There’s No Such Thing As A Sinner

Some of us turn to the Sun and strum over our bodies in the shape of a rood. We play hymns over our hearts, passed down and over our DNA for generations.

Some of us turn to the moon and pluck lavender from our gardens — naked and howling. We write love songs to the low-hung clouds, as we sniff in a tidal wave that never was, along with the skin of an unfound planet home to yet nameless life, along with a hummingbird’s hiccup, all in a gust of wind. All in one inhale, we fill our hearts with the humid air, only hardly conscious of why exactly it makes us feel so full.

Some of us, move about only as much as we must to be able to spend the rest of our lives sitting, cross-legged, cross-eyed, our consciousness streaming across nebulae. Embodying everything — inclusive of nothing.

And most of us, we’re never really sure who or what we’re holding up so high. But despite this, we concede. With certainty, not always in God, but in our worship, however it is we worship, we worship.

We’re never really sure who or what we’re holding up so high.

And then, some of us won’t cross anything except that crossroad that leads to that one spot where you can get dope for ten a gram. We kick our leather feet through concrete dust and ash and scream “BURN IT ALL TO HELL!” as we tip our cups and the crown of our heads backward in a contrary bow.

And we scream to whom exactly?

Well, we’re not really sure who or what we’re holding up so high that we’re trusting that they could burn it all to hell. … We’re not really sure how high we’ve got to get to figure that one out. But despite this, despite our best efforts to flip the mountaintop upside-down and into a syringe, our subconscious concedes, and we, too, worship.

We may run to God or with wolves, by the light of violet flames, or into concrete caves, we may run however we like, but we may not outrun our mortal allegiance to worship, bringing us to our knees someway. Somehow. However it is, we worship.

Hannah Arin is a junior at Pitzer College pursuing a double major in religious studies and philosophy.

The big tent: Jews, Muslims, Christians celebrate spirituality in a shared sacred space

Whirling Dervishes, an elaborate feast and a lecture by a prominent Muslim scholar – Musallah Tauhid’s joyous celebration of its move to a new home in 2008 heralded good times ahead for the Sufi Muslim worship group. As a friendly gesture, the group invited its new neighbors for the occasion: members of both Village Lutheran Church, whose Brentwood facility Musallah Tauhid would now be sharing, and Ahavat Torah, a small Jewish congregation that also holds its services at the church.

But early in the festivities, a tense moment threatened the mood. As Muslim leaders called the gathering to prayer to bless the establishment, their opening invocation — “Allahu Akbar,” God is great — sent chills through Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Ahavat Torah’s spiritual leader. Those words, she realized with horror, are the same ones that suicide bombers in Israel often shout before detonating themselves.

“When I heard those words again, I started to shake,” Hamrell, a native Israeli, recalled. “It was an immediate physical reaction. I literally looked around the room and thought, ‘Who is going to blow themselves up?’ ”

Images flashed through her mind of two friends from her days in the Israel Defense Forces who were killed in a blast, and of the time she arrived at the scene of a bombing just after an explosion. It all came back — the blood, the smoke, the victims lying injured on the street.

Soon it was Hamrell’s turn to address the group of Muslims, Christians and Jews gathered for the event. She decided to tell them about her emotional reaction and personal history of trauma.

“I believe that a good relationship has to be based on truth. So I have to share with you what just happened to me,” she told them.

Hamrell elaborated later, “I have always felt that fear and struggle should not hold a person back from moving forward or overcome good judgment. It takes time, patience, trust and understanding to build a relationship. It takes keeping your heart open. And sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep your heart open. I told them, ‘I’m working on myself. It’s not easy. I promise and commit to try to overcome this personal struggle.’ ”

Many guests at the assembly, touched by her words, offered their sympathy. One Muslim leader recited a blessing for her: “May it become easier.”

That episode — one of many turning points in an unusual partnership of shared space and shared experience among the congregations of Ahavat Torah, Musallah Tauhid and Village Lutheran Church — marked a profound step toward the understanding and harmony the three faith groups now enjoy. They have built friendships, included one another in holiday celebrations and in the process created a unique interfaith bond based on education and respect. What began as a convenient rental agreement has blossomed into what many call a family.

Each year since 2008, Ahavat Torah welcomes members of Village Lutheran Church and Musallah Tauhid (“place of unity”) for interfaith activities on Tu B’Shevat, Pesach and Sukkot, during which Jewish congregants teach the essence of holidays in accessible language. At the end of Ramadan, the Musallah invites the whole community for an Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast. For their part, church leaders host an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration and have created joint Chanukah and Christmas parties over the years.

This communal ministry was something of a happy accident, said the Rev. Janet Bregar, Village Lutheran Church’s pastor for the past 15 years – yet a confluence of elements set the stage. The church, founded in the 1940s, has always had an open-door policy toward other local spiritual and 12-step recovery groups, Bregar said. And she and Musallah Tauhid founder Noor-Malika Chishti had both participated in interfaith work before through Monks Without Borders and the international Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Still, sharing a worship space, the three spiritual leaders found, proved to be a richer and more textured endeavor than any of them could have imagined. They have reaped gratifying rewards both in what they have learned from one another and in lessons they can pass on to their congregations. They have also weathered surprises as the learning curve has dredged up anxieties and preconceptions that have had to be undone.

“It takes courage to go into places where you know you won’t feel comfortable,” Hamrell said. “The question is, how can change occur if you always go where it’s comfortable?”

Three faiths under one roof

Village Lutheran Church is a modest brick building on the border of the otherwise tony Westside neighborhoods of Brentwood and Westwood. Each weekend, its chambers witness three sets of prayers uttered in three different languages — English, Hebrew and Arabic.

On Saturday mornings, Jewish congregants from Ahavat Torah festoon the sanctuary with Israeli flags and set up an ark for Shabbat. Saturday evenings, Sufi Muslim worshippers from Musallah Tauhid spread out carpets and pillows on the social hall floor, remove their shoes and kneel for their weekly communal prayer group. And on Sundays, the church’s Lutheran congregation fills the pews for its own Sabbath service.

The arrangement’s beginnings were serendipitous. When the newly formed Ahavat Torah was looking for a spiritual home in 2003, Hamrell, who was ordained that year at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, had just signed on to lead the 90-member, non-denominational congregation. The group’s cantorial soloist, Gary Levine, suggested they might rent space at a small church he’d heard about a stone’s throw from the 405 Freeway. A committee decided to approach the pastor and inquire.

The rabbi struggled with the prospect at first.

Top, from left: Ahavat Torah’s Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Noor-Malika Chishti, founder of Musallah Tauhid. Bottom, from left: Musallah’s leader, Karima Kylberg and the Rev. Janet Bregar of Village Lutheran Church. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

Meanwhile, Bahauddin and Karima Kylberg were preparing to make Hajj, the Islamic ritual pilgrimage to Mecca. Traditionally, Muslims readying for the journey must first ask forgiveness from their family and friends — much like the spiritual slate-cleaning required of Jews before Yom Kippur. Ahavat Torah’s Sukkot celebration offered the perfect opportunity to do that, Bahauddin Kylberg said.

It was also an opportunity for the Jewish congregation to give a meaningful gift.

When Hamrell heard the Kylbergs were going to visit the Kaaba, the stone shrine in Mecca that is considered one of Islam’s holiest sites, she felt a distinct sense of synchronicity. She ran to find the piece of Jerusalem stone she usually carried in her tallit bag.

“I said, ‘Wow, ancient rock from Saudi Arabia, ancient rock from Jerusalem,’ ” she recalled. “I thought they should have it. Instead of throwing rocks at one another, maybe with these two rocks we could build the cornerstone for our faiths to have a peaceful coexistence.”

An Ahavat Torah member offered her piece of the symbolic limestone to the Kylbergs. They took it with them on the Hajj, bringing it to some of the most significant places in Mecca and Medina. Surreptitious photos – photography is not permitted at many locations – show the stone in front of the Kaaba and at the Rawdah, the site of Muhammad’s tomb.

The couple brought the Jerusalem stone with them as they ascended Mount Arafat, the last stop on the Hajj, known as the “Mountain of Mercy.” There, they placed it on the sacred hill where Muslims believe Muhammad gave his last sermon.

“We believe that on Judgment Day, the places where we pray will witness for us that we did our prayer,” Bahauddin Kylberg said. “We thought, ‘Why not take the stone with us, as a witness for Ahavat Torah?’ Every year, the angels will be witnessing that that stone was there.”

Bahauddin Kylberg showed pictures from the Hajj at the church’s interfaith Thanksgiving celebration last month, which drew about 60 attendees from all three communities to the church’s social hall for a potluck holiday lunch. Kosher and halal cuisine steamed in adjacent glass bowls on a buffet table.

“What I’m going to ask you to do is to not sit with your familiar group,” Bregar told the roomful of guests before the meal. “Find someone you don’t know and sit with them and get to know them.”

Interfaith events give Muslims a chance to learn more about their religion’s similarities to Judaism and Christianity, said Rabiya Zeeshan, who worships at Musallah Tauhid with her husband, Zeeshan Masood, and their 1-year-old daughter, Aminah. Conversely, she added, it’s an opportunity to show others “what is Islam and what are Muslims” beyond what the mainstream media portrays.

“Before coming to this group, we had a lot of misunderstanding,” Masood said. “Usually, people don’t learn much about other religions. We know Judaism from a Muslim perspective — we know the prophet Moses and the ancient stories — but what we don’t know is, what is Judaism right now in its current state? That was a big reason we started coming.”

Masood recalled how the first time he heard the Shema chanted, he was struck by the realization that the Hebrew Adonai Echad and the Arabic Allahu Ahad were nearly interchangeable ways of saying, “God is One.”

“I was in a group, and I was singing the Muslim part and another lady was singing the Jewish part, and I could not hear the difference,” he said.

That isn’t an accident, said Karima Kylberg. “The God that I believe in is the same as the Christian and the Jewish God,” she said. “We are all people of the book.”

But the clergy of the three faith groups don’t try to downplay or whitewash major contrasts between their religions, Bregar stressed.

“There are real theological differences,” said the pastor, a religious studies professor at California State University, Fullerton. “We try to keep our own belief systems intact. But while there aren’t always bridges between beliefs, we can create understanding, and this is what we try to do.”

The letter she wrote designating the church’s annual day of reflection upon wrongs done to other faiths “didn’t happen overnight,” Bregar said. “It has taken years to set the stage for that. That’s why I think this is really a long-term commitment to trying to understand other peoples’ points of view. It’s like building any relationship — it’s a process.”

The Ahavat Torah community has watched Hamrell’s personal transformation with support.

“If you had told her eight years ago where she’d be today, she would have been shocked,” said Michael Stevens, one of the congregation’s first members. “Over all this time, it has been amazing to see how she has opened her mind to untraditional circumstances, bit by bit.”

Rabbi Hamrell herself sometimes can’t believe it, she said.

“I am amazed that these gifts have fallen into my lap,” she mused, shaking her head. “I thank God for putting me in places where I don’t always feel comfortable — for putting me in places where there is a chance to grow.”

For downtown’s Persian Jews, work plus worship equals success

Fast-paced techno dance music blasts through Chikas, a retail clothing store off Santee Street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles’ Fashion District, which many call the Garment District. Robert Mahgerefteh, the store’s owner, helps the dozen or so young women looking for great deals on the latest fashions.

“Many of us from the Iranian-Jewish community working in the Garment District have a very hard work ethic, sometimes working six or seven days a week,” he said. “People like myself grew up seeing our dads and uncles put the time and effort into making their businesses a success, so we’re following in their footsteps.”

Mahgerefteh, 29, is among the more than 300 Iranian Jews who work as retailers, wholesalers or importers of clothing, fabrics and fashion accessories in downtown’s Fashion District. Over the last 30 years, their businesses and Iranian-Jewish investment in downtown real estate have helped transform the district into one of the major business hubs in Southern California.

In addition to improving the area, Iranian-Jewish businessmen have brought their faith and practice with them, establishing synagogues in the area and supporting several downtown kosher restaurants. Rabbis even travel to the Fashion District to teach Torah and other topics during lunch-and-learn sessions.

And while the flood of cheaper clothing and fabrics from China has driven some Iranian Jews out of the business, others have remained downtown, finding their niche in the new marketplace.

Following their immigration to Los Angeles from Iran, hundreds of Iranian Jews flocked to the Fashion District in the late 1970s and early 1980s, either because of their familiarity with the garment trade or because it seemed the easiest way to earn a living.

Iranian-Jewish real estate developer Behrooz Neman, who has owned properties in downtown’s Fashion District since the mid-1980s, said the area was in dire economic conditions when Iranian Jews first arrived.

“It looked like South Central with only old buildings and empty warehouses,” Neman said. “I can honestly say that if the Iranian Jews had never come to Los Angeles, there would be no Garment District as you see it today.”

Those Iranian Jews who first worked the Fashion District didn’t have the higher overhead costs of the larger American fabric companies, said Amir “Aby” Emrani, co-owner of Emday Fabrics.

“And, we also gave ourselves smaller commissions,” he said.

Today, Emday Fabrics and a handful of other Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses are among downtown’s largest and most successful fabrics importers, selling to both a national and international clientele.

“In the early days, we worked very hard and long hours — it was just myself, my brother and my father. … Little by little, the hard work and our ability to give much lower pricing to our customers allowed us to grow,” Emrani said.

Among the businesses that found a niche early was Donna Vinci, a division of Brasseur Inc., which specializes in plus-size women’s suits, among its other high-end women’s clothing.

“It was very successful for us, and we have continued over the years to build on that idea with many different designs and brands for the same customers,” said Danny Golshan, Donna Vinci’s co-owner. “Our focus is on being unique and bringing up-to-date clothing to our customers.”

With Hollywood not too far away, Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses such as the Italian Fashion Group have also supported the needs of costume designers for major television shows and films. The company, run by three Iranian- Jewish siblings, has become a top manufacturer of high-end, custom-made Italian suits that attract entertainment industry designers and celebrities such as Al Pacino, Terrence Howard and James Belushi.

“Our custom line of suits, Di Stefano, has become the pearl of our company,” said Shahrouz Stefano Kalepari, co-owner of the Italian Fashion Group, adding that their suits have appeared on such televisions shows as “The Mentalist,” “Castle,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles” and “The Defenders.”

“Our suits and shirts are 100 percent hand made and the patterns are designed from scratch for each individual order, to create a very personalized and custom fit for our customers. We use the most precious accessories such as horsehair canvas inside our suits, pure silk linings and mother-of-pearl buttons,” Kalepari said.

But with cheaper labor and raw material in China and the Far East flooding the Fashion District, Iranian-Jewish businesses have found it increasingly difficult to compete with Chinese goods.

Businessmen like Kalepari say they have had to be more aggressive in marketing their products and educating their customers about the higher quality of their clothing in order to survive.

“Unfair competition with China, combined with the lack of knowledge from some customers, makes it very frustrating at times,” Kalepari said. “But in the end, a high-quality product speaks for itself, and when a famous designer of top-quality clothes in Beverly Hills uses our company’s line for his own personal use, this gives us the utmost satisfaction that we have done the right thing and can survive in this market.”

Aside from the district’s retail and wholesale businesses, nearly 40 Iranian-Jewish real estate developers have purchased or constructed buildings and other properties over the years to further solidify the community’s influence in the area.

These Iranian-Jewish developers have not only upgraded the appearance of the stores and buildings in the area, but were pivotal in the creation and growth of the widely popular “alley” shopping area within the heart of the district — a nearly three-block stretch along Santee Street that resembles a Middle Eastern-style open bazaar.

“In the early 1980s, there was no alley in existence,” Neman said. “The idea to use the space in the alley area came from mostly Iranian Jewish developers who wanted to get the maximum use of their properties in the area by making these smaller spaces behind their buildings available for retailers.”

Not only have Iranian-Jewish businesses thrived and prospered in the fabrics and clothing industry, but city officials have praised the community’s entrepreneurial efforts during the last three decades of the Fashion District’s revitalization.

“The Persian community has helped to reshape the district by partnering with stakeholders in the area to form business development districts to keep the area safe and clean for business to thrive,” L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel said. “This community has been at the forefront of growth in the Garment District, and I am confident that the future will bring greater prosperity as downtown continues its transformation.”

The financial growth over the last 25 years alone in Southern California’s garment business speaks for itself.

“In 1984, California Mart in downtown’s Garment District did about $50 million in sales annually, which was for all the U.S. sales of garments on the West Coast,” Neman said. “Today the annual sales for the garment business in Southern California alone is $150 billion — and without a doubt it is because of the hard work of Iranian-Jewish- and Korean-owned businesses in downtown.”

Many local Iranian Jews also credit Ezat Delijani, one of the community’s most prominent real estate developers, who died in late August, for having transformed the area by pioneering mixed-use developments in downtown Los Angeles as well as for purchasing and renovating four historic theaters on Broadway near the Fashion District.

“The investment Ezat Delijani made in the historic area of Broadway brought new life to an area that was stricken with graffiti and blight,” said David Rahimian, a former special assistant to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “The Delijani family led a preservation effort that brought the theater back to life, not only making it a jewel on Broadway but a proud site for all Angelenos to enjoy.”

With all of their financial success, Iranian- Jewish businessmen in the area have still maintained their strong Jewish bonds in the district, even establishing three synagogues in the area.

Ohr HaShalom, also called the Downtown Synagogue, is perhaps the most popular synagogue in the Fashion District. Located inside a 300-square-foot storefront, it attracts up to 30 Iranian-Jewish businessmen for daily prayers.

“It’s more convenient for businessmen from our community to come to the synagogue that is close to their businesses in the area in order to do their early morning prayers or to say the Kaddish prayers on the anniversary of the deaths of their loved ones,” said Abner Cohen, a fabrics businessman and co-founder of Ohr HaShalom.

The other two synagogues in the area are located within the offices of Iranian-Jewish businesses, housing Torahs as well as other prayer books. Yet the business owners operating these office synagogues would not grant The Jewish Journal entry out of concern that the publicity could attract unwanted security challenges.

In addition to the synagogues, a handful of local rabbis frequent the different Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses in the Fashion District, providing free lunchtime classes on Torah and religious practices.

“We love teaching Judaism, and we offer these businessmen insights on how they could benefit from Torah in their everyday lives to become better fathers, better partners and better community members,” said Rabbi Yosef Shemtov, executive director of the Yachad Outreach Center, which is affiliated with the Pico-Robertson-based Torat Hayim synagogue.

Over the course of each week, Shemtov and two other Iranian Jewish rabbis from his group visit more than 50 Iranian-Jewish businesses in downtown’s fashion and jewelry districts. Their group began the teaching program for Iranian Jews working in downtown Los Angeles eight years ago and, Shemtov said, it has gradually grown in popularity.

Kosher restaurants in recent years have also popped up the Fashion District, including Snack 26 deli, offering sandwiches to Iranian-Jewish businessmen on the run, and Afshan Restaurant, providing customers with kosher chicken and beef kebabs as well as popular Persian stews and rice dishes. Both eateries also deliver to their clients downtown.

With all of the ups and downs in their businesses, Iranian Jews working in the Fashion District said their strong sense of spirituality and Jewish values have enabled them to continue working hard to achieve success in the fashion industry.

Shervin Arastoozad, an Iranian-Jewish designer and owner of Cut n’ Paste Handbags, says the one thing he’s learned about business is that you must build a foundation to get anywhere.

“One very important foundation for me has been Judaism and the morality it brings into [my] business and everyday life,” he said.

For more interviews with Iranian-Jewish businessmen in downtown’s Fashion District, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at

How I returned

In the fall of 1989, I took a class on Chasidic thought with a Chabad rabbi. We met in a room in the annex of Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. Iwanted to learn about Judaism, but I hated going to synagogue services. They bored me. So I took classes, learned Hebrew, even lived in Israel. But no synagogue services.

One afternoon, our teacher suggested we all march down and meet Mishkon’s new woman rabbi, Naomi Levy. The class consisted of six young single men — we said sure.

And the moment I saw Naomi, I knew I wanted to marry her.

From there on out, a group of us gravitated to a back row of the synagogue and devoted every Shabbat to hoping she would fall for one of us. We were in our 20s, unmarried and smitten.

Fortunately, I had an enormous advantage over the other young men: I didn’t have a job. They were all busy young professionals. I was just young.

Naomi taught a class called, “Love and Torah,” every Wednesday at noon. There was my opening. My calendar happened to be clear every Wednesday at noon — actually, it was clear pretty much every day at noon.

So I showed up each week to learn with five young mothers and the rabbi. The moms figured out my plan immediately. Naomi just assumed I was really into Torah.

She was teaching the “Song of Songs,” a biblical love poem.

On the day our class studied the line, ” … and his fruit was sweet to my taste …,” I brought a quart of huge, ripe strawberries from the Santa Monica farmer’s market for everyone to share. Another time, as we read, ” … I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense,” I pulled out a baggie of frankincense and a baggie of myrrh, which I had bought the day before after driving 45 minutes to a bodega in Burbank. If you want to snag a rabbi, it helps to read ahead.

The next Shabbat, Naomi let me walk her to her apartment door after services.

“But you should know,” she warned me, “I don’t date congregants.”

“Fine,” I said, “I won’t join.”

The fact is, not joining a congregation came naturally to me. I was intrigued by Judaism, and I was growing to love Mishkon’s members — many are friends to this day — but I was not interested in spending Friday nights and Saturday mornings in shul.

I had grown up attending a large, suburban synagogue, had a bar mitzvah and never went to services more than twice each year. And each time I did, the rote prayer readings, the cantorial repetition, the organ music — all of it — sent me into a spirit-sucking stupor.

Eventually, Naomi caught on to my intentions. It may have been when I offered to cater the synagogue’s second-night seder, or that I offered to head up the Chanukah latke-making effort for 200, or the afternoon I left a mix-tape on her doorstep for her post-Shabbat listening.

Or it may have been my sudden 100 percent shul attendance record.

“I don’t even go to shul that much,” Naomi told me.

Of course, after we got married in 1991, neither did I.

Because I was a sailor in the relatively uncharted waters of being a male spouse of a rabbi, Mishkon’s congregation had no expectations of me and no obvious role.

The congregants didn’t seem to mind that I was rarely in shul — or at least didn’t mind out loud.

When Naomi decided to leave Mishkon after we had our second child, I was more relieved than she was. A rabbi’s spouse sees firsthand the pressures of the job: the strains of synagogue politics, the lack of control over one’s time, the constant sense you can never fulfill the demands both of your congregants — no matter how many — and of your own family.

Frankly, I also was looking forward to being free of the guilt of not showing up at services.

In leaving Mishkon, Naomi got to be home more with our children, write books (“To Begin Again,” “Talking to God”), teach and lecture. But as the years passed, she yearned to return to the pulpit. It was — is — her calling.

But as much as she loves the pulpit, Naomi, like me, finds the modern synagogue problematic. She believes that Judaism offers people a sense of purpose, a mission to heal society and a fulfilling spiritual path, but that too often standard synagogue services don’t attract or inspire Jews, much less compel them to commit to a community.

“My interest was in the people who don’t go to shul,” she told me. “The outsiders.”

Of course, one of those outsiders was living with her. I liked everything about being Jewish but going to shul. I had seen her infuse the traditional services at Mishkon with her particular spirit and warmth, and I hoped there was a way she could build on that somehow, somewhere.

But how or where I hadn’t a clue.

I couldn’t see either of us at a mainstream synagogue: Her goal was to reach the Jews who, for whatever reason, were turned off to Judaism, and they were unlikely to be found inside established synagogues.

One day, Naomi simply decided to do it— to create for herself her dream of the ideal service and the ideal congregation.

She had no financial backing, no business plan, no building, no place to hold services. She had a supportive but somewhat skeptical rebbetzin.

Naomi decided to call her congregation “Nashuva,” Hebrew for “we will return.” She launched it one night with a few friends and a husband seated around our dining room table. As we all shared our vision and offered our help, I felt my role shift from rabbi’s spouse-in-the-background to fellow organizer, planner, volunteer.

I, who had happily stayed on the sidelines of synagogue life, was now joining with a handful of others to actually create a different kind of congregation. As Naomi envisioned it, Nashuva would be an outreach congregation, bringing Judaism to those who had otherwise been turned off to it or uninspired by it.

People like me.

Nashuva would hold Shabbat evening services on the first Friday of every month and do a social service project in the L.A. area on the third Sunday of the month. It was service that led to service; outreach that led to reaching out.

There would be no membership, no dues, and everyone — everyone — would be welcome.

The service itself would be traditional and in Hebrew, but with accessible translations written by Naomi and set to great, engaging music.

Naomi put together a band, and I watched with the screwed up face of a stodgy sitcom dad as several strikingly handsome, talented musicians appeared in our living room for rehearsals. Naomi and the band fashioned new arrangements, adapting ancient Hebrew prayers to melodies as diverse as music from “Godspell” and the Jewish Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda.

She cold-called a church she had driven by countless times, the Westwood Hills Congregational Church on Westwood Boulevard. A young woman answered the phone. Naomi asked to speak to the reverend.

“You’re speaking with her,” said the Rev. Kirsten Linford.

When the two met, they fell into each other’s arms like long-lost friends.

On Nashuva’s debut night, we hung Wanda Peretz’s beautiful handmade tapestry depicting a dove returning to a Tree of Life. It hid the church’s giant cross. I set out food for after the service (some roles never change), and we filled the pews with the prayer books Naomi had created.

“Just put out 50,” she said.

People began to arrive. The congregation swelled. I stood in the balcony and watched the hundreds of church seats fill up.

Eventually, Nashuva outgrew its first home and moved to its current location, the Brentwood Hills Presbyterian Church. It has succeeded beyond our imaginations without falling back on traditional models of organization, like dues and membership and tickets. Nashuva now even has an alternative to Hebrew school — Camp Nashuva — that engages young children in the joy of Jewish learning. What it lacks in the hallmarks of mainstream synagogues — well-developed lay leadership, regular cash flow, a home of its own — it has made up for with committed volunteers, some generous donors and grants.

As the nontraditional rebbetzin at a nontraditional shul, I happily set out defining my own role: doing whatever I could to sustain what I truly believe is something magical and exceptional in Jewish life — and actually looking forward to going to services. I have, at last, returned.

This past June, Nashuva celebrated its fourth anniversary. Somehow, Nashuva has survived as an un-synagogue.

At the High Holy Days, Nashuva is standing room only. But even more remarkable, on the first Friday of each month, I sit in the balcony and watch, not quite believing, as each time it fills up on just an average Shabbat — with many new faces and many familiar ones. People who had never found a spiritual home. People whose own synagogue services leave them cold. People who never felt welcome in Jewish life. Kids dance in the aisles, the congregation leaps to its feet, Naomi sings and leads prayer and speaks — her ideal rabbinate.

And the most surprising face in the crowd? Mine — the guy who never liked services, wouldn’t join a synagogue and never got involved. I have finally found my spiritual home — soulful and musical, original and inspiring — a true reflection of the woman I fell in love with.

Reconstructionists try to manage growth

When Dorshei Tzedek, a small Reconstructionist congregation in West Newton, Mass., began an explosive growth spurt in 1997, some of its members were concerned.

The addition of more than 100 families had nearly tripled the congregation’s size in just a few years, and some worried that it was losing its intimate character.

“It was an anxiety-ridden issue for a long time, but that’s partly because we didn’t understand it,” said Nancy Gertz, whose two-year term as president ended in July. “There were people who felt if we get any bigger, they’re going to be scared to lose the sense of familiarity they have with everybody in the congregation, lose a sense of intimate connection with the rabbi, their peers.”

The establishment of a growth committee and a strategic planning effort have put some of those fears to rest, and led to a more thoughtful growth process, Gertz said.

While some synagogues would kill for that kind of growth spurt, Reconstructionists, who prize a highly participatory form of worship and whose congregations tend to be smaller than those of other movements, see growth as something to be carefully managed so as not to compromise what’s essential to the movement.

“We’re thinking about growth in lots of different ways,” said Carl Sheingold, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the movement’s congregational arm.

Sheingold said the movement’s development is important and there’s greater recognition now of the need to get larger, but not at the expense of what he calls a “critical feature” of Reconstructionism: the willingness to experiment and serve as a kind of laboratory for American Jewish life.

“There may be limits to growth we want to think about,” Sheingold said. It’s “not just a question of running headlong into numbers, but at the same time wanting to grow the movement.”

Studies show that roughly 2 percent of American Jews identify as Reconstructionist, but Reconstructionist federation officials say the number of affiliated households is growing by 6 percent to 10 percent a year.

Currently, 109 congregations affiliate with the federation and a growing number are looking to erect buildings, hire full-time rabbis and become more established, full-service synagogues.

That growth poses a challenge to a movement with a high percentage of smaller congregations and that sees highly participatory services and democratic decision-making as central values. Many Reconstructionist communities spun off from more established synagogues, and some fear a loss of intensive commitment and sense of purpose as new members join a core group of founders.

At Bet Am Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in White Plains, N.Y., members considered limiting new members when the synagogue’s size threatened to become unwieldy, but instead decided to cap the number of bar mitzvahs at 36 a year as a way to control expansion without actually turning anyone away.

“We were worried if we had a bar mitzvah every week, that eventually we’d have two every week, and then all we’d be doing was bar mitzvahs and there would no longer be an identifiable central prayer experience for the congregation,” Rabbi Lester Bronstein said.

Even so, Bronstein’s congregation has grown significantly, from 185 families when he arrived in 1989 to 420 today. That number is considered large for the Reconstructionist movement, but it pales next to Congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades — which, with roughly 1,000 households, is the largest Reconstructionist synagogue in the world.

Like Bet Am Shalom, Kehillat Israel, locally known as K.I., also experienced a period of rapid expansion, doubling its membership since it built a larger facility in 1997.

That growth prompted calls to limit new members, although the synagogue rejected it in favor of other strategies — including what its rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, calls “constant vigilance” to small groups: creating opportunities for individuals to gather in smaller subcommunities around issues of common interest.

“Our key to success is to create communities within communities,” Carr Reuben said. “We recognize the synagogue isn’t just one community. Those communities function on their own level and in their own way.”

Still, Reconstructionists are hardly growth-averse. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the movement’s seminary, is more than halfway through its first development campaign. The $50 million fund-raising drive may be small by the standards of the other denominations, but it’s a milestone for a movement that represents a tiny fraction of American Jewry.

At its biennial convention in Philadelphia in November, the movement introduced a range of new fundraising instruments, including a soon-to-be- launched Web site aimed at educating congregations about opportunities for planned giving.

The federation also hired its first development director, Barry Nove, a further sign of the professionalization of its fund-raising operations.

“The movement is maturing,” said Nove, who joined the federation three months ago. “If we don’t plant seeds now, there won’t be trees later.”

Some of the movement’s younger congregations are aggressively pursuing participants. Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is unique in the movement for marketing her congregation, Kol Tzedek, to young unaffiliated Jews in West Philadelphia.

But more common are the challenges posed by the movement’s passage to a more advanced stage of life. Many at the convention spoke of Reconstructionism’s “maturation” and its evolution from a school of thought spun off of Conservative Judaism by Mordecai Kaplan to a full-fledged movement, with a network of synagogues, a youth group and, as of last year, a summer camp.

To Sheingold, that maturation is evident at least as much in the attitudes of Reconstructionists as in the movement’s structural development.

“The origins of the movement had a lot to do with a desire for a form of religious life in Judaism that was compatible with rationality, with scientific progress,” Sheingold said. “In the last 10 to 15 years there have emerged approaches within Reconstructionism that are more tuned in to what has been called the spiritual aspect of life. You really become mature when you can find ways to reconcile those things and you’re not debating whether it’s about the mind and the heart, but you’re finding ways for it to be both.”

How to Be Jewish 101

There are more than 3,000 synagogues in America. Why do some of them struggle week after week to make a minyan, while others are bustling with energy, song and laughter?

What is the magic that transforms certain shuls into sacred communities that embrace and uplift their congregants, while others just seem to be going through the motions?

These are questions that have been attracting communal attention since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey suggested that many Jews in this country weren’t joining synagogues, and even when they joined, they weren’t going as often as they used to.

Alienation from the synagogue is a worrisome trend because the shul, by default, has assumed a greater role in American Jewish life than ever before.
At a time when the home is no longer the prime source of Jewish education for many, the synagogue has become the central address for American Jewry.

Shepherding Jews through their major life-cycle events, the synagogue is now the chief institutional bulwark against assimilation.

“Synagogues are the place where Jewish identity is formed,” said Dru Greenwood, director of synagogue renewal for the UJA-Federation of New York.

If older generations “came to synagogue to express being Jewish,” today’s attendees “come to learn how to be Jewish,” added Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of the Minneapolis-based program known as STAR — Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal.

Synagogue involvement is important, since it seems to be related to Jewish engagement in other spheres. But membership is only half the story. While 46 percent of American Jews belong to synagogues, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, only a quarter of them show up for services even once a month. In order to reach more Jews more deeply, the synagogue, according to University of Judaism educator and innovator Ron Wolfson, must rethink its mission and become “a sacred community.” That is, a place where Jews can find knowledge, meaning and connection with other Jews.

Home Is Where the Bimah Is

An array of programs aimed at creating “sacred communities” have cropped up since the early 1990s. The vast majority of them are used in non-Orthodox synagogues, although there are some noteworthy exceptions.

Emanating from both national organizations and individual shuls, these programs run the gamut in terms of style and substance. Many of them aim to cultivate a sense of comfort and belonging among congregants — a homey feeling that the term “program” doesn’t capture, according to Rabbi Jonah Pesner of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Boston.

“Congregations are about people, not programs,” said Pesner, who has drawn hundreds of people into social-action work at his synagogue through community-based organizing. He is now trying to incorporate that model throughout the Reform movement. “Synagogues are organized backwards,” he added. Instead of asking people what they want, “we start with programs and wonder why people don’t show up.”

Encouraged to cultivate what one trailblazer calls “a culture of experimentation,” rabbis and other leaders have examined virtually every mode of Jewish expression, from worship to Jewish scholarship to social activism, in an effort to find common ground with congregants and enhance the synagogue experience. Likewise, they have appealed to a wide range of personal interests — from fine arts to music to theater.

“We feel the arts is a wonderful doorway into Judaism,” said Michael Goldberg, program director at the arts center of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, which sponsors lectures, chamber concerts and play readings, most with Jewish themes.
Temple Israel in Memphis has reinvigorated itself by instituting a rousing Friday-night “ruach,” or spirit, service that employs a house band, said the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus, Harry Danziger, president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The music isn’t just a device to lure young people, Danziger added. “Our drummer,” he said, “is a 70-year-old dentist.”

One Size Does Not Fit All

Change-minded synagogues have experimented with shorter services, smaller services, neighborhood-based services, earlier Friday-night services for families who want to eat Shabbat dinner together — even services written by the congregants themselves.

Beth Smith, a longtime member of Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City, Mo., decided the Shabbat service at her shul was “boring,” so she gathered a group of congregants together to write a new one. The resultant lay-led service, called Tefillah 2000, doesn’t always run as smoothly as the main service in the sanctuary. But participants find it appealing precisely because it is homegrown.

Some congregants do without services altogether, preferring instead to worship in other ways.

“I don’t go to shul,” said Beth Barry, a member of the board of The Brotherhood Synagogue in downtown Manhattan.

Rather than attend services, Barry and several other congregants serve free Shabbat lunch to isolated and homeless Jews as part of Synaplex, a national synagogue revitalization program Brotherhood is participating in. “This is what I do,” Barry said on a recent Shabbat as she urges an elderly lunch recipient to “take some of the chicken home.”

“It doesn’t have to be one size fits all,” Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said of synagogue renewal efforts. His shul, Beth El in New Rochelle, N.Y., for example, has a variety of Shabbat offerings, including a learning service and a chavurah, or small fellowship of congregants with common interests.

In fact, the chavurah, which originated in the late 1960s as a boutique-like alternative to institutional worship, has become popular in many large congregations that are seeking to shed their aura of impersonality and encourage individuals to develop bonds of friendship linking them to the larger community.

Congregation Beth Israel, a large Reform congregation in San Diego, instituted its first chavurah two decades ago. Today, it has 28 chavurot linking people by age, family status and personal interests.

“In a big congregation, people feel lost,” said Beth Israel program director Bonnie Graff, who is in charge of matching congregants to an appropriate chavurah. “If you get them into a chavurah as soon as possible after they join, it bonds them. They have people to call and say, ‘let’s go to services tonight.'”

Meanwhile, more synagogues have become “learning congregations,” where Torah study and the practical application of Torah values are considered as integral a component of Jewish involvement as meaningful worship.

Adult learning programs in particular have become more popular.

“If the theme of the 20th century was learning for kids, the 21st century is about learning for adults,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Some synagogues highlight the family nature of Shabbat. Recognizing that many Jewish families do not make Shabbat at home themselves, these shuls are encouraging families to come to the synagogue to worship and learn together.

Thirteen years ago, Congregation Beth Am, a large Reform synagogue located in Los Altos, just south of San Francisco, created Shabbaton, a three-hour Shabbat-afternoon program for entire families. Parents and children study a topic together for an hour, break apart into age-based groups for a second hour of study, and come together again for the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat. Then, each family picks a tzedaka, or charity, project for the coming week.

Seventy families take part in Shabbaton, said congregational president Amy Asin, including her own.

“We’ve built a community of people who know each other, who go out to dinner together,” she said. “Shabbaton is about coming to the congregation as a family and being Jewish, as opposed to learning about being Jewish.”

Leadership Matters

Programs come and go. But experts agree that the key intangible that makes synagogue transformation possible is strong rabbinic and lay leadership — the human catalyst that links the pulpit to the congregation.

“It’s about who’s sitting out there and the ability of whoever is on the bima to connect with them,” Freelander said.

For example, Rabbi Laura Geller at Reform Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, who hosted an African American church at her congregation’s Passover seder and got every participant, Jew and Christian, to commit to a social-action project.
Or Rabbi David Fine at Congregation Beth Israel Abraham and Voliner in Kansas City, Mo., who brought a national synagogue revitalization program, Synaplex, into an Orthodox shul.

Or Rabbi Ron Shulman of Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative congregation in Baltimore with about 1,400 families. Soon after his arrival two years ago, Shulman instituted Shabbat Yachad, a monthly event in which worshippers from all the congregation’s Saturday morning services gather in the sanctuary to watch the kids parade around with the Torah. Then everyone adjourns to their separate minyans, coming together again afterward for a communal lunch.

“People talk to each other,” said congregant Glenn Ulick, who attends Shabbat Yachad with his wife and children. “They never did that before.”

There are also dedicated lay leaders, like Bernie Scheiman at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, N.Y., who delivers a Medicare “tip of the week” on Thursdays during the shul’s senior lunch program. The program is part of Leisure Thursday, a revitalization initiative created nine years ago by the synagogue’s rabbi, a congregant and a handful of lay leaders.

Consider also lay leader Mona Yaguda Ross, who joined Reform Temple Shalom in Newton, Mass., 10 years ago. Her expectations were, she said, “fairly low.” She wanted “a place where my family could be comfortable.” She quickly became very involved. Last year, she headed up a group that wrote its own curriculum for an in-house leadership development class, which will debut this fall.

Her volunteer work has, she said, transformed her relationship to her synagogue.
“Temple Shalom is my home, it nurtures me and I nurture it,” she added. “Each time you get involved, you have more ownership and you meet more people. You develop a depth of friendship you can’t get by just dropping off your kids in the parking lot.”

Tajikistan Razes Its Sole Synagogue

Tajikistan’s government has begun demolishing the Central Asian nation’s only synagogue, offering in exchange a plot of land far from where most Jewish community members live.

The work started last month. So far, demolition crews have destroyed part of the synagogue’s property, including the mikvah (ritual bath) and classroom space, according to sources in Dushanbe, the capital city. The synagogue’s yard was turned into a dump for the refuse.

According to local residents, the road to the synagogue was damaged and people now have to walk over demolition debris to get to services. The remaining part of the old, one-story building is slated for demolition later this year.

The conflict over Dushanbe’s 100-year-old synagogue began several years ago. In May 2004, Dushanbe city authorities ordered the Jewish community to vacate the synagogue so the site could be cleared for a Palace of Nations and national park. Authorities rejected the community’s proposal to give the synagogue a facelift and include it in the new architectural complex.

After negotiations with the city, the Jewish community was given a plot of land in a remote area to build a new synagogue, something the small, aging and impoverished community could not afford to do.

Dushanbe’s Jewish community is estimated at about 400 people, primarily Bukharian Jews. Most are elderly, and about 200 regularly attended services in the old synagogue. Aside from religious services and some charitable activities, the community runs a small Sunday school.

Community representatives said they do not believe anti-Semitism is behind the demolition plan. Instead, some sources indicate the community had poor relations with the government and could not reach a viable solution with city authorities.

Two years ago, Lev Leviev, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) of the former Soviet Union and head of the World Congress of Bukharian Jews, called on Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov to scrap the synagogue demolition plan. His proposal, he said, would not have affected the construction of a palace and park.

A federation source said this week that the group condemned the synagogue demolition and has suggested that city authorities might give the Jewish community space for its worship services and other activities.

The federation, a Chabad-led umbrella group that has built most of the new synagogues in the former Soviet Union, normally does not undertake such projects for communities with less than 1,000 members.

Dushanbe’s Jewish population is only a fraction of the once-numerous community, made up of indigenous Bukharian Jews and a large number of World War II refugees, Ashkenazi Jews from European parts of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, most left for Russia, Israel and the United States during a civil war between rival local clans following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The FJC said it would monitor the situation and try to find a solution with the local government.


The Lowdown on Ritual and Worship

“Why are Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur so important to my Jewish partner? He almost never attends services the rest of the year, isn’t observant and doesn’t even know what he believes about God. Yet, at this time of year, he insists on attending services. What’s the big deal with these holidays?”

There are both “official” and “unofficial” answers to these questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the unofficial explanations are often the more significant ones. The official answers (to which I’ll return shortly) speak in terms like judgment, sin, repentance, life and death. The unofficial answers have something to do with the complicated puzzle of American Jewish identity.

For many Jews in this country, attending High Holiday services (particularly, the first evening service of Yom Kippur) is a way of affirming that we still are part of the Jewish people, a way of demonstrating that we haven’t yielded to assimilation or broken the ancient chain of the Jewish people’s survival and continuity. Being with our people at services says: No matter how far we may have drifted from active involvement with Judaism, we’re still proud to be Jews. We still care about being Jewish — even if we’re not very religious and are not sure how we feel about the content of those services. Many times, our participation also says that we’re still connected with the values of parents and grandparents, for whom our attendance (or absence!) is a very powerful symbol.

Notice that these “unofficial” answers have little to do with theology or even with the religious significance of the prayers and rituals. That’s because for many American Jews, their “Jewishness” is not first and foremost a matter of religion. Many American Jews will tell you that their Jewish identity is primarily ethnic or cultural or communal. They speak about Jewish holiday customs or Jewish ethical values or a feeling of connection they associate with being Jewish that seems, to them, to be somewhat separate from the Jewish religion. What’s important for understanding this High Holiday commitment is that in the mind of your loved one, the urgency of attending services may not be primarily about the religious significance of the ritual.

Nonetheless, if you will be joining your partner to sit through an unusually long and crowded synagogue service, you might want to know a little more about what to expect and what the ritual means officially. For most Jews, the term, “High Holidays” is the title given to a period of 10 days that stretch between the holy day of Rosh Hashanah — which means, literally, head of the year — and Yom Kippur — the day of atonement. Both holy days have their earliest roots in the Torah, although the name, “Rosh Hashanah,” was not used until significantly later in Jewish history.

Rosh Hashanah ushers in the Jewish New Year (on our calendar, the coming year is 5766) and with it a period of profound self-examination and repentance. It is, therefore, a day of joyous celebration balanced against a humbling and solemn consideration of how well (or poorly) we have used the gift of the previous year. Tradition teaches that God judges each of us individually and our community as a whole on Rosh Hashanah. Tradition also teaches that the result of God’s judgment will be a matter of life and death (either figurative or literal, depending on your theological orientation). Our prayers, songs and rituals, therefore, focus on confessing the ways in which we’ve gone astray, asking forgiveness for occasions on which we’ve missed the mark, and committing ourselves to acts of repentance (teshuvah).

We go through this process collectively. We ask for forgiveness and repent almost exclusively in the first person plural! This use of “we” vs. “I” reflects Judaism’s emphasis on community. Our first concern is how well the Jewish community as a whole has fulfilled its covenant with God. Our first responsibility is to live in such a way that we help the community be the kind of holy people God has challenged us to become. Of course, our Rosh Hashanah observances also celebrate the possibility of a new beginning that comes with the new year — God’s gift to us if we engage in this cleansing process with sincerity.

Some distinctive observances to watch and listen for on Rosh Hashanah: the extensive ritual for sounding of the shofar during the morning service, which is mandated by the Torah and serves as a deeply moving call to renewed awareness and action; eating apples and honey for a sweet year, and greeting others by expressing the hope that they will be judged for a shanah tovah. Depending on the congregation you join, you also may participate in tashlich ceremony in which we symbolically cast away our sins by throwing bread crumbs (or other, less traditional things such as little stones) into a body of water.

Yom Kippur begins in the evening 10 days later. Its mood is one of deep solemnity, contrition and humility. According to tradition, the judgments begun on Rosh Hashanah are sealed and finalized on Yom Kippur. Because Leviticus (23:27) instructs that self-affliction should be part of this day dedicated to repentance, most Jews will observe a complete fast for at least part of the day. In fact, many will spend almost the entire day at the synagogue engaged in fasting, prayer, reflection and repentance. The observance ends with the setting of the sun, a final sounding of the shofar — dramatically marking the end of this intensely spiritual day and as a reminder of ancient practice in the Jerusalem Temple–and then, gatherings to break the fast together.

Yom Kippur’s opening evening service centers on an ancient formula known as Kol Nidre, which absolves us of vows and oaths we may take between this Yom Kippur and the next one. I suspect that the prayer is revered as much for its haunting and powerful music as for its somewhat complicated message.

While Yom Kippur services vary, all will focus on communal confessions and introspection, requests for forgiveness and the effort to obtain perspective on our present lives by placing them in the context of the past. More specifically, synagogues hold a special Yizkor service to honor loved ones who have died and to gain important insights from both their lives and deaths. Many synagogues also honor the martyrs of the Jewish people throughout history and, again, seek to learn important lessons from the humbling example of their sacrifices. Then, as Yom Kippur draws to a close, the observance concludes with the Neilah, or locking, service — a final chance to repent before the symbolic gates of repentance are closed and locked.

Of course, there are many interesting and important details for which I haven’t had room here. For now, let me be one of the first to wish you a year that is healthy, happy and fulfilling. Shanah tovah!

Article courtesy

Chaplain Crosses the Line for the Cross


Military chaplains have a proud history in the U.S. military, and most of them uphold the mission of the Chaplain Corps in the various services to America’s troops and to ensure their right to free exercise of religion.

Unfortunately, the role that Army Chaplain Capt. Andy Taylor played while deployed with the 6th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery in Iraq strayed from that duty.

There are people who serve in the military of all faiths, and it is up to the chaplain of a unit to make sure that everyone is able to worship the way they desire. But when the audience becomes a captive one (because peace turns to war or life becomes death), the job of the chaplain becomes more complicated but must still remain neutral.

Regrettably, Taylor cast aside his neutrality and turned a group of 400 mourning men of many faiths into his own Southern Baptist congregation. He continues to boast about his crowning achievement of baptizing a Jew in Iraq.

After an ambush took the life of a medic in the battalion, Taylor, a Southern Baptist minister, went beyond the duties of chaplain and made himself the arbiter of salvation for a captive audience who had just withstood the rigors of war and the tragedy of loss. While members of the unit sought comfort from Taylor, he was busy telling men who had lost a comrade and who were questioning their own mortality that “there is only one way to be saved” and that is through Jesus Christ.

The Baptist Press’ Dana Williamson reported in the Jan. 13 edition that “the only difference in being a chaplain, rather than pastor of a church, is that Taylor’s congregation is nearly 1,000 soldiers and their families.”

Regrettably, both Williamson and Taylor have a contemptible understanding of a military chaplain.

As soon as Taylor crossed the line from spiritual supporter to Baptist proselytizer, he violated his duty to allow the men of his unit to exercise their religion.

It is painful to lose a friend or a fellow soldier. I’ve experienced such a loss, but the chaplain who presided over the service did not tell the Jews that the only way to have a spiritual connection to God was to reject our faith and to embrace his. But that is what Taylor did when the Jewish soldier went to him for guidance.

In boasting about the conversion of the Jewish soldier, he told Williamson that he used “Old Testament Scriptures to show him how he needed a relationship with Jesus.”

Religious conversion should be conducted when a man is of a clear mind and without the pressure of battle. To do it at the barrel of a gun, when a man lost a fellow soldier, violates every tenet of fairness and could very well be regretted by this same soldier for a lifetime. At the very least, Taylor should have assured the soldier the ability to speak to a rabbi before his impulsive conversion.

It is estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 Jewish servicemen are deployed in the Persian Gulf region today. Of the 24 Jewish chaplains in the Army, only five were sent to fulfill the needs of what could arguably be the neediest of the Army’s servicemen.

Jews are a minority population in any military unit and those most neglected by their commanders. Important holidays, such as Passover and Yom Kippur, are remembered by memos issued by generals in units where Christian holidays and 96-hour passes are coveted.

It is the responsibility of the chaplain to assure that Jewish servicemen have the ability to exercise their faith, particularly in the Middle East, where Jewish servicemen are scattered across a vast area of land and where some Jewish people never see a rabbi.

Sadly, Taylor abused the captive audience he had and the trust that so many place in the chaplain of a unit to explain away the tragedy, and to answer the unanswerable question about how any God could allow the horrors that befall any unit in battle.

Taylor makes no apologies for his conduct. In fact, he brags about it as if there were a scorecard for conversions in chaplain locker rooms. He has a right to worship any way he chooses, but when he is acting as a chaplain to an entire battalion of men at their moment of loss, his right is secondary to his duty to ensure that hasty decisions and coerced conversions are not done in the name of a God that a Jewish member of the military might reject in peacetime.

I reject the notion of the removal of chaplains from the military, but I am positively opposed to a chaplain recruiting from a captive audience, only to have his conversions become fodder for The Baptist Press’ recruiting efforts.

Steve Yuhas is a columnist and radio talk show host on KOGO-AM 600 in San Diego. He may be reached at or

Divine Wedding

Years ago, my husband and I climbed the alleged Mount Sinai, the Perseus shower streaked the Egyptian night sky with shooting stars.

At the summit, as God pulled the sun up from the fragrant desert floor, Jonathan held up a ring and proposed.

It is written in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), "Every day a voice goes forth from Sinai." That dawn, I heard the reverberation of a sacred voice in the words, "Would you be willing to spend you life with me…."

The revelation at Mount Sinai was a wedding. It was an eternal, loving joining between God and Israel. The story that we read is but a veil covering a radiance we must allow ourselves to know.

This Torah portion, Ki Tisa, begins with Moses taking a census. God chooses Betzalel to be the artisan of the Tabernacle. Moses climbs Mount Sinai, shrouded in mist and mystery, while the Israelites below build their golden idol. When Moses sees this he breaks the stone tablets and grinds up the golden calf, making the Israelites drink it. Moses ascends the mountain a second time. When he descends his face is so radiant he must wear a veil.

But when a light wind blows from the west, the mist is disturbed and we see the radiant face just beneath the veil of text.

Moses was the master alchemist. He climbed the mountain and hid in the cleft of the tzur (rock). He spoke with the philosopher’s stone face to face. He held the two tablets of prime matter in his hands. When he ground up the calf into a fine powder, stirred it into water and held it up into the air — a brilliant liquid shimmering with flakes of gold — he created a dizzyingly potent potion, a love potion, an elixir of life. A toast!

We drink of it. Our eyes are opened to see beneath the veil.

Ki Tisa is not about frenzied idol worship, but the detailed description of a spectacular wedding feast between God and the people Israel.

God the lover and Moses the beloved take a census of who shall be invited, and they make a long guest list. Betzalel is singled out to decorate the tent, arrange the flowers and adorn the feast.

Time passes and we find ourselves in the whirl of the banquet festivity. There is dancing and singing, and in the very center, what seems to be a golden calf, but it is the glittering pile of precious wedding gifts. High on the bima, under a chupah of cloud, God presents Moses with the marriage contract, our ketuba. One commentator points out that verse 31:18 which is translated, "When He finished (ke’challoto) speaking with him, He gave Moses the two tablets…" could also be read "As his bride (also ke’challoto) speaking with him." Some commentators understand Israel to be the groom and Torah the bride. Moses turns around in the chupah, and faces the guests. He lifts the contract for all to see and then smashes the glass beneath his foot, or breaks a plate as in the traditional tennaim (engagement) ceremony.

Now it is time for yichud, when husband and wife are alone together for the first time. In Exodus 33:12-23, we read excerpts from a conversation between God and Moses, sounding particularly romantic: "Pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. You have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name. Oh let me behold Your presence! I will make all My goodness pass before you."

And God’s hand reaches out for Moses.

Moses comes down from the mountain blushing, a crimson glow in his cheeks. When he went in to the tent to meet our love, he removed his veil, so only God should see his glowing face, but when he left the tent, he lowered the veil.

When the potion wore off the children of Israel looked around them. Once again they were in the desert, long dragged-out footsteps stretching behind them. And they said to one another, "Love is in this place and we did not know it. What have we been doing all of this time? Where have we been? Is this the desert, or is it Gan Eden? Are we lost and alone, or are we this moment caught up in a fierce union with God? Are we wandering with sandals filled with dust, or are we soaring on eagle’s wings? Is it Purim or Yom Kippur?"

We look from one to the other and wonder what is the face beneath the face we wear every day? Sometimes the beauty of the other is as allusive as a sunray on the water. On Purim we celebrate the masquerade of living. Now, we discard the masks and unlid our eyes. We seek the radiant face beneath the veil.

Messy world. Angry, idolatrous world. Tired, hungry, sick and sorry world. But if we could lift the sooty, splattered veil….

This thing between God and Israel, it is not that we are in covenant. It is that we are in love. Every day a voice comes forth from Sinai and begs your answer, "Would you be willing to spend your life with Me?"


Zoë Klein is associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah.


After The New Republic’s Gregg Easterbrook wrote in his online column that Jewish executives in Hollywood "worship money above all else," he apologized.

Every group in some way lives up to its stereotypes, and even knows that about itself — otherwise there’d be no specific humor within each tribe or dismay about the tribe within the tribe. Tribes and nations have opposing codes, and smaller groups within bigger nations or cultures will always suffer for the differences. None of us live without summary judgments of other tribes, in the largest sense of that word. The scapegoat mechanism is biological, and a civilized person, knowing this, doesn’t bring his uglier opinions forward, because he knows that our summary judgments belong to the same rough instinct as road rage. We feel it, we control it, and sometimes we slip.

The problem with summary judgment is that for every particle of truth, the scapegoat mechanism uses the lie to protect us from the mirror. This is called projection, or as the founder of Christianity said, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own?"

As far as I know, Halliburton and the big defense contractors who got the no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq are controlled by Christians, but no one would say of them that Christians are warmongering profiteers bent on destroying America’s middle class to immiserate all but a few million families, who will then refeudalize the world. Or no one would say of Disney that because some of the largest holders of Disney stock, the Bass and Disney families, are Christians, we can say that Christians exploit the Jews’ undeniably fluid understanding of numbers to make the Christians rich and give some Jews the illusion that financial partnership equals social acceptance. Then, when the Jews are no longer needed, like, say, Andrew Fastow at Enron, the Christians hang them, or even, as with Dennis Kozlowski, the old-line WASPs use the crimes of anyone outside of their tribe to obscure their own role in the conspiracy. No one would say of them that Christians worship money, just because of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

So who is guilty for Columbine? Blaming mass culture for destroying society isn’t new. Blaming the Jews for the destructive mass culture is also not new. Read "Mein Kampf." "Scream" and "Kill Bill" were written and directed by Christians. Is Easterbrook saying that Wes Craven and Quentin Tarantino were abducted in the night by Jews, their blood drained for the matzah and replaced with monster-movie Jew juice? Or that Christians, going back to ancient Rome, have an uncontrollable lust for images of blood, which the Jews exploit?

What is unforgivable in this is the phrase "worship money above all else."

Some may think that Easterbrook absolves himself of anti-Semitism with his aside that there are Christian executives who also worship money. But framed as it is, he puts the Jews in first position at the blood-soaked money altar. We started it. When you say the Jews worship money, when you say that Jewish executives worship money above all else, when you say that Jews don’t care about the screams of the innocent, you’re talking like a Nazi.

Easterbrook wrote: "Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice."

Otherwise, what?

Adding to the distress, Leon Wieseltier, his editor at The New Republic wrote, "Insofar as Gregg’s comments impute Jewish motives for everything that Jews do, insofar as they suggest that everything any Jew does is intrinsically a Jewish thing, they are objectively anti-Semitic. But Gregg Easterbrook is not an anti-Semite."

Wieseltier is wrong. Writing without an editor, or cautious self-censorship, Easterbrook wrote what he really thinks: that the Jews control everything, and that the Jews, for their own good, should remember what happened in Germany. There is no support possible for Easterbrook, the damage has been done and the Jews have been hurt. The apology is not accepted.

Author Michael Tolkin is the co-writer of “Changing Lanes,” which has been named the Best Picture of the Year by Catholics In Media. His most recent novel, “Under Radar,” is published by Atlantic Books.

Finding Community

Synagogue is never mentioned in the Torah. — Leo Rosten

Like many unaffiliated Angelenos between 30 and marriage, I face a problem every Rosh: How to benefit from this diverse Jewish community while remaining a sort of post-sect/noninstitutionalized member of the family. Intending to find and feel the most righteous things I can, I plan on attending four or five houses of worship over the 10 days of atunement (a word I heard from a New Yorker suggesting letting 3,000 shofars boom at Ground Zero as a wake-up cry).

Where can a single, grazing Jew-without-portfolio go to seek some awe and a cheap place to pray? The first of Tishrei will find me among redwoods in a sloping garden behind the Zen Center of Los Angeles on Normandie Avenue. A shul grows in Koreatown!

The rabbi there is given to delightfully long, serene silences. He lets the smell of the damp trees and a paper handout with a Bal Shem Tov story awaken something within us. What is it about the “Avinu Malkeinu” that taps into our collective unconscious so sacredly? Family memories overwhelm me as the rabbi talks about 2,600 years ago, when Jeremiah saw a friend crying after the destruction by the Babylonians and exhorted to him: “You have your life!”

I wonder what the neighborhood thinks when they hear the blast of the shofar, but I don’t get paranoid about it. As a breeze blows through the Normandie garden, women pull shawls over the heads of their babies, making them look like tiny Muslims. I’ll take that as a good sign.

On Tashlich I like to take part in an annual tradition on the Santa Monica-Venice border. Everyone on the Westside goes down to the sea to cast off bread I believe they buy at Trader Joe’s. They chant for the great ocean (“Oseh ha yam hagadol!”) and watch the gulls try to grab the hunks before the waves send thick, gooey globs — “my sins?” — back to shore. One can see chaverim from different Santa Monica houses of worship gathered on the beach north to Malibu. Imagine 100 years ago celebrating here like this. What a shtetl! Do the rituals make a community? In Jewish tradition, the community is responsible as long as even one sinner is left on earth.

Watching families dancing, singing and picnicking on the sand, I will desire the living drama of a Brechtian Jewish wife. I’ll covet one, even. Kids maybe, too.

The 3rd of Tishri is called the Fast of Gedaliah, but I don’t know what that means so will no doubt not observe. On the 9th, I’ll be at the Directors’ Guild Association on Sunset Boulevard for Kol Nidre. Theater One is usually full, so in Theater Two they beam in the rabbi on a 50-foot screen.

The Directors’ Guild influence gives the whole presentation a more dramatic flair. Just the right amount of over-the-top Hollywood progressive prayer to tickle your Yiddishkayt, or set your tuchus on edge, if you know what I mean. Announcements for seminars at Esalen (“Course books are available in the lobby”) can be way too-L.A. for all but the most nonpraying customer.

For Neilah I like to attend the Laugh Factory, just a breezy walk down Sunset Boulevard. A true “only in Los Angeles” — comedy club converted into synagogue.

Hot and packed with the poor and the humorous, the miskayt and the unaffiliated, it looks like Prague in the 1400s and smells like old sugary club hooch stuck to your shoe. The macher of the place stands in the back like my uncles Louie and Willie Kimmell used to stand at the back of their moviehouse in Royal Oak outside Detroit. There may be one joke circulating about “Bush Hashanah,” but most remains appropriately solemn and spirited and actually quite rejoicing. A folksy, guitar-accompanied “Aleinu” usually gets everyone going.

High Holiday prayer is a mix of faith and memory, openness and solace.

There will be stirring Holocaust readings, and at least one rabbi will lay into us pretty good. One may say the message of Yom Kippur is: “We are our own best destiny!” Another says Jews attend services every New Year “with so many questions.” I disagree. I think I go because this is where I know I’ll find answers. This year I can add to the Book of Life instead of just showing up on page 5764. Otherwise, why bother showing up at all? That would be so 5763, wouldn’t it?

Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller on public radio’s “All Things Considered” and “The Savvy Traveler.”

Are You There, God?

While the pain of the Sept. 11 attacks still churns like the smoke and dust that continue to rise out of Ground Zero, eight weeks has done something to begin our healing process.

Some of the rawness of our national wound is beginning to abate, allowing us to use the clarity and insight of the still-sharp lens of grief to encounter the big questions about God and humanity that the terrorists threw into our faces.

The questions, of course, are hardly new: How can we square the lethal expression of mass evil with our notion of a compassionate God? Were the attacks the hand of God, God’s withdrawal from humanity, or simply the nature of God’s universe?

Certainly Holocaust theology has dealt with these questions, and as a people the Jews have a too-long record that has enabled us to retain faith in God in the face of unspeakable evil.

"The questions are perennial, but each new instance of evil makes them poignant and powerful," says Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple.

Our grappling with the universe is augmented by the fact that Sept. 11’s ties to religion and God are manifold — some overt, some subtle. The terrorists were acting in the name of God. The Sept. 11 anthem has become "God Bless America." Hundreds of thousands turned to houses of worship in the immediate aftermath, and whether they did so for God or for the comfort of community, what they found was God.

For Jews especially, the timing of the events brought the theological questions into immediate and sharp focus. Within days of Sept. 11, many of us recited the words "Who shall live and who shall die … who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented." Many of us proclaimed our trust in the universe by sitting in flimsy sukkahs with the image of crumbling concrete icons of power still fresh in our minds.

Rabbis and community leaders across the ideological spectrum report that people seem to be yearning for a crystallization of what might have been, until now, a murky lay theology.

"When you are a rabbi, you think you are talking about God all the time, and I assume that my congregation knows what I believe about God because I feel I speak about it often," says Reform Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. But after she addressed theology directly in her Rosh Hashana sermon, the reaction was intense.

"I think that people just listened differently this year," Geller says.

Her High Holy Day sermon and the private conversations she has had with congregants reflect her personal theology and understanding of God.

"God is not in control of what we do to each other. We are responsible," she said in her Rosh Hashana sermon. "The God I believe in doesn’t write in a book of life or death, doesn’t decree who will live and who will die. No, the God I believe in animates a material universe where everything that lives eventually dies…. But the God I believe in has given human beings a way to make meaning out of lives that are finite."

That crashing airplanes into buildings was a result of human free will is a widely accepted belief. The questions arise when we examine the interaction between free will and God’s role in the universe.

"God has set up the world in such a way that people are asked to be good, even though in the end it might not save them," Wolpe says. "If you say, ‘I’ll be good, and don’t let anything bad happen,’ what kind of goodness is that? That’s not goodness, it’s prudence."

Evil acts, then, are a necessary result of God’s letting the universe function as it must.

The outcome of human free will might indeed further the Divine will, says Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

"Human freedom is one of the building blocks for God’s plan," Artson says. "We make choices, and God uses those choices to achieve a certain outcome."

In this case, perhaps God’s hand can be seen in the overwhelming outpouring of goodness.

"There were four evil acts, and then there have been hundreds of thousands of acts of goodness," Artson says. "That is where I tell students to look for the hand of God."

Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles takes it a step further, saying that the national and international introspection that has followed Sept. 11 was not only a byproduct of the terror, but perhaps its very purpose — and a sign of God’s love for humanity.

"We live very drowsy and comfortable lives, and the Almighty comes along and blows the shofar and says, ‘You’ve got to wake up,’" says Braverman, noting that the event touched every human being on the planet. "God acts through events in the world to move us to live lives that matter, that take account of the covenant and take account of the meaning of Jewish life. That seems to me consistent with a God who loves us…. I think it’s an expression of God’s love that he calls us to accounting. To permit us to sleep our lives away would be indifference, not love."

While Braverman says he cannot answer whether God had pegged each person who died to meet his or her end that way on that day, he does think it was part of a Divine plan.

"In my own life, the most important discoveries, the most important growth as a human being has come through the greatest pain and terror," he says.

About 10 years ago, his now healthy 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

"I believe if I make of my life something that matters, it will be because of the door opened through my daughter’s illness," he says.

But other Orthodox rabbis — who share Braverman’s belief that God acts through history and that everything that happens on Earth is part of a Divine plan — are reluctant to ascribe universal meaning to any event.

"I think it’s OK in a small setting for a person to say, ‘This is what it’s done for me,’ and everyone has an obligation to take the events of Sept. 11 and internalize them," says Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, community leader for Yeshivat Yavneh. "But to dictate a specific message can become burdensome and onerous. It is counterproductive to speculate."

In fact, Korobkin is uncomfortable with humans trying to ascribe purpose to God, because God is by definition unknowable.

"We will never truly be able to understand how God works, because the human mind is confined to thinking in a four-dimensional universe [three dimensions plus time], but God works outside that box," says Korobkin.

It is that acknowledgment that allows Korobkin to live with seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in the human understanding of God.

Orthodox theologians have spent centuries grappling with the notion that human free choice coexists with a God who is omniscient, who approves of everything and intends everything that occurs in the world.

Likewise have theologians tried to explain evil in a belief system where it is taken as axiomatic that God is compassionate and just.

So how to explain not only terror attacks but birth defects and natural disasters?

"This world is the corridor to the next world. When something happens here, we only see the tip of the iceberg," Korobkin says, offering one of several classical explanations. "So if a person has a short life in this world, or a tragic life, that is really a small portion of the totality of that person’s existence."

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, associate director of Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says even our limited vision of events in this world hampers our ability to judge.

"We are horrified at what happened, but how many others might there have been?" he asks, pointing to other terrorist attempts that were foiled. "Relative to the apparent security in which we live, we were shocked out of the blue. But relative to what people might want to do, maybe it’s a miracle that more things don’t happen," Etshalom says.

Rabbi Stephen Robbins of Congregation N’vay Shalom in Beverly Hills says that in Kabbalistic thinking, evil — the Sitra Achra — is a necessary and Godly part of the continuing process of creation.

"Everything in this world is an expression of God and the will of the Holy One, including darkness and evil," he says. "But evil has an intent, has a purpose, and that purpose is to challenge us to take care of and to protect the presence of the Holy One in this world."

Too much evil blocks the light of the presence of God, he says, eclipsing God. Nonetheless, God has built in a remedy for an evil that results from judging each other harshly.

"The principal of judgment, of strictness, is always mitigated in Kaballah by that of rachamim, of compassion," he says. "If you cannot see that everyone has been created in the image of God, you can’t see that you are in the image of God either, and then we are all separate and all alone, all struggling for survival instead of working to fulfill a purpose and a goal. And when we are locked in survival mentality — as the world is now — nobody survives."

That balance of judgment and compassion cannot just be internal, Robbins says, but must be worldwide.

"It’s so easy to demonize people and create devils who are separate from the Divine human reality in which we live," he says. But we must not let our instinct for compassion be quashed.

"Compassion is not forgiveness, compassion is understanding — understanding how sick these people are, how profoundly twisted in their own rage and pain and darkness they are," he says. "It doesn’t in any way excuse or mitigate what they have done, nor does it distance them from judgment and punishment. But it teaches us that the very thing that twisted them is alive and well and working on others in the world, and those we must heal before they do it again and again," Robbins says.

Wolpe agrees that Judaism has a "very palatable sense that there is evil in the world and that … it has be fought," he says. "We should be very grateful that we are in a powerful nation and that we have the capacity to fight evil now."

While individuals can use this opportunity to examine their role in this world, Wolpe says, we should not let the existence of evil imperil our sense of Divine mercy, whether we attribute it to humanity gone bad or to our limited scope of understanding the Divine, or to a larger picture that includes an afterlife.

"I’m convinced this world is both random and unfair; about that I have no question," he says. "But I also believe that God is compassionate and just, and how that gets sorted out is, fortunately, not my responsibility to figure out — because I can’t."

New Stamp on Service

Late last summer at Adat Ari El, when work was going on in earnest to craft the new One Shabbat Morning service, Rabbi Moshe Rothblum recalled feeling some resentment at having to drop his High Holiday preparations to attend a One Shabbat Morning meeting.

“But afterwards, I would be so rejuvenated and energized by the whole process of talking about it,” Rothblum said. “It had an impact on everybody.”

That impact has spread throughout the year, as the monthly service at the Valley Village Conservative synagogue draws between 600 and 1,000 people to a worship and study experience that puts an innovative stamp on traditional prayers and tunes.

“The idea was to find a way to build a bridge between traditional chazzanut to more innovative melodies that have been popularized by singers like Craig Taubman and Debbie Friedman, in the hopes that it will make services more accessible for a new generation of shul-goers,” said Lorin Fife, chairman of the board at Adat Ari El.

The service, with some original compositions, was developed through a collaborative effort involving Rothblum, Taubman, Associate Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, Cantor Ira Bigeleisen, lay people and outside experts in synagogue transformation and the cantorate.

The result is a service that begins at 9 a.m. with Torah study, usually by a guest scholar, and after a short coffee break at about 9:45 a.m., with the music beckoning people to join. The hall where the service takes place is set up with a the bimah in the center, so that the clergy — one of the rabbis, Taubman and Bigeleisen or another cantor — are closer to congregants.

Taubman leads a full band, and portions of the service are abbreviated. The Torah processional is festive and participatory, and the Torah reading consists of one aliyah — usually a group aliyah. During the musaf service, someone shares aloud a personal spiritual journey.

The service takes about two hours and is followed by a kiddush.

Fife says the service, originally meant to attract young families, has blossomed to appeal to a wide swath of the community, surpassing all expectations. Senior citizens, empty-nesters, teenagers and kids in soccer uniforms all participate in the service, funded with seed money by the Jewish Community Foundation and the Stone Family Foundation of Baltimore.

“The kind of response we’ve gotten from people has been very moving,” Rothblum said. “We have a lot of our members who come to it who said they ordinarily don’t come on Shabbat morning, and this has reconnected them to the Jewish prayer experience. And we have people who are not affiliated with any congregation who have come to join in with all their strength in making it a meaningful experience.”

For traditionalists who prefer the kind of service they have always known and loved, the main sanctuary still holds regular services every week. Bar and bat mitzvah celebrations also take place in the main sanctuary.

But the style of One Shabbat Morning is also having an impact in the sanctuary, where Rothblum and Bigeleisen are working to integrate some of the new melodies. Rothblum says they are also looking into ways to bring the clergy physically closer to the congregants in the main sanctuary.

Word about One Shabbat Morning has spread throughout the country, with synagogues calling Adat Ari El for guidance. A presentation at the Conservative movement’s Cantor’s Assembly this year won rave reviews. Fife says they are also working on putting together a CD with the music, to be distributed nationwide.

Los Angeles rabbis and synagogue leaders will have a chance to see what all the hype is about next week, when the One Shabbat Morning leaders put on a demonstration service for members of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California at the Jewish Federation offices on June 10. (Due to space considerations, this program is not open to the public.)

Rothblum is eager to share what he has learned with colleagues.

“I see this as something that has really strengthened the entire congregation,” he said.

“It shows that we are aware |that people have different needs, and we are not trying

to do everything the same way and have one approach for everybody, because that is not going to work — not today.”

The next One Shabbat Morning service is Saturday, June 10, at Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. Torah study begins at 9 a.m., services begin at 9:45 a.m.

For more information, call

(818) 766-9426.

Congregational Directory

The listings below are for Jewish congregations within the geographic area of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Congregations in areas adjacent to Los Angeles Federation can be found by calling neighboring federations:

San Gabriel Valley: Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys at (626) 967-3656;

Southeastern Los Angeles County: Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County at (562) 426-7601, ext. 1314 or 1008;

The Internet is a great tool to use in screening synagogues. Many, many congregations have Web sites, as do the national offices of the major Jewish movements (which have links to those synagogues with Web sites). Also, local movement offices may be able to help you find a congenial synagogue:

Chabad Lubavitch West Coast Headquarters (310) 208-7511;

Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (323) 933-7491;

Union of American HebrewCongregations (Reform) (323) 653-9962;

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (310) 229-9000;

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (818) 986-0907;

Key to denominations:

A denominational label means that a congregation is formally affiliated with a Jewish religious movement OR that it generally follows the philosophy and worship style of that movement.

(R) Reform

(C) Conservative

(O) Orthodox

(T) Traditional (Orthodox-style service without separation of men and women)

(S) Sephardic, including Persian and Middle Eastern congregations

(Rec.) Reconstructionist

(Ren.) Jewish Renewal

(I) Independent

Westside South

Adat Shalom (C) Rancho Park area: (310) 475-4985;

Temple Akiba (R) Culver City: (310) 398-5783;

Temple Beth Torah (C) Mar Vista: (310) 398-4536

Bais Chabad of Simcha Monica (O) Santa Monica: (310) 829-5620

B’nai Horin (Ren.) West Los Angeles: (310) 559-0587;

Chabad of Cheviot Hills (O): (310) 837-8083;

Chabad of Marina Del Rey (O): (310) 578-6000

The Chai Center (O): (310) 391-7995;

Temple Isaiah (R) Rancho Park: (310) 277-2772;

Kahal Joseph (S) Westwood area: (310) 474-0559

Kehillat Ma’arav (C) Santa Monica: (310) 829-0566;

Cong. Mishkon Tephilo (C) Venice: (310) 392-3029;

The Movable Minyan (I): (310) 285-3317

Nessah Educational & Cultural Center (S/O) Santa Monica: (310) 453-2218

Cong. N’vay Shalom (I): (323) 463-7728, (310) 535-1617

OhrHaTorah (I) Rancho Park area: (310) 278-9049, (818) 769-8223;

Pacific Jewish Center (O) Santa Monica: (310) 392-8749;

Sha’arei Am (R) Santa Monica; (310) 453-4276:

Sholem Community (I) Culver City: (818) 760-6625

Society for Humanistic Judaism (I): (213) 891-4303;

Westwood Kehilla (O); (310) 441-5288:

Young Israel of Santa Monica (O): (310) 314-3888

Young Israel of Venice (O): (310) 450-7541

Westside North

Beth Shir Shalom (R) Santa Monica: (310) 453-3361

Chabad of Bel Air (O): (310) 475-5311;

Chabad of Brentwood (O): (310) 826-4453

Chabad on Montana (O) Santa Monica: (310) 394-5699

Chabad of Malibu (O): (310) 456-6581

Chabad of North Beverly Hills (O): (310) 859-3948

Chabad of Pacific Palisades (O): (310) 454-7783

Temple Emanuel (R) Beverly Hills: (310) 274-6388;

Kehillat Israel (Rec.) Pacific Palisades: (310) 459-2328;

Leo Baeck Temple (R) Bel Air: (310) 476-2861;

Magen David of Beverly Hills (S/O): (310) 285-9957

Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue (Rec.): (310) 456-2178;

Sephardic Jewish Center/Persian Chabad (S/O) Beverly Hills: (310) 855-0555; (310) 275-6920

Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel (S/T) Westwood: (310) 475-7311

Sinai Temple (C) Westwood: (310) 474-1518

Stephen S. Wise Temple (R) Bel Air: (310) 476-8561

Synagogue for the Performing Arts (I): (310) 472-3500

University Synagogue (R) Brentwood: (310) 472-1255;

Westwood Village Synagogue (O): (310) 470-0080

Young Israel of North Beverly Hills (O): (310) 203-0170;

Hollywood/ L.A. East

Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park (C): (323) 255-5416

Chabad of Greater Los Feliz (O): (323) 660-5177

Chabad of Mt. Olympus (O): (323)650-1444

Chabad Russian Synagogue (O) West Hollywood: (323) 848-2999

Creative Arts Temple (I): (323) 656-6685

Hollywood Temple Beth El (C) and Iranian American Jewish Center (S) West Hollywood: (323) 656-3150

Temple Israel of Hollywood (R): (323) 876-8330;

Temple Knesset Israel of Hollywood (C): (323) 665-5171

Cong. Kol Ami (R) West Hollywood: (310) 248-6320;

Shir Hadash (R) Mid-Wilshire: (310) 456-5323

Wilshire Boulevard Temple (R) Mid-Wilshire; (213) 388-2401


Aaron David Cong. (O): (323) 933-1411

Ahavas Yisroel Syn. (O): (323) 937-1247

Cong. Bais Naftoli (O): (323) 931-2476

Cong. Bais Yehuda (O): (323) 936-7568

Cong. Bet Elazar (O): (323) 857-0577

Bet Midrash (O): (323) 939-0298

Cong. Beth Israel (T): (323) 651-4022

Chabad of Hancock Park (O): (323) 954-8381

Chabad Mid-City Center (O): (323) 655-9282

Etz Jacob Cong. (O): (323) 938-2619

Jewish Learning Exchange (O): (323) 857-0923;

Kehilas Yaakov (O): (323) 935-8572

Midrash Od Yosef Hai (S/O): (323) 653-5163

Cong. Ner Israel (O): (323) 933-3405

Cong. Ohel David (O): (323) 651-3594

Cong. Ohev Shalom (O): (323) 653-7190

Cong. Shaarei Tefila (O): (323) 938-7147

Temple Shalom for the Arts (I): (310) 858-1100

Tifereth Zvi (O): (323) 931-3252

Torah Ohr (S): (323) 939-6763;

Cong. Torah V’Chesed (O): (323) 653-5083

Yismach Moshe Cong. (O): (323) 939-2681

Young Israel of Hancock Park (O): (323) 931-4030

Young Israel of Los Angeles (O): (323) 655-0300


Aish Los Angeles (O): (310) 278-8672;

Anshe Emes Synagogue (O): (310) 275-5640;

Temple Beth Am (C): (310) 652-7353;

Cong. Beth Chayim Chadashim (R): (323) 931-7023;

Beth Jacob Cong. (O): (310) 278-1911;

Temple Beth Zion (C): (323) 933-9136;

B’nai David-Judea Cong. (O): (310) 276-9269;

Congregation Bais Bezalel (O): (310)282-0444

Chabad Israeli Center (O): (310) 271-6193

Kehillat Hashalom (O): (310) 652-9014;

Cong. Knesseth Israel of Beverlywood (T): (310) 839-4962

Midrasho Shel Shem (O): (323) 935-6081

Cong. Mogen David (T): (310) 556-5609

Ohel Moshe Cong. (S): (310) 652-1533

Torat Hayim Synagogue (S/O): (310) 652-8349

Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle (I): (310) 552-2007;

Yeshiva of Los Angeles Beis Midrash (O): (310) 553-4478 ext. 296

Young Israel of Beverly Hills (O): (310) 275-3020

Young Israel of Century City (O): (310) 273-6954;

San Fernando Valley West

Temple Ahavat Shalom (R) Northridge: (818) 360-2258;

Temple Aliyah (C) Woodland Hills: (818) 346-3545;

The Ami Havurah (C) Woodland Hills: (818) 884-6042

Beit Hamidrash of Woodland Hills (O): (818) 712-0365

Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf (R) Tarzana: (818) 363-5580

Temple Beth Torah (R) Granada Hills: (818) 831-0835;

B’nai Ami Syn. (C) Chatsworth: (818) 700-0492;

Chabad of Encino (O): (818) 784-9986

Chabad of Northridge (O): (818) 368-3937

Chabad of Tarzana (O): (818) 758-1818

Eretz Cultural Center (S/T) Reseda: (818) 342-9303

Temple Judea (R) Tarzana: (818) 758-3800;

Kol Tikvah (R) Woodland Hills: (818) 348-0670

Makom Ohr Shalom (Ren.) Woodland Hills: (310) 479-0559;

Temple Ner Maarav (C) Encino: (818) 345-7833

Temple Ramat Zion (C) Northridge: (818) 360-1881;

Sephardic Cohen Syn. (O) Tarzana: (818) 705-4557

Shomrei Torah Syn. (C) West Hills: (818) 346-0811;

Valley Beth Shalom (C) Encino: (818) 788-6000;

Valley Outreach Syn. (R): (818) 348-4867

Young Israel of Northridge (O): (818) 368-2221

San Fernando Valley East

Adat Ari El (C) North Hollywood: (818) 766-9426;

Adat Yeshurun Cong. (O) North Hollywood: (818) 766-4682

Bais Medresh Ohr Simcha (O) North Hollywood: (818) 760-2189

Beis Midrash Toras Hashem (O) Valley Village: (818) 980-6934

Bet Midrash Mishkan Israel (S) Sherman Oaks: (818) 901-1598

Temple Beth Emet (R) Burbank: (818) 843-4787

Temple Beth Hillel (R) Valley Village: (818) 763-9148

Cong. Beth Meier (T) Studio City: (818) 769-0515

Cong. Beth Ohr (I) Studio City: (818) 773-3663

Temple B’nai Hayim (C) Sherman Oaks: (818) 788-4664

Burbank Temple Emanu El (C): (818) 845-1734;

Chabad of Glendale (O): (818) 240-2750

Chabad of North Hollywood (O): (818) 989-9539

Chabad of Sherman Oaks (O): (818) 789-0850

Em Habanim Cong. (S/O) North Hollywood: (818) 762-7779

Shaarey Zedek Cong. (O) North Hollywood: (818) 763-0560

Temple Sinai of Glendale (R): (818) 246-8101

Valley Beth Israel (C) Sun Valley: (818) 782-2281

Valley Mishkan Israel Cong. (O) North Hollywood: (818) 769-8043

Yad Avraham (O) North Hollywood: (818) 766-6736

Conejo Valley/Santa Clarita

Temple Adat Elohim (R) Thousand Oaks: (805) 497-7101;

Temple Beth Ami (R) Santa Clarita: (661) 255-6410

Temple Beth Haverim (C) Agoura Hills: (818) 991-7111;

Beth Knesset Bamidbar (R) Lancaster: (661) 942-4415;

Cong. Beth Shalom (C) Santa Clarita: (661) 254-2411

Cong. B’nai Emet (R) Simi Valley: (805) 581-3723;

Chabad of Agoura Hills/Chabad of Conejo/Chabad of Oak Park (O): (818) 991-0991;

Chabad of Santa Clarita Valley (O): (661) 254-3434

Chabad of Simi Valley (O): (805) 577-0573

Temple Etz Chaim (C) Thousand Oaks: (805) 497-6891;

Cong. Or Ami (R) Agoura Hills: (818) 880-6818;

South Bay

Temple Beth El (R) San Pedro: (310) 833-2467;

B’nai Tikvah Cong. (C) Westchester: (310) 645-6262;

Chabad of the Beach Cities (O) Redondo Beach: (310) 372-6879;

Chabad of Palos Verdes (O): (310) 544-5544;

Chabad of the South Bay (O) Lomita: (310) 326-8234

Temple Menorah (R) Redondo Beach/Torrance: (310) 316-8444

Cong. Ner Tamid of the South Bay (C) Rancho Palos Verdes: (310) 377-6986

Temple Rodeph Shalom (R) El Segundo: (310) 390-3242;

Southwest Temple Beth Torah (C) Gardena: (310) 327-8734

Cong. Tifereth Jacob (C) Manhattan Beach: (310) 546-3667

Teen Founds Jump-n-Jive Minyan

Most Shabbat worshippers expect decorum. But Adat Ari El’s new Jump-n-Jive minyan is different. Its founder, Aaron Kaychuck, describes the monthly Saturday morning service as “upbeat neo-Chassidic egalitarian.” The service is unusual partly because it combines traditional Conservative liturgy with exuberant song and dance, set to the beat of an African hand-drum. It is also distinctive because Kaychuck, who leads the congregants in prayer, is 15 years old.

In creating Jump-n-Jive, Kaychuck was inspired by his summers at Camp Ramah, his teachers at Milken Community High School, and the Chassidic songs and stories of the late Shlomo Carlebach. Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard oversees the services, which attract both teens and adults. In Kaychuck’s terms the “raw energy” of the teens is nicely balanced by the adults’ mature seriousness. True, grownups tend to be inhibited at first, but “the more teenagers there are, the more the adults warm up.”

Let’s Celebrate! It’s Yom Kippur!

In the waning hours of Yom Kippur, the last rays of sun cast long shadows through the stained-glass windows. It is time for “Ne’ila,” the final prayer in a day filled with prayer, when the gates on high, opened especially wide for this day, begin their final closing.

So still, so intense, so enraptured are worshipers for these final moments of supplication, that most forget they have been fasting for 24 hours, that they have been standing in one place for hours, that within seconds of hearing the piercing blast of the shofar, they will rush home to the waiting coffee and honey cake.

“It’s like the final leg of a race, where there is a sprint to the finish line,” says Rabbi Alan Greenbaum of Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks. “Not in the sense of ‘let’s finish this up and get home,’ but ‘let’s use every last ounce of energy we have to make this meaningful.’ “

The idea of prayers rising through a heavenly portal is painted graphically in the liturgy of Ne’ila, a word that means locking. The image of the gate, along with the idea of the Book of Life — and the ark open for the entire Ne’ila service — gives worshipers something tangible to visualize, says Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea in Tarzana.

“With those two very physical images in people’s minds, it makes it a very powerful moment,” says Goor.

The image of a compassionate God, waiting for our penitence until the very last minute, encapsulates what Judaism is about, says Rabbi Yisroel Kelemer of Congregation Mogen David on the Westside.

“The most beautiful prayer we say is ‘open up the gate, even as the gate is closing,’ ” Kelemer says, quoting from “Ne’ila.” “God is there to the last minute to accept our repentance. To me, that is the loving God, the kind God, the patient God. That is the fantastic, powerful theme of Ne’ila.”

And as the sky grows dark, the passage of time is palpable, lending more urgency to the prayers.

Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish Hatorah on the Westside says that as the final minutes tick down, the full import and opportunity of the entire period of repentance — from the month of Elul through Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, and then Yom Kippur — comes to rest in those last moments of prayer.

“When we are young, we have choices and a feeling that we can be whatever we want, we can go anywhere,” Braverman says. “But I think everyone has a sense that at some point, they’re not sure when, that sense of opportunity to make what they wanted of life has been lost … They come to terms with the mediocrity of their lives, but there is a tragic sense of loss.

“I think Yom Kippur holds out hope to become free of the past, to remake yourself and have a fresh beginning. Ne’ila is the last chance. That sense of hope and of loss, and the hope that we can redress that loss, gets packed into those fading moments of Ne’ila.”

Braverman also points to the sense of community during Ne’ila, when all voices join together to say the “Shema,” and to loudly and repeatedly proclaim, “Adonai Hu HaElohim” — “The Lord is God.”

“You feel the whole community reaching out as one with such a sense of passion,” he says. “As you come to the end, there is such a sense of intensity, exhilaration. I find it enormously moving every year.”

It is a power that brings out even those who aren’t there for much of the service.

Many secular Israelis in Los Angeles, for instance, who don’t come to Kol Nidre the evening before and spend the day fasting at home with their families, come out in great numbers for Ne’ila.

“I don’t know if Israelis in Israel go to shul, but here I think they feel like they have the urge to do something about it,” says Gal Shor, managing editor of the Hebrew-language weekly, Shalom L.A. “I don’t feel like I need to spend the whole day, but the last two hours is fine.”

While some of the trend can also be attributed to the fact that Israelis aren’t used to the idea of paying to go to shul — and usually no one asks for tickets at Ne’ila — Shor also says the desire to hear the Shofar brings families out.

That seems to be true all over, where Ne’ila and the Havdalah that follows have become family-centered events.

At Temple Beth Zion, a small, mostly elderly congregation on Olympic Boulevard, Rabbi Edward Tenenbaum holds a special ceremony to bless the children just before the blowing of the Shofar.

“A lot of people bring their grandchildren and families together for that final moment,” he says. “It really seems to bring a family bond.”

At Temple Akiba in Culver City, that community bond is strengthened by a 25-year-old custom: All members who own shofars — usually about 50 or 60 people — are invited to come up to the bimah in the darkened sanctuary.

“At the end of Havdalah, everyone blows the tekiah gedolah together, and it’s a big, festive thing,” says Rabbi Allen Maller. “It’s been a long day primarily of introspection and inwardness, and a good sort of ending, to make a distinction between that day and now, is a grand finale, a big celebration.”

Many congregations have a song-filled final “Kaddish,” and others also sing “L’shana Haba Biy’rushalyim” — “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

Even the stampede to get home and eat, within seconds of the shofar sounding, gives tribute to the power of Ne’ila, Kelemer points out.

“God bless them, all everyone wants is to get out,” Kelemer says. “But not two minutes earlier, you could hear a pin drop. It was like we were transformed into a different realm, a whole different world.”

The Effects of Fasting

By Sandy Goodman

Fasting is an ancient practice common to Judaism as well as other religions. The fast on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is reflective of personal sacrifice. It is a time to set aside all activity, including eating, and focus on prayer and repentance. In addition to spiritual benefits, fasting also has salutary effects on the body. Not eating for a notable period of time rids the body of toxic wastes, enabling it to make a fresh start.

Four Pre- and Post-Fast Tips

1) Eat a normal meal the day before Yom Kippur, with an emphasis on carbohydrates.

2) Drink a lot of water prior to the fast.

3) When breaking the fast, drink plenty of water and juices.

4) Eat the first solid foods slowly.

Excerpted from For more information, read “Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today’s Parents and Children” (Golden Books) by Yosef I. Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman.

Pushing Each Other’s Buttons


Predictably, it happened again. Conservative and Reform Jews choseto demonstrate their right to worship at the Kotel in their way, menand women together. This time, however, the worshipers had officialclearance. But their permit did not help. Sadly, but alsopredictably, Orthodox Jews prevented them from praying in their way.Passions flared. The scene became ugly. Religious extremists,unconcerned about Torah prohibitions against striking another person,became violent. Hurt and humiliated, the non-Orthodox worshipers wereforcibly removed by the police. And, of course, the media had beenprepped. The cameras were ready. They captured the tears of thevanquished and the jeers of the violent. The angry scenes wereflashed across the world.

Effective Demonstration

I do not doubt that the only motive of most of the Reform andConservative worshipers was to experience Tisha B’Av in the precinctsof the Temple, whose destruction they had come to lament.

But I do have a sneaking suspicion that the organizers of theservice had something else in mind also.

I am a veteran of political demonstrations. During the apartheidera in South Africa, I learned how to get the most attention for thestruggle against racism. I simply had to figure out which buttons topush in order to enrage the other side and make it react violently.It was easy to do. It transformed the demonstrators into innocentvictims, and their attackers (usually the police) into vicious thugs.The media was always advised that a good story was in the making.Sympathy for the victims and odium for their powerful attackers wereinstantly seen on television screens around the world. Obviously,these tactics served a holy purpose — the eradication of anauthoritarian, intolerant and evil system.

Which Orthodox buttons did the Conservative and Reform workers atthe Kotel push? What irreconcilable principles were at stake?

Principles in Conflict

The non-Orthodox worshipers asserted two principles by coming tothe Kotel to pray in their way. They wished to demonstrate thatJudaism’s holiest site belongs equally to all Jews, that it is not anopen-air Orthodox synagogue. They also wished to demonstrate thattheir mode of worship is as valid as gender-separated Orthodoxprayer.

Their Orthodox opponents were motivated by equally powerfulprinciples. Worship in the ancient Temple had always beengender-separated. In the 30 years since the liberation of the Kotel,this ancient tradition had been honored. The insistence on mixed,egalitarian worship in the Kotel precincts was regarded as no less anact of chutzpah than would be the forcible intrusion of asimilar group into an Orthodox synagogue for non-Orthodox worship.

These were the buttons. These were the principles. All theingredients for a good television story were present.

Tisha B’Av Tragedy

The violence at the Wall could not have come at a worse time. Thenews of the battle between the Jews in Jerusalem broke while I wasteaching my congregants the Talmudic account of the destruction ofthe Second Temple. The Talmud asserts that the destruction was theresult of causeless hatred between the Jews of that generation. Is itnot tragic that hatred should characterize the contemporaryobservance of Tisha B’Av? Have we learned nothing from our history?

The Talmud also records a dispute between a certain RabbiZechariya and the Sages. Under normal circumstances, both parties inthis dispute would have agreed that the imperatives of the Torah areabsolute and that there is no room for compromise on halachicprinciple. But, on this occasion, the Sages felt that even venerableprinciples should be compromised for the sake of the common good.Rabbi Zechariya refused to allow the Sages to take the initiative inbending the law to save the Jewish people. The Talmud records thathis insistence on placing principle above peace caused the Temple tobe destroyed and the Jewish people to be exiled.

Alternative to Confrontation

We have witnessed the bitter consequences of the refusal tocompromise this Tisha B’Av. Neither side would budge. Like adysfunctional family, each pushed the other’s buttons, and theconflict escalated.

May I suggest a workable compromise. The southern section of theKotel has been newly excavated and is the site of a beautifularchaeological park. There is no tradition of gender-segregatedworship there. It is far from, and out of the line of vision of, thefar more numerous Orthodox worshipers at the other end of the Kotel.Bat mitzvah services are already held there. It could easily bededicated for Conservative and Reform prayer. All Jews could worshipG-d in their own denominational way.

Am I optimistic that this kind of solution will be acceptable?Although it makes sense, I do not believe that it will happen.Demonstrators have more to gain from political conflict than fromspiritual tranquillity. Confrontation alone will keep the strugglefor denominational acceptance alive and in full view of unhappy Jewsaround the world.

Therefore, I predict that there will be more confrontations, morevictims and more violence.

But I am hoping against hope that I am wrong. The Jewish peoplecannot afford to relive the Tisha B’Av experience. The State ofIsrael cannot afford more wrenching conflicts. The Jewish Diasporacannot be made to stand up against the Jewish State. Perhaps saner,gentler counsel will prevail and an intelligent compromise will beoffered and accepted.

Abner Weiss is rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation of BeverlyHills.

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