September 21, 2018

Celebrating the Jewish New Year in the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel

 

Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – begins in two days, this Sunday evening. For us, the Jews in Azerbaijan, like for other Jews around the world, this holiday embodies benevolence, honesty, fresh start and unity. We ask and answer for what we have done and what we could do better. We take this time to face our prayers with an open and good heart, and to make a fresh start together.

Each year during the holiday we, the Mountain Jews living in Azerbaijan, attend services at our synagogues, sound the shofar and recite special liturgy, take care of those in need, gather around the table, eat honey-dipped Challah and apples, and pray for forgiveness. What is unique about Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays in Azerbaijan is that our fellow Muslims and Christians come together with their Jewish brothers and sisters to share our joy and happiness. In Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have been living together in peace, brotherhood and mutual respect for many centuries. There has always been a strong relationship between these ethnic and religious communities, and this exemplary harmony continues to this day.

Today in Azerbaijan the Jews have everything they want. We have peace, stability and prosperity. We have our flourishing synagogues, schools, kindergartens, and various cultural facilities. We have the support of the government, which is making tremendous effort towards maintaining and strengthening the harmony, mutual understanding and peace among religions. On every Rosh Hashanah, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev sends a congratulatory message addressed to the Jewish community of the country. This year was not an exception.

Here is the text of the congratulatory message by the President of Azerbaijan that I just received:

“Dear Compatriots!

I cordially congratulate you on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and convey to you my heartfelt wishes.

We regard ethno-cultural diversity in the modern Azerbaijani society, where traditional relations of friendship and brotherhood, and tolerance and multicultural values ​​exist among people, as an indispensable achievement of our national statehood. People of different ethnic backgrounds living in our country, including the Jewish community, have always lived in peace in Azerbaijan, preserving their language and culture and traditions without any discrimination.

Today the independent state of Azerbaijan remains committed to its progressive historical traditions. In line with modern democratic principles, ensuring human rights in the country, protection and strengthening of ethnocultural values ​​of ethnic minorities is one of the priorities of our state policy.

The Jewish community, who have been living in Azerbaijan for hundreds of years, have become an integral part and full-fledged members of our society. I want to emphasize with satisfaction that our citizens of Jewish origin are closely involved in the socio-political life of our country, which is currently experiencing a period of great development and progress, and make valuable contributions to the process of democratic state building.

Dear Friends!

The Rosh Hashanah celebrated by you every year is the embodiment of renewal, spiritual purity, kindness and solidarity. Once again, I sincerely congratulate you on this beautiful day, wish happiness and continued prosperity to you and your families.

Happy Holidays!

Ilham Aliyev

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

Baku, September 7, 2018.”

Together with our fellow Muslims and Christians, as the Jewish community of Azerbaijan we have to continue our work on a daily basis towards making sure that this togetherness, this solidarity and this harmony keeps blossoming and becoming stronger and stronger every day in the country, and that this unique model inspires many other nations in the region and beyond. That’s my Rosh Hashanah prayer this year!

L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem! May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Azerbaijan’s model of interreligious harmony and multiculturalism showcased in a historic visit to California

Multifaith delegation from Azerbaijan together with Azerbaijan's Consul General Nasimi Aghayev, AJC-San Francisco regional director Matt Kahn and Rev. Will McGarvey at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco

Multifaith delegation from Azerbaijan together with Azerbaijan’s Consul General Nasimi Aghayev, AJC-San Francisco regional director Matt Kahn and Rev. Will McGarvey at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco

 

I have visited California several times. I always remember my visits with great joy, especially the one in 2015, when we received and celebrated the gift of a beautiful new Sefer Torah from the Sinai Temple of Los Angeles for our Mountain Jewish Synagogue in Baku. In my recent visit to Los Angeles and San Francisco, in May 2018, I was part of a multifaith delegation from Azerbaijan. The delegation was led by Mr. Mubariz Gurbanli, the Chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO) of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and included also the leaders of Muslim, European Jewish, Christian Orthodox, and Albanian-Udi Christian communities of Azerbaijan. Our purpose was to share Azerbaijan’s unique model of multiculturalism and interreligious harmony and tolerance, and talk about the possibility of lasting peace and understanding among religions.

Our visit was organized jointly by the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Los Angeles and San Francisco regional offices in strong cooperation with Azerbaijan’s Los Angeles Consul General Nasimi Aghayev. AJC and Azerbaijan have been enjoying a very special relationship since almost two decades. AJC national delegations, led by its CEO David Harris, have been visiting Azerbaijan annually for the past eleven years, and actually Azerbaijan is one of the few countries on AJC’s annual visit calendar. During this year’s visit Mr. Harris said the following: “Azerbaijan continues to be a very significant partner for both the U.S. and Israel. Baku’s contributions in many spheres are increasingly vital in today’s turbulent world, although, frankly speaking, not as well-known and recognized as they should be. In a key region of the world, where the United States has few reliable friends, Azerbaijan, a secular, Shiite-majority country, stands out. And for Israel, believe me, the bilateral relationship is no less important. Moreover, it is inspiring to see the record of respect for the Jewish community – and the striking absence of anti-Semitism – in a land Jews have called home for over 2,000 years.” As an Azerbaijani Jew, I couldn’t agree more. We are much appreciative of AJC’s friendship, and of the efforts by its California regional offices in organizing this historic visit. I would like to specially thank Roslyn Warren, Saba Soomekh and Siamak Kordestani of AJC-Los Angeles, and Matt Kahn, Serena Eisenberg and Eran Hazary of AJC-San Francisco.

During the visit we were honored to meet the Archbishop of Los Angeles and Vice President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops José H. Gomez, Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Sheila Kuehl, Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa, Los Angeles leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Dean of the world-famous Simon Wiesenthal Center Rabbi Marvin Hier, Member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Norman Yee and California State Senator Jerry Hill. We also visited several synagogues and churches, including Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Presidio Chapel, Grace Cathedral and Sherith Israel Synagogue in San Francisco, as well as the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Moreover, two well-attended public events dedicated to Azerbaijan’s multifaith harmony were held – one at the Sinai Temple of Los Angeles (ably moderated by Rabbi Erez Sherman) and the other at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

At these meetings and events we highlighted the ancient traditions of tolerance and multiculturalism in Azerbaijan. We informed the audiences about how people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, including Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and representatives of other faiths, such as Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Hare Krishnas and others, have been living together in peace, brotherhood and mutual respect for many centuries in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shiite Muslim country. There has always been a strong relationship between ethnic and religious communities in the country and ethnic, religious or racial discrimination has never existed in Azerbaijan. I often was asked: “What is the essence, the core of Azerbaijan’s model of tolerance and how Azerbaijan has achieved it?” There is only one answer to it: Tolerance and multiculturalism has been the lifestyle of the people of Azerbaijan for many centuries. It has very solid foundations, rich traditions and deep historical and cultural roots.

Today there are 31 non-Muslim religious communities officially registered in Azerbaijan. Moreover, seven synagogues, one museum-synagogue that is under construction, two Jewish elementary schools, three kindergartens, one Yeshiva and fourteen churches are operating in my country. Azerbaijan may be a small country but it has made enormous effort towards maintaining and strengthening the harmony, mutual understanding and peace among religions, making the world a better place. I hope many other countries in the wider region will follow Azerbaijan’s suit.

I live in a country where the government of a majority-Muslim nation builds and rebuilds synagogues, renovates churches, and annually allocates financial support to different religious communities. I live in a country where a Muslim philanthropist funds the construction and renovation of churches. This country is the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan, and I am proud to be its citizen.

Thank you, California, for warmly welcoming and embracing us. See you next time!

Weekend of Faith

This weekend marks an important time for people of many faiths.  It is Passover and also Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  I am someone whose life is made easier with faith. I’m also one that does not judge people based on faith. The way I see it, faith allows us to lean on something bigger than ourselves, and if it gives us peace, then how we view the higher power doesn’t matter. Faith is a beautiful and powerful thing. It does not need to always be about religion.

I hope those who celebrate the holidays of this weekend will find peace within their faith.  For me, the weekend is about prayer.  Prayers of thanks for my Jewish life, prayers of thanks for my blessed life, and prayers of thanks for the health and happiness of my family and friends. I’m counting my blessings, embracing the history of my people, and taking comfort in the power of so many human beings on the planet praying at the exact same time. It is quite beautiful.

Take time this weekend to be kind to a stranger. Share blessings with people in need and let your faith inspire you to bring light to someone in the dark. Listen to a child laugh, reach out to someone you miss, ease someone’s sorrow, know struggles will pass, make a new plan, love someone, be aware, be happy, be brave, cry tears of joy, hug like you mean it, and enjoy the delicious holiday food. Enjoy the weekend. Celebrate, reflect, and keep the faith.

 

American Jewish Committee Delegation in Azerbaijan: Traveling to the Land of Tolerance

AJC delegation with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. 2015

AJC delegation with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, 2015

 

Last week was a special week for the Jewish communities of Azerbaijan. A delegation of 7 leaders representing the American Jewish Committee came from the United States to visit Azerbaijan, to meet with important leaders, and to experience Azerbaijan first hand. A major highlight of their trip was an extended meeting with the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, which lasted 75 minutes. Considering President Aliyev’s busy schedule, I believe this speaks to how important the relationship between Azerbaijan and the American Jewish Committee is to our nation.

Additional meetings were held with Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan Dan Stav, Vice President of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), Elshad Nasirov, and the  U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Robert Cekuta. And of course, the delegation met with dozens of Jewish community members at one of beautiful synagogues. As the leader of the Mountain Jewish Community of Azerbaijan, I had the esteemed pleasure of meeting with this important delegation and discussing Azerbaijan’s over 2000 years of history as the safe home for Jewish people.

AJC CEO Davis Harris captured the meaning of the trip quite well, and said that “Azerbaijan continues to be a very significant partner for both the U.S. and Israel. Baku’s contributions in many spheres are increasingly vital in today’s turbulent world, although, frankly speaking, not as well-known and recognized as they should be. In a key region of the world, where the United States has few reliable friends, Azerbaijan, a secular, Shiite-majority country, stands out. And for Israel, believe me, the bilateral relationship is no less important. Moreover, it is inspiring to see the record of respect for the Jewish community – and the striking absence of anti-Semitism – in a land Jews have called home for over 2,000 years.”

AJC national delegations have been visiting  Azerbaijan annually for the past eleven years, and actually Azerbaijan is one of the few countries on AJC’s annual visit calendar. This year the delegation, led by AJC President John Shapiro and CEO David Harris, included Gail Binderman, a member of AJC’s Board of Governors; Nancy Petschek-Kohn of Westchester County, New York: Shonni Silverberg of New York; Yakov Abramov, a former Azerbaijan resident living in New York; Sam Kliger, AJC’s Director of Russian Affairs; and Charlotte Bilski, Deputy Chief of Staff to the AJC CEO.

This AJC visit reminded me of a similar visit not long ago, when Sinai Temple of Los Angeles, led by Rabbi David Wolpe, came as a delegation to visit Azerbaijan, and brought with them a new Sefer Torah; a gift to our Mountain Jewish Synagogue of Baku. That trip included great festivities around the gifting of the Torah, including dancing in the street, and was an unforgettable experience for the Sinai Temple delegation and for the many Jews of Azerbaijan that participated. Rabbi Wolpe captured the experience beautifully in his piece in TIme Magazine, and referred to Azerbaijan as an “Oasis of Tolerance.

These visits are so important, and they really capture what is so special and crucial about the relationship shared by Azerbaijan and Jewish communities across the world. Azerbaijan is a rare nation, a majority-Muslim country bordering Iran, and a place that is not only considered a safe haven for Jews, as it has been for many centuries, but a place where Jews live and practice with the respect, support and protection of the government and the broader community of Azerbaijani people. Tolerance is our key national trademark, and the flourishing 30,000 strong Jewish community of Azerbaijan is an example of how that trademark plays out today, as it has for much of time.

Other Jewish leaders from Los Angeles have also visited Azerbaijan, including many visits by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul, and Rabbi Israel Barouk, the author of several books capturing, among others, the history of Jews in Azerbaijan.

In general, over the last few years, in large part thanks to efforts by Azerbaijan’s Los Angeles Consulate General, more and more influential representatives of the Los Angeles Jewish community as well as other communities, including Christian and Muslim communities, have come to get to know Azerbaijan and appreciate its exemplary model of multiculturalism, multi-faith tolerance, harmony and peace.

The connection between American Jewish communities and Azerbaijan is strong and only growing stronger with each passing year, as more visitors come to Azerbaijan to experience our multicultural nation. And even without the pleasure of visiting Azerbaijan, Jewish-Americans are becoming more and more aware of the great friendship shared between Jews all over the world and the Republic of Azerbaijan, a rare ally and protector of Jewish people in a world so overwhelmed with danger and anti-Semitism. For us in Azerbaijan this is nothing new – it is a lasting, national quality, and yet it’s important to note how much our way of life stands out. The visit by the AJC delegation was a remarkable reminder of the important relationship my nation shares with American Jews and Jews around the world. It was also a reminder of how we must continue to build on this precious relationship, to meet new community members from across the United States and to continue our dialogue and shared vision of peace, for Jews and for everyone else in the world that strives for peace and tolerance. I look forward to the next AJC visit, and encourage many additional Jewish organizations and synagogues to arrange such a visit for themselves. It’s one thing to read about our oasis of tolerance, but it’s quite another to experience it.

We must rededicate ourselves to tolerance

Thank you Mr. President.

I know that I speak on behalf of everyone present tonight in expressing our gratitude for the way that you and the First Lady have, once again, opened up your home to the Jewish community for an annual White House celebration of Chanukah.

Chanukah is a festival of liberty, teaching us that freedom is not free. When there is evil and tyranny in the world, we must summon the courage to fight it. Sadly, we are reminded of this by the daily headlines. Not too long ago, Jews were the ones on boats seeking refuge from the horrors of Nazi Europe.

The special affinity and love that Jews have for the State of Israel is because, after 2000 years of wandering, Jews were able to be, in the words of the Hatikvah, “free people in our ancestral homeland”.

But for most of us here tonight, America is our home, the most hospitable country for Jews in the entire history of our people. I know this first hand. Both of my parents were survivors of the Shoah. My father was born in Berlin. He left two weeks before Kristallnacht in 1938 at age 16. He came to America on the last successful voyage of the St. Louis. The next voyage of that ship came to be called the Voyage of the Damned because its 937 Jewish refugees were sent back to Europe, having come within sight of Miami Beach. Five years later my father would proudly put on an American uniform and return to Europe to fight with the U.S. Army to defeat the Nazis.   

The word Chanukah means dedication. At a time when we hear the most shameful expressions of bigotry in our public discourse from prominent personalities, we must re-dedicate ourselves to the principles of tolerance and justice for all, something that you, Mr. President, have modeled throughout your presidency.   

So it is in that spirit that I invite you to join me in the blessings for lighting the candles with the addition of the shehechiyanu prayer, offering gratitude for this moment celebrating Chanukah in the White House. 

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Senior Fellow, Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and Founding Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD delivered these remarks at the White House Chanuka Lighting on December 9, 2016

High Holidays Reflections from Azerbaijan: A Year Filled with Shared Joy and Friendship

For Jews in Azerbaijan like for others around the globe, the approaching Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur holidays are a time for contemplation. We ask and answer for what we have done and what we could do better. We take this time to face our prayers with an open and good heart, to make a fresh start together. From far flung parts of the world like never before we need a fresh start, a new perspective – finding places of peace and renewal.

Our Rabbi of the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue of Baku has taught us of the elements of teshuva, or repentance, the main ingredient by which we make ourselves right to the Heavens and our community. When we think of the need for healing, we must think of what we did in order to find ways to improve ourselves and the world around us. The most important place for growth comes from a reflection on what was good and inspiring, because to know what we could do better, we must certainly have some knowledge of what we did right.

Rabbi Akiva famously taught that the greatest lesson of Torah is that we must “love your neighbor as yourself.” For this particular requirement, I feel we have many great examples to share and much to hope for in the coming year. Perhaps there is no better example to share than how President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan each year sends our Azerbaijani-Jewish community a letter just before Rosh Hashana, to celebrate and honor our holiday, wishing Jews in Azerbaijan and around the world a Shana Tova. In his 2009 letter, described beautifully in the Jewish Journal, as well as in all letters ever since, President Aliyev has expounded on the great appreciation the Republic of Azerbaijan has for Jewish people, a very rare statement for a leader of a Majority-Muslim country to publicize to the world.

I also look back at the connection to the Jewish community of Los Angeles this year. I vividly remember the visit to Sinai Temple for the Torah Dedication ceremony, after the selfless members of this great congregation reached out over 7,000 miles commissioning and overseeing the completion of a new Sefer Torah as a gift to our Mountainous Jewish synagogue in Baku, Azerbaijan. The spirit and generous heart of this beautiful congregation led by Rabbi David Wolpe is surely a record of goodness that took place in this year, of reaching across the borders of life to create a new place of family and harmony.

Moreover, we should look to the important support we received from Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of the Pico Shul in Los Angeles, who opened his compassionate heart and synagogue in February, to honor, with his congregation as well as Azerbaijanis of California, the innocent victims of the brutal Khojaly Massacre that was committed in 1992 against Azerbaijani civilians in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. In this powerful memorial, Jews from Los Angeles showed that by uniting both Jews and Muslims in a collective experience of tolerance and shared sacrifice, we can overcome a future laced with tragedy. This kind of care and bravery is surely something to remember for what we can do better in the next year.

And I remember, with much joy and pride, receiving the scores of Azerbaijani Mountainous Jews currently residing in New York, who visited Azerbaijan, their eternal homeland of peace and happiness. For Jews from America to peacefully travel to their Muslim-majority homeland is very different from what most Jews of eastern nations can experience. These pilgrimages have happened frequently for many years now, not only out of New York or Israel, but also from many other countries where Azerbaijani Jews live.

I was able to carry this message as well through my travels around the world. In addition to the Los Angeles visit, I also traveled this year to Italy, Germany, and France, to share the message of interfaith peace that has been such a success here in my country for thousands of years, but more important than the historical, it is working now. There are so many troubled places around the world today, and it is my dream to share this example of what is REALLY WORKING, with other nations and people everywhere, to help create better world for the generations to come.

We must also share in the joy of what we did successfully and what was inspired by a place of elevation. What we can do now is take from these learnings and see what more can be done and use these avenues that are presented to us, and make something together that is bigger and better than ourselves.

From our community in Azerbaijan to all Jews across the world: Shana Tova U’metuka. May you have a good new year, and may it be filled with sweetness. May we all learn to spread that sweetness further in the world than ever before.

Cambodia’s killing fields revisited

I can vividly remember the first time I visited the Museum of Tolerance, in seventh grade. Not personally knowing anyone who had survived the Holocaust, I had been shielded from the grisly details of World War II. Simon Wiesenthal’s museum showed how horrible the Holocaust actually was and left me appalled for days.

I had a very similar experience this summer when I visited Cambodia with Rustic Pathways, a company that takes students to the underdeveloped regions of the world to participate in various community-service outreach programs. After hearing the chairman of Rustic Pathways, David Venning, speak about the genocide sites of Cambodia, I knew that some way or another I would get myself on his trip. I had originally planned to go to the northern region of Thailand, but the day before I left I changed my plans and set out for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

In 1975, during the Vietnam War, an extremist communist party, the Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia. Pol Pot, its leader, planned to turn Cambodia into an example of Maoist Communism. His vision was to get rid of all intellectuals and to have everyone work as farmers and live equally. During this takeover, the Khmer government trafficked many people out of the cities and into the farmlands. Those who were deemed dangerous to the government (the educated, the ruling class and just about anyone with a different point of view), were systematically tortured in the notorious S-21 building and killed in mass graves, which became known as the killing fields.

While in Cambodia, we visited the killing fields and S-21 (Toul Sleng), a high school that was turned into a security prison. S-21 is located in an average neighborhood, and from a distance looks like a normal school building.

But as soon as I approached, I noticed the barbed wire along the walls. Once inside it was evident what a horrible place it really was. Each room still had the torturing tools lying on the floor, while in the hallway I could still see dried blood on the floor. Every time I entered a new room, feelings of uneasiness, sadness and detestation overcame me.

And the final rooms of the prison were filled with the pictures of the prisoners. Every single person had a look of misery and emptiness. Pictures of the prisoners that hung on the walls not only honored the victims, but put a face to the genocide; those in S-21 were tortured and interrogated and sent to the killing fields after a few days. In the end, no one escaped or survived Toul Sleng.

The killing fields are located a short distance away from S-21. It was hard for me to imagine how tens of thousands of innocent people could be systematically killed and buried in mass graves in a field that is only a couple of acres. The field is so small that I had to maneuver my way through the small paths that surrounded the mass graves.

These mass graves are very similar to those of World War II. The people were ordered to dig their own graves and as soon as they finished, they were summarily killed and buried. But instead of shooting the prisoners, in Cambodia they would execute them with everything from hammers to sharpened tree branches. There are still bones half-buried in the ground and piles of clothes next to the graves.

In the center of the field there is a stupa, a memorial for all who were killed during Pol Pot’s rule, towering over the undeveloped region. This tower, however, is filled with thousands and thousands of human skulls. I understood that I was standing in the exact place where so many were killed senselessly.

These fields have been compared to Auschwitz, and even though I have never visited that sight, I could imagine that one would get a very similar feeling. An estimated 1.7 million people died under Pol Pot’s rule alone. This number might not seem comparable to the 6 million Jews lost in the Holocaust, but in reality 21 percent of the population was wiped out in just four years. The systematic killings have left their mark on the Cambodian people — it is almost impossible to find more than a few people over the age of 60 in a single day in Phnom Pen.

It may appear that Southeast Asia is finally recovering, but if you take a closer look, you notice that many things have not changed. For the past 20 years, the Burmese government has been burning hill tribe villages and carrying out an “ethnic cleansing.” Burma’s Karen, Shan and Karenni people have been targeted because they refuse to concede power to the government. This genocide is not well known because the Burmese government conducts all of its attacks in secret and does not let any information leave the country.

So, in response, the best thing that you can do is spread the word.

Elie Wiesel put it best: “None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness…. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Phillip Nazarian in the 11th grade at Brentwood School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Multifaith clergy dialogue in the name of peace

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance recently assembled three of the world’s great religious leaders for a multifaith dialogue, a rabbi, a priest, an archbishop and the president of the world’s largest Muslim nation confronted the greatest current obstacle to world peace: religion.

“Today, we would have to say that the threat to world peace in many cases, tragically, emanates from those who claim that they speak in the name of God,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, told a group of distinguished spiritual and political leaders who gathered at the museum on May 5 (for a roundtable discussion). Packed into a small, dark conference room on the upper level of the museum, a group of dignitaries determined to combat global intolerance and violence proved that although there are hard questions to answer, dialogue is a key component in elucidating what different faith communities have in common.

The center brought together Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia; Lord George Carey of Clifton, archbishop of Canterbury emeritus; and the Rev. Patrick Desbois of France, to bestow them each with medals of valor for their humanitarian work, presented at the center’s National Tribute Dinner on May 6, which also honored Hollywood heavyweight Amy Pascal.

“As you recognize the strength of someone else’s faith, you may recover greater confidence in your own,” said Carey, who has devoted his life to bridging the gap between Islam and the western world. At the behest of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, he established the Alexandria Process, an initiative that coalesces Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders for peacemaking efforts in the Holy Land. But in 2004, during a four-day conference in Cairo, Egypt, moments of stark divisiveness prompted some leaders to walk away from the table.

Carey once found himself at a similar crossroads when the Anglican Church, over which he presided for more than a decade, voted to divest from doing business with Israel. But instead of walking away, Carey publicly criticized the Church of England for aligning themselves with one cause over another.

“How can we promote peace if we take sides?” Carey asked.

“The real test is to have a dialogue that works from our own attachment to our own faith, but at the same time, from a very deep understanding of other faiths.”

The problem that we face, he said, is not merely that the issues are challenging, but that many influential leaders remain silent in their stead.

Although the assembly praised Carey’s message, many wondered how to engage with a leader like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who openly denounces the Jewish state — and isn’t exactly a candidate for friendly dialogue. Avoiding the question, Carey downplayed the longevity of political leaders and suggested starting at the local level by building relationships with Iranian citizens.

Which is precisely what Wahid, who served as president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001, has been doing within his country. Since 1984, when he became head of Nahdlatul Ulama, an umbrella organization overseeing 14,000 Muslim madrasas that serve as the center of study for Muslim theology, he began reforming the nation’s largest educational and social welfare system. He engaged in a public denunciation of Holocaust denial in the Muslim world and convened a multifaith conference where, for the first time, a Holocaust survivor delivered personal testimony that was broadcast throughout the Arab world on Al Hurra satellite TV.

While Wahid has built bridges among different faiths, the obstacle that remains is narrowing the gender divide perpetuated by Islam.

Working closely with his wife, Nuriyah Wahid, a staunch advocate for women’s rights in Indonesia, the former first couple intends to change the culture of Muslim theology, beginning with the Quran.

“To this point the Quran has been interpreted by men,” Nuriyah Wahid said through a translator at the museum’s afternoon reception. “The Quran itself does not distinguish between men and women, and men are using their interpretation to promote their own interests. This has to be straightened out.”

The importance of tolerance and openness in today’s increasingly intolerant world was the theme of the dinner the following day, where a mix of Hollywood denizens, Holocaust survivors, politicians and the center’s wealthy donors gathered for the award ceremony in the ballroom of the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel.

At the event, $2 million was raised for the Wiesenthal Center, which recently inaugurated the museum’s newest addition, a life-size replica of Simon Wiesenthal’s office from Vienna.

After a short presentation on his support for Israel, Rabbi Hier introduced a frail and wheelchair-bound Wahid, who received a standing ovation.

“If we as a people are dedicated to openness, we have to recognize Israel — there is no other way,” said a weak-voiced Wahid, who was scheduled to attend a press conference in Israel following his visit to Los Angeles.

With a captive audience, Pascal, the Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair, said she was “daunted” by the honorees before her. She shared her vision of Hollywood as an industry that values collective responsibility — a medium that entertains, but also tells the truth.

“Being a good Jew means supporting people and causes not when it’s in our self interest,” she said. “Survival is a privilege that entails obligation. Every day God gives us the opportunity to do the right thing and at least one day, we should take it.”

Our place in this world

The ancient rabbis were astute psychologists. They reflected on the inner life, not through theories, but through narratives, especially their analyses of and
speculations on the narratives in the Torah.

Let’s take a look at a bit of rabbinic commentary on one brief, strange and violent passage from this week’s Torah portion (I am translating as close to the Hebrew as possible — in the original, it is a jarring text):

“The son of an Israelite woman — he was the son of an Egyptian among the Israelites — went out and they fought in the camp — the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man. And he blasphemed — the son of the Israelite woman — and he cursed, and they brought him before Moses. His mother’s name was Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan. And they put him under guard, to clarify God’s word” (Leviticus 24:10-12).

God’s word was made very clear in the next verse: Moses orders the man who blasphemed to be stoned to death. And then from that incident, the law was made clear — blasphemers shall bear their sin and be executed. The reader, however, is left unsettled. What is not made clear is what drove this man to suicide by execration. Why did he blaspheme, knowing what the likely result would be? Put in a larger perspective, why do any of us do the destructive things we do?

The Midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Torah) addresses the question as to why this man blasphemed by starting back in the story of Moses, when he went out from the palace to be among his people, saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite, and then killed that Egyptian taskmaster. According to the Midrash, there is a backstory.

One day this Egyptian taskmaster sent the Israelites out to work, and when they left, he raped one of their wives — this was Shlomit bat Divri (the mother of the blasphemer). Her husband, the Midrash tells us, came back home unexpectedly, and discovered the Egyptian taskmaster leaving his home. The surprised taskmaster began beating the Israelite man mercilessly — that is when Moses stepped in, killing the Egyptian. Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan bore the son of the Egyptian.

Years later, the Israelites were commanded to organize themselves under the banners of the various tribes. When the son of Shlomit attempted to muster with the tribe of Dan, he was rejected — the law says “by your fathers’ houses.” The son of Shlomit was a Danite by his mother, not his Egyptian father, so was not eligible to be part of the tribe of Dan. He took the case to Moses, who had to reject the claim — the law, given by God, was clear: tribal identity is established through the father.

And then, one of the Midrashim tells us, he “went out” of the court, got into a fight and cursed God’s name.

I find this version of the Midrash to be profound for many reasons. This version seems to focus on the tragedy into which he was cast — through no fault of his own, nor of his mother, he was an outsider in a system that had no place for him.

Tragedy may be understood as life unraveling, our lives going wrong. Some state of affairs for which we have yearned or to which we have become deeply attached, is taken from us. Tragedy is a subjective experience. No objective life circumstance determines completely how we will respond. I recall years ago when I used to teach a course at USC on the Holocaust, how surprised the students were to learn that going through the Holocaust was not determinative of a person’s religious beliefs. Some believers became atheists, some atheists became believers; for some, their religious views did not change drastically.

I have known people who have suffered what objectively might be described as relatively minor disappointments of ego, but who have not been able to grieve well. They attack others, life or God in a destructive fury. I know of others — certainly the wisest people I know — who seem to have a mature grasp on the rich and uneven textures of human life, who understand the stages and states of people and organizations, who are able to metabolize hurt with a knowing heart.

The son of Shlomit, it seems, could not bear his exclusion, his being stigmatized any longer — he ended up hating the Divine. I see him as I think the ancient rabbis saw him — as being deeply attached to something he could not have: to be accepted, to find his place, his home.

Even more deeply, perhaps, the ancient rabbis were ruminating on a tension of their own. How does a tradition so focused in ethnicity and lineage find a place for the outsider? As they created the Midrash about the son of Shlomit, the ancient rabbis were very likely expressing their struggle as they witnessed the psychological pain of the outsiders whom they certainly encountered.

This Midrash takes me in two directions: As an individual, I ask myself: How do I deal with grief and personal tragedy? If I were the son of Shlomit, would I be able to understand things philosophically and say that the tradition was not yet able to find a place in the tribal system for those born of non-Israelite fathers? Would I be a rational and patient voice for change, or would I strike out in anger?

As a Jewish community leader, I have to ask myself whether the community I lead works hard to welcome strangers, those who are looking for a home. Judaism in America is doomed if synagogues don’t overcome their often stodgy and stiff attitude to newcomers and spiritual seekers.

These two dimensions of this little narrative are certainly alive today, as we seek to cope wisely with the tragedies that life deals us, and as we seek to create welcoming and healing communities where the wisdom of our tradition is brought to bear in our lives.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and professor of liturgy, mysticism and professional skills at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Jews must never use the term ‘shvartza’

The other day I was speaking to an engaging young Chasidic student who impressed me with his erudition in Jewish and secular studies.

I was engrossed in the conversation, gaining more and more respect for him, when he suddenly said, “Where I grew up, we lived in a tough neighborhood surrounded by shvartzas.” Hearing his words broke my heart, and my impression of him plummeted.

A friend with whom I discussed the incident told me that I judged the young man too harshly, that he might have meant nothing by it, and that it was just an expression to which he had been acclimated.

He asked me that, rather than judge this student, I lend him the benefit of the doubt and attempt instead to educate him as to why the term ought never be used.

About a year ago I wrote a column about how the word “shvartza” must be retired forever. It is an insulting, offensive, and derogatory term that has no place in the mouths of people committed to ethics.

And since we Jews have a faith that demands the highest moral standards, it simply can never be part of our lexicon.

In the wake of that column, I was surprised to find that a number of people — religious and secular alike — wrote that I was exaggerating. “Shvartza,” they said, was an innocent and benign term that simply meant “black person.”

It doesn’t. It’s a pejorative, a term with a distinctly condescending connotation. While I will not go so far as to agree with my esteemed former radio co-host, Peter Noel, one of America’s leading African American journalists, that it is Yiddish for the “N” word, I will say that it has some of the same vibes.

My purpose in addressing this issue again is not to sound holier than thou or be self-righteous. Believe me, I am the worst person I know. But when I hear the term I feel pain. Pain that we Jews who have suffered so much persecution can be so callous as to speak condescendingly, however unintentionally, of other human beings. And pain that we religious Jews in particular can so betray our core values by inadvertently coming across as bigots.

I once found myself in an argument with a fellow Orthodox Jew, who lived in Brooklyn, after I had politely shared with him why the term “shvartza” is offensive: “It’s OK for you to criticize, Shmuley, because you don’t live in a neighborhood where you have to be afraid to walk the streets or where your car gets vandalized every night. We don’t mean anything bad with the term, but we are the victims here.”

But what do the sins of a few have to do with criminalizing an entire population? And isn’t this tactic of blaming an entire community not only racist, but exactly what is used today against Jews by the worst anti-Semites?

How many Jew-haters will harp on a few high-profile white-collar criminals from Wall Street or Enron who are Jewish to reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes such as “scratch a Jew and find a Shylock?”

Jews are called by the Torah to be a light unto the nations, and it is religious Jews in particular, who live lives openly committed to Jewish ritual and values, upon whom this responsibility first devolves. But what light is it that we impart when we use a term of vulgarity that betrays the Torah’s most sacred value, that there is only one God in heaven who created every human being in His likeness.

And just think how people who are unfamiliar with Jews must react when they hear any of us using an unpleasant expression about a fellow human being.

Bigotry is least appealing among those whose lives should be most dedicated to its opposite. If you can love giant ducks and outsized rodents, then surely you can find a place in your heart for your human brother who goes by the title Jew.

How much more so that we Jews, a righteous and generous people, whose Torah calls us to the mighty ideal of loving our neighbor as ourselves, must never speak of another person contemptuously. How much more so that Orthodox Jews in particular, who are renowned the world over for their charity, humility, and loving-kindness must be extra vigilant never to offer even a hint of discriminatory language.

The speeches of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright have caused considerable consternation to the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama. Obama has eloquently expressed the need for America to transcend red state and blue state divisiveness and come together for shared national purpose. People expect that his pastor should be at least as loving, that men of God should be especially careful with their words.

But Wright has given speeches that have put rifts over reconciliation and generated heat rather than healing. The same is true of Louis Farrakhan, whom Wright has praised, even though he is guilty of hate speech against Jews and Judaism.

Our moral authority to condemn such insensitive and inflammatory rhetoric is dependent upon us being utterly different in thought, speech, and action.

Who better than Jews and blacks know what it is to suffer? And who better than Jews and blacks know that there can be no tolerance for intolerance? And who better than Jews and blacks must come together to battle bigotry, defeat discrimination, and generate good will among all of God’s children?

Blacks and Jews share not only a common history of oppression, but a common legacy of spiritual longing and a love for the eloquence of the Bible. Let us find words that will draw our communities together and a vocabulary that will instill a common faith and a common hope.

Diversity lost

Forgive me for going on about this. I keep promising myself I’ll stop being outraged, turn off the radio and stop reading the papers. But if you’ll permit me one more question here:

Whatever happened to the Democrats being the party of tolerance and diversity?

These days, it’s gotten so people are afraid to say they still support Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y). They wait till they know if you’re a comrade before they say anything at all, and even then, they lower their voice and lean closer, as if confessing to some tell-tale mark of moral depravity, some innate but previously undetected propensity for corruption and vice and — God forbid — ambition.

She’s shameless she’ll stop at nothing to win she’s destroying the party Bill has lost it he’s playing the race card she should just go away and let Obama win.

All this from fellow Democrats, and I’m standing there thinking, Al Sharpton is threatening marches and demonstrations throughout the country if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) doesn’t get the nomination. African American superdelegates who had pledged support to Hillary months ago and haven’t changed their mind are getting threatening messages from anonymous Obama supporters, something like 90 percent of the African American vote is for Obama and we blame Bill and Hillary — up until recently embraced by the African American community, Bill having been called “our first black president” by Toni Morrison — for bringing race into the equation?

Something like 14 million Democrats have voted for Hillary, given her their time and money, placed in her candidacy so many of their hopes and aspirations, and yet we blame her for the fact that the primaries have taken as long as they have?

If we have to find someone to blame, why not blame the Democratic Party’s proportional system? Michigan and Florida for breaking rules and being made to sit in a corner? Hell, why not blame Obama for getting into the race in the first place? Or the superdelegates who won’t declare themselves until they’re good and sure which side their bread is buttered on?

The notion that Hillary (or anyone else, for that matter, who still has the resources and the stamina and the faith to stay in the race) should just “go away” so that another candidate can coast to victory smacks of a sense of entitlement that, I dare say, is more suitable to a monarchical system than a democratic one. So does the argument that Obama’s record or abilities should not be scrutinized, held to the same high or low standards as those of other candidates throughout history. He’s been called a “unifier” and a “post-racial” candidate, and whatever little chink has appeared in his glossy image is being blamed on the fact that Hillary “just won’t go away.”

Are we electing a candidate based on his or her ability to lead the country, or are we crowning a king who looks good in pictures and who is above criticism, examination and challenge?

But the questions that have been raised about Obama in the past few weeks are ones that would have surfaced with time — during the primaries or the general elections. The fact that he became a phenomenon as quickly and unexpectedly as he did perhaps delayed the kind of scrutiny that other candidates are subjected to. But it seems to me that Obama supporters are doing exactly what Bush voters did in the last two elections: back him because he’s raised the most money; is likable and charming (I cringe when I say that, but there’s no accounting for taste); and promises them the world — No Child Left Behind, democracy in the Middle East, a permanent Republican majority.

True, there is a sense among young Democrats that Obama represents them better than an establishment candidate like Hillary. There’s equally a sense within the African American community that “our time has come.” Fair enough. They’re all entitled to their sentiments and entitled to support Obama as much as they want.

But by the same token, there is a sense among some of us woman folk in our 40s and 50s that our time has come, as well — that Hillary is the one female candidate with the brawn and the brain and the money and whatever else it takes to have a realistic chance at the presidency. That were she to lose — and I grant you, that seems more and more likely — there won’t be a female president in our lifetime. This may not seem like a big deal to our daughters’ generation, for whom women’s rights’ issues seem quaint. They’re energized by Obama’s message and the rock-star rallies. Fair enough. Go ahead and vote for him if you want, I say. Just don’t tell me that it’s OK to pick your candidate because he’s African American or young or a good speaker, but that it’s a betrayal of the party and a ruinous choice to pick her because she’s a woman who we believe is qualified.

Call me cynical, but I like Hillary in spite of the fact that she’s not Florence Nightingale. I think she’s as ethical or unethical as anyone else who has managed to navigate the treacherous waters leading to candidacy. On one level, I believe Gore Vidal when he said: “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.” I think that applies as much to Hillary as it does to Obama or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that, again in the words of Vidal, “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he’s been bought 10 times over.”

Yet, every time she’s attacked by the other Democrats in the media, every time a superdelegate previously pledged to her switches sides, every time New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson smirks into the camera and bashes Hillary in order to ride on Obama’s coattails (sorry, Bill, we all know the benefits of betting on a winner), anytime she digs her heels in and promises to keep going, I feel a sense of pride.

Here’s a woman who fights for what she wants to the bitter end; who doesn’t abandon her own dreams and the faith of people who have voted for her; who has the daring and the ambition to do what no other woman has been able to do in this country. And if that inconveniences anyone else — superdelegates, party bosses or Mr. Obama — it’s nothing that hasn’t been done, every election cycle in memory, by men.

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

Organize now against oppression in Burma

We never hear much about Burma, officially known today as Myanmar, until it’s too late. Take, for example, last fall. Crimson-robed monks marched peacefully in the streets of Rangoon, making the case for democratic reforms and human rights.

The monks’ nonviolent approach and well-argued appeals were met by beatings, imprisonment and even death — not all that surprising from a country whose military dictatorship has ruled with an iron fist. Burma — a country roughly the size of Texas and with a population of some 50 million people — manages to put some of the better-known human rights violators to shame.

But when those powerful images dropped off the front pages of newspapers and news sites, they also seemed to drop from our consciousness.

That is unconscionable. Under the current junta, the regime has perpetrated a coordinated program of ethnic cleansing that relies on rape as a weapon of terror, while destroying more than 3,200 villages (displacing far more than 1 million people) and conscripting more than 70,000 child soldiers (putting it literally at the top of the list for any country).

In the meantime, Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightfully elected leader of Burma, whose party won 82 percent of the seats in Parliament, has spent roughly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. Rather than transforming her nation through her vision and a commitment to nonviolent change, she has been unjustly imprisoned.

So why am I writing this now, when the world’s attention is on issues like the tragedy unfolding in Darfur or the fight for political independence in Tibet? The simple answer is that as important as those two issues are — and they both are of the utmost importance and are deserving of a great deal of our support and attention — there is something so simple about the issues in Burma.

Among other things, there is fact that the Suu Kyi has the distinction of being the only Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was prevented from ever accepting her prize. She earned another honor on April 24, when she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Congress.

What can we do? About a month ago, my friend Jack Healey, a former Franciscan priest, told me about his idea to create a new kind of celebrity-based public service announcement to take the case for Burma to the public. Healey is no beginner when it comes to mobilizing big names. I met him nearly 20 years ago when he was executive director of Amnesty International in the United States. At the time, he had pulled together some of the biggest artists of the decade — Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Police, Peter Gabriel — to embark on a world tour intended to raise the issue of human rights and to put Amnesty International in the public consciousness.

Healey and Jeremy Woodrum, who runs the U.S. Campaign for Burma, have devoted their lives to fighting for the people of Burma, trying to rescue the country from the overbearing grip of a military junta and a violent dictator.

I volunteered to help. In the last month, we’ve managed to put together a campaign of 30 television and Internet spots, shot by and starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names, with the hope that their messages will reach not only millions of Americans but also the rank-and-file soldiers in Burma, who may not even realize how closely the world is looking at the atrocities many of them are carrying out on everyday citizens and, especially, monks.

Our campaign relies on internationally recognized athletes, actors, directors, writers and musicians to address what is happening today in Burma. We are running the spots on our Web site (www.fanista.com), as well as a host of other online distribution sites, trying to drive a million people to sign a virtual petition at www.burmaitcantwait.org.

We have just finished marking Passover, a holiday that demands of us to both celebrate our freedom and fight for the oppressed. It is incumbent on all of us who live in this great country, who have been blessed with the freedoms of democracy, religious tolerance and equal rights for all, to do anything we can to ensure that others — be they within our own communities or on the other side of the world — enjoy those same freedoms.

We are, as I heard Rabbi Elazar Muskin say over Pesach, a “people of hope.” That sense of hope not only allows us to dream of a better and more just world but also obligates us to do what we can to make those conditions a reality. May all of our efforts help achieve those goals for Suu Kyi and the people of Burma and for all oppressed people, wherever they may be.

Dan Adler is the Founder and CEO of “>Human Rights Action Center and the

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Beit T’Shuvah, Jewish/Arab day schools, Charlton Heston

Beit T’Shuvah

I would like to thank you for printing “Rescuing Jewish Addicts — A Day in the Life at Beit T’Shuvah” by Roberto Loiederman (April 25).

The article is so well written, and it’s so important that our community knows that an agency of our Federation is serving those who need help with addiction struggles.

In addition to services mentioned, Beit T’Shuvah (BTS) also serves the community with a Partners in Prevention program that goes into day schools, camps and synagogues. This outreach program teaches Judaism as a path to promote self-acceptance, self-worth, spiritual values and family harmony.

The residents and alumni of BTS have also joined together in creating an insightful musical performance event called. “Freedom Song,” which communicates their common experiences with addiction and the growth they’ve experienced with the life-giving support of BTS. The group has performed the show locally and throughout the United States, receiving overwhelming support, interest and rave reviews.

As a BTS board member, I’m so proud of the wonderful staff and volunteers and the progress of the residents, and am so grateful that you’ve brought attention to BTS’s efforts toward the healing of Jewish souls.

Annette Shapiro
Los Angeles

Drug Law

Punishing victimless drug crimes exceeds the standard for retributive punishment established in the Scriptures (“Addiction Debate: Legalization, Medication or Therapy?” April 25).

Exodus 21:23, “life for life”; 24, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”; 25, “burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

Punishing the victimless crime of drug use violates the law of God by inflicting injury where there was no injury to another. Drug use murders no one, blinds no one, no teeth have been knocked out and no maiming has occurred, so where’s the godly authorization for enforcing drug prohibition.

Nowhere in God’s word is there any commandment to ban drug use. Victimless drug convictions often bring more prison time than for armed robbery, beating someone to death in a fight, detonating a bomb in an aircraft or providing weapons to support a foreign terrorist organization. The maximum sentence for all those crimes together is less than the mandatory minimum under sentencing rules for many victimless drug crimes. Drug war punishments clearly violate the eye-for-an-eye principle stated in the law of God.

Upholding a drug crusade that violates God’s ordinances is doomed to failure.

Ralph Givens
Daly City

I commend you on a well-written and well-thought out piece. What few people realize is that the drug laws were lunacy from the very beginning. Modern people assume that the drug laws were passed for a good reason. They weren’t.

Opium smoking was originally outlawed because of the fear that Chinese men were luring white women to have sex in opium dens.

Cocaine was outlawed because of the fear that superhuman Negro cocaine fiends would go on a violent rampage and rape white women and shoot white men.
Caffeine was almost outlawed at the same time for the same reasons. The only reason caffeine escaped prohibition is because it is found in so many common foods.

In the past 100 years, there have been numerous major government commissions around the world that have studied the drug laws and made recommendations for changes. They all concluded that the drug laws were based on ignorance and nonsense and cause more harm than good.

The full text of these reports can be found at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer under Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy.

Clifford Schaffer
Director
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy

Jewish/Arab Day Schools

I would like to encourage Rabbi Daniel Gordis to keep an open mind when it comes to educating Israeli Arab and Jewish children together (“Debra Winger Explores Jewish/Arab Day Schools,” April 25).

Each of our four award-winning schools is a community of humanitarians dedicated to laying a foundation for a real and lasting peace in Israel.

Our teachers respect and celebrate each child’s heritage, and our Jewish students, who because they interact daily with the “other,” are forced to develop an even stronger sense of their own identity. Our parents are gratified because they are raising the next generation of leaders who might just be able to do what government officials have been unable to do thus far: find a peaceful way to coexist in Israel.

In addition, I’d ask Gordis to read our groundbreaking curriculum, which is sensitive to educating children from varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. Our curriculum is so successful that it is now in demand from other countries around the world as an innovative model on how to teach conflict resolution to children.

I appreciate Gordis’ view that perhaps we should wait until high school or college to teach “competing national narratives,” but until there is another viable plan for peace, I — and many others — believe as Gandhi did: “If we are to teach real peace in the world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”

Julie I. Bram
Board Member
American Friends of Hand in Hand

Charlton Heston

What is Tom Tugend’s basis for stating that Charlton Heston was “reviled by most American Jews” as an arch conservative (“Charlton Heston, Oscar Winner and Advocate, Dies at 84,” April 11)?

Even if it is true that most American Jews revile the NRA’s policies, to assume that we would also revile the man doesn’t give us much credit. I would hope and think that most American Jews, like most other Americans, are fair-minded people who can disagree with someone on an issue, even strongly, and still respect them.

Ben Schwartz
Calabasas

Hydrogen Fuel

The C.En hydrogen-based transportation invention appears to be little more than another fuel-cell battery (“

Ex-JDL member urges faith without fanaticism

Brad Hirschfield was a member of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), the militant organization bent on fighting anti-Semitism. He spent time with JDL leader Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Israeli political party was banned for racism and who was assassinated in 1990. By the time Hirschfield was 18 and studying at yeshiva in Israel, he was entrenched with the Gush Emunim in Hebron — Israelis intent on establishing settlements in the midst of the Palestinian population. There, Hirschfield found the passion and Zionist commitment he’d craved during his childhood in Chicago, where he became Orthodox on his own, despite his Conservative Jewish family.

But after a few years, when some settlers killed Palestinian children in retaliation for violence, it all fell apart.

“I was stunned by their deaths,” he wrote more than two decades later in his memoir, “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism” (Harmony Books, Random House, 2007). “When I sought the advice of one of their settlement leaders, he said, ‘Yes, this is a problem, but it is not a fundamental problem.’ That was when I knew something horrible had happened.

Staying in Hebron was destroying the very things that brought us there: the desire to take back power and walk the land our ancestors had. These are good things. But even the best things have limits. A lesson that I learned in Hebron was that the best things can become the most seductive — and deadly.”

The book is not called “Confessions of a Former Fanatic,” although that is what one publisher wanted — a memoir about leaving the extremist life. But that notion did not appeal to Hirschfield, who is now a rabbi and president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The book is not a confessional tell-all — his life as an extremist and the fallout from that is discussed in snippets, as asides. In fact, it was a different extreme event that made him decide to write the book: Sept. 11.

“After 9/11 I felt that I wanted to explain the religious impulse at its most extreme, to dig into the anatomy of fanaticism, really to probe the destructive tendencies that are part of all religions,” he wrote. “After years of simply avoiding any real examination of that part of my life, it was time to come clean and share my journey into and out of fierce faith precisely because, unlike most people who make that journey, it had left me still in love with what I left behind.”

Which is why Hirschfield’s not looking to fan the flames of extremism, hate and finger-pointing. He’s looking to bring the heat down a notch, with a prescription for how people on all sides of every argument can learn to hear each other out: “That is finally what I want this book to be: a guide to our common humanity and a source of strength and stamina and hope.”

“Look, there is a way to be passionate and proud of who you are and still embrace who others may be, even when it disagrees with who they are: that’s what this is about,” Hirschfield said in an interview from The Jewish Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, where he was about to give a lecture on the subject to different agency workers.

Federation members are also guilty of the them-and-us syndrome, he said, regarding people as insiders and outsiders.

“We spend money on studying ‘Are they coming in’ and not, ‘What do they need?'” Outsiders, he said, “don’t understand that without the institutions there is no community.”

But his book is not about addressing problems in institutional Jewish life — or Jewish life specifically. Belief.net has listed the book on its Christian site, and Hirschfield gives talks to Christian groups as well. It’s not even just about religion.

“This is about liberals and Conservatives and Republicans and Democrats,” he said, adding that tt’s about relationships of all sorts, from marital relations to global politics.

“The real issue is not to get everyone to agree, but how do you treat people with whom you don’t agree?” he said. “That is the test of a great society. You’re not Jewish because Christians are stupid, you don’t go to your shul because God doesn’t hear everyone else’s prayers. It’s a terrible way to think. That is simply cover for not being happy where you are,” he said. “Whatever person or ideology one really opposes — I understand that they’re not all equal — but even if you give me the worst one, there’s no way to teach someone what you most believe if you don’t learn from what they most believe.”

But aren’t the very people who need to ascribe to this approach the very fanatics who are probably not going to?

No such thing, Hirschfield says; everyone can learn tolerance and respect. “People pick their lines,” he said. “Traditionalists wrap it up in God’s will but liberals wrap it up in decency.”

For example, while Reform and Conservative Jews accept gay marriage, “Try and be a person who is opposed to gay ordination — that’s not so easy,” he said. Or on the subject of God, “the assertion that God is nonexistent is about as absurd as someone who says, ‘Of course God exists, and I can say what he wants.'”

Hirschfield is trying to do for religion what mediation has done for conflict resolution: instead of pitting the sides against each other with lawyers in a court of law, draining the resources of both sides until someone “wins” (where both parties really may lose), mediators find common ground between two sides and get them to come to agreement.

Easier said than done. How would one go about doing this?

Who was Moses? Oh wait, I think I know that one…

Stephen Prothero, author of the new book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-And Doesn’t” and chair of the religion department at Boston University showed up on “The Daily Show” recently, hawking the fact that his book contains a quiz to test the reader’s “religious literacy.” Which raises the questions: Can a 15-question quiz test religious literacy?

Should we gauge religious literacy in this way?

As a divinity school student, I understand that Prothero, a professor of religious studies, is not advocating a simple solution to the problem of American religious illiteracy. His book is meant as a starting point for Americans; but with what aim?

In the book’s introduction, Prothero insists that religious literacy is a “civic enterprise,” and citizens should be sufficiently educated on religion(s) to be capable of taking part in “religiously inflected public debates.”

Every important moment in American history was influenced by religion and religious values, including the Civil War, the fight against slavery and the civil rights movement. To understand our history requires that we understand religion. But Prothero fails to acknowledge that he means “Christianity” rather than “religion.” This misuse of religion (in general) where Christianity (specifically) should be used is rampant throughout his book.

His first chapter gives some troubling statistics: only one-third of American adults surveyed know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; most couldn’t name the first book of the Bible; and only half of American adults could name one of the four gospels. Interestingly enough, evangelical Christians performed only moderately better than other Christians on the survey. (Prothero hopes to demonstrate Americans’ religious illiteracy by demonstrating their Christian illiteracy; again we see his Christian-centric tendencies.)

At first these statistics seemed somewhat drastic. Can Americans be so biblically uninformed? But an anecdote from my recent Birthright trip to Israel seems to support the case. One night, as we gathered in a desert tent, some of my fellow (Jewish) travelers asked me, the divinity school student and (apparent) resident expert on all things religious, to give them a crash course in Judaism.

“Who was Moses, again?” one woman asked.

Maybe Prothero’s depressing snapshot of Americans is accurate.

But Prothero’s attack on religious tolerance isn’t accurate. He laments how the push for tolerance “obscured” the differences between faiths and set us on the dark and doomed path toward “religious amnesia.” Americans chose to “jettison particulars” between traditions in order to bow down to the “altar of tolerance.” However, religious tolerance doesn’t require watering down traditions. Rather, recognizing similarity among traditions is merely the starting point for learning about different faiths.

It is easier to think that Islam, Judaism and Christianity all worship the same God than to recognize the deep differences among them; but we don’t need to stop there in our religious education.

Prothero’s attack on tolerance doesn’t recognize the very basic ways in which we make sense of differences. Since “(il)literacy” is academia’s new buzz word for religious issues, I want to examine the question of religious education through the metaphor of linguistic literacy.

When I started learning Spanish, I constantly translated what I heard or read into English. My ability to understand without immediate translation slowly improved. Finally, after many years, I studied in Spain. I found myself writing in my journal in a mix of Spanish and English — what a glorious yet hard-won moment.

Comparing religious literacy to the experience of linguistic literacy, Prothero’s downplay of traditions’ commonalities is problematic. How can a person learn without making connections to his or her own faith or life? If language learning is any indication, we must have some shared points in order to move forward, so we may eventually be fluent. Language programs don’t expect students to be fluent from the beginning; why should we expect that from religious learning?

The more important question is: how do we recognize religious literacy? Perhaps we will be religiously literate when we no longer need to translate a new faith into our own terms. When we can think in the language of a new faith, then we will be religiously literate in that particular faith-language; but again, common terms are a great starting point on the path toward literacy.

An observant Jew can begin to understand the experience of Ramadan by considering the experience of the Yom Kippur fast; of course, there is still much to learn about Ramadan, and it differs from Yom Kippur in many ways. A Jew who is religiously literate in Islam becomes so when he or she no longer needs to look for some similarity in Judaism when facing Islamic practices.

We must try to become literate in the languages of diverse traditions. While Prothero acknowledges that we cannot speak a general language but must instead choose just one, he doesn’t explain the importance of this choice. He stresses the differences between religions while insisting on the need for basic “religious literacy.” It seems more helpful to know how to speak one language fluently than to know how to ask for the bathroom in seven. If we don’t have time to become literate in multiple traditions, then a more narrow but thorough focus is best.

The “civic enterprise” is best served when we can speak intelligently about our own faith, and use that faith as a way to begin to understand other faiths. Of course, the more languages we acquire, the better; but we can’t value the importance of basic religious knowledge above deep understanding.

Accepting that each religious tradition is its own complex language clarifies why Prothero’s quiz is troublesome. No student would consider herself literate in Spanish if she knew 15 Spanish words. Prothero acknowledges that his quiz and dictionary are only preliminary tools; yet the subtitle of the book insinuates that it provides the American reader with the necessary tools.

As stated in his introduction, Prothero aims to enable readers to discuss political issues involving religion in acceptable terms and appropriate language. This is not religious literacy. Perhaps the book’s title should be “How To Gain Very Basic Religious Fluency for Discussions on American Politics.”

Then again, I doubt such a book would have earned Prothero a spot on “The Daily Show.”

Alexis Gewertz is currently pursuing her master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and specializes in Judaism, Islam and religion in education.

When Ashkenazi and Persian worlds collide — community healing begins at shul

In March of 2001 I delivered the sermon abbreviated and reprinted here. Having been the rabbi at Sinai Temple for four years, it seemed time to straightforwardly address the tensions between the Persian and Ashkenazi communities.

Since that time, by dint of committees, school parents and children and genuine efforts, Sinai has managed to forge a largely integrated community.

In a comment not reproduced, I spoke about Esther’s transformation in the Purim story as a model for us. We have been transforming the synagogue to a beit knesset — a house of gathering for all Jews, a transformation which makes us proud.

I want to begin with two thought experiments. First, imagine your grandparents built a synagogue. Your parents grew up there and so did you. You knew the place and
loved it.

One day, a huge population of people with the same religion but a different culture and language joined. Suddenly you felt an alien in your own home. How would you feel?

Now imagine that tomorrow a catastrophe occurs and all the American Jews have to flee. Where do we go? We go to Israel.

As American Jews lacking the time, organization or inclination to build our own synagogues, we join existing ones in Israel. We bring, of course, our own language, our own customs, our own outlooks, and it’s not long before we hear our Israeli brothers and sisters say, “You know, this would be a good place if it weren’t for all those American Jews.”

We say to them, “But hey, we’re Jews, too.”

To which they answer, “You’re not our kind of Jews. You don’t speak our language, you don’t know our customs — you invaded our synagogue.”

If you can put yourself in the place of both groups in that thought experiment, then you know what has gone on over the past 20 years at Sinai Temple. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a big part of it. Both groups have felt aggrieved, and as a result, they have done what aggrieved people often do, which is to dig in.

And they have not given the time, the effort or, perhaps, the emotional sympathy to understand how the other side feels.

So I want to speak very frankly to both sides about how we should be and what we should do.

First of all, let’s recognize that there are differences. Sometimes these differences are painful. For example, Ashkenazim don’t like to hear from Persians that our families are a mess. But it’s true.

It’s not true of every American Jewish family, God knows, but I have to tell you, my father grew up in a house of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, and they were all together all the time.

We have no family in this city. And that’s true of almost every third-generation American I know. So when a Persian family says to an Ashkenazic family, “Look, we want our family around us. We’re afraid of losing the family structure we have. We don’t want our families to end up like American families,” we may be defensive, but they’re not wrong.

The Persian community may not be able to avoid the disintegrating family, but who can blame them for trying? Are there problems in Persian families?

Absolutely; I hear them in my office. Are there wonderful Ashkenazic families?

Yes, many. But one way of not being defensive is seeing ourselves realistically, too. And realistically, for all the blessings of America, this country has not been a blessing for the extended family.

On the other hand, to our Persian members: You must also realize that when you speak Farsi in this synagogue, this is what you are saying to your Ashkenazic fellow synagogue members, to your fellow Jews: “I do not care whether you understand my words. You are not invited to join this conversation, and that’s why, in part, I’m speaking a language you don’t understand.”

That may not be what you intend, but it is the inevitable message.

Some of these conversations are conducted by people who do not speak English.

That I understand. But if you do speak English and choose not to use English when there are other English speakers around you, it is a way of saying, “I don’t care if you understand me.” That is painful, it is exclusionary, and it is a shame.

To our Ashkenazic brothers and sisters: Some of the most disturbing, prejudiced and even racist remarks I have heard in the past several years have been directed against the Persian community by the Ashkenazic community. Every time I hear about how they do business, I think “That is what people say about Jews.”

How they do business. Now if you say to me, well there are members of the Persian community who are prejudiced, too, I have no quarrel with you. I’m sure you are right, but you know what? I can only change my own soul. I cannot change someone else’s. So before you begin to accuse others, ask yourself what you believe and what you know about others who are not like you.

In order for us to be a community — not an “us” and a “them” — we have to recognize certain things. The Ashkenazic side has to realize that this synagogue will never be the synagogue that it was 40 years ago. It is not going to happen.

It has changed, and if that gives you pause and gives you pain, I understand it, but the same thing is true of this country and of this world. To our Persian members, this was founded as an Ashkenazic synagogue, as you know, and the basic rites are true to that tradition. I am delighted you chose to join us, and presumably you did so because you want this kind of synagogue. There are mores and customs that will be different from the synagogues of your origin, and we ask you to support us in those.

When two communities merge, there is enough pain to go around. Nobody gets everything they want. It is not only called a synagogue. It is called life. Here is the crucial point: When I say I want one community, I mean it so much I am ready to tell you this: If you or your children or your grandchildren are not prepared to marry a member of the other community, then you do not belong in this synagogue.

The Schwartzes and me

When Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz gave his wife, Olivia, a surprise party for her 60th birthday in Mar Vista Park a few weeks ago, it was filled with the usual assortment of Schwartz family members and their devoted entourage.

Present were their 12 children, 24 grandchildren, friends (both religious and secular), fancy Hollywood powerbrokers and international celebrities.

Reggae/rock star Matisyahu was swinging his kids; Dov Rosenblatt, the newest Schwartz son-in-law, was on a park bench playing guitar with his band, Blue Fringe; high-level lawyers from Loeb and Loeb were plotting and planning with Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, talking about the next Shabbat on the Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival, which has become a well-attended annual event; and Rabbi Mashye Schwartz and Hindel Schwartz were teaching bites of Torah amid the gourmet food, served courtesy of son and Cordon Bleu chef Rabbi Josef Schwartz.

The afternoon was spent singing, dancing and learning Torah. It was the usual Schwartz family moveable feast — an island of inclusiveness and tolerance set amid what is often a divided and parochial L.A. Jewish community.

The Schwartzes are Lubavitch Chasidim. Twenty years ago they created the successful Chai Center, which they operate out of their home. The Schwartz home also serves as their corporate headquarters; shul; scene of weekly Shabbat dinners (advertised as “Dinner for 60 Strangers”); and classroom for the constant flow of groups that come to learn (Women’s Torah and Nails on Tuesdays!) or study with Olivia Schwartz or various high-level Torah scholars (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz or Rabbi Yitzak Ginsburg) who frequent the Schwartzes’ salon.

All these events — which are open to all who are lucky enough to know about them — are either free or require a minimal donation.

Their High Holiday services at the Writers Guild of America building in Beverly Hills are free, as are their Shabbat dinners.

Their open-minded tolerance and acceptance of any Jew who moves makes them all the more astonishing, whether hosting a large-scale event or offering comfort, sympathy and Olivia’s homemade challah to those who require it.

The Schwartzes have been my friends for more than 21 years. Their learning and charisma has had a deep effect on many Jews, not least among them Jews in Hollywood’s Jews. In the late ’80s, many friends and clients of mine in the entertainment industry were getting involved with Lubavitch and studying Jewish mysticism. We eventually started a class at the Schwartz home on Sundays. Among those who participated were Richard Dreyfuss; music executive Brooks Arthur (who produced Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” and his albums); record producer Linda Perry; comedian and writer Bruce Vilanch, who at the time was working for Bette Midler and Billy Crystal and writing for the Oscars; and attorney Andy Stern with his wife, Jackie.

My personal Jewish journey began in New York City, where I was a guest at the home of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, whose Shabbat dinners were home to his friends Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. It was through Wolfe that I first met Simon Wiesenthal, and as an agent realized I could weave together my growing love of being Jewish and my work at William Morris: I have since represented Wiesenthal on several of his projects.

When I moved to Los Angeles in the ’80s, I had hoped to continue to weave my growing Jewish identity with my work. I shul hopped, met amazing teachers, but didn’t find my community until I met Rabbi Shlomo and Olivia Schwartz. Back then, I was representing Bob Dylan, and a friend of his brought me to one of the Schwartzes’ free Shabbat dinners.

In a way, I’ve never left the table.

So, naturally, I was with the Schwartzes for a week of sheva brachot for Aura, their youngest daughter, and her marriage to Dov Rosenblatt. The wedding was also typical Schwartzie — a sit-down dinner for 150 at the elegant Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, where a blend of Schwartzes danced, laughed, ate and toasted with the East Coast Rosenblatt family. (The groom’s father, Gary Rosenblatt, is editor of The Jewish Week; his mother, Judy, is equally accomplished). They were surrounded by a contingent of rabbis from Yeshiva University who married the couple.

Friends and family mingled easily with the usual collection of haute Jewish life who surround the Schwartz family. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and wife, Doreen, schmoozed about their upcoming trip to India with William Morris agent Shai Steinberger, life-long friend of the groom. Movie producer Scott Einbinder and powerbroker attorney Craig Emmanuelle were seen toasting with Miriam Rhodes from Jerusalem, who weekly takes women in armored cars to learn in Kever Rachel.

Watching this effortless blend of joy and learning, family and strangers and friends and chasidus, I realized how the Schwartz family embodies chesed, or kindness.

It was easy to see why so many people like me come for a Shabbat, and spend a lifetime.

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Despite past sparks, Al-Marayati wants Jewish dialogue

It’s a Saturday morning, and Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), is playing basketball with a group of friends. He pounces on loose balls, wrestles away rebounds and knows just when to feed a teammate a perfectly telegraphed pass for an easy layup.

“He gives it 110 percent and leaves everything behind,” said his friend and occasional teammate, Ramsey Hakim, who also serves on the MPAC board. “He’s quite the competitor.”

Al-Marayati’s game, marked by a kind of intensity and focus rare among weekend warriors, reveals the kind of guy he is — in his work as a leader and spokesman of the local and national Muslim community — and as well as in his play. Simply put, he plays to win.

Over the past two decades, the Iraqi-born, American-reared Al-Marayati, 46, has helped grow MPAC from a start-up advocacy operation founded in 1988 by Dr. Maher Hathout, past chair of the Islamic Center of Southern California, into one of the country’s leading Muslim political groups, with offices here and in Washington, D.C. He has traveled the country, met with the president and other political leaders and written opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Washington Post and other publications, advocating a more moderate vision of the Muslim world, and, in particular, of American Muslims.

He talks of a faith that encourages equality between the sexes, of Muslim integration into American society and of respect for and partnerships between Jews and Christians. Al-Marayati has also fought to combat what he calls “Islamophobia” wherever it crops up.

“I want my children to have a future of hope, a future where they can contribute positively to American society as Muslims,” Al-Marayati said. “I don’t want a future of prejudice, fear and victimization.”

In the process, Al-Marayati has become “one of the major mainstream American Muslim leaders,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group.

Al-Marayati has met with President Bush three times, as well as with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, on the subject of counterterrorism, and he has testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on the need for the government to work with, rather than shut down, Islamic charities aiding poor Muslims around the world. On Jan. 8, Al-Marayati and other Muslim leaders conferred with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in his Washington office about the need to counter anti-Islamic sentiment so as not to alienate young Muslims.

“I told Attorney General Gonzales that the way to discourage radicalization is to promote integration, which is a joint responsibility of government and community-based organizations like ours,” Al-Marayati said in the deep, sonorous voice that is one part of what makes this rising star of the Muslim community sound statesmanlike.

During an interview at MPAC’s L.A. office, Al-Marayati comes across as serious and even a bit distant. With the din of ringing phones and staff members’ voices in the background, he maintains eye contact at all times. Dressed in a well-tailored suit, the trim Al-Marayati eschews small talk and answers questions deliberately, choosing his words with care. He cites as inspirations Green Bay Packers’ legend Vince Lombardi’s commitment to winning and teaching, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to civil rights and fairness.

Al-Marayati’s biggest influence, he says without hesitation, is the Prophet Muhammad, whom he calls the “epitome of compassion, mercy and justice.”

Despite Al-Marayati’s commitment to interfaith dialogue and his open-door policy, even to critics, many in the Jewish community remain deeply suspicious of him.

On Sept. 11, 2001, just hours after the terror attacks, Al-Marayati hypothesized on a radio program that Israel might have orchestrated them “because, I think, this diverts attention from what’s happening in the Palestinian territories, so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies.”

Months later in April 2002, Al-Marayati appeared on the CNBC show, “Alan Keyes Is Making Sense.” During the interview, he told the host that “the country that introduced terrorism in the region is Israel. The root cause of terrorism is the illegal Israeli settlements.”

Although Al-Marayati said he subsequently personally apologized to many Jewish leaders for his Sept. 11 remarks, the damage had been done: The multiorganizational Muslim-Jewish Dialogue that Al-Marayati had helped create just a few years earlier lay in ruins, with other participants outraged by his remarks and remaining suspicious of him ever since.

“I won’t work with him, because I don’t trust him,” Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, said last week in a phone conversation. Rosove was among those who quit the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue soon after Al-Marayati made his initial Sept. 11 remarks.

Al-Marayati does have some friends in the Jewish community. Among them is Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who is Jewish. Schiff has worked with Al-Marayati for years on interfaith issues and said he has found him to be a dedicated partner.
“We both believe that by sharing insights and strengthening voices of tolerance, we can find common ground in improving the quality of life for the entire community,” the congressman said.

Al-Marayati said the hostility from segments of the Jewish community continues to surprise him. MPAC, he said, has gone on record as supporting the two-state solution and has condemned suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism, regardless of the perpetrators.

“I’m committed to dialogue emanating from the best traditions of Judaism and Islam,” Al-Marayati said. “It pains me to hear comments questioning my commitment. As I’ve stated before repeatedly, the door remains open, especially to those who have those criticisms.”

Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a Los Angeles-based social justice organization, said Al-Marayati has repeatedly lent support to him in times of distress. For example, moments after the shootings at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle by a gunman upset by Israel, Al-Marayati called him to express his sorrow and concern, Sokatch said. Al-Marayati asked Sokatch whether there was anything MPAC could do to show solidarity with the Jewish community.

“He always reaches out,” Sokatch said.

‘Yippee’ — Paul Mazursky documents Chasids gone wild

In all his 76 years, filmmaker Paul Mazursky had never seen anything like the 25,000 Chasidim singing, swaying, blowing shofars and dancing around a lake.

“It’s like the old days at the Apollo in Harlem, with the crowd going wild,” the irreverent Mazursky said. “Can you dig it?”

The scene is from his documentary, “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” which had its Southland premier this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The film is quite a change of pace for the creator of such quirky social comedies and dramas as “Bob”&”Carol”&”Ted”&”Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story.”

Despite his artistic reputation and string of Oscar nominations, Mazursky has found it increasingly difficult to find backing for his iconoclastic movies, which are infused with his wry take on the human condition.

During the past decade, after a quadruple heart bypass operation, Mazursky has gone back to his roots as an actor and comedian, including parts in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Sopranos,” while looking for the right combination of film and financing.

But last year, he and his two camera crews found themselves in Uman, a Ukrainian town of 80,000, whose population swells every Rosh Hashanah during an invasion of ecstatic Chasidim dressed in white kitels (robes), black suits or streimels (fur hats).

They come to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chasidic master, disputatious tzadik (learned scholar) and great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. Nachman was buried in Uman in 1811 at the age of 38.

What had brought the insistently secular Mazursky to Uman were the urgings of three disparate Angelenos: David Miretsky, his optometrist; Shmuel Levy, a devout Moroccan-born rock musician; and Rabbi Ezriel Tauber.

All three regularly participated in the pilgrimage to Uman, and they promised Mazursky that he would witness an event unlike any he had ever experienced.

Putting up $50,000 of his own money, and with his broken arm in a sling, Mazursky embarked on the adventure with his friends and a six-man crew, including his son-in-law.

During a brief layover in Munich, he warmed up by filming the beer-swilling Oktoberfest, before stopping in Kiev, where his grandfather is buried, and then reaching Uman after a three-hour drive.

In the run-up to the climax of the three-day celebration, Mazursky meets and talks with Chasidim, policemen, scholars and peasants, combining the roles of an innocent abroad, travel guide and self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn.”

Typical is his encounter with two local peasant women selling fruit from a sidewalk cart. They, like all the other Uman natives, know about Rosh Hashanah, which enriches the town by $2 million each year.

Despite the windfall, one woman is not entirely happy.

“Jews are not cultured people,” she complains. The other woman disagrees.

“They are cultured,” she insists, “they are just different.”

Mazursky’s camera lingers on other happenings. There is a rustic folk festival with pretty dancing girls in costumes and later, Vodka Appreciation Day, during which the filmmaker digs into his bottomless reservoir of jokes, many unprintable.

His favorite joke, told at least three times in the film, goes something like this: Cohen meets Schwartz in New York’s old garment district and Cohen says, “I heard about the fire.” Schwartz puts his fingers to his lips and whispers, “Shhhh, tomorrow.” (The joke dates back to at least the Great Depression, when some storeowners facing bankruptcy would set fire to their shops to collect insurance money.)

The film climaxes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, when the 25,000 Chasidim throw their sins into the lake and pray, dance and sing through the candle-lit night.

“Madonna and Woody Allen should be here,” Mazursky murmurs.

Before leaving, Mazursky organizes a bull session with Tauber and Dr. Julian Unger, a British neurologist, to explore the meaning of what he has seen.

“We come to Uman because on the day of judgment, Rabbi Nachman will be our lawyer, pleading our case before God,” Tauber explains.

Unger has a darker observation. “You know, 37 years before Rabbi Nachman came to Uman, there was a great pogrom here and thousands of Jews were drowned in the lake.

“When the Nazis came, they again murdered Uman’s Jews,” Unger continued. “It is a great irony that in 2005, we should be dancing in the streets of Uman. We are dancing on the graves of our martyrs.”

Mazursky, the wise guy from Brooklyn, drew his own lessons. “I could never think like a Chasid,” he ruminated during a two-hour interview in his crowded Beverly Hills office.

“I think of life as a cosmic joke, which keeps getting bigger all the time. But I’ve learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chasidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things,” he said.

The title of the film comes from another Mazursky observation. “It is better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say ‘Yippee.'”

“Yippee” is available on DVD through the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and will be included in a retrospective of Mazursky’s works at New York’s Lincoln Center, May 4-10.Paul Mazursky

Need for good schools should unite Jews and Latinos

We’re in the middle of one of America’s greatest ethnic transformations, the winning of political, cultural and economic power in Los Angeles by men and women
whose roots are in Mexico and other countries south of the border. But many of us whose ancestors immigrated here decades ago feel this trend is irrelevant to our lives.

We haven’t been completely blind. How could anyone not notice that the mayor is Antonio Villaraigosa? Even the most obtuse can see that other powerful politicians, as well as cops, business leaders, entertainers, public school teachers, doctors, supermarket checkers, gardeners and a substantial portion of the Los Angeles Dodgers — and their fans — are Latino.

Latinos make up 46.5 percent of Los Angeles County’s population, compared to 29.9 percent non-Hispanic whites, 12.9 percent Asians and 9.8 percent blacks, according to the U.S. Census.

But in contrast to the 1960s, when the fabled and overblown black-Jewish alliance was obsessively chronicled and debated by Jewish academics, journalists, essayists and community leaders, the rise of the Latino population has not seemed to capture much Jewish interest, either pro or con. That is especially true now, when so many activist Jews are focused only on Israel.

I’m not the first person to notice this. Back in 2001, Joel Kotkin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “… the two communities — one long established, the other ascendant — have had remarkably little to do with each other politically.”

In 2000, Gene Lichentstein, then the editor of The Jewish Journal, observed in his column, “We live apart, a great a geographic divide separating us, almost as though we were citizens of different countries.”

Why should anyone care? Is there any good reason for Jews to work with Latinos on community issues?

In the first place, the major policy voices in the Southland are increasingly the adult children and grandchildren of Latino immigrants who made the perilous journey north and saw their families succeed in life.

That sounds familiar — immigrant parents or grandparents on a perilous journey to a new life. Sounds like the story of my family and yours. Jews and Latinos have a lot in common. That should be a recipe for brother and sisterhood.

But it’s not enough of an answer for Jewish parents who send their kids to a public school where many of the students hardly speak English or shoppers who grumble while the store workers chatter away in Spanish.

Searching for a more down-to-earth answer, I called on Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, executive director of the city of Los Angeles’ Human Relations Commission, as well as some of his staff. The commission, created after the 1965 Watts Riot, sends its workers into the city’s hottest areas of racial tension, where they try to keep people cool — or to cool them down when tensions explode.

Gathered around the table with Freehling and me were Deputy Director Patricia Villasenor and staff members Joumana Silyan-Saba, Elizabeth Macias, Gary R. De La Rosa and Francisco Ortega.

We talked about an earlier time, when Latinos and Jews lived together in Boyle Heights and Roosevelt High School was a true melting pot. Proximity and left-wing politics united the two groups before, during and immediately after World War II.

De La Rosa recalled that while the more affluent Jews moved from Boyle Heights to the Westside and the Valley in the post-war years, working-class Jews settled in less expensive suburbs, such as Monterey Park, Montebello and Huntington Park. De La Rosa grew up with Jews in Monterey Park.

Other communities were not integrated. Ortega said, “I grew up in Lincoln Heights and had no perception of Jews.” Eventually, he married a Jewish woman, and they and their children are members of a synagogue. He noted the presence in Los Angeles of Jewish Latinos — immigrants from Mexico and South America.

As we talked, I saw one clear and powerful reason why Jews need to link up with Latinos — the public schools.

Middle-class Jews who can’t afford to send their children to private schools need good public elementary, middle and high schools. Latinos have the same stake in schools strong enough to prepare their kids for prestigious universities, both public and private.

Yet the Los Angeles Unified School District schools are a hard sell for many Jews.

The numbers put them off. LAUSD is currently 71 percent Hispanic, 12 percent African American, 10 percent white and 4 percent Asian.

In addition, the schools are a microcosm of Los Angeles’ racial troubles. Students eat at separate tables, self-segregated by race. Silyan-Saba said that it’s tough persuading the parents to get along in various parents councils.

Economic class separates middle-class whites from working-class Hispanics and race mixes in. Some whites, she said, look down on Latinos. Some Latinos are suspicious of whites.

But the need for good public schools provides a critical argument for Latinos and Jews to join strengths, particularly in parents groups, which have become increasingly important to improving our public schools.

And we’ve got the perfect man to lead the effort, Villaraigosa. He has worked hard to cultivate Jewish support in his political career. His synagogue attendance record is probably better than that of many Jews. He wants to run LAUSD. A judge recently derailed his effort, at least for a time, but the mayor promised to remain a force in school affairs.

Let him lead a campaign to unite the Latino majority and the small but influential Jewish minority behind something they can agree on — safe public schools good enough to send their graduates to top college campuses.

In such an effort, there’s no doubt that Latinos and Jews need each other.

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

I’m… dreaming… of a white… Chri — ummm, holidays

Excerpted from “Spoiled Rotten America, Outrages of Everyday Life,” by Larry Miller (Regan, 2006). Reprinted with permission.

First of all, I’m a Jew. (Now there’s a grabby start, eh? Probably cut into sales of my book in France, but what the heck.) The thing is, there are certain subjects in life where it’s a good idea to say what you are before giving your opinion. Maybe it’s a factor, and maybe it’s not, and maybe it won’t be necessary in 1,000 years, but it still helps in the present as a qualifier, disclaimer, badge, shield, whatever.

Like it or not, one’s background affects the way we receive his opinions on a given issue. Whether you’re hawkish or dovish on war, it helps your credibility if you’ve ever been in one. (Since my own uniformed service ended with the Cub Scouts, I try to avoid sentiments like, “I say we drop the big one.”)

Let’s say there’s a bill in Congress to give every American under 5-feet tall $100 million. (Don’t kid yourself, it’s not that far-fetched.) This may or may not be a good idea, but if someone writes a column saying he supports it, and that, yes, the short folk should definitely get the money, it adds at least some perspective to have a note afterward saying, “The writer is 4-feet-11 in height.” Therefore, saying you’re a Jew is probably the right way to start a discussion about Christmas (or a date with Claudia Schiffer).

Second of all, I use the word “Jew” intentionally. I always use it. I never say Jewish, I say Jew. Being Jewish is easy for me, because it’s about responsibility and ritual, and knowledge and morals and worship. Being a Jew is hard, because no one means it as a compliment. So I embrace it. Like other religions, being Jewish is done in private, with others who are the same as you, or alone in prayer. Being a Jew, though, is what I am in the world, and if you’re one, too, I hope it doesn’t come as a giant shock to hear that that’s almost all anyone who looks at you will ever see.

Even if you’ve never said a prayer and have no beliefs, no matter how hard you try to please others and be invisible, even if you wear sandwich boards that say “Not me!” or “No Jew here!” and become a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Calvinist, a Rosicrucian or a Wiccan, you’re a Jew, so you might as well start loving it. Try getting off the train at Auschwitz 60 years ago and telling the guy pointing to the room where you drop your shoes and get naked that there’s been a terrible mistake, because you’re not religious.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Don’t pull that concentration camp stuff anymore, it’s ancient history.” OK, maybe you’re right. Try being a door-to-door salesman in Fallouja, then, and saying to everyone, “Oh, you don’t understand, I’m a secular Jew and really don’t follow the whole thing. Thank you, I’ll be glad to come in. I mean, we go to temple on Yom Kippur — everyone does, you know how it is — but just for a little while, and most of the time I’ll have a cup of coffee and a cigarette as soon as we get home.

OK, OK, I’m kneeling, take it easy. Anyway, the most Jewish thing I ever do is the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. Or try to, heh-heh. I had an uncle who used to do it in ink. Say, those sure are some weird banners you’ve got up there. Can I go now?”

And maybe you’re thinking, “Don’t pull that Fallouja crap, either. The only reason they’d do that is because we’ve invaded their country and ruined all their kite flying.” Okay, maybe you’re right again. Try it in Egypt, then, or Saudi Arabia. Or Yemen. Or Turkey. Or Chechnya.

Try it in Paris.

No, if you’re Jewish, you either know you’re a Jew, or you’re an idiot, and if you’re an idiot, don’t worry, I’ve been one, too, lots of times. We all have. Perhaps, though, now would be a good time to stop, since the world’s not going to change anytime soon.

Of course, you may be a resident of that rarest of wards in this asylum, the incurables, the ones who say, “The only reason any of it is happening is because of Israel.” Then I can’t help you. Your soul is so torn and in such frightened denial you wouldn’t know your head’s been cut off even after the video of it has won for Best Newcomer at the Al Jazeera Emmys.

Speaking of which, “I’m a Jew, and my parents are Jews” is the last thing they made Daniel Pearl say. And when they first snatched him and called their bosses to ask what to do, they didn’t say, “We have a reporter,” or “We have an American,” or “We have a capitalist from the Wall Street Journal.” They said, “We have a Jew.” If that’s still not enough, you might as well go all the way, like one of us, and become the attorney for Hamas.

Which, hooray, finally brings us around to … one more word about Jews. (I know, for a chapter on Christmas there hasn’t been an awful lot of it so far. Hold onto your yarmulkes, I’ll get to it.)

Actually, this next point brings us right to Dec. 25, because Christmas, you know (unless you’ve all forgotten, which is increasingly possible), doesn’t celebrate the birth of Santa, but the birth of Jesus, and Jesus was a Jew.

That may sound like overstating the obvious, but it’s not. You might say, yeah, we all know that, let’s move on, but think about it. Jesus wasn’t a Christian, that all came after. He was born, lived and died a Jew, a rabbi, in fact, and it’s worth taking a good look at it: Jesus was a Jew, his parents were Jews, everyone he grew up with and knew was a Jew, the disciples were Jews: St. Paul, who built the church; St. Peter; James; Mark; Thomas; Mary Magdalene; the guys crucified next to him on Calvary were Jews; everyone sitting on the grass listening to the Sermon on the Mount; and the first 10,000 Christians.

John the Baptist wasn’t a Baptist, he was a Jew who baptized.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council distances itself from Prager

Leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council,
ensnared in a raging controversy over one of its
members, this week moved to distance themselves from the cause of the furor.

Conservative commentator Dennis Prager, a member
of the Council that oversees the Holocaust Museum
on Washington’s Mall and the nation’s chief
academic center for Holocaust study, ignited a
firestorm of criticism when he wrote that Keith
Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat about to become the
first Muslim member of Congress, should not be
allowed to be sworn in on a Quran.

Allowing congressional oaths on a Quran, Prager
wrote, “undermines American civilization.” If you
are incapable of taking an oath on (the Bible), don’t serve in Congress.”

Prager was slammed by groups as diverse as the
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and
the Anti-Defamation League both for his lack of
tolerance for Muslims and for his inaccuracy;
House members are sworn in by the Speaker,
without any holy books, although many use Bibles
at private photo-op ceremonies after being sworn in.

Last week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, also a
Council member, called for Prager to step down
for the good of the Museum, and promised to
introduce a resolution critical of Prager at this week’s Council meeting.

But the showdown was averted when neither Prager
nor Koch showed up. Council officials, wary of
heaping new fuel on the controversy, ruled that
Koch’s resolution would not be taken up.

“I did not go because I was told the matter would
not be put on the agenda,” Koch said in an interview.

At Monday’s meeting, Council chairman Fred
Zeidman read a statement acknowledging the
controversy but stating that the press of other
issues — including the genocide in Darfur and
the situation in Iran — made it inappropriate to
bring up the Prager matter at that time.

Zeidman told members that he is “heavily
involved” in the issue and expected a resolution shortly.

After the meeting, Zeidman worked with fellow
executive committee members to work out a
statement distancing the panel from the controversial talk show host.

The statement, issued on Friday, cited the
Museum’s role as a “living memorial to the
victims of the Holocaust devoted to teaching the
lessons of the Holocaust for the benefit of all
mankind,” and stated that Prager “has recently
publicly expressed and disseminated certain
statements which have been widely interpreted as being intolerant.”

Therefore, the executive committee, “while
recognizing that Dennis Prager has the right to
express his personal views freely, disassociates
itself from Mr. Prager’s statements as being
antithetical to the mission of the Museum as an
institution promoting tolerance and respect for
all peoples regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity.”

A Museum source said he hoped Prager would get
the message and resign — but said he had no
indication the controversial commentator would do so.

Members of the Council are appointed by the
President, and can only be removed by the White House.

U.S. Jewish Population Rising; California and Israel Join in Tourism Pact

U.S. Jewish Population Rising?

The new American Jewish Yearbook reports that there are 6.4 million Jews in the United States. That’s significantly more than the 5.2 million figure provided by the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study.

The yearly survey, published by the American Jewish Committee, is based on a tally of individual Jewish communities across the country. According to the survey, 2.2 percent of the American population is Jewish. New York has the largest Jewish population of any state with 1,618,000, followed by California with 1,194,000, Florida with 653,000 and New Jersey with 480,000, the AJCommittee said in a release.

California and Israel Join in Tourism Pact

The state of California and the state of Israel have jointly established a commission to encourage their citizens to visit each other, proving again that the Golden State is big enough to conduct its own foreign policy. At a recent ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Isaac Herzog, Israel’s Minister of Tourism, signed an agreement launching the California-Israel Tourism Commission. Both credited Los Angeles-based media mogul Haim Saban for the initiative to establish the commission.

During the ceremony, Schwarzenegger recalled that he has visited Israel three times, first as a body builder, then to open his Planet Hollywood restaurant in Tel Aviv and last year for the groundbreaking of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

No breakdown was available on the number of Californians visiting Israel, or Israelis visiting California, however, the latest figures from Israeli tourism officials showed that between January-September of this year, 1.5 million tourists came to Israel, of whom 400,000 were Americans. In 2005, Israel had 2 million visitors, among them 533,000 Americans.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Iran Hosts Holocaust Deniers Conference

The Iranian government held a conference of Holocaust deniers and skeptics this week, a discussion of whether 6 million Jews actually were killed by the Nazis during World War II.

A report in The New York Times quoted the opening speech by Rasoul Mousavi, head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies, which organized the event, saying that the conference would allow discussion “away from Western taboos and the restriction imposed on them in Europe.”

Speakers at the event include David Duke, the American white-supremacist politician and former Ku Klux Klan leader, and Georges Thiel, a French writer who has been prosecuted in France over his denials of the Holocaust, the Times reported.

— Staff Report

Seattle Rabbi Regrets Xmas Tree Removal

A Chabad rabbi in Seattle expressed regret that his request to add a menorah to the Seattle-Tacoma Airport’s display of Christmas trees resulted in the trees’ removal.

“I am devastated, shocked and appalled at the decision that the Port of Seattle came to,” Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Pacific Northwest said in Monday’s Seattle Times.

Last week, Bogomilsky’s attorney Harvey Grad threatened the port with a lawsuit after not receiving a response to a request, first made in October, to install an 8-foot menorah, which Bogomilsky offered to supply.

Port Commissioner Pat Davis told the Times that the commission had not heard about the request until Dec. 7, the day before Grad was to head to court.

An airport spokesperson said it was decided to take down the trees because the airport, preparing for its busiest season, did not have time to accommodate all the religions that would have wanted a display.

The removal resulted in a firestorm of criticism, much of it directed at Bogomilsky, who said he never wanted to see the trees removed.

Thousands March for Hezbollah

Hundreds of thousands of protesters led by Hezbollah marched in downtown Beirut Sunday to demand that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora either cede some government power to the terrorist group and its allies or resign, The Associated Press reported.

Hezbollah has been pressing for increased power since its war with Israel over the summer. Lebanese troops Sunday sealed off Siniora’s compound, as well as the roads nearby. Siniora and most of his ministers have stayed in the complex since Dec. 1, when Hezbollah launched massive protests aimed at toppling Lebanon’s Western-leaning government.

Senate Approves Red ‘Crystal’

The U.S. Senate certified the Red “Crystal,” paving the way for Magen David Adom’s acceptance into the International Red Cross’ bodies. The Red Cross approved the symbol which resembles a playing card diamond earlier this year, ending a decades-long shutout of non-Muslim and non-Christian groups such as Israel’s first responder, which rejected using the Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols as inappropriate. The Red Cross had also rejected the Star of David symbol used by MDA.

The Senate’s certification last Friday, the last day of Congress, protects the symbol’s copyright and follows similar legislation passed last week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Israeli Hostages Said Wounded

Two Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah since July were seriously wounded during their capture, security sources said. Israeli security sources last week quoted a declassified military report that said bloodstains and other evidence gathered at the site of the July 12 border raid in which Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were seized showed the hostages were seriously wounded.

To survive, the sources said, the two army reservists would have required immediate medical attention, something that may not have been available in the custody of the Lebanese terrorist group.

Hezbollah has refused to provide information on the captives’ condition, saying it would only release them as part of a swap for Arabs held in Israeli jails. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled out a swap on Hezbollah’s terms unless the terrorist group provides information on the soldiers’ health. The captives’ families criticized the release of forensic details from the raid.

“I think this may be an attempt by the Prime Minister’s Office to lower pressure to get the kidnapped soldiers freed,” Regev’s brother, Benny, told Israel Radio.

Chanukah holds important lesson for all faiths

Chanukah is popularized by a rabbinic myth — one that embodies a story told of a container of oil lasting seven days beyond its expected usage.

The story appears only in the Talmud, not
the Bible or even the Apocrypha literature.

In fact, the primary lesson of Chanukah has nothing to do with oil at all.

If anything, the eight-day festival serves to remind Jew and non-Jew alike that religious identity is assured and assimilation stemmed only when religion develops out of an environment based on love and celebration, intelligent debate and conviction.

During the brief rule of Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.E.), countless Jews adopted Greek culture and thought — Hellenism as it became known. Within the Jewish community living in Israel, the Greek ruler became so popular, newborn babies were often named after him. To express their allegiance to Greek ways of life, scores of Jewish men went so far as to undergo painful operations to diminish and remove the indelible mark of circumcision.

What differentiated Alexander the Great — and ultimately endeared him to the Jewish community — was his lack of religious oppression. His theological openness and acceptance gave rise to the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek: the Septuagint.

His unmanipulative religious attitude embodied 18th century Enlightenment thinking thousands of years before its time. Ironically, had Alexander’s policy of noncoercive religious debate and acceptance continued, the Jews and Judaism might have simply assimilated away, never again to exist.

One hundred and fifty years after Alexander’s death, the Greek Syrian ruler, Antiochus IV, Epiphanies — god incarnate — as he referred to himself, instituted policies that were completely opposite of Alexander’s.

Religious coercion, bullying and violence exemplified Antiochus’ methodologies. Under Antiochus, Jewish practice was outlawed, and the religious nerve center for the Jews, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, was ransacked and rendered invalid for priestly ritual use.

So oppressive was Antiochus, a Jewish civil war erupted. Using guerrilla tactics, a group called the Maccabees waged battle against the strong-armed methods instituted by Antiochus and the Greek-Syrians. But the Maccabees didn’t stop there. They also fought against fellow Jews who openly adopted Greek culture and philosophical thought.

Yes, the Maccabees fought for religious tolerance, so long as it was in compliance with their religious understanding and application. While their military goals were different, functionally the Maccabees were very similar to the Greek-Syrian conquerors. Neither the Greek-Syrians nor the Maccabees embraced the open, noncoercive atmosphere created by Alexander the Great; neither position allowed for a middle ground.

Theologically, Chanukah is insignificant, yet its historical lesson is of great importance to all religious faiths. When more deeply understood, the eight-day holiday challenges all of us who take religion seriously to continually provide open forums where level-headed discussion and theological diversity is encouraged.

I know as a Jew and as a rabbi, if we cannot provide sufficient reasons for Jews to maintain their religious identity, then it is we who are at fault, not the countervailing ideas and popular trends, be they religious or secular.

For all spiritual seekers, threats of assimilation are scary and profoundly challenging precisely because it makes them look within; it makes them scrutinize their own religious beliefs and practices.

It is far easier to live cloistered away, removed from the temptation of secular life and the challenges that come from meaningful religious interaction and questioning. It is far more difficult and infinitely more problematic when religiously observant people are asked to address the shortcomings found in their own faith system.

Chanukah, which is celebrated ritually by lighting candles on an eight-branched candelabra, teaches that religious seekers need not surrender to the darkness found in the world. For certain, healthy religion can bring much needed light to an otherwise sterile universe.

But it can only do so when presented in a manner that is open to diverse opinion and debate, much like that which was encouraged and fostered during the brief, historic reign of Alexander the Great some 2,300 years ago.

B’nai Brith’s new chief visits L.A.; ‘Messenger’ unites local readers

New B’nai B’rith Head Launches Term in Southland

The new president of B’nai B’rith International will make Los Angeles his first official stop of his presidency when he speaks at Sinai Temple on the evening of Dec. 7.Moishe Smith, a B’nai B’rith veteran with more than 30 years experience at the organization, said he is coming to the Southland to show his respect for and introduce himself to the community. At Sinai, Smith will discuss Israel and the Middle East, reflecting his interest in international relations. During his three decades with B’nai B’rith, Smith has held a variety of positions, including chair of the International Council, senior international vice president, and, most recently, chair of the executive.

Smith, a Canadian and the first non-American to lead 163-year-old B’nai B’rith, replaces Joel Kaplan. He will serve a three-year term.

Smith told The Journal that “making sure Israel is supported from every corner of the world” is a top priority. With the Jewish state under siege from Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and other enemies, Smith said B’nai B’rith and other Jewish organizations have an obligation to “speak out for Israel.”

Under his leadership, Smith said the organization will continue pressuring the United Nations to reform itself and shed its anti-Israel bias. Toward that end, Smith said organization leaders will “dialogue” with the democratic U.N. members and others.

B’nai B’rith has 100,000 members and donors in the United States and 150,000 worldwide. The organization calls itself a national and global leader in the area of U.N. reform, international affairs and Jewish identity, among other issues.

The event begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. For more information, contact Lyndia Lowy of B’nai B’rith at (310) 871-0847, or visit www.sinaitemple.org.

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

‘Messenger’ Unites L.A. Readers

“One People One Book” usually refers to the Jews and the Torah, but the in Board of Rabbis of Southern California’s communitywide program it refers to a piece of literature participating synagogue members will read for the next six months.

On Dec. 13, “One People One Book: A Citywide Year of Learning,” will launch its second annual program, this time studying Eli Wiesel’s 1976 “The Messenger of God,” where Wiesel reinterprets biblical figures. Some 21 synagogues will participate.

Last year’s “One People One Book” program, which had 300 people attend the opening, which focused on “As a Driven Leaf” by Milton Steinberg, the novelization of the Talmud’s only heretic, Elisha Ben Abuya.

Why one book for six months?

“The notion is that we pick a book that lends itself to a year of learning,” says Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis. He said that last year’s book dealt with powerful themes such as secular vs. sacred, messianism, faith and practice.

For each book, the Board of Rabbis prepares a curriculum for readers to discuss, but there is no particular format to the “One People One Book,” program. Some people will meet in groups like a book club, others will discuss it with their rabbi in synagogue and some will learn with a partner. There will be an opening event on Dec. 13 and closing event on May 9.At the opening session, professor Menhaz M. Afridi and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will discuss Moses in “The Passion of Prophet: Moses in the Torah and the Qu’ran.”

The opening session will take place at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, Dec. 13, 7-9 p.m. 15600 Mulholland Drive. For more information, call (323) 761-8600.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Students Weigh in on Education Improvements

Students shared ideas for improving education with a panel of public officials at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 30. Jasmin Ramirez, 17, took the stage first to present a proposal on behalf of about 100 students involved in the California Association of Student Councils, a student-led organization dedicated to cultivating leaders.

“There’s poor quality of food in our schools and a lack of variety,” said Ramirez, who recommended conducting a widespread survey asking students about the quality of food at school and testing their knowledge of nutritional health.

Listening and taking notes were state Senate majority leader Gloria Romero; Democratic state Assemblymembers Mike Feuer, Paul Krekorian and Kevin de Leon; local district Superintendent James Morris; and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Education Ramon C. Cortines.

The officials advised students to think about the costs associated with the proposed survey and consider what would be done with the results. They also commended Ramirez and her peers for thinking creatively about how to solve a real problem.

“What you and the students have done today is absolutely brilliant,” de Leon said.Next, Chris Delgado, 16, suggested that teacher quality could be improved if students were involved in the teacher evaluation process.

“Be careful that your approach is not taken as an attack on teachers,” de Leon cautioned.Cortines added: “I don’t think you realize how powerful you are. I think it’s time that you mobilize yourself and visit with teachers unions.”

After the two proposals were presented and discussed, legislators and students mingled. Feuer congratulated his son, Aaron, who orchestrated the event.

“It was a success,” said Aaron Feuer, 15.

— Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer

Fate of Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance rests with Israeli high court

Fate of Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance Rests With Israeli High Court

Israel’s highest judicial and executive authorities both have weighed in on the protracted dispute surrounding construction of a $200 million Center of Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.The ambitious Simon Wiesenthal Center project, designed by famed Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, has been stalled since February, when the Israeli Supreme Court issued an injunction halting any construction work. The court acted on a petition by two Palestinian groups, which asserted that the planned museum would sit atop an ancient and sacred Muslim cemetery.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s founding dean, and his lawyers in Jerusalem have argued that the site has been used as a parking lot and underground garage for decades and that Islamic courts had ruled that the onetime cemetery had thus lost its sacred character.

Hier said that he had offered a number of compromises to resolve the dispute, but that the Muslim plaintiffs were stalling and “trying to run out the clock.”

Attorney Durham Saif, representing the Palestinian side, said that in its most recent hearing in October, the court told the Wiesenthal Center to submit a redesign of the museum, so that construction would not damage the cemetery.

The next court hearing is scheduled Jan. 3, but in the meantime, Hier said, the delay has added more than $1 million to the cost of the project and has slowed down fundraising in the United States.

One bright spot for Hier was a rousing endorsement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been a strong supporter of the project since his days as mayor of Jerusalem. During a visit to the Wiesenthal Center last month, Olmert said that present Mideast tensions made the establishment of the museum more vital than ever.

“I knew from day one that what we really need in this part of the world is a concerted effort by a major organization that will be dedicated to one thing: to educate for human dignity, to educate for some kind of cooperation and understanding and compassion amongst all of us who are destined to share the Middle East,” Olmert said.

He added that “there is nothing that can stop the creation of the building and construction of this magnificent building, and I am impatiently looking forward to the inauguration and the completion of this world-class project in the city of Jerusalem.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

P.A. Prime Minister, Iranian President Meet, Vow to See Israel Eliminated

The Palestinian Authority prime minister and Iran’s president, in their first official meeting, vowed to see Israel eliminated. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, on his first foreign tour since his faction took power in March, met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Qatar last weekend.

An Iranian news agency quoted Ahmadinejad, who has stepped up support for Hamas in a bid to offset a Western aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority, as saying that “there is no doubt the Palestinian nation and Muslims as a whole will emerge victorious.”

Ahmadinejad also predicted: “The continued commission of crimes by the Zionist regime will speed up the collapse of this fictitious regime.”

Haniyeh, whose Islamist faction is similarly sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction, thanked Ahmadinejad for Iran’s support.

“The Iranian nation’s brilliant stand in the rightful battles of the Palestinians encourages them and signifies their deep understanding of Islamic principles,” he was quoted as saying.

Israel Scales Back West Bank Actions

Israel ordered its forces to scale back operations in the West Bank. The order was given last weekend amid efforts by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to build on a truce declared last month in the Gaza Strip and which eventually may be extended to the West Bank.

While Israeli troops in the West Bank are continuing their arrest raids, 15 suspected terrorists were taken into custody Monday. Missions more likely to lead to violent confrontations are being limited. The army also is reviewing its tactic of besieging the homes of Palestinian terrorists until they surrender, because these tend to provoke gunfights.

However, military officials made clear that there would be no letup in operations against Palestinians believed to be about to carry out attacks against Israelis.

Israeli Official Favors Barghouti Release

An Israeli Cabinet minister said he would favor freeing Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti, 47, a Fatah lawmaker, was captured in the West Bank in 2002, tried and sentenced to five life prison terms for masterminding terrorist attacks that killed five people.

However, Israeli Environment Minister Gideon Ezra said Monday that releasing Barghouti, which successive Israeli governments have ruled out, would be worthwhile if it won the release of an Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip and led the Palestinian Authority to halt violence.

“Even the prime minister has talked about the need to release prisoners once Gilad Shalit is freed,” Ezra told Israel Radio, referring to the captured soldier. “It depends how big a deal we are talking about and what the other side promises in return.”

Barghouti is still popular and powerful behind bars, and some see him as a potential Palestinian leader who could undermine the rule of Hamas Islamists and broker a two-state peace deal with Israel.

Bolton Resigns U.N. Post

John Bolton, a staunch defender of Israel, resigned as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The White House said Monday that Bolton would step down once his recess appointment ends.

President Bush had given Bolton the position in August 2005, but his nomination was blocked in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The appointment will expire by early January, though Bolton may step down earlier.

Most major U.S. Jewish groups broke with tradition to endorse Bolton, who, in addition to his support of Israel, is a strong opponent of Iran’s nuclear drive.

Venezuela’s Chavez Wins Re-Election

Hugo Chavez, who has been accused of encouraging anti-Semitism, was re-elected president of Venezuela. Chavez’s victory was announced late Sunday night. He won at least 61 percent of the vote to challenger Manuel Rosales’ 38 percent.

With his victory, Chavez gains another six years in power to pursue his Socialist-inspired policies.

In August, he drew fire for saying that Israelis “are doing what Hitler did against the Jews,” and that Israel is carrying out “a new Holocaust” against the Palestinians.

Critics have cited Chavez’s support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president who has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel’s destruction.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Debate on ‘minorities’ law worries Turkey’s Jews

Jewish and Christian leaders were optimistic when the Turkish Parliament began debating a bill regulating minority foundations and organizations.

The draft version — part of a reform effort driven by Turkey’s bid for European Union membership — contained provisions making it easier for minority groups to operate and reacquire properties that had been confiscated by the state.

But after a heated debate on the measure, with many parliamentarians objecting to its liberal approach, the version that passed Parliament offered little improvement over the past. In any case, the bill was then vetoed by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who felt it gave minority foundations too much freedom.

The debate illustrates Turkey’s continuing struggle with the issue of its non-Muslim minorities. But since Turkey must harmonize its laws with the European Union’s if it hopes to gain admission to the 25-member union, the question of minority foundations and how to regulate them is certain to come up again, and could prove yet another sticking point in the currently troubled relations between Ankara and Brussels.

Turkey’s Jewish community, for example, has had 22 of its foundations — synagogues and other property in Istanbul and in parts of Turkey where Jews no longer live — taken away.

Like the old law, which was filled with bureaucratic hurdles and burdens, the proposed one would have forbidden minority communities from joining international organizations.

Now that Sezer, a staunch secularist who often is critical of E.U.-inspired legislation, has vetoed the new bill, it goes back to Parliament or must be shelved.
Still, most disturbing for some was the tone of the debate in Parliament, much of it centering on whether allowing minority groups greater rights would give foreign powers more influence in Turkey.

The legal thinking behind the proposal was the same as that behind the older, more restrictive version, said Ester Zonana, a lawyer who advises Turkey’s Jewish community — “approaching minority foundations with a lack of trust.”

For example, the law offered no way for minority groups to reclaim or seek restitution for the thousands of properties — schools, synagogues and churches, cemeteries and other real estate — confiscated by the state in recent decades.

When the question of property restitution came up, some parliamentarians asked whether allowing Turks of Greek origin to reclaim property could force Turkey to hand back Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine church turned into a mosque by the Ottomans and then a state museum in 1935.

A member of the government even came to Parliament to report that Turkey holds documentation that proves the monument rightfully belongs to it.

“I was very angry during the debate,” said Mihail Vasiliadis, editor of Apoyevmatini, a daily Greek newspaper based in Istanbul. “They were not treating us as citizens. Why should I be treated differently than a Muslim?”

The government, which is led by the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party, argued that reform is needed when it comes to how minority foundations are handled.

“We are a nation that believes everyone has rights,” Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin told Parliament.

Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to Turkey last week shone a spotlight on the question of religious freedom in the country. Some 3,000 Orthodox Christians remain in Turkey, with another 70,000 Armenians and 25,000 Jews.

The pope offered his support for Christians in Turkey, whom he called “a small minority which faces many challenges and difficulties daily.” The pope’s visit also included a meeting with Turkey’s chief rabbi, Ishak Haleva, at the Vatican’s consulate in Istanbul.

Though they are guaranteed the same rights as Muslim citizens, Christians and Jews in Turkey long have complained about the legal hurdles they face.

The Orthodox patriarchate — which has been in Istanbul for 1,700 years, since the city was known as Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire — is the frequent target of nationalist protests. Grenades have been lobbed over its walls.

In recent decades the patriarchate has seen numerous properties, including schools and cemeteries, confiscated by the state. Its theological seminary was closed down in 1971 and has yet to be reopened, leaving the patriarchate unable to train clergy.

Ankara also refuses to recognize the patriarchate’s status as ecumenical, or global, saying it is responsible only for tending its dwindling flock in Turkey.

“Minority rights of non-Muslims is the issue that we have had the least progress on over the last six or seven years,” said Ioannis Grigoriadis, an assistant professor of political science at Isik University here. “It’s a common theme in all the” reports on Turkey’s E.U. membership bids.

“Other difficult issues have been dealt with more successfully, while with the issue of non-Muslim minorities that has not been the case,” he said.

Turkish historians trace suspicion of minority communities back to the tumultuous period after World War I, when Greece invaded the nascent Turkish state and other Western powers tried to carve up what remained of the decaying Ottoman Empire. At the time, the minorities were seen as being allied with the West.

In the early days of the Turkish republic, efforts were made to bring all religious foundations, Muslim and non-Muslim, under the government’s control, according to Elcin Macar, a professor at Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University who specializes in minority issues.

But in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly as the Cyprus conflict became more tense, the Turkish government moved toward greater restrictions on non-Muslim communities, with Turkish courts issuing decisions that allowed for the large-scale confiscation of minority properties.

“I believe that these decisions were not made in harmony with the law,” Macar said. “They were discriminatory.”

Although he believes there has been some improvement in minority communities’ legal standing, Macar said the underlying suspicion of them continues.

“The minority is still seen as a dangerous thing for us,” he said.

Sex and God

Libido. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Of the three major monotheistic traditions, Judaism has arguably done the most admirable job ofmicromanaging our lust. Our tradition teaches us that while the sex drive can wreck us, it can also, if channeled correctly, lead to loving relationships, pleasure and procreation.

In the inevitable struggle between the rabbinical ascetics, who wanted no more sex than absolutely necessary, and the sages like Nachmanides, who held the body in higher esteem than even the soul, the Nachmanidean view prevailed. There are entire talmudic passages (Nedarim 20a; Pesachim 112b) that give a whole new meaning to the phrase Oral Law.

That’s why Judaism has been more agile than other religions at handling modernity’s revolution in sexual mores.

And that’s why I hope and pray the authorities of the Conservative movement choose wisely when they decide this week whether to ordain openly gay rabbis and allow commitment ceremonies for homosexuals. Their decision, which was expected earlier this week, before The Journal’s press time, presented an opportunity to display the kind of deftness and sensitivity that marks much of Jewish thinking and law on human sexuality.

A wise decision on their part will stand in stark contrast to some very public examples of sexual dysfunction hitting the headlines these days.

Take Catholicism.

Last Friday the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $60 million to settle accusations by 45 people that priests had sexually abused them. The scandal speaks to a culture of institutional insensitivity that hid abusers even as it enabled them to victimize more children. But it also reflects a tradition that celebrated celibacy and sexual repression while repressing natural human urges and disguising deep pathologies.

And then there’s Islam.

Pierre Rehov’s just-released, must-see documentary “Suicide Killers,” which takes us into the lives of actual Palestinian suicide bombers, reveals young men who are so sexually repressed that the alluring fairy tale of 72 virgins awaiting them in heaven becomes compelling, if not overwhelming.

Indeed, writing in the HuffingtonPost.com, Iranian-born author Hooman Majd said the putative “war of civilizations” between the West and Islam is more about sex than we could ever imagine.

Majd cites a fatwa, or edict based on religious law, issued by a senior Shiite cleric, Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri on the day before Baghdad fell.

“What was most noted by the media was its rejection of an American presence in Iraq,” Majd writes. “Less noticed were the reasons given why: namely that if the U.S. stays in Iraq, ‘it will try to spread moral decay, incite lust by allowing easy access to stimulating satellite channels and spread debauchery to weaken people’s faith.'”

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has been facing a fatwa of its own.

It must decide based on Jewish law, or halacha, whether to ordain openly homosexual rabbis and to marry gays and lesbians in a Jewish ceremony.

The Reform movement permits these measures; Orthodoxy clearly rejects them.

The Conservative movement, which follows a 1992 decision barring openly gay individuals from its rabbinical schools and forbidding its rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, has struggled to find a halachic basis to fully include homosexuals in Conservative religious life.

One faction hews to the traditional interpretation of Leviticus 18:22, which on the face of it abhors same-sex unions: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Another proposal would obviate the biblical verse altogether, based on the view that it’s unjust.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, proposed a third option: ending the ban but adhering to a prohibition against anal sex between men. That’s right: everything but. This compromise, floated a decade ago by Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, is, at first glance, ripe for ridicule.

To traditional Jews the idea is repugnant. They tacitly condone the ordination of gay rabbis — let’s face it, all denominations have been ordaining closeted gay rabbis for years — just not openly gay ones.

To secular and Reform Jews, the idea of telling couples how they can have sex is cruel at worst, a joke at best. And make no mistake, if his proposal wins, expect Rabbi Dorff, one of the country’s leading bioethicists, to become a late-night television punchline.

I appreciate the fine line the rabbi is trying to walk — opening the doors to a radical new acceptance of human sexuality within halacha, without risking burning down the whole house.

What seems hypocritical on its face — telling men they can be gay but not that gay — is actually quite honest: Rabbi Dorff is not pretending, as many traditionalists do, that homosexuality is not already a fact of Jewish life; and he is not presuming, as many more secular Jews do, that Jewish tradition can exist divorced from halachic dogma.

But in the end, I am hoping the Conservative movement, my movement, takes the more liberal tack, and welcomes gays and lesbians fully into the fold.

Greenberg himself, in his 2004 book, “Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” provides a way to bring gays into Orthodox life with “no humiliation; no advocacy; no lying,” that is a major step forward for halachic Judaism. It’s a powerful lesson to all other Jews, and most all other religions.

Conservative rabbis open doors to gays, sort of

NEW YORK, Dec. 6 (JTA) — By the time leading Conservative rabbis
convened to discuss the movement’s approach to homosexuality, talk already
had turned to the day after.

With the endorsement Wednesday of three conflicting teshuvot, or
halachic responsa, by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
— two upholding the longstanding ban on homosexuality and one permitting
ordination of gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies — it’s likely that other
rabbis will now begin performing such ceremonies, comfortable in the
knowledge that they enjoy halachic sanction from the movement’s highest legal
body.

With advocates on both sides of the issue warning that it could
irreparably fracture the movement, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a leading
advocate of gay ordination, told a gathering at the Jewish Theological Seminary
on Tuesday to remember that Conservative Judaism is a large enough tent to
accommodate differing opinions.

“I have congregants who call me rabbi who disagree very strongly
with me,” Creditor said. “They still call me rabbi and I still call them friend.
There’s something really important about that.”

Momentum has been building for years for a more permissive
Conservative attitude toward homosexuality. Despite the 1992 decision of the
movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which upheld the ban on
gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies, a number of Conservative rabbis do
perform such ceremonies.

That number is expected to grow.

“I think there will be a significant change,” said Ayelet Cohen, a JTS
graduate and rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a Manhattan
synagogue for gays and lesbians.

An outspoken proponent of changing the traditional prohibition on
homosexuality, Cohen performed commitment ceremonies for gay couples prior
to this week’s decision by the committee. She said opponents of change no
longer will be able to use the law committee’s 1992 statement on homosexuality
as an excuse to continue excluding gays from the movement.

“According to the current position of the movement, gay men and
women are lesser human beings than heterosexuals.,” Cohen said. “Gay people
can be kept out of every level of lay leadership in our movement. Until now,
rabbis have been able to say, ‘There’s nothing I can do. My hands are tied.’ ”

But by deciding that continuing the ban on homosexuality also is a
legitimate position, the committee has ensured that local rabbis who oppose a
change in policy will have a halachic authority to cite in making their case.
There is considerably less ambiguity at the movement’s seminaries,
where much of the agitation to change policy has originated.

At the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, leaders long have made
clear their intention to ordain gay rabbis if the law committee issued a
permissive ruling.

In New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary has been less
forthcoming. Though he has said publicly that he supports gay ordination,
incoming Chancellor Arnold Eisen has outlined a process of consultation with
students and faculty that he intends to follow in deciding whether to ordain
gays.

KeshetJTS, a student advocacy group, says a survey shows that eight
out of 10 members of the JTS community would support such a move.

“I think that congregants are ahead of their rabbis on many issues, and
this is one of them,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi
and senior teaching fellow at CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning
and Leadership. “I can tell you that there are people who have wanted to go to
the seminary to become a rabbi and have chosen to go elsewhere, and will be
thrilled that that option will now be open to them.”

One such person is Aaron Weininger, an openly gay senior at
Washington University in St. Louis and a lifelong member of the Conservative
movement. His decision on where to apply to rabbinical school hinged on the
law committee’s decision.

“I would like to be able to apply to a Conservative seminary, and for
both ethical and personal reasons right now that’s not an option,” Weininger
told JTA before the vote.

Weininger said he would apply to the University of Judaism, but would
also consider JTS if that became an option.

Like other advocates of liberalization, Weininger said what’s at stake is
not just the status of gays in Conservative Judaism but the movement’s entire
approach to interpreting halacha.

He hopes the decision will lead to greater clarity in the way movement
authorities negotiate the line between fidelity to tradition and the demands of
contemporary life.

“Morality is at the very core of law, and that law really drives us
toward our aspiration of holiness and justice,” Weininger said. “And so if we in
turn interpret law to exclude people, we really violate the intent of the law.”

Given the multiple opinions allowed by the law committee, neither
advocates nor opponents of change will feel compelled to adjust their positions.

Still, many observers are hopeful that the decision will open a vital
discussion within a movement that once was America’s largest Jewish
denomination.

Creditor said Eisen’s use of the committee debate as an opportunity for
discussion is a step in the right direction.

“That’s a revolution,” Creditor said. “It might be quiet, but I think it’s
going to change things on the ground because rabbis can’t ignore the inclusion
of whichever teshuvot will be accepted. We can’t ignore it. There’s no hiding it.
It’s transparent.”

Letters to the Editor

L.A. Wealth

In the May 19, 2006, issue of The Jewish Journal, Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman noted that “of the 50 wealthiest Angelenos, 27 are Jewish” and further went on to say that their total wealth was on the order of $61.8 billion. As an engineer and hence a numbers guy, I figure that’s an average of nearly $2.3 billion per billionaire.

We L.A. Jews come from all sorts of backgrounds from virtually every corner of the globe and every affiliation from ultra-Orthodox to nonobservant. But in every Jewish heart and soul there must exist a bond that unites us all. I mention this after reading the dichotomy of the 27 wealthy Jewish Angelenos and the thousands of Holocaust survivors subsisting in Southern California on roughly $1,000 per month in Marc Ballon’s “Poverty Stricken” (Nov. 24)I was not personally on the list that Mr. Eshman refers to, and I don’t live in an affluent area like Brentwood or Bel Air, but I’d gladly send Ms. Zucker $250 to move. But of course that’s not the point.It seems to me that if we, as Jews, are to put any value at all on the principles of tzedakah (charitable giving) and tikkun olam (heal the world), we need to start at home by “never again” seeing articles that describe a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor’s inability to get $250 to move from Hemet to Palm Springs.

When Mr. Ballon quotes Todd Morgan as saying that philanthropists would gladly give to a Holocaust museum but not to the victims, I have to ask what’s wrong with this picture. With the hundreds of billions of dollars shared by L.A.’s affluent Jews, one would hope that some small percentage of this wealth could be earmarked to ensure that not only Southern California’s Holocaust victims, but all elderly Jews, can live in dignity for the last 10 or 20 years of their lives.

Ralph Krongold
Kagel Canyon

Confederation

The article in your issue of Nov. 3 by Josef Avesar, explaining the concept of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation, is a thoughtful, clear, concise yet comprehensive plan for relations between the Palestinian and Israeli states that so many hope to see peacefully coexisting (“Mideast Solution: A Confederation). A great deal of careful, creative and balanced effort has been invested by the IPC to foster an open dialogue on mechanisims by which current and future problems could be resolved. When the time is right, this proposal fully merits close consideration by the parties.

Ambassador Edward L. Peck
Former Chief of Mission in Iraq

The idea of an even loose confederation needs the agreement, and the good will of both sides. Early Arab rejectionism made impossible the overtures of left and liberal Jewish leaders to get along and create a binational state.

This conflict is a burden on both sides and should be put to an end in a reasonable and honorable way. Extremism will not be the solution. Extremes are the only solutions coming from the Arab side.

S. Lifshitz
Israel

I received a copy of the article by Josef Avesar on the formation of an Israel-Palestinian confederation (“Mideast Solution: A Confederation,” Nov. 3). This is a well written article with detailed proposals. In fact it is similar to the EU, where it functions well.The problem, of course, is to get the two partners to agree, and Mr. Avesar will have to come up with a workable plan to initiate discussions on how to take make this plan a reality.

Max Yas,
Victoria, B.C.

L.A. Times

Bill Boyarsky, like his former bosses at the L.A.Times and apparently the Chicago Tribune, just doesn’t get it (“Times Faces Tough Job,” Nov. 17). The paper keeps losing readers, and they think it’s because they had to cut a few staff members or hadn’t changed the front page format for a few years.

Boyarsky speaks about connecting with “the widely dispersed Latino, Chinese American, Korean American, Armenian, Russian, Persian, Pakistani and Indian immigrant communities….” That’s because when liberals speak about diversity, they inevitably break people down by pigmentation, sexual orientation or country of origin.

What the Times lacks is diversity of thought and opinion. It’s become little more than the mouthpiece for the DNC.

Only a fool would think it’s a mere coincidence that in a city that is, say, 40 percent conservative, the paper has lost approximately 40 percent of its circulation over the past six years.

Burt Prelutsky
North Hills

Davening at Aishhhhhh

It’s funny how people like David Suissa, with uncontrollable urges to shmooze in synagogues during services, somehow manage to keep quiet when sitting in theaters during movie screenings (“Davening at Aishhhhhh,” Nov. 17).

I guess they consider disrupting people’s entertainment from Hollywood a greater sin than disrupting their communication with God.

Daniel Iltis
Los Angeles

In David Suissa’s article, “Davening at Aishhhhhh'” he begins by stating, “It’s Shabbat, and you’ve come to pray.” After reading his opinion, I couldn’t help wondering what part of pray doesn’t Suissa understand. And more importantly, just who does he think he is praying to. The “shhhh” is a friendly reminder to know who he is standing before.

On Shabbat, the shul is quite full. Does Suissa realize that conversations are very distracting to the congregants around him?The next time Suissa comes to Aish Hatorah, there is a 10 a.m. class on prayer, where speaking and questions are encouraged. After the class, he can shmooze with the whole congregation and then get set up with a family for a delectable lunch with song and Torah discussions.

Jon Sher
Los Angeles

David Suissa responds: I am amazed at how some people are taking my light-hearted ribbing of Aish so seriously, so let me just say this: One of the leaders of Aish told me that they love this kind of stuff, because it spurs them on to constantly upgrade and freshen up what they do (in this case, their davening), no matter how good it already is.

This person, like many others, got the serious point of my article, which applies to every shul in the world: The better the davening and the melodies, the less you have to go shhhh. In other words, no shmoozing should be a result, not a rule. Was that serious enough for you?

Venice’s Eruv

I love the Orthodox community. I believe they are doing an important service for all Jews. However, this particular community is asking the government to participate and, in essence, promote an aspect of special religious need (“Carry On! Venice Gets an Eruv,” Nov. 24).Putting an “invisible wire” around a few miles of West Los Angeles is a glaring error when it comes to the separation of church and state, or in this case, synagogue and state.