Beth Emet Works to Save a Mother’s Life


The 200 closely knit families of Burbank’s Temple Beth Emet, heeding the precept that all Jews are responsible for one another, are accustomed to providing aid and comfort quietly and inconspicuously. But the congregation has been galvanized to very public action by news that the mother of fellow congregant Roni Razankova’s mother, a citizen of Macedonia, has contracted liver cancer and needs urgent medical attention in the United States.

“I’ve never seen my congregants move like this,” Temple Beth Emet Rabbi Mark Sobel said. He reported that Razankova’s predicament — a single woman alone in Los Angeles, newly connected to her Jewish heritage and newly inaugurated as an American citizen, trying to save her mother’s life from 7,000 miles away — has resonated with temple members.

In fact, as soon as Razankova shyly confided the news just before Mother’s Day, the 50 religious school students began rolling out butcher paper and writing get-well wishes to mail to Macedonia to Rachel Razankova, 64. At the same time, the rabbi and the congregation, with the full support of the board of directors, brainstormed ways for their not particularly wealthy congregation to raise money. They created the Rachel Fund and, in about a week, with people taking shifts to photocopy, fold, stuff and stamp, succeeded in mailing out more than 500 letters explaining the situation and seeking contributions from synagogues throughout California and across the United States.

Still, a miracle may be needed. Obtaining a humanitarian visa, which is necessary to bring a foreign citizen to the United States for medical care, is not easy. Razankova, 40, who lives in Valley Village and works as an office manager for an insurance company, must show that she can pay for her mother’s medical treatment, estimated at $50,000 to $100,000. And while donations are coming in — including $100 from Congregation Har Shalom in Fort Collins, Colo., and $25 from an individual in Burke, Va. — to date only $10,000 has been raised.

Meanwhile, an attorney and fellow congregant, who wishes to remain anonymous, is volunteering his services to help expedite the visa. In a two-pronged approach, he has prepared a packet of necessary documents for Rachel Razankova to take to the United States Embassy in Macedonia, part of former Yugoslavia, and has sent a duplicate packet to the State Department in Washington, D.C. At the same time, the office of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) is requesting a visa from the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia.

The time element is crucial. Liver cancer moves aggressively, and Rachel Razankova is not able to get the treatment she needs from the single oncology clinic in Macedonia; it is severely overcrowded, underequipped and lacking in adequately trained personnel. Roni Razankova said that her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer two years ago and, suffering what may have been a severe allergic reaction to the chemotherapy drugs given her, sank into a 24-hour coma and almost died.

Dr. Marina Vaysburd, a hematologist/oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Outpatient Cancer Center and Medical Center, has reviewed Rachel Razankova’s available records and made multiple unsuccessful attempts via e-mail and telephone to consult with her doctors in Macedonia. Vaysburd has agreed to see the patient once she comes to Los Angeles, to confirm the diagnosis, an important first step, and help as much as she can. “I am trying to save my mother’s life,” Roni Razankova said.

She was a lawyer and part-time journalist in the city of Stip, Macedonia, and moved to Los Angeles nine years ago, attracted to the freedom and different lifestyle. Her move here also marked the beginning of a spiritual journey, as people began to ask about her religion, a question she never encountered in secular and communist/socialist Macedonia.

“I was raised to believe in government and country, not God,” she said.

She was intuitively drawn to Judaism before discovering that her family was Jewish on her mother’s side. For the past six years, she has studied with Sobel, becoming a dedicated member at Beth Emet and, recently, a religious school teacher for fourth- and fifth-graders. Without family in the United States, she has adopted — and feels adopted by — her synagogue.

“Temple Beth Emet is the best temple I have ever seen in my life,” she said. “I’m going to be there forever.”

For more information, contact Rabbi Mark Sobel at Temple Beth Emet, 600 N. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91505. (818) 843-4787.

 

A Step Into Secular


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

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

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

But now he’s entering the secular world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The transition can be difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hospice Option Gains Jewish Supporters


When Barbara Sherman lay dying, she knew what she didn’t want: She did not want to end up in a hospital; she did not want the neighbors calling 911; she did not want someone sticking a needle in her arm. She wanted no interventions, not even morphine to ease the pain.

“Her greatest gift to us was to let my brother and I observe her dying,” said her daughter, Linda Sherman, who was in her early 40s at the time of her mother’s death at 73, in 2004. “It was so raw an experience, nothing sterile, nothing artificial. It was mom in her surroundings, and she allowed me to be there in the dying process. I saw how beautiful it was, how amazing, life-changing and haunting. As hard as it was, I am grateful to have that.”

In the last few weeks of her life, Barbara Sherman had the help of Jewish Hospice Project-Los Angeles, which offers spiritual end-of-life care for the Jewish community, regardless of religious affiliation. Sherman, whom her family describes as a life-long spiritual seeker, was brought back to her roots upon hearing Jewish songs and prayers in her final days.

The Jewish Hospice Project was co-founded four years ago by Rabbis Carla Howard and Sheldon Pennes, who were concerned that, within a city with more than a half-million Jews, the Jewish community had no spiritual end-of-life care. They made it their priority to administer to the spiritual needs of the dying. Since 2001, the program has provided counsel to more than 600 clients and their families at affiliated hospices throughout Southern California.

And this year, Howard and Pennes established the Jewish Healing Project, which grew out of discussions with their Health Care Advisory Board — made up of oncologists, physicians and alternative health care providers. Their idea is that patients should avail themselves of spiritual care upon diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, when they are still relatively healthy, rather than wait until after they’ve entered a hospice. Howard and Pennes hope the Jewish Healing Project will allow them more time to develop a spiritual dialogue with those who seek help.

Although other Jewish hospices have opened in recent years, the idea of hospice care is still “not very Jewish,” Howard said.

“Bechor Chaim, to choose life, is the Jewish mandate to live life to its fullest,” Howard said. “Particularly for Jews, death is an outrage. How does hospice and healing concur with this image? How does choosing the way we die fit into the mandate of choosing life?”

Howard has long reflected on questions of death and the Jewish community.

For 11 years, she studied Jewish healing and spirituality with Rabbi Jonathan Omerman, well known for his work in Jewish meditation.

“The Torah teaches ‘and you should love your neighbor as yourself,’ and we see that the rabbis added, ‘and provide for them a good death.’ We believe this is the responsibility of the Jewish community,” Howard said.

Howard, who serves as executive director, spends much of her day traveling to clients’ homes, hospitals and nursing homes. She also officiates at funerals. In addition, she sits on the faculty of the doctoring program at the David Geffen School of Medicine and on the bioethics committee of the Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center. Pennes is the rabbi at Temple B’nai Emet in Montebello and serves as chaplain for Trinity Care Hospice, as well as being Jewish Hospice Project-L.A.’s director of patient care.

The rabbis’ hospice program does not charge for services and receives no direct funding from The Jewish Federation, relying instead on foundation grants and fundraising to support its $360,000 budget. Last year, the hospice program received a grant from the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, a project of the Jewish Federation, and has also received grants from the Weingart Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and the Skirball Foundation, among others.

“For those of us who might already have some kind of spiritual vocabulary, getting spiritual counseling is not a big issue,” Howard said, “But for someone without one, it’s a huge turnaround at a time when life is turned upside down with a diagnosis.”

Ron Israelite was one of those. A successful media entrepreneur, Israelite’s focus was his family and his business; spirituality came in a distant third at best. Although raised Jewish, he had stepped away from his faith a long time ago.

After being diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago, Israelite joined an experimental trial program at UCLA. His wife, Betsy, believes that the doctors and researchers extended her husband’s life. But soon, it became a battle of wills, between Israelite and his aggressive cancer. When it showed up in his lungs. Israelite decided to stop treatment and seek hospice care in January 2005.

After accepting this crushing decision, Betsy Israelite recalled, her husband contacted Trinity Care Hospice. A few days later, Howard called and asked to speak to Ron.

Israelite gave the phone to her husband and his journey began.

“Of all the care he received through hospice, Ron looked forward to and benefited the most from his spiritual discussions with Howard,” Betsy Israelite said. “He set up seeing the rabbi like a meeting. Howard engaged his curious mind in what the dying process was all about. She opened up the possibility that this was a new stage of life, a transition into a new place, to be with God. He was really there with her, totally engaged intellectually and spiritually.”

Over the next few months, Howard came to Israelite’s home a couple times a week and they would talk.

“I hadn’t imagined it would be people sitting around laughing and discussing, like in a class,” Israelite said. “But that’s what they did: discussed, argued, laughed, and cried a little.”

Both Howard and Israelite observed how Ron became more peaceful, and started looking younger and younger.

“I noticed how beautiful it was. I mean I was losing my husband, but he seemed content, peaceful,” she said. “It became for him the next part of his journey.”

For her husband, death was no longer a journey alone down a dark corridor, Israelite said: “He knew what was going to be on the other side. He knew it would be God and he was looking forward to it.”

Ron Israelite died two months after entering hospice care. He was 61.

“There is a dance between spirit and body; the spirit is in touch with the body as it breaks down,” Howard said.

Howard defines this dance between body and spirit as a healing process, differentiated from cure. This spiritual healing, she said, differs so radically from what doctors offer that she sees part of her mission as educating physicians, medical students and other health professionals about what spiritual end-of-life care really is.

“Physicians offer many treatments for the terminally ill — feeding tubes, ventilators, etc.,” she said, but they’re typically ill equipped to help families decide when to discontinue treatment that is often invasive and painful. “The family is left with awful guilt: Am I doing the right thing? Am I causing him or her more pain?”

Terminally ill patients who choose to go into hospice prepare for death on their own terms. In practical terms, Howard said, this should include writing an advanced directive, consisting of a living will and the assigning of a health care surrogate. A living will allows an individual to convey wishes regarding future treatment. In a hospice that typically means using only palliative care, or pain management, and having in place a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. A health care surrogate is someone designated to make health care decisions when the patient is no longer able.

Howard believes that one of the most important and powerful repercussions of her organization’s work is to help the dying, along with their families, return to their Jewish roots. In Barbara Sherman’s case, the family buried their spiritually adventurous mom in a Jewish cemetery, something that was undecided before Howard began her visits.

For Ron Israelite, who had strayed far from Judaism, it meant coming home.

To learn more about Jewish Hospice Project-Los Angeles and the Jewish Healing Project, visit www.jewishhospicela.org, or call (310) 785-0856.

My Seder With Brando


You might remember him as Don Vito Corleone, Stanley Kowalski or the eerie Col. Walter E. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” but I remember Marlon Brando as a mensch and a personal friend of the Jewish people when they needed it most.

I got to know Marlon about 30 years ago through a mutual friend. His son, Christian, came to work for me in fisheries I owned in Alaska and Minnesota. Marlon impressed me as a dedicated parent. He would often call me up to check up on his boy with all the tenacity and loving concern of a Jewish mother: Was he eating enough? Did he get to work on time? Was he hanging out with the right people?

Christian was a great kid. He worked hard, had a good attitude and earned the respect of all his co-workers.

In the mid-1970s, when I would visit Los Angeles from my home in Minnesota, Marlon and I would get together. I was starting to become increasingly involved in my religion and he would tell me with great pride and satisfaction about his support for Israel even before it became a state. Marlon explained that in 1946, two years before Israel achieved statehood, he desperately believed that the survivors of the Holocaust deserved to have their own land where they could live free from oppression and the anti-Semitic tyranny of the outside world.

True to form, Marlon put his money where his mouth was and donated all of his proceeds from the play, “A Flag Is Born,” to the Irgun, a Zionist political group dedicated to rescuing European Jewry and the establishment of Israel as an independent sovereign nation. He continued his donations and charitable work over the entire two-year run of the play as it went from Broadway to touring destinations around the United States.

“A people that have fought so hard to survive need and deserve their own land,” he told me. ” I did all that I could and actively supported Israel’s statehood anyway I was able.”

Marlon also told me with great emotion that his success in theater and movies was largely due to the Jewish people in New York who befriended and taught him. He warmly mentioned Stella Adler, the legendary acting coach who both taught Marlon his craft and housed him with her family while he was getting on his feet as an actor. He was also especially proud of the fact that he could converse in Yiddish, having learned it while living with her family.

One of my visits to Los Angeles coincided with Passover. I was not yet Orthodox and made plans to attend a seder at a local synagogue with my sister. Marlon called me that very day and invited me out to dinner. I graciously declined, explaining that it was Passover and I was going to a seder. Marlon became audibly excited over the phone and said, “Passover — I’ve always wanted to attend a seder. Can I come with?” He had made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I told him it could be arranged and called the synagogue adding one more to our list.

A short time later, Marlon called me back and asked if he could bring a friend. I said, yes, by all means, never thinking to ask his friend’s name. I called the shul again. They were a little less patient this time and begrudgingly told me that they could squeeze one more person in, but this was absolutely the last one as they were now officially sold out.

Still later that day, I received a phone call from a childhood friend of mine who had become a well-known singer/songwriter. Being Jewish himself, and hearing I was going to a seder, he asked if he and his wife could go along. The shul was unhappy to receive my most recent request, but somehow I softened the heart of the receptionist and she agreed to let my people go — to the seder.

I will never forget the sight of our table in the synagogue, Marlon Brando was to my left and sitting next to him was his guest. This was during the height of Marlon’s involvement with Native American causes and he had brought with him noted Indian activist Dennis Banks of Wounded Knee fame. Banks was dressed in full Indian regalia: buckskin tassles on his clothes and long braids hanging down from a headband, which sported a feather. My childhood friend Bob Dylan sat to my right joined by his wife, my sister Sharon and other friends.

At first the seder progressed normally without anyone in the temple noticing anything out of the ordinary. After about 45 minutes, the rabbi figured out that ours was not your average seder table. “Mr. Brando, would you please do us the honor of reading the next passage from the haggadah,” he said. Marlon said, “It would be my pleasure.”

He smiled broadly, stood up and delivered the passage from the haggadah as if he were reading Shakespeare on Broadway. Mouths fell open and eyes focused on the speaker with an intensity any rabbi would covet. When he was done I think people actually paused, wondering if they should applaud.

Somewhat later the rabbi approached another member of our table.

“Mr. Dylan, would you do us the honor of singing us a song?” The rabbi pulled out an acoustic guitar. I thought he would politely decline. Much to my surprise Bob said yes and performed an impromptu rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to the stunned shul of about 300 seder guests. The incongruity of a seder, with Marlon Brando reading the haggadah followed by a Bob Dylan serenade, would have made for a good Fellini movie. Needless to say, everyone was both shocked and thrilled by this unusual Hollywood-style Passover miracle. The entire shul came by to shake both Marlon and Bob’s hands and they actually paused and spent time with everyone.

Just a couple of years ago, Marlon called me up in Minnesota, out of the blue. We had kept in touch through the trials and tribulations he was going through with his family. “Louie Kemp,” he said, “I’ve been thinking about you. Twenty years ago you took me to a seder. I want you to know that I still think about it to this very day. In fact, I was thinking about it today and that’s why I called you.”

He continued to thank me and tell me of the special spiritual impact it had on him and how much he identified with a people freeing themselves from bondage and uniting to celebrate and remember that freedom.

He told me he was sending his three youngest children to a Jewish day school in Los Angeles. When I asked him why, he said, “Louie, don’t you know that the Jewish schools are the best?” I could almost hear him smiling over the phone.

Louie Kemp is a businessman and founder of the Louis Kemp Seafood Co. He can be reached at lkla18@yahoo.com.

Rediscover the Role of the Synagogue


A small but meaningful reversal of the exodus took place after Sept. 11. Jews in communities across the country returned to their synagogues for spiritual sustenance during this crisis. Indeed, although they came on Sept. 11 and the days that followed, what will motivate them to keep coming back? As we acknowledge the upcoming anniversary since that extraordinary day, it seems timely and important to look at what our synagogues can and could be contributing to the healing and strengthening process. The timeliness is amplified, of course, by the presence of the High Holidays, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur coming in its shadow.

In considering the impact of what is arguably the single most cataclysmic event to befall the United States in this generation, professor Lew Smith of Fordham University wrote in Education Week that social institutions such as schools must seize this moment in our history to define their purposes. We believe that there is a strong parallel to his question in the recurring question that seems to be asked by many in our community: “What are shuls for?”

The American Jewish community is in a rare state of clear universal need for guidance and direction. Will synagogues move toward greater relevance and vitality? Will they renew and transform their relationships not only with congregants but with their communities? Following a framework established by Smith as a guide, we provide some guidance to aid in these important reflections. They represent aspects of the human condition that make our lives fulfilling, enriching and contributing. As you read them, consider not only the extent to which each describes a synagogue with which you might be affiliated, but also ask yourself where, in your life, you find this purpose being filled in addition to, or instead of, the synagogue.

While your answers may surprise you, they may serve as an outline for your community’s plan for synagogue renewal, as well as your personal, spiritual renewal.

Synagogues as Centers for Caring and Comfort

Amid the current crisis, many synagogues have become expanded sources of support and concern. Even bikur cholim (visiting the sick) and related activities of reaching out to those in need have accelerated. There have been more town meetings and more caring phone calls from synagogue leaders, professionals, rabbis and fellow congregants. Synagogues have served as places where those touched directly or indirectly by tragedy can find a comforting hand.

This need not happen only in times of disaster. Must one have dramatic needs in order to receive caring and comfort from the community?

Synagogues as Centers for Service

When the rabbis wrote in Pirke Avot that the world was founded on the pillars of Torah (law and ethics), avodah (prayer and service) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), they did not make an addendum that stated, “only in difficult times.”

At the World Trade Center, as well as at the Pentagon, people of all faiths and of no faith have come together out of deep human kindness to provide service to those they knew and loved and those they did not know. Such service is the glue that binds humanity. It is what helped us to overcome the evil that beset us in Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and the skies over Pennsylvania, a reminder that the core of humanity remains essentially good. Yet, too often, the service activities in our synagogues are responses to crisis, relegated to special committees, or pursued as sporadic concerns. We know those who serve are better for it, as are those who are served. However, such work stands in competition with the siren song of pop culture and material concerns that seem to lure us away from opportunities to nourish the soul and brighten the lives of others. The synagogue can be a force to help communities pull together and enrich those who engage in the work in ways that “C.S.I.,” “Monday Night Football,” the latest DVD of “Shrek” with director’s cuts and, yes, even reruns of “Friends,” cannot quite approach.

Synagogues as Centers of Thoughtful
Inquiry

The best of our rabbis threw out their sermons for the High Holidays and created something new to match the events unfolding. They modeled thoughtful inquiry. How do the events around us relate to Jewish tradition, law, custom and practice? What insights can we get to help us understand and act constructively? What conflicts do we find? What values are in competition within our tradition? Within our secular institutions? In the way in which our religious lives and secular lives intersect? Inquiry should also encompass the question, “What does our congregation stand for? What are our strongest beliefs and commitments? From where do they emanate, and how shall we enact them thoughtfully?”

The world around us contained terrorism before Sept. 11. It contained threats to our freedom at the cost of security. It contained injustice and unfairness. Before Sept. 11, our communities constantly posed challenges with regard to our youth, our senior citizens, those who are ill, troubled, homeless, hungry or bereaved, and our relationship with Israel, with other congregations, and with other religious institutions. These matters were, and are, begging for our attention, both Jewishly and intellectually. Some would maintain that thoughtful inquiry, in congregational life, is like physical exercise.

Done continuously, one’s capacity increases, ability to meet new challenges expands, and positive sense of health and accomplishment deepen. Done sporadically, exercise is a source of discomfort, even embarrassment and hardly fulfilling. It leads to a feeling of one step forward, two steps back. The same may be said about thoughtful inquiry in congregational life. Synagogues can serve individuals, their Jewish constituents, and their surrounding communities as catalysts of conscience. But do they?

Synagogues as Centers for Dynamic
Leadership

In America, it is well-known that shy people are at a distinct disadvantage. The same may be said about shy shuls. What is the source of “shul shyness”? Consider this lesson from Sept. 11. A businessman saw the collapse of the Towers and ran toward the rubble, once the dust cloud allowed, to help out. He started working with firefighters and other rescuers to pull away massive amounts of debris, to free the living and give dignity to the dead.

After those initial, frenzied hours, he remained at Ground Zero to assist in the rescue and recovery operation. When asked about his actions, he said that he never did anything like this before in his life and never imagined that he could. He allowed himself to listen to his heart and to respond to the needs around him. He did not care what he looked like, what objections he might encounter, who might think it was inappropriate, or whether he was “good enough.” He reacted at the most human level and from his soul emerged the work of gemilut chasadim.

Synagogue leaders speak out when there is a visible and clear threat. They risk dealing with controversy in their communities, within their congregations, or with other organizations, whether secular or Jewish. But there were many threats to the Jewish soul — of the individual and of the community — before those misdirected planes were crashed into buildings. If we had the courage to look at each incident of terror as an abomination worthy of our concern and vociferous objections, perhaps terrorists would gather less momentum and strength and events like those of Sept. 11 could be prevented.

Dynamic leadership is proactive, as well as reactive. Dynamic leadership is not “followership.” It promotes a shared vision, builds capacities of individuals and groups in its organization, challenges people to do what they do better and to think about what else they can do, and galvanizes subgroups and the whole to act in meaningful and fulfilling ways. Dynamic leadership was important on Sept. 10; indeed, lack of leadership in the days prior to Sept. 11 might well have contributed to the tragedy. Dynamic leadership will continue to be important as the events of Sept. 11 unfold and as other horrific events occur. To what extent do our synagogues provide dynamic, and even anticipatory, leadership?

Synagogues as Centers of Spirituality and
Community

Seymour Sarason, emeritus professor of psychology at Yale University, one of the founders of the field of community psychology and a preeminent observer of the human scene for the better part of the 20th Century, said in 1974 that we face an epidemic of loneliness and alienation in our society. He believes that this is the result of growing individualism in our culture and the rejection of the compromises and inconveniences of community life and institutions.

Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen’s “The Jew Within” (Indiana University, 2000) and Bethamie Horowitz’s “Connections and Journeys” study has found a growing trend toward “pick and choose” Judaism that is rooted in the preferences of individuals rather than the commitments to the community. There is always a balance of such considerations, but the data from recent research suggests that the pattern is shifting strongly away from community.

These trends fly in the face of what Sarason and others have identified as a deep human need for transcendence, to believe that life has meaning and purpose beyond the experiences of the moment. Sarason believes that a sense of community is an essential element of human well-being. Somewhere in their lives, people need forums to ask questions about the meaning of life and the importance of community. They need to nurture that part of themselves that is spiritual. It is obvious that the synagogue should be the most logical place for this to happen, but it does not seem to be so. What do we derive from our communal gatherings to pray? How can we sustain our communal liturgy while also meeting individual needs to express other things? These are questions of deceptive complexity and will be disquieting if pursued.

As the Jewish tradition shows with great insight, spirituality emanates from an integration of the individual, the community and tradition. But spirituality is also about bridging the gap between the individual and God through a covenantal relationship. And this, for sure, must be nurtured by the synagogue.

For most people, attaining a sense of spirituality is a cherished but fleeting occurrence. In its pursuit, people are likely to experience as much uncertainty as they do comfort because they will be immersed in community and tradition as well as their own individual needs and preferences. Too often, however, synagogues seem reluctant to confront difficult questions and hard moral and ethical choices brought about by Jews interactions with the secular world.

Perhaps fear of raising difficult questions relates to fear of losing members and the dues they represent. The classical Hebrew prophets were willing to confront humanity in all its aspects as necessary to bring us closer to God, but are synagogues ready to add a bit of existential inner turmoil to their agendas in the service of that goal?

Synagogues Must Be Based On Principles

The events of Sept. 11 have added angst to all of our agendas. Perhaps the level of discomfort is more intense than before, but it is not about something that is unknown in our experience. Yet angst did not prevail, nor did despair. In both America and Israel, senseless destruction, tragic loss, horrific acts perpetrated by people on those who were innocent and, in some cases, even of people of shared beliefs, lack of vigilance, have been juxtaposed against tremendous heroism, selflessness, leadership, ingenuity, and courage. The American culture seems to be most responsive to big events, big losses, big injustices, big tragedies.

While the scale of human tragedy often motivates community response, synagogues must be places that are based on principle. And principle is not a matter of scale. Some would maintain that synagogues need to be the beacons of light –Torah-generated light — in a sea of relativistic and consumer-oriented morality.

Finding Spirituality

We maintain that comfort and caring, service, thoughtful inquiry, dynamic leadership, spirituality and community are essential aspects of human life. To be fulfilled as human beings, people need to find places where these aspects of life can be experienced in positive and constructive ways. For Jews, the synagogue may not be the only forum in which to meet these needs, but the shul that addresses them will be a place of great value. What is a synagogue for? What is the place of a synagogue in your life? Through what affiliations do you find you are most able to fulfill the essential aspects of human life outlined above? These questions may not have had pressing importance prior to Sept. 11; now, they should point the way toward a rediscovery and renewal of the role of synagogues in our communities and in our lives.

Dr. Maurice Elias is professor at the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish
Life and FAS Department of Psychology at Rutgers University. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky
is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York City and
is a fellow in the Center for Jewish Studies, Graduate School and University
Center, CUNY. They can be reached at mjeru@aol.com.

Light Eight Candles to Honor our Heroes


On the nights of Chanukah, Dec. 9-16, Jews around the country will remember a little pitcher of olive oil.
In particular, we will recall a moment from the second century BCE when one of the Temple priests searched through the rubble
of the vandalized sacred house. In the midst of the chaos wrought by the attackers, he found a single, miraculously undisturbed,
container of oil. Surrounded by the wreckage in an hour of despair, simply pouring the oil into the tarnished menorah
and pausing to relight it was an act of hope and renewal.

For years to come, people around the world will remember the image of the American flag waving in an enormous pile of twisted metal and debris in the heart of Manhattan. One rescuer, finding the flag in that rubble, broke free from the collective sense of anguish to affirm life. Like the first lights of Chanukah, the raised flag emerged as a symbol that the attack would not succeed in defeating the spirit of a resilient and determined people.

These nights of Chanukah are a perfect time for all Americans to recall the actions of the past months that returned us to an affirmation of life — stories of bravery; phone conversations with friends and family; walks in the woods or by water; personal reflections read or heard; music; and moments of silence, meditation and prayer.

We also might recall the public gatherings — the moving benefit concerts, the interfaith vigils, and the meetings and gatherings in our local communities which expressed our collective grief and our desire to move forward.

On Chanukah, we have eight days to dedicate ourselves to sustaining this renewed sense of public engagement and to continue the quiet acts that matter: caring for one another with sensitivity, pausing to appreciate our daily sustenance, and loving life in a way that will give us strength through the times ahead.

At CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York, we gathered an interdenominational team of rabbis and scholars to create the following ways in which we can dedicate each night of Chanukah to an act of heroism. We began with the simple premise that Chanukah lights remind us of those who sowed light in dark times. This year, as we reflect on countless acts of courage, determination, and perseverance, we dedicate each night to a set of heroes.

First Night:

Fire fighters, police officers and everyday citizens who gave their lives to save others.

Second Night:

Doctors, counselors, volunteers with the Red Cross and others who were called on to heal, comfort and support those individuals and families who have suffered unbearable loss.

Third Night:

Government and community leaders who transcended ideological differences to build national strength and unity.

Fourth Night:

Parents and teachers who with calm and empathy, helped children cope with new fears.

Fifth Night:

Rabbis, priests, ministers, imams and other religious leaders who used their traditions to bring people together, to affirm our common humanity, and to nurture life.

Sixth Night:

Men and women who have been called up to national service, who will not be with their families for the holidays this year so that they may protect us all.

Seventh Night:

Allies around the world, who have been outspoken in their condemnation of terror.

Eighth Night:

All of us who, through our daily actions, have insisted that we will valiantly move on, strengthening America’s commitment to diversity and pluralism, ensuring that the religious and intellectual freedoms that we have fought for will continue to be a light unto all nations.

In one of the classic retellings of the Chanukah story, we read: “They entered the sanctuary, rebuilt the altar, repaired the walls, replaced the sacred vessels, and were engaged in the rebuilding for eight days.” May we, as a nation, celebrate this Chanukah as a time of both spiritual and communal rebuilding.

+