Jew of Arcadia


Becky Wahlstrom isn’t a Jew, but she plays one on TV. As Grace Polk on CBS’s “Joan of Arcadia,” the blond Chicagoan looks refreshingly unlike your stereotypical Jewish character. Of course, Grace’s character wasn’t supposed to seem Jewish from the start. The contrary, politically outspoken, rebellious teenager in black has been packed with surprises since her character debuted in last year’s first season. Recently, it came to light that her mother is an alcoholic. Toward the end of last year, it was revealed that her father was a rabbi and that, at age 16, she was finally giving in to his pleadings that she have a bat mitzvah. Tonight, then, is the big night. Grace will become a woman in the eyes of the Jewish community at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 26.

“Joan of Arcadia,” is a one-hour teen/family drama, that centers around the titular Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn), an average teenage girl who just happens to hear from God on a regular basis. Although an ongoing plot point this season involves Joan’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) returning to Catholicism, the God on this show is supposed to be nondenominational, embracing people of all faiths.

Coinciding with the bat mitzvah storyline in this episode titled, “The Book of Questions,” is one in which Joan must cope with the death of a close friend, priming a discussion on one of the heaviest questions religion tackles: mortality. As the show rarely brings in the viewpoint of any one religion, it’s noteworthy that they chose a Jewish perspective to tackle such a weighty issue.

“I think the amalgamation of this rite of passage and Jewish theology had a certainly important part to play in [the characters] finding meaning and comfort,” said Cantor Chayim Frenkel of Kehillat Israel, who, in addition to teaching Wahlstrom how to chant her Torah reading for the episode, also served as a technical adviser and has a cameo appearance.

Grace and Joan’s inner conflicts in this episode made the idea of questions a logical theme, according to the episode’s writer, Ellie Herman. Grace’s conflict is that while part of her wishes to appease her parents by going through with the bat mitzvah, there’s another part that both fears her mother’s alcoholism will be revealed to the public and questions whether this ritual even holds any meaning for her. Meanwhile, Joan is grieving and angry with God for showing himself but refusing to give her any answers about why her friend had to die.

In Judaism, Herman noted, it’s all about questioning, and this is what Grace eventually realizes. She is handed the Torah, which Herman described as the true “book of questions.” Grace, a rebel with a mind of her own, realizes “she’s not being handed a bunch of answers. She’s being handed all the questions of life,” Herman said.

For Herman, a seasoned writer of shows like “Chicago Hope” and “Party of Five,” this subject matter was particularly close to her heart, having undergone an adult bat mitzvah herself two and a half years ago.

“It is an event that I feel is profound, one of people publicly claiming their spirituality,” Herman said.

The bat mitzvah service and reception scenes were filmed at North Hollywood’s Temple Adat Ari El. Wahlstrom also understood the importance of her role, and took seriously the particular challenge of chanting Torah. She worked with Frenkel for two to three weeks on learning the melody and words phonetically from a transliteration Frenkel wrote out for her.

“Everything I’ve learned for this episode had to be researched. I’d never been to a bat mitzvah and had never even been to a temple before,” Wahlstrom said. Frenkel also invited Wahlstrom to attend a bat mitzvah service at Kehillat Israel to help her prepare for the role.

She said that at least in one respect, it was easy for her to play the part of a rabbi’s daughter.

“I have one parent who is extremely religious, so it wasn’t uncomfortable for me to imagine one parent being extremely religious. It just happened to be Jewish instead of Catholic,” Wahlstrom said.

As for his student’s level of success, Frenkel proudly said. “She was amazing. She was like any of my great bat mitzvah kids at K.I.”

For more information about the show, visit

Eighth-Graders to Chart Own Course

Allowing students to chose what they want to study in religious school is sure to loosen a standardized curriculum. But such an exercise in democracy potentially can also instill commitment by its participants.

The O.C. Bureau of Jewish Education is counting on the latter. At the Eighth-Grade Jewish Values Weekend, May 14-16 at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, students will vote on the course content for their ninth-grade Adat Noar year. "This is what makes it one of the most popular weekend programs," said Robyn Faintich, the bureau’s youth programs director. "By choosing what they will study, these teens are beginning the process of making adult Jewish choices."

The students are divided into subgroups that examine one of 10 possible topics. After exploring a topic, each group creates a campaign skit to "sell" their subject for the 5765-5766 school year to their peers. Previous topics have ranged from "Relationships" and "Confronting Anti-Semitism, Bias and Hate" to "Shmirat haGuf: Guarding the Mind, Body & Soul" and "The American Jewish Teen." After the presentations, students vote for the minicourses that they think most apply to their lives and their concerns.

The weekend emphasizes icebreakers and mixers that help each teen make new friends and nurtures a youth community.

"I think getting ready for Shabbat is a favorite part of the weekend" said Romy Haase, a bureau alumna who has worked at the last two eighth-grade weekends.

"Students choose activities such as baking challah, Israeli dancing, and Shabbat z’mirot [songs]. They are also encouraged to write Shabbat-o-Grams [welcome messages] to each other — these notes are collected and then distributed at Shabbat dinner."

The weekend is open to all Jewish eighth-graders from Orange County and Long Beach. To register, download an application at or call (714) 755-4000.

Applications are due by May 3.

Food for Thought

Maybe you’ve noticed that many of the bagel chains today are named after some of the most influential Jewish figures in history — Einstein, Noah. But have you ever stopped to think that maybe it’s the bagels that spurred all of this insight?

Well, the creators of, a new Web site connecting and inspiring college students in Southern California, seem to think so.

Launched in November 2002, is an online meeting place where young adults can interact and explore a wide range of topics that are relevant to their lives — as college students and as Jews. Sponsored by Hillside Memorial Park & Mortuary, The Jewish Community Foundation and The Jewish Federation’s Israel Experience Program, the colorful site offers financial aid and internship directories, buddy chat and a college prep section for high school students. There is even an Ask the Rabbi column where students can get advice from an array of rabbis on subjects that range from “Why do we eat latkes on Chanukah?” to “I am in a serious relationship with someone who is Catholic, but I am worried that if we marry I will jeopardize my relationship with my Orthodox grandparents.”

But what makes stand apart from other Web sites for Jewish college students is that the majority of the content is written by student contributors. Students can review restaurants and movies, share the news on their campuses, keep a campus diary, or write in about anything that is on their minds. Not only does the site encourage creative expression, but it also offers students an opportunity to be published.

As for the mascot, creators believe that “the bagel” represents the Jewish, yet nondenominational and limitless nature of the site.

“It is identifiable and memorable. Jewish, but not religious or Zionist. What is perfect about this name is that while it is Jewish, it’s not tied to any specific type of Judaism. There is a large variety and many different types of bagels, just like the Jewish community. But most importantly it resonates with the people we want to reach,” said Meirav Ravid, site editor.

Perhaps there’s even a few young Einsteins or Noahs in the bunch.

Students can e-mail stories to .

Something to Talk About

Their subjects will range from anti-Semitism to baseball’s Ted Williams, from the messianic era to Disney’s “The Lion King.” The High Holiday sermons of Orange County’s rabbis will be both as topical as today’s headlines and as traditional as 2,000-year-old tomes.

Rabbis spend weeks ruminating over topics and scouring scholarly texts before putting pen to paper or hunkering behind a keyboard. Last year, of course, their advance work never was never delivered. Sept. 11’s shock wave immediately before Rosh Hashana shredded every prepared text.

This year, the anniversary of the terrorist attack falls between the two High Holidays: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. With fast-shifting events in Israel, spiritual leaders remain a bit leery about committing too early to a subject only to see it turn stale in the wake of a suicide-bombing.

“It’s too precious an opportunity not to be purposeful,” said Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Tustin. “It’s the one time I have everybody there.” His intention is “to give them a fix of the joy of belonging. Living Jewishly is countercultural. I want to remind them of why it’s worthwhile and enriching to be in God’s presence in a communal setting.”

Spitz prepared for the holidays by attending an annual sermon seminar in Los Angeles and reading eclectically. He is the rare rabbi whose remarks are extemporaneous. “I just get up and speak it in the moment,” he said, describing his approach as generating the sort of titillation as “high-wire walking.” “Sometimes it’s better than others.”

Others nail down their outlines weeks ahead. Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr, a Reform synagogue in La Mirada, was ready in July. Among his topics are the philosophy of author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; anti-Semitism as a guise for anti-Israel sentiment; and the example of congregant Marcia Finkel, who found hope and laughter more effective than antidepressants before dying in June from cancer.

How to keep hope alive is also the focus of one sermon by Rabbi Michael Mayershon of Temple Beth David, a Westminster Reform congregation. His Yom Kippur address about Israel is equally sobering. It asks, “Are we witnessing a funeral for peace?”

A recent trip to Berlin figures in a sermon planned by Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Bat Yahm, a Newport Beach Reform congregation. Visiting a villa where the Nazi hierarchy plotted the Holocaust in 1942, Miller and others attending the legal conference spontaneously held a Shabbat service. “To have those prayers echoing in that room which echoed with ‘Heil Hitlers’ was overwhelming.”

Other Miller topics include the consequences of greed and avarice in corrupting corporate ethics, and the final inning of baseball legend Ted Williams, whose son is seeking his father’s immortality through modern-day mummification.

Another celebrity, Simba, will take the spotlight in remarks by Rabbi Neal Weinberg of Temple Judea, an independent congregation in Laguna Woods. Rather than a coming of age movie, Weinberg sees Disney’s “The Lion King” as a Jewish parable about returning to Jewish living.

Rabbi Rick Steinberg of Irvine’s Congregation Shir Ha Ma’alot, a Reform synagogue, intends to explore spiritually coping with unexplainable events. “The biggest challenge is to give word and voice to things that don’t make any sense,” he said. An example, Steinberg said, is as close as the traditional “l’chaim; it’s a powerful toast. We live for life.”

He also intends to draw a historical parallel to current events. “It’s not the Holocaust. It’s not the crusades. What’s going on is not anti-Israel; it’s anti-Jewish,” he said. “Every Jew no matter where they live is part of that.”

Being realistic about apologies and forgiveness is a theme of Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue, Irvine’s Reconstructionist congregation. “People have this fantasy that forgiveness should immediately transfer grudges and pain. Sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. His Yom Kippur sermon is action-oriented, moving from repairing the soul to repairing the world. “We have to move from the hard work of apologizing and forgiving to the hard work of giving funds to social transformation.”

Taking the least topical approach are the rabbis of two Orthodox congregations.

“I think it’s wrong for rabbis to speak about current events,” said Rabbi David Eliezrie of Yorba Linda’s Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen, although he concedes to bending the rule last year when he spoke about Israel. “It should be about the spiritual themes of the holidays; for the Jews who come to synagogue once a year, to give them that moment to connect them to their heritage and their spirituality.”

Viewing the current conflict through a 2,000-year-old theological perspective is Rabbi Joel Landau of Irvine’s Beth Jacob Congregation. His sermon will take an apocalyptic tone.

“It seems to be pretty clear that the Messianic era, whenever it is, it’s getting pretty close,” he said. “People ought to take their Judaism more seriously.”

His subtext is the potency of prayer and Jews who are inhibited by religious expression. By comparison to Muslims, he notes, who, no matter the circumstances, devotedly drop to their prayer rugs five times a day.

“Prayer is not a spectator sport,” Landau said. “It’s a contact sport.”

Jewish Groups on Stem Cell Debate

"When does life begin?" is not your standard political question, but it’s forcing the debate behind one of the hottest topics in Washington — stem cell research.

As President Bush ponders whether to allow federal funding for research using stem cells from discarded human embryos, Jewish ethicists and groups are debating the finer moral points of the issue.

Like the president, some groups are still delaying a formal position, but most ethicists agree that Jewish tradition allows embryos to be destroyed if the research has the potential to benefit society.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to find traditional Jewish sources that address stem cell research directly, says Prof. Paul Root Wolpe, an ethicist at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, Jewish ethicists are extrapolating from the Jewish legal tradition and rabbinic commentaries.

Many authorities cite the Jewish tradition’s imperative to heal and the concept of pikuach nefesh — the responsibility to save human life, which overrides almost all other laws — to approve a broad range of medical experimentation.

A stem cell is a special kind of cell that has a unique capacity to renew itself and to develop into specialized cell types.

Researchers use stem cells to replace cells that are damaged or diseased. Many believe stem cell research can lead to cures for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and more.

Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America is in favor of stem cell research, as is the National Council of Jewish Women. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has yet to take a formal stand on the issue.

Jewish tradition places minimal life value in early-stage embryos outside the womb, since the Talmud defines any embryo up to 40 days old "as if it were mere fluid." Forty days roughly corresponds to the onset of "quickening," the first noticeable movement of a fetus in a womb.

In addition, the location of an embryo — that is, whether it is inside a woman’s uterus or in a lab — also makes a difference.

Embryos that remain outside the womb have no chance to become children, and therefore it is a "mitzvah" to use those embryos for research, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

"It’s not only permitted, there is a Jewish mandate to do so," Dorff said.

Others are less certain.

"There’s potential life here, and we need to respect that and be cautious," said Rabbi Aaron Mackler, professor of theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Mackler, who supports stem cell research, notes that using embryos taken from fertility clinics makes the case for research easier, because those embryos already have been created — for the purposes of in-vitro fertilization.

Dorff, who wrote a book on Jewish medical ethics, said creating an embryo specifically to be a source of stem cells is permissible, but less morally justifiable.

Current recommendations of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) state that federal funding should go only for research on frozen embryos that are slated to be discarded.

Early this year, Bush asked the Department of Health and Human Services to review stem cell research.

Government oversight of stem cell research could result in better research and quicker results, which would bolster the ethical argument for proceeding with federal funding, according to Ruth Macklin, professor of bioethics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

A just-released NIH report found that both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells "present immense research opportunities for potential therapy."

But while embryonic stem cells can proliferate indefinitely, adult stem cells cannot.

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of Jewish Medical Ethics at Yeshiva University in New York, called stem cell research "the hope of mankind."

"The only hope we have of understanding what’s going on in the whole field of oncology, of cancer work, now resides in the stem cell research," he said at a recent event in Washington, D.C.

Tendler criticized a Senate bill that would stop the possibility of stem cell research. "That I believe to be an evil that’s being perpetrated on America," he said.

The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America do not have formal positions on the issue. David Zwiebel, the executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel, suggested there would not be an ethical problem with using those embryos slated to be discarded, but was unsure whether the group wanted to weigh in on a policy level about use of government funds for the research.

The Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations sent letters last week to Bush and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in favor of "carefully regulated" federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Quoting Deuteronomy, the letter noted that Jewish tradition says that while only God can create life, God has charged humans with doing everything possible to preserve it.

"I have put before you this day life and death. Choose life, that you and your children may live," the letter said.