Traveling rabbi serves tiny Southern congregations


NATCHEZ, Miss. — As the sun inched below the horizon in this Mississippi River town, people arrived alone or in small groups and walked up the steps of Temple B’nai Israel on Shabbat.

Only about a dozen Jewish residents remain in Natchez, a city of about 16,400 best known for its elaborate plantation homes. As younger generations moved away, the congregation hasn’t had its own full-time rabbi since 1976.

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Visit to Another Israel

It’s time we stop kidding ourselves that Israel has survived well through the last three years. The country is unraveling at the seams.

My wife and three kids wanted to be in Israel for the winter break. We had a great time together as a family of adults, being with our Israeli friends, going places and touring. But from the moment we arrived at the hotel in Jerusalem on our first night, I noticed how things had changed even since my last business trip in June. At the hotel, we were slammed in the face with lobby pandemonium, a sense of nervousness, tension and the understandable hypersecurity precautions.

As our days went forward in Jerusalem, we felt as if the hotel pandemonium was a microcosm for what was happening all over the city. Jerusalem, which not so long ago felt like a blossoming, sensitive city of world culture that belonged to every Jew, now appeared as a city overrun by religious fundamentalists, squeezing out a creative, secular population. The city looked poor. Stores were closed down. Jaffa Road now resembled a third-world capital. Today, Jerusalem has the distinction of being the poorest city in Israel. Between terrorism, the economy and the increasing Charedi population living on donations and welfare, this does not bode well for the future of the city, Israel and the Jewish people everywhere.

Neither does the building of a wall through the country. We found out that whether Israelis are pro or con about the wall, it is creating a national nightmare, unnerving everyone. The reality is that while the world celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the opening of borders everywhere, the Jews are walling themselves in. Whether it works or not, its existence is depressing. It has meaning and psychological gravity for us as a people, as well as for the entire Zionist effort, past and future. To see it doesn’t make one feel secure, only sad. It points to the reality of why it has to be done. There is no victory or celebration in that reality. It is not a proud Jewish moment of ingenuity. How we look to the world from our side of this wall is not a good situation. We cannot ignore world opinion. We must be cultivating the world to support us.

As we traveled through the country, our friends expressed frustration, anger, resignation and a continual fear of slipping into unemployment. Conversations with their adult children all revolved around the possibilities of their leaving. Many claim to see no future for themselves in Israel if the situation continues.

The daily stories in the Israeli press about hungry and impoverished families, the growing percentage of children who are falling into the category of deprived, the increase in family violence, and the levels of corruption in government and business can destroy even the brightest winter mornings of warm Middle Eastern sun.

A friend of mine who lost a soldier son to a Hamas terrorist kidnapping invited me to meet with him and 10 other parents who have lost children to terrorism. They were extraordinary people and I enjoyed helping them. I left the meeting completely drained and depressed.

An Arab friend who lives in Beit Hanina section of East Jerusalem pointed to the checkpoint from his window and told me about his 14-year-old son walking to school and getting caught in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and some Arab men jumping the checkpoint. My friend watched from the window, shouting to his son to stand still, which saved his life.

We shopped in Israel, spending money to help in whatever small ways we could. Our friends commented how encouraged they were by our presence as an entire family at this time. But I cannot kid myself. In comparison to the enormity of the problems, our actions are nearly insignificant. They will not solve anything.

Israel needs to pursue every avenue to find a way to get out of its compounding mess. I don’t doubt that Israel will survive. But what kind of Israel survives is now of major concern.

We Jews have the creativity to find solutions to the world’s biggest challenges — in science, medicine, literature, music, arts, business and academia. Yet when it comes to this situation, the leaders have only displayed the thinking of a nation of victims. You don’t think creatively when you only think like a victim.

We are the people who, after thousands of years, had an idea to recreate our country. Where is Jewish creativity and all our ideas when we need them so badly now?

Gary Wexler is the owner of the Los Angeles-based Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes.

Faith in Travel

Vail, Colo., might seem like Siberia compared to the more established Jewish community of Los Angeles, yet here in Lionshead (elevation: 10,350 feet) there’s some 75 Jews gathered for Shabbat morning services.

Under the burning morning sun, the clouds feel close enough to touch as we sit on wooden benches facing the stage, a "wedding chapel" on the precipice of a mountain. Aspen trees line the hillsides and, in the clear distance, peaks crowned with snow glisten, reminding us of Vail’s other purpose.

As a relative newcomer to Southern California, I can find no rationale for leaving my beach community during the summer, but my internal travel bug is oblivious to reason and has sent me off to Colorado for outdoor adventures.

Yet, I am really only following in the tradition of the Jews, who have historically always been a nomadic people. Only in this last century have we seemed to settle down, and still, we are a more transient and traveling people than most. Perhaps it has to do with the comfort of readily available communities located in places as far as Siberia or as close as the Rockies.

B’nai Vail, a congregation of some 230 households, usually holds weekly services in the Vail Interfaith Chapel in the Valley, but in the summers they use the outdoors by praying at Gore Creek outside the chapel — and twice each summer at Eagle’s Nest on the mountain.

Its mission statement reads: "We are an active community committed to building a Jewish congregation that is welcoming to individuals and families of all backgrounds including full-time locals, part-time, summer and winter residents and visitors who are here for just a short time. The beautiful and splendid natural environment that surrounds us enhances our Jewish experience,"

Cantor Jennifer Werby welcomes the congregation, advising us to take in our surroundings and yet remain "present" for the services, to push away thoughts of the outside world and concentrate on the godly. It’s hard not to. Even as a baby fox darts by with a mouse in its mouth, as mountain bikers and hikers stand on the side observing, the cantor’s familiar opening Carlebach melody brings me back to dozens of similar services, from Los Angeles to the Upper West Side and Jerusalem.

During the Torah reading — yes, on the top of the mountain, there’s a Torah, not to mention wine and challah for "Kiddush" — the cantor calls up various members of the congregation and, finally, all those who have not been called up. We stand close to the edge of the stage, closer to the sky than to the ground, recite the blessing and kiss the holy scroll.

I am visiting a girlfriend who has moved here to be with her boyfriend, whom she is hoping will eventually convert to Judaism. This is his first service, and I think it has inspired him; I have been to services all my life, and it has managed to move me, too.

In life, when we travel, we seek out the exotic, yet we also search for the familiar. The Jewish communities of Colorado are challenged by issues similar to those in other American communities: intermarriage, assimilation, disinterested youth, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The characters are even the same.

I was reminded of this when I visited my cousins in Denver, the rabbi and rebbetzin of the Charedi community, a growing group of some 100 families. I asked my cousin if he would be interested in meeting with the Conservative rabbi of a synagogue on the other side of town. My learned cousin stammered; he was busy, he might say hello in a social setting, he said. Finally, as I stood there, he admitted: "We don’t have official meetings with them, because we Orthodox only believe there’s one way — the Orthodox way."

A meeting with non-Orthodox rabbis would imply that he believed the others were rabbis, he explained, citing the rabbi he followed who ruled against it. A gentle and intelligent man, my cousin brought to life for me the conflict in the book, "One People, Two Worlds," conversations between a Reform and an Orthodox rabbi who ultimately could not seem to find common ground.

The old Zionist pioneering song says, "Kum v’hithalech ba’aretz…" ("Get up and go travel around the country, with a backpack and a walking stick, and maybe on the way we will meet the Land of Israel").

Wherever our travel bug takes us to this summer — whether it’s Israel, Denver, Siberia or Spain — we may be trying to escape, but what we might find, as I did in Colorado, is ourselves … for better and for worse.

Tourist Trap

Summer is often a season of travel and vacation. Whether travel is a part of our plans for this summer, most of us have had the experience of being a tourist.

Some of us are bold and adventurous travelers; we enjoy exploring every new place and sight. Others of us, just as curious about our new surroundings, travel in a more reserved and cautious style. Yet, for all of us, whenever and however we travel, this definition applies: a tourist is someone who stands on the outside looking in.

When we travel, we are often asked, “Where are you from?” Our answer to that question is a statement of personal identity. The place that we each call home and the cultural values that each one of us reflect, define who each of us is in the larger world of people and places.

The truth is, we do not have to go far to be tourists. We don’t even have to take a trip. We meet people all the time who stand on the outside of their own life experiences looking in. These are people who live separate from — and unaffected by — those around them, the things that happen to them or the chances before them. These are individuals who don’t recognize the truth in the cliché that “life is what happens while we are making plans.”

The story is told of a young man who finished his education and started out his adult years with a great desire to live an exciting and important life. Like many young men before him, he had grandiose expectations of accomplishing great things. The trouble was that he didn’t really know how to go about doing it, so he lived his life and routine as it seemed he should, as most of us would. He fell in love with a good woman, raised a family with her, earned some money working, made some mistakes and corrected as many of them as he could. He traveled a little, read a little, made new friends and volunteered here and there.

Toward the end of his years, he dreamed that the angel of death approached him.

“But I have not had the chance to truly live and accomplish the great things I had hoped to achieve,” he complained.

The angel of death was puzzled and asked: “What have you been doing all these years?”

The now-elderly man answered by recounting how he had only loved, raised a family, worked, talked, helped some, made a few mistakes, traveled a bit and learned what he could — but that he had never truly understood much about his place in the world.

“But don’t you see,” replied the angel of death, “that is life.”

Too many of us live with the expectation that life is something more than our actual experience. We are like tourists on a journey through the challenges and opportunities of every day. We have in our mind’s eye a different image of what we’re supposed to do, or even of whom we are supposed to be. The real challenge is to make ourselves at home with who we are.

At the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, God instructs Moses and Israel to place a fringe, the tzitzit, “on the corners of their garments … so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (Numbers 15:38-41). The Torah’s concern was paganism and idolatry. Yet for us, as for every generation, the tzitzit are significant as a reminder of God’s commandments.

We remember that the Jewish people’s proud place in life is found in the doing of mitzvot. Every one of us can be a privileged participant in this sacred purpose. None of us need stand on the outside looking in. Each of us can know the comfort and confidence of feeling at home in Jewish tradition and community.

The Torah’s word for “follow” is derived from the Hebrew word for scouting or touring. Moses instructs each tribe’s scouts with this same word at the beginning of the portion: “To scout the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:2).

As Rashi suggests, our heart and eyes are our body’s scouts. Through them we desire and discover all of life’s opportunities. In touring the world, we determine with our heart and eyes where we might visit and where we will reside. The message here is one of caution. In order to make ourselves feel at home and to understand where we are from, we ought not to follow our heart and eyes toward things foreign to the reality of our own experiences. Rather, we are encouraged to turn within, to recognize who we are and to live on the inside, at home in Jewish identity and present every day in the personal circumstances and genuine context of our lives.

Ron Shulman is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Where Have All the Jews Gone?

It was one of those moments that capture a nation’s interest. The Powerball Lottery reached $314.9 million and one person, Andrew J. Whittaker from Hurricane, W.Va., was the lucky winner. As the media descended upon him and his wife, Jewell, asking them about everything under the sun, one question caught my attention. Jewell was asked what she wanted do with her newfound wealth. Without hesitation she responded, "I want to visit the Holy Land and walk the streets where Jesus walked."

Fascinating. She didn’t mention any concern about traveling to Israel during these trying times; rather, she simply expressed her strong desire to fulfill this lifelong dream.

Recently, a friend told me that his brother and sister-in-law flew from Newark, N.J., to Israel. The plane was filled with Christian church groups traveling on a Holy Land pilgrimage. When his sister-in-law got up to walk in the aisles, a fellow passenger stopped and inquired, "And what church are you from?"

When she said that she was Jewish, the lady remarked, "I think you are the only Jew on this flight."

Where have all the Jews gone? Not to Israel.

Take a look at the ads for luxury Passover destinations in any of the Anglo Jewish papers. You will find ads for Palm Springs, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Miami, Orlando, Hawaii, San Juan, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Aruba, Barcelona, Budapest, Cannes, Italy and the Swiss Alps. Where have all the Jews gone? Not to Israel. That has to change; we have to demonstrate that American Jews belong in Israel this Passover.

On Monday, Dec. 23, 2002, the West Coast Union of Orthodox Congregations and the Israel Ministry of Tourism honored my synagogue, Young Israel of Century City, for organizing three solidarity missions to Israel during 2002. We went in January, July and November. I was informed of this honor while leading the November mission. I was thrilled with the announcement but asked why we were chosen. I was told that no other synagogue in the city organized so many missions in one year. On the one hand, I was proud; on the other, I felt despair that others weren’t going.

Why haven’t many other congregations organized even one mission to Israel during this period? Why doesn’t our own Jewish Federation organize more solidarity missions throughout the year? Our synagogue participated in a communitywide mission that The Federation ran almost two years ago, but isn’t it time now for many more missions to occur? Is there anything more crucial than helping the State of Israel overcome her feeling of abandonment during these difficult days?

On each mission we found the country empty of tourists. On one trip a member of our group needed to change his room in the hotel. When he inquired about the availability of another room, the clerk laughed and said, "How many rooms would you like? You are the only ones in the hotel."

Jerusalem at night, once a haven of tourists, is too silent to bear. Businesses, once dependent upon the Jewish tourist trade, are closing. On each of our trips, Israelis stopped us in the streets and thanked us for visiting. They told us, "When you return to the United States, tell others to come. This is their home. Why aren’t they here with us?"

On a recent speaking tour of Los Angeles, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, recounted the following: During the 1948 War of Independence, the great rabbinic figure of Bnei Brak, the Hazon Ish, instructed that no Jews should leave the country, even if they are fearful, since this would harm the nation’s stability. A Jew, the Hazon Ish declared, is morally and halachically obligated to strengthen Israel and may never do anything that may harm her. Relying on this observation, Riskin told his audience that now it is our turn to strengthen Israel. There is no more important act, the rabbi said, than to come to Israel and be with her people.

After delivering one of my many impassioned sermons on this topic, a member of my congregation asked me why I am so driven by this issue. I told him that two factors have influenced my thinking. The first occurred while I was still a boy. It was the Six-Day War. Right before the war began, and as the drums of battle were beginning to be heard, a cartoon appeared in the Israeli press. American Jews in Israel at that time quickly packed and left for safer havens, and the cartoon sarcastically depicted this state of affairs with the caption, "Will the last American Jew to leave Lod Airport please turn off the lights." After seeing that cartoon, I became convinced that no American Jew should ever allow such a situation to occur again.

The second reason is history itself. All students of the Holocaust know that American Jewry did not do enough on behalf of their suffering brethren in Europe. We remained too complacent during those terrible times. When the history of this period will be written I don’t want the same indictment to be lodged against our community. We must literally stand shoulder to shoulder with our Israeli brethren in their time of need.

So, where have all the Jews gone? The answer must be — on a solidarity mission to Israel.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Have Rabbi, Will Travel

Ricky Nelson, whose hit “I’m a Traveling Man,” put him on the map decades ago, has a lot in common with Rabbi Marc Rubenstein.

Like the character in the song, Rubenstein spends a good portion of his time traveling the county in various capacities, from acting as a self-appointed social worker to serving as the rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Newport Beach.

Rubenstein, 52, born into a Conservative family in New York City, studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem before obtaining his bachelor’s degree in religion and history from the American University in Washington, D.C. His rabbinical training was conducted at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York.

“I got my so-called traditional background from my Jewish grandmother who I could do no wrong in front of. If you don’t have a Jewish mother, you have a Jewish grandmother. We lived in the Orthodox section of New York and my mom rebelled against her Jewishness and didn’t want to keep kosher.”

A single father of three grown children, Rubenstein said the biggest problem that Orange County Jewish singles face is finding a mate. “We have more elderly and more Jewish singles than ever before. A lot of people who want to join congregations are finding rabbis who will provide for them a social and religious interest — they are looking for it on a personal level rather than at a synagogue level or pleasure level. Most people are looking today for religion one-on-one with God and they want something New Age or contemporary.

“They are looking for their soulmate,” he continued. “The other day a single mom called the administrator at the synagogue saying she was looking for a husband; that’s my case in point.”

There are a lot of venues for finding a mate outside the synagogue, Rubenstein said. “Usually, I wind up interacting with a lot of singles. I go to the Santa Ana Courthouse on a weekly basis to help women get through a divorce. A lot of people will come to me because they don’t want to pay their attorney or they don’t want to pay a therapist, but the rabbi is always accessible. My cell phone is on 24/7, so I’ll answer a call from the general public in need. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I build spiritual bridges and help people get to be where they want to be.”

When he was younger his favorite shows were “Highway to Heaven” and “Touched by an Angel.”

“You know, the lone spiritual ranger who helps people in distress get out of their chaos or misery,” he said. “I do about 10 to 20 conversions a year, spiritual counseling, helping settle family issues.”

In addition, Rubenstein serves as the Jewish chaplain at Hoag Hospital. “Maybe because I’m single myself, I think I’m the only unattached one in Orange County, that singles feel comfortable with me,” he said. “A lot of the work I do is in and outside the congregation, as well as interfaith work.”

Rubenstein doesn’t mind traveling from one border of the county to the other, spreading his good word. “I think the ‘have rabbi, will travel’ business started because I never limited myself to just congregational work,” he said. “I’m always out and about helping where I can. My one detriment is that I can’t sing, so I’m not really a performer, but an informer.”

Prior to his stint in Newport, he was a rabbi in Ohio, Michigan and Northern California before coming to Southern California in 1990. He left Temple Isaiah in 1995 and returned again in 2000.

“Our temple is unique in that we have an older congregation, but we also have a lot of singles. My message to singles in Orange County: retain your Jewishness.”

Licensed in 22 states to perform weddings and funerals, he also serves as the official Disneyland rabbi. Rubenstein likes to golf, spend time with kids, sail and go to the movies in his spare time. “I have a five-year rule: if you’re not going to worry about something five years from today, why worry about it now?”

L.A.’s Hidden Battalions

High-power Israeli Defense Force (IDF) squads have been traveling to choice tourist destinations worldwide this summer, but not for vacation.

According to reports on Y-Net, the Web site for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, the squads were scouting projected sites for recruitment stations. These recruitment stations, said the report, would go up either in consular offices or at Jewish schools and community centers in cities such as Frankfurt, London, Paris, Bangkok, Bombay and Johannesburg, as well as New York and Los Angeles.

Led by IDF adjutants with the rank of lieutenant colonel, the squads were asked to work with local consulates to devise mechanisms and procedures for the emergency recruitment and airlifting of Israeli reservists sojourning abroad. Israelis reporting in would be directed to special Tel Aviv-bound El Al flights. Seats aboard flights would be accorded to volunteers, based on their respective army backgrounds and the needs of the army at the time. Upon arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, returnees would be directed to special kiosks, where IDF Manpower Branch personnel would process orders and attach stragglers to units.

News of these activities and plans caused a stir in Israel and abroad because, according to the Washington Times, they seemed to offer "the most concrete indication yet that Israel is preparing for a wider conflict in the Middle East."

But Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s Los Angeles consul for communications and public affairs, told The Journal that reactions to what remained a routine attempt to devise a "consular structure" for emergency wartime recruitment were completely "out of proportion to the reality."

Contacted for media follow-ups, the IDF spokesman’s office emphasized the routine nature of the adjutants’ activities. "This conflict has been going on for a long time, and there’s always a chance for deterioration," said one officer, "so this is part of the readiness. But we’re not defining this [series of expeditions] as marking a change of something in the current situation."

In addition, Dr. Zvi Elpeleg, a senior researcher with the Jaffee Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, said, "Neither I nor most of my colleagues and associates envision the eruption of a regional war at this time. Such a conflict would be the last thing our neighboring states need or want."

Dr. Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said the IDF doesn’t believe escalation is imminent. "The opening of recruitment centers was planned well in advance, and [is] part of the realization that many reservists go abroad immediately after the army, particularly from the combat units." Inbar has been quoted as saying that there are as many as 18,000 potential combat reservists traveling through India at any one time.

Shahar said that Israel, over the years, has expressed varying degrees of interest in the mechanics of reaching, recruiting and returning the many battalions of young Israelis who wend their ways around the world after putting in their compulsory two or three years of service.

Los Angeles, with a permanent Israeli population of 150,000, according to consular estimates, attracts many such wayfarers, who often stop here for short periods to replenish their finances before continuing on to the next leg of their world travels.

According to estimates given by the Jaffee Institute and other sources, anywhere from 3.5 percent to 5 percent of the IDF’s entire combat reserve potential can be found at any given time traveling abroad. During Ehud Barak’s tenure as chief of staff, though, the emphasis was on making a smaller, smarter, more dynamic army; interest in this potential wellspring therefore declined.

Now, according to reports in the Hebrew press, the standing army finds itself with far greater numbers of recruits than it wants or needs. Exemptions from service are far easier to obtain than previously, and the stigma attached to evading service is minimal.

This surfeit of manpower does not seem to extend to the reserves, however, which may explain the sudden interest in Southern California’s hidden battalions. In Israel these days, the burden of duty increasingly seems to fall unevenly on the proportionately fewer backs of combat reservists.

And if recent surveys are to be trusted, many of them are none too happy about it. One poll conducted earlier this summer indicated that some 44 percent of combat reservists feel like "suckers" for complying with this arrangement.

The IDF’s response has been to seek ways to reward those shouldering the greatest burden. Earlier this month, for instance, following a potential strike by Air Force combat pilots seeking the same kind of life insurance available to members of the standing forces, the IDF extended policies to all members of the reserves. Substantial pay raises, meanwhile, have been meted out to combat-ready soldiers both in the standing army and the reserves.

Whether such enticements appeal to Israeli Angelenos, however, is doubtful.

Certainly, older residents, who may have families and the normal array of familial and financial obligations, will find it difficult to simply up and go, even in a full-scale call-up. Nor, according to Shahar, would the army have much use for them.

"Anyone who hasn’t served in a combat unit for 10 or more years probably wouldn’t be accepted into service anyway," she told the Journal.

One potential recruit for emergency service is Amir Blachman, a 29-year-old Brentwood resident. Blachman, who if not called up will be starting studies at UCLA in the fall, was born in the United States to Israeli parents, and was raised in Southern California. He volunteered to complete national service during his early 20s, though, and spent two and a half years in uniform as an Air Force instructor at a Southern airbase. Only a day before returning for a personal visit, Blachman told The Journal that in an emergency call-up, he’d jump aboard the first plane that would take him.

"I wouldn’t say that this would be everyone’s response," he said, in light of the talk he’s been hearing at Friday-night kaffee-klatsches over the summer. "There are people who are here who are just burned out from the army and Israel, as well as people who may have put down roots and could not easily leave their homes and families. I won’t judge them, any more than I’m prepared to judge American Jews who won’t visit Israel now because they are concerned for safety. I just know that I’d have my bags packed in an hour."