Is beauty a Jewish value?


When we talk about Jewish values, we usually refer to things like justice, compassion, generosity, humility, honesty, faith, wisdom and so on. We rarely talk about beauty.

Beauty is vain and superficial, we’re so often told.

And yet, the word “beautiful” is prominent on this week’s cover of the Jewish Journal, which features an unusually beautiful sukkah, created by designer Jonathan Fong.

Normally, our instinct would be to focus on a deeper meaning of the holiday — the sukkah as a metaphor for humility; as a wake-up call to help the homeless; as a physical, palpable link to our ancestors; as a paradox of frailty and strength; or as an eternal symbol of Jewish endurance.

Those angles are all more profound and meaningful than the notion of beauty. So, why would we feature aesthetics on our cover this year?

One answer is that maybe we simply need a break from all the heaviness. Yes, we can overdose even on things like depth and meaning. Let’s face it, especially at this time of year, we’ve all been marinating in one deep sermon after another. Serious, heavy issues are weighing on us — whether about Israel, society’s ills or the need to transform our lives.

So, it’s quite possible that a light, beautiful sukkah might be just the right antidote to holiday heaviness — an ideal opportunity to lighten up and let all this depth sink in.

Or not.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in Judaism, meaning lurks everywhere — even in something as superficial as beauty.

“Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses,” according to “Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year” (Central Conference of American Rabbis). “Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension.”

In other words, by adding beauty to what we see, hear, taste and feel, we enhance our spiritual experience of the mitzvah, which brings us closer to the mitzvah itself.

Beauty is also defined, in the Jewish tradition, by the virtues of endurance and permanence.

As Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains in the magazine Jewish Action: “The Torah requires: ‘And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day (of Sukkot) a fruit of a beautiful tree — pri etz hadar.’ The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a beautiful tree by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar.

“The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word ‘hadar’ is interpreted to be a fruit which ‘dwells continuously all year on the tree’ (ha-dar, literally, ‘that which dwells’). Thus, they understand the word ‘dar’ to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French ‘duree’ or the English ‘endure’).

“The etrog tree fulfills this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm — it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.”

In addition to its permanence, beauty is also an expression of love. 

As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech said to me over lunch last week, adding beauty to a mitzvah — such as making a sukkah beautiful — is an expression of love because it’s a sign that “we are doing the mitzvah not just because we have to, but because we want to.” We glorify God’s presence by going beyond the minimum requirements, by pouring out our love for Him just as we would for those we deeply love.

As the rabbi spoke so beautifully about love, I reflected on another aspect to beauty that is often overlooked — and that is, the beauty of the words we speak.

I don’t care how beautiful we make our sukkahs or holiday tables, if some well-intentioned guest decides to ambush the conversation with a rant against Obama, or Israeli settlers, or the tragic mess in Syria, or any number of incendiary topics best left for another time — all that aesthetic beauty we’ve spent so much time creating will be immediately colored ugly.

If beautiful sounds contribute to the human enjoyment of religious acts, I can’t think of a more beautiful sound than that of pleasant conversation that stimulates the mind and warms our hearts.

In short, by making our sukkahs beautiful and adding meaningful and beautiful conversation, we can honor the enduring value of Jewish beauty, enhance our spiritual experience and deepen our love for the Almighty.

How’s that for superficial?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Time to come down from ‘The Hills’


We live in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world and the city where everybody can feel like a celebrity. Everyone loves the glitz, luxury and the lifestyle of the city. It seems so effortless.

“The Hills,” MTV’s top-rated reality show, makes the spotlight seem so attainable. Welcome to the world of Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag. They are reality TV stars. They have minimal talent and lead very fancy lives. Montag works for SBE Entertainment Group and Bolthouse Productions, which looks like the easiest job on earth (other than Paula Abdul’s on “American Idol”). At night, she hits Los Angeles’ most glamorous hotspots.

Everyone now knows these hotspots, homes of expensive sushi, perfect-looking people, and the feeling of being a celebrity upon walking in. Maybe it is the paparazzi on Robertson Boulevard in front of The Ivy or the bright lights of Hollywood at Katsuya — everyone wants to live like a “Hills” character.

But especially living where we do, as viewers, we can be victims of the illusion that fame is so effortless. We see that lifestyle as so accessible, but it is not. That is where the teenagers of Los Angeles falter. Fame is not easily attainable, and the Heidis and Laurens of this world should not be our role models.

The Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, says, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.” As Jews, we should learn not to make ourselves miserable because some people have more possessions than us. On “The Hills,” all of the characters have everything — nice cars and designer clothes — yet appear only to desire more. They never act like they are happy with their lives and sometimes cause controversy just to make others jealous and unhappy.

The show may not be scripted, but the characters’ lives are just as unrealistic as if it were. Two characters, Spencer Pratt and Brody Jenner, have never been shown holding a job on the show. Yet they easily can afford to live in nice apartments, eat at the hottest restaurants and party at the finest nightclubs.

In reality, the show is just a 30-minute commercial. Its camerawork is amazing, and it makes Hollywood look like heaven — go party at Area and you do not need to worry about anything. But Hollywood is not heaven. People give up their lives to move to Hollywood and try to make it big, and 99 percent of them fail. Yes, the Walk of Fame exists, but what about the homeless people who sleep nearby and the parts of Hollywood that have not benefited from urban renewal?

Enter Lauren and Heidi: We do not have any talent, yet we make $75,000 an episode for being followed around on tape.

“The Hills” is a scam, an illusion of what Hollywood really is. If you really want to know what Hollywood is all about, take a drive down to Sunset and Gower and look at the poverty. And then, we all need to ask ourselves: Why do we tune in to this show every week?

You don’t have to stop watching “The Hills,” but realize that just because you live in Los Angeles, you are not automatically a celebrity. Pay attention to the not-so-dreamy side of Hollywood, because plenty of talented people miss their breaks. Take the rappers who hand out mix-tapes in front of the Virgin Megastore in Hollywood — they might be very talented rappers, but they will not sell.

Brody, Heidi, Lauren and Spencer sell because they satisfy everyone’s definition of a celebrity. We might live in Los Angeles, but we need to recognize that not everyone in this city is famous and wealthy. As teens, we should be able to see past “The Hills” and realize that we are not characters in a TV show. We live in a realistic world, and we need real role models so we can learn and grow.

Jeremy Lowe is a junior at Shalhevet and community editor of The Boiling Point, where this article first appeared.

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

The fault lies in our stars — stars like Bernie Madoff


Holiday Cover

I was not totally surprised by The Journal’s holiday cover showing a guy dressed in a red sweater and tartan pants (“True Confessions of a Real Jew,” Dec. 19). Festooned in golden glitter, he held a stick of candy cane in one hand and a quart of eggnog, complete with holly sprigs, in the other. At his feet were a gift bag, decorated with a snowman, and a wooden toy soldier.

I searched high and low for some sign of Chanukah — this being The Jewish Journal and all — but to no avail until I refocused on the carton of Alta Dena eggnog, which I figured had to be kosher. It warmed my heart when, with the aid of a magnifier, the indecipherable smudge, which I guessed to be a KD symbol, shone forth in all its glory.

Some people might think that you would never find a Jewish symbol on The Journal cover on a Jewish holiday, but they would be wrong. You could say that a very small miracle happened here. Hag Sameach, Happy Chanukah.

Bob Kirk
via e-mail

Madoff Madness

Marvin Schotland, Jewish Community Foundation president and CEO, tells your reporter that in reviewing the Madoff investment they employed “the same caution they use for each of the JCF’s investments” (“Financial Tsunami,” Dec. 26).

Since by all reports Bernard L. Madoff provided prospective and continuing investors with minimal information as to his strategy or operations and that the accounting for his multibillion-dollar money management operation was being handled by a two-man firm operating out of a minimall in Rockland County, N.Y., I find Schotland’s statement shocking and actually scary.

Jonathan Davidson
Valley Village

A shonda, a disgrace, a sin (“The Four Big Madoff Questions,” Dec. 26). The Jewish community is horrified that one of theirs would swindle and deceive not just his fellow Jew but charities.

Unfortunately, the Bernie Madoffs, the Ezri Namvars and the Ron Barnesses of this world are in danger of becoming scapegoats for the lack of our own personal accountability. None of them have been convicted of any wrongdoing; all are defendants in civil lawsuits accused of dishonesty.

All are Jews who traded on their religion for money. They sought trust by becoming notorious philanthropists for Jewish causes. And now we are outraged.

We must not let that outrage eclipse our own personal responsibility. We glorify money; too often we choose “Men/Women of the Year” and honorees on the basis, not of individual merit, but on the size of their contributions and the worth of their Rolodexes (how much money they can raise from others).

Why are we then shocked when the very basis of our trust, money, is exposed as false, as it was with Madoff, Namvar and Barness?

And whom can we blame other than ourselves for not making the effort to act prudently, especially when we are investing trust monies? Instead of blaming only others — the SEC, the financial planners, the trusted icons — we need ask ourselves, why didn’t we take the time to do our own homework and to ask the unspoken question?

We should not fool ourselves and simply blame the Madoffs, the Namvars and the Barnesses for their reported ethical bankruptcy, when we paved the road for them by glorifying their wealth and not their merit.

Louis Lipofsky
Beverly Hills

Far be it for me to wish any more harm on the wonderful institutions that lost significant money in the Madoff tragedy, but one has to openly wonder how and why in the world several of our charitable organizations need to squirrel away tens of millions of dollars in invested endowment money (“Jewish Money,” Dec. 26).

Yeshiva University loses $140 million, Hadassah loses $90 million, Technion loses $70 million. Yet there are countless superior Jewish social service agencies both here and in Israel taking care of the poor, the hungry, children at risk, the disabled, the elderly, etc., who don’t know from where their next quarterly operating expenses will be coming.

I urge you and the Jewish community at large to take a closer look at this startling inequity. Do these institutions have a right to sit on all this money?

Richard Cohen
Manhattan, N.Y.

Some of Hollywood’s biggest names have had the misfortune of finding out that money they had invested with Bernie Madoff has vanished (“Jewish Money,” Dec. 26).

Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks fame may have lost millions in Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Spielberg and Katzenberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation had investments with Madoff that were made on the two celebrities’ behalf by their business manager.

Eric Roth, who wrote the screenplay for “Forrest Gump” and recently received a Golden Globe nomination as screenwriter of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” lost all of his retirement money.

Madoff, who was once the chairman of NASDAQ, helped the upstart stock-trading facility rise to become a respected alternative to the New York Stock Exchange.

When it came to the methods that his now-defunct investment firm used to achieve unusually consistent returns, Madoff was quite secretive. Reports sent to investors by him only disclosed general strategies, such as using stock options to take advantage of market volatility.

Now the mystery is beginning to be revealed. Madoff was paying existing investors with money from new investors. When the credit crunch hit, things swiftly fell apart.

At the time, if Madoff were managing your money, you had bragging rights. That’s how hot he was. Sources indicate that plenty of other entertainment industry figures have lost big time in the alleged scam.

Hollywood is unique, even in the financial sense. This is partly because there’s a fame meter that operates, and residents are all tuned in. A continuous internal read is taking place, and externals are used to project one’s measure.

How much fame does one possess? Stars consciously and subconsciously assess each other’s scores and respond accordingly.

Madoff’s score was super high, the result of his own eventual level of investment celebrity.

Like a Ponzi scheme, though, fame had been artificially multiplied for Madoff, which he used to gain more Hollywood clients and so on. When the bottom fell out, the fame itself changed character.

As circumstances unfold, Madoff’s score on the fame meter may still remain high, but it won’t be a measure he’ll feel proud of.

Brian J. Goldenfeld
Woodland Hills

Navy Rabbi

Thanks for the article about Rabbi Jon Cutler in Iraq in “Troops Can Practice Their Faith, Thanks to Navy Rabbi” (Dec. 26). I performed in Iraq last May and ended up at Camp Al Assad right before Shabbat. I met Rabbi Cutler and not only did he give me a challah for Shabbat, but everyone at the Friday night service came to the show the following Saturday night, and they were a great audience.

(I also dropped off a large delivery of kosher meat from Jeff’s Gourmet.)

After the show, the first thing I did was go back to Rodef Shalom (Chasing Peace), the synagogue Rabbi Cutler established, and did Havdallah. It is something I will never forget.

Avi Liberman
via e-mail

Return to Public Schools

Having worked for the current principals of both Emerson and Webster middle schools, I’ve nothing but praise for their skills and acumen (“Can Recession Fuel Return to Public Schools?” Dec. 26). Nonetheless, there’s little hope that their failing schools will achieve excellence in the current environment.

For administrators to succeed, they must have the authority to meet their responsibilities. Unfortunately in the Los Angeles Unified School District, it is the powerful teachers union that rules the roost. The union has successfully blocked every meaningful reform and continues to protect incompetent teachers.

The union opposes the breakup of the behemoth LAUSD, opposes charter schools, opposes standardized testing and opposes school vouchers. Competition strikes fear in the heart of the union hierarchy.

If the day ever arrived when parents could freely choose their child’s school without being concerned about the financial implications, the exodus from the LAUSD would cause a stampede.

Leonard M. Solomon
Los Angeles

Mumbai

I commend The Jewish Journal for its insightful analysis of the Mumbai massacre (“Mumbai Attacks Bring New Security Challenges,” Dec. 5). That event was indeed al-Qaeda’s follow-up to 9/11.

I know President Bush is not very popular these days, but it took al-Qaeda nearly eight years to get its act together after 9/11, and surely President Bush’s efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and here in America had a lot to do with that.

I trust the significance of the Mumbai massacre will not be lost on President-elect Barack Obama. The Muslim war against the West is obviously gaining momentum even as we speak and hardly seems something that mere reasonable discussion can deal with.

I would suggest Obama signal that he will hold countries that fail to aggressively challenge the presence of terrorists in their territory fully responsible for Mumbai-type outrages.

Brian J. Goldenfeld
Woodland Hills

GOP platform offers strong support for Israel, veers right domestically


MINNEAPOLIS (JTA)—John McCain’s Jewish supporters characterize him as a Republican maverick who shares his party’s bedrock support for Israel and combating anti-Semitism. Critics dismiss him as the standard-bearer of a staunchly conservative party at odds with the Jewish community on a host of issues.

They’re both right, judging from the platform approved this week at the Republican convention in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The platform includes a call for an end to all government-funded embryonic stem-cell research and a ban on all abortions—positions that, polls show, are contrary to those of most Jewish voters. Of course, they also do not conform to the views of McCain, who has said that he would revoke President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research, permit abortions in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother.

On immigration, McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona who is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has pressed for legislation that would provide undocumented workers with a path toward citizenship, but the platform declares: “We oppose amnesty.”

The McCain campaign reportedly decided to avoid significant fights over the platform rather than upset leaders of the party’s conservative base, many of whom have expressed concern over the GOP nominee. His supporters argue that the platform is irrelevant to understanding McCain and that voters will make their decisions based on how they view the candidate.

Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro, the only Jewish female Republican in her state legislature, said that the platform is “not what guides my everyday” decision-making and doubts voters will be using it to make decisions either.

They will and should be “looking at John McCain and his positions and record,” she said.

Another Jewish delegate from Texas, Houstonian Stuart Mayper, said the strong “pro-life” language in the platform could be a problem for some Jews. But, he quickly added, the platform contains language strongly supportive of Israel that should be attractive to the Jewish community.

Sources familiar with the formation of the platform say the language dealing with Israel and fighting anti-Semitism was drafted in consultation with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups.

The platform echoes AIPAC’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for a two-state solution but placing the onus on the Palestinians to take several key steps and calling on nearby Arab countries to play a more constructive role. It also declares support for “Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.”

Both McCain and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee, have said that the status of Jerusalem ultimately would be decided in negotiations between the two sides. McCain has pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem right away—a promise that the Obama campaign rejected, essentially calling it a lie.

The GOP platform calls for the isolation of Hamas and Hezbollah and vows to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge in military technology over its enemies—all positions shared by Obama and McCain.

In several contexts, the platform stresses the need to combat anti-Semitism—on university campuses, in Europe and across the world—and declares that “discrimination against Israel at the U.N. is unacceptable.”

It says that Iran cannot be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons, calls for a “significant increase in political, economic, and diplomatic pressure” on Tehran and insists that the United States “must retain all options” in dealing with the situation.

Without naming Obama, the platform draws a contrast with the Democratic nominee’s previously stated willingness to meet with the Iranian president. It states: “We oppose entering into a presidential-level, unconditional dialogue with the regime in Iran until it takes steps to improve its behavior, particularly with respect to the support of terrorism and suspension of its efforts to enrich uranium.”

First Impressions


Last week, The Jewish Journal played host to two Muslim journalists.

Umar Cheema and Utku Çakirözer are Daniel Pearl Fellows chosen by the Daniel Pearl Foundation in conjunction with the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships to work for six months in a U.S. newsroom.

The idea is to perpetuate the ideal of understanding embodied in the life of the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by exposing Muslim journalists to America and American journalism. Not coincidentally, most of the Fellows come from Pakistan, where Danny Pearl was kidnapped and murdered.

Çakirözer, a reporter for the daily Milliyet in Ankara, Turkey, worked at the Los Angeles Times. Cheema, a special correspondent with The News International in Islamabad, Pakistan, was the first Daniel Pearl Fellow to work at The New York Times.

The journalists spend six months at a mainstream American newspaper, followed by a week at The Jewish Journal. We hosted our first Pearl Fellows five years ago, and it began awkwardly. One was from Pakistan, the other from Yemen. I was excited to show them my culture, and since food is the way I forge a connection with new people or places, I took them to Canter’s Deli.

The Pakistani stared at the menu for 15 minutes.

“Please,” he said, “you tell me what to get.”

I suggested lox, bagels and cream cheese.

“What is that?” he asked.

“Salmon,” I said. “It’s good.”

When the plate arrived, the man tried his best. He poked at what must have looked like a Matterhorn of cream cheese, draped with a fish-smelling orange scarf, mounded on a roll the size of a bread loaf. It suddenly looked disgusting to me, too.

“Never mind,” I said, “I’ll get a doggy bag. You should just order the chicken soup.”

“What’s that?” he looked at me again.

“Chicken soup,” I said. Was he kidding?

“No,” he said, “What is a ‘doggy bag’?”

The meals have since become stress-free — we stick to shish kebab and pizza — but the thrust of the conversations has barely changed.

Every year for the past five years, at the end of the Fellows’ week, I lead a public discussion with these journalists on stage at the Los Angeles Press Club, in Hollywood.

And for five years now, journalist after journalist has shared what has now become a commonplace truth about how their fellow countrymen perceive America: self-interested, unilateral, bullying.

The Iraq War was a turning point, of course. People sympathized with America following Sept. 11, and Turks and Pakistanis even supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan; they understood it.

But the Iraq War turned into a war against Muslims. Turks saw it threaten the stability of the southern Kurdistan region.

“All problems are local,” Çakirözer said. “Your problem became our problem.”

Pakistanis felt the Americans were punishing them for Al-Qaeda.

“The impression is created that America is part of the problem,” Cheema said, “that they don’t want something good for Pakistan.”

This week’s news of President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation after nine years as Pakistan’s leader only served as a reminder, Cheema said, of America’s hand in propping up a deeply unpopular, anti-democratic leader.

Çakirözer said even if he tries to point out that the Bush administration has little support among Americans, and that its own policies have moderated greatly in the last few years, the negative impressions remain strong.

“Who is more popular in your country,” I asked Cheema, “George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden?”

Cheema was silent for a long time. It’s not that bin Laden is popular, Cheema finally explained, just that Bush is so unpopular. “People only like Osama in reaction,” he said.

It’s a question I’ve been asking for five years, and the response is always the same, always sobering. It leads me to wonder — putting all blame aside — how far the image of this country has fallen in the world’s eyes and if we can regain the ground we’ve lost.

The answer came from Cheema. At 32, he is the next generation of Pakistanis — traditionally Muslim, educated, passionate about his country. I asked him what, if anything, he liked best about America.

“The best thing I like in America,” he told the Press Club audience, “that is the First Amendment. I really like it. Freedom.”

“And I tell you one thing, I don’t know what you got from my first negative answers, but I love this country very much. America has the potential, the capability, to rule the world for another century, but what she’s doing in the rest of the world, she is losing legitimacy. Otherwise, American ideals are dreamed of everywhere in the world. The rags to riches, the pursuit of happiness — at least you are in a position to dream of these things, and they are good things, they make you more creative, more energetic. You are lucky enough to be blessed with so many freedoms, so many opportunities. My friends from Pakistan who live here, when they talk they say, ‘Umar, what you dream of you can do it here.’ And these are the things that give us hope.”

That should give us all a little hope.

Then I asked Çakirözer, from Turkey, what he liked best about America. He said it was something he had never seen in his country, and never seen in all the countries to which he’d traveled. Yet it was something that said a lot about the core values of a rich and prosperous nation.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I think you call them, ‘doggy bags,'” he said.



Brad A. Greenberg’s The God Blog covered Umar and Utku’s visit to the weekly editorial meeting at The Jewish Journal


Teens should follow in footsteps of volunteerism


As I watch the first of my six granddaughters prepare to become a bat mitzvah this spring, I am filled with pride. She and young Jews like her around the world are following in the footsteps of generations of youth who came before them, affirming to their communities that they are prepared to take on the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.

Every society has a way of marking significant stages in our lives when we celebrate our transitions and mark phases of maturing.

Moments of tremendous learning and growth, these “rites of passage” — often transformative experiences — are forever imprinted in our memories. Like rites of passage in other societies, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies have become nearly universal experiences in the Jewish community. While many children of bar mitzvah age are unable to grasp all that their newfound responsibilities entail, each one recognizes the occasion as an important turning point in their lives as Jews.

The bar mitzvah epitomizes obligation to our religious and cultural ideals.

But should the bar mitzvah be the only demonstration of a young person’s communal allegiance? There are so many values that the Jewish community embraces — values that are truly universal in nature — for which we have no outward tradition of affirming with the gravity of a bar or bat mitzvah. We say we are a people committed to chesed, or lovingkindness; tzedek, or justice; and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but oftentimes we fail to see our engagement in such activities as an expression of who we are as Jews. As a people, we need to develop a new rite of passage devoted to these pillars of Jewish action.

These Jewish values were instilled in me at an early age. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of my father involve the time I spent with him visiting and helping care for people I remember calling the “little old ladies” — women who were probably no older than I am today. My father never talked in terms of charity. He spoke only of improving lives and, in turn, making the world a better place for us all. Time and again he would say, “Each of us is worth only what we are willing to give to others.”

Through our frequent volunteering I came to see that tzedakah, or giving money, is not enough — it must be coupled with its sister tzedek, bringing us closer to the people who benefit from our giving, and impressing upon us the importance of getting our hands dirty for the sake of others. The physical aspect of service is much more transformative than writing a check.

Schools and universities are catching on, adding service to standard classroom work. Service leaders in the United States also believe that they can ignite a fire in young generations who, through service work, come to think of themselves as responsible citizens, dedicated to their civic identities and to the ideals of democracy. Just as these American leaders hope to leverage service to benefit American society, so too can the Jewish community utilize service to touch both those who serve and those who are served.

We cannot underestimate the profound impact Jewish service has on its participants. First, service adds another rich layer to the lives of those already committed to Judaism. It is a channel for young Jews to expand their Jewish identities, to think about Judaism as a holistic living experience.

At the same time, service also reaches out to the Jewishly uninspired. Many young people today speak the language of universalism, choosing to view the world from that vantage point and inadvertently turning away from the particulars of Judaism.

Accordingly, Jewish service can give universalists a chance to live out their broader values in a Jewish context, to learn that they can be both Jews and humans.

Thinking about all this as a philanthropist, I began to tackle the question of how I could encourage more young Jews to engage in service. How could my philanthropy help to make service a universal Jewish experience?

Our Center for Leadership Initiatives, a new operating foundation that I helped establish in 2006, sponsored 550 young adults’ participation in service projects in northern Israel this winter, to assist the region after this past summer’s war. More than 3,000 young people from around the world applied to our Leading Up North program, and this incredible number alone shows how much this generation is eager to be involved.

When the volunteers we took to Israel finished their days fixing bomb shelters and preparing charred forests for replanting, they spent their evenings in discussion with young Israelis who have chosen to live in the socio-economically challenged regions of the country in order to bring about change. They met with Israelis and other Jews from around the world who are deeply engaged in service, working with non-Jewish as well as Jewish communities.

It was incredibly moving for me to spend time with them in Israel, hearing their impassioned words and responses. With more opportunities, they will come to see service as their unique contribution and as their duty.

In response, our foundation has not stopped with Leading Up North. We continue to support Jewish service in many ways, including J-Serve, a national Jewish teen day of service, and an online networking site and follow-up programming for alumni of Jewish service programs.

Whether you call it volunteerism, community service, tzedek, social action or something else altogether, an intense service experience must become a rite of passage for all young Jews. When it does, our community will be living the values, invested in positive change — both within the Jewish community and the general society — planting the seeds for their children to flourish, and returning the favor in a never-ending cycle.

And so I challenge all of us to step it up. Let’s step up the number of young Jews doing service. Let’s step up support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs, significantly expanding their reach. Let’s step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam. Let’s unite our community with a sincere, shared obligation to Jewish service. Let’s make service universal.

This column courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Lynn Schusterman is chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Heroes and Villains


Brian Wilson penned the Beach Boys song “Heroes and Villains” during a turbulent, paranoia-filled time in his life, according to his biographers. Wilson had people
whom he trusted in the business, and others whom he felt were out to get him.

We all instinctively identify and label the heroes and villains in our lives, and Judaism supports the need for iconic heroes.

In Hollywood’s early days, the traditional villain was the hunched-over, mustachioed scofflaw sporting a black cape, while the hero was the pumped-up, 6-foot-3 blond hunk with gleaming-white teeth. And while today’s Hollywood has been mixing things by portraying schlubs as heroes (think “Shrek”), the Talmud states that a Torah scholar must be impeccably dressed. Furthermore, God will only allow prophecy to rest on someone who is “wise, strong, wealthy and tall.” In order for God to be well represented to his people, the messenger has to look like a mensch.

Moses didn’t appreciate this idea. When God first dispatched him to speak to the Jewish people, Moses tried to get out of it. He felt that no mortal could aptly represent God, and so God should represent Himself.

God disagreed. He taught Moses that the gap between man and God was too great at the outset of Jewish history. The people at the time were unsophisticated slaves who instead needed a heroic Moses as their icon of salvation.

God won the argument.

In last week’s portion, when Moses first spoke to the Jews about how God had sent him (the good guy) to defeat Pharaoh (the bad guy), they were very receptive and they believed him. But in Parshat Vaera, after Moses again complains about having to be the messenger, God teaches him a lesson.

“Therefore,” God says, “say to the Jewish people, ‘I am Y-H-V-H'” (Exodus 6:6).

God was saying: Moses, this time tell the Jews that the omnipotent and unknowable God will be taking them out of Egypt, and that it’s no longer about you, the hero, defeating Pharaoh, the villain.
And the second time out the Jews did not accept Moses’ words. “They did not listen to Moses from shortness of breath” (Exodus 6:9). They lacked the depth to appreciate a direct and ethereal encounter with God, sans the very tangible heroes and villains.

Therefore, it’s a bit surprising when the Talmud states that in the future, the Jewish Messiah will be a “poor man, riding on a donkey,” just as he is described in the book of Zachariah (9:9).
If it was so important during the Exodus that there be iconic heroes and villains, why is it now OK for the Messiah to look like such a nebbish?

Apparently, the Talmud feels that by the time the Messiah is ready to appear, the world will no longer be suckered in by external appearances. We will have evolved to a more mature appreciation of greatness, and our saviors will not have to look like Errol Flynn.

The Talmud also records a dialogue between the sage Shmuel and a powerful Persian ruler. The Persian asked Shmuel why the Jewish Messiah would be riding on a donkey.

“Allow me to provide him with a well-groomed Persian horse!” he mocked.

Shmuel responded, “Do you have a horse of a hundred colors?”

Shmuel says this because according to the Persian ruler’s superficial values, there is no horse in the world that would befit our leading man, the Messiah. So Shmuel’s doesn’t need the ruler’s horse or any other horse because when the Messiah comes we’ll be able to recognize him for what he is even without the clichéd symbols of heroism.

As human beings, we need icons to help us relate to God and the forces of good and evil. This, according to Moses Nachmanides, was why the Jews made the golden calf. Once they thought that their leader Moses was dead, they immediately had a need for a new intermediary icon to lead them through the desert.

Without black-and-white icons, life sometimes becomes too confusing and we lose our way. But, ultimately, we are meant to rise above the external images. We are to eventually become sophisticated enough to be able to recognize goodness and salvation even from the not-so-obvious sources.

So don’t be surprised when you meet the Messiah and discover “a poor man, riding on a donkey.” Or, maybe he’ll be short, bald and beardless, like Natan Sharansky. Who knows? I just hope I’m wise enough to recognize him when the time comes.


Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.

Education in the synagogue should aim for enhanced Jewish living


For professors in a university’s Judaic studies program, Jewish literacy appears to be a straightforward proposition. They can insist on prerequisites, delineate academic standards, articulate a curriculum, impose the extrinsic motivation of grades and design objective tests of students’ achievements. That is because their program is one of Judaic studies, as opposed to Jewish education, and their goal is to impart information, rather than influence behavior.

For synagogue rabbis, Jewish literacy is much more of a moving target. Jewish education in the synagogue aims for enhanced Jewish living, as opposed to striving simply for increased Jewish knowledge. It addresses the mind, heart and soul. It addresses children, adults and families – people at every stage of life, with varied backgrounds and divergent interests.

Nonetheless, it is possible, even desirable, for a synagogue to design and promote a systematic program of Jewish education and enculturation that moves its members toward Jewish literacy. For some Jews, it is sufficient motivation to know that we are commanded to engage in study as a lifelong endeavor – the mitzvah of Talmud Torah.

For other Jews, the synagogue needs to help them understand that active Jewish living will enhance their lives, that a vibrant Jewish community gives them a context for celebrating life’s joys and coping with its challenges, that Jewish texts and rituals give them a vocabulary for expressing the deepest yearnings of their souls and that learning for its own sake can be profoundly rewarding. Often, the greatest barrier for individuals is a lack of confidence and competence. A program that moves its members toward Jewish literacy fills this gap.

There are some Jews who will eagerly respond to such a program and have the time and inspiration to immerse themselves in regular, serious study. The synagogue is obligated to respond by providing opportunities for learning.

But most synagogue members are not prepared to study regularly. The synagogue must respond to this population, as well, by offering introductory programs and then helping it progress beyond the basic classes.

Synagogue membership that is diverse in background, knowledge, experience and interest also challenges synagogue leadership to be teachers of Judaism. That teaching must be guided by the conviction that Jewish literacy is not simply about book learning but also Jewish heritage and life.

To be Jewishly literate, a person need not know everything. Rather, he or she must be familiar with the basic aspects of the religion: the rhythms and cycles of the Jewish year; sacred texts; Jewish history, ethics and values, and the obligations and opportunities of being a Jew. Also, a person needs to know Hebrew – not necessarily to be fluent but at least conversant with the vocabulary of Jewish life.

Jewish literacy is a goal to be sought. Synagogues need to create communities of learning wherein members come to understand that it isn’t so much the attainment of that goal that is meaningful as the journey to get there. l

Rabbi Michael Weinberg is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, Ill., and a past president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Are You Listening?


“What’s the most important word in the prayer book?” the rabbi asked the congregation.

The congregants responded with a list of important words:
“shalom — peace,” “bracha — blessing,” “Torah — God’s truth,” “Hashem — God’s name.”

“All very important words,” the rabbi replied. “But there is one more important. The prayer book’s most important word is, “al-ken — therefore.”

“Therefore” connects all our fine sentiments and deep wisdom with the reality of the world. “Therefore” binds us to bring our values out of the vague realm of our subjectivity and into the hard objective world of work, family, politics and power. “Therefore” tests all our spiritual aspirations and visions against the limits of our courage, imagination and resolve. “Therefore” makes religion real.
Every day, someone confesses, “Rabbi, I’m a deeply spiritual person.”

Good, I reply. Where’s the “therefore”? What difference does it make? How does your spirituality shape the way you spend your money, speak to your housekeeper, raise your children? Do you vote spiritually? Drive spiritually? Watch TV spiritually? I am little impressed by those who profess to believe in God. I am moved by those whose faith is behaved. That’s my “therefore” test.

This week we read the stirring declaration of Jewish monotheism, Shema Yisrael. The most sacred words in our tradition, the Shema is the first affirmation a Jewish child is taught, and the last words on a dying Jew’s lips. Even the Shema must be subjected to the test of “therefore.” To do so, I suggest we read the Shema backward. And read it, not as a declaration, but as a set of questions.
“Write them upon the doorposts of your house….” Read your house! What values are written on the walls of your home? If someone visited your home, what would they learn of you from the art on your walls, the books on your shelves, the notices tacked to your refrigerator?

“Tie them as a sign on your arm and between your eyes.” Read your work! To what purposes and ends do you invest your bodily and mental energies? What do you spend your time and strength doing? What energizes you? What exhausts you? What renews you?

“Speak of them, at home and away, morning and night….” Read your words! What do you talk about? What concerns dominate your conversations and dialogues? With what tone of voice do you address the world? With what voice do you speak to those who share your home, your work, your neighborhood?

“Teach them to your children.” Read your kids! What have you taught your children? What have you taught them about success, about the purpose and meaning of life? What have you shown them matters most to you — the pursuit of prosperity or the practice of compassion? The acquisition of precious things or the sanctification of precious moments?

“These words … take them to heart.” Read your heart! What preoccupies your thoughts? What do you worry about? What do you dream about? What do you hope for?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your might.” The theologian Paul Tillich observed that every person, believer or nonbeliever, has a “god.” Our God, he taught, is the “object of our ultimate concern.” So the Shema asks us: What do you love most in life? What is your god? The answer is no mystery. Just look back at the answers to all the other questions. The values and concerns that decorate your home, drive your work, color your words, shape your children and animate your thoughts, those values constitute your ultimate concerns. So what do you worship? What is your god? What sacrifices does your god demand?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening? Are you paying attention to your own choices? Are you conscious of the patterns of your life?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening to the voice of your soul, your deepest ideals and principles? Can you open your ears to hear a voice calling you to a life lived differently?

For those of deep faith, the Shema is an affirmation and declaration of loyalty to God. For those of us who struggle with the “Therefore” – with the task of bringing faith into life, it is an unrelenting challenge. Shema for us is God’s most powerful question.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

A ‘Nice’ Idea Blossoms Into a Group of ‘Niceaholics’


Debbie Tenzer was having lunch with several girlfriends when the conversation got heated. “We all had such different views on where the country was headed. There was so much anger and so much scary news in the post-Sept. 11 world,” she says, recalling the devastation from hurricanes and the tsunami, terrorism threats, difficulties facing Israel and escalating deaths in Iraq. “I wished I could pull my head in and hide like a turtle.”

But that’s hardly what Tenzer, a mother of three and marketing consultant, decided to do.

She thought to herself: “I can’t single-handedly end world hunger, but I can donate some cans to a food bank. I can’t fix the entire school system, but I can donate my kids’ old books to the library.”

So she did, and her kindness was empowering.

“I realized that if you have the ability to help other people, you’re in a pretty good place,” says Tenzer, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 29 years. “It’s not always easy, because basically, we’re selfish creatures, many of us struggling every day. We have to make a choice, and it starts by doing just one nice thing.”

Tenzer decided that every Monday, she’d do something nice for others.

“It’s the hardest day of the week,” she explains, “so I wanted to start off with something I could feel good about, a personal victory,” even if it was only a five-minute gesture like making a card for senior citizens in nursing homes.
Her friends were inspired by her idea, so she sent an e-mail to 60 of them with her suggestions for kind acts they could easily do, too.

One year later, her idea has evolved into a Web site, DoOneNiceThing.com, with thousands of visitors and a weekly e-mail that reaches people in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Israel, Japan and Slovakia. Her self-funded site reinforces the idea that small acts of kindness can create lasting results and suggests simple deeds that appeal to both adults and children without usually asking for money.

She credits them with cheering up hundreds of hospitalized children, donating countless books to schools, libraries and hospitals, as well as backpacks to foster children who were literally carrying their belongings from home to home in a garbage bag.

“What kind of message does that send to them?” Tenzer asks rhetorically.
The ideas are often sent to Tenzer in the more than 200 weekly e-mails she receives from the site’s members, whom she calls “Niceaholics” because, Tenzer cautions, “you get hooked.”

Operation Feel Better, for example, encourages people to make or buy cards that she then sends to hospitalized children. “So far I’ve gotten 1,000 cards from all over the United States and as far away as China, and they’re still trickling in,” she says. The figure includes about 20 from her 14-year-old daughter.
“I brought some to UCLA Children’s Hospital and sent others to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis.”

Pulling out a big batch in a manila envelope, she adds, “These are on their way to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where sick children of all faiths lie side by side.”

Pointing to a wall in her home office that’s covered with pictures, Tenzer says, “These are some of the heroes who are making life better.”

She begins to cry as she talks about Mallory Lewis, with whom she spent the day at Fort Irwin near Barstow, the last stop before many of the soldiers are deployed to Iraq. “Some of the people we met were killed in the war. Maybe the last smile they had or their last taste of childhood was because of Mallory,” she sobs, noting that Lewis, the daughter of puppeteer Shari Lewis, performed with Lamp Chop for no fee.

“I’m not usually so emotional, but these people remind me of a higher purpose in life,” she adds. Getting teary-eyed again, she points to a picture of a young man who quit his job at a law firm to teach at an inner-city school, where he spent his free time helping students fill out college applications.

“Every one of them went to college because of him,” she said.

While some of the “nice people” Tenzer has recognized are spearheading grass-roots efforts or starting nonprofits to help the homeless, disadvantaged children, AIDS patients, abused animals or drug addicts, others are honored for simply making people smile. Bob Mortenson, for example, a retired man in his 70s, takes a walk every morning carrying a bag of cookies so that he can share something sweet with workers in his neighborhood. And on her way home from work as a gynecologist, Karen Gross has a daily ritual of dropping off treats at her local LAPD and Fire Department stations.

The one thing all the honorees have in common, Tenzer says, is their reaction to being praised.

“Every single one of them says something like, ‘Oh no, not me. Other people do so much more than I do,'” Tenzer says. “This is the sign of a truly kind person.”

When the kindness hits close to home, she’s especially grateful and pleasantly surprised.

“You won’t believe this,” she says, explaining that her younger son, Ben, a college junior who’s spending the semester in Barcelona, was recently pickpocketed. But within days, a taxi driver had found what remained of Ben’s wallet, including his credit cards and ID, and called his university in the United States so that he could arrange to return it.

“There really are a lot of nice people out there,” Tenzer says with a smile.
She attributes her sense of tikkun olam, healing the world, to her Conservative Jewish and Zionist upbringing in the Bay Area, values that she and her husband, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, have instilled in their children.
“I was always taught that we have a responsibility to other Jews and to the whole community,” she says, praising her parents for being role models. “Tikkun olam is in my soul. It’s just a reflex. It’s what’s expected of us.”
But she’s careful to point out that her site embraces people of all denominations and backgrounds.

“My goal is to unite people, not point out our differences,” she says. “I never ask people their faith, but it often comes out.”

Still, she admits that about half of all the people featured on the site are Jewish: “And I’m proud of that.”

Like her honorees, she’s also proud of her accomplishments, but won’t take all the credit. “It’s not all me by any means,” says Tenzer, who’s now working on a related book. “I just lit a match to get some light going out there. It’s the people all over the world who are keeping it going.”

10 Ideas For Creating Meaningful Volunteer Assignments


Any organization’s program and operational decisions should stem from the philosophy, beliefs and vision that are its reasons for being in the first place. These basic values, however, are often assumed, yet rarely articulated.

It is a worthwhile exercise to identify the values about volunteering in your organization. This helps executives, frontline employees and volunteers themselves think about why volunteers are involved at all. It also helps to create meaningful volunteer assignments, providing a framework for staff and volunteers to work together.

Discussing values about volunteering also puts civic engagement into a broader social context. It’s easy to get so caught up in the daily how-tos of managing a volunteer program that we lose sight of the fact that volunteering is bigger than our one setting, or even this one point in time.

1. Participation by citizens is vital to making democratic communities work

Participatory democracy is based on the value that it is a good thing for citizens to participate in running their communities and in making sure that things happen the way they want. This is the heart of volunteerism and is why, in a free society, volunteering is a right, not a privilege. (This is not to be confused with the parallel right of any agency or individual to refuse the services of a prospective volunteer.)

Volunteering generates a sense of ownership. People who get involved feel connected to others and affected by the outcome of their “sweat equity.” It’s the complete opposite of the attitude “that doesn’t concern me.”

2. Volunteers are more than free labor

First, volunteers are not “free.” There are costs to an agency for their support and tools, as well as out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the individuals donating time.

Most important, when placed in the right positions, volunteers bring a value-added component that actually changes or is lost when a paid employee does the same work. For example, legislators and funders are more receptive to the advocacy of someone not on the organization’s payroll — the perception of credibility that comes from lack of self-interest.

Similarly, some clients, such as children or probationers, may feel that paid workers see them as “just someone on their caseload,” while a volunteer is a “friend.”

The point is not that volunteers are better than employees. It’s that sometimes their status as volunteers can provide a useful difference. Therefore, volunteers can be vital to an organization and an asset even aside from the financial concerns of staffing.

3. Equal respect is due to work that is volunteered and work that is paid

Regardless of the perceptions just discussed, the value of work is determined by its intrinsic quality and impact. Work done by employees does not automatically have a higher value than that done by volunteers (and is also not of lesser value). The contributions of paid and volunteer workers are compatible, collaborative, and integrated.

Even more important, the skills and dedication of the person doing the work are not determined by the presence or absence of a paycheck. There are extraordinary volunteers and extraordinary employees. The potential for excellence always exists.

4. Volunteer involvement is a balance of three sets of rights: those of the client/recipient; those of the volunteer; and those of the agency

Despite wrangling over employee and volunteer points of view, each situation defines which perspective takes precedence. In most cases, the bottom line should be what is best for the recipient of service. But there are also agency and other long-term considerations. The key is not to presuppose that one perspective always outweighs the others.

5. Volunteers, as citizens of a free society, have the right to be mavericks

The way that genuine social change occurs is that a few pioneering volunteers are willing to be ostracized (even jailed) for their actions. While an agency has the right to refuse a placement to a volunteer, that individual has the right to continue to pursue the cause or issue as a private citizen. In fact, that’s exactly what leads to the founding of new organizations and institutions, changes in the law, and even changes in cultural mores (just consider how MADD transformed attitudes about drinking and driving).

This right to see things differently also raises an ethical consideration in how we develop assignments for volunteers within our agencies. Do we expect to keep volunteers always “under control?”

6. Volunteering is a neutral act — a strategy for getting things done

Volunteering is not inherently on the side of the angels, nor is it an end unto itself. It is a means to accomplishing a goal and is done by people on both sides of an issue. Volunteering is a method that allows people to stand up for their beliefs.

7. The best volunteering is an exchange in which the giver and the recipient both benefit

Volunteering should not be confused with charity or noblesse oblige — those who have so much, give to those who have so little. Because volunteering puts the time donor directly into the service delivered, the impact of the activity reverberates back to the volunteer in ways much more complex than writing a donation check. Further, when volunteers also benefit from their service, they have even more motivation to do a good job, which means better service to the recipient, and an upward spiral of reinforcement.

8. Volunteering empowers the people who do it

Volunteering empowers volunteers, both personally and politically. On the personal level, volunteering contributes to individual growth, self-esteem, sense of control, and ability to make a contribution to society. At the community level, the collective action of volunteers who share a commitment to a cause is extremely powerful — real clout for real change.

9. Volunteering is an equalizer

When people volunteer, it is often more important who they are as human beings than what they are on their resumes. In a volunteer role, people can rise to the level of their abilities regardless of their formal qualifications: teenagers can do adult-level work, those with life experience can contribute to client service without a master’s degree, etc. Similarly, when running in a fundraising marathon, the corporate CEO and the school custodian are indistinguishable, as are all members of a nonprofit board of directors who share the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of this position whether they are employed in professional capacities or represent grassroots perspectives.

10. Volunteering is inherently optimistic and future-oriented

No one gives time to a cause they feel will fail. In fact, the whole rationale for volunteering is to assure the success of a cause. So, while people may take a paying job that is relatively meaningless if the salary is enticing, the reward for volunteered service is accomplishment.

This also means that people volunteer with a vision of the future, often in hopes of a better future in which a problem or disease will be conquered, communities will be safe and inclusive, and the world will be in harmony. This may sound terribly mushy (which may be why such a value is not expressed every day), but it is ultimately true.

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism. Her Web site is

Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low


Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

The “Choosing Jewish” report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

Many converted Jews — 40 percent — are described as “accommodating Jews-by-Choice.” They come to Judaism because they are asked to do so, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said. Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews — they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as “activist Jews,” or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually indistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The American Jewis Committee (AJCommittee) hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should “not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass,” said Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of contemporary Jewish life.

Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

“We should not see conversion as the end of the story,” he said. “What we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism. We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts.”

But that requires a proactive approach.

First and foremost, Jews need to “wave the banner of inmarriage,” advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as “the single best outcome.”

“We need to be up front about our preference for conversion,” he said.

To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the “nurturer of would-be converts” and the need for Jewish family members to “be clear about values and objectives.”

In addition, Bayme advocated raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, because attempting to combine religions would be “a disaster Jewishly.”

Edmund Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

“I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively,” he said. “If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in.”

Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don’t convert — not just those who do — should be paramount.

“The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life,” he said. “It’s important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

“I think its important to communicate a message of welcome,” he continued. “The message we need to send to [intermarried] non-Jews is, ‘We’re grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are.'”

Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach — less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

Bayme said “it’s a bit premature” for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.

 

Disengagement Dashes, Spurs Dreams


The evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements is not just a struggle over the question of the future of the territories. At the very core, the pullout was the first big battle on the question of religion and state.

They [religious settlers opposed to the withdrawal] have their own dream. The first stage is the “whole land of Israel,” filled wall-to-wall with Jews-only towns. True, Palestinians and Thai workers can come in to do the dirty work but no more.

The second stage is to transform Israel into a halachic state, a country ruled by Jewish religious law. Elections, the Knesset, the government and the courts may continue to function, but settler rabbis will decide just what issues are appropriate for these bodies to decide and what issues are too “holy” and important to be left to the people and their elected officials.

In their dream world, there is no place for secular Israel: Its culture is not culture; its values are not values; its opinions are not opinions.

In the eyes of the settlers, we are all poor, underprivileged children who never had the chance for a Jewish education. In their dream, our task is to become religious and to join them or at least not to stand in the way while they bring the Messiah.

We must nullify ourselves, and in return, they will hug us, sweetly, of course, and with lots and lots of brotherly love. But if we refuse, the brotherly love and the hugs will go out the window, and we will become little more than traitorous leftists or Nazis.

But we nonreligious Israelis also have a dream. We want to live in an enlightened, open and just country, not in some messianic, rabbinic monarchy and not in the whole land of Israel. We came here to be a free people in our own land.

To be a free people means each person is entitled to choose which parts of Jewish tradition are important to him and which to leave behind. It means to have the freedom to run our country according to our free will, rather than rabbinic dictates.

It means recognizing we are not alone in this land — and demanding from the Palestinians that they do the same.

It means to free ourselves, once-and-for-all, from the nightmare of being an occupying, uprooting, exploiting, settling, expropriating, humiliating, discriminatory country.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has choked the dream of free Israelis. The dream of the whole land of Israel and a messianic kingship drains daily the hope of being a people free to build a just society.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has trampled my dreams and those of my friends. But because of this, I can understand the settlers’ pain and desperation as they watch their dream collapse before their eyes.

They are experiencing exactly what my friends and I have gone through because of them, all this time. I opposed their project from the onset, from the very first settlement.

I look into their eyes, and I see true desperation and true pain, and without the slightest joy, I can say: The pain you are going through today is very similar to the pain you have put free Israel friends through for more than 30 years.

I will respect your mourning by remaining silent, but I cannot share in your grief.

And what will be after all the grief? Israel, for all her faults, is all we’ve got. It’s easy to throw stones at her, but this is not the country we prayed for.

The floor is deep, the ceiling cracked, the lights go off three times a day.

It’s easy to come up with substitutes for this Israel, easy to build castles in the sky about messianic monarchies on one hand and post-Israelism on the other.

But Israel, for all its faults, is all we’ve got.

Perhaps instead of kicking her, the time has come to get up and start fixing a little bit: to free ourselves of the occupation that continues to corrupt us; to renew our social solidarity.

A bit less “brotherly love,” a bit more responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves. A bit less holiness; a bit more justice. A bit less of the whole land of Israel, and a State of Israel a bit more whole with itself.

Through the murky cloud of poetic words and sobs, we can sometimes see during these very days the State of Israel’s quiet, beautiful face: [These are] the faces of youngsters in uniforms who chose, despite the pressure and violence, despite the curses and false hugs and emotional manipulation, to get up and protect with their body the dream of being a free people — to not rule over the Palestinians and to not be ruled over by rabbis.

The beaten, humiliated, slapped-on-the-face soldier boy, the police officer who was spat in the face — at this time they are the brave defenders of the State of Israel in the face of the unruly wave of zealousness.

The young soldier girl, her throat choked by tears, barely 19 years old, already carries the burden of the 2,000-year hope to be a free nation in our country on her shoulders.

Not in Palestinian Gaza, but rather, in our country.

With assertiveness and silent courage, but also with restraint, wisdom and compassion, this female soldier is currently protecting our most vital border — the border between what is allowed and what is not.

This is the border without which we will have no state and without which there is no freedom, no society, nothing but fiery zealousness, messianic-hysterical extremism and complete destruction — a state of affairs the Jewish people has known more than once in the past.

Reprinted with permission www.ynetnews.com.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most celebrated authors. This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 21, 2005, following the disengagement. He will speak at Sabbath services on Friday, May 19, at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. The public is invited. For more information, call (310) 475-7311.

 

$61.8 Billion


Of the 50 wealthiest Angelinos, 27 are Jewish.

Each year, The Los Angeles Business Journal uses legwork and a little guesswork to discern who’s worth the most in Los Angeles. Once the list comes out, as it did this week, I like to run it through the old “Who’s a Jew?” detector.

I’m well aware that the only people who habitually do such things are the heads of Jewish charities and anti-Semites. The former do it to garner fundraising leads, the latter do it to “prove” a worldwide conspiracy. I do it because I have something I want to tell these people — my Sermon on the Count.

My count a few years back put the number at 25. This year there are two more, including Jamie McCourt (Jew), vice chairman of the L.A. Dodgers and listed with husband Frank McCourt (not a Jew). So it goes, this slightly unseemly business of sussing out religious affiliation on a list that reveals just net worth, business interests and a bit about philanthropic activities.

It’s, of course, on that last subject that I’d have the most to say. Adding up the numbers provided by the Business Journal, I get a combined net worth of $61.8 billion.

Three things struck me about this year’s list. The first is: wow. Jews make up barely 2 percent of the Los Angeles’ population, but more than 50 percent of city’s richest of the rich. There have been precious few times in history when Jews have been blessed with so much wealth, along with so much freedom. In a city of openness and opportunity, these men and women have made the most of their chances.

Despite their common membership in a rarified group, these folks are a diverse lot.

Most are L.A. — or even American — transplants, with roots in Canada (eBay’s Jeffrey Skoll); Israel (Alec and Tom Gores, Haim Saban) and elsewhere. Their backgrounds range from Holocaust survivor (Leslie and Louis Gonda) to able scions of family fortunes (Anthony Pritzker). Their political affiliations run the spectrum, from Hollywood liberal (DreamWork’s Jeffrey Katzenberg), to George W. Bush stalwart (Ameriquest’s Roland Arnall, now ambassador to Netherlands). Their religious practices range from observant to none of your business.

You might think with great wealth has come great assimilation, as previous generations of Jews often had to choose between asserting their religious identity and social acceptance. But another striking fact of this list is how many of these people are deeply involved in Jewish communal life and causes. Westfield’s Peter Lowy is chair of the University of Judaism. The Milkens, Michael and Lowell, are pillars of Jewish philanthropy. Biomedical innovator Alfred E. Mann gave $100 million to Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology last year. As for Spielberg, there’s a little something called the Shoah Foundation. By my estimate, most have given to Jewish causes.

And this is not to sniff at their non-Jewish philanthropy. Eli Broad (No. 4 on the list) has been at the forefront of efforts to improve education and art in Los Angeles. DreamWorks’ David Geffen donated $200 million to UCLA’s School of Medicine in 2002, the largest contribution ever to a U.S. medical school. For a man worth $4.2 billion, that’s almost real money.

At the same time, the larger picture is that L.A. County trails behind other places in terms of charitable giving. As reported in the Business Journal, a 2003 Chronicle of Philanthropy study of IRS tax returns concluded that L.A. County residents with incomes greater than $50,000 gave only 7.3 percent of their income, or about $4,000, to charity. New Yorkers gave 10.9 percent and Detroit residents, the national leaders, gave 12.1 percent. In California, San Francisco residents gave 9.3 percent, people in Long Beach 8.4 percent, and residents of the city of Los Angeles 6.9 percent.

I wonder if the Jewish billionaires on the list skew the averages in L.A.’s favor. I hope so.

The last thought to strike me as I reviewed this year’s list was how incomplete it is. The Business Journal stops at 50. But there’s serious wealth from 50 to 100, from 100 to 10,000, and loads more down the line. In short, there are many challenges this community faces, but lack of resources is not one of them.

Jewish professionals often complain to me that there just doesn’t seem to be enough money. But there is — and then some.

There is enough money, I suspect, to develop a social service program to help every one of the 7 percent of L.A. Jews who live beneath the poverty line.

There is enough money to build and sustain a network of first-rate Jewish camps and give every child a chance to attend one — and there are few better ways to instill Jewish values than camp.

There is enough money to pay Jewish communal workers a wage that enables them to participate fully in Jewish life.

There is enough money to provide significant scholarships for every child in need who wants to attend a Jewish day school and to improve the quality of public schools.

There is enough money to sustain a network of state-of-the-art communal centers — either Jewish community centers or synagogues — inviting, welcoming and affordable to the entire community.

Any one of these would revolutionize the face of Jewish Los Angeles for the better, and most could be accomplished just by upping our average giving to the standard set by … Detroit.

If only our vision were equal to our assets.

Rabbi’s Focus on Family a Little Fuzzy


The first episode of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Shalom in the House,” which aired April 10 on the TLC network, was a fast-paced account of five days the rabbi spent with a family in Philadelphia. Beatrice Romero, a single mother raising three teenage daughters and a 7-year-old son, sent the rabbi a tape asking for his help in bringing some peace to her home.

We see segments of the family’s prior life, with the children beating each other up and the mother absent from the picture or ineffective in making them stop. We are told that Luis, the father, had an 18-month affair, and the couple’s 17-year marriage ended about two years ago. Luis admitted to the affair when confronted by his 16-year-old daughter.

To complicate matters, one of the other daughters has begun a secret sexual relationship with her boyfriend, despite being forbidden by her mother to date until she is 18.

Boteach enters the picture on a mission, although we are not sure from the outset what it is. He introduces himself as having counseled thousands of families and being the author of a best-selling book on family life. As he drives to Philadelphia, he tells us that his own parents divorced when he was 8. “I was devastated, and at that early age, vowed I will make a difference.”

He might have chosen to become a family therapist or a child-focused therapist. Instead, he is a rabbi with a deep desire to fix problems. He reminds us that he practices what he preaches, since he has eight children of his own.

If he were a therapist, he would begin his work with this family by taking a thorough account of their history. He would want to know about the mother’s own experiences as a child, her parenting style, the kind of discipline she uses, how effective it is, what kind of relationship she has with each of the children, what is special and unique about each child and what kind of marriage she had prior to her divorce, as well as the current custody arrangements and the current relationships between the children and their father.

Boteach does not ask these questions. He makes his diagnosis immediately. He decides that the main reason the children are assaulting each other is because of their parents’ divorce.

“Without dad, Luis, the Romero family is losing its way,” he says. His solution is equally straightforward: “Divorce is a tragedy, and if we can save them from going through this torture, we must,” he tells the parents.

His mission is now clear: Boteach is going to get the parents back together and help them work as a team to parent their children. No, not as in the traditional help a therapist might offer divorced parents, such as assistance in understanding that they need to find a way to communicate with each other, because their children still need them to be effective parents. Instead, he focuses on actually getting the two back together as husband and wife, so that they can both be there to parent their children.

How does Boteach try to achieve his goal?

He does not rely on the therapeutic process, in which the person in therapy comes to understand his or her own feelings, obstacles and baggage, thereby finding renewed energy and motivation to change behavior. Boteach’s approach consists of using persuasion, gentle pressure, guilt, rabbinic wisdom and his ability to coach a basketball game.

Rabbinic wisdom is dispensed freely. When Beatrice expresses her frustration at not knowing how to stop the children from arguing and fighting, Boteach tells her that her daughters, who should be giving off softness and nurturing energy, are instead behaving like boys in the locker room — something he claims they learned from her, because she has been distant and withdrawn from Luis.

When Luis expresses disappointment that his daughter is having sex with her boyfriend, Boteach comes down hard on him: “A girl at 16 needs a man to tell her she is special. Your daughter needs a father now, not a boyfriend. You need to be a father to her and a husband and protect your daughter. You need to tell her she is special.”

Apparently, Luis also needs to know that it’s not Beatrice’s job to lay down the law in the home.

“Luis,” he says, “it is your job to lay down the law. Don’t be weak. Do the right thing.”

Later, Boteach addresses the audience, telling us that most men who have affairs are not thinking.

“If Luis can be a man, a dedicated, monogamous, loving husband, maybe I can bring this family back together.” he says.

To bring everyone together, Boteach says he needs to do something really different. He does this by bringing the family onto a basketball court, and as a “good coach” — as he refers to himself — he makes the mother and father play on one team and the children on the other. His goal, he says in an aside to viewers, is to make the parents work together in hopes that they will stop bickering and begin enjoying each other’s company.

He tries the same tactic again later, upping the ante. The family is going to engage in another activity — cleaning out the basement. This time, the rabbi informs us, “divorce is only a necessity if you can’t fix the situation.”

Before the family meets, he has a t?te-?-t?te with Beatrice. In the conversation, he uses guilt to make her give him another chance, telling her Luis still loves her. He has a similar conversation with Luis, in which he tells him, “The secret to life is that you can do whatever you want. If you want her back, and are sincere, you can make it happen.”

Then, as the family cleans out the basement, with Luis intentionally made the leader of the project, “even though he does not live there,” Boteach pipes in suggestions through a remote walkie-talkie, suggesting to Luis to get a drink for his wife and telling Beatrice to thank him for it. The family activity is topped off with Boteach telling everyone how much they need to respect Luis for doing something so selfless.

Based on the shots of the family taken two months after the episode, everyone seems to be doing better.

So, what exactly happened?

I am not sure, but it seems that the rabbi’s conservative, traditional values were well received and echoed by the values of the family. We are not told what the family’s religious affiliation is, but the girls appeared to be dressed in parochial school uniforms. Capitalizing on their religious values, Boteach was able to sermonize to them about right and wrong, to hold up traditional roles for men and women as an ideal and to make the family members believe that they had made a mistake that could be corrected.

In the second episode, airing Monday, April 17, Boteach relies on the same rabbinical wisdom, pop psychology and common sense to fix the problem of the Maxwell family, who requested help disciplining their 3-year-old only son, Zackary. We see Zack running down the street toward the curb, throwing temper tantrums. We see the child refusing to listen to his mother, brush his teeth or sleep in his own bed.

The parents, Greg and LynnSue have not slept alone together for most of the year, and Greg has a hobby of videotaping Zack’s every move and then posting the clips on a Web page, which gets hundreds of hits a day.

Boteach summarizes Zack’s problems as “a simple problem of discipline. Zack simply has too much control, and the parents need to sleep together in the same bed, without Zack there.”

So far, Boteach’s thoughts, though simplistic, and formed without much more information than what viewers have been given, seem to be on the right track.

To remedy the situation, he tells the parents that it is their job to set the rules, that 3-year-olds do not understand the concept of boundaries in an intelligent way and that children need their parents to set down the law. Having witnessed the parents struggling with Zack during bedtime, we can accept the notion that Zack feels he is the boss and needs some clear guidelines, with consistency and follow-through, all of which seems to be missing at the Maxwell home.

What becomes excruciatingly painful to watch are the couple’s attempt to keep Zack sleeping in his bed, having been told that it will only take two or three attempts over a couple of nights before Zack will comply.

I became furious watching Greg and LynnSue change Zack’s routines cold turkey, leaving him feeling helpless, lost and angry.

Boteach focuses only on fixing the problem, without regard to the complicated issues that come up for parents in setting limits, withstanding their children’s cries and being firm but gentle. He ignores the important process of helping parents set realistic expectations. When their new routine fails, he is taken aback by their displeasure with him.

The last telling and painful segment revolves around a video Greg shot of Zack having a temper tantrum. Zack was throwing around his trains and was given a warning to stop or lose the privilege of playing with them. Zack continues to throw the trains, and the parents gather up the whole set and put it away.

Greg takes out the camera to record Zack’s reaction. Zack becomes enraged, partly about losing his trains but also about being filmed, and he tells his father to stop. Greg ignores him.

When Boteach discusses this clip, he focuses on the problem of letting Zack express this much rage, which he believes needs to be “reigned in.” As a good Chasidic rabbi, he is following the dictum of “having anger is likened to serving idols.” By telling the parents that they simply need to find a way to control the temper tantrum, he not only loses their attention, but he also offers nothing to help the next time.

The rabbi shrugs off their disconnect, blaming the father for being insecure, fearful of being ordinary and resistant to his message. His parting words to the father are to forget about the camera and Web site, to focus on the family and the precious moments one has with them and not go after big bucks and fame. The father’s look has a mixture of frustration and thoughtfulness. Boteach is happy.

I was not.

As a religious Jew, Boteach’s sermons have a somewhat familiar, comfortable tinge. But, as a therapist, his mission and his methods grate on my professional ethics, my psyche and my nerves.

It is almost excruciatingly painful to see him in the first episode impose his own agenda on a family and through guilt, coerce them into making promises to him; telling them that he has the cure for all their ills, and finally committing one of the cardinal sins of working with children of divorce: asking the children in a suggestive way if they would like to have their parents back together.

It is equally enraging in the second episode to see Boteach “play therapist,” assuring the family he knows what he is doing and then watching them feel inadequate, let down and humiliated at their failure.

But, the most insightful piece for me, as a therapist, was to see how Boteach’s deep-seated painful feelings surrounding his own parents’ divorce remain with him — unprocessed and unconscious — and his deep-seated wish to have had someone walk into his home and do what every child of divorce dreams of: bring the parents back together, continue to live on in the present and be the driving force for one’s life work.

I also now can sleep better, knowing that therapists really do offer people something very different than clergy, co-workers, relatives, friends and colleagues.

Irine Schweitzer, a licensed clinical social worker, has a private practice in Sherman Oaks.

Throw a Party With a Purpose


“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

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I Love You, Carnivore


This column is in response to last week’s Torah Portion by Rabbi Zoë Klein, who confessed her secret enjoyment of meat, despite her family’s predominantly vegetarian diet.

To: My Not-So-Flesh-Eating Wife

From: Her Closeted Carnivorous/Publicly Vegetarian Husband

Worry not, my dear, your struggle is safe with me over vegetarianism. I try to be one, but you know the truth of my dilemma, although it is less debilitating for me than it is for you. After 20 years, I think I’m close to being true to myself when I ignore the leftover Shabbos schnitzel from our Hillel caterer.

You see, as you know, I love meat. Love it! Growing up, although it wasn’t kosher, I took extra delight in my mother’s marinated flank steak. She also made great meatballs, and do I ever miss Shake N’ Bake chicken. How fun it was to overcook hotdogs until they blistered on the grill outside, while watching “60 Minutes” on Sunday evenings as a family.

I have absolutely no repulsion toward seeing carcasses; only a sadness that others are troubled by it. Ultimately, “we are like vanity; our days are as a shadow that passes,” as you and I read when we officiate at funerals, so why not accept that the life on the paper plates used in our homes for the kids eating a little meat is temporal? When medical shows present brain surgeries, complete with machines sucking the blood away, I can watch without any angst.

You, on the other hand, must turn the station, and at the site of roadkill, you bristle and say, “God bless it.” Actually, thank you for teaching me to do the same.

“Does it really matter if I don’t turn off the water while I brush my teeth?” one of my environment-conscientious students queried me the other day. Elizabeth had been caught by another conservationist in the throes of committing what some consider a chilul Hashem, desecration of that which was holy. Wasting water is an act of bal tashchit, our tradition’s way of saying that we are stewards of the planet and as such, we have no right to waste or destroy needlessly.

“Industries and big businesses waste far more water every day than people do brushing their teeth and watering their lawns,” she added. “Truth be told, I knew that I should turn off the water faucet, but does it really matter?”

“Maybe the key is to try to turn it off but not feel immense guilt for keeping it on, since it has virtually no effect on the environment,” I offered as a compromise. She seemed content.

As we left this “lunch ‘n’ learn” at USC’s health science campus, I had an epiphany. I wondered whether Elizabeth was channeling Torah from Sinai for me with my struggle to conquer my yetzer hara, the evil impulse toward consuming fleishigs: If I privately eat the Persian kabob leftovers after our weekly Wednesday barbecue, so that no one knows and it has no impact on anyone, might that be the ideal?

My act of civil disobedience — refusing to consume the flesh of once-living, breathing animals — has virtually no effect, perhaps none whatsoever. Agribusiness decides far in advance how many cows to raise and then slaughter without regard to my individual case.

It is almost entirely unlikely that the good folks at Rubashkin’s or some other slaughterhouse would ever take an inventory that would reflect my decision. It seems that being a vegetarian in America is as effective for slowing down meat production as trying to convince our son, Rocky, that muesli tastes better than marshmallows.

However, perhaps eating leftovers is still a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of these animals. Kabbalah teaches that when we eat foods, we elevate the divine sparks within them, so by consuming these leftovers, I am ensuring that these sparks are not wasted. It would be wrong to let the leftovers get dumped, as that would certainly be a violation of the law of bal tashchit.

The purposeful consumption of leftover meats then makes sense. However, if anyone were to find out that I was not a true vegetarian, they might never consider a vegetarian lifestyle. This would betray my values: While I can’t individually change the meat production levels in this society, creating a vegetarian movement would help keep cows jumping over the moon in perpetuity. I’m pretty much convinced that had my sister, Sylvia, never been a vegetarian, I might have never ended up in this dilemma, which pits my conscience against my cravings.

So, dear, continue to chew gum after eating a hamburger in order to mask the taste of once-living animals on your breath. Even as I argue for public vegetarianism with a strictly private consumption of leftovers, I am beginning to reach the point where even my interest in meat is disappearing. One too many PETA videos, I suppose.

Hoisting and shackling the cows horrifies me, and while kosher, I would much rather take my cues from the likes of Shlomo Goren, Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.I. Agnon and A.D. Gordon, not to mention Albert Einstein, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, all famous Jewish vegetarians.

Our prayers are for Moshiach, a messianic era in which the world order will improve in its very essence. When I say “Bayom Hahu,” on that day, I join Rav Kook in imagining a world when we need not sacrifice animals on any altar ever again.

I love you, even if you do sneak a roast beef sandwich from time to time.

Jonathan Klein is the Allen and Ruth Ziegler rabbinic director at USC Hillel.

The Path for Growth


Almost 10 years ago to the day, I was interviewing at Adat Ari El for the position of assistant rabbi. The parsha on which I had to speak was Terumah. I wondered if there was any chance I would get the job.

Let me explain.

Some Torah portions lend themselves very easily to sermons. Yitro, which contains the giving of the Ten Commandments has lots of material about which to talk. Others are more challenging, like Tazria-Metzorah, which has extensive discussions about skin diseases, inflammations and rashes.

Terumah focuses on the details of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites were to carry with them through their wilderness sojourn. So we read about the height, width and length of the various items in the Mishkan, like the ark, the menorah, the altars and with what and how these things were to be decorated and covered — a dream for an interior decorator but a nightmare for a fifth-year rabbinical student looking for a job.

However, details communicate to us. They convey messages about our priorities, values and beliefs. Similarly, the details surrounding the Mishkan — whether something was covered in gold or bronze, where it was located and how was it made — contain their own lessons and meanings.

We see an instance of this in the rabbinic commentary on the wood used to build the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, we read: “You shall make the planks for the Mishkan of acacia wood, upright” (Exodus 26:15).

The rabbis ask the following question: Why does the Torah insist on acacia wood? What is so special about it over and against other wood? Their answer is at once succinct and profound: Because it is not wood from a fruit-bearing tree.

What does this mean? Just as the Mishkan cannot be built by destroying that which gives food and sustenance and provides for the future, so, too, we cannot build our religion on beliefs, practices and attitudes that are destructive to those around us at the same time. God is the source and creator of all life, and it is God that permeates and infuses the entire world around us. Therefore, it is illogical to build a house dedicated to God that destroys that which God has made at the same time.

And what is true for God’s house is also true for us as individuals, for what are we if not portable tabernacles for God’s presence?

When we are little, we learn that what goes up must come down. It is the most basic rule of gravity and the first one we learn as children. But as we grow older, we learn a new twist on this basic law: I can build myself up by putting others down.

However, if we truly want to live life to the fullest and embrace it to the greatest extent possible, we need to find the inner resolve and sense of self-worth to feel good about who we are in a manner that does not put down others.

Hence, be it as religious tradition or an individual, the Torah teaches through a seemingly minor detail a crucial lesson: If we wish to find holiness comparable to the Mishkan and draw closer to God, it can only be done when we create in a way that does not also destroy at the same time. Our own growth can only be sanctified when it does not come at the expense of others.

Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is a rabbi at Adat Ari El in Valley Village. He can be reached at rabbijjb@adatariel.org.

Parental Values Do Influence Children


It was 12:45 a.m. on a Sunday, and my 14-year-old son and I were returning from a rap concert. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the entertainers were talented, and it had been fun dancing along with the concert crowd. The occasion also gave my son and me time for one of our many small intergenerational exchanges.

I admitted to my son that I didn’t understand the thrill of people shouting the infamous “N” word from the stage or the responding cheers of the audience. He said that he could understand my bewilderment because he couldn’t see why anyone (meaning me, of course) would listen to the Beach Boys. We both laughed.

By the time we arrived home, we had discussed various musical styles, how music can be an expression of cultural rage, sexual inquiry and misogyny, and how music often tells the stories of lives very different from our own. We felt close. It was a satisfying parental moment.

Having an open dialogue — about things like rap music, Xbox games or Polly Pockets — is essential for raising moral and ethical children. Creating the stage begins in infancy. There are no guarantees about the results of our parenting efforts, but there are ways we as parents can tilt the odds in our favor.

The competition is tough: television, movies, popular music, billboards, computer games, Internet access to almost anything and that most powerful competitor — peer pressure.

We will never eliminate the presence and ultimate access to views and values that we would rather they not have. But we can influence our children by displaying our own values through our behavior and words, and by understanding their world so that we can develop a relationship where anything can be talked about with mutual respect for views and feelings.

We can place our children in a school and community where they are likely to meet families with values similar to our own. But we cannot escort our children to every party, or to every friend’s house, or supervise every access to Internet pornography or even illicit drugs.

As my own children grow into adulthood, I do not want to — and can’t –control their choices; however, I do want to be a part of their internal and external discussions as they make their own choices.

Here are seven tips for creating and sustaining that kind of parent-child relationship.

1. Hold, cuddle, and talk with your children from birth. Look into their eyes; be aware of their body tension and yours — at every age. Bonding with parents is the cornerstone of moral development. Talk about moral and ethical issues in the course of daily life and help them understand the meaning of behaviors and events. While parents often worry about trusting their children as they become adolescents, the bigger issue is whether they will trust you.

2. Empathy is essential for moral and ethical behavior. Let your children know how their behavior affects you and others. Teach them to care for other people and their feelings.

3. Observe Shabbat and the holidays, using them as opportunities to celebrate Jewish values. Invite friends to the Shabbat dinner table and guarantee time and attention for each person’s thoughts and feelings, regardless of age. Use Shabbat to teach your children to make time to just think and contemplate — essential ingredients for moral behavior.

4. When your children are young, get on the floor and play with them. Then talk about these adventures both with your children and with adults when your children are present.

5. When your children become adolescents, listen with them to their music. Get the words to the songs. Talk with them about their music as an expression of their world, as you would talk with your friends about their interests. Do not condemn your child’s taste; this stops the conversation (as it would for you). Share the car radio.

6. Compliment moral and ethical behavior. When they make tough decisions, exhibit pride for their contemplation. Disagree with a choice or a behavior, but don’t attack them personally — and always do this away from their friends to protect them from humiliation.

7. Create “car talks” when you want to talk with your children about something important but which is uncomfortable for them. A car talk is a pre-planned opportunity to say one brief idea. Limit it to about 10 sentences and five minutes. In a car ride you have a captive audience for a few minutes. You and your child know this is going to be over soon. Car talks, of course, don’t always have to take place in the car.

Raising moral and ethical children in an often-immoral world can be difficult. Tilt the odds in your favor by creating the conversation.

Dr. Ian Russ is a marriage and family therapist in private practice, and consults at many Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

 

Scales of Injustice


I was 10 the first time I stepped on a scale. It was the summer of 1978, and I was visiting my grandmother in Florida.

Every day, grandma and I went for our daily two-mile walk, past the golf course, past Publix, the supermarket where the old people bought prune juice and cod liver oil. On the way home we’d stop there to weigh ourselves on the giant outdoor scale.

“Girls have to be thin and beautiful,” grandma would say. “The world judges on first appearances.”

My grandmother didn’t look like you’d expect a grandmother to look — soft and round and smelling of gingerbread. No, this grandma was all sharp angles and points — her make-up and hair carefully arranged, her clothes stylish and neatly pressed. She was skinny, and the needle hovered around 120.

Then it was my turn. My grandmother would peer over my shoulder. “Same as yesterday.” Or: “You’ve lost a pound. Aren’t you happy?”

And I was.

Was I ever really “fat?” Well, no, I suppose not technically. As a child I was a gymnast, muscular, firm; my greatest pleasure was going to gymnastics and coming home to a large cheese pizza, the oil dripping on my leotard and tights. I loved food, loved everything connected with it: cooking it, reading about it, consuming it. I could (and still can) match my father Whopper for Whopper; at the dinner table my mother would shoot me dirty looks when I reached for a second helping. But this food-love was never a problem; as a child I ate pleasurably, without guilt. Occasionally, I’d weigh myself on my mother’s little green scale, wearing layers of clothes, a pair of hiking boots. The numbers meant nothing to me.

They did to my mother. She always warned that if I wasn’t careful I’d “blow up like an elephant.” This had always been impressed upon me; I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t conscious that fat was something “bad.” I remember calling home from a neighbor’s house — I must have been about 7 — for permission to sprinkle “real” sugar into a cup of tea; I was constantly warned by my mother and grandmother never to gain weight. Fat was ugly, undignified, a sign of weakness and failure. But though I was aware of this, I never really worried about it. Fat, like fatal car crashes or terminal illnesses, was something that happened to other people.

And then adolescence hit, and I quit gymnastics. My muscles wilted. My waist cried for looser belts. My breasts grew faster than I could say “D cup.”

Not surprisingly, food stopped being a source of pleasure and became, instead, the enemy. My grandmother refused to let me come to Florida unless I lost 10 pounds. The kids at school came up with all sort of creative nicknames for me (“Flabby Abby!”).

My mother insisted I “get hold” of myself and lose weight. So I joined Weight Watchers, NutriSystem, Diet Workshop. I devoured books on the Atkins Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, the Pritikin Weight Loss Program. I’d be “good” for a day or so, but then I’d binge on cookies, cakes, ice cream.

This Yo-Yo cycle went on for three years, until my grandfather died, left me a few bucks and I had enough money to send myself to a weight-loss camp, or food rehab, as I liked to think of it. Sure, it was expensive — about $3,500 for nine weeks, money I could easily have put toward college — but I thought it was worth it, and I happily forked over the cash. Losing weight seemed something I had to devote all my energies to, a full-time job, and at home there were too many distractions. I couldn’t wait to go to camp, couldn’t wait to return home and lead a different (read: happier, better, party- and boy-filled) life. How would it not be? I’d be thin.

I lost 15 pounds that summer, which I kept off for a little over a year. And then it crept back on (plus 10) and I returned to camp. This went on for six years: thin, fat, camp, thin, fat camp. In the end, none of it really mattered. Sure, I was happier when I fit into a pair of Size 6 jeans, but I was beholden to the numbers on the scale, beholden to a cycle of eating that affected everything I did.

I’d like to say that epiphany struck me over the head and one day, in a flash of clarity, I discovered that who you are on the inside matters more than externals. But the truth is much less exciting. Over time I simply got fed up — pun intended — of dedicating my energy to calories. After devoting six summers and 25 years to my size, I got bored of focusing so much thought on my body and ignoring what was going on in my head; of putting myself in an environment where I could feel superior instead of learning to feel that way in the real world; of being convinced that my life would be better once I knocked off 10 pounds, only to discover that it wasn’t.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’ve overcome my obsession with achieving a certain body type (I’d do anything, for example, to be 5-foot-8. Even 5-foot-6 would be fine). Our appearance is endlessly appraised; we live in a culture that values Cameron Diaz over Kirstie Alley, and it’s hard not to fall victim to that. My heart breaks when I see an overweight kid; nothing’s worse than being a fat child.

And food certainly still ranks high in my personal pantheon. By no means am I ready to throw in the kitchen towel and accept fat defeat. I order low-calorie or low-fat meals on airplanes, and have been known to hand the contents of the hotel minibar to the front desk. Still, you can be conscientious without being crazy. You can be a little zaftig and still attractive; some of the sexiest women I know — most of them, actually — have extra meat on their bones. And you can be fit no matter what you weigh.

But I never step on the scale, I don’t deprive myself, and I don’t eat like a refugee who might never see food again. I work out, but not maniacally. If I feel heavy, I eat less. Mainly, I try to remember that there is a wealth of things to worry about other than the size of my thighs (which are really not huge). There’s no reason to miss a social gathering because I’m too fat. There’s no reason so stay home because I’m too big.

After 25 years of dieting, this is what I know: There’s more to me than the sum of my parts, no matter how much they weigh.

Abby Ellin is the author of “Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs In on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help” (PublicAffairs, June 2005).

Friedan: Universal Woman, Particular Jew


Betty Friedan was, like most ordinary mortals, a mass of contradictions.

She was loud and sometimes imperious, yet she could be charming, funny, gentle, kind and winsome. A public persona, at times her ego needed massaging, but she remained surprisingly unassuming and unpretentious.

Though she exuded self-confidence, her vulnerabilities were right out there for all to see. She could fix her eyes and set her jaw in a ‘take no prisoners’ position, but she could also listen to opposite views, change her mind, and soften at the distress of others.

Friedan, who died last weekend at age 85 at her home in Washington, D.C., was both universal woman and particular Jew. The word Jewish does not appear at all in “The Feminine Mystique,” her seminal work, yet every heartbeat was a Jewish one. Once, in her 50s, after fame, fortune and independence had filled her life, she asked one favor of friends — to find her a nice Jewish husband.

She wrote about the drudgery and mindlessness of family work, yet her family was the sustained love of her life. She was totally invested in her children and longed for grandchildren well before they came.

This complicated, complex woman changed all of our lives, even those who never read “The Feminine Mystique” or never heard of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

She spawned perhaps the most profound social revolution of the last few centuries without a drop of blood being shed. She will go down in history as one of the great change agents of modern history; and for us, she will be a continuing source of Jewish pride, characterized in our own history books as one of the contributions we made to the world.

How and why was her impact so great? For that matter, how was it that she changed my own life as a Jewish feminist — for I came from a very different place in the 1960s, from a community that offered women great satisfaction and sense of value in their roles as wives and mothers?

Her book seemed to be anti-family, anti-men. Though her chapter “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available” carried some truths, mostly she managed to put down so many of the great women I knew, full-time homemakers and mothers. Moreover, as the women’s movement got off the ground in the ’60s, building on her book’s steam, it quickly became more radicalized. The rhetoric of family as locus of abuse and man as exploiter grew more shrill. I’d have none of that!

Yet along with the excesses of early feminism was the underlying idea Betty Friedan offered the world: gender equality. This meant much more than the women’s vote. It meant equal access, equal talent and brains, equal dignity of women — and all of it a matter of justice.

For me, she did not adequately answer the question of equal careers and who would make lunch for hungry toddlers, prepare for Shabbat dinner with guests or meet the school bus each afternoon. She could not, because someone had to do the drudgework that accompanied the peaks and joys of raising children and running a Jewish household — and society was not yet organized to split these roles. But once she implanted in our minds and hearts the idea of equality of genders, once she posited this as ethics rather than as a battle between the sexes, each of us would try to work out the details in our own lives.

More than that, she opened the door to broader application of the idea of equal access and dignity to other spheres of life. In 1963, I made no connection between feminism and Jewish religious life, the imbalances in traditional Judaism created by gendered religious roles, the prevailing limitations on women studying Talmud or even the real disabilities in Jewish divorce.

But others did. These were a handful of Jewish women of the 1960s, women of Ezrat Nashim, women of other denominations who were writing about or modeling the new values, women who mediated secular feminism into Jewish feminism. Once these pioneering Jewish feminists established the connections, I could apply them to my own community — not out of a sense of abuse for I still felt none, but out of a sense of ethics, of meeting the original biblical paradigm — male and female created as equals in the image of God.

Friedan taught us several other important lessons. Not content to rest with the mighty power of her pen, she understood the covenantal nature of organizational life: For a job to be done and the work to continue, one needed more than an idea, more than cohorts. One needed organizational structures that would allow others to find an address and to take up the work. Friedan went on to found or co-found NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the First Women’s Bank and Trust Company. She co-organized the first protest march and the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. In 1969, though already beleaguered by opposition to feminism, she was unafraid to publicly take on the abortion issue, founding NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League.

These organizational models and her writings spawned hundreds of others. A spate of books and periodicals followed hers, and many hundreds of independent feminist organizations were created on these shores and far distant ones. Thus, her work in the world was multiplied in the arenas of politics, domestic life, religion, economics, education and all of the professions. It was, I believe, more than some of her sisters in the movement would acknowledge in later years.

As for her Jewishness, Friedan wore it proudly. In 1975, Rabbi Isaac Trainin and I invited her to join a New York Federation Task force, then called Jewish Women in a Changing Society. She joined in an instant, as if she’d just been waiting for the Jewish community to invite her in.

At her first meeting, she spoke of how Jewish values of justice had influenced her feminism, indeed her entire outlook on life. Later, we would learn that being a smart, Jewish girl growing up in Peoria, Ill., would shape her sensitivities as an outsider and sharpen her abilities to engage confrontation, both of which helped her in the early feminist battles.

She also was concerned specifically about the Jewish family. Once, in the early 1980s, as she, Susan Weidman Schneider and I shared a panel in Chicago on “Feminism and the Jewish Family.” I quipped that I was a slow learner for I had read “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 while pregnant with my second child but went on to have three more children. (In the book, she caricatures the woman with a vision of five children). Friends though we were by then, she took considerable umbrage at my comment for she disliked being associated with a decline in the Jewish birth rate.

She saw Jewish feminism as a logical extension of secular feminism; the same rubrics applied: access and education; the need for ‘outside’ or public roles as well as inside ones defined as women’s primary space; freedom to control one’s destiny in marriage and divorce.

In those years, the Task Force held conferences on the agunah (the problem of women who have trouble obtaining a Jewish divorce), on infertility, on the Jewish family. Though peripherally involved in those conferences, she remained curious and interested in their outcomes.

Friedan’s greatness also lay in her ability to rethink matters. In publishing “The Second Stage,” she recognized that she had gone too far in “The Feminine Mystique” in denigrating women’s roles in the home. She wrote of transcending the false polarization between feminism and family, between men and women. She addressed the realities of work in the home and the satisfactions of women who chose that as their primary role. She was criticized by some of her more radical counterparts for selling out the original vision, but then, as earlier, she held her ground.

She once acknowledged that some of her writing in “Second Stage” was influenced by her contact with Jewish women of the federation world who successfully put together family and service and who made sequential choices in their lives regarding family and career.

Jewish history is full of flawed models, sometimes more powerful because of their flaws, and certainly more accessible. Betty was straight as a narrow, totally transparent, nothing behind a veil. What you saw was what you got, including anger or bruised ego. But that made the love, the caring, the creative mind, the generous spirit and the passion for justice all the more precious.

Blu Greenberg is founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and founding chair of One Voice: Jewish Women for Israel.

 

Valentine’s Day.com


“J-ated,” as in “jaded,” might be the best way to describe the ennui that has set in among many JDaters these days, singles tired of the merry-go-round of endless possibility and disappointment.

In spite of that, or because of it, new dating Web sites seem to pop up every day.

Remember that scene in the movie “Singles,” where the desperate woman asks the airline to seat her next to a single man — and she ends aside an obnoxious 10-year-old? Ostensibly that won’t happen on AirTroductions.com, which is not a Web site for mile-high clubbers (if you don’t know, I can’t explain it here). Nor is it solely for Jews. This outfit targets people who want to make business or personal connections either on the flight, at the airport, or with other travelers in the same city. If they find someone who matches your itinerary, you can pay $5 to contact that person. (It might beat hearing, “Can you take off your belt, Miss?” from the security guy….)

For more personal intervention, try the new Jretromatch.com, which uses paid matchmakers to set Jews up (that’s the retro part). The site, which launched Feb. 6, is based on the successful SawYouAtSinai.com. (Get it? All Jewish souls were originally at Mount Sinai, so it’s based on the pickup line, “Haven’t we met before? Didn’t I see you at Sinai?”) SawYouAtSinai aims for traditional and religious Jews and has a firm foothold in the Modern Orthodox market. It claims 14,000 members and 95 married success stories.

If you don’t want to leave your entire fate to the matchmaker, Jretromatch.com (and its non-Jewish counterpart, retromatch.com) also will let you peruse the database on your own. At $35.95 for a gold membership (which gets you six months plus two “free bonus months”) it’s less than JDate for the same amount of time, although with a much smaller membership (launching with 2,500 non-Orthodox culled from SawYouatSinai’s lists). Still, Jretromatch promises that matchmakers will interview all members and verify that they’re Jewish, something that JDate does not guarantee.

There are a handful of other Web sites aimed at religious and traditional Jews. The main one is Frumster.com, which skews toward the more religious of the Orthodox community (hence the word frum, which means “religious” in Yiddish), although now it has opened up to all “marriage-minded” Jews, according to Ben Rabizadeh, CEO of Frumster. The Web site claims 20,000 members and 542 couples (married or engaged) and starts at $8.95 per month, but still seems aimed most at the very religious, especially given that it requires users to specify levels of observance. You can choose between Traditional and Non-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox-Machmir, Modern Orthodox-Liberal, Yeshivish Modern, Yeshivish/Black Hat, Chasidic, Carlebachian, Shomer Mitzvot.

Other religious Web sites include UrbanTraditional.com (“putting traditional values back into Jewish dating”), Orthodate (“Your Bashert could be just a click away”) and Frumdate (“Our first priority is not simply to make a match but to help singles draw closer to Hashem and find the best within themselves”).

In addition to religiosity, there are other niches in the Jewish online dating market. Consider DarkJews.com — not a racist term, but a statement about skin tone for some Sephardic Jews — a new Web site for Syrian, Persian, Bucharian, Moroccan, Israeli, Egyptian, Yemenite, Spanish, and Turkish Jews. There’s even a category for half-Sephardic and “other,” which defies easy understanding in this context. Another category is “Come to America” where the choices are: Born, Toddler, Adolescent, Teenager, Adult or I’m Not in America.

DarkJews.com is based on the myspace.com and friendster.com models, which allows users to add their friends and their friends’ friends and is more of a social connector than a straight dating Web site. Right now it’s free, and popular among Persian Jews in California. Lumping all “dark Jews” together doesn’t work even for all dark Jews, because many of Far and Middle Eastern origin prefer to date within their own, more narrowly defined communities. Bjews.com, for example, for Bukharian Jews (from Uzbekistan and Central Asia) includes a dating site.

The most retro thing of all, though, might be to leave the computer behind. “Just let it happen naturally,” as your married friends will advise, putting aside the problem that natural meetings often mean the UPS man (or woman) delivering your Amazon.com orders and your neighbor asking you to turn your music down. Bar hopping is equally random and can lead to options with less to offer than the hardworking UPS delivery person.

If that leads you back to JDate, well, it does claim half a million members. And JDate is throwing a party at The House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard on Feb. 13.

Who knows?

 

My Jewish Intermarriage


What did you and your spouse discuss after it was clear that you would have a chuppah and ketubah in your future? Probably something that turned out not to matter like, “How many kids do you want?” or “What is your dream vacation?” or “If we have twins, do you think we should dress them the same?”

If you were anything like my husband, Jeff and me, you probably completely overlooked the real marital make-it-or-break-it questions like: “During the Passover seder, do you think the adults should hide the afikoman and have the kids look for it, or the reverse?” Or “Even though neither or us keeps kosher, is bacon OK?” “Is there an exception if I’m following Atkins?” “What is your position on latkes? Scratch or box?”

Let’s face it. Every marriage between two Jews is an intermarriage. I’m not talking about the obvious ones, like a marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a Jew-by-birth who is not at all religious. Clearly if one spouse davens three times a day and the other spouse uses Mapquest to find her way to synagogue on Yom Kippur, a silver anniversary is not in their future. I’m talking about the rest of us.

Because so much of our Jewishness comes from how we were raised — and we were all raised differently — spouses never seem to be identical in the way they live their Judaism. My husband and I are a perfect example of this. Although we both grew up in families that were members of Reform Valley synagogues, our Jewish childhoods were day and night. When my husband was young, his family celebrated Chanukah, and dabbled in Christmas. In contrast, Christmas at the Jaffe home only meant that Bullock’s was closed, dinner was Chinese and that our station wagon would be headed to the nearest movie theater.

My husband’s family showed up at temple twice a year for the Big Two: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And although my mother-in-law became a temple regular after her children were grown, my husband did not chalk up a lot of synagogue time when he was a child. My brother, sisters and I, on the other hand, spent a huge chunk of our childhood at our synagogue, Temple Judea. We first started Hebrew school when we were still in diapers (or so it seemed) and continued through confirmation. We didn’t miss a holiday (OK, I don’t have any specific memories of Tisha B’Av), and much of my family’s social life revolved around our havurah and temple events. If sports camps existed when we were kids, we didn’t know about them; it was a given that we would go to Jewish overnight camps.

(I have no doubt that when my husband reads this, he will point out that the reason my siblings and I did not attend sports or rustic sleep-away camps had less to do with Jewish zeal, and more to do with my family’s complete lack of coordination and irrational fear of camping. And I admit that there is some anecdotal evidence to support that position.)

While many years of celebrating holidays together has put my husband and me mostly on the same Jewish page, our different upbringings occasionally seep through. I feel it every Passover when his family breaks into a song with an unfamiliar melody, when he chooses a salty noodle kugel like his mother used to make rather than the sweet ones that I grew up with, and when we have Shabbat dinner on Friday nights.

I know Jeff and I are not alone in trying to merge the religious habits of two different childhoods. Several friends who had very traditional upbringings are married to Jewish atheists, who could take — but mostly leave — services. These friends have become the synagogue version of the football widow, and frequently attend temple events without their spouses.

By the time you read this, my husband and I will be approaching a dozen years of marriage. So why am I dissecting our relatively minor Jewish differences now? Two reasons.

First, I have written a book about the main causes of divorce. The book is predicated on interviews with 100 divorce lawyers from all over the country. I asked each lawyer for their opinion on why people are getting divorced in droves. While not a single one of them mentioned disagreements over whether the prayer over the wine is spoken or sung, let’s just say I am hypersensitive to anything and everything that might cause marital friction.

The other reason that this is on my mind is that in a few months, summer camp will be in session. This year is the year that we intend to force our children to go to sleep-away camp purportedly for their own good, but really so that we can go on some great adult vacation. No doubt I will vote for a Jewish overnight camp, and my husband will lobby for River Way Ranch Camp. Each of our preferences will be based on what is familiar from our childhoods.

So if you know anyone trolling JDate for a husband, tell them to stop wasting their time on trivial discussions of common goals and values, and get straight to the important questions like: “If we were married, and attending High Holiday services, would you prefer to sit in front near the choir or in the back by the door?”

Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer living in Bell Canyon. She is also the author of “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide to Staying Married,” which will be released later this month from Volt Press. She can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

Choosing Pluralism


We were all seated in our respective minyanin when a large outburst sounded from the Orthodox group down the hall. Within a few moments, teenagers were running out from every direction, anxious to see what the excitement was about. As I edged closer, I realized it was not disagreement, but joyous celebration filled with shrieks and songs.

Before I could gather my thoughts, someone grabbed my hand and I was swept up in a whirlwind of excitement and shoved against Jewish teenagers of every denomination in a celebration of Shabbat, Israel and Jewish pluralism.

Attending the North American Association of Jewish High Schools’ (NAAJHS) leadership conference last year awakened me to the great possibilities of Jewish pluralism. NAAJHS was founded as a forum for Jewish community high schools to exchange ideas and work toward the betterment of Jewish education.

Sensitive to the needs of students that affiliate themselves with different denominations, the heads of the program offered a variety of minyan choices, from liberal nature services to Orthodox services with a mechitza. However, as Shabbat approached and we gathered in our separate alcoves, a spark of enlightenment surged across the room as we felt the need to enact the Jewish pluralism that we discussed in our daily seminars.

Clasping hands with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews, we proclaimed our love for Judaism in an outburst of song and dance, putting our differences in belief behind us.

Hidden beneath such Jewish rituals and celebration lies the true nature of pluralism. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis discusses in his essay, “The Pendulum of Pluralism,” the Talmud prescribes benedictions for all of life’s wonders — upon seeing a rainbow, nature, the ocean — but upon witnessing a Jewish audience we are commanded to pronounce: “Blessed is he who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, as is the face of each different from the other.”

Are we living up to this commandment?

Earlier this year, Rabbi Schulweis came to Milken Community High School to engage in a discussion with teachers and students about pluralism. As a school that prides itself on pluralism within a community setting, Milken sought clarity and distinction about a concept that can become cloudy and convoluted.

I was seated on a panel with other students and faculty members, and after our prescribed questions were asked and answered, one teacher in the audience asked a monumental question, one that broadened the question of internal Jewish pluralism to our place in a larger, pluralistic culture: How can we truly embrace pluralism within our society if we are the chosen people, deemed by God to be prosperous and blessed?

Rabbi Schulweis answered the question without hesitation.

“I don’t believe that any religion is chosen by God,” he said, “I believe that we are a choosing people, not a chosen people.”

If we as Jews were to walk around deeming ourselves higher than our surroundings, we would fail to accept others as equals. However, the first step in solving this problem of universal pluralism is addressing the problem of denominational pluralism within our own faith.

Too often we neglect the tension that exists between the Jewish people in order to focus on more prominent, global concerns. By choosing to engage in study and discussion with Jews from all denominations, we will instead model the very behavior we wish to incorporate into larger American society. As the modern enactors of our ancient covenant with God, we must emphasize “choosing” over “chosen,” equality over factionalism and denominationalism.

This transition from passivity to action must first be implemented in solving what Rabbi Schulweis identifies as a key tension within Judaism — the sectionalism among Jewish youth. Conservative teens attend United Synagogue Youth (USY) events, Reform teens attend North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) events, and Orthodox teens attend National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Each youth group provides a comfortable environment for teens to interact with one another, forming friendships that emphasize Jewish values and the importance of Israel. After reviewing the mission statement on each group’s Web site, I found an abundance of overlap and commonality. Each group aims to develop a strong attachment to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel by engaging in study, participating in services, and living a Jewish life. Why don’t these groups explore their own beliefs and values through interaction with each other?

As a student of Milken Community High School, a school in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teenagers study together, I have made it my personal goal to traverse the boundaries of my affiliation with the Conservative movement. If we take a step back from our differences in opinion — take a step back from the confines of our denominations, the limits of our beliefs and the restrictions of our own subjectiveness — we will truly be able to embrace pluralism. As Rabbi Schulweis writes, “Pluralism is not the surrender of debate or the bleaching of passionate conviction … pluralism calls forth an ethic of openness, a disposition to inclusiveness.”

Ashley Reich is a senior at Milken where she is co-editor of The Roar, the school’s newspaper.

The ‘Munich’ Concern Is Us — Not Film


Lyndon Johnson once famously observed, “The difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals don’t eat their friends.” His aphorism is no less apt today in discussing Jews and their treatment of one another. Since early December, there has been a disturbingly venomous campaign directed at Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Munich,” by machers, opinion molders and self-appointed pundits in the Jewish community.

Of course, there is room for different opinions about the complex issues raised in the movie, as there is with virtually anything written or produced about the Middle East. We recognize that there are those who may view the questions the movie poses differently than we do. However, many of these critical voices have chosen to assault, not critique, the movie and its director in a series of vitriolic ad hominem attacks on Spielberg.

Here is a sampling of what has appeared:

  • “…. Munich is about not upsetting terrorists … [it is] filled with fakery … made me sick to my stomach … thanks for blaspheming these murdered athletes’ lives, Spielberg … the memories of these innocent victims of terrorism are desecrated … Abu Spielberg — minister of disinformation.” (Debbie Schlussel, syndicated columnist)
  • “An anti-Zionist epic … not the expression of Jewish values but the contradiction of them.” (Samuel G. Freedman, Jerusalem Post)
  • “By naming his movie ‘Munich,’ he advances the message of appeasement. It’s as if the writers and director were intent upon ignoring the questions of interest in favor of creating a politically correct ‘Mein Kampf’ for our time.” (Kate Wright)
  • “No, let’s overanalyze ‘Munich’ for what it is. It’s dangerous…. Steven you are naively taking on the role of ‘Tokyo Rose,’ and you don’t even realize it…. Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth….” (Joel Leyden, Israel News Agency)
  • “Spielberg smears Israel … a falsehood at its core … cinematic manipulation rooted in lies.” (Andrea Levin, Camera)
  • “Spielberg is too dumb, too left and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival….” (Andrea Peyser, New York Post)
  • “It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian.” (Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post)

What could provoke such venom against the man who brought the world “Schindler’s List” — as important a film on the Shoah as has yet been made? The man who chronicled the visual histories of 50,000 survivors for posterity, and who, through the Righteous Persons Foundation, supports creative Jewish endeavors throughout America.

Were Spielberg another too-left Hollywood type who cavalierly flirted with the tough issues posed by “Munich” with no previous record of involvement or concern about Jewish matters, one might begin to fathom the nastiness of the attacks and the gratuitous personal barbs. But he comes to the movie with a distinguished, if not unparalleled, track record of achievement vis a vis the Jewish community, Israel and its image.

One has to ask: Why such vitriol?

There is a common subtext in these attacks that betrays a worldview that is anachronistic and fatalistic.

The critics seem to share a view that by portraying ambivalence on the part of the Israeli avengers or by allowing the terrorists to briefly enunciate their claim, the movie will encourage audiences to be equivocal in their understanding of terror and its perpetrators. Filmgoers will conclude, “A pox on both your houses, all you violent fanatics!”

It is hard to imagine that in a post- Sept. 11 world most audiences won’t have in their minds and guts a very clear view as to who today’s terrorists are and how they brazenly act in violent, irrational and heartless ways. The massacre at Munich is characterized as the original sin, distinct in its wantonness and brutality.

Any thinking American understands that responding to terror, even if violent and brutal, is qualitatively different than indiscriminately and purposefully targeting innocents. If you don’t get that message from “Munich,” you aren’t watching the film.

Equally mistaken, the critics fear that filmgoers will weaken their support for Israel because they will no longer see Israel as a victim. If its avengers commit violence, while betraying some ambivalence about the acts they carry out, the case for Israel, the critics fear, is weakened.

Americans’ support for Israel is not contingent upon being perceived as either infallible or as a victim. Israel is one of the world’s leading military powers; its armed forces have very few equals, certainly none in the region.

Americans respect its achievements and successes. An honest discussion of the issues surrounding terror won’t change the reality of with whom most Americans identify.

Losing the victim label does mean greater scrutiny. Greater scrutiny means occasional self-doubt and open, democratic questioning of how one acts. Israel was created precisely to give Jews power over their own fate, to act and not to quiver. Neither the Israelis nor we are powerless victims.

Like other democracies, Israel has its debates in the open. Anyone with an Internet connection can read and marvel at them. Spielberg hasn’t created those debates, he reflects them. The fear of washing our linen in public ought to be gone; Israel is a nation like others.

There is no need for a mentality of fear, for the embrace of victimhood or for the nastiness that permeates much of the anti-“Munich” diatribes. We can ask questions, we can worry about what we do, we can challenge each other in public and we need not fear for Israel’s security or our safety.

What we should fear is becoming like President Johnson’s former friends and devouring each other.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations agency. Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting


 

When attorney David Karp reminisces about his time in the Cub and Boy Scouts, the good memories come flooding back. He remembers taking long nature hikes, making close friends and fashioning a pinewood derby car from a block of wood, four nails and four wheels. The Scouts, he said, taught him how to work well with others, play fairly and know right from wrong — qualities that have served him well as an adult.

After the birth of his son, Samuel, in 1990, Karp decided that he would one day introduce the boy to the joys of scouting. But Karp wanted to touch more lives than just Samuel’s. Through the Western Los Angeles County Council Jewish Committee on Scouting of the Boy Scouts of America, he has found a way successfully to combine his two great loves: scouting and Judaism, both of which shape his ideas, values and conduct. In the process, Karp, a Reform Jew, has done more than perhaps anyone in Southern California to bring local Orthodox Jews into the world of scouting.

“Once I accepted that I wanted to make a place for Jews in scouting, it was only a matter of time before I decided we had to be inclusive of all Jews,” said Karp, who headed the Council Jewish Committee from 2002 to 2004 and remains treasurer.

Under his direction, Karp said he and other council members helped oversee the creation of a Boy Scout troop and later a Cub Scout pack at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Subsequently, Karp’s efforts have helped lay the foundation for other shuls to form scouting units.

“David Karp made it possible for us to have this program,” said attorney Yacov Greiff, scoutmaster of Troop 613 at Shaarey Zedek. “Aside from personal kindness and modesty, exemplary menschlichkeit and tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish community, he deserves particular recognition for going out of his way to reach across sectarian lines.”

Karp also helped make it possible for Orthodox Jews to participate in the Kinnus weekend, an annual committee-sponsored event that attracts hundreds of Jewish scouts and their families from the Southland and beyond. At the suggestion of several religious Jews, Karp and others approved the serving of strictly Kosher meals, offered Orthodox Shabbat services and set up an eruv, or boundary, which permits the carrying of supplies and other goods during the Sabbath. The result: Orthodox Jews now account for more than half of Kinnus, participants, up from zero in 2001.

“David’s been instrumental in uniting the three Jewish denominations into one identity as Jewish scouts,” said Jeff Feuer, cubmaster of an Orthodox pack sponsored by Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “In my personal opinion, it’s best if we work together and understand and learn to celebrate our differences.”

As a professional mediator, bringing together Jews under the banner of the Scouts has come naturally to him.

“I suppose I’m a facilitator,” said Karp, who is now a Boy Scouts of America district chairman for the East Valley. “I like to find common ground.”

 

David Karp

MORE MENSCHES


Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

Cowboys & Indians


One of the bizarre effects of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 is better holiday movies. I realize that sounds coarse and facile at the same time, but it’s demonstrably true.

The major Christmas releases in the 2000 holiday season — the year before Sept. 11 — were “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Red Planet,” “Unbreakable,” “Dracula 2000” and “Miss Congeniality.”

Not a serious, political picture in the bunch, though in “Miss Congeniality” Sandra Bullock did play an FBI agent.

Now look at what’s come out this season, amid the standard fluff: First there was “Jarhead,” about an American soldier in the first Persian Gulf War. Next was “Good Night and Good Luck,” about newsman Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation with red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

And then came “Syriana,” and the soon-to-released “Munich.”

Last week I saw those last two, the latest movies to tackle the issues that Sept. 11 forced us to confront: terrorism, oil, Islam, the Middle East and religious fundamentalism.

One thing that stands out is this: Hollywood is making Westerns again, but this time, the Indians are Arab.

I’m not talking about the early Hollywood Indian — a cartoon bad guy or buffoon who spoke pigeon English and was played by a white guy.

I mean the latter-day Indians of film — the more politically correct, primitively honorable “Native Americans.” The ones who resist when the misguided “settlers” prove ignorant of native ways or, worse, when the newcomers become greedy or resort to violence.

With adjustments for nuance and modernity, these themes play out like clockwork in “Syriana.” In this film, the flawed Westerners are the film’s primary movers — whether government officials, CIA spooks or oil execs. They wrestle with the moral dilemmas that our suicidal energy policy raises. They worry about the political and human costs; they second-guess their actions; they call their Arab counterparts on the carpet for their own shortsightedness.

The Arabs, for their part, react: They fight back when the CIA encroaches on their turf; they turn to terror when oil company policies impoverish them; they preach against a West that interferes with their lives.

Of course it’s true that corporations, in tandem with our government and corrupt Arab regimes, have often acted despicably to slake our petroleum thirst. But there is something simplistic and misleading about heaping scorn on oilmen, lawyers, politicians and operatives, but making a murderous Arab (the mullahs, the suicide bombers, the torturer) look perpetually like a victim. We have ideology, desire, goals and misgivings; they react. We are the cowboys out to settle their West; they are the Indians.

I don’t buy it.

Director-writer Stephen Gaghan flays open the ideology and greed that underlay much of our presence in the Mideast, but he never even mentions troubling aspects of Islamic ideology and tribal tradition that were developing long before petrol was king.

The plot of “Syriana” is being hyped as purposefully complex and opaque — but it ignores an ideological strain of Islam that seeks the destruction of opposing values and people as incompatible and threatening to one interpretation of Quranic truth. The Arabs who plan and perpetrate these acts are more often than not homicidal fascists, but in “Syriana” they are all just reacting to Western predation. The cowboys have ideology and depth and complexity; the Indians just suffer and try to defend themselves.

Was Gaghan trying to make, say, 1950’s Western “Broken Arrow,” where Apaches rise up against encroaching whites, using the tableau of oil instead of land? If that’s the case, it’s morally obtuse. The Indians truly were victimized. We invaded their lands, and destroyed them with our guns, germs and steel.

Those who perpetrate terrorism are not innocent — even if they have sometimes been victims. It’s true that Western policies often exacerbate or even incite Islamic fundamentalism. But there is also a strain of Islamic fundamentalist driven by a sick religious ideology, as demented as that of the Crusaders. They are one-starred Sneetches who kill no-star Sneetches in the name of the Great Sneetch. Nazis killed to establish their superiority over non-Nazis. Islamic extremists kill primarily for that reason.

By being hooked on oil we supply them with money. Through asinine policies and actions, we supply them with fertile persuasion for recruitment. But our wrongs and our stupidities don’t negate the responsibility of those who must endure them. Radical Islamists espouse and are prey to an ideology rooted in death and destruction of the Other. For this film not to dramatize — or even recognize — this in some way left me flabbergasted.

Interestingly, “Syriana” is based on the book, “See No Evil” (Three Rivers, 2002) by ex-CIA agent Robert Baer. Baer goes into great detail on how much Mideast terror is the work of Iranian mullahs whose ideological enmity to the West has deep theological roots — a fact that “Syriana,” for all its vaunted complexity, avoids.

To be fair, Gaghan has made a serious, perhaps even courageous, effort to wrestle with contemporary issues. But Arab intransigence and irredentism, Islamic fundamentalism, religious and national fascism, are as much a part of the Middle East muck as Western predations.

Can a single movie fairly dramatize all of this? Sure, and one day they’ll make the cowboys gay.

 

Class Notes – A Weekend of Ethics


Scholars-in-residence Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Steven Leder and Dr. Bruce Powell will address teaching children values and ethics at Brandeis-Bardin Institute’s family weekend Nov. 19-21. Sponsored by The Jewish Journal, the weekend will explore how ethics interface with spirituality, social justice, education and consumerism. Renowned child development specialist Dr. Ian Russ will address how kids learn ethics, and an expert from Merrill Lynch will discuss saving for your children and grandchildren.

Space is limited, so apply early. For more information, contact The Brandeis-Bardin Institute at (805) 582-4450 or visit www.thebbi.org.

Young Writers Unite

Budding poets, playwrights, essayists and novelists can do the grown-up conference thing at an all-day seminar for fourth- to sixth-graders on Sunday, March 5 at Milken Community High School. Sponsored by Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School, the second annual Young Writers’ Conference aims to inspire expression in all its forms, from comic book writing to sports reporting. A keynote speaker, along with workshops led by professional writers, will bring kids of all backgrounds together to explore the passions, techniques and skills that make for good writing. The $125 fee covers lunch, a T-shirt and a conference pack. Proceeds go to support Access Books, which supplies books to under-funded school libraries. Financial aid is available.

Deadline for enrollment is Nov. 5. For more information, visit www.youngwritersconference.org or call (310) 889-2300.

Dollars for Day Schools

Day school proponents looking to cultivate new major donors now have added incentive. A consortium of five foundations and two organizations is offering to match new gifts between the amounts of $25,000 and $100,000. The consortium, which includes the Jewish Funders Network and the Project for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), will have $5 million available to match 50 cents for every dollar donated.

To be eligible, a philanthropist must make a first-time grant to Jewish day schools or increase a previous gift fivefold. The program runs through Jan. 13, 2006.

“The match program is just the kind of investment strategy that philanthropists value,” said Michael Steinhardt, PEJE chair and founder. “By leveraging their gifts, these funders are able to stretch their contribution to Jewish day schools and join the ranks of those of us who believe that serious Jewish education is at the core of a renaissance of Jewish life.”

For an application and information, visit www.dayschoolmatch.org.

Tradition Goes Wireless

The words beit midrash, Hebrew for study hall, may bring to mind images of bearded young men stooped over row after row of crowded tables. But not at the Los Angeles Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school. At the new Simha and Sara Lainer Beit Midrash, dedicated Sept. 27, men and women can sit at specially designed workstations or create their own space with moveable furniture. The shelves are stocked with traditional and contemporary books, while the computers hold a full complement of programs and databases. And of course the room is set up for wireless communication.

The Lainer family has established batei midrash in institutions of all denominations across Los Angeles.

Ellie Steinman, a third-year rabbinic student, is ready to get to work.

“The environment of a beit midrash is what rabbinic school is all about — peer helping peer with abundant resources available at the fingertips,” Steinman said.

For information, call (213) 749-3424 or visit www.huc.edu.

Rub Elbows With Wiesel

Junior high and high school students will have an opportunity to talk with Elie Wiesel next year, as Sinai Temple in Westwood hosts the Holocaust survivor and theologian for a weekend in May as part of its 100th anniversary celebration. Sinai is inviting seventh- to 12th-graders to submit essays answering the question, “If you could ask Elie Wiesel any question, what would it be and why?”

Two students from each grade level will be chosen to pose their question to Wiesel personally at a May 21 teen forum.

One page essays are due March 1, and can be sent to Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90024, Attn: Centennial Essay Writing Contest. For more information, call (310) 474-1518 or visit www.sinaitemple.org.

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at julief@jewishjournal.com or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.

 

Lessons From Abramoff’s Case


Lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s recent indictment and arrest on charges of wire fraud involve an already notorious individual. The U.S.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and federal grand jury have already investigated him about his unscrupulous dealings with Indian tribes.

Because Abramoff’s public persona trades on a glossy presentation of himself as an exemplar of Jewish values, his case calls for careful attention — not only from the general public but specifically the Jewish community. As Jews who have worked with Native American communities, we feel that the Abramoff case can open a long-overdue conversation among American Jews about Native Americans today and some areas of common interest.

To start with, there are Abramoff’s dealings with tribal governments that were his clients. Marketing his influence with key members of Congress, Abramoff allegedly secured fees from one tribe to help it obtain legal rights to conduct gaming, then took fees from another tribe to help it squelch the other client’s tribal gaming prospects. If true, this stunning disregard of basic fiduciary responsibility would be but one example of his business practices with Native Americans. According to the New York Times, Abramoff wrote e-mails to his business partner, Michael Scanlon, referring to his Native American clients as “idiots,” “troglodytes” and “monkeys.”

According to a June 23, 2005 report in the Los Angeles Times, Abramoff used funds gained by allegedly defrauding Indian tribes to finance “a Jewish religious school that he founded” and “paramilitary operations mounted by Jewish settlers in the West Bank.” Because of the public association of Abramoff’s activities with support for Jewish causes, an affirmation is needed that he does not represent Jewish religious values regarding the ethical treatment of non-Jews and respect for the divine image of all human beings. Abramoff’s actions and words also depart from the important American Jewish traditions of respect for democracy and activism to achieve social justice.

Then there is Abramoff’s alleged conduct toward his Native American clients from a perspective grounded in Jewish sources. According to the Torah, cheating, lying, expropriation of other people’s property, misuse of funds and condescending attitudes toward non-Jews are not Jewish values, and are expressly forbidden. The idea of establishing a school to teach Torah using misappropriated funds would be total nonsense from a Jewish point of view — the worst example of faulty ethical and moral thinking.

If they prove authentic, Abramoff’s racist and demeaning references to his Native American clients would suggest that he has not been thinking and behaving according to the Jewish teachings that, as the founder of a Jewish school, he claims to espouse. The Jewish tradition teaches us that all human beings — not just Jews — are made in the image of God. Abramoff’s proffered excuse, that he was just indulging in “locker-room talk,” runs aground on the most basic Jewish teachings that you must “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people” (Leviticus 19:16).

Abramoff’s conduct should prompt more from American Jews than a repudiation. It should serve as an occasion for forging better relations and understanding between Native and Jewish communities. If anything, Abramoff’s experience as a Jew should have made him more, not less, sensitive to the humanity and concerns of Indian people. Like Jews, American Indians know what it means to be historically dispossessed. They are struggling to assert sovereignty over what remains. Like Jews, American Indians wrestle with the meaning of their remembered past and how to accommodate to the powerful society that surrounds them.

Because of reservation poverty and forced relocation programs mounted by the federal government in the 1950s to move tribal members off reservations and into cities, Indian nations also share with Jews the experience of Diaspora. Like Jews, they have been subjected to coercive programs of conversion and assimilation, their cultures and sacred practices outlawed, their numbers diminished by genocide and their identity made more complex by intermarriage. Desecration of cemeteries and burial sites, long a problem for European Jews, remains a current horror for Indian people.

Jews should seek a higher level of understanding and better relations with Indian peoples. We are egregiously misrepresented by the likes of Abramoff. We feel pride and a sense of affinity with distinguished legal scholar Felix S. Cohen, whose “Handbook of Federal Indian Law” (1942) and other writings have been crucial to restoring federal recognition of tribal sovereignty. A secular Jew committed to democratic principles, Cohen wrote passionately about Native American self-government from a perspective informed by Jewish history:

“Our interest in Native American self-government today is not the interest of sentimentalists or antiquarians,” Cohen wrote in 1949. “We have a vital concern with Indian self-government because the Native American is to America what the Jew was to the Russian Czars and Hitler’s Germany. For us, the Indian tribe is the miner’s canary, and when it flutters and droops we know that the poison gasses of intolerance threaten all other minorities in our land.”

Haim Dov Beliak is rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom of Whittier and is co-director of Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem. Gelya Frank is a USC professor and director of Tule River Tribal History Project. UCLA law school professor Carole Goldberg directs the Joint Degree Program in Law and American Indian Studies.

 

Making Mensches


Barbara Gereboff counts among her proudest moments an argument between two of her middle school boys. When Gereboff asked the hallway adversaries what the problem was, one boy responded, “He’s not treating me with kavod [dignity].”

The students had learned the term kavod through a values program at Kadima, a Conservative day school in West Hills where Gereboff is head of school. She says that teaching kids to be mensches is as high on the priority list as helping them master algebra and topic sentences.

And for the boys in the hall, something positive seemed to be sinking in.

The goal of shaping high-quality people is especially foremost during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At Kadima and elsewhere, educators and students turn their attention to teshuvah, repentance, encompassing the whole process of character development and self-improvement.

But High Holiday lessons can ring hollow if becoming a better person is not a year-round pursuit. In a growing number of schools — Jewish and secular — programs on building character are being integrated into the curriculum. As the incubators of tomorrow’s adults, schools have begun to recognize a responsibility to produce graduates who treat each other well and are dependable members of society.

The challenge lies in ensuring that kids are not just memorizing lists of values and tucking them away with other academic minutiae, but are internalizing and applying them in everyday situations.

For Gereboff, the fact that a boy could summon the language of kavod in the heat of argument signaled that Kadima’s approach is making a difference.

Kadima starts with behavioral principles based on the notion that all people are created in the image of God, which requires them to act honestly, treat people with dignity, and improve the world in partnership with God.

These principles are posted around the school, and form the basis for a value-of-the-month program, which includes classroom lessons, recognizing exemplars of that value and a special assembly. Teachers look for moments in both formal teaching and in social interaction to reinforce those values.

This year, Kadima Rabbi Jacqueline Redner introduced a set of 20 Earth Angel value cards. Students can earn a card by displaying the particular value — such as honesty, or treating your environment well. They also can pull a card from a deck, which establishes a value they can aspire to through activities at home and in school.

“I really want to give the kids a sense of what it means to live your life in Kedusha [holiness], and what it means to be part of a people that is supposed to be holy in this world,” Redner said.

At New Jewish Community High School in West Hills, all students spend their first year of Jewish studies with Rabbi David Vorspan, who pioneered an approach he calls Kodesh Moments – moments of holiness.

On a recent Monday in early September, Vorspan introduced the concept to a class of freshly minted ninth graders.

“What does holy mean?” he challenged them. “What has the capacity to be holy?”

The students offered a white-board full of thoughts that Vorspan narrowed down. Holiness is the highest level of human behavior. It is acting most God-like. And it is being the best we can be, he said. Kodesh moments, he told them, arise when you sanctify an ordinary moment by looking for ways to elevate your behavior. That might mean stopping yourself from gossiping, he offered, or helping an injured friend up the stairs.

“The concept of Kodesh moments takes a teenager who thinks he can’t avoid temptations, and it shows them they can,” Vorspan said. “It puts them beyond the level of what teenagers think they can actually do,”

Kodesh Moment signs are posted around the school, programs and assignments deal directly with ethical development, and teachers are always on the lookout to point out a Kodesh moment — or its antitheses.

The administration is careful not to overuse the catch phrase, knowing that if trivialized, it could become a running joke among students at the four-year-old transdenominational high school.

Students say they take interpersonal ethics seriously, and according to some 10th- and 12th-graders, the emphasis on values creates an atmosphere of communal caring.

“I noticed with my parents that I have conversations with them and I don’t jump to conclusions, so I can have a more thorough discussion,” said J.J. Berthelson, a 10th grader who lives in Tarzana.

Reaching that level of penetration and practical application takes persistence and deliberate plan, says Michael Josephson, founder of Character Counts!, a Los Angeles-based program now being used by 6 million students in schools, athletic programs and youth clubs nationwide, including the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD).

“You need to make a conscientious effort to be proactive and pervasive in the way you emphasize values… so it becomes part of the natural framework in which children think,” said Josephson, whose short commentaries on ethics are featured daily on KNX-AM 1070.

Character Counts, a project of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, provides training and materials based on six pillars: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Developed at a 1993 summit by academics, religious leaders and mental health professionals, these characteristics, Josephson contended, are ones that every culture and religion can agree on.

Character Counts has been adapted by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as “Catholic Character Counts,” and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades — where Josephson is a member — will be the first Jewish school to translate the six pillars into Hebrew and add the notion of holiness for a pilot program called Menschlichkeit Matters.

Josephson tailors the training not just for teachers, but for athletic coaches through a program called “Pursuing Victory With Honor,” and for student leaders such as team captains and student body presidents.

Of course, the program is only as good as the educators implementing it. It works even better, they say, when the ideas are reinforced at home.

But research suggests that in Character Counts schools academic achievement improves, according to independent analyses of school records in several states where the program has been successfully utilized. In a study conducted by South Dakota University, everything from crime to drug problems to bullying and racism dropped at Character Counts schools across the state.

Bob Weinberg, a principal and former football coach, has spent five years making Character Counts central to his program at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, a grade 4-through-12 magnet school.

“Academics are obviously important at this school — that is what we’re all about — but unless you have them in conjunction with ethics and treating each other with respect, all you really have is nothing, kind of an empty shell,” said Weinberg, past president and still a board member of LAUSD’s Association of Jewish Educators (AJE).

Weinberg begins each day with a PA announcement that includes a short anecdote on someone — in the school, in the news — who showed strong character, and he ends each announcement by saying, “And remember, character counts.”

In the high school, Weinberg said, the focus turns toward honesty and not cheating — whether it be cheating on tests or by downloading illegal free music or term papers.

Weinberg is a formidable role model for the students, and he expects a lot of them. In 2004, several players from a baseball team that had already clinched a spot in the championship series decided not show for the last two regular-season games, thus forfeiting the games. Weinberg, with his eye on character rather than the playoffs, had the team forfeit their spot in the postseason. Last year, that action won him the Pirkei Avot Award for ethical behavior from the AJE.

“Character is what you do and the decisions you make when no one is looking,” said Weinberg. “The most important thing is being true to yourself and true to what you know is right.”