened in my life to make those moments happen. 

God’s existence has been manifested to me in the form of other people’s actions. The sober friend who got me to meetings. The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. And, most important, the Jews who have welcomed and supported every aspect of my conversion and participation in the Jewish community. Without these human actors, I could not have become a Jew, and God would never have become so apparent to me.

I converted three years ago and I pray every Shabbat morning. My prayer is very simple. I stand, with tallit on and eyes closed, rocking this way and that. I get to be the same person I am every other time of the week, but I get to be this person among my fellow Jews.

John Crooks converted to Judaism in 2013 through the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University. Originally from Boston, he worked as a bassist in New York City and Los Angeles for many years. Now he is a software developer and multimedia designer primarily in the field of motion picture music and sound design.

I lost my mom but found a family


In 2003, I was 20 and living on the South Side of Chicago, in a dirty 10,000-square-foot warehouse with six roommates and four cats. There was a mysterious fungus, shaped like a human ear, growing in the corner of my room, and I did nothing about it. A typical day consisted of waking up around noon and smoking weed until I went to sleep. On the weekends, we’d throw raves in the warehouse. The place had a huge empty room, and we’d smash fluorescent lights against the walls and shatter them for fun. Life was going great.

When the phone rang on the morning of May 6, I was sound asleep. It was from Michigan, and it was the police. The cop on the phone was cold and gruff.  He said my mother, Nancy, had gotten into a car accident, that she was dead and I had to get to the morgue immediately to identify her body. 

I hung up the phone and screamed — a guttural howl that ran through my entire body. I thought people would come running, but none of my roommates heard me, because we lived in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. I had to walk into my best friend Jeff’s room and continue screaming. We got into his car and drove the four hours from Chicago to Grosse Pointe, Mich., the town where I grew up. I was in complete shock — sobbing and staring out the window, hoping we could either get there faster or never get there at all. It didn’t seem real. I felt bad because my mother was gone, but also for so many other reasons. I had taken her for granted. After all, at 20, I had my own super-fun, selfish life to worry about.

I felt bad that it was about to be Mother’s Day, and I could never give her the gift I’d been planning to give her. I felt bad that she’d died on the side of the I-94 freeway on a rainy night and I was miles away.

My parents divorced when I was 5, and my relationship with my father at the time of my mother’s death was strained. When I arrived and walked into my childhood home, my mother’s sister was sitting in the living room, Dewar’s in hand, with several of her girlfriends, discussing the memorial service. They kept talking about how the ceremony would be held at The Little Club, a private tennis club none of us could afford, because they had “great little sandwiches.” 

“Little sandwiches?!” I screamed. “Who gives a s—? What the hell are you talking about?!” 

I was furious that they were smoking in the house, too. I felt like they were erasing my mom’s smell.

Forever.

When I think back to that time, it seems like one long day, but it must have been at least a week or more. The memorial service took place as planned at The Little Club. All of my aunt’s friends were there. It basically felt like a homecoming party for my aunt. Open bar. Nothing my mother would have ever wanted. People kept saying, “This is so fun! We have to do this again! I mean … without the funeral part.” I read a eulogy I’d written, and several people came up to me after and told me that I’d made them cry, as if to say, “How dare you spoil the party with your bummer speech.”

For the longest time, I convinced myself that my mom was in Florida. The last time I saw her alive, I was dropping her off at the airport. She was on her way to Fort Lauderdale to see my aunt and grandmother. She wasn’t dead, she was just in Florida and I wouldn’t see her for a while. I mean, to be honest, death and being in Florida kind of seem like the same thing, anyway, but that’s me. I was in denial. I was lost. I had no guidance from anything or anyone in my life, and I didn’t know how to mourn. I hadn’t grown up religious at all, so I also had no spiritual handbook. In fact, it was a running joke that my parents had taken me to get baptized, but when they found out that they’d have to take a class in order to do it, they bailed. So I was alone and didn’t cope well. 

I quit smoking weed because my mother had always hated it, but then just compensated by binge drinking. At one point, I was buying a fifth of Maker’s Mark each night. I would draw a line on the bottle, in an attempt to police my drinking. “Do not cross the line.” But I’d always end up crossing the line, literally and figuratively. On the outside, I appeared to bounce right back. Laughing hard and making jokes, even the day after she died. But inside, there was turmoil. This continued for almost 10 years. Ten years of increasing isolation, quitting school, getting angry, getting sober, falling off the wagon, and being in a deep depression. 

Basically, not living.

Putting everything on pause and not being part of the world. And there was no one to lean on, either. My mother’s death had made an already-small family practically microscopic. I swallowed the mistreatment from my dad and aunt because I desperately wanted family, but I was empty.

In 2005, I moved to New York. I started to pursue a dream of performing and writing comedy.  It was there that I met my husband, Gil. 

We met at a show called “The Dirtiest Sketch Show,” where people would perform horribly obscene sketches. It was great. Our eyes first met over a nude man doing something wrong with a turkey baster. It was the perfect place for love to blossom.

A couple of weeks into dating, though, we were eating at a sushi restaurant, and Gil told me he wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. I was devastated. And then, right after he dropped that bomb, three men walked up to our table and sang “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears out of shock. One of the waiters patted Gil on the back and said, “Wow, she had a great reaction!” assuming I was crying tears of joy.

A few months later, Gil took me to meet his parents for the first time — at Passover! It’s pretty intense to meet your boyfriend’s parents, but meeting them at a seder, when you’re not Jewish, is a whole other experience. I felt extremely awkward. Do they all hate me?

Do they think I’m stupid? What the hell are bitter herbs? I felt completely ignorant for not even knowing the most basic Bible stories. Gil seemed to know everything, though now I know he’s usually just talking confidently and has no idea what he’s saying. 

But once I got out of my own head, I realized this was a unique experience. My very limited exposure to religion had left the impression that questioning it in the slightest was wrong, but here was a large table of people doing just that. Questioning and analyzing everything. Having heated debates and praising one another for their theories and interpretations. There was a level of comfort in Gil’s family that I’d never experienced. He was close with his great uncle, they were friends, whereas, in my family, I avoided my elders because I was never pushed to be close to them. 

It was the first time I thought about converting. I found the idea of how Shabbat and the holidays unite a family incredibly appealing. 

There was only one thing that gave me pause, and that was giving up Christmas. It was my mother’s favorite holiday, and by letting it go, I felt as though I’d be losing a huge piece of her. In retrospect, I realize, I clung to Christmas because it was the only tradition my family had — the one time my house felt warm, bright and full of love.

I started conversion classes in 2014. In the first session, I felt like the dumbest person there, but every class got better and better, and they led to deep conversations between Gil and me, as well. Long talks about God, tradition, religion and things we might not discuss otherwise. Quite fittingly, the class that affected me most was about Jewish customs and rituals dealing with death. We learned about sitting shivah, walking around the block and re-entering the world no longer a mourner. We talked about shloshim and the unveiling. I realized that Jews had the guideline that I had looked for when my mother passed: a plan for mourning. 

At first, I was distraught. I was upset that I couldn’t go back in time and do all these things for my mom. That I couldn’t go back and help myself. But that regret eventually turned into relief because I also learned that there were other traditions that would connect me to her.

I finished my conversion that April, right before we went to Israel to meet Gil’s extended family. As they say, “I couldn’t go a shiksa, so I hit the mikveh.” I chose the Hebrew name Hanna for myself in tribute to my mother, as Hanna is a root for Nancy. I’d also always wanted a sister and there, sitting in the mikveh room as I dunked, was my beautiful, amazing, soon-to-be sister-in-law, Alexandra. 

I was pronounced a Jew and was left alone in the mikveh to reflect.

Without thinking, I began talking aloud to my mom. Laughing and crying about how life takes you to the craziest places. I don’t doubt for a second that my mom was in that room with me. It seems ironic now that I ended up “taking the class” that my parents never took in order to dunk myself and become a Jew. 

Upon landing in Israel, my small family became enormous. Gil’s Israeli family is huge. More than 150 cousins, uncles and aunts joined us at an engagement party we held there. Gil’s family is Yemenite, so we celebrated a very special ceremony they have called a Henne. We dressed in traditional garb; I wore a 3-foot-tall headpiece. My costume weighed more than 70 pounds. I sat with Gil as a procession of his tiny, adorable aunts approached and kissed me a million times, blessing me and telling me they loved me in Hebrew. “Todah,”  (thank you) I responded, like a clueless idiot. I was mystified by how quickly these people whom I couldn’t even communicate with accepted me with open arms. They seemed to see me as a good, loving, genuine person. That may sound strange to say about myself, but it’s something I have a hard time seeing. Especially after feeling selfish for so many years. I didn’t realize I’d been doing it, but I had been praying for this family for a long time, and I got what I’d wished for in the most unexpected, overwhelming way.

The most profound part of our trip to Israel coincided with Yom HaZikaron, which happened to fall on May 5 that year, the 11th anniversary of my mother’s death, to the day. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Israel for Yom HaZikaron, but at some point during the day, they blast loud air horns for a minute straight in memory of soldiers that have died. Everyone in the entire country stops what they’re doing and takes a moment of silence to remember the fallen.

Even those driving on the road pull to the side, exit their cars and hang their heads to remember. We happened to be on the freeway on our way to Jerusalem when the horns blasted. We, along with all the cars around us, pulled to the shoulder of the freeway and got out of our car. The side of a freeway, exactly like where my mom had passed away 11 years earlier. It was incredibly eerie, and meaningful and special. It felt a little too coincidental that I would be there, forced to face the reality of what had happened to my mom. I cried uncontrollably, but it was cathartic, and I felt more supported than ever before — strangely, it felt, by the entire country of Israel. United by loss. After the horns stopped sounding, we got back into the car and finished our drive to Jerusalem. There my new aunt, Zehavah, would be waiting with a yahrzeit candle, which we’d light together. That night we celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut, partying in the streets, and in a way I was finally re-entering the world, no longer a mourner.

I now light a yahrzeit candle every year on May 5. We’ve also added to that tradition by playing my mom’s favorite game, Yahtzee, looking at photos of her and listening to music that she loved. I didn’t realize how much Judaism would help me to finally make peace with my mother’s death. For those 10 lost years, I wanted to do something to honor her, but I built up so much pressure about it that I ended up doing nothing. Judaism kind of forces you, in a helpful way, to deal with things you might otherwise avoid. It’s a guideline. The yahrzeit candle, the Mourner’s Kaddish, reflecting on how you’re doing and what you’d like to change at Yom Kippur. All these things have allowed me to heal. 

Last month was the 13th anniversary of my mom’s death. I usually refer to May 5 as “Stinko De Cryo,” but this year, for the first time, I felt good. Sure, I cried, but I also had a great time with my family. The traditions we’ve established help me to be proactive in a time when I want to avoid thinking altogether. At this point, my mother has been dead for more than half of the time I actually got to spend with her alive. It’s hard to remember what she was like, especially when you push it out of your mind to protect yourself. But this annual check-in reminds me of my mother’s joyous spirit. 

Judaism gave me a prescription to grieve my mom and the blessing of a family to help me do it with, and her memory will be passed down to my kids through those beautiful traditions. 

Emily Strachan has been performing and writing comedy since 2005. She’s written for such TV shows as “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and “Filthy Preppy Teen$.” She was also a staff writer for “Funny or Die.” She has been a house team member at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and can be seen performing in various shows around Los Angeles.

Jew-by-choice Mandie Davis also chooses homeless children


Mary “Mandie” Davis is passionate about a number of things: her husband, Ari Kadin, helping homeless children feel special and loved, and her Jewish identity.

It’s estimated that nationwide, 2.5 million children are homeless. But thanks to considerable effort from Davis and Kadin and their organization, Worthy of Love, the homeless children of Los Angeles can experience a party that makes them feel normal, special and loved. 

Each month, Worthy of Love throws a birthday party for homeless children, complete with DJ, dancing, cake and presents. Davis organizes and emcees the parties, calling on children with birthdays and presenting them with their gifts, and boogies with them on the dance floor. Her energy is infectious and elevates the downtrodden, both spiritually and, since the parties are on a rooftop, literally, as well. 

In an interview with the Jewish Journal, Davis recalled one child who started crying at her party. The girl explained she was happy: This was her first birthday party ever. The girl’s mother later revealed that she had terminal cancer; her medicine had bankrupted them to the point that they had to seek out a shelter. But for this one night, the daughter had a reason to celebrate, and at the photo booth, mother and daughter took their first photos together, as an emotional keepsake.

Davis grew up as a Southern Baptist in Georgia, and, by her own accounts, never knew a Jew. Living in Los Angeles, she was volunteering with a Skid Row theater group called Los Angeles Poverty Department when she met Kadin, and they fell in love. Davis became pregnant but miscarried three months later.

Through their devastation, they found a way to channel their loss and love into a positive space: If they couldn’t plan a birthday party for their own child, they would create birthday parties for the homeless children who desperately yearned for them.

They started volunteering at the Union Rescue Mission, which allows kids, holding birthday parties for the youngsters. They bought a cat mascot suit, creating a character called Skiddy Kat (named for Skid Row). The cat “gets called names because of where she lives and what she looks like but has to learn how to be the great lioness she was born to be. And ‘Ari’ also means ‘lion,’ ” Davis explained. They held their first party in January 2013.

When Kadin proposed in 2014, Davis had already decided she wanted to take the introduction to Judaism courses at American Jewish University’s Miller Program; Ari decided to join her for classes. The more she learned about Judaism, the more Davis realized that she wanted to become a Jew. 

“It had nothing to do with Ari – it was about how I felt. I was born with a Jewish soul. None of it made sense until I found Judaism, and now it all makes sense.” 

That Judaism encouraged questions was a bit of a culture shock. “In Christianity, you take the Bible so literally — the word is the truth, and there’s no other way.” With Judaism, she was finally “able to express how I feel and see a whole gray area that I love. It doesn’t have to be so literal. I have a million questions.” 

She says Shabbat has been one of her most meaningful practices. “Lighting the candles was this moment of unspeakable peace for me. Having that as a couple together, where we first started connecting as a couple and to God. As a Christian, you couldn’t connect with [both] God and husband. A ritual we could do together attracted me so much. It was powerful as a woman, lighting the candles in my home” — Davis made a motion of bringing in light in with her hands — “was addicting. I can’t wait to raise Jewish children.” 

In 2015, a month after her conversion and their wedding, Davis and Kadin took their first trip to Israel with Honeymoon Israel. Davis had always expected an emotional response to seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but when she got there, “something I’d known my whole life felt foreign,” she said. “Something in my spirit was different now.” But at the Western Wall, she “felt so connected because I’d been saying the Shema and to do it in Jerusalem … tears were shed. I’m more religious than [Ari] is, and he’s been a Jew his whole life.”

She knows that Judaism isn’t all celebration. For instance, learning about the Holocaust is “more intense than when I was learning about it ‘happened to them’ —  now ‘it’s happened to us’ — I’m emotional about it in the worst way. Knowing that anti-Semitism is real, I’m taking a risk on my own life to become Jewish because people might hate me now.”

Davis noted that “conversion stories make me light up all over again. My friends from Honeymoon Israel who converted — we all do Shabbat and validate each other.” Also, “having an aliyah for Yom Kippur [at IKAR] made me feel so validated and so important. I’m not just a bystander, but as family. That’s all we [Jews by choice] want to do is belong.”

Since 2013, Worthy of Love has served 3,600 kids at a cost of $3,000 per party, most of it raised through sponsors or donations of food and party goods. In the fall, Davis will be back at AJU, studying for her MBA, which, she hopes, will help her identify sustainability options for the organization. 

When people ask her how they can support Worthy of Love, she recommends birthday fundraisers, asking for donations instead of gifts, and volunteering at one of the parties, especially with their kids. (Underground parking and security is provided for volunteers and participants.)  

“Poverty is not TV. It’s 10 miles down the street,” she said. “On the rooftop, you don’t feel like you’re in Skid Row. There’s beautiful sky, but peek over the edge and you’ll see tents, mental illness, you’ll see it all. If you can make the drive and put yourself in these kids’ shoes — those who don’t have a choice to be there — that’s making the kid feel more normal and important, that you actually care enough to come down and make a difference.” 

Although they don’t currently have the financial support they’d need to expand, Davis said, the emotional support from the Jewish community “changed the way I looked at Judaism.” In one example, Miller Program Director Rabbi Adam Greenwald volunteered to help Davis and Kadin create a Worthy of Love Chanukah party: Greenwald presided over candle lighting and explained that Chanukah is about light in the darkness. 

“The kids really liked that,” Davis said. “They didn’t know what Chanukah means. These kids are looking for a miracle on Skid Row — to know that it’s possible is huge.” 

Because most of the groups helping the homeless are Christian, Davis also charged Los Angeles’ Jewish and civic leadership to step forward in a major way. “We’d love for Mayor [Eric] Garcetti to come to the party. We need organizations that aren’t going to put a religious label on it. And we need the Jewish community to say [to the homeless], ‘We’re here for you, too.’ 

Taglit for two: Honeymoon Israel growing as ‘Birthright for couples’


Standing in the Western Wall plaza at the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, Alex and Bianca Ross discussed the religious and spiritual roller coaster that brought them there.

“I never asked her to become a Jew for me [in order] to marry me,” said Alex, a tall, gregarious redhead from Northridge. “That was never part of our understanding.”

But once Bianca, a Mexican American who grew up Catholic, converted to Judaism, she had reasons all her own to want to visit the Holy Land.

“This is not for him,” she said. “This is very personal.”

The pair traveled to Israel in March with a group of 20 young couples from Los Angeles on a trip led and heavily subsidized by a year-old program called Honeymoon Israel.

For the Rosses, it was also literally their honeymoon: The two married on Jan. 30 and headed to Italy after their nine-day stint in Israel. It was her first time in Israel and his second — he originally visited six years ago on Taglit-Birthright Israel.

If finding love in Israel is the dream of many Birthright participants, for Honeymoon Israel, having a committed partner is a prerequisite. 

The group leads trips of up to 20 couples at a time from around the United States who are either interfaith, have one member who has converted or are figuring out how to incorporate Judaism into their new relationship. Last year, its first year in operation, the organization took six trips. This year, it plans on taking 16.

“Our message is, ‘Welcome to the family,’ ” Mike Wise, the organization’s co-CEO, told the Journal during an interview in Jerusalem.

Wise first conceived of an Israel trip for interfaith or ambivalently Jewish couples after reading the results of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which showed high rates of intermarriage. Young Jews were leaving the Jewish tent, so Wise decided to make the tent bigger.

“It isn’t about getting people to convert,” he said. “It’s about welcoming young couples who are the future of our community.”

Wise has held a number of leadership posts in Jewish organizations, most recently serving as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo. He began blogging about his idea after reading the Pew report. Avi Rubel, then the North America director of Masa Israel Journey, which offers internship, study and volunteer opportunities in Israel, read something Wise had written and reached out.

The two joined forces, obtained funding and launched the first trip from Atlanta in 2015, charging couples $1,800 for a trip they estimate costs more than $10,000. (Wise declined to name the benefactor organization, which committed to a three-year funding agreement, saying it prefers to remain behind the scenes.)

The Honeymoon Israel trip is much like Birthright in that it tries to hit all the major tourist attractions, such as Masada, Old Jaffa and the Western Wall. But the itinerary also includes some items specifically catered to its crowd: Couples on the March trip took a sunset cruise on the Red Sea.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald, a Conservative rabbi who runs the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University, accompanied the Los Angeles cadre in March. The trip affords him the chance to work with interfaith couples and “ambivalent Jews” in a casual and nonjudgmental setting, he said. 

His job is to “sit over dinner and talk to people about what they believe and what they’re doing with their interfaith family,” he said.

Honeymoon Israel relies heavily on local partner organizations to keep the ball rolling when the couples come home. Locally, that means the likes of Greenwald and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles are responsible for keeping the couples involved in the Jewish community. Greenwald said the previous Los Angeles trip in May 2015 has led to “a new, incredibly tight inclusive community in Los Angeles.”

The March trip the Rosses participated in shows signs of a similar success. Diana Lovati, who went on the trip with her wife, Karen Lovati, was worried beforehand they might be isolated because they were the only same-sex couple.

Diana Lovati and her wife, Karen, in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park adjacent to the Western Wall.

“I didn’t think I would connect with anybody,” said Diana, who grew up Catholic but doesn’t practice. “I’ve found a connection with every single person on this trip.”

The sense of acceptance she felt after arriving, both from her fellow travelers and members of Karen’s Israeli family here, has even made her consider converting to Judaism.

“It wasn’t a thought in my mind, but after this trip it has crossed my mind a couple of times,” she said, adding that she often felt shunned by the Catholic community for being gay.

For Bianca Ross, it was her fraught relationship with the church that led her to leave the Catholic faith. The 30-year-old, easily a foot shorter than her husband, has the manner of a fierce free thinker who rarely speaks without something significant to say.

Right about the time she started dating Alex, leaders of her local church in Los Angeles gathered the congregation to announce the removal of a priest. They made a point of emphasizing his dismissal didn’t have to do with sexual abuse. 

“I don’t want to be associated with an organization that feels the need to clarify something like that,” she said.

But she had deeper, philosophical problems with the Catholic faith, saying it carried a sense of fatalism and hopelessness that turned her away. When Alex took her to High Holy Day services, she read a very different message in the Jewish prayers, one that embraced personal responsibility and openness to change.

When she was ready to convert, she chose a Hebrew name that reflected what she found in Judaism that Catholicism couldn’t provide her: tikva, the Hebrew word for hope.

Coming to Israel, that concept took on new meaning at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where she learned about how Jewish statehood emerged from the crucible of war and on the heels of the Holocaust.

“It really speaks volumes of the Jewish people and how they continue despite all the atrocities that have been committed with them,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “I love that hard idea: Just keep going.” 

Shavuot, revisited: Five thoughts


This week, Jewish communities around the world celebrate Shavuot. Compared with Sukkot and Passover, the two other pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot is not nearly as well known, let alone observed. While rabbinic in its origin, the one-day festival commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Here are five insights derived from Shavuot to better acquaint you with this important day.

First:  We Jews are the People of the Book. Can you think of another group of people who kiss their religious texts after dropping them? When the Torah’s paraded around, everyone stands and frequently kiss it as it’s brought near. If it’s dropped, they fast, or give tzedakah as a form of expiation. Within many synagogue prayer books, and bound copies of the Torah, you’ll commonly find lipstick remains on meaningful pages of these holy texts. 

My advice is not to worship the Torah, but to live by it. Spare your kisses for your family and friends. Don’t pray to the Torah; pray to God — its author. Shavuot is a good time to start.

Second: Shavuot teaches us to “number our days.”  We count seven weeks (49 days), plus one, from the second night of Passover to Shavuot. Each day is measured.  Psalm 90 instructs us to “number our days wisely, so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” 

Shavuot teaches us to make every day count. That we are conscious of our mortality makes life more precious. With Torah — celebrated and received at Mount Sinai on Shavuot — we are given the tools to better navigate through life. With Torah, we can more fully understand the ultimate purpose behind our existence.

Third: Shavuot is a complement to Passover. You can’t have one without the other.  Physical liberation, as it’s celebrated on Passover, is a necessary first step. But what do you do after you’re physically free? On Shavuot, we’re given spiritual freedom, intellectual liberation. Life needs structure, not enslavement. The most creative human beings rarely depend on spontaneity. They adhere to a discipline. On Shavuot, we receive the Torah with the hopes it can teach us how to live more meaningful, disciplined lives within the bounds of physical freedom.

Fourth: Shavuot is a joyous time. That the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, referred to as the counting of the omer, has become associated with a quasi-mournful time in the Jewish calendar is a pity.  

Popularly linked to the second-century rabbinic leader, Akiba ben Joseph, whose 24,000 students were either killed fighting alongside Bar Kochba against Rome; killed as the result of a plague; or treated each other so poorly, they became irrelevant and died out.  

That observant Jews customarily refrain from listening to music, cutting their hair or getting married during the time leading up to Shavuot (with the exception of Lag b’Omer), reflects a dour mindset filled with martyrdom and needless restriction.

Each day, if not each week, between Passover and Shavuot should be cause for boundless celebration and anticipation. We should be chanting Hallel during the daily morning service. Like Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is a holiday filled with great festivity. The days leading up to it should be, as well.

Fifth: The gates of Judaism are wide open to non-Jews; Jews by choice are welcomed, deeply appreciated and admired.

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism. The Moabites were described in the Bible as longtime enemies of the Jewish People — that’s not insignificant.

The point being, whoever is sincere in wanting to become Jewish, regardless of one’s background, gender, race, ethnicity, etc., is welcome. Jews by choice are among the Jewish people’s greatest gifts. They bring fresh insight into our traditions.  They have a love for God, Torah and Israel.  

A great American sociologist, the late Egon Mayer, predicated by the year 2020, more than 10 percent of the American-Jewish community will be composed of Jews by choice.  I’d love that number to increase to over 50 percent. So exceptionally valued are Jews by choice, so important are they to the vitality and depth of Judaism.

Shavuot’s religious significance is on par with Passover and Sukkot. The holiday is filled with insight and meaning, far more than just five. Many more await you when you engage in Shavuot’s observance. Take it seriously. You won’t regret that you did. 

RABBI MICHAEL GOTTLEIB is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation in Santa Monica.

A holiday unmarked by date, unconfined by space


The literal translation of Shavuot is the “Festival of Weeks” because of the holiday’s connection with Passover. In rabbinic Hebrew, this festival is called Atzeret because it is similar to Shemini Atzeret, which follows the festival of Sukkot. However, unlike Shemini Atzeret, which is celebrated immediately after Sukkot, Shavuot is celebrated only seven weeks after Passover. Even so, these two holidays have one and the same meaning: emphasizing the significance of the festival that preceded them.

Passover’s meaning is simple and straightforward: It is a festival of freedom, celebrating the beginning of our national existence and focuses — especially in the context of the Exodus — on the significance of freedom. The primary, most basic meaning of freedom is the removal of shackles, the end of bondage. But even without shackles, an existence without purpose is meaningless. For even with the best of intentions, one cannot liberate a thing or a person that does not have a will of its own. One can sever the chains that tie a chair to its place, but this will not grant it freedom, because freedom means the possession of inner will and aspirations. 

When they left Egypt, the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery, but still did not have a will of their own. More than that, in their first weeks of desert wandering, they were not yet freed from the vicissitudes of life: They experienced hunger and thirst, and learned not all of their wishes can be fulfilled. Although they walked in the desert with full Divine protection, they had very little awareness. The People of Israel were just like an infant, aware only of its most basic feelings.

At the end of this fuzzy period of searching for meaning, of attempting to reach awareness, comes the Giving of the Torah. Indeed, Shavuot marks the end of this primal, childish era. It is a transition into a totally different stage. An Exodus from Egypt without the giving of the Torah would be deliverance without liberty, a purposeless shattering of fetters, and an end to slavery without the beginning of freedom. The Giving of the Torah, surely the most significant event in Jewish history, endows sense and meaning not only to the Exodus but also to Jewish life in general. This moment sets up the great framework toward which the entire Jewish nation is moving.

Our Sages point out that Shavuot is the day in which the Torah in its entirety was given to us — but it is not the festival of the receiving of the Torah. Receiving the Torah comes through our individual and collective understanding of its contents, aspirations and goals. We receive the Torah when we accept it within ourselves, as part of our thinking, experiences and desires. 

This is an extended process that takes not weeks, months or years, but many generations. It also does not happen for everyone simultaneously. The Jewish people encompassing all generations — as individuals and as a nation — are still in the process of the receiving of the Torah. This is our greatest existential challenge, and it is not an easy one. Indeed, not everyone embraces it with understanding or with serenity and joy: Some approach it out of a profound ecstatic experience. Many feel the elation of finding a solution, while so many others merely plod along. But all of us are in it.

That is why Shavuot has a unique status among the three Pilgrimage Festivals. In Passover, in addition to its special rites, there are also special foods; in Sukkot, there are many rites, as well as all the limitations stemming from living in the Sukkah. On Shavuot, however — which is the only pilgrimage festival that lasts only one day — there are no special rites, either food- or lodging-wise. This is because Shavuot is, itself, the opening to the sphere from which everything else flows and stems. 

Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in a place that is not a place — an indistinct point in the desert — and at a time which is not a time — because the precise date of the Giving of the Torah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. In fact, the Torah does not state anywhere that Shavuot is indeed the time of the Giving of the Torah! 

This festival expresses, then, how the Torah — which is not confined or limited by time or space — is given to human beings who live within time and space. The Giving of the Torah is a sort of “sleeve” from a higher world to a lower world; and after being there for a short while, the Children of Israel are called upon to take the memory of this encounter with a higher reality, so totally different from our existence, and live it. This is no simple feat; and indeed, as individuals and as a nation, we have been grappling with this question for millennia: How can we, in the reality of our existence, attain eternal freedom and be members of a “nation of priests” that is God’s “special treasure,” a nation that throughout its history is struggling to be holy? 

RABBI ADIN EVEN-ISRAEL STEINSALTZ is the author of more than 60 books. He is best known for his groundbreaking commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and is working on a forthcoming commentary on the entire Bible.

On Shavuot, who (or what) will get the first fruits?


As we approach Shavuot, there’s a battle going on in our garden over who — or what — will get our first fruits.

In ancient days in Israel, beginning at Shavuot — the holiday that marked the wheat harvest as well as the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai — people brought to the Temple in Jerusalem an offering from their first harvest. The practice is reflected in one of the holiday’s alternate names, Yom Habikkurim, the Day of the First Fruits.

In Deuteronomy, there is an entire ceremony for offering these first fruits. Farmers are required to say a prayer as a reminder that God “brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Though intended for an ancient audience in Israel, this idea of gratitude still resonates today.

Though synagogues today more commonly celebrate Shavuot with confirmations, all-night study sessions and services in which the Ten Commandments are read, many Jews keep in touch with the holiday’s harvest side (Shavuot, which this year begins on Saturday night, is also known as Chag Hakatzir, Festival of Harvest). At Shavuot last year in Israel, President Reuven Rivlin and his wife were presented with two baskets of fruit and vegetables from the nation’s farmers. In the U.S., organizations such as Adamah have held bikkurim parades, and this year, Congregation Kesser Israel in Portland, Oregon, is having a Bikkurim Parade and Fruit Drive for schoolchildren.

My wife and I like to embrace the harvest theme, too. But this year we kept putting off planting day, so unfortunately our first fruits — cucumbers, squash, eggplants and several tomato varieties — won’t be ready by Shavuot. Still, we were looking forward to sharing the bounty of our garden with members of our minyan at our Shabbat potluck lunches.

That is until a raccoon began digging up our garden beds every night searching for grubs.

One morning, as we sorted through havoc in the garden — some plants were uprooted, others were buried — I began to wonder if this was all worth it. After all, there is a huge supermarket five minutes away from my home. We also subscribe to a farm service that delivers a box of organic veggies twice a month.

With so many convenient ways to get fresh food — and so many other things to worry about — did we really need to be at war with nature over cukes? Couldn’t we offer a different kind of first fruit for Shavuot? If the modern interpretation of bikkurim includes sharing and showing gratitude, couldn’t we transpose that idea to another medium of the non-garden variety?

For the past several years, our minyan celebrated a unique night of first fruits. Though decidedly non-agricultural, it was an evening where people could offer up something new: a book they had read, music they recently found, a project they were undertaking at work. One woman even showed clips from a film she was working on.

It was an enjoyable tradition, one that connected us to the holiday’s roots. But I’ve found there is something about growing living things that makes you particularly grateful and mindful of the potential and fragility of life.

As a journalist, I am always grateful to cultivate a thoughtful phrase. But when it comes to both immediate and lasting gratification, that can’t compete with growing a tasty tomato or sharing those tomatoes with a friend.

Shavuot, with its harvest ritual, seems to tell us to be not just consumers but conscious consumers and producers. Growing edible crops makes us aware of the conditions that put food on the table: There are the things over which we have control, like the spacing between plants or how much fertilizer and water to use, and those that are out of our hands, like the weather.

Sometimes I’ve found that the insects, viruses and animals that also want our first fruits are things I can control. Last year, white flies attacked the leaves of the eggplants, so we sprayed the hibiscus plant where they lived with a mixture of rubbing alcohol, liquid soap and water. To scare off the birds that were pecking the tomatoes, we strung up old CDs. Their glint did the job perfectly.

But this year, what to do about the raccoon? First, we tried protecting many of the plants in tomato cages, only to see them pushed aside the next morning. Then, looking for advice on the Humane Society’s website — a few inhumane solutions had crossed my mind as well — I read that turning on a transistor radio in the garden overnight might scare them off.

So, one night, I took a radio out to the garden. I tuned it to an all-night call-in show about health and hoped for a garden miracle.

Growing and harvesting crops is something of a miracle. My wife and I have worked hard to bring in those $10 tomatoes — but we also understand that without a little help, everything can wither on the vine. Some might call a successful harvest the result of luck or great planning, or credit it to that most intangible of human qualities: a green thumb.

But for me, by the time Shavuot rolls around, I’m ready to give some thanks. After months of carefully watching, tending and coaxing, when your labor does bear fruit, you want to acknowledge where your mazel comes from. It’s time to celebrate and show gratitude for another season.

That, to me, is the meaning of Shavuot: giving thanks for being able to fill our baskets once again and sharing the bounty.

As for the radio in the garden, it worked for a week. Then one morning, my wife found an eggplant uprooted. But I am not deterred. On the night of Shavuot, when the heavens are said to open, I will change channels and try an all-night religion show, hoping the raccoon will get the message — or, at least, show some gratitude.

Shavuot: a holiday unmarked by date, without ritual, unconfined by space


The literal translation of Shavuot is the Festival of Weeks” because of the holiday’s connection with Passover. In Rabbinic Hebrew, this festival is called Atzeret because it is similar to Shemini Atzeret, which follows the festival of Sukkoth. However, unlike Shemini Atzeret, which is celebrated immediately after Sukkot, Shavuot is celebrated only seven weeks after Passover. Even so, these two holidays have one and the same meaning: summing up and emphasizing the significance of the festival that preceded them.

Passover’s meaning is simple and straightforward: it is a festival of freedom, celebrating the beginning of our national existence and focuses – especially in the context of the Exodus – on the significance of freedom. The primary, most basic meaning of freedom is the removal of shackles, the end of bondage. But even without shackles, an existence without purpose is meaningless. For even with the best of intentions, one cannot liberate a thing or a person that does not have a will of its own. One can sever the chains that tie a chair to its place, but this will not grant it freedom, because freedom means inner will and aspirations.

When they left Egypt, the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery, but still did not have a will of their own More than that, in their first weeks of desert wandering, they were not yet freed from the vicissitudes of life: they experienced hunger and thirst, and they also learned that not all of their wishes can be fulfilled. Although they walked in the desert with full Divine protection, they had only very little awareness. The People of Israel were just like an infant, aware only of its most basic feelings.

At the end of this fuzzy period of searching for meaning, of attempting to reach awareness, comes the Giving of the Torah. Indeed, Shavuot not only marks the end of this primal, childish era: it is a transition into a totally different stage. An Exodus from Egypt without the giving of the Torah would be deliverance without liberty, a purposeless shattering of fetters, an end to slavery but without freedom. The Giving of the Torah, surely the most significant event in Jewish history, endows sense and meaning not only to the Exodus but to Jewish life in general. This moment sets up the great framework, towards which the entire Jewish nation is moving.

Our Sages point out that Shavuot is the day in which the Torah in its entirety was given to us – but it is not the festival of the receiving of the Torah. Receiving the Torah comes through our individual and collective understanding of its contents, aspirations and goals. We receive the Torah when we accept it within ourselves, as part of our thinking, experiences and desires.

This is an extended process that takes not weeks, months or years, but many generations. It also does not happen simultaneously for everyone.  The Jewish people encompassing all generations – both as individuals and as a nation — is still in the process of the receiving of the Torah. This is our greatest existential challenge, and it is not an easy one. Indeed, not everyone embraces it with understanding or with serenity and joy: some approach it out of a profound ecstatic experience. Many feel the elation of finding a solution, while so many others merely plod along. But all of us are in it.

that is why Shavuot has a unique status among the three Pilgrimage Festivals. In Passover, in addition to its special rites, there are also special foods; in Sukkoth, there are many rites, as well as all the limitations stemming from living in the Sukkah. On Shavuot, however – which is the only pilgrimage festival that lasts only one day – there are no special rites, either food- or lodging-wise. This is because Shavuot is, itself, the opening to the sphere from which everything else flows and stems.

Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in a place that is not a place – an indistinct point in the desert – and at a time which is not a time – because the precise date of the Giving of the Torah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. In fact, the Torah does not even state anywhere that Shavuot is indeed the time of the Giving of the Torah!

This festival expresses, then, how the Torah – which is not confined or limited by time or space – is given to human beings who live within time and space. The Giving of the Torah is a sort of “sleeve” from a higher world to a lower world; and after being there for a short while, the Children of Israel are called upon to take the memory of this encounter with a higher reality, so totally different from our existence, and live it. This is no simple feat; and indeed, both as individuals and as a nation we have been tackling for millennia with this question: how can we, in the reality of our existence, attain eternal freedom and be members of a “nation of priests” that is God's “special treasure,” a nation that throughout its history is struggling to be holy?


Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is the author of more than 60 books. He is best known for his groundbreaking commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and is working on a forthcoming commentary on the entire Bible.

5 insights derived from Shavuot to better acquaint you


This week Jewish communities around the world celebrate Shavuot.  Compared to Sukkot and Passover, the two other pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot is not nearly as well known, let alone observed.  While rabbinic in its origin, the one-day festival commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Here are 5 insights derived from Shavuot to better acquaint you with this important day.

First:  We Jews are the People of the Book. Can you think of another group of people that when they drop religious texts kiss it upon picking it up?  When the Torah’s paraded around, everyone stands and frequently kiss it as it’s brought near? If it’s dropped, they fast, or give Tzedakkah as a form of expiation?  Within many synagogue prayer books, and bound copies of the Torah, you’ll commonly find lipstick remains on meaningful pages of these holy texts.

My advice is not to worship the Torah; live by it.  When it’s paraded around, spare your kisses for your family and friends.  Don’t pray to the Torah; pray to God—it’s author. Shavuot is a good time to start.

Second: Shavuot teaches us to “number our days.”  We count seven weeks, (49 days) plus one, from the second night of Passover to Shavuot.  Each day is measured.  Psalm 90 instructs us, “To number our days wisely, so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.”

Shavuot teaches us to make every day count.  That we are conscious of our mortality makes life more precious. With Torah—celebrated and received at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot—we are given the tools to better navigate through life.  With Torah—we can more fully understand the ultimate purpose behind our existence.

Third: Shavuot is a compliment to Passover.  You can’t have one without the other.  Physical liberation, as it’s celebrated on Passover, is a necessary first step.  But what do you do after you’re physically free?  On Shavuot we’re given spiritual freedom, intellectual liberation.  Life needs structure.  Not enslavement. The most creative human beings rarely depend on spontaneity.  They adhere to a discipline. On Shavuot we receive the Torah with the hopes it can teach us how to live more meaningful, disciplined lives within the bounds of physical freedom.

Fourth: Shavuot is a joyous time. Why the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, referred to as the counting of the omer, has become associated with a quasi-mournful time in the Jewish calendar is a pity. 

Popularly linked to the second century rabbinic leader, Akiba ben Joseph whose 24 thousand students were either killed fighting alongside Bar Kochba against Rome; killed the result of a plague; or treated each other so poorly they became irrelevant and died out. 

That observant Jews customarily refrain from listening to music, cutting their hair or get married during the time leading up to Shavuot (with the exception of Lag B’omer), reflects a dour mindset filled with martyrdom and needless restriction.

Each day, if not each week, between Passover and Shavuot should be cause for boundless celebration and anticipation. We should be chanting Hallel during the daily morning service. Like Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is a holiday filled with great festivity.  The days leading up to it should be as well.

Fifth: The gates of Judaism are wide open to non-Jews; Jews by choice are welcomed, deeply appreciated and admired.

On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism.  The Moabites’ were described in the Bible as longtime enemies of the Jewish People—that’s not insignificant.

The point being, whoever is sincere in wanting to become Jewish, regardless of one’s background, one’s gender, race, ethnicity etc., is welcomed.  Jews by choice are among the Jewish People’s greatest gifts. They bring fresh insight into our traditions.  They have a love for God, Torah and Israel. 

The late great American sociologist, Egon Mayer predicated by the year 2020, more than 10% of the U.S. Jewish community will be comprised of Jews by choice.  I’d love that number to increase to over 50%, so exceptionally valued are Jews by choice, so important are they to the vitality and depth of Judaism.

Shavuot’s religious significance is on par with Passover and Sukkot.  The holiday is filled with insight and meaning, of which these are just five.  Many more await you when you engage in Shavuot’s observance; take it seriously.  You won’t regret that you did.

For Shavuot, try this easy strawberry rhubarb trifle


Forget fancy pastries, cakes or tarts: Trifles are the best dessert you can make for entertaining. They are delicious and look beautiful and impressive, but are actually one of the easiest desserts you can make.

The first time I made a trifle was actually after a baking mistake. My Bundt cake had fallen apart mere hours before Shabbat dinner, and I was in a pinch to throw together a dessert. I threw the botched cake into a trifle dish, added some fresh fruit and chocolate mousse and voila – I was able to salvage dessert.

Shavuot is traditionally a time when we serve cheesecake, blintzes and other delicious, but heavy, dairy dishes. This trifle sings of spring flavors while being much lighter than your average cheesecake. And there’s no baking required — and only minimal cooking — since I suggest using a store-bought pound cake. Which leaves you more time for your all-night Shavuot studying. Or sitting outside with a glass of iced tea and a bowl full of trifle.

STRAWBERRY RHUBARB TRIFLE

  • 2 pounds rhubarb, chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 pint strawberries, cut in half and stems removed
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Juice of half lemon plus zest
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Store-bought pound cake
  • Additional strawberries and mint for garnish (optional)

To make the strawberry rhubarb compote, combine the chopped rhubarb, hulled strawberries, sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce to simmer for 10-15 minutes, until pieces of rhubarb have broken down and the mixture is soft.

Place rhubarb mixture into a food processor fitted with blade attachment. Pulse a few times to smooth out mixture or until it has reached your desired consistency.

To make the whipped cream, place the heavy cream in a large chilled bowl and mix on low speed using a hand mixer or stand mixer for 2 minutes. Increase speed to high and add vanilla. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and mix until you have stiff peaks.

To assemble, crumble the pound cake on the bottom of a trifle dish or large glass bowl. Add 1/2 to 1 cup rhubarb compote on top. Cover with whipped cream. Repeat layers until you have reached the top.

Add fresh strawberries and mint on top if desired.

On Shavuot, remembering the day I almost dropped the Torah


On Shavuot, we are reminded that the Torah is a tree of life to which we are to hold fast. But what happens when that hold slips from your grasp?

It’s a question I found myself asking six weeks before Shavuot, late in the Torah service on the last day of Passover.

Returning with my wife Brenda to Temple Beth Emet, in Anaheim, Calif., where I grew up, we both had come to attend the Yizkor service and to see her family who continue to pray there. Not far from Disneyland, it’s a shrinking kingdom of Jewish memories where, as I walked down the aisle to my seat, I could see my Hebrew school teacher and the familiar faces of those who had been friends of my parents.

A little while after we were seated, the gabbai came down the aisle, blue card in hand, and asked me if I wanted to be “hagbah” — that is, to raise the Torah after it was read. “Thank you,” I said, accepting the honor.

When my wife joined me, we quickly exchanged notes and found that we were going to be a Torah team, since while she was out in the lobby, the gabbai had asked her to be “gelilah” — the person tasked with dressing the Torah.

As the scrolls were taken from the ark, I nudged her, saying the larger of the two scrolls was probably the one I should lift. As I sized it up, I could see that this scroll was longer than the one I had grown accustomed to lifting in my minyan in Los Angeles.

Torah scrolls vary quite a bit in size, from short study scrolls weighing only a few pounds up to tall, arm-length versions that can weigh up to about 50 pounds.

Besides being a holy object, a Torah scroll is also expensive, taking a scribe a year or more to write its 304,805 letters by hand, and costing between $30,000 and $60,000, depending on size, quality of script and parchment.

Trying to keep this out of mind, I counted down the aliyot, the sections in which the Torah is read, until with the completion of the eighth and final reading. Quickly, I walked up the few steps to the bima where I had chanted, in what seemed like a million turns of the Torah ago, for my bar mitzvah.

Grabbing the wooden handles, known as the Trees of Life, I rolled each tight, so that three columns were left showing in the middle. I carefully slid the scroll towards me, and then,using the Torah reading table’s edge as a fulcrum, I slid the remaining section down, bent my knees and levered the Torah up. With the handles about even to my shoulders, I turned away from the congregation, so the worshippers could see the writing, and raised the scroll higher.

I took about four steps to the chairs where I knew I was supposed to sit, and where my wife would tie the scroll and dress it.

Only, there was a problem.

“The least stable time during hagbah is right after you sit down,” says the National Chavura Committee’s website, and this is the truth. While lowering my body to sit, I lost the tension between the two halves, and the half in my left hand began to wobble. Thrusting my arm out to steady it only caused the scroll to gyrate more in what began to appear to me as a slow-motion disaster.

Now, being asked to raise the Torah is a great honor — or, as the gabbai had put it, “greater than them all.” Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser, citing the Mishnah in an article titled, “Raising Awareness: The Symbolic Significance of Hagbah and Gelilah,” explained: “lifting the Torah scroll, is a public act of qinyan, of establishing ‘ownership'” rights.

But if that were the case, those “rights,” remembered on Shavuot with the celebration of the giving of the Torah, were wobbling away both from me and from the congregation, who if I dropped the Torah, would need to decide how to reassert their ownership. Would they fast? Give tzedakah?

One more wobble, and then my wife, seemingly coming out of nowhere, grabbed the top of the errant roller, and even though the parchment buckled into an S-like shape that widened my eyes, she stopped its fall.

“Good save,” someone said to her as she returned to her seat.

In another era, according to Prouser, the raising and dressing of the Torah was “executed by a single individual.” But today, I was ecstatic to be part of a team: a husband and wife, who had long been juggling work, children, family and Judaism, coming together, after some juggling of my own, finally to take grasp of the Torah and own it.

“She is a tree of life to those who grasp her,” says the Book of Proverbs, “and whoever holds on to her is happy.”

On Shavuot, reopening the book


On Shavuot, which this year falls on May 23, we celebrate the day that we received the Torah on Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. Think about that. Every year, we celebrate receiving the exact same book, or, more precisely, re-receiving the exact same Torah. But if I possess the Torah once, why must I receive it again every year? Don’t I already have it? 

One of the most acclaimed novels of this past year was Haruki Murakami’s “The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” It’s an emotionally devastating work that follows the character Tsukuru Tazaki as he attempts to piece together why and how his life fell apart 16 years earlier. As he journeys into his past, visiting old friends and acquaintances, he discovers how much he himself has changed. This makes him see his trauma in a completely different way. It changes the perception of his own narrative. The message is a poignant one. We, as humans, keep changing. Our experiences, development and natural progression create inevitable changes with the passing of each year. We need to re-receive the Torah not because the Torah has changed, but because we have changed. As a people, we are certainly so much different from how we were 3,300 years ago. 

We’re not robots. We’re humans. What we see as critical to our lives may change with the times. So Shavuot comes along to help us reorient ourselves — to help us refocus on the timeless rather than just the trendy or the timely. Passover is about the Exodus and freedom. Yom Kippur is about atonement and repair. Shavuot is about our life’s journey and the techniques through which we constantly reopen our book and rediscover our inner essence. 

There is a magnificent and challenging ritual on the first night of Shavuot. The custom is to return to synagogue after dinner and stay up all night studying Torah. There are numerous mystical explanations for this practice, but I’d like to suggest another one based on the earlier point: We stay up all night and study Torah because as the hours pass and fatigue sets in, we have less energy for distractions. We are more vulnerable, more open. We can focus on the essence, which is hearing the word of God all over again. And every year, the message has a different resonance, because we ourselves are different. To emphasize this theme of renewal, this year, on Shavuot night in my community, I will be giving a series of lectures from 11 p.m. to 5:20 a.m. that are really simulated conversations between famous historical rabbis who disagreed on salient matters of Jewish law, ethics and philosophy. The point of the exercise is to re-examine their disagreements in light of the passage of time. In other words, if we reopen their dialogue, would we find that the chasm between their positions has grown or shrunk? I want to encourage the community to be in listening mode, to look at disagreements in context rather than in judgment. We can even do that in our personal lives: How would we react to a friend with whom we disagreed if we heard their position 10 years later in our present context? 

Shavuot comes along to help us reorient ourselves — to help us refocus on the timeless rather than just the trendy or the timely.

On the second day of Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth converted to Judaism, which may be reason enough for reading this text on this day. Shavuot is the day we formally became a nation of Torah-observant Jews. In a sense, it is our collective conversion as a people. But there is something much deeper at play. According to the Midrash Ruth — which is a collection of homiletic teachings on the Book of Ruth, composed in approximately 700 C.E. — the real reason we read Ruth on Shavuot is for its manifold examples of pure kindness. Whether it was Ruth’s commitment to stay with her mother-in-law, or Boaz’s inclusiveness, Ruth is a charitable composite of beautiful human traits. What does this have to do with Shavuot? Chesed — kindness — is also most realized when we acknowledge that people change. What they need today is not what they need tomorrow or what they needed yesterday. And our sensitivity demands that we pay attention to each other anew as often as we can. We have changed, our loved ones have changed, and, therefore, how we give to each other must keep changing and evolving. That is true kindness, true love. 

The Talmud in Ta’anit refers to the giving of the Torah as Yom Chatunato — the day of our marriage with God. Because Shavuot is the day we received the Torah, it is our national wedding. What is the intent of this image? Well, consider the wedding day, a holiest of holy days when we are open to our future spouse in the deepest way possible, promising to be there for one another through thick and thin. So it is with God on Shavuot. We are there every year, whether we are more thick or more thin, or more rich or more skeptical. The regiving of the Torah expresses our ability to pay attention all over again. 

Reopening the Torah on Shavuot gives us access to our most precious treasure, which is the wisdom of our tradition. But for today’s new generation, tradition is not enough. They want to know: How will this tradition make me a better person and give me a better life? Shavuot begins to answer that question. Re-receiving the same holy book every year, while we keep changing, implies that the Torah is powerfully equipped to provide us insight no matter what state or stage we are in. 

The Jews living in the cultural “golden age” of Spain (900-1130 C.E.) found genuine cultural expression through the Torah. A compelling example is the poetry of Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who paved a new style with words inspired by the Torah that simultaneously expressed the true artistic milieu of his generation. The Jewish community in Western Europe in the 19th century, facing the immense challenge of enlightenment, basked in the innovative approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who reopened the Torah and understood the concept of Torah im Derech Eretz (Torah and the way of the Land). Jews crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto awaiting an unspeakable fate found an unfulfilling but quiet dialogue with God from the words, “My soul will weep in hiding(Jeremiah 13:7). Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira reopened the book and meditated upon this verse and understood it as God admitting to crying with the people. The Jewish immigrants who arrived on American soil found a world so removed from anything they had ever known. They found a world that was so distant from the journey of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Yet, some of them decided to reopen the Torah once again and they heard the immutable word of God speaking within their mutable selves. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, heard the word of redemption and sent emissaries to spread his vision of hope. Rabbi Aharon Kotler heard the word of dedication and spent his entire life building a community committed to studying the Law. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik heard the word of intellectualism and guided his energies toward teaching thousands of students. The women of the modern era, under the inspiration of Sara Schenirer in Poland, reopened the Torah and saw a place for their own growth and aspirations. 

All of these Jewish giants kept reopening the book and finding new inspiration.

Shavuot teaches us to re-receive the Torah because everything changes. It always does. The world changes. We change. The idealism of our youth sometimes becomes shattered by the coldness of life’s reality. The Torah speaks of Mishnah Torah — a second Torah. The king of the Jewish nation is charged to keep two Torahs. Rashi, in his commentary on Deuteronomy, says that one Torah would be reserved for study at home and the second Torah was taken into battle. Why doesn’t the king have just one Torah that he takes to war and reads at home? Because there is a great need for two. The risk we take when bringing the Torah for protection out on the road is that it can become worn by travel and tattered in war. Our Torah becomes corrupted by the compromises of life, and therefore it becomes necessary from time to time for us to return to that pure Torah back at home, and reflect upon our sacred ideals. 

This Shavuot, I challenge my brothers and sisters to reopen the book. Discover again for the first time those lessons that you may or may not remember from your earlier journeys. Share a story or two with your children and notice how the same passage can mean one thing for you, one thing for your husband and another for your children. Let the splendid drama of the Bible carry you through the night, and reach deep into your vacillating soul and awaken it. 

Chag sameach.


Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh. 

Blintzes and beyond for Shavuot


The holiday of Shavuot marks the receiving of the Ten Commandments by Moses, but it’s also a kind of Jewish Thanksgiving, when farm bounty and grains — “first fruits” — were brought to the temple. These often included wheat, barley, grapes, figs and dates.

In modern times, Shavuot is a holiday that inspires the preparation of many delicious and traditional recipes that usually feature a variety of vegetarian and dairy foods. Milk, eggs and cheeses of all kinds are used in abundance. 

Blintzes are the most popular of the Shavuot foods. They may be served as a side dish, dessert or main course. They are thin pancakes or crepes that are filled with an assortment of dairy or vegetable mixtures. I have adapted a basic blintz recipe to include a spinach-ricotta combination; served with yogurt or sour cream, it adds a perfect dairy accent.

The Vegetarian Lentil Soup is a family favorite. All the ingredients can be sautéed, blended in a food processor and served immediately, or prepared and stored in the refrigerator for two to three days.

Stuffed Eggplant Rolls are another flexible choice for your Shavuot lunch, brunch or dinner. Thin slices of eggplant are rolled around a three-cheese filling that is combined with lightly beaten egg whites. The spicy, garlicky herbed tomato sauce is a perfect accompaniment.

And don’t forget about dessert. One of my special treats for the holiday is an Apricot Cheesecake, along with bowls of fruit, dates and nuts. Together, they are sure to please!

SHAVUOT BLINTZES

  • Ricotta and Spinach Filling (recipe follows) 
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 3 tablespoons melted, unsalted margarine
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Sour cream

 

Prepare Ricotta and Spinach Filling; refrigerate. 

In a large bowl, blend the eggs, milk and 1 tablespoon margarine. Add flour and salt, blending until smooth. (If any lumps remain, pour through a fine strainer, pressing any lumps of flour through; mix well.) Cover and set aside for 1 hour.

Lightly grease a 6-inch nonstick skillet. Place over medium heat until hot. Pour in about 1/8 cup batter at a time, tilting pan and swirling to make a thin pancake. When lightly browned, gently loosen edges and turn out of pan onto towel or plate. Repeat with remaining batter. Cool.

Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of Ricotta and Spinach Filling in center of browned side of each blintz. Fold lower portion over filling. Tuck in ends then roll to form flat rectangle. Place on larger platter and cover with plastic wrap until ready to cook.

In a large skillet, place remaining 2 tablespoons melted margarine. Cook blintzes about 2 to 3 minutes on each side until lightly browned. Transfer to serving plates and serve with sour cream.

Makes about 20 blintzes.

RICOTTA AND SPINACH FILLING

  • 2 bunches fresh spinach
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

Rinse spinach; remove and discard stems. Place leaves in boiling salted boiling water; boil 10 minutes. Drain and cool, then squeeze dry. Chop finely.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine spinach, ricotta, Parmesan cheese, egg yolks, parsley and basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.

Makes 5 to 6 cups.

VEGETARIAN LENTIL SOUP

  • 1 1/2 cups dried lentils
  • 2 1/2 cups warm vegetable broth or water
  • 2 bay leaves, crushed
  • 1/4 cup unsalted margarine
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 4 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 parsnip, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 4 large tomatoes, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Red wine vinegar to taste
  • Plain yogurt or grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

 

Soak lentils in 4 cups of water 6 hours or overnight. Drain and place in a large, heavy pot with vegetable broth and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam that forms. Reduce heat, cover partially, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until lentils are tender.

In a large skillet, heat margarine and olive oil. Add garlic, carrots, parsnips, onion, celery and parsley. Sauté 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add rosemary and tomatoes, and simmer 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and vinegar. Remove 2 cups of the cooked lentils and 1/2 cup of the liquid; puree in a processor or blender. Return the puree and sautéed vegetable mixture to the soup pot. Mix well. Bring to boil over medium heat, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until thick, 30 to 40 minutes. Ladle soup into warm bowls and garnish with yogurt or grated cheese. 

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

STUFFED EGGPLANT ROLLS

  • Tomato-Basil Sauce (recipe follows)
  • 1 pound ricotta or hoop cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh or dried basil
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 8 ounces mozzarella cheese
  • 2 medium eggplants
  • Flour
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • Fresh basil leaves for garnish

 

Prepare Tomato-Basil Sauce; refrigerate. 

In a bowl, combine ricotta, Parmesan, parsley, basil and egg yolks.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into cheese mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill.

Slice mozzarella cheese into 2-inch-by-1/2-inch sticks. Set aside.

Trim stem end from eggplants and slice lengthwise 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Dredge in flour seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Shake off excess.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add eggplant slices and sauté on both sides until soft and lightly browned. Drain on paper towels. Cool.

Place 2 tablespoons cheese filling across narrow end of each eggplant slice. Press stick of mozzarella into filling. Roll up eggplant tightly around filling. Place rolls, seam-side down, in greased baking dish. Cover with foil and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours. (Do not freeze.)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Spoon some of Tomato-Basil Sauce over each roll. Bake for 15 minutes or until hot and bubbling. With metal spatula, carefully place one or two eggplant rolls on each plate. Garnish with basil leaves. Serve immediately. 

Makes about 16 rolls.

TOMATO-BASIL SAUCE

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped 
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes with liquid
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh or dried basil
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

In a skillet, heat oil. Add garlic and onion, and sauté until onions are transparent. Add tomatoes, wine, basil, parsley and sugar. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a food processor or blender and process until well blended. Transfer to bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate. 

Makes about 4 cups.

APRICOT CHEESECAKE

 

  • 1 (6-ounce) package dried apricots
  • 1 1/2 cups apple juice
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • Crumbled Sugar-Cookie Crust (recipe follows)
  • Sour Cream Topping (recipe follows)
  • 3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

 

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a small saucepan, combine apricots, apple juice and 1/2 cup sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes. Cool. Transfer to a food processor or blender and process until pureed. Set aside. Reserve 1/2 cup apricot puree for cookie crust.

Prepare the Crumbled Sugar-Cookie Crust and Sour Cream Topping; set both aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and remaining 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Blend in vanilla and 1/2 cup of the apricot puree. Beat 2 or 3 minutes until light. Pour into crust that has been spread with a thin layer of apricot puree. 

Bake in preheated oven for 50 minutes or until center is set and top is golden. Remove from oven and spread with Sour Cream Topping. Return to oven 5 minutes. Cool. Remove from springform pan and garnish with remaining apricot puree. Chill before serving.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

CRUMBLED SUGAR-COOKIE CRUST

  • 1 1/2 cups crumbled sugar cookies
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted margarine

 

In a large mixing bowl, food processor or blender, thoroughly blend the cookie crumbs and margarine. Spoon the mixture evenly into a 9-inch springform pan and press down firmly to make an even layer on bottom of pan. Spread with a thin layer of the apricot puree. Refrigerate at least 15 minutes.

SOUR CREAM TOPPING

  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

 

In a small bowl, beat the sour cream, sugar and vanilla until well blended. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Makes 2 cups.


Judy Zeidler is a cooking instructor and the author of “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press). Her website is judyzeidler.com.

She followed her heart to her true faith


I’m sitting in a plush rocking chair underneath a large painting of Jesus in my grandma’s living room. My grandma is across from me, smiling, her hands linked. Danny Lobell, my fiancé, is next to me.

“So, what’s your background?” she asks Danny.

“I’m Scottish and Jewish,” he answers her.

“Oh, that’s nice. You know, we had some Jewish in our family,” she says, clutching the cross she’s wearing around her neck.

“What was that?” 

“There is some Jewish in our family tree,” she says. 

“Really?”

“Yes. My mom’s family was from Germany.” 

“Back to the Jewish thing. Do you know who was Jewish?”

“I’m not sure,” she says, trailing off. “Kylie, have you been going to church lately? It’s really important to go to church.”

“Um, yeah,” I say.

I try not to feel too guilty. Church could be considered a colloquial term for “place of worship,” right? And I do go to “church.” Every Saturday morning.

I’m four years into my conversion process when I learn that perhaps my maternal family line could actually be Jewish. It’s a little validating — after all, it would explain a lot of things.

My grandma, a devout Catholic, “baptized” my older sisters in her kitchen sink when they were babies. She told me, however, that my baptism “didn’t work.” How does a baptism not work? 

If my soul were actually Jewish, it would also explain why I always hung around the Jewish kids in school and dated only Jews. On more than a few occasions in college, I would feel a wave of depression sweep over me after the sun set on Saturdays. I’d also have recurring nightmares that I was running from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Although it didn’t make any sense at the time, as I look back on my life, more and more eerie examples pop up that indicate I was a Jew.


My grandma, a devout Catholic, “baptized” my older sisters in her kitchen sink when they were babies. She told me, however, that my baptism “didn’t work.” How does a baptism not work?

Like most conversion stories, mine begins with love. My senior year of college, in 2010, I met Danny, a stand-up comedian living in Brooklyn. He had an Orthodox background, but had started to drift away from traditional practice. 

Then he met me. 

One Friday night, he took me to a Chabad outpost that was surrounded by tattoo shops, dive bars and vintage T-shirt stores in the hipster mecca that is Williamsburg, Brooklyn. During dinner, as I was eating a noodle kugel and listening to the rabbi speak, I felt warmth that I had never before experienced. 

In that moment, I knew: There is a higher power. This is the proof. I was no longer an atheist, as I had been since I was 12.

The first step toward becoming a Jew was to give up bacon. Danny said he didn’t want to kiss me after I ate it, so that convinced me pretty quickly to stop eating it. From there, I stopped eating shellfish, then meat and milk together, and then non-kosher meat altogether. We made our kitchen kosher, too.

Although our initial decision was to do a Conservative conversion, I learned that if I wanted universal acceptance, I would have to convert as an Orthodox Jew. I also wanted to make sure I received a good Jewish education, learning as much as possible from the most stringent observers and then deciding how I wanted to live my life. 

It just so happened that we found an Orthodox synagogue, Greenpoint Shul, that was in our neighborhood and led by Rabbi Maurice Appelbaum, a warm and friendly rabbi who worked with converts. We took weekly classes there and worked toward an Orthodox conversion.

This continued for nearly a year when, one day, we decided to pack up and head to sunny Los Angeles to pursue Danny’s career. This meant starting all over again with a new rabbi and a new beit din

Thanks to the Journal, I was able to write the stories of many local converts. It inspired me to get back into my learning and nail down a mikveh date. When a rabbi approached us and invited us to his shul and we finally felt like we had a spiritual home in L.A, it seemed like the perfect time to find a beit din.

I started again with classes early last year. Twelve months later, I was at an Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem, studying halachah and living with Jewish girls from all around the world. It was my first time in Israel, and for four weeks, I learned, explored Jerusalem, and accepted Danny’s marriage proposal, which happened at the Western Wall. 

Over the past five years, I’ve come to see Judaism as a brilliant system of living. The halachah makes so much sense — from the kind way we slaughter animals, to the holidays that unite us, to the laws of family purity, to the focus on life instead of death. 

I now see HaShem everywhere. During the time that I was an atheist, I didn’t believe in a higher power because I never saw miracles. Now everything is a miracle, from the fact that I wake up every day to how I manage to find a parking spot in downtown L.A. with money left on the meter. 

These past few years have been hard, too. There are a lot of politics in conversion, and people do inevitably judge you and how observant you are. As a convert, you are under a microscope much more than people who were born Jewish. It’s a difficult standard to live up to, but so is Torah observance. I’ve learned that nothing good in life is easy. The best stuff is hard, from marriages to raising children to eating healthfully to living in great cities such as New York and L.A. 

Come this July, after my conversion becomes official, I will stand, as a Jew, under the chuppah with the love of my life. So I guess my conversion story ends with love, too. Or maybe it’s just beginning.

Cartoon: Shavuot Tablets


Shavuot: Bridging the Unbridgeable Chasm


Shavuot is a short holiday – one day in Israel, two in the Diaspora. There is no special mitzvah connected to it. And, at least in theory, it has no fixed date. Shavuot is completely dependent on Passover, which precedes it, and is celebrated only after the counting of seven weeks. Before there was a fixed Jewish calendar, Shavuot could fall on any one of three possible dates: the 5th, the 6th or the 7th of Sivan.

Shavuot is defined as “the time of the giving of our Torah.” Yet the great significance of this date is not always understood, especially when this phrase is mistranslated as “the giving of the Law.” The basic meaning of “Torah” is not “Law,” the legal aspect of the Torah that contains all the do's and don'ts.

Instead, the giving of the Torah is actually the real birthday of Jewish existence. The freedom attained by our forefathers in the Exodus was just a preliminary stage; the real beginning of the Jews as a nation, and of Jewishness as an idea, is in the giving of the Torah. It is only since then that the Jewish people became an entity in itself. This is the point from which on we are not just people, but Jews.

On a wider, universal scale, the giving of the Torah carries major theological significance. The distance between God and man is infinite. Philosophizing, meditation, spiritual transcendence — these exercises are just like jumping in order to reach the moon. They only demonstrate that we have the desire to get there, not that we can reach it.

The giving of the Torah is, therefore, a unique and most important event in world history. As the Book of Exodus (19:20) says, God descended to Mount Sinai. Only the Omnipotent God can, by His own will, bridge the unbridgeable chasm between Himself and the world. The very act of giving the Torah means that God is interested in us, that He cares about what we do — and this is what grants meaning to everything that we do in this world. In this sense, the very “encounter” with God is the most important part – not because it is proof of His existence, but because it is proof of the connection between Him and the world. In other words, the holiday of Shavuot tells us – to put it in the words of a Jewish philosopher1 – that God is “more remote than the most remote, and closer than the closest.”

To explore a corollary idea, let us note that Shavuot is defined precisely as “the time of the giving of the Torah.” The giving of the Torah is a one-sided act; God gives us His Torah – a huge, very precious and very heavy gift to carry. But the giving of the Torah does not necessarily mean that it is also received.

Receiving the Torah is a very different notion. We may have this gift very close to us, but are we ready to accept it? Receiving the Torah is not just a matter of studying it and doing what is written in it. For many people the Torah may, at most, be like a registered letter waiting for us; something that we have to fetch from the post office. But really acquiring the Torah is not the abstract fact of a gift received. For my part, there must be the act of accepting it, making it part of my true possessions.

Shavuot is a date for the giving of the Torah, and we celebrate it. The date of receiving the Torah, however, is very individual. It happens not only at different times of the year, but also at different times in one’s life.

The idea that we can own the Torah is a very ancient one. It means that there can be, that there is, a sharing and a partnership with God, and that the act of sharing is achieved through the Torah. When we realize that we can have a relationship with the Torah, that day is our own day of “receiving” it.

The feast of Shavuot, of the giving of the Torah, then, is not only a memory, but also a gift and a promise that at some time in the future we will also receive it.

1 Rebbenu Bahya ben Asher, in his book Kad ha-Kemach.

 

Shavuot, when we became who we are


Rabbinic tradition teaches that when God spoke at Sinai, the world was silenced — birds did not sing, breezes did not rustle leaves in the trees. Out of that profound silence came the word, and were the world silent again, for even an instant, we could hear the everlasting echo of God’s voice.

In one way that is a beautiful metaphor for the holiday of Shavuot. Among the holidays, it is “silent” in that no custom imposes itself on our imagination. There is no sukkah, no seder. It slips by, for many Jews, almost unnoticed. Yet the echoing voice makes it the central moment in our history. On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, the establishment of the Jewish covenant.

The rabbis tell us that the Torah is the ketubah between God and the Jewish people. A ketubah is sometimes called a wedding contract, but it is better called a covenant. It enshrines sacred obligations. Jews are a covenantal people; we are bound to one another and to God by the idea of everlasting, mutual obligation. Sinai was the chuppah, and Shavuot is our anniversary.

On our anniversary we recall what made us a people. It is customary to stay up at night to study on Shavuot in order to demonstrate symbolically that we stand at the ready to receive the Torah. It is also a signal of acceptance and of passion.

Our tradition advises us to read the Torah as a love letter. One who receives a letter from a beloved reviews it again and again, searching each word and clause for significance, noting what is said and what remains unsaid. We read the Torah with the lens of the lover, dwelling over each word, unwilling to set it aside, certain that to study it once more will help us understand.

The Book of Ruth is read on this holiday because Ruth took upon herself the Jewish tradition in full. She accepted, as a true convert must, both the people and God. Israel embraces more than the individual’s relationship to the Divine; we are bound to one another. When Ruth declares to Naomi, “Your people shall be my people and your God my God,” she epitomizes the covenantal message of mutual interdependence, past and future, the dual covenant of faith and of fate.

There is a custom to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, given for a variety of reasons, including the inventive idea that the laws of kashrut were unclear before the giving of the Torah and eating dairy was therefore less complicated. It may also be tied to the idea of eating lighter fare, which makes it easier to stay awake for the tikkun. Symbolism and practicality are at times symbiotic in ritual life.

The great Saadia Gaon taught that we are a nation only by virtue of our Torah. For a people dispersed throughout the world, the Torah was the one precious possession — containing our history, our values and our practice — that bound us one to the other. Shavuot is the moment that made us who we are. We celebrate, on this holiday, our relationship to God and to one another. As we hold the Torah aloft, we also celebrate our identity as Jews, eternal people of the covenant.

On Shavuot, reconsidering the origins of the Torah


Is the Torah true? 

The story itself is pure Hollywood (and yes, there have been a few movies): God sends a messenger to free a group of slaves from the superpower of the time, Egypt. When Pharaoh says no, plagues rain down from heaven until he finally relents. The slaves leave in the middle of the night; the Egyptians, suffering from liberator’s remorse, chase after them. The sea splits, the Jews walk through victorious, and the pursuing Egyptian army is annihilated. 

But that’s just the opening act. The Exodus is a prelude for the most important moment in human history, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the event we commemorate this week with the observance of the holiday of Shavuot.

But who says it really happened? In response to this classic question, which has been around for ages, some have theorized that the story was created 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian exile. Jewish refugees living after the destruction of the First Temple wanted keep the Jewish people unified in the Diaspora. They weaved the legends of the beginnings of Jewish people and created the biblical narrative. Others suggest that there were multiple authors, or that the Five Books of Moses were given on Sinai but the oral tradition was a human creation over time. 

It was this very question that King Bulan, who ruled Khazaria in the late eighth century, put to a rabbi he invited to teach Judaism to his nation. Eventually, he and many of his subjects converted to Judaism. For almost two centuries, Khazaria was a primarily Jewish kingdom located in Southern Russia near Rostov-on-Don. It was destroyed by an invasion of the Rus from Kiev in the late 10th century. 

According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the 11th century Spanish-Jewish scholar and poet who recounts this conversation in his epic on Jewish philosophy, the Kuzari, the rabbi told King Bulan that there is a profound difference between core beliefs of Judaism and the other monotheistic religions. Both Christianity and Islam are the product of one man convincing others of a prophecy and events he personally experienced. The birth of Judaism, by contrast, was a collective experience: There were 600,000 males between the ages of 20 and 60 present at Sinai. All told, some 2 1/2 million people witnessed and participated in these events. They told their children, who told their children, who told their children about the Exodus and the giving of the Torah. 

It is this collective memory that is passed down through the generations, and this is why the historical narrative of the Jews of Yemen and the Jews of Poland is the same. Separated by thousands of miles, they both tell the same story that has reached down through the generations, of momentous events that transformed the Jewish people and all of mankind. 

What the rabbi told the King of the Khazars over 1,300 years ago is that the Torah has passed the test of history. The proof we have for any event, the landing on the moon, that George Washington was the first President of the United States, is the same.  

Millions of people witnessed the event, they testified to that fact, and they told the story to the next generation. Accepting the fact that the Torah was given to the Jewish people by God is not an issue of faith — we have faith for things we cannot explain. That God gave the Torah to the Jews is a historical reality. Other historical validation does exist: Ancient scrolls of the Torah and prophets that are more than 2,000 years old, archaeology in Israel that time and again corroborates the Biblical narrative. And the greatest proof of all: the test of history. 

Believing that the Torah was given at Sinai is no different than accepting the fact that Caesar ruled Rome or that Aristotle was a great philosopher. The reason we hesitate to accept the historical proof of the Torah is that it obligates us to follow its teachings.

Today, all other ancient peoples have faded to oblivion, but the Jewish people are a living, breathing entity. We can find remains of the Persians, the Greeks, even the ancient Canaanites in museums and archeological digs. The Jewish people are a vibrant reality carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. On Shavuot, they will gather in synagogues to recall the momentous event when heavens touched earth on Mount Sinai more than three millennia ago.


Rabbi David Eliezrie is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County & Long Beach. He can be reached at rabbi@ocjewish.com.

All night with God: Picturing revelation


In a City of Angels, with murals and figures of the agents of heaven fluttering everywhere, as we approach Shavuot and the time of Matan Torah — the receiving of the Torah — you would think that finding a place to have a revelatory moment would be as easy as stepping outside.

There are angel sculptures in the Farmers Market on Fairfax Boulevard, and there is one painted several stories high on a building across from the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Pico Boulevard; there is even a pair of wings on the side of a Oaxacan restaurant on Olympic Boulevard, ready for you to just step inside and, presumably, fly away. There are also angels’ wings in Union Station downtown, sheltering us on our journeys.

In anticipation of Shavuot, all these wings seem to beat the air with a question: Are we ready, like Israel in the Bible, to receive the Torah?

On Robertson Boulevard, a few blocks south of Pico Boulevard, and at the center of a large swath of Los Angeles’ observant community, there’s even an “Angel Wall” of a more contemporary sort. Artist Barbara Mendes has painted Whitney Houston, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, as well as her own daughter Oma “Annie” Kunstler, who died in 2006, on a pulsating mural on a street-facing wall of a corner building that houses her artist’s studio. Radiating from one area, surrounded by a brightly colored wing-suggesting form, is an image predating pop culture: a personification of the Shechinah — the feminine attributes of God — painted with a smiling face and welcoming arms.

Recently, Mendes, standing on a gold-colored ladder, was touching up her mural, readying it for a commercial that will use the image as a backdrop. In L.A., even the Shechinah gets a close-up.

The image “is a metaphor,” said Mendes, who identifies as Orthodox. “Women need to experience spirituality as full-fledged creations of God.” Mendes became deeply religious at age 45 when, by chance, someone at the Pinto Torah Center on Pico Boulevard asked her to paint the synagogue’s courtyard. 

When asked if Shavuot was in her mural, she responded by climbing down from her ladder, walking over to one side of the work and pointing up to a man in a striped caftan climbing a blue, pink and orange mountain. “It’s Moses at Sinai,” she said.

On the night of June 3, many Jews here will celebrate the first night of Shavuot by traveling to their own Mount Sinais, climbing a metaphorical mountain of ideas, impressions and words that will be presented to help them imagine what it means to receive the Torah. 

Some will attend specially written plays, others a full-on sermon-slam. All over the city, Jews will stay up all night at study sessions called Tikkun leil Shavuot — repairing the night of Shavuot — seeking if not a high, then a perspective that will allow them to look out over the vastness of Jewish learning.

According to a midrash, the Jewish people slept the entire night before receiving the Torah. “God had to come in the morning and wake them up to tell them, ‘Hey! I’m giving the Torah,” said Moshe Hildeshaim, who came to Los Angles five months ago from Crown Heights in Brooklyn to open a Chabad in the Carthay Circle area, northeast of Pico-Robertson. “To rectify the fact that the Jewish people prepared themselves by sleeping, we stay up all night and learn Torah,” Hildeshaim said.

“There are different customs — some people stay up and hang out with people. Our custom is that we learn a little bit of every parasha [weekly Torah portion], a little bit of Mishnah, a little bit of the Talmud and little bit of the Zohar, kabbalah,” said Hildeshaim, who will be hosting an all-nighter.

Within the history of Judaism, Tikkun leil Shavuot is a relatively recent development. Jewish history records that the first all-night Shavuot study session happened in Ottoman Thessalonica in 1533, a “kabbalist paradise and a flourishing city, where Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal found a safe haven,” wrote Mor Altshuler, a scholar of Jewish mysticism.

That night was organized by the famous author of the Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Karo, and was attended by Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (author of “Lecha Dodi”), who later wrote about the night in a detailed iggeret (epistle).

“Karo and Alkabetz envisioned themselves as Moses the prophet and Aaron the priest, and their kabbalist flock as the Israelites leaving Egypt,” Altshuler wrote. “That Shavuot evening in 1533 presented an opportunity to recreate the revelation on Mount Sinai, when the heavens opened and the entire people heard the voice of God.”

It was a night of text study and singing “so wondrous that the angels fell silent and an invisible wall of fire encircled its members,” Altshuler wrote. Then, at midnight the group heard a voice speaking out of Karo’s mouth, which they took to be the voice of Torah-Shechinah. “It was a loud voice with letters clearly enunciated. It was an exceedingly pleasant voice, becoming increasingly strong.”  

“We all fell upon our faces and none of us had any spirit left in him,” Altshuler wrote, quoting Alkabetz.

Karo and Alkabetz soon moved to Safed, in what is now northern Israel, and their night “became a model for the kabbalists of Safed, including Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari) and his disciples,” Altshuler wrote.

Though he did not have an “otherly” voice coming from his mouth, Mark Rothman, who lives in the Pico-Fairfax area, recounted what he calls a “transformative moment,” at a Shavuot leil Tikkun, held at YULA (Yeshiva University High School) several years ago. “I had never been to a Tikkun, and I decided I wanted to stay up all night,” Rothman said.

Throughout the night, he went from study table to table. “There were all these guys lecturing. They would open a page of the Talmud and start reading in Aramaic, then translate into English,” said the former director the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, who currently serves as director of the U.S. Campaign for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

Then, sitting at one table, he heard a story that he recalled his grandfather had told him — “the story about the old man who planted a carob tree,” Rothman said, adding, “I never knew where the story had come from.” 

In it, a holy man approaches an old man planting a carob tree. Puzzled, he asks: “Old man, why are you planting this tree, when you know you will never see the fruit?”

The old man responded: “My ancestors planted for me, knowing they would never see the fruit. Now I, too, am planting for future generations.”

“It was amazing,” Rothman said. “My grandfather had planted a seed in me that took 20 years to grow, and the experience helped compel me to be more religious,” said Rothman, who attends the Modern Orthodox Congregation B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson.

As if taking a cue from Mendes, on the first night of Shavuot, the Conservative Temple Beth Am will offer an opportunity to experience how revelation may be reflected through art in a program called “Revelation Is Art Is Revelation … Is Art!” 

“Here, Torah can be experienced,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Beth Am’s senior rabbi.

“Some people need to experience what wakes them up so that their souls can wake up,” said Kligfeld, whose synagogue is co-sponsoring the evening along with the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University (AJU); Pico Egal, an independent congregation; and Reboot, an organization that aims to revitalize Jewish practice.

That evening, to “wake the soul up” a photographer will use images to ask, “What is revelation?” and a Zumba presentation will show another approach “to what it means to bring Torah into your life,” said Kligfeld, who is calling for a night of “soul-ignited Torah.”

“We’re trying to deliver meaning in an interactive way,” said Kligfeld, who also said there will be a session on “Chevruta [one-to-one study] as a spectator sport.”

The plan includes a “SermonSlam” and other sessions lasting until 4:30 a.m., with Shacharit on the roof, said Kligfeld, who himself experienced a revelatory Shavuot Shacharit while a rabbinic student in Israel:

“We were up all night studying in our apartment and at the Hartman Institute [in Jerusalem], and then we went to the Kotel [Western Wall] for morning prayers,” Kligfeld said. The year was 1998, and the group that went included both men and women. The experience was “revelatory in another way,” Kligfeld said.

Although the group stood far back from the wall, a group of ultra-Orthodox surrounded them and began to shout and throw things at them.

“If you receive the Torah with too much certainty and absolutes, then there are some pretty ugly things that can be done in the name of that revelation,” Kligfeld said.

At Sinai Temple, where a giant Torah sculpture dominates a corner of the Wilshire Boulevard façade, a different approach is being taken to the Tikkun leil Shavuot, as well. According to the synagogue’s Atid [young adult] coordinator, Ariela Emery, in a program called “Unscrolled,” adapted from a book of Torah interpretations put together by Reboot, actors “will perform a stage reading of three parashiyot: Bo, Balak and Vayera.” 

“The ways that we experience culture are not what they used to be,” said Emery, who mentioned that the author for the portion “Bo” is Steve Bodow, the executive producer and a former head writer of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” 

Rabbi Elazar Muskin aims to spark curiosity with his lecture, “Fact or Fiction: Is the Menorah in the Vatican?” during a Shavuot leil Tikkun at Young Israel of Century City (YICC). “There have always been rumors,” Muskin said of the disappearance of the menorah from the Second Temple, which is depicted being carried off on the famous Arch of Titus in Rome. “Is the Menorah in the Vatican?” asked Muskin, who plans to explore talmudic passages for clues.

And, in a presentation also at YICC, Rabbi Zev Goldberg will address a question that on Shavuot night will be asked by other late-nighters: “How much was revealed at Revelation?”

“There’s just an energy of Torah learning that’s palatable,” Muskin said.

In terms of revelation, Muskin said “Matan Torah” is the essence of the holiday, and Shavuot celebrates the “centrality of Torah in our lives.”

For those interested in something more intimate, such as home study, either in groups or solo, Rabbi Patricia Fenton, manager of Judaica and Public Services in the Ostrow Library at AJU, as well as a teacher of Talmud at the Ziegler School, has a few books in mind. She suggested “The Book of Legends” edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, which includes sections on Shavuot, as well as the “Shavuot Anthology,” by Philip Goodman. Also, “There’s ‘Sammy Spider’s First Shavuot,’ ” she added, half-jokingly.

The first night of Shavuot is, she said, “an important time to come together without a lot of guidelines. Shavuot is a moment of revelation and receiving a great gift.” She recalled one Shavuot evening she attended at the Movable Minyan, “where people were encouraged to share their own ‘first fruits,’ ” poetry, songs, things that they had been working on.

Mendes has been sharing for years, bringing the Torah to life with her paintings and murals — book by book.

Hanging on a wall in her studio is a 16-foot-by-6-foot mural of Vayikra (Leviticus). Divided into 10 weekly portions, each containing even the smallest of details, if one is looking for a place to lose themselves in the text, this is it.

The artist, who in the 1960s worked in the underground comix movement, has shown this work to innumerable young school kids, Orthodox students and high-school kids from Hamilton High School, and more. Recently, another guest, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who was attracted by the mural on the outside wall, came to call, as well.

“Do you have a picture of Noah?” the director of the blockbuster movie of that story asked Mendes, who, fortunately, had been painting scenes from Genesis.

“I remind people of their pintele yid (Jewish spark)” she said.

In 10 minutes, the artist, pointer in hand, fervently took this reporter on a journey through the 859 verses in Leviticus, revealing in the text and, through her imagery, a different way of studying Torah.

“God has a special word balloon” she began, explaining how she used a simple illustrative device to delineate which drawings are directly inspired by God’s words.

Defined by balloons, but rushing out of them, are sacrifices, laws of kashrut, and cloves and hooves and scales and fishes; birds that are tamei (unclean) and four cartoony — but somehow elegant — grasshoppers that “the Jewish people can eat.” There is a cure for house disease, Tzaraat: “Two live birds, living water, cedar, hyssop and red thread.” And in the portion Kedoshim, she reminds us that “you gotta be holy because God is holy.” Then she revealed a stack of showbreads that never grew stale. “A miracle,” she said. Pointing at the shekels she had drawn for Vayikra’s last portion, B’Chukotai, she asked: “How much is an individual worth?”

“God gave us the Torah and we are really excited about learning it and sharing it. Everyone can connect with God,” said Mendes, connecting with the intention of the coming holiday. 

“The angels would be singing.”

2014 Shavuot services


Chabad’s “Conejo Mount Sinai Experience” celebration of Shavuot features a reading of the Ten Commandments on June 4 at 10 a.m., followed by a sit-down dairy lunch of pizza and cheesecake. Also featured: Mount Sinai Ice Cream Cones for everyone. Evening services June 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m.; Yizkor memorial service June 5 at 10 a.m. Open to all. All services will be held at six Chabad Centers: Chabad of the Conejo, Agoura Hills; Chabad of Oak Park; Chabad of Westlake Village; Chabad of Thousand Oaks; Chabad of Calabasas; and Chabad of Newbury Park. For more information, call (818) 991-0991.

Sinai Temple, in partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, invites you to Atid and Reboot’s “Unscrolled: A New Spin on Shavuot” on June 4. Study the Torah in a fun and innovative way with the help of 54 writers and artists. Shavuot dinner at 7 p.m.; program follows at 8 p.m. $10 (advance), $15 (at the door, cash only). 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. For tickets, visit atidunscrolled.eventbrite.com. For questions, contact lisa@rebooters.net or aemery@sinaitemple.org.

Shavuot at Beth Jacob is an all-night experience. Sushi, refreshments and drinks will be provided. Featuring several rabbis, this event starts with Rabbi Baruch Taub, Shavuot scholar-in-residence, June 3 at 11:15 p.m., and ends with Shacharit in Shapell Sanctuary at 5:10 a.m. the following morning. 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-1911.  

Explore the purpose and significance of Jewish prayer this Shavuot at Valley Beth Shalom. “Shiru L’Adonai Shir Hadash — Sing to God a New Song” features guest artist Craig Taubman with a musical presentation on the revolution in Jewish worship, hosted by Rabbi Ed Feinstein — an evening of learning, music, prayer and blintzes. June 3 at 7 p.m., followed at 10:30 p.m. by late-night Torah study with Rabbi Noah Farkas. Additional services June 4 at 8:40 a.m. and June 5 (Yizkor) at 8:40 a.m. Everyone is invited to participate. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000. 

Temple Aliyah opens its doors to the entire community for an evening of learning followed by a late-night Tish for those who want to continue the celebration. This event is free of charge for all. On June 3, Ma’ariv begins at 7 p.m.; learning takes place 7:30-11:30 p.m. 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 346-3545.

Join Young Israel of Century City Young Professionals for a fun night full of wine, cheese, sushi and Torah! June 4 at 9 p.m. Space is limited. RSVP to zevgoldberg@yicc.org, at which time the location will be disclosed. (310) 273-6954.

What could be better than pizza and ice cream to go along with the reading of the Ten Commandments? Chabad in Simcha Monica opens its doors free of charge to all for this Shavuot celebration. June 4 at 5:30 p.m. 1428 17th St., Santa Monica. (310) 829-5620.

Chabad of Simi Valley offers a variety of events to commemorate Shavuot, starting with an all-night study session June 3 at 11:59 p.m. On June 4, the Ten Commandments will be read at 11 a.m., followed by a dairy Kiddush lunch; an ice cream party and reading of the Ten Commandments will take place at 6:15 p.m. Yizkor service June 5 at 11:30 a.m. 4464 Alamo St., Simi Valley. (805) 577-0573.

Spend Shavuot at Chabad of Greater Los Feliz. On June 4, the Ten Commandments will be read at 11 a.m., followed by a dairy Kiddush brunch; at 6:45 p.m., there will be an additional reading of the Ten Commandments and an ice cream party, followed by services at 7:45 p.m. and a communal Shavuot dinner at 8:45 p.m. Yizkor service June 5 at 11:30 a.m. 1930 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 660-5177.