One-Day U


Maybe it was because I had just helped my daughter move into her freshman dorm room and I was envious of the deliciously named courses she was thinking of
taking. Or maybe it was because I’ve always been a sucker for pitches like “Conversational Hebrew in One Day!” Or maybe it was because I didn’t know what else to do with my rage about the anti-intellectual matches that the Republican presidential campaign is playing with.

Whatever the reason, I was a sitting duck for a publicist’s offer to comp me to the first “One Day University” in Los Angeles. Judging from the full house paying $259 a pop at the Skirball’s Magnin Auditorium, I wasn’t alone.

The lineup included teachers from Columbia, Harvard, Dartmouth and USC. The subjects were Lincoln, the psychology of happiness, the history of cosmology and the foreign policies of an Obama or a McCain administration. The audience included not only the retirees seeking educational nourishment and brain fitness whom I had expected, but also boomers like me and more than a few people who looked to be in their 40s and 30s and even younger.

Three out of the four speakers really knew how to work a room, making good on the publicist’s promise of a day of engaging “edutainment,” and the fourth — even though, unlike the others, he worked from a prepared text and never left his spot behind the lectern — nevertheless held people’s attention with his material.

All day long, while learning things like the average age for the first onset of depression (14 1/2, compared to twice that a generation ago), and the proportion of the universe containing carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, the elements that people are made of (less than 1 percent), I kept wondering what bound us students together, besides our common jones for knowledge.

The answer came home to me during the foreign policy lecture by my friend and USC colleague, professor Steven Lamy.

In the midst of providing an analytic framework for understanding the traditions and belief systems of U.S. foreign policy, he pointed out the substantive poverty of the discussion of foreign policy occurring during this campaign, despite so many grave foreign policy issues that will face the next president. Security challenges and security strategies? Yes, those are in the campaign mix. But dealing realistically with the global economy, or thinking creatively about using the U.S.’s non-military power, or grappling with the social threat that traditional cultures see posed by the massive exportation of American entertainment, or with the environmental threat posed by exporting our consumerist culture: issues like these — not so much, or not at all.

The reason for this neglect is that the conduct of foreign policy is now all about electoral considerations, and the majority of the American people return the favor by not paying attention to it. The result, says Steve Lamy, is an uninformed American public easily manipulated by power players in Washington who prefer that the wide range of options potentially available for America’s role in the world not be put on the table for scrutiny.

The irony is that there is a rising generation that does see foreign policy as something more than shouting, “9-11!” At USC, as Steve pointed out, the 791 undergraduates majoring in international relations — one of the most popular majors in the college — do know what the Bush doctrine is.

Which brings me to the thread binding the newest alumni of One Day U. Yes, I could be projecting my own feelings onto them. But from the questions they asked the faculty, from conversations I heard during breaks, from the room’s reaction to Steve Lamy’s mention of the foreign policy credential claimed by Sarah Palin with a straight face (you can see Russia from an island in Alaska), I had the strong impression that the people in that auditorium were connected by a common sense of outrage at the demonization of learning going on in this campaign.

To be sure, every campaign, in both parties, relies on bumper-sticker slogans and 30-second ads, and, at least since the 1980s, television has proven itself dismally unequal to the opportunity for covering a campaign as a national conversation about the big issues facing the country.

Yet the way the McCain campaign has turned “elite” into a dirty word, and delightedly derided Obama’s education as effete, and turned the sow’s ear of Sarah Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience into the silk purse of salt-of-the-earth small town values — you have to go back to Spiro Agnew and his bullyboy ventriloquists, Pat Buchanan and William Safire, to find this kind of sneering contempt for educated people.

The neoconservative intellectuals who have fanned these fires have particularly dirty hands. With their Ivy League degrees and their perches as columnists and commentators, their collaboration with the Republican defamation of learning is especially unctuous. By being accomplices to what is arguably the most lying campaign in modern history, they are complicit with the same noxious rejection of reason that has brought us the teaching of “intelligent design” (aka creationism) in our schools; the politicization of science in everything from climate change to environmental regulations; and the intrusion of fundamentalist religious doctrines into the shaping of public policy.

I see adult education as a political act, a refutation of this neo-Know Nothingism. I see reading a good newspaper as a thumb in the eye to this anti-intellectual hypocrisy and to candidates who refuse to hold press conferences. I see the conversation occurring in some online precincts, and among people who have abandoned cable news for actual discussions about issues they care about, as a patriotic response to the political porn served up to us by mainstream media. I see studying and going to the best school you can and learning to think critically as a powerful antidote to the homespun yahooism that is being held up to us as the gold standard of competence.

Sure, some people may have signed up for One Day U because it looked like fun, or to get out of the house, or just because they were curious. But curiosity is a quality that has been lethally absent in the occupant of the White House these last eight years, and if you listen to the team that could well replace him, having a healthy intellectual appetite is wussily un-American.

I don’t doubt that Americans who love learning may constitute a minority. I just hope that enough of them live in battleground states to make a difference.

Marty Kaplan has been a White House speechwriter, a deputy presidential campaign manager, a studio executive and a screenwriter. He holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Books: Shoah satire crosses line into nasty territory


“My Holocaust” by Tova Reich (HarperCollins, $24.95).

About a year after Yigal Yadin and his team discovered the startling ruins of Masada — the last holdout of a group of Jewish Zealots who in 70 C.E., who preferred collective suicide to Roman oppression — my parents were invited to tour the mountaintop with an expert guide.

For Yadin, the unearthed cisterns and synagogues offered surely the most thrilling validation of his career as historian and archeologist. Walking amid this first-century village, inspecting the architecture and annotations, remembering the details of King Herod’s reign, reading remnants of scrolls (from Deuteronomy!), and trying to imagine the awful last days of Jews for whom “live free or die” was a code 17 centuries before New Englanders made it fashionable, was awe-inspiring, to say the least.

Then a busload of American Jewish tourists, probably a Hadassah group, arrived. These characters were straight out of central casting: plaid shorts, baseball caps, loud blouses, cameras dangling, big mouths. As if scripted by Woody Allen or Larry David, one of the tourists looked around the dig atop this hill overlooking the Dead Sea — a hill bursting with history and Jewish civilization that evoked deep ideological questions about the meaning of freedom and survival — and in perfect Brooklynese offered this epiphany to her tour mates: “You know, it’s nice. But the Grand Canyon’s a lot betta.”

I don’t think Tova Reich was there that day. But she obviously knows, maybe from visits to Israel and tours of Holocaust museums in Washington and elsewhere, that Jews are capable of hilarious, unintended juxtapositions of kitsch and culture. (One of the characters in her novel “My Holocaust” is impressed with the handicapped-access ramps at the Auschwitz museum and asks if they had those during the Holocaust, too.)

Had Reich been at Masada that day, I suspect she would have registered the Hadassah lady’s summary and tucked it away for later use in a work of fiction. But she would have found nothing endearing by such cultural and historical illiteracy; she would almost surely have sneered in disdain, unable or unwilling as she seems to be to internalize certain comic moments without being overtaken by waves of condescension and shame.

Condescension and shame make a toxic combination. As I read “My Holocaust”, howling — but aching — through page after page of relentlessly acerbic comedy, I was reminded of Masada and the Grand Canyon and found myself wondering: what makes good satire? (Reich noted in her rebuttal to the negative review of her book in The New York Times that people who don’t understand satire or fiction shouldn’t weigh in. I’ll take my chances.)

My question is whether the Hadassah lady’s unsophisticated frame of reference, not to mention the bizarre self-aggrandizement and greed of some Holocaust survivors, should be the stuff of this type of biting satire. Maybe for middle school kids; maybe for “Saturday Night Live.” But isn’t it unseemly in the work of mature artists, from whom we might expect a little more pathos, maybe even a smidgen of derech eretz, or decent behavior, to blunt the sharper edges of their humor? Good satire requires at least decency, if not affection. It doesn’t pick on the little folks; it skewers the rich and famous and powerful, who are too rich and too famous and too self-important. Charlei Chaplin taught us that schadenfreude is OK, but not without rachmones (compassion). He elevated his nebbishes even as he had them pathetically eating shoestrings for spaghetti; it was the fascists he defanged, without pity, as they toyed around with our world.

In my family we savored the vignette of Hadassah at Masada, as we did the memory of Uncle Herman explaining how he lost money on each shirt he sold but “made up for it in the volume”; or of Grandma Vickie, who casually remarked after John Glenn’s first-ever earth orbit, “So, people with money travel”; or of dear mother Lucy, whose skirt suddenly lost its mooring on her arthritic hips and dropped to the floor while she stood there, embarrassed and momentarily helpless, holding a terrine of hot soup. But would we expose these innocents to public ridicule? Would we still think these are funny incidents if they became the subject of contemptuous sarcasm by embarrassed sophisticates who lower themselves to our primitive depths just long enough to take a good snapshot and have a hearty laugh at our expense? In my family we laughed at these memories, as we laughed at Abbott and Costello, Harold Lloyd and Allen’s Chasidic fantasy in “Annie Hall”: with affection, with tenderness. (We even laughed through “Hogan’s Heroes,” enjoying scenes of SS stupidity all the while wishing that, alas, they really had been such bumbling fools.)

This is my main beef with “My Holocaust,” which is that it’s so ruthlessly ridicules ordinary folks who would have preferred, thank you very much, to be allowed to continue their rather ordinary lives, but were instead catapulted into a higher status, “survivors,” revered by others and in rare instances by themselves and who, like most people who experience massively good or bad luck, may be clumsy with their new-found fame. Shakespeare understood this (some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon ’em, was Malvolio’s lament); Terrence Des Pres understood this in his celebration of the ordinariness of the people who died and survived the camps and the gulag; and Primo Levi revealed that one of the most painful realities imposed on survivors was the way they were judged — reprimanded — by the rest of us for what they did in the camps and what they did when they got out.

I believe Tova Reich knows all this. So it is surprising that she would deploy her furiously funny pen against people who, for the most part, find the fact that they are alive a flat-out miracle. Yes, some survivors glorified their suffering and their survival; some even came out of the camps and lied about who rescued them for political and ideological reasons. But the overwhelming majority were neither heroes nor villains, even if the circumstances they endured were extreme. They were rather average people when they went into the camps, and those who managed to come out mostly wanted a return to normalcy. They battled in German courts for their restitution checks, they remade their families, they sent their kids to school, and they cherished their freedom. Most of them were not psychologically unbalanced sleazebags like Reich’s stock survivor figure, Maurice Messer. And even if only a handful of the book’s main characters are survivors, they come off as so utterly weird that many readers will get the wrong idea. Same for the children of survivors: in real life most of them are no more neurotic or accomplished than the offspring of other immigrants or, for that matter, children generally. Yes, some of us opportunistically play the “survivors’ child” card to advance various political agendas (the anti-Israel rants of Sara Roy and Norman Finkelstein come to mind). Fortunately, these are the rare and disproportionately loud minority; but from Reich’s book, one would infer that the whole second generation is depressed, vain, wacko and certainly not endearing.

Reich astutely anticipated that some readers would be offended. Her book jacket clarifies how courageous she was to “penetrate territory until now considered sacrosanct,” and on the back cover she is shielded by no less an authority on Jewish literature and the Shoah than Cynthia Ozick (although it now appears that Ozick’s letter was included because of a publishing error). It is a clever strategy, to deflect potential complaints about the book on the grounds that it treads on hitherto taboo topics like Jewish greed after Auschwitz. But this masks a more generic flaw: it’s not just because some of her targets are survivors, it’s largely because Reich is so damned condescending, so searing in her reproach, so sneeringly snotty toward so many basic and ordinary people. Her stereotyping of survivors is mean, but at least they are in good company: the book has many characters who are not survivors or relatives of survivors at all, but rather miserably lost souls who happen to suffer from a rather virulent strain of Holocaust envy. Against this pathetic band of misfits who are desperate to expropriate the Holocaust and its various museums for their own personal and political interests, Reich unleashes some of her most pungent prose.

Humbling Wisdom


A number of years ago I had to fly from Los Angeles to Cleveland, with a stop in St. Louis. The plane was supposed to leave at 8:45 a.m. and arrive in Cleveland in the
late afternoon. But due to a mechanical problem our flight didn’t leave LAX until 1:30 p.m., which put our Cleveland arrival at midnight on the first night of Chanukah.

As I stood on the very long line to change our tickets for the connecting flights, the fellow ahead of me dressed like Crocodile Dundee turned around, looked at me and said in a deep Midwestern accent, “Hi, my name is John, and boy are you in trouble.”

What a way to introduce oneself, I thought. He continued, “You are going to be arriving after sunset.”

At first I had no idea what he meant. Looking at my watch, I replied, “The way things are going it might even be tomorrow morning.”

“So what are you going to do?” he asked.

“Sleep,” I answered.

“No, I mean what are you going to do about lighting candles?” he said. “Isn’t tonight the first night of Chanukah?”

I thought for a moment that maybe “John” was a real Torah scholar who was raising a legal question about how late one can light Chanukah candles.

Although most authorities agree that one can kindle the menorah as long as a minimum of two people are still awake and can see the lights, perhaps he was referring to the opinion that you can kindle only if people are still walking outside.

But then looking again at him, I said to myself, “This fellow probably isn’t even Jewish let alone knowledgeable about halacha.”

Propelled by curiosity, I asked, “By the way are you Jewish?”

“Not at all,” he answered. “I was born Presbyterian, and now I am a Baptist. Maybe one day I will become Jewish. What do you think of that?”

Deciding it would be best not to answer, I acted Jewish and responded with a totally different question: “How do you know so much about Judaism and Chanukah?”

With total seriousness he said, “You can’t claim to be a religious Christian without knowing Judaism. All religious wisdom starts with Judaism.”

The truth is that we can find an elementary concept of wisdom in this week’s Torah portion.

Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s uncanny ability to correctly interpret his dreams.

Almost in awe of the profound knowledge that Joseph reveals, the Egyptian monarch declares: “After God has informed you of all this, there is no one so understanding and wise as you” (Genesis 41:39).

Joseph is the first man in the Bible to be called “wise.” But what, asks 20th century biblical commentator Benno Jacob, was so special about Joseph’s wisdom that “all the wizards of Egypt and all its wise men” didn’t possess? The answer, he says, is obvious from the text: “Joseph’s wisdom defeated that of the Egyptians because it emanated from God; it was wisdom that led directly from God to him, and is fundamentally identical with fear of God…. It presents the genuinely Jewish combination of brains and heart.”

True wisdom, Benno Jacob argues, recognizes first that there is a God, and second that He is the source of all our talents and wisdom. There is no room for the haughty who think they are to be respected and worshipped because of their brains or special talents. Humility is the only possible response for men, for all emanates from God.

I remember that in my first position as rabbi when I was a young rookie just out of rabbinic school, one congregant publicly criticized me to the other members because I quoted my rabbinic teachers whenever I had to decide a question of Jewish law. This member opposed me by questioning, “Doesn’t Muskin have any opinions of his own?”

When I was informed of this criticism I was asked for a response. I replied with humor, “I don’t know, I will have to ask my teachers.”

After the laughing stopped I answered that I was actually honored by the comment. The truth is that as soon as we think we know all the answers and we do not need to turn to those with more knowledge and experience, we have demonstrated our ultimate ignorance.

Joseph taught us that our knowledge all comes from God in the first place, and if we have an opinion it better be His.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Culling Your ‘Stuff’ Can Be Painful Task


My Aunt Naomi is overwhelmed.

Now 78, she was widowed three years ago. She lost her husband, but inherited his piles of files, cancelled checks and warranties for current and formerly owned equipment.

Aunt Naomi also has her own collections — beloved tchotchkes that are scattered throughout her expansive home.

Along with feeling overwhelmed, my aunt is very lonely. She wants to move to a retirement community to be around people, participate in activities and have someone else do the cooking (and dust her tchotchkes). However, this idea has Aunt Naomi distressed.

“How can I possibly move to someplace half the size of this house?” she asked. “I have too much stuff; I’ll never be able to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of.”

She’s not alone. A word search for “clutter” on Amazon.com returned 319 titles dealing with the problem of “too much stuff.”

My sister and I were fortunate when we moved our mother from her home to a smaller place. I don’t think I ever saw a stack of papers in mom’s house, and she would no more own a huge collection of tchotchkes than an assault rifle. She was a minimalist when it came to stuff.

But professional organizers exist for a reason, and these experts point to several challenges when downsizing to a smaller home:

  • The quantity of stuff and the daunting task of dealing with it all;
  • The feeling of urgency to get this task accomplished quickly;
  • A painful sense of loss.

This last issue seems especially important for older people.

“Getting old means facing a lot of losses,” my 87-year-old father said. “I’ve lost my independence, my physical strength and functioning and people I care about. It’s not easy.”

Moving from a familiar home and letting go of things owned for years can feel like an additional loss. It’s not just the loss of the objects that has an impact; it’s the connection with the past that these objects symbolize.

I recently came home to find that my cleaning lady had broken a precious, hand-painted bottle that my grandmother had given me when I was 11. Whenever I held this bottle, I felt the special bond I had with my grandmother. It was painful to look at this shattered reminder of her.

It did eventually occur to me that the bottle was, after all, just an object. And I didn’t really require it in order to remember my grandmother and our love.

But the fear of losing such objects and their associated memories is why many people hang on to things, said Peter Walsh, the professional organizer on The Learning Channel’s show, “Clean Sweep,” which helps ordinary people deal with their clutter.

I recently spoke with Walsh about the emotional and practical aspects of downsizing.

“People usually keep things because of fear, security and control,” Walsh said. “But it’s important that you understand that holding onto these objects doesn’t make you who you are, and doesn’t help you control the life you have; that’s really an illusion.

“The goal is to just keep the things that really give your life meaning — the items that bring you the most joy, which you have the best associations with. The objects you hang on to should be a reflection of you, rather than things you feel obligated to keep.”

Walsh said that one needs to acknowledge that trimming back is indeed an overwhelming task, and a very tough thing to do: “As my grandmother always said, ‘The only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time.’ Go through your stuff gradually, maybe over many months’ time.”

To help with the process, he suggested having an organizing buddy. For some people, a friend or professional is a better option than a family member, he said, because of the emotions that get aroused.

On the other hand, if children can take the time, handle the predictable stress, be patient and understanding and help their parent stay calm, going through mementos and photos together can be a very meaningful experience. While my sister and I helped mom go through her photos, artwork and books, we reminisced, laughed a lot, cried a little and learned more about her family history.

It might have been even easier if we’d known some of Walsh’s tips for downsizing:

  • The 1-to-5 Ratio. Go through a collection of anything, and for every five you keep, get rid of one. Once you’ve done it once, go back and do it again — keep five items, get rid of one. You’ll cull down the collection gradually.
  • Reverse Coat Hanger Trick: We wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time. Turn all coat hangers in your closet back to front. In the next six months, when you wear something, put it back in your closet the correct way. At the end of six months, you’ll see what you’ve worn and what you haven’t. Give away what you haven’t worn.
  • Two Garbage Bags Rule: Get two large trash bags — one for giving away, one for trash. Spend 20 minutes every day, once a week, putting three items in the giveaway bag, and one in the trash bag. Immediately have someone take the giveaway bag to your favorite thrift store. Put the other out in the trash.

As my grandmother knew, giving treasured things to family members feels good. Walsh points out that doing so (or giving objects to a local museum or historical society) can help ease the loss of letting go.

A lifestyle with regular sifting through stuff is ideal, Walsh said: “Clutter sucks the life out of your space. As you get older, you need to surround yourself with the essentials, rather than the excess. It’s safer, better for you health wise and easier to maintain. By having less stuff, you live a richer life.”

For more information, visit the National Association of Professional Organizers at www.napo.net.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me At Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

Chemistry and the Torah: The Limits of Understanding


As teenagers living in America, we are often encouraged to take advantage of our natural capacity to question. Throughout a regular school day, I’ve heard that the average student asks 25 questions, which is 125 questions a week and 4,500 questions in a school year. It is indisputable that questioning enhances our knowledge and helps us grow as people.

In both Judaic and secular subjects at Shalhevet High School, where I am a senior, my teachers are open to questioning and promote intellectual growth in that way. As a centrist Orthodox high school, Shalhevet expects us to adhere to halachic standards and, at the same time, our questions are encouraged and treated seriously.

What we need to ask ourselves, though, is at what point can we accept that answers might be beyond our understanding? Or, at what point are there no answers? And, if we don’t know or understand an answer, does that mean we can’t or don’t have to believe it?

In Judaism, we are always going to be faced with questions that contain answers that either we do not understand, or do not have answers for at all. Built in to the Torah are specific commandments that we don’t know the reason for. These commandments are known as chukim. As with everything in the Torah, these mitzvot must serve an essential purpose or they wouldn’t be there. It is even possible that chukim exist merely to promote the idea that we can’t or won’t understand everything we do.

A lack of understanding is something we deal with everyday. It is irrelevant how much I have paid attention in AP chemistry; I still do not understand colligative properties perfectly. I have questioned, and I have experimented, but the answers I have been given are just too complex. That does not mean that the properties aren’t accurate. It is merely a reflection on myself, and the fact that I am not learned enough to understand. I can still believe that when I mix salt with ice, I will raise the freezing point and therefore be able to make ice cream.

Similarly in Judaism, there are also commandments with reasons I may never understand. I cannot possibly understand why Hashem needs me to praise Him with the same words everyday (daven to Him, which is not a chok). I have heard many explanations, but I don’t understand them; they do not fully explain the requirement. Regardless, I am obligated to daven, whether or not I understand why.

I hope that in the future, after davening and learning, the answers will become clearer. The same way I do not completely understand colligative properties, I do not understand davening. But I never denied the validity of the properties, and I can also not deny the validity of davening.

Judaism is a simple religion containing many complexities. No one could realistically hope to understand everything. It is important to question and to learn. But when we don’t understand something, or don’t agree with something, we need to remember that it doesn’t give us license to not follow halacha or to not keep the Torah.

The Jew who believes in Hashem and the holiness of the Torah is not unlike the struggling chemistry student; if you believe in the foundations of the discipline, then you accept the validity of the parts you don’t understand and push for greater understanding in the future. Religion is simple and you must be loyal to Hashem’s every word regardless of your lack of understanding. But on top of that you are obligated to find out the answers to your questions and adapt them to your life.

It is extremely challenging to keep the commandments while not fully understanding them, but in reality we accept things constantly that we do not fully understanding (i.e., colligative properties). Commandments should, therefore, also be accepted without full understanding since they not only enhance our lives, but lead us in the correct derech (way) every day.

Alison Silver is a senior at Shalhevet High School. Her article originally appeared in The Boiling Point.

The Circuit


Boxer Praises FOUNDATION

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recently recognized Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in Washington, D.C., by bestowing on it the Boxer Excellence in Education Award.

“I am pleased to present my Excellence in Education Award to the Shoah Foundation,” Boxer said. “The Shoah Foundation has done an outstanding job of educating people about the tragedy of the Holocaust. Through the use of video testimony, they are teaching the next generation about the importance of working for justice and tolerance around the world.”

Accepting the award, Shoah Foundation President and CEO Douglas Greenberg said, “We are pleased and honored to receive this award. Sen. Boxer’s dedication to fostering social justice and cross-cultural understanding among Californians and all Americans, strengthens and reaffirms the mission of the Shoah Foundation. Her recognition — through this award — of the potential of education to defeat prejudice, intolerance and bigotry helps us face the task ahead with renewed confidence.”

The Shoah Foundation was established in 1994 by Spielberg to tape and preserve video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. After recording almost 52,000 video testimonies in 56 countries and 32 languages, the Shoah Foundation’s mission today is to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry — and the suffering they cause — through the educational use of the foundation’s testimonies.

Hadassah Happenings

Andrea Silagi of Encino was elected to her first term as a national vice president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, at the organization’s 91st annual convention, which just concluded in Washington, D.C. She will also serve as the chair of foundations.

Also elected were: June Walker, of Rockaway, N.J., to her third term as the 23rd national president of Hadassah; Ruth B. Hurwitz, as national treasurer, and Mona Wood, as national secretary, both of Baltimore, Md.

Some 1,500 Hadassah members from 37 states held 150 meetings with their local congressional representatives, both in the House and Senate to discuss Hadassah’s positions on foreign aid for Israel, stem cell research and genetic discrimination and the Iran Freedom Support Act.

This year’s Henrietta Szold Award, Hadassah’s highest honor, was awarded to a husband-and-wife team: Daniel C. Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel, and his wife, Sheila Kurtzer. In awarding them this honor, former Hadassah National President Bonnie Lipton announced that Hadassah was establishing an annual scholarship for Young Judaea’s Year Course in the Kurtzers’ name.

For complete information about Hadassah, visit www.hadassah.org.

Programming award

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) has announced that B’nai Tikvah Congregation of Westchester has been selected to receive the Solomon Schechter Award for Excellence in Synagogue Programming. This award is presented to congregations affiliated with the United Synagogue that have distinguished themselves during the preceding two years in aspects of congregational life.

Ileene Morris was honored for her work with Hazak, whose chapters were developed to successfully reach out to the senior population.

“Ileene is a blessing. Her hard work and devotion are appreciated by all members of the congregation, especially the seniors it benefits,” Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen said.

The award will be presented in a ceremony at the USCJ International Biennial Convention to be held at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, Mass., from Dec. 4-8.

Social Justice for All

Eighteen Reform Jews from across North America traveled to Israel to participate in 10 days’ worth of social justice service learning as part of Tzevet Mitzvot: Israel Mitzvah Corps. Sponsored by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, the July 3-14 trip engaged participants with hands-on projects, study and discussion with religious and political leaders and the hospitality of Israeli Reform Jews.

“As Reform Jews, we are driven by our vision of a world redeemed by justice, mercy and peace, and our role in making that a reality,” said Evelyn Laser Shlensky, leader of the mission and immediate past chair of the URJ Commission on Social Action.

Participants worked on a variety of projects throughout the land of Israel. In Tel Aviv, they explored the plight of Israel’s foreign workers at the Workers’ Hotline; in Jaffa, they learned about the realms in which the Israeli Reform Movement is involved in social action and awareness; outside Jerusalem, they discussed the ramifications of Israel’s security fence with members of Rabbis for Human Rights, and inside the capital, they met with a member of the Knesset to talk about social justice and visited Yad Lakashish Project, a multifaceted workshop for senior citizens and the disabled.

 

So Uncool, It’s Cool


 

I favor the type of acrylic French tip nails that are considered fashionable only by midlevel porn stars. I still wear Uggs. Pink is my favorite color. I’ve seen the movie “G.I Jane” twice, and not for camp value. I thought it was good.

Today, I embrace my uncool preferences.

I used to have to fake liking Raymond Carver novels and understanding Neil LaBute movies, but now I’m free.

This is a profound change. And I understand that seismic personal shifts are rarely associated with Demi Moore movies, but hear me out. The things that truly appeal to us are a reflection of our genuine personalities. Like it or not, the real me has some really cheesy taste. The more I’ve come to celebrate the tacky things I love, the more comfortable I’ve become with myself.

Seeing a movie in Silver Lake makes me feel like the rest of the world is Beck and I’m Josh Groban. I like the Valley, the blown-out look of the flora off the side of the 101. I relish Studio City with its strip malls and Mystic Tanning salons and La Salsas. When I visit my aunt in Northridge, I savor the cul-de-sacs and minivans as much as the Santa Ana winds.

Speaking of which, last time I was visiting my aunt in the 818, I said to my college-age cousins as they stepped out to go dancing, “Are you going to get your groove on?”

I was sort of being ironic, but mostly, I was just being earnest. And earnest is the most uncool thing you can be.

“Teresa,” my cousin Josh said. “You can’t say that anymore. In fact, could you not say that again, ever? Why don’t you just ask us if we plan to ‘bust a move?'”

Even my lingo is lame.

I can’t play pool or play poker. If it’s time for a leisure activity that reeks of wealth or coordination, I’m out. I’ve never skied, been within a gurney’s distance of a snowboard, played soccer, played blackjack or gone surfing. There are two “sports” at which I’ve excelled: ballet and Ping-Pong. While I truly can play a mean game of table tennis, I notice there haven’t been many movies celebrating the dark, defiant world of the pong hustler. Daredevil ballerinas? Those are just the girls who don’t throw up lunch.

If there is any occasion for nonchoreographed “freestyle” social dancing, I will “bust a move” on out of there. Social dancing is for the uninhibited. I am uptight. Today, I don’t fight that. I gladly sit out this dance and every other, no matter who grabs me by the arm and squeals, “C’mon, it’ll be fun. This is my song!”

Sometimes, my true tastes happen to intersect with something that actually is hip; as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I’ve always enjoyed single malt Scotch, for example. I drink it straight up, which seems to impress people. This isn’t because I’m too fashionable to imbibe Chablis or a “so two years ago” apple martini; I just like the taste of top-shelf booze and I don’t like ice melting into my good liquor. I also happen to live in Koreatown, which if I’m not mistaken, falls into the category of being so uncool it’s cool. I’m just here for the cheap housing and decorative gang tags, but folks seem to find this aspect of my lifestyle surprising, in a good way, like I’m gritty and urbane.

What’s more, Judaism seems to be in a chic phase. Is Teri Hatcher not the hottest of the “Desperate Housewives”? This year, everyone wanted to “Meet the Fockers,” making it one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time. The Fockers were cool.

I notice when people ask where my column appears, I no longer say “in a local weekly newspaper,” thus avoiding the J word, like I did for years.

But this isn’t just because hipsters throw out Yiddish words now and Ben Stiller and Barbra are machers. It all goes back to Demi, and to deciding to figure out what I truly like, not what I should, and to accepting all of it. I’m not talking about meeting strangers and bragging about the pink and the Ping-Pong and suggesting we sit down for a screening of “Striptease: the Director’s Cut.” There are some things you can keep to yourself, or let out in time. What I’m describing is an inner comfort with the totality of what makes you, from the accidentally cool to the supremely kitschy.

When you stop wasting time trying to figure out what’s cool so you can convince yourself to like it, you can begin what is, in a way, a spiritual practice. You can know that if last year’s Ugg fits, wear it.

Teresa Strasser is an Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

 

Bird’s-Eye View


 

One day, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar was riding his donkey along the coastal road. He was enjoying the beautiful scenery and reviewing in his mind the wonderful study session he had with his rabbi at Migdal Eder, when he encountered a man who was extremely ugly.

“How ugly you are,” said the startled rabbi. “Are all the people in your city as ugly as you are?”

The man responded calmly, “What can I say? Go to the artisan who crafted me and tell him that his handiwork is ugly.”

Upon hearing that, Ben Elazar realized that he had gravely sinned and begged the man to forgive him. But the man refused to forgive him until Ben Elazar spoke to the Creator. The rabbi ran after the man a long way until they came to a town. The town’s people called out: “Welcome, rabbi.”

The man asked the people, “Whom are you calling rabbi?”

The people pointed to Ben Elazar.

“If this is a rabbi,” said the man, “let there be no more rabbis among the Jews.”

Eventually the man forgave the rabbi after a public apology, and Ben Elazar had learned a humbling lesson.

I have always understood the reply of the man as one of acceptance: “This is who I am, this is how God created me, I am not as lucky as you, but you have to accept me.”

But today I read his words from a totally different point of view.

He is not talking with self-pity but with pride, and he does not regard the rabbi as better, wiser or luckier. The man Ben Elazar encountered drew upon the wisdom of Job who said, in reference to the weak and the poor: “Did not He who made me in my mother’s belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?”

What the man was telling Ben Elazar was that they were equals, that they were peers and that the same Creator who created the rabbi in his image also created also the “ugly” man. So who is a truer image of God?

The message is a universal one and it is directed to all mankind. How much better would the world be if we looked at people and thought first of what we have in common with us instead of analyzing how they differ from and are therefore inferior to us?

We are human beings, created in the image of God; we talk and communicate, smile and cry, laugh and get depressed. We feel pity at the sight of a helpless animal and frustration when we can do nothing to help. When we realize how similar we are, the road is open for understanding and for appreciating the unique gifts and talents of every human being.

In this week’s parsha, we read about the purification process of the leper. According to the rabbis, the sin of the leper is the sin of judging the fallacies of others and making them known to all, and most of us, like Ben Elazar, are guilty of engaging in this kind of judgment. The leper is rejected and alienated in order for him to experience, even for a short while, the pain he afflicted upon others by judging and rejecting them. When his process of purification is completed, the Torah commands that “the priest shall order two live clean birds … to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered … and he shall take the live bird … and dip … in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered … and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.”

This ceremony is shocking and powerful. The bird is an analogy to the neshama, the soul. The slaughtered bird is the person who was offended by the leper, as our sages have taught us that insulting someone in public is tantamount to murder, and the same follows for gossip and calumny.

The live bird, representing the leper, is dipped in the blood to signify that he is stained by that sin. It is sent free in the open country to tell the leper that on one hand he is now cleansed and free to join the community, but that on the other hand he should always remember his past actions and avoid such behavior in the future. He is also told that once he spread the word, it is very difficult to retrieve it and undo the damage, since it is like a bird that can fly freely everywhere.

Let, then, the clean bird of our soul fly free and unstained in the open country, and let it see, from a bird’s-eye view, only the good and positive in our fellow human beings.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.

 

71: A Vote We Can All Agree On


We Jews aren’t exactly famous for agreeing with one another. Of our community, it is frequently said, “Five Jews, eight opinions.”

Perhaps this is why it is especially noteworthy when an important opportunity for communitywide agreement presents itself. The 2004 election in California offers precisely that kind of opportunity.

Regardless of one’s vantage point on Jewish law, we are all united in the understanding that law is central to Jewish life. Our rituals, our customs and our traditions are animated by the legal discussions of the rabbinic sages. Those of us from differing denominations may disagree about the authority and origins of Jewish law, but we can all agree that the system of mitzvot (commandments) has something important to teach us about how to live our lives.

On Nov. 2, the voice of Jewish law will call to us as we vote on Proposition. 71, The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. Proposition 71 will create funding for stem cell research that scientists believe will some day make possible breakthrough cures for illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and spinal-cord injuries.

There won’t be a voter on Election Day who hasn’t been somehow impacted by one or more of the illnesses targeted by Proposition 71. Each of us has at least one family member or cherished friend who has battled one of these life-threatening diseases.

We have struggled with them. We have prayed with them. We have wept with them. And we have mourned for them. Proposition 71 represents hope for relief from the anguish we have all known.

What does Jewish law have to say about supporting embryonic stem cell research?

Our tradition is clear — God creates life; we are obliged to preserve it. The Torah teaches: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” (Leviticus 19:16)

The medieval sages who codified Jewish law interpreted this verse as a positive commandment to save the lives of those who are in danger, a mitzvah known as pikuach nefesh. Saving lives is so important, argue the sages, that pikuach nefesh supersedes virtually all other mitzvot.

There are those who would suggest that embryonic stem cell research destroys life, rather than preserving it. After all, research on the type of stem cells that scientists think are most likely to yield life-saving cures requires the destruction of a human embryo.

Does the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh permit this type of research, particularly since even the most optimistic scientists admit that cures are still a long way off?

Most Jewish legal authorities, across denominational divides, believe that stem cell research is permitted, indeed must be carried out, despite the destruction of the embryos from which the cells are taken. This position is, in some sense, a reflection of Judaism’s distinction between real life and potential life.

If we are forced to choose between protecting a real life or a potential one, we choose the real life. This distinction alone would not permit us to abort an embryo that is in utero for research purposes.

However, Jewish law further distinguishes between an embryo that is in utero and one that is in a laboratory. An embryo in a research laboratory, not in a womb, does not have the Jewish legal status even of potential life. It’s that simple.

That’s not to say we would support all forms of genetic research without careful consideration. We must meticulously weigh our ethical concerns about how this research is carried out against the benefits to humanity that such science will likely afford.

But protecting realized life always takes precedence in our tradition. So when you think about the real lives that could be saved through embryonic stem cell research — and the estimate is that 128 million Americans suffer from conditions that stem cell research could impact — how can there be a choice?

Many Los Angeles-area rabbis, including us, have studied this issue and the Jewish teachings that relate to it, and after investigating the details of Proposition 71 (which can easily be done by visiting www.yeson71.com), we have decided to endorse the initiative. For us, Proposition 71 is pikuach nefesh of the highest order.

If you’ve ever had to say that horrible long goodbye to a parent or spouse afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease; if you’ve agonized as a loved one battled the advancement of multiple sclerosis or diabetes; if you’ve ever escorted somebody you love through the physical and emotional minefield we call cancer, imagine a day when no one will ever have to suffer as you have — as they have.

That’s the potential with embryonic stem cell research. We are not permitted to stand idly by as our neighbors and friends and loved ones lie bleeding. On this, each and every Jew can agree.

We join in urging you to vote for Proposition. 71 on Nov. 2.

Ken Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform synagogue. Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox congregation.

How to Approach a Grieving Jew


"Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief" by Rabbi Maurice Lamm (Jewish Publication Society, $30).

Grief erases all regular rules. All the logic that has ever seemed to govern one’s life suddenly seems useless. More than useless, it seems pointless. In death, we are all brought down to the same physical level. In grief, all rules are shaken to the core. Individual, groups, even whole societies can exist in states of suspended animation, for in struggling with the implications of death, they cannot participate in the daily activity of living.

In a religious context, that very suspension is a double-edged sword. Religion must be based on a system of logic. Without it, no belief or ritual would make any sense. So what is a religion like Judaism, with its long history of legal logic, to do with mourning? How is Judaism to cope with the mourner, who is living the paradox of grief: showing the rest of us exactly how crucial the laws that govern every moment and gesture can be to maintaining order and meaning in life, but also making us face the question of whether those rules really mean anything at all.

In 1969, Rabbi Maurice Lamm published "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning," which became a staple for those trying to cope with the death of a loved one, and served as the template for the hundreds of books dealing with grief in a Jewish context that have been written since. Now, 35 years later, he has returned to the subject in "Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief."

An Orthodox rabbi, Lamm lives and writes in a world that values halacha, or Jewish law, as the proper way to deal with all aspects of life, both good and bad. Yet grief is the one example of a time and state that defies law. We can see in his treatment of the topic of mourning the ways in which Judaism itself has tried to reconcile the difficulty of grief.

Lamm goes into great detail about the practice of "sitting shiva," the seven-day period of enforced mourning that traditional Jews have long followed. During that week, members of the community visit those who have experienced a death. He goes into great detail about the particulars that govern even the experience of shiva: The mourner is to sit low to the ground so that he or she is closer to the earth and thus to death; the mourner doesn’t wash his or her hair and wears a piece of clothing that has deliberately been torn. Visitors, too, are given instruction about how to interact with those whom they visit. They may not allow the person to isolate himself in his sorrow, but by the same token may not greet the mourner directly.

All these rules to regulate what is ultimately ungovernable. Even this has been written into Judaism’s understanding of the grief process. Before shiva even begins, the mourner exists in a netherworld, not subject to the regular rules. For a day or two, the mourner exists outside the legal system. He or she lives out the fact that death cancels all logic, that law is powerless in the face of death.

What Lamm never seems to confront is that in laying out how the mourner is to travel from that netherworld to full participation in life, Judaism finds a way to re-exert its own logic onto the moment of greatest grief. In the progress from the first shock of death to the re-entry into the community one week later, the mourner is brought back from the place where law has no meaning to the world in which law reigns supreme. In fact, traditional Jewish thoughts about grief and the practices that it has devised, never really do let go of the logic of law.

The result, for "Consolation," is that Lamm is on surest ground when he sticks to the formalities of grief — not just the laws of interaction with a mourner, but even in the suggestions he gives about how to deal with someone in that delicate state.

In fact, Lamm shows sensitivity to the turbulent emotions of any mourner in his approach toward those who would wish to give consolation. The book stresses patience. It offers detailed advice about how to avoid the most dreaded of all situations: saying the wrong thing to a person sitting shiva. He even encourages those visiting to endure some discomfort if it will alleviate some of the mourner’s anguish.

To his credit, Lamm anticipates the existential questioning that comes up during a period of grief, but his book is less successful when it tries to engage those questions on their own, precisely because the law is never too far out of sight. One cannot attempt to answer the spiritual dilemmas that death inevitably brings up if one is unwilling to also suspend all logic, if only for a brief moment, and Lamm simply cannot do that. His worldview is too caught up in the reassertion of the law, and not open enough to its seeming irrelevance in the light of grief’s suffering.

For all that, Lamm has written an important book, a book that offers something to grab onto at a time when the bottom seems to have dropped out, when nothing makes sense and we yearn for the assurance that there is meaning, that the existential questions do have answers. Sometimes, rules can be the greatest consolation of all.

Lamm will be speaking Aug. 31 from noon-2 p.m. at the University of Judaism. For more information, call (800) 757-4242.

Right Words


"Why do human fingers resemble pegs? So that if one hears something unseemly, one can plug one’s fingers in one’s ears." — Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 5b

Between political campaigns and summer weddings, we’ve been witnessing a lot of promises and vows lately. As a rule, I find wedding

promises more convincing than campaign ones, but are there any among us who haven’t witnessed the breaking of both kinds of vows? So frequently, it seems, that we might sometimes wonder if any folks these days take their own word seriously.

I say "these days," but it’s not only now, of course. Jewish tradition has always taken both the making and breaking of vows seriously. In fact, we are taught to take seriously the importance and meaning of any words that come out of our mouths. This week’s Torah portion instructs us not only in the making and keeping of vows, but also in the negotiation and amending of oral contracts, including instruction on what land goes to which tribes, on who is responsible for an oath made by a spouse and on the inheritance laws for women.

It seems no coincidence that this double portion, with its topics of vows, contracts and the power of words, comes as we look forward to the month of Av — a time of solemnity as we move toward the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), the reflective, sorrowful fast day commemorating woes that befell the Jewish people. Many of those through the misuse of words.

Among these sad events are two relevant ones: the story we read a few weeks ago in Parshat Shelach Lecha of the 12 scouts who were sent to spy out the Promised Land; and the interpretations of why the First and the Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. Why did God bring a plague upon 10 of the scouts? According to Torah, because they spoke an evil report about the Promised Land, frightening the Israelites, prompting a loss of faith (see Numbers 14). And why were the Temples destroyed? The Talmud tells us the Second Temple’s destruction occurred "because therein prevailed hatred without cause" (Yoma 9b).

But wasn’t that true in the time of the First Temple also? Rabbi Eleazar explains that one of the causes of that destruction was "people who ate and drank together and then thrust each other through with the daggers of the tongue."

Using words to provoke fear and panic, causeless hatred and other hurts are among the wrongdoings that brought destruction upon us in times past, and, clearly, still today. Wrongdoing through words outnumbers any other kind of sin on the long lists of sins for which we ask forgiveness at Yom Kippur.

Elul — the month of teshuvah (repentance and turning), which follows the month of Av and precedes the Days of Awe — is intended to be a time of reflection upon the words we have spoken and withheld, the hurt we have caused, the apologies and amends we need to make. The month of Av (which begins this Sunday night, July 18), with its backdrop of the ways our ancestors misused words, comes with a different custom, one that invites us to keep from making the mistakes our ancestors made. Machsom l’fi, guarding the tongue, invites us to spend the first eight days of Av not in self-reflection for what we have already done, but in greater-than-ordinary concentration on what we might say or not say right now, before we say something we regret, before words leave our mouths that will require us to make amends later on or before we remain silent when we should have spoken.

What could our world be if we always reflected before words came forth? What effect would it have on what we say about one another? About other peoples? About other nations? About our loved ones? About ourselves? And perhaps even more profoundly, what would we hear if everyone around us were guarding his or her words just as carefully? At our synagogue, on the Shabbat before their wedding, the blessing we offer the bride and groom, or groom and groom, or bride and bride, contains this advice from Rabbi Sidney Greenberg: "May you waste no opportunity to speak words of sympathy, of appreciation, of praise, and when you offer words of criticism, may they be chosen with care, and spoken softly."

Simply put: In our lives, or at least in the first eight days of Av, can we be deliberate with each word we speak and each we do not, each word we hear and each we choose not to hear? Words can change worlds; we know this from our liturgy: God spoke and the world came to be — Baruch sh’amar.

Words can change hearts, hardening or softening them. Words can encourage, as when — like this week — we finish reading a book of Torah and say to one another: hazak hazak v’nitkhazek, be strong, be strong, and let these words — on the caretaking of words — strengthen each other.


Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim.

In Praise of Lambs


What do Cal Ripken Jr. and Aaron (the high priest) have in common?

Not much — except in the mind of a Jew who has
passion for Torah and sports. So here goes!

Aaron receives the commandment to light the menorah everyday. The Torah states: “Aaron did so; he lit the lamps, just as God commanded” (Numbers, 8:3).

The classic biblical commentator Rashi wonders why this verse is necessary. The working assumption is that Aaron — the model spiritual persona follows God’s orders. Thus Rashi comments: This verse (was necessary to indicate) Aaron’s virtue — that he did not change.

Rashi’s comments are troubling on several accounts. It seems counterintuitive to praise Aaron for not altering a basic ritual. Further, is this the best praise with which to adorn Aaron — the older brother who reveled in the ascendancy of his younger brother Moses, the great pursuer of peace beloved by all of the Jewish people, the man who was willing to sacrifice his spiritual destiny for the sake of the Jewish people?

It would almost seem that for all the extraordinary work Aaron accomplished in his lifetime — the ultimate praise flows from something fairly ordinary. Perhaps that is precisely the point

A famous midrash poses a fascinating question. What is the most significant verse of the Torah? Many would opt for the Shema — the raison d’être of the believing Jew. The socially minded might select “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” a creed that succinctly captures the Jewish motif of kindness. Indeed, the Sages present both suggestions.

In a whirlwind, the sage Rabbi Shimon Ben Pazi suggests the verse “and the one lamb you shall bring in the morning and the second lamb shall be brought in the afternoon” (Numbers 28) — a verse that relates the imperative of twice-daily offerings in the Sanctuary. The Midrash concludes — after a rabbinic vote — Ben Pazi’s verse emerged triumphant.

A verse extolling the praise of the daily morning and afternoon lambs trumps the Shema and love thy neighbor? What is going on here?

In a world that extols the grand gesture, Judaism elevates the sublime. In a society that disdains routine, Judaism demands it. Judaism is not a religion that features an annual worldwide Yom Kippur conference at a synagogue near you. Nor is it even a weekly religion. Judaism is a “daily” — daily prayer, daily study and daily Shema all form the normative core of traditional Jewish life.

The deep meaning of this Midrash is now revealed. Of course, we must believe in the Shema and truly we have to love our neighbor. But the lamb in the morning and afternoon, the obligation of the daily offering, a routine never to be departed from, serves as a paradigm for the commitment to a daily encounter with God — for the goal of Torah is to create a sensitivity to the constant presence of the Almighty, wherever, whenever, period.

Routine, however, is not to be confused with rote. Inspired consistency is the name of the game. Perhaps this was the greatest achievement of Aaron, the model spiritual personality. While he was the master of the grand gesture, he never ignored the sublime significance of daily service. Further, as Rashi stated, he never changed — i.e., he summoned the same inspiration in year 30 as he did in year one.

Hence, Cal and Aaron. Even the neophyte sports fan recognizes that the only mark in modern sports history not imperiled is Ripken’s remarkable streak of 2,632 consecutive games played spanning from May 30, 1982 to Sept. 19, 1998. Consider the fact that the closest competitor today has logged in about 550 games and you begin to fathom the magnitude of the accomplishment.

Move over, Cal! About six years ago, 70,000 Jews crowded Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum to celebrate the conclusion of the Talmud, a feat accomplished by covering one page of Talmud everyday for 2,711 days (without an offseason). I was fortunate to be one of the attendees. It changed my life and the life of several of my congregants. The march of the relentless pages of Talmud has both haunted and challenged us — but most certainly has inspired us. In March 2005 more than 100,000 are expected to fill New York and New Jersey arenas along with several thousand for a local Los Angeles celebration.

Not to oversimplify: The tension of daily inspirational living dare not be ignored; nor does lack of inspiration obviate Judaism’s absolute commitment to routine. Nevertheless, as modern Jews we need not seek the grand gesture or the right moment to begin our spiritual quest: The time is now and tomorrow and its morrow. Let the games (or the lambs) begin!

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.

Holy Doubt


Rabbi Elie Spitz wrote a wonderful book, titled "Does the Soul Survive?," dealing with life after death, but for me this title is the question that I continuously ask in regard to life after birth. Does our soul survive the journey that we lead it through in our lifetime? How do we know that what we are doing with our life and the way we are trying to sustain our soul is indeed life-affirming? In the instances of blurred vision, how do we embrace the not knowing — the doubt? And beyond all, is there room to serve God from a place of doubt and transform our doubt from a distancing agent into holy doubt that functions as an indicator of intimacy and faith in the One And Only?

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitza (1800-1853), in his unique Chasidic teachings, the Mei HaShiloach, portrays the three sons of Levi, as described in this week’s Torah portion, as three models of serving God. The first, Gershon, is the "Ba’al Yir’ah" — the master of awe and trepidation. The sons of Gershom carry the curtains of the Mishkan (tabernacle), which creates partitions and separates the realm of holy (the Mishkan) from all that is outside of it. Gershom represents our concern to never deviate from God’s will. The children of Gershom will shy away from the unknown, for maybe they will be transgressing God’s will in their actions.

His brother, Kehat, represents his counterpart — the "Ba’alei Torah" — the masters of the Torah. The sons of Kehat, the Levites that carry the Holy Ark on their own shoulders, represent those of us that have mastered their Torah study in such a way that we can bare the Torah on our bear shoulders. We are aligned with God’s will and hence always able to decipher through all that we’ve learned what it is that God wants of us at any given moment.

And the third son, Merari, carries the poles — the foundation — of the Mishkan. He is the spokesperson for those of us who choose the middle road — not overly cautious, not overly daring. The sons of Merari are the "Ba’alei Mitzvot u’Ma’asim Tovim" — the masters of the commandments and good deeds. You will never find yourself questioning their actions — they are exactly who they appear to be. No agony in their journey, yet no ecstasy as well. Masters of simplicity.

Close reading of the Ishbitzer Rebbe uncovers yet another trait other than their parents that they share in common — their doubt in regard to their choice of service. Gershom lives in doubt, for maybe he restricted himself from a realm that God actually desired him to embrace. Kehat questions, "maybe I will go to far, maybe I can’t really always master my Maker’s wisdom and know what is asked of me." And Merari understands all too well what is the meaning of "no pain, no gain" and questions if his service is real and if he lacks growing pains.

For the Ishbitzer Rebbe we embody indeed all three of these paradigms, actualizing them at different junctions of our lives. The one constant element that we take with us is our doubt — our holy doubt — regardless of the path we choose. Our holy doubt is our indication that our soul is still alive and indeed surviving the journey of life.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) used to say, "The world to come is a big movie theater! In one eye you see every moment of your life — your actions, thoughts, desires; your moments of fear and of joy. In your other eye you see every moment of what your life was to be (I hate the word should as in "should have been") — again, every detail of the totality of who you are. When you see two different movies simultaneously, these are moments of hell, and when you see the same movie with both eyes, these are moments of heaven."

I believe that one doesn’t have to die in order to inherit heaven or hell — there are moments in our life that we are in the right place in the right time doing the right thing. These are moments of heaven. There are moments that one of those components is not aligned with the others and those are moments of hell.

There is a part of me that believes that we know to distinguish between these moments. A voice that continuously asks, "Was this heaven, or rather, hell?" There are times the answer is clear. Yet there are also other moments, when my clarity is blurred: the not knowing, the holy doubt seeps in.

When this happens I take refuge in the last verse of our Torah portion (Bamidbar 7: 89): Moshe, in his moments of not knowing, enters into the Ohel Mo’ed — the tent of Meeting — to speak to God. And as Moshe would do, we too, can enter into our own Ohel Mo’ed — the place we encounter God. We, too, try to grasp the murmurs of the Divine as He speaks to Himself.

I have learned from this holy eavesdropping that what we share with God is our faith and our doubt. So many times our "What do I know?" and "Could this really be happening?" is but an echo of the Divine questioning and embracing the unknown in faith.


Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Can Purity Last?


In this week’s Torah portion, Moses elaborates the laws of impurity. Touching or holding something impure will render people, clothing, food, beverages, containers, wood, leather, earthenware and ovens impure. Shemini is concerned with the consequences of contact with living, ritually impure animals, as well as carcasses. Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that skin disease, menstrual or birthing blood, seminal emissions or corpses likewise cause impurity. It is remarkable how contagious impurity can be.

The prophet Haggai points out that purity is not transferred as quickly or thoroughly. It may not seem fair, but what is ritually (and perhaps morally) pure just doesn’t “rub off” as easily as what is impure.

“Ask the priests for Torah instruction, saying, ‘If one carries consecrated meat in the skirt of one’s garment, and with one’s skirt touches bread or pottage or wine or oil or any food, shall it become consecrated?’

“And the priests answered and said, ‘No.’

“Haggai said, ‘If one who is unclean by a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’

“The priests answered and they said, ‘It becomes unclean.’

“Haggai answered and said: ‘So it is with this people, and so it is with this nation before Me, says Adonai, and so it is with every work of their hands…'” (Haggai 2:11-14).

Even a small amount of ritual impurity carries consequences and can render large areas impure. To recover purity, people must wash, separate themselves from the community for varying lengths of time and even, under some circumstances, offer sacrifices or undergo inspection by a priest. Some affected objects can be purified; others must be destroyed.

While many of the laws of purity are no longer practiced, the laws of Passover offer a parallel example and experience for contemporary Jews. If you want to rid your house of chametz (leaven), doing 99 percemt of the job is not, halachically speaking, good enough. Even a tiny amount of residual chametz – even just seeing chametz – is not kosher for Passover. If we did not declare through the liturgy that any and all remaining chametz is “like the dust of the earth” to us, then virtually no home would or could be kosher for Passover. The theoretical capacity of one small biscuit to render an entire household unkosher for Passover is similar to the power of ritual impurity to overcome purity.

The idea that a breach in a pattern can be more decisive and influential than the pattern itself is not limited to the laws of purity and Passover. It applies to our physical world as well. If you exercise consistently for two months, your body will benefit, and you may well see signs of increased strength or endurance. Certainly, you cannot expect to gain stamina or muscle tone without exercise. But it is not guaranteed that you will even maintain your physical shape just because you exercise and eat right for two months; you may reach a plateau or lose ground. Yet, as those of us with sluggish Eastern European Jewish metabolisms can attest, it is virtually guaranteed that ceasing to exercise for a two-month period will diminish strength, endurance and fat-burning. Being in shape makes it easier to get back in shape after a lapse, but, whatever one’s fitness level, a lapse will surely be felt.

What is true for the laws of chametz and physics can be extrapolated to the realms of interpersonal relations and metaphysics. For example, while children benefit and are uplifted by hanging out with a good crowd, consorting with a bad crowd will bring them down with even greater speed and consistency.

Recently, I was short with two relatives whom I have generally treated with respect for the last 30-plus years. I am tempted to explain my behavior and motivations, but I won’t. The fact remains: I was rude, and the fallout from the incident was profound. Yes, the good will that I have accrued over the years has its own power and will, I hope, facilitate a complete reconciliation. However, the way of the world, as Haggai warns, is for my impure remarks to spread damage more predictably, reliably and decisively than any pure words or genuine apology can effect healing. That is why we must be so vigilant about each word, each interaction and each opportunity to hurt or heal.

If God is, as we say in our liturgy, “renewing in Divine goodness, daily, the work of Creation,” then we need to strive to do the same. Drawing on Divine goodness and power, we can create purity anew each day. And if we fail – when we inevitably fail, as fallible human beings – entropy takes over; impurity encroaches and “rubs off” readily. So we need to notice that and renew our commitment. Notice and renew. Notice and renew. The positive change that ensues in the external environment won’t hold, but we will be different – purer, more aware and better prepared for the next day’s challenge.


Rabbi Debra Orenstein is the spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue, which now meets at Temple Ner Ma’arav in Encino. She is the co-editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.”

Then and Now Pesach 5764


Most of us remember our parents telling us when we were
children that when they were our age they had to walk two miles, every
day, in the snow, uphill, both ways, to go to school. In
ancient times we can imagine our ancestors telling their children that when
they were their age they were slaves to Pharaoh. Our rabbis liked that line so
much that they forever imprinted it on our minds by including it in the
haggadah: “In each and every generation a person should see himself as if he
personally went forth from Egypt.” It is not sufficient for us to read or tell
the story — we are to feel as if we were experiencing the liberation from
slavery into freedom.

Those among our people who survived the Holocaust do not
need to be reminded of their liberation. Each and every day the Holocaust
survivor remembers the hunger, the humiliation and the degradation of his or
her experience. Recurring nightmares and certain experiences can trigger and
bring back in an instant the memories and horrors of the past. These people
appreciate more fully each and every blessing of food, health, warmth and
comfort.

The difficulty is in transmitting that appreciation to the
next generation — and so we recite each year: “In each and every generation a
person should see himself as if he personally went forth from Egypt.”
Similarly, the most oft-repeated verse in the Torah, no fewer than 36 times,
tells us, “To treat the stranger with kindness, because you remember how your
were treated when you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Sociologists would
tell us that those who were abused as children will likely grow up to be
abusers. The Torah, however, does not cut us any slack. It is precisely because
we remember our persecution and oppression that Jewish people are to assist the
widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor and all the other vulnerable members
of society. Not only may we not abuse others, we are obligated to be most
helpful to those who are most likely to be mistreated by others.

Rather than using our ignoble historical past as an excuse
to receive sympathy we are held to a higher standard because of the oppression
we remember at the hands of Pharaoh and the taskmasters. Despite the fact that
most of us were born in America, this wonderful land of abundance, we are
bidden to annually remind ourselves of the gnut (our scornful past) and humble
beginnings as a people. Though we are physically in Los Angeles and in
comfortable homes, we identify as a member of an ancient people subjected to
countless persecutions. We have survived to relive the story and thereby make
sure it never happens again — to us or to anybody else. Our awareness of our
own material blessings is tempered by our acknowledgement that the world is
still unredeemed. We are not permitted to be too comfortable. The eastern
corner of our home is to be unfinished, reminiscent of the destruction of the
ancient temple. Our blessing after the meal during the weekdays begins with
Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept for Zion,” reminding
us of our exile from Jerusalem 2,500 years ago. At a wedding when we celebrate
a supremely joyful moment, we break a glass. Our material blessings are tithed
to tzedakah — to hasten the final redemption for all.

What a strange challenge. We are to live in two worlds. We
work hard to provide for our families all the blessings of this rich culture —
but we are to be reminded: “This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate
in the land of bondage. This year we are slaves … next year may we be free;
this year we are here, next year may we be in the land of Israel.”

Twice each year (the last moment of Yom Kippur and at the
end of our Pesach seder) we recite the words: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Even those in Jerusalem recite these words. We are never
quite in the Jerusalem that was intended by those words. Those words imply the
time of redemption for all mankind.

I spoke to my son today. He lives in Jerusalem. He tells me
of a bus that was bombed, the eight who were killed and the 60 who were
injured. This world is the earthly Jerusalem. He then went to the Wall to pray,
with those who long for the Yerushalayim Habanuyah — the rebuilt and redeemed
Jerusalem, the true City of Peace to which we all intend our prayers.

We are not permitted to lose hope or lose our sense of
balance. We do not dwell excessively on the bitter herbs or bitterness of life.
We combine the bitter herbs with the charoset — the bitter with the sweet.
Israel’s national anthem is “HaTikvah” (The Hope).

Our momentary abundance does not blind us to our collective
poverty. And our sadness at the realization of the hunger, illness and pain in
this world does not blind us to our mission. “Next year in Jerusalem” is a
prayer and a directive. We are to guide our actions and inspire our hearts and
minds to work toward a rebuilt Jerusalem. Our prayers are directed to our
inmost heart to move our hands to bring about the final redemption.

This year we work to bring about the Jerusalem that we will
enter next year.

May Elijah drink from his cup at our seder this year and
foretell the coming of that great and awesome time, the time of peace for all
humanity. Â

Gershon Johnson is rabbi at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills.

I, Me, Not-Husband


I am completely frozen.

I have just walked out of a pitch meeting in Santa Monica. Wilshire Boulevard is breezy and gorgeous. It

is 4 p.m. I have been married for 17 years and now, it appears, I’m not. For the last 17 years I had a wife, a family, a home, a dock in the open sea of the world.

Moreso, for the last 10 years, I’ve had chubby, laughing babies to return to, who then morphed into muscled cyclones, ready to hurl themselves onto my back the moment I walked through the door, then preteens, eager to sing me their triumphs, real and imaginary, at school.

At the end of the day, I knew where to go — home.

But this breezy Tuesday afternoon, for the first time in 10 years, I will return to a house without my children in it. I will not read to them, hector them to clean up after themselves, praise their drawings, write with them, do homework with them, tell them to brush their teeth, watch them, listen to their piano practice, remind them to speak kindly, smell their sweet hair, gaze into their impossibly trusting eyes, touch their impossibly tender skin.

After 17 years, the marriage is over. We both came to the same realization on the same day — that in the whirlwind of working and child rearing and bill paying and housecleaning — our love had dissipated like spent steam. She doesn’t want a divorce, but a chance to define herself on her own terms — including in the arms of others — while maintaining the option of coming back to me. To me, that’s not separation. That’s divorce. And although it feels like unburdening myself of 1,000 pounds of pain, I don’t want it. And I do. And I don’t. And I do.

So here I stand on Wilshire Boulevard, more or less a single man for the first time, with no place to go.

And every place to go.

What do I do? When I was married and obliged to go home at the end of the day, I could think of all kinds of great things to do! Disappear into a bookstore and read, visit a friend, walk on the beach, go to a hotel bar and fantasize — just exhilarate in temporary, borrowed freedom, taking a stand for my theoretical independence as a human being. Of course, I never did those things. A good Jewish husband, I went home for dinner.

Now: Wilshire Boulevard. 4 p.m. Me. Ideas tick through my head. I could actually go the bookstore and read for four hours. I could go to a bar (but what would I say?). I could take a walk, go to a restaurant, call a friend, stroll the beach, go to a movie, listen to music, open the L.A. Weekly and see what the hell it is that people do at night. Are there sex clubs in Los Angeles? Hmmmm. Ideas tick faster. I could go to Vegas. Never been. I could drive to San Francisco — and back! I could go shopping, gorge myself on chocolate, sit at an outdoor cafe and knowingly nod at passersby with a faux Italian "buona sera."

To paraphrase Milton, the whole world lay before me.

Only, I don’t know which way to turn.

And so I stand.

And stand.

And stand.

Is this what single life is going to be like? Frozen? A pillar? Like Lot’s wife who turned to salt for looking backward?

Eventually I unfreeze. I start driving toward — where else? — home, but spot a Gelson’s and think one thing is for sure: I will need food. I grab a cart and it dawns on me that this time, I don’t need to buy her 8,000-grain bread, her weekly round of broccoli, chicken, etc. It hits like lightning. I can buy anything. I can eat anything. I pick up a bag of brown rice and ask it, "Do I like you? Or do I just eat you because that’s what we eat?"

I query the romaine lettuce and the Mueslix. I ask the organic milk if we really have a firm foundation between us worth that habitual extra dollar. I need, I tell the Empire chicken, to know just what our relationship means.

And so I stumble into the best metaphor I’ve inhabited for years. For two and half hours, I move slowly up and down the aisles of Gelson’s, scoping out the food, introducing myself to pastas and sauces and exotic fruits. I feel like the biblical Adam, new formed, stepping out of the Garden of Eden, destined to start from scratch.

Thus I begin the process of redefining myself. I will come to understand what it is that I, me, not-husband, like to eat. I will come to understand what it is that I, me, not-husband, like to do. And I will come to understand, in stages, what it is that I, me, not-husband, value in a woman, a lover, a companion and, if there is such a thing, a soulmate.

But first, I will have to go on a date.

As it turns out, this will cost me a whole lot more than this trip to Gelson’s.

Adam Gilad is a writer, producer and is CEO of Rogue Direct, LLP. He can be
reached at adamgilad@yahoo.com

Why Are We Jews?


“Biblical stories are in our present — in the cheder [Easter
European elementary school] we cried when we learned of the sale of
Joseph — and we rejoiced in his ascendancy to power. There
was a freshness, a vigor, a nearness, which we felt in that drama.” — Rabbi
Joseph B. Soloveichik

Oh to be a fly on the wall of that great and dramatic
confrontation between Judah and Joseph. The scene: Twenty-two years after being
sold, Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, has ascended to become Egyptian
viceroy. Joseph frames his brothers by placing a royal goblet in Benjamin’s
sack. Joseph “graciously” offers to exonerate all the brothers — barring
Benjamin. Floating between feisty and fearful, Judah, the engineer of Joseph’s
sale, walks into the palace to confront a mercurial viceroy and delivers a
poignant message climaxing with a plea to free Benjamin:

“For how can I go up to my father if the youth [Benjamin] is
not with me lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” (44:34)

In the face of such courage, it is Joseph who crumbles —
breaking down into tears and ultimately divulging his identity. How deliciously
ironic that this man of control, a teenager in a foreign land who is able to
withstand Potiphar’s wife’s temptations and strong enough to remain hidden for more
than 22 years, capitulates to Judah.

Wherein lies the power of the Judah personality? Is this the
same Judah who initiates the sale of his brother and whose conduct in the Tamar
episode raises troubling questions? Equally remarkable is the haunting silence
of Judah’s siblings. Why is it Judah alone who stands tall in the face of the
hostile viceroy who wants to seize Benjamin? Are they not all certain of the
consequent early demise of their father Jacob?

Our Sages portray the development of the Judah personality.
A picture of transformation emerges. After initiating his brother’s sale, Judah
begins to contemplate the enormity of his actions and their effect on Jacob.
Shortly thereafter, he is thrust into crisis with his former daughter-in-law,
Tamar, who is pregnant with illegitimate twins.

Unlike his role in the Joseph saga, in this epic, Judah does
not hold all the cards. He is, after all, the unwitting father (if this story
seems puzzling — you might want to read it in its original). Tamar knows, but
refuses to vocally pinpoint Judah as the father of her children. Instead she
opts to merely present Judah with the evidence and ultimately forces him to
make a momentous decision. In the presence of his father and grandfather,
comments the Midrash, Judah is confronted with a massive internal crisis. Shall
he remain passive or admit that he sired the children? Will Judah choose
ephemeral ease over eternal excellence?Â

“Tzadka mimeni” (“She is more righteous than I”), Judah
declares. (38:26) Two words, no ambiguity and an uncompromising sense of truth.
Precisely here, our sages majestically declare, does Judah earn his Messianic
stripes. Judah has made mistakes in the past, but he is now willing to accept
responsibility. The metamorphosis is almost done. For if Judah is able to admit
responsibility it is only natural that when the crisis of Benjamin strikes that
Judah plays the lead role and proclaims: “Anochi e’ervenu” (“I will be his
guarantor.”) (43:9)

It is striking that Judah’s sense of responsibility now
transcends his own self and creates a sense of obligation to the other.
Ultimately, this proactive responsibility has a profound curative effect, as
the brothers are reunited and the family healed.

Often parents in their role as mediators in great sibling
struggles are privileged to hear various restatements of “it all started when
he hit me back” — an argument of impeccable logic. It is not all right for our
children to shirk blame. Sacred duty requires that we invest them with a sense
of accountability, however unpleasant or frightening that might be. In our
efforts to provide our children with everything, we may deprive them of the
great gift of responsibility, engendering in its stead a sense of entitlement.

For the past 2,000 years, our people have been called
Yehudim — or Jews — a derivative of the word Judah. We are not Yissachars,
Dans, nor are we even Josephs. Perhaps it is because God demands of us to take
responsibility for our flaws. Even as we do not control our circumstances, we
surely control the way we respond to them. This essential understanding forms
the basis of real spirituality. Once we acknowledge that we are accountable for
ourselves and indeed for our fellow human beings, we become emboldened to
unlock the grand potential stored within.

Good Shabbos. Â

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.Â

Active Camps for the Unathletic


Jordan Cinnamon, 15, has been crazy about the ocean since he
was a little kid, so when it came to choosing a way to spend the summer, the
idea of going to a regular sports camps didn’t appeal to him.

“I really don’t like that many sports,” admitted the high
school freshman from Claremont. Instead, Cinnamon has spent his last seven
summers at Catalina Sea Camp on Catalina Island. Last year, he became certified
in scuba diving, and this coming summer he plans to shoot underwater films
during his dives.

Like many kids, Cinnamon’s interests don’t revolve around
baseball, basketball or tennis. In a camp world that is dominated by outdoor
sports, many nonathletes feel forced to play ball in order to reap all the
other benefits of camp — like forming lifelong friendships, finding other
activities they like and spending time without Mom and Dad. For those who are
in need of a change, there are plenty of alternative camps available to Southern
California kids who aren’t as sports-minded.

Most West Coasts Jewish overnight camps are much more
focused on Jewish programming than getting kids out on the field.

“What we do is Judaism,” said Zach Lasker, associate
director of Camp Ramah, a residential camp in Ojai. “The goal is to show kids
that being Jewish is a 24-hour experience and way of life.”

While Ramah and other local Jewish camps offer activities
like swimming, arts and crafts, archery, hiking and sports, there is usually
more emphasis on Jewish study, Hebrew and Israeli dancing.

Judi Joyce from Bakersfield has sent both of her teenage
daughters to Wilshire Boulevard Temple-run Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu since
they were 8. While her daughters, now 13 and 17, are both aspiring dancers,
Joyce and her husband encouraged the girls to spend their summers establishing
their Jewish identities.

“We live in a very small Jewish community,” Joyce said. “My
kids are not at Hess-Kramer for a sports program, they’re there because they
want to be around other Jewish kids.”

If finding a Jewish connection is not a summertime priority,
there are number of other specialty camps around the Southland. For the
technologically gifted or curious, there is iD Tech Camps, a summer program
available at more than 35 universities nationwide, including UCLA, Pepperdine, Cal
Lutheran University, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and Stanford. The programs, which
are available as day camp or residential camp, consist of weeklong or multiweek
computer-related courses. While living in the dorms or commuting, campers can
take classes like video game creation, digital video and movie production, Web
design, graphic arts, robotics, digital music editing, cinematography and
special effects, among others.

Space enthusiasts might explore Astrocamp, the sister camp
to Catalina Sea Camp, which is located in Idyllwild. Here campers participate
in astronomy, simulated missions into space, science experiments, rocketry, a
ropes course and geology.

“Astrocamp brings kids out of their shells,” said Paul
Kupferman, Catalina Sea Camp director, adding that the program tends to attract
academic children. “In school, [these kids] are kind of teased and at camp
we’re here to embrace and celebrate difference.”

For the dramatic at heart, there is Camp Ocean Pines in Cambria,
which is located between Santa Barbara and Monterey. For half the summer, Ocean
Pines is a performing arts camp that offers four one-week sessions relating to
theater, singing and music. During the other four weeks, the camp offers
“nature camp” sessions in surfing and the marine sciences.

While a nonathletic child might still flourish at a sports
camp, specialty camps often help kids gain confidence as they hone a new skill
or develop a deeper understanding of an area of interest.

“Kids just thrive here and when the school year starts, they
become mentors to other kids for knowing the technology,” said Karen Thurm
Safran, vice president of marketing for iD Tech Camps. “Their self-esteem just
blossoms.”

Some kids, like Alyssa Loriezo, 14, who studied digital
music editing at Stanford through iD Tech Camps, even develop a career
direction from their summer experience. After two weeks of composing her own
songs on the piano and manipulating her work through an editing system last
summer, the Loma Linda teen is thinking of majoring in music when she gets to
college.

“I have lots of other friends who go to other camps, but
they don’t seem as appealing as [Catalina Sea Camp],” said Cinnamon, thinking
ahead to his eighth summer in the ocean. “This is what I’m interested in now
and when I’m old enough, I want to be a counselor there.”

For more information on Catalina Sea Camp and Astrocamp,
call (909) 625-6194 or visit www.guideddiscoveries.org
.

For Camp Ramah, call (310) 476-8571 or visit www.ramah.org .

For Camp Hess Kramer, call (213) 388-2401 or visit www.wbtcamps.org
.

For iD Tech Camps, call (888) 709-TECH or visit www.internaldrive.com
.

For Camp Ocean Pines, call (805) 927-0254 or visit www.campoceanpines.org
.

In the Eyes of the Beholder


Part of my traditional upbringing as a yeshiva bocher was
the belief that anything that took my attention away from a page
of Talmud was bitul Torah — a waste of time. And while that
may have been a good lesson for an easily distracted teenager, I have since
discovered as an adult that there is so much Divine beauty in the world that we
forfeit if we keep our noses exclusively inside our books.

Esthetic beauty — be it found in a poem, a piece of music, a
sunset over the ocean — is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, something that
is esthetically pleasing can be an uplifting, spiritual experience, a means of
becoming closer to the Source, to God. Beauty can bring light into the world.
But so often, when physical beauty is an end unto itself, the opposite is true,
and the values of Dorian Gray — self-absorption and superficiality — prevail.

In Hebrew there are a number of words to describe beauty.
One is yofi, which describes an external, visible beauty. Another is chen,
which describes an internal special quality that radiates to the outside.
Someone need not be a supermodel to effuse chen, even if she or he lacks the
external yofi.

This week, both the Torah and holiday cycles focus on the
idea of beauty. Joseph had both yofi and chen; not only was he physically
stunning, he also radiated a nonphysical charm and charisma. But while it was
his yofi that made him an object of lust to Mrs. Potiphar, it was his chen that
allowed him to ascend to greatness in Egypt.

The excessive pursuit of yofi was the tragic flaw of ancient
Greek civilization. The Greeks’ emphasis on esthetic beauty — be it in the
human body, art or architecture — was evident in their pantheons and
gymnasiums. It is thus no coincidence that Greece was notorious for both beauty
and hubris.

What did our people accomplish during the days of the
Maccabees? It was far more than just a military victory. By living in a Greek
society, we adopted some of Greece within ourselves. We conquered ancient Greece,
which is not to say that we rejected it altogether, but rather that we were
able to control it. The yofi, which was so negative and destructive in the
hands of the Greeks, was now something that we could control. Greece taught us
that there is inherent value to esthetic beauty; that beauty does enhance a
person’s life.

Only when beauty is left unbridled is it problematic; when
it is controlled under the rubric of the Torah, then yofi becomes chen, the
deeper, more meaningful beauty. Using the power of Torah and spirituality, we
converted the Greek yofi into the Jewish chen.

Just as our ancestors conquered Greece, and converted yofi
to chen, so can we.

That’s what the lights of Chanukah teach us. Light
represents the radiation of physical beauty. Indeed, the talmudic sages often
describe something esthetically beautiful as “radiating a light.” But more: we
say in the “Hanerot Halalu” song, “V’ain lanu reshut lehishtamesh bahem” — “We
have no permission to utilize these lights.” This is a message that Judaism is
not just utilitarian; there is more to religious life than functionality.
Esthetics count for something, and we signify this by limiting ourselves to
looking at the beautiful Chanukah lights, and no more.

The Divine can be found not only in a verse of Bible or a
page of Talmud, but also in a beautiful sunset and a beautiful piece of music.
This is all part of the Almighty’s beautiful world, a beauty that is here to
elevate us spiritually. If we look for God, He is there.

May you have a beautiful, joyous Chanukah. Â


Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla at Kehillat Yavneh.

A Question of Perspective


We are all familiar with Jacob, the refugee who returns to his homeland to the dreaded encounter with his vengeful brother Esau. I believe most of us read the story through Jacob’s eyes, but is it the only way? What if it were possible to unearth these biblical heroes’ diaries? What would they say? Here are the events of our parsha as described by the two brothers:

Jacob’s Diary

Preparation: Tomorrow is the day. God knows how I fear that moment! What am I going to say to Esau? Should I apologize? Can there be an apology? My brother’s angry screams still haunt me. They come back to remind me that I have deceived my father…. But there is no point in wandering in the abandoned alleys of the past. I have to be realistic. Tomorrow I am going to meet Esau. According to my scouts, he is ready for war, coming with 400 men and probably armed to the teeth. I should send him a nice gift to appease him, hundreds of animals with their shepherds, showing my subjugation.

The Encounter: That hypocrite! He has no shame — kissing and hugging me as if I was his long-lost brother, as if he was not the one who threatened to kill me. Of course I did not return his hugs and kisses. I have some self-respect.

The Conversation: I knew it. I knew it. First, he starts with his innocent questions: "And who are these?" Well, this is my family, of course. It is all a gift from God, kain ein horeh, and not due to "your" blessing. He then toys with me, implying that he is rich enough and does not need the tribute I sent to him. Oh, he was transparent. He rejected it just to remind me that even though I have taken "his" blessing he has enough of his own. After all that, he comes with a preposterous suggestion — to escort me to my destination, or to at least send some of his men with me, as if I needed protection. Of course I needed protection — to be protected from him. Thank God I managed to outsmart him and go our separate ways. I hope I will not hear from him soon.

Esau’s Diary

Preparation: Tomorrow is the big day. After years of running away from me, my brother is finally coming back home. I look forward to meeting him. I hope he truly regrets his actions, however, for me it is part of the past. I could have followed him to Haran long ago, but I think the poor guy already paid for his iniquities, being on the run and cheated by his father-in-law. Just as a precaution, I am going to meet him with a small army, in case he becomes violent and tries to take what he thinks belongs to him.

The Encounter: My brother has such a nice family, but he is so touchy about them. When I ask who they are, to break the ice, he shoots back that they are a gift from God, lest I think he got them because of the stolen blessing.

The Conversation: I cannot believe it, not a word of apology. Only gifts. I don’t need his gifts, and I told him that. He insisted that I take them, fearing that I will try to take more by force. When I told him that I would like to accompany him to his destination, he nearly jumped out of his skin, looking at me as if I was a hired assassin, waiting for the right moment to kill him. No, he would not have me or any of my men accompany him. His fear definitely overcame his voice of reason. I guess he is not interested in family ties. Too bad. I suppose we’ll just keep it as it was for the last 20 years, live our lives separately, pretending we each have no brother.

What is the right version? Is it Jacob’s or maybe Esau’s? Perhaps it is a mixture of both? We will never know, because the words were never uttered. There wasn’t an official apology, nor was there an open channel of communication between the two brothers. After this fateful encounter they went their separate ways and became hostile nations. Was there something in this particular meeting that could have prevented such a development? Perhaps so. We need to be able to see things from the other person’s perspective. We should be willing to apologize, to communicate and to listen.


Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.

The Place of Dreams


It was somewhat overwhelming, though not totally surprising, that listening to Simon and Garfunkel in concert turned out to be a significant religious experience for me. I found that they have the ability to remind us what the seeking and dreaming “Ya’akov” that is inside us actually looks like.

The Chasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730-1797), teaches in Parshat Vayera, which we read three weeks ago, that the Torah is a blueprint for each and every one of us. There is an Avraham within us — the part of us that pleads in front of God, fighting the existence of evil. There is the Sarah within us — the part of us that has to make painful decisions on behalf of a greater good in the future. Our self-doubt is Amalek, our self-sacrificing voice is Rachel.

And Ya’akov: he has multiple faces that he carries. Ya’akov, upon receiving a new name, Yisrael, continues to use his old name — in Genesis 49:2, both names even appear in the same verse.

This Shabbat offers an invitation to look at Ya’akov the dreamer and to ask ourselves some important questions about dream life: What is it that we dream about? What is the content of our dreams? What do we remember of our dreams? And if we don’t remember our dreams, what does this tell us?

But there are also dreams that are not dreamt at night. There are those that we dream with our eyes, hearts, soul and spirit. What are the aspirations that we carry with us and that lead us through life? As Yonatan and David used the place of the arrows in the field (the zodiac sign for this month, Kislev, is Sagittarius) as a sign between them whether it was safe for David to return home or not, we can ask ourselves, how far and how high do we aim our arrows in life? What are the visions that we create in our mind?

In the opening of our Torah portion, Ya’akov leaves Be’er Sheva and the next thing we know is that he arrives in Charan. A verse later he encounters the makom (the place), which we are taught is Mount Moriah, the place of the binding of Yitzchak. Rashi points out that Ya’akov reached Charan and then realized, “Is it possible that I passed a place where my ancestors prayed, and I did not pray?” Immediately he experienced a “quantum leap” and found himself back at Mount Moriah. Upon waking from his dream, Ya’akov says, “Indeed God is here and I did not know” (Genesis 28:16). The Piasetzna Rebbe, Rav Klonimus Kalman Shapira (1888-1943) highlights a shocking contradiction: How could Ya’akov say, “Indeed God is here and I did not know” when the whole reason that he went there was because God was present there?

The Piasetzna Rebbe teaches us that there are different qualities of knowing, as there are multiple ways to listen/hear, as there are many possibilities for seeing/observing/noticing. There is the sensing we do with our physical mind, eyes, ears and hands. And then there is an internal form of knowing, hearing, seeing and touching, one that transforms our essence and being. One that demands of us to be other than who we appear to be in the world. This was Ya’akov’s exclamation — he approached Mount Moriah with “head knowledge” — that this was a sacred place, but questioned his “heart and soul knowledge.” He wondered, “Will I indeed encounter God in this place where I know that God was revealed to my ancestors?”

Listening to Simon and Garfunkel, alone while surrounded by thousands, I questioned the tears that started to flow by the third song. I knew, with my heart and soul, that even those that came with friends or family were, in some way, alone while listening. Alone because the people that were there had come not to necessarily hear the music with their ears, or see Simon and Garfunkel with their eyes, but rather, they/we came to find our makom (place) again. We came to reconnect with a vision that we had in our youth that the world is a good place and that we have the ability to make it a holy makom. We came to rebound ourselves with a makom that promises us love and relationship. We came to feel again what it means to trust and be trusted. We wanted to reclaim our dreams and our own voice. For each and every one of us was standing on the stage praying to be “Homeward Bound,” yearning to be nourished by the “Sound of Silence” and trying on what it means to cry out “I Am a Rock, I Am an Island.”

God is my rock and there is no unrighteousness in God. Tzuri ve-lo avlata bo (Tehillim 92:16).


Reb Mimi Fiegelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Silence Is Golden


A saleswoman, driving home in northern Arizona, sees a Navajo woman hitchhiking, stops the car and invites the Navajo woman to join her.

As they drive, the Navajo woman glances repeatedly at a brown bag on the front seat between them.

"If you are wondering what’s in the bag," the saleswoman offers, "it’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband."

The Navajo woman is silent for a while, then nods several times and says, "good trade."

Chauvinism, of one kind or another, probably has always been with us. This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayera, for example, appears to lend itself to the charge of male chauvinism. The Torah tells us that the three angels who came to visit Abraham brought news that Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s son. Sarah laughed when she heard this, whereupon God chastised her, saying to Abraham, "Why is it that Sarah laughed … is anything too hard for the Eternal?" (Genesis 18:13-14).

Our sages point out that this sharp response seems strange considering that in last week’s Torah reading, when God told Abraham that he would have a son from Sarah, he, too, laughed, yet in that instance God was not critical at all.

Why the different treatment? Could sexual discrimination be at the heart of the disparity or something else? Perhaps we can find our answer in a suggestion made by the late Hannah Levine, wife of the late, saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levine, known as the Tzadik of Jerusalem.

Hannah Levine suggested that the story of the Shunamit woman and the Prophet Elisha mentioned in the Haftorah for this week’s Torah portion can help solve our question. The story relates that the woman’s young son came running in from the field in great pain screaming, "My head! My head!" and then died. The woman took the boy, placed him upon Elisha’s bed in the room that she had prepared for the prophet in her home, and set out to find the prophet.

The woman then asked her husband to provide a chariot and driver for her so that she could find Elisha. Puzzled, he wanted to know why, to which she replied with one word, shalom (peace). When she finally reached the prophet, he saw her from afar and sent his assistant to find out if everything was well with her, to which she answered only one word: shalom. The story continues that Elisha knew something was wrong, went back with her and revived the child.

We, however, must wonder why the Shunamit woman responded to each query with the one word, shalom, when everything was the antithesis of peace. Hannah Levine suggests that this teaches us a lesson. For a miracle to work, one cannot drown it in everyday verbiage. Once it is subsumed by ordinary reality, the miracle will not occur.

Rashi, the classical medieval biblical commentator, offers a similar observation in regard to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s laugh reflected ordinary incredulity. She scoffed. She verbalized. As her words indicate, she did not believe such a promise could be fulfilled.

Abraham’s laugh, the Torah tells us, "was in his heart" (Genesis 17:17), but it expressed delight. Not a torrent of words but a simple, heartfelt laugh, reflected firm belief that the promise would be fulfilled.

What a powerful lesson for us who live in this information age, besieged by torrents of words. If we would realize that it is not so much what we say but what we do and what we feel in our hearts that can cause miracles to happen, then, like Abraham, we could influence a whole world for good.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

All We Need to Know


Abram was despondent in his tent, deeply wearied from battle, having just returned from chasing kings from Dan to Damascus.

Abram had looked death in the eye and sat distraught over his own future. God listened to His friend’s lament and then He took him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And he added, "So shall your offspring be" (Genesis 15:5).

This verse is remarkable in many ways, and like every verse of Torah, it has an elixir of magic cleverly hidden in its heart, which we will together attempt to uncork.

There is a story of a man who would jump up and dance wildly about whenever the Torah chanter chanted the words va’yedabeir Adonai, "God spoke." This was exceedingly frustrating to the congregation because they could never finish a single Torah reading with this man’s excited interruptions.

Most of us do not leap up every time were hear of God speaking. Most of us are not dancing while we read this column, but perhaps inside there is that scintilla of Sinai awe that leaps about inside of us. If we ever recover from the miracle of God speaking, we might then venture forth to understand what He said.

Many commentators understand God’s words as prophesying that Abram’s descendants will be numerous as the stars. That prophecy has yet to be realized, as Mark Twain wrote, "If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute … a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way." Some understand God’s words as hyperbole. Chasidic sage Sefat Emet interpreted them to mean that just as it is impossible to count the stars, so is it impossible to predict Israel’s future.

Sometimes it is not the speaking that inspires leaping and dancing, but the silences. There is an intimacy between Abram and God that exists outside of words: "He took him outside."

Imagine how you would take someone outside to see the stars or ruby Mars, a slivered moon or sunset, gently tugging on a lover’s sleeve, scooping up a sleepy child, "C’mon sweet little you, come see the sky in ribbons of lavender."

Rashi understood "He took him outside" to mean that God elevated Abram, lifting him outside of the world and whooshing him high above the stars.

Rav Yehudah said: "How do we know no star controls the destiny of Israel? From the verse, He took him outside…"(Talmud, Shabbat 156a). Rashi teaches that instead of stars, prayer and virtue can change a Jew’s destiny from bad to good.

For me, the magic of this verse is in the second time God is not speaking. It is written, "And He added," as if there was a pause in God’s speaking. Why are God’s words broken up? Why is it necessary to say "And He added?" It seems God pauses here to allow Abram the chance to soak in the celeste and attempt to count the stars.

Poised somewhere between the endless jeweled sky and undulating desert hills, there is a still, small silence, during which God’s arm rests around Abram’s troubled shoulders, and Abram looks up, following the grand sweep of God’s other arm, gesturing him to count the stars.

It is written in I Kings 19:11-12, "There was a great and mighty wind … but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, a still, small voice."

Where is God? Why do bad things like fires happen? How does the universe tick and spin? Where, why and how are questions as vacuous and infinite as space, as impossible to satisfy as counting the stars. We study them with intensity, all our power zeroed like Hubble telescopes, and sometimes a glimmer of truth reveals itself, a twinkle in a sky of possibilities that leaves us breathless. But often, we are left chasing moonbeams, reaching for stars and coming up empty handed. How could this happen? Why me? When will it stop? What can I do?

Until we let God take us outside, tug on our sleeve and scoop us up outside of our despondence, our misery, our anger, our frozenness, outside of our mirrored tent and stand poised, somewhere between diamond-studded air and mica-flecked earth. Why is a galaxy. How is a desert. What, when and where are cosmic seas. But God’s arm is around you, and so shall your offspring be. God’s arm is around you, and that’s all you really need to know.


Zoe Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

Hello Torah, Please Welcome Art


A newly religious female artist came to Chana Rochel Shusterman and told the Orthodox counselor that she was torn between her artistic drive and her religious sensibilities.

“I’ve stopped painting,” said the artist. “My favorite subject to paint is intimacy, and now that I am Orthodox, I just don’t feel that painting intimacy is appropriate.”

Shusterman’s advice? Continue painting, but re-adjust her notions of intimacy.

“I told her, there can be great intimacy in two clothed women sitting and learning to talk to each other, and it can be through nuance that you show the ‘innerness,'” Shusterman said. “That turned her understanding of what was possible and she began to paint again.”

For many religious artists, this painter’s dilemma — the conflict between art, with its concentration on ego, and religious Judaism, with its devotion to Torah — is not an anomaly, but a constant struggle. How does one reconcile fealty to talent and personal expression, with loyalty to a religion that is by its nature, didactic and restrictive? Is it possible to remain true to both and produce art, not kitsch? Beyond the philosophical considerations, there are practical ones, too. Can one be a true artist and not be immodest or perform on Shabbat?

Yes, say the women of Netivot Women’s Torah Study Institute, who are at the forefront of combining art and Torah to produce an enhanced experience of both, and are encouraging members of the community to learn how to do the same. On Sunday, Nov. 2, Netivot is having a “Yom Iyun on Torah and the Arts” (intense day of learning), which will include acting, writing, dance and music workshops that all focus on Torah and serving Hashem, followed throughout the year by a series of courses on the same. The project is called “Parochet, Revealing Torah Through the Arts,” and its aim is not to produce performers, but to facilitate people in fusing their talent with the spirit of Torah.

“I feel that we are trailblazers,” said Robyn Saxe Garbose, who trained in drama at Julliard. “Los Angeles is fertile territory [for this]. New York is stuck in intellectual elitism which definitely permeates the artistic community, but I think there is an openness here — what New York would describe as ‘granola eating’ — that they don’t have, and it’s pioneer territory for new ideas and a merger of creativity and consciousness.”

Garbose is going to be presenting the “Spiritual Transformation Through Acting” workshop at Parochet, and like the other presenters, she was forced to reassess her artistic drive after becoming religious. Garbose had been an accomplished theater director when she became baalat teshuvah, and suddenly she found that that career was no longer satisfactory to her.

“You can’t work at the theater and not work on shabbos,” said Garbose. “I was directing plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov and contemporary writers but [when I became religious] I felt that there was nobody who was resonating anymore with my experience of the world and where I wanted to go.”

So Garbose started writing her own plays and founded Kol Neshama — a day camp-cum-religious all-women’s theater company — to perform them.

The other Parochet presenters found themselves on similar paths — they were all forced to reassess accomplished careers when their newly found religion no longer intersected with their art. Vanessa Paloma, who will conduct the music workshop, found that becoming religious meant she could no longer attend singing auditions or performances on Shabbat. But instead of that holding her back, it forced Paloma into a new direction — studying and teaching Ladino and Jewish music.

“[Being religious] encouraged me to organize and to do my own projects, not other people’s,” Paloma said.

Joelle Keene, a journalist who will be presenting the writing workshop, found that when she became religious, her previous writing subjects no longer mattered to her and she only wanted to write articles about God, Torah and spirituality.

“I would send them in and the editors would call and say, ‘This is beautiful, but it doesn’t fit — we don’t have a God section in the paper,'” said Keene, who took her talents elsewhere, becoming associate editor of OLAM Magazine, a spiritual publication, and writing religiously appropriate musicals for Garbose’s theater company.

These women don’t aim to become religious Picassos or Madonnas — instead, they want art and Torah to have a symbiotic relationship with one another, where each is necessary to the other.

“We can’t use the talent that God has given us to be in service of other things, like materialism,” Keene said. “We have to serve God with what He has given us. Arts are part of the humanity that God gave us. If you close it off from Judaism, it [Judaism] is not complete.”

The “Yom Iyun on Torah and The Arts” will take place at
Yeshivat and Kehillat Yavneh, 5353 W. Third Street, Los Angeles, on Sunday, Nov.
2 from 12:30-6 p.m. For more information, call (310) 286-2346 or go to www.netivot.org .

Reckless


This week, while fires raged, strikes festered and three or four wars smoldered, most of the urgent phone calls I received were about Chaim Seidler-Feller. There were calls from his friends, calls from his enemies and calls — of course — from lawyers.

Seidler-Feller is the Hillel rabbi at UCLA who allegedly kicked and grabbed the wrist of political activist Rachel Neuwirth following a verbal confrontation with her (see story p. 13).

The incident took place Oct. 21 just outside Royce Hall on the UCLA campus, after a presentation inside the hall by attorney and author Alan Dershowitz. Neuwirth claims Seidler-Feller kicked and grabbed at her in the course of an argument related to Israel and the Palestinians. Seidler-Feller claims that Neuwirth first provoked him by calling him a “kapo.” Kapos were Jews who collaborated with Nazis in exterminating their fellow Jews.

Many of those who called asked me if I thought this was a big story. If it weren’t, I answered, you probably wouldn’t have called me.

Some callers suggested The Journal downplay the story as a simple and unfortunate matter of a hot-tempered little set-to. Others insisted we go after the rabbi, who has been openly critical of the kind of campus outreach many pro-Israel activists conduct.

So is this a big story? It’s not a war, fire or strike, but it is not a sidewalk skirmish, either. There are people who see the rabbi’s alleged actions as a reason for Seidler-Feller to resign, or be forced to resign, his position, one he has held for three decades. Seidler-Feller, said a wealthy and influential activist, has turned three generations of Jewish UCLA students off to Israel.

There are others, Seidler-Feller’s supporters, who see this incident as one more example of the reckless and provocative rhetoric of a hard-core band of pro-Israel activists. They believe such rhetoric goes unpunished by communal institutions and donors whose checks support the otherwise responsible lectures and seminars these groups offer.

What do I think?

Next week, on Nov. 5, we will mark the eighth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a fellow Jew. It would be ludicrous to bring up the assassination in the context of a tussle between a couple of middle-aged Jews in Westwood, except that the timing is too tempting to ignore.

The week of the murder, Dennis Prager wrote in The Jewish Journal, “There is almost no group or country for whom the greatest threats do not come from within.” Arabs certainly fall into this category, as do Jews, both biblically and to a great extent politically. Prager’s other lesson: “Rhetoric kills. Rhetoric has consequences.”

Thirty days after the murder, Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote an essay in The Journal asking what possible response we can have to that tragedy as caring, responsible Jews.

“An intelligent laity must not allow the language of violence to be used by rabbis or lay people, recognizing that the rhetoric of violence … results in the shedding of innocent blood,” he wrote

These are lessons we simply refuse to learn. The last time I wrote on this subject was in May 2002, just after another Jewish activist sent out an e-mail newsletter that contained an angry, ad hominem attack against — yes — Chaim Seidler-Feller.

Then, dozens of people signed a letter in support of the rabbi, including many who disagreed with him politically. The activist apologized to Seidler-Feller, as did the organization, StandWithUs, which carried the letter on its Web site.

Now, to be honest, the shoe is on the other foot. As lunatic as it is for someone to call Seidler-Feller a kapo, it was wrong for him to, as is alleged, strike out.

Seidler-Feller has apologized to several people for the incident, and both sides are weighing the possible resolutions: more apologies, settlement, civil proceedings, reprimand, dismissal, anger management.

Considering Seidler-Feller’s role in this community, a combination of any of these possible scenarios instantly raises this story out of the “small” category.

Seidler Feller is a man of passion and intellect, and his critics should take a deep breath before compounding the foolishness of an instant.

There are many ironies at play here: A peacenik facing accusations of assault. A pro-Israel activist using the same Nazi rhetoric against a fellow Jew that the Arab extremists use against Israelis. Attorney Donald Etra, one of George W. Bush’s best friends, defending a rabbi often associated with the left. And the fact that Dershowitz’s lecture only came about as a result of cooperation between Seidler-Feller and his sometime political opponents at StandWithUs. But the one irony even Seidler-Feller’s most eager opponents dare not lose sight of is that even though ending Seidler-Feller’s career at UCLA Hillel might be, in their minds, a win for Israel, it will be a net loss for the Jews of Los Angeles. As a teacher, thinker, leader and innovator he has few peers in this city. As much as he has tried to wrest the darker threads of messianism from the Zionist ideal, he has also sought, in the tradition of Rabbis David Hartman and Shlomo Riskin, to infuse secular Zionism with a deeper understanding of Judaism itself.

It’s true Seidler-Feller has something to learn from what happened on Oct. 21, but it is also true that he has much more left to teach.

Lev Eisha Women Pray Their Own Way


On the first Saturday of each month, while weekly, traditional Shabbat morning services are taking place at Adat Shalom synagogue, another service transpires behind the main sanctuary that is anything but traditional. Women of all ages dance between davening, beat tambourines and sing loudly, and instead of praying silently they share with one another.

They are the women of Adat Shalom’s Lev Eisha (A Woman’s Heart), “a joyous community of Jewish women engaged in prayer, study, spiritual growth and friendship.” Founded by a handful of women in 1999 as an outgrowth of the Wagner Women’s Retreat — an annual retreat at Camp Ramah in Ojai organized through the University of Judaism’s Wagner paraprofessional program — Lev Eisha has grown to average more than 100 women at each service and more than 400 people on its mailing list.

Lev Eisha attracts a diversity of women that ranges from young to old, unaffiliated to observant, and while most are not members of Adat Shalom, they travel from Orange County and the San Fernando Valley to attend the monthly service. While the women of Lev Eisha pride themselves on their diversity, it is a hunger for a spiritual connection that unites them.

“The women that come have a very strong spiritual need and are seeking something in a Jewish context,” said Elaine Craig Segal, Lev Eisha’s president. “You can get meditation and other things, but people looking to find a spiritual connection within their own religion can look to Lev Eisha.”

Lev Eisha offers women an opportunity to express themselves through music.

“In a regular service I don’t find a spiritual connection. The words, to me, don’t go as deep,” said Debbie Juster, a West Los Angeles resident. “Here, the music goes deep inside and I feel a comfort and a spirituality that is connected with music.”

Led by cantor Cindy Paley, the music in the Lev Eisha prayer booklet is a collaborative effort of Paley and Lev Eisha’s Rabbi Toba August, which combines “California style,” a contemporary mode characterized by such musicians as Craig Taubman and Debbie Freidman, and “Jewish Renewal” music, such as musicians Hanna Tiferet and Linda Hirschhorn, which comes out of the Renewal stream of Judaism. Joy Krauthammer, a member of Sarah’s Tent, also volunteers each month to accompany the women with such instruments as bongo drums, xylophones and rainmakers.

“The music cracks open your heart,” said August, who directs Adat Shalom’s religious school in addition to leading Lev Eisha. “It’s the only time I can really pray. The music lets you go in and find God — to find your divine within. It helps you cry and it helps you laugh. It allows people to enter into prayer.”

In addition to the music, the camaraderie and the opportunity to pray with other women keeps women coming back to Lev Eisha.

“When women get together to pray the energy is different. We are not competitive. Our voices can be heard,” said Mollie Wine, a cantorial soloist that helps lead the service. “I often daven with Chabad — with a mechitzah — but once a month I just want to be with the girls.”

The women of Lev Eisha, however, realize that their approach to Judaism does not appeal to everyone.

“There are some women who wouldn’t want to pray this way,” Segal said. “This is not a traditional service, so if you feel you are very traditional in your observance you probably wouldn’t want to do something like this. It doesn’t speak to everyone.”

But for women who it does speak to, it speaks loudly.

Barbara Axelrod, a two-time survivor of breast cancer told The Journal that she discovered Lev Eisha at the time when she needed spirituality the most.

“It really has had a lot to do with my inner healing,” Axelrod said. “When I was laying in bed at the hospital it would give me peace when I would close my eyes and envision being here. It gives me such inner peace and joy.”

Like it has done for Axelrod, August wishes that the Lev Eisha service can offer women hope.

“I want the women to walk out with a faith in God and the understanding that they’re not alone in their lives and that they will be able to cope with whatever their life experience offers them,” August said. “I also hope they gain a deeper appreciation of the joyful moments and a more profound ability to cope with painful illnesses and losses. I pray that they walk out feeling renewed.”

For more information about Lev Eisha, contact leveisha@earthlink.net .

We Are Not Small


It is easy to feel small. As you fall asleep one night, try to watch yourself in your mind’s eye, your body growing quiet on your bed as your mind begins to wander. You are one person falling asleep in one room. Beyond you are two, five, 20 others in your home or apartment building or on your block. Imagine yourself rising, now hovering a thousand feet in the air and peering out across the lights of Los Angeles. There are almost 10 million people in Los Angeles County, each person unique. There are 260 million people in the United States, each with a story different than the other. Each soul has walked a journey unlike any other. Rising higher, you see the vastness of the United States below. As big as America is, did you know the entire continental United States can fit into the Sahara desert? Above the earth one looks to the stars and sees Mars and Venus and Jupiter. We sent a spacecraft to Jupiter in 1989. After traveling at a speed equivalent to flying from Los Angeles to New York in 82 seconds and using "planetary gravity assists," Galileo finally arrived — six years later! Our solar system is one of 100 billion star systems in the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is one of about 30 galaxies in what astronomers call our "local group." Now that’s some idea of "local!" It is easy to feel small.

And yet, the Torah tells us, at the edge of a vast universe is God. And most remarkably, is that in God’s eyes, we are not small. We are beloved by the Master of the Universe. "The greatest sin of man," wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "is to forget that he is a prince — that he has royal power."

As the director of Camp Ramah in California, I train a staff of young adults who are entrusted to care for and to teach over 1,300 children each summer. During staff week, we review health and safety. We teach how to develop educational and fun programs. But after a week of workshops and planning, on the night before the first kids arrive, we must return to the basics and remember what it is that is at the core of our endeavor: the uniqueness and greatness of each child in our care.

So I study with them the words of the Mishnah: "A person mints many coins with a single seal, and they are all alike one another. But the King of kings of kings, the Holy Blessing One, minted all human beings with the seal with which He made the first person, yet not one of them is like anyone else. Therefore each person must say, ‘For my sake the world was created’" (Sanhedrin 4:5). I tell our staff that if the kids in our care leave Camp Ramah in California with a sense that each of their lives is so important that the world was created for his or her sake, we have done our job.

We have done our job because, though belief is not everything, when you believe God is that close, you begin to see the world in a different way. You are more grateful for a simple glass of water, for it is a gift from God. When you are God’s child, you become more sensitive to the suffering of those who are in need, for the poor and the hungry are your sisters and brothers. When you believe your life matters to the King of the universe, you make different choices; you take your life more seriously. You waste less time watching TV and spend more time playing with and teaching your children. You pray. You practice acts of kindness. You sin less. "Your sins have separated between you and Your God," Isaiah said.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught that in the absence of sin, God’s presence would be evident in every natural encounter. The whisper of the Master of the Universe would be heard in the bubbling of every crystal spring.

Do you hear the whisper of the Holy One? Do you believe your life choices matter to the One who created it all? Do you believe the way we live out our short years on earth matters in some cosmic story?

I do. I believe in you.

"On this day all of us pass before You, one by one, like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd counts sheep, making each of them pass under the staff, so You review every living being, measuring the years and decreeing the destiny of every creature" (Unetaneh Tokef).

Even if it has been many years, even if you never have, this year I challenge you to believe in yourself, to believe in the whisper, to believe in God.

Turn the Tide


One of the best things about being the editor of a Jewish paper is I get to meet a lot of Jews.

Looking back over the past year, I see it’s a fascinating perk of the job.

Just in the past two weeks, for instance, I danced (poorly) at the Chabad Telethon when the tote board hit $3.4 million, met with two powerful state legislators, hobnobbed with celebrities and entertainment industry machers, lunched with Israeli diplomats and Jewish professionals and educators, cocktailed with Israeli diplomats and Persian businessmen — you get the idea.

Old, young, secular, black hat, poor, rich, gay, straight, engaged, apathetic, famous and, in one case, infamous: When I say I meet a lot of Jews, I mean a lot of different kinds of Jews. It is a pleasure too few of us enjoy. As Jewish life in Los Angeles has grown and diversified, it has also become increasingly particularized.

Part of this phenomenon is reflected in the recently released National Jewish Population Survey, which shows that a majority of Jewish institutions serve a minority of Jews: synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and federations draw about 40 percent of the Jewish population, and the number of truly active participants is probably far less. That means there is a minority of Jews engaged in what we call, with increasing optimism and inaccuracy, "the Jewish community." Yet most Jews remain outside.

Even among Jews who do, as the jargon goes, "affiliate," the distance among them is great. Of this there is no measurement in the NJPS, but I can tell you anecdotally it is a common phenomenon, and a sad one.

There are 600,000 Jews in Los Angeles, and most of us get to know only one kind among them. Because we are not just Jews, but human, our knee-jerk reaction to these other Jews is to regard them as the Other. The natural result of joining one group is to look askance at all the ones you opted out of. When I told some people I spent last Sunday evening with Chabad, they regarded me as either a dupe or a traitor. I’ve told others about the preschool at Kol Ami, a gay and lesbian synagogue, where children (many adopted from the four corners of the world) discover Judaism as a faith of warmth and inclusiveness — and you’d think I was speaking of the Amalekites. The Jewish communities of greater Los Angeles rarely touch, and even more rarely interact. Many of us don’t approve of the Other, as if we are viciously competitive teams in a regional league, and our common sport is Jewish.

So there are two problems here. On the one hand, we have divided ourselves into Jews on the inside of Jewish life and Jews on the outside, the affiliated and the unaffiliated. On the other hand, within the affiliated groups, we have divided ourselves from one another.

"Do not separate yourself from the community," said the sage Hillel, "and do not be sure of yourself until you are dead." Every day I see any number of examples of us doing just the opposite.

What we don’t seem to understand is that while Judaism may offer immutable rituals and beliefs (itself a notion open to challenge), humans by nature approach faith and ritual as part of their journey through life. The extent to which we become partners in shaping and encouraging someone’s journey to be a Jewish one depends on how open we are to understanding and participating in the Other’s journey. If you want to pull your friend out of the mud, said a great rabbi, first you have to step into the mud yourself.

The nature of religious experience in our postmodern world is personal, mutable and somewhat mysterious. As our choices and freedoms expand, our varieties of Jewish experience will become even more varied. We will have to fight against our instinct to disparage the new and different. Few among us adhere to a form of Judaism that some other Jews, at some point in history, didn’t regard as treif.

Without stretching beyond our immediate Jewish community — whether that community is a mega-shul, a mini-shtiebel, a social action group or a choir — we are unwittingly participating in the diminishment of Jewish life. "If you stop dialogue and debate, you start talking to yourself," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, "and that is the first sign of insanity." It is also a ticket to self-righteousness and extremism, something we’ve seen enough of in 5763.

Meeting Jews is easy — this town is full of them. Meeting and getting to know and appreciate different kinds of Jews is a challenge, but a crucial one.

Try it once this year.

Shanah Tovah.

Literary Look at the ‘Jewish Experience’


This Shavuot, as we read about Ruth’s decision to convert, we should examine our own religious connection: To what extent do we (and would we) internalize the essence of the Torah?

In fact this question touches upon the much larger issue of what it means to be a Jew. "The Jewish Experience" is mentioned frequently and can refer to bagel brunches as easily as it can to surviving the Holocaust. That both of these are cultural references is not a coincidence; Judaism has traditionally emphasized actions and American society echoes this approach. There is however, a component beyond The Jewish Experience. There is an experience of being Jewish. There is a unique way of seeing life that informs all of our cultural practices and associations. This distinct worldview is what we embrace on Shavuot.

Three books in particular directly address the experience of being Jewish, each from a slightly different vantage point.

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s work, "To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life" (Basic Books, $18.50), is often at the top of the reading list for people considering conversion. It begins with an overview of the basic tenets of Jewish thought, then elaborates upon these tenets by showing how they manifest in Jewish practices. And while it can certainly function as a practical handbook, it differs from one in that it constantly engages in a discussion of "why". Donin explains early on that the Torah was given in order to bring sanctification to the world. He continues, "The purpose of holiness permeates all of Jewish religious law, and encompasses every aspect of human concern and experience." Even if the reader gets no farther than page 35, orienting oneself to this concept alone can be life-altering.

The book is highly informative, with facts brimming on every page. It can be read in its entirety or consulted as a reference. Discussions are authoritative without being preachy. And where there is the possibility of controversy (e.g., birth control), Donin is remarkably adept at focusing on areas of common ground among rabbinic opinions.

"Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith "(Basic Books, $27.50) by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (of Kosher Sex fame) incorporates imagery and language from popular culture, especially the realm of New Age. The book contains a great deal of social philosophy, a fair amount of theorizing on contemporary life by the author and some very cogent articulations of the Jewish perspective on life. By packaging traditional Jewish thought in Bodhi Tree wrapping, potentially daunting ideas are made accessible to an audience that might not otherwise be reached.

Among the book’s most compelling points are the contrasts between Judaism’s views on life and those of the ideological competition. Jackie Mason jokes that Jews don’t have a sense of what it means to be Jewish beyond the understanding that "we’re not goyim." In this age of cross-cultural pollination, it is useful to know where ideas originate in order to better recognize what is the essence of our own.

Divergent approaches to suffering place Judaism in opposition to Christian thinking as well. Boteach notes that the message of the crucifixion to Christians is: "Without suffering there can be no redemption." On the other hand he writes, "In Judaism, however, suffering is anything but redemptive…. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering, rather than its endurance." As a supreme example of this view he cites the establishment of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust: "The response to death is life." Though it borders on the melodramatic, no one familiar with Jewish history would argue with this statement.

The most profound distillation of what it means to be Jewish can be found in the pages of "The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels" by Thomas Cahill (Anchor Books, $14). The book is written with a poetic sensibility that belies an appreciation of life so rare in academic circles it is almost nonexistent. Cahill’s scholarship focuses on history as "the narratives of grace."

The Jewish gift referred to in the title is the introduction of linear thinking. Prior to Abraham, all people conceived of life as a circle or spiral, with events simply repeating themselves into infinity: "The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing … so much that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had."

The text illustrates how choice and decisionmaking could not exist without the shift from the circular to the linear. The Ten Commandments could not exist, nor could the capacity for morality, nor, ultimately, Western civilization.

It seems ironic that the book that best encapsulates the Jewish contribution to society was written by a non-Jew. Then again, perhaps it is appropriately heartening and in keeping with our role as the standard-bearers for a more perfect world. Maybe we’re doing something right after all. And maybe, the more we internalize our gifts as a people the better able we will be to share.

Knowing the Person


Did you ever notice how we tend to make up our minds so
quickly that we become closed to ideas that might change our opinion?

 Recently, I came across the following sign prominently
displayed on an executive’s desk that succinctly summarized it: “Don’t confuse
me with facts — my mind is already made up.”

If that is true about life in general, it is even truer
about the way we judge people. We rarely give people much time before we decide
what we think of them. It is this very point that Judaism teaches in a
fascinating fashion in this week’s Torah portion.

The primary focus of this week’s portion is the discussion
of tzara’at, afflictions or leprosy; a spiritual punishment that could affect a
person’s skin, clothing or even his house. For modern man, this concept seems
to be both difficult and irrelevant. When was the last time we actually saw a
person stricken with tzara’at? For the commentators, however, and especially
the teachers of ethics and morality, tzara’at was not a physical disease;
rather it was a physical manifestation of spiritual malaise. In exploring the
ethical dimension, they found lessons that surely apply to human relations in
our own impersonal age.

For example, our Jewish ethical teachers derived a profound
lesson from one word in the Torah portion. The Torah legislates that a person
who seemed to be stricken with tzara’at had to have a Kohen come and examine
the afflicted area to decide if the eruption was a genuine case of tzara’at. If
the eruption was genuine, then the person was considered defiled.

According to the 16th-century Italian commentator, Rabbi
Obadiah Sforno, the Kohen had this responsibility because the Kohanim, by
definition, were the spiritual leaders and teachers of the people.
Consequently, it was the Kohanim who needed to be sensitized in how to deal
with this problem.

Just what sensitivity did the Kohanim need to have? The
Torah provides us with some clues. The Kohen receives two specific
instructions. In the first, it states, “And the Kohen would see the spot”
(Leviticus 13:3). At first, the Kohen simply acts as a technician. He looks at
the spot to discern what he is looking at. But then the wording in the verse
changes just a little. Before he can declare clean or defiled, he has to take a
second look. Suddenly, the wording in the verse shifts from “the Kohen would
see the spot” to “and the Kohen shall see him and declare him defiled.”

Why the change from “and he shall see the spot” to “and he
shall see him?” The Talmud answers that the Kohen has to see more than just a
skin ailment. We must not make quick judgments about any person, and certainly
not judgments that might be detrimental to that person’s well-being. First, we need
to find out about the person’s immediate needs.

The Talmud instructs us that we must start by investigating,
by learning something about the person himself. Perhaps he is a groom in the
midst of celebrating the seven joyous days following his nuptials, or perhaps
he is busy preparing to commemorate an upcoming festival with his family. In
such instances, declaring the person defiled might not just mar his joy, but
undermine his personal well-being.

In other words, the Torah was more concerned with the mental
health of the afflicted person than with the affliction itself. With that
concern, the Torah thereby was teaching us a crucial lesson. None of us should
make snap judgments about other people. No one should jump to hasty conclusions
until we consider all the extenuating circumstances. In the final analysis, the
lesson of tzara’at is simple: find out about the person; know the person; and
you will care for the person.  


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.