Why the New Year is a time for saying ‘thank you’ to interfaith families

Thank you: two simple words with tremendous meaning. Thank you for being part of our community. Thank you for raising your children with us. Thank you for being with us.

Many of us are seeking meaning in our lives and wish to be valued for the contributions we make and the people we are. While the Jewish community has traditionally struggled with welcoming interfaith families, the High Holy Days present the perfect opportunity for us to put our values into action and express our gratitude to interfaith families for the investments they make in the Jewish future.

Interfaith families are a growing part of our community. Many are seeking meaning in a Jewish context. Many are exposing their children to Jewish customs and rituals, and are doing their part to transmit Jewish values and traditions to their children. Many are active members of our congregations. For such a family that chooses us and asks only to be accepted in return, why shouldn’t we extend that acceptance?

The High Holy Days beckon us to examine ourselves. This is our annual accounting to determine if we have lived up to our potential. We engage in teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (acts of justice and giving) as a way to keep us on the right path to being our best selves and contribute to making our society and the world a better place. These themes translate to how we may specifically welcome interfaith families during this new year.

Teshuvah: An opportunity to open our hearts and our doors widely to truly welcome all families who wish to be part of our communities. Too often, I hear stories of how people have felt rejected and denied a place within a Jewish community because they fell in love with someone who isn’t Jewish. Teshuvah is a way for us to mend our past communal mistakes; to welcome those who wish to be welcomed and support them on their personal journeys as they explore Judaism in their own way.

Tefilah: The chance to acknowledge with blessings that every member of a Jewish family is valued. Many rabbis invite those members of our community who aren’t Jewish and are a link in the chain of transmission of Jewish values and traditions to their children to rise and receive a blessing to honor their commitment to Jewish life and heritage. This has a profound impact and speaks volumes about the type of community we are and can reinforce why someone would choose to be affiliated with us.

Tzedakah: Working for justice in our world is a Jewish priority that is shared with people of many faiths. As we strive to help those who are vulnerable in our communities by performing acts of tzedakah, why not actively seek to engage every member of our community, Jewish or not? A personal invitation says with sincerity that the person who isn’t Jewish is respected. It says to their Jewish partner that we value their participation in and contributions to our community.

Thousands of families will come together in observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What better time for synagogues and communities to reflect their intent to be welcoming and inclusive by publicly acknowledging and thanking the members of interfaith families who join them?

“Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha,” for the sin we have committed against you: As we recite these words asking forgiveness for our transgressions of the past year, may we also be mindful of how we have missed the mark by alienating interfaith families. As we seek to begin anew, may our hearts be big enough to embrace all God’s children, recognizing their contributions to our communities and our world, and may we be humble enough to tell them, “Thank you.”

Rabbi Melinda Mersack is the director of jHUB, which provides new ways for interfaith couples and families to comfortably explore Jewish culture in the modern world. It is a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and an InterfaithFamily affiliate. Mersack is a Rabbis Without Borders fellow and received ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Orthodox yeshiva leader arguing for greater privacy in women’s conversions

In the wake of voyeurism allegations against a prominent Orthodox rabbi, the head of an Orthodox yeshiva for women is arguing that male rabbis need not be present for a female convert’s ritual immersion.

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, is preparing a teshuvah, or Jewish legal opinion, saying that Jewish law does not require a male rabbi to be in the room of the ritual bath, or even for the door to be ajar, to witness the immersion of a female convert. Fox expects to publish the teshuvah within the next week through Yeshivat Maharat, which focuses on training and ordaining women as Orthodox clergy.

The issue of privacy for female converts has taken on new urgency in the wake of allegations that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a high-profile Washington rabbi, used hidden cameras to watch female conversion candidates as they immersed themselves in the mikvah.

Fox said that he and others at Yeshivat Maharat would also push to give highly trained women a greater role in preparing and shepherding women through the conversion process rather than leaving such preparation as the sole province of male rabbis.

While steering clear of the specific allegations against Freundel, Fox said that the accusations in the case highlight the unequal power dynamic between men and women in many areas of Jewish ritual and the potential for abuse raised by those imbalances.

“A power hierarchy exists,” Fox told JTA. “Our goal is to shift that hierarchy.”

Officials from Yeshivat Maharat and its sister institution Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a seminary to ordain male rabbis, will host a community meeting on Thursday to discuss “protecting sacred spaces, clergy boundaries and rabbinic authority.”

A better Orthodox reaction to the mikveh, East Ramapo scandals

Three groups of Orthodox Jews have made several prominent appearances in the media over the last few weeks: The East Ramapo Central School District was profiled on National Public Radio because Chasidic Jews living in the district have wrested control of a majority vote on the school board even though their children attend private schools. The New York Times Magazine profiled the cycle of poverty and charity in the non-Chasidic ultra-Orthodox (Yeshivish) enclave of Lakewood, N.J. And the news media is covering a scandal involving Barry Freundel, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., who was arrested for voyeurism and the shocking allegations that he was filming women in the equivalent of a locker room as they showered and prepared to dunk in a ritual bath.

These three stories expose the underbelly of the three major groups of Orthodox Jews in America: Chasidic, Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish. Stories are interesting when they contradict conventional wisdom, and it is unexpected that Orthodox Jews, who hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and conduct, would find their most sordid secrets splattered across the press.

The public feels betrayed. Innocent bystanders and victims within Orthodox Judaism feel betrayed. Orthodox Judaism just doesn’t feel as trustworthy as it should feel. Recent affairs have whittled that trust away. Trust is the foundation of every relationship, and without it, religion is doomed, whether it is fundamentalist or progressive.

Orthodox Judaism needs to earn back the trust of the public. The media and their audience need to continue to believe that it is interesting when Orthodox Jews behave badly. Orthodox Judaism needs to get its groove back. It’s not impossible to regain trust, but it requires intent and effort.

One of the greatest gifts of Judaism is teshuvah — literally translated as “return,” and the Jewish word for repentance. Failure is inevitable. We are humans, and humans are flawed creatures who make mistakes. Judaism provides an opportunity to turn our errors into acts of goodness through the process of teshuvah. When we repent, we are actually closer to God than we were before we sinned. It’s as if a ribbon connects us to God. Sin cuts the ribbon into two, disconnecting us from God. True repentance ties the two pieces of ribbon together, reconnecting us. But the process of repairing the ribbon makes the ribbon shorter and reduces the distance between the two ends of the ribbon. Teshuvah reattaches us to God and makes us closer than we were before we sinned.

In any good relationship there will be mistakes that disconnect the two parties. These are opportunities for teshuvah. Whenever a relationship needs to be repaired, if it’s done right, the two parties should be closer after the “return” than they were before the relationship was harmed.

Traditionally, there are three steps to teshuvah: Acknowledgement, regret and reform. These are the three elements necessary to repair any broken relationship or any breach of trust. The Orthodox Jewish community must take these three steps to earn back the trust of Orthodox Jews and the general public.

The first step is acknowledgement. For most people, this is the hardest part of the process. We read about uncomfortable tactics and consequences in the situation in Ramapo. Our natural instinct is to argue that the Orthodox there have every right to run the school board. This is true. But that does not acknowledge any of the mistakes made along the way, or the pain experienced by the rest of the community. Also, without any acknowledgement, the public sees us as tone deaf to the issues raised by the status quo. We need to acknowledge that controlling the board has not been without error, and that criticism may be valid and that people have been hurt and harmed along the way. Only then can we express regret over mistakes and commit to making things better.

It’s true that Lakewood is a paradigm of kindness and charity. But implicit in the immense need for charity to support Torah study is that there is an accountability issue inherent in the kollel system. It is a system that perpetuates poverty and discourages financial independence. We need to acknowledge the problems that the system creates and exacerbates. This is obvious to observers, Orthodox Jews and everyone else. Until we acknowledge it, sympathy is harder to muster. Meanwhile, derision and condemnation by critics is harder to rebut. The first step is to acknowledge the problem. Then the process of fixing the systemic problems can be repaired along with the relationship between the kollel community and everyone else.

The mikveh scandal brings two major issues to the fore. Opportunities for women in positions of leadership and communal policy is a constant itch in the Modern Orthodox community. When men in positions of leadership harm women by breaching their privacy, the itch gets a lot worse. It’s hard to imagine that a woman with the kind of authority granted to Rabbi Freundel would have acted similarly. But this is not the first time a male religious authority figure acted inappropriately toward women in his religious role with regard to matters of intimacy. The scandal also challenges the status quo of conversion in Orthodox Judaism, especially when the convert is a woman. This is the second time a very prominent conversion rabbi has sexually exploited conversion candidates. These issues must be acknowledged by the community in order to begin the process of return. Slowly, trust can be earned back through the teshuvah process.

Generally, the pain inflicted by violence or abuse to an individual or a scandal that violates a group is not as damaging as the pain inflicted by the cover-up. The opposite of acknowledgement is the cover-up. Too often we have been doubly stricken by the pain of the act, and then our suffering is compounded by the cover-up.

Fortunately, the responses to the mikveh scandal by Kesher Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have been heartening. There is indeed acknowledgement of the pain they have allowed to occur under their noses. Kesher acted swiftly in removing the rabbi from his pulpit. The RCA already has charted a new path for conversions that includes women acting as ombudspersons as well as a commission of men and women to reform current policies. These are the second and third steps of teshuvah. Clearly, there is regret as well as a commitment to fixing the problems. This gives a reeling public a glimmer of hope that trust can be earned back.

Fred Rogers famously quoted his mother’s comforting words during times of tragedy: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,  “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Look around. You’ll see good people trying to make things better. You’ll see Orthodox Jews who want to earn the trust of the public once again. There are Orthodox Jews who are helpers. Those people deserve your trust.

Hopefully, the “helpers” can replace the people who are harming individual people as well as Orthodox Judaism in general. They can tie that ribbon and bring us all closer to one another. It’s already happening. I can see it. Trust me.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is the spiritual leader of Pacific Jewish Center.

Letters to the editor: Teshuva, Seoul food and a minyan a day

Tradition, Teshuvah and Trojans

I am a sometime Christian (more “some” than “time”) who relates perfectly to those Rob Eshman describes in this most excellent column (“What For?” Sept. 26). I totally agree that teshuvah “is not a Jewish thing; it’s a human thing [and that] Judaism (like Christianity) offers a way.” Needless to say I often struggle to find that “way.” I am married to a wonderful, spiritual Jewish lady, totally committed in heart and soul to her faith. She has taught me what it means to love and be loved. 

Ken Artingstall, Glendale  

Loved it, so spot on. I am one of those “holiday Jews” who goes for two reasons, maybe more that I’m not aware of, but I go because it feels good and sets a good example for my grandchildren. This year, my 8-year-old granddaughter was in the pop-up choir for Temple Isaiah and she asked me if I was going to come see her. I asked her if I have ever let her down. When she saw me in the audience and gave me that smile that only a papa and his granddaughter could feel, it said to me, as I wiped the tears away, that is God looking down on both of us.

What she didn’t know was as the services were held at Royce Hall at UCLA and I am such a big USC fan, that it was the first time I was on the UCLA campus … what a grandfather won’t do.

My wife makes me read Rob Eshman’s column each week, and I must say, he really has his hand squarely on the pulse of what’s going on in the world as well as the people he speaks for.

Allan Kretchman via email

Seoul Food

How clever to teach both about Judaism and multiethnicity via food (“What Roy Choi Can Teach the Jews, Oct. 3). Rob Eshman has given me a lot to think about as our organization continues to develop our interfaith work in L.A.

I’ll be referring to Reb Green’s list repeatedly as a personal guidepost. Tasty!

Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein, president, reGeneration

A Minyan a Day …

Much gratitude to the Jewish Journal and Danielle Berrin for the wonderful Oct. 3 cover story, “Prayer: A Story for Yom Kippur. Berrin took us on her one-year odyssey as she said Kaddish for her mother at a daily minyan, in her case at Temple Beth Am. 

Her personal journey unfolded before us: from her being alone and afraid to understanding the power of saying Kaddish to finding the great gift of community made up of angels who attend daily minyans. Her writing was beautiful, insightful and moving, and Berrin managed to bring her insightful writing to the story as well as pour her heart and soul into her very personal story. Many thanks.

Susan Mishler, Beverly Hills

Exodus Complex

Severyn Ashkenazy did a magnificent job trying to sell present-day Poland to those seeking a “safe” country in Europe (“Safest Place in Europe, Sept. 26). However, the memories of the horrors committed in that country are still etched deeply in people’s psyches … and as my cousin Louis Begley (“Wartime Lies”) wrote in one of his best selling books, what was most shocking and hurtful was that his Polish neighbors, best friends, turned into bitter enemies of the Jews. Of course, there were many Poles who heroically saved Jews at great risk to their own lives, and are justly honored. 

Ashkenazy’s seemingly innocent reference to the “embattled,” “unsafe” and “overcrowded” Israel was meant to psychologically impact and dissuade Jews from going there, particularly should another en-masse exodus from Europe be necessary. And to toss out history so cavalierly is both hurtful and unwise.

He and the Jewish community at large can hold their heads up because there is an extraordinary Israel.

Cesia Bojarsky, Beverly Hills

Summer of War, Fall of Reflection 

I could only agree with everything this article had said (“5775: Old Conflicts, New Hopes,” Oct. 3). Arthur Cohn’s opinions on the war that took place this summer gave me another insight to understand what really happens in Israel as well as Gaza. The tragic kidnapping and murder of the three boys — as well as the death of many more — ended up saving the lives of many, a positive way to look at what happened to Israel. The sacrifices that were made prevented thousands of deaths. All across America, news reports continued to show heart-wrenching photos of dead children in Gaza without any implication as to what really happened, leading many to believe that the conflict was all Israel’s fault. This, many argue, led to a rise in anti-Semitism all over the world. Israel has seen Hamas’ endless building of tunnels, showing Israel what Hamas will continue to do in order to keep power. This summer’s conflict brought the civilians of Israel together in unison, relying on one another for strength, support and the will to keep living life as only the Israelis know how.

Melissa Lustman, via email

In the rabbi’s words: A time of transformation

Many Jews will point to the Hebrew word het for sin, which is an archery term, and insist that Judaism teaches that sin is just “missing the mark.” That simplification does a grave injustice to the Jewish tradition. There are other words for sin in our liturgy — pesha, avon and more. Judaism has too keen a sense of evil in this world to consider all sin a mere misfire. Murder is not missing the mark. The rape and torture of women is not missing the mark. There is sin in this world, and from our long and beleaguered history we Jews know that all too well. Judaism takes sin seriously.

Granted, much of what we do is indeed missing the mark. We speak without thought, wound by inadvertence, expose our vulnerabilities and insecurities in ways that slight others. We thrust our hands in the heartstrings of our friends with heedlessness and sometimes cruelty, even when we do not mean to wound. There is a lot of missing the mark. 

Whatever term we use, generally we think of sin as an injury to someone or a violation of a social rule that enables us to live with one another. Jewish law is largely an attempt to understand and spell out the ways in which we can coexist and create community. To live in sacred community is what our tradition teaches God wants of us. 

To change in a deep way is extraordinarily difficult. The literature on teshuvah explains that there are two ways to change: one is to never put yourself in the situation that led to the infraction in the first place. So an embezzler should not take a position as a CFO. Here self-knowledge is crucial — knowing not to test yourself in ways you may fail. The more radical form of teshuvah is to be able to face the same situation and not sin. 

The latter possibility tells us that the tradition does believe in change. Maimonides emphasizes the centrality of free will to the process of teshuvah — you can choose what to be. There are limits, of course. Change is difficult and arduous. Nonetheless, we are not prisoners of our past. 

The same traits that upend us can often be redirected. We have seen too many people turn their lives around to be cynical about human possibility. In the Talmud, Resh Lakish, one of the greatest of our rabbis, started out as a thief. He learned to use the same focus and passion for Torah. Theodore Herzl spent his early years as a bon vivant, unconcerned with the fate of the Jews. Later he turned his charm, his ability to engage others and his skill in writing to a great cause. We can change for the better.

Are we forgiven? In this world, making amends to one you have hurt, apologizing and seeking to redress the wrong are all crucial not only to the process of teshuvah, but to any soul growth. As for God? God forgives. We are told that is so again and again in the Torah, in rabbinic writings and in our prayers. In the wry but touching words of Heinrich Heine, the great German Jewish poet who converted to Christianity so that his books might be sold and his poems read, “Of course God will forgive me, c’est son metier” — it’s God’s job.

As we are forgiven, so we can forgive. Each of us harbors resentments and anger in our hearts. Not forgiving has been compared to drinking poison in the hope the other will die. Forgiving does not mean letting another in your life; it means understanding that human nature is a blessing and a curse and others need to live with who they are, but you need not live with who they are. You can be free.

The holidays are a time of transformation. Each year we suffer losses and learn wisdom. The Torah calls us not to be perfect, but to be better.   

Learn more, grow more, forgive more, connect more, love more. Hayom harat olam — Today the world was created. We say that on Rosh Hashanah. It can be true every day of our lives. God offers us a new beginning. So we resolve, we forgive — we try once again. 

Shana Tovah.

Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

In the rabbi’s words: A difficult conversation

The conversation is supposed to begin like this: “Will you forgive me for anything I might have said or done this year that has hurt you?” 

You are sitting with a friend over coffee, during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and you ask this question. Not easy. What if your friend responds, “What did you do or say?” Or, “You know, it did really hurt me when I found out that you … shared that story that I told you in confidence, or… didn’t include me when you had that party, or … embarrassed me in front of so and so.” These are not horrible sins, maybe, but they are the kind of interpersonal hurts that erode intimacy. 

Maybe there were more serious breaches. Could you call the relative whom you stopped speaking to over some long-ago insult and ask the same question? What kind of conversation would ensue? Or could you sit down with your partner, or your kids, or your parents and ask the same question? 

Our tradition tells us: “For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur serves as atonement. For transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not serve as atonement until the one offended has been appeased.” 

To atone, there are specific instructions: You have to acknowledge the hurt you did. Then, if the issue involves money, you have to pay back the money. Next, you have to resolve never to do it again. And finally, you have to discuss the issue with the one you have hurt and ask for forgiveness. This is teshuvah (repentance); this is the work of this season. 

Asking for forgiveness is not easy, but it pales in comparison to how hard it is to forgive. Here Jewish tradition is also very clear: “If the person against whom one had sinned did not want to forgive, then one has to ask him/her for forgiveness in front of three of his/her friends. If he/she still didn’t want to forgive, then one asks him/her in front of six, and then in front of nine of his/her friends, and if he/she still didn’t want to forgive him/her, one leaves him/her and goes away. Anybody who does not want to forgive is a sinner.”

That’s pretty harsh. Aren’t some things unforgivable? Maybe it depends on what you mean by forgiveness. 

Jewish tradition tells us there are three kinds of forgiveness, articulated by Rabbi David Blumenthal in a CrossCurrents article: “The most basic kind of forgiveness is ‘forgoing the other’s indebtedness’ (mechilá) … [after] the offender has done teshuva. … This is not a reconciliation of heart. … The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven. The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mechila unless the offender is sincere in his or her repentance and has taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done. … The second kind of forgiveness is ‘forgiveness’ (selichá). It is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selicha, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of grace. … The third kind of forgiveness is ‘atonement’ (kappara). … This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness. It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is only granted by God.”

Change is possible; people can learn from their mistakes. Notice that forgiveness does not mean everything returns to the way it once was; it doesn’t mean you have to invite the one who hurt you over for dinner. But it does mean that you can give up your victim status and go on with the rest of your life. 

Every night, before we go to sleep, there is a prayer that is part of the bedtime Shema: “I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account. As I forgive and pardon fully those who have done me wrong, may those whom I have harmed forgive and pardon me, whether I acted deliberately or by accident, whether by word or deed. Wipe away my sins, O Lord, with your great mercy. May I not repeat the wrongs I have committed. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, my Rock and my Redeemer.” 

Try saying this prayer before you go to sleep. Some congregations end their Kol Nidre service with these words. Should we?

Shana Tovah.

Rabbi Laura Geller is a senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Teshuva in Liberia: Moving from ruin to reconciliation

Sometimes, when you visit a place that is full of so much pain, the stories — and days — begin to bleed into one another. 

The stories of the people of Liberia, whose ferocious civil war ended only nine years ago, reveal horrifying trends through 14 years of fighting. Scant memories are shared nowadays of life before the war (not easy, but peaceful at least), many more of the terror as waves of rebel forces pushed their way through the country, massacring thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands, many never to return. There are stories of families torn apart, stories of unthinkable brutality, the constant and consistent terror of violence unabated, the devastation of social structures (all schools and medical centers in the country shut down, the private sector evaporated completely) and desperate food shortages for far too many years. 

Yes, all war is devastating, but the war in the West African nation of Liberia was characterized by a particular brutality — perhaps because it was orchestrated by a man with a compulsion toward the obscene, specializing in vicious and pervasive rape of women and girls as young as 3 years old, perpetrated often by boys and young men not much older than their victims. When this war made it to the headlines of the Western press, it was generally because of this noxious detail: the small boys who were abducted and initiated into Charles Taylor’s army by being shot up with drugs and forced to commit heinous crimes against members of their own villages — often their own families. This ensured that they’d dedicate themselves wholly to the war effort, having eviscerated all hope of returning home. Later, this tactic was taken up by Taylor’s enemies as well — warlords who attacked the same tired population in their own effort to wrest power from the powerful in Monrovia.

Toward the end of my time in rabbinical school, in the late 1990s, I began to study human rights and conflict resolution in earnest. At the time, Charles Taylor had become president of Liberia and was presiding over the second deadly phase of civil war there, while perpetuating the war in neighboring resource-rich Sierra Leone. Over the course of that decade, two lush and promising African countries were crushed by waves of senseless violence perpetrated against civilians — murder, rape, torture and, especially in Sierra Leone, amputations: arms, legs, breasts, ears. (It was his criminal acts in Sierra Leone that earned Taylor his recent conviction in The Hague, sentencing him to 50 years in prison.) As the fighting raged in both countries, I’d run between Talmud classes to the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University to watch video clips of these boy soldiers — some 10 or 11 years old — riding around the countryside on the backs of beat-up pickup trucks with their rifles, cigarettes and sunglasses. They clearly had no comprehension of the devastation they were causing, no sense that the atrocities they were committing would take generations to heal. I found myself wondering what would happen to the boy soldiers and their families when the war ended. This question haunted me, and I set out to determine whether the vast Jewish literature on teshuvah — reconciliation and forgiveness — might offer any insight that could help bring healing once the fighting ceased.

After a decade and a half of fighting, the war that transformed Liberia’s beautiful countryside into a post-apocalyptic nightmare reached a triumphant denouement. In 2003, as the conflict reached a fevered pitch with Taylor’s enemies closing in on the capital city of Monrovia, thousands of women came together proclaiming the simple message: “We want peace. No more war.”  WIPNET (the Women in Peacebuilding Network), a group of extraordinary women led by Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, wore white T-shirts and scarves and sat in the blazing sun and pouring rain, refusing to move until the men made peace. “We were not afraid,” one of the women of WIPNET told me. “Either we will die from war or we will die fighting to make peace.” The women stared down generals, warlords and soldiers. Gbowee stood before President Taylor and proclaimed:

“The women of Liberia are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children.  Because we believe, as custodians of our society, that tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’ ”

And the women prevailed, ultimately bringing down the Taylor regime and disarming the rebels and militias on all sides. In the first free election after the war, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Gbowee) was chosen to be the president of the new Liberia — a nation devastated by war and desperate for healing. 

I traveled to the region with Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service and a small cohort of Jewish thought leaders and philanthropists to see the country in the aftermath of conflict and disarmament. We set out to meet the architects of peace and the leaders of NGOs working toward women’s empowerment, social and economic justice, and sustainable development, and to hear perspectives on the possibility of reconciliation. A few years ago, Liberia began a truth and reconciliation process, but it was aborted midcourse when it became clear that high-ranking government officials would be implicated for wartime actions. As a result, talks of reconciliation have stalled, and while Gbowee and some others continue to plead for a reinvigorated reconciliation process, the people I spoke with talked mainly of moving on. “You must forget about it,” a young woman whose little brother was shot as he stood by her side, told me through tears. “Otherwise you’ll never be able to move on with your life.”

“Forgive and forget. It’s the only way to start living again,” a member of the hotel staff told me.

“We just want peace,” our driver, Mike, said. “Who did what, who didn’t do what — it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re willing to lay down their arms, that’s all that I care about.” 

Forgive and forget? Move on? These words made me tremble every time I heard them. Perhaps it is because of my Jewish bias for justice. The fact is, there can be no justice without, well, justice — which is why I see a reconciliation process as both a spiritual and political necessity. How can a society be rebuilt when the man in the market stall next to you killed your child or raped your sister? And even if it’s possible to forgive and forget, is that really a social value? 

A true reconciliation process in Liberia presents some serious challenges, not the least of which is the absurdity many perceive in investing money and resources into a lengthy reconciliation process at a time when the country is starving for basic services. Liberia’s heath systems were utterly destroyed in war, and there are now only a few dozen doctors serving a population of nearly 4 million people in decrepit and under-resourced hospitals and clinics. Maternal and infant mortality rates are among the world’s highest, and children commonly die for lack of basic medical care. (We saw a young girl walking around with an infected open sore on her leg, something that would have been treated easily in the United States. I shudder to think what will happen as that infection inevitably spreads and she loses her ability to walk.)  Because all of the schools were shuttered for 14 years, there is now an entire population of 8- to 30-year-olds who do not know how to read or write. The private sector remains virtually nonexistent, and foreign economic investment is often spent to the detriment of the Liberian people, as multinational corporations reap extraordinary profit from the land and sea and share little with the population. Only 2 percent of the country is on the electrical grid, and even in our very lovely hotel in the capital, there was no electricity or running water for much of our stay. And, as President Sirleaf shared with our group, rape remains a blight on the nation — she identifies it as one of the three greatest challenges the country faces. Teenage pregnancy is among the highest in the world; women have little access to contraceptives and therefore tend to have six to 10 children, etc., etc., etc.

And yet, I continue to wonder what chance this country — or any, really — has for recovery if it does not deal responsibly with its past. 

It is true that healing takes time, and it may be that in another five to 10 years people will be ready for a reconciliation effort that interests few today. Whether it is implemented now or in a decade, it is clear to me that, for people to recover from the devastation of war, a sincere and robust national reconciliation effort is essential. The rush to move on as soon as arms are put down is understandable, but it fails to adequately address people’s deepest wounds, thereby threatening to undermine an already fragile peace. Placing reconciliation, even forgiveness, in the heart of the political arena and making it a national priority can create space for the possibility of healing and rebuilding.

Every conflict is unique, and as a result, there can be no one formula for an effective reconciliation process. What worked in South Africa would not have been successful in Guatemala, Sri Lanka or Northern Ireland. Specific cultural and religious assumptions must be central to the construction of any postwar effort. Nevertheless, there are several elements of teshuvah, the Jewish process of return and reconciliation, that I believe could offer a framework for healing in Liberia and other post-conflict regions. The first is the presumption that transformation is possible, both for an individual and for a society: Who you were in your darkest moment, high on drugs and war, is not who you must forever be. Second, one can choose to engage the enemy with empathy and compassion without diminishing one’s own pain or letting the perpetrator off the hook. War is the ultimate in dehumanization; reconciliation is about people beginning to see humanity in one another again. Third, there are certain crimes that are beyond the scope of full teshuvah — complete return — including rape and murder, trademarks of this war, like most. Nevertheless, some things can be done to restore social harmony and help rebuild a country’s infrastructure at the same time.

Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR (www.ikar-la.org), an L.A.-based Jewish community working to reanimate Jewish life by fusing spiritual practice and social justice, tradition and soul, piety and chutzpah. This year, she was noted as the No. 5 rabbi in the country by Newsweek/ Daily Beast, and she was listed among the Forward’s 50 most influential American Jews three years in a row.

Dick Cheney, torture and teshuvah

According to press reports, Dick Cheney’s memoir, set to be released this week, is one long exercise is not regretting any decision he made while serving as Vice-President of the United States. This is a shame. The first step in teshuvah, repentance, is recognizing the wrongs that one has committed. Cheney, rather, articulates his continued support for interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, extremes of heat and cold, sleep deprivation, long-term isolation, sensory deprivation and stress positions. It’s clear he will continue to defend his authorization of such torture and has no remorse for the criminal acts of torture he authorized. Cheney could have helped in the effort to repair the harms caused by torturing prisoners by expressing some regret for his actions. He has not.

I have found that the greatest challenge for me in talking about torture, about why torture is, from the point of view Judaism and from the point of view of the larger faith community, completely forbidden, is getting beyond the initial gut level response of—but of course it’s forbidden, how can any sentient being think otherwise. However, as with many things, the obvious needs to be articulated for those, like the former Vice-President, for whom, as a result of force of habit or willing blindness and moral obtuseness, the obvious is not so obvious. So we begin at the beginning.

Genesis Chapter one verse 27.

And God created the human in his own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female he created them.

The basic facts that the Torah wants us to know about the creation of the first human is that God created the human as male and female and that God created them in God’s image. This divine image, the tzelem elohim in Hebrew, is the guarantor of the human’s humanity. The biblical answer to the question: “what is it to be human?” is: to be created in the image of God.

To be created in the image of God brings with it the very notion of a life worth caring for, a life precious for its own sake. In chapter 9 of Genesis, the Torah records God saying:

He who sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

The reason that an accounting for the blood of a human will be demanded by God (from person or animal) is that humans are made in the image of God. The corollary of this is that denying a person their divine image, and even more so erasing that Divine image, is at the same time denying or destroying their very humanity.

Having been created in the image of God means many different things. For the midrash, it is the extraordinary synthesis and integration between body and mind or soul that is emblematic of the Divine image. For this reason the Torah (Deuteronomy 21:23) says of one who was executed as a result of a death sentence:

you shall not let his corpse stay the night on a tree but you shall surely bury it on that day, for a hanged man is God’s curse.

The midrash explains that leaving the executed corpse hanging overnight is the same as if the bust of a king were being desecrated. It is the human being, body and soul which represents the Divine and cannot be desecrated, for in that desecration God is desecrated.

For the medieval rationalist philosophers like the great 13th century Sage Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, being created in the image of God means having an intellect and intellectual capacity. The ability to make rational choices and arrive at rational decisions, the ability to acquire knowledge and to know God, these are all aspects of the Divine image in a person.

When one human being tortures another, the point of the torture is to destroy the humanity, the Divine image of the person being tortured. Pain, in the torture situation, is not applied towards any specific end. The words that are used in torture interrogations, as Elaine Scarry has argued, are not the actual language of the torturer. The questions which seem to be requesting information are only the background to the language of pain in which the torturer refocuses the torture victim’s whole consciousness on their body and its pain. The torturer assumes the role of God in that room and the torture is deployed so as to undermine any sense of free will, any ability to formulate actual rational thoughts and choices. The distortion of a torture victim’s body and soul through torture is not a by product of the torture, it is its purpose. The lasting effects and long-term insidiousness of torture is that very loss of tzelem, humanity which is hard to regain.

This moment of the destruction of a person’s tzelem elohim is the reason that torture needs to be absolutely forbidden. Beyond the arguments that torture is not reliable (since torture victims will say anything to stop the pain) or whether or not there really might ever be an actual “ticking time bomb” situation, beyond all this is the prohibition against destroying a person’s tzelem elohim. This is what we affirm when we read the decalogue.

God introduces Godself by declaring: “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt out of the House of Bondage.”

What is the content of this introduction? God took Israel out of slavery, out of the state of being a slave. What is that state? It is a state in which one’s tzlelem elohim is erased. When Moses came to the Israelites with the message that they were to be redeemed by the God of their ancestors, the Israelites “did not heed Moses out of shortness of breath and hard bondage.” They were unable to comprehend because their bodies and souls had been distorted by the torturous slavery.

The corresponding prohibition to the opening saying (as we think of the two tablets in parallel) is: “Do not murder.” Slaves are those who can be tortured or killed with impunity since their essential humanity, which is their Divine image is not recognized.

We manifest God’s presence in the world by recognizing that God is the guarantor of every person’s humanity, that every person is made in the image of God and that it is absolutely forbidden for another person to demean and destroy that image of God.

As a first step towards a national teshuvah, we have a moral obligation to fully investigate the government’s past use of torture, not to brush it under the rug or excuse it in the name of national security. The United States must establish a Commission of Inquiry that fully investigates all aspects of the use of torture by the United States to ensure that U.S.-sponsored torture never happens again.  We must refuse to allow Dick Cheney’s moral obtuseness define us as a nation.

Yom Kippur 5769: The Art of Forgiveness

On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in 1995, Eva Kor, then 61 and a real estate broker in Terre Haute, Ind., stood outside a gas chamber at the infamous camp and offered her forgiveness out loud to the late Dr. Josef Mengele for the inhumane medical experiments he had performed on her and her twin sister.

She forgave every other Nazi, as well.

“I, Eva Mozes Kor, a twin who survived as a child of Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz 50 years ago, hereby give amnesty to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others,” she said that day, reading from a prepared statement. Even in our culture of apology, where “I forgive you” flows freely and often speedily from the mouths of perpetrators and politicians, parents and children, spouses and complete strangers, Kor’s apology stands out.

“I call forgiveness the modern miracle medicine,” she said last January in an address to congregants at the Nachshon Minyan in Encino.

Many people believe that forgiveness is an all-purpose panacea that can free people from rage and resentment, from deep depression and high blood pressure. Over the past 10 years, in fact, the John Marks Templeton Foundation and others have donated $7 million in a Campaign for Forgiveness Research to fund more than 45 projects studying forgiveness benefits. Books and Web sites devoted to the topic have become ubiquitous, including forgivenet.com, where a person can anonymously send an e-mail requesting forgiveness, along with a book or flowers.

In Jewish tradition, the act of seeking forgiveness from someone we have harmed is clear and specific.

“For transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another,” the Talmud states. But the act of granting forgiveness, especially to someone who is not repentant or who has not transgressed against us directly, is more complicated and controversial.

Mark Borovitz, rabbi of the spiritual and therapeutic Beit T’Shuvah community, makes a distinction between unnecessary pain and existential pain, which he said is part of the human condition. He maintains that happiness is a choice.

“You can get rid of resentment, but forgiveness is something [the other person] has to ask for,” he said at a forgiveness workshop on Sept. 7, attended by about 70 Beit T’Shuvah residents, their families and others.

David Wolpe, senior rabbi at the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood, maintains that forgiveness can actually equalize a relationship.

“When you hold a grudge, you create an imbalance,” he said. “That is, you feel superior, and the other person is less, because they feel bad.”

Wolpe also believes there is such a thing as “unearned forgiveness,” which can be offered to someone who has not sought it.

“You are not obligated to forgive, but you may,” he said, pointing out that anger can take a steep toll on your internal life.

“Forgiveness is in the power of the forgiver, ultimately,” he said. And vicarious forgiveness does not exist in Judaism; you can only forgive someone who has harmed you directly.

For Karen Fox, a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and licensed marriage and family therapist, Judaism and psychotherapy do not separate on the forgiveness issue.

“The question is: How does this burden benefit me? Can I look at the potential of forgiveness as a way to clean some of what I carry?” she said.

Sometimes, as in the case of a rape or an abusive parent, for example, when forgiveness isn’t forthcoming from the person who caused the harm, you have to forgive yourself, she said.

“Unexamined hurt ultimately hurts the one who’s holding it.” Not letting go can lead to obsession with the incident, which isn’t healthy, she said.

But the ideal doesn’t always easily translate into real life. This has been the experience for James, 44, a resident of Beit T’Shuvah whose last name has been omitted for this article.

James had worked as a chef for a certain caterer for more than three years when he was abruptly and abusively fired last November.

“I should have seen it coming, but I was his confidant because of all my experience,” James said, explaining that he had often witnessed the man acting bitterly and vindictively toward other employees as well as his own wife.

In addition to firing James, the caterer also fraudulently reported his tax liability to the Internal Revenue Service, essentially doubling James’ taxable earnings and making it appear James had lied to the IRS on his tax return.

James is currently in contact with the IRS, straightening out the financial damage and feeling good about standing up for himself. Still, he doesn’t expect any communication from the caterer.

“It feels like unfinished business,” he said, adding that he’s reviewing his own actions to try to figure out his own part.

While he’s reserving a final decision on forgiveness, he said he’s relearning that he doesn’t have to make everything right.

“I’m grateful for the situation,” he said. “Life doesn’t ever have easy answers.”

Teshuvah and weight loss

Let me begin with an important disclaimer: it is wrong to equate physical fitness with spiritual fitness. (I personally was at the peak of my spiritual strength during my last pregnancy when I gained 70 pounds and had muscle atrophy from bed rest.) I attribute no virtue to slenderness and no vice to heaviness. But the process of losing weight — in which I have been engaged for some time (perhaps a few Jews can relate) — has instructive parallels to teshuvah (returning to God and our best selves).

Years ago, I heard a medical show on the radio that stuck with me. A caller needed and wanted to lose weight, but felt thwarted because of thyroid disease, poorly controlled diabetes, high blood pressure and bad knees. What advice could the doctor offer?

The doctor replied starkly: “There is a basic biological fact: if one moves more and eats less, one will lose weight. You are no exception.”

Wow! Initially, I felt that the answer was harsh, even uncompassionate. But the caller seemed to appreciate it. As I mulled it over, I found the reply comforting. Simple, predictable laws are at work, and I am no exception (Deuteronomy 29:18-20).

This truth of the physical realm applies to the meta-physical, as well. It is not always easy to live by the Torah and uphold its principles, but we often magnify our confusion and the difficulty of the task (partly as an excuse to bow out of it). As our Torah portion, Nitzavim, states: “This commandment which I command you today is not too baffling for you, nor is it far off…. The thing is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

The laws and stages of repentance — far more than the $36-billion diet industry! — offer helpful guidance and nuances. But the essence of teshuvah is simple, if not easy. Just as the doctor prescribed, “move more, eat less,” a rabbi might say, “love more, sin less.” Truly, “the rest is commentary. Go and learn” (Shabbat 31a). The purpose and path of teshuvah are close to us and known to us. You already know how to repent and forgive. It is “in your mouth and in your heart.” You know just where to begin, with whom you need to talk, and what qualities and habits you must cultivate. Even if you are in denial, however, the principles of teshuvah, like the rules governing weight loss and like the covenant itself, apply universally — for women and men, for political leaders and wood cutters, “for those who are standing here today [aware and awakened] and for those who are not present here today” (Deuteronomy 29:10, 29:14).

The following are basic principles that will, I hope, prove useful for teshvuah — and perhaps for weight management, too.

Take Responsibility

With rare exceptions, your level of physical or spiritual fitness today is based on what you did in the past. Nitzavim puts it this way: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Outside influences notwithstanding, we have chosen.

Understanding and insight can be essential precursors to change, but they do not in and of themselves cause transformation. If you want a different result, you will have to make new choices.

Love and Care for Your Body

Rabbi A.I. Kook taught that the first stage of teshuvah is physical self-care. How can you accept rebuke, examine your motivations, or ask for forgiveness in a state of exhaustion or, worse, physical abuse? We need to make peace with our bodies and be kind to them, in order to effectively carry out the work it takes — physically and spiritually — to maintain our fitness.

Give Some Things Up

This is not news on the weight-loss front. You may have to give up desserts, trans-fats, large portions. You may even need to stop stocking junk food in your pantry.

Ditto for all kinds of temptation we renounce yet keep accessible. Also, to become spiritually “lighter,” you will need to give up grudges, cast off sin, forsake false gods (Deuteronomy 29:25) and, in the image of Nitzavim, remove the foreskin from around your heart (Deuteronomy 30:6 and 10:16).

Despite what they know intellectually, people often believe that extra weight is “keeping them safe” from sexuality, accountability or their own power. Similarly, many folks operate from the belief that they protect their honor by refusing to forgive. Setting that boundary keeps justice alive and prevents them from being betrayed again. Or does it?

Take Some Things On

Healthy eating and teshuvah are undermined when we confuse them with deprivation. Both are enhanced when we consider not just what we are renouncing, but what we are gaining. What is your best intention and vision? Nitzavim foresees “abounding prosperity in all your undertakings,” even after severe missteps (Deuteronomy 30:9).

What antioxidant super-foods can you add to your diet to give you better energy? What “mega-mitzvot” can you engage in, to remove spiritual “rust” and give you new vibrancy? With what positive habit might you replace destructive patterns? Don’t settle for what satisfies right now but does no good in the long run.

Keep At It: Small Changes Make a Big Difference

The Song of Songs says, “the little foxes spoil the vineyards” (2:15). Sometimes, it is the seemingly trivial negative habits that undermine success. A small tweak, over time, can yield powerful results.

Bear in mind, too, that with teshvuah and eating habits, results are not immediate. You don’t practice patience once, or eat well for a day, and see dramatic changes. Persist, and you will.

May you be blessed with a truly new year — for body, mind and spirit.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom (www.makom.org) and a frequent scholar-in-residence. Her new Web site (www.rabbidebra.com) offers teaching CDs and other resources for spiritual work in anticipation of the High Holy Days and year-round.

Got forgiveness?

Would you believe that most Jews, including Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, don’t fully observe the High Holy Days?

I don’t mean the basic rituals, like going to synagogue, reciting the prayers, listening to the shofar and the rabbi’s sermons, having the holiday meals and saying the blessings. Most Jews do all that.

And I also don’t mean the spiritual element, like using this time of year to contemplate our mortality, reflect on the purpose of our lives, ask God for forgiveness and resolve to become better people and better Jews in the coming year.

No, what I mean is that most of us neglect what is arguably the most difficult and meaningful ritual at this time of year: Going to the people we’ve hurt, recognizing our hurtful actions and asking for their forgiveness.

This can be awkward and embarrassing, but our Jewish tradition has given us the perfect little window to help make this happen.

It’s called the month of Elul, a time for self-examination and repentance that culminates during the High Holy Days. As the month of Elul comes to a close and we begin the daily selichot (prayers of forgiveness), the mood of repentance becomes more urgent.

This is the moment we are about to enter right now: The zero hour of repentance — the Days of Awe before the Day of Atonement when one of our key obligations is to muster our courage and humility, go to someone we have wronged and say “I’m sorry, I messed up, please forgive me.”

The problem, of course, is that while we routinely do this with God, it’s a lot less comfortable to do it with our fellow humans.

But the other, more acute, problem is that our Jewish faith has this little wrinkle: God cannot forgive us for the sins we’ve committed against another person until we have first obtained forgiveness from that person.


Theoretically, this means a rabbi can tell you that until you obtain the forgiveness of those you have wronged, it’s useless to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and ask God for His forgiveness — because He can’t give it to you.

If a rabbi did that, who would show up to the big show?

Most rabbis challenge us at this time of year to engage in things like more mitzvahs, more tikkun olam, more tzedakah, more Jewish learning and more spiritual connection. But in truth, if they really wanted to challenge us and encourage personal transformation, they’d pick the one mitzvah that requires the biggest emotional sacrifice: Having to suck it up in front of someone you’ve hurt and ask for their forgiveness.

To his credit, the ultra-Orthodox writer Jonathan Rosenblum, in an article from a few years ago, took his own denomination to task on this subject:

“Too often we arrive at Rosh Hashanah feeling woefully unprepared and wondering what happened to Elul. As Kol Nidre approaches, we rush around to those nearest and dearest to us to seek their forgiveness. But our requests lack the specificity that would indicate that we have given any serious thought to how we have wronged the particular loved one whose forgiveness is sought. Nor are our ritual assurances that we forgive with a whole heart worth very much.”

For too many of us, the modern-day excitement and pageantry of the High Holy Days — the marquee events, the glamorous sermons, the fancy clothes, the elaborate meals — have eclipsed the essential ritual, the one that deals with the pain we inflict on each other.

If I forget to pray one day, I’ve hurt no one except maybe for God, and I know He’ll forgive me. But if I offend, deceive, mock or dishonor another person, I’ve introduced real human pain into this world. And by hurting one of His children, I’ve also hurt God— who must surely be spending the holidays waiting for us to forgive each other.

I count myself in the group that God has been waiting for. I’ve done the basic High Holy Day rituals and recited the prayers asking God for His forgiveness. But when it came time to recognize my mistakes and ask people for their forgiveness, I’ve chickened out and used the classic cop-out: “If I did anything to hurt you, please forgive me.”

Like Rosenblum explains, “without a real chesbon hanefesh, some form of regular spiritual diary — of both the positive and negative — we are in no position to ask Hashem or our fellow man for forgiveness. Where there is no recognition of our failures, there can be no genuine regret, which is the starting point of teshuvah [repentance or return].”

On a more romantic level, Rabbi David Aaron of Jerusalem, in a recent article, reflected on the intimacy of forgiveness:

“The best time to remember your mistakes and wrongdoings and ask forgiveness of your beloved is in moments of love. The contrast between the bad times that were and the good time that is happening right now generates even greater feelings of love and appreciation.”

Imagine, then, the love and appreciation that would filter through our community this year if the sound of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah became our clarion call to seek out those we have wronged — whether it be our spouse, sibling, mother, father, child, friend, neighbor, colleague, teacher, client, business partner, supplier or stranger — and, with love and courage, admit our mistakes and ask for their forgiveness.

By returning to each other and paying our spiritual dues, we would repair our souls, enter the Day of Atonement with cleaner hands, reduce the amount of pain in our little worlds and allow God the chance to forgive us.

Not a bad way to kick off a new year.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Liturgy reminds us what we can do to avert evil

Sept. 11, 2001, occurred just six days before Rosh Hashanah. It was the tail end of what had been a difficult 12 months on the Jewish calendar: violence in Israel, a presidential election arbitrated by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Enron scandal.

Then, on a particularly gorgeous morning, terrorists attacked New York and Washington, D.C. Rabbis who had worked hard on their High Holy Days sermons all August rushed to rewrite them.

The liturgy seemed stunningly relevant. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water? We acknowledge our vulnerability in light of death, the harsh decree. But, the liturgy tells us, teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteous deeds) will avert — not nullify, but avert — the evilness of the decree.

In other words, we cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

So here we are seven years later, about to enter the Jewish year 5769. The deaths of Sept. 11 have been compounded by more deaths in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. In many ways our world is more violent and certainly more fearful than it had been. Evidence of evilness abounds.

But this is also the time to take stock of the ways in which our liturgy speaks to a universal human theme. Many Americans, Jews and non-Jews, in the face of tragedy have chosen to move forward in these seven years — to engage in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.

Teshuvah: For some Americans, the first step of repentance was to say, “I don’t know enough; let me repair my ignorance.” Since early 1992, groups of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women have been joining together in living rooms to discuss books about their respective faiths. The Daughters of Abraham book groups began in Cambridge, Mass., when one Christian woman realized she didn’t personally know any Muslims. Now there are 14 such groups in the Boston area alone. We just began one in Philadelphia and already there is a waiting list.

Tefillah: In 2001, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of Albuquerque decided she wanted to pray for peace alongside Muslims. So she called the local mosque, where she knew no one, and found herself on the phone with a scientist and peace activist named Abdul Rauf Marqetti. They came up with the idea of a peace walk — a meditative, prayer-in-motion march for Jews and Muslims together.

In 2003, a group of Philadelphians decided to emulate them, and with no institutional backing, an ad hoc collection of Jews, Christians and Muslims began meeting monthly at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Kensington section of the city. The first walk began at the mosque, stopped for prayer at two churches and culminated at a synagogue. It drew 400 people. Plans are under way for the sixth annual Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace this coming spring.

Philadelphians are not the only ones praying with others. In 2000, The Hartford Institute for Religion Research conducted a survey to find out how many congregations, if any, had participated in an interfaith service in the past year. The answer was 7 percent. By 2005, the number had grown more than threefold to 23 percent.

Tzedakah: The Hartford study had even more striking news. When it asked about community services, the institute learned that 8 percent of congregations had joined with those of other faiths to improve conditions in their communities. Five years later it found 37 percent — a nearly fivefold increase.

Which brings us to Eboo Patel, a young Muslim born in India and raised in the American Midwest. In 2001, he was in England completing his studies as a Rhodes scholar. When he returned to the United States, he had a big idea. The way Patel saw it, young people want to change the world, and extremists are expert at giving them a cause to believe in, an exciting and dramatic movement to be part of. But what about moderate, pluralistic, liberal men and women, he wondered, those who saw religion as a way to work across faiths to make the world a better place? Could they offer young people a compelling counterpart to what the extremists offered?

Patel thought so. He founded the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago to bring together young men and women of different faiths to serve their communities. Since 2001, his staff has grown to 20; Jewish teenagers and college students throughout the country are joining with Muslim and Christian peers to create a national interfaith youth movement.

Something is happening out there, something good. It does not eradicate the very troubling developments precipitated by the Sept. 11 attacks, but in small ways it is helping our society achieve what Jews worldwide seek to achieve at this time of year — to avert the severity of the decree.

That’s worth remembering as we mark another anniversary of that beautiful and horrible September morning — and another Rosh Hashanah. This year our anxiety — who will live and who will die? — must be matched by our belief in our ability to make a difference.

We cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer directs the religious studies program at Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

åArticle courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Polish the Soul for Elul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teshuvah for Tots Sets Right Tone

The concept of repentance is hard enough for grown-ups to get, so how do educators make the central themes of the High Holidays real for children?

While projects like tempera-painted honey dishes and party-whistle shofars are de rigueur, preschool and elementary school teachers take seriously the idea of having the High Holiday message of personal accountability set the tone for the whole year.

The Jewish Journal spoke with a few educators to get their thoughts.


Nettie Lerner, director of Chabad’s Garden School preschool on Pico Boulevard, teaches about God’s closeness during this time of year through analogy:

“We teach them the story of the king in the field. The king is in his palace the entire year, and once a year he comes out of his palace to meet with all the different people, to get to know them and see how they are doing. He does this for a month all around the kingdom and then goes back to his palace and feels like he knows how to be a more effective king,” she said.

The Garden School also uses the High Holidays to establish rules of engagement among the kids.

The school practices conflict resolution, where a teacher stops the offending action and has each child articulate feelings and establishes empathy. Then, together the children and teacher come up with a resolution.

“We do this over and over, and that’s how we’re able to bring this concept of teshuvah to a preschooler,” Lerner said.

Kindergarten-Second Grade

At Stephen S. Wise elementary school, director of education Metuka Benjamin encourages teachers to use project-based activities around the High Holidays to emphasize Jewish peoplehood.

“First and foremost, we want to help children understand that being Jewish means they are part of a community,” she said. “This community has a shared history, ancestry and value system. We want them to understand that there are Jews all over the world, yet there is a connected spirit that ties us together. At this early age, understanding community is critical to helping them acquire a sense of pride about their backgrounds, while also feeling tied to Jewish friends and family here and around the world.”

Third-Fifth Grade

Rivka Ben-Daniel, director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at Heschel West in Agoura, has the whole school — and parents — blowing shofar every morning leading up to the High Holidays.

She concentrates on the idea of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. The word “chet,” Hebrew for sin, comes from the root of deviate — indicating that someone has missed a goal they set.

Ben-Daniel has students break into small groups to write a personal and communal “Ashamnu” confessional prayer, focusing on wrongdoings the class may have done as a group, and, privately, what they have done as individuals.

“We put them on paper and then we go to Malibu Creek Canyon, one grade at a time, and we read out loud the class sins, and we say goodbye to the sins and promise to start anew and welcome a new year by promising to strive to be better for the coming year,” Ben-Daniel said.


Ben-Daniel goes through a similar exercise with teachers, asking them to account for their wrongdoings with students, teachers and parents.

“We ask the teachers to acknowledge what they have done wrong and to ask for forgiveness, to forgive other people, and to forgive yourself for what you have done wrong,” she said.

In addition, teachers are asked to write goals for themselves “in an area where they want to improve in their educational lives.”


The See Season

There is a remarkable place I go to, about once a year. It is a spot on the Oregon coast. And I mean, literally, a spot. When I stand on that spot,

I can see the whole world — all of it.

Straight ahead, I see the Pacific Ocean, waves rhythmically approaching and departing, humming a calming melody. Far in the distance, the ocean meets the horizon, and they melt together into a line of perfect milky blue beauty. I turn slightly to the left, and take in the dark, 10-story-high jagged rocks, partially eroded by centuries of contact with the water. They are lifeless on their peaks but play host to starfish and sea anemones at their feet.

Directly behind me, a neighborhood of houses. In one of them, many loved ones are collected — at this moment just waking up together, and discussing the swift recent departure of a flock of sea gulls and the possibility of locating crab shells on the beach. Behind the houses is a forest — a deep, damp, evergreen Oregon corridor — perched just above the sea line. And to my right — really, at my feet — I observe a small creek, originating from that perched forest, carrying its tiny stream from far away into the great, rushing ocean. Around the creek, and in it, are hundreds of smooth stones, created from years of weathering. The stones await the arrival of my young son, who will spend hours among them, touching them, moving them, tossing them back into the water.

From that spot I can see the whole world. I can see life and abandonment and flight. I see unspeakable beauty and I can see years of confrontation. I can see love, togetherness, petty arguments and laughter. I see things that never change and things that never stay the same. And I can see isolation and community, growth and stagnancy, big picture and tiny details.

And all from standing in one spot.

This week’s Torah portion starts with a potent word: re’eh — see. God says to the Israelites: You have the opportunity to experience the bounty of blessing, or to feel the burn of curse — it is up to you, dependent on your behavior. And God begins this speech with the word re’eh. God says: See. Open your eyes! Take a look. Israelites, re’eh: For a moment, stop moving. Stop walking, stop running, stop eluding, stop covering, stop blocking. Plant your feet firmly on the ground. Just see. Look around. Stand in place and use your sight. There are visions to behold. Pictures to take in. Details to note.

This command is not just for the Israelites wandering in the desert, but for us, too.

Sometimes this is the hardest of all the Torah’s commands — harder than keeping kosher, praying regularly, giving tzedakah, teaching our children and lighting Shabbat candles. It’s hard, because most of us don’t like standing in one place for too long. And when we do, we prefer to have our eyes closed.

But the Torah’s job is to challenge us toward kedusha, to encourage us to wrestle with human nature. See, the Torah says, because once you have really looked, you will comprehend both the blessings and the curses. You will understand the light and the darkness around you.

As the month of Elul — preceding the High Holidays — draws near, we enter a season of seeing. In the coming month, find a spot for yourself. Look at your ocean. Be baffled by the enormity, and its raw, impossible beauty. Note time’s erosion of some things and its fertilization of others. See, too, the small trickle feeding into the enormous sea. Consider each rock that is part of the stream. Observe the constancy of the evergreens of your life. And crane your neck to really look into your house. What is going on in there?

This month, find yourself the spot from which you can see your entire world. Re’eh — look — to begin the work of teshuvah.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is founder and facilitator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for parents of special-needs children. She can be reached by e-mail at ozreinu@yahoo.com.


Teshuvah for Two

There’s nothing more romantic than a cantor’s serenade, a symphony of grumbling stomachs, and an oversized sheet of dry honey cake.

Which is why I might invite new guy Austin to spend Yom Kippur with me.

Austin and I met last month on a great blind date. He’s cute, he’s kind, he had me at shalom. Together, we’ve motored through the top 10 romantic things to do in Los Angeles: a hand-held stroll on Venice Beach, a moonlit flick on Santa Monica Pier and a quiet night at home — just us, his friends and "Madden Football." So what’s left to do but join 1,000 starving congregants for an all-you-can-pray buffet?

Yom Kippur can really light a fire under a new relationship. Not that I’m supposed to light a candle, brush my teeth or, for that matter, bathe on the holiday, but personal hygiene aside, a girl can really work it on the holiest of holies.

Take the religious-casual dress code. (I don’t follow the whole Yom Kippur practice of wearing white for purity. Who wears white after Labor Day?) It’s no coincidence the High Holidays coincide with London’s Fashion Week. Yom Kippur is a great excuse to dress up for my guy. I’ve got a long skirt and some pleather shoes, which are guaranteed to knock his tallis off. It’s hot. OK, maybe not, but after 25 hours of fasting, my stomach’s so flat I’d look svelte in a kittle.

And tag team teshuvah can really bring two people together. I’m sorry for the sins I committed against you, with you, and … why is there no air conditioning in the sanctuary? Good times. Tapping my chest during Al Chet will draw Austin’s eyes to the right place. And I can put my head on his shoulder during the rabbi’s sermon, the board’s building fund appeal and the sisterhood’s announcement of every upcoming event from now ’til Purim. Who wants to hear about tot Shabbat when the sun set 15 minutes ago?

As for break fast, they should change the name of this happy meal to the flirt n’ fress. Forget beer goggles; it’s all about hunger goggles. Know how everything in the grocery looks good when you shop on an empty stomach? Well, women all look good when men flirt on an empty stomach. If you’re the one to hand a Jewish man his first plate of post-fast food, you could be his mate for life. My future with Austin may be sealed with some Tam Tams.

Still, holidays are a straight up DTR (defining the relationship) issue. Spending YK together could take us from zero to couple in three Amidahs. Are we ready for that? Are we even a we? By inviting Austin to services, he could feel I’m moving the relationship along too quickly. Machzor, than marriage, then kids — oh my! But in not asking him, he could feel hurt, left out or wonder if I’m blowing another shofar. Most singles face this life or date decision at Thanksgiving or New Year’s. But I’m looking at a Day of Atonement dilemma. Do couples that pray together stay together?

According to the Homeland Dating Advisory System, holidays can catapult a couple into risk-level red. You can’t just do dinner and a Musaf. It’s complicated. Do we hit his shul or mine? Who pays for the tickets? And what if he learns of my past sins? Carin, you got some ‘splainin to do.

There’s also a rumor his mom wants him home for the holiday. If he stays in Los Angeles with me, I’ll be forever known as the girl who stood between him and his mother’s brisket. That’s never good.

To be honest, my past fast dates haven’t faired well. A few years ago, this guy Ezra took me to — I kid you not — Tisha B’Av. On a Saturday night. He said it would be better than dinner. I don’t know about better, but it was certainly cheaper. Our date consisted of sitting on the floor, mourning the Temples’ destructions and observing the post-service fast. Ezra was upset about the Temples, but elated that the date cost him nothing. Twice on the way home he mentioned how pleased he was that he didn’t drop a dime. I dropped him the next week.

Rabbinic scholars would argue that there is no debate. On Yom Kippur, we’re not only banned from consuming food, but from consuming each other. No kissing, snogging or heavy petting permitted. Even lotion is explicitly banned. So in some Jewish circles, if attending services with my new crush would distract from solemn prayer, it’s a no go.

But to me, attending services with a new beau is key. As a single Jew, I want to date guys who value Jewish holidays and traditions. I want Jewish life to be a part of our life. I want to check him out in a suit and tallis. I want to stand next to him in shul. So I’m going to ask Austin to escort me to the big Yom. That way, we can kick-start this year’s sinning with a little post-Kiddish kissing.

Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com.

Embrace the Day, Invite the ‘Stranger’

My earliest High Holiday memory goes back to about age 7. It was the night before Yom Kippur and my parents had gone off to the synagogue, leaving my 10-year-old brother and me with a babysitter. I forgot that I wasn’t supposed to eat anything that night, went into the kitchen, got on a chair to get a banana from the top of the refrigerator, peeled it halfway down and put it into my mouth.

My brother shouted, "You can’t do that!"

Then I remembered, wrapped the banana back in its peel and put it back on top of the refrigerator. I don’t know what my mother thought when she discovered that banana, she never said anything about it. But I think that from then on I felt that Yom Kippur was something very important.

When I was 12 I won an essay contest at my Conservative synagogue by writing that my favorite Jewish holiday was … Yom Kippur. Although my choice was one calculated to win, I had in fact begun to enjoy the High Holidays. Something about the period of self-evaluation and striving to return to right behavior (my understanding of teshuvah), appealed deeply to me. So did self-affliction — I wanted to fast before my mother would let me (she made me wait until I was 13).

My strong positive feelings about the High Holidays have continued unabated throughout the 30 years of my interfaith marriage. When Wendy and I were dating, she was always willing to attend services with me. For a number of years we went to the Harvard Hillel services. In those days the services were held in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, a not very comfortable or synagogue-like setting, but we were attracted by Rabbi Gold, an Orthodox rabbi whom we had consulted before our wedding. He had treated Wendy kindly and respectfully when he advised her not to convert before we were married unless it was something that she wanted for herself.

After we bought a house in the suburbs, we joined our neighborhood Reform synagogue when our daughter was ready for religious school. At some point when our children were very young, we developed our own High Holiday custom. Traditional Jews observe tashlich on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah — they go to a body of moving water and throw bread or stones into it, as a symbolic casting away of sins. I had never performed that ritual before, but somehow we got started going to a neighborhood park on Yom Kippur afternoon and throwing bread into the Charles River — though most of the bread was intercepted by hungry ducks before it even hit the water. We have clung to that custom "religiously" and every Yom Kippur afternoon, dressed in our finest suits and dresses (which must look very curious to the families playing in the park), we feed the ducks/cast away our sins. My children, who are now 21 and 26, still insist that, as the person with most of the sins, I should throw in most of the bread.

For Wendy and me, Judaism is very much a matter of religion. We have experienced so many High Holidays at this point that the rituals and customs of the holidays are familiar and comfortable to us as a couple. On Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre melody reminds us of all of those past years. We both fast and return to the synagogue for the afternoon Yizkor memorial and concluding services. We enjoy the opportunity for an extended quiet time of reflection. Each year I hate to see the day’s"’time-out" from daily routines come to an end.

I think that our attitudes toward the High Holidays have rubbed off on our children. Several years ago, our daughter, Emily, spent a fall semester in New Zealand. She had to make a major effort to be in a synagogue for Yom Kippur — take a bus from the conservation project she was working on into Auckland, check into a youth hostel, have pizza for dinner alone and then make her way to the Progressive synagogue to attend services. In a wonderful example of Jews taking care of other Jews, she was befriended by a couple who invited her to their home to break the fast and to stay the night; it turned out that one of the couple’s children had been married by the rabbi of our own synagogue! When our son, Adam, was in Munich last fall, he, too, made his way to the Progressive synagogue, and was taken in by a young family.

The Torah and haftorah portions on Yom Kippur morning year after year are, for me, the most inspiring expressions of Jewish values — from the Torah portion’s command to "choose life" to the haftorah portion’s command "to unlock the shackles of injustice … to share your bread with the hungry."

And these readings have an interfaith theme — in Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-20, Moses says that those who are about to enter into God’s covenant and be established as a people include everyone in the community, even the "strangers in your camp." I experience the themes of the liturgy of the day — which emphasize the Day of Judgment, self-evaluation and repentance, seeking forgiveness, ethical behavior and taking advantage of a new beginning — as applying fully to Wendy. When the congregation prays communally for repentance, I experience her as a member of the congregation and community.

For me, the High Holidays, and Yom Kippur in particular, are a great gift — a gift that interfaith families can benefit from and fully enjoy.

Edmund C. Case is the president and publisher of
InterfaithFamily.com and the co-editor, with Ronnie Friedland, of “The
Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook”
(Jewish Lights).

It’s Time to Change

The oldest and most primitive human dates back about 7 million years, according to a skull found by scientists in Central Africa.

"That’s so depressing," I say to my husband, Larry. "I can’t believe that in 7 million years we haven’t evolved any further than this."

"This" being a world in which half the people live on less than $2 a day; in which 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night; in which 115 million children never go to school at all; and in which 27 million people live in some kind of slavery.

"You’re looking at this all wrong," Larry assures me. "Seven million years is an insignificant blip in the history of the cosmos."

And, Jewish tradition tells me, the first 6,994,235 years hardly count.

After all, it’s not the birth of the prehominid that scientists have named "Toumai" that marks the beginning of our moral evolution, but rather the birth of Adam and Eve.

We Jews recognize this milestone as Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, which occurred 5765 years ago and which begins this year at sundown on Sept. 15.

Also known as the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah gives us an opportunity — well, actually, it obligates us — to commit to improving ourselves and our world.

This concept of effecting personal and collective transformation is nothing short of revolutionary. As Thomas Cahill points out in his book, "The Gifts of the Jews" (Anchor, 1999), we were the first ancient people to realize that we could actually make a difference. According to Cahill, ancient Jews recognized, "We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free."

Not free in the sense that my four sons envision — free from parental criticism, curfews and curbs on Internet use — but free in the sense of having the opportunity to partner with God to help eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, slavery and other ills.

But we haven’t always used this freedom wisely. Fewer than 2,000 years after Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden, mankind’s egregious misbehavior led God to destroy everyone but Noah and his family. When we built and worshiped the golden calf while Moses was fetching the badly needed Ten Commandments, we came close to annihilation for a second time; only Moses’ intervention saved us. And there have been other close calls as well.

Yes, our moral progress is slow. We are stiff-necked. We whine and we moan. We look for the easy way out.

And yet, once a year at Rosh Hashanah, we must fearlessly and aggressively assess our mistakes, misdeeds and misbehavior. We must make apologies and amends both to other people and to God, and vow to make positive changes.

"I’m a teenager. You can’t make me change," Jeremy, my 15-year-old son, says, proving that stubbornness is not just an ancient characteristic.

"No, but you can make yourself change," I answer. And the consequences, I remind him, as the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer tells us, are nothing short of determining "who shall live and who shall die."

And so we strive to make "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes," as the David Bowie song goes. Changes that are probing, painful and substantive. Changes that are powerful enough to avert a decree of death.

These changes come about in three ways:

First, through teshuvah. Often translated as "repentance," this Hebrew term actually means "returning," referring to a return to God. It involves the difficult work of introspection, apology and amends that begins in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and ends with the blowing of the shofar signaling the end of Yom Kippur.

Teshuvah, one Midrash tells us, was so important that God created it before creating the world, knowing that our free will would invariably lead us astray, and understanding that we would need a way back.

Second, change can occur through tefilah, or prayer. But, as Rabbi Ed Feinstein explains in his book, "Tough Questions Jews Ask" (Jewish Lights, 2003): "Real prayer, prayer that works, doesn’t change the world; it changes us. We can’t ask God to change the world for us. We have to do that ourselves."

Third, we can change through tzedakah. Though commonly translated as "charity," the Hebrew root of tzedakah means "justice," which is yet another route toward meaningful change. As God commands in Deuteronomy 16:20, "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

Larry and I ask our sons what they will be doing in the coming year to help repair the world.

Zack, 20, will continue to write and edit for the Williams College newspaper, spending long hours every week helping to keep the students and staff informed and involved.

Gabe, 17, will be co-organizing a program for Milken Community High School juniors and seniors to live and work for two days at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles.

Jeremy will do at least 120 hours of volunteer work at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, assisting in the emergency room and in pediatrics.

And Danny, 13, is kicking off his campaign for president of the United States, with the goal of helping to eliminate poverty.

To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, it is not our responsibility to finish the work, yet neither are we free to walk away from it.

Which is maybe what happened 7 million years ago.

This article reprinted courtesy of JTA.

Rabin’s Funeral

Given the atmosphere in the Middle East today, it is hard to believe that just seven years ago, on Nov. 6, 1995, a Jewish funeral took place where the deceased was surrounded and eulogized by Jews and Arabs. Yes, this week marks the seventh anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s funeral. Rabin was publicly eulogized (in this order) by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, King Hussein of Jordan, acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A Jew, followed by an Arab, followed by a Jew, followed by an Arab, all standing together at one graveside in Israel, eulogizing one Jewish leader. Children born that year in the Middle East probably have a hard time understanding how such an integrated funeral was really possible, given the Middle East they have witnessed since they were born.

Was Rabin’s funeral, which brought together Jews and Arabs for one brief moment, the first of its nature in the history of the Middle East?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Hayei Sarah, the Torah describes the death and burial of the first biblical patriarch, Abraham. A "father of a multitude of nations," Abraham, indeed, fathered two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, whose offspring were unfortunately destined to struggle with one another for thousands of years. Having one common father in Abraham, each son’s offspring were poised to become "great nations." The Jewish people trace their lineage through Isaac, for God told Abraham "it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you." The Arabs, and later the Muslims, trace their heritage to Ishmael, of whom God said to Abraham, "I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed." Each son was destined to be a leader of his people.

After growing up together briefly, the two half brothers were separated: Isaac’s family going one way and Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, going in another direction. They were separated from one another for some 70 years. During that time, according to the Midrash, Isaac actually had gone to visit Hagar. We do not really know the purpose of the visit, but perhaps it was Isaac’s overture at reconciliation between the half brothers.

Then Abraham dies. "And Abraham was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah." The Talmud describes Ishmael’s attendance at his father’s funeral as an act of teshuvah. To do teshuvah means to return. Ishmael returned to his father and to his half brother, Isaac. Was Ishmael’s teshuvah a response to his Isaac’s earlier visit to his home? We will never know.

All we know is that Isaac and Ishmael, Jew and Arab, stood together at their father’s graveside, tending to Abraham’s burial needs together, each probably having delivered moving eulogies for all of "Abraham’s kin" to hear at the funeral.

It is an unfortunate fact of history that the momentum of Isaac and Ishmael standing together at their father’s graveside was not carried into the future of their respective people’s history.

Similarly, it is unfortunate that when a funeral similar to Abraham’s took place just seven years ago, the momentum of that event was not carried forward equally by both sides beyond Rabin’s graveside.

The Neurobiology of Teshuvah

As a scientist and a believer in human progress, I have been concerned about how well the established process of teshuvah (repentance) has worked. Yom Kippur after Yom Kippur – in fact, since the 11th century – we have recited the same confessional prayer, “Al Chet.” If we were any good at repentance, shouldn’t the list have changed in 1,000 years? Even if we don’t want to change the ancient formula, shouldn’t we be able to feel that we had eliminated or reduced at least a few on the list? Yet the list of sins remains the same, as does the ritual for expunging them. Why haven’t we improved?

Perhaps we are genetically stuck. The newspapers and scientific journals are full of genetic determinism. Human geneticists, aided by the massive investment in the human genome project, have identified hundreds of genes in which specific alterations cause conditions that range from mental retardation to dyslexia. Mouse geneticists have created models not only of human disease, but also of mating and mental processing. One recent headline concerned genetically engineered male mice that spent more or less time grooming their mates, according to which piece of regulatory DNA they received. Other transgenic mice were better than their sibs in learning to find an underwater platform.

Or maybe we are stuck with the particular wiring of our brains. A person who suffers a stroke that affects one region of the brain cannot hear; another person can hear but cannot recognize words; another can recognize words but cannot identify a photograph of the President; another can recognize the President but cannot identify the function of a hammer or a screwdriver. Similarly, a range of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders – many of which have genetic components – affect thought, memory, mood, and even religious experience.

In the face of such powerful biological constraints, can we really hope to change ourselves or our community? The answer is certainly yes.

It is true that genes determine the basic wiring of the brain and therefore the basic processing pathways for external information and internal feelings. But the brain is nothing if not a learning machine.

Neuroscientists talk about the brain’s plasticity, meaning that the brain can not only change but that it can also maintain those changes over time. Genes certainly influence many aspects of the brain’s structure and operations, but – as our everyday experience attests – genes alone do not determine who we are or what decisions we will make about our lives.

Evolution has produced a genetically programmed brain, adapted for plasticity. Humans may be hardwired to learn language, just as a songbird is hardwired to learn a song, but the particular language and the particular song depend on experience. We can also learn to pedal a bicycle, play a piano or putt a golf ball. While we learn these skills best during childhood, we maintain plasticity as adults.

In every case, learning changes the physical state of the brain. Even people who have suffered strokes or spinal cord injury can often recover lost functions during rehabilitation by practicing strategies that employ and strengthen alternate neural routes. Similarly, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy may well work by selectively entraining alternate neural pathways.

In the last few years, neuroscientists have been working hard to understand the nature of these changes, in humans and other primates, in mice and rats, even in fruit flies and sea hares. Several lessons have emerged. First, even without changing their circuitry, nerve cells can change the intensity of their communication with one another so that a particular circuit works more or less easily as a result of experience; a sea hare escapes more rapidly from noxious stimulus after several encounters, just as practice modifies our facility on a bicycle or a dance floor.

A particularly exciting recent discovery has been that, contrary to our previous understanding, some nerve-cell precursors preserve their capacity to divide even into adult life. These progenitors can generate new nerve cells in response to environmental stimulation. Putting young rats into an enriched environment (for example, by placing toys and other objects into their normally bleak cages) stimulates the proliferation of these cells, suggesting a cellular basis for the well-known benefits of a rich environment in early childhood. In the not too distant future, these neural progenitor cells may provide a means for repairing brains and spinal cords damaged by disease or injury.

Even without dividing, however, nerve cells can alter their shape and their connections as a result of environment and experience. Some of the most extraordinary such changes occur during the recovery from brain or spinal cord injury. Nerve cells – in both the brain and spinal cord – sprout new connections and make new signaling molecules. More heavily used neural pathways sometimes even take over from unused circuits, for example, in those pathways once connected to a now-amputated limb.

One well-known case involves an impressive man named Craig Dobkin, who was badly hurt in a climbing accident, severing his lower spinal cord so that he lost conscious control of his legs. Craig had some good fortune, however, in that his brother is Dr. Bruce Dobkin, Director of Neurorehabilitation at UCLA, a man who has pioneered new methods for retraining the brain and spinal cord after stroke and spinal cord injury. As a result of this retraining, Craig’s spinal cord has learned to pattern his leg movements even though it no longer communicates directly with the brain. The important result is that Craig can move on crutches, rather than only in a wheel chair.

Since his accident, Craig Dobkin has founded an organization called Play for Peace, which brings children from conflicting cultures together through cooperative play. The goal of Play for Peace is to promote positive relationships among people who have a history of intercultural tension, starting in Jerusalem with Israeli and Palestinian youngsters. By bringing children with unique backgrounds, values, and beliefs together through the seemingly simple act of play, Play for Peace sows seeds of compassion. It is as if Craig Dobkin has adapted his brother Bruce’s method of fostering spinal cord plasticity to the fostering of moral plasticity.

Our capacity for teshuvah is, I believe, a reflection of our neural plasticity. The limitations of our teshuvah do not reflect genetic programs, but the more basic problem of the nature of sin itself. Indeed, many of the sins listed in the “Al Chet” confessional seem to be rather subtle distortions of activities and thoughts that are positive: sinful meditations do not occur in an uncontemplative person; nor does contentiousness or scoffing arise in someone who has separated from the community; and sinful confession of the lips can only happen in someone who is moved to confession in the first place. Our problem then is to unravel the good from the evil. We need to increase our capacity to discern.

How can we take advantage of neural plasticity in making such important distinctions? To the extent that we can choose our experiences – internal and external – we can consciously change the workings of our brains, just as Craig Dobkin can consciously – if indirectly – change the workings of his legs. Just as we gradually learn to discriminate between creativity and cliché in literature, art, movies and music, we must train ourselves to discriminate morally between expansiveness and aggressivity, between involvement and voyeurism, between helpfulness and presumption. In our teshuvah, we must train ourselves to become connoisseurs of our own actions. The bad news is that this task is highly complex; the good news is that our brains are on our side – intellectually and emotionally. The meaning of the annual repetition of the same sins may be that our tradition recognizes that this struggle inevitably must continue from year to year.

For more information about Play for Peace, visit www.playforpeace.org

The Fires This Time

If a book that confronts death head-on can be uplifting, Kate Wenner has done it in an auspicious first novel, “Setting Fires” (Scribner). The two fires referred to in the title offer unseen sparks, that, amid the danger of consuming flames, light the way to meaning for the main character and her dying father. The book makes for great reading with the approaching holidays. Wenner’s presentation of the theme of teshuvah – and its impact on her characters’ lives – will touch readers as they begin their own process of returning and forgiving.

Annie Fishman Waldmas, a documentary filmmaker who lives on the Upper West Side, receives two devastating phone calls: One message is that her country house is on fire, and soon after, she learns that her father is potentially very ill. As she and her husband, a photo editor, hear more about the fire, their suspicions are raised that it was anti-Semitic arson, possibly tied to several other fires in the area in Jewish-owned buildings.

At the same time, the news about her father grows worse, and although their relationship has been rocky at times, she is drawn closely into his circle of care. At the advice of a rabbi she seeks out, Annie, who’d never before been involved in Jewish life, tries to spend as much time as possible with her father. Rabbi Lowenstein emphasizes the importance of coming to terms with one’s life at the end, of seeing life as a gift, of forgiving and feeling forgiven. With Annie’s encouragement, her very successful but distant father begins to talk about his life – his “manufactured” personality – with a certain candor and self-awareness. He tells her for the first time about a fire in his childhood, one that has haunted him for more than 50 years. As Annie seeks the truth about her fire, the truth about her father’s fire shocks her and gives her new insight into her father’s life and her own.

This is a story of rebuilding family, of returning to Judaism; Wenner, an award-winning television producer who worked at ABC’s “20/20” for 14 years, also deals with social issues like anti-Semitism as she tells the day-to-day story of her charac-ters’ multilayered lives. There’s also a veil of mystery as Annie and later the FBI investigate the fire. Wenner is a skilled writer and pulls all these elements together well.

Although “Setting Fires” is fictional, there are many parallels to the author’s life. Her father died in 1988, and before his death, she grew close to him and learned of a fire that brought him much shame; she also experienced a real fire in her country home. “These were such transformative experiences for me that I really was compelled to write about them,” Wenner says, explaining why she wrote this as a novel rather than a memoir. “My father’s dying was a teaching for me in the power of truth, and that may be why I wanted to write the heart of it as truthfully as I could, while setting the story itself, and the characters who told it, in a fictional world.”

As her own father was dying, Wenner videotaped her conversations with him and has just completed a short documentary film called “Time With My Father,” which she’ll show as part of her book tour this fall and at Jewish film festivals later on. In the film, Wenner’s father tells the story of his fire. He also says good-bye, expressing great love for his family and the knowledge that in the end he was loved. “I couldn’t go out in a better way,” he says. “The time has come.” His daughter comments, “He fought his way out of his past to provide for our future.”

In videotaping her father, Wenner applied what she had learned as a television producer, to try to create an environment of trust so that he could find the courage to talk abouthimself. She urges people to take the time now to get their parents’ stories onto videotapes. The keys to doing this, she says, are asking simple questions and “listening well, with real generosity.” And she encourages people not to hold back from asking about the things they really want to know – for those are the things that people really want to talk about.

Around the time of her father’s death, Wenner recon-nected with Judaism. About teshuvah, she says she has learned that “a real turning can happen even at the last minute. Dying can bring life into sharp focus and be an opportunity for healing that not only helps the dying person face death but also frees the next generation, and generations to come.

“I think that the notion of teshuvah is one of the most extraordinary gifts, to find ways to have a new beginning, to have the community’s support in that once a year.”

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for New York’s The Jewish Week.


Cardinal Repentance

In a High Holiday letter to Jewish friends, New York’s Roman Catholic cardinal has expressed “abject sorrow” for centuries of anti-Semitism, and called for a new era of respect and love between Christians and Jews.

The powerfully worded letter from Cardinal John O’Connor echoed personal expressions of remorse made by Pope John Paul II and other senior church leaders in recent years and also echoed the Vatican’s official call for teshuvah, or repentance.

It appeared to be an attempt to heal recent friction in Catholic-Jewish relations over issues such as the possible beatification of World War II-era Pope Pius XII and a Vatican document on the Holocaust last year that many Jews believed offered too little, too late.

Jewish leaders, including author Elie Wiesel, were so moved by O’Connor’s “inspiring and courageous” message that they sponsored publication of the Sept. 8 letter as a full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times so that the sentiments could be shared.

O’Connor couched his letter in the New Year’s greetings that he sends annually to Jewish friends and leaders. But he underscored that, just as 5760 marks the beginning of a new decade in the Jewish calendar, the coming year marks the beginning of a new millennium for Christianity, to be celebrated as a jubilee, or holy year, by the church.

He stressed that the pope has called on all Catholics to use the year 2000 as a time to reflect and ask forgiveness for past sins, including anti-Semitism.

“Part of the process of jubilee is a call for teshuvah, or repentance,” O’Connor wrote. “Ash Wednesday, March 8, has been specifically set aside as a day for Catholics to reflect upon the pain inflicted on the Jewish people by many of our members over the last millennium. We most sincerely want to start a new era.

“I pray that as you begin a new decade, and as we begin another millennium in our Jewish-Christian relationship, we will refresh our encounter with a new respect and even love for one another as children of God.”

“I ask this Yom Kippur that you understand my own abject sorrow for any member of the Catholic Church, high or low, including myself, who may have harmed you or your forebears in any way.”

O’Connor did not specifically mention the Holocaust.

His reference to any member of the church “high or low” was taken by observers to be a possible reference to Pius XII — as well as to a host of popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, kings, queens and commoners who expelled Jews from cities and countries, burned them at the stake and otherwise persecuted them over the centuries.

It also followed the church’s line in condemning individuals for their actions but absolving the church itself from wrongdoing.

O’Connor spokesman Joseph Zwilling said the cardinal was referring to Nazi atrocities and other anti-Semitic acts during the last 2,000 years.

Eugene Fisher, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ staff expert on Jewish relations, said the letter “expresses the mind of the church very clearly and without any possible ambiguity. It’s not a new statement. He was not intending to break any new ground.”

Still, Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor who helped sponsor the ad along with other Jewish leaders, said that “for the prince of the church to say the things he does, it’s very strong. He went very far, and it’s a great gesture of understanding.”



The American Jewish Committee will host Understanding and Hope, a forum that will examine the relationship between Jews and Catholics, on Wednesday evening, Sept. 29, at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

The event, led by Cardinal Roger Mahony and Rabbi Harold Schulweis, features panel discussions on such topics as “Prevailing Jewish and Catholic Attitudes Toward One Another” and “Can We Correct the Anti-Semitic Interpretations of the Christian Bible?” with representatives from Hebrew Union College, Loyola Marymount University and B’nai David Judea Congregation. For more information and to make reservations, call (213) 637-7555 or (310) 282-8080.