Nelson Mandela, apartheid fighter and former South African president, dies at 95


Nelson Mandela guided South Africa from the shackles of apartheid to multi-racial democracy, as an icon of peace and reconciliation who came to embody the struggle for justice around the world.

Imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against white minority rule, Mandela emerged determined to use his prestige and charisma to bring down apartheid while avoiding a civil war.

“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come,” Mandela said in his acceptance speech on becoming South Africa's first black president in 1994.

“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation.”

In 1993, Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an honour he shared with F.W. de Klerk, the white Afrikaner leader who freed him from prison three years earlier and negotiated the end of apartheid.

Mandela went on to play a prominent role on the world stage as an advocate of human dignity in the face of challenges ranging from political repression to AIDS.

He formally left public life in June 2004 before his 86th birthday, telling his adoring countrymen: “Don't call me. I'll call you”. But he remained one of the world's most revered public figures, combining celebrity sparkle with an unwavering message of freedom, respect and human rights.

[From our archives: A South African-born rabbi reflects
on Nelson Mandela and the Jewish community
]

Whether defending himself at his own treason trial in 1963 or addressing world leaders years later as a greying elder statesman, he radiated an image of moral rectitude expressed in measured tones, often leavened by a mischievous humour.

“He is at the epicentre of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are,” Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer and Nobel Laureate for Literature, once remarked.

Mandela's years behind bars made him the world's most celebrated political prisoner and a leader of mythic stature for millions of black South Africans and other oppressed people far beyond his country's borders.

Charged with capital offences in the 1963 Rivonia Trial, his statement from the dock was his political testimony.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities,” he told the court.

“It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

DESTINED TO LEAD

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, destined to lead as the son of the chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Thembu people in Transkei.

He chose to devote his life to the fight against white domination. He studied at Fort Hare University, an elite black college, but left in 1940 short of completing his studies and became involved with the African National Congress (ANC), founding its Youth League in 1944 with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.

Mandela worked as a law clerk then became a lawyer who ran one of the few practices that served blacks.

In 1952 he and others were charged for violating the Suppression of Communism Act but their nine-month sentence was suspended for two years.

Mandela was among the first to advocate armed resistance to apartheid, going underground in 1961 to form the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, or 'Spear of the Nation' in Zulu.

He left South Africa and travelled the continent and Europe, studying guerrilla warfare and building support for the ANC.

After his return in 1962, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years for incitement and illegally leaving the country. While serving that sentence, he was charged with sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government along with other anti-apartheid leaders in the Rivonia Trial.

Branded a terrorist by his enemies, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, isolated from millions of his countrymen as they suffered oppression, violence and forced resettlement under the apartheid regime of racial segregation.

He was incarcerated on Robben Island, a penal colony off Cape Town, where he would spend the next 18 years before being moved to mainland prisons.

He was behind bars when an uprising broke out in the huge township of Soweto in 1976 and when others erupted in violence in the 1980s. But when the regime realised it was time to negotiate, it was Mandela to whom it turned.

In his later years in prison, he met President P.W. Botha and his successor de Klerk.

When he was released on Feb. 11, 1990, walking away from the Victor Verster prison hand-in-hand with his wife Winnie, the event was watched live by television viewers across the world.

“As I finally walked through those gates … I felt even at the age of 71 that my life was beginning anew. My 10,000 days of imprisonment were at last over,” Mandela wrote of that day.

ELECTIONS AND RECONCILATION

In the next four years, thousands of people died in political violence. Most were blacks killed in fighting between ANC supporters and Zulus loyal to Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, although right-wing whites also staged violent actions to upset the moves towards democracy.

Mandela prevented a racial explosion after the murder of popular Communist Party leader Chris Hani by a white assassin in 1993, appealing for calm in a national television address. That same year, he and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Talks between the ANC and the government began in 1991, leading to South Africa's first all-race elections on April 27, 1994.

The run-up to the vote was marred by fighting, including gun battles in Johannesburg townships and virtual war in the Zulu stronghold of KwaZulu Natal.

But Mandela campaigned across the country, enthralling adoring crowds of blacks and wooing whites with assurances that there was a place for them in the new South Africa.

The election result was never in doubt and his inauguration in Pretoria on May 10, 1994, was a celebration of a peoples' freedom.

Mandela made reconciliation the theme of his presidency. He took tea with his former jailers and won over many whites when he donned the jersey of South Africa's national rugby team – once a symbol of white supremacy – at the final of the World Cup in 1995 at Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium.

The hallmark of Mandela's mission was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated apartheid crimes on both sides and tried to heal the wounds. It also provided a model for other countries torn by civil strife.

In 1999, Mandela, often criticised for having a woolly grasp of economics, handed over to younger leaders – a voluntary departure from power cited as an example to long-ruling African leaders.

A restful retirement was not on the cards as Mandela shifted his energies to fighting South Africa's AIDS crisis.

He spoke against the stigma surrounding the infection, while successor Thabo Mbeki was accused of failing to comprehend the extent of the crisis.

The fight became personal in early 2005 when Mandela lost his only surviving son to the disease.

But the stress of his long struggle contributed to the break-up of his marriage to equally fierce anti-apartheid campaigner Winnie.

The country shared the pain of their divorce in 1996 before watching his courtship of Graca Machel, widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, whom he married on his 80th birthday in 1998.

Friends adored “Madiba”, the clan name by which he is known. People lauded his humanity, kindness, attention and dignity.

Unable to shake the habits of prison, Mandela rose daily between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. to exercise and read. He drank little and was a fervent anti-smoker.

An amateur boxer in his younger days, Mandela often said the discipline and tactics drawn from training helped him to endure prison and the political battles after his release.

RAINBOW NATION

But prison and old age took their toll on his health.

Mandela was treated in the 1980s for tuberculosis and later required an operation to repair damage to his eyes as well as treatment for prostate cancer in 2001. His spirit, however, remained strong.

“If cancer wins I will still be the better winner,” he told reporters in September of that year. “When I go to the next world, the first thing I will do is look for an ANC office to renew my membership.”

Most South Africans are proud of their post-apartheid multi-racial 'Rainbow Nation'.

But Mandela's legacy of tolerance and reconciliation has been threatened in recent years by squabbling between factions in the ANC and social tensions in a country that, despite its political liberation, still suffers great inequalities.

Mandela's last major appearance on the global stage came in 2010 when he donned a fur cap in the South African winter and rode on a golf cart, waving to an exuberant crowd of 90,000 at the soccer World Cup final, one of the biggest events in the country's post-apartheid history.

“I leave it to the public to decide how they should remember me,” he said on South African television before his retirement.

“But I should like to be remembered as an ordinary South African who together with others has made his humble contribution.”

Writing by Andrew Quinn and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Angus MacSwan

Is beauty a Jewish value?


When we talk about Jewish values, we usually refer to things like justice, compassion, generosity, humility, honesty, faith, wisdom and so on. We rarely talk about beauty.

Beauty is vain and superficial, we’re so often told.

And yet, the word “beautiful” is prominent on this week’s cover of the Jewish Journal, which features an unusually beautiful sukkah, created by designer Jonathan Fong.

Normally, our instinct would be to focus on a deeper meaning of the holiday — the sukkah as a metaphor for humility; as a wake-up call to help the homeless; as a physical, palpable link to our ancestors; as a paradox of frailty and strength; or as an eternal symbol of Jewish endurance.

Those angles are all more profound and meaningful than the notion of beauty. So, why would we feature aesthetics on our cover this year?

One answer is that maybe we simply need a break from all the heaviness. Yes, we can overdose even on things like depth and meaning. Let’s face it, especially at this time of year, we’ve all been marinating in one deep sermon after another. Serious, heavy issues are weighing on us — whether about Israel, society’s ills or the need to transform our lives.

So, it’s quite possible that a light, beautiful sukkah might be just the right antidote to holiday heaviness — an ideal opportunity to lighten up and let all this depth sink in.

Or not.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in Judaism, meaning lurks everywhere — even in something as superficial as beauty.

“Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses,” according to “Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year” (Central Conference of American Rabbis). “Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension.”

In other words, by adding beauty to what we see, hear, taste and feel, we enhance our spiritual experience of the mitzvah, which brings us closer to the mitzvah itself.

Beauty is also defined, in the Jewish tradition, by the virtues of endurance and permanence.

As Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains in the magazine Jewish Action: “The Torah requires: ‘And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day (of Sukkot) a fruit of a beautiful tree — pri etz hadar.’ The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a beautiful tree by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar.

“The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word ‘hadar’ is interpreted to be a fruit which ‘dwells continuously all year on the tree’ (ha-dar, literally, ‘that which dwells’). Thus, they understand the word ‘dar’ to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French ‘duree’ or the English ‘endure’).

“The etrog tree fulfills this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm — it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.”

In addition to its permanence, beauty is also an expression of love. 

As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech said to me over lunch last week, adding beauty to a mitzvah — such as making a sukkah beautiful — is an expression of love because it’s a sign that “we are doing the mitzvah not just because we have to, but because we want to.” We glorify God’s presence by going beyond the minimum requirements, by pouring out our love for Him just as we would for those we deeply love.

As the rabbi spoke so beautifully about love, I reflected on another aspect to beauty that is often overlooked — and that is, the beauty of the words we speak.

I don’t care how beautiful we make our sukkahs or holiday tables, if some well-intentioned guest decides to ambush the conversation with a rant against Obama, or Israeli settlers, or the tragic mess in Syria, or any number of incendiary topics best left for another time — all that aesthetic beauty we’ve spent so much time creating will be immediately colored ugly.

If beautiful sounds contribute to the human enjoyment of religious acts, I can’t think of a more beautiful sound than that of pleasant conversation that stimulates the mind and warms our hearts.

In short, by making our sukkahs beautiful and adding meaningful and beautiful conversation, we can honor the enduring value of Jewish beauty, enhance our spiritual experience and deepen our love for the Almighty.

How’s that for superficial?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Superman is Jewish?: People of the comic book


Nothing is quite so purely American as the comic book, which is why it will come as a surprise to some readers to discover that philosopher Harry Brod regards Superman and Spider-Man and many other comic-book characters to be uniquely Jewish artifacts that offer crucial insights into the Jewish experience in America.

“For it turns out that the history of the Jews and comic book superheroes, that very American invention, is the history of Jews and America, particularly the history of Jewish assimilation into the mainstream of American culture,” Brod writes in “Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way” by Harry Brod (Free Press: $25).

Brod, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, affirms that his own path into the life of the mind began with a childhood passion for comic books. 

“I attribute much of my motivation to become a philosopher by profession to my early reading of science fiction and comic books,” he explains. “The world need not be as it was. There were alterative possibilities, reached not by fantasy but by rational extension of the world we knew. ‘What if…’ became a guiding question for me, and wanting to think that through became second nature.”

The Jewish origins of our superheroes, according to Brod, do not begin and end with the fact that so many of the writers and artists who created them were Jewish. Rather, he detects the influence of characters from Jewish folktales — the golem and the dybbuk — as well as “Jewish traditions of Talmudic disputation.” Nor is it a coincidence that so many Jews found a showcase for their sensibilities in the pages of comic books: “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew,” recalls Al Jaffee, a longtime cartoonist for Mad magazine. “One of the reasons we Jews drifted into the comic-book business is that most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish. So there was no discrimination there.”

Then, too, he teases out the Jewish values, aspirations and anxieties that are sometimes deeply encoded in comic book characters. Superman, for example, can be seen as “an alien immigrant from another planet.” The Incredible Hulk, a latter-day golem conjured by Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), turns into a “man-monster” when he gets angry: “Is it too much to speculate that in the Lieber household it was perhaps impressed upon young Stanley that nice Jewish boys don’t get angry,” muses Brod, “that they’re supposed to be, dare we say it, ‘mild mannered,’ like our old friend Clark Kent?” Spider-Man “is a post-Holocaust American Jew,” writes Brod, “and the guilt that plagues and motivates him is a specific post-Holocaust American Jewish guilt.”

Brod, an intellectual whose gifts include a lively sense of humor, is perfectly willing to invoke a Jewish joke to make the point. “It is hard to resist — too hard for me, in fact — quoting Zeddy Lawrence here: ‘It may not be true in all cases, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If the word ‘man’ appears at the end of someone’s name you can draw one of two conclusions: a) they’re Jewish, as in Goldman, Feldman, or Lipman; or b) they’re a superhero, as in Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man.’ ” As Brod himself puts it: “Before Joe Shuster drew Superman, the only artist drawing Jews flying through the air was Marc Chagall.” 

So, too, does Brod detect “a mocking Yiddishist sensibility” that runs from Mad magazine to Marvel comics and finally into the pages of Playboy, whose “Little Annie Fanny” was drawn by Mad magazine stalwarts Will Elder (born Eisenberg) and Harvey Kurtzman. But he seeks to show us “how American Jews created the modern comic book,” an achievement that has less to do with Jewish jokes than with a Yiddishe Kopp — that is, a characteristically Jewish way of seeing the world.

For example, he insists that Superman and Spider-Man share a common Jewish ancestry, but the differences between these two superheroes reveals a change in Jewish self-image in America: “The difference between Superman’s and Spider-Man’s Jewishness is analogous to the ways Jews, as they became more assimilated into American culture, struggled less with identity issues of being strangers in a strange land,” he offers. “They felt themselves to be more native to America, and so became freer to act and create in ways that are identifiably Jewish, not coded or indirect.”

Brod opens his book with some special pleading on behalf of the comic book as an authentic and worthy expression of culture and creativity. By the end of his book, however, it is clear that he has made his case. Brod devotes a chapter to Art Spiegelman, who boldly rendered a story of the Holocaust as a comic book populated with cats and mice and thereby “demonstrated what the medium was capable of and that there was an audience for it.” But we are able to appreciate Spiegelman’s courageous work all the more because we have seen the work of Jewish artists and writers who came before him.

“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a champion of the oppressed! It’s a messianic liberator!” Brod sums up in his enchanting and enlightening book. “Yes, it’s the Jewish imagination in flight!”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Opinion: The case for President Obama’s reelection


The Obama administration has strongly supported Israel’s security by helping to construct the Iron Dome, by backing Israel’s responses to rocket attacks from Gaza and by coordinating closely with its military.

The case for the reelection of President Barack Obama is compelling for several important reasons.

Let me begin with our future and the future of our children. The composition of the US Supreme Court over the next 30 years may be decided during the next four years. There are now three justices who will turn 80 and one who will be close to 80 during this presidential term. The remaining justices – including conservative Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito – are relatively young.

Whoever is elected the next president may get to appoint as many as four justices in their 40’s or 50’s. These justices may well serve thirty or more years on the High Court, and if they are as reactionary as the current young justices, will form a firm and long lasting majority.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney has said that he would fill the Supreme Court vacancies with justices like Scalia, Alito and Thomas. A court with such a right wing majority will change America for the worse. It will dismantle the wall of separation between church and state and embolden those who seek to Christianize America. It will eliminate a woman’s right to chose abortion and will set back the trend toward equality for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation. It will continue to strike down progressive legislation, such as gun control, campaign reform and laws protecting the rights of minorities.

Few Americans, as a matter of history, vote on the basis of who will be nominated to serve on the Supreme Court and other federal courts. More should do so because our third branch of government is every bit as important as the first two branches and has considerable influence on the lives and liberties of Americans. The case for Barack Obama includes his record in appointing moderates rather than right wing ideologues to the judiciary, and most especially to the Supreme Court.

The case for Barack Obama also includes his approach to foreign policy, which has improved the standing of America around the world. Under the Bush administration many of our strongest allies became alienated by America’s unilateralism. The Obama administration has worked closely with our allies to impose the harshest possible sanctions on Iran, to depose Muammar Gaddafi and to help keep the Arab Spring from turning into an extremist Muslim winter. President Obama also succeeded in killing bin Laden and crippling al-Qaida. It is clearly still a work in progress but it is moving in the right direction.

With regards to Iran, which poses the most immediate threat to the security of the United States and its allies, most especially Israel, the policy of the Obama administration is crystal clear: It has taken containment off the table and kept the military option on the table. Everyone hopes that the military option will not have to be employed, since it would entail considerable loss of life, especially among Israeli civilians who would be targeted by Hezbollah rockets fired in retaliation against any attack on Iran.

But the best way to avoid the need for military action is for the Iranian mullahs to believe that the United States will never allow them to develop nuclear weapons. If they believe that reality then the pain of the sanctions will pressure them to give up their nuclear ambitions. President Obama has clearly stated that he is not bluffing when he says that his administration will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. A second term president generally has more credibility than a first term president when it comes to threatening military action.

The Obama administration has strongly supported Israel’s security by helping to construct the Iron Dome, by backing Israel’s responses to rocket attacks from Gaza and by coordinating closely with its military.

When it comes to re-energizing the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Romney has said that he would do nothing other than kick the can down the road.

President Obama, on the other hand, would almost certainly try to bring the parties together to achieve a two state solution that guaranteed Israel’s security while allowing the Palestinians to govern themselves.

Finally, the case for Obama’s reelection should focus heavily on how much better the economy is doing today than it did under his predecessor. A recent report by the International Monetary Fund establishes that the United States leads all other wealthy nations in the recovery from the deep recession of the past several years. The revitalization of the automobile industry has produced many new jobs and the trends are looking in the right direction for greater job creation throughout the country.

Moreover, the Obama program promises more equality in taxation, more allocation of resources to education, and a healthier America with better access both to health care and to insurance. A well-educated and healthy America is a good prescription not only for more jobs but also for better jobs and for keeping good jobs at home.

All in all, the case for the reelection of Barack Obama is a compelling one, based not only on his past record but on the specific policies he has proposed for the next four years.

President Obama has earned my vote on the basis of his excellent judicial appointments, his consensus building foreign policy and the improvements he has brought about in the disastrous economy he inherited.

Obama vows justice after U.S. envoy killed in Libya


President Barack Obama vowed on Wednesday to bring to justice the killers of the U.S. ambassador and three other diplomats in Libya as he sought to avoid election-year fallout from an attack that cast a spotlight on his administration's handling of “Arab Spring” unrest.

Standing in the White House Rose Garden, Obama condemned the attack in Benghazi as “outrageous and shocking” but insisted it would not threaten relations with Libya's new elected government, which took power in July after rebel forces backed by NATO air power overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.

The targeting of U.S. diplomats in deadly militant violence sparked by a U.S.-made film seen as insulting the Prophet Mohammad, could raise questions about Obama's policy toward Libya in the post-Gaddafi era as he seeks re-election in November.

Obama, apparently seeking to seize the initiative in the aftermath of the attack, pledged to work with the Libyan government to “see that justice is done for this terrible act.”

“And make no mistake: justice will be done,” Obama said, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his side. He ordered increased security at U.S. embassies around the world, and a Marine anti-terrorist team was dispatched to boost security for U.S. personnel in Libya.

Ambassador Chris Stevens and three embassy staff were killed late on Tuesday when Islamist gun attacked the Benghazi consulate and a safe house refuge in the eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of last year's uprising against Gaddafi's 42-year rule. Another assault was mounted on the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

Stevens, a 21-year veteran of the foreign service, was one of the first American officials on the ground in Benghazi during the uprising against Gaddafi last year.

Sean Smith, a foreign service information management officer, was identified as one of the diplomats killed. The names of the two others were withheld while the government notified their families.

LIBYA POLICY, CAMPAIGN IMPACT

Obama had hailed Libya's election in July as a milestone in its post-Gaddafi democratic transition and pledged that the United States would act as a partner even as he cautioned that there would still be difficult challenges ahead.

In the series of Arab Spring uprisings that shook the Middle East last year, Obama opted for a cautious strategy that steered clear of a dominant role for the U.S. military and drew criticism from Republican opponents at home for what was described as “leading from behind.”

Before the full death toll and details of the Libya attack were known, Obama's Republican presidential challenger, Mitt Romney criticized the Obama administration's initial response and he repeated the charge on Wednesday.

“It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” Romney told reporters in Florida.

Pushing back hard, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt criticized Romney for making a “political attack” at a time when the country was “confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya,” and Obama then reiterated condemnation of insults to the beliefs of others.

“We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” he said. “But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.”

Immediately after his speech, Obama, who was due to leave later in the day on a campaign trip to Nevada, visited the State Department to express solidarity with U.S. diplomats around the world.

The Libya crisis has come at a time when the spotlight was already on the Middle East amid escalating tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program.

Clinton said the Benghazi attack was the work of a “small and savage group” and that U.S.-Libyan ties would not suffer.

But she seemed to take note that Americans might resent such an attack on U.S. personnel in a North African country they helped to bring out from under long authoritarian rule.

“I ask myself, how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” Clinton said. “This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.”

Additional reporting by Margaret Chadbourn, Mark Felsenthal, Paul Eckert, Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bill Trott and David Brunnstrom

Jewish organizations petition U.S. gov’t on food justice


In a petition sponsored by seven national Jewish organizations, 18,000 individuals urged the U.S. House of Representatives and the Obama administration to focus on food justice in the upcoming Farm Bill.

The petition, which has been circulating since October, was delivered on Thursday to coincide with the House Agriculture Committee’s markup of the Farm Bill in the coming weeks.

A coalition of Jewish organizations called the Jewish Farm Bill Working Group sponsored the petition. The coalition includes the American Jewish World Service, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Hazon, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Union for Reform Judaism.

Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON, noted in a statement that the Farm Bill authorization process, which occurs every five years, gives the Jewish community “a chance to reexamine our national priorities with regard to food.”

“The Farm Bill governs the kinds and levels of assistance we provide to hungry people, helps regulate what crops are planted, establishes whether sustainable farming and conservation practices will be implemented, and influences whether our food is healthy and affordable,” Leibman said. “Each and every one of us has a stake in the Farm Bill.”

Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, added that the outpouring of support for the petition was a sign of the bill’s importance to the Jewish community.

“It has been evident through the petition that our constituents understand how critical it is that the United States work to enact policies that pursue long-term approaches to eradicating hunger. We cannot wait any longer,” Messinger said in the statement.

Prayer and justice work: the perfect complements


In contemporary Jewish discourse, the worlds of the synagogue and the worlds of service and advocacy sit far apart. The former is a place of introspection, of prayer and of relationship with God. The latter is a place of action and engagement in the world.

Many of us distinguish between “religious” Jews and “secular” Jews. Religious Jews attend synagogue, observe Shabbat and keep kosher. For secular Jews, their primary involvement comes through culture and justice.

But these boundaries between prayer and justice, and between the internal and the external, are foreign to Judaism. Halachah, most often translated as “Jewish law,” literally means “the way to walk.” To be a Jew is to walk through the world in a Jewish way. This Jewish way includes contemplation and action, prayer and service, relationships with the Divine and relationships with other human beings.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Jews spend more hours in the synagogue than at any other time during the year. For this reason, these holidays can feel purely contemplative. Yet Rosh Hashanah is also “yom teruah,” “the day of sounding the shofar,” when we hear the sound that the Torah associates with liberation. And Yom Kippur morning is punctuated with Isaiah’s call to “loose the chains of injustice … to set the oppressed free.”

These intrusions of real-life politics into the contemplative business of prayer remind us that prayer and justice work were never meant to be separate realms of behavior. Rather, the two constitute complementary aspects of an integrated Jewish life. In this integrated life, prayer and ritual push us toward justice work and sustain us in these efforts.

We often think of prayer as a one-way conversation with God. We praise God for everything that is good in the world and beg for supernatural forces to change what is not. Instead, we might understand prayer as a two-way exchange that includes a challenge to us as well as an appeal to God.

For example, Jews each morning traditionally recite a series of blessings about everyday miracles. We give thanks for our vision, our freedom, our clothing and our other basic needs. For those who have what they need to survive, these blessings remind us to be grateful for what we have, even when every one of our desires might not be fulfilled. For those who are struggling to get by, these blessings offer hope that our situations will improve.

For all of us, these blessings challenge us to create a world in which every person is free, and in which every person can meet the basic needs of his or her family. We cannot simply thank God for opening the eyes of the blind without considering how we can make the world more accessible to people with physical limitations. And we cannot thank God for giving us freedom without working to secure the freedom of the estimated 12 million people in the world who remain enslaved. Rather than allow us to retreat internally, prayer forces us out into the world.

At the same time, prayer provides a necessary check on the tendency of social justice activists to try to fix the world right now, no matter the cost to them or to others. Prayer, Shabbat and other rituals provide spiritual nourishment, the feeling that our work is connected to a broader whole, and even a sense of humility.

Social justice work famously burns out many of the idealistic young people who sign up after college to be organizers or campaign workers. As for the longtime social justice activists, some begin to feel like the work is the only thing that matters. In many cases, this leads to long work hours and a never-ending sense of urgency. In the worst cases, some come to believe that the relentless pursuit of the cause justifies bad behavior toward others or the tolerance of abusive work environments.

Stopping to pray, to mark time or even to take off 25 hours for Shabbat is a means of acknowledging that even if we work every minute of every day, we’re not going to fix everything. This realization forces us to see ourselves as participants in a long-term struggle rather than as heroes able to repair the world on our own.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may be days to sit in prayer and contemplation. But this ritual does not constitute a break from justice work. Rather, these days should both nourish our justice work and challenge us to recommit to these efforts in the year ahead.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Community” (Jewish Lights, 2011).

Rubashkin family members fined $2 million


Members of the Rubashkin family, who operated the now-defunct Agriprocessers kosher meatpacking plant, must pay a total of more than $2 million after defaulting on loans.

A federal judge ordered Dec. 16 that Abraham Aaron Rubashkin and sons Sholom and Tzvi must pay the money to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Value Recovery Group. The latter was owed more than $1.6 million in unpaid rent, according to court records, The Associated Press reported. The judgment also includes interest and litigation costs.

Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin was sentenced last June to 27 years in federal prison after being convicted in November 2009 on 86 counts of fraud in connection with the Agriprocessors plant.

In a federal raid on the plant in May 2008, 389 illegal immigrants, including 31 children, were arrested.

Justice sought against French railroad


Holocaust survivors met with officials on Capitol Hill to discuss legislation that will help them pursue a lawsuit against a French railroad company.

Leo Bretholz and Mathilde Freund were refugees from Austria living in Vichy, France, during World War II.

Between March 1942 and August 1944, 75,000 Jews and undesirables, along with American citizens and soldiers, were deported to concentration camps from France aboard trains run by the Societe Nationale des Chermins de Fers Francais, or SNCF. The Nazis paid the company for the deportations per head, per kilometer.

Bretholz escaped on a train to Auschwitz, but Freund’s husband was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Buchenwald, where he died on Jan. 31, 1945.

Legislation introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) would allow survivors, family members and veterans a chance to sue SNCF in the United States. Bretholz and Freund met last week with staff for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SNCF has never denied its actions, but has been able to claim immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. The company claims it cannot be sued for its activities during the war even though it is a commercial entity because its shares are owned by the government.

Though the act was not in place at the time of the deportations, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that its tenets are applicable retroactively. Furthermore, as the law stands, survivors cannot sue for the act of being deported.

The new legislation would ensure that a lawsuit could be brought by tailoring a narrow exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

The scope of the exception would be narrowed to railroads that are separate commercial corporations and engaged in deportations from 1942 to 1944.  The legislation would only take away sovereignty as a defense for SNCF; the railroad could still use any other defense at its disposal.

The legislation would not affect treaties with the German, Swiss and Austrian governments, which preclude suits against the governments or their entities.

Survivors filed suit against the railroad in 2001; the case was dismissed by a U.S. district court judge. In 2003, a federal appeals court reversed the decision and sent the case back to the lower court. The railroad appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying it had immunity from prosecution. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal and sent the case back to the appeals court in 2004. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case again in 2005.

The legistation to allow the survivors to sue the railroad was introduced originally in the Senate in 2008.

Pursuit of Justice


I’ve covered the ugly side of race relations in Los Angeles for many years. Among my memories are the Watts Riots, the 1992 riot, the public school desegregation
fight and the breakup of the Tom Bradley black-Jewish political coalition.

This may have been the reason for the unexpected emotional high I felt on Sunday, March 7, when I sat in the sanctuary of Temple Isaiah. More than 450 whites, Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans filled the room to capacity. Most of the whites were Jews. All looked serious as they pondered how to have better public schools in Los Angeles, starting with nearby Emerson Middle School and the elementary schools that feed it.

It was an afternoon of both spiritual and secular concerns.

When Rabbi Dara Frimmer spoke from the bimah, I saw the spiritual side. “The words above me read: ‘Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice you shall pursue,’ ” she said.

It was clear that she was talking about pursuing justice far beyond Temple Isaiah or the Westside Jewish community.

“If you only want to tell the story, ‘Isaiah cares about Emerson,’ you’re missing the bigger story,” she said. “This is the story of people who have come together to work for change. Who start with their relationships and expand out beyond the walls of Isaiah, beyond the classrooms of Emerson and the feeder schools, to South L.A., to Northeast L.A., to churches and synagogues and community groups.”

The secular concerns came from One LA, a community-organizing group that had teamed up with Temple Isaiah to put on the event. One LA has a long history of bringing together diverse groups for a variety of causes. Several months ago, I attended a One LA meeting in the Northeast San Fernando Valley organized against home foreclosures. Synagogue members took part. Years before, when Los Angeles seemed to be collapsing under the pressure of racial discord, the group, then called the United Neighborhoods Organization, put together large multiethnic coalitions to fight slums and food markets that overcharged in poor areas.

Saul Alinsky, a legendary Chicago community organizer, spread such groups around the country through his Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The most famous IAF veteran is ex-Chicago organizer Barack Obama.

Temple Isaiah linked up with One LA when congregants with elementary school children said they were afraid to send them to Emerson Middle School. White students were a minority, and test scores were low. At the same time, Emerson principal Kathy Gonnella was trying to persuade more neighborhood families to send their children to her school.

One LA had found that children and parents all over the city were frightened by the prospect of moving from small elementary schools to larger middle schools. Its goal was to develop a model for the transition at Emerson and its feeder schools and expand it throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District. The feeder elementary schools range from Saturn Avenue in Mid-Wilshire to Warner Avenue in Westwood.

One LA worked with the temple and the school to organize house meetings and other sessions with parents from Emerson and its feeder schools. People of several ethnic groups and income levels sat around in living rooms and talked. They spoke of their hopes and fears and found they had much in common. The experience was unusual for Los Angeles, with its neighborhoods too often segregated by race. These small meetings grew into the big meeting at Temple Isaiah.

Being a pragmatic organization, One LA seeks to come out of meetings having achieved specific and achievable goals. Once these are achieved, the group moves on to larger goals.

Up on the bimah, which suddenly turned into a hot seat, were Superintendent of Schools Ramon Cortines, District 3 Superintendent Michelle King and school board member Steve Zimmer.

The demands seemed small — and doable. First was that teachers and administrators be given time to work together to prepare fifth-graders for middle school. Second was expansion of “Camp Emerson,” a two-day orientation for graduating fifth-graders. It used to last a week, but school officials cut it down. The third was to provide a safer stop for buses returning students to the neighborhood of the Saturn Avenue School. It now apparently lets them off at a busy convenience store parking lot.

Cortines, King and Zimmer pledged to follow up, but I can just see what will happen. Lower-level school administrators will be reluctant to release teachers for the transition preparation sessions. Expanding Camp Emerson will cost money for a school district strapped for funds. The transportation officials will balk at finding a new bus stop. It will take much vigilance and nudging by the parents, teachers, One LA — and maybe a prayer from the rabbi — to accomplish these goals.

The school bureaucracy may find this hard to resist. And if the goals are reached, the coalition will be empowered, ready to make more and bigger demands — and to help parents all over the city organize.

This would be reform from the grass roots, improving the schools, bringing a divided city together, and lifting public middle and high schools out of a pattern that has driven parents to private schools.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Life story, Israel trips tie Sotomayor to Jews


Jewish groups don’t endorse U.S. Supreme Court nominees, at least in writing.

The tears and choked sobs when Sonia Sotomayor accepted President Obama’s nomination on Tuesday told another story.

Packed into the room along with Sotomayor’s family, friends and colleagues were representatives of Jewish groups that have consulted with the White House about prospective replacements for David Souter.

The story of her life—the daughter of a Puerto Rican single mother from the Bronx, N.Y., whose ambitions knew no bounds—resounded with a community that has made the story of immigrant triumph over struggle a template of Jewish American success.

“It was impossible not to moved by her personal story,” said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “To see her mother sitting there and think about what this says about her and her country—the combination of someone who grew up in a housing project, who has been on the bench for a long time, but who has been a prosecutor as well, that combination is very powerful.”

“It was thrilling,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women.

It doesn’t hurt that Sotomayor, 54, is a poster child for strong Jewish-Hispanic relations. In 1986, when she was in private legal practice, she joined one of the first young leadership tours of Israel sponsored by Project Interchange, which is affiliated with the American Jewish Committee.

Sotomayor so enjoyed the country—its immigrant culture, its popular music influenced heavily by Jewish immigrants from Argentina and Brazil—that she made a return visit in 1996 when she was a federal judge, and recently joined a Project Interchange U.S.-Israel forum on immigration. In the process, she formed a lifelong friendship with Project Interchange founder Debbie Berger and her husband, Paul, who attended her swearing-in as a Manhattan appeals court judge in 1998.

“She enjoyed Israel not just from an intellectual perspective, she liked the music and the people,” Paul Berger told JTA.

Richard Foltin, the legislative director for the AJC, said her background naturally played a role in how the Jewish community would welcome her.

“We must recognize the significance of the third woman and first Hispanic on the court,” he said. “And there’s no question of her impressive qualifications.”

Sotomayor would come to the Supreme Court with one of the longest bench careers in its history, having handed down or joined 3,000 decisions in 18 years as a federal and appeals court judge. That’s a lot to read through and accounted for a degree of hesitancy from Jewish groups that were enthused about her life story but just getting to know her judicial record.

“I’ve got a bunch of opinions in my briefcase and it’s time to start reading,” Pelavin said.

The National Council of Jewish Women—one of the few Jewish groups that expresses an opinion on judicial candidates—has yet to announce where it stands. Whatever the case, said Nancy Ratzan, the NCJW’s president, the organization would dedicate itself to ensuring that Sotomayor receives a fair hearing.

“Our 90,000 followers will be focused on making sure it’s a fair and prompt process that focuses on her record,” she said.

NCJW and the Religious Action Center will canvass members for appropriate questions for Sotomayor during the confirmation process; the questions will be relayed to the U.S. Senate Judicary Committee.

Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement calling for a process that is conducted “professionally, and with civility and respect,” and praised the pick while stopping short of an official endorsement.

“We applaud President Obama for having selected this noted jurist to be the Court’s first Hispanic and third woman Justice,” the ADL leaders stated. “If confirmed, she will undoubtedly bring an important new perspective to the work of the Court.”

Even the Orthodox Union, which tends to stake our more conservative ground than other Jewish organizations on church-state issues, spoke positively about Sotomayor, citing several religious freedom-related cases.

In a 1993 case, she upheld the constitutional right of a rabbi in White Plains, N.Y., to display a menorah in a city park. In two other cases, in 1994 and 2003, Sotomayor upheld prisoners’ religious rights even though the practices in question did not conform with mainstream beliefs. And in 2006, she ruled that allowing federal age discrimination statutes to apply to a 70-year-old minister dismissed by the Methodist church would constitute unwarranted government interference in church affairs.

Those decisions, OU said, were “very encouraging.”

Marc Stern, the legal counsel for the American Jewish Congress, predicted that Sotomayor’s long bench experience ultimately will be a plus. More time on the bench shaping reasoned opinions made her less of a target than other nominees—like Lani Gunier, Robert Bork and Samuel Alito—whose years pushing intellectual boundaries in the halls of academe handed fodder to opponents seeking controversial statements.

Additionally, the 2nd Circuit of Appeals—based in Manhattan and covering New York, Connecticut and Vermont—deals with cases emerging from courts and legislatures that already trend liberal. That means it is less likely to address issues such as abortion and discrimination that often exercise Jewish groups.

“There’s no track record that anyone can point to,” Stern said. “There’s not likely going to be a whole lot there as a smoking gun.”

It’s time for words to lead the peace process


It is now clear that no peace agreement, not even on principles, will be signed by the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating team before some time in 2009, after the
new American administration takes charge, the Israeli election runs its course and the fate of Mahmoud Abbas’ presidency is decided.

Analysts who have been urging the two sides to expedite matters for all the many reasons that made the window of opportunities narrower by the day are now urging them to “keep the momentum going,” lest the window, which I doubt ever existed, becomes too narrow to re-open.

But how do you keep momentum going when the two sides are locked in a fundamentally immobile stalemate?

Israel is physically unable to accommodate a sovereign neighbor a rocket range away from its vital airports, one whose youngsters openly vow to destroy it. And Palestinians, on their part, cannot change their youngsters’ vows after having nourished them for decades, especially under occupation, while Iran is promising to turn those vows into reality.

Yet there is a way. If we cannot move on the ground, we should move above it — in the metaphysical sphere of words, metaphors and paradigms — to create a movement that not only would maintain the perception of “keeping the momentum going,” but could actually be the key to any future movement on the ground.

Let us be frank: The current stalemate is ideological, not physical, and it hangs on two major contentions: “historical right” and “justice,” which must be wrestled with in words before we can expect any substantive movement on the ground.

Starting with “historical right,” we recall that a year ago, the Annapolis process was on the verge of collapse on account of two words: “Jewish state.”

In the week preceding Annapolis, Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat proclaimed, “The PA would never acknowledge Israel’s Jewish identity,” to which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reacted angrily with: “We won’t hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state…. Whoever does not accept this cannot hold any negotiations with me.”

Clearly, to the secular Israeli society, the insistence on a Jewish state has nothing to do with kosher food or wearing yarmulkes; it has to do with historical claims of co-ownership and legitimacy, which are prerequisites for any lasting peace, regardless of its shape. Olmert’s reaction, which is shared by the vast majority of Israelis, translates into: “Whoever refuses to tell his children that Jews are here by moral and historical imperative has no intention of honoring his agreements in the long run.”

In other words, recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” is seen by Israelis as a litmus test for Arabs’ intentions to take peace agreements as permanent. Unfortunately, for the Arabs, the words “Jewish state” signal the legitimization of a theocratic society and the exclusion of non-Jews from co-ownership in the state.

Can these two views be reconciled?

Of course they can. If the PA agrees to recognize Israel’s “historical right” to exist (instead of just “right to exist” or “exist as a Jewish state”) fears connected with religious exclusion will not be awakened, and Israel’s demand for a proof of intention will simultaneously be satisfied: You do not teach your children of your neighbor’s “historical right” unless you intend to make the final status agreement truly final — education is an irreversible investment.

But would the PA ever agree to grant Israel such recognition?

This brings us to the second magical word: “justice.” One of the main impediments to Palestinians’ recognition of Israel’s “right to exist,” be it historical or de-facto, is their fear that such recognition would delegitimize the Arabs’ struggle against the Zionist program throughout the first half of the 20th century, thus contextualizing the entire conflict as a whimsical Arab aggression and weakening their claims to the “right of return.”

All analysts agree that Palestinians would never agree to give up, tarnish or weaken this right. They might, however, accept a symbolic recognition that would satisfy, neutralize and, perhaps, even substitute for the literal right of return.

Palestinian columnist Daoud Kuttab wrote in the Washington Post (May 12): “The basic demand is not the physical return of all refugees but for Israel to take responsibility for causing this decades-long tragedy.”

Similar to Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Palestinian refugees demand their place in history through recognition that their suffering was not a senseless dust storm but part of a man-made historical process, to which someone bears responsibility and is prepared to amend the injustice.

Journalist Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist and former member of the Knesset, believes that this deep sense of injustice can be satisfied through an open and frank Israeli apology.

“I believe that peace between us and the Palestinian people — a real peace, based on real conciliation — starts with an apology” he wrote in Arabic Media Internet Network, June 14 (www.amin.org).

“In my mind’s eye,” he writes, “I see the president of the state or the prime minister addressing an extraordinary session of the Knesset and making an historic speech of apology:

‘Madam Speaker, honorable Knesset,

‘On behalf of the State of Israel and all its citizens, I address today the sons and daughters of the Palestinian people, wherever they are.

‘We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.

‘The burning desire of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement was to save the Jews of Europe, where the dark clouds of hatred for the Jews were gathering. In Eastern Europe, pogroms were raging, and all over Europe there were signs of the process that would eventually lead to the terrible Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews perished.

‘All this does not justify what happened afterwards. The creation of the Jewish national home in this country has involved a profound injustice to you, the people who lived here for generations.

‘We cannot ignore anymore the fact that in the war of 1948 — which is the War of Independence for us and the Naqba for you — some 750,000 Palestinians were compelled to leave their homes and lands. As for the precise circumstances of this tragedy, I propose the establishment of a Committee for Truth and Reconciliation composed of experts from your and from our side, whose conclusions will from then on be incorporated in the schoolbooks, yours and ours.'”

Is Israeli society ready to make such an apology and assume such responsibility? Not a chance.

For an Israeli, admitting guilt for creating the refugee problem is tantamount to embedding Israel’s birth in sin, thus undermining the legitimacy of its existence and encouraging those who threaten that existence. The dominant attitude is: They started the war; wars have painful consequences; they fled on their own, despite our official calls to stay put. We are clean.

Can this attitude be reconciled with Palestinians’ demands for official recognition of their suffering? I believe it can.

Whereas Israelis refuse to assume full responsibility for the consequences of the 1948 war, they are certainly prepared to assume part of that responsibility. After all, Israelis are not unaware of stories about field commanders in the 1948 war who initiated private campaigns to scare Arab villagers and, on some occasions, to force them out.

So, how do we find words to express reciprocal responsibility? Here I take author’s liberty and, following Avnery, appeal to my mind’s eye and envision the continuation of that extraordinary Knesset session at the end of the Israeli president’s speech.

I see Abbas waiting for the applause to subside, stepping to the podium and saying:

“Madam Speaker, honorable Knesset,

“On behalf of the Palestinian people and the future state of Palestine, I address today the sons and daughters of the Jewish nation, wherever they are.

“We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.

“The burning desire of the founding fathers of the Palestinian national movement was to liberate Palestine from colonial powers, first the Ottoman empire and then the British Mandate Authorities. In their zeal to achieve independence, they have treated the creation of a Jewish national home in this country as a form of colonial occupation, rather than a homecoming endeavor of a potentially friendly neighbor, a partner to liberation, whose historical attachment to this landscape was not weaker than ours.

“We cannot ignore anymore the fact that the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 has resulted in the British White Paper, which prevented thousands, if not millions, of European Jews from escaping the Nazi extermination plan. Nor can we ignore the fact that when survivors of Nazi concentration camps sought refuge in Palestine, we were instrumental in denying them safety and, when they finally established their historical homeland, we called the armies of our Arab brethren to wipe out their newly created state.

“Subsequently, for the past 60 years, in our zeal to rectify the injustice done to us, we have taught our children that only your demise can bring about the justice and liberty they so badly deserve. They took our teachings rather seriously, and some of them resorted to terror wars that killed, maimed and injured thousands of your citizens.”

Admittedly, this scenario is utopian. The idea of Palestinians apologizing to Israel is so heretical in prevailing political consciousness that only six Google entries mention such a gesture, compared with 615 entries citing “Israel must apologize.”

Yet, peace begins with ideas, and ideas are shaped by words. And the utopian scenario I painted above gives a feasible frame to reciprocal words that must be said, in one form or another, for a lasting peace to set in.

And if not now, when? Recall, we must keep the momentum going.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (www.danielpearl.org) named after his son. He and his wife, Ruth, are editors of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

We can continue to make a difference in Darfur


The beginning of a new year is always filled with hope, potential and opportunity for growth and change. The year we are putting behind us has not been an easy one. Our economy has entered perilous waters, with many people losing their jobs — and their homes. The war in Iraq is now in its fifth year. A series of hurricanes have ravaged our coasts. In our own lives, each of us has faced personal challenges that have tested our strength and resolve.

Amid all these issues, from the local to the global, it’s understandable that we should feel a sense of vertigo. We tell ourselves the situation is too complex. We ask ourselves if our efforts truly make a difference. We question which issues deserve the most attention.

Some have called this feeling “compassion fatigue.”

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve spoken about Darfur for five years straight now, and sometimes I get tired of talking about the genocide that has claimed 450,000 lives, just as I’m sure people get tired of listening to me talk about it. Yet for me, as for many other Jews, there is simply no choice in the matter. This is because as Jews, we know what it is like to have the world forget and to have the world fail to act.

But if we choose to not to raise our voices about Darfur now, what will our children and grandchildren say about us? The approaching High Holy Days draw questions like these to the forefront.

Many of us have answered by taking action on Darfur. Yet, now in the fifth year of this grueling genocide, some are also asking, “Did the letter I wrote to my senator help? Did taking part in that rally have an impact?”

The answer is yes. We may not be able to place a precise number on the lives saved as a result of our efforts. But we can say our activism has contributed to 27 states adopting divestment policies for Sudan. We know that we have made Darfur a foreign policy priority for elected officials, as well as the presidential candidates. And we have ensured that humanitarian aid continues to go where it is most needed.

Here’s what we can do now to help end the bloodshed: Push for expanding and enforcing an arms embargo to the region and pressure China, the biggest small arms dealer to Sudan, to stop the flow of weapons there. Let your senators know that you want the United States to support the embargo as a member of the U.N. Security Council. Tell them you want the U.S. government to use its influence to pressure China to stop underwriting the genocide with arms sales.

Now is not the time to diminish our resolve. Khartoum continues to deploy deadly air attacks. Last month, more than 30 civilians were killed when Sudanese government forces, armed with machine guns and automatic weapons of the kind sent by China, attacked one of Darfur’s largest camps for displaced people.

As Yom Kippur approaches, I am mindful of this passage from the Book of Isaiah: “Is not this the fast I look for? To unlock the shackles of injustice? To undo the fetters of bondage? To let the oppressed go free and to break every cruel chain?”

Nowhere have I been brought more closely in touch with the meaning of these words than when I sat with Darfuris in a refugee camp in eastern Chad, welcoming the new year. The High Holy Day is meant to stir us, to shake us to our core. It is meant to reconfirm our values and strengthen our resolve to live by them. Because at the heart of the holiday experience is this enduring ethic: We cannot allow ourselves to succumb to inaction. For Jews, life is about deeds.

When the shofar is sounded on the new year, it is to awaken us from our slumber to the need in this world. Let the shofar’s blast be a clarion call for each of us to remember that we can make a difference, and that each of us has a role to play to stop the killing in Darfur.

The action you take today or tomorrow on behalf of this cause likely won’t be the last. But it will be the right act, the necessary act at this moment in time. The people of Darfur are waiting for the world to hear their cries.

We must answer their call.

Rabbi Lee T. Bycel is executive director of the American Jewish World Service Western Region.


Ed Guthman leaves legacy of fighting injustice


When Ed Guthman died Aug. 30 at the age of 89, the Los Angeles Jewish community lost one of its most distinguished members.

He had been a Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter. As press secretary to Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, he braved danger in the South when the federal government forced recalcitrant states to integrate. Before that, he’d faced danger in combat in Italy during World War II.

Ed was an editor at the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was a beloved journalism professor at USC. He helped create and then headed the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

I don’t believe Ed was religious. We never discussed it. Our shared religious background was hardly mentioned when, in 1972, he assigned me to do a story that was of major interest to the Jewish community.

At the time, Republicans were mounting a quiet but intense campaign to persuade Jews to vote for President Richard M. Nixon on the grounds that he was Israel’s best friend. I told Ed I had a connection who might help, Louis Boyar, a cousin who was a major philanthropist, political contributor, supporter of the Jewish community and friend of Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel.

Ed assigned me the story. I had lunch with Boyar at the Hillcrest Country Club and reported what I had learned. It wasn’t enough, so Ed sent me east, first to the office of Jake Arvey, the retired Chicago political boss and a prominent Jew, and finally to the Israeli Embassy in Washington. The last stop, plus some other interviews, finally gave me enough information to satisfy Ed, and I wrote the story.

Looking back on the incident, what was striking was how little our being Jewish figured into the pursuit of the story, even though it would be widely discussed in the community. My memory of the story is how he urged me on until I got to the bottom of it.

That’s not unusual. A newsroom is a most secular place. In all my years in newsrooms, I can recall discussing religion with only one person, my friend Tim Rutten, a devout, although cynical, Catholic.

Such secularism, by the way, is one reason for journalism’s spotty coverage of religion. The United States is a highly religious country, but this is not reflected on television news or in mainstream publications.

But whether or not he was religious, Ed was a righteous man — although never self-righteous — who approached his tasks with a commitment to social justice, honesty and concern for society’s underdogs. There was something biblical about him, like those prophets who couldn’t let evil pass by without doing or saying something about it.

When he was honored by the Los Angeles City Council for his public service, he said he was grateful to his father, a German Jewish immigrant, for imbuing in him an obligation to serve.

“He always taught us that we had to give something back to this great country and the freedom we enjoy and experience,” he said.

I became friends with Ed at the Times, where he was national editor from 1965 to 1977.

It was a big job. Ed was in charge of a growing network of bureaus around the country, as well as the Washington bureau. In addition, he was responsible for a national desk, which edited the large number of stories that came in each day.

Ed took the best of this work into the daily news meetings, where the managing editor, after hearing the pitches of each of the editors, decided what would go on Page 1. Ed argued fiercely for his stories and was sometimes too intense for a group who seemed to take pride in being calm, laid back and uninvolved.

It was a tumultuous period, and Ed was in the middle of it. The Watts Riot of 1965 ushered in the era, followed by student rebellions in Berkeley and across the country and then demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In the middle of it were the assassinations, first of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and then Ed’s friend, Robert Kennedy. That occurred here in Los Angeles, the night Kennedy won the 1968 California Democratic primary.

Then there was Watergate. Ed’s leadership in the Times coverage and his association with Kennedy earned him a place high on Richard Nixon’s enemies list.

Ed’s office was one of several for editors at one end of the vast newsroom. He didn’t spend a lot of time in the office. When he was in there, he was on the phone with his correspondents around the country and in the Washington bureau.

But much of the time, he roamed through the newsroom, talking to reporters. He respected reporters and was curious about what they were working on and how they were going about it.

That’s how I became friendly with him. I covered politics, and Ed was intensely interested in what I was doing, from state elections to campaigns for City Council. He began arranging with my boss for me to do national stories for him.

In writing this sort of piece for a newspaper, a journalist looks for illuminating anecdotes that in three neat paragraphs can illustrate and explain the subject of a story.

Ed did not lend himself to anecdotes. He was forthright and plain in his speech. For a man of such accomplishment, he was extremely modest. In a business full of men and woman with huge egos, he didn’t boast of glory days of the past.

So I don’t have any great stories about Ed. What I took away from our friendship was a commitment to social justice and to fighting injustice. Long after he left the paper, I tried to carry on his tradition in my own work and, when I became an editor, in the work of my reporters. Many of them knew Ed and were inspired by him, as were his students at USC.

They are Ed’s legacy to journalism and his country.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Moving beyond charity


One of the biggest misnomers in the Jewish vocabulary is the translation of tzedakah as “charity.” This mistranslation has gone on for so long in the American< Jewish community that it's a hard habit to break. Most Hebrew school kids will give this answer when asked, much as they will say that mitzvah means "good deed" (another misnomer, for another column).

Tzedakah is much more than charity since it comes from the word tzedek, which means “justice.” When looked at in this light, the giving of tzedakah is so much more than charity; charity seems to indicate something we give voluntarily and only to those who are less fortunate than we. Tzedakah, while it might come in the form of monetary giving, is a commandment that calls us to a much more profound level of interaction with the world than just writing a check to a worthy organization.

Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with writing checks. It’s just that this is not the end of — nor the essence of — tzedakah. Rather, as a commentator reminds us in regard to this week’s parshah, Shoftim, tzedakah is intimately connected to creating a meaningful and just legal system.

This parshah is the call to justice par excellence in the Torah, for it includes the famous verse, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice you shall pursue), which, according to Chasidic master Simcha Bunem, reminds us that justice is to be pursued by just means, unlike many of the false, doublespeak pursuits of justice that we have witnessed throughout history (and in our own day, where so-called justice is pursued for selfish ends).

But I am most interested in the opening line, where the Torah calls on us to “appoint judges and magistrates in all our gates, the places that God gives to you, and you shall judge the people with righteous justice (mishpat tzedek)” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

What does “righteous justice” mean?

Commenting on this verse, the great 19th century master, Chatam Sofer, says it relates to a verse from the prophet Hosea, “v’erastich li b’tzedek uv’mishpat, uv’chesed uv’rachamim,” a line about God betrothing us with justice (tzedek), law (mishpat), kindness (chesed) and compassion (rachamim), which we say while putting on tefillin in the morning. According to a midrash, God provides the world with kindness and compassion, and we provide justice and law, thereby creating a balanced and holy alliance. It’s a tangible and beautiful way of conceptualizing the covenant between divinity and humanity. Chatam Sofer goes on to say that “God gives us space to create homes, societies and communities, out of love and compassion, and it is up to us to create them with justice and righteousness, by creating laws that are fair and just for all members.”

This is the true meaning of tzedakah: not charity, but justice.

And in a fascinating connection, another commentator, in the 20th century collection of teachings Likutei Yehudah, says that it is precisely for this reason that Shoftim follows last week’s parshah, Re’eh, which mentions the mitzvah of tzedakah; without justice, there is no tzedakah, and without tzedakah, there is no justice. This is a powerful and profoundly relevant teaching for our time.

In envisioning a world where the interaction between justice and tzedakah is a reality, we are blessed in today’s age to have amazing organizations in our community, like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has helped to redefine what giving means. Not only do they collect money, but they distribute it in a way that helps people achieve sustainable development; they bring people — young people especially — to work in developing nations, offering participants a firsthand look at true poverty and a hands-on way to help alleviate it. They seek to reshape the global landscape with just solutions for systemic problems. AJWS and its volunteers do this because the Torah calls on us to be just in our ways. They are living the words of the Chatam Sofer, leading us in our part of the covenant.

I believe that our nation as a whole can learn a great deal from AJWS, as we seek to recapture a sense of justice and righteousness in our country, for one could argue that we are taking God’s compassion and kindness for granted.

Mishpat tzedek, just laws, must seek ways to be as inclusive as possible, bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Until we work together as a human family to guarantee tzedek — true justice and not just charity — we will not be fully living up to the potential that Parshat Shoftim calls us towards. Americans are a very generous people in regard to charity, and Jewish Americans especially. Let us turn our efforts now with as much vigor toward justice, fashioning an even more holy society based on mishpat tzedek, the great confluence of law and righteousness. True tzedakah can change our world in a way that charity alone cannot.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (www.pjtc.net). He also serves as national secretary of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, corresponding secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and on the board of Jewish World Watch. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

The Power of Love


“Why not just give up hope? I mean, really, do you think that we human beings can ever get it together enough to make the world as we dream? What makes you think that we have any chance of making a difference, let alone succeeding in the task of tikkun olam, of creating a fair and decent world where all people, and I mean all people, have access to food, water, medicine, shelter, are free from war, oppression, occupation, violence, hatred, where children can go to school and learn, come home and play, and people can really feel like we have made it?”

Silence.

“Well, rabbi, are you going to say anything?”

More silence.

We sat together for a bit longer and then I told this person, who had come to see me and opened with this messianic vision question, that I am comforted by the words of this week’s parsha, Nitzavim-Vayelech. This is essentially what I said.

I believe in the goodness of humanity, the hope that we can actually make the changes he was speaking of, because of a combination of verses that we read in Nitzavim. There is just a cacophony of incredible verses teaching us how to create a better world.

This parsha is replete with hope: love, repentance, awareness, life and Torah. The theme of returning, teshuvah, comes in Deuteronomy 30:1-10, where the root shuv appears seven times. I am moved by verses 2-3: “And you return to Adonai your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all of your heart and soul, just as I call you this day; then God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love….” No matter how far we have drifted, how far we have fallen, how ugly and terrible things have gotten, God will help us come back, return to a path of goodness and righteousness, justice, peace and love.

How? That is what the man in my office was seeking to know.

I see God as the power of love in our world, the power that opens our eyes to the fact that every human life is sacred, every human life is holy and deserving of love, compassion and mercy. When we realize that fact, when our hearts are cracked open with the pain that we are causing, then we will be able to create the world of our dreams, what some call the messianic age. My friend and teacher, the Rev. Ed Bacon, preached recently that a world that lives with the acceptable idea of collateral damage is dead to humanity. When we treat others with love, then God takes us back in love. When we realize that God is love, we will treat others with that love as well.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose centennial we observe this year, continually taught us that we are in partnership with God, sharing the burden of creating a world that merits the Divine presence. Sometimes we don’t feel like we have the power to do it all alone, but as Psalm 27, the psalm of this season, reminds us, “Adonai is my light and my help, whom shall I fear?” When we seek support, God is there; when God seeks action in the world, we are there. Together, we become echad, the true oneness of a holy world.

And then there is the notion of how hard it is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, as the prophet Micah famously taught. The other section of this week’s parsha that helps me to understand what needs to be done says, “Surely this mitzvah which I teach you today is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in heaven…. No, the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

I once heard Shimon Peres speak, saying how easy it was to make war, but how hard it was to make peace. I had always soundly believed that, until recently when I read something from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, commenting on these verses from Devarim. On the words, “but the word is very near to you,” the great Chasidic master teaches, “Only the way to Gehinnom is arduous and difficult. I see people spending their days and nights plotting how to go about sinning, and afterward, they regret their actions bitterly. But the way to the Garden of Eden is an easy one, and pleasant for those who walk it” (Iturei Torah).

And maybe he is right.

How much easier would it be to build a world of love, compassion, justice and peace than the continued path of war and violence? How much cheaper would it be to end poverty, provide health insurance for all people, educate and feed the world and foster peace? We see what we get for the trillions of dollars that are spent on war and domination. Maybe we ought to try a different path. No matter how far we have fallen, how ugly and terrible things have gotten, God is always ready and waiting to take us back in love, showing us how the world can be different.

Teshuvah is possible, always. Maybe it is time to heed the call of the end of this parsha, “See, I set before you this day life and goodness, death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). This moment, this Shabbat, this Rosh Hashanah, let us choose life, choose love, choose peace. This is how I keep my hope alive. Shabbat shalom and Shana Tovah.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves as the Corresponding Secretary and Social Action co-chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, on the national board and as Los Angeles chapter chair of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, and recently helped to found Jews Against the War. He can be reached at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

A Troubled Exodus


With two miles of bare footprints behind them, Ahmed and Fatima and their three children approached the border with Israel in the middle of a cold winter night. Snow was falling in the Sinai.

Avoid the Egyptian military patrols, they were warned by their Bedouin smugglers, whom they paid with money borrowed from Sudanese friends.

“If they catch you, you could be shot or deported back to Sudan,” the Bedouins said.

The 12-hour trip from Cairo was the last leg of a multiyear journey stretching from the violence of Darfur to Sudan’s dangerous capital of Khartoum to the teeming streets of Cairo. Ahmed had been imprisoned in each city.

Israel was their last hope for what Fatima calls “a normal life” without the “fear of being sent back to Sudan.”

Two hours after dusting the sand off their dark clothing, dirtied while crawling under two security fences, their 5-month-old baby’s cry pierced the silence of the frigid Negev air. The response was an Israeli military spotlight.

“Do you know where you are?” the soldiers called out in Arabic.

“Yes,” they answered.

“Why are you here?”

“Because we were mistreated in Egypt.”

“Who are you?”

“We are Sudanese.”

Ahmed lowered his 2-year-old son from his shoulders and held up his Sudanese passport, as well as the worn yellow card given to asylum seekers by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The card had been obtained in Cairo and saved them from being deported back to Sudan, as the Egyptian police had threatened.

The Israeli soldiers gave the children their green military coats.

“We were afraid of the Egyptian army, not of the Israeli army,” Ahmed recalled later.

In an often-reluctant ritual that has been repeated almost weekly for two years, involving Sudanese sneaking into Israel, Israel Defense Forces patrols gathered up the tired refugee family, placed them in an ambulance and handed them over to the Border Police. The Border Police sent Ahmed to Ketziot Prison for violating the Infiltration Law, a 1954 statute enacted against enemy combatants.

If the experience of others before him is any precedent, Ahmed could remain incarcerated for at least a year, until Israel figures out what to do with him and the more than 120 other imprisoned Sudanese.

Fatima and the children were sent to a battered women’s shelter in the western Galilee that has largely been taken over by Sudanese refugees whose husbands are in prison.

The failure of the United Nations to cope with the doubling of refugee applications in the past decade or to intervene to prevent the genocide in Darfur has had ripple effects throughout the world. That now includes Israel and the Jewish world.

Faced with genocidal threats from Iran and terrorist groups, a legacy of the Holocaust and even echoes of the Exodus 3,700 years ago, Israel is torn between its commitment to universal humanitarian concerns and its own security interests.

A four-month investigation into the plight of the refugees and the Israeli government’s handling of the situation found a system that even the top Israeli official adjudicating each of the cases has said often violates Israeli and international law.

After two years of legal challenges and growing Israeli media attention, the issue now is coming to a critical juncture.

The practice of arresting and indefinitely detaining Sudanese asylum seekers on security grounds is being tested in the courts, even as Israeli Border Police are showing signs of resisting the orders to arrest and detain the refugees crossing the borders.

Major international human rights figures have embraced the cause, and a handful of Knesset members and activists in Israel are pressing for a resolution of the crisis. Some of these activists, in turn, have strong ties to the American Jewish community, which has embraced the cause of Darfur as a top humanitarian priority. Some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Another 2.5 million have been displaced.

Israel’s quandary is a difficult one.

“Sudanese refugees are right now considered enemy nationals since Sudan is an Islamic fundamentalist country,” explained Anat Ben Dor, Israel’s leading refugee rights lawyer, who has emerged as a top advocate for the Sudanese refugees. “Yet Israel is a signatory to the International Convention on Refugees, which guarantees humane treatment and a safe haven from genocide.”

Ben Dor, 40, who directs the Tel Aviv University Law School Refugee Rights Clinic, in late February filed suit against the government for its alleged treatment of three refugees.

Israel helped author the convention in the aftermath of World War II. Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany were routinely refused safe haven because they, like the current Sudanese, were classified as enemy nationals.

Activists enjoyed a small victory on March 21, when Israel’s Supreme Court gave the state 45 days to determine whether the detainees were getting a fair and proper judicial review.

“Bringing justice is the issue here,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, who is presiding over a three-judge panel hearing the case.

“This is very significant,” said Ben Dor, who together with the Hotline for Migrant Workers, filed the appeal to the court, arguing that those Sudanese arrested and put in jail for illegally entering the country should not be charged as infiltrators of an enemy state.

The petition against Israel’s defense and interior ministers argues that even though 150 Sudanese have been released into alternative detention, the lack of formal judicial review makes the detention illegal.

Under Israeli law, other nationals who sneak through the Sinai Desert into Israel are charged with the Law of Entry. In those cases, the government must review their cases every 30 days and justify their imprisonment. But since Sudanese are considered “enemy nationals,” they are charged under the harsher Infiltration Law, which has no official review mechanism and by which detainees can be held indefinitely.

Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former minister of justice and human rights attorney for such well-known dissidents as Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela, has joined with the Israel Bar Association in filing supporting documents on behalf of the Sudanese with the Israeli High Court.

Unmasking Purim’s vital meaning


It’s a classic Jewish tale: Just when we feel comfortable and safe, nahafokh hu — the whole world can turn upside down.

Megillat Esther, read on Purim, reminds us that history is capricious and life is fragile; that willing or not, we must confront our powerlessness and vulnerability, our inability to control everything. Or anything. We’re given some tools to assist in that brutal awakening — masks and flasks — which help us laugh at ourselves as we venture into the dangerous territory of rabbi-sanctioned drunken revelry, of the outrageous, irresponsible behavior most of us work hard to guard against the rest of the year.

On Purim we are instructed (Megillah 7a) to drink ad d’lo yada, until we can no longer distinguish between Haman and Mordecai, evil and good, blessing and curse — an excuse to be utterly confused, an annual corrective to our desperate attempts to exert control over our lives.

But is this really a laudable religious goal? The practice of Purim seems counterintuitive, counterproductive and even dangerous. Why put ourselves through it?

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbah, who, in a drunken frenzy on Purim, accidentally murders R. Zeira, then miraculously resuscitates him after sobering up. A year later, Rabbah again invites R. Zeira to celebrate Purim with him, but R. Zeira blithely refuses this time, saying that miracles are not to be taken for granted (Megillah 7b).

This story is an expression of rabbinic ambivalence to ad d’lo yada — underscoring the deeply problematic nature of Purim for people of conscience and sensibility. Most of us spend our year working assiduously to make order out of a chaotic world — trying to repair broken relationships, to make space for holiness in our work and in our homes; trying to respond to grief with comfort, to cruelty with goodness. Most of us work hard to try to remember — amidst the chaos — that every deed, every moment has the potential to pierce the darkness with some light.

Then Purim arrives each year, mandating that we contemplate a world without God (there is no mention of God throughout the entire megillah), that we entertain our darkest fears about the direction of history (there is no such thing as real security — our individual and collective destinies could change in an instant).

On Purim we are forced to confront the possibility that nothing we do really matters, because history is ultimately arbitrary, and life is therefore unalterably unpredictable. No wonder they tell us to have a couple of drinks …
But the power of Purim is not that it leaves us in a drunken stupor, vulnerable, uncertain and hungover.

The real power of Purim is that we move beyond the costumed debauchery — the ultimate response to nothingness — and respond to chaos with an affirmation of somethingness: namely the human capacity for goodness. One of the central obligations of Purim is not only to give mishloah manot — gifts to our loved ones, but also to give matanot l’evyonim — gifts to the poor. Remarkably, though the obligation is to give two gifts to two people in need, we are taught that even more is expected of us. “One is not exceedingly precautious with money on Purim. Rather, everyone who puts out a hand [in need], we are to give to that person” (Shulkhan Arukh, OH 694:3).

Purim demands that, for one day of the year, we are released from the shackles of cautious discernment and, instead, we give to anyone and everyone who lacks. We give, regardless of what we think or fear the person might do with the money, and regardless of our political perspectives on how best to fight poverty, homelessness and hunger. We give indiscriminately and generously, just because somebody needs.

Why the obligatory openheartedness? Because ultimately the message of Purim is that we can’t control history, but we must control how we treat humanity. Out of the depths of darkness, out of utter nonsense, we have the capacity to dream of a different kind of reality, one in which no person suffers the indignity of poverty, no parent puts her kids to bed hungry, and human beings work devotedly, even indiscriminately, to realize a world of dignity, justice and love.

At IKAR we try to communicate the complexity of this holiday through our Purim Justice Carnival. We embrace the confusion and moral ambiguity of Purim simultaneously with drunken revelry and a renewed commitment to social change.

We play blackjack with cards bearing hunger stats; we spin prize wheels for sweat-free souvenirs; we eat, drink and dance until it hurts. And at the end of the night, each of us ends up with a chunk of money that we give to organizations that are working to address critical local and global social justice issues.

But hunger, AIDS, economic justice on Purim? How do we reconcile those struggles with the obligation to have real simcha, joy of the holiday? The rabbis tell us exactly what it means to really experience the joy of the holiday.

“There is no greater or more wonderful joy,” says the Mishnah Berurah, “than to make happy the heart of a poor person, an orphan or a widow. And in this way, we are imitating God.”

Our commitment to help those most vulnerable fuels our celebration. Our Purim Justice Carnival is an attempt to integrate the religious and the political, the spiritual and the social — and for that reason it’s our best party of the year.

The rabbis teach that even when all the other festivals are abolished in the World to Come, Purim will remain (Midrash Mishle 9:2). Why is that? Because Purim is one holiday that teaches that no matter what life deals to us, we have the power to respond with love, hope, joy and purpose. We embrace chaos and meaninglessness for one day each year, precisely to affirm that that is not the world we want to live in. Then we spend the rest of the year making sure that it does not become our reality.

May we all be blessed this year with the capacity to internalize the message of Purim — to refuse to accept the inevitability of the flow of history, to give with all our hearts, to love with all our beings, and to work with all our strength to bring light, hope and healing into our world.

L’chayim!


Sharon Brous is rabbi of Death in the Hood

Sheket, b’vakasha!


Shutting Jewish Mouths

We were surprised to read the mischaracterization of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommitee) in Rob Eshman’s column (“Shutting Jewish Mouths,” Feb. 16).

As our 175,000 constituents know, we welcome a wide range of viewpoints in the AJCommitee “tent” and our members count themselves as liberals, conservatives and everything in between. AJCommitee is a strictly nonpartisan organization, long viewed as centrist in its orientation and we pride ourselves on a deliberative style of discussion and debate on policy matters. Contrary to Eshman’s view, there is no “party line” at AJCommitee.

Legitimate and informed discussion of Israeli policies is welcome, and, as ardent defenders of the Jewish state, we have been long-time participants in that debate. Indeed, AJCommitee is a leading advocate for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we must take umbrage with anyone, even fellow Jews, who call for Israel’s demise.

The essay by professor Alvin Rosenfeld of Indiana University addresses a very real threat that a Jewish imprimatur gives to the campaign to challenge Israel’s very legitimacy. As the American Jewish community’s leading think tank, the AJCommitee chose to publish the essay because it is important to illuminate views held by those on the political fringes asserting that Israel has no right to exist and should either be destroyed or morphed into a so-called bi-national state, which means the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Their language needs to be read to understand why professor Rosenfeld, a highly regarded scholar, felt compelled to write his essay and why AJCommitee chose to publish it. It can be found at www.ajc.org.

Meanwhile, those who claim that an effort is underway to stifle debate are just wrong. Discussion online and offline has been vibrant, and we hope interest in the Rosenfeld essay will spark serious conversation on the important issues he raises.

Sherry A. Weinman
President
Los Angeles Chapter
American Jewish Committee

Bravo, well said … and it needed to be said. I admire your courage in speaking out against an increasingly stultifying establishment… which, of course, was itself the point.

No matter how much heat you catch — and I’m sure it will be plentiful — know that you have many readers who respect your resolve to deliver real journalism. Kol hakavod l’cha.

Rabbi Ken Chasen
Leo Baeck Temple

Your statement about being the former head of Americans for Peace now [in Los Angeles] made everything clear about how you have used The Jewish Journal to put down the religious Jews who really care about their G-d-given birthright, the land of Israel and the nominally Jewish traitors who would sell their soul for a fake peace with the Islamic terrorists who want nothing more than to eradicate Jews from the face of the earth.

If ever there were a case for removing a traitor from a “Jewish” publication, it is you. You are a pogrom all by yourself.

Bunnie Meyer
via e-mail

In “Shutting Jewish Mouths” (Feb. 16), Jewish Journal Editor in Chief Rob Eshman makes an almost comical argument: the American Jewish Committee can stop Peace Now’s abusive criticism of Israel.

But pacifists, whether in England in the 1930s, West Germany in the 1970s or in the West today, always blame the victim first.

Thus, while friends of Israel seek to improve Israel’s public image, Peace Now supplies the raw materials for anti-Israel coverage. While Israel seeks new markets for its products, Peace Now assists in economic boycotts. While the IDF maps Iranian nuclear sites, Peace Now maps settlements. While Hamas prepares to introduce sharia, or Islamic law, into the formerly “occupied” Gaza strip, Peace Now advocates splitting Jerusalem. While Hezbollah and Syria plan another round of missile strikes, Peace Now demands that Israel surrender the Golan.

It’s true that we all love Israel. But love from pacifists tends to hurt — a lot.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter
Rehovot, Israel

Justice Takes a Beating

Joe R. Hicks’ otherwise excellent article about the sentence of freedom given to the gang that nearly beat to death three innocent young girls on the street while screaming anti-white racial epithets against them left out the most important information: the judge’s name (“Justice Takes a Beating in Racial Hatred Case,” Feb. 16).

It is Superior Court Judge Gibson Lee, not only the object of worldwide scorn via the Internet and talk radio, but thankfully the subject of a recall petition. Lee is a disgrace to the bench and to America, and should resign immediately.

Caroline Miranda
North Hollywood

Dennis Prager

In the course of his lukewarm, non-defense of Dennis Prager, David Klinghoffer adds insult to injury by claiming that the “Muslim scriptures do not deserve” the same recognition as the Bible because “what has made America so special” can be traced to “a unique blending of Christian and Jewish beliefs,” in which the “Quran played no role whatsoever” (“Prager Shouldn’t Lose His Museum Post,” Feb. 16).

Klinghoffer needs to go back and study his U.S. history. What made America so special is not some Christian/Jewish exclusion of other religions, but the inclusive principle of religious tolerance.

Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson demanded recognition of the religious rights of the “Mahamdan,” the Jew and the “pagan.” Richard Henry Lee asserted: “True freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion.”

Jefferson recounted that in the struggle to pass his landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), the Virginia legislature “rejected by a great majority” an effort to limit the bill’s scope, “in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan.”

Officials in Massachusetts were equally insistent that their influential Constitution of 1780 afforded “the most ample liberty of conscience … to Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.”

Justice takes a beating in Long Beach racial hatred case


The nine black youths who beat three young white women have now been sentenced by a Juvenile Court judge, and there’s only one problem.

While these “kids” could
have killed their victims, the judge slapped them on the wrists lightly and sent them home. Astoundingly, after finding the nine defendants guilty of intent to cause bodily harm, with hate crime enhancements, the judge then reversed direction and gave them probation?

A tenth youth was acquitted.

The basic facts of the case are that last Halloween, a pack of black youths, with no evidence of any provocation, set upon three young white women who had come to an upscale part of Long Beach known to attract trick-or-treaters. Out of the larger crowd of attackers, 10 were identified and placed on trial.

After a lengthy process, that saw witness intimidation from gang members (one was forced to move; another had her car totaled), the expectation was — that if found guilty — a verdict and sentence would be handed down that delivered a strong message of intolerance for such uncivilized acts.

Instead, another message was delivered — that racism in its black guise will be treated with leniency and “understanding,” since this kind of racial retribution is an undesirable but understandable outgrowth of historic mistreatment at the hands of whites. What complete rubbish.

In case you wondered, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Affairs, out of the 1.2 million cases of interracial crimes each year, 90 percent involve a black perpetrator and a white victim. The interests of law and order and a civil society were not served well by this judge’s sentences.

What highlights the crass, crude and bigoted nature of this ugly mass attack is the fact that Loren Hyman, one of the three victims, is both Jewish and Latino, but like a pack of hyenas converging on some yearling antelopes, this crowd was in no mood to parse out the finer points of ethnic and religious identity.

However, while these defendants have escaped culpability, others have not been brought before any judge. Ten black youths were put on trial, but it has been estimated that between 25 to 40 black teens surrounded Hyman, Laura Schneider and Michelle Smith last Halloween.

This was no routine youthful fracas — the attacks left Loren with more than a dozen facial fractures, a serious injury to her jaw, partial loss of sight in one eye and a recessed eye socket. Schneider was knocked unconscious and suffered a concussion.

One male attacker knocked one of the girls unconscious with a skateboard, while another was stomped as she lay unconscious.

According to both victims and witnesses, the attackers hurled anti-white slurs while beating the girls.

And to add insult to injury, on the day that four of the defendants were being released from custody to the comfort of their homes, Hyman was undergoing a seven-hour surgery to repair her shattered eye socket — the outcome of which is still unknown.

The rationale for giving probation, say Juvenile Court officials, is to promote rehabilitation — something presumably a harsher sentence couldn’t have accomplished? But, how can rehabilitation occur, when the parents and the teens have remained defiant, without any remorse.

Yes, they admit they were there but claim somebody else beat the girls. OK, I get it. They’re not guilty of an ugly assault; they’re actually, uh, victims.

But then the whole affair is bizarre, lodged squarely in the midst of the politics of racial identity. What if the scenario were reversed? For instance, what if the pack of black thugs who attacked these girls was white skinheads and their victims had been several young black youths?

Would the national media have virtually ignored the incident? Would every nationally known black leader have swooped into town, set up an encampment at the Long Beach Courthouse and demanded justice for the victims?

Wouldn’t everybody from the mayor to the governor and beyond be demanding that the judge send a message against racism? And, what if a judge handed down a sentence of probation for the skinhead scumbags — would the city have escaped massive “social justice” marches, with its leaders lustily yelling, “No justice, no peace”? Get the picture?

Some of us still remember the ugly incident on the first day of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, you know, the one where white trucker Reginald Denny was set upon by several black thugs and nearly killed, simply for being white and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some excused the actions of the thugs who beat Denny, saying it was misdirected black rage, but in no way was it racism.

Fast forward that tape to 2007, and we find Farai Chedeya, a black National Public Radio show host, saying shortly after the Long Beach attacks that “… some people say black folks cannot be racists because the root of the issue is power.”

What a convenient dodge. I wonder if that came to the mind of the victim as a black thug broke a skateboard over her head, sending her into unconsciousness. Now that’s power.

Joe Hicks is the former executive director of the L.A. chapter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He is currently vice president of Community Advocates Inc. and a KFI-AM talk show host.

Awareness Center and other blogs draw praise and scorn


There is no unabridged database of rabbinic sexual abusers. But there is the Awareness Center.

It’s not a physical place, but a Baltimore post office box, cellphone number and Web site — ‘ target=’_blank’>unorthodoxjew.com, the ‘ target=’_blank’>Jewishwhistleblower.blogspot.com and Chile’s Jews part of the larger community in Santiago

Rabbi Heschel at 100 — still the voice of God


I had a life-changing experience on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 25th yahrzeit in 1997. After just meeting and befriending Heschel’s daughter and only child, Susannah,
she took me with her to all of the various memorial services happening around New York City in her father’s memory.

I went into the Heschel home and met his relatives — great rebbes and leaders of various Orthodox sects, who, regardless of the fact that their famous family member left Orthodoxy, came to pay their respects and honor his memory.

There was an intense Ma’ariv service at the Heschel School, one in which Susannah taught a Mishnah, a selection of oral law, in honor of her father, using the chanting and pronunciation of another world, another time. The experience swept me back into Eastern Europe, to the Polish village where Heschel came from, to the beit midrash, the study hall, where he emerged as the talmudic and biblical genius he was to become.

I had never felt such depth of prayer, such fervor of learning text, such intensity of emotion; Abraham Joshua Heschel’s spirit was alive in that room.

This past week was Heschel’s yahrzeit, which falls during Parshat Shemot, the beginning of slavery and our fight against Pharaoh, which is also when we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. How appropriate!

Heschel spent the end of his life fighting against injustice, screaming out against the Pharaohs of his day, using his prophetic understanding to try and end the Vietnam War, speak out against poverty and, of course, famously walking with and befriending Dr. King in his fight against racism and for civil rights. From the life of Jacob, the God-wrestler, to the battle against injustice, from Vayechi to Shemot, these are the mountaintops from which Heschel lived his life, combining love of Torah and God with a need for prophetic screaming against the injustices of our world.

Heschel taught that God, Torah, Judaism and one’s whole being are fully interconnected. There is no break among any of these moments in our lives. When we pray, we must give our whole selves over to the experience of connecting with God, the Divine. As Heschel wrote in “Between God and Man”: “One who goes to pray is not intent upon enhancing his storehouse of knowledge; he who performs a ritual does not expect to advance his interests. Sacred deeds are designed to make living compatible with our sense of the ineffable.”

Mitzvot lead us to this kind of life, even as we exist in the secular and material world. We must cultivate an inner sense of connection with the Divine so as to carry it forth in all moments of our lives. This takes work, patience, consistency and inner courage. Every moment with every falling leaf, every passing car, with every unseen sound, with every unseen breath, these are the moments of eternity, holy of holies. If only we can come awake to these moments, then Heschel will live in all of us.

Pathos for God, feeling the pain, sharing the joy, having a relationship — that is what Heschel lived with. There is nothing higher, nothing holier, than community connected in rich and meaningful prayer. It is never a performance, a show for the congregation to watch. It is an experience to partake in and fully contribute to.

Without all of us in it together, the experience is not complete. As Heschel wrote in “Man’s Quest for God”: “The act of prayer is more than a process of the mind and a movement of the lips…. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God. To pray means to expose oneself to God.”

In today’s Jewish experience, we need to recapture the sense of awe and wonder that Heschel professed so often. Prayer must regain its sense of meaning for it to have value for us today. Life must be lived with a sense of the ineffable, which Heschel meant as seeing the great amazement of just being alive.

How many of us wake up each morning and give thanks for the new day? How many of us see the pain of the world around us and call out for justice? How many of us notice the beauty, the glory, the absolute magnificence that exists right here, right in front of us?

Heschel noticed the gnat on a wall, the bud on a tree just before it blooms, the face of the God in the homeless people he passed on the street each day. And, in all of these moments, he understood that there was a God, a Creator and Sustainer, a Life-Supporter and a Guide. We must do the work in this world, that is true, but it is God that offers us the chance to do mitzvot, it is God that smiles when we succeed and it is God that cries when we fail.

We all have the ability to become the prophet, to live with the voice of God in us. On this, Heschel wrote: “The pathos of God is upon him. It moves him. It breaks out in him like a storm in the soul, overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, feelings, wishes, and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind, giving him the courage to act against the world.”

This is the mindset of Heschel, and while we can’t live like this all of the time, ultimately, this is the mindset that can be achieved through prayer, leading to action in our world. If only we commit ourselves to cultivating this sense. We must carry God with us on our journey in life, not just visit God when we come to the synagogue.

In honor of Heschel’s 100th year, I would encourage you to read, or re-read, something by him. His books have the potential to change your life if you read them with an open heart, an open mind and desire to be truly moved, shaken, uprooted and replanted with different vision, new motivation and a drive to make this world a more holy, special, just place, and to live a life filled with the awe and wonder that we seldom only see in our children. Heschel maintained his sense of wonder throughout his life, and, at the end, he recalled that fact as the most important kernel he had to teach:

“Live your life as a work of art,” he said in his final interview. What more can be said then, “Amen.”

Arrested development: Young Jewish activists voluntarily go to jail in support of union rights


Sarah Leiber Church and Laura Podolsky had big plans for the evening of Sept. 28 — getting arrested.

They were part of a protest march that took place along Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport aimed at hotels that allegedly have been preventing employees from unionizing. During the late afternoon, approximately 2,000 people marched down the major thoroughfare, cutting off traffic. In what has been called the largest act of civil disobedience in Los Angeles, more than 300 of those people later deliberately sat down in the street, were arrested and jailed for up to 24 hours.

Both Church and Podolsky say their Jewish heritage is an important motivation for their activism for labor rights.

“From a young age I learned there’s a really strong message [in Judaism] about the importance of standing up for justice, and the importance of being directly involved,” Podolsky said.

Both she and Church are members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a group dedicated to social justice in Los Angeles. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of PJA, estimates that the group had anywhere between 50 and 100 people present at the protest, and that about 10 of those were arrested.

One part of the PJA’s larger goal is to reexamine the meaning of “kosher” among the Jewish population of Los Angeles.

“We’re working to expand the definition of kosher for the Jewish community, to go beyond how food is prepared to how workers are treated in institutions,” said Jaime Rapaport, program director for PJA. For example, she said, “The LAX Hilton is not a kosher hotel. Their kitchen may be kosher, and they may serve kosher food, but the way they treat their workers is not kosher.”

Church, the PJA’s Bay Area program director, said the timing of the protest, during the holiest part of the year, added meaning to her participation.

“The time in the Jewish calendar was very important to me in making the decision to take the steps to risk arrest … it’s a time when you take stock of how you’ve treated people over the last year,” she said. “I can think of no better way to start off 5767 than by supporting hotel workers and hard-working immigrant families in their fight for dignity in the work place.”

The sentiment was echoed by many, including Rabbi Jason Van Leeuwen of B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester,who presided over a blessing of the challah in front of the Westin Hotel — one of three blessings that took place: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. The challahs used were round, he said, “as a symbol for the cycle of the year, but also as a symbol of a message to the hotel management — what goes around comes around.”

Church said the religious service had been a highlight of the march.

“They said, ‘We give you bread for the journey,’ and passed out challahs to everyone. I remember hearing from some of the women later that the bread was just exactly what they needed, because they were feeling a little faint; they were feeling a little scared, frankly, and they said that having something to eat whether or not they were Jewish was really important to them.”

When the marching stopped, the sitting began. Those being arrested sat down on Century Boulevard — the main thoroughfare to LAX — where the police warned them that, unless they moved, they faced arrest. All wore matching shirts that read, “I am a human” in English and Spanish, echoing signs held at the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. The 300 arrested offered no resistance as officers put them in plastic handcuffs.

En route to jail they sang songs.

“I wanted to lead songs in Hebrew and teach people, but it didn’t seem like the right environment,” Church said. “But we sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and we sang ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ in English and Spanish.”

Even as they were arresting the protesters, many police seemed supportive of the action.

“I was speaking to one of them who was taking my fingerprints,” Church said, “and he said, ‘You know, I think I support what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘You’re unionized, right?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, and if we weren’t I’d want you all to be out on the streets.'”

This was a first arrest for both Church and Podolsky.

“Jail is cold, dingy and boring,” Podolsky said. “But I would do it a lot more, if it were necessary in order to stand up for these issues.”

Other arrestees shared cells with prostitutes or drug dealers.

Both Church and Podolsky spent the night in jail in South Central, released at 3:30 and 6:30 a.m., respectively.

Van Leeuwen agreed that the action was in accordance with Jewish teachings.
“The Torah repeatedly tells us that we should love the stranger; that they should be subject to laws and rights we’re subject to,” he said.

Though tired from a long march and a night spent in jail, everyone seemed in good spirits by Friday, proud of what they had accomplished.

“It was an incredible experience, and it was also an uncomfortable experience
… it’s something that I look back on with pride,” Church said.
Said Podolsky, simply, “It’s a good way to be Jewish.”

Letters to the Editor 07-07-06


Converts
As a convert to Judaism, I was reassured to read your series of articles on those like me who chose to become Jews (“Did It Stick?” June 2). A lapsed Catholic with many Jewish friends growing up on Long Island, early on I was attracted to the ethics and worldly focus of Judaism. Following a course of study at Temple Emanuel in New York City, I converted in 1967, and my first wife and I raised our three children in the Jewish tradition.

In 1992, on the eve of her bat mitzvah, my youngest daughter asked if I would be bar mitzvahed with her. That glorious day came to pass at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, with Rabbi Harvey Fields observing that in the 130-year history of the temple, there was no record of a father and daughter having a b’nai mitzvah. At the party afterward, when Tessa and I greeted everyone, I said that I had checked around the room, and I was the only person who had had a first holy communion and a bar mitzvah.

In my life in Los Angeles with my wife, Wendy, inspired by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at UCLA and through my work with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, enriched by interfaith activities, Judaism has strengthened and complemented my struggle for civil liberties, human rights, peace and justice.

Stephen F. Rohde
Los Angeles

Kosher
From reputation and general veneration, I had always believed Rabbi Jacob Pressman to be an intelligent and reliable community leader. Reading his foolish letter June 16 convinced me I was wrong on all counts (“But Is It Kosher?” June 9).

Pressman would have us believe that there is some Orthodox cabal controlling the purse strings of the literally hundreds of kashrut supervising agencies; that a group of black-hatted, white-bearded rebbes control the bank accounts and policies of these “for profit” groups — this is America after all — shades of the protocols! And all that has to be done to properly fund day schools is to divert these funds to cover the schools’ budgets, how simple and how asinine and misleading. Shame on you Rabbi Pressman. You do know better!

Growing up in Los Angeles I know that neither Pressman nor his Conservative (and Reform) colleagues contributed one whit to kashrut observance in this city. There were no restaurants or widespread bakery products available while he was in his prime, so he has nothing to say.

As regards high and truly unbearable tuition rates in our city, there is a simple solution, one that both the secular rabbinate and The Jewish Journal oppose — vouchers. I and my fellow community members pay thousands in taxes to fund a public school system that we choose not to use. Can’t we get some credit?

Howard Weiss
Los Angeles

I enjoyed reading Rob Eshman’s article that detailed the controversy that followed People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) with the Orthodox Union over kosher slaughter practices, and AgriProcessors’ questionable treatment of its own workers. Most interesting to me was the latter part of the article, which tried to discuss the nature of kashrut.

The article quotes scholar Meir Soloveichik as calling the nature of kashrut “mysterious and obvious … the Bible insists that it be perfectly clear to the non-Jew that the Torah-observant Israelite lives a life that reminds him constantly of his unique relationship with God.” In other words, it is to let the non-Jew know that we are special and follow laws meant to “set us apart and elevate our souls.”

Then in the last breath of the article, Eshman recommends that “the kosher label should not just imply the humane, responsible treatment of animals and the just treatment of food industry workers, it should certify it.”

In other words, kosher should mean that universal standards of humane treatment are being met, standards that any reasonable person would want.

So, which is it? Do we follow kashrut to set ourselves apart from the rest of the world or to encourage the rest of the world to join with us? It can’t be both.

Les Amer
Los Angeles

Finkelstein Syndrome
Roz Rothstein’s article on the anti-Semitic Jew, [Norman] Finkelstein, highlights a major lapse in common knowledge about Jewish history (“Beware the Finklestein Syndrome,” June 9). While every effort is made to inform the world about the Holocaust, very little information is disseminated about the history of lies and hate against the Jews, or its relationship to the Holocaust. I have seen history books that devote two pages to Anne Frank but fail to mention that Jews were patriotic Germans and no threat to Germany.

Theobald of Cambridge, a 12th century apostate to Catholicism, created the “blood libel” which has lasted to this day and caused thousands of Jewish deaths. If there was general awareness of the history of hatred against the Jews, then when people hear a Finkelstein, they can wonder, is he a whistleblower or a modern-day Theobald?

Those who wish to spread vicious lies against Jews today do not convert to another religion; their venom is more credible when they remain Jews, especially if they can claim to be from a family of survivors.

Ronnie Lampert
Los Angeles

DaVinci Code
Enjoyed your articles on “The DaVinci Code,” (May 19), but only the first three gospels of the New Testament (Mathew, Mark and Luke) are synoptic gospels. They are synoptic because they are similar to each other and different from the writings of the fourth gospel of John.

Brett Thompson
via e-mail

John Fishel
While the article titled, “A Private Man,” about John Fishel that ran May 26 was informative, it did not highlight one of Fishel’s key strengths.

Expert after expert has declared that a vital dynamic causing growth and change in 21st century Jewish life is directly proportional to the successful rise of entrepreneurial, Jewish, social venture startups. Jewish Los Angeles has spawned more of these new and creative organizations that address the myriad interests and needs such a diverse population requires than any other area outside of New York.

A great deal of these initiatives are being adapted and re-created in cities across the country, such as new spiritual communities, organizations that decry global genocide and serve the special needs of Jewish children among many others. Fishel has consistently taken the position that new organizations can and should arise and that their existence alone adds immeasurable value.

This is not true in most places. I believe the prolific number of creative ventures attest to the success of this position and must be noted.

Rhoda Uziel
Executive Director
Professional Leaders Project

 

Briefs


Local Leaders Fight for Social Justice
Norma Glickman of Temple Emanuel had felt terribly alone during her daily visits to her dying mother in a nursing home where the care, even with her vigilance, bordered on abusive.

She recounted her tale last Sunday to 1,500 representatives from religious community, union and school groups who attended the One LA-IAF Delegates Assembly at the Wilshire Christian Church. Drawn from neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County, the group reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the city.

This Los Angeles affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded by legendary organizer Saul Alinsky in Chicago, has been committed to developing leadership in local communities since the 1940s, but it is only in recent years that area synagogues have become actively involved as part of their social-justice agendas. The delegates came together Sunday both to celebrate their organizing efforts and to present state and city officials, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council President Eric Garcetti, with a series of demands for action on issues including public education, air quality, housing, immigration and the re-scheduling of the Los Angeles marathon to a holiday Monday, to avoid disruption of church services.

Like Glickman, who engaged in discussions with fellow congregants and research meetings with county and state officials on nursing homes, these delegates are working on issues that directly affect their lives.

After listening to the presentations, which were translated into Spanish and Korean, Villaraigosa expressed his commitment to the delegates’ concerns, and agreed to be the keynote speaker at the group’s educational summit in the fall.

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel, in her closing prayer, evoked last week’s Torah portion.

“Each one of us,” she said, “is a scout sent to imagine Los Angeles as a promised land. The relationships we are developing here will enable us to create One L.A.” — Naomi Glauberman, Contributing Writer

UCLA Establishes Israeli Studies Chair
UCLA has established an academic chair in Israel studies, endowed by a $1 million donation from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation.

The endowment reflects a growing scholarly interest in Israel, as distinct from Jewish studies, according to political scientist Leonard Binder, director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.

“We are seeing a shift in emphasis from Holocaust-related programs to all aspects of Israeli life,” Binder said. “I sense a new intellectual interest in the history of Zionism and the meaning of Israel.”

An international search is starting for a distinguished scholar to fill the chair and lead a wide-ranging program incorporating a dozen academic fields.

The ideal incumbent of the chair will have “a wide knowledge of Israel spanning several disciplines, while specializing in at least one discipline in which he has achieved scholarly prominence,” said Arnold Band, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature.

British-born Sir Arthur Gilbert, a real estate developer and art collector, and his wife Rosalinde, both deceased, established the foundation to encourage studies of Israel, as well as medical research, said Martin Blank, who serves with Richard Ziman as chief operating officers of the foundation.

UCLA, located in the center of the second-largest Jewish community in the United States, has fostered Jewish and Near Eastern research and teaching for half a century.

Current resources include the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Center for Near Eastern Studies, Jewish Studies Program, Center for Jewish Studies, and a Chair in Holocaust Studies, endowed by the “1939” Club.

The Israel Studies Program was established two years ago as part of the UCLA International Institute at the initiative of Sharon Baradaran, a member of the influential Iranian American Nazarian clan of Los Angeles and herself a political science teacher.

Binder estimates that at any time between 40 to 60 courses are given on the Westwood campus dealing with some aspects of Israeli geopolitics, culture and language.

Assistant professor Carol Bakhos of the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures assigns a broad context to the Israel Studies Program, for which she serves as faculty adviser.

“Studies on Israel go beyond the purely Jewish aspects and include the life and scholarship of the Arab and other minorities in Israel,” she said.

In the long run, she hopes that studies on Israel will become less “politicized” and can be integrated into a broadened Middle East program.

“It would be great if UCLA could model such a program, stressing the cohesion of a Middle East which includes Israel,” she said. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Aaron Spelling Dies at 83
Hollywood producer Aaron Spelling died on June 23 at age 83 in his Los Angeles mansion after suffering a stroke on June 18.

Spelling was born in 1923 to struggling Jewish immigrants in Texas (his father’s name, Spurling, was simplified to Spelling by an official on Ellis Island). The prejudice his family faced there partly caused young Aaron to turn to reading, helping spark his creative career.

He was a prolific producer of hit television shows, creating popular series for ABC such as “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Mod Squad,” “The Love Boat” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The Guinness Book of World Records cited Spelling as producing the most hours of television, with more than 3,000. Spelling, who is also the father of actors Tori and Randy, briefly tried acting before beginning his decades-long producing career.

He was buried during a private ceremony June 26 at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuaries. — Jewish Telegraphic Agency

 

Young Lawyer Has a Ball With Bet Tzedek


As a young summer associate with a Los Angeles law firm, Jeffrey Sklar looked forward to attending his first Justice Ball. He wanted to see ’80s icon Billy Idol do the “Rebel Yell” live. He wanted to hang out with other young attorneys and law students. He wasn’t going for any high-minded motives.

Back in 2000, Sklar, like most of the 20- and 30-somethings who go to the annual Justice Ball, had only the vaguest notion of what Bet Tzedek, the event’s sponsor and a local Jewish legal-aid outfit, does. That would soon change.

Sklar, an attorney at Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan LLP, went to the Ball and partied with friends. He also listened as Bet Tzedek executives briefly took the stage and talked up their organization and its need for dedicated volunteers to help society’s most vulnerable achieve a degree of justice. Their message resonated with Sklar, who, as a young boy, remembers dropping coins into his family’s tzedekah box. Now, six years later, Sklar is a regular legal volunteer, he’s helped recruit other lawyer friends to volunteer time, and he’s helping to plan this year’s event, which will take place July 8 at the Hollywood Palladium, featuring the Go-Go’s.

Founded in 1997, the Justice Ball has grown into one of the nation’s most successful nonprofit fundraisers/parties targeting young professionals, Jews and non-Jews alike. Over the past nine years, more than 16,000 attorneys, financiers and others have attended the soirees, and scores of them have gone on to become Bet Tzedek contributors and volunteers. Some, like Sklar, have gone on to serve on Bet Tzedek’s Justice Ball planning committee and even on to the board of directors, making the event more than just a fundraiser — it’s an important gateway to the organization.

“The Justice Ball is absolutely a good way for young blood to get involved,” said Bet Tzedek board member Brette Simon, a law partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP whose first exposure to the legal aid society came from attending the mega-parties.

To date, Justice Balls have raised more than $3.2 million in ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, said Randall Kaplan, the Justice Ball’s creator and cofounder of high-tech giant Akamai Technologies, Inc. Last year’s event raised $425,000, or nearly 8 percent of Bet Tzedek’s $5.5 million budget, Executive Director Mitch Kamin said. This year, the 10th anniversary gala is expected to be even bigger. Hopes are the popular L.A. Go-Go’s will draw more than 3,000 revelers and raise as much as $500,000, Kamin said.

“Everyone in the philanthropic world is puzzling over how you engage the truly young generation of professionals who haven’t been necessarily taught by their parents that giving is part of their religious or social responsibility,” Kamin said. “This is a chance for us to introduce ourselves to them, give them initial exposure to Bet Tzedek and raise their consciousness.”

Bet Tzedek’s success at reaching the coveted demographic of young Jewish professionals comes as other Jewish organizations are struggling to do the same. Faced with the growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, Jewish charities are grappling with a generation that, because of intermarriage and assimilation, often considers itself more American than Jewish, experts said. With young Jews standing to inherit billions over the next 20 years, finding a way to appeal to their generosity is perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Jewish charities.

In Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek is not alone in its success in appealing to this group. Young leadership initiatives at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, including its Young Leadership Division and the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles, now account for about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of The Federation’s annual campaign, said Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development.

Still, The Federation’s strong showing appears to be the exception rather than the rule in the organized Jewish world. Simply put, the stodgy chicken-dinner fundraisers favored by so many Jewish philanthropies fail to bring young movers-and-shakers to the table. The MTV generation would rather rock ‘n’ roll all night long.

The Justice Ball gives them a chance to do just that, along with learning a thing or two about Bet Tzedek’s mission of offering free legal aid to the poor, sick, elderly and homeless.

Soon after his first Justice Ball, Sklar joined the group’s planning committee. Like others touched by Justice Balls before him, he went on to volunteer his legal services to Bet Tzedek, including assisting a Holocaust survivor obtain restitution from the Hungarian government.

“As a lawyer, you make a decent living. You get to sit up here in real tall buildings with a real nice view. You get to drive a real nice car,” he said. “So the bottom line is you need to give back, you have to get back. This is a great way for me to do so.”

For more information on the Justice Ball, visit www.thejusticeball.org.

 

Dad’s Gone, but His Melody Lingers On


When a person is slightly famous mostly for one thing, that thing becomes the one thing about him when he dies. So it was that Dave Blume, my father, over and over again in late March was noted as the composer of that likably odd 1966 hit, “Turn Down Day,” a pop turn on what began as one of his jazz compositions.

He used to joke that every middling musician had one good tune in him, but he wasn’t actually talking about himself, because he wrote many good songs, even if that added up to just one hit record.

But even one song, even one moment, can encapsulate a lot if you probe beneath the surface, or, in this case, beyond the catchy but saccharine arrangement by the Cyrkle. The song’s lyrics, written by Jerry Keller, portray the languorous side of the anti-war, anti-age, free-love 1960s, the part of the youth culture that wanted sometimes just to tune out instead of tuning in:

Soft summer breeze and the surf rolls in
To laughter of small children playin’.
Someone’s radio has the news tuned in,
But nobody cares what he’s sayin’.
It’s a turn-down day,
Nothin’ on my mind.
It’s a turn-down day,
And I dig it.

There was something of dad in that easygoing, live-and-let-live frame of mind. It was, in a way, a jazz sensibility set down to words. But the melody, dominated by minor chords, also hinted at something more — something a little deeper, a little melancholy.

The tune originated during dad’s Army days in Fayetteville, N.C., where the draft had dragged him, a native of Boston, and his wife, Charlotte, during the Korean War. Dad was a noted hater of needless exercise and early morning schedules, so he devised a night-owl gig for himself. He persuaded the brass and a local radio station that soldiers on the graveyard shift needed something to keep them alert. Did they really want these sleepy soldiers to be a safety hazard on duty or on their commute? How about some music?

Officers already knew of dad’s musical skills. By this time, he’d sort of conned his way into the coveted base orchestra by presenting himself as a glockenspiel player — it was the only opening. He’d given himself a crash course in the instrument and played a passable glockenspiel — but it wasn’t long before the orchestra took advantage of his jazz keyboard, arranging and conducting skills.

The overnight radio show followed. He wrote and performed, with some pals, the theme song: “680, 12 to 5.” The song got its name from the station’s place on the dial and the airtime: midnight to 5 a.m. Because of the show and his frequent performances — all on behalf of the U.S. government, of course — dad didn’t meet at least one of his commanding officers until his day of discharge.

My parents were both building a notable life in this small Southern city all the while. In the 1950s, my mother used her talents to open a dance school and start a ballet company. Her first classes outside the base had only black students, because she refused to segregate or teach only white students. Dad, meanwhile, soon opened the region’s first bowling alley, to which he attached the region’s first jazz club. And he also refused to segregate.

At one point, the city informed him of a regulation that kept blacks out of white restrooms. If his new business were not to be “whites only,” he’d have to build four restrooms. Dad responded by asking if there was a law saying that men and women had to have separate bathrooms. A city official replied that no such law was needed, because no one would ever put men and women in the same bathroom.

In that case, dad said, he would have one bathroom for black men and women and another for white men and women. The city official left in frustration, and when the business opened, dad simply had a men’s room for all men and a women’s room for all women. His key innovation, however, was in The Groove, the music club where the staff, musicians and audience all were integrated.

Neither of my parents ever got into trouble for this. One reason, of course, was that they were white — and maybe being Jewish separated them from a sort of peer pressure. It didn’t hurt that my mother could stare down a charging bull, and dad could accomplish the same with charm and a silly pun.

Dad had a fine old time in Fayetteville. He was the first public address announcer for the city high school’s football games. And his jazz band was the talk of the town and beyond. He made fast friends with the local rabbi, a Holocaust survivor who’d been a writer and radio man himself in pre-war Germany, when that was still possible. And dad had two sons, who were growing up in a white house across from an elementary school that had two sapling maple trees in the front yard.

But Fayetteville could not contain dad’s musical drive, and he’d leave home to travel long distances for gigs, especially ones that offered a chance to break through, like his “Today Show” appearance in 1962. And then came the 1966 hit “Turn Down Day” — a re-imagined pop version of his old theme: “680, 12 to 5.”

He expected his wife and two boys to follow him north when the time came. His wife expected that a man in his 30s could settle for a stable life in Fayetteville, where she’d built a formidable dance school.

The truth is, my parents never really belonged together in the first place, even though the marriage seemed so perfect when the glamorous young ballerina married her college sweetheart, the same wunderkind who wrote and conducted the college musicals in which she’d starred. In the end, neither was inclined to follow the other’s star.

I was 6 when the divorce became official in 1967. My father ruefully told me years later that it was the hardest thing to leave town at the end of his visits, when I’d start crying. David Blume wanted to be the best dad possible, which, to him, included being around. He fulfilled this ambition in his second marriage, the one that gained me a wonderful stepmother and, eventually, two delightful kid sisters. My mother never forgave him for the marriage that failed or the unsteady financial contribution, but I concluded long ago that, sometimes, even for devoted parents, leaving is the best option available.

My brother Leo and I got by with phone calls, letters and a few weeks a year with dad. Occasionally we took trips with him, but it also was fun just to be where he was, romping around New York City and later Los Angeles, after dad moved west. We’d hear a lot of music, stay up way past midnight, play with his Persian cats, discover food they didn’t have in Fayetteville and stage an annual World Series with made-up teams, a plastic bat and a ball made up of paper encased in masking tape. Leo and I played the parts of all the players. Dad was the umpire, a gravel-voiced character who took the name Gower Cahuenga, after two streets in Hollywood.

He was cool, with his long hair and leftie politics. He wore a bolo tie and a black leather cap, and tied his black locks into short ponytail in the back. And he could identify the year, make and model of virtually any car on the road — and recite chapter and verse on the world’s greatest ocean liners, its tallest buildings and the major suspension bridges.

And he never failed to do interesting things — like running Café Danssa, an Israeli folk-dancing club in West L.A., or quietly lobbying to save a majestic bunya-bunya tree that the city was going to cut down.

He never had another hit like “Turn Down Day,” but he forged a respectable career as a composer, producer and collaborator with his second wife, singer Carolyn Hester. And he eventually got that stable job, as a copy editor with the Los Angeles Times. In truth, he didn’t especially like the implied message of “Turn Down Day” if applied beyond a day or so. His lyrical essence was more rooted in another song, “I Have a Dream,” a plea for justice and family, which he wrote with Jerry Keller the night the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died.

At the close of our visits, dad would send us home with records he’d produced or custom-made tapes of songs he liked: He didn’t want us growing up with unsophisticated musical tastes. But without his steady presence, our piano lessons lapsed.

And though he laughed with us as we told tales of mom’s unlucky second marriage to a man who turned out to have mental health issues, I’m sure he was worried. But at an elemental level, he trusted his first wife to take care of his boys.

My brother and I never felt we quite got enough of him, which, in recent years, had more to do with managing our own families and careers than him not being available. This sense of needing to catch up for lost time partly explains why my brother, the informal family archivist, started interviewing dad on videotape. Dad would complain, mostly in jest, that the process implied that his demise was impending.

I always assumed that someday there would be time to catch up properly; he’d probably felt the same way watching his boys grow up, mostly from far away. Too late, I realized that in the last year, he was slowly leaving us, as his health problems mounted. When he died, his wallet contained a list of favorite songs that he could refer to if called on to play at any moment.

My brother and I were in Fayetteville early this month, and we stopped by the old white house. Our grade school across the street has become the campus for teenage “delinquents” — information provided by the security guard who accosted us when she noticed us taking pictures.

The two sapling maple trees are giants now, dominating the yard, if not the neighborhood. I couldn’t recall whether it was dad who’d planted the maples. Leo didn’t know either. There was no doubt that dad had nurtured these trees when they were small. It was in his nature to care about such matters.

In past years, dad would ask us how the maples were doing. We’d show him pictures.

This year, so far, the maples are doing fine. Maybe they haven’t been looked after every moment, but they’re green and strong, and making it on their own.

Howard Blume is the former managing editor of The Jewish Journal.

 

The Circuit


Built to Last

Team Mortorq from Beverly Hills High School won two prestigious awards recently at a robotics competition: The Entrepreneurship Award and the Autodesk Visualization Award for animation.

The Entrepreneurship Award recognizes a team which, since its inception, has developed the framework for a comprehensive business plan in order to scope, manage and obtain team objectives. The team should also display entrepreneurial enthusiasm and the vital business skills for a self-sustaining program.

The Autodesk Visualization Award for Animation recognizes excellence in student animation that clearly and creatively illustrates the spirit of the first Robotics Competition.

The Beverly Hills High team also was scheduled to compete in Las Vegas.

Sherman Speaks

Nearly 200 visitors, community leaders and members of the local Iranian Muslim media gathered at the The New JCC at Milken in West Hills March 26 to hear speakers address the growing threat of Iran’s nuclear program.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian Jewish Federation, were panelists at the event.

Sherman, a member of the House International Relations Committee, discussed upcoming measures Congress will be taking to combat Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

“It is unlikely that we can stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Sherman said. “Iran is subject to economic pressure and we must use our maximum economic and diplomatic steps to slow down and stop their ability to get these weapons.”

Kermanian’s discussion focused on the beliefs and core goals of Iran’s current regime to impose its fundamentalist Islamic ideologies on the West by use of force. Following their speeches, both speakers answered questions from the audience concerning Iran. Also in attendance was Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine. — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Ain’t That a Kick?

Gold and silver were the colors of the day for New JCC at Milken’s Kenshokan Martial Arts Academy last month. The American Judo and Jujitsu Federation held its national convention and freestyle championships in San Ramon recently and in the youth division, Tyler Mclean came away with second place. Program instructor Gregory Poretz, who came back from a stunning upset in 2005 in last place was able to make a clean sweep of the black belt division and take the gold.

Sensei Poretz, Mclean and the rest of the Kenshokan will be training to defend their titles in 2007 in Santa Rosa.

For more information, visit

Suit Filed Over Police Shooting of Israeli


Nearly 20 months after Assaf Deri, an Israeli national, was shot and killed by Burbank police in a North Hollywood alley, his parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in L.A. Federal Court against Burbank and Los Angeles, both cities’ police departments, and officers involved in the incident.

“The conduct by Burbank police officers was clearly outrageous,” said attorney Robert Jarchi, who is representing Deri’s estate and parents, Pinchas and Yehudit Deri. “Burbank police officers targeted my clients’ son because of his Middle Eastern appearance.”

Deri is Jewish but could be perceived as a Muslim, the lawyer contended.

Police claim Deri was a suspect in a multiagency task force investigation into drug-trafficking, gangs and organized crime. But Jarchi insisted their claims are absurd.

“Assaf Deri was not involved in drug dealing or any other illegal activity. He didn’t drink or do drugs,” Jarchi said. “Police killed an innocent man who was just sitting in his Jeep. Anyone could find themselves in that position.”

The coroner’s exam found no evidence of drugs or alcohol in Deri’s system. The civil complaint, filed last week, also alleges violations of Deri’s federal and state civil rights, negligence, assault and battery and false arrest.

This wrongful death lawsuit comes one month after the L.A. district attorney’s office cleared Burbank undercover officers, Scott Meadows and Sgt. Jose Duran. The duo also was cleared last February by their department’s shooting review board, which found they were “defending themselves against death or serious injury.”

The long-delayed report, by the district attorney’s justice system integrity division also ruled that Meadows fired in self-defense, after Deri, 25, allegedly tried to drive his borrowed Jeep away from approaching officers. Meadows, whose leg was grazed by the Jeep during the incident, received medical treatment at a local hospital. Duran, the D.A.’s office found, had discharged his weapon to protect his partner.

LAPD robbery homicide detectives handled the field investigation because the shooting happened in Los Angeles. The North Hollywood alley where the incident occurred lies behind a row of apartment buildings on Oxnard Street near Los Angeles Valley College.

According to the LAPD investigation, Deri was the target of daylong surveillance on June 25, 2004, by Burbank police.

Meadows and Duran followed Deri as he drove into the alley and parked with his engine idling, behind one of the buildings. At about 10:30 p.m., Duran decided to stop Deri after deciding he was monitoring their surveillance of him.

The two Burbank officers allegedly approached Deri’s jeep and ordered him out. The officers claim Deri then drove toward Meadows. In self defense, they opened fire.

Meadows reportedly shot 13 rounds and Duran 10 rounds. According to the autopsy, Deri was hit nine times, including five shots to the head. Paramedics pronounced Deri dead at the scene at approximately 10:37 p.m.

The Deri family’s suit alleges Burbank police violated Assaf Deri’s constitutional rights by illegally detaining and shooting him to death. The suit also alleges Deri’s father, who was visiting from Israel, was wrongfully imprisoned during a warrantless search of his son’s North Hollywood apartment several hours after his death.

“Burbank officers compounded the problem by going to Assaf’s apartment without probable cause in a desperate attempt to find something to justify this fatal shooting,” Jarchi said. “There they made a fruitless search and ended up illegally detaining and handcuffing my client’s father.”

The federal suit specifies no dollar amount, but last year, the family submitted a $51 million claim against the cities of Los Angeles and Burbank, which both cities rejected. The family is seeking general and punitive damages for the loss of their son and his future support and reimbursement for the transport of the body to Israel, funeral and legal expenses, as well as compensation for counseling, lost wages and medical expenses incurred by Deri’s father.

The family is represented by Greene, Broillet & Wheeler, which has taken on local police cases before, including that of a Los Angeles woman who received $7.6 million after she was broadsided by a car being chased by LAPD officers and the case of a Long Beach man who was awarded $6.7 million after being shot by Long Beach police.

The city of Burbank, representing the police officers, denied any wrongdoing in the case. Los Angeles officials declined to comment pending a review of the lawsuit.

 

Disputed Film Draws Muted Response


For Rabbi Marvin Hier, suicide bombings are the modern-day plague. The founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center so condemns these acts of terror that he spoke to the late Pope John Paul II, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the chancellor of Austria to enlist their support in passing a U.N. resolution condemning suicide bombings as a crime against humanity.

Given Hier’s passion, one might expect him to denounce loudly the film, “Paradise Now,” as a work of propaganda. The movie, which seeks to humanize two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers dispatched by operatives to murder innocent Israelis, recently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and received an Academy Award nomination in the same category.

Despite the subject matter of “Paradise Now,” Hier, himself a member of the academy, has yet to see the film, although he said he soon planned to and “didn’t feel good” about the movie’s premise.

Like the Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League has no plans to protest the nomination of the controversial film. In fact, no large mainstream Jewish organization has called for a boycott.

In a measure of the acclaimed movie’s respectability in some quarters of the local Jewish community, the University of Judaism recently sponsored a screening of and panel discussion on “Paradise Now” that featured the film’s director, Hany Abu-Assad. The sold-out audience of nearly 500 clapped at the movie’s conclusion, which ends with a rage-filled Palestinian bomber getting ready to blow himself up on an a bus crowded with Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Abu-Assad said at the University of Judaism event that he opposes all suicide bombing attacks, even against soldiers. However, the director added that he came to understand how bombers can commit such acts after Israeli authorities detained him, without cause, he said, for three hours in the hot sun at a checkpoint.

To be sure, some conservative Jewish organizations have condemned the movie as an attempt to sanitize and justify a hateful terrorist act. They complain that “Paradise Now” seeks to blame for the proliferation of suicide attacks solely on Israel’s occupation, ignoring the dangerous grip of Islamic fundamentalism and the steady diet of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in Palestinian schools and media.

“I’m surprised that major Jewish organizations have not studied this film more closely, if at all, and taken it more seriously as an effort to normalize suicide bombing as an acceptable response to poverty and depression,” said Roz Rothstein, executive director of Los Angeles-based StandWithUs, an international pro-Israel educational advocacy group, who has seen the film twice.

“What’s the point of this movie?” asked Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, headquartered in Washington, D.C. “We should be shining a light on the horrors of [suicide bombing] and the victims, rather than humanizing these heinous acts.”

Brooks has not seen “Paradise Now.”

A few Jewish groups have done more than simply verbally attack the film.

The American Jewish Congress (AJC), Pacific Southwest Region, hopes to take out an ad in the Hollywood Reporter to “make Academy members think twice before voting,” said local AJC Executive Director Gary Ratner. Israel Project, an international educational advocacy group, has helped an Israeli father of a 16-year-old suicide bombing victim place an article critical of “Paradise Now” in American newspapers, including the New York Daily News. The goal: to make sure “the voice of the victim is heard,” said Calev Ben-David, director of the project’s Jerusalem office.

In the opinion piece, Yossi Zur writes: “Nominating a movie such as ‘Paradise Now’ only implicates the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the evil chain of terror that attempts to justify these horrific acts.”

Liberal Jewish leaders, on the other hand, tend to share the critics’ consensus that the film is complex, nuanced and “an examination rather than a justification,” in the words of David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., an L.A.-based human relations organization. They argue that “Paradise Now” questions the morality and efficacy of terror attacks through a pivotal character named Suha, a female Palestinian human rights activist who condemns bombers for perpetuating the cycle of violence, behaving as immorally as the Israeli occupiers and for hardening the Jewish state’s resolve.

“I think it’s a credit to our community that institutions like the University of Judaism have held showings and that the community response has been thoughtful rather than reactionary,” said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Jewish social justice organization with offices in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. “I think most Jews who see the movie realize that it’s not about Jews in America or Israelis but an interesting insight into the bubble of Palestinian society.”

Perhaps the muted reaction from the American Jewish community stems from the fact that so few Jews have actually seen the film. Confined largely to art houses, “Paradise Now” earned a paltry $1.1 million from its late October release until its Oscar nomination.

Jewish groups might now also temper their reactions because of the lessons learned from “The Passion of the Christ.” The controversial and, some argued, anti-Semitic film about the last hours of Jesus’ life saw its box-office surge after Jewish critics began attacking it.

Boycotting “Paradise Now,” said Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, “will only bring more publicity to this type of movie.”

Marc Ballon was moderator for the discussion following the University of Judaism’s screening of “Paradise Now.”