It’s not about settlements, stupid, it’s about trust


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Interior Minister Eli Yishai did more to harm U.S.-Israel relations than all of Israel’s detractors around the world ever could when they decided it is more important to build 1,600 houses in East Jerusalem than to have good relations with one house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It’s hard to believe the timing of the announcement out of a ministry run by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party at the start of Vice President Joe Biden’s make-love-to-Israel visit authorizing construction in the fervently religious Ramat Shlomo neighborhood was simply an “innocent” matter of poor timing, as Netanyahu and Yishai would have us think.

By the way, if you say Ramat Shlomo is in East Jerusalem and thus not covered by Netanyahu’s 10-month moratorium on construction beyond the 1967 border, hold on a minute.  Israeli and American media report Netanyahu agreed there would be no construction announcements for East Jerusalem, either, as long as his promise wasn’t made public.

The PM claims he was blindsided on what is obviously a very sensitive matter; if true, that raises a critical question: Who’s in charge?  If Yishai is running a rogue operation and he still has his job, then the first Israeli premier with an MBA is a mighty poor manager. 

Netanyahu, dismissing the incident as “regrettable” and “innocent,” apologized for the timing of the announcement but not its intent – building more housing for Shas’ constituents. Instead he tried to pin the blame on the Obama administration, reportedly saying the crisis was “orchestrated” by Washington. He ordered a full-court-press to lobby the Congress, the media and Jewish leaders to force the administration to back down. 

AIPAC quickly saluted and started generating letters and press releases calling on the administration to “diffuse” the crisis. Not a word about how a good friend like Biden had been humiliated – a word used by both governments.  ADL, which initially accused the Netanyahu government of creating the crisis, quickly reversed itself and joined the attack on the administration.

Amb. Michael Oren, a historian who should know better, called this the worst crisis since the 1975 “reassessment” by the Ford administration.  He apparently hadn’t heard about the 1990-92 Shamir-Bush I-Baker imbroglio.

Netanyahu’s latest offensive is reminiscent of his efforts in the 1990’s against the Clinton administration’s peace policies, but this time he doesn’t have a Republican-led Congress and Speaker Newt Gingrich running interference.

Biden, an Israel visitor for many years and strong supporter, went to reassure Israelis publicly and privately of the depth and strength of the administration’s support, from the President on down, and to emphasize the shared commitment to keeping Iran from going nuclear.  Under Obama, Biden told Israelis, the strategic relationship had been “expanded – not maintained, expanded.”

For many years every administration has urged Israeli and Arab leaders to offer “no surprises,” so when a good friend like Biden arrives and gets smacked in the face this way, it is easy to see why some might feel it was deliberate.

Israeli media have reported over the past year that the PM’s office has been a primary source of anti-Obama leaks.  The President hasn’t helped his cause by fumbling his Mideast policy in his first year and not visiting Israel, where he badly needs to personally convince centrist Israelis that he and his administration are reliable, caring friends.  That was part of Biden’s mission, and if that’s the way an old friend is treated, Obama is not going to be very anxious to visit.

This dispute is not about settlements. Or even about rogue Shas bureaucrats trying —successfully, it turns out—to derail a nascent peace process. It is about trust—a rapidly dissipating commodity.

That’s an old problem with Netanyahu.  He did not enjoy a reservoir of trust going into this crisis, and it’s not just with President Obama but also with a pair of former U.S. senators with staunch pro-Israel records, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.  If he manages to alienate them, he’s got major tzoris in managing the bilateral relationship.

He lost his premiership the last time – as did Yitzhak Shamir before him – because Israeli voters lost confidence in his ability to handle relations with what a Jerusalem Post editorial called “the only real friend Israel has in the entire world.” It said his government looks “completely incompetent” and its top priority must be “rebuilding that trust.”

You don’t do that by waging a lobbying campaign attacking the President of the United States.  Hopefully he won’t try that when – and if – he comes to Washington for next week’s AIPAC conference,

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote that if Netanyahu thinks he can “embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences,” he has “lost total contact with reality.”

The only winners in this crisis are the rejectionists.  Shas flexed its muscles, the settlers got more tribute, Netanyahu won brownie points with the nationalists and ultra-religious, the Arab League had an I-told-you-so-moment and withdrew its hechsher for the now-suspended talks, the Palestinians might name a park or soccer field for Eli Yishai, and the weak and ineffective Mahmoud Abbas gets to look tough. 

And peace, if it every really had a chance, looks even more remote.

Madoff’s Redemption


If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Keeping the peace


My wife Rosie, a professor of history, can be a formidable woman, especially when advancing upon some miscreant, tire iron in hand. That was the scene one midnight some years ago when she came across a man beating his wife in the middle of a Sunland street. Slamming on the brakes, she leaped out of the car prepared for battle. The offender promptly fled. Rosie gathered up the woman and her four small children and took them to our home where I awoke the next morning to find all five sleeping in our living room.

Several months later, Rosie received a letter from the LAPD, inviting her to accept a commendation for heroism from Police Chief Daryl Gates on Feb. 25, 1986. There were a number of good citizens being honored, and as each one received a certificate, they mumbled appropriate words of thanks and stepped down off the stage.

When her turn arrived, Rosie didn’t mumble. Instead, she gave the chief a three-minute lecture on how the LAPD discriminates against people of color. The chief sat through it, thanked her politely and moved on to the next honoree, while I made a mental note never to risk getting a traffic ticket from the LAPD.

In the 30 years that we have been together, I have yet to be the target of a wielded tire iron, but marriage to a political activist does require a certain flexibility of thought and dexterity of movement. Among the causes worthy of Rosie’s attention are advocacy for the homeless, the farm worker’s union, the security of Israel, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, same-sex marriages, racism, anti-Semitism, withdrawal from Iraq, the political defeat of anyone to the right of The Nation, and the gall of those Americans who believe that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America.

“How about those who were living here at the time. What were they, chopped liver?” the outspoken professor of Latin American history asks.

Nor does political activism end at the front door. As the principal family shopper, I am kept constantly aware by Rosie of changes in the political acceptability of some of the largest retailers and suppliers in the land. For some years, shopping at Target was forbidden (union busting), although it has now been restored to its place in the shopping pantheon; Wendy’s, because until recently it didn’t offer employment protection to gay and lesbian employees, and don’t even think of Wal-Mart as a beneficiary of our business.

It is true that I have not conducted any personal investigations to verify these accusations and that I am certainly not looking forward to any legal entanglements with high-powered attorneys representing American commercial interests. But shalom bayit, peace in the home, has been the foundation upon which a firm family relationship has been built and that not even Wal-Mart has the power to erode. So we buy produce from an independent greengrocer, coffee from a fair-trade company, eggs from a nice lady Rosie knows and, wherever possible, avoid those supermarkets that are not unionized.

(Countering this, and probably eliminating us forever from membership in the Sierra Club, is my 1992 Mercury Topaz, alias the anti-Hummer or “The Bummer,” which requires gassing up every month or so, not because it is stingy on gasoline but because I don’t drive much any more.)

The real secret for attaining successful family relations lies in what I propose as the 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not ask.” This runs counter to every warning about drug usage and other anti-social behaviors, and in favoring it I may be dead wrong, but I am dealing with a single family, not a nationwide sample. Of course, it only works if those involved trust one another, and while this may lead the family down some unfamiliar paths and unusual confrontations, it is a course wisely chosen and on a morally high level.

If you are still given to the old ways, be sure to avoid formidable women wielding tire irons.

Yehuda Lev, The Journal’s first associate editor, lives in Providence, R.I., where his business card reads Editor Emeritus. He can be contacted at yehudal@cox.net.

Trust but verify


yeLAdim


Mighty Glad to See You!

It was great seeing so many of you at the Israel Independence Day Festival on May 7 (we hope you enjoyed the fans). Be sure to check out our yeLAdim page on June 30, as we will be printing many of the essays you wrote for our 20th anniversary!

Kein v’ Lo:

Parental Spying?

There’s been a lot of talk in the news about people listening to other people’s phone calls, and some people say parents need to check what their kids are doing online and who they are chatting with — because not everyone on the Internet is telling the truth. Should parents be allowed to do that?

The Kein Side:

  • A lot of kids don’t talk to their parents, and the parents want to make sure their kids are safe from drugs, alcohol, bullies and other things that can hurt them.
  • It is your parents’ house, and you have to live by their rules — when you have your own house, you can have your own rules.

The Lo Side:

  • Parents need to trust their kids — otherwise how will the kids ever learn to be responsible for themselves?
  • It is invasion of privacy to listen to their phone calls and look at someone’s things when they aren’t there.

We want to know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com, with the subject line: Parents.

We’ll publish your opinions on a future yeLAdim page.

Pages & Picks

This month’s pick is the very cute “Kvetchy Boy” by Anne-Maire Baila Asner — the latest from Matzah Ball Books.

Kvetchy Boy joins his friends Noshy Boy, Shluffy Girl, Klutzy Boy and Shmutzy Girl in bringing Yiddish expressions to young Jews (don’t worry, each book includes a glossary of words) and teaching everyone about being a better person:

Even at his birthday party, Kvetchy Boy kvetched and kvetched.

“This ice cream made my cake soggy. I hate soggy cake,” said Kvetchy Boy.

“But Kvetchy Boy,” said Noshy Boy, who loves to eat. “The cake tastes even better that way.”

Kvetchy Boy didn’t agree.

If you haven’t seen your favorite Yiddish expression yet, don’t worry — there are more books on the way, including some for grown-ups like “Mrs. Mitzvah” and “Bubby” and “Zaida Kvelly.” You can even buy T-shirts with the different characters on them!

For more information, visit

Many Factors Enter Into Temple Choice


When Mark Firestone was searching for a shul to join, he didn’t look for a shul that had a nursery school or Hebrew school attached. Nor did he fret about the services he’d be getting for his membership fee. Instead, he wanted a shul that was quiet.

“I wanted it to be very quiet, so you can hear yourself daven, and hopefully Hashem can hear it,” said Firestone, a Pico-Robertson life insurance salesman who belongs to Aish HaTorah. “I have been to other shuls where you can barely hear the Torah reading, because people are talking so much. Aish has zero tolerance for people talking in shul.”

For many Jews, the High Holidays is a time when they consider joining or renewing their synagogue memberships. However, what attracts them to synagogues, and what rabbis feel is important when choosing a synagogue, is not always the vast array of services that synagogues and temples provide.

Many members and rabbis feel that it is the intangibles — the atmosphere in the shul or the feeling of community that really attracts people, not the Hebrew school, youth program or adult education that is offered.

“I ride a motorcycle to shul on Shabbos, but they don’t tell me what to do,” said Malibu lawyer Ron Stackler of his synagogue, Chabad of Malibu, which prides itself on its informality. “One of my dear friends reads the Wall Street Journal during services, and nobody tells him not to do that.

“But the shul is authentically Jewish in its observance,” he said. “It doesn’t compromise — but it also doesn’t browbeat anybody or nudge anybody to be all those things.”

Rabbi Levi Cunin, Stackler’s rabbi at Chabad of Malibu, said that what people should look for is a warm and friendly environment when choosing a shul.

“I don’t run the shul in a very formal way for that reason,” he said. “Before the Torah reading, we have discussions about the parsha that allows people to ask questions. Some of the questions may come across as offensive to people from religious backgrounds, but I think they are important questions.”

Other rabbis concurred with Cunin that atmosphere is the key thing, but that people should choose synagogues that are most conducive to their spiritual growth. While many rabbis advise people to join congregations whose members have a level of observance similar to their own, they also admit that the rabbi leading the congregation can be a strong draw.

“It blows my mind when people say, ‘I am comfortable where I’m at,'” said Rabbi Aryeh Markman, executive director of Aish L.A. “You don’t go to a shul to say ‘I am comfortable.’

“You go to a place that challenges you to grow,” he continued. “And you have to relate to the rabbi. A rabbi should be getting the people to keep growing in their spiritual pursuits.”

“People are looking for clergy on the bimah who they can relate to and trust,” said Rabbi Dennis Eisner of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who also counsels people on the importance of joining a synagogue in the introduction to Judaism classes he teaches at the University of Judaism.

“They are looking for a rabbi that they like to hear from,” he said. “But they also want a group of people who have shared values, shared traditions and share the language of being Jewish — people to celebrate life and lifecycles with. The place we do that is the temple.”

More controversially, some rabbis feel that what should attract people to temples is not the temple’s attitude to Jews, but rather, its attitude to non-Jews.

“It is important to consider whether the synagogue is welcoming of non-Jews into the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Allen Maller of Temple Akiba in Culver City. “It’s a very important issue.

“Some synagogues are indifferent to welcoming non-Jews,” he noted. “There are many people in mixed marriages, and it is important to welcome them in and try to make them feel more Jewish, and, hopefully, they can become more Jewish.”

According to Maller, his aggressive outreach to non-Jews has inspired many converts, including one who became a cantor.

But most agree that people should have a higher purpose in mind when joining a synagogue.

“People will often join a synagogue because of the rabbi, but will only stay if they find a place in the community,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. “You want a synagogue that puts a priority on the things you care about, and whose leadership speaks about things that resonate in your soul, and that gives you the opportunity to grow as a Jew in the directions that you wish to grow.

“It’s more than just a social group — that you can find in a country club,” he continued. “You come to a synagogue to find a sacred community.”

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Child’s Play


Is our culture trying to scam us into having kids?

This is an epic question and I only have 850 words, so let me start close to home, with my grandma.

“Listen to me,” she said last week over the phone from Reseda. “You have to have kids. You’ll never regret it. It’s the best thing you’ll ever do. Listen to your grandma.”

Catch any celebrity parent on a talk show and you’re likely to hear the same sentiment about the singularly life-changing effects of parenthood. When Jude Law, Eminem, Denise Richards and Esther Strasser agree on something, you have to give it consideration.

The only way to find out if this magical experience really happens, this moment of euphoric selflessness, this instant reshuffling of values and priorities, is to actually have or adopt a child of your own. There’s no other way to test the hypothesis. It’s like swallowing a new medication to see if it works for you. Let’s say it doesn’t, well, that’s one heck of a seizure you had to have to find out. Or worse.

“You can’t explain it,” parents tell me. “When it’s your own kid, you’ll understand.”

According to most parents, your own children’s cries rarely sound annoying and their poop literally doesn’t stink. In fact, their bodily fluids won’t gross you out at all and, in no time, you’ll be wiping their little noses with your bare hands and not minding one little bit.

You’ll excuse me if I need just a little more evidence. Here I am, somewhere between 29 and death, and I’ve got to figure out if it’s worth it, because if it is, I’m going to have to arrange my life accordingly; you know, decide if my mate is father material, maybe find some sort of stable employment, get air conditioning in my car.

I could be looking at years of carpools and making meals (which I don’t currently do for myself unless it involves a diet ginger ale and six pieces of toast), purchasing bottles and diapers and pajamas and “Harry Potter” books and “American Girl” dolls. With almost no proof that parenting is a positive experience, I’m expected to sign on for stomach flus, ballet recitals and protecting a vulnerable little being around every body of water, sharp surface and stranger.

There will be years of whining (assuming I’ll be a bad parent who can’t set boundaries) and tedious descriptions of what the cat is doing and what’s outside the car window. When I want to be alone, this will involve finding and paying a babysitter, who, if karma exists, will drink all of my beer and make long-distance calls. How will I even take a bath? Or go to the gym? I have to tell you, the closer I get to mating, the more freaked out I get. And I can’t get a straight answer.

In sharp contrast to the bill of goods grandma is trying to sell me, some mothers are admitting that it’s not all fuzzy blankies and painted clouds.

“Mothers Who Want to Kill Their Children,” screamed my TiVo, describing a recent episode of “Oprah.”

Actress Brooke Shields also went on “Oprah,” discussing her book about post-partum depression. I don’t know much, but I know this: If there’s a disorder dealing with hormone imbalances and resulting in wanting to drive a car into a wall, I’m going to get it. No matter what Tom Cruise says about natural healing, it’s going to take more than a few jumping jacks and some folic acid to make me all better. I’ll be the one at the Mommy and Me class staring out the window while my child is in the corner experimenting with matches.

It won’t surprise you to know that my mother wasn’t all that big on having children. It was the thing to do, so she did it, but it was never a passion of hers. I have to factor that into my ambiguity; my main maternal role model took a job driving a city school bus after I was born so she could afford a nanny to take care of me. Let that sink in. The woman preferred inhaling diesel fumes in Van Nuys to singing nursery rhymes and spoon-feeding.

My only hope that I won’t loathe parenting is the fact that I’ve raised two kitties from the pound. I know there’s no comparison at all to raising actual children, but I’m heartened by how much I adore my cats, pet their whiskers for hours and take them for shots without even resenting it.

I just wish I could trust parents. Once you have a kid, you sort of have to say you love the whole experience. Maybe nature even convinces you that you do. Maybe you get Stockholm syndrome, which is to say, you must fall for your tiny captor to survive the ordeal.

This brings me back to grandma. She seems like someone I can trust. What would she have to gain by lying to me? Oh yeah, grandchildren.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.

 

Trust Your Partner


 

An international dealer in high-end fabrics once visited with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. As an active member of the Chabad community in England, the businessman was quite familiar with how the Rebbe’s advice and blessings had impacted many people’s lives in virtually every area of the human experience. At one point in their discussion, an almost tongue-in-cheek proposal was put forth for the Rebbe to partner with the entrepreneur in a business venture. The Rebbe turned serious and said, “Fair enough. Remember though, that in a partnership, neither partner gets to make a move without the consent of the other. Do we have a deal?”

Though skeptical about the Rebbe’s knowledge of his trade, the man was nevertheless excited about this opportunity to “partner” with the tzadik, and readily took the deal. The Rebbe then advised him to make a large purchase of a certain material that hadn’t even been on the man’s radar screen. The dealer went home and placed a large order for this unusual fabric. When he reported back to New York, the Rebbe responded that the buy was way too conservative. A much larger quantity should have been purchased. On this say-so, the man went out and bought astronomical quantities of the stuff — to the point of investing his entire personal fortune to pay for the shipments.

To the man’s chagrin, shortly after the acquisitions, the value of this material began to plummet. Perhaps, he thought, he should sell at least some major portion of it. As promised, he contacted the Rebbe for his consent. To his surprise, the Rebbe did not grant consent and reminded him of their agreement with regard to unilateral moves.

As the price of the material continued to sink so did the man’s spirits. Every day, he watched his fortune slipping further and further away. All pleas to the Rebbe were met with the same answer: “Don’t sell.”

Facing financial ruin, the man began to question his entire relationship with the Rebbe and Chabad-Lubavitch. Perhaps it was all a mistake. With each day’s devaluation of his inventory, his distance from the Chabad community widened.

The bleeding continued for several months. One day, the price took a slight tick back up. He again consulted the Rebbe. But the Rebbe still withheld consent. When the price rose to where he could break even, the Rebbe still would not greenlight the sell-off. The man’s disillusionment turned to bitterness.

Shortly thereafter, a famous fashion designer put out a line that called for extensive use of an unusual material. The man in England had the market cornered. When he reported this to the Rebbe, he was told that the time had come to sell. The inventory went fast. The man made many millions in profit. He excitedly boarded a plane to hand the Rebbe a check for his “share.” The Rebbe declined, requesting that the man give the money to charity instead.

The man then asked the Rebbe if they could perhaps pursue another venture together. The Rebbe smiled as he demurred: “I’m sorry… You’re a shvacher shutaf, a weak partner.”

In the opening of this week’s Torah portion, we’re taught that, at Mount Sinai, God told Moses to instruct the Children of Israel regarding the observance of shmittah, the Sabbatical Year. Upon entering the land of Israel, they were to count the years in cycles of seven. For six years they could work the soil and reap its fruit, but the seventh year should be a “Sabbath rest unto God.” No sowing, no pruning, no picking, no reaping. A full year set aside for spiritual pursuits.

The Torah later goes on to say: “And if you will say: ‘What will we eat in the seventh year? — Behold! We did not sow nor gather in our crops!’ … I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the three-year period….” In other words, the Divine blessing that would enrich the soil as a result of the observance of shmittah would compensate three-fold for the perceived loss of revenue while the land was allowed to lie fallow.

Israel’s entire economy was built around agriculture. To just shut down for an entire year was an act of self-sacrifice and a bold statement of trust in God. Indeed, in those early years, when all citizenry fully observed shmittah, the blessing was in the soil — just as promised. Nobody went hungry as a result. Life was good. It was only after some decided to “kill the goose that laid golden eggs” and tried to gain that extra edge by working the seventh year that things began to fall apart.

We can talk at great length about our faith in God; our trust in His absolute wisdom, goodness and beneficence. But do we put our money where our mouths are? It is not necessarily when we are tied to the stake that the authenticity of our faith is put to the test. Gut-check time can happen in the office, at the bank or in the supermarket.

Whether it’s keeping the Shabbat holy, sending our children to Torah schools or going the extra mile to keep a kosher kitchen, shmittah reminds us that Mount Sinai represented a bridge between theory and practice; faith and action; trust and resolve. Upon that mountain, the Almighty took us in as His partner in the business of creation. He’s been imploring us ever since: “Don’t be a shvacher shutaf.”

Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski serves as the executive director of Chabad of the Conejo and dean of the Conejo Jewish Day School.

 

The Social Security Fix: Pay Back Funds


President Bush has proposed the biggest transfer of wealth in history. He plans to use trillions of dollars in contributions to the Social Security

Trust Fund to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and other administration spending priorities. And he does not want to pay the money back.

The Social Security system works by requiring Americans to make regular contributions to a trust fund. Currently, with more workers contributing to the trust fund than retirees receiving benefits, the Social Security Trust Fund should be accumulating a surplus. If the Bush Administration would leave the trust fund untouched, there would be no Social Security “crisis.”

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the trust Trust Fund to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and other administration spending priorities. is projected to accumulate a surplus of $5.8 trillion by 2020. Combined with future employer and employee contributions, full benefits could be paid for decades to come. The CBO, for example, estimates that without any changes to the system, there would be enough assets to pay growing benefits until at least 2052.

The real threat to Social Security is that President Bush and Republicans in Congress have raided the trust fund to pay for tax cuts and soaring government spending. Over the last four years, the Republicans have taken almost $500 billion from the trust fund to pay for tax cuts, the war and other government expenses. According to the latest estimates from the CBO, the Republicans plan to divert an additional $2.2 trillion from the trust fund over the next decade.

In Los Angeles alone, $64 billion paid into Social Security for workers' retirements will be spent by the government over the next 10 years. That's $15,000 per each worker in the 30th Congressional District.

President Bush and his congressional allies do not want to pay this money back. Instead, they are saying the system is in “crisis” and that privatization and steep cuts in benefits are needed to “save” Social Security.

Listen to what President Bush said just this month about the Social Security Trust Fund: “Some in our country think that Social Security is a trust fund — in other words, there's a pile of money being accumulated. That's just simply not true. The payroll taxes going into the Social Security are spent. They're spent on benefits, and they're spent on government programs. There is no trust…. And we'd better start dealing with it now.”

In his State of the Union Address in 1998, President Clinton proposed that Congress “reserve every penny of the surplus” to ensure the long-term viability of Social Security. This gave rise to the concept of a “lockbox” that would protect the Social Security Trust Fund from federal spending.

And President Clinton, with the cooperation of Congress, delivered on his promise. By 2000, the last year of his presidency, the federal government was not using a single dollar of the trust fund to pay for government operations.

Five years later, the lockbox has been broken and the trust funds stolen. Instead of talking about how to save the trust fund, President Bush presumed in his 2005 State of the Union Address that it's already spent, warning that “in the year 2027, the government will somehow have to come up with an extra $200 billion to keep the system afloat.”

President Bush and the Republican leadership in Congress are the trustees for people's hard-earned Social Security contributions. We need to start asking them some blunt questions. What have they done with the surplus? Why have they squandered the retirement nest egg of American families? And why weren't they more careful or responsible?

The answer to the problems facing Social Security is not to cut benefits or privatize the system. That's a betrayal of millions of honest families who have played by the rules and trusted President Bush and the Republican leadership to do the right thing.

Instead, the answer is three simple words: “Pay it back.”

Rep. Henry Waxman is a Democrat representing the 30th Congressional District in Los Angeles.

Cunin Helps Save Shul Down Under


A Californian white knight has stepped in to solve a dispute between two warring Australian brothers-in-law.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, recently organized a consortium of philanthropists to come up with a $700,000 down payment to purchase Sydney properties costing $9.5 million AUS ($6.59 million U.S.) to give back to Sydney’s chief Chabad rabbi, Pinchas Feldman. Cunin will hold the properties in trust, but will allow Feldman to continue on in his role as communal rabbi.

Feldman lost the properties, which included the Yeshiva Synagogue and day school campus, after New South Wales (NSW) Supreme Court ruled in July that he needed to pay Joseph Gutnick, his Melbourne-based brother-in-law, $15 million AUS ($10.4 million U.S.) by Aug. 11. Feldman failed to pay the money by the date, so Gutnick sold the properties to non-Jewish investors, essentially closing down the Yeshiva Synagogue and school.

According to Australian press reports, in 1994, Gutnick gave Sydney’s Yeshiva Synagogue $5 million AUS ($3.47 million U.S.) to protect it from bankruptcy. In exchange, Gutnick received the mortgages over the properties. In 2001, Gutnick demanded repayment of the monies, plus $3 million AUS ($2.08 million U.S.) in interest. Feldman, who is married to Gutnick’s older sister Peninah, refused, charging that the $5 million had been a donation, not a loan.

Gutnick sued and won. The NSW Supreme Court awarded him $15 million, which included repayment of the loan, plus interest and court costs.

The Gutnicks are Australia’s premier rabbinic family. Joseph’s father, Chaim, was rabbi for many years at Elwood Synagogue, one of the oldest shuls in Melbourne. Of Chaim’s six children, two are rabbis, two are married to rabbis, one works in community service and Joseph, a businessman, is a world-renowned philanthropist who has donated millions of dollars to Jewish causes.

Speaking to The Journal from Australia, Joseph Gutnick confirmed that a deposit had been put on the properties and that Cunin was a friend of his brother-in-law, but said he knew nothing about Cunin’s involvement in the affair beyond what he read in the papers. "As you can imagine, I am not on the best terms with my sister and brother-in-law," he said.

Rabbi Chaim Cunin, public relations director for West Coast Chabad Lubavitch and the son of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, told The Journal that the money donated to Sydney did not come from telethon donations or California Chabad funds, but were private funds donated expressly for the Australian shul by families involved with Chabad on an international level.

"This was a rescue effort," Chaim Cunin said. "West Coast Chabad put [the deal] together with five families, but the great majority of the funds came from one family. At this point [the donors] have chosen to remain anonymous."

Cunin said that his father arranged for the money to be donated after he heard the properties were sold to non-Jewish developers, because he promised at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s funeral in 1994 to never let a Chabad institution close down.

"My father would do — and has done — the same thing in California, and not just in California, but all over the world," Chaim Cunin said.

However, there are some members of the Sydney community who are not happy that the Feldman will continue to be the spiritual leader of the community charging that his 30-year leadership was characterized by gross financial mismanagement.

"The [day] school had debts in excess of $30 million [$20.8 million U.S.]," said Daniel Hayman, who had previously sat on the school board. "In a normal organization, the person [who was responsible] would step down. He has run the place into the ground, and he is still trying to take control back."

Hayman, who spoke to The Journal from Australia, is now the treasurer of the Tzemach Tzedek congregation, a breakaway shul he helped form after the Yeshiva Synagogue closed down. Hayman said that 80 percent of Yeshiva’s members had joined the new congregation, and it is unlikely that they will return to Feldman even though he has his buildings back.

"The vast majority of the congregation does not want to daven with him," Hayman said.

Hayman was upset that Cunin’s intervention reinstated Feldman as rabbi, saying that the buildings had been bought with communal funds and did not belong to Feldman.

"The only thing that the community is upset about is that the buildings should be returned to the community, and not to Rabbi Feldman," he said. "[Cunin’s] intention is for Rabbi Feldman to go back as rabbi, but the community doesn’t want him."

In a statement, Feldman said, "We look forward to soon being able to pray in the Yeshiva Synagogue once again and continue the services that Yeshiva has traditionally offered the community with a renewed vigor. Now more than ever we need the support, both financial and spiritual, of our local community to complete this process and to lay the foundation for an even brighter future for the community of Sydney."

A Wealth of Embezzlers


A former bookkeeper at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach turned herself in to police last week after reportedly admitting to having stolen nearly $100,000 from the Reform synagogue. Doina Stanescu, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, allegedly embezzled the money by signing checks to herself.

The case exposes a danger for nonprofit organizations like synagogues, which may rely on volunteer lay leadership for much of their financial management and oversight.

Margy Feldman, Temple Menorah’s president, agreed that her synagogue runs on "a tremendous amount of trust in a very small office," but "my heart goes out to [Stanescu]." She said Stanescu had a gambling addiction and that the temple had contacted Beit T’Shuvah to request help for her. Feldman declined to discuss details of the embezzlement or the synagogue’s accounting oversight procedures. "Our synagogue needs to heal," she said, adding that the temple’s board of directors had met several times since the arrest to review accounting practices, "to see that this never happens again." Feldman also noted that other synagogues have been hit by similar crimes. "This is not an unusual circumstance," she said.

Embezzlement scandals at Jewish organizations have made numerous headlines in the past few years.

  • In March 2000, the fiscal administrator of the Los Angeles Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus was arrested and charged with embezzling more than a million dollars over an eight-year period.

  • An FBI investigation in April 2000 found that the bookkeeper and the executive director of a Philadelphia-area synagogue had collaborated to steal $700,000 from that synagogue.

  • The investigation into Rabbi Baruch Lanner’s sexual misconduct as a leader of the Orthodox Union’s National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) also uncovered numerous instances when Lanner had deposited donations to the NCSY into his personal bank accounts.

"Ideally, Jewish nonprofits and synagogues would be immune from this sort of behavior," said Judith Kranz, president of the North American Association of Synagogue Executives. "But we live in the real world, and so we set up these checks and balances to protect our synagogues from harm."

Because a great deal of money flows in and out of even a small synagogue, Kranz said, "In general, synagogues are set up like small businesses." Regular accounting principles should include two separate signatures required for each check with different people responsible for approving and writing checks.

Kranz also recommends having outside accountants come in to audit a synagogue’s books. Strict accounting practices and thorough oversight should help ensure that a dishonest person will be unable to steal. Kranz said her organization has never had to deal with a case of embezzlement and believes that when it happens at a Jewish organization or synagogue, it is "news, because it’s so rare."

Don’t Trust Me


Darryl is a louse. He is a despicable person and if he treated me the way he treats women, I’m sure we wouldn’t remain friends for long. He is dishonest, unfaithful, and utterly untrustworthy, but only in the ways of (what passes for) romance. He called me up the other day because his conscience was bothering him and he needed to justify his actions to someone. This was not "Oh, what a tangled web we weave"; no mea culpa coming from Darryl. He wasn’t seeking my input on how to be a better man. He’s way beyond help there. He wanted me to make him feel better for being a stinker.

His story: "I was seeing two women at the time. Well, four, actually, but it depends on how you count. It all started a few weeks ago when one of them caught me in a misdirection. A little white lie. There, I said it: A Lie. Actually, she found a clue. Someone else’s toothbrush. Not mine. Not hers. Someone else’s. My Friday night."

If the Nixon administration taught us nothing else, I think the lesson learned was this: Destroy the evidence.

On further investigation, she didn’t just find the telltale toothbrush, she used it and then figured out what was going on. She caught him more or less red-handed, confronted him with the damning forensic evidence, and he admitted everything. I’m not taking sides, but I felt his pain. Consider: It’s Sunday morning, your new girlfriend comes out of the bathroom holding the smoking toothbrush in her hand and, sadly, you don’t have Barry Scheck’s phone number handy to help prepare a defense.

Later, when the wronged woman called him on the carpet for his behavior during their brief, tumultuous courtship, she said that the worst part of it — and believe me, she had quite a list of grievances for knowing the guy only three weeks — was that she trusted him. In exchange, he broke her heart in 17 places.

"Why on earth would anyone trust you, Darryl?" I asked.

"Because I told her she could trust me. I really did like her," he said, enumerating her virtues, "and I was really, really nice to her, except of course, the part about running around on her. For which, I should add, I’m really sorry." He’s sorry she found out is more like it. That’s one of those apologies that always follows the getting caught. The Clinton brand of I’m-sorry-you-had-to-know-about-this apology.

"What she suggested in that break-up call is that I should, in the future, going forward, tell anyone I happen to con into a relationship that they can’t trust me. What I should say is, ‘Don’t trust me.’"

I said he should get some business cards printed up or maybe a tattoo over the place where his heart ought to be.

"Yes, I was deceptive. Yes, I misled her. Yes, I concealed the truth about the other women. Is that so wrong? I mean, if anyone had told me that lying to your lover about having another woman on the side was just plain wrong, I never would have gone down that road. Excuse me, but I thought the polite thing, the civilized thing to do, what you were supposed to do, was keep those things under wraps, lie your tuchis off."

I admit the guy is icky, but he has a point. I used to date a woman who told me that she would want me to tell her if I was having an affair. I asked what she would do if I told her I was cheating on her. "Leave you," she said.

Oh, fine. That’s just perfect. There’s an incentive if I ever heard one. I make one terrible mistake and then try to do the right thing, I tell the truth for once in my miserable life, just like she asked me to, and she’s out the door. "Thank you for that heartfelt confession, Jeff, but I really must be going." Where’s the love? Where’s the understanding? Where’s the forgiveness? Huh?

"No," Darryl said, "I think the right thing to do is to tell the people what they want to hear. George W. Bush did it and look where it got him, ferchrissakes! All the way to the White House! Keep the customer satisfied, that’s what I say. If you want to trust me, I say, ‘You can trust me.’"

I’m not trying to make light of the situation, really I’m not, but we can’t take him out and stone him in the public square for lying to his now ex-girlfriend. To some degree, all romance is about creating an illusion and placing your trust in someone you think you know pretty well. Maybe he’ll meet someone new, fall in love, change his cheating ways, and make a decision to lead a life of virtue and fidelity. We can only hope. I suppose the leopard thinks: I would love to change my spots, if only I could find the right girl.