From left: Orna Banai, Sharon Elimelech, Evelin Hagoel, Einat Sarouf and Yafit Asulin co-star in “The Women’s Balcony.” Photos courtesy of IMDb.com.

Israeli comedy probes religious and gender conflicts


The Bukharim Quarter of Jerusalem, the locale for the movie “The Women’s Balcony,” was settled by Jews from Central Asia in the 1870s and ’80s.

Their synagogue was the center of their spiritual and communal life, and they and their descendants took their religion seriously, though not rigidly, making allowances for human weaknesses and personal quirks.

During the past 30 or so years, the once tolerant and easy-going neighborhood — like other parts of Jerusalem — has been changed by an influx of ultra-Orthodox Charedim, and in the Israeli film, we sense the beginning of the transition.

The demographic transformation of Israel’s capital is a weighty topic, but the message is conveyed with a great deal of humor, leavened by the always-popular topic of the war between the genders.

As the film opens, neighbors are hurrying along the cobble-stoned streets to join in a bar mitzvah celebration, with the women and their husbands carrying pots of home-cooked food — no catering at a fancy hotel in those rugged times three decades ago.

At the synagogue, the men sit downstairs, stealing occasional glances at the women up in the balcony, who enthusiastically throw candy as the bar mitzvah boy approaches the bimah.

Precisely at this happy moment, the balcony collapses, seriously injuring the rabbi’s wife and putting the rabbi himself and the building out of commission for the time being.

In these dire straits, the young charismatic Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) appears as a savior, offering the congregation temporary quarters and himself as the interim spiritual leader. But soon the congregation learns that the new rabbi’s service comes at a price. He preaches that the crashed balcony was God’s punishment for the immodest garments worn by the women and urges the men to buy scarves to cover the hair of their wives and daughters.

Tension rises when Rabbi David, who also has put himself in charge of repairing the synagogue, decides to dispense with the balcony altogether and exiles the women to a shuttered ante room, out of sight of the men.

When the women protest and go about raising their own money for a new balcony, Rabbi David underhandedly diverts the money for the purchase of new Torah scrolls. The docile men heed the rabbi’s edicts, but the women, led by the formidable Etti (Evelin Hagoel), organize a resistance movement.

They take a leaf from the women in Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” who ended the endless war between Athens and Sparta by denying sex to their husbands and lovers until the men agreed to stop fighting. Though the concept of a sex strike is “not something one can say out loud in a religious community,” Emil Ben-Shimon, the film’s director, observed in a phone interview, the women achieved the same result by moving out of their houses.

Forced to choose between their wives and the unbending rabbi, the men folk finally grow a spine and bid farewell to Rabbi David.

Ben-Shimon, 41, has had a successful 15-year career in Israeli television as writer and director, but always dreamed of making a feature movie. Finally, he asked his ex-wife, Shlomit Nehama, to write the screenplay and set about finding the right neighborhood to re-create the Bukharim enclave of 30 years ago.

Ben-Shimon, who lives in Jaffa, said, “I was shocked to see that about 90 percent of the residents of the old Bukharim neighborhood were now Charedim and there were separate sidewalks for men and women. … People looked at me as if to say, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

The director noted that “The Women’s Balcony” was last year’s biggest box-office hit in Israel and that “audiences loved it.” However, there was no feedback from the Charedi community “since its members usually don’t go to movies. … Their rabbis won’t let them,” Ben-Shimon said.

It took the director about three years to complete the film and he has started work on his next project, which probably will be set in Jaffa.

“The Women’s Balcony” opens March 3 at Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles and the Town Center in Encino. 

What I wish synagogues knew about single parents


I’m not sure where to begin. I first want to say that my synagogue — and I think synagogues in general — have done a really great job of welcoming congregants who have converted, are intermarried, and are in gay and lesbian marriages. My synagogue also welcomes adopted children and Jews of color. It is still mainly an Ashkenazi population, but it quickly is becoming more diverse. The rabbi, cantor and board of trustees have worked hard and continue to work to make the synagogue inclusive.

But there is one population that seems to be left out: single parents. I think I speak for most single parents when I say we didn't marry with the intention of divorcing. Unfortunately, divorce happens for all sorts of reasons, which oftentimes are private and painful. And as welcoming as synagogues have become of non-traditional families, the one thing they have in common is they remain two-parent households. Shira may have two imas, but there are TWO parents in Shira’s house.

Many single parents have fewer financial and emotional resources than married parents and less time to volunteer. And while the divorce papers may have been signed, single parents are often dealing many years later with uncooperative ex-spouses and the shifting landscape of children’s custody.

When I was married, I was a super-volunteer at my synagogue and loved being involved. I knew well the rabbi, cantor and religious school director. When they asked me to take leadership roles in various areas of synagogue life, I was happy to contribute.

Then I divorced. My ex-husband met with the cantor to discuss his feelings about the split, so it clearly wasn’t a secret. Yet for all the time and energy I had generously devoted to the synagogue, no one called or reached out to me. The group that arranges meals and transportation for sick congregants never called to see if I wanted a few meals delivered. I had to apply for reduced dues since my ex-husband was the main breadwinner.

I was already feeling ashamed and embarrassed due to my divorce, and I felt the synagogue, my second home, was ashamed of me and my failed marriage. Instead of lifting me up when I needed the most help, the congregation let me down.

I still feel committed to Judaism and living Jewishly, but I am conflicted about Jewish institutions. I don’t feel like my synagogue has a place for people like me, and I also feel that there is little compassion or understanding for single parents. I don’t need a support group; I need support.

There is an unspoken stigma regarding divorce in the Jewish community. The failure of a marriage implies that something is “wrong”— abuse, addiction, affairs, mental illness. In addition, success in the Jewish world is almost always defined as highly educated, capable of self-support and able to maintain a functioning family. So when my marriage fell apart, it was logical that I felt like a failure.

A phone call from the rabbi or cantor acknowledging the challenges my family and I were facing would have gone a long way in easing my frustration and disillusionment. As it stands now, since I am outside the normative two-parent family, I’m not sure what or where my next steps will be.


Eliana Salzman is the pen name of a single mom of two teenagers.

How one Tulsa synagogue is baking its way to a better world


Walk into Congregation B’nai Emunah on any Tuesday afternoon and you’ll barely get through the massive, light-filled foyer before it hits you: an aromatic wave of warm oatmeal and raisins, or perhaps a sweet surge of rich, melting chocolate chips.

What you’re smelling isn’t catered food for a bar mitzvah bash. Rather it’s one of the most highly regarded bakeries in the region, which is also an innovative social justice project that might just be a model for civic-minded synagogues everywhere.

The Altamont Bakery, which operates weekly from the synagogue’s dairy kitchen, is a successful commercial enterprise in which formerly homeless and mentally ill Tulsans work alongside synagogue volunteers. Together they weigh, measure, mix, shape and bake artisanal cookies that have won the admiration of foodies, selling briskly in coffee shops and cafeterias across Oklahoma and beyond.

Yet whether you believe this is the “Greatest Cookie on Planet Earth” (as the label boasts) or merely the best chocolate chip cookie in the city (according to a blind taste test conducted by the Tulsa World newspaper), it’s not the most important thing the Altamont endeavors to create.

“We are baking our way to a better world,” said Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman, who has served the Conservative congregation since 1985.

Fitzerman developed the idea for the bakery five years ago in conjunction with the Mental Health Association Oklahoma, which aids those facing mental-health challenges through advocacy, education, research, service and housing, and the Housing Faith Alliance, which facilitates connections between faith-based institutions and those in recovery from mental illness.

The core of the baking staff is made up of individuals served by the Mental Health Association, including some who live at the nearby association-run Altamont Apartments, from which the bakery takes its name. They are paid what Fitzerman calls “a dignified wage”— currently as much as $13.75 per hour.

The synagogue volunteers they work beside see this as a meaningful opportunity to effect change in their community while broadening their own horizons.

Kimberly Ferry, who had endured years of homelessness and mental health struggles, working at the Altamont Bakery in Tulsa. (Courtesy of Congregation B’nai Emunah)

“I love this collaboration — it’s really unique and powerful,” said Alex Aguilar, a workforce readiness clinical coordinator at the Mental Health Alliance who’s at the bakery every Tuesday. “When we’re able to give someone employment and support — skills and purpose and something to do with their lives — that is the best care that they need.”

Mental health has long been a focus of the synagogue’s volunteer efforts, Fitzerman said, due in part to the significant number of congregants already working in the field.

The rabbi realized he could feed the appetite for social justice work through one of his synagogue’s particular strengths: large-scale baking.

“Like many congregations in frontier outposts, we make everything ourselves — rye bread, rugelach, hamantaschen, apple cake, babka — it’s a very full menu of traditional favorites,” he said.

With Tulsa’s Jewish community numbering about 2,200, the Altamont is the only kosher-certified bakery in town. The synagogue also recently launched a monthly pop-up deli serving house-cured kosher pastrami.

“This is more than dabbling,” Fitzerman declared. “Brooklyn artisans would recognize our seriousness and commitment.”

On a typical Tuesday afternoon, six salaried “Altamonters” and another half-dozen volunteers will produce about 1,200 cookies, which will be bagged, labeled and delivered by another multi-generational cadre of volunteers that meets Wednesday mornings. Unsold leftovers — a rare phenomenon — might wind up at Shabbat kiddish.

Come Christmas and Hanukkah — when orders for 5,000 or more aren’t uncommon — the bakery will more than triple its workforce and production. And next March, when the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament returns to Tulsa, demand will likely drive madness in the kitchen, as well.

Nancy Cohen, a former marketing and retail manager who also oversees the synagogue gift shop, is “the presiding genius” of the bakery, Fitzerman says, serving as volunteer director and, until recently, oven master. She is the source of the chocolate-chip cookie recipe that started it all, as well as the two that followed, oatmeal raisin and the newest offering, sweet “sugartops,” with just a hint of lemon. (Incidentally, these are no little noshes, but quarter-pound helpings of richness.)

Cohen is equally passionate about the bakery staff.

“This is our sugar-cookie queen,” Cohen said, introducing Kimberlee Koenig, an Altamonter who was loading the last ingredients into a massive mixer.

“If they’re not perfect, we don’t sell ’em,” Koenig said, detailing her process. “We don’t even put our name on ’em.”

Koenig explains bluntly how much that sense of pride means: “You see, I used to be a street person. Not by choice … but by bad choices, mostly of men.”

Now happily married, she found the bakery two years ago and has only missed work two times — once due to pneumonia, the other following hernia surgery.

“You’ve come a long way, baby,” Cohen said.

Kimberly Ferry has worked in the bakery from its beginning. Cohen remembers that first day — Ferry, following years of homelessness and mental health struggles, had trouble looking her in the eye. Now, between Tuesdays at Altamont and another job at a grocery store, she can afford her own apartment — and to buy her 13-year-old son a new pair of shoes.

“I hadn’t bought him anything in a long time,” Ferry said, lips curling into a smile.

The synagogue volunteers baking alongside the Altamonters say the impact on their lives has also been profound.

“I love it — I love the people we work with,” gushed Jamie Siegel, a mother of four. “It’s the one thing in my week that I really couldn’t give up. I really feel like I’m getting more out of it than I’m giving.”

Dennis Johnson, a retired project manager, was active in a weekly Torah study at the synagogue when he first heard about Altamont. That was a year-and-a-half ago, and he hasn’t missed a Tuesday since.

“As long I’m able and as long as they need me, I’ll be here,” he said. “It’s a good mitzvah.”

Since its inception in 2011, the bakery has sold more than 150,000 cookies, at $2 each. The profits cover salaries and supplies; the synagogue underwrites the use of the kitchen and Fitzerman raises outside funds to replace equipment and make capital improvements. Anonymous donors furnished two new high-end ovens that can bake up to 220 cookies in 14 minutes.

Karra Beck, left, works at Altamont every week, and Mary Nixon is a former employee. (Courtesy of Congregation B’nai Emunah)

For the second consecutive year, the Altamont has been recognized by Slingshot, a fund that supports and promotes innovative Jewish initiatives across the country.

“This type of collaborative endeavor serves as a model for successful partnerships between religious institutions and government agencies,” the evaluation reads, “and shows how the repurposing of synagogue assets can impact an entire community.”

The Altamont Bakery hopes to see its impact grow both in Tulsa, by increasing sales and adding more shifts and workers as the kitchen schedule allows — B’nai Emunah’s 150-student preschool also uses the kitchen — and beyond. Synagogue administrator Betty Lehman said she recently fielded a call from a congregation in Indiana that was interested in launching its own program.

Even the product line is expanding. Cohen has been furiously fine-tuning a “centennial cookie” to be introduced this year, celebrating the synagogue’s 100th anniversary. After testing nearly 20 formulas, she’ll reveal only that it will likely be a version of “double fudge.”

Fitzerman is thrilled, but cautions his model is not easy magic.

“In our initial flood of arrogant do-gooderism, we felt that we would be able to change the lives of our bakers,” the rabbi said. “We’ve held some of them in this project for four consecutive years, but many more have moved through the kitchen for a short period and then wander on to other things.

“We understand that we will fail as often as we succeed. Our goal is to do as much as we can without expecting miraculous transformation.”

Yet for bakers like Koenig, the change is evident. Through the bakery, she has developed confidence and strong friendships, broadened her social network and gotten her foot in the door at a local supermarket, where she now also earns a wage as a cashier and bagger.

But working in the “cookie factory,” Koenig said, is still “the best job.”

“I’ve been very fortunate — God has blessed me,” she added, as the mixer began to whir. “And the cookies are amazing.”

People who attend religious services live longer, new study suggests


All those people urging you to go to synagogue more may have a point.

A new study suggests that people who consistently attend religious services may live longer than those who don’t.

In an article published in the June issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, four Harvard University researchers analyzed data collected from 75,534 women over 16 years, between 1996 and 2012. They found that those who attended more than one religious service each week had a 33 percent lower risk of premature death.

Twice-weekly attendance corresponded to a 26 percent lower risk, and less than once a week meant 13 percent lower risk.

“Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that physicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate,” the study concluded.

Out of the 75,534 women who self-reported information, the majority were Christian. 1,700 were Jewish.

“Because of the [comparably] small number it would be difficult to look at them separately and see if the results differ [for Jews],” the study’s senior author, Tyler VanderWeele, an epidemiology professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told JTA in an email.

But VanderWeele pointed to an article from 2007 focused solely on Jews that echoes his findings. The study of 1,811 Jewish Israeli men and women over the age of 70 found: “Synagogue attendance is seen to promote survival mainly through its function as a source of communal attachment and, perhaps, as a reflection of spirituality as well.”

The Harvard study statistically ruled out the possibility of reverse causation — that healthy people go to church more than unhealthy people. Some variables, including social support and a tendency not to smoke, contributed to the correlation between religious service attendance and longevity, but didn’t account for it.

“This suggests that there is something powerful about the communal religious experience,” VanderWeele told The New York Times on Sunday. “These are systems of thought and practice shaped over millennia, and they are powerful.”

How synagogues can prioritize disability inclusion this High Holy Days season


With the High Holy Days just around the corner, Jews all over the world will be asking themselves how they can lead more meaningful and moral lives. Synagogue communities, too, will be asking how they can become more holy and inclusive communities.

In my years of involvement with disability inclusion, I’ve observed that change often occurs when a rabbi, a professional or a lay leader understands the value of inclusion of all people and makes it a priority. If there ever was a time for leaders to step up to the plate and help their synagogues become more inclusive — to welcome diverse people with varying abilities and find a place for them in the community — it’s during the Days of Awe.

Liz Offen, director of New England Yachad, an Orthodox Union-affiliated organization that works toward the inclusion in Jewish life of people with disabilities, said the High Holy Days seem almost designed to raise awareness of people with disabilities. “Every aspect of the High Holiday experience is infused with rituals that draw on the senses,” she said. “From the food we eat to the sound and vibrations of the shofar, we are reminded of the varied ways people experience life.”

So how can congregations take advantage of this calling to become more inclusive communities?

The obvious answer is that they can implement best practices in making their physical spaces more inclusive for people with disabilities. They can print books with larger text, embrace hearing loop technologies to assist people who are hard of hearing, train ushers to recognize and assist people with disabilities, make every part of the building wheelchair accessible and establish an inclusion committee to continually expand inclusive practices.

The broader answer is that they can demonstrate leadership and work to create a powerful culture of inclusion among congregants so that inclusion pervades all aspects of congregational life, and thereby change basic attitudes toward people with disabilities.

Ed Frim, an inclusion specialist at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that true inclusion goes much deeper than making synagogue life accessible. 

“Inclusive congregations are mindful of everyone who is part of the community,” he said. “They establish a culture that takes for granted that all, including those with disabilities, have the right to fully participate as part of the congregation.”

“It’s not just about training ushers to be welcoming to people with disabilities and helping them find their way. It’s about turning the entire congregation into ushers who seek to create a welcoming environment,” he said.

Just as important as building a culture of inclusion is effecting a shift in attitude about how we think of disabilities. Rabbi Noah Cheses of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto recalls a moment when his perspective on disabilities changed from seeing only the disability to seeing the whole person.

A senior in high school had come to speak at a retreat Cheses was attending. The student had a muscular disorder that required him to use a wheelchair. It was clear from the moment he began speaking that this charismatic young man was not defined by his disability.

“He asked us to take out a piece of paper and make a list of [perceived] personal shortcomings,” Cheses said. “We were then instructed to introduce ourselves to the person next to us in the following way: “Hi, my name is X, and I have such and such …

“For a moment, I felt what it was like to be identified by my personal limitations … as if my passions and talents were being overshadowed and pushed aside by something beyond my control.”

It was that realization, among others, that motivated Cheses to seek change in his congregation. The congregation made physical changes — such as building an accessible ark, among other things — but the rabbi also sought to make spiritual changes and help his congregants experience the same moment of recognition that he had at the retreat.

Indeed, it is these spiritual changes — viewing all of God’s people as bringing unique contributions to the world — that can turn a congregation from a collection of people to a holy community. This time of reflection and renewal provides the perfect moment for such a shift to take place. 

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society. The foundation is holding the 2015 Ruderman Inclusion Summit Nov. 1-2 in Boston. He’s on Twitter @jayruderman.

Paying to pray? Not quite


We’ve all heard this story, and some of us have lived it: A Jewish individual or couple, new in town or newly seeking to reconnect with the Jewish community, walks into a worship space just before the start time of a High Holy Days service and starts to enter the sanctuary, only to be stopped by an usher, who asks, “Do you have a ticket?”

If the answer is no, the would-be worshiper is directed to a table in the lobby, where he or she is offered admission to the service in exchange for a stated amount of money. 

How many Jews have been turned off from participation in synagogue life because this has happened? It’s a classic recipe for alienation. The stranger may be offended by what seems to be a crass business transaction at what’s supposed to be the holiest time on the Jewish calendar. He or she may not be able to afford the admission price. The person staffing the table may come off as officious or unfriendly. And, heaven forbid, the stranger doesn’t look particularly Jewish… This doesn’t happen in our bend of the river, of course. But it happens, and it’s always a horror story when it does.

This is a time of nervousness and heightened security measures, when you don’t know what kind of nut might walk through the door. But we who gather in congregations that are outlets for our Jewish spiritual and communal impulses have a responsibility even at the High Holy Days — especially at the High Holy Days — to make sure every single newcomer who turns up on the doorstep is welcomed warmly and unconditionally. I’ll get to how in a moment.

First, I would like those of you reading this column who are not affiliated with a congregation to understand why most synagogues ask for donations from nonmembers who want to attend High Holy Days services. It’s mostly to offset the greater expenses that congregations incur during the holidays. These can include space rental; additional personnel (from extra security guards to cantors and other professional musicians); food service for a crowd several times larger than usual; printing of bulletins, prayer-book supplements, memorial booklets. Keep in mind, too, that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only services for which congregations ask a specific donation. For every other visit to a temple’s sanctuary during the Jewish year — every Shabbat, every festival, every commemoration — the newcomer is asked for nothing but fellowship.

When you make a donation to a congregation in order to attend High Holy Days services, you aren’t paying to pray. (After all, you can do that for free, anywhere.) You’re supporting the ability of that congregation to provide a spiritually meaningful, aesthetically pleasing worship experience led by people who have trained for years and are working hard to express both the gravitas and celebration of the holiday season. You’re supporting the profoundly communal nature of Judaism, making yourself part of the minyan, if only for a couple of hours. And it’s tax-deductible.

The responsibility of the worship group, then, is to offer a sacred space and atmosphere that will embrace you and make you want to come back. The congregations that do this best at holiday time enlist their friendliest, warmest members to sit at the ticket table, take tickets at the door and hang out in the lobby, keeping an eye out for newbies. At least three types of people, all wearing big “Ask me” or “Let me help you” tags.

Collecting money from nonmembers is a much lower priority. Nonmembers who walk in without tickets should be directed smilingly to the ticket table, where they are told not that the ticket price for one service is X and for all the services is Y, but that the congregation asks nonmembers for a donation; this year, the suggested amount is Z. If the potential congregants offer a smaller donation, it should be accepted graciously. If they say they can’t afford any donation or aren’t carrying what they need to make a transaction, the volunteer member should hand them tickets and a stamped, addressed donation envelope, saying something along the lines of, “No problem. Here’s an envelope if you can send something later. We’re glad you can be with us for the holiday.” The odds of receiving a check? Unknown. Mitzvah points? Priceless.

During my years as a Jewish adult, I’ve been a temple board member eyeing the budget for the High Holy Days, and I’ve been the gal at the ticket table. I’ve been the cantor hired for the holidays and I am currently rabbi of a congregation-without-walls that needs to rent walls for the holidays. And I’ve been the stranger seeking a spiritual home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even when I was young and my financial resources minimal, the sense of being home was always worth supporting. 

If congregations and unaffiliated Jews alike approach the High Holy Days in a spirit of generosity, support and welcome, worship spaces everywhere will be filled with an extra radiance of joy and wholeness. L’shanah tovah um’tukah tikateivu: May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year. And may you find your spiritual home in 5776.

Rabbi Cantor Ellen Jaffe-Gill (ellenjaffegill.com) is rabbi of Tidewater Chavurah, based in Virginia Beach, Va., and editor of “The Jewish Woman’s Book of Wisdom.” This column appeared first in Jewish News of Southeastern Virginia. Reprinted with permission.

6 arrested after forcing their way into London synagogue


Six men were arrested after they forced their way into a synagogue in north London.

The men, who were drunk, attempted to enter a synagogue in the largely haredi Orthodox-populated neighborhood of Stamford Hill late Saturday night, the BBC reported Sunday. Synagogue security staff removed the men, the Metropolitan Police told the BBC.

“The incident is being treated as an anti-Semitic incident due to remarks made by one of the group,” a police spokesman told the BBC. “However, there is nothing to suggest that it was a planned or targeted attack.”

video of the incident shows some 10 members of the synagogue having to defend themselves with chairs and makeshift clubs as the men attempt to enter a room in the synagogue, the London-based Jewish Chronicle reported. They are seen in the video threatening the worshippers who are preventing them from entering the room.

Police told the BBC that it had increased patrols in the neighborhood.

Shots fired at Copenhagen synagogue


Three people were reportedly shot in an attack at a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The shooting occurred just hours after a fatal shooting at an event featuring a Danish cartoonist, Lars Vilks, who is under police protection because of his cartoons caricaturing Mohammed. It is not yet clear if the two shootings are related.

Multiple reports said two policemen and a civilian were shot in the synagogue attack, which reportedly occurred shortly after midnight on Saturday. A civilian was killed and three policemen were wounded in the earlier attack at a cafe.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister, said the attack on the cafe was a terrorist attack. Copenhagen was on high alert.

The Secure Community Network, the security arm of the U.S. Jewish community, was in touch with its European counterparts, its director, Paul Goldenberg, told JTA.

Can Israelis protect themselves from a new wave of low-tech terror?


Just after dawn on Nov. 18, a pair of Palestinian cousins from East Jerusalem went ” target=”_blank”>three American and one British — as well as a Druze traffic officer who tried to intervene.

“I was in shock — I didn’t understand what they were doing,” said Simha Anteby, 30, a Venezuelan immigrant who lives across the street from the synagogue and watched police kill the shooters as they ran from the building. “Never before has Hamas entered the shul. This is our calmest time, when we’re standing wrapped in tefillin. We’re completely vulnerable.

“They took advantage,” she said.

The Har Nof synagogue massacre, above all other recent acts of terror, has shattered the Israeli public’s sense of security in its most intimate settings. And it is forcing Israelis, who have secured their skies with the Iron Dome and their borders with fences and separation barriers, to attempt to figure out how to defend themselves against their next-door neighbors.

Regular worshipers at the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in West Jerusalem inspect bullet holes left by Palestinian shooters in a Nov. 18 rampage. Photos by Simone Wilson

This was the sixth fatal attack against Israelis within one month. There were also two car-as-weapon assaults ” target=”_blank”>attempted assassination of religious activist Yehuda Glick; and two stabbings on the same day, at a ” target=”_blank”>Tel Aviv train station.

A trend has emerged: Palestinian assailants, most with Jerusalem residency cards and, therefore, freedom of movement around Israel, are launching lone-wolf attacks with easy-to-find weapons.

Israeli social media analyst Orit Perlov, a research fellow for the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), said that trend has turned into a wildly effective, almost ISIS-like online campaign called “Ida’as, Ita’an, Itbah” (Arabic for “run over, stab, slaughter”).

“It creates a bigger effect than before,” Perlov said. “I’m sitting in Tel Aviv, I don’t leave my house, and I’m getting those pictures in a second. It doesn’t mean we have less security today, but we feel more insecurity. … I don’t need to physically be there to be terrorized.”

Most of the attacks before Har Nof seemed to be spur-of-the-moment decisions, impossible to predict or prevent.

“This is quite clearly a popular [movement] that is going from bottom up,” said Udi Dekel, a former negotiator in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and managing director of the INSS. “It’s the popular, kind of copycat nature of terrorism that people are getting excited about. … They can decide one morning to go out and [release] what’s been cooking in their souls for a week or two.”

When the attacks began, Israeli police erected concrete blocks at rail stations, deployed more than 1,000 extra officers around the city, set up dozens of vehicle checkpoints, and launched a new fleet of helicopters and surveillance balloons overhead.

Still, early on Nov. 18, the Abu Jamal cousins drove to the Har Nof synagogue with a car full of weapons and entered with ease.

“They didn’t have to break in,” said Dr. Joyce Morel, a first responder. “It was time for prayers — it was open. Anybody could just walk in.”

In response, Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich implemented sweeping changes. He boxed in all Palestinian neighborhoods with concrete barricades, requiring anyone entering or exiting to pass through a checkpoint. He ordered all synagogues to hire private guards and enlisted four reserve border police companies for public patrol. 

The residents of Har Nof in West Jerusalem, many of them English-speaking immigrants, gathered for a special service on Nov. 20 in memory of four synagogue members killed two days before.

Perhaps most controversially, Aharonovich eased restrictions for former cops or soldiers — and anyone living in a high-risk neighborhood — to acquire a gun license.

“The decision comes from a need to improve the feeling of safety among the population in light of the recent terror attacks,” Aharonovich said.

Jonathan Fine, a senior researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC), lives in a mixed Arab-Jewish sector of Jerusalem called French Hill. He said he doesn’t leave the house anymore without a gun.

“On the intelligence and tactical levels, it’s almost impossible to predict an independent attack,” he said. “Therefore, the only response on the ground will be from those who happen to be there. Police, pedestrians, or … your humble servant jogging with a pistol in his pouch.”

Yoram Schweitzer, INSS’ resident expert on terrorism, stressed that Israel can’t “put a guard in every synagogue and every kindergarten, because you have a zillion installations. This is not a solution.” In an INSS roundtable on the state of the conflict, Schweitzer and his colleagues advised that in order for calm to be restored, knee-jerk security measures would not be enough without a real political effort to move forward in the pursuit of Palestinian independence.

“We have to fight against the terror and dismantle the terror infrastructure … but it’s not enough,” Dekel said. “You have to all the time strive and go forward in the direction that you believe would be better for us and for the Palestinians.”

An insecure nation

Multiple Jerusalemites told the Journal that the synagogue massacre, more than other attacks, has left them with a feeling of total insecurity.

Kalman S., an Orthodox father-to-be and West Jerusalem resident who was afraid to give his full name, said he had always considered Har Nof off-limits to the enemy. “Americans come all the way to Israel to live in this beautiful place,” he said. “Until now, it was the area that was more safe than the rest of Jerusalem. Then, all of a sudden, these guys are barbarically killed.

“Now,” he said, “I’m crossing the street with my wife, nine months’ pregnant, and I’m looking over my shoulder to make sure there’s no Arab guy to stab me.”

More than 12 hours after the attack, small clusters of Har Nof residents still lingered near the front steps to the shul, their faces dark and disbelieving. Charedi men in black coats and hats inspected bullet holes in synagogue windows and car doors, now marked with police tape. Women pulled their cardigans tighter to shield themselves from the cold.

“We know that if we go to the center, to the Western Wall, they can hurt us,” Avraham Kleiger, 25, told the Journal. “But, here we thought we were safe. We thought the synagogue was the red line.”

Young women from Har Nof hide their tears behind their prayer books during an emotional Nov. 20 service at the Kehilat Bnei Torah shul.

In the agonizing hours that followed the Nov. 18 attack, Har Nof residents would learn which of their seasoned Torah scholars hadn’t made it through morning prayers alive: Aryeh Kupinsky. Kalman Levine. Avraham Goldberg. Moshe Twersky.

Twersky comes from a famous Chasidic family with a strong presence on America’s East Coast that is a household name among the Jerusalem Orthodox. His friends and family knew him as a strict scholar with a warm smile, devoted wholeheartedly to serving God. Twersky’s niece, Rebecca Rosenblatt, currently studying abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said in a hushed interview outside the family shivah that she had never once heard her Orthodox uncle discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Uncle Moshe respected everyone,” she said. “The only one he ever sought recognition from was God.”

Israeli security and social-media analyst Perlov said this attack on religious Jews wrapped in tefillin comes amid a shift in iconography driving the Palestinian resistance. Whereas propaganda cartoons used to mainly show uniformed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) under attack, she said, many of the victims are now depicted as caricatures of Orthodox Jews.

IDC counterterrorism expert Fine said the synagogue massacre was a clear sign that Palestinian attackers are taking clues from radical Islam. “They used butcher knives,” he said of the assailants. “If you get into Sharia law, you’ll see very specific rulings on killing the enemy with a knife.”

Some analysts believe the Har Nof synagogue may have been a random pick, born of convenience, but there’s a good possibility the Abu Jamal cousins chose their venue carefully. East Jerusalem residents who knew Ghassan and Uday told the Journal that the Kehilat Bnei Torah shul was the same one frequented by the family of the man convicted of brutally murdering young East Jerusalem boy Mohammed Abu Khdeir in July. (Various Israeli and Palestinian media reports provided evidence toward the same claim.) And Ghassan, they said, had been close friends with Yousef Ramouni, the Palestinian bus driver Dust and lightning

A short drive from Har Nof, at the mouth to Jerusalem, a few hundred Israelis gathered beneath the Bridge of Strings on the night of the synagogue massacre to voice their pain — and their anger at Israeli officials for not preventing the attack with a greater show of strength.

Israeli activist Itamar Ben Gvir rallies a crowd near the entrance to Jerusalem on Nov. 18, calling for Israel to expel all Arabs from the country.

The rally soon devolved into a rowdy mob led by members of the extreme anti-Arab group Lehava. They taunted riot police, chanted “Death to the Arabs!” and attempted to chase down suspected Palestinians and “lefties” walking by. Slogans like “No Arabs = no attacks” and “There is no coexistence with cancer” were scrawled on homemade signs. Wartime-level racial tensions had returned to Jerusalem.

Said one young protester: “The government needs to fight stronger against this enemy. We need to go and blow up their house — right now. It’s taking too long.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the same idea. That night, under pressure to take decisive action and to console an insecure nation, he said in a media statement:

“We will not tolerate this reality; we will fight terrorism, and we will defeat it. We will restore law, order and security to the streets of Jerusalem. This evening, I ordered the demolition of the homes of the terrorists who perpetrated the massacre and the hastening of the demolition of the homes of the terrorists who perpetrated the earlier attacks.”

The next night, a demolition team made up of IDF Combat Engineering Corps soldiers, Israeli police and border cops A young relative of terror suspect Abdel Rahman Al Shaludi stands in the rubble of their family home. The building was partially demolished by Israeli forces on Nov. 19 as punishment for Al Shaludi’s deadly October attack at a Jerusalem light rail station.

The family building didn’t crumble entirely. However, 21-year-old Abdel Rahman’s apartment — where he lived with his mother, father and five brothers and sisters — has been gutted, rendered unlivable, by an IDF explosive. And the building’s other seven units are now in various states of destruction — some with holes in their walls, some with their belongings ransacked and furniture shredded. A car parked on the street below was destroyed by falling objects. “They peed on the bed of the children, and on the schoolbooks of my niece, on the first floor,” Enas claimed.

Her son, now a community shahid (martyr) with his face on fliers and banners all over Silwan, allegedly had rammed his car into a Jerusalem light rail station on Oct. 22. The crash killed a 3-month-old baby girl and an Ecuadorian immigrant, and sent Jerusalem into a new era of tension and violence some are calling the Third Intifada.

“I don’t like to see innocent people dying. I don’t like to see anyone die — Jew or Palestinian,” she said. “But violence will create more violence. Action will create more action. The situation will only become worse. The only solution is to end the occupation and to keep the settlers out of Al-Aqsa mosque.”

‘An extraordinary step’

The Al Shaludi home demolition was the first in a lineup of at least six punitive demolitions that as of press time Nov. 24 was expected in the coming days.

Back in July, the IDF demolished two family homes in the West Bank belonging to Palestinian men suspected of carrying out the infamous kidnap-murder of three Jewish boys. At that time, officials were hesitant to confirm the demolition to the press. The practice was then somewhat taboo: It had been discontinued in 2005 after the IDF declared it ineffective and had only been approved in two exceptional cases since.

But with the 4 a.m. explosion in Silwan last week, this tactic, whose effectiveness is often debated, re-entered the mainstream.

In a video interview with CNN, the prime minister’s spokesman, Mark Regev, explained the revival. “It is an extraordinary step, one of the tools in our tool box,” Regev said. “A Palestinian terrorist, any terrorist, may not care about themselves. But maybe they care about their immediate loved ones and where they live. I’ve been in security discussions, and our experts believe this policy could save lives.”

Jabel Mukabbir, the East Jerusalem hometown of the Abu Jamal synagogue attackers, will be hit hardest by the demolitions. Their two family homes — plus that of Mohammed Naif Ja’abis, who flipped over a Jerusalem bus with his tractor on Aug. 4, killing one — are on the IDF’s list.

Theirs is a tight-knit neighborhood that cascades down a hill just south of Jerusalem’s Old City, spilling over the political fault line that separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank. It’s also a hotbed for anti-Israel activity: In 2008, another Jabel Mukabbir resident shot up a yeshiva in West Jerusalem; eight boys died in the attack.

On the afternoon of Nov. 21 in Jabel Mukabbir, hundreds of residents had gathered to support the Abu Jamal family at a mourning tent for Ghassan and Uday. Their mothers were holed up in a neighbor’s home, too distraught to speak to the press. They’d just gotten word that Israel might not return their sons’ bodies for burial — and a 48-hour demolition notice posted on their family homes Nov. 20 was set to expire the next afternoon.

“When you build this house, your soul is gone when you finish,” said Kamal Awisat, 51, a cousin of the synagogue attackers. “It’s not easy for Palestinians to build in Jerusalem because Israel doesn’t give us new permits. So every time your children have children, you cut a new apartment into the house.”

The two stone buildings set for demolition, home to around 20 members of the Abu Jamal family, are situated about 50 meters apart, surrounded by olive trees and connected by a dirt path. One is said to be around 200 years old.

By last Friday, families had removed their furniture from the home and were bracing for an explosion in the night.

Uday’s younger brother, who didn’t want to give his name for fear the Israeli police would arrest him, said that if the IDF demolished his home, he would sleep in the rubble — right where Uday’s room used to be. “I will be like him some day, inshallah (God willing),” said the 10-year-old, a red checkered keffiyeh draped over his shoulders.

“You see? Instead of making calm, they are making more fire,” said Awisat. “How would you feel if this was your house? They will make 500 youth ready to do more than what [Ghassan and Uday] did.”

Waiting for Demolition

Next door, in the more low-key, upscale East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor, there’s another IDF demolition slated for the home of Mutaz Hijazi — the man suspected of the near-fatal shooting of Israeli-American activist Yehuda Glick, a lead campaigner for Jewish prayer rights at the contested Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Hijazi‘s father Ibrahim, 67, welcomed a nonstop rotation of journalists into his house on Friday afternoon. He walked from room to room, showing them the space where he‘d raised his children. The furniture had been dragged out, but traces of life remained: In the living room, a child had painted stripes of glitter on the wall. In an adjacent bedroom, deflated red and yellow balloons were still tacked to the ceiling. An embroidered “Welcome” sign and a photo of his dead son Mutaz hung near the front door.

Waiting for the IDF to arrive, Ibrahim said, was almost more painful than the demolition itself. “He’s already gone,” said Ibrahim of his son. “What they‘re doing now is just to show how much hate they have for our people.”

The renowned Israeli professor and doctor Shimon Glick, father of the man Hijazi allegedly shot, said he sees the demolitions mostly as a means of attempting to calm the Israeli people.

“No one knows whether this is effective” in preventing future terror attacks, he said. “Everyone has an opinion. They like to think they know, but no one knows for sure.”

Personally, Glick said, “It gives me no satisfaction to know that these people will have their house blown up. But when something this horrible happens, people demand a response. The government has to do something.”

The U.S. has urged Israeli authorities to avoid punitive home demolitions. “We’ve made it clear that all sides have to work together to lower tensions,” U.S. State Department Jeff Rathke said at a recent press conference. “And we believe that punitive home demolitions are counterproductive in an already tense situation. This is a practice I would remind that the Israeli government itself discontinued in the past, recognizing its effects.”

Various Israeli security experts stressed to the Journal that the country’s long-term security depends on a delicate balance of initially cracking down on radicals — to deter future attacks — while not pushing other Palestinians to the breaking point, and keeping hope alive for the future.

“When you have a gloomy option of peace negotiations, naturally the radicals have the upper hand — they incite and violence grows,” Fine said.

‘They knew the neighborhood’

The initial crackdown phase is in full effect in Jerusalem. Over the past few days, the Israel of a decade ago — in which one couldn’t walk a block without being watched or patted down by a man in uniform — has come back to life. More than usual, the streets are full of vigilantes: Plainclothes men in kippot walk around slung with rifles. On a recent Friday, one young man on the Jerusalem light rail, fresh out of the army, said he was carrying a gun to show Palestinians that “Jerusalem is ours.” Two others peeled past the central bus station in black helmets and Israeli flag capes, whooping into the wind. Central bus station security guards looked like they’d just woken up from two years of vacation, and spent a good 30 seconds rifling through each passenger’s bag.

Some Jerusalemites told the Journal that there’s not much they can do besides stay alert — or hide. “There are fewer people in the streets,” said Kalman S. “We stay home when we can.” 

Others are taking a stand. A controversial new campaign has urged Jewish business owners to fire their Palestinian employees.

According to police, the Tel Aviv stabbing suspect had been working illegally in Israel before he lashed out. One of the Abu Jamal cousins, too, is said to have worked at a grocery store a few blocks from the Har Nof synagogue. (Residents of Har Nof each named a different store when questioned by the Journal, and storeowners all denied the synagogue attacker had worked in their businesses.)

“They knew the neighborhood. If they didn’t work here, this wouldn’t happen,” said 17-year-old Har Nof resident Yakov Wilshinky. “The Arabs don’t want us alive in this country. You don’t know which one will come and kill you.”

Wilshinky and his friends — one of whom held up a flier reading “Don’t hire Arabs!!!” — said they had been making the rounds to local businesses. “We’re going to the managers of all the grocery stores and telling them to fire their Arab workers,” said Dudu Asulin. He said his own boss, at a nearby supermarket, had sent all the Arabs home that day and told them, “Don’t come back to work.”

Despite warnings from the Prime Minister’s Office — “We should not generalize an entire population because a small minority of it is violent and belligerent,” Netanyahu said — the “don’t hire Arabs” movement quickly spread beyond Har Nof. A reception hall chain in Bnei Brak reportedly fired more than a dozen Arab dishwashers after the synagogue attack. And the mayor of Ashkelon, a large Israeli city near Gaza, made international headlines when he banned Arab workers from construction sites near schools. (He later retracted his decision.)

Protesters at the Lehava rally said there was no alternative. “Every Arab you see, you get scared,” said Avi Mann. “If an Arab wakes up in the morning and he’s angry, he could take a knife and kill Jews.”

A 22-year-old Palestinian woman living in Jabel Mukabbir and working at an Israeli hospital would only give her initials — R.A. — in an interview with the Journal, for fear her hospital superiors would see the article and fire her.

R.A. also volunteers for a Palestinian emergency response team, where she’s been treating young Jabel Mukabbir protesters wounded in clashes with police ahead of the slated home demolitions. “We couldn’t just let them come in,” she said of Israeli forces. “All of the people of this village stopped them from entering. We are very close here; every home is our home. We can’t give up that easily.”

Of the motives driving recent terror attacks, she said: “Things escalated over a few months. It started on Ramadan, when they stopped us from going to the [Al-Aqsa] mosque. Then Abu Khdeir was killed, and then Gaza — it built up, bit by bit. And they just suppressed it. They didn’t let people express their feelings.

“These bad things that happen don’t come from nowhere,” she said. “It’s a reaction. We don’t all wake up every morning and want to kill.”

Death in a synagogue


They could hear the iron doors at the front of the synagogue clang shut behind them.  Crowded together with 2,000 other people inside the main sanctuary, the man and the woman looked at each other in panic. The woman gazed down at her five year-old-son and gripped the little boy’s hand. She saw fear on his face.  Outside they heard shouting and could smell the pungent reek of flowing gasoline.  From the open window a swab, glowing with fire, landed on the synagogue floor. Then another. And another.  Shortly, the vestibule next to which they stood caught alight.  The flames then spread so quickly that they barely had time to catch their breath as the synagogue was engulfed in confusion and panic.  Screaming and shouting, people tore at each other to get near the windows.  But the windows had been nailed shut. Crushed in the throng, the man motioned to his wife to a hidden stairway that he knew led to an attic.  Slowly, through the gathering fumes and smoke, they forced their way towards it.   Once there they hurriedly clambered up.   And at the top they saw it.  A window not yet boarded up.  The man thrust open the wooden shutters and looked down.  He was there!

” Chaim! ”  he shouted at the top of his lungs. ” CHAIM!!!”

From down below a young man looked up and saw his father’s face.

” Jump, father, jump!!”

The woman  looked to her husband and she back at him. She shook her head.

” We CANNOT. We will never survive it. Never!”

” Basia, we will die here too.

But it was too late. Someone had seen them make their way to the stairs and a group now stormed the wooden steps ,invading the narrow space.  They were crushed against the attic wall.

” We will all die!,” the woman wept.

The man looked down at his frightened son.

” GIVE ME HIM!” he shouted above the din.

She let go of his hand and pushed him toward her husband.  He lifted the boy by his armpits and with  a heave pushed his way  toward the open window.

He then set  him on the window ledge and looked below.

” Chaim, I am throwing him to you!, he shouted to the brother below. ” You must catch him!  You must break his fall!”

He turned to the boy and said softly:

” You will be alright. Chaim will catch you.  He touched  the boy’s face and kissed him.

” Grow, my son, to be a good Jew. “

” NO, Tati, NO!!!  the boy cried.

But in less than a second he was tumbling through the cold night air.

Below his brother stood breathing hard and as the boy came down he caught him and they both collapsed into the snow.

There they lay for a second, stunned, and then the boy turned and looked back to the window.  But his father’s face had disappeared.

” TATI!!!!” the boy screamed.

They waited for a minute, as the tumult grew –  but they could already see smoke pouring from the attic window.  The older boy looked around and saw the police riding towards them.  He knew they had to leave.

” Come.  We cannot stay.”

” I can’t, no”  the boy whimpered.  “TATI!, MAMMA!”  he cried as  he searched desperately for a sign of  his parents at the window.

“COME! ” the older boy finally commanded, holding back his own tears and pulling at the child’s arm.  ” YOU MUST COME!”

They quickly made their way out of the town and hid for the night in the fields under a blanket they had found.  They watched that night as the synagogues of Kiev burned to the ground.

Six months later  the orphan would be placed on a ship to Australia in the company of his aunt, never to see Russia again.  His brother would make his way to Canada and then America to begin a new life of his own.

The man and the woman were my great-grandparents.  Their five -year-old son, my grandfather.   Their story is scorched into my family’s consciousness and the memory of that night can never be erased.

                                                                                                              *****

Stories such as this are replete among Jewish families.  This event took place in 1919 during the Russian Civil War but could have easily been a scene taken from any number of episodes in Jewish history from the killing of the Jews of Medina by Mohammed in the 7th Century, to the rampages of the Crusaders along the Rhine in the 11th Century to the Chelminicki masscresmin  Russia in the mid 1600s.

The synagogue has always been a convenient place to find and kill Jews.  There, at prayer, they are most vulnerable and least likely to offer resistance.

And so, it is little wonder that two Arab cousins  decided to enter the Jerusalem synagogue  in Har Nof, Jerusalem on Wednesday morning.  How likely would it have been that these pious Jews were carrying weapons with which to defend themselves or would have any idea that their lives might be in danger?  How prepared could they have been for what overcame them that morning?B

This particular incident has yet another painful  familial association for me. My brother, his wife and six children live only a quarter of a mile from the synagogue. He has often prayed in the building  and his children have attended the school next door.

Jews began arriving in Palestine in the late 19th Century, fleeing attacks in Russia of exactly this nature.   The theory went that in the Holy Land, Jews would finally find safety and security building lives protected from the antisemitism and violence which swirled around them in Europe.  In the light of this most recent horrific incident it would be fairly easy to argue that the experiment has failed.  If Jews at prayer can still be butchered in a land they call their own, then what is the use of a Jewish police force, a Jewish army and all the benefits of a Jewish state?

The answer to this challenge is that there are no guarantees anywhere on Earth that Jews will not be targeted for attack.  Not in England, where Orthodox Jews fear wearing their yarmulkes in public; not in the United States where virulent anti Zionism, (of a form indistinguishable from antisemitism) has emerged as a fashionable attitude among academic elites;   and not in supposedly quiet Australia where Jews have recently suffered some deeply disturbing antisemitic attacks, unknown to me at any time in my childhood.

But unlike my great-grandparents, who had nowhere to go and nowhere to turn, Jews in Israel have much to be grateful for. It is not the existence of an Israeli police force, nor an Israeli army.   Nor is it even a Jewish majority government.  It is a sense that despite the antisemitism that again rages around the world and the growing diplomatic isolation of the Jewish state as it struggles against pathological murderers and debased liars, the wind of history is no longer blowing against  them;  it is now blowing at their back.

The Jewish birth rate in Israel is higher than it has ever been and despite all dire predictions, far exceeds that of the Palestinians or Arabs in any other Arab State; Israel’s pre-eminence  as a high-tech hub has elevated it to a position of tremendous importance for the world’s most successful corporations making the state’s eradication  economically unimaginable.  Jewish nationalism, long derided by the post-Zionist academics and secular intelligentsia is making a significant comeback, buoyed by the idea that the nation , for  all its fractured differences, must be united and strong in the face of such adversity.

But even more important than any of  this is the growing national sense  that Judaism, once relegated as an ancient anachronism by so many secular Israelis, may actually be the life blood of the nation. Four rabbis were butchered in a synagogue while praying.  A severed arm, found in the bloodied synagogue, still wrapped in tefillin, offered a stirring symbol of faith and commitment in the face of the terror with which our enemies wish to undermine our perseverance .

It would seem to reinforce the words of millions of Jewish fathers to their sons throughout the generations which perhaps offers the true key to Jewish survival:

“Grow, my son, to be a good Jew.”

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles. He blogs at The Intermediate Zone and  at the Jewish Journal in On the Other Hand

New York increases security around synagogues


New York City increased its police presence at synagogues and other locations in the wake of an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue that left four dead.

“The NYPD is following developments in Jerusalem closely and working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to monitor any further developments,” the city’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton, said in a statement. “As of now, there is no specific credible threat to New York City.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio asked New Yorkers to remain alert and report suspicious activity, WCBS-TV reported. He said that the NYPD is “in close contact with its liaison post in Israel.”

The FBI said in a statement that it is “aware of the situation” and was “working in close collaboration and cooperation with the appropriate Israeli allies and partners.”

In his statement, de Blasio said, “New York City stands in solidarity with Israel at this difficult time, and we hope and pray for a peaceful and secure future for all of its people.” The mayor said he was “horrified and heartbroken” by the attack.

Palestinians kill five in Jerusalem synagogue terror attack


Two Palestinians armed with a meat cleaver and a gun killed four worshippers and an Israeli police officer in a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday before being shot dead by police, the deadliest such incident in six years in the holy city.

[Follow @jewishjournal for breaking information]

Three of the victims held dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship and the fourth man was a British-Israeli national, police said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to respond with a “heavy hand” and accused Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of inciting violence in Jerusalem.

Abbas condemned the attack, which took place after weeks of unrest fueled in part by a dispute over Jerusalem's holiest shrine.

A worshipper at the service in the Kehillat Bnei Torah synagogue in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jewish West Jerusalem said about 25 people were praying when shooting broke out.

[Kerry: Attack was ‘senseless brutality’]

“I looked up and saw someone shooting people at point-blank range. Then someone came in with what looked like a butcher's knife and he went wild,” the witness, Yosef Posternak, told Israel Radio.

Photos distributed by Israeli authorities showed a man in a prayer shawl lying dead, a bloodied butcher's cleaver on the floor and prayer books covered in blood.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement: “I strongly condemn today's terrorist attack on worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem, which killed four innocent people, including U.S. citizens Aryeh Kupinsky, Cary William Levine and Mosheh Twersky, and injured several more.”

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama said too many Israelis and Palestinians had died in recent violence.

“And at this difficult time, I think it's important for both Palestinians and Israelis to try to work together to lower tensions,” he said.

U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed in April after Abbas signed a unity deal with Hamas, an Islamist group that advocates Israel's destruction. Palestinians have also been angered by continued Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Violence in Jerusalem, areas of Israel and the Palestinian territories has surged in the past month, fueled in part by a dispute over Jerusalem's holiest shrine, and Abbas has said Muslims have a right to defend their sacred places if attacked.

Five Israelis and a foreign visitor were killed in the Palestinian attacks that preceded Tuesday's incident. At least 10 Palestinians have also been killed, including those accused of carrying out the attacks prior to the synagogue assault.

DEMOLITIONS

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the two assailants, both from Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, were shot dead by police in a gun battle outside the synagogue. Netanyahu said Israel would demolish their homes.

Israel's ambulance service said at least eight people were seriously wounded.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine militant group said it carried out the attack, which it called a “heroic operation”.

The four dead – Twersky, 59, Kupinsky, 43, Levine, 55, and Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, a 68-year-old British-Israeli – were all ordained rabbis.

A Jewish seminary lecturer, Twersky was from a Hassidic rabbinical dynasty. Thousands of mourners attended his funeral.

Palestinian radio described the attackers as “martyrs” and Hamas, the dominant group in the Gaza Strip, praised the attack.

Loudspeakers at mosques in the enclave called out congratulations and youngsters handed out candy in the streets.

Palestinian media named the assailants as Ghassan and Udai Abu Jamal, cousins from the Jerusalem district of Jabal Mukaber, where clashes broke out as Israeli security forces moved in to make arrests.

Abbas said in a statement: “The presidency condemns the attack on Jewish worshippers in one of their places of prayer in West Jerusalem and condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it.”

The attack raised Israelis' concern about a new Palestinian uprising, and Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said he was seeking a partial easing of gun controls so that military officers and security guards could carry weapons while off-duty.

A day before the incident, a Palestinian bus driver was found hanged in his vehicle in Jerusalem. Israel said he committed suicide, but his family said he was attacked and mourners at his funeral chanted for revenge.

Residents trace the violence in Jerusalem to July, when a Palestinian teenager was burned to death by Jewish assailants, an alleged revenge attack for the abduction and killing of three Jewish teens by Palestinian militants in the West Bank.

The summer war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and a row over access to a Jerusalem compound that is sacred to Muslims and Jews alike have also triggered violence.

The synagogue attack was the worst in the city since 2008, when a Palestinian gunman killed eight people in a religious school.

Church to become first synagogue in German state since Kristallnacht


A former church will become Germany’s newest synagogue and the first in the state of Brandenburg since 1938.

In ceremonies on Sunday, Ulrike Menzel, who has led the Evangelical parish in Cottbus since 2009, handed a key for the Schlolsskirche, or “castle church,” to the Jewish Association of the State of Brandenburg.

The actual dedication of the synagogue is planned for Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27.

“It’s wonderful to see this house of worship returned to its intended use,” Menzel said at the ceremony, according to the Nordkurier online newspaper. For decades, the building has been used for social and communal events.

Sunday’s ceremony comes almost 76 years after Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” a Germany-wide pogrom in which Jewish property and synagogues — including the one in Cottbus — were destroyed. A department store stands on the site today.

The state of Brandenburg contributed the full purchase cost for the decommissioned church, $730,700, and will contribute about $62,400 per year for maintenance, according to a statement on the community’s website. The city of Cottbus oversaw the removal of the cross and church bell from the steeple. All other costs of renovation were to be borne by the state Jewish association.

The Cottbus Jewish community has pledged to use the structure as a synagogue for at least 25 years.

Cottbus traces the first mention of Jewish residents to 1448. Its first Jewish house of prayer was established in 1811 in the inner courtyard of a cloth maker. At the time, there were 17 Jews in Cottbus. In 1902, a larger synagogue was dedicated. Nazi hooligans set it afire on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938.

The Jewish community was not formally reestablished in Cottbus until 1998. Today it has some 350 members, all from the former Soviet Union.

ADL alerts U.S. synagogues to protect against online hackers


The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has issued a security alert to Jewish institutions across the country concerning a potential uptick in the number of online attacks by foreign hackers targeting the websites of synagogues and other Jewish organizations, which could compromise synagogue membership lists and financial data.
 
The latest attack was reported last week. As Jews were celebrating the festival holiday of Sukkot, a hacker group calling itself “Team System Dz” attacked the website of a South Florida synagogue, redirecting visitors to a page with messages expressing support for the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
 
ADL’s security alert urges synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions to ensure their websites are secure and important online data, such as membership lists, is protected behind secure firewalls.
 
“Jewish websites in the U.S. have become a common target for hacker groups in the Arab and Muslim world,” said Oren Segal, Director of ADL’s Center on Extremism. “While past hacking efforts against Jewish institutions have mainly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the more recent attacks are being carried out in the name of the Islamic State.”
 
The attack on the synagogue server in Florida was just one of a series of incidents reported in 2014. Jewish synagogues in Houston and Pennsylvania also have been targeted. And those foreign-based hacker groups taking responsibility for the attacks are vowing to strike again.
 
“Team System Dz,” for one, has bragged about its “hacks of Jewish websites especially the website of the Miami Temple” on its Facebook page. The apparently Algeria-based group is now threatening additional attacks against American and Israeli websites.
 
Other hacker groups such as “aljyyosh” (“the armies” in Ara­bic) claim to have hacked into per­sonal infor­ma­tion belong­ing to Amer­i­can Jews and Israelis and pro­vided instruc­tions on how to hack into such per­sonal infor­ma­tion on their var­i­ous online forums.

The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.  Follow us on Twitter: @ADL_News

19th-century synagogue complex restored in Lithuania


After seven years of renovations, a unique complex made up of two 19th-century synagogues opened to the public in the Lithuanian town of Joniskis.

The Joniskis Synagogue Complex made its official debut earlier this month, the Russian Jewish news agency AEN reported Wednesday.

The complex in northern Lithuania comprises the Red Synagogue, which dates to 1865, and the White Synagogue, from 1823, according to the World Monuments Fund, which participated in the restoration.

“The unique complex of Joniskis synagogues is an important cultural, historic, architectural, and social landmark, not only in the district of Joniskis, but within Lithuania and Eastern Europe as a whole,” the fund wrote on its website.

It noted that in1970, the complex was declared a Cultural Heritage Object by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage in Lithuania.

Countless Lithuanian synagogues were destroyed by the Nazis and later by the Soviet government. The Joniskis complex, with the Star of David decorating one of its facades, escaped a similar fate because it is surrounded by residential buildings, meaning that “would-be vandals passed right by them without realizing they were there,“ the fund wrote.

After the war, the buildings were abandoned and reused for various purposes, according to the fund.

The synagogues were in a “serious state of serious disrepair” when restoration efforts began in 2007, it said.

The roof of the White Synagogue was replaced and the false upper-level facades on the sides of the building have been restored to their original configuration, the fund reported. In addition, the Red Synagogue’s foundations were repaired and made waterproof.

The High Holy Days: Something meaningful, or just going through the motions?


Most of us who go to synagogue for the High Holy Days have no clue what’s going on.

We don’t speak or read Hebrew well enough to understand the prayers or the Torah portion. We don’t know why we say the prayers in the order we say them. We don’t like the stilted English translations. Many of us don’t even believe in God, or religion. It’s true: Jews are the least religious of all adherents. According to Gallup, only 38 percent of us consider ourselves religious, while 54 percent of us self-describe as nonreligious and 2 percent as atheist. Meanwhile, almost 80 percent attend synagogue on the High Holy Days.

To summarize: Most of us spend a dozen hours in synagogue and hundreds of dollars on tickets to pray in a language we don’t understand to a God we don’t believe in.  

Why? 

The answer is: For a lot of different reasons. Some Jews, of course, do understand and do believe, so that’s a lock. Many of us are groping our way toward understanding and belief. Others like the tradition, the feeling of community, the chance to hear a sermon, the feeling they get participating in a ritual. Many go out of guilt or habit or superstition. 

I suspect that it’s often a mix of these motivations that compel us, in varying amounts, depending on the year. Anyway, who said you have to understand what’s going on in order to be moved? Ritual is a human desire, like music. You don’t need to understand it, or play it, or “believe” in it to be changed by it.

My friend Jon Drucker  belongs to what I suspect is a large subset of Jews who know and understand a lot, but who are still deeply skeptical. I asked him why he bothers to go, then. He quoted back to me a joke that Woody Allen tells in Annie Hall to explain relationships: A guy tells his psychiatrist, “My brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken.” The doc says, “Why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would but I need the eggs.”

Jon said he goes to synagogue for the eggs.

There is something crazy, irrational and absurd about the Days of Awe in the City of Angels. Tens of thousands of people step outside the daily rhythms of their lives, leave behind their modern homes, their cars, their jobs and gather to hear the sound of a hollowed-out ram’s horn and the chanting of words written on a sheepskin scroll.  

Last year, I watched a man park his Tesla near the Venice Pier, walk to the seashore, throw old bread into the waves, then get back into his 21st-century technological miracle and drive away. There is no way the scene would have made sense to anyone who hadn’t heard of tashlich

But these scenes repeat themselves, all over the city. Dressed in our modern clothes, we re-create the most ancient of rituals. We have everything we need, but we still need this.

What is this?

Sigmund Freud was one of those Jews who didn’t speak Hebrew, who didn’t believe in the sacred texts, and who had no, as he called them, “nationalist impulses.” Why then, he wondered, did Judaism have such a claim on him? What remained? 

“A very great deal,” he wrote, “and probably its very essence.”

What Freud called the essence, what my friend Jon calls the eggs, I think it all circles around the same need, the same idea: teshuvah.

Teshuvah means returning. The High Holy Days are an elaborate extended ritual of return — to get us to turn back toward our true selves, toward what we know is right, toward what believers would call God and what the rest would call our essence.

“Our human longing to return to the Source is fully part of the natural order,” Rabbi Arthur Green writes. “We are born to be God seekers.”

This is not a Jewish thing; it’s a human thing. Judaism offers a way. That’s the reason so many of us find ourselves stepping into synagogues at this time of year — it’s our outward response to our inward call. Two thousand years later, not Leonardo, not Edison, not even Elon Musk, has improved on the design of the shofar. 

We go because we have a feeling that while it may not in and of itself work or even make much sense, it’s a step in the right direction. It helps. We live in a society whose every moment and every message tells us, “Get moving, go forward!” This time of year, something calls out to us from within and says, “Here’s a better idea: Stop, and go deep.”

Shanah tovah.

Suspect arrested in firebomb attack on German synagogue


A suspect has been arrested in an attempted arson attack on a German synagogue.

A neighbor of the New Wuppertal Synagogue in the former West German state of North Rhine-Westphalia called police at about  2 a.m. on Tuesday to report burning objects in the street next to the synagogue, according to German news reports. Three men reportedly threw Molotov cocktails at the synagogue, which was dedicated in 2002.

WDR broadcast news reported that an 18-year-old man was arrested nearby. Police did not reveal further information about the one apprehended suspect, but according to Reuters the man told authorities he is Palestinian.

There were no injuries but traces of a flammable liquid were found around the building.

A local group, the Palestinian Friendship Association, distanced itself from the incident which it condemned  “profoundly.” Association spokesperson Ismail Karsoua said such acts are counterproductive to political discussion, WDR reported.

In related news, police in the city of Essen, also in North Rhine-Westphalia, last week received a tip that an attack on the city’s Old Synagogue had been announced on Facebook for 3 a.m. on July 24. Police arrested three men at the scene at 1 a.m. that day, after they rolled down the window of their car and threatened, “We’ll see you later.” The men were later released.

German police arrest 18-year-old after attack on synagogue


German police arrested an 18-year-old man after petrol bombs were thrown at a synagogue in the western town of Wuppertal overnight, they said in a statement on Tuesday.

“According to investigations, three suspects threw several incendiary devices at the entrance,” police said. No one was hurt and it appeared no damage had been done to the synagogue, they said. A local resident had alerted them when she saw a fire close to the building.

Prosecutor Hans-Joachim Kiskel said the nationality of the arrested suspect was not clear, but that the man had told authorities he was Palestinian. The other two suspects fled.

The German government last week assured Jews living in Germany that they should feel safe in the face of the anti-Semitic chants and threats heard at some recent protests against Israel over its conflict with Hamas in Gaza, and said such behavior would not be tolerated.

Germany is ultra-sensitive about anti-Semitism because of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, and German media have expressed shock at the tenor of anti-Israel chants at some of the demonstrations.

The former head of Germany's Jewish community, Charlotte Knobloch, said in a newspaper interview to be published on Wednesday that Jews were under threat in Germany and urged them to be careful how they appeared in public.

“This is the most worrying and threatening period that we've experienced since 1945,” Knobloch told the Cologne Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper. “The phone has been ringing off the hook and we've been bombarded by mail – we're being confronted with insults and hatred.”

She said Jews were being “attacked and insulted in our country again”.

“And once synagogues are burning, then it's time to ask: What do we have to do to protect Jewish citizens?”

Reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Erik Kirschbaum and Thorsten Severin; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Anti-Israel rioters torch cars, throw firebomb at Paris-area synagogue


PARIS (JTA) — Anti-Israel protesters hurled a firebomb at a synagogue during an unauthorized demonstration in a heavily Jewish suburb of Paris.

The riot broke out on Sunday afternoon in Sarcelles after a few hundred people assembled at a local metro station to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza, as well as the decision by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazaneuve to ban rallies against Israel following the staging of riots last week outside several synagogues in the Paris region.

The firebomb was hurled at the Synagogue of Garges-Les-Gonesse at a smaller rally that splintered off the main demonstration. It hit the building but did not cause serious damage, the daily online edition of Le Figaro reported.

In addition, rioters torched at least two cars as they clashed with police near the synagogue.

Organizers of the protest rally at the metro station urged the crowd not to resort to violence, but a few dozen demonstrators confronted police as others were leaving the demonstration, the online edition of the Le Nouvel Observateur weekly reported. Police fired tear gas at the demonstrators and surrounded a synagogue nearby, blocking the entire street.

Approximately 30 young Jewish men were standing at the synagogue entrance holding sticks; one was holding an Israeli flag. The French Jewish Defense League, or LDJ, said on Twitter that it was guarding the synagogue along with police.

Protesters also smashed the windshield of several parked cars and at least one shop.

Sarcelles has a large Sephardic Jewish population.

On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators protesting Israel’s military operation in Gaza confronted police in central Paris. Fourteen police officers were lightly wounded and 38 protesters were arrested.

Belfast synagogue vandalized on back-to-back days


A window was smashed on successive days at a synagogue in Belfast, Ireland.

The vandalism at the Belfast Hebrew Congregation took place on Friday night and the following day, the BBC reported. In the latter incident, the replacement window was shattered.

Police are treating the vandalism as a religious hate crime.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said it was “totally unacceptable” for places of worship to be targeted, the BBC reported.

Gerry Kelly, a member of the legislative assembly, condemned the attack.

“There can be no place for attacks on any place of worship, regardless of the religion or denomination,” Kelly said, according to Belfast’s News Letter. “The local Jewish community makes a valuable contribution to our society and there is no justification for hate crimes.”

It was not clear whether the attack was related to Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip.

Pew study prompts spirited synagogue leadership debate


Five days after the release of the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” a report revealing that Jewish engagement is on the decline, speakers at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Oct. 6 Synagogue Leadership Conference all appeared to be asking one question: Should we panic?

“I share your worries about the results of the Pew research study, but I don’t think we should panic,” Harvey Cox, a leading theologian who until his retirement in 2009 was a professor at Harvard Divinity School, told a room full of rabbis, lay leaders, communal officials, philanthropists and others. The group had assembled at Federation headquarters for an event titled “Staying Relevant in a World That Won’t Stop Changing.”

Cox, author of “The Future of Faith,” delivered the program’s keynote address. He also participated in the day’s closing panel, alongside Rabbis Naomi Levy and Yosef Kanefsky, and others.

Sunday’s event was planned prior to the release of the study, but it came at an opportune time, given that the study paints a bleak picture of what Judaism looks like right now. “The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s” and 32 percent of Jewish Millennials “describe themselves as having no religion,” is among the findings in the report.

Cox, who is not Jewish but is married to a Jewish woman and has raised his child as Jewish, said there is, nevertheless, a lot to find encouraging in today’s world, despite the findings of the report. 

He said he often meets young people at Harvard who are interested in God and spirituality. 

Kanefsky, however, leader of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation, challenged Cox’s optimism, noting that he is worried not about fewer people being interested in spirituality but in the decline in levels of observance.

“If the question were: How do we make sure that young Jews remain people interested in God, people interested in spirituality? Then, absolutely, don’t panic. Because interest in God, interest in spirituality, is on the upswing. But if the question is: How do we want to ensure the continuity of Judaism? Panic,” Kanefsky said.

Kanefsky spoke during a panel that followed Cox’s keynote lecture, which addressed pluralization, American-Jewish attitudes toward Israel and other topics over the course of an hour.

Marc Rohatiner, who has served as a lay leader with multiple organizations, joined the conversation with Kanefsky and Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva, a spiritual community that also engages through social service. Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein served as moderator. 

Levy was decidedly more upbeat in her reaction to the Pew’s findings.

“The Pew study doesn’t scare me; it excites me. It means even more people for me to address,” said Levy, whose services are often an entry point for previously unengaged Jews.

But, Cox pointed out, the problem isn’t that people are less interested in being religious — on the contrary, young people want to be religious but are distrusting of the religious institutions. But it is key, he said, to rethink the approach of using institutions as a way to reach people.

In the future, maybe synagogues should exist, but then again, maybe not, Cox said, arguing that Jewish leaders must be open to anything when it comes to considering how the religion will proceed. 

“How do we retool our religious institutions so we can help people in suspicious mode, in searching mode, so that they can feel they’re not doing it alone? I don’t know. But I know religious institutions are not built for eternity,” he said. “They come and go.”

Kanefsky, however, said that to dismantle the institutions means there is no religion. 

“If you don’t have the scaffolding, it ain’t Judaism,” Kanefsky said.

No direct solutions were agreed upon by the panel. “The challenge is what changes and what doesn’t change,” Feinstein said.

It’s a challenge that affects synagogues as well as the Federation.

“We think challenges faced by synagogues are challenges being faced by us,” said Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at the Federation, who participated briefly in the panel at the request of Feinstein.

The event was part of the Federation’s mission to work with synagogues to address the needs of the community, Cushnir said. Beryl Geber, Federation senior vice president, organized the conference. 

Other sessions — “Relational Judaism,” “The Impact of New Media on Organizational Loyalties” and “Models of Membership” — made up the remainder of the conference on Sunday, drawing more than 70 attendees.

Report: Indonesia’s last synagogue destroyed


Indonesia’s last synagogue has been destroyed, a Dutch news site reported last week.

Unidentified persons demolished the Beith Shalom synagogue in Surabaya on the island of Java to its foundations sometime earlier this year, according to a report on Indoweb.nl.

The synagogue has seen a number of anti-Israel protests staged in front of it and was sealed by Islamic hardliners sealed in 2009, according to the Jakarta Globe.

Reports of the synagogue’s destruction have appeared in the Indonesian media since May and were confirmed last week by Indoweb.nl, which quoted the director of the Surabaya Heritage Society as saying that he intended to protest the demolition in talks with government officials.

“It is not clear by whom and when exactly the building was demolished,” Freddy Instanto told Indoweb.nl.

The City Council of Surabaya was in the process of registering the building as a heritage site. Istanto said that for that reason, the building “should have been protected.”

The Dutch news site also quoted Sachiroel Alim, the head of the Surabaya regional legislative council, as saying that it was unknown whether Muslim extremists had anything to do with the demolition.

Situated in in eastern Java, the small synagogue was built in the 19th century by Dutch Jews when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony. It had white-painted bricks and a Star of David painted on the front door.

The first Jews arrived in Indonesia in the 17th century with the Dutch East India Company. During the 1930s and 1940s, the community grew due to new arrivals fleeing persecution in Europe.

Currently, about 20 Jews are estimated to be living in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim nation, according to Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.

Blogger Geller testifying before Toronto police board over nixed shul talk


Blogger Pamela Geller said she will testify over a complaint she filed against a Toronto-area police force in the cancellation of a synagogue appearance.

Geller told JTA via email on Monday that she was scheduled to testify Wednesday via Skype before a hearing of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director in Toronto, which oversees grievances against area police.

She alleges that the York Regional Police, north of Toronto, threatened and bullied Rabbi Mendel Kaplan into canceling her appearance last May at his Chabad synagogue because of her strident anti-Islamist views.

Kaplan is a volunteer chaplain with the force, and Geller accused the police of threatening to remove him from the post if he did not comply.

Geller’s complaint claims “breach of police policy and conduct pursuant to the police Code of Conduct and the York Regional Police’s Code of Professional Ethics.”

York Regional Police said the complaint was lodged with the OIPRD.

Complaints can take 120 days to resolve, an OIPRD official said, though the official did not confirm or deny a complaint was brought by Geller.

In a statement last May, York Regional Police said reports that Kaplan had been threatened were “a flagrant misrepresentation of the facts.”

According to police, the rabbi canceled Geller’s talk because “it would place him in conflict with the values of our organization, which support a safe, welcoming and inclusive community for all.”

Kaplan told JTA that he has already given evidence to the complaint’s investigators.

Asked whether he ever felt intimidated or threatened, he said, “There was a very clear choice laid out to me. The police said, ‘we don’t believe this agrees with [our] values, so either you have to give up your chaplaincy or you can have this speech.’

“I did something that I didn’t necessarily want to do because I had to do it.” He added, “It was a wise decision not to host her because it was not something worth losing my chaplaincy over.”

Geller’s talk, sponsored by the Jewish Defense League, was moved to another venue, where she lashed out at the police. She  later wrote that “jackbooted thugs” had used “intimidation” on Kaplan to persuade him to cancel the synagogue talk.

The problem with prayer


If the practice of Judaism is based on synagogue attendance, and if synagogue attendance is based on the passive recitation of prayer, then Judaism is in trouble.

The ritual of repetitive communal prayer might have worked in the shtetls to keep Jews Jewish, but it doesn’t work in today’s America.

For many Jews — especially the nonobservant — the very act of prayer can seem odd. What am I praying for? Does God really owe me anything more than all the blessings I already have and take for granted? And if I decide to pray for something — like being healthy — am I not better off going to the gym and watching what I eat? 

Prayer, in fact, might be the most problematic point of entry into Judaism. Why should people waste their time doing something they don’t really understand and don’t believe will benefit them?

Synagogues sense this. That’s one reason they put so much emphasis on the value of community. Becoming a member of a synagogue means belonging to an extended “family” that will provide you with a network of support and friendships, rabbinic assistance for lifecycle events, High Holy Days privileges, special classes and programs, and so on.

Synagogues depend on membership dues to survive. That’s why this time of year is so critical, when people make decisions about whether to renew their memberships for the coming year.

This traditional synagogue model will not — and cannot — go away any time soon. But if the Jewish world is looking for a breakthrough to attract the unaffiliated, the disconnected and the disenchanted, they’d do well to take this old model and experiment with some meaningful upgrades.

A good place to start would be to redefine prayer so that it can stand on its own.

A lot of promising work has been done in this area in synagogues across the country. One particular example can be found in the spiritual communities — such as IKAR, Nashuva and the Carlebach minyans — where prayer services share an almost tribal quality, with melodies and communal chanting that simply elevate you.

But one prayer method that I feel doesn’t get enough attention and that I find especially promising is the notion of following a “prayer narrative.” This method is more introspective, allowing a prayer service to become a personal spiritual journey that keeps you connected from beginning to end.

I ran this notion last year by my friend Rabbi Yoel Glick, a spiritual teacher who lives in the south of France and runs the Web site Daat Elyon. He was intrigued enough to write up an insightful “seven-step spiritual journey” for the Shabbat morning prayer service.

This seven-step guide doesn’t change the actual prayers, it simply frames them in a way that injects deep personal meaning. 

Each prayer section offers a theme that connects to the next one. The first three build up to the climax — the Shema — while the last three are the denouement.

Glick themes the seven steps as follows: “Awareness,” “Gratitude and Appreciation,” “Recognition of God and the Good,” “Affirmation — Light and Love,” “Communion,” “Contemplation” and, finally, “Tikkun Olam and Oneness.”

For each theme, Glick includes spiritual insights around which to meditate as you pray. For example, in the first phase (“Awareness”), you meditate around “a series of blessings constructed to make us conscious of the extraordinary blessing of being a living, breathing, self-aware human being.”

The journey takes effort and concentration, but the idea is that by the end of the service, you will come out more spiritually alive and more connected to Godliness, as well as to your own unique purpose in life.

The prayer guide is like a spiritual workout. Just as a personal trainer guides you to work out different parts of your body, Glick guides you to work out different parts of your soul and humanity.

It’s hard to imagine how this personal and introspective approach — which anyone can apply to any style of prayer service — would not be an improvement over passively reciting arcane prayers many of us don’t even understand.

The best part for me, though, is that Glick offers a meaningful response to a question modern Judaism must urgently answer: “What do I gain from Judaism?”

We needn’t be offended by that question. It’s just reality — in today’s world, Judaism will succeed only if it can offer something real and meaningful.

Redefining prayer in more personal and meaningful ways is a crucial ingredient if we want to attract the millions of Jews who prefer spending their Saturday mornings anywhere but at a house of prayer.

With seven weeks to go before the big crowds show up for their annual High Holy Days pilgrimage, spiritual leaders ought to be thinking about their own ways of making their prayer services even more meaningful. 

Simply put, people are more likely to come back to pray during the year if they feel the experience is something that will improve their lives, spiritually or otherwise. 

I look at it this way: If people come out of a gym feeling like a million bucks, why can’t they feel as good coming out of a prayer service?

Isn’t God more powerful than LA Fitness?


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

Q&A with Rabbi Ed Feinstein


On Sunday, May 11, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, will be feted for his two decades of service to the synagogue. He talks in this edited version of an interview about changes in synagogue life, his theology and what he prays for.

Jewish Journal: Twenty years. Does it feel like a long time?

Ed Feinstein: Some days. (laughter)

JJ: So, how do you think that synagogue life has changed in those 20 years?

EF: In the beginning of the 20th century we were very active and very conscious of creating a new modern form of Judaism, an American form of Judaism. In the middle of the 20th century there were two traumas: The Holocaust and the creation State of Israel. And the community consciously decided to stop the process of re-creating itself. They adopted continuity as a motto. Which meant we weren’t going to continue the creativity that had marked the community in the early part of the century. And for a generation, the community hunkered down and protected itself. It created all kinds of institutions — it created synagogues and summer camps and seminaries; there was a lot of philanthropy. But there wasn’t a great deal of institutional creativity, and ideological, philosophical creativity. And that worked from the end of the Second World War, until the end of the 1980s. But by the ‘90s, that numbness wore off, and the community once again returned, by force, because the kids asked their parents a very powerful question: Why be Jewish? Up until that point, if anyone ever asked that question, what you answered with was a narrative of the holocaust. You dropped your eyes and lowered your voice and whispered something about the 6 million, and the conversation was over. But all of a sudden kids weren’t responding to that language anymore.

JJ: And that’s when you came here.

EF: And that’s about when I came to Valley Beth Shalom [VBS]. So this last 20 years has seen the return of what I think is an enormously energetic creative process of reinventing American Judaism, reinventing Judaism for modernity. We are renegotiating our relationship with the state of Israel; we are finding a way to tell the story of the Holocaust; we are finding a way to tell the story of our own identity. We’re trying to figure out what is our relationship to the outside world. What does it mean there are so many among us who weren’t born Jewish, and yet are participating in the Jewish community? We are trying to figure out our politics in America; we’re certainly trying to figure out our relationship with God.

JJ: Do you the model for a large synagogue like VBS — I don’t know how many families you have…

EF: A million.

(laughter)

JJ: No seriously, about how many is it?

EF: About 1600.

JJ: That’s huge by many standards.

EF: Yeah thank God they don’t all want a bris on the same morning.

JJ: Do you think that’s a good model for the future?

EF:  In order to survive the ups and downs of the economy, institutions have to be big. When the economy tanked VBS made a very clear statement: We will not lose a family because of money. And we were able to keep that promise because the institution is big enough and has a broad enough reach to absorb an economic downturn and still move forward. However, because community is what a synagogue is about, connecting people to people, to God, and to their traditions, it has to be small. So, while the synagogue is an institutional framework that is very big, within it are dozens of micro-communities that are very small. And my job is to bridge those two realities. On Shabbos morning we have 5 or 6 minyanim that are meeting. And people get to pray with the people that they love. We have many many classes all over the city there are classes, there are lunch time classes being offered. We have a number of small groups of people going out to do social justice work. The only time the whole community really meets is on the high holidays. And the wonderful thing about the high holidays is that’s when you get to see all of your friends from all of your micro communities sitting with each other, and you realize how interwoven all of these micro communities are. That’s the model.

JJ: Can you define your theology?

EF: Theology for me begins with the question of “what is the meaning of my existence?” “Why am I here?” What are the passions that get me up in the morning and move me through life? Theology doesn’t begin with the metaphysics with the way the universe is constructed it begins with the realization that my life has meaning, that I matter, that I’m important, that I have significance. And the question is what kind of universe would I have to imagine in order to recognize that my life matters and that I have meaning in my existence. It’s a universe that bears the possibility of repair. If I posit that the universe is so broken and it’s broken pieces could never fit together, then I really ought to go become a Buddhist. Because the Buddhist tradition teaches a withdrawal from the pain of being in the world. But the Jewish tradition teaches a different message. That there’s a possibility of tikkun. And because there’s a possibility of tikun, our efforts to do justice in the world, to bring gentleness to the world, to care for each other, make a difference. That is a faith statement.

JJ: How do you reconcile that against things like the Boston bombings?

EF: The brokenness is still deeply profound.  There is a deep brokenness in this world, and that brokenness is also expressed through human beings. And our job is to try and repair the brokenness. I think the story that all of us wept at is the story of all the men and women who went running toward the explosion.

JJ: Did you grow up thinking you were going to be a rabbi?

EF: No, not even close. In fact some mornings (laughter) I don’t wake up thinking that way.  My mom and dad owned a bakery in the West San Fernando Valley. Dad’s a baker, Mom’s a bakery lady. Mom created a community in that bakery. Go on a Sunday morning, every Jew in America was in that bakery. And there was a sense of belonging and caring in that community. I always want to be part of community.

JJ: So, in a sense, it’s turned out that you’re doing what you imagined, it’s just a different role.

EF: I never would be like this. Because when Rabbi Schulweis asked me in 1993 to come here, this was a dream. I never thought…I fell in love with him when I was 16 years old. I watched him on that pulpit, I watched the magic that he would do; I listened to his words. All through college and rabbinical school, my dad would send me tapes of Rabbi Schulweis’ talks, because I was so taken with the power of his mind and the power of his oratory and the power of his soul.

JJ: So what’s the most fun part of your job?

Friday morning, telling stories to kids. I still do it, I’ve done it since I was ordained, I get on the floor and I tell the kids all these Jewish stories. And I watch their eyes grow wide. The story I love to tell, it’s a true story, the week I was ordained a rabbi, no the week I started my first job as a rabbi, in Texas, Nina, my wife sent me to the grocery store to buy some milk, and I was walking up the aisle. And there was a shopping cart coming the other way, and it had one of the 3 year olds from the nursery school in the jump seat, and the kid looks at me and he looks at his mother and looks at me and he points and says “Look mom, it’s God!” True story.

JJ: And what did you say?

EF: I said God bless this kid, I hope he joins the board of directors. No I realized, you know, you imagine God to wear the face of the people who teach you about God. You imagine religion to have the same emotional tenor of the people who teach you religion.  Too many of us were raised by teachers and rabbis who were cold and forbidding and distant. And if I could be close to kids, hug kids, engage kids, tell them stories that contain the wisdom of the tradition but do it with laughter and joy, that’s a gift to a generation. So Friday morning, you’re always welcome, 9:20 am, you can hear about the boy who turned into a chicken. “Sheldon the Shabbos Dog” is one of our favorites.

JJ: So what’s the least fun?

EF: Oh God. The least fun is when the institution of the synagogue and the sacred community of the synagogue don’t correspond. And they rub up against each other. Dealing with financial issues, dealing with personnel issues, dealing with the business of the synagogue when it doesn’t correspond with the sacred character of the synagogue. The least fun is when — this is too honest, but the least fun is when I don’t have the time or the energy or the presence to actually meet the needs of the people whom I need to meet the needs of. When someone says “I was in the hospital, and you didn’t come,” or someone says “I was in pain and you didn’t respond.” And they’re right. Because there’s one of me and there’s a lot of them and its hard to keep track and its hard to get there.

The torah’s all about this. This is Moses’ complaint to God — he says “What did you do this to me for?” And I know exactly what he feels like. The least fun part of the job is when the doctor says to me, there’s nothing else I can do. Would you like to tell the patient or shall I? And I have to go in and sit with somebody who I deeply care for and say we have to talk about what’s coming next. And you know it’s painful, it’s just so painful. That’s the hardest part of the job.

JJ: Often we look to the rabbi for a solid sense of faith. As a rabbi do you find that it’s hard to be human in those ways?

EF: No, and I’ll tell you why. Because what Rabbi Schulweiss taught me is that that’s not the rabbi’s job. It’s not my job to have faith when all of you have doubt; my job is to put your doubt into words. It’s my job to remind you that you’re not the first person to argue with God in that way. To give you the courage and resolution to get up, and to recognize that your indignation in the face of the world’s evil is in fact the most glorious part of your humanity.

JJ: I think you just hit your theology in a different way.

EF: Absolutely.

JJ: Do you worry about anti-Semitism?

EF: Only among Jews.  I mean that very seriously, and without facetiousness. No, I do not. Yes I worry about Al-Qaeda, like everybody in America. We saw in Boston what happens when two lone wolfs can set off an explosion and ruin a national moment. Like everybody, I worry about that. But in terms of specifically anti-Semitism…no. What I worry about is the viciousness of Jews against other Jews. The perverse irony of Jewish history is that at moments when the outside world is ready to accept us, we find new ways to be self-destructive. Look at what’s going on in Israel. You know, there used to be the joke about what would happen if peace broke out. And in Israel, that is sort of what’s happening right now. They’re beginning to focus on the internal life of the country and all the unresolved conflicts within the internal life of the country are now being recognized.  

At VBS, we have been very successful in creating an environment in which everybody knows that they’re going to hear lots and lots of points of views they disagree with. We brought Jeremy Ben Ami from J Street, we brought Mort Klein from ZOA. And we have brought people from the New Israel Fund. And we’ve brought people from much more Right Wing positions. And I have worked very diligently to say again and again that our job is to listen, to evaluate, to judge, you don’t have to agree, but you have to listen politely.

JJ: Here’s a very personal question: What do you pray for?

Peace. Everywhere. Peace in the world, peace for Israel. A vision for Israel to find its way to peace. A vision for America to find its way to peace. Vision for the Jewish community to fnid its way to wholeness. And personal, I just pray for the capacity to find peace. to find moments of peace and moments of joy, moments of recognition. To me you don’t pray for stuff as much as you stop and recognize what’s in front of you. Prayer to me is not as much petitionary as it is appreciative. So, to get myself to stop worrying, and stop wrestling with the world, and just recognize how blessed I am. You know, I’ve gotten to work with Harold Schulweis for 20 years; what a gift. For 20 years I get to sit next to the greatest Jew of the 20th century, every Shabbos morning, and schmooze. I have five young rabbis I work with, brilliant, wonderful souls. I’ve made friends in this community, the other rabbis in this city are my friends. And I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family. So I ask God to slow me down and help me see the blessings that are mine.

JJ: And what would you ask us to pray for?

EF: Certainly peace. (long pause). I don’t know what I’d ask you to pray for. I’ve asked the community over and over again to live with meaning. To live on purpose. To live with significance. To build lives that matter. To not waste the gift of life. To not waste the moments that are given to us. To not waste the opportunities that have been given to us. To me, this is the purpose of Torah, to teach us how to fill moments with significance, and to take seriously this notion that I carry the image of God and to live that way. I want people to live with significance, and not waste life. So that every day of your life, you know that you matter, that your life matters, that the work you’ve done in the world matters,  that your relationships matter. That’s what we pray for.

Bomb threats called in to Houston synagogues


Two Houston synagogues received bomb threats.

The bomb threats were called in to Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue, and Congregation Or Ami, a Conservative synagogue, on Wednesday afternoon.

Both synagogues canceled Hebrew school classes for Thursday but said they would reopen Friday with more security, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Houston Police Department, Anti-Defamation League, FBI and Department of Homeland Security all were notified about the threats, Congregation Beth Israel told the Houston Chronicle in an email.

A message on the Beth Israel website said that a congregational dinner scheduled for Friday night was canceled; it did not say if the cancellation was related to the bomb threat.

Police squad cars were parked outside the synagogues on Thursday morning, KHOU in Houston reported.

Mogen David: A Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Orthodox future?


On a recent Saturday morning, at Congregation Mogen David’s Ashkenazic Shabbat service, a blond-haired girl in a shimmery pink sundress tugged at the fringes of a man’s tallit (prayer shawl). The tallit belonged to Alex Katz, and he tried to ignore her entreaties as he led 90 people in the social hall in the prayer for the United States. 

Across a narrow foyer, in the synagogue’s main sanctuary, about 200 people watched as the Torah — enclosed in a cylindrical silver case, in the Sephardic style –— was returned to the ark at the front of the brightly lit room. 

For anyone who knew Mogen David in its heyday, seeing a few hundred people at the synagogue, which occupies most of a full city block on Pico Boulevard west of Beverwil Drive, might seem unimpressive. 

Starting in the 1950s, when the congregation first moved from its original West Adams home to its current location north of Beverlywood, Mogen David was a powerhouse Traditional congregation. Prayers at Mogen David were conducted using an Orthodox siddur (prayer book) and a microphone. Men and women sat together, though only men participated in the service. Under the long tenure of Rabbi Abraham Maron, who died in the early 1980s, the congregation had as many as 1,800 members.

But to anyone who experienced the congregation’s darkest hours, the present-day attendance would be unexpected, even unbelievable. Starting in 2000, when the board decided to become an Orthodox synagogue and install a mechitza (a divider separating men from women) in the main sanctuary, Mogen David entered a tailspin. Board members battled over the synagogue’s direction, a young Orthodox rabbi was hired only to be fired 18 months later, and many longtime supporters became alienated from the congregation, leaving Mogen David languishing with few members and fewer regular attendees. 

“We lost 400 families in two months,” said Rabbi Gabriel Elias, who was and remains Mogen David’s rabbi and executive director. 

Even as recently as a few months ago, the after-effects of the decade-old upheaval were still readily apparent. 

“The first time I walked in here, there were 15 people in a 500-seat shul,” said Katz, who is originally from the East Coast. 

Katz, together with a number of other young Orthodox men and their families, are attempting to revitalize the synagogue, specifically its Ashkenazic service. Earlier this year, Elias hired Katz to serve as cantor and also brought on a young rabbi and law student, Rabbi Todd Davidovits, to serve as spiritual leader. 

Elias, who first came to the synagogue as a weekly Torah reader more than three decades ago and has been rabbi of Mogen David for 20 years, also brought the Sephardic service to the synagogue. 

“I had a vision that there’s a Sephardic community here in Los Angeles that doesn’t have a home,” Elias said in an interview in his office. 

That vision appears to be coming to fruition. Sometime in the late 2000s, a group of about 20 Sephardi Jews approached Elias to ask if it could hold services in the synagogue’s social hall. Elias agreed, and the congregation quickly grew to about 50 or 60 people. In 2009, Elias brought in Rabbi Yehuda Moses, a Judaic studies teacher at Maimonides Academy. Moses has expanded the Sephardic minyan further; an average of 200 people now gather for a typical Shabbat morning. 

In January, the two services switched spaces, with the larger Sephardic service taking over the main sanctuary and the Ashkenazim moving up the half-flight of stairs into the social hall. 

“We might pray separately,” Moses said, “but we do everything else together.”

Practically everyone, not just the rabbis, speaks about unity — achdus, in the parlance of the Ashkenazic newcomers — as the concept driving the new Mogen David. Accordingly, they planned to rid the synagogue kitchen of kitniyot before Passover, even though Sephardic tradition allows for the legumes to be eaten during the holiday. 

The young Ashkenazim treat the half-dozen “old-timers,” men in their 80s and 90s who have hung with Mogen David through the difficult years, with respect, even as the congregation they’re going about building bears little if any resemblance to the services that those men knew. 

Davidovits delivers sermons in shul most weeks and leads a weekly class as well. The hope is, he said, to attract “floaters,” young people who feel disenfranchised at the other Orthodox synagogues in Pico-Robertson. Katz, Davidovits said, is helping to make that happen. 

“A guy turned to me and said, ‘Alex is making it fun for me to pray again,’ ” Davidovits said. 

The synagogue building has other tenants, as well: Elias rents space on the second floor of Mogen David’s adjacent school building to Yeshiva High Tech, an alternative high school program that began last fall with 54 students in the ninth and 10th grades. That building is also home to a nursery school, which is bringing in some money, Elias said. All 65 spaces at the nursery school are full, he said, and there’s a waiting list. 

Whether those partnerships — along with healthy doses of good will, Torah study and tuneful prayers — will be sufficient to bring this embattled synagogue back to life remains to be seen. After all, over the past decade, Mogen David has tried myriad ways to revive itself. 

The synagogue still owns its building outright, but the sizable endowment built up over years by Maron, reportedly worth $4 million just a decade ago, has been completely spent, Elias said. 

Over the years, the synagogue lost money on unsuccessful projects, like the elementary school it established in the 1990s. It folded after just a few years; according to David Schwarcz, an attorney who served as vice president and president of the synagogue in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the synagogue took a “seven-figure loss.” 

The rest of the money disappeared slowly, Schwarcz said, used over time to cover annual deficits. During his time in leadership, Schwarcz said Mogen David raised about $500,000 annually, but spent about $650,000. 

Absent its endowment, Mogen David will have to raise funds to close its budget gap, Elias said. Although he declined to offer specific budget numbers, Elias said the synagogue has about 150 family members today; according to a membership form available online, each would owe about $1,100 in dues — a total of $165,000. 

Schwarcz first joined Mogen David in 1997 and led the effort to install the mechitza in the sanctuary. The mechitza stayed put, but the conflict that drove the young rabbi from his post pushed Schwarcz to leave the synagogue.  

Schwarcz is now a member of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, but on a Shabbat in mid-March, he came back to the synagogue to celebrate his son Joseph’s bar mitzvah in the same place he had celebrated those of his two older sons. 

“I wanted to complete the chain for the third bar mitzvah, to be there,” Schwarcz said. 

Schwarcz acknowledged that the young newcomers would face challenges in their efforts to create a new spiritual home for Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, but still, he said they stood a better chance of success than he did a decade ago. 

“The synagogue has gotten used to being Orthodox, and now it’s more receptive to young Ashkenazi Jews,” Schwarcz said. “The timing is much more propitious at this time than when I tried to do it. We still had an identity crisis when I tried.” 

Reconstruction of synagogue roof unveiled at Warsaw Jewish museum


The reconstructed roof of a 17th-century synagogue was unveiled at Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The replica of the now defunct wooden Gwozdziec Synagogue was presented Tuesday to journalists in a sneak preview of what will be the core exhibition of the museum, which is scheduled to open to the public next year in Muranow, a district of the Polish capital that before World War II was home to many Jews.

The reconstruction launched in 2011 produced an 85 percent scale model of the tall peaked roof and richly decorated inner cupola of the synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine.

Designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, the building housing the museum is split into two large main halls with undulating walls symbolizing the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea.

Citing figures provided by Warsaw's Capital Development Board, the local television station TVN Warszawa reported that the Polish state has spent about $50 million on the construction of the building, which has floor space of about 130,000 square feet.

Representatives of the media will be able to tour the museum starting next month, the museum said.

The key to building community is social interaction, not ‘social networks’


In 2000, an urban congregation of 1,000 families found itself at a crossroads. The synagogue had a balanced budget and a beloved rabbi who was retiring after three decades, but its building was badly in need of repairs and the congregation was aging. To survive, the leadership felt they had to upgrade, so they took four steps: They hired a big-name rabbi, renovated the building, and put together an ambitious schedule of lectures and other programs to attract new faces. They also borrowed $1 million to pay for it all.

Here’s what happened: The showpiece rabbi didn’t fit the community and required a large buyout to end his expensive contract. The renovation, while successful, was also costly. And while the programming brought in lots of new faces, those people didn’t stick around to join the congregation. By 2010, the congregation found itself $1 million in debt and its 1,000-household membership had shrunk to just 350.

The congregation’s leaders called author and educator Ron Wolfson for help. His solution? Downsize the programming and start talking to one another instead. “You have to understand your population,” he told them. Programs are great, but if they don’t offer a return by building the congregation, what have you accomplished? “It’s all about people first and programming second,” Wolfson said. 

Wolfson tells this story at the start of his new book, “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community,” to illuminate the foundational belief he has developed from working with Jewish organizations across the country, from watching synagogue memberships decline and leadership struggle to find new ways to draw people in.

“I’m worried about the Jewish future, and I’m really worried about the future of Jewish institutions,” Wolfson said during a meeting last week at his office at American Jewish University (AJU), where he is a Fingerhut professor of education. This from a man so optimistic that he co-founded with Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman Synagogue 2000, a collaboration with some 100 congregations nationwide to find ways to revitalize their goals as they transitioned into the 21st century. A man who, following that gargantuan effort, co-led another revisionist endeavor, Synagogue 3000, which by definition offered hope that Jewish institutions, and Judaism, would last at least another thousand years. (Synagogue 3000 has now become Next Dor/S3K, of which Wolfson is co-president.)

These days, Wolfson says, he stays awake nights worrying that the traditional institutions for Jewish engagement — synagogues and Jewish community centers, among others — have lost touch with their own fundamental communal needs. He believes many of them are spending too much time and effort and money on programs and not enough on connecting.

What we need right now, Wolfson said,
 is relationships.

Not just passing acquaintances, but lifelong relationships that can develop within communities and that will lift us up and beyond our own individualism. Relationships based on listening to one another’s needs and on shared experience, and through commitments to work side by side and to join together in prayer. Relationships that require face-to-face encounters.

Jewish Lights Publishing will release “Relational Judaism,” Wolfson’s 12th book, on March 1. It offers concrete advice for professionals who, like Wolfson, worry about all the unaffiliated Jews who, at best, dabble in the Jewish community then drift away: Spend more time listening and talking with people.

“I’m going to speak to the Reform rabbis at the CCAR [Central Conference of American Rabbis] in Long Beach,” Wolfson said of the conference taking place March 3-6, “and, as I say in the book, but I’m going to say more bluntly to the rabbis, I don’t think they’re spending their time the right way. If you look at how much time they’re spending at lay-leader-mandated meetings they don’t really need to be at, or programming, or reading blogs, or whatever, and if they just doubled down on building relationships, including pastoral visits, then they would be creating connections that strengthen the commitment to the institution.”

For rabbis and professionals, Wolfson writes in the book, “I suggest a simple exercise: create a time chart over the course of two weeks to track how many hours are actually allocated. Ask a simple question: Is this time I am spending building relationships, strengthening our community? Is it absolutely necessary for me to be there? Might someone else be empowered to do certain tasks that can free me to do the work I uniquely must do to engage people with the Jewish experience?”

The rate of attrition at synagogues, Wolfson says, is directly related to how personally connected members are not only to other members, but also to the leadership.

Wolfson cites a Washington-based consulting firm called Measuring Success, founded by Sacha Litman, which gathers hard data to measure how well organizations are meeting goals. Working with the Jewish community, Measuring Success discovered two key indicators of Jewish engagement: 1. “Does participation in the organization impact Jewish growth?” And 2. “Does a member of a synagogue, or JCC, a school parent, or a donor to Federation recommend the organization to others?” Litman found that the second question, whether an individual would recommend the organization, could be a direct measure of how likely that person would be to remain affiliated.

“Most strikingly, a meeting with the rabbi for even one hour was associated in a jump of nearly 25 percentage points in scores,” Wolfson writes, citing Litman’s survey of members of more than 20 congregations in New York City, Montreal and Chicago, from 2009 to 2012. “Yet,” he quotes Litman, “rabbis only met one-on-one with about 10 to 15 percent of congregants during the course of the year.”

And, Litman told Wolfson: “Even though social connectedness is a top driver of engagement, the largest expenditures in synagogue budgets were early childhood programs and religious schools. Very few synagogues spend significant human or budgetary resources on building relationships among the adult members of the congregation.” 

These days in the non-Orthodox community, many people join congregations to educate their kids and then all too often leave. And even so, there are all kinds of do-it-yourself offerings in the Jewish community that help families go through the traditional rituals — without an institution. Wolfson points to businesses like the Shiva Sisters, run by a pair of Los Angeles women who offer full-service bereavement aid to anyone who’s lost a loved one, from finding clergy to finding a pet sitter. What’s missing, as Wolfson points out, is that meaningful connection that can come from feeling a part of something larger than oneself — from being part of a Jewish community. 

So, what’s a rabbi to do?

For role models, Wolfson turns to two sources: Chabad and Evangelical churches. “When I first came here [to AJU], in 1974, everybody was laughing at these Chabad guys,” Wolfson said, “but who’s laughing now? They’re just extraordinarily more successful than anybody who was in a position of power here in the mid-1970s imagined they would be. And their model is totally opposite of the other Jewish institutional model: ‘I’m going to serve you, welcome you, teach you, feed you, and then I’m going to build a relationship with you. And only then I’ll ask you for money.’”

The relationship develops first, through Shabbat dinners and shared conversations, before all else.

Ron Wolfson

Similarly, at Saddleback Church, the Evangelical megachurch in Orange County that draws as many as 20,000 people to services each Sunday, “You can go for years and not be a member. And they tell you in their materials, don’t feel obligated to give if you’re a guest,” Wolfson said, pointing to a brochure from the church, which he uses as a teaching tool for his students. “But once you say, ‘Yes, I want to join,’ you go through a four-session enculturation process of learning about yourself, your spiritual gifts and what you can bring to the church. Because [Pastor Rick] Warren’s whole approach is that it’s not about you, it’s about how you can serve God and community and so forth.” 

And at Saddleback there are expectations for members: “tithing, getting involved in certain ways, joining a small group and coming to services,” Wolfson pointed out. “They have expectations, which is something our institutions tend to shy away from. We’re just glad you’re here.”

It’s the obligations, Wolfson believes, that make the connection more real. “I think if people understood that the institution stands for something, that you’re not here just for a fee-for-service or transactional exchange, or to get your kid a bar or bat mitzvah, then I think you’d have a better shot at engaging people who are serious people. But we have to tweak the model, and I think we have to do it in a major way.”

Wolfson points to congregations like IKAR in Los Angeles or the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, which are trying to build new models for engagement. At IKAR, members are expected to become involved in social-justice efforts, to be fully engaged as members of a larger effort for tikkun olam (healing the world) that seeps into every aspect of synagogue involvement. Community means advocacy as much as prayer, and the ties that come from working side by side strengthen the purposefulness of the Jewish life.

Kavana, which like IKAR is nondenominational and has a membership that is mostly — though not exclusively — in their 20s to 40s, is built on a cooperative model, with “partners,” rather than members, and where “partners share in the task of creating Jewish life for the group.” Rather than offering a way to join the congregation, the Kavana Web site asks, “How do you want to get involved?”

Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles, said while he fully agrees with Wolfson’s premise that rabbis need to spend some time with each of their members, he admits that with some 3,000 congregants, about 2,000 of them adults, he can’t always know everyone well, despite his best efforts. 

“It’s very challenging, the time we need to devote to people, to shmoozing,” Rosove said, given that at Temple Israel he also has to manage a staff of 75 full-time employees and another 75 part-timers; and he needs time to write, to study and to spend a limited amount of time on outside activities, including family and friends. A rabbi’s life is hardly limited to office hours. So Rosove said that he relies as well on the rest of his senior staff. “We believe that even if I don’t know everyone well, we try to make sure that one of us does.”

Rosove also said that one solution is a matter of policy: “We say yes more than no.” As an example, he points to his own recent change of heart on performing interfaith marriages. Examining his position, he found that over time his feelings against marrying couples of different religious faiths had changed and by establishing agreements with the couples for continued Jewish commitments, he felt he could now comfortably perform the rituals. “I’d been saying no, but I think it was just an unconscious response,” Rosove said. “As a liberal community, we’re not going to survive unless we say yes more.”

Rosove said that many good ideas developed at Temple Israel have originated with staff, but have taken off only when lay leadership took ownership. He points first to Big Sunday — now a citywide, year-round effort of volunteer organizing that is a stand-alone nonprofit but which began as a Mitzvah Day effort at the synagogue. “No rabbi has time to do that,” Rosove said, but by “being wise and identifying David Levinson,” who continues to lead Big Sunday, the process of temple-wide involvement took off, growing further each year. “At first, David would come to me for advice, and I told him, ‘David, stop asking me. I trust you. If we disagree, so what?’ ”

The issue is to identify congregants’ strengths, be supportive and not micromanage. “The first issue is picking the right staff, and once you’ve got them, then great people will come to them,” Rosove said.

Other rituals involve creating links among new congregants from their first days in a congregation. At Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a Conservative congregation in Encino, the rabbis meet with groups of new members at several moments during the year, beginning with a “new member covenanting ceremony,” in August. At the ceremony, the members meet one another, a rabbi, the executive director and a lay leader. They share stories. And at the gathering Wolfson describes, Rabbi Joshua Hoffman told the group that belonging to a synagogue is a “sacred act” and then brought the group together inside the ark. At VBS, the aron kodesh, the holy ark, is large enough to enter, and inside it the rabbi offered a blessing — a unique experience, but also one that was shared, creating a special bond among the members of the group.

The need for lifelong relationships in Jewish life, of course, extend beyond the institutions, and “Relational Judaism” describes the importance of the work that must be done to ensure healthy relationships with all levels of interactions — with oneself, family and friends; in creating a Jewish life, in being in partnership with the larger community as well as the Jewish people, with Israel, the world and with God.

Wolfson comes to his belief that relationships are key through his own practice: He is, by nature, overtly friendly and enthusiastic. At a lunch to help guide a women’s group on new ideas for Passover seders last week, he stood at the door and personally greeted each person who entered to hear him speak. “It will probably be on my tombstone,” he joked, “I’m known for that: The guy who greeted all his students before he taught.”

It is a skill he says he takes pride in, a gregariousness he learned from his father and his grandfather before him. He remembers his “Zayde,” who owned a neighborhood grocery store in Wolfson’s hometown of Omaha, Neb., sitting every day at the storefront courtesy counter greeting each customer by name. “This was a guy who was illiterate, an immigrant from Russia, but he was amazing at relationship building.” 

“And then my dad,” Wolfson said, “who died just a couple of months ago, he was the guy you get on the elevator with, and by the time you get to the sixth floor, he knew your story, and you certainly knew his.” It was a style that sometimes embarrassed the young Ron, and even his mother, but ultimately, he learned the usefulness in creating a connection to the larger community, and not just the Jewish one.

“American individualism,” Wolfson said, “is a terrific thing, it really is; I wouldn’t trade it for a socialist system. But there’s a downside to it, and the downside is I could be holed up in my house with my guns in my closet, ready to protect myself from the terrible things out there, or I can embrace the idea that we’re not alone. And if we seek out relationships with community, with family, with friends, with God, something beyond ourselves, my belief is it can lead you to a life that’s filled with meaning. 

“And meaning is what it’s all about at the end of the day. A sense of purpose: ‘What did God put me on this earth to do?’ And if you don’t believe in God, fine, then, ‘What am I supposed to do with my talents and gifts?’ ”

As Wolfson wrote, the foundational principles of Judaism are based on relationships, or the Hebrew notion of  brit or covenant. We do not live our lives in isolation; we share our lives with one another, with family friends, the Jewish world, the larger world, and ultimately, with God. 

“Relational Judaism” is not a new idea, but it is, perhaps, one that needed refreshing. A reminder that we should spend time with people, not just our Facebook friends — to have social lives, not just “social networks,” to engage with our neighbors and fellow Jews as an investment in the survival of Judaism. This is the effort that rabbis must build upon, that lay leaders must emphasize, and, ultimately, it is an obligation that extends to us all.

“The idea of the covenant is, as Rabbi David Wolpe, author and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has noted, ‘the spine of Judaism,’ ” Wolfson writes. “We are constantly reminded of our covenantal relationship with God and each other. Shabbat is a sign of the covenant. The Passover seder reminds us that God keeps promises: V’hi she’amdah l’avoteinu v’lanu, ‘God who safeguards God’s promises to our ancestors and to us.’ The pageantry of the Torah reading service reenacts the revelation of the covenant at Sinai. The goal of the covenant is celebrated at the climax of the ceremony — the returning of the Torah to the holy ark: Etz hayim hi l’machazikim bah, ‘It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it,’ v’tomkheha m’ushar, ‘and those who support it are enriched.’

“In other words,” Wolfson writes, “those who embrace the covenantal relationship discover how to live a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.”

And for those who wonder whether it takes a place — a synagogue — to maintain the relationships built within those walls, Wolfson said, “I would hope that the friendships and relationships with the people you pray with, the people you do social justice with, the people you celebrate your life-cycle events with, beyond your immediate circle of family and friends, can, in fact, be a connection point to a greater sense of community, beyond that circle of friends.”

In other words, when members become partners, communities thrive.  

Synagogue in Siberia damaged by meteorite


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

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

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

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

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

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