How to avoid meteors

NASA scientists “>tsimtsum, the Kabbalistic concept of a God who contracted from the world in order to create it; the “>told reporters why there had been no fatalities: “God directed danger away.” How grateful would he have been to that God if Chelyabinsk had looked more like Tunguska?  

But secularism sucks. It is hard to tell children that the universe is indifferent to them. It is unacceptable that chance changes everything all the time. It is difficult to tell ourselves the running story of our lives – to find meaning in our personal narratives – when the plot points come not from character or merit, but from rolls of the dice, bolts from the blue, madmen, freaks of nature, lousy luck.

There are of course rational ways to deal with this dilemma. We buckle up and drive defensively.  We buy insurance and earthquake kits. We exercise, wear sunscreen and eat kale.

There are spiritual ways, too – ones that don’t require twisting ourselves into theological pretzels. Knowing we may die tomorrow, we seize today, smell the roses, hug our children close. We count our blessings without positing a Blesser, thank our lucky stars without believing in fortune, fate or destiny.

Living well is the best revenge. I have friends whose toddler died suddenly of an undetected heart defect. “What do you do with that?” I asked the boy’s grieving father as, horrified, I fought thinking the unthinkable. “How do you go on? What do you learn? What do you do?” “Drink better wine,” he said.

There’s a poem by Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic: 

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don’t go back to sleep.

We are sleepwalkers, amnesiacs, oblivious of everyday miracles, comically reliant on benign biopsies and Siberian meteors to remind us to be mindful.

We’re about to learn whether Hurricane Sandy decisively awakened us to our planet’s manmade mortality. ““>Climate Central” piece explained, “many scientists believe another mass extinction is under way – this one entirely of our own making.”

No one can avoid living where a chunk of space rock explodes with the force of 10 Hiroshima bombs. But the causes of climate change, unlike the contingencies of the interstellar cosmos, are within our control. There remains to us a small window of time when we can still bend the curve of global warming. It will be a manmade miracle if we don’t go back to sleep.

Marty Kaplan is the “>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at

Synagogue in Siberia damaged by meteorite

A synagogue in Siberia was lightly damaged by a meteorite that fell nearby.

On Friday, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Levitin, director of the Or Avner Jewish day school in Chelyabinsk, a city located 1,000 miles east of Moscow, was quoted by an Israeli website as saying congregants heard a huge explosion during morning prayers followed by a bright flash that lit up the sky.

“Glasses shattered and people tried to escape, but they weren't sure were to go,” Levitin told COL, a media outlet affiliated with Chabad. “Outside we were told a meteor had fallen from the space.”

Media on Friday reported a suspected extraterrestrial object had landed somewhere in western Siberia. Videos posted on YouTube by drivers in the area showed a bright orb streaking the early morning sky.

Levitin uploaded photos of the Chelyabisnk synagogue's stained-glass windows, which he said were shattered by the shock waves. The rabbi said one congregant was spared serious injury when a large shard of glass landed in his seat seconds after he went to the window to investigate the cause of the blast.

“It was a real miracle,” Levitin said, according to COL. Levitin said authorities were telling residents to stay indoors while they were investigating the incident.

Can Natan Sharansky fix the Western Wall?

He brought unprecedented attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. He stood up to the KGB. He survived nine years in Siberia. He served in Israel’s fractious government.

Now, Natan Sharansky is facing his next challenge: finding a solution to the growing battle over women’s prayer restrictions at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

In recent months, Diaspora Jewish activists have grown increasingly incensed by the arrests and detention of women seeking to pray publicly at the site in keeping with their religious practices – but in violation of the rules of the wall under which women may not sing aloud, wear tallit prayer shawls or read from the Torah.

The controversy threatens to drive a wedge between Diaspora Jewry, where egalitarian prayer is common, and Israel, which has upheld Orthodox rules at the wall, also known as the Kotel. American Jewish leaders in the United States say the rules alienate Reform and Conservative Jews. Within Israel, too, the wall has become a flashpoint for non-Orthodox religious activists and the Kotel’s haredi Orthodox leadership.

Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to look into the controversy and propose solutions. The question is whether the former refusenik leader and human rights advocate can resolve a dispute that pits Jew against Jew.

“Will it happen through Sharansky?” asked Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes monthly women's services at the Kotel. “That I doubt, but I’m willing to give him a chance. Sharansky will understand how much traction this issue has.”

Hoffman was arrested in October for wearing a tallit at the site, and several more of the group’s members have been detained at subsequent services.

Sharansky declined to comment on the issue until he gives his recommendations, but activists on both sides of the issue say the gaps between the site’s leadership and pluralism advocates may be too wide for Sharansky to bridge.

Shmuel Rabinowitz, the wall’s chief rabbi, would like to maintain the status quo, where men and women are separated by a partition and only men may wear tallit and tefillin and convene a minyan prayer quorum with Torah reading. Hoffman and her allies have proposed alternatives that involve the religious streams sharing time and space in the Kotel Plaza, with each praying according to its own precepts.

Hoffman says her minimum demand is for women to receive one hour at the beginning of every Jewish month — excluding Rosh Hashanah — when they can pray as a group with tallit and tefillin, and read the Torah. Ideally, Hoffman says she would want the Kotel’s partition between men and women to be removed for several hours each day so that women and egalitarian groups can pray there undisturbed, but she acknowledges that such a scenario has virtually no chance of being approved by Rabinowitz.

Other activists say the solution lies in adding a partition rather than removing one. Yizhar Hess, the CEO and executive director of the Israeli Conservative movement, Masorti, advocates dividing the Kotel Plaza into three sections: one for men, one for women and one for egalitarian groups. Hess also told JTA that he would like to see the rear section of the plaza opened to cultural activities such as concerts and dancing, which are prohibited now.

“There are many egalitarian groups who come to the wall and view it as the peak of their emotional and spiritual experience in Israel,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who runs Hiddush, an Israeli religious pluralism nonprofit. “The fact that they can’t express that spiritual experience in a spiritual way is a missed opportunity.”

According to a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, non-Orthodox and women’s prayer groups can pray at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological park adjacent to the Kotel Plaza where an admission fee is required. Regev suggested that Sharansky may recommend improvements to Robinson’s Arch, including an expanded prayer area and free admission for prayer groups.

That may be the maximum compromise that Rabinowitz would make.

“I think what’s happening today at the Kotel is the best for all viewpoints of the world,” Rabinowitz told JTA. “No one gets exactly what they want — not haredim and not Women of the Wall. If someone thinks they can bring something better, I’d love to hear it.”

Rabinowitz declined to comment on time- or space-sharing proposals.

Meanwhile, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the Kotel, announced recently that women are no longer allowed to bring tallit or tefillin into the Kotel Plaza.

The Prime Minister’s Office, one official there told JTA, hopes Sharansky will bring to bear his “unique experience and abilities in serving as a bridge for all streams within the Jewish people” as he approaches the problem.

One potential bridge between Rabinowitz and Hoffman are Modern Orthodox rabbis who believe both in Orthodoxy and pluralism.

The Kotel “is a holy place, but needs to belong to all of Israel,” said Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who co-founded the Modern Orthodox rabbis’ organization Tzohar. Cherlow says he isn't throwing his backing behind any particular solution but that a time-sharing arrangement may work.

Daniel Goldman, chairman of the religious-secular nonprofit Gesher, says the only way to reach a compromise is to find figures who occupy middle ground who can foster some sort of accord.

“If Natan Sharansky could broaden the people involved in that debate beyond Rabbi Rabinowitz and Women of the Wall, it’s possible to use this issue to create a more constructive dialogue,” Goldman said. “If you get Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Rabinowitz in a room, it’s quite obvious and clear that there will be no compromise solution.”

Rabbinic students bring rite of passage to Siberian teens

Imagine discussing Torah and the finer points of theology near the top of the world as the day fades away into an 11 p.m. sunset. Imagine bestowing a Hebrew name on a teenager — or an adult — who doesn’t speak a word of English, but who has traveled up to 27 hours by train to experience that very privilege. Imagine being perhaps the first female rabbi to conduct a Shabbat service in the region.

Matt Rosenberg and Rachel Safman no longer need to imagine. The two students at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University (AJU) lived the experience, and they have the photographs and the memories to prove it.

The two rabbinical students, ambassadors as well as learners themselves, spent a week in early July in Novosibirsk as part of the annual Bar/Bat Mitzvah Project in Siberia. Created by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) under the auspices of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson at AJU, the JDC raises money to bring 50 children — and, in certain cases, their parents — to a weeklong family camp.

The week’s activities are a mixture of drama, dance, music, games and religious services. The campers learn a basic haftarah portion, Hebrew songs and Israeli dance, and they get “writing time” to document the experience. At week’s end, the students are called to the Torah, recite the Shema and are called by their newly given Hebrew name.

“Not to minimize the ceremony itself, but even to be in a camp with that many other people who identify as Jews is mind-blowing,” Safman said. “That was the first exposure that those kids had to such a Jewish presence in one place.”

“There are 70,000 Jewish people in a country that once comprised half the Jewish population of the world,” added Elaine Berke, the JDC board member who for six years has raised the $100,000 per year necessary to make the program happen. “And a lot of them are still very interested in being Jewish or at least understanding what that is.”

Every year at AJU, the call goes out to the rabbinical students for volunteers to lead the program. The well-traveled Rosenberg, a fifth-year student who professes to “have been a geographer in a past life,” hit the reply button on his e-mail practically the moment the e-mail hit his inbox.

“I hope to inspire others as I was inspired,” said Rosenberg, a native of Sacramento. “I’ve been biding my time until I was far enough along in the program, and I replied almost immediately.”

Safman had plenty of international experience as well. Trained in medical sociology and having spent 10 years in Southeast Asia as an academic before entering the rabbinate, Safman said she would have applied in years past but for the fact that, prior to 2011, the program had been for male students only. She might have found out about the change sooner, but a frustrated Safman had begun deleting the Siberia e-mails unopened.

“This is the first time that the community itself has actually been faced with the question, directly, as to what they would think about a woman who was also a rabbi,” Safman said. “In their mind, until I appeared on the scene or probably before my arrival when they heard there was going to be a woman participating, I don’t think it ever occurred to them that the concept of combination of female and rabbi would ever mesh.”

Although the program has now been in existence six years — serving some 350 campers — each new pair of rabbinical students has to somewhat reinvent the week’s activities “on the fly” based on the campers’ backgrounds, knowledge and interests. And on the rabbis’. Because Rosenberg’s father’s yahrzeit fell during the camp week, Rosenberg recited the Mourner’s Kaddish during one of the evening services.

“In addition to the regular weekday services, we were able to talk about the components of every service: morning, afternoon and evening. So it was another teaching opportunity,” Rosenberg said. “We had a special Q-and-A session with some of the kids who knew the most about Judaism. So we spent a couple of hours discussing loftier topics.”

As the first female rabbinical student to participate in the program, Safman used the opportunity to conduct a session on the changing roles of women in Jewish life. The discussion, which was attended primarily by parents, was another eye-opening experience.

“For an hour and a half, we engaged in a passionate discussion of what it meant to be a Jewish woman and what possibilities there were for female participation in public Jewish life as well as [women’s] role in the home and the family,” Safman said. “Just saying to them it matters for a woman to be in a place where she can actually pray and participate, that it matters for her own spiritual development, was something significant — not just as support and reflection of her husband’s spirituality.”

As neither Rosenberg nor Safman speaks Russian, the sessions were conducted with the aid of translators. Potential language barriers did not, however, prevent the students from approaching the two rabbis outside of sessions.

“They became very comfortable with the translators, and we did have lot of people coming up to us after sessions and asking us different questions or stopping us in elevators,” Rosenberg said. “I think I was amazed at that aspect, how comfortable they were coming up to us.”

For Rosenberg, one of the week’s most profound experiences was being asked by a young Jewish couple whether it was true that only Orthodox Jews could be married under the chuppah (wedding canopy).

“That’s what they had heard, and it just broke our heart,” Rosenberg said, “that these two young Jewish kids who were obviously in love thought they weren’t able to have a Jewish wedding.”

Siberian mikvah is dedicated

A new mikvah to replace one destroyed by the Soviets was dedicated in the Siberian community of Tomsk, Russia.

The dedication of the ritual bath last week came just months after the grand reopening of Tomsk’s historic Choral Synagogue and its Rohr Sanctuary and Jewish Community Center.

Soviet authorities had destroyed the mikvah, built in 1928, and replaced it with a 10-story apartment building.

The new mikvah was funded by S. Paulo, Brazil’s Ateret Ruth Foundation, with assistance from the Rabbinical Council of Europe in Brussels. It was named after Fridah Vogel and Esther Shur.

First Person – Granny and Sharansky

When my friends Cami and Howard Gordon invited me to an informal dinner with guest speaker Natan Sharansky at their Pacific

Palisades home, my first thought was, “Oh, good, I get to see their new house.”

It just seemed slightly more interesting than Sharansky’s topic: the Caravan for Democracy, a program that educates high school students about Arab-Israeli conflicts.

From memory, I could recall the broad strokes of Sharansky’s story. In the early 1970s, he was denied an exit visa to follow his wife to Israel. He protested and joined the Refusnik movement. He was imprisoned in Siberia and wasn’t released until nine years later, in 1986 (OK, I Googled that date). He was released during the Reagan administration and reunited with his wife in Israel. Thinking about this made me realize that people talked a lot about “Soviet Jewry” back then. Now neither word gets a lot of play.

Sharansky was a wonderful speaker who opened with: “I spent nine years in a labor camp in Siberia and nine years in the Israeli Knesset and I don’t know which was harder.”

It got a big laugh. You have to admire a man who didn’t leave his sense of humor in the gulag.

Next, Sharansky turned his attention to Ariel Sharon, who was still in a coma. Sharansky talked about the importance of having a prime minister who was born in Israel but still saw himself as a “Jew first and an Israeli second.” He praised Sharon for that. And then later called him “a gambler.”

Sharansky’s main topic was the rise in global anti-Semitism — not just in Iran, whose president has declared that Jews should be “wiped off the map,” but also in the United States. He was especially concerned about anti-Semitism on American college campuses and spoke about educating high schoolers to know the truth about Israel and understand its importance.

It was depressing to hear about rising anti-Semitism and as the talk started to wrap up, I had an additional sad thought. I desperately wanted to call my grandmother and tell her that I had heard Sharansky speak. But I can’t. She died in 1987.

Granny followed Sharansky’s story closely and I remember her deep concern over his persecution. She loved science and as a mathematician and a chess player, Sharansky was her kind of guy. So after the questions, I went over to see if I could meet him. He was surrounded by five men discussing politics and, for a moment, it seemed like I would never have a chance. (You know, Jews….) Then the group broke up and Sharansky was suddenly alone. I moved in quickly.

I said, “I just wanted to say something sentimental. In the ’70s, my grandmother–her name was Frances Cohn — worried so much about you. And she was so happy when you were released. She kept a photo of you from a magazine for a long time. I remember it. You had a big smile and very red cheeks. She would have been so proud to know that I got the chance to meet you.”

Sharansky nodded nicely, but seemed unsure how to respond since I hadn’t asked a question. He shook my hand and I leaned in and kissed him on both cheeks. He started to turn away, then thought of something and turned back to me with his finger in the air. He said, “I knew there were people who cared about me and that helped get me through.”

I couldn’t really speak after that. For so long, I had known one side of the story. Now I knew the other. More than 30 years ago, there was a beloved grandmother living in Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton, Mass., who felt connected to a young Russian mathematician imprisoned in Siberia. She worried and feared for his life. But what I learned this week is that the young Russian mathematician in Siberia felt the connection, too.

Writing this, my chest still feels constricted. It’s a feeling both global and personal. I wish Israel were at peace and anti-Semitism was declining. And I wish I could call Granny and tell her that I met Natan Sharansky.

Nell Scovell is a writer-director living in Los Angeles.


To Simcha, With Love

The very word Siberia evokes a cold, distant place — it’s so, well, Soviet. But Siberia just got a little warmer and a little more Jewish because of San Fernando Valley resident Elaine Berke, who arranged for the b’nai mitzvah of 61 Siberian Jews ranging in age from 12 to 26.

The longtime community volunteer first traveled to Siberia in September 2004 as part of a charitable effort. There she met some of the 70,000 Siberian Jews and discovered that, despite Russia’s Jewish renaissance, many had not yet had a bar or bat mitzvah.

Berke resolved to arrange ceremonies for some Hillel students in Khabarovsk. Word got out, and people from Birobidjan and Vladivostok wanted in, too. Eventually, Berke raised $31,500 in Los Angeles for the July 2 event.

“I am certain that every Jewish child all over the entire world is entitled to a Jewish education, bar or bat mitzvah, and Jewish wedding,” said the grandmother of two.

Berke worked in conjunction with the local Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) office in Krasnoyarsk and other Jewish organizations in Siberia. Two fifth-year rabbinical students, David Kosak and Bradley Greenstein, presided at the synagogue in Khabarovsk, which had been donated to the local Chabad congregation by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Chabad couldn’t provide the service because it “insists on a certain lineage,” said Berke, meaning that participants would have to verify a Jewish mother or have had converted according to Chabad’s Orthodox requirements.

“We don’t ask who is from an intermarriage,” Berke said. “If children come forward and say, ‘We are Jewish,’ God bless them. A lot of these families are descendants of people who were in the gulags, and the Holocaust.”

Preparation began in November 2004. Vladimir Khazanov, a local Jewish educator, drew up a course for those taking part, which he sent by e-mail to Jewish community centers in the three cities.

“We don’t ask who is from an intermarriage,” Berke said. “A lot of these families are descendants of people who were in the Gulags, and the Holocaust.”

Then on Friday night, services started with the students singing a niggun (Jewish melody). The b’nai mitzvah itself took place on Shabbat. The students, called up in groups of nine, recited the blessing over the Torah in Hebrew, using a Russian transliteration. As a gift, the JDC presented the boys with a talit and a chumash; the girls received a challah cover and a chumash.

“I found the Russians to be far more serious than American students of the same age,” said Kosak, who’s enrolled in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism. “They were much hungrier to learn about their tradition.”

“The most moving thing was how David Kosak and I could show them how Judaism was alive and could relate to their lives,” said Greenstein. “It was very moving to see them excited to be Jewish.”

Since her return, Berke has received letters and e-mails from participants describing how the event changed their lives. She plans to continue raising money, hoping to bring the bar mitzvah project to other cities in the Russian Far East.

“My family was originally from Russia,” Berke said. “It is only a quirk of history that they are there and I am here. Why are they less entitled to a Jewish education than my family was?”

“They deserve this,” she added, “they really deserve this.”

Haven of Refuge

For centuries, most people have viewed Siberia as a dreaded prison of frozen tundra, the closest cold spot on earth to the gloom of purgatory.

But for the Jews of Asia and Europe, Siberia has represented something far more attractive: a great escape. The targets of deadly anti-Semitism and mass expulsions elsewhere on the continent, Jews historically have looked to Siberia as something of a refuge from hostile local governments that killed, exploited or expelled their Jews.

“The good thing about Siberia is that once you were exiled here, there was nowhere else to go,” an elderly Siberian Jew said.

Jews have been migrating to Siberia from all over the continent for several centuries, lured by Siberia’s relative isolation and, sometimes, the promise of wealth. Today, that same isolation is a hindrance to a revival of Jewish life in Siberia, where it has been slower to arrive than elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

During the Soviet era, not everything was slow to arrive in Siberia. On the night of June 14, 1941, Moishe Kiselevskiy was sound asleep in his Baltic home when Soviet troops barged into his living room and gave him 20 minutes to get up and cram into a railroad freight car bound for Siberia.

His family was one of several Jewish families with successful private businesses that the Soviet state had deemed “dangerous social elements.” Fortuitously, the terrifying evacuation saved Kiselevskiy and his family from the Nazis: Hitler’s forces arrived two weeks later and, with the help of local collaborators, slaughtered more than 90 percent of the Jews of Latvia and Lithuania.

Jews first arrived in Siberia in the late 17th century, seeking gold and fur. In the 19th century, the Russian government offered free land plots and relocation allowances to pioneers willing to move to the untouched region. A small portion of those who went to Siberia were Jews looking to escape anti-Semitism in the Pale of Settlement, the swath of land in western Russia, where Jews generally were forced to live after 1835.

Early in the 20th century, when tens of thousands of Jews were fleeing to the United States to escape the hunger, university quotas and anti-Semitism in the Pale, Jacob Schniderman, 72, was among the few who opted for Siberia. Today he owns a bakery in Birobidzhan.

Schniderman is atypical; most Jews did not really choose to go to Siberia. In the 18th and 19th centuries, czarist exiles, including many political prisoners and criminals, were sent there. Among them were Jews, whose descendants managed to thrive as merchants. In 1898, there were 44,000 registered Jews in 26 Siberian communities.

Others Jews went to Siberia because there was no other place they could go to escape anti-Semitism at home. The family of Elena Uvarovskaya, head of the Jewish community center in the Siberian city of Ulan Ude, fled there to escape the 1915 pogroms in Lithuania.

The Jewish population of Siberia swelled during World War I, when Czar Nicholas II sent to the region Jewish soldiers, whom he feared were German spies.

Synagogues and Jewish schools began to be built in Siberia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Local officials were split between implementing czarist anti-Semitic policies and creating a comfortable environment for an ethnic group that was helping fuel the local economy.

As Jews got comfortable in their adopted home, religious observances fell by the wayside. Many worked on the Sabbath and attended synagogue only on the High Holidays. During the Soviet era, intermarriage was the norm, largely because relatively few Jewish women could be found in Russia’s Far East.

The Soviet state culled highly educated and skilled workers from western Russia to fill posts in military-related and scientific fields. Consequently, most of the Jewish workers who headed east were male — as many as 90 percent, according to some.

“There were no Jewish girls over here,” said Zelick Shniederman, a Jew from Krasnoyarsk, explaining the region’s high intermarriage rate.

“Siberia was the worst place to be Jewish during Soviet times,” said Zev Vagner, a Moscow-based rabbi and author of the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia. “The KGB was much more strict than in Moscow, which made a show for tourists and visitors. In Siberia, you couldn’t make a move.”

Others disagreed, arguing that Siberia’s distance from Moscow allowed for limited religious freedoms in Russia’s Far East.

Today, Siberia’s Jews are free to practice their religion as they see fit, but few are interested in the Jewish tradition, local Jewish officials said.