Hip Cynics for Export
Leaving a Legacy
Fariba Nourfshan of Beverly Hills and Holli Rabishaw of Tarzana were among 22 young women selected to participate in Hadassah’s recent Young Women’s Legacy Mission to Poland and Israel. The program was designed to connect young women with their Israeli heritage and the numerous projects of Hadassah.
Chair for Thomas
It was standing-room-only when Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s President and CEO Thomas M. Priselac was named the inaugural recipient of the Warschaw Law Endowed Chair in Health Care Leadership, a permanent academic research chair devoted to furthering leadership, research and education in healthcare public policy and management. Officials and physicians who joined in the festivities following the ceremonies included L.A. Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa and West Hollywood Mayor Abbe Land, who were among the speakers. Carmen Warschaw, a life trustee of the Cedars-Sinai board of directors, and her son-in-law, John C. Law, Cedars-Sinai board chair, along with Law’s wife, Hope, endowed the chair.
“With Tom Priselac’s depth of expertise and passion for quality health care, this endowed chair will advance health care policy and delivery in California and the nation,” Law said.
Priselac began his association with Cedars-Sinai Health System more than two decades ago, serving as executive vice president until 1994 when he was appointed president and CEO. Priselac also serves as an adjunct faculty member of the UCLA School of Public Health. He is a past member of the American Hospital Association board of directors, chairs the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Health Committee and is a member of the board of trustees of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
“The endowment will allow me to continue supporting the well-being of patients through the development of policy initiatives, new research and education, which I hope will ultimately lead to improved health care coverage in California,” Priselac said.
Rabbi in the House
A special family dinner and concert was held Jan. 21 at Temple Beth El of San Pedro featuring Jewish composer and musician Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin, who is known for his teaching and appearance each summer for “Hagigah” at the Union for Reform Judaism’s camps Swig, Kutz and Newman. Schachet-Briskin, who is cantor at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, appeared in honor of the installation and consecration for Rabbi Charles Kahn Briskin, as spiritual leader at Temple Beth El.
Saluting Soldiers I
More than 850 people, including many of the most prominent leaders of the Jewish community, gathered at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills to honor the brave men and women who serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The Friends of the IDF Western Region held the event to raise funds for an auditorium, library and synagogue at the soon to be built new REIM Base in the Negev.
The gala dinner was co-chaired by Cheryl and Haim Saban and included a live satellite hook-up with soldiers stationed near Gaza. The evening’s special guest speaker was Avi Dicter who recently retired as head of Shin Bet. By the end of the evening, the gala dinner had raised nearly $4 million — with many additional pledges and commitments under discussion — for recreational facilities at a new army base in the Negev, reported the group’s director Miri Nash.
Even in Beverly Hills, it’s not every day that someone gets up to pledge $1 million to a good cause, to say nothing of two successive million-dollar donors. It happened at the 25th anniversary celebration, when the Saban and his wife announced their gift, almost as a throwaway line.
Not bad for an ex-corporal in the IDF, who was surrounded by a platoon of respectful Israeli ex-generals.
Next in line was Leo David, former chair of the Western Region, who proclaimed that anything Saban could do, he could do and added another million bucks.
Dichter, a rising star in Israel’s Kadima Party, warned that the “terror states” of Iran, Syria and Lebanon had not given up on their hopes to destroy the Jewish state. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Saluting Soldiers II
The Chanukah e-mail from an American Jewish soldier in Iraq put it succinctly: “We have a hard time getting things here,” wrote Army Staff Sgt. David T. Silcox.
He was thanking Jewish community volunteers in Los Angeles and Connecticut for the Chanukah gift packages sent to Jewish troops in Iraq as well as soldiers in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar through Operation Far From Home.
“We also sent little gifts for the soldiers, so they can send those to their children,” said Jewish community activist Adeena Bleich, who created Operation Far Home last Passover with her parents, Linda and Phil Bleich, who live in New Haven, Conn.
“Jewish solders need to know that we’re here and we’re thinking of them,” Linda Bleich said.
Operation Far From Home has received 500 Jewish music CDs from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, plus donations from former California state Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), as well as support from several L.A. area shuls and schools. One seventh-grader at Hillel Hebrew Academy wrote to the troops: “I admire what you are doing for our country.”
Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City said he likes Operation Far From Home because, “it’s our responsibility to support our soldiers overseas who are defending democracy for us.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer
Program Tries to Sell Youth on Negev
‘Top Gun’ Lawyer Aims to Aid Likud
The latest, and certainly most colorful, addition to the ranks of the local Likud leadership is Beverly Hills lawyer Myles L. Berman.
He is better known to citizens facing drunk driving charges — and to connoisseurs of advertising slogans — as The Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney, but these days, it’s the defense of Israel that is uppermost on his mind.
Last June, fed up with what he considers the failure of established organizations to involve the American Jewish and Israeli expatriate communities, he founded the Beverly Hills Chapter of the American Friends of Likud.
So far, he has recruited 11 upscale families, drawn primarily from the Iranian Jewish community, to which his wife, Mitra belongs. The members make up in financial clout what they lack in numbers, with a combined worth of over $1 billion, according to Berman.
Born into a strongly Democratic family but later a founder of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Berman, at 51, is a man of strong physique and opinions.
“I am fed up with intermarriage and with rabbis who reach out to gay and intermarried couples,” he said during an interview in his spacious Sunset Boulevard office.
A member of Sinai Temple, Berman fears that “to some extent, rabbis and lay leaders are unable to instill Jewish identity” into their constituents.
Currently, Berman is focusing his considerable energies on two primary issues:
One is to assure the election from America of a large pro-Likud slate for the upcoming quadrennial Congress of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), dubbed “The Parliament of the Jewish People,” and his own election to the No. 5 spot on the slate.
He is concerned, he said, that so few American Jews realize the importance of June elections for the WZO Congress, which plays a major role in determining relations between Israel and the Diaspora, the running of the Jewish Agency and the dispersal of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Berman’s second immediate goal is to persuade the Israeli government and Knesset to allow Israeli citizens living abroad to vote in Israeli elections.
“It matters to both Israel and American Jewry what the expatriates say and do,” he observed.
Berman has “grabbed [the two issues] in my teeth,” he said. With Berman that means putting his money and advertising savvy behind the effort. Indeed, his penchant for publicity elicits knowing smiles even from fellow Likudniks.
Berman is laying out $50,000 of his own money to place his messages on Israeli cable TV programs popular with Israeli expats, and in the Anglo-Jewish and Hebrew-language press in the United States.
“I hope the efforts will further my ultimate aim of bridging the gap between Israeli leaders and American Jews,” Berman said.
Any Jew over 18 is eligible to vote for delegates to the Congress of the World Zionist Organization online or via mail by Feb. 15. For details, go to www.azm.org or phone (888) 657-8850. The Congress will meet June 19-22 in Jerusalem.
Our first annual big list o’ mensches
Temple Israel Honors Its ‘Conscience’
Dozens of congregants at Temple Israel of Hollywood gathered in the synagogue’s aging all-purpose room not long ago to talk about a major expansion of their 79-year-old institution. One by one, members spoke excitedly of overhauling the shul to make room for the future — a new chapel, a new teen rec room, a bigger school.
Then Ruth Nussbaum, 94, raised her hand. “Remember,” she said, “that there are many memories in what we have now.” She spoke of the simchas celebrated and yarzheit prayers said in the current small chapel, which could soon be demolished. “These memories are important,” she said.
As clear-minded and direct today as she was in her youth, Nussbaum these days embodies the history of an era that is quickly slipping away. She is the widow of Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who led this same congregation from 1942 until his death in 1974.
Immigrants from Berlin, they brought to Los Angeles a connection to the European tragedy still in progress. They shared with their congregation a Zionist passion from the first, and they fought tirelessly for the civil rights of all, reaching out to political leaders — from Golda Meier to Lyndon Johnson — and Hollywood’s shining lights.
Nussbaum was a full participant with her husband, and Shabbat dinners at their house regularly featured the likes of Leo Baeck, Mordecai Kaplan and Martin Buber. The temple’s sanctuary, dedicated in 1948, is named for her as well as her husband, a rarity for a rabbi’s wife. She continues to serve the cause she most believes in — sitting at a folding table signing up registrants last month to vote in the upcoming World Zionist Congress elections; speaking at a Reform Zionist think tank in Malibu last January.
On Dec. 16, Nussbaum will stand up at Shabbat services at Temple Israel to receive the Roland Gittelsohn Award for Achievement in Zionism, created this year by the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). In addition, Temple Israel received a Congregational ARZA Roland Gittelsohn Award at the recent Union for Reform Judaism Biennial.
Her earliest Zionist activities began in earnest after her first trip to Palestine in 1935 to visit her sister, who’d made aliyah, and she has traveled to Israel almost annually until recently, when age began to slow her down just a little. She was in San Francisco when ARZA was created at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ convention in 1977, and she spoke before the 1,000 members present, helping to convince the many doubters that active Zionism remained crucial for Reform Jews.
“Ruth played a pivotal role in helping to reshape the Reform view of Zionism,” said Rabbi Stanley Davids, national president of ARZA, who will present the award. “She sees the need for pluralism and democracy in Israel; to her these are Reform Jewish values. To her, Jewish nationalism is a seamless and natural aspect of Reform Jewish identity.”
“She was an extraordinary leader by virtue of her deep commitment to Israel,” said Rabbi Lennard R. Thal, senior vice president for the Union of Reform Judaism.
Nussbaum, though, claims to think of herself only in terms of practical commitment. She wants American Jews to recognize the need to support progressive Judaism in Israel, and she wants to bring a spiritual life to secular Jews there who feel disenfranchised by the Orthodox.
“We want to convince those who are at the fringes to join us.” she said in her distinctive German-tinged English, which carries vestiges of her early years in Berlin. “We want the Israeli Jews to have the same opportunities that we have.”
Nussbaum remains the old-world, intellectual she was raised to become, and she is also a proud matriarch with two children; a daughter-in-law; four grandchildren; two grandchildren-in-law; and two great-grandchildren.
In Berlin, Rabbi Nussbaum was a colleague of Baeck, and both Nussbaums stayed in Germany until 1940 to serve the Jewish population there for as long as they could. When it came time to flee, they came to America, sponsored by Stephen S. Wise, transported as refugees on a crowded boat to New York.
First stop for the Nussbaums was Muskogee, Okla., serving a congregation that had helped sponsor their escape from the Nazis. Two years later, the family moved to Hollywood, where Rabbi Nussbaum made it a condition of his hiring that he could preach Zionism from the pulpit.
“They said, ‘OK,'” Nussbaum said with a tone of irony in her voice. The temple’s commitment to a Jewish state would strengthen later, in the wake of the Nussbaums’ passion.
The pair helped Temple Israel grow from about 300 families to 1,000 and oversaw the building of the congregation’s current home on Hollywood Boulevard. Today, Ruth Nussbaum lives in a garden apartment in the San Fernando Valley, close to her family and surrounded by friends of every generation.
She remains close to John Rosove, who has just begun his 18th year as senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood; she recently edited a new machzor for the temple, which Rosove compiled.
“She is a conscience for us all,” Rosove said.
Alex Ritchey Sale
Tikkun and its founder-leader Rabbi Michael Lerner came to Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 8 to run an area-wide conference, which proved both heartening and disappointing.
It was heartening because, on one level, Lerner and his progressive San Francisco-based organization have remained consistent. Much has changed since he founded the progressive, intellectual Jewish Tikkun Magazine in 1986, but Lerner still supports both the Israelis and the Palestinians; still criticizes the Israeli government, particularly where he perceives its policies to be racist and unjust; and still champions a peace policy for the Mideast, today most clearly articulated for him by the Geneva accord.
All of this was made clear in Lerner’s opening address. His signature theme during the Clinton years, “The politics of meaning,” has given way to different language, but still drives home the essential connections between spirituality and community.
“Imagine a community of people working for social and economic justice, peace, nonviolence, and ecological sensitivity … a movement that gives equal priority to our inner lives and to social justice.”
His was a passionate exhortation to reject cynical political realism in favor of building a global community based on kindness, generosity and love.
There was also little change in his attack on the Jewish establishment, as Lerner took on, full-tilt, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee and other major Jewish American organizations. Lerner said they had hijacked American Jewry and had held themselves out to Congress and the White House as the only authentic Jewish voice, backing Sharon and Israel at all costs and in all policies; all of which helped prevent the emergence of the democratic, just Israeli society Lerner hopes to see one day.
But then came the disappointing part.
Tikkun had hoped for a turnout of 200 or more at Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard, but, at 1 p.m., when the conference started, workmen began moving in the chairs so the room would not appear empty. When the conference finally began a half-hour later, about 80-90 people had gathered in what had become a smaller, intimate hall.
Tikkun has, of course, changed since its early magazine years. Its statement of purpose today describes Tikkun as a center for those of all religious and spiritual traditions who seek to integrate spiritual depth with social change. It is no longer in its ambition a voice solely of and for Jews. However, while Salam al-Marayati, the Los Angeles-based executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and actor Ed Asner were two of the conferences multicultural speakers, nearly everyone present was Jewish. I couldn’t help notice that it seemed strikingly different from earlier conferences I had attended, particularly one in Jerusalem in the early 1990s, and another in New York a year or so later.
In Jerusalem, I remembered, more than 500 Israelis and American Jews had gathered at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for a series of panels and speeches that stretched over five days and, occasionally, long into the night. The Princeton University political scientist Michael Walzer, had attended as had Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua. In New York, a year or two later, the city’s Jewish writers, intellectuals and academics gathered at a large Manhattan hotel. Irving Howe was there along with writers Anne Roiphe and Lore Segal; it seemed electric. It looked as if the Jewish left finally had found a home again, created by of all people a former UC Berkeley doctoral-political activist and psychotherapist who was an Orthodox Jew.
Tikkun has had its share of rude bumps since that time. Lerner’s wife, who had provided much of the capital behind Tikkun, divorced him and pulled her funds from the organization. A move to New York, where it was hoped there would be an abundance of Jewish intellectuals and supporters, foundered. Tikkun moved back to the Bay Area.
In Los Angeles, a hoped-for expansion and presence seemed elusive. Substantial contributions from Hollywood never materialized, and the wealthy Jewish establishment was not supportive, in part because its members perceived Tikkun to be opposed to their power and interests. They were part of the problem, according to Lerner; at least that is the way they perceived his message.
If his philosophical stance remained consistent throughout the years, his organizational skills were more hit and miss. Tikkun was soon viewed, perhaps incorrectly, as a one-man band. And while the bandleader was deemed bright, and his views of Jewish American leaders and of Israel bold and appealing to many progressives and intellectuals, there was a certain amount of grumbling: he was disorganized; he dominated conferences and rambled on and on; and he played the performer as he aligned himself in an intellectual road show with black philosopher Cornel West.
It was natural that Jewish leaders heading the professional organizations might be opposed to Tikkun and Lerner. But it now appeared that progressive Jews in organizations such as Los Angeles’ Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), while not opposed, were not part of the team, even though both organizations championed Muslim-Jewish dialogues in American cities. The point appeared to be that PJA was doing something concrete and sustained about it, in Los Angeles at least.
Meanwhile, Tikkun appears to have shifted some of its emphasis to college campuses, hoping to establish training programs and strong university networks of students willing to commit themselves to working for a just society and peace in the Mideast. It sounds like an appealing program, but one that may find itself marginalized on the cutting edge of ideas and idealism — and conferences.
Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.
Right Wing Girds to Block Gaza Plan
7 Days In Arts
Big into cantorial music? Is this ever your weekend! Head over to the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center’s (PTJC) “Cantors in Concert.” (No worries, they’ve probably cleared out all of the Rose Parade mess by now.) Or, for you West Valley-ites, wait till tomorrow and swing by Valley Circle Boulevard (aka Synagogue Row) for The Cantor’s Assembly Western Region’s “Kol Libeinu: The Voice of the Heart” at Temple Aliyah. They’re two variations on a theme, with both concerts featuring cantors Henry Rosenblum, Yonah Kliger, Eva Robbins and Judy Sofer, as well as the PJTC Chamber Choir.
8 p.m. $36-$108. Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, (626)798-1161 or www.pjtc.net.
7 p.m. $10-$20. Temple Aliyah, (818) 346-3545.
PJTC’s got it goin’ on this weekend. Today, it’s the cheapest ticket to the homeland you’ll find. (Good news for those of us whose checkbooks are still recovering from Chanukah.) Actually, it’s a lecture/workshop on the “Music, Poetry and Dance of Modern Israel.” So you can take in some Israeli culture without spending a lot of dough. (And speaking of dough, bagel breakfast is also included.)
10 a.m. $5. 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena. R.S.V.P., (626) 798-1161.
The guy’s worked with everyone from Tom Waits to Norah Jones to Willie Nelson as part of Tin Hat Trio. But this time, musician Rob Burger is going it alone with his debut solo album “Lost Photograph.” Well, almost alone. He does get some accompaniment from bassist Greg Cohen and percussionist Kenny Wollesen on the CD that’s been described as “part klez-soul, part tango groove, part film-music.” The fact that he can play instruments as varied as the accordion, the glockenspiel and the claviola makes us all the more curious to check out this new release.
Tu B’What? Tu B’Shevat, silly. And if you or your kids aren’t familiar with this holiday, today’s the perfect day to learn. Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel sponsors “Shalom Time” at Borders in Westwood. The monthly story time features interactive activities including songs, finger plays, puppetry and stories. January’s theme is “Tu B’Shevat: Jewish Arbor Day.” Here’s a hint: It’s all about the trees, people.
1360 Westwood Blvd., Westwood. (310) 441-5024.
Happy Birthday, Elvis! Turns out there are two extraordinary lives to celebrate today. The University of Judaism’s Department of Continuing Education presents “About Anne: A Diary in Dance,” a drama inspired by the diary of Anne Frank. Choreographer Laura Gorenstein Miller and the Helios Dance Theater have been praised by the Los Angeles Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Our suggestion: Take in the show today, then head home for some fried peanut butter ‘n ‘nanner sammiches.
2 p.m. (Also plays Jan. 9, 11 and 12. Times vary.) $30-$35. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1547.
Non-Jewish playwright John O’Keefe’s bold choice to write about the Holocaust seems to have paid off. “Times Like These” tells the story of a famous Jewish actress banned from the stage in Nazi Germany, and how she prevails with the help of her actor-husband. The play’s first run just ended in November. This weekend, it reopens at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. You can catch a preview tonight.
8 p.m. Runs through Feb. 23. $15 (previews), $20.50-$30 (general). Discounts available. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 477-2055.
She’s funny, she’s female, she’s Rita Rudner. The Jewish comedienne takes the stage tonight only at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. If anyone’s ever sent you one of those “fabulous female”-type e-mails, chances are you’ve read some of Rita’s lines. She thinks Judge Judy should be president and Barbie should be fattened-up. A stand-up gal, indeed.
8 p.m. $40-$50. 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (800) 300-4345.
7 Days In Arts
Losing the War for the Temple Mount
While the military conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues, there is one war the Jewish state appears to have lost — without even a struggle.
That is its claim to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Jewish people’s connection to the First and Second Temples as the holiest site in Judaism.
Though it is hard to imagine, the fact is that the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority that controls the Temple Mount (thanks to Israel’s post-Six-Day War beneficence), has been quietly and steadily undermining Jewish connections to the area without any serious protest by the Sharon government. Over a period of time, and more aggressively in the last two years, the Waqf has literally bulldozed away historical proof of Temple artifacts in the area, carrying out extensive excavations in violation of Israel’s antiquity laws. Clearly, the political goal of the Waqf is to remove evidence of any Jewish connection to the holy site and introduce Muslim ties as part of the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem as its capital.
Ian Stern, an American-born tour guide in Jerusalem, recently gave a series of lectures in the New York area, complete with photo slides, to call attention to the travesty of science, religion and history taking place in the Old City. He offered photos and other proof of the Waqf blatantly and illegally carting away thousands of tons of "debris" from the Temple area, some of which has been found to contain large columns and other relics dating back to the Temple period. He showed how the Waqf has paved over ancient stones indicating Israel’s ties to the spot and brought in water from Mecca to sanctify the site to Muslims. It is only a matter of time, he said, until the southern wall of the Temple Mount will collapse due to a water problem unless repairs are made.
As many in the audience expressed outrage and wonder, Stern patiently explained that, alas, this information is not new, and that the successive governments of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon have allowed these violations to continue without raising any serious objection, even though Israelis from left to right and secular to ultra-Orthodox are united in their outrage.
Why, Stern was asked repeatedly, does Israel allow this to go on, particularly in light of the symbolic and political ramifications of undoing the Jewish presence at the Temple Mount? For this he had no satisfying answer, nor do historians and politicians, other than the most obvious: that Israel is fearful of the international Muslim reaction if the Jewish authorities were to stop the Waqf’s illegal actions.
How else do you explain why protests are ignored from the Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, made up of prominent Israelis from all walks of life, including former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, leading archaeologists and academics, as well as legal experts and writers like A.B. Yehoshua. Also fruitless have been Knesset votes and a 1993 Supreme Court ruling citing numerous Waqf violations as illegal and historically harmful. Still no Israeli government has acted.
Surely one would think that international outrage could be focused on the Waqf’s activities: much as the world condemned the Taliban in Afghanistan several years ago for destroying ancient Buddhist columns of great historical value.
Perhaps one could argue that in the scheme of things in Israel today, with women and children being targeted and suicide bombers on the loose, raising a ruckus about the displacement or even destruction of old stones is not a priority. But on the contrary, the Waqf’s archaeological crimes speak to the heart of the conflict, of the Arab unwillingness to recognize Israeli sovereignty of the Old City and even to acknowledge Jewish historical ties to the land. How can there be parity and mutual respect between two ancient peoples sharing a land when the Arabs insist the Jews are modern-day usurpers who appeared a little more than 50 years ago on the scene and evicted them from their homes? The brazen refusal to admit that the Jewish people have historic ties to the land underscores the Arab emphasis on ideology over reality and hatred over compromise.
It is understandable why so many Jewish leaders, religious and otherwise, have second-guessed Moshe Dayan’s decision 35 years ago to cede control of the Temple Mount area to the Waqf as a Muslim holy site.
"Handing over the keys of the Temple Mount to the Waqf was a major historic mistake over which generations will weep," noted Israel Meir Lau, Israel’s chief rabbi.
The only thing we can do is raise our voices about this matter, letting the Sharon government know that its uncharacteristic quiescence on this matter is unacceptable and harmful to Israel and Jewish history. We should be joined by historians, archaeologists, legal experts and others with a sense of fairness and a concern about the truth, putting pressure on the Waqf to cease their unholy quest to make the Temple Mount area historically Judenrein.
For centuries, Jews have prayed daily for the rebuilding of Jerusalem; the least we can do today is insist that our holiest site not be undermined.
‘No Other Place I’d Rather Be’
A Portion of Parshat Ki Tavo
Very soon, the people of Israel will step across the border of the Promised Land. It is a land of abundance, full of fruits and crops. It is a land in which the rain falls at the right time and in the right amount. It is a land with mountains and deserts, rivers and oceans.
What is the first thing the people of Israel must do when they enter the land? Give it away. In this portion, they are told that they must put all their first fruits in a teneh (basket) and bring it to the Temple. This must happen every year, during the festival of Shavuot, and it is a symbol of the people of Israel’s gratitude for the abundance they have been given. In this portion they are also told they must set aside 10 percent of all their crops for the stranger, the orphan and the widow.
Have you ever opened your lunch box and found a whole bag of Oreos? Probably not. But imagine you did. You would probably give away half the bag to your friends. When you feel blessed with great abundance, it is easy to give part of it away. Here is a good morning practice: When you wake up, think of all the wonderful things in your life — your parents, your comfy bed, your bike, your freezer full of Go-Gurts. Then put a dime in your tzedakah box, or give money to your local charity at school.
Scars Fall on Alabama
Scars Fall on Alabama
Close to half the Reform temples in Alabama are named “Emanuel,” which is Hebrew for “God is with us.” Jews all over the state are hoping it proves true this fall, when voters pick a governor.
In a way, the Alabama governor’s race is the very embodiment of a dilemma Jews face nationwide as they confront the growing strength of the Christian right. On one hand, Republican incumbent Gov. Fob James, a passionate defender of Israel whose conservative domestic views put him sharply at odds with most Jews. On the other hand, his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, best known for not being Fob James.
But James is no mere conservative. He’s one of the nation’s most strident political crusaders for a Christian America. He recently won headlines by defending a judge who hangs the Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall. His advocacy of school prayer reportedly borders on promoting civil disobedience. Critics say that his attacks on federal courts and the First Amendment — he claims that it doesn’t apply to states — are fueling an atmosphere of religious war in Alabama.
He resoundingly clinched his party’s renomination in the June 30 primary runoff after one of the most divisive races in recent memory. Local Jews are shaking their heads.
“The politics here are becoming really frightening,” Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham says. “This seems to be the place where the Christian right is making its beachhead.”
James is not really as devout a Christian as his rhetoric suggests, say most observers. But his wife is. Bobbie James’ brand of fundamentalism is said to be one of the chief influences on the governor’s agenda. A millennialist who considers Israel the key to God’s plan, she’s visited Israel at least 15 times. She’s close to several haredi rabbis and Likud politicians. One rabbi flew from Jerusalem to her husband’s last inauguration, in 1995, to blow a shofar and read from the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Afterward, the band played Hatikvah.
Challenger Siegelman is not Jewish, despite his name. But his wife is. The Siegelmans are regulars at Montgomery’s Conservative synagogue, Agudath Israel, where their older daughter was bat mitzvahed in February. When Hatikvah was played at the 1995 inauguration, the lieutenant governor’s wife was reported to be the only one on the reviewing stand able to sing along.
And, yet, it’s Fob James who has made friendship for Israel and Jews a cornerstone of his agenda. His Alabama-Israel trade mission last fall was a high-profile event that yielded important contracts for Israeli firms. He elevated the state’s annual Holocaust commemoration from a small reception to a major public ceremony. “We stand with you forever,” he declared in his 1997 keynote, “and vow before God Almighty: Never again.”
Few doubt his sincerity. It certainly isn’t a bid for Jewish votes. Only 9,000 of the state’s 4.3 million residents are Jewish, barely one-fifth of 1 percent, and most are Democrats. Last year, a mild ruckus erupted during a meeting at the Birmingham Jewish Federation when the chairman of the community relations committee disclosed that one of the panel’s 15 members was a Republican. “Most people were very nice about it,” says the lone Republican, Hyman “Herc” Levine. “But not everyone.”
A year later, Republican Jews are harder than ever to find, and the reason is Fob James.
“Here’s a man who, with his wife at his side, will stand up and say he’s a friend of the Jews,” says Tuscaloosa attorney Joel Sogol, a member of the regional Anti-Defamation League board. “And, yet, he stands with a group of people who want to make Jews and other non-Christians second-class citizens.”
Sogol points to last year’s Ten Commandments case as typical. A judge in rural Gadsden had hung the tablets of the Law in his courtroom, and he was opening each session with a prayer — Christian only. Sogol, representing the American Civil Liberties Union, sued in federal court to stop the practice. The case was thrown out when the court ruled that nobody with a valid interest had complained.
That didn’t stop Fob James. He filed his own lawsuit, demanding that the federal court specifically endorse the rituals. When the court declined, the governor went on the warpath, claiming that the federal judge was impeding the practice of religion.
James was even more aggressive after another federal court barred recitals of Christian prayers in the public schools of rural DeKalb County.
“The court basically affirmed existing federal law, that children can pray during non-instructional time,” says Birmingham attorney Lenora Pate, who lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Siegelman. “The governor has used it to make the case that 50 million children throughout America can no longer pray in school. He’s even urged students to some extent to disobey the law.”
“I’m a Christian, and I’m deeply troubled by the rhetoric,” says Pate, who is married to a Jew. “Back in the ’60s, we had this same type of states-rights, ‘those-federal-judges-can’t-push-us-around’ rhetoric. Back then, it was wrapped around race. We had Gov. Wallace, who ran all over the state, whipping people into a frenzy, and out of the blue we had church bombings and little girls were killed.”
“Today, the same rhetoric is wrapped around religion. I can certainly understand how my Jewish friends and family can feel a huge concern.”
James does have Jewish defenders, particularly in Mobile, whose 1,200 Jews include some nationally prominent Republican donors. They say the governor is misunderstood.
“Those who know Fob James don’t feel threatened,” says Mobile attorney Irving Silver, a former chairman of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Public Policy. “I think he has an abiding respect for people of faith, and I think he is crying out — perhaps not as articulately as he should — about the shortage of religious values pervading our society. But the world is not caving in. Those forebodings about Alabama becoming a theocracy are just ludicrous.”
But the fears aren’t just theoretical. Last year, in rural Pike County, a Jewish family named Willis was subjected to violent harassment after protesting the prayers imposed on their children in school. Jews throughout the state, particularly in rural areas, followed the case closely.
“Fob James is a very nice guy,” says Rabbi Miller. “And the fact is that our constitutional protections are still in place. So far, it’s mainly atmospherics. But you don’t know where things may lead. That’s what’s frightening.”
“When non-Jews say they’re scared,” says Pate, “they mean they’re concerned about our image nationally. But when Jews say it’s scary, they mean it personally.”
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.
Weighing a World Court