November 21, 2018

How Do I Put Myself in the Shoes of a Mass Murderer?

People comfort each other as they stand near the scene Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. where a gunman opened fire Wednesday inside a country dance bar crowded with hundreds of people on “college night,” wounding 11 people including a deputy who rushed to the scene. Ventura County sheriff’s spokesman says gunman is dead inside the bar. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

With the level of our national discourse reaching all-time lows, commentators with a bent for “bridge building” have been promoting the character trait of putting oneself in the shoes of the Other—whether that Other is a “deplorable” living in Wisconsin or a progressive living in Brooklyn. 

It’s only by trying to understand one another, the theory goes, that national healing can start.

But what happens when the Other is a mass murderer—like the one from Pittsburgh and now the one from Thousand Oaks? Do I unwittingly honor a murderer by trying to understand what makes him reach such depths of evil and destruction? 

I’m not sure; I hope not. All I know is that I have an incorrigible reflex to try to figure out why people do what they do.

Here are a few questions I struggle with when I see these horrific acts: 

1. When potential killers see the enormous media coverage of these mass shootings, do they feel that it becomes somewhat more “acceptable?” Does media coverage infer an insidious type of credibility independent of the act itself?

2. When someone is miserable and feels he has nothing left to live for—and blames the world for much of his misery– does it make it more likely he will consider such an apocalyptic act, as a way perhaps of giving the world the middle finger and leaving with a “bang”?

3. Is the combination of #1 and #2 above so lethal that the killer loses any ability to make a moral distinction?

4. Does having a gun make it all that much easier? And what kind of change in gun laws can make a real difference?

I’m no expert on mental health. I don’t know what goes on in the mind of a deranged person. It’s possible that the brains of mass murderers all have faulty wiring—whether that faultiness comes from irrational hatred, child abuse or the trauma of fighting in a war.  

But mental health or not, I often wonder if there are life factors and circumstances that can turn a human being with “normal” brain wiring into a monster who can walk into a synagogue or a bar and start shooting.

Or whether people who were damaged psychologically as children are now exposed in our new world to a lot more triggers than earlier eras.

That’s as much “understanding” as I can muster for now.

To Win in 2020, Democrats Must Avoid the Power Trap

U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reacts to the results of the U.S. midterm elections at a Democratic election night rally and party in Washington, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

After two years in the political wilderness, enraged at a president they despise and virtually powerless to do much about it, Democrats finally see some light after regaining the House.

But as any doctor will tell you, it’s not good for the system to gorge after you’ve starved for so long.

Democrats will be tempted to use their new power in the House to take revenge on President Trump. Because they will control key committees and have the power to subpoena, it’s likely they will feel pressure from their agitated base to begin impeachment proceedings against the president, among other aggressive initiatives.

This is a trap.

For one thing, because impeachment requires the approval of two thirds of the Senate, which is staying in Republican hands, it’s highly unlikely they can get rid of Trump before the next presidential elections in 2020.

And that is precisely what Democrats must focus on—the next race for the White House.

If they squander the next two years on a bitter soap opera that will go nowhere, they will only reinforce the Republican critique that they have become a party bereft of ideas.

How can they surprise the electorate and position themselves for success in 2020? By thinking policy, by thinking about what’s good for the country.

They have little to lose by playing earnest rather than cynical. The country is expecting the two parties to continue the win-at-all-cost partisan combat so prevalent during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. It is this fanatical partisanship that has made Congress lose much of its credibility with the public.

Now that Democrats control the House, they can allow Republicans to play the bad guy if they so choose.

Believe it or not, there’s a bipartisan caucus in Congress called the “Problem Solvers Caucus” which comprises members of both parties. Yes, they’re small, but they have a big idea: Let’s focus on solutions that will help America, rather than fights that will hurt everyone.

It’s true that the parties are far apart on most of the big issues. But that’s no reason to give up. Led by the Problem Solvers Caucus, Democrats can look for small areas of agreement and build on those, and begin a process of mutual compromise. At the very least, they will look like a party of ideas and action, rather than one of destruction.

We’re all licking our wounds from the most divisive and acrimonious two years I can recall. Democratic leaders now have a chance to take the high road. They will have to contend with a progressive wing that is hardly into compromise. That will be their biggest challenge—resisting the urge to overreach.

But if they can at least look like they’re trying to bring problem solving back into politics, and attract candidates in that vein, that will increase their chances of winning the White House in 2020.

Pittsburgh Should Unite Us, Not Divide Us

Mourners react during a memorial service at the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall of the University of Pittsburgh, a day after 11 worshippers were shot dead at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 28, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

There may be many reasons to target President Donald Trump, but those who are blaming him for the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last Saturday are only accentuating the deep divisions within our community. 

I realize that with the midterm elections around the corner, it’s tempting to double down and simply blame Trump for anything bad that happens in America. But before rushing to politicize the horror in Pittsburgh, it would behoove us to slow down a little.

Anti-Semitism transcends politics.  

First, the vile anti-Semite who murdered 11 Jews, Robert Bowers, didn’t just hate Jews—he also hated Trump. As Kelly Weill writes in the Daily Beast, he “raged at Donald Trump for being insufficiently anti-Semitic.”

Bowers, Weill writes, was “among a set of neo-Nazis who criticized President Donald Trump for being, as they saw it, not biased enough toward Jews.” When Bowers wrote on Gab, “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation,” he was surely aware that Trump is surrounded by Jews, including his Jewish grandchildren, and has embraced his daughter’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism.

Bowers would certainly recoil at the president’s statement on the day of the massacre that “Anti-semitism represents one of the ugliest and darkest features of human history. Anti-semitism must be condemned anywhere and everywhere. There must be no tolerance for it.”

So, if we’re going to speculate about what triggered this murderer, let’s include the fact that President Trump was too pro-Jewish to nourish this Nazi’s appetite for Jew-hatred. Of course, if it’s Jew-hatred this killer is looking for, he can find just as much on the Farrakhan left as on the nationalist right.

Second, we know one thing that did trigger Bowers— Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the venerable Jewish nonprofit that aids Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. Two hours before his rampage, Bowers posted on Gab: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

I get that Trump has used harsh and divisive rhetoric, but does that mean he’s responsible for this bigot’s rage at HIAS and his DNA-level rage at immigrants?

My point is not to defend Trump but to argue that we’re missing the bigger picture. Choosing the murder of 11 Jews in a synagogue as yet another opportunity to target Trump distracts from the evil act itself. It makes it about politics, not human hatred. It keeps us all in partisan-fighting mode.

I’d be saying the same thing if a far-left, anti-Zionist Jew-hater had committed this atrocity. I’d be imploring the Right not to exploit the tragedy to bash the anti-Zionist Left. I’m not naïve. I know that virtually everything these days has become political.

But if there were ever a cause that merits putting our political differences aside, how can it not be fighting anti-Semitism?

As ADL leader Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in the New York Times on Sunday, “People of all faiths and ideologies must speak out clearly and forcefully against anti-Semitism, scapegoating and bigotry in our society.”

To put it more bluntly, should we focus our energies against Trump or against Jew-haters? Greenblatt’s predecessor, Abe Foxman, agrees that Trump “needs to change the rhetoric he uses to explain his policies,” but, as he said on JPost, “Trump is part of the problem but not the problem. We have to make him not the problem because we don’t want to politicize anti-Semitism, which is a disease of both the Left and the Right.”

How useful was it for Jewish Trump critics in Pittsburgh to release a statement saying, “President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh…” followed by a series of demands? Even if those demands are the height of morality, it’s embarrassing to use a moment of public grieving to target a president.    

Our community pays a heavy price when we allow our political ideologies to get in the way of the great Jewish imperative of our time. Instead of uniting to fight a common foe, we are digging in and turning on each other.

Instead of discussing strategies to anticipate and fight Jew-hatred of all kinds, we’re fighting over which political side is more responsible.

If we’re serious about honoring the lost souls of the Tree of Life, we must transcend our obsession with politics and unite around the ultimate Jewish cause of fighting anti-Semitism. If we fail to do that, the only ones who will celebrate will be the anti-Semites– both right and left.

The Devil’s Paradise in Pittsburgh

I got the chills when I heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 Shabbat worshippers dead and many others injured, including four police officers.

For the rabid Jew-hater who entered the synagogue, it must have been a devil’s paradise: Look at all those Jews in one place!

I have had that dark thought for years, and have never shared it with anyone. The thought usually comes when I’m in synagogue. I look at all the Jews around me and think: My God, it’d be so easy for any Jew-hater with a gun to walk in and start mowing us down.

And then I think: There are thousands of similar “Jew houses” throughout our country that are such easy prey. In virtually any town in America, a Jew-hater with a gun and a GPS has the pick of the Jewish litter.

So, when I heard about the Pittsburgh massacre, a tiny voice inside me asked: What took the bastards so long?

We Jews in America are eons away from the days of pogroms and inquisitions when many of our ancestors had to take their Judaism underground. We live in a wide open country, with celebrity rabbis, beautiful synagogues, and, above all, freedom—the freedom to express ourselves and worship as we please.

But a free society doesn’t mean a society free of evil.

Evil can’t be legislated away. We can punish it, we can try to minimize it, but we can’t eradicate it. The same freedom that allows the greatness of a Martin Luther King allows the darkness of the Pittsburgh killer. We’re free to love, but we’re also free to hate. We’re free to choose happiness, but we’re also free to choose misery.

To be able to enter a house of prayer and murder innocent souls must be the height of misery and depravity. I think of all the Tree of Life families whose lives have been suddenly shattered, whose futures have been irreparably darkened.

We go to synagogue to connect with community, schmooze with friends, hear words of wisdom, pray with God. We don’t go to risk our lives; we go to elevate them.

“Our priority in this issue of the Journal was to honor the victims of the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.”

Tragedies like the one at the Tree of Life can shake our confidence and weaken our resolve. To gird ourselves, we need “explanations” and “calls to action.” They make us feel useful, resilient. 

But there’s also the imperative to simply grieve—to reflect on the victims and comfort their families. Yes, there’s been too much politicization of the Pittsburgh tragedy, but there’s also been an enormous outpouring of grief and condolence calls from around the world.

Our priority in this issue of the Journal was to honor the victims of the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Our Senior Writer Kelly Hartog flew to Pittsburgh to interview locals and report on how the community is coping. We have a spread devoted to the 11 victims. Our columnists all touch on Pittsburgh. We have reactions from the local community and, among other things, a  poem and a prayer.

With all of the grieving, we must still try to look ahead. So, on our back page, we interview an expert who discusses the security challenge and what can de done to make our Jewish public places safer.

Maybe that’s how the Jews have survived for so long — we balance the stillness of grieving and prayer with the imperative of moving forward. 

When I researched the Tree of Life synagogue on the internet, I came across a recent sermon by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, that was titled, “Now What?”

“We have passed through the non-stop Fall holiday phase, hopefully feeling grateful for the life that God has blessed us with,” the rabbi said.  “We have now entered a nearly two-month period without any holiday celebrations until Chanukah.  Now what?  What can fill the gap?”

“We may see an extra security guard or two at synagogue this Shabbat, but that’s only to remind us that the best things in life are worth protecting.”

He then makes several suggestions. Here are the first two:

1. “Commit to attending weekday morning minyan once per week.  By doing so, you will ensure a minyan for those of us reciting Kaddish, be it as mourners or for a yahrtzeit.  You will also have the opportunity to enjoy breakfast with a lovely community of fellow congregants.

2. “Attend either Friday evening services or Shabbat morning services once per month.  Friday evening services are one hour, filled with singing and joy.  Shabbat morning services are less than 2 ½ hours, complete with Torah discussion and a delicious Kiddush lunch.”

I can’t think of a better way to honor the victims of the Tree of Life than to follow their rabbi’s suggestions. We may see an extra security guard or two at synagogue this Shabbat, but that’s only to remind us that the best things in life are worth protecting.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: New-State or Pre-State Solution?

When it comes to the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there’s one simple fact that pretty much everyone agrees with: The attempts at a “two-state solution” have been a stunning failure.

It’s certainly not for lack of trying. Since the famous handshake in 1993 that launched the Oslo Accords, it’s safe to say that no global conflict has taken up more political and diplomatic energy.

It’s astonishing that after the investment of so much energy, the parties are even further apart today than they were 25 years ago.

For many Israelis, this status quo is unacceptable. Last week, I met two activist groups with distinct initiatives for breaking the logjam.

My friend Dan Adler introduced me to the first initiative, called The New State Solution (NSS). I had heard and read about them, and knew that their idea was starting to gain some traction.

The basic premise of the New State Solution is to focus on what’s possible. Since making any kind of deal in the West Bank has proved virtually impossible, why not focus on Gaza first?

“The basic premise of the New State Solution is to focus on what’s possible. Since making any kind of deal in the West Bank has proved virtually impossible, why not focus on Gaza first?”

Their idea is to take advantage of the renewed cooperation between Israel and Egypt to create an expanded Palestinian state in Gaza, using parts of the Sinai that now are controlled by Egypt. Their plan calls for implementing a massive humanitarian and economic build-up in Gaza that would shift the center of gravity of the conflict and create a “win” for all parties.

The co-founders of the initiative, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans Benjamin Anthony and Brigadier General (Ret) Amir Avivi, believe that what the conflict needs, more than anything, is a “paradigm shift.” They know their idea is not perfect and faces challenges (among them: Will Egypt agree to give up land?), but they believe it is the most realistic of many bad options. You can see all the details on their website (newstatesolution.org).

The second group I met is the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), which was founded in 1993 and “works to shape the discourse and mobilize support among American Jewish leaders and U.S. policymakers for the realization of a viable two-state solution consistent with Israel’s security.”

Like most American and Israeli Jews, the IPF has not given up on the two-state solution, for the oft-stated reason that staying in the West Bank threatens the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In recent years, the IPF has teamed up with Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), a nonpartisan movement of retired IDF generals and security experts that works to “extricate Israel from the current impasse” as a first step toward an eventual agreement. 

The IPF approach is the reverse of the NSS approach. Instead of avoiding the incredibly difficult problem of extricating Israel from the West Bank, it is doubling down. It believes its comprehensive “security first” approach will manage the security risk and offer an acceptable trade-off.

What has added urgency is talk of “annexation” among current government coalition members. In a recent study, CIS concluded that “as a determined political annexationist minority accelerates moves toward annexation — both creeping and legislated — the ensuing shockwaves threaten to undermine Israel’s security, its Jewish-democratic character, its relations with its neighbors, its relationship with the Diaspora, and the attitude of the international community toward the country.”

All of this reminds me of the most honest and concise description I’ve ever heard of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from my friend Yossi Klein Halevi: “Staying in the West Bank is an existential threat to Israel; leaving the West Bank is an existential threat to Israel.”

Notwithstanding the complexities, these two groups are charging ahead to try to break the status quo. Whether by focusing on Gaza or doubling down on the West Bank, they realize that a dark clock is ticking louder and louder. 

“In the absence of negotiations, is there anything that Israel can do on its own immediately to help preserve its future?”

The fundamental problem in recent years has been an inability to get the parties to the negotiating table and a general sense that any potential deal would be dead on arrival.

Maybe this is why the IPF has been promoting “interim steps” that Israel can take to safeguard the viability of a two-state solution, such as limiting settlement construction in the main settlement blocks and improving the economic and humanitarian situation on the ground.

When I met the representatives from IPF, I glibly suggested that their interim plan would be like a “pre-state solution.” I have no idea whether they will use that term, but the point I was making was this: Many of us are simply exhausted with waiting for the parties to get together and negotiate. As the years go by, the price of waiting keeps getting higher. We can’t wait forever.

So, the question becomes: In the absence of negotiations, is there anything that Israel can do on its own immediately to help preserve its future?

I heard two distinct answers last week. Whether it’s the New-State Solution or the Pre-State Solution, they both said the same thing: We’re tired of waiting.

Sandra Heller: How Do You Care for the Elderly?

Industry Expert Sandra Heller discusses the complex, emotional and difficult issue of dealing with aging parents.

Visit Compassionate Senior Solutions for more information on senior placement and housing options.

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Check out this episode!

Ambassadors of Peace, Kickin’ Cancer!

From left: Creative Community for Peace (CCFP) honorees Neil Jacobson, Aton Ben-Horin and Scooter Braun pose with David Renzer, co-founder of CCFP and chairman and CEO of Spirit Music Group. Photo by Ryan Torok

Pro-Israel group Creative Community for Peace (CCFP) honored entertainment industry leaders Scooter Braun, Neil Jacobson and Aton Ben-Horin during its inaugural Ambassadors of Peace event on Oct. 4.

The gathering drew 400 people to the Hancock Park home of entertainment attorney Aaron Rosenberg and television producer Danny Rose.

“CCFP is the leading organization that is countering the cultural boycott of Israel,” CCFP co-founder and Spirit Music Group Chairman David Renzer told the Journal on the red carpet. “We believe in building bridges and not in boycotts.”

In his acceptance speech for the Ambassador of Peace Award, Braun, founder of entertainment and media company SB Projects, spoke of the need for CCFP to ensure that artists not only perform in Israel but do not let politics get in the way of bringing their art to as many people as possible.

“I’m a firm believer that the best way we can change the world is coming together and having a dialogue with the intention that all people are good people, and I think this organization pushes for that, and I am honored to be part of it,” Braun said. 

Braun, who has taken one of his biggest clients, pop star Justin Bieber, to Israel, spoke of the powerful experience Bieber had performing in Israel. Braun, 37, attended the event with his wife, Yael Cohen.

The evening’s other honorees spoke of their personal journeys in the music business. Jacobson, president of Geffen Records, said he has always tried to be kind to others, while Ben-Horin, global vice president of A&R at Warner Music Group, said his parents did not always believe that he could make a profession out of his love for music. 

Additional attendees included Renzer’s wife, Esther; Israeli musician Ninet Tayeb; businessman and philanthropist Neil Kadisha; reality TV star Josh Flagg (“Million Dollar Listing”); actors Josh Duhamel (“Transformers”) and Michael Mando (“Better Call Saul”), and artists Alec Benjamin, Daniel Skye, Madison Love and Twinnie-Lee Moore.

“I just want to say to all the artists — I don’t know if they hear me, but I hope they will — come to Israel. Playing music for the people is the most important thing,” Tayeb said. “Take the politics out.”

“CCFP is an organization comprised of prominent members of the entertainment industry who promote the arts as a means to peace, support artistic freedom, and counter the cultural boycott of Israel,” according to the CCFP website.


From left: “Three Identical Strangers” director Tim Wardle with Jewish Journal’s David Suissa at the Museum of Tolerance. Photo by Melanie Chapman

The acclaimed documentary “Three Identical Strangers” — the true story of three men who discover at age 19 that they are identical triplets separated at birth and adopted by different parents — was shown at the Museum of Tolerance on Sept. 22.

After the sold-out screening, attended by more than 320 people, the film’s director, Tim Wardle, participated in a Q-and-A discussion with Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa. 

During their conversation, Wardle and Suissa discussed how many adopted children in the world have been separated at birth or shortly thereafter but have never been reunited with their siblings. 


Supporters of Kickin’ Cancer! Included (from left) Michele Hamburger, Kerri Lauter, Erin Cohen Berk and Madelyn Berk.
Photo by Angela Daves-Haley

More than 2,000 people, including members of 31 teams and several local sponsors, participated in the 17th annual Kickin’ Cancer! 5K Run, Walk, Stroll in Brentwood on Sept. 30, benefiting the Lynne Cohen Foundation. 

Among the walkers, runners and strollers were the Milken Wildcats from Milken Community Schools, who continued their long-standing dedication to the event. The 23-member team, comprised of cross-country runners and other students, raised more than $1,000. 

“I was thrilled with Kickin’ Cancer! this year!” Amy Cohen Epstein, president and executive director of the Lynne Cohen Foundation, told the Journal. “We had hundreds of families come from near and far to honor and celebrate the women in their lives. The awareness we raise at Kickin’ Cancer! every year just gets better and better.”

The organization also raised about $200,000 to support the Lynne Cohen Foundation Preventive Care Clinics, which serve women at increased risk for breast and/or ovarian cancer, including women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who have a slightly higher cancer risk due to the BRCA gene mutation passed on to them. Through education and preventive care programs established at cancer centers across the country, the foundation provides these women and their families with knowledge, tools and clinical support to help them take action early against the disease.

— Debra Eckerling, Contributing Writer


From left: Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Noah Farkas, Dr. Steven Siegel, Dr. Bridgid Mariko Conn and Susan Auerbach.
Photo courtesy of Valley Beth Shalom

More than 200 people from all over the Los Angeles region attended the launch of the Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) initiative, “So Healthy Together: A Community Response to Mental Health and Suicide Prevention,” on Sept. 30. 

The program, led and hosted by VBS Rabbi Noah Farkas and held at the Conservative congregation’s Encino campus, included a panel of doctors, psychiatrists and authors who spoke about a variety of mental health issues. Dr. Steven Siegel, Dr. Bridgid Conn and Cal State Northridge professor and author Susan Auerbach answered audience questions and concerns regarding such issues as insurance, medical privacy laws and supportive protocol. 

Volunteers from several organizations — including Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, Teen Line, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center and the VBS Counseling Center — provided information and follow-up opportunities for families and individuals seeking information about mental health. 

A subsequent series of events for different demographics within the community will take place throughout the year, starting with a teen and parent series at VBS led by Teen Line on Oct. 18.


Want to be in Movers & Shakers? Send us your highlights, events, honors and simchas.
Email ryant@jewishjournal.com. 

The Kavanaugh Fiasco: Just Win, Baby

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) (L) confers with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) during a Judiciary Committee meeting to vote on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 28, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

I was never this cynical. If anything, I’m more of a romantic. I like to believe people, even politicians. I’ve met some amazing politicians who work very hard and have strong convictions. I know they don’t have an easy job.

So why am I totally disgusted with the political spectacle of the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearings? For a number of reasons, but one in particular.

I feel I’m watching a UFC Championship fight. Two combatants locked in a cage ready to do whatever it takes to crush his or her opponent.

Whenever I see one of these combatants try to convince me it’s not a cage I’m seeing but a conversational salon, I roll my eyes. Who are they kidding?

Before the hearings even started, before anyone had even heard the name Christine Ford, one side had already announced that the candidate in question was evil and must be crushed by any means necessary.

In fact, you can go back a few years and note that the other side would not even allow a hearing in the first place. Why? For the same reason the latest candidate was called evil: because one must do whatever it takes to win. Nothing else matters.

The crazy thing is, I’m not saying anything new. We’ve always known that “partisan politics” is a contact sport where people fight over power. So why is it disgusting me so much all of a sudden?

Maybe because I don’t recall it ever being so viciously and shamelessly blatant. It’s possible that the stakes are seen as so high—a majority in the Supreme Court for years—that combatants have thrown every scruple and principle out the window. Except for one, of course: Win at all cost.

Our politics have descended all the way down to the UFC cage. Actually, they’re lower. At least with UFC, no one is pretending to have a conversation. They’re only there to fight. The politics of the Kavanaugh hearings is UFC without the honesty.

Behind the fancy suits and righteous blather, it’s hand-to-hand combat. Everyone knows it: Find any weapon you can, destroy whomever you must. The newest standard is now the lowest standard.

There are exceptions. There still are noble politicians who want to do the right thing and put decorum and decency ahead of winning. The problem is that their voices are drowning in the chaotic din of the arena.

Perhaps the saddest part of this whole fiasco is that I’m not sure any of this upsets the combatants.

When you’re in the cage, looking at your enemy, there is only victory, and it is priceless.

Roseanne: Between the ‘Sacred and the Profane’

From left: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Roseanne Barr and David Suissa discuss “Is America a Forgiving Nation?” (Photo courtesy of World Values Network)

On Sept. 17, the night before Erev Yom Kippur, at the same time as the 70th Primetime Emmys Awards ceremony, comedian and actress Roseanne Barr was participating in a discussion titled, “Is America a Forgiving Nation?” 

Appearing at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, Barr addressed the event that torpedoed her career: In May, Barr wrote a racist tweet about former President Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett. 

During the onstage discussion at the Saban with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, which was moderated by Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa, Barr said the fallout from the tweet, including ABC’s cancellation of its hit reboot of her show “Roseanne,” was devastating.

“It was so hard I thought I was going to die,” the 66-year-old said. “And it physically defeated me, and I was just leveled. And still it has been two months … but I still can’t. I feel like I have been psychically attacked and I have trouble staying awake. I went into a really bad place.”

Barr said her tweet arose from frustration with former President Barack Obama’s administration’s handling of the Iran deal, among other things. 

The sympathetic audience of close to 200 people applauded when Barr said, “I apologized for the hurt it caused people, but also I tried to clarify it and this has been quite a battle in which the right to clarify what I meant has been denied to me.”  

“That’s what I regret,” she added, “that I was not absolutely clear in what I meant.”

Boteach, who has been a friend of Barr’s for 20 years, and regularly studies Torah with her, said he reached out to her in the wake of the fallout, because of the strength of her Jewish character. 

“I wish people could be exposed to the depth of the conversations that Roseanne and I have had over the past few months,” he said, “because America knows Roseanne as an extremely funny woman, who created one of television’s most successful sitcoms and last season dominated the ratings, but what they don’t know is what a profound student of Torah she is. I mean, profound.” 

Boteach added, “She is a phenomenal, ferocious lioness for the Jewish people, and she deserved our steadfast support while making it clear she should make this right, because we Jews have values.”

Much of the evening centered on Barr’s commitment to Judaism. Raised in a Jewish home in Salt Lake City, Barr said Judaism plays a central role in her life. “My main passion and joy and compulsion is the study of Torah,” she said.

When Suissa asked how Barr reconciles her love of Torah with her irreverent comedy, Barr said her life is a balancing act between “the sacred and the profane.”

The Sins God Can’t Forgive

If Harvey Weinstein went to synagogue on Yom Kippur hoping God would forgive him for his hideous sins against women, he’d be out of luck. Sorry, pal. God may be all-powerful, but he’s not powerful enough to forgive us for the hurt we inflict on others — whether it’s a horrible sexual assault or a hurtful comment.

This is not a new idea. I’m guessing most of us already know that if we hurt someone, the only one who can forgive us is the person we aggrieved. God can’t do it for us.

Still, it does feel awkward to acknowledge a limit to God’s power. After all, this is the Creator of the world, the almighty God of miracles who redeemed us from slavery and gave us the Torah at Sinai. How can there be any limit to this limitless divine power?

I brought this up when I spoke at Kol Nidre at the Beverly Hills Community Synagogue, and it stirred some discomfort. If we hadn’t yet received forgiveness from anyone we may have hurt this year, I said, all those appeals to God in the Yom Kippur prayer book wouldn’t be of much help.

For 25 hours on this holiest of days, I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind. It was as if God was telling me: “If you sinned against your parents, your siblings, your children, your friends, your colleagues or anyone else this year, please don’t come to me. I can’t forgive you, David. You’re on your own.”

“Learning how to stay humble when we’re sure we’re completely right is a difficult and holy act— one that I’m still working on.”

I felt alone with a God who was sending me to a place other than where I was. I kept thinking throughout the day of the people I may have offended this year, and I felt guilty that I hadn’t taken care of all that before entering Yom Kippur. From the reaction I received to my talk, I don’t think I was the only one.

As the day wore on, though, my guilt was replaced by gratitude. I realized more than ever the genius of the idea: God takes human relationships so seriously that he nullifies himself to help us work on them. How blessed we are, I thought, to be part of a tradition that doesn’t let us off the hook when we hurt one another; a tradition that compels us to repair our relationships without leaning on our Creator.

But what damages our relationships in the first place? As I mentioned in my talk, a big part is our obsession with “being right.” That certainty can blind us to hurtful language. If the price of being right is to hurt others, isn’t that too high a price?

I spoke about “being right” versus “doing right.” If my kid makes a mistake and I’m consumed with being right, I’m more likely to respond with anger. If my kid makes a mistake and I’m thinking of doing right, I’m more likely to respond with kindness.

Being right feeds our egos; doing right feeds our souls.

So many of us have “been right” this year about so many things. The chaos of our politics and the breakdown of decency and democratic norms have triggered enormous anger and emotion. I’ve seen how some of that anger has infiltrated relationships. When I asked a large audience on Yom Kippur, “How many of you have had nasty arguments this year over politics?” most hands shot up. What made those arguments so nasty? Maybe each side was sure they were completely right.

“God takes human relationships so seriously that he nullifies himself to help us work on them.”

Learning how to stay humble when we’re sure we’re completely right is a difficult and holy act— one that I’m still working on. But if conveying even strong views with humility can reduce the amount of toxic and hurtful language in our community, it’s more than worth it. 

Hurtful language jeopardizes the most valuable asset we have— our relationships. As Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said in a holiday sermon, “When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid—double down on your relationships.  Cherish them.  Nurture them…Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart. Double down. Make things right with the people you love.”  

I can only thank God for giving us perhaps the most powerful lesson of our tradition: What counts more than anything for our Creator is how we treat one another. If you ask me, that may be God’s finest moment.

A Prayer for the New Year

I pray that I will find humility
When I’m sure I am right.

I pray that I will find compassion
When my heart feels indifference.

I pray that I will find energy
When my body tires.

I pray that I will find serenity
When my mind races too fast.

I pray that I will find music
When my day has no melody.

I pray that I will find courage
When my conscience is tested.

I pray that I will find the right words
When all I hear are the wrong ones.

I pray that I will find humor
When my spirit is broken.

I pray that I will find holiness
When it is most hidden.

I pray that I will find love
When my heart can barely see it.

I pray that I will find me
When all I can see is you.

New York Times Publishes a Rejection of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Plea for Reconciliation

Yossi Klein Halevi

If you want to better understand why peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a hopeless illusion, read Raja Shehadeh’s response in The New York Times this week to Yossi Klein Halevi’s soulful and conciliatory “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.”

Instead of responding in kind, Shehadeh falls back on the tired trope of chronic victimhood that has served only to perpetuate Palestinian misery. In this narrow view, every Palestinian woe is Israel’s fault; and Palestinians are a weak people with no agency just waiting for big, bad Israel to “withdraw from the territories it has occupied and leave us to go on with our lives.”

Shehadeh, who’s an author and an intellectual, knows better than to simplify such a bedeviling conflict whose complexity Halevi tried to honor. He knows, for example, that on the very day the IDF would abandon the territories, terror groups like Hamas and ISIS would jump to try to fill the vacuum and massacre Palestinians, just like Hamas did in Gaza.

But such complexity plays no role in Shehadeh’s takedown of Halevi’s offer to embark “on a journey of listening to each other.”

Shehadeh acknowledges that Halevi recognizes the importance of a Palestinian “counterstory,” one of “invasion, occupation and expulsion,” a history of “dislocation” and “humiliating defeats.” But how does he respond to such humility and contrition? By blasting Halevi for being “condescending” and for focusing so much of his book on trying to help Palestinians understand the Zionist story that is ingrained in Halevi’s soul.

Shehadeh also knows better than to casually dismiss Israeli offers of peace rejected by Palestinians as “old and discredited narratives.” He can’t even bring himself to admit that Palestinians are partly responsible for the absence of peace. The furthest he will go is to say, “I was involved in the Oslo negotiations and I can tell you that Israel shares plenty of responsibility for their failure.”

Everything else in his piece is a hodgepodge of polite aggression disguised as sophisticated lamentations. He claims that, “To make peace possible the Palestinians are not required to become Zionists,” as if Halevi ever asked for that. Betraying his intent to undermine Halevi’s book, he twists a plea to “understand us” into a demand to “become Zionist.”

Perhaps the deepest sign of his bad faith is when he admits to having zero interest in Israelis understanding his narrative: “Unlike you,” he writes triumphantly, “I will not demand that you see the Nakba, the catastrophe that Israel’s founding caused for my people, in the same way as I see it.”

Why? Because “You couldn’t.” Shehadeh is so drenched in smug victimhood that he can’t possibly imagine a Jewish neighbor being able to understand his narrative—not even a neighbor who has already made a genuine effort to do precisely that.

What he wants is that Israel recognizes its responsibility and “put a recognition of that culpability on the agenda for negotiations when the time comes for arriving at a settlement between us.”

But that time will never come if the Shehadehs of the Palestinian world continue to treat Palestinians as hopeless victims who are too weak to ever understand the authentic longings of their Jewish neighbors.

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

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Rabbi Mordecai Finley: A Deep Dive Into Happiness

What is the Jewish take on happiness? It’s probably not what you think. Rabbi Mordecai Finley discusses his provocative essay in the Jewish Journal where he argues that Job was the happiest character in the Bible.

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Available on iTunes!

Moving & Shaking: Bet Tzedek Justice Ball, Movable Minyan Anniversary

Photo courtesy of Bet Tzedek.

Legal aid agency Bet Tzedek’s New Leadership Council held its 22nd annual Justice Ball on July 14 at Poppy in West Hollywood. The Justice Ball raises funds to support the work of Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal services for those in need.

A sign reading “Bet Tzedek Justice for All” was displayed on the wall of the packed nightclub as more than 700 young professionals danced the night away to the sounds of the electrofunk DJ duo Chromeo.

Attendees included Bet Tzedek President and CEO Jessie Kornberg, Vice President of External Affairs Allison Lee and Development Operations Coordinator Zoe Engel; 30 Years After President Sam Yebri; and JQ International Assistant Director Arya Marvazy.

Kim Chemerinsky and David Mark are co-chairs of the New Leadership Council, a volunteer group consisting of young professionals dedicated to supporting the work of Bet Tzedek.

The law firms of Alston & Bird and Seyfarth Shaw and Skadden, as well as Beach Point Capital Management, served as the evening’s top sponsors.

Based in Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek was founded in 1974 as an all-volunteer agency fighting for Holocaust victims. Today, the organization provides free legal services for low-income individuals and families in Los Angeles.

From left: Author Howard Kaplan, Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief David Suissa, writer/director Daniel Zelik Berk and L.A. Jewish Film Festival Director Hilary Helstein enjoyed the L.A. premiere of “Damascus Cover” at the Museum of Tolerance. Photo courtesy of the L.A. Jewish Film Festival.

The Los Angeles premiere of the film “Damascus Cover,” a political thriller, was held July 12 at the Museum of Tolerance.

The program featured Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa moderating a discussion with Daniel Zelik Berk, the film’s writer and director, and Howard Kaplan, author of the 1977 novel on which the film is based.

The event was organized by the Jewish Journal, the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, whose director, Hilary Helstein, was in attendance.

Set in late 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Damascus Cover” follows a Mossad operative attempting to smuggle a Jewish chemical weapons scientist out of Syria. Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars in the film as Mossad operative Ari Ben-Zion. The film’s co-stars are the late John Hurt, who gave his final screen performance as Ben-Zion’s boss at the Israeli intelligence agency, and actress Olivia Thirlby, who plays an American photographer.

The film opened in theaters on July 20.

Gabrielle Birkner, co-founder and executive editor of Modern Loss, delivered the keynote lecture on Tisha B’av at Temple Beth Am. Photo courtesy of Twitter.

Members of Temple Beth Am, IKAR, B’nai David-Judea and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills gathered on July 22 for prayer, learning and song in commemoration of Tisha b’Av, the Jewish holiday marking the destruction of the holy Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies in Jewish history.

“We are creating a space first as a community and then inviting God into that place,” Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B’nai David-Judea said in her welcoming remarks. “The partnership between the Jewish people and God is what will bring that comfort.”

Thomas-Newborn introduced keynote speaker Gabrielle Birkner, co-founder and executive editor of Modern Loss, an online community and content platform geared to young adults living with loss.

After Birkner’s father and stepmother were murdered in a home invasion, she found that “grief found a way to make itself known,” she said.

“Jerusalem is a fitting metaphor for how to explain grief,” Birkner said in her speech. “When the worst has happened, we build communities of caring.”

The event included breakout sessions that focused on different aspects of grief, comfort and consolation. Matt Shapiro, interim associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am, spoke on “The Spirituality of Giving and Receiving Comfort.” Temple Beth Am Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld explored “The Deep Meaning of the Root ‘Nachem.’ ” And Sarah Bassin, associate rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, engaged her group in a discussion of grief stages, Jewish texts and personal stories in “Seven Weeks of Comfort: When Prophets Stop Chastising.”

In addition to the four participating synagogues, the Our House Grief Support Center was a sponsor of the event.

Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

Members of Movable Minyan celebrated the volunteer-led congregation’s 30th anniversary on July 15 at the Institute for Jewish Education. Photo by Edmon Rodman.

The Movable Minyan celebrated its 30th anniversary on July 15 at the Institute for Jewish Education, where the group meets for services.

Thirty people turned out to commemorate the occasion, including five who were present at the volunteer-led congregation’s inaugural Shabbat, on Dec. 19, 1987, in the living room of Edmon and Brenda Rodman.

“Over the years, we have laughed, prayed, celebrated and mourned together as a community, and we have become close friends,” Edmon told the Journal.

The event was titled “A Night of Lameds.”

Living up to its name, Movable Minyan, over the course of three decades, has met at 49 locations. It has held nearly 700 Shabbat meetings, given out 3,300 aliyot, raised more than $300,00 and davened for 28 high holy days. The anniversary celebration marked these accomplishments and more.

The self-described “small cooperative synagogue” convenes on the first and third Shabbat morning of every month for a participatory, musical service and Shabbat dairy potluck lunch and on the fourth Friday of each month.

From left: Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel of Chabad at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Chabad on Campus Executive Vice President Rabbi Yossy Gordon; Supreme Council of ZBT International President Norman Waas; ZBT Executive Director Laurence Bolotin and Rabbi Mendy Fellig of Chabad at University of Miami attended a gala honoring Chabad on Campus. Photo courtesy of Chabad on Campus.

Chabad on Campus International received the Richard J.H. Gottheil Award from the Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) fraternity on July 14 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.

The Gottheil Award is presented to individuals and groups that have advanced human understanding among all people. The award is named for the late American scholar, Zionist and founder of ZBT, the world’s first Jewish college fraternity.

Chabad on Campus was named the winner of the award based on its work that gives Jewish students a place of belonging. Chabad on Campus engages college students in Jewish life and serves the needs of the campus community on a social, educational and spiritual level.

Chabad on Campus International Executive Vice President Rabbi Yossy Gordon, who accepted the award from Supreme Council of ZBT President Norman Waas, credited the work of the organization’s 264 campus centers.

“Chabad’s approach to living is about intellectual awareness,” Gordon said. “To make a decision based on an understanding, a clarity, and to be able to know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, and inspire others to make a decision based on thinking rather than emotionally reacting.”

Attendees included Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel from the Chabad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Rabbi Mendy Fellig of the Chabad at the University of Miami in Florida and ZBT Executive Director Laurence Bolotin.

Rabbi Aaron Lerner: How Bad Is It for Pro-Israel Students at UCLA?

UCLA Hillel Rabbi Aaron Lerner shares the ups and downs of being a pro-Israel activist on one of the world’s most famous college campuses.

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Chabon’s Criticism Backfires

Celebrated author Michael Chabon caused a stir last week with his sharp criticism of Israel in his speech to the graduating class of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His criticism was not new. Chabon has already gone on record as saying, “The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is the most grievous injustice I’ve ever seen in my life.”

His May 14 speech had some deep and eloquent moments, but on the subject of Israel, Chabon seemed to throw that depth away. This disconnect was captured in a Journal op-ed last week by Morin Zaray, a graduate student who attended the commencement ceremony.

“Chabon, as eloquent as he was, viewed Israel in black-and-white terms,” Zaray wrote. “He condemned Israel’s security wall, proclaiming, ‘Security is an invention of humanity’s jailors … putting up the separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of people on the other side of the wall. Security for some means imprisonment for all.’”

In response, Zaray wrote: “Unlike Chabon, I lived in Israel throughout the Second Intifada, and know that the security wall is not a prison. It is a lifeline. I know that the fear of people on the Israeli side is not driven by fake fear or government propaganda, but by constant terrorism that we experience and the loved ones we have lost. I know that the same wall he said he despised enabled me to live a normal life and to use the bus as a young girl.”

Chabon’s criticism was so one-sided that it just fed into the polarized verbal food fights that characterize much of the political debate today.

Zaray’s decision to walk out with her family after the speech added fuel to the controversy, and it became a national story in the Jewish world. JTA characterized Chabon’s criticism, which included a questioning of the mainstream mission of in-marriage among Jews, as a “diatribe.” An online initiative began circulating asking HUC-JIR leaders to issue an apology for inviting Chabon.

In an op-ed in JTA, HUC-JIR administrators responded to the criticism:

“As both an Israeli and American institution, belonging to two proud democracies defined by lively civil discourse, it does not occur to us at HUC-JIR to quash or vilify political criticism of Israel out of a pre-emptive fear of controversy,” wrote Rabbi David Ellenson, the interim president and chancellor emeritus, and Joshua Holo, the dean of the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR. “On the contrary, we know that the confidence to invite challenging ideas both defines and validates democracy in the first place.”

As a free speech junkie, I fully endorse Chabon’s right to criticize Israel and HUC-JIR’s position not to “quash or vilify” this criticism.

My problem is not with the criticism per se, but rather, with the nature of the criticism itself. Chabon’s criticism was so one-sided that it just fed into the polarized verbal food fights that characterize much of the political debate today. Chabon may sincerely believe that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is “the most grievous injustice I’ve ever seen in my life,” but how much does that add to the conversation?

Has Chabon, for instance, ever considered the possibility that Palestinian elites benefit from the continuation of the conflict, which may explain why they so often have rejected peace offers?

As Ben-Dror Yemini writes in his new book, “An Industry of Lies”:

“The Palestinian refusal to accept any peace proposal is not only due to historical reasons or a sense of injustice. It is not about more or less concessions. It stems from the fact that the Palestinian elites only benefit from the continuation of the conflict. The Palestinians have become not only the ultimate global symbol of a ‘victim’ and an ‘oppressed people,’ who are supposedly fighting against colonialism and occupation. They have become global celebrities.”

I wish Chabon would have met the Palestinian I met once in Ramallah who was terrified that the minute Israel left the West Bank, terror groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and ISIS would swoop in, destroy Fatah and start murdering thousands of Palestinians. You rarely hear such complications from self-proclaimed moral arbiters who rail against Israel.

Incorporating complicating factors to enrich debate is precisely what an institution of higher learning should do, especially at an event such as a commencement address.

Indeed, the danger of Israel critics like Chabon is that their one-sided takes reinforce the erroneous perception that the conflict is all Israel’s fault, which is exactly the narrative promulgated by Israel’s enemies and the BDS movement.

Incorporating complicating factors to enrich debate is precisely what an institution of higher learning should do, especially at an event such as a commencement address. No, not all criticism is created equal. Self-righteous diatribes that just pile on and repeat tired tropes are not as valuable as criticism that urges people to consider the complexity of an issue.

As Zaray wrote: “For someone who presents himself as an intellectual — steeped in nuance — Michael Chabon has a remarkable ability to present a one-dimensional reality in which the Jews are evil oppressors and the Palestinians are powerless victims, with no agency, no responsibility and no blame.”

Maybe she should be next year’s commencement speaker.

Letters to the Editor: Prager, Jerusalem Embassy Move and Middle East Issues

A Rational Approach to Religion

My anxieties over David Suissa’s ascendency to the Journal’s throne were relieved after seeing it was accompanied by the disappearance from its pages of Dennis Prager’s predictable aggravated assaults against liberal thinking. Now Prager has commandeered last week’s cover and the attention of Jonathan Kirsch for his book “The Rational Bible” (“A Rational View of the Torah,” May 18).

Being one of those aberrant liberals who keep trying to find good in Prager’s thinking, I couldn’t help but note from Kirsch’s review how widely Prager is followed, perhaps by everyone except liberals. Maybe it’s because his so-called rational approach to religion reaches out to the millions disillusioned these days by conventional religion. Good for him.

So what is it that fires his virulent attacks on liberals rather than using his platforms to gently coax us to make adjustments based on his criticisms, some of them quite legitimate? My fear is that an answer lies in his embrace of President Donald Trump, many of whose followers worship him because of his multifaceted outrageousness rather than in spite of it. Dennis, don’t give up on trying to reach us too, “not by might, nor by power, but by thy spirit.” (Zechariah 4:6)

Roger Schwarz, Los Angeles


Israel and the Democratic Party

Ben Shapiro stated in his column (“No-Shows in Jerusalem,” May 18) what everyone knows but that the mainstream media seem to be ignoring:  The Democratic base has moved in a significantly anti-Israel direction over the past two decades. According to the Pew report, as of January, 79 percent of Republicans sympathized more with Israel than Palestine, while just 27 percent of Democrats did. It makes little sense that Democrats who profess to be supportive of the rights of minorities refuse to acknowledge that Israel is the only true democracy in its region and, in particular, is the only country in its region that allows serious religious diversity. However, for Democrats, the values of a democracy take a backseat to intersectionality and race grievance values.

This should be no surprise, given that the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee is Keith Ellison, an avowed Jew hater. The Democrats just assumed that they own the Jewish vote, no matter how badly they malign Israel and elevate Jew haters to prominent positions in the Democratic Party. This will not go on forever. We Jews are not as naïve as the Democrats assume we are.

Marshall Lerner, Beverly Hills

In your May 18 issue, columnist Ben Shapiro asks an interesting question about fading support for Israel on page 10. He gets a direct answer two pages later on page 12 from Israeli columnist Uri Dromi. I hope Shapiro read Dromi’s column.

Martin A. Bower, Corona del Mar


Synagogue Dues Model

Read the article about the new dues structure that is in effect at Adat Ari El synagogue and think it is very progressive (“Adat Ari El Shakes Up Dues Model,” May 18). As a longtime member for 38-plus years (and who got married there), I believe this new format will be the norm rather than the exception in the future of synagogue dues and membership structures.

Synagogues now more than ever must realize that maintaining members and reaching out to new members is a priority rather than expecting members will automatically renew, because there are more choices out there for where you can worship as a family.

Also, those synagogues with day schools attached to them are having the parents pay extra for both dues and school tuition. Because the cost of tuition is very high these days, a dues structure like this makes a lot of sense. I’m hoping to see the membership grow larger in the future at Adat Ari El because of this and our school will benefit greatly.

Jeffrey Ellis via email


The Wisdom of the Ages

Just as the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches, age 70 is the time to embrace “the fullness of years.” As Sydney Alderman Perry states at the conclusion of the article, “I don’t wish my life and the things I value to contract, but rather to take on new dimensions.” What does that mean? (“Age 70 Is No Time To Slow Down,” May 4)

To me, the latter years in our lives are best spent applying one’s life experiences and knowledge to make this a better world. When I retired, I decided to have a second career and to become involved in my community.

As my second career, I chose poker. I found the mental challenge and stimulation of the game, as well as the social interaction, to profoundly help my aging brain.

About 20 years ago, I created a seniors  poker group at a senior citizen center. Starting with six members, it quickly grew to more than 200. Having kept in contact with many of them over the years, I found it remarkable that (to the best of my knowledge) not a single one has developed Alzheimer’s disease.

Recently I was evaluated for memory health by a team of experts at UCLA. My score: 100. Wow! Especially considering that I’m 91. As far as being involved in the community, I recommend that retirees consider joining one of the many senior citizen centers in Los Angeles. I have found the exercises and classes, as well as other activities a big plus.

George Epstein via email


Embassy Move to Jerusalem

The world should salute President Donald Trump for following through on his commitment to move the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Kudos also to the president’s senior adviser Jared Kushner and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman for their assistance in bringing this about.

Although what happened last week was momentous, in retrospect, it should not have been all that remarkable. After all, the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act of 1995 declared Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and mandated that the U.S. Embassy be transferred to Jerusalem no later than 1999. However, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, although making promises that they would follow the law, did not.

To his credit, Trump — who has now shown himself to be perhaps the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House — was not deterred by the many predictions that the Arab world would unite behind the Palestinians in resisting this move and that America’s geopolitical interests would suffer.

Last week’s events came at a particularly opportune time. The message of firm U.S. support for Israel after eight years of Obama wilderness was unmistakable and cannot but dissuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from thinking he can continue to fashion a fictive Palestinian narrative and sell it to an amen corner in the White House. It is also a message to Iran and others that the U.S. stands behind its allies and is not concerned about political correctness.

Brian J. Goldenfeld, Woodland Hill


Middle East Issues

Some of the media seem to be delighted when Islamic children die from uprisings and conflicts involving Israel. Last week, it was reported that an 8-month-old Palestinian infant was killed during Israel’s current defense of her border, which is not a protest but an armed invasion. My first reaction was why was an infant anywhere near the fighting? Someone would have had to bring the infant to the battle site. Hamas is known for using civilians, including children, as shields. I saw nothing in the media reports deflecting any blame from Israel. Not surprising.

Michael Gesas, Beverly Hills

One can’t help but notice the irony of 57 Islamic nations calling this week for the creation of an international force to protect Palestinian Arabs after their recent human shield abomination in Gaza. Hamas openly has admitted it offered its people as cannon fodder and confirmed that most of the dead were terrorist combatants hiding among civilians paid or coerced to be there.

For 70 years, despite their daily genocidal threats, a billion Muslims haven’t been able to destroy the Jewish state or protect their brothers in four declared wars and tens of thousands of acts of terrorism. The military threats have been supplemented by a highly successful anti-Israel disinformation campaign funded with hundreds of millions of petrodollars. Now they want the rest of the world to help them.

Only the most obtuse individual wouldn’t notice there’s something wrong with this picture. Despite the conspiracy accusations against the United States and a supposed cabal of wicked, controlling bankers (read: Jews), Israel’s adversaries might have to face the fact that it is here to stay. Which is just as well because its humanitarian, educational, scientific and moral contributions to the well-being of the world are unequaled per capita.

Perhaps reason will miraculously spring forth from the hateful brains that spew hatred toward the Jewish people. Perhaps not.

Desmond Tuck via email

I am an old Reform Jew who spent my teen years agonizing over World War II and the Holocaust. I joined the free world celebrations when it destroyed the Nazis and created the State of Israel. David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of independence promised that all residents would have equality, making it a true democracy.

It is my understanding that on April 30 the Knesset voted on an updated version of the “Nation-State” bill. Nowhere in the legislation is Israel defined as a democracy.

It is pathetic, but quite understandable, because the population of Orthodox voters has grown. They believe that God gave the Jews all of the Holy Land.

So what is Israel’s next action regarding the 5 million Palestinians that they control on the West Bank and Gaza Strip? The righteous, unilateral creation of a Palestinian state? Stupidly, the Palestinians rejected partition, but there are about 2 million non-Jewish Israeli citizens. I think it is possible that a Palestinian state could become an important ally of Israel.

Martin J. Weisman, Westlake Village

When the Timely Fights the Timeless

What do the riots at the Gaza border have to do with the Jewish festival of Shavuot? What does the dramatic and historic move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem have to do with the custom of baking cheesecakes for Shavuot, or the ritual of learning Torah all night?

One of the dilemmas of Jewish journalism is what to do when the timely interferes with the timeless. We decided several months ago that Shavuot would be our cover story for this week. Since the festival commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Sinai some 3,300 years ago, it coincided perfectly with the release of Dennis Prager’s new book, “The Rational Bible.”

So, that was the plan — we would honor a holiday of Torah by reviewing a new book about the Torah.

And then, of course, reality intruded. The timeless Torah got ambushed by the timely news.

In fact, rarely do I recall a time period with so much consequential news — from the U.S. backing out of the Iran nuclear deal to the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to the violent riots at the Gaza border, and, yes, even to Israel’s victory at the Eurovision Song Contest, when 200 million viewers watched Netta Barzilai take home the grand prize with an irresistible song that featured the memorable line, “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy.”

As we shoot down the rapids of this never-ending news cycle, Judaism comes to remind us that there are little coves on the side of the river that are waiting for us to pitch a tent, light a fire and appreciate the beauty and complexity around us.

Can a cover that commemorates an event from 3,300 years ago survive so much hot news? I can think of at least three timely cover stories we could have done instead of the one on Shavuot.

And yet, we decided to stick with the Shavuot cover. Why? For one thing, it reminds us that there’s more to life than news. News is sexy. It’s an adrenalin rush, a sugar high. I have a few trusted news sites that I know will give me a news hit every 15 minutes or so.

And when I don’t go to them, they come to me, either through a Twitter feed or an email blast or any other number of digital bursts.

All day long, I get hit with news items, mostly about politics, the Jewish world and Hollywood. And here’s the crazy part — I don’t complain. I’m used to it. It makes me feel like I’m always in the know. When I meet people, I feel empowered because I know “what’s going on” about the important issues in the world.

How can a 3,300-year-old story compete with all those hot news stories, especially an ancient story that offers us the same traditions and rituals year after year, without fault? Is there value to a story that is always there, a story that is rooted in eternity?

One of the best metaphors I ever heard about the challenge of parenting was, “Give your kids roots and wings.” As I interpret that statement, the “timeless” provides the roots and the “timely” provides the wings.

In a crazy world that keeps going faster and faster, the timeless is what keeps us grounded. Perhaps the best example is Shabbat, that ancient ritual that compels us to slow down and reconnect with our roots and our humanity.

Maybe that is one essential question of Shavuot — trying to understand why and how a news story can still be newsworthy after 3,300 years.

At the recent Milken Global Summit, I was immersed in a throng of high-achieving innovation junkies who offered smart and sophisticated answers to society’s ills. It was impressive. And yet, one of the most popular panels was one about life longevity — how to slow down and learn habits that will increase both the quality and length of your life.

When I spoke to one of the panelists, Arianna Huffington, after her talk, one of the first words out of her mouth was, “Shabbat.” She told me that her new movement, Thrive Global, is eager to start a “Shabbat track” because this Jewish ritual of weekly renewal is just what the world needs right now.

The news will keep coming at us, whether we like it or not. We’ll celebrate when the news is good, we’ll be sad when it’s bad, we’ll be confused when it’s good and bad, we’ll argue over whether it’s good or bad, and then we’ll all wait for the next hit.

As we shoot down the rapids of this never-ending news cycle, Judaism comes to remind us that there are little coves on the side of the river that are waiting for us to pitch a tent, light a fire and appreciate the beauty and complexity around us.

One of those little coves is the festival of Shavuot, when we recall that day when our ancestors gathered in a desert and accepted a book that we still study today. Maybe that is one essential question of Shavuot — trying to understand why and how a news story can still be newsworthy after 3,300 years.

Hot Take: Shmuel Rosner on the volatile situation in the Middle East

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Israel: We’re Not Your Toy, You Stupid Haters

Photo from Twitter.

Netta Barzilai’s exhilarating song, with the memorable hook, “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy,” is an empowering anthem to all those who are demeaned for not fitting the mold.

About 200 million viewers from around the world watched Barzilai perform the song and take first prize for Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night in Lisbon. Considering the abuse that Israel continues to receive in international circles— the great majority of United Nations condemnations go against the Jewish state; a BDS movement that is relentless, and so on— the victory couldn’t come at a better time.

Why? Because Barzilai’s message is also Israel’s message to the world: We’re quirky, we’re not perfect, but we’re fearless and we love life. Oh, and one more thing for all you anti-Semites: We’re not your toy that you can easily abuse. All those condemnations won’t shake our confidence or our love of life.

“My message is that you don’t have to fit the normal standard model of how a person should look, think, talk and create in order to succeed,” Barzilai said in an interview. “We’re only here for a minute — we better enjoy the ride.”

Most Israelis instinctively understand that their country is treated unfairly; that no Israeli sin can justify the over-the-top global obsession with condemning their country. They get it. That’s why they keep their mojo; that’s why the BDS movement has failed to make a dent in their self-esteem.

Most Israelis know, as well, that their country does plenty of good; that, for example, no country has done more to fight the humanitarian crisis in Syria. They know that in 2016, Israel launched Operation Good Neighbor with a field hospital at the Syrian border and a medical staff around the clock, and that in 2017 alone, 685 Syrian children received critical medical care.

Israelis know that the keys to their success are not to wallow in victimhood, not to let failures demoralize them, and not to allow a dangerous neighborhood take away their zest for living. They know they fight wars because they have to, not because they want to.

Yes, of course, Israelis would love to be loved by the world—who wouldn’t? But Israelis have learned to take the world’s hostility in stride. Since they know they deserve better, they’re not paralyzed by self-hatred or guilt.

On the contrary, instead of whining, they’re too busy living their lives, which includes doing amazing things like writing irresistible songs that remind stupid Jew-haters not to mess with them.

Shmuel Rosner: In the Mideast, a dangerous summer ahead

Jewish Journal Political Editor and New York Times contributor Shmuel Rosner helps us make sense of a Middle East that is getting more dangerous and complicated by the day.

Check out this episode!

Letters to the Editor: Iran Deal, North Korea and Natalie Portman

U.S. Scraps Iran Nuclear Agreement

Let’s start with the proposition that Iran is a very bad actor. Let us also agree that without vigorous monitoring, Iran will not strictly adhere to any agreement. That being said, it is a terrible mistake for President Donald Trump not to recertify the Iran nuclear accord.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent dog-and-pony show was long on accusations but short on specific evidence. The binders and computer discs onstage with him aren’t proof that Iran is failing to honor its responsibilities under the nuclear deal. What Netanyahu and the various authors of the commentaries and articles that support scrapping the accord conveniently overlook is that there is a large element in the Israeli intelligence/military establishment that while acknowledging it’s not a perfect accord, it is working and is good for Israel.

It is also interesting to note the other signatories to the Iran nuclear accord say Iran is honoring its obligations. The only naysayers are Netanyahu and Trump.

Andrew C. Sigal, Valley Village

Kudos to the Jewish Journal for exposing the secrets and lies of the Iranian nuclear deal. The cover story would be enough to tell it all (“What Happens Now?” May 4). Dayenu. Beyond that, the articles describe in detail the lies that were foisted on Americans that were particularly painful for American Jews.

David Suissa gave some Trump haters and, in particular, Jewish Trump haters something to think about (“Why Tyrants Must Hate Trump,” May 4). Admittedly, Trump is brash and a rude tweeter. When it comes to foreign tyrants, as Suissa stated, Trump is just what the doctor ordered. As much as we all value decency, for 16 years the United States got burned by two very decent presidents — first by George W. Bush’s trillion-dollar fiasco in Iraq, and then by Barack Obama’s naïve deal with Iran that empowered the world’s biggest sponsor of terror.

We need somebody like Trump to stare them down and back out of the disastrous Iran deal if Iran does not make further concessions.

Marshall Lerner, Beverly Hills


The North Korean Dilemma

I disagree with David Suissa’s assessment in his column “Why Tyrants Must Hate Trump.” If President Donald Trump’s bluster had worked with North Korea, then it would have stopped testing its long-range ICBMs right away. Instead, despite Trump’s threats, they continued testing until they had proven to themselves that they had a missile that could reach most of the United States. The North Koreans offered to talk only after they had tested enough missiles to prove that their missile program was ready. Listen to the speech that Kim Jong Un delivered to his own country. This was his original intent.

Rabbi Ahud Sela via email


The Natalie Portman Issue

In her column (“Portman’s the Messenger, Not the Problem,” April 27), Danielle Berrin introduces the premise that the effect of Portman’s rejection of the Genesis Prize will lead to increased Jewish disunity on congregational matters, including political problems. Berrin warns that one of the problems is the collapse of peace talks and the promise of a two-state solution.

I have three questions for Berrin.

Does Fatah want a two-state solution?

Does Hamas want a two-state solution?

Does Hezbollah want a two-state solution?

Bernard Schneier, Marina del Rey


How American Jews View Israel

Danielle Berrin claims to rely on, but fundamentally misunderstands, Leon Wieseltier’s advice that the merit of a view “owes nothing to the biography of the individual who holds it” (“Should American Jews Criticize Israel?” May 4).

Wieseltier did not invent this notion. It is his way of restating the classic fallacy of the ad hominem attack: A good argument can’t be refuted because the speaker is bad. Nor can a bad argument be improved because the speaker is good. I have no doubt Berrin has deep love for Israel. But that does not mean her opinion has any merit just because it comes from a good place.

No, what Wieseltier is saying is that an argument — and criticism — must be judged solely on its own merits. What nuanced and insightful advice does Berrin offer for the complex military and diplomatic conundrum Israel is faced with? What is the “truth” that Berrin claims her “holy chutzpah” impels her to tell Israel? I honestly would like to know, but I’ll gladly take the advice of someone who may not love Israel as much as Berrin but has answers to challenges such as: the military land-bridge Iran is constructing through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to threaten Israel; the tens of thousands of Hezbollah missiles aimed at Tel Aviv; the tunnels being burrowed under the desert to snatch Israelis in their sleep; and the diplomatic and propaganda war waged against Israel by the United Nations, the European Union and nearly every American university campus.

Perhaps Berrin’s Israeli friend really meant that Israel does not want for critics but that if you are going to criticize, don’t assume that your love substitutes for sound analysis. Contrary to Berrin’s claim, film critic Pauline Kael was not respected “because everyone knew she loved” movies. Many people love movies. Kael was respected because she was a true expert on movies.

But even Kael wasn’t good at making movies. What Israel really needs, more than well-intended critics, is smart, practical and realistic solutions to massively complicated problems.

What is the role of love in all of this? If Berrin’s love for Israel drove her to develop these kinds of solutions,

I’m sure everyone, especially her Israeli friend, would be very grateful. But love alone, Wieseltier teaches, does not a helpful opinion make.

Ben Orlanski, Beverly Hills


Leftism’s Misguided Values

Karen Lehrman Bloch’s compelling column “The Golden Calf of Leftism” (May 4) exposes a new crisis among American Jews.

We’ve all been shocked by the increase in Israel-bashing and anti-Semitism at Democratic rallies, leading to feminist organizers’ recent praise of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. But many Jewish Democrats still support former President Barack Obama’s white-washing of Palestinian rejectionism, terrorism and contempt for Israel. Some Jewish feminists support Linda Sarsour, despite her anti-Semitism and reported endorsement of Sharia law. Wealthy Jews, many in the Hollywood community, are bankrolling Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions promotion.

It’s a cruel irony that while thousands of French Jews make aliyah to escape rising Muslim terrorism, Jewish “progressives” are abetting the terrorists and condemning Israel, the victims’ only refuge.

Rueben Gordon via email


History Lessons in the Journal

Thank you, Jewish Journal and David Suissa for your excellent publication.

I know a “lot” about Israeli and Jewish history up until about 70 B.C.E. I knew very little after that. Therefore, a few years ago, I decided to learn more about Jews and Israel today. I’d like to be as familiar with you and your culture as I am with my own English-American culture.

Recently, I discovered the Journal: It’s like Christmas, my birthday and Yom HaAtzmaut (a term I learned in the Journal) rolled up into one. Every article I read — even the advertisements — is interesting, informative and educational.

The one major problem I have with the Journal is that I’m not finished reading it before the next issue comes out. Oy vey!

Jerald Brown, Sylmar

Israel with a Side of Goosebumps

Imagine that you are living 400 years after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., and your parents are trying to convince you that the Jewish people must never stop praying to return home to Zion; that we should never lose hope.

I don’t know about you, but I might say something like this: “Hey Mom/Dad, no disrespect, but it’s been four centuries! Can’t we get a hint? This ain’t happening.”

Now, you can replicate that scene 400 years later, and 400 years after that. Indeed, for 1,878 years, one Jewish generation after another had to believe beyond all hope that the Jewish people would one day return to the land of their biblical ancestors. That eternal yearning was grafted into the very prayers and texts that sustained these generations through their nomadic journeys, which often included pogroms and persecution.

Fast forward to our own generation. My grandfather, who had a thriving business selling teas in Casablanca, was a religious man who was well aware of the Jewish yearning to return to the Holy Land. When his large family moved to Israel in the early 1950s, they went through severe hardships. Still, he kissed the ground and said, “I’m never leaving.” Israel for him meant coming home.

If we look at our disappointments in isolation — whether from the right or the left — we won’t feel the soul of Israel.

In our hip and cynical world, there’s little room for this kind of sentimentality. We much prefer hard-nosed analyses, hard-nosed criticism or hard-nosed talking points to promote one side or another. We’re not inclined to incorporate what I call the “goosebumps” of the Israel story.
A more sophisticated term for what I’m talking about is “context.” As Herb Keinon wrote recently in The Jerusalem Post, “Everything needs context. Nothing can be judged fairly if it is seen standing alone, isolated, disconnected from the past, from its surroundings. Nothing. Not a person, definitely not a state.”

Yearning to return home for 19 centuries is emotional context, and it’s easy to overlook. As Keinon writes, “We get so caught up in the daily news — the terrorism, the wars, the corruption — that we lose sight of the bigger picture.”

Keinon concedes that “Sovereignty, independence, running a country, developing an economy, fielding an army and fighting war after war is a messy business” and that “perhaps we haven’t lived up to our own lofty expectations.”

But if we look at our disappointments in isolation — whether from the right or the left — we won’t feel the soul of Israel.

I felt that soul a few weeks ago when I walked out of my Tel Aviv hotel on the morning of Yom HaZikaron. Beachgoers, taxis, pedestrians, security guards and merchants were busy making the urban noises of a bustling and vibrant town. Then, at exactly 11 a.m., a long siren sounded. Everyone froze. Drivers got out of their cars. People stood at attention. For two long minutes, Israelis throughout the country froze in place to honor the more than 25,000 souls who have sacrificed their lives to build and protect the state.

As I reflected on that scene, which overflowed with emotion, I couldn’t help thinking of Jewish activists in the United States who constantly demonstrate against Israel, usually in reaction to how Israel deals with the Palestinians.

These demonstrations have failed to influence Israeli policies. They are utterly devoid of context. They’re disconnected from the past (such as Israeli peace offers that were rejected) or the present (the desire of groups such as Hamas to invade and destroy Israel). In isolation, these protests look more like PR stunts to make protestors feel good about themselves.

Yearning to return home for 19 centuries is emotional context, and it’s easy to overlook. As Herb Keinon writes, “We get so caught up in the daily news — the terrorism, the wars, the corruption — that we lose sight of the bigger picture.”

But they’re missing more than political context; they’re also missing the emotional context of what it means to come home after 1,900 years. When you feel that emotion, the criticism can’t help but be more loving, more measured.

The idea that Jews of more than 100 nationalities can gather in their ancient homeland and create a thriving sovereign state — with all of the blunders and flaws that come with creating any sovereign state — is a miracle that Israel’s critics should keep in mind when they criticize. Not as an afterthought that precedes a “but,” but as a deeply ingrained thought that permeates any fair and nuanced view of the Israel story.

Criticism of Israel goes much farther when it comes from a loving place. When it devolves into bitterness and anger, it’s got nowhere to go but to a choir of like-minded critics. It’s got no chance to open minds, let alone change them.

For too long, critics of Israel in the Jewish community have hidden behind the cliché of “tough love.” But tough love that hides the love is only tough.

We don’t have to tell our kids anymore to keep praying for the return of Jewish sovereignty. We made it. The 1,900-year dream has come true. When you feel those goosebumps, it’s a lot easier to criticize with love, and to make others feel that love.

Amanda Berman: Can progressives also be Zionists?

Amanda Berman, founder of the Zioness movement, discusses the opposition liberal Zionists have faced within the progressive movement, and how her new movement is working to change that.

Check out this episode!

Why Tyrants Must Hate Trump

If you’re a Never Trumper, you probably don’t see many redeeming features in our brash and rude tweeter in chief. But hang with me for a minute as we consider how that brashness and rudeness may be just what the doctor ordered for a certain brand of foreign leaders.

In a brave essay on the NBC News website, veteran White House reporter Keith Koffler laments that we live in “a dangerous world, dominated by outsized personalities who act aggressively on behalf of their nations, including not hesitating to threaten — and even engage in — war.”

But then he adds: “Fortunately, one is President Donald Trump.”

Koffler’s claim is that Trump’s flaws — “self-indulgent, megalomaniacal, a bit paranoid, driven by self-interest and implacably domineering” — make him uniquely suited to deal with the other great tyrants of the age.

These tyrants, Koffler adds, are driven more by raw power and ambition than ideology.

“Not too long ago,” he writes, “the struggles among great nations were defined by ideology, as democracy and communism competed for allegiance around the world. During that age, a relatively non-ideological, nonintellectual man like Trump might have had trouble understanding the thinking animating Russian and Chinese communists, hampering his ability to confront them.”

Some useful things can come out of a deeply flawed president, just as bad ones can come out of a decent president.

Today, by contrast, “the president will have no problem understanding the motivations of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the other tyrants he faces, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, newly anointed Chinese President-for-life Xi Jinping and Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

Koffler concludes that Trump “has the outsized strength of personality to combat them.” In other words, it takes one to fight one.

When I read the essay, it reminded me of a game I used to play with my Never Trumper friends during the presidential election. I would ask them: “If you had to choose one person to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, who would you pick, Barack Obama or Donald Trump?” Invariably — and grudgingly — they would pick Trump.

When I asked why, they would concede that “Trump wouldn’t be afraid to walk away,” or, simply, “He’d make them sweat and get a better deal.”

Recently, I played another game. I know Trump haters who love Israel but who criticized Trump for “hurting the peace process” when he announced the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. When I asked them if they would have had the same reaction had President Obama made the decision, they admitted that, no, they probably would not. That’s how deep the contempt for Trump can go.

Indeed, it’s a difficult task to separate emotions from outcomes. If you hate a president, it’s hard to love anything he does, no matter how worthy that thing is. I have sympathy for those who have trouble seeing past Trump’s character flaws. After all, if having a decent character is essential in our own lives, how much more so for the leader of the free world?

And yet, we must recognize the reality that some useful things can come out of a deeply flawed president, just as bad ones can come out of a decent president.

Koffler’s claim is that Trump’s flaws — “self-indulgent, megalomaniacal, a bit paranoid, driven by self-interest and implacably domineering” — make him uniquely suited to deal with the other great tyrants of the age.

When Obama first ran for president, I remember being seduced by his classy demeanor and decency. But I wondered: Would he be tough enough for our dangerous world? I rationalized away that concern by assuming (hoping) that Obama had a silent killer instinct that would earn him the respect of the bullies he’d have to deal with. In retrospect, this was wishful thinking. No dictator ever feared Obama. They saw right through him. Obama was a gentleman who could never call a tyrant’s bluff.

Trump seems energized by tyrants. He must identify with their passion for power. It’s a brutal, primal game he knows well.

As Maureen Dowd wrote last week in The New York Times, “President Trump’s peculiar form of diplomacy — a combination of belligerence, bluster, name-calling and ignorance of history — has somehow produced a possible breakthrough in North Korea that eluded his predecessors.”

Koffler doesn’t deny that Trump’s indignities are the “crass work of an uncouth man.” But he thinks voters in the last election “eschewed elegance because, they calculated, a blunt and even predatory individual is what the country needed at this moment. A man who, Kim, Xi, Khamenei and Putin will all suspect, might just be brutal and dark enough to stand his ground against them and counter their own ruthless agendas.”

As much as I value decency, I also know that, for 16 years, America got burned by two very decent presidents — first by George W. Bush’s trillion-dollar fiasco in Iraq, and then by Obama’s naive deal with Iran that empowered the world’s biggest sponsor of terror.

I doubt that our brash and rude president would have been suckered into those deals. How much is that “outcome” worth? We’ll find out soon enough.

Letters to the Editor: Honoring Jews, Laying Out the Parameters of Liberalism and the U.N.

Honoring Jews, Not Those Who Would Kill Them

Last week, while the rest of Jewish Los Angeles was memorializing the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, a group of Jews held a memorial in front of the Jewish Federation building to honor the memory of those with the stated goal of murdering the 6 million Jews of Israel — the Palestinians killed in the recent Gaza protests while trying to break down Israel’s security wall to accomplish their goal.

Thank you, David Suissa, for your column “When Truth Comes Marching In” (April 13) and clearly showing the truth — that contrary to what the Palestinians are promoting, the Gaza protests had the sole purpose of breaking down the border wall, murdering Jews and conquering Israel.

Let us never forget the 6 million, and also that, sadly, there are Jews who see nothing wrong with honoring those who try to wipe Israel’s Jews off the earth.

Jason Kay via email

Bravo, kol ha kvod, David Suissa, for “When Truth Comes Marching In.”

However, most of us, whoever we are, don’t listen to facts. We react to myths and media. We only pay heed to facts when pain hits us in the gut — and even then we don’t believe it. Corruption does that to anyone.

Look at your prime example, Gaza.

Linda Hepner via email

David Suissa is right that Israel’s “better” than her Muslim neighbors (“A ‘Better’ Word for Israel,” April 20). Rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, surrounded by enemies, constantly terrorized and fighting for her life, bullied by the U.N., yet still absorbing millions of desperate European and Ethiopian Jewish refugees, and on top of all that, emerging in just 70 years as a cutting-edge, hydro-agricultural, high-tech wunderkind with 12 Nobel Prizes and a super-hip tourist scene to boot — Israel is an unbelievable miracle. And the icing on the cake is that it drives anti-Semites nuts.

Rueben Gordon, Encino


Laying Out Parameters of Liberalism

I was happy and delighted to read Karen Lehrman Bloch’s column (“I Am a Liberal. Are You?” April 20). It boosts my faith in the integrity and honesty of the Journal.

The only thing I would add to it is the following statement:

You are not a liberal

If you reflexively accuse anyone who dares to disagree with you of being a fascist, a racist and an anti-Semite.

I have witnessed some otherwise very intelligent people making these accusations against people whom they know little or nothing about. This kind of behavior is polarizing and degrades our democracy.

Jeffrey P. Lieb, Cheviot Hills

I have always enjoyed reading Karen Lehrman Bloch’s columns, but “I Am a Liberal. Are You?” really blew me away. It was so spot on and expressed so elegantly what so many of us feel but can’t put into words as succinctly. Thank you.

Also, mazel tov to David Suissa for turning the Journal into a top-tier newspaper that Los Angeles can be proud of.

Miriam Fisher via email


Yom HaAzmaut Coverage in the Journal

Israel’s Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut) should have been on your cover, not on page 19 (“Carry a Torch,” April 20)! This was a major failure. Maybe it happened because the editor was in Israel that week. As your columnist Shmuel Rosner put it, “The fifth day of the month of Iyar is your Independence Day. Yes — yours! And by this I mean you, Los Angeles Jews; you, New York Jews; you, Chicago Jews, Sydney Jews, London Jews, Paris Jews.

“Next Year in Jerusalem.”

Bob Kirk, Santa Barbara

Editor’s note: Because HaAzmaut fell on the day the paper came out, April 19, we chose to do a Yom HaAzmaut cover story the week before.


Speaking Truth to U.N.’s Mission

Aaron Bandler’s column is right on target (“We Need a New U.N.,” April 20). He expresses so well what I have thought for many years. And, I am sure, millions of others agree — i.e., the United Nations makes a false pretense to serve the mission for which it was founded.

The U.N. charter called for a commitment to uphold human rights of citizens and outlines a broad set of principles relating to achieving worldwide peace and security. It calls for “higher standards of living,” dealing with “economic, social, health, and related problems,” and calling for “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

Wonderful! But that was in 1945 when it was created with 51 members. Currently, it has 193 member states.

In this regard, what good has the U.N. accomplished?

By way of example, CNN’s Jake Tapper’s analysis of the pertinent data vividly shows that, from 2012-15, the U.N. General Assembly rebuked and condemned the State of Israel almost 86 percent of the time — compared with all other nations combined. Incredible — considering the turmoil and government-controlled killings all over the world. As far as Israel is concerned: The U.N. is guilty of blatant discrimination. As it is today, it unashamedly violates its own charter and raison d’etre.

Should our country be donating annually almost $8 billion of taxpayers’ money to such an organization? (We could easily solve the homelessness problem and affordable housing crisis with that kind of money.)

The headline for Bandler’s column says it so well: “We Need a New U.N.”

George Epstein via email


Mitzi Shore Will Be Missed

Thank you for the wonderful obituary and tribute regarding Mitzi Shore.
The Comedy Store continues to be a platform for fledgling and professional comedians. I know, because my son is one of them. This is an iconic place that supports and encourages the art of stand-up. It deserves the support of the entertainment community.

Although I never met Shore, one night when my son Josh was performing, the staff let me sit in Mitzi’s booth. It was an honor.

I hope The Comedy Store continues for many years as a legacy to Shore and all the performers past, present and future.

Linda Meyrowitz via email


AND FROM FACEBOOK:

Here in Finland and in Sweden, the newspapers cry over how it could go this wrong — “peaceful” Palestinian demonstrators against “cruel” Israeli soldiers. They love to misunderstand what Palestinians really want, which is to take over the Jewish state. They even pretend not to understand what the “Great March of Return” means.

Carita Fogde, Helsinki

Portman’s Blunder? She Said Yes.

Natalie Portman must be a conflicted soul. In 2015, she told the Hollywood Reporter she was “very upset and disappointed” by the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was very much “against” him, but that she didn’t want her criticisms to be “used by adversaries of Israel.”

Two years later, in November 2017, Portman was selected by the Genesis Prize Foundation to be its fifth laureate, receiving a grant of $1 million to donate to charitable causes.

As part of the vetting and selection process, Portman was made aware that the prime minister’s office and The Jewish Agency for Israel were partners in the project. She was told the prime minister (whom she disliked so much) would attend the ceremony. His participation was apparent in numerous pictures from previous galas.

Nevertheless, when she received the award, she released this statement:

“I am deeply touched and humbled by this honor. I am proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage; they are crucial parts of who I am. It is such a privilege to be counted among the outstanding Laureates whom I admire so much.”

Last week, five months after making that statement, Portman changed her mind and announced she wouldn’t attend the ceremony in Israel.

A representative said that “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel” and that “she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony.”

What happened in five months to cause her to change her mind and publicly shame Israel? Well, we know what didn’t happen — Bibi and Israel did not change their stripes.

After a public outcry, caused in part by the vagueness of the statement, she released a second statement via Instagram, saying that she “chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.”

The focus on Netanyahu created another public relations problem for Portman: She always knew Bibi would be part of the ceremony. She knew this was a prime minister event as much as a Jewish Agency event as much as a Genesis event.

So, what happened in five months to cause her to change her mind and publicly shame Israel? Well, we know what didn’t happen — Bibi and Israel did not change their stripes. It’s still the same Bibi she dislikes and the same Israel of her “roots” and “heritage.”

In other words, there is no good, rational explanation for her global ambush of Israel. Portman knows the power of celebrity. She knows that Genesis picks famous people precisely because of their outsized influence to bring positive change to the world. She knows that Israel is already one of the most maligned countries on earth, and that her actions, as she once said, can “be used by adversaries of Israel.”

She knows all that, and she still chose to use her fame to nourish Israel’s enemies. This may be why Portman has received so little support for her decision, even among many Bibi critics. She allowed her disdain for one man to cloud her judgment about a whole country.

If Portman was so concerned about appearing to endorse Netanyahu, she had no business saying yes in the first place. But once she said yes, if she didn’t want to appear to insult a country she claims to love, she had no business saying no.

This is not about criticism of Israel. Portman has every right to criticize Israel — everyone does. There’s probably more public self-criticism going on in one day in Israel than in the whole Middle East.

But Portman didn’t criticize Israel — she boycotted the country. Her action communicated to the world that she’s so turned off by Israel she can’t even live up to her commitment to attend a ceremony in the country. By shutting out Israel, she also shut out nuance and complexity, advancing the one-sided, tired, Israel-hating narrative that puts all the blame on the Jewish state for whatever goes wrong.

If Portman was so concerned about appearing to endorse Netanyahu, she had no business saying yes in the first place. But once she said yes, if she didn’t want to appear to insult a country she claims to love, she had no business saying no.

I can think of one silver lining in this debacle. All the attention on the Genesis Prize means that more attention will be given to the real purpose of the initiative — how to use the prize money to make the world a better place.

Contrary to what many people think, it is Genesis that has the final say on how the prize money is allocated. The laureate only chooses the category, which this year is advancing women’s rights and equality.

In the summer, Genesis will announce grantees in Israel. In the fall, it will announce grantees in North America. With the help of matching funds, the Genesis Prize Foundation hopes to grant up to $3 million this year to help empower women’s causes.

How ironic. The country Portman insulted will follow through on its commitment to help some of her favorite causes. Maybe by Rosh Hashana she’ll release a third statement saying “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.”

It’s Our Film Fest’s Bar Mitzvah

From left, Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks and Norman Lear in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” Photo courtesy of LAJFF.

The 13th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival launches April 25 with more than two dozen feature, documentary and short film selections celebrating Jewish experience, tradition and culture.

“It’s our bar mitzvah, and we want to celebrate it,” said the festival’s executive director, Hilary Helstein. “It’s extraordinary to see something we started 13 years ago become an anticipated annual event. With the support of community organizations, consulates, individuals, council members, family foundations and the Jewish Journal, we’re proud to have made it to 13 years.”

The festival will take place at 14 venues in and around the city, including theaters, synagogues and community centers. “We deliver films to every part of the community,” Helstein said. “People don’t have to go farther than their neighborhood.”

The opening-night gala features the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” which will air on PBS’ “American Masters” later this year. “We wanted something uplifting for opening night, and nothing could be better than paying tribute to this iconic, legendary entertainer,” Helstein said. Davis’ son, Manny, and friends including producer George Schlatter and comedian Tom Dreesen will be in attendance. “Since it is a bar mitzvah, we want to have all these people do aliyahs and say something about Sammy.”

The festival has several themes. “For Israel’s 70th birthday, we have documentaries focused on what America has done for Israel,” Helstein said. In “The Land of Milk and Funny,” stand-up comic Avi Liberman takes fellow comedians to Israel to perform and see the sights, and Jewish Americans play baseball for Team Israel in “Heading Home.”

Audiences will get to see the first two episodes of the Israeli series “Kipat Barzel” (“Commandments”), about Charedi soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. “It addresses such a timely issue,” Helstein said. The series focuses on how secular Jews resent the ultra-Orthodox for not serving in the military, but when they do serve — against the wishes of the Charedi community — they’re not welcome. “It’s a really important show and will trigger a tremendous amount of discussion,” Helstein said.

Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa will moderate a Q-and-A after the screening and receive the Visionary Award for his contributions to the Jewish community.

Dolev Mesika and Roy Nik in “Commandments.” Photo courtesy of LAJFF.

Helstein emphasized the importance of including Holocaust-related films, and there are nine this year. “The Last Suit” is an Argentine feature about a Holocaust survivor on a mission to find the friend who saved his life in Poland. It’s paired with “The Driver Is Red,” an animated short about the manhunt for Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The German feature film “The Last Supper,” a world premiere, takes place at the Glickstein family dinner in Berlin on the day Hitler comes to power. With the patriarch insisting the Fuhrer won’t last, and his equally misguided young son ready to join the Brown Shirts, the only voice of reason is the Palestine-bound daughter’s.

“Above the Drowning Sea” chronicles the experience of Jews who escaped Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, thanks to a Chinese diplomat. Each of the documentary shorts “Dieu Merci: The Story of Michele Rodri,” “116 Cameras” and “A Call to Remember” tells a personal story of survival and will be screened together, followed by a Q-and-A led by the latter’s producer, Michael Berenbaum.

The screening of “Reinventing Rosalee,” a world premiere documentary, in which Lillian Glass chronicles the remarkable life of her Holocaust-survivor mother, will feature a Q-and-A with both women.

The festival’s centerpiece program is “The Samuel Project,” about a teenager whose school project forces his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, to confront the past he hasn’t spoken about in 75 years. A world premiere, the family-friendly feature stars Hal Linden, who will receive the festival’s Martin Paige Hollywood Legacy Award.

Also this year, Helstein said, “We have a focus on women’s stories: feminism, activism, ageism, sexism — all very current themes.” The biographical documentaries “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” about a community organizer and activist, and “Seeing Allred,” about women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred, address these issues. Allred and the filmmakers will participate in a post-screening Q-and-A session.

In conjunction with the Austrian consulate, the 1935 film version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be shown as a tribute to Jewish émigré and director-producer Max Reinhardt, commemorating the 75th anniversary of his death. “Rising Sons,” a documentary about efforts to break the cycle of rape and violence in the war-torn Congo, will be shown in association with Jewish World Watch, with a discussion to follow.

Other notable selections include the shorts “Stitchers: Tapestry of Spirit,” about a project to  re-create the entire Torah in  needlepoint; “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” which won the Oscar for best documentary short this year; and “Tzeva Adom: Color Red,” a tense story about a fateful encounter at the border between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian boy. Filmmakers and cast members will attend.

The festival’s closing-night presentation is “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a lighthearted documentary featuring Carl Reiner and his nonagenarian and centenarian friends — Mel Brooks, Norman Lear and composer Alan Bergman among them — sharing their insights on life and longevity. A Q-and-A with Bergman and the filmmakers will follow.

“We’re paying homage to these Hollywood guys who are still working and vital and who have created so much in our L.A. community,” Helstein said. “It’s an uplifting, lovely film about keeping going through the aches and pains.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival runs April 25-May 2. Visit lajfilmfest.org for the screening schedule and more information.

A ‘Better’ Word for Israel

There’s something inexplicable about Israel. On the surface, we know it’s one of the most maligned countries on earth. If I told you that the U.N. General Assembly adopted 97 resolutions that singled out a specific country for condemnation from 2012 to 2015, and that 83 of those were against Israel, you might yawn, right? So what else is new?

But as the Journal’s Aaron Bandler mentions in a column this week, CNN’s Jake Tapper wasn’t too jaded to tell his viewers:

“Considering the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, the lack of basic human rights in North Korea, the children starving in the streets of Venezuela, the citizens of Syria targeted for murder by their own leader using the most grotesque and painful weapons, you have to ask, is Israel deserving of 86 percent of the world’s condemnation?”

Of course not, but we already knew that. In any case, the extreme bashing of Israel is not the point of this column — which I happen to be writing from Israel this week. My point is to understand what makes Israel tick, in particular: How does a country function when it’s so hated?

The first thing that comes to mind is “busyness.” Everyone in Israel seems superbusy, whether they’re working, playing,  praying or arguing. It’s like when people go through a difficult time — a divorce, a job loss, etc. — and friends tell them, “It’s important to always stay busy,” because the more one wallows in angst, the worse things get.

I’ve been walking around the streets of Tel Aviv for the past couple of days — the kind of thing I’ve done hundreds of times over the years, in areas throughout the country — and I’ve been struck again by this Israeli busyness. They might have read this morning that some famous singer has canceled a performance under pressure from BDS, but they’re too busy to let it affect their reality. There’s a family to feed, a party to plan, a cause to advance, a film to complete, an argument to win, a country to protect.

I’m sure it annoys many Israelis to live in the most condemned country on earth, but since this is not a problem they can solve, they just move on to other concerns, like their daily lives.

I’m sure it annoys many Israelis to live in the most condemned nation on earth, but since this is not a problem they can solve, they just move on to other concerns, like their daily lives.

But there’s something else. Israelis are busy because they have the freedom to live as they wish. This freedom is a rare commodity in their neighborhood. On the  Freedom House website, a chart from 2013 shows 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Twelve are listed as “not free,” five are listed as “partially free,” and one is listed as “free.” Can you guess which country is free?

Here’s how Freedom House summarized the state of the region:

“The Middle East and North Africa holds some of the worst records of freedom of expression in the world. Many countries in the region lack legal protection for human rights and the rule of law is undermined by a lack of independent judiciaries.

“The 2011 Arab Spring popular protests brought hope for improvements but devastating wars, foreign intervention and instability have since made it an extremely dangerous environment for journalists, civil society and human rights defenders, forcing millions to leave in search of safety.”

Note the absurdity: The one country out of 18 deemed “free” gets 86 percent of the U.N.’s condemnations. Israelis must feel this absurdity. They know they live in a messy, flawed country that is far from perfect, but they also feel the blatant injustice of being singled-out for condemnation more than any other country.

What’s more, they know they live in a free country where they can express themselves anyway they like. Arab Israelis, for example, are free to publicly mourn Israel’s most joyous day of the year, its Day of Independence, as their official Nakba, or catastrophe.

Notwithstanding that freedom, my guess is that most of those Arab-Israelis would not want to leave this “catastrophe” for one of those “partially free” or “not free” Arab countries. In fact, in a poll conducted last year by the Israel Democracy Institute, 66 percent of Arab Israelis said they see Israel’s situation as “good” or “very good,” while 57 percent said their personal situation was “good” or “very good.”

Which brings me to the “B” word: Better.

A society that allows you the freedom to express yourself is better than one that doesn’t. On that level, yes, Israel is better.

“Better” is one of those politically incorrect words you never want to say in polite company. Different, yes, but not better. If you claim, for example, that Country A is better than Country B, someone might get offended and say, “Who gives you the right to judge?”

Well, in the case of Israel, the world does. If groups like the U.N. have enough chutzpah to treat one country, Israel, worse than all others, then Israel can certainly push back with this simple truth: A society that allows you the freedom to express yourself is better than one that doesn’t. On that level, yes, Israel is better.

It’s a tragic irony that this “better” country of the Middle East is also the most reviled. But Israelis are not agonizing over this state of affairs. They’re too busy expressing themselves.