Ben & Jerry’s co-founder explains how to do well by doing good


A scoop of Ben & Jerry’s may taste like heaven, and for company co-founder Jerry Greenfield, the business of making ice cream has a spiritual side as well.

“There is a spiritual aspect to business, just as there is to people,” Greenfield told a crowd of 300 last week at a networking event for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

The ice cream company known for its colorful pint-size containers, funky flavors and creative marketing has implemented smart business practices that have advanced its bottom line as well as its do-good corporate culture.

Raised on suburban New York’s Long Island, Greenfield, 60, and his longtime friend and business partner Ben Cohen met in gym class in junior high school after discovering a shared dislike of running track. They were chubby kids who always enjoyed eating, Greenfield said, and both attended Hebrew school and had their bar mitzvahs at the Reform Congregation of Merrick.

Though a self-described “cultural Jew,” Greenfield said that his religious education helped sensitize him to discrimination, marginalization and the needs of “other people in society and around the world.”

In his mid-20s, after being rejected from some 20 medical schools and not content with working as a lab technician, Greenfield split a $5 Pennsylvania State University correspondence course in ice cream-making with Cohen and embarked on a new business venture.

In 1978, with $12,000 scraped together from loans and savings, they opened Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt. Their single storefront venture would grow eventually into a $300 million global ice cream empire owned by the Unilever Corp.

Neither Greenfield nor Cohen is still active in the day-to-day running of the company. Instead, Greenfield said, his present role with Ben & Jerry’s holds “no responsibility and no authority,” joking that it should be a position that those attending the federation event also strive for in their careers.

But their vision for an ice cream company that would be both profitable and care about the needs of society has left a lasting impact on both employees and customers.

“Simply operating this way had so many benefits for the company,” said Greenfield, as he detailed some of the values-driven business practices that also saw him and Cohen named U.S. Small Business Persons of the Year in 1988.

One oft-cited example of Ben & Jerry’s socially conscience business practices is its purchase of $8 million annually of chocolate brownies baked at the Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, N.Y., a nonprofit that offers job training and hires workers who might have a difficult time finding jobs elsewhere, such as ex-convicts, former substance abusers and welfare recipients.

“We came up with this popular flavor [for using the brownies] and the bakery is pretty happy with it, too!” said Greenfield.

In 1984, when the company needed to raise additional capital to grow the business, they let their Vermont neighbors “get a scoop of the action” by holding an in-state public offering.

“People of essentially any economic situation could participate,” said Greenfield, and one in every 100 Vermont families became shareholders in the company. “As the business supported the community, the community supported the business.”

In 1985, the company made a public stock offering and also established the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation. It began donating 7.5 percent of pretax profits to nonprofit organizations—the highest percentage of any publicly traded company at the time, he said.

“As you give, you receive,” Greenfield said. “As you help others, you are helped in return.”

He added, “And just because the idea that the good that you do comes back to you is written in the Bible and not in some business textbook doesn’t mean that it is any less valid.”

I’m Not Religious; I’m Spiritual


In some prayer books, the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion serve as a preparation for prayer. The verses repeat over and over again that a perpetual fire shall continue to burn on the altar. Why the focus on the need to keep the fire burning? And what does it mean to us now, after the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrificial system, when there is no longer a literal fire? 

The Sefat Emet writes: “In the soul of every Jew there lies a hidden point that is aflame with love of God, a fire that cannot be put out. … This is true of the human soul: There needs to burn in it a fiery longing to worship the Creator, and this longing has to be renewed each day. …”

But how do we renew it? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, using a verse from our portion: “ ‘And he shall take up the ashes … and carry the ashes outside.’ It is our daily duty to bring to our observance of the mitzvah a new zest, as if each time it was the first time. … The relics of the previous day’s work need clearing away, before the new day’s work can begin in a clean and renovated place.”

In other words, you have to clear away the ashes so as not to smother the fire. Clearing away the ashes, making room for new insights, new ways to experience prayer, is fraught with tension. On the one hand, if prayer is routine it is not able to awaken a fiery longing. On the other hand, if prayer is not familiar, it is difficult to pray in community.

This tension is captured in the classic description that so many of us have heard so many times: “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” Translation: I have my own connection to a sense of divinity; I don’t need any organized structures to facilitate the connection.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind.” Religion has rules, structures and obligations — to God, to a tradition, to other people and, indeed, to the larger world. Spirituality, on the other hand, is about an individual’s connection to divinity. Without religion, spirituality runs the risk of becoming a kind of narcissism. Without spirituality, religion risks smothering the fiery longing in the ashes of repetition, routine and fear of change.

What might it mean for us to “carry away the ashes”? For some Jews, it means bringing different kinds of spiritual practice into Jewish prayer.

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to experience Hebrew kirtan — a call-and-response chanting influenced by a Hindu prayer practice — in our Shabbat morning worship. Led by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, our New Emanuel Minyan experimented with Hebrew kirtan, and later that evening more than 140 people came together for a citywide kirtan.

For me, kirtan was a completely new experience, and not altogether comfortable. But there is no question that it was powerful, with the physical reverberations of the chanting lasting long after I returned home that evening.

And those 140 people — who were they? Jews connected to our synagogue and many other synagogues, and even more Jews not connected to any Jewish institution.

Samantha Orshan, a student in the joint program of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and the Rabbinic School, studied Temple Emanuel for her thesis on spirituality in a mainstream synagogue. It didn’t surprise her that there were many congregants who called themselves “spiritual seekers,” looking and finding intense spiritual experiences at our congregation. What did surprise her were how many people said they were not spiritual but really valued the opportunities to bring more intensity into the prayer experience — through powerful participatory music, meditation and silence. She calls those Jews “hide and seekers,” and she challenges all of our synagogues to do even more to help them come out of hiding.

Maybe that’s what our Torah portion means by “clearing away the ashes.”

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org), a Reform congregation.

Yom Kippur Dilemma


Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?

I feel like I’ve barely had time to recover from one when the next one’s announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like “oh no, not again,” in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.

The few friends in whom I confide — I’m sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don’t want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I’ve been to the water’s edge and found I’m unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance — always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that’s not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.

None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think — that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can’t feel the spirit of this one day because I’m not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.

It’s true that I don’t go to temple every week, don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).

But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I’ve failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I’ve made, the countless ways in which I’ve let the world down. I don’t need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no “off” switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there’s something different about Yom Kippur — an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day’s activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.

Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn’t read Hebrew and we didn’t have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons’ academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that’s in vogue in the West. We were told — by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 — that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.

In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple’s day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple’s gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn’t see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.

This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we’re being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple’s day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi — and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter “I” every time they looked you in the eyes.

The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn’t have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She’s an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn’t going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.

The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you’re a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.

We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran — a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.

And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

In the quest for ‘the God particle,’ mystics get a new machine


large hadron collider

The Large Hadron Collider. Image courtesy ” target=”_blank”>blog every day. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.



Books: The middle-American way of death


“For One More Day” by Mitch Albom (Hyperion, $21.95)

At the beginning of “For One More Day,” Mitch Albom’s latest sermon on life, death and the realms beyond, fallen baseball star Charles “Chick” Benetto attempts suicide. One white light later, he finds himself reunited and running errands with his dead mother, Posey. Think of it as The One Person You Meet in Limbo. Out two weeks and already atop the bestseller list, the novel is also conveniently available at Starbucks, along with a bookmark-sized reading guide, as if Albom needed a PR boost to secure his spot as America’s foremost lay leader. The tragedy isn’t that Albom’s a sappy novelist, it’s that his message is so insistently universal as to be nearly meaningless.

I first encountered Albom the way many readers outside of Detroit did — not through his sports columns, but through his 1997 bestseller, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” a memoir of his life-changing reunion with Morrie Schwartz, a Brandeis professor dying of ALS. I saw the movie, Oprah Winfrey’s 1999 ABC adaptation, first; I even got misty-eyed when Hank Azaria’s Mitch, collapsing in a puddle of tears, admitted to Jack Lemmon’s Morrie, “I don’t want you to die.” But that wasn’t embarrassing enough. I went out and bought the book, and encouraged my parents to read it, too.

That was before Albom wrote another bestseller, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” about a humble carnival maintenance worker who leaves this mortal coil for the psycho-spiritual coaching of the afterlife. The very title warned of treacly, middle-American, middlebrow morality, and, while purportedly a novel, it was sized and shaped to resemble “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

The differences cut deeper than genre distinctions. Looking back, it’s not hard to see what I liked about “Tuesdays With Morrie”: Albom’s warm portrait of Morrie himself. Raised on the Lower East Side by a Russian émigré turned furrier, sneaking off to synagogue to pray for his mother, teaching Martin Buber and Erik Erikson, holding a “living funeral” after learning of his disease, Morrie was a figure both familiar and unexpected, a model grandfather, funny, wise, hokey and infinitely huggable.

“The Five People You Meet in Heaven” has no such anchor, only an inert cipher divorced from any distinct religion or culture, carelessly sapped of a soul. Albom dedicates the novel to his uncle Edward Beitchman, “who gave me my first concept of heaven,” and sure enough, the novel’s amiable Everyman is named Eddie. We check in just as he checks out — killed, trying to save a little girl from a fluke carnival ride accident — but, fear not, Albom can’t write 10 pages without a flashback. In one, a 17-year-old Eddie sits in his Pitkin Avenue apartment with two recently arrived Romanian cousins who’ve fled war-torn Europe — shorthand, it seems, for Holocaust refugees. But then Eddie’s brother Joe announces that Eddie’s met a girl. “Does she go to church?” someone asks. Turns out Eddie’s family isn’t Jewish, no matter what those Romanian refugees are doing this side of the Atlantic.

For all of his apparent investment in the spiritual enlightenment of his characters and readers, Albom himself is remarkably evasive when it comes to religion. When a reporter for the Boston Globe questioned Albom about making Eddie Catholic, and creating a “goyish” heaven, Albom told him, “You are reading way too much into it,” and “It’s really a fable. I didn’t write this to have religious overtones.” Which makes all that talk about God and the afterlife what — filler? Just because Albom’s Jewish, of course, doesn’t require him to write Jewish characters, or a Jewish heaven, but he could at least try to pick one back story and stick to it.

Religion gets even shoddier treatment in “For One More Day,” despite Albom’s efforts to nail it down. Early on Chick tells us, “My mother was French Protestant, and my father was Italian Catholic, and their union was an excess of God, guilt and sauce,” and proceeds to recall lots of sitcom-style disagreements about baptisms, wearing baseball cleats in “God’s House,” and whether that painting of Jesus belongs outside the bathroom. But even that veneer begins to wear.
At Chick’s mother’s funeral, a minister hands him a shovel. “I was to toss dirt onto my mother’s coffin,” Chick recalls, explaining she “had witnessed this custom at Jewish funerals and had requested it for her own.” The reasoning is mildly ludicrous, and conspicuously defensive. “I could hear my father chiding her, saying, ‘ Posey, I swear, you make it up as you go along.'” Of course, it’s not Posey who invents as she goes — it’s Albom.

The time has come to really jerk our tears, and he just can’t help but fall back on the rituals of his own culture — why doesn’t Chick just say Kaddish already?

Why Albom insists on making his characters Christians, when he seems to have no better grounding in Christianity than a casual follower of “Seventh Heaven,” is up for debate, but the cynic in me suspects it’s mostly a matter of marketing — a perception that vaguely Christian characters will have a more universal appeal than vaguely Jewish ones. How else can you even explain an absurd name like Chick Benetto?

It’s tempting to call Albom’s characters Conversos, but that suggests Albom thinks the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity actually matter. Really, what are Albom’s characters if not Judeo-Christian mythical creatures of the American melting pot, linked by a loosely defined set of values? It’s a tradition lambasted as a lie by Harold Bloom and fully adopted by Kinky Friedman, a sure sign of its marketing potential.

The lessons of “For One More Day” aren’t, after all, so controversial: nothing can ever replace a mother’s love, there’s always time to make amends, family matters more than fame. If you’ve read “Tuesdays With Morrie,” or ever watched a movie on Lifetime, you’ve probably heard this all before. But without a moral center like Morrie, those teachings come off as pandering, saccharine self-help, a low pitch to the middle-American, working-class readers with whom Albom aims to sympathize.

What’s saddest about Albom’s novels is they might be half-decent if he would just quit running away and embrace his obvious calling as a Jewish writer. It wouldn’t make his lessons more surprising, his prose less plodding, or his premises less juvenile — give some comatose tennis player an afternoon with his great aunt, for all I care — but at least the messengers wouldn’t be so muddled.

Amy Klein’s bibliographical guide for the perplexed


“To the best of our understanding, God created the universe as an act of love. It was an act of love so immense that the human mind cannot even begin to fathom it. God created the world basically as a vehicle upon which He could bestow His good. But God’s love is so great that any good that He bestows must be in the greatest good possible. Anything less would simply not be enough…. God therefore gave man free will.” — “If You Were God” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Mesorah, 1983)
 
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: You have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” — “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl (Pocket Books, 1984)
 
“When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator’s creativity within us and our lives; We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, our meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves; creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” — “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron (Tarcher, 2002)
 
“Knowing your purpose gives meaning to your life. We were made to have meaning. This is why people try dubious methods, like astrology or psychics to discover it…. When life has meaning, you can bear almost anything; without it, nothing is bearable.” — “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” (Rick Warren, Zondervan 2002)
 
“Tradition teaches us that the soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination. I understand therapy as nothing more than bringing imagination to areas that are devoid of it, which then must express themselves by becoming symptiomatic.” — “Care of the Soul: A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life” by Thomas A. Moore (HarperCollins, 2002).
 
“Many of us go through the rituals of survival with a deeper sense of something greater, or even something smaller. We may crave spiritual insight, or perhaps we yearn for simple pleasures, such as the time to close our eyes and take in the smells of a flower garden, feel the sun shining warmly on our faces, or to relish the comfort of a cozy oversized robe and good novel…. Indulge yourself by prioritizing self-nourishment — everyone benefits when you feel good.” — “The Book of Small Pleasures: 32 Inspiring Ways to Feed Your Body, Soul and Spirit” by Matthew McKay, Catherine Sutker, Kristin Beck (Barnes & Noble, 2001)
 
“God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience…. If we could not temporarily put out of our minds some of the painful moments of our past, how would we find the courage to go on? … But if we would not remember, would we still be us? Those painful moments are such a large part of making us who we are….” — “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2006)
 
“It is a fact that everybody wants happiness and does not want suffering; there is no argument about this. But there is disagreement about how to achieve happiness and how to overcome problems. There are many types of happiness and many ways to achieve them, and there are also many types of sufferings and ways to overcome them. As Buddhists, however, we aim not merely for temporary relief and temporary benefit but for long-term results. Buddhists are concerned not only for this life but for life after life, on and on. We count not weeks or months or even years, but lives and eons.” — “The Meaning of Life” by The Dalai Lama (Wisdom Publications, 1992)
 
“Human beings best qualify themselves for the world to come through a combination of studying Torah and good deeds…. Thus even the belief in the world to come is, in Judaism, a motivator to study Torah and to perform good deeds in this world.” — “To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics” by Elliot N. Dorff (The Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia,
 
2002)
“We’ve forgotten that as mere mortals we are meant to search as much as to find. After all, each of us has had only a few decades of what has been a 14-billion-year evolution. We are finite creatures. How could we possibly have access to what is infinite: some all-encompassing Truth about the world or even our True selves? The fact is, there is no issue, large or small, that we can understand fully. When we think we’ve found the final truth, we’re a little less alive, a little less awake, and the world itself is diminished.” — “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula with Linda Lowenthal (Hyperion, 2006)
 
“Judaism has survived 4,000 years, including 2,000 years without a homeland, without the Temple in Jerusalem, without any common geographical location, without support from the outside. Judaism and Jews survived because of the Torah. No matter where they lived, no matter what historical horrors or joys they experienced, the heart of their faith was carried and communicated through the way, the path and the teachings of the Torah.”

Polish the Soul for Elul


I spent the first three days of Elul polishing a lamp that has hung in the upstairs stairwell of my home for 80 years. I thought that the lamp was made out of cast iron,
but discovered after applying a mixture of abrasive compounds and elbow grease, that it was crafted of shiny brass.

Only after finishing the project did I catch the appropriateness of the endeavor. For Elul is traditionally a month for polishing the soul. During this time, we search ourselves for blemishes. Then, through the process of teshuvah, we polish and refine ourselves. The culmination of this refinement is the fast of Yom Kippur, from which we hope to emerge as shining and radiant as my restored lamp.

The word “teshuvah,” heard so often during the month of Elul and the first 10 days of Tishre, is unfortunately translated as “repentance.” Thus, the word carries a harshness that can lead us to feel shame about ways we may have blown it during the previous year.

Teshuvah, however, is more about cultivating compassion than about being held in judgment. Legend tells us that teshuvah was created even before the creation of the world.

This suggests that built into the structure of the universe is the understanding that mistakes will be made, as well as the consolation that there is always the opportunity to begin again. Judaism provides a spiritual technology for continually acknowledging both that to err is human and that we can repair our mistakes.

The first mechanism for this process of renewal (perhaps a more apt translation of the word “teshuvah”) is to cultivate compassion. Compassion is the theme of the chant that we sing over and over during the High Holidays:

God Was With Us That Night in the Negev


Our bus driver Boris had been navigating the roads of the Negev for at least an hour when the whole bus suddenly shook, rattled and rolled. As we gazed out the window, we saw that Boris had left the road. All we saw was rock, dust and a little more rock. It took about two more hours of off-road driving for us to reach our destination for the night.

I stepped off the bus and asked our counselor, “Where is the bathroom?”
“Follow me and I will demonstrate,” she said. “Girls to those rocks on the left, boys to the right.” Enough said.

I had just arrived in Israel that week for a four-week tour with 34 other California teens in Group Three of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) summer Israel program. And we were about to spend three nights in the middle of the Negev Desert with nothing but food and sleeping bags — definitely a sight to see.

Not only did we do it, but so did 12 other NFTY groups in Israel this summer, and we would soon find out that the experience of sleeping on our ancestors’ land would set the tone for our whole trip.

We unloaded the materials from the bus including dishes, food supplies, sleeping bags and our own personal bags. Once dinner was made and served, our group began to gather for Maariv, the evening prayer service.

This was by far the most spiritual moment in my life. I gazed up at the stars as I chanted the V’Ahavta prayer with amazing new friends, standing around the same rocks that our people had wandered past thousands of years before. My eyes couldn’t help but tear up as we moved on to the Mi Chamocha, the song of freedom. At that moment I felt as though God truly was with us.

We ended the night with our usual closing circle, where we sang Hashkiveinu and the Shema, with the words: “Keep us safe throughout the night, until we wake with morning’s light.” But that night, I felt as though we didn’t even need to ask for safety, that this ground and these mountains would keep us safe.

As morning woke us with its light, we found ourselves at the beginning of a long day of hiking in the Negev and then swimming in Eilat.

On our last day camping out, Boris took us to a Bedouin tent. We were warmly welcomed and introduced to the interesting Bedouin culture. We experienced their music, cultural food and hospitality — especially when they invited us to use the tent’s bathrooms, equipped with actual showers. I would have to say that the next task might have been even harder then the previous day’s four-hour hike. This was the situation: four showers, 20 girls, 30 minutes.

That night I was in a Bedouin tent celebrating Shabbat like I never had done before. This was our third and final night sleeping on the ground of the Negev, so we were both excited and upset.

The next day we arrived at Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat. Our tour guide, Sivan, took us on a very short hike on the outskirts of the Kibbutz. As we all sat in a circle in the middle of two mountains — a lot like our accommodations for the past three nights — Ellie Klein, our madrich, shared some words that I will never forget. She told us that by successfully making it through this Negev experience, whether we knew it our not, we had already changed and grown.

This campout was our chance to be with the land of Israel, nothing else. Just the land with all of its components. Through the tasks that we had completed and the experiences we had, we had assured ourselves that we could do it again.

Ellie asked us to grab a rock and gather them all in a pile in the center of our circle. I found a rock and felt the firmness of it and dropped it in the center, feeling as though I had just left a piece of myself in the desert. Not only a piece of myself, but a newly grown, solid and firm me. The words she said about us and the natural land still echoes in my mind because I really felt that for those few days, I was at my true quintessential state — and so was the Land of Israel.

We left the rocks in a clump on the ground as we made our way back to Kibbutz Yahel. This experience was the start of a treasured summer traveling with the most incredible people. I was finding my true Jewish identity not only among the historical sights, but among the millions of rocks that make up Eretz Yisrael.

Daniella Kaufman is an 11th grader at New Community Jewish High School.

Thirty Years of Carlebach Rock


Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s musical legacy has taken many forms, from the
dozens of minyanim whose worship uses his music to the excellent recordings
made by his daughter, Neshama. But the most enduring and unexpected
offspring from Carlebach’s folkie neo-Chasidism is the number of jam bands
performing his music. If that seems incongruous, you only need to hear the
Moshav Band to realize how natural it really is.

Moshav Band, which was founded as a direct result of Carlebach’s influence,
just released its first English only album — “Misplaced.”

Reb Shlomo and a group of his followers had created a musical moshav in
Israel in 1977 in the hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a community
called Moshav Meor Modi’im. Yehuda (vocals), Dovid (guitar), Meir (guitar,
mandolin) and Yosef Solomon (bass), the sons of one of the original members
of that community, are the core of the group, joined by drummer David
Swirsky. Like Inasense and Soulfarm, two other Carlebach-spawned jam bands,
they melded his musical influence with that of the rock groups they heard as
kids — most obviously, The Dead, Dylan, Neil Young — in a splendid blend
of sacred and secular.

The Moshav Band has long been one of the most popular of Jewish-oriented
rock groups, but sometime at the end of the millennium that distinction
ceased to satisfy the group. Perhaps the band had always intended to try
hurdling the wall that generally separates openly Jewish music from rest of
the entertainment world; for Christians that wall has been more of a
semipermeable membrane, as any country-music fan will tell you. Whatever
their motivation, in 2000 the band members relocated to Los Angeles to
launch their assault on rest of the pop/rock world.

“Higher and Higher: The Best of the Moshav Band,” which the Jewish Music
Group released earlier this year, is a canny attempt to straddle the gap
between the moshav and the mosh pit. The set has more English-language songs
than its previous recordings, and it is long on anthemic rockers like
“Waiting for the Calling” that would not be out of place on an album by U2
or Pearl Jam, two bands to which it bears more than a slight resemblance.
But even the straighthead rockers and love songs can be easily read as calls
to God, rather than your usual pop invocations of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’
roll. In truth, the bands it most resembles are ones that are firmly
grounded in the soil of a homeland and its political struggles, bands like
The Levellers or The Pogues (if you sobered them up).

In that respect, the Moshav Band’s heart and soul are still linked tightly
to the hills outside Jerusalem and, fittingly, to the musical and spiritual
legacy of Rabbi Carlebach.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

Are You Listening?


“What’s the most important word in the prayer book?” the rabbi asked the congregation.

The congregants responded with a list of important words:
“shalom — peace,” “bracha — blessing,” “Torah — God’s truth,” “Hashem — God’s name.”

“All very important words,” the rabbi replied. “But there is one more important. The prayer book’s most important word is, “al-ken — therefore.”

“Therefore” connects all our fine sentiments and deep wisdom with the reality of the world. “Therefore” binds us to bring our values out of the vague realm of our subjectivity and into the hard objective world of work, family, politics and power. “Therefore” tests all our spiritual aspirations and visions against the limits of our courage, imagination and resolve. “Therefore” makes religion real.
Every day, someone confesses, “Rabbi, I’m a deeply spiritual person.”

Good, I reply. Where’s the “therefore”? What difference does it make? How does your spirituality shape the way you spend your money, speak to your housekeeper, raise your children? Do you vote spiritually? Drive spiritually? Watch TV spiritually? I am little impressed by those who profess to believe in God. I am moved by those whose faith is behaved. That’s my “therefore” test.

This week we read the stirring declaration of Jewish monotheism, Shema Yisrael. The most sacred words in our tradition, the Shema is the first affirmation a Jewish child is taught, and the last words on a dying Jew’s lips. Even the Shema must be subjected to the test of “therefore.” To do so, I suggest we read the Shema backward. And read it, not as a declaration, but as a set of questions.
“Write them upon the doorposts of your house….” Read your house! What values are written on the walls of your home? If someone visited your home, what would they learn of you from the art on your walls, the books on your shelves, the notices tacked to your refrigerator?

“Tie them as a sign on your arm and between your eyes.” Read your work! To what purposes and ends do you invest your bodily and mental energies? What do you spend your time and strength doing? What energizes you? What exhausts you? What renews you?

“Speak of them, at home and away, morning and night….” Read your words! What do you talk about? What concerns dominate your conversations and dialogues? With what tone of voice do you address the world? With what voice do you speak to those who share your home, your work, your neighborhood?

“Teach them to your children.” Read your kids! What have you taught your children? What have you taught them about success, about the purpose and meaning of life? What have you shown them matters most to you — the pursuit of prosperity or the practice of compassion? The acquisition of precious things or the sanctification of precious moments?

“These words … take them to heart.” Read your heart! What preoccupies your thoughts? What do you worry about? What do you dream about? What do you hope for?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your might.” The theologian Paul Tillich observed that every person, believer or nonbeliever, has a “god.” Our God, he taught, is the “object of our ultimate concern.” So the Shema asks us: What do you love most in life? What is your god? The answer is no mystery. Just look back at the answers to all the other questions. The values and concerns that decorate your home, drive your work, color your words, shape your children and animate your thoughts, those values constitute your ultimate concerns. So what do you worship? What is your god? What sacrifices does your god demand?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening? Are you paying attention to your own choices? Are you conscious of the patterns of your life?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening to the voice of your soul, your deepest ideals and principles? Can you open your ears to hear a voice calling you to a life lived differently?

For those of deep faith, the Shema is an affirmation and declaration of loyalty to God. For those of us who struggle with the “Therefore” – with the task of bringing faith into life, it is an unrelenting challenge. Shema for us is God’s most powerful question.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

Converts’ Hardships Expose Truth


“My father didn’t survive the Holocaust to have his grandson marry a shiksa.”

Alison, my classmate from the University of Pennsylvania who is currently in the process of converting to Judaism, gasped at the harshness of the words delivered stoically by her boyfriend’s mother.

He succumbed to intense pressure from his parents to end the relationship, while she was subjected to a cascade of accusations:

“Converts are not welcome in my family.” “No Jewish boy will ever want to marry you.” “You are inadequate to raise Jewish children.”

“I felt like someone was putting a knife through my heart,” she told me. “When you’re so passionate about something, and you know you will never be accepted…. I’ll always feel inadequate.”

As I had recently discovered, Alison’s case was not an isolated incident in Penn’s Jewish community. I vividly remember my first Friday night at Penn. It was a huge event organized by Hillel, and swarms of Jewish students were packed in.

Noticing that I was a freshman overwhelmed by the bombardment of new faces, a junior whom I had never met before took my hand and said, “Are you Laura? I’m Julie. I’ve heard so much about you! If you want, I saved you a seat on that table over there.”

We soon became friends and particularly bonded during our weekly swim in Penn’s pool. One day, as we sat chatting casually in the sauna, she confided to me that although she observes the law according to Orthodox traditions, she technically isn’t Jewish yet.

Julie hails from a small, white Christian town, and spurred by her own spiritual quest, she had found Judaism. We had been close for two months by this point, and I was shocked that she had kept this from me. She explained that she has learned to keep her conversion secret from her Jewish acquaintances, because the reactions have been so discouraging and unwelcoming: “The overwhelming sentiment was that converts are not wanted, and they are a burden. And that’s what I was.”

Intrigued and appalled, I tried to probe the issue. A torrent of emotions and stories poured out, reflecting her relief in expressing her feelings to a sympathetic ear.

“I was taunted, like the fat kid in third grade” Julie recalled. “It was always, ‘Well, you’re not Jewish, so you shouldn’t come to davening.’ Students wouldn’t hand me a bentscher, or they would tell me to step out of the line to wash [ritually], because I was just wasting everyone’s time. Just lots of constant, intentional reminders that I was not chosen to be part of this people as they were.”

Julie’s list of painful interactions went on and on, as I sat in numbed silence, hugging my knees to my chest and absorbing the oppressive heat of the room.

“I have been told not to touch the Torah and to go back to my own religion” she relayed to me matter-of-factly.

“Wasn’t there anyone you could confide in?” I asked.

“I could confide in some more than others, but when it came down to it, no one really cared whether I converted or not.”

“So … how did you cope?”

“I cried and wondered what I did wrong to merit not being born Jewish.”

Just then, someone entered the sauna, bringing in a chilling draft and an abrupt end to our conversation.

I was introduced to Alison several weeks after I met Julie. Again, I discovered she wasn’t born Jewish only after knowing her a couple of months. When I finally mustered the courage to approach her about her experiences converting, I found her surprisingly open as well.

“When I went to shul, people asked me why I was there,” she revealed. “People would ask me to press the elevator button for them on Saturday … to be their Shabbos goy. Why didn’t I just abide by the seven Noahide laws, they asked. There’s no reason for you to convert. They called me a shiksa…. That was very hurtful.”

In addition to justifying their change of faith to their families, friends and local communities, Julie and Alison absorb the added hardships inflicted by the intolerance of the Jewish world they seek to enter. As converts, they feel that they undergo constant scrutiny and consequently abide by the strictest interpretations of Jewish laws and customs.

“I feel like I have to prove myself” Alison told me. “Because I wasn’t born Jewish, I have to do more to make up for it.”

She noted the paradox that it is usually the people less comfortable with their religiosity that give her the hardest time; they feel “threatened” by a convert who is more religiously inclined.

My friendship with these girls has exposed me to what it feels like on the outside of the Jewish community, and it disturbs me how callous and cold we can be to those who sincerely find meaning in the Jewish faith.

“I am not going to fight for [my boyfriend] anymore,” she replied. “I don’t want to be a burden on him…. I love Judaism and have sacrificed so much for it. I really wish people could be more accepting.”

Laura Birnbaum is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance journalist.

 

The Ultimate Enigma


Zot chukat haTorah begins this week’s parsha, telling us that the subject of the Red Heifer is the chok of the Torah. A chok is a law that is simply incomprehensible. It makes no sense to us whatsoever.

When I tell you that a person who had become ritually defiled by close contact with a human corpse could purify himself by counting seven days, and on days three and seven have the ashes of a red heifer sprinkled on him, you’ll understand what I mean.

There is logic to honoring one’s parents. There is a rationale for not stealing or murdering. But for purification in a ruddy, bovine shower, why would God ask such a thing of us?

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know. But neither did King Solomon, the wisest of men. It seems that this is part of the definition of a chok, that its raison d’etre remains a mystery.

There are many chukim that defy a logical explanation — keeping kosher, not wearing a garment made of wool and linen and yes, ritual impurity. We can’t ask the question, “Why do we observe them?” The only correct answer is that we observe these mitzvot because God told us to — period.

But because Judaism does not subscribe to blind faith, we must follow up with a second question. Not why, but what. What benefit is there to us by observing this law? How does keeping this commandment make our life richer, infuse our existence with a greater sense of purpose, expand our understanding of the truths of this world?

When we ask “what” regarding the laws governing the Red Heifer, we will understand why this mitzvah is singled out as the paradigmatic chok, the mother of all chukim, if you will. We will also see how intensely relevant an incomprehensible set of laws that haven’t been practiced in thousands of years can be.

Spiritual impurity, tumah, is brought about by different circumstances. For example, one becomes impure, tamay, from close contact with a dead animal. One also becomes tamay if he/she contracts tzaraas, the spiritual equivalent of leprosy. These forms of tumah can be removed simply by immersing in a mikvah, a ritual bath. However, if a person comes in close contact with a human being who has passed away, the level of impurity is much more severe, and the purification process becomes much more involved, requiring mikvah immersion and the Red Heifer concoction.

The difference in the severity of the tumah can be found in the source, or the impetus, of the impurity. Emotionally and psychologically, what does a person experience when they see a dead animal or a body racked by disease? They experience a sense of revulsion and disgust at the decaying organism. They may be sickened and repelled by the diseased tissue overtaking what was once a strong and healthy body. When we chance upon a squirrel that has been run over in the street, we don’t mourn the squirrel. We are grossed out from the blood and the guts, and we just want to get away from it.

Contrast that to the experience of the death of a human being. True, a corpse is not pleasant to behold, but that is not the focus of our emotional/psychological experience. It is so much more. It is the realization that in all of the universe, the deceased was unique. The person had individual talents, a singular purpose no longer to be fulfilled.

Inside every human being lies unlimited potential, and death means that it is lost forever. This most severe form of impurity stems from the recognition that every life has infinite value; that every person truly is an entire world.

The story is told that the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, paid a visit to Anwar Sadat shortly before the Yom Kippur War and advised him not to go to war with Israel. Sadat responded by handing him a copy of the publication, Maariv. The cover had a picture of a young man in uniform who was killed and was being mourned by an entire nation. Sadat said that such a people won’t endure a long war if to them, each dead person is important and precious.

As I write this, myself and fellow Jews all over the world, are praying and beseeching God for the safe return of another young man in uniform, Gilad Shalit. To us, he is not just another soldier. He is a unique and precious individual whose loss, God forbid, would be the paradigm of that which doesn’t make sense. Zot chukat haTorah. That a precious life can just be snuffed out is the most illogical and unintelligible chok of the Torah.

Through the parsha of the Red Heifer, we learn to value not just life, but every life. That is why we don’t lump all victims of terror together, but each one has a picture and a name, because each one represents an unimaginable loss. That is why every Shabbat, we pray for the return of the Israeli MIAs. Not to care about the fate of each and every one of them is incomprehensible to us. Yes Sadat, you were right. Every individual is precious and important to us, and every loss a sickening tragedy.

But you were wrong, too. Appreciating the worth of each individual has not weakened us. It is what has given us the strength to keep going. Death may never make sense to us, but the greatness and grandeur of life does. And as incomprehensible as it may seem to you, we choose life.

We hope and pray that very soon, the rest of the world will, too.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

 

Psalm-Thing to Sing About in New Album


Have you ever thought about what makes a good song? The Virginia-born Miri Hunter Haruach, who lives in Los Angeles, is a folk singer, playwright, student of Judaism and proud purveyor of a doctorate in women’s studies, and she believes that to make a good song, you need a little some of this and a little Psalm of that.

Haruach has always used her art to discuss the strengths and plights of women, but this time, with the release of her second album, “The Ways of Love,” she takes the strong and ethical messages of the Book of Psalms and sets them to music for a new audience to discover.

Haruach sings with a modesty and softness that enhances the simple and good-natured spiritual messages of her songs. That, in itself, is an unusual trait, because audiences have come to expect artists who make spiritual/new age, religious music to have overproduced studio performances.

Haruach doesn’t make herself the main attraction of the album. The verses are intertwined with laid-back melodies and sparse, single-riff drumbeats that add an interesting feeling of emptiness and sorrow to the otherwise uplifting words of wisdom.

In the title track, “Teach Me the Ways of Love,” Haruach chants, “Open your eyes, let your ears hear the cry, unchain your mind from the bondage of shame, deliver your spirit, and set your soul free.”

The nuances of her delivery are accompanied by a rhythmic rap in Hebrew by an Israeli poet, known only as Ofer, who translated the meaning of the song into an interesting lyrical loop.

“The album is actually based on the Book of Psalms. I have been reading the Psalms since I was a child. The ideas and themes stick with you. They cover all of the aspects of life, including joy, sorrow, ecstasy, repentance, confusion, acceptance, marriage and separation,” she says.

The song, “It Would Be Enough,” is the only one based on the Song of Songs, and Haruach was given it to read as a punishment in the 11th grade, she says. In the process, she “fell in love with it.”

Haruach did take the liberty of interpreting the Psalms, not singing them verbatim, but updating them in hopes of reaching more people. Many of the songs are not gender specific, so she could be as inclusive as possible with the audience. None of that sentiment of inclusion is really surprising when you learn that Haruach is not only a converted Jew but also a mix of African American, European and Native American cultures.

“I was born a Southern Baptist, and I was really into going to church, because I liked to participate in the music aspect of the religious experience,” she says. “Then I had 12 years of Catholic school and moved around a lot, writing plays, getting degrees and teaching Israeli folk dancing at Berkeley Hillel.”

In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that Haruach became interested in Judaism, a move provoked by reading a book on kabbalah.

“I was drawn to Judaism because I felt that it was a religion of life rather than death,” she says. “Through the music, dance and teachings of the Mizrachi Jews, I found a roadmap for living in this world.”

And although Haruach refers to herself as a convert, she has not yet taken the big plunge of being bat mitzvahed.

“But that’s coming eventually,” she notes. “I did a Conservative conversion, although now I consider myself a Reconstructionist. I am considering cantorial studies, too.”

In addition to her interest in music — psalms or otherwise — Haruach has also devoted much of her life to writing plays. The strong and determined women in her performances range from her own slave ancestors to the mysteries surrounding the enigmatic figure of the Queen of Sheba. “As much as we’re engaged in the media, we don’t see a lot of strong women. It’s important for us as women to portray ourselves as strong so that the strife of our ancestors won’t have been in vain.”

It would be an interesting twist, if someday Haruach’s descendants were writing plays about her.

Miri Hunter Haruach will perform on July 19 at 8 p.m. at the Derby, 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Silverlake. Tickets are $10. For information call (323) 663-8979.

 

First Person – God Laughs?


This column first ran on July 26, 2002, and is one of a series that the beloved former managing editor of The Journal wrote about her life and her battle with cancer. She died on Sept. 5, 2002. She was 54.

My girlfriend “E” was the first to declare what others had been observing for a while.

“God sure is having a good laugh,” she said. “You write a column called ‘A Woman’s Voice.’ And yet you have no voice.”

The irony had crossed my mind.

Lance Armstrong, the bicyclist, had testicular cancer. Beverly Sills, the opera singer, has two daughters who are deaf. Is there “meaning” in the fact that I, who have for some years traveled the country public speaking, and whose professional identity is hung up on the moniker of this column, cannot be heard?

I haven’t had a speaking voice in more than a month. I whisper, a frog croaking through the bulrushes.

My right vocal cord is paralyzed. While speaking, which I assure you doesn’t hurt, I puff like I’m running a marathon. I take an hour to eat scrambled eggs.

Still, if you ask me, God has nothing to do with it.

The loss of a voice carries a surprising spiritual threat: friends act as if some crucial part of me were gone. Inside my head, I still yammer away, brilliant on the topics of WorldCom, ImClone and Israel. But when I open my mouth, I become like Hannah before the Tabernacle. My every chortle and grimace is subject to misinterpretation.

The phone rings. The caller is disoriented: Who am I? I rush to reassure them: I’m OK. I feel fine. When I had chemotherapy, I continued to sound like myself. I would call my parents in New York right after treatment ended. Sitting tall, I was convincingly strong and congruent.

These days, without a voice, identity is not so much gone as taken on faith. I have faith that the situation is only temporary. My community has faith that I’ll be restored to myself, New York accent and all.

We are known by how we sound. Sound — our laugh, our cry, the song we hum — is the beginning of identity.

We know that God stands watch at night by the natural and unnatural sounds of the universe: the roar of the wind, the bray of the ass, the bark of a dog, the sound of a baby’s cry.

I listen for God’s comfort at night, and offer the silence of praise.

But is God laughing?

Judaism has struggled since the Holocaust to remove God from the nation’s “Most Wanted” list — the “intervening punisher God” with a wicked sense of humor.

As for you and me, the good people that bad things happen to, we’re our own worst enemy: We keep asking “Why?” as if there’s an answer. We remain committed to a God who can’t wait to pull the tablecloth out from under us.

We seek out “God the sadistic entertainer” when all other explanations fail. Lacking all other reasons, we fall back to a punitive concept, that we deserve punishment; that perhaps God never liked us to begin with.

But illness has shown me another God, one of comfort. The “loathsome trickster God” offers nothing, not even to say, “I don’t know.”

There is no reason why this has happened. Life is inherently unpredictable. Diseases, like lung cancer, have more ups and downs than a soap opera. Like “Anna Karenina” you laugh or cry, and sometimes both.

It’s funny, at least to me, that since losing my voice, I can’t interrupt anyone, not even to tell a joke. I have learned to listen to news reports rather than comment on the haircut of the newscaster. Now that I listen to conversation, I’m no longer the smartest person in any room, so far as you could tell.

The condition won’t last forever. Soon, I’ll have a silicon implant that has nothing to do with breast enhancement. I’m told it will smooth out my vocal cord and will restore my voice to normal. I’m saving my best repartee until then.

“Man plans and God laughs,” is what we say in difficult times, as if God were Henny Youngman.

If so, God can find me right here.

 

Jesus’ Man Has a Plan


Are there any Jewish Rick Warrens?

That’s not a fair question.

There are few people of any faith like Warren.

As I sat listening to him speak at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live Shabbat services last week, I thought of the only other person I’d met with Warren’s eloquence, charisma, and passion — but Bill Clinton carries a certain amount of baggage that Warren doesn’t.

Warren spoke at Sinai as part of the Synagogue 3000 program, which aims to revitalize Jewish worship.




Rick Warren’s speech at Sinai Temple. Audio added 8/14/2008


The program’s leader, Rabbi Ron Wolfson, met Warren a decade ago and was influenced by the pastor’s first book, “The Purpose-Driven Church” (Zondervan, 1995). And to demonstrate what such a church looked like in action, Wolfson brought two busloads of synagogue leaders to Warren’s Saddleback Church in South Orange County to experience firsthand the pastor’s success. The church has 87,000 members. Its Sunday service draws 22,000 worshippers to a 145-acre campus in the midst of affluent, unaffiliated exurbia. Clearly, Warren has reached the kind of demographic synagogues had all but given up on.

There are two aspects to Warren’s success, and both were on display Friday night. First, he is an organizational genius. His mentor was management guru Peter Drucker.

“I spoke with him constantly,” Warren said, right up until Drucker died last year at age 95.

It is Drucker’s theory of “management by objectives” that Warren replicates in every endeavor — translating long-term objectives into more immediate goals. Here let’s pause to consider that Jews are learning to reorganize thier faith from a Christian who was mentored by a Jew.

In his church, Warren serves as pastor to five subordinate pastors, who in turn serve 300 full-time staff, who administer to 9,000 lay volunteers, who pastor 82,000 members spread out among 83 Southern California cities.

“It’s the individual cells that make the body,” he told the Sinai crowd. All his church’s endeavors — from working to cure diseases in African villages to reinventing houses of worship — work according to a model that parcels larger goals into smaller ones, empowering believers to take action along the way.

The other secret to his success is his passion for God and Jesus. Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring. But make no mistake, the driving purpose of an evangelical church is to evangelize, and it is Warren’s devotion to spreading the words of the Christian Bible that drive his ministry.

Good for him and his flock — and not so bad for us either. His teachings apply to 95 percent of all people, regardless of religious belief. As he put it to a group of rabbis at a conference last year — using a metaphor that might be described as a Paulian slip: “Eat the fish and throw away the bones.”

Warren told Wolfson his interest is in helping all houses of worship, not in converting Jews. He said there are more than enough Christian souls to deal with for starters.

The success of Warren’s second book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” (Zondervan, 2002), demonstrates his ability to turn a particular gospel into a universal one. As Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told the capacity audience of some 1,500, “The Purpose-Driven Life”turned the self-help model on its head by asserting that the answer to personal fulfillment does not reside with the self.

“Looking within yourself for your purpose doesn’t work,” the book begins. “If it did, we’d know it by now. As with any complex invention, to figure out your purpose, you need to talk to the inventor and read the owner’s manual — in this case, God and the Bible.” “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold 25 million copies in 57 languages.

As Warren pointed out — with an odd ability to be humble and matter of fact about it — it is reportedly the biggest-selling nonfiction book in American history. It brought him fame and fortune. Warren spent much of his sermon describing how he dealt with his new-found money and influence, turning his personal solutions into lessons on confronting the spiritual emptiness and materialism that all comfortable Americans face.

The pastor said he practices an inverse tithe — giving away 90 percent and keeping 10 percent of his income. He takes no salary from the church and returned the 20 years of income he received from it.

I haven’t checked his portfolio to verify this, but the message is an impressive and important one.

“We do not go into this line of work to get rich,” he said. “If you give it to God, he will bring you to life.”

Similarly, Warren has leveraged his fame to bring attention to AIDS in Africa and other global problems. He said he’d just come from a photo shoot at Sony Studios with Brad Pitt and was about to meet overseas with the leaders of 11 countries in 37 days. While he was at Sinai Temple, his wife, Kay, was at the White House.

“The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have none,” he said.

Warren wore a kippah made by the Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda and gifted to him by the country’s president. Before his sermon, he sang enthusiastically with musician Craig Taubman, who performed along with Saddleback Church music director Richard Muchow.

“This is my kind of service!” he said when he took the stage to deliver his remarks.

Afterward, as one Friday Night Live contingent repaired to a ballroom to carry on the hard work of scoping out other singles, another filled Barad Hall to get more time with Warren in a Q-and-A.

Along the way, he described in detail how he organized a national Purpose Driven Church campaign to get some 30,000 houses of worship across the world to define and implement their mission. He also punctuated his anecdotes with simple statements about God’s role in our lives: “God created you to love you,” he said, “and to love him back.”

I have no doubt the people who turned to Warren to help them reinvent synagogues for the 21st century can and will learn a lot from the man’s organizational skills. But the deeper message he conveys, his unstintingly devoted and enthusiastic faith — how in the world can we Jews learn that?

Scheduled Relaxation


Last Sunday afternoon I was standing in my shower scrubbing my tile. It suddenly occurred to me — in the midst of Ajax and scouring pads — that the man who was ruling my fantasies was on a plane coming back from a sure-it’s-professional junket in Las Vegas.

Something was wrong with this picture. I dropped my sponge and ran to call my girlfriend: “Hey. You gotta help me. All of this straight-and-narrow is getting to me. I need to have some fun.”

We met at a local restaurant reminiscent of the hip, urban San Francisco eateries of our 20s, had a drink, stayed late, and laughed as the waiter batted his lashes.

“Listen,” I told her over martinis. “I think I’ve forgotten how to play.”

She looked at me with the knowing eyes of a friend and said, “Me too. I feel like all I do is work on myself. Where’s the friggin’ fun part?”

What occurred to me as I started thinking about it is that I used to rely on my relationship life to have fun. I’d fly to New York, run around the city, eat passionately with my boyfriend for 10 days and come home. I’d rush home from work, throw all my clothes on the floor, don a slinky dress and feverishly drive to the beach for a drink date. I’d hike up Runyan Canyon in the middle of a storm with my dating man, laugh uproariously and kiss in the rain. It was flash and dash, delight and joy — and sometimes even love. What is was was fun.

I relied on my relationship life for downtime, too. It was the time I hung out in bed, took the slow walk around my neighborhood, had the morning-after breakfast made sloppily and slowly between intimacies.

But lately all of that has been different. I stopped dating for a while altogether (no need to go into the now-mercifully distant reason why), and in the wake of a more careful re-entry into dating life, I’ve become a project girl. Creative things that I’ve been longing to express my whole adult life I’ve taken on like a conquest. I write, I paint, I sing, I cook and I songwrite. It’s rich and it’s full and it’s fulfilling.

But what it also is is busy. And beyond my projects and an involved social life, there seems to be no genuine relaxation time. There are no goof-off, just-for-fun days where there’s nothing to do but play. I’m not sure I even remember what play-time looks like anymore.

Yet — to be totally honest — when I think back on some of those play-time, nostalgia-inducing boyfriend experiences, I have to admit that as sweet and easy as those encounters could be, they were just as often peppered by the nervous tension of “being together” when we weren’t all the way there, or by the dodging and ducking of using our intimate connection to mask other, bigger incompatibilities. That wasn’t relaxing.

As the years have gone by, I realize I’d just as soon be alone than continue to go through cycles of head-spinning effort with someone in exchange for a couple of moments of grace. So I don’t do that anymore. And though this kind of spiritual honesty has created an ease in my nervous system (and a welcome death to that horrible intimate uncertainty of giving myself where it’s not appreciated), I have to stop and wonder, have I become overworked and underplayed?

I don’t want to say that getting rid of the -isms has gotten rid of the fun part. That’s not it. But there’s something here about playing and free-falling joy that I’m missing. Something in the enjoyment of what is already here, versus the pregnant push of needing to create it. To observe, appreciate, enjoy, relax, and receive. That’s what I’m missing. And now that I’m officially dating, it seems kind of imperative to bring this ethic back onto the playing field.

I was on my cell with my wise girlfriend yesterday — the one who gives me that uncannily timed girl-advice that saves me from giving in to my idiotic post-second-date fears — and three times in row she cut out at a pivotal word.

“What?” I intoned. “On my cell. You cut out.”

She laughed outloud: “Receive, sweetheart. It kills me that you missed that. Relax and receive!”

Oh, that.

If I’ve forgotten how to have downtime, if I’ve joined the ranks of the over-diligent in my efforts to not fall into wary paths of love, then it’s time to loosen the reigns a bit. Underplaying means I have to let go of my project-queen, art-making cottage-industry, and just be done for a while.

So, with the grace of personal discovery, I’ll be amending that busy behavior, whether I’m accompanied or not. It’s time to enjoy whoever I’m seeing, and have fun on my own. It’s time to let go, go slow, play, hang out and take some time to do absolutely nothing.

Even if it means I have to schedule it.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and has recently been at work on Fox’s telenovellas “Table for Three” and “Fashion House.” Her newly completed folk-pop CD “I Burn” is online at

God Is Gray


“This is heaven,” I announced Sunday afternoon.

Cruising the city (the absence of traffic in itself celestial), sunroof open, exposed shoulders browning. Wild poppies glistening, swaying in a soft breeze scented by orange blossoms; singing along to KOST 103.5 FM:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone,

I can see all obstacles in my way.

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.

It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiney day.

“Heaven,” I said. “Yep,” everyone agreed, celebrating under flawless sapphire sky — free from even the teeniest speck of a cloud — “this is paradise.”

Heaven, paradise — choose a synonym: ecstasy, bliss, rapture. We use such words to describe experiences of perfect, supreme happiness, God on earth. The conditions on Sunday merited all such descriptions, especially that immaculately blue sky. Skies like that burn gloom away.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Gray days certainly have a subtle beauty. But no one calls Seattle paradise, and if Fritz Coleman reported that a cloud was going to remain interminably over Los Angeles, a mass exodus to South Beach would certainly ensue.

I’d probably go, too. I mean, who wants to live under a cloud forever?

How dull. How boring.

Those are the synonyms for “cloudy,” along with: hazy, murky, gray, obscure — not the ideal forecast, to say the least.

What would inspire my sermons in such weather? How would I instill faith in God if I were denied its experience? Because the experience of the Divine is an ecstatic one, right? It is the feeling of rapture, bright, glorious bliss, isn’t it? I mean, no one prays in hopes of reaching an enhanced state of hazy obscurity.

And yet, this week’s parsha tells us that from the day the Israelites erected the tabernacle (the place of Divine presence made manifest on earth) a cloud covered it. Seems they weren’t singing much about sunshiny days, for, “so it was always: The cloud covered [the tabernacle] by day and the appearance of fire by night” (Numbers 9:16).

No need for sunglasses or flashlights near God’s house. More like a mobile home than an estate, the cloud was the original built-in navigation system: When it moved, the people picked up the tabernacle and followed it, “and in the place where the cloud abode, there [they] encamped.”

Meaning, the closer we get to the experience of God on earth, the more overcast it is, and if it starts to clear up, we should move away from the brightness and follow the clouds. Always.

And so I must ask: Are you kidding? What, so heaven is hazy? God is gray?

Maybe. At least, the ultimate experience of God is gray. As in not black nor white, not agony nor ecstasy, not seasonal affective disorder nor carcinoma from sun overexposure; it is the subtle obscurity at the nexus of all those extremes.

According to the portion, God’s presence is made manifest in the middle. We call that dull, murky or boring — or, we can call it balance. See, the ultimate Los Angeles Sunday might be our human definition of heaven, but it is one that is inherently dependent on a day of equivalently dismal, mud-sliding gloom.

Here on earth, that’s how we see things: in terms of their polarities. The big Chief set that up in Genesis: light opposed darkness, day defined night, man contrasted woman. God created all the highs and lows in precise opposition to one another as the essence of our human experience — to be tempered with our spiritual experience. But we lost our way and got stuck in the duality, where our delusional aspirations for perfection and delight led to swings toward equal and opposite desperation. Lost in the realm of heroes and villains, beauty and ugliness, we still think that bad feelings will disappear when bright, sunny days come back around.

From this human perspective, it makes sense that we would equate a Divine day with dazzling, untainted perfection. But God is beyond our mundane experience. He is the source of it. She is the containment of it all. And in recognizing that God is One, we head for the clouds — we welcome the haze.

A cloud sheltered the Divine’s residence among the Israelites every day, and fire illuminated it by night; it is never fully dark nor light in the presence of what is most holy. Always a bit obscured, for how could we possibly apprehend everything or nothing?

God is gray. God is the opaque place in between all of our yearnings for some ultimate and definitive extreme. And while I am still “in heaven” that summer has finally descended upon La La Land, I am well aware that it is only as glorious as it is because it contrasts the nasty cold I kvetched about all winter.

Sunday was a temporary ecstasy for which I will pay with my grief in the fall. But if I can remember to set my sights on the clouds, as few or many as they may be, I will be sheltered by their subtle and eternal protection, predictably guided back to my own center. It may not be rapture, but it will certainly be peace. Wholeness. Shalom. That is paradise. A cloudy day.

Karen Deitsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

 

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.

 

Dr. Freud at 150


“Why,” Sigmund Freud once asked rhetorically, “did it [psychoanalysis] have to wait for an absolutely irreligious Jew?”

Why indeed?

Freud was born in Freiberg, in the Austrian empire, on May 6, 1856, 150 years ago this weekend. Three years after his birth, his family moved to Vienna. There, the reaction of Freud’s personality to the mix of cultural, political and scientific forces was such that — we may state in hindsight — psychoanalysis could not have been created by anyone else in any other time or place.

Already for 1,000 years, in the Islamic and Christian worlds, medicine had been a Jewish profession par excellence. In late 19th century Vienna, as well, a vastly disproportionate number of doctors were Jews, and they were contributing mightily to the explosive development of modern medical science.

But the Austrian political climate was souring. A few decades of liberalism (in the European sense of individual freedom) were followed by a reactionary wave of Austro-Germanic nationalism and anti-Jewish politicking.

In the new age of medical specializations, the prejudiced academic powers that be were channeling Jewish medical students away from the prestigious mainstream fields, like internal medicine and surgery, into marginalized specialities: dermatology, ophthalmology — and psychiatry.

Yet if some Jewish doctors were being pushed into psychiatry, many others were voluntarily drawn to it. For the Jews of late 19th century Vienna were facing mental pressures different from any in past Jewish history.

For centuries, Diaspora Jewish physicians and philosophers, such as Maimonides, had written on the means of attaining spiritual well-being, often in a sea of hostile humanity. Their compass was the age-old Jewish religious and cultural values.

Now, however, Jews were being set adrift in an era of modernity that they themselves were doing so much to create. Nowhere more so than in Vienna, as the 20th century approached — where Josef Popper-Lynkeus and Ludwig Wittgenstein were developing their radical philosophies of science and technology, and Arnold Schoenberg would soon experiment with daringly atonal music.

Little wonder that the pioneering psychiatrist-anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, author of “Man of Genius,” attributed the apparently high rates of insanity among his fellow Jews to “intellectual overactivity.”

Such was the atmosphere in which Freud found himself. No longer a Jew in the religious sense but of the rationalist tradition of Judaism (“free from many prejudices which restrict others in the use of their intellect,” as he put it), Freud first made important, if unrevolutionary, contributions to our understanding of aphasia (major speech impairment due to physical trauma or stroke).

By the 1890s, however, Freud became intrigued by more cryptic language disturbances as signs of neurotic conflicts caused by hypothesized unconscious forces: slips of the tongue in wakefulness, and the largely imagistic and apparently nonsensical — but in fact symbol-laden — “language” of dreams at night.

Freud famously called dreams “the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious.” And his own dreams and their analysis revealed to him a whirl of conflicts around his Jewish identity.

Thus to cite just one of many examples, Freud dreamt that he sat almost in tears beside a fountain at the Porta Romana in Italy. The children had to be moved to safety, and a boy who was but wasn’t Freud’s son said to him in farewell the nonsensical “auf ungeseres,” instead of the usual “auf wiedersehen.”

Among a labyrinth of free-associations the next morning, Freud recalled his actual viewing of the Porta Romana (the gateway to Rome and, by implication, the Roman Catholic Church) during a recent visit to Siena, where the Jewish director of a mental hospital had been forced to resign. Returning to Vienna, Freud had attended a play on the Jewish question called, “The New Ghetto.”

Freud linked the dream fountain to the refrain, “By the waters of Babylon … yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” The seemingly nonsensical farewell, “auf ungeseres,” derived from the German word for unleavened bread and a Hebrew word for imposed suffering. Clearly, the life as a Jew in fin-de-si?cle Vienna was one of exile, with professional barriers and social burdens imposed on him and his children.

Such encumbrances could be relieved in a day with a splash of baptismal water and assimilation into Austria’s Roman Catholic majority. But Freud would have none of that.

“I considered myself German intellectually, until I noticed the growth of anti-Semitism. Since that time, I prefer to call myself a Jew,” he defiantly declared. “A Jew ought not to get himself baptized — it is essentially dishonest.”

If Freud’s view of dreams had been limited to analyzing them for various personal and cultural conflicts — some of which are lurking below the level of consciousness — it would have been a significant but unrevolutionary contribution to psychology.

But to repeat Lombroso’s term, the “intellectual overactivity” characteristic of so many modern Jews was part and parcel of Freud’s genius. Thus he went on to develop his psychoanalytic model with its Oedipus and Electra sexual complexes, supposedly laid down in early childhood, and continuing to dominate the unconscious id of the adult mind.

The libido, Freud theorized, ultimately supplies the driving force behind all dreams. A task of civilization was to channel such forces to higher goals. This, too, was part of the millennia of Jewish tradition.

“In his inner being, the Jew, the true Jew, feels only one eternal guide, one lawgiver, one law,” Freud proudly declared. “That is morality.”

Such radical theories faced a long uphill battle against the conservative medical establishment. But, as Freud told his B’nai B’rith lodge brothers, “As a Jew, I was prepared to join the opposition and to do without agreement with the ‘compact majority.'”

The psychoanalytic theory ultimately did gain much acceptance. It was Freud’s international reputation that allowed him to flee Vienna after the genocidal Nazis took control of Austria in 1938.

When Freud died in London two years later, he was more of an exile than even he would ever have dreamt when first developing his model of the mind. But disciples of his were in the Land of Zion — pursuing a Jewish dream that would become reality.

Dr. Frank Heynick’s most recent book is “Jews and Medicine: An Epic Saga” (KTAV, 2002), in which Sigmund Freud plays a prominent role.

 

Throw a Party With a Purpose


“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

Links related to this article:

Giving Works
” target=”_blank”>www.nikereuseashoe.com

Twisted Limb Paperworks
” target=”_blank”>www.worldcentric.org/store/cutlery.htm

1-800-Dreidel

Good and Late


Some things never change. We all know the storyline. Moses was expected back after 40 days in heaven where he was receiving the

Torah. But he was late coming back on the 40th day: “And the people saw that Moses tarried [boshesh], in coming down from the mountain” (Exodus 32:1).

The 19th century German biblical commentator, the HaKetav V’Hakablah, notes that the word the Torah used to describe Moshe’s tardiness is most telling. There are two words in Hebrew for being late. One is ichur, while the second is boshesh. The difference between these two is fundamental — ichur always represents a voluntary delay, while boshesh refers to a delay beyond one’s control.

The Jewish people thought that Moses was boshesh and wasn’t coming back. In truth, however, they did not view the situation correctly. Some outside force did not delay Moses; rather, he was late because he wanted to be late. He was so enthralled with the spiritual experience that he wanted to stay longer in heaven. He could not get enough time with God.

So many people think that the spiritual experience cannot be an enjoyable one. They see with a vision that is blurred and foggy. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s immediate past chief rabbi, once recounted the mass immigration of Soviet Jewry that was occurring when he was chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.

While a miracle and a dream come true, the arrival of Soviet Jewry also entailed great problems because there were non-Jews among the new immigrants. Therefore it became crucial to investigate each case in order to ascertain the true identity of each oleh (immigrant).

The rabbinate in Tel Aviv was overwhelmed with this problem, and spent numerous hours meeting with olim. In each case they would ask the oleh to bring an Israeli Jew, who could testify about their Jewish status. On one occasion, as Rabbi Lau sat on the beit din in Tel Aviv, a young Russian man appeared. He had just arrived a few days before from Odessa and he knew only one person in Israel, a Russian who had made aliyah years before, whom he brought with him as a witness.

The beit din listened to the case and cross-examined the witness to ensure he was providing factual information about the oleh. The rabbis asked the witness to prove how he knew that this young man’s mother was Jewish.

The witness related the following story: “I know without a doubt that she is Jewish. In Russia, the most precious of possessions are cigarettes. If you have cigarettes they are worth more than money. You can barter with cigarettes more than with any currency. Every night, before going to sleep, this man’s mother, who is a chain smoker, would take one of her precious cigarettes and put it in a box next to her bed. She would do this every night without fail. A week before Pesach, this lady would take the box, now filled with 365 cigarettes, to the wheat farmer and barter her precious cigarettes for a sack of wheat, which she would then use to bake matzot. Rabbis, tell me, do you need better proof that this man’s mother is Jewish?”

The rabbis sat stunned. They asked the Russian young man whether his mother was still alive and whether or not she had made aliyah with him. The Russian responded that she was alive but stayed in Odessa, too old to move. The rabbis asked if they could call and speak to her. The Russian gave them a phone number where she could be reached.

Speaking in Yiddish, the only language with which they could possibly understand each other, Rabbi Lau spoke with the mother. He wished her “mazal tov” on her son’s acceptance as a new Jewish citizen in Israel. He then told her that she was more pious than the rabbis in Tel Aviv. She couldn’t believe her ears and asked why he made such an outrageous comment. Rabbi Lau answered, “We only keep Pesach for seven days, but you keep it for 365 days every year.”

How do we see our spiritual life? Is it boshesh, beyond our control, or is it like the Russian woman, who daily prepared for her freedom?

Rabbi Elazar Muskin is spiritual leader of Young Israel of Century City.

 

Remember Sinai?


Immediately following the Ten Commandments, we read a series of instructions that seem a little out of place: You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make yourselves gods of gold. You need make for me only an earthen altar and bring your sacrifices there, and I shall come and bless you wherever my name is mentioned. If you build an altar of stone do not build it of hewn stones because you have desecrated them with your sword, and do not ascend my altar by steps lest your nakedness will be exposed upon it” (Exodus 20:23-26).

Before we delve into these verses let us eavesdrop on a tent in the Israelites’ encampment:

“Let me tell you son, what happened to me when I was about your age, shortly after leaving Egypt. It was the greatest moment of my life. I was standing with all the other Israelites, gathered around a mountain in the Sinai Desert when all of a sudden I felt that my soul is connected to the soul of every single person around me and to a higher, much more powerful source of spiritual energy. The whole world became quiet then and I heard the voice of God talking to me. Imagine, I, who was but a worthless slave yesterday, was now hearing the voice of God. I was overwhelmed, my legs were trembling and my whole body was weakened, I had a tremendous sense of fear but it was one of reverence and awe, not of terror, and it was accompanied with a great sense of joy. I felt that I didn’t want to let go, I wanted to drink that energy in and let it flood my whole being. Yes, sir! That was definitely the experience of a lifetime.”

“But grandpa, what did God tell you?”

“Honest to God, kid, I don’t remember.”

As strange as this conversation might sound, I have heard in many cases similar statements from people who have attended classes and lectures they thoroughly enjoyed but could not recall a word of what was said. As a matter of fact, God himself was concerned about the possibility of selective amnesia following the Mount Sinai experience, as we can learn from God’s words to Moses shortly after the event: “May [the Israelites] always be of such mind to revere me” (in the recap of the story in Deuteronomy 5:26).

The most sublime spiritual experience and the greatest motivational speech are rendered worthless if the listeners don’t come out with a practical application, something that they can take home and practice on a regular basis to enhance their own spiritual growth. One possible solution is to create a guide that will recapture the most important points of the lecture and will offer a program to be followed in order to maintain the initial spark and enthusiasm, and in the verses and chapters that follow the Ten Commandments, God does just that.

The following chapter in the Torah deals with financial laws, laws of damages, loans and properties. The message is that in order to keep the flame of Sinai alive, one should not indulge in nostalgia and live in the past but rather translate the spiritual experience to daily actions, actions that are carried out throughout our regular work day. Our personality is crafted and our spirituality is enhanced not only by offering prayers and attending services but by paying attention to the small details of our mundane life. How we deal with our employers, employees and clients, how ethically and honestly we run our business and practice and to what extent are we willing to take responsibility if we caused damage to anyone or infringed upon their rights. The Torah leads us up the road of spiritual growth and we can see that it is paved with myriad small acts of mutual consideration and constant self-education.

If we now analyze the verses that immediately succeed the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:19-23) we may read them as follows: You shall not bow down to gold and silver, rather conduct your business and financial life ethically. Wherever I mention my name I will come to you and bless you, because you can bring holiness everywhere you go and with everything you do. The reverence of God and the Torah-directed life are not limited to the precincts of a temple, a tabernacle or a synagogue. An altar cannot be built of hewn stones, desecrated by the sword, an instrument of war, because if holiness is everywhere there is no place for religious fanaticism and for spreading God’s word by means of war and bloodshed. Finally, the Torah warns not to ascend the altar by steps, an allusion to people who use religion’s power as a means to aggrandize themselves and control others. The Torah places the authority and responsibility of leading a balanced religious life in the hands of every individual, and while in a sense it decentralizes religion, it empowers us to create a better world.

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

 

Q & A With Rabbi Ed Feinstein


After more than 20 years at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein recently was named senior rabbi at the Encino synagogue, succeeding Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Recently, Rabbi Feinstein, 51, began teaching an adult education course called “Knowing God: The History of the Jewish Spiritual Journey.” The Jewish Journal spoke with him about his vision for the synagogue and the problems facing the Jewish community.

The Jewish Journal: So why did you decide to teach about God? Did you think people don’t know the basics?

Rabbi Ed Feinstein: Sometimes a teacher can help you discover what you already know. The Jews in my community have a lot of latent knowledge of our tradition, but it’s not conscious so they can’t share it with their kids. One of the complaints among the young people I went to school with is that we never talked about God. So I decided, let’s talk about God un-self-consciously. How do Jews think about God? It’s a historical view of theology. God talk is unfamiliar to those who teach our kids. The whole culture is awash in spirituality except for us.

JJ: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

REF: My father’s a closet philosopher, and he would hold big Jewish discussions around the table on Friday night; Jewish ideas were always part of the conversation. There was serious discussion at my table: whether a Jew can resist the draft, or whether we owed it to the country to serve. (It turned out I didn’t have to.) We talked about Israel. We talked about Jewish life in America, whether the synagogues were worth saving.

I felt the synagogue was cold. I went to my rabbi, and I said, “I can’t relate to the shul anymore.” He gave me Heschel and I started reading how religion “became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” It was my luck to find in my adolescent rebellion sources within the tradition to respond to my problems in the tradition; to find these guys who were willing to show me how to find an outlet for my own ’60s rebellion within the Jewish tradition.

JJ: What were you rebelling against?

REF: The government betrayed us by sending us to Vietnam; our parents betrayed us by giving us materialistic values; and Judaism betrayed us by becoming boring. But I could be a rebel in the Jewish community. Now I am a ’60s radical … I make a great radical, get the respect of the community and still say all the things I wanted to say when we were kids.

When Rabbi Schulweis came to [VBS] my father ended dinner early, and we started coming here. Rabbi Schulweis gave me a way to be religious without having to compromise the intellectuality that I grew up with.

JJ: You gave a sermon on Yom Kippur outlining your vision for the synagogue. Can you sum it up?

America gives us many gifts: freedom, security, hope. But there’re two huge holes in American culture. One, it’s very individualistic, and therefore lonely. And two, American culture doesn’t provide a sense of the purpose for living. And these happen to be the two things that Judaism does best. It connects us with each other into community. And it reminds us that we live for each other and with each other and provides a sense of purposeful living.

JJ: What is the most serious problem facing the Jewish community?

REF: The most important problem that I deal with is how to get people to take belonging seriously, and not think of themselves as consumers of the community, but to truly think of themselves as members, that the community belongs to them and they belong to each other and they belong to the community.

That’s the problem that all non-Orthodox synagogues have, because non-Orthodox people have an identity called the sovereign self. American individualism is reticent to join, to belong, to feel committed to something, to feel claim to something. The capacity of community is to make them feel like they really belong, and they’re not here just to consume the services of the synagogue when they need it, and [to leave] when their needs are fulfilled — it’s not Wal-Mart. That’s the problem that all of us deal with.

JJ: How do you deal with it?

REF: I deal with it in a couple of ways. I try to build personal relationships with lots of people and make myself accessible. I try to emphasize that the synagogue is not just for kids. We’re also here to create a vibrant Jewish culture. We welcome people of all kinds of backgrounds. We don’t assume that anyone knows anything when we start. We try to have lots of gateways for people to come in, lots of ways to get involved. We have people going to Habitat for Humanity to build houses. They don’t go to shul — that’s their Judaism. There are lots of gateways for lots of spiritual types: All trying to connect with each other and connect with the shul.

JJ: How do you try to attract the unaffiliated?

REF: You try to create a culture of adult Judaism that is compelling and you try to invite people to join. In the end, the thing that works best is nursery school. When people have kids, they begin thinking differently about their lives. We keep the doors open to singles, but people of that ilk tend not to join — their lives are very fluid and flexible, because they should be.

 

A Torah Trek to Find a ‘God Moment’


It’s a Sunday afternoon in midwinter Los Angeles, the sun is sparkling, the temperature is perfect, I’m in one of the most beautiful settings anyone can imagine, and I’m supposed to be talking to God. I’m sitting alone in a lush, grassy field near a rustling brook, mountains surround me, birds are chirping, the smells of nature are excellent and all I can think of is whether I should eat that last bit of leftover lunch that I still have in my backpack.

It is an especially untimely moment to be pondering such a mundane question, because on this day, I’ve joined 14 adults on a daylong excursion in Malibu Creek State Park led by Rabbi Mike Comins, who runs Torah Trek, Spiritual Wilderness Adventures. Whether it’s a one-day exercise for first-timers — like ours is — or a multiday meditative adventure, the idea is to spend time studying Torah, reading, thinking, meditating and seeking a “God experience,” as Comins calls it. We are now at the ultimate moment of the day, the portion called “hitbodedut,” which translates from the Hebrew as “to be alone.”

So I’m on my own, tackling the task of connecting to God, and I’m doing just about anything but. The act of meditation, never my strength, seems particularly contrived for me on this day. Add God to the mix, and my sense of failure multiplies.

A soft wind blows across my face, ruffling my hair ever so slightly. Is that God? A blue jay flits, determined in its search for some unknowable purpose. Is that? I watch as a small biplane flies overhead, and I’m sure that its passengers are feeling more awe than I am, but are they having a close-to-God experience? Up in the sky, do we feel more spiritual? Is it easier to feel God’s presence when we’re above everyone else?

OK, I’ve got about another 20 minutes of solitude to go. So far, I must be completely off track.

I live in the heart of urban Los Angeles in a house that looks out on urban sprawl, with a view, too, of the much-utilized Griffith Park. There is no silence in the city, but I’ve grown used to that. There are trees and a little grass, but not much in my neighborhood. I appreciate the beauty of our Southern California climate, but I rarely feel the transcendence of nature in my daily life. In honor of Tu b’Shevat, in hopes of connecting to a greater sense of our natural world, I’ve come on this hike.

Comins believes that Jewish practice has lost its connection to our ancestors’ roots, which lie, as we all know, in the Torah but also in the connection of the Torah itself to nature, even to the wilderness. Yet, for most of us, as Comins explains at the start of the day, the essential experience of Judaism has become a series of stories and edicts, rather than an experience or a communing. So, through trial and error, and in concert with a small community of fellow spiritual naturalists, he’s attempting to connect the dots.

“If you ask people where they are likely to find a ‘God moment,’ they say in nature,” Comins says in his introduction to the day, which began at 9:30 a.m. with the group of us sitting on dewy grass at the entry to the wilderness park. “If we have this arena where the issue of God is not contrived, and, at the same time, our greatest challenge in Jewish education is finding God, then one plus one is two.”

Comins, 49, grew up in Studio City; he had a classic suburban childhood interspersed with regular family camping trips to Yosemite. When he decided to make aliyah and moved to Israel, he says, he initially considered his backpacking career a thing of the past. He studied to become a Reform rabbi in Israel, and as he sat in front of a library computer screen for days on end, working on his thesis, he says, “I felt less and less God in my life.”

” target=”_blank”>www.torahtrek.com.

 

Letters


Jack Abramoff

David Klinghoffer’s entreaty and Jack Abramoff’s wounded feelings ring hollow for the same reason: each expects that the fact that Abramoff used purloined funds to better the Jewish community should somehow mitigate the harm that Abramoff has caused (“Sympathy for the Devil?” Jan. 27).

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. One cannot give tzedakah with stolen funds. The very word “tzedakah” has as it’s root the word “tzedek,” which, of course, means “justice.”

There is no justice in stealing from one to give to another, particularly where, as here, there were accolades showered upon Abramoff for his “gifts.” One of the senses of tzedakah is that of giving of yourself from your own resources; Abramoff did neither.

My greater compassion is reserved for Abramoff’s victims: the clients from whom he stole the money, his grieving father who has lost a son, his family who has lost a husband, father and putative provider. Abramoff will have room and board at the taxpayers’ expense; his family will, potentially, have nothing.

To Klinghoffer and Abramoff I would point out that nobody wants to cut off Abramoff’s head; he has already done that.

E. Hil Margolin
Carmel

Jews are not attacking or abandoning Abramoff because he’s Jewish — they’re embarrassed and outraged that he’s trying to wrap himself in the glory and good name of Judaism. “God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing.” Jewish or not Jewish, you shouldn’t need God to send you “hints” when we have things called laws.

Jeremy Sunderland
West Hills

Positive News

I have been meaning to write to you about your “Mensches” article (Jan. 6) since the week it appeared. I have saved that issue as it is so full of positive news about the happenings in L.A. with people and their behavior and actions.

I was hoping to suggest that since you obviously can’t put more than 10 people in at a time, wouldn’t it be fabulous to put this article and types like it in the paper quarterly? We always have a plethora of bad news, why not balance it out more with this type of journalism?

I think it’s so sad that the only feedback you received after this article was printed is how you might have conjugated the word mensches wrong. I want to thank you for doing this article and bringing these people to light. May it make us all think about what the rest of us can do to help and improve our lives and those around us.

Dena Schechter
Los Angeles

Proselytizing

The Journal’s coverage of the bonding of 1,100 Messianic Jews for Jesus and Christian Zionists at The Church on the Way should come as no surprise (“Messianics Gather for National Meeting,” Jan. 27). Jews for Judaism has warned Jewish leaders and Israeli officials that working with evangelicals is a double-edged sword and that The Church on the Way is a Trojan horse.

The Church on the Way has an ongoing messianic outreach and religious services designed to attract Jews. We know of dozens of Jewish families who were devastated after their children were converted to evangelical Christianity by representatives of this megachurch.

Christian support for Israel is a blessing. However, unfortunately, some members of our community deny or choose to ignore the threat that evangelicals pose to Jewish spiritual survival. The essence of the term evangelical is to proselytize.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
Jews for Judaism

Misleading Essay

Although I am hardly in the habit of penning letters in support of Bibi Netanyahu, I feel compelled to respond to Harvard student Shira Kaplan’s heartfelt but misleading essay on Hamas and Israel (“Give Peace a Shot,” Feb. 3).

Assuming the role of a modern-day prophetess, Kaplan boldly predicts that if the right-wing Likud leader is returned to office, “like in Netanyahu’s previous term in office, buses will be blowing up in the center of Tel Aviv.”

I served as an American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s, when buses were in fact blowing up in the city and would like to set the record straight for those like Kaplan who may have forgotten the recent chronology of terror in Israel.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 141 Israelis were killed by terrorists from September 1993 (the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn) to November 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

During Netanyahu’s three years in power, a comparatively low number of 51 Israelis were killed by terrorists, who perpetrated two attacks, inter alia, in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market (16 and five victims, respectively). However, there were no bus bombings in Israel during Netanyahu’s rule.

I am neither Jewish nor Israeli and would never presume to tell Israelis for whom they should vote. However, I do hope that they go to the polls in March armed with both hope and information. Whatever other sins Netanyahu may have committed as prime minister, he cannot in fairness be charged with provoking terrorist bus bombings.

Mark Paredes
Los Angeles

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

 

Lingerie and Meditation


“I always say it is lingerie and meditation that have kept me young,” says Michael Attie, a 62-year-old author, spiritual seeker and former owner of Playmates of Hollywood — the world’s largest lingerie store.

Once known as “The Lingerie Monk,” Attie managed to combine his passion for spirituality with 13 years of selling sexy lingerie on Hollywood Boulevard.

I first met Attie when I recorded his mother’s family history, and she told the story of her son inheriting Playmates of Hollywood. Her husband owned the store until 1982, when, faced with declining health, he called his son, who was meditating in the woods of Northern California, and asked him to come home to run the lingerie store.

Michael Attie made the most of it.

“I created the tongue-and-cheek Lingerie Zen Sect, which claimed that the fast way to enlightenment was to meditate in a lingerie store. I had meditation classes upstairs and occasionally I’d do ceremonies in the store, like the Feather Boa Dance.

“Whatever your circumstances are, that’s the perfect setting to investigate the nature of awareness. Since I had a lingerie store, that was the fastest way for me.”

I actually experienced a Feather Boa Dance once at Playmates. The customers dancing through the aisles included hookers, actresses and a senior citizen buying lingerie for her newlywed granddaughter. While we danced, Attie engaged us with a running commentary on the Zen of lingerie.

Attie and I met recently to discuss his recently published book, “Many Ways, Middle Way, No Way: A Guide to Meditation, Spiritual Awakening and Fun” (Neon Buddha Press, 2005). Attie says it’s “an eccentric, nonsectarian, open-hearted, inspirational and de-confusing guide to the spiritual path.”

Attie’s own spiritual quest started in the 1960s when he, along with scores of other young Americans, many of them Jews, spent time in Japanese Zen monasteries and Indian ashrams, searching for gurus and spiritual illumination.

I asked Attie how his own Jewish upbringing related to his spiritual journey.

“My father was a Syrian Jew, which was a very tight community and they all intermarried among themselves,” he said. “He was the first to marry a Yiddish — my mother. Mostly everyone in the community was aghast, ‘Don’t do it! If you marry a Yiddish, you’ll be a slave. If you marry a Syrian, she’ll be your slave!’ He told them, ‘But I love her!’ Perhaps I inherited a rebellious nature from my father.”

“For my dad, being Jewish was mostly a social and cultural thing,” he continued. “He’d go for High Holidays to the Syrian temple in rented rooms on Western Avenue. I had my first disillusionment on Yom Kippur; all the kids were running around on the street and I found my father at the Pig and Whistle, eating a big steak!

“I was bar mitzvahed, but 1950s L.A. Judaism didn’t inspire or stimulate me,” he said. “I go to bar mitzvahs today and can see how Judaism now can hold kids. They are vastly more challenging and spiritual than I remember from my youth.”

In spite of not feeling drawn to the religious aspect of Judaism, Attie is deeply connected to being Jewish. “Of course, the deep spirit of Judaism is part of me; to me that means a sense of humor, a love of art and learning and compassion for all peoples and the planet.”

Attie has found another link to Judaism: playing the accordion with his Don’t Worry Klezmer Band.

“Somehow the Eastern European Klezmer musicians were a deeply Jewish archetype: wandering the Carpathian Mountains, they would appear, play their wild, anarchistic music and disappear, wandering on to the next town,” he said. “In the shtetl one never forgot the fragility of life; the pogrom may be on its way. No music is both happier and sadder; life is blowing on the wind and tomorrow may never arrive. Live for now and enjoy this moment fully.”

I asked Attie what was next for him.

“Amazingly, in my 62 years I’ve seen very little of America and have always wanted to. It seems like my opportunity has arrived. I’m going to get a van, load up my dogs, Rufus and Homer, boxes of ‘Many Ways,’ my accordion and spend a good part of the next year on book signing tours. My life as a klezmer gypsy may just be beginning. Of course, I begin each book signing with the ‘Do the Dharma Polka.’ The audience is invited to sing along.”

On Sunday, Feb. 12, at 2 p.m., Michael Attie will read from and sign “Many Ways, Middle Way, No Way” at Dutton’s Brentwood Bookstore, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., (310) 476-6263. To find out about his free meditation instruction and practice, visit www.dontworryzendo.com.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me at Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

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.”

 

Moses and King


This past week, we observed the birthday of a great leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was able to move his people from seeing and believing his great vision to acting, responding and persevering in the face of violent opposition. In this way, King was like Moses in this week’s parshah. It is also no coincidence that King couched his historical vision in the story of the Exodus, comparing his people’s plight to that of the Israelites in Egypt.

This week we meet Moses, our new leader and adviser. Moses is commanded to go to Egypt, gather the people and demand their freedom from Pharaoh. “And Moses and Aaron went and gathered the elders of the children of Israel. And Aaron told them all of the things that God had said to Moses; and he performed the signs in the eyes of the people. And the nation believed; for they heard that God was remembering them because God saw their plight, and they were humbled and they bowed low” (Exodus 4:29-31).

Nehama Leibowitz, the great modern Torah scholar, calls this “the spiritual height” of the people; they were imbued with “historic awareness.”

The language of the verse is so poignant: va’y’amen ha’am (the nation believed). Two unique words appear side by side: va’y’amen, from the root amen, to affirm, witness, believe in; and ha’am, the nation — no longer a band of brothers, but a group of children, a single family unit. On this day, the nation of Israel is born, as they realize, according to Ibn Ezra, that the “end of the [slavery] spoken to Abraham” is occurring.

Yet, just as quickly as their energy builds, it is crushed by Pharaoh’s denial. Pharaoh is a wise dictator, as he understands the manipulation tactic of internal disputes as a way of breaking the spirit of the unity that was felt just a few verses earlier.

King understood this tactic when he spoke to the sanitation workers the night before his assassination. In his famous “I See the Promised Land” speech, he says, “You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt…. He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. … When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”

Faith and certainty fall into fear and rebellion. It is precisely this pattern that I see as the ultimate problem facing the Israelites in the attempt to free themselves. The words of inspiration, the signs and wonders performed, the quick fix — these rally the people and bring them together. However, the moment that anything goes wrong, or they face a difficult challenge, the people give up and begin to whine. It is very easy to be persuaded by fanciful language, a powerful message and an easy answer. However, the challenge of true leadership is the ability to guide people through the difficult, dangerous, painful, and sometimes-fatal situations that stand in the way of achieving a moral or spiritual victory. Moses was able to achieve this eventually, but it was not easy.

Today, we again live in challenging, and some would say, dangerous times. How would Moses and King respond to today’s reality?

King never cowered in the face of injustice, never bowed to pressure or intimidation. He spoke his mind from his particular religious, ethical and moral perspective.

What might he say about spending billions of dollars on a war of choice, which has turned out to be fought under false pretenses and cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and the security of our world? What might he say about the large number of children living in poverty, without access to healthcare and education, basic food and water? What might he say about the genocide in Darfur, happening with the world watching silently? And the global warming that is destroying our planet? AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa?

What would they say? But more importantly: What would they do?

I believe that King would be in the streets, standing with the poor and hungry, with the striking workers fighting for a decent wage, and speaking out for justice, righteousness and peace.

And so must we.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose yartzheit we observed this past week, taught us this when he said, “We must first peer into the darkness, feel strangled and entombed in the hopelessness of living without God, before we are ready to feel the presence of God’s living light.”

The lesson from the Torah this week is one that applies to all people fighting for freedom, struggling to make change in the world, or simply wanting to live with an active moral compass. Believing in change is easy. Making change happen is not. We all must have the willingness to be inspired, and the courage to turn that inspiration into reality. This is the message of King; this is the message of Moses; and this is the message of God.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves on the executive committee of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and is chair of its social action committee.

 

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac


Aries (March 21-April 20)

Notable Jewish Aries:
William Shatner

You know that security camera designed to catch thieves at the ATM? It also catches that special cringe you get on your face this week when you see your bank balance. The dollar amount left in your checking account is almost criminal. Don’t panic. Just hold off on purchases this week, or if you have to buy, find a cheaper version of what you want. Listen, we all love the fancy $22 shampoo, but lather yourself in some dime-store Suave this week and wash those financial fears right out of your hair. If you’re thinking of relocating or taking a trip, the end of this week is a perfect time for Aries to be on the move. Remember, you can still have a good time in coach.

Taurus (April 21-May 20)

Notable Jewish Taurus:
Golda Meir

Taureans love the familiar. This week in particular, that couch and those pajamas are looking mighty cozy. Luckily for you, the planetary pull of social activity is strong enough (just barely) to yank you away from watching five TiVo’d episodes of "Project Runway." Interaction with children and family members will suck you out of the vortex of comfort your living room has become. On Wednesday, you may feel the desire to become extra forceful at work. Keep in mind: initiative is good, being a wrecking ball and treating other people’s ideas like uninhabited tenements is bad. Be a bull, but don’t make the rest of the world your china shop.

Gemini (May 21 — June 20)

Notable Jewish Gemini:

Mel Blanc

If you’ve ever found yourself walking away from a Marc Jacobs bag, new iPod or some other tempting purchase and then fantasizing about whether or not to buy it in the next couple of days, this decision is easy. Hold off and wait until next week. The planetary action now suggests a lack of realism, which suggests a lack of flinging your credit card across the counter and worrying about it later would be wise. Sunday is a good time for religious or spiritual pursuits, even if it just means cracking open that old copy of "Tuesdays With Morrie."

Cancer (June 21-July 20)

Notable Jewish Cancer:
Marc Chagall

To best describe the tone of this week, I would have to say it’s a mixture between an Ingmar Bergman film and a vat of motor oil. Things will start off a bit dark in tone, but lighten up by midweek. Thursday is an ideal time to visit an elderly relative or friend. You’ve been putting it off, but who knows how long you’ll have? Leave it to a Jewish horoscope to provide not only astrological forecasting, but also guilt. By the way, on Friday, a woman with whom you are familiar will request a meeting. If you can, make her come to you.

Leo (July 21 — August 21)

Notable Jewish Leo:
Bernard Baruch

You won’t need to throw salt over your shoulder, knock on wood, cross your fingers or say some obscure Yiddish phrase. This week, luck is with you. The moon is in your own sign of Leo and that means roll the dice and buy the Lotto ticket. As for work, this is a bad time to get involved with office politics. When you hear negative chatter by the box of doughnuts or gossip by the fax machine, simply turn your emotional car around and find the entrance ramp for the high road. Don’t be rude about it. You can smile and nod, just don’t engage.

Virgo (August 22-September 22)

Notable Jewish Virgo:
Alan Dershowitz

Here’s a new word invented just to describe this week in Virgo-land: Noody. That means, you’re part needy and part moody. The only way out of this spiritual malaise is some form of written communication. If you must, use e-mail. If you can, buy a nice box of notecards, sit down with a hot beverage and write a letter the old-fashioned way to someone you trust. Saturday will find the mood lighter and the stars aligned with improvement, either of self, home or car. I leave you with this: Noodiness is only a passing mood state if you don’t take it seriously, and how can you when it sounds so stupid?

Libra (September 23-October 22)

Notable Jewish Libra:
Walter Mattheau

Libras love a party, and this week the parties will find you. The stars say to socialize, have a good time and power through slightly lower energy levels. As for your schedule, let’s just think about it a second. Other than the things you have to do — work and seeing friends and loved ones — are you truly enjoying all the things in your Filofax? If book group is starting to be a drag, this is the time to let it go. Not loving that weekly poker game? Toss it aside like a pair of threes. Athletic Libras will shine this week, so don’t drop the softball team or bowling league just yet.

Scorpio (October 23-November 22)

Notable Jewish Scorpio:
Calvin Klein

If there is such a thing is "good touch" and "bad touch," it’s not such a stretch that there can be both "good talk" and "bad talk." This is good for you to know, especially midweek when the stars have conversations dominating your life. On the upside, there won’t be any "Where is this relationship going?" or "Can you hand in a written description of exactly what it is you do here?" which are obviously "bad talk" topics. Your chats will be rife with listening, respect and acceptance. If you are thinking about a job interview or discussion about a promotion, this is the time to go for it.

Sagittarius (November 23-December 20)

Notable Jewish Sagittarius:

Steven Spielberg

Like the Fonz, Sagittarions sometimes face a challenge getting sappy with l -l -l -loved ones. Not this week. It suddenly seems easy getting sentimental with your inner circle. On top of that, like some people have a good hair day, you will have a good confidence week. Public speaking, for example, will come easily. If there are creative endeavors, perhaps in music, that you’ve been contemplating, celestial forces are with you. Even if it just means burning a CD for a friend, you will find the experience satisfying. This is the tough part of writing a horoscope but it would be a shonda if I didn’t mention this: watch your back on Thursday, as deceit will be all around you. Don’t say anything in public you wouldn’t want posted on the World Wide Web.

Capricorn (December 21-January 19)

Notable Jewish Capricorn:

Dave Attell

Capricorn charisma is spiking this week. If fact, your charisma is propping its elbows up on the bar, winking at the pretty bartender and downing a six-pack of Red Bulls. You are a bullet train of charm and there’s no stopping you. Just avoid introspection. Usually, it’s a good thing, but for now, it could lead to an annoying tendency toward self-involvement. To go with your superior charm, keep your presentation fierce (or just enjoy how much using that word makes you feel like Tyra Banks). Looks will play a part in how people assess you this week, so break out the iron or just throw the shirt in the dryer with a wet towel for all I care, just be rumple free.

Aquarius (January 20-February 18)

Notable Jewish Aquarius:
Ted Koppell

It’s not such a big deal when someone cuts in front of you on the freeway or there isn’t enough milk left for your cereal. It’s not life or death if a telemarketer calls you to see if you’re happy with your phone service and answering the call means you miss the end of the second quarter of the game. Still, this week it will feel like every little thing is driving you crazy. The mishegoss is simply temporary crankiness. Still, for the first few days of this week, there will be intense irritability. The only solution is to find some solitude. If you have to, sit in your car for a few minutes and listen to NPR before going home. Get up early and enjoy breakfast by yourself. Trust me, you need alone time this week and by Friday, annoyance will fade and romantic relationships will flourish.

Pisces (February 19-March 20)

Notable Jewish Pisces:
Josh Groban

Dreaming of being a great novelist but not exactly putting pen to paper? Seeing yourself as a starlet but not bothering to take a little old acting class? Fantasizing about running a marathon but limiting your training sessions to jogging around the block? Let go of unrealistic expectations this week and delusions of grandeur. Think about what you can actually accomplish and take steps to make it happen. Snap out of your happy place, that phony place in your mind where accomplishments take no effort. I know this all sounds kind of harsh, but sometimes a horoscope has to involve tough love. If you let go of false hopes, a brand new relationship will appear by Friday. If your feet are on the ground, you can run with it.

Your Inner Joseph


Each of us lives a spiritual journey. One of greatest tasks in life is to know our journey, to understand its contours and what it demands of us. The Torah teaches us these journeys, these paths into our center.

As Genesis ends this week with Vayechi, Jacob pronounces blessings for his sons, often using word play with their names. It seems that the names their mothers chose for them (all but Benjamin, who was named by Jacob) set a destiny for them; their names, in turn, created their lives. From this we might learn that each of us has an inner name that identifies our spiritual journey.

Understanding our inner lives in terms of narratives and themes of a sacred text is often referred to as archetypal psychology. The major characters and moments are not just historical (or ahistorical, according to some), they are signs for us, as well, maps to our inner lives. As we study the characters and themes of Genesis carefully, especially as they are elucidated in the rabbinic and mystical commentaries, we are alerted to the tensions, themes and potentials of our own inner lives.

The spiritual assumption is that Torah and our own souls emanate from the same origin, from the Soul of the Universe. Our souls and Torah share the same essence, but are in different forms. Torah is what links us to the Holy One. Torah contains our narratives. And from studying Torah, we begin to see our own narratives peering out at us.

One of my favorite narratives is that of Esau, older brother of Jacob and putative inheritor of his father, Isaac. But his mother, Rebecca, has received word from God that Jacob is to inherit, not Esau. Unbeknownst to Esau, forces are in motion to deprive him of that which was his.

Or was it his?

The narrative seems to be telling us that some things to which we have a right or a claim are not truly ours. Esau seems to know this when he comes in from the field, utterly exhausted. He sells the birthright for a bowl of stew. One tradition says he was exhausted trying to be something he wasn’t — the kind of person who would inherit his father’s world. He didn’t despise the birthright per se, but rather he hated his own fraudulence, trying to be something he was not.

Jacob, the trickster, set the world right. Esau, in a moment of truth, gave it to his brother. And, like many of us, he forgot the clarity in that moment of truth, only to gain it again as an older man, when he truly forgave Jacob. When he forgave Jacob, one might say, he truly became himself.

Take the story of Joseph, who is sold off as a slave after drawing the wrath of his brothers. Joseph rises to prominence in the house of Potiphar, only to fall to scandal after spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He sits in an Egyptian prison, certainly bemoaning his fate.

As he sits in prison, he thinks and considers. His brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite. He was his father’s favorite because he was the first born of his mother Rachel, whom his father dearly loved, and who died birthing Joseph’s only full brother, Benjamin. Being his father’s favorite, he thought himself special, above others. He put on airs.

Of course his brothers hated him; of course his father favored him. Deep human forces were put into action by his father Jacob having to marry Leah, who bore those half-brothers of his, who always resented his being the favorite. Deep human forces were put into action by the death of his mother, placing his father in unbalanced grief. Perhaps as he sat in prison, Joseph realized the tragedy of it all; tragedy mixed with human frailty.

Perhaps Joseph now remembered himself back to his old games in the house of Potiphar, unconsciously (or not) flirting with Mrs. Potiphar. Joseph came to know himself in that prison. Later in life, he would engineer reconciliation with his brothers, breathtaking in its pathos and elegance.

As we read that story, some of us who may be feeling sorry for ourselves will come to know the tragedy of it all, and our part in the tragedy. And perhaps instead of ruminating on hatred and revenge, we dream up the possibilities for healing.

We have our Esau moments, our Joseph moments (and moments of the rest of matriarchs, patriarchs and other characters in Genesis).

If we don’t know that inner narrative, the name of our journey, our own lives are often a mystery to us, and we are mysterious to others. Life is mystery, but one that we should explore and come to know.

The study of Torah, especially through the archetypal approach as is suggested in the midrashic and mystical sources, helps us to understand our own narrative, to come to know our own inner name, to engage the mystery of being.

We learn to live — wisely, deeply and well.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and ethics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.